Sunday, March 21, 2010

Life in the Twilight Zone

“Small message of reassurance.... Don't despair. Help is on route.” These words from Rod Serling's The Twilight Zone were exactly those I needed to hear several weeks ago. On the weekend I had planned a day off from caregiving for my aging parents—the first in many months. On the Saturday I was en route to meet a friend for a long overdue get-together. The minute my SUV made the jarring sounds of “RRR-clunk” outside the community hospital where I'd just had my blood drawn. When I suddenly saw all my carefully laid plans come to an abrupt halt. I felt as if I had just entered into ... The Twilight Zone.


“Cavender is Coming” on Vol 40
Episode 101 – May 25, 1962

Agnes Grep (Carol Burnett) lived on the edge of The Twilight Zone. Yet, it didn't seem to phase her. She rented a tiny, messy apartment, kept a half-finished art project on her coffee table, and went bowling on Thursdays. She chatted with her neighbors about “babysitting and potato pancakes” while hugging sticky-fingered kids in want of candy and cookies. And she'd just lost her job—again. She simply wasn't good with details—in theater concessions or anywhere else. Still, klutzy Agnes Grep kept a genuine smile on her face, for her landlord, the plumber, her boss; and she didn't go looking for an angel. The angel found her.

This winged messenger in a patterned tie tried everything to “improve her lot.” First, he performed a few miracles to prove his abilities. It didn't seem to impress her; maybe she'd seen it before. On the other hand, it sure did disturb the bus driver. Next, the heavenly being tried a few more upgrades. Still, down-to-earth Agnes knew large bank accounts, endless parties full of strangers, and high-end clothes weren't all they were said to be. “What'd you expect?” Her answer: “Friends, maybe.” In the end, isn't that what we all need? To know someone else feels the same, or thinks similarly, or has been through difficulties as we have?

I wish I was more like Agnes. Oh, yes, I'm learning to be content with my life, and I'm finding pleasure in simple things—like twist ice cream cones, reading a book with a friend, or movie extravaganzas at the local theater. Yet, Agnes accepted herself on her bad days, too—when she was discombobulated, her plans were disrupted, or yet another boss was displeased. She not only watched for the intervention of angels—though not expecting it—she offered them a gift of her own. In so doing, the mortal Agnes taught them: “Don’t forget to show hospitality to strangers, for some who have done this have entertained angels without realizing it!” (Hebrews 13:2)

Me? I didn't ignore frustrations like Agnes Grep. When my SUV refused to start, I fretted. When the cell phone died—which my dad had assured me was freshly charged—I whined. When the sliding, glass doors of the community hospital wouldn't reopen, I was flustered. I didn't heed the immortal's familiar words: “Don't panic.” Yet, when I turned from the hospital doors, an angel found me, too. Her name? Gladys Amen. Fitting, I think. Her persistence in aiding a stranger (phone book in hand) and her willingness to be inconvenienced were angelic—saving me from self-pity and a towing-bill to the local garage!

Fortune Cookies

“Nick of Time” on Vol 9
Episode 43 – November 18, 1960

After switching vehicles, I journeyed onward. Unfortunately, when I couldn't locate the oft-visited Asian restaurant where my friend and I had determined to meet, I wondered if I was once again in “one of the darker corners of The Twilight Zone.” And I was reminded of another duo. These newlyweds were just passing through Ridgeville, Ohio—or so they thought—when their car broke down. The local mechanic was friendly enough, but assured them it would take around four hours to complete repairs. What to do except explore the little town? And visit the Busy Bee Cafe for a stale sandwich, a cold coffee, ... and a penny fortune-telling machine. After all, what's the harm in a bit of speculation?

Like the superstitious Don (William Shatner), I often ponder the path of life. “Who will get that promotion?” “When will I write the script for that documentary I've been conjuring?” “What would have happened if I'd have said 'yes'?” And as Don's wife (Patricia Breslin) did, I value inquisitiveness—and optimism. Cheer, positiveness, even kindness is easy when things are going well, or when problems are only temporary. Yet too often, when life becomes monotonous, I grow stressed. Or when circumstances remain arduous, I'm far from confident. And I don't mean that I'm necessarily negative or hopeless; I'm just not expectant. I'm not soothed or enthusiastic, I'm merely ... resolved.

When life is hard (or even when we're afraid it's too easy), we all tend to flee back to the comfort of our pat answers—where habit takes us again and again. We run away to where “every answer seems to fit.” Though we may not kiss a rabbit's foot or rub a silver shamrock, we each feed our pennies somewhere. Often, it's to our subconscious fears and insecurities. To where we call random answers, facts. This is, to co-opt a fitting phrase, the devil's playground. For, as Scripture reminds us, “The thief [Satan] comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I [Christ Jesus] have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” (John 10:10)

How do we get this full life? And how does Satan steal it from us? Here are some words I find meaningful: freedom, joy and hope. As opposed to fear, guilt and self-consciousness. I think it hinges on Whom we go to with our questions, confusion and uncertainties. Throughout Scripture, the Lord uses prophets. Obviously, He's not against telling His people parts of the future. Yet, God is very clear that He wants people to come to Him for answers, clarity and comfort—even when His responses aren't explicit. Often, “Trust in My goodness” must be enough. For now. Still, we can trust the Lord to shape our life according to His promises, because He's good. He's life-giving. And He's enough.

Christies Previews Auction Of Rock And Pop Memorabilia

“A Passage for Trumpet” on Vol 4
Episode 32 – May 20, 1960

Befuddled, I turned from my jumbled thoughts—and where Little Bamboo used to be—only to run directly into my friend. While ushering me across the street into another favorite eating establishment, my cohort explained that the Asian restaurant had moved about five minutes away. “Do you want to go there?” No, for some reason I just wanted to get off the street—away from the clamor and busyness of bargain-hunters looking for “a steal” and police officers looking for a crime; men with cigarettes in need of illumination and women with compacts in need of secrets to conceal. Away from people to whom I seemed invisible. I was feeling rebuffed by the world, like my alter ego Joey Crown.

Joey (Jack Klugman) was used to hanging around backstage. A trumpet player with “a magic horn,” he was also a bedraggled alcoholic. Why, Joey? “Because I'm sad; because I'm nothin'.... I won't even have a girl.” Joey had cut off hope—he quit expecting good from himself and life. And when he pawned his silver trumpet for $8.50 and a sour swig, he just as well have been dead. Then, he stepped off the curb and in front of a truck ... into The Twilight Zone. It's there, one person—a fellow trumpet player—hears Joey. There, one person knows his name and enjoys his music. “That's a nice talent you got; don't waste it.” For the first time in what seemed an eternity, someone pauses to look and listen ... and Joey is known.

I think artists often feel as though we are unseen, misunderstood. And Evangelical artists, moreso. Unlike our Catholic and Orthodox brethren, many Protestant traditions have long ago done away with spiritual embellishments like emotion and sacrament, deeming them unnecessary—and favoring both stark reason and naked symbolism. Art undone by rhetoric; senses dulled by wit. In so doing, the rich historical tapestry made by all followers of the Triune God is being worn threadbare, and Christ-followers' cultural nuances are unraveling. This harsh kind of Evangelicalism has betrayed all believers; we are neglected, forgotten, and cold. Yet, maybe, it is artists who have lost the most.

The artist's calling—despite the media in which we each work—is to remember. Or rather, to remind. “ʽYou have eyes—can’t you see? You have ears—can’t you hear?ʼ Don’t you remember anything at all?” (Mark 8:18) We have lamented the Church's pulling away from art and mystery; we've expressed anger at Her departure from story, culture and life. And we've revived awareness where we do it best—on canvases and in manuscripts, through scores and choreography. Yet, many artists, like me, have wandered through basements and coffee houses ... and away from a local church's vestibule and pews. Thus, we've lost our best community; we've forgotten that for our art to be a reminder, we must have an audience. Art is enriching and experiential; art is wonder-inducing. Art is meant to be shared.

Not Released Fishing

“A Stop at Willoughby” on Vol 34
Episode 30 – May 6, 1960

Settled into the cushions of the restaurant's corner booth, I took a moment to study my friend. Long brown hair, kind twinkling eyes—she's beautiful in a way that causes strangers to pause. Still, her greatest allure is in being ... a reminder. We all need someone who enhances our strengths. Another to know us well and recall our history. A person who alludes to our weaknesses without embarrassment, and our failures without shame. Most of all, we need someone who reminds us of God's work in our life. And in theirs. That's part of the reason I cherish time with my friends—and why I defend it so intently. Still, when she presented me with an ethereal Holy Bible: Mosaic, I was stunned.

She mentioned how this Bible had full-color artwork, both contemporary and classical; writings from a variety of Christian authors; and space for my responses to God. An orange cardboard slipcover described it's pages as containing “A living mosaic of believers, spanning the centuries and crossing the globe.” At that moment, beaming, I felt like a ray of sun was breaking through a stained-glass window; I was known. As we ate our hot, heaping plates of Mexican food—and my friend mumbled something about a train—I fell again into The Twilight Zone. I wondered if advertising exec Gart Williams (James Daly) was once pleasantly surprised by a gift from his wife or associates. If he was ever really known.

Gart's boss, Mr. Misrell, didn't seem to understand him—and didn't care to. Instead, his employer was determined to excel in a “push, push, push business.... Push, push, push all the way—all the time.” When Gart is betrayed by a younger coworker who steals his account, Misrell suspects Gart is being dishonest. This leader's lexicon didn't include words like compassion, sensitivity or rest. And Misrell was training his employees to be just like him. When Gart retreats home to his wife, Jaine, she asks only if he's wrecked his career. Her vocabulary is comprised of such words as competition, pretentiousness and appetite. Gart stammers bits of an explanation: “I'm tired. And sick.”

Each of us grow weary at times, and we all glimpse our brokenness; all of us long, at some point, to “slow down to a walk, live [our] life full measure.” For Gart, this means dreaming of a Huck Finn summer afternoon where bare-footed kids hoist fishing poles, and bicycles stand by vine-covered bandstands. For others, it translates into visions of desert sand where serene pools of water and stacks of flat skimming-stones reflect the changing light. For me and other Christ-followers, this yearning is a harbinger of Heaven. And I don't know that it couldn't look like either of the above—and endless variations—depending on the sublime aspect we're then enjoying.

Returning to my parents' home, otherworldly thoughts still flitted around my mind. After a refreshing few hours with my believing friend, I pondered why much of the day had been so difficult—why I had felt so fragmented. I questioned whether malevolent forces had been trying to kill my spirit, to keep me from joining my companion—and why that separation would be significant. One answer? My friends are a wonderful part of my society; they are my confidants, allies and “kindred spirits.” My friends draw me to God—those who follow Christ Jesus, intentionally so. Believing friends pull me into the Body of Christ and signify my role in it; they allow me a fuller vision of Heaven, where Scripture says those who follow Christ Jesus will live together for eternity.

As an orange slipcover asserts: “On our own we are little more than bits of stone and glass.... Together we are the Body of Christ.” It takes community to recall life—to engage us, encourage us, and resurrect our potential. The Church is our best community—those to be reminded of the Lord who can remind us in return. The Body of Christ is more than a symbol; it is meant to draw us in, provide a place for healing and rest, and urge us on to love and good deeds (Hebrews 10:24-25). The Kingdom of God is both coming and here (Luke 17:20-21). We don't have to jump from a train or step in front of a truck to discover it; we needn't find a fortune-telling machine or quibble with an angel. We simply need to be aware—to see, hear and be reminded—of the transcendent all around and within us.


  1. A person who alludes to our weaknesses without embarrassment, and our failures without shame. Most of all, we need someone who reminds us of God's work in our life.

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