Fox Byte 5775 #39: Chukat (Decree Of)

חֻקַּת

Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morita) instructs Daniel (Ralph Macchio) in the art of karate in the 1984 movie, The Karate Kid.  (Photo from a review by Roger Ebert, January 1, 1984)
Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morita) instructs Daniel (Ralph Macchio) in the art of karate in the 1984 movie, The Karate Kid. (Photo from a review by Roger Ebert, January 1, 1984)

Is it possible to be a hero without paying a price?  A hero is one who does something worthy of esteem on behalf of someone else, and that requires sacrifice.  Sometimes it requires the sacrifice of a life, and sometimes merely the sacrifice of time and attention.  Sometimes heroes save nations, and sometimes they save little children from tears of embarrassment, pain, or grief.  Every act of salvation, no matter how small, entails a sacrifice that someone offers willingly.  And that is what makes a hero.

We learn about heroes in The Karate Kid, a 1984 film starring Ralph Macchio as Daniel Larusso, a fatherless teenager very much in need of a hero.  Daniel suffers a vicious beating by boys from a local martial arts school.  He is saved by a humble janitor, Mr. Miyagi (played by Noriyuki “Pat” Morita), who drives off the attackers with a masterful display of karate skills.  Before long Mr. Miyagi agrees to teach karate to Daniel.  The instruction begins when Miyagi assigns Daniel a number of hard tasks.  First he must wash and wax Miyagi’s antique automobiles, using special hand motions to “wax on” and “wax off”.  Then he must sand the walkway around Miyagi’s house, paint the fence around the property, and finally paint the house itself.  Each task features a specific set of hand motions.  After days of arduous labor, Daniel complains that he has learned nothing about karate while working like a slave.  Miyagi responds by having Daniel perform the hand motions for each task.  He then throws punches and kicks at Daniel, demonstrating that “wax on, wax off”, “sand the floor”, “paint the fence”, and “paint the house” have trained the boy to defend against attacks from many angles.  As he blocks Miyagi’s attacks, Daniel realizes the truth:  his faithfulness in seemingly unconnected menial tasks has made him ready for further instruction and greater responsibility in the art of karate.

In time Daniel becomes competent at karate and confident in himself as Miyagi’s training transforms him from a self-absorbed braggart into a self-controlled warrior.  In the concluding scenes he enters a martial arts tournament where he faces the boys who first attacked him.  Each is a formidable opponent, yet while Daniel learned karate as a means of disciplining himself in service of others, they had learned it as a means to exalt themselves over the weak.  They do not realize that the humble attitude Miyagi cultivated in Daniel has made him stronger and better able to withstand pain and suffering.  Their combined efforts at wounding and weakening Daniel only help him discover deeper wells of strength which in the end bring him victory.

This is a life lesson few are willing to learn.  Either we walk humbly in the confidence of our King, or we get eaten by our adversary.  As the Apostle Peter says:

You younger men, likewise, be subject to your elders; and all of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, for God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble.  Therefore humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you at the proper time, casting all your anxiety on Him, because He cares for you.  Be of sober spirit, be on the alert.  Your adversary, the devil, prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.  (I Peter 5:5-8 NASB)

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Fox Byte 5775 #36: Beha’alotcha (In Your Going Up)

בְּהַעֲלֹתְךָ

Stephen R. Donaldson (Photo by  Danacea on Flickr.com via via Wikimedia Commons)
Stephen R. Donaldson (Photo by Danacea on Flickr.com via Wikimedia Commons)

In a response to a reader’s question about his works, author Stephen R. Donaldson provided this enlightening comment about the motivation behind his writing:

I’m a storyteller, not a polemicist.  As such, my only mission is to help my readers understand my characters and appreciate what those poor sods are going through.  (Stephen R. Donaldson Official Website, February 23, 2004)

Donaldson’s best known writings might be categorized as postmodern American science fiction and fantasy literature.  The worlds he creates are not the pristine, archetypical fantasy worlds of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, but darker realms that mirror our present ambiguous reality.  Donaldson explores human nature in a secular, relativistic world detached from the moral underpinnings of Christian civilization.  Good and evil manifest in the worlds he creates, but they are often uncomfortably intertwined so as to be nearly indistinguishable.  Such is the case with his most famous protagonist, the anti-hero Thomas Covenant.  In ten novels published over the span of 36 years, Donaldson follows Covenant through three epic quests in The Land, the world of his creation where magic and Earthpower shape the lives of mortals.  Covenant is one of the most unlikely heroes in the history of literature:  a leper living in present-day America who is magically transported to The Land to save it from destruction by Lord Foul the Despiser.  He wears a wedding band of white gold, the source of Wild Magic, which is the greatest power ever known in The Land.  He does not know how to wield this power, nor does he desire to do so, yet the dire circumstances of The Land compel him to find a way.  Each victory comes at a cost.  Ultimately it is Covenant himself who pays the greatest price, and thus he earns not only sympathy, but redemption.

We learn much about power in White Gold Wielder, the last novel of The Second Chronicles of Thomas Covenant.  The Elohim, supernatural beings who keep watch over the Earth, “silence” Covenant, placing him in a catatonic state so he will not use his ring unwisely and risk destruction of the world.  After Covenant is revived by his companion Linden Avery, Findail of the Elohim explains their actions to her:

The ring-wielder we silenced, not to harm him, but to spare the Earth the ill of power without sight . . . Thus the choice would have fallen to you in the end.  His ring you might have taken unto yourself, thereby healing the breach between sight and power.  Or perhaps you might have ceded the ring to me, empowering the Elohim to save the Earth after their fashion.  Then would we have had no need to fear ourselves, for a power given is altogether different than one wrested away.

Findail’s declaration, “a power given is altogether different than one wrested away,” is a restatement of something taught long ago by One Who understood power:

But Jesus called them to Himself and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them.  It is not this way among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave; just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.”  (Matthew 20:25-28 NASB)

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Fox Byte 5775 #35: Nasso (Elevate)

נָשֹׂא

Although visually stunning, Peter Jackson's depiction of the army of the dead oathbreakers in his film version of The Return of the King did not reach the depth of Tolkien's account regarding the sacredness of oaths or vows and the dire consequences of breaking them.  (Photo:  "Army of the dead", via Wikipedia)
Although visually stunning, Peter Jackson’s depiction of the army of the dead oathbreakers in his film version of The Return of the King did not reach the depth of Tolkien’s account regarding the sacredness of oaths or vows and the dire consequences of breaking them. (Photo: “Army of the dead”, via Wikipedia)

This post-modern generation of the industrialized West has lost sight of the power of the Oath.  That is why there is so little understanding of the covenant terminology which establishes the context of humanity’s relationship with our Creator.  An oath sworn in good faith is something far more powerful than a legal procedure.  It is a spiritual transaction which makes an indelible mark on the parties who take part in it.  That is why one’s conscience is troubled when even the least significant promises are broken.  Something as simple as committing to be at a certain place at a specified time is a type of oath or covenant.  Failing to keep that promise fosters disappointment, anger, and bitterness in the heart of the one who is expecting the appointment to be kept.  Hopefully the one who broke the promise will make amends and resolve to keep such commitments in the future.  However, if the promise-breaker develops a habit of showing up late, or not showing up at all, then eventually his or her conscience will no longer serve as a reminder about the transgression.  And then the promise-breaker becomes something worse:  an untrustworthy person.

If this is the case with something as simple as a promise to be on time, what can we say about more serious promises?  There is an illustration which may help.  J.R.R. Tolkien delved deeply into the subject of oaths and covenants in his epic works about Middle Earth.  Perhaps his most memorable account is the oath made by the Men of the Mountains to fight against Sauron, an oath they did not keep.  In The Return of the King, Aragorn explains the circumstances of this broken oath:

But the oath that they broke was to fight against Sauron, and they must fight therefore, if they are to fulfill it.  For at Erech there stands yet a black stone that was brought, it was said, from Nümenor by Isildur; and it was set upon a hill, and upon it the King of the Mountains swore allegiance to him in the beginning of the realm of Gondor.  But when Sauron returned and grew in might again, Isildur summoned the Men of the Mountains to fulfil their oath, and they would not:  for they had worshipped Sauron in the Dark Years.

Then Isildur said to their king, “Thou shalt be the last king.  And if the West prove mightier than thy Black Master, this curse I lay upon thee and thy folk:  to rest never until your oath is fulfilled.  For this war will last through years uncounted, and you shall be summoned once again ere the end.”

In Tolkien’s novel, Aragorn leads his companions to the realm of these dead oathbreakers, and as Isildur’s heir calls them to fulfil their oath by following him into battle against Sauron’s armies.  They answer the call, and upon winning the victory are released at last to depart in the peaceful sleep of death.

In Tolkien’s story the oathbreakers are redeemed by the descendant of the king whom they had betrayed.  Their answer to his call brings an end to the curse and the blessed peace they have sought through the ages.  As is so often the case with Tolkien, he illustrates a profound principle first explained in the Scripture.  Yet what we learn from Moses differs from Tolkien in one critical point:  redemption from the curse of broken oaths, or vows, results not the peace of death, but in the promise of life.

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