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Thursday, April 24, 2014

Fencing Nature--Rural Pockets in Salt Lake Suburbia

My son and I took photographs this morning on our way to and from his class at Salt Lake Community College, the Jordan campus, and we were struck by how confined our suburban landscape has forced the little rural pockets to become. Here is the evidence of what we found.

Across the street from the high school are a pony and a couple of burros. They are new to the neighborhood.
At the corner of 11400 South and 2700 West is this large field where these two horses live. They are usually always close together. This week they have been farther apart than we've ever seen them. Have the two friends had a quarrel?
This white horse lives alone in this little corral. He always looks lonely. Once for a few weeks some other horses were put in field behind this property, and he was always at the back fence, ears pointed toward the others. I'll bet he was thinking, "Friends? Can't you come closer?"
Across the street from the white horse lives this little herd of goats. For a while they had the company of a large llama, but it is gone now.
And down the street a little ways on is this little group of horses.

But what is striking is the fencing, heavy and tall, barring access between the animals and passing humans. Even ones with only a benign camera in hand.

While road construction makes our usual route next to impossible, we take a little detour and see this pinto and bay in a barred corral in the back yard of this home. Notice the dog going into the house through his private door in the photo on the right?

Meanwhile, the bay is thinking, Maybe I'll get up and see what this camera-person is doing here.

Or then again, maybe not.

Lots of people in the city limits of South Jordan seem to own horses.

And the tall fences, of wire, or steel mesh, or bars, or poles, are ubiquitous, of course.

After I drop my son off, I have an hour to kill. Instead of sitting in my car as usual, reading, I'm going to show you a little of our surroundings and take you through the construction.

First, this is the building where he has had classes when on this campus.

And this is the LDS Institute building across the street where he takes a religion class each semester. He likes those as a break from heavy academics, and as a place to socialize with like-minded people.

Around the corner from the college is this tree-lined street with its gorgeous blossoming trees in springtime.

A little ways further down here is a huge pasture with a herd of sheep and a herd of goats. Today they were on the far side of the pasture, so I did not photograph them. All you would have seen was white dots.
This pasture used to have some draft horses, a couple cows, a mule or donkey, a Shetland pony, and some goats. In the winter, the owners would put up a large nativity shed with cutouts of figures, and they'd feed the animals around the shed so they hung around, giving the appearance of a stable.
We think the place must have been sold, because right after Christmas all the animals disappeared after being there for years.

This lone buckskin horse is getting crowded by his owner's recreational vehicles, woodpiles, and lots of other junk being stored in his pen.
We are on the street with all the construction.

These poor people have been enduring over a year of their street and front yards being torn up.

You should have seen the mess during the winter, when everything was mud, mud, mud.

Wouldn't you just love a port-a-potty in your front yard?

Not to mention all the heavy equipment, and the stray pieces of concrete, the giant dumpsters, huge pieces of pipe, etc.

Sometimes the people cannot park even in their own driveways.

After I pick up my son from school, we head home. This is one of our rural pockets, and the only one unfenced, on our route home.

That's Mt. Timpanogos still snow-covered in the background.
This little goat bleated at us when we stopped to take her picture.

There are four goats in this pen, one light (with the horns, against the wall) and three dark.

In the winter, every morning they'd hug the wall to get any warmth it absorbed from the rising sun.

In the summer, they crawl into their dog houses and rest in the shade.

We arrive home and notice how much the little honey locust has budded out.

This tree was a gift to my husband from our daughter and granddaughter for his birthday, and it suffered hugely when our previous neighbor sprayed it with a powerful herbicide. It died right down to a foot above the ground! Another neighbor told us when buds came out on the trunk to train one up from near the ground, so that is what we did, and now we have a tree that is looking pretty respectable again.

I realize this last picture has little to do with the theme of fencing the rural within urban areas, but perhaps if I quote Robert Frost's "good fences make good neighbors" I can draw an analogy and tie in the animals--we tame our little piece of wilderness within suburbia, and when our neighbors prove wilder than we like, we heighten the fences and hope for the best.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Ben-Hur IS a Tale of the Christ

I read the novel Ben-Hur, a Tale of the Christ by Lew Wallace about 1970 and felt inspired by its strong testamentary power of Jesus and His mission. I can’t remember when I first saw the 1959 epic movie, but it was probably before I read the book. I watched it again yesterday, because I always think it has a strong Easter season “flavor” about it. Afterward I was reading the message boards on and saw a suggestion that the movie was great until the final twenty minutes, when the Christian elements intruded on an otherwise fine film.

I both agree and disagree. First, I disagree because the movie retains the core fact that Judah Ben-Hur’s life parallels that of Jesus of Nazareth to some degree, and at the intersections of their lives, the encounters change Judah Ben-Hur in profound ways that align themselves with the original novel’s conversion story. I’ll explain these ways a little later on, together with the overarching Christian symbolism throughout the movie.
Now, how can I agree? Well, the world had changed enough by 1958 that when the script for that movie was developed, it downplayed the Christian events in the novel to a great degree. The movie uses Christian elements arguably so subtly that the average viewer misses the point, especially now, some 55–56 years after it was made.

There are three early scenes that involve Jesus Christ before the final twenty minutes when Ben-Hur’s life joins that of Jesus at His crucifixion.

The movie opens with a nativity scene in which the three wise men come to visit the baby in the stable in Bethlehem, under the light of a strange, large star. This scene is meant to frame the tale of Judah Ben-Hur’s life, whose tale then takes up most of the next three hours, with only two more overt scenes that show Christ, until the end.

The second Christian scene is very short, set in a carpenter’s shop as the Roman legion passes through Nazareth. An elderly man standing with the carpenter asks Joseph why a table he ordered isn’t done yet and where his son is—why isn’t he working on the table? At the answer that the son is out in the hills, the man tells Joseph that his son neglects his work, but Joseph replies cryptically that his son is about His Father’s business. As a Christian in-joke it works on a superficial level, but not really. The suggestion that Jesus would have neglected the carpentry work that He had apparently promised to complete is out of character for the One who was perfectly sinless. The scene leaves the viewer feeling that the Son is selfish for leaving his elderly father to do all the work while he is shown (from the back) out wandering in the hills.

The third Christian scene is again in Nazareth, as Ben-Hur and the string of slaves are dragged through the village, and the Romans stop to water themselves and their horses at a well outside the carpentry shop. This is the most effective Christian scene in the movie, with a brilliant performance of the Roman officer reacting to Jesus, who has given Ben-Hur water. The officer had ordered everyone not to give any water to Ben-Hur, and Ben-Hur had collapsed into the dirt, praying God to help him. Hands with water appear, bathing his face and parched lips, and tilting his head to give him a drink. The scene cuts to a long shot of the Roman officer, who, turning and seeing what is happening, yells out, “I said, no water for him!” and starts  menacingly toward the pair. Jesus stands, the back of His head filling the right of the wide screen, the Roman officer approaching on the left, and the ensuing exchange is wordless and brilliant. The officer is suddenly impelled by the gaze we cannot see to stop, to reconsider, to be fearful, wondering, doubtful, trying in vain to say anything, and at length he must turn away to recover himself, and then his bluster is not so brave as before. It is the one scene in the movie that completely suggests the character and truth of Jesus Christ. It is underscored by a close-up of the face of Ben-Hur, looking up into the face of his benefactor, registering astonishment, awe, and reverence all at once. Without ever showing the face of Jesus, showing these two reactions to Him suggests His divinity in a particularly effective way.
© MCMLIX by Loew's Incorporated. All rights in this motion picture reserved under international conventions (on print). © Renewed 1987 Turner Entertainment Co.

However, it is a very short piece in a very long movie. The next time we encounter Jesus in this film is almost two hours later, after many, many adventures for Judah Ben-Hur. Ben-Hur has seemingly completed a story arc—he had been unjustly sentenced to death in the galleys, but he survives, saves a Roman officer’s life in a sea battle, is adopted by the officer and takes up Roman life, dress, and chariot-racing, culminating in the great chariot race in Jerusalem against his enemy, Messala, who dies from his injuries after the race, but not before Ben-Hur has forgiven him, only to be given another agonizing pain as Messala reveals to Ben-Hur that the mother and sister he was told were dead are actually lepers, due to the punishment Messala had meted to them.

Some think this is enough—that the end of Ben-Hur’s story should be acceptance and a return to the prosperity of Rome, with the assurance that time will diminish his mourning, and that Esther, his love interest, will help him forget the past. However, that would be to leave out the essence of Ben-Hur’s original story, so the movie presses on to the scenes that bring Ben-Hur and Jesus Christ into conjunction.

Jesus is depicted at a great distance in the background on a hillside, with Ben-Hur, Esther, and Malluch in the foreground, on their way from the Valley of the Lepers back into the city. A huge crowd is gathering on the hill below Jesus, suggesting that the Sermon on the Mount is about to take place. (That it takes place outside of Jerusalem instead of in Galilee, and immediately before Jesus is arrested, is beside the point.) Ben-Hur and Esther encounter Balthazar, one of the wise men who has popped up before this in the film to tell Ben-Hur that he has been searching for the Man he had last seen as a baby, and now he has found Him, and he recommends His teachings to Ben-Hur. Ben-Hur rejects the opportunity, but Esther hurries to join the crowd on the hill, intrigued, as Balthazar and Ben-Hur finish their conversation. Ben-Hur recalls the incident when he was given water and tells Balthazar he should have rejected it then so he could have died and avoided all the heartache since then. He leaves, and for a few seconds we see Esther seating herself and preparing to listen. We do not hear the Sermon.

The effect though is that Esther takes courage to get Miriam and Tirzah, Ben-Hur’s mother and sister, to go in search of Jesus. They find Him outside the Fortress of Antonia, as Pilate washes his hands and the soldiers lade Him with the cross to carry to Golgotha. Ben-Hur has joined them, and as Jesus passes them, Ben-Hur recognizes Jesus as the Man who gave him water and immediately seeks to relieve the suffering Christ. When Jesus falls and while the soldiers are busy forcing Simon the Cyrenian to carry the cross, Ben-Hur grabs a water cup from a street-side well and gives some to Jesus. Again Ben-Hur’s face tells the story of their wordless encounter, as he registers awe and love, concern and compassion all at once. His conversion is implied by subsequent events.

Ben-Hur follows the crowd toward the place of crucifixion while Esther takes Miriam and Tirzah back to the caves. We do not see what happens to Ben-Hur, but he returns to find his mother and sister miraculously healed of their leprosy, and he reports the peace and forgiveness at the close of the Savior’s life. There the movie ends.

I can see why some think it an unsatisfying ending. For those who don’t pick up on the symbolism and who have no experience with conversion or even with forgiveness, I can see arguing that the few scenes with Jesus in them could easily be cut from the movie, leaving alone the story of Ben-Hur’s life and final triumph over his enemy with the restoration to him of his loved ones.

This is the cover of the edition I have . . . 1887.
However, the original book was very much a conversion story that was much more closely integrated with New Testament scenes. In the book, Judah Ben-Hur is present at the Sermon on the Mount, and he becomes a converted Christian after winning the chariot race (in which Messala does not die but is broken in body and fortune by Ben-Hur). He participates in events of Christ’s life. His mother and sister are healed from their leprosy personally by Jesus and are found by Ben-Hur afterwards, as Ben-Hur is one of Jesus’s followers. Ben-Hur gathers together a band of disciples who are willing to fight for Jesus to become King of the Jews; they wait only for Him to declare Himself. When Jesus is arrested, Ben-Hur’s hopes are dashed as he realizes he has been mistaken in his interpretations of Jesus’s words about Himself. Judah Ben-Hur is the young man who leaves his linen cloth behind him and escapes naked from the Roman soldiers in Mark 14:51–52. He reevaluates all he knows about Jesus and comes to the correct conclusion about Him. He attends the crucifixion and rejoices in the Resurrection. He marries Esther and lives in a Roman villa until Nero begins his persecutions, and then the story closes with Esther and Ben-Hur deciding to give all their wealth to creating the catacombs in which the Christians can continue to spread the Word they have received.

The 1959 movie reduced most of the overt religious scenes to the very short scenes mentioned, until the final section when Ben-Hur’s life joins that of Jesus. But the movie incorporated Christian symbols to show that all of Ben-Hur’s life was a quest for spiritual rebirth and healing. There is a scripture in the New Testament that expresses what the movie symbolism does:

“But whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life.” [John 4:14]

Water is used throughout the movie as the symbol for the life Ben-Hur needs. Early in the movie after Ben-Hur has rejected Messala’s request that he betray certain Jewish people to the Romans, Ben-Hur is shown washing his hands, a ritual for beginning a meal in his household. It is also symbolic—he is washing away his old life that included Messala, who has become corrupt and would corrupt Ben-Hur.

The water that Jesus gives Ben-Hur in Nazareth restores his life, and more than that, as Ben-Hur later tells Balthazar, it gives him the will to live. Symbolically, it is “living water”—part of the Savior Himself. Gazing into the eyes of his benefactor, Ben-Hur is changed, and his expression reflects that change.

After three years as a Roman galley slave, Ben-Hur is given the chance to escape, and he uses the chance to save the life of the Roman officer who freed him—significantly, it is a water scene. The officer is knocked overboard in the battle, and Ben-Hur dives into the sea and saves him from drowning. Later, on a raft, he again saves the officer from committing suicide. They are rescued, and the Roman consul adopts Ben-Hur in gratitude. This is a symbolic baptism scene, with a rebirth to a new life.

Ben-Hur thinks he lives for revenge upon Messala, but when he faces the dying Messala, he forgives him, only to be given a new reason to hate Messala anew: that his mother and sister are not dead, but are instead lepers, worse than dead in a way. There is plenty of water in this scene—it is on the skins of the exhausted men in the form of heavy sweat. It washes the poison of revenge out of Ben-Hur’s system for a moment, but on Messala, it releases further evil.

Ben-Hur tells Balthazar as they stand by a brook of running water that he wishes he had poured out the water given him by the stranger long ago, and he says, “I am thirsty still.” He has found his mother and sister, but they are not restored to him. They are segregated from the living, waiting in the Valley of Lepers for death. His quest has brought him to a desert place in his mind. It is ironic that he stands next to a brook, for if he crossed that running stream, he would have joined the masses on the hillside listening to Him who had the message of hope that Ben-Hur did not even know he was thirsting for. Esther crosses the brook; Balthazar invites Ben-Hur to do so, but he declines and hurries away.

His complete conversion is coming though. As he stands on the side of the Via Dolorosa, watching the suffering Jesus fall under the weight of the cross, he rushes to His aid, only to be knocked aside by a soldier, and he falls against a roadside well. He snatches up the cup and fills it, bringing it to the suffering Christ. In this act of mercy, mirroring what had been done for him, he fulfills one of Jesus’s admonitions:  “Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me” (Matthew 25:40). He receives a blessing in the look from the Man to whom he has given water, as can plainly be seen by the reaction on Judah Ben-Hur’s face.

When Christ is nailed to the cross, Ben-Hur is in attendance and stays through the hours of the crucifixion. As He dies, Ben-Hur hears Him forgive his enemies and speak peace, and Ben-Hur feels deep within a conviction that these are the words he must henceforth follow. A storm breaks and drenches the landscape. In the drenching rain, the leprous women are healed of their malady. It is not directly from Jesus, but it is symbolically His cleansing water, washing everything.

You see it much more plainly as the camera scene shifts to the foot of the cross, focusing on the puddles of blood thinning out in the rain, joining other puddles and rivulets and streamlets, washing the earth with the Blood of Christ, healing everything, spreading and spreading as the ending music builds to its climax.

The novel, plainly titled Ben-Hur: a Tale of the Christ is indeed a Christian redemption story. And so is the 1959 movie, although the Christian elements are subdued to a level that made the film not only acceptable to a much wider audience than it would otherwise have garnered, but made it acclaimed in a way a more overt film would never have achieved. If the story were to be made into a movie today, I’m sure all religious elements would doubtless be removed, along with most of its greatness. I’m very happy to have the film as it stands (and I haven’t yet mentioned the incredible, spiritually enriching musical score). But I’m happiest with the book, containing all the delicious details of drama, romance, pathos, sentimentality, and above all, inspiration.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

A Flower Show

The last of the daffodils
Flowering quince
I was out in my yard thinking what a lovely show nature was giving me, and I decided to share.

I'm not much of a gardener, but I do like it when what little I've done gives me a greater return than I expected . . .

I really like our hyacinths this year. I want to get a lot more of these in many more colors.

And here come the tulips!

The lilacs are just beginning to emerge.
I can hardly wait for them to blossom.
The buds on the honey locust are emerging too.

Apple blossoms are coming along. I love apple blossom time.

The neighborhood is full of flowering pear and plum trees in their full splendor.

Have an amazing spring day today!

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Easter Thoughts on Spiritual Realities

A young relative once said to me that Jesus was unreal, nothing but bad science fiction. My astonishment was complete. That Jesus Christ lived on the earth, no matter what anyone thought or thinks of Him, is so well documented that scarcely any other person who ever did live is so well known to have been real. As for “bad science fiction,” I assume she meant that she could not believe in His claim to have been the literal Son of God, nor to have paid the price for all the sins and troubles of the world, nor to have been literally resurrected.

C.S. Lewis, the great Christian apologist, proposed a rational argument based on the following trilemma as given in a BBC radio talk and subsequently published in Mere Christianity:

“I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic—on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg—or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronising nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to” (London: Collins, 1952, pp 55–56).

Lewis postulated that nobody but God could make the following claims that Jesus made:
  •       He had authority to forgive sins for all.
  •       He had always existed.
  •       He would return to judge the world at the end of time.

All of Lewis’s arguments rest upon the assumption that the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are fairly accurate accounts of what He said and did. Many Christian scholars of today reject this assumption, preferring the explanation that all of the elements of claims of divinity by Jesus were inserted in the accounts at a later period of time.

One can go round and round about this and never come to a satisfactorily rational conclusion without an agreement on the basic assumptions.

For myself, I assume that the Gospels are mostly accurate, since they are four different accounts and because within their accounts are discrepancies that tend, for me, to prove that they are real rather than that they are not. (You would be more likely to find discrepancies in real accounts of a person’s life than you would be to find complete agreement.)

Ultimately you cannot prove the reality of Jesus’s claims of divinity except by appeal to Him. That sounds like a circular argument, but it really is not. For if He does not exist, nobody will ever get an answer to a prayer to Him about His reality; but if He does exist, then an answer will come. Millions of people have now claimed to have received such an answer. To disbelieve all of them strikes me as the rankest arrogance. 

However, unless and until a person sheds that rank pride and humbly asks for him- or herself, that person will never know for sure who is right. There can be no appeal to a source of knowledge for the nonbeliever; there can be only an insistence on nonbelief, unsupported by anything but faulty human reason.

God lives; Jesus Christ is His Son, and the Holy Ghost manifests these and all truths to the hearts and minds of all earnest seekers after truth. This is my Easter message.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Mom and Her Puzzles, Part 2

My mother has continued to work on jigsaw puzzles, no surprise. 

The fun thing is that when relatives found out about her interest because of the ones she got for her birthday, they started sending her more. Many more! Under her bed are now about fifteen jigsaw puzzles, and we finished one of the prettiest sent by my brother Allen. But before I can tell you about that, I have to take up the story at the point where it broke off in my last post about puzzles.

I had to finish the Metropolitan Opera puzzle of The Magic Flute that Mom got tired of working on. She had the birds and Papagano and the stage floor done, but the purple background was proving to be not only hard, but boring! She got me to finish it for her.

Then she started the pretty one that my brother Allen sent to her.

The swirly patterns in the way the pieces were cut made this an especially fun one to do, as well as our interest in the picture, which was a painting. Up close, some of the pieces seemed like nothing more than a gob of color wholly disconnected from anything. Obviously we found each piece’s proper place in the end, but curiously, one of the edge pieces eluded us until the point when we had nothing but sky pieces left, and this one odd plant-colored bit. We had by then entirely forgotten there was an edge piece missing.

But I did too much of this puzzle and she wasn’t having fun—about all she had gotten to do was the border and the balloons and sky. I had thought she wanted more help than she needed, and I confess to becoming obsessive about a puzzle. It’s hard for me to stop putting pieces together! She said she would be doing this puzzle again sometime, and I was to leave the flowers for her to do. I thought to myself I had better be less selfish and leave her a lot more than that. But I hadn’t learned my lesson yet.

The latest puzzle was this bird picture. Mom started the border, but in this puzzle there are square-cut pieces that are not edge pieces, so it was a real challenge. We worked on the edge pieces together and got it all worked out. She told me a couple days later that she was having trouble with it, so I came in to help. She counted the birds and found there were nine. I think she had wanted to do each of the nine birds. I did the bottom grasses and put together most of the cardinal, the two yellow birds, the blue bird, and the robin. I was on a roll and next did the seed packet and the flower pots. She had wanted to do the flower pots—I offered to take them apart, but she didn’t go for that. Finally I got the hint (really, does it take a whack to the side of my head with a two-by-four?) and just put a little more grass together here and there. She did the watering can, the flowers, the blue jay and other birds on that side. I finished the brown bird in the upper left, and the robin.

It’s a good thing I have my very own freelance editing project to work on right now. It can be very frustrating to have all these puzzles around the house, not to mention all that algebra homework, to be asked to help a little (!) and have to make myself leave most of the fun to other people.

Self-discipline. Sigh. What a chore.