It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry

79CA8974-337B-4E9B-912E-6C8362A10ED8The railroad track is miles away,
And the day is loud with voices speaking,
Yet there isn’t a train goes by all day,
But I hear its whistle shrieking.

(“Travel”, by Edna St. Vincent Millay, in Favorite Poems: Old and New, Selected by Helen Farris)

From my home it is nearly seven miles to the nearest train tracks. Between me and that crossing, there are busy highways, a suburban mall, residential neighborhoods, and even a gain in elevation - hill and valley, wood and field, concrete and condo. I rarely hear a train pass. Yet, on a clear night, when the wind blows from the south or southwest, I hear its plaintive whistle - even, unless my mind deceives, hear its wheels on the tracks, a low rumble, an undercurrent to the hum of traffic. Last night, about 11:00, I cracked the window slightly to the night air, pressed my ear into its opening, leaning on the windowsill, and heard the faint clickety-clack and rumble of the wheels. It takes a train to cry, I thought.

Train whistles provoke longings. They make me want to leave, to go, to travel no matter where. The very idea of movement and compelling visions of mountain gorges and lonely prairies and desolate, moonlit deserts stirs the wanderlust. “Yet there isn’t a train I wouldn’t take,” concludes Millay in her poem, “no matter where it’s going.” Reading that, I nod my assent back across time.

Once our family took an overnight train from Jasper, Alberta through the fir trees and mountains of British Columbia. We slept in comfortable bunk beds, lulled to sleep by the wheels on track and the rare and lonely station light. Another time we traveled cross the high plains of Montana, North Dakota, and Minnesota from Glacier National Park to Minneapolis. Though not nearly as comfortable as the Canadian train, our consolation was that we could rest, walk around, and eat in the dining car, not worrying at all about driving. And when, after all, would I next be in Minot, North Dakota? Never, I thought, smiling. Unless I came by train, wandering across an endless landscape.

The length of some trains is beguiling. Once, we sat at a railway crossing outside Vail, Arizona, while a seemingly mile-long freight train snaked across the desert. Another time, I stood feet away from another freight passing through Fargo, North Dakota, enjoying the snapshots of main street between the passing cars, the power of locomotion, the clanging of the crossing bells and lights, and the endless linkage of cars trailing off into the horizon. And then, as suddenly as it came, it was gone, the last car rounding a curve and leaving sight.

I understand why some have hopped aboard freight cars, like Dustbowl refugees, Okies, and Woody Guthries. It makes me wonder if I have hobo kin, restless travelers bound for glory or, at least, adventure. And maybe that’s what beckons - that desire to experience something other, something new, something unknown. When as a child I watched the Southern Railway trains pass, I knew someone was going somewhere far away, and I wasn’t. But I wanted to. I wanted to go and see what could be seen, to get loose of my little world. There was that ineffable if incomprehensible sadness when the caboose and waving conductor faded from my view.

“Trains, says writer Dana Frank, “tap into some deep American collective memory.” So it’s not just our own personal history that trains conjure up but something deeper, something about expansion and movement and hope, about grass that is greener elsewhere, about dreams, about moving on. Trains seem timeless, throwbacks to an earlier age, reminders that we are always moving.

It takes a train to cry, says Bob Dylan, in that world-weary song from 1965. Dylan returned to the imagery of a train over decades later with “Slow Train Coming,” an apocalyptic vision of a reckoning to come. In one verse, he snarls:

Big-time negotiators, false healers and woman haters
Masters of the bluff and masters of the proposition
But the enemy I see
Wears a cloak of decency
All nonbelievers and men stealers talkin’ in the name of religion
And there’s a slow, slow train comin’ up around the bend

Next time you hear a train, consider where you are and where you’ve been, as well as where you need to be. The whistle you hear is longing. The power rushing past is reckoning. Yet the gleam in your eye as the last car rounds the bend is hope that you too, with grace, will soon reach your hobo home, where longing meets laughter, where all our wandering leads us home.


A Bridge's Promise


IMG_2809“A bridge is a promise that a broken world can be whole.”

(D.J. Waldie, in “A Traveler Comes to a Bridge:
An Encounter With the 4th Street Viaduct”)

For most of us bridges, like the other parts of the urban landscape, pass largely unnoticed. Even iconic bridges, like the Golden Gate, may, after many passes by a commuter, move into the background, a blur. Awe accommodates itself to repetition, like floaters in the eye, unnoticed after a time. "Bridges," says Bruce Jackson, "are perhaps the most invisible form of public architecture." What is common and ordinary becomes invisible.

The first bridge I recall was one from my early childhood. My bonneted grandmother, hands on her hips, let us wade and play in the stream which pooled beneath the trestled bridge of the Southern Railway tracks. As the train passed overhead, the conductor waved and the trestles seemed to shake.

Later, friends and I waded through the stream flowing through the twin tunnels of the bridge over the creek that flowed through our neighborhood. We caught tadpoles, skipped rocks across the water's surface, and let our voices reverberate off the walls.

There are great and even tragic stories behind some bridges, like the Brooklyn Bridge, or the iconic Charles Bridge, in Prague, and very tiny stories behind many other bridges that are largely unrecounted and forgotten. Most embodied very pedestrian hopes, like that of better traffic flow or safer passage or, maybe, just a way to get home. Some, like those connecting a barrier island with the mainland, bore the hope of profit. And some, like the one over the stream in my neighborhood, an etching on a developer's plan or, for many a parent, a place to pause with a stroller and let a child hear the gurgling water and dream of all the places to which that water may travel.

And then, there's another kind of bridge altogether, like the one a friend heard about in his college years. While ambling about a mountain music festival in the early Seventies, a bearded man stopped him and said, simply and only, "Jesus is the bridge, man." After dropping that metaphor, the bridge-tender walked on, yet that one bridge reverberated in my friend's mind the rest of the day and on into the early hours of the morning, when, full of hope and in trust, he walked across it into another country.

“A traveler comes to a bridge," muses essayist D.L. Waldie. "As the traveler starts to cross, one foot is still earth bound. Empty space is beneath the other. The next step requires trust. The traveler is uplifted less by concrete or masonry and more by forces kept in balance with the void waiting below. The bridge seems static, but every footfall must be absorbed, its effects distributed by tension or resisted by compression. The bridge responds. Its span springs to the traveler’s step in order to seem unmoved."

I try not to take any bridge for granted. The bridge holds me up. It gives me a perspective on the flow below. It carries me to where I need to go. It absorbs my weight, carries my burdens and, finally, takes me Home.


Carry That Weight

41Tqk1XdLQL._SX398_BO1 204 203 200_At nearly six pounds and two and one-half inches thick, it’s not a book to take to bed. I’m sure that Santa was glad to divest himself of it this Christmas when he placed it under my tree. Yet All the Songs: The Story Behind Every Beatles Release, is, however, worth its heft. Somehow, given the contributions that The Fab Four have made to the canon of popular music, reading this song encyclopedia on a tablet or smartphone would make ephemeral what is timeless. I held it on my lap. When my legs grew numb, I hoisted it away.

The Beatles released a remarkable 213 songs in less than a decade. I was nearly 14, the year 1972, before I knew or cared about any of them. And then, when I finally heard them and figured that there was something to this band, they had disbanded. I spent the next several years working my way back through the catalog, reliving their music a half-decade late, catching up with them when they were on to their solo careers, watching that unintended testament to their break up three times (the movie, Let It Be), poring over their lyrics, and having heated discussions with other Beatles fans at high school lunch breaks.

The authors of All the Songs, in addition to recording the details about each song - writers, musicians, date and location of recording, number of takes, technical team, and (where applicable) single release dates - include relatively brief information about the genesis of the songs, production, and technical details (instruments, recording technique). Some of this is pure nerd-dom, as when the authors note mistakes an inexperienced George Harrison made in singing “Do You Want to Know a Secret?” For example, in the bridge, he sang “I’ve known a secret for the week or two,” instead of “a week or two.” That, and the minor mistakes that Paul made on the bass around 1:10 and 1:50 in the coda will have Beatles fanatics all a-twitter, scrambling for their recordings to hear it for themselves. I confess, I listened and heard, gasped at that mis-plucked string.

But you needn’t get lost in such trivia when the story here is the songs themselves and the impetus reading about them gives to giving these well-worn recordings another listen. For example, I had to pull down their first album, Please Please Me, released in the UK on March 22, 1963, for a listen during drive time this week. Its crackling energy and freshness was palpable, particularly having read the account of how it was recorded. On one day, February 11, 1963, between 10:00 a.m. and 10:45 p.m., eleven songs were recorded. There were multiple takes, of course, anywhere from one to 18, yet the energy of the performances is incredible, something that I now understand stems in part from the then unorthodox way it was recorded. Contrary to what was standard for the day, sound engineer Norman Smith did not attempt to separate the instruments but, rather, simulated a live performance by stationing the microphones away from the instruments. The band was literally performing live, and even without a proper sound system and listening to compressed digital files on my car’s modest sound system, I felt it. On the two takes given the incredible “Twist and Shout,” the last recording of the day, John Lennon’s voice is nearly broken, and yet this #1 hit is high-energy and a testament to the energy and commitment to perfection of this working band. For a minute, I wasn’t at a traffic light but present in Abby Road studio that day in February, 1963. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

John, Paul, George, and Ringo, were, of course, mere boys when they began. Whatever you think of their escapades (and they had many), they were tireless workmen first. They honed their craft in the raucous clubs of Hamburg, Germany, over the course of two years - between 1960 and 1962, when the boys were 17 to 20 years of age - playing to drunken German audiences for as long as six hours at a time. As John later said, “As long as we played it loud, they liked it.” For more of that story, I recommend Bob Spitz’s well-researched and documented 2005 biography, The Beatles, where he provides details about their unheated, unsanitary accommodations and scrappy food. And they endured all this at a time when they didn’t know if they’d amount to anything, before they became, as John Lennon quipped, the “clever Beatles.”

Well, that’s just the first 14 songs. Open this book anyplace, at random even, and there are gems to discover. I flipped to the end, to the little known “You Know My Name (Look Up My Number),” the B-Side of the 1970 better known “Let It Be” single. It’s not their best, but it is their last, and I will listen with new appreciation knowing what went on in its recording. I remember the look and feel and smell of that particular 45 rpm Capital Records single. In fact, I’m holding it now.

Reading this massive book, hearing these now half-century old songs, I have a touch of sadness. So many no longer appreciate the weight of words and of recorded music, of the effort bound up in those early three-minute pop songs. With an internet saturated with music and words, talk and sound is cheap. If every feckless twenty-something with their digital playlist had to lug All These Songs around under their arm for a week or so, it might sink in: This was work. This was craft. This was four working-class young men who, despite their faults and misbehaving, cared about making good music and about doing good work, at least for a time. From that, we can learn.

You may not rush out and buy All the Songs. But you can do something: Listen well and listen long. Carry that weight of words.


Loving Babar, the Moon, Forever

080922_r17748aIn the great green room
There was a telephone
And a red balloon
And a picture of-
The cow jumping over the moon.

One resolution I made for this new year is to read more children's books. Well, it may be my only resolution, as it may be the only one I can keep. You'll find me awkwardly sitting in the children's chairs in Barnes and Nobles, reading books long on pictures and short on words. On second thought, maybe not.

If we believe ourselves above children's books, then we are mistaken. Like God condescended to us, so we should condescend to children and, becoming like them, know what they know, which is that everything is fascinating, everything matters. The best children's books are written by authors who do just this. They write true, adult stories using child-size words, writing not for children but for themselves and, indirectly, for others similarly situated. When I grow up, I want to be just like those writers, with a child-like wonder and few yet musical words.

Take the author of Babar, Laurent de Brunhoff. At 92, having just completed his final book in the series, the first of which he authored and illustrated in 1945, de Brunhoff is well beyond childhood, yet he has a continuing child-like fascination with the elephant. That's nearly 92 years of loving the elephant, of being enraptured by its long trunk and big ears.

"I like to make the elephant alive," said de Brunhoff to a recent interviewer. "The elephant is a very appealing animal with its big ears and trunk, even when it is not dressed up like a human." De Brunhoff understates his love: he has been writing and drawing elephants since 1945, infected by a elephantine passion nurtured by his own father, who wrote the first Babar book in 1931, and who died when he was only 12. De Brunhoff is not trying to relate to children, to speak down to them, but is addressing his love of elephants to them much as he would to adults, only with less and simpler words. "I never really think of children when I do my books," says de Brunhoff. "Babar was my friend and I invented stories with him, not with kids in the corner of my mind. I write it for myself."

And who wouldn't love Babar? Who wouldn't want to ride a department-store elevator up and down with a kind and affable elephant? And what elephant wouldn't want to live in the city, with its relative safety, rather than in the far more dangerous realm of the jungle, where a hunter may shoot you? Who wouldn't want Babar for a friend?

Margaret Wise Brown, author of the classics Goodnight Moon and The Runaway Bunny, wrote her books out of her own love of nature, a love nurtured by time spent among the giant live oaks, high dunes, and sea grass of Cumberland Island, Georgia. She could not help but make up stories about the wildlife she observed there. "In the great green room" of nature, everything fascinated her. Everything had a story.

Whenever I have read the simple lines of Goodnight Moon, I have been comforted by the pleasing cadence, the sense of security conveyed by the particular, familiar things in the child's room, and the presence of the grandmotherly bunny waiting for the child to sleep. It is the look and sound of home. Read it slowly. Take note of every object in the room, pointing at and touching them. Better yet, read it to a child again and again. In Goodnight Moon particular things matter immensely, things we pass over in everyday adult life, things like "two little kittens, and a pair of mittens, and a little toy house, and a young mouse, and a comb and a brush and a bowl full of mush." Well, just everything, really, given more life in the dim light of night.

Yet another book, I Love You Forever, while ostensibly for children, deals with the weighty topics of familial love and mortality. In it, over the recurring chorus of "I love you forever, I like you for always, as long as I'm living my baby you'll be," the child grows and the parents age until, near the end of life, the child becomes the parent in a sense, the caregiver, and sings, "I'll love you forever, I'll like you for always, as long as I'm living, my Mommy you'll be."

The author, Robert Munsch, wrote the book after he and his wife had two still born babies. "For a long time I had it in my head and I couldn’t even sing it," says Munsch, "because every time I tried to sing it I cried. It was very strange having a song in my head that I couldn’t sing." You can't read I Love You Forever without a tear dropped or held, of course, but whatever tears you have wash up on the shores of deep, abiding, family love. Most children will laugh at the funny parts and be mystified or indifferent to the sadnesses that linger there; others, old souls in young bodies, may entreat you, as one did me, to "never, ever read or mention that story to me again" - which means it was good, I think.

But that's enough of resolutions. It's late, and my book awaits. So. . .

Goodnight stars
Goodnight air
Goodnight noises everywhere

Goodnight nobody.


No Little Lord

Fullsizeoutput_78faWell after midnight on Christmas Eve, as I lay propped up and reading a Christmas sermon from Martin Luther, having a spiritual moment, there was a knock on the bedroom door. “Come in,” I said.

My son’s smiling face poked through the door. “I need Mom,” he said, somewhat mysteriously.

“What for?”

“I need Mom.”

“You said that.” I hailed his mother. Leaving the room, she closed the door. I heard muffled voices from the other room. Shufflings, like the movement of boxes, came from the area where my son’s closet adjoined our bedroom wall. More indecipherable discussion ensued. Then, foot steps. I removed my ear from the wall and got back under the covers.

“Everything ok?,” I say, as they re-entered.

“Of course,” said my son. “Fine.” But I know better. Something is afoot.

I forgot to say goodnight to my daughter so I throw back the covers and walk over to her room, knock.

“Enter.”

She is propped in bed. Across the land-mined abyss of her cluttered floor I address her, “Hey. . .”

“I need Mom.”

“You too?”

Nobody needs me. I go back to bed, back to Luther’s sermon. I read, “When I die I see nothing but sheer blackness. . .” That’s cheery, I think. He continues, “except for this light: ‘Unto you is born this day. . . a Savior.’” That’s better. I think back on the sermon from earlier that day, the three points of which can be summed as (a) this could be your last Christmas, (b) you’re all gonna die, and (c) come to Jesus now. I close my eyes for a minute, try to imagine what sheer blackness might look like, but light seeps in. And Luther.

I love Luther. He was so plainspoken, so honest. About the Annunciation, he said “‘Fear not,’ said the angel. I fear death,” said Luther, “the judgment of God, the world, hunger, and the like. The angel announces a Savior who will free us from fear.” I’m afraid of everything and everybody, Luther is saying, but I don’t need to be, don’t want to be.

The cat remains downstairs. She grew weary of following my wife up then down then up the stairs again. She has wrapped her gelatinous self around a heat vent in the floor. On some occasions, her sister will spread her barely-there fur and bones over another heat vent, a double oven of cats. Just yesterday, on the eve of Christmas Eve, I received a letter from Duke Power that said, “Last month you used $49 more per month on energy than your neighbor.” I know why. The heat has been sucked up in our fulsome felines where they simmer in sleep.

Earlier I went out into the bracing air to muscle our trash and recycle bin to the curb. Hearing the sound of the piano, I stopped in front of our home and listened to my wife play. Warm light poured out the windows with the sound. I wanted to say to the neighborhood, “Did you hear that?”

I don’t know what is happening in the room next door. I don’t know what all the whispering was about. I don’t know what will happen tomorrow. Perhaps penury from feline-inflated power bills, or the ravages of debt collectors fueled by excessive vet bills. To that, I say with Luther, “piffle to such confounded nonsense!” And, “God is amazing. The Babe is in a manger, not worthy of a cradle or a diaper, and yet he is called Saviour and Lord.”

I switch off the light. Just minutes from Christmas, light and love and Luther. And no little Lord in a manger saying, “Do not be afraid.”


Love, Haste

61991C55-E15C-475B-8283-2BF751BA5B0CThere is a humming from the other room. It’s the voice of contentment, a sweet lilting Christmas carol sung by my daughter behind her closed door.

Elsewhere, the elves are in the workroom, and I in my study. Low voices, generally unintelligible, overlie the rustling of tissue paper, wrap, scissor sounds, and gentle exclamations. “Don’t listen,” one says, and I don’t, much, though there are strange squeaks and strivings from the corridor. “Don’t listen,” someone says again, and so I put on “let it snow, let it snow, let it snow.”

I wish it would snow. Outside it’s balmy. The last snow on Christmas that I remember was in my childhood, sometime in the late Sixties. Santa brought a purple Schwinn bicycle that year, one with high handlebars and 24-inch wheels, and as I took it for a spin on the asphalt of my street it began to snow. Half a century ago, and it seems like yesterday I could feel the snow on my skin, taste the soft flakes as I flew down the street.

“You can listen now,” I hear. So, I do. I mute “Let It Snow,” and I hear my daughter at another point in her vast repertoire, happy just to sing. She’s on “Frosty the Snowman” now. I picture her smiling, at work on some project, pleased with herself.

The cats are in the workroom, in the middle of it all, desiring to look into all that is going on, but their attention span is short. They watch the wrapping. A bit of ribbon is sufficient to entertain them. One pulls herself, crab-like, across the carpet. The other spreads her large self and watches lazily behind placid eyes.

I wish it would snow. E.B. White wrote a “pocket poem” called “Chairs in Snow.” It goes like this:

Quiet upon the terraces,
The garden chairs repose;
In fall they wore their sooty dress,
Now the lees of snows.
How like the furnishings of youth,
In back yards of the mind:
Residuals of summer’s truth
And seasons left behind.

I’d like to see some lees of snow, see white fluff build upon the eaves of our roof, mound the slender handrails of the porch, cover the car hoods like a blanket on a fine horse.

“The way a crow
Shook down on me
The dust of snow
From a hemlock tree”

Says Robert Frost,

“Has given my heart
A change of mood
And saved some part
Of a day I had rued.”

Dust of snow. Snow has a way of brightening a dimming day, making new a rutted way, making bright a forest under moonlit skies. Snow swirling in a street light is a promise that we’ll wake to a quiet morning unmarked by anything but squirrel stepping. But, oh, the weather outside is balmy.

Out to dinner tonight, the mall was all a-frenzy. A line of confused drivers were exiting where you enter, making a mess of things. I imagined mothers mad with last minute buying, and yet we have our own madness. I feel like sending postcard to someone, signing it as did E.B. White just before Christmas in 1938, with a “Love, haste,” which says it all.

The singing from the other room has ended. Side One of the LP is over. I knock on my daughter’s door, ask her to flip the LP, play the other side, to which she laughs sweetly.

It’s the eve before the Eve. Love, haste.


Those Christmas Lights

A941826C-0D94-47CF-A053-FDDE04F7E957“What is magic about the Magic Kingdom is that if you look at it through the right pair of eyes it points to a Kingdom more magic still that comes down out of Heaven prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. The one who sits upon the throne says, ‘Behold, I make all things new,’ and the streets of it are gold like unto clear glass, and each of its gates is a single pearl.”

(Frederick Buechner, in The Eyes of the Heart)

At the bottom of “Kill Devil Hill,” just before ascent, our neighbors by the creek have a side yard with Mr. and Mrs. Snowman lit and live, hands clasped, heads tilted back as if seized by some moment of jocularity, eternally smiling, even in the dark of 6:00 am. I look closer, slow my walk. Between them they cradle a baby snowman, also smiling.

Seeing them I remember that we are not yet all lit at our home. A week or so ago, I plugged the lights on our front yard trees which we had left up all year into the outlet. My hopes were dashed. Part of one strand on one tree lit, its end a bare wire cut by an errant landscaper. The rest were dark. I gave up and opted for lower hanging fruit. The shrubs. I ripped open new boxes of tightly packaged lights, tearing twist ties carefully tied by Chinese workers, throwing aside the six point font “USER SERVICING INSTRUCTIONS” backed by “IMPORTANT SAFETY INSTRUCTIONS.” (Does anyone ever read such things? Paper and font suggest not.), snaking the colored lights randomly across the boughs of the shrubs and, finally, for those hard to reach places, tossing the colored glass with great hope, which is compensation for impatience. I bend and dig out from a pine straw bed the extension cord left waiting, coiled and also hopeful, since last year. I plug my glass minions in and bask in their display.

In my childhood, to see such colored lights my parents drove us across town, across the tracks. There, in their modest and hardscrabble homes, my distant neighbors collected all manner of cobbled kitsch, luminous in the winter night: head-high candles, reindeer, Santas, babyjesuses, angels, shepherds, and carolers. And snowmen. Sometimes, if we cracked the window, we could hear the strain of music, “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer, sung by Nat King Cole, or the like. We were warmed by the display, transported, our imaginations sprung. I was envious.

In a letter to family written during the Advent before his execution, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote of living “in a great unseen realm of whose existence I am in no doubt.” He had only the Christmas lights of memory to brighten his Advent in a solitary jail cell. And yet he managed in solitude to see beyond the captivity of his present. And so I lose myself for a moment in the lights and try to imagine an eternally lit world, one where there is no need for sun or moon, where a vision says “the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb” (Rev. 21:23‬ ‭ESV‬‬).

We put lights on our trees to capture some ineffable presence, to testify to transcendence. To say as many have that they symbolize the light of Christ is a worthy metaphor. Yet perhaps it is more than a few strands of inexpensive glowing bulbs can bear. Maybe it’s enough to say that they remind us of something more, something beyond today, something unseen, a Magic Kingdom yet to come.

It’s a start.

Next year I’ll order some enormous lit candles for the front yard, and maybe a snowman. And Santa With his reindeer. For the children.


Our Muscled Home

31C1B282-CA14-4BCD-9DF4-15A46AF4BB27Nature now, like an athlete, begins to strip herself in earnest for her contest with her great antagonist Winter. In the bare trees and twigs what a display of muscle.”

(Henry David Thoreau, 1858)

Every few moments a leaf yields, loses grip on branch or twig, and flutters lightly to the ground, bedded amongst its own, a mottled carpet of red, yellow, and orange. Some pile on the rooftop, clutter the gutter; others gather by the fence; still others hold fast, quivering in the slight breeze, reluctant to accede. Looking up, a buck with a full set of antlers races across the wooded area behind me, in pursuit or pursued. And just now, the sun pops up above the trees, a skylight, glaring tremulously through the canopy.

I like a late autumnal, unkempt lawn, one strewn in leaves, kaleidoscopic, and darkening, slowly: castoffs, muscled off in tough love. Trees are trimming down, losing the weaker members, as the cold creeps up their branches. Some leaves are pocked by holes where insects have feasted; others, diseased; and still others, torn and worn by too many hot or windy, rain-beaten days. Where the leaf stem meets twig or branch there is a layer of cells called the abscission layer. As autumn days shorten, they begin to close, choking off the supply of water to the leaves and food into the tree. They must give way. The tree must steel itself for winter.

The day has warmed, Summer underneath Fall, and so I unlatch and slide open the window. What I hear is the juxtaposition of humanity and nature: the constant drone of a leaf blower mixed with the calls of a crow; the rattling of a workman’s ladder overlaying the pecking of a bird at seed; the drone of traffic undergirded by the gentler, more ancient wave of the winds.

I push back my chair, stand, and walk downstairs. I open the door to the backyard, and step out, walking back along the fence line, leaves crunching underfoot, the slanted rays of sunlight still warm. At the back fence, I turn and face our home, a fragile scaffold against the world, an aging but muscled display against winter’s coming, still standing, still home, a slight repository of Eternity.


Scar

F505B662-1DD8-B71B-0B69B1A3BD3FBB5D“. . . why think about that when all the golden land’s ahead of you and all kinds of unforeseen events wait lurking to surprise you and make you glad you’re alive to see?"

(Jack Kerouac, in On the Road)

On the back of my left hand there is an unsightly scratch. Scabbed over now, it looks even worse than when fresh. I don’t mind. I don’t even mind if it leaves a scar.

A week ago we drove southwest from Tucson across the Tohono O’Odhom Indian Reservation, passing south of the Tucson Mountains and Ryan Field, built by the Army for flight training in 1942 in what was then open desert, though now suburban Tucson has crept round the public lands and flanked Highway 86, finally petering out just before the airstrip. We pass the domed observatory at Kitt Peak, blink and nearly miss Sells, and arrive at the crossroads of Why, Arizona, where the village coyote welcomes us.

At lunch the next day, my son says, “Where did you get that scratch?” But I tell him it's just a memory. Or maybe I just thought that.

After slowing for a sunny Border Control checkpoint, we crossed into Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, created by FDR in 1937 to preserve the fulsome cactus of its name. One wonders how many people visited the area in 1937, given its remoteness. There is no hotel in Why, and the nearest town, Ajo, boasts only one hotel and a guest house. We were last here over 20 years ago, yet other than a ramped up Border Patrol, it doesn’t seem to have changed. The wind and sand sculpt the rocks; cacti inch toward the sun; and the more adventurous tourists blow through on their way to the Mexican Baja beaches of Puerto Penasco via Lukeville. We drove the hard packed gravel Ajo Mountain Drive, intending to leave it at that, and yet the loneliness and beauty of the terrain provoked us to declare that we would return the next morning for a two and one-half mile hike into Echo Canyon.

“Press this napkin over the cut,” my wife said, “and hold your hand over your head to help stop the bleeding.” I complied. Hands bleed freely.

We overnighted at the Sonoran Desert Inn which lay on the darkened residential skirt of the town of Ajo. The former elementary school in town, it was upstaged by a new school, fell into disrepair for over 20 years, and then was rescued by a local nonprofit, restored using local labor and on-job training, and now offers rooms in the former classrooms. The high-ceilinged, contemporary rooms are warm and inviting, with nearly floor to ceiling windows that overlook gardens. Not a bit like school.

Checking in, I ask the hostess, who looks like an aging flower child, if I may have the room that formerly served as detention for my daughter. She points to a small room behind her, an office.

“I think they used to put them in there,” she says.

“Good, “ I say, “in case she needs it.” My daughter smiles. She doesn’t need detention. I might, if I don’t eat. “Is there any place to eat?”

“Well,” says the flower child, “there’s Estrella’s, but it closes six months out of the year. Which is a shame in the summer, because we want to eat out just so we can get out of the house, as it’s so hot we don’t go out. We want to see somebody. Not a lot to do here. Burgers and beer. Might be open.” She thought a minute. “There’s a new place, Agave Grill, but two couples here last night said they went there and the place was full and the chef walked out. Left a room full of customers. So, I don’t know about that.”

“We’ll give it a try.”

She had a menu for the Agave Grill. Asian, in Ajo. Like traffic and weather, I thought.

“It’s over by the Shell station.”

Down the West breezeway, our classroom (that is, room) lay behind a large yellow door, with a transom atop it, like one to which a big kid might hoist a little kid to keep watch out for the teacher. I settled into a chair and pondered where the blackboard may have been located, the desks and chairs, the sinewy and tanned schoolmarm, and the Little Ajo-ians (or is that Ajohites?) at their desks, some fixed on the blackboard and the squeaking white chalk, some daydreaming about . . . well, I don’t know what you’d daydream about in Ajo, some sleeping from early pre-dawn morning chores and long bus rides. Had I trouble sleeping, I may have done my multiplication tables to lull me, but no need. It was dead quiet, and I was out with the light. I had some school dreams, but I forgot them.

At daylight, we loaded up and drove back to Organ Pipe. Back through Why, past Why Not (a convenience store), where we slowed in case the village coyote was crossing the road, back through the Border Control checkpoint, back down a lonely stretch of blacktop curtained by mesquite and creosote and prickly pear cactus. Back down Ajo Mountain Drive, this time with some speed and dust-cloud, intent on reaching the trailhead, and finally parking near Echo Canyon, where we began confidently, midday.

We wound our way through a rock-strewn wash with little shade. We saw no one. The sun was relentless. Not even an animal was out that we could see. When we began our ascent of the ridge, I realized that the heat and past week’s respiratory sickness had weakened me. I had to stop several times. We bent under the shade of a palo verde tree once, yet mostly there was no shade. My daughter was ahead of us, finding out why it was called Echo Canyon. One area we passed through was flanked by teddy bear cholla, the fuzzy cactus hemming us in. The sun. A slight breeze. We drank water. We went 20 feet. We stopped again. Near the ridge we finally reached an area that was in the shade, and it was a reward for our effort. That and the view down the canyon, one devoid of people, one full of Organ Pipe Cacti, anchored all over the mountainside.

I let down my guard and raked my hand against the gray stem of an ocotillo shrub, its thorns drawing blood.

“You don’t have to hold it up in the air,” said my wife. “Just higher than your heart. Until it stops bleeding.”

I put it over my heart, held it there, and walked on up and over the ridge, carrying a memory close, etched in blood, so glad to be alive to see sky and rock and cacti and the red-haired girl bobbing up ahead, happy to be here in a golden land.


A Tearless World

299DE837-27F6-49A9-B962-206A7EAF97CEIn late Fall Sabino Creek runs deep -- so deep, in fact, as to be invisible, having dropped stealth-like under the dry earth, a subterranean watercourse, leaving sand washes, exposed rocks, and bridges over nothing but playgrounds for lizards and, perhaps, a rattlesnake or desert hare. Quiet has descended on the canyon. Even the wind puffs but gently, like breath on a burning wick, teasing but not extinguishing.

As we have all been sick and are weakened by sleeplessness, we do not take the switchbacks to the ridge-line trail but ride the tram up the road, with the driver’s sing-song narration, and are deposited at stop nine, a cul-de-sac, where we disembark and begin our four-mile walk down the canyon. After the tram passes and we gain ground and outpace our nearest walkers, we are happily alone, watched only by sahuaro sentries, rock and red sand and an azure sky hemming us in. My daughter stooped and picked up a grasshopper with banded legs. “It bit me,” she exclaimed, dropping it. “It has pinchers on its mouth.” I stoop to look at his fancy pants. He springs away.

It is not all dry. At one point where the road traversed the stream bed, we came on a pool of tea-tinted water, the color a product of the tannic acid of dying leaves. Beneath its tawny surface, life thrives. The water was filled with darting gila chubs, holding onto the last of the water. An unidentified insect floated atop the water, trapped, fighting to free itself, yet the chubs, though omnivorous, were uninterested, perhaps algae full. They minnow on.

In an adjacent pool, an eel-like worm twists. My daughter lifts it out of the water on a stick about which it curls. Flat, not cylindrical, it has a red head or tail, like a tiny lollipop. Later, I learn that it is a horsehair worm, one of perhaps 351 kinds of such worms worldwide, and I marvel at a God who would create so diverse an array of barely-there lives. She lays the horsehair worm gently at water’s edge, where it has knotted itself around the stick, and we leave it to its knotting, to its work.

Walking out I imagined night settling on the canyon, the shadows lengthening, a full moon rising. Then, when all is still, when humanity has retreated, a mountain lion slinks down the canyon wall, softly padding over the boulder-strewn stream bed, and at the pool’s edge bends its head and laps rusty water. The chubs skitter. The horsehair worms knot and cling to crevices. The cat drinks long and then stretches out on a still-warm rock and washes, her eyes heavy. The chubs reconvene, wary but relieved. The horsehair worms stretch and float, at rest.

“Where do you think they go when the water dries up,” says my daughter. “Downstream?”

“Maybe,” I say. I read later that the chubs may not, that some hang on to the last pooled water until it is too late, until there is no exit, until finally, the water gone, they become food for hares and coyotes. Late that night, when I hear rain on the roof, when droplets increase in frequency, I pray they wet the chubs and give them more time to live and move in the diminishing pool. They may not have souls, may not be in God’s image, but they are not nothing, not to be disregarded.

In her biography of missionary Amy Carmichael, A Chance to Die, Elisabeth Elliot tells a story of how Amy rushed out of the house when she heard that a child was crushing a beetle with a stone. The old woman recounting it, a young child at the time, said that “she got hold of my tiny hand and hit me with the same stone, stating that the beetle had all the freedom to live unless it came inside the house. . . . The lesson learnt was to be forever kind to any creature.” She called nature the “Second Bible,” and of one mountain place in particular summed up its balm: “There is so much sadness in the world, so many hearts ache, so many tears fall, it is rather wonderful to be away for a little while in a tearless world, left just as God made it . . . . These fundamental things seem to carry one back to the beginnings, the fundamentals, the things that cannot be shaken, ancient verities of God.”

Topping the last hill, we entered the last long stretch, leaving the canyon behind. I looked back at ancient verities, now memories, buoyed by the thought that a God who loves the near nothingness of the horsehair worm and watery life of the gila chub, loves me even more.

And made me for a tearless world.


The Light I’m After

IMG_0245Little darling, the smiles returning to the faces
Little darling, it seems like years since it's been here
Here comes the sun, here comes the sun

("Here Comes the Sun," George Harrison)

In one of my favorite (if modest) restaurants, the table at which I like to sit is by a window.

“I like a table with a view,” I say to my wife. She smiles. The window overlooks an alleyway no more than three feet wide; the view is of a gray concrete wall. Still. I rest my hand on a warm square of sunlight on the gingham tablecloth, touch the window-glass with a finger, watch how the light catches a wisp of her hair. Even the food seems to soak up a bit of light and tastes brighter, a hamburger with a garnish of sunlight; a common french fry, light-suffused.

Light is what I am after, of course. I’ve had better views. Like the Paris view from a cafe toward the Eiffel Tower. Or overlooking the azure calm of Lake Louise reflecting glaciered peaks. Or perched at the edge of the continental United States in the Cliff House in San Francisco, looking down on a fog-laden Pacific, my then young daughter asleep at her dinner, her cheek pressed against the window. Or the 50-mile view across southern Arizona from the foothills of the Catalinas. Or better yet, the view from my kitchen table to the back 40 (feet), a doe and fawn quietly munching.

But the light is what I’m after.

During the workday, I bask in light, my wall of windows overlooking a rooftop of solar panels, their upturned faces soaking up the rays. In the summer it’s too hot; the winter, too cold. But I am buoyed by my window on the world, even treetops visible in the distance. Even an occasional pigeon scuttles by in a solar saunter. And when storms roll in from the Southwest, I have a cinematic view of their fury, light occluded, the tapping of keys on keyboard a soundtrack to their display. Once in a while, I sit on the broad windowsill and let the sun wash over me, until the phone rings and stirs me from my reverie.

Light makes all the difference. The other day, turning to walk up the stairs of our home, the bent yellow-orange rays of a setting sun caught me unaware, as if a window I had passed for over 30 years was newly cut. Contractors had cleared and thinned the forest behind us to build new homes, opening up the sky, and the sun came in fresh, finding new paths through which to lay its beams. I sat down at the bottom of the steps and took it in, watched the lengthening shadows of trees creep up the walls of our home until, in moments, the sun dropped below the horizon and dusk came. Then, darkness.

In her children’s devotional, Thoughts to Make Your Heart Sing, Sally Lloyd-Jones shines light on great profundities, meting them out in child-size packages. She says, “When you open the windows, do you have to beg the fresh air to come in? Or when you open the curtains in the morning, do you have to argue with the sun to make it shine in your room? How silly!” I find myself shaking my head to no one in particular, mumbling no, no, of course not, of course that’s silly, Sally. But you can, of course, draw the curtain, and you can, of course, look to the light, and you can, of course, sit down at the bottom of a staircase and gaze out a window at the fading light.

The light is what I’m after, of course. “Don’t try to work it out by yourself,” says Sally Lloyd-Jones. “Let God’s peace flow in - like sunshine into a dark room.” It’s grace, unbidden and free. Yet it helps to look. It helps to take a table by the window, to look at love lit by sunlight, to see everything else in the light.

And I say it’s all right. It’s better than all right.


Sky Parlor

98971“The past is an old armchair in the attic, the present an ominous ticking sound, and the future is anybody’s guess.” - James Thurber

Late one evening this week, in a bit of late-night brooding, I ascended the steps to the attic. I was looking for a typewriter, a writer’s relic. But I didn’t find it. I opened the door and flicked on the bare bulb light. It was just here, I thought, meaning I saw it here perhaps 20 years ago. We likely loaned it out as a prop for a high school play and forgot to reclaim it. And now, when I need it, it’s gone. Do I need it? Not really. But I do want to hear the click of its keys and the whir of its motor and the ring of its return, ribboning back to my past.

“The first six months of retirement,” I said to my wife later, “ will be spent cleaning out the attic.” Someone has been using ours as a hold for the inanimate, a purgatory of what we cannot let go but cannot use. The only things I remember actually using, lately, are the luggage, folding chairs, and air filters; the rest, I don’t know. They washed up on shore, one by one, in successive waves.

“We’re not waiting that long,” she said, from her repose. I looked up. The cast-offs of our lives lay heavy above us.

Fifteen years ago we took care of the cleaning in one fell swoop: a fire burned it all. Local firefighters broke the dormer window and pitched what they could into the yard. We scooped up the charred remains, salvaged pieces. It’s fast, but messy, and there is collateral damage.

But this is a project, this assemblage. Life accretes.

There’s a bulging yellow carrying case of Matchbox cars, old VHS tapes, and a decade of tax returns and financial information (in case I am audited). Add to that a dangling strand of Christmas tree lights, bulb-less lamp, old desk-chair, vacuum cleaner, wicker chest, another lamp, and boxes unapproachable, attic-ed and forgotten. Pink insulation covers the walls, and a silver-serpentine wrap of duct-work snakes above. A furnace lives by the outer wall, alive but sleeping, whirring on when temperature changes summon.

In my childhood home, the attic was a place of hidden treasure. And danger. We climbed the creaky drop-down stairs and ascended to a plywood island from which planks stretched across two by fours traversing a attic-scape of pink, itchy insulation. Quicksand. Fall in and you never come out, just kept falling, falling. Walk the plank and teeter on the brink of hellish doom. Late in life, my elderly mother did indeed fall through, landing softly, providentially, on a sofa below, as if she was just napping, a bit shook up but none the worse for it. We, however, never fell, as we searched for hidden Christmas presents, to peel away a corner of their wrap and have a preview of Santa’s offerings.

I put my hand to the sloping roof, inches from a starry sky, the wood and shingle the thin membrane of infinity. Life, I thought, is pitched towards eternity. “[W]hat is man that you are mindful of him,” says the Psalmist, “and the son of man that you care for him?” (Ps.‬ ‭8:4‬ ‭ESV‬‬). Nothing, and something, I think. And what are all our possessions, our things? Nothing, I think, and something.

“On Ellen’s first night she was assigned a spot in the ‘sky parlor,’ or attic, at the boardinghouse, sharing one of the beds and acclimating to the dim light and lack of heat,” writes Sarah Kilborne, in her biography of textile baron William Skinner. “The place was very cold, but she and her sisters, along with the rest, huddled together under soldiers’ blankets, willingly sacrificing the comforts of home for the freedom of being away from home and earning their own living.” Sky parlor. That’s a word with possibilities, and with that the attic’s edges blur and I imagine that somewhere hidden beneath the detritus of our lives is a missing scrap of paper with a story written in a high school creative writing class, a long-lost letter, childhood coin collection, or some other ancient treasure, demurely waiting to be found, to be awakened from its slumber by the touch of a hand, the embrace of an exclamation. Somewhere, I think, in all these icons of the past, is the key to what’s to come, to what’s been lost and what’s been found and what we are becoming.

But it’s late, too late for such parlor musings, and I’m tired, and I forgot what I am looking for up here, anyway. I switch off the light and carefully descend the stairs, snugly closing the door behind me. I was met by my cat. Even cats long to look into such things, I thought, stooping to run my hand along her back.

“What were you doing up there?” said my wife, looking up from her book.

“Looking for something,” I said. Actually, I thought, looking for anything, looking for possibilities. An old armchair, maybe. A scrap of paper with forgotten words. Or even, a touch of sky.

“Hmmm . . . Did you find it?”

“Not yet.”


The Weight


PetersonJordan Peterson is not far from the Kingdom.

A few days ago, I was lunching alone at a favorite lunch place. I read an article in The Spectator, a British magazine, about University of Toronto Professor Jordan Peterson. By it’s title, “Jordan Peterson and the transgender wars,” I figured that this was just another article about an academic who had run afoul of the thought police. Though it was, there was much more to it. Like the author of the article, after watching a few of Peterson's videos, i was intrigued by the passion he had for his subjects, the intensity of his gaze, and his authenticity.

About human nature, Peterson says, “We are all monsters and if you don’t know that, then you are in danger of becoming the very monster that you deny.”

About why 90 percent of the audience for his online videos is men: “I’m telling them something they desperately need to hear — that there are important things that need to be fixed up. I’m saying, ‘You guys really need to get your act together and you need to bear some responsibility and grow the hell up.’

About the cultural forces impacting men: “The lack of an identifiable and compelling path forward and the denialism these kids are being fed on a daily basis is undoubtedly destroying them and that is especially true of the young men.”

But the part that touches me, that makes me stop eating and pay better attention, is when Peterson himself begins to weep in compassion, as he talks through tears: “Every time I talk about this, it breaks me up,” he says. “The message I’ve been delivering is, ‘Find the heaviest weight you can and pick it up. And that will make you strong. You’re not who you could be. And who you could be is worthwhile.'"

But it might not make you only strong. It might just make you proud. It might make you despise the weak. It also ignores the upside-down nature of the Gospel, that the greatest weight is the lightest burden: the Cross. What Peterson seems to be saying is that there is more to life than pleasure, that there is meaning in life, and that there is work to be done. And yet though he identifies as a Christian, albeit unorthodox, what I have seen of Peterson’s provocative videos fails to give adequate motivation for a meaningful life. Yet there is something in his tears.

He goes on: “They’re so starving for that message. Young men are so desperate for a pathway that they are dying for it. And it’s heart-breaking and terrible that this idea has been kept from them. It is a malevolent conspiracy or ignorance to keep that from young men. Some of the young men who come to my lectures are desperately hanging on every word because I am telling them that they are sinful, and insufficient, and deceitful and contemptible in their current form, but that they could be far more than that, and that the world NEEDS THAT. This presents an ideal that can be approached and life without that is intolerable. It’s just meaningless suffering and that’s true if you have all the cake you can eat and all the girls you can have one-night stands with.”

I look up. The server brings the tab. I pay it through tears.


Once Upon a Moon

IMG_0318It was my hand that laid the foundations of the earth, my right hand that spread out the heavens above. When I call out the stars, they all appear in order.

(Isa. 48:13)

Until I was about ten, the moon had not entered my consciousness. I lay in my bed and on a clear night and watched its slanted rays light the corners of my room, but I thought nothing of it. My thoughts were earthbound, given to superhero fantasies or playing backyard capture the flag or testing the limits of how far I could ride my bicycle (which was far indeed). But Apollo changed that.

Though Santa Claus was preeminent on Christmas Eve of 1968, I was there in front of a nine-inch black and white Zenith TV when Frank Bowman said, "This is Apollo 8, coming to you live from the moon." I was ten and suddenly the universe came into view for the first time. Anything seemed possible. That only seven months later Neil Armstrong would walk on the moon seemed a given. Of course he would.

In Apollo 8: The Thrilling Story of the First Mission to the Moon, Jeffrey Kruger tells the story of the run up to the moon well, from the fateful fire that took the lives of the Apollo 1 astronauts to the successful mission of Apollo 8. Kluger provides mini-biographies of the crew - Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders - profiles of other personalities that figured prominently in the mission, such as Flight Director Gene Kranz and Nasa Director of Flight Operations Chris Kraft, life from the perspective of the astronaut's wives, and a non-technical blow-by-blow account of the flight. It's a story rich in actual dialogue, as Kluger has mined NASA's mission transcripts and conducted personal interviews of the three astronauts so as to provide a faithful account of their witness to what few have ever seen.

That Apollo happened at all is astounding. NASA personnel had a razor-sharp focus on John F. Kennedy's goal of putting a man on the moon by 1970, all against the backdrop of a country where cities were burning with racial riots, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy had been assassinated, and where and college campuses were rife with anti-war protests - all against the backdrop of a deadly war in Vietnam, newly bloodied by the Tet Offensive, a Cold War with Russia, and radical social change. It seemed there was trouble everywhere. And yet the men and women of NASA worked on.

Though this story takes little account of God, the unseen hand of Providence figures throughout the account. At so many junctures the mission could have gone awry. Would the Saturn V rocket function as it should, carrying them into orbit? Would life support systems on board function appropriately? Would they enter the moon's orbit properly or spin off into the darkness of outer space or into a decaying lunar orbit? Would they exit orbit well or again spin off into space? And finally, would they renter earth's orbit in precisely the right way so as not to burn up on reentry? At every juncture they succeeded. That such a mission could be carried off is a testament to both the dedication of NASA employees and to God's faithfulness.

There were magical moments. Seeing the earth suspended in space for the first time, Frank Borman thought, This is what God sees. Jim Lovell marveled that he could extend his arm and hide the entire earth behind his thumb. On the Christmas Eve transmission from lunar orbit, Anders, Lovell, and Borman read the Creation account from Genesis 1, its poetic refrains ending with "And God saw that it was good." More than one-third of the planet - more than had ever watched a television broadcast - heard those words and saw the grainy black and white images of the astronauts and the view of a smallish earth from the moon. Back at Mission Control, which had at critical moments in the mission erupted in applause (and cigarette smoke), Kluger recounts a solemnly quiet room. Ex-military man Gene Kranz stood quietly at the back-of-the-room console, basking in the glow of what had just happened. Kluger reports that

Jerry Bostick, the flight dynamics officer at his console in the trench, felt something he could only describe as a wave of gratitude - for the astonishing moment in history that was unfolding in front of him, and for the accident of birth and timing and talent that had placed him, one person out of billions, in the middle of that moment. Thank you, Lord, for letting me be here and be a part of this, he said to himself silently.

Gratitude. Reading this account, like any account of the space program, fills me with thankfulness for people with vision and dedication. It wasn't just the Frank Bormans, Chris Krafts, and Gene Kranzs of NASA who mattered. Mostly, it was also the many rank and file engineers, scientists, and support personnel who simply did their jobs. That's how things get done. In his account, Kluger reminds us that dedicated people can do amazing things. And as Kluger faithfully reminds us in his account, at least a few of them were praying.

Awaking just after midnight last night, the room was lit by the light of a full moon. The story of Apollo 8 still ricocheted in my brain, and I was unwilling to leave it yet. I shuffled to the window and looked up at the brightly lit orb laying heavy above the horizon. A thin cloud divided it. Once the cloud passed, I imagined what it must have been like to circumnavigate it, to stare down at its rocky, alien surface, right there above the Sea of Tranquility, 40 years ago. I whispered a small prayer that we would have the knowledge and will to go again. Then, I stretched out my hand and covered it with my thumb. I thought, This is what God sees.


What I Need


IMG_0332At lunch a couple days ago, a friend asked "Do you have any spiritual needs?" I looked away from his searching face, to the salt shaker, as if the answer might lie there. I know the answer. It's a rhetorical question. And yet I had to think about it for a moment, as it is one of those questions that doesn't often get asked, particularly by one man to another. I look up, meet his eyes.

"Joy," I said. "I need the joy of the Lord. Scripture says 'Rejoice in the Lord always,' but how do I do that?"

Joy does not equate to happiness. Joy is a depth charge, exploding underneath, reverberating; happiness, a flash on the surface, ephemeral. Bob Dylan captured it best in a 1991 Rolling Stone interview. “Happiness, “said Dylan, “is not on my list of priorities. I just deal with day-to-day things.” His interlocutor records that he fell silent for a few moments and stared at his hands. “You know,” he said, “these are yuppie words, happiness and unhappiness. It’s not happiness or unhappiness, it’s either blessed or unblessed. As the Bible says, ‘Blessed is the man who walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly.’ Now, that must be a happy man. Knowing that you are the person you were put on this earth to be – that’s much more important than just being happy.”

After seeing my daughter off early this morning, my wife and I took to the darkened streets. The mist hung over us, curling around muted streetlights. For at least ten blocks we saw neither person nor car. Mostly, we were silent but for the offbeat footfalls and swish of clothing, the occasional audible prayers juxtaposed with the silent company of God. We crossed a stream swollen with the rain from the previous day. Water is a magnet, so we always look down at its hypnotic draw. Floating about in the mush of my barely awake mind was that phrase from the first line of the Creed: “God the Father Almighty.” And then another word that the Apostles use time and again of us, of me: “beloved.” Like a tiny jigsaw puzzle of weighty pieces, I put it together: The Almighty God calls me beloved. Jesus loves me. Though elementary, it’s a puzzle I must rework every day.

Happy? I don’t think much about being happy. Nor do I think much about being sad. But when I consider an almighty God calling me beloved, my brooding over the world and over me - my blessed mourning, to use the beatitude - is riven by joy, by some inarticulable sense that I am out walking just where He wants me, that I am blessed. C.S. Lewis once said that joy “jumps under one’s ribs and tickles down one’s back and makes one forget meals and keeps one (delightedly) sleepless o’ nights. It shocks one awake when the other [just doing well] puts one to sleep.” I think such experience a rare, unbidden treat. As Lewis said in his memoir, “Joy is never in our power.” Yet by focusing on the tidal wave he missed the steady lapping wave of joy, the irrepressible love of a Savior who bids us come.

I told my friend across the table that sometimes, after being reminded by a judge that I don’t know anything or, at least, that what I know is inadequate, I feel dejected, and I am deeply aware of my inadequacy. I try not to harden my defenses to this by getting angry or by silent protestations of my rightness. After leaving the courtroom, I let the heavy door shut, take the elevator back to my office, and entering slump at my desk. I look at my hands, their lines and creases testifying to the friction of life and time, of water under the bridge, and with a sigh of relief say to myself, “Well, Jesus loves me anyway. Jesus loves me. God almighty, Jesus loves me.”

That’s all I need. That’s joy. That’s a keyhole to the light of eternity.


An Ordinary Time

IMG_0315A week or so ago, I had lunch with my friend Pete. Pete has a shining, angelic face, though he would laugh at such a description. He has always worn his heart on his face - broken, but redeemed; joyful even with sadness. We share a general sense of professional ineptitude, a vocation by grace alone. So, we are who we are, yet thankful.

We begin our lunch with a call to worship, a prayer of blessing over not only food but conversation, asking that we might build each other up, even, sometimes, pick each other up. There is a bit of small talk, the announcements of our life - work, home, family, the askings after - and then we move quickly into confession, the telling of our preoccupations and failings, followed by affirmations of God's grace.

"You want sweet tea," says Carol, an imposing server. The way she says it make me doubt that it's a question. Carol is like the whiskey priest with the communion wine, brusque and business-like, yet flawed. I hesitate.

"I'll have unsweetened." I realize that's like asking this unwitting acolyte for grape juice instead of wine, but I risk it. Carol shoves a pitcher across the table, leaves with a huff.

The soundtrack of our service is a cacophony of noises: the tentative, titterings of two elderly women across the way, eruptions of laughter from two construction workers in another corner, the unintelligible conversations of the many in the larger room next door, and the salutations of the hostess and the cashier by the door. We break bread, have communion, wash the biscuit down with ice tea, and I say, "What have you learned lately," as he says the same to me, and we begin to tell our small stories, our obscure meditations on our lives.

Tish Harrison Warren says that:

Christ's ordinary years are part of our redemption story. Because of the incarnation and those long, unrecorded years of Jesus' life, our small normal lives matter. If Christ was a carpenter, all of us who are in Christ find that our work is sanctified and made holy. If Christ spent time in obscurity, then there is infinite worth found in obscurity. If Christ spent most of his life in quotidian ways, then all of life is brought under his Lordship. There is no task too small or too routine to reflect God's glory and worth.

It's a reminder to me not to dismiss these small moments as insignificant, to not dismiss my life as insignificant. Carol refills my glass, and I smile. "Thank you," I say, gulping down half, gratefully, as Pete pushes back his chair. We are silent for a moment, content, resting in the refracted glow of God's grace toward us both.

In the end, with thankfulness, we rise and exit, blinking at the sunlight as we emerge. I walk him to his truck, a well-worn conveyance, and we say our benediction prayers there by the car door, out in the world, he pronouncing blessing over me and I over him, before we leave and return to the rest of our lives - to the ordinary, mundane, and obscure, to the papers to be filed and phone calls to be made, to the jots and tittles of law upon law, to common people who appear and reappear in our days.

Ordinary, yet shining.

[The quote is from Tish Harrison Warren's Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life, IVP Books, 2016. The photo is by the late photo-journalist, Sol Libsohn, entitled "together in order to." It's what our ordinary lunch may have looked like in the 1930s.]


Welcome to the Bell

S3-27000-w-ca-257_15-lt-5"At the basis of Jesus Christ's Kingdom is the loveliness of the commonplace." (Oswald Chambers, in My Utmost for His Highest, August 21)

“There is nothing in us or done by us, at any stage of our earthly development, because of which we are acceptable to God. We must always be accepted for Christ’s sake, or we cannot ever be accepted at all." (B.B. Warfield)

Birds have little problem with the doctrines of grace. That holds true for squirrels, voles, fox, deer, and other woodland creatures. They are beneficiaries of God's wondrous grace, provided for and loved, yet they never think it up to them. They have no idols, make no little gods. They just live in love, beloved by the One who so loved the world.

Not so with us. We find it difficult to rest in Love.

I took myself to lunch alone. But I am not alone. I sit by the window and eat fast food slow, watching men wash cars. Their movements are rhythmic: drying, wiping, standing, moving about the cars until, finished, they tap the horn and raise their arm to the sky. Across from me, two middle age men eat sullenly, one staring at his food and the other at the shining screen of his phone. A family laughs in the booth next to them, yet the sounds of the kitchen and drive-through orders drowns out their words. Looking down, a bird titters on the outside lip of the window, briefly, before flitting off at the sound of an advancing car.

I do this sometimes - eat or walk or sit in the most pedestrian of places -when I am sad about the world, or sad about me, recalling, as Jesus reminds me, that blessed are those who mourn about sin - about people who hate other people, about greed, about the unborn and unfed or about my own selfishness and sloth - because they shall be comforted. How? By the gospel, by the truth that He calls us beloved, by our irrevocable adoption into His family. I need that. And besides, if you're not sad about the world or yourself sometimes - if you don't know how broken we are - then grace is kept at remove. Cheap and ephermeral.

"Try the mini-quesadilla. That's something different. Only a dollar," said a clerk, brightly. I notice she is overweight. I make judgments about her life, though I know better, before I catch myself.

"Sure. I'll try it. The price is right." She works at Taco Bell. I'm wondering how she survives on what she makes as I mentally calculate the monthly wages of a minimum wage earner. And yet she smiles and her voice is upbeat. She's better at her job than I am at mine. There's no complaint in her voice, no attitude, no cynicism.

Out the window men are washing cars, many of the cars worth more than than they could ever hope to make in a year or even two years. They work in the heat, sweat glistening on their arms and dripping from their foreheads. I am no better than them. Why am I here? I'm after what G.K. Chesterton called "[t]hat profound feeling of mortal fraternity and frailty," the dignity of the commonplace, the blessedness of the ordinary, the truth that we're all in the same boat, that but for Christ, we are all the orphans of God.

"Hey, the quesadilla. . . It was great," I called out on leaving.

She looked up. Her ordinary smile shone over the lobby, as I turned and walked away, mortal but accepted, common, but uncommonly loved. Driving away, I considering tapping my horn and raising my arm to the sky. I should have.


Weapon of Prayer


While there is no copyright on my weathered volume of D.L. Moody's Prevailing Prayer, following the contents page there is a page entitled "How to Use This Book" that helps date this edition to a time at least 50 years ago, if not more. Among the suggestions listed are "Present the book to the grocer's boy, milkman or someone calling at your door," and "Forward it to a lumber camp or prison, the sailors, soldiers, firemen and other neglected classes." That makes me long for that time when it would have been presumed by most that praying was a necessary and good thing, even if they did not much pray themselves. First published in 1884 (Moody died in 1899), the book has likely stayed in print because of the efficacy of its exhortations and clarity of its language, even across more than a century. And yet in a time when the culture is largely naked of Christian truths, the book is near samizdat: an operator's manual for the least used weapon of the dissident movement known as the Church --- to be read, savored, and employed with fire and holy fury.

Military imagery is cringe-inducing nowadays, and yet previous generations had no qualms about it. In 1951 the Louvin Brothers released a recording entitled "Weapon of Prayer" which opined that those at home praying were just as much warriors as those soldiers fighting in Korea. One stanza is my favorite:

When the planes and tanks and guns have done all that they can do And the mighty bombs have rained and fell Still the helpful Hand above holds a weapon made of love And against Him none on Earth prevail

And indeed none do. Over and over in Prevailing Prayer Moody makes the claim that prayer is our greatest power. He says it is the "mighty power that has moved not only God, but man." "Those who have left the deepest impression on this sin-cursed earth," says Moody, "have been men and women of prayer." Using one after another biblical examples, he shows that "when believing prayer went up to God, the answer came down." A friend summarizes it this way: "We pray, and God will surely do something. What we don’t know, but he will do something.” Citing Baxter, Luther, Knox, Whitefield, Wesley, and McCheyne, Moody shows how "all God's people have been praying people." About Baxter: "He stained his study walls with praying breath; and after he was anointed with the unction of the Holy Ghost, sent a river of living water over Kidderminster, and converted hundreds." About Knox he said that "he grasped all Scotland in his strong arms of faith; his prayers terrified tyrants." What if it were the prayers of God's people and not firepower that terrified tyrants like North Korea's Kim Jong-un ? What if our president called for a national day of prayer, and we saw the crumbling of that fell regime under the strong hand of love?

Why don't we pray, or why don't we pray more? Maybe because we do not sufficiently believe in its power. Or at least we believe that it's a weapon of last resort, one that may or may not work, one that we hope is answered in some recognizable way but that probably won't be. Or maybe even because we don’t believe that God cares enough to answer. If we believed that answers come down when believing prayers go up, we would be praying all the time. We have access to a King who is omnipotent and who loves us and promises to answer.

Do we have time? Of course we do. If it's our greatest power, the thing that moves the hand of God, then of course we do. Luther, who was a busy man, said (according to Moody) that "I have so much to do that I cannot get on without three hours a day praying." Do they get answered? We are promised that they do. Moody says "I think that we shall find a great many of our prayers that we thought unanswered answered when we get to heaven."

Everything said in this book is still relevant. We still need to pray. More than anything we need to pray. Prayer is holy breathing: we can't live without it. We need a faith weaponized by prevailing prayers that, in Moody’s words, “ move the Arm that moves the world.” For Christ's sake, pray. For the offense and defense of God’s world, pray.


Silence

EgPb%ywKSoGbr2vSSJA9Pg_thumb_72d3What I know about classical music you can put in a thimble. Yet, for whatever reason, a few years ago I bought a copy of Henryk Gorecki's Symphony No. 3. I'm listening to it as I sit on the patio on a pleasant, warm day, savoring it with the neighbor's cat, who seems lulled by its graceful sounds.

There's an abundance of silence in Gorecki's work, reminds Robert Reilly, a silence which some might interpret as "nothing happens." Yet that is the plague of the Western, modern (and Post-modern) mind. According to Reilly,

During a trip to Washington, DC, in the early 1990s, Górecki was asked to comment on the phenomenal success of his Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, the Nonesuch recording of which sold more than 800,000 copies. Górecki responded, "Let’s be quiet." Perhaps that is [his] most urgent message [ ], "Be quiet." Or perhaps more biblically, "Be still." This stillness is not empty silence [ ]. It is a full, gestational silence that allows one, like Moses, to hear the remaining words: "And know that I am God.”

Well, a soaring soprano was enough for the cat. He left.

If I turn off the music, I have my own form of silence here, the ostensible silence of “nothing happening.” The rustle of a leaf-laden tree branch. The crescendo of daytime cicadas. The twittering songs of sparrows, bluebirds, and chickadees, and the mimicry of a mockingbird. Faraway, there is the distant hum of traffic, the winding out of a motorcycle. Above me a single-engine prop plane makes its buzzing descent. Yet in between that cacophony, there are interstices of silence. Like Gorecki.

Like the work of John Tavener and Arvo Part, the profound silence that permeates the work of Gorecki is not empty but pregnant with meaning. “Some of [his] compositions emerge from the very edge of audibility and remain barely above it," says Reilly, "conveying the impression that there is something in the silence that is now being revealed before once again slipping out of range. The deep underlying silence slowly surfaces and lets itself be heard. For those precious moments one hears what the silence has to say. When not used in this way, a grammar of silence is nonetheless employed that punctuates even the more extrovert and vociferous works. Moments of silence stand like sentinels, guarding the inner stillness from the violence of sounds that have not come out of the silence."

We all need such sentinels. It might be the silence of a William Carlos Williams poem that we need, a white space pregnant with expectation. It might be a silent sanctuary before a call to worship when scripture resounds. It might be the thoughtful pause before you respond to a rash word spoken or email sent. It might be the great empty satellite silence of space that only a few among us have experienced, before God in some time unknown reconciles all things and reconstitutes His universe. It might be the anticipatory stillness before a God who lets our urgent plea hang in the silence between heaven and earth, until faith buoys it upward.

"[F]aith for me is everything," Gorecki once said. "If I did not have that kind of support, I could not have passed the obstacles in my life.” It was faith that kept Henryk Gorecki during the communist oppression in his native Poland. It underlines the melancholy chorales of his Symphony of Sorrowful Songs. Faith girds his silences, carries his sound.

In his classic book, The Celebration of Discipline, Richard Foster links silence and solitude, the latter a necessary counterpoint to community. “Without silence,” he says, “there is no solitude.” Pointing to the example of Jesus, who often left the crowds to go to a “lonely place,” he concludes that “we must seek out the recreating stillness of solitude if we want to be with others meaningfully.” Just as solitude doesn’t mean we are alone, silence doesn’t mean nothing is happening, Just as great declarations are being made from the silence of space (Ps. 19:1-4a), so profound declarations are being made in the small silences we cultivate.

A lawn mower has started, its sound ebbing and flowing as it moves behind a neighbor's house. Children laugh. A car door slams and my daughter backs away for her day, with a smile and a wave and words of endearment from an open window. Even the neighbor's cat returns, a winsome black smudge against the sky. And then, something near to silence descends again, and I think, “be still," Gorecki’s “let’s be quiet,” the anticipatory silence before the thunder of, "And know that I am God."


Spelunking


IMG_0308"Now let me at the truth
Which will refresh my broken mind"

("The Cave," by Mumford and Son, from the album, Sigh No More)

Near the end, as we picked our way up the rock-strewn entrance to the cave, a cheery notification lit the screen of my IPhone: "Its time to write in your journal again!" I hate exclamation points. About their use writer William Zinsser says, just to sum it up, "Don't." He notes that the exclamation point "has a gushy aura, the breathless excitement of a debutante commenting on an event that was exciting only to her." There is nothing exciting about writing in your journal. It is discipline, the constraint of words, and often mundane. But perhaps my disposition was brittle: I was tired and had just slipped on a rock and fallen on my rear.

Lava River Cave is a 700,000 year old, one mile underground passageway under the pine tree floor of the Coconino National Forest north of Flagstaff, Arizona. After leaving the blacktop off I-40 West, I drove about seven miles on a hard-packed gravel road into the forest, with regular exhortations from my wife and son to slow down and watch for potholes. "I'm watching for them," I said. "I am." Kerthump. I follow the philosophy that the faster you go the less wheel is in the hole and less damage done. It's possible that I am wrong about this, but plenty of people seem to be doing it, and yet I hear my mother's voice, "That doesn't make it right, Stephen," which is how she addressed me when I was dead wrong. The road was fine, until it wasn't, and we hit a jarring pothole that made me glad it was a rental car. A Dollar rental car. My passengers remind me that it has no remote key lock or back seat cup holders.

The entrance to the cave was a tumble down hole in the earth, a rock slide around which humanity milled, slicker than an otter slide in places, which kept it interesting. But hold on: We signed in on the book at the entrance, in pencil, apparently to denote our impermanence. I'm not sure why. Perhaps so they could identify our bodies later? We then scrambled over boulders and loose rock, betwixt jubilant ascenders who'd been there and back, maybe 30-40 feet down, until we reached the floor of the lava tube. But not before we stopped and took a picture of Jesus, who had just emerged from the tomb, I mean cave. No, not Jesus, just a lone spelunker with an abundance of head and facial hair.

I am 59 and wonder how my body will feel tomorrow when I awake. I needn’t as I know how decrepit I will feel on rising. “There's no shame in crawling," I say, preferring to get low so as to reduce the height from which I might fall. But I don't fall, yet.

The floor of the cave is staccato, a blanket of rocks melded together by the lava flow. Occasionally, a smooth cave cay in a sea of rock waves appears, and we stand on it to rest, an island in a molten sea, a boulder fallen centuries ago into the flow from the cavern roof on which we balance. At some points the roof of the cave is 30 feet high; other times, five feet high. I bend, humbling myself, cognizant that the unsupported weight of the world is above me. I watch my head. I watch my feet. I breathe cave air, cold and dank, run my hands along rocks encrusted with cave dust.

Is there a bathroom in here? Nope. That’s the least of my concerns. In here there are all kinds of ways to go wrong. You can fall into a hole or slide a foot into a crack of doom from which extrication is complicated. You can get too high and bang your head, lose consciousness. And then there's heart attacks, leg breaks, ankle twists, and so on - cheery thoughts. Yet I am an attorney: I traffic in doom; if it can happen, it will.

Some people are loud and boisterous as they spelunk. Yo, cave bro. (No one actually said that to me.) There is a veneer of commonality. We are one. Unity in diversity. They pose for status updates. High-fives. A few even have a musical accompaniment, thought it's not Mumford and Son's "The Cave" or even Owl City's "Cave In," but some synth-pop or rap "I'm-just-saying-I-go-caving-with-the-homies, you know." Me, I feel reverent, among an old one, and I speak, if at all, in a hushed voice. We all do. When the people leave, even here God lives and moves, His Spirit seeping through walls and in every crevice. He knew a cave, once.

When we get to the end, there is no private concession, no Starbucks with latte or hot chocolate. The roof bends down until you cannot pass, as if God said, “Here, and no farther.” A man hails us, with a good natured, ”Welcome to the party!,” a frivolity in the face of wonder, our tunnel a bare scratch in the mantle of His world. We turn and retrace our steps, the homing oddly shorter, until I see light and scramble upward, falling in my haste.

Once, underneath, we found ourselves alone and switched off our lamps, let the quiet settle in. I tried to imagine what it would be like to have found yourself alone, like Elijah, cabined in by the walls, groping in the dark, and then to hear a voice calling to you, "What are you doing here?," and to realize that you are not alone, that you are never alone, that God moves even in the darkness, moves through walls, and leads His people upward, into the light, the Truth for broken minds. That alone is worth exclamation.

I scramble up to sky, with hope. . . for lunch.


God's Business

1I switched off the light, adjusted my pillow, put the latest tome to rest on the nightstand, and drew the covers up around my head. Wait, what's that light?

"Honey, did you leave a light on?"

"No. That's the moon, a full moon. Want me to draw the curtain?

"No. That's God's business. It's ok with me." I turn and sigh.

I don't why I said it that way: "God's business." I lay there a while imagining all the countless, simultaneous things God must do in every nanosecond, effortlessly. Like holding together the not insubstantial atoms that comprise my cat, a gelatinous fur-sack asleep on my foot. Nudging her I nudge God, God listening to the petitions of millions, present for each individual in a way that I sometimes struggle to be for even the one person in front of me. God never sleeping, always attentive, tracking every movement and every thought. God 24-7, up all night, awake to all that is.

I’m awake too, albeit with none of His omniscience. I can't sleep. I get up, shuffle to the window, and stare out at God's night light, a moon hovering over the water. I thought about earlier in the evening, when thunderheads scudded seaward, jagged cracks of lightning thrown across them. He did that too, while all the time hearing the inarticulable prayer underneath my spoken prayer, reading my thoughts while orchestrating tides and gravity and holding together the dark matter of space.

The cat brushes my bare ankle, takes up position beside me, impassive face seaward. Infinity is in her eyes. Or maybe it’s just a plea for food, a midnight snack.

“‘Can anyone hide in secret places so that I cannot see him?’ declares the Lord. ‘Do I not fill heaven and earth?’” (Jer. 23:24). J.I. Packer explains that “he is present everywhere in the fullness of all that he is and all the powers he has, and needy souls praying to him anywhere in the world receive the same fullness of his undivided attention." My tiny little prayer that wafts heavenward, caught by the ocean breeze, lit by moonlight, joins with the weighty petition of a persecuted saint languishing in a North Korean prison or the hungry prayer of a malnourished African. God gives each His full attention without the expenditure of an iota of his great mind or strength.

No one can understand that mystery. And yet we have pictures of it in scripture. A woman suffering from a decade of bleeding manages to touch Jesus in spite of a crowd, and Jesus saw and healed her (Lk. 8:43-48). A lame beggar calls out to Peter and John, and it is recorded that “Peter directed his gaze at him, as did John,” and he was healed (Acts 3:1-10). God has a razor-sharp focus on the prayers of His people, directs His gaze of love unto us.

I look down. The cat has departed, following the rut worn in the carpet between our room and the food bowl. I say one more prayer, letting it fall back into the deep with the undertow, deep unto deep, and return to bed.

“Did you draw the curtain?”

“Oh no, I couldn’t. God is still up.”


Hope Beyond all Hopes

IMG_0307As a child, on the way home from church, I'd say to my sister, "I hope we go to McDonalds for lunch," and she'd say, "Me too," and pious child that I was I'd even pray it so, screwing my eyes shut and concentrating very hard on the object of my hope. Pray the turn signal would be green, that my Dad would turn the wheels toward the Golden Arches. But no. No, at least not that day. The light would change and we'd motor on to white bread tomato or pimento cheese sandwiches and long, endless Sunday afternoons of "rest", our parents snoozing away, inexplicably exhausted, before we were back at church, installment two.

Maybe hope is something non-gastronomic, like when my wife said the other day, "I hope it doesn't rain." It rained buckets. "I hope I get an A" I thought to myself in law school, and I did, two times, but mostly not. Hope falls easily from the tongue, a longing. And yet real hope is something more substantial, something that has an object that is durable and true and is more than the mere precatory language we often use about mundane things like food and weather. Those are wishes. And we know they are.

I don’t personally know anyone who lacks hope, though I have known some at times acutely stricken by its lack. Hope has broad currency. Hope is not just the province of believers or even just generally religious people. Mostly when I hear it said I hear an expression of longing more than anything else and, underneath the longing, some vague sense that there is a basis for hope, even if the basis is paper thin and fragile, or even inarticulable.

In an article called “Soul Comforter,” Josh Mayo explores what underlies expressions of hope. He asks “What can explain the human soul's insistent and persistent hope against titanic odds?” Mayo identifies two prevalent notions of hope, two “songs of optimism.” First, there is the Song of Progress. Things are getting better every day. Technology will solve our problems. It's the credo of Silicon Valley: a new startup, a new smartphone, solar-powered airplanes, the trans-human body. Or there is the Song of Karma, says Mayo. Give love, receive love. Good deeds get good returns. Do right, or mostly right, and it'll all work out in the end. You'll make it to heaven, the afterlife, a reincarnated life, whatever.

And yet, as Mayo says, both bases for hope are bankrupt. “No honest survey of ourselves or the world provides any such hope for beatitude contingent on ethics,” says Mayo, but rather, is cause for despair. Every technological solution creates more problems; good is often not rewarded but even punished, given the bent nature of human beings. Under the longing, under the songs of karma and progress, is the rumble of something desperate and grasping. Under the sheen and buoyancy of pop culture, and behind the chatter of talk show hosts, you hear it.

Yet it need not be. About hope, Frederick Buechner once said:

For Christians, hope is ultimately hope in Christ. The hope that he really is what for centuries we have been claiming he is. The hope that despite the fact that sin and death still rule the world, he somehow conquered them. The hope that in him and through him all of us stand a chance of somehow conquering them too. The hope that at some unforeseeable time and in some unimaginable way he will return with healing in his wings.

Real hope has a true and faithful object, and for the the Christian - for the world - that object is Jesus Christ." When voices of discouragement or even despair whisper, we can know two things. First, that positionally something is very different for us as Christians, something irrevocable: we have been transferred from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of light, of Jesus (Col. 1:13). This movement is by grace and not of our own doing. And second, God is at work reconciling the whole creation to himself (Col. 1:20). This too is God's initiative, His power. Progress marred by sin; karma that gets you in the end. But hope, in Christ alone, the currency of His people.

Next time you say "I hope," then in the mundanity of your hope consider the Hope beyond all hopes, the One to whom they all point. Out beyond the Golden Arches.


The Father-Haunted Life of Brian Wilson

41E3WXJMmaL._SX342_BO1 204 203 200_
At 25 I turned out the light
Cause I couldn’t handle the glare in my
tired eyes
But now I’m back, drawing shades of kind
blue skies.

(From “Going Home,” By Brian Wilson and Scott Bennett, from the album, That Lucky Old Sun)

Early in his recent memoir, entitled I Am Brian Wilson, the enigmatic Beach Boy draws attention to the single most important person to impact his early life: his father, Murray Wilson. Though he is long dead, Wilson says that even now he hears the voice of his dad in his head: “Your music is no damned good, Brian. Get to work, Brian. You’re falling behind, Brian.” Time and again in the pages that follow he circles his father, alternating between love and appreciation and revulsion at his abuse.

Brian Wilson is 75, and yet he is still deeply impacted by his father. He says that “he stayed one of the most important people in my life, in good ways and bad. He could be generous and guide me toward great things, but he could also be brutal and belittle me and sometimes even make me regret that I was even alive.” Recalling a song that his father wrote when Brian was in school, he says that “[s]ometimes in school I would think about it and get tears in my eyes. People ask what made it a good song. He did. My dad did.” He loved his dad. He hated what he did.

In an extended reflection, Brian says he wants to try and explain his dad, yet it’s obvious that he is till grappling with how to understand him. He talks about how his dad gave him and his brothers the gift of music. But he also “took things away, by being rough and demanding.” He “yelled at me all the time and made me nervous,” he says, and “grabbed us by the arms and shoved us and hit us with hands that were sometimes open and sometimes even closed.” And yet, in all that he says about his dad, it is obvious that Brian loved him, appreciated him, and, perhaps more than anything, deeply desired his approval. Indeed, Brian’s adulation of producer Phil Spector may also reflect his desire for the approval of a father-figure. (Spector was not accommodating.) Even the psycho-therapist Eugene Landry, who likely saved Brian’s life only to assert an excessive control over it, may have been helped by Wilson’s need for a father-figure.

On one of the tracks on the Pet Sounds Sessions boxed set, you can listen in on a recording session where Murray Wilson harangues Brian. To visualize it further, watch the critically acclaimed biopic about Wilson, Love and Mercy. It is a fair rendering of a life impacted by not only his father but drug and alcohol abuse, mental illness, and his once controlling psychotherapist, Eugene Landy. And yet it’s difficult not to conclude how Brian Wilson would have been given more resources to deal with his demons had his father been at his side.

Reading it now makes me thankful for my own father, burdens me for the father-absence that so many children now experience, and prompts a prayer for Brian Wilson, that he will before the end of his life understand how great is his Father in Heaven’s love for him, how far He has come for him, and what great music remains for him to write in eternity. God only knows.

[For a thorough and well-documented bio of Wilson, I recommend Peter Ames Carlin’s 2006 book, Catch a Wave: The Rise, Fall & Redemption of the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson. Follow that with Wilson’s own 2016 memoir, I Am Brian Wilson. His ghostwriter, Ben Greenman, does an excellent job of capturing Wilson’s voice, his child-like expressions of wonder, simple language, and questions, like, when he reflects on his brothers’ deaths, “they’re gone, and i don’t know where they’re gone." Finally, cap it with a viewing of the 2015 biopic, Love and Mercy.]


That Fargo Thing


IMG_0305When one of my children found out that I bought a Fargo t-shirt and hat on my recent excursion to that famous city, they told me I needed to give the "Fargo thing a rest," or something to that effect. I admit it: I have gushed a bit about Fargo. But bear with me. It was all in the interest of science, an anthropological study based on participant observation.

Take the mornings. I left my hotel curtains open to the sky, as I did not want to miss a moment of high plains daylight. The sun rose at 5:00, slipping quietly up over the horizon. By 5:20 I was out the hotel door, waving at the somnulant clerk at the lobby counter. I walked past the shuttered shops on Broadway, over the train tracks (north or south, they hemmed in the business district) where I stopped to stare longingly down their iron rails, and into a residential area. Passing a woman walking her dog, I waved and said, "Hi neighbor." No, I didn't say that, as only Mr. Rogers can say that and get away with it. But I did nod at the few people I passed on the sidewalk, and they nodded back. Once I turned to look back at a person, and their dog turned to look at me as if to say, "You imposter." He knew. But otherwise I was under the radar until I opened my mouth to speak and the languid sound of The South wafted out on my words.

Part of That Fargo Thing is my attempt at deeper observation of a place as an aid to writing, as an aid to understanding, as an aid to loving the world. (Sorry, that sounds a bit highfalutin, but it's true.) I write down street names, notice inscriptions on buildings, listen to what clerks and waiters say. Like the young female server who called everyone "hon'," a term of endearment that lapped over to Dakota from the shores of Minnesota. Filtered through my south of Mason-Dixon mind, I heard it as "sugar" or just "sug," words you can still hear in some establishments of the South. Noticing things, paying attention, and writing them down is my tiny little way of loving. For if "God so loved the world," shouldn't I? The uncomeliest bit of vegetation or bereft pine matter. So do the flowers that line a shop window or push up through the untidy patch at the edge of the railway right-of-way. Even the inanimate things matter. The sidewalks, curb and gutter, street signs that raise questions (Is Fargo's Broadway a jest, a jab at big city life?). They all matter.

Without a hint of romanticism or personification, pastor Francis Schaeffer once said that, “Because it is right, on the basis of the whole Christian system - which is strong enough to stand it all because it is true - as I face the buttercup, I say: ‘Fellow-creature, fellow-creature, I won’t walk on you. We are both creatures together.” He went on to say that, “If nature is only a meaningless particular, is ‘decreated,’ to use Simone Weil’s evocative word, with no universal to give it meaning, then the wonder is gone from it.” So, every little thing has value. Every little thing has a bit of magic in it.

But I addressed no buttercups in Fargo. I did speak on one occasion to a starlit tent of sky.

In his classic book, On Writing Well, William Zinsser encourages the good writer to collect a surplus of details, to "look for your material everywhere. . . . Look at signs and at billboards and at all the junk written along the American roadside. Read the labels on our packages and the instructions on our toys, the claims on our medicines and the graffiti on our walls." Out of an abundance of particulars comes not just a few interesting facts but also more universal observations, truths that underlie all things. And in the finding of that truth or truths rapt attention teases out a bit of love for a place and a people. So, while it's not home, I love plainspoken Fargo just a little, hon'.

Author D.L. Waldie, who lives in the "ancient" (Fifties) Los Angeles suburb of Lakewood and who does not drive, encourages pedestrianism, as do I:

I would. . ..urge you to wander in the city and wander in your neighborhood. I would urge you to become an expert flaneur [idler]. I would urge you to acquire not only pedestrianism as a vice but flaneurie as a vice as well — the ability to walk into your community and expect something to occur to you as you found your way to some undiscovered part of your neighborhood.

You don't have to go to Fargo for that vice. That Fargo Thing is as near as your neighborhood.


Before the Internet

I flopped in a floral armchair in the living room and read the latest sci-fi book ordered from the Science Fiction Book Club. When my Mom would say "dinner!" I'd yell back, "I'm coming." But I wasn't. I had punched out. Eventually, I made it to the table, book in hand, and on occasion was allowed to read my way through dinner, because I think my Mom knew that when you are three hours into another world you can't just stop and eat dinner. You just can't.

I watched my Mom prepare dinner. She cut potatoes, and I ate them uncooked. Ditto on uncooked corn , carrots, celery, and most other vegetables, but I drew the line at okra. Nasty. Occasionally I scored some brown sugar, spoonfuls out of the box in a cupboard that required climbing to reach. The counter where I watched my Mom was eye level, so for leverage I pulled out the bottom drawer in the cabinet and stood on it. She let me. It probably wasn't good for the drawer, but she didn't pick a fight. She rolled out dough for biscuits. I took a bite of that, too. Ugh.

The only friends I had were the ones you could lay eyes on. Well, I take that back. I had a pen pal once, in Kalamazoo or some foreign place like that. That's different. I did write letters to a red-headed mountain girl I met at Myrtle Beach when I was 14. Well, two letters. But the connection was tenuous. I called her on the phone one time and, you know, what do you say to a girl on the phone that you barely know and can't see every day or so? Long silences punctuated by stutters.

I was familiar with every crook and cranny of our house. I scoped it. Hey, with no computer or cell phone or internet (what?), I had time. I had nothing but time. I was my own Google search, a walking Wikipedia. In the "utility room," I pondered the cracks where the HVAC unit was housed in the wall but the mortar had given way and you could see daylight. I noted where the carpet was tacked to the floor in the hallway when I lay there listening to Uriah Heep on the college radio station after dinner. I reareanged refrigerator magnets to suit the impulse of the day. I stood staring into the recesses of the refrigerator, daydreaming, and ate a slice of cheese, or two. Watched the neighbor's dog. Watched the neighbor’s cat. Watched the neighbor’s cat chase the neighbor’s dog. Took the screen off and jumped out the second floor window with a Superman bath towel cape on. Watched the girl with long brown swishy hair who rode her pink sparkling bike back and forth in front of my house. Ran my bike into a parked school bus while watching the girl with long brown swishy hair ride her pink sparkling bike back around the block. Yech. Love hurts. I mean, you have to put your eyes on something. I had no idea then that people would stop looking at things except through a shiny screen.

I lay in bed watching the lights of cars on the four lane passing, beginning in a corner near the windows and then stretching like a dragon across the wall and round the corner. Where were people going that time of night? I lay on the bed cross-ways with arms dangling over the side, wide awake. Darkness hovered like a gargoyle outside my windows. When everyone else was asleep, I was awake, wondering how you could go to sleep if you were thinking about how you could go to sleep and then worrying that it was a problem to be thinking about how you shouldn't be thinking about how you should go to sleep. But I got to think about a lot of things that way. They were my own thoughts and not somebody else’. Thanks insomnia.

Everyone wasn't popular and happy all the time. I mean, I wasn’t popular at all and didn’t have 4287 Facebook friends. I had two honest-to-goodness-flesh-and-blood friends, and they were fast friends, the kind you could fight with and then make up with twice a day if need be. They lived across the street. My friend John's girlfriend busted up with him and he came and told me, and we took a walk. I said you wanna talk and he say nope. He was sad. I didn't talk. We went to Pizza Hut and he drowned his sorrows in a beer. I ordered him a pitcher. No one said boo about any ID. I didn't drink it. Hey, all we had was presence. We had no glossy little screens to stare into and stroke ourselves with, all those so-called friends.

Surfin' was what The Beach Boys did. Not the wondrous World Wide Web. I lay on the floor of my room and spun scratched Beach Boys records on my cheap record player, transported by the harmonies and ear-splitting screams of girls in the audience on their In Concert record that my cousin loaned me. Or I turned on the black light and played Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon. Or Ten Years After “I’d Love to Change the World.” I thought long and hard about the end of the world, scared out of mind by Hal Lindsey’s 666-Armageddon-Left Behind books and decided to believe in God. It was the only way. I clicked the link. Got connected.

All before the Internet.

[I am indebted to Emma Rathbone who, in her "Before the Internet," reminded me that there was life before the internet."]