27 November 2005

Jonah's Faith: "I Won't Fall Down"

God gave me kids to teach me how to know Him. I would love to think that my three children, Ellie (8), Owen(5) and Jonah (2), will be blessings to people around them when they grow up, but I think it's probably too late. I have learned so much from them. They are three young witnesses who have taught me much.

A week ago we had our traditional Thanksgiving get-together with the Highland Church. We gathered together in the Family Life Center for a good meal of mashed potatoes, turkette stuffing, green beans and tasty rolls. Ellie and other kids from the school got up front and sang some songs. We were filled with fellowship and the spirit of the season.

The kids and I (Jenny was at work) sat across from my friend, Monique, and her family. Monique and I have been friends since high school, and she watches my boys for me during the week. Her son, Nicholas, is Owen's best friend.

Twenty years ago, when I was a freshman at Highland Academy, I had a big-time crush on Monique. She was (is) beautiful, friendly, and she was one of the girls who could talk with me without getting a sour look on her face (a big turn-on to 15-year-old boys). I asked her that year to be my date to the Thanksgiving Dinner.

She said, "No."

I can't recall the name of the guy she chose instead of me. I do remember that I sat across from them and cracked stupid jokes. I remember the way she rolled her eyes and shot dirty looks across the table at me--I remember that I didn't understand why at the time.

Anyway, in honor of that embarassing social encounter, I sat across from her and her "date" (her husband, Daniel) again last Sunday. This time, however, I was on my best behavior.

While Ellie was up singing Thanksgiving Hymns, I had Jonah on my lap. Recently he has been obsessed with falling down. His "Opa" (my dad) had been reading him stories about Jack & Jill and Humpty Dumpty. Everytime someone falls down--it happens a lot in Mother Goose Tales and in Real Life, I might add--Jonah gets a big smile on his face.

When Opa comes over, he asks Jonah, "What did Humpty Dumpty do?"

Jonah grins, "He fell down."

"What about Jack and Jill?"

"All fall down," Jonah replies sagely. (It occurs to me that he hasn't even learned "Ring Around the Rosie" yet.)

Last Sunday, then, I was watching the Thanksgiving Program, and Jonah was in my lap. He stood up on my knees, fixed me in his eyes with a big grin, and said, "I won't fall down."

"No, Jonah, Daddy won't let you fall down," I said.

Suddenly, Jonah arched his back and began to lean backwards. I held tightly to his waist as his balance veered away from me.

"I won't fall down," he repeated, his face upside down and looking away from me.

"Daddy's got you," I assured him.

Finally, he had leaned so far back that I flipped his feet over his head in a sort of back flip and placed him safely on the ground.

What faith, I thought. Imagine if I looked my Heavenly Father in the eyes every morning and prayed, "I won't fall down." What if I could repeat that, even when I leaned away from Him, testing his faithfulness to the utter limits as I placed my spirit in harm's way?

Is this the way I tempt God to let me fall? Is this the way He responds to me--as a loving, bemused, Father?

Jonah hadn't been on solid ground for more than 10 seconds before he climbed back into my lap and stood upon my knees. He grinned again, even brighter than before. "I won't fall down," he said in his sing-song voice.

"Daddy won't let you fall down," I, too, repeated.

He raised his arms, arched his back, and held me to my word once again.

25 November 2005

Athos: A Mountain of Myths

I have begun work on a project about the Minoan Civilization--a manuscript I plan to write about Ariadne, daughter of King Minos and the girl who helped the Greek hero, Theseus, defeat the fabled Minotaur.

As I asked questions about Crete, a co-worker of mine advised that I read Nikos Kazantzakis's Report to Greco. I had never read Kazantzakis before--his most famous book was Zorba the Greek, and he also wrote The Last Temptation of Christ. Both were before my time, as novels go, I guess.

It was a pleasant surprise for me, then, when I got the book and found it fascinating. It is an autobiography of sorts, tracing the ways he developed as a writer and a thinker. Importantly for my project, he describes his homeland of Crete in glowing detail, and he includes two chapters about his visits to Knossos, palace of King Minos.

I am only halfway through the book--at the point where he has graduated from college, but his idealism is still incredibly real to him. In the chapter "My friend the poet, Mount Athos," he describes a pilgrimage he made to Mount Athos, a sacred site for believers in Eastern Orthodox Christianity.

One of the things that strikes me about Kazantzakis's writing is how effortlessly he addresses the spiritual world in his writings. To me this is a peculiar, Eastern way of thinking and writing. In the West, we are obsessed with reality--bending and shaping it through the application of science. We revere the material, and our worship reflects this preoccupation--as if somehow by harnessing the material around ourselves (food, dress, word and deed) we can "prove" the reality that God's Spirit is alive and well within us.

Mount Athos is/was a place where monks and pilgrims come to shed material things altogether. Kazantzakis arrives as a very enlightened man, proud of his own view of the world. In the progress of visiting the different monasteries, however, Paradise--God Himself--becomes very real to him. He leaves with a different sort of enlightenment.

Drawing from his diaries Kazantzakis describes each of the monasteries he and his friend visited. I wish I had time to describe them all. Instead I will comment upon two of the visits.

At Aghias Lavras Monastery (pictured), Kazantzakis learns of the Byzantine Emperor Nicephorus Phocas, who felt drawn to the monastic life there on Mount Athos. His crown was heavy. He wished to cast it aside and retire to Aghias Lavras. Only one thing kept him from doing so: his harem. He procrastinated the call until the day came when one of his closest friends pulled out a sword and cut off his head. This case is presented as heaven being available to the Emperor at any moment he chose to renounce the world--and that same heaven becoming closed to him when his life expired.

There is an antipathy towards women in much of the writing, which some readers might find offensive. Even today, women are not allowed to visit any of the monasteries on the peninsula--they are not even allowed to set foot on the docks. The feeling conveyed by Kazantzakis is that women are the most luxurious and tempting of material possessions. They are banned from the monastic communities (even today women may not even set foot upon the shore) not for what they themselves have done but what men fear they themselves might do with them around.

One story demonstrates both the bizarre anti-female attitude and the sublime
sence of mysticism that Kazantzakis discovered there:
It seems that a girl came to [St. Antonius] one day and said,
"I have observed all of God's commandments; I place all my trust in the Lord. He will open the gates of paradise for me."
Saint Antonius then asked her, "Has poverty become wealth for you?"
"No, Abba."
"Nor dishonor honor?"
"No, Abba."
"Nor enemies friends?"
"No, Abba."
"Well then, my poor girl, go and get to work, because right now you possess nothing."

To the mystic, Heaven is everywhere. God searches for man as enthusiastically as we search for Him. The only material proof of this Spiritual Enlightenment, however, is absolute and utter rejection of material things--much as Christ stipulated for the Rich Young Ruler. Wisdom isn't earned. It is plucked from the ether by the open hear.

I have to admit that I find such a spiritual existence compelling and fascinating. I don't think I could ever completely surrender my Western view of Earth & Heaven. I am open, however, to reading more Eastern writers and gaining insights from them about how to experience God and the Spiritual Realm at all moments of the day.

What is Point Pleasant?

I have read other people's blogs for years, and I've thought about it many times. Point Pleasant is my first attempt at a blog.

You will find herein a mixture of thoughts from the disparate elements of my life. You will learn that I am a passionate and enthusiastic husband and father. You will read of my faith, and the delicate balance I seek between mystical and literal and the practice of it. There will be lots of book reviews and commentary. From time to time I will even indulge in my two vices: politics and sport.

Why would I name a blog Point Pleasant? I am a diplomatic person, some say, but I have never been called 'pleasant' by those with whom I have dialogued. If I make a point, I try not to waste time with pleasantries. Instead I try to get to the point.

Point Pleasant, then, has little to do with my arguments and ideas. Instead, it comes from the deepest part of me: my childhood, my heroes, and my fondest memories.

Point Pleasant is a place on the Ohio River about 100 miles away from where I grew up halfway between Athens and Marietta. I spent most of my grade school years there, somewhat isolated from the world and able to indulge my imagination by hiking through the hills around my house. I attended small, one-room church schools, and few friends lived less than 30 minutes' drive away. When I trace my origins, I think of rivers. I tell people, "The Ohio is my father; the Danube is my mother."

Point Pleasant is the birthplace of one of my childhood heroes, Ulysses S. Grant. I am a huge history buff, and the Civil War looms large over American history. Grant and another Ohioan, William T. Sherman, were the generals most responsible for keeping our country unified. (My sister, Julie, lives in Savannah, Georgia, so I keep quiet about my true feelings for Sherman when I'm down there.)

I admire Grant because of his relentlessness and because of his strategy as a warrior. Grant felt that it was bad luck to retrace one's steps. As a result, even when he was beaten in battle, he usually shifted to the left or right and then continued his relentless assault on the enemy. Where previous Union generals had turned tail and run or sat on their hands after important victories, Grant wore down Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia and brought an end to the Civil War.

I have applied Grant's strategy in a number of ways. First, as an adventurer, I try not to travel the same road twice. This has led me down many fascinating byways. My motto is "When in doubt, take the Scenic Route."

Secondly, as a curious person and promoter of ideas, I take a relentless approach towards both learning and teaching. I look at debate the same way a running back looks at a defense. Sometimes I have to run around a topic; other times I have to run over it. In every case the goal is not to lose ground. If I have a pet peeve, it is losing ground and backing up to defend an idea that should be patently obvious.

Is there a way to feature both Pleasant and Relentless? I will try it here. It should be an interesting ride.

24 November 2005

Getting Started

I only wanted to say "hey" to my cousin, Norman. Now I'm blogging. Everything has to start somewhere I guess.

Now instead of writing my family Christmas letter or a synopsis for a really cool book idea I have, I'm blogging for the first time, dear reader.

Let's see how this goes!