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January 2008

Life On the Edge (Day 31): The Sins of the Fathers

desktop_adama_800 I recently rented Season 1, Episode One of Battlestar Gallactica, a show I have never watched on television but have always been interested in seeing, especially since Barbara Nicolosi, a Hollywood scriptwriter and blogger at Church of the Masses, raved about it here.  It's full of complex moral issues, good acting, and even religious themes.  In the first episode I watched tonight, it was simply serendipitous that the overarching theme (and one overtly stated) was how the "sins of the fathers are visited on the children," when that is part of the passage that Stephen Smallman focuses on in today's reading.

Like Smallman, I used to fret about the meaning of and justice of this pronouncement in scripture.  Shouldn't people be held responsible for their sins, not the sins of others?  But his conclusion is the only one that makes sense: God is telling us the nature of the world, as it is, not as it has to be or even as He wills it.  He is not punishing our children for our sins but simply stating that our sins have consequences that even run through generations (like the abused child who becomes the abuser).  The world may be bent, may be subject to the law of entropy (a tendency toward disorder), yet there are contrary forces at work, whether via common grace or special grace.  The Gospel is transformative for all things, because God is at work reconciling to Himself all things (Col. 1:20).  It's all about grace in the end.

That's good news.  It's good news for people because as bodies age and minds slow it's an assurance that the best of who we are is preserved and the worst transformed in eternity.  It's good news for the ordinary landscapes that John Stilgore pedals through as well, that they too will be transformed and not forever bear the consequences of neglect or despoiling done by people or even wild nature, that the land itself and dogs and cats and all the variegated wonder of the animal and plant kingdoms will be preserved, transformed, and brought to fulfillment one day that everything in Creation will be all of what God intended, that once more He can say "It is good."

All of this is a future hope and a present comfort.  God is saying what is (sin and it's consequences) but also what He is doing (reversing those consequences through people who love Him).  The sins of the fathers may be visited on their children, but thankfully the Love of the Father takes up residence in His people and His world.

[The "40 Days On the Edge" posts are my ruminations in light of Stephen Smallman's devotional entitled "Forty Days On the Mountain," read in conjunction with Harvard Landscape History Professor John Stilgore's "Outside Lies Magic: Regaining History and Awareness in Everyday Places."  Both books may be ordered by clicking on them where they are listed in the sidebar under "Current Reading."]


Life On the Edge (Day 30): Bad News for Post-Modern Man

cross "The gospel has to be bad news before it can be good news," says Frederick Beuchner.  I love that quote.  If we don't have an understanding of the seriousness of sin and the wrath of a holy God who, by the nature of reality must punish sin, must do justice, then we cannot really appreciate the grace and mercy of God.  We live in the shallow water of what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called "cheap grace": we do not know the cost of what has been purchased for us, the extravagant love God has for us.

Everyone but the sociopath believes in justice.  They may want it done to someone else.  They may differ on the standard by which to measure justice.  But everyone believes that evil should not go unpunished, that the Hitlers, Stalins, and 9/11 assassins should not go scot free.  When you peek beneath the skirt of every post-modern's meta-narrative, their "big story" that helps them make sense of life, you'll find justice.

That should tell us that the really big story, the "deep magic," is the requirement that there be a punishment for evil.  When I turn the searchlight of justice on myself, I know I am guilty too, and justice must be done.

Thank God for an even deeper magic, a God who let justice be done to Himself for the evil of his people, thereby setting us free.  That good news swallows the bad news.  The Gospel is free, but oh so costly.  I'm living scot-free, but I know what He did for me, I know the cost.


Life On the Edge (Day 29): Relocated Sin (or, Forgiveness)

8800716895 “[A]s far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us” (Ps. 103:12). Have you ever thought about just how far that is? A better way, I think, to envisage the relocation of our sins is to consider that our sins are at the horizon; even though we can see them --- both the ones of the past, the present, and those to come --- we cannot bear (or carry) them anymore. We may feel a lingering guilt for them, because we have not forgotten them, because we can remember them, and we may know that they will inflict us again, and yet we no longer can be brought to task for them. As the horizon recedes as we walk toward it, so our sins are unreachable, unbearable.  They rest on Christ.

The other thing that is helpful is to know that God, who knows us better than we know ourselves, has removed sin we do not even know about, failures of which we are not cognizant. What a freeing thought. I cannot come up with a sin he has not already carried away. I may suffer the consequences of my stupidity or waywardness, but it won’t kill me (spiritually, that is). It’s over. Justice has already been done. Jesus fell on the grenade of my sin, and it’s over, and He lives.  Thank God.


40 Days On the Edge (Day 28): A Tidal Wave of Love

wave Imagine what a different world it would be if no one broke their agreements, if no one breached their contracts. That’s a world that’s almost unimaginable. In fact, the whole of contract law developed to deal with people who break agreements, as a means to stabilize these kind of economic relationships. Largely, it works. People mostly do what they say they will do, mostly abide by the terms of agreements. Circumstances change, and people are not omniscient, so the law even provides a way for parties to undo agreements, such as when they make a mutual mistake of fact, or they renegotiate. These are conditional promises we make to one another.  But that’s not the kind of promise God makes to us.

God’s covenant love for us is unconditional. There is that continued refrain in the Old Testament, demonstrated in His great acts, as when He always forgives and reclaims His people after they abandon Him and chase after false idols, and in His continual reaffirmations of His love, as in Psalm 136 where we hear the continuous refrain of his love continues forever. Repetition serves the purpose of hopefully driving home the point that God is steadfast and loyal in His love for us and will never abandon us. And yet it is a difficult knowledge to appropriate, as there is no human analogy for this kind of love. People who love us fail us. The sun, seemingly constant in its light and warmth, will go dim on some distant day. The dog who always comes, even when chastised, will eventually, on some occasion, be distracted by the neighborhood cat or decide to seek out greener pastures, and will not come. There is no real constancy like God’s love.

In the account of his conversion, the evangelist and revivalist Charles Finney recounts his encounter with the love of God:  "No words can express the wonderful love that was shed abroad in my heart. I wept aloud with joy and love; and I do not know but I should say, I literally bellowed out the unutterable gushings of my heart. These waves came over me, and over me, and over me, one after the other, until I recollect I cried out, 'I shall die if these waves continue to pass over me.' I said, 'Lord, I cannot bear any more;' yet I had no fear of death."  I don't know if Finney's account was excessive emotionalism, but his account does give you a sense of the relentlessness of God's love, its tidal power in your heart.

It’s worth dwelling on that Love above all loves every day. When I do that, I don’t worry about failing, about falling short of whatever standard I have set or someone has set for me, about getting it all done. I can do nothing to stop Him from loving me, nothing to merit it. If I did nothing but watch old reruns of Frasier 24/7, eat, and sleep, it would be of no consequence to His love for me (though it would be a waste of a mind, such as it is). If I could really appropriate this knowledge, really live it, I would do everything in gratitude, not dutifully but thankfully, not for approval but for love.  As Brendan Manning says, "God's love is based on nothing, and the fact that it is based on nothing makes us secure.  Were it based on anything we do, and that 'anything' were to collapse, then God's love would crumble as well.  But with the God of Jesus no such thing can possibly happen.  People who realize this can live freely and fully."

I have a lot of work to do, but that work is really only one thing: learning to rest on the love of Jesus alone. Only the faith He gave me qualifies me for that work. Only as I understand that Love do I grow in becoming who He intends me to be.

Drop the laundry. Put the pen down. Shut off the monitor. Stop trying to live up to what your spouse or parent thinks you need to be, to who you think you need to be.  And just think: None of that will stop His love.


Wide Angle Radio (Episode Five)

skat Intense alternative folk rock.  That's how the website CD Baby refers to the music of Skatman Meredith.  I think it's accurate.  Skat (whose real name is David Meredith), was only the fourth artist I signed to Silent Planet Records and the first artist (make that person) I had ever met who lived in Delaware.  (Do you know anyone who lives in Delaware?)  Not only that, he lived in a tiny town called Hockessin, the name of which has stuck in my mind since I met him ten years ago. 

Skat is honest, generous (when I met him he was giving CDs away at concerts, something more practical in these times than in those times), funny, and laid back --- an extremely easy person to work with.  On this episode of Wide Angle, in an interview with John Fischer, you'll hear that honesty from a guy who has had struggles but remains hopeful.  We were hanging out with John Fischer and Skat in the high desert air of Santa Fe, New Mexico, in February 2000, where we had a blast doing the interview, visiting Folk Alliance, and hiking the countryside.  I haven't seen Skat in years, but I still regard it as a privilege to have known and worked with him on two fine records --- The Garden and Mercyside (both of which can be purchased in the Silent Planet store in the sidebar).

Skat, wherever you are, thanks.

[Listen to this month's Wide Angle radio here.]


40 Days On the Edge (Day 26): Up From the Ashes

When Jeremiah walked through the rubble of Jerusalem, he despaired.  What he had warned of for his people had come to pass, and there was no satisfaction in being right, just heart-wrenching grief.  The city itself was grief personified: "How lonely sits the city/ that was full of people. . . . She weeps bitterly in the night. . . " (Jer. 1:1-2).  The whole book of Lamentations is just that: a lament over the destruction of Jerusalem.  And yet even in the rubble of all that he knew, in the ashes of all that was, Jeremiah did not lose hope.  Midway through the book, in its very center, is a affirmation, a memory of who God is, that "the Lord is good. . . " (Jer. 3:25)

In Knowing God, theologian J.I. Packer spends quite a few words trying to elucidate what it means to say God is good.  But as helpful as his discussion is, we can only think of God's goodness by analogy, by its application.  Packer says that the focal point of God's goodness is His generosity, and "[g]enerosity means a disposition to give to others in a way that has no mercenary motive and is not limited by what the recipients deserve but consistently goes beyond it."  And yet. . . we still ask what that looks like to determine what it really means.

I doubt we can appreciate the depth of despair Jeremiah felt, the gut-wrenching emotion at seeing a civilization leveled under the judgment of God.  And yet for all the truth, goodness, and beauty that surrounds me, there are days I still feel like I am walking among the rubble of a civilization, when the underbelly of life is on display, when for just a few minutes I see who we are and who I am but for the mercy of God.  I'm stopped at a traffic light and see a littered median and that affront to beauty becomes emblematic of a greater disregard for Creation and for each other.  I flip through the channels on cable TV and am amazed and shocked at the vapid and coarse nature of most programming.   I make a brief stop at the mall, and I have a sense of the deep unhappiness and discontent that courses through life despite the abundance of material things.

Then I have to ask God to show me His goodness, and He does.  I saw kids out today picking up trash by the road.  In a world of virtual conversation, I met face-to-face with several men and relished the humor and wisdom and human relationships.  I read a poem by Mary Oliver, "Messenger," in which she said

My work is loving the world.
Here the sunflowers, there the hummingbird ---
     equal seekers of sweetness.
Here the quickening; there the blue plums.
Here the clam deep in the speckled sand.

a poem is which she goes on to say that her work is

. . . gratitude, to be given a mind and a heart
     and these body-clothes,
a mouth with which to give shouts of joy
     to the moth and the wren, to the sleepy dug-up clam,
telling them all, over and over, how it is
     that we live forever.

That's what God's doing: loving the world.  And I just need to get on with that.  Get up from the ashes.


40 Days On the Edge (Day 25): Small Graces From a Hand of Kindness

hand Small graces
Little glimpses of the kingdom come
From unexpected places
These are the small graces

(Bob Bennett, "Small Graces," from the album Small Graces)

Justice and mercy, law and grace.  Both are intertwined in scripture.  When God revealed Himself to Moses, as recounted in Exodus 36:6-7, he spoke of both, describing Himself as "a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin," and going on to speak of justice.  As Stephen Smallman notes, his placement of grace before justice suggests that God wants us first to focus on grace.

There are a hundred judgments I see every day.  Murder, poverty, divorce, hateful talk, coarseness in manner and language, selfish greed, natural calamity --- a panoply of judgments borne of sin --- abound and threaten sometimes to monopolize my attention.  We reap what we sow, we suffer the sins of others, we suffer even the brokenness of Creation.  Difficult providences are all around.  All of this is, in some general way, temporal justice for a fallen world.

And yet God is saying, "look for grace, first."  Like William Cowper's hymn says, "Behind a frowning providence/ He hides a smiling face."  Or like the writer of Lamentations says, in the midst of an oracle of woe: "The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases;/ his mercies never come to an end;/ they are new every morning;/ great is your faithfulness" (Lam. 3:22-23).

The sun shines, glistening on the back of still-green magnolia leaves.  The cardinals still visit the feeder in my backyard, the male's red color brilliant against a blue sky.  My wife found her lost earring, and the maids who don't speak much English are giggling about something in the other room.  I'm listening to a song by Bob Bennett, who I haven't seen for four or five years, and listening to him just now I smile remembering the first time we met my then one-year old son pulled his beard.  He's singing "There's a hand of kindness/ Holding me, holding me/ There's a hand of kindness/ holding onto me," and hearing him now is like opening up a door to a long unused room in my memory, rich and deeply peopled.

Grace first, today.

[Do yourself a favor.  Listen to Bob Bennett's "Hand of Kindness here: Then go buy his music here.

[The "40 Days On the Edge" posts are my ruminations in light of Stephen Smallman's devotional entitled "Forty Days On the Mountain," read in conjunction with Harvard Landscape History Professor John Stilgore's "Outside Lies Magic: Regaining History and Awareness in Everyday Places."  Both books may be ordered by clicking on them where they are listed in the sidebar under "Current Reading."]


40 Days On the Edge (Day 24): Experiencing God

crowd Like most Christians, I have at times sought or longed for spiritual "experience."  I have heard of such things, even had good friends tell me such things as Jesus speaking audibly to them, being overwhelmed by a sense of His presence, and so on.  And yet that's not, by and large, my experience.  Nor does it seem normative.

What Moses and Elijah experienced on those mountains long ago was special to them --- hearing the whisper of God, seeing the back of God --- but is not to be sought after by me.  My experience is rooted in the Word of God.  And, really, what endured for Moses was the tablets of commandments, the moral law given to him by God, and for Elijah, the voice, the Word he heard.  That is what endured for generations after, even to us.

Yet, eyes wide open, we still ask for God to reveal Himself to us.  Though our seeing is bounded by and set free by the Word, we rightly look around at the world of the present, the Creation and the built environment, and ask that God speak, that He reveal Himself.  We look back in time, through corridors of memory, and see his providences.  We look ahead, through prophecy and promise, and see what might come.

In 1976, as a college freshman, I attended the Urbana Missions Conference in Illinois.  One night I was in the auditorium with over 10,000 people listening to Billy Graham speak on "Responding to His Glory."  I had an experience.  I felt like I had a glimpse of Heaven, the present reality of the "communion of the saints," a phrase I did not even know at that time.  Since then, I've had that experience many more times, not often but more than I can count, and always unbidden.  I look around in church and feel at home, among family, or I read about the life of some believer now gone, and I realize they are related to me.  I feel kinship.  I'm moved.

I'm glad for spiritual experiences.  But I'm more glad that I have a sure Word to hang onto.


40 Days On the Edge (Day 23): An Amazing Condescension

god If you ask God to reveal Himself to you, He will --- on his terms, that is.  And yet, He need not have done so.  That He is there and not silent is a wondrous thing.  That He is there and entered into His Creation, letting His presence abide among His people in Moses' time or actually becoming incarnate in Jesus --- living with us, suffering, and dying --- is even more wondrous, even unfathomable.  It is an amazing condescension, something analogous to a human being becoming like a gnat.

And it's a continuing condescension.  Not only did God make Himself known to us, He continues to be active in the world and in our lives.  He promises that one day He will reconcile to Himself all things (Col. 1:20) --- you, me, relationships, and a world racked by natural as well as social calamity. In short, he'll fix me, he'll fix it all, he'll undo and make right what has gone so terribly wrong.  And yet He could have justly walked away from it, left us to our own devices.

He did not.  He does not.  He will not leave us alone.  He promises that His Spirit will be with us "to the end of the age" (Mt. 28:20b).  He is not watching from a distance but his "eyes run to and fro throughout the whole earth, to give strong support to those whose heart is blameless toward him" (2 Chron. 16:9a).

Surely God hides us in a cleft in a rock to protect us from the full weight of who He is.  But He is not completely hidden, not veiled.  He is there and He is not silent.  If you're open to Him, the rocks even cry out His name, the full moon on a night like this shouts "I am here," the road under my wheels points home and Home, streetlights lining my path whisper "He is the light."  It's a noisy world, full of raucous praise and whispered glories.  This is my Father's word.  He lives here with us.  He is with the people who He loves.  That gives me hope.

[The "40 Days On the Edge" posts are my ruminations in light of Stephen Smallman's devotional entitled "Forty Days On the Mountain," read in conjunction with Harvard Landscape History Professor John Stilgore's "Outside Lies Magic: Regaining History and Awareness in Everyday Places."  Both books may be ordered by clicking on them where they are listed in the sidebar under "Current Reading."]


40 Days On the Edge (Day 22): Glory

Lights_2When we look carefully at any event, work of art, or part of the built or natural environment, we are actually trying to get to the essence of the thing. Most people don't have a lot of time for such navel-gazing; artists and contemplatives do it all the time. We're asking that whatever it is reveal itself, that it give up its meaning, and it won't generally do so easily.

When Moses asked to see God's glory (Ex 33:18), it was another of his bold requests. He was asking to know the essence of God. As Stephen Smallman says, that glory is "whatever it is that makes God, God." He knew not what he asked. And yet God gives him what he can handle. He hides him in a cleft in the rocks and allows His goodness to pass in front of him, that is, He shows him His benefits. He limits His revelation. Whatever we see of God's glory in Heaven, we are not ready for it now. And yet we can see what He chooses to reveal.

And that's the thing about life. Whether we're mucking through a messy set of circumstances or a seemingly intractable personal problem, marveling at the miracle of honey and the honeybee or how a great city like New York actually works, wondering just what it is about a particular place with its juxtaposition of built and natural features that so brings us a settled joy, or letting the golden words of a poem or story sink into our soul --- we're asking what the glory of the thing is, what is its essence. In so doing, we're asking what God is telling us, letting the glory of the thing give up something of His glory as well.

"Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face." (1 Cor. 13:12). And yet that "poor reflection" (what another version says we see "dimly") can be dazzling. That we are simply looking at an image of what really is, of Who really is (and not the One Himself), stokes our awe. It makes me want to keep the question in front of me all day, no matter what I see or confront: What is the glory of this thing? Who is this King of Glory?


40 Days On the Edge (Day 21): Impudent Prayer

man Whether it's carefully observing buildings, fences, streets, power lines, and other parts of the built environment (as does John Stilgore in Outside Lies Magic); staring hard at the natural environment (as does Annie Dillard in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek); or holding a microscope to your own life (as does Federick Buechner in Telling Secrets), persistence is rewarding.  Understanding comes with patience and doggedness in knocking on doors, seeking out truth, and asking for understanding.

So it is in prayer.  In Luke 1:5:13, Jesus recounts a story of a person who goes to a friend's house at midnight, wakes him up, and asks him to lend him three loaves of bread.  As you might imagine, the friend is not so friendly, given the late hour, and tells him to go home.  And yet his friend persists, and "because of his impudence he will rise and give him whatever he needs." Jesus uses the story to encourage prayer, as He goes on to tell us to "ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you" (Lk. 11:9).  He seems to be encouraging an impudent praying, a persistence born of the imposition that a friend can make on another good friend, knowing that his good friend will not deny him what he seeks.

As Stephen Smallman notes, this is also true of the way Moses made his requests to God.  Even when God assures him in Exodus 33:12-16 that His Presence will go with him, Moses persists, wanting to be certain, to be clear, that God will go not only with Him but also with all His people.  And he gains that assurance.  His boldness, the imposition borne of familiarity, is not rejected but rewarded.  It's an amazing condescension that the Creator of the Universe would allow Himself to be addressed in such a way, and not only that, would give of what He is asked.

All this is a reminder to me that God loves us with the love of a good Father.  More than anything, He wants us to come to Him, to talk, talk, talk, to ask about everything, to seek what we need, to knock on the door anytime anywhere anyplace.  He never sleeps.  He has all the time in the world and more.  So come boldly.  Be impudent in prayer.  God will rise up and give you whatever you need.

[The "40 Days On the Edge" posts are my ruminations in light of Stephen Smallman's devotional entitled "Forty Days On the Mountain," read in conjunction with Harvard Landscape History Professor John Stilgore's "Outside Lies Magic: Regaining History and Awareness in Everyday Places."  Both books may be ordered by clicking on them where they are listed in the sidebar under "Current Reading."]


40 Days On the Edge (Day 20): Rest

In keeping with yesterday's post, I'm taking a break from all media today --- computers, email, and television.  I'd like today to be different, and I suspect that unplugging from all these diversions will help me rest, help me worship, and help me focus. I may even read for couple of hours in one sitting. 

I'll let you know how it goes.  By the way, if you're wondering, this post was written yesterday!


40 Days On the Edge (Day 19): Finding Sabbath

skiffle_bop_115 What is the last time you experienced Sabbath?  Even for Christians, that term has fallen out of usage, and that's not surprising since most don't practice it.  Other than the fact that Christians somewhat regularly attend church on Sunday, their Sunday practices and habits are not so different than those of non-Christians.  Most Christians I know eat at restaurants on Sunday, shop at the mall or grocery store, do yard work, attend or play in athletic events, do house work, work on the car, watch TV, surf the Internet and respond to emails, and so on.  They may not go to work at the office (though some do), probably because I don't know many who work in retail, but they do all of these other things that are similar to what they do every other day of the week.  So Sunday, what some term the Christian Sabbath, is, but for church attendance, just another day for many.

I am a non-Sabbatarian, that is, I do not believe that the Fourth Commandment's requirement of a particular day when work ceases and we enter a holy rest is a part of the moral law.  But when I observe the unceasing commerce, the non-stop activity around me, sometimes I wish I held that belief, and I even consider keeping the day because I think it's a wise thing to do.

God promises believers His rest, his Sabbath.  While I know that more is entailed than the promise of a particular day, the day God gave the Israelites is symbolic of that deeper rest, and symbols have tangible meaning.  Most of us have lost that symbol.  And having lost the symbol we are in danger of losing the rest He promises in a substantial if imperfect way now.  His rest, His Sabbath, is really a gift, not a burden, a time of refreshment, not a time when a killjoy God takes away our toys and requires us to be in church all day or thinking holy thoughts.  We don't have to do the things that we do all week.  We can lay aside all diversions.  We can worship, rest, enjoy Creation, do some extended reading, and play with our children.  Those tangible things done on one particular day are the memory that we can cherish during the rest of the week and the promise we can incorporate into our work-days in some way.  It is also the promise of a deeper, more fully-realized rest to come.

I'm old enough to remember the cultural Sabbath of the South.  Stores were not open.  There was no email and no Internet.  We did not eat out.  Back then as a child I sometimes wished that something would happen, just for some excitement.  Now, I wish it back.  Not because I think it's required, but because I think it prudent and wise, just as I am not required to wear my wedding band to cherish my marriage, and yet that tangible ring is a reminder of all that is promised in marriage.

I need a Sabbath rest.  How about you?


40 Days On the Edge (Day 18): Orphans Of God

sky If you consider the praise that Paul gives in Ephesians 1:3-14, you may experience a disconnect between his experience and your own.  I do.  Paul praises God "who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places" (Eph. 1:3).  It's reminiscent of Peter's confident assertion in 2 Peter 1:3, where he says that "His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness. . . ."  These are unequivocal statements of every, and all: nothing has been withheld from us.

As Stephen Smallman says, "[w]e have been adopted into the richest family in the universe and we are constantly lamenting our poverty!"  What Paul prays for through all these Prison Epistles is that we would know what we have in Christ, that we would know who we are.  It's as if when we read Scripture God is reminding us who we are, and when we walk away from it, He says "Remember who you are."  More than that, He is saying "Act like who you are."  But this is really our life purpose, to discover the essence of God and, in the process, discover the essence of who we are.

Singer-songwriter Mark Heard grasped what it would be like to go through life having the riches of Christ and yet acting like an orphan:

I will rise from my bed with a question again
As I work to inherit the restless wind
The view from my window is cold and obscene
I want to touch what my eyes haven't seen

But they have packaged our virtue in cellulose dreams
And sold us the remnants 'til our pockets are clean
Til our hopes fall 'round our feet
Like the dust of dead leaves
And we end up looking like what we believe

We are soot-covered urchins running wild and unshod
We will always be remembered as the orphans of God
They will dig up these ruins and make flutes of our bones
And blow a hymn to the memory of the orphans of God

Like bees in a bottle we are flying at fate
Beating our wings against the walls of this place
Unaware that the struggle is the blood of the proof
In choosing to believe the unbelievable truth

But they have captured our siblings and rendered them mute
They've disputed our lineage and poisoned our roots
We have bought from the brokers who have broken their oaths
And we're out on the streets with a lump in our throats

We are soot-covered urchins running wild and unshod
We will always be remembered as the orphans of God
They will dig up these ruins
And make flutes of our bones
And blow a hymn to the memory of the orphans of God

(Mark Hear, from Satellite Sky)

When I listen to the small but beautiful catalog of music Mark left us, I sense that he struggled in his relatively short life with realizing the riches he had in Christ, sometimes feeling like an orphan.

I'm not an orphan.  I've chosen to believe the unbelievable truth.  I just need to remember who I am.

Listen to mark Heard's "Orphans of God" here:


40 Days On the Edge (Day 17): "Epi-Knowledge"

epi Nothing is simply as it seems.  Or at least everything is much more than it seems.

John Stilgore's observations based on his explorations of the built environment are useful in peeling back the veneer of the particular places we walk through, drive through, and live amongst to allow us to see the myriad of human decisions that interacted with the natural environment to give us the sensory experience of the places in which we live and work.  Planners' decisions about density, minimum lot size, building setbacks, and size and placement of signs all combine to produce radically different places.  Combined with the characteristics of the natural environment, architectural style, and interior design choices, all these choices have a cumulative  impact on us: This is where we live, not there; this is where we feel at home, not there.  This is the place we know and even love.

I've heard of people who treat place like a commodity.  They shop for a suitable place.  They analyze the job opportunities, the schools, the climate, and the tax burdens, and then they move there.  That's foreign to me.  They move here, live here for a few months, and then figure they know the place.  They don't.  That takes years.  That takes a relationship with the sights, sounds, and smells of a place, as well as a history, and a web of relationships deep and wide.  That's not a superficial acquaintance but an epi-knowledge, a knowledge that gets to the center of what a place is, of its essence.

Something like this kind of knowledge is what Paul is talking about in his "prison letters" --- Ephesians, Colossians, Philippians, and Philemon --- when he prays that believers may "know" the Lord.  As Stephen Smallman points out, Paul uses an intensive word for knowing, the Greek word epignosis, which is "knowing at the center of knowing."  The essence.  The right stuff.  As Smallman says, that kind of knowing leads to doing, to a living out of the reality of truth.

Stilgore is closer to God than he may know.  The epi-knowledge of place is is a point on the way to the epi-knowledge of God.  Knowing a place is, whether conscious or not, a way of knowing the Place-Maker.  More than that, knowing a place is crucial to loving a place, and loving a place is pretty darn close to loving the Creator.

Rootless wanderers concern me.  People who love their place, who know it, who are wedded to it, on the other hand, are not far from the Kingdom.

[The "40 Days On the Edge" posts are my ruminations in light of Stephen Smallman's devotional entitled "Forty Days On the Mountain," read in conjunction with Harvard Landscape History Professor John Stilgore's "Outside Lies Magic: Regaining History and Awareness in Everyday Places."  Both books may be ordered by clicking on them where they are listed in the sidebar under "Current Reading."]


40 Days On the Edge (Day 16): Enduring Passion

plane There is no shortage of passion in the world, but the worth of passion is judged by its object.  Moses had a passion to know God.  So did Paul.  He said he counted "everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord" (Phil. 3:8).  But do I consider everything loss as compared to knowing Christ?  Am I passionate about knowing God?

Beryl Markham, a contemporary of Isak Dineson (think Out of Africa) who grew up 1930s Kenya, had three great passions: Africa, airplanes and horses.  She became the first woman to fly a solo trans-Atlantic crossing, east to west; owned, bred, and showed hundreds of horses; and wrote about Africa in a winsome style reminiscent of Hemingway.  In  West With the Night, her memoir, she is able to communicate that passion.  After reading it years ago, I was entranced with her descriptions of life in Africa and in the air.  I was ready to love all that she loved as well, since she so ably communicated her zeal.  And yet Beryl Markham died a lonely woman in her nineties in a very small cottage near the Nairobi Airport.

I wrote a poem about Markham entitled "Passion," and the first lines seem to communicate the sadness I felt about her life:

Suspended here, wingtips touching heaven,

You savored glory, for a moment, in your

World without walls. Yet

Plummet you did, to the mundane and earthy, to

Spend your passion.

Markham seemed to have had her moment of glory and yet spent the remainder of her life in one failed marriage after another, one opportunity gone south after another, perhaps in an attempt to recapture the feeling of that moment when she soared across the Atlantic.  She died, passionless.

How will I spend my passion?  How will you?   There are momentary passions of career, sports, music, and so on, but knowing Christ is a lifelong passion, a holy zeal, and a passion never spent.


40 Days On the Edge (Day 15): To Be Known

John Stilgore's book, Outside Lies Magic, is really a recordation of his attempt to really see a place, to know it, to name it, if you will. In a chapter entitled "Stops," he bicycles around the various motels, gas stations, and fast food restaurants found around interstate highway cloverleaf intersections, noting the uniformity of landscaping, the nighttime social life, the workers, the environment beyond the parking lots and buildings. He wonders about the motivations behind design and siting decisions, about the lives of those who pass through, about the lives of those who frequent the motel bars and restaurants on Friday and Saturday evenings. While most travelers who pass through barely give it a thought --- needing only a shower, some dinner, and a bed to sleep in --- Stilgore slows down and looks carefully, seeing things travelers would not see.

Know it or not, John Stilgore is imaging God. It is in God's character to know His Creation. After all, He made it, and yet He did not make it and then leave. We know that in Christ "all things hold together," and that He will "reconcile to himself all things" (Col. 1:17, 19). And if he will in fact reconcile and make right all things, then both we and the natural and built environment will be re-created by the One who truly knows us.

In Isaiah 43, God tells His people that they are "precious," "called," honored", and "loved." In Exodus 33 He tells Moses that "I know you by name." Knowing that God made all things and will reconcile all things, it's no stretch to also hear Him say of His Creation that it is "loved," honored," and even "precious." After all, we're told that Christ came because of God the Father's love of the world (kosmos) (Jn. 3:16). That's the universe. That's everything. That's the world God knows.

So, knowing a place is really a divine activity. It's a way of cherishing the world God made as a way of glorifying the One who made it. Like Him, we can know its bent nature, the multitude of ways it is broken and imperfect, but in knowing it we might better seek its restoration to the way God intended it. Slowing down and looking is a start, as we ask God to help us better know Him and His world.


40 Days On the Edge (Day 14): Dogged Prayers

dog Although we no longer have a dog, I well remember persistent companionship of our German Shepherd, Faith. She wanted to be with us. We fenced in the backyard and provided her with a spacious doghouse. She never used it, preferring to sit or lie at the back door where she could watch our every move, even in the rain.

She followed you from room to room, trying to gain your attention in any way she could, nuzzling you, prodding you, and, at times, simply being a pest. If you were in the yard working, she would bring you a stick to throw for her, dropping it at your feet, in the path of the lawn mower, where you were digging in the garden, even in your hand. If you did not take note, she would pick it up and move it closer. Generally polite and patient, she would occasionally bark if nothing else worked to gain our attention, even gently put her paw on your leg to insistently beg your attention.

Whenever we traveled, walked, bicycled, or ran, she wanted to go. She’d be the first in the car, find her leash and bring it to us, run ahead of us and, looking back, beckon us on. Suffice it to say she wanted to be with us every waking moment, didn’t want to lose sight of us, and paid attention to our every move, however slight. She was persistent in her companionship, relentless in her requests, and faithful in her belief that we existed for her.

What a picture of our relationship with God. Moses, the greatest intercessor other than Jesus, demonstrated the same kind of persistence. He spent regular time with God. He held God to His promises, bolding reminding Him of what He had said. He audaciously and persistently asked (and practically demanded) that things be done. He spoke to God like a friend who could speak plainly, without fear of being cast off, having faith that God would be true to His promises. When God indicated that His presence would not be with the people, Moses entreated Him not to leave them, drawing Him back in. Moses lay down at God’s door and would not let Him go.

Our good dog Faith has long since gone on to some good destiny God has not shared with us, and yet she continues to provide a lesson to us of the prayer of faith, the dogged prayer of people who will not let God go.


40 Days On the Edge (Day 13): Heaven's Tug

meteors "When the eyes of the soul looking out meet the eyes of God looking in, heaven has begun right here on this earth."  (A.W. Tozer, in The Pursuit of God)

 Whenever I visit a place on vacation that seems idyllic, like the mountains and canyons of southern Utah, the magnificent Tetons of Montana, or even the restful simplicity of a week by the sea, I always have a tendency to romanticize about what it would be like to live there full-time, how wonderful it would be 24/7, how I would never tire of the beauty.  And yet I know that I am fantasizing about something that is not realVacations are welcome parentheticals in life, not life itself.  And yet we still do it.

Author Robert Finch spent nearly a decade wandering around the Eastern Canadian province of Newfoundland.  Finch, who is not a native of Newfoundland and does not live there, describes the people and land like one who loves a place, sympathetically, and yet realistically, in his book, The Iambics of Newfoundland: Notes From An Unknown Shore.  While he avoids romanticism, even he admits he feels its tug:

"As I have felt the growing strength of my draw to this place, this strange and compelling island, I have recognized the need to try to see things without illusions, without romanticizing them, to see only what is there for what it is.  Ah, but that night, on the dark slopes of Signal Hill, lying with Penny and Nell beneath an assault of burning rocks from the black sky [the Perseid meteor shower], with the lighted voyages, arrivals, departures, and extinctions creating a sense of great time, depth, and distance, and with the invisible deep thrumming of offshore ship engines seeming to come out of the earth itself, I felt as if I was plummeting through overlapping and telescoped layers and stages of connection, toward something unseen and unfelt."

Something like this happens in knowing God.  We want to know Him as he is, without romanticizing Him, and yet much like those who have put a face on Jesus (you know, blond hair and blue eyes), we put a "face" on God.  We imagine He is a benign grandfatherly figure perhaps, or if we are more theologically astute, perhaps we know better than to envision any physical shape (as we know God is spirit), and yet in our imaginings we accentuate, say, His love, at the expense of His justice, his infinite nature at the expense of His personal concern.  Somewhat mystic that I can be, I sometimes do the latter, having no difficulty seeing God as the sustainer of Creation and yet finding it difficult to really believe that He is my friend who knows the hairs on my head and every concern that I have.  And yet He does.  He knows me.

There is no need for imagining.  Like Finch wants to know a place as it is, we want to know God as He really is, to speak to Him "face to face." How do we do that?  Through what Puritan Thomas Boston called the "two books:"

"Whoever would walk with God must be due observers of the Word and Providence of God for by these in a special manner He manifests himself to His people.  In the one we see what He says; in the other what He does.  These are the two books that every student of holiness ought to be much conversant in."

I think Finch was wrong.  He wasn't feeling the tug of romanticism.  In the meteor showers seen in the star-studded sky over Newfoundland, I suspect He was feeling the tug of His Maker, of the eyes of God looking in.  Heaven was both literally and spiritually within sight.  So it is for us.


40 Days On the Edge (Day 12): Embodied Prayer

hands Place always matters.  The obvious fact that we are embodied --- move about, lie down, taste touch, see, smell and hear --- means that our environment, rich with stimuli, holds meaning for us.

Consider the word "home."  Just to say the word immediately stokes the senses.  If asked, I could tell you what "home" looked like, sounded like, felt like, and smelled like for me.  I know the worn smooth feel of the brass doorknob in my hand, see my mother standing in the kitchen, hands in flour, rolling out the bread dough to make biscuits, know the feeling of the bedspread I would flop down on after school, and know the sound of the cars passing by outside or the breeze through the trees by my window.

That such places are impressed in our memories is likely one reason why having a particular place to regularly pray is important.  Through such habitual use of a place, we begin to associate the memory of it with prayer, with a "face-to-face" encounter with God (though maybe not quite in the way Moses did).  In fact, when sight, sound, or smell during the day reminds us of that place, we may even long for it.  You might say it becomes "memorable."

I have a place like that.  I sit in a chair in our third floor guest room and stare out the window at the trees.  The room itself is blessedly spartan, not a magazine or book or computer screen to distract me, and ascending the stairs to go up to that private place I have a physical sense of going "up" to Him, as Moses might have in going up Mount Horeb to converse with God or in walking outside the camp, pitching the Tent of Meeting, and entering into communion with God.  These physical acts are important --- going up, going out --- much as folded hands, kneeling, or lying prostrate on the floor may help our prayer be seen and experienced.  This doesn't mean we cannot pray anywhere, because we can.  As Emily Dickinson said, "Where Thou art --- that is --- Home."  God is everywhere, so we can be at home with Him anywhere, but a regular place helps visually and sensually establish a habit of setting apart a place and time for God.

In a real sense, when we enter this place, when we converse with God, we are brushing up against our true Home  As John Ruskin said, "[Home] is the place of Peace; the shelter, not only from all injury, but from all terror, doubt, and division."  So get up, go out, kneel, lie down, bow, and find a place where you can be at Home with God.  Get physical.  Root prayer in place.


40 Days On the Edge (Day 11): Dark Night of the Soul

dark DARK NIGHT OF THE SOUL

You can pray with all your might
Till your knuckles all turn white
You can look the other way
Hope it’s gone with each new day

You can do your best to hide
You can hold it all inside
You can curse and shake your fist
You can ask why God why this

There is peace somewhere I’m told
There’s a fire out in the cold
There are wonders to behold
In the dark night of the soul

You can give in to your doubts
Try to figure it all out
You can fight the fight alone
Do your best to drink it gone

There is peace somewhere I’m told
There’s a fire out in the cold
There are wonders to behold
In the dark night of the soul

Trust your spirit to be your guide
You’ll come out on the other side

In the absence of the light
Let the shadows hold you tight
You can let your fear and pain
Wash over you like rain

There is peace somewhere I’m told
There’s a fire out in the cold
There are wonders to behold
In the dark night of the soul
In the dark night of the soul

By Kate Campbell & Walt Aldridge
© Large River Music (BMI); Cross Key Publishing Co. Inc./Waltz Time Music Inc. (ASCAP). Featured on For the Living of These Days, Kate Campbell with Spooner Oldham (Large River, 2006).

"But I will not go up among you," said God to the Israelites.  For them, that was a dark night, what they termed a "disastrous word," to be without the presence of God.  But, really, it was both mercy in the sense that it prevented their destruction and a disciplining love in that it brought them to genuine repentance.

I don't know if I know much about what St. John of the Cross termed the "dark night of the soul," but perhaps I have felt it at times, that sense of dryness, depression, or lostness.  In such times we have no appetite for anything and we simply wait for God and hold to what we know in our head but do not feel in our soul: God is there.  God is love.  God is on the move.  "There are wonders to behold/ in the dark night of the soul."


40 Days On the Edge (Day 10): For the Living of These Days

living100There's a haunting quote by writer Flannery O'Connor featured on the notes for Kate Campbell's 2006 gospel album, For the Living of These Days: "Go warn the children of God of the terrible speed of mercy."  I'm rolling that sentence over in mind tonight as I drove east and then north from Columbia, South Carolina through palmetto forests, over the Congaree and Great Pee Dee Rivers, by deeply southern towns.  I'm aware of the strange environment created by the interstate highway with its interchanges, how the folk of sleepy southern towns brush against New Yorkers and Latin-Americans moving south and north on the freeway, exiting for gas and food, barely noticing the very different people and very different voices behind the counters of the fast food restaurants.

I drive into one town just to escape the homogeneity of the interchange, and I realize I'm in another world, really.  The very air feels different, the people move slower, walk streets at leisure.  Commercial strips are faded and worn, and yet I can identify the old town center of this place, what existed before the interstate came and skewed the nature of the community.  I know it brought drugs and money and corruption.  Seeing three teenage boys cross the street, I wonder about their lives, about the living of their days, about what they hope for and live for.

Back on the highway, I'm listening to Kate's album made in Muscle Shoals, Alabama with Spooner Oldham.  It's fitting music for driving, reminding me of growing up in my small country church, and it helps me rid myself of the superior attitude I had when I drove through that small town, the wonder that people would or could live in a place like that and be happy.

She sings an old hymn:

For the love of God is broader
Than the measure of our mind
And the heart of the Eternal
Is most wonderfully kind

There’s a wideness in God’s mercy
Like the wideness of the sea.

Full atonement.  Christ has made a way for me, and for the people in this small town, to boldly come before him, clean.

It's terrible what He had to do.  But because of it, we live.


40 Days On the Edge (Day 9): The Lives of Others

listening If you haven't seen the The Lives of Others, the movie voted Best Foreign Language Film of 2007 at the Oscars, perhaps you should.  (I only say perhaps because the move is rated R and contains some nudity and sexuality, so use discretion.)  Set in East Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall, it's a movie that focuses on the transformation of Gerd Wiesler, a German Stasi (secret police) agent through his encounter with beauty --- the beauty of the relationship of actress Christa-Maria Sieland and her writer boyfriend, Georg Dreymann, the beauty of music, and the acting of Christa.  Wiesler comes to sympathize with their lives and see its contrast with his own drab existence through watching and listening.  He is assigned to surveillance.  Hence the title, the lives of others.

To be sure, it takes more than just listening and watching to transform a person.  It requires divine intervention.  But listening and watching are a conduit, a path on which God brings change.

Both Moses and Paul so identified with their people that they were willing to suffer judgment by God if it meant their people might be spared.  After the Israelites made the golden calf, on the eve of judgment, Moses boldly intercedes on their behalf, telling God that if He would not spare them, to "please blot me out of the book you have written" (Ex. 32:32), in other words, wipe him from the annals of history, to make him a non-person.  Paul said he was willing to accept damnation if it meant the salvation of his people (Rom. 9:1-4).  What's going on?  They were, like Wiesler in a way, so sympathetic to the lives of these "others" that they were willing to risk their lives for them.  And even more does Christ intercede boldly for us even now, indeed, died for us.

The lesson for me is not only to be aware of the lives of others, to watch and listen, but to pray boldly for their lives.  Then I will begin to know them, to sympathize with them, and even to love them.  Wiesler did it without praying.  Even more so we can change with praying boldly --- for the lives of others.


40 Days On the Edge (Day 8): Deja Voodoo

SOS When you get to be middle-aged like me, you begin to have that odd sensation known as deja vu more often, the sense that you've been here before, done this before.  Traveling through the dark to Columbia, South Carolina tonight, seeing familiar exits, known landmarks, uttering the same thoughts ("I always think I'm halfway when I get here, but we're not."), I realize I've been here before, maybe 15 years ago, maybe 10, maybe a total of twenty times or more over the last 15 years.  I've seen these palmettos, felt the balmy air, cruised the sleepy towns of this very southern Carolina, pulled up to the same parking place, checked in at the same desk, opened a door to an almost identical room.  I'm here.  I've been here.  In one sense, it's a tiresome thing to realize.

It's that way with sin, too.  Only you might call it deja voodoo, that not so nice sinking sensation that you've done it again, committed the same offense, said the same thoughtless word, let you mind wander and dwell on the same ignoble thought, or let slip by the opportunity to do something good and kind, like say an encouraging word, defend one unjustly maligned, said hello to the clerk with a bad day.

Maybe I think the Israelites did worse.  They, after all, had seen such miraculous acts of God, such miracles, and yet when Moses was gone more than a few days, they opted to worship a piece of gold.  And yet they were not different than me.  Each of my offenses, like their offenses, is a singular act of rebellion, a statement that my way is more important than God's way.

I'm a sinner.  I've done it.  I'll likely do it again.  But I'm not compelled nor destined to stay mired in one place.  "Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus" (Rom. 8:1).  That "now" is effective  in a millions "nows," stretching backwards and forwards --- an eternal, infinite proclamation of what is true.

That "now" overturns the curse and undoes this terrible black magic.  One day, all our deja vus will remind us only of the good, true, and beautiful we have experienced.  That's a good magic.  I can't wait.


40 Days On the Edge (Day 7): Practicing His Presence

sandals In a sense I long for the visible kind of presence God had among his people in the time of the Exodus.  Sometimes I need a bit of smoke and fire to stoke my imagination, to help me know that His presence is real.  I guess I want a wizard, someone like the Wizard of Oz (only not a fraud), or majestic lion like Aslan, or even a place like the tabernacle where I know God lives (even if I'm not the one who sees Him).  At times I've been in deep trouble in life, and yet not "felt" His presence; at other times, I've been relatively happy, without perceived need, and yet "sensed" His presence.  So what gives?

Perhaps the answer is something like "The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit"(Jn. 3:8).  We no more command the felt Presence of God with us anymore than we decide who God will save, who He will reveal Himself to.  He does as He pleases, for some unfathomable but good reason.

But He promises He is with us.  Always.  Brother Lawrence, the poor monk in charge of sandals, the self-described "great awkward fellow who broke everything," practiced God's presence by continually conversing with Him.  I know that.  I wish I could remember that.  Lawrence practiced the presence of God by, as he put it, "keeping the soul's gaze fixed on God in faith, calmly, humbly. lovingly, without allowing an entrance to anxious cares and disquietude."  He would not quit the conversation.  He habitually looked to God.  He didn't say it was easy but, rather, was a habit formed by trying and failing, trying and failing.  But one thing he doesn't seek after is the emotional sense of God's presence.  He assumes it, and He talks to God as if to not do so would be to shun a great ongoing conversation.

So maybe smoke and fire are not needed after all.  Just the practiced habit of faith.


40 Days On the Edge (Day 6): Riding With the King

bike You can see it in his face, the blues never lie.
Tonight everybody's getting their angel wings.
And don't you know we're riding with the king?

("Riding With the King," by John Hiatt)

Today I took my cue from John Stilgore and rode my bike for  couple of hours down through neighborhoods, on the greenway by the creek, by the shopping mall and behind a commercial strip, under bridges and over highways, just loitering my way through a beautiful Spring-like Winter day.  I figure biking through town, or walking, is a way of laying claim to a place, of taking possession of the land --- a shadow of the Land God will bring us too, but if I cannot go slow and love this land how can I love that Land? 

I'm making mental markers as I go --- a turn here, a bit of broken pavement there, a relatively ancient maple tree by a house that obviously preceded suburbia's advance on this place.  On a particularly busy stretch, I'm passing people, little bits of conversation floating my way: "I need to live closer to you, because. . . . What I mean is. . . . The problem is. . . ."  It's an interesting sensation to pass through unconnected conversations, like opening a door into a little world and then dropping it shut before you take it in.  It gives you a sense that there is more to life than yourself, a helpful thing to know.

So many conversations seem to have to do with a sense that someone has been wronged, and so I am reminded that it is a moral universe I ride in.  I think back to the devotion for today, a meditation on the ten "words" (commandments) and a reminder that obedience is important. I ride uphill and think of perseverance.  I coast downhill and consider grace.  I feel the wind and consider the Holy Spirit that broods over the world.  The sun reflects from the leaves left on trees, and I consider how all of life reflects God's glory.

CIMG0406 I'm coming up on an old teetering bridge, an ancient, and I wonder what farm families used this bridge all those years ago and what legacy they left.  It reminds me of the communion of the saints, about our continuity with all those who came before.

Two elderly men are talking.  A mother is walking arm and arm with her daughter.  Honor you father and mother, I think.

Someone is having trouble with their bike.   Do I stop and help?  Love your neighbor.

CIMG0404 I stop on a bridge and take a picture of the creek, and shutting out the surroundings, you'd never know that a huge shopping mall a road lie to each side of the creek.  Things change.  Old landmarks disappear.  New ones appear.  But some things don't change.

The wheels turn, saying love God love God love God.  I'm riding with the King.  Nothing is really ordinary.  I'm riding with the King.

[The "40 Days On the Edge" posts are my ruminations in light of Stephen Smallman's devotional entitled "Forty Days On the Mountain," read in conjunction with Harvard Landscape History Professor John Stilgore's "Outside Lies Magic: Regaining History and Awareness in Everyday Places."  Both books may be ordered by clicking on them where they are listed in the sidebar under "Current Reading."]


40 Days On the Edge (Day 5): Redeeming Creation

dozer Some days everything seems vexed with trouble.  We try to work and spin our wheels in frustration, not accomplishing a single thing we set out to do because of interruptions.  We try to talk to co-workers, friends, or family members, and either everyone is having a bad day or maybe it's just us, but trouble is at our doorstep.  Out at lunch, we happen on a particularly beautiful part of the city and find that a previously forested area we walked in for years has been cleared for more office buildings and multi-family dwellings, the very contour of the land reshaped, previous landmarks lost, backhoes and earthmovers scraping the land clear of everything that roots it in the past, and you feel a sense of loss, as the very place itself has lost its identity.  It could be any southern city.  Back at my office, I look from my third story window over the street below, and I feel the weight of something terribly wrong.  It's days like that we can be thankful for, in a way, a day when our theological understanding of the Fall becomes an experiential understanding, when dogma concretes in the particulars of life, in space and in time.

Stephen Smallman relates the epiphany he had when he realized that the Exodus story was a picture of salvation by grace, that the story of God delivering His people from slavery and bondage was a unity with the New Testament Gospel, of God's delivering us from sin through Christ.  I don't remember a time when I did not know this.  The real epiphany for me was when I realized that it wasn't just me being redeemed and delivered but the cosmos, every square inch of a universe gone wrong being recreated into a new heavens and earth that shine with God's glory --- aesthetically, ecologically, and socially redeemed, a world made whole, a world gone right.  John 3:16 is a familiar verse infected by an anthropocentric predisposition, but God loves the "world" (aka cosmos), not just people.  Viewing all of scripture in this light, the incredible scope of what God has done and is doing is immense: He is literally undoing the curse on all creation and unmaking and remaking all that He made.

Some days I look and see trouble.  Other days I sense a deep magic at work.  In that, there is reason to celebrate.  Troubled neighborhoods, broken families, ravished land, toxic waste dumps --- just you wait.  The times are changing.

[The "40 Days On the Edge" posts are my ruminations in light of Stephen Smallman's devotional entitled "Forty Days On the Mountain," read in conjunction with Harvard Landscape History Professor John Stilgore's "Outside Lies Magic: Regaining History and Awareness in Everyday Places."  Both books may be ordered by clicking on them where they are listed in the sidebar under "Current Reading."]


40 Days on the Edge (Day 4): What's In A Name?

names There's a lot in a name.  For example, if your name is Vinnie, and you're from Brooklyn, well that tells you a lot.  Or if your name is Moon or Dweezle (I'm not making these up), then it says something about the parents (eccentric weirdo Frank Zappa being one of them).  Names often fit the person and sometimes become prophetic, even shaping the person.

But when you have a Name that cannot really be spoken, like "I AM," a name that in Hebrew cannot even be pronounced ("YHWH"), then we're dealing with a different species of thing, a self-existent being whose nature we cannot fully comprehend.  His is a name above all names, a name outside of this world, and no name given by Him or conceived by us will do justice to His nature.

But of course there are lots of names in Scripture for "I AM," like Alpha and Omega, Jehovah, Morning Star, Love, and so on.  But in the end names fail us.  Of course, no God outside of time and space can be named, really, because to name Him makes him smaller, and He is too big to be poured into a word.

His final Word to us settled it.  He came in flesh.  He became a living Word. Knowing that Word, that Name, will take eternity.  That's the point, really.


40 Days On the Edge (Day 3): God Calling

phone The biblical story is all about God's initiative.  God is the one who called Abraham out of the Land of Ur, Noah to build an ark, and Moses from a burning bush.  Talk of a spiritual journey is a bit of a misnomer: you may look, you may travel many paths seeking enlightenment, but if you find God it will be because He first found you.

And there are all kinds of findings.  If God opens your eyes, you can't look at any built or natural thing in our environment and not see hear God calling.  Listen to life.  I marveled today, for example, at the very marvel and order of the urban environment: the complex web of roads and highways, the managed traffic lights, the power lines overhead or underneath, an infrastructure below ground that brings fresh water and carries waste away for treatment.  It needn't be this way, but it is --- we have an impulse toward order, design, and systems.  In all of that complexity, God calls, telling us of His goodness, the culture-forming impulse He built into us, the Designer behind the designed, His care for particular people in a particular place in space and time.

Nor is the calling a one time event.  He calls us into relationship with him, and yet His initiative remains.  He continues to speak into our lives.  Listen.  Travel down the web of memory and I find time after time how God worked all things out for the good of me who loved Him because He first loved me and enabled me to love Him.  I see His placement of me in a particular family where I could hear the Gospel and see modeled a servant life.  I have the memory of being befriended by God's people in that first year of college, college seniors who need not waste time with a freshman, but did.  I remember being in the valley of the shadow of death, a place where no other human being can really come with you, and He was there first.

He is there, and He definitely is not silent.


40 Days On the Edge (Day 2): My Fallen Countenance

When God finished talking with Moses, he emerged to speak with the people waiting for him, and "the skin of his face shone" (Ex. 32:29).  Everyone was scared, and I would have been too, considering that the man looked like an alien.  After that look, he veiled his face, taking the covering off only when he met with God.  Moses was reflecting God's glory, and the question posed for me is whether my time with God changes me in a way that is apparent to others.  Maybe, maybe not.

I walk around and look at faces, today and everyday, in my workplace and on the street and in the shopping malls, and I'm amazed at the differences in their features.  Yet, despite their differences, there are some faces that in their "resting" state, the place they lie when not putting on for someone else, which are tense and worried or even "pinched," and you wonder what turmoil or restlessness lies beneath.  Other faces are placid.  Others unmoved.  What is the resting state of my face?  Does it show the peace of Christ that transcends understanding, or is it anxious face working out some scheme or plan of its own?

There's a song by Bruce Cockburn ("Rumours of Glory") which has these lines: Crowd

smiles mixed with curses
the crowd disperses
about whom no details are known
each one alone yet not alone
behind the pain/fear
etched in the faces
something is shining
like gold but better
rumours of glory

Out of all these faces, God is staring at me.  Even in the ones tight with angst, something is shining.  And if we believe, and if we come to Him in Word and prayer, the promise is that the Spirit will do a work in us and carry it on until He is finished.  Then we see God face to face and not only have radiant faces but have His name written on our foreheads (Rev. 22:4).

So there's hope, after all, for my fallen countenance. I can shine.


40 Days On the Edge (Day One): A Beginning

shore If you live oceanside or often visit, you'll know at least one constant: the relentless sound of the waves breaking on the beach.  Although the sound may vary in intensity, it is never absent.  There really is no silence here.  Every waking and sleeping moment pulses with the rhythmic sound of the sea.

Rise in the morning and walk along the sand by the water, and you can sense the insecurity of the edge, feel the sand giving way, sliding back into the sea, know the now diminished but sometimes threatening power behind the sound.  You look back at land and smile at the feebleness of human attempts to stop the slide, to make permanent what will not ultimately stay put: a berm of sand, planted with seagrass, sand pumped from sounds and inlets to build up beaches that, given one good hurricane, can be undercut once again, buildings with concrete and steel pilings sunk deep into bedrock, I presume, if such is a foundation here on the edge.

Seeing boats far out in the ocean, I remember the difficulties faced by those who live on the sea, who make their livelihood there, when, land bound, they lose the sound and very edginess of the sea. They go to sleep with the whisper of the breeze, or the hum of the refrigerator, and stand on floors that are frustratingly at peace, stable, and they toss and turn, miss the sound, miss the wild edge.  Know it or not, the miss the wild glory of God, the sound and sense of his presence.

I want to live on the edge for 40 days.  Two books may help me get there.  Like some in my church, I'm utilizing Stephen Smallman's Forty Days on the Mountain: Meditations on Knowing God, as a help to knowing God and his presence in a daily sense, even perhaps hearing Him as Moses heard Him, "face to face, as a man speaks to his friend," (Ex. 33:11), even seeing His goodness and glory pass by me, to know how good but wild God really is.  Smallman's book is a meditation on Exodus 32-34, the account of his very direct dealings with Moses, the reluctant prophet, and it moves us toward a richer prayer life and relationship with God.

The other help to seeing comes from John Stilgore's Outside Lies Magic: Regaining History and Awareness in Everyday PlacesStilgore is a Professor of Landscape History at Harvard meaning, from what I can tell, he does a lot of meandering around the countryside on bike and by foot, ruminating on what he sees.  His book is an extended exercise in developing what he calls "visual acuity," which simply means learning to really look at and wonder about ordinary things, like fences and power lines and commercial strips and highways --- all the mundane things we take for granted.  As the title suggests, there is magic or wonder in the ordinary places, places we really don't see because we're too busy getting somewhere else.  He slows down.  He asks questions.  And know it or not, in the ordinary he is seeing God's goodness and glory pass by, hearing the relentless voice of God speaking to him out of fenceposts and edges of roadways and power lines.

Life on the edge should be normative.  I should be daily aware of the shifting sand under my feet, the instability of every mental construct, the pitiable nature of every human fortification against the relentless surf of God's presence.  And yet I should also be aware of His constant goodness that shines, like the unveiled face of Moses, from the common, hear His voice echoing off the walls of buildings, humming from power lines, coursing in the buried infrastructure under my feet.  Too often I've been a sailor off the sea, settled, comfortable, and yet missing the wild edge.  So, for 40 days I'll live on the edge of the seemingly ordinary, letting it bask in the light of the vintage world of the Exodus, asking God to give Himself up to me.

I know a little about sailing, but don't expect tablets of stone.