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April 2018

All Things New

IMG_1596“That’s the one. J-4. Pull that one out.” I gave the canoe a tug. Nothing.

“I think I need a hand,” I confessed. We were used to pulling kayaks, not canoes, and J-4 was wedged in its berth three feet off the ground. Together, we slid it out, carried it to the pond’s edge, and moved it gently into the water.

“Whatever you do, don’t stand up in it,” she said. That part I remember from camp. There may have been some unpleasantness associated with the memory, an image of teetering pre-teens and overturned crafts bottom-side up, yet I dispel the thought, as unlike the camp lake which was foreboding but relatively safe, the woman at the visitors center said this pond had alligators. But we pushed off, navigated decently, and glided over the still water, the only locomotion provided by our oars and a gentle breeze.

I was beset by unarticulated questions. Can alligators jump over the side of the canoe? What do we do if one does? Grab its jaws and hold them shut? (I had heard that they had little muscle strength to open the jaws, just close them, but I did not want to test the theory.) And what then do we do with the writhing, tale-slapping reptile, even if we manage to stay upright?

But I don’t see an alligator. A queue of turtles line a tree branch jutting from the water. One by one, as we moved closer, they dove in. Plop. One lagged behind, the rear guard, until he too took to the drink, droping in behind his kin.

“Are you rowing back there?” She turns her head, looks back at me.

“Oops. No. Sorry.” In the midst of rumination, I had stopped rowing, and our vessel was listing starboard, if you can say starboard about a canoe, heading straight for a gargantuan bald cypress looming over us, its trunk likely five feet in diameter, with appendages snaking out into the water. “Back in business,” I say, placing my oar back in the black water, back stroking, moving us away from the tree.

We moved in and out of the cypress trees for better than an hour, with no method. When we looked up, we had lost sight of the visitors’ center. We had no company on the pond. In solitude, we navigated our way back by following buoys, like bread crumbs, placed in the pond to allow errant travelers to make their way home.

I put my hand up and felt the breeze. Here (I mean here, as in here on earth) when I put my hand into the air, into a tiny bit of atmosphere that wraps the planet, I know something of what I am touching. The atmosphere, or air that the eastern Carolina breeze moves, is some thing - protons, neutrons, and electrons bundled together into atoms - just like the Earth and stars, moon, and sun. Things. But as far as we know, these visible things make up only five percent of the universe or, at least, the tiny bit of the universe that we can observe. That means 95% of the universe is made up of what scientists have coined dark matter and dark energy, and it is expanding. The thought that we do not know the nature of dark matter or dark energy, and know relatively little about the visible universe we have observed, is humbling. Which means that relative to God, who knows all things, there’s not much difference between the scientifically-challenged person like me and Stephen Hawking. Well, maybe there’s a little.

I rest my case.

“Are you rowing back there?”

I plunge the oar back in, and we steam ahead.

Merchant’s Millpond State Park is not a place you would just happen upon on a cross-country jaunt. Finding it requires intention. The “pond” label seems a misnomer, as it conjures up an image of a small pool of water, yet this pond is a large, meandering snake of black water punctuated by bald cypress and swamp. Come here to get away from things, for quiet, so you can glide across the water and think.

Which brings me to the realm of speculative theology. It’s not speculative at all to say that God is love or that God is the creator, that loving and creating are intrinsic to who He is. And if that’s so, then He cannot not love, He cannot not create. And here’s the speculative part: If this is so, perhaps the reason the universe is expanding is because God is continuing to create, continuing to lovingly make worlds and suns and more because He cannot help himself. It is who He is. All of which makes dark matter and dark energy more light than dark; it’s the stuff of creation.

But I’m making my head hurt.

“Do you think we should head back?”

“Yes, I guess so,” I say. “Which way is back?”

“Ahead. Follow the buoys.”

Sometimes, I confess, sitting behind her, I did not row. Content, I rested the oar on my lap, raised my hands in the air, and let the atmosphere slide over them. I looked up. In the azure sky, a bit of leftover moon still shone. Ancient bald cypress trees towered over us, here long before we were born. Later, I read that there is a cypress tree in Bladen County, North Carolina that is over 1,620 years old, making it one of the oldest living plants in North America, over 60 times older than me. These trees are not so old, but they are much older than me, all of which makes me feel small and insignificant in the presence of my elders, under a sky that runs to infinity, moving through a soup of unknown matter and energy that is ever growing because God’s loving and making are everlasting.

The water swirls behind my oar. Stroke by stroke, we head for shore, our canoe a tiny microbe in infinity.

I’m not small. I’m not insignificant. I’m not unknown and not unloved. The Love that makes the universe made me and can’t stop remaking me or anything else until all things become new, until we reach the farthest shore.


He Giveth

FBC869BB-A34A-4C96-92DD-1A9D5ED3D633“You want biscuits or cornbread with that?”

Sheila on your name tag, I want biscuits. I want cornbread too. I want it all.

“No, thank you,” I say, shaking my head, resignedly.

“How ‘bout banana puddin’?”

Oh yes, I want that too. Lots of it. Room temperature. With homemade meringue, and real bananas. In fact, forget the vegetables. Just bring a heaping dinner plate of that.

“Nope. I’m no fun today. I’m in training.”

“What are you training for?”

“A marathon.” Life, actually.

Weight Watchers (hereafter referred to lovingly, as “WW”), while seemingly benevolent, insisting that you can eat whatever you want, is in the end a parsimonious sovereign.

“The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away,” I say to my laconic cat sitting at the edge of my desk as I write, paws draped fetchingly over its edge. I imagine her saying, “alright, so how about you giveth me some food?,” not a bit concerned at her rotundity, her spreading mass, her lapping largesse.

Each morning I drive by Krispy Kreme. WW says I can have that doughnut, that hot dough slathered by a waterfall of liquid sugar. The HOT sign toys with me and a tantalizing smell wafts through my cracked window. I roll it up. Let’s see, a doughnut - no, two doughnuts, as I have never eaten only one - is only eight points. I’ll have two. . . oh, who am I kidding, I’ll have three, and three times eight is twenty-four, which is how many points I get in the day. So, WW says, you can eat those three doughnuts, but that’s it, buddy, nothing else for the day, and part of me says I can handle that, I can make it the rest of the day, as I won’t be thinking about it at work, and then pretty soon thereafter I’ll be asleep, and that time will pass quickly. I should be able to do that, right? Or if I’m weak, I’ll just eat celery and lettuce and fruit the rest of the day. Zero points. I got this.

I drive on by. In the rear view mirror the red light of waywardness fades.

The problem with WW is that after a season of assigning numbers to foods, you can forget to appreciate the food for what it is. Take your average salad bar. They’re populated by a lot of self-righteous zeros, yet sprinkled among them you’ll find fours (seven croutons) and twos (bacon bits, two tablespoons, two points), and sixes (ranch dressing, one serving). Well, there goes the farm.

Dan Doriani, professor of theology at Covenant Theological Seminary, says that “food and drink are a blessed part of the holistic life.” Amen. Pass the rolls. A holistic life, he says, “keeps us from hyper-spirituality [and] neglect of the body, and it promotes community.” Exactly what I was thinking, though maybe not with such precision.

Food is not just sustenance but one of the blessings of life, something full-bodied, with color, taste, texture, and smell, a sensory experience that roots us in reality, a little incarnation of a grander feast to come. Peter Leithart says:

Food is a central theme in the Bible. As the Orthodox liturgical theologian Alexander Schmemann said, God created man a hungry being and invited him to eat ‘every seed-bearing plant ... and every tree that has fruit with seed in it’ (Gen 1:29). It’s notable that the menu comes immediately after the command to fill, rule, and subdue the earth (Gen 1:28). We need food in order to rule, but the text points in the other direction: We rule so we can eat; we subdue the earth in order to enjoy its fruits. Food is more than fuel. Food is for feasting.

In other words, our feasting now foreshadows a greater feast to come, the wedding feast of the Lamb. I am a hungry man.

A week ago, my wife and I were meandering our way home from Norfolk and took a detour through Warrenton. I was hungry again, a fact not so remarkable. We stumbled over Mazatlan, a Mexican restaurant in a converted gas station, ringed by fields and farms. There, two brothers, owners Jose and Alfredo, served me the best chicken mole I had ever had. In its savory light, everything shimmered like shook foil. The field out the window was golden, the 4 x 4s tucked under the eaves glittering chariots, the overheard conversations liquid and luminous, like rough-hewn poetry. Jose, Alfredo, I was hungry and you took me in. I was so overcome I knocked over a full glass of ice tea. But even that couldn’t spoil the feast.

“You sure you won’t have some banana puddin’?”

“Bring it.” Bring it, Sheila. God wants me to have it. I need it. It’s a down payment on the wedding feast to come. The Lord giveth. Now get behind me WW.


What I Need

99aa21a857262b856420fa765eed3472“What do you need, Stephen?”

My grandmother is standing over me where I sit at the table, hands on her hips, waiting. I had just downed two pieces of her fresh-baked pumpkin pie and was ready to push back from the vinyl-clothed table.

“Nothing, Grandma. I can’t eat any more.”

“Eat some more. It’ll just go to waste.” She stood there.

I ate another piece. I ate the entire pie. I was eight.

For my grandma, eating large portions of her cooking was a sign of good health, of thriving, at least when it came to others. She and grandpa ate much less, perhaps a Depression-borne habit from making sure children had enough to eat first. She sifted flower from a wooden flour bin that my grandpa made and rolled out lard-laden dough and shaped biscuits, pressing each with her knuckles. She snapped garden-grown green beans and cooked them in a pot with a slab of fatback. She shucked corn and cooked the ears in boiling water. She baked sweet potatoes and served them whole, their wrinkled and slightly charred skins loose over the orange interior. She sliced fresh, brilliant red tomatoes and laid them on a plate, ready to add to a sliced, buttered biscuit.

Much of the food she prepared came fresh from her garden. By the time I came along, she and grandpa had graduated from an ox and plow to a gas-powered plow, but I remember standing at the fence enclosing the garden watching her walk behind the rocking plow, her bonnet tight, readying the field for planting. I was told stories of her hitching herself to the ox, the black compacted soil giving way to her dogged persistence, yet I never saw it.

Once the table was laid, she’d go to the living room, to the chair where my grandpa often sat when in the house, lean over, and say, loudly, “DAD, SUPPER’S READY.”

“Hmmf?

“SUPPER.”

My grandpa worked in a mill for many years and could not hear well. He got up and shuffled and clomped into the dining room, where he set down in his chair and commenced eating. He did not make conversation. She’d pour a glass of buttermilk for him and he’d crumble a biscuit and mix it into the nasty concoction, eating it with a spoon. After, he’d have coffee, tipping the cup to spill it black into the saucer, sopping it with a biscuit.

All done eating, my grandfather would push back his chair, grab his hat and coat if necessary, and go out the back door to, presumably, his woodshed, a wooden building behind the house where he had various tools and woodworking equipment. He made things, like a rudely fashioned if sturdy table that my wife and I used for our dinner table the first year of our marriage. He made a Rubic’s cube sort of wood puzzle that I could never work but he did not tire of working, emitting a child’s chuckle when he completed it. I don’t ever remember having a conversation with him, but sometimes I’d accidentally cross his path and he’d stop, make google eyes at me, and say “Boo,” or something to that effect, unintelligible, laughing, and I’d clear out.

Sometimes we visited people. Old people. Armed with pie and pocketbook, my grandmother would walk, my sister and I skipping ahead, down the road, through the drained and revegetated remains of a lake bed, even down trails through the woods. We’d sit and stare at the furnishings and implements of their homes, all of which had a musty, old smell, cut by the aroma of a wood and coal fire. Once, in route to an old person’s home, I was in some unremembered way picking on my sister, or she claimed as much, and my grandma, having warned me, stopped and “cut a switch” from a vine growing by the road. She didn’t need to use it. I was persuaded by its length and her stern look.

Grandma and grandpa had a television. Mostly it sat cold and dark in the living room. I never touched it. We watched Lassie on occasion, my grandpa laughing at the canine’s exploits, and a black and white Wonderful World of Disney on Sunday evenings. And at least once, The Wizard of Oz, after which, spooked, I curled at the feet of my mother in the footwell of the car for the dark ride home. Otherwise, we were busy doing nothing - messing with the barn cats, playing hide and seek, watching grandma cook, sipping coke poured from a bottle kept in the Kelvinater (which, until I was older, I thought was the name of all refrigerators), running around an oak-filled side yard, and visiting with whatever family was there, including an uncle who pinched your knee for fun and an aunt who took you to the fair and rode the rides with you, screaming all the time. I have no idea what they talked about. I was operating on a different plane, flying low, staying out from underfoot.

Writer Matthew Loftus addresses the task of parenting in our time, with the goal being that “we want to form human beings who will choose to love particular places and embrace their particular callings. This task of postliberal parenting,” says Loftus, “will require discipline of all sorts, but most necessary now are the values of solidarity, discernment, and rootedness.” Solidarity is the sense that “we are all dependent on one another and that it is good to fulfill our obligations to one another,” that we are not autonomous human beings. Neither my parents nor my grandma would have articulated it that way, but by actions they showed me that caring for other people, for neighbors, was part of what it meant to be a Christian, which is just another way of saying that it is part what it meant to be a human being.

And there’s discernment, which Loftus says means helping children to make real moral choices, not dictating their choices. Watching both my parents and grandparents gave me a innate, generally unspoken moral compass. An outsider watching either my parents or grandparents may have thought them permissive; we often ran at large, unbridled by their rules or words. Yet while far from obedient to it, I possessed an internal governor, an amalgam of Bible stories, folk wisdom, and observations that is growing clearer all the time, and still is, much like those scratch art crayon drawings from kindergarten where you scrape away the black crayon to reveal the “beautiful” and colorful drawing underneath. The picture my parents and grandma drew of a faithful life was not perfect, but it was faithful; they drew it as best they could.

But rootedness, says Loftus, is perhaps the most important of the triad of qualities needed for post-liberal parenting. Rootedness means long and faithful attention to one place and one work. It means staying put. He says it is “a necessity in a world where freedom allows people to flit from one place to another whenever things get difficult.” My grandparents and parents were rooted by necessity; we are rooted by choice. Their rootedness was encouraged by an economy and social structure that then encouraged staying put and discouraged high mobility, that is, flitting about, which was generally frowned upon and not understood. Ours is often, and necessarily, by choice, a choice more of us should make.

What do you need, Stephen? Well, deep down, even if inarticulable, my grandma and parents knew that what I needed was solidarity, discernment, and rootedness. Or put another way, I needed to be a good neighbor, to make wise choices, and to stick to my work and place as best I could. And maybe I needed some pumpkin pie, a whole pie, which becomes, in retrospect, a wish for a more whole, more abundant life.

“Grandma, can I go outdoors?”

“I ‘spect so.”

I’m still outdoors. I’m still running around the fields of my little world trying to figure out how to be a neighbor, how to make wise choices, and how to stick to my calling and place. I’m still falling down and failing. But I’m not alone. As I till, as I lean into the plow, He gives me hope.

(Quotations are from “Raising a Molecular Family in an Atomic Age,” by Matthew Loftus, in Fare Forward, Issue 8, December 2017)