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May 2007

Wanderlust and Homecoming

Route_66"I am a product of long corridors, empty sunlit rooms, upstairs indoor silences, attics explored in solitude, distant noises of gurgling cisterns and pipes, and the noise of wind under the tiles. Also, of endless books." (C.S. Lewis, in Surprised By Joy)

When I was a very young boy, I was sent to bed for the night but often found myself awake, lying in bed. I watched the headlights from cars passing on the parkway outside, how they would begin at the corner nearest the window, where the wall met the ceiling, and then as the car passed by would move around two walls of my room. It was hypnotic and better than counting sheep, which never seemed to work for me. Even then, I remember wondering where people were going so late at night, and I imagined perhaps they lived on the other side of town or maybe in another state. The world was awake outside my window and things were happening, and yet I was bed-bound.

That was the beginnings of my wanderlust. Later I rode shotgun with my parents at the age of six or seven, map open, directing them to "turn right, here," or "take the highway there," falling asleep with the red and blue lines of the map and city names playing in my mind. And I remember it was never enough to simply be somewhere but only to be going somewhere, planning a trip, wondering what was around the next turn, what the new day would bring. The real thing was never quite as good as what I imagined it to be, never living up to the promise of the map in my hands. Talk to me now and I'll be planning a trip. Ask me. I'm dreaming up one now. The map is on the floor by my desk.

However, concurrent with this wanderlust is a competing desire to go home. When I'm traveling I take great pleasure in thinking of home and longing to return there. In fact, I think that homelust, if that's a word, begins the day I set out. When you are wandering, nothing is quite like home. You sleep poorly. The food is inconsistent in quality. I'm constantly thinking of family and friends at home, of the things of home, and longing for those familiar places of my house. Really, I'm homesick.

I'm not sure what all this means spiritually. Eudora Welty once said that "one place comprehended can make us understand other places better." Undoubtedly the child C.S. Lewis wandering the rooms and halls of his home, often alone or with his brother Warnie, is a product of that place, of its sounds and places. To recall it is to root yourself, to remember a secure place. Perhaps that's a part of homesickness --- a remembering of a place familiar to us and where we feel secure, where we know ourselves and others best: the step at the top of the stairs where I sit to have a conversation with my wife; the particular sounds outside my open window; my daughter singing to herself; the chair by the bedroom window; or the way the light plays on the stone wall outside the den window. This is home.

Perhaps I long for the unfamiliar for its heightening of the familiar. Maybe I wander so I can better know my home. Maybe, just maybe, all this wandering and homesickness is just a dress rehearsal for the day I really go Home.


The Naked Will

"Professors in countless clasrooms in many different disciplines report that students have already been welll taught that, when they are faced with any moral proposition, the proper response is 'That's just your opinion.' They are resistant, then, to resolving disagreement by reasoned arguments. They aver, 'You choose your good, and I'll choose mine.' Reasoned debate is replaced by naked will. I choose. Don't ask me to give reasons --- I just choose." (Michael Novak, "Remembering the Secular Age," First Things, June/July 2007)

Over 15 years ago now, my wife and I hosted a 17-year old French-speaking exchange student from Switzerland via a Young Life exchange program called Amicas. I assumed that Marie (name changed) was a Christian and, naturally, that she was on board with the moral imperatives of Christian belief. I had a few things to relearn that first month.

The second or third day she was with us, she informed us that her sister was living with a man, was pregnant, and had an abortion. She saw no problem with this. They loved each other. They did not need a baby now. Now granted, this was not shocking news in 1991 as it was not uncommon. However, what was uncommon in my world was to hear another Christian justify it. In the end, after I explained my opinion and its rationale, she used the discussion-ending "That's your opinion; I have my opinion. That's true for you, but not for me." I told her that wasn't truth at all, but preference, that I was talking about what was really true. But it was over. She did not want to talk any more.

When you reach the point that you no longer profess to believe in truth, then conversation becomes meaningless. As one of my graduate school professors once said, as he did not believe in truth the only thing he believed in was power. All that mattered was who had more guns or money. All that mattered was who won.

In this kind of environment it's very difficult to have rational discussions. For one thing, no one is interested in what they view as a dead-in discussion. What's the point, after all, in talking about what is true (or good or beautiful) if, in the end, there is no standard by which to measure such things?

In this time, I think you must live out truth, show and not so much tell it. And that's what we tried to do with our exchange student. We simply loved her as best we could and lived our family life as authentically as we could, our failures on display, of course, as there's nowhere to hide when you live together. Sure, you might not have outright arguments with your spouse but there is that argument that is a silent one, when an icy chill descends on the home for a time, when maybe a few choice words were said in a certain tone. You don't hide that.

At the end of the year, when she left us, she gave us a letter. Leaving the airport my wife read it to me. Among other things, there was this: "You know the discussion we had earlier in the year? I have thought about this, and I agree with you." Was that because of my brilliant argumentation? I expect not, as it was a stumbling and too emotional discussion. Perhaps our shining life of marital bliss? I doubt it. We had our moods, said things we did not mean, wanted what we wanted sometimes no matter what was best for all. But it was all in the open, and we knew when we were wrong, and in our home was an inevitable standard we could not keep. So what's that leave? Grace. We did not perfectly love, and yet we were perfectly loved. We did what we did because we ought to or we did what we ought not do knowing we ought not. Whichever way it fell, the standard was there. What was true and good mattered.

What Marie was telling us those first days was that she believed what she did because she wanted to believe it. And that's that. Maybe what she came to believe, I hope, was that the true and good wasn't simply a function of her naked will, but existed independently of her, that truth really mattered and wasn't simply chosen.

And my professor? He's no longer at my graduate school, did not rise in the ranks to a deanship. Not enough power, I guess.


Stranded in Babylon

Starnded_in_babylon"By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion. . . . How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land?" (Ps. 137: 1, 4)

Years ago the enigmatic Christian rock pioneer Larry Norman released a record entitled Stranded in Babylon. I always loved that title. Pair it with Larry Norman with his shocking long white hair, snarling voice, and prophetic stance, and you get the sense that he is (as another of his album titles proclaimed) "only visiting this planet." While not all of us may seem as visibily out of place as Larry Norman, no doubt all of us feel a sense of estrangement, even strangeness, in the world, a place we regard as home and yet a place which, at certain times and places, we profoundly sense is not in fact our true Home. We are "aliens and strangers," says the Apostle Peter, meaning we are strange and alien and ill at ease relative to the world because we belong elsewhere.

This sense came home to me dramatically in the Summer of 1988 when my wife and I visited Hungary and what was then Czechoslovakia. At that time both countries were behind the Iron Curtain of Communism. We came mostly as tourists but actually had buried in our luggage some Bibles to surreptitiously deliver to a Campus Crusade worker in Hungary who was there officially to teach English. We weren't actually aware enough to realize at that time how serious a problem this could be, were we caught. But we made it into the country and the handoff went well.

It was the third or fourth day, after a trip on a Czech train into Prague, seated across from a Communist military officer who never, never smiled, that a profound homesickness settled in, a sense that I was far. far from home among a strange people. Arriving at the train station, we could not figure out how to secure a taxi and could not use the pay telephone, and no one spoke English. It took nearly an hour to obtain a taxi, and even then we weren't confident we would make it to our hotel. I could not read the restaurant menus or even make an educated guess as to what we were ordering. English was rarely spoken. The people were melancholy in disposition, unsmiling, depressed even. The city squares and marketplaces were not bustling, lively places but seemed sad, lonely, and hopeless, even though there were historic and beautiful places to visit. The food was barely edible. In the parks, no one lounged or played on the grass. I found out later that this was because people were prohibited from congregating. There were no evident signs of faith, hope, or love. After one day of this, I was ready to go home, longing for home.

Those exiled from Judah to Babylon in the sixth century B.C. were evidently homesick. More than that, they were despairing of ever seeing Jerusalem again, and they were angry. When you curse your captors by saying "Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!" you're obviously upset. We cringe to think of such anger, such despair so deep that music and songs stop, that you hang your harps and lyres in trees so as not to be taunted by your captors to sing a song about the Homeland" (v. 2-3).

I doubt that most of us have ever had that deep a sense of estrangement. I haven't. But sometimes it breaks through. Jesus said "blessed are those who mourn," and we realize the depth of sin, the brokenness of the world, the hopelessness of change in the world without God. And sometimes we can't make it to the rejoinder, "for they shall be comforted," for we are not comforted, not yet anyway, or not enough, but can only say how long --- how long must all this last? How long will God tarry? How long will He allow sin to have apparent rule in the world? How long, in fact, until we are on our way from Babylon to Zion? I'm sick of sin --- my own, yours, and the whole wretched mess it makes of all Creation. I don't want to sing, play, listen to music, or do anything. I want out of here.

Oh, I'm being dramatic, I know. I rarely feel quite like that. But on ocassion I do, when I hear of something like the Virginia Tech killings, something which happens every day in certain places throughout the world. Then I may not want to hear songs and there is a veneer of gray on the world. But then, thank God, the promises begin to tap gently on the door of my mind and senses. Someone smiles at me. Someone lets me in the stream of traffic. A rabbit stops in the path and looks at me before hopping away. The breeze moves the trees ever so slightly, moves the water on the lake. Thirteen turtles are sunbathing together on a log, shell upon shell. And the color blue looks refreshingly. . . well. . . blue, like it's a new blue today.

We may not be Home, but we are not alone. And Babylon does have its pleasures.



The Warmth of the Sun: The Beach Boys Again

Warmth_of_the_sunOK, I admit it. I'm a little obsessive-compulsive when it comes to the Beach Boys or Brian Wilson. I buy it all. After all, I bought Pet Sounds at least five times! And today, I bought the newest Beach Boys release, Warmth of the Sun, a career-spanning album of 28 tracks culled from the Boys pre- and post- Pet Sounds efforts. Two things attracted me about this collection. First, six of the tracks are in stereo mixes for the first time (see below). I'd buy it just to hear "Let Him Run Wild" as it should be heard. (Purists may take me to task on this, as Brian heard and released it in mono; being partially deaf in one ear, that's how he heard it.) My, it's beautiful.

The other attraction was the fact that the living Beach Boys themselves selected the tracks. That's a minor miracle: they agreed. Mike Love said he and Brian and Al gathered for a kind of roundtable discussion at Brian's house in L.A.'s Bel Air section of Beverly Hills and actually agreed on something! I can imagine Brian's wife Marilyn saying to him before Mike got there: "Just keep it light, honey." These guys rarely speak. Al even sued Mike over who could use the Beach Boys name. (He lost.) Their history is fraught with disagreement. But perhaps age may bring a little grace to these long and difficult relationships.

Here's the track list:

01. All Summer Long (New Stereo Mix)
02. Catch A Wave
03. Hawaii
04. Little Honda
05. 409
06. It's OK
07. You're So Good To Me (New Stereo Mix)
08. Then I Kissed Her (New Stereo Mix)
09. Kiss Me, Baby
10. Please Let Me Wonder (New Stereo Mix)
11. Let Him Run Wild (New Stereo Mix)
12. The Little Girl I Once Knew
13. Wendy (New Stereo Mix)
14. Disney Girls (1957)
15. Forever
16. Friends'
17. Break Away
18. Why Do Fools Fall In Love
19. Surf's Up
20. Feel Flows
21. All This Is That
22. Til I Die
23. Sail On, Sailor
24. Cool, Cool Water
25. Don't Go Near The Water
26. California Saga (On My Way To Sunny California)
27. California Dreamin
28. The Warmth Of The Sun

Every one of these songs holds memories for me. For many, I can remember holding the LP (vinyl rocks!) and examining the sleeve and liner notes, even recalling where I was when I first heard it. For example, I was probably no more than ten when I first heard "All Summer Long" and "Wendy." I was staying at my cousin's house and not to happy about it. But he did have an old record player and a dog-eared copy of the album All Summer Long. It was pretty scratched, but when I played it I was captivated by the energy of the songs and the harmonies. I just stood there looking at the record going round and round on theturntable. But actually, at ten, I could not have told you why I like it.

Or take Carl Wilson's "Feel Flows" or Brian Wilson's "Till I Die," both from the Surf's Up record released in the mid-Seventies. These beautiful songs are also full of melancholy, not at all like those girls-surf-car songs of the Sixties, great as they were. I remember lying on the tile floor of my high school bedroom and running through these over and over again. They put me in a nice teenage funk (which nows seems to have infected my kids)!

But enough. You need to hear a collection of great songs, maybe not all the top hits (buy 2004's Sounds of Summer for that), but a great hand-picked collection nonetheless. I'm reminded once again why The Beach Boys are the great American band.

P.S. Check out this great blog devoted to the record. It has original podcasts of the band as well as videos. Very cool.


Cynicism

"For all of us, cynicism will destroy us. For those of us who claim to be Christians, cynicism is forbidden." (Jerram Barrs, "The Saturation of Cynicism," in Covenant, Spring 2007)

In a recent article in Covenant Magazine, Jerram Barrs traces the roots of our postmodern pessimism and cynicism --- the scornful, mocking attitude that is the outward expression of a belief that people are unsincere and inevitably will exhibit the worst of human behavior. Barrs traces this deep-seated attitude to five factors: a loss of belief in truth, a loss of hope, a loss of respect for authority, a loss of respect for everything sacred, and a loss of moral certainty. The operative word is "loss." Much has been lost. He goes on to prescribe the antidote: a sober realism (as opposed to a naive optimism) and, in essence, faith, hope and love, particularly love. Our faith gives us an assurance that all will be put to rights, that evil will meet judgment. We hope in salvation, that human hearts and this world will be renewed and changed and not end in tragedy, whether environmental collapse or thermonuclear war or under a terrorist scourge. And finally, love. As Barrs says: "Love is clear-eyed; but love is also full of hope, for it sees the way that Christ's love has already begun to change us. Love is clear-eyed and full of hope even when it means we have to count the cost of disappointment and even betrayal. Only love will arm us against cynicism in all its ugliness and destructive power."

The gravity of human existence this side of Eden draws us downward toward hopelessness and cynicism. It oozes from the ink of the local paper, falls from the sneer of the news commentator, and permeates the narratives of many popular songs. It's believed that artists, once they get a taste of popularity, will inevitably sell-out, go for the money, that is. Politicians, once elected, will serve themselves, not their consituents; and the errant relative will, without doubt, return to their usual selfish behavior. Isn't that the way of it? Isn't that what we are?

I confess I feel the pull of this gravity as much as anyone. I need regular doses of two revelations. First, the narratives of the Bible, the great stories within the one Story, remind me that no matter how bad we become all is not lost. Grace is at work amid the unraveling of Creation. God will redeem a people and a physical reality in His own time. I need the regular reaasurance of that promise.

But secondly, I need the regular beauty of the natural revelation. A walk in the woods, that is. A foray into nature reminds me that there is an incredible and well-ordered Home around us that has great restorative properties, that is able to heal itself and heal us. I guess what I sense in such places is the mark of the Creator, like signposts along the way, promises that all will be made right. Trees will one day be tree-ish in fullness, in a way we cannot now imagine. The red of the male cardinal will be redder and him more cardinal than he is now. No more will we live in shadows, in a place that, relative to the New Creation, is like various shades of gray compared to a panolpy of color. No more will all be bent and ill-formed.

I'm ever falling into cynicism, and God is ever pulling me upright to gaze on the possibilities of Grace, on a longed for New Creation. God will mend every broken thing. And I'll stop falling.


God's Understatement

PineAny poet knows that understatement --- saying less in order to convey more --- is a marvelous tool in the expression of truth, particularly in expressing the inexpressible. Looking at the Grand Canyon, one might say that it's a "quite nice view," just to be silly, meaning it's actually an astounding view. You might tell someone you're a "bit under the weather" when they know you've late from the hospital. Well, you see what I mean --- it's a way of speaking that is measured, even graceful, and (in the hands of better writers than me) a powerful means of conveying truth.

I think of that Gospel writer who wrote simply "Jesus wept." We could miss it and think that he only wept for Lazarus who, as Africans so delicately say, is "late," but underneath these simple words lie the depth of God's sorrow over the brokenness of his Creation, the ravages of sin, and the curse of death --- a world gone wrong. We cannot and could not bear the inexpressible grief sin causes to God. We could have been treated to a sermon on the grief of God, with many analogies to attempt to demonstrate to us how deep and wide is this grief, but that's not what we get. Simply, Jesus wept.

Creation itself is also full of understatement. Walk through a Carolina pine forest and there is nothing breathtaking to take note of. Pines are neither the most beautiful nor graceful of trees. The colors of the forest are not striking, as there are no bright flowers here and there, just browns, greens, and the blue of sky up above the canopy. (Can you really call the scraggly tops of pines a crown, a canopy? That seems too majestic.) And yet, the subtlety of the forestscape is powerfully beautiful, the combination of colors soothing. Stop and listen, and if the wind is sufficiently stirred, and civilization blessedly far, you might hear the subtle language of the trees, their creaking, as if to say "I'm here. Take note." I used to think pines quite useless, good only for pulp mills. But I'll take a speaking pine over a mute hardwood these days. (If you've never heard a pine creak, then you've not slowed down enough to listen.) But I digress into personification! Everyone knows pines don't talk, right?

Contrast understatement with the overstated society we live in. If something can be said, it is said. There is no holding back. Whether it's talk shows, blogs, or emails, it's brash and agressive. And then in consumer culture we are constantly being marketed to. I'm sitting now in one of those chic (do people say "chic" anymore?) deli/coffeehouses, and I'm aware of muzak, a very hip jazz medley. Someone deliberated over that choice. Some suit got the big bucks to figure out how to reach me. I think it's supposed to make me feel I'm in a place where things are happening, where the noveau-hip reside. It's plain annoying, too loud and too sprightly for my melancholy. Let me enjoy my melancholic bent, please!

I'm bombarded with messages aimed at my wallet wherever I go nowadays. Perhaps it's a result of my having my own business at one time, but whenever I enter a retail store now I'm keenly aware of product placement, lifestyle messages, and consumption ambience (lighting plus music equals buy buy buy). It makes me a little crazy, and it makes me want to stay home. The internet is not much better. Amazon has tracked my buying habits, and so when I visit their web page and get the "Welcome Steve" (and I resent this as I am not their buddy and they do not know me) and a list of recommendations of things that I surely would be interested in buying given what I previously bought, I have to tune out the noise, the feedback of my own choices. Imagine that. Imagine walking in a brick and mortar store and clerks falling over themselves, calling me by my first name, and immediately pushing kiosks with recommended products where I can see them as I walk through, letting me sample this or that item. Ah, they know me. They know my tribe. They know what I need to validate me as a member of the tribe. There's no subtlety here. It's all in my face, all the time.

That's the kind of place in which we live, unfortunately. And yet, a walk outside, away from the billboards, city streets, and hawkers of comsumption is liberating. A walk in the woods reminds me that God's economy is diffrent than ours, that even small things like an ant and a leaf or a branchless, creaking pine matter. These not-so-grand, small, and common places of Creation are the real thing, like visual poetry, full of God's understatement: "I am here. Take note."



Slowing Down

120pxgreysquirrelcloseup_2Today I had the not-so-novel contrarian idea of getting on the Beltline around our city and actually going the speed limit, that is, exactly the speed limit. I admit to some small-minded delight in causing a few people to have to slow down for me --- including a woman in a huge Ford F-150 truck who was hellbent on getting somewhere. Everyone was passing me. Haven't they read the newspaper, I wondered? (Our newspaper just ran a series on speeding and how no one ever pays for it.) I felt quite righteous out there going the speed limit, pondering the vicious pace of life and the joys of slowing down.

I just slowed down even more. I'm watching grey squirrels in my backyard. The population is thriving. Do people still eat squirrel? I remember my uncle hunting squirrel when I was young, and eating it, but I can't remember the taste. But if you do eat it, no need to go hungry. There's plenty. I have a friend who actually shoots them from his back porch. Heartless.

Lately they have been working on my squirrel-proof bird-feeder. It's lived up to that claim, too. They have tried gnawing it (plenty of evidence of that), shaking it, tapping their nabby heads on the plexiglass around it, and today hanging upside down and trying to get at the seed that way. (That one fell off, hitting the dirt on his back, but he jumped quickly up and ran up a tree as if he actually intended to make that exit.)

Squirrels eat a lot, grinding away at seeds (donated by messy birds who knock seed to the ground), berries (off my tree), and nuts and leaves (the latter only as a last resort, sort of like Spam for squirrel-dom). All this foraging is not without its fun. They chase each other, roll over each other, jump on each other, and play tag running around tree trunks.

They look deceptively intelligent. (I don't think they are so smart, however.) The one sitting up now has a white underbelly and is perfectly posed for me. He's waiting for the robins to throw some seed down for him. The relationship is not symbiotic. I don't think the squirrel does anything for the birds, unless they enjoy their antics. It must be pity that motivates them.

My cat who left us thought himself a squirrel, I think. He'd climb 20 feet up in the trees and advance out onto teetering branches. He wasn't smart, either.

Look at that nest up there (called a drey). Squirrels don't build nice neat nests like birds. Just throw a few leaves and twigs together and you have a home --- more like a batchelor pad, roomy but not tidy, and definitley not up to Good Housekeeping standards.

And how about their bushy, twitching, oversized tails? Apparently their tails are used for balance, a blanket, an umbrella, parachute (never seen that one), and communication. I personally have witnessed the tail as bumbershoot. Very practical. And another thing. I've read that squirrels have one to two thousand caches of seeds and nuts every season! They remember where these storage places are not by smell but simply by spatial memory. Me, I just walk into the kitchen and can't remember why I went there.

It's just amazing what you see when you slow down and look at God's Creation --- the beauty of its design, the thoughtfulness and intelligence, the humor, and the pure pleasure of watching. I have no practical use for what I have learned, but it does make me love the common grey squirrel just a little bit more. If God so loved the world (cosmos), then that's warrant for me to love it too. Think about what they're missing out there on the highway.


Jesus on the Interstate: The Extraordinary Mavis Staples

MavisDid I really just say just a few days ago that Fountains of Wayne's Traffic and Weather was the best album of 2007 thus far? I did. . . but that was before I heard Mavis Staples' We'll Never Turn Back. Staples was one of the voices of The Staple Singers, a band that became, through their friendship with Martin Luther King, the singing voice of the civil rights movement. Over 40 years ago, Mavis herself spent the night in a West Memphis jail at the behest of a racist cop. She reflects on that and other events of those days, connecting the civil rights movement then to, for example, the marginalization of blacks in the wake of Hurrican Katrina.

I had some rare time this evening along the interstate to listen straight through the record, twice, and I'm knocked over by the power of it --- faith leading to action. Mavis is a believer, dedicating her album to "My Heavenly Father - To God Be the Glory," and noting in her liner notes that "for us [The Staple Singers], and for many in the civil rights movement, we looked to the church for inner strength and to help make positive changes. That seems to be missing today." The album is a positive and yet chillingly honest challenge to biblically-rooted social action. It's mix of traditional tunes, like "Down In Mississippi," 'This Little Light of Mine," and "Jesus on the Mainline," along with originals coauthored with producer and guitar virtuoso Ry Cooder. The songs prod us, admonish us, and encourage us to put feet to faith.

And the music? Not a single klunker here. The sound is authentic and rootsy, Cooder providing some snaky electric guitar and thumping percussion, Mavis with her deep, throaty vocal, backed by the original Freedom Singers and Ladysmith Black Mombazo. It's gospel-soul. And it's authenticity was reassuring on the interstate, a corridor which seems so plastic and homogeneous with its fast food restaurants, gas stations, and big box stores.

In "99 And 1/2," Mavis sums it up: "My God is a freedom God/ He'll make a way for you. . . ./ I'm running, trying to make a 100, but 99 and 1/2 just won't do." This is no 99 and 1/2 album. This is a 100. Give it a spin. Listen to my favorite, "My Own Eyes," here.


(Please Don't Stop Me, I'm) Metaphorming

Door"With similes, our delight comes from the containment of seeing only the images given us by the poet and no others. . . ; [w]ith metaphor, we range farther." (Suzanne Clark, in The Roar On the Other Side)

Scripture is full of metaphors. Jesus says he is the door, the good shepherd, the light, the cornerstone, and so on, enough to confound any literalist on Scripture! In fact, there are more metaphors than similes: the gospel is not fenced in but runs wild, uncontained. We ask how is he the good shepherd, how is he the door, and our minds run free with the associations, bounded only by other portions of Scripture as impressed on our hearts and minds by the Holy Spirit.

I am a blade of grass, you a grain of sand among many, and yet we are stars that shine, a little lower than the angels -- friends of God. The same door that opens to the Kingdom of God, the one that bears such a positve image in our minds of a welcoming knock, an invitaton to come in, will one day slam tightly shut and bar the way to those who reject God. But who slams it? The ones who reject God.

Clark says that "[t]he ability to make associations, to think in metaphors and similes, is evidence of God's image in us. We think analogically, instinctively, because that is who we are. We read of God as Father, and associations with earthly fathers spring to mind. We say God is good and must immediately associate the abstraction of that word with, say, a father's love, a selfless person like Mother Teresa or Aunt Flora on your father's side once removed who never, never thinks of herself. Or maybe even the faithful, loving dog who always returns though neglected and mistreated by his master. That word "good" is unfenced, set free, encompassing everything that is the antithesis of bad.

There's another thing she notes about such imaginative language: "Imaginative language --- poetry --- trains the mind in faith. For what is faith but divine realities we can only imagine, 'the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen' (Heb. 11:1)." I never thought of it that way. Metaphorming --- the ability to make associations between things --- is essential to a growing faith, a realization of the richness and otherworldly and fulsome character of the Good News.

Suzanne again:

"When Jesus proclaims, 'I am the Bread of life,' he removes all our fences of seeing. He is entirely bread --- nourishing, flavorful, essential. Rising and resurrection are in the loaf, too. It is bread enough for the whole world, and of this Bread we must eat or perish. 'Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you.' (John 6:53). Is this metaphor? Is this not mystery? Let us keep silent."


Seeing Men As Trees Walking

Pennies"[T]he poet takes bare fact and clothes it with meaning. The poet hears the roar on the other side of silence. The poet sees the world in a grain of sand, men as trees walking, and the ocean as a whale-road." (Suzanne Clark, in The Roar On the Other Side)

After silence, after finding the wherewithal to be still and wait on God, poets and writers must learn to see and hear in a way that most other folks can glimpse only in the briefest of moments. There is a fierce velocity about the world. Drive the speed limit and you begin to realize that you are practically alone in this idiosyncrasy or experiment in puttering. Leaving work at the end of a long day, eager to be home, walk slowly to the car as the herd of commuters rush past. Notice the slant of the light at the end of the day. Consider what kind of tree grows by the bus stop sign. Walk, don't run. Begin to see.

You slow down by looking at things much, much longer, by turning the radio/MP3 player/CD player off and listening, something like this:

Choir Rehearsal

One boy is staring slantwise at the
corner of the roof, mouthing
words he only half knows, another
fumbling with his too-big shirt, pulling it
this way and that, shaking his head nervously.

Pale moon faces watch, mostly, their
voices sing-shout words that resonate, an
elasticity of motion, listening, a smile here and
there, a request "can we take it from where I SHOUT?" a
girl says, directing already, telling the boy to move over. NOW.

Even here, I can hear the boy with the deep brown
eyes, his voice strong, his red sweater neatly lying
over courderoy pants, brown shoes, dressed to the nines
for rehearsal tonight. Angelic moon faces with Jesus
words, soft harmonies, a bubbling spring of song, a

slight glimpse, through a glass dimly, of heaven-song.

That's not great poetry but merely an attempt to see and hear, to stop and slow down, to hear the roar on the other side of silence, like Suzanne says.

Annie Dillard --- now there's a seer. Listen to how she speaks of seeing in her book of seeing, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek:

It is still the first week in January, and I've got great plans. I've been thinking about seeing. There are lots of things to see, unwrapped gifts and free surprises. The world is fairly studded and strewn with pennies cast broadside from a generous hand. But --- and this is the point --- who gets excited by a mere penny? If you follow one arrow, if you crouch motionless on a bank to watch a tremulous ripple thrill on the water and are rewarded by the sight of a muskrat kit paddling from its den, will you count that sight a chip of copper only, and go your rueful way? It is dire poverty indeed when a man is so malnourished and fatigued that he won't stoop to pick up a penny. But if you cultivate a healthy poverty and simplicity, so that finding a penny will literally make your day, then, since the world is in fact planted in pennies, you have with your poverty bought a lifetime of days. It is that simple. What you see is what you get.

In Annie Dillard's economy, the poor are rich and the full hungry. It sounds like the Kingdom of God.

My daugther is singing in the next room, happily at home with her voice, and me, I am rich. To listen is free. She sings for pure joy and delight. I'll stoop and pick up this copper penny.

The best things are free. You just have to listen. You just have to see. God help me learn to see, to stare hard at life until it gives up meaning.



The Death of Silence

Shout"We will make the whole universe a noise. The melodies and silences of Heaven will be shouted down in the end." (Screwtape, in The Screwtape Letters, by C.S. Lewis)

If you think about it, there aren't many public places left where you can escape the noise of modern life. First, there are the ubiquitous video screens trumpeting what I need, need, need from the front of gas pumps to restaurant walls, exercise clubs, department stores, billboards, and even the car next to me --- brief snippets of soundbyte content punctuating a relentless barrage of advertising of the newest, hippest, fastest, biggest, or otherwise "necessary" item. Escape is difficult.

But it's not just images that confront us around every turn, sound is also ever-present. Every store I enter is filled with music deemed appropriate by some consumer-savvy marketing guru, a soundtrack for the buying experience. Somehow I might feel better buying a $50 pair of Patagonia shorts with Fountain of Wayne's "Traffic and Weather" playing in the background, a lubricant to ease my parting with hard-earned cash. Pay attention to what you hear and see when you enter retail stores. There isn't much that is there by accident. It is a carefully scripted buying experience.

But this isn't a diatribe against consumerism but a lament about noise, about a cultural shift that you don't notice until you compare the present with an earlier time. For me, that's the 1960s. I distinctly remember going into stores where they was no video and no sound other than, maybe, a faint trace of muzak in the background, hardly noticeable, more like white noise. When we ate out (which was not often back then), there was music but not volume, not like the cavernous rooms most restaurants are now, with loud music, frothy conversations spilling over from other tables, the sounds of the kitchen and bar, and more. Somehow, I think it's all there as some vain attempt to remind ourselves that we are not alone. It's like my friend who turns her TV on upon waking and leaves it on all day until she falls asleep to it it at night. And that's not uncommon. Noise offers some hollow reassurance to us.

But that's not what God commends. He said "Be still and know that I am God." Be still. Part of being still is shutting up. And part is shutting out, dampering the drug of noise. Only then can we hear what's really going on.

I began on this a little over a year ago, incrementally. First to go was talk shows and TV news and then almost all network TV. I did not want the advertisements nor any of the jabbering, gossiping, talking heads. Ocassionally my wife watches the network news, to "catch up," and I have to leave the room I find it so annoying. I see a crying woman whose home was just sturck by a tornado, and then, after a moment of feigned sadness, the commentator shifts to a lighter story, something like the fascinating story of who is the father of Anna Nicole's baby (solved, thankfully). Such juxtapositioning of the tragic with the inane is bound to warp the psyche.

But this is not a datribe against TV but a lament about noise, about a cacophony of sounds that obscures the purity of a single human voice, the sound a pine tree makes as it sways in the wind, or the way houses hum at night with the sounds of air conditioners or refrigerator motors or the slow settling of foundations or the insomniatic gerbils busy moving food dishes around their cage. Have you listened for those things lately?

"Be still," He says. A series in our local newspaper which began today focuses on the speeding epidemic. People, almost all people, exceed the speed limit in their cars. Guilty. I confess. But while speeding sinners have always abounded, there is a marked change in the magnitude of speeding. People are moving faster, whether they are soccer moms making whistle-stops for kids at school car pool lines or Seth Shapiro on his way to the law office in his '92 Camaro (thank you Fountains of Wayne). Times have changed. Out on the Le Mans Beltline that encircles our city, I find I want to go fast as well and yet in saner moments I wonder at the herd mentality that takes hold in a careening swarm of cars.

But this is not a diatribe against speeders but a lament about noise, about why my car is pulsating from the hip-hop of the car next to me, about why his personal tastes in music must be lived out in public space. It's about why I have to listen to cell phone conversations and observe people speaking into thin air about things I do not want to know, personal matters of "she said he said" kind or about what the problem is with him or her or whoever on the other end of the airspace, about why that sound is in my space. It's about why I have a knee-jerk compulsion to play music when I enter my car, about why I can't be still.

Be still. Well it's amazing what the soundtrack of life offers, the one provided by God. Until this year, I think, I never knew that squirrels actually said a single thing, and now I listen to their chatter as I lay on the ground in my back yard. I listen to the The Great Pretender himself, the mocking bird, with a ever-expanding repetoire of bird calls and no voice of his own, a God-ordained recorder for bird-dom. At this lower volume the grand subtlety of life is evident, the music of Creation. Thank God for sound. Thank God for its absence.

In the end, this is not a polemic against noise at all but a Spirit-pronounced word for me, a quiet tapping on my noisy heart: "Be still. Stop. Listen. Pay attention. And know that I am God." I guess I should know that. I'm hoping I do.


The Genius of Nature

MeaningfulWhile I am no scientist nor mathematician, I appreciate the value of both areas and the importance of thinking Christianly about both. Generally I've gotten no farther than the valid point that the universe and its natural laws are worth studying because the Creation tells us of the Creator. Furthermore, the scientific vocation seems to have roots in a specific taxonomical task given to Adam: naming. But beyond these principles, I could say little. That's changed.

Two recently published books are of great help in discerning a Christian view of the scientific task. The first and less readable book is Benjamin Wilker's and Jonathan Witt's A Meaningful World: How the Arts and Sciences Reveal the Genius of Nature. Essentially, the authors make an argument for the meaning-full nature of creation over and against the previaling nihilism of our culture. Where esle can you find Shakespeare and Hamlet alongside Euclidean geometry and the periodic table? It's an ambitious, densely worded book, and while I could not complete it, I read enough to see its value. It's just that for the layman I wish this argument for the design of nature had been made in a few less pages and with less academic language. However, if you are in the sciences, this is a helpful book to read --- one which demonstrates the beauty of mathematics and science, of order over chaos and chance.

ScienceA more approachable book is that of Covenant College Science Professors Tim Morris and Don Petcher, entitled Science and Grace: God's Reign In the Natural Sciences. Here the intent of the authors is to set forth a constructive way for Christians to be involved in the sciences, going beyond the evolution-creation battles and even demonstrating how Christians can find common ground with nonChristians in the sciences. If you are of a Reformed traditon, the book's roots in covenant theology will be familiar, as will many of the thinkers whose thought is sumamrized, men like Charles Hodge, Abraham Kuyper, and Herman Dooyeweerd. Quite apart from the application to the sciences, I benefited simply from the theological perspective provided, a very nice summary of a biblical world and life view. The book would make a good textbook for a philosophy of science course (which I suspect it has been) and a good gift for any high school graduate heading into a scientific field of study. I enjoyed its positive, non-adversarial perspective and its encouragement for Christians to really make a difference in an important field.

Abraham Kuyper once said that "there is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human exiatence over which Christ, who is sovereign over all, does not cry: 'Mine!'" Perhaps if we rested in this assurance, we wouldn't reagrd our relationship with culture, science or otherwise, as a battle but rather, a war already won but whose victory is not yet fully evident. We could relax, do good work, and love our neighbor --- even the scientist next door.


Traffic and Weather

61cixturbkl__aa240_Though we are only a little over four months into 2007, my current favorite for album of the year is Fountain of Wayne's new release, Traffic and Weather. FOW has brilliant penchant for writing the infectious pop song, and while they are not alone in this, there are a couple things that make this a standout album. For one, lyrical narratives here --- stories of love and loneliness --- are rich with such specificity of character and place. For example, in "Someone to Love," we meet Seth Shapiro, the lonely lawyer who calls his Mom in the evenings and eats alone, and Beth MacKenzie, who retouches photos for a magazine, two young professionals who almost meet and yet don't. (By the way, you can check out the video for the song here.) Or there's Yolanda Hayes, who works behind a window at the Department of Motor Vehicles, an object of affection for our narrator, "behind Window B, explaining patiently how she needs to see six forms of ID." Or even "Michael and Heather at the Baggage Claim," exhausted, waiting, wondering if they'll ever get home again. Mundane yet particular, the lyrics offer a slice of authenticity from modern life. Listening to this cross-section of stories, it's refreshing not to hear any obligatory political statements or heavy-handed philosophizing. And yet I can't help but feel the album is pregnant with a big albeit unstated question: Is this all? Is this all life is? Isn't there more? In post-modern terms, is there a meta-narrative, an overarching story that gives mening to it all? That's a great question for a post-modern album to ask. And yet I love the great mix of affection and parody for the characters, served up with wit. In other words, I love that it makes us ask the big question.

The other thing that makes for a great record is the musical range of it. There are all kinds of tempos and forms of instrumentation, and yet it all hangs together as one. As their press bio truthfully says, in the new record FOW covers "early 60's jangle, late 60's psychedelia, 70's classic rock, 80's New Wave, 90's alt-rock, and contemporary pop in their own inimitable style — this time against an even richer, more varied sonic backdrop of lush harmony vocal stacks, staccato horn blasts, pulsating analog keyboards, slinky bass lines, and deep grooves. There's even some banjo in there somewhere, just in case. And, of course, lots of guitars...chiming, crunching, strumming, and occasionally twanging." For once, a band bio is exactly on target.

I suspect Traffic and Weather is one album that will remain in my Current Listening List in the Sidebar for quite some time. Give it a spin, will you?


A Writing Exercise: The Day the Carnival Came to Digby

[This past weekend our church hosted a writers' workshop with writer Suzanne Rhodes (formerly Suzanne Clark). It was a extremely fruitful time for the eight of us gathered. Suzanne treated us to a full palette of writing tips, sprinkling her talk with quotes, poems, resources, and more. During lunch she gave us 90 minutes to write something on the spot, choosing from a number of exercises she offered. I chose an exercise that invited me to tell a story from the perspective of someone sitting on a house's front porch. Other's wrote poems, personal narratives, and dialogues. They were all quite good, as I found out when we read our offerings to each other and discussed them. It was an encouraging time. We plan to meet once a month to encourage our writing, the second Monday of each month at 7:30. For more information, contact me. For now, here's a mostly unedited version of what I wrote that day.]

Roller_coatserThe Day the Carnival Came to Digby

That October, 1948 I believe, the carnival came to Digby. My little brother John and I ran barefoot through the meadow that lay beside my house to watch the Southern Railway train roar over the tracks, it's clickety-clack a kind of invitation for me. All manner of machines protruded from the box-cars --- the red and blue of a ferris wheel, the painted horses of the carousal, and other mysterious parts and pieces, all grand and hopeful and just a little bit dangerous, you know.

John and I were speechless --- just standing in the grass watching the train until the red caboose disappeared around the bend, the engineer waving to us as the train vanished from sight. I knew we couldn't go to the fair. My Daddy said there was gambling there and Christian folk didn't go and besides it cost good money and we weren't going to throw away hard-earned money on something we couldn't eat or wear. And yet I knew I'd waste every cent I had on the fair if I could, go without food for days if need be, if only I could go.

A few days later it was on this very porch that John and I were sitting, legs draped over the edge, swinging, sucking on a piece of grass, just waiting for something to happen I guess. That maple tree that stands over there was in full color, leaves of orange and red and yellow, and the air was cool and gentle. We were just sitting there, and then I heard, "Come on, get in the truck." I looked over my shoulder and my Daddy was standing in the front door way, his bib overalls on and hat in hand, my mother in her cotton dress beside him. But my feet were already in mid-air, John and I racing for the truck, whooping and hollering and jumping in that Ford flatbed, ready for something, anything, and yet we didn't dare ask where we were going. My Daddy was a man who believed in the economy of language, spending words like he spent money: rarely, and with great care. It woudn't do to ask him where we were going, just wouldn't do.

As Daddy drove down Oak Street, John and I were watching what we were leaving: the dirt road behind, the clouds of dust, the simple frame house that lined the street, that no-good Jacob Woodrow on his porch, rocking, the Nelson kids hollering out to us as they ran behind the truck. We turned onto the blacktop of Highway 24, past Drucker's store, the filling station, and on to the edge of town. I remember turning to John, his eyes wide with expectation. We were afraid to speak, afraid that if we said its name its possibility might just evaporate, that we really might not be going to the county fair.

And yet as we pulled into the meadow parking area off Highway 24, I saw that we were. The smells of hay and animals mixed with hot dogs and cotton candy filled me. There were the red and blue seats of the ferris wheel, spokes lit with what seemed a thousand lights. And the carousal with its hurdy-gurdy music. And the roller-coaster, something I had only heard about but never seen.

We walked the aisles and marveled at the sounds and smells and sights --- the screams from the roller coaster, the carnies hawking their games on the midway, the swings twirling round and round. John and I rode all the rides, all except the roller coaster, my Daddy paying with nickels and dimes without question, watching John and I go round, a slight smile on his face.

Near the end, after sunset, we stood before a kind of coaster called the Monster Mouse, little red and orange cars making their way over a cicuitous track, seemingly leaving the tracks at curves before sharply veering back on course. Arms crossed, head motionless, my Daddy watched the cars for a long time as they made their way up and down and around the track, following them with his eyes. And then he said, "Come on." My Daddy took me on the Monster mouse that day, the best and scariest ride at the fair. As we jerked to a start, he gripped the sides of the car, sliding lower and lower in the car as we went. (My Momma said later that all she could see of him was the white hair atop his head.)

When we stopped, Daddy slowly got out of the car, staggering a bit to the ground. I remember now -- he just lay down face down to the grass. After a couple minutes he slowly rose to his feet, said "Come on," and we went home, him like a converted gambler, sober once again.


Interstitial Prayer: What To Do While You're Waiting For Something To Happen

WaitingOne of the most difficult commands of Scripture to implement is that to "pray continually" (1 Thess. 5:17). It obviously doesn't mean every single moment of every single day, because then when would we do everything else? Or does it some sense mean just that? I can tell you that I have never met anyone who said that they prayed enough. Even Billy Graham says that the one regret he has about his life is that he did not pray enough. And so where does that leave you and me?

Elsewhere I've advocated walking prayers as a part of obeying this command, as a means of maintaining communication with God. Such prayers are not easier to maintain than devotional prayers, just different, but there is an advantage: I have not yet fallen asleep while walking and praying. But I'm after something else, a more continual awareness of God's presence with me and a longer conversation. Thus, interstitial prayer.

"Interstice," the root of "interstitial," is not one of those words most of us traffic in daily. I actually first heard it in law school, as a description of the silence of some otherwise seemingly comprehensive statutory framework addressing a certain problem. Or in constitutional law, the interstices in our Constitution were actually viewed by one Supreme Court as implicitly containing a general right of privacy (a la Roe v. Wade). An "interstice" is then a space between things or parts, especially a space between things closely set or, more to point, it is an interval of time. It is the in-between time --- the time when you flip with little real interest through the pages of a dog-eared magazine waiting for the doctor who is already behind, when you sit at a three-cycle traffic light watching what strange things people do in their cars while they wait (like brush their teeth), when your lunch date is 15 minutes late and you closely examine the floor, seating, and windows of the restaurant, realizing that it's not really very clean at all and wondering why a Grade A rating hangs on the wall --- all the times you are waiting for something to happen, soon. It is, if you will, one of life's parentheses. The question is how will you fill it?

"So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God," says Paul (1 Cor. 10:31), and that means the interstices of our day as well. This is terribly difficult if you think this means actual praying, at least in thought, at every moment. Our thoughts are fluid. We're not on task nor do we need to be 24-7. Rather, I like to think of interstitial prayer as remembering that Someone is with me, that even in silence there is present One who understands me and my day better than anyone and actually has the ability to help me, to give me what I really need. All I really want to do as a result of this realization is to continually ask God to help me remember that I am not alone. If I remember that, if I am cognizant during some of that valuable interstitial time --- time most people regard as a waste or fill with books on tape, music, or fantasies --- that God is with me, then I think the rest, the conversation, the dialogue, will take care of itself. Who knows? I may even come to wish for more time to waste with God each day, more interstices where I can remember and listen.