Personal Journey, Poetry

Timothy McVeigh & I Agree on One Thing

DSC00183My favorite poem was basically written by the one-legged pirate, Long John Silver. What’s worse, my favorite poem was also the favorite of Timothy McVeigh, infamous building-bomber-baby-killer, who went so far as to quote it just before leaving this world by lethal injection in June, 2001. I remember thinking that McVeigh was about to meet the true captain of his soul. I remember wishing that “Invictus” by William Ernest Henley, the real-life inspiration for Treasure Island’s antagonist, wasn’t my favorite poem. But still, it is.

Don’t go. Stay with me.

I can still picture my 8th grade English classroom, and the balding, feather-haired, doughy teacher who introduced “Invictus” to me. A muted man, I hardly remember a thing about his character, but I do remember the feeling of being broadsided by the power of words. It was the first time I loved words enough to write them on my heart. Perseverance was my only prince back then: the only strength I knew, and “Invictus” was the portrait of my prince.

Henley ascribes his “unconquerable soul” to “whatever gods may be.” This too, was me. I could have written that poem, had I been so gifted. And– agnostic I remained until I was 27, until my own strength failed me for the straw-that-broke-the-camel’s-back time, and I dived into a faith that has held me ever since.

Poor Henley. How he inspired 8th-grade-me and so many others. Yet he most likely died, not knowing how strong he could have been.The strongest we can ever be, we can only be after admitting our weakness– at least once. The moment I acknowledge my limit, God pushes it way beyond my wildest imaginings. That’s what Henley never knew, though he had an iron will.

A broken bone heals stronger than the original bone. Henley never broke.

Henley had reason to call this life “a place of wrath and tears.” When he was 12 years old, his father died. As if that weren’t enough, Henley developed tuberculosis and had to have his foot amputated. “Invictus” was written as he lay in the hospital, in the agonizing phantom pain that plagues amputees. His remaining foot was in jeopardy of being amputated as well, but Henley wouldn’t have it.

Just “how charged with punishment [were] the scrolls” for Henley? More than most of us can imagine. I don’t know about you, but I wish, when in my own shallow ruts of despair, that I could be half the person Henley was in that Mariana trench experience of losing a foot and a father.

When Henley speaks of life’s “bludgeons,” he’s not being theoretical.

So that’s it. Henley, in one sense, is my hero. In another, I pity him. I no longer agree with many of the notions in “Invictus.” I don’t think it all resides in me. I know that God is completely in charge of my ever-so-conquerable soul. I still hope to have an unbowed head–if it must be bloody– but a deeply bowed soul in the presence of my Lord and Savior.

Nelson Mandela drew strength from “Invictus” while in jail and passed it on to his fellow inmates. Later, he motivated the South African Rugby team with its empowering lines. I still love “Invictus” for its message of strength, but I now know the name of that strength: Jesus. He is my strength, my shield, my everlasting hope.

I wish Timothy McVeigh didn’t like my favorite poem.

But think about this: Hitler liked tea parties.

Invictus 

Out of the night that covers me,

Black as the pit, from pole to pole,

I thank whatever gods may be

For my unconquerable soul.

 

In the fell clutch of circumstance

I have not winced nor cried aloud.

Under the bludgeons of chance

My head is bloody, but unbowed.

 

Beyond this place of wrath and tears

Looms but the horror of the shade,

And yet the menace of the years

Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.

 

It matters not how straight the gate,

How charged with punishments the scroll,

I am the master of my fate,

I am the captain of my soul.

— William Ernest Henley, 1888

 

 

 

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Screwtape Still Speaks

What the Devil? Screwtape Talks Politics

flames

After spending six weeks studying C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters with my 5000 Words class, I feel like I know just what he would say…

My Dear Wormwood,

I am pleased to see you dabbling in politics. As even the most immature tempter knows, the passions that bubble up from the froth of political dissimilarity will produce the most delightful clashes, the deepest schisms in friends and family, the most hell-like states possible on earth. This is a promising field, this political arena. In fact, the entire machine of antithetical visions scrapping incessantly in a purposely created and carefully maintained tug-of-war in order to accomplish the business of governing is so exquisitely ridiculous I wish I had thought of it myself. And don’t worry about your patient seeing the preposterous nature of the status quo. If that happens, we can use even that revelation for our purposes. Consider the highly educated, morally upright (nearly extinct), disgruntled patriot who sees the futility of two choices, neither one perfect, of course. The patient can be made to see the stagnation and brokenness as an evil in itself and can be herded, quite in spite of the fact that he is a thinking man, out of the realm of actual tangible impact and into a harmless philosophical decision. By harmless I mean, to us. Some patients simply can’t be fooled into working for us… they can only be deftly ushered into not working against us. Malaise is the name of the game in hell: get the righteous to step aside or be “above all that” so that—our creeping tide of evil will pass right over the doorstep while the patient doggedly maintains his deeply held conviction about “how things ought to be.”

Your affectionate uncle,

Screwtape