Previous month:
March 2006
Next month:
May 2006

April 2006

Blessed Memory

My maternal grandmother figured prominently in my life, so I have many memories of her.  I know that my younger sister and I stayed with her often, and one of things we did was take walks with her -- to an old abandoned cemetery, to an elderly friend, down the train tracks, to the creek, to the strawberry patch -- and just being around her home, watching her cook, swinging on the tree swing, taking care of flowers, helping in her garden, and feeding the multitude of cats that she cared for (but disavowed any interest in).

It's no accident that I have these memories, and I am glad that I have them, but I have often wondered about their purpose.  What am I to do with them?  I don't long for a return to that time (I'm not nostalgic about them), but I am comforted by the fact that I can remember so many details of being with her.

In his enjoyable book of meditations called The Book of Moonlight: Why Life Is Good and God Is Generous and Kind, Christopher de Vinck says that "God gives us the gift of unexpected, seemingly insignificant memories. . . to remind us that we are, indeed, still children -- his children -- and it is good to remember with a child's heart those who protected us, when we feel alone at night as we adjust our pillows just before we take a long breath and sleep."  Indeed, it is good to remember, and I believe it to be part of the image of God in us that reminds of us his providential care for us.  Scripture reminds us that God is one who remembers (as in remembering his covenant), and so too are we rememberers.

Such good memories should remind me to be thankful, to remember I am in God's firm care, that those he sent me to shepherd my life were all a part of his grand plan.  It is good to remember.


Prairie and Prayer

Flower_2 There's a skin of the landscape I'm beginning to peel back, and I'm finding a map of sorts in the world around me; a landscape of prayer, creation that cannot help but praise the creator.  Symbols in the landscape beckon me further up and further in. When I'm on the prairie, the barriers come down.  My need to stay busy dissolves, my frustrations calm, and I am free to be still.  (Cindy Crosby, in By Willoway Brook: Exploring the Landscape of Prayer)

Mostly, when I'm out walking, I'm moving.  I hear the pounding of my feet on asphalt and my somewhat labored breath.  I have to make a conscious effort to focus on the landscape around me, because I'm exercising.  I have a plan.  I have a goal.  I have miles to cover.

What Cindy Crosby is describing is something else altogether, something it's difficult to get out walking for exercise.  It's a meditation on the landscape -- looking, listening, smelling, and touching it.  Adam knew about this.  When God sent the animals to him for naming, Adam, in that pre-Fall state, would not have flippantly said the first name that came to mind.  He would have looked at what manner of creature was in front of him and given it a name summoned up by its appearance or sound.  To name something or someone is to know it or them.  It would have been much as he named Eve "woman," as she was "bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh. . . [and] taken out of man. (The Hebrew word for "woman" sounds like the word for "man," but we can assume the "wo" is added because she may be like man but oh so, so different! And then, as he later knows her better, he names her "Eve," which means "living.")

It's difficult to practice this kind of knowing of our landscape, our surroundings, given the pace of life, but it's worth it.  A few years ago my daughter and I made a project of naming every tree in our backyard.  To do that we had to look at the profile of the tree, the shape of the leaf, and the bark.  We had to get to know them a bit.  It took some time.  But now I feel like I know them, that is, in the only way you can know a tree, so when I walk in the backyard it's a familiar and oddly comforting community.  I'm not being sentimental or making them more than they are, not being anthropocentric.  They are just trees and, unlike me, they are not made in God's image.  But they are made by His hand and so we share a common origin.

What I guess I'm trying to say is that I'm more at home here when I better know the other living things that live here with me.  I'm glad to know the trees and the birds that live here.  Certainly I've been entertained by the antics of the squirrels.  My backyard is full of life.

Crosby ties this knowing of the landscape, the living community around us, to prayer.  When she is in the Schulenberg Prairie near her home in the western suburbs of Chicago, she says she is "free to be still."  The tallgrass prairie gives her all kinds of reasons to pray.  Like the monarch butterfly, encoded with the memory of a place in Mexico to which they go each Fall, a place they have no memory of and yet the longing for which they are encoded.  The butterflies homing instinct makes her wonder if we are all encoded with that longing for home, for God, and it drives her to prayer.

You know, I'll bet there are such symbols all around me.  I just need to open my eyes and look well.  I certainly can't look at what's here without thankfulness welling up in me.  There's not an animal or plant or inanimate object here that's not pointing out, to God.

There's a lot going on in my backyard.


On the Midway (A Poem)

Midway

Yesterday Johnny caught DebbieDscf0037_edited_3
     moving with the fire-eater,
Down by the Tilt-A-Whirl
(Some incendiary show no doubt)
Just the nature of the beast (or love)
     on this tight rope where we're found.

          Love it, hate it
          This midway town,
          Here between Kingdom Come
               and Kingdom Bound.

Well, at night when I feel the ground quake,
     from the din of love next door
I think of Rosalita, then my boys
Watch the clock measure out my time
     wondering where I'm bound.

Past midnight I get up and walk these aisles
So strangely silent, no glitter now
I watch the moon, I know it shines
On Havana, on my home, while I'm sojourning
     here in this pretend town.

          Love it, hate it,
          This midway town,
          Here between Kingdom Come
               and Kingdom Bound.

I slung a cross 'round the Rio Grande
People watching, children laughing,
As this train goes round and round.
My way of saying, that even though I

          Love it, hate it,
          This midway town,
          I'm at peace
          Here between Kingdom Come
               and Kingdom Bound.

          Yes, I'm at peace here --
               Kingdom's Come.

Steve West

[Midways, fairs, and circuses are rich with the stuff that makes stories and poetry, what with all the lights, the cross-section of people, and the smells.  Consider Richard and Linda Thompson's song, "Wall of Death;" even the names evoke a response and suggest metaphor.  I wrote this after watching my daughter and son ride a children's train, operated by a Hispanic man whose face said a great deal.  The train was called the Rio Grande, and a large cross was hanging around its smokestack.]


Top 10 Living Songwriters

Guiatr While it is a bit presumptuous to try and pick the top ten living songwriters, when a friend's blog post challenged (that is, Tony Shore, at Obvious Pop), I had to try.  We were helped in this by Paste Magazine, which currently has a songwriter poll on their website where you can pick the top 20 songwriters.  I prefer a smaller number.

In thinking about this, I am keenly aware of my ignorance of many great songwriters as well as my personal preferences.  I also felt the tyranny of the immediate, that is, that songwriter who I am enamored with right now seems so great, and yet I have to exercise a bit of perspective.  I tried to have some perspective, and I tried not to let personal preference govern.  At least consider it a list of folks you might like to listen carefully to.

Here's my Top 10 Living Songwriters, in no particular order:

  • Bob Dylan     If you're not a fan, hate the voice, or just don't dig folk, put all that aside for a minute and consider the songs -- Blowing in the Wind, Like a Rolling Stone, Gotta Serve Somebody.  He was the voice of a generation, always ahead of his fans, prolific, and enigmatic.  He is unique.
  • Brian Wilson     There's not a place you can go to escape Beach Boys songs.  I Get Around, Wouldn't It Be Nice, Good Vibrations, and more -- these are a part of Americana and will endure as long as we do.  He is a harmonic genius and with his songs tapped into all that Southern California was imagined to be (sun, surf, cars, girls) and exported it to the whole world.  And he's still doing it.   
  • Joni Mitchell     Absolutely unique.  Where would we be without Both Sides Now, Chelsea Morning, The Circle Song, and those weird, strange tunings?  She's influenced so many other songwriters and has earned a place in the canon of popular music.
  • Jimmy Webb     He may not be a household name, but his songs are -- Galveston, Wichita Lineman, MacArthur Park, If These Walls Could Speak, and more, all recorded and made #1 hits by others.
  • Rosanne Cash     This spot really belongs to her Dad, Johnny, but Rosanne has what it takes -- emotionally searing songs set to country, folk, and pop melodies.  She really rocks!
  • Paul McCartney     Need I say more?  The writer of Yesterday, Let It Be, Fool on the Hill, and more keeps on, as his latest release, Chaos and Creation, demonstrates.   
  • Carole King and Gerry Goffin     Before Tapestry and its slew of #1 hits, King wrote with then-husband Goffin in the famous Brill Building, #1 hits like Loco-Motion!
  • Terry Scott Taylor    Unfortunately consigned to the CCM backwater, Taylor is a world-class songwriter and performer for Daniel Amos, the Lost Dogs, the Swirling Eddies, and more, as well as on his on.
  • Hal David and Burt Bacharach     Quite a pairing.  The writers of Raindrops Keep Fallin' On My Head, and more for a string of movies.
  • Jon Anderson     Co-writer of Roundabout, a genius prog-rock song, Anderson is a member of Yes (over 30 years) and employed his skill to write beaucoups of instrumentally and lyrically complex songs.

Well, that's my stab at a list.  Looking at it now, it seems so inadequate.  I'd like to add some current faves -- like Pierce Pettis, Sufjan Stevens, John Davis, and Jane Kelly Williams, but I think you have to live a while and hone your craft to get the title of Top Ten.

A touch of sadness came over me as I was doing it.  I miss Johnny Cash and Mark Heard.  May they rest in peace.


Living Out the Story

DavinciAfter reading about 100 pages of The DaVinci Code, I am well aware of it's lack of literary merit and yet its ability to attract a following because of its sensational story -- that is, one that appeals to the senses, to the sense we all have that there is a back-story to life.  Indeed there is a back-story to life, only this book gets its so wrong.  I understand why such books are popular.  It's not the first, of course, abounding with great conspiracies, secret societies, and hidden knowledge.  But the runaway success of this book must be attributable to more than mass gullibility.  But what?

In a recent article on the Relevant Magazine website, North University Professor Scot McKnight attributes the interest in The Gospel of Judas -- a text all scholars agree is contrived and offers no reliable information on Jesus -- to this generation's distrust of the Church as a source of authority, given the scandals of TV evangelists, pedophile priests, and more general evidence that Christians don't behave any better than non-Christians (and sometimes worse!).  McKnight says that "[w]hat makes this text relevant to me is that it makes me realize that the only thing this generation will believe is a Story that is made true by local churches that live out that Story in such a way that it becomes a living, credible Story for a new generation."

He's on to something.  That something is that I'm not sure if most people really desire to engage in a discussion about whether The DaVinci Code story or the text of The Gospel of Judas are actually true, because, at bottom, like good post-moderns, they are enamored with the story.  And for the post-modern, all stories have equal weight.  You just pick the one you like, the one that "makes sense for you."  This tyranny of the narrative is a product of a life rooted in an exalted self.  You are self-defining; your story is what you make it or that which you adopt.

This is a lamentable fact.  Several books have now been written "debunking" The DaVinci Code and demonstrating the complete lack of reliability of The Gospel of Judas and yet, I suspect most of those who are attracted to these stories are not reading these books and do not plan to do so.  At best, they do not regard the source of most of these books (The Church) as credible -- the realm of hypocrites, money hungry tele-evangelists, and a clique of religiosity.  While it's not wise to generalize about this (there are folks still interested in debating objective truth), this has ramifications for evangelism:  our actions, our incarnated story, come first.  That, and not our words, will speak most loudly and provocatively in these times.

Objective truth is inescapable and our quest for it -- despite apparent indifference -- is creational, bound up in who we are as people made in the image of God.  People will talk with us about whether there is, as Francis Schaeffer said, "true Truth," but they must come to trust our embodiment of that Truth first.  If it's lived out -- that is, incarnated -- the Christian Story will attract.  It is compelling.  As Schaeffer said in his little book, The Mark of the Christian, love is the final apologetic.  It's the first, too.


Love and Grief

4075endofthetrailposters "Death is the omnipresent reality in the Lord of the Rings.  Its presence serves as a caveat against the life-worship that is the unofficial faith of the modern world.  The constant iteration of the word 'doom' solemnly reminds readers that we are not the final arbiters of our own lives, much less the world's life.  Tolkien never lets us forget that no battle is finally won, no victory permanently achieved -- not in this world at least -- just as every triumph creates a host of new perplexities.  The ending of the Lord of the Rings -- where the defeat of evil is muted by an enormous grief at the departure of Gandalf and Frodo and Bilbo and the elves -- can be read without tears only by the flint-hearted.  C.S. Lewis rightly noted that a 'profound melancholy pervades the whole of Tolkien's book, even if the sadness serves to enhance the joy.  Haldir the elf voices this paradox touchingly: 'The world is indeed full of peril, and in it there are many dark places; but still there is much that is fair, and though in all lands love is now mingled with grief, it grows perhaps the greater" (Ralph Wood, in The Gospel According to Tolkien).

Somehow grief is always bound up with joy, like the inseparable two sides of one coin.  Indeed, Scripture links sorrow and joy in some inexplicable ways.  The Psalmist says that "Those who sow in tears/ will reap with songs of joy./ He who goes out with weeping,/ carrying seed to sow,/ will return with songs of joy,/ carrying sheaves with him" (Ps. 126:5-6).  The Apostle Paul writes to the Thessalonians that "in spite of severe suffering, you welcomed the message with the joy given by the Holy Spirit" (1 Thess. 1:6b).  Grief and suffering are bound up with joy.

Some examples help:  The feeling of joy, for example, that arises when a parent sees their children sleeping peaceably is shadowed by sorrow, because we know that they will grow up and leave and endure much hardship that we would rather they be spared.  And then there's the feeling of joy we have on that particularly good day, or moment, when all seems so well with the world, that is also tempered by the knowledge that some difficulty most assuredly lies around the corner.  The effects of sin thread their way through our lives, corrupting every good thing, robbing us of the full enjoyment of any moment.

Just as in Middle-Earth, a great dynamic is at work in the world, an unseen hand of Providence, turning all things to good.  Sin flourishes, and yet the Kingdom grows, hope endures, and as Haldir says of love, "it grows perhaps the greater."  Even that tinge of doubt or melancholy in the elve's "perhaps" is a part of our own experience, our own wonder that the fairy-tale of the Gospel really is true, that all will be set right one day.

One day I'll trade this two-faced coin in for one with one word on both sides: Love.  For now, I can only hold tight to what God has entrusted to me here and now: the currency of love and grief, out walking with this two-faced coin rattling around in my pocket, waiting for that Day.

[The picture is a classic piece of Americana by James Earle Fraser (1876-1953).  It represents the dispirited American Indian on his horse, or perhaps the end of a way of life.  I first saw it on the cover of the Seventies Beach Boys album, Surfs Up.  It reminded me of the sadness of the passing of the elves from Middle-Earth to the Grey Havens, and it also suggests the weight of sin's toil on the world.  It seems incomplete without some light to suggest that grace is at work as well.]


Cardinals

Cardeat_1 I missed this, but my wife didn't.  A couple of days ago she was watching out of our back window and saw two cardinals, male and female, out in the pine straw feeding on the seeds that fall off the bird feeder.  Nothing unusual there.  But then this:  The male cardinal picked up a seed, carried it over to the female who was several feet away, and carefully placed it in her mouth (beak).  Now that's instructive!

I have no idea what the dynamics of the bird relationship are, but animal behavior is surely used by God to instruct us, to create pictures of what faithful living looks like.  There is good precedent.  Celebrating the provision of God, the Psalmist said "Even the sparrow has found a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may have her young -- a place near your altar, O Lord Almighty, my King and my God" (Ps. 84:3).  Jesus said "Consider the ravens: They do not sow or reap, they have no storehouse or barn; yet God feeds them" (Lk. 12:24).  And then: "Consider how the lilies grow.  They do not labor or spin.  Yet I tell you, not even Solomon was dressed like one of these (Lk. 12:27).  Sparrows, ravens, lilies -- God uses the Creation to give us word pictures of faithful living.

I think what the cardinals reminded us of that day was the care of one spouse for another, or a friend for another friend -- an incarnation, if you will of Philippians 2:4:  "Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others." 

There isn't a thing in Creation that is not speaking to us.  We just need to look hard and consider what it's saying, being patient until it gives up its meaning.


Another Time (A Poem)

Creek Another Time

Cows came to lap at water here,
     by the bank,
where oak and maple would shade
     them, and where even
I might have found rest.

The sounds of traffic then would
     have been the cacophony of
birdsongs -- finch, bluebirds, robins,
     towhee, and the ubiquitous crow,

Taking a sabbath-rest from his
     plundering of the man's corn,
the man who sowed and waited and
     reaped here, by the creek,
down early from his house on the hill.

Today I pass a landscape long-shaped
     by people who no longer remember
what was here -- the green valley, 
     lapping water, caressing breeze
and the man, long gone, but today I saw it in

My mind's eye, like it was yesterday.

Steve West

[I wrote this after a bicycle ride along the greenway by Crabtree Valley, along Crabtree Creek.  I am old enough to remember when Crabtree Valley Mall was a cow pasture, when the Beltline (I-440) was not here, and Glenwood Avenue was a two-lane non-commercial strip, and when Kidd Brewer still lived in his house on the hill.]


Creational Theology (IV): The Contented Consumer

Flower_1 The transition from "soul" to "self" changed contentment from an internal state dependent on one's connection to God into an external state pursued through self-determining choices aimed at satisfying one's desires and dreams.  The market plays with our desires.  We become convinced that our fantasies and dreams could be satisfied with the products it offers.  Transitioning from "self" to "consumer is a natural next step, since it suggests that contentment is achieved primarily through experiences and products that can be purchased and consumed.  A capitalist economy depends on keeping people discontented, so that they will keep buying the new and improved products that drive a burgeoning economy.  (Lisa Graham McMinn, in The Contented Soul: The Art of Savoring Life)

Lisa McMinn is surely correct when she says that part of why we buy things we do not need is that we are discontent, ill at ease, or bored, and we believe that buying something will make us feel better, or help us belong.  I've certainly done this.  For example, I've done what might seem absurd to many people:  I have bought a particular CD not because I want to listen to the music but because of purely aesthetic reasons -- completing my collection of an artist's recordings, or because it has a couple of bonus tracks, or new liner notes.  Part of it too is a niggling sense that I am somehow incomplete by not having it ALL, by not having a complete discography.  There is a perfectionist tendency at work here as well.  Record companies market to these identifiable discontents (really, defects in character), and I know this, and yet sometimes I still am taken in by them.  My life is not better in any way simply because I have the CD.

Because we live in such a consumer-driven society, it's difficult to imagine it otherwise.  In fact, what will happen to our economy if we stop buying things?  I heard someone say once that they felt guilty if they did not buy things, lots of things, that they needed to do their part to sustain the economic recovery.  When I was young (in the Sixties), I remember hearing a great deal about saving money.  My parents came from that generation of savers.  I don't hear much about that either now or in the recent past.  The mantra of our society now is "BUY."

Well, that's really old news, and to think of changing all that is really a bit numbing.  I mean, what's a poor consumer to do?  Well, it seems to me that there are little steps that can be taken:

Focus on the Giver.  I was eating lunch yesterday on my patio with my daughter.  It wasn't the lunch I necessarily wanted, and certainly not the quantity I wanted, but I tried to tell myself that I needed to appreciate the half sandwich, cup of yogurt, and pickle that I had, that I need to slow down and appreciate what was given.  (I usually concentrate on getting as much in my mouth as possible as quickly as I can.)  I need to remember that God is the one who gave me the food, the daughter, the trees and flowers and birds to see and hear, and I need to be thankful.  He's the only one who can make me content.

Take pleasure in what you have.  Eating my sandwich that day at lunch, I took the time to really enjoy the texture of it, its smell, and it wholesome taste.  There is nothing wrong in taking pleasure in what you eat, or something you buy; it becomes deadly to the soul and robs us of contentment when we think that the created thing we eat or otherwise consume will make us happy, or fulfill us.  It won't.  But it can be enjoyed for what it is, and it should be fully savored -- just like that piece of bread.  This is good theology, creational theology. 

Question your motives.  If you think you need something to be happy, complete, or (fill in the blank), don't buy it or otherwise consume it and see what happens.  See if you really are less content.  Then ask why.  I can give a hundred examples from my own life, but one will do.  There was a time when I would get hooked on certain TV series.  I had to watch Law and Order, of CSI, or Stargate.  Stop watching any TV show, however, and after a couple weeks you realize that you don't really miss it and, if you return to it, it seems inane or at least not nearly as satisfying as you once thought.

If anything, Solomon was the consummate consumer of his day.  He had the disposable income, so anything he set eye upon he consumed, he had to have, and he did have.  His conclusion?  "Everything is meaningless."  His prognosis?  "Fear God."  A God-ward life is one focused around the meaning and contentment that He brings.  Only then, when we are centered on the Giver, can we really enjoy and savor the Given.  Then we can all be Christian hedonists, enjoying what we have but holding it lightly because we know the pleasure it brings is only a shadow of what we will know.


Living Existentially

Gilead2_1 People are always up in the night, with their colicky babies and their sick children, or fighting or worrying or full of guilt.  And, of course, the milkmen and all the people on early shifts and late shifts.  Sometimes when I walked past the house of one of my own families and saw lights on, I'd think maybe I should stop and see if there was a problem I could help with, but then I'd decide it might be an intrusion and I'd go on. . . . It was on the nights I didn't sleep at all and I didn't feel like reading that I'd walk through town at one or two o'clock. In the old days I could walk down every single street, past every house, in about an hour.  I'd try to remember the people who lived in each one, and whatever I knew about them, which was often quite a lot. . . . And I'd pray for them.  And I'd imagine peace they didn't expect and couldn't account for descending on their illness or their quarreling or their dreams.  Then I'd go into the church and pray some more and wait for daylight.  I've often been very sorry to see a night end, even while I have loved seeing the dawn come.  (Rev. Ames, in Gilead)

I know this walk.  I don't want to sound pious, because I'm not, but on occasion I can walk like Rev. Ames, praying for those around me -- like the elderly lady in the window eating her breakfast alone.  I don't even know her or how to pray, but I pray she is not lonely.  Or the man who hates children and shot a BB at my cat.  I pray for a tender heart, for his memory of being a child, for a generous spirit.

But I can't say these walks are common.  Praying, yes, a plenty of that, but mostly on myself.  Distracted too, so much so that I cannot remember to praise God for the early birdsongs, for the robins, bluebirds, goldfinch and others I see and hear.  But then, serendipitously, I turn a corner and look with new eyes on something I may have seen a hundred times and yet this time see it for the first time it seems.

I feel sometimes as if I were a child who opens its eyes on the world once and sees amazing things it will never know any names for and then has to close his eyes again.  I know this is all mere apparition compared to what awaits us, but it is only lovelier for that.  There is a human beauty in it.  And I can't believe that, when we have all been changed and put on incorruptibility, we will forget our fantastic condition of mortality and impermanence, the great bright dream of procreating and perishing that meant the whole world to us.  In eternity this world will be Troy, I believe, and all that has passed here will be the epic of the universe, the ballad they sing in the streets.  Because I don't imagine any reality putting this one in the shade entirely, and I think piety forbids me try.  (Rev. Ames, in Gilead)

This walk is bright day with a crisp blue sky overhead, and passing under the branches of a flowering dogwood, I look up and see the thousands of pink blossoms against that blue sky, and in all the years I've walked under that tree, whether bare, or flowering, or green with leaves, I don't think I've ever seen it in that way.  I may not ever have looked up since my goal is ahead of me.  I think I'll look up more often, I say, and maybe I will, or maybe I'll be as usual, so focused on where my feet are headed that I forget to savor what I see on the way.  Isn't that life sometimes?  Always trying to get somewhere and missing what happens along the way.  Life is what happens along the way.

Life has a blessed particularity about it.  It's good to be embodied, to feel the wind on your face, to know what the head of your son or daughter feels like before you even touch it, to remember the smell of your first home, a new car, or your best dog's fur, to feel your feet slapping the ground again and again and again.

I have been thinking about existence lately.  In fact, I have been so full of admiration for existence that I have hardly been able to enjoy it properly.  (Rev. Ames, in Gilead)

It truly is amazing to be alive, to be breathing and not have to think about how to take the next breath.  It just happens.  Lots of amazing things happen every second.  I just want to see a few of them.  That'll be enough for me.

One of my first pastors caught me at the back of the church one time, a far off almost crazy look in his eyes.  He grabbed me by the shoulders, looked me in the eyes, and said, "Steve, we need to be living existentially."  I hadn't any idea what he meant.  I think I get it now.


By the Gulfshore: A Poem

Rope_2 By the Gulfshore

On the boulevard, by the Gulfshore
we're moving, time-separate from
these sun-seekers.  Like a slow movie

Our lives relive familiar fears,
paper giants germinating in these
weary souls, these somewhat hollow souls.  As we

Wait for dawn, Time screams.
We hold on, chain-bound to earth,
fraying rope flung 'round bright Star -- and we're

Climbing.

The date on the paper I copied this poem from says October 2, 1994, and while that's about right, I believe it was a little bit sooner.  Reading it now, having the benefit of some perspective on the difficult circumstances it was borne in, I flinch to read it, as I am not at all sure that I like what it says to me -- the tenuous nature of faith, and yet the stepping out in faith, the willingness to risk it all.  It was a scary time, then.

In retrospect, I can see that the rope is not really fraying because it's made out of something Other.  And we're not climbing but being pulled up, saved from drowning in our circumstances.  And faith?  It's given, not summoned up from within, and if it looks tenuous to us it's only because we can't always see Who is on the other end.  Faith is the substance of things not seen.


Under the Covers (Vol. 1)

Sweet_1Yesterday's finest new release was an album of covers by the talented Matthew Sweet and Susanna Hoffs.  This is a pure delight to listen to, a throwback to late Sixties pop.  There's not a dud here, because these songs have endured forty years and are time tested.  They cover The Beatles's "And Your Bird Can Sing," from Revolver, Neil Young's "Cinnamon Girl," Bob Dylan's "It's All Over Now Baby Blue," Fairport Convention's great "Where Does the Time Go," and more, including The Velvet Underground, The Left Banke (remember "She May Call You Up Tonight?"; you will when you hear it), The Who, The Zombies, The Mamas and the Papas, The Marmalade (now there's an almost forgotten one!), the Bee Gees (pre-disco, thank goodness) and, of course, The Beach Boys.  If Sweet had been born earlier and grown up in Hawthorne, California, he likely would have been a Beach Boy.  He fits right in.

This album is like a soundtrack to my youth.  Spin the Mamas and the Papas singing "Monday, Monday" and I'm there in 1968 (well, 1972, as I inherited the Sixties a little late!), riding in the car with my sister and her girlfriend in the back, with go-go boots on, or laying on the floor poring over the newest Beatles album listening to mys sister who was crazy like every other girl over the mop-tops. But even for those for whom the songs hold no nostalgia, no memories, these songs can be enjoyed for the first time.  The arrangements are fresh (but not strained or weird).  Give it to someone under twenty so they can listen to great music!  But if they don't connect, remind them that Sid and Susie (Matthew and Susanna) played as the band Ming Tea in the cult favorite movie, Austin Powers.  That may bring a sigh of recognition.

I've listened to a lot of brash alt-rock of late.  This is not that.  This is harmony drenched, melodious, guitar-driven power pop -- real songs, in other words!  Get it and enjoy it!  Roll the windows down and drive all night with the music turned up high.


Creational Theology (III): Irrepressible Grace

Flower As Calvinists believe in irresistible grace, that drawing of the elect to God that cannot be stymied, so too we believe in irrepressible grace, that is, that evidence of God's providence and goodness that inevitably bubbles up to the surface of all created things.  As God draws us to himself, so too he slaps us in the face with who He is because it is indelibly imprinted on everything made, whether nature, the built environment, or human relationships.  It's right there in Romans 1:18-23: "For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen."  Irrepressibly seen, indeed.

Take trash cans, for example.  I'm sitting in a restaurant alone (no doubt, as I would not be thinking such airy thoughts if someone was with me), and I see a green trashcan outside the window, one of those trashcans made to fit into the shopping center environment.  It's a marriage of aesthetic form and function.  It's actually shapely, when it need not have been.  A simple can would have worked, but the design in this one is evident.  This one looks good and works well.  As I said, it need not have been that way, but it is.  Why? Because we care about beauty as well as function.  God does too, and He made us in His image, and thus we care about such things too.  It's unavoidable.  It flows out of who we are.  It's irrepressible (common) grace.

If I pull back a bit more from the trashcan, I see a whole retail shopping area that is full of considerations of aesthetic form and function, from the design of sidewalks to staircases and parking lots.  It has order to it, and beauty, and it need not have been.  Pull back again and I see a whole area of shops, apartments, streets, signs, and people, everywhere people.  I realize that the design of the entire area has been shaped by zoning and sign ordinances, and more that I do not even know about.  The point is that there is design everywhere because we bear the image of a Designer.  It need not have been.  It could have been random and haphazard, but it will not happen that way.  It simply does not.  Go to the poorest village in Africa and you'll find some organization, some desire for beauty, some semblance of design.  It's irrepressible -- grace.

Looking out my window again, there is a cafe with people, some alone like me but, more often, with another.  People have an inevitable desire for community, to be with someone else.  Even though I may choose to be alone today, so I can think, so I can carry on an internal conversation without distraction, more often than not I choose not to be alone.  I want to be with another.  Once again, we desire another because God existed in all eternity as a community -- Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  It's irrepressible grace.

When we're traveling with our children we sometimes play a game.  We challenge each other to have a "God sighting."  We're saying "Look for His imprint."  Now I can't get a moments peace, can't even sit in a restaurant and be alone.  He's all around me.  Irrepressible grace.  Thank God for it.  Thank God for what William Cowper called a "capacious reservoir of means," God's creation, a world brimming with grace.


The Fate of Africa (Part III): Finding Hope

Africa_2Martin Meredith's almost 700-page book on modern Africa is exactly what its subtitle promises: "from the hopes of freedom to the heart of despair."  By the end of the book one does despair that anything good can come out of Africa, that anything can be done to lift it out of poverty, corruption, famine, drought, and a host of other problems.

The focus of the book is on a number of African leaders who assumed leadership after the independence of most African countries in the Fifties and Sixties, looking at the profound (and generally disastrous) consequences their exercise of power had on their countries in the decades they were in control.  Martin notes that despite the oppressiveness of the colonial powers, they did bring order and a civilizing influence to Africa --- Christianity, literacy, education, and health care.  They built roads, schools, and hospitals, and generally left African countries better off than before they came.  Despite this beginning, and then the billions in foreign aid made available after independence, much of Africa is worse off by every measurement today than at independence approximately 50 years ago.

While the author makes no apology for colonialism or white racism, he also does not lay the blame for Africa's troubles on the colonialist.  Rather, he puts the root cause in a failure of African leadership:  "[F]or the most part, Africa has suffered grievously at the hands of its Big Men and its ruling elites.  Their preoccupation, above all, has been to hold power for the purpose of self-enrichment.  The patrimonial systems they have used to sustain themselves in power have drained away a huge proportion of state resources."  Indeed, their record is one of indifference to the suffering of the people, of squandered capital (and stolen capital), and of horrific and inhumane torture and oppression of their enemies.  For example, Robert Mugabe still rules over Zimbabwe after 20 years and has made a country once known as the breadbasket of Africa into a food importer.  He is a virtual dictator, insisting on a one-party system (as did almost all other African leaders).  He is only one example of the many African leaders who have behaved in much the same manner.

Even with oil (as in Nigeria) or other resources (like diamonds, as in Angola), revenues have been wasted.  Corruption is endemic to most governments.  It's no wonder that hope is lacking.

Which brings me to a critique of the book.  No doubt things are bleak in Africa (with the exception of South Africa and Botswana), but there is little hope or any prognosis for change in this book.  One has the sense that the author has no hope.  He spends less than a page on Botswana, which has had good leadership, a lack of corruption, and multi-party democracy since independence.  And while he spends considerable time on South Africa, where Nelson Mandela emerged as a voice of hope, one has the sense that what success has been enjoyed there may not be translatable to other countries.  Finally, this is not a record of the church in Africa, either, so we do not have a picture of hope that might otherwise emerge from the Church's work.

The sense I am left with is that Africa needs not only a revival of Christian hope (it has had revivals and has a strong Christian presence) but a revival that leads to a reformation of their culture.  The latter has not really happened.

Meredith begins his book with a quote from Pliny the Elder: "Ex Africa semper aliquid novi (Out of Africa always something new)."  We can hope and pray that Pliny is right.


Embodied He Rose

Seven Stanzas at Easter

Rembrandtdescentfromthecross_1Make no mistake: if He rose at all
it was as His body;
if the cells' dissolution did not reverse, the molecules
   reknit, the amino acids rekindle,
the Church will fall.

It was not as the flowers,
each soft Spring recurrent;
it was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled
   eyes of the eleven apostles;
it was as His flesh: ours.

The same hinged thumbs and toes,
the same valved heart
that - pierced - died, withered, paused, and then
   regathered out of enduring Might
new strength to enclose.

Let us not mock God with metaphor,
analogy, sidestepping, transcendence;
making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the
   faded credulity of earlier ages:
let us walk through the door.

The stone is rolled back, not paper-mache,
not a stone in a story,
but the vast rock of materiality that in the slow
   grinding of time will eclipse for each of us
the wide light of day.

And if we have an angel at the tomb,
make it a real angel,
weighty with Max Planck's quanta, vivid with hair,
   opaque in the dawn light, robed in real linen
spun on a definite loom.

Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
for our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are
   embarrassed by the miracle,
and crushed by remonstrance.

        - John Updike, from Telephone Poles and Other Poems, reprinted in
          Bread and Wine: Readings for Lent and Easter

It is significant to have a poet, one schooled in metaphor and analogy, to remind me of the shocking materiality and literality of the suffering, death, and resurrection of Christ.  Real wounds, real death, and real and bodily Resurrection.

The tendency of the theologically liberal to spiritualize the events of Holy Week is an old complaint.  But even believers in the historicity of this event have a tendency to lessen the horror of it by treating it too lightly or passing over the suffering and death to the bright sunniness of Resurrection.  Easter comes too cheap that way.

Updike says it well: Make no mistake.  If He rose at all, He rose in the body.  If not, "the Church will fall."

(Painting is by Rembrant, "The Deposition, or Descent From the Cross")


He Descended Into Hell

Clip_image002_26 If on Good Friday we remember Jesus' suffering, crucifixion, and death and on Easter celebrate his resurrection and, consequently, the new life he offers us, then where is He between Friday and Sunday and what am I to do with it?

"He descended into Hell." Outside my window the azaleas and dogwoods are in full bloom.  I planned to plant flowers today, to take a walk, to have lunch with my family, read, maybe nap -- just to savor a bit of the Spring and maybe welcome a rain shower.

"He descended into Hell."  After the Good Friday service at church last night, the place was buzzing with talk, with fellowship, with laughter.  It was a strange juxtaposition -- remembering suffering and death like never has been experienced and yet going on our way with smiles and laughter and talk about normal things.

"He descended into Hell."  No other phrase in the Apostles Creed is nearly so controversial as the four words "He descended into Hell."  Some say it simply means that he truly died, translating Hell as merely meaning "Sheol," the Hebrew term for where the dead go.  Others say that Christ actually went and preached to those who had died, like the Patriarchs, proclaiming the full grace they did not know.  In fact, it was spoken of as a place under the earth called "Limbo."  John Calvin probably gets at its mystery best when he recognizes that in some mysterious way Christ is enduring the spiritual agony of death in sin, enduring the full wrath of God for a time:

"If Christ had died only a bodily death, it would have been ineffectual. No — it was expedient at the same time for him to undergo the severity of God’s vengeance, to appease his wrath and satisfy his just judgment. For this reason, he must also grapple hand to hand with the armies of hell and the dread of everlasting death. A little while ago we referred to the prophet’s statement that 'the chastisement of our peace was laid upon him,' 'he was wounded for our transgressions' by the Father, 'he was bruised for our infirmities' [Isaiah 53:5 p.]. By these words he means that Christ was put in place of evildoers as surety and pledge — submitting himself even as the accused — to bear and suffer all the punishments that they ought to have sustained. All — with this one exception: 'He could not be held by the pangs of death' [Acts 2:24 p.]. No wonder, then, if he is said to have descended into hell, for he suffered the death that, God in his wrath had inflicted upon the wicked! Those who — on the ground that it is absurd to put after his burial what preceded it — say that the order is reversed in this way are making a very trifling and ridiculous objection. The point is that the Creed sets forth what Christ suffered in the sight of men, and then appositely speaks of that invisible and incomprehensible judgment which he underwent in the sight of God in order that we might know not only that Christ’s body was given as the price of our redemption, but that he paid a greater and more excellent price in suffering in his soul the terrible torments of a condemned and forsaken man."

Viewed in this way, this day becomes not just a parenthesis between Good Friday and Easter but an extension of our Good Friday remembrance, a time when we await His resurrection but remember what He endured spiritually for our sake, probably best summed up in that phrase uttered by Jesus "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" Today, he is still forsaken for our sakes, knowing the torment of loneliness, of looking to His Father and only seeing His back, knowing the full awfulness of His silence, that we may never know it.

Now that makes today a different kind of Saturday -- a Holy Saturday.


Good Friday Poems

Cross

Cross_1_1On my chest this Friday afternoon,
the elegant small signature
of violent death
swings as I walk, gold tapping my
deep heart, telling me I was there.
(I did not mean to do it; I did
not know.) 
I slump under the weight
of it; my pulse
echoes the beat of hammers

- Luci Shaw, from Writing the River

On the Way In From the Country

My wife urged me not to go, for
there were troubles, she said, and
it could wait. I went

anyway, carrying my goods,
hoping to make short of this
Cross_2_1 trip, to return soon before

Sabbath.  Coming near, I heard
shouts, angry voices, jeers and
at a distance, women crying,

a man, beaten, bleeding, falling
under the weight of a huge
cross, a criminal I thought.  I

skirted the crowd, averting my
eyes from the shame of the man
but the throng pushed me nearer,

where men, seeing I was from the
country, threw my goods on the
ground, threatening me.

I carried the cross for that man,
but He carried more.

- Steve West


Naked We Go (No Bunnies Allowed)

"When did the collision between our appetites and the needs of our souls happen?  Was there a heart attack?  Did we get laid off from work, one of the thousands certified as extraneous?  Did a beloved child become a bored stranger, a marriage fall silent and cold?  Or, by some exquisite working of God's grace, did we just find the courage to look the truth in the eye, for once, and not blink?  How did we come to know we were dying a slow and unacknowledged death?  And that the only way back to life was to set all our packages down and begin again, carrying with us only what we really needed?

We travail. we are heavy laden.  Refresh us, O homeless, possession-less Savior.  You came naked, and naked you go.  And so it is for us.  So it is for all of us." (Barbara Cawthorne Crafton, in Living Lent: Meditations for These Forty Days)

Easter_400x345_1 Yesterday I received an email advertisement from Rhapsody.com.  It invited me to "click here for a special playlist "celebrating egg-bearing rabbits, family, food, Spring, and the Resurrection."  I did.  It was interesting what the marketing folks at Rhapsody thought I should be listening to this Easter.  Here's the entire playlist:

"Peter Cottontail, " by Gene Autry.  Innocuous bit of fluff, you might call this a 60-year old classic of the Easter Bunny version of Easter.

"April, Come She Will," by Simon and Garfunkel.  Hmm.  Yes, it has "April," but it also has May and June.  Nice song but someone chose a bit hastily, I think.

"Easter Parade," by Sarah Vaughn.  Another classic for the secularized Easter. "She'll be the grandest lady in the Easter Parade"??

"Up Jumped Spring," by Abbey Lincoln and Stan Getz.  Jazzy tune, once again devoted to Spring, not Easter.

"April in Paris," by Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong.  Another jazz number.  Our Rhapsody marketer thinks April is really BIG.

Wondering where "resurrection" is?  Just hang on.

"Easter Parade," by The Real Tuesday Weld.  From the album "I, Lucifer"???  Same song as above but quite sinister in its performance. And the album title. . . .

"April Showers," by Arthur Prysock.  Never heard of him.  But hey.  April's REALLY BIG, right?  Feels like a nightclub in here.  Our marketer likes the Sunday brunch music.

"Brand New Day," by Van Morrison.  Ah.  A breath of fresh air.  Not specifically about the Resurrection, but at least it's about one man's new hope. Beautiful morning sun.  "Seems like a brand new day."

"Easter Bunny Boogie," by William Clarke.  Jazz is big on Easter, I guess, for all those Easter Jazz Brunches.  Another one for the Bunny.

Sweet Kentucky Ham, by Rosemary Clooney.  Sitting in restaurants or hotel rooms in various cities, eating what you can, thinkin' about that "Sweet Kentucky Ham" you really want.  Hmm.  I guess this is the "food" part, but it has absolutely nothing to do with Easter.

"Resurrection," by Spear of Destiny.  This is it!  Nope.  I'm not sure what resurrection this is about, but it's not the one that matters.  Very strange.  And it refers to a "fallen angel."

White Rabbit," by Jefferson Airplane.  Yikes!  A psychedelic rock song form the Sixties?  Wrong rabbit, too.  This song about popping pills and hallucinating is not for the Easter Bunny set.   

"I'm the Easter Bunny," by Dr. Elmo.  Self-explanatory silliness.

The Start of Forever," by Paul Weller.  Feels like a long time.  I've been waiting forever for you.  The start of forever.  Acid jazz.  I'm not sure how this one meets the criteria.

Rebirth, by Stefon Harris.  Promising title.  Instrumental jazz piece.  Good for brunch.  I guess it fits the Spring theme.

Well, that's it.  Not one single song about THE Resurrection.  A bunch of bunny songs, paeans to Spring, and some weird stuff as well.  This is Rhapsody's Easter.

Really, this is to be expected.  What is interesting to me is the post-modern nature of such a mix, the different narratives (stories) represented.  There's the Bunny -- a well known narrative.  Family and tradition (the Easter parade).  There's Spring (rebirth, April).  There's a representation as to Resurrection, but it's really not there.  You put all these narratives together and the message is that Easter means whatever you want it to mean.  Pick a story you enjoy. 

The larger narrative, the bigger message, is the one Barbara Crafton touches on in the quote we began with.  Easter is like all the other holidays in America -- it's about buying, about satisfying our appetites, the lust of the eye and of the flesh.  It's the narrative of consumption.  The best we can say is that it is trite.  The truth is that we are sick with having what we want and hungry for what we refuse to accept: Jesus died.  Jesus rose.  Jesus lives.  That's the real Easter. Naked we go, folks. No bunnies allowed.


Naked, and Ashamed

"The essence of sin is man substituting himself for God, while the essence of salvation is God substituting himself for man.  Man asserts himself against God and puts himself where only God deserves to be; God sacrifices himself for man and puts himself where only man deserves to be.  Man claims prerogatives that belong to God alone; God accepts penalties which belong to man alone."  (John Stott, from The Cross of Christ)

If you've ever had a dermatologist do a full body scan, then you know what being fully exposed is all about.  Unsettling. Every blemish gets examined.  Every outward imperfection acknowledged.  There is no place to hide.

With God we get that full body scan every day, says John Stott.  He says "we cannot escape the embarrassment of standing stark naked before God.  It's no use our trying to cover up like Adam and Eve in the Garden.  Our attempts at self-justification are as ineffectual as their fig-leaves.  We have to acknowledge our nakedness, see the divine substitute wearing our filthy rags instead of us, and allow him to clothe us with his own righteousness."

Every now and then I'll have that dream.  You know the one.  I'm going about my business in a public place and suddenly realize that I'm, as we say in the South, "buck neck-ed," in my birthday suit, with no where to run to.  With me I'm often back in college in the girls dorm. (And no, this was never a deep-seated fantasy.)  It's disturbing.  It's embarrassing.  Psychologists say that most people have had such dreams.

There's a reality the dream reminds me of though: To God, I really am naked.  Jesus sees right through me, right to my rotten core.  He took my shame.  And me?  I get a new dream -- one where I have clothes, His clothes.


Respecting the Dead

Gilead2 In Marilynne Robinson's Pulitzer Prize winning book, Gilead, the 76-year old Reverend John Ames writes as one remembering his life and the life of his father and grandfather.  Today, one passage in particular stimulated my own memories.  Ames is recalling how, as a young boy in Kansas in the late 1800s, he traveled with his father to find the whereabouts of his father (and Ames' grandfather).  It was a difficult trip, with barely enough food to stay alive, taking a solid month round trip.  They found the makeshift graveyard where his grandfather was buried, down the lonely remains of a road:

We walked past that graveyard twice.  The two or three headstones in it had fallen over and it was all grown up with weeds and grass.  The third time, my father noticed a fence post, so we walked over to it, and we could see a handful of graves, a row of maybe seven or eight, and below it a half row, swamped with that dead brown grass.  I remember that the incompleteness of it seemed sad to me.  In the second row we found a marker someone had made by stripping a patch of bark off a log and then driving nails partway in and bending them flat so they made the letters REV AMES.  The R looked like the A and the S was a backwards Z, but there was no mistaking it.

Ames and his father went on to spend a couple days there, mending a fence, setting the gravestones upright, his father saying "We might as well look after these other folks while we are here."  They cut the brush back and generally tidied up the whole place, even planting wildflowers.  And then this:

My father said to be careful where I stepped.  There were small graves here and there that I hadn't noticed at first, or I hadn't quite realized what they were.  I certainly didn't want to walk on them, but until he cut the weeds down I couldn't tell where they were, and then I knew I had stepped on some of them, and I felt sick.  Only in childhood have I felt guilt like that, and pity.  I still dream about it.  My father says that when someone dies the body is just a suit of old clothes the spirit doesn't want anymore.  But there we were, half killing ourselves to find a grave, and as cautious as we could be about where we put our feet.

Just reading this fictional account, I remembered my younger sister and I walking once with my grandmother to an old graveyard near her home.  I was probably six or seven at most.  I had never been to such a place, like a graveyard in a forest all grown up over and around the graves.  Forgotten by most.  But not by my grandmother.  We pulled vines off the headstones, tried to set them right, made nice beds of pine straw over the graves (to the extent we could find them).  And we were quiet.  It was a sober task, though I could not have told you then why we were so quiet.

This is, in a  sense, a curious thing to do.  The dead are dead.  As Christians we believe, like Reverend Ames father said, that the body is "just a suit of old clothes the spirit doesn't want anymore."  And yet we believe in a bodily resurrection, an ongoing physical manifestation of who I am, and perhaps honoring the body in burial and in death and hallowing the place where the body rests is symbolic -- it points to our hope of bodily resurrection beyond the grave.  There's no sense in graveyards if there's no resurrection.

A friend said to me recently, "Steve, when you die and they have your funeral, I want to see your body up there in front of the church.  Will you do that?"

Yes.  And I'll leave instructions:  "This is my body.  I've gone on.  You will too.  Handle with care.  It's not much of a body, but it's important.  It points beyond."

And please don't walk on my grave.


Bob Dylan v. The Interviewer

Boblean [I’m not sure anyone as yet has a handle on Bob Dylan, but he is funny.  He has always proved a frustrating person to interview, as some of the below exchanges make clear!  I always have a sense that he did not take himself nearly so seriously as everyone else.]

Q: Tell us about your movie.

BD:  It’s gonna be in black and white.

Q:  Will it be in the Andy Warhol Style?

BD:  Who’s Andy Warhol?  Listen, my movie will be – I can say definitely – it will be in the style of the early Puerto Rican films.

Q:  Who’s writing it?

BD:  Allen Ginsburg. I’m gonna rewrite it.

Q:  What do you think of your teenage fans?

BD:  What do you mean when you say “teenager”?  I don’t know what you mean.  I have no picture of a teenager in my mind.  Name me a teenager. I have no recollection of ever being a teenager.

Q:  What do you think of the new folk music?

BD:  Everyone sounds incompetent.

Q:  What do you think of the new Bob Dylan?

BD:  What’s your name?

Q:  Dave Moberg.

BD:  Okay.  What would you think if someone asked you, What do you think of the new Dave Moberg?  What new Dave Moberg?

Q:  You must obviously make a lot of money nowadays?

BD:  I spend it all.  I have six Cadillacs. I have four houses. I have a plantation in

Georgia

. Oh, I’m also working on a rocket.  A little rocket.  Not a big rocket.  Not the kind of rocket they have at

Cape Canaveral

.  I don’t know about those kinds of rockets.

Q:  What kind of people do you take an instant dislike to?

BD:  I take an instant dislike to people who shake a lot.  An instant dislike – wham!  Most of the time I throw them against the wall.  I have a bodyguard, Toppo. . . TOPPO! Is Toppo in there?  I have a bodyguard to get rid of people like that. He comes out and wipes them out. He wiped out three people last week.

Q:  Why do some of your songs bear no relation to their titles?

BD:  Give me an example.

Q:  “Rainy Day Women No. 12 & 35.”

BD:  Have you ever been to

North Mexico

for six straight months?

Q:  Not recently.

BD:  Well, I can’t explain it to you then.  If you had, you’d understand what the song’s about.

Q:  Do you have any children?

BD:  Every man with medical problems has children.

Q:  What are your medical problems?

BD:  Well, there’s glass in the back of my head.  I’m a very sick person.  I can’t see too well on Tuesdays.  These dark glasses are prescribed.  I’m not trying to be a beatnik.  I have very mercuryesque eyes.  And another thing – my toenails don’t fit.


Homesickness

Clip_image001_3 "Homesickness for God is a mark of the life of prayer."

-- James Houston, in The Transforming Life of Prayer

I've been alone this week with my daughter, as my wife and son are out of town.  I'm enjoying the time with my daughter, and yet, if I were to characterize my days, I'd say that in many respects I am going through the motions, doing what must be done but, except for some special moments one-on-one with my daughter (which I wouldn't minimize), I am just waiting for remainder of my family to return.  I'm homesick for them.  I'm really not complete, not able to rest, until we are all together.

I remember going to camp as a child.  It was just a week, not so long, really, but for me it was an eternity.  I suffered from homesickness not one day but all week of it.  I did all the normal camp things, and seeing me, you might even would have said that I looked like a normal, well-adjusted camper.  But I was not normal at all.  I remember harboring thoughts of home in the corner of my mind, at the edge of consciousness, at almost all times.  Then, as night fell, and we retired to our bunks, these thoughts became larger and larger.  Sleep seemed to elude me for hours as I lay there thinking of home, wondering how much longer until I was able to leave and go home, listening to the other apparently clueless campers breathing deeply in dreamland.  It was just me and, as I finally figured out, God as well.  Sometimes I'd pray "God, please get me out of here.  Please get me home."  Pitiful, I know.  My wife cannot identify with this particular feeling at all.  She went to camp for six weeks in the Summer and then begged to stay six more weeks, something I would have regarded as near insanity at the time. (I now know this was a common experience for many kids.)  She's perfectly fine.

In college I wrote letters to my future wife when she wasn't with me (she graduated before me).  I still have some.  They were full of longing.  Once my car broke down on the way back to school from her home.  I left it, hitchhiked back to her house, and stayed for three more days.  I cut class just to stay and took my sweet time getting the car fixed.  That's not rational, but love isn't rational.  Neither is homesickness.  Silly to dwell on such things some might say.

Now, am I homesick like this, or even lovesick like this, for God?  Not enough.  I often catch myself thinking about God as I go about the normal tasks of life.  Out there on the edge of consciousness, most of the time, I'm thinking there's somewhere else I need to be, somewhere like home, somewhere where I'll be completed, at rest.  But, to be honest, the intensity of that experience is felt only on rare occasions.  People of prayer, people driven to pray, I expect feel it with much more intensity.  John Wesley spent four hours in prayer most mornings; Martin Luther, three.  Why? I suspect they were homesick for God, so aware of their inadequacy, so ill at ease in the world.  They moved through their days, as I do mine, and could not help but be reminded of Christ, their Home, by every single thing they saw, heard, or touched, and then, being so aware of how far from the ideal of it they would know in glory, they were homesick for that place of glory, for Heaven.  This drove them to prayer.

I don't know what those folks in Northern California were thinking when they named their town Happy Camp.  We're not happy campers.  Joyful, maybe, but not happy.  Happy is when we go Home.  Our prayers are the love-letters we send Home.


Quod-li-bet: Whatever (II)

Some items to consider:

  • Thinker_1 After yesterday's post on towns in Northern California, I was surprised to see that Bridgeville, one of those towns, and the first entire town to be sold on ebay, is up for sale again.  Check out the promo here.  What kind of people buy towns?  I guess it can be the nasty kind, like Potter in "It's a Wonderful Life," but it can also be the chaitable kind, like Tom Monaghan, founder of Dominos Pizza, who is bankrolling a Catholic utopia called Ave Maria near Naples, Florida.  A daunting challenge.  Read about it here.  Heck, I just want one named after me; I don't want to buy one or create a utopia.  The problem with utopias is that people have to live in them.
  • I'm quite blown away by the Wes King Tribute, Life is Precious, especially Paul Coleman's take on "Holy Ghost," or Jane Kelly William's version of "The Love of Christ," a song Wes penned with Michael Card.  Listen to some MP3 samples here, and make a donation in order to receive the record -- it'll help Wes and his family as they battle his illness and its toll on their finances.
  • "Time" is the whole subject of a recent special issue of Scientific American magazine.  The authors ask "what is time? Physicists and philosophers have grappled with the question. So, too, have biologists and anthropologists. This special issue explores their musings."  Given my recent posts about time (gross speculations or maybe just, as they say, "musings"), I immediately picked it up.  Right now I'm reading an article about how the passing of time is just an illusion.  Right.  I guess this will be good news for the over 40 crowd.  I'll be reacting more to the articles therein later, but read it for yourself if you like.
  • Ha!  Check out this oh so true exchange between man and woman as contained on the blog site of The Crux Project:

    Holy Smokes, They ARE From Mars!

    by Kate Bluett

    ME: So how are you doing?

    HUSBAND: Huh?

    ME: What are you thinking about?

    HUSBAND: About what?

    ME: No, I want to know your position.

    HUSBAND: Spooning.

    ME: Your metaphysical position.

    HUSBAND: My metaphys... What?

    ME: I want to know where you are in life, and in relation to your goals, and what your feelings are.

    (pause for thought)

    HUSBAND: What?

And on that note of humor, we end, for now.


The Urge for Going

Rand_1 I am not sure why it is, but to plan a trip brings me about as much joy as it does to actually go on a trip.  It's been this way since my earliest memories, one of which is sitting in the front seat with my parents, map in hand, directing them to stay on this road, turn right here, or watch for this sign.  What was I -- six or seven?  I could barely read.

Road maps actually do make for some great reading and imagining.  Take California, for instance.  Tonight I have the Rand McNally 2006 Road Atlas open, the oversize one (affectionately known as simply "RM").  It's 138 pages of possibilities and dreams.  As I pore over it places come alive in my mind, almost like that magic book Lucy found in the Voyage of the Dawn Treader: a spell to make hidden things visible.  Indeed.

Ah, Northern California, the end of Jack Kerouac's wanderings, a place of dreamers, idealists, loners, expatriates, cowboys (believe it or not), and beauty, created beauty. Put your finger down anywhere on the page and hidden places begin to come into view.

J0382747 Rahnersville, Hydesville, McCann, Garbersville, Laytonsville.  Who was Layton or Garber for that matter?  Were they 49s who came West to make a fortune and, finding none, put down roots and became town founders?  I don't have a good feeling about Hyde.  He probably killed a man, or more than one man, and now lives on in infamy.  Most of these are small towns, down a faint line of a road, what RM calls "unimproved," and that makes me wonder why the town didn't amount to more.  And is there any doubt who owns "Potter's Valley?"  That, I confess, I have an ill feeling about too, but maybe I'm just thinking of that greedy, conniving, cheatin' old man Potter in "It's A Wonderful Life." I guess there are upstanding Potters around.  Why, indeed, I knew a judge named Potter.  Oh yeah.  He was known as the "Hanging Judge."  So much for good Potters.

And what's the story behind Susansville and Janesville, not 10 miles apart?  Estranged sisters?  Loving wives?  Town matrons or benefactors?  Or was it "Honey, I'm naming the town after you?"  Lots of possibilities here.  And frankly, I don't know what to think of the Town of "Hooker."  A brothel?  Or just (sorry Hooker family), just an unfortunate surname?  And what about Denny, a near no-place at the dead end of 12 miles of, yes, "unimproved" road?  Poor Denny, exiled like Ishmael, out there, alone.  Or Denny, the loner, the self-made man, going it alone until he got a town named after him?

Some places suggest events -- like Burnt Ranch.  Or they suggest the character of the town, like Whiskeytown.  (Hmmm. . . not far from Hooker it is.)  Or perhaps the general outlook of a folk, like Happy Camp or simply Day.  The latter falls off the tongue well:  "It's a good day in Day today."  I could not find a corresponding "Night" though.

In the midst of these rather comm names, some uppity Southern Californians or East Coast folks plunked down names that they stole from elsewhere -- Nice (France), Lucerne (Switzerland), Capetown (South Africa).  Those names do nothing for me and denote a lack of imagination in my book.  And what, pray tell, are they doing in the backwoods of Northern California?

There are stories written all over this one page of RM.  I feel the pull to go, to see for myself what the names are all about.  And why is that?  Why is it so captivating?  Why do we have, as Joni Mitchell said, such an "urge for going?"

Part of it, I think, is that we are, as Scripture tells us, exiles, nomads, strangers, and sojourners on this earth.  Since leaving the settled peace of the Garden we have been on the move, looking for something, for Home, for what lies over the next hill, around the next corner, to see if something better is out there.  Jesus said to "Go," as in "Go into all the world. . . .," and we've all been going ever since, for all kinds of reasons, good and bad.  His command had a goal, a reason for our going, and that was to "make disciples," to live coram deo, love coram deo, and enjoy what He has made and get to know it, coram deo.

Yes, I'm restless.  I acknowledge that I have found my real place, my Home, with Christ, and yet I see it only partially now, so still I wander.  Yes, I know things, but I want to know more, to walk all over the book of this world, the one He made, to watch Him make hidden things visible to me, little by little, through a glass darkly now, a little clearer tomorrow, and the next day.  I don't want to take anything for granted, leave any rock unturned, miss anything He puts in front of me.

At the end of the going, when I reach the ocean, when I go as far as I can go, I want to know why I'll say Eureka! just like that 49er who reached the sea and cried "Eureka!." Why did he do that?  Bottom line, I want my own town, named after me, but I'll get much better than that.  One day I'll inherit it all.  That's what the Man said.

Now, like RM says right there on the cover: "Get Rolling!" I gotta get going.


Poem-Walking

Poemwalk What Susan Goldsmith Wooldridge says in Poemcrazy, her excellent book of poem-prompting, is what I would say: "For me, poetry is related to walking.  Words and images fill me when I wander somewhere alone."  Like she says, "poems hang out where life is," and that's mostly in motion.  There's something new around every corner, over every hill.  Even on familiar walks, there's something new if I look hard enough.

A few years ago I was at a legal conference in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, a new place for me, the downtown.  It was lunch time so I set off walking, a poem walk that is, my first poem walk.  I just wrote down what I saw -- words and images -- and then, sitting in a cafe, I saw it take some shape.  Like this. . .

Poem-Walk

Listen to me, Solomon Juneau.

I am on a mission from God.
I am an extra-terrestrial,
     a wide-eyed wanderer
     on this
     terrestrial ball.

See me there?  Here comes a
santaclaus man looking worn and
frail, an overdressed rabble of a
man, bearded, half-blind, under-
nourished, with a sack of treasure
     on his back.

Yes, I just touched down, Solomon Juneau,
on this blue end of Milwaukee, only
     visiting this planet.  Call it

Terra firma.  Earth.
I'm walking on the solid
flesh and dirt of life.

Lapham.  Becher.  Waukesha.
I dodge the word puddles, the
splash of image, tripping over
profundities and wonders.

Can you hear it, Solomon Juneau?
Can you hear the music of the poet thinking?

Van Buren.  Marquette.  Grand Avenue.

A black man peers from
behind a dirty screen.
     (Hear the silence speaking?)

A woman sunbathes, workers
lounge, winos loll.
     (Can you feel the wonder?)

In the Cafe Leon a
woman sips, motion, shrugs,
dismisses, her upturned laugh
     rippling through the air.

The air is pompous-smelling,
magenta in all its hipness, the
people poised and chic.  And I,

I am the meek and minding.
I eat, listen, spy.
In the cafe, on the street,
I gather the pearls of conversation,
mused by my wealth.

I am king for a moment,
resplendent in my humanness,
carrying my sackful of words,
     my rattles and my rhymes.

I might be accused of metaphoric dementia ---
diagnosis: too human, naked, unashamed;
prognosis: animal skins and fig leaves.

Are you watching Solomon Juneau?
See me spill my words?
Watch me unwrap these packages.
I'll fashion up some truth.

I am an extra-terrestrial ---
     word-full
     whacked-out and
     wondered.  A
     meteoric, metaphoric poet.

Yet, really, Solomon Juneau,
I'm just human
     (and I need to get back to work.)

(By the way, Solomon Juneau is, I believe, one of the city fathers.  He was on a big statute by the edge of Lake Michigan.  Then again,  it's been so long, I may have it all wrong.)

Try a poem-walk sometime.  You might just notice something for the first time.  Write it down.  Poems are word-music; they have to move.  You move, and they will come.


Three Little Words

Fish As my son said to me recently, as we prepared to read the Bible, "Dad, don't read that passage; I've already read it."  Sure, haven't we read it all?  Indeed, we've read it, heard it, sang it, meditated on it, and so on, sometimes so much that we can no longer seem to really hear it.

That's why I appreciate that occasion when I'm reading a passage and stumble over it, realizing how odd or unlike my reality it is.  That's what happened a few days ago when I read Mark 1:14-20, where Jesus calls his first disciples.  He's walking along, sees Simon and Andrew, and then James and John.  Scripture records his only words as "Come, follow me."  No "how's the fishing today?, nice weather, hi I'm Jesus, how's your family?, by the way I need a few good men, can you wrap things up here and come along and if it's a good fit we'll see about making it a permanent position and oh yeah here's what you'll be doing and hello Mom and Dad I'm taking your son he'll probably be martyred and blah blah blah (no disrespect intended)."  I mean, all he says is those three little words.  And yet it says that "at once they left their nets and followed him."  If this wasn't Holy Writ, I'd say the writer of the Gospel took license here and made the story a little more dramatic, but, as it is, I'll take it on its face.  Three life-changing words.

To be fair, He might have said something else, as Scripture doesn't tell us everything but, rather, only what is necessary for our life in Christ.  But, then again, Jesus isn't depicted as one who made a lot of small talk, minced words, or chattered away.  His words counted.  I suspect that even at a wedding feast his words were thoughtful and, if he joked, it was to good effect.

Three little words.  He had authority.  I'm reminded of the doctrine of irresistible grace: all who the Father calls will come to him.  I guess in this way these fisherman could not say no; they felt a holy compulsion.  That's authority that only God has.

Now, if I could just get my kids to obey me this way. 

Hey!  "Put your little sister down, now, don't make me come over there, I'll count to three. I mean it." Do I really mean it?

Jesus sure did.


Creational Theology (II): Eyes Wide Open

Clip_image002_24"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."  (Nikos Kazantzakis)

The poet is on to something when he says that the stuff of nature (or, in our view, Creation) is not to simply be taken at face value.  The doctrine of general revelation tells us that God is revealing himself to us in Creation.  And though unbelievers can, by His common grace, know something of the truth of things, believers can grasp the richness of what it all means, that is, if we bother to look.  Why?  Because, we have the Spirit and the Word of God.  It's also not hidden in some gnostic sense, as if only the elite can understand, but it is open to all, with its fuller riches more available to us as we study it more deeply.

Lilies_1 T.M. Moore makes a case for this kind of creational theology in Consider the Lilies: A Please for Creational TheologyHe defines Creational Theology like this: "Creational theology is an attempt to improve our understanding and use of God's general revelation in creation, culture, and the actions of conscience.  Creational theology involves the effort to bring the doctrine of general revelation into the household of faith in a more lively and beneficial manner, by improving our ability to understand and make better use of the book of the world according to the teaching of Scripture."

For me, what Moore is arguing for is, in part, what good artists have always done: encourage us to look long, listen deeply, and muse on life until it gives up meaning.  Apart from faith in Christ, such musing yields mixed results; with Christ and the Word of God, we have a lens through which to understand what we are seeing and hearing.  The problem is most Christians don't slow down and give attention to what is all around them.  In addition, Moore says that another of the reasons for Christian's deficiency in this area is "because our approach to knowing God --- our approach, that is, to doing theology --- has been so limited to the logical and verbal that we have not felt the need for learning how to perceive and experience His revelation of Himself in the creation around us."

I'll be musing on what Moore says for some time.  In fact, you might say that what he is detailing is the kind of practice this blog is centered on: looking at the book of the world to understand what it tells us of truth, goodness, and beauty.

But, for now, let me just mention one thing here that struck me as new.  Moore very helpfully turns the verse in Job 31:1, where Job "made a covenant" with his eyes not to look on a woman in lust into a positive injunction for us to train our eyes to look for God's truth in creation, that is "[w]e must make covenant with our eyes' to look for the line that the Lord is sending out concerning His goodness in all the things of the creation that we encounter throughout the day."  So, in addition to not looking in a manner that leads to sin, we actually have an obligation to look for good, to look for truth, to look for beauty all around us, and it an enduring and lifelong obligation.

So, today, I'll go out with eyes wide open, open to what God is telling me.  It's not optional.  That's the way we need to live.  And we're missing out if we don't.


The Desert Southwest (IV): A Holy Addiction

Greetings2_2 All vacations must end, no doubt, but our annual sojourn to the Tucson area ended on a high note at least.  On our last full day in the area, we had intended to take a "short" hike in Catalina State Park, a blessedly preserved area of the foothills and mountains just Northwest of the city, bordering the Coronado National Forest.  I say blessedly because this enclave is being fast surrounded by housing developments or gated communities, many with homes in the $1-3 million dollar range.  It's valuable property, and I'm grateful someone had the foresight and political will to preserve it for all to enjoy.

We knew the one mile relatively easy loop trail we started on, as we had been on it before.  However, we were also, as we walked, toying with the challenge of proceeding on up into the canyons, over several ridges, to a place beyond view called Romero Pools, a series of pools of water, some quite deep (depending on the snow melt on Mount Lemmon above), formed by the runoff from the mountains.  We knew it was 2.8 miles in, and then 2.8 back out, for a total of 5.6 miles, about as much as we could do with our children, and, somewhere along the path, we decided to go for it.  We made two mistakes that cost us a bit: first, my son did not have his hiking boots, and second, we had no food.  We did have adequate water.  Neither were serious mistakes, but I won't repeat them.  We endured some complaining from both children for some time, but both overcame it and actually enjoyed the hike.

Dscf0152_edited It was challenging.  After the first mile, the trail was rocky and mostly up, sometimes with no trail but only rocks to scramble over.  We would go up and over a ridge, only to find another ridge to climb, maybe a total of 6-7 ridges to climb before we descended into a cool ravine where the stream and pools were found.  The scenery was outstanding.  The predominantly prickly-pear cactus and mesquite tree lowland gave way to abundant forests of saguaro cactus, ocotillo (flowering), and even some yucca.  What was beautiful was the density of the vegetation and the bright colors against the brown of the desert and the clear blue sky.  The colors of the desert always amaze me, the Dscf0139_edited contrasts being so sharp.  All this made it worthwhile since, sometimes, having scaled one ridge and seeing yet another, or having a senior citizen pass me on the trail, I considered turning back, but I couldn't.  I knew something good awaited me at Romero Pools, and there was the satisfaction of simply getting there, of saying that we did it.

One thing that a hike allows is time for thought, for musing over what is seen, and I practiced that some as I went.  It's an odd way to put it, I know, but I often ask myself what things I observe in nature are saying to me, or what they mean, much in the sense that is implied in Psalm 19:1-4, where Creation is is "telling" us something, where it has a "voice." And I do that through the lens of Scripture, that is, I look at God's revelation in Creation (general revelation) through the more particular special revelation of Scripture.  I'm relating the more general truth to the very specific and less ambiguous truth of Scripture.  In the right sense, though, both Scripture and Creation are God's Word to me.

Dscf0155_edited Thus seen, I can't really look at anything without relating it to God.  The hike of course, with its difficulties (rocks, exhaustion, pain, thirst, hunger), pitfalls (falling off the path, getting stuck by a cactus thorn, or simply losing heart and turning back), and unknowns (how far, what's ahead, is it worth it), becomes a well-known metaphor for our walk of obedience, for life itself. Or seeing the ocotillo cactus, I'm reminded that in times of drought (which prevail here), it musters its resources by dropping it leaves to save water, retaining water in its thick spine, and reaching far and wide with its roots for water enough to hang on.  When rain comes, leaves and even beautiful red-tip flowers come out within 48 hours.  It becomes a metaphor for spiritual dryness, for the need to keep our roots sunk in God's word, abiding, enduring lack of fruit for a season, waiting patiently for God to bring fruit, to bring a time of refreshing to us.

I could go on, you know.  Looking at Creation this way can become a holy addiction.  God hems me in.  He's forever speaking to me, even shouting at times.  And yet sometimes you'd think I was deliberately blind, moving through the day with my eyes shut and my fingers in my ears.

Theologian and pastor Jonathan Edwards describes riding out into the woods around Northampton, Massachusetts in 1737, for his health, then dismounting and walking, and there among Creation having a vision of Christ's mercy and love for more than a hour, leaving him weeping but encouraged in the Lord. And that was only the first of many times he had such experiences.  God is speaking through created things.  The rocks cry out.  The heavens proclaim Him.  Everything is telling us about His truth, His beauty, and His goodness.  I just need to look and listen and stay in one place for a while.  I need to give myself over to this holy addiction.


Creational Theology (I): Terrestrial Christianity

Clip_image002_23 "A Calvinist who seeks God, does not for a moment think of limiting himself to theology and contemplation, leaving the other sciences, as of a lower character, in the hands of unbelievers; but on the contrary, looking upon it as his task to know God in all his works, he is conscious of having been called to fathom with all the energy of his intellect, things terrestrial as well as things celestial; to open to view both the order of creation, and the 'common grace' of the God he adores, in nature and its wonderful character, in the production of human industry, in the life of mankind, in sociology and in the history of the human race."

Abraham Kuyper, in Lectures in Calvinism


Passion (A Poem in Memory of Beryl Markham)

Passion
(in Memory of Beryl Markham)

Suspended here, wingtips touching heaven,
You savored glory, for a moment, in your
World without walls. Yet
Plummet you did, to the mundane and earthy, to
     Spend your passion.

Now in this African night, in the shadow of
Karen's Ngong Hills,
What memories do you keep for yourself?

Do you dream of running barefoot and naked in a
Primeval forest, in the vanquished Mau,
by Masai, nurtured by Nandi --
     Edenic in ideal?

Do you watch the herons and kingfishers and trotters
Ablaze in the sky over Lake Naivasha?
Do you wonder about their confident freedom, their
Secure flight, there at the door to
     Hell's Gate?

Are you placing your stake again, with the
Untamed and savage, on that rebel Messenger?
(How is it that you seduce the Splendid Outcast
Yet cannot still your
     Fearful Heart?)

A fitful waking, you hear again the
Waves (or are they waves?) that
Lick your fragile fuselage, the
Unbearable silence
     Prophesizing Death.

It was all so long ago, so long, yet
Here you remain, and wait,
East of Eden, in this
Nairobi night, in all your
     Horrible freedom.

[This poem was inspired by my reading of West With the Night, an excellent memoir of life in East Africa, by Beryl Markham, a contemporary of Isak Dension a/ka/a Karen Blixen, author of Out of Africa.]