Puzzling Through

Pieces-of-the-puzzle-1925425_1920My favorite puzzles are the kind other people “work,” because that’s what it is to me: work. When I look at a tabletop of 1000 ragged, zig-zaggedy colored cardboard cutouts, I am lost. My wife is happy, though, enchanted by the thought of a new puzzle to pore over. During the holidays she set up a table by the windows in the penumbra of our Christmas tree and opened up shop. Leave her alone for minute, take your eye off of her, and there she is bent over the table, puzzling her way to a completed picture --- a print of blooming flowers, cityscape, or animals. All the interstices of her day are filled with puzzling.

It’s a silent activity. There’s no humming satisfaction that attends it, no singing, no sighing of frustration, no exclamations of glee at finding the missing piece. Just a quiet joy, a dogged determination, a resilient spirit, a patient trying, trying, trying and succeeding, god mending the fabric of creation, disorder to order, chaos to creation.

I ask her what she likes about puzzles, about the pointless waste of time and unending frustration of it (the latter I keep to myself). “I like the satisfaction of finding the right piece,” she says, “working with my hands.” In saying this, she doesn’t even look up, the task before her. I look down at the 1000-plus puzzle pieces mottled before me, all various shades of sky, “subtle variations of dark to pale,” and shake my head. In their cardboard perplexity, they mock me. I try to appreciate this past time , and yet there are a thousand other things I would rather do, and they all start with “read.” If it were up to me, I’d scoop their unfitted and machine-hewn bodies back into the box and put them far way in some dark cabinet behind the Monopoly board. Let them cry for Mommy.

And yet she loves this. I know what part of it is for her. Part of it is that the disassembled puzzle on the table is a problem a little god can fix; most of the big ones require a bigger God, the God. Despite the fact that utopian schemes abound, humankind is not evolving to perfect peace and happiness and bliss; we may find a cure for the common cold, cancer, and Alzheimers, and yet something else will take us. We can’t fix the people around us, remedy human imperfectability. We can’t fix ourselves. That requires a better puzzler. “Two forward and one back, sings Bruce Cockburn, “blind fingers groping for the right track.” That, or a puzzle piece.

“It’s an escape. I’m not worrying about any other problems when I’m working a puzzle.”

I believe that. She’s puzzling away while squirrels chatter a window pane away, while blow hards fill the airwaves and people wander in the streets. Civilization and its discontents. The puzzle writ large right outside our windows. “The world is a puzzle,” says none other than Lemony Snicket, “and we cannot solve it alone.” I look outside, squint at the sunlight streaming in.

“Where’s Mom?” I say to my son later that day.

“She’s working a puzzle.”

I nod knowingly. I watched her begin this latest puzzle. She spread all the pieces out on the table, brooding over the deep, over the chaos, and yet a little light came. She pulled back her hair so she could concentrate, put her placid yet serious puzzling face on. Her hands moved over the pieces, trying one, then another, until there was the subtle click of a fit and the world sighed just a bit. A strand of hair broke free and traced her face, but she ignored it in her deliberation. In a process that must be inductive and innate, she discerned patterns of color and began grouping like colors together. Starting wth the periphery, she built a frame of the world, finding the edges and corners. Over time, it began to take shape. Even in its negative space, I discern what will come. I sense hope and promise, a time when all things fit.

And then, a few days later, she finishes. Leaning back, resting, I can almost hear her say, “It is good. It is very good.” I admire her work, my hand resting on her shoulder, and smile at her pleasure.

Well, it’s a start on the world.


Mountain, Be Thrown Down

IMG_0452I don't think anyone knows the difference between a mountain and a hill. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, "The British Ordnance Survey once defined a mountain as having 1,000 feet of elevation and less was a hill, but the distinction was abandoned sometime in the 1920's." It goes on to say that "The U.S. Board on Geographic Names once stated that the difference between a hill and a mountain in the U.S. was 1,000 feet of local relief, but even this was abandoned in the early 1970's." So, no one knows. But perhaps it is fair to say that a mountain is bigger than a hill, generally.

Last weekend my wife and I circumvented Oconeechee Mountain in Orange County. While the summit is the highest point in Orange County, the total rise in elevation from its low at the Eno River is only 350 feet, the summit topping out at a mere 867 feet. Consider this: the tallest building in Raleigh is the PNC Plaza building at 538 feet, so from Eno River to Summit, you've only climbed two-thirds way up the stairs of the PNC Building - which, by the way, is less scenic, from what I have seen. Still, it is enough. From the summit they say you can see the gray and balding heads or dreadlocks of every liberal in Orange County, which is no greater hyperbole than saying Oconeechee is a mountain. I can't verify that. If you don't like that joke, try this one: From the summit look north and you can see the trucks and guns and dogs of every conservative in Caswell County. I can't verify that either.

In my notebook from that day I wrote " burl - mountain laurel? - variegated green ground leaf - rock wall - white, sandy top soil," as reminders to summon up memories days later. Waking one night, in the quiet hours, the words helped me return. I lay in bed retracing my steps through the forest. I put my hand on the tree trunk's burl, a deformation, like a tumor, yet one that wood sculptors prize. Burls are the result of some stress - disease or fungus or injury - and yet become a beautiful metaphor for God's putting to good some suffering or other hardship we may endure. There's more. Many burls are hidden, attached to roots, and so like many hardships their possibility is uncovered later, after death, when all is exposed to light and the craftsmanship of God is known. Heady thoughts for wee hours.

Even in the night I hear the annoying hum of the traffic on Interstate 85, which runs surprisingly close to the south side of the mountain. But it's my dream, and I will it away and imagine the forest spreading south, with nothing but bear and bird between me and the nearest community. Where we turn to circumnavigate the mountain, heading north, I stoop to touch the forest floor, topped by a thin sprinkling of white sand. At first I think it must be that spread by trail maintenance crews, but it is smattered across the sloping, leaf-strewn ground, a mystery, yet perhaps a part of the more xeric (dry) soils of the south-facing slopes.

Reaching the north side, the flora changes. Mountain laurel, rhododendron, and evergreens thrive. The highway sounds subside. The river song invites. A cool breeze wafts through the trees, and if you sit on one of the boulder outcrops there you might think yourself in a cove in the Blue Ridge. The understory is covered in places with ferns, and a rock wall exposed by a quarry abandoned decades ago looms above us. She looks for a rock to throw in the river water, an impulse, a depth-sounding. She settles for a stick which, lightly touching the water, floats away, east, toward the Atlantic.

And then, I went back to sleep, my reverie ending before the long slog uphill - that is, up-mountain - back to our car.

I went to find a mountain as I thought it might help me visualize a passage of scripture that is astounding. Consider it alone, even in context, and it's a stiff drink of liquor, undiluted by tonic or water or juice. The Gospel passage recounts how returning from the country to Jerusalem one morning, the disciples are astonished to see a fig tree from the day before that Jesus had cursed, now withered. Here's the bracing draught given by Jesus: "Have faith in God. Truly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, 'Be taken up and thrown into the sea,' and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says will come to pass, it will be done for him. Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours" (Mk. 11: 22-24).

Now wait. Before you qualify these words of Jesus, before you empty them of meaning by explaining them away and saying what Jesus could not have meant, let the power of the words wash over you. Decline commentary. Consider how they might have been heard by first-century disciples who had nothing but Law and Prophet for context and yet who had just seen Jesus command nature with His word to the fig tree. The message: God is powerful enough to move mountains of doubt, unbelief, suffering, sickness, unemployment, mental illness, and even death. The world bows to His word. Reading it, I can only pray, "Lord, I believe you can move mountains; yet help my flatlander's unbelief. Grow my faith."

Once, after that day, I was praying about a mountain in my life. Instinctively, reflexively, I reached out and pushed it away with my hands. I said "Be taken up and thrown into the sea." I'm waiting to hear the splash, to watch it slide away down the Eno to the sea, thrown down at His word.


Abide

PAY-LionsSometimes writing is like trying to push an oversized pencil across the page. My fingers won’t cooperate. The instrument is too blunt. The letters are misshapen and, if I am not careful, smudged. A mess. Like in third grade when I was tasked with helping a classmate who had fallen behind in his writing. I sidled up to him as he bent over the lined page, his pencil thick and unwieldy in his hand. Great tears welled up and dropped on the letters which wobbled on the lines, pooling there, and with a careless movement of his palm, smeared a leaden stew across the instrument of his torture. We began again.

But I’m not sad, just cloudy. I woke today lethargic, sluggish. I told a friend at church that I blamed the excess of chocolate consumed the prior evening, the nearest to a hangover I’d ever had. During communion I took grape juice, not wine, for the least profound of reasons: the juice was closer and took less effort to reach. Home, I stared at the computer screen for ten minutes before I realized what I was doing --- that is, nothing. I rested my head in my hands for a time, for it felt too heavy to hold up. Mustering all my residual energy, I put on a coat and scooped bird seed into a bucket from the tin in the garage and walked to the feeders in the backyard and dropped it in. Looking up, exhausted, I saw the birds watching me from the uppermost branches, twittering in green boughs against blue sky, waiting. Returning, I lay crossways over the bed, prone, my arms dangling over the side like a lion in the midday heat flung over a branch.

“I am the vine; you are the branches,” says Jesus. “If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing” (Jn. 15:5). A few days ago I posted this verse on a yellow sticky note on the edge of my computer screen, letting it hang there, the meaning elusive. Maybe lethargy, a wasted day, a day when you can’t get your life in motion, is a day that you can be reminded that it is God who works in us to bear fruit, not us.

In his classic work, Abide in Christ, Andrew Murray says that the “connection between the vine and the branch is a living one. No external, temporary union will suffice; no work of man can effect it: the branch, whether an original or an engrafted one, is such only by the Creator's own work, in virtue of which the life, the sap, the fatness, and the fruitfulness of the vine communicate themselves to the branch. And just so it is with the believer, too. His union with his Lord is no work of human wisdom or human will, but an act of God, by which the closest and most complete life-union is effected between the Son of God and the believer.” The point of these long and fat sentences: the fruit of life in Christ is God-produced, not human-engineered. A day of barrenness is to be expected, the winter in a day, the spring to follow.

My copy of Abide in Christ is a dog-eared one, inherited from my late mother, a paperback with a faded rendering of a clump of grapes on its cover. An insomniac, I imagine my mother awake in the wee hours reading, thankful, perhaps, for the quiet hours within which to rest in words, her mind perhaps stirred awake by the hope of reading. Her days had little time for reading, with four children, a house to clean, and three meals to prepare every day. So, the night, I suspect, became a refuge.

Abide. To wait for, one dictionary definition says. To sit alone in the quiet. To get busy, at nothing. To lay down in the deep rest of the Father and let Him do the deep and hidden work of change. Murray says that we can “abandon all anxiety about your growth and progress to the God who has undertaken to establish you in the Vine, and feel what a joy it is to know that God alone has charge.”

All of which means I can go back to bed, lay my pencil down, crumple the paper and throw it in the waste bin, and rest. Rest in Christ. Abide in Him. And that’s not nothing.


Walking in Otherness


SummerReadingBook.jpg.560x0_q80_crop-smart“And this is what I learned: that the world’s otherness is antidote to confusion, that standing within this otherness -- the beauty and mystery of the world, out in the fields or deep inside books -- can re-dignify the worst-stung heart.”

(Mary Oliver, in “Staying Alive,” from Upstream)

Outside, it is a balmy 26 degrees -- balmy in Minnesota, that is. A two-inch mix of snow and ice lays on the ground, and at this late time of day, splintered sunlight runs longwise across the forest floor. Day is waning. The sparrows and towhees are oblivious to cold, apparently, their thin legs pattering about the base of the feeder.

Yesterday, we saw three deer grazing behind the fence, in gray winter coats. Even at 100 paces from us and behind windows, one knew of our presence, alert to our movements. This morning my wife saw their plot: overnight, they scaled our slight fence, stole unhindered to our feeders, and purloined the birds’ Sunday rations. In two places just inside the fence, a confusion of hoof prints marked their point of entry, one where they sailed easily over a pile of unused slate, a daunting span.

And now the sun has slipped low on the horizon, the backyard in shadow but my westward facing window ablaze, momentarily -- all of this, a few minutes reflection, an “antidote to confusion.” I am no different from you; I have too much to do, too many things jumbled in my mind, too much left undone. Creation is a calming balm. The sun comes up and then goes down, and the next day God says, with the smile of a child, “Do it again.”

I haven’t really been outside in now two days, what with all the ice and frigid temperatures. So, I am limited to what I can see out my window and what I can see through my books. I finished Alexander McCall Smith’s Precious and Grace, the latest installment of his No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series. In it Mma Ramotswe, the traditionally built woman detective of Gaborone, Botswana, solves a mystery with her usual grace, and as does all the books in the series this tale does not ignore the fact that evil exists in the world but lays great stress on that which is good, true, and beautiful --- and, in this one, gives a mighty lesson about the healing power of forgiveness for a wrong done in the distant past, one unredressed. When a sometimes employee, Mr. Polopetsi is helped out of a serious, even criminal dilemma, he says “I do not deserve such a good friend, Mma. You are like Jesus Christ himself.” Or, as he said upon her denial, “Maybe you are like his sister, Mma.” Reading that book I was for a time in a better Africa.

But finishing it, I picked up a book I bought six years ago but which has lain unread under my nightstand, the place where books go that you intend to read but never get to and, in the end, may be forgotten. Not this time. Peter Godwin’s The Fear: Robert Mugabe and the Martyrdom of Zimbabwe, is a sad contrast to the peaceable society of Precious and Grace. Godwin is a white Rhodesian, a journalist, and I had previously read his memoir of the fall of Zimbabwe into dictatorial hands, entitled When a Crocodile Eats the Sun. I’m not through it. It is a chronicle of the destruction of a beautiful, productive country at the hands of one man, Robert Mugabe, who (I checked) remains in power at the age of 92. But reading these books end to end is also an antidote to confusion: in them I have a fresh sense of the stark difference between good and evil, which is also an “antidote to confusion.”

Behind the fence two squirrels chase each other in circles in what to my eyes looks like play. One sparrow tittered at another, who flitted off, for now, in what looks like a spat over food or turf. The sun, far on the horizon, flirts with descent yet, in moments while I watch, drops from sight, like an over-zealous actor pulled from the stage.

I might just take a walk, in the otherness of book or field. If it’s cold, I’ll wrap myself in a coat of wool or memory and be off, returning numbed by mystery.


A Christmas Dream?

IMG_0284'Twas the night before Christmas and I am suddenly wide awake, my company only the furnace hum. 3:29 am.

"I'm going to get up for a bit," I say to my wife.

"What?"

"I'm going to get up. I need to write something down, a dream. It's funny." It wasn't.

"Won't you remember it?"

I can barely remember the children's names at this time of night. "No, I'll forget." I add, "I won't be long."

"Ok."

My wife sleeps cat-sleep. I can wake her, tell her something, and then she will return to sleep immediately, like there is an on-off switch. Once I woke her three times in six minutes, just to ask her what dream she had, and each time she described a different dream. It's a gift.

I shuffle down the hallway, lit by my awakened cell phone, and settle into the chair by the window overlooking the drive. I prop the phone on the edge of the desk, take a pad of paper and pen, and scratch out a few words to capture my dream. This is what I wrote:

I was standing in front of the congregation of my church. I had volunteered for a reading of a portion of the Gospel of Luke, the Magnificat to be exact, and I had practiced reading it aloud to myself earlier in the day. I printed it in 16 point font to make sure I could see it. I looked out over a church body swelled by Chreasters, those folks that come only on Christmas and Easter.

I began well enough but then stumble over a word, began again, and then the words blurred. Phrases seemed to be missing. "I'm sorry," I said, and I was aware that I had begun to ad lib, to fill in the gaps, at one point waxing on about the virgin birth. I looked up, noticed the pastor looking at me, quizzically. I was horrified. Worse, Rhett, one-half of the YouTube sensation of Rhett and Link, was in the audience, his stack of hair sailing over the congregation. I looked down. "I'm sorry," I said, and I turned to walk off the stage. A few muffled claps followed. I gathered my wife and and we made a hasty exit as the next hymn began.

"Hey, that was great. Thanks."

It was Gerald. "What?"

"That was great. Really."

"Gerald, that was terrible. It was like I fell down on the way here, lost half the printed text, bumped my head, and lost my mind."

"Happens to me all the time."

"I doubt that."

Then I woke up.

And that's it. I got up just to write that down. The literary community will thank me one day for my discipline, for suffering for art and all that.

I looked out the window. Every house was dark but one, the one with small children, the one where a weary dad was likely assembling a bicycle, or some other toy with obtuse, 9-point font instructions. Not a creature was stirring in the circle of light cast by the streetlight. I put the pen down, and stood to return to bed. Then, I heard a guffaw from the downstairs. I listened, heard some shuffling about. I walked to the landing of the back stairs and cocked my head, listening again. It sounded like someone was down there. I started down the stairs, paused and grabbed a hand weight for protection. Protection from what, I wondered.

I started down, carefully so as not to make the step creak. Half way down I heard a creak behind me, turned, and saw my traditionally built cat two steps behind me, her eyes lit by the moonlight. I leaned down, whispered, "What part of 'not a creature was stirring' did you not get?" She had that hurt expression. "Ok, you can come, but put a lid on it."

A sense of deja vu swept over me.

Rounding the corner at the bottom of the stairs, I said, "You go that way, through the playroom, and I'll go the other." She did the opposite, heading for the food bowl, seeking sustenance before taking on the intruder. I continued on, muttering something about "dog next time."

Rounding the corner of the playroom, I saw him. Santa. Seriously. Again. He was smoking a cigar. We don't allow smoking in the house, but I let it go. It was Santa. He was just humming to himself, satisfied, pulling presents out of a bag. Finishing, he glanced around, hands on hips. I had a few questions.

"Hey Santa, how's it going?" Lame.

"Couldn't be better. Left a few things for you. You've been good, right?"

"Well, you see. . ."

"Santa believes in grace. Don't sweat it."

"That's a relief." He seemed harmless. I put the hand weight down, my hand sweaty from gripping it. "Santa, I got a few questions."

"Shoot."

"Well, for one, how do you get all those presents in that bag?"

"Elementary physics. Ask your son."

"Right. Well, and how do you make it to all the houses you need to get to, I mean, excluding those of non-believers, all in one night?"

"Time is malleable."

"I thought you'd say that."

"Ever had to wait a long time for something when you had nothing else to do? Feels like time stands still, right?

"Yeah." My mind floated back to fourth grade and Mrs. Hedrick's class, me watching the second hand on the big clock on the wall ticking down the seconds, like eternity, until the 3:30 bell. "Yeah, I know what you mean."

"I thought you would."

That summed up my inquiries. But I didn't want him to leave. He took a long drag on the cigar. "Uh, how's Mrs. Claus?"

"Better than ever. A looker, that one."

"Right. I mean. . ."

"Don't worry about it. She's my type, rotund and sassy."

"Well look, you don't have to leave via the chimney. I haven't had it cleaned lately."

"Don't need it. We've modernized. Teleportation. But look, give my best to your family. Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night, you know, and all that."

And with that, he vanished. I turned and made my way through the kitchen, turned the corner, and began up the stairs, aware of the cat dogging my steps. I leaned down, whispered, "Did you see that?" She nodded. "I hope you've been good." She nodded.

At the landing I heard the sleepy voice of my 24-year old son: "Dad, did Santa come?"

"He said he was."

"Leave anything?"

"Yep. I have some questions for you in the morning."

"I've been good, mostly."

"No, not about that. About quantum physics, time, stuff like that."

"You ok?"

"Sure. Go back to sleep."

I settled back into bed.

"Did you see Santa? My wife. On.

"Yep."

"That's what you said last year."

"I know. Except this time we were talking about quantum physics, time, and stuff like that."

All was silent. Off. She was asleep. I lay there. The furnace came on, humming. 'Twas the night before Christmas, I thought, all through the house, and no one believes me. I don't even know if I believe me.

I'm going to stop reading at lessons and carols services. It messes you up.


On the Eve, Lit

Page2_blog_entry35_1
Light of lights! All gloom dispelling,
Thou didst come to make thy dwelling
Here within our world of sight.
Lord, in pity and in power,
Thou Didst in our darkest hour
Rend the clouds and show thy light.

(St. Thomas of Aquinas)

Waking today I heard rain on the roof, a light drizzle, a muted light filtering through a gray sky and shades. Good, I thought, no walk today, no layers of clothing to fend off cold, no forcing myself out of bed. I lay on my stomach, my head turned toward the edge of the bed, my arm trailing the floor. Opening one uncovered eye, my lesser cat stared at me from the shadows, an inchoate question in her expression. “Yes,” I said. She skittered away at my slight movement, satisfied.

Rising, I decided to turn all the indoor and outdoor Christmas lights on, as a rebel act against dark and dank and gift to Duke Power. This is no small thing. I shuffled from one window candle to another, an occasional floorboard creaking under my presence. Seven bulbs must be turned in their casings, a church light plugged in, tree lights lit, garland lights plugged in (behind the piano, where I must bend awkwardly to reach). Kitchen candle, click, and it lights. And then there is outside. Out the front door I step, bend over the porch rail, plug in the porch lights and tree lights. I walk to the natural area, aware that I may be an unwelcome sight to my just-awoken neighbors in my lounging clothes, bend and press the button that illuminates the never-amounted-to-much-of-anything dogwoods that live in the yard, and turn for the door, my little rogue war over. “The light shines in the darkness,” I think, “and the darkness has not overcome it.”

The first Christmas lights, of course, were candles on trees. (No, I wasn’t alive then, children.) A bucket of water and blankets were kept nearby. It began in Germany, some say with Martin Luther. Walking in the woods one night, Luther saw the starlight filtered through the evergreens. Ace Collins writes that Luther “felt as if the hand of God had touched his soul and had allowed him to see the world in a much different way,” that it brought him a great sense of peace. He strapped candleholders to his family’s Christmas tree and lit the candles, a practice soon duplicated, and fire departments grew in importance and business. We unplug our tree lights when we leave the house, fearing fire, but it’s likely that this practice is an unnecessary vestige of our parents’ 1920’s practice of dousing tree candles before bed or leaving home, the danger likely no more than that from any other electric light left on. And yet the practice summons up my parents’ cautionary admonitions to “unplug the tree lights” and apocalyptic stories of house fires from tree lights left on, stories that rank right up their with those scary evening church showings of the countdown to Rapture.

Oh, I forgot the star. I walk to the garage, step down two steps in the dim light, and flip the switch. A Moravian star, not too common in these parts, illumines our side porch, at a safe height to all but our six-foot-seven neighbor who may leave it swinging. In it lives my childhood home, the star above our front porch, and my mother, Moravian. I’ve read that they originated in the Moravian boarding schools in Germany in the nineteenth century as an exercise in geometry. They are an exercise in patience as well, if you have tried to assemble one. There are 26 points and the fickle ties that hold them together often break. But then, they are a symbol of hope and once together together, if you are lucky, a hope that will endure.

I consider the lights on the trees in our back yard, the multi-colored ones safely shielded from my white-bulb neighbors, and turn for the back door, but reconsider. Rain. When it rains, plugging in both front and back lights causes an electrical disturbance (my word), and Duke Power shuts them both down. The plugs are not properly grounded, my son tells me. Instead, I decide to feed the birds, peckish this morning at empty feeders. “Don’t give them much,” my wife says, “as the deer just come and eat it,” then reconsiders: “Well, it is Christmas, after all.” I carry a bucket of seed around the garage, through the sticking gate, and fill them both. I imagine caramel deer eyes watching and feel, for a moment, like Santa. Imbued by good cheer, I let fall more than a few seed to the ground, for the rascal squirrels who no doubt haven’t been good this year.

I look back through the windows, see the lit tree, the kitchen tree, the bright candle above the sink. The rain has stopped. Yesterday, on the eve of Christmas Eve, Mr. Lassiter went up on the rooftop and slay the leaves and pine straw that clogged my gutters. What a thing to do on the eve of Christmas Eve, I think, so matter-of-factly, as if it was just any other day, and I wonder if he is up on a roof today, like any day.

It’s not any other day. It’s Christmas Eve. Burn the lights. Watch for the Light. Be ready.


A Christmas for Misfits

IMG_0339"For God so loved the world. . ." (Jn. 3:16a)

It's not mere sentiment to observe that God loves everything, not just generally but particularly. Walking on the beach today, I stooped to look at shells broken and misshapen, most of dull luster and none extraordinary, and it dawned on me that if God so loves the world (cosmos) then he loves each particular shell, every grain of sand, every atom, and even the infinitesimally small particles or waves of sub-atomic matter and vast reaches of outer space. Even an unlovely, craggy, orphan asteroid careening through the cold and barren dark matter of space. But what does it mean to say that God loves particularly?

In many of Flannery O'Connor's short stories the characters are the grotesque, ugly in appearance or manner, and in O'Connor's lucid if starkly honest prose they shock or repel us in the god-forsakenness of their particularity. A Temple of the Holy Ghost sounds a promising short story, for example, yet not quite in the way you might imagine, unless you know O'Connor's work. An unnamed 12-year old child is the main character, but we don't like her. She is very intelligent and yet disrespectful, spiteful, mocking, and cruel in her behavior, and O'Connor describes her as unattractive not only in manner but in outward appearance, a fat child with braces. Her two 14-year old cousins come for a weekend visit from the convent school and she sets about belittling them, regarding them as "practically morons." They go to the fair with two neighbor boys, Wendell and Cory, one of whom she describes as a "big dumb Church of God ox," both of them as "stupid idiots." Out of the emptiness of her obligatory bedside prayer all she could muster was "Lord, Lord, thank you that I'm not in the Church of God." And then there's the bald-headed Mr. Chetham with the protruding stomach and the sweaty, 250-pound, cigar-smoking Alonzo Myers.

The cousins call each other Temple of the Holy Ghost One and Temple of the Holy Ghost Two, a joke at the expense of the nuns at the convent, and yet the child takes it to heart. In a line at the heart of the story's meaning, O'Connor writes of the child's inner dialog: "I am a Temple of the Holy Ghost, she said to herself, and was pleased with the phrase. It made her feel as if somebody had given her a present." Though she didn't go with the cousins to the fair, again for spite, she drew on her over-wrought imagination, one provoked by the cousins' telling of what they saw, attending a "freak show" where a person came on stage and revealed that God made him or her both male and female, saying to the hushed crowd attending, "God done this to me and I praise Him," and "Raise yourself up. A temple of the Holy Ghost. You! You are God's temple, don't you know? God's Spirit has a dwelling in you, don't you know?"

We don't want to look at the characters that take shape on the pages of O'Connor's story. Perhaps because what she shows us is ourself. The ugliness of the child, the triviality of the cousins, the homely appearance of other characters, and even the freakish appearance of the hermaphrodite at the fair (which we temper by calling "inter-sexed" nowadays), are ourselves writ large. She's saying that the Kingdom of God is for the misshapen and grotesque, for the non-beautiful people of the world, the ones that offend and shock. She is saying that the Kingdom is for people like us who, though perhaps more shapely in appearance, have equally misshapen hearts, people who need a Savior. Even ugly, dull, and broken shells matter to God. We are not crushed underfoot but loved.

In Tim Keller's Hidden Christmas: The Surprising Truth Behind the Birth of Christ, he draws our attention to the genealogy of Jesus, to, again, its particularity. In stark contrast to other ancient genealogies, that of Jesus lists five women, three of whom were Gentiles (Tamar, Rahab, and Ruth) and,therefore, to ancient Jews, unclean. Not only that but attention is drawn to immorality: Perez and Zerah were the result of an incestuous relationship between Judah and Tamar; Rahab was a prostitute; and Bathsheba, who is mentioned only as the one who "had been Uriah's wife," engaged in an adulterous affair with David, the latter the murderer of Uriah, a man who had been loyal to him.

A freak show. A grotesque family line. Broken shells. Temples of the Holy Ghost. A story worthy of O'Connor's telling, peopled with the sin-soaked, Christ-haunted human ancestors of the One to come. In Keller's telling, they were "cultural outsiders, racial outsiders, and gender outsiders," as well as moral failures. Their inclusion in the line of Jesus is, he says, a reminder that the culturally excluded can be included in Jesus' family. That's us: washed up, beaten by the waves of life, dull and unlovely, and yet greatly loved, particularly loved.

"God done this to me and I praise Him," said the freak. He allowed us to be afflicted by sin, whatever his purposes, and yet He came into the line of our sordid race and died a particular death for a particular person. Me. You. And He made us Temples of the Holy Ghost, all of which feels like a present. Because it is.

Christmas is especially for the misfit, misshapen, and malformed, for bent and unlovely people. Jesus comes to us as a present, by grace, the Holy Ghost in tow, and because of His gift everything is different. If He has that love for the world, so can we. O'Connor suggests that great gift in her conclusion, pointing to the great sacrifice He made for the unlovely. Looking pensively out over the fields, the child sees the sun setting: "The sun was a huge red ball like an elevated Host drenched in blood and when it sank out of sight, it left a line in the sky like a red clay road hanging over the trees." Follow that road and we"ll get Home.


The Field of Our Souls

IMG_0264On a one acre tract behind my grandmother's house, she planted turnips and cabbage, corn and cucumbers, pumpkins and watermelons, and more. Each Spring she tilled the field, turning over the hardened ground, plowing under old growth and unsettling the compacted soil. Black earth yielded under her plow. From my viewpoint behind the fence, peering between the wires, she seemed invincible, a sturdy master of the field. While I only remember her hitched to a bobbing gasoline-powered tiller, I recall being told she earlier plowed behind a horse, the stirrups thrown over each shoulder.

Most of us have no experience with tilling fields, so when we read in Genesis of that primary task of the newly created man, we don't fully appreciate it. "God placed the man in the garden to till it and keep it," says the writer of Genesis. (2:18), and it that one pregnant sentence humankind's mandate is subsumed: break up, up end, turnover, and expose --- disintegration wth the end of integration, breaking apart to make whole. Yet if in fact we are made in God's image, then we image Him in his own tilling and keeping, in his own creative destruction.

Psychologists speak of cognitive dissonance, a kind of mental stress produced when we hold two different ideas or when our beliefs don't match our behavior. God can be its agent. The unsettling conviction that we are hypocrites, that our actions don't align with our beliefs, is disintegrating: we lack integrity. God take s a tiller to our complacency, upends our sense that we are OK, and shows us just how sinful we are. Yet he disintegrates us only to assist us in reintegrating word and deed. He is interested in the integrity of our soil, that we have fruit, a good yield.

Hearkening back to Genesis 1:28, another portion of the creation account, humankind is instructed to "subdue" the earth. The Hebrew for subdue is a very strong word. The Westminster Shorter Catechism says that "Christ executeth the office of a King, in subduing us to himself." So, God is at work subduing our hearts, upending our lives in order to make us fruitful. Denis Haack says that what God is really up to is creating disequilibrium, a "state of unease, sometimes severe, that occurs when a person experiences or learns something that does not fit into their preconceived view of life and reality." Like cognitive dissonance, few can live with the dis-ease, and so, as he notes, we seek equilibrium, either by changing or transforming our worldview to accommodate the new information or by rejecting the new information and clinging to our old framework.

Cognitive dissonance. Disequilibrium. Dis-integration. A mismatch between who we think or say we are and who in reality we are, between word and deed. It's what leads even the Apostle Paul to cry out "For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. . . . Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?" (Rom. 7:19, 24). There is only One. The One who destroys our petty idols, who shatters our tidy compaction and turns over our lives, is the same one who gives us life, who produces fruit, who reaches down into the soil of our hearts and does a tiller's work.

There is more to do than ploughing a field. After, my grandmother walked the rows, stooped over, and planted seeds by hand. It was dirty work, her hands in black earth, breaking up resistant clods and smoothing over holes filled with seeds. I watched her stand, hands on hips, and (I now imagine) sigh a long exhalation over her work and think, "It is good." Through the fence where I watched then, she was just an old lady in a field, bonnet to the sky, yet through the field of time, she is God brooding over the field of our souls.


But, the Children

$_32When I began lighting trees for Christmas in the lawn surrounding my home, I was a young man. There was a certain excitement about sinuous cords and electricity, star lights in a winter chill. And for the lights, foreign born and cheap, it was their month of glory, or so I liked to imagine. No longer mute, they sang from the trees with their humming electrical hearts.

Yet, I confess, I did not know the trajectory of my passion. What began with three trees expanded to a drapery of lights over the azaleas, to the Osthmantus trees in the backyard, to the large and unknown tree that brushes against the playroom wall, to all the shrubbery and plantings that hugged the back wall. I confess a tiny bit of resentment grew in my heart.

A few years ago, I was at work in mid-November with, of course, the tree lights. I woke them from their hibernation under the eaves of the house where they lay coiled and cabined, untangled them from their long sleep, and juiced them to see if they lived on, lit for another year. Those that didn't, that were either dark or significantly dark, I consigned to hell which, for such tawdry baubles, means the rubbish bin. I show mercy on whom I will show mercy and have not the power to redeem nor repair their darkened souls.

Once the wheat is separated from the chaff, I drug the bin in which they rested down the stairs, or hefted them, depending on my mood, and sat them at the top of the driveway, abuzz in gathering anticipation. I gathered electrical cords, laid the infrastructure in the beds of pine straw, and plotted my work of creation. Using a perhaps six foot orange pole of unknown origin, I began carefully, like an artist at canvas, hoisting the strands and laying them carefully around the tree. And yet, I tire and soon revert to more abstract art, throwing handfuls of lights over the tallish upper branches of the trees, randomly, like the musical compositions of John Cage or the "paintings" of monkeys and elephants. My method is rude, but effective. Viewed from a distance, through squinted eyes, it is an impressionist painting, I think.

Yet back to that tiny bit of resentment. In throwing handfuls of lights a few years ago, I apparently injured my rotator cuff, producing pain and leading to surgery. No more abstract act. No more throwing lights. It's just not the same. I have suffered for my art.

This year I said to my wife, just on the eve of winter, "Maybe we can just not put up the lights this year." And she said, "But the children would be disappointed." Oh yes, the children. For a moment I imagined our laconic cats watching from the windows, noses pressed to glass, dispassionately observing, not a single thought of Christmas lights in their heads or, for that matter, any thought in their noggins. Yet perhaps even such as these desire to look into such things.

But, the children. Their disappointment. About that she is probably right, so I reconsidered. Last Sunday afternoon, after a nap, near twilight, on the eve of dinner, after the consolations of church, we tackled the first tree. Last year she had taken down the lights, which is my least favorite part of the job, separating them by tree, coiling them carefully, and storing them away not under the eaves but in the garage. It is a more appropriate place, and she was good to them, and yet, as you will see, the new lodgings bred some resentment.

All out, we took to the lower tree. She climbed to the top of a teetering ladder, as I comforted myself by the fact that a fall would be into a soft pine straw bed. Or on me. She wrapped an unlit cord around the treetop, a beginning. Then, done, we plugged it in. Nearly one-half the strand was dark. A resentful strand. She looked at me. I looked at her. A small, silent curse -- no, a pre-curse -- passed between our faces. "Don't cuss," I said. But of course she wouldn't. We smiled slight smiles and let go the curse. "Let's jiggle it," I said, a remedy for most mechanical malfunctions, and we did, and yet we failed to revive it. Reprobate, I thought. We ripped it down. I consigned it to, where else, but eternal damnation.

In the end, 90 minutes later, in the dark, we finished one tree. She stood back, smiling. "It looks wonderful, the best ever," she said, unfailingly cheerful. Stepping back to look, I felt a crunch underfoot. Oh, the faulty light string. Sorry, I thought, as I looked down. But I wasn’t. Who started all this anyway? And don’t say Tim Allen.

But, the children. In the end, it will all be worth it, I think, their lit faces basking in the window candles, the buzz of electricity humming in their ears, and the starry cheer of a lit lawn lifting their hearts on a cold and rainy day. In the light of it, even the melancholy brighten. Christmas is coming.


A Way of Seeing

The desk at which I sit is in a room at the edge of the continent, suspended over a spit of land that but for intervention might just as easily not have been. Orin Pilkey, a geologist who taught at Duke University, argued passionately over the years that barrier islands should be allowed to move, to erode on the seaward side and accrete on the sound side, God shuffling sand in the sandbox of time. But, thanks to the Army Corp of Engineers, it was not to be. And so, here I am.

On one corner of the desk is the slightly askew biography of E.B. White which I just completed in the car today, waiting while my wife shopped. I love to shop with my wife, in the car, or on a bench, with a book, moving in interstate commerce like a man in a dream. There are snippets of conversation and lunch and public displays of affection (hand-holding) interspersed with the threads of Andy and Katherine White's long lives together which I cannot dispel but which float in and out of the stores, like wispy contrails of the past. In the boutiques I am welcome, and yet my eyes glaze over in the face of choices, like the 150 different kinds of tea that a buoyant clerk told us about. I fixate on text - a greeting card, a cookbook, a plaque, a sign - until awakened by my wife's bright smile and movement toward the door. Like Andy and Katherine, we make a wonderful waste of time together until, my 30 minutes up, "I'll feed the meter," I say, and I retreat to the car on a cobblestone side street after sliding a quarter in the slit of the sentry's metallic face, its hiss its only acknowledgement of my ransom. Captive, I read.

Otherwise, my desk holds one too-thin billfold which, in Millennial fashion, has barely any cash, as well as a coupon for ten dollars off at the dry cleaners, ragged from where I tore it, but the sight of which and the thought of its slight savings bringing an inner smile. Sad, isn't it, this frugal delight? But, to continue, there are spare rings from our just-hung curtains, hoisted by Paul from New Jersey who has lived here for 23 years and is remodeling his own home and who loves to talk. And there is a dish of quarters and pennies, for laundry or parking meters or just to hold so to enjoy the tactile feel of saving, a Bible, unmarked, because I dislike writing in my books, a devotional, My Utmost for His Highest, in which today Oswald Chambers exhorted me across the corridors of time to "stop listening to the tyranny of [my] individual natural life and win freedom into the spiritual life," and, sideways, buried under E.B. White, a book that I mean to read, entitled Befriend, commanding by its presence, and, awaiting a new home, a bookmark holding the word "ruminate," which, I suppose, is what I do: ruminate. Mull. Ponder. Essay.

At the far-right corner of the desk, underneath a dish, which is underneath a pair of reading glasses which someone lately needs, is a copy of William Strunk and E.B. White's The Elements of Style, a masterpiece of brevity, clarity, and wit. (I have four copies, in different places, for backup upon backup.) Though commanding in tone, White once wrote that in writing the book he felt like he was "posing as an expert on rhetoric" when the truth was that he did his own writing "by ear. . .and seldom with any exact notion of what was going on under the hood." And yet somehow the pistons fired in his writing and he drove on, leaving us in the wake of his pure exhaust. Who can ever forget the memorable beginning of Charlotte's Web: "Where's Papa going with that ax?, says Fern to his mother, and with that we see the open road of both peril and promise.

It's sad to me that the last book on the desk, Edith Schaeffer's A Way of Seeing, has long been out of print, but then it came out in 1977, nearly 40 years ago. In every circumstance Edith saw the hand of God, and the short ruminations here are, in her words, "seeds for you to plant and watch grow in your own mind" --- a beginning, embryonic and not yet grown.

My desk measures three by four feet, a small piece of real estate in a vast universe. Yet the few items here contain worlds. "Where are we going tomorrow?," I say, and we conclude: nowhere. Why should we? I cannot even plumb the depths of twelve square feet of desk.


Creation's Balm

"Be still, and know that I am God" (Ps. 46:10a, ESV)
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Yesterday, in the village of Crossnore, I bought a packet of cards illustrated by Kyron, age 11. "When I am upset," Kyron says, "it helps to look and listen to God's creations." He grasped a truth that many adults can't seem to hold: in a rapidly moving world flickering by, one bathed in the noise of social media, the natural world's relative calm and peace is a balm to the soul.

South of Crossnore, we stopped for lunch at Louise's Rock House Restaurant, whose claim to fame is that it is built on the confluence of three counties, the server seemed grumpy, short. Glasses were set on the table with a thud. The food, once served, was palatable but without promise, not exactly what a friend had enthusiastically recommended. But when I tasted the strawberry rhubarb pie, the clouds parted. I lifted it to eye level. "It's like looking back at the Old Testament in light of the New, a new dispensation," I said. "Grace," a friend more succinctly stated. Suddenly, the main course was remembered more fondly. Perhaps that had been a smile behind the crust of our server's face, her brusqueness just her way, the odd geography of serving in three counties. On the way out she even thanked us.

At any given moment there are more than a few people upset in the world. Drop your present focus, for a moment, and consider what those on the eve and even end of World War II faced: the upset of world conflagration. E.B. White, who suffered from anxiety and sometimes acute depression throughout his life, was one of them. To calm what he called the "mice in his head," he husbanded his animals, took care of his saltwater farm, went sailing in the cold Atlantic waters off the shore of Maine, let the dachshund in, then out. The animals he could do something about; war, not much.

White also wrote of Stuart Little, a two-inch tall son of a New York couple who looks surprisingly like a mouse and yet who despite his smallish size leaves the city on an adventure --- life, really --- and heads north. We don't ever learn the end of his adventure, what he is looking for or what he does, but it is telling where the author places Stuart: in the natural world.

Right before leaving the city, Stuart has a conversation with a repairman who recommended north as a good direction. "Following a broken telephone line north," the repairman said, "I have come upon some wonderful places. Swamps where cedars grow and turtles wait on logs but not for anything in particular; fields bordered by crooked fences broken by years of standing still; orchards so old they have forgotten where the farmhouse is. In the north I have eaten my lunch on pastures rank with ferns and junipers, all under fair skies with a wind blowing. My business has taken me into spruce woods on winter nights where the snow lay deep and soft, a perfect place for a carnival of rabbits." The unusually pensive repairman concludes by saying that, "I know these places well. They are a long way from here --- don't forget that. And a person who is looking for something doesn't travel very fast."

It's as if White is saying that life is challenging, upsetting even, busy, fast, and broken, and yet take courage, he says, from the enduring elements of the natural world around you. Pluck and passion and attention to God's gifts will take you far --- perhaps, even, calm the "mice in your head."

The children who come to the mountain community of Crossnore have had, as I have read, plenty to upset them. They are the troubled castoffs of foster families who do not know how to deal with them, who cannot tame the mice in their heads and hurt in their hearts. In the quietness of Crossnore, working behind a loom, painting, gardening, and worshipping among the mountains and trees, they somewhat heal as they (and we) await a fuller healing.

On the way out of Louise's Rock House Restaurant, the screen door slapped the frame behind us. "I'd eat there," my friend said, "just to hear the screen door shut. You don't hear that anymore." I would too, I thought. Remembering that moment now, looking back down the corridor of time that is a day now shut behind us, I remembered leaves piled up against unopened doors and gates, the swell of mountain peaks, a chill early morning wind lashing the gables of our room, young women working patiently at looms, rocky cliffs, and the rhythm of a highway, north, like it was all one long prayer for peace, a balm for troubled souls.


Traffic & Weather (Errata)


W8umf9wzs1qt9m~"I hate people who are not interested in themselves." (E.B. White)

A man hailed me while on my way in from lunch. "Hey, excuse me, sir, you got any work for me?" I didn't have any work. He said he thought I was a congressman. I've heard that before. He carried an upended rake over his shoulder, whether for real or as a prop for penury. We walked two blocks together, an unlikely pair, and he shared his opinions about the election with me which, not surprisingly, made as much sense as those of the more educated which I had been party to. It was a Socratic dialog: he asked questions and I turned them back on him, and he was happy to oblige. I told him nothing. At the corner, our paths diverged and he went on talking to the wind, his voice trailing off under traffic.

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"We belong together, like traffic and weather," as sung by Fountains of Wayne in their song of the same name, is not a compliment, is it? Or is it? Better, I think, is this one from a Marshal Crenshaw song: "You're my favorite waste of time." Or even, as Crowded House sang, "Everywhere you go you always take the weather with you." Or Rhett Miller’s “Singular Girl, which has the chorus, “Talking to you girl is like doing long division, yeah,” which I kind of think is not positive but takes a moment to sink in. Men, enjoy the wit of these lyrical backhands, but don't try them at home, or you might not enjoy the weather.

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"If I obey Jesus Christ," says Oswald Sanders, "the Redemption of God will rush through me to other lives, because behind the deed of obedience is the Reality of Almighty God." Reading that I fixed on the capitalized R in Reality, on the surreal idea that underneath or behind the perceived reality (lower case) we traffic in the Really Real, the True Truth. Sanders elsewhere says that when we obey -- always freely and without compulsion -- our little acts of loving obedience become "pinholes through which [we] see the face of God, and when I stand face to face with God I will discover that through my obedience thousands were blessed." Thousands? That’s a lot to see through the pinhole. And yet we don't know the shores on which the tiny ripples of our acts of love lap and enliven. We don't know the weather we make.

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One of my pastors likes to remind us in respect to outreach to the community that all we need to do is begin by "raising our spiritual temperature by one degree." Introverts needn't aspire to extroversion, meaning I don't have to, thank God, have a party for the neighborhood. At least not yet.

First up: I’ve begun asking colleagues at work to have lunch with me, many of whom are only acquaintances that relate to me only in a professional capacity. One I had lunch with last week said he and his wife didn't much like the outdoors. I never met anyone like that. My temperature went up. "Do you eat out much," I said. He said he usually ate at his desk. And here I was thinking everyone was eating out all the time, an introvert with an extrovert-sized imagination! But I'm finding that's what most men do.

Next up: Walking every morning, we often pass neighbors in the street, their dogs at leash end. I've been thinking,”this is exercise, not a social call, so keep moving," but now I'm thinking "stop, engage, even walk along beside," and at the bus top we pass every other day, I might even linger and engage the students chattering over their lit screens. Awkward, perhaps, yet warming.

I might even better engage a man with a rake over his shoulder and an opinion to share rather than wishing him gone.

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Watching the short order cook at the Asian restaurant this evening, I was thinking about how helpless I would be at his job. I'd have to work my way up from attorney to short order cook. I would lose orders, slop steaming water on the boss, and quit before the night was up. I couldn’t live in his sloshy efficiency.

The only analogy to my profession is to those attorneys who keep a steady diet of traffic court. There's a lot of sleight of hand, diverse ingredients, and on some days, plenty of hot water. Managed pandemonium. Sloshy efficiency and sandpaper justice. And oh yes, lots of weather.

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I was shy as a child and, truth be told, am still predisposed that way. I tremulously attend large social gatherings with lots of people I do not know. I do not like to raise my hand in class, even in Sunday School where people are friendly and largely known and iron is sharpening iron. I also don't like timed games where people are watching you. It's not that I don't know what to do about it - sidle up to a group huddled in conversation, listen, then dip tentatively into the conversation, for example. But honestly, it's exhausting work.

In Shrinking Violets: A Field Guide to Shyness, John Moran says that while shyness is not viewed positively in America, in some other countries like Sweden, the word has a positive connotation, so diffidence or thoughtfulness would better sum it up. But then, I'd have to live there to enjoy their good vibes, and its cold and I might have to become a socialist, God forbid.

Moran says that shyness is particularly well-suited for writers, a heartening thought. "Shyness turns you into an onlooker”, he writes, “a close reader of the signs and wonders of the social world.” So, the next time you see me not talking or on the outskirts of the social terrain, give me some room: I'm watching for signs and wonders, and I can only do that from back here, because up close the world spins too fast and begs my engagement. Let the extroverts and gregarious among us work the signs and wonders; me, I’ll interpret them.

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Yesterday I got in the traffic and head to the library where I buried my head in the archives for the entire day. How wonderful. I spoke to the archivist who is, naturally, a bookish, owlish man who peers at me between lines of text. We understand one another.

I find it like time travel. I sit in front of a monitor, put on headphones, click, and am instantly transported nearly 60 years in the past to a small Swiss village named Huemoz, to a living room of clattering tea cups among the intensity of conversation, a knickers-clad saint with a high-pitched voice holding forth with earnestness and grace on truth there, in L’Abri, where there is a steady stream of traffic in ideas.

Signs and wonders indeed.

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Yesterday, my wife was walking in our backyard and uncovered the stone marking the grave of our loyal, eternally smiling German Shepherd, Faith. She was a shepherd only in appearance and intelligence, but inside was meek as a lamb, submitting to our then older and much smaller cat who bore the name of a fruit, Pumpkin.

Faith let small children hit her on the head, wrestled tree trunks but hid under the bed during thunderstorms, peeled a grape before eating it, babysat children for free, and brought my newspaper from the street every morning, no matter the weather, as if it was the most important thing she would do that day.

E.B. White, who was partial to the dachshund, about whom he wrote, “Depart,/ You break his heart," had another view of the shepherd: "German shepherds are useful for leading the blind,/ And for biting burglars and Consolidated Edison men in the behind.” Had he met Faith, he’d have to rewrite his poetic summation, she being a licker, not a biter.

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You can’t have a gluten-free Jesus. He said “I am the bread of life. Take. Eat.” Dietary restrictions are one thing, but when it comes to the One who is life and love incarnate, we are to swallow the whole thing, and if we die we die, In Him.

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In Gold Cord, the 1932 story of the Dohnavur Fellowship of India, Amy Carmichael says that “the books of the world come to us, and we know what this present age is saying, and now and then find a grain of gold in the heap of words.” It’s often easy for me to see the heap of gold in nature. An autumn maple of brilliant red leaves is as true a sight as one could wish for. Or, for that matter, a heap of golden leaves, raked, that make a soft bed. And yet like turn of century India, it’s not so easy to see such gold in a culture which traffics in the unholy.

It’s tempting to believe a lie that little prayers don’t matter, that there are no ripples on far shores cause by our infinitesimally small acts of obedience, that the life of a dog doesn’t amount to much, that there are no signs and wonders. Yet that would be a mistake. Kneeling by a pooling mountain stream all those years ago, Carmichael sees fallen leaves beneath the water: “On the floor lay a heap of battered, sodden leaves, some still faintly coloured, red, orange, yellow, some dull and brown like shadows of leaves. And now and then a current moving gently would slip under the heap and carry some of the leaves through golden gates, where, caught in a scurry of white, the bruised things would be broken up and swept swiftly down the stream. Poor marred things. But were they poor? They were on their way to make others rich. The forest and the glory thereof, the fern by the river-side, the little flower, the moss, live on the food that the dead leaves give.”

That’s us. Take and eat. We’re living on the faithfulness of those who have come before us, the memory of Christ’s sacrifice. It has to be not only remembered but re-enacted in every generation. That re-enactment is by a living sacrifice that makes others rich. Do that, and it’ll change the weather. In God’s economy, little sacrifices make one rich. Redemption rushes through us to others’ lives.


Our Haptic God


IMG_3650Even in suburbia there’s a residue of wildness. Walking alone the other morning before dawn, in the darkness before the birds make their first tentative calls, I heard a chilling shriek. It may have been the wolf on its prey. We’ve seen him nervously cross the road ahead more than once, glancing furtively around, and for a moment it’s a welcome reminder that the manicured place where we live was not always so tame and even yet is not in hand. Deer leap our fence and eat flowers, move through the corridors left between developments. Hawks circles overhead. Owls hoot in the still of the night, before the last lights are switched off. Raccoons and possums move at will over the terrain, one they know better than us. And beneath, water still slides slowly downhill, bearing away the earth, bit by bit by bit. Pretty ordinary, I know, yet it’s the place where I get saved.

D.L. Waldie, author of the memoir called Holy Land, says of his life in the not-so-middle-class suburb of Lakewood, California, that he could not “find whatever it is that makes it possible to live in the world outside of the everyday. To put it in its crudest terms: one isn't saved over there; one is saved here. Salvation doesn't arrive from over there; it arrives here in this place, whatever kind of place it might be.” Waldie locates his this-worldly salvation in the Incarnation: if God can pour himself into a man — if Creator can condescend to be creature — then, all of Creation is imbued with value. We are not saved by the world, but we are saved in the world. “The everyday isn’t perfect,” he says. “It confines some and leads some astray into contempt or nostalgia, but imbued with the Incarnation, it fires the imagination of others. The weight of everyday life is a burden I want to carry.”

But many people don’t want the weight of everyday life. Sometimes I don’t. Sometimes the walk into my office is deadening, or a rush hour drive seeing all the other people waiting at lights, eyes fixed ahead, rushing in or out, fills me with melancholy. I open the newspaper and my mind slides down a slippery slope of “what ifs.” It was like E.B. White said about life sometimes, given both his acute fears and chronic, lifelong, unspecified anxiety. “There would be times,” he said about his boyhood, “when a dismal sky conspired with a forlorn side street to create a moment of such profound bitterness that the world’s accumulated sorrow seemed to gather in a solid lump in [my] heart. The appearance of a coasting hill softening in a thaw, the look of backyards along the railroad tracks on hot afternoons, the faces of people in trolley cars on Sunday—these could and did engulf [me] in a vast wave of depression.” It was darkness he kicked at all his life.

I walk outside not only for its physical benefit but for its spiritual quickening. Waldie, also a walker, says that “walking is haptic in the fullest sense. All of the environment touches one when one is not in a car, when walking.” But it’s more than that. He says that “the presence of God is found in those moments when God rips your self-regard away. For me, that presence is revealed when you stop seeing the ordinary as a weight that needs to be dropped. It happens when the ordinary becomes transparent. You see in the operations of the everyday that which expands your moral imagination.”

Yesterday, I went out and walked the perimeter of our backyard, enjoyed sunlight streaming slant-wise and golden, lighting up the early fall leaves. There’s nothing extraordinary about it. You can see it too. Yet my children played here, grew their imaginations when the fence marked the boundary of their world. Our late dog knew it better than us, her own haptic running after squirrels and sticks and smells rooting her in this place.

Salvation is not some abstract deliverance, something particular to me; it happens in the here and now. It happens on these streets and in these neighborhoods and among these people. It happens in context. It happens in my backyard. The rescue plan that God has is as wide as the cosmos and as particular as my very ordinary home, and my very tiny little life. It reaches down into every crack and crevice of this world and will one day fill it. Salvation is haptic. He is in touch and on the move. In the burden of the ordinary He does His great yet often unseen work.

While I write, the window is open to the twitter of an unknown bird, to the flutter and sway of leaves, to the distant sounds of trucks downshifting. I turn back to my task. Cool air wafts in, gently and insistently tapping on my shoulder, saying, “Don’t you know? Haven’t you heard?”


Clear-Eyed Populism

"We do not need the grace of God to stand crises, human nature and pride are sufficient, we can face the strain magnificently; but it does require the supernatural grace of God to live twenty-four hours in every day as a saint, to go through drudgery as a disciple, to live an ordinary, unobserved, ignored existence as a disciple of Jesus. It is inbred in us that we have to do exceptional things for Christ; but we have not. We have to be exceptional in ordinary things, to be holy in mean streets, among mean people, and this is not learned in five minutes."

(Oswald Chambers, in My Utmost for His Highest, Oct. 21)

When the very apologetic alarm went off this morning at 6:30, I hesitated. I understand why some people cannot seem to get out of bed as, for just a moment, I wondered what by all accounts should be an ordinary day might hold. A shadowed cat waited on my desk, dimly visible in the pre-dawn light, and when my slight movement to turn off the alarm alerted her, she advised that she had been waiting for something, though I don't know what, for some time. I too am waiting for something, I think.

Every day holds mostly ordinary things, but you wouldn't know it by reading college admissions brochures and catalogs or watching the fantasy lives of those on television. Everyone must be exceptional, do exceptional things, and save the world eventually. Everyone can realize their potential. Everyone can be whoever they want to be. But while that may be something that some of those with enough money, education, and stable upbringing may achieve, it is not the experience of most. So, I understand why some may not look forward to their days or, at least, may have more modest expectations.

Some might lump me with the elites, and yet those are not my roots. My family was solidly middle-class, not even upper-middle class. I thought we lived in a large house but, in hindsight, it was not. I worked in a department store for most of high school, around working people of even more modest backgrounds. In college, I had a string of summer jobs that kept me shoulder to shoulder with the lower middle class, or lower. I worked in a mattress factory and in a furniture warehouse, a minority in a largely African-American workforce. My "people" weren't doctors and lawyers and educators but small businessmen, sales clerks, factory workers, and auto mechanics. They were like most Americans.

"Are you ready to walk?" I say to my wife.

"Not yet," she says.

Well then, more time to ruminate beneath the covers of my day.

I realize that part of what I am lamenting is the still unshaken belief of elites in progress, that we can fix our problems, that whoever we want to be or whatever we want is ultimately achievable. Yet it's not. Christopher Lasch wrote a prophetic cultural critique in 1991, entitled The True and Only Heaven, only parts of which I have mind enough to read, where he put a nail in the coffin of the beguiling and persistent ideology of progress. As Susan McWilliams recently summed up Lasch's book in an essay in Modern Age, "Democrats and Republicans alike speak the languages of individualism and globalism, promising ever-expanding choices on an ever-expanding scale. No one of any prominence seems to be asking whether the visions attached to those promises are realistic, much less desirable." “How does it happen that serious people continue to believe in progress,” Lasch asks, “in the face of massive evidence that might have been expected to refute the idea of progress once and for all?”

Lasch speaks sympathetically (though realistically) of populist sentiment --- views held by many Americans --- when he champions (according to McWilliams) "the idea of limits (as opposed to limitless expansion), an admiration for small-scale proprietorship (as opposed to widespread consumerism), a cultivation of the pursuit of useful callings (as opposed to luxury and worldly success), a commitment to self-governance (as opposed to rule by technocratic experts), and a sensibility of guarded hope (as opposed to blind optimism). Reading this I hear the voices of E.F. Schumaker, who wrote the Seventies book called Small is Beautiful or, in a more contemporary vein, Wendell Berry, who writes of rural life. Much of the populace understands the idea of limits (you can't spend more than you make, you can't be someone you are not), though some indulge the fantasy for a time.

But this is a lot to think about before breakfast, before rising for the day. I throw back the covers and begin the rituals of the day, the quotidian of our lives.

Later, walking, we cross the bridge over the channel, pause and lean over, and see an unusual sight: trout running thick in the brackish water. An army of boats is anchored, and lines are thrown in the water, fishers balanced on their decks. On the other side of the bridge, nearly a dozen sailboats are moored, resting in the calm water.

"That would make a good picture," she says, and our imaginations meander over hull to the people cabined there, rocking on a gentle current.

"Someone probably has taken one," I say. I try my best to pay attention, but there are voices in my head, a running dialog with Lasch and McWilliams about progress and disappointment and hope, a pedestrian thinking about our pedestrian lives. As I walk, I watch cars, knowing that many of the drivers are en route to ordinary jobs, that many are cleaners, construction workers, tradesmen of various sorts, and restaurant servers. They don't have large bank accounts. They may have a fantasy of winning the lottery, but most know that they will barely stay afloat, and that not without hard work and discipline and favor, whether luck or Providence.

I am not elite. I am not so different than the man who cleans my office each week. Our skin color, educational background, and bank accounts may differ some, but we each get up and go to work each day, each must perform a fair number of routine tasks. My luxury is that of rumination: I get to read and write more, to languish in pools of words.

I have little use for partisan politics. As Lasch recognized, the parties are mainly two groups of elites battling one another over variations of the same beliefs. His hope was that a true populism would emerge outside the categories of left and right that would be capable of sustaining a reasonable social life. Mine is deeper. Mine is imbued by the Gospel.

I am a clear-eyed populist. Human life is fundamentally spiritual, shaped by tragedy, comedy, and fairy tale: realistic and modest in expectations because of sin, shot through with tragedy; grateful for the comedy of whatever gifts of beauty and material provision come my way by grace; and hopeful that the true fairy tale of the human project --- God's promise to rescue his people and restore all things to what He originally intended --- will at last undo the curse. Change can be significant, yet halting and incomplete, and yet our fullest hope is not for this world but one to come. We dress rehearse here for real life on a more eternal stage.

"We haven't prayed yet," she says, and I think, "How could we have made it so far without that?" How indeed? So, we begin our pedestrian, ordinary prayers to a God who will do exceptional things in ordinary lives, who makes holy people among mean (ordinary) people in mean streets, who walks with us as we walk on.


A Time to Kill

I woke up a few days ago with a mind to kill. I had been plotting since the day before, choosing my victims, deciding on the method of death, consulting with an expert on lethal force. Now I was ready. On waking, I skipped the normal routines of food and shower (keep it lean and focused, I thought) and made for the door.

My son's home in the desert southwest is xeriscaped by default, the back and front lawn covered in pebbles, punctuated by two palm trees (transplants, as they are not native to the southwest) in the front and two palo verde trees in the back. Yet with the summer monsoons, grass had thrust its way to the surface in spots -- under eaves, near the water spigot, snaked up through driveway seams, and in the relative shade of trees. Some more timorous shoots even grew alone in the unyielding sun, spiteful. Crabgrass Cong, I mutter to myself. But not for long.

The day before, as I premeditated, I went to the local plant nursery. Bryan helped me. Bryan was a bit scraggly, sun-baked, encrusted with the dust and sweat of honest outdoor work, with a goatee and sunglasses which he wore indoors and out.

"What can I help you with, man?”

"Bryan, I wanna kill."

He cocked his head, smiled a toothy grin, and said, "I can help you with that. You know what you're doing?"

"Yeah, I just wanna kill. I WANT TO KILL."

"Yeah, right, we covered that."

I'm sorry about that. Some of the monologue from Arlo Guthrie's classic "Alice's Restaurant" came to mind. That part between him and a recruiting officer at the draft board. But that was another war.

“This should fix you up right here." He pulled a smallish, unimpressive looking potion off the arsenal shelf. "Now it says you mix two and a half ounces to a gallon of water," he said, pausing for effect, "but I just use four." He tapped the bottle and smiled deviously.

"Kill those suckers, right?"

"Right. Can't take any chances."

"So what do I shoot them with?"

"Spray. You spray 'em, dude. You need one of these." He held up a one gallon jug with a gun attached to it via a black hose.

"Napalm."

"Whatever."

We picked up a bag of pre-emergent stuff as well. Granular poison. Kill those Herbi-Cong weeds before they reared their heads above ground. These people at A.J.'s Landscaping mean business. I like this guy.

"Do I need a permit for this thing?"

"Naw. The Man don't care."

"Sweet."

At the cash register, after paying, I cast a backward glance on leaving, wistful, envious even. Look at all those "shovels and rakes and implements of destruction" (oops, Arlo Again). What a great place to work.

I did my research. I read up on weeds. Parts of Richard Mabry's weepy Weeds: In Defense of Nature's Most Unloved Plants, nearly had me convinced to leave the "botanical thugs" and "vegetable guerillas" alone. Mabry says that all of our definitions of weeds have one thing in common: they are human-centered. "Plants become weeds," he says, "when they obstruct our plans, or our tidy maps of the world." It was like listening to Tokyo Rose propaganda, the smooth words that would undercut my resolve. To create sympathy for the enemy. Banish the thought! Steel yourself, man, I thought.

That night I had the craziest dream. I was taking out the trash which goes in a big plastic dumpster in the ally behind my son's house and a policeman named Obie arrested me, cuffed me, shoved me in the patrol car, and drove off. On the way to the jail we stopped at a restaurant and he showed me big glossy photos of me buying those implements of destruction, of me talking to Bryan, me sitting there with cuffs on and Obie eating a cheeseburger and fries and me ravished but cuffed to Obie so every time he ate a bite he took me along. Cruel and unusual punishment. I was maltreated, malnourished, and maligned. And at the station he turned me over to a recruiting officer who gave me 40 pages of documents with fine print to fill out, like I was some kind of lawyer. I asked him why I was filling out all these forms, and he said it was so the Man could find out if I was morally fit to serve. And I said to serve what, and he said to serve your country. I stood up at that and saluted. And I said in the interest of full disclosure that I did throw some rocks at cars when I was in middle school, so he said go sit on that bench over there. I sat down next to an undefined person on one side and on the other a 300-pound guy in a very small t-shirt that had two kittens on the front of it, and I said I like your shirt and grinned, and laughed. He didn't.

I don't remember anything else.

I woke to the sound of 'copter blades. A Huey. No, no. Just a ceiling fan. I extricated myself from beneath the bed where I had taken refuge.

I better get my act together, I thought. There's killing to be done. It was barely light outside. I threw on my workout clothes, looking camo in dawn's light.

"You need to wear goggles when using that stuff?," my wife said.

"Uh. . ." Not sure. I put my hat on.

"Probably not. I never wore them when I sprayed flowers and all."

Right. She's a veteran. She used to chase the mosquito truck on her bike while it laid down DDT, and she's fine. Really. I went back to my task. She went back to sleep. I slipped out the back door.

I did a little reconnaissance first. I peeked around the corner of the house. Yep. Eaves urchins. I surveyed the back yard. There they were, huddled up against fence posts, clinging to cracks between steps, plottin' and schemin'. I shook my head. "This is the end," I said. "You're goners."

I filled the jug with water, uncorked the potion and, having nothing to measure out four ounces with, estimated. Let's see - three ounces is about the size of a deck of cards, and he said four, and. . . Oh, what the heck, I poured half a bottle in and recorked the jug. That oughta do it.

You had to pump this thing, like an air rifle. Pressurized, I strode out onto the yard. Apocalypse Now, you herbi-Cong, you wicked weedy wanderlings. Wither and die. "Purple Haze," that lovely Jimi Hendrix song, was my soundtrack for destruction.

I sprayed and sprayed, pausing every minute or so to reload. I mean pump. Some of them I sprayed twice for good measure. The sun beat down. The poison glistened on the blades. When I was done I dumped the remainder on a particularly ominous clump of weeds near the water spigot, stooped and pulled several clumps out with my teeth. . . no, no, with my hands. At the end, I was relieved. This killing is hard work.

Leaving for home a few days later, exiting the driveway, I noticed the weeds still there, still thriving. “It looks like I don’t have much to show for it,” I said.

“Oh, I think they’re dying," my son said, generously. "They look a little brown.”

Maybe. Then again, I’m over it. I'm not much good at killing, it seems. I even conceded in hindsight that, as Emerson graciously quipped, a weed is simply "a plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered." Maybe I was too hasty. Maybe a few weeds can be successfully integrated with native plants. Maybe these botanical immigrants are OK.

Bryan would not approve.


A Declaration of Dependence

If you spend a lot of time with religious people (and I do), it is easy to fall into the well-worn track of works-righteousness, that somehow by doing the right things and avoiding the wrong things, we will get to, if not heaven, at least some sense of equilibrium, that God is if not fully pleased at least reasonably happy with us. I understand. I am a parent. My children were so schooled in right and wrong that it may easily have been thought by them that doing the right things and staying out of trouble are what being a Christian is all about. And because the Bible is full of imperatives that we rightly talk about, it's easy to lose perspective.

Some common grace is operative here: do the right things and you most likely will avoid some nasty consequences and certain benefits may inure. But that's not the Gospel. That's a declaration of independence, not a fist to the sky but a more benign self-sufficiency. Ours is a declaration of dependence.

Oswald Chambers nails it: "Sin is a fundamental relationship; it is not wrong doing, it is wrong being, deliberate and emphatic independence of God." And then: "A man cannot redeem himself; Redemption is God's 'bit,' it is absolutely finished and complete." In the race of life -- in the struggle to do right, win the approval of others, gain recognition, please God, and even, oddly enough, be humble -- the moment we look to Christ, declaring our dependence and not independence, we are whisked to the finish line where the Father says, "This is my beloved, in whom I am well pleased." You've won.

So what's left to do? Nothing, and everything. Nothing that will gain you more favor than you now already have, everything that will be for God's glory and our full humanity, to our right being. Gospel indicatives precede Gospel imperatives. You are holy; now, be holy. You are saved; now work out your salvation. The battle is won; now fight the good fight.

Reaching the finish line, Jesus carries us across the line, sets us down, and says, "You won. Now, run. For the love of God man, run. Run for the pure joy of it. Keep your eyes on the prize that is already yours. Be perfect. Be holy. Do this. Do that. Don't do this. Don't do that. You have nothing to prove but everything to gain. Fix your eyes on me and run.


Meet Dylan, a Millennial

Dylan hasn't figured out what to do with his life. He's 25. With a little prompting from me, however, he does know what I usually order for lunch.

"I got that," he says. "I'll remember next time." He hurries off to fill the order: a slice of cheese pizza, salad, no croutons, ranch dressing, and unsweetened ice tea.

When he brought my tea, I looked up at him. My little snippet of conversation with him made me realize he wasn't just an appendage to the menu, that an actual person was standing in front of me, an image of God. Wow. I looked at Dylan, squinted my eyes, and tried to imagine that imprint of divinity on his wrinkled black shirt, but it was elusive.

"So, how are you," I said. He allowed as to how he was fine. He asked about me, and I said I was fine, too. That's good. We're both fine. Everybody is just fine. The whole world is fine. But not really. Of course, whenever anyone honestly answers that question we shy away, are in a hurry all of a sudden, answer our cell phone, or make for the door. Danger, we think. Needy person ahead. But Dylan is fine, today anyway. We've got that out of the way.

He returns with my salad. "Here you go."

There he is, a real person.

"You know Frank?," he says.

"Sure, I know Frank. I've been coming here for years. Where is he, anyway?"

"He's been taking some time off, something to do with his hands."

"I hope he's ok."

"Oh sure, he's fine."

I look down at my salad. Dylan leaves.

Ach. Humans, I think. What to say. How to relate. I think about the book I've been reading with my community group from church about how postmoderns come to faith. Dylan is a postmodern, though he may not know the term. He's in process, struggling, trying to belong, to find his place. I wonder how I can bring up spiritual things. I think about some of the questions suggested in the book, like "what do you think is the meaning of life," or "are you interested in spiritual things," but listening to them in my head they just sound awkward. I eat salad, study a sugar packet’s fine print.

"Here's your pizza. Care for some bread?"

"Nope, trying to watch my figure." He turns to leave. "Hey, Dylan, is this your only job?" Lame, but I was trying.

“Yeah. Well, I was studying Computer IT in college, but I dropped out. I don’t know what I want to do. I used to sell computers out of my parents’ garage.”

“Well, it sometimes takes a while to figure out what you want to do, doesn’t it?”

“Yeah, you got that right.”

I guess I could have invited more, like asking him how you go about figuring out what to do with your life. And maybe I will. Next time.

But wait. Part of what I am feeling in this encounter with Dylan is the need to “do evangelism.” In a recent article in Critique, John Seel suggests that this way of doing evangelism is counterproductive among millennials, that a better picture is one of “shared pilgrimage,” of coming alongside someone and making a meaningful connection rather than giving the sense that we have already arrived and are just calling them to come aboard. In the article, Seel says that Millennials are often “haunted by the possibility of an unseen spiritual world,” and he suggests several onramps to that spiritual longing.

All to say, Dylan is not fine, and neither am I. But perhaps we can talk about that, next time. Maybe that’s an onramp to eternity.


A Cat's Choice in Reading

IMG_0251Our cat, the ample one, is asleep on top of the pillow where I lay my head at night, her eyes squeezed tight, her white-glove paws draped over its edge, her ear twittering every now and then, an antenna to the slightest perturbation. I suppose that's fine, and I ponder for a moment whether her life is merely the interstices between naps or the naps are her life. But she doesn't philosophize about such things.

Weighing down one corner of my desk is the hardbound volume of The Complete Stories, by Flannery O'Connor, illustrated by one of her beloved peacocks perched on a tree branch. It looks as if it's been through a fire, its cover smoked. I read (or perhaps re-read) the first story in it yesterday evening, and I have been thinking about it since.

"The Geranium" tells of Old Dudley, a white man from the South who has gone to live with his daughter in New York City, and now regrets it. Everyday Old Dudley watches a man across the way in another apartment building place a potted geranium on the window ledge. He expects it. He waits for it. And today was no exception. Asked by his daughter to retrieve something from a neighbor a few floors below, he goes down. On return he grows winded and collapses on the stairs. A well-dressed Negro helps him up the stairs and to his room, exploding his categories of what was appropriate.

As Old Dudley says, "He hadn't looked at the nigger yet. All the way up the stairs, he hadn't looked at the nigger. 'Well,' the nigger said, 'it's a swell place, once you get used to it.' He patted Old Dudley on the back and went into his own apartment. Old Dudley went into his. The pain in his throat was all over his face now, leaking out his eyes." When Old Dudley sat down by the window, he began to cry. He looked down and saw that the geranium had fallen off the window ledge and lay cracked on the ground below. A man was at the window. "Where is the geranium," Old Dudley quavered. "It ought to be there. Not you."

"The Geranium," the first story that O'Connor wrote, is about racism and exploding categories, about how difficult it can be to change when set in your ways, about the cognitive dissonance that is created when the categories into which we put people don't match the reality we are confronted with. The expected (a geranium on a window sill, the subservient Negro that Old Dudleyused to hunt with down in Alabama) goes missing, falls and is even cracked open, and we have to reckon with that. We cannot long live with dissonance. At once we face our own dissonance, as we empathize with the aged man forced by his infirmities to live away from his home, confronted with a well-dressed Negro renting an apartment across the hall, while recoiling at his bigotry.

My cat has shifted, now facing away from me. She sinks further into the pillow, as if to say, "why bother?"

"Would you like to hear another story?" I say. "One about a dog? Or maybe a poem, just a little one? Something light?" I pull out Mary Oliver's collection, Red Bird, and choose a poem entitled "Percy and Books (Eight)," which I thought appropriate, and read it aloud to her:

Percy does not like it when I read a book.
He puts his face over the top of it and moans.
He rolls his eyes, sometimes he sneezes.
The sun is up, he says, and the wind is down.
The tide is out and the neighbor's dogs are playing.
But Percy, I say. Ideas! The elegance of language!
The insights, the funniness, the beautiful stories
that rise and fall and turn into strength, or courage.

Books? says Percy. I ate one once, and it was enough.
Let's go.

Now she is on the floor by my feet, her tail rising in a spasm every now and then. She chirps, and turns green eyes toward me, searching. Maybe she does not like it when I read a book.

"Which did you like," I said. "The one about the dog or the one about the geranium?" Is the dog poem a sentimental throwaway, I think, or is there something deeper? Is "The Geranium" one of those "beautiful stories that rise or fall and turn into strength, or courage?

But by now she's back on the cratered pillow, back turned, as if to say, "neither." And I wonder if I too, having been prodded, will now return to sleep or whether the beautiful words will have their way with me.


Something Bigger In It


IMG_0001 (1)"A poem is a small thing with all manner of bigger in it."

(Brian Doyle, "A Flurry of Owls," in First Things, Oct. 2016)

All of Mary Oliver’s poems are small things. In opening one of her books of verse, what impresses first is the emptiness of the pages, something which I relish. All that space within which to rest and ponder! One poem, “Invitation,” asks “Oh do you have time/ to linger/ for just a little while/ out of your busy/ and very important day/ for the goldfinches/ that have gathered/ in a field of thistles/ for a musical battle,/ to see who can sing/ the highest note,/ or the lowest,/ or the most expressive of mirth,/ or the most tender?

Not now, I say.

My wife is an inspiration for such solicitude. On the far side of the lake today, she stopped, peering over the rails of the boardwalk fence, and said, “Look at the size of that tree stump. How tall it must have been, how old.” I stopped obligingly, but my internal fitness coach was saying, “This is not a nature walk. Keep moving. Stay focused.” But I leaned over at her bidding and gazed at the gnarly mass of wood half-covered in water. She is the first to see an unusual bird, a red fox, and deer grazing, to hear an animal sound that is misplaced - a signpost for the divine. She is the voice saying, “Oh, do you have time to linger?”

Do I?

Small things have all manner of bigger in them. The seed I crunched under my heel on rejoining the trail may have contained in it an entire tree, a microscopic blueprint of brown and green and science and time only God fully comprehends. The gray cat reclining by my feet carries the weight of history, albeit lightly, unconsciously. I read just now that she is descended from Near Eastern wildcats, having diverged from other cats around 8,000 BC in West Asia. Which explains a few things. The point: she has bigger in her even if it is represented here as a twittering waif, searching my face for the barest sign of movement toward, what else, the food bowl.

“My busy and important day?” Oliver is gently poking my ego. Do you think you are so busy, she says, so very important, that you can’t pay attention to what is happening around you, to a couple of tiny, insignificant birds? She’s right, of course. All that busyness, all that bluster, all those very important phone calls and consultations are less eternal than the “musical battle” of the goldfinches. There should always be time to listen to the not-so-empty pages of life.

Why do they sing? Oliver says “not for your sake/ and not for mine/ but for sheer delight and gratitude — / believe us, they say,/ it is a serious thing/ just to be alive/ on this fresh morning/ in this broken world.” Which is something like worship, I think. Or perhaps it simply is worship. There really is something bigger in it.

Next time I hold the bread and cup, I’ll try not to think about lunch, about what I have to do in my busy, important life, about the lightness of being of what I hold, about the absurdity of a plastic cup of grape juice and Wonder bread pointing to God incarnate. I’ll remember the goldfinches, the poem, the gray cat, and the tree and how pitiable they are as expressions of the divine — and yet within them, the universe. And so, within the cup and bread, everything that matters.

As Oliver concluded,

It could mean something.
It could mean everything.
It could be what Rilke meant, when he wrote:
You must change your life.

But, for now, it is enough that the white space of a late Summer afternoon is spread out before me and another poem open to me: “Be still,” says the author, “and know that I am God.” Outside the window, a crescent leaf flickers in the slight breeze, and I imagine that if I stare at it I can see all the way back to the seed, to the tree that produced that seed, back to the ancestral trees that started it all, back to the Garden, back to the Spirit hovering over the waters, back to Him.

That’s ridiculous, I think, some kind of crazy grace to see that way, to see the big in the little. Yet I pray for more grace, because it is a serious thing to be alive in a broken world.

[The poem is “Invitation,” and is excerpted from Red Bird: Poems by Mary Oliver, Beacon Press, 2008]


A Theology of Things

O-REDWOOD-TREES-facebook Many summers ago my family and I visited the giant sequoia trees of California, the ones preserved in Sequoia National Park. Reading an essay by turn-of-the-century naturalist John Muir a few days ago, I was reminded that these majestic trees — trees so broad and high as to be worship-inspiring — were not always protected but freely logged. Muir wrote his brief essay, “Save the Redwoods,” for The Sierra Club Bulletin, and it was published in 1920. Though Muir was not a Christian, having, as writer Paul Willis notes, “one foot in Emerson's Transcendentalism and one foot in what we would now call. . . fundamentalism,” the essay is imbued with biblical allusions, not surprising given that Muir’s father required him to memorize the entire New as well as much of the Old Testaments. Consequently, Muir was steeped in holy language.

So “Save the Redwoods” was an essay that flowed easily out of Muir’s Bible-saturated upbringing and one that resonated with the more generally religious culture of the 1920s. Muir called for a “righteous uprising in defense of God’s trees.” Referencing the denuding of the great 300-foot Calaveras sequoia, he even (though questionably, even offensively) casts the great tree as a Christ-type, noting that “This grand tree is of course dead, a ghastly disfigured ruin, but it still stands erect and holds forth its majestic arms as if alive and saying, ‘Forgive them, they know not what they do.'” When he speaks of “trees that are still standing in perfect strength and beauty, waving and singing in the mighty forests of the Sierra,” one cannot miss the allusion to Isaiah 55:12 and its trees of the field clapping their hands. In this he picks up on the mystery of the relationship between God and the non-human creation, about which theologian Karl Barth summed up beautifully when he wrote that “when man accepts again his destiny in Jesus Christ…he is only like a late-comer slipping shamefacedly into creation’s choir in heaven and earth, which has never ceased its praise.”

Muir is not far from truth. Creation does testify to God (Ps. 19), and in some mysterious way longs for redemption (Rom. 1). We cannot dismiss it or regard it solely in utilitarian terms, as mere raw material for our use. A theology of “things” is one that treats the natural world as more iconic windows into the transcendent, rich in metaphors for the Divine. Perhaps the best theology of the non-human world is what Oswald Chambers once referred to as “the unaffected loveliness of the commonplace” or, elsewhere, the “ministry of the unnoticed.” We walk by these testimonials to God everyday, often unaffected, and yet the rocks cry out if only we will listen. What do they say? At least, they say God made us, we are not as He intended us to be because of the great brokenness of the world, and yet we are being made right and will be restored in Paradise.

Writer Frederick Buechner is well known for entreating his audience to “listen to your life.” But it’s even more than that. Pay attention. Notice the commonplace, the common places that God so loved. God is speaking through the things of the world. So look.


Not So Ordinary Rescues

A few days ago my wife was walking in the neighborhood when she saw a black cat run across the road - “layin' down running” as my grandmother would have said - a red fox in hot pursuit. The fox stopped short when it saw her and reconsidered. She didn’t say so, but I suspect she glared at it, intervening on behalf of the cat. The cat looped around a house, its house, and disappeared through a flapping door in the side of the garage. Disappointed, the fox turned, retreating begrudgingly into the woods.

A day so later, we were walking together when we saw the black cat again, this time in pursuit of a tiny baby rabbit that hopped across the sidewalk, brushing against me before disappearing in some shrubbery. The cat turned and walked across the street in the direction of a mother rabbit (well, perhaps father) who hopped away, the cat in pursuit. My wife chased the cat, the ingrate, across the yard and back to its house, while the rabbit squeezed through a crack in a Mr. McGregor fence, safe, though separated from its baby. We fretted about that baby, about how the mother would find her, hoping I suppose that our fret-prayers would reach God’s ear.

Today, while walking, it was my wife who needed assistance. Moving from street to sidewalk, as a lone car came toward us, she fell in the grassy strip between the curb and sidewalk. I extended a hand and raised her up, brushed her off, took my shirt and dried her arm wet with dew, for which she smiled, an unneeded but sufficient reward. Later, I recalled, “Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their labor: If either of them falls down, one can help the other up. But pity anyone who falls and has no one to help them up” (Ecclesiastes 4:9-10).

That’s three to one: she rescued a cat, a mother rabbit, and a baby rabbit. But I “rescued” her. But who's counting? All point to a God who rescues us.

I know that these unremarkable events are, on one level, not worth writing about and not worth your time to read. Yet seen another way, these events and their loose association (at least in my mind) are what N.T. Wright calls “strange signposts pointing beyond the landscape of our contemporary culture and out into the unknown.” I’d add: Not so strange, even ordinary, signposts, a confluence of the mundane through which the transcendent seeps. Ordinary rescues, if you will, pointing to a larger project, one described by Wright as one where Jesus “took the tears of the world and made them his own, carrying them all the way to his cruel and unjust death to carry out God’s rescue operation” and, what’s more, a rescue where He “took the joy of the world and brought it to new birth as he rose from the dead and thereby launched God’s new creation.”

He stands between His people and a cunning Pursuer, glares at him and holds His ground, even chases him from light to dark. He reaches down and lifts us up, let’s our hurt be His, and wipes us clean. For that, we smile, and walk on.


Carrier, RIP

Product_Lg_performance_comfort_AC_24ACB7We lost our air conditioner yesterday. It was tired. In the last few years come summer it has struggled to climb the mounting heat and humidity. Various bandages had been applied during the course of its decline. Most recently, six weeks ago, a new coil was installed in the condenser on the exterior of our home, yet the technician was pessimistic even then, noting its age and clucking at the possibility of deeper issues. Still, I couldn’t bring myself to put it out to pasture. “You can make it,” I thought, maybe even to the unknown perhaps distant day we sell the house, my heart buoyed by its whirr and chill. I laid my hand on it, as if to encourage. “You can do it!” Yet it couldn’t.

Now it’s laying ignominiously on our lawn. Earlier, Fred and Sam, our interventionists, struggled to pull its long companion, the gas furnace and coil, from the wall of our attic where it had attached itself, tied by an umbilical cord that went through the wall and down, down, down to the condensing unit outdoors. I couldn’t watch this wrenching procedure. The sounds of the struggle filtered down to my study, nonetheless — grinding. prying, hammering, banging, and then one last gasp as it gave up its hold. Sweating, with labored breathing, they carried it out the front door, from whence it had likely come twelve years ago, and tossed it in the yard, tossed it because, after such a fight, one is no doubt slightly mad, like a boxer in a ring after several rounds.

It was a Carrier, God rest its coil. I’ll miss it. When I lay in bed at night listening to the sounds of the night, to the creaks and groans of a house settling on its haunches, its whoosh and whirr were almost as lulling as an oscillating fan, the faithful Galaxy we resurrected every time the Carrier failed. When it shut down, it had a signature and mysterious clunk, perhaps indicative of its last illness, one last whoosh, and then silence, a fluttering, noisy burst of wind followed by the exhale of a long nap — too long, sometimes.

Sam pried the condensing unit from its nest of concrete outside our den window. I imagined him coaxing it to give way, as one might encourage an aged parent to cooperate. Sam is Filipino, and earlier apologized for his accent. I now know him to be a believer in Jesus, a fan of Ronald Reagan, a son hoping to bring his mother to live with him in the States, all of which makes me feel better about this transition. I knew he would be gentle with the bones of the air handling unit and condenser, as a son with his mother. Yet right now Fred is backing down the drive and hits an overhanging branch, and Sam laughs and says, with accent, “He can’t drive.” But look at the work he does, I think.

Later, I looked inside the condenser in a way I hadn’t before. It’s cavernous, much of it open and vacant, its serpentine coils and refrigerant housed in the bottom, a fan and streamlined casing its shiny, fluttering face to the world. The new coil we purchased at great cost just six weeks ago, when the technician shook his head at us, shone. Like gold, I thought. My gold. It was my last attempt to stay its demise, temporary life support for a terminal patient.

We looked inside Fred’s truck. “Hmm, Fred keeps a dirty truck,” my wife said. I nodded. Parts, dirty rags, papers, and tools were strewn throughout, like a surgical bay gone awry. Tool-Man Tim would have been aghast. And yet these were the weapons of war, the detritus of life, held down by a mix of oil and dirt.

The new air handling unit, a Lennox, stands a good three feet taller than the squatty Carrier that was removed. If you stand on top of it, you can see the coastline. No, perhaps not. Yet it is very tall. My son asked if we could have it resituated, as it is now visible from our den window. Sometimes change is difficult to accept. We prefer the classic form of the Carrier to the hip, skinny jeans of the Lennox standing Babel-like just outside our window. A few summer thunderstorms, replete with hail, and a few mercury-high days near 100, and it may lose its pride and adopt a lower profile. And we will get used to it.

Our old Carrier had two speeds: on and off. This one is a continuum of speeds, adaptable, as if we need all that, as if we need 200 channels on our TV. And, above all else, it has more power, and we all need more power, right? But seriously, the old Carrier was sadly underpowered and its annual battle with the drenched air of a southern summer was like sending Robin to do battle when Batman was needed. It was too much for the poor lad, but he kept at it. The technician told us, with a gleam in his eye, that the Lennox would give us 100% when we needed it, but drop back to 35% when the heat subsided, sending in reinforcements as needed. The war is on, and I regularly monitor the battle from the fancy touchpad thermostat outside our bedroom.

It’s a durable name, Carrier. In 1902, a 25-year-old engineer from New York named Willis Carrier invented the first modern air-conditioning system. First designed to control humidity in the printing plant where he worked, in1922, he followed up with the invention of the centrifugal chiller, which added a central compressor to reduce the unit's size. (Do I sound like an engineer? I’m not.) It was introduced to the public on Memorial Day weekend, 1925, when it debuted at the Rivoli Theater in Times Square. For years afterward, people piled into air-conditioned movie theaters on hot summer days, giving rise to the summer blockbuster.

All of which makes it even harder to throw it aside for a Lennox upstart. I want to pretend I’m in the Rivoli Theater in Times Square. I can’t now. I’ve ditched it for the multiplex with the sticky floors. I don't even have a picture to remember it by.

This morning I even said to my wife, after sleeping with the Lennox for only one night, “I wonder if we could build a house that stayed cool without air conditioning.” The question hung in mid-air, steamy mid-air. That, I concluded, would require too many servants to fan me. But we could take turns.


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.

_______________________

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.

___________________________

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.

_________________________________

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.


Loving the Home You're With

When you hear of the refugee crisis on Europe or elsewhere, it’s easy to generalize and scuttle thought of such things to a mental file labeled “inadequate information” or even “uncomfortable to think about.” Yet Tim Stafford’s article in the May/June issue of Books & Culture, entitled “Cities of Refuge,” both humanizes the “crisis” by particularizing it while, at the same time, not pointing a finger of blame or prescribing a remedy. He simply brings to light what is really at stake: the struggles of the many men, women and children who have fled Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, and other places of strife for a place of safety. Few, no matter what their political persuasion, would be unmoved or unsympathetic to their plight.

Consider this: 1.2 million refugees entered Germany last year alone. To get there, all of them had to endure long walks, hunger, corrupt transporters, perilous boat trips across the Mediterranean, and abusive border patrols. Stafford followed the road the refugees traveled backwards through Europe — from Germany back through Austria, Croatia, Serbia, and finally Greece. What he finds is primarily people who are generous and open to helping the refugees, and yet a concern that Germany — the ultimate destination of most of the refugees — has taken on more than it can handle. And yet many Christians regard it as a gift, an opportunity to share the Gospel with those who might never otherwise have heard. For example, one pastor Stafford interviewed, Glen Ganz, said, “This is the biggest migration in human history. If you believe that God made the world, and rules the world, you have to pay attention to what goes on. This is a sign of the time.”

Stafford sums it up well, concluding that: “Now that I have reached the end of our journey, I find I don’t know how to summarize it. It is like witnessing an earthquake or a tornado: there is not much analysis to be done, just description. These are the people. These are their stories. These are their responses, however feeble. I don’t know what comes next. Nobody does.” Having talked to many people, he says that “not one ventured to describe a comprehensive solution.” Yet it’s this very lack of precision that made me hopeful, as it gives one a sense of humility and dependence on God. If the article had prescribed a solution to this epic migration, I would have been suspect. Simply telling the stories helped me enter the world of these refugees for a moment, sense some of what they felt, and simply cry out to God, “how long?” Isn’t that part of our response to great suffering? Their exilic plight brings to mind the cry of the Babylonian exiles, whose laments were given expression by the Pslamist’s cry of “How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” (Ps. 137:4). How?

Yet that’s our cry as well, or should be. Exile should in the DNA of Christians everywhere. It is the very state of being in the world but not of it. To the extent we feel marginalized, disenfranchised, alienated, uncomfortable, and restless in our time and place, it’s healthy if not easy. We are, after all, “aliens and strangers in the world,” (1 Pet. 2:11) or said another way, we are estranged and alienated. In the West, for too long we have not felt that; now, we better. This phrase is not just descriptive but prescriptive, when read in conjunctive with other scriptures. Earlier Peter tells us, in v. 17, to “live our lives as strangers here in reverent fear.” He is saying: Be strange. Be alien. Remember you don’t belong here. Remember your homeland. Remember that you are exiles here.

Our citizenship is in heaven (Phil. 3:20). Our lives are to be transformed by the Gospel and not conformed to the world. Though we bear witness to and serve the community of non-believers around us, we do not integrate their beliefs with ours but affirm what is true, good, and beautiful wherever we find it. We build our homes and lives among them, yet know that we are in very fundamental ways not like them, having our own language, practices, and beliefs rooted in revelation and not in mere agreement or personal autonomy. We have to wisely, humbly, courageously, and hopefully figure out how, in this time and place of exile, to be good aliens.

When Stafford talks with refugees, they long for a home that no longer exists, and for one to come. They want to settle, to have work, to be able to provide for themselves and families. They want to laugh again, to live. They want to dwell in the land, even as exiles. They want to be good aliens.

God says to the exiles through Jeremiah, "Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. . . . Marry. . . . [and] find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage" (Jer. 29:5-6).  He says to the anxious exiles in Babylon “I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, to give you a reason and hope."  He says to us: Settle. Be holy. Be different. Yet don’t circle the wagons and wait for the Army. Live. He says they are to carry on with a full life in the world they are in.  Though they are aliens and exiles, he calls them to a thorough engagement in love with that world, telling them to "seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you in exile" --- not their own peace and prosperity, but that of the community's. 

Want to be a good alien? Accept that you are different and will only feel more different as you grow in faith. Your spiritual DNA is different. You belong elsewhere. And yet, though you are peculiar, settle in. This is our home. We know this place better than anyone. Everything true, good, and beautiful should foreshadow an eternal home. Be fully engaged in the life of this world, with the people all around you. And finally, love the world. Ask God to show you everything that is true and good and beautiful, and rejoice in it. Add to it. Make it flourish.

Just remember: This is a shadow. The real is to come. If you can’t yet be in the Home you love, love the home you’re with.


Lunch, and After

This morning I carried a small space heater I keep in my “reading room” to the attic, figuring I did not need it anymore. I was wrong. There was a chill in the house this morning and afternoon, but my wife said she could tolerate it. So I guess I will too.

As we had lunch, the cat milled about my feet, whining, head-butting every protuberance, and yet if I make a move toward her she will run. Upstairs she will run. And so I yelled after her, “I’m not falling for it this time, you hear? I’m not coming up there.” And my wife said, “Sure you will.” But I didn’t. Cats toy with you, you know. Next I looked she reclined on the floor, upside down. It is what they do best.

My wife had been walking around the lake the other day with a friend from Uganda. Mind you, Ugandans are not into exercise walking but keep a pace that allows them to go the distance. They are always walking - to market, to water, to school, to work. They gracefully stroll. Any faster would be running. They persevere in walking. But while they were strolling, they saw a red-capped bird, a woodpecker perhaps, yet unlike others we have seen. Now, looking at Audubon’s guide, she identifies it as a pileated woodpecker. The largest woodpecker. Now we know.

But we’re drawn to the mockingbird, a few pages over. We read that one mockingbird will serve for a plethora of birds, as it can imitate the calls of up to 50 different birds. I carried my dishes to the sink. “And tractors, sirens, and dogs,” she added. And I thought: There’s a bird of birds, an actor, a soundtrack for the outdoors. So, if you think you have a diverse group of birds in the backyard, or a truck stop, look hard: it may be just one mockingbird. That annoying tapping? A pileated woodpecker, or your over-industrious neighbor in his latest DIY project. God toys with us, though in goodness.

Even inside by my window where I sit now, I hear the low hum of commerce, a siren, the revving of an engine, the slightest whistle of a breeze. Yet I can’t even see the next house. Brown has given way to green, as if God was infatuated with green and painted everything some shade of it, layer upon layer upon layer.

“The poetry of the earth is never dead,” said poet John Keats, a phrase that, reading it now, hearkens back to English literature, suffered in college but still alive in me now. And so these sounds and sights out my window — these earth wise glimpses — sound like music, and if I could chart them would make something like a symphonic score. Or a folk song, if that’s too grand. But it’s true. The Psalmist says that it’s true 24/7, because Creation is ever giving God glory in that “Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge. There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard. Their voice goes out into all the world, their words to the end of the world” (Ps. 19:2-4). And to the end of my backyard.

So, wherever you are, look around you. Do you hear that Voice? Not the mockingbird, not the pileated woodpecker, not the crow that caws overhead, but the Voice behind these voices, the One who says “It is good.”


Staying Put

"My office is where the Brooklyn Bridge drops into Manhattan. I live in Brooklyn, and on good days, I walk across the bridge and into work."

"Are you married," I ask.

"No, not yet. I like New York. It's fun living there. I have a girlfriend. The restaurants are good, when I can afford them. But I think about North Carolina every day. I can't imagine raising kids in the City. I think I'll eventually make my way back."

In Staying Put: Making a Home in a Restless World, Scott Russell Sanders stands against what he calls the "vagabond wind" of our culture, considering the "virtue and discipline of staying put." It's a book about nature and family and community, as these he says are "inseparable from the effort to be grounded in place."

In one chapter of his book, Sanders focus on the influence that moving water has on our sense of place: "When we figure our addresses, we might do better to forget zip codes and consider where the rain goes after it falls outside our windows." There's that which falls on the impermeable surfaces of our homes and driveways and streets and is cabined into gutters and storm drains, dumped ignominiously into streams. There's that which falls onto the ground, seeps in and becomes part of a vast moving flow of groundwater, some of which is retained far below and some of which also flows downhill into streams and rivers.

On our morning walk, we pass an unnamed brook, at times of drought a reluctant if persistent and hopeful trickle; in gully-washing rains a fulsome rush, swollen in pride. Anything that falls in --- leaf, branch, or hapless insect --- is pulled along. It has no name, yet I know where it goes. I say "brook," as our subdivision is called Brookhaven, and yet someone has said that a brook is a stream you can step over; not so, a creek. I think this is a creek. To try and step over - at least at certain points - is to step in.

Where is it going? On to Crabtree Creek (which you definitely cannot step over), and then to the Neuse River, emptying into the Pamlico Sound below New Bern, and then on to the Atlantic. Home. So when I dip my toe or finger in this unnamed brook, I am sending some of me to the Atlantic. Leaving home.

I have lived here for 40 years. I call it home. Were I to live in the City, I'd be thinking about this place. I'd stand in the middle of the Brooklyn Bridge, look down at the East River, gaze down its course to sea, and wish myself home. I'd think about North Carolina every day. Just like my friend does.

"Look," I say, "so what is it about North Carolina that attracts you? You have a great city at your doorstep here."

"I don't know. It's just a great place."

I would have added: it's topography, the lay of the land; the cardinals, bluebirds, finch, and even mockingbirds that nest in our trees; pork barbecue; small towns; and the extraordinariness of it's very ordinary life. And that's just for starters.

So I suspect, like falling water finds the sea, he'll make his way home.


Waking Up

In Annie Dillard’s memoir of growing up, An American Childhood, she writes of the process of self-consciousness for a child: “Children ten years old wake up and find themselves here, discover themselves to have been here all along; is this sad?” What she describes is the necessary process of discovering yourself and the world around, of waking up, of gradually and then all at once having it dawn on you that you are unique and separate, and that the world is larger and more mysterious than you thought — well, if you thought.

One such moment came for me before I was ten. I was riding in the car with my mother, going to my grandmother’s house, and I happened to look up from my book and notice a home I was passing, one more modest than mine, paint peeling, grass patchy and overgrown. A black woman was coming through the door, and the screen door was flapping on its hinges, and though I couldn’t hear it, I knew that sound. I was no longer a child. I was suddenly aware that I was different than this woman, than her family.

Dillard says “I noticed this process of waking, and guessed with terrifying logic that one of these years far away I would be awake continuously and never slip back, and never be free of myself again.” Never be free of myself again.

As necessary as this process of consciousness is, it is also sad, as it has the unfortunate consequence of making us think too much about ourselves and too little of others. And yet if a child is blessedly unconscious of self, he is also unaware of how his actions may impact others and, thus, he can act cruelly and selfishly. Our real goal as we grow old is to grow in wonder at and love for the world and others while cultivating our own self-forgetfulness.

In The Freedom of Self Forgetfulness, Tim Keller writes that “True gospel-humility means I stop connecting every experience, every conversation, with myself. In fact, I stop thinking about myself. The freedom of self forgetfulness. The blessed rest that only self-forgetfulness brings.” Like children, it is possible for us to be blessedly unaware of ourselves. Yet unlike children, we are also aware of our tendency to relate everything to ourselves. Yet know the antidote: regular, moment-to-moment looking to Christ, who has forgiven us and accepts us just as we are (Rom. 8:1). Our identity is rooted in Christ. We wake up, for sure, but it's Christ we wake to.

It’s true we’ll never be free of ourselves again. But our picture of self will be transformed by Christ. That’s not sad at all. That's freedom, that's joy.


A Perambulatory Faith

Image"The life of faith is not a life of mounting up with wings, but a life of walking and not fainting." (Oswald Chambers)

No one I know uses the word "perambulatory" in ordinary conversation. That's a shame. It's a perfectly good word. If someone is walking we might say they are ambulatory. (Well, a doctor might.) However, perambulatory carries another sense: to walk about, travel around, go through. And that's what we do in life, we travel through and walk about. We even wander at times. That's how we discover and learn. That's how we grow.

Scripture is full of perambulators. The Israelites walked from Egypt to the Promised Land. Nehemiah walked from Babylon to a Jerusalem in ruins. Jesus walked the hills and valleys of Palestine. The Apostle Paul journeyed throughout much of the known world by foot. Everywhere, the people of the Book walked.

Not only that, scripture has much to say about how we walk. We are enjoined to walk in Christ, in the light, by faith and not sight, in truth, and by Spirit. Broadly speaking, the Christian life is described as a walk, a sojourn, one in which we are aliens and strangers in the world, one in which we often wander, knowing the object of our faith-walk, Christ, yet not always knowing where to take the next step. In Colossians 2:6 (ESV), Paul says that "as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.” Yet walking in Him can involve a fair amount of wandering; we know our destination but don't know quite how we will get there. We have tools (scripture, prayer) but we have no step-by-step instruction manual.

In my drive home from work, one which takes about 25 minutes, I know exactly where I am going. I usually follow the same set of roads. Yet sometimes, when I have the time, I take a different route, one that takes me through neighborhoods, by streams, and under canopies of trees. One that requires many turns, curves and stops. One in which I am always slightly lost, as I refuse to memorize the route but just let it unfold before me. My wandering allows me to see things I haven't seen before or, at least, not regularly. I may be surprised by the sounds of birds, children playing on a lawn, new home construction, closed roads, or a road down which I have never ventured. I am not lost or, at least, am only a little lost. I am wandering home.

In his book, Dusty Ones: Why Wandering Deepens Your Faith, A.J. Swoboda says that "Our efforts to learn to love and follow Jesus must meander through wherever we are as we wander our way through life." For Swoboda, wandering and discipleship are linked, as "One can wander and be right on track, just as being in the desert doesn't necessarily mean we are deserted." Wandering doesn't mean we're lost, just figuring things out. For Swoboda, "Christian spirituality is a slow train that must inevitably stop at every Podunk town." It is, as Eugene Peterson once wrote, "a long obedience in the same direction." To be sure, scripture speaks often of those who wander away from the commandments, from truth, who seek their own way, but "not all who wander are lost," says J.R.R. Tolkien, in a poem from his Fellowship of the Ring.

That's worth remembering. If we know those who seem off track or wandering, who are perambulating, ourselves included, they may not be lost. And they are never deserted. Pray for them. Pray for yourself. Point to Jesus, the Author and Perfecter of our faith. They will yet come home. As will we.


E.B. White in the Car Park

It all began well enough. While my wife and daughter were shopping, I propped myself up in the car, in a rectangular space touched by the spare shadow of a tree, and began to read. The book, Poems & Sketches of E.B. White, was a somewhat shelf-worn hardback, one I was delighted to find for $4.50 the other evening, plucked off the shelf where it would no doubt languish for months in the dusty poetry section. It is not, after all, Stuart Little.

First up was a sketch by White entitled "The Hotel of the Total Stranger," a languid tale of a traveler, a Mr. Volente, checking into an unairconditoned Manhattan hotel. My eyes grew heavy. The sounds of traffic wafted in. A desert breeze teased. I lost my place, re-read a few paragraphs, repositioned myself, and read: "New York lay stretched in midsummer languor under her trees in her thinnest dress, idly and beautifully. . . . The trucks and the sudden acceleration and the flippant horn and the rustle of countless affairs somewhat retarded by the middle-of-summer pause in everything, these were the sounds of her normal breathing. . . ." Ah, metaphor.

A bird just flew into the grill of a Ford Explorer, parked catty-cornered to me, reconsidered, and flew off. I looked away, embarrassed for him. I dove back in.

Mr. Volente is remembering, his cab ride from Penn Station to his hotel a revisiting of personal history: the Child's restaurant where the waitress had spilled a glass of buttermilk on his blue suit, a catastrophe he had spun into a magazine article, the square where a small dog had been struck by a cab and killed, a cafe off Washington place where he and his wife dined the night they married, the room above the fire escape where the air was recycled: "In those days, he thought, there was no air conditioning: the same air remained in the small rooms and moved about, distributed by a fan, from table to table with the drifting smoke, until the whole place gathered over a period of months and years an accumulation of ardor and love and adventure and hope, a fine natural patina on floors and walls, as a church accumulates piety and sorrow and holiness."

I had to pause there and look out over the cars toward the mountains and consider the church, walls caked with piety, layered with sorrows, enobled by prayers, aged like fine wine to holiness. I closed my eyes. The book fell closed. . .

"Mr. West?"

"Um. . . What? What was that?"

"Mr. West, we are here. Your hotel?"

I looked up to see a short stub of a man peering at me from an open door, a streetscape out the window, a city.

"My hotel?"

"Yes sir."

I closed my eyes and wished it away. A dream. Rubbing my eyes I opened them on the book, picking up where I left off. Outside, a baby chattered, his mother fussily stowing him in the car. Birds twittered, decorated cars, and made off to laugh at their work. An aging biker revved his bike on Skyline, as if to hold off aging. Seventy-five year old words float in the shiny new of suburbia, seemed alien to a parking lot of late model cars.

Mr. Volente. Mr. Volente is remembering. There is something here about the "lean and tortured years," about mornings alone spent in the apartment straightening up after the others had left for work, rinsing the dirty cereal-encrusted bowls, taking the percolator apart and putting it together again, and then "sinking down on the lumpy old couch in the terrible loneliness of midmorning, sometimes giving way to tears of doubt and misgiving (his own salt rivers of doubt), and in the back room the compensatory window box with the brave and grimy seedlings struggling, and the view of the naked fat lady across the yard."

Mr. Volente, I say, I did not need that last image.

I flip over to the last page of the book, because if nothing else a book, particularly one assembled with deliberation as was this, should begin well and end well, and because I need another image for my mind, and I land on "The Crack of Doom," which seems promising if foreboding.

I glance at my watch. Will I have time to traverse the crack of doom before my wife and daughter finish their spree? I decide to go for it and plunge in.

Earth is experiencing atmospheric disturbances. Elm trees die, a "loss considered unfortunate but not significant." Tropical storms increase. Sleeping sickness breaks out. Scientists figure out that a new disease, which affects people's necks in middle age, came from the habit of feeding orange juice to very young babies, in vogue around 1910. A man named Elias Gott discovers that all the trouble is due to radio waves. Eventually, the radio waves threw the earth off orbit, where it crashed into a fixed star, going up in "brilliant flame," a flash "noticed on Mars, where it brought a moment of pleasure to young lovers; for on Mars it is the custom to kiss one's beloved when a star falls."

But what this apocalypse has to do with the crack of doom is unknown. Yet I want to flip back to the beginning, tell Mr. Volente that it doesn't matter anyway, that it will end in one "brilliant flame." But I don't. Why ruin his melancholy? Somewhere in this story is an inside joke, I imagine, yet it is outside to all, its contemporary readers all dead.

The end flap says White is "witty, wise and pensive." Yet I am put off, as whoever wrote it never knew the man. The author of The Elements of Style would never have left off a comma after "wise" lest he be haunted by William Strunk. I take my pen out and edit it, insert the comma, and restore order to the world.

I shut the book and settle back into my lumpy seat, my mid-day rest, let Mr. Volente remember, turn the radio on, and prepare for the end of the world.


An Eno Walk

IMG_4660About 200 feet into the park, down a rutted trail that skirted the ridge above the river, she spotted a yellow flower just inside the guard rail, its glory ephemeral and slight, bowing as if apologetic for interrupting what was still winter. “I think it’s a trillium,” she said, stooping for a photo, composing the flower as would one engaged in portraiture. It was alone, a promise of more, over-eager for Spring.

I kept the word.

We crossed the Eno on the suspension bridge, jostled by a pack of scouts, swaying over the rapid flow below. On the far bank, we began the ascent of Cox Mountain; the namer, we thought, prone to exaggeration. The trail does lead nearly straight up for a 270 foot climb in elevation, as if to insist on its claim of height — a slight mountain, if in fact it is, or a large hill, yet enough to wind us. That there are no switchbacks is a giveaway: it is a pretend mountain, after all, yet we went along, believing.

“I think we have been here before,” I said.

“I told you.” She had told me, yet I thought it was another trail that day, some five years ago now. Then, we entered from another side, nearly alone, an electric buzz in the background, amorous cicadas a clearly excited amateur entomologist told us, migrants passing through, held up by love. We thought it the sound of the high tension electrical lines over the clearing, yet it was of another tension.

Overhead, squirrels chatter and play chase. One sits on a branch above our heads gnawing noisily on a pine cone. As she approaches, it scrambles father up to a slender promontory from which it peers down, the cone still attached.

Down, down we go until we stand on the alluvial banks of the river, the sun dancing on the water. I lean against a gnarled hickory tree, peer at the river’s run through an eyelet between its twin trunks. I snap a photo of her there by the water, taking a photo of the water’s play on rocks, and then turn to go when the stillness is interrupted by strangers.

I need her along, as I have trouble slowing my gait enough to observe. This is not about destination but journey, about slowing down to let the world seep in. And I need it.

Returning, at one point we follow the old track of the Hillsborough Coach Road, and I imagine the horses and wagons of farmers and grist and saw mill owners traversing it. They were not the first. According to Adam Morgan, whose North Carolina’s Wild Piedmont: A Natural History is a wealth of cogent insight, in 1701 English naturalist John Lawson met up with a group of Native Americans in the area headed by a one named Enoe Hill. The Indians were pushed out, the land logged, and over 30 gristmills built, the ruins of some of which still remain. So, the landscape has been altered.

According to Morgan, the steep ravines and high bluffs that seem so natural did not exist before the Europeans came. Rather, what they saw was a valley of meandering streams and wetlands, the etched out valley bottoms the product of mill dam sedimentation. And then the forests are constantly changing, the pines pushed out by hardwoods. Still, altered or not, it’s beautifully dressed with oak, hickory, mountain laurel, and rhododendron. Some type of fungi, a parasite, juts from the bark of one hardwood I rested my hand on, the tiny shelves catching raindrops which birds then harvest.

It wasn’t trillium after all but yellow trout-lily, all of which I later learn thanks to Audubon. Trout because the mottled leaves reminded someone of brook trout, though their aroma is far better. I learn that they live in colonies, some near 300 years old, like a communion of the saints, their sagging posture a precursor for asexual reproduction: a “dropper,” a tubular stem that grows out of a corm, penetrates deep into the soil before another corm is formed at its tip and the stem connecting the daughter and parent corm dies, an umbilical cord no longer needed.

The cicadas have a better time of it. Apparently.


The Remedy for Amnesia

"The well of your incompleteness runs deep, but make the effort to look away from yourself and to look toward Him."

(Oswald Chambers, in My Utmost for His Highest)

If you are anything like me (and I suspect you are), there are many things about life or about yourself that you can't seem to change or that simply don't change. Perhaps it is a person who you desire to see come to faith, or a habit you wish to break or adopt. Maybe it is writ large yet elusive, like peace in the Middle East or the end of ISIS. You have reached down into the well of your being, summoned all your resources, done all you can, and yet nothing. No lasting weight loss. No coming to faith of that friend. Not a glimmer of peace. Then, a seed of doubt or distrust is planted. Can God do anything? Will He do anything? There is a chipping away of trust.

Chambers says "look away from yourself and look toward Him." He has the living water. He has what we need. How? I tell myself these truths regularly: First, I affirm that He is God Almighty not just God my friend, that He can do anything. Second, I affirm that He desires my good and that He has a good plan for the universe and will bring it to fruition in His good time. Third, I remind myself of what He has already done and is already doing, cultivating a posture of thankfulness. Fourth, I persist in praying for the thing I desire over and over and over again, like the widow before the judge, not because He is hard of hearing or too busy but because He desires that I come, until He either answers my prayer or reorders my desires. And fifth, I read scripture, the record of his dealings with the likes of me, to remind myself that every kind of plea I may make is the kind already answered by God.

No, honestly, I am not regular enough at these things. I offer suffer temporary amnesia. I forget the truth. It's likely for that reason that forgetful Israelites repeated the stories of deliverance to themselves so often, stories of exodus and victory. It's the reason God began so many conversations with "Remember." It's why the Psalmist, after verse upon verse of woe and complaint comes round to a chorus of God's enduring love, faithfulness, and redemption.

Across nearly a century, Oswald Chambers' voice echoes: "The thing that approaches the very limits of His power is the very thing that we as disciples of Jesus ought to believe He will do." He can do anything, and He will. Look to Jesus, Chambers says. Look to Jesus.


Place-Making

"Isn't this great?," my son said, as he looked up from the oven. "I love this."
We're cooking. The chocolate chip cookies, inchoate but promising, lay in doughy mounds on the cookie sheet. The ingredients for a bacon and spinach quiche are prepared and put to bed in the refrigerator. After washing dishes by hand and laying them in a rack to dry, I retire to the sofa. I am not allowed to cook, but I did get to measure out the flour, salt, brown sugar, and baking soda, like a chemist's assistant in the laboratory of my scientist son.

I examine the bookshelf. A large 75th anniversary edition of The Joy of Cooking is juxtaposed with Advanced Aerodynamics, a bio of pilots Chuck Yeager and Burt Rutan, and the historical Moonshot, like one might expect of the library of a flying chef, gathering up the raw ingredients of space and making things, things for me to eat, while running on about gravity and thrust, Mars and cars --- he in the kitchen, peripatetic, gesticulating; I, reclining, reflecting. Our wife and mother, in contrast, happy to be working alongside us.

"Let's watch The Martian!," he says, brightly.

"Been there. Done that," I say, though I should have agreed. We settle on Johnny English, seconds or thirds for us all, yet still funny. We laugh as we wait for cookie dough to bake, eat between cachinnations.

The window above his head is a rectangle of black, yet I know its view. Across a courtyard, in the distance, beyond the Stanford campus, one can see just a bit of the Coast Range. Beyond that is Half Moon Bay and the Pacific. If you could, look east, and there's Palo Alto and the Bay; north, Menlo Park, Redwood City, and end on end towns until San Francisco, until the Golden Gate, until Sauselito and Muir Woods and north and north in Kerouac country.

The arranged books, the cooking together, the conversation, and, if you remove us, the regular patterns of his day --- waking, walking, working, --- transform a space into a place, give roots to what could have been ephemeral. With some attention, some deliberation, it is not. It is even, in some temporal sense, his home.

________________________________

In the opening essay in a collection of essays about place, entitled Why Place Matters: Geography, Identity, and Civic Life in Modern America, Wilfred McClay takes note of "an ordinary but disquieting phenomenon: the translation of place into space, the transformation of a setting that had once been charged with human meaning into one from which the meaning has departed, something empty and inert, a mere space." We all know this feeling from when we move from one place to another. We take out our last belongings, remove the paintings from the walls, sweep out even the last rubbish and dirt of our life there, and then sense the inevitable, a place giving way to space. Soon, no trace of us will remain. And though we may maintain relationships via the simultaneity of the Internet, they exist displaced and, in some way, not quite the same.

But McClay says that what was once a normal yet not too common experience of displacement is becoming a more pervasive, enduring, and damaging phenomenon for many people. "As we become ever more mobile and more connected and absorbed in a panoply of things that are not immediately present to us," he says, "our actual and tangible places seem less and less important to us, more and more transient or provisional or interchangeable or even disposable." As a result of this lightly held existence, "[t]he pain of parting becomes less, precisely because there is so little reason to invest oneself in 'place' to begin with." In short, we have a deep need for community and yet less and less ability to develop and sustain it.

McClay says that both commerce and government are only too willing to assist our displacement. "A national government and a global economy always tend in the direction of consolidation and uniformity, toward the imposition of a uniform standard." Efficiency requires commodification, transience, and predictability. Economically, we are only consumers; to hold to tightly to a particular place is antithetical to market forces.

But what McClay says is that to be a healthy, dynamic society we must embrace a strong sense of place. Quoting historian William Leach, he says that "People require a firm sense of place so they can dare to take risks. A society whose common store of memories has been beaten down or shattered is open to further disruption; for such a society cannot defend or protect itself from the stronger incursions of those who know what they want and how to get it."

Christians are called to be place-makers. When a shattered nation of Israelites was torn from their home and carried off into exile, God called them to"build house and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce." To a displaced people suffering displacement as a judgment for their unfaithfulness, he commands place-making, even in a space not of their own choosing. So too does he command us --- not to long wistfully for another place, not to avoid entangling ourselves in relationships, not to risk little so as not to be hurt much. But to dig in deep, to dwell, to settle in and make a place from the space where we find ourselves.

________________________________

The movie over, we gather our belongings and leave his place. We return to our hotel on El Camino Real, a space that is not quite a place for us given our very temporal lodging there. Nevertheless, even there we are place-makers. I take all my clothes out of my suitcase and hang them or fold them away in drawers, giving it some semblance of permanence. Having learned the name of African-born valet from a previous visit, we greet him and ask how he is, like a friend we seldom see. We enjoy the angle of the morning sunlight in our room. I place books on the desk, nightstand, and by the reading chair. We walk down University Avenue and under the ancient and broad-limbed trees of the Stanford campus. We eat locally, at Mayfield's and Peninsula. We drink up the sun and breeze. We go to church and mingle. I pretend, just for these days, that I live here in what would be a tiny overpriced bungalow, try to look carefully at the people city, as if I might never see it again.

I make a place. I always do. It's what we do. It's what we're called to do.


Permutations & Combinations


ImageMy wife is a gamer. I mean that in a very limited way. She doesn't binge in front of the Xbox, playing Call of Duty: Black Ops, though I expect she would do quite well. No, when we go out to lunch or dinner and wait on our meal, the backdrop of our conversation is often a game of IZee, which is really a form of Yahtzee played on her iPhone. Pass and play. She's competitive and yet gracious, whether winning or losing. I'm not. . . competitive that is. . . as I lose too much. I do try to be gracious.

"Hey, you're almost winning," I say, as we wait on pizza.

"What do you mean? We're tied."

"Well, you're almost winning. One more point and you will win. I'm almost winning too."

She smiled. The man and woman at the booth next to us stare at us. They are sitting on the same side of the booth, which is odd, and they are not smiling. I look back at the game.

On many of the hundreds of occasions we have played this game, the words "permutations" and "combinations" enter my consciousness. A door opens on a tenth grade math class of some sort in which we studied these concepts. I'm looking out at the class, oddly enough, from the teacher's perspective, and my eyes sweep the class and go right to the large and open windows which look out on a flag pole, it's rope snapping in the wind, the ring that holds it clanging the pole. I have only the vaguest notion of what the words mean, but I think the sound of the phrase, permutations and combinations, was what I enjoyed, its assonance.

"Your turn."

I role a six, five, three, two, and six. I'm thinking. . . What are the odds I will role another six to give me three of a kind? But I have two rolls. If I save the two sixes and roll again, what are the chances that one of my three rolling die will be a six? What are the chances that all will be sixes? Should I save the two sixes or roll all five of them again? My head hurts.

"Are you going to roll?"

I'm thinking this has something to do with permutations and combinations, but I have no idea what to do with the concept anymore. I roll all five die. Hmmm. No sixes at all. What are the odds?

Soundly defeated, I vowed to look up permutations and combinations when I got home. What I learned is that Yatzee has nothing to do with permutations, where sequence matters, and everything to do with combinations, with the probability that dice will be rolled in a certain combination. For example, the odds of rolling all of one number on the first roll of five dice (you yell "Yahtzee" here) is 1/5 x 1/5 x 1/5 x 1/5 x 1/5, or 1/3125, which is discouraging, of course, and utterly useless.

Mr. Wizard is not playing IZee. The pizza is here. A few mouthfuls later, she won. Again.

"You almost won," she generously said. "Essentially, we tied."

I smile. She won by two points. I think that unwillingness to trumpet victory is called parity of hearts or, maybe, oneness. What are the odds of that?


A Charlie Brown Religion: A Review

9781496804686_p0_v3_s487x700Of all the 17,897 Peanuts newspaper strips penned by Charles Schultz during his 50 years of creative endeavor, most of which I have not read, one exemplifies the surprising profundity that a four-panel comic strip could have under Schultz. Lucy and Charlie Brown are propped thoughtfully on a brick wall, and Charlie Brown says “You know what I wonder?,” and then, “Sometimes I wonder if God is pleased with me.” In the next (and third) panel, he turns to Lucy, whose expression has never changed as yet, and says “Do you ever wonder if God is pleased with you?” Lucy turns, smiling smugly, and says, “He just HAS to be!” It’s funny, as it plays on Charlie Brown’s self-deprecation and doubt and on Lucy’s assuredness, and yet there’s more to it than that. It’s as if Lucy protests too much. She too wonders, we think, though unlike Charlie Brown, she covers with her confidence, with her assurance. The question is one that resonated, no doubt with millions of readers: Does God really love me? And if so, then why are things not going well for me? Or, could he really love me?

In A Charlie Brown Religion: Exploring the Spiritual Life and Work of Charles M. Schultz, author Stephen J. Lind does an excellent job exploring the way the late Schultz brought Christian faith to bear on his popular Peanuts series. No doubt all of us remember the poignancy of the animated A Charlie Brown Christmas, with Linus’s telling of the Christmas story, reciting verbatim the words of scripture at the end, but we’re likely unaware of Schultz’s deep if somewhat idiosyncratic Christian faith and his persistent employment of scripture — both as directly quoted as well as alluded to — in some of his strips and animated shows. At the time, in the mid-Sixties, network TV programmers were extremely reluctant to include religious references, much less scripture, in their programming. Told that having Linus read the Gospel of Luke was “too religious,” Schultz stuck to his convictions, saying “If we don’t do it, who will?” The rest is history. He had the presence to make it happen. A memorable Christmas special was born. A barrier was broken.

Born in St. Paul, Minnesota, Charles Schultz saw little of church as a child. In school, he fared poorly, failing many subjects, a shy boy with no obvious future calling. When high school ended, however, his mother suggested that he take a correspondence art course. It was his first step into honing his own craft. Drafted in 1943, he served in Europe, but most agonizingly, his mother contracted terminal cervical cancer in the years before he left, so as he said goodbye to her, he knew that it was likely the last time he would see her. While deployed, his father Carl began attending a small Church of God congregation, and on return, Schultz did as well. It was there, through Bible studies and friendships that he came to a realization of faith sometime in 1948. Asked about it, he said “I accepted Jesus Christ by gratitude.” Haunted by nightmares of war, suffering the too-early death of his mother, the community of faith he found buoyed him.

Lind gives good coverage in the book to the incremental and progressive achievements Schultz made in a career in comics. And yet the focus here is the continuing place that faith had in his life. He never forgot his roots in the Church of God or the pastoral and other friendships he developed there, never stopped reading and studying scripture (as evidenced by a well-used and marked Bible), and never stopped interjecting Bible truth into comic strips and animated specials. At the same time, none were preachy, none off-putting. As Lind writes, “Most of the salient religious references in the animated specials. . . used terminology , phrasing and anecdotes from Scripture to create laughter, not theological debate.” Nevertheless, the comic strips and animated specials often invited reflection.

In 1983’s It’s An Adventure, Charlie Brown, one short, “Butterfly,” is rich with questioning. Out on the lawn, a butterfly lands on Peppermint Patty’s nose. She falls asleep and Marcie sends it fluttering away. Awakening, Marcie exclaims, “A miracle, sir! While you were asleep it turned into an angel.” Peppermint Patty is convinced that she was chosen to bring a message to the world. However, she is unable to get any attention from a televangelist or any other religious people. And though Marcie is trying to tell her that she made the whole thing up, she can’t hear it. As Lind explains, “[I]f the viewer is willing to think through the issue with the scene, an invitation is extended to consider one’s relationship to miracles. The scene asks why it is that some are so wonderfully quick to believe that a miracle has happened to them when the ‘real’ explanation is being repeated over and over. Yet the viewer is also prompted to consider why others, who are purportedly in the business of miracles. . . , are so wrapped up with the tedious business of Sunday school papers and sprinkler systems that they lose the ability to listen to news of the miraculous.” Witty and profound, rich with questioning yet without trite answers, Schultz provokes reflection by those willing to pause. Doubtless the questions posed were the ones he also asked.

Though he never explicitly abandoned faith, at some point in life Charles Schultz stopped going to church. In a biography published in 1989, he was quoted saying “I guess you might say I’ve come around to secular humanism.” And yet Lind concludes, based on other comments by Schultz, that the statement neither reflected atheism nor a crisis of faith but, rather, a increasingly complex faith, a kind of biblical humanism or, perhaps, a Christian universalism. Lind says that “The view that Christ’s work had atoned for all of mankind’s sin, regardless of their religious affiliation, and that God knew the heart of each man and woman sufficient to determine if they were part of His kingdom, seems consistent with Sparky’s [Schultz’s] comments on faith.” If not universalism, it is certainly an openness to the inclusion in the Kingdom of those who do not even refer to themselves as Christians, who do not profess belief but who are “good” people. No one would refer to this as historic, orthodox Christian belief as reflected in its historic creeds, yet it seemed to be what Schultz embraced as he removed himself from the accountability of a church where new ideas could be discussed and, at times, countered. And though he did not stop discussing biblical theology with friends, they were also not of an evangelical ilk. In 1998 his friend Robert Short described him as a “Christian universalist,” explaining, using a Peanuts metaphor, that “he believed, as I do, that finally all people are going to be rounded up by Christ the sheep dog.” Whether he was correct is unclear; that Schultz’s own non-systematic theology has deep inconsistencies with the Bible is clear.

After battling cancer, Charles Schultz died in his sleep from a pulmonary embolism on the night of February 12, 2000. He struggled with faith in his last days, not seeing the efficacy of prayers on his behalf, wanting to continue to be active, as he had planned, on into his Eighties. Perhaps he even contemplated that question by Charlie Brown, “Do you ever wonder if God is pleased with you?” Perhaps now he knows. Perhaps, as Lucy said, “he just has to be.”

I recommend A Charlie Brown Religion, even if, like me, you were not a fan of Peanuts but simply one who brushed up against a cultural icon. Highly readable and focused, my only criticism is the inclusion of the epilogue which read more like a introduction to the Peanuts brand and muted the power of the conclusions Lind drew from Schultz’s life. That aside, well-written biographies like Lind’s instruct and inspire, even warn. In the life of Charles Schultz, there is much to commend — his winsomeness, generosity, creativity, work ethic, and love for others — and yet much that serves as warning. He had an affair when married to his first wife. He failed to instruct his children in faith, reasoning that they each needed to come to their own conclusions (despite scriptural admonitions to do so), and, giving up the life of a community of faith (also commended in scripture) veered into an individualistic and non-orthodox spirituality rooted in Christian faith but free-floating and amorphous. In the end, we can celebrate the many commendable qualities of his life, leaving the rest between him and his Maker. After all, in the end, every human being is a mystery fully known only by his God.


Spiritual Therapy

"Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed.”
‭‭
Heb.‬ ‭12:12-13‬ ‭(ESV)

Several months ago I was taking the stairs in our house from the ground to our second floor. I fell up the stairs, which is, I have to say, better than falling down the stairs, something I have also done. I banged my knee on the lip of a step. Since then, it's been a source of discomfort, not when walking but when taking stairs. Physical therapy consists of strengthening my weak knee, though the exercises are counterintuitive, meaning it has been explained to me how they will accomplish that, but I cannot make the connection.

This particular passage of scripture comes after a reminder from the writer of Hebrews that God is the founder or author of our faith, as well as its perfecter. He counsels that hardship and trials are a form of discipline God uses to perfect our faith, which is our life. To people with drooping hands, that is, who cannot bring themselves to do another thing, and with weak knees, that is, who are disinclined to get up and take the next step, he says "lift" and "strengthen." How? By looking to Jesus (v. 2). How? By seeing in our circumstances a loving Father who cares enough to shepherd us through hardship to refine us and make us holy, to make us more fully who He intends us to be. How? By taking the long view, by persevering.

My physical therapist forces me to do activities that are painful. He needles me, shocks me, pulls and twists me. If I didn't believe he knew what he was doing, I'd think him a sick little man. I do not appreciate what he does and want him to stop. Some people feel that way about God. I don't. I may not like His therapy, but I trust it is for my good. It is for my healing. I hold out hope that His therapy will make me whole.


A Christmas Eve Visitor

My wife and I retired early on Christmas Eve this year, that is, by 1:30. The elves must feel something akin to this: weeks of workshop labor, shorted sleep, and unhealthy food, and then, finally, when the taillights of Santa's sleigh crests the horizon, they take to their beds. It felt that way. To be horizontal and still alive is to be deeply thankful. The cat stared dreamily at me from her pillow-bed near our feet. As she settled deeper into her cushions, I lost consciousness.

And then, out of the dark, a clunk. I looked at the clock: 1:30. "Was that a door shutting?," she said sleepily.

"Must have been a cat," I said. Silence. I lay there. It could have been a cat, a very heavy cat, and yet the large one still lay at the end of the bed and the other wisp of a cat would not make such a large noise and, besides, was likely tucked away in a crevice somewhere.

I threw off the covers and went to the window, lifting the blinds to peek outside. Fog curled around the single street light. A neighbor's window light cast a single square of yellow light on the lawn next door. A black cat stole across the street, the one we call the Mayor, dutifully checking drain pipes, ground holes, and sewer drains for riff-raff. The usual. But then, in the corner of my eye, something red moved. At the corner of my house, a man was pushing something, and having a hard time of it, calling out to the darkness, "On. . .

"What are you doing over there?"

"Nothing." I dropped the blind. "Go back to sleep."

"Did you figure out what that sound was?"

"A cat, I think." Scapegoat for all, the cat. Silent when accused.

"Will you go down and check it out?"

"Sure." I will? I guess I will. I didn't really want to, yet I started out my door, feeling my way.

"Dad, did Santa come?," said my son from the darkness.

"Sssh. He can't come if you're awake." That's what my parents told me anyway.

"I'm not awake."

"You have to be unconscious for him to come." I added that bit. That is, you have to at least act like you're sleeping.

"I am unconscious. Can't you tell?" And then, after a pause: "Where are you going?"

"Nowhere. Checking on things."

From the other room, my daughter, "What's going on out there?"

"Everyone go to sleep. I'm just checking to be sure all the lights are out."

I started down the stairs, avoiding the creaking one. About halfway down, I heard a slight creak behind me. I paused, one foot in midair, and turned, only to see the cat behind me, one paw in the air.

"You too?" I whispered. I knelt close to her face. "Listen, when we get to the bottom, you go right, I'll go left," I said. She nodded, ever so slightly. "And be quiet." At the bottom, she turned left, not right, inexplicably, and I followed. As she entered the kitchen, she dropped to the floor, paws spread. I crouched. "What is it?," I whispered.

Looking up, I saw a small, bearded man in a red suit kneeling beneath our Christmas tree in the near-dark, placing packages under the tree. I rose, drew a breath too quickly, too loudly, and he turned.

"Hey, you're. . ."

He put a finger to his lips, smiling, indicating that I should remain quiet, and then turned to his work. Looking down, I saw the cat walk by me carrying a catnip mouse in her mouth. Then, looking up again, he was gone. Just vanished. I turned to walk back up the stairs. At the landing, I stopped.

"Dad?"

"Aren't you asleep?"

"Yes, but did Santa come?"

"I'm sure he'll get here. You go to sleep."

"I am asleep. I can sleep and talk at the same time."

And I can be awake and dream at the same time.

"I want a sugarplum."

"They don't grow here."

"What is a sugarplum, anyway?"

"Nite, son."

I lifted the edge of the covers and slid back into bed, settling on my back. The cat lay unconscious in a half-circle at my feet. I re-positioned her gently with a slight kick.

From the dark, my wife: "Did you see Santa?"

"Yeah."

"What'd he say?"

"He asked if you'd been good."

"And you said?"

"I said you'd been better than me."

"Was that OK?"

"Well, he smiled, anyway."

"You sure you saw him?"

"I'm sure."

"Sure you did."

In the morning, I rolled over, opened my eyes. A catnip mouse lay beside me. The wisp of a cat sat on the floor beside the bed, looking up at me.

"You see him too?"

She meowed.

"OK, that settles it."


The Talk of the Town

“All eyes tell us of helplessness and despair. And despite it all, Christmas comes. Whether we wish it or not, whether we are sure or not, we must hear the words once again: Christ the Savior is here! The world that Christ comes to save is our fallen and lost world. None other.” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer)

If the latest issue of The New Yorker is an indication of what the urbane elites of our culture think of Christmas, the answer is: not much. In this year-end, double issue, the word “Christmas” is uttered once, and that in a flip send-up name-drop poem by Ian Frazier entitled “Greetings, Friends!,” an inane review of the past year’s newsmakers. The cover boasts a winter scene with what appear to be elves and reindeer in pandemonium. And that’s about it. That’s the holiday issue. Um, holiday is not mentioned either.

The New Yorker was never Christ-centered, of course. For its writers, editors, and most of its readers, Christmas is no doubt wrapped in myth and tradition, a hectic season of gift-giving, parties, and some superficial sense of good cheer. In this issue, there is an article on global warming, the gloomy message of which seems to be that Southern Florida will be under water within 50 years and there is nothing we can do about it. In a “world-changers” issue, there are some profiles of those who are deemed world-changers, like Secretary of State John Kerry, and yet you have the distinct sense that “world-changers” is used in a tongue-in-cheek fashion, the editors knowingly winking at the readers as if to say, “not really, but we had to print something positive, and this is all we could muster.”

Beyond this incarnate irony, however, is the Incarnate One. That’s the real story. In my fantasy, I imagine this event, the virgin birth of God, as the “Talk of the Town,” as the focal point of The New Yorker. There are articles of faith and hope and love, of the world-changing efforts of ordinary people. That’s not impossible. Nothing is impossible with God. Yet I won’t hold my breath.

It was Christmas Sunday in 1930 when Bonhoeffer preached his Advent sermon. The world was in the throes of an economic depression. Facism and communism were on the rise. There were many reasons for helplessness and despair. And yet, into the midst of that, he could proclaim, “Christ the Savior is here.” And so can we.

The New Yorker may have unwittingly pointed to something its writers may not really grasp. The last line of Ian Frazier’s poem speaks of the coming year, of “Jumping with both feet, not looking,/ On amazing grace depending.”

Amazing grace, indeed. Christ, the savior, is here. Let that be the talk of the town.


A Divine Propinquity

As Francis Schaeffer preached and lived, there are “no little people, and no little places.” People are made in the image of God - every single one of them - and no matter how marred the image in them, they do not lose it. Yet I am so often aware of how I do not live that.

Clive James, a famous British writer that I only barely know of, has every reason to consider himself important, I suppose, given all the books he has read and written. He is in the last stages of his life now, in and out of the hospital. As he lay in his hospital bed one evening, watching a nurse clean up a mess he had made (I’ll spare the details), he suddenly recognized the image of God in her (though he does not know it as such):

“She had a deformed body, with limbs all the wrong lengths. Life could not have been easy for her. But now she was making the end of my life easier for me. It was a night to remember, and I haven’t forgotten it for a second. I can only hope that the sum total of my writings has been as useful to the world as her kindness, but I doubt that this is so.”

In a divine propinquity, I also heard two other stories in the last couple of days that reminded me that there are no little people. One was of that of former MMA (martial arts) fighter Justin Wren who, after an amazing vision given to him by God, now heads a mission the forgotten people of the Congo, the pgymies, “little people” who know him as “The Man Who Loves Us,” or “The Big Pygmy.” The other is of Amy DeBurgh of Shepherds College, who works with intellectually disabled people. The remarkable thing about both ministries is that they recognize that neither pygmies nor the intellectually disabled are “little people.” They are God’s images. In her interview, Amy says that when we limit God’s image in people by measuring it by an external standard, like intelligence or ability or appearance, we actually deny the image, that is, we deny that the reality that the image of God is “vastly immeasurable.” Schaeffer would nod assent, and add that when we touch the lives of those who the world thinks of as insignificant, we must realize that every soul is important, that the small kindness we show to the “little” person has ramifications far beyond what we can see.

We can pray we see past the surface to the images of God among whom we live and work, particularly the forgotten ones, the ones who annoy, the ones who inconvenience, and the ones who have nothing (we think) to offer us. Especially them.


The Sound of Heaven

It's Advent, even though most people don't know the word. Through the rain that falls today, puddling on the roof outside their windows, tapping on their gutters, many do wait and hope for something they can't quite name, to some kind of advent.

The New Yorker magazine has an online archive of everything published by it since 1925, so I searched to see what a great writer like E.B. White might say about Christmas. In a small Comment on Christmas Eve, 1949, there is, sadly, no mention of the Incarnation, but in his voice you can hear the longing for something more and, like all writers, his voice gives expression to what many others cannot articulate.

Into a world still recovering from a great world war, he said: "To perceive Christmas through its wrapping becomes more difficult with every year. There was a little device we noticed in one of the sporting-goods stores — a trumpet that hunters hold to their ears so that they can hear the distant music of the hounds. Something of the sort is needed now to hear the incredibly distant sound of Christmas in these times, through the dark, material woods that surround it."

Well, there is "something of that sort." It is the simple yet profound texts of scripture centered in "for unto us a child is born." And it is not distant but God come near, at hand.

White goes on to say that "[t]he miracle of Christmas is that, like the distant and very musical voice of the hound, it penetrates finally and becomes heard in the heart over so many years, through so many cheap curtain-raisers. It is not destroyed even by all the arts and craftiness of the destroyers, having an essential simplicity that is everlasting and triumphant, at the end of confusion."

Everlasting. Triumphant. Heard in the heart? Call it religion and you might smother it. Make it a greeting card cliche and sentimentalize and trivialize it. But listen to what it might mean for God to submit himself to earthly form for one reason only: love.

White again: “So this day and this century proceed toward the absolutes of convenience, of complexity, and of speed, only occasionally holding up the little trumpet (as at Christmastime) to be reminded of the simplicities, and to hear the distant music of the hound. . . . This [Christmas], many will be reminded that no explosion of atoms generates so hopeful a light as the reflection of a star, seen appreciatively in a pasture pond. It is there we perceive Christmas — and the sheep quiet, and the world waiting.”

As in 1949, now. The world is waiting for the hound. . . of Heaven.


Welcome to Struggleville

“As for man, his days are like grass; he flourishes like a flower of the field; for the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place knows it no more.”

‭(‭Ps. 103:15-16‬)

I'm sitting in the car waiting for my daughter, listening to a record I have not listened to for many years. It's Welcome to Struggleville, by the Vigilantes of Love. Don't you love that name? I'm just catching phrases of this fine record. . ."I'm been trying to negotiate peace with my own existence. . . The whole thing is full of decay. . . But in the rust I know the beast is falling." Well, the title says it all. Sin. Entropy. Fallen world. Yet, the Beast is falling. Victory is assured.

I took a late walk earlier, in full sun. Winding down is in the air. Autumn is a visual reminder for an image-soaked culture that there is a time for everything. The trees are nearly bare. Leaves clog the creek. In the new development near my home, every tree has been removed along with longstanding homes, people having moved elsewhere. Even the land has been raked over, plowed, shaped, piped, wired, and paved. A sign says "Homes from the $600s,” but the land is empty. Deer, fox, birds: gone. And yet in months there will be new homes, grass, families, cars, bicycles, swing sets - in short, life. And the people will not know those who lived their lives here before, every trace of whom has been removed. That's a loss, I think. There should be a reminder of those who came before. This place mattered to them.

If the people return months from now, they will barely be able to root their deep memories in the land, in the place where they arose. They had children here, grew families here, fought and argued here, entertained and read here. Gone. Loss permeates this small place; loss permeates our landscapes.

As author Paul Pastor recently reminded readers in his review of Walter Wangerin's new memoir, "Fred Buechner, in the introduction to his own (second) memoir, Now and Then, wrote: if you tell your own story with sufficient candor and concreteness, it will be an interesting story and in some sense a universal story.' Buechner further casts his memoir as 'a call to prayer.' (Such calls are universal.)" So many stories still hang over the land, left to seed new lives. I just wish someone had gathered up the stories before they left. Prayers still linger.

It’s not all loss. New lives will grow here. Children will be born, grow, and learn. God will do His work. The Kingdom will grow, even if small, in what is now empty. I walked today down paved streets with no houses. I said a prayer for those who come, a seed dropped in the ground that God will water.

My daughter just texted. “OMW.” Welcome to struggleville, caught between loss and promise. I’m on my way. The Beast is falling.



A Song Remembered

If you don’t read poetry, start. My friend Suzanne Underwood Rhodes says that “[i]maginative language - poetry - trains the mind in faith. For what is faith but divine realities we can only imagine, ‘the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen’ (Heb. 11:1)” In her guide to poetry, called The Roar on the Other Side, there are many fine poems yet, even better, she provides a guide to appreciating their music, to listening to the great truths and mysteries to which poetry point.

Speaking of metaphor, one of the strongest tools of poetry, she says: “When Jesus proclaims, ‘I am the Bread of life,’ He removes all our fences of seeing. He is entirely bread - nourishing, flavorful, essential. Rising and resurrection are in the loaf too. It is bread enough for the whole world, and of this Bread we must eat or perish. ‘Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you’ (John 6:53). Is this metaphor? Is this not mystery? Let us keep silent.” Sometimes I am silent because I am in awe of their beauty; sometimes, because I understand nothing and wait, dumbstruck.

That’s it: Sometimes before the words of a great poem, we must be silent, let the words was over us, let them do their work. As sometimes before the great God, we must be still, must wait, must listen for His voice. Let Him remove all the “fences of our seeing.” Let His still small voice come whisper in the wind.

Where to start? Try Mary Oliver, particularly her collection entitled Thirst. Or Jane Kenyon, in her Otherwise. Or even, if you are brave, Denise Levertov, in a slight collection entitled The Stream & the Sapphire. You’ll find faith of a sorts in them, though I don’t know its precise contours. Poets aren’t often precise on matters like dogma. But you will find much more: little truth and big Truths, little poems pointing to greater realities, particulars like dirt and sky, and universals like goodness and beauty and sadness and joy.

Read them aloud. Hear their music. Read them silently. Let pictures form in your mind. Tell someone what they say, if you can. You might find they begin quietly but, by the end of it, roar an dance in your head, arise unbidden while in the checkout line and bring the slightest of smiles to your mouth, a song remembered.


Rainfall, Evenly Distributed

With the recent killing of innocents in Paris recently, I thought of the last time I was in Paris. It was 2007, and my son and I had stopped there en route to Switzerland from England. We had traveled over to meet my writing partner Kevin and his daughter, and unbeknownst to us, halfway over, Heathrow was closed as result of the apprehended "shoe bomber". After doing some interviews in Cambridge and Oxford, we took the Chunnel train over to Paris. We had 36 hours to see Paris. My partner, who booked a flight from England to Switzerland, was stuck in England for three days, as no flights were going out.

We had lunch in a cafe with a clear view of Notre Dame. I tried my French on the server. My son said, "Dad, don't ever try to speak French again." He was right about that. It was a beautiful Summer day, and the views of the city were quite amazing - the Seine, Notre Dame, the Eiffel Tower - a beautiful city with people more generous and helpful than I had remembered.

Reading some of E.B. White's shorts and fillers for The New Yorker, I came across a single paragraph from one of his Notes and Comments fillers from September 2, 1944. Written upon the liberation of Paris, he says that on hearing the news of liberation, he couldn't think of what else to do but pull down the Encyclopedia Brittanica, turn to the article on Paris, and read its most "dullest" prose, only it came alive on that happy day:

“‘Paris,’ we began, ‘capital of France and of the department of the Seine, situated on the Ile de la Cite, the Ile St. Louis, and the Ile Louviers, in the Seine, as well as on the banks of the Seine, 233 miles from its mouth and 285 miles S.S.E. of London (by rail and steamer via Dover and Calais).’ The words seemed like the beginning of a great poem. A feeling of simple awe overtook us as we slowly turned the page and settled down to a study of the city’s weather graph and the view of the Seine looking east from Notre Dame. ‘The rainfall is rather evenly distributed,’ continued the encyclopaedist. Evenly distributed, we thought to oneself, like the tears of those who love Paris.”

Reading that, I imagine White hunched over the great book, his finger on the word “rainfall”, great tears welling in his eyes, tears of joy at liberation of that great city after its too long captivity. I imagine the tears shed only days ago, tears of sorrow, not joy. Still, I long for a “rainfall. . . evenly distributed,” a city of no fear. I can’t wait to hear that news.


The Trouble With Normal Is. . . It's Not Normal

In a newspaper clipping from our local paper on January 11, 2007, Washington Post journalist Linton Weeks writes of shifting baselines and changing standards. The article is called “When Normal Is a Moving Target.” Anytime I hear someone say that 80 is the new 60, I think about the article. It piqued my attention because it tracks the subtlety of change, the largely unnoticed changing baseline by which we sometimes measure normal.

According to the article, marine biologist Randy Olson says that shifting baselines “are the chronic, hard-to-notice changes in things, from he disappearance of birds and frogs in the countryside to the increased drive time from San Diego to Los Angeles.” The phrase was actually coined by a biology professor, Daniel Pauley, as he examined declining fish populations; then, he started seeing them everywhere. Sometimes baselines rise, as in longer life spans; sometimes drop, as in language, clothing, and manners. Mostly, however, given our skew toward dystopian scenarios, the literature on shifting baselines is riddled with a sense of loss and nostalgia, a lowered expectation, a settling for less.

But Pauly says that the concept has a very positive purpose as well, as “it means we can endure loss,” functioning as a helpful defense mechanism. If every generation passed on the full burden of the past, Pauly says “we would paralyze the next generation.” So, what he suggests we focus on is the identification of which baselines are important and essential. If we look carefully and watch for the incremental changes, we can even change the changes.

This is both knowledge and wisdom. To understand the past and the changes that are occurring is a huge step in reformation of individual lives and culture. For Christians, it resonates with the kind of remembering that God calls us to, the kind of looking about which Jesus speaks. As Christians, we recognize that all is abnormal, that culture, creation, and individual lives are malformed due to sin. To put it in naturalistic terms, all is subject to entropy. Yet at the same time there is a building up, a positive change that comes from a growing kingdom, from an Aslan on the move. As Francis Schaeffer often said, while we will not experience complete reformation on this side of Heaven, we can experience substantial healing, and if we push our time frame back far enough, we can see both decline and rebuilding throughout history, the friction of the kingdom of this world and the kingdom of heaven.

Normal is not really a moving target. God’s standards are sure. The only way to check the cultural drift, the changing baseline of normal, is to look to the source, the Word, and when we are there confronted by how far we fall short, to remember Grace, about how God ever moves toward us in love. Always. Which means we are ever gaining, not losing, not paralyzed by loss but energized by grace.

The trouble with normal? It’s not normal.


A Muddled Memoir

“Everyone has a story to tell, and everyone is telling it.” (William Zinsser, in Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir)

My son reminds me often that there will be no post-humous memoirs, that if I have any to write I must write them now, that he will not write them. But I suspect he would if there was anything to say. . . or, more accurately, if there was anyone to read what there is to be said.

How do you construct a life? Someone who writes, like me — well, like half the world, if you include Facebook — could be constructed by reading their social media posts. That would be highly inaccurate, would be, in fact, a construct. Most everyone would be successful, thin (or, to compensate, brilliant), and happy. Or they travel and eat out all the time. Their posts are full of smiling, happy people. I think we know better. Life has major and minor themes. But too much honesty on Facebook and “friends” would collectively say “this is neither the time nor the place.” Keep it light.

You could look at the letters they write. The over 1000 letters contained in the Letters of E.B. White, for example, give great insight into the life of a modest if gifted man, to good relationships with his parents and brother, and to a long and happy marriage to Katherine, as well as early insight into his gifts as a writer of wit. In one letter, written to his parents when he was 21, still in college at Cornell, he begins with “Dear Family: A robin woke me this morning but he should have held his peace, for he is a false prophet. The weather is beautiful though wintry. Spring dallies somewhere in the offing, like a backward child asked to perform.” I can tell you that the few letters I wrote home from college meant something to my mother, yes, but held no golden prose such as White’s, and she, not being sentimental, long ago disposed of them. Who keeps letters anyway?

I do. In my closet is a stack of letters, perhaps 100 or more. Some are letters from my wife to me before and after we were wed. But, of course, they tell me about her and only indirectly about me. Still, I save them.

You could interview me. “Me” is usually a good subject to engage me on as, like most people, I know a lot about the subject. But recollection is skewed. My version of some events may not match that recollected by my sisters, as in was I pushed off the tricycle, or did I fall off? The past is murky, clouded by the present. To some extent, as the title of Zinger’s book hints, we may be “inventing the truth” in the telling of it. Memoir doesn’t require fact-checking or corroboration. It’s about telling a good story. And yet, while such personal narrative is the author’s interpretation of a life, not being fiction, it should be rooted in fact. Further, it’s not self-indulgence, reprisal, or tell-all. Good memoir should have the same subtlety and understatement that make powerful any other good story. They leave mystery, as do lives. We don’t even fully know ourselves.

I wish I had those letters I wrote my mother. I want to hear my 18-year old words. I want to hear what it is I thought important to tell her. The documentation of those years is incomplete and my memory muddled. But one thing I know: God was telling a good story, though not complete, full of good and evil, plot turns and twists, shadowy threats and unmerited good, of hard lessons and miraculous deliverances. And I’m not the only one.

I can’t wait to read them all.


A Cold Morning

A cold winter’s morning, clouded and still, is, if not dismal, shrouded. Over breakfast I stared out over a lawn returning to forest, overnight. The lawn care workers came a day ago and blew it clean, made tidy edges to the new green grass, let walks manifest themselves. But overnight God, with a few puffs of stiff breath, covered it again. Brown leaves lay scattered over the green, with a blanket of pine straw worked in like yeast in dough, the beginning of the end, God reclaiming his own. I frowned, slightly, and a shadow crept across the table and my soul.

Then, a female cardinal alighted on the outdoor water dish for our cats, scarce four feet from me. She drank, chirping between sips. Occasionally she looked up at me in the window, briefly, before flying. My countenance changed as I turned away, to the words at the top of the page: “You have multiplied, O LORD my God, your wondrous deeds and your thoughts toward us; none can compare with you!” (Ps. 40:5)

You could say it’s a matter of entropy, of inevitable order to disorder. Yet perhaps, it’s just our perspective; disorder may hold a deeper order; a bird carries hope. Who am I to say how the earth is husbanded? Who am I to Him?


Agressive Humility

“Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God." (Eph. 5:25)

Whenever we read a verse that commands us to walk, we know that a progression is anticipated, a forward motion with purpose and destination, not a circuitous path or retreat. What this verse commands is an advance in love, a walking forward in love relationally and societally.

It can be cold out in the world. It was 37 degrees this morning, and forward motion was necessary just to stay warm. We passed one man and dog, both retracted, drawn in on themselves by virtue of the chill. Leaves lay quiet on the roadside, and our breath went ahead of us. We did not even pray until our bodies were warm.

The other part of the verse is prefaced by the phrase "as Christ." How did Christ walk? He moved forward in relationship sacrificially, laying down his rights, even his life, for others. Thus, this is an advance of love via death, — if not a physical death, then thousands of existential deaths: giving up your right to win the argument, to have your way, to exact justice for every offense. We tend to view this as retreat, but it is not. It is an aggressive love, a long walk, a steady march of humility.

We keep going. We pray up hill — breathless, short requests — and we pray downhill —- long exhales of gratitude. We pass carpenters, hammering, yelling in Spanish to one another, and I wonder if prayers are mumbled under breath or rest, inchoate, as day dreams. We pass on into intercession, to Lord, this and that; to Lord help, heal, and hinder. We walk on.

At our wedding my wife and I selected as text the words of Philippians 2: 1-11, where we are called to model Christ in his humility. The centerpiece is the Great Condescension of vv. 5-7, where Paul says “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.” We are still working on our Little Condescensions, on getting low.

Down, down, down the hill we go, and down, down down Christ came for us, walking all the way from Heaven’s Throne for us.

Souls are won by this aggressive humility. Even worlds.


Urgent Care

I went to church today. I’ve done that virtually every Sunday for over 57 years, and while it may be that I miss an average of four Sundays each year, that adds up to a considerable number of sermons — roughly 2736. As infant and toddler I suppose I missed a few, though I was within their curtilage. My first conscious memory of listening was sitting next to father, drawing on the bulletin, periodically checking his watch and second hand for their terminus. I remember the interruption of one sermon where the pastor had to address his young and misbehaving son from the pulpit.

When we have traveled on vacations as a family, we generally have gone to church where we are, as I always said why would we take a vacation from church? If our regular church is a hospital for sinners, our vacation churches are like urgent cares, and we need them on vacations as much or even more than we do at home, as entitlement and self-interest can take hold when the long-awaited vacation comes. Sometimes we are sicker (we sin more).

We are always in need of treatment. It consists of diagnosis (sin) and prognosis (grace). There is physical exercise of a sort: we stand, we sit, we stand, we sit. The pastor, who is as sick as the rest of us, only slightly more aware of it, tells stories about the cure, recasting it in as many different ways as is necessary for us to hear, as hearing well is part of the cure. We read scripture, which is like a diagnostic manual. We sing, or we croak, but we open our mouths to receive, which is part of the cure (praise). We have a meal, odd though it be, a pittance to the eye but mystically multiplied like loaves and fishes within (communion). We are pronounced healed and discharged (benediction), and we exit to a world plagued by diseases. We’ll be back. We have to, as we’re sick.

Church is one of my favorite places. So when I read someone as thoughtful and in many ways caring as E.B. White write about church as cold and lifeless, it saddens me, and I wonder to what churches he was exposed. In one essay he says “In this house we cling to a few relics of religious observation, but there is no heart in it. If we possess faith (and I guess we do), it is of a secret and unconsecrated sort ill of ease in church.” Hearing that “and I guess we do” makes me think that what he felt was the absence of faith, not its presence, and his visits to church were like excursions in a wax museum hospital, where he saw what was but not what is, what’s left when Christ is absent.

On occasion I’ve been to some sorry churches. Terrible music. Sermons lacking any clear prescription. Lifeless singing. Yet always I find Jesus, in the words of Scripture, in the words of hymns, in a stained glass window, or even in silence. There may not be much care to be had, but it is urgent.


Dwell

My grandmother never drove a car. To travel with her meant walking, usually through paths in the woods leading to neighbors’ homes, a strawberry patch, the Southern Railway bridge with a pooling creek beneath it to swim in, or to an old cemetery in the trees, overgrown and unkempt, returning, dust to dust. She was intimately familiar with the land around her home and the ways of travel by foot. She never traveled over the landscape but moved in it. Yet she would never have thought much about it. Many of us, however, will never know that feeling of closeness to the land, given the freedom of travel by car over the world or virtually via the internet. That’s a loss unseen to most, so I’m glad I knew it as a child.

Wendell Berry says that “[t]he difference between a path and a road is not only the obvious one. A path is little more than a habit that comes with knowledge of a place. It is a sort of ritual familiarity. . . . It is the perfect adaptation, through experience and familiarity, of movement to place; it obeys the natural contours; such obstacles as it meets it goes around. A road, on the other hand. . . embodies a resistance against the landscape. . . . It wishes to avoid contact with the landscape.”

His is a Manichaean view of reality. It’s not so simple. I follow a sidewalk every morning when I walk, and yet the roads I travel follow the contour of the land and are not made simply to move me from Point A to B. Some thought was given to the land and context. Further, the very fact that there is a sidewalk is a suggestion that a closer experience may be had by walking. Not enough people take the suggestion.

When I walk, I sometimes engage my imagination. I peel away the houses, telephone lines, streets, and sidewalks, one at a time, like they are mere overlays on the topography. I imagine I am on a path made by habit and familiarity through a forest or meadow. Sometimes, when I face an open stretch and know it is safe, I even close my eyes momentarily and walk trusting my memory for what’s ahead, and the sounds of the land become richer.

In Psalm 37:29, the Psalmist says that “the righteous will inherit the land and dwell in it forever.” One meaning of “dwell” is to linger. Familiarity and habit and love for a place can only take root when we linger, and merely driving through it will not give us that rich sense of dwelling.

If you can, walk in your place. If you can’t then sit outside in it and listen. Find a way to sink deep in it. Let it seep into and be part of you.