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March 2009

Meet Mike, Steward of the Small

Toaster Yesterday I went to see Mike, the owner of a small appliance repair shop. The shop is located in a non-descript office strip, off any main road. You have to look carefully to find Mike's shop or you'll miss it. Inside the storefront, there is a small counter in the entry room. There are some toasters on the wall that look ancient, dusty packages of electric razor blades, opened and unopened packages of batteries. A child's scooter is parked near the door, marked "New, $17.95 or Best Offer," and an aging (though undoubtedly once futuristic) vacuum cleaner is propped against the wall, "$45, or Best Offer." Behind the counter I can see through to a small room stacked with open box after open box of parts, presumably triage for small appliances, those modern conveniences we take for granted. For Mike, they are lifeblood, how he makes a living.

"Hey. I need a new battery for this thing," I say, handing him my razor.

"What's the last time you replaced it?"

"How about never? I think I've had it nine years.

"You got your money's worth, huh?

"Yeah." Sorry about how dirty it is."

"No problem. This is clean compared to some I've seen."

And how many thousands of electric razors has he seen? Mike looks to be around 40, a bit overweight, a rounded face framed by thin black hair. Not hip. Not cool. Just a guy. He takes my razor back in the back, and I hear an older voice from someone I can't see.

"Mike, put that back where you got it from. You always leave things lying around."

"I'll get it. Don't worry about it."

I note the parental tone, and I realize that Mike has likely been here a long time, apprenticed to a father who will pass the small appliance repair business on to his son. I realize there can't be a lot of money in the business, with the volume light and the transactions small. Besides, so many people simply throw away their razor or toaster before trying to have it fixed. Why bother, they say? And yet somehow Mike and his Dad have kept at it, stewards of the small.

Life is filled with the stories of people like Mike, dutifully working at unnoticed jobs doing things most people care little about. He fixes things. Others build things. Even more clean streets, parks, houses, and office buildings. Someone, for example, largely unnoticed, regularly sweeps the stairs we rarely use in my office building, wipes down the handrails, polishes door moldings, empties trash, and cleans restrooms. They are little people doing little jobs, some would say, and yet they have a dignity we would do well to note.

When Scripture says man is made in God's image, every human life was invested with worth. Some people, like Mike, are just doing a job, tilling and keeping creation, keeping things working, taking care of what's here. But they are no less important because of their "small" job.

A story is told of how Francis and Edith Schaeffer were once late for the National Prayer Breakfast, where Francis was to speak, because Edith stopped to talk at length with the maid cleaning their room. In so doing they lived out what Francis Schaeffer had often preached, that there were "no little people." The President and other VIPs at the breakfast could wait.

I don't really know Mike, but I suspect he has his own dreams, his own disappointments, and a life outside the repair shop. He gets up every morning and goes to work. He's hit middle age and wonders if there's more, wakes up at night and thinks about high school and friends he no longer sees, wishes he had a little more hair. He's just an ordinary guy, like me, waiting for something more.


Let It Rain

rain Just a couple weeks ago, a newspaper columnist was speculating on whether we were entering another period of drought.  It only goes to show how a mere thought (a fleeting “what if?”) is elevated to concern and then to worry when it is nearly impossible to prognosticate about the future.  Yesterday it rained.  Today it is raining.  And tomorrow rain is in the forecast.  Drought is still possible, but I expect to see an article on flooding at this point!  Much like the depth and breadth and length of a recession, the weather defies prophecy.  We live today, and today it is wet.  The economy is down today, and tomorrow is an educated guess, at best.

Jesus told his disciples to “not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on” (Mt. 6:25).  I do not need to do an exegesis of the verse or compare it to the practically identical one in Luke to know what it means.  It means we are not to worry.  And yet we find it tempting to worry about most everything.  Will the plane I just boarded crash?  Will my child who just pulled away in a car be in an accident?  Will I lose my job?  Where will I get the money to pay the bills?  A flood of “what ifs” crowd into our thoughts, robbing our joy in the moment, if we allow them. 

The antidote, says Jesus, is to “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.”  He asks us to exercise faith, to focus not on the “what ifs” but the kingdom of the here and now.  He assures that the same God who cares for Creation, for lilies and sparrows, will care for us, that He knows what we need.  It’s the here and now over the then and what if.  The same Jesus who says “sufficient for the day is its own trouble” is the one who says life is more than food, clothing, or even trouble.

It’s still raining.  Rivulets of water trickle off the roof outside my window.  There’s a train whistle in the distance, a reminder that life is moving on with a locomotion all its own to places we don’t know and circumstances we can’t imagine.  But that’s OK.  Let it rain.  Let the train roll on.  God is faithful.


Needed: A New Cartography

Map When I was a kid and we took family vacations, always driving, I almost always whined my way into the front seat where I could be seated between my parents, riveted on the landscape unwinding in front of me. I was fascinated with where I was going --- as the mailboxes, billboards, cars, houses, cows and landscape streamed past me. I didn't sleep; I was afraid I would miss something. By the time I began reading, I was studying the Rand McNally road atlas, plotting new trips, pondering the names of cities and towns I had not visited, dreaming about what life must be in such and such a place, over the Appalachians, by the sea, along the route of a lonely road through an (apparently) empty western state. I was always ready to go. I sat in the front seat, directing my Dad, calling out highway names, distances to the next town, what was coming next, the map unfolded in my lap, a multi-colored promise of what was to come.

But maps are mostly one-dimensional. They don't tell you what it felt like to drive through a racially tense East St. Louis in 1966, when my Dad had us lock our doors and roll up our windows, running red lights, fear moving us on through streets full of people. They can't convey the awe of looking into the Grand Canyon or over Niagara Falls, though later the names on the map became iconic, windows for remembrance. They can't tell you how my younger sister nearly drowned in a mountain stream which, on the map, is just a thin and jagged blue line, how my cousin (who traveled with us once) went sleepwalking through our motel's property one night, or what it smelled and felt like to drive over the Mississippi, windows down, after midnight.

Just now, I'm looking at a map of the East Africa country of Uganda, tracing the highway from Kampala to Ft. Portal, and the place where my friends live, Kaihura, doesn't even rate a "dot" on the map. On this map, they don't exist, and the roads, which seem to suggest you can get anywhere, belie the reality that many are washboard rough and riven by potholes, lined with people walking and carrying too-large bundles. And the smells! I have not yet seen a scratch and sniff map. Maps suggest peril and promise, help us dream, but until we've been there, had an experience of a place, they don't tell us much.

Author Maggie Jackson says that "our maps echo our veneration of exploration, our facility with space-shifting, our enchantment with posing new questions and storytelling." But she goes on to say that "a society that leaves no room for attachment cannot make songlines. We are not using maps to ground ourselves but to enable us to keep moving on." We have been an excessively mobile society, relishing our ability to jet across the country for weekend in LA, and then back to the East coast for Monday work. Though I can't handle that kind of displacement, I often confront a weekend with a single question: "Where can we go next," like the byline for a travel magazine. What Jackson is saying is that our liberating mobility has a cost, that "[t]he tempo of travel blurs the landscape, and our vehicles increasingly enfold us in a bubble of remove."

Maybe the kid in me still seeks liberation from the mundane, adventure rather than dutiful plodding in one place, the sensual sights, sounds, and smells of a new place, where no one knows me, where I can be what I want to be. In the end, maybe that's it --- we want to be set free from the mundane and able to be all that we were meant to be. We open the map, load the car, board the plane, and set our eyes on what's next, dreaming of what it will be like. And yet I have never returned from a single road trip or vacation thinking I had arrived at Shangri-La. Something is still missing, and however idyllic the place I ventured to, every bad habit and selfish propensity went with me. Whatever the bright colors on the map promise, they will come up short. In the end, we need a different kind of map, a map of the human heart, one that delivers on its promise to set us free. I don't think Rand McNally will do. We need a new cartographer.


In My Room, Again

Studio I guess some poems have a second life, and that's just what has happened to me for the first time. A few years ago (try eight years!) I entered a poem called "In My Room" into the annual poetry contest sponsored by a local rag, The Independent. I was runner-up in their contest and was invited to read my poem to an audience assembled at The Regulator Bookshop in Durham, NC. I don't usually traffic in literary circles, much less read poems or attend poetry readings, so that was a unique experience.

But unlike many things I write, I have continued to like the poem beyond my initial infatuation with it, and so I entered it in a contest sponsored by Studio, an Australian journal of poetry and short fiction. I didn't win, but the poem has been published in their Winter 2009 Issue as a "Commended" poem, so I'm pleased with that. Studio is a great little journal, subtitled "A Journal of Christians Writing," and it avoids heavy-handed religious poems in favor of faith-infused literature.

If you read this blog much, you'll know I have a great admiration for Brian Wilson, the often troubled and yet amazingly gifted genius behind the Beach Boys (and much good independent, solo work). When I wrote this poem, I had never met him or heard him in concert, and he had long been in a troubled time. Having met him on more than one occasion now, it brings new meaning to it. And, I'm glad to say that he's doing much better. Well, it's about Brian Wilson, of course. . . and me. I imagined then that I had known him back then. . .

In My Room

Those days when I watched the
black vinyl turn, there
in my room, with the curtains sealed,
The voices playing sad & sweet,
I found myself

Standing outside your house on West 119th
listening for your father's ranting, his
maudlin songs, from the cookie-cutter
house with the foolish, self-infected man,
until, screen door flapping,

You caught my arm and we ran,
laughing, from that dark energy,
until we lay down on a field there
in Hawthorne. Even then, it was the
sound of your dreams that brought me
back,

Back to the black vinyl turn, the
crackling energy screams of the
girls on the beach, there, miles from
salt & sun, in my room.
I had my dreams too, & you knew, as we

Spent hour upon hour there in
Lishon's Record Store & Melody Music.
Ricky Nelson, the Four Freshmen, the
Four Preps, the Everly Brothers --- yes,
we had our dreams, yet we had our
harmony & counter-harmony, even then.

Behind four walls I could hide,
shut down & lost inside myself,
steeling myself for lonely, hurt, & pain
sheltered beneath your wall of sound.
Like you, my peace was in the
music & the dream, where I
could go, where you were there

Riding in your 57 Ford, pink & gray,
all whitewalled & waxed & chrome. From
the Wick Stand on Slausen to the A&W on
Hawthorne, we'd cruise with the windows down &
heat up high talking "honeys on the lot,"
drinking beer & watching movies, there,
on Sepulveda, chasing empty from our gut.
Then one night

On Redondo Beach, we watched the
surf & laughed & sang until darkness
blue & heavy pounded sand,
pounded you, & crying I pulled you
from the water. Maybe it was the crazy
in your cold blue eyes, but since then

We've gone our ways, you & I, but
sometimes, alone in my room, I still
think of you there on that field in
Hawthorne until the darkness came &
current carried you away.

We don't talk much now.
You don't get out much now.
But sometimes, when I close my eyes,
I can hold you even now, in my prayer.

Goodnight, Brian Wilson.

145269.brianwilsonheader


Distracted

distracted-cover As of late I have noted that many people I admire are encouraging us to fast from a technology dominated lifestyle.  In recent news, the Pope and Italian bishops are encouraging youth to give up IPods, Facebook, and other technology for Lent.  Chuck Colson gives the same encouragement in today’s Breakpoint article, telling us to “take a technology sabbath.”  And my pastor has given up Facebook for Lent.  That I am reading Maggie Jackson’s new book, Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age, a probing study of our collective attention deficit disorder caused by digital technology, is, perhaps, a divine propinquity: God is trying to get my attention. 

To provide punctuation to these “coincidences,” last night I was reading a short story by Charles Dickens entitled ‘The Wreck of the Golden Mary,” and an old sea captain, lost at sea with crew and passengers, has these thoughts: “O, what a thing it is, in a time of danger and in the presence of death, the shining of a face upon a face!  I have heard it broached that orders should be given in great new ships by electric telegraph.  I admire machinery as much as any man, and am as thankful to it as any man can be for what it does for us.  But it will never be a substitute for the face of a man, with his soul in it, encouraging another man to be brave and true.  Never try it for that.  It will break down like a straw.”  Like Jackson, like Colson, like the bishops and my pastor, all of this drives home the way in which our technology can reduce intimate, human contact, how we need to see a human face.

I can remember, of course, when all this was different.  I had no computer at home.  I had no cell phone.  I had no IPod or PDA.  And TV, while it provided a distraction, a bit of entertainment, was not omnipresent.  And yet it’s difficult to summon up the feel of that era.  Imagine:  If you wanted to know what someone was doing, you called them on the phone or went to see them, and besides, did you really want to know what they were doing all the time, or what they were thinking?  I never gave it a second thought --- then. What did I care what my friend was doing after dinner?  Nowadays, we know a lot more about a lot less.  We read blogs and Facebook pages and monitor Twitter feeds and text messages so we won’t miss anything.  That’s anything.  This need to be connected is a compulsive thing, really, the need to check in, to see what is happening. But the fact is, we were perfectly content, perhaps more content, when we weren’t so connected.

This hyper-connectivity is a compulsion for both introverts and extroverts.  Introverts, who prefer their own thoughts to the chatter of people, can pick who they interact with and when and on what level.  They can think before they speak. Extroverts can cultivate networks of “friends,” something which energizes them.  And yet both find themselves dehumanized by superficial contacts, perhaps even driven by the sense that they can control their relationships by removing someone from their friend list, or ignoring them for a time, or just saying things online that they’d never have the nerve to say in person.  Step back from it for a moment, a long moment, and you see at once how silly and yet how damaging it can be.  And yet most people don’t even know what’s happening to them.

Maggie Jackson believes we are either in the twilight of culture or one on the cusp of a renaissance of attention.  She says that “Twilight cultures begin to show a preference for veneer and form, not depth and content; a stubborn blindness to the consequences of actions, from the leadership on down.  In other words, an epidemic erosion of attention is a sure sign of an impending dark age.”  I don’t know if she’s right, but I do know that technology has not made us better or happier people, that it’s becoming amazingly difficult to have an undistracted conversation or, for that matter, moment with anyone, that we can live as families in one house and yet carry on most of our life in a virtual reality divorced of place: we can be anybody, anywhere, at any time in the netherworld of cyberspace.

I’ve said it before:  I’m no Luddite.  As the captain said, I admire machinery as much as any man, but no machine can substitute for the human face, the peril and promise of real, tangible places filled with real, live people. 

One of the many interviews that Jackson did for her book was one with an undertaker, Tom Lynch, who told her countless examples of how people don’t want to face the physicality of death --- one more indication of how we are preferring our own reality, a virtual one where we don’t have to face death, to a real and physical world.  Lynch read Jackson a quote from poet Robert Pogue Harrison, who noted that we must choose “an allegiance --- either to the post-human, the virtual and the synthetic, or to the earth, the real and the dead in their humic densities.”

I’ll take the earth, the real and, yes, the dead.  Dirt, mud, rain, sun, and people, washed and unwashed, liberal and conservative, winsome and weird.  That’s the right stuff.  Now, if I can just wean myself from the press of the machine.

[Stay tuned:  Ten Ways to Overcome Our Attention Deficit.  Coming Soon]


Jill Phillips In Concert

Phillips Since last fall, I have rediscovered the pleasure of doing house concerts. We clear out the den, bring in chairs, provide modest sound and lights, and invite 65-75 people to join us for an intimate evening with a singer-songwriter.  It's been great seeing friends and meeting new friends and simply watching everyone have a good time.  In addition, when I have music in the house, it seems to hang around for a while thereafter.

I really pleased to announce our next concert with Jill Phillips on Friday, March 20th.  I only discovered Jill last year and have since bought her entire catalog of CDs.  She's a great writer with a beautiful voice, and perfectly complemented by her fellow musician and husband Andy Gullahorn.  I won't spend precious words extoling her virtues here.  Visit the webpage here for full details and to make a reservation.  You'll be glad you did.


Floaters

Huge.48.244813 "For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known." (I Cor. 13:12)

You can add diminished vision to the list of ailments that come along with growing older. I have been nearsighted since third grade, and though it is correctable to a point, I have reached the point of diminishing returns. To see perfectly at distance, I will not be able to see perfectly close; yet if I am corrected so that I see close things well, I cannot see as well at a distance. In addition, I have "floaters," little spots and threadlike things that move across my field of vision. As I understand it, these are cloudy particles that float within the vitreous --- the clear, jelly-like fluid that fills the inner portion of the eye. In my case (and the case of most others), these particles are harmless if annoying, a "part of the natural aging process," my optometrist says. Naturally.

I've caught myself the last few months lamenting the fact that I have to put up with less than crystal clear vision, that I might even have to don reading glasses (which, heretofore, I have been too vain to use). Yet like a lot of things that challenge us in life, as I drove away from the doctor today I tried to consider the lessons in it for me.

I am thankful that I can see nearly perfectly. When my mother took me to the eye doctor when I was eight, we drove away from the doctor, my hand clutching the case with my new glasses. Before we left the parking lot, I remember taking those ugly gray rimmed glasses out of their case (actually, they would be fashionable now) and putting them on. I was awestruck by the clarity of my vision. I remember telling my mother that the trees had branches and limbs, and that I could see each individual leaf. I was fascinated by what the world looked like in detail. I am reminded of the importance of really noticing what is around me, of paying attention, of focusing, of the need to cultivate a sense of wonder at the richly detailed Creation around me. Forty-two years and many broken glasses and lost contact lenses later, I am still in wonder.

I am humbled by how dimly I see. No doubt my vision will not improve as I age. And yet its diminution only reminds me of the truth that no matter how much I have seen, I am aware of so much more I have not seen. That's even more spiritually true. Self-knowledge and knowledge of God is clouded, beset and obstructed by other distractions, floaters in my field of vision. The closer you get to understanding God (an audacious thought, anyway), the more you realize how far you are from understanding. Yet I can celebrate the reminder that one day I will see clearly, visually and spiritually, that I will fully know God, much as I am fully known by Him. What's even more exciting is that I not only will see God more clearly but will see everything else more clearly in His light. I saw robins on the snow this morning, and yet I can't fully appreciate what they are, can't fully see their glory. One day I will. One day I'll look at a robin and say, "so that's what you really are." I'll be eight again, a kid with new glasses, seeing things he's never seen.

I am challenged to look beyond my present circumstances. Floaters, like any distraction, are temporal. They may endure, and yet the challenge for me is to look at a larger landscape beyond what's quite literally under my nose. For the most part, I don't notice these annoying blemishes on my vision, as I am preoccupied with other matters. A brief to write. A conversation with my wife. The cat that stayed in a tree for 16 hours before we were able to pry it loose. It's only when I fixate on the floaters that they bother me. That's really true with any nettlesome concern or bother. A fixation on it is distracting and only leads to self-pity. There are greater things at hand, a larger work going on, and there is the promise of a future when all such distractions will be removed.

Every challenge brings opportunity. Wakefulness at night brings solitude and time for prayer. A new ache reminds me of how well my body has served me and what an amazing creation it is. And "floaters" remind me that one day I will no longer see dimly but will clearly and deeply, understanding the essence of the things that God has made, knowing Him and being known fully. Naturally.