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August 2006

Pet Sounds. . . Again

Pet_soundsBy now, I think I have bought the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds album at least five times.  The only time I did not buy it was when it was released in 1966, 40 years ago.  You see, I was only eight then and not aware of what was going down at the historic Western Recorders studio in Hollywood, California, the gifted 23 year old Brian Wilson directing the best studio musicians in L.A., most of whom were at least 15-20 years older than him, recording all the music for the record before the rest of the Beach Boys returned from an overseas tour.  That record became one of the most famous records of all time, a direct response to the Beatles' Rubber Soul, and a sufficient challenge for the Liverpool quartet that they cranked out another famous record, Sgt. Pepper, as a response.  As Sir Paul says himself, "No one is educated musically until they've heard Pet Sounds. . . It is a total, classic record that is unbeatable in many ways."

I wasn't completely unaware of the Beach Boys at eight.  I remember an older cousin had some very scratched vinyl LPs of their All Summer Long and Beach Boys Concert recordings.  I do remember the energy of those recordings.  But I believe my first real appreciation of their music came when I was in high school, in 1972, when I bought their 1970 album, Sunflower.  It was love at first listen.  I could put that record on and just let it wash over me -- pure aural beauty.  I think I realized then that, at least at that point in their life as a band, they were making serious music.  I began to buy up the catalog and, in the process, discovered Pet Sounds.  My appreciation has grown over the years as I have learned more about music and the recording process.  Of course, Capital Records has been only too glad to assist me by continuing to remaster and re-release it over the years. 

FuzzyThe latest reissue came this week --a Beach Boys Pet Sounds 40th Anniversary double disc set, limited edition, in a fuzzy green packaging (not sure what's going on there).  Of course, I had most of what's offered here -- the original mono recording, the stereo remix,the 5.1 surround sound mix, and, of course, like all true fans I bought the 2000 Box Set Pet Sounds Sessions, which seemed to be the definitive word on/sound of Pet Sounds.  But, in addition to hearing a beautiful record again, there are a few things here that we haven't seen or heard before.

First, there's some previously unseen footage from The Making of Pet Sounds promotional video released in 1997.  Second, there's a 1966 promotional video set to the music of "Good Vibrations."  Is that his first wife Marilyn goofing around with a basketball?  The boys are riding a fire engine around Hollywood, basically goofing off a la Hard Day's Night style.  Most interesting is just seeing the footage of the neighborhoods there in the Cap001 Sixties.  Finally, and best of all, there's a video of Sir Geroge Martin (producer of most of the Beatles' records) riding down Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood, crossing Larrabee Street, in a classic red convertible, with his shock of white hair, driving up Brian Wilson's driveway and sitting down with him at the piano and discussing the songwriting process with a very articulate Brian.  Then, the scene ships to Western Recorders, the site of the original recording of Pet Sounds, and George Cap002 is sitting with Bran at the mix board, segregating each chanel so you can hear each voice or instrument in the song "God Only Knows."  Two highlights -- hearing the recording stripped away to just Carl's clear, boyish voice, and also when, hearing the mix, Brian sits back and says to George "You know what? You're making a better mix than I had with the master.  You did it! I can't believe this."

Brian_studioI love this record.  I think it's pure genius.  If you don't have it, this edition is a good place to start.  You'll have the best mixes, the best sound, as well as some commentary to assist you in better appreciating its beauty.

How did 23-year old Brian make such a beautiful record?  God only knows.

[You can buy the record here.  Also, be sure and check out the great Pet Sounds blog and podcast series here.]

A Theology of Place?

Built_1 I had a bit of difficulty finding it (and perhaps that is an indication of the difficulty I will have reading it), but I finally borrowed a copy of A Theology of the Built Environment: Justice, Empowerment, Redemption, by Cambridge professor T.J. Gorringe.  The book is billed as the "first book to reflect theologically on the built environment as a whole."  Skimming it, I realize that this is heady stuff and I likely won't make it all the way.  But I'm interested in what can be said about God's perspective on place and its meaning for us.

I guess I always have been interested in place.  I remember the first time I took note of this.  I was about five or six, I guess, riding with my mother to see my grandmother.  Along the way, we passed by some homes that were small relative to the middle-class brick ranch I grew up in, almost like mill housing.  I saw a lady open the screen door and come out of one of the houses there on a hill.  That was it.  It occurred to me then, for the first time, that not everyone lived like I did, that places and houses were different, and I wondered what her life was like.  Nothing too profound, just an awakening in me to the fact that life was not all suburbia.

That interest in how people live and how the spatial environment effects their thinking and feeling followed me through sociology and social psychology classes and into graduate school in urban planning.  However, with all of that, I was never able to develop much biblical thinking about place or design.  The closest I got in urban planning theory class was a paper on ecological planning, inspired by economist E.F. Schumacher's Small Is Beautiful: Economics As If People Matter, but that was environment and economics, not place, and looking back I see how uncritically I accepted Schumacher's ideas and how attractive utopian theories were to planners.

So, that's why I'm a touch excited to see this book.  For now, just consider this first paragraph:

"To be human is to be placed: to be born in this house, hospital, stable (according to Luke), or even, as in the floods of Mozambique in 2000, in a tree.  It is to live in this council house, semi-detached, tower block, farmhouse, mansion.  It is to go to school through these streets or lanes, to play in this alley, park, garden; to shop in this market, that mall; to work in this factory, mine, office, farm.  These facts are banal, but they form the fabric of our everyday lives, structuring our memories, determining our attitudes.  How as Christians should we think of them? 

This. . . this. . . this --- the particularity of existence.  Why here?  Why this place?  Why with these people?  What does it mean?  Does it mean anything?  Do the memories of life in a place mean anything?  I've always wondered these things and sometimes I try to write about them.

Gorringe ends his first chapter with this: "What happens when we bring together the Bible and the writings of town planners, urban theorists and architects?  This book is one tentative attempt to find out."  I hope I like what I find.

Last Things: Back to the. . . City (Part Two)

Plow I'm continually reminded that I have probably never had an original thought.  So yesterday, when I picked up a book I haven't looked at in a while (Creation Regained: Biblical Basics for a Reformational Worldview, by Al Wolters), I was reminded of that fact again.  Wolters seems to be saying what I said in my post ("Last Things: Back to the. . . City (Part One), Aug. 27th), only he said it first.

After noting the cosmic scope of redemption (as opposed to an individualistic focus), Wolters says this:

"One should think that the scriptural emphasis on restoration implies that Christians should advocate a return to the garden of Eden, however.  We have already noted that the creation develops through culture and society and that this development is good and healthy.  Part of God's plan for the earth is that it be filled and subdued by humankind, that its latent possibilities be unlocked and actualized in human history and civilization.  A good deal of that development has already taken place, though it is distorted by humanity's sinfulness."

Wolters goes on to argue that we must choose restoration, as opposed to repristination, not turning back the historical clock, something reactionary or regressive.   He points to the end of time, its culmination in a city, as a mark of the kind of cultural development that is retained and yet simply and beautifully restored to what it was intended to be in its natural and sinless development.  In other words, Adam and Eve weren't meant to stay in the garden, never developing.  In fact, a mark of their anticipated development was their naming of the animals -- early zoologists!  They were to "till and keep" the natural world, creatively developing it.

Didn't I already say this?  Maybe so, but Wolters says it much better.  I'm truly warm to all this.  Somehow, the "all burns up" (annihilation) theory left me cold.  I feel like Rev. Ames in Marilynne Robinson's book, Gilead:

I feel sometimes as if I were a child who opens its eyes on the world once and sees amazing things it will never know any names for and then has to close his eyes again.  I know this is all mere apparition compared to what awaits us, but it is only lovelier for that.  There is a human beauty in it.  And I can't believe that, when we have all been changed and put on incorruptibility, we will forget our fantastic condition of mortality and impermanence, the great bright dream of procreating and perishing that meant the whole world to us.  In eternity this world will be Troy, I believe, and all that has passed here will be the epic of the universe, the ballad they sing in the streets.  Because I don't imagine any reality putting this one in the shade entirely, and I think piety forbids me try.  (Rev. Ames, in Gilead)

More than remembering, though, I want to see all the good, along with the memory of the good, carried forward into a new heavens and new earth -- new in the sense that it is re-formed.  I want to hear the songs I love, only hear them with deeper richness.  I want to remember the great stories I've read, only see their full depth.  I want to hear my voice, only stronger and less hesitant.  I don't want to start over.  I want this world, remade by One who knows its inherent possibilities.  I don't want to go back to the garden.

"Stealing" the Soul

Lady_1Many of the Masai tribal people in East Africa believe that to take their picture "steals" their soul.  In a sense, taking a photograph of someone does take some part of them -- a moment of time, a privacy they once had, some essence of who they are or who they were.  Perhaps that is why you should ask permission to take someone's picture -- it's theirs to give not ours to take.

I thought of this yesterday as I read the article on the photography of Margaret Morley in the News and Observer ("Genuine Mountain Made").  Morley traversed the mountains of North Carolina and Tennessee around the turn of the century documenting mountain folk and their way of life.  The photos were acquired by the State of North Carolina and are now featured in an exhibit at the North Carolina Museum of History.  I plan to see it.

Just the few photos I looked at online were compelling.  These were real people who allowed Margaret Morley, an outsider, to come into their lives.  Why did they do it?  I don't know without knowing more about Morley, but she must have gained their trust and friendship.  The one I include here, particularly in a larger size, can almost make you feel that you could be there, smelling the fire, the old wood, hearing the creak of the rocker, passing time by reflecting on the day.  That's a good photo, one that comes alive through study.

In an image-laden culture, where we are besieged by digital photos (both our own and others), we really cannot imagine the wonder of a photo.  Until the 1840s, there were no photos of people.  Can we really imagine what it would have been like to have a photograph made of a family member, perhaps a distant relative, and know that that was exactly what they looked like and be able to look at them any time we liked?  I doubt it.  Imagine if we had a photograph of Jesus?  What would that be like?  Consider the Jewish people:  They had a long tradition of oral history and could hear of the patriarchs and prophets, the Exodus, the Babylonian Captivity, the rebuilding of the temple -- but they had no photos.  Even before the phographic process was discovered, there was a fascination with the camera obscura, with dark rooms built just so people could witness the magic of the inverted "picture made when light was passed through a small hole.

That we have such images is certainly both provocative and evocative, and I suppose it is good, but I also imagine it has a down side as does any technology.  Does it heighten our experience of what is being photographed or diminish it?  I don't know.  I do know that with a photo I have one image; with a vivid description in words, I have my own image or images, the product of my imagination.  Is either better?

I do plan to see this exhibit -- reverently.  It's people's souls, after all.

Last Things: Back to the. . . City

Dscf0007_editedToday's discussion in Sunday School focused on last things, or eschatology, one of those subjects on which Christians share some very clear beliefs (judgment, the return of Christ, a new heavens and new earth) but also disagree and often speculate on, sometimes reasonably, often wildly.  Apparently some believe (with some biblical support) that when Scripture says "new heaven and new earth" it means the present earth and heaven will be annihilated. Others believe that there will be a restoration of this earth and heaven, that is, a recreation out of the stuff that already is.  I favor the later view for two reasons that I don't believe were mentioned today.

First, despite the effects of the Fall, the far reaching effects of the curse, there is much that is good in the world.  It's difficult for me to imagine all this good being wiped out along with all the evil, all the positive effects of our heeding the cultural mandate in Genesis along with all the evil done in pursuit of that mandate. The arts, agriculture, the sciences all developed in good ways as well as bad ways.  Was that all for naught?

Second, and as a corollary, it's interesting to me that the new heavens and new earth are not pictured as an idyllic natural paradise, that is, a return to the garden of Eden, but, rather, a city, and quite a city at that.  In other words, at the end of time we will reside in a place that is developed, that represents for humankind the epitome of cultural development, the fruition of heeding the cultural mandate (had we perfectly kept it).  Imagine the thriving metropolis of New York, only without sin, without imperfection, and yet very physical and tangible.

All this, such as it is, makes me think God will reform what we have, make straight our crooked path of cultural development.  I suspect all this has been said before, and much better of course, but that's what I thought today.

The Choreography of Prayer

"Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you" (1 Pet. 5:7)

Surely Linette Martin was right in speaking of the choreography of prayer. (See "Practical Praying: A Review," Post of August 21st ).  Some verses like this one seem to call for it.  How, after all, do you "cast" an anxiety?  It's a great help not only to visualize it but enact it.  This is one I used today.

I always thought this was a weird, mystical kind of thing, something a Quaker like Richard Foster might suggest (and I believe he did), but I've changed my mind.  When I've had difficulty sleeping because I had too many things on my mind I'd get up, commit them to paper, and then rest assured that they would be dealt with as they were all there on paper.  Maybe it's a bit like that, like handing these cares over to God, no, like sending them via a fast ball to his gut: "Here, you take these.  I can't handle them.  You can."  You see, then they're not mine anymore but His.  Cast them, Peter says.

Maybe that's why I like the walking prayer as well.  Looking up at the sky I can imagine a prayer taking off, or a care released, floating up and away.  I might even just say a word aloud, thinking of the sound waves that go on and on.  Looking down at my feet they seem to say persevere, keep on, one minute by minute, and I pray for strength for this and that and people who have little of that strength.  Looking at the people I meet coming toward me, eyes often averted, I can hold them up to God as well and say "Here, they're yours, help them," and even give a (very) little push with an open hand to emphasize the giving.

Well now.  All that sounds a bit flaky to me.  But honestly, a little imagination, a little choreography, and I pray better.  OK?

A 14-Year Old's Ragamuffin Mentors

When I was 14, I read a lot, an awful lot.  I missed meals for books and, as anyone who knows me now can tell you, I do not miss meals lightly (or, for that matter, lightly miss meals or miss light meals).  I like to eat, but I like to read more.

I credit those early Christian books -- slight though they be -- with shaping my take on the Christian life.  Here's what I remember reading:

LindseyThe Late Great Planet Earth, by Hal Lindsay.  Yikes!  Now, this is one book to scare the %^%&^% out of a adolescent.  In hindsight, this book, which reeked of premillenialist theology and gross speculation (shall I be frank?) was a natural fit for me, as I was a member of the Science Fiction Book Club since I was about 10, reading all kinds of fantastical stuff.  We recognize it now as the precursor of the Left Behind series.  I had not yet made the faith my own, and I credit this book with two things: scaring me enough that I began to take the faith of my parents seriously, and giving me a view of God that's a little bit scary (and I mean that in a good way).  In other words, God is not just your pal, a kind of cozy spiritual roommate.  It meant I had to get serious.  I do not think it good theology, but I didn't know what theology was back then anyway.

I Never Promised You a Disneyland, by Jay Kesler.  I see now that this book is out of print and likely has been for years, and I have no idea whether it would speak to teenagers today, but it spoke to me in 1972.  It was the first book I read that related faith to teenagers in a relevant way.  It spoke to issues of identity, self-worth, guidance, meaning, parents, sex, and school, in very real ways.  I know that I read it more than once.  As reflected in its title, its take on the Christian life was that things weren't necessarily going to get easier with Christ, but perhaps more difficult.  With a lot of easy-believism around and prosperity gospel teaching in the decades since, I think it gave me a realistic place to start from.

Stanford Principles of Spiritual Growth, by Miles J. Standish.  Still in print!  I remember this book for the serious call to sanctification, to actually doing something with the faith.  It was, for me, a serious call to holiness, to a faith with skin on it.  I understand it now to be underlain with dispensationalist theology and a "let go and let God" kind of belief, but as I say, it was a call to obedience and 14 year olds need some obedience.

Price_1Find Out for Yourself: Young People Can Discover Their Own Answers, Eugenia Price.  That's a Seventies title, isn't it?  My mother gave me this book.  It just showed up one day.  Whenever my mother thought I needed to know something, she gave me a book.  We didn't talk about it.  I cannot remember what all this book said, and it is long out of print, but I know it meant something to me because I remember what the cover looked like, what it felt like in my hands, and where I was when I read it.  She was speaking to me.  I think Ms. Price is a writer of a lot of lightweight Christian fiction, which I do not care to read, but I'm thankful to her for this book.  It gave me reason to think, helped me know what questions to ask, and didn't preach to me. 

I'm sure there were better mentors for 14 year old new Christian, but these were the ones I had.  It just shows that God can use the weakest links and the not so good books to work for His good purposes.  I've never forgotten them.  They may be at the bottom of my spiritual closet, two now out of print and available for $.01 on ebay, but God used them in my life.  They get to stay.

Much Ado About Something

Key3_thumbOn my recent excursion to Europe, after three mostly inane movies (the worst of which was RV), and after I had read all of the book I was reading that I could take, I read a short article in ByFaith, an excellent publication of the Presbyterian Church in America, called "Much Ado About Nothing: Bringing the Theater Back to Life."  In it, Nat Belz interviews Atlanta-based playwright and actor Tom Key, who is  renowned for his performance of C.S. Lewis On Stage -- a show performed in churches as well as at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and Oxford University.  You can read an analysis of what he does here, but I'm more interested in some of the things he said in the interview.

"I understand using Christian as an adjective.  But when it's used in terms of the arts as an adjective, it usually is really referring to plays or movies or paintings that are about subjects in Scripture. . . . Even though it might be [Christian], it doesn't necessarily mean it's art. . . . It's like getting on an airplane and the pilot tells me he's a Christian, I'm glad to know that, but I really want to make sure he can fly the plane."

Key is right.  Labeling an artist or her art as Christian or non-Christian is not helpful.  The body of work of an artist should be examined as a whole to discern if it is true and, then, if it is true enough, that is faithful to our understanding of reality with its major theme (grace) and minor theme (sin).  Consider another quote by Key:

"My only limit [in what elements I include in a play] is telling the truth.  I have turned things down in my career because I thought they didn't tell the truth.  They were either sentimental. . . or I thought that they were presenting reality as we would wish it to be, but like it's not.  Or, it was nihilistic, the world without grace.

His thoughts remind me of a small book by the late Francis Schaeffer, Art and the Bible, which is still, I believe, the best and more succinct expression of how Christians should view art.  Schaeffer said that "a Christian artist does not need to concentrate on religious subjects," any more than God's Creation focuses on religious subjects.  He said that "Christian art is the expression of the whole life of the whole person who is a Christian."

Read the article in ByFaith.  It's the key (no pun intended) to a real Christian view of art.  I'm feeling better all the time about watching Stargate SG-1.

Girls and the 14 Year Old

Billbrd I'm going to be perfectly and embarrassingly honest here in talking about girls.  You see, at 14 I had been thinking about girls in a favorable way since, oh, about 12 1/2.  The only problem was they didn't seem to be thinking of me in a favorable way.  They didn't talk to me, and I was clueless about what to say to them.

After lunch in eighth grade we'd congregate on the plaza outside the school.  We began with a herd of guys in one corner, a gaggle of girls in another, a few girls and "advanced" guys in one corner, and the class cast-offs (you know what I mean, the geeks now running major corporations) in another corner.  One by one we guys watched our numbers dwindle as guys would go over to what we called "the dark side" (the girls).  What were we doing?  Mostly immature stuff, but I was usually carrying maybe 10-15 LPs to school every day and talking with 2-3 other guys about music, which, then, was Jethro Tull, Traffic, The Who, The Beatles, Yes, and more.  Those were good years in music.  Anyway, I think we were all secretly envious of the defectors, though we trashed them behind their backs.

Well, at 14 my best friends John and Bobby and I went to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina together, the Las Vegas of teendom, on the bus, of course.  We were, naturally, desperate to meet a girl and figured this was it, our big weekend.  Friday night we cruised the Pavilion but couldn't get up the nerve to talk to one single girl.  We left that night rather ashamed of ourselves, though we never said it.  Saturday night we stood and watched three girls riding the Himalaya, the really fast roundabout.  We saw them, and they saw us.  They looked pretty nice, at least at that speed and at a distance.  After the ride stopped, they came right over to us.  Wow.  That was exciting.  However, the closer they got, the less nice they looked.  In fact, they looked pretty bad.

Well, they had nice personalities, anyway.  We consoled ourselves with that.

It's not a pretty picture, but that's just how we thought about life. . . at 14.

Fire and the 14 Year Old

Clip_image002_35 I don't seem to recall much of anything that happened before I was 14.  I think everything happened that year.  A girlfriend, finally.  John moved to town and the adventures began.  We went to the beach with the church youth group and roamed Emerald Isle all night.  Every school night we watched Johnny Carson until 1:00 a.m., and then I crept home in the darkness to find my bed.  Didn't hurt me one bit, I guess.

That was the year Winfrey Settles lit up our chemistry class.  Winfrey was a tall gangly kid who was a little short in mind, or presence of mind, at least.  That day in science class we had our pegboards set up and Bunsen burners roaring.  Fire is a dangerous thing to put in the hands of a 14 year old.  My memory begins with the teacher shouting "Winfrey, Winfrey, stop, stop!," and Winfrey was blowing for all he was worth, the flames engulfing the pegboard, him almost hyperventilating.  It was fun for everyone but Mrs. Sessions and Winfrey.  He disappeared for the rest of the day.  And, well, I have no idea what happened to him and don't plan on attending my 30th high school reunion this year to find out.

I remember Winfrey because, you see, Settles comes before West and he was always near me in our alphabetically arranged classes. That's me, between Zimmerman and Settles, consigned to be between two morons for all time.  (Sorry if that's uncharitable, but it's true, and I told them that then so I'm not going behind their backs.  Zimmerman is another whole story.)  They're probably brain surgeons or in charge of the Transportation Safety Administration.  I don't even want to know.

I don't know the eternal, enduring significance of that moment we all shared with Winfrey, but when I think of it, I smile.  And that's worth something.

Practical Praying: A Review

Linette_1 Doubtless most Christians who are serious about their faith have spent a fair amount of time struggling with prayer, both when they are praying and when they are not praying but thinking that they should be praying.  No one who I have ever met has ever said that they pray enough.  I've also read enough books on prayer that I doubt that there is little new that can be said on the subject.  Pray.  Pray unceasingly, Scripture says.  But honestly, it's a discipline that often escapes me, that frustrates me, that leaves me wondering sometimes whether I'm simply talking to myself.

Though it is not a new book, and certainly not new in what it says, the late Linette Martin's book, Practical Praying, is a refreshing read and good prompt for a renewed or new prayer life.  Martin wrote the book because she could not find a book on prayer that really told her what she needed to know.  What is so delightful about this book is the candor with which she approaches the subject, as well as the very practical advice she offers.

First off, she reminds us of why we pray.  "God is not a puppet, neither are you his: that is what makes Christian prayer a strenuous and disturbing business."  I can't recall ever having heard anyone put it that way.  What she is getting at is the paradoxical fact "that the God who lives in unapproachable light is approachable," and, when we approach him in prayer we cannot manage him but take the good risk that he will come into our lives and do with us as he pleases.  In other words, prayer is not safe.  It keeps us from being too chummy with God Almighty; we love him as subjects adore their King.  It is, as she says, a fearful love, one of the reasons we pray, the others being habit and need.

But this is practical theology, lived experience.  For those who can't seem to pray or who've given up the practice, she suggests the most modest of beginnings, the "prayer of smiles and glances," just looking to God in love, nothing more.  And then, and only then, speaking only a few simple words.  We become children again, and while we don't stay children, sometimes we need to go back to basics before we can grow.

From there she moves on to discuss time and place, choreography (movement), informal and structured prayers, the outline of prayer (intercession, penitence, praise, and reading), special situations (like praying when sick or depressed), and praying with other people.  The prose is simple and yet not simplistic.  Sometimes Martin voices thoughts about prayer that we may have thought but thought wrong to verbalize!  For example:  "People who have never been very sick will say smilingly, 'Oh, when you are lying in bed, never mind, you can always pray.'  To them I would say, 'Do you remember what it was like the last time you had flu? You lay there feeling weak and shivery and you ached all over and everything looked far away and it hurt even to move your eyes.  How much praying did you do then?'  The honest answer is, 'Well, not a lot.'"  The candor strikes a chord:  we come to think that the author is one who learned all this by experience, the hard way, a fact she admits.

In a chapter that may be controversial for some Protestants, she urges the use of all the senses in prayer, noting the value of icons, for example.  "Because Christianity is an incarnational religion, we do not need to be afraid of the material world of taste and scent and sound and touch and movement and sight."  So pictures, music, incense, and fasts can be helpful in developing a good prayer life.  Similarly, her openness to tongues may be controversial, and yet her advice is practical: "Whether you have the gift of tongues or not, the basics of prayer are the same, and they are unexciting: a discipline of time and place, a balance of praise, humility, intercession, and tuning a life to God's will."  It's work, and work is fulfilling but also difficult at times.

This is down-to-earth praying from one who is was firmly planted in the stuff of life.  Earthy, and yet heaven bent.  Get a used copy of this unfortunately out-of-print book.  Rethink this whole thing of prayer.  And pray.  Unceasingly.

Brian Wilson's Redemption?

Bw On my recent trip to Europe (which you can read about here), I was able to complete Peter Ames Carlin's new biography of Brian Wilson, entitled Catch a Wave: The Rise, Fall & Redemption of the Beach Boys' Brian Wilson.  I suppose the almost biblical subtitle of the book caught my eye.  I am familiar with Brian Wilson's rise, of course, his phenomenal ability to craft pop songs which propelled the boys and him to the top of the charts in the early to mid-Sixties, reaching its epitome with the recording of Pet Sounds, now almost 40 years ago, when the youthful Wilson was directing the best session musicians in L.A. (dubbed The Wrecking Crew) at sessions, something unheard of at the time, all the more so because Wilson was only 23.

I am also familiar with Wilson's fall, his many, many wasted years in a drug-induced stupor, overweight and unproductive, venturing out from time to time but never really living up to the great songs he composed in those early years.  No doubt an overbearing and sometimes abusive father had something to do with it, and perhaps mental illness, but he also made poor choices.  He was barely an adult and yet could have and do as he pleased.  When the rest of the band rejected his (at the time) very progressive Smile project, he tipped him into a tailspin that lasted, with few reprieves, for over 30 years.

The stories of rise and fall being well known, I was interested to see what Carlin meant by redemption.  What I think is that he misspoke, promising much more than he could deliver.  While I had little hope that he was speaking of redemption in the biblical sense, I did hope to gain some insight into what explained Wilson's increased functionality the last several years.  At best, he suggests that it's due in part to a supportive wife (Melinda), freedom from the controlling influence and drug-induced passivity instigated by the manipulative Eugene Landy (psychotherapist or scam artist, take your pick), and a supportive band (the Wondermints, Jeffrey Foskett, and others).  No doubt this is true, and yet I wonder if there is more, if there is a spiritual dimension to the comeback or whether, in fact, this is but a brief period of tranquility until the next storm hits.  It's difficult to say.

I remember reading a magazine article once that quoted Wilson as saying he believed in Jesus Christ.  I hope so.  It's the only kind of redemption that ultimately matters.  Journalist Carlin never picks up on all the references Wilson makes to God in almost every interview he does.  It's a journalistic blind-spot to ignore the importance of religious faith.  I hoped for better from this book. 

Travel Can Be So. . .

Journalpage_1On a trip a few years ago, I asked my daughter to write in a journal about her trip.  I want her to write well, so I asked her to write with her senses.  So, this is what I got -- complete honesty.

We need to write like children.  I sometimes think I write what I like to hear myself say, not what I want to say.  It's an adult thing.  We become accustomed to thinking about how we will be perceived, almost to the point of it being a subconscious impulse.  We need to be like children.  They don't care.  They're just honest.

i thank You God for most this amazing


i thank You God for most this amazing
day:for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes

(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun's birthday;this is the birth
day of life and of love and wings:and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)

how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any--lifted from the no
of all nothing--human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?

(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)

E.E. Cummings

If you have no use for poetry, stop here, because of all poets you surely have no use for E.E. Cummings (also know as e.e. cummings).  Cummings defied all the laws of poetry, utilizing irregular punctuation, little to no capitalization, nonsensical syntax, and other breakage of form, and yet his poems do carry rich meaning and are simply fun to read.

Take the above poem, for example.  Just try it.  Read it aloud.  The pleasure is much like you receive from reading a nursery rhyme.  (In fact, if you like this one, read "anyone lived in a pretty how town," as it's even more fun to read.)  You might think I'm easily pleased, but really, if you don't enjoy the sound of nursery rhymes, you've lost something rich and good.  Find some young children and read some to them, why don't you?  Or Dr. Suess as well.

But Cummings was on another level, altogether.  He may not have been a Christian, though certainly in later years he was said to embrace a "conservative Christian anarchy" (whatever that is).  He was reared Unitarian, but came to believe in Christ as his mediator and in the resurrection of the body, so, maybe he was close, and maybe he came to faith in the God of Christianity, and maybe close is not good enough.  God knows.  Someone described him as beginning life as a scoffer (he had a sarcastic tongue and pen) but becoming more and more a Christian.

This poem immediately brings to mind Psalm 8 ("When I consider your heavens. . . what is man that thou art mindful of him?) in the contrast between Creator and created in the third stanza, as well as of Psalm 19, in its animation of Creation.  But enough.  It's too boring to analyze poetry.  You need to read it, aloud.  So, to read more e.e. cummings poetry, try this site.

And have fun. Remember, they're just nursery rhymes with bigger ideas.

[The charcoal is a self-portrait by the poet, who was also a painter.]

Beginnings: Sons of the River

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

In the summer of Gordie's wedding, this is where Clayton Hoke and I hunted, gliding over undulating hayfields in his white Impala, dancing graceful reels with the haystacks.  Our flight was smooth as flute music in the moonlight and quite as stubble that whispered under our tires.  In those days of our youth, it was always flight away from everything toward some unseen greatness which we never expected to reach.

(Norm Bomer, Sons of the River)

For whatever reason, I have not yet read Norm Bomer's memoir of growing up in Nebraska, entitled Sons of the River, but I think I will.  Today I picked it up for the first time in a  number of years, noticing it's somewhat smoky edge, courtesy of the fire we had in our home now two years ago.  I figure if it made it through the fire, I should read it.  And yet, even that isn't enough to get me to read it, but just enough to get me to pick it up.

I love a strong sense of place in a story, and Sons promises to have just that.  Why, in the first two paragraphs alone there are rich particulars that set the story -- ranch country, Sand Hills, Ewing, Gordie, Clayton Hoke, a white impala, hayfields and haystacks.  They make me want to know what growing up in a strange, sparsely people flat land like Nebraska would have been like.  I want to know what the air smelled like in that hayfield, and what they were thinking, and what he means by saying "it was always flight away from everything toward some unseen greatness which we never expected to reach."  Cars always are good metaphors for a youthful urge for freedom, but freedom from what?

I'll read on.  Maybe I'll let you know later where Norma and Clayton are going, what unseen greatness they imagine.

The Weight of Memory

Clip_image002_34You get bigger as you go
No one told me -- I just know
Bales of memory like boats in tow
You get bigger as you go

(Bruce Cockburn, "You Get Bigger As You Go," from Humans)

While we may forget a great deal as we grow older, it's also true that, as more life has been lived, there are more memories piled up.  For one who has had a tragic life, perhaps this is a burden, like "boats in tow" that you can't cut loose.  But even with a relatively good life, there is a weightiness to memory.

Solomon was likely on to this.  In Ecclesiastes he surveys a life "under the sun" and calls it "[u]tterly meaningless.  Everything is meaningless" (Ecc.1:2). Remembering all he had done and all he had tried (he lived what we would call a very "full" life), he basically concluded by saying "what's the use?"  He laments the monotony of life, the boredom, the fact that there is nothing really new, and the brevity of life, and says "so what?"

I guess that's the burden of memory if what we see and experience is all there is.  For the materialist, if he is candid with himself, there is no meaning.  He may say life is what you make it, but that's not even true, as you can't make meaning.  All he has is the experience of the moment.  And memory?  Best to do all one can to forget or reinterpret the past to make it more palatable or happy, as this is all we have.  There really is no meaning.  That's really the plight of the post-modern, if he is honest.  No truth, no meaning, no memory that matters.  Pick a narrative.  Define your life as you like.  Be happy.  It's all you have.

On the other hand, the Christian says everything matters, and that everything includes memory.  We carry memories for the sanctifying effect they have in our present lives.  If we remember a hardship or trial, we also use it as a reminder of God's faithfulness.  For example, I'd have to say the two hospitalizations and emergency operations I endured are particularly unpleasant memories, but they are reminders of God's faithfulness and my own faithlessness.  They have present sanctifying effect if my memory of them stimulates me to greater faithfulness and reliance upon God.

Memories may be weighty, but they need not be heavy.  Jesus says "my burden is light, my yoke easy" (Mt. 11:30).  He is the one pulling those bales of memory with us, or even for us.  He's the one who bears the weight of our mistakes, our sin, and all the sin of the world.  He can carry it.  He can handle it.  I just need to let Him.

The Mystery of Choice

Never do you -- do we -- get past the problem of choice, the mystery of choice and God's plan, the Lord's weaving of threads in His plan, the need to have balance in asking for His will, then courageously making specific choices.  We always face the reality that to say "yes" to one set of things we are doing in an hour, a day, a week, a month, or a year is to be saying "no" to another set of things, because we cannot be doing two things at once. . . . Finiteness is limiting, and we remain finite.  (Edith Schaeffer, in Tapestry).

Even the most settled hyper-Calvinist has to admit that our choices in life, that is, our ability to make real choices, is a mystery.  "For I know the plans I have for you," declares the Lord, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you a hope and a future" (Jer. 29:11).  Plans?  God has plans for us?  "In love he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will. . . ." (Eph. 1:5).  And God didn't just say He had a general plan and we could fill in the details, and He didn't just say He just foreknew our choices but that He pre- (ahead of time) destined (ordained or intended) what we do.  The language is plain, but the meaning is beyond our grasp.

I've been down this road before, as perhaps have you.  Lots of things in Scripture are clear and yet beyond our grasp -- either mysterious or paradoxical.  Try this one: "[C]ontinue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.  Now how is it that I work and yet it is God who works His will in me?  The best we can do is affirm the dual (if paradoxical)truth of our real choice and yet God's sovereign plan.  Try to fit them together in some rational way and you end up in error or, worse, in heresy.

Edith Schaeffer again: "[E]ach of our lives is a thread. . . . Do I think of each thread as having a predetermined rigid place in a fatalistic view of history?  Absolutely not. . . . As soon as we think we have a pat answer, or can do away with the distance between the parallel lines of God being truly God, and human beings having true choice, we then have done away with the distance between finiteness and infiniteness. . . . There is a mystery that remains.  Our deep awe and worship continue."

A real plan by a sovereign God.  Real choices by finite human beings.  Real mystery.  At the end of every doctrine even the one most educated in systematic theology -- after saying all that Scripture says on God's will and man's choice, on the incarnation, on the dual nature of Christ, or on the Trinity (just to name a few key doctrines) -- should be left speechless, mouth hanging open, because in the end we always bump up against our finiteness.

I've been here before, but it's always a good deja vu, a reminder that God is great and good and is moving history toward a consummation that will not be stopped, in accordance with a plan that will not be frustrated, using our choices in furtherance of that plan.  I don't understand that, but I think that's the truth, the true Truth.


IntersectionsMaybe, like me, you remember the string of hits that Bruce Hornsby had in the Eighties.  However, maybe you didn't know that this talented singer-songwriter pianist has continued to make great music over the years.

This week saw the release of Intersections, a twenty-year retrospective of Bruce's work from 1985-2005, and I'd have to say that this box set of four CDs and one DVD is one of the best box sets I have ever purchased.  While I sometimes purchase box sets simply to collect the unreleased tracks, out of a completest, collector's mentality, I usually shelve them after a couple of listens, glad to have them but not really eager to listen to them again.  Not so with Intersections.

This set is well worth the cost.  There are 23 unreleased live recordings here, and they sound great.  Not only that, given Bruce's urge to experiment, some of them sound nothing like the original songs!  Normally that might bother me, but this guy is so good that I love them.  For example, there are three versions of "The Valley Road," none of which sound like the original but more like distant cousins.  More than that, the box set collects various songs which appeared on tribute albums or soundtracks, a few covers (like Elton John's "Madman On the Water"), and some straightforward tracks from original masters, greatly improved in the remastering process.

Bruce The live performances on the DVD really showcase his energy, warmth, humor, and love of music and performing.  I'd suggest you also purchase his concert video, Three Nights On the Town, to see the man perform.  My whole family was spellbound.

I often am attracted to lyrics first, but with Bruce the music moves me first.  He is also a fine lyricist (Check out "The End of the Innocence"), but the music comes first.  It's truly genre-bending, ranging from jazz, to pop, to rock, to a smattering of R&B, classical, bluegrass, and funk.  It's amazing what he can do on the piano.  You have to see it to believe it.

Finally, it comes with a thick booklet with very complete song notes by the man himself.  What more could we want?  Now, if I just had a full afternoon to spend with this. . . .

Baby Talk, But No Baby God

Like every parent, when my children were young I sometimes spoke to them in baby talk and, at very least, I kept my words and concepts simple.  If a peer heard my baby talk, it would not be incomprehensible, but it would strike him as strange if I spoke to him in this fashion.  That's just silly, right?  But when speaking to children or, to take another example, to people unfamiliar with the jargon of your vocation, you speak in terms they can relate to.  You might say (without negative implication), that you condescend to them, you meet them on their level.

A friend's email dialog with me today reminded me of the mystery that God is, his ultimate incomprehensibility.  We were discussing whether God changes His mind.  While we could both affirm that Scripture says He does not change, that He is, in fact, immutable, we both also agree that there are certainly places and times in Scripture where He certainly appears to do so.  The same one who says "I the Lord do not change" (Malachi 3:6) is the same one who says "My heart is changed within me; all my compassion is aroused" (Hosea 11:8).  Abraham prayed his gutsy prayer, and God relented and spared Lot, and would have spared all of Sodom if ten righteous men could have been found there (Gen. 18:16-33) (they weren't).  Did God change His mind?

J.I. Packer says that "[t]here is no tension or inconsistency between the teaching of Scripture on God's sovereign foreordination of all things and on the efficacy of prayer.  God foreordains the means as well as the end, and our prayer is foreordained as the means whereby he brings his sovereign will to pass" (Packer, in Concise Theology).  That's understandable, and yet it doesn't entirely satisfy because it's not really comprehensible. 

The best I can do is compare it to my relationship with my children.  I'd say my love for them is immutable.  It doesn't change.  And yet I may relent and not punish them for something I may have decided to punish them for (and for which they deserve punishment).  Call it grace.  But let's say I was going to do that anyway, that I knew I would relent if they were repentant, but that their coming to me and repenting and asking me to forbear was part of my plan to relent.  Well, does that help?  Is that what God is doing?  Maybe, but then any analogy is probably problematic.

The best thing I have read on this recently is Phillip Yancy's article in Books and Culture entitled "Does Prayer Change God?" It's a good summary of thought on this topic, and yet at the end, Yancy calls it a fathomless mystery.  But what we do know is that God does not change, and yet calls on us to pray (as if he does change).  It may just be a matter of perspective, like two dimensional beings trying to see things from the standpoint of a three-dimensional being.

God condescended to speak to us in terms we could understand, in baby talk.  And like our young children who don't understand much of what we do and say, we are called to trust the One who condescends to us, believing that He is all good and will work all things for the good of those who love Him.

Come to think of it, who would want a fully comprehensible God? That'd be a baby god, wouldn't it?

The Christ-Haunted Old Testament

I've heard that it's really difficult to put your finger down anywhere in the Old Testament and not see Christ.  To test that, I engaged in a method of Bible study I do not suggest: I closed my eyes, opened the Bible somewhere in the Old Testament, and put my finger on the page.  I then read what was there and in surrounding verses. You know what?  It's true -- well, at least this time anyway.

2 Chronicles 29-32 details the reign of King Hezekiah, who, unlike his father and unlike his sorry son, was a king who "did what was right in the eyes of the Lord."  He basically cleaned house -- restoring the worship at the temple, removing idols, re-instituting worship as the Lord decreed, and calling the people to repentance and obedience.  Reading through this I came on a verse that points to the Lord as compassionate and gracious, not at all like folks sometimes think of the Old Testament God.  When the people failed to follow certain aspects of the ceremonial law to the letter, Hezekiah prayed for them, and the Lord forgave them: "May the Lord, who is good, pardon everyone who sets his heart on seeking God -- the Lord, the God of his fathers -- even if he is not clean according to the laws of the sanctuary.  And the Lord heard Hezekiah and healed the people" (2 Ch. 30:18b-20).

From our vantage point after Christ's coming, we know the sacrifices, even if kept, did not atone for sin.  They were, in essence, a promise that the sins would be paid for at a future date, that is, by Jesus, sort of like a promissory note.  Abraham, Moses, David, and all those mentioned as having died in faith in Hebrews 11 are saved by Christ's death, by his atonement for sin, not by animal sacrifice.  And yet, God is even more gracious in that he even says here that even if you don't do what little I said do, I'll still forgive you.  In fact, it's no big thing -- I'm going to pay this in full for you anyway.  Just you wait.

The people couldn't get it right.  Even Hezekiah, as good as he was, couldn't get it right.  This account tells us that late in his reign, when he was near death, he became prideful.  But, he repented, and God forgave (2 Ch. 32:24-26).  He died an honorable death.

The God of the Old Testament is not a different God than the one in the New Testament.  Grace is written all over the Book, from Adam to John on Patmos.  One story, one author, one promise -- God will save.

Talk about Christ-haunted literature?  Christ haunts and hallows every page of this Book.