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July 2006


People only die for
People only live for
When it's all over
What we wouldn't give for
Living in sin like nine bowling pins
You knock them all down
You cash them all in for
Moments, just moments
We live for moments, just moments"

(Pierce Pettis, "Moments," from Tinseltown)

Today I got up, put on my suit, drove downtown, went in the office building where I work, waved at the security guard, took the elevator to the third floor, entered my security code, and. . . good grief, it must have been over 100 degrees in there.  It's mostly dark.  I find out that everyone has been sent home, as the air conditioning is down.  So. . . I took the elevator to the ground floor, waved at the security guard, left the building, drove home, took the suit off (put shorts on), and got back in bed.  No, just kidding.  I was into the symmetry of it.  I didn't really get back in bed.

Moments.  In the most likely untold history of my life, I wonder what the value of those moments were.  I look at them as a waste of time.  The only mildly valuable thing I can think of is my wave to the security guard, a small gesture of friendliness, but the rest of the time seems like a huge waste.

"When it's all over, what we wouldn't give for moments."  A few more of those moments, and I could have slept, made breakfast for my children, let my wife sleep.  Prayed.  Read the Bible.

"The clock keeps on ticking/ World keeps on turning/ Moments." 

I'm washing windows in my house now.  I'm wondering how to redeem the moment, where to place my mind.  I'm thinking that mundaneness is where we live, in fact is most of what we do.  Work is paper on paper for me, word on word.  Not much more important than windows.  Or, just as important depending on how you see it.

God sanctified the moments, I know.  In one moment in time He became incarnate, the noncorporeal Father who is pure spirit became the flesh and blood Son, and in so doing He sanctified each and every moment.

The wild-eyed pastor who nabbed me at the back of his church many years ago and said, "Steve, life is existential.  Life is existential!", was right.  Life is all about moments, moments unto God, or moments lived outside of God.

"When it ends finally/ What was it all for/ Moments, just moments."

Gregory of Nyssa, in his On the Lord's Prayer, said this:  "Let us remember that the life in which we ought to be interested is 'daily' life.  We can, each of us, only call the present time our own. . . . Our Lord tells us to pray for today, and so he prevents us from tormenting ourselves about tomorrow.  It is as if [God] were to say to us: '[It is I] who gives you this day [and] will also give you what you need for this day.  [It is I] who scatters the darkness of night and reveals to you the rays of the sun."

Moments. Now, the windows clear. I can see better.  It only takes a moment.

Come On. A Safari. With Me.

SurfboardMy only experience with surfing came in high school when my mother, my friend, my sister, and her friend took a rare out-of-state trip to Hawaii.  My uncle and aunt and two cousins lived in Aiea, a community tucked into the Oahu mountainside overlooking Pearl Harbor.  The trip itself was, of course, exotic.  I remember my older, female cousin meeting us at the airport in Waikiki and placing leis around our necks, looking every bit the surfer part, maybe one of the "honeys" mentioned in that Beach Boys song.  Naturally, I had to surf; I was convinced this could be done in a day.

So, as my uncle was a Marine Corp officer, we hit the Fort Derussey commissary and rented surfboards.  We then carried them onto a crowded Waikiki Beach, waded in the water, and paddled out to the reef, where the waves were only five feet high, not so high we thought.  It wasn't easy -- the paddling out there, I mean.  By the time we arrived and met up with the throng of surfers waiting  for the next break, we were already tired.  And you know what?  Five feet waves are really quite big.  I never even got on my knees, and after being banged on the reef a few times and almost dinging another surfer's board (which elicited a string of expletives), we gave up and began paddling in.  And that was the hardest part of all.  We had to avoid getting clobbered by the waves crashing, as well as fight the undertow.  It took us all of an hour to get back to the beach. Well, so much for catching waves.

And yet. . . and yet I understand the attraction of surfing, not only the sensation of riding waves (only partially sensed) but also the freedom represented by the life and the camaraderie and sense of community available in the surfing community.  When the Beach Boys sang "Let's go surfin' now/ Everybody learning how/ Come on a safari with me" back in the Summer of 1962, when I was only four, not only kids in close proximity to beaches but also those from Wichita to Peoria tapped into the message.  It was about freedom, about transcending the mundane, about living life fully.  Coming out of the Fifties, the good life was not about freedom and risk-taking; it was about order, tranquility, hard work, and perseverance, about not rocking the boat.  It was, in a word, boring.  Young people innately sensed that life had to be about more than working hard, saving, buying a house, and starting a family.  There had to be adventure.  The Beach Boys gave voice to that longing in a distinctly American context.

Bw_1All of this insight is in large part why I am enjoying Peter Ames Carlin's new biography of Beach Boy genius Brian Wilson, entitled Catch a Wave: The Rise, Fall & Redemption of the Beach Boys' Brian WilsonWhile Ames tracks some of the same ground summarized by the late Billboard editor Timothy White's The Nearest Faraway Place: Brian Wilson, the Beach Boys, and the Southern California Experience, albeit with less laborious attention to the cultural milieu of Southern California, his focus on Brian Wilson, the new interviews with neighbors and colleagues, and the tape recordings he listened to (some of which I heard about here for the first time), as well the fact that the last decade has been a kind one on the elder Wilson (and an untold story) -- all make this an account worth reading.  I'm only 50 pages into it, but already I long to read what he has to say about "redemption," as the world is well aware of the facts surrounding Wilson's meteoric rise and plummetous fall in the throes of mental illness and self-abuse.  Having met him a couple times and knowing a couple folks who know him reasonably well, I want to know where he is spiritually.  I doubt I'll get satisfactory answers, but the man who often talks of God and who, in an interview a few years back, spoke directly of his belief in Jesus Christ, intrigues me, hopefully because I want him to find his way completely out of darkness and fully into the Light.

But back to topic: Surf's Up.  Surfin' Safari.  Catch a Wave.  The Warmth of the Sun.  409.  Shut Down. They all, in some adolescent way say this: Life is not made to be safe and self-contained.  Life is meant to be an adventure.  We Christians should know this.  That's what faith is all about.  When we believe in what we cannot see but trust exists, we are not choosing to be safe.  We are following our longing for transcendence, for something more real, for some supra-reality. 

So, let's not be too hard on the kids, be they surfers, skateboarders, or Goths.  Their longing for belonging and adventure is right.  They simply need to know Who they are longing for, Who will make life freeing and exciting.  They won't find it in religion.  They will find it in Jesus.  We don't have to make the Gospel attractive.  It is attractive. Religionists do their best to make it safe, marketable, and manageable.  It's really not.  It's way out and messy, guaranteed to mess up your life, to unsettle you.  When will I ever learn?

It's an invitation, really:  Come on.  A Safari.  With Me.  Can we refuse?

The Big Story

Far_as_2 One of the best ways of viewing scripture, the record of God's dealings with His people, is as one unfolding story centered on God's covenantal relationship with His people.  That's what theologian Michael Williams ably summarizes in his summary of covenant theology, Far As the Curse Is Found: The Covenant Story of Redemption.  Both because I love stories and because I see story as the best way to engage meaning in our postmodern culture, this approach resonates with me.

There's an insightful discussion between Frodo and Sam in The Two Towers, the second volume in J.R.R. Tolkien's epic of Middle-Earth, The Lord of the Rings.  Frodo and Sam are on the verge of entering Mordor, last stop on their fateful quest to destroy the Ring, and Sam begins to talk about his love of stories.  He says to Frodo, "I wonder what kind of tale we've fallen into, Mr. Frodo?"  There was a deep appreciation on the part of the hobbits (and the author, of course) that their lives were unfolding as a part of a larger story, one that goes on and on.  They draw an implicit comfort and delight in knowing that their own stories may one day be told as a part of this larger story.

When we look back at history, we can sometimes see the pattern of God's story being worked out.  We call it Providence.  We see, in part, the story being told.  We can then turn and look forward and imagine what can come to be and are offered tantalizing glimpses of the future in parts of Scripture, in the promise of another, better country.  And yet, we are limited, finite, and story-bound, like two dimensional beings in a multi-dimensional world.  This is a story like none other, like a multi-dimensional book, and we cannot see the whole.  But God can.

Sometimes like the Psalmist I say "How long?"  I say why so much failure, so much carnage across centuries?  Why, when God could have written in Jesus or brought the change to our hearts and made us covenant keepers much sooner?  Why indeed?  I don't know any answer to that question.  But perhaps the reason is hinted at in Job's story: surely the story is much, much larger than we can conceive, cosmic in scope, and perhaps the audience is much larger than we know.  God only knows.

Per-spi-cu-i-ty: A Wonderful Word

Perspicuity is one of those words that's just fun to say.  Perspicuity.  Perspicuity.  When I look my cat in the face and say it with some force, however, he does not like it.  Perhaps it's the fact that I end up spitting on him when I say it.  That's part of the fun of it.  Those hard consonants, the "p"s and the "c" and the "t" require a certain force and have a certain effect.  Like Petunia.  Perspicuity.

Nevertheless, I'll have to enjoy it mostly in private, I guess, because per-spi-cu-i-ty is not one of those words you just whip out and use in any old conversation, like, "David, what I really like about that sportscaster is his perspicuity."  It's a word Home Improvement's Wilson might use, the kind about which Tim then asks "How do you spell that, Wilson," or suggests that Wilson should not share that with anyone else. Oh yeah.

Perspicuity.  Mostly I've heard that word in theological contexts.  We talk about the perspicuity of Scripture, meaning its quality of being "clearly expressed and easily understood," as my Bible dictionary says.  "For God so loved the world that He gave His son" is clearly expressed and easily understood, for the four-year old as well as the Nobel laureate.  It doesn't make it simple, as great mystery lies behind the words, and though J.I. Packer may be able to unpack its meaning and increase our understanding of that phrase, doubtless that barely touches its mystery.  Packer and the four-year old both get to Heaven, and when they both arrive, the disparity in understanding between them will fade as they realize how much more the phrase means than what either imagines.   Unfair.  I should compare Packer to a child.  That would be unfair to Packer.

I think I understand, maybe.  When I tell my son or daughter "I love you," I'm easily understood.  But behind those words are years and years of learning what love is and isn't, and yet never quite fully plumbing its depths.  "Deep calls to deep in the roar of your waterfalls; all your waves and breakers have swept over me, " says the Psalmist (Ps. 42:7), and we know he is describing something "clearly expressed" and "easily understood" and yet far too deep to really get our arms around.  And yet thank God we don't serve the Gnostic god, the one only the elites can interpret for us.

Perspicuity.  It's a good word, even a fun one to say.  But don't use it much, with people or with cats.  They might not understand or appreciate it.  And you may not be "easily understood."  And they may not like getting spit on.

Automobiles and Togetherness

JetstarAutomobiles always seem to get a bum rap.  They are, after all, it is said, the reason for urban sprawl, for the rise of the suburb, for sexual promiscuity, for our dependence on oil, for pollution, for junkyards -- the usual litany of horrors.  Every technological improvement has its down side, I suppose.

Growing up, however, the car was a place I recall feeling closest to my family.  There's nothing quite like barreling down a road in the pitch dark on a late night ride out of town or around town listening to my Mom and Dad talk quietly in the front seat.  A good rainstorm, or cold weather, made it even better.  My sister and I would lie down in the back seat, talking, or, given my small size, I would curl up in the floorboard at my mother's feet, enjoying the security of a small place and the heat that blew from the vent down there.

We had an Olds, a Jetstar 77, I believe, a tank of a car that guzzled the gas, then $.26 per gallon.  I remember riding in it home from church sometime in 1969 or 1970, when we were stopped by the police at a roadblock and informed that a curfew was being put in place at 9:00 (it was just after 9).  It was the South, and my city was the focus of race riots, violence I really didn't understand at the age of 11 or 12.

The car was also part and parcel of every annual vacation, when I remember driving, driving, and driving all over the Southeast and Midwest, staying in small mom and pop hotels, my only requirement being that they had a pool.  No air conditioning in that car, and no seat belts.  Sometimes we'd stretch out in the flat area behind the back seat, just under the rear window.  Imagine space for that!  We'd stop for picnics beside mountain streams, eat at McDonalds when we felt extravagant, and, mostly, ride and see the sights.

I loved that car.  I loved riding in it with my family.  We were together, with no MP3 players, DVD players, or CDs --- nothing but our imaginations.  We counted blue cars, yellow signs, cows, billboards.  We played word games.  We even slept (a relief to my parents, I'm sure.)

I had a recurring dream as a kid.  I was in that Jetstar 77, driving the streets around my home, alone, at ten.  Around and around.  I loved it.  That's back when cars were cars and gas was cheap.  And being in the car was a family thing. And if you're under 40 you probably have no idea what I'm talking about.

Telling Harvey About Providence

Several years ago I was walking out of court with a very competent but salty law enforcement agent I had worked for some time, and I believe he was concerned (that would be a generous word for it) about the unfavorable ruling the judge had entered.  I had just learned the doctrine of the providence of God. (A little knowledge is dangerous.)  I said, "Harvey, let's just chalk it up to providence."  And he said, "Say what?" and I went on to give him a two sentence description of the doctrine which led to his confession that he wasn't "much of a Christian."  But, as it usually is with men when things get personal, the stomach or sports intervene.  It was lunch this time.  And that was it. I still don't know if he understood what I said.  I'm not so sure I did.  I was only 29. He was 48.

I'm not sure many Christians really understand the providence of God at 29 (well, OK, maybe my very bright associate pastor does, who I hope is reading this, and I know there are many exceptions, of course, and people who have had 48 years of stuff happen to them and they are only 29 -- but I'm talking about normal situations).  I'm not talking about intellectual or theoretical understanding, but experiential understanding.  You have to live longer, that's all.

J.I Packer defines providence thus: "If Creation was a unique exercise of divine energy causing the world to be, providence is a continued exercise of that same energy whereby the Creator, according to his own will, (a) keeps all creatures in being, (b) involves himself in all events, and (c) directs all things to their appointed end."  There's more that could be said, of course, but that about does it, in a nutshell.  But what would Harvey think?  I think his eyes would glaze over.

Looking back now, at 48, I wish I'd said this:  "Look, Harvey, God'll work this out.  Today looks bad.  It is bad.  But somehow this will work out for good.  Maybe we get to see it, maybe we don't.  He's the Man."  And you know what, he'd understand.  He'd seen enough life to know the truth of that statement or else, if he was predisposed to unbelief in God, to know the opposite.  And then he'd nod and it'd be lunch, just like before, but lunch with a little providential, unspoken shine to it.  Actually, back them, because he was 20 years older than me, he probably knew more about providence than me.  Experientially.  He had enough history to be able to see the workings of God, the turning of all things to His own good ends.

"So, how about some barbecue, Harvey?"  And that would be that. Providentially, because the judge expedited his unfavorable ruling, we finished in time for lunch.  Now that's providential.

Calling All Dogs Lovers

Dogs I just shelved all the other music I've been listening to of late, consigned it to the shelves, because the album is here.  It's the latest from those lovable pups themselves, The Lost Dogs, with a new release called The Lost Cabin and the Mystery TreesDoesn't the title itself provoke your interest?

If you don't already know it, The Lost Dogs are, at least by talent if not fame, a "super-group" made up of Terry Scott Taylor (Daniel Amos), Mike Roe (77s), Derri Daugherty (The Choir), and, until his untimely death a few years ago, Gene Eugene (Adam Again).  This time around the boys add old friend Steve Hindalong (The Choir; City On a Hill) on drums and to assist with production.  Bottom line:  This is the best they've done in a long time, a thoroughly enjoyable mix of rustic pop, alt-country, and flat out rock and roll with both songs with poignant lyrics and tongue-in-cheek humor served up Southern California style.  Were they mainstream, a label like Lost Highway would have snapped them up by now.  But that's OK.

As on the last few records the talented Terry Taylor does most of the writing, but it's good to see a couple great Daugherty and Hindalong songs and one Roe song here as well.  Topically, the songs are peopled with the down and out, from the dysfunctional marriage of "This Business Is Goin' Down" ("Well you nagged me into getting that loan from your daddy/ who calls me 'that damn ne'er-do-well'/ Bet he'd love to see his little angel come home/ while getting off watching me in hell/ I've tried free balloons, a mechanical ape/ and markin' everything half off/ While you're at home watchin' TV shows/ it's quite a thrill here being my own boss") to the "cowboy musical" of "Only One Bum In Corona del Mar" ("Corona del Mar, Crown of the Sea/ We nobles agree just how lucky we are/ Plenty of plenty for you and for me/ and there's only one bum in Corona del Mar").  Much of this is the realm of country music, the downtrodden, lost, wasted, and love-sunk.  It works well with the country vibe.

In the end, however, faith comes through.  In "Get Me Ready," admist the driving rock beat, Terry and the rest of the Dogs are asking God to get him ready for whatever comes, good and bad ("Get me ready for the broken hearted/ the downtrodden, deaf, blind, dumb, and lame/ the growing number of friends departed/ for those who love you/ or those who curse your name/ Lord, get me ready to see your face/ or get me ready to face you/ For your justice, love and infinite grace/ get me ready (for it)/ get me ready (for it)/ Get me ready to embrace you.")  And in "That's Where Jesus Is," Terry is saying Jesus is where the lowly are, with the homeless, the folks in bars, the prostitutes, the bums, and others, not with the rich and powerful, and that's where he wants us, "he wants our hearts."

You know, when all the stories are told, The Lost Dogs are really just saying "we're lost, and now we're found."  It's a timeless message, and it happens every day.

So fellow lost dogs, buy this record.  You'll be glad you did.  You might even find yourself in the songs.

[Listen to the record here.  Visit The Lost Dogs doghouse here to purchase the record and learn more about the Dogs.  Also, read another great review by my friend Tony here.]

Sleep With Angels (A Poem)

Sleep With Angels

Angel_2In 1962
they drank hard black coffee
around a table bathed in warm light,
whispering in their worry,
grieving for what lies ahead, as

I lay there gawking at the
naked angels over my head, their
exaggerated shapes and halos
enticing and frightening me.  I was

remembering the motorcade on TV,
a procession of grief as they
carried the dead, consciences
seared by the fallen kennedy.

With fists clenched my heart burst
with questions I could not form, as
they hover over my slumber, softly
blessing as they turn for bed.

Sleep fled that twilight night, as
I beat back the darkness
with fists full of light,
under care of angels, until first

Well, now, the date on that poem is October 31, 1994.  Looking at it now, it seems a bit dramatic, and I wonder how to recast it with more subtlety, more complexity.

It's a composite really of nights spent in my bed as a child, listening to my parents drink coffee and talk about the day and what was going on in the world, and nights spent at my aunt's house, in a  quite different room, one that had a large painting on the wall with what seemed to me to be half-naked angels, looking very eerie about midnight.

I couldn't always hear what my parents said, but I heard more than I should have.  And even when I didn't know what they said or even understand, I understood the tone of what they said.  I knew concern.  When Kennedy was shot, when their were race riots and curfews, they were all concerned, the adults that is, and I rose and fell based on the sound of their voices -- not what they said but how they said it.

Maybe that's why I like poetry.  I've always been listening to the sound of words.

What Music and Poetry Mean

"I don't know how to analyze [music] scientifically.  I can certainly construct chords and do mathematics in music, but that seems pretty far from the essence of it.  Or poetry. . . . These are realms that, at least for the moment, are outside the realm of science.  And yet, I don't want to say that they are unreal."  (James Crow, quoted in Is Belief In God Good, Bad or Irrelevant?, ed. Preston Jones)

The naturalist assumes, as a matter of faith really, that what is empirically observable is all the reality that exists.  Thus, when moved by music or poetry, he is unable to say why a certain combination of sounds and/or words is able to evoke great emotion.  As Crow intimates, we can take apart the song's structure or analyze the meter or imagery of a poem, but none of that really gets to the essence of it.  There is something no less real that is just beyond our grasp, ineffable.

SimonTake this moment, for example.  I'm listening to Eva Cassidy singing Simon and Garfunkel's "Kathy's Song, "I hear the drizzle of the rain/ like a memory it falls/ soft and warm, continuing/ tapping on my roof and wall," a song which oozes melancholy and remembrance.  I can see and feel the cover of the duo's Bridge Over Trouble Water album (the vinyl record, that is), two guys wrapped tight against the cold, looking very, very young.  I can hear the rain and imagine lying on my bed in my room as a teenager, just listening and letting myself feel the music, strangely comforted by the blue tone, the sense that someone else felt as I did at times. "And as I watch the drops of rain/ weave their weary paths and down/ I know that I am like the rain/ there before the grace of you go I," and hearing that I suspect the song played as a sort of benediction to some forgotten breakup with a girl.  Maybe.  It also bears a deep sadness because I know that the beautiful voice singing it was cut short by cancer; Eva Cassidy died in her early thirties.  So, it's a song full of death and sadness, something Paul Simon was so adept at writing about.

Well, I can parse the words, consider the minor chords, the structure of the song, suggest that certain combinations of tones evoke biological reactions in me, or memories, but even if we can do all that, none of that will really help us understand the effect of a song, or of words.  Silly, presumptuous naturalists.  They cling to what they they see, but there is more to life and reality than meets the eye.  They can describe what's "tapping on the roof and wall," but they are clueless as to why it makes them feel as it does.

Eva's singing it now, "If you're lost and you look/ you will find me/ time after time."  They just need to open their eyes a bit wider to see a bigger reality.

Farewell Beatles Myth

BeatlesAlthough I finished the book over a week ago, I could not bring myself to write about it until now because I think I was too saddened by the story.  I'm talking about Bob Spitz's monumental biography of The Beatles which is as full and complete an account as has ever been given of the "four lads from Liverpool."  Perhaps to say I was saddened is a bit melodramatic, as I wasn't terribly cognizant of Beatlemania (as I was only six to seven years old), but having finished the story, I now realize that I still believed the myth that these were really just four nice guys who, while they got in trouble from time to time, were really generally well-behaved, particularly as compared to those bad boys of rock and roll, The Rolling Stones.  Not so.

Let's face it, wherever John, Paul, George, and Ringo went they left in their wake a wreckage of broken relationships, squandered wealth, and debased living (that is, sexual promiscuity, infidelity, a soup of illegal drugs, and coarse talk).  In the end, even their frinedships suffered and they stopped talking to one another and publically took jibes at one another in songs they wrote.  And yet, fans hung on their every word and move they made.

The first broken relationship I noticed (of course, it wasn't really the first) came on page 150, in an account of Liverpool drummer Colin Hanton's departure from the band.  They just never called him, never told him about the next Quarry Men gig.  He says, "In fact, I never saw them again until three years later, when I turned on the telly and some bloke was going on about a band called the Beatles."  And that's how it goes.  People get left behind.  Pete Best, the next drummer, also gets the axe, again not to his face but through fledgling manager Brian Epstein, who delivered the bad word.  And that's how it goes.  You can chalk some of it up to immaturity, but I think the guys were determined, by hook or crook, to get to (in John's words) the "toppermost of the poppermost," no matter what it took, and they saw Hanton and then Best as standing in their way.  The pattern is repeated time after time.

But it's not terribly interesting to list a parade of their sinful indulgences or their personal failures.  In reading I tried also to focus on what was good, true, or beautiful about what they did, and the fact is that almost all of that comes down to the music -- songs like Yesterday, Ticket to Ride, Hey Jude, Let It Be, All You Need Is Love -- which will live on beyond them, standards in the pop music canon.  Lennon and McCartney were gifted songwriters, no doubt, and better together than ever they were apart.  Reading the account of their early years, especially pre-Beatlemania, I am amazed at their work ethic, the privation they put up with in touring.  It's a good lesson to some of today's fledgling bands who think that all they need to do is get a record deal and they're on their way.  They never rested.  Part of their ability to handle the grind was no doubt due to their ingestion of "speed", but that doesn't explain it all.  They worked hard.

I think a part of me was and maybe still is caught up in the legend.  Maybe part of that is a nostalgic longing for what is my childhood, at least a perceived simpler and more innocent time.  The Beatles were like a magical dream, but, like any human-centered dream, a false one.  The often caustic Lennon was uncharacteristically gentle when, at the end, he said, "It was wonderful and it's over.  And so, dear friends, you'll just have to carry on.  The dream is over."

I'm glad it's over, I think.  There are better dreams. 

Dethroning Naturalism?

CollinsAn article in today's News and Observer, "Scientist sees room for belief," profiles Christian doctor-researcher Francis Collins, the man who led the drive to unlock the human genome, and his new book, The Language of GodIn it, Collins champions the view that science and evolution can co-exist, that, as Francis Schaeffer once said, there is "No Final Conflict" (his essay on the topic) between science and faith.

Language_1 Mind you, Collins is not a proponent of intelligent design or creationism, per se, but a believer that the evidence points to evolution, albeit a theistic evolution.   Heavily influenced by C.S. Lewis, Collins sees evidence for God in the human propensity to believe in a moral law and in a human compulsion to worship, tendencies which cut across civilizations, times, and social strata, much as Lewis argued in Mere Christianity ("[H]uman beings, all over the earth, have this curious idea that they ought to behave in a certain way, and cannot really get rid of it.")

I can bear a Christian who believes in a God-ordained evolution, even though I do not regard the evidence for evolution as compelling.  Even Francis Schaeffer himself, though not a believer in theistic evolution, believed "that there is a certain possible range of freedom for discussion in the area of cosmogony while bowing to what God has affirmed" (No Final Conflict).  What I cannot abide is the naturalist, or materialist, the one who believes that science explains all or, more specifically, that a certain discipline (like neurobiology) explains all human behavior.  That's what you have in Greg Graffin.

Graffin is the creative force behind a punk band called Bad Religion.  He also has a doctorate in zoology from Cornell.  He believes that the "religion" of naturalism is far superior to theology for understanding the world, that, in fact, all truth is knowable only by empirical investigation.

Preston Jones, a Christian and history professor at John Brown University, engages Graffin in a long discussion via email over the nature of truth.  He doesn't make a convert, but in the process Jones demonstrates the grace and charity in which such a discussion should occur.  He has an openness to learning and changing belief that, oddly Jones or tellingly, Graffin does not demonstrate, at least not much.  The discussion, reproduced in the book, Is Belief In God Good, Bad or Irrelevant?; A Professor and a Punk Rocker Discuss Science, Religion, Naturalism & Christianity, is an interesting one in that we have so few opportunities to actually eavesdrop on such a conversation.  Often, a committed atheist as Graffin will simply not engage.  It's a testimony to Jones's humility that he warms to conversation and that they have a civil discussion, one in which real discussion occurs and not just a staking out of positions.  I recommend the book to anyone interested in the topic but, more than that, for an example of how to have such a discussion.

In the end, however, what is so troublesome is that Graffin cannot acknowledge that his naturalism is based on presuppositions held in faith, much as the Christian's beliefs are rooted in empirically unprovable presuppositions.  There's a certain attitude that comes across -- one of superiority or, being more generous, of simple naivety.  Even though Jones reminds him that just about every new discipline that has come along has proclaimed itself the queen of the sciences (my own, sociology, did just that) and were all ultimately dethroned, he cannot believe that science ultimately does not explain all phenomena.  That's not education but presumptuousness.

Collins is much more interesting.  Is it possible to accept theistic evolution?  Can a designer-God so create that the very complexity of the design makes it appear as if it evolved through natural selection?  Of course.  Does science really lead us there yet?  I think not.

The Tapestry Project: Beginnings

Tapestry_1Today I headed out of town to meet my partner, Kevin for a planning session for The Tapestry Project, something we have been dreaming about for quite some time.  The project will tell the story of Francis and Edith Schaeffer and the ministry they founded called L'Abri. Adapted from the autobiographical booked called Tapestry: The Life and Times of Francis and Edith Schaeffer, the production will tell their personal story, as well as that of the ministry of L'Abri, which they began in Switzerland in the 1950s and has since spread throughout the world.

I'm always surprised at the number of Christians who are unaware of L'Abri or the work of Francis Schaeffer.  Schaeffer was a masterful and gifted apologist who wrote many books critiquing modernism and painting the contours of a Christian worldview.  But more than this, their ministry was one of opening their home to anyone seeking truth, a ministry of hospitality.  Their home in Switzerland, which obviously expanded over the years, became a destination for many seeking or hurting college students and others, and their roundtable discussions, bible studies, and long walks and talks there impacted many who have carried their thought on into various disciplines, people such as Chuck Colson and Os Guinness, and other lesser known folks like me.  It's a compelling story of God's providence and one family's faithfulness to His calling.

Ruth In the last couple of years we produced an audio biography (3 CDs) of the life story of Ruth Bell Graham, wife of Billy Graham.  I say we somewhat presumptuously -- Kevin's role was substantial, mine tangential.  But this time around, I hope for a more equal partnership.

The Graham project was a mixture of interviews, music, poetry readings (Ruth wrote quite good poetry), sounds, and more -- a dramatized listening experience narrated by the esteemed newscaster and friend of the Grahams, Walter Cronkite.  After packaging it with a booklet, we licensed the retail version of the project to W Publishing, an imprint of Thomas Nelson Publishers.  You can purchase it online or in stores.

The advantage of the Graham project was that there were a number of interviews already in existence.  It was a matter of gathering materials, editing, scripting the narration, and finding the music and sounds.  In other words, a lot of work but not as much work as it could have been.  With the Tapestry Project, we have no pre-existing interviews.  What we have are books, tapes of talks and sermons, and access to family members and friends of L'Abri.  However, we do have Tapestry, Edith Schaeffer's long out of print autobiography, and L'Abri, her book telling the story of the founding of L'Abri.  Our plan is to stick close to the biography, as this is not a critical bio but one told sympathetically, from the Schaeffer's and Schaeffer's friends and family's viewpoint.

The project is daunting, much as I imagine a novel or any large project can be, and all the more so because we are concerned to faithfully tell the story and upset as few people as possible!  And so, we begin.  We have mapped a rough outline of themes to pursue, and between August 9-18 we will visit London, where we will interview Ranald McCauley, husband of Susan Schaeffer McCauley (daughter of Edith and Francis), and then on to Huemoz, Switzerland, for three days at L'Abri, with interviews of the other daughters and husbands and even Edith, who is now in her mid-nineties, research of the L'Abri archives, photography, recording of sounds, and participation in the life of the community there.

It's a humbling experience.  Pray for us.

[Stay tuned for a blog devoted specifically to The Tapestry Project which is in development now.]

Sufjan Stevens' Avalanche

AvalncheNormally when a record company releases outtakes and demos it's scraping the barrel, hoping to cash in on a popular artist without putting out any more money.  However, with Avalanche, Sufjan (pronounced Soof-Yawn) Stevens has released outtakes from his brilliant and popularly acclaimed Illinois recording of last year that are, in many respects, just as accomplished as the recordings that were originally released.  In fact, Sufjan had intended to release Illinois as a double album, but friends advised against it.  Thus, this album could be looked upon as the completion of the original project.  Whatever is said, I'm certainly pleased that he chose to release these tracks.

And what's it like?  Melodic, sometimes odd, always soothing, lyrically suggestive of Illinois and it's people and places, never didactic.  Really, it's just more of Illinois -- an aural guide to the state.  Brass, woodwinds, choirs, and keyboards supplement the usual guitar.  It's like a trip through history, and yet, not a dry history lesson but a springboard for Sufjan's well-developed imagination.

Sufjan is a believer but not one that can be pigeon-holed.  In fact, he refuses to appear at anything religious or political (the later is rare nowadays.)  What he says about this is something that really resonates with me.  In a recent interview in Harp, he says: “For me, politics make for bad art… It’s just not in my nature to be didactic or to use my work as a platform for religious propaganda… I think so much of that is offensive and it’s condescending to God and its condescending to human beings. I think we have to be careful [about] misusing sacred things in a public forum."  That's thoughtful, and that's right.

Check out  Illinois.  If you like that, buy Avalanche.  Read more about Sufjan in this months Harp or on ExploreFaith's website here.  Just as a taste of it, I'll close with a portion of the lyrics from "Casimir Pulaski Day" from Illinois:

Oh the glory that the Lord has made
And the complications you could do without
When I kissed you on the mouth
Tuesday night at the Bible study
We lift our hands and pray over your body
But nothing ever happens

Oh the glory that the Lord has made
And the complications when I see His face
In the morning in the window
Oh the glory when he took our place
But he took my shoulders and he shook my face
And He takes and He takes and He takes.

When Sufjan sings of faith, it doesn't come off as just scripture quoting, but it comes off as real, as incarnational, as just one guy living life and doing what he can unto the Lord.  It's a good model for us all.

Remembrance and Vison

[I had an occasion this past Sunday to charge the congregation of our church on the occasion of the departure of our Senior Pastor for a new work in Helena, Montana.  It seemed a bit awkward.  It wasn't to be about him (that was assigned to another), not a vision statement, and not anything dealing with the process of replacing him.  So, what do you talk about that could not just as easily be said at any other time to the congregation.  Here's an excerpt of what I said.  You can read the whole 5-7 talk here.]

Let me challenge you with two words: remembrance, and vision. . . . Remembering is very important.  By remembering we see God’s providence, the outworking of God’s plan for not only our lives but the life of the church.  We can glimpse the truth of Roman 8:28, that God really does work all things for the good of those that love Him. . . .But more than that, it’s also a time for us to look forward, to envision what God might do here. . . .

Let me plant three more words in your mind to think on as we enter a new phase of our life as a community:  faith, hope, and love.  As the Apostle Paul says at the end of the well-known "love" chapter, 1 Corinthians 13, "[a]nd now these three remain: faith, hope, and love.  But the greatest of these is love.  Follow the way of love. . . ."

The Apostle says we are “aliens and strangers” in this world, and so we are. . . . And so we have an alien faith, and alien hope, and an alien love.  It’s not from here.  It comes from somewhere else.  It comes from Someone else.  Going forward, we’d do well to remember that.

I guess what I’m saying is: Let’s press on, let’s keep being the church,  Let’s remember God’s work in our midst over all these years and envision how He will continue to work through us in the future.  By His grace. [Read the entire talk here.]

The First Salvo: Do We Really Want a War?

Cover_1Recently I received the premiere issue of Salvo, a new print magazine published by The Fellowship of St. James (who also publish the ecumenical but orthodox Christian publication called Touchstone).  Salvo is aimed at a younger, twenty-something audience.  That likely explains eye-catching, almost sensational graphics, and the hipper rhetoric inside.  You can have a look at an online version here.

I have not read the entire issue yet, but already I am a bit ambivalent about it.  The Salvo editors have consciously adopted the rhetoric of war.  As they say: "We use the language of war, a metaphoric conceit [no, that's a proper use of the word 'conceit'- look it up] that is as old as literature itself, only to reflect the life-or-death seriousness of the endeavor in which we are engaged.  Salvo does not advocate gratuitous violence in any form."  Even their explanation bothers me.  Why do they feel compelled to point out that they are not advocating violence if they were not being strident in their rhetoric?  Why qualify "violence" with the word "gratuitous?"  Does this mean there is some kind of violence they do advocate?

I guess the culture war mentality disturbs me because it seems counterproductive and, perhaps, unbiblical.  It is, of course, a huge thing to argue about, and better minds than me can go at it, but my reading of 1 Peter of late makes me think that we Christians need to be less about changing everyone else and more about living as an alternative community.  Peter says "live your lives as strangers here in reverent fear" (1 Pet. 1:17b).  He gives much instruction about what our obedience entails, and in respect to non-believers commands submission to authority, as well as honor for those in authority (1 Pet. 2:13-14, 17-21).  He commends us to "[l]ive such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us" (1 Pet. 2:12).  Peter is not an exception in scripture but, rather, more the norm.

This issue of Salvo focuses on where science is leading us and why.  It targets issues such as abortion, cloning, designer babies, the integration of technology and human bodies, and more.  The articles seem informative, but they certainly feed a Manichean view of reality where we are good and they are evil.  Naturalism and theism are incompatible, it's true, and you might say these ideas are at war with each other, but we are not at war with scientists who, despite what they say, bear God's image and are due honor, civil discourse, and gentle, patient persuasion for that reason alone.  Salvo seems unecessarily incendiary.

All that being said, I think Salvo will be informative.  Just watch the language.  Now, onward Christian soldiers. . .


Clip_image002_33"Remember that there's nothing higher, stronger, more wholesome and more useful to life than some good memory, especially when it goes back to the days of your own childhood, to the days of your life at home.  You are told a lot about your education, but some beautiful sacred memory, preserved since childhood, is perhaps the best education of all."  (Alyosha, in Fyodor Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov)

I don't remember how young I was at the time, probably about six, but from my earliest memories I recollect a curiosity about how other people lived.  I was riding once with my mother to see my grandmother and distinctly remember looking around me at some small, white clapboard houses (smaller and shabbier than mine) and, seeing a woman come out of the front door of one of these small homes, wondering who these people are, what they do all day, how they live.  I'm sure it was but a momentary event, but it was, I guess, an epiphany for me: not everyone lived like me, not every place was like the town where I lived, and while I'm not sure I could yet think about what "other" might mean (my world was so small then), from then on I wondered what was "out there."

I became the resident travel agent.  I studied atlases, pored over maps, and sent my own postcards to far away state tourism offices and chambers of commerce seeking information to plan our trips, even though most of the planned trips were not taken.  Spreading the Esso map out on the tan carpet of our living room floor, alone, I almost felt transported just by following the red and blue lines that snaked across the pages, mouthing the names of cities and towns, wondering how far we could go and what we would find when we got there.

My uncle and aunt took me on a trip once to the Washington, D.C. area.  I rode between them, without seat belt, in the front seat, and directed them: "Turn here, not there; No, Uncle Clarence, not there."  Occasionally my uncle would pretend (he later declared) that he was lost, and I'd have to help get him out of the jam.  All our trips were car trips, and while my sisters yakked in the back, I sat in the front.  I wanted to see where I was going.  I still like knowing where I'm going.

A Wider Sense of Prayer

"Appreciation can be expressed to God with spoken words in prayer, alone in one's 'closet,' or sitting on a stone in a field, or walking in the woods or on a city street.  Appreciation can be written to God in your handwriting for His eyes alone, written in a private notebook or on the back of an envelope.  Praise and thanksgiving can be in the form of a painting if that is a person's best medium of expression, or in song, or with a musical instrument.  It doesn't always have to be verbal. . . . nor heard by anyone else."  (Edith Schaeffer, in Common Sense Christian Living, as quoted in Between Heaven and Earth: Prayers and Reflections That Celebrate an Initimate God, ed. Ken Gire)


Sub I suppose Idlewood is a good name for a street in a 1950s era suburb.  When my Dad came home from WWII, like many vets he married and set about having a family.  New houses were in demand, and developers began cranking out small three-bedroom bungalows along cookie-cutter grids with names meant to conjure up the leisure life of the suburbs, with trees, green grass, and good clean living, names like Gracewood, Fernwood, Friendly, Evergreen, and Idlewood.  I never thought much about those street names until now, though I walked those streets many, many times.

As far as I can remember, our Idlewood house was a small, white frame, single story structure, with three small bedrooms.  When you entered the front door there was a small living room, and you could see through to a small dining room as well with a window air conditioning unit.  Or perhaps a fan.  In fact, definitely a fan.  A very scary fan too, because I remember being frightened of it, convinced that a monster was in it or outside beyond it.

If I walk down the hall from the living room, that's where it all becomes quite dreamlike.  There's my room on the right, my sister's room on the left (with bunks), and my parents room at the end, but I can add little in detail about these rooms.  A three-year old's memory is episodic, focusing around things like monsters in the fan, the night the rat got in the house and my mother took me and hopped up on the kitchen counter, the rock I threw (accidentally, I hope) through our Greek neighbors front window, and the boys across the street who locked my sisters and I in the playhouse at the back of their house (they let me out through the window).

In back of my house was my favorite place.  We had some kind of a playhouse there, a homemade one, and perhaps a swing.  I remember standing at the back of that playhouse, on a hill, looking at an empty swimming pool behind us (I'm told it was a company that sold pools).  I was wistful, though I couldn't have told you that at the time.  I wanted to go find out what it was.  But at three, the yard is about as big as the world gets.  It gets bigger as you go.

I don't know the value of such random memories as these.  To anyone reading this, they likely mean little.  I'm not being sentimental nor nostalgic.  I'm just writing it down.  But I have to believe that what I am allowed to recall means something and has some purpose, at least for me.  God knows what.


Clip_image002_32"The school opened infinite vistas for this six-year old."  (Pablo Neruda, in Memoirs)

Well, not for me.  I remember many of my earliest days at school, and many are not good.  To this day, I do not wish to visit my old schools or even go near them.  You would think I was traumatized, but, in actuality, I doubt it was all that bad.  Nevertheless, there were some bad experiences.

One of those humiliating experiences was in the 5th grade glee club.  "Glee" is, I suppose, the hopeful way in which they referred to the experience.  At that age, there were sopranos and altos, with a fair number of boys beginning with girls as sopranos.  All well and good.  However, by midway through the year, with voices changing, I was only one of two boys left in the sopranos -- me and a guy named Brad.  Brad was the meanest, coolest, toughest kid in school -- and he was God's grace to me.  Nobody made fun of me for being a soprano (which was a great fear of mine) -- not as long as Brad was a soprano.  Actually, nobody messed with me at all, figuring that I was friends with Brad.  You know, the guy never even said more than two words to me that whole year.  I think he said "shut up" once.  That's it.  Grace comes in some odd looking packages sometimes.

And then there was the day I got glasses and had to wear them to school.  Now, some kids wanted to wear glasses.  I haven't the slightest idea why.  I guess they thought they were cool or something.  Not me.  They used to line us up in the hall to take the eye test.  I would excuse myself to go to the restroom in advance of this, walking by the eye sign (very closely) and attempting to memorize the bottom line so I could pass the test.  Ultimately, however, I flunked.  I still would not wear my glasses.  Finally, when it became obvious that my grades were suffering because I could not see the blackboard, it happened.  My third-grade teacher, Miss Morris (who was at least a hundred years old), stopped class and told me to "Put your glasses on, son!"  I shrank about 3 feet that day.  But I did do better in class.

For these and many other reasons, I never want to go to school again.  I'll bet Miss Morris is still at it, humiliating young boys.  And Brad?  He flunked out and went into politics.  Or did I just imagine that?

My Earliest Memory

Stroller"One memory comes up which is perhaps the earliest in my life and is indeed only a rather hazy impression.  I am lying in a pram, in the shadow of a tree.  It is a fine, warm summer day, the sky blue, and golden sunlight darting through the green leaves.  The hood of the pram has been left up.  I have just awakened to the glorious beauty of the day, and have a sense of indescribable well-being.  I see the sun glittering throughout the leaves and blossoms of the bushes.  Everything is wholly wonderful, colorful and splendid."  (C.G. Jung, in Memories, Dreams, Reflections)

At best, Jung is engaging in a bit of wishful dreaming.  At worst, he's simply putting us on.  I can't really believe he has a memory as well-formed as this at such an early age (or, in fact, any memory at all of that time).  Perhaps this is a recovered memory, one you wish you had.

Try as I might, I have no memory of lying in prams or cribs or riding in strollers.  In fact, when I consider the first bedroom I had, one I stayed in until the age of about 3 1/2, it's a bit like looking at a blurry picture.  I know what it is, but I can't make out the details at all.

But what I do remember is this:  I had a red tricycle.  I rode it on my street.  My sister who was 10 pushed me off it, and I fell and scraped my chin.  But then, she denies it.  Still. 

I guess I deserved it.  When my mother brought my younger sister home from the hospital, they say I took the brake off her stroller when my Mom wasn't looking and let it roll down the hill in our front yard. I have a distinct memory of those events.  I take the Fifth.

Urban Christians

Dscf0076_editedWhen a friend confided recently that she was considering leaving her current ministry position in a suburban church for a new calling in an urban area, it reminded me of a recent article by Tim Keller entitled "A New Kind of Urban Christian."  Keller, Senior Pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, addresses the question of "How can followers of Christ be a counterculture for the common good?"  His answer, in short: many of us need to move to the city, to urban, not suburban or exurban areas, and not for the short term but for the long term.

Part of why we move to suburbs is because we love the city with its vibrancy and anonymity, but we also hate it for its traffic, crowds, and lack of community; and we love the bucolic countryside for its peace, beauty, and community, but we also hate it for its lack of privacy and lack of "action."  So, we are conflicted, and we find in the suburb the best of both, or hope we do, and the automobile has facilitated our having it both ways.  I can argue for moving to suburbs just as well as I can argue for moving to cities or rural areas.  But, this is not about that.  Keller's article is about how we engage the culture, and his point is that people who live in our largest cities have a disproportionate impact on how things are done in our culture.

But Keller is not simply talking about individual Christians living in cities but, rather, about Christians living as an alternate culture within the culture of the city, a city within the city, a dynamic counterculture.  To us is the task of showing how the big Three -- money, sex, and power -- can be used in nondestructive ways.  It is not a club, another interest group, another association, but a community radically committed to the good of the city as a whole.  Finally, he says we must demonstrate how the Christian worldview has everything to do with how we work; the two must be fully integrated.

It's a great vision for life in the city.  But it's also a great vision for life as a Christian counterculture anywhere.  For those of us deeply entrenched in suburbia, we need to give some serious consideration to how a gospel community should look in the suburb and how we will live as "aliens and strangers" not just in cities but also here in suburbia.

Tim O'Reagan's Stealth Record

B000fdfplg01_aa240_sclzzzzzzz_v53169835__2Tim O'Reagan's self-titled debut on Lost Highway is one of those stealth records that pleasurably takes you by surprise.  Knowing of his supporting role as a drummer for the Jayhawks, that great Heartland band, I didn't know what to expect.  What I got from the opening strains of an accordion to the closing notes was a trip through eleven great pop songs, not slick pop but, as one might expect from his Jayhawk legacy, pop with an Americana flavor (check out "River Bends"), keeping it authentic and real.

I'm amazed.  I didn't know of his musical versatility, nor did I know he could craft a song so well.  So I'm wearing the grooves off this, not skipping any tracks, enjoying every single one.  You'll hear a voice reminiscent of John Lennon's and, more broadly, a definite Beatles influence, but it's really difficult to pin down the style of music.  It's very variety is one of its attractions.  Never a dull moment here.

As to lyrics, there's a dark hue to most, and yet the music, the great melodies, save the record from lapsing into angst and blues.  And I'm thankful too that nary a political diatribe shows up here, a welcome respite from the usual fare.

What, finally, is it that makes a record for me?  I think it's melody.  I've listened to all kinds of music, from progressive art rock to folk, and while I enjoy an  interesting, artful song, or may admire the musical complexity of a song, in the end, if I can't sing it to myself, if the melody doesn't stick in my head and follow me around all day, it won't last.  I'm a simple guy like that.  Then again, I think melody is built into Creation and we'll always come back to it.  But that's another discussion. . . .  For now, give this record a listen here.

Help My Unbelief

Unbelief It's not a novel point to say that much of contemporary worship music today majors on the highs of the Christian life, the what ought to be, perhaps, rather than what is and always has been.There are tensions in living for Christ: doubt mingles with belief, anxiety with hope, joy with sorrow, and hardship with blessing.  The writers of historic hymns wrote out of these tensions, many of which they experienced firsthand.

Help My Unbelief is Red Mountain Church's fifth offering of historic hymns set to original melodies, new arrangements, and, in cases where the traditional melody is nonexistent or lost, with brand new arrangements.  It's also the second collection that grows out of the texts contained in Gadsby's Hymns, a collection compiled by William Gadsby in the mid-1800s.  There are themes of doubt and longing, so much so that they felt that the album should be entitled Help my Unbelief, as that was the heart-cry of many of the writers of these hymns.

Musically, it is a folk-tinged arrangement, with a pleasing and well-executed instrumentation that never overpowers the words, with good vocals that draw you right into the words which are at the center of this album.  It's not too much to say that musically and lyrically it is a blessing, a faith affirming record, and at the same time it has just enough of the touch of, say, Joni Mitchell's Blue to remind us that there is darkness as well as light in the life of faith.

Buy this record.  Buy two, and give one away.  You won't find it in the store.  These folks aren't in business.  They just love these hymns and can't stop singing them.  And if you're struggling with doubt, with believing that God is good, this is a record to reach for because it'll meet you where you are and lift your soul.  You'll be able to say what we all have said at one point or another: "Lord I believe; help my unbelief."

Listen and buy here.

Faith, Hope, Love

At the end of the day, when you turn out the light and lie there alone, then all you really have, or don't have, is faith, hope, and love.  As the Apostle Paul says at the end of the well-known "love" chapter, 1 Corinthians 13, "[a]nd now these three remain: faith, hope, and love.  But the greatest of these is love.  Follow the way of love. . . ."

By faith we believe in something we cannot see; we affirm that God is everywhere, an all powerful, all-knowing, and all-seeing power -- and yet we cannot see this Power.  We walk out and look up at the stars and moon, peer out into eternity, and speak to God and hear silence answer.  And yet, we have faith.  We believe.  We put our faith in Jesus. We know we cannot save ourselves.

We hope for eternity, for the restoration of Creation, even though a nagging voice in our heads, in the corner of our mind, says it is all useless, that the world is winding down, that nothing can be done to reverse its decay. All our new houses age, cracks line the driveways, paint peels, stains multiply, and sooner or later there isn't enough money to fix everything, to remake it all, to keep it shiny, to fool ourselves into thinking we can stop the decay.  Sooner or later, as Rev. John Ames says of his town in Gilead, the "whole town does look like whatever hope becomes after it begins to weary a little, then weary a little more.  But hope deferred is still hope."  We still hope.  We refuse to hope in the new and shiny, in the corruptible.  Our hope is in the incorruptible.

But Paul says that love is the most important.  Francis Schaeffer said that the "church is to be a loving church in a dying culture," that indeed the mark of the Christian is love.  It's difficult to use the word love.  It's like worthless currency, an overworked metaphor, a trite term.  Not to be dramatic, but maybe we need to ask who we have "died" for today, because dying to self is what its all about, isn't it?  We can't forget either that love is particular, and so we ask what does it mean to love these people here, in this place, and more broadly, what does it mean to love this place, now, here?  So what does love look like here?  Am I willing to die to self?  I need to ask it moment by moment.  The honest answer is no, I'm not willing to lay down what I want, not every moment, that sometimes I want my space, my peace and quiet, my freedom, just a few moments to myself, because I have to take care of myself, right?

That's all we have at the end of the day.  Faith, hope, and love.  But that should be enough.

The Great Imagination

" It seems to me appropriate, almost inevitable, that when that great Imagination which in the beginning, for Its own delight and for the delight of men and angels and (in their proper mode) of beasts, had invented and formed the whole world of Nature, submitted to express Itself in human speech, that speech should sometimes be poetry.  For poetry too is a little incarnation, giving body to what had been before invisible and inaudible."  (C.S. Lewis, in Reflections on the Psalms)

Beginnings (Goodnight Moon)

MoonIn the great green room
There was a telephone
And a red balloon
And a picture of --

(Margaret Wise Brown, in Goodnight Moon)

What parent among us cannot continue the verse from this classic children's book, the story of a little rabbit waiting for sleep, looking around at all the things "in the great green room," saying "goodnight comb, goodnight brush, goodnight nobody, goodnight mush?"  The sound of the verse is as effective as a lullaby, very soothing, and the pictures simple but fascinating and reassuring in their ritual, not only for small children but also for their parents.

That's one thing about beginnings: the best ones sound good, are enchanting in their music as well as provocative in drawing us into the story.  Here, Brown draws us in mainly through sound and a simple story, if you can even call it that, proving that the best stories, the most memorable ones, need not be complex or long but simple -- a child's story at heart.

Mwbwpl132Margaret Wise Brown was herself an interesting woman. She wrote with the then "new" idea back in the mid-1940s that children would rather read about their own lives instead of fairy tales and fables. Her biographers say that this "here and now" philosophy, which was created and tested at the Bank Street Experimental School in New York City led Brown to encourage children to swap stories with her.  In this way, she learned what they thought about and what stories they thought to tell. In that special writing laboratory, she communicated with children about what they wanted to read and the problems they faced.  She tried to write in the way children wanted a story told, and she encouraged illustrators to draw in that way as well.

She said she dreamed stories and had to write them down when she awoke so that she would not forget them.  Over her short life (she died at 42), she wrote hundreds of stories, and many unpublished stories and songs were found at her death. Though she enjoyed writing for children, she did not marry, and had no children.  Perhaps she feared she could not be a good parent, as her own parents divorced when she was young, and she had a difficult time of it.

About writing she said this: "One can but hope to make a child laugh or feel clear and happy-headed as he follows the simple rhythm to its logical end. It can jog him with the unexpected and comfort him with the familiar, lift him for a few minutes from his own problems of shoelaces that won't tie, and busy parents and mysterious clock time, into the world of a bug or a bear or a bee or a boy living in the timeless world of a story." No doubt she understood the concerns of children; no doubt, she unknowingly also spoke to all of us who have problems or concerns that tie us in knots and wonder how to find the time, that mysterious time we so need.

Read more about Margaret Wise Brown here.]

A Beautiful Mess: Cornerstone 93 (Part 2)

Austin[I continue here from yesterday with the second "letter" I wrote home detailing my experiences of my first Cornerstone Music Festival.  I learned something there, some things that I was to explore more fully in the coming years.]

Dear ___,

If my first letter seemed to leave off on a disillusioned note about Cornerstone, you're right.  Attribute it to a bit of culture shock.  But I've discovered that the problem is not these unusual Christian folk.  It's me.

You see, when I came to Cornerstone I thought I basically knew the parameters for what Christians could look like, what kind of music they listen to, what they could paint, how they should worship, and even what kind of fun they could have.  I even congratulated myself for being broad minded about it.  What I discovered is that I harbor my own prejudices, that I judge others by their outward appearance, and that I don't offer them sufficient time or extend enough grace toward them to allow them to show me what they're like on the inside before I make a hasty judgment.

Roe2Here I've discovered that there are people who, while they don't look like those in our church or neighborhood, love Jesus and are committed to the defense of the Gospel.  These are theological conservatives encased in the bodies of hippies, rapper, motorcycle enthusiasts, skateboarders, head-bangers (heavy metal listeners) and punk rockers.  And I can't criticize them for the way they look or the fact that they all seem to have the same basic look.  Have you looked around our church lately?  In outward appearance we are a microcosm of our yuppie community.  They look like the people they hang with.  Don't we?  You simply can't judge people by their appearance.

TomAnd what have I learned?  To begin with, here there are Christians who are committed to art, who are writing and teaching, publishing newsletters, and having Bible studies about art and the Bible.  They're keeping alive such little-read and often out-of-print classics on art such as Art and the Bible, by Francis Schaeffer, and Modern Art and the Death of Culture, by Hans Rookmaker.  Believe it or not, I read extensive quotes from these classic works in a Christian punk-rock newsletter called Thieves and Prostitutes (taken from Matthew 21:31 and not a candidate for our church newsletter's name).  These books are barely read at all in evangelical circles today and can't be found in many Christian bookstores whose shelves sag under the weight of self-help, recovery literature, and poorly written fiction.  And trinkets.  Trash.  It appears that for some of my inspiration to continue thinking about art I'll have to continue my new relationship with the C-Stone folks.  You see, I've grown to love and appreciate these budding artists, these brothers and sisters in Christ.

Leave the light on.  I'll be home soon. . . with some of my new friends in tow (at least in memory anyway).  I'm glad that they've helped me learn to practice what I've always given intellectual assent to: that God is no respecter of the outward appearance of persons or of any particular style of music or art.  He wants us to go on -- to know the person, to know the artist, to know the art for what it is, and to know the Artist Himself behind all this great diversity.

Cornerstone 93: A Beautiful Mess (Part 1)

Beki[This being the 4th of July, I am reminded of the six to seven Fourths that I spent at the Cornerstone Christian Music Festival, first as a mere observer, then as a record label person, and then as the sponsor and organizer of the Acoustic Stage (all of which you can read about and see pictures of here).  It's cool, it's hip. . . and it's one big sweaty, dirty stinking mess too!  When I first went with a friend back in 1993,we camped, and it rained, and rained, and rained.  Never again did I camp.  As a way of summarizing the experience, I wrote a couple of fictional "letters" home to my wife -- true in what they say, not true in that I did not really write them but used it as a rhetorical device.  Funny for me to read them now, but they do give you a sense of what it was like.  It hasn't changed much! By the way, experience a bit of Cornerstone yourself by buying a 274l copy of Silent Planet's 2001 release Live From Acoustic Stage here.]

July 2, 1993

Dear ___,

Well, we're here. . . the 10th Annual Cornerstone Christian Arts Festival.  Craig and I arrived yesterday at this cornfield near the metropolis of Bushnell, Illinois (population 700), looking forward to developing an appreciation for art from a Christian perspective.  Our neighbors at our campsite are long-haired Concordia Seminary students as well as a busload of assorted Chicago inner-city urbanites from the Jesus People, USA community, the sponsor of this "alternative" Christian arts gala.  We were "pleased" to discover that our immediate neighbors (one tent over) were devotees of Christian heavy metal.  It plays all day, so there is a continuous soundtrack for Craig has dubbed "Craig and Steve's Grand Adventure" or what I call our "Cultural Odyssey."  Either way, this isn't like home.

We arrived on a beautiful sunny day and set up tent in a large grassy area near two of the large concert tents.  However, it rained all night and with morning, it was mud.  We've been sloshing around ever since.  Some people take delight in tackling newcomers and rolling them in the mud.  We keep a wide berth of such folk.  In our khaki shorts, polo shirts, and topsiders, we stand out a bit as aliens to this culture.

A bit about the attire and habits of these folk.  The basic outfit I've heard described as grunge -- basically, old and dirty.  Hey, tie dye is still big though!  The hair: mohawks, long hair, no hair, purple hair, green hair, spikes.  Communication occurs on t-shirts.  Everyone has something on a shirt to testify that they belong to Jesus, just like we have a fish symbol on the car.  They listen to music by bands called Veil, Circle of Dust, Ragman, Prayer Chain, Farewell to Juliet, Vector, Deitophobia, and Grace and Glory (like that one).  Oops, I forgot to mention Fear Not, and how could I forget them?  This metal band took the mainstage at 1:00 a.m. last night and played a great set that wrapped up about 2:30 a.m.  I know, because I heard it clearly, a half mile away, in my tent, on my back, wide awake. . . while Craig slept through it.

They have a refreshing new vocabulary here: words like theoagressive, hypospasmatic, deitofrenetic, clangorous, bellicostic -- all used to describe the music (don't bother to reach for the dictionary).  And there's widespread use of word I do  know like "hip" and "cool."  I've mastered these two words and found that the language barrier can be scaled if you simply make liberal use of them, like "Hey man, that's a really hip band, really cool guitar licks, really hip testimony too."  Yep, Cornerstone has got to be the coolest, hippest Christian festival of the Summer.  Yet I can't quite get used to how these folks dress and appreciate all the music they listen to.  How can this be good "art?"

Broken[How can this be good art?  Cornerstone 93 led to a lot of good thinking about that question.  Tomorrow: more on Cornerstone 93 and what they have right about art.  Stay tuned.]

Beginnings (Tuck Everlasting)

Tuck "The first week of August hangs at the very top of summer, the top of the live-long year, like the highest seat of a Ferris wheel when it pauses in its turning.  The weeks that come before are only a climb from balmy spring, and those that follow a drop to the chill of autumn, but the first week of autumn is motionless, and hot.  It is curiously silent, too, with blank white dawns and glaring noons, and sunsets smeared with too much color.  Often at night there is lightning, but it quivers all alone.  There is no thunder, no relieving rain.  These are strange and breathless days, the dog days, when people are led to do things they are sure to be sorry for after.  (Natalie Babbit, in the Prologue to Tuck Everlasting)

So begins Tuck Everlasting, Natalie Babbit's children's novel about the blessing and curse of the Tuck family, a family that since drinking from a magic spring are eternally the same age.  Thematically, the novel explores the relationship between the Tucks and Winnie Foster, a ten-year old who discovers their secret and almost drinks from the magic spring.  Almost.  In beautiful prose, Babbit explores the difficulties of eternal life, when the clock stops for you but for no one else.

It's a beautiful start to the book, and the writing alone is sufficient to commend the book.  She might as well be describing life here, right now, in July, with our hot, humid, 95 degree days.  And yet, not, because summer is not what it was, what with year-round schools or school calendars that haul children back in for another round beginning mid-August.

We might sometimes wish we could live on, for a while at least, stay here for a while and drink this life, and yet I can imagine the sadnesses mounting up as old friends and family members die and if we live on to the ripe age of 100 (as did my grandmother) all our contemporaries are dead and gone and we might wonder what we're still doing here.

No, the Tuck's secret of youth was more curse than blessing, a "Thing they were sorry for later." That's not an eternal life we'd want.  The one we want is new every day and populated with those who live on forever with us.  It is, after all, eternal life, not just eternal lasting.


Campfire400Today we delivered my daughter to overnight camp.  She's been looking forward to it for days, counting down the hours even, bubbling over with excitement.  Today, as we turned into the wooded entrance to the camp, she rolled down her window and said "Smell that air! Isn't it great?"  Well, no, I wouldn't say that.  It's hot, humid, and dusty, and the idea of a week in an unairconditioned cabin sounds horrible to me.  It's not relevant to her, though.

We'll miss her.  We pass by her empty bedroom and sigh.  There's an empty place here, a voice we don't hear, hugs we don't receive -- for a week that is.  We write her everyday.  We talk about her, pray for her, wonder what she's doing now, this minute.  Contrast this with her attitude about this separation.  I asked her if she'd miss us.  She thought about it for, well, maybe a second, and somewhat apologetically said she wouldn't, at least not much.  She said she'd be too busy.  We said we'd write.  She said she'd write, once, maybe.  Well, last Summer we wrote every day.  We received one postcard from her with two sentences.  That's how it goes.

This is foreign.  The two summers I went to camp you would have thought I was going to prison.  I cried before I went, plead with my parents to let me stay home, and when they dropped me at camp I looked longingly at their car driving away.  I just know I was the last to go to sleep in my cabin, every night, as I lay there wondering what was happening at home.  Oh, I got on with it, but in the corner of my mind, ever-present, was my dream of home, of leaving this place, this sorry camp.

It has bothered me that my daughter doesn't miss us, at least not much, until today when I made my peace with that.  For whatever reason, I think God left the "missing" part out of her.  He has his reasons.  Maybe she needs to do things that will require her to travel, to be away for long periods of time.  Maybe this frees her to move in the world with freedom, untethered by homesickness and roots like some of us.  It has it's down side, sure -- she may never know the deep love of place and community that us home-bound people may, that connectiveness, but perhaps she will be able to do things we cannot.

Only one thing I pray: that she'll develop a homesickness for Heaven.  And maybe, just maybe, she'll miss her Dad and Mom and brother a little bit too while she's out there with the people, living, enjoying it all.

What's a Good Christian Doing Reading the Bible?

Clip_image002_31Sooner or later, most discussions about what good Christians should listen to (music), watch (TV and film), and read (books and magazines and blogs), come around to Philippians 4:8, which we might conveniently refer to as the "whatever/think" verse.  As a  part of a series of exhortations, Paul encourages Christians in Philippi that "whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable -- if anything is excellent or praiseworthy -- think about such things."  That verse is usually cited as a self-evident truth, a discussion-stopper, a way of precluding listening, seeing, or reading, of saying that something is not sufficiently "Christian," so we should not expose ourselves to it.  This misreads and misinterprets this verse.  It also leads to recommendations of some overtly religious yet sentimental work that often rings hollow.

It's not my intent to be uncharitable about this, but we really have to stop this.  Three things about this verse impress me.  First, its context is a series of positive exhortations.  Paul is not saying don't do something but, rather, he is encouraging a positive action, a thoughtful perspective on "whatever" we see, hear, and read -- all of life, in other words.  He's saying "think, man, think."

Second, the verse has to do not with position but perspective; it is inclusive, not exclusive.  Read in conjunction with the rest of scripture (like the Cultural Mandate of Genesis 1:28), or the practice of Paul (consider his familiarity with the pagan poets and philosophers of the Athenians, as demonstrated in Acts 17), Paul is implicitly sanctioning our involvement in the world and simply exhorting us to find the true, the good, and the beautiful -- thoughtful involvement, in other words.

Finally, the verse is an invitation to discernment guided by the Spirit.  Elsewhere Paul encourages the Philippians in this discernment (Phil. 1:9), confident that the holy Spirit will do a good work in them as they live unto God (Phil. 1:6).  Consequently, we need not be afraid.  God will lead us and give us discernment.  None of this is to say that everything is fruitful.  Some books should not be read, some movies not seen, some music more trash than treasure, and sometimes wise and discerning Christians we trust can clue us in on this without us having to be exposed to such things.  But we need not and should not make judgments based on what is considered safe, on fear.

You know, if we take Philippians 4:8 and suggest that it means we should not ever see movies or read books that have violence, profanity, or sexual references in them, then I doubt we should read the Bible either.  It's full of such racy stuff.  Now what's a good Christian doing reading such things?