Getting Low

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

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

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

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

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

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


Surprise Ahead


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

(Annie Dillard, in Pilgrim from Tinker Creek)

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

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

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

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

I think she missed it.

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

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

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

___________________________

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.


Plotting Our Resurrection

E.B. White writes an endearing and prescient comment about his wife Katherine's fall laying out of the spring bulb garden, the only gardening task she dressed the part for, one he said was "carefully charted and full of witchcraft." She sat in a canvas chair placed for her at the end of the tulip plot, with clipboard and diagram in hand, while her helper showed her brown bag upon bag of bulbs, ready for "internment."

Then this: "As the years went by and age overtook her, there was something comical yet touching in her bedraggled appearance on this awesome occasion --- the small, hunched-over figure, her studied absorption in the implausible notion that there would be yet another spring, oblivious to the ending of her own days, which she knew perfectly well was near at hand, sitting there with her detailed chart under the dark skies in the dying October, calming plotting the resurrection."

Aa much as White wrote, he kept Katherine at the margins, her story her own. But in that one sentence, he spoke worlds. He spoke of faith and hope and, finally, love. It's possible he even said more than the thought he said.

Each of us face not only the death that Katherine faced, but a hundred other smaller deaths in a life. Maybe you thought you'd become a brilliant scientist or author, and you didn't. Maybe you thought you'd live in a bigger house, or be in a better marriage, and you're not. Maybe you just thought you'd have an hour of time for yourself today, and you didn't, because there were clothes to wash and a house to clean and children to run to and fro. If you're really alive, you're also dying to yourself moment by moment.

And yet all is not lost. There is a life underneath the surface, a dream being nurtured in the winter of our dying.

Spring is coming. For now, bedraggled though we are, let us with laughter calmly plot the resurrection, when the dream underneath our dreams comes true.


A Little Death, A Greater Life


D0765I-Late-fall-woods-seriesIt’s November, time for kicking leaves lying shoe deep on the roadside, to hear their swish and crunch, dead but heaped in piles of memory, let go to make room for new life. Fall is my favorite time, particularly late Fall, past the prime of colored leaves, before the lights of Christmas, a time when the sky opens up for view, the trees, ever more desolate, deserted, and bare.

Many people are overwhelmed with sadness at Fall, an autumnal depression setting in. Not me. Poet Robert Frost even wrote a poem called “My November Guest,” in which he gives verse to a Fall sadness. He says, “My Sorrow, when she’s with me,/ Thinks these dark days of autumn rain/ Are beautiful as days can be;/ She loves the bare, the withered tree;/ She walks the sodden pasture lane.” Later, Frost speaks of Sorrow, a personification of his melancholy, as “glad the birds are gone away,” of the “faded earth, the heavy sky.” For me, the same things I love about the desert begin to be true of a topography shorn of leaves. Gradually, the sky opens up, the contour of the land can be seen, the skeletal trunks and limbs and branches of trees can be seen, undrapped, the tree in its essence. What was once claustrophobic opens up. What was once hidden is now known. I smile at the hiddenness of glory, of glory past its prime.

This morning I stooped to pick up a browned oak tree leaf that was at least a foot long and six inches wide, like a massive hand outstretched. Had I reached up to shake it when it was still on tree, I could not have fully grasped it, like a child holding an adult’s hand. I traced its lines, like a practitioner of palmistry: prediction death, then new life.

In another poem, “A Late Walk,” Frost speaks of how “A tree beside the wall stands bare,/ But a leaf that lingered brown,/ Disturbed, I doubt not, by my thought,/ Comes softly rattling down.” Rattling down. Reading that, I imagine the cry of that last leaf, of the last hanger-on, losing grip, accepting its fate.

Sad? Not really. Like a desert river going underground, all the life is still there though hidden, waiting to break out. A little death before a greater life to come.

Time for kicking leaves. Time not for sorrow but for hope, casting off the old and waiting for the new. I’m full of anticipation.


Mighty Acorns

Acorn-188426_640“An acorn is only small. To look at it you’d think it weak and not very important at all. . . . [b]ut. . . a whole forest is inside a single acorn.”

(Sally Lloyd-Jones, in Thoughts to Make Your Heart Sing)

What we are really saying when we say, “Christ in us, the hope of glory,” is not fully comprehensible. That’s like saying a whole forest is in an acorn. Except it’s more.

In 1976, as a struggling college freshman, a campus pastor had lunch with me. Actually, he didn’t eat. I understand why now: he didn’t have the money. I should have bought his lunch for what he shared with me. I was churched but not biblically literate.

That day he took me right to 2 Peter 1:3-11, which begins with “His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us. . . .” He laid stress on all, which is what I needed to hear. I knew all about what I was supposed to do, as what I recalled of church and Sunday School was moralistic; what I needed to hear was what God was doing, what He had given me. There’s a host of things that we are exhorted to do in that passage, and yet what occupied my mind on my walk this morning was what or Who had taken up residence inside of me, the very same point the pastor made 39 years ago.

The God who made the universe — the planets, galaxies, and seemingly endless infinity — is living in me. He’s given me everything I need for life. If it doesn’t always feel that way, that’s my shortsightedness. Sometimes, I feel like nothing but a tiny acorn lying on the sidewalk, good for nothing much, trampled on by pedestrians, washed down gutters by rain, overcome, unable to help myself or anyone else. And yet, if by His grace and promise I come to rest in soil and take root, a forest. Let’s be honest. We struggle with believing that. We do not yet see it fully manifest. Yet if we did see all that God is doing through us, we might think ourselves mighty, when only He is mighty.

That’s the meat of it. That’s what we are. God desires and wills that we flourish not just here but for eternity. Yet it’s an unusual power, not tapped by bold action but by humility, by prayer, by quietness. Our exercise of power is our exercise of powerlessness, of dependence on our Source.

One of E.B. White’s most enduring collections of essays is a book entitled One Man’s Meat. All the essays in it were written from the saltwater farm in Maine to which White and his wife removed themselves, leaving New York City. The power of the essays comes from their humility as well as, in what is well said by Roger Ansell, their “sense of early morning clarity and possibility.” Bright hopefulness in a new day. While there is no indication that White had a saving faith in Christ, he did have a lighter faith in a new day, the kind that comes from small acts of faithfulness to the reality of the needs around him: the cow that needs to be milked, the pigs to be fed, the fence to be mended, the garden weeded. It’s a shadowland of hopefulness, and yet his small acts of faith bore fruit.

One man’s meat. It’s more than that. In small exercises of faithfulness, a towering forest of life will grow. I walk on, giving way to the mighty acorns.


Sleeping Beauties


IMG_0198“Cartographers call blank spaces on a map ‘sleeping beauties.’” (Annie Dillard, in Teaching a Stone to Talk)

Last week in the spacious clime of Arizona, I laid a map of the state out on our coffee table. I did the same tonight. The map had plenty of blank spaces, and I was drawn to them, to the emptiness and wonder. East of Tucson, north of I-10 and Benson, there is cavity of space labeled Allen Flat, one through which the thin blue line of the San Pedro River runs, as optimistic a blue as you will find, as rivers in Arizona are largely underground save in monsoon season, when normal watery introverts lose their manners and gush all over everyone. Literally. In those times the San Pedro runs bold.

Forty miles in, down a crooked gray line of a road, hyphenated to indicate tentativeness, lies what qualifies to the cartographer as the town of Cascabel. I’ve not been there but have fun imaging its character and residents. The website for Cascabel indicates it is “inhabited by diverse individuals, animals and plant species.” Diverse individuals is what my eye landed on. There is a community center; its calendar features lots of white space, yet there is a “peelum stickum gathering,” whatever that is, and, naturally, yoga. Ranch hands doing yoga. That’s worth traveling up the washboard road into the valley to see.

But Cascabel is civilization. My eyes fixate more on the white space around it, like a poem full of blankness, and I imagine walking miles outside of town, past the lights of the last ranch, and sitting on a rock on the Rincon Mountain foothills while the sun sets. Quiet settles in, and if you speak, your words sound odd, as if they don’t belong. You pocket your watch, because it doesn’t matter; you hear its muffled ticks cry out from the dark. You lean back on a rock that has been sitting in one place longer than you’ve been alive, let its coolness lull you. Dusk comes, and the quails go to the trees to roost, and you suddenly remember that Cascabel was named for a rattlesnake. You look around and step gingerly back to town.



Returning, Rain, Remembering


IMG_4363After returning late last evening from Arizona, a place of generous sun and expansive thinking, I woke this morning to a steady rain and truncated vision. I peeked out my window and could see to the corner, maybe four houses down, but no further, my world suddenly shrunken to dollhouse size from the arena of sky and mountain.. Yesterday, I opened my window on 50 miles, an over 9000 foot high Mount Lemon, and what seemed to be a party of dogs on the other side of the wash, living large. That’s “wash,” a usually dry low-lying area that occasionally fills up to overflowing with water. We call them gullies here. Here I look out, and it’s as if a shroud has been pulled over my world, the lights turned down low, a 25-watt world juxtaposed with yesterday’s 100-watt world.

Drip, drip, drip. I sat in my office today watching water puddle on the roof. On the way in, it was as if God had washed the color from the world in my absence. Most of the leaves couldn’t wait for my return but let go under the rain and apparent wind; they lie heaped up in gutters, littered over driveways, and propped against one another in yards, wet, floating down the creek over which I pass.

It was a city new to me after our diversion. I visited the local dive for lunch, nestled in the underarm of an aged strip shopping center. I had home cooked vegetables for the first time in 10 days — black-eye peas generously topped with diced onions, green beans seasoned with fatback, and collard greens stiffened by cider vinegar. Mix in the server’s accent, the server who nonchalantly sat down across from me in the booth to do her figuring, and it was the South, newly foreign. It has its pleasures, though it will take some getting used to.

First day back. I went to the eye doctor. He said “You’ve got a whopping floater in your left eye.” I said, “I know,” and I’m thinking tell me something I don’t know. He said “You have two options. Do nothing and live with it. Or, have surgery, with the risk of blindness.” I checked out.

The elevator was excruciatingly slow. When the doors opened, I stepped on board with eight other people. A sizable cavity remained, but the two young women still waiting said they’d wait for the next one. It could be quite a wait. One of the other passengers, an elderly lady who didn’t mind thinking aloud, said, as the door closed, “There’s plenty of room. I don’t know what’s the matter with them.”

They don’t live in Arizona, that’s their problem. There, you run up stairs, hike canyons, walk miles to church (for the experience), dream big, stretch your mind out over a valley, a mountain, and on near to Mexico, eat in a roadhouse in the desert with steaks cooked outside over mesquite fire, wander around alone in a canyon or ghost town, where all you can hear is your breath, slightly labored as you walk uphill. You try new things. You can even fail big, as the sun still rises the next day. Even a telephone pole, seen against a setting sun, summons up the Cross, means new life.

I miss it, just a little. Yet with dilated eyes, the world does seem brighter, a touch Arizona-like. And I’m not blind. There’s that, of course.


Presence

JoyOn the flight home from Arizona, I've managed to digest over a hundred more pages of Abigail Santamaria's carefully researched biography of Joy Davidman, entitled Joy: Poet, Seeker, and the Woman Who Captivated C.S. Lewis. Joy is the woman who became the wife of C.S. Lewis. Prior to becoming a Christian, she was a brilliant if often insufferably condescending woman, her commitment to Marx and communism total. Her poetry was political, an apology for a Marxist ideology which allowed her to heap praise on Stalin, her morals lax to non-existent, and her humor biting and often at the expense of others. Had I lived then and met her (a highly doubtful proposition, as she moved in the circles of the intelligentsia), I would not have liked her or her writing.

But I just reached the point in the book where Joy begins to turn. She has lost faith in the Soviet Union and communism, after Stalin made a pact with the Nazis. Her first husband, Bill Davidman, also a writer, has called her from his office in the City and told her he is having a nervous breakdown. It is late, and she does not know where he is or if he will come home to her and her two small boys, even if he is alive or dead.

But then this, in her words, as she sat fretting in her room, near despair, wondering if Bill was alive or dead: "There was a Person with me in the room, directly present to my consciousness --- a Person so real that all my previous life was by comparison mere shadow play. And I myself was more alive than I had ever been; it was like waking from sleep. So intense a life cannot be endured for long by flesh and blood; we must ordinarily take our life watered down, diluted as it were, by time and space and matter. My perception of God lasted perhaps half a minute. In that time, however, many things happened. I forgave some of my enemies. I understood that God had always been there, and that since childhood, I had been pouring half my energy onto the task of keeping him out."

In the end, Joy found herself on her knees, praying, "the world's most astonished atheist." She said her "awareness of God was no comforting illusion, conjured up to reassure me of my husband's safety. I was just as worried afterward as before. No; it was terror and ecstasy, repentance and rebirth."

That wasn't the end of it. But that set her on a quest to discover the God whose presence she felt. Eventually, her quest led her through Narnia to a Lion who knew her name and who had, as she said, always been there.

Not everyone receives the gift of Presence in the way that Joy Davidman did. But I have known others who can testify to such visitations, and the ones I know are not prone to imaginings or to looking for supernatural occurrences. Yet felt or not, all believers are promised His presence. In the air or on the ground, that promise means you are never without a companion in your journey, One who not only cares but who has the power to move mountains and hearts, the power to carry you through, the One with us to the ends of the earth, and even beyond.

That should be enough, for now.


An Antidote for Self-Pity

We had big plans for today, our last day in Arizona. We were going to hike the loop trail in Catalina State Park, on the western slope of the Santa Catalina Mountains, catching what is often a strikingly beautiful sunset over the Tucson Mountains. Then, after a quick change, it would be dinner out at a favorite, Wildflower, a sweet end to what was both a productive and fun time away. It was not to be.

After breakfast, my wife began feeling bad --- mostly headache, body aches, and general weakness. By mid-afternoon, we cancelled our plans. I took her to the local Urgent Care around 4:00. It appears to be a bacterial infection, that is, a "stomach bug," and so she received a shot of anti-inflammatory medicine and started antibiotics. Hopefully she'll be well enough to travel tomorrow.

I took myself to dinner at the McDonald's drive-through, something I never do at home. I wanted something cheap and filling, as I am not really hungry. At the window I told the young man my order, and then said, "How are you?"

"Tired," he responded.

"Me too. But you have a longer night ahead, right?"

"Yep. 2:00 a.m."

"Who eats burgers at 2:00 a.m?"

"You'd be surprised."

I'm sure I would. For a moment, I dwelled on what it must be like to work the fast food window at 2:00 a.m., and I had a moment of empathy for this young man who is tired but has six more hours to work.

I parked in a parking space to eat, uncertain if the smell of the food would be a problem for my patient. On the radio, David Jeremiah was preaching. I'm glad. I sat through the whole sermon as I finished my burger. I don't usually listen to preachers on the radio, but I did tonight.

I needed to hear what he said because I was feeling a bit down because of our last day being ruined by sickness. What Jeremiah said, in part, was that all temptations are rooted in unbelief, in a lack of trust in God. My own temptation to self-pity is rooted in a lack of trust that God is with us even when we face sickness, and in a particular kind of amnesia --- a forgetting of how he has protected and safeguarded us in the past. (We have all been sick on vacation before, on multiple occasions.) Sickness has a way of reminding us of our mortality and limitations, and it is a time, like any time of trial or hardship, for remembering God's faithfulness.

A verse we read earlier in the week at breakfast came back to me: "For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust" (Ps. 103:14). We get sick. Our plans are frustrated. We are tempted to self-pity. We forget His benefits. She may be physically sick, but I am at risk of a greater sickness. Yet a very honest radio preacher set me straight.

I pulled into Oracle, headed for the hotel. In the nearly moonless darkness, I can't see the Catalinas. But by faith, I know they are there. And I know too that the hikes we took, the laughs we shared, and the talks we had earlier this week are there too, etched in memories conscious and subconscious, and this is but one day in the many that will live on into eternity. And we will be well.


Eating With The Word


IMG_4447We took another hike today. It was about 100 feet roundtrip, from the parking lot into the local In-N-Out, for a hamburger, fries, and drink. In-N-Out has a limited menu: hamburgers, fries, and drinks. I think I said that. That's it. It's also a West Coast phenomena. The first one we ever hiked into was the original one in Westwood, in Los Angeles, near the campus of UCLA.

In-N-Out is the only restaurant I know of where you can actually take in Scripture while you eat. The drink cups have the John 3:16 reference printed on the underside of the cup. Drink it down a little before you raise your teetering cup and look for it. Take my advice on that. The hamburger wrapper references Revelation 3:20 ("Behold I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.") That one seems particularly appropriate. And then the french fries are in a bag that references Proverbs 24:16 ("[F]or the righteous falls seven times and rises again, but the wicked stumble in times of calamity.") I had to look that one up. I like its hopefulness. I've been to In-N-Out many times, whenever I come West, and I know the scripture references are there, yet I always look for them.

I looked around the restaurant. No one else appeared to be examining the bottom of their drink cup, checking out the seam of their french fry wrapper, or closely regarding the hamburger packaging. Even if they did, it's likely that half the people would not even know that it's a Bible reference, given the extent of cultural illiteracy. The family that owns the restaurant chain thought it important to place these references on the packaging. They have not explained why, and they need not do so.

Outside the windows, a totally white clad young man is practicing Kung Fu moves alone in a parking space. "All I'm saying is that's weird," I say. We look on. In a few minutes an older woman and man arrive. The boys hugs the woman affectionately, pats her gently on the back. "Look," my wife says, "that's his mother." Suddenly, he's not so weird. He loves his Mom and is not ashamed to commit a public display of affection in the middle of the parking lot. "We'll let him pass," I say.

I don't usually eat hamburgers and fries, yet earlier today, on the other side of the mountain, far away from the restaurants of the city, a thought settled in my head: In "N Out. I said to my wife, "Let's go to In-N-Out." Her eyes brightened, as did mine. And now, we are reading the Bible and eating hamburgers together and watching the show outside, and He is here, together like a slightly greasy "cord of three strands" (Ecclesiastes 4:12). What could be better?


At Kentucky Camp

ImageIt's odd to think of Kentucky Camp as a bustling place. There is no one here now but the two of us, and we are visiting but for an hour, yet from 1874 on this whole area in the Santa Rita Mountains was bustling with activity. Gold was discovered that year, placer deposits (a mix of gold, sand, and gravel), the largest in Arizona. Lacking much water with which to filter the deposits and separate the gold from the sand and gravel, miners bagged the earth and carried it to the nearest water supply, often not very near at all. By 1886 the richest deposits were worked out, and the miners left.

In 1902 James Stetson bought the land. He channeled runoff from spring snowmelt into a reservoir. He figured it would allow ten months of water, plenty of time to mine the gold. When he died prematurely in 1905, the company went belly up; a lawyer from Tucson, Hummel, bought the land and turned it into a cattle ranch. The last Hummels left in the early 1960s, and the Forest Service bought the land, restoring the camp structures, ruins reclaimed.

We walked through the restored building that served as a hotel and office, floors creaking, an eerie feeling as if we have entered someone's home while they are away, in that the building has furniture, even if spartan, and is livable, but there is no one home. The door left standing open to the world, we walked in, helped ourselves. It is virtually silent here, an occasional birdsong all that intrudes. Our voices sound odd, unfiltered by ambient sound, foreign.

"I could sit on the porch all day," says my wife. I imagined what that would be like, alone, if you heard no one's voice but your own. You'd have to speak aloud a bit each day, so as not to become a stranger to yourself or, having carried on a conversation in your head for so long, forget that, in the presence of others, you must speak aloud to communicate.

We walked a few hundred yards down the Arizona Trail, north from the Camp, the grasses nearly chest high. Soon, too soon, the trail was barely discernible, like a mere animal path, the grasses compressed at ground level but overtaken higher up. We turned back.

"Wouldn't it be great to live out here?," she asks, and I say, "It's a long way from Barnes and Noble." And people. The nearest town is 14 miles away, Sonoita, and it's but a crossroads. We later had lunch in the gas station deli there, the best available. A woman sat alone across from us, having her lunch, reading, in what was probably a Mom's day out, a trip into town, a respite from the isolation of the ranch.

We are 40 miles southeast of Tucson, in the high grasslands of the Santa Rita foothills, high enough that there are many fewer cacti. The brownish-green grasses, waist high, extend as far as we can see in undulating waves across the terrain, punctuated by mesquite trees and an occasional Arizona ash or oak, large rotund trees with writhing branches. Some signaled Fall, their leaves yellowing.

Going back to Tucson, still well east of the city, we took Mescale Road, following the blacktop through a settlement of a few houses. At a railway crossing, a freight train blew past, the container cars a kaleidoscope of color. Then, another train dieseled past in the opposite direction, a rendezvous in a desolate place, the conductors in their engine windows.

We pushed on then onto gravel, then dirt, then dirt and rocks, the road narrowing, the ruts deepening. The road was to extend 16 miles into the Rincon Mountains, dead ending at the Miller Trailhead. We never made it. Due to the rains last week, the creek is flowing. At one crossing that appeared 2-4 inches deep, we drove through, though I felt the tires sink ominously in the soft sand. A few miles farther in, another crossing appeared, broader this time and deeper. Several yards down the road on the other side, a sign proclaimed Dead End 9 miles, and we looked at it longingly, wishing for a truck. We turned for home.

Later, at dinner in the city, my wife said, "Kentucky Camp seems so long ago," and I concurred. It was a century ago, yet still golden, silent beneath the stars and full of absence.


A Night-Walk In Our Alter Place


ImageThis afternoon we faced a case of the mid-vacation, mid-afternoon doldrums. At 3:45, well on our way to an afternoon nap, I said "Let's get out of here. If we stay here, we'll just lay around and sleep. Let's drive over to Saguaro East National Park, leave the car at the Visitor's Center, and walk the loop road to the Cactus Forest Trailhead about a half mile in. Then we can walk across the desert floor about dusk [about 3 miles], and wind up on the road at dark. Then we can walk the mile back to the car on the road." My wife leapt from repose. We were out the door in five minutes. It's a 45 minute drive to the Park, fueled by a cookie and a Coke.

After talking to the ranger at the Park, we realized that we had been a bit optimistic. Dark would likely overtake us somewhere on the desert trail, and it's a bit difficult to see rattlesnakes in the dark. So we walked the road in about two miles and then back out in the dark, virtually alone. As the sun set behind the Tucson Mountains, the colors on the mountains behind us, the Rincons, changed from green to red. Even the few clouds in the sky were a shade of red, almost orange. As darkness came, the birds became active, cicadas began their song. We hoped to sight deer or coyote, but were disappointed. As we passed the saguaro, prickly pear, barrel, and staghorn cacti, the palo verde and mesquite trees, and the creosote and brittlebush, part of what we relished was the alien nature of the place: vegetation unlike any at home; a stillness unknown to us; a vista far more compelling, with mountains and sky and a city of a million to the West.

“Your alter country is all that your first was not,” writes the English author Julian Barnes, adding that “commitment to it involves idealism, love, sentimentality and a certain selective vision.” That's true not only of another country we may love but of a place we love to visit, like Tucson. The places we vacation, even ones we have repeatedly visited, are at those times an unrealistic approximation of home. We are less distracted. We are at leisure. We eat at nice restaurants. We have no long-term relationships that require the work of love (save that of the ones we travel with). People being in a service industry are generally nice to us. In short, we are living in a dream, a good one. We cannot know what it is to actually live in the place unless we commit to it. Then we can understand.

"Are you going to walk with me, or ahead of me?," says my wife. I am in exercise walk mode, a natural pace. "I'm sorry. I'll try and slow down." We are stopping, often, listening, even recording the sounds of the desert. We talk little. We marvel that in 34 years of coming here, this is one thing, hiking alone in the dark in the desert, that we have not done. The Park has closed the gate, and the last two cars have passed us on the road out, and we are alone, silent. Then, a man is approaching, walking into the Park in the dark, two dogs in tow. "How are ya'll?," says my wife, as if she was asking the question of the dogs as well. And then, "Oh, sorry," with a slight laugh. "That's OK," he said, passing briskly by. "I'm from Kentucky. I understand."

I didn't hear what the dogs said.


Glory


ImageIf you think about it, and that's a big if for most of us, all of nature can become a metaphor for spirituality, as deep as it is broad. On a walk this morning, my wife noticed a regiment of ants carrying tiny light brown leaves across our path, single file, some in route, some returning. I missed them on the first pass, may have even stepped on a few in my inattention. They were carrying the leaves about 30 feet to a hole in the ground. We watched one, oblivious to us, disappear down the hole, to deposit it, for nesting perhaps, or bedding, or food. Their single-minded devotion to task and ability to carry much more than their weight is instructive, a metaphor for grace. By His grace, God can do immeasurably more than we can conceive. But maybe that thought is more than an ant can carry.

Mid-afternoon, we drove northwest of the city, through the irrigated cotton and corn fields of Marana, to where the blacktop ended, on Silverbell Road, the gravel road taking us into the Ironwood National Monument, an undeveloped largely natural area devoted to the stands of desert ironwood trees that grow here. They are, I have read, the "old growth" tree of the desert, and are found only here. Some are believed to be as old as 800 years, and they can grow as high as 30 feet, though we saw none like that. Dense, they supposedly sink in water, a useless bit of knowledge.

But again, they serve as an apt metaphor, instructive to us spiritually. Beneath their canopy cacti seedlings are sheltered from both extreme cold and heat. On freezing nights, the canopies of ironwood, below which the temperature may be 4º C warmer than in adjacent open areas, make the critical difference for vulnerable seedlings. Similarly, when stripped of ironwood’s protective cover above them, some cacti actually suffer sunburn and die. So, the stolid ironwoods are the nursemaids of the young, even those not even their own kind or their own concern. So too, in the penumbra of the believer's life, God's grace has greater reach, even beyond what we imagine. We, like the ironwood, live out our lives not fully aware of the salutary effect God has on others through His life in us. These trees, some nearly Methuselah-old, can carry that metaphor.

The road is badly rutted, yet with care our SUV navigates it. Reaching a T-intersection, we stop short of very deep ruts in both directions, likely impassable drop-offs, preceded by deep, loose sands, and I envision an axle-break or getting stuck in deep sand. We have some water, but not enough, and I have seen only one car in the last hour. Reluctantly, we turn to head back the same way. Midway, just outside the shadow of Ragged Mountain to the west, I stop the car, switch off the ignition, and we listen. There is the breeze brushing past and through the mesquite trees and creosote bushes, a few birdcalls, and the alien tick of the motor.

I step out for these pictures. "Watch out for the rattlesnakes," my wife says from the safety of the car. And Africanized bees. And a stray and highly poisonous Gila monster. I look down at the holes in the desert floor around me and wonder at the inhospitability of the desert. Yet, spiritually, the desert has been a place of exile, of chastening and of testing. Another metaphor, deep and wide.

In one photo I took the shot from the perspective of the ant, more desert floor than anything else, topped by an indiscernibly high sky not his concern. In another, a cholla hogs the screen in green and yellow brilliance. In another, shot across the fields of Marana, a radiant setting sun shines from behind a cloud, a telephone pole, a cross-like symbol, in the foreground. Though we have come here for 34 years, I still take photos to try and take the desert East with me. I never can. A photo cannot hold the expanse, the heat, the wind, the aloneness.

I only have one word for it: Glory.


Canyon-Strong

ImageWhen my wife's father was in school at the University of Arizona in the late 1930s, he recalls driving his date up the winding road into Sabino Canyon, on the outskirts of Tucson. We have been coming here for over 34 years, even strolling our son up the road into the canyon at the age of six weeks, 23 years ago, hiking the Phoneline Trail on the ridge above the canyon, or simply riding the tram.

Given the rain this fall, Sabino Creek is topping the concrete and stone bridges at a couple crossings, requiring us to gingerly ford the over-wash by picking our way over it on the edges of the bridge, the tea-colored water, the result of tannin from leaves and other decaying matter in the water, rushing over the falls caused by the bridges' dams. At times in the past, the water has been so deep that we have to wade through, shoeless; other times, a thin trickle of the creek treads its way below.

The road is has been closed to traffic for years. You can walk in about four miles, take a propane-powered open air tram, or cycle in (before 9:00 AM). We walked, the mostly level path giving way after a mile to a fairly steady incline, increasingly steep as we neared the turnaround at the end, at Stop 9. Yet, it's a nearly eight-mile walk that passes too quickly. The rock and cactus-covered canyon walls rise to a striking blue sky, and the cottonwoods, acacias, sycamore, and mesquite that suck water from the creek are are brilliant green, well hydrated by the rains. Saguaro trunks swell with water, drought-wise. The canyon is on the verge of its short Fall, November through mid-December, and then Winter just as short, through January, which can mean snow in the upper canyon, and then a Spring full of blooming flowers and new growth, the creek broadening and deepening from the snow-melt.

Bobcats and mountain lions are rare, but have been spotted here. Rangers counsel that if you confront one, you must not run but hold your ground, make yourself look larger by raising your arms, and, if you can pick up some rocks while still keeping your arms aloft, throw rocks and yell. Of course, no one has lived to carry out these instructions, which are the subjects of derision among the lions and bobcats. I've never seen one.

Our plan is to to walk all the way to the top, a disappointingly low 600-foot rise in elevation we later discover, as it seemed much more than that (I guessed 2000 feet, which seemed something to glory in), and then turn around and head back one stop to Anderson dam, a natural partial blockage of the creek made by gargantuan boulders loosed from the canyon walls by an earthquake centered in Mexico in 1887. The canyon can be crowded with people at times, sunning on rocks or playing on the sand beaches at Hutch's Pool, but it isn't today. The tram is running on the hour, for now, so except when it passes, the only sounds are the slight breeze whistling by our ears, the often-present sound of running water, and the occasional bird-song. Mostly, I hear my slightly labored breathing.

Sabino Creek, which originates high in the pine forests of the Catalina Mountains, fed by snow melt or the more plentiful rains on the mountain, eventually goes underground somewhere in Tucson, joining to the aquifer that lies below the city and on which the city depends. We too, by early afternoon, will be once again less perceptible, a part of the whole, the city, better for our time away, canyon-strong and more alive.


Rilke & Jonah


ImageWalking back from church today, I noticed a plaque in the sidewalk, a verse by the poet Rilke, "We wish on a star, because the star itself is a wish." For this one mile stretch of sidewalk, the city arts budget has apparently coughed up enough to place these monuments to poetry, and yet I wondered how many people would actually see them. In my mid-morning two and one-half mile walk, not a single other person was walking. The dozen or so bicyclists that whizzed by were moving too fast; to really see, you have to slow down. Even I have to be willing to stop, set destination and time aside for a moment, and look around me.

The sidewalk is along a four-lane called Skyline, if that tells you anything. To my right are the ever-steepening foothills that merge with the Santa Catalina Mountains, where desert cacti give way to pines and, finally, the deep evergreen of spruce and fir. Above that, an azure sky frames the peaks, with every so often the whiff of an orphan cloud, searching for its own.

To my other side, the city fans out, its grid broken by the dry beds of the Rillito and the Santa Cruz, or the interruption by the railroad tracks. Some roads cross, others give up, only to continue far into the desert on the other side. It's not hot, but I didn't dress for this, and I thought the road was level, following the ridge, but no, it has a slight incline that begins to slow my pace. When the sidewalk gives out, I walk on sand and rocks, more gingerly, watching for the unlikely but possible rattlesnake or gila monster.

I read earlier this morning that with El Nino it's expected to be a colder, wetter winter in Tucson. If the Santa Cruz overflows its banks, downtown Tucson will flood. In the 1983 record-setting flood caused by another El Nino, the Santa Cruz was at near capacity handling 42,000 cubit feet per second, a number that for me is incomprehensible. Water is big news here. Too much or too little and, as Professor Victor Baker says, "We have big trouble here." In other news: "Floods will test county's soil cement system." Front page. Oh yes, there's a 42-page section in the paper about the University of Arizona Wildcats. So, it's floods and jocks. I turned to the comics.

I do not know what Rilke meant. In my previous readings of his poetry, either he is being deliberately obtuse, or I am thick. Perhaps something is lost in translation. I thought I had some insight, then lost it after crossing First Avenue. So I revisited the 45-minute sermon on Jonah and the great fish. I learned a few things I did not know. First, God may have had the fish "vomit" and not "spit" or "set" Jonah on the land as an indication of displeasure at Jonah's not yet complete repentance. It wasn't the most savory part of the sermon. In short, God was disgusted but still merciful, as was I after three minutes discourse on this expulsion.

Second, I learned that Jonah may have actually died in the fish, then been resurrected by God, which makes sense if you see as do the Gospel writers Jesus as a greater Jonah, in His coming out of the tomb and preaching of Good News to the lost. I missed a few things in the content-rich sermon to my gazing at the mountains through the windows behind the pulpit. I took notes, but they are not now all decipherable.

But I know this: I got a lot more from Jonah than I did from Rilke. A star may be a wish, a wish of God, but it's more. It's good news. It's a 200-year flood of good news. It means He is there.


Golden Dust

Today dawned. Unlike yesterday it actually is qualified to be called dawn, as yesterday was just a slightly lighter version of night. Clouds and rain in the desert southwest cast a pall over the day, somehow darker than the darkest clouds of home, and everyone becomes a little more subdued, as if the welcome spell of wetness might lift if they say much about it.

Walking back from breakfast in a bright sun, there was little evidence of all the rain of yesterday. The desert sand sounded differently under my tread, and stooping down to scoop some up, water still clung to its grains. The frond of a yucca plant bent low, nearly touching the ground, water still pooled in its cup, refreshment for a bird or desert hare. A cote of doves, disturbed by my walk, scattered, all a-twitter by my passing.

I had breakfast with my wife, and she drove on, as I said I'd walk the nearly one mile back, as I did yesterday. I just kept walking. I walked six miles, looping several times around the property, leaving the path once to walk up the wash in hopes of spotting wildlife, which mostly consisted of rabbits disappearing around the side of barrel cactus, or cactus wrens peeking shyly around the edge of sahuaro trunks. A chipmunk, tale high, skittered across my path. A green and yellow hummingbird was not put off though, lighting on a flower no more than 15 feet away, wings fluttering furiously, before flitting away.

Later, I read that hummingbirds have an extremely high metabolism which, I suppose, follows from all the wing flapping, up to 50 times per second, and backward flying at up to 34 mph, something my friend John may have tried in his Mom's green Torino in high school, in a James Dean moment. He did worse. When food is scarce, hummingbirds go into a hibernation-like state called torpor, allowing them to slow their metabolism to 1/15 its normal rate. Some humans seem to be able to manage this as well. Some are born to it.

Along the path I passed a woman once, twice, three times. Each time she was talking furiously on her cell phone with her IPad open in front of her. I wondered if she knew where she was, if she noticed the Catalina Mountains above her, the rabbits hopping round her feet, the hummingbirds flitting by her head. But I'm too smug. I can be like her at home. Here, I turn off my phone most of the day, let it sit at the corner of my desk where it whimpers for a while, beckoning. I cover it with a book.

Today I wrote two thousand five hundred and twelve words; yesterday, three thousand six hundred and twenty. And yes, I know that when you write a number eleven or greater you do not spell it out, but it looks more impressive that way. Allow me those small pleasures, grammar queens. It's a start. I remember one author I met once told us that instead of writing a book he played mini-golf in his apartment for two years while his wife worked. I don't like golf. But there are easier things to do. If you think about it, pray I don't end up like him.

At breakfast we read Psalm 103, one I return to like a favorite cut off an album, particularly this line: "For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are but dust." Yet, I think, golden dust, lit from within.


Keeping Vigil

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Love Carriers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


From Room to Arena

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

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

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

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

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


Ambulatory Writing

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

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

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

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

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

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


Going Out & Coming In

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Circumstance & Grace

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

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

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

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

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

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


An Old Duffer

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Odor of Durability

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Drama of the Gospel

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

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

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

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

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