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October 2009

September 2009

Father of Night


I am a walker and have my settled paths.  I follow a routine of time, place, and manner.  Normally I walk in the morning, beginning in pre-dawn darkness, watching the Eastern sky gradually brighten as I tread lightly on sidewalks or asphalt, hearing only the swish of my clothing as I brush along, passing no one, homes dark and sleeping.  Had I dog ears I might sense the vibrations of the snoring people or the murmurs of just-waking workers, the sighs of babies swaddled in cribs, perhaps the padded feet of children on hallways to parents' rooms --- awake, ready.  Morning, with its stillness, quiet, and faint stirrings is promise, a hope of new things, a day never lived before.  When the birds awake and begin their singing about midway through my walk, just before dawn, it is a chorus of hope.

Evening is something else.  Tonight I walk the same paths but in a different time.  I feel as I do when I rise in the middle of the night to stumble to the bathroom.  I know I'm on a familiar path, but it seems so different at night, and I am not myself.  The hills are harder to ascend, the uneven sidewalk more difficult to see, the birds absent, the cicadas massaging my ears with their crescendo chorus like a lullaby.  I find it more difficult to believe at night: more difficult to believe in the promise of a new day, maybe disappointed at the lost promise of this day, a little overcome by the descending darkness. 

A full moon mutes my melancholy. I know that it is reflecting the light of a seemingly absent sun.  But not just that.  I hear children playing in backyards after dinner, laughing.  Smells of dinner waft through windows open to the evening air.  And in the "golden hour" just before darkness descends, the last slanted light of day gives a glow to everything, makes the hard edges of rooftops, walls, trees, and streets soft and yielding.


When my son was young and sometimes afraid of the dark, I used to remind him that nothing had changed in the dark.  All his toys were still there, as were his parents, only darkened.  I wasn't speaking the whole truth, of course, because it truly is different at night, in darkness, but I was asking him to trust me, letting him know that I was there in the darkness, just there on the other side of his voice.  He is not so different than me.  Darkness tugs at my belief as well.  And yet, walking darkened paths, the dappled light of streetlights under my feet, I am reminded that the Father of Light inhabits the darkness too, right there on the other side of my voice, Father of darkness as of day, "the One of Whom we most solemnly praise."

In the end, there is no darkness.  The promise is that "there will be no more night" (Rev. 22:5).  Turning the corner, I see the light of home, yellow warmth spilling from the windows.  I quicken my pace.

Holy Gossip


"Gossip is theology translated into experience."  (Katleen Norris)

When my father died of a heart attack, I was 14 and he was 48, a younger man than I am now.  For all the years I knew him, he never once mentioned the war he served in, WWII, and so what I know of his service is sketchy, a few sentences at best.  I know he served under Patton in North Africa, crossed the Mediterranean into Sicily and Italy, and made his way to France and the Battle of the Bulge, where he was injured and sent home.  He received a purple heart.  I have his ID bracelet.  But that's it. That's all I know.

As I recently watched Ken Burns' epic documentary, The War, I was moved by the images --- real life images --- that came across the screen.  Some of it was difficult to watch.  It was a horrible if necessary war that my father served in.  As the soldiers moved through Africa and on toward Europe, I watched their faces.  I was watching for my father's face.  I half expected it to stare back across the screen at me.  It brought home what he endured and experienced, a silent backdrop of his life, with a vividness I had never had.

The cryptic story of his service in that war is a lesson in theology lived out in experience.  The moral is that of loyalty.  A man had never left home, and yet he did leave home, like many others, tramp across Africa, and through Europe, not deserting, not yielding, but doing what was required.  Had he not come home, I would not be here.  His story is a silent underwriting of my own story, a testimony and a challenge to me that though I may fear (and undoubtedly he did fear) I must not live in fear or let fear keep me from doing what I must.

That's one kind of story.  There are others.  There are family members who have made poor choices, who cannot seem to make a right choice, and give a sad but living testimony that actions have consequences, that we reap what we sow.  Others experience, despite their waywardness, a beautiful grace --- a child that against all odds, blesses them, or a spouse that is loyal and loving, despite it all.  Some stories in retrospect are funny, which is grace in itself that memories have been redeemed, failures returned with a smile.  The stupid things I did as a teenager do not haunt my life but hallow it now.  Most certainly those stories inhabit the prayers I make for my own teenage children.

"When we gossip, we are praying," says Kathleen Norris, "not only for them but for ourselves."  I can pray that I have the courage, loyalty, dedication, and commitment of my father.  I can pray that my son and daughter can do hard things when they need to be done (and they will need to be done).  I can pray that the stories that I tell my children and grandchildren of my own life ---fables of judgment and yet grace --- will bear fruit in their lives.

The Apostle Paul commended the faith of Eunice and Lois to their grandson and son, Timothy, who no doubt recalled the many particular stories of their faithfulness (2 Tim. 1:5).  He might just as well have cautioned him against his Uncle Eustace and the foolishness of his life and the consequences he reaped. That we know of Eunice and Lois and not Eustace is of no importance.  It's faith we need to be reminded of, a bit of gossip down the years, a story told of the faith of two woman who held fast to God.  There is a gossip that instructs and doesn't tear down, stories of faith and failure that need to be told.

So spread a bit of holy gossip.  Whisper a tale of sin and salvation and certitude --- the certainty that God is at work in the tangled plots that unfold, the stories of our lives.

Listening to Buechner


Statistically speaking Frederick Buechner will get home before me.  After all, he is over 30 years older than me.  But it doesn't really matter.  What matters for me is keeping home in my sights --- both the one from which I come and the one to which I go.  Buechner --- the novelist, memoirist, pastor, teacher, and theologian --- has for many years helped me do that. He knows from where he came and is 99% sure where he is going, and that's good enough for me.

If you don't know Frederick Buechner, he's the wizard behind the flim-flam-hukster-come-man-of-God Leo Bebb, a man who had so large a personality that it sprawled across four large novels earning the title of The Book of Bebb.  Buechner is the boy in The Wizard's Tide, a thinly-veiled autobiography of a young child wrestling with his father's death by suicide. He's the animator of Godric, the lost yet saved Irish monk.  He's the one who lets us in on his own life, telling his story in some of the most honest and searching memoir ever written.

I would be flattering myself to say that my writing has been deeply influenced by Buechner's style, and yet I have that hope.  His deep belief in providence, for example, leads him to look for the story in his own life and how his story fits into the larger tale that God is telling. I feel as if I'm only beginning to trace the hand of God in my life, how the inexplicable or difficult becomes, on latter reflection, a part of a plot that, while still veiled, hints of deeper meaning. Biographer Dale Brown notes how deeply Buechner was impacted by his seminary professor, Paul Tillich, who Brown says "argued that God may be found in the stories of our lives as in the stories of Scripture," and so Buechner mines his past, looking back even as he looks forward.  But he says it better than me:

What quickens my pulse now is the stretch ahead rather than the one behind, and it is mainly for some clue as to where I am going that I search through where I have been, for some hint of who I am becoming or failing to become that I delve into what I used to be.  I listen back to a time when nothing was farther from my thoughts than God for an echo of the gutturals and sibilants and vowellessness by which I believe that even then God was addressing me out of my life as he addresses us all.

Listening back is like entering a museum full of once known artifacts from your life, collected and arranged by a curator who is keenly aware of their significance and interrelatedness, only to find that the descriptive exhibit placards, tantalizing though they may be, are only comprehensible when the curator comes along.  Buechner makes me look back so I can look forward.  He tells me to trust the curator and listen to my life.  And then, he says to write it down.  Tell the story, if only to yourself.

Another influence to which I can inspire is his honesty.  Even though he believes in One who providentially orders his life for his good, he is frank about the persistence of doubt.  Scripture may counsel us to "trust in the Lord with all your heart" and yet even the Psalmist himself, a "man after God's own heart," sometimes wonders aloud when God will show up.  If he doubts, he doubts aloud; if he worries, he worries aloud.  I can see myself faintly in his worry about withdrawal:

I fend off the world, I avoid getting involved with other people's needs, so that I can get ahead in the world myself.  But at this deeper level, much deeper than conscience, the truth of it is that I need the world.  I need the very ones I keep at a distance.  I need to love and be loved by the very ones from whom I hide myself behind this face.  I need them not so that I can ease my conscience but so that I can be myself.

He tells me what he worries about, what preoccupies him, and what he regrets, so I always have a sense of a man who trusts God and testifies to His presence in his life, who never pretends that all is well or that he never questions.  In that he leads me to faith, not away from faith.

I owe the man a great debt, and yet he would not recognize it.  He would say, as he has, as so many spiritual "giants" have, that he did little that he set out to do, that he "could have been so much braver and kinder and more unselfish," to use his words, that in the end he pictures himself "standing before Saint Peter empty-handed except for the books," wondering "Did they make the world any better for having been written?"  Well did they?

Sure they did, and sure he did. 

Sara Beth Geoghegan Featured in World Magazine

Sarabeth My feature article on singer-songwriter Sara Beth Geoghegan has been published in World Magazine here.  However, if you are not a subscriber, check this link for the full version, as only subscribers get the full version of the article.  I was pleased to publish in World as, besides the article title and subtitle, they did nothing to change what I wrote.

Sara Beth is, of course, about more than you can squeeze into 650 words.  For you local readers, that's why I encourage you to check her out in concert at our home in Raleigh on Friday, September 18th at 8:00.  Meet 50 new (or old) friends at the same time.  It should be a good party!  Find more information on the concert and Sara Beth and reserve a seat here.

A New Season of House Concerts: Geoghegan, Sparks, Paquette, and McCracken

Sandra+McCracken Local readers of this blog may be interested in the upcoming 2009-10 season of house concerts in Raleigh, North Carolina.  Booked so far this season is emerging New Orleans singer-songwriter Sara Beth Geoghegan on September 18th, vintage CCM rockers (toned down a bit for the house) Greg and Rebecca Sparks on October 10th, Nashville singer-songwriter Jill Paquette (MIA for a couple years as she married and had a baby) on December 5th, and then in 2010 thus far, Sandra McCracken, formerly of Indelible Grace and wife of Derek Webb, on February 26th.

If you've never attended a house concert, no need to be intimidated.  It's simply that, a concert in a house.  We move out the furniture, bring in a small sound system, lights, and chairs, and invite people in for food, drink, and music.  It's in your face up close music, with a chance to interact and meet the artists as well as the meet other concert-goers.  You reserve a seat and give a suggested donation to the artist (usually $15/person) at the door.  It's great fun.

Sarabeth Our upcoming concert for which reservations are being accepted now is Sara Beth Geoghegan, who will be with us on Friday, September 18th, at 8:00.  Sara Beth, a relative unknown, has recorded a very authentic and beautiful record of her own songs entitled Tired of Singing Sad Songs.  You can find out more about Sara Beth, listen to her music, and book a reservation, on our concerts page here.  Or read my review of her record here.  But hurry. . . seats tend to go fast!  Feel free to share this link with a friend, on facebook, and invite others to come.  The photo?  NO, she's not mad about anything, just thoughtful.  Actually, she's funny!  But you'll have to come to the concert to find that out.

A River Runs Through It

River Whenever I pass over a river, I cannot help but stare.  Whether it is a river in my own locale --- the Neuse, Haw, Cape Fear, Eno, Great Pee Dee, or Deep, or even the creek that dribbles under the street I walk each morning --- or ones distant --- the Nile, Mississippi, Columbia, Hudson, Potomac, or Missouri --- or ones I only read about, like the Congo, I'm mesmerized by them.

In Jinja, in Eastern Uganda, there is a place on the Nile River where you can take a boat to the source of the Nile, a source I always presumed to be Lake Victoria, almost a sea in itself, the second-largest freshwater lake in the world, and yet it's not.  Bubbling up from deep and powerful groundwater springs, water pours out, enough to feed a river that winds its way north all the way to the Mediterranean.  Before a dam was built downriver and the water table was raised, I'm told the water from the springs would shoot five feet above the surface of the river, a testimony to the power of the deep, reminding me of the biblical account of creation, the great and powerful movements that must have occurred in those days.

Maybe it's the power of the river currents, the sense of movement, the fact that life abounds around them, or their sheer beauty, but something draws us to them and always has.  Our great and small cities are mostly on rivers.  In fact they provide water and transportation for many people.  Even civilizations rise and fall with the rivers.  But it's more than that.

There's something elemental about water, as there is about earth and about light, something that resonates deep within us, that we not only need for physical sustenance but for spiritual life.  We sense that not only in the still and tranquil waters but in the frightening power of the currents or even the devastation of floods. The tranquil creek that ran through the woods at the back of my childhood home is the same one that overflowed its banks and flooded our home.  Rivers can never be taken for granted, as I recall watching them in amazement even in their devastating power.  I can't erase the image of flooding last year in a midwestern town, the picture of a town at war with the river that threatened to destroy their way of life, or even the devastation that Hurricane Floyd brought to many towns in our region several years ago.

But just as rivers can symbolize judgment, an outpouring of God's general judgment against sin, so they can be a source of hope, of comfort amidst the difficulties of life.  It was, after all, the rivers of Babylon by which the exiled Israelites sat and wept as they remembered and longed for their home (Ps. 137:1).  Was it that the waters of the Euphrates and other streams and canals that ran in and then out of the city gave them hope that they too would be delivered out of the city one day?  Or did they just provide a tranquil place to rest?

Rivers also symbolize life.  It's a river, again, that flows out of Eden to water the Garden (Gen. 2:10), and in the New Eden of Revelation a river once again that flows through the New Jerusalem (Rev. 22:1-2).  It is God who turns "rivers into a desert, flowing springs into thirsty ground" (Ps. 107:33). Life abounds in and near rivers.

In John 7:38 Jesus promises that out of those who believe in him will flow "rivers of living water."  Meditating on this verse, Oswald Chambers notes the richness of the metaphor God provides by His creation, how, for example, "[a] river touches places of which its source knows nothing," bringing to mind how our lives lived in Christ touch places we may never know of, how we are not, after all, "little people" of no effect but "little people" of mighty effect if we stay connected to our Source, Christ.  He reminds us that "[a] river is victoriously persistent," overcoming barriers and obstacles, sometimes by going around, sometimes by dropping out of sight for many miles, moving underground, only to surface again in some distant location, even, as with the source of the Nile River, with great power, reminding us that our lives flow on in Christ, around obstacles, even invisible, but not without great effect.

Al this is to say that a created thing like a river holds great lessons for us, great encouragement,  and is a signpost of the Kingdom, a window on a deeper spiritual reality. Whether they give us hope, comfort, life, or encouragement to press on in faith, rivers mean something. 

So tomorrow morning when I walk the bridge and pass over an unnamed creek that winds through my subdivision, I'll have a lot to think about and much for which to be grateful.  If I listen well to its rippling, I may just hear a clap of joy (Ps. 98:8).  I may just think of my Home, where a river runs through it.

Life on Shuffle

Medium.41.207415 On a long road trip recently, I experienced something by choice that is a rarity in this time.  I probably have at least 500 songs on my IPod, a fraction of what is available to me at home but plenty to choose from.  Only I didn't.  I put the IPod on shuffle and for nearly four hours disciplined myself to listen to every song that came to me, unbidden, welcoming it, considering its lyric and sound.  Interestingly enough, at least every other song I felt the compulsion to skip the song, surprising considering that I chose these songs! But I take that as a symptom of cultural attention deficit disorder to which I'm not immune.

Within reason, we can now listen to whatever song we want to listen to, at any time, in almost any place, as many times as we like.  Music is ubiquitous --- widely accessible, portable, and taste-driven.  If I want it, I can have it.  Now.  I do not have to wait.  In a not so distant time, we had to wait for a DJ to play our favorite song on the radio, whether "In a Gada Da Vida or "Bus Stop." Or if we were lucky we'd find the record and buy it in a record store and take it home and listen.  If we push back farther in time, prior to the phonograph, to hear a song we had to hear it live.  We had to be there.  And we had to wait for that time. We had to anticipate that experience.  Choice was limited but experience rich and savored.

Something is lost in this expansion of choice.  By taking songs as they came, by abandoning choice and denying whatever momentary passion came over me, I realized that my experience was richer.  I wasn't bored.  I was more attentive.  I discovered a richness in songs that at first I wanted to skip.  I enjoyed the surprise of hearing what was next. I enjoyed the restfulness of not choosing.  Some oft-skipped bit of progressive rock on Yes's Fragile CD needed to be savored, not skipped on the way to the immediately captivating "Roundabout."

It's a great lesson for life, this shuffling through, if I allow it.  I don't have to have my way. I need not make a choice.  What if, when I go to a restaurant, I just tell the server to bring me his or her favorite dish, if I tell them to just "surprise me?"  I might try that sometime. What if rather than trying to be right in every discussion I just let someone else be "right," if I just let them "win?"  What if, rather than avoiding an office mate by not walking by their office, I just walk by their office and see what happens?  What if rather than attempting to carefully control the events of my day I just accept what comes, savor it, learn from it, and pray through it.  It's not fatalism, as choice cannot be escaped, but it is a long restfulness and acceptance that likely will bring greater enjoyment of the moment.

In the Gospel accounts of Jesus' life, one has a sense of a man who moved in the direction of his calling, ultimately a calling requiring his death, but one who responded to the need of the moment, to the person he beheld.  When the woman touched the hem of his robe, he stopped and addressed her.  Though weary, when the crowds sought him out, he was there for them.  Though sleeping, he awoke at his disciples' insistence to calm a storm.  Though omnipotent and sovereign, he refused to pull rank and flatten those who would crucify him. Though a man with a mission, he accepted what came because life on shuffle was, in the end, just life on God's time.

G.K. Chesterton, one of the most quotable of men, once said that "Self-denial is the test and definition of self-government." By having so many choices, by not having to deny ourselves much, we become slaves of our passions, both the relatively benign ones like what song I will listen to next to the more dangerous ones like what food I will eat (gluttony) or who I will sleep with (sexual immorality).  Market economies and liberal democracies thrive on the notion that an expansion of choice is always good, that having what I want when I want it is always good.  It's not.  In the end, self-government is, in God's economy, an agent of freedom and enjoyment.  Limiting choice can lead to a greater enjoyment of what we have.  The notion that I don't have to have what I can have is a freeing thought.

I'm just going to put life on shuffle.  I'm just going to see what happens next.