Monday, September 16, 2019

The Gospel According to Sisyphus: Chapter Five

This is the fifth installment in a seven-part thought experiment, in which the myth of Sisyphus collides with the gospel of Jesus.

Chapter one, along with an explanation of the project, is here.
Chapter two is here.
Chapter three is here.
Chapter four is here.

If you find yourself ready to declare #teamsisyphusforlife, read my "Triumph of Sisyphus" here.

***

The night it happened we were all caught off guard. I suppose we shouldn’t have been. He had spoken pretty plainly for a while about how the overseers were gunning for him, how they’d come for him so they could get us back. He actually seemed to believe they’d succeed. But he didn’t stop there. “Even then, trust me. I’ll be back for you, and your life will be unbelievably better.”

But that night, we had let our guard down. Nothing seemed to faze him, and no one seemed to be able to stop him. When the overseers showed up to take him into custody we couldn’t even figure out how they knew where we were.

Turns out there was a traitor in our midst. Turns out it wasn’t me.

I wasn’t a traitor—I didn’t sell him out to the overseers. But I will admit that his capture shook me. We wandered around in the aftermath, weaving in and out of all the people pushing their rocks, trying to figure out our next move.

“You followed him, didn’t you?” someone asked me.

I panicked. “No, of course not. I’m just making my way back to my rock.”

Again and again, people caught my eye and made the accusation. Again and again, I denied I even knew him. I could feel my soul shriveling a little, but what could I do? He had promised a better life, and it turns out he couldn’t deliver it. Better the devil you know . . .

It was morning. I looked up the hill and saw him, tied to a rock.

He saw me. I’m sure of it. He didn’t look angry. He looked tired. He looked a wreck, actually. The overseers had not been gentle with him.

“This is what happens to those who disrupt the work!” someone shouted. I don’t think it was an overseer. I think it was whoever oversaw them. I used to fantasize about that voice, offering me mercy, delivering me from my back-breaking work.

Then they pushed the rock, the rock he was tied to, down the hill.

It tumbled. It slid. It rolled. We heard the bones crushing, we saw the blood spatter.

Someone made a joke. “Too bad he’s not around to heal himself.” What had we become?!?

***

Tune in for chapter six, wherein catastrophe becomes eucatastrophe.

Monday, September 02, 2019

The Gospel According to Sisyphus: Chapter Four

This is the fourth installment in a seven-part thought experiment, in which the myth of Sisyphus collides with the gospel of Jesus.

Chapter one, along with an explanation of the project, is here.
Chapter two is here.
Chapter three is here.

If you find yourself starting to stan Sisyphus, read my "Triumph of Sisyphus" here.

***

We looked back to him, but his attention was on the woman he healed. He didn’t seem to put much stock in what the overseer had said.

Eventually, though, he stood up and turned around to face the overseer. “No one should ever have to wait to be healed.” He looked at us. “You don’t know it and you probably don’t believe it, but you’re lucky that you had to push these rocks.” I couldn’t imagine what he was talking about, but he continued.

“You’re lucky you were stuck behind those rocks. They obstructed your view so that the rock was all you saw. And then when you saw the better life that God has in mind for you, you knew intuitively that it was better than that rock.

“You’re lucky you were so exhausted when I met you. You were able to appreciate the value of the rest I was offering you.

“You’re lucky you know what it’s like to be hurt, because with me that means you’ll know what it’s like to be healed—all the way down to your soul.”

That was certainly true. I hadn’t experienced the devastating injury so many of the others had, but my soul was getting better every day, and I knew it because I knew how it felt before.

“But you,” he turned again to the overseers. “That perch you sit on, judging everyone? That’s all there is for you. And that sense of self-satisfaction you feel knowing that you never have to push a rock like these people? It’s a mild sedative masking the emptiness of your life, and the sedative is going to wear off sooner than you think. And that confidence you have that this is all there is and it’ll go on forever without interruption? You’re wrong. Your confidence is misplaced. There’s more than this—” he motioned around at all of us, and up and down the hill, the totality of all of our experience. “And what you think goes on forever is already coming to an end.”

That sent the overseers into a rage. We didn’t quite know what to expect. They had all the power, but he had all the people. We kept looking between them and him, him and them. And then abruptly the overseers turned and left. He turned to us again.

“A lot of you think they have power over you. And in some ways, they do. This hill, these rocks—they’re the domain of the overseers. So do what you have to do with them. But don’t believe them, because in the things that matter most, they have no idea what they’re talking about. They’re trapped in the same broken environment that has held you trapped for so long. It’s all they know. And because they reap the benefits of it, the good life I’ve been promising you sounds less good to them.

“Keep your heads up, and your eyes on me. I’ve treated you well, right? Your life is better, right? A time is coming when this hill will become something completely new—a place where you can do work that gives you life and find rest whenever you need it, a place where you don’t see the people around you as enemies but as family. I promise it’s coming, and I promise you’ll love it.”

Still, we noticed, the overseers had put the fear in some folks. People who had been following him for a while went back to their rocks. Better the devil you know, I imagine they thought, than the angel you don’t.

***

Tune in for chapter five, wherein treachery and tragedy strike.

Monday, August 19, 2019

The Gospel According to Sisyphus: Chapter Three

This is the third installment in a seven-part thought experiment, in which the myth of Sisyphus collides with the gospel of Jesus. Read chapter one, along with an explanation of the project, here. Read chapter two here. If you find yourself starting to stan Sisyphus, read my "Triumph of Sisyphus" here.

***

Before too long there was a group of us. The overseers didn’t know what to make of us—we climbed up the hill and back down every day, but we did so freely, with no back-breaking labor to slow us down. Sometimes we helped other people with their boulders; sometimes we convinced others to join us. Fairly often, as was inevitable in this line of work, someone would be gravely injured while pushing the boulder, and he would walk up to them and whisper something or rest his hand on their wound or even just look in their direction, and they’d be suddenly, miraculously healed! The first time we saw it happen I was dumbstruck. By the seventh or eighth time I had come to expect it, but I never wasn’t awed by it.

Everyone we talked to, he repeated what he said to me: This is not how it’s meant to be. There’s a better life for us. He would help us find it. He’d say it and people would look from him to us, as if to ask if he was telling the truth. We would nod our heads, eyes wide, every time. It occurred to me every now and then that he hadn’t actually taken us anywhere—we were still on that same hill every day—but even so, this really was a better life. Everything about it was better: I had friends, I had work that I could do that wouldn’t kill me, I had a soul that was healing from the damage that I didn’t even know had been done to it. Futility festers, it turns out. It takes a while to get to the root of it and flush it from your system. But I could tell I was better. Life was better. I believed it.

Eventually, in the eyes of the overseers, he ceased to be a curiosity and started to be a threat. Those boulders weren’t going to push themselves, and more and more people were walking away from the work and taking up with him. I remember the first time I heard one of them speak. He had just healed someone, midway up the hill, I think, and in an unprecedented move a group of overseers had tromped down the hill to see what he was doing.

We were all celebrating. This woman’s hand had been crushed, and then suddenly, it wasn’t.

“She can get healed on her own time,” the voice announced, with the same conviction I always heard from him.

We all looked at her, this angry overseer, with shock and fear. What could she do to us? What would she do to us? We hadn’t been doing our work for some time now; maybe today was the day it caught up to us.

***

Tune in for chapter four, wherein Jesus has strong words for the overseers and challenging words for everyone else.

Monday, August 05, 2019

The Gospel According to Sisyphus: Chapter Two

This is the second installment in a seven-part thought experiment, in which the myth of Sisyphus collides with the gospel of Jesus. Read chapter one, along with an explanation of the project, here. If you find you can't get enough Sisyphus in your life, read my "Triumph of Sisyphus" here.

***

I had a lot of coworkers, but not a lot of friends. None of us had much energy to talk, to begin with, and while our work was the same, it didn’t overlap. I saw those other boulder-pushers as competitors for the affection of the overseers and whoever oversaw them: Surely someone out there has the power to release us from this work, to end this torture. Better me than them, I thought.

Then he showed up.

Right there next to me, just the latest sacrificial lamb to the unrelenting work. Turns out he was a little chatty.

“This is not how it’s supposed to be,” he declared. That’s really the only word for it. I don’t know how he mustered up the energy for anything beyond a grunt, but he said it with force, conviction.

“Yeah,” I responded. I didn’t have the energy for more. I was impressed, but I also didn’t want to get distracted. Maybe today would be the day I’d be delivered.

“Work,” he continued—turns out he was just getting warmed up—"is meant to mean something. This work is an exercise in futility. Seems like it’s designed to tear up your soul.”

Seems like I was in a conversation. I slowed my pace a bit so I could engage. All I could manage was, “It certainly tears up your body.”

“Why do you keep doing it?”

That stopped me short. He seemed to think I chose this life. I glared at him and returned to pushing. This conversation, I decided, was over.

“There’s a better life for you. Trust me. I can help you find it.”

I tried pushing harder, moving faster. Why should I trust him? I just met him! He was the competition, and this was the work. I wasn’t going anywhere.

And yet even as I tried to get away from him I kept turning his comment over and over in my mind. What if there was a better life? Should I trust him? Could I trust him? He spoke with such authority—he seemed to have something specific in mind when he talked about a better life.

We reached the top and our boulders slid back down the hill. Given how distracted I’d been, I was surprised we made it to the top. I started off down the hill but he grabbed my arm. “Follow me,” he said.

I surprised myself when I did.

***

Tune in next time for chapter three, wherein we see a movement begin to grow and the powers-that-be begin to act.

Monday, July 29, 2019

Stability Versus Mobility: Excerpts from Middling

I write an occasional newsletter (quarterly when I don't forget) to friends and family about my life: music, books, work, and getting older. I'd love to send it to you if you're game. What follows is an excerpt from the summer 2018 issue.

***

I was born during the summer. My due date was July 4—Independence Day—but I came early. Summer is when people make their exceptional plans: School’s out, so families can travel with minimal logistical complications. There are day camps and overnight camping, road trips to Disneys and bike trips to libraries. There are church camps and mission trips. Summertime is the time of the possible.

Kara and I went to Chicago this summer [2018], to catch a Cubs game at Wrigley Field (her first) with her family, and to see as many friends and family members as possible—preferably while eating food you can only get in Illinois. It was a good trip, made more poignant by the fact that we’ve now been Coloradans for nearly four years—if we had moved here as high school freshmen, we’d now be high school graduates—and that returning to Chicago is increasingly logistically complex. We’ve made a life here in Colorado, and there’s a cost to leaving it, even if only for a long weekend.

There was a time long ago when a friend and I were toying with a book idea: essentially, “settling down without settling.” That’s the sort of book in which your bias is demonstrated in the title. Try, for example, to apply synonyms to the major words there: “Arriving without declining,” maybe, or (my favorite) “plopping without flopping.” The underlying assumption is that to put down roots in a place is to slam the door shut on every other place, and that only the hypervigilant will retain a life of meaning once they’ve established a life somewhere.

I had a friend once tell me, “Never stay when God’s telling you to go,” and he’s right, of course, but even in such a high-minded statement the bias is present: Mobility is (probably) a more divine calling than stability. The more domesticated you are, the (likely) more docile you are.

The older I get the more I realize there’s no pithy proverb that can resolve our vocation for us. To stay is good, and there are responsibilities that come with staying; to go is good, and there are responsibilities there as well. There are risks, too, on either side, and so vigilance is required whether we are laying down roots or raising our sails. We are people of a place no matter how transient we are, and we are sojourners no matter how long we stay where we find ourselves.

In the meantime, we keep finding ourselves.

TWEET THIS: We are people of a place no matter how transient we are, and we are sojourners no matter how long we stay where we find ourselves.

Monday, July 22, 2019

The Gospel According to Sisyphus: Chapter One

Some time ago now I had a hankering to revisit the myth of Sisyphus. (You can read that here.) I enjoyed the exercise, although I'm sure some of my friends and loved ones found it too dark for their liking; some probably started to worry about me a little.

But the myth of Sisyphus is inherently dark. It's probably less a myth than a fever dream, the sort of nightmare one wakes up from not with a bang but a whimper, the sort of thing you write down in a hurry because you don't want to forget it because you think it holds something inherently true even while you're praying it doesn't. It pushes a lot of my buttons, apparently, so I wrote about it, and shared it here, and some of you read it. Thank you.

More recently I wondered what would happen if the myth of Sisyphus were to collide with the gospel of Jesus. It's said that J. R. R. Tolkien evangelized C. S. Lewis by suggesting that of all the mythologies of human history, Christianity--the gospel of Jesus--was the one myth that was true. So think of this latest thought experiment as a meeting of the myths. It'd be a kind of crossover epic up there with Predator vs. Aliens if not for the whole point of Sisyphus being the dreadful mundane. In the world of Sisyphus, only a couple of things ever happen: The rock rolls up; the rock rolls down. In the world of Jesus, "the stone the masons threw out is now the cornerstone." In the world of Jesus, the rock that sealed his death was rolled away, inaugurating an age of resurrection. What would happen if Sisyphus, for whom nothing ever changed, were to encounter Jesus, who makes all things new?

I've broken this thought experiment into seven "chapters," mainly because no one would read it in one sitting, and because I find it so difficult to come up with content for this blog anymore that I figured I'd stretch it out. So then, without further ado, chapter one.

***

Every day was the same. You started at the bottom of the hill, your shoulder pressed to the boulder, and you began to heave.

You might picture the boulder as a perfect sphere, but you’d be wrong. Boulders don’t come that way in nature, and no one in this hellish life was going to go to the trouble of shaping our boulders into things that naturally roll. No, our boulders were rocks shook loose from the earth. They had jagged edges that cut you as you pushed. The loose dirt held there by static electricity ground into your skin. Just to take the position itself was torture. Never mind the pushing.

Every heave was painful. New cuts on top of old scrapes, new scrapes on top of old cuts. Gravity was your enemy as the boulder wanted to roll down the hill even as you pushed it up. But that was the job: Push the boulder up the hill. Someone had to do it.

Whoever designed this job had it down. My boulder was just large enough, just heavy enough, just jagged enough, to take me all day to get it to the top of the hill. It took everything out of me every day, from start to finish. But I never didn’t finish; I always reached the top.

And then the boulder would tumble, slide, roll down to the bottom of the hill, and my day would begin again.

Our overseers watched us without emotion. They weren’t sympathetic to our plight, but neither were they unsympathetic. This was the job—it was for them to watch and for me to push.

We accept the reality we’re presented with.

***

Tune in next time for chapter two, wherein our hero meets a stranger who says strange things and asks troubling questions.