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June 2016

Solitude


ImageBetween Wichita and Salina, the land is not so flat as you might imagine but full of ever so slight dips and rises, like the gentle sloshing of a lake. Here and there the seemingly perdurable prairie is even punctuated by bluffs and more substantial rises, the result of the scouring of glaciers in retreat. Farmhouses look out on the undulating gold of not yet cut wheat, or the waving green of feed corn.

Nor is it dry. The landscape is traversed by creek beds with running water, like East, West, and Middle Emma Creeks, or Turkey Creek; ribbons of green trees line their banks. Trees also line fields as windbreaks, or clump campanionly together in the midst of fields, or stand solitary in the foreground. Writer Willa Cather once spoke about the prairie of her feeling of “motion in the landscape ... as if the shaggy grass were a sort of loose hide, and underneath it herds of wild buffalo were galloping, galloping."

Earlier I heard a man leaning over the counter of the hotel lobby claim to the hotel clerk that Kansas was "flyover" land --- meaning boring, uninteresting, and good for little but farming. Yet since I started coming here three years ago, I think it anything but flyover. The fields of gold make me want to walk through them, letting them give way to my presence and then hem me in behind, erasing my presence. The creeks beckon me to get my feet wet, or sit on their banks and watch for wildlife. The abundant bird life almost gives me aspiration to become a birder. Sometimes I imagine my wife and I shut up in a farmhouse with food, a Bible, paper, pen, and a few good books, and nothing more, as a way to better listen to life, to hear again, to shut out distraction and frivolity and noise in order to let in life. We might try it sometime.

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A week ago, when we were leaving for the West, we sat in an airport lounge waiting for a flight. I decided not to check my cell phone. Not that it didn't beckon. It's smallish screen is a portal to diversion, whether the cat videos and "look at us and where we are having a great time" postings of Facebook, or the more cerebral callings of the essays and articles saved to my reading list. I ignored it. I looked around.

Heads were bowed, not in supplication or stupor but over the bright screens of smartphones. One family across from me --- a mother, father, and two preteens --- were all hunched over the gleaming screens. Sculpted, they could have been made to look reverent, heads bent over electronic prayer books which, in some way, the screens serve, as they embody and call forth wishes --- for something to buy, for a connection to someone or something, for escape from the monotony of life, for, ultimately, salvation.

A few weeks ago my wife and I rented a movie called Notting Hill. Julia Roberts plays an American movie star who meets and falls in love with an unlikely man, the awkward owner of a bookstore in London (Hugh Grant). The movie was enjoyable enough, if predictable, and yet in all the scenes of people sharing meals together, riding buses, and standing on street corners, there was something odd: in a relatively recent modern setting, no one had a cell phone. People were looking up, talking with one another, reading books or newspapers, or simply looking around. Checking the date of the movie, I saw that it was released in 1999. Seventeen years and the human landscape has completely changed. Life is now mediated through screens.

Are we addicted to our smartphones? To our screens? In a recent article in Comment Magazine, Alan Jacobs addresses our addiction. He says we are not addicted to our smartphones. Rather, "we are addicted to one another, to the affirmation of our value—our very being—that comes from other human beings. We are addicted to being validated by our peers." Jacobs goes on to say what as Christians we ought to know but mostly don't seem to appreciate:

"Our 'ecosystem of interruption technologies' affects our spiritual and moral lives in every aspect. By our immersion in that ecosystem we are radically impeded from achieving a 'right understanding of ourselves' and of God's disposition toward us. We will not understand ourselves as sinners, or as people made in God's image, or as people spiritually endangered by wandering far from God, or as people made to live in communion with God, or as people whom God has come to a far country in order to seek and to save, if we cannot cease for a few moments from an endless procession of stimuli that shock us out of thought."

There is nothing new, of course, in our incessant need for validation, for affirmation from our peers. That compulsion predated the advent of smartphones, and yet the 24/7 connection to a social network ensures that no one need be alone anymore. When as a teenager I sought the approval of my peers - whether in dress, in speech, or in actions - I still unavoidably and regularly found myself alone, even if just when I went to bed in the evening. Now, no one can escape the crowd, the incessant connection. No one need deal with solitude, with the lack of validation, to who they might be if there is no one to tell them who they are, no one to "like" their postings, no one to respond.

So what are you doing when you post on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter? What is it that you seek? As a writer I would like to know that I communicated, that what I wrote resonated with someone, and yet that hoped for result is impure, tainted by the need for validation. Did anyone "like" it? Did anyone comment? The only way I know around this is to avoid the compulsive checking of Facebook by turning my phone off or leaving it behind, thereby guarding my solitude and social space. And the only place to look for validation, for an understanding of who I really am, is in the Word, in the revealed truth of who God says I am: a member of the guilty remnant, yet forgiven, adopted, and free. In fact, the more I stare into the mirror of the Word, the more inoculated I will be from the need for validation from the world.

It was Blaise Pascal who, seeing the movement of the world, reflected that surely all of man’s ills must stem from his simple inability to remain quiet and alone, serenely in the comfort of his own home. Be still and know that I am God," the Psalmist says, and, I would say, be still and know that you are His.

I know better than to idealize Kansas or solitude. Behind every kind Dorothy there is a sour Auntie Em, behind every Glinda an Elphaba. And even in solitude may lie a latent and destructive self-love. But beyond the incessant need for affirmation, in the quietness of His presence, and perhaps in the solitude of a prairie, we will find ourselves closer to Home, not validated but loved, not only "friended" but called beloved.


Getting Low

At dinner this evening I drank four or five (who's counting?) glasses of caffeinated ice tea. Afterwards, a little mountain of yellow Splenda packets lay in a mound in front of my plate. I call it my pile of shame. I admit it is unsightly, and while my profligate nature is regularly pointed out to me by those closest to me, I persist. I like sweetness.

I have a few other bad habits. For one, I am often in the midst of some important philosophical discussion with myself, when I should be paying attention to what is going on around me or being said to me.

"Dad, are you listening?," my son might say, and does say. And I know I should be listening, but somewhere just the other side of a discussion on spectrometers and their use in space or trajectories or attitudes or rockets or something important like that I check out and start thinking about where music came from or why sidewalks are the width they are or what that bird is I just heard or why my parents never told me we were going on vacation until the last minute when they tossed us in the car without warning and headed for the hills. "Dad, are you listening to me?, he says. Obviously, not well enough. My mind is built for essay; it naturally wanders. I wonder why? I feel bad about that. I probably missed portions of my children's lives due to my distraction.

Another bad habit: I eat too much. After dinner, I had two and three-quarters Krispy Kreme doughnuts (spelling the number out makes it seem even bigger). This establishment is astonishingly close to where my son may soon live. After dinner, we high-tailed it over there for some real sugar. I entreated my able and ready son to "take a bite" of the double dark chocolate doughnut, and he obliged, taking an ample crescent portion out of the round, leaving a Ms. Pacman shaped remainder, and sparing me the shame of having to say that I ate three doughnuts when my wife enquired. As I polished it off, she said, "That would have been two bites for me; don't you want to eat smaller bites and make it last longer?" She's right, of course, but no, no, I actually don't, I thought. I want it fast and furious. I want a big taste, not a lot of nibbly little tastes. Still, my son said what I thought: "That was so good, but I feel so bad." Oh well. Reform will wait a day. We're recovering.

Yet these excesses, along with others unmentioned, are welcome in one sense. They are reminders of my low anthropology, of the fact that my capacity to live sensibly and faithfully vanished with the Fall. And they point me to my need for a Savior, of a sweet communion that I can rejoice in with excess, and of a time when my thoughts can wander all the way into eternity. Bad habits are not all bad; they help in getting low, in reminding me of who I am and Who I need.

I was thinking about this today when I was crossing a busy street. Oh, that's another bad habit - not looking both ways when crossing the street, when I'm busy thinking. I'm working on that.


Surprise Ahead


IMG_3949“I think that the dying pray at the last not ‘please,’ but ‘thank you,’ as a guest thanks his host at the door… . Divinity is not playful. The universe was not made in jest but in solemn, incomprehensible earnest. By a power that is unfathomably secret, and holy, and fleet. There is nothing to be done about it, but ignore it, or see. And then you walk fearlessly, eating what you must, growing wherever you can, like the monk on the road who knows precisely how vulnerable he is, who takes no comfort among death-forgetting men, and who carries his vision of vastness and might around in his tunic like a live coal which neither burns nor warms him, but with which he will not part.”

(Annie Dillard, in Pilgrim from Tinker Creek)

Oh, for heaven's sake. Leave it to the gifted but often morose Annie Dillard to sum up the Triune God, the one in three who from time eternal has existed in perfect love and is working out his fallen work of Creation in a divine comedy, as “not playful.” I think not — that is, not not playful — that is, God is playful. That's not to say life is not also tragic and fraught.

When I was a young child everything was altogether lovely and benevolent. Even the monsters that lurked in the basement or peered in the windows scurried at the sound of my father’s voice, in the embrace of my mother’s arms. And then, of course, it wasn’t. I was riding one day jump seat to my mother and as we turned a corner I saw, on a hilltop, a smallish, ramshackle house on the porch of which an African-American woman was stooped, sweeping, and I knew that we were not all the same, that there was some inequality at work, some inarticulable injustice. Then, the President was shot, there were riots in the streets and at school, and my uncle died, in roughly that order. Not to mention that in junior high school when team captains chose team members in PE, I was in the clump of last-chosens. Oh well.

There is something utterly serious about the world. Great rocks repose moribund for decade upon decade, unseeing and cold-hearted. The wind variously screams in the swirl of a great storm, yet whispers in the pines on a moonstruck night, lays still in a summer doldrums, as if gathering strength for a mighty exhale. Food being a great leveler, a robin, two squirrels, and a hyperactive chipmunk feed at the floor of the feeder, gleaning what a careening over-large bluejay has knocked loose. Tilting pines stand, reaching, thrusting green into a blue, blue sky. They are all about the serious, earnest business of life, or existence. And yet not so solemn, not so incomprehensible.

Two squirrels chase each other, like brother and sister playing, skittering over a pine straw floor and up and around and down the tree trunk, even leaping at times in their play. Right near where my hand rests, an ant rushes by, start-stop motion, on his tiny mission, intent in his small mind, even his hither-thither motion comic in its way. A God who brush-strokes blue across the heavens, makes a wildebeest from what appears a collection of spare parts, arrays birds with spectacular color and song, gives a mockingbird the repertoire of a Top 40 DJ, makes human beings of such oddly varying shapes and sizes and dispositions — not playful? No, hidden inside the earnest life that Dillard so keenly observes, so sees in such minute detail, is a holy laugh.

I think she missed it.

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What is the trajectory of the world? In the gospel accounts of Matthew and Mark we hear of it: “And when you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed. This must take place, but the end is not yet” (Mk. 13:7). Since the fateful fruit was eaten, entropy has been at work; a curse lays over every inch of the universe. Do not be alarmed? The gospel writers lay out a panoply of woes, of false prophets, warfare, earthquakes, famines, persecution by religious and political leaders, and families broken and at odds. Why not be alarmed? Because this is not just some end times prophecy but life after the cross, the tragic effects of sin, the expected stage on which is played out a war in heaven.

All this, and yet the robins still come to the feeder, the geese fly overhead, trees bud and flower, the brooks and rivers flow, and many deeply flawed mothers and fathers still love their children. People hope and pray and love and learn. Strangers render ordinary kindnesses, and beautiful stories are still told.

Underneath the rumors of woe there is another rumor: that of glory. That of a healing of a world gone wrong.

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We live in a wabi-sabi world. I read recently of artist Steven Wagner-Davis, who out of necessity at first and then for art, began making imperfect materials into works of art. Thought the Japanese aesthetic philosophy of wabi-sabi carries with it often unrecognized elements of Buddhist thought, it also embodies truth that Christians recognize: flawed beauty. Creation is a flawed beauty, and God is at work recreating, acting in His grace to substantially heal the world and, one day, to completely heal it.

As Wagner-Davis says, “There is something special about taking things that are used and tainted and making something beautiful out of them. Art can be regenerative and represent what God does with us to make us new and beautiful again.” In other words, sanctification in route to glorification.

So, here's my posture on my best days, and on all days the one I believe: In a wabi-sabi culture of death-forgetting men, I cling to the belief that what I carry in my tunic is the Word of Life, vast and mighty and life-healing, a burning light for a world that is still pregnant with truth and life and hope.

I just don't look like much, yet. My habit is frayed, the live coal of my faith waxing and waning. And I am not quite fearless, yet I cling.

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I'm too hard on Annie Dillard. Elsewhere in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek she hints at God's playfulness. She relates a story of her childhood in Pittsburgh, when she'd take a precious penny of her own and hide in for someone else to find. She’d squirrel it away in a crevice in the sidewalk or the crook of a tree, and then she would take a bit of chalk and draw arrows pointing to the penny, providing labels such as “SURPRISE AHEAD” or “MONEY THIS WAY.” She says, “ I was greatly excited, during all this arrow drawing, at the thought of the first lucky passer-by who would receive in this way, regardless of merit, a free gift from the universe.” She did this more than a few times, her impulse compulsive.

Once in junior high school, my friend and I were walking to the store and spied a twenty dollar bill in the lawn of Rebecca Entwistle, a young woman we suspected to be of ill repute. There were no chalk marks on the sidewalk, so sigh announcing it. We concurred that it was a gift, but we spent no small amount of time hashing out to whom it was given. In the end, we split it and parted amicably. I believe God played with us by putting it there, smiling to see how we dealt with it.

God did not make a world in jest. Yet that does not mean that He deals with us in incomprehensible solemnity. Behind the sometimes frown of Providence there is a smile, an earnest mirth at the heart of the universe, a comedy of grace. Like Dillard, I am greatly excited that some might find it, that the chalk marks of my life might, in His grace, point the way: “SURPRISE AHEAD.