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April 2009

Lie Down in the Grass

Medium.41.207435 Like most people of my generation, I grew up in the suburbs, in a cookie-cutter house in a subdivision with streets of non-descript names that tracked no heritage --- names like Fernwood, Gracewood, Ramblewood --- names chosen more for their marketing appeal than their legacy. In one sense, I could have stumbled into any suburb of that era and found myself among a similar people in similar houses on streets with similar names, just one kid among many, all different and yet all terribly the same. Of course, I thought nothing of it then. I slept out under the stars with my friends, just lying on a blanket in the grass. My grass. It was a life, my life, and a place, my place.

And yet it was my place.

In the vocabulary of most urban planners, suburb is a word uttered with some disdain. And yet for all their well-documented problems, I reject the idea that suburbs are simply places that are lifeless, deadening in their sameness, in their conformity. Why? Because human beings are made in the image of a creative and personal God, our individual personalities --- our beliefs about what is true, good, and beautiful --- always assert themselves. We are not all the same.

In the corner of my backyard, in my corner of suburbia, are two stones. They mark the places where two beloved animals were laid to rest, not forgotten but remembered, even here. If I lie in my hammock and close my eyes, I can see my old dog now, shepherding my then two-year old son around the yard, carrying a stick. I can hear the chatter one makes, the panting of the other, feel the hot breath on my arm and a slightly soggy stick placed on me, a tiny hand on my arm, the question hanging in the air: "Will you play now?" Those memories make my backyard different than yours, as they are rooted here.

There's something to be said for staying put, for letting your life and memories take root and grow in a place. Even in suburbia.

Maybe that's the problem. Americans are people on the move. Maybe most people don't pause in a place long enough to call it home. Or not for long. Our memories travel with us, not having time to attach to place. That's our lack.

And yet it's not my lack.

I live here, not there. The fence that separates me from my neighbor is much more than just a geographical barrier. In many ways, that very similar looking house next door is a different world. Memories are being made there.

And here.

Part of this is nostalgia, of course, a middle-aged man remembering fondly another time, and yet the past informs the present. The permanence I seek in remembrance is frustrated, of course, as we are pilgrims on this earth, and yet remembering is a dress rehearsal for a time when past, present, and future will be bound up in one Place. Jesus, after all, said he was going to prepare a place for us. No longer will we be sojourners but permanent residents of a place that is altogether familiar and new every morning.

A friend, Richard, told me this weekend that sometimes he just goes out in a corner of his backyard and lies down and takes a nap in the grass. I'll keep that image as one that profoundly suggests the importance of settling into a place. Of course, in the next breath Richard also said there's "nothing he likes better than a good head-scratch." He's full of profundities.

Next time you're in the backyard, lie down in the grass, will you? It's your place, after all.


Prom-Miss

huge_93_469049 It’s prom time.  Yesterday, I went with my son to pick up a tuxedo from the formal wear shop.  Business was good.  As I waited for the alterations, I watched no less than four awkward looking boys file in with their Mom or Dad.  One kid took 20 minutes to decide whether he wanted a red or pink vest.  He stood about six-four and seemed about half as wide as that, a hulking tower of a boy not yet full-grown.  He called his friend on his cell to ask him (or her) what they thought about the vest.  Tux, prom, date --- it’s all a big deal, you know.

Another kid strode in with his Mom, slightly stooped over with long hair in a pony tail, bearing an uncanny resemblance to John Lennon.  He knew exactly what he wanted.  “Give me the white tux with pinstripes.  I want a hat and a cane too.”  He pulled out $162 and laid it on the table.  He had a statement to make.  He was going to be seen.  He put that tux on and it was as if  John walked right off the Abby Road recording sessions.

I actually went to the prom at my high school when I was a sophomore, because my girlfriend was a junior.  She knew at least 1000 people in the high school.  I knew 25, about 15 more than I wanted to know. She was a textbook extrovert and I moderate introvert.  What an unlikely pair!

The best part of the prom was eating out at a nice restaurant.  The second best part was leaving it.  The worst part was being at it along with 500 other overdressed kids in an unairconditioned high school gymnasium with bad music.  I looked like a freak. . .

A freak in a light blue leisure suit. (It was the Seventies, after all.)

I scanned the room.  William Settles was stuffed in a vintage tux that looked like it had been his Dad and was sitting on a bleacher by himself as if he was above it all, sipping punch.  A lot of pre-disco awkward dancing was going on (well, maybe 30 kids were dancing).  My girlfriend saw her friend Barbara across the room and we lurched forward, navigating the crowd, saying hey here hey there.  I was looking for the door.  I excused myself and went and got some punch.  Leigh Pendergraph was getting punch as well, and not wanting to get entangled with her, I went outside and stood around for awhile.  Quite a while.  I went back in about an hour later and retrieved my girlfriend and we left.  And that’s it.  That’s my prom.

The next year my girlfriend (who now knew 1200 classmates) wanted to go again so we could sweat and hang out with 500 people and drink punch.  I said no.  I sent her with my best friend and told her to have a good time.

But maybe I should have gone.  Maybe I missed something I should have been paying attention to.  Maybe that’s a problem with being 16: you’re not paying attention to the moment you are in, to the unique season of life you are enjoying or, more likely, stumbling through.  I’m a little envious in some crazy way of my son driving off to a prom where he’ll know all 35-40 kids in attendance.  What did I miss back then?

The next day when I saw my friend I asked him if he had a good time.  He said he could take it or leave it, that it really wasn’t much fun.

But my girlfriend?  She had a great time. . . like a date with 500 people.  We should have sent her by herself.  She would never have known the difference.  Promise.


Truth, Forgiveness, and Reconciliation: A Review of As We Forgive, by Catherine Claire Larson

51o9--zWwpL__SL500_AA240_ Most of us likely recall the 2006 shooting spree by Charles Roberts in an Amish schoolhouse.  That part we understand and lament.  However, doubtless most people regard what happened after that as a curious anomaly.  The Amish forgave Charles Roberts.  They set up a fund for the education of his young children.  And then they returned to their community to grieve and go on living as they always have.  Can their actions be excused as an oddity, unrealistic for normal people?

Catherine Claire Larson doesn’t think so.  In her recent book, As We Forgive: Stories of Reconciliation from Rwanda, she recounts not simply the horrors of the genocide committed by the Hutu against the Tutsi in 1994, when over 500,000 Tutsi were hacked to death by their Hutu neighbors, people they had lived beside, worked with, and played with for years, but the profound reconciliation that is occurring between survivors and killers, many of whom now walk among the family and friends of those they killed.  Indeed, it’s not an anomaly but a common feature of Rwandan life.

Based on original interviews and research, both her own and that of Laura Waters Hinson, whose documentary film of the same title inspired the book, Larson tells the stories of both survivors and former killers. What these potent stories reveal is the power of forgiveness to change lives and communities.  It’s not easy.  She details the struggles that survivors have with feelings of revenge, of the process through which forgiveness comes.  She also looks at the killers’ struggles to come to grips with the truth about themselves, to confess and tell the truth, and to forgive themselves, of the day-to-day sadness that lingers but the joy that can break through as people forgive and attempt to make some restitution.

One story Larson tells is of a woman named Rosaria and a man named Saveri, who pummeled Rosaria’s sister, Christine, and her two small children with a spiked club.  Saveri is imprisoned, but when he confesses to his crime, he is released to the community.  Coming to faith in Christ, he eventually seeks out Rosaria, asking her forgiveness, confessing precisely what he had done. 

“I forgive you, said Rosaria softly.”If you have confessed your sin before God and truly changed, then I forgive you. 

Saveri searched for words, opened his mouth to speak them, but none came, only tears of relief.

“How can I refuse to forgive you when I did not make you?  Your crime” --- she paused, forming her thoughts carefully --- “your crime was against God, who created the people you killed.”

Saveri goes on to build a house for Rosaria and her child, a small measure of restitution for what he had done.  That’s just one story of several that Larson recounts.

Interspersed with the stories are short interludes that probe the meaning and process of forgiveness and reconciliation, truth telling and restitution.  She moves from atrocities like those experienced in the genocide of Rwanda to something as personal (and yet relative to genocide) minor as having your home broken into.  She’s hopeful about the possibilities of reconciliation, and yet sober in her assessment of the human capacity for evil and for rationalizing that evil.  She unfailingly finds the hope for healing in the Christian belief that God first forgives us and gives us the power to forgive others.

“Pain does not have to have the last word.  Forgiveness can push out the borders of what we believe possible.  Reconciliation can offer us a glimpse of the transfigured world to come.”

As We Forgive is a difficult book to read at times, and yet I recommend it.  We have all been wounded by some offense against person or property, some more than others.  If Rwandans can forgive neighbors who acted like beasts, killing friends and loved ones, perhaps we can forgive each other too.  Perhaps we can even forgive ourselves.


Living with Style (Rule 16): Be Clear

Babel I wouldn't nominate the Apostle Paul as the apostle of brevity, or even clarity. Romans is a longish book full of longish sentences, and the Apostle, while a masterful logistician, could have been clearer. He was, after all, human, and while his words were divinely superintended, he could not but be himself, a longwinded lawyer. Would that he had the brevity of old Chief Judge Murdock of the United States Tax Court. Confronted by a taxpayer who testified, "As God is my judge, I do not owe this tax," he simply said, "He's not. I am. You do." What he said is perfectly clear, if terse.

Once I took a week long writing class. Our first assignment was to write a two-page essay on "why I want to be a writer." I turned it in. The next assignment was to cut the two pages to one page while preserving its essence. I did. I turned it in. The next assignment was to cut the one page to one paragraph. I did that too, though at this point it was getting painful. Cherished phrases had to be abandoned, wonderful adjectives axed, pithy quips parlayed. I begin to wonder if the essence of what I had said was being preserved. Finally, the instructor asked us to distill the essence of why we want to be a writer to one sentence, like a twit before tweeter. It was not quite possible, of course, as it was like you telling me to describe why I am a Christian in one sentence. Something can be said, of course, but then there's the rest of the story. We got the point, though: Every word must have a reason to exist. We were to avoid unnecessary words. We were to be clear. Whatever the value of ambiguity (and there is a place for it), it does not help communication, being more suited to trying to capture the inexpressible, like poetry, like doctrine, like God.

Clarity is a better candidate for godliness than cleanliness. As Strunk and White point out in The Elements of Style, it's also a matter of life and death:

Muddiness is not merely a disturber of prose, it is also a destroyer of life, of hope: death on a highway caused by a badly worded road sign, heartbreak among lovers caused by a misplaced phrase in a well-intentioned letter, anguish of a traveler expecting to be met at a railroad station and not being met because of a slipshod telegram. Think of the tragedies that are rooted in ambiguity, and be clear! When you say something, make sure you have said it. The chances of your having said it are only fair.

In a broader sense, Strunk and White's maxim to "be clear" means something like integrity, living in such a way that our words match our actions, that we are who we say we are and need say little about who we are because who we are is evident to all. A companion virtue is humility, as many words, whether my own or that of others, usually connote some attempt to justify, promote, or excuse myself. After all, "[w]hen words are many, sin is not absent, but he who holds his tongue is wise" (Prov. 10:19). (I often remind folks that a person who holds his tongue may in fact be a fool in most other respects, but at least he is a silent fool.) And finally, I think of focus, and I am reminded of the admonition to "fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith" (Heb. 12:2). People of clarity know who they are and where they are going. That's style.

If God is my judge, I will be clear from now on.

He is. I'm not. By His grace, I will.


When Here Was Here and There Was There

huge_8_40898 After dinner almost every night, my friend Bobby used to come over.  He didn’t knock any longer. He just walked in, as the door was unlocked.  We walked through our neighborhood to a corner store, bought a Pepsi, and walked back.  There was more to it of course.  In the early years, there were pretend stories about being superheroes, imagining ourselves saving the world from certain destruction.  In the later years, there were interactions with a host of characters that peopled the streets of our neighborhood --- bullies, girls, old men, and dogs --- some to be avoided, some to be sought, and conversations about school, and girls, and life beyond high school, and girls, and so it went.  But every night, when we turned the corner onto Surry from Fernwood and stood outside my house for a moment finishing our conversation, he went home, and I went home, and that was it. . . until school the next morning, that is.

In my early working years, I used to work late at times.  I even went into work on Saturdays on occasion, finishing a brief I was writing, catching up.  But when I left the building and went home, I left work behind.  I had no cell phone, no email, no pager --- no connection but the telephone on the wall to link me to the other world of work.  When I came home, I was done: work was another place, another time.

In most respects, we have lost the distinctions of place.  In her book, Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age, Maggie Jackson studied the behavior of families, looking specifically at how much time they spent physically with one another, noting in one sad (to me) finding that when fathers came home from work, “children rarely greeted [them], and often didn’t even look up when the dad entered house.”  Her conclusion is an indication that distinctions between places have broken down in a 24/7 world:

Perhaps because we virtually check in with one another all day, the act of moving across a physical threshold naturally becomes devoid of meaning.  In a placeless world, who needs to acknowledge the return to a location?  Moreover, a boundaryless world means that coming home doesn’t signal the end of the workday any more than being on vacation is a time of pure relaxation or being under one roof marks the beginning of unadulterated family time.  The physical and virtual worlds are always with us, singing a siren song of connection, distraction, and options.  We rarely are completely present in one moment or for another.  Presence is something naked, permeable, and endlessly spliced.

I’m not sure I appreciate all of what is signaled by such a loss, but perhaps one thing is a lack of appreciation of the rich diversity of the physical environment around us.  As titillating as the virtual world can be, there is a bland superficiality that settles in as you surf and skim along the surface of life.  After all the emails and twits and postings on Facebook, we may wake up one day and realize we could have been having a real conversation with a person sitting right in front of us in a real place.  We forget how much that matters when we have instant access to what a person is doing and thinking right now.  We have bodies and faces for a reason.  We need to see each other, spend time with one another, keep distinctions between here and there.

In some ways it is difficult to draw instruction for the current day from simply looking at the life of Jesus in an agrarian, pre-technological society.  And yet the forecast for the new heavens and new earth is a promise of a physical reality of streets, rivers, rooms, and houses, of a God who says we will “see his face. . .  (Rev. 22:4).  It’s a post-technological society when places will be places, people will be distinct, here will be here and there will be there, when our own backyard and a long conversation with a friend will be enough to preoccupy us for eternity.


Back to the Playpen

Crib "To be modern is to be torn in two. We celebrate freedom as if we can do anything we want, if we put our minds to it. At the same time, we bemoan the way our genes, our childhood, and social forces determine everything we do. When we grow bald, lose our temper, or get laid off, experts tell us that we really have no choice in the matter. Life is preordained by factors that outflank our feeble will. Yet at the same time we celebrate will power as if everything is contingent and subject to our control. The decline of providence has left us intellectually schizophrenic. We define freedom as the opposite of submission and obedience but end up feeling hardly free at all." (Stephen Webb)

By some inexplicable paradox, we are most free when we are not at liberty to do as we please. Take my son, for example. When he was a baby, his most free place was his most bounded --- first crib, then playpen, then bed, then room. By limiting his physical environment, we found his imagination grew, as blocks in the playpen became all sorts of creations, or his bed became a submarine, train, airplane --- anything he could dream. Give him free run of the house, though, and he bounced from item to item, never really focusing well enough to actually settle, captive to each new distraction. It's not unlike the experience my mother had as ac child by necessity. Having grown up in the Great Depression, she and her siblings used to play with an old tire all day. That's it! Listening to her I had the sense that they were more free and thus happier because their physical environment --- their access to toys --- had been limited, albeit by necessity and not choice.

These days, of course, kids and adults have access to most everything. We are constantly distracted by yet another web page, a new text message, a game, or a constantly changing TV screen. Unless you visit a third-world country or join a monastic order, it is difficult to limit your environment in such a way as to feel what my mother felt, to live a bounded life such that you find out who you are and what you can dream and do. Limits seem necessary in order for us to be free, as what passes as free in the world is really a bondage to our passions, an enslavement to the present. Consider if Twitter or Facebook really help make you freer, help you act more in accordance with who you really are and not who you want to appear to be. They can enslave us to expectations, whether our own or others.

The most free people I have met are generally the ones who have submitted themselves most completely to God. They may appear to us to be locked into a life of mundane hardship --- perhaps caring for an aged parent, running a health clinic in a third-world country, pastoring a small congregation --- and yet they best understand who they are and where they are headed. They may be physically bounded, by choice or necessity, but in submitting to God's purposes in it, they end up most free.

Consider author Flannery O'Connor. At a young age she found her life physically bounded due to the debilitating limitations of an illness called lupus. She was forced to abandon the literary world of New York and live with her mother on a farm in Georgia, and yet she wrote stories that wonderfully captured the nuances of human behavior, thoughtful essays exploring the connections between faith an literature, and rich correspondence that revealed an unbounded imagination and deep sense of who she was. In it all she kept her humor, describing herself in childhood as a "pigeon-toed child with a receding chin and a you-leave-me-alone-or-I'll-bite-you complex." She was not free to do as she pleased, but she was free to be who God intended her to be.

Nor would anyone say that any of the Apostles were free in the sense moderns or post-moderns define the word. They were shipwrecked, ill, beaten, imprisoned, chased out of town, hungry and thirsty, without possessions, and ultimately martyred, and yet their Godly imaginations were free to envision God's purposes for them and the world and to live more free of earthly passions. They knew who they were and where they were going.

It's difficult, of course, to figure out how to give yourself boundaries that would permit greater freedom, and yet I know where to begin.  An open Bible.  An open heart.  Obedience.  Submission.  Limiting distractions.  And as a writer, a blank page.  Consider the possibilities of a blank page informed by an open Bible and open heart.

Maybe the road to freedom is bondage. . . to a God who knows no bounds.  Maybe we need to stop running amok in the house and get back in the playpen.