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September 2006

An Art of Hope

StrangersandaliensWith so much in the art world that is either decadent, political, or full of despair, it's refreshing to know of two abstract visual artists who actually offer a message of hope and healing in their work.  Both I have known of for some time, but both are artists for whom I continue to develop renewed appreciation.  I'm speaking of Carol Bomer and Makoto Fujimura.  Both are Christians painting out of their faith and Christian worldview.

Outsidethecamp1Born in Alberta, Canada, Carol Bomer resides in Asheville, North Carolina where she has a studio in her home.  When I've visited Carol, I'm always encouraged by the appreciation and joy she takes in her work.  She'll excitedly pull out work in progress, most of which are multi-medium, that is, they have texture in more ways than one  -- perhaps a Bible verse or other text running through the painting, a thread giving t a 3-D effect, or even pressed down pieces of newspaper or architectural drawings.  Generally there is a human element, a figure or figures, albeit often only suggested.  I love the colors, and the multi-layered effect that allows you with patience to see more and more as you sit with the painting.

Janhour71dpi_000In contrast, while Makoto Fujimura is also a Christian who is an abstract painter, that's where the similarity ends.  Fujimura, who resides in New York City, has merged the ancient Japanese art of nihonga (where mineral pigments are applied to paper) with abstract expressionism, creating beautiful paintings of shimmering color.  These are not disturbing, dark works, like so much of modern or post-modern art, but works of beauty that Julyhourcommunicate hope, healing, and grace.  In the wake of 9/11, Fujimura is attempting to demonstrate that an art that flows from grace, from a belief in a good, sovereign, transcendent God, can be used to heal downcast souls charred by circumstance.

TrinityMy wife and I bought one of Bomer's paintings, and I'd like to but one of Fujimura's painting as well.  Why?  Because they are works of beauty, and because I want to give these artists the ability to feed their families as they follow God's call.  Consider doing the same.  Celebrate the good, true, and beautiful.  And support Christians who are being artists in the world, but not of it.


Job

Africa_3I'm always glad to see some good news out of Africa, when so much is tragic and sad.  Today's News and Observer carried a somewhat hopeful article on Africa, entitled "Africa Opens Classes."  The article reported the good news that many Africa countries have eliminated fees for primary education.  In the past, fees were only averaging $12/student a year, but this amount was beyond the means of many parents, keeping children out of school.  Now, children flood the schools, and a new problem has been created: they have no room, not enough teachers, and certainly not enough books and supplies.

Two children were profiled.  One, a 12-year old Kenyan boy had a father who was an alcoholic and a mother who died in childbirth.  His goal is to become a lawyer.  Read his story here.  He shares a one-room shack with his father and a dog in Kibera, a squalid "suburb" of Nairobi.  He perseveres.  His name?  Job.

Since I visited East Africa with my wife in 1987, I have tried to keep abreast of what is happening there.  I have found that one of the best things is simply to read their newspapers; it's so much more representative of reality than our Western newspaper's reports of how things are.  The best way to track the news is on AllAfrica.com, a blog you can find here.  It allows you to search for stories on topics or by country.  I enjoy seeing stories of everyday life, sports competitions, concerts -- things which peer into "normal" life.  Some newspapers are government-controlled (Zimbabwe comes to mind), so consider the source, but others aren't.  Reading these stories gives me hope.  There are positive things happening.  There are many Jobs in Africa.


Middle School Musical

IntrovertAt this very moment, there are eleven -- count that -- eleven 12-13 year old girls downstairs for my daughter's 12th birthday.  They are a trip to watch.  Earlier this evening, each time a new girl would get dropped off by a parent, the whole troupe would run to the door and have a tremendous group hug for the arrivee, everyone talking at once.  We eventually sat them all down for pizza and had each one go around the table, say their name, tell their favorite color, and state one of the most embarrassing things that had ever happened to them.  Now that was rich.  The expressions were marvelous.  Everything form lost diapers, missing underwear, wearing pajamas to school, or saying stupid things like the time by daughter left a voice message for a friend, ending with, "well, I'll see you tomorrow, in Jesus name, Amen." 

I love 12-year old girls.  There's no teenage attitude yet, no cool factor in play, and yet they're changing.  You can see the future written in their faces and, if you know their Moms, you can often see their Moms in them.  They still love to play.  They had two games of sardines in the dark and, honestly, the decibel level was dangerously high from all the screams.  We'll be very, very tired tomorrow.

But we love this.  I could do it every week.  When I watch them I sometimes realize  what I lacked in my growing up.  I don't remember having any birthday parties, though I'm sure I did.  I don't remember huge slumber parties.  I had two close friends, and I remember them well.  But I did not have the rich web of friendships my children have. Now before you say "you poor, poor boy," you should know that I'm sure a good part of that was me.  I am an introvert, and I'm happy with that.  I really enjoy being with a few people, like a whole lot more but don't care to see them too often, try to love all as Christ would, and, well, enjoy time alone everyday.  People wear me out.  So if you see me, on occasion, eating lunch alone at a restaurant, reading a book, don't say what I used to say about such folk -- "that poor man, he has no friends."  I have great friends.  It's just that sometimes I need to be alone, so I can think, so I can try and make sense of what's going on or reflect on life via the fictional characters in a good novel.  (By the way, I love this Q&A about introverts here.)

Introvert that I am, I have to leave the girls for awhile and retreat to my study, like I am doing now.  They were last heard singing along to the evening movie, High School Musical, loudly, and even dancing some.  They're absolutely great.  And tomorrow, when they're gone, and I think about them, I know I'll smile.  Wouldn't you?  So if you see me sitting alone, and smiling, don't ask me if I'm OK.  I am.  I'm just thinking about my middle school musical. eleven 12-year old girls, a snapshot of a moment in time, something to treasure.  I hope something of that 12-year oldness carries on into adulthood.  I hope they can still play.


Dwelling Places: A Review

Dwelling In Beulah, Iowa, widow women all over town garden in the clothes of deceased husbands.  From a distance, they often look like small-framed men.  They keep their husbands' clothes because it's wasteful to throw away hats and shirts that still have wear in them.  They wear the clothes in memory of the men they have survived, even after the scent of them has been laundered away. 

(Vinita Hampton Wright, in Dwelling Places, 2006, 339 p.)

If you enjoy books firmly rooted in a particular place, you might enjoy this year's Dwelling Places, by Vinita Hampton Wright.  It's a book about a dysfunctional family, one struggling to deal with the loss of a way of life, farming, in a small Midwestern town. 

Wright looks at the disparate responses to this loss through the alternating eyes of Mack, the father who has just returned from a brief stay in the psychiatric ward for depression; Jodie, his wife, who has stoically held things together while he was gone, and now, on his return loses both faith and fidelity; fourteen-year old Kenzie, who has turned to Jesus but, alas, come under the sway of an older man who, unbeknown to her, has his own mental and emotional problems; Rita, the grandmother, who hangs onto faith but won't have anything to do with the church; and Young Taylor, the sixteen year old son who dresses in Goth attire and keeps his distance.

Really, all of these characters are struggling with faith in God, with believing in a good God even when life is difficult.  Mack is depressed and almost takes his own life.  Jodie has an affair that nearly ends the family.  Kenzie goes off the religious deep end.  Rita retain faith in God but has none in people.  And Young Taylor, the one who the story doesn't directly focus on?"  Well, he's the one who makes the clearest affirmation of faith.  He's having a conversation with Mack, telling him about how he had almost drowned when he was sixteen after falling out of a boat:

I started taking in water, and I tried to find the surface but couldn't.  I couldn't see my own air bubbles.  I thought, This is a stupid way to go.

Young Taylor pauses.  So does Mack. . . .

An then I had this feeling that I was going someplace else and that everything would be okay.  I knew that in just another minute I'd see people on the other side.  But all of a sudden somebody grabbed me real hard and pulled me straight up out of the water.  I thought it had to be one of the guys, but it felt like somebody a lot stronger.  I could hear Bobby and Dale screaming my name -- they were at least ten yards away.  I tried to see who pulled me up, but nobody was there. . . .

Why did you tell me this, son?

I thought you needed to know.  Death is just another country. . . . It's another country.  And God's taking care of things there, the same as here.  God's in charge of getting people from one place to another.  You don't need to worry about it, or be afraid of it."

So the quiet one, the Goth-kid, turns out to be the one with a firm faith; Kenzie, disillusioned, is just beginning to find out what true faith is; Mack is learning to trust God again, moment by moment; and Jodie's not able to trust, not yet, but she's staying with her family.  Grace breaks through into this problematic family, a voice here, and angel there, and faith returns, slowly but in a real way, like gold.  While the faith they possess may seem a bit thin to Christians, particularly when juxtaposed against the rich words to the hymns reprinted as a preface to each chapter, these are people recovering, learning to believe, not just in some kind of cultural Christianity but in a real God, one who is sovereign and good and yet one who allows us to be refined in the crucible of trial.

I warmed to these characters very slowly, so much so that I almost turned back.  But I'm glad I stayed with it.  Now, during the day, I catch myself thinking of them, wondering how there are now -- and then remembering that they're not real.  Or are they?


Beauty and Utility

Suburbs"Everything, from reaping the corn to blessing the meal or carving a chair, was an action giving thanks for God's creation, and artistically satisfying activity.  All they made and did was essentially functional: there was no time, energy, or space to make anything without a practical purpose; beauty and utility were inseparable.  Today we find the reverse.  Beauty and utility are widely regarded as separate streams: we all need utility, but beauty is considered to be an indulgence, peripheral to our main concerns in life." 

(Christopher Day, in Places of the Soul, speaking of pre-industrial peoples)

Beauty is absolutely essential to life, almost as necessary for our sustenance as food and shelter.  Places should have beauty, and yet we we look across much of suburbia and we see uniformity, a kind of deadening conformity brought on by strict appearance codes or busy-body planners or simply unimaginative builders and designers.

I live in a suburban area, and yet my neighborhood touches on what is (barely) left of an old two-lane country road, where Johnny the firewood salesman still lives in a ramshackle mobile home under the trees, firewood stacked all around, a few simple ranch style homes, next door to him.  Is this beauty?   Well, it may not suit our refined tastes, but I like it.  I like the reminder that once we didn't all live in 3000-5000 square feet houses with manicured lawns and sprinkler systems.  (Johnny resides in a bed of pine-straw, with no grass.) 

Looking closely at a couple of the ranch homes, I see flower beds and fruit trees, not the manicured kind but the homegrown kind, a little ragged but still with color.  One ranch home has been removed, the property slated for town-home development.  Four or five hand-planted flowering trees next to a circular drive remind me that this was a "place" for some souls, at one time, that life was lived out here for probably more than one generation.  And I find it sad that this place is now almost gone, for when the trees are cut and bulldozers have reshaped the contours of the land, we will no longer know where that "place" was, as it will finally be gone.

Beauty doesn't have to look like what we think it should be, or what city planners think it should be.  It's individual.  It's not neat and tidy and uniform.  New subdivisions are functional (they provide shelter), and they have an appearance of order and beauty, but real beauty is a bit wild, a bit unsettled.  How do we get that back?


My Friend, the Architect (Part Three of A Conversation)

Hometown_2 [The following is a continuation of my instant message conversation on Christian faith and the built environment with my architect friend, Andy.  For Parts One and Two, see the posts of September 18th and 20th.]

AO says:

    Hi SW - shall we pick up with gridded communities?

SW says:

    That's as good a place as any.

AO says:

    The gridded street layout is pretty modern.  It's generally most effective where the land is flat and valuable.  I know you're a proponent of obvious order in design - is there a right way to order a city?  Is a grid the right way?

SW says:

It can be efficient, and if I imagine a city like Paris, for example, were it all curved streets and cul-de-sacs, it would be difficult to get around.

SW says:

Funny that we started here -- I just skimmed a section in Gorringe's book on suburbs, mentioning the gridded cities of Levitts (Levittown, for example).

AO says:

The curved streets in Paris go with the Seine and the hills.  Is that relevant?

SW says:

Yes!  It is.

AO says:

Levittown

  has other issues . . .

SW says:

I think the built environment should take advantage of and cooperate with the natural environment

SW says:

My problem, biblically, is that places that ignore the natural environment and the need that people have for community and beauty, will ultimately fail.

AO says:

That sounds like a Biblical description of order.  That relates to Genesis' comments about taking dominion of nature in a perfect garden

SW says:

I think so.

AO says:

Yes, that's a good highlight of a modern problem.  And I believe that's correct that ignoring nature will cause even ultimate failure.  That's worth a few provoking examples: 1) Manhattan, the most unnatural island in the world, but the most prosperous 2) I recently saw a proposal to fill in the Hudson to add much needed real estate to Manhattan - this is a bad idea, right?  3) Ulmstead, master landscape architect - literally moved mountains (or at least large hills) to create the beauty of the Biltmore landscape - was this okay?  4) Nitrogen runoff - whole new sections of law and building code have been written to attempt to compensate for the problems of clear cutting to make way for parking lots.  Climate change is linked to area of asphalt.  5) Falling Water – Frank Lloyd Wright's masterpiece, a house built on top of a waterfall.

SW says:

Yes, some places we have come to love, like Manhatten, or Biltmore, though they were built at great expense to the natural environment and great alteration of topography.  They become a new landscape. But I think it better to respect what's there -- not unalterable, but carefully alterable.

AO says:

Jesus said we could throw mountains into the sea.  Are you ever open to this option if the result is some greater beauty?

SW says:

Ha!  Different context.  But yes, I don’t think landscapes and environments are sacrosanct.  The better thought I have is to look at what's there, appreciate it, and try to build with it, letting it enhance what we do.

SW says:

That whole thing of Adam naming animals implies a real knowing of the natural order, so much so that he could give appropriate names.  We should know what's around us and then respect it.

AO says:

I agree.  I would love to see a shopping center molded around an flowing landscape, taking advantage of the natural space in some profoundly creative and integrative ways.

SW says:

Cost is a factor that kills such design, isn’t it?

AO says:

Cost.  No, cost does not kill design.  A perverse sense of economy becomes an excuse that kills design.  A developer (I've had some experience with box store developments, so I'm going to stay on this thread.) assumes that maximum profit can be made by a building of maximum square footage at minimum expense.  Meanwhile, Amazon.com is invented, making shopping centers irrelevant.  Developers and retailers should be profoundly more creative and resourceful than they are, and easily could be.

SW says:

Interesting -- news to me -- but you're on scene!  So it's possible to take a modest budget and "design with nature?"

AO says:

In many ways, yes, absolutely.  Some answers to this are fundamental: construction is at a cost/square foot.  Smaller homes are cheaper to build, cheaper to cool, cheaper to maintain, exponentially less harmful to nature.  If we understand better the value of space, we can save huge amounts of money.  Square footage is much more expensive than good design.

SW says:

I agree.  I think I could downsize if space were valued more and used more efficiently.  But most of what I see built around this city are bigger and bigger homes -- quite amazing.

AO says:

But, this brings us back to cities.  How can a city be designed with nature?  In a city, nature is cordoned off from the built environment intentionally.  If development happened in the garden, would it have looked like Central park?

SW says:

Cities inevitably disrupt the natural environment, and the density is desirable and really can help protect natural areas outside the city from sprawl.  But I think we can provide parks, communal gardens (I've seen this), and even room for wildlife (like Central Park).

SW says:

I don't remember how successful it was, but Montgomery County, MD had a wedge and corridors plan, allowing high density around metro and limited access highways, progressively, and severely limiting development outside these zones.  It did attract some court challenges.  The density obviously impacts the natural environment, but it prevented more widespread harm.

AO says:

Yes, that's relevant.  Babel was more efficient because it brought so many people together to share resources.  Anything without moderation is dangerous - all city isn't a great idea, and sprawling suburbs is a perpetual waste of almost everything.

SW says:

I agree.  And yet, I wanted to live in the suburbs.  Why?  Well, I want some privacy, and yet community.  I wanted green space around me, a yard for children, and yet other children to play with in a safe place.  These things aren't bad, but when we all want them, they create something ultimately not very livable.

AO says:

There's been some really fun architecture dealing with this question.  Bucky Fuller, of course, with his geodesic domes attempted to test the integration of nature and city to the extreme, but more recently, we have wonderfully creative actual solutions by Norman Foster and Glenn Merkut as just a couple examples.

SW says:

Name-dropping, Andy!  Tell me about their designs, because I don’t know them.

AO says:

Foster has a new skyscraper in NYC with an indoor ice-waterfall that cools the whole tower.  In Europe, he's been a pioneer of adding gardens throughout skyscrapers at various heights.  He ventilates his towers in extremely efficient ways that fill buildings with fresh air.  He's got one tower design on the books now that is aerodynamic in such a way that it actually generates its own electric power through strategically located wind turbines.  I don't know enough about Merkut, but he's made great creative moves with homes that capture rain water and use the resources of the wind and the landscape to make beautiful, simple homes.

AO says:

WakeCounty too is notable here as well.  For example, the school board has made many creative and ingenious moves to demand "green" systems and materials in schools.

SW says:

Oh -- I may have to change my opinion of them!

AO says:

Well, the school board still has problems, but the buildings are getting, well, smarter anyway.

AO says:

It's still an interesting question.  The biblical tabernacles weren't "green" really.  The new heaven uses a lot of materials that are assumedly difficult to mine - maybe God has a better idea.  But it's a morally relevant question today because of our excess.

AO says:

You had a question about work?

SW says:

Yes: Work is obviously not what God intended, so it has elements of toil and is impacted by considerations other than simply the true, the good and the beautiful.  How do you deal with this?  How do you try and redeem the work is some significant way?

AO says:

Brother, we've been friends long enough that you know this is a personal struggle for me.    For example, I did some early designs several months ago on elevations (facades) for a new development.  I prayed while I worked then, I sweated through the details of the proportions and the integrality of the design, ya da ya da.  I liked it.  My boss liked it, and the client liked it.  The town really liked it.  So, all these things encouraged me, and I came to conclude that in some way, my sketches of these elevations were "right."  They were true.  Months went by, I got pulled off that job for certain reasons (a long, but not irrelevant story.)  Another project manager was put on the job.  Now, I'm back on the job in a subordinate position.  He's re-drawn my elevations!  I think they're "wrong".  If I take this too far in my mind, you know, I think it's something that I, as a Christian, have to fight against.  I think that proportions are a moral certainty.  But if I fight the wrong way, I'm not much of a "team player."

SW says:

Yes, you have prayer and gentle persuasion at your disposal, though you can be assertive and yet respectful.  You work within a structure of authority, and to obey the 5th Commandment, you owe respect to the superior and prayer.  I have as yet had no occasion where a superior told me to act in a way that violated God's law, so I may disagree but I go along. (Sometimes grumbling!)

SW says:

This tension exists in every job, I think, for the Christian.

AO says:

For me, it becomes an issue of communication, maybe education, definitely of humility.  All great weaknesses for me and most architects I know.  Friends have shown me scripture that seems to suggest that we let God sort out a lot of this, which is right, but it's a challenge to know what to fight for, especially in design.  Often in design, the best ideas are the ones you can't describe, and that's challenging.

SW says:

I can see that.

SW says:

Humility is in short supply in many professions.

AO says:

Artists often get caught in this question of "Truth is beauty and beauty truth."  I don't necessarily believe that. I think truth was here first.  However, if it is a correct adage, then for me to draw an elevation that is not beautiful is to lie.  But, my project managers rarely appreciate me calling them liars.

SW says:

Yes!  I agree.  Truth was first, but, before that even, was love.  Speaking the truth in love is critical.  And challenging.

SW says:

So may gray areas, requiring prudence.

SW says:

Well, we better wrap. . . Any last words?

AO says:

Yes, it's a good conclusion.  I think it's good to tie this conversation to the practical.  It's easy to talk ethereally about art, and that's interesting, but easily irrelevant.  Also, I think it's important to remember that the questions of beauty apply to every profession.  Also, I think it's important to remember that discernment is appropriate within our daily experience -

SW says:

Good words

AO says:

not just in the movies we watch, but also the food that we eat and the retailers we visit, and the cities we promote.

SW says:

Yes, and I think it is communal -- that is, we do it in the context of the Body of Christ, learning from one another.

AO says:

Man - cities.  A bunch of people have tried this one, you know?  Just within the last century, we've gone through a lot of extremes.  What a wild ride is design and thought.  But, the gospel does not change.  Our need for our creator doesn't change.  Our need for each other and for the church is the same.  And our creative call has yet to be revoked.  Thanks SW.

SW says:

    You bet.


Dreams

DreamI have never attached much importance to dreams.  Some are inane; some fantastical; some downright boring, to the extent I remember them at all.  A few are disturbing.

And some are so real, so vivid, that they are difficult to shake once you awake from them.  The voices you heard in them seem almost audible, and they haunt your waking hours.

Last night I dreamed that a girl I knew 30 years ago in college was weeping, telling me her husband had left her.  I told her, "Janet, God will husband you now," words that seemed to ring in my ears.  I woke up praying for her, or maybe I began praying for her when I awoke.

Just providentially, I am having lunch tomorrow with another college friend who has kept up with Janet all these years.  I'm going to ask him to consider calling her to see how she is.  I haven't done that kind of thing often.  In fact, I feel silly doing it at all.  Surely the dream was a figment of my imagination, related to the too late dinner I had the previous evening.

But then I consider the dreams of the Scripture -- Jacob's dream of angels descending and ascending a ladder to heaven; Joseph's dream of his brothers' sheaves of grain bowing down to his sheaf of grain; or even Pharaoh's dreams of the fat cows and gaunt cows, the scorched grain and healthy grain -- God speaking in dreams.

So, I don't know what to make of that dream.  But, if nothing else, it's a prompt to pray for an old friend, and that's a good thing.


Life in Snapshots

Life Behind the Tapestry
    
while watching a "random" slideshow 

There, on the screen, is
life, providentially arranged: my daughter on high
ropes, a misplaced duck, a cowgirl with horse.

Put Christmas next to a fire-branded bookcase,
bucolic view of meadow and mountain, a
framed up house with a surprised look. Thankfulness that

That is a Caribbean Island, year twenty-five,
green and blue and pink, juxtaposed with
glaciers, so far removed and yet one.  Still here.

Now that was fun.  Clowning around.  Being goofs.
Rock-bathing, crevice-curled, sunlight playing
on her face.  From childhood, my wife remembers that

Waterfall: Yonahlassee, all that's left of summer camp
memories turned to condos now.  We stayed there.  Walking
through the remains, I tried to know her, then, at 12.

Don't forget the golden wheat swaying on a Teton stage.
Or horses, gnarly pine, boat set to sail.  Blue, and bluer, in
Costa Rica.  The Colorado, canyons, just beyond my deck,

My daughter packing up to go.  Leaving.
And where will she go? And when?

Yes, life behind the tapestry, and
yet still beautiful, mysterious, and gold. 

[Sometimes, my wife and I are mesmerized by the hypnotic images playing across the computer screen, images of our life over at least 15 years.  You never know what will pop up or creep in on the ever shifting palette of this screensaver, scenes of life lived out over the years, facially random, and yet, I suspect not.  Writing them down, quickly, their juxtaposition triggers associations, connections, a peak around the corner of the tapestry, a glimmer of the gold of Providence.]


No Regrets

LuciIn Reverse

Turn it all backwards.  Turn time.
Unravel the half-knit sweater in
the knitting bag.  Remove the spilled
wine from the rug, return the color of dark cream
to its fibers and take them back and back
to the sheep's back before shearing.

I want my life over.  To do it
the way that would give me who I wan to be
now.  To have again chances I didn't take,
and take them.

Make me innocent.  Sluice me of
infractions.  Give me soft
pink skin and a soul so fresh that
I may love my mother again.

(Luci Shaw, in What the Light Was Like)

Knitting I know nothing of.  But I do recall the sensation of grasping a hanging thread on a shirt and pulling, watching the fabric unwind and go back to its uncreated self, mere threads without design.  No, my mother caught me then, and stopped me, before I could ruin my shirt.  Oh well.

"Turn time."  To have "my life over."  "To have again chances I didn't take, and then take them."  It's a poem about regrets, lost opportunities, wished for would-have-beens.  The poet looks at her life and says "what if. . . ?"

In this infinitesimally small speck of eternity called "life," there are thousands of decision points, roads taken, and even more roads not taken.  Scientists theorize (without a shred of proof) that each road not taken is in fact taken in a different dimension, that, for example, somewhere out there I did take that job with the small private firm, or become a journalist, or move to Arizona, or. . . countless other what ifs.  I don't know about all that.

But by God's grace I don't spend much time on the what ifs.  For Christians every road taken is one taken in faith.  It's really not where we're walking but Who we're walking with.  Looking back, I could have done differently, could have make other decisions, but ultimately, all the roads will get me to the same place:  Home.  I'm enjoying the scenery, lamenting the waste, and watching to see a golden Home come -- maybe just over the next rise.  I'm out walking, I'll keep walking, and I'm waiting.


Birds. Bees. Calvinists.

Ct_1Of late, I have not had a lot of time for magazine reading, something I regret, and the stack of magazines beside the sofa is precarious and ridiculously high.  I did however read three articles recently that were intriguing enough to mention.

The September issue of Christianity Today includes an article on the resurgence of Calvinism among the young.  Entitled "Young, Restless, Reformed," the author profiles two pastors: John Piper, of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, and author of the bestseller, Desiring God, and Joshua Harris, the youthful pastor of Covenant Life Church in Gaithersburg, Maryland.  It also looks at the change in seminaries, like Southern Baptist Seminary, which is now headed by Al Mohler, a Calvinist.  It's a sympathetic portrayal of the movement toward the Reformed faith.  A text-box features a helpful explanation of the key doctrines summarized in the acrostic "TULIP."  (If you haven't an idea what that means, see the text-box!)  Mostly, reading it made me want one of the t-shirts on the CT cover with a picture of Jonathan Edwards and the words "Jonathan Edwards Is My Homeboy."

Bc_1And then, there's birds, and bees.  The latest issue of Books and Culture includes an article, entitled "The Bird Man," surveying several biographies of John James Audubon, the naturalist painter of birds who lived in the first half of the 19th century.  Audubon was a "character," to say the least --- all the biographers documenting his consummate lying, his brilliant mind and yet death of dementia, his aversion to discussing religion and yet confidence in his calling (how can you use the word calling without belief in Someone who calls?), and his flirtatious nature yet devotion to family.  His passion was birds, and how amazingly he painted them, 435 contained in his massive Birds of America, still unrivaled.  How a man who could be so absorbed in the study of birds, noting their diversity, their coloring, the attention to detail, and yet not speak of their Creator, is unfathomable.  Even now, as I write this, a red male cardinal eats beneath the bird feeder, casting wary looks my way, below a bright yellow goldfinch perched higher up on the feeder, and I marvel at their construction and their color, the evidence of design.

Finally, in the most interesting article of all, Eric Miller tells us of the much maligned honey bee, a non-being to most, an annoyance to others ("Shock and Awe," in Books and Culture).  Indeed, honey bees are fascinating and critical to life in ways most do not appreciate, and he surveys several books, all of which hold dire warnings about the decline of the bees and the effect on civilization.  No bees, no flowers.  No flowers, less food (1/3 of our food supply is dependent on pollinating bees).  But, after this survey, he notes the emptiness of the writers' arguments for restoring wonder and amazement and protection to the bees, asking "How far can secular awe take us toward the spiritual and moral renewal to which these authors call us."  She contrasts their vacuous rationales with the God-centered faith of Jan Swammerdam, a Dutch scientist with a passion for bees who lived in the late 1600s.  "Sir," he once wrote to a friend, "I present you with the omnipotent finger of God in the anatomy of a louse."  Swammerdam knew that, as the author concludes, the "way to devotion to God leads through that which is made."  Surely it does.  Surely every tree, flower, bee, giraffe, cat, ridge line, stream, and cloud leads us back to God, but man's capacity for unbelief and self-deception is well-attested.  I'm reminded of an article I read in the Amicus Journal, a secular environmental periodical, nearly two decades ago, which sought to lay a spiritual rationale for environmental protection, and yet which failed, ultimately, for it had no authority for truth to which it would appeal.  The arguments are pragmatic, not spiritual, and pragmatism only goes so far. (I suggest reading Francis Schaeffer's Pollution and the Death of Man, for a proper basis for environmental preservation.)

Bees.  Birds.  The TULIP.  Stare at them long enough and their meanings become rich and ultimately unfathomable.  They all lead to worship.  The road to God is through what is made.


My Friend, the Architect (Part Two of A Conversation)

Hometown_1[Continuing a conversation begun a couple days ago, my architect friend Andy and I continue to discuss Chrustian faith, architecture, and planning, trying to discern the good, true, and beautiful.]

SW says:

Ok, now where were we?

AO says:

Something about cities vs gardens, but let's move on.

SW says:

Here's a big question.  Take from it what you will. . . .

SW says:

I know that you work in downtown Raleigh and live not too far from the downtown, and you have observed the changes occurring there.  As Christians, how do we evaluate what is happening downtown or consider what should happen downtown?  How do we determine what is good or what is bad from God’s perspective?  What are some of the healthy things happening?  What things may prove problematic later?

AO says:

There are a lot of question marks in that instant message.

SW says:

Ha!  It wasn't intended to be one, you know

AO says:

It's okay to start basic and elemental.  This is a question of discernment, as with anything we see in culture.  What is good and bad in the news?  What is good and bad in this TV show I'm watching?  Those questions and the interpretive role of the Spirit and of Scripture are relevant to the built environment.  I've traveled some recently, and in Raleigh/Cary et al, it seems more symptomatic that people think it's rude to be critical or worse, that it's irrelevant to make value judgments on events.  Well, that's a rabbit trail, isn't it?  Cases in point: criticism of the Coker towers versus criticism of the Freedom tower (World Trade Center replacement).  Let me get back to a couple other question marks above.

SW says:

Let me just agree that discernment is a great word for what must be done.

AO says:

Intention is significant.  In any art, the intention of the artist has some relevance to the good/badness of the art - though not all relevance.  Architecture is similar, but somehow it seems to be more transparent.

SW says:

You may need to explain -- is intention really important, or do we just evaluate what is done – objectively?

SW says:

After all, the intention may be X, but the result on the ground may be Y.

AO says:

For example, some of our clients want to put up a shopping center quick and cheap so they see immediate returns.  They may even plan to sell the building during construction.  The level of detail and quality of materials plummets.

SW says:

But I would evaluate that apart from intent -- it's just bad, ugly construction (to be inarticulate).

AO says:

On the other hand, a developer who plans to hold onto property and leases it to tenants will be very concerned about the appearance and durability and innovative schemes because he wants to attract tenants and build a good reputation in the neighborhood.

AO says:

In architecture, human intention is present in the expression, constantly. 

SW says:

But again, I would evaluate what he did and does, not what he intends.

SW says:

Human intention is present in everything!

SW says:

I'm not saying intention is unimportant, but a more objective evaluation must deal with what is, not what was intended.

AO says:

We can look at the retail buildings from the early 1900's.  They are extraordinarily simple.  They are literally brick boxes.  The faces which aren't promptly on the street front have brick that is poorly set.  But, if the owner’s intention was a shiny facade on a street, that is where his detail is, the brick work is done by a skilled mason.  This is where Wright/Sullivan's line comes in about form following function.  The built work becomes the embodiment of what the owner/architect/government/time and place created them to be.  It sounds vague, but in architecture, the art has a raison d’etre, and that is inescapable in assessing the work.

SW says:

Intention. . . Take a song – a writer may have intended a man-woman love song, but it may be widely interpreted as a love song of worship for God.

AO says:

Ah - songs, i.e., renovation!

AO says:

Absolutely, architecture will be modified for a new intention just like a bar-tune may become a hymn.  And then, your city gets much richer.  This is how a city adds the layers that make it rich.

AO says:

So, that's something good downtown.  We're adding layers to what's already there instead of bulldozing and building more Styrofoam.  We're turning parking lots into three-dimensional space.  That's positive.

SW says:

Yes, I think so.

AO says:

I'm not sure how to make it spiritual, but I like the idea of it.

SW says:

I do too, but that does point out the difficulty of relating what is done, that is, what is good, to a biblical worldview.

SW says:

For example, I think that we can argue from the idea that we are made in God's image, to the principle that people have a dignity that needs to be respected in the built environment, but then it gets difficult to make hard and fast applications of it..

AO says:

It's something about making the earth into what it longs to be, that whole Romans 1 bit.  That whole "subdue the earth" bit from Genesis.  It's what we're made to do.

SW says:

Yes, the cultural mandate.

AO says:

And so, that's good and right.  That's absolute.

SW says:

I understand that idea of Adam tilling and keeping actually means, in a strong way in the Hebrew, to actually serve the earth.

SW says:

That's a good perspective for planning and building.

SW says:

Places need to not simply be beautiful structures but humane structures, places that are livable (if residences) and which build community.

SW says:

I also think community is inherent, and eternal, present in the Trinity.  As we image God, we must image community.

AO says:

I used to walk frequently down the Dawson Street block, west of the police station and Nash Square.  That one block has two gay bars, a pornography store, and a goodwill outlet.  The buildings are one-story, brick, dilapidated except for some upfitted retail bits.  When I walked there, I would pray that God would tear down those buildings.  He hasn't yet.  I wonder if he wants me to pray another way.  In either case, those buildings are more than symbolic of what's inside.  They're also a haven for what's inside.  But, they're also ugly, and I don't think that's irrelevant.

SW says:

No, me either.  There are people there desperately trying to connect, to have someone, some community, and yet it's not what God intended.So evaluation is difficult, isn’t it?

AO says:

Well, architects are critics.  We're brutal (I'm nice.)  Our school experience was pouring our hearts and minds into [something], pinning it to the wall, and having a professor tear it apart - often literally tear it apart.

AO says:

Evaluation is part of the mystique - on a good day.

AO says:

What's next?

SW says:

How about this: What biblical narratives or doctrines do you find instructive for how we plan and build cities?  (I’m thinking of Creation, or the wild imagery of Revelation, or the doctrine of the incarnation or the trinity, but there are undoubtedly more.)

SW says:

Another biggie!

AO says:

Wow - that's an awesome question.  Every time I read the dimensions of the tabernacle or the temple or the New Jerusalem, I want to start drawing it in CAD [software].  I haven't done that yet.

SW says:

Your employer may not appreciate that!

AO says:

The first thing I got excited about, architecturally, in Scripture, was meeting Bezalel and Oholiab.  These were men who were filled with the Spirit to be craftsmen for the temple.  That doesn't tell us how to design buildings or cities, but it tells us to care about the skill and materials we use as we are led by the Spirit.

SW says:

Yes, very important.

AO says:

Yeah, it's a great question, but I'm not sure where to go with it.  Sometimes I do put crosses in my designs, and I'm happy when I find them there, but I don't think it has to be that symbolic.

SW says:

Well, let me try something on you. . .

SW says:

Let's begin with Creation.  There is diversity in the created order.You cannot argue in a strict way from that fact, but I think you can formulate a normative principle that a design must allow for a healthy diversity of function and use.  What we do is make a creative response to that norm.

AO says:

We saw Gaudi's Sagrada Familia - he had sculpture around the bottom depicting Bible stories, he had twelve spires for the disciples and then in the spires, he wrote "Hallelujah" in tile and glass.  That's literal and beautiful, but my office buildings don't have spires.

SW says:

But all that stuff is like propaganda in a way -- using the design as a soapbox for witness.  It's not that crass, but you know what I mean.

SW says:

What I'm talking about is something that inheres in the design.

AO says:

Okay, yes.  Diversity is good, order is good, even propaganda is good, but it kind of happens anyway.  Tadao Ando makes chapels out of concrete.  The finish is impeccable - he creates bare, gleaming, absolutely smooth concrete boxes.  Yet, because of that monotony of material, the light on the surface shimmers, the corners glow.  And order, architecture especially is bound by physics.

AO says:

Even in the attempted disorder of the postmodernists, that structure comes out even more.

SW says:

Well, I think order is inevitable -- because of how we are made.  Any artist (like John Cage) who has attempted to produce pure randomness in his art has been frustrated.  Order rears its head.

AO says:

So, architecture uses that order as part of the palette.  It's a sweetly spiritual art in many ways.

AO says:

I'd like to hear your comments about bringing order to a city.  Should a city be a grid of streets?

SW says:

     Yes.  But I’ll get back to you later on that.  OK?


Stuart Sutcliffe: The "Lost" Beatle

Dc100089Admittedly, there is some fascination with the lives of those musicians that played with The Beatles before there were THE BEATLES.  Two come to mind, of course: Pete Best and Stuart Sutcliffe.  Best was the pre-Ringo drummer, fired by new manager Brian Epstein when the boys Dc1000811 returned from Hamburg in 1962 -- still prior to making it big.  These days Best is touring as The Pete Best Band, playing Beatles songs and otherwise profiting from his early association with the boys.  From what I have heard, Best was a mediocre drummer, out-bested by Ringo Starr.  Dc1000836 Can you imagine what he has dealt with all these years?

On the other hand, Stuart Sutcliffe was the best friend of John Lennon, having net him in the Liverpool Art School.  Stu was primarily a visual Dc1000835 artist, of the abstract expressionist variety.  He learned to play bass, though, because the band needed a bass player.  Some say he played well; others, McCartney chief among them, said otherwise.  While in Hamburg, Stuart met and fell in love with (and ultimately married) Astrid Dc1000847 Kirchherr, an attractive blond who apparently had quite an influence on all the Beatles.  It is to Astrid we owe the many photos of the Beatles taken in those early days in Hamburg, as well as the mop-top hair, first on Sutcliffe, and then adopted by all the Beatles.

Dc1000842Stu Sutcliffe left the Beatles of his on accord, wanting to devote himself to painting and to Astrid.  Sadly, he suffered a brain aneurysm or other disorder (it was unclear) in April 1962 and died in Astrid's arms.  Prior to that time he had suffered a great deal from severe headaches, Dc1000832 insomnia, nausea -- all making it difficult to work and live.

All of this was brought home to me in a 60-minute documentary on Sutcliffe I watched recently, entitled The Lost Beatle.  I had never seen Dc1000821 his art, but it was displayed on the video quite efectively.  I found it arresting, and yet definitely an expression of a man in torment.  Stu himself also had quite a look -- a sort of Liverpool James Dean.  There were extensive conversations with Paula Sutcliffe, Stu's sister, and Dc1000845_1 Astrid, now of course in her 60s!  Along with excerpts of letters from Stu, it was an effective chronicle of a tragic life.  Oddest of all was Paula Sutcliffe's belief that Stu's death was caused by an injury she said was received when Lennon hit Stu upside the head.  Unproven, of course.  It's a sad commentary on a life -- cut short, with no hope of salvation -- and yet it's not an uncommon one.


My Friend, the Architect (Part One of A Conversation)

Hometown[Who says instant messages can't be substantive?  My friend Andy and I began a significant (we think) discussion on Christian belief, urban design, and architecture.  We've only begun, but the talk was stimulating.  I hope you think so, too.  Stay tuned for Part Two.]

SW says: Hey -- ready to try this?

AO says: Hi SW - did you have something provocative to ask me?

SW says: You bet I do.

AO says: Bring it on.

SW says: First up: How did you decide to make a career in architecture?

AO says: Okay - I'd like to keep this two-sided. I may send some questions back to you.

SW says: Go right ahead!

AO says: I had a lot of jobs all through high school and when I started thinking about a career, I mostly had that idea about work being something we always do. That once you're out of school, this is the real world where your ideas and your faith perpetuate into the way to support yourself, that spiritually, continuing to work is a way of continuing to follow and obey and converse practically with God.

AO says: I've never written that sentence out before, but it starts to make sense about why Architecture makes sense to me.

SW says: Well, you were more spiritual than me. That's great! I just didn't know what to do with myself, so I went to law school.

AO says: Architecture has this profound and wonderful mix of the practical and absolutely tangible, the literally concrete elements of experience with perfect ideals of space and time that are so lofty that virtually every author I've ever read on architecture just sounds silly when trying to explain a work.

AO says: The best descriptions I heard and learned about architecture was were through these medieval drawings showing God the Creator with a compass in hand. The drawing I remember was called, "The Architect." Anyway, so it's this very cool loftiness and mysterious wonder mixed with the absolute physicality of basic shelter and place making. That's exciting to me. I didn't know that that's what this was about right away, of course, but I had notions of it, and it looked like enough fun to sustain me.

AO says: Law isn't altogether different, is it? You have those same ideals of bringing the cosmos of what is absolutely, divinely right down to the totally tangible of the guy with the parking ticket, right? A difference, I think, is that lawyers are better at expressing themselves.

SW says: Yes, I think you're right -- there a mix of the concrete, or particular, and the universal ideals -- I suppose that's important in every vocation. Writers deal with concrete, particular images, and yet they want to say something more universal. I think that's a part of our creatureliness, of how God made us.

SW says: It really hearkens back to the Incarnation -- meaning is incarnated in real, physical ways, as God took on human form.

SW says: But I like your idea that "continuing to work is a way of continuing to follow and obey and converse practically with God." I really like that. It's like the "tilling and keeping" that Adam was called to do while he walked in the Garden with God. We only know dimly what that is like.

AO says: Absolutely. That's what keeps this fascinating. That's what keeps us asking divine questions about physical things. That's how we know that we, who are a little lower than the angels, are important to and can communicate with the God who is above all - because the incarnate Christ made that connection.

AO says: A friend in high school gave me Brother Lawrence's "Practicing the Presence of God" about praying continually. That opened my heart to keeping our work as an open conversation with God.

SW says: Yes -- great book.

SW says: Amen. Hey, this is good -- the soundtrack for me now is the very mellow Mojave 3, on Spoon and Rafter. That helps. You listening to anything?

AO says: Kristen has NPR's "Fresh Air" on. I can hear that. I can also smell pasta cooking downstairs.

SW says: Hmmmm. OK. Next question.

SW says: As a Christian, do you view the design and construction of buildings any differently than someone who has merely a secular framework from with to operate?

AO says: There's the quick answer to that, something like "Well, yes, SW. I see buildings as more than just bricks and mortar. More than just form and function . . ." But I know Christian architects who think about architecture very plainly and I know plenty of heathen architects who know more than I do about what a building can be.

SW says: Same with lawyers.

AO says: This is a great question, but probably we should just take me out of it. As Christians, we do have a different perspective, and that does help. A start - we have Jesus' beautiful parables, and so many in the OT too about right foundations and the Cornerstone, and our bodies are temples, and the joy of ornament, and the gifts of craft, and golden streets and our mansions that are being prepared.

SW says: It's actually too big a question! There's too much to say.

AO says: it reminds us that our world here has sweet lessons for us, it reminds us of what we hope for.

AO says: Back to perspective, maybe I do look at architecture as a bigger deal than others. When I see a bad strip mall, I'm pretty quick to associate that with a moral sin, a wrong against humanity, and affront to the God of beauty.

SW says: It is interesting that our future hope is envisioned not as a return to the garden but a city.

SW says: I think that says a lot.

AO says: I don't always admit that to other people [about the immorality of, say, strip malls], but it goes through my mind.

AO says: That's one of those sweet parables. I don't know what that means [heaven as a city, that is]. If the garden was perfect, without any structures, why is the city more perfect? Has God changes his style after these years? Has he changed His archetype? But, yes, I'm better at cities than gardening, so I'm looking forward to it.

SW says: Well, it's certainly true that our morality or ideology is projected into what we do and what we build. I like what T.J. Gorringe says, that ""[t]he ideology of space is inescapable: we encounter it the moment we emerge from our front door, drive to the out of town shopping centre, or visit the local post office."

SW says: Back to the garden and the city -- well, I think it is indicative of cultural development, something God placed us here to do. He didn't mean for it to just stay in a pristine garden state!

AO says: Yes, but why? In the perfection of eternity, can you say that mankind, or God with mankind has made progress? It's a strange question.

SW says: Indeed!  But let's carry on tomorrow with this, OK?

AO says: OK.


Exiles on Main Street

"This is what the Lord God Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 'Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce.  Marry sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters.  Increase in number there; do not decrease.  Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile.  Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper. . . . When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my gracious promise to bring you back to this place.  For I know the plans I have for you,' declares the Lord, 'plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.  Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you.  You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.  I will be found by you,' declares the lord, 'and will bring you back from captivity.  I will gather you from all the nations and places where I have banished you,' declares the Lord, 'and will bring you back to the place from which I carried you into exile'" (Jer. 29:4-14)

Exile On Main Street is such an apt biblical image that's it's ironic that God gave it to the Rolling Stones for use as the title of their great rock 'n roll album of 1972.  That album of great music seethes with the grunge of the world, a sense of frustration, anger, and estrangement.  But then, I said it was great music, not lyrics!  It is, after all, only rock and roll, right?

An exile is a person banished, thrown out, or removed from their home or homeland, one driven by circumstance or decree to live among a people not their own, whose ways are not their own.  In a real sense, that is who we are as Christians, those banished from Eden and exiled to a world east of Eden whose ways are not our own.  The natural state of the Christian should be one of estrangement and longing, a longing for Home, a home found only in Christ.  In fact, we are profoundly and deeply alienated from the world around us even as we live and move in it.

That disconnect has led some Christians to make light of this world in contrast to that world to come, denigrating life here and now and forever living in the world to come.  Although likely more prevalent in the past, there are still strains of this around, for example in the dualism that says that secular vocations or interests, while necessary, are really much less important than spiritual ministries, like missions or pastoring.  A college student might be advised that, for example, a career in acting is good because of the opportunities you may have to share the Gospel, viewing the vocation not as a matter of redemptive activity but as a mere backdrop for saving souls.  Such a dualism has led to the false idea that the only reason Christians are musicians is because of their ministry, not simply because they can make good, true, and beautiful music.

Like the Jews in Babylon, we are here by God's sovereign choice.  And like the Jews who surely longed for their homeland, we long for Home, for a life and world fully redeemed by God and restored to its original design.  Like the Jews, we may be tempted to live in that future hope such that our roots are shallow here, our efforts at the mundane matters of life half-hearted, our tilling and keeping (to use the words of Genesis 2:15) mere desultory scratchings in the earth around us.  But that's not what God says to them or to us.

In Jeremiah's letter to the Babylonian exiles, God tells the Israelites to "build houses and settle down," to marry and have children --- in short, to carry on with a full life in the world they are in.  Though they are aliens and exiles, he calls them to a thorough engagement with that world, telling them to "seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you in exile" --- not their own peace and prosperity, but that of the community's.  He is commending a civic spirit, an involvement for good for all with whom they live.  If I were them, I would have been tempted to do the minimum, figuring I'd leave as soon as I could, and certainly not seeking good for them.  But that's not what God says.

It's not difficult to see why God commends this conduct.  This world is the one He made.  These people, though not like me, bear his image.  We are not temporarily embodied spirits but our natural, eternal state is as an embodied people.  This is where we live.  Though we hope for restoration, we live in God's world and will live eternally in God's world.  Soon, we'll be Home.  Soon, a restored world will be our Home.


The God With a Plan

PlanToday, on an absolutely beautiful Saturday, my wife and I and 9th grade son stayed in a room with 80 people for six hours and engaged in what was termed "appreciative inquiry," with a facilitator from Gordon College.  This is the initial part of a planning process for our children's Christian school, and I confess we all were reluctant to go but dutifully drug ourselves out of bed and made our way there nonetheless. (Do you detect a complaining spirit?)

I'm not too keen on planning or touchy-feely sessions in small groups where you share experiences with people you sometimes don"t know that well.  When we arrived, after the usual donuts and drink and chat and introductions, we were seated in small groups of six, none of whom could be a family member, and we were to interview the person next to us who would describe to us a learning success story, either in his life or someone else's life.  Then, roles were reversed and we became the interviewee.  After that, we reported to the group on our interviewee, and a clerk wrote down lessons learned from this.  After that, as a group we had to distill the points to three central points and post these on a wall, beside others.  Then, each of the eighty persons was able to mark up to five stars on any combination of points on the wall.  While we had lunch, a few people distilled these points into seven of the most popular items.  Next, we spent time as a group talking about how these seven principles could play out in several areas, like spiritual formation, parental involvement, board leadership, and so on.  Next, each of us individually came up with an "offer," that is, what we would be willing to do to facilitate action on any one item.

Surely this has some merit, but I do not know how much.  I have been involved in planning processes in the past, and produced some logical and beautiful plans, only to see the plans shelved because events overtake the organization or there are changes that are so significant that the plans no longer seem to make sense.  Mostly, we are too busy living --- doing what has to be done each day --- to pull the plan out and ask if we're meeting our goals and objectives.  So, I'm ambivalent about the whole process.

What assurance it is to read Jeremiah 29:11, where God gives a promise to His people in exile: "' For I know the plans I have for you,' declares the Lord, 'plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.'"  If God has a plan, surely if we image God, we plan, trying to think His thoughts after Him.  What was His plan?  He told them to build houses, settle down, plant gardens, marry, have children, seek peace, and so on.  And what does Job say to God but "no plan of yours can be thwarted" (Job 42:2).  And finally, Proverbs 14:22 says "those who plan what is good find love and faithfulness," as opposed to plotting evil, but that seems to be an orientation rather than a plan.  And that right there is about the only times the word "plan" ever shows up in the Bible.  That doesn't mean people didn't plan things.  Solomon surely planned things in regard to the building of the temple, but there's not much emphasis on planning. There is a lot of attention to maintaining a close relationship to God so as to be sensitive to the promptings of His Spirit.

I'm not convinced about planning.  Perhaps our time would have been better spent by sharing concerns about the school and praying for a considerable time.  Just point me in the right direction (God-ward) and encourage me to keep walking.   That may be enough.  God has a plan.  I just need to start walking.


Tolerance: Luci Shaw

Light_1 Tolerance

We think the virtue of tolerance
common enough to have become
an absolute, a necessity on our daily
shopping list.  Sunday School Love
has become Accept.  The maxim
Always Be Nice instructs us to ignore
iniquity.  Eyes averted, we practice
the invisibility of the offense.

Like the cross, love may be weakened
through wear and age and such ubiquity
we hardly see it now for what it is,
hung high on the wall, or jeweled
around the rock star's neck.  Yet
precious as porcelain, love is bone strong.
Even chipped, it is still beautiful.
it glows through tolerance; like light
it cannot hide.  Remember,
love is made for something dire.

(Luci Shaw, from What the Light Was Like, 2006)

To read poetry, you have to slow down --- love the words, the interstitial silences, and the sounds of the poem.   It requires a degree of pondering, or meditation, if you will.  It's good preparation for meditating on Scripture.  Be still.  Slow down.  Wait on God to reveal meaning.  It sometimes takes time for words to give up meaning.

Luci Shaw is Writer-in-Residence at Regent College in Vancouver, BC.  For at least two decades she's been writing poetry as well as essays.  When I once had her lead an arts conference, she was a great encouragement; people who had never or seldom written poems wrote one that day.  Many of her poems are rooted in meditations on creation, a great source of inspiration.  Some are religious, many not so religious, but all are infused with a sense of the transcendent.

In this new book, What the Light Was Like, her poems "paint a picture and show the effects of light on the subject," much like photos or paintings make use of light.  Some may be a shade dark, but the Light here always shines through.  I find one poem a day is adequate.  More, and I read too quickly and miss things.  That's how life is -- move through it too quickly and you miss things.


Tusk & Cigar Smoking Women

TuskI regret to say that I was always dismissive of the popularity of Fleetwood Mac.  I think it was due to my contrarian tendency.  If everyone liked them, they must be no good, right?  Sure, there was some respect for the talent of Lindsey Buckingham, but was pop-goddess Stevie Nicks really that great?  Maybe I refused to listen because there was a girl I knew in college who was a huge fan; if she likedthe band, their music must be drivel was all I could figure.  I was wrong.  I said I was wrong.  At least I was wrong in respect to one record, Tusk.

Released in 1979 at the height of the band's commercial success, Tusk was a twenty track double-disk set of adventurous, unexpected, creative music.  They didn't follow the formula but took a risk.  There are all kinds of influences, from the pop of "Think About Me" to the African drums and horns and whatever else-the-heck-is-going-on-in-the-mix of "Tusk."  It's exciting to hear the different sounds and experimentation going on.  So, while I doubt I'll pick up anything else by the band, this is one I'm glad I bought (particularly in the remastered version with a full disc of bonus tracks).

That gal in college that was hip to Fleetwood Mac absolutely hated TuskThat should have been a clue for me.  I should have bought it then.  But then, she smoked cigars and graduated only to go on to drive big rigs for a living.  She's probably out there now, sitting in her rig listening to Rumours.  She can have it.  Give me Tusk.


Mystery

Dead_sea_cafe_1To stare into the dark and truly see
To cry into the night and truly weep
To search the tireless search and truly find
It's a mystery to me, it's a mystery

Young men watch the sky
And wish that they could fly
Old men watch the sky and marvel at its lights
Neither young nor old I wonder if I watch at all
It's a mystery to me, it's a mystery

Galilean fishermen work and pray
And watch the sun go down to end another day
But I'm stuck here in these time zones
Where truth comes hard and slow
Pillar of fire, show me where to go
It's a mystery to me, it's a mystery

(Brooks Williams, "Mystery", from Dead Sea Cafe, SPR1301, 2000)

DoorLet me confess that I harbor a significant strain of mysticism in my reformed theology, such as it is.  You might believe that an infection, depending on your view of the mystics, or a beneficial corrective to "know-it-all-ism," but for me it's just plain inescapable.  I walk in my backyard, put my hand on a common pine tree, and while I can describe the tree and maybe even tell you something about how it works inside, I know I can't tell all, and no one can.  There's mystery.

I used to read a lot of mystics, like Juliana of Norwich, St John of the Cross, poet William Blake, or, most recently, Richard Foster.  The most beneficial thing about such reading was the emphasis on contemplation of God, of His Word, and of Creation -- not just knowing but listening.  But such reading was accompanied by no little discomfort, as some mystics often focus on some sort of mystical experience or union with God, some new illumination or even new revelations (at worst).  I began to think that such experiences open one up to self-deception or, worse, some demonic forces.  In any event, I can appreciate the focus on contemplation and silence (as in, "be still, and know that I am God"), without accepting their call to some extraordinary mystical experience. (The again, what exactly was Paul talking about in 2 Corinthians 12:2-4?  Is he describing an out of body experience? Very, very strange.)

CathedralWe can't lose mystery, and so we can't really escape a degree of mysticism, an awareness that God is, despite the truth He has condescended to make clear to us, wholly Other, quite incomprehensible, in the end, a mystery.  J.I. Packer really helps understand what it is to believe in the mystery of God when he compares His self-disclosure of His character in scripture as like a parent talking in baby talk or simple words to a baby: "The form and substance of a parent's baby talk bears no comparison with the full contents of that parent's mind, which he or she could express in full if talking to another adult; but the child receives from the baby talk factual information, real if limited, about the parent, and responsive love and trust grow accordingly" (J.I. Packer, in Concise Theology).  That's about right, but for me the better analogy is how I spoke to my then four-year old son when he asked where babies came from.  I gave him a simple, yet truthful answer, one he was satisfied with at that time, but clearly one that had behind it a great mystery.  I did not spell it all out for him.  And even if I did, does that fully explain it?  No.

The problem with some of the mystics is where their life of faith resides.  They live awed by what they don't know; but we are called to live on what we do know while at the same time acknowledging, humbly, that God is much more than we can know.  This causes us to worship.  Come to think of it, God better be bigger than what I know or He's not much of a God.

It's not, as the song says "just a mystery to me, a mystery to me."  And yet the song reminds me that we're dealing with Someone bigger than us.  We know things.  We accept these things in faith and trust in the One who loves us, acknowledging that there is much more about Him we do not know.  Martin Luther said "all doctrine ends in mystery," and so it does, but we don't live at the end of the doctrine but in the truth along the way.  It's challenging enough just to live in that truth.


Why Is There Space?

AirIn one of comedian Bill Cosby's humorous monologues, he pokes fun at the air-headed girlfriend who walk around his friend's San Francisco house all day pondering questions like "why is there air?"  We laugh because "normal" people don't generally consider such topics, at least not publicly; we dismiss such talk as nonsense.  But theologian T.J Gorringe doesn't do that and he's very serious when he asks the question, "Why is there space?"

You know I've been slogging through Gorringe's very academic book entitled A Theology of the Built Environment: Justice, Empowerment, Redemption, trying to better myself, I suppose, being reminded all the time of some of the sociologists I was required to read in college, like Lewis Mumford.  It's tough going, and yet it is effective in allowing you to peel back the veneer of lived life, in this case, the built environment we live and move in, and see both how it is shaped by our prevailing assumptions about life as well as glimpse, perhaps, how God would have it be shaped.  It is true that for most of us all the time and some of us most of the time we simply move through our days in a fairly unexamined way.  I know I do.  And yet, on occasion, that question pops in your brain, like "why is there air?" or, for me, "why do things look like they do?"  And yet such questions are forgotten in the midst of busy schedules or dismissed as not worth pursuing.  Gorringe simply asks the questions we seldom ask, and then unlike most of us, he pursues them.  The results seem rewarding and have provoked my own thoughts.

ManOne of the points Gorringe makes is that space is constructed, that is, it doesn't just happen but is a product of a society's particular vision of the world.  Pull up the sidewalks, the buildings, and streetscape, and you find that "[t]he ideology of space is inescapable: we encounter it the moment we emerge from our front door, drive to the out of town shopping centre, or visit the local post office."  Quoting Henri Lefebvre, he notes that "[a]ll ideologies 'project themselves into space, becoming inscribed there, and in the process producing that space itself.'"  This itself is worth thinking about, albeit it is difficult to think this way about something we take so for granted.  I walk out my door in the morning, and in the quiet I walk around the streets of my neighborhood, and it all represents something of what we believe is the good life.  The shape of things, as he says, rests on what we think human beings are, and that, of course, has much to do with what God says in Scripture. 

GorringeMore on this another day, perhaps.  But just one thought before I go --- this culture now, more than in my 1960s childhood, is oriented toward pleasure.  For example, growing up in my medium-sized city, we had perhaps two movie theaters, each with only one or two screens.  You just didn't go out that often.  We also had a lot less restaurants, because we seemed less focused on food as a sensory delight or as recreation and more on eating together as a family, at home, that is, more on food as the lubricant of social intercourse (sorry, I couldn't help myself).  Obviously these assumptions effect what is built.  Shopping and eating then were more functional; you need something, you go buy it.  Now shopping and eating are experiences.  The very landscape has changed as a result.

Gorringe goes on to articulate a theological grounding for space in the Trinity.  Why?  Because unless we have a basis in revelation for what space ought be, we cannot say "ought" about anything built, whether structure, streetscape, or landscape.  He notes that for much of history John's claim that "God is Spirit" has been understood "to mean that whilst God may have created space God in Godself must be above it --- spaceless [or a-spatial] --- in the same way God is 'above' time."  Relying on Karl Barth, he points out that unless God has space, there is no theological ground for space and its importance is greatly diminished.  After all, it'll all be annihilated eventually, right?  Wrong.  Space has intrinsic ground with God.  It will be a part of eternal life with God, much as we will be embodied and enjoy a material, recreated world.  You might say we will be en-spaced (though I don't know if that's a word.)

Three_in_one_1Moving on, he points out that space is pre-existent and eternal, being found in the Trinity.  This is how he says it: "God is present to Godself, [where] there is a divine proximity and remoteness, [and this] is the basis and presupposition of created proximity and remoteness."  My, my, my.  This sounds so difficult, but really he is just saying that in the Trinity there is distinctiveness (God is not the Son is not the Spirit) and yet sameness (God is the same substance as the Son is the same substance as the Spirit).  And in this apartness, there is love, and fellowship, and real community.  Oneness, and yet threeness.  Proximity, and yet remoteness.

So what's this got to do with anything?  Well, as we talk about how we should build, how we should shape communities, why certain things should be built here, or there, we can think about it from the standpoint of the grounding of space in God.  It belongs to Him.  He's gifted it to us.  We are compelled, indeed, enjoined, to consider how we use space.  I don't know what applications Gorringe will draw in the following chapters about what this Trinitarian grounding for space means in real life, but maybe it's something like this: 

  • Healthy communities invite both intimacy (proximity) and privacy (remoteness).  While you can't compel people to know and care for one another, our building patterns and structures can provide conditions where the growth of community is encouraged and a right privacy is preserved.
  • Healthy communities are differentiated.  Not all is the same, from the experience of buildings to the cultural life.  Sameness is a bane, and while it may satisfy some urban planner's idea of what is "nice", it's ultimately deadening to the human spirit.  I think this is rooted both in the Trinity and in the differentiation in Creation.
  • In healthy communities, there is concern for others.  In the Trinity there is love.  This side if Eden we may not have love, but we should seek civility and civic concern.  These are difficult things to encourage, but it seems to me we can build places and shape communities in such a way to encourage decent behavior.

HousesLet's face it.  Many of us live in suburbia because we are ambivalent about the proximity/remoteness thing.  We want intimacy, so we live around people, sort of, and not way out in the country.  And yet, at the same time we want people on our own terms and, sometimes, we want to be left alone.  We're the ones who made the suburbs, and I'm not bashing them too much, because they reflect a human reality that is unlikely to change.  But maybe, just maybe we can live Trinitarian lives in the midst of this tension.  You think?

If you made it this far in this longish post, you either felt sorry for me that this is all I have to spend my time on, this practically useless nonsense.  Or maybe you're a rarity and are really enthralled.  But if you're the prior, just tell me one thing before you go: "Why is there air?"  err, I mean, "why is there space?"  Think about it, will you?


Art for God's Sake

Art_1I very recently picked up a little book for use in our church's Arts Ministry entitled Art for God's Sake, by Philip Graham Ryken.  Ryken is pastor of Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, a church formerly pastored by James Montgomery Boice.  It's the best concise (58 pages) introduction to a biblical view of the arts since Francis Scaheffer's Art and the Bible, which was first published in 1973.  In fact, Scaheffer and his mentor in arts, Hans Rookmaker, are all over this book, as he is often quoted and the work generally follows ground he already plowed.

While I still prefer the rich content and specifics of Schaeffer's book, a book in which practically every basic idea about a biblical view of the arts is documented, I like the tone and readability of Ryken's book.  Ryken is the better writer.  I particularly appreciated his attention to the artist's calling and the admonition for the church to embrace and encourage its artists, not dismiss their work as relatively unimportant.

Read Arts for God's Sake.  Then read Art and the Bible.  You'll then have most of what you need to know to form a biblical view of the arts.


Beginnings: The Book of Bebb

Bebb_1"Halfway down the subway stairs, he turned.  There was a smell of stale urine.  It was raining on Lexington Avenue.  He said,"'All things are lawful for me, but all things edify not.'  One Corinthians ten."

"He had his hand on the stair rail and was looking at me over his shoulder.  As he spoke, his right eyelid fluttered part way down, then up again, and I thought he was winking.  He was not.  It was involuntary, just a lazy eyelid that slid partly shut sometimes."

"He said, 'We'll be seeing you,' and then continued on down the stairs, a fleshy, scrubbed man in a tight black raincoat with a narrow-brimmed hat, dimly Tyrolean, on the top of his head.  Happy Hooligan.  We'll be seeing you.  I remember the way he said we when there was obviously only one of him there.  I remember the urine smell on the subway stairs and the rain and the way he turned and quoted scripture not as an afterthought but as though it was the main thing he had wanted to do all along."

(Frederick Buechner, from Lion Country, a part of The Book of Bebb)

Leo Bebb.  How well I remember starting in on this book, initially intrigued by the description of the preacher/flim-flam man, then wondering if I would read on after about a hundred pages, then persevering to grow to deeply appreciate this flawed individual named Leo Bebb.  I might tell you, by way of introduction, that Bebb is the founder of the Church of Holy Love, Inc., and maybe you'd have me stop there, because maybe that says it all, and yet it doesn't.  Bebb is an enigma, an ex-con running a religious diploma mill, and yet, strikingly, a man of deep faith as well.  Flawed, you might say.

It's been said of Frederick Buechner that his work is too religious for the mainstream and way too profane (or better, earthy) for the religious market.  You won't find this Christian's books in Lifeway or Family.  You will find them in Borders, and yet his works have always caused some heartburn on the part of mainstream critics.  Buechner writes about people of faith, only they act like human beings, not lily-white saints.  One of the best sermons I ever read was preached by Bebb in one of these books, only it has some (well, a lot of) four letter words in it for emphasis.  He calls it like it is.  Critics don't like sermonizing protagonists, and religious bookshop buyers don't care for four letter words.  In his extremes, Bebb likely reminds us all too well of ourselves, traversing the same extremes of sacred and profane, and yet not as publicly and extreme as Bebb.  Thank God we're not like that Leo Bebb, we might say.

I just read that sermon again.  I won't repeat it here.  You may not appreciate the language.  But, if you want to read a book about a foul sinner saved by grace, a holy man who is wholly and woefully human, read The Book of Bebb.  There's some Bebb in us all.  It's good to look in the mirror every now and then.  And we can all wish we were a little bit crazy for Jesus, just like Leo Bebb.


Say I Am You

WeepiesOn of the records I've enjoyed of late really took me by surprise, particularly since I'm a bit tired of folk acts, which is all I thought The Weepies were, and yet their second CD, Say I Am You, is a folk-pop delight to listen to, with jangle-pop stylings, some nice major chords (good for pop songs), and very beautiful harmonies.

The Weepies are the duo of Deb Talan and Steve Tannen.  I'm sorry I had never heard of them before, but I suspect that if I frequented Boston's Club Passim, I would have heard them play.  I won't repeat their bio here; suffice it to say that they mutually admired each other's solo efforts and, meeting one night in Boston, began to write together.

What I appreciate is the sunny music, as so much of folk music is so full of angst and minor themes, so well represented in minor keys.  This record is actually buoyant and uplifting musically.  Listen carefully to the lyrics, however, as some of that angst or loneliness is still there.  There's lost love, as in "World Spins Madly On" ("Woke up and wished that I was dead, with an aching in my head, I lay motionless in bed./ I thought of you and where you'd gone, and let the world go madly on.")  Or lack of understanding, as in "Nobody Knows Me At All" ("Very late at night and in the morning light, nobody knows me at all./ Kids and a wife, it's a beautiful life, nobody knows me at all.")  There's fleeting love, as in "Love Doesn't Last Too Long" ("I watch the sun go up, I watch the sun go down./ Then I wander around, then I wander around./ It's here, then it's gone.  Love doesn't last too long.")  It all has a sad, melancholy feel too it, and the best thing they offer is too take a little love and understanding where you find it, because it won't last.  Sad but true for many people.

And yet, despite the somewhat sad lyrics, musically the records lifts you.  It's an odd thing.  I recommend The Weepies, for music and vocals anyway, and for understanding how many twenty-somethings in our world may feel.


Definitely Everything I Need, Maybe, I Think

"His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness. . . ." (2 Pet. 1:3)

This, folks, is quite a promise.  If you have been a Christian for a while, you may be like me in that I often read over (that is, pass over) something in Scripture without fully appreciating and appropriating what has been said.  Everything I need?  I had parents who lovingly reared me to the best of their abilities, and yet they could not say (nor could I say) that they gave me everything I need.  Like everyone, I remain needy.  I'm still, at least in part, a cup to be filled, with holes to be patched.  And yet Peter claims that God gives us everything we need.

Going back just a bit, it's interesting that Peter introduces himself in this letter as "Simon Peter," whereas in 1 Peter he simply says "Peter."  No big deal, we might think, but if you believe there are no chance inclusions/omissions in Scripture, then it is a purposeful inclusion, if not by Peter certainly by God who superintended the writing of this letter.  Perhaps, as some commentators note, Peter did so to emphasize his progression, from Simon the cowardly follower of Jesus, big on words but short on action, to Peter, the rock, the man of God by God's grace alone.  His divine power gave Peter what he needed for life, and godliness too.

I usually forget I have the Holy Spirit and settle for the spirit holy, that is, the vague veneer of spirituality, all controlled and manageable.  That's fine for when life is going well, but when it's not, I need the Holy Spirit.  I need something awesome, something almost dangerous, in short Someone to do something --- a miracle, a rescue, a last-minute save, or a healing.  I forget what I have available.  Or, worse, I just don't fully believe it at that moment of existence.

Remember that wild-eyed Jesus-crazy pastor that cornered me at the back of church all those years ago?  (I wrote about him once.)  Now he really believed that "His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness."  He said "Steve, we've got to live existentially, moment by moment."  Grabbing me by the shoulders and shaking me gently, he said it again, and all I could do was nod and make for the door, thinking he was a little bit of a nut.  After all, he was charismatic, you know.  They tend to be emotional and have wild ideas about the Spirit (like that He actually does things and isn't just some benign ghostly presence).

Yesterday I found out that that pastor, long retired, is still around.  I'm going to find him.  I think he's right.  I think we have to believe and trust God moment by moment.  This is amazing stuff, because if you believe what Peter said you are tapped into the power that created the universe, and if you don't, then it's pure foolishness.  Some moments I believe it, and then some moments I don't, and yet I want to.  I really, really do want to believe this every moment.


(A Very Good) Crime Story

Cap008"When this is over, I'm gonna find what you love the most and I'm gonna kill it."  (Chicago Detective Mike Torello, to bad-guy/weasel Pauli Taglia, in the Pilot for the TV series Crime Story.)

That kind of comment from Lt. Torello is par for the course in this gritty two-season cop drama from 1986-1988.  I remember it well, from the opening music, "Runaway," sung by Del Shannon, to the good acting by all concerned, to the music soundtrack from Todd Rundgren. 

Cap006Crime Story was set in the Chicago of 1963 and pits the boys of the Chicago PD's Major Crime Unit, headed by Lt. Mike Torello (played by Dennis Farina who, before his acting days, had actually been a Chicago cop for 18 years!) against a young, ruthless rising mobster, Ray Luca (played by Anthony John Denison).  It's good versus evil, and yet these cops do things good cops now don't generally do.  A few examples from the Pilot episode will give you the gist of it:  Torello lies on the stand in a courtroom hearing, roughs up a thug (an uncharged thug, that is), kidnaps another mobster and ties him to a water tower high above the city, and beats down doors and searches house sans warrant.  And these are the good guys!

Then again, it's 1963 and its Chicago, where judges can be bribed, the mob runs much of the city, and we did not yet know all that the Constitution really meant (that is, the Supreme Court, headed by Earl Warren, enlightened us).  And evil is so plainly evil here.  In the Pilot alone, Ray Luca whacks (that is, cold-bloodedly murders) no less than four people, even people who thought him a friend and partner (like Johnny O'Donnell, played by the red-haired Danny Caruso, who would go on to play in the first seasons of NYPD Blue).

But, for all the gritty realism, I like the show.  The characters seem real to me, and besides, I love period pieces and cop stories.  Indeed, the actor who played mobster Pauli Taglia, John Santucci, had actually been one of Chicago's most notorious criminals in the 1960s!)  I recommend Crime Story, now available on DVD, for any fan of NYPD Blue, Homicide, Law and Order, or their forerunner, Hill Street Blues.  When good prevails, we can applaud.


(Frightfully) Good Monsters

Good_monstersI tend to be contrarian in my musical as well as literary tastes, a matter of regular confession, really, because much of this contrarianism is rooted is some sense of pride, or elitism, I think, as much as I hate to admit that.  But, a band both as good and as popular with the masses as Jars of Clay helps me overcome it.  Like several hundred thousand other fans, I love this band.

Good Monsters, released yesterday, is a fine record.  It may not be a radical departure from what Jars does best, but so what?  It has lyrical depth, great melodies, good production, and a good title.  They do this so well.  No one who likes Jars should have a bone to pick with this record.

I think what struck me at the outset is the transparency of these lyrics.  No, no, that's not true.  It's really the melodies.  I'm a sucker for the well-crafted pop tune, and that's certainly here.  But, having enjoyed the groove, I usually settle into the words gradually.

When Dan Haseltine sings, "I have no fear of drowning/ it's the breathing that's taking all this work," you pick up on the main theme that runs through the record, the struggle of being both human as well as spiritual beings, our sense of homelessness in the world and yet our deep connection to the world.  The best songs are birthed in tensions, and that's why these songs shine.

The other sense I had when listening is of a spontaneity, an almost live feel, though obviously there is production at work as well.  What gives?  Well, their website points out that many of the tracks were laid down in the studio in near final form, as a live band, after many sessions outside the studio where ideas were honed.

Though extremely successful, these guys have integrity.  That's not too common.  It gives me hope.  So, join the other several hundred thousand of us, forsake contrarian predispositions, and buy a record for the masses.  They can't do much better than this.


It's a Weird, Weird Music Business

Randy_matthewsI've commented before on the sometimes deadening aspect of the Christian music business (that's business in the perjorative sense), but I was reminded today that it's not a new phenomena.  If you are over 35 or you have an appreciation for music history, you might remember CCM pioneer Randy Matthews, last heard from on a great album, The Edge of Flight, released in 1990.  Yes, 1990, 16 years ago, with great support from the likes of Gordon Kennedy, Phil Madeira, and Ashley Cleveland, after which he faded into obscurity, an industry casualty.

What happened?  Well, this was one wild man for Jesus.  In 1971, in his hometown of Cincinnati, Randy and Jesus Movement figure Arthur Blessit organized Spiritual Revolution day, carrying crosses and banners through town and generating front page coverage.  Randy, a good guitar player and singer, with a voice like Springsteen, told hilarious jokes and provocative stories.  Randy pitched his own record to Word Records in Texas, which was not then in the popular music business, and was turned over to a new employee named Bill Ray Hearn (that's Sparrow Records' future President Hearn), and the records flowed, ten of them to be exact.

The problem is, Randy pushed the boundaries.  At Jesus '74, he unveiled a tight band with a psychedelic sound.  The promoters were aghast and turned off the power during the performance.  That concert, and an unproved rumor that he was doing drugs, ruined his career.  He kept recording, but he never regained his standing.  It was unfair what happened to him, a result of a lack of understanding of his music and slanderous charges.  So, that's what happens sometimes in the business.

Randy's last record was self-released.  After all, who would have signed him? It's a sad fact that in his 40s he was deemed too old to sell many records in a business where good looks and youth are rewarded.  Gee, he should have gone into folk music.  You sure don't have to be young and handsome to do well there.

I don't know what Randy is doing now.  At one time he was selling Native-American art from a storefront in Englewood, Florida.  Reportedly he also played the singing Redbeard the Pirate in some cheesy Florida tourist trap.  Last of all, I saw that he was doing a concert back in 2000 as an outreach to the Florida Rainbow Family Gathering?  (Yikes.)  And he is associated with a very out-there church called the Logos Deliverance Fellowship (they deliver you from demonic possession and alien abductions).

Well, I don't know about all this, but I have to believe that had Christian folk been more understanding of Randy and kept him within the larger church body, we would have preserved a man with a great gift for use in the church and larger society.  As it is, it seems we marginalized him, and rather than stay and fight, he took to the margins.

You can't find Randy's music on amazon.com, much less in stores, but if you can get a copy of the album Son of Dust on ebay, by all means get it.  Great music.  And say a prayer for Randy -- out there on the edge of Christendom.

[I have attached an MP3 file of "Make Believe," one of the best cuts from Randy's last record here:


The Little Tradition

Mobile_home"[W]e find in Scripture, classically in the Magnificat, a preference for the ordinary, the modest, humble and ordinary, and we cannot but take account of that in reflecting on the built environment.  This leaves us with an embarrassment, because to be interested in 'architecture' is to be concerned almost solely with what I will call, following Redfield, 'the great tradition.'  Redfield distinguishes between the great tradition, the written and celebrated, the work of the philosophers, historians, theologians, the learned, and the little tradition, which for the most part comes to us only in scraps, in folk memories, songs, tales and ballads, in pamphlets crudely written.  One of the remarkable things about the New Testament is that it contains so many documents which bear the mark of the little tradition, written in a Greek which was an acute embarrassment to the first educated Christians.  In the built environment the great tradition means the work of prestigious architects or planners, whilst the little tradition corresponds to the work of unknown craftsmen who have left their mark on every ancient village, town and city.  Christianity, I shall claim, is wedded to the little tradition."  (T.J. Gorringe, in A Theology of the Built Environment).

While the Bible certainly does tell the story of some great men, at least men great in the world's eyes, men such as Solomon, it is mostly a story of little people and little places.  Christ is born in the backwater village of Bethlehem and a smallish land called Palestine, some distance from the great cities of Rome and Athens.  His disciples are uneducated fishermen, and he never travels more than a few hundred miles from the place he was born or reared.  He lived simply.  He grew up simply, among ordinary people, doing ordinary things.

Today I'm riding by small brick homes, farmhouses, and mobile homes in the eastern part of our state, past the everyday built environment, watching homes built by unknown builders.  There are no great cities here, no monumental architectural works, no cathedrals -- only the ordinary.  It all makes sense to me.  If we are to think Christianly about what we build, we have to be able to do it here, amongst the ordinary, and not just about the great tradition of architectural works, of planned urban communities. If we can't relate God's truth to these places, what good is it to think of it in regard to the great works?


My City Was Gone?

Bull"For good or ill buildings, from the humblest garden shed to the grandest cathedral, make moral statements" (T.J. Gorringe, in A Theology of the Built Environment)

I suspect that most people never think of buildings in this way.  I know that until recently, I never did.  Backing up just a bit, I am now terribly conscious that everything I perceive as I drive through my city, walk down the street, and enter a building, like Scripture says of rocks, cry out to me.  I am first of all aware of the fact that thousands of decisions have been made without any input from me that effect what I see and experience as I move through my day, a sort of pre-moral awareness.  For example, I can point to areas of experience in my city where I once drove, shopped, or walked that are now imperceptible to me.  The buildings once there are gone, the earth itself moved, old stands of trees gone, new plantings made, roads realigned --- and now I find it difficult to find the place I once knew.  Yes, I often think of that great Chrissie Hynde song, "My City Was Gone:"

I went back to Ohio
But my city was gone
There was no train station
There was no downtown
South Howard had disappeared
All my favorite places
My city had been pulled down
Reduced to parking spaces
A, o, where did you go Ohio

Well I went back to Ohio
But my family was gone
I stood on the back porch
There was nobody home
I was stunned and amazed
My childhood memories
Slowly swirled past
Like the wind through the trees
A, o, oh way to go Ohio

I went back to Ohio
But my pretty countryside
Had been paved down the middle
By a government that had no pride
The farms of Ohio
Had been replaced by shopping malls
And Muzak filled the air
From Seneca to Cuyahoga Falls
Said, a, o, oh way to go Ohio

Beyond lamenting my lack of control, I also now sense that moral statements are being made, sometimes intentionally and sometimes quite unintentionally.  For example, when, as I just said, old buildings are razed, earth moved, old landmarks obliterated, and new buildings and "natural" areas implanted, what is communicated, whether intentional or not, is that new is better, that life is malleable, that history is of little value, and remembrance unimportant.  Well, something like that.  Not that preserving all old building is an absolute moral good. There are bad traditions of building, as well as good.  But perhaps a better way to speak of it is by seeking a reformation of the built environment, preserving the true (well-built), the good (the buildings and landscapes that at least are conducive to virtue), and beautiful (aesthetically pleasing), and rooting out the false (poorly constructed), evil (designs that encourage uncharitable and damaging behavior), and ugly.  In this planners and architects and builders anticipate God's rebuilding project, a new heavens and earth that is a reformation or re-creation of the one we have, not a complete tear-down and new construction.

I am not an architect, and though I studied urban design it was with anarchists, Marxists, and post-moderns where I learned little to help me shape a moral awareness of the cityscape.  I'm just beginning.  But there is grace to help, grace that infuses the ordinary with a sacred character, grace that helps us think God's thoughts after him.  I like what Gorringe says in his book after his demolishing of the dualism of the sacred/profane dichotomy:

"Because creation is grace, grace is concrete: it meets us in what Padraic Pearse called 'the bulks of ordinary things' --- and this of course includes buildings and settlements, the places in which we live and work.  The theology of everyday life, therefore, is a theology of gratuity, of love 'for nothing,' and of joy in the minutiae of things."

Maybe we can build and rebuild, renovate and redesign, out of gratitude, out of love for what is given.  To "till and keep" is, after all, in the Hebrew meaning of the words, about serving the creation.  That is humbling.  That dispels any utopian hubris and throws us back on God, the one Who is building His Kingdom --- one brick at a time.


Marketing Utopia

For_saleThe built environment, which provides us with all the most direct, frequent and unavoidable images and experiences of everyday life, is never just happenstance.  It reflects conscious decisions which in turn reflect ideologies and class positions" (T.J. Gorringe, in A Theology of the Built Environment).

True enough.  That a brick is here and not there, a sidewalk on this side of the street and not over there, a house with a porch or not, is certainly not chance, and yet I suspect many building decisions today reflect pragmatic marketing and not value-laden and principled decisions.  For example, a slick brochure (actually, more like a magazine) I received recently has stories about a new "community" that developers are shaping north of my city.  With homes starting in the $900s, this is definitely a community that will lack socioeconomic diversity.  And yet the well-heeled will pay dearly to join a "sustainable" community, an ecologically conscious one, and one focused on "bringing families closer together."  With one to six acre "private reserves," though, and 5000-8000 square foot homes, it's difficult to see how a sense of community will be encouraged.  You won't even be able to see your neighbors' homes, much less get to know them.  No, these are much more like private vacation retreats where you can get away from everyone, particularly those who are uncomfortably unlike you.  In fact, even in your own home there's enough space so that you need not see anyone in the family, if you choose not to.

Actually, our guilt and emotions are being played on.  We are being told that it's OK to have a home that is beyond our means because it will make our family happier and, besides, we are protecting the environment.  We're told we can be a part of a community, when the exclusivity and large lot design practically guarantees there will be no community.

In fact we do long for community, for beauty, and for a sense that we are living justly.  God made us this way.  Marketers play on those longings to sell to us.  To be fair, they are not always conscious of this, not always so crass as do do it intentionally, and they often have mixed motives, desiring to do something good and yet not beyond playing to our emotions.

I confess I'm a bit of a skeptic about even high-minded planning and design.  Perhaps well planned subdivisions can be conducive to a communal spirit, but I doubt that true community comes from such designs but, rather, from hearts shaped by another kind of Planner.  Communities look the way they do because of the kind of people we are.  When we change, the built environment will follow.  Form follows function.

This is why I'm interested in Gorringe's book.  If a meditation on God's word can bring forth a theology of the built environment, we can better understand why we build and plan as we do, how our own fallenness has such deleterious consequences, and how, with God's grace, an with new hearts, we can design and built more human places for all people.

Place matters.  Our living space matters.  These tangible realities say something about who we are and have something to do with shaping our behavior.  God's grace infuses life, and yet so does the curse of sin.  Planners and builders can't build a heaven on earth, a utopia, despite what the slick brochures promise.  But they can acknowledge human weakness and promise and reflect on what kind of design will best allow the good things in human character to thrive.  We can do better.


Why Fleeing Naked Men Matter

"Then Jesus went with his disciples to a place called Gethsemane" (Matt. 26:36)

The account of Jesus's anguished prayer and then arrest in that fateful hour in Gethsemane is one of the few accounts given by all four of the Gospel writers.  Reading it today, I was again made aware of the particularity of Scripture, giving us place, perspective, and personality when a religion need not have done so, when a tidy account would have matched up, eliminated "surplusage," and stuck to the "important" facts, giving us abstractions rather than specifics, "flat" characters on which to hang dogma rather than the "round" personalities we find stating odd and seemingly useless details.  It tells me that while Scripture is God-inspired and super-intended (overseen by God), it retains personalities and perspectives, and roots its tale in particular people and places.

They were in a place, Gethsemane, says Matthew and Mark.  Or was it, as Luke said, the Mount of Olives? Or did they, as John records, simply cross the Kidron Valley and go to an olive grove on the other side?  Why tell us this at all, and if it is to be told, why not get the story straight?

The naming of the place roots the story in time and space.  It is a real place.  It has a name.  That there are three different names for it reminds us that human beings with unique personalities and perspectives are telling the story.  Each was there.  They were all together.  And yet, as is so often the case, each sees things a little differently, emphasizes different things.  They are all correct.  Gethsemane was at the foot of the Mount of Olives.  It was an olive grove just the other side of the Kidron Valley, which separated the Temple Mount from (you guessed it) the Mount of Olives.  There is a richness and a reality to the story that we would not otherwise have if this were not the case.

There's more.  We know that the Chief Priest's servant's ear was cut off by someone who was with Jesus.  Matthew and Mark simply say it was "one of Jesus's companions," as does Luke.  John names names: it was Simon Peter.  Luke (perhaps because he was a physician?) is the only one to give account of the healing of the ear.  Perspective.  Personality.  Individuals seeing certain things, emphasizing certain things.

Luke saw an angel minister to Jesus.  No one else did.  Luke saw sweat dripping like blood from Jesus.  No one else did, or at least they don't mention it.  Was Luke awake longer than the others?  John emphasizes how the mob out to get Jesus "fell down" when he identified himself by saying simply "I am he."  Why?  No one else does.  And Mark seems to think it important to tell us that one follower in only a linen robe was seized and got away, naked, leaving his robe behind.  Why do I need to know that?  It's simply a particular fact that makes this account all the more believable.

No one edited this.  No one smoothed the corners.  This is God's story, filled with messy reality, with real people with their own perspectives, set in places with names, where even unknown and unnamed fleeing naked men rate a mention.  It's like what I hear in the courtroom from witnesses.  It's real.  Only this time it's all true.