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May 2010

A Hinge of My History

Author and historian Thomas Cahill's sparkling prose is what animates his series of history books known as "Hinges of History."  Cahill has a wonderful way of bringing to life the habitations and byways and ideas of places like Medieval Ireland, the Palestine of Jesus, or Ancient Greece.  To the point, Cahill says that the "hinges" refer to "those essential moments when everything was at stake, when the mighty stream that was Western history was in ultimate danger and might have been divided into a hundred useless tributaries or frozen in death or evaporated altogether."  Then, in this narative of grace, he points to the arrival of great "gift-givers" who "provided for transition, for transformation, even for transfiguration, leaving us a world more varied and complex, more awesome and delightful, more beautiful and strong than the one they had found."  What he really recounts is how history is providentially undergirded, luminous from within if we only observe.

What is true of the great history of cultures is also true of you, and of me.  Our own personal histories are not just some long tragi-comic narrative, a purposeless muddling through of life, but histories framed by turning points, "hinges' if you will, moments in time when critical decisions were made, new life trajectories were set, and blessing or curse followed.  Inauspicious moments and seemingly small decisions can have long consequences, and while the results are not irredeemable (when they go bad) they often do force us into certain paths.  Like taking the wrong path at a fork in the road, we may not be able to go back but, rather, may have to make the best of the path we are on.  On the other hand, the blessings that can flow from seemingly insignificant decisions or events can also be portentous.

We all have our own hinges.  I recall one.  In 1976 I graduated from high school.  I had become a Christian in high school though I had no fellowship, no discipleship in the faith other than that provided by books (good though they were).  I was outside the main social circles of my large suburban high school, uncomfortable with high school fellowships like Young Life which seemed filled with kids who already had everything, already had plenty of friends.  I was painfully shy and insecure.  The social hurdle posed by a mass of popular kids was too much for me.  So I remained an alone Christian.

At the same time I knew that I needed fellowship.  I had read about it.  I wanted things to be different.  I wrote letters to all the campus student fellowships at N.C. State, where I was admitted, something I now look back upon as a somewhat surprising initiative from someone who lacked initiative.  All of them wrote back and let me know of their campus activities.  However, three students in leadership with Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship wrote long handwritten letters to me --- Sam, Rich, and Buck.  They told me there was a vollyball and ice cream social on registration day.  I made up my mind to go. 

When registration day came, I joined the crush of students and did what I had to do.  Then I walked through campus and down the sidewalk on Dan Allen Drive.  There was a grassy area where a vollyball net was set up.  Three guys were sitting on a slight hill, their backs to me.  And this is the hinge:  Every natural impulse in me told me not to go over to them, that I could always go later.  And yet I did.  I did the unnatural.  I recall it was like watching my feet move without willing them to move.

One of the guys I met there that day, David, is a friend I still have lunch with monthly.  Another guy I met that day, Bruce, became my roommate for three years and is still a fellow church member.  I was welcomed into that fellowship, went to retreats, was in a small group Bible study, attended the Urbana Missions Conference, met my wife of 29 years, became a leader, and grew in faith (as well as graduated from college).  Blessing upon blessing followed from that one decision to talk to those guys sitting on the hill.

I'm not presumptuous enough to think that it all came down to me.  My "hinge" was secured, fastened to the One who providentially guides all events.  In the mystery of God's sovereignty and my choice, the door could have swung the other way and I could have walked on by.  Thank God it did not.

The guys who reached out to me, who wrote me letters and spent many hours with me, were Cahill's "gift-givers," instruments of God's grace in my life who took part in His transformation of my life.  The "hinge" was that essential moment on a stretch of sidewalk on Dan Allen Drive when my feet took an unnatural path and the door opened in on a world of rich blessing I could just as easily have missed.  Even today, I drive that way, look at that sidewalk, imagine that field, remember, and give thanks to the One who pulled me in.

And that's just one "hinge of history," one seemingly insignificant moment in one life among billions.  But it matters.  They all do.


On Your Graduation (And Mine)

[No one has ever asked me to speak to a graduating class of high school seniors, and I don't really want to do that, but I have thought about what I might say to them if I were asked.  A few years ago, I did the same thing, only then I did not have a graduating senior.  I do now.  Looking back at what I wrote then, it seems a bit preachy and wordy.  I like this better.]

Here you are, finally.  Did you think this day would never come?  I know that you're sitting here with a mixture of excitement, anxiety, and impatience, but bear with me.  I only have five things to say.  Here goes.

Life is broken, but all is not lost.  You know what I mean.  Lots of things are screwed up, from oil spills to wars to bad hair to lousy days when you can't even figure out what's wrong or why a blue funk has come over you.  You know it wasn't meant to be this way. Sometimes you feel like someone left you standing on a street corner without a full set of instructions.  Yes, it's broken, under a kind of curse ever since Adam and Eve decided to eat the fruit.  And yet something else is happening.  The curse is being undone.  Pay attention and you'll see it --- in a smile, in a friend, in someone who does something for you for nothing, nothing at all. If you focus on all the bad, pretty soon you won't be able to see anything else.  So focus on what's good, true, and beautiful, and pretty soon that's what you'll naturally be predisposed to see.

Live where you live, not where you think you want to live.  In a world of immediate accessibility, when you google anything and anyone, it's easy to want to be somewhere else, to live virtually.  But when Jesus walked the streets and hills of Palestine, he didn't wish he was anywhere else.  He grew up there.  He ate meals there.  He fished.  He preached.  He never went more than 100 miles from his home.  So with you. Like the Jews in exile, don't pine for somewhere else, for home, or for the next thing, but settle in and live and love where you are.  That may be your college, a town far from home, or it may be right here.  Find the beauty of the place where you find yourself.  You'll be a lot more content and better able to bless those around you if you do.

Cut the crap.  Look around you.  Your classmates are the best crap-detectors you have.  They know when you're suckin' up to teachers or not being yourself.  They know religious talk from true spirituality.  There are a lot of people-pleasers in the world and in the church, people who say all the right words because it's expected of them, or because they want to fit in.  Don't.  The church needs people who will speak the truth in love.  You need friends who won't tell you what you want to hear or what they think you want to hear but what you need to hear, who'll call you out if need be.  The Bible says "let your yes be yes and your no be no."  See that you do.

Have the right passion.  You'll meet a lot of people who are passionate about a lot of things: vegetarianism, running, film, music, food, sex, and so on.  You name it and you will find a group to advocate it, brand it, and market it.  It all goes to show that we were meant to have a passion --- only people will fill it, fill that void, however they can.  Ask God to give you a passion for Him.  Then ask him to reveal His vision for you.  There is something only you can do.  So pray hard.  Nag God.  Be the persistent widow who won't stop until you get what you came for.  In all of that begging, wondering, and hoping just remember this:  YOU are His passion.  Not only does He love you, He likes you --- not the petty you but the you He made in His image, the one He's transforming you into thank God.

Don't be afraid.  Fear is paralyzing and often unfounded, and most of what we fear never comes to pass and the things we don't have time to fear may be the things that actually come to pass.  You don't know how you'll manage college, life, or love, but He does.  The only antidote for fear is faith.  Take God at His word.  Ask him to increase your faith.  Act not on the fear you may feel but on the promises of the God you know.  The Bible is replete with people who did the unthinkable and the unlikely, from a quivering Moses who went before the most powerful man in the world to ask that he let his people go to a shepherd boy who went up against a giant to a once cowardly Christ-denier on whom Jesus built his church.  If God is with you, nothing can prevail against you.

There's a lot more I could say, but you'll hear all that and more from someone else.  Now as you're sitting there, uncomfortable and hot in those robes, with those ridiculous boards on your heads, you're probably thinking when will this old guy shut up.  Well, I had to say it.  You see, I'm graduating too. Everything I said to you I'm still working on.  Some kids are on a five-year plan; I'm on a life plan. Graduation is gradual.  Life is a university.  And God is a kind headmaster.  May He bless you, and me, on our graduation.


Beauty From Ashes: A Review of "Stone City," by Lisa M. Jeffreys

9781607996422large While many Christian readers are aware that J.R.R. Tolkien did not approve of allegory --- a disapproval pointedly directed at his friend C.S. Lewis's very successful Chronicles of Narnia series ---- the ability of allegory to speak to the common reader is unparalleled.  The more direct correspondence between allegorical characters, places, and events and real life events defamiliarize Christian truths or life experiences that can become cliche through their overuse.   Allegories are rich with symbolism and, given the direct correspondence with reality, very accessible to a wide range of readers.

Author Lisa M. Jeffey's first book, Stone City, is an effective allegory that explores the biblical themes of creation, fall, redemption, and restoration in what is really a short story interspersed with poems and drawings.  It chronicles the devastation and despair wrought by a stranger, Jaron, in the life of a young girl, Miranda, and on an entire city brought to hopelessness and near lifelessness in the aftermath of his visit.  Stone City is a place of drabness and despair where even the word "beauty" has been lost from memory.  This downward spiral is broken by the visit of a stranger, Santara, who built a place of beauty filled with fountains and wells, using water to refresh the people's bodies and spirits.  An awakening occurs both for Miranda and the people of the community as beauty and laughter are restored to Stone City.

Like any allegory, it's tempting to try and draw parallels between the characters and circumstances of the story and the life of the author, and given what her testimony reveals of her sexual abuse as a child and teen and her emotional isolation, surely such parallels exist.  And yet, like any good allegory, the story is meant not so much as autobiography but as a place where the reader can find connections to his or her own life.  In this, Stone City works, particularly if, like the author, you have a life experience that involved deep emotional trauma or depression.   And yet it works for all of us.  We all need a deliverer.  We all need a Santara.  This Christ-figure reminds us that that there is real hope, hope embodied in a person, and that restoration, though not complete in this life, is real, that healing can be substantial even now.

This is a modest story both in length and language.  Yet its simplicity commends it for a wide variety of readers.  Its brevity leaves me wanting more, which makes me think it needs not a sequel (which the author suggests is coming) but the more developed, longer, fuller, and deeper treatment of a novella or novel.  This author has more depths to plumb and more to say than is found here.  Let's hope she finds a way to say it.


A Mockingbird

Tony is making a point, gesticulating wildly between sips of beer.  Right now he's waving a beef rib in the air for emphasis and David's eyes are following the rib, hungrily, like a cat watching his prey.

Youngstown, back then, he's telling David, that was when it was still a town, when the steel mills were still open, when people had work and money, when things were happening.  It was a good place to grow up, you know. A great place for kids.  People walked in neighborhoods, sat around on front porches, had time to talk.

He's describing some Polish delicacy, something that sounds like "Polskey" to my untrained not-just-off-the-boat ears, dough wrapped around some kind of meat, cooked in bacon grease, wonderful stuff he says. He means it.  He means it because he's jabbing the air with his beef rib, pointing a beef-laden finger at my face, telling me that "that was real food, the real stuff, the kind of stuff you ate and didn't worry about calories or fat or cholesterol or any of that health nut stuff."

Tony can't stay in one place for long. Now he's onto his recent vacation to Hawaii.  Mauna Kai.  Volcanos. Black sand beaches. Tropical rainforests. It's an audible stream of consciousness.  Staying with the American ambassador in Warsaw.  The Polish countryside. Auschwitz.  His grandmother.  Growing up Polish.  Alabama women.  Varieties of beer.  Prosecuting a Mob boss.  Pabst Blue Ribbon, the working-class man's beer.  Alabama women.  Ohio politics.  Obama.  Bush.  Tipping Point (the book) and mavens, connectors, and salespeople, sizing us all up, trying to put us in Gladwell's (the author's) categories.  I'm thinking Tony is a maven-connector-salesperson.  But there's no time to think, no pause for reflection, because Tony's still talking.

"Does this guy ever shut up?  He's like a walking encyclopedia or something.  Jeez."

That's David, Toledo David.  Also Polish.

"I mean, does anyone else ever get to talk with this guy talking all the time?"

David's just giving Tony a hard time, of course, just good-natured alcohol-induced kidding.  But Tony's un-fazed.  Going on like he never heard him.  Right now he's talking about classic rock, about Springsteen, Mellencamp, heartland rock and roll.  Polka.  Polka?  He's telling us about Saturday evenings as a kid, family over to their house, listening to polka.

When Tony speaks, it's with machine-gun rapid-fire like intensity.  His eyes bulge.  He leans forward.  He gets in your face.  He's a 58 year old 11 year old kid, a one-man information highway, an embodied Internet, soaking up trivia, history, stories, and opinions and more, letting it all spew out just for the pure joy of telling it.  A sponge.  A fount of knowledge.

On another day this might be annoying.  He monopolizes conversation.  Interject and you'll be corralled into another tangent, diffused, guided, an errant sheep corralled and brought to herd by an exitable border collie.  Yet today I'm enjoying this.  I'm just listening, soaking up one man's pure delight in talking.  We all are.  I look aside out the window of the restaurant and see his reflection there, bathed in neon.  He's back to Youngstown, telling about how his brother and him fought bullies on the way to school, "harmless enough," he says, "a great place, Youngstown."

Excusing myself about 10:30, I decide to walk back to the hotel alone, my ears needing a rest, my head buzzing from the constant talk.  About halfway down a city street, I hear a mockingbird.  I stop to listen. The mockingbird mimics eight different birds in the course of a minute.  A sponge.  A one-bird encyclopedia of bird-dom.  Singing just for the pure joy of it.

Shut up Tony?  How could we?  That's be like killing a mockingbird.  It wouldn't be right.