article for March 28, 2010

I just know that somewhere on this planet, there is a team that has spent hard won grant money, and untold hours of research observing the behavior of poor unfortunate souls like me.  You see, I suffer from, an as yet, unnamed condition.  Men, like me, whose lives are touched by this affliction (this problem is almost exclusively male), may be missing an important gene, or may simply suffer from the absence of a necessary chemical.

I am part of a band of afflicted brothers who are incapable of dividing their attention between entertainment, and anything else.  When any form of video amusement is playing, I am unable to turn my eyes and cerebral cortex from it.  Close friends and family know that if they take me out to dinner, they must seat me with my back to the bar area where the flat screens beckon.  I thank my lucky stars that Lisa had the good sense to never announce a fresh pregnancy during the Ides of March Madness.  I can just picture myself, “What’s that honey?  Oh that’s nice.  Can you move just a little bit to the left?  Northern Iowa is getting ready to knock off Kansas!”)


This week, the week of our family vacation, I have had to come to terms with the fact that my affliction extends beyond the realms of video entertainment.  Family vacations are that one time per year when I allow myself to pick up a novel.  More than the television…more than the Internet…more than baseball, football…or even March basketball…novels, are to me, what rabbit holes were for Lewis Carol’s Alice.  This week, like other vacation weeks, I am discovering all over again, that once I enter into the twisting tunnels dug by an imaginative author, there is no coming up for air until I turn the final page of my paper-back obsession.


On this trip, I had every good intention of avoiding this time-sucking addiction.  Rather than packing the literary equivalent of Doritoes (e.g. Tom Clancy, Tony Hillerman, Michael Chrichton, John D. McDonald), I packed vegetables:  self-help books, and work-related material.  “No danger of losing myself into some author’s altered reality here!”  I naively told myself.


It was Lisa who unintentionally untied her Ulysses from the mast, setting him free to steer his vacation ship toward the Sirens of a Dan Brown novel.  As I woke up to take my 3:00 AM driving shift to Florida, Lisa asked me if I would be interested in listening to an audiobook.  Desperate for any type of No Doze I could get my hands on, I accepted.  How was I to know that this recording took up the same amount of hard drive as the World Book Encyclopedia?  The characters invented by Dan Brown were meant to keep me company until we pulled into my father-in-law’s condo last Saturday morning.  Somehow, like an old college buddy on your couch, my new best fictional friend, Robert Langdon, is still hanging around our vacation condo here on Wednesday morning.


As I step out of my altered reality, just long enough to write this article, I am noticing a common pattern in the fictional characters that have accompanied me on family vacations over the last sixteen or so years.  They are smarter, braver, and more handsome than me (think of Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan).  They are more intuitive than me (think of Tony Hillerman’s Jim Chee, or Joe Leaphorn).  They are better fighters than me (think of John D. McDonald’s Travis McGee).  And each and every one of them knows how to defy death at every turn.


In this Sunday’s Encyclopedic-lengthed Gospel passage (Luke 22: 14 – 23: 36), we met a decidedly different kind of main character than the fictional ones that have grabbed my imagination over the years.  What has attracted me year-after-year to the Jake Sully’s (Avatar), the Jack Ryans, the Joe Leaphorns, and the Travis McGee’s have been the ways that they have figured out how to do some stunning backflip that frees them from suffering and death.  Jack Ryan, Robert Langdon, and all the rest, hold out the unconscious promise that somehow, some way, death can be cheated, suffering can be averted, if one is clever enough, brave enough, foresighted enough, or strong enough.


From the beginning of Lent, when he resisted Satan’s invitations, until the end of Holy Week, Jesus resolutely refused to perform any kind of slight of hand, back flip that would free him from the troubling dimensions of the human condition.  Unlike a placid Socrates philosophizing to his disciples on the way to his demise, Jesus was so distraught that real blood was expressed from his pores.  Real tears fell from his eyes.  Just before he submitted to his fate, he begged that the rejection, the torture, and the death could pass from him-hardly a script taken from one of my novels.


Holy Week invites the believer to notice, and embrace even the most sloppy dimensions of our human condition.  In Holy Week, our tradition confronts us with the sobering truth that there are some things from which no amount of intelligence, strength, or charm can deliver us.  But along with this Good Friday insight, comes the Easter Sunday realization that Jesus found his divinity precisely within the blood, the sweat, and the tears of our sloppy humanity.  Dwelling within you and me is the promise and the power to find profound meaning and purpose even within the most scandalously human dimensions of our existence.


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