Welcome to the Bell

S3-27000-w-ca-257_15-lt-5"At the basis of Jesus Christ's Kingdom is the loveliness of the commonplace." (Oswald Chambers, in My Utmost for His Highest, August 21)

“There is nothing in us or done by us, at any stage of our earthly development, because of which we are acceptable to God. We must always be accepted for Christ’s sake, or we cannot ever be accepted at all." (B.B. Warfield)

Birds have little problem with the doctrines of grace. That holds true for squirrels, voles, fox, deer, and other woodland creatures. They are beneficiaries of God's wondrous grace, provided for and loved, yet they never think it up to them. They have no idols, make no little gods. They just live in love, beloved by the One who so loved the world.

Not so with us. We find it difficult to rest in Love.

I took myself to lunch alone. But I am not alone. I sit by the window and eat fast food slow, watching men wash cars. Their movements are rhythmic: drying, wiping, standing, moving about the cars until, finished, they tap the horn and raise their arm to the sky. Across from me, two middle age men eat sullenly, one staring at his food and the other at the shining screen of his phone. A family laughs in the booth next to them, yet the sounds of the kitchen and drive-through orders drowns out their words. Looking down, a bird titters on the outside lip of the window, briefly, before flitting off at the sound of an advancing car.

I do this sometimes - eat or walk or sit in the most pedestrian of places -when I am sad about the world, or sad about me, recalling, as Jesus reminds me, that blessed are those who mourn about sin - about people who hate other people, about greed, about the unborn and unfed or about my own selfishness and sloth - because they shall be comforted. How? By the gospel, by the truth that He calls us beloved, by our irrevocable adoption into His family. I need that. And besides, if you're not sad about the world or yourself sometimes - if you don't know how broken we are - then grace is kept at remove. Cheap and ephermeral.

"Try the mini-quesadilla. That's something different. Only a dollar," said a clerk, brightly. I notice she is overweight. I make judgments about her life, though I know better, before I catch myself.

"Sure. I'll try it. The price is right." She works at Taco Bell. I'm wondering how she survives on what she makes as I mentally calculate the monthly wages of a minimum wage earner. And yet she smiles and her voice is upbeat. She's better at her job than I am at mine. There's no complaint in her voice, no attitude, no cynicism.

Out the window men are washing cars, many of the cars worth more than than they could ever hope to make in a year or even two years. They work in the heat, sweat glistening on their arms and dripping from their foreheads. I am no better than them. Why am I here? I'm after what G.K. Chesterton called "[t]hat profound feeling of mortal fraternity and frailty," the dignity of the commonplace, the blessedness of the ordinary, the truth that we're all in the same boat, that but for Christ, we are all the orphans of God.

"Hey, the quesadilla. . . It was great," I called out on leaving.

She looked up. Her ordinary smile shone over the lobby, as I turned and walked away, mortal but accepted, common, but uncommonly loved. Driving away, I considering tapping my horn and raising my arm to the sky. I should have.


Weapon of Prayer


While there is no copyright on my weathered volume of D.L. Moody's Prevailing Prayer, following the contents page there is a page entitled "How to Use This Book" that helps date this edition to a time at least 50 years ago, if not more. Among the suggestions listed are "Present the book to the grocer's boy, milkman or someone calling at your door," and "Forward it to a lumber camp or prison, the sailors, soldiers, firemen and other neglected classes." That makes me long for that time when it would have been presumed by most that praying was a necessary and good thing, even if they did not much pray themselves. First published in 1884 (Moody died in 1899), the book has likely stayed in print because of the efficacy of its exhortations and clarity of its language, even across more than a century. And yet in a time when the culture is largely naked of Christian truths, the book is near samizdat: an operator's manual for the least used weapon of the dissident movement known as the Church --- to be read, savored, and employed with fire and holy fury.

Military imagery is cringe-inducing nowadays, and yet previous generations had no qualms about it. In 1951 the Louvin Brothers released a recording entitled "Weapon of Prayer" which opined that those at home praying were just as much warriors as those soldiers fighting in Korea. One stanza is my favorite:

When the planes and tanks and guns have done all that they can do And the mighty bombs have rained and fell Still the helpful Hand above holds a weapon made of love And against Him none on Earth prevail

And indeed none do. Over and over in Prevailing Prayer Moody makes the claim that prayer is our greatest power. He says it is the "mighty power that has moved not only God, but man." "Those who have left the deepest impression on this sin-cursed earth," says Moody, "have been men and women of prayer." Using one after another biblical examples, he shows that "when believing prayer went up to God, the answer came down." A friend summarizes it this way: "We pray, and God will surely do something. What we don’t know, but he will do something.” Citing Baxter, Luther, Knox, Whitefield, Wesley, and McCheyne, Moody shows how "all God's people have been praying people." About Baxter: "He stained his study walls with praying breath; and after he was anointed with the unction of the Holy Ghost, sent a river of living water over Kidderminster, and converted hundreds." About Knox he said that "he grasped all Scotland in his strong arms of faith; his prayers terrified tyrants." What if it were the prayers of God's people and not firepower that terrified tyrants like North Korea's Kim Jong-un ? What if our president called for a national day of prayer, and we saw the crumbling of that fell regime under the strong hand of love?

Why don't we pray, or why don't we pray more? Maybe because we do not sufficiently believe in its power. Or at least we believe that it's a weapon of last resort, one that may or may not work, one that we hope is answered in some recognizable way but that probably won't be. Or maybe even because we don’t believe that God cares enough to answer. If we believed that answers come down when believing prayers go up, we would be praying all the time. We have access to a King who is omnipotent and who loves us and promises to answer.

Do we have time? Of course we do. If it's our greatest power, the thing that moves the hand of God, then of course we do. Luther, who was a busy man, said (according to Moody) that "I have so much to do that I cannot get on without three hours a day praying." Do they get answered? We are promised that they do. Moody says "I think that we shall find a great many of our prayers that we thought unanswered answered when we get to heaven."

Everything said in this book is still relevant. We still need to pray. More than anything we need to pray. Prayer is holy breathing: we can't live without it. We need a faith weaponized by prevailing prayers that, in Moody’s words, “ move the Arm that moves the world.” For Christ's sake, pray. For the offense and defense of God’s world, pray.


Silence

EgPb%ywKSoGbr2vSSJA9Pg_thumb_72d3What I know about classical music you can put in a thimble. Yet, for whatever reason, a few years ago I bought a copy of Henryk Gorecki's Symphony No. 3. I'm listening to it as I sit on the patio on a pleasant, warm day, savoring it with the neighbor's cat, who seems lulled by its graceful sounds.

There's an abundance of silence in Gorecki's work, reminds Robert Reilly, a silence which some might interpret as "nothing happens." Yet that is the plague of the Western, modern (and Post-modern) mind. According to Reilly,

During a trip to Washington, DC, in the early 1990s, Górecki was asked to comment on the phenomenal success of his Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, the Nonesuch recording of which sold more than 800,000 copies. Górecki responded, "Let’s be quiet." Perhaps that is [his] most urgent message [ ], "Be quiet." Or perhaps more biblically, "Be still." This stillness is not empty silence [ ]. It is a full, gestational silence that allows one, like Moses, to hear the remaining words: "And know that I am God.”

Well, a soaring soprano was enough for the cat. He left.

If I turn off the music, I have my own form of silence here, the ostensible silence of “nothing happening.” The rustle of a leaf-laden tree branch. The crescendo of daytime cicadas. The twittering songs of sparrows, bluebirds, and chickadees, and the mimicry of a mockingbird. Faraway, there is the distant hum of traffic, the winding out of a motorcycle. Above me a single-engine prop plane makes its buzzing descent. Yet in between that cacophony, there are interstices of silence. Like Gorecki.

Like the work of John Tavener and Arvo Part, the profound silence that permeates the work of Gorecki is not empty but pregnant with meaning. “Some of [his] compositions emerge from the very edge of audibility and remain barely above it," says Reilly, "conveying the impression that there is something in the silence that is now being revealed before once again slipping out of range. The deep underlying silence slowly surfaces and lets itself be heard. For those precious moments one hears what the silence has to say. When not used in this way, a grammar of silence is nonetheless employed that punctuates even the more extrovert and vociferous works. Moments of silence stand like sentinels, guarding the inner stillness from the violence of sounds that have not come out of the silence."

We all need such sentinels. It might be the silence of a William Carlos Williams poem that we need, a white space pregnant with expectation. It might be a silent sanctuary before a call to worship when scripture resounds. It might be the thoughtful pause before you respond to a rash word spoken or email sent. It might be the great empty satellite silence of space that only a few among us have experienced, before God in some time unknown reconciles all things and reconstitutes His universe. It might be the anticipatory stillness before a God who lets our urgent plea hang in the silence between heaven and earth, until faith buoys it upward.

"[F]aith for me is everything," Gorecki once said. "If I did not have that kind of support, I could not have passed the obstacles in my life.” It was faith that kept Henryk Gorecki during the communist oppression in his native Poland. It underlines the melancholy chorales of his Symphony of Sorrowful Songs. Faith girds his silences, carries his sound.

In his classic book, The Celebration of Discipline, Richard Foster links silence and solitude, the latter a necessary counterpoint to community. “Without silence,” he says, “there is no solitude.” Pointing to the example of Jesus, who often left the crowds to go to a “lonely place,” he concludes that “we must seek out the recreating stillness of solitude if we want to be with others meaningfully.” Just as solitude doesn’t mean we are alone, silence doesn’t mean nothing is happening, Just as great declarations are being made from the silence of space (Ps. 19:1-4a), so profound declarations are being made in the small silences we cultivate.

A lawn mower has started, its sound ebbing and flowing as it moves behind a neighbor's house. Children laugh. A car door slams and my daughter backs away for her day, with a smile and a wave and words of endearment from an open window. Even the neighbor's cat returns, a winsome black smudge against the sky. And then, something near to silence descends again, and I think, “be still," Gorecki’s “let’s be quiet,” the anticipatory silence before the thunder of, "And know that I am God."


Spelunking


IMG_0308"Now let me at the truth
Which will refresh my broken mind"

("The Cave," by Mumford and Son, from the album, Sigh No More)

Near the end, as we picked our way up the rock-strewn entrance to the cave, a cheery notification lit the screen of my IPhone: "Its time to write in your journal again!" I hate exclamation points. About their use writer William Zinsser says, just to sum it up, "Don't." He notes that the exclamation point "has a gushy aura, the breathless excitement of a debutante commenting on an event that was exciting only to her." There is nothing exciting about writing in your journal. It is discipline, the constraint of words, and often mundane. But perhaps my disposition was brittle: I was tired and had just slipped on a rock and fallen on my rear.

Lava River Cave is a 700,000 year old, one mile underground passageway under the pine tree floor of the Coconino National Forest north of Flagstaff, Arizona. After leaving the blacktop off I-40 West, I drove about seven miles on a hard-packed gravel road into the forest, with regular exhortations from my wife and son to slow down and watch for potholes. "I'm watching for them," I said. "I am." Kerthump. I follow the philosophy that the faster you go the less wheel is in the hole and less damage done. It's possible that I am wrong about this, but plenty of people seem to be doing it, and yet I hear my mother's voice, "That doesn't make it right, Stephen," which is how she addressed me when I was dead wrong. The road was fine, until it wasn't, and we hit a jarring pothole that made me glad it was a rental car. A Dollar rental car. My passengers remind me that it has no remote key lock or back seat cup holders.

The entrance to the cave was a tumble down hole in the earth, a rock slide around which humanity milled, slicker than an otter slide in places, which kept it interesting. But hold on: We signed in on the book at the entrance, in pencil, apparently to denote our impermanence. I'm not sure why. Perhaps so they could identify our bodies later? We then scrambled over boulders and loose rock, betwixt jubilant ascenders who'd been there and back, maybe 30-40 feet down, until we reached the floor of the lava tube. But not before we stopped and took a picture of Jesus, who had just emerged from the tomb, I mean cave. No, not Jesus, just a lone spelunker with an abundance of head and facial hair.

I am 59 and wonder how my body will feel tomorrow when I awake. I needn’t as I know how decrepit I will feel on rising. “There's no shame in crawling," I say, preferring to get low so as to reduce the height from which I might fall. But I don't fall, yet.

The floor of the cave is staccato, a blanket of rocks melded together by the lava flow. Occasionally, a smooth cave cay in a sea of rock waves appears, and we stand on it to rest, an island in a molten sea, a boulder fallen centuries ago into the flow from the cavern roof on which we balance. At some points the roof of the cave is 30 feet high; other times, five feet high. I bend, humbling myself, cognizant that the unsupported weight of the world is above me. I watch my head. I watch my feet. I breathe cave air, cold and dank, run my hands along rocks encrusted with cave dust.

Is there a bathroom in here? Nope. That’s the least of my concerns. In here there are all kinds of ways to go wrong. You can fall into a hole or slide a foot into a crack of doom from which extrication is complicated. You can get too high and bang your head, lose consciousness. And then there's heart attacks, leg breaks, ankle twists, and so on - cheery thoughts. Yet I am an attorney: I traffic in doom; if it can happen, it will.

Some people are loud and boisterous as they spelunk. Yo, cave bro. (No one actually said that to me.) There is a veneer of commonality. We are one. Unity in diversity. They pose for status updates. High-fives. A few even have a musical accompaniment, thought it's not Mumford and Son's "The Cave" or even Owl City's "Cave In," but some synth-pop or rap "I'm-just-saying-I-go-caving-with-the-homies, you know." Me, I feel reverent, among an old one, and I speak, if at all, in a hushed voice. We all do. When the people leave, even here God lives and moves, His Spirit seeping through walls and in every crevice. He knew a cave, once.

When we get to the end, there is no private concession, no Starbucks with latte or hot chocolate. The roof bends down until you cannot pass, as if God said, “Here, and no farther.” A man hails us, with a good natured, ”Welcome to the party!,” a frivolity in the face of wonder, our tunnel a bare scratch in the mantle of His world. We turn and retrace our steps, the homing oddly shorter, until I see light and scramble upward, falling in my haste.

Once, underneath, we found ourselves alone and switched off our lamps, let the quiet settle in. I tried to imagine what it would be like to have found yourself alone, like Elijah, cabined in by the walls, groping in the dark, and then to hear a voice calling to you, "What are you doing here?," and to realize that you are not alone, that you are never alone, that God moves even in the darkness, moves through walls, and leads His people upward, into the light, the Truth for broken minds. That alone is worth exclamation.

I scramble up to sky, with hope. . . for lunch.


God's Business

1I switched off the light, adjusted my pillow, put the latest tome to rest on the nightstand, and drew the covers up around my head. Wait, what's that light?

"Honey, did you leave a light on?"

"No. That's the moon, a full moon. Want me to draw the curtain?

"No. That's God's business. It's ok with me." I turn and sigh.

I don't why I said it that way: "God's business." I lay there a while imagining all the countless, simultaneous things God must do in every nanosecond, effortlessly. Like holding together the not insubstantial atoms that comprise my cat, a gelatinous fur-sack asleep on my foot. Nudging her I nudge God, God listening to the petitions of millions, present for each individual in a way that I sometimes struggle to be for even the one person in front of me. God never sleeping, always attentive, tracking every movement and every thought. God 24-7, up all night, awake to all that is.

I’m awake too, albeit with none of His omniscience. I can't sleep. I get up, shuffle to the window, and stare out at God's night light, a moon hovering over the water. I thought about earlier in the evening, when thunderheads scudded seaward, jagged cracks of lightning thrown across them. He did that too, while all the time hearing the inarticulable prayer underneath my spoken prayer, reading my thoughts while orchestrating tides and gravity and holding together the dark matter of space.

The cat brushes my bare ankle, takes up position beside me, impassive face seaward. Infinity is in her eyes. Or maybe it’s just a plea for food, a midnight snack.

“‘Can anyone hide in secret places so that I cannot see him?’ declares the Lord. ‘Do I not fill heaven and earth?’” (Jer. 23:24). J.I. Packer explains that “he is present everywhere in the fullness of all that he is and all the powers he has, and needy souls praying to him anywhere in the world receive the same fullness of his undivided attention." My tiny little prayer that wafts heavenward, caught by the ocean breeze, lit by moonlight, joins with the weighty petition of a persecuted saint languishing in a North Korean prison or the hungry prayer of a malnourished African. God gives each His full attention without the expenditure of an iota of his great mind or strength.

No one can understand that mystery. And yet we have pictures of it in scripture. A woman suffering from a decade of bleeding manages to touch Jesus in spite of a crowd, and Jesus saw and healed her (Lk. 8:43-48). A lame beggar calls out to Peter and John, and it is recorded that “Peter directed his gaze at him, as did John,” and he was healed (Acts 3:1-10). God has a razor-sharp focus on the prayers of His people, directs His gaze of love unto us.

I look down. The cat has departed, following the rut worn in the carpet between our room and the food bowl. I say one more prayer, letting it fall back into the deep with the undertow, deep unto deep, and return to bed.

“Did you draw the curtain?”

“Oh no, I couldn’t. God is still up.”


Hope Beyond all Hopes

IMG_0307As a child, on the way home from church, I'd say to my sister, "I hope we go to McDonalds for lunch," and she'd say, "Me too," and pious child that I was I'd even pray it so, screwing my eyes shut and concentrating very hard on the object of my hope. Pray the turn signal would be green, that my Dad would turn the wheels toward the Golden Arches. But no. No, at least not that day. The light would change and we'd motor on to white bread tomato or pimento cheese sandwiches and long, endless Sunday afternoons of "rest", our parents snoozing away, inexplicably exhausted, before we were back at church, installment two.

Maybe hope is something non-gastronomic, like when my wife said the other day, "I hope it doesn't rain." It rained buckets. "I hope I get an A" I thought to myself in law school, and I did, two times, but mostly not. Hope falls easily from the tongue, a longing. And yet real hope is something more substantial, something that has an object that is durable and true and is more than the mere precatory language we often use about mundane things like food and weather. Those are wishes. And we know they are.

I don’t personally know anyone who lacks hope, though I have known some at times acutely stricken by its lack. Hope has broad currency. Hope is not just the province of believers or even just generally religious people. Mostly when I hear it said I hear an expression of longing more than anything else and, underneath the longing, some vague sense that there is a basis for hope, even if the basis is paper thin and fragile, or even inarticulable.

In an article called “Soul Comforter,” Josh Mayo explores what underlies expressions of hope. He asks “What can explain the human soul's insistent and persistent hope against titanic odds?” Mayo identifies two prevalent notions of hope, two “songs of optimism.” First, there is the Song of Progress. Things are getting better every day. Technology will solve our problems. It's the credo of Silicon Valley: a new startup, a new smartphone, solar-powered airplanes, the trans-human body. Or there is the Song of Karma, says Mayo. Give love, receive love. Good deeds get good returns. Do right, or mostly right, and it'll all work out in the end. You'll make it to heaven, the afterlife, a reincarnated life, whatever.

And yet, as Mayo says, both bases for hope are bankrupt. “No honest survey of ourselves or the world provides any such hope for beatitude contingent on ethics,” says Mayo, but rather, is cause for despair. Every technological solution creates more problems; good is often not rewarded but even punished, given the bent nature of human beings. Under the longing, under the songs of karma and progress, is the rumble of something desperate and grasping. Under the sheen and buoyancy of pop culture, and behind the chatter of talk show hosts, you hear it.

Yet it need not be. About hope, Frederick Buechner once said:

For Christians, hope is ultimately hope in Christ. The hope that he really is what for centuries we have been claiming he is. The hope that despite the fact that sin and death still rule the world, he somehow conquered them. The hope that in him and through him all of us stand a chance of somehow conquering them too. The hope that at some unforeseeable time and in some unimaginable way he will return with healing in his wings.

Real hope has a true and faithful object, and for the the Christian - for the world - that object is Jesus Christ." When voices of discouragement or even despair whisper, we can know two things. First, that positionally something is very different for us as Christians, something irrevocable: we have been transferred from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of light, of Jesus (Col. 1:13). This movement is by grace and not of our own doing. And second, God is at work reconciling the whole creation to himself (Col. 1:20). This too is God's initiative, His power. Progress marred by sin; karma that gets you in the end. But hope, in Christ alone, the currency of His people.

Next time you say "I hope," then in the mundanity of your hope consider the Hope beyond all hopes, the One to whom they all point. Out beyond the Golden Arches.


The Father-Haunted Life of Brian Wilson

41E3WXJMmaL._SX342_BO1 204 203 200_
At 25 I turned out the light
Cause I couldn’t handle the glare in my
tired eyes
But now I’m back, drawing shades of kind
blue skies.

(From “Going Home,” By Brian Wilson and Scott Bennett, from the album, That Lucky Old Sun)

Early in his recent memoir, entitled I Am Brian Wilson, the enigmatic Beach Boy draws attention to the single most important person to impact his early life: his father, Murray Wilson. Though he is long dead, Wilson says that even now he hears the voice of his dad in his head: “Your music is no damned good, Brian. Get to work, Brian. You’re falling behind, Brian.” Time and again in the pages that follow he circles his father, alternating between love and appreciation and revulsion at his abuse.

Brian Wilson is 75, and yet he is still deeply impacted by his father. He says that “he stayed one of the most important people in my life, in good ways and bad. He could be generous and guide me toward great things, but he could also be brutal and belittle me and sometimes even make me regret that I was even alive.” Recalling a song that his father wrote when Brian was in school, he says that “[s]ometimes in school I would think about it and get tears in my eyes. People ask what made it a good song. He did. My dad did.” He loved his dad. He hated what he did.

In an extended reflection, Brian says he wants to try and explain his dad, yet it’s obvious that he is till grappling with how to understand him. He talks about how his dad gave him and his brothers the gift of music. But he also “took things away, by being rough and demanding.” He “yelled at me all the time and made me nervous,” he says, and “grabbed us by the arms and shoved us and hit us with hands that were sometimes open and sometimes even closed.” And yet, in all that he says about his dad, it is obvious that Brian loved him, appreciated him, and, perhaps more than anything, deeply desired his approval. Indeed, Brian’s adulation of producer Phil Spector may also reflect his desire for the approval of a father-figure. (Spector was not accommodating.) Even the psycho-therapist Eugene Landry, who likely saved Brian’s life only to assert an excessive control over it, may have been helped by Wilson’s need for a father-figure.

On one of the tracks on the Pet Sounds Sessions boxed set, you can listen in on a recording session where Murray Wilson harangues Brian. To visualize it further, watch the critically acclaimed biopic about Wilson, Love and Mercy. It is a fair rendering of a life impacted by not only his father but drug and alcohol abuse, mental illness, and his once controlling psychotherapist, Eugene Landy. And yet it’s difficult not to conclude how Brian Wilson would have been given more resources to deal with his demons had his father been at his side.

Reading it now makes me thankful for my own father, burdens me for the father-absence that so many children now experience, and prompts a prayer for Brian Wilson, that he will before the end of his life understand how great is his Father in Heaven’s love for him, how far He has come for him, and what great music remains for him to write in eternity. God only knows.

[For a thorough and well-documented bio of Wilson, I recommend Peter Ames Carlin’s 2006 book, Catch a Wave: The Rise, Fall & Redemption of the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson. Follow that with Wilson’s own 2016 memoir, I Am Brian Wilson. His ghostwriter, Ben Greenman, does an excellent job of capturing Wilson’s voice, his child-like expressions of wonder, simple language, and questions, like, when he reflects on his brothers’ deaths, “they’re gone, and i don’t know where they’re gone." Finally, cap it with a viewing of the 2015 biopic, Love and Mercy.]


That Fargo Thing


IMG_0305When one of my children found out that I bought a Fargo t-shirt and hat on my recent excursion to that famous city, they told me I needed to give the "Fargo thing a rest," or something to that effect. I admit it: I have gushed a bit about Fargo. But bear with me. It was all in the interest of science, an anthropological study based on participant observation.

Take the mornings. I left my hotel curtains open to the sky, as I did not want to miss a moment of high plains daylight. The sun rose at 5:00, slipping quietly up over the horizon. By 5:20 I was out the hotel door, waving at the somnulant clerk at the lobby counter. I walked past the shuttered shops on Broadway, over the train tracks (north or south, they hemmed in the business district) where I stopped to stare longingly down their iron rails, and into a residential area. Passing a woman walking her dog, I waved and said, "Hi neighbor." No, I didn't say that, as only Mr. Rogers can say that and get away with it. But I did nod at the few people I passed on the sidewalk, and they nodded back. Once I turned to look back at a person, and their dog turned to look at me as if to say, "You imposter." He knew. But otherwise I was under the radar until I opened my mouth to speak and the languid sound of The South wafted out on my words.

Part of That Fargo Thing is my attempt at deeper observation of a place as an aid to writing, as an aid to understanding, as an aid to loving the world. (Sorry, that sounds a bit highfalutin, but it's true.) I write down street names, notice inscriptions on buildings, listen to what clerks and waiters say. Like the young female server who called everyone "hon'," a term of endearment that lapped over to Dakota from the shores of Minnesota. Filtered through my south of Mason-Dixon mind, I heard it as "sugar" or just "sug," words you can still hear in some establishments of the South. Noticing things, paying attention, and writing them down is my tiny little way of loving. For if "God so loved the world," shouldn't I? The uncomeliest bit of vegetation or bereft pine matter. So do the flowers that line a shop window or push up through the untidy patch at the edge of the railway right-of-way. Even the inanimate things matter. The sidewalks, curb and gutter, street signs that raise questions (Is Fargo's Broadway a jest, a jab at big city life?). They all matter.

Without a hint of romanticism or personification, pastor Francis Schaeffer once said that, “Because it is right, on the basis of the whole Christian system - which is strong enough to stand it all because it is true - as I face the buttercup, I say: ‘Fellow-creature, fellow-creature, I won’t walk on you. We are both creatures together.” He went on to say that, “If nature is only a meaningless particular, is ‘decreated,’ to use Simone Weil’s evocative word, with no universal to give it meaning, then the wonder is gone from it.” So, every little thing has value. Every little thing has a bit of magic in it.

But I addressed no buttercups in Fargo. I did speak on one occasion to a starlit tent of sky.

In his classic book, On Writing Well, William Zinsser encourages the good writer to collect a surplus of details, to "look for your material everywhere. . . . Look at signs and at billboards and at all the junk written along the American roadside. Read the labels on our packages and the instructions on our toys, the claims on our medicines and the graffiti on our walls." Out of an abundance of particulars comes not just a few interesting facts but also more universal observations, truths that underlie all things. And in the finding of that truth or truths rapt attention teases out a bit of love for a place and a people. So, while it's not home, I love plainspoken Fargo just a little, hon'.

Author D.L. Waldie, who lives in the "ancient" (Fifties) Los Angeles suburb of Lakewood and who does not drive, encourages pedestrianism, as do I:

I would. . ..urge you to wander in the city and wander in your neighborhood. I would urge you to become an expert flaneur [idler]. I would urge you to acquire not only pedestrianism as a vice but flaneurie as a vice as well — the ability to walk into your community and expect something to occur to you as you found your way to some undiscovered part of your neighborhood.

You don't have to go to Fargo for that vice. That Fargo Thing is as near as your neighborhood.


Before the Internet

I flopped in a floral armchair in the living room and read the latest sci-fi book ordered from the Science Fiction Book Club. When my Mom would say "dinner!" I'd yell back, "I'm coming." But I wasn't. I had punched out. Eventually, I made it to the table, book in hand, and on occasion was allowed to read my way through dinner, because I think my Mom knew that when you are three hours into another world you can't just stop and eat dinner. You just can't.

I watched my Mom prepare dinner. She cut potatoes, and I ate them uncooked. Ditto on uncooked corn , carrots, celery, and most other vegetables, but I drew the line at okra. Nasty. Occasionally I scored some brown sugar, spoonfuls out of the box in a cupboard that required climbing to reach. The counter where I watched my Mom was eye level, so for leverage I pulled out the bottom drawer in the cabinet and stood on it. She let me. It probably wasn't good for the drawer, but she didn't pick a fight. She rolled out dough for biscuits. I took a bite of that, too. Ugh.

The only friends I had were the ones you could lay eyes on. Well, I take that back. I had a pen pal once, in Kalamazoo or some foreign place like that. That's different. I did write letters to a red-headed mountain girl I met at Myrtle Beach when I was 14. Well, two letters. But the connection was tenuous. I called her on the phone one time and, you know, what do you say to a girl on the phone that you barely know and can't see every day or so? Long silences punctuated by stutters.

I was familiar with every crook and cranny of our house. I scoped it. Hey, with no computer or cell phone or internet (what?), I had time. I had nothing but time. I was my own Google search, a walking Wikipedia. In the "utility room," I pondered the cracks where the HVAC unit was housed in the wall but the mortar had given way and you could see daylight. I noted where the carpet was tacked to the floor in the hallway when I lay there listening to Uriah Heep on the college radio station after dinner. I reareanged refrigerator magnets to suit the impulse of the day. I stood staring into the recesses of the refrigerator, daydreaming, and ate a slice of cheese, or two. Watched the neighbor's dog. Watched the neighbor’s cat. Watched the neighbor’s cat chase the neighbor’s dog. Took the screen off and jumped out the second floor window with a Superman bath towel cape on. Watched the girl with long brown swishy hair who rode her pink sparkling bike back and forth in front of my house. Ran my bike into a parked school bus while watching the girl with long brown swishy hair ride her pink sparkling bike back around the block. Yech. Love hurts. I mean, you have to put your eyes on something. I had no idea then that people would stop looking at things except through a shiny screen.

I lay in bed watching the lights of cars on the four lane passing, beginning in a corner near the windows and then stretching like a dragon across the wall and round the corner. Where were people going that time of night? I lay on the bed cross-ways with arms dangling over the side, wide awake. Darkness hovered like a gargoyle outside my windows. When everyone else was asleep, I was awake, wondering how you could go to sleep if you were thinking about how you could go to sleep and then worrying that it was a problem to be thinking about how you shouldn't be thinking about how you should go to sleep. But I got to think about a lot of things that way. They were my own thoughts and not somebody else’. Thanks insomnia.

Everyone wasn't popular and happy all the time. I mean, I wasn’t popular at all and didn’t have 4287 Facebook friends. I had two honest-to-goodness-flesh-and-blood friends, and they were fast friends, the kind you could fight with and then make up with twice a day if need be. They lived across the street. My friend John's girlfriend busted up with him and he came and told me, and we took a walk. I said you wanna talk and he say nope. He was sad. I didn't talk. We went to Pizza Hut and he drowned his sorrows in a beer. I ordered him a pitcher. No one said boo about any ID. I didn't drink it. Hey, all we had was presence. We had no glossy little screens to stare into and stroke ourselves with, all those so-called friends.

Surfin' was what The Beach Boys did. Not the wondrous World Wide Web. I lay on the floor of my room and spun scratched Beach Boys records on my cheap record player, transported by the harmonies and ear-splitting screams of girls in the audience on their In Concert record that my cousin loaned me. Or I turned on the black light and played Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon. Or Ten Years After “I’d Love to Change the World.” I thought long and hard about the end of the world, scared out of mind by Hal Lindsey’s 666-Armageddon-Left Behind books and decided to believe in God. It was the only way. I clicked the link. Got connected.

All before the Internet.

[I am indebted to Emma Rathbone who, in her "Before the Internet," reminded me that there was life before the internet."]


Fireflies

Fireflies-1500x1000When I was a child and catching lightning bugs in my backyard, I had no idea why they lit the sky. My sisters and I and friends ran through the yard, pouring them into clear Mason jars with holes punched by an ice pick in the tops for ventilation. Now I know that their bioluminescence was all about love or, at least, finding a mate. With their on again-off again lights they were saying I - am - avail - able, I - am - avail - able. I’m glad I didn’t know that then, as I was at the age that such a notion would have been distasteful. We just loved their light; ephemeral though it was, it was a child’s strobe, a pre-bedtime light show. Once, I even kept a jar of them by the bed, a night light companion.

There are 2000 species of fireflies, and new ones are still being discovered. What imagination God must have had, and what time, to think up 2000 different kinds of fireflies what with everything else he had to do at Creation. In some species, both male and female fly; in others, the females stay home and keep house. Females and males look alike, for the most part, only females have compound eyes. Maybe that’s like Bette Davis eyes. They see more than the weak-eyed males, detect motion better. So, if the male is slippin’ off to a night rendezvous with Zsa-Zsa, Mom knows and there will be fire when he comes home.

In some places in the world there are times when thousands of fireflies blink in unison, like a light-choir. These events are the kinds of things that entomologists lie awake thinking about at night and wait for with expectation. My college friend Terry, an aged grad student when I was a freshman, used to bend my ear about insects whenever he could. He would sidle over to a group of students, an intense look in his eyes, and then began to regale them with interesting happenings in the insect world. No matter what the topic of conversation he would eventually connect it to the insect world. I thought he was weird, but now I understand: he had a passion. And he was wierd.

Sadly, some fireflies are not the brightest bulb in the pack. I found one on my windowsill this morning when I drew the shade, dead. I can only imagine the effort it took to burrow under the sill and into the room, only to find nothing but a snoring human being and a traditionally built cat, asleep. I - am - avail. . . oh what’s the use, he probably said, and lay down and died. Later, in my study, same thing: firefly, prone on the floor, expired. I’m going to post a sign on my window: “NO MATING HERE - TURN BACK NOW.” Yet they are likely illiterate, and lonely, and can’t help themselves, like moths to the flame.

Like everywhere else in nature writing, there is a narrative of loss. Fireflies are disappearing, it is said, and human beings are to blame. They say its development and light pollution. I read that synchronous fireflies get out of synch for a few minutes after a car's headlights pass. They lose the beat. But I’m not a scientist, just a memoirist. I think about those summer nights, catching fireflies, carrying blinking mason-jar lanterns around the yard, and I don’t think I’m to blame for this ecological problem: I let them all go at the end of the night. Promise.

I laid the body of the expired lighting bug on the sill outside of my window. There, his blinking friends can pay their respects as I did mine, in memory and hope. With thanks to the God of small things.


Fargoan

IMG_1050"We are cruel to ourselves if we try to live in this world without knowing about the God who created it and runs it. The world becomes a strange, mad, painful place, and life in it a disappointing and unpleasant business, for those who do not know about God." (J.I. Packer)

For the last four days I have walked the sidewalk between my downtown hotel and work, past a plaza peopled by a handful of homeless men, one block down Broadway with the Fargo theater behind me. But yesterday, about seven in the evening, I had had enough of this circumscribed world, having seen all I could by walking. I rented a bicycle. I settled into the seat and cruised helmutless and tentatively toward the river, detouring through parking lots, around construction, navigating broken pavement, until I reached the Red River banks. I followed the greenway south, upstream, and crossed over a bridge into Moorhead, into Minnesota, my wheels singing, the river on my right.

I don't know anyone here and yet for an hour I pretend that I live here, a Fargoan squeezing all the life I can out of the warm and breezy day, from sunup at five to sundown at ten, a respite from the long, frigid winter. There is a family on the path, and I timidly ring my bell as I pass, nod to them. College students lounge languidly on rocks near the rapids. A woman, then a man, run alone. One young man yells at me from a pontoon boat he shares with some friends. "What's up," he says. I wave. Fellow Minnesotan, I think. Dakotan. High plains drifter. I'm just moving in the elements, a Fargoan, I want to say, yet I don't. My accent would betray me.

Flying in a few days ago, North Dakota spread like a earthen tapestry before me, a succession of green fields, plowed fields, fallow fields, farmhouses hemmed by stitched trees to break the wind, the roads at right angles. Yet my eyes were drawn to the river, a serpentine ribbon of green, a scribbled line of watery life on an engineer's grid, a reminder that God makes his way in crookedness, doubling back on Himself, meandering here and there, yet always, always, going to the sea.

Packer, a man closer to God now than he is to earth, goes on to say that "[w]hen we disregard the study of God, we sentence ourselves to stumble through life blindfolded, with no sense of direction and no understanding of our surroundings." Grim travelers. No direction home. Like rolling stones. I think about that now as I hum along, about rocks and gray water and rabbits crossing the path and squirrels twittering up branches and people walking blindfolded along a river, disconnected dots in a landscape of loss, and I utter a few words of thanksgiving that my eyes are open and I have a map of sorts even if I do run up to its unfolded edge time and time again. A lamp unto my feet.

Reluctantly, I turn back and retrace my route. Huffing up the ever so slight incline from the river to downtown, a young boy on a bike hails me from the sidewalk.

"Hey, you wanna race?"

I don't want to race.

"Aw, I gotta sissy bike," I say.

"Come on." He looks so hopeful.

"Ok. To the corner. Go!"

I let him win. At the corner, he turns back, smiling, whooping, the old man beat.


IMG_1068When I finally make it back to the kiosk where I need to turn my bike in, I have seven minutes left on my time. I want to use it up, so I ride down Broadway, clattering over the train tracks. I stop and look both ways down the track, because the infinity of tracks is irresistible. Nothing. Then, about a block down, I turn, my time running. I have two minutes. I'll just make it. I feel smug in my frugality. But no, just as I reach the tracks, the gates close, the crossing bells clang, and a great locomotive roars past dragging freight, grain and fertilizer and lumber, a great elongated behemoth bullying its way across the plains. The delay cost me another four dollars, but the show was worth it. Multi-colored, graffiti-splashed freight cars rumbled past, the peeks of Broadway through their couplings like camera shots, click-click-click.

I had dinner at 9:00 at the Vinyl Taco, where everyone there was younger than me. The Hollies' "Long Cool Woman In a Black Dress" was playing, and I smiled to myself in my darkened corner booth. I bought the album when it was released, could picture its gatefold art even now, and yet not a single person in this restaurant was born when I bought it. Not a single one. I consider asking the server what year she was born, but I hesitate. It could not have been before 1990, a year it seems odd to even type, and what would be the point? History is not much-loved.

About 10:00, sundown in Fargo, I sat eating ice cream at Insomnia Cookie. The extended daylight is beguiling, and so I couldn't bring myself to give up the day yet.

"Where you from? You're not from here, are you?" A man seated with his preteen son engaged me.

"How'd you guess?" The accent. Of course.

While we finished off our ice cream, I learned a lot about Joe Antinopolous, a true Fargoan.

"Fargo's a good place to raise a family. You still feel like you can leave your doors unlocked and not worry about anything."

I told him I was visiting for work, doing a peer review of an office like the one in which I worked, and I told him who was in charge of the office.

"Oh yeah," he said. "He's my neighbor. He and my son are in school together."

Of course they are.


IMG_1070Walking back to my hotel that evening, I thought about what Packer said, about how not knowing God we stumble about blindly. We need a map of the world, a compass, a way to connect all the disparate points of light and darkness. I thought also about an article I read earlier that week, a series of journal entries by a man walking in his neighborhood. Trying to come to grips with various tragedies in the world and their victims, he wonders, "What are the continuities between them, and between them and me?" He has no answer.

Walking back to the hotel with Angela, a co-worker, earlier that day, she told me that her only son, who was 32, had been shot four years previously by some kind of white supremacist. "He was nearly perfect," she said. "I still feel like he's near."

I said, "Scripture says 'God is near to the broken-hearted,' and if He is near but unseen, then perhaps your son really is near."

The Fargoan t-shirt I saw was more right than its designers knew: "Fargo, North of Normal," is supposed to be a nod to the quirkiness of this place. And yet all is abnormal. All is broken and seemingly random. People wander the world and try to find some continuity, some thread of meaning.

And yet there is a map of the world. With it you can can start anywhere and find your way home. Even in Fargo.


The Walking Stick

IMG_0941Our very competent guide, Katembo, has a walking stick this morning, that is, a firearm. It is required that he carry it for our walk In the Okavanga Delta, along with a cache of large round-tipped bullets, golden and standing at attention on his belt. In his commanding way, in his khakis and safari uniform, I imagine him a soldier in a previous life, though I do not know this. I know only that if he told me to drop to the ground, I would do so without hesitation.

Katembo is outfitted this way with a stick for walking because, after a morning game drive in the chill air, we took a one-hour walk in the savannah, sometimes on a road, sometimes bending off-road. Tall grass pressed in upon us, swished by our feet, the Kalahari sand kicked up by every footfall. Silence settled on us like mist in the fields of a new morning. We did not speak, by choice, so as to better listen. My mildly labored breathing mixed with the occasional sounds of impala warnings, with the constant rise and fall of the wind.

Topping a large termite mound, Katembo explained how the mound was the beginning of an island in the Delta, like the many we saw on our flight overhead a couple days ago, when we buzzed the bush airstrip to clear it of animals. The termites build the island up from sand mixed with their saliva, and then birds come and leave drippings that contain undigested seeds, and when the flood comes and washes it down, the seeds are dispersed and are the beginning of trees that will anchor this built up piece of ground, making an island. Land, from spit and sand and seed.

Later Katembo picked up a creeper vine, a long pliable grass, and showed how it could function as a jump rope. (I smiled thinking of Katembo at the age of ten, jumping rope, a miniature khaki-clad version of himself.) More practically, people used the vine to tie firewood together that they would then carry on their heads like everything else. Im my time in Africa I have seen the stout heads of Africans carry bananas, laundry, water, mattresses, furniture, and even, sadly, a tiny coffin.

Seeing an elephant in the distance busily chomping way on vegetation, we bent right, giving him a wide berth. He might like others shake his head in annoyance at us, or trumpet at us, or make a false but frightening charge. This is their home that we are visiting.

After walking, Equator took us on a boat ride through the channels of the delta, weaving in an out of the papyrus grass which floats on the water, rising and falling as it rises and falls. Elephants like the roots of the plant. They pull them up and slosh them back and forth in the water to shake loose the dirt and then stuff them in their large mouths. We had tea on board, under the partial shade of papyrus grass.

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Katembo stops the Landcruiser. "I need to check the tires," he says, as he steps out. This is code for "I drank too much tea and need to use the facilities (such as they are.)". We are on our way out of Moremi, en route to the airstrip, on our way over to the Okavango Delta and our new (and sadly, last) camp. Even en route, we are chasing the elusive leopard, who has left prints everywhere and yet remains unseen.


IMG_1017In Moremi we were reminded again of the wonderfully balanced but fallen nature of Creation. We saw an injured male lion, alone, and realized that his days were numbered, as he could no longer hunt. And then there was the bird with a broken wing. It is enough to bring tears. To say dismissively that it is the “survival of the fittest” is no comfort and deeply unsatisfying. We long for a time when the lion lays down with the lamb, when the need to kill ends, when nature is no longer tooth and claw.

At Moremi, I needed to charge my iPad battery, so I went into the staff area. The five young men who take care of us were there. The chef, Boeno, was cutting vegetables. Another was in the scullery, washing dishes from our lunch. All were at work. Boeno told me that they work together as a team. They all set up and take down camp together, but in between they each have their jobs. "He is a better chef than me," said Boeno, pointing to a smiling, larger man. He was pleased to give me a tour of his kitchen. He told me that he enjoyed his work, that he trained in a chef school in Maun, and that he stays busy in camp about ten months of the year, going home in Summer (December and January). They are hard-working and hospitable, funny, and kind. The chef announces the menu each evening and then after dinner may tell us a riddle.

One young man told us how he likes to sleep on a mat outside under the stars, with just a blanket. "Aren't you afraid of the bugs and mice and snakes that may crawl on you," asks my wife, sensibly. He smiles and shakes his head no, and then proceeds to tell us about sleeping with his brother once when he was ten and a black mamba crawled between them. "God was protecting you," she said. "Yes,” he nodded.

We flew from Moremi in a Cessna Caravan, up over the Okavango Delta, which spread out like a lush fan of green before us, water punctuated by marsh, with trees growing on intermittent higher ground. The flight was only 30 minutes, if that, and then our drive no more than that again. Our campsite sits on the edge of a broad marsh, our lunch table set under a chandelier that hangs from a tree branch.

On tonight’s game drive there was a huge surprise. We came upon a baby leopard alone out in the high grass, completely unafraid of us. As we watched her mill about and move around, two hyenas, one a mother and another a child, approached. The leopard spotted them. There was chase. The leopard bounded over the grass and went up a tree, not more than ten feet ahead of the hyena. The hyenas milled about and finally settled in the grass, patient as they waited. The leopard would be no match for them. After a while it came down, made its way to another tree, and climbed it. The hyenas followed, again settling in the tall grass. Then, the leopard moved again, finding her mother on another tree. They were together again, yet the hyenas followed. They are patient and opportunistic. The mother leopard likely has hunted and killed, but the hyenas may seek to take the carcass from her.

It was an extraordinary close to the evening, a rollicking journey off-road, a fine welcome to the Okavango Delta, with a beautiful sunset as well. Dinner was by a roaring fire, under a chandelier of lanterns, a fine finale to a beautiful day.

"I have to smell the flowers," says Katimbo as he once again exits the Landcruiser. Ah yes, so do we.

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I have been making lists. One list is that of all the birds and other animals we have seen in Zimbabwe and Botswana. These include:


IMG_0779African Elephant
Monkey Fingers (red fruit of tree that can be sweet and is edible; Trymore likes it very much)
Teak (trees used for lumber to build Cape to Cairo railroad)
Zebra
Warthog
Roller bird
Giant Eagle Owl
Red-Billed Horn Bill
Giraffe
Impala
Versus Monkey
Scorpion (in our room at Matetsi!)
Mouse (ate its way into and out of my wife’s knitting)
Gray Go-Away Bird
African Tawny Eagle
Weaver birds
Wild Basil (smells like Vapo-Rub when crushed; tells you when someone is following you)
Cape Buffalo
Comorant
Kingfisher
Fish Eagle
African Darter
Egyptian Geese
Baboons
Crocodile
Hippopotamus
Lilac-Breasted Roller (four color, and "rolls in display")
Grey Heron
Great White Egret
Sherry Goose
Malachi Kingfisher
Guinea Fowl
Magpie
Black-Back Jackal
Malibu Stork
Bateleur Eagle
Yellow-Billed White Stork
Kori Bustard
Lapwing
Water Dikkop
Roadrunner
Blue Waxbill
Water Monitor Lizard
Hammerkop
Banded Mongoose
Cobra
Kudu
Crown Shrike
Wild Dog
Cheetah
Burchell's Sand Grouse. 50
Swamp Booboo Bird
Waddled Crane (endangered)
Painted Reed Frog ("They need to get back to their reading," says says my son, about their very loud welcome)
Leopard
Cheetah
Bush baby

Another list is that of quotes, spontaneous utterances that seemed memorable:

"Where else am I going to order Stenbock?" (My daughter, ordering venison at our hotel in Johannesburg, SA)

"Nature is so very organized." (Vusa, our guide, at Matetsi River Lodge, Zimbabwe)

"It is good to see a family praying together." (Keith, a staff member, at Matetsi River Lodge, just before throwing rocks to chase baboons away from our breakfast)

"I will be your passport." (Peace, our guide and driver to Victoria Falls, when I asked if we needed our passports)

"He is reading the newspaper." (Vusa, on what Trymore, our tracker, is doing on our game drive)

"See, toasty elephant muffins" (Kenny, about the elephant poo in the water around our boat)

There is another list, a short one, that has all the experiences to be avoided on safari. One has to do with spiders. Compared to that one, the others are insignificant, so I omit them. Only, don’t take the mokoro boat ride.

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I awoke at 5:30 one morning to a scratching on the tent flap behind my head. Mice. As elephants are really afraid of mice, I thank them. We have had several up close and personal encounters with elephants, false charges with trunks lifted, bellowing a warning, and so though we love to see them we are cautious.

Our day begins with a 6:00 am wake up greeting from Katembo and the sound of our butler pouring warm water into our wash basin. I sit up. I gather my toothpaste and brush. Unzip tent flap. Rezip. Brush in the cold air by the light of a dim battery-powered lantern. Throw water on my face to wash sleep from my eyes. Unzip. Rezip. It is still dark, and by flashlight I dress and shave.

Unzip. Zip. These two steps are important, as we have heard the story of the family who did not do this, only to find their baby carried off and dropped by a hyena. Or the hyena that drug a blanket outside the tent, to be discovered the next morning by an awakened camper. We have had a pride of lions skirt our camp, elephants chomping grass nearby, and we know from tracks that the lions have visited us at night, while we are sleeping, perhaps peering into our tents and smelling our foreign presence.

Breakfast is taken together, around a table, our chef standing by the serving table. I drink Rovos or Five Roses tea, sweet, with milk, have cereal, melon or banana, toast, and, sometimes, eggs and bacon. And then, Katembo is ready. We gather our cameras and jackets and board the Landcruiser, an amazing vehicle that is part boat, pushing through three foot high marsh grass and water, through what surely must swamp our vehicle. But it does not.

We skirt the marshlands for about three hours and then stop for tea on a marsh-side clearing, arriving just in time to see three hippos, on land, running for the water, then submerging. Katembo sets up the table, arranges the tea, and asks for orders. I have tea again. It is what we do here. The chef has prepared fresh coconut muffins for us. I have one and one-half muffins. After tea, everything is returned to the vehicle and we set off again, until noon, through higher land this time. We see a hyena, elephants (very near the road), and some new birds. Unfailingly, I grow sleepy at some point (we all do) and my eyes blinker shut behind my sunglasses. Asleep on safari in Botswana.

Lunch is delicious. The chef read my mind! On the game drive I turned to my son and said, "I love all this food, but what I really want right now is pizza." For lunch, pizza. Three kinds. And another favorite: a salad of cucumbers, onions, and tomatoes. There are cucumbers in a yogurt sauce, homemade garlic bread, and, what else, tea.

After lunch I took an open air (but enclosed) shower in the room back of our tent and, dried, unzipped and re-zipped the tent flap (remembering the baby carried off by a hyena). I took razors to recharge at the vehicle parked in the staff area of the site, and the chef invited me into his open air kitchen. There were large blacks pots over fire, a Dutch oven, and a table on which he was cutting vegetables, preparing for dinner. Open before him on the table is a notebook of recipes. "You can copy it," he said. I said I would send my son, the chef.

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IMG_0825After dinner, I lay in bed listening to the sounds of the animals, from the scurrying of lizards on the tent flaps to the hippo grunts to the growl of the lions nearby. There is no light but starlight and moonlight on this last night in Botswana, no sounds but those of the animals that live here.

Then, I hear the engine of the Landcruiser turn over. Katembo is returning his walking stick to the lodge. He drives away alone into the darkness.


The House of Our Realities

IMG_0243“In no sense was this the house of our dreams. But over our lifetime it has slowly turned into something better, the house of our realities.”

(Lewis Mumford, in Sketches from Life: The Autobiography of Lewis Mumford: The Early Years)

Our home is 32 years old, and we are the original owners. Its rooms and hallways have been the arena of much of our non-public life. While it has seen three partial renovations, one after a fire, there is still much that is vintage, that is, if you can say "vintage" about a relatively young house like ours. It is not the house of our dreams, if only because early in our marriage my wife and I may not have imagined such a house. We were neither dreaming nor looking, but some friends who lived in the neighborhood told us of the house, and we bought fast food and sat in the mud room of the empty shell and decided to buy.

We have a running list of complaints that waft through the air that blows from room to room, yet we have learned over time not to listen to their insistent pleas: the rooms are configured badly, the floors creak, and the pantry is tiny, the voices whisper. Everyone ends up in the kitchen, they say! And what, after all, is the “keeping room” keeping? Hardwoods bear scratches, carpet wears, and paint fades. The pipes object when the spigot is too abruptly closed. Imperfections abound. Entropy is evident.

Yet it is not, after all, just a house. It is a home. For better or worse, the life and memories it holds anticipate a better dwelling. “A house becomes a home, one of the ultimate expressions of place” says the inimitable Wilfred McClay, “not only by being congenial and familiar and comfortable, but by taking on a life of its own.” He calls it the “everyday magic of place-making." Place-making has to do with everything that is life inside a house: meal preparation, furniture choice and placement, the orientation of the house, the way the sun plays on the floor of a room, the perspective afforded by a view out of a study window, and the creaks and rumbles and whirs of the night, of the HVAC beast that wakes and slumbers, doing its work, or the house settling on its haunches, returning slowly to the earth. It has to do with the rutted pathways of life: up and down the stairs, hallways, and in and out of slamming doors.

There are, of course, the latest non-human occupants. Cats dust-mop their way across the hardwoods, flopping here and there, settling in a chair by a window to greet the birds. They do their own place-making, rubbing scents on doorposts and cabinet corners, burrowing into a cushioned chair, or sleeping on my pillow --- reminders that they have come this way. Paths to food bowls are particularly well-traveled, and the sloven mealtime habits of one are on display in the food spilt from her bowl.

And then there are the sounds of our voices: the low conversation of parents, the laughter of children, the yelling up and down the stairs. Even in the middle of the night, there are the contented breathings of deep sleep. Even in the absence of my now grown children, I still hear their voices echoing from their rooms, remnants left behind and etched in these walls. There are even the distinctive smells of our home, the result of dust, mildew, and paint mixed with the scents of thousands of dinners and cookies baking. Coming home from work, we open the door and even were we blind we would know we are home.

People who move every few years lose something, their place-making being tentative and temporary. Unless they are deliberate, they make no full surrender to a place. In a poem, Robert Frost said it well:

Something we were withholding made us weak Until we found out that it was ourselves We were withholding from the land of the living, And forthwith found salvation in surrender.

McClay says that "to withhold one's sense of belonging to a place is to leave oneself weakened and uprooted, trapped in a virtual reality, possessed by phantoms and abstractions that have lost their touch with referents, forced to struggle on without possessing the nourishment of the memories and concrete associations to be derived from the very soil on which one is standing." We are meant to dwell, in the full sense of the word, meaning to live and linger, to commit to the here and now.

Walking in our places is a way of taking possession, of place-making, of following the ancient command to "till and keep," to take "dominion." This pedestrian activity is imbued with spiritual import, our living into the Creation and not detached from it. Even our footfalls say, "I am here, this is mine, this is home."

So maybe it's not the house of your dreams, but it's better: it's the house of our realities. It's home. We cherish it, and forgive it. Like us, it is imperfect, even broken, but it bears in it the seeds of hope for a new place prepared for us, for the home to come. Perhaps that is what the keeping room is keeping alive for us: Home.


Graduation Eve

IMG_0292If I had lived in this room, I would have lain on the bed and peered out the window regularly. I would have considered the rusty electrical transformer, the current pulsing through the wires, firing lights and microwaves and students' ubiquitous smartphones and laptops, and when the magnificent thunderstorms blew through the plains and lightning lit the courtyard, then from the safety of the bed, covers over head, I would have relished its display and waited like Dorothy for the funnel cloud to descend, sweeping notebooks and papers and professors and small dogs up, up, up, only to set them gently down in another time, another place, in the fecund yet tentative fields of life after graduation.

"Did you ever lie on the bed and look out your window," I ask her.

"Well, sure." She reconsidered. "Well, no, not really."

I would have. On a day like today, when the Midwest sun beams down on the manicured lawn of the courtyard, I would have rested my chin on a pillow draped across the bedpost and taken in all that the rectangle of window would have allowed. Like the fluttering of the leaves on the maple trees, green and other green, flipping and flopping in the gusts. Or the students trudging back and forth to and from classes on the walk. Or just an empty sidewalk, just that, like an empty canvas for pedestrian art, the art of walking, the varied intentions and thoughts and dreams that each one carries imprinted in concrete.

"Are you going to miss being here," I asked.

"Well no, not really. I'm glad to be done."

I turn away from the window and sit on the bare mattress of her bed. A desk, chair and nightstand. Bare walls. A room returning to empty, a receptacle for new dreams. I begin to feel sad. Four years of classes, student drama, roommates, oriental cooking, papers, persistent class attendance, puddle-hopping, snow sloshing, chapel, poor food, and grades. Late nights. Occasional mistakes. Misunderstandings. Fun and games. Laughter. All over.

The late philosophy professor, Ronald Nash, a gifted child, often had trouble sleeping. Only four, he was asked what he thought about as he lay in the bed, awake. He said, with all the gravity that his four-year old life allowed, "I think about the past." So I guess this leaving, this ending makes me think of my own past, makes me remember that I have left school, home, parents, college, and more, and in all my leavings there is a touch of sadness, a bittersweet passing of time.

I look out the window again and see an ornamental lamppost, one that seems patterned after that one where the children met the fawn, Mr. Tumnus, in Narnia, and I imagine seeing that lamppost one frigid evening, its yellow light splashed upon the snow, a beacon lighting the way home in a snowy winter. And seeing that, I would have returned to my repose, warmed and comforted by that light. Lying there, sleepless, I might have worked out a problem from the day, worried over a grade, nursed a grudge, or composed a rejoinder to some perceived putdown, until, hopefully, I recall one of the few memorized scriptures that somehow adhered to the gray matter of my brain, and recite it once, even twice, like a pindrop in the terrain of my consciousness. "I have been crucified with Christ, and I no longer live. The life I live in the Spirit I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me." And then, perhaps, after that reminder or who I am, sleep would come, while the lamppost shone, and winter blew away in the light of day.

"Did you ever lie on the bed and look out your window," I asked her. No, no she didn't, at least not just to look, not just to think about the past, about all that's been and all that might be. I pull the weight of memory. Not her: she lives the moment, the blessed freedom of the present.

"No, I guess you didn't. That's because you're not me."

"Yes, that's right. I'm not you."


Tumbling Toward Heaven

Bigstock-a-tree-in-a-field-with-space-b-41769235Like any good Calvinist, I hold to the doctrine of total depravity, meaning not that I am as bad as I could be but that sin touches all that I do. Beneath every good work lies subtle or not so subtle self-love: a bit of self-congratulation, elevation of myself at the expense of others, or an attempt to grab attention and praise. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” says the Apostle (Rom. 3:23), and yet some have inevitably fallen shorter than us, right? Or so we can think. If you don't think so, sit in the DMV waiting room sometime and look around you, finding yourself grateful you don't go out in public looking like that or have children that act like that.

The late Flannery O’Connor, a Catholic, Southern, and often macabre writer, had a penchant for telling stories that strip away our pleasantries and self-delusions, that hold a mirror up to us and show us who we are. They are often ugly stories, peopled by characters that we don’t wish to meet, and yet they are us: in them we see ourselves.

One of those stories is “Revelation.” In it a “stout” Mrs. Turpin is waiting with her sanguine and likely hen-pecked husband Claud in the doctor’s waiting room, Claud having been kicked by a cow. O’Connor: “Mrs. Turpin put a firm hand on Claud’s shoulder and said in a voice that included anyone who wanted to listen, ‘Claud, you sit in that chair there,’ and gave him a firm push down into the vacant one.” You see what I mean. You see how Claud is. Across from Mrs. Turpin a young woman is reading a book and casting nasty stares her way, disfigured faces which only increase in their severity during the wait. Another woman is what she refers to (in her mind, of course) as “white trash.” She spends most of her time espousing racist views. “‘They ought to send all them niggers back to Africa,’ the white-trash woman said. ‘That’s where they come from in the first place.’” Mrs. Turpin holds no such view. “‘There’s a heap of things worse than a nigger,’ Mrs. Turpin agreed. ‘It’s all kinds of them just like it’s all kinds of us.’”

O’Connor gives us a bit of Mrs. Turpin’s inner dialogue:

Sometimes at night when she couldn't go to sleep, Mrs. Turpin would occupy herself with the question of who she would have chosen to be if she couldn't have been herself. If Jesus had said to her before he made her, "There's only two places available for you. You can either be a nigger or white trash," what would she have said? "Please, Jesus, please," she would have said, "Just let me wait until there's another place available," and he would have said, "No, you have to go right now", and I have only those two places so make up your mind." She would have wiggled and squirmed and begged and pleaded but it would have been no use and finally she would have said, "All right, make me a nigger then-but that don't mean a trashy one." And he would have made her a near clean respectable Negro woman, herself but black.

At one point, overcome with gratitude for her blessing at being who she is, Mrs. Turpin exclaims, “Oh thank you, Jesus, Jesus, thank you!” At this point the girl making faces threw her book at her, hitting her in the face, and jumped on her, digging her fingernails into her neck. “Go back to hell where you came from you old wart hog,” she said, before being restrained. Eventually the girl is sedated and taken to the hospital, and yet Mrs. Turpin, even that afternoon, lying on her bed, cannot put what the girl said out of her mind, keeps telling herself that she is not an old wart hog. Lunatic, she thinks. “I am not a wart hog,” she says to the ceiling with clenched fist, Claud snoring away beside her..

Later that evening, near dusk, down at the pig parlor, she looks up, sees a purple streak across the sky caused by the setting sun. And in that looking, there was this revelation:

A visionary light settled in her eyes. She saw the streak as a vast swinging bridge extending upward from the earth through a field of living fire. Upon it a vast horde of souls were tumbling toward heaven. There were whole companies of white trash, clean for the first time in their lives, and bands of black niggers in white robes, and battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs. And bringing up the end of the procession was a tribe of people whom she recognized at once as those who , like herself and Claud, had always had a little of everything and the given wit to use it right. She leaned forward to observe them closer. They were marching behind the others with great dignity, accountable as they had always been for good order and common sense and respectable behavior. They, alone were on key. Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces even their virtues were being burned away.

Their virtues were being burned away.

Frederick Buechner once compared righteousness to a piano student who, while he might hit all the right notes in playing a piece, played with accuracy but no heart. Righteousness is not, he said, “playing by the book.” Pharisees do that. “Righteousness is,” he said, “getting it all right. If you play it the way it’s supposed to be played, there shouldn’t be a still foot in the house.” There should be singing and dancing and a lunatic grace. Old wart hogs from hell, virtues stripped away, join a throng of bastards and prostitutes and decidedly unhip , a “vast horde of souls. . . tumbling toward heaven.”

The lunatic girl spoke the truth. She saw the worst of us, the hell in all our virtue as we, thank God, tumble toward heaven, our only ticket grace.


Their Purpose-Driven Lives


IMG_0289As much as we know of animals, like humans, they retain significant mystery. In an article in The New Atlantis, Stephen Talbott challenges the idea that there is no purpose or meaning behind what animals do, that they are just acting instinctively, reflexively or, even, mechanically. Rather, he says that animals’ behavior is both intelligent and end-directed, even if we cannot conclude that their actions are the result of conscious deliberation. In some way, they know what to do, and they do it.

In The Hidden Life of Trees, Peter Wohlleben makes the same point about trees. For example, scientists have discovered that when giraffes started feeding on umbrella thorn acacias in the African Savannah, it took the trees only minutes to begin pumping toxic substances into their leaves to rid themselves of the the large herbivores. They moved on. Not only that, but a tree "attacked" in this way gave off a warning gas, ethylene, that signaled neighboring trees who then began pumping toxics into their leaves to ward off the giraffes. The behavior is both purposeful and adaptive.

And yet significant mysteries remain. We know, for example, that water moves up the trunk of a tree, into branches, and then to leaves, and yet our traditional explanations, capillary action (the way water can defy gravity because of constricted vessels in the trees) and transpiration (the suction effect created when leaves and needles breathe out water into the air, drawing more water up the trunk) explains only some of the movement. The conclusion: We don't know. Wohlleben concludes that "[s]o many questions remain unanswered. Perhaps we are poorer for having lost a possible explanation or richer for having gained a mystery."

We have little warrant from Scripture for concluding that animals (or trees, for that matter) know their Creator in the sense that we might know Him, or that they are conscious of His Providence. The Psalms give us rich poetic language that animates Creation in God’s praise, as when the Psalmist says

Let the sea roar, and all that fills it;
the world and those who dwell in it!
Let the rivers clap their hands;
let the hills sing for joy together
before the Lord, for he comes
to judge the earth.

(Ps. 7-9a). We rightly read these verses not literally but figuratively, and yet as Scripture often is multi-layered in meaning, these verses are open to an even richer meaning, one where Nature purposely, intelligently, and consciously (as befits their kind) praises its Creator. Indeed, in Psalm 104 we read that animals look to God for their food and that when he withdraws his spirit, they return to the dust. Or Jesus reminds us that God marks the dropping of every sparrow. Our fate and that of animals and other non-human life is intertwined.

Wohlleben errs in attributing human qualities to the non-human creation. There is no warrant for that, even if we cannot preclude some type of non-human consciousness or reflection. And yet Jesus died for all Creation. John 3:16 remind us that His love is cosmic in scope, that it is for the love of the cosmos that Jesus came. The Great Reversal wrought by his death and resurrection has meaning not just for humankind but also for the oak and fir, the sparrow and bluebird. The Cross is the place where the curse is undone, where Creation is set free from bondage to decay, where Jesus begins making all things new. The salvation animals know may not be of the kind we experience, where our moral guilt is cleansed by Jesus’ death, yet not only man but lion and lamb will make it into the new Creation.

When next you see some non-human life - whether your cat, dog, or the tree you rest against - know this: It's not a machine but a living thing with purpose. Let your gratefulness and kindness to it mix with wonder and awe. It too is being saved.


They Know Where to Come

IMG_0550The finch has returned. A fern that hangs outside our side porch has annually furnished a Spring home for mother finches. The small, near-perfectly circular nest of pine straw is nestled in the middle of the greenery, and this morning the mother sat atop it, watching me warily as I moved past the window. Yesterday, my wife removed the fern while the mother was away, no doubt foraging, revealing five small, light blue eggs. She smiled broadly. Returning it, we watched from inside. She worried that the mother would not return.

"You're not their mother, you know," I said.

Maybe not. Yet she is their protector.

Finches are "gregarious" birds, I read, gathering at feeders with other birds, twittering on about who and what and where. Social gadflies. Their flight is described as "bouncy" which is probably a reflection of their gregarious nature, like driving and talking at the same time, speed modulated with the rise and fall of their voice. Beware a finch in the air. Give it a wide berth.

The chickadees have also nested in our bluebird house. Maybe once in the many years we have let the house rent-free, the intended tenants actually checked in, yet ever since, the chickadees lay first claim, squatters' rights. We peer in now and then to check on the progress, our curiosity the price they pay for free digs. I read that other birds flock around chickadees as chickadees call out whenever they find a good source of food. Less astute or blinder foragers appreciate this, no doubt, making chickadees a popular bird. They also mind humans less than other birds. So, in general they seem to be irenic birds, congenial though not gregarious.

And then, just yesterday, a turtle larger than a boxer waddled up our sidewalk, making for our fountain. My wife went in to get a bowl of water for him and somehow, in a matter of minutes, he walked away. Who knew a turtle could move so quickly? She looked everywhere for him. Or her. She looked in the mondo grass, under shrubs, around the house, and in the natural areas, pollen dusting her. But no turtle.

When she told her sister about the turtle, she said, "Well, they know where to come, don't they?" And she's right. My wife is an animal-magnet. The needy animal is drawn to her. Be it special needs or emotionally disturbed cats, cantankerous horses, or fence-jumping bird-seed eating deer, they know where to come.

Soon, the finch and chickadee chicks will hatch and, then, always when we aren’t watching, fly, packing up and leaving under cover of darkness, eschewing long goodbyes. Feathers and fuzz is what remains. My wife, the unpaid landlady, eventually cleans behind them, readies their lodgings for next year. The “vacant” sign goes up, but we don’t generally get any new tenants in late Spring. That ship has sailed. We don’t know where they go. Yet, we’ll see them again. They know where to come.

Today, my wife looked up at an awkwardly leaning pine tree with browning pine needles that sheltered the bluebird house. Pine trees don’t look like much anyway; this one, even less. “I’d remove that tree,” she said, “ only that’s the tree the birds land in before entering the bird house.”

That tree owes her its life.


A World As Whole, Not Scribble

IMG_0510A few days ago - days which seem a long time ago now - we were walking in the desert foothills of the Rincon Mountains east of Tucson, Arizona. Our ambition was modest: we traversed a 3.4 mile loop, beginning on the Loma Verde trail, connecting with the Pink Hill trail, and finishing with the Squeeze Pen trail. With an elevation gain of only 60 feet, we weren't taxed; our pace was the stop again - start again of observers and not runners, so we made poor time but were richer for it.

Dispel from your mind all images of desolate, windswept sand dunes. Unlike the Mojave of Southern California or Sahara of North Africa, the Sonoran Desert of southern Arizona is Edenic in comparison, lush in vegetation, so much so that some biologists want to reclassify the Arizona Uplands portion of the Sonoran that we are walking as thorn-scrub, not desert, yet that would rob it of rich literary associations, of its deployment as metaphor.

Loma Verde is apt, as "Loma" is Spanish for a hill or ridge having a broad top, and "Verde" means green. And a green hill it is. The well-trod path winds through a forest of mature mesquite trees, their nearly black trunks in sharp contrast with feathered green leaves and azure blue sky. Nursed by the shade of the mesquites, young sahuaro cacti grow, a few splitting into two trunks like co-joined twins, others overtaking their nursery trees and, ultimately, forcing their way to the sky, slipping from their nurses' coddling branches. Below, creosote bushes in full yellow bloom grow and, further below them, the yellow blooms of brittle-bush brush the desert floor, adding even more color, mixing with prickly-pear cactus, an occasional hedgehog cactus, and an unidentifiable purple flowering vine.

Surveying the swath of brittle-bush and creosote blooms that stretch to the horizon, I recall reading earlier in the week that the color yellow is supposed to make people angry, but I don't think so. I feel happy, like a legion of benign suns has come to earth, incarnate in a sea of green and brown.

Crossing over the sandy bottom of Montezuma wash, we pause, silent, to watch for animals. Seeing none, we press on, but my wife casts a glance backwards. "I just know that when we turn our backs the animals come out. They see us." She is confident, recounting times in the past when that has been the case, and so as we leave and for some time thereafter I glance back occasionally, hoping to catch a bobcat, coyote, or javelina peering shyly at us, a feral face in a rear view mirror, but I see nothing but absence and hope behind me.

After the wash, we climb a bluff onto the bajada, a gravel plain at the base of the mountain, bear right to follow the Pink Hill trail, and begin climbing. Rose-tinted soil marks our footfalls, and we look upward into the Rincons, hoping to catch a mountain goat circumnavigating a ridge or rocky outcrop. A cool breeze suddenly rushes through the space between Pink Hill and the mountain. I raise my arms to catch it, see a human-like great sahuaro with two arms similarly raised, leaning back facing the sky as if to shout "Praise."

Soon, we turn left on the Squeeze Pen trail. We ponder the name. She says a squeeze pen is a holding pen that cowboys drove cattle into for branding. Perhaps the natural topography - a depression between hill and mountain - reminded someone of a squeeze pen, or perhaps the area was once a cattle ranch and the natural topography made it a suitable place to locate an actual squeeze pen. We don't know. Our questions hang in the air. We look down, and a horned lizard looks up at us from a rock where he perches, unafraid. He allows a photo before moving on.

Patrick Henry Reardon says that "the Bible itself points to a prior book, the testimony of the created world." We're walking in that creation book now, our utterances full of wonder. Reardon says that ”the rationality and iconic quality of the universe. . . is the sustaining subtext of the human narrative and the fundamental context of poetry." That's a mouthful, yet here's the sum: "In other words, the world is a whole, not a scribble." A poem, story, and icon. A testimony to something Other.

Yet it's tempting to look at the world and see only a scribble, a John Cage splash of random pieces, noise and not song, to think of our tiny footprints on the earth as ephemeral, vanquished by the next monsoon rain or the accumulated desert winds. Mostly we pass in silence. A sahuaro grows at best an inch and a half each year, an infinitesimally small contribution to the universe. And what of the lizard’s tiny life? How along before he lays down, absorbed by the desert floor? Or a digger bee or tiger swallowtail butterfly, moth or magpie, or tiny elf owl? And yet if they don't matter, if the excruciatingly slow progress of the sahuaro doesn't matter, then neither do I. Yet God says otherwise.

Just before trail end, I looked back over my shoulder again, hopeful, but there was nothing. Yet they are there. He is there and not silent, in the world that is not a scribble but whole.


In the Heat of the Day

IMG_0287"And the Lord appeared to him by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the door of his tent in the heat of the day.”

‭‭(Gen.‬ ‭18:1‬ ‭ESV‬‬)

In the desert the doves are the first birds to wake. Before a pre-dawn glow lights the mountains, their coos can be heard coaxing life back to their somnolent brethren, heads tucked beneath their feathers, a light breeze lifting their feathery down.

Off our balcony a mesquite tree shades. For approximately ten feet from the ground its trunk leans at a 25-degree angle before, at some point years ago, it reconsidered, took heart, and righted itself. "Be lifted up," God said, and it was so. Green, wispy leaves contrast with the blue sky, make a mottled, swaying, and hypnotic pattern across the balcony floor.

At twilight yesterday, the doves were also the house matrons shushing other birds as they bedded down for the night. Upwards of 50 birds settled into the tree, jumping from branch to branch, twittering and fussing at each other as the stolid doves tried to maintain order. Some sort of parasitic vine had hold of the tree, and where it clumped the birds nested. Some lodged alone on high branches, introverts seeking solitude; others, craving conversation, gossiped away the last light. Soon all the campers were ensconced, and by nightfall - devotion read, song sung, prayer offered (by the dove, of course) - all was quiet.

This morning they were gone, at work, or play, or perhaps both at once, their twittering constant.

At breakfast, a lone wren watched us eat from a perch no more than three feet away. Though small, it drew its breath and fluffed its feathers more than once. We were impressed but not afraid or provoked, if that were its point. It grew impatient of our leavings and left, lighting on the hot tile of a rooftop and, from there, flew on into the blue.

Some bird calls sound like questions; others, like nervous laughter; and yet others, like lullabies. One sounds like a rapid-fire ray gun. A small one. One even says, "I told you," one whose mate likely expelled him from hearth and home for a day, at least, until he changed his tune, stopped dredging up an old misstep. But he's still at it: "I told you." A pause. Then, "I told you." She's not having it.

The sun is high in the sky and bakes the sand, and I am siting here under Room 337's tree, under the tent flap or, if you will, the eave of the roof. Anything could happen. Last year at this time as I sat here a bobcat nonchalantly walked past me, no more than ten feet away and below. Yet I offered it nothing but the indignity of a photo of its hind parts. Yet today, on top of the twitter and twatter of the birds, all I have seen is the restless beating wings and bright heads of hummingbirds, yellow blooms of brittle-bush, green-branched palo verde trees, agave, cholla, and saguaro, butterflies in a dance, and the darkened peaks of the Catalina's, the paint of birch and fir. That's all.

But you never know. The Lord might show up, might walk right up, and after I fall down and spill a few words might speak to me as to a friend. And what He says might change the world a little or a lot, whether I live to see it, or not. You never know.


(Living In) Story Book Land

Storybookva2"[F]airy tales give us some hope of victory. The world is not to be understood in merely domestic categories, as though nothing existed that lay beyond our local and parochial concerns. Nor is it an unmeaning chaos, from which, to preserve our sanity, we need to avert our eyes. Fairyland is. . . the hint of a wilder and wider world than the domestic, from which the bolder of us might bring treasures if we can avoid its perils; a reminder of a world unconstrained by any of our familiar values, and threatening therefore to alienate us from our own; the dream of a world where everything can speak and everything contribute its own beauty to the growing whole."

(Stephen R.L. Clark, "Why We Believe in Fairies," in First Things, March 2017)

When I was a child and, along with my parents and younger sister making our way home from visiting relatives in Arlington, Virginia, my sister and I saw a billboard along the interstate advertising Story Book Land. My parents, though no doubt tired and longing for home, heeded our backseat pleas. From the front seat, there was a muted discussion and nods; our fate hung on gesture and tone, our hope faint. To our surprise, we turned off the highway and, in what seemed a few miles, reached the billboarded park, full of storybook characters set among a wood. I don't remember much of it, just the joy of what we might see, of characters we had read of coming to life. What I do remember is a giant Mother Goose beckoning at the entrance, a castle wall lining the car park, Humpty-Dumpty on a wall, the house of the three bears, a bridge across a stream, an old woman in a shoe. They were all there, all the ones I had read of, rhyme and story come alive.


872543e5bd7292168d303aa55507a8d3Story Book Land is a forgotten and neglected place. When Washington City Paper writer Eddie Dean wrote about it in 1995, likely 30 years after I visited, it had already been closed for more than ten years. Dean wrote that "When the park closed . . . the bucolic site—which boasted more than 100 life-size figures and two dozen storybook buildings—was left virtually intact, as if the owners meant to open it again someday." They never did. Mother Goose lay on the ground. Graffiti covered the buildings. Snow White's house had been used by the homeless. Vandals had beheaded some figures; one building was burnt. Less than one mile from Potomac Mills outlet, along US1, the site had been spared in part due to its status as wetlands. But then, by 2007, the whole area had been absorbed by a housing development, and the magic was really gone.

But this is not a tale of nostalgic longing but about what fired our imaginations. As children, we had not yet become materialists. We still believed that the worlds we read about in fairy tales were real or, at least, possibly real, that there was a "wilder and wider world than the domestic," the one parents and adults seemed to live in, the brick and mortar world of work and school and bills and taxes, a world bereft of magic. And yet as my parents shepherded us through that wood of fantasy, I suspect that somewhere deep down they hoped it or something like it was all true as well.

That was long ago, and far away. For most of us, our "magic forest of make-believe" (as Story Book Land heralded) has been clearcut. Life is not enchanted but simply what it is: asphalt and concrete and steel; bird and bear; a windswept prairie; atoms and quarks and lasers. Stuff. Things. Death and taxes. We long ago lost our wonder.

Christians profess a belief in the supernatural, in an unseen reality, yet we don't often act like it. In reading scripture, we spiritualize what we can't imagine is literal, pray to an unseen God and acknowledge an invisible heaven peopled by those who have gone on from here, and yet we mostly live our days not enraptured by what is behind what we see but stupefied by surface realities. A tree is only wood, a rock the mere leftover of some geological process, a mountain rising only to fall. What they are is what they are; nothing more.

But what if we took a different reading of scripture? Maybe we need to read Scripture as fairy tale, as a magical, astounding story of giants felled by little boys, of great armies put to run by angelic troops, of dead people coming back to life. A wood where rocks cry out, trees clap their hands, and mountains sing. And where, in the end, a magical, shining city comes down from the sky and heaven and earth become one. And no one dies. And no one cries.

"It is the mark of a good fairy-story, of the higher or more complete kind," said the great imagineer J.R.R. Tolkien, "that however wild its events, however fantastic or terrible the adventures, it can give to child or man that hears it, when the 'turn' comes, a catch of the breath, a beat and lifting of the heart, near to (or indeed accompanied by) tears, as keen as that given by any form of literary art, and having a peculiar quality."

"The Gospels contain a fairystory," said Tolkien, "or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories. . . .There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true, and none which so many sceptical men have accepted as true on its own merits. For the Art of it has the supremely convincing tone of Primary Art, that is, of Creation. To reject it leads either to sadness or to wrath."

I confess that often when I read the great narrative of Scripture, the words lie on the page, two-dimensional and flat. But on occasion, on the days when I am best seeking and best seeing, the golden book of stories becomes a Story Book Land and I walk in the wood of words come to life, where I marvel at our visitation by extra-terrestrial Life, where I am struck in wonder at the word or touch that heals and revives from a Being that deigns to take our form and walk among us, Spirit his way in and among us, unseen.

“How can a merely material world ever accommodate our own experience of life?,” says philosopher Stephen Clark. It can’t, says the Bible, which is full of non-human angelic and demonic beings, a world behind the world, “fairies gone away,” as the the materialists say, always going away. Only they haven’t. If we can’t believe in fairies, in an unseen world, says Clark, then there’s no believing Scripture, no room for anything but the material, nothing but the “motion of material parts.” Rather, “banishing the little people from our lives was only a prelude to dispensing with the notions of God and the soul of man. If we can’t believe in fairies, we cannot properly believe in anything at all.”

That day in Story Book Land, my sister and I knew better. Snow White and Little Red Riding Hood were real, somewhere. That place may be gone, ploughed under by progress, yet we still walk in that Land. The Big Bad Wolf lurks, and Humpty Dumpty has fallen and we still can’t put him back together. But Someone can. Someone who hasn’t gone away. Someone from a wilder and wider world who beckons us “come.”


Puzzling Through

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“She’s working a puzzle.”

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

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

Well, it’s a start on the world.


Mountain, Be Thrown Down

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Abide

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Walking in Otherness


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


A Christmas Dream?

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

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

"What?"

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

"Won't you remember it?"

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

"Ok."

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

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

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

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

"Hey, that was great. Thanks."

It was Gerald. "What?"

"That was great. Really."

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

"Happens to me all the time."

"I doubt that."

Then I woke up.

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

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

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

A sense of deja vu swept over me.

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

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

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

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

"Well, you see. . ."

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

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

"Shoot."

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

"Elementary physics. Ask your son."

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

"Time is malleable."

"I thought you'd say that."

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

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

"I thought you would."

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

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

"Right. I mean. . ."

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

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

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

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

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

"He said he was."

"Leave anything?"

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

"I've been good, mostly."

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

"You ok?"

"Sure. Go back to sleep."

I settled back into bed.

"Did you see Santa? My wife. On.

"Yep."

"That's what you said last year."

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

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

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


On the Eve, Lit

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

(St. Thomas of Aquinas)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


A Christmas for Misfits

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Field of Our Souls

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

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

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

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

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

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


But, the Children

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


A Way of Seeing

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

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

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

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

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

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


Creation's Balm

"Be still, and know that I am God" (Ps. 46:10a, ESV)
IMG_0247

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Traffic & Weather (Errata)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Signs and wonders indeed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Our Haptic God


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Clear-Eyed Populism

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Not yet," she says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


A Time to Kill

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

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

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

"What can I help you with, man?”

"Bryan, I wanna kill."

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

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

"Yeah, right, we covered that."

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

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

"Kill those suckers, right?"

"Right. Can't take any chances."

"So what do I shoot them with?"

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

"Napalm."

"Whatever."

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

"Do I need a permit for this thing?"

"Naw. The Man don't care."

"Sweet."

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

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

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

I don't remember anything else.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bryan would not approve.


A Declaration of Dependence

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

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

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

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

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


Meet Dylan, a Millennial

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

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

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

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

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

There he is, a real person.

"You know Frank?," he says.

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

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

"I hope he's ok."

"Oh sure, he's fine."

I look down at my salad. Dylan leaves.

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah, you got that right.”

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

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

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


A Cat's Choice in Reading

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Something Bigger In It


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

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

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

Not now, I say.

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

Do I?

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

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

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

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

As Oliver concluded,

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

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

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

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


A Theology of Things

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

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

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

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


Not So Ordinary Rescues

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

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

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

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

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

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


Carrier, RIP

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Solitude


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Getting Low

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

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

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

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

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

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


Surprise Ahead


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

(Annie Dillard, in Pilgrim from Tinker Creek)

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

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

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

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

I think she missed it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

_________________________________

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.