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July 2015

Ain't Got Time for Sociology

“The destiny of the world is determined less by the battles that are lost and won than by the stories it loves and believes in.”  (Harold C. Goodard)

I was a sociology major in college. So was my wife. When we were dating we used to have animated discussions about Emile Durkheim, Peter Berger, and Auguste Comte. Or we discussed how we know what we know, that is, the sociology of knowledge. Or the various “isms,” like positivism, or the causes of anomie ( a much loved favorite of sociologists in the 70s). Kind of like C.S. Lewis and Joy Davidian talking. High level stuff.

I’m kidding. We never talked about that. I ate chocolate chip cookies and talked about my problems, and she listened, kind of a sociology of one: Me.

Usually, when I tell people I majored in Sociology, an answer which I mumble, hoping they don’t hear me and think it some other “ology,” like psychology, which might have some utility, I detect a bit of mental head wagging. They’re wondering how I could waste time and money (my parents’ hard-earned money) on a dead end path of study like sociology. All I can say is it was interesting, I did well in it, and I didn’t have to crunch any numbers or do any calculus, write code, or decipher poetry. Topically, I liked the thoughtfulness of a discipline that believed in an examined life. Most of my peers weren’t leading that kind of life. They were looking at life filtered through a beer can and under the table, or through a haze of smoke, one toke over the line. Sociologists were thinking about culture and life, descriptively if not prescriptively. Thinking, at least.

On the other hand, some sociologists were (and remain) insufferable. In Sociology 101, in the first chapter of the book I have long since rid my home of, the first thesis was that “all morals are the product of agreement and thus relative.” And yet that statement itself was not relatively true but pronounced as absolutely true. From Day One, I knew something was wrong, and yet my self-assured and authoritative professor was intimidating, as were my peers (those few who cared), so I dissented silently. I bought a book called Christianity and Sociology and began working on an antithesis to the thesis: morality is revealed by God and discovered, not relative but absolute. And so every course I took in sociology found me a silent dissenter, imperiled by a cognitive dissonance, increasingly amazed by the absolute claims made by what some regarded once as the “queen of the sciences.”

I wish I had been braver. I wish I had done more than silently dissent. Because for all the perceptiveness that sociologists had, most were blind to their own presuppositions.

I couldn’t figure out what to do with sociology, so I went to law school. Now, I figure out the shortest distance between two points and try and get there as best I can. In law, I am technician, not philosopher. And while the judge might occasionally wax eloquent on philosophy, I can’t. “Ain’t nobody got time for that.” In the end somebody wins and somebody loses, and on the best days justice is more or less done.

Yet, on the rare quiet day, when the phone doesn’t ring, when the fires are out, I have time to consider if I have done justice that day. I go home and talk to my wife. We discuss the facts of cases, legal theories, theories of justice, and the presuppositions of our adversarial system of justice.

I’m kidding. We never talk about that. What we talk about is far more mundane and far more important: the stories of our day, the stories we believe in, echoes of the One Story of Grace. I love those stories.


Untroubled Waters

Jane Kelly Williams, a singer-songwriter friend from New York, is downstairs playing “Bridge Over Troubled Waters” on the piano. It’s a beautiful song, of course, yet one in danger of cliche. Who hasn’t covered the song, and in what style hasn’t it been done, since Simon and Garfunkel released it in 1970? I was 12, so I came into it about two years later. The song was a coda to their relationship, the last song recorded for their last album together, and the gospel feel that it had — which I am hearing now — lent it to appropriation by many a Gospel singer, from the quartets I used to hear with my aunt before I was hijacked by pop music in 1972, when I was 14, to bluegrass and country artists, like Buck Owens. The song won five awards at the 13th Annual Grammy Awards in 1971, including Grammy Award for Record of the Year and Song of the Year. Well deserved. I still have the LP of the same title. But Jane is on to James Taylor, “You’ve Got a Friend,” and “(In My Mind I’m) Going to Carolina.”

I’m going to feed the birds. I just looked out the window and realized that our feeder is empty. Our hospitality is lacking, birds content to sail on by. I get up, intent on doing something about it. On the way, I check the mailbox and find an envelope with a dollar bill inside it. I said a couple days ago, when the high school girls failed to leave my change in the mailbox, “I give up on high school kids, this town, the country, and the universe, in that order. Excepting God.” I was hasty, I admit.

The birds are watching. They cock their heads to the side and withhold judgment. “I am forgetful,” I say. “I’m on your side.” They are forgiving, I sense, as they continue their songs. I can hear the music out here, in the yard, but they, better than me. “Your Song.” Elton John. It’s like a Sirius XM 70s, without disco.

I walk back in, through the sticking gate in the fence. Jane and my wife are laughing. Dinner is on, and I wait, the sound of Carole King taking me on, sailing right behind.

 


Trusting the Author

Probably the most vexing problem — one insoluble to the finite human mind — is why God permitted the entrance of evil into the world.  Actually, it predates Creation.  Why did God allow a being He created, Lucifer, to have the choice to lead a revolt against Him?  I don’t know.  No one does.  And yet Christianity has the best answer for it.  It doesn’t pretend that evil is illusion, doesn’t attribute malevolence to God, and doesn’t limit his sovereignty to the end that He is no longer God.

I once wrote a story about Henry, a mentally retarded man. I allowed his main caregiver, his mother, to die prematurely, exposing Henry to possible re-institutionalization.  I let Henry suffer some consequences of that evil and began to allow Henry to deal with the ramifications of that, making what may prove to be a bad choice so that he could learn and grow in ways he could not were he sheltered.  In allowing Henry to react to the bad thing I allowed to happen, in fact purposed to happen, I allowed him a measure of freedom to make choices.  And yet I superintended the whole story.  I think it a better story because of that, because of that freedom to be who I allowed him to be.

You might think me a bad author for writing such a story. You might think Him a bad Author too. But, it is a better story, and for some, at least, it has a good ending. That’s some kind of an answer to the question of evil.

Frederick Buechner says Christianity offers “no theoretical solution at all.  It merely points to the cross and says that, practically speaking, there is no evil so dark and so obscene — not even this — but that God can turn it to good.”

The Author put down his pen at some point, dove into the story, and let Himself experience it all.  He even superintended his own death so that The End is, after all, good.  So, despite what happens between “Once upon a time” and “The End,” it is a very good story.  The real question is: do you trust the Author?


Keeping, Not Keeping

The story is told that William Strunk, the author of what later became a classic guide to grammar and style, The Elements of Style, once entered the classroom at Cornell, opened his briefcase, drew out his notes, and looked up at his expectant students.  After a dramatic pause for effect, he loudly said “Omit needless words!”  He paused, and then he said it again:  “Omit needless words!”  He paused, and then said it again.  Then he placed his notes back in his briefcase, closed it, and taking it in hand walked out of the classroom.  Class dismissed.  I guess he had made his point, not only by what he said but by what he did.

In another classic work, On Writing Well, William Zinsser makes the same point, albeit in a few more words.  He says “Look for the clutter in your writing and prune it ruthlessly. Be grateful for everything you can throw away.  Reexamine each sentence that you put on paper.  Is every word doing new work? Can any thought be expressed with more economy?  Is anything pompous or pretentious or faddish? Are you hanging onto something useless just because you think it’s beautiful?”  Reading these exhortations, I’ve always marveled at their broader application, the excesses and surplusage of my life, not just my words.

I just lifted a stack of 40 cards sitting on my bookshelf that expressed sympathy on the death of my mother nearly four years ago.  I wondered if I should throw them out. Yet as I read them, I could not.  They are still doing a good work in my heart, reminding me of the treasure of family and friends, of my mother’s qualities, and of how to express sympathy in such a way that the recipient is ministered to.  The best of these cards are neither rote nor dutiful, but heartfelt and particular.  Even those who did not know my mother had read an obituary or knew of her and could say something specific.  Virtually all reminded me of the hope of new life and reunion.  I’ll keep them.  They are still doing a good work.

But I suspect that not all of my possessions are doing any new work.  Some are faddish (like the CD I had to have to complete my collection of all of The Byrds recordings) or the beautiful book without a soul.  Or maybe it’s a vain dream that I hold onto that is doing me no good (Am I really going to be a rock ’n roll star?), or an interest that is not needful (like Beatles trivia).  “Omit,” says Strunk. “Simplify, simplify,” says Zinsser.  But it hurts.  Pruning hurts.  Yet a pruned life flourishes.

I did throw away 50 ink pens of various persuasions.  That was easy.  I kept the wind-up toy dog.  Don't judge me.


The New Old Day

“Every morning we enter a new day,” says Sally Lloyd-Jones.  "Who knows what the day will bring? God knows. . . . He has already gone ahead of us into the new day.”

But it doesn’t always feel that way, does it?  Sometimes it looks like more of the same thing.  When I drive to work, I travel the same road, stop at the same traffic lights, sometimes even pass a few of the same cars going in.  And then I do a little quick math in my head . . . “let’s see now, 31 years of work, averaging 48 weeks of work annually, times five days a week, so that’s 7440 trips down that road, under those lights,” I say to myself, with a sigh and a new gray hair.  It becomes difficult to look at that as new each day.  Yet it is.

The woman in the car next to me at the light is applying makeup.  I look straight ahead, feeling that I have intruded.  On the other side a Hispanic men smokes, tanned arm propped on the door, the smoke appearing and then, caught by the breeze, disappearing.  Ephemeral, passing, a vapor — that’s what it feels like.  The light turns green, and a man is crossing in the crosswalk in front of six lanes of traffic, and I feel impatience rising from the radiators of the cars, hands itching for the horns.  But he passes.  We motor off, leaning into the curve, into the day.

I’m carrying all the things I have to do today at work with me.  I mean figuratively.  They rumble around the cabin, weigh on my mind and, worse, keep me from attentiveness to the immediate.

But God knows, she says. “In the morning we can put our day in his hands. And let him bring into our day whatever he has for us.”  I tack a little verse with a big message on my windshield (figuratively), the one that says “Do not be afraid or discouraged, for the Lord will go personally ahead of you. He will be with you” (Deut. 31:8, NLT).  I imagine it hanging there, me straining to see the day through it.  And I steal a glance at my passenger seat and imagine Him there and, inexplicably, almost reach over. Silly.

I do reach over and turn the radio on.  But then I turn it back off.  I begin to tell him about my day, but he’s ahead of me.  I tell him anyway.  I gather all the words and put them in his hands.


The Prodigal Me

In the last few weeks I have hear three sermons on the Parable of the Prodigal Son. One was on the older brother, another on the father, and yet another on the younger son. These are familiar perspectives. In the past, I have even heard mention of the “prodigal God,” a strange juxtapositioning of the words, and yet it heightens our awareness of the point: God’s grace and love is extravagant to the point, that in the world’s understanding, it is unmerited — which is the whole point, really.

Frederick Buehner took up the parable in a book on preaching, one of my favorite of his, entitled Telling the Truth: The Gospel As Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale. He sees in the well-known parable of the prodigal son the comedy of the father’s love for his returning son, but he also notes the comedic blindness of the older brother. The older brother can’t see the wonderful absurdity of his father’s love because he is, “…trapped by [his] own seriousness.” This is not about law, the “ought,” about the kid getting his just deserts or the faithful older brother getting his party, but all about grace. It’s not about repentance on the part of the wayward son, as that’s not spelled out. That’s the crazy comedy of it. Buechner says:

“The boy is back, that’s all that maters. Who cares why he’s back? And the old man doesn’t do what any other father under heaven would have been inclined to do. He doesn’t say he hopes he has learned his lesson or I told you so. He doesn’t say he hopes he is finally ready to settle down for a while and will find some way to make it up to his mother. He just says, ‘Bring him something to eat, for God’s sake. Bring him some warm clothes to put on,’ and when the boy finally manages to slip his prepared remarks in edgewise, the old man doesn’t even hear them he’s in such a state. The boy was lost and is found again, and then at the end of the scene what Jesus as teller of the parable says is ‘They began to make merry’ (Luke 15:23). Merry, of all things. They turn on the stereo. They break out the best Scotch. They roll back the living room carpet and ring up the neighbors.”

The old man is an old fool. In the blindness of love, he completely overlooks all of his son’s foolishness, his wishing him dead, his greed, his frivolity, and his drunken, sorry life and acts if if he did nothing wrong, as if he were justified.

Which is the whole point, really. He treats him as if he had been faithful and obedient, thought he hadn’t.

I doubt there is more to suss out of the parable. It’s already been worked over by the likes of Edwards, Spurgeon, Nouwen, Piper, and Keller, just to name a few. But, nevertheless, I took it for a walk around my backyard, took it out to the edge, and looked over the fence, considered the orange-flagged stakes marking the boundary of mine and theirs, turned back and looked at my house, lit from within. And then I knew what was missing in the parable.

Me. The prodigal me. For every prodigal thought, every unwarranted distraction, every going my own way, every attempt to have it all now, and every selfish move. There’s not one going home but thousands.

I walked back, trailed a hand across my gray cat who meowed something like “I could have told you that”, laid a hand on the door handle, turned, kicked my shoes off, and settled into home. I’m home, thank God.

“Blessed is he who he is not offended that no man receives what he deserves but vastly more,” says Buechner. “Blessed is he who gets that joke, who sees that miracle.” Blessed am I to be the brunt of that joke, to have a Father who runs to me, laughing.

 

 

 

 
 

Gunpowder

This is as good a time as any to talk about gunpowder. I confess, as a kid I loved it. One early memory is of igniting caps by banging them with a hammer in my driveway, or lighting a string of them with matches. Then, I graduated to firecrackers, about which there was a significant black market on our street. One kid always had M-80s (big firecrackers), and for the right price you could trade up, you know, like ten regular firecrackers for one whoppin’ big one. I guess he was kind of like a pusher, a drug dealer, except he peddled illegal fireworks, and we were moving up the chain to the big pops. His name was. . . well. . . let’s call him Big Eric. That fits.

We put firecrackers everywhere. In sidewalk cracks. Anthills (I’m sorry.) Under cars, in the house (seriously), in drainage pipes, down manholes, up gutters. Bottle rockets we held in our hand, lit and tossed in the air. Put them in soda bottles and fired them at each other. Shot them up drainage pipes under homes. Tied them to our bikes. In my neighborhood, it was like the 4th of July all summer long. Until the gunpowder gave out.

Once, following instructions from Big Eric, I emptied several firecrackers of their powder, enough to fill an ink cap, put a fuse in it, and sealed it with paraffin wax. I lit it. In the house. That cured me. I no longer love gunpowder. I still have all ten digits, but I don’t recommend it.

Big Eric moved away after third grade. I bet he joined the Army and worked in munitions.

Happy 4th. Be careful out there.


Our Nearest Neighbors

In Lives of the Tress: An Uncommon History, Diana Wells laments the fact that we don’t know some of our closest neighbors, trees. She says that while we are more aware today of the importance of trees to the environment, we still aren’t on a first name basis. We might admire a forest (maybe), but we don’t know the names of most of its trees, and about their more ubiquitous residents (think pines), we may not speak kindly. As she says, “This once would have been unthinkable. When we read stories or poems from before our times, trees are called by their names, with the assumption that the reader will know exactly what is meant.” No more, unless you live with a professional or amateur arborist. My cat better knows the trees in our backyard than I do, but she is tight-lipped about them.

What’s the use, you might ask? It has something to do with the Incarnation. When the God who made the universe condescended to human form on a tiny insignificant planet in a minuscule galaxy among millions (and that’s worth pausing to consider), He was saying not just that the people He made for himself were valued but that every square inch of Creation was His and valued. If He calls us “beloved,” He also calls the world “loved,” and you can bet He knows the name and intricate workings of every tree. After all, photosynthesis was his idea. As Leland Ryken says, “The Incarnation of Jesus in human form affirms forever that human, earthly reality is worthy of study and love.”

When you’re out walking, look around. Notice your wooden, leafy neighbors. Learn their names. Lean against their trunks and savor their shade. If you take one, plant one. Be kind. Diana Wells says that planting a tree is a kind of prayer. She retells the famous saying of the first-century Jewish sage Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai, who said “If you should happen to be holding a sapling in your hand when they tell you that the Messiah has arrived, first plant the sapling and then go out and greet the Messiah.” Me, I’ll probably be reading a book when Messiah comes, made from a tree whose name I will not know. Should I finish it first?


Scraps of Gold

I have a file in my home office, a red one, perhaps red for emergency, just before one labeled “AMAZING GRACE” in large felt marker caps, a providential juxtaposition.  In my lazy print, this one says “I Love Steve.”  In it I try to place every written word of encouragement I have ever received.  I’m blessed. It’s thick with love.  Even if I don’t withdraw the file very much, I like seeing it there, and tonight, as I draw it out, it’s bulging heft alone is encouragement.

Pastor Oswald Sanders once said that the most needed gift of all was that of encouragement.  And while we can and should encourage one another orally, the written word is the living word, the remembered word, the one that more often resonates in your soul.  Sanders also said that true leaders write letters.  I take these words out when I feel feel discouraged, to remind me of reality, to give me perspective, to put courage in me.  I try to use it not to feed my ego but as a check on morbid self-deprecation, which is the underbelly of ego.  Pride and self-pity, I learned long ago, both feed self- centeredness.

A brief glimpse at the file turns me away from self and toward God, in gratitude.  Too long and I might err.  In one note, a former co-worker says “I’m honored to call you friend."  Someone else says “I can’t imagine life without you.”  The scrawled penmanship of a teenage Ugandan boy says “I love you, papa.”  One friend says “you have helped us to keep going when we felt like giving up.”  In the middle of the card my eyes fall to the all-caps, bold, and underlined word “INCREDIBLE,” and I do feel incredible, reading that.  And here’s a homemade Thanksgiving note, on orange paper, that references a litany of deeds, mostly small, and concludes by acknowledging “you kept on loving me through it all.”  I stop there, as I am encouraged enough, for now.

A few such encouragements stay on my desk, 24-7, where I can catch them from the corner of my eye.  A card from my wife is prominent, the latest letter in a bottle.  There is a bundle of letters from camp written by my daughter, still carrying a trace of humid Ozark mountain air, addressed to “Dad and Mom” as if the letter carrier will know the very important addressees, and which bear watermarked stamps from Missouri with The Incredibles on them.  And, not least, there is a handwritten note from my son about me as father which I would discount but for the fact that he is a truth-teller.  These small pieces of paper are like gold, and it is barely enough to see them everyday.  Scraps of paper, that’s all, etched with ink.  But they speak life.


Skyfaring

The first time I was a passenger in an airplane was at about the age of 10.  My friend and I boarded an Eastern Airlines DC-3 in route to Washington, DC, via Charlottesville.  We took turns by the window, faces pressed to cold glass, propellers whirring, our seats vibrating. It was 1968.  As we rose above the earth for the first time I sensed the expanse of place, beyond neighborhood and city, beyond home.  I knew maps but lost all bearing there in the air, didn’t know how to make sense of what I saw but wondered at its beauty.

I am not a pilot, but I know a few and know their love of flight.  In his recent book, Skyfaring, 747 pilot Mark Vanhoenacker is like a poet of flight, using finely crafted language to capture the feel of seeing the earth from above.  He says “Flight is the cartographic, planetary equivalent of hearing a song covered by a singer you love, or meeting for the first time a relative whose features or mannerisms are already familiar.  We know the song but not like this; we have never met the person and yet we have never in our lives been strangers.”  

For those who fly, the sky must be like coming home.  You already know the song.  You met somewhere in your imagination or maybe the tug of elevation was buried deep in some gene, was activated when your father tossed you in the air, was primed by the helicoptering swings from an adult’s arms, was nurtured by the flight of books, by high buildings and roller-coaster tracks to the sky, by watching a balloon float high above.  

The first flight must carry some sense of deja vu, some echoing memory of soaring.  And when you rise, when wheels are up and the ground falls away, and you poke through the clouds and float over a bed of air, an ocean of billowing cloud-sea just below, then earth-bound non-pilot that I am, all I can think is that it must be like hearing Pet Sounds for the first time, every time it happens, must be like those first chords of “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” or the fading train and dog coda of “Caroline, No.” Hearing it, feeling it, all I can say is “Play it again. One more time,” and hit repeat.  And I'm soaring.  Is that what it’s like?