Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Having a cold one with Darth Vader

We were sitting in a small cafe on the corner of Willow and Park. The police had left after I refused to file a statement. Darth Vader sat across from me with his arms folded, doing his deep breathing thing. Every now and then, an elderly lady would peer out at us from behind one of the booths.

"Look. You just can't go around town taking a swing at the first person you see, dude." I told him.   "I wasn't asking for any trouble, just making my way to the hardware store. And all of a sudden you start throwing garbage cans and waiving the traffic meter over your head like some kind of sword! What got into your pants?"

Vader leaned over and held up a fist. "Yes! I can feel your anger! Embrace it, and come over to the dark side of the force!"

"You dimwit!" I yelled at him. "Of course I'm upset! You go around getting all "Jedi" on people and anyone's going get mad. It's OK to get upset over things that go wrong or when somebody treats you disrespectfully, but you've really gone off the deep end!"

Vader raised his hand up and began closing his forefinger and thumb together.

"What...are you pretending to crush my head with your fingers? Are we six years old again?"

He put his hand down and looked slowly around. "I've been having trouble using the force in this area."

I stared at him for a while, still a little bewildered at his outfit and presence. His cape draped the chair and covered the floor behind him. His mask was all shiny and black. I had a little difficulty finding his eyes. I never enjoyed talking to people with sunglasses in the first place. While I would usually be somewhat intimidated by his overall appearance, I wasn't in the mood today. I had accidentally left the grocery list at home before taking off to run errands, and the sprinkler system was on the fritz again. I'd have to call Aimee soon to tell her why I was late.  Not sure if she was going to believe this one.

He just sat there across from me...breathing.

"I know what it means to be angry. I get in fits of rage sometimes, even. But I don't plug into a force, or contact an anthropomorphic entity, or whatever. I have to get down on my knees and get a little help from God above, 'cuz I can't do it on my own. It's not power that keeps us living, you know. It's love. And it's best to go straight to the source."

Betty came over to take our order. She took one look at Vader and said, "You realize, it's 102 degrees outside." The one thing you could say about Betty was that she was no pushover. She had kicked out mayors and drunks alike from the cafe. "What'll ya have?"

I looked over at Vader. "If I order a couple of sandwiches and beers, will you need a straw or something?" My question was met with silence. "Two ham and Swiss on rye, and a couple of Sam Adams." I ordered. Betty gave a quick nod at each of us and hurried back to the kitchen.   I looked over at Vader.   "I'm not going to talk to a mask, so can you just take that thing off, please?" He sat there, staring at me for a while, then put his hands on the mask and lifted it off.   I felt a sudden gag reflex come on, but managed to suppress it.   His misshaped head was discolored and patches of wires were coming out from the top. "Um...thanks."

We sat there in silence for a while. It was obvious that the years hadn't been good to him. Dark circles under his eyes, and his mouth appeared to be set in a permanent scowl. In spite of the morning conflict, I started to feel sorry for the old schlep. "You got kids?" I asked, trying to get him to open up. Truth to be told,  I knew his story.  But I wanted to give him a chance to talk about it. It wasn't easy. He immediately looked away. "I got two myself. Boy and girl. Two of the greatest joys of my life. Being a dad is more rewarding than the best job a guy could have."

Betty came back with the sandwiches and drinks. "I threw in a couple of pickles for you two." She set the plates down and then looked at Vader. "You know, I have some cream from Mary Kay that could really help with those skin blotches if you want. I'm having a showing this Wednesday night if you want to come." She gave him a quick smile and added, "I have a couple of guys who like to show up, so don't feel shy." She turned and went to wait on a couple of ladies in the corner.

I turned to my new companion. "Mind if I pray first?" I didn't wait for an answer, but continued, "Dear Lord. Thank you for the food. You provide for every person on the planet, even though a lot of people hoard it for themselves. Please bless my friend here. Please reach out to him and show him how much You love him, in spite of what he's done in the past. Amen." I looked up at him and saw that he was still scowling, but with a somewhat puzzled look on his face. "What's wrong?"

He cleared his throat and said, "I'm not sure why I'm spending time with such a weak-minded being."

I couldn't help but laugh. "Sure...I'll admit that I'm weak. Can't love my wife without learning how to sacrifice like Jesus did on the cross. Can't love my kids in the way they need to be loved without humbling myself like Jesus did. Can't love my neighbor without taking a lesson from the one who would reach out to lepers and rescue the prostitutes and love the rejected."

"Your faith is a crutch."

"No, my faith is a stretcher...because I can't even limp into heaven without Jesus." I took a bit out of my sandwich and let my words hang there for a moment. "I don't think you filling your life with striving after power has gotten you very far. You bow down to an emperor who...what...gloats every time you crush someone under your heal and laughs with delight at the loss of life? You know very well that murder is wrong. You've seared your conscience and cast off truth like it was an unwanted cloak. The one who is strong is the one who chooses to hold back from hurting another, and stoops low to lift up the weak.   You know, Jesus taught the poor right after hearing that his best friend was killed, and prayed for his enemies when they lifted him up on a cross." He sat staring at me for a while, not touching his food. "You've embraced darkness for so long. Are you able to even recognize the light now?" I asked.

His eyes narrowed, and he gave a small "harrumph". At least, I think it was a "harrumph". Might have been something between a growl of fury and a pathetic moan. "You're Jesus should have been killed. Spending his life in the dust associating with lowlifes and the scum of the earth. Touching diseased beings and talking about flowers in the field. Your Ceasar should have brought his iron fist against that disgusting Jew and his like!"

I pulled my small bible out of my back pocket that I carried around...specifically for moments like this. "Look, even Niche respected power, even though he didn't like the church.   But if he really took a good look at Jesus, even he would have been bowing the knee to him.  Listen to what Jesus did." I turned to the book of Philippians in the New Testament and read:

"'Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in the appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. For this reason also, God highly exalted him, and bestowed on him the name which is above all who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.'"

I finished and waited. He was staring into space, and I couldn't figure out what was going through his mind. "What does this have to do with anything?" he asked.

"Even your old friend, Obi Won, understood what it meant to sacrifice one's life for someone he loved. That's real love. And what happened as a result of Jesus dying for you?" Vader shifted in his seat and started to tap the table impatiently with his finger. "People are bowing their knees to Jesus across the world. Not only that, but Jesus died for you personally. All the hurt you've caused others, all your sins, Jesus took those on himself at the cross, so that you can know what true life is. He wants to draw alongside of you to walk with you and help you work through that pain you've lived with your whole life."

Vader stopped tapping, and stared at me for a while. There was some silence, then he slowly said, "There may be something in what you say."

"OK," I replied. "We're having a get-together at the church tonight. Why don't you come? It'll be a potluck, but you don't have to bring anything. We'll hang out, meet the pastor, and you can see what love actually looks like."

The elderly lady from the booth slowly rose from her seat and walked over to our table. "Excuse me, young man. I couldn't help but notice your strange attire. Is this the "rage" these days? I need to buy my grandson a birthday gift, and want to make sure he fits in with the other boys at school."

Two years later we were meeting again in the same cafe. Betty had gotten used to our weekly lunches.   Vader started going by his given name "Anakin" again.  He was ten pounds heavier, and had taken in a little more color (though he still preferred the indoors).   Today he was dressed in a pair of black slacks with a maroon button-down shirt.

"So, what was this I heard on the TV the other day?"

Anakin pursed his lips and looked up at the ceiling for a minute. "Someone made a comment that I didn't like. I kind of...well...went nuts." He started to tap the table, then stopped when he realized what he was doing. "The guy yelled out, 'Captain Kirk could take you down in a New York minute!'"

I sat there, trying my best to suppress a laugh. Anakin stared at me, his thumb and forefinger slowly bending a fork back. I was finally able to settle down and say, "Look, you know I'm a Trekkie, so don't get upset. I know you got a target on your back. People are just jerks sometimes and will find different ways to get under your skin.   Everyone waits to see if the "good" Christian will blow his temper or sin, thinking that proves that God "doesn't work".  You're just going to have to roll with the punches and eventually learn to laugh with them." I knew I made it sound easier than it really was for him. Anakin had gone through counseling for his anger management. There were a lot of guys in our men's group that could identify with him. They'd call him up to check on him, though a lot of times he would just let the phone ring while sitting in the dark in his living room.

Betty came over to take our order.  She reached over and tweaked Anakin's ear.  "Hey, handsome!  My girlfriend, Mary, wants to know when you're going to call her."  I saw Anakin's face get red.  "I'll think about it." he muttered under his breath.  He had gone out one time with Mary, just to keep her from calling him.  She was a talker, and Anikan was a hardcore introvert.  "Oh, and Anakin...I'm having a candle and bath salt meeting this Saturday night.  Want to join us?"  He propped his elbows on the table and buried his head in his hands.  "I'll let you know later." he said in a quiet voice.  There were a number of customers sitting at adjacent tables; I don't think he wanted to commit with an audience listening in.  We ordered a couple of quiches and Betty left.

Anakin sat there for a while, his head still resting in his hands.  After a while, he looked up, but his face was sad. "I feel alone, so much of the time.  I miss my son, and even my daughter. Then ther's Amidala. When my wife died, everything I loved died. Everything about me died, except my anger and desire to conquer. The press is always reminding me of my years with the emperor. And then they'll laugh at my going to church. I saw a cartoon the other day of me and Chuck Colson acting like a pair of holy rollers."

I let the silence sit for a while. He had lived with regret and resentment for the longest time.

"Speaking of Star Trek..." I began. Anakin rolled his eyes. It used to be that he'd stiffen whenever I'd mentioned the show. "...there was an episode that came to my mind the other day and I thought of you. It had to do with a mediator. I think his name was Adonis."

"Adonis was a little different from other people. He couldn't speak. But he would express himself through three other people. Companions. They would follow him around everywhere he'd go. One person would express logic and philosophy. Another would reflect his passion and feelings. The third would bring everything together in harmony.  There's actually a good scene with Counselor Troi, as she and Adonis communicate through sign language privately.  Anyway, this guy was asked to mediate between two warring factions who had been fighting for 500 years." Anakin turned his head to the side and seemed to be considering that point. He kept current on the different conflicts in the Middle East. The Pentagon called him from time to time as a consultant.  Plus, no one seemed to be able to beat him at Stratego or Risk. "The two clans had decided it was time to work towards peace and invited Adonis to hammer out a treaty."

"The Enterprise finally arrived at its destination and the away team beamed down with Adonis. One of the clan's representatives got angry and accidentally killed all three of Adonis's companions. Captain Picard has the Enterprise beam them up to work out the situation. So here's Adonis with his lifetime friends gone and feeling pretty alone. Meanwhile, the two clans are on the planet, and emotions are threatening to keep the war going for another 500 years. After thinking through the situation with Counselor Troi, Adonis came to a resolution: he would go back to the planet and teach the clans how to speak in sign language.  In this way, they would eventually learn how to communicate peace to one another."

Anakin sat there looking at me for a moment, then said "Thank you for the very wonderful story. Do you have a point, or is this just some form of torture that you've chosen for me?"

"My point, oh patient one, is this...part of Adonis was destroyed when that clan warrior shot his companions. But he found another way to express himself. I'm betting that eventually he was healed, though he still mourned the loss of part of himself. You're in a similar situation. At some point in your past, some part of you was hurt. Not destroyed, but damaged. And you've had to find a way to express yourself or live in a way that's different than it was before. You can still love others, and you can still express remorse or hurt or even joy, but it looks different now than it did before. Do you understand what I'm saying?"

There was a pause, then Anakin slowly nodded his head.

"There are a lot of hurt people out there. Something in their past may have damaged some emotion or memory. They may have been beaten as a child, or got into some addiction. Some bullies in school whose harassment created a dark time in someone's childhood. And that stuff can stay with a person for years...decades even. The past can have a real effect on a person's relationships in the present. But you've taken a step that many others haven't. You've seen what it could be, a change that brings you closer to life, and life abundantly. It's just going to take a few years. And I'm sure you'll know peace in a way that I haven't personally experienced."

We sat in silence for a while.  Anakin and I had developed a bond of trust over the last couple of years, and I had worried that he had become slightly co-dependent of me.  But he had also developed a couple of friendships within the church.  Some people, with dark pasts, have to be approached with a lot of patience, gentleness and a listening ear.  Thankfully, there were a few people in our church who had the character to do just that.

Betty brought over our quiches with a couple glasses of mango juice.  She lay down the tab and left.

Anakin looked up and let out a big breath.  "Mind if I pray?"  My friend bowed his head and gave thanks to the One who had been faithful and true to him, and who had brought him out of the dark side and into the light.

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