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November 2010

First Chapters

That I am considering a digital reader for e-books is proof that I am not a Luddite.  In the last week, I have previewed Borders's Kobo Reader, Amazon's Kindle, Barnes and Nobles's Nook, and even the more versatile IPad.  This has made me a readin' beast, folks!  I read at stoplights, at lunch, while waiting at the doctor's office, or in any other interstice of life!  So my conclusion is that I will actually read more books if I have one of these gizmos.  But this is not about the device but, rather, what I have read. 

Since I didn't want to buy any of these e-books yet, I sampled the free first chapters from a number of them.  In the past week I have read the first chapters of A.E. Milne's Winnie-the-Pooh (for its wonderful sound), William Stryon's Sophie's Choice (well-written if wrenching story, at least the movie was), John Piper's Think (haven't read much Piper, actually), George W. Bush's Decision Points (mildly interesting, but certainly not captivating or in one chpater terribly illuminating), John Powell's How Music Works (fun and informative and accessible), Beth Kephart's The Heart is Not a Size (previewed for my 16-year old daughter, and I liked it), Spencer Quinn's Dog On It (a detective novel told from the standpoint of the detective's dog, and that right there is enough to say about this funny book), and Laura Hillenbrand's Unbroken (wonderfully written WWII story by the author of Seabisquit)And I'm still at it.  However, it has led to some curious, shall we say, propinquities.

For example, I never knew that George W. Bush and Winnie-the-Pooh had so much in common: a perchant for the simple (and I mean it as a compliment).  I'll keep reading about Winnie-the-Pooh but will likely not continue reading George Bush's memories.  (I'll also pass on Sarah Palin and Barack Obama.)  Memoirs must be compelling to draw you in, and these don't seem to be.  Now Pooh --- you have to love him and his friends.

But when it comes to writing, by far the best here is Hillenbrand's Unbroken, as I was drawn in immediately in this first chapter as she tells about the coming of age of Louis Zamperini.  Who, you might ask?  A runner who grew up in Torrance, California during the Great Depression.  More than that I can't say (that's the problem with first chapters), but I want to read on.  That matters.

One good thing about reading so many books at virtually the same time is to get a sense of the different voice used in each.  In Unbroken, it's that of a sympathetic narrator; in Think, that of a kindly but thoughtful pastor; in Dog On It, that of a wiseacre dog (and it sounds so doggish you have to believe it); and in How Music Works, that of an entertaining college professor (part of a minority) who loves to teach.  And to hear the voice of a teenager, as in The Heart Is Not a Size, is to be drawn back to my own teenage years and remember, however vaguely, the not always pleasant intensity of everything that happened to me back then.

I never realized, or at least didn't remember, that one of the main characters in Sophie's Choice, Stingo, was a young editor at a book publisher, and his sometimes funny encounters make up a good part of the first chapter of the book.  That seemed overlooked or downplayed in the wrenching movie version about a Holocaust survivor's stark choice (played so well by Meryl Streep).  The comedy, believability, and emotion of this book also drew me in.

I hadn't sung "Ba, Ba, Black Sheep" in quite some time, and yet John Powell had me doing it, under my breath, in a restaurant while reading How Music Works, wondering later how effective that technique was.  Piper might say that the purpose of reading such a book about music is "to study [its] reality as a manifestation of God's glory."  Powell may not have that perspective, but I sense a wonder in his prose.

First chapters, even first paragraphs, tell you a lot about a book.  It's important to start well, particularly in this era of impatience.  It's good to have these different voices and perspectives.  I like this dipping in and out of books, for a while at least, though I wonder about the long-term effects of such hop-scotch, of not finishing what I have started.

No matter.  I think I'll buy one of these things.  I'll wander in this land of literature for a spell, settling when I find a suitable resting place, surrounding myself with words that seem three-dimensional.  I just hope you're not behind me at the stoplight.  Be gentle on the horn.  I'm reading. 

 


Now What? David Platt's "Radical"

Radical Dear Pastor Platt,

I wish that I had never read your little book.  I like books that take me someplace else --- a new country, perhaps, or an imagined setting, or a new area of knowledge --- and then let me return to all that is comfortable and familiar, a good time had by all and glad to be home you might say.  I found your book unsettling, to say the least.  I'm only glad I didn't buy it but checked it out of the local library where for some reason there is a waiting list for all the copies.  I don't know why.  Wait a minute --- in a moment of lunacy, I actually went on Amazon and ordered a flippin' copy!  Oh well.

You have the gall to suggest that the words of the Bible are meant to be taken seriously, that the way of faith is in many respects antithetical to the American dream.  When you say radical, you do mean radical, don't you? Let me see if I have this straight.  You say:

  • Following Jesus really does means a radical abandonment to Him, just as it was for the disciples.  We may have to give up our possessions, our family, our way of life, and yes, even our lives, and yet you say the cost of not doing so is much greater;
  • Believing in Jesus is not just assent to His truth but a radical reshaping of life around Him and His glory;
  • God is exalted in our weakness and inability; He uses ordinary people for extraordinary purposes;
  • God has designed a radically global purpose for my life, for the sake of His glory, and I need to stop making excuses for my inactivity; 
  • Stop simply being a receiver and start being a reproducer, as in what part of "go, and make disciples. . ." do you not understand?
  • Wealth is a gift to be used for God's glory, not something to be protected, hoarded, and used for myself; 
  • There is no Plan B: people are going to heaven or hell, and we better start understanding and acting on the truth of that realization; and
  • The Christian life, if lived rightly, will entail sacrifice, danger, and risk but, concomitantly, great joy and satisfaction.

To top it off, you have asked me to take part in a one-year "radical experiment" where I'm supposed to pray for the whole world, read through the entire Bible (that'd be a first, if I make it), sacrifice my money for a specific purpose (and you DO mean sacrifice), spend my life in another context (I went to Uganda, for crying out loud, and you're saying I need to do something like that again!), and commit to a multiplying community (church, right?).

You're asking a lot, Pastor Platt.  You may have duped those other folks at Brook Hills Baptist Church, all 4000 of them, but I have to think about this.  I don't want to be accused of being a lunatic, of going overboard.  And there's the kids to think of, you know.  And I'm. . . well I'm a little nervous that what you're saying could entail great risk to not just me but my family as well.  What about that?

I know why your book is orange.  It's scary, like Halloween.  And I'm spooked by its challenge.

Are you happy now?

Indigestibly yours,

Steve

[The desperate folks at Amazon are practically giving Platt's book away, at $5.50. If you really want it, you can get it here.]

 


Have Yourself a "Sad" Little Thanksgiving (A Playlist)

[My now older and musically sophisticated children regularly accuse me of listening to only the saddest, most melancholy of songs this time of year.  When I pull out my Thanksgiving Playlist each year, the groaning begins.  "Not that again," they say.  "Play something happy.  That's depressing!"  I remind them that I am not a sad person, that I like happy songs, that melancholy is different than sad, that joy is something deeper and richer than happiness.  They, after all, like Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody," a very unhappy song!  But they won't have it.  (Actually, some of the saddest and most nihilistic songs I have heard are some of the most musically upbeat!) Somehow, I can't imagine a Thanksgiving Playlist of rap songs, or poppy ear candy from the likes of Wilson Phillips.  But kids, I promise I'll think about it.  I'll search my collection for a "happy" Thanksgiving Playlist.  You just wait.  Meanwhile, take this --- it was good enough last year, and these great songs still do two things that are essential at Thanksgiving: they remind me to be thankful, and they remind me of home.  And until the day after, until Christmas is appropriately in our sights, that's enough.]


These songs don't all have Thanksgiving as a theme, because what I treasure about the day is also the gathering at home, or maybe the longing for home, or (sadly) in some cases the trials of being home. Like every holiday, its mention also brings a certain remembrance of childhood celebrations of the day. So, that too is reflected in some of my choices. In the end, it is a subjective list, of course, and yet I hope you will enjoy the music and reflect on what light it sheds on this Thanksgiving Day.

I've recorded and posted below two MP3 files, each with eight or nine songs. You can stream these but, better yet, I suggest right-clicking on each one (where it says "Side One" and "Side Two") and saving it to your desktop. Each will take a couple minutes to download. Once you have done that, you can then click on the desktop icon and listen to the songs on your player. Enjoy!

Side One

1. In the Bounty of the Lord, by Claire Holly. A gospel bluegrass number that celebrates what God gives us. The style is reminiscent of music I listened to growing up, as I find it reminds me of those Friday nights when my father's friends would come over and play music and drink black coffee until after midnight.

2. Thanksgiving Day, by Ray Davies.Kinks front-man Davies can claim the only legitimate song about Thanksgiving! He eschews his usual sardonic wit and writes a warm tune here, and the most rocking thing you'll hear on this playlist.

3. Thank You, by Jan Krist. It wouldn't be Thanksgiving without saying "thank you," and Jan manages to lace the thanks with enough melancholy and angst to keep it real. She's a good friend, and hearing her music brings many memories.

4. Gratitude, by Peter Himmelman. "I'm glad that I can see the brown eyes of my daughter. . . . Forgive me if I lost a sense of gratitude." Himmelman, an orthodox Jew, knows Who to thank. His song is a confession of how we take things for granted and forget to be thankful to our Creator.

5. Be Thou My Vision, by Van Morrison. It wouldn't be Thanksgiving without a hymn, and this is likely my favorite, with a very Celtic delivery by Van.

6. Covert War, by David Wilcox. Wow. If you had a family like this, you wouldn't want to go home for Thanksgiving. Fireworks at the Thanksgiving meal! Sad, but real.

7. Come Thou Fount/ Grain By Grain, by Matt Auten. Gorgeous hymn, and a reminder that God is the fount of every blessing.

8. A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving, by George Winston. Watching Charlie Brown is a part of every holiday. Besides, it's a bit of a pick-me-up.

Side Two

9. Wanderer's Song, by Brooks Williams. One of my favorites by Brooks, this song is about how all roads lead home.

10. River Where Mercy Flows, by Julie Miller. I love Julie's songs, and the tenderness and fragility of her voice is disarming. Thank God for His mercy.

11. What Wondrous Love, by Jars of Clay. Another hymn favorite. Thank God for his wondrous love.

12. Thanksgiving Song, by Mary Chapin Carpenter. New to the playlist this year, this original song is from Carpenter's recently released Christmas album. "Grateful for each hand we hold, around this table. . . ."

13. America, by Simon and Garfunkel. As my Uganda friend reminds me, Thanksgiving is a uniquely American holiday, and this is a song about America, and a nostalgic reminder of another time. This is the unique place I'm thankful for.

14. Somewhere Over the Rainbow, by The Innocence Mission. It seems like The Wizard of Oz used to come on sometime around the holidays every year as I was growing up. Thus, I identify it with home. It has a lullaby quality to it also, as sung by Karen Peris.

15. The Water is Wide, by Karla Bonoff. What a great song! This traditional tune was arranged and sung by Bonoff with some guitar and vocals by James Taylor late in the song. It's a song about trying to get home.

16. We Will Dance Someday, by Brooks Williams. A great upbeat song of hope about the Home we will enjoy someday. That hope makes me thankful.

17. Homecoming, by Jerry Reed Smith. An instrumental coda which reminds us, I think, of where our real Home is, where it will be Thanksgiving all the time.


To See In a Figure

"The written word is weak.  Many people prefer life to it.  Life gets your blood going, and it feels good.  Writing is mere writing, literature is mere.  It appeals only to the subtlest senses --- the imagination's vision, and the imagination's hearing --- and the moral sense, and the intellect. This writing that you do, that so thrills you, that so rocks and exhilarates you, as if you were dancing next to the band, is barely audible to anyone else.  The reader's ear must adjust down from loud life to the subtle, imaginary sounds of the written word.  An ordinary reader picking up a book can't yet hear a thing; it will take half an hour to pick up the writing's modulations, its ups and downs and louds and softs."

(Annie Dillard, The Writing Life)

We took a walk in the woods today, past the red, orange, and yellow of maples and oaks, past a lake with water tinged by the dye of tannin, silted by leaves, land swelling up to meet a sharp blue sky. Sometimes the air was still; sometimes, a whisper in my ears.  We walked 30 minutes, turned around, and walked back out.  What amazes me is how few people do even that.

Last year, one in four people read no books.  I've heard similar statistics for the number of people who have not visited a national park.  It astounds me.

Nature, like books, is often subtle.  Some of its manifestations, whether the frightening extremes like severe thunderstorms, hurricanes, earthquakes, and tornados, or the surreal extremes like Niagara Falls, the Grand Canyon, or the Tetons, are quite loud.  Mostly though, it whispers.  It takes time to hear anything at all.

I'm reading a little book called Leaf by Niggle, a story by J.R.R. Tolkien, the author of The Lord of the Rings.  It'd be easy to conclude that there was nothing of value in this little story, a frivolity of Tolkien's best left unpublished.  Rejected by academics, it has come, however, to be appreciated as a powerful allegory.  What once they could not hear, they now hear quite loudly.

Half way in to the forest, we met up with runners, their chatter and footfalls breaking the stillness. Likely their focus is on the goal, the finish.  Their conversation drowned out the subtler sounds of the forest.  They were not here but merely on their way out of here.  They heard nothing.

Sometimes, looking into a leaf, seeing its veins and red-yellow-orange gradations of color, and knowing the life it once had, the amazing process of converting sunlight to energy, of drawing nutrients from the earth --- the sound is deafening.  And yet I know so little of what really goes on in a leaf.

I once heard an Entertainment Today host, along about the time the movie version of The Fellowship of the Ring was released, comment that he "recommended the movie because the book was way too long to read."  Why walk, in other words, when you can run, when you can do it quicker, when someone else has done the difficult work of visualizing the story for you, when someone else has stopped to look at the leaves?

Amy Carmichael, the early twentieth century missionary to India and author of The Golden Cord, had a wonderful way of actually looking at nature and seeing the divine.  Once, facing discouragement and the foreboding of failure, she found one such holy place by a stream.  Seeing on its floor "battered, sodden leaves, some still faintly coloured, red, orange, yellow, some dull and brown like shadows of leaves . . . . only to be broken up and swept swiftly down the stream," she soon saw the meaning:

Holy places which are the figure of the true --- this private room in the forest was a holy place; we had seen a figure of the true; we had seen one of the invisible things which from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made.  There is no life except by death --- this was the invisible thing clearly seen that day.  Always bearing about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life of Jesus might be made manifest in our mortal flesh, that was what we had seen in a figure.

Outside my window, a tree branch sways in the wind, the remaining orange leaves that cling to it drawing life from it just a little longer before giving themselves up for the new life to come.  The sun is low in the sky, making a golden light in the trees.  I better go outside.  I better take some time and listen to what's written there, to discover "its ups and downs and louds and softs."

This writing God does, this making and remaking of the world. . . it must thrill Him.

 

 

 


Along the Path

The difference between a path and a road is not only the obvious one.  A path is little more than a habit that comes with knowledge of a place.  It is a sort of ritual of familiarity. . . . It is the perfect adaptation, through experience and familiarity, of movement to place; the obeys the natural contours; such obstacles as it meets, it goes around. . . . A road, on the other hand, even the most primitive road, embodies a resistance against the landscape.  Its wish is to avoid contact with the landscape; it seeks so far as possible to go over the country, rather than through it. . . . It is destructive, seeking to remove or destroy all obstacles in its way.

(Wendell Berry, from "A Native Hill," in The Long-Legged House)

As a child one pleasure of staying with my then seventy-something grandmother was the walks we took.  She did not drive, had never driven, and so other than being taken places by my mother, walked wherever she went.  It was enough for her.  She had no desire to travel.  She'd don her bonnet, which I assumed was just a necessary accessory for women her age going outdoors, and off we'd go, invariably walking paths through the woods, by the creek, circumventing the Southern Railway train tracks, and rarely, if ever, taking to an actual road.  

We'd visit friends, unannounced, sometimes ailing, and my grandmother would take them some food, maybe a homemade pie.  We'd stop in on an old cemetery, the forest overtaking it, gravestones askew from tree roots pushing them up.  She'd clear away vines that covered stones, brush away the dirt, stand with her hands on her hips and shake her head, obviously disgusted at the neglect of the place.  She cautioned us not to walk on the graves.  We played quietly, spoke in hushed tones.  We'd walk home, through a wild strawberry patch, where we'd help ourselves.  She'd make a basket from the folds of her skirt, carrying berries back with us.  We'd stop off by the creek that pooled under the railway bridge, and she'd let us wade in the water there.  We were in no hurry.

___________________

Today, I'm in no hurry.  We drove from Blowing Rock to Linville, to Grandfather Mountain, planning to plod along on the Black Rock Nature Trail.  I expected clouds and rain today, which may yet come, but for now it is fair and sunny, the air crisp, the color still in the trees, and we are on the move.

Coming to the trailhead, we found it closed, likely due to possible ice, so we drove up the mountain, walking in bitter cold out and across the "swinging" bridge, noting the snow-covered trees and carefully picking our way farther across the rocks for a better view.  Traveling back, up the Blue Ridge Parkway this time, we pointed to the trail looping under the Lynn Cove Viaduct, as it was one we had hiked before.  Continuing, we passed Julian Price Lake, also remembering a hike there many years ago with young children in tow.  

This too is a "ritual of familiarity," something my older children still love, that sense that we have been here before and will be here again.  Maybe it's the pleasure of seeing things that do not change much when so much else can change.  Or maybe it's just the softness of what you pass out here: rock outcroppings worn down by winds, the forest bed laden with fallen leaves, trees asymmetrical, shaped by wind.  Or maybe it's just the refreshing sense that unlike most days of the week, we are not trying to get somewhere but are contented to just be somewhere. We are in no hurry.

____________________

Scripture nowhere makes a tidy distinction between a "road" and a "path," as does Wendell Berry.  But the word "road" is rarely used metaphorically as is "path," but descriptively.  In Psalm 16:11 the Psalmist says "You have made known to me the path of life," and in  119:105 he refers to the "word" being a "light to my path."  There is a "path of the wicked" (Pr. 4:14) and a "path of the righteous," and we are told to "ponder the path of your feet; then all of your ways will be sure" (Pr. 4:26). Roads, on the other hand, are simply that: a way from one place to another.  The destination is the point of a road; the path is its own point.

_____________________

It'd be unfair to force the good/evil distinction on these journeys, as in road-bad and path-good. Coming in last night, in the dark, we skirted the traffic and lights of Boone by traveling the Blue Ridge Parkway for some 12 or so miles.  The Parkway is a blend of road and path, in places burrowing through the mountain, an obstacle to its travel, in others, living with and working with the mountain.  Given time, even its roughness born of demolition, concrete, and asphalt is assuaged; the trees felled return, moss grows on rocks, the edges of the road soften with grass, and the road itself seems in its curves little more than a wide, paved path, a road which has forgotten it is a road. In the darkness, snow swirling in our headlights, I imagine the animals in the forest watching us, waiting for our passing so that they can stand down, reclaim their land, in the wee hours of the night even repossess their path.

________________________

Life before God ought to be, as Eugene Peterson has said, a "long obedience in the same direction." Both path and road are headed somewhere, have a destination, a direction, but the metaphor of the path seems to better describe the way that we tread.  There are rituals of familiarity, both those disciplines of the faithful like worship, scripture, and prayer, as well as individual habits that come with knowledge of the place in which we find ourselves.  When an old worry crops up, for example, we may habitually remind ourselves of certain promises God has made, promises we have claimed in the past, trodding a familiar path and safely skirting an obstacle we have passed before.

At some point we realize, as did Brother Lawrence, that the path is Jesus, that He is "the Way" as well as the destination.  To abide in Him is to walk in the path of righteousness.  His path becomes the most natural thing in the world, "the perfect adaptation, through experience and familiarity, of movement to place," the bending of our will to His.

_____________________

It's not enough to be out walking.  It's not enough to have a destination.  We're told to "ponder our path" so that our "ways will be sure" (Pr. 4:26).  That means the only way to get there sooner is to watch our step, to notice where we are, to consider how best to live in this moment.

Even in Autumn, when leaves are falling and trees become bare, when sorrow may come unbidden, we can stop and ponder our path, even then adapting to the place God has taken us.  As Robert Frost says in his late Autumn poem, "My November Guest," where Sorrow is personified and addressed:

Not yesterday I learned to know
The love of bare November days
Before the coming of the snow,
But it were vain to tell her so,
And they are better for her praise.

Take a path, not a road, next time you're out walking.  Ponder what you see.  See in it a life lived unto God, one that "obeys the natural contours" of a landscape of His design.  You'll get where you're going. . . His way.  My grandmother taught me that.

 

 

 


October. . . and Larry

In the middle of U2's second album, October, released in 1981, the brevity of the title cut stands as a testimony of faith:

51VEZMBJhKL._SL500_AA300_ October and the trees are stripped bare
of all they wear.
What do I care?

October and kingdoms rise
and kingdoms fall
but you go on
and on.

For me the album is like a trip through the Psalms, reflecting a wrestling with faith, God, and others, as well as a resounding affirmation of faith --- much like you find from the Psalmist.  It was against its backdrop that my friend Larry was working out his salvation with fear and trembling.  Larry had graduated from college, took a printing job in town, and lived alone.  I think he was wondering what else there was for him.  Back then --- 29 years ago --- he and I would put this LP on in his tiny apartment and just listen, pausing every now and then to reflect a bit on the words.  Gloria/ In te domine/ Gloria/ Exultate/ Gloria/ Gloria/ Oh, Lord, loosen my lips.  It was exhilarating to hear. Then there's "Rejoice" and its chorus of I can't change the world/ but I can change the world in me/ Rejoice/ Rejoice.  In "Tomorrow," Bono sings Open up. open up, to the lamb of God/ To the love of He/ Who made the blind to see/ He's coming back/ He's coming back/ O believe Him.  But then there's also the angst of "I Threw a Brick Through the Window," a song Larry likely identified with, its My direction, going nowhere, going nowhere/ So I threw a brick through the window.

I worried a bit about Larry.  You see, the last two dates he had he met via the Personals ads in the old Spectator magazine, you know, "25 yr. old SWM looking for intelligent & fun SWF."  There was always history, stories which Larry sometimes shared with me.  In between U2 songs, that is.

29 years ago.  I don't even have a picture of Larry.  I don't know where he is. I don't even remember the last time I saw him.  But when I hear the melancholy strains of October, I think of him. . . and pray.


The (Almost) Perfect Poet: A Review of "Swan," by Mary Oliver

Awan In his inimical way, G.K. Chesterton once said that "the poets have been mysteriously silent on the subject of cheese."  Perhaps what he was saying was that there aren't many topics that poets haven't spoken to except for cheese, yet who knows what he meant?  I don't care.  It's fun to hear even if I don't understand it.  That's true of poetry too.  Even when you don't understand it on the first or second reading, or at all, it should still be fun to read, to hear the music of the words, to see in your mind's eye the images it provokes.  And yet sometimes a poetry comes along that is both accessible (if still a little mysterious) and fun to read and listen to.  That would be Mary Oliver.

In her latest book of poetry, Swan, Oliver, now in her mid-seventies, does not disappoint.  This book of 47 poems and much white space simply blesses the reader.  She doesn't stray from the familiar places and themes she has explored in other books --- nature (that of the marshes and beaches of her home at Cape Cod), faith (albeit non-specific), aging (with grace), and her faithful companion dog, Percy.  Reading these short poems I find welling up in me a deep thankfulness for all that God has made, for life itself, and a wonder at a Creation that continues to supply a poet's inspiration, even in her 75th year.  That alone is reason enough to purchase the book.

Oliver simply has not lost her wonder.  Take this first poem, "What Can I Say," which gently nudges the reader to listen, to be still, to wait (on God?):

What can I say that I have not said before?
So I'll say it again.
The leaf has a song in it.
Stone is the face of patience.
Inside the river there is an unfinishable story
     and you are somewhere in it
and it will never end until all ends.

Take your busy heart to the art museum and the
     chamber of commerce
but take it also to the forest.
The song you heard singing in the leaf when you
     were a child
is singing still.
I am of years lived, so far, seventy-four,
and the leaf is singing still.

Reading this, how can you ever look at a stone or a leaf or a river in the same way? Oliver has the ability to look at Creation and see humanity, like "On the beach, at dawn:/ four small stones clearly/ hugging each other."  Or in the short, almost not there, "Today":

Today is a day of
dark clouds and slow rain.
The little blades of corn
are so happy.

The rest of the page is blank, white.  I think to myself how absurd it is to spend good money on mostly blank pages, and yet if you think like that you won't read poetry much less buy it.  In this world where information stretches from edge to edge of monitors and videos beckon and text splashes, flashes, and scrolls across the screen, poetry reminds us of how thin and shallow all that information can be, and yet how four short lines can be ridden to deep wonder.  If you stop, that is, before you press on.

I mentioned faith, and it is true, there is a kind of faith here, though more mystic than Christian. Oliver is forever provoking us to consider the sacredness of life, as in this poem, "In Your Hands":

The dog, the donkey, surely they know
           they are alive.
Who would argue otherwise?

But now, after years of consideration,
          I am getting beyond that.
What about the sunflowers? What about
          the tulips, and the pines?

Listen, all you have to do is start and
          there'll be no stopping.
What about mountains? What about water
          slipping over the rocks?

And, speaking of stones, what about
          the little ones you can
hold in your hands, their heartbeats
          so secret, so hidden it may take years

before, finally, you hear them?

Reading these poems, I find it appropriate that the poet quotes Emerson in her epigram at the beginning of the book: "'Tis curious that we only believe as deep as we live."

In one poem, there is this wonderful line --- "Joy is not a crumb" --- and I think, how could it be?  To look deeply at Creation, to see the world God made in all its richness, how could one be anything but awestruck, almost wordless, and Oliver is, like the good poets, economical in words but liberal in heart and spirit.  She writes on and on about swans, foxes, pines, squirrels, turtles, woodchucks, the sun and moon, a lark, the herons, beans green and yellow, the pepper tree, morning and night --- a lexicon of praise, almost --- almost, that is, if she could but plainly acknowledge the Maker of all this life. (In all this particularity, one poetic misstep: the word "Obama," jarringly out of place!) Still, she is more profitable to read than many so-called Christian poets in that her poems are rooted in the particular, in a natural revelation, not in religious abstractions.  They incite praise, intended or not.

In the end, Mary Oliver, who in the first poem of the book wondered what she had left to say, reacts to the real or imagined prodding of an editor who told her to fill up more pages with this: "So, this is all I can give you,/ not being the maker of what I do,/ but only the one that holds the pencil."  So that's it: a gospel superintended, and Mary Oliver a faithful apostle of that truth.  That's enough for me.  If as Robert Browning said, "God is the perfect poet," then Mary Oliver is "the almost perfect poet."

If you want your money's worth of words, don't buy this book.  But for those of you who treasure an apt word and can take a mostly empty page as a room in which to wander and wonder, buy this book. Read every poem at least three times.  Read some aloud. And then wander and wonder around outside and make your own.


Plotting the Resurrection

As the years went by and age overtook her, there was something comical yet touching in her bedraggled appearance on this awesome occasion --- the small, hunched-over figure, her studied absorption in the implausible notion that there would be yet another spring, oblivious to the ending of her own days, which she knew perfectly well was near at hand, sitting there with her detailed chart under those dark skies in the dying October, calmly plotting the resurrection.

(E.B. White, from the Introduction to Onward and Upward In the Garden, by Katharine S. White)

E.B. White, author of Charlotte's Web, Stuart Little, and countless columns for The New Yorker, wrote this essay about his wife's annual late October planting of bulbs in her garden in what was, at this point, perhaps her last such planting.  I love that phrase, "plotting the resurrection," as it suggests the posture believers are encouraged to have in life: faithful, continued perseverance in our usual work, unto God, with hope for its ultimate meaning.

I work each day in a rather nondescript 1960s era building, fashionable perhaps in that time but uninteresting now.  I walk up two flights to my office.  I turn on the light. I hang up my coat. I sit down and sign into my computer. I listen to messages.  I read emails. I make phone calls.  I answer emails.  I write.  I read.  I move paper and files from one box to another.  I discuss.  Sometimes, I disagree.  I wait.  I make more phone calls.  At 5:30, I log out of the computer, rise, put on my coat, turn off the light, close the door, walk down the two flights of steps, and wave at the guard as I walk out the door.  

Tomorrow, I'll do it all again.

This is the quotidian, that which occurs everyday.  The ordinary.  Viewed apart from the resurrection, the drudgery of it, the ceaseless repetition, would weigh heavy on me, a sense of uselessness and meaninglessness rising up in me, creating cynicism, a lackadaisical attitude, and even despair.  And yet for the Christian, the most mundane of work is offered up to God and will be taken up by God and transformed in some as yet unknown way.  A continuity exists between the work we do here and the work we do in Heaven.  What we do now really means something, tainted though it may be by sin, weighed down by the travail of Creation.

In 1 Corinthians 3:13 Paul looks ahead to Heaven and sees that on that Day "each one's work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it. . . ."  The Colossians are told "[w]hatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men. . . ."  Work, no matter how mundane, is what we do, what we are made to do, and God uniquely equipped us for certain work or works that we do.  And, ultimately, he will sanctify that work, carrying forward all that is good in it to a recreated heavens and earth, to a New Creation.

That's why an old lady plants bulbs in the cold soil of October, just like she always has, year after year, believing that there will be a Spring of new life.  That's why I've engaged in a 26-year routine of faithfulness to a work that will go on in all that is good.  I'm not just plotting the resurrection --- I'm betting on it.