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May 2006


Soul I can't really recommend Lisa Graham McMinn's book, The Contented Soul: The Art of Savoring Life, because at so many points it reads like it was written by an academic, and by a sociologist at that.  McMinn covers material that has been well covered elsewhere, and in less academic prose -- like in Dallas Willard's The Divine ConspiracyWith names like "The Practice of Fortitude," "Embracing Limits," and "Crafting Community", I was expecting more than I received.  In the end, I cannot put my finger on much that I could take away, and much that could not have been more simply said.

That being said, the last chapter, "Remembering," did resonate with me, perhaps because it's a topic of continuing interest to me.  First, says McMinn, is remembering who we are, a task that is collective in nature.  She says that "[w]e remember who we are as we remember our history and the people from whom we've come."  We're remembering that we are not alone.  Family stories take on importance as a means to preserve our collective identity.

Second, we remember what matters: the "Grand Story" of creation, fall, and redemption.  "Life is not about my happiness but about the joy of recognizing that we all emerge from one source -- and that source is God who loves us, redeems us and calls us to share in the task of bringing peace, justice and healing to creation."

Third, we remember our mistakes, our own trail of sin.  And because we have poor memories when it comes to our own wrongdoing, we appeal to God, whose view of reality, whose memory, is perfect.  This keeps us humble, dependent on the prime Rememberer.

Finally, we remember God's faithfulness which, indeed, requires close attention to the Book of Life, to God's providential working out of His plan in our lives.  "Contented souls remember.  Remembering turns our mind to what matters, and it requires effort, because the needs of the day demand attention and energy that drain our capacity to remember."

McMinn is right.  Remembering is important to a life of contentment, and yet we suffer from a systemic forgetfulness, both individually and collectively.  Our collective and individual history is crucial.  We need God's help to get it right, to see if clearly, as does He.  Only then can we be content.

Today I'm heading home to visit my mother.  I'll pass the familiar places where I played as a child.  I'll remember who I am, who I was taught to be, and I'll remember some of the foolish things I did.  Mostly though, in remembering, I'll be grateful.  I'll be content.  Why?  Because I am not alone.

Losing Our Connection

Flower_3 In what is a very mobile culture, I am glad that I have stayed put, as well as that many of those who are close to me have stayed put.  I mean that I am in the same city, the same neighborhood, the same house, the same church, the same job, and that my children are in the same school.  My best friends are folks I have known for 25-30 years, and they are still here.  I realize that change can be good and is not to be feared, and I am not against it; it's just that I am grateful for this rootedness in place and the kind of long relationships with people and things, even inanimate things, this has given me.

There is a maple tree at the end of my driveway.  It is larger now than it was 21 years ago when we moved in the house, but it is the same tree, the tree where, bending a branch down for my then infant son to see, I let him hold the leaf, feel its texture, smell it, and hear from me all about it in words he did not understand, of course.  It's the tree my black cat climbs.  It the same one with striking orange, red and yellow leaves in the Fall.  I relish its long life here.

There are, in fact, all kinds of memories associated with place -- picnicking in the yard with our then small children, drawing with chalk on the driveway, riding bikes on the cul-de-sac, swinging on swings in the back yard.  When I frequent familiar restaurants, they bring back a flood of memories, mostly good, of people, events, and even, sometimes, a particular conversation.  When I go home (that is, my mother's house), I can walk through her home and pick up object after object and remember things, like the ornamental glass box on the living room table that I broke when I was four or five.  Well, it's still with us, as are the easy chairs where I read books for hours on end when I was 8-14 years of age.  They don't fit me so well anymore.

Orthodox theologian Vigin Guroian, who also gardens, believes that in our increasingly urban and suburban worlds, we are losing our connection to the earth, that we must reconnect "lest we forget who and what we are."  I'm not a gardener, but I know that we need to slow down, that we need to pay attention to where we live and who we live with, and that we need to stop changing just for the sake of change, for something new, or just because.  We need to appreciate where we are and what we have been given.

This rootedness does something good for us, and yet it is not something that is quite articulable.  It's closest to that Hebrew word shalom, that sense of wholeness and peace.  It's an echo of eternity as well, where we will enjoy a long relationship with the One who made us and will keep us, the One who does not change.

Prayer and Memory

"'We live in a culture that has lost its memory,' writes Gretel Ehrlich.  Through prayer, I'm absorbed in reclaiming mine.  When I pray, I feel a connection to a memory, the tug of combined prayers of generations before me who have done the same.  Waves and waves of prayer that swell behind me, lifting me up, helping me connect through the past to something in my present and my future.  'In remembrance is the secret of redemption,' a Jewish proverb declares.  In remembrance lies mine."  (Cindy Crosby, in By Willoway Brook: Exploring the Landscape of Prayer)

A Most Unlikely Religion

Christianity has to be the most unlikely religion.  There are many reasons for saying this, but one such reason is that its organizing document, its constitution, is a compendium of various types of literature -- narrative history, poetry, prophecy, surreal imagery, and open-ended parables.  It is indeed a most unlikely way to organize a religion.  And yet, that is precisely why it is so believable, so human, so real.

I was reminded of this today by the sermon I heard here at a church I visited.  It was a summary of the small bits of history about the disciple, Mark, also known as John Mark.  The sermon was entitled "The God of Second Chances," and indeed John Mark received a second chance.  Scripture says he deserted Paul and Barnabas in Pamphylia (Acts 15:38), and yet at a later date, Paul writes to Timothy, asking him to come to him, to "do you best to get here before winter," and to "[g]et Mark and bring him with you, because he is helpful to me in my ministry" (2 Tim. 4:11, 21).  Obviously there had been reconciliation: a deserter had been welcomed back into the work of the Gospel, trusted once again.

This is not and unusual teaching method for our Scripture.  And yet it is not the most efficient way to organize a religion, to keep it intact, to ensure that dogma is preserved inviolate.  God did speak and act, and when all is said and done, we have a collection of narratives regarding the history of Israel, four not always facially consistent accounts of Jesus's life and work, some letters, an account of the early church, a bunch of enigmatic parables, a wild and difficult to interpret vision of the end times (or is that of Israel) in John's Revelation, some poetry (complete with almost embarrassing "cursing" psalms), a sensual account of love between a husband and wife, and one book that doesn't even mention God.  Now what kind of a way is that to have a religion?  And yet that's what we have.

In writing on the reasons for the making of the Apostles and Nicene Creeds, David Mills reminds us that "[w]e have creeds, first, because we were created to make them."  In his Touchstone article entitled "The Creed We Need," he elaborates:  "God made us rational creatures.  We like to put our facts and ideas in order.  We like to find what relation they have to each other, to discover hidden agreements, resolve apparent contradictions, test them against challenges, apply them to new ideas, draw out new implications.  As G.K. Chesterton wrote, 'Man can be defined as an animal that makes dogmas.'" 

So, that's it:  God knows our creatureliness, so much so that he has us participate in the discovery of the truth about Him and His world, in the continuing attempt to frame in ever more precise words what it is we believe and why it is we believe.

It's a messy way to start a religion.  But it fits us perfectly.  And it seems, well, so uncontrived, so real, and oh so true.

Being Authentic

Cover Being real and being authentic are terms much bandied about nowadays, and yet it gets very confusing if you consciously try to "be real" or "be authentic."  I wonder if authenticity is a target we can never hit by direct aim but, rather, is something that happens as we are faithful.

One of the magazines I read is Relevant, which has as its byline the phrase "God, Life, Progressive Culture."  The magazine is primarily aimed at Christians in their Twenties.  There is a longing in this magazine for authenticity, for a kind of Christianity that is not just white, middle class, and Republican.  However, the magazine itself features the same eye-grabbing graphics, advertising, and outsider critique that you might expect:  these are grown up church kids quietly rebelling against the evangelical establishment from within, from a place of faith.

Nevertheless, despite the attempt to "be real," one of the attractions of Relevant actually militates against this.  It is impossible to escape the fact that there is a definite "cool factor in finding your identity in the folds of this publication, listening to the music they feature, seeing the films they review, and reading the books they publish (yes, they publish their own books under the Relevant brand name).  Indeed, Relevant, and all its assorted offshoots -- web page, podcast, books, and clothing -- is really just a reaction to the mainstream Contemporary Christian Music market and larger evangelical subculture, another niche of style and product to buy into.

This probably appears too cynical.  I don't mean to be cynical. These folks are sincere, as are many in the CCM industry.  But they aren't more real than their counterparts.  They are simply offering a different stylistic cultural (or counter-cultural, however you look at it) niche.

All of this is disheartening in a way.  How, after all, are we to be authentic Christians.? Then again, I have to laugh at it.  I have to think we cannot ever get to authenticity by focusing on it.  It's a by product of the life of faith, a life focused on Jesus.  No magazine will produce an authentic Christian life in me.  There's no escaping the ordinary means of grace -- prayer, Bible reading and meditation, and long and deep participation in a worshiping community of faith.  These things are not attractive compared to a product like Relevant.  They will never be cool.  They can be downright difficult to maintain.  But there is no substitute.  We become real, meaning we become more of what we were created to be, when day in and day out we come to God through these means. 

The Habit of Prayer

"Those who do not turn to God in petty trials will have no habit or such resort to help them when the great trials come, so those who have not learned to ask Him for childish things will have less readiness to ask Him for great ones.  We must not be too high-minded.  I fancy we may sometimes be deterred from small prayers by a sense of our own dignity rather than that of God's."  (C.S. Lewis, in Letters to Malcolm)

Twenty Twenty

Tbone "We live in an age of language pollution.  Words like 'values' and 'freedom' have been used with great cynicism and stripped of their meaning. . . . Today, you can say anything you want and you can do anything you want. Then, you can say you didn't say it or didn't do it and no one will remember or know the difference or believe anything other than what he or she wants to believe."  (T-Bone Burnett)

T-Bone Burnett has done a lot of things.  He toured with Bob Dylan in the mid-70s.  He released several acclaimed solo recordings.  He produced the soundtrack for "O Brother Where Art Thou" and "Walk the Line."  And he's an articulate Christian, though not a member of the Religious Right (more about his faith here).

I recently picked up the just-released Twenty Twenty, a two-cd career retrospective of Burnett's 30-years in the music business .  Since it's been a while since I have listened to him, I wasn't sure what to expect.  What I got is a bit like much of Bruce Cockburn's work -- lyrical depth and artful music that it takes some time to absorb.  I'm a sucker for the pop tune with the hooky guitar riffs and choruses.  That is not, by and large, what you get here.  The songs require repeated listening and some patience to absorb, but it's well worth it.

The quote I reference is just one of Burnett's many provocative comments.  I think he's right.  He's really speaking of the devaluation of language, something which has happened because we live in a culture without an absolute referwence point for truth, where we want to be self-defined, autonomous individuals.  You can believe what you want and do what you want, so why can't you say what you want?  In fact, you can just define words in the way you like, or revise history like the Dan Browns of the world to fit your own view of the world.  He's talking about relativism.  He's been around the block.  He's well aware of how little words can mean.

Burnett says "You can sing about the Light, or you can sing about what you see because of the Light. I prefer the latter."  As Twenty Twenty demonstrates, that's pretty much what he has done for 30 years, and done well. I commend his words to you.

Bash 'N The Code

Da Only the most dedicated musicologists out there would recognize the name "Bash 'N The Code" as the name of a mid-Eighties Christian rock band formed by the talented Greg and Rebecca Sparks -- folks to this day make great music and are musicians I can highly recommend to you.  But really, the title was merely a lead in to a comment on The Da Vinci Code stimulated by an interview with Ben Witherington that I listened to today on Issue 79 of the audio-journal Mars Hill Audio Journal.  Witherington, New Testament scholar and author of The Gospel Code: Novel Claims About Jesus, Mary Magdalene and Da Vinci, commented that we live in a "Christ-haunted yet biblically illiterate culture."  That phrase -- "Christ-haunted" -- caught my ear, as it is one well know in the South as descriptive of much a significant segment of Southern literature as reflected in writers such as Flannery O'Connor, Walker Percy, or, in modern days, Reynolds Price or Doris Betts.  The term refers to the fact that Christian faith inhabits the work of their writing and, more broadly, the culture of the South, though it is ill-defined, enigmatic, or even unbiblical at times. 

But enough about that.  What Witherington is referring to is our fascination with Jesus and, yet, our woefully inadequate or nonexistent understanding of the Bible, church history, and doctrine.  He laments the fact that apparently many Christians believe Dan Brown's revisionist version of church history because they distrust authority, are fascinated with conspiracy theories, and lack the facts (and inclination to study the facts).  Brown is easily debunked, but many won't take the time to investigate his claims.  Furthermore, apparently a significant number will say that all that church history stuff really doesn't matter anyway, that what matters is my personal relationship with Jesus.  I believe what he says, and yet I have not experienced much of it as I find myself in a church with many people who do think about things, who take doctrine and church history seriously. 

There are lots of resources on the issue, but not all of us have time to read an entire book bash 'n the code, so I recommend the MP3 of a lecture called "Fact and Fiction in The Da Vinci Code" by Ben Wilder, of the Center for Christian Study, found here, or a great website run by Westminster Seminary, here.  We may live in a Christ-haunted region (and better haunted by Christ, I suppose, than another), but what we really need is to know the One who lived and walked among us, for real.

Now, I'm going to see if I can dig up on of those old Bash 'N The Code records, just for fun. . . .

Give Us This Day (A Poem)

Give Us This Day

Sign says slow: death in family.
No noticeable effect.
These four-wheeled worlds pass,
     eyes fixed ahead, yet
Eternity was there ---
     Death.  It said death.

Ambulance screams: parts this flow.
I shut it out.
I press ahead, yet I can't
     avoid the sound.
Eternity was there ---
     Someone was dying.  Someone dead.

In that moment: image flash.
A fiery crash.
Searing heat unwraps
     my soul.
Eternity was there ---
     Me dying.  Me dead.

Still my breath: white-knuckled
Hands on wheel, here on the
     thread-way of doubt and belief.
I live the moment, my
     liturgy to play:
"Father in heaven,
     In our dying, give us this Day."

[This poem was prompted by seeing a sign saying "Slow.  Death in family." that I saw as I drove down a highway in a rural area of the state one morning.  That was many years ago when, perhaps, there was more respect for those who had suffered loss.  People did in fact down out of respect, much like folks would pull over to the side of a road when a funeral procession went by.  I haven't seen either happen for quite some time.  I still remember being in such a funeral procession for my father-in law and passing by a man selling newspapers in the median.  He had his hat off and his head bowed as we passed.  I won't forget that image from a decade ago.  It seems we are a culture that desperately wants to forget death.]

Predestined and Free

Hugh_ross_3 Another thing I did on vacation last week is to finish Hugh Ross's book exploring the extra-dimensionality of God, entitled Beyond the Cosmos.  After a promising start, and some good points along the way, ultimately he failed to satisfy me in his attempt to make sense of things that just seem well beyond our human minds.  One example may suffice.  In one chapter he explores this question:  "How does God do the predestining while guaranteeing us the freedom of our will, as the Scriptures and our understanding of love demand?"  He offers two possible resolutions (a word I cringed to hear because I think any such attempt is ill-fated).

First, he basically said that perhaps God sees all (foreknowledge) and anticipates the direction of our choices and then prescribes conditions which will lead to choices that fit in with his plan.  To me, however, this appears little more than saying that God will indirectly work to ensure that we do in fact choose what he in fact wants us to choose.  I don't see how this resolves anything.

Second, he offers a resolution that seems a mere variation of the above.  He says that God sees and anticipates our decisions, seeing how we more or less choose to move toward Him or away from him, and knowing this, he once again prescribes the conditions under which the effects of our choices will fit into His plan.

Neither of these so-called resolutions appears helpful, as they do not really resolve anything.  How can our small minds resolve the paradox of a sovereign God while preserving the responsibility of man?  We can't.  I prefer John Stott's summary of this in his now out of print booklet Balanced Christianity.  He writes of an imaginary conversation with the Apostle Paul that Vicar Charles Simeon wrote about in a letter to a friend in 1825:

"The truth is not in the middle, and not in one extreme, but in both extremes. . . . Here are two. . . extremes, Calvinism and Arminianism. . . . How do you move in reference to these, Paul?  In a golden mean?"


"To one extreme?"


"How then?"

To both extremes; today I am a strong Calvinist; tomorrow a strong Arminian."

Ross's mistake is in trying to reach a resolution.  The truth is in both extremes.  They do not resolve in our minds.  Ultimately, with Luther, we have to say that "at the end of every doctrine lies mystery."

But I suppose if he acknowledged the intractability of the paradox, it would have made for a much shorter book.

Blow: A Poem


Blow, Charlie Parker, blow.
Blow out Keroauc & Ginsburg,
Huncke, Burroughs, Holmes & Casady.
Give voice with every existential exhale.

Blow as deep as you want to blow
you said.
Write swiftly, excitedly, in
accordance with your heart, with the beat.

At the South Harlem Red Drum, in a
bendrine daze, Charlei Parker's
bop bop bop is swimming in our minds.
For a moment you cohere, whispering
conspiratorily to the crazy casadys:
"Believe in the holy contour of life, man.
You dig?"
Truth is caught in the world-widening horn,

          Stop the music, Charlie Parker.
Unblow the horn.
Summon back the Keroaucs, Gonsburgs,
Burroughs of this world.
Suck the dying right back out of them,
the going for the sake of going.

And if I meet him
in our dust,
our poverty,
our beat-ness shared,
I will tell him:

"Wake up and see the shepherds, Jack,
wake up and see the golden world
that Jesus came from, with your own
eyes, with your own heart, you can tell."

Slapping Moctezuma mud on that
dharma bum's eyes I would spit on my
hands and rub it in, harder now,
whispering as loud as I can:

Wake up, wake up, wake up.

Port_kerouac_1 [A few years back I read a book on the beat generation, the poets like Ginsburg and writers like Jack Kerouac, all who traversed Greenwich Village in the late Fifties and early Sixties.  There's much not to admire about them, but I did find their community and sense of freedom admirable, in a way.  I can't commend them, but this poem does arise out of the particulars of their lives, particulars I had a sense for, for a while at least.]

What I Read on Vacation

Between my wife and I we probably subscribe to about 20 magazines or journals, and that's on top of impulse buys and the daily newspaper.  I know this is ridiculous, as I cannot read all this material, but I love magazines almost as much as I love books.  So, anyway, when vacations roll round (like this past week), I try to catch up a bit with all this reading.  It's sometimes better this way, reading several at once, because on occasion there are some helpful coincidences -- articles that complement one another. 

Such a coincidence happened when I read Steven Garber's review of Tom Wolfe's novel, I Am Charlotte Simmons, called "I Am Charlotte Simmons: 3 Sentences, 1 Chapter, 1 Sad Conclusion," published in Critique, Issue #2, 2006, a publication of Ransom Fellowship.  (not online but I will send it to you by pdf if you email me).  I was aware of Tom Wolfe, but not the novel, which is an account of a young, smart, and rather innocent woman who leaves the rural mountains of North Carolina for an Ivy League school, where she is introduced to the sexualized (and very real) college culture, where sex is simply "hooking up" and carries no emotional commitment.  Wolfe apparently does a good job of showing how the logic of this lifestyle leads to a loathing of self and offers no basis on which to build a life, but he has little to offer in the way of a solution.  Then, thank God, I read an article by Terrence Moore, "Not Harvard Bound," in Touchstone, May 2006, which profiles college bound seniors in a charter school in Colorado who are quite different than those you find in Wolfe's book -- students who are bright, moral, faithful, energetic, and hardworking.  So, there are two stories here, and Wolfe has one story right, but there's another group of students, students that might even help a Charlotte Simmons out there.  There's hope.

I read yet another article on global warming, an issue I would really like to come to a conclusion on, and yet I cannot.  This one in Christianity Today's April issue, "Looking After Creation,"  was an interview with Christian physicist Sir John Houghton, an advocate for greenhouse gas reduction, who says that the whole scientific community is settled that on the conclusion that global warming is really occurring.  His confident assertions aside, I continue to read articles about the uncertainties that remain and the very high cost of tackling a problem we aren't sure is due to human activity or, at least, aren't sure we can control.  I think back to that book The Population Bomb, published by Paul Ehrlich back in the early Seventies.  His argument (in which he was not alone) was that population growth would doom the world to disaster by the turn of the century.  Oh yeah?  There is a population problem -- depopulation  -- in Europe and Russia.  Just about everything Ehrlich predicted was wrong.  Could climate change be another one of those doomsday scenarios?  God grant us wisdom.

Speaking of God, I read an article in that same issue of Touchstone about the recent meeting of the World Council of Churches.  [Insert the sound of fingernails on a chalkboard here.]  What a misnomer.  They do not represent the church.  The whole meeting was a litany of indictments of the United States, led by the "confessions" of our corporate sins by churchmen (yuch!) from our shores.  And then, finally, this statement by the beloved Desmond Tutu: "God is not a Christian." What?  He then went on to thank the churches represented for their support of the African National Congress in South Africa (you know, the ones who tied burning tires around the necks of whites and uncooperative blacks in their armed struggle against apartheid) and let them know that "God is allowing any and everybody into heaven."  Even Bin Laden and George Bush.  When I read such things I am simply incredulous; it reads like fiction.

On to lighter topics.  I enjoyed "Loving Christ While I Cheer for the Yankees," in ByFaith, January/February 2006, wherein Peter Enns calls for some theological reflection on the sports that he so loves along with many others.  I also appreciated David Delk's "Parenting the Heart: Helping Your Children Get Their Story Straight," also in ByFaith, May/June 2005 (see what I mean about getting behind?), which is a creative way to get at what is or should motivate our children -- stories like "The American Dream" or "Technological Paradise" or the Gospel story in their own life and part of the culture.

I've already blogged a bit from the excellent Spring 2005 issue of Christian History and Biography devoted to George McDonald.  I commend reading that entire issue.  McDonald is a treat to read and read about.  And finally, I read about Beatle Paul McCartney, who just turned 64.  Where did I read it?  In my wife's AARP Magazine.  Don't tell her I told you we receive that, but we do get discounts with it.  And if you don't know what AARP is, don't worry -- you'll find out one day.  Now, back to my rocker. . .

The Old Botswana Morality

The wonderful thing about Alexander McCall Smith's series, "#1 Ladies' Detective Agency," is that its stories are told with such nonsentimental grace and charm. The protagnist, Precious Ramotswe, worries about the loss of the "old Botswana morality," and hearing that, we too are reminded that we worry about a society in which civility and manners have been discarded. And yet, just like in her Botswana, all is not lost: there are still those who behave civilly, who have manners,who have been taught well and behave well. These are the outward marks of an inward moral center, and even if they are only skin deep, they still have a laudatory effect on a society.

I think the books resonate with readers because deep down we all long for a world full of people like Precious Ramotswe, people who can be trusted, with integrity, who really manifest a virtuous life. There are still people like this around us.

To the day he died, my wife's father stood whenever women or older people entered the room. He remained standing until they sat down. He did it as a matter of repect for them. So do his sons. Having watched them, so do I. Why? I don't know what he would have said. It was second nature to him. But I would say because they are to be honored because they are made in God's image and because women and the elderly are honored in Scripture. It's not common anymore. But the practice still survives.

Obed Ramotswe would be pleased.

Keeping On

This week my wife and I are celebrating our 25th year of marriage with a return to the place of our honeymoon on the island of St John, in the U.S. Vigin Islands. For whatever reason, we have not been back here for 25 years. As you might expect, in some ways it has changed; in other ways, not at all.

There are newlyweds here. Coming in this week we met a newly married couple, in their twenties, and it was quite amazing to watch them and think that we were them 25 years ago. So much has come in 25 years, both good and bad, and yet here we are still keeping on.

Why have we kept on when so many have not, when even so many Christians have not persevered in their marriages? I wish could say. It would be easy to say by God's grace, and that would be true,of course, but how would it be true? Other Christians have divorced.

I do however, remember something we both always said from our earliest years of marriage: we each married our best friend. We were friends for some time before we were anything else. We made that commitment before any other. And truly, we still are.

When you visit a place 25 years later, things change. The buildings here are older and seem to have settled more firmly into the earth. Yet they look more at home than before, more a part of the natural environment that was always here. The beaches remain, the familiar coves with names like Scotts Beach,Turtle Cove, Honeymoon Beach -- all the same. All of that which Laurence Rockefeller designed Caneel Bay to be, all of what that visionary saw in this place is still here. It has matured, but its essential nature remains the same. The quiet solitude, the manicured lawns, the decorum in dress and manner remain the same, unchanged. It is really more of what it was meant to be, simply seasoned by the years.

By God's grace, common and special, 25 years later we too are, I think, essentially the same people we started as in this marriage, seasoned and more at home with who we are, continuing to grow ever Homeward together. When people who have not seen us since we were much younger see us now, they generally say something like "you look the same," or "you haven't changed." I'm glad of it. I hope the perception extends farther than mere appearance.

It's true Rockefeller has died and his resort here has taken on a new partner, but mostly they seem to have been faithful to his vision of what this place is and should be. So our prayer too is that we would be faithful to God and to who He intended us to be. It was His vision, after all, and we who are keeping on are just becoming "rounder" (deeper) characters in His story, the one with no end, the one that is keepin on.

The Importance of Words

"[Samuel] Coleridge believed that all religious language is poetic, containing many levels of meaning. The concrete, surface meaning is true in itself, but it is at the same time a symbol of something beyond language, an earthly lens for something eternal to shine through, Even the church is poetic-- it always points to a greater reality, and yet that universal truth is inseparable from the particular, historical, ever-changing flesh-and-blood reality of the church here and now." (Stephen Prickett with JenniferTrafton, in "A Faith That Feels," Christian History and Biography, Issue 86, Spring 2005)

Many have lamented the movement of our society from one rooted in words to one fascinated with images. And we can also note a trend for those who trade in words to use them for power, for manipulation, to simply persuade others to believe as they do whether or not the words they say are true. The latest example of this is author Dan Brown who, in The DaVinci Code, has the gall to state that what he is writing is historically accurate when much of it is a baldfaced lie. It is not truthful but, rather, what he prefers to believe (and apparently what many others prefer to believe as well).

What Coleridge believed about language is surely true. Words are a rich expression of what is true, both in the immediate, perceived sense, and in a mysterious as as yet not fully known sense. His comment is reminiscent of Dorothy Sayers' statement that "all language is analogical," that is, we cannot think about meaning except by analogy.  Sayers' point also illustrates the richness of language.

For example, take the phrase "God is good." As a mere abstraction, it is unilluminating. To fill in its meaning, we need analogies of goodness. Perhaps good like a mother is good to a child, or good like a friend who simply is caring and honest and trustworthy. We can even think of specific examples of goodness -- the man who finds money on the floor of a restaurant and, rather than pocketing it, carries it to the manager, or the neighbor who cuts our grass whilewe are sick and unable to, not even waiting to be asked. Language is analogical.

All of this adds to the richness of Coleridge's point: Words are packed with meaning and are large windows into an eternity where we will really find out the meaning of words like "church" and "good"and "faith" and, best of all, "love."

Language is a gift. We should love it, cherish it, and order it well. God is one who is always speaking -- in words that matter and convey deep and rich truth. As those made in his image, so should we so speak.

The more I think about this, the more I am aware of the way words are used. For example, on the desk in front of me is a brochure about a place at the resort where we are staying today called "The Self Centre." The caption at the bottom reminds me that the purpose is to "Renew Your Sense of Self." The two words most commonly used throughout the brochure are "spiritual" and "self," and yet reading through the brochure it is apparent that there is no real understanding of what the true self is nor what the spirit is. It does, however, resonate with our modern impulse toward individualized, tailor-made religion or spiritual renewal and not one where we are held to account to a God who made us in His image.

Words. They swirl about us. They matter greatly. We have to pay attention to them. We have to weld them well and truely. And one day, when God says our name out loud to us, when he calls our name, we'll know in a way we can only know dimly now who we are, what our name means. Every word will be true then, every word rich with meaning and life.

My Calvinist Buddies

You know that your child has reached his teenage years when he begins to assert his or her opinion about things that he used to easily accept. I found that out recently. My son has been studying the Calvinism-Armininism divergence of opinion in his humanities class. This has led to numerous discussions. In the latest, he referred to "you and your Calvinist buddies at Peace Church." He said he had been brainwashed, that he didn't realize that there was an alternative to Calvinism. He argues in extremes at times.

What bothers him is what bothers most folks, that is, the perceived unfairness that God would elect to save some people and not others. Nothing really removes the mysteryof this. To say we are all dead in sin and God resuscitates a few is no good; it is not as if God is unable to save everyone, as in a triage situiation where only some can be treated. God is God; He can do it, but he chooses not to. I can tell him that God is wholly good, but the perceived contradition bothers him. Well, of course it bothers me too,

But he's in good comany. George McDonald, raised on Calvinism, held to God's complete sovereignity yet could not accept the doctrine that God would not save all, that is, he could not accept the doctrine of limited atonement. As Kerry Dearborn notes, "[i]n 'Weighed and Wanting,' he describes feeling as a child that he didn't want God to love him unless God loved all people.''

Truly there are paradoxes here. No one can really reconcile God's sovereignity with our free will. Perhaps it has to do with God's super-dimensionality. All it makes me realize is how much bigger God is than we imagine, and how feeble are our attempts to reconcile his love and justice, his soverignity and our free will, among other things.

But like the good Father He is, He allows us (apparently) the freedom to wrestle with such weighty matters. Maybe I can be the same kind of Father to my son, giving him room to search out these things on his own. I hope so.

Why Christian Music Must Die

Clip_image003 "At the core, pop music is telling people what they want to hear.  Christian Pop Music is no different.  This presents a great problem when my understanding of the gospel is that it is not what we want to hear. . . . Don't be surprised by the CCM industry. . . . They have created a monster, and now they do not know how to kill it gracefully" (Jars of Clay lead singer Dan Haseltine, February 2005 post, forum).

It's not my title, folks, but that of Dave Urbanski, whose essay of the same name appeared in last years Issue 25 (and, sadly, last issue) of the journal Mars Hill Review. Urbanski is not advocating killing off the artists and music but, rather, the megastructure marketing machine that is the Christian music business.  If you can't discern what he's talking about, take a good look at CCM Magazine, the organ of the CCM business, or visit your local Christian book store chain and note the trinkets for sale, the impulse buy items at the register, and the pop culture glitz of the CD sales area.  Something is amiss here, and we're so busy buying we can't see it.

Urbanski does a good job of documenting his concerns, but I'll comment on one here because I have personal experience, and let me say this: I hate going in most Christian bookstores.  For one thing, I dislike the marketing.  For another, I can never find many serious books (there's a true lack of breadth in the Schaeffer and Lewis catalog, among others).  And finally, and most sadly, I don't think these places minister to nonChristians any longer.  They are "safe" places to go and look for books and records with kids, and even pleasant, kind of a Christian Borders.

In the town where I live, there was one Christian bookstore 30 years ago.  I remember it well.  It was a small place, located near the university, and the neighborhood was a rough one.  A bar was located across the street.  Winos sometimes visited (and not for Christian books, either).  But its distinctive was that it was a ministry -- there were stories of bar owners being saved, people off the street being saved, and so on, and every time I went into the store there was usually a discussion with the woman that worked there about a particular book, or she might recommend something.  Then, that all changed.  They moved to the suburbs and lost that ministry to college students, drunks, and bar owners.

The same is the case with Christian music.  As Urbanski points out, all the major Christian labels are now owned by secular companies who wanted to exploit (no, there's really no better word) the Christian market.  If anything, this has led to a  more conservative policy -- that is, stick with the music that sells, and don't experiment.  Mark Heard would never get a record deal today.  Anyone a little out of the mainstream or who is overweight or homely has a hard time as well.  (They better head for the folk music community which, for all they lack, can be more forgiving in this area and less market-driven.)

The Christian music industry will die when we, the consumers, stop buying what they sell, when we insist on intelligent music in a diversity of styles which deals with the full spectrum of human emotion and experience.  That's why I rarely buy in Christian bookstores and listen to so little music put out by the Christian music labels.  There's a lot of great music by Christians out there.  You just won't find it in the Christian bookstore.

For music, go indie.  Buy direct from the artist when possible.  If you don't know what Christians doing music in the mainstream sound like, buy a compilation, Beat, from Silent Planet Records here.  Only $5.  And for books, visit a great bookstore, Hearts and Minds.  And buy what's good, true, and beautiful regardless of whether it's by a Christian or not, because God's for it if it has those qualities.

Color Me (A Poem)

Color MeClip_image002_28

          He's painting
my house, eyes
tracing every wall
every corner
every crevice,
seeing what was/ is/ will be.
Fill in the holes.
Cover the ugly.
Dab putty on the creases.
Scrape & smooth it
flat and seamless.

          He's painting
that measure-mark that charted growth,
that crayon-mark of (mis) placed art,
each chair-met wall a conversation kept, every
hole ---
all gone.

          He wields
his wand & colors leap &
snake across these walls
bright &
new &
two-coat deep,
just so deep.

Can you color me?
Can you give this gray man hue?

At 14 (A Poem)

At 14

my back yard was expanding, like the
universe unfolding, and I was ready to fly
but afraid to fall.  Transport yet a dream, I went

where my feet would take me, and for a while
the earth still turned slowly and the sun might
even stand motionless, quiescent, like the time I

kissed Linda Erzoni on the stoop of my back
porch while the world, all monotone and gray,
fell away and stars lapped the edges of our

nocturnal nova.  She was  Haley hurling through
my space, a cosmic wonder, an uncharted realm,
mercury rising and me hoping all the while that this

sweet intercourse would never end.  So great were the
mysteries of love and loss that that when Mary Mergoles
shut her heart's door for John we could only walk an

hour in the dark and, for the first time, drink beer,
speechless, his life over.  It wasn't.  But he never spoke her
name again, vowing he would not be burned again.  Yet he was.

Behind our facade of certainty, we were stumbling in the dark,
touching a sacred timeless thing, unable to resist the
gravity of desire.  Yet, tortured though I was

something hollow murmured deep inside for
greater things, for lasting love, for communion full
and deep and wide, a eucharist so elusive

at 14.

[It's very strange to think of this poem now.  When it was written 14 years ago, I had no son.  Now I have a 14-year old son, and I am reminded that this age is a confusing one, even difficult.  And yet, many of our experiences are so different.  To really put myself back in that age, I need only put on Joni Mitchell's "Blue" record; dripping with melancholy, it's gauranteed to bring you right down!]

Sleepless in Wal-Mart

Sleep_1 Sleep is a reminder of our mortality.  The threshold of sleep is the very edge of life.  'Sleep is a gift of death,' [Dr. Albert] Rossi said.  'In sleep we have no more money, memory or consciousness.  Each night we experience a small death as a prelude to our ultimate death, and each morning we experience a small resurrection.'  George McDonald echoed his sentiments, saying that in sleep our bodies are 'sown in weakness, but raised in power.'"  (Jenny Schroedel, in A Third of Our Lives, on, May 11, 2006)

There are things about being embodied, about being human, that are just a part of who we are.  Everyone eats.  Everyone drinks.  Everyone sleeps.  All are such a necessary part of who we are made to be that we simply take them for granted (except on the rare occasion when we are forced to go without one or more).  But we post-moderns think that we can defy these creational "ordinances."  The lights are on 24/7.  You can shop at Wal-Mart at 3:00 a.m.  You can eat dinner or breakfast then as well.  And of course you can surf the internet anytime as well.  You choose.  But we do so to our detriment.

These regular needs cannot be ignored and, in fact, were given by God for our enjoyment and sustenance, as reminders of our finiteness, and as metaphors for our deeper spiritual needs.  I'm particularly interested in these latter two, and our need for sleep is a great example of both.  We are limited.  Unlike God (who, deep down, we aspire to be), we cannot be "on" at all times.  We must shut down for rest. In sleep we are vulnerable and we are without possessions.  That we wake is up to God.  That we wake each day is a small miracle in and of itself.

But more than that, sleep is a rich metaphor for the dying to self and rising to life that we daily experience in Christ.  Daily we sleep.  Daily we die to self.  Daily we wake in newness.  Daily we are are new creations, dead once again to our past sins.  When we attempt to be god of our sleep, to neglect it, to treat it as subject to our command, we grow weary and sleepless.  The natural order of things is upset.  And I suspect that spiritually we become confused as well.

When my family leaves town, I am lost.  I do not sleep when I should.  I eat at odd times.  I work too much.  I wander my house in search of, well, the regular patterns of life.  I am in my house but not quite home.  And spiritually I don't know what to do with myself.

You know, the people at Wal-Mart at 3:00 a.m. do not look happy.  They look lost.  You can't play god.  We need to obey patterns of eating and sleeping that have been set for us.  And we need to cherish these reminders of our dependence on God and rest in Him.

The Animal Years

Ritter I cannot really do justice to an album review. I don't seem to have the vocabulary or understanding of music.  That being said, I'm quite taken with Josh Ritter's new release, entitled The Animal Years

Ritter is a hard-working, hard-touring folk singer who has developed a unique style -- not the typical guitar strumming but a diverse collection of instruments round out his sound.  The sound is diverse but not too diverse, sounding sometimes like Dylan, sometimes like a Beatles tune, and even occasionally like Springsteen.  So, the first attachment for me was to the music.

But I'm ultimately a lyric snob.  If the words are trite or cliched, ultimately I'll abandon a work.  And here, there are no cliches and certainly nothing trite.  A lot of this is pure stream of consciousness (hence, the Dylan comparison), the meaning not readily apparent, but the phrasing and the images are rich, creative, and very concrete.  He draws from history and literature for his images, painting a rich tapestry.  If you love words, you'll attach yourself to these songs even if you don't know what they mean.

In addition, he actually writes two good songs rooted in the effects of the Iraqi War and the concern over religious extremism.  Most singer-songwriters have the obligatory ant-Bush or anti-War song or even album (Neil Young is the latest), but most sound like preachy propaganda set to music.  These songs, "Girl in the War" and "Thin Blue Line," are more complex and more humanly and humbly rendered.  "Girl in the War" is addressed to St Paul, and Ritter questions, like the Psalmist, why God isn't bringing peace: "Because the keys to the kingdom got lost inside the Kingdom/ And the angels fly around in there but we can't see them/ I got a girl in the war Paul/I know they can hear me yell."  Thin blue line is even sharper in it's questioning of God: "He bent down and made the world in seven days/ And ever since he's been walking away,"  or "It's a Bible or a bullet they put over your heart/ It's getting harder and harder to tell them apart."  And "If what is loosed on earth will be loosed up on high/ It's a Hell of a Heaven we must go to when we die."  In all this Ritter shows his familiarity with Scripture, but he can't quite believe. At least not yet.

But like I said, I can't do it justice.  Get a copy.  It's a beautiful record to listen to.  And, one man's questions will help us understand the questions many ask: Is God up there?  Is he listening?  If so, why doesn't he do something?

Sickness and Death, Oh Boy

Prod_256_s_1 "[I]n a sense sickness is a place, more instructive than a long trip to Europe, and it's always a place where there's no company, where nobody can follow.  Sickness before death is a very appropriate thing and I think those who don't have it miss one of God's mercies."  (Flannery O'Connor, in a letter published in The Habit of Being)

I hate hearing things like this.  I just cringe a bit at the thought of debilitating sickness, much less sickness unto death.  But perhaps that is because I haven't truly known it like O'Connor did, or perhaps it stems from a too small faith.  Maybe both.

For thirteen years prior to her death  at the age of 39, Flannery O'Connor knew she was dying, ever since she had received the diagnosis of lupus erythematosus, the disease that had killed her father.  She lived with pain, and frequent hospitalizations, and in the last year or so before death, she could not even do the thing that God called her to do, that is, write.  So, that she could say it was a part of God's mercy to her is insanity or else a true experience that it is just difficult for many of us to relate to.

What I remember about my own sickness and hospitalizations is a great deal of anxiety, self-centeredness (worry does that), and a discovery of the shocking fact that the only promise God made to me is that of his unseen presence with me and the sure hope of eternal life in a difficult to envision Heaven -- like a place someone told you about but then refused to give details about.  I remember thinking that, well, it all comes down to these two things that I could not see.   By God's grace, I held on to those things with my mind, but my emotions were all over the map.  I had to resolve that I believed God.

O'Connor said sickness is a place where "nobody can follow," and that's true.  There is some comfort from friends and family but, ultimately, when they leave, when you lie in bed alone, you are alone.  It is really just you and God.  I say that as if that isn't enough.  It certainly is enough.  But it doesn't feel like enough at the time.

Nevertheless, I kniow that what O'Connor is saying is not a rare experience.  Many Christians who have endured suffering speak of this as God's mercy to them -- not a grin and bear it kind of mercy.  Not a grin at all, in fact.  But  I suppose it puts reality into Paul's admonistion that "we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us" (2 Cor. 4:7).  That treasure is the Gospel -- the Gospel shines through frail,weak bodies that have no power in themselves.

O'Connor knew the promise of the Gospel.  Her daily prayer for the the three weeks before her death ended with an image of heaven as a home "beyond the region of thunder, in a land that is always peaceful, always serene and bright with the resplendent glory of God."  Now that's what I need to hear.  When the sickness unto death comes, by God's grace I hope I hold that vision.

Man of Tears, Man of Sorrows

360033Today, three people became emotional in front of me and began to weep -- one who was a stranger, one I was acquainted with, and one I knew well.  That's a record.  This is not common, but it is also not so unusual in my line of work.  Attorneys deal with people in difficult situations.  I'm always a bit embarrassed for the weeping person, and yet tears are a reminder to me that the person in front of me is human, like me, and despite a sometimes hard or carefree exterior is enduring something difficult or troubling. 

The man in front of me today was giving testimony at a deposition, a fairly informal and yet, for him at least, a sobering event.  His testimony was transcribed.  He had been charged with cocaine use and distribution.  When I asked about his family, he told me his wife divorced him because he had an affair with another woman. He began using cocaine.  He lost his job (a good one, at Nortel).  He apparently lost all his savings (eaten up by his drug habit or living expenses).  His eyes were bloodshot.  He did his best to look presentable, to look dignified, but his coat was threadbare and his shirt faded.  I asked him about his daughter, and that's when he cried.  He said he'd lost her, and his wife, and that they would have nothing to do with him, and he couldn't blame them.

This man was 57, past his prime, with a poor legacy to live with.  He lives alone.  He rents.  It must be difficult for him to go on with life sometimes, given what he has lost.  Listening to him, I'm glad I am not hardened to the pain of loss, and yet, I have a job to do.  I know that I have to make a rational decision about his situation.  I have the ability to relieve him of this immediate problem (this lawsuit), but I'm not sure what to do at this point.

I have to go back to something I learned a long time ago.  All people are made in God's image.  They bear His mark, however dimly.  This man is due a dignified treatment, even though he has done wrong, because he bears God's image.  His tears remind me of his humanity, and in that sense, I'm glad for them.  It's easy to become cynical. 

It also reminds me that though all people are impacted by sin (Calvinists say "totally depraved") most are not as bad as they could be.  In fact, my experience with criminals is that they are moral in some respect, that they have some notion of right and wrong (however warped).  Like the marijuana smuggler who said he never dealt in cocaine because that would be wrong.  Everyone except the sociopath has a principle, or principles; it's how God made us.

Jesus had a way of treating the screw-ups in life with dignity, like the woman at the well, or the prostitute pouring perfume over his feet and washing them with her hair, or the thief on the cross.  He was a "man of sorrows, well acquainted with grief" (Isa. 53:3). Thank God for that.  He treated them like who they were created to be, not who they had become.  I hope I treated this man that way.

And that's just the first person who cried.

The Lie of Postmodernism

We have all heard the word "post-modernism" brandished by everyone from professors to pastors to news commentators, but I suspect most of us have a difficult time getting a grip on what exactly the word is referring to.  In his essay, The Critical Zone: Speculations on a Conceptual Zone for Postmodern Seekers, Wesley Hurd does us a good service by summarizing the central tenets of Postmodernism in three simple points, as follows:

  • Truth, the way we used to think of it, is not possible.  Finding "true" truth [as Francis Schaeffer referred to it] has always been a mythical holy grail of religion and philosophy.  Objective truth has never been present and available to us.
  • Real truth and real reality are therefore merely mental constructs; as linguistic signs and symbols, they are purely arbitrary.  Those who wield cultural power control these signs and determine what gets taken for "truths" and "realities" (plural, for there are many).
  • Given these realities we are left to understand that our sense of self -- who we are and what we are, along with what we believe -- is also a pure mental construction.  There is no centered, individual person.  There is only a subjectively pieced-together interpretation of a self.  Individual identity and meaning are creatively constructed by the individual (subject) according to his or her own cultural taken-for-granteds, preferences, and desires.

Well.  Even this short summary takes some thought to appreciate.  I'm still amazed that there are people who think this way, albeit not always consciously, and I doubt that anyone actually lives their life fully consistent with these principles, principles which lead to nihilism and utter despair.

A news article today noted the death of the last American survivor of the sinking of the Titanic, Lillian Gertrud Asplund.  I suspect she was not a postmodern.  She was five when she lost her three brothers and her father; she recalled watching them go down with the ship.  I wonder if there are people who actually believe that the story of the Titanic was a good movie, or an interesting story, but that it's impossible to know what actually happened.  Or worse, that it doesn't really mean anything for us today.

Postmodernism makes a mockery of history, of remembrance.  It merely mines it for stories to sell or is wielded by politicians and elites for images that will inspire and give them greater power.  Under such a view, Os Guinness says that '[t]he past is no longer a heritage, but a debris-strewn ruin to be ransacked for bric-a-brac of beliefs that is as incoherent as it is inconsequential."

What Hurd says in his essay, in part, is that there are non-Christians who have been fed this lie and yet, almost instinctively, know that something is wrong with it.  According to Hurd, these skeptics "are people who believe that their life experiences and thought processes do not confirm the 'orthodoxy' of postmodernism's radical version of relativism; postmodernism simply doesn't fit their lived experience nor does it adequately or satisfactorily explain their philosophical and worldview questions."  According to Hurd, there are Christians in this same "conceptual zone" who, while believing the gospel, have difficulty relating to the church because they do not see it asking questions and dealing with the difficult issues of the faith.  He believes the two groups can have a fruitful dialog in this conceptual space for seekers of truth.

People may talk this way, may even act to a certain extent like postmoderns, but when the party's over, when they lie alone in their beds at night or when they look in the mirror and see the aging they cannot stave off forever, they know that such a philosophy is inadequate to answer their deepest questions.  And they ultimately know that the various pop philosophies and faddish spiritualities that are around do not answer their questions either.  They need the Answer.  Whether they are willing to accept an answer that deals realistically with their questions is another matter.

Tick, Tick, Tick (Part VII): Trippin' With Hugh Ross

Hugh_ross_2 "God's invisibility and untouchability keep our yearnings focused right where they rightly belong, on the supernatural realm that awaits us.  His written Word combines with evidences in this spectacular but limited physical realm to communicate that His desire and plan involve transporting us, at some future point along our time line, across our dimensional barriers into His super-dimensional realm."  (Hugh Ross, in Beyond the Cosmos: The Extradimensionality of God: What Recent Discoveries in Astronomy and Physics Reveal About the Nature of God)

I've met my Timothy Leary, and his name is Hugh Ross.  Reading this Christian physicist's book, Beyond the Cosmos, is mind-altering, even mind-expanding, sans psychotropic drugs.  While I'm only about halfway through the book, already I'm fascinated by Ross's ability to help us imagine what is really unimaginable -- the existence of more than four dimensions and how such an understanding (if you can call our imaginings, "understanding"), helps us begin to appreciate the paradoxes of scripture, like the Trinity, the omnipresence of God, the nature of Heaven, predestination and free will, and so on.

While reading about this, a question came to me that I don't think Ross directly addresses, that is, if we are made in the image of God, in what sense, if any, do we image (using the word as a verb) the super-dimensionality of God?  For example, as God is not bound by our space and time dimension, is there some faint way in which we participate in such transcendence by virtue of having been made in God's image?  I think maybe so.

Perhaps some of the odd sensations we have are a result of this imaging.  For example, most people have experienced deja vu, a sense of having been in a place before.  Well, perhaps in some sense we have.  Perhaps this is a very, very faint reflection of God's super-dimensionality, his omnipresence.  Or, as I have mentioned before, I feel at times the sense of being very close to my childhood.  Perhaps this propinquity is a pale reflection of God's being outside of our plane of time.  And then there are the really odd coincidences.  For example, a few years ago I was in Tucson, Arizona at a restaurant, nearly 3000 miles from home, when, getting up to excuse myself I passed in front of a waiter.  He stopped me and said "Aren't you. . ." and said my full name.  I said yes.  He said "I was in your 5th grade.  You haven't changed a bit."  Well, given that it had been 32 years, that was amazing.  I did not recognize his name or his face.  So why do things like that happen?

These odd happenings can be nothing, of course, or they can be as I have mentioned -- God's image-bearers experiencing in just the slightest way a touch of God's super-dimensionality.  For me it's just a reminder, a message from beyond, that we were built for glory, for something indescribable.  Like Ross says, it keeps our yearnings focused right where they belong, on that place called Heaven.

Read Hugh Ross.  It's quite a trip.

Childhood's Time

Paa261000017_2 "I had dominion over all the earth and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.  I saw the earth and its creatures not with the cool eye of the spectator, but with all the passion of a participant in whatever the extraordinary business is that we all of us are participating in, all of us in it together, as it is in all of us.  There is no way to recapture fully the wonder and wildness of it."  (Frederick Buechner, in The Sacred Journey)

What Frederick Buechner lacks in theological precision, he remedies in his ability to give voice to his remembrances.  Here, he remembers childhood, that time when he "knew trees before I knew what a tree was or thought I did, knew the cool rustle and darkness of them shot through with flashes of green sun." He's describing childhood's time which is for most a time of just breathing in Creation, not analyzing it, living in and amongst it, not watching it go by the car window on the way to a glass and concrete building in which we work.

We are busy people, and I am as busy as the next, but I do not want to watch life go by while I fritter away my energy on things that don't last.  Yesterday, I moved ten files from the inbox to the outbox, made an equal number of phone calls, responded to twenty or so emails, but I don't know what came of all that, what will endure.  What will endure is lunch outside on my patio, watching a male and female cardinal feed and never, never leave each other. Never.  That's an image that endures.

And another thing --- what was the last time you just lay down in the grass?  Children do that all the time, and I suspect they're richer for it.  There's life in the grass -- the color green, the good smell of earth, and the insects that go their way every day unaware of us, just Creation that keeps unfurling day after day after day.  When I'm down there on the grass, I feel like I've got hold of the world.  I'm resting on something solid, something made not bought.

We grow up and forget what it is to wonder, to live among trees, to wade in creeks just because, to build treehouses and live in them, to run all over Creation just for the pure sweet pleasure of it.  Just because.  What we need to do is remember that kind of life because I'm convinced it's close to Heaven life.

Childhood isn't really gone, not really past.  As Beuchner says: "Memory is more than a looking back at time that is no longer; it is a looking out into another kind of time altogether where everything that ever was continues not just to be, but to grow and change with the life that is in it still."  I don't know exactly what he means, and maybe he doesn't either.  But I suspect we cannot grasp what he's getting at, that in some mysterious way all those things that happened back then still live on.  We experience them as gone, but maybe it's just that they exist somewhere else.

When we look and listen to Creation, when we rest mind and body on it, when we play for the sake of play, we come close to childhood.  We begin to wonder again.  Prayer is filled with thanks and wonder and less with the need of the moment. 

I remember childhood -- the late summer evening games of capture the flag, our backyard empire that stretched from home to home uninterrupted by fence, pretend games of secret agent and cowboys and Indians, and long, long days filling even longer Summers.  They're still out there somewhere.

Farewell, Reverend Ames

Gilead2_5 "It has seemed to me sometimes as though the Lord breathes on the poor gray ember of Creation and it turns to radiance -- for a moment or a year or the span of a life.  And then it sinks back into itself again, and to look at it no one would know it had anything to do with fire, or light. . . . But the Lord is more constant  and extravagant. . . . Wherever you turn your eyes the world can shine like transfiguration.  You don't have to bring a thing to it except a little willingness to see."  (Rev. Ames, in Gilead).

When there's a crystal blue sky, and gentle whisper of a breeze, and birdsong, it's easy to see what he means by "radiance."  Surely this is what Creation was meant to be, like an English garden.  It's easy to forget for a moment the storms that will come, or drought, or flood, all of which I have seen, easy to forget the almost fatal undercurrent of sin that courses through the natural world, making it a "poor gray ember."  The world is running down; entropy has set in.

The point came home to me not long ago on a visit to a friend's suburban home in a distant city, a place where I had not been for seven or eight years.  When I visited last it was new.  This time I saw the marks on the walls of the staircase, the peeling paint, the aging carpet, the cracks in the driveway, and I realized that it was "sinking back into itself," running down, time ticking along.

And yet still it shines if you have willingness to see.  The wrens and bluebirds are building nests and laying eggs.  New grass is growing.  The trees bloom.  The house gets a fresh coat of paint and new carpet.  All we need is a "little willingness to see."  The Lord of Creation is constant and curse-defying.

"There are two occasions when the sacred beauty of Creation becomes dazzlingly apparent, and they occur together.  One is when we feel our mortal insufficiency to the world, and the other is when we feel the world's mortal insufficiency to us.  Augustine says the Lord loves each of us as an only child, and that has to be true.  'He will wipe every tear from all faces.'  It takes nothing from the loveliness of the verse to say that is exactly what will be required."  (Rev. Ames, in Gilead).

I guess the good Reverend means that sometimes we're just not up to all the beauty in the world, that we can't quite take it in, can't quite hold it all.  And then, on the other hand, the world can't quite hold us, it being but a shadow of the Real World to come.  Martin Luther said something to the effect that if we really knew what made up a blade of grass we would die of wonder.  And yet, even that is but a shadow.

I'm glad Augustine said that, because I need to remember that despite all the business God has in and out of this world, I am his son, and I might as well be his only son for all the love he has for me.  So whether I can't hold the world in my gaze or the world hold me, it doesn't matter.  There's a lightness in my being.  God holds me tight.

"I love the prairie!  So often I have seen the dawn come and the light flood over the land and everything turn radiant at once, that word 'good' so profoundly affirmed in my soul that I am amazed I should be allowed to witness such a thing.  There may have been a more wonderful first moment 'when the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy,' but for all I know to the contrary, they still do sing and shout, and they certainly might well."  (Rev. Ames, in Gilead).

I love these hills and pines, maples, and oaks, the azaleas and rich green of grass, the lakes and streams and red clay.  I guess wherever you live God shows you the beauty of that place if you have eyes to see.

John Ames had a habit of rising early and walking the streets to his small and shabby church, to pray and watch the sun rise over the prairie.  I can understand why.  Seeing that sun rise every day, and the light spilling over his town gave him hope, hope enough to endure what he called his "dark years," year after year of loneliness and lack, and yet year after year of persevering faith.  Sometimes when I'm up before light, and walking, I entertain for a moment all kinds of shadowy fears, and occasionally it feels as if the great weight of trouble that weighs on the world rests on me.  And then I see that elderly man, stooping to retrieve his newspaper from the driveway, rise up, nod, and say "Good Morning," and the sun peeks out about then and something bright breaks in my soul and I know that, as John Ames says, "hope deferred is still hope," and I walk on.

"I'll pray, and then I'll sleep.  (Rev. Ames, in Gilead).

Those were the last lines written by Reverend John Ames, and I'll miss him.  Reading Gilead is like reading a pastoral letter, instructive at times, honest, personal, and graciously wise.  Like all good characters, you never want to let them go.  But John Ames has to go just like they all do.  Yet his words live on.

Good night, John Ames.  I'll pray, and then I'll sleep.

Losing "My Father's Car"

1967_ford_ranch_wagon_3Several years ago (well, perhaps as many as a seven or eight years), I wrote a short essay entitled "My Father's Car."  I can see the words on the page now as if it were yesterday.  I used my father's car (the night, in fact, of the wake for my father) as a metaphor for the cold reality of death that hit me then.  I can glimpse some phrases and images -- the cold hard steel of the hood of the car, the hood that my friend and I lay on talking, or the deep melancholy strains of Joni Mitchell's "River" floating in my mind, the people passing in and out of my house, the "funeral" food brought to us --- but have never been able to reconstruct the essay as it was then.  You see, I lost it and have never recovered it.

I've never really gotten over this.  I still look for that essay at times.  I still hope it will turn up, that's it's somewhere in digital limbo or that I squirreled away a hard copy. You might say it's just words, but I feel like a part of me was lost when I lost that essay.

Jill Carattini writes about this, noting that "[t]he loss of words is a silence palpable to many."  That's a good way of saying it: "palpable," meaning a silence that you can almost touch or feel, that you perceive deeply.  When we write out of deep feeling, we tell our story, at least part of it, and to lose it is to lose part of our life."God made man," said Elie Weisel "because He loves stories."  So too we love them, being His image-bearers; thus we feel their loss as if losing ourselves.  I feel the presence of its absence.

I can't bring my father back.  Nor can I summon up the spirit of "My Father's Car."  It doesn't work that way.  Somewhere my father lives on; so too my words live on.  One life, one story, but there's a greater Story being told, a greater Life unfolding.  Death may hurt, but it really has no sting.

Flat God or Round God?

In yesterday's online devotional for Ravi Zacharias Ministries, Betsy Childs points to author E.M. Forster's differentiation between "flat" characters and "round" characters as a good analogy for our sometimes problematic thinking about God.  As Childs summarizes: "A round character is multi-dimensional in that he or she is believably lifelike, able to surprise the reader, and his or her character is fully fleshed out by the author.  A flat character merely exists to embody a particular quality or personify an abstract idea."  She believes that many of us are puzzled by the actions of God as portrayed in the Bible because we expect God to act as a flat character, in other words, in predictable ways based on his attributes.  In fact, it's easy to think of God as an abstraction, the sum of his attributes, when scripture portrays him as having emotions and motivations.

God is immutable and, yet, as Childs points out, "his response to his creatures may vary according to their actions or his purposes."  Not only is he immutable, but I add that he is also inscrutable.  We know him only partially, only incompletely, and thus we do not comprehend why he does what he does or fails to do what we think he should do.  Ultimately, God remains incomprehensible.  This is no surprise.  It's an opportunity for trust in his goodness and providential care.  Authors often speak of their round characters as having a life of their own, of almost being out of their control.  So too, God is not under under our control but works out his purposes in ways we cannot often discern.  He is neither tame nor safe but he is good.

Reading Childs' short meditation, the similarity between our relationship to God and to our spouses, children, or even ourselves struck me.  The human personality is also ultimately inscrutable.  We know ourselves, and yet do we fully know what we will do.  We know our spouses, and yet they may at times respond to situations in ways that baffle us.  Of course, in these relationships sin is in the picture, and yet the same trust, the same presumption of goodwill, should extend to these relationships.  As Proverbs 11:27 says, "Those who seek good find goodwill."  God doesn't fit into our box, and yet neither do those we are closest to; our calling is to trust in both God's goodwill toward us as well as the goodwill of those closest to us.  Though human beings will let us down at times, God will not.

Our lives are peopled with round characters and presided over by a round character, God himself.  Self-absorption leads us to treat God and others as mere foils for our personal story or as two-dimensional abstractions subject to generalizations that fail to account for personality.  As an example, whatever you think of immigration reform, it is wrong to generalize about immigrants and treat them as one homogeneous group.  They are round characters bearing God's image.

As Childs summarizes: "Ours is not a love story between flat characters.  The one who calls Himself 'I am that I am' is not a flat character.  We should relish the mystery of the God who is not a prisoner of our expectations, but who nevertheless desires to be known by us."  So too, if love is our motivation, those around us will slowly and imperfectly become rounder, more lifelike characters in the great Story we find ourselves in.  It won't make it easier, but it will keep it interesting!

Aliens and Strangers

Strangers_aliens_thumb I have always been intrigued with Peter's description of us as "aliens and strangers," (1 Pet. 2:11), but until I recently re-read the entirety of 1 Peter I had not realized how this theme underlies the entire letter.  At the outset of the letter, he refers to God's people as "elect," "strangers in the world," and as those "scattered" (1 Pet. 1:1).  Much of the letter is a call for us to be holy, that is, set apart, both by our election by God and our behavior towards one another and nonbelievers, not conforming to the world, leaving our former empty way of life, coming out from darkness into light, suffering for doing good, stray sheep now under the care of the Shepherd of our souls.

Peter doesn't just use the term "strangers" in a descriptive way, denoting our different status, our different love, and our different hope.  He uses it prescriptively -- calling us to "live your lives as strangers here in reverent fear" (1 Pet. 1:17).  You might say he's called us to be strange.  That's strange as in the archaic sense of being from another country, from another place, having different characteristics, even odd. Bottom line: We don't belong here, are not of the character of this place.  We're literally only visiting this planet. And yet there is no call to be physically separate but, rather, separate in orientation, in behavior, in how we act and on Whom we focus.  Nor is there a call to change nonbelievers; the letter is addressed to our orientation, thoughts, and behavior, to what kind of people we are to be.

Perhaps this explains why I sometimes feel estranged from life, from those around me.  It's because I am not from here, and so I feel a profound sense of alienation at times.  Rather than worry about it, though, I can appreciate it as a confirmation of my status in Christ, my different citizenship.  And I suspect that as I grow in this Way, I will become further estranged, further alienated, and increasingly discontented.  What the world offers (in the sense of status, material abundance, or sensuality) will have less hold on me.  By God's grace I hope so.  We're not used to using these words in positive ways but, rightly understood, perhaps we need to get used to them.

We work, we drive cars, we eat in restaurants, we buy things.  In so many ways we live in the world and do as the world does.  But get beneath the surface, the veneer of life, and you will discover how different in orientation you are as a Christian.  Even little quips or aphorisms begin to irritate.  Speaking with someone about families recently, they remarked "well, that's what it's all about."  Well no, that's definitely not what it's all about, and that was a relatively benign conversation where we shared a common concern for family.  It's fair to say that for a Christian life in the world just grates on you, as we're constantly rubbing up against things that reveal our foreign nature, our strangeness.

I guess we're like legal immigrants here, called to honor the authorities these people honor, to love these people (but not their ways), and to do good works among them, but never to ask for citizenship here, and never to worship their gods.  We belong elsewhere.  Our allegiance is to Heaven.  The Shepherd of our soul awaits.

[The painting, entitled "Aliens and Strangers," is by Asheville, NC artist Carol Bomer.  See more of her work here.]

Here and Now to the Second Power

Gilead_2"Boughton says he has more ideas about heaven every day.  He said, 'Mainly I just think about the splendors of the world and multiply by two.  I'd multiply by ten or twelve if I had the energy.  But two is much more than sufficient for my purposes.'  So he's just sitting there multiplying the feel of the wind by two, multiplying the smell of the grass by two."  (Rev. Ames, speaking of friend Old Boughton, in Gilead)

Reading Old Boughton's comments to Reverend Ames, I had to smile a smile of recognition.  His description of heaven is so like the one I carry around with me, the one I give to my children.

Once my son asked me, with some anxiety, what heaven was like.  He said, "I don't mean to be ungrateful, but going there kind of worries me, and in a way I don't want to go, because I don't know anything about it."  You see, he doesn't like change.  And that made me confront my own feelings about heaven which, as much as I prefer that destination to the alternative, were also reflective of some doubt, some uncertainty, some sense that I was losing something, that I would miss my life here.

It's true we don't know a lot about heaven, and so we each of us carry around our own conception of it.  But we do know this: it's real and it's good and it's a tangible and physical reality where we are embodied and recognizable, and where there is no sin.  Still, it is difficult to picture it, and while the surreal glimpse provided by John in Revelation is intriguing, it's difficult to "put it on the ground," so to speak, to conceive of how life in Heaven really plays out day after day after eternal Day.

I answered my son like this:  "Take everything you like about life -- the colors, the smells, the activities, the sense of belonging and family, the good feeling you know when you are loved, the joy you have when you are doing what you love to do.  Now, heaven is much more of all that you love, with nothing of what you dislike, or what burdens you and causes you sadness."  Heaven's not really two times of what is; its beauty, truth and goodness is exponentially more.  It's the good of here and now to the second power.  At least.