In the Heat of the Day

IMG_0287"And the Lord appeared to him by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the door of his tent in the heat of the day.”

‭‭(Gen.‬ ‭18:1‬ ‭ESV‬‬)

In the desert the doves are the first birds to wake. Before a pre-dawn glow lights the mountains, their coos can be heard coaxing life back to their somnolent brethren, heads tucked beneath their feathers, a light breeze lifting their feathery down.

Off our balcony a mesquite tree shades. For approximately ten feet from the ground its trunk leans at a 25-degree angle before, at some point years ago, it reconsidered, took heart, and righted itself. "Be lifted up," God said, and it was so. Green, wispy leaves contrast with the blue sky, make a mottled, swaying, and hypnotic pattern across the balcony floor.

At twilight yesterday, the doves were also the house matrons shushing other birds as they bedded down for the night. Upwards of 50 birds settled into the tree, jumping from branch to branch, twittering and fussing at each other as the stolid doves tried to maintain order. Some sort of parasitic vine had hold of the tree, and where it clumped the birds nested. Some lodged alone on high branches, introverts seeking solitude; others, craving conversation, gossiped away the last light. Soon all the campers were ensconced, and by nightfall - devotion read, song sung, prayer offered (by the dove, of course) - all was quiet.

This morning they were gone, at work, or play, or perhaps both at once, their twittering constant.

At breakfast, a lone wren watched us eat from a perch no more than three feet away. Though small, it drew its breath and fluffed its feathers more than once. We were impressed but not afraid or provoked, if that were its point. It grew impatient of our leavings and left, lighting on the hot tile of a rooftop and, from there, flew on into the blue.

Some bird calls sound like questions; others, like nervous laughter; and yet others, like lullabies. One sounds like a rapid-fire ray gun. A small one. One even says, "I told you," one whose mate likely expelled him from hearth and home for a day, at least, until he changed his tune, stopped dredging up an old misstep. But he's still at it: "I told you." A pause. Then, "I told you." She's not having it.

The sun is high in the sky and bakes the sand, and I am siting here under Room 337's tree, under the tent flap or, if you will, the eave of the roof. Anything could happen. Last year at this time as I sat here a bobcat nonchalantly walked past me, no more than ten feet away and below. Yet I offered it nothing but the indignity of a photo of its hind parts. Yet today, on top of the twitter and twatter of the birds, all I have seen is the restless beating wings and bright heads of hummingbirds, yellow blooms of brittle-bush, green-branched palo verde trees, agave, cholla, and saguaro, butterflies in a dance, and the darkened peaks of the Catalina's, the paint of birch and fir. That's all.

But you never know. The Lord might show up, might walk right up, and after I fall down and spill a few words might speak to me as to a friend. And what He says might change the world a little or a lot, whether I live to see it, or not. You never know.


(Living In) Story Book Land

Storybookva2"[F]airy tales give us some hope of victory. The world is not to be understood in merely domestic categories, as though nothing existed that lay beyond our local and parochial concerns. Nor is it an unmeaning chaos, from which, to preserve our sanity, we need to avert our eyes. Fairyland is. . . the hint of a wilder and wider world than the domestic, from which the bolder of us might bring treasures if we can avoid its perils; a reminder of a world unconstrained by any of our familiar values, and threatening therefore to alienate us from our own; the dream of a world where everything can speak and everything contribute its own beauty to the growing whole."

(Stephen R.L. Clark, "Why We Believe in Fairies," in First Things, March 2017)

When I was a child and, along with my parents and younger sister making our way home from visiting relatives in Arlington, Virginia, my sister and I saw a billboard along the interstate advertising Story Book Land. My parents, though no doubt tired and longing for home, heeded our backseat pleas. From the front seat, there was a muted discussion and nods; our fate hung on gesture and tone, our hope faint. To our surprise, we turned off the highway and, in what seemed a few miles, reached the billboarded park, full of storybook characters set among a wood. I don't remember much of it, just the joy of what we might see, of characters we had read of coming to life. What I do remember is a giant Mother Goose beckoning at the entrance, a castle wall lining the car park, Humpty-Dumpty on a wall, the house of the three bears, a bridge across a stream, an old woman in a shoe. They were all there, all the ones I had read of, rhyme and story come alive.


872543e5bd7292168d303aa55507a8d3Story Book Land is a forgotten and neglected place. When Washington City Paper writer Eddie Dean wrote about it in 1995, likely 30 years after I visited, it had already been closed for more than ten years. Dean wrote that "When the park closed . . . the bucolic site—which boasted more than 100 life-size figures and two dozen storybook buildings—was left virtually intact, as if the owners meant to open it again someday." They never did. Mother Goose lay on the ground. Graffiti covered the buildings. Snow White's house had been used by the homeless. Vandals had beheaded some figures; one building was burnt. Less than one mile from Potomac Mills outlet, along US1, the site had been spared in part due to its status as wetlands. But then, by 2007, the whole area had been absorbed by a housing development, and the magic was really gone.

But this is not a tale of nostalgic longing but about what fired our imaginations. As children, we had not yet become materialists. We still believed that the worlds we read about in fairy tales were real or, at least, possibly real, that there was a "wilder and wider world than the domestic," the one parents and adults seemed to live in, the brick and mortar world of work and school and bills and taxes, a world bereft of magic. And yet as my parents shepherded us through that wood of fantasy, I suspect that somewhere deep down they hoped it or something like it was all true as well.

That was long ago, and far away. For most of us, our "magic forest of make-believe" (as Story Book Land heralded) has been clearcut. Life is not enchanted but simply what it is: asphalt and concrete and steel; bird and bear; a windswept prairie; atoms and quarks and lasers. Stuff. Things. Death and taxes. We long ago lost our wonder.

Christians profess a belief in the supernatural, in an unseen reality, yet we don't often act like it. In reading scripture, we spiritualize what we can't imagine is literal, pray to an unseen God and acknowledge an invisible heaven peopled by those who have gone on from here, and yet we mostly live our days not enraptured by what is behind what we see but stupefied by surface realities. A tree is only wood, a rock the mere leftover of some geological process, a mountain rising only to fall. What they are is what they are; nothing more.

But what if we took a different reading of scripture? Maybe we need to read Scripture as fairy tale, as a magical, astounding story of giants felled by little boys, of great armies put to run by angelic troops, of dead people coming back to life. A wood where rocks cry out, trees clap their hands, and mountains sing. And where, in the end, a magical, shining city comes down from the sky and heaven and earth become one. And no one dies. And no one cries.

"It is the mark of a good fairy-story, of the higher or more complete kind," said the great imagineer J.R.R. Tolkien, "that however wild its events, however fantastic or terrible the adventures, it can give to child or man that hears it, when the 'turn' comes, a catch of the breath, a beat and lifting of the heart, near to (or indeed accompanied by) tears, as keen as that given by any form of literary art, and having a peculiar quality."

"The Gospels contain a fairystory," said Tolkien, "or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories. . . .There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true, and none which so many sceptical men have accepted as true on its own merits. For the Art of it has the supremely convincing tone of Primary Art, that is, of Creation. To reject it leads either to sadness or to wrath."

I confess that often when I read the great narrative of Scripture, the words lie on the page, two-dimensional and flat. But on occasion, on the days when I am best seeking and best seeing, the golden book of stories becomes a Story Book Land and I walk in the wood of words come to life, where I marvel at our visitation by extra-terrestrial Life, where I am struck in wonder at the word or touch that heals and revives from a Being that deigns to take our form and walk among us, Spirit his way in and among us, unseen.

“How can a merely material world ever accommodate our own experience of life?,” says philosopher Stephen Clark. It can’t, says the Bible, which is full of non-human angelic and demonic beings, a world behind the world, “fairies gone away,” as the the materialists say, always going away. Only they haven’t. If we can’t believe in fairies, in an unseen world, says Clark, then there’s no believing Scripture, no room for anything but the material, nothing but the “motion of material parts.” Rather, “banishing the little people from our lives was only a prelude to dispensing with the notions of God and the soul of man. If we can’t believe in fairies, we cannot properly believe in anything at all.”

That day in Story Book Land, my sister and I knew better. Snow White and Little Red Riding Hood were real, somewhere. That place may be gone, ploughed under by progress, yet we still walk in that Land. The Big Bad Wolf lurks, and Humpty Dumpty has fallen and we still can’t put him back together. But Someone can. Someone who hasn’t gone away. Someone from a wilder and wider world who beckons us “come.”


Puzzling Through

Pieces-of-the-puzzle-1925425_1920My favorite puzzles are the kind other people “work,” because that’s what it is to me: work. When I look at a tabletop of 1000 ragged, zig-zaggedy colored cardboard cutouts, I am lost. My wife is happy, though, enchanted by the thought of a new puzzle to pore over. During the holidays she set up a table by the windows in the penumbra of our Christmas tree and opened up shop. Leave her alone for minute, take your eye off of her, and there she is bent over the table, puzzling her way to a completed picture --- a print of blooming flowers, cityscape, or animals. All the interstices of her day are filled with puzzling.

It’s a silent activity. There’s no humming satisfaction that attends it, no singing, no sighing of frustration, no exclamations of glee at finding the missing piece. Just a quiet joy, a dogged determination, a resilient spirit, a patient trying, trying, trying and succeeding, god mending the fabric of creation, disorder to order, chaos to creation.

I ask her what she likes about puzzles, about the pointless waste of time and unending frustration of it (the latter I keep to myself). “I like the satisfaction of finding the right piece,” she says, “working with my hands.” In saying this, she doesn’t even look up, the task before her. I look down at the 1000-plus puzzle pieces mottled before me, all various shades of sky, “subtle variations of dark to pale,” and shake my head. In their cardboard perplexity, they mock me. I try to appreciate this past time , and yet there are a thousand other things I would rather do, and they all start with “read.” If it were up to me, I’d scoop their unfitted and machine-hewn bodies back into the box and put them far way in some dark cabinet behind the Monopoly board. Let them cry for Mommy.

And yet she loves this. I know what part of it is for her. Part of it is that the disassembled puzzle on the table is a problem a little god can fix; most of the big ones require a bigger God, the God. Despite the fact that utopian schemes abound, humankind is not evolving to perfect peace and happiness and bliss; we may find a cure for the common cold, cancer, and Alzheimers, and yet something else will take us. We can’t fix the people around us, remedy human imperfectability. We can’t fix ourselves. That requires a better puzzler. “Two forward and one back, sings Bruce Cockburn, “blind fingers groping for the right track.” That, or a puzzle piece.

“It’s an escape. I’m not worrying about any other problems when I’m working a puzzle.”

I believe that. She’s puzzling away while squirrels chatter a window pane away, while blow hards fill the airwaves and people wander in the streets. Civilization and its discontents. The puzzle writ large right outside our windows. “The world is a puzzle,” says none other than Lemony Snicket, “and we cannot solve it alone.” I look outside, squint at the sunlight streaming in.

“Where’s Mom?” I say to my son later that day.

“She’s working a puzzle.”

I nod knowingly. I watched her begin this latest puzzle. She spread all the pieces out on the table, brooding over the deep, over the chaos, and yet a little light came. She pulled back her hair so she could concentrate, put her placid yet serious puzzling face on. Her hands moved over the pieces, trying one, then another, until there was the subtle click of a fit and the world sighed just a bit. A strand of hair broke free and traced her face, but she ignored it in her deliberation. In a process that must be inductive and innate, she discerned patterns of color and began grouping like colors together. Starting wth the periphery, she built a frame of the world, finding the edges and corners. Over time, it began to take shape. Even in its negative space, I discern what will come. I sense hope and promise, a time when all things fit.

And then, a few days later, she finishes. Leaning back, resting, I can almost hear her say, “It is good. It is very good.” I admire her work, my hand resting on her shoulder, and smile at her pleasure.

Well, it’s a start on the world.


Mountain, Be Thrown Down

IMG_0452I don't think anyone knows the difference between a mountain and a hill. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, "The British Ordnance Survey once defined a mountain as having 1,000 feet of elevation and less was a hill, but the distinction was abandoned sometime in the 1920's." It goes on to say that "The U.S. Board on Geographic Names once stated that the difference between a hill and a mountain in the U.S. was 1,000 feet of local relief, but even this was abandoned in the early 1970's." So, no one knows. But perhaps it is fair to say that a mountain is bigger than a hill, generally.

Last weekend my wife and I circumvented Oconeechee Mountain in Orange County. While the summit is the highest point in Orange County, the total rise in elevation from its low at the Eno River is only 350 feet, the summit topping out at a mere 867 feet. Consider this: the tallest building in Raleigh is the PNC Plaza building at 538 feet, so from Eno River to Summit, you've only climbed two-thirds way up the stairs of the PNC Building - which, by the way, is less scenic, from what I have seen. Still, it is enough. From the summit they say you can see the gray and balding heads or dreadlocks of every liberal in Orange County, which is no greater hyperbole than saying Oconeechee is a mountain. I can't verify that. If you don't like that joke, try this one: From the summit look north and you can see the trucks and guns and dogs of every conservative in Caswell County. I can't verify that either.

In my notebook from that day I wrote " burl - mountain laurel? - variegated green ground leaf - rock wall - white, sandy top soil," as reminders to summon up memories days later. Waking one night, in the quiet hours, the words helped me return. I lay in bed retracing my steps through the forest. I put my hand on the tree trunk's burl, a deformation, like a tumor, yet one that wood sculptors prize. Burls are the result of some stress - disease or fungus or injury - and yet become a beautiful metaphor for God's putting to good some suffering or other hardship we may endure. There's more. Many burls are hidden, attached to roots, and so like many hardships their possibility is uncovered later, after death, when all is exposed to light and the craftsmanship of God is known. Heady thoughts for wee hours.

Even in the night I hear the annoying hum of the traffic on Interstate 85, which runs surprisingly close to the south side of the mountain. But it's my dream, and I will it away and imagine the forest spreading south, with nothing but bear and bird between me and the nearest community. Where we turn to circumnavigate the mountain, heading north, I stoop to touch the forest floor, topped by a thin sprinkling of white sand. At first I think it must be that spread by trail maintenance crews, but it is smattered across the sloping, leaf-strewn ground, a mystery, yet perhaps a part of the more xeric (dry) soils of the south-facing slopes.

Reaching the north side, the flora changes. Mountain laurel, rhododendron, and evergreens thrive. The highway sounds subside. The river song invites. A cool breeze wafts through the trees, and if you sit on one of the boulder outcrops there you might think yourself in a cove in the Blue Ridge. The understory is covered in places with ferns, and a rock wall exposed by a quarry abandoned decades ago looms above us. She looks for a rock to throw in the river water, an impulse, a depth-sounding. She settles for a stick which, lightly touching the water, floats away, east, toward the Atlantic.

And then, I went back to sleep, my reverie ending before the long slog uphill - that is, up-mountain - back to our car.

I went to find a mountain as I thought it might help me visualize a passage of scripture that is astounding. Consider it alone, even in context, and it's a stiff drink of liquor, undiluted by tonic or water or juice. The Gospel passage recounts how returning from the country to Jerusalem one morning, the disciples are astonished to see a fig tree from the day before that Jesus had cursed, now withered. Here's the bracing draught given by Jesus: "Have faith in God. Truly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, 'Be taken up and thrown into the sea,' and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says will come to pass, it will be done for him. Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours" (Mk. 11: 22-24).

Now wait. Before you qualify these words of Jesus, before you empty them of meaning by explaining them away and saying what Jesus could not have meant, let the power of the words wash over you. Decline commentary. Consider how they might have been heard by first-century disciples who had nothing but Law and Prophet for context and yet who had just seen Jesus command nature with His word to the fig tree. The message: God is powerful enough to move mountains of doubt, unbelief, suffering, sickness, unemployment, mental illness, and even death. The world bows to His word. Reading it, I can only pray, "Lord, I believe you can move mountains; yet help my flatlander's unbelief. Grow my faith."

Once, after that day, I was praying about a mountain in my life. Instinctively, reflexively, I reached out and pushed it away with my hands. I said "Be taken up and thrown into the sea." I'm waiting to hear the splash, to watch it slide away down the Eno to the sea, thrown down at His word.


Abide

PAY-LionsSometimes writing is like trying to push an oversized pencil across the page. My fingers won’t cooperate. The instrument is too blunt. The letters are misshapen and, if I am not careful, smudged. A mess. Like in third grade when I was tasked with helping a classmate who had fallen behind in his writing. I sidled up to him as he bent over the lined page, his pencil thick and unwieldy in his hand. Great tears welled up and dropped on the letters which wobbled on the lines, pooling there, and with a careless movement of his palm, smeared a leaden stew across the instrument of his torture. We began again.

But I’m not sad, just cloudy. I woke today lethargic, sluggish. I told a friend at church that I blamed the excess of chocolate consumed the prior evening, the nearest to a hangover I’d ever had. During communion I took grape juice, not wine, for the least profound of reasons: the juice was closer and took less effort to reach. Home, I stared at the computer screen for ten minutes before I realized what I was doing --- that is, nothing. I rested my head in my hands for a time, for it felt too heavy to hold up. Mustering all my residual energy, I put on a coat and scooped bird seed into a bucket from the tin in the garage and walked to the feeders in the backyard and dropped it in. Looking up, exhausted, I saw the birds watching me from the uppermost branches, twittering in green boughs against blue sky, waiting. Returning, I lay crossways over the bed, prone, my arms dangling over the side like a lion in the midday heat flung over a branch.

“I am the vine; you are the branches,” says Jesus. “If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing” (Jn. 15:5). A few days ago I posted this verse on a yellow sticky note on the edge of my computer screen, letting it hang there, the meaning elusive. Maybe lethargy, a wasted day, a day when you can’t get your life in motion, is a day that you can be reminded that it is God who works in us to bear fruit, not us.

In his classic work, Abide in Christ, Andrew Murray says that the “connection between the vine and the branch is a living one. No external, temporary union will suffice; no work of man can effect it: the branch, whether an original or an engrafted one, is such only by the Creator's own work, in virtue of which the life, the sap, the fatness, and the fruitfulness of the vine communicate themselves to the branch. And just so it is with the believer, too. His union with his Lord is no work of human wisdom or human will, but an act of God, by which the closest and most complete life-union is effected between the Son of God and the believer.” The point of these long and fat sentences: the fruit of life in Christ is God-produced, not human-engineered. A day of barrenness is to be expected, the winter in a day, the spring to follow.

My copy of Abide in Christ is a dog-eared one, inherited from my late mother, a paperback with a faded rendering of a clump of grapes on its cover. An insomniac, I imagine my mother awake in the wee hours reading, thankful, perhaps, for the quiet hours within which to rest in words, her mind perhaps stirred awake by the hope of reading. Her days had little time for reading, with four children, a house to clean, and three meals to prepare every day. So, the night, I suspect, became a refuge.

Abide. To wait for, one dictionary definition says. To sit alone in the quiet. To get busy, at nothing. To lay down in the deep rest of the Father and let Him do the deep and hidden work of change. Murray says that we can “abandon all anxiety about your growth and progress to the God who has undertaken to establish you in the Vine, and feel what a joy it is to know that God alone has charge.”

All of which means I can go back to bed, lay my pencil down, crumple the paper and throw it in the waste bin, and rest. Rest in Christ. Abide in Him. And that’s not nothing.


Walking in Otherness


SummerReadingBook.jpg.560x0_q80_crop-smart“And this is what I learned: that the world’s otherness is antidote to confusion, that standing within this otherness -- the beauty and mystery of the world, out in the fields or deep inside books -- can re-dignify the worst-stung heart.”

(Mary Oliver, in “Staying Alive,” from Upstream)

Outside, it is a balmy 26 degrees -- balmy in Minnesota, that is. A two-inch mix of snow and ice lays on the ground, and at this late time of day, splintered sunlight runs longwise across the forest floor. Day is waning. The sparrows and towhees are oblivious to cold, apparently, their thin legs pattering about the base of the feeder.

Yesterday, we saw three deer grazing behind the fence, in gray winter coats. Even at 100 paces from us and behind windows, one knew of our presence, alert to our movements. This morning my wife saw their plot: overnight, they scaled our slight fence, stole unhindered to our feeders, and purloined the birds’ Sunday rations. In two places just inside the fence, a confusion of hoof prints marked their point of entry, one where they sailed easily over a pile of unused slate, a daunting span.

And now the sun has slipped low on the horizon, the backyard in shadow but my westward facing window ablaze, momentarily -- all of this, a few minutes reflection, an “antidote to confusion.” I am no different from you; I have too much to do, too many things jumbled in my mind, too much left undone. Creation is a calming balm. The sun comes up and then goes down, and the next day God says, with the smile of a child, “Do it again.”

I haven’t really been outside in now two days, what with all the ice and frigid temperatures. So, I am limited to what I can see out my window and what I can see through my books. I finished Alexander McCall Smith’s Precious and Grace, the latest installment of his No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series. In it Mma Ramotswe, the traditionally built woman detective of Gaborone, Botswana, solves a mystery with her usual grace, and as does all the books in the series this tale does not ignore the fact that evil exists in the world but lays great stress on that which is good, true, and beautiful --- and, in this one, gives a mighty lesson about the healing power of forgiveness for a wrong done in the distant past, one unredressed. When a sometimes employee, Mr. Polopetsi is helped out of a serious, even criminal dilemma, he says “I do not deserve such a good friend, Mma. You are like Jesus Christ himself.” Or, as he said upon her denial, “Maybe you are like his sister, Mma.” Reading that book I was for a time in a better Africa.

But finishing it, I picked up a book I bought six years ago but which has lain unread under my nightstand, the place where books go that you intend to read but never get to and, in the end, may be forgotten. Not this time. Peter Godwin’s The Fear: Robert Mugabe and the Martyrdom of Zimbabwe, is a sad contrast to the peaceable society of Precious and Grace. Godwin is a white Rhodesian, a journalist, and I had previously read his memoir of the fall of Zimbabwe into dictatorial hands, entitled When a Crocodile Eats the Sun. I’m not through it. It is a chronicle of the destruction of a beautiful, productive country at the hands of one man, Robert Mugabe, who (I checked) remains in power at the age of 92. But reading these books end to end is also an antidote to confusion: in them I have a fresh sense of the stark difference between good and evil, which is also an “antidote to confusion.”

Behind the fence two squirrels chase each other in circles in what to my eyes looks like play. One sparrow tittered at another, who flitted off, for now, in what looks like a spat over food or turf. The sun, far on the horizon, flirts with descent yet, in moments while I watch, drops from sight, like an over-zealous actor pulled from the stage.

I might just take a walk, in the otherness of book or field. If it’s cold, I’ll wrap myself in a coat of wool or memory and be off, returning numbed by mystery.


A Christmas Dream?

IMG_0284'Twas the night before Christmas and I am suddenly wide awake, my company only the furnace hum. 3:29 am.

"I'm going to get up for a bit," I say to my wife.

"What?"

"I'm going to get up. I need to write something down, a dream. It's funny." It wasn't.

"Won't you remember it?"

I can barely remember the children's names at this time of night. "No, I'll forget." I add, "I won't be long."

"Ok."

My wife sleeps cat-sleep. I can wake her, tell her something, and then she will return to sleep immediately, like there is an on-off switch. Once I woke her three times in six minutes, just to ask her what dream she had, and each time she described a different dream. It's a gift.

I shuffle down the hallway, lit by my awakened cell phone, and settle into the chair by the window overlooking the drive. I prop the phone on the edge of the desk, take a pad of paper and pen, and scratch out a few words to capture my dream. This is what I wrote:

I was standing in front of the congregation of my church. I had volunteered for a reading of a portion of the Gospel of Luke, the Magnificat to be exact, and I had practiced reading it aloud to myself earlier in the day. I printed it in 16 point font to make sure I could see it. I looked out over a church body swelled by Chreasters, those folks that come only on Christmas and Easter.

I began well enough but then stumble over a word, began again, and then the words blurred. Phrases seemed to be missing. "I'm sorry," I said, and I was aware that I had begun to ad lib, to fill in the gaps, at one point waxing on about the virgin birth. I looked up, noticed the pastor looking at me, quizzically. I was horrified. Worse, Rhett, one-half of the YouTube sensation of Rhett and Link, was in the audience, his stack of hair sailing over the congregation. I looked down. "I'm sorry," I said, and I turned to walk off the stage. A few muffled claps followed. I gathered my wife and and we made a hasty exit as the next hymn began.

"Hey, that was great. Thanks."

It was Gerald. "What?"

"That was great. Really."

"Gerald, that was terrible. It was like I fell down on the way here, lost half the printed text, bumped my head, and lost my mind."

"Happens to me all the time."

"I doubt that."

Then I woke up.

And that's it. I got up just to write that down. The literary community will thank me one day for my discipline, for suffering for art and all that.

I looked out the window. Every house was dark but one, the one with small children, the one where a weary dad was likely assembling a bicycle, or some other toy with obtuse, 9-point font instructions. Not a creature was stirring in the circle of light cast by the streetlight. I put the pen down, and stood to return to bed. Then, I heard a guffaw from the downstairs. I listened, heard some shuffling about. I walked to the landing of the back stairs and cocked my head, listening again. It sounded like someone was down there. I started down the stairs, paused and grabbed a hand weight for protection. Protection from what, I wondered.

I started down, carefully so as not to make the step creak. Half way down I heard a creak behind me, turned, and saw my traditionally built cat two steps behind me, her eyes lit by the moonlight. I leaned down, whispered, "What part of 'not a creature was stirring' did you not get?" She had that hurt expression. "Ok, you can come, but put a lid on it."

A sense of deja vu swept over me.

Rounding the corner at the bottom of the stairs, I said, "You go that way, through the playroom, and I'll go the other." She did the opposite, heading for the food bowl, seeking sustenance before taking on the intruder. I continued on, muttering something about "dog next time."

Rounding the corner of the playroom, I saw him. Santa. Seriously. Again. He was smoking a cigar. We don't allow smoking in the house, but I let it go. It was Santa. He was just humming to himself, satisfied, pulling presents out of a bag. Finishing, he glanced around, hands on hips. I had a few questions.

"Hey Santa, how's it going?" Lame.

"Couldn't be better. Left a few things for you. You've been good, right?"

"Well, you see. . ."

"Santa believes in grace. Don't sweat it."

"That's a relief." He seemed harmless. I put the hand weight down, my hand sweaty from gripping it. "Santa, I got a few questions."

"Shoot."

"Well, for one, how do you get all those presents in that bag?"

"Elementary physics. Ask your son."

"Right. Well, and how do you make it to all the houses you need to get to, I mean, excluding those of non-believers, all in one night?"

"Time is malleable."

"I thought you'd say that."

"Ever had to wait a long time for something when you had nothing else to do? Feels like time stands still, right?

"Yeah." My mind floated back to fourth grade and Mrs. Hedrick's class, me watching the second hand on the big clock on the wall ticking down the seconds, like eternity, until the 3:30 bell. "Yeah, I know what you mean."

"I thought you would."

That summed up my inquiries. But I didn't want him to leave. He took a long drag on the cigar. "Uh, how's Mrs. Claus?"

"Better than ever. A looker, that one."

"Right. I mean. . ."

"Don't worry about it. She's my type, rotund and sassy."

"Well look, you don't have to leave via the chimney. I haven't had it cleaned lately."

"Don't need it. We've modernized. Teleportation. But look, give my best to your family. Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night, you know, and all that."

And with that, he vanished. I turned and made my way through the kitchen, turned the corner, and began up the stairs, aware of the cat dogging my steps. I leaned down, whispered, "Did you see that?" She nodded. "I hope you've been good." She nodded.

At the landing I heard the sleepy voice of my 24-year old son: "Dad, did Santa come?"

"He said he was."

"Leave anything?"

"Yep. I have some questions for you in the morning."

"I've been good, mostly."

"No, not about that. About quantum physics, time, stuff like that."

"You ok?"

"Sure. Go back to sleep."

I settled back into bed.

"Did you see Santa? My wife. On.

"Yep."

"That's what you said last year."

"I know. Except this time we were talking about quantum physics, time, and stuff like that."

All was silent. Off. She was asleep. I lay there. The furnace came on, humming. 'Twas the night before Christmas, I thought, all through the house, and no one believes me. I don't even know if I believe me.

I'm going to stop reading at lessons and carols services. It messes you up.


On the Eve, Lit

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Light of lights! All gloom dispelling,
Thou didst come to make thy dwelling
Here within our world of sight.
Lord, in pity and in power,
Thou Didst in our darkest hour
Rend the clouds and show thy light.

(St. Thomas of Aquinas)

Waking today I heard rain on the roof, a light drizzle, a muted light filtering through a gray sky and shades. Good, I thought, no walk today, no layers of clothing to fend off cold, no forcing myself out of bed. I lay on my stomach, my head turned toward the edge of the bed, my arm trailing the floor. Opening one uncovered eye, my lesser cat stared at me from the shadows, an inchoate question in her expression. “Yes,” I said. She skittered away at my slight movement, satisfied.

Rising, I decided to turn all the indoor and outdoor Christmas lights on, as a rebel act against dark and dank and gift to Duke Power. This is no small thing. I shuffled from one window candle to another, an occasional floorboard creaking under my presence. Seven bulbs must be turned in their casings, a church light plugged in, tree lights lit, garland lights plugged in (behind the piano, where I must bend awkwardly to reach). Kitchen candle, click, and it lights. And then there is outside. Out the front door I step, bend over the porch rail, plug in the porch lights and tree lights. I walk to the natural area, aware that I may be an unwelcome sight to my just-awoken neighbors in my lounging clothes, bend and press the button that illuminates the never-amounted-to-much-of-anything dogwoods that live in the yard, and turn for the door, my little rogue war over. “The light shines in the darkness,” I think, “and the darkness has not overcome it.”

The first Christmas lights, of course, were candles on trees. (No, I wasn’t alive then, children.) A bucket of water and blankets were kept nearby. It began in Germany, some say with Martin Luther. Walking in the woods one night, Luther saw the starlight filtered through the evergreens. Ace Collins writes that Luther “felt as if the hand of God had touched his soul and had allowed him to see the world in a much different way,” that it brought him a great sense of peace. He strapped candleholders to his family’s Christmas tree and lit the candles, a practice soon duplicated, and fire departments grew in importance and business. We unplug our tree lights when we leave the house, fearing fire, but it’s likely that this practice is an unnecessary vestige of our parents’ 1920’s practice of dousing tree candles before bed or leaving home, the danger likely no more than that from any other electric light left on. And yet the practice summons up my parents’ cautionary admonitions to “unplug the tree lights” and apocalyptic stories of house fires from tree lights left on, stories that rank right up their with those scary evening church showings of the countdown to Rapture.

Oh, I forgot the star. I walk to the garage, step down two steps in the dim light, and flip the switch. A Moravian star, not too common in these parts, illumines our side porch, at a safe height to all but our six-foot-seven neighbor who may leave it swinging. In it lives my childhood home, the star above our front porch, and my mother, Moravian. I’ve read that they originated in the Moravian boarding schools in Germany in the nineteenth century as an exercise in geometry. They are an exercise in patience as well, if you have tried to assemble one. There are 26 points and the fickle ties that hold them together often break. But then, they are a symbol of hope and once together together, if you are lucky, a hope that will endure.

I consider the lights on the trees in our back yard, the multi-colored ones safely shielded from my white-bulb neighbors, and turn for the back door, but reconsider. Rain. When it rains, plugging in both front and back lights causes an electrical disturbance (my word), and Duke Power shuts them both down. The plugs are not properly grounded, my son tells me. Instead, I decide to feed the birds, peckish this morning at empty feeders. “Don’t give them much,” my wife says, “as the deer just come and eat it,” then reconsiders: “Well, it is Christmas, after all.” I carry a bucket of seed around the garage, through the sticking gate, and fill them both. I imagine caramel deer eyes watching and feel, for a moment, like Santa. Imbued by good cheer, I let fall more than a few seed to the ground, for the rascal squirrels who no doubt haven’t been good this year.

I look back through the windows, see the lit tree, the kitchen tree, the bright candle above the sink. The rain has stopped. Yesterday, on the eve of Christmas Eve, Mr. Lassiter went up on the rooftop and slay the leaves and pine straw that clogged my gutters. What a thing to do on the eve of Christmas Eve, I think, so matter-of-factly, as if it was just any other day, and I wonder if he is up on a roof today, like any day.

It’s not any other day. It’s Christmas Eve. Burn the lights. Watch for the Light. Be ready.


A Christmas for Misfits

IMG_0339"For God so loved the world. . ." (Jn. 3:16a)

It's not mere sentiment to observe that God loves everything, not just generally but particularly. Walking on the beach today, I stooped to look at shells broken and misshapen, most of dull luster and none extraordinary, and it dawned on me that if God so loves the world (cosmos) then he loves each particular shell, every grain of sand, every atom, and even the infinitesimally small particles or waves of sub-atomic matter and vast reaches of outer space. Even an unlovely, craggy, orphan asteroid careening through the cold and barren dark matter of space. But what does it mean to say that God loves particularly?

In many of Flannery O'Connor's short stories the characters are the grotesque, ugly in appearance or manner, and in O'Connor's lucid if starkly honest prose they shock or repel us in the god-forsakenness of their particularity. A Temple of the Holy Ghost sounds a promising short story, for example, yet not quite in the way you might imagine, unless you know O'Connor's work. An unnamed 12-year old child is the main character, but we don't like her. She is very intelligent and yet disrespectful, spiteful, mocking, and cruel in her behavior, and O'Connor describes her as unattractive not only in manner but in outward appearance, a fat child with braces. Her two 14-year old cousins come for a weekend visit from the convent school and she sets about belittling them, regarding them as "practically morons." They go to the fair with two neighbor boys, Wendell and Cory, one of whom she describes as a "big dumb Church of God ox," both of them as "stupid idiots." Out of the emptiness of her obligatory bedside prayer all she could muster was "Lord, Lord, thank you that I'm not in the Church of God." And then there's the bald-headed Mr. Chetham with the protruding stomach and the sweaty, 250-pound, cigar-smoking Alonzo Myers.

The cousins call each other Temple of the Holy Ghost One and Temple of the Holy Ghost Two, a joke at the expense of the nuns at the convent, and yet the child takes it to heart. In a line at the heart of the story's meaning, O'Connor writes of the child's inner dialog: "I am a Temple of the Holy Ghost, she said to herself, and was pleased with the phrase. It made her feel as if somebody had given her a present." Though she didn't go with the cousins to the fair, again for spite, she drew on her over-wrought imagination, one provoked by the cousins' telling of what they saw, attending a "freak show" where a person came on stage and revealed that God made him or her both male and female, saying to the hushed crowd attending, "God done this to me and I praise Him," and "Raise yourself up. A temple of the Holy Ghost. You! You are God's temple, don't you know? God's Spirit has a dwelling in you, don't you know?"

We don't want to look at the characters that take shape on the pages of O'Connor's story. Perhaps because what she shows us is ourself. The ugliness of the child, the triviality of the cousins, the homely appearance of other characters, and even the freakish appearance of the hermaphrodite at the fair (which we temper by calling "inter-sexed" nowadays), are ourselves writ large. She's saying that the Kingdom of God is for the misshapen and grotesque, for the non-beautiful people of the world, the ones that offend and shock. She is saying that the Kingdom is for people like us who, though perhaps more shapely in appearance, have equally misshapen hearts, people who need a Savior. Even ugly, dull, and broken shells matter to God. We are not crushed underfoot but loved.

In Tim Keller's Hidden Christmas: The Surprising Truth Behind the Birth of Christ, he draws our attention to the genealogy of Jesus, to, again, its particularity. In stark contrast to other ancient genealogies, that of Jesus lists five women, three of whom were Gentiles (Tamar, Rahab, and Ruth) and,therefore, to ancient Jews, unclean. Not only that but attention is drawn to immorality: Perez and Zerah were the result of an incestuous relationship between Judah and Tamar; Rahab was a prostitute; and Bathsheba, who is mentioned only as the one who "had been Uriah's wife," engaged in an adulterous affair with David, the latter the murderer of Uriah, a man who had been loyal to him.

A freak show. A grotesque family line. Broken shells. Temples of the Holy Ghost. A story worthy of O'Connor's telling, peopled with the sin-soaked, Christ-haunted human ancestors of the One to come. In Keller's telling, they were "cultural outsiders, racial outsiders, and gender outsiders," as well as moral failures. Their inclusion in the line of Jesus is, he says, a reminder that the culturally excluded can be included in Jesus' family. That's us: washed up, beaten by the waves of life, dull and unlovely, and yet greatly loved, particularly loved.

"God done this to me and I praise Him," said the freak. He allowed us to be afflicted by sin, whatever his purposes, and yet He came into the line of our sordid race and died a particular death for a particular person. Me. You. And He made us Temples of the Holy Ghost, all of which feels like a present. Because it is.

Christmas is especially for the misfit, misshapen, and malformed, for bent and unlovely people. Jesus comes to us as a present, by grace, the Holy Ghost in tow, and because of His gift everything is different. If He has that love for the world, so can we. O'Connor suggests that great gift in her conclusion, pointing to the great sacrifice He made for the unlovely. Looking pensively out over the fields, the child sees the sun setting: "The sun was a huge red ball like an elevated Host drenched in blood and when it sank out of sight, it left a line in the sky like a red clay road hanging over the trees." Follow that road and we"ll get Home.


The Field of Our Souls

IMG_0264On a one acre tract behind my grandmother's house, she planted turnips and cabbage, corn and cucumbers, pumpkins and watermelons, and more. Each Spring she tilled the field, turning over the hardened ground, plowing under old growth and unsettling the compacted soil. Black earth yielded under her plow. From my viewpoint behind the fence, peering between the wires, she seemed invincible, a sturdy master of the field. While I only remember her hitched to a bobbing gasoline-powered tiller, I recall being told she earlier plowed behind a horse, the stirrups thrown over each shoulder.

Most of us have no experience with tilling fields, so when we read in Genesis of that primary task of the newly created man, we don't fully appreciate it. "God placed the man in the garden to till it and keep it," says the writer of Genesis. (2:18), and it that one pregnant sentence humankind's mandate is subsumed: break up, up end, turnover, and expose --- disintegration wth the end of integration, breaking apart to make whole. Yet if in fact we are made in God's image, then we image Him in his own tilling and keeping, in his own creative destruction.

Psychologists speak of cognitive dissonance, a kind of mental stress produced when we hold two different ideas or when our beliefs don't match our behavior. God can be its agent. The unsettling conviction that we are hypocrites, that our actions don't align with our beliefs, is disintegrating: we lack integrity. God take s a tiller to our complacency, upends our sense that we are OK, and shows us just how sinful we are. Yet he disintegrates us only to assist us in reintegrating word and deed. He is interested in the integrity of our soil, that we have fruit, a good yield.

Hearkening back to Genesis 1:28, another portion of the creation account, humankind is instructed to "subdue" the earth. The Hebrew for subdue is a very strong word. The Westminster Shorter Catechism says that "Christ executeth the office of a King, in subduing us to himself." So, God is at work subduing our hearts, upending our lives in order to make us fruitful. Denis Haack says that what God is really up to is creating disequilibrium, a "state of unease, sometimes severe, that occurs when a person experiences or learns something that does not fit into their preconceived view of life and reality." Like cognitive dissonance, few can live with the dis-ease, and so, as he notes, we seek equilibrium, either by changing or transforming our worldview to accommodate the new information or by rejecting the new information and clinging to our old framework.

Cognitive dissonance. Disequilibrium. Dis-integration. A mismatch between who we think or say we are and who in reality we are, between word and deed. It's what leads even the Apostle Paul to cry out "For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. . . . Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?" (Rom. 7:19, 24). There is only One. The One who destroys our petty idols, who shatters our tidy compaction and turns over our lives, is the same one who gives us life, who produces fruit, who reaches down into the soil of our hearts and does a tiller's work.

There is more to do than ploughing a field. After, my grandmother walked the rows, stooped over, and planted seeds by hand. It was dirty work, her hands in black earth, breaking up resistant clods and smoothing over holes filled with seeds. I watched her stand, hands on hips, and (I now imagine) sigh a long exhalation over her work and think, "It is good." Through the fence where I watched then, she was just an old lady in a field, bonnet to the sky, yet through the field of time, she is God brooding over the field of our souls.


But, the Children

$_32When I began lighting trees for Christmas in the lawn surrounding my home, I was a young man. There was a certain excitement about sinuous cords and electricity, star lights in a winter chill. And for the lights, foreign born and cheap, it was their month of glory, or so I liked to imagine. No longer mute, they sang from the trees with their humming electrical hearts.

Yet, I confess, I did not know the trajectory of my passion. What began with three trees expanded to a drapery of lights over the azaleas, to the Osthmantus trees in the backyard, to the large and unknown tree that brushes against the playroom wall, to all the shrubbery and plantings that hugged the back wall. I confess a tiny bit of resentment grew in my heart.

A few years ago, I was at work in mid-November with, of course, the tree lights. I woke them from their hibernation under the eaves of the house where they lay coiled and cabined, untangled them from their long sleep, and juiced them to see if they lived on, lit for another year. Those that didn't, that were either dark or significantly dark, I consigned to hell which, for such tawdry baubles, means the rubbish bin. I show mercy on whom I will show mercy and have not the power to redeem nor repair their darkened souls.

Once the wheat is separated from the chaff, I drug the bin in which they rested down the stairs, or hefted them, depending on my mood, and sat them at the top of the driveway, abuzz in gathering anticipation. I gathered electrical cords, laid the infrastructure in the beds of pine straw, and plotted my work of creation. Using a perhaps six foot orange pole of unknown origin, I began carefully, like an artist at canvas, hoisting the strands and laying them carefully around the tree. And yet, I tire and soon revert to more abstract art, throwing handfuls of lights over the tallish upper branches of the trees, randomly, like the musical compositions of John Cage or the "paintings" of monkeys and elephants. My method is rude, but effective. Viewed from a distance, through squinted eyes, it is an impressionist painting, I think.

Yet back to that tiny bit of resentment. In throwing handfuls of lights a few years ago, I apparently injured my rotator cuff, producing pain and leading to surgery. No more abstract act. No more throwing lights. It's just not the same. I have suffered for my art.

This year I said to my wife, just on the eve of winter, "Maybe we can just not put up the lights this year." And she said, "But the children would be disappointed." Oh yes, the children. For a moment I imagined our laconic cats watching from the windows, noses pressed to glass, dispassionately observing, not a single thought of Christmas lights in their heads or, for that matter, any thought in their noggins. Yet perhaps even such as these desire to look into such things.

But, the children. Their disappointment. About that she is probably right, so I reconsidered. Last Sunday afternoon, after a nap, near twilight, on the eve of dinner, after the consolations of church, we tackled the first tree. Last year she had taken down the lights, which is my least favorite part of the job, separating them by tree, coiling them carefully, and storing them away not under the eaves but in the garage. It is a more appropriate place, and she was good to them, and yet, as you will see, the new lodgings bred some resentment.

All out, we took to the lower tree. She climbed to the top of a teetering ladder, as I comforted myself by the fact that a fall would be into a soft pine straw bed. Or on me. She wrapped an unlit cord around the treetop, a beginning. Then, done, we plugged it in. Nearly one-half the strand was dark. A resentful strand. She looked at me. I looked at her. A small, silent curse -- no, a pre-curse -- passed between our faces. "Don't cuss," I said. But of course she wouldn't. We smiled slight smiles and let go the curse. "Let's jiggle it," I said, a remedy for most mechanical malfunctions, and we did, and yet we failed to revive it. Reprobate, I thought. We ripped it down. I consigned it to, where else, but eternal damnation.

In the end, 90 minutes later, in the dark, we finished one tree. She stood back, smiling. "It looks wonderful, the best ever," she said, unfailingly cheerful. Stepping back to look, I felt a crunch underfoot. Oh, the faulty light string. Sorry, I thought, as I looked down. But I wasn’t. Who started all this anyway? And don’t say Tim Allen.

But, the children. In the end, it will all be worth it, I think, their lit faces basking in the window candles, the buzz of electricity humming in their ears, and the starry cheer of a lit lawn lifting their hearts on a cold and rainy day. In the light of it, even the melancholy brighten. Christmas is coming.


A Way of Seeing

The desk at which I sit is in a room at the edge of the continent, suspended over a spit of land that but for intervention might just as easily not have been. Orin Pilkey, a geologist who taught at Duke University, argued passionately over the years that barrier islands should be allowed to move, to erode on the seaward side and accrete on the sound side, God shuffling sand in the sandbox of time. But, thanks to the Army Corp of Engineers, it was not to be. And so, here I am.

On one corner of the desk is the slightly askew biography of E.B. White which I just completed in the car today, waiting while my wife shopped. I love to shop with my wife, in the car, or on a bench, with a book, moving in interstate commerce like a man in a dream. There are snippets of conversation and lunch and public displays of affection (hand-holding) interspersed with the threads of Andy and Katherine White's long lives together which I cannot dispel but which float in and out of the stores, like wispy contrails of the past. In the boutiques I am welcome, and yet my eyes glaze over in the face of choices, like the 150 different kinds of tea that a buoyant clerk told us about. I fixate on text - a greeting card, a cookbook, a plaque, a sign - until awakened by my wife's bright smile and movement toward the door. Like Andy and Katherine, we make a wonderful waste of time together until, my 30 minutes up, "I'll feed the meter," I say, and I retreat to the car on a cobblestone side street after sliding a quarter in the slit of the sentry's metallic face, its hiss its only acknowledgement of my ransom. Captive, I read.

Otherwise, my desk holds one too-thin billfold which, in Millennial fashion, has barely any cash, as well as a coupon for ten dollars off at the dry cleaners, ragged from where I tore it, but the sight of which and the thought of its slight savings bringing an inner smile. Sad, isn't it, this frugal delight? But, to continue, there are spare rings from our just-hung curtains, hoisted by Paul from New Jersey who has lived here for 23 years and is remodeling his own home and who loves to talk. And there is a dish of quarters and pennies, for laundry or parking meters or just to hold so to enjoy the tactile feel of saving, a Bible, unmarked, because I dislike writing in my books, a devotional, My Utmost for His Highest, in which today Oswald Chambers exhorted me across the corridors of time to "stop listening to the tyranny of [my] individual natural life and win freedom into the spiritual life," and, sideways, buried under E.B. White, a book that I mean to read, entitled Befriend, commanding by its presence, and, awaiting a new home, a bookmark holding the word "ruminate," which, I suppose, is what I do: ruminate. Mull. Ponder. Essay.

At the far-right corner of the desk, underneath a dish, which is underneath a pair of reading glasses which someone lately needs, is a copy of William Strunk and E.B. White's The Elements of Style, a masterpiece of brevity, clarity, and wit. (I have four copies, in different places, for backup upon backup.) Though commanding in tone, White once wrote that in writing the book he felt like he was "posing as an expert on rhetoric" when the truth was that he did his own writing "by ear. . .and seldom with any exact notion of what was going on under the hood." And yet somehow the pistons fired in his writing and he drove on, leaving us in the wake of his pure exhaust. Who can ever forget the memorable beginning of Charlotte's Web: "Where's Papa going with that ax?, says Fern to his mother, and with that we see the open road of both peril and promise.

It's sad to me that the last book on the desk, Edith Schaeffer's A Way of Seeing, has long been out of print, but then it came out in 1977, nearly 40 years ago. In every circumstance Edith saw the hand of God, and the short ruminations here are, in her words, "seeds for you to plant and watch grow in your own mind" --- a beginning, embryonic and not yet grown.

My desk measures three by four feet, a small piece of real estate in a vast universe. Yet the few items here contain worlds. "Where are we going tomorrow?," I say, and we conclude: nowhere. Why should we? I cannot even plumb the depths of twelve square feet of desk.


Creation's Balm

"Be still, and know that I am God" (Ps. 46:10a, ESV)
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Yesterday, in the village of Crossnore, I bought a packet of cards illustrated by Kyron, age 11. "When I am upset," Kyron says, "it helps to look and listen to God's creations." He grasped a truth that many adults can't seem to hold: in a rapidly moving world flickering by, one bathed in the noise of social media, the natural world's relative calm and peace is a balm to the soul.

South of Crossnore, we stopped for lunch at Louise's Rock House Restaurant, whose claim to fame is that it is built on the confluence of three counties, the server seemed grumpy, short. Glasses were set on the table with a thud. The food, once served, was palatable but without promise, not exactly what a friend had enthusiastically recommended. But when I tasted the strawberry rhubarb pie, the clouds parted. I lifted it to eye level. "It's like looking back at the Old Testament in light of the New, a new dispensation," I said. "Grace," a friend more succinctly stated. Suddenly, the main course was remembered more fondly. Perhaps that had been a smile behind the crust of our server's face, her brusqueness just her way, the odd geography of serving in three counties. On the way out she even thanked us.

At any given moment there are more than a few people upset in the world. Drop your present focus, for a moment, and consider what those on the eve and even end of World War II faced: the upset of world conflagration. E.B. White, who suffered from anxiety and sometimes acute depression throughout his life, was one of them. To calm what he called the "mice in his head," he husbanded his animals, took care of his saltwater farm, went sailing in the cold Atlantic waters off the shore of Maine, let the dachshund in, then out. The animals he could do something about; war, not much.

White also wrote of Stuart Little, a two-inch tall son of a New York couple who looks surprisingly like a mouse and yet who despite his smallish size leaves the city on an adventure --- life, really --- and heads north. We don't ever learn the end of his adventure, what he is looking for or what he does, but it is telling where the author places Stuart: in the natural world.

Right before leaving the city, Stuart has a conversation with a repairman who recommended north as a good direction. "Following a broken telephone line north," the repairman said, "I have come upon some wonderful places. Swamps where cedars grow and turtles wait on logs but not for anything in particular; fields bordered by crooked fences broken by years of standing still; orchards so old they have forgotten where the farmhouse is. In the north I have eaten my lunch on pastures rank with ferns and junipers, all under fair skies with a wind blowing. My business has taken me into spruce woods on winter nights where the snow lay deep and soft, a perfect place for a carnival of rabbits." The unusually pensive repairman concludes by saying that, "I know these places well. They are a long way from here --- don't forget that. And a person who is looking for something doesn't travel very fast."

It's as if White is saying that life is challenging, upsetting even, busy, fast, and broken, and yet take courage, he says, from the enduring elements of the natural world around you. Pluck and passion and attention to God's gifts will take you far --- perhaps, even, calm the "mice in your head."

The children who come to the mountain community of Crossnore have had, as I have read, plenty to upset them. They are the troubled castoffs of foster families who do not know how to deal with them, who cannot tame the mice in their heads and hurt in their hearts. In the quietness of Crossnore, working behind a loom, painting, gardening, and worshipping among the mountains and trees, they somewhat heal as they (and we) await a fuller healing.

On the way out of Louise's Rock House Restaurant, the screen door slapped the frame behind us. "I'd eat there," my friend said, "just to hear the screen door shut. You don't hear that anymore." I would too, I thought. Remembering that moment now, looking back down the corridor of time that is a day now shut behind us, I remembered leaves piled up against unopened doors and gates, the swell of mountain peaks, a chill early morning wind lashing the gables of our room, young women working patiently at looms, rocky cliffs, and the rhythm of a highway, north, like it was all one long prayer for peace, a balm for troubled souls.


Traffic & Weather (Errata)


W8umf9wzs1qt9m~"I hate people who are not interested in themselves." (E.B. White)

A man hailed me while on my way in from lunch. "Hey, excuse me, sir, you got any work for me?" I didn't have any work. He said he thought I was a congressman. I've heard that before. He carried an upended rake over his shoulder, whether for real or as a prop for penury. We walked two blocks together, an unlikely pair, and he shared his opinions about the election with me which, not surprisingly, made as much sense as those of the more educated which I had been party to. It was a Socratic dialog: he asked questions and I turned them back on him, and he was happy to oblige. I told him nothing. At the corner, our paths diverged and he went on talking to the wind, his voice trailing off under traffic.

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"We belong together, like traffic and weather," as sung by Fountains of Wayne in their song of the same name, is not a compliment, is it? Or is it? Better, I think, is this one from a Marshal Crenshaw song: "You're my favorite waste of time." Or even, as Crowded House sang, "Everywhere you go you always take the weather with you." Or Rhett Miller’s “Singular Girl, which has the chorus, “Talking to you girl is like doing long division, yeah,” which I kind of think is not positive but takes a moment to sink in. Men, enjoy the wit of these lyrical backhands, but don't try them at home, or you might not enjoy the weather.

____________________

"If I obey Jesus Christ," says Oswald Sanders, "the Redemption of God will rush through me to other lives, because behind the deed of obedience is the Reality of Almighty God." Reading that I fixed on the capitalized R in Reality, on the surreal idea that underneath or behind the perceived reality (lower case) we traffic in the Really Real, the True Truth. Sanders elsewhere says that when we obey -- always freely and without compulsion -- our little acts of loving obedience become "pinholes through which [we] see the face of God, and when I stand face to face with God I will discover that through my obedience thousands were blessed." Thousands? That’s a lot to see through the pinhole. And yet we don't know the shores on which the tiny ripples of our acts of love lap and enliven. We don't know the weather we make.

____________________

One of my pastors likes to remind us in respect to outreach to the community that all we need to do is begin by "raising our spiritual temperature by one degree." Introverts needn't aspire to extroversion, meaning I don't have to, thank God, have a party for the neighborhood. At least not yet.

First up: I’ve begun asking colleagues at work to have lunch with me, many of whom are only acquaintances that relate to me only in a professional capacity. One I had lunch with last week said he and his wife didn't much like the outdoors. I never met anyone like that. My temperature went up. "Do you eat out much," I said. He said he usually ate at his desk. And here I was thinking everyone was eating out all the time, an introvert with an extrovert-sized imagination! But I'm finding that's what most men do.

Next up: Walking every morning, we often pass neighbors in the street, their dogs at leash end. I've been thinking,”this is exercise, not a social call, so keep moving," but now I'm thinking "stop, engage, even walk along beside," and at the bus top we pass every other day, I might even linger and engage the students chattering over their lit screens. Awkward, perhaps, yet warming.

I might even better engage a man with a rake over his shoulder and an opinion to share rather than wishing him gone.

____________________

Watching the short order cook at the Asian restaurant this evening, I was thinking about how helpless I would be at his job. I'd have to work my way up from attorney to short order cook. I would lose orders, slop steaming water on the boss, and quit before the night was up. I couldn’t live in his sloshy efficiency.

The only analogy to my profession is to those attorneys who keep a steady diet of traffic court. There's a lot of sleight of hand, diverse ingredients, and on some days, plenty of hot water. Managed pandemonium. Sloshy efficiency and sandpaper justice. And oh yes, lots of weather.

____________________

I was shy as a child and, truth be told, am still predisposed that way. I tremulously attend large social gatherings with lots of people I do not know. I do not like to raise my hand in class, even in Sunday School where people are friendly and largely known and iron is sharpening iron. I also don't like timed games where people are watching you. It's not that I don't know what to do about it - sidle up to a group huddled in conversation, listen, then dip tentatively into the conversation, for example. But honestly, it's exhausting work.

In Shrinking Violets: A Field Guide to Shyness, John Moran says that while shyness is not viewed positively in America, in some other countries like Sweden, the word has a positive connotation, so diffidence or thoughtfulness would better sum it up. But then, I'd have to live there to enjoy their good vibes, and its cold and I might have to become a socialist, God forbid.

Moran says that shyness is particularly well-suited for writers, a heartening thought. "Shyness turns you into an onlooker”, he writes, “a close reader of the signs and wonders of the social world.” So, the next time you see me not talking or on the outskirts of the social terrain, give me some room: I'm watching for signs and wonders, and I can only do that from back here, because up close the world spins too fast and begs my engagement. Let the extroverts and gregarious among us work the signs and wonders; me, I’ll interpret them.

____________________

Yesterday I got in the traffic and head to the library where I buried my head in the archives for the entire day. How wonderful. I spoke to the archivist who is, naturally, a bookish, owlish man who peers at me between lines of text. We understand one another.

I find it like time travel. I sit in front of a monitor, put on headphones, click, and am instantly transported nearly 60 years in the past to a small Swiss village named Huemoz, to a living room of clattering tea cups among the intensity of conversation, a knickers-clad saint with a high-pitched voice holding forth with earnestness and grace on truth there, in L’Abri, where there is a steady stream of traffic in ideas.

Signs and wonders indeed.

____________________

Yesterday, my wife was walking in our backyard and uncovered the stone marking the grave of our loyal, eternally smiling German Shepherd, Faith. She was a shepherd only in appearance and intelligence, but inside was meek as a lamb, submitting to our then older and much smaller cat who bore the name of a fruit, Pumpkin.

Faith let small children hit her on the head, wrestled tree trunks but hid under the bed during thunderstorms, peeled a grape before eating it, babysat children for free, and brought my newspaper from the street every morning, no matter the weather, as if it was the most important thing she would do that day.

E.B. White, who was partial to the dachshund, about whom he wrote, “Depart,/ You break his heart," had another view of the shepherd: "German shepherds are useful for leading the blind,/ And for biting burglars and Consolidated Edison men in the behind.” Had he met Faith, he’d have to rewrite his poetic summation, she being a licker, not a biter.

____________________

You can’t have a gluten-free Jesus. He said “I am the bread of life. Take. Eat.” Dietary restrictions are one thing, but when it comes to the One who is life and love incarnate, we are to swallow the whole thing, and if we die we die, In Him.

____________________

In Gold Cord, the 1932 story of the Dohnavur Fellowship of India, Amy Carmichael says that “the books of the world come to us, and we know what this present age is saying, and now and then find a grain of gold in the heap of words.” It’s often easy for me to see the heap of gold in nature. An autumn maple of brilliant red leaves is as true a sight as one could wish for. Or, for that matter, a heap of golden leaves, raked, that make a soft bed. And yet like turn of century India, it’s not so easy to see such gold in a culture which traffics in the unholy.

It’s tempting to believe a lie that little prayers don’t matter, that there are no ripples on far shores cause by our infinitesimally small acts of obedience, that the life of a dog doesn’t amount to much, that there are no signs and wonders. Yet that would be a mistake. Kneeling by a pooling mountain stream all those years ago, Carmichael sees fallen leaves beneath the water: “On the floor lay a heap of battered, sodden leaves, some still faintly coloured, red, orange, yellow, some dull and brown like shadows of leaves. And now and then a current moving gently would slip under the heap and carry some of the leaves through golden gates, where, caught in a scurry of white, the bruised things would be broken up and swept swiftly down the stream. Poor marred things. But were they poor? They were on their way to make others rich. The forest and the glory thereof, the fern by the river-side, the little flower, the moss, live on the food that the dead leaves give.”

That’s us. Take and eat. We’re living on the faithfulness of those who have come before us, the memory of Christ’s sacrifice. It has to be not only remembered but re-enacted in every generation. That re-enactment is by a living sacrifice that makes others rich. Do that, and it’ll change the weather. In God’s economy, little sacrifices make one rich. Redemption rushes through us to others’ lives.


Our Haptic God


IMG_3650Even in suburbia there’s a residue of wildness. Walking alone the other morning before dawn, in the darkness before the birds make their first tentative calls, I heard a chilling shriek. It may have been the wolf on its prey. We’ve seen him nervously cross the road ahead more than once, glancing furtively around, and for a moment it’s a welcome reminder that the manicured place where we live was not always so tame and even yet is not in hand. Deer leap our fence and eat flowers, move through the corridors left between developments. Hawks circles overhead. Owls hoot in the still of the night, before the last lights are switched off. Raccoons and possums move at will over the terrain, one they know better than us. And beneath, water still slides slowly downhill, bearing away the earth, bit by bit by bit. Pretty ordinary, I know, yet it’s the place where I get saved.

D.L. Waldie, author of the memoir called Holy Land, says of his life in the not-so-middle-class suburb of Lakewood, California, that he could not “find whatever it is that makes it possible to live in the world outside of the everyday. To put it in its crudest terms: one isn't saved over there; one is saved here. Salvation doesn't arrive from over there; it arrives here in this place, whatever kind of place it might be.” Waldie locates his this-worldly salvation in the Incarnation: if God can pour himself into a man — if Creator can condescend to be creature — then, all of Creation is imbued with value. We are not saved by the world, but we are saved in the world. “The everyday isn’t perfect,” he says. “It confines some and leads some astray into contempt or nostalgia, but imbued with the Incarnation, it fires the imagination of others. The weight of everyday life is a burden I want to carry.”

But many people don’t want the weight of everyday life. Sometimes I don’t. Sometimes the walk into my office is deadening, or a rush hour drive seeing all the other people waiting at lights, eyes fixed ahead, rushing in or out, fills me with melancholy. I open the newspaper and my mind slides down a slippery slope of “what ifs.” It was like E.B. White said about life sometimes, given both his acute fears and chronic, lifelong, unspecified anxiety. “There would be times,” he said about his boyhood, “when a dismal sky conspired with a forlorn side street to create a moment of such profound bitterness that the world’s accumulated sorrow seemed to gather in a solid lump in [my] heart. The appearance of a coasting hill softening in a thaw, the look of backyards along the railroad tracks on hot afternoons, the faces of people in trolley cars on Sunday—these could and did engulf [me] in a vast wave of depression.” It was darkness he kicked at all his life.

I walk outside not only for its physical benefit but for its spiritual quickening. Waldie, also a walker, says that “walking is haptic in the fullest sense. All of the environment touches one when one is not in a car, when walking.” But it’s more than that. He says that “the presence of God is found in those moments when God rips your self-regard away. For me, that presence is revealed when you stop seeing the ordinary as a weight that needs to be dropped. It happens when the ordinary becomes transparent. You see in the operations of the everyday that which expands your moral imagination.”

Yesterday, I went out and walked the perimeter of our backyard, enjoyed sunlight streaming slant-wise and golden, lighting up the early fall leaves. There’s nothing extraordinary about it. You can see it too. Yet my children played here, grew their imaginations when the fence marked the boundary of their world. Our late dog knew it better than us, her own haptic running after squirrels and sticks and smells rooting her in this place.

Salvation is not some abstract deliverance, something particular to me; it happens in the here and now. It happens on these streets and in these neighborhoods and among these people. It happens in context. It happens in my backyard. The rescue plan that God has is as wide as the cosmos and as particular as my very ordinary home, and my very tiny little life. It reaches down into every crack and crevice of this world and will one day fill it. Salvation is haptic. He is in touch and on the move. In the burden of the ordinary He does His great yet often unseen work.

While I write, the window is open to the twitter of an unknown bird, to the flutter and sway of leaves, to the distant sounds of trucks downshifting. I turn back to my task. Cool air wafts in, gently and insistently tapping on my shoulder, saying, “Don’t you know? Haven’t you heard?”


Clear-Eyed Populism

"We do not need the grace of God to stand crises, human nature and pride are sufficient, we can face the strain magnificently; but it does require the supernatural grace of God to live twenty-four hours in every day as a saint, to go through drudgery as a disciple, to live an ordinary, unobserved, ignored existence as a disciple of Jesus. It is inbred in us that we have to do exceptional things for Christ; but we have not. We have to be exceptional in ordinary things, to be holy in mean streets, among mean people, and this is not learned in five minutes."

(Oswald Chambers, in My Utmost for His Highest, Oct. 21)

When the very apologetic alarm went off this morning at 6:30, I hesitated. I understand why some people cannot seem to get out of bed as, for just a moment, I wondered what by all accounts should be an ordinary day might hold. A shadowed cat waited on my desk, dimly visible in the pre-dawn light, and when my slight movement to turn off the alarm alerted her, she advised that she had been waiting for something, though I don't know what, for some time. I too am waiting for something, I think.

Every day holds mostly ordinary things, but you wouldn't know it by reading college admissions brochures and catalogs or watching the fantasy lives of those on television. Everyone must be exceptional, do exceptional things, and save the world eventually. Everyone can realize their potential. Everyone can be whoever they want to be. But while that may be something that some of those with enough money, education, and stable upbringing may achieve, it is not the experience of most. So, I understand why some may not look forward to their days or, at least, may have more modest expectations.

Some might lump me with the elites, and yet those are not my roots. My family was solidly middle-class, not even upper-middle class. I thought we lived in a large house but, in hindsight, it was not. I worked in a department store for most of high school, around working people of even more modest backgrounds. In college, I had a string of summer jobs that kept me shoulder to shoulder with the lower middle class, or lower. I worked in a mattress factory and in a furniture warehouse, a minority in a largely African-American workforce. My "people" weren't doctors and lawyers and educators but small businessmen, sales clerks, factory workers, and auto mechanics. They were like most Americans.

"Are you ready to walk?" I say to my wife.

"Not yet," she says.

Well then, more time to ruminate beneath the covers of my day.

I realize that part of what I am lamenting is the still unshaken belief of elites in progress, that we can fix our problems, that whoever we want to be or whatever we want is ultimately achievable. Yet it's not. Christopher Lasch wrote a prophetic cultural critique in 1991, entitled The True and Only Heaven, only parts of which I have mind enough to read, where he put a nail in the coffin of the beguiling and persistent ideology of progress. As Susan McWilliams recently summed up Lasch's book in an essay in Modern Age, "Democrats and Republicans alike speak the languages of individualism and globalism, promising ever-expanding choices on an ever-expanding scale. No one of any prominence seems to be asking whether the visions attached to those promises are realistic, much less desirable." “How does it happen that serious people continue to believe in progress,” Lasch asks, “in the face of massive evidence that might have been expected to refute the idea of progress once and for all?”

Lasch speaks sympathetically (though realistically) of populist sentiment --- views held by many Americans --- when he champions (according to McWilliams) "the idea of limits (as opposed to limitless expansion), an admiration for small-scale proprietorship (as opposed to widespread consumerism), a cultivation of the pursuit of useful callings (as opposed to luxury and worldly success), a commitment to self-governance (as opposed to rule by technocratic experts), and a sensibility of guarded hope (as opposed to blind optimism). Reading this I hear the voices of E.F. Schumaker, who wrote the Seventies book called Small is Beautiful or, in a more contemporary vein, Wendell Berry, who writes of rural life. Much of the populace understands the idea of limits (you can't spend more than you make, you can't be someone you are not), though some indulge the fantasy for a time.

But this is a lot to think about before breakfast, before rising for the day. I throw back the covers and begin the rituals of the day, the quotidian of our lives.

Later, walking, we cross the bridge over the channel, pause and lean over, and see an unusual sight: trout running thick in the brackish water. An army of boats is anchored, and lines are thrown in the water, fishers balanced on their decks. On the other side of the bridge, nearly a dozen sailboats are moored, resting in the calm water.

"That would make a good picture," she says, and our imaginations meander over hull to the people cabined there, rocking on a gentle current.

"Someone probably has taken one," I say. I try my best to pay attention, but there are voices in my head, a running dialog with Lasch and McWilliams about progress and disappointment and hope, a pedestrian thinking about our pedestrian lives. As I walk, I watch cars, knowing that many of the drivers are en route to ordinary jobs, that many are cleaners, construction workers, tradesmen of various sorts, and restaurant servers. They don't have large bank accounts. They may have a fantasy of winning the lottery, but most know that they will barely stay afloat, and that not without hard work and discipline and favor, whether luck or Providence.

I am not elite. I am not so different than the man who cleans my office each week. Our skin color, educational background, and bank accounts may differ some, but we each get up and go to work each day, each must perform a fair number of routine tasks. My luxury is that of rumination: I get to read and write more, to languish in pools of words.

I have little use for partisan politics. As Lasch recognized, the parties are mainly two groups of elites battling one another over variations of the same beliefs. His hope was that a true populism would emerge outside the categories of left and right that would be capable of sustaining a reasonable social life. Mine is deeper. Mine is imbued by the Gospel.

I am a clear-eyed populist. Human life is fundamentally spiritual, shaped by tragedy, comedy, and fairy tale: realistic and modest in expectations because of sin, shot through with tragedy; grateful for the comedy of whatever gifts of beauty and material provision come my way by grace; and hopeful that the true fairy tale of the human project --- God's promise to rescue his people and restore all things to what He originally intended --- will at last undo the curse. Change can be significant, yet halting and incomplete, and yet our fullest hope is not for this world but one to come. We dress rehearse here for real life on a more eternal stage.

"We haven't prayed yet," she says, and I think, "How could we have made it so far without that?" How indeed? So, we begin our pedestrian, ordinary prayers to a God who will do exceptional things in ordinary lives, who makes holy people among mean (ordinary) people in mean streets, who walks with us as we walk on.


A Time to Kill

I woke up a few days ago with a mind to kill. I had been plotting since the day before, choosing my victims, deciding on the method of death, consulting with an expert on lethal force. Now I was ready. On waking, I skipped the normal routines of food and shower (keep it lean and focused, I thought) and made for the door.

My son's home in the desert southwest is xeriscaped by default, the back and front lawn covered in pebbles, punctuated by two palm trees (transplants, as they are not native to the southwest) in the front and two palo verde trees in the back. Yet with the summer monsoons, grass had thrust its way to the surface in spots -- under eaves, near the water spigot, snaked up through driveway seams, and in the relative shade of trees. Some more timorous shoots even grew alone in the unyielding sun, spiteful. Crabgrass Cong, I mutter to myself. But not for long.

The day before, as I premeditated, I went to the local plant nursery. Bryan helped me. Bryan was a bit scraggly, sun-baked, encrusted with the dust and sweat of honest outdoor work, with a goatee and sunglasses which he wore indoors and out.

"What can I help you with, man?”

"Bryan, I wanna kill."

He cocked his head, smiled a toothy grin, and said, "I can help you with that. You know what you're doing?"

"Yeah, I just wanna kill. I WANT TO KILL."

"Yeah, right, we covered that."

I'm sorry about that. Some of the monologue from Arlo Guthrie's classic "Alice's Restaurant" came to mind. That part between him and a recruiting officer at the draft board. But that was another war.

“This should fix you up right here." He pulled a smallish, unimpressive looking potion off the arsenal shelf. "Now it says you mix two and a half ounces to a gallon of water," he said, pausing for effect, "but I just use four." He tapped the bottle and smiled deviously.

"Kill those suckers, right?"

"Right. Can't take any chances."

"So what do I shoot them with?"

"Spray. You spray 'em, dude. You need one of these." He held up a one gallon jug with a gun attached to it via a black hose.

"Napalm."

"Whatever."

We picked up a bag of pre-emergent stuff as well. Granular poison. Kill those Herbi-Cong weeds before they reared their heads above ground. These people at A.J.'s Landscaping mean business. I like this guy.

"Do I need a permit for this thing?"

"Naw. The Man don't care."

"Sweet."

At the cash register, after paying, I cast a backward glance on leaving, wistful, envious even. Look at all those "shovels and rakes and implements of destruction" (oops, Arlo Again). What a great place to work.

I did my research. I read up on weeds. Parts of Richard Mabry's weepy Weeds: In Defense of Nature's Most Unloved Plants, nearly had me convinced to leave the "botanical thugs" and "vegetable guerillas" alone. Mabry says that all of our definitions of weeds have one thing in common: they are human-centered. "Plants become weeds," he says, "when they obstruct our plans, or our tidy maps of the world." It was like listening to Tokyo Rose propaganda, the smooth words that would undercut my resolve. To create sympathy for the enemy. Banish the thought! Steel yourself, man, I thought.

That night I had the craziest dream. I was taking out the trash which goes in a big plastic dumpster in the ally behind my son's house and a policeman named Obie arrested me, cuffed me, shoved me in the patrol car, and drove off. On the way to the jail we stopped at a restaurant and he showed me big glossy photos of me buying those implements of destruction, of me talking to Bryan, me sitting there with cuffs on and Obie eating a cheeseburger and fries and me ravished but cuffed to Obie so every time he ate a bite he took me along. Cruel and unusual punishment. I was maltreated, malnourished, and maligned. And at the station he turned me over to a recruiting officer who gave me 40 pages of documents with fine print to fill out, like I was some kind of lawyer. I asked him why I was filling out all these forms, and he said it was so the Man could find out if I was morally fit to serve. And I said to serve what, and he said to serve your country. I stood up at that and saluted. And I said in the interest of full disclosure that I did throw some rocks at cars when I was in middle school, so he said go sit on that bench over there. I sat down next to an undefined person on one side and on the other a 300-pound guy in a very small t-shirt that had two kittens on the front of it, and I said I like your shirt and grinned, and laughed. He didn't.

I don't remember anything else.

I woke to the sound of 'copter blades. A Huey. No, no. Just a ceiling fan. I extricated myself from beneath the bed where I had taken refuge.

I better get my act together, I thought. There's killing to be done. It was barely light outside. I threw on my workout clothes, looking camo in dawn's light.

"You need to wear goggles when using that stuff?," my wife said.

"Uh. . ." Not sure. I put my hat on.

"Probably not. I never wore them when I sprayed flowers and all."

Right. She's a veteran. She used to chase the mosquito truck on her bike while it laid down DDT, and she's fine. Really. I went back to my task. She went back to sleep. I slipped out the back door.

I did a little reconnaissance first. I peeked around the corner of the house. Yep. Eaves urchins. I surveyed the back yard. There they were, huddled up against fence posts, clinging to cracks between steps, plottin' and schemin'. I shook my head. "This is the end," I said. "You're goners."

I filled the jug with water, uncorked the potion and, having nothing to measure out four ounces with, estimated. Let's see - three ounces is about the size of a deck of cards, and he said four, and. . . Oh, what the heck, I poured half a bottle in and recorked the jug. That oughta do it.

You had to pump this thing, like an air rifle. Pressurized, I strode out onto the yard. Apocalypse Now, you herbi-Cong, you wicked weedy wanderlings. Wither and die. "Purple Haze," that lovely Jimi Hendrix song, was my soundtrack for destruction.

I sprayed and sprayed, pausing every minute or so to reload. I mean pump. Some of them I sprayed twice for good measure. The sun beat down. The poison glistened on the blades. When I was done I dumped the remainder on a particularly ominous clump of weeds near the water spigot, stooped and pulled several clumps out with my teeth. . . no, no, with my hands. At the end, I was relieved. This killing is hard work.

Leaving for home a few days later, exiting the driveway, I noticed the weeds still there, still thriving. “It looks like I don’t have much to show for it,” I said.

“Oh, I think they’re dying," my son said, generously. "They look a little brown.”

Maybe. Then again, I’m over it. I'm not much good at killing, it seems. I even conceded in hindsight that, as Emerson graciously quipped, a weed is simply "a plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered." Maybe I was too hasty. Maybe a few weeds can be successfully integrated with native plants. Maybe these botanical immigrants are OK.

Bryan would not approve.


A Declaration of Dependence

If you spend a lot of time with religious people (and I do), it is easy to fall into the well-worn track of works-righteousness, that somehow by doing the right things and avoiding the wrong things, we will get to, if not heaven, at least some sense of equilibrium, that God is if not fully pleased at least reasonably happy with us. I understand. I am a parent. My children were so schooled in right and wrong that it may easily have been thought by them that doing the right things and staying out of trouble are what being a Christian is all about. And because the Bible is full of imperatives that we rightly talk about, it's easy to lose perspective.

Some common grace is operative here: do the right things and you most likely will avoid some nasty consequences and certain benefits may inure. But that's not the Gospel. That's a declaration of independence, not a fist to the sky but a more benign self-sufficiency. Ours is a declaration of dependence.

Oswald Chambers nails it: "Sin is a fundamental relationship; it is not wrong doing, it is wrong being, deliberate and emphatic independence of God." And then: "A man cannot redeem himself; Redemption is God's 'bit,' it is absolutely finished and complete." In the race of life -- in the struggle to do right, win the approval of others, gain recognition, please God, and even, oddly enough, be humble -- the moment we look to Christ, declaring our dependence and not independence, we are whisked to the finish line where the Father says, "This is my beloved, in whom I am well pleased." You've won.

So what's left to do? Nothing, and everything. Nothing that will gain you more favor than you now already have, everything that will be for God's glory and our full humanity, to our right being. Gospel indicatives precede Gospel imperatives. You are holy; now, be holy. You are saved; now work out your salvation. The battle is won; now fight the good fight.

Reaching the finish line, Jesus carries us across the line, sets us down, and says, "You won. Now, run. For the love of God man, run. Run for the pure joy of it. Keep your eyes on the prize that is already yours. Be perfect. Be holy. Do this. Do that. Don't do this. Don't do that. You have nothing to prove but everything to gain. Fix your eyes on me and run.


Meet Dylan, a Millennial

Dylan hasn't figured out what to do with his life. He's 25. With a little prompting from me, however, he does know what I usually order for lunch.

"I got that," he says. "I'll remember next time." He hurries off to fill the order: a slice of cheese pizza, salad, no croutons, ranch dressing, and unsweetened ice tea.

When he brought my tea, I looked up at him. My little snippet of conversation with him made me realize he wasn't just an appendage to the menu, that an actual person was standing in front of me, an image of God. Wow. I looked at Dylan, squinted my eyes, and tried to imagine that imprint of divinity on his wrinkled black shirt, but it was elusive.

"So, how are you," I said. He allowed as to how he was fine. He asked about me, and I said I was fine, too. That's good. We're both fine. Everybody is just fine. The whole world is fine. But not really. Of course, whenever anyone honestly answers that question we shy away, are in a hurry all of a sudden, answer our cell phone, or make for the door. Danger, we think. Needy person ahead. But Dylan is fine, today anyway. We've got that out of the way.

He returns with my salad. "Here you go."

There he is, a real person.

"You know Frank?," he says.

"Sure, I know Frank. I've been coming here for years. Where is he, anyway?"

"He's been taking some time off, something to do with his hands."

"I hope he's ok."

"Oh sure, he's fine."

I look down at my salad. Dylan leaves.

Ach. Humans, I think. What to say. How to relate. I think about the book I've been reading with my community group from church about how postmoderns come to faith. Dylan is a postmodern, though he may not know the term. He's in process, struggling, trying to belong, to find his place. I wonder how I can bring up spiritual things. I think about some of the questions suggested in the book, like "what do you think is the meaning of life," or "are you interested in spiritual things," but listening to them in my head they just sound awkward. I eat salad, study a sugar packet’s fine print.

"Here's your pizza. Care for some bread?"

"Nope, trying to watch my figure." He turns to leave. "Hey, Dylan, is this your only job?" Lame, but I was trying.

“Yeah. Well, I was studying Computer IT in college, but I dropped out. I don’t know what I want to do. I used to sell computers out of my parents’ garage.”

“Well, it sometimes takes a while to figure out what you want to do, doesn’t it?”

“Yeah, you got that right.”

I guess I could have invited more, like asking him how you go about figuring out what to do with your life. And maybe I will. Next time.

But wait. Part of what I am feeling in this encounter with Dylan is the need to “do evangelism.” In a recent article in Critique, John Seel suggests that this way of doing evangelism is counterproductive among millennials, that a better picture is one of “shared pilgrimage,” of coming alongside someone and making a meaningful connection rather than giving the sense that we have already arrived and are just calling them to come aboard. In the article, Seel says that Millennials are often “haunted by the possibility of an unseen spiritual world,” and he suggests several onramps to that spiritual longing.

All to say, Dylan is not fine, and neither am I. But perhaps we can talk about that, next time. Maybe that’s an onramp to eternity.


A Cat's Choice in Reading

IMG_0251Our cat, the ample one, is asleep on top of the pillow where I lay my head at night, her eyes squeezed tight, her white-glove paws draped over its edge, her ear twittering every now and then, an antenna to the slightest perturbation. I suppose that's fine, and I ponder for a moment whether her life is merely the interstices between naps or the naps are her life. But she doesn't philosophize about such things.

Weighing down one corner of my desk is the hardbound volume of The Complete Stories, by Flannery O'Connor, illustrated by one of her beloved peacocks perched on a tree branch. It looks as if it's been through a fire, its cover smoked. I read (or perhaps re-read) the first story in it yesterday evening, and I have been thinking about it since.

"The Geranium" tells of Old Dudley, a white man from the South who has gone to live with his daughter in New York City, and now regrets it. Everyday Old Dudley watches a man across the way in another apartment building place a potted geranium on the window ledge. He expects it. He waits for it. And today was no exception. Asked by his daughter to retrieve something from a neighbor a few floors below, he goes down. On return he grows winded and collapses on the stairs. A well-dressed Negro helps him up the stairs and to his room, exploding his categories of what was appropriate.

As Old Dudley says, "He hadn't looked at the nigger yet. All the way up the stairs, he hadn't looked at the nigger. 'Well,' the nigger said, 'it's a swell place, once you get used to it.' He patted Old Dudley on the back and went into his own apartment. Old Dudley went into his. The pain in his throat was all over his face now, leaking out his eyes." When Old Dudley sat down by the window, he began to cry. He looked down and saw that the geranium had fallen off the window ledge and lay cracked on the ground below. A man was at the window. "Where is the geranium," Old Dudley quavered. "It ought to be there. Not you."

"The Geranium," the first story that O'Connor wrote, is about racism and exploding categories, about how difficult it can be to change when set in your ways, about the cognitive dissonance that is created when the categories into which we put people don't match the reality we are confronted with. The expected (a geranium on a window sill, the subservient Negro that Old Dudleyused to hunt with down in Alabama) goes missing, falls and is even cracked open, and we have to reckon with that. We cannot long live with dissonance. At once we face our own dissonance, as we empathize with the aged man forced by his infirmities to live away from his home, confronted with a well-dressed Negro renting an apartment across the hall, while recoiling at his bigotry.

My cat has shifted, now facing away from me. She sinks further into the pillow, as if to say, "why bother?"

"Would you like to hear another story?" I say. "One about a dog? Or maybe a poem, just a little one? Something light?" I pull out Mary Oliver's collection, Red Bird, and choose a poem entitled "Percy and Books (Eight)," which I thought appropriate, and read it aloud to her:

Percy does not like it when I read a book.
He puts his face over the top of it and moans.
He rolls his eyes, sometimes he sneezes.
The sun is up, he says, and the wind is down.
The tide is out and the neighbor's dogs are playing.
But Percy, I say. Ideas! The elegance of language!
The insights, the funniness, the beautiful stories
that rise and fall and turn into strength, or courage.

Books? says Percy. I ate one once, and it was enough.
Let's go.

Now she is on the floor by my feet, her tail rising in a spasm every now and then. She chirps, and turns green eyes toward me, searching. Maybe she does not like it when I read a book.

"Which did you like," I said. "The one about the dog or the one about the geranium?" Is the dog poem a sentimental throwaway, I think, or is there something deeper? Is "The Geranium" one of those "beautiful stories that rise or fall and turn into strength, or courage?

But by now she's back on the cratered pillow, back turned, as if to say, "neither." And I wonder if I too, having been prodded, will now return to sleep or whether the beautiful words will have their way with me.


Something Bigger In It


IMG_0001 (1)"A poem is a small thing with all manner of bigger in it."

(Brian Doyle, "A Flurry of Owls," in First Things, Oct. 2016)

All of Mary Oliver’s poems are small things. In opening one of her books of verse, what impresses first is the emptiness of the pages, something which I relish. All that space within which to rest and ponder! One poem, “Invitation,” asks “Oh do you have time/ to linger/ for just a little while/ out of your busy/ and very important day/ for the goldfinches/ that have gathered/ in a field of thistles/ for a musical battle,/ to see who can sing/ the highest note,/ or the lowest,/ or the most expressive of mirth,/ or the most tender?

Not now, I say.

My wife is an inspiration for such solicitude. On the far side of the lake today, she stopped, peering over the rails of the boardwalk fence, and said, “Look at the size of that tree stump. How tall it must have been, how old.” I stopped obligingly, but my internal fitness coach was saying, “This is not a nature walk. Keep moving. Stay focused.” But I leaned over at her bidding and gazed at the gnarly mass of wood half-covered in water. She is the first to see an unusual bird, a red fox, and deer grazing, to hear an animal sound that is misplaced - a signpost for the divine. She is the voice saying, “Oh, do you have time to linger?”

Do I?

Small things have all manner of bigger in them. The seed I crunched under my heel on rejoining the trail may have contained in it an entire tree, a microscopic blueprint of brown and green and science and time only God fully comprehends. The gray cat reclining by my feet carries the weight of history, albeit lightly, unconsciously. I read just now that she is descended from Near Eastern wildcats, having diverged from other cats around 8,000 BC in West Asia. Which explains a few things. The point: she has bigger in her even if it is represented here as a twittering waif, searching my face for the barest sign of movement toward, what else, the food bowl.

“My busy and important day?” Oliver is gently poking my ego. Do you think you are so busy, she says, so very important, that you can’t pay attention to what is happening around you, to a couple of tiny, insignificant birds? She’s right, of course. All that busyness, all that bluster, all those very important phone calls and consultations are less eternal than the “musical battle” of the goldfinches. There should always be time to listen to the not-so-empty pages of life.

Why do they sing? Oliver says “not for your sake/ and not for mine/ but for sheer delight and gratitude — / believe us, they say,/ it is a serious thing/ just to be alive/ on this fresh morning/ in this broken world.” Which is something like worship, I think. Or perhaps it simply is worship. There really is something bigger in it.

Next time I hold the bread and cup, I’ll try not to think about lunch, about what I have to do in my busy, important life, about the lightness of being of what I hold, about the absurdity of a plastic cup of grape juice and Wonder bread pointing to God incarnate. I’ll remember the goldfinches, the poem, the gray cat, and the tree and how pitiable they are as expressions of the divine — and yet within them, the universe. And so, within the cup and bread, everything that matters.

As Oliver concluded,

It could mean something.
It could mean everything.
It could be what Rilke meant, when he wrote:
You must change your life.

But, for now, it is enough that the white space of a late Summer afternoon is spread out before me and another poem open to me: “Be still,” says the author, “and know that I am God.” Outside the window, a crescent leaf flickers in the slight breeze, and I imagine that if I stare at it I can see all the way back to the seed, to the tree that produced that seed, back to the ancestral trees that started it all, back to the Garden, back to the Spirit hovering over the waters, back to Him.

That’s ridiculous, I think, some kind of crazy grace to see that way, to see the big in the little. Yet I pray for more grace, because it is a serious thing to be alive in a broken world.

[The poem is “Invitation,” and is excerpted from Red Bird: Poems by Mary Oliver, Beacon Press, 2008]


A Theology of Things

O-REDWOOD-TREES-facebook Many summers ago my family and I visited the giant sequoia trees of California, the ones preserved in Sequoia National Park. Reading an essay by turn-of-the-century naturalist John Muir a few days ago, I was reminded that these majestic trees — trees so broad and high as to be worship-inspiring — were not always protected but freely logged. Muir wrote his brief essay, “Save the Redwoods,” for The Sierra Club Bulletin, and it was published in 1920. Though Muir was not a Christian, having, as writer Paul Willis notes, “one foot in Emerson's Transcendentalism and one foot in what we would now call. . . fundamentalism,” the essay is imbued with biblical allusions, not surprising given that Muir’s father required him to memorize the entire New as well as much of the Old Testaments. Consequently, Muir was steeped in holy language.

So “Save the Redwoods” was an essay that flowed easily out of Muir’s Bible-saturated upbringing and one that resonated with the more generally religious culture of the 1920s. Muir called for a “righteous uprising in defense of God’s trees.” Referencing the denuding of the great 300-foot Calaveras sequoia, he even (though questionably, even offensively) casts the great tree as a Christ-type, noting that “This grand tree is of course dead, a ghastly disfigured ruin, but it still stands erect and holds forth its majestic arms as if alive and saying, ‘Forgive them, they know not what they do.'” When he speaks of “trees that are still standing in perfect strength and beauty, waving and singing in the mighty forests of the Sierra,” one cannot miss the allusion to Isaiah 55:12 and its trees of the field clapping their hands. In this he picks up on the mystery of the relationship between God and the non-human creation, about which theologian Karl Barth summed up beautifully when he wrote that “when man accepts again his destiny in Jesus Christ…he is only like a late-comer slipping shamefacedly into creation’s choir in heaven and earth, which has never ceased its praise.”

Muir is not far from truth. Creation does testify to God (Ps. 19), and in some mysterious way longs for redemption (Rom. 1). We cannot dismiss it or regard it solely in utilitarian terms, as mere raw material for our use. A theology of “things” is one that treats the natural world as more iconic windows into the transcendent, rich in metaphors for the Divine. Perhaps the best theology of the non-human world is what Oswald Chambers once referred to as “the unaffected loveliness of the commonplace” or, elsewhere, the “ministry of the unnoticed.” We walk by these testimonials to God everyday, often unaffected, and yet the rocks cry out if only we will listen. What do they say? At least, they say God made us, we are not as He intended us to be because of the great brokenness of the world, and yet we are being made right and will be restored in Paradise.

Writer Frederick Buechner is well known for entreating his audience to “listen to your life.” But it’s even more than that. Pay attention. Notice the commonplace, the common places that God so loved. God is speaking through the things of the world. So look.


Not So Ordinary Rescues

A few days ago my wife was walking in the neighborhood when she saw a black cat run across the road - “layin' down running” as my grandmother would have said - a red fox in hot pursuit. The fox stopped short when it saw her and reconsidered. She didn’t say so, but I suspect she glared at it, intervening on behalf of the cat. The cat looped around a house, its house, and disappeared through a flapping door in the side of the garage. Disappointed, the fox turned, retreating begrudgingly into the woods.

A day so later, we were walking together when we saw the black cat again, this time in pursuit of a tiny baby rabbit that hopped across the sidewalk, brushing against me before disappearing in some shrubbery. The cat turned and walked across the street in the direction of a mother rabbit (well, perhaps father) who hopped away, the cat in pursuit. My wife chased the cat, the ingrate, across the yard and back to its house, while the rabbit squeezed through a crack in a Mr. McGregor fence, safe, though separated from its baby. We fretted about that baby, about how the mother would find her, hoping I suppose that our fret-prayers would reach God’s ear.

Today, while walking, it was my wife who needed assistance. Moving from street to sidewalk, as a lone car came toward us, she fell in the grassy strip between the curb and sidewalk. I extended a hand and raised her up, brushed her off, took my shirt and dried her arm wet with dew, for which she smiled, an unneeded but sufficient reward. Later, I recalled, “Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their labor: If either of them falls down, one can help the other up. But pity anyone who falls and has no one to help them up” (Ecclesiastes 4:9-10).

That’s three to one: she rescued a cat, a mother rabbit, and a baby rabbit. But I “rescued” her. But who's counting? All point to a God who rescues us.

I know that these unremarkable events are, on one level, not worth writing about and not worth your time to read. Yet seen another way, these events and their loose association (at least in my mind) are what N.T. Wright calls “strange signposts pointing beyond the landscape of our contemporary culture and out into the unknown.” I’d add: Not so strange, even ordinary, signposts, a confluence of the mundane through which the transcendent seeps. Ordinary rescues, if you will, pointing to a larger project, one described by Wright as one where Jesus “took the tears of the world and made them his own, carrying them all the way to his cruel and unjust death to carry out God’s rescue operation” and, what’s more, a rescue where He “took the joy of the world and brought it to new birth as he rose from the dead and thereby launched God’s new creation.”

He stands between His people and a cunning Pursuer, glares at him and holds His ground, even chases him from light to dark. He reaches down and lifts us up, let’s our hurt be His, and wipes us clean. For that, we smile, and walk on.


Carrier, RIP

Product_Lg_performance_comfort_AC_24ACB7We lost our air conditioner yesterday. It was tired. In the last few years come summer it has struggled to climb the mounting heat and humidity. Various bandages had been applied during the course of its decline. Most recently, six weeks ago, a new coil was installed in the condenser on the exterior of our home, yet the technician was pessimistic even then, noting its age and clucking at the possibility of deeper issues. Still, I couldn’t bring myself to put it out to pasture. “You can make it,” I thought, maybe even to the unknown perhaps distant day we sell the house, my heart buoyed by its whirr and chill. I laid my hand on it, as if to encourage. “You can do it!” Yet it couldn’t.

Now it’s laying ignominiously on our lawn. Earlier, Fred and Sam, our interventionists, struggled to pull its long companion, the gas furnace and coil, from the wall of our attic where it had attached itself, tied by an umbilical cord that went through the wall and down, down, down to the condensing unit outdoors. I couldn’t watch this wrenching procedure. The sounds of the struggle filtered down to my study, nonetheless — grinding. prying, hammering, banging, and then one last gasp as it gave up its hold. Sweating, with labored breathing, they carried it out the front door, from whence it had likely come twelve years ago, and tossed it in the yard, tossed it because, after such a fight, one is no doubt slightly mad, like a boxer in a ring after several rounds.

It was a Carrier, God rest its coil. I’ll miss it. When I lay in bed at night listening to the sounds of the night, to the creaks and groans of a house settling on its haunches, its whoosh and whirr were almost as lulling as an oscillating fan, the faithful Galaxy we resurrected every time the Carrier failed. When it shut down, it had a signature and mysterious clunk, perhaps indicative of its last illness, one last whoosh, and then silence, a fluttering, noisy burst of wind followed by the exhale of a long nap — too long, sometimes.

Sam pried the condensing unit from its nest of concrete outside our den window. I imagined him coaxing it to give way, as one might encourage an aged parent to cooperate. Sam is Filipino, and earlier apologized for his accent. I now know him to be a believer in Jesus, a fan of Ronald Reagan, a son hoping to bring his mother to live with him in the States, all of which makes me feel better about this transition. I knew he would be gentle with the bones of the air handling unit and condenser, as a son with his mother. Yet right now Fred is backing down the drive and hits an overhanging branch, and Sam laughs and says, with accent, “He can’t drive.” But look at the work he does, I think.

Later, I looked inside the condenser in a way I hadn’t before. It’s cavernous, much of it open and vacant, its serpentine coils and refrigerant housed in the bottom, a fan and streamlined casing its shiny, fluttering face to the world. The new coil we purchased at great cost just six weeks ago, when the technician shook his head at us, shone. Like gold, I thought. My gold. It was my last attempt to stay its demise, temporary life support for a terminal patient.

We looked inside Fred’s truck. “Hmm, Fred keeps a dirty truck,” my wife said. I nodded. Parts, dirty rags, papers, and tools were strewn throughout, like a surgical bay gone awry. Tool-Man Tim would have been aghast. And yet these were the weapons of war, the detritus of life, held down by a mix of oil and dirt.

The new air handling unit, a Lennox, stands a good three feet taller than the squatty Carrier that was removed. If you stand on top of it, you can see the coastline. No, perhaps not. Yet it is very tall. My son asked if we could have it resituated, as it is now visible from our den window. Sometimes change is difficult to accept. We prefer the classic form of the Carrier to the hip, skinny jeans of the Lennox standing Babel-like just outside our window. A few summer thunderstorms, replete with hail, and a few mercury-high days near 100, and it may lose its pride and adopt a lower profile. And we will get used to it.

Our old Carrier had two speeds: on and off. This one is a continuum of speeds, adaptable, as if we need all that, as if we need 200 channels on our TV. And, above all else, it has more power, and we all need more power, right? But seriously, the old Carrier was sadly underpowered and its annual battle with the drenched air of a southern summer was like sending Robin to do battle when Batman was needed. It was too much for the poor lad, but he kept at it. The technician told us, with a gleam in his eye, that the Lennox would give us 100% when we needed it, but drop back to 35% when the heat subsided, sending in reinforcements as needed. The war is on, and I regularly monitor the battle from the fancy touchpad thermostat outside our bedroom.

It’s a durable name, Carrier. In 1902, a 25-year-old engineer from New York named Willis Carrier invented the first modern air-conditioning system. First designed to control humidity in the printing plant where he worked, in1922, he followed up with the invention of the centrifugal chiller, which added a central compressor to reduce the unit's size. (Do I sound like an engineer? I’m not.) It was introduced to the public on Memorial Day weekend, 1925, when it debuted at the Rivoli Theater in Times Square. For years afterward, people piled into air-conditioned movie theaters on hot summer days, giving rise to the summer blockbuster.

All of which makes it even harder to throw it aside for a Lennox upstart. I want to pretend I’m in the Rivoli Theater in Times Square. I can’t now. I’ve ditched it for the multiplex with the sticky floors. I don't even have a picture to remember it by.

This morning I even said to my wife, after sleeping with the Lennox for only one night, “I wonder if we could build a house that stayed cool without air conditioning.” The question hung in mid-air, steamy mid-air. That, I concluded, would require too many servants to fan me. But we could take turns.


Solitude


ImageBetween Wichita and Salina, the land is not so flat as you might imagine but full of ever so slight dips and rises, like the gentle sloshing of a lake. Here and there the seemingly perdurable prairie is even punctuated by bluffs and more substantial rises, the result of the scouring of glaciers in retreat. Farmhouses look out on the undulating gold of not yet cut wheat, or the waving green of feed corn.

Nor is it dry. The landscape is traversed by creek beds with running water, like East, West, and Middle Emma Creeks, or Turkey Creek; ribbons of green trees line their banks. Trees also line fields as windbreaks, or clump campanionly together in the midst of fields, or stand solitary in the foreground. Writer Willa Cather once spoke about the prairie of her feeling of “motion in the landscape ... as if the shaggy grass were a sort of loose hide, and underneath it herds of wild buffalo were galloping, galloping."

Earlier I heard a man leaning over the counter of the hotel lobby claim to the hotel clerk that Kansas was "flyover" land --- meaning boring, uninteresting, and good for little but farming. Yet since I started coming here three years ago, I think it anything but flyover. The fields of gold make me want to walk through them, letting them give way to my presence and then hem me in behind, erasing my presence. The creeks beckon me to get my feet wet, or sit on their banks and watch for wildlife. The abundant bird life almost gives me aspiration to become a birder. Sometimes I imagine my wife and I shut up in a farmhouse with food, a Bible, paper, pen, and a few good books, and nothing more, as a way to better listen to life, to hear again, to shut out distraction and frivolity and noise in order to let in life. We might try it sometime.

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A week ago, when we were leaving for the West, we sat in an airport lounge waiting for a flight. I decided not to check my cell phone. Not that it didn't beckon. It's smallish screen is a portal to diversion, whether the cat videos and "look at us and where we are having a great time" postings of Facebook, or the more cerebral callings of the essays and articles saved to my reading list. I ignored it. I looked around.

Heads were bowed, not in supplication or stupor but over the bright screens of smartphones. One family across from me --- a mother, father, and two preteens --- were all hunched over the gleaming screens. Sculpted, they could have been made to look reverent, heads bent over electronic prayer books which, in some way, the screens serve, as they embody and call forth wishes --- for something to buy, for a connection to someone or something, for escape from the monotony of life, for, ultimately, salvation.

A few weeks ago my wife and I rented a movie called Notting Hill. Julia Roberts plays an American movie star who meets and falls in love with an unlikely man, the awkward owner of a bookstore in London (Hugh Grant). The movie was enjoyable enough, if predictable, and yet in all the scenes of people sharing meals together, riding buses, and standing on street corners, there was something odd: in a relatively recent modern setting, no one had a cell phone. People were looking up, talking with one another, reading books or newspapers, or simply looking around. Checking the date of the movie, I saw that it was released in 1999. Seventeen years and the human landscape has completely changed. Life is now mediated through screens.

Are we addicted to our smartphones? To our screens? In a recent article in Comment Magazine, Alan Jacobs addresses our addiction. He says we are not addicted to our smartphones. Rather, "we are addicted to one another, to the affirmation of our value—our very being—that comes from other human beings. We are addicted to being validated by our peers." Jacobs goes on to say what as Christians we ought to know but mostly don't seem to appreciate:

"Our 'ecosystem of interruption technologies' affects our spiritual and moral lives in every aspect. By our immersion in that ecosystem we are radically impeded from achieving a 'right understanding of ourselves' and of God's disposition toward us. We will not understand ourselves as sinners, or as people made in God's image, or as people spiritually endangered by wandering far from God, or as people made to live in communion with God, or as people whom God has come to a far country in order to seek and to save, if we cannot cease for a few moments from an endless procession of stimuli that shock us out of thought."

There is nothing new, of course, in our incessant need for validation, for affirmation from our peers. That compulsion predated the advent of smartphones, and yet the 24/7 connection to a social network ensures that no one need be alone anymore. When as a teenager I sought the approval of my peers - whether in dress, in speech, or in actions - I still unavoidably and regularly found myself alone, even if just when I went to bed in the evening. Now, no one can escape the crowd, the incessant connection. No one need deal with solitude, with the lack of validation, to who they might be if there is no one to tell them who they are, no one to "like" their postings, no one to respond.

So what are you doing when you post on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter? What is it that you seek? As a writer I would like to know that I communicated, that what I wrote resonated with someone, and yet that hoped for result is impure, tainted by the need for validation. Did anyone "like" it? Did anyone comment? The only way I know around this is to avoid the compulsive checking of Facebook by turning my phone off or leaving it behind, thereby guarding my solitude and social space. And the only place to look for validation, for an understanding of who I really am, is in the Word, in the revealed truth of who God says I am: a member of the guilty remnant, yet forgiven, adopted, and free. In fact, the more I stare into the mirror of the Word, the more inoculated I will be from the need for validation from the world.

It was Blaise Pascal who, seeing the movement of the world, reflected that surely all of man’s ills must stem from his simple inability to remain quiet and alone, serenely in the comfort of his own home. Be still and know that I am God," the Psalmist says, and, I would say, be still and know that you are His.

I know better than to idealize Kansas or solitude. Behind every kind Dorothy there is a sour Auntie Em, behind every Glinda an Elphaba. And even in solitude may lie a latent and destructive self-love. But beyond the incessant need for affirmation, in the quietness of His presence, and perhaps in the solitude of a prairie, we will find ourselves closer to Home, not validated but loved, not only "friended" but called beloved.