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October 2007

Math With the Kettles

MaThis weekend my kids and I watched some movies that I remember from my childhood, movies that were even "old" movies then. Between 1947 and 1957, before I was born, Universal released 11 of these popular movies about two hillbillies (Ma and Pa Kettle) and their 15 children. They're funny, clean, and yes, sometimes corny, but if you liked the Beverly Hillbillies you'll like these. The first movie, "The Egg and I," kicked it off with a very young Fred MacMurray ("My Three Sons") and Claudette Colbert, city folk, moving to the country to start a chicken farm, where they meet the Kettles. Here's a bit of the humor to give you a taste of what it's like. In this clip, Pa, Ma, and a neighbor are wrangling on how to split up the money from a buyout of their farm by the Government due to the mistaken belief that there was uranium buried on it:

Someone at a recent conference I went to incorporated this clip into an otherwise dull presentation. It loosened things up a bit! I think the universal theme of two families from different ways of life encountering one another always resonates with people, and if you have a particularly large family, you might identify with the Kettles.

There are two collections of the movies which are out. This clip was from Vol. 1.


A New Architecture

fallin down Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me.  In my Father's house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?  And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.  And you know the way to where I am going.  (John 14-1-4)

For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.  (Heb. 11:10)

A few years ago my I visited some old friends who moved away when their children were young and with whom I had not been for several years --- perhaps as much as a decade.  One morning, as I was coming up the stairs from the downstairs guest room, my eyes caught sight of scuff marks on the white walls.  Needs painting, I thought.  I paused.  My eyes drifted up to the place where the wall meets the ceiling.  I noticed how cracks had appeared, how the wall had begun to separate from the ceiling.  The rest of the morning I could not take my mind off of the house, noticing black marks and scratches on the floors, peeling paint, stains, and the chipped edges of walls.  Walking the halls, I heard the creaks of floorboards working their way off their fittings, like the creaking of mature bones.  The smells of new paint, wallpaper, and varnish that I remembered from years before were gone, replaced by a settled mix of musty age, dust taking root in carpet, humidity seeping into walls, invisible mildew and the smells of many, many cooked meals adhering to the furniture and draperies.  The house had matured.  Once full of shine and fresh smells, it now knew the imperfections of age.  It had been lived in and had been a silent witness to the laughter of birthday parties, the tears of smaller and larger heartaches, the hurried mornings and leisurely Sunday afternoons.  I realized how much I had missed by not having my friends close by, and how much this place had seen and meant to them, how much living had been done.  A bittersweet feeling welled up in me.

People build things.  They always have.  They adopt places as their own, build houses, and buy and attach themselves to objects, and they hold all of these with some affection, with some love.  And knowing love, they also inevitably consider loss.  In his book about how buildings affect us, The Architecture of Happiness, Alain de Botton recounts a conversation between Sigmund Freud and the poet Rainer Maria Rilke on a mountain walk on a beautiful summer's day:

The psychoanalyst was glad to be outdoors (it had been raining all week), but his companion walked with his head bowed, his eyes fixed on the ground, and remained taciturn throughout the excursion.  It wasn't that Rilke was oblivious to the beauty around him; he simply could not overlook how impermanent everything was.  In Freud's words, he was unable to forget "that all this beauty was fated to extinction, that it would vanish before winter came, like all human beauty and all the beauty that men have created or may create."

I think I understand how Rilke felt.  Whether walking in my friends home or my own home, I am keenly aware of their impermanence, of their advancing age, of how they're drawn back to the earth by the leveling forces of gravity, rain, wind, and sun.  We can struggle to keep up appearances through new paint, carpet, kitchen remodels, or even by a take-down and rebuilding, but despite the beautiful places we create and re-create, they last but for a time.  For most, this depressing conclusion is held off only by a suspension of disbelief in aging and death or a continual remaking of a place, like the woman my builder friend knows who remodels her kitchen every two years.  An aging kitchen likely would remind her that her kitchen won't last forever, that, more importantly, she won't last forever, that all is destined for decay.  Viewed this way, architecture is a fantasy, a cruel joke, an attempt to create something beautiful, functional and permanent when all is hopeless.

And yet there is another way to look at it.  While it's true that my friend's home is aging, that he is aging along with me, there is a permanence to what we build.  Our hope is that God is preparing a place for us, a city.  In his new architecture, not only will He craft new hearts and habits but new buildings, streets, houses, parks, courtyards and trails.  All the good we now make --- all that is beautiful --- is a shadow of the permanent architecture we'll know in a restored earth --- a very physical, tangible reality.  In fact, the genesis of my friend's new home in a restored earth is already here --- in the bricks, wood, and nails of the temporal one he now knows.  And the affections he now has for particular sunny nook, a comfortable chair in a cozy corner, and a perspective through the window, as well as for objects such as his favorite old sweater, wood-carved box, or even the beautiful lines and styling of a classic Corvette --- all foreshadow the love he will have for the new architecture of our restored earth.

We are not ascetics, nor are we called to disdain the physical.  Rather, we are called to have a proper affection for the tangible reality in which God has settled us.   C.S. Lewis once said that "every created thing is, in its degree, an image of God, and the ordinate and faithful appreciation of that thing a clue, which, truly followed, will lead back to Him."  Conversely, he warned that "every created thing, the highest devotion to moral duty, the purest conjugal love, the saint and the seraph, is no more than an image; that every one of them, followed for its own sake and isolated from its source, becomes an idol whose service is damnation."  Buildings, gardens, natural places and urban parks --- all, loved properly, lead us to God.  Idolized, they lead us away from God.

He's preparing a place.  He's building a new city.  It's made out of what we know and yet He will make all things new.  That which we properly love here we will also love there, in a remade earth.  The houses there are foreshadowed by the houses here.  We'll recognize them.  We'll be at home, finally.


The Next Best Western

Vuelta_2

It's the middle of the night
Near the Indiana Line
I'm pulling in a Christian station
The signal's crystal clear
But I cannot really hear
What he says about the Revelation
I am wretched, I am tired
But the preacher is on fire
And I wish I could believe

For several years I was a folk music junkie, particularly partial to angst-ridden world-weary female singer-songwriters.  I think the melancholy nature of the music was an antidote to the then much too happy music promoted by Christian record labels and spun by Christian DJs.  It was refreshing (well, different, at least) listening to people sing about the trials and tribulations of life, frustrations, doubt, and even disbelief.  I appreciated the attention to lyric, the human connection, and the more communal aspect of the folk music scene.  I even became involved in the business and, if you ask me about it, I'll wax melancholy about it, telling you some sad stories so you too can be melancholy.

I also frequented the annual convention of the North American Folk Music and Dance Alliance (Folk Alliance).  The organizers chose a suitably dismal month for it, February.  There was Toronto in bitter February, Washington in wet and miserable February, and Memphis dark and dim --- all came with a chill, snow, ice, or frigid rain.  When we went to Albuquerque and San Diego, it didn't seem right.  The folkies looked out of place.  Doubtless organizers prayed to their pagan gods for rain, at least, or some calamity that would befit the occasion.  Folk music seemed to belong in cold, dark places.

As much as I enjoyed the music and, sometimes, the people, I found the annual convention one of the saddest places I'd ever been.  For all the passion over music, I only ever met two other Christians (other than ones I imported) at a convention.  These were people who desperately believed --- in music and/or a social cause --- but could not believe the Gospel.  I remember walking through the halls of our hotel one time, listening to the music, and feeling depressed, just downright morose, wanting to get as far away as I could from the place.  I think that's the only way I can describe it.  One Christian folk artist I brought to do a showcase at the convention began to weep in the middle of her set.  Why?  She described the overwhelming sense of sadness at the lostness she saw around her.

I can't say I offered much to this environment, to this annual Lost-Fest.  I was overwhelmed by the sense of lostness myself and the darkness that hung over the rooms I visited.  Struggling wannabes, on the road, living from gig to gig, wretched and tired.  So in touch with the human experience but so far from their Creator.

Did he who made the Lamb
Put the tremble in the hand
That reaches out to take my quarter
I look him in the eye
But there isn't any time
Just time enough to pass the tender
The highway takes its toll
The green light flashes go
And it's welcome to Ohio

One of the benefits of writing is that it requires you to slow down enough to reflect.  Else you have little to write about or, at least, to write very deeply about.  It is, as poet Mary Oliver says, like prayer: "I don't know exactly what a prayer is.  I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass, how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields."  Poets, musicians, songwriters ---- they all look pretty lazy to much of the working world.  But we could take a lesson from them about being "idle and blessed."  We might notice, really notice another human being, like the clerk in the supermarket with the dull expression and mechanical reply, or the overweight long-haired guy I saw many years ago get into a pickup truck plastered with 30-40 bumper stickers and sprouting two or three antennas, or the young kid waiting for the bus today who looked like a gangster in training.  What are they all about, I ask myself?  Who are they?  What kind of life do they have?  What do they dream about?  I look them in the eye, just for a moment, but there really isn't time to know them.

At four a.m. on 80 East
It's the nature of the beast
To wonder if there's something missing
I am wretched, I am tired
But the preacher is on fire
I wish I could believe

When I read interviews with the "New Atheists," like Richard Dawkins, I begin to try on their self-assuredness for a moment, just to imagine what it must feel like to be so passionate about not believing.  Vapid.  Frightening. Those are the kind of words that come to mind. After casting all religion as an evil scourge, they wax on about the human possibilities, trying to hold out a hopeful future devoid of the evils caused by religion.  But it's no use. Self-deception can exist but for a while.  Sooner or later materialists confront the gnawing feeling that there is something missing in life, a hole that needs filling.  They will believe in something, even if it is the absence of something.  It's the nature of who we are.

Sometimes I go walking, by the lake, through the trees, past windows in homes revealing life inside, by the geese, passing each uniquely different fellow walker, each with a story.  I look up and see what remains of the moon, the early morning stars, a wisp of cloud passing the moon, feel the breeze rustle the leaves and stir the water, smell a warming fire.  For a moment, I try on not believing, imagining what if this is it, this is all there is, this is all I get in life.  What if it is all meaningless?  What if the end is darkness?  I can't and won't engage in the exercise for long.

But consider this:  In suffering the cross, in taking on human sin, Christ bore the weight of life apart from God, of empty existence, of the depravity of life outside God's plan.  He was wretched, tired, wounded, and utterly alone.  For our sake.  In the end, the uncomfortable exercise makes me pity the one who can't believe and makes me thankful for the gift of belief.  But for Jesus it was no exercise.  For a time, he knew such darkness.

Whoever watches over all these truckers
Show a little mercy for a weary sinner
And deliver me --- Lord, deliver me
Deliver me to the next Best Western

One dreary evening at a Folk Alliance convention, a friend and I were making the rounds of clubs in the area that were hosting showcases by musicians.  In one small club, maybe 30 people were huddled in a room around a singer-songwriter who was warming up to the next song with some banter with the audience.  He smiled, and I thought how unusual.  There wasn't a hint of irony in it, no smirk, no cynicism.  I liked him.  And he was good.  His songs were little mini-novels set to music, with real people with names like May, Eliza, and Louise, and places like Reunion Hill, Indian Boulder, Indiana, and Ohio.  And the next Best Western.

He was a Union Theological Seminary dropout.  His songs brimmed with biblical references but were peopled by the lost, tired, and disillusioned.

His name was Richard Shindell.  And he wishes he could believe.  God deliver him and all the folkies.

If you wondered, the italicized words that formed the inspiration for this cheery meditation on lostness are the pieces of a song by Richard Shindell off his 1997 recording entitled Reunion Hill.  Yes, the song is called "The Next Best Western."  You can hear it here (you may need to click play twice):


Bulldog Prayer

"Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.  For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened."  (Matt. 7:7-8)

One of the things I tried but was unsuccessful in teaching my children was to only ask for something once, that to ask more than once constituted unseemly begging or nagging.  But maybe I was wrong or, at least, not quite right.

I can't look at these verses without breaking into a chorus of "Seek Ye First"  --- at least in my mind.  That's the trouble when something in scripture becomes so familiar to you as to become cliche.  That word, cliche, we owe to the French, as it is a derivative of a similar technical word in a printer's jargon for "stereotype," supposedly echoic of mould dropping into molten metal, that is, it's an onomatopoeia.  So it's a word that actually mimics the sound of what it connotes --- the monotonous sound of metal pressed against mould.  So, when I hear these verses, I think Young Life, camp fires, and praise song upon praise song and my eyes glaze over and I cannot hear anymore.

But then I did hear again, recently.  So often these verses are cited in an evangelistic setting, for someone who, through seeking will come to faith.  I see now that they are also meant for me, that the asking, seeking, and knocking goes on all my life.

Ask.  Asking only becomes nagging when we keep on asking after receiving a clear answer.  It's then that we demonstrate that we do not trust God's good purposes for us.  Otherwise, however, it doesn't.  I think of the "how long" prayers of the Psalmist here, as in when he beseeches God not to "hide your face from me" or to "answer me quickly" (Ps. 102:2).  There's an urgency about the Psalmist's words, as he entreats God to "not remain silent" (Ps. 109:1), to come quickly, arise, wake up, hear, rescue --- to act now. There is persistence and even impatience, an almost demanding that God be God, that He be faithful, like the persistent widow who wore out the judge with her persistent requests (Lk. 18:1-8).   And He always does act, though sometimes He makes his people wait.  The point:  this child asks his Father not once but repeatedly, incessantly, and urgently to act.  It's like the bulldog grabs the hem of God's pants and won't let go until the bone is tossed.  It's a way he helps us know and trust him, to grow in our faith.

Seek.  So many times we ask and ask and yet, when we look, we look in the wrong place, at the wrong time, or with the wrong perspective.  My daughter asks where her sweater is.  I tell her it's in her room.  She stomps up the stairs.  I hear footsteps indicating a circuitous pass through her room.  Stomp, stomp, stomp.  She's back, empty-handed.  My wife goes upstairs and walks right to it,  My daughter stopped seeking too soon.  It was there all along.

For years the Hebrew people had waited and prayed for the Messiah, and yet when he shows up, few recognize him.  A preconceived notion of who and what the Messiah would be had taken shape in their minds, and that perspective had hardened, not allowing them to see God's answer standing in front of them.  Jesus wasn't even recognized as Messiah in his own hometown (Mk. 6:3-6).  "He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him" (Jn. 1:10).  The point:  When we ask, be open to any answer, no matter how unsettling or from whom it comes.  If God speaks from the mouth of an ass, He can use the asinine to instruct us.

Knock.  Kathleen Norris recounts the story of old monk's instruction of a younger monk on dealing with people, saying "I have finally learned to accept people as they are.  Whatever they are in the world, a prostitute, a prime minister, it is all the same to me.  But sometimes I see a stranger coming up the road and I say, 'Oh Jesus Christ, is it you again.'"  As she recounts in her book of abbey life, The Cloister Walk, monks prayed a great deal but also went about daily work and relationships in a normal way, not simply inactively waiting for answers.  Theirs was a quotidian life, full of the mundane and routine and ordinary --- pray and garden, pray and clean, pray and prepare meals, and so on.  The answers might be in the garden or laundry, in the words of another brother, or in a scripture which enters their mind as they mend clothes.  Theirs is an active asking and seeking.

In sum, ask, and ask again, and again.  Seek.  Look everywhere.  Expect anything from anyone.  Knock.  Do what you know to do now, and then do it again.  Ask, seek, knock, and then do it again.  It's bulldog prayer and faith.  Don't let go.  Like Jacob, don't let go until He blesses you.


Why I Don't Have to Like Harvey

caddy When I was a neophyte record mogul (that's a joke, people), there was an artist I worked with who had a manager who was absolutely the most difficult and unlikable person I have ever dealt with.  Let's call him Harvey, just to personalize him, and his poorly managed artist, Lucy.  Harvey initially directed me, as is his prerogative, to have no contact with Lucy but to only deal with him.  This was annoying,inconvenient, and sad since part of the reason I was in the business was because I enjoyed the friendship and peculiar perspective of artists.  Then, during our ensuing re-negotiations over a contract (which took a ridiculous four or five months), he sent me sizzling one-page late night  faxes, in 10-point typewriter type, single-spaced, with a plethora of profanity sprinkled throughout.  One fax alone, in one page, had 23 four-letter words!  Since I had a home office, I had to censor the fax machine.  (I had never met anyone who made such liberal use of profanity.  Of course, I've never been in the military either.)  Thereafter, he proceeded to upset Lucy on numerous occasions (resulting in weepy phone calls), disagree on about every point imaginable, and alienate radio promoters, press, and distributors.  I later found out that Harvey had been ordered off the premises of the last record label Lucy was signed to.  I wish I had known.

I didn't like Harvey.  You wouldn't either.  Being a Christian, that used to bother me,  as I somehow felt like I should be able to like him, to, as my mother and other mothers have said, "find the good in him." It was a noble objective but, in Harvey's case, not reasonable.  You see, he was completely disagreeable.  I couldn't find good, and even if I had, it would not have made me like him.

But I don't have to like him.  In fact, I don't have to like anyone.  Of the 1227 times the word "like" appears in the Bible, it seems never to have been in the context of a command to "like" someone.  Most of the time it is used in a simile, in a way of comparing things.  Conniving Jacob comes in to see blind Issac, and the old man says 'Ah, the smell of my son is like the smell of a field that the Lord has blessed'" (Gen. 27;27).  Jesus says "Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls" (Mt, 13:45).  And John, awestruck by a vision of Heaven, grasps for comparisons, saying he "heard what sounded like a great multitude, like the roar of rushing waters and like loud peals of thunder, shouting: 'Hallelujah! For our Lord God Almighty reigns'" (Rev. 19:6). 

In the few places the word is used in the sense of taste or preference, its object is clearly not a person, nor are we ever commanded to "like" a person.  "And Abimelech said, 'My land is before you; live wherever you like'" (Gen. 20:15). Or maybe it refers to how you spend your money: "When the Lord your God has enlarged your territory as he promised you, and you crave meat and say, 'I would like some meat,' then you may eat as much of it as you want" (De. 12:20).  Live where you like, eat as much meat as you like, spend your free time as you like, and so on.  Never, however,  are we commanded to like anyone.

This is a freeing thought. There are a lot of people in the church universal that I might not like --- the obnoxious, the confrontational, the militant, and the tactless --- much less those still in unbelief.  And yet, I'm not off the hook.  Jesus says "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you," (Mt. 5:44)  Commendable things like patience, gentleness, and kindness are the fruits of the Love that resides in me and is working its way out in me (Gal. 5:22).  When Jesus saw the vain and egocentric and profane and manipulative Harveys of his world, "he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd" (Mt. 9:36).  And we are told to do likewise, to "love, because he first loved us" (1 Jn. 4:19).

After a few years, I'm done with Harvey.  Lucy moves on.  I find out, later, that Harvey is an alcoholic, that he was estranged from his father, that I really met him on his way down.  I begin to feel a little of what Jesus felt, too late, that he was a needy and helpless man who needed the love of Christ but couldn't then receive it.

Near the end, I flew to Atlanta and Harvey picked me up in a red Cadillac convertible at the airport, sporting shoulder-length blonde hair and large orange-tinted sunglasses.  I was impressed, in a way, and repulsed.  In the recording studio, he sat in the corner, burned incense, and smoked cigarettes, agitated and in the way of the producer, telling me stories of the artists he had worked with (you'd know their names) and the people he knew (and I should know).  I was awed of the man, in a way, novice that I was, but I did not like him.  And I didn't need to like him.

I should have better loved him, though.  Jesus did.


Honeybees, Competitive Sports, and the Peaceable Kingdom

bee Among the many non-human life forms I would not want to be reincarnated as is the honeybee.  Despite the status enjoyed by the honeybee as our chief pollinator and, thus, contender for MVO (most valuable organism) of the planet, life for the male honeybee is short-lived, practically purposeless, and destined to torture and death.  In her memoir of beekeeping, Robbing the Bees, Holley Bishop describes it this way:

"Except for the (dead) stud drones, males are useless to the hive, especially in commercial apiaries, where queens arrive already fertilized.  With a fertile monarch in residence, the female worker bees persecute the drones by withholding food and sometimes gnawing off their wings and legs in an effort to evict them.  Most go willingly and die outside in a few days time.  Reluctant adult males and drone larvae are often dragged to the entrance of the hive and dramatically pushed out.  By the fall [of the year], when nectar resources are scarce, no male freeloaders are left in the colony.  The queen, abundantly fertile and dutifully laying her eggs, does not seem to care.

In fact, as Bishop elsewhere points out, the male bee's only brief moment of usefulness will be when a new queen leaves the hive, once, and perhaps up to ten lucky studs have the pleasure of mating with her in the air before they die.  The male bee's chance of being among the ten is slim, and even were he so lucky, we do not even know if the mating is  in fact pleasurable as opposed to dutiful.  Were they sensate creatures, the male bee, once he senses his sad destiny, might well say with Job, "May the day of my death perish, and the night it was said, 'A boy is born!'" (Job 3:3).  And so on.

For all their "teamwork," hard work, and productivity, there's the appearance of even more "evil" in the hive.  After the new queen emerges, her first item of business is to kill all her competitors and then her mother, establishing herself as only eligible queen.  The parallels to regime changes in certain countries at certain times is unmistakable.

The reason I set off "evil" in quotes is because one of the mysteries of nature is that we do not know that this is in fact a distortion of God's original intent for Creation or an effect of the Fall, a brokenness we sense and yet one incorporated by God in what seems a functioning and well-balanced natural order.  Cornelius Plantinga, in Engaging God's World, muses about it this way, as he considers the extra-human effects of the Fall: "And so we have old questions without good answers: Is carnivorousness a part of God's original design?  Judging by the fossil record and the incisors of carnivores, it seems so.  Judging by the scriptural prophecies of shalom and by our own hearts and minds, it seems not so."  Plantinga goes on  to point to Isaiah's prophecy of the peaceable kingdom in Isaiah 11:6, where the "lion will lay down with the lamb," where the violence of nature seems but a memory.  I don't know how this all works out, but I'm smitten by Isaiah's picture of a world where lions rest with lambs, where there is peace between dogs and cats, where even male honeybees have something useful and valuable to do and don't suffer the dishonor of the eviction by uppity women from their own homes.

I even thought of this yesterday as I watched my daughter's middle school volleyball team compete against another team for the division championship.  I can barely watch competitive sports, no matter who wins, because the only feeling that persists with me is the sense that someone must lose.  Say what you will, it's poor consolation that you did your best, were sportsmanlike in your loss, or were a good witness --- when all you feel is your loss.  Watching the loss, I wondered what sports will be like in heaven.  Imagine loving losing. Or imagine loving the play of it so much that winning and losing become irrelevant --- so irrelevant that such words fall out of the vocabulary of the New Kingdom from misuse and what they denoted seems a distant memory (if remembered at all).  It's difficult to imagine this, but the closest I come to this is child play, that time when children do not play competitively but simply play.  Nowadays this may end by the age of three.  Even in the sandbox, however, there is competition for scarce resources: sand, buckets, and shovels.

Let's face it.  The world is beset by sin --- full of winners and losers, tortured insects, the "red of tooth and claw" --- corrupted in every sense and yet ,still, as the hymn says, "He shines in all that's fair."  Thank God there is much that's fair.  There's hope for the male honey bee and for those who suffer the sting of loss.  All will be set to rights in the coming Kingdom.  All will be well.


In the Shadow of the Moon: A Review

moon One vivid memory from my childhood is that of watching the black and white images of Neil Armstrong taking that first step from the lunar module of Apollo 11 and uttering those famous (and apparently unscripted words) "That's one small step for man; one giant leap for mankind."  I was ten, and I sprawled on the floor of my sister's bedroom as my parents and I watched the grainy images on our sole TV --- a 9" portable Zenith.  I don't think I thought a thing about it the next day, though I know now what an auspicious occasion I witnessed that evening, the momentous event that it was for the whole world.

On a friend's suggestion, I recently viewed a showing of Ron Howard and Chris Riley's documentary, In the Shadow of the Moon.  As partial as I am to story, it's sometimes difficult for me to watch a documentary, much less pay for the experience.  Not this time.  I was transfixed by a film which captures the space program's heyday from the perspective of those now graying men who actually went to the moon, as well as from historic, archival footage, some never before seen publicly.  Co-Director Riley was given access to the 10,000 rolls of 16mm film preserved in canisters at Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, much of it untouched since the 1960s.  The project took 10 years to complete, as after reviewing the film and capturing about five hours of it, they then had to marry it up with sound --- a difficult, tedious process.

Watching the film, I appreciated so much the focus on the individual men, all seen in close up interview shots (although Armstrong, a very private person, was not seen).  They came across as ordinary men, each with their unique personalities, and yet men who did an extraordinary thing: they went to the moon and back.  Nothing was culled that might not suit Hollywood.  For example, left in is Buzz Aldrin's Christmas Eve reading of the Creation account of Genesis 1, which NASA for later sued over by an atheist.  Left in was Charlie Duke's testimony of faith in Jesus Christ, as well as other spiritual references by astronauts.  The film captures the expectancy and pride felt everywhere by human beings witnessing a monumental thing.  A French woman exclaimed: "I always knew America could do it."  Can you imagine that kind of response now?  But the film didn't provoke nostalgia, as if that was the glory days.  It just made me appreciate those times when people realize we are all one human race --- a fleeting moment, perhaps, but an echo of the unity we will have in Christ in a new heavens and new earth.

There are a few words of profanity, but I encourage families with teenagers and preteens to see the film.  It will give you and appreciation for these men and all who made the program a success.  It might even inspire careers in aviation and aerospace.  And in a time when books promoting the "New Atheism" are bestsellers, it's good to hear those few men who have seen the world from a little of God's perspective acknowledge that there must be more than this, that there must be a Creator.

[For more information on the movie and showtimes, visit the online movie site here.]


The Matter of Why Space Matters

space God loves matter, which is why he made lots of it (God must love space even more.) 

(Cornelius Plantinga, in Engaging God's World)

When Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins were hurtling through space toward the moon in Apollo 11, they had no idea what they were hurtling  through.  We still don't.  At least we don't know much. In fact, my cats may know just as much for all I know.

I think of space as emptiness, as the absence of things, or matter, and yet scientists say that's not really the case.  As I understand them, outer space is not completely empty (that is, a perfect vacuum) but contains a low density of particles, predominantly hydrogen plasma, as well as electromagnetic radiation, dark matter and dark energy --- mostly the latter two "dark" twins, except we really don't know what they are or if they're really there (kind of like imaginary playmates).  For instance, dark matter is said to be a mysterious substance which scientists think accounts for most of the mass in the universe but that is invisible to current instruments.  We don't really know for sure that it's there, and yet this stuff we can't see accounts for 96% of the universe.  But you know scientists; they positively live to postulate.

But enough of that.  I think of space more in the sense of spaciousness, an openness filling the yawning gaps between good solid things like trees, stars, and people.  There's a lot of it around.  God made it, so he must love it (says Plantinga), and given how much of it there is, he must love it a lot.

God does love space --- the sparseness of it, the roominess of it, the solitude of it, the wonder of it, the silence of it, and the noise of it.  And so should we, or so do we, but for sin's curse.  Because of sin, some of us can't abide being alone in the solitude of space. Agoraphobics, those who fear open places, hide in their rooms, undone by the expanse of space and place.  And some of us, like nettling bureaucrats, rush to fill every interstice of human experience with a regulation, rule, or command --- legalists to the core who can't abide the inevitable space in our codifications of appropriate behavior.  And yet it was not to be this way.

Our distant ancestor, Job, marveled at the emptiness of space, wondering that "he spreads out the northern skies over empty space; he suspends the earth over nothing," (Job 26:7) and later concluding that "these are but the outer fringe of his works; how faint the whisper we hear of him!" (26:14).  The Psalmist kicks back on the grass outside Jerusalem and wonders aloud: "When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him?" (Ps. 8:3-4).  Part of what he considers in those heavens is the juxtaposition of visible objects like stars with the vast spaciousness of space, the separation of what is from what is not.  Kant said space is relationship, a way to order our experience of reality; Newton, that it was absolute, a part of reality.  I think it's both.  Sitting in my office, I enjoy space as something real I can move around in and also the sense of space as a juxtaposition of the empty with definite objects like walls and desks and windows.

I love space.  When I open Scripture to the Creation account of Genesis 1-3, I'm thankful for the vast spaciousness of the Word that made it all.  Behind the words "God made" lies a rich and infinite domain of interpretation, of room for human exploration.  And when I hear the reassuring words of "Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path," (Ps 119:105), I'm glad the Word is the lamp and not the path, that I have a sure guide but a vast landscape through which to find my way.  That's space. That's the kind of space God gives us.

Leaving the space of outer space and the vastness of the landscape of life, I'm thankful for the simple yet profound space of a poem.  No one better illustrates the fulsome nature of space with poetic verse than the spare poetry of William Carlos Williams:

so much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens.

(The Red Wheelbarrow).  Writing about the poem in Understanding Poetry, poet Robery Penn Warren said that "[r]eading this poem is like peering at an ordinary object through a pin prick in a piece of cardboard. The fact that the tiny hole arbitrarily frames the object endows it with an exciting freshness that seems to hover on the verge of revelation."  In other words, more is said by what is unsaid than by what is said. 

And consider the short story, the poor stepchild of the literary world.  (Evidence: The Atlantic Monthly, which published short stories by our finest writers for 150 years, abruptly stopped publishing stories in 2005.)  A story like Flannery O'Connor's "The Geranium," which touches in a concrete way on racism, radiates outward into the unknown.  Who was Old Dudley?  What was his early life like?  What will happen to him?  We don't know.  We can imagine.  We can place this snapshot of life in a greater context we supply -- in space.

We may not know if space is matter, but we know it matters.  If we love it, like God does, if we wonder at it and relish its existence, life will open.  We won't be afraid, but free.

Waves can't break without rocks that dissolve into sand
We can't dance without seasons upon which to stand
Eden is a state of rhythm like the sea
Is a timeless change

Turn your eyes to the world where we all sit and dream
Busy dreaming ourselves and each other into being
Dreaming is a state of death, can't you see?
We must live through who we are

If we can sing with the wind song
Chant with thunder
Play upon the lightning
Melodies of wonder
Into wonder life will open

We are children of the river we have named "existence"
Undercurrent and surface pass in the same tense
Nothing is confined except what's in your mind
Every footstep must be true

If we can sing with the wind song
Chant with thunder
Play upon the lightning
Melodies of wonder
Into wonder life will open

(Bruce Cockburn, "Life Will Open," from Sunwheel Dance, 1971)


Wide Angle Radio (Premiere): The Best Music You Never Heard

WideAngle3 Part of my reason for having been in the music business at all (as it was not a very lucrative business anyway) was a desire to assist artists who are Christians in pursuing their vocation while embedded in the larger culture (as opposed to cloistered in an artificial Christian subculture).  I felt that  excellent music that spoke to the universals of what was true and good would resonate with both Christians and non-Christians.  It does.  However, the business environment between 1995 and 2005 had little place for such music.  I remember meetings with Christian record label representatives who, while admitting that they loved the music, declined to sell it, insisting that it had no place on Christian radio and would sell poorly in Christian book stores.  (If you didn't know it, most execs at Christian record labels do not listen to the very music they promote and sell.)  As a label, Silent Planet Records was a stealth label in the Christian market, whereas in the larger mainstream market, while distribution was not difficult to obtain, the sheer quantity of product made it difficult to obtain shelf space in stores or sufficient attention.

Musing on this sorry state of affairs in 1999, I came up with the brilliant (read ill-advised and expensive) idea to produce a radio show for Christian radio to promote this music.  I selected veteran Christian musician and author John Fischer to host, figuring that this would give us credibility in the marketplace.  We also gave the show to Christian radio.  What Christian radio show would not accept such free programming?  Most, come to find out.  While some understood the content, most didn't.  In fact, suffice it to say that the featured music, interviews, and commentary on the one-hour weekly show were too artful and thoughtful for the dumbed-down world of Christian radio. 

Now, it's been a while, and I'm over all that.  Radio is still a formulaic place, with tight playlists configured to appeal to a specific demographic.  But thoughtful music, like most good art, generally belongs to a small group of folk who "get it."  I suspect that some of you are reading this blog.  For that reason, I've decide to make these shows available on the blog as downloadable MP3s.  That's right --- free.  I think you'll appreciate them more than the radio promoters and label reps. 

Each show is around 55 minutes long and comes in three segments.  In the left sidebar, under the Wide Angle logo, you'll find the three segments from the premiere episode.  Click on each link and the file will download.  In the weeks and months ahead, I'll be uploading more shows.  There's a lot of great material! And while there's obviously not any new music, much may be new to you, anyway, and besides, great music lives on.  If you want a short promo, try this (you may need to click play twice):

Listening to this premiere episode, it's apparent that we are both finding our way and introducing the series.  There's an interview with Jan Krist, music by Pierce Pettis, Brooks Williams, Bruce Cockburn and more, and pithy commentary by John Fischer.  I hope you enjoy it. 

Stay tuned for more from Wide Angle Radio.  And let me know what you think by posting a comment.


Man Needing Prayer: A Conversation

 

waiting I don’t know what to say. Thanks for asking though. I’ve just had a bad day.

I lost my car keys. Probably one of my kids. Or the dog. I hope he ate ‘em. Serves the dumb dog right. Never been too bright. Too yappy. I’ve about had it with that dog. Don’t ever, ever, ever get one. Drives me crazy. Peed on my pillow one day. If it wasn’t for my kids. . .

What’s that? Why’s my shirt tail hanging out? Listen, man, mind your own business. I’m not feeling GQ today. I was rushed. Sorry about that. Yeah, I’m OK. Doing great. Just great.

No, no, really, I’m sorry. I’m a little stressed, you know. I missed my flight. Yeah, appreciate it. You too? Bummer. Yeah, flying’s not what it used to be. Just an airborne cattle car. Crappy food too. Or no food. Might as well take the bus. Might even be faster.

I think that Taxi driver was Al-Queda. Jeez. Cellphones in both hands. Go figure. I thought we’d had it once. Damn near hit a UPS truck. Don’t get me started. Don’t get me started. What’s the country coming to? Nobody speaks English. Don’t know how to drive. Don’t they know this is America? Bunch of Islamic thugs, that’s what. I can’t believe it.

Top this. Yesterday, my laptop broke. Yeah, the hard drive is fried. I called tech support. Couldn’t even understand the guy. Probably Indian. Pungo, yeah, that’s the name. Now what an American name. Ha, ha. Japs and Indians and Ayatollahs taking over. We’ll all be wearing turbans. Women walking around in burquas. Ha, ha. I’ll vote for that. Good for bald men and ugly women. Ha, ha.

What’s that? YOU’RE FROM IRAQ? Hey, sorry buddy. Nothing personal. Just those flippin’ terrorist thugs. That’s who I’m talking about. You know what I mean. I mean, you even look American. Got no problem with the Prophet. Really. Muhammed is just all right with me. Doobie Brothers. 1974. Ha, ha.

You’re welcome, you’re welcome. You’re OK. Second generation, you say? Christian? Really? They got Christians in Iraq? Might as well paint a target on your back. Right? Your mother’s there? Oh, sorry man. Really. Yeah, I got no problem with Jesus. Now those Bible-thumpers. . . . Don’t get me started.

I’m open-minded. I mean, this is the USA. You got your personal beliefs. I got mine. Live and let live. That’s what I say. Live and let live.

Man, I’m losing it. I could use a drink. You wanna get a drink? Oh, no, sorry. Against your religion? Ha, ha, that’s funny, against your wife’s religion. Ha, ha. Mine too, mine too. She’d blow a gasket if I started up again.

Don’t get me started about women. That’s another story. I told my wife I totaled the BMW. Yeah, two days ago. No, no, I’m fine. Really. Just can’t remember my name. Ha, ha. That’s a joke, man. Anyhow, she flipped. Wasn’t my fault. Guy crossed the center line. Rolled it. Yeah, her car. I flipped, then she flipped. Ha, ha.

Yeah, what a day. What a life.

I can’t help it if we’re in debt either. $73,000 in credit card debt. Can you believe that? They wanna shut off my credit. Friggin’ banks. Greedy bastards. Always after the money. Yeah, I got one mean “personal banker.” Smiling while she tells me they’ll foreclose. Mean. I can’t help it if I’m between jobs. I’m looking. I’m doing the best I can.

Man, I’m dry. Like a desert in here.

Yeah, downsizing. Guess I’ll be flippin’ burgers, ha, ha. No, I ain’t foreign enough. Not qualified. Ha, ha.

No, no, really, I got nothing against foreigners. Just need to stay where they are. They already got a country. No, I got no problem with you. You grew up in the USA. Made in the USA.

Two kids. How ‘bout you? Nice. That’s your wife? Hot. What’s she doing with you? Ha, ha. Arranged marriage? Yeah, wish somebody had arranged mine.

Oh man, what a day. What a day.

I gotta get on a plane. I really do. Gotta go somewhere. I need a change.

Yeah, don’t get me started.

That’s your flight? Yeah, been nice talking to you too, man. You’re OK.

Hey, thanks. Yeah, I’ll call you sometime. Sometime.

Yeah, you do that. You pray for me.

I need that.

I really need that.

[Ever meet anyone like this? I think I have, somewhere in an airport waiting lounge. They're obnoxious. Loud. And needy.]


Growing Up African: A Review of Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, by Alexandra Fuller (2001), and Rainbow’s End, by Lauren St. John (2007)

dogs I’m hardly qualified as an expert on South or East Africa. After all, I only visited there with my wife for three weeks in 1987, and then only in a kind of surreal Hemingway-style photographic safari unknown to practically all Africans, white and black. And yet even now I can remember its sounds, sights, smells, and tastes --- lions growling in the chill night, liquid sounds of Africans talking softly around the campfire, the musty earthy smell of the city in Nairobi, the smiling begging faces of the children --- all just photographs for me, a brief vacation. But for some, it’s home; it’s where they grew up. Rainbowsend

For whatever reason, the most evocative books of Africa for me are those written by women --- white Africans. Early on it was Isak Denison’s Out of Africa, of course, and then Beryl Markham’s West With the Night. Then there was Elspeth Huxley’s Flame Trees of Thika. All were made into movies or mini-series. Now, I can add two more fine memoirs to the collection: Alexandra Fuller’s Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight and Lauren St. John’s Rainbow’s End. Both deal with growing up in a white African family in rural (what was then) Rhodesia, both during a civil war and after independence. Both document the sad dysfunctionality of a family under strain, the insecurity of being African and yet not ultimately being welcome in your own country, and, of course, the rich and varied landscape of Africa. I can recommend both.

Alexandra Fuller grew up in a tobacco farming family in Rhodesia, living on the perilous land mine-strewn and rebel-infested east border with Mozambique. Her mother and father are hardy people, and Bobo (her nickname) and older sister Van learn to ride horses, shoot guns, do basic first aid, and entertain themselves, the neighborhood not being full of children. Her Dad goes off for weeks at a time to fight with the Rhodesian army against the rebels seeking to overthrow the white minority government. Her mother manages. They become tough and resilient, and yet underneath she struggles with insecurity, with a mother that is manic-depressive and given to drink, and the sense that she is responsible for the death of her young sister, who fell in a pool at the young age of two under her watch. She attends boarding school, first for whites, and, after independence, with black Africans. After independence, they move to Malawi, and then to Zambia, her dad soldiering on, working, and her mother ultimately, after a stay in a mental institution, released under medicine to control her manic-depressive episodes.

Fuller tells her story in relatively short, dialog-rich chapters with colorful descriptions of the people and places where she lived. I found it compelling and, while at times sad, mostly a testament to the resilience of hardy people who adapted to the changes that came to them in life. I enjoyed the dynamic immediacy of her language:

If we perch on the rocks around the ghost camps we can look out and see what the guerillas must have seen when they were camped there. We see that they have watched us, that they must know where we go every day,our favorite walks, the way we ride. They can see me running down to the dairy first thing in the morning, and Mum and me leaving the house (too late to be back before it is dark) for her evening walk. They have seen Vanessa alone in the garden painting and reading. They have seen Dad striding down to the barns or kicking up sand as he scuds off on his motorbike. Still, they have not swooped down from the hills and killed us, leaving us lipless, eyelidless, bleeding, dead.

There is a remarkable similarity in these books.  Lauren St. John also grew up on a farm in Gatooma, east of Salisbury (present day Harare).  She too had a sister, a Dad who fought in the Rhodesian army, a family also somewhat dysfunctional, and the experience of boarding school.  Here too the same experience of being outcasts in your own country creates an identity crisis --- when all that you thought was true of the world turns out not quite so.

St. John's prose is denser, less immediate, but still richly descriptive of her life in Africa and the emotions she felt:

The sense of disillusionment I felt was total.  The country I had loved so much that at times I almost wished I could die for it was not the country I had thought it was.  We had repressed people, oppressed people, tortured people, and murdered people for the worst of possible reasons: the color of their skin.  Twenty thousand people had died in our war, apparently for nothing. . . . I felt like an earthquake had taken place in my head.

Both St. John and Fuller have a profound alienation from all they knew, their world turned upside down.  Interestingly, both professed faith in Christ during their teenage years but, presumably, finding no support for their faith at home, did not continue in faith.  What we are left with is two women who survived, who even came to some peace with family and past, but, in the end, may not have a basis for genuine hope.

These books were moving memoirs --- testaments to a time now lost.  They stick with you, the images haunting my thoughts even today.