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February 2006

God's Kind Hand: Growing Up in the Sixties (Chapter 2)

Wy_3All of a sudden, without warning, my parents became religious.  I don’t know if it was the deterioration of my life under the tutelage of Brad Bullah, or their own attempt to rescue their marriage, but just after I started eighth grade we started attending Hillside Presbyterian Church.  My reputation suffered.   

Brad said that he would have protested, that he would have refused to go.  I considered this, and was about to take his advice, until something happened that changed my life: Susan Simms began attending services.  Susan was the college girlfriend of Jay Murkawski’s brother, Sam.  She became the focus of much of my attention during church services. 

Brad said Sam Murkawski was an idiot, that the only thing worse than being a wuss was being a stupid wuss.  That made me feel better. And yet, Sam had Susan, and I couldn’t understand that. 

During church I spent most of my time casting long and longing looks in Susan’s direction.  Let me be frank: Susan was tall, blonde, and shapely, and wore revealing dresses that guaranteed looks.  I couldn’t help myself.  If Susan sat on the right side of the church, most of the men leaned to the right; if on the left, to the left.  We were all captivated.  On occasion my mother would jab her elbow in my Dad’s side to break his focus as well.  In all practical respects, Susan became the sermon during those church services.  Brad said at least there was some good reason for me to be in church, what with Susan Simms being there.

At this point my knowledge of women was quite limited.  After all, unlike most of my friends, I had no sister.  What I knew of the other sex was deduced from bits of information gleaned from other guys (a not so trustworthy source), ads from Redbook and Good Housekeeping (which my mother assiduously removed as soon as possible), and my  roaming imagination. 

Come early August it was time once again for Hillside’s annual revival week.  Now I had not been through this process before, but it seemed daunting: church services every night for the entire week?  But I was offered no choice about it.      

“Boy, get your good pants on.  We’re going to church tonight and you’re gonna be there with us.         

“But Dad, I wanna watch the Smothers Brothers on TV.

“Those commies?  They’re making a mockery of this country.  No way.  You’re coming with us.”

So, you see, I had no choice.  I went. (Read more of Chaper 2 here, and read Chapter 1 here.)


Intelligent Rap

Cynic It may sound like an oxymoron, but "intelligent rap" is the best way to describe the music of John Reuben, Christian white boy cum Eminem.  His June 2005 release (and fourth album), entitled The Boy vs. The Cynic, is a mix of rap, pop, and rock, with some other things thrown in, which makes it a sophisticated blend -- enough to appeal to the aesthetic soul in me.

I'll confess I have spent much of the last decade or more avoiding and trashing rap --- a music epitomized by misogynic or kill-a-cop lyrics --- and symbolized by the car that pulls up next to me at a stoplight, windows down, words spoken over a pulsating beat, like some kind of gutter poetry.  It can be that.  But it can also be intelligent, real, and faith-channeling.

Take this song, for example, "Out of Control:"

Now wait that's something
Adrenaline rushing
And I'm touching
The heart of God
And adjusting
Rather nice lead to the feeling
That's inside of me
Alive in me
Continually guiding me
It's surprising me
It's beyond my reach
But it's in my grasp
I walk steadfast
Along a narrow path
Avoiding stairs and traps
And all else that seems to keep me
From who I need to be
Right now I'm thinking clearly. . .

That's the faith-channeling.  And then there's the intelligent, best found in "Chapter 1," a spoken word piece about how we package and sell everything in America, even salvation.

I like John Reuben.  I'm not sure The Boy and The Cynic will become one of my favorites, as I'm too fond of the pop song, but at least it's good to see that rock, rap, faith, and intellect can co-exist and inform one another.  So, in honor of John:

I got my groove
it's coming in clear
rock rap faith
roll over me
so if you like my words
don't think me absurd
I'm just a
middle aged white man
learnin' to rap

I'll keep the day job, OK?


Ordinary Miracles

Cat When my sister moved from the house she had lived in for 15 years to another house two miles away, she also moved her cat.  At least she thought she moved the cat.  Three or four days after moving, the cat, unhappy since the  move, climbed over their ten-foot fence, dodged the fast-moving traffic on the busy street behind their house, and made its way back to the old house, where he would again take up residence.  Every few days my sister would return to the old house, pick up the cat, and shuttle him back to the new house, instructing him to stay put.  But after a couple of days where the cat mournfully meandered about the house, it found an open door and took off once again for the old house.  After six or seven times of this, my sister gave up.  The cat would not move.

Maybe this behavior has some as yet unknown natural or scientific explanation, but to me it is a miracle.  Lots of things are miracles: conception, birds flying south to winter in the same place every year, salmon swimming upstream to their point of origin, the selflessness of some people, the attachment of a mother to her child. But we don’t usually think of such things as miracles because they seem to have some natural explanation. There is no need to resort to the supernatural to explain them. Or is there?

In John 2 there is the account of a “trivial” miracle by Jesus. He changed water into wine so a party could go on.  There was no healing, no resurrection of the dead, no casting out of demons.  There is simply a miracle which breaks through into the mundane events of everyday life.

What this account tells me is that we are to look for miracles or, rather, signs of God’s glory in the mundane and ordinary corners of life. If we only have eyes to see, there is a whisper or rumor of the miraculous in all of life.  Like the better known “supernatural” miracles, these signs of God’s glory are the indelible imprint of the Artist who has filled the canvas of life with His signature. There’s nothing that shouldn’t remind us of the Creator’s glory.  All about us are the signs of His miraculous work.

The cat had it right.  He was going home. So too am I.  I need to be out there looking for the slender threat of the miraculous, the echo of Home, in every person I meet, in everything I see in God’s world.  When I see it, it reminds me of Home. They're all signposts pointing Home.


When They Leave

Clip_image002_13 All children leave, eventually.  That's natural I know, and essential to their maturity.  What parent hasn't looked at a sleeping child and felt joy and sadness at the same time.  That must be a universal feeling.  From the day they are born we know they are leaving.

The best art is built on some universal experience or emotion -- like children leaving home.  "The poet," says C.S. Lewis, "is someone who says 'look at that' and points."  By doing so poets, or writers in general, lure us into an act of contemplation.  Most of us, most of the time, are engaged in living.  There's so little time to reflect.

When we read a poem or story and realize some shared life experience or emotion, our humanity is affirmed.  We know we're not alone.

067003436301 When I read the following poem by Linda Pastan, published in Garrison Keillor's Good Poems for Hard Times, in reminded me of an old one I wrote, which follows it.  The particulars are different, but the experience is similar: Children grow up. . . and leave.  Enjoy.

To a Daughter Leaving Home

When I taught you
at eight to ride
a bicycle, loping along
beside you
as you wobbled away
on two round wheels,
my own mouth rounding
in surprise when you pulled
ahead down the curved
path of the park,
I kept waiting
for the thud
of your crash as I
sprinted to catch up,
while you grew
smaller, more breakable
with distance,
pumping, pumping
for your life, screaming
with laughter,
the hair flapping
behind you like a
handkerchief waving
goodbye.

And then the one I wrote that I was reminded of:

Mine

I imagine
the day
when she
turns her
smile toward
some other
face, no
longer mine
all mine
only mine
brown eyes
reflecting &
holding another's
gaze, telling
secrets I no
longer share.
Only then
I hope she
remembers
her father's
face, a
longer love.

Do you know what I mean?  Linda Pastan knows what I know.


Other People's Lives?

B000e1jopm01The joke's on us, folks.  Tongue-in-cheek protestations to the contrary, I suspect Ray Davies' first solo record (without The Kinks), is not about, as the title states, Other People's Lives, but all about Ray Davies' life.  From the opening lines of "Things are Gonna Change" Davies is signaling a new approach, a more confessional approach, but in his own inimitable, British style, showing us himself hidden in the lives of these imaginary characters.

If you don't know who I'm talking about, let me clue you in.  Ray Davies was the front man and lead songwriter for the very successful 60s British rock band The Kinks.  I first was turned on to The Kinks in high school with 1971's Muswell Hillbillies (I thought my Dad would like it because it was "hillbilly" music, but boy was I wrong!) and went on to discover Village Green Preservation Society and Arthur and the Decline and Fall of the British Empire.  Davies was fond of loose concept albums, and he mixed wry social commentary with humor and music that was intriguing and yet did not fit the commercial mix.  The Kinks had a #1 hit in the 60s, "You Really Got Me," and a string of other charting singles over a three-year period, but Davies refused to build on that commercial success, releasing the very odd (if interesting and creative) Village Green record, a record Davies himself said was "the most successful failure of all time."  It was, really, his own personal Sgt. Pepper, his turning his back on the hit single machine, an imaginative and creative record right up there with The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper or The Beach Boys' Pet Sounds.

In 2000, Davies moved to New Orleans.  He said he wanted to experience America, really live here, stay in one place for a while.  In 2004 he was actually shot and seriously injured.  Not the kind of experience he hoped for, but it certainly may have influenced the tenor of these songs.  But let me tell you why I say it's all about him.  In one song, "Next Door Neighbor," he goes to some lengths to say it would be wrong to say the songs are a personal narrative, and then turns around and says the characters in the song are all "parts of me."  "All She Wrote" and "Creatures of Little Faith" are both breakup songs. Once again, he says it's all a product of all the breakups in his life. 

"The Tourist" is a summation of the American experience, his attempt to actually find some roots in a place after all the years of touring.  "Is There Life After Breakfast?"  He describes the song as "basically me looking in the mirror and singing to a more down and depressed self." 

But the key to the record is the title track, "Other People's Lives."  It's ostensibly an attack on the tabloid culture.  As Davies says, "It has scandal, intrigue; perfect for the tabloids.  It's only 'Other People's Lives' after all."  The punch line is here when he says "At the end of this record please remember this.  "IT'S NOT ABOUT ME, IT'S OTHER PEOPLE."  Ha!  It's all about Davies, his own tabloid, and we are reading about the scandal of his life!

So what is he saying about his life?  I think something like this:  I'm a bum.  I'm homeless, with no roots.  But things are gonna change, I hope.  For all the bad, there's good too, and there's hope for me.  I'm taking stock, getting perspective, and some things are gonna change.  There's no clear indication of spiritual change here, but Davies always holds back.  More can be going on than meets the eye.

Last words?  "I certainly feel like I have lived every line [of the songs] along side my various protagonists but before anyone jumps to any conclusions here, I would like to state categorically that even though I am the singer-songwriter, the rest is about other people."  Sure, Ray.


A Preference for the Ordinary

Clip_image002_12 What makes a good poem?  Well, for as many as I have read (probably thousands), I'd have to say I'm not entirely sure.  I know a bad one when I see it, but a definition of good is harder to come by.

That being said, I tend to gravitate to poems that contain images of everyday, ordinary things and that have a natural voice, that is, they do not seem to or at least do not strive too mightily to have a "point." How many times have I been asked "What's the point of that poem?", as if they have to have a point.  Our lives do have a point, for example, but we learn about that over time by watching how a person lives, by watching a life unfold.  It takes time.

By addressing the ordinary, poems awaken us to the hidden extraordinary in everyday affairs, in the mundane.  One collection of poetry I have said it well: Wake Up to YourselfPoems about the ordinary sharpen our sense of what is real; they enlarge our sense of reality.  We can see the glow of the spiritual behind the frames of everyday events.

As I've been reading through Garrison Keillor's collection of poetry in Good Poems for Hard Times, the ones I mark for re-reading are all about the most ordinary things.  Take this one, for example, from Barbara Crooker:

Ordinary Life

This was a day when nothing happened,
the children went off to school
without a murmur, remembering
their books, lunches, gloves.
All morning, the baby and I built block stacks
in the squares of light on the floor.
And lunchtime blended into naptime,
I cleaned out kitchen cupboards,
one of those jobs that never gets done,
then sat in a circle of sunlight
and drank ginger tea,
watched the birds at the feeder
jostle over lunch's little scraps.
A pheasant strutted from the hedgerow,
preened and flashed his jeweled head.
Now a chicken roasts in the pan,
and the children return,
the murmur of their stories dappling the air.
I peel carrots and potatoes without paring my thumb.
We listen together for your wheels on the drive.
Grace before bread.
And at the table, actual conversation,
no bickering or pokes.
And then, the drift into homework.
The baby goes to his cars, drives them
along the sofa's ridges and hills.
Leaning by the counter, we steal a long slow kiss,
tasting of coffee and cream.
The chicken's diminished to skin & skeleton,
the moon to a comma, a sliver of white,
but this has been a day of grace
in the dead of winter,
the hard cold knuckle of the year,
a day that unwrapped itself
like an unexpected gift,
and the stars turn on,
order themselves
into the winter night.

Ever have a day like that?  Dream about it?  A day like that is an ordinary blessing.  You can live on its gift for a while, dream about it, hope for it.  It's like a small glimpse of the wonderful ordinariness of Heaven, where every day is a gift acknowledged, a blessing enjoyed, where work is sanctified so that every dish washed every floor swept is pure joy, a sacrament.  Pure grace.

Poems about the ordinary do that -- they give us a glimpse of how special life is, all of it.  Life is a whole lot more than what it seems.

But enough of this.  I have work to do.  I need to wash the dishes.  I'll let you know if I see the holy there, OK?


Small is Beautiful?

Small Years ago, during college I believe, I read a popular book by economist E.F. Schumacher entitled Small is BeautifulI was quite taken with it, attracted to the spiritual tone of it and probably the anti-establishment bent of it.  In fact, I remember writing a paper in grad school that was inspired by Schumaker.

In Small is Beautiful, Schumaker makes a case for, as the subtitle says, an "economics as if people mattered."  Using theories from an anarchist tradition, he attacks conventional economics as dehumanizing and environmentally destructive.  He fits squarely in the camp of "less is more."  More than this, there is religious rhetoric (both Christian and Buddhist) which compels us to believe that this is the only moral economics.  It was compellingly written and, being very impressionable, I was won over.  But popular as it is to attack capitalism, there is also much to be said for capitalism.

MoralI was reminded of Schumaker when I saw a review in Christianity Today of Harvard Professor Benjamin Friedman's new book, The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth.  According to Kenneth Elzinga, Friedman has a two-pronged argument: first, that expanding a consumer's choice necessarily makes the consumer better off; and second, that economic growth results in more civilized and ethical people, that is, when times are good, people are kinder to each other.

The first argument is directly contrary to "anti-growth environmentalists and small-is-beautiful advocates [who] fault the market system for producing too many goods and services.  Once scarcity was bad.  Now abundance is.  Once the market system provided too few choices; now it produces too many."  I'll admit I understand the theory behind the idea that expanding choice is better, but when confronted by 23 brands of dishwashing detergent in the supermarket, I'm not so sure.  It's mighty confusing.

But I'm more interested in his second argument.  As Elzinga notes, Friedman's point is the same made by Adam Smith, who wrote: "Before we can feel much for others, we must in some measure be at ease ourselves.  If our own misery pinches us very severely, we have no leisure to attend to that of our neighbor."  But again, I understand this in theory, but in practice does it hold up?  Does having our needs met free us to better meet others' needs, or does our definition of need just enlarge?  Isn't it really a function of the orientation of our heart? 

Listen to what Scripture says:  "Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the Lord of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God. For just as the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives, so also through Christ our comfort overflows."  Isn't it the case that in God's upside down economy we who lack materially or suffer the most are best able to help others who lack or suffer?

I suspect that in general, in some common grace manner, Friedman is right.  People do, on the whole, behave better when they have food, clothing, and shelter.  But more than common grace is at work.  There's also the supernatural work of God within the redeemed Kingdom of God, the Body of Christ.  Those who lack the most can help those who have the most.  Crazy, isn't it?


The Reformation of Athletics

Clip_image003Ok, I admit it.  I have an attitude about sports and athletic competition.  At best, it seems like organized sports are a monumental waste of time.  At worst, it seems like idolatry.  I remember well a conversation I had with a man I met after a worship service in an unfamiliar church.  Amongst the small talk that accompanies a new acquaintance, he asked me which team I was rooting for in the game that afternoon.  I said I really didn't care and didn't plan to watch it.  He seemed offended.  I don't think he understood how an American male could not love the game.

My attitude had been reformed some over time, and with knowledge.  I understand that the teamwork and discipline required in playing sports builds character, that facing loss may yield humility.  I also understand that Christians can be a witness in this arena, like other venues in the world, that we can be moral in the midst of immorality.  All good, but ultimately unsatisfying.  I'm after something bigger, something transforming.  And today I received a glimmer of it:  In explaining a vision for atletics, a friend described the goal as nothing less than a "reformation of manners in athletics," in other words, a tranformation of athletics consistent with a biblical worldview -- more than morality, more than a platform for witnessing.  Nothing less than a reformation.

This I will have to think about.  Given my ignorance about the content of and experience of athletics, probably someone better than me should think on it.  But here are some thoughts.

First, have we lost the sense of play in athletic competition?  As a boy, I remember simply playing basketball -- not because Michael Jordan played it, not on a team, but simply for fun.  People, this is serious business in some high schools.  Parents are highly invested in this activity.  You can see it on their faces.  God made work, and he made play.  Isn't this play?  I'm not sure, given the way kids are pushed to excel at all costs.

Second, in the midst of this competition, can we discern Christ's presence?  Mark Galli thinks so.  Writing in Christianity Today last year, in an article entitled The Grace of Sports, he says that "[t]he game, like a great painting, can become a signal of transcendance, a window into a world of mystery and meaning."  After all, didn't Jesus say that "in Him all things consist" (Col.. 1:17)?  Sports is one of those "things."  Galli says that "[e]very sport has its kairos moments, when as spectator or player, one becomes childlike again, or experiences the grace of human excellence, or bonds with complete strangers, or feels as if chronos time --- the slow march toward death --- is suspended."  The feeling? It can only be joy -- joy that transcends loss.  We are the kingdom of God at play.  That's what it looks like.

I know that feeling of time standing still, that feeling that something special is happening, that this is an important moment -- when I listen to music.  But I do begin to see that it can happen in sports as well.  Maybe I'm beginning to experience a reformation of manners, an attitude check and reorientation in regard to sports.  It wouldn't be the first time that's happened.


The Fate of Africa (Part I): What Went Wrong

Clip_image002_11Sometimes when you understand why something has gone so wrong, you can begin to see the outlines of a solution, complicated though it may be.  Perhaps that is the case in Africa, a continent rich in resources and with many resourceful and generous people, and yet a continent beset with difficulties, whether political corruption, dictatorship, racial injustice, poverty, or environmental ruin.  That's why I am reading Martin Meredith's very large history of modern Africa, The Fate of Africa, to get some sense of what has gone wrong and, maybe, some sense of what to hope for.  As Martin says, the book examines "the reasons why, after the euphoria of the independence era, so many hopes and ambitions faded and why the future of Africa came to be spoken of only in pessimistic terms." 

Though I am not too far on in the book, already a couple of threads emerge.  First is priority of tribe resulting in fervent nationalistic movements.  These are the same ones that led to independence but also the ones that threaten the viability of these same independent countries.  Nigeria is a case in point.  A resource-rich country, it was seized almost immediately after independence with struggles between the Muslim Hausa and Fulani of the North, Yoruba of the West, and Igbo of the East, as well as 250 other ethic minority groups. 

Second is the ability for good men to do great evil.  As Russian dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn once said, "The line between good and evil runs through the human heart."  So true.  There is Hastings Banda, for example. Hastings was educated in England and remained there for a long time.  An elder in the Church of Scotland, he was conservative, known for his generosity, and a respected medical doctor.  He tended toward respectable positions in politics, and he did not smoke, drink, or dance.  At 60, he left his English wife and returned to his native Malawi (then Nyasaland) to lead a violent and bloody campaign for independence.  Capable of great good, he was also capable of great evil.

Finally (for now) is the well-known observation that power corrupts.  Nationalist leaders who were swept to power as heroes, as saviors of their people, ended up consolidating their power, murdering and imprisoning their opponents, and living lives of luxury among the poverty and squalor of most of their people.  Case in point: Abdel Nasser, "liberator" of the Egyptian people, who came to power promising reform, consolidated his power in his presidency and made liberal use of a repressive security and intelligence network to eliminate all his foes.  He was regarded as almost god-like, a miracle worker, his likeness displayed in cafes, taxis, and shops throughout Egypt and Africa.

I need some hope for Africa.  The little bit of history I have cited seems to be repeated over and over again.  Robert Mugabe's destruction of once prosperous Zimbabwe (or Rhodesia) is only the latest reminder of what corrupt leaders can do.  I want to see the Africa that Alexander McCall Smith so wonderfully describes in his fictional stories of Botswana, The #1 Ladies Detective Agency.  Is it really there? 


The Poetry Judge

Clip_image002_10 "When I took the rubber bands off the bundles of poems, I could hear a faint sucking, an inhalation of poem breath, poems whispering, Please sir. Please.''

So begins the poetry judge, Garrison Keillor, the unfortunate and yet duty bound reader of four hundred poems with the goal of choosing just four for the winners' circle. Actually, it's pure fiction, a the The Atlantic Monthly magazine heading reminds us it's "A Short Story," a good thing considering all those poor poets Keillor would offend and wound by his comments.

And yet Keillor is so close to truth in this bit of fiction. Humorous as it is, he gets it right when he says that "it was easy to spot the winning poems; they were the readable ones. Some were good enough that I might have read them out loud to someone sitting nearby --- the simple test of a good poem."

But back to humor. There's the poet who "offered a poem that began 'If there's a bowling lane in heaven, then I know that Grandma's there,'" or the "sparkling" metaphor of "life is a sweater we are knitting and we must ever be ready to pull some stitches and redo the sleeve." Then there are the "Bad Daddy" poems, "Mean Mommy" poems, and "Bad Boyfriend" poems, followed by all the poems on Vietnam --- bloody and lifelike, all of them.

His point? "Experience becomes literature when it no longer matters to the reader whether the story is true or not." Keillor is just making the point that our personal experience doesn't matter to the reader, indeed, it needn't matter. Does the poem relate to life in general? Does it transcend experience? Is it well-written?  Those are the questions.

It's a point he sums up well here: "Self-expression is not the point of it, people! We are not here on paper in order to retail our injuries. For one thing, it is unfair to bore someone who doesn't have the opportunity to bore you right back, and for another, we have better things to do --- to defend the hopeless and the down-and-out, to find humor in dreadful circumstances, to satirize the pompous and pretentious, to make deer suddenly appear in the driveway."

I recommend "The Poetry Judge."  It'll make you laugh out loud.  Those really serious poets will never get it, of course, and just be offended and angry.  But the rest of us will.  A bad poem is like hanging one of those ugly yet supposedly "significant" works of art on the wall.  Who wants to look at ugly all day when there's plenty of beauty out there?  Read "The Poetry Judge," all of it, here.


Why God is a Dog (A Story About Witnessing)

Clip_image002_9     “What’s this Bernie?”  I stared at the paper in front of me.  It purported to be “THE GOSPEL IN FOUR EASY STEPS,” kind of like crib notes I guess.

     “Ah, just something I picked up.  Can you believe it?  The gospel in four short paragraphs?  It seems. . .

     “Jimmy!  Jimmy Wilkinson.”  Jimmy Wilkinson was a kid who lived down at the other end of my street during high school, not exactly close to me, but someone I knew.  He sat next to me in just about every high school class we had, since he was alphabetically close to me.  I hadn’t seen the guy since graduation.

     “Is that you Williams?”  How the heck are you?

     “I’m good, good.”  I introduced him to Bernie.  I was intrigued.  Jimmy looked like a used car salesman, you know, cheap tie, blazer, greasy hair.  What had he been doing for the last 25 years?

     I invited him to have a seat with us, and he did, sliding right in next to Bernie.  Come to find out, Jimmy had not lost the gift of gab.  Beginning with high school graduation he took us through the details of his wanderings through the Midwest after high school, his three failed marriages, cocaine addiction (nearly licked him, he said), and present singleness.  I’ll spare the details of his life of debauchery.  Suffice it to say the guy had lived two or three lives already, and he looked like it too.

     “. . . and anyway, here I am, by myself again, trying to make a go of this used car lot.  (I guessed right.)  I guess I hoped for better by this time in life.  You know, I feel like I still haven’t found what I’m looking for in life.”

     Aha!  If ever there was an opening for sharing the gospel, this was it.  This was my lucky day (well, you know what I mean).  Out of the corner of my eye I caught the first paragraphs of  “THE GOSPEL IN FOUR EASY STEPS” and realized that this must be a divine appointment, what with this opening, and the outline of the gospel laying right there in front of me, why, if I couldn’t pull this off now, then I should be ashamed of myself.  It was the perfect opportunity, it was. . .

     “. . . and I don’t know, I guess I feel like God has deserted me.”  Good grief!  This is too good to be true.  I only hoped my mouth wasn’t hanging open in amazement. . .“and I don’t even know what God is like.”

     “Jimmy,” I said, quickly scanning the first paragraph of “THE GOSPEL IN FOUR EASY STEPS,” “God is like, well, he’s like, like. . . a dog.”  What?!  What did I say that for?  Anyway, I was stuck with it now, I might as well go with it. . . [read more here].


Going Home to Wonder

     Clip_image002_8 “I like the way the ocean waves at the sun/ all glittering in its glory.”   It was my six-year old son’s first spontaneous poetic outburst, said with utter sincerity and marked by absolute wonder.  Doubtless no one will find it quite so captivating as me --- and yet, it made me ask some questions: when do we lose our wonder?, and how do we get it back?

     At six, my son was fascinated by the salmon.  We knew that it was born in a freshwater stream, in adolescence follows the stream hundreds, maybe thousands of miles into the saltwater ocean where it spends most of its adult life, and then, for some reason no one knows, travels back upstream, to the place it was born, to spawn and then die.  I knew more then about the salmon than I’ll probably ever know.  Yet the real wonder of it is that I had never wondered about the salmon before my son enthusiastically introduced me to it.  Why is that?  Why do I lack such basic curiosity?

     Niko Kazantzakias had this to say: “Everything in this world has a hidden meaning. . . . Men, animals, trees, stars, they are all hieroglyphics.  When you see them you do not understand them.  You think they are really men, animals, trees, stars.  It is only years later that you understand.”  Years later?  Perhaps it is the case that it’s actually years earlier that we really understand.  Maybe when we were children we were closer to the hidden meaning of it all. 

     I once followed my then three-year old son around for part of a day.  I listened to his conversation, trying to discern how he perceived the things around him.  In many ways, his capacity for wonder and imagination were beyond me. I literally found it difficult to think like him. Nothing was ordinary.  Nothing.  His bed became, in the course of only a two-hour rest time, an airplane, a bulldozer, a spaceship, a (magic) school bus, and a train.  When I came to wake him (ha!), I found him stuffed into his pillow, pretending to be a mermaid (well, mer-man I assume).  He spoke with people who appeared not be there, assumed a reality that I could not see, and asked reams of unanswerable questions.  I know, I know.  I’m saying nothing parents don’t already know, am I?

     Oh, to be six again!  Six, when Summer lasts all year, really.  Childhood now is not like the countless afternoons and Summers I experienced kicking around my backyard at six --- exploring the woods, turning over logs, catching tadpoles and minnows in the creek, mapping sewer drainage pipes which in our imaginations would take us everywhere surreptitiously (if only we had the courage).  A day was a long, long adventure, from the time the screen door slammed behind me as I raced to my friend’s house after breakfast to the announcement of dinner by my mother’s supper-yell of my name from the same door. No, this is not the Summer of life, where commerce continues unabated, around the clock, schools go year-round, and the every day and season seems about as busy as any other time of the year.  I’ve lost something, and I’m wistful for it.   

       At six, I knew so little and yet had so much.  So much love of life, of questions, of whatever came my way.  At six we are like the middle-aged Leo Bebb in Frederick Buechner’s Book of Bebb, “believing in everything, everything.”  At now, in middle age, I know a lot more (at least relatively speaking), and yet I have lost so much.  So much time to look, to listen, to wonder at it all.

     How do we recover our wonder?  Sometimes poetry reminds me of what it is to wonder, sometimes fiction, always good writing --- because when I read it I know that someone has stopped long enough to wonder.

     We simply need to slow down and stay longer in one place.  We need to stare hard at the ordinary until it gives up its hidden meaning.  We need to ask questions we cannot answer and answer questions we do not know.  We need to hang tenaciously to the belief that everything means something if we are only patient enough to await its revealing.  As Martin Luther said so long ago: “If you could understand a single grain of wheat, you would die of wonder.”  I can hear the birds outside my window, feel the wind in the pines, smell the rain coming. At least that's a start at wonder.

     I'm remembering my son, at six, who loved salmon.  He's long left the salmon behind, but he'll return, I hope.  I’m with the salmon. I’m heading upstream.  I’m going home to wonder.  I don’t know why.  It just seems like the right thing to do.  Maybe it’s what we’re wired for.


Things

Speaking of inanimate things (see Post dated February 13, 2006), this poem was enjoyable and gave me room to think.  You'll find it in Good Poems for Hard Times, ed. by Garrison Keillor:

Things

What happened is, we grew lonely
living among the things,
so we gave the clock a face,
the chair a back,
the table four stout legs
which will never suffer fatigue.

We fitted our shoes with tongues
as smooth as our own
and hung tongues inside bells
so we could listen
to their emotional language,

and because we loved graceful profiles
the pitcher received a lip,
the bottle a long, slender neck.

Even what is beyond us
was recast in our image;
we gave the country a heart,
the storm an eye,
the cave a mouth
so we could pass into safety.

by Lisel Mueller

Have you ever considered why we personify things?  Is it because we are lonely?  Or is it an antropocentric view of the world, a tendency to see everything in relation to ourselves?  Or does it stem from the lack felt by the first Adam (before Eve, before Creation was complete) who had the task of naming everything -- from the animals to plants to the inanimate -- and yet longed for someone, for something like him?  I suspect it is rooted in the later, that though Adam now has Eve he doesn't have Eve in the perfect way God intended, and so we are, to some extent, lonely and reach out to the inanimate.  Maybe.


Who Are These People?

Clip_image002_7 There are times when I am oblivious to people.  I treat the cashier as a mere extension of the cash register, for example, or the janitor as a mechanized cleaner, voiceless, nonhuman.  Then there are other times when I am keenly aware of the people around me.  I look at them and wonder what there life is, what they love and hate; what home may be like for them; what they dream of, hope for, and would die for; what they struggle with or weighs heavy on them that day, that moment; what lies hidden behind a smile or poker face expression.

I'm ashamed to say it, but people can be all around me and I may take no notice. Like many introverts, a good part of the life I live is lived internally, in my thoughts.  That's what makes me appreciate moments when other lives around me, the anonymous people, seem to crowd in on me, and I am keenly aware of them and can see into them for just a moment.  It makes me realize just a little of what it must be like for God, who is always perfectly and completely aware of who we are in a way that would be unbearable for us. He never shuts out his people but, 24 hours a day, every day, all year, He is fully aware of us, the sound of our voice and the sound of our thoughts.  He is always loving us; never for a moment does He become distracted or turn His back to us.

Tonight I found myself alone, in a strange city, eating at a restaurant.  I had one of those moments.  I actually looked at the cashier and could see a bit of who she was for a moment, or who she might be. A student perhaps?  Away from home?  Wondering about her future?

There was a family eating together -- and I wondered what home life was like, what kind of work he did, how they could live in a place like this, and what they live for.  Ultimately, I think, in those moments my heart warms toward people, toward unique people made by God, and I find myself praying for them.  It's pretty paltry, this feeling, and certainly nothing approximating what God feels toward us in it's depth and constancy, but, like I said, I'm thankful I can feel anything at all.

The late Henri Nouwen writes somewhere, as I recall, of an experience he had walking in the city one day, with crowds of people around him, and he was overcome with a feeling of identity with and love for all the people around him, almost to the point that he could not go on.  It was too much for him.  I'm not there yet.  I may never be.


"34603355"

Clip_image002_6 Like many of my generation, I have a father who served in World War II, and also like many, I don't know a lot about this.  The men who returned from WWII did not talk about the experience much.  My father didn't.  He died when I was 14, and I knew little about this time period that certainly was large in his mind.

I know that he was a private in the Army, a "grunt," and served in Northern Africa, then Italy, and then Luxembourg.  While in Luxembourg he became separated from his patrol or battalion, stepped on a land mine, lost his left foot and leg up to just midway between the knee and his ankle, and came home decorated with a Purple Heart medal.  Some of this I did not know until about a year ago, when my sister happened to mention it.  He never spoke of it to me.

Recently my mother gave me an inexpensive silver bracelet, much like a dog tag.  It bears my father's name and serial number.  It was apparently issued to him or purchased by him from the military, I assume so that he could be identified if he was killed in action.  By God's grace, in His providence, my Dad did not die.  He was not shot, though surely there were many instances when he could have been.  And he did not die from the landmine, though he bore its wound for the rest of his life.

I say all this just to make the point that inanimate objects like bracelets carry weighty memories, stories, and meanings.  In this sense they live.  They continue to remind us of things.  They point outward to things we need to remember.  Though this function served by the inanimate can be warped into mere sentiment and nostalgia, like anything else good in life, it need not be abused in this fashion.  Objects have a Godly function.  God created a world of particular things, not a world of abstractions, and when He created, when He redeemed, and when He ultimately restores creation, it will be flesh and blood, dirt and rock and water, and we will not be  disembodied spirits roaming over a great nothingness.

Scripture is replete with particulars.  There are long chronologies, perhaps to remind us that history is full of real people who had names, who lived and loved and died, with God or without.  There are names of places, as well.  Even Eden is not some dreamy wisp of a place like Shangri-La but rooted in space and time by two rivers that still flow, the Tigris and Euphrates.  Racing ahead to the end of time, there is enormous detail about the New Heavens and New Earth -- a city 12,000 stadia in length, height, and width (a cube?), with walls made of jasper, streets of gold, the foundations in all kinds of (named) precious stones.  Why named?  Why the excruciating detail?  Why else than because the inanimate matters, as it has meaning, carries memories, and roots us in the particulars of reality.  Things are unique.  People are unique.  God is interested in the things that surround us, the created reality in all its detail.

"346033355" is not just a number.  It points to a person worthy of being remembered, not for sentiment sake, but for what he points to -- a loving God who cares for His creation -- all of it -- who is not disengaged but actively governing over it, turning even evil to His good purposes.  Everything matters.  Everything counts.  Even a bracelet.


Walking Prayers, Praying Walks

Clip_image002_5 While I don’t want to take away from the need to commune with God through reading the Book, there is another way in which I’ve come to know God.  That’s through everything else He has left me – creation, natural revelation to put a theological term on it.  It’s what the Psalmist meant when he spoke of trees clapping their hands, what Jesus meant when he used the ants or sparrows as an object lesson for us.  It’s impossible to walk outside in creation without seeing God at work.  And it’s not just nature but also in the built environment, in places where man has been at work, in cities, in your neighborhood.

I began walking for exercise, and I started to do it everywhere.  But a couple of years ago I began to try and be as deliberate about where my mind was as where my feet were.  I was in Milwaukee, WI, at a conference and took a long mid-day walk through the downtown with the purpose of noticing all that I could and giving it to God.  No agenda.  Nothing to cover.  Treating every distraction as a window to God.  And I can tell you that it took some deliberateness, some discipline, but I loved it. 

Well, come with me for a minute:  On Lapham Street there was an old santa claus of a man, looking worn & frail, an overdressed rabble of a man, bearded, half-blind, under-nourished, with a sack of perhaps all his belongings on his back.  God help him.  God preserve him. There’s a black man in a tank top, leaning lazily out of a window, staring sadly into space.  Lord give him work.  Lord give him hope.  Lord, thank you for work.  A very attractive blond woman in a sheek black dress walks into the café where I stopped, and as I look away, I say thank you God for woman, for beauty, thank you for my wife, the one you gave me.   

Take a walk.  Much as I enjoy the new sights and sounds of other places, I love to walk in my own neighborhood.  As I walk out of my driveway about 6:00, all is quiet except for the hum of homes, and I thank God for Jay and Abby and their dear children across the street now for 20 years, for friendship, for God’s providence in placing us together here, in one place, for so long.  I look down the street towards my neighbor who hates animals and children, and I pray for him, that he’d be touched by a child’s wonder and kindness, or befriended by an animal, or discover that he’s a child of God.  I walk quite a while.  Maybe I’m lost for awhile in thoughts of work or some family member – what am I going to do for my mother?  How will we care for her as she ages?  How can I help her enjoy life now? – but after a few blocks of this, I give this to God as well – just like there’s been a lull in conversation while thought is going on.

Take a walk.  One day I’m walking looking for everything good.  You know how easy it is to consider everything bad, all the evil in the world – like terrorists, tsunamis, or Duke fans (sorry!).  I remember Proverbs says “if you search for good, you’ll find favor; but if you search for evil, it will find you.”  So, I’m in Columbia, SC, and this time I’m looking for good: For a purple-pink sunrise, for whoever planned this place, with its order and beauty, for creativity, for that early morning bird, for the smell of scrambled eggs and bacon, for the men fixing potholes, for all kinds of people like the man who smiled and said hello so early this morning. It’s all good. 

Peter Kreeft says a good walking prayer is one that remembers where we are going.  Walking is a good metaphor of our progress toward heaven.  We can remember that history is not circular but linear, that sanctification is a real process, and that every day we move closer to real life, the life we live in glory.

Having trouble concentrating?  Can’t pray?  I encourage you to get up and walk. Just take a walk. It’s a simple way to stay in touch with our Creator.  Every walk there’s something new to see or hear or think.  And the companionship of God is great,  After all, it says in Genesis that God walked with Adam in the Garden.  He walks with us too.

[Excerpted from a talk entitled "Here, There, and Everywhere: Keys to Practicing God's Presence," available in full here.]


The Hidden Chambers of Art

Chambers "The kingdom of the aesthetics lies in a groveling quagmire, half fine, half impure; there is a crying need for a fearless preacher of Christ in the midst of that kingdom, for a fearless writer, writing with the blood of Christ, proclaiming His claims in the midst of that kingdom, for a fearless lecturer above pandering to popular taste, to warn and exhort that all the kingdoms of this world are to become Christ's --- that artists, poets and musicians be good and fearless Christians. . . . The duty of ministers is to instruct the people out of bigoted notions against art.  It is for the man of God artist to enter this aesthetic kingdom and live and struggle and strain for its salvation and exaltation."  (Oswald Chambers)

Did you realize that this Scottish pastor, known to most for the devotional classic My Utmost for His Highest, was an artist?  Chambers studied drawing for two years and was offered scholarships in Europe's finest universities but, ultimately, accepted his calling as a minister.  However, in language like the above, he demonstrates his desire to have his two greatest passions --- art and Christ --- joined, not separated as many have done.

It reminds me of a story one Christian artist friend shared with me.  It seems that when she began writing songs and desiring to play them for others, the elders of her church asked her to give up her music career and pursue a more Godly ministry.  She did, for a time that is, until she realized that this art was her calling, her vocation, and the dualism of art and ministry was a false one.  It was hurtful and difficult, and though she submitted to leadership (not a bad thing!) she ultimately had to make her appeal to Christ when they refused to abide by Scripture.

This should never happen.  Just as missionaries are supported by the church, their calling confirmed by elders or church leaders and prayer and financial support offered, so too should some ministers in the arts be supported.  It's a difficult calling, one with many temptations.  Artists need to be connected to the body of Christ and their unique calling and gifts understood and supported.

Next artist you see: thank them for seeing things most people don't or can't; bear with their weaknesses or untidiness of mind or habit; encourage them once to make up for the hundred discouragements they face; and pray that God will supply all their needs and that their only need will be God. 


Technopoly and Postmodernism

TechAccording to students who knew him, the late Neil Postman (d. 2003), Professor at Cornell University, was quite a Luddite.  He did not use a computer, cell phone, or answering machine, wrote all his lectures out in longhand, and thought the great American pastime, television, a dangerous waste of time.  Indeed, it was a natural progression for him to move from his critique of televison in Amusing Ourselves to Death to his larger critique of technological culture -- termed Technopoly -- in his final book, published in 1993, entitled Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology.  Written before the term "postmodernism" came into common usage, it nevertheless seems to hold the seeds of postmodernist thought in its prescriptions.

Postman defined Technopoly (a word he coined) as the "submission of all forms of life to the sovereignity of technique and technology."  For Christians who believe in the sovereignity of God over all of life, his definition alone denotes idolatry, a worshiping of created things rather than the Creator, and yet we do not find many sermons preached warning about the idolatry of technology.  Rather, we see technology making significant inroads into the church.

He demonstrates how the technologies we use -- from the clock to the stethoscope to the personal computer -- profoundly impact the way in which we perceive ourselves and reality.  According to Postman: "New technologies alter the structure of our interests: the things we think about.  They alter the character of our symbols: the things we think with.  And they alter the nature of community: the arena in which thoughts develop."  Thus, we are often unconscious of the significant impact our utilization of technology has on us, and it is difficult to step back and survey the landscape of change and its impact because we are so deeply emeshed in it.

In Technopoly there is an explosion of information.  With the advent of the Internet, a tremendous amount of information is available to us online.  But Postman argues that far from being a freeing development, this availability of information is a dangerous thing.  In Technopoly, says Postman, the "information immune sytem" has broken down.  With no transcendant sense of purpose or meaning and with no cultural coherence, information is dangerous because it has no place to go, no higher purpose to relate to, no pattern in which it fits.  In other words, we have an information glut; we do not know what to attend to or how to assign it relevance.

He takes aim at scientism, noting that it

is not merely the misapplication of techniques such as quantification to questions where numbers have nothing to say; not merely the confusion of the material and social realms of human experience; not merely the claim of social researchers to be applying the aims and procedures of natural science to the human world. Scientism is all of these, but something profoundly more. It is the desperate hope, and wish, and ultimately the illusory belief that some standardized set of procedures called “science” can provide us with an unimpeachable source of moral authority, a suprahuman basis for answers to questions like ‘What is life, and when, and why?’ ‘Why is death, and suffering?’ ‘What is right and wrong to do?’ ‘What are good and evil ends?’ ‘How ought we to think and feel and behave?

Finally (and here's where the difficulty begins), he suggests a remedy for turning back the tide of Technopoly, calling us to be "loving resistance fighters."  What he means is that  “in spite of the confusion, errors, and stupidities you see around you, you must always keep close to your heart the narratives and symbols that once made the United States the hope of the world and that may yet have enough vitality to do so again.”  The difficulty is with defining and reaching consensus on, using Postman's words, a "vital narrative and accompanying story that would awaken a national spirit and a sense of resolve, as we have drained many of our traditional symbols of serious meaning."

Postman goes on in describing what education might look like as an antidote to Technopoly.  In doing so, he sounds like a postmodernist, noting that there is not one "history" but many "histories."  In other words, there is no truth but just many stories, or narratives, or truths.  It seems that an education that tries to address these multiple narratives (as it often now does) will not unite but divide or, at least, will not give us one compelling national narrative to rally around.  In Postman's remedy, his attack on modernity with its commitment to scientism, he thus plants the seeds of postmodernism.  It is true, as Postman argues, that we need a compelling national narrative to bind us together.  Given the radically pluralistic nature of our society, it will be difficult to find such a narrative.  The Christian worldview which largely (but not completely) figured in the shaping of our founding documents in the United States came from a largely homogeneous society, and we are not what we once were. The remedy is really revival, and then a new reformation.  That's the stuff worth dying for.


God's Kind Hand: Growing Up in the Sixties (Chapter 1)

Wy [One of my favorite television shows of all time was The Wonder Years.  Each episode rang true to my life, as I could identify with Kevin and Pauly, just as if I had been there, growing up in the late Sixties.  So, when the show went off, I decided to try my hand at a story, or series of vignettes of growing up in the Sixties.  It's not exactly autobiographical, but you can bet my experiences have influenced the telling of the stories.  You can read a bit here, but to read the whole story, click on the link at the end of the post or here.  Stay tuned for more "episodes in the future.]

Brad Bullah is the epitome of cool.  As I sat on the steps leading to the kitchen door of my house, I contemplated why this was so, why God was so apparently indiscriminate in his gifts to mankind, why some kids got cool and some got athletic ability and some, like me, got zip, nothing.  I absent-mindedly peeled paint from the weathered rail I leaned on, flicking the chips off the side of the steps into the grass, passing time, wasting air, as I waited for Brad to come.

He was everything I loved, and everything I hated. He commanded the block.  His word was law.  He spoke with attitude about everything.  He bullied us, railed against our stupidity, and castigated our timidity.  School was an inconvenient evil, and he took leave of it whenever he decided to, asking no one, fearing not for the consequences.  I watched him sometimes.  He just walked away from the campus, never looking back, never worrying whether one of the bolder teachers would come after him.  They never did.

“Morrison, get down from there.”

That’s Brad.  He’s never said my first name, never uttered the word “Chuck,” though I hoped he would one day, that he’d actually be my friend, that we’d be on a first name basis.

“Morrison, are you coming?  I said get down.  Come on.  Are you dreaming or something?”

I leaped off the steps and caught up with Brad, who had already reached the edge of my lawn.  We walked silently down the street until we reached the Highfill house.  Highfill was the neighborhood grump, a real pain, always yelling at you when you cut through his lawn on the way to the street behind us.

“Now get over there and stuff these bottle rockets up the drain pipe before a car comes.”

“But what if. . .”

“What if old man Highfill comes out?  So what?  You can outrun him; you’re 12, he’s 40.  He’s an old man.  Now stop your whining and get with it.  We’ll be right over here.”

I looked at the bottle rockets in my hand.  Sammy Hahn, the neighborhood pyromaniac, had strapped ten bottle rockets together, rigged a common fuse, and packed gunpowder into the empty ink cap of a fountain pen to serve as a warhead.

“I don’t know. . .”

“What are you, a sissy?  GET OVER THERE,” he whispered loudly, and I took off, stooped in front of the drain pipe, lit the fuse, lay it in the drain pipe, and turned to run.

Brad, Sammy, and the rest of the gang were gone. [Read the whole story here.]


Looking Back on ProCreation

Procreation_edit2 One of the pleasures I had over the last several years was to launch a poetry and short story journal with two friends .  We were quite presumptuous, thinking we could do so, but we learned a lot in the process about what is good and what is not so good in poetry and story.  Though no longer published, it was a great experience, one I remember fondly.

The idea behind ProCreation: A Journal of Truthtelling in Poetry and Prose, was to select and publish poems and stories that contained truth -- not just experiential truth (which is subjective), but universal truth (which is objective).  We approached it from a Christian worldview but recognized that through the operation of common grace, truth, wherever it was found and whoever expounded it, was God's truth.  We also believed, as did Francis Schaeffer, that art had both minor (because of the Fall) and major (because of Redemption) themes, so we endeavored to reflect both themes in each issue.  Looking back, we may have majored on the minor too much at times, but I think we largely got it about right.

Two groups of submitters were the most difficult to deal with: the gay community and the Christian community.  Both tended to preach too much.  As a result, their work was less artful and effective.  For gays, everything was about being gay; for Christians, all was religious.  I think I understand this, but, as Picasso once said, "Art is the lie that tells the truth," meaning indirection is a powerful tool in the hands of the artist.

Not every poem embodies both major and minor themes, and they need not.  However, the best seem to connect with us as human beings, in our difficulties and longings, and point outside of our circumstances to hope, to something or Someone transcendent, like a signpost pointing Home.

I've scanned one volume of ProCreation in, and you can access it here.  I also plan to add each issue so they can be accessed on this site (from the sidebar).  So, stay tuned!


Iron in the Blood

Rook_1 One of the truly providential experiences in my life was my discovery of the rich heritage of Dutch Calvinism, the world and life view which led to deep and rich Christian thinking in politics, art, music, journalism, economics, and education -- in fact, in all of cultural life.  Names like Abraham Kuyper, Groen van Prinsterer, and Herman Dooyeweerd were introduced to me by first and second generation Dutch-Americans involved with a Christian political organization I served on the board of in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Association for Public Justice (now, the Center for Public Justice).  The blessing of that experience was the development of a mindset that rejects a secular/sacred distinction in life and seeks a unitary vision for life, and a desire to live a principled life of faith in the world, not removed from it in a subculture of our own making.  As I said, it was providential, and unexpected, as I grew up in a rather unreformed Presbyterian Church in the South, knew no Dutch Christians (or any Dutch for that matter), and was not a particularly good choice for a board member.  God works in mysterious ways.

This all came to mind today as I read an article by Westminster Seminary Professor William Edgar in Books and Culture, entitled "'Why All This?': Rediscovering the Witness of Hans Rookmaaker."  It's a remembrance of, in Edgar's words, the "idiosyncratic Dutch art historian," a friend of Francis Schaeffer, and one also involved in the ministry of L'Abri -- that Swiss alpine Christian shelter for wandering, spiritually seeking youth in the late Sixties and which lives on even today.  I knew Rookmaaker through his 1970 book, Modern Art and the Death of Culture in which he examined the latent (and absurdist) spiritual roots of modern, mostly abstract art.  From Rookmaaker I worked my way back to his mentors -- first Kuyper, then Dooyeweerd -- finally giving up, overwhelmed by the vocabulary.  Too much for my less-rigorous mind!

But back to Rookmaaker.  Edgar summarizes his focus like this:

Arguably, the central question which characterized all of Rookmaaker's investigations was the problem of meaning.  There were meaning structures in the world, which he simply called "reality."  He believed that history has been unfolding since the creation of humanity and its purpose in the cultural mandate of Genesis 1:26-31.  When artists try to rebel against the laws of creation, they violate its inner structure, and therefore end up in absurdity.

But Rookmaaker had hope, noting that the "ultimate direction of history is positive," and while "forces of secularization have taken over. . . . nothing rules out further progress and a new Reformation."

He was no stuffy intellectual, but had a warmth and pastoral spirit like Francis Schaeffer.  He could "navigate easily from the study to the living room, from the Bible to the art museum, from learned books to real people with spiritual gifts and needs."  How I wish I had known Rookmaaker or Schaeffer!

But, actually, in a way I did.  In their books they mentored me, in my Dutch Calvinist friends I knew them, and in the many books published by Intervarsity Press (many tied to Rookmaaker and Schaeffer and others of a Christian world and life view), I met them.  And even now in pastors who have been deeply influenced by their ideas or those of their "followers."  Yes, I know them, and I am thankful.

Asked why he loved jazz music, Rookmaaker once said "because it put iron in the blood!"  It sustained him, gave him joy, and challenged him as well.  I recommend him.  He'll put iron in your blood too.


Writing of Heaven

Suzanne Clark is a wonderful poet, a  Christian who writes compelling non-religious poems imbued with faith.  It's difficult to write a poem (or anything, really) about Heaven without getting sentimental or veering way off base in speculation.  She is able to do so without those problems in this poem found in her book, What a Light Thing, This Stone:

In the World to Come

you will see the heron landing time and again
with its great fringed wings folding up the sky.
You will see a sprig of hair from your scrapbook
loosed in blooms around your sister's face.
You will hear your name called, a leaf aloft,
and voices of rain speaking joy.
You will drink your whole life,
with the bitterness aged as heavy, sweet wine.
The bales of dreams will open and you will truly fly
or be invisible and poems will sprout from your mouth,
you will breathe water, you will know what the owl knows
and the Maker of Owls. 

Amen.                                                                                                  


Remembering the Incarnation (Christmas in February)

Clip_image001_2 Next Christmas we’ll run away ‑‑‑at least, that’s what my wife and I sometimes half jokingly, half seriously say to each other each December.  December has to be the heaviest month of the year.  It has to endure the weight of religious tradition and commercial hysteria and socializing to the point that I sometimes wonder if it may burst from the demands placed upon it.  That's why I'm glad we made it through the great sigh of January to February.

I don’t know if  last December brought you the Christmas of Christians, Hannakuh, Ramadan, Kwannza, Winter Soltice, or just buying, selling, and a gnawing empty that says there must be more.  Like any writer, I can only write from where I am ‑‑‑Bethlehem’s baby.  For Christians, life is rooted in the centrality of the Incarnation.  So too is writing. 

The Incarnation affirms that human, earthy reality is worthy of study and love and retelling.  It’s a favoring of the concrete, particular, earthy stuff of life ‑‑‑the good, the bad, and the ugly.  Yet at the same time it reverberates with something Other ‑‑‑something that transcends those particulars and points to a greater truth.  Whatever we make of this Incarnation, writers know this from experience, from craft, from our own attempts to incarnate reality in words.  We know that the better story or poem is one that connects with people where they are ‑‑‑in the rattle and rub of everyday life.  At the same time, and often serendipitously, we know that a greater truth emerges from the details.  It rears up, sometimes befuddling, sometimes amusing, sometimes filling us with wonder and even more questions.  In the story or poem, the writer says “I am with you reader” while, at the same time, he reveals some truth that transcends both the writer’s and the reader’s particular circumstances.

Even artists who attempt to create art from randomness ‑‑‑such as musician John Cage ‑‑‑cannot escape the tug of the transcendant.  Even out of the randomness, pattern emerges, meaning surfaces, like some natural law.

Dorothy Sayers once wrote an essay where she explained that Christians see this world as a novel, which has a whole universe of action within its pages but no independent reality.  Its reality depends on God, who alone is real in his own right.  But people are made able to enter this true reality, which is called heaven, so that when they die, “It is not as though the characters and action of the book were continued in our next like a serial; it is though they came out of the book to partake of the real existence of their author.”  God with us, God apart from us; immanent, transcendant; earthy and out of this world.

I am pro‑creation because I believe, like many others before me, that our creating is an inevitable and wonderful aspect of our created nature.  We, the characters in this tale spun by God, are telling our own tales, living out our lives in ways that sometimes surprise, sadden, or amuse our Maker. You know how it feels, don’t you?  We’ve all carefully sketched out our characters’ lives, only to find that they possess a freedom that inevitably asserts itself.  We ourselves are little incarnations that continue to incarnate reality, in what we create. 


A Hebrew baby.  A dutiful, albeit surprised young father.  A young girl with an illegitimate child.  The smell of wet hay, manure, and unwashed bodies.  A surreal visitation.  Dumbstruck sheep‑tenders.  A cow, a donkey, a cat, and a dog look on.

All details: concrete, particular, the stuff of stories.  Yet something greater emerges. It’s the mystery of every incarnation ‑‑‑every story, every poem, every God become man.

But the Incarnation is more than an affimation of the worthiness of what is created and what we create.  It also confirms that the most powerful and meaningful things ‑‑‑ including good writing ‑‑‑ are those which so often appear powerless, subtle, indirect, and deceptively modest.  Frankly, I am tired of hearing art validated as “bold” or “shocking.”  And I’m frustrated by the prostituting of art by its politicization.  The Writer of the Gospel tale told it simply, with understatement, and with an indirection and subtlety that has frustrated many a theologian.  When you end the story, you can’t quite put your finger on God.  Seems appropriate, doesn’t it?  Rather, the Author says “I love these characters, so much that I will become one of them so that I can liberate them from the reality of my making.  At the same time, I leave them free to unmake themselves, to ignore me and to ultimately write themselves out of existence, because they have no existence apart from me.”  The Incarnation says that the most powerful things come in apparent weakness ‑‑‑Word become flesh.  It says that good writing is that which is sutle and indirect, yet so full of meaning that its full expression is often beyond its author.

Finally, the Incarnation tells us that our creations, our writing, our truthtelling, is set in the context of love.  This goes against the flow of art culture because, for many artists today, free expression is sometimes viewed as the sine qua non of human existence.  Any kind of self‑censure is demeaned as cowardice ‑‑‑a failure to speak the truth, to say what must be said.  It’s almost as if what can be written must be written.  Yet as important as self‑expression is ‑‑‑as telling the truth is ‑‑‑we don’t believe that it is the highest value.  That place belongs to love.

The Incarnation wasn’t about some political or moral agenda, much as some would have made it that way then or utilize it for their own political program now.  No, the Author of Life wrote Love into the Universe in the most unexpected and personal way ‑‑‑a tiny baby, born of wide‑eyed poor folk with barely a roof over their heads in a tiny, insignificant country half‑way around the world.  And yet, it’s a story that continues to speak because its both chock‑full of the particular ‑‑‑baby, unwed mother, common folk, angels, prostitutes, tax collectors, and other unsavory folk ‑‑‑and yet, at bottom, it’s about something we all want to understand ‑‑‑Love.  It’s a tale told in Love and for Love.

So writing is more than expression, more than just telling the truth, more than message or agenda.  Not all that can be said, should be said, for Love.  Not enough that should be said, is said, for Love. Love both provides a boundary in our writing and the challenge, the challenge to say what should be said; the restraint not to say what would wound or hurt.


Frederick Buechner, who has written painfully personal memoirs of his life, has explained that he never wrote about his mother until after she died.  Why?  Because he was concerned that she would read it and that it would damage his relationship with her.  Not all that can be said, should be said, for Love.

You may regard the Incarnation as, at best, myth, and at worst, as a lot of rubbish.  So be it.  I’m not here to convince you otherwise, even if I could.  I haven’t even said all that could be said about the connection between the Word enfleshed and our words enfleshed.

But do this, will you? ‑‑‑Next time you write, watch order and meaning assert themselves, note the power in the sutlety of a little poem or story, marvel when love enters the equation of creation.  Then ask yourself: Why?


Sacred Spaces?

Clip_image002_3 In Neil Postman's indictment of the Age of Television, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, he makes some interesting comments about the church -- particularly television preachers.  He says that church is not transferable to television.  First, of course, there is the fact that church is much more than watching or listening to a preacher.  As Postman says, "Christianity is a demanding and serious religion.  When it is delivered as easy and amusing, it is another kind of religion altogether."  This alone is a provocative enough statement, but the more interesting one to me is his argument that we cannot invest the television screen with a sacred use, given that the screen is so saturated with our memories of profane (non-sacred) events and the reality that with one click we can change the channel and be watching MTV or football.

I thought of this statement because of a recent conversation among some in our church over whether to have a movie night in the sanctuary of our church.  To be sure, we would be doing a bit more than entertaining.  We would select the movies carefully and use them as tools to fuel a discussion of the worldview evidenced by the film as well as how to be discerning partakers of popular culture.  All well and good.  But I wonder if we risk desacralizing a sacred space?

I admit that this whole notion of sacred space has, until recently, been foreign to me.  I generally have viewed church buildings as nothing nothing more than brick and mortar multi-use space usable for congregational worship, concerts, conferences, and, but for the fact that we have immovable pews, for fellowship dinners or any other church use.  However, if I view PG-13 or R rated movies in the sanctuary, I wonder if that profane (non-sacred) use will impinge on my worship, that is, if during worship I will think of what I have seen there, a movie that may have sexuality, violence, or profanity?  If so, how will that impact my worship?  I don't know.

There is great power in images and the associations we make.  Here's an unfortunate example for you:  When I was about 14, I was attending worship in my family's church.  An older college kid I knew brought his girlfriend to church that day.  Thirty-three years later, I remember the provocative and suggestive way in which she was dressed.  Now, when I think of that church, that image inevitably flashes briefly into my mind.  Sure, some of that's inevitable, some of it my problem, but it does effect my worship there in that place.  Association is powerful.  Images are pervasive and long-enduring.

I am not sure this is a biblical concern as much as a prudential concern.  It may not be a problem for everyone.  Something tells me, however, that I don't want my place of worship to be like every other place.  I want it to be invested with a scared use, to be set apart, to be something other than a mult-use building.


Whatever is Maudlin and Sentimental -- Think About Such Things?

One of the primary uses of Philippians 4:8 is is as a justification for Christians watching or reading only what is nice, heartwarming, safe, and comfortable.  It's all a matter of what parts of the verse you emphasize, though.  The verse says this:  "Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever us noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable -- if anything is excellent or praiseworthy -- think about such things."

Lilhous2 It's a wonderful verse, really, because it's an injunction to think about the true, the good (or right), and the beautiful (lovely) -- objective truth (the really real), moral truth (the good and the bad), and aesthetic truth (the beautiful and the ugly), saying it another way.  Now, to those who think this means we all need to confine our viewing of TV to Touched by an Angel or Little House on the Prairie reruns, or reading sanitized Christian fiction, consider what happens when you apply this interpretation to the Book God wrote.

For example, try Judges 19 and 20.  It recounts a sordid tale of a Levite and his concubine staying overnight in Gibeah, where a group of men demand that the Levite be brought out to them so they can have sex with him.  He gives them his mistress, and after they gang rape and beat her through the night, she dies.  The Levite takes her home, cuts her body into twelve pieces, and sends them to the leaders of the twelve tribes of Israel as a visible and gruesome demonstration of the depth of depravity in the land.  In the horrific violence that ensues, thousands die and Gibeah is destroyed by fire.  Hey, I didn't write it! Think about such things? This might get an X rating even nowadays.  It's not for the kids, folks.

This is not an isolated passage.  The Bible is brutally honest and graphic in recounting the wickedness and evil of a people who had forgotten God.  It is also very honest in dealing with sexual matters.  For example, until I was in college, no one would talk to me about the Song of Solomon.  (Me: "Hey Mom, what's this right here mean when he says 'Your two breasts are like two fawns'?"  Mom: "WHAT are you reading?"  Me: "The Bible." Mom: "Well, read something else, why don't you?")  Think about such things.

Trioang Rather than read Philippians 4:8 as a limitation on cultural and artistic engagement, it should be read as a positive encouragement to engage the culture in a discerning way.  Part of this is confronting the reality of our fallenness.  And that's not a pretty sight, but it is a true fact that we need to think on and feel deeply in order to understand the world we live in.  Of course, we also want to explore the good and the beautiful, and it's difficult to set absolutes here, to draw lines.  For example, there is much good and beautiful in Touched By An Angel and Little House on the Prairie but (lest I commit sacrilege) there is also falsehood.  For example, growing up on the frontier was, by all accounts, much more difficult than portrayed on Little House, and the God we get in Touched is a bit too safe for the one we know from Scripture.  The point:  Paul commends discernment, not abandonment, of culture.  And there's the big issue: How are we to be discerning?  How do we exercise good judgment?

Now, be careful out there.  But get out there.


Describing the "Thing"

Clip_image002_2 “There is only one trait of the writer,” says Morley Callaghan.  “He is always watching.”

I’m watching all right.  I’m watching two gray squirrels chase each other.  I’m listening to a mockingbird sing and children’s playful taunts.  Rain is coming.  I can smell it on the wind.  The book in my hand feels cool, smells of new ink. . . .

Writing to a young girl in 1956, C.S. Lewis had this observation: “If you become a writer you’ll be trying to describe the thing all your life: and lucky if, out of dozens of books, one or two sentences, just for a moment, you come near to getting it across.”

Once upon a time, a friend and I co-edited a poetry and short story journal called ProCreation.  We read a lot of submissions.  Eighty percent of the submissions fell into one of two categories. The first category belonged to those who succeeded all too well in describing the thing – whether it’s sexuality, political cause, religious viewpoint, or confession.  These folks had plenty to say, but they said it so directly that the truth they expounded could not be heard.  The art was secondary to the telling. In the other category were those who through ambiguity or subtlety actually obscured the very thing they wanted to say.  As a result, the reader cannot connect with the words at all. One cannot find the universal in the particulars.  They might heed E.B. White (see Post entitled "The Little Book"), who quipped: “Be obscure clearly.” Not clearly obscure.

Often the best work occurs when we just concentrate on describing what we see or telling a story that unfolds day by day without some grand design and meaning.  Isn’t it true that meaning so often arises, serendipitously, from this process?  I think of the talent of my friend Tom who can tell a story about taking the garbage out that is full of suspence and humor.  Really.

I like what Kathleen Norris says about poetry: “The discipline of poetry teaches poets, at least, that they often have to say things they can’t pretend to understand. . . . In contending with words, poets come to know their power. . . . We experience words as steeped in mystery, forces beyond our intellectual grasp. . . . In composing a poem, one often seems to move directly from ignorance to revelation.” I can definitely identify with ignorance. And revelation?  Well, I’m not sure I have too much to do with that.  The point is we sometimes do not know what it is we've said until we've said it and even then maybe not fully.  (Hmmm, I'm not sure I know what I just said.)

There's those two gray squirrels again.  A mockingbird sings and children not so playfully taunt.  Rain is coming.  I can smell it on the wind.  Child-sized footprints track the grass to fade away at grass-edge.  A truck thrusts itself into gear,  moves on down the road.  The breeze rustles my paper, plays with the pages of my book.  Better get up.  Better get out.  Better go out walking.  Maybe today I'll get closer to the thing.

I haven’t the foggiest notion of what all this means.  Not yet, anyway.


Good Poems

Goodpoems In A Poetry Handbook, Mary Oliver's insightful guide to what makes a poem a poem, she says "poets select words for their sounds as well as their meanings," (and sometimes, I would add, in spite of their meanings!)  "Rock" is that the same as "stone," she says; with "rock" there is a "seed of silence at the edge of sound."  A good poem engages our ear with the rhythm of sound and silence, sound and silence; it stirs us in ways we cannot truly fathom.  And yet. . .

And yet I can count on one hand the number of people I personally know who make poetry a regular part of their diet of words.  Part of that, I suspect, is due to a utilitarian bent infecting us all.  We live in an age of pragmatism.  Of what earthly good is poetry?  Is the time spent on it worthwhile?  The other problem is that a lot of poems are simply inaccessible to most folks, so obscure, so obtuse, that on reading the poem most people are clueless.  It doesn't mean the poem is not rich in meaning, but it requires time, and most folks don't have that kind of time.

Because of the later point, I appreciate Garrison Keillor's attention to the "accessible" poem in the poems he collects in Good Poems for Hard TimesOn the purpose of the poem:

     The meaning of poetry is to give courage.  A poem is not a puzzle that you the dutiful reader is obliged to solve.  It is meant to poke you, get you to buck up, pay attention, rise and shine, look alive, get a grip, get the picture, pull up your socks, wake up and die right.

Poetry is not obscure, or shouldn't be, he says:

     People complain about the obscurity of poetry, especially if they're assigned to write about it, but actually poetry is rather straightforward compared to ordinary conversation with people you don't know well which tends to be jumpy repartee, crooked, coded, allusive to no effect, firmly repressed, locked up in irony, steadfastly refusing to share genuine experience --- think of conversation at office parties or conversation between teenage children and their parents, or between teenagers themselves, or between men, or between bitter spouses: rarely in ordinary conversation do people speak from the heart and mean what they say. . . . Forget everything you ever read about poetry, it doesn't matter --- poetry is the last preserve of honest speech and the outspoken heart.

Good poems.  Good poems have words that stick to me, that come back to me when I'm in a jam, like the Psalms.  Read aloud, they have a pleasing sound, and that rests well with my soul.  There must be a reason God put poetry in Scripture -- not just for content, but for sound, for the restorative effect of sound.

But enough about poems.  Read one.  Here's one of the many good ones that Keillor includes in his collection, by Bob Hicok, the first of many (I'm warning you) to come:

Calling him back from layoff

I called a man today.  After he said
hello and I said hello came a pause
during which it would have been

confusing to say hello again so I said
how are you doing and guess what, he said
fine and wondered aloud how I was

and it turns out I'm OK. He
was on the couch watching cars
painted with ads for Budweiser follow cars

painted with ads for Tide around an oval
that's a metaphor for life because
most of us run out of gas and settle

for getting drunk in the stands
and shouting at someone in a t-shirt
we want kraut on our dog. I said

he could have his job back and during
the pause that followed his whiskers
scrubbed the mouthpiece clean

and his breath passed in and out
in the tidal fashion popular
with mammals until he broke through

with the words how soon thank you
ohmyGod which crossed his lips and drove
through the wires on the back of ions

as one long word as one hard prayer
of relief meant to be heard
by the sky. When he began to cry I tried

with the shape of my silence to say
I understood but each confession
of fear and poverty was more awkward

than what you learn in the shower.
After he hung up I went outside and sat
with one hand in the bower of the other

and thought if I turn my head to the left
it changes the song of the oriole
and if I give a job to one stomach other

forks are naked and if tonight a steak
sizzles in his kitchen do the seven
other people staring at their phones

hear?

See? Poems aren't so scary after all. 

Out walking today I saw a man with a chihuahua with a confederate flag for a sweater (the dog, that is).  Now that's scary.


Confessions of a Neil Postman-Holic

Clip_image001 Alright, I confess.  Like others before me, I am a Neil Postman-Holic.

After reading Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (admittedly, a few years late), I gave up on and no longer watch television news.  In fact, I watch nothing that purports to be of real substance on television.  Postman said that "television is at its most trivial and, therefore, most dangerous, when its aspirations are high, when it presents itself as a carrier of important cultural conversations."   He goes on to say that "no matter what is depicted or from what point of view, the overriding presumption is that it is there for our amusement and pleasure."  Thus, to the extent I watch television, I decided that I would watch it purely to be entertained.  Give me Stargate, not the CBS Evening news; Seinfeld, not 60 minutes.  But even these shows often purport to say something of importance!  What's a couch potato to do?

Postman's argument is that "a great media-metaphor shift has taken place in America, with the result that the content of much of our public discourse has become dangerous nonsense."  He laments the passing of the Age of Typography and the ascendancy of the Age of Television.  In the Age of Typography, most everyone read.  Reading encourages rationality, analytical thinking, reflection, and following an argument.  He gives the example of the Lincoln-Douglas presidential debates of the 19th century -- debates that were well attended and went on for six hours!  Six hours?  People can't even seem to sleep for six hours anymore much less listen to a debate for six hours. 

In his next book, Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology, Postman takes the argument one step further by arguing that Americans love technology so much that they are unable to refuse it.  In other words, technology is sovereign.  As Christians, we would say that it is idolatry to worship anything other than God, and yet, in our society, technology is worshiped.

Postman's words have proven prophetic.  Television and, for that matter, any new technology, is supreme.   Now, what do we do about it?  What ought we do about it?  Do we surrender?

For one, we can encourage thoughtfulness, as in reading deeply on a subject and discussing it with others.  Rather than being beholden to new technology, schools should encourage reading of great books.  Some already do.  Students surfing the web or weblogs can amass a lot of details, but the medium does not lend itself to thoughtfulness, or the sustained argument, or patience.  For example, the little bit I'm offering here is but a teaser, if that; you need to read Postman -- all of him, and then discuss his arguments with others who have read him.  Is he right?  How so?  Does his argument stand up? Rather than skimming blogs, I hope folks will actually be prompted to read.

Second, we can encourage the reading of great fiction.  The best fiction is the compelling sort of read about which, when someone asks me what's the point of the book, I have to say I'm not sure.  Why?  Because it is so true, so like life, that it requires thoughtfulness to sort out its profound and deeply embedded themes.  It's a story, with real characters -- not a polemic, not a prop for a point someone wishes to make.  Turn off the TV for three weeks and devote the time to great books, and when you return to the TV you'll see it for the shallow medium it is.  It's like junk food -- you crave it, but it cannot sustain you, and it's effects are damaging.

Even Postman had little hope that the tide could be reversed.  I don't either.  We do not have an overarching moral framework as a society that will pass judgment on technology.  Perhaps its the Dark Ages again.  Perhaps like the monks who kept the written word alive, like the little community of outcasts in Fahrenheit 451, we will have to keep the books alive -- not because they are banned, but because they are unloved and neglected.

Darn it, Postman, TV's just no fun anymore.

And now, this. . .