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February 2013

Once Upon a Time. . . and They All Lived Happily Ever After

Many years ago I wrote a short bit of memoir --- probably no more than 600 words --- about an evening walk with my best friend of 14 on the night of the day my father died. I recall writing something about how we lay on top of my father's station wagon, under a star-punctured sky, as we awkwardly tried to say something to each other, and then, concluding that we couldn't, did what we always did: we walked.  What I wrote about that night probably wasn't profound, and yet it seemed that way when I wrote it. That remembrance seemed to capture the experience in a way I have been unable to since.  Unfortunately, I lost what I wrote, and I have never been able to reproduce it.  It was a very little "death," of course, compared to my larger loss, and yet still I lament the loss.

 At least one good contribution of post-modernism has been the attention to narrative, to the stories that we all live in and out of.  For the disenfranchised, it may be a narrative of loss; for elites, a narrative of power and, yet, soul-gnawing hollowness.  For me, it could have been just a narrative of loss and the fallout of loss in the life of a young man, but by God's grace that story took a different turn.  To use Frederick Buchner's Gospel trinity, it was a tragedy undone by the comedy of God's grace, one which continues to hold out the (true) fairy tale of resurrection and restoration.  That's a story I share with Buechner, one he has spent his whole life pondering. He summed it up like this:

"The sad things that happened long ago will always remain part of who we are just as the glad and gracious things will too, but instead of being a burden of guilt, recrimination, and regret that make us constantly stumble as we go, even the saddest things can become, once we have made peace with them, a source of wisdom and strength for the journey that still lies ahead. It is through memory that we are able to reclaim much of our lives that we have long since written off by finding that in everything that has happened to us over the years God was offering us possibilities of new life and healing which, though we may have missed them at the time, we can still choose and be brought to life by and healed by all these years later."

So, I am grateful to have a story to share, one that will stay with me always, one in which is hidden the seeds of new life.  I can say "Once upon a time. . ." and have something to say.

The alternative is painful to consider.  On that fateful day when the Israelites abandoned the worship of God and asked Aaron to make a golden calf for them to worship, God warned Moses that "Whoever has sinned against me, I will blot out of my book" (Ex. 32:23). This "book" is God's reality, the story He is telling.  It's a reality referred to variously throughout scripture as "the book of the living" (Ps. 69:28), "the book" (Dan. 12:1), "names. . . written in heaven," (Lk. 10:20), and "the book of life" (Phil. 4:3).  The point: There is one Author of life.  There is one story.  If you aren't part of this tale, you are lost.  You have no story.

Now that is frightening.  To lose your own story is not a little death but a big one, a negation of life.  And it need not be. Because this is a story which you can opt into, to which you are invited.  Imagine that: characters who in some mysterious way actually get to participate in the story, who can stand up on the page and address themselves to the author, who, incredibly enough, can by their petitions move the pen, shape the story.

At 14 I had little notion that there was any larger story being told that involved my life, that I had any significant part.  My father died.  I did not know what to do or say about that.  I went back to school. I worked.  I looked for acceptance.  I didn't know what it meant.  Isn't that true of so much that happens to us?  Yet, as you get older, you get glimpses of the larger narrative, of a God who imagined, made, and saved and who will deliver and remake and restore, who will tie all the subplots together in one final resolution, who will one day finally close the book, and say. . .

"They all lived happily ever after."  And we will.  Will you?

 


An Inner Walk

When I walk I am conscious of the ground beneath my feet, whether asphalt or dirt, the soundscape of the city or nature, the space unfolding before me.  No doubt our outer landscape has a powerful effect upon our inner landscape.  Indeed, in his journal of his own walkabouts, The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot, Robert MacFarlane says that "[f]elt pressure, sensed texture and perceived space can work upon the body and so too among the mind, altering the textures and inclinations of thought."

And so it does.

Walk my suburban path, full of green lawns and mature oaks and retirees picking up newspapers on settled driveways and minivans and dog-walking masters and busy bluebirds and robins with my vision limited by the tree-scape, and I feel a deep contentedness, a sense of boundaries, roots, home, blessing, swaddled in my place, wearing my own old path in my circuit like the grooves of a oft-played LP.  Jackson Browne. Running on Empty.  Seventies. Groove-fatigue.

Walk the desert, with unobstructed views that go on for 50 miles, trodding the paths of cowboys and indians and prospectors for gold and those on the move going west, west, west, until their feet lapped the waters of the Pacific, and I feel remarkably different.  Free.  Boundless.  Unsettled.  Possibilities, some which may have seemed foolhardy at home, loom large and realizable there, dangerous, like cacti and rattlesnakes, but not so fearful.  My "why" becomes my "why not."

Some even walked on the moon.  They were never the same.  Buzz Aldrin, the second man to walk on the moon, described the sensation as one of "magnificent desolation," sensing the "eons of lifelessness" in that place. No doubt that overwhelming absence contributed to the deep depression, alcoholism, nervous breakdown, and divorce after his return to Earth.  The moon was too boundless, space too empty.  Perhaps he began to sense that he was a mere atom amongst atoms unquantifiable. When you walk where hardly any others have walked, maybe you are stymied by the difficulty of not being able to communicate an experience to people for whom that walk would be incomparable, fantastical.

MacFarland concludes that, in the minds of poet-walkers like Edward Abbey, Richard Jeffries, or Thomas Hardy, "[p]aths were figured as rifts within which time might exist as pure surface, prone to weird morpholgies, uncanny origami."  That all sounds so mystical, like one foot is (as Francis Schaeffer said) "firmly planted in the air."  Yet sometimes the unseen world impinges.  One's soul is moved.

Twelve years ago I was discharged from the hospital after an emergency abdominal surgery.  For about nine months thereafter, I had an irrational fear.  The slightest discomfort yielded an overwhelming anxiety, a sense that I was going back into the hospital.  There was nothing wrong with me, and yet I could not escape it.  I prayed. I read scripture. I even took a few anti-anxiety pills.  But the thing that yielded the best result was to simply walk, and walk, and walk.  I settled into a deep routine where the only thing I had to focus on was putting one foot in front of another, footfall after footfall.  Eventually my mind rested, my spirit calmed by the mundane dependability of the unfolding landscape, birdsong, wind murmur, and low rumble of the city.  And then, the worry was gone.  Somewhere along the way, I let it go.  Walking gave dimension to my prayers, gave topography to my spirit.

Trust God. Keep walking.  Follow the cloud, the star, the inner voice that bids.  In the early morning dark, when alone, pray out loud. Pray loud.  Cry out to God if you need to.  Be the widow pestering the judge until an answer comes, until God comes, until rocks cry out and trees clap their hands, until the road bends upward before you and heaven comes down.  Take dominion over the earth.  Till it and keep it. Walk on until you meet God coming.  Just keep moving.