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October 2015

Keeping Vigil

I woke up at 3:00 AM last night. I don't think I went back to sleep.

My wife asked me what I think about all night when I lie there unsleeping. I said, "I don't know." But I do. Sometimes I tell her, "If you wake up in the night and want to talk, I'm here," but I don't think she has taken me up on that offer. She is a very sound sleeper. Even the cats don't want to talk, being too busy with their dreams, dead weight on the end of the bed, immovable, despite my prodding. Like my mother, who also spent her sleep hours carefully, put it once to me: "I plan all kinds of things, solve all kinds of problems, redo things I've already done. Been everywhere in my thoughts."

Ditto. Yet I am strangely thankful for the dreamlike state of insomnia. Prayers, inchoate, finished off by the Holy Spirit, drift upward out of a mosaic of the tapestry that is my life. That's mighty hopeful and prosaic. Let's say the jumble that is my life. Wildly significant thoughts alight, only to be lost in the current, unwritten and, finally, forgotten. Well, that's hopeful too. Maybe they weren't that significant, but only seemed so, like neon billboards in the empty darkness of the night.

Last night, had I been a sound sleeper, I would have missed the sound of steady desert rain on an adobe roof, surprisingly like rain on a canvas tent. I wondered about the construction of the roof for a while. I imagined the coyotes or havelinas lapping water from puddles, a rare Fall refreshment, like extended Summer monsoons, the cactus wrens snug and dry in their nests in saguaro trunks, the desert hares bailing rainwater from their warrens. Farther down the mountain, I could see the usually dry bed of the Rillito with at least a thin ribbon of water, maybe more, its subterranean presence suddenly manifest for a time, only to plunge back when the rains cease. I even wrote something, revised it, sounded it out in my head, and then forgot it in the fog between waking and sleeping; I remember only its absence, but even absence fuels my present.

We all need sleep of course, some more than others. Rather than complain about my lack I am thankful rather for extra time to pray, to reflect, to let my mind wander, something I can't do as well behind the wheel of a car or in when revising a document for work on the screen in front of me. Dreaming has little reward at such times.

The word insomnia comes from the Latin "in," that is, "not," and "somnus," for sleep, which together carry no negative connotation. Unfortunately, in actual usage it is viewed negatively, as something to be overcome. Perhaps a better word is "vigil," one which means a devotional watching, a staying awake for some good purpose.

God allowing, I will keep vigil. I must be awake for a purpose. If I could just figure out what it is.

But do me a favor: If you see me sleeping during the day sometime, in a church pew or an easy chair, don't wake me, OK? I'm preparing for a vigil. Don't envy my gift.


Love Carriers

The mail came today. In its own way, that's just short of miraculous considering the paths each piece must follow, all the things that must work right for something mailed in say Perth Down-Under to make it across oceans and continents to a black metal box on my street. I felt like telling the carrier that he's wonderful, that mail delivery is amazing, but he might misunderstand.

I've been waiting for the mail for a long time. When I was young, say eight, I ordered travel brochures and welcome packets from faraway states like Idaho and Wisconsin, just so I could receive mail with my name on it. I sat on the front porch and watched for the little white truck hiccuping down our street. I joined book and record clubs, waited for the mail truck, did not let the mail settle in the box before pulling it out and rifling its treasures. I pulled advertiser cards from the travel magazines, checked all the boxes indicating I wanted more information, and sent the cards in. I waited. The box filled. The mailman's smile waned. Reading the boosters' travel magazines I dreamed of snow-capped mountains and wild west prairies, laid the maps out on my bed and traced the meandering lines of my imagination.

The other day I was coming home from work and noticed my neighbor's small blonde-haired son in their driveway, the door of their mailbox left gaping, a single catalog in his hand as he ran to his Mom. "Where's the rest of the mail? You forgot to bring the rest of the mail," she said. He couldn't hear her. "This is the best day," he said to the catalog, "I got a toy catalog." And again, "This is the best day."

I looked at the thick packet of mail in my hand. I got a bill, I thought. That's the distance between childhood and middle-age.

There are a few other things. Two fashion catalogs contain posing people that don't look like anyone I have seen anywhere. Well, maybe a few in North Hills, on the promenade. Three banks sent personal letters that make prodigious use of my name throughout. They would like me to secure their credit card, for which they say I qualify, as if I won a prize. I rip them all in half, pleased by the sound, and toss them in the recycling bin, where they can make their noisy claims to the dark.

Last week there was no mail when I checked the box on the way in from work. I felt forgotten and unloved and as if something was slightly uncalibrated about the world. At 7:00PM, still no mail. The neighborhood Facebook page lit up, each street reporting in. "End of Winthrop, no mail here." "Redmond, nope." I considered posting "No mail here. The end is near." But no, that's heavy, and the neighbors may wonder about me. Finally, "Spotted mail truck on Godfrey. Asked carrier what happened. He growled." Ours came about 7:30. I checked the box in the dark and felt its warm, reassuring bulk --- validated, loved.

One day, not so long ago, I received a letter from my daughter, light and newsy with the buoyancy of prairie air. And then a sequel. I kept them both, tucked them in a nook on my desk where they stand golden among the clutter. Occasionally they beckon, and I read these little missives from the past, then return them to their post where they go quiet until another day.

My wife uses a letter opener to open the mail. I don't. Ain't nobody got time for that. I rip and tear, like a dog with an old shoe, oblivious to content but deep into process. Stumbling over a two-for-one coupon for anything, even toilet tissue, is reason for rejoicing, and if for a favorite restaurant, I'm in the car, motor running.

I love mail. Letter carriers don't realize what they've done for my life. Behind their sometimes weary expressions, they transport love.


From Room to Arena

DSC_1275“Night is true night in the ranch country that spreads into the Sand Hills south of Ewing. It is night that seems unaware of the glitter of civilization not far away. The heavens are intimate, enveloping the landscape with color and light without veiling the drama of the darkness.”

(Norm Bomer, in Sons of the River: A Nebraska Memoir)

I love the spaces of the West, whether the high and cold west of Norm Bomer’s Nebraska or the desert stillness of an Arizona I have known for 30 years. To visit there means leaving the small and confined room of the Piedmont pines and hardwoods, a place where perspective is truncated, for an arena of the outdoors, where you can step out on your back porch and see a city of a million, four mountain ranges, and a distance of at least 50 miles. It can be so vast that it is difficult at times to bring your focus to a part of the whole, like a cactus wren exiting a nest in the saguaro cactus, or a desert hare feeding beneath a brittle bush.

When I visit Arizona I take time to notice vegetation, call the names of the various cacti, listen for the howl of a coyote, or watch hummingbirds flit from flower to flower. I sit on my porch and close my eyes and imagine the city dropping away, put myself in its past. In some places, like Arivaca or among the ghost towns east of Lochiel, you can stop the car, turn the motor off, and walk away into stillness, hearing nothing but the dry wind in your ears or your own breathing.

I put a map of Arizona in my suitcase, just in case. I don’t need a GPS. I know the streets of the city, the ones like ribbons that trail off into dirt in the foothills, with names like Cholla and Encantada, Oracle and Oro, Sahuaro Trail and Ajo. I’ll just take one and drive and drive and drive into "true night." One day, I’ll come home.


Ambulatory Writing

I want to like Marilynne Robinson. Really. I read both her most recent works of fiction, Gilead and Home, and am still taken up wth the characters portrayed, if annoyed by her lack of chapters and chapter headings. The purpose of eschewing normal organization is neither explained nor self-evident. Yet more than fiction, I wanted to digest her essays, as she is regarded as a thoughtful if irreverent Calvinist. So when I purchased her 2012 collection of essays, When I Was a Child I Read Books, I was hopeful: Here was a rich source of wisdom, something that would challenge my dull mind. I was wrong. I could barely get through the book. I was never quite sure what she had to say. Nevertheless, I could never name the problem, and so I chalked up my perplexity to some lack on my part.

I do lack. But that’s not the issue. Her most recent collection of essays, The Givenness of Things, suffers from the same problems. One reviewer, Barton Swaim, unlike me, is able to articulate the problem. Swaim says that Robinson’s essays “are frequently ambulatory to the point of aimlessness. Ms. Robinson’s chosen topics are highly abstruse and deserve clear reasoning, but she approaches them indirectly, often not making a memorable point at all. Crucial sentences unravel, the author having refused or neglected to word them in a way that makes sense to minds other than her own.”

But enough critique. If I turn the shining light of criticism on myself, I believe my lesser essays could sometimes be described as “ambulatory,” a walking around in the world, letting things rub off on me and then setting them down to read.

But I tire of this navel-gazing. I crack the window and float out among the trees. Outside, the rain is dripping through the downspout, on its way to the sea or the darkness of an aquifer. Trees curtsy under the wet weight of sodden leaves, bowed below a leaden sky. In the backyard, water pools in crevices, fills the interstices of the stone wall, drips off the risers of the steps. The distant hum of traffic wafts in on a cool breeze, and the crickets, newly bathed, sing. Drip, drip, sounds the water from the roof, and if I am still enough I wonder if I will hear the press of a squirrel foot on pine straw. But, no. They travel lightly if at all in the night. I go back to write it down.

There is nothing wrong with ambulatory writing. It’s what I do. There doesn’t have to be a point, least not one you decide on in advance. The point is to tell the truth, to set down what you see while out walking in the world. To tell it plain, to tell it well.

Ms. Robinson should take a walk, then write it down.


Going Out & Coming In

“The Lord shall watch over your going out and coming in, from this time forth evermore” (Ps. 121:8)

I don’t mind taking the garbage out. It gives me time to think — not long, mind you, but wheeling the oversized carts to the curb is enough time for a few thoughts, anyway.

Tonight, going out, I exited my garage, took the walk in front of the house, heard a tapping and, looking up at the front door, my cat is waving at me. With some help. I smile and wave. Children used to do that; now, the cat. Today, in fact, when I came home from work and entered the door, it was the cat who roused herself from her almost permanent repose, and padded down the stairs, in a falling run, to greet me. Children used to do that; now, the cat.

I move on and pick up the carts at the side of the house, begin rolling them through the grass. Here, as I turn the corner, I have had accidents, caused by the incline, top-heavy nature of the receptacles, NASCAR-ish escort, and absent-mindedness of their courier. More than once I have turned them over in the lawn. Once, I went with them. But it’s OK to be a klutz when no one is watching and you can laugh at yourself. Or curse. And repent. Since we’ve been empty-nesters, these largish trash cans are largely unused, literally empty enough for me to crawl inside with my family. Which is disgusting to think about. The can, I mean. My neighbor is using his plastic containers to full capacity. They have two small children. Bags of over-ripe diapers mushroom from their trash, an odiferous deposit. They place them in front of my small frontage, as if they were mine, as if to suggest grandchildren.

When I think about the large amount of waste deposited in the landfills, I sometimes get anxious. Yesterday, I was driving behind a truck laden with an obviously scrap fridge and other appliances, bound for the landfill. I gripped the steering wheel, wondering how many refrigerators you could put in the landfill. Greenpeace has done their job. Not only guilt but anxiety takes grip. I think about something else. Like the weight of all the building and asphalt and cars and people pressing down on a little piece of dirt surrounded by water, barely above sea level. Manhattan. Oh my. I think about something else.

I am inevitably taking my trash to the street in the very late evening, because we can never seem to get to bed before midnight, the clunky containers rattling along on the driveway, and I wonder if the sound is bothering my neighbors. I always wonder that. But then I just think about Manhattan or the landfill and I’m OK, kind of. I deposit the cans at the curb, lip out and ready, a hangdog expression for the sanitation workers who will hook them from their mechanized truck, swing them up and overhead, and dump their innards into the cavity of the truck in an operation that removes all the humanity from trash collection — riding on the back of the truck, swinging cans into the truck, compacting the garbage, the melded smells of household detritus. But I wax nostalgic. Young children aspire to such occupations involving noisy trucks.

I turn and look around to see who is still awake. One or two house are lit. I look at my house, a nearly full moon over its peak, the windows full of yellow light, a place watched over, and I just exhale and smile in the dark at an assemblage of brick and sticks, tenuous yet bold against the night, and I walk slowly up the drive, going in, going home.


Circumstance & Grace

“Sometimes I think the only forces here are circumstance and grace.”

(D.J. Waldie, in Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir)

If you want to know why there is a city here and not elsewhere, you have to consider the Fall Line, the place where the metamorphic rock of the Piedmont and the sedimentary rock of the Coastal Plain meet. East of Raleigh the swelling hills of the Piedmont give way to the flatlands of the Coastal Plain. The softer sedimentary rock of the Coastal Plain erodes faster than that of the Piedmont, so elevation drops, sometimes precipitously. If you have been to Raven Rock State Park (and if not, why not?), you’ll see it in sharp relief: its cliffs and waterfalls summon images of mountain escarpments. The falling water in such places made them a great location for grist mills; also, for settlement. Boats could not navigate the Cape Fear or other rivers farther than the Fall Line with its rapids, not without portage or locks, so they got out of their boats and settled down, built cities. Something like that. Most of the major cities on the eastern Seaboard are built along the Fall line. Including ours. Circumstance.

We live in the first home we ever bought. Some 30 years ago, our friends, who at that time lived in the neighborhood, told us about this house. We visited, walked its empty hallways and rooms with the builder, and tried to imagine what we would fill its seemingly cavernous interior with, as we then lived with our unencumbered cat in a two-bedroom apartment. Later, we borrowed the key, and after church one Sunday picked up hamburgers, let ourselves in, and sat on the floor and had lunch. We looked out the windows of the sunroom into the wooded back yard. Our voices echoed off the walls. It seemed like a very large playhouse, like a game of pretend. And yet we never looked at another house. We bought it, raised our children here, and never went elsewhere. Grace.

I’m beginning to think that for a believer, circumstance and grace conflate. A city is here and not elsewhere because of. . . well, rocks, the Fall Line. We are in this home and not elsewhere because our friends told us of this house. I could cite a thousand other circumstances that led us here or keep us here, but you may tire of hearing them.

I don’t. I hear them all the time, in my head. It’s the sound of Grace. Do you hear it too?


An Old Duffer

I have an odd obsession. When I do load the dishwasher, I separate the cutlery, that is, silverware, that is tableware. That simple object of the sentence is extrapolated because while originally cutlery referred to the utensils you both cut and ate with, these days haint so. I say haint because the great prose writer E.B. White used that word in a letter to his brother. That’s permission. And silverware haint quite right either because it’s no longer and perhaps never was silver. Could be pewter. Could be mild steel. Could be wood. Yech. I’m never quite sure wood is clean.

Nevertheless, back to my obsession. I place forks with forks, spoons with spoons, and knives with knives, each after their own kind. And it is good. Not only that, I separate our new utensils (only, not so new) from the old utensils, of which I don’t care if they mix as I don’t separate them in the drawer anyway. They are so common as to have lost my respect. I separate in this way so as to make short work of emptying the dishwasher. I scoop up a handful of the knives, a pleasing “scrrrrrf,” and plop them in the drawer. I do likewise with spoons, which tend to clank more, and forks, which also clank at a higher pitch. Perhaps a G above middle C. Might as well sort up front as later, I think. Save work.

I have a special row for juice glasses as well. But I am less insistent on their purity of place.

I am reminded of the Dufflepuds in Lewis’s The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. These silly monopods occupying one island along the Narnians’ voyage carried such obsession to the extreme. As the Magician of the island explained to Lucy: “You wouldn’t believe the troubles I’ve had with them. A few months ago they were all for washing up the plates and knives before dinner: they said it saved time afterward. I’ve caught them planting boiled potatoes to save cooking them when they were dug up.” And he goes on about the pitied but lovable Duffers.

This obsession to save time via some system that reduced manual labor on my part has roots in my childhood. Lying in my bed one day at about the age of six, I devised an elaborate system of pulleys attached to bed sheets that allowed me to pull a single string and make the bed, or turn it down for that matter.

It’s why I majored in sociology. I’m a Duffer.


The Odor of Durability

In a Foreward to a collection of his essays, E.B. White writes that “[t]he essayist is a self-liberated man, sustained by the childish belief that everything he thinks about, everything that happens to him is of general interest.” He’s right, except in one respect: it is not a childish but childlike belief that sustains him. To say “childish” might imply that the essayist needs to grow up, needs to tailor his writing to the interests of his audience; “childlike,” on the other hand, indicates someone who, like a child, is smitten by wonder at everything that happens and must tell about it. Growing up is often a process of losing wonder, of losing attention to what matters. It should be otherwise. Essayists like White help restore that wonder and attention. In fact, every sentence he writes gives me pause.

“I am impressed by the reluctance of worldly goods to go out again into the world.”

When my mother died, my sisters and I had to clean out her home. My goodness. Smallish closets were piled high with clothes, old greetings cards, bits of fabric, bags (in case you need one), and more. Behind each retention hovered a reason, yet for some reason my mother, who was not a wealthy or profligate woman saved these odds and ends, these possibly yet improbably needful things. And yet, not a crayon drawing or handmade Valentines Day card from a child could be found. Once I had a load of clothes that I was going to give to the local charity. My mother took them. She said “I may need them.”

“As I sat at the table, gnawing away at a piece of pie, snow began falling. At first it was an almost imperceptible spitting from the gray sky, but it soon thickened and came driving down from the northeast. I watched it catch along the edge of the drive, powder the stone wall, dust the spruce cover on the flower borders, coat the plowed land, and whiten the surface of the dark frozen pond, and I knew that all along the coast from Kittery on, the worst mistakes of men were being quietly erased, the lines of their industrial temples softened, and U.S. 1 crowned with a cold, inexpensive glory. . . .”

One Christmas when I was about eight, I received from Santa Claus a red bicycle with a basket and 24-inch tires. After the hoopla of present opening had died down (about 7:00 AM), I took it out for a spin. I had had some instruction on bicycles from my aunt . She took me to the hill at the side of our house, settled me on the bike, and pushed me in the direction of the four-lane road bordering our backyard, yelling something indecipherable to me as I wobbled across the lawn and, thankfully, fell over in the neighbor’s soft grass, just short of the road. Yet, emboldened, I got back on and within minutes was able to ride somewhat passably down our street. It started snowing, for the first time ever on Christmas Day. I held my mouth open as I rode, tasting wet snow, showers of snow beginning to coat the blacktop, eventually covering the cracks in pavement in a soft white coating as a quiet settled in. It dabbed white among the green of lawns, a green which finally gave way to its weight. It caught on the shingles of the houses, like iced-gingerbread houses. I wished it to stay.

“There had been talk in our family of getting a 'sensible' dog this time, and my wife and I had gone over the list of sensible dogs, and had even ventured once or twice into the company of sensible dogs. . . . But after a period of uncertainty and waste motion my wife suddenly exclaimed one evening, 'Oh, let’s just get a dachshund!' She had had a glass of wine, and I could see that the truth was coming out.”

Our two gray cats are supposed be sisters. I have always suspected this may not be true. After our last feline tenant, a solid black, athletic cat named Shadrach, left us abruptly, there was an absence in the home, and while we missed Shadrach, we felt all round it may have been for the best. After three bites that sent my wife and daughter to Urgent Care (he doesn’t bite men), I think he figured his visa had expired. He walked off into the sunset and went ferrel.

My wife and son went looking for a sensible and free cat at the animal shelter. They came back with two, having been told that they were sisters. I think, however, that the folks at the shelter were creative in this respect (“Don’t break up the family! They only have each other.”) They are both gray, yet after that the similarity ends. One is fifty-percent larger than the other and traditionally built; the other, a bit of soft gray fur held together by ligament. One is so social as to be found wherever we or people are; the other, ephemeral, a whisp, a mere suggestion, hiding in spaces even mice wouldn’t attempt to navigate, malleable, resolved in nothing. Sisters? I don’t know. And sensible? Humph.

“It was about four o’clock in the afternoon when I first noticed that there was something wrong with the pig. He failed to appear at the trough for his supper, and when a pig (or a child) refuses supper a chill wave of fear runs through any household. . . .”

When young children are sick, parents hover. They don’t eat, you worry. Their forehead is a little warm, you try a cool bath. Warmer, you reach for Tylenol, and take a couple yourself for good measure. To steady you. Warmer, and you phone the doctor, the one on call, because these things never happen during business hours. When one of young children was fevered, we camped outside the bedroom door, prayed. You walk in, put hand to head and then back out. They sleep. You walk in, put hand to head, and it’s wet. The fever has broken. Then, fear having fled, you sleep.

E.B. White’s essays have, in his own words, the “odor of durability clinging to them.” In them, we see ourselves described with the precision we may lack the gift for. In them, we hear the unconsciously self-absorbed wonder of a child. Just to mimic him is almost enough.


The Drama of the Gospel

In 1987 my wife and I were a part of a two-week street evangelism team in Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic. We joined a collection of unusual and varied people from different churches in this effort, under the somewhat laissez-faire guidance of an older (my age now) couple who were retired Cru staff. We were given a modest amount of instruction and daily encouragement, which consisted mostly of worship music played during breakfast on a boom box, and then turned out on a foreign city filled with Czechs, Poles, and Russians with virtually incomprehensible language. We rarely had an interpreter. We had smiles (the Czechs have a melancholy disposition), tracts (the Czech version of the 4 Spiritual Laws), and music. For our mediocre singing and playing we could gather a crowd of 75 or so on the Charles Bridge, which may explain the then fascination with all things Western. Those not singing worked the crowd. The fruit was modest, but real.

The Czechs did not take to the tracts which we were forced to use by virtue of not often having a translator. About mid-way through our mission, a Czech Christian gave us needed insight: The Czechs associated the tracts with the Communist propaganda the party printed and handed out during Iron Curtain days. They had not forgotten. We learned a lot on that trip about understanding context, about bearing witness in an authentic, relational way. Our best relationships were the unforced ones, the friendships we formed where we did not have the immediate agenda of making a convert. Like the very brawny Czech man in a group of three on the bridge playing and singing in English “Take Me Home Country Roads,” while passing a bottle of wine around. We enjoyed singing with him. Or Pavel, the Polish kid who spent an entire day with my wife and I and who we spoke to in signs and gestures. The lessons we learned there hold today as well. Context and relationship matter.

If you think of our lives as the enactment of a drama, then doctrine — what we believe is true about God, the world, and us — is the script, God the producer or stage manager, and we are the actors. We don’t leave script, as that would be to leave the one true story. But we can while being faithful to the script adopt a different posture, gesture, and inflection. In short, we live out the script and make it our own, and like good actors we are faithful to the vision of the Producer and Author but have liberty to live it out in a unique way. Scripture says “Go and make disciples” and “be hospitable,” and yet we may each find our own unique way of bearing witness in word and deed, of being open to strangers. In short, the Gospel to be real must be enacted, and what we do with it are the Acts of the disciples. Us.

Bearing witness, enacting the Gospel, is telling our story. This is a particularly good approach to witness among postmoderns. They have a story and yet often feel disconnected from any larger narrative, a story which transcends their story and makes sense of it all. It’s like a lot of actors running about the stage, saying their lines, and yet the whole is a virtual chaos. There is no BIG Story.

The Gospel is the big story. Witness is telling our story. In our story, others may hear the larger Story, the one that makes sense of it all. At that, the saints in Heaven rejoice.


When We Went Out to Dinner

My wife and I (and children when in town) have a tradition. On Wednesday evenings we go out to eat at [insert favorite Asian restaurant]. I don’t know why I put that in brackets. I know you love it when people tweet you and tell you what they are eating for dinner, or lunch, or how how they ate a hamburger sandwiched between two [insert favorite donut place] donuts at the State Fair with an askew selfie of them biting down on this culinary delight, but I won’t bother with that. We sit at the bar (only it’s not a bar with alcohol which, means, of course, it’s not a real bar), in the corner, which only has two seats, our seats. If someone is sitting there, we pout. But they usually aren’t.

We share a meal. But sometimes I eat the last edamame, or eat too much too fast, and then I’m in trouble. Right before I’m forgiven. See, I only have one speed when I eat: 78 RPM. As does she: 33 RPM. (That’s analog language for you 20-somethings. We’ve been married (let me get this right) 34 years, which means that’s probably not going to change. When I try to eat more slowly, I feel like one of those records meant to be played at 78 RPM that is being played at 33RPM. Sounds (I mean feels) all wrong.

(Which reminds me, just to diverge for a moment, about the time in college when I bought a new U2 album, slapped it on the turntable, hit play, and settled back to hear some glorious power chords. It was terrible! I couldn’t believe how bad they sounded! Now Popmart did sound awful, but that was later. This was The Unforgettable Fire! Awful. My favorite band. Losing it. Then I realized I was an idiot. I was playing it at 16 RPM. I never told anyone that until now. I’m a big enough man to admit it now.)

We have to get our own plates and utensils. This isn’t P.F. Changs. We politely fuss if there’s not much Splenda (I’m a heavy user and yes, I know, it will slowly kill me.) We use the super-duper mix your own soda machine or pour green tea that isn’t really green. Then we scoot back into OUR seats and wait patiently behind our number perched on the bar that isn’t a bar.

When you and your spouse go out to eat, what do you talk about? Yeah, that’s what we talk about too. Schedules. Children. What we’re doing on the weekend. Children. Relatives. Children. Quantum physics. Children. You see what our favorite topic is. Confession: we do not talk about quantum physics. Oh, and our two special needs cats.

“Hey,” says Ryan, our very, very personable and chatty manager, “We made some extra food tonight. Want it?” He offers us two spring rolls and four crab something-or-others.

“You sure? We can’t eat all that. Maybe someone else might want it?” He looks around.

“Nah, already offered. They don’t.”

“So we’re your last hope?”

“Looks that way.”

“OK, we’ll see what we can do.” We ate one and a nibble of a second spring roll, and two of the crab things.

We played one game of Yahtzee (called Izee) on the IPhone. I won.

We skipped the fortune cookies. We had to buy cat food. Our cats are special. When we buy their food, we’re not going with the Ford; we buy the Mercedes. We motor over to PetSmart and she goes in; I wait, listening to Rhapsody. I don’t do pet stores. Much later, she comes out, cradling a bag of cat food.

“A very long line,” she says.

“No problem,” I say. “Plenty to listen to.” And there’s a bit more said, I think, about our special cats.

I know that you don’t need to know any of this. This little bit of insight into our meal out and errand is about as pedestrian (meaning commonplace and dull) as it gets, at least for you, reader. But I’m telling it to you to remind you and myself that our days are mostly made up of ordinary moments like this that are strung together like beads on a chain. Alone, they’re insignificant; together, they can be quite extraordinary. So extraordinary that when you look back at each moment in the chain of a day, in the longish chain of a life or lives together, even the moments themselves seem luminous.

E.B. White, author of Stuart Little and Charlotte’s Web, wrote an essay once for The New Yorker about a normal day on the farm, meaning his farm in North Brooklin, Maine. I cannot summon it up now, but in the story he simply allowed us to follow him around as he checked on the chickens, fed the dogs, and peered out over the bay. Golden, and commonplace, and told by someone who could dress the common in the words of a King.

That’s all I’m trying to do. To see my life as golden. To peer out over the bay. To render up the ordinary in the best words I can.

I have an old friend and co-worker, Tom, with whom I often traveled. He reminds me of Buzz Lightyear --- brave, committed, and sometimes over the top missional. He told wonderful stories about his dog, about taking out the garbage, about the latest home improvement project (fiasco). Pretty pedestrian. . . but so, so wonderful that I remember them 20 years later.

I want to be like Tom. I want to tell little stories about everyday things that remind us that all moments matter.


Miracles & Strange Providences

Have you ever witnessed a miracle? I think I have. Once, my son and I were standing in the train station in Geneva, Switzerland. We had arrived from Paris on a TGV but were transferring to a more local train en route to the village of Gryon, to eventually meet up with my business partner to interview Edith Schaeffer, the woman who with her husband founded the ministry of L’Abri. We were utterly lost and yet were doing our best to act as if we knew perfectly well what we were doing. From nowhere, a man walks up to us and in perfect English tells us where to go. Only thing is, I had not told him where we were going. We thanked him and headed down the corridor to which he directed us. I turned back to wave, but he was gone. Is that a miracle?

There are other odd occurrences. I am in route to Islamorada for a vacation with my family. We stop at a restaurant in Key Largo. Leaving, I pass a window. I hear a tapping. Inside, two women that I work with are waving at me. Statistically, odds are against that happening.

Then again, I am in Arizona (and this one always freaks me out). I am finishing my meal at a restaurant. I excuse myself to visit the rest room and, walking there, a server crosses my path. He stops. “Aren’t you Steve West,” he says. I acknowledge that I am. He says, “I thought so. I was in your fourth grade class. You look the same.” Maybe he was in my class, but he lied about the latter part. Still, what are the odds?

Maybe these happenings aren’t technically miracles. Maybe they are just coincidences. But to me they are reminders in their small ways that there is something transcendent about the world, that God does do things that don’t add up, that these strange coincidences are His strange providences.

In his book, Miracles, Eric Metaxas reminisces about how, as a small child reading Bible stories, he longed for what people had in biblical times, a real connection with God, with angels, with the world of miracles. He says “I felt like something inside me was made for that connection with the world beyond this one, for a connection with something more real and more true and more alive than anything I was experiencing or being told about in church. I knew that if I longed for that world, there must be a reason I longed for it. . . . It was though I was a prince exiled from another kingdom and whenever I saw hints of that kingdom, I hoped to find the way back.”

Exactly. We are exiles. We carry in us the memory of another place. When miracles or strange providences happen, we catch glimpses of that other world. Following Jesus we are already in some mystical way in that other place with Him. All of which makes me want to pray more, expect more, and watch. Watch God break through. Watch for the signs pointing Home.


Revisiting Your Decision: Seeing Woodlawn

Woodlawn_182x305banner_nowI don’t really like football. That’s probably almost offensive to some people who may read this. I’m sorry. Though I understand the value of working as a team and all of the salutary effects sports may have on character, I really don’t care to watch it. As a student at N.C. State University, in the heart of ACC football, I attended one game in four years.

But I enjoyed Woodlawn. Woodlawn is the name of a high school in Birmingham, Alabama which, in 1973, was one of the last in the country to desegregate. The school was rife with racial tension. In the midst of it, an outsider, Hank, gains an brief audience with the team. More than 40 players, nearly the entire team, give their lives to Christ. The school reflects the hatred and anger in the community, and yet when the team converts, the effect on the larger school and community is transformative. It’s football in service of a greater purpose — that, as well as some fine acting by Jon Voigt and others, is worth watching.

If you have had a transformative experience in your life, a story like this is a reminder of what happened to you, and an encouragement to revisit that particular decision point — whether it was belief and surrender to Christ, a recommitment to live life unto Him, or a dedication to a particular mission or goal. When we make such life-changing decisions, we are rarely aware of the full consequences of what we have done. It’s a bit like marriage: we go into it with eyes wide open, and yet our vision can only extend so far; we cannot fully appreciate the challenges and blessings which will come our way.

The day after Christmas in 1976, my freshman year of college, I boarded a bus with a few other friends from Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship bound for the Urbana Missions Conference on the campus of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champlain. I had been a part of this fellowship of believers for only four months, the first such fellowship I had known as I had become a Christian quietly, on my own, in my junior year of high school. I rode up with David, my elder by one year. He made sure that year that he spent time with me. Without David, I may not have stayed in school.

After we arrived at Urbana, I rarely saw him. I roomed with two students from elsewhere. I moved around the campus in a large fellowship of some 17,000 students from all over the world. I came with only a thin jacket. It snowed, and the temperature was in the teens. I was ill-prepared for the weather outside and the spiritual weather inside that place. A 1000 voice choir led us in singing. British pastor John Stott taught us each morning. We heard from missionaries like Elizabeth Elliot, Helen Rosevere, and Festo Kivengere — men and women who had lived out their witness, some amid suffering. I’m sure I could only take in and appreciate a small portion of what I heard.

On the last night, Billy Graham spoke. I knew his sermon. I had heard him many times before on television, as my parents would watch him. But I was really not prepared for the way that the Holy Spirit used him that night, of how He inhabited his words. He asked if we would surrender to Christ and follow Him where he led. I stood and said I would. Many did; some didn’t. I felt compelled, and even afraid of what might happen. And while I don’t think I grasped all of what that decision entailed, nor have I followed everywhere He has led, that was one decision point along a continuum of grace, one point where God had my attention and called. There are many such points in a Godward life, many opportunities to realize how you have failed and how He preserves you nonetheless, His power made perfect in weakness.

Go see Woodlawn. Remember what you signed up for. Be reminded that through the faithfulness of one man, an entire community can change. 


Under a Winking Moon

Above the streetscape, a wink of a moon hangs, useless for lighting but necessary for ambience. It peeks from just above a massive tree, an adoring star just below it, moonstruck. Streetlights and lit storefronts splash light onto sidewalks where we huddled against the cold, walking as if we were being chased.

"Since we've been walking together in the mornings," she said, "I can't walk slow anymore."

"I know. Sorry." But if you're going to walk, you might as well make it worth it, I think. But I need to learn to stroll. I might miss something. I might speed by an owl in a tree or deer's shy movements. I might miss a face so full of expression as to tell a story.

It's freezing here, yet a young woman just blew past me with an enormous tub of chocolate ice cream that says (metaphorically) "live a little." I shivered. Out of the corner of my eye, the moon winked, I think. I looked away quickly and smiled.

Earlier, in the restaurant, waiting, there was a kaleidoscope of people. Tourists. A father stood behind his two young boys at the bar. They had drinks while he looked on, standing to eat. In the corner a husband and wife sat around a table with five young children, each blowing the paper on their straws at each other. We smiled at each other, talked, or let silences fill the interstices of our long friendship.

We came here overnight on a lark really. Spontaneity, even at our ages! With all the rooms occupied in this town and the next, we booked a last-minute bed 45 minutes away. Yet driving into town, we read the phone number off the sign for the first hotel we came across, dialed them up,and secured a closer room, a cancellation. We reserved it from their parking lot. Ask, and often you receive. And if you don't, call back. We let go the other bed.

Coming here, we were hassled and hurried. Seeing the first mountain, a foothill only, we began to breathe deeply again, relax into the landscape. Every turn brought memories, some general sense of having been here before, and now, walking down Main, we have 35 years of memories, like a field tilled and planted many times. That is the corner where a photo was taken with me holding my then young son. Here is the street where our children trick-or-treated the merchants. There is the park where we played, the bench where I waited. The ghosts of past Octobers float around these streets.

But this is now, and we are walking briskly, me trying to keep up with her larger strides. We cross the street at the inn called Ragged, navigate a crumbling stone walk, and climb the drive and turn for home. I look up, but the moon has gone behind the tree, as if to say, "goodnight." One heaven-sent wink, one nod of recognition is enough, for now, from the God who is there, the one who holds the moon.


On the Way to Fairyland

In Abigail Santamaria’s new biography of Joy Davidman, entitled Joy: Poet, Seeker, and the Woman Who Captivated C.S. Lewis, she recounts a recurring dream that Joy had throughout childhood. She found herself walking down a street called Daylight. She rounds a corner and follows a grassy path into an unfamiliar world. She stumbles along until the trail opens onto “a strange, immeasurable plane” where in the distance rose the towers of Fairyland, a perfect kingdom, a place where, she wrote, “Hate and heartbreak/ All were forgot there.” But then, before she could cross the threshold, she woke up, in a child-sized bedroom in the less idyllic world of the Bronx.

I love Autumn, but I have had people tell me they hate it. “Everything is dying,” someone told me, “and it makes me sad.” In a last blaze of color, of orange, red, and yellow, the leaves give their last, falling, but in their dying, bring new life to soil, readying the earth for the sleep of Winter and the new life of Spring. Everything is dying so that everything might live.

Isn’t that life? We have a recurring and true waking dream (and perhaps night dream) of Heaven, a place where hate and heartbreak are banished, and yet we stumble along a crooked path until we have a glimpse of that Kingdom, and then, we awake, realizing that it is coming, but not yet. We kick at the leaves on the path, the remnants of Fall, crunching acorns underfoot, on our way to Spring. For Joy, “hope lingered in the morning hours;” so too, hope endures in our every new morning. In Lamentations 3:23 the prophet in the midst of lament has that dream, that the Lord’s “mercies never come to an end,” that they are “new every morning.” In Fall, there is an emptying, a dying, and we kick leaves as we stumble along the path to Spring, to the new, to Fairyland, to Joy.

Honestly, I believe that most people, beneath their shellacked or impassive exterior, behind laughter and irony, are afraid and anxious. They lack hope. They fasten on the present. They kick at darkness but can’t ultimately hold it at bay. Yet God promises steadfast love. He promises Fairyland. He is certain in the midst of uncertainty. We may stumble, may even fall, may even lie down in the sleep of barren winter in our soul. But we will awake, in Fairyland, full of Spring.


Seeing Through Cynicism

Nearly a decade ago Dick Keyes wrote that “Cynicism is in the air that we breathe, a cultural norm, the default setting and lens through which many of view the world.” In his book, Seeing Through Cynicism: A Reconsideration of the Power of Suspicion, he explores the range of our personal and cultural questioning, from suspicion to irony to cynicism. To be a cynic is to distrust or disparage the motives of others, to claim to see through another’s words or actions to what must be a darker, more self-serving agenda. It’s easy to fall into he pit of cynicism; people, television, and most political commentators will help you take the plunge.

Late today I had a conversation with another attorney about politics. There was an underlying cynicism and, I detected, a hopelessness in his tone. Leaving work, I carried it with me, began to let it settle in me, gave in for a time to a posture of hopelessness. By the time I was home, I was thoroughly discouraged.

Keyes says that “Cynicism about the government sees through the operation of the state to expose only self interest, manipulation and abuse of power to the point that it can seem useless for a citizen to be involved at all.” And yet it’s bigger than apathy. A cynic’s posture goes beyond healthy questioning to that of doubting every good intention. And, ultimately, it drags people further down the path of apathy and despair, given its skewed perspective on the world.

I failed in the conversation. I allowed the poison of cynicism to continue. I gave no voice to hope. I did not do enough to point the conversation in a positive direction. I let the cynic set the tone.

Keyes has a wonderful quote from Michael Kinsley, one which points to the root of cynicism as pride: “It’s easy to preserve your integrity in opposition, and tempting to hoard it by remaining in opposition under any circumstance. Scarier and indeed riskier is engaging your integrity by investing hope in flawed politicians operating in an imperfect world. The cheap pleasures of cynicism are always in plentiful supply. Abandoning them is like going on a diet or giving up smoking. Hope, in other words, is the thing that takes work.”

Cynicism as cheap pleasure? If you listen to the irony of primetime sitcoms or the “humor” of much late night TV, you’ll see what I mean. If you keep a regular diet of it, it’ll move you out of the orbit of hope. Turn them off for a month, then try and watch again, and the cynical worldview they espouse will better shock. Politicians aren’t here just to be ridiculed. Believe it or not, they are here for our good. And they are here for us to pray for. We have a healthy skepticism about grand claims, but we have no right to see self interest behind every claim. They are flawed, like us; they are a mirror of us.

As Keyes notes, “The best challenge to cynicism is history. That is, it is simply untrue that political history reveals unrelieved decline, increase in corruption, injustice and collective suffering.” Imagine if you, like me, grew up in the Cold War era and someone then had told you that the Iron Curtain would fall and Eastern Europe be largely democratic — without any bloodshed? We would have thought them naive or deluded. But I lived to see this happen. Or if they had told me that a substantial population of Communist China would be Christian? Also crazy. And yet it has happened. The chronic cynic, hearing of these things, sees only the underbelly of these momentous happenings — corruption, unrestrained capitalism, superficial faith. But even they can be changed from the inside out.

Hope takes work. It requires the sustenance of the Word and the study of the World, of God’s providences. I need its medicine, regularly. I don’t want to be a cynic. Neither do you.


Under Moonlight, Lit

MVC-090FA friend once gave me a book entitled The Book of Moonlight: Why Life Is Good and God Is Generous and Kind. It’s the kind of title that intrigues (“moonlight”) and promises (“why God is”). I read it several years ago. I drew it off the shelf tonight to be reminded. Why is life good? And why and how is God generous and kind? It never actually says. I remember this much: It’s not a book of instruction, even though I take heed of the epigraph on the first page, a quote from the January 1857 issue of the Edinburgh Christian Magazine: “Courage! Do not stumble though the path is dark as night. There’s a star to guide the humble. Trust in God and do the right.” The remainder is a less direct truth, a meandering series of stories that illuminate the darkness, though not wholly, by moonlight, by a shadowed, indirect light.

When we remember, we think in stories. A walk with our grandmother, through leafy paths, to wade in the creek under the railroad bridge, to visit the even more elderly, to watch the Southern Railways train blow by, to brush clean headstones in a cemetery in the trees, with markers higgledy-piggledy and names faded away. Sleeping in the backseat of cars speeding down roads going home, with the muffled voices of parents or silences thick with promise. Walking in mountain stream beds, navigating rocks, stopping for a picnic.

When we remember well, when we ask God to help us remember with hearts of thanks, we see God’s unexpected providences, His ordering of our lives toward a good end. As the author of The Book of Moonlight says, “Perhaps this is why God gives us the gift of the unexpected, seemingly insignificant memories: to remind us that we are, indeed, still children — his children — and it is good to remember with a child’s heart those who protected us, when we feel alone at night as we adjust our pillows just before we take a long breath and sleep.” It is moonlight that lights the windows of our rooms, and it not its own, but that of the Sun. It is moonlight that softens our memories, that blesses, that reminds us who we are.

How is God generous and kind? Look back. Remember. Trace His pattern in your life. It may be shadowed, but it’s lit. There’s a star to guide the humble, bit by bit.

 


The Anti-Gospel & the Antidote

Perhaps you, like me, have awoken in the morning, and having barely opened your eyes to the yet-dim day heard a voice say something like “Things are going to go wrong today. You won’t succeed. You won’t accomplish what you set out to do. You will fail. It will be hard, too hard.” You roll over, close your eyes and wish that you could crawl under the cover and stay there and never, never come out. Silly, of course, but a comforting thought, for a few moments.

This is an anti-Gospel, preached by an anti-Christ. Yes, the one spoken of in Revelation; no, not the popularized and conjectured one of The Late Great Planet Earth. This is the whispered lie of the Disabler, the one who attacks our confidence, the one who, when all is said and done, is saying “God does not care about you, God does not love you. You are alone.” This is a lie to be met head on at the moment of consciousness.

The Apostle Paul, writing to a persecuted church, reminded them that “No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us” (Rom. 8:37). What things? Tribulation. Distress. Persecution. Famine. Nakedness. Danger. Sword. The Disabler’s comeback is “Nonsense. Bad is bad. You are on your own. Others are responsible for your problems. Get even, or give up.” And yet this crazy promise, this almost-too-good-to-be-true promise, is a turning of the tables, a guarantee of the upside-down goodness of God. Nothing separates us from the love of Christ. No one condemns us, as our waywardness has been paid for. He is cheering for us before a God who is immeasurable in His power to do good, in His love for His frail creations.

The battle is on before we rise. Will we meet it? What I try to do is this, and do it immediately: When I hear the anti-Gospel in my head, I say (usually to myself), “Thank you God for this day. Thank you for being for me in all things. Thank you for going before me into this day.”

And then I get up, and the Voice leaves, for a season.


Fairy-Stories

“[F]airy tales whisper to us of our deep need. The best fairy tale is a story you wish would come true. And this wish, in its turn, is merely the obverse side of a confession. It’s an admission that, in and of ourselves, we are incomplete.”

(Jim Ware, in God of the Fairy Tale: Finding Truth in the Land of the Make-Believe)

I love fairy tales. When I was very young, my aunt gave us an even then old volume of Grimm’s Fairy Tales, with color illustrations, and I lay on the floor and pored over its stories. By the time I was 12, I had graduated to the science fiction genre and, as a member of the Science Fiction Book Club, was enthralled by the adult fiction of the likes of Kurt Vonnegut, Robert Heinlein, Issac Asimov, and Ray Bradbury. They were not the best fantasies for a boy of 12, and many were not good tales, in that they pointed away from God.

One nihilistic short story I still remember. A man enters a multi-level department store such as you find in New York, with escalators that whisk you to as many as eight floors of shopping. He finishes his shopping on some upper floor, and begins his descent to the ground floor and exit — only he never makes it. Down he descends one floor, walks round to the next down escalator, and down he goes again. This keeps up, the crowds thinning as he goes, until, having descended many more floors than he can count, he is alone. He continues descending, becoming more frantic by the minute, until he is running down, down, down, dropping his packages, yelling for anyone to help, finally falling, splayed at the end of one descending belt of steps, weeping. The end. It’s a parable of futility and hopelessness. It’s not a good fairy tale, though it is told well — so well that 45 years later I still remember it.

A good fairy tale, unlike this story, take us to a place that is unlike what we know. Whether science fiction or fantasy or both, they whisk us away to an improbable reality where evil is evil and good is good, where there is a welcome and unexpected turning of the tables (as when small and humble Frodo the hobbit agrees to take the Ring to the Crack of Doom), where in the end justice is done and good triumphs, where the answer to Sam Gamgee’s question — “Is everything sad going to come untrue” — is yes, yes, of course, and we can finally say “and they all lived happily ever after.”

When I read fantasy as a boy, and when I read it now, I am looking for the good, the true, and the beautiful. I’m looking for the Gospel. Like C.S. Lewis said, “The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact. . . . It happens — at a particular date, in a particular place, followed by definable historical consequences. . . . By becoming fact it does not cease to be myth: that is the miracle.” Tolkien said it as well, that “[t]he Gospels contain a fairy-story, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories.” Good fantasies let me come back to the Gospel story and see it fresh, for the crazy Truth that it is: that a God will come down to lift up His creatures, that a God will turn the tables on the Villain of this world. That is the greatest fairy tale of them all. It’s worth regular reading.


Along the Shore


Image"All along the Lee shore/ Shells lie scattered in the sand/ Winking up like shining eyes, at me/ From the sea"

(David Crosby, "The Lee Shore," from 4 Way Street, by CSN&Y)

The rain spent itself overnight, and though clouds hung over a gray ocean this morning, by mid-day they parted, and the sun came out. Though breezy, the weather was temperate, and we set out north, up the coast. The tide was high, lapping at our shoes, and still advancing.

We had different ideas, unspoken, about our walk. I set out briskly, destination in my sights; she, more leisurely, watching for the glint of blue or green that would signify sea-glass. She was a good check on my inattentiveness to what lay under my feet, and so, eventually, I slowed and began to look down at shells, scattered in the sand. I picked one up, intact but with a slight blemish, and I thought of the slight blemish on my forehead I noticed in a photograph of me I saw today. I wondered what had happened to the shell, what had happened to me. I held it in my hand as I walked. It reminded me of one she gave me before we were married, one I still have somewhere.

In their 1968 book, The Shell: 500 Million Years of Inspired Design, authors Hugh and Marguerite Stix, who traveled the world to learn about shells and then stage an exhibition of some 15,000 of them, relate a story of a woman they referred to (in a way we would not now) as "[a] Long Island housewife, mother of five," who after a half hour in the gallery, said "I'm not religious, but when I look at them I believe in God." Design presupposes designer. Reading that later, I feel guilty, crunching them underfoot like that, them "winking up like shining eyes at me."

For all the ships and seas noted in the Bible, there is nary a mention of shells. Odd, isn't it? Were they just so ubiquitous as to fade into the background, as not to be valued by fishermen-apostles? Here they are, with intricate beauty and unending variety. Once they were used, I read, to summon believers of one ilk to prayer. Maybe, but not these castoffs, spit ashore.

Mostly, what lies on the shore are only bits of shells --- broken, hard pressed, hammered by waves, scattered, left. As are we. But not crushed; not forgotten (2 Cor. 4:8). Someone walks into their world and ours, takes note, reaches down, picks us up, holds us close, and carries us Home.

I'll carry it home. I'll keep the shell. As a reminder to pray. As a shining eye of hope.


The Day When Everything Goes Right

"Adam and Eve lived happily together in their beautiful new home. And everything was perfect --- for a while.

Until the day when everything went wrong."

(Sally Lloyd-Jones, in The Story of God's Love for You)

Everyone knows something is wrong with the world, that something is wrong with people. Despite what we discussed in Philosophy 101, no one I know believes that evil is an illusion. By whatever standard you measure right and wrong, something is terribly wrong. It'd be convenient to say evil is over there, in that person, and not here, in me, but I can't. "The line between good and evil," said Solzhenitsyn once, "runs through the human heart." For evidence, ask your family.

Some Christians speak of "total depravity," meaning that we are not as bad as we could be but that even our acts that appear to be good bear in them a seed of bad. Aware of my pride, for example, I humble myself; aware of my humility, I am touched by pride in my humility. What a dilemma! From heaven, holy laughter is heard, God chuckling quietly with me, shaking heads at my tragic and yet comic inability to do one completely good act.

Grace can't be appreciated apart from an understanding of how the world went wrong. Without understanding the Fall, we can't fully understand the Rescue. Without appreciating how deep and wide are the rippling waves of how the world went wrong, we cannot wonder well at the beauty of a world made right.

One of my associates at work said to me recently, marveling at what is wrong being called good and what is good being called bad, "The world is upside down." I nodded. "Yes, it is," I said, with a sigh. And yes it has been, for a long, long time, I thought. When he left, I looked out the window at the roof of blue sky, letting my mind carry me on past Moon and Mars and Pluto and Andromeda, out beyond the limits of our seeing, and thought, "But not for long. Or, at least, not forever."


Listening in on Creation

I am not a a painter, but I know one. My wife was recounting a lesson with her art teacher recently. She is painting a still-life, a red apple and vase and more arranged on a table with a light blue table cloth, and her teacher said "Add a a drop of red to the blue of the table cloth, so that the apple and vase and table cloth talk to one another."

Inanimate things do speak. The Psalmist says of the heavens that they "declare the glory of God," that "the sky above proclaims his handiwork," that "day to day pours out speech." He says "their voice goes out through all the earth" (Ps. 19:1-4). Over in Psalm 98: 8, even the hills "sing for joy." These literary anthropomorphisms abound in the poetry of the Psalms. Interestingly enough, this act of lending a human element to a non-human subject is often employed in order to endear the latter to the readers or audience and increase the level of relativity between the two while also lending character to the subject. In short, we (the readers) feel a kinship with the apple and vase. They speak to one another. Ecologists, artists, landscape architects, and others who regularly deal in the stuff of Creation, understanding how the various parts relate, already know this.

While this is a well-understood literary device, not to be taken literally but literarily, like much such poetry and metaphor of scripture, we can't limit its meaning purely to the symbolic. God is immanent, that is, present in His creation, human and non-human, but He is not creation. Christ is "before all things, and in him all things hold together" (Col. 1:15-17). So, it is not unusual that the non-human creation "speaks" to one another and to us. In some mystical way they testify to Christ. So, part of our life as believers is to better listen to the great conversation that is occurring around us, adding to it where we can. By listening better, we better know our neighbors.

If, on the other hand, the vase and apple literally talk to you, let me know. I have a recommendation for you.


Family History

History is a fateful enterprise. Just consider the stories told at family gatherings. When my 92-year old aunt tells stories of her early years, they are indisputable --- not necessarily because they are true but because she is the only living witness. And because she is the age at which she cannot be set straight. Her memories have calcified. If my father wouldn't take a much younger me to the local carnival, and she did, even if not true it becomes true by the telling. She tells me this story every time I see her. I've lost count. Such is the fluidity of memoir.

Even when memories are shared there is the matter of perspective. Though I remember being pushed from my tricycle as three-year old by my sister, my sister says different. No one else remembers, so this silly bit of family history will have to wait for resolution to another day, if at all, as there are no other known witnesses.

Yet there are great swaths of family history that are communal, shared by all, even if not all remember quite the same things. For my family, the memories might be of family vacations, often in Arizona, else-wise in the West. My son was strolled up the paved road of Sabino Canyon on the outskirts of Tucson at six weeks of age, my daughter when she was not much older, and so the expansive sky and dry air of the deserts, grasslands, and prairies of the West have become a part of who they are, of who our family is. Cacti prickle through our photo albums and rock and sky crowd out our family in family photos.

Communal history may be other things as well: back-seat Broadway on car trips, favorite television shows, side-by-side singing in church, animals, family jokes, holiday traditions, mealtimes. A family is not simply a collection of individuals; the sum is greater than its parts. It is our smallest society, a little church, and even a mission.

They don't all work, of course. Some are barely strung together, under the same roof, sharing the same last name, but with individuals moving in their own orbits. Even in the good ones (and I count ours good), it is work to continue to know each other, to share our lives, to say no to self and yes to the Body, to swim against the tide of personal autonomy that permeates our world. To have a conversation that is not distracted. To listen. To hold your tongue. To keep telling the stories that we share.

But it's worth it. There come those moments when it isn't work, when it just is, like breathing deep in the Sonoran Desert air, and you think, "This is wonderful. This is as good as it gets." Right before someone says "He/she touched me!" Oh well, the coyote's in the backyard again. And it's on.


A Walk on Kensington Prairie

Becca1-199x300I was just a wee bit excited the other day when the new Kensington Prairie album was released. For one thing, I like to say that name — the hard “k” and the roll of the “pr” — and relish the image it conjures of an all-encompassing azure sky and sea of wind-swept grasslands. I want to walk into the sound of it, through a prairie meadow, get lost in the tall grass. More than imagery, however, is the spacious breadth of the music — acoustic, airy, and Spirit-filled.

The band is a front for the solo projects of Canadian Rebecca Rowan, with support by her husband Nathan and other excellent musicians. Musically, it is reminiscent of the spare sound of The Innocence Mission, filled with guitars, upright bass, banjo, mandolin, and harmonica, though lyrically the songs are more direct in their references to faith, treading the ground of slavery, pain, suffering and death, and yet holding out the promise of freedom, love, hope, and a future.

In “Appear,” a song of Christ’s coming, there’s this wonderful set of lines: “He will fill us with/ Metaphors/ To help us understand/ He will paint colors into/ The empty canvas we now/ look through.” It reminds of the Revelation of John and the symbolism there, of the reaching to describe a New Heavens and Earth that seem just beyond the grasp of human language, a realm best spoken of in metaphor. I rest for a moment in its words, bend low to smell its flower, and press on.

Elsewhere, in “The Rags of Life,” which may well be the musical and lyrical center of the album, Rebecca gives voice to the wanderer, traveler, vagabond, and refugee. It’s a leveling song, one which recognizes our shared humanity: “We all wear/ The rags of life/ Trying to cover up/ All the holes that we find.” It brings to mind the biblical recognition that we are “aliens and strangers.” That bittersweet estrangement permeates these songs, and yet there is such hope of Heaven and healing too, as in “Beyond Here” when she sings “Beyond here/ There’s no homeless/ There’s no orphans to carry/ Fatherless and abandoned/ Will all find they’re loved again.” I drop my burdens, look up into an open, endless sky, and walk on toward the horizon.

Rebecca says that the songs seem like a “modern day spiritual,” and I agree. One could put them side-by-side with a set of Negro spirituals and they would be at home. They too, like the old spirituals, promise that (in the words of the album title), if we “come to the waters” we will be healed. I recommend a long walk in these songs. In them you will find rest.


Gospel Topography

Sometimes we wake up in the morning and we say to ourselves, "Is this the way it's going to be this day? This week? This. . . life?" We are having some difficulty in life, some trial, or we feel some vague unease or just depressed, and the finger of despair begins to creep up our arm, in route to our heart. Is there a way out? Yes, and it's all about topography.

Our family has spent over thirty years tramping over the western part of the United States, mostly in the mountains, canyons, and deserts of Arizona and Utah. In the desert where we spend time, you can see for fifty miles. Standing in the foothills below the Catalina Mountains on the outskirts of Tucson, Arizona, just a few hundred feet above the valley floor, you can see an entire city and the mountain ranges that ring it --- the Tucson, Santa Rita, and Rincon Mountains. If I want to go across the city, in the direction of Sonoita or even Nogales, I can see the way. The road is clear. There may be obstacles along the way, and it may take time, but I will get there. Here, in the Piedmont of North Carolina, however, I can barely see beyond the next house, my perspective diminished by my inability to see beyond the clutter of the life around me.

When we exercise faith, we stand on higher ground. We are able to see beyond to see beyond our immediate surroundings. We look out on the sometimes desert of life and see our Home. We know our destination and operate on Gospel topography.  The only way I know to do this is by telling myself the truth, by reading the end of the story.

I used to be amused when my daughter would read the end of a story before reading the book. "Why would you want to ruin the surprise?," I'd say. She said, sensibly, "Before I get too involved, I want to know how it turns out."

In the story of our life, we know how it turns out. We know the end. Our Hero comes, slays the Enemy, and makes everything right, and we all live happily ever after. When we confront difficulty, we go higher and remember this. We revisit the end of the story. It gives us courage not to close the book of our life prematurely, but to keep reading, to keep living.

Step up to higher ground. Read the end of the story. Then get out of bed, and live.


Living in the Quotidian

These days I don’t cut my own grass. A lawn service does that. Yet part of me misses the smell of cut grass, the simple decisions you get to make (diagonal, horizontal, or vertical cuts), and the sense of completion that is gained in short course.

It wasn’t always this way. When I was a teenager my friend and I at one time cut 14 yards a week for an average pay of $3.00 per yard. . . to split. One penny-pinching neighbor paid only $2.25. That’s for mowing, trimming, and sweeping the walks. Sometimes we argued over the odd penny. Once we sought a $.25 hike in the price, to bring it in line with the market. Alas, market be damned, she said, or words to that effect, and called our mothers.

I grant you that grass cutting is not a creative endeavor. Usually, that is. Once, in my business partner's own backyard, we decided to cut shapes in the tall green grass. A heart. My name, in longhand. It was grand, until his Mom came out of the side door and began yelling at us over the whine of our dual motors, waving her arms and gesticulating wildly. We thought she liked it. We kept mowing, for a time anyway, until she shut us down and she (as they said then) "yanked him up by the arm." He disappeared with her indoors. I finished up with straight cuts across the scene of our crime.

I miss cutting grass. It’s a task you don’t have to think about much. In fact, you can think about whatever you darn well please, not contracts and litigative strategies, not personnel issues, not even where to eat lunch. Just push, and row by row the grass falls away and all is neat and tidy, unlike a lot of life.

If laundry and dishes are more often a woman’s quotidian, that is, her commonplace lot, mowing is the man’s quotidian. That’s not a sexist comment, as poet Kathleen Norris said that in her short book, entitled The Quotidian Mysteries: Laundry, Liturgy and “Women’s Work.” In that book Norris is making the point that the quotidian is most often where God is found, as that is where we all mostly live. More than that, the mundane is sanctified by God. Laundry and mowing and dish-washing and the countless mundanities of life “all serve to ground us in the world,” she says, “and they need not grind us down. Our daily tasks, whether we perceive them as drudgery or essential, life-supporting work, do not define who we are as. . . human beings.” They have, she says, “considerable spiritual import.” They remind us that religion is not just an intellectual pursuit. It is embodied, incarnate.

Norris points to the Incarnation as an affirmation of the earthly: “As a human being, Jesus Christ was as subject to the daily as any of us. And I see both the miracle of manna and incarnation of Jesus Christ as scandals. They suggest that God is intimately concerned with our very bodies and their needs. . . .How tempting it is to disdain what God has created, and to retreat into a comfortable gnosticism.” Reading that, I couldn’t help but think of Brother Lawrence, a monk who, besides the ministry of prayer and Word, did nothing all day but repair and care for the sandals of his fellow monks. That’s mundane. Odiferous even. I think of Jesus sleeping, eating, washing. Walking around kicking up dust. Breaking up disciple fights. Feeding people. Holding dirt-smudged, runny-nosed kids. Down in the world. Down in the mundane.

This is where we live life, with cut grass, dishes, and laundry. With sometimes disagreeable people. In a world subject to decay but where the mustard-seed Kingdom grows. Just where Jesus lived. Just where Jesus died. Just where Jesus rose and reigns.


The Electric Gospel

“Take any English word, even the most commonplace, and try repeating it twenty times in a row — umbrella, let us say, umbrella, umbrella, umbrella — and by the time we have finished, umbrella will not be a word anymore. It will be a noise only, an absurdity, stripped of all meaning. And when we take the greatest and most meaningful words that the Christian faith has and repeat them over and over again for some two thousand years, much the same things happen.”

(Frederick Buechner, in “The Breath of Life,” from The Magnificent Defeat)

Though it has been tough going at times, as I am two-thirds way through, I have refused to put down Ernest Freeberg’s The Age of Edison: Electric Light and the Invention of Modern America. It reminds that though electricity has a currency that is common to us all, except when we have an extended power outage it by familiarity becomes invisible. We no longer see or appreciate it until its gone. And further, if asked to explain exactly what it is, we are likely no better able than the citizens in the 1890s just coming to grips with its promise and peril. In the end, it is lit in mystery, as ubiquitous as air and yet shrouded.

Freeborn writes of how electricity was first publicly demonstrated, first in the great arc-lights (think lights on towers), then in Edison’s incandescent bulb, and how crowds gathered just to stare at the light, like moths drawn to flame. When in 1880 Charles Brush turned a stretch of Broadway into the first “Great White Way,” horse-drawn carriage traffic stopped. Riders dismounted and passengers disembarked. All gazed upward at the great lights. Eventually, however, the novelty wore off, fascination ceased, and people settled into a routine acceptance of electricity. By the turn of the century, it elicited a yawn in the citizens of large cities. Yet, despite its familiarity, it remains a mystery to most, its jargon (amps, volts) impenetrable to many. We live and move and have our being in something we don’t begin to fully comprehend or appreciate.

So too Buechner says is the language of Christian belief. We sometimes bandy about words like faith, sin, redemption, and atonement without a deep appreciation for their truth and mystery, about the depths of their meaning. Jesus speaks in parables to defamiliarize theological terms, to come at truth sideways and thus, more powerfully, and yet for the longtime believer those parables — like those of a mustard seed, light on a hill, sower and seed, or lost coin — can become cliche, their depth of meaning lost in familiarity or worn interpretations. Even parables need to be retold in stories, something like Walter Wangerin does for the Gospel in his story, Ragman, which begins like this: “I saw a strange sight. I stumbled upon a story most strange, like nothing in my life, my street sense, my sly tongue had ever prepared me for. Hush, child. Hush now, and I will tell it to you.” And he goes on to tell a story of a Christ-type man who took onto himself the rags of other people, bearing them all to death. It’s a Gospel retelling for ears dulled by familiarity.

Though the words can become dead through familiarity and abuse, the realities they point to are nonetheless real — electric, light-bearing, and, at times shocking. And the words? Pick some new ones. Or some new stories for old realities. Instead of umbrella, try bumbershoot as you causally mention it to co-workers. Heads will turn. Instead of the parable of the lost coin, talk about the lost coin of you and the One who searched and found you. Instead of going straight to the Gospel, tell the story of the Ragman, and when they understand that story, they will hear the Gospel new and charged with meaning, a “story most strange.” Because under and inside those words is the breath of life, the Spirit who makes all things new.

 
 
 

Love, Mercy, and Recovery

Running diagonally under the large pines of my backyard is a barely discernible furrow, a rolling of the terrain, that suggests what came before subdivision: farmland. In the presentism that infects and beguiles us, we so often forget that others came before us, that there was a time when suburbia had not extended its reach into the then far reaches of a largely rural county. My one-third acre slice of dirt and “new” forest is 30 years old, yet recent, cut from the larger portion of an abandoned farm. The original forests that covered the area — virgin, mature hardwoods at some point — were felled for timber, the land farmed for tobacco and corn and soybeans, or let grow and timber harvested again, only to be abandoned when farming lost profitability and city jobs beckoned. 

As Adam Morgan summarizes in his new book, North Carolina’s Wild Piedmont: A Natural History, “[t]he fairy-tale forests that blanketed the Piedmont three hundred years ago were all destroyed by European settlers. Today, nearly every acre is either farmed, abandoned farmland or paved over.” Most “natural” areas we know of, places like Umsted State Park (or my backyard), are the product of nature’s reclamation, and so “today, instead of towering, spacious ‘cathedral’ forests [which once existed], wild spaces in the Piedmont are in various stages of recovery, from grassy, herbaceous growth to long, coniferous forests and, finally, mature, mixed hardwoods with an oak-hickory canopy and an understory of heath, holly, dogwood and sourwood.” But even then, this mature forest is not what once was, not ancient. Says Morgan, “An inexact but useful rule of thumb: when you encounter maturing pines or red cedars in the Piedmont, you’re looking at a forest that’s only been recovering for fifty to one hundred years.” Oh, that’s all.

When I consider the time that trees stand, the time for a forest’s recovery, it gives me perspective. Healing takes time. Life returns to the forest cut or burnt over, indefatigable in its reaching for sky, and yet patience is needed. Even when it is mature, it is not what it was. The furrow remains. The chestnuts, ravaged by disease, do not return. The canopy is not so dense as those virgin forests, the ones Michael Godfrey describes as “filling every gap with a broad-leafed parasol, cantilevered aloft. No part of the jade awning is within one hundred feet off the ground. The trees holding it aloft are chestnuts, white oaks, mockernut hickories and tulip trees, immense and widely spaced. Only around the younger dominants, say those under 200 years old, could two lovers link hands.” What poetry there is in his description of that time.

Lying in bed at night, listening to cicadas, or waking to the first birds, I am aware that my life is lived out atop the life and livelihoods of those who came before, those who, for the most part, are forgotten by all save One. It would be a tragic tale of loss, of the amnesia of a future generation, but to be remembered by that One makes all the difference, like a lover linking hands around the trunk of time, around a tree of promise.

Recovery takes time, both for trees and people, for forests and cultures. We lament decline, speak of the felled timbers of our first principles, the burned over reaches of the post-moderns. Yet every day, a sapling grows and pushes toward light, rain and sun continue to fall, and the new growth of love and mercy press on. One day the leaves of healing will again fill every gap.