The Happy Island

Some pieces of music are like food to my soul. I can play them over and over again and never get tired of them. They evoke a response from me that usually involves silence and awe. I’m listening to one of them right now. L’isle Joyeuse (The Happy Island), is a composition for piano written by Claude Debussy.  Trying to figure out exactly what the music means to me and verbalizing it is the hard part. That is the task ahead of me today. Before reading any further, take five minutes to listen to the recording I have posted above, played masterfully by Marc-Andre Hamelin. Otherwise, none of this will make much sense.

I have often tried to understand why this piece holds such an appeal for me. The only way I can describe the music is by using words like ethereal and frantically excited. I think the key to understanding the piece is its title, The Happy Island. You can’t stay on an island very long, you know. Resources begin to run out. Eventually, you have to move on. Happiness is kind of like that.

In its own unsettled way, The Happy Island is beautiful, a celebration of transitory happiness. It is an island we might meet once in a life time, surrounded by a sea of sadness, pain, and suffering.

I have an odd view about happiness. I suppose a fair amount of Christians would disagree with me. I do not believe happiness is the purpose of life, nor do I believe it is the perpetual state of Christians. Now joy! That’s a different thing entirely. People can go through great hardships while rejoicing in their Lord. But that’s another topic for another day. Happiness is different. Happiness is the seasoning of life. I suppose it could be a tiny glimpse of what we were created for and what we’ll find in eternity. But in this life, it is not meant to last. And something very odd and unsettling begins to happen when people cling to happiness as their mainstay. They do strange, selfish, and generally unethical things when their happiness is threatened. They’ll leave children and spouses to pursue a more fulfilling relationship. They’ll buy things until they can’t afford them anymore, then go into debt and buy more. They’ll cut people out of their lives to ensure their own comfort. In short, they’ll do whatever it takes. Instead of sailing to their happy island, thanking God for it however long it lasts and gracefully waving goodbye when He gives the word, they cling to it and only leave when forced, kicking and screaming.

As I began to read up on the circumstances around L’isle Joyeuse’s composition, I began to understand that this is exactly what Debussy’s life reflected when he wrote it. To say that Debussy’s life was a mess would be no overstatement. He carried on a string of affairs with various women, some married and some not, that began at the tender age of eighteen. He finally married one of them after she threatened to commit suicide if he did not. A great start to a marriage, no? The two were married for several years before discontentment came knocking. Debussy found his wife intellectually dull. She had prematurely aged and was unable to bare children. Again, in search of ever-elusive happiness, Debussy took up with a married woman, Emma Bardac. In 1904 they both left their respective spouses on the sly and vacationed on the island of Jersey. It was there that Debussy completed L’isle Joyeuse. No doubt, the brief time they spent together was quite happy, and a depiction of that happiness transferred to Debussy’s composition. But it was not to last. When they returned, Debussy made it known to his wife that their marriage was over. A few months later, she attempted suicide and failed. Still, all of Debussy’s friends and society in general learned of his infidelity after the incident, and life became very difficult for the pair. The two were eventually able to obtain divorces and marry, but as you can imagine, their marriage was tempestuous until the end, producing one daughter who died shortly after her parents succumbed to various illnesses.

Happiness…such a passing fancy, like our lives. We are born and live a few years that pass like the wind and then we die. How miserable we make ourselves and the people around us by clinging to those things that will never last! But if that is all there is, what other choice do we have? How tragic. We get little enough of either. Thankfully, life and happiness are not all. Each of us is given an immortal soul and access to an immortal God through Christ. How much better to develop and cultivate our souls and learn to know our God than to obsess over things that will run out and hopes that will inevitably disappoint?

When I listen to L’isle Joyeuse, I’m reminded of James 4:14, “…For what is your life? It is even a vapor, that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away.” Life is fading fast like The Happy Island, giving way to eternity.

Debussy on beauty

Walk With Me

The Valley of the Shadow of Death by George Inness
The Valley of the Shadow of Death by George Inness

A week or so ago, my Dad emailed me and asked me where he could find a piece I’d written a number of years ago called, “Walk With Me.” If you recall from last week, I wrote about 9/11 and how it factored into the many reasons I experienced a long time of doubt about my Christian faith. I wrote “Walk With Me” towards the end of that time. It was really a turning point in my mind. I noticed a definite change in my emotional state after I wrote it,  a giant sigh of relief you might say. At any rate, since my Dad was looking for it on my blog, I went hunting for it, too. I realized I had never posted it here. So, I decided to do it today. Enjoy.

Jesus said, “Walk with me.”

So I left everything behind me and walked with him. The place was beautiful where we walked. The path was bright and shining. I sang for joy with the birds, and the flowers smiled up at me from the ground.

“I love you, Jesus,” I said.

But as we walked, a cloud slid over the sun, and a little mist fell from the sky. I began to feel cold from the damp.

“Oh, well,” I sighed, “I guess everything can’t be perfect. I still love you, Jesus.”

But a cloud had come into my mind that I couldn’t shake. The path began to get muddier and went up a hill. My breathing grew heavy, and my feet started to ache.

“Jesus, I’m getting tired. Can’t we stop for a while?”

He said, “Walk with me.”

“But I’m too tired!”

“Hold my hand.”

So I held his hand, and trudged wearily on. We climbed higher and higher. Soon, the way was so steep, I was crawling on my hands and knees over sharp rocks. I began to bleed.

“Jesus, where are you taking me?” I asked, panic rising in my heart.

“Walk with me,” he said.

We came to the top, and the sight that met my eyes sent my heart into my throat. It was dark. The wind had begun to blow wildly. A canyon stretched before us, so deep, I could scarcely see the bottom. I heard strange voices and unearthly cries and mutterings. Savage screams floated up from that pit as the wind whipped my hair back and forth.

“Jesus,” my voice shook, “what is this place? Why did you bring me here? What do you want me to do?”

“Walk with me,” he said.

“But how? There is no bridge!”

But then I saw it. A thin board, bowed and rotting, stretched from one side of the canyon to the other.

“Jesus!” I said in fear. “How can I walk over that? I’ll fall. It’s not safe!”

He held out his hand and said, “I will keep you safe. Do you believe me?”

“Of course, but…” I turned around and looked behind me. I could go back and forget this impossible journey.

But I heard a voice say to me, “If any man puts his hand to the plow and turns back, he is not worthy of Me.”

I turned back around, took his hand, and began to walk. My heart pounded so hard, I thought it would burst. I stepped onto the plank and it shook. On the next step, the board made a terrible cracking sound.

“Jesus,” I screamed, “I’m going to fall!”

“Look at me,” he said. “Don’t look around you. You will not fall.”

So I looked full into his face and began to walk again. The fear subsided, and I walked with more confidence. We reached the middle of the board, when a sudden gust of wind, a clap of thunder, and a horrible scream rent the air. I looked down and saw the gulf. I felt the terrible wind and shook with fear. In a panic, I jerked my hand free and lost my balance. I fell and fell and fell, and the farther I fell the darker and heavier the air became. I hit the ground with such force, I could not breath for a long moment. The darkness pressed in on me and crushed me. I felt things slithering around me and dead men’s bones.

A strange, evil voice began to whisper in my ear, “You have failed. You wouldn’t trust him. You never did in the first place. You fooled yourself into thinking you did, but you know better. Even in the beginning, you sighed when it began to rain. That’s just fine, though.  He doesn’t really exist–only in your mind.

“But I heard him,” I sobbed. “He asked me to walk with him.”

“You’re imagining things. If he exists, why doesn’t he come and get you? You can’t even see him. If he exists, why did he let all the people, whose bones you lie on, die such terrible deaths? If he is alive, he is not loving.”

Fear. Fear, is my only reality.

“Is it true?” I think. “I can’t see him. I can’t hear him.”

Fear eats at my heart. Many voices join the first, hurling accusations at me until I put my hands over my ears and crouch down into the ground.

But another voice, a calm, still voice says, “Out of the deep have I cried unto thee, O Lord.”

I struggle to my feet and stretch out my hands.

“Jesus!” I cry.

The voices get louder and louder. I feel cold fingers reaching up to grab me and pull me back down. I kick myself free.

“Jesus, ” I scream. “Jesus, I believe. Help my unbelief.”

My groping hand immediately finds his.

“Jesus,” I weep, “is it you?”

“It is I. Be not afraid.”

I can’t see his face, but I remember his voice. I hold on to his hand and follow him up and up. The farther we go, the clearer his outline in front of me. Fear still grips me, but I will never let go of his hand again. Finally, after stumbling in the dark for hours and hours, I begin to see a light from far away. It is Jerusalem.

Jesus says again, “Walk with me.”

And I walk with him. I am tired, but I can’t let go of his hand. We come to a river. A wide, wild river. he turns to me again.

“Walk with me.”

I am afraid, so afraid.

“Forgive me, Jesus,” I say.  “I will walk with you.”

The river is cold and the current is strong. The water is deep, and I can’t feel the ground. But I hold on tightly to his hand and look into his face. The water goes over my head.  Through its rushing, I can see his face and hear his words of comfort. My head breaks through the surface and I near the other shore. My feet can feel the bottom, and I slowly wade to land. I collapse on the shore with my hand touching the hem of is robe. I can feel the warmth of the light coming from Jerusalem. I can feel the love that he has for me.  Weak, I try to lift my head to look at his face.

“I love you, Jesus,” I say.

He reaches down, lifts me in his arms, and carries me through the gates into the light of God’s glory.

Save me, O God; for the waters are come in unto my soul.

I sink in deep mire, where there is no standing:

I am come into deep waters, where the floods overflow me.

I am weary of my crying: my throat is dried:

mine eyes fail while I wait for my God.

Psalm 69:1-2

Why art thou cast down, O my soul?

And why art thou disquieted within me?

Hope thou in God:

for I shall yet praise him

who is the health of my countenance, and my God.

Psalm 42:11

That Day

Sept. 11I was sixteen. My brother and I were sitting in the living room, trying our best to learn American sign language by signing along with the lady on the video we were watching. I think the video stopped working or something. For one reason or another, we took it out and fooled around with it. As soon as we took it out of the player, we saw that NBC news was on. I was aware of New York City and a lot of smoke. The TV pretty much stayed on around the clock after that for the next several weeks.

I had so many questions. What was the World Trade Center, anyway? I’d never heard of it. What was going through the minds of the people I saw jumping from the towers to their deaths? Why were the news stations showing Palestinians dancing in the street? Was it true? Were people really so happy that American civilians were dying? Who did this? Why?

It had all of the surreal qualities of a really bad dream. As I learned more and more, I felt more and more shocked and numb until, like a dam breaking, the tears came in torrents a week later as they did today when I remembered. Thirteen years! Has it really been that long?

Now my generation has its own personal Pearl Harbor. And like Pearl Harbor, it changed everything, colored everything. In a matter of hours, we all knew that nothing would ever be the same again. I’m used to it now. I’m used to America collectively looking over its shoulder to see what might be coming next. Welcome to the rest of the world.

Three years after that day, Satan made a terrorist attack on my soul. One moment, I was content in my faith. In the next instant, all assurance of God’s love, all confidence in His Word was wiped away. It was years before it ever came back, and I’m still dealing with the residual skirmishes. In retrospect, I think 9/11 made me susceptible to that attack. In the aftermath of the towers, well-known, intelligent people began to speak out against religion in general as a hateful, destructive force. And anyway, why would a God who loved allow such horrors to happen? I couldn’t really blame them for thinking that and asking that question. They set out to discredit all religion because they were afraid of what it could do. I was the collateral damage along with many others. I faced several years of nearly crippling fear and uncertainty. Though September 11, 2001 was a fearful day, it was nothing compared to the fear that gripped me concerning my faith.

God, are you there? Would you please come closer? I can’t feel you. Would it be strange to tell you that I only found peace when I rediscovered the evil in my heart? But it’s true.

The Bible said that long ago, in a beautiful garden, a woman named Eve took something that did not belong to her. Listening to the serpent’s persuasive speech, she chose to eat a piece of fruit that God had said she must not eat. She gave it to her husband, Adam, and he ate it too. Nothing was ever the same after that. A hideous sickness began its reign in their hearts and spread to the very ground they walked on. Thorns began to grow and choke out the lush vegetation, and Adam was hard pressed to keep ahead of the thorns his sin had caused. Innocent animals were killed, skinned, and used to cover Adam and Eve’s nakedness. Driven from their beautiful garden, they faced a world forever contaminated by one sinful choice, destined to spread the disease in their hearts to every new born child. There was one hope. God promised to bring relief through a descendant of Eve, free of Adam’s taint. Through the seed of the woman, a child would be born who would crush the serpent’s head and be bruised for his efforts, bruised but not destroyed.

When I again saw the unmistakable evil in my own heart, the evil I had inherited from Adam, I could finally breathe easy. It meant that God’s Word was true. And it pointed me towards that other day when a perfect man, the descendant of Eve, nailed to a wooden cross, gasped out his last words, “It is finished.” The earth shook as he bowed his head. It was a day that changed everything, colored everything. Because of that day, there is a remedy for the evil in my heart.    In dying; Eve’s descendant, the second Adam; passed the test. He crushed the serpents head, laid down his life, and took it up again. The bruise all healed, he went up into Heaven and he waits until the appointed day when he will come again. The disciples knew that nothing would ever be the same again. They went out in boldness and spread the word. They lived their lives in suffering. Most of them were put to death, because the sickness in the hearts of men caused men to fear and seek to discredit a religion that seemed to be turning the world upside down. Such a strange upside down, too, when men will die for their faith instead of kill for it.

The serpent is already crushed. He did not win a victory on September 11, 2001. He did not win a victory when he attacked my faith. Jesus determined the outcome of history at Calvary. The world may seem to get worse and worse, but it is only the birth pangs of an old world giving way to the new, where the lion will lie down with the lamb and no one will be afraid. In the meanwhile, there is mercy for me and mercy for the terrorist and everyone before and in between and after. There is time to claim it before He comes. But even so, Lord Jesus, come quickly.


My Favorite Non-Fiction Part 1: The Girl With the White Flag

the girl with the white flagWhen I was a little girl, I lived out in the country by a dairy farm. The closest town was a teeny-tiny place called Pittsford, MI. And in that teeny-tiny town was a teeny-tiny library run by two middle-aged ladies who were usually engrossed in watching the soaps whenever I came in on my great book search. Small though it was, I loved that library. It had a pretty nice collection of books. One shelf was groaning with the weight of the complete works of Sir Walter Scott. What a combination–soap operas and Ivanhoe! Anyway, every summer, the ladies found the wherewithal to put aside their soap operas long enough to run a summer reading program for the kids. That first summer, I read enough books to qualify for a grand prize. Spread out on a table was a large collection of books I was allowed to choose from and take home. Among them was The Girl With the White Flag. Possibly because I was being urged to hurry up and make a decision, I picked it out over the other fictional options available. I don’t think I even read it for a couple of years as it didn’t look that interesting to me. But once I did read it, it’s themes stuck with me and made quite an impact.

Written in Japanese and translated by Dorothy Britton, The Girl With the White Flag is narrated by Tomiko Higa, and relates her childhood fight for survival in Okinawa during the final days of World War II. After losing her mother to natural causes, Tomiko and her brother and two sisters lived with their father on a farm. Charged with providing food for Japanese soldiers, he left on business shortly after American ships assembled off the coast of Okinawa and began a sea and air bombardment of the island and sent 60,000 troops ashore. When their father did not return, the four children hastily gathered the few belongings they could carry with them and headed south, trying to get away from the fierce fighting. Only a few days into their exodus, Tomiko’s nine-year-old brother, Chokuyu, took a stray bullet in the head and died. The girls were forced to bury him right where he lay and continue on. In the panicked crowds of refugees, six-year-old Tomiko got separated from her older sisters and wandered alone. Foraging for food in the knapsacks of dead soldiers, escaping death by narrow threads, and facing horrors that we can barely imagine, little Tomiko not only survived, but faced her situation with a bravery that’s hard for me to comprehend.

One of the many things that touched me about this book was how Tomiko often tried to comfort and help other people even while she ran for her life and searched for her sisters. She writes of one instance, “After walking a long time, I found myself on a wide road where I could see the sea on my left. I had no idea where I was. The road was muddy, and the canvas sports shoes I was wearing kept sticking in the mud. It was hard going as I picked my way, trying to avoid the worst places, and then right in front of me I saw a soldier lying in the road. Poor man, I thought, as I started to walk past him, he must have been killed by one of those bullets. By that time, I had seen so many dead bodies here and there that I had become quite used to the sight and was not frightened. But the soldier I thought was dead suddenly reached out his hand and grabbed hold of my ankle. As I let out a scream, he looked up at me with a grim expression and said, ‘Little girl, how’s the war going?’ I thought for a moment, and then replied, ‘I think Japan is winning.’ Whereupon, the terrible expression on his face gave way to a gentle smile. ‘So we’re winning. Thank you. Banzai!’ he said in a rather hoarse voice, letting go of my ankle. Then his face fell forward into the mud and he did not look up again, nor did he move any more. I did not really know whether we were winning or losing the war. I was simply doing as my father had taught me. ‘Tomiko,’ he had said, ‘it doesn’t matter what you hear or who tells you, you mustn’t ever say that Japan is losing, even if you’re wrong.’ But even if my father had not told me to do so, I don’t think I could have had the heart to let down a dying soldier with bad news. Although I was in a desperate situation myself, I still wanted to comfort him.'” Her life reminds me of Proverbs 20:11, “Even a child is known by his doings, whether his work be pure, and whether it be right.”

It’s a story that reminds me of the kind of courage and kindness of which even the littlest people are capable. Every time I read it, I am inspired and also thankful for the relatively peaceful life I’ve experienced. I pray that if hard times should come to the United States, I would have the courage of Tomiko.