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October 2006

With Christ in the School of Creation: A Review of Thirst

Thirst_2In the very first line of the very first poem of Mary Oliver's new collection of poetry, entitled Thirst, she says "My work is loving the world" (Messenger).  In the very last poem of this slim volume, she says "Love for the earth and love for you are having such a long conversation in my heart" (Thirst).  These poems bookend a new affirmation of faith for Oliver: For the first time in her life, at the age of 71, she is writing from an apparent Christian framework, loving the world of marshes, ponds, beaches, bears and dogs and the Creator of all these things she has so long loved.

These are poems that celebrate the world of Creation, that praise the Creator, that walk through grief into resolute hope (Oliver lost her long time partner and agent, Molly Malone Cook, in 1995), and that point beyond nature and grief to the Giver of all.  She addresses nature much as one would an old friend, as in "When I Am Among the Trees," where she says

Around me the trees stir in their leaves
and call out, "Stay awhile."
The light flows from their branches.

And they call again, "It's simple," they say,
"and you too have come
into the world to do this, to go easy, to be filled
with light, and to shine."

There are poems about ribbon snakes, roses, a great moth, otters, Percy (her dog), and that great conversation I mentioned ("And still I believe you will/ come, Lord: you will, when I speak to the fox,/ the sparrow, the lost dog, the shivering sea goose, know/ that really I am speaking to you" (Making the House Ready for the Lord).

And then there is grief.  I loved this one (Percy (Four)), so simple, so true, about doing what need be done as we wait for grief to pass and life to go on, moving faithfully yet mutely through each day:

I went to church.
I walked on the beach
and played with Percy.

I answered the phone
and paid the bills.
I did the laundry.

I spoke her name
a hundred times.

I knelt in the dark
and said some holy words.

I went downstairs,
I watered the flowers,
I fed Percy.

In the end though, after the poems of creation and poems of grief, what stand out are the affirmations of faith.  In "Coming to God: First Days," she says "Lord, I would run for you, loving the miles for your sake./ I would climb the highest tree/ to be that much closer."  In "Six Recognitions of the Lord," she celebrates "everywhere the luminous sprawl of gifts,/ the hospitality of the Lord and my/ inadequate answers as I row my beautiful, temporary body/ through this water-lily world."  And, at last, in "Thirst," she writes "Another morning and I wake with thirst/ for the goodness I do not have.  I walk/ out to the pond and all the way God has/ given us such beautiful lessons."

Mary Oliver thirsts for God.  Some will disagree with her lifestyle (Molly Malone Cook was truly her life partner), but her faith seems real as does her love of the world and her experience of grief.  Those are things that must resonate with us, as we are human too.

Most helpful is the accessibility of these poems.  Many people will be able to read and enjoy them.  The language is simple yet elegant. The "space" in the poems created by their economy is an almost aural testimony to the awe with which she regards the life of the world and, now, the One who made it all.

I highly recommend this book of poetry.  It's like walking through a room of Monet paintings: there's not much not to love.  Use it to stimulate your own love of nature and of nature's God.

[For an easily printable version of this review, click here.]

Thirst: The Poems of Mary Oliver (Part Three)

Thirst_3Reading this poem by Mary Oliver, another from her new book entitled Thirst, I think of Psalm 24:1 and the Psalmist's proclamation that "[t]he earth is the Lord's, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it. . . ."  I'm unsure of the reason for the title; a prior poem was entitled "Musical Notation: 1," and it is, like this one, a reflection on what is made and the Maker.  So perhaps it is the music of Creation?  I don't know.  But I like this simple reflection that everything is His, everything.

Musical Notation: 2

Everything is His.
The door, the door jamb.
The wood stacked near the door.
The leaves blown upon the path
     that leads to the door.
The trees that are dropping their  leaves
     the wind that is tripping them this way and that way,
the clouds that are high above them,
the stars that are sleeping now beyond the clouds

and, simply said, all the rest.

When I open the door I am so sure
     all this will be there, and it is.
I look around.
I fill my arms with firewood.
I turn and enter His house, and close His door.

When you open the door tomorrow on a world outside, you might think of this poem.  You might pause and consider that He made it all, that whatever you touch is His, that your very life is His.  You might then say, with the Psalmist, "what is man that you are mindful of Him, the son of man that you care for him? (Ps. 8:4)

And you may never look at doors or door jambs with indifference, but, rather, with the Architect's heart.

Thirst: The Poems of Mary Oliver (Part Two)

Thirst_1 I said earlier that I was reading and savoring one Mary Oliver poem a day, from her new book, Thirst, but I spoke to soon.  I have so enjoyed them that I am halfway through the book.  They seem to fall into two categories -- poems about grieving and poems of reflections on nature -- but, whatever the category, they are full of faith.  The language is simple, and yet not simplistic.  They have depth, and yet they are very accessible.  If you've ever asked yourself, is He really there?, and then wondered, only to have Him show up some time later, you may like this one.

The Vast Ocean Begins Just Outside Our Church: The Eucharist

Something has happened
to the bread
and the wine.

They have been blessed.
What now?
The body leans forward

to receive the gift
from the priest's hand,
then the chalice.

They are something else now
from what they were
before this began.

I want
to see Jesus,
maybe in the clouds

or on the shore,
just walking,
beautiful man

and clearly
someone else

On the hard days
I ask myself
if I ever will.

Also there are times
my body whispers to me
that I have.

What did Mary Oliver grieve?  It was the death of her friend, agent, and companion Molly Malone Cook.  Mary Oliver was a lesbian.  I'm sad to know this, sad because this lifestyle falls so short of God's design for relationships, and now, even that is gone for her.  And yet my disagreement with that lifestyle does not take away the empathy one can feel.  Her love was real, as far as it went.  So too, her grief.  And the faith she has -- and her desire to see Jesus -- may well carry her beyond such marred relationships to the One who loves her as no one else can.

Monet in Normandy: A Reaction

W1788waterlilies I confess that I am yet unable to appreciate great paintings in the same way I can already appreciate literature or music.  All art requires one to stay with the work for a time, to let it seep in, to better appreciate its subtleties.  I find that more difficult with paintings -- primarily, I think, because works of fiction, certainly poetry, and by definition music all are rooted in sound, and perhaps it is the case that while we all see and hear, some of us are affected more easily by the seeing and others of us by the hearing. I must be the latter.

This morning I went to visit the traveling Monet in Normandy exhibition at the North Carolina Museum of Art.  It gathers around 50 of his paintings from public and private collections all over the world, including the famous ones of the water lilies, the haystacks and wheat fields, and the Rouen Cathedral.  It was interesting to note the progression from a realist style (more like photography) to his trademark impressionist style (which was reagrded as "bad" art by his critics).  The colors are rich, and there's little if any dark themes in his work.  No wonder we are drawn to these paintings; so much modern art is rooted in a nihilistic framework, with dark themes of despair and alienation common.  Or the works are mere canvasses for propaganda -- meant to shock us into change of mind on some social or political issue.  Monet appears to have had none of that.  Part of it was no doubt his largely serene and stable lifestyle; another part might be explained by his preoccupation with the beauty of Creation.  Looking at all these paintings, it's not difficult to say "beautiful" about them, and it's unlikely that hanging any of these in a public art space would cause an outcry.

Wisteria_1 I like them all, from the early seascapes to the later gardens -- but those water lilies, and the wisteria, husge canvasses bursting with brights hues?  Like countless others, I could look at them a long, long time, and with enough time and enough silence (none of that today!), I may even find the sound of those paintings.  I might just hear their music.

[Monet in Normandy will be at the North Museum of Art through January 14, 2007.  Admission to the exhibit is ticketed, and reservations are suggested.  You can obtain more information here.]

Thirst: The Poems of Mary Oliver (Part One)

ThirstOne of the books I am very slowly reading and savoring is poet Mary Oliver's Thirst, published this month.  I don't like a lot of poetry, but there isn't much here (maybe none) that I do not like thus far!  Oliver is a Pulitzer prize winning poet who often writes poetry based on her reflections on nature, which she does here as well, but who increasingly has begun to write of Christian faith.  That's not necessarily to make Oliver an evangelical Christian (I note the book is published by Beacon Press, which is under the auspices of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations, a non-Christian religious group), but one must evaluate any art on its own basis and not on the basis of the artist's philosophical or religious persuasion, at least in the first instance.

So, I'll be offering a few of Oliver's poems from time to time in the next few weeks, and a full review of her book a little later on.  I like this particular poem for the love of creation it reflects, its accessibility, and it's final lines inviting the Creator to "come in, come in:"

Making the House Ready for the Lord

Dear Lord, I have swept and I have washed but
     still nothing is as shining as it should be
for you.  Under the sink, for example, is an
     uproar of mice --- it is the season of their
many children.  What shall I do?  And under the eaves
     and through the walls the squirrels
have gnawed their ragged entrances --- but it is the season
     when they need shelter, so what shall I do?  And
the raccoon limps into the kitchen and opens the cupboard
     while the dog snores, the cat hugs the pillow;
what shall I do?  Beautiful is the new snow falling
     in the yard and the fox who is staring boldly
up the path, to the door.  And I still believe you will
     come, Lord: you will, when I speak to the fox,
the sparrow, the lost dog, the shivering sea goose, know
     that really I am speaking to you whenever I say,
as I do all morning and afternoon: Come in, Come in.

I suppose there is more than one way to understand the poem, but for me the whole house and animal theme is a metaphor for a life that is not shining, that is broken, and yet one that is open to people and animals and, ultimately, to the Lord -- one that says everyday, "come in, come in."

A Laura Nyro Playlist

LauraIt goes without saying that you don't have to condone the lifestyle or personal social and political views of a singer-songwriter to appreciate their music and artistry, and that's certainly the case for me in respect to the late Laura Nyro, who died in 1997 at the age of 49 of ovarian cancer.  Nyro was an immensely talented singer and songwriter that emerged in the Sixties at the then young age of 17 (for musicians).  She brought a blend of New York City Brill-Building style pop (a la Gerry Goffin and Carole King), soul, R & B, folk, and jazz -- influencing others like Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon, and Riki Lee Jones.  The Wikipedia entry (worth reading in itself )summarizes her astounding, youthful success like this:

"Born in the The Bronx, New York, of Italian-American and Jewish-American parents, Nyro was best known by the general public – and had the most commercial success – as a songwriter rather than a performer. Her best-known songs include "And When I Die" (made a hit by Blood, Sweat & Tears), "Stoney End" (covered by Barbra Streisand), "Wedding Bell Blues," "Stoned Soul Picnic," "Sweet Blindness," "Save the Country" (all covered by the Fifth Dimension), and "Eli's Coming" (a hit for Three Dog Night). Ironically, Nyro's own best-selling single was a cover of Carole King and Gerry Goffin's "Up on the Roof."

Nyro had great integrity, even if I may disagree with her social advocacy via her music (she was a feminist, pacifist, and animal rights advocate).  She refused to allow the music industry to exploit her, declining, for the most part, videos and television appearances. 

Lyrically, she moved from teenage angst to more issue oriented music.  Personal difficulty followed her.  Her marriage failed, and she formed a personal relationship with a female partner, presumably meaning she was a lesbian.  I listen to her music -- to her soulful soaring voice, full of emotion -- with a degree of sadness for her lostness and yet a joy in the fine voice and music only God can give.  I'm just a pushover for female voices, and Nyro strikes a chord with me.

I selected my favorite of her songs.  You can listen to this medley by clicking the link below:

Link: Best of Laura Nyro.

1. Brown Earth - Laura Nyro 2. Blackpatch - Laura Nyro 3. Blowing Away - Laura Nyro 4. And When I Die - Laura Nyro 5. It's Gonna Take A Miracle - Laura Nyro 6. Up On The Roof - Laura Nyro 7. Emmie - Laura Nyro 8. Louise's Church - Laura Nyro 9. Broken Rainbow - Laura Nyro 10. To A Child - Laura Nyro 11. Children Of The Junks - Laura Nyro 12. I Met Him On A Sunday - Laura Nyro 13. Spanish Harlem - Laura Nyro 14. Time And Love - Laura Nyro

Enjoy the music!

Mojave 3/ Tim O'Reagan: Concert Review

Mojave3I have always appreciated the British band Mojave 3 for their subtle music -- they major in dreamy, sonic landscapes, and yet never lapse into the ethereal.  They have always made real songs, song with hooks and melody and lyrical depth.  I first discovered them with their fourth release, Spoon and Rafter, an album that I grew to love, but at the same time I realized that some folks would be bored with it as too dreamy, moody, and lacking in diversity.

Mojave3band_2 I think that would change with the release of this year's Puzzles Like You, a decidedly poppy and upbeat installment in M3s brand of pop songwriting.  It's a feel-good record, buoyant and even joyful at times, a real antidote for the angst-ridden stuff of most singer-songwriters.  I haven't yet gotten tired of listening to it.  Songs like “Puzzles Like You”, “Running With Your Eyes Closed” and “Big Star Baby” have warm tones that swim by you.  In addition, there's enough variety in sounds here to maintain interest throughout the record.

Tonight I had a chance to hear Mojave 3 in concert at the Cat's Cradle in Carrboro, NC.  M3 is Rachel Goswell, Neil Halstead and Ian McCutcheon, and since Goswell is unable to tour right now due to health problems, I wondered how the show would go, that is, who would carry her part.  I'd say it went well.  The band was tight, if unengaging with the audience of about 75 people.  Neil Halstead has a great voice and is able to carry the vocals alone (no one else sang), but listening to the record again, it's apparent that Rachel Goswell is missed -- she certainly adds texture to an already great sound. 

Tim_1But for me and  my friend Jared, the opening act, Tim O'Reagan, was probably the more engaging.  Tim is obviously a seasoned player, the drummer and principal songwriter for The Jayhawks (which, presumably is no longer a band, with O'Reagan out on his own, Gary Louris playing with Golden Smog and other projects, and Mark Olsen on his own).  His sound -- which ranges from Americana to pop to flat out rock and roll -- was diverse and interesting, and he has a piercing vocal (with just a touch of rock and roll snarl so you know he means it).  The lead guitarist was excellent and even sang lead on a song, and Tim was well-supported by a bassist and drummer.  It was an excellent rendition of his latest solo release, simply titled Tim O'Reagan.

AlbumIt was a late night!  The show was scheduled to begin at 9:00 but actually got underway at 9:40.  Things ended just after midnight.  That's a late night for me these days.

I'm amazed that these guys are willing to do what they do -- away from home, playing for very little, living like gypsies.  What makes them do it?  I remember what Pierce Pettis, a veteran singer-songwriter told me once:  "I don't recommend that anyone do it unless they can't do anything else.  I don't know how to do anything else."  Maybe that's it.  Regardless, I'm glad they showed up here.

Making New Words For Timeless Truths

Alpha2The language of faith can become dry and lifeless by it's overuse and inattentive use over time.  I suspect that many of the words we take for granted in the vocabulary of faith are like that.  We fail to see their radical import, even their offense; because they have been used so much they have lost their original meaning.  Several years ago I was having a discussion with a friend -- a long, long discussion over many months -- regarding the church as an institution.  I cannot do justice to his concerns or, perhaps, his critique, but I know that part of it was the hypocrisy of church, and a part of that was the words we use so freely.  One day, I said look, if you don't like the words, make some new ones.  Make your own.  I said it like this, a part of a longer prose poem I wrote for my friend and, ultimately, for me:

Yes, yes, I know the words
those people use,
But let's make new words.
Let me do it.
Let me try it.
Let me tell the Story in my words,
in my story.
Let me jot it down,
make a note,
hold it in my memory:
my holy writ,
an alphabet of grace,
my invitation,

to a place called Home,
so familiar
so unknown
the place that scares you deep inside
like new Love.

And that's just a bit of that discussion, but an important piece of it.  That's why today's devotional from Ravi Zacharias Ministries, called "Many, Many Words," by Betsy Childs, resonated with me and brought back a memory of that long conversation.  Childs addresses the growth of euphemisms, which are vague and mild expressions which are substituted over time for ones which seem to be blunt or offensive.  The "euphemism treadmill" is "the process by which, over time, a common euphemism becomes so identified with the word it has replaced that it loses any power to shield from offense."  She says that the problem is that many of our words of faith have become euphemisms and, thus, have lost their rich meaning.  She says that many of the words we employ familiarly in the conversation of our faith actually signify "fearsome, unsettling spiritual realities."  But you'd never know it.

The answer to this treadmill?  I've already said it.  Make new words.  Recast the faith in fresh language that conveys the power of the text and, thus, of the spiritual reality.  And failing that, understand what you are saying when you use a familiar word.  Appreciate the brashness of the language of scripture.  When we sing "our God is an awesome God," let's consider that if we are awed by God we have a healthy fear of Him, because He is fearsome.  He is not just cool (which is how the word is often used nowadays.) 

Listen to what you say.  Find some new words for the alphabet of grace.

Poems That Endure; People That Endure

"There has to be some overwhelming experience of love, or of something, that the poem chronicles or records. It cannot be the subject of that love. If it's only that, if it's only language, then the poem is not going to survive. Poems that survive are the ones that come out of human beings who've had some expeience that needs to be testified to or recorded or given body. They are not just pleasing in themselves. We need to be able to master and explore and mine the nature of language itself, but it's the degree to which the poem is more than that which gives you real art. Some previous, wordless experience is being given a verbal equivalent. This is what I am looking for: poetry that lets the wordless original experience shine through the words."

(Franz Wright, in "A Conversation With Franz Wright, Image, #51)

Reading this interview with the poet Franz Wright will make you thankful, not envious of a "gift"for language which has caused him as much pain as it has caused him bliss.  Winner of many honors, including the Pulitzer Prize, Wright spent years as an alcoholic, a manic depressive, and in all manners of self-abusive behavior -- before becoming a Christian and being baptized in the Catholic Church.  Thank God.  He is, by his own admission, still a rough character, but he has been changed by Love.  If I had met him on the street several years ago, he would have looked like a scary, deranged homeless person.  (He said that, not me!)  I would not have known he was a brother in Christ on his way to realizing this for himself.  I suspect I would have been on my way as quickly as I could.

I thought of this today, in near isolation, in 18 degree bitter cold on the top of Roan Mountain, near the Tennesse-North Carolina line, when two men asked for a ride down the mountain with my family.  Two strangers. I let them in.  The older one said "Up here we're backpackers; in the city we're homeless people."  That was a curious thing to say.  We remembered the admonition that we are not to "forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some people have entertained angels without knowing it" (Heb.13:3).

They could have been angels, they could have been like Franz Wright, or they could have been just plain backpackers. But one thing is for sure: I don't know how to heed that Scripture without some risk.

The priest who helped Franz Wright said he was scared of the guy at first.  I'll bet he was.  I was a little scared too - now that I think about it.

Art With a Private Address

SingerI think I have written before of my disdain for artists who use their art as a pulpit for political activism -- as a place for propaganda, where a song, for example, becomes merely a vehicle for "making a point," for persuading someone of the moral righteousness of a position.  Good art is not morally indifferent, and good artists are not precluded form being active in social causes, but the art itself is not the place for that, at least not in this sense.  Art is much more subtle than that, and much more concerned with the human condition and the often difficult conditions we find ourselves in.

This is why I was pleased to find a more credible voice than mine saying much the same thing.  In the editorial statement by Gregory Wolfe which accompanied the latest issue of Image (#51), entitled "Keeping a Private Address," Wolfe picks up on Eudora Welty's phrase as an important corrective to the trend toward artist-activists.  What concerns him is "the growing trend that leads writers and artists to feel impelled to make their ideological commitments the defining characteristic  of their creative work."  Wolfe goes so far as to say that "the problem with the world today is not too little morality, but too much."  He calls these artists-activists the "new Puritans."  (I know what he's driving at but may differ with him as to what the Puritans were all about, as their characterization as zealous moralists really does not do justice to who they were.)

Like me, Wolfe laments the politicization of art as a cheapening of the artistic enterprise.  He cites Ann Lamott's recent book, Plan B, as an example of what happens, as Lamott's book is replete with criticism of George Bush (as are so many albums in the pop-rock market, all with their obligatory anti-Bush song).  Ann Lamott is a good writer, and the point is not that she has liberal political views.  The point is her foisting them on us in the artistic context.  I'm not reading her book for her political views.  I'm reading her stories because they are good -- full of depth, human, and not easily categorized.  He holds up Wendell Berry as a writer who has managed to hold views and yet not let them turn his work into propaganda.  I agree.

I commend this short article to you.  There is much more than I can comment on here.  I'm tired of politicized art.  It's fashionable in some quarters, but it's not good.

The Theology of Delight

Flowers_2Scott Cairns, whose poem "Yellow" I reprinted yesterday, is a poet worth reading.  This book I pulled off my shelf, now out of print, called Odd Angles of Heaven: Contemporary Poetry By People of Faith, which a collection of work by several  Christian poets, is odd.  I cannot say I like most of it, but some I find provocative, some challenging, and some just plain delightful.  This poem falls in that latter category.  I enjoy the title, which provokes me to thoughtfulness, as much as its content.

What after all is the "theology of delight?"  And what could a short poem say about it?  Don't you need an essay or, perhaps, a more substantial work of doctrine to plumb the depths of that phrase? Maybe.  But maybe a poem, or a painting, or a piece of music better gets at what it means to experience delight.  I like the quietness of this poem's delight -- a simple mediation on what is made by God, the delight He must have known in making a world in His image.  His delight is surely in making things and seeing them unfold, a sheep alone in a field as much as the sheep in a field that "leapt for no apparent reason." That's the key phrase, isn't it?  Delight is that sense you have when you heart leaps. . . for no apparent reason.  But, you better read the poem:

The Theology of Delight

Flowers2_1 Imagine a world, this ridiculous
tentative thing blooming
in your hand.  There in your hand, a world
opening up, stretching, after the image
of your hand.  Imagine
a field of sheep grazing, or a single sheep
grazing and wandering in the delight
of grass, of flowers
lifting themselves, after their fashion,
to be flowers.  Or a woman, lifting her hand
to touch her brow, and the intricacy
of the motion that frees her
to set the flat part of her hand
carelessly to her brow.  Once,
while walking, I came across a woman
whose walking had brought her
to a shaded spot near a field.
Enjoying that cool place together,
we sat watching sheep and the wind
moving the small flowers in the field.
As we rose to set out again, our movement
startled the flock into running; they ran
only a little way before settling again
into their blank consideration
of the grass.  But one of them continued,
its prancing taking it far into the field
where, free of the other, it leapt for
no clear reason, and set out walking
through a gathering of flowers, parting
that grip of flowers with its face.

A field, sheep, a woman with a hand to her brow, a cool breeze -- all these are good and yet point beyond themselves  to something more richer, deeper, and more delightful that lie beyond -- not an abstraction, not some impersonal force, but a loving God who has created everything out of love for us, for our delight.  As Alister McGrath says. "[T]he supreme aim of the study of nature is 'to perceive the eternal word of God reflected in every plant and insect, every bird and animal, and every man and woman.'" (Alister McGrath, Creation, citing Ninian of Whithorn).  Look around.  It's delightful what you see.

Ropes Let Down to the Lost

"Athletes take care of their bodies.  Writers must similarly take care of the sensibility that houses the possibility of poems.  There is nourishment in books, other art, history, philosophies -- in holiness and mirth.  It is in honest hands-on labor also; I don't mean to indicate a preference for the scholarly life.  And it is in the green world -- among people, and animals, and trees for that matter, if one genuinely cares about trees.  A mind that is alive and inquiring, compassionate, curious, angry, full of music, full of feeling, is a mind full of possible poetry.  Poetry is a life-cherishing force.  And it requires a vision -- a faith,  to use an old-fashioned term.  Yes, indeed.  For poems are not words, after all, but fires for the cold, ropes let down to the lost, something as necessary as bread in the pockets of the hungry.  Yes, indeed."

Mary Oliver, in A Poetry Handbook (New York: Harcourt Brace & Co., 1994, p. 122)

I am, I regret, a sporadic writer of poetry.  I feel the need for inspiration, and this statement is inspiring, the image of poems being "fires for the cold, ropes let down to the lost."  Do I really believe that?  Sometimes I do.  But I doubt that many people would have that opinion of poems.  Poems don't do anything, they might say.  They don't persuade, convey information, or tell a good and entertaining story.  In addition, they befuddle most folks who aren't in the habit of reading poems, as their meaning is not always apparent.  In truth, they have a point.  Many poems have no staying power, no sound or image that resonates with us.  A poet has their work cut out for them.

Here's a little poem that has no great big point to make, takes no cause, and does not attempt to persuade.  What it so subtly does, and does well, is simply observe a person with a empathetic eye, and in so doing, it helps us be more human.

Dress_1 Yellow

The town is much larger than you recall,
but you can still recognize the poor:
they vote to lose every chance they get, their faces
carry the tattoo of past embarrassments,

they are altogether too careful.  This girl,
here in the print dress, pretending to shop
for an extravagance, the too slow way
her hand lingers between the colors along

the rack, her tentative hold on the clasp --
sure signs she knows she has no business here.
Soon enough she'll go home again with nothing
especially new in her hand, but no one

needs to rush things.  The afternoon itself
is unhurried, and the lighted air outside
the store has lilacs in it.  Her hand finds
a yellow dress.  I think she should try it on.

Scott Cairns, in Odd Angles of Heaven: Contemporary Poetry By People of Faith)

Now that, as Oliver says, is "fire for the cold," cold human hearts that is.  Reading that, I'm a little less cold.  Yes, she should try on the yellow dress.

Out Walking/ Out Blogging

I'm always amazed at how technology is relentless in expanding choices. For example, I took this photo of a midst-shrouded lake near our home today using a digital camera which is a part of my phone/PDA/MP3 player/gameboy/audio recorder/word processing computer, and so on. (It's a Treo 650.) And now, I can even post to my weblog from the multi-purpose thingmajiggy (I don't know what to call it anymore.) Not that I necessarily want to, but the tech gurus figure that everyone will want the choice, right? Actually, it's not so bad, not with the fold-out infrared keyboard that is almost full size yet folds to the size a deck of cards. Is all this necessary? No. But it sure is fun.

You know, I could just blog all day wherever I am. Who needs personal contact or conversation? Don't call me. Just see me on my blog, right?

There must be something wrong here. With all these choices, I think we're losing something. And it doesn't take long to figure out what.

[By the way, the thinness of my post this evening is due to the fact that I have been researching via internet The Tapestry Project.  I'm weary!  Read about it here.]

Against All Hope

MagicalAgainst all hope, Abraham in hope believed and so became the father of many nations, just as it had been said to him, "So shall your offspring be" (Rom. 4:18)

I cannot imagine a sadder and yet more honest book published last year than Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking, and I cannot even bring myself to read it, only a review of it.  In his review in the September 2006 Touchstone Magazine, "Pain Without Gain," Harold Bush rightly praises the nakedness and vulnerability of Didion's work.  The book is, to use a metaphor, her "blood on the tracks" (thank you Bob Dylan), a painfully honest account of her grieving of the sudden illness of her daughter, Quintana, who fell into a coma on of all mornings Christmas morning in 2003, and then the sudden death of her husband from cardiac arrest at the dinner table only days later.  Can you imagine?  Or, like me, do you not even care to imagine?

As Bush notes, Didion begins the book by describing her writing of it as an attempt to make sense of the grief.  In the end, Didion utterly rejects Christian belief, in essence saying that there is no hope.  The "magical thinking" to which the title points is the (according to her) hope that sorrow will make sense, that there is life after death.  She utterly rejects the transcendent.

You might ask how someone like Didion gets on with life.  I don't know.  Facing the emptiness of the universe, the lack of meaning that their nihilistic assumptions drove them to, more than one philosopher committed suicide or lapsed into insanity, unable to deal with life on his "non-magical" terms (Nietzsche, some think, for example).  Most who embrace this kind of meaninglessness get on with life by self-deception, deceiving themselves into thinking they can create meaning for themselves.

What a sad progression.  What sad lives.  The antidote to such despair is hope, and yet God is the source of all hope.  "Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed," says Paul.  Abraham, a dried up old man believed the outrageous promise that he would be the "father of many nations."  Why?  He had a reason to believe.  God had spoken to him.  And yet, still, with the passage of time it would have been tempting to believe that he had been mistaken, maybe not heard God or not heard Him correctly.  I mean, God speaks in Scripture and then there are long silences, right?

Against all hope.  No human, natural basis for hope.  Even hope is God-supplied.  We can hope God supplies it to Joan Didion.  Then she can join fellow writers Anne Rice, Ann Lamott, and Kathleen Norris, just to name a few, who believe -- against all hope.

Why I Love Cheerwine: A Story (Part Eight)

Cheerwine_6[Mystic cats?  A journey?  We leave Brigette there in Rose gardens and return to Henry again, as the story continues.  Something is changing.  Read the whole story in progress, as revised, here.]

While Henry slept fitfully, his legs splayed over the bed where he had fallen in his clothes, momentous things were happening in the world outside.  Sam was perched on the window sill outside Henry's room, ears alert, eyes flashing the moon's suggestive glow.  In his cat-sized soul, Sam could feel it -- the change coming on, something wafting in on the breeze, a blanket of otherworldly change, not evil but altogether mysterious.  Sam sniffed at the air, whiskers twitching, intuitively sensing an inarticulable, slight seismic shift in space and time.

In Henry's dream there was Josie Griffin again, laughing, blond hair flapping in the wind as Henry chased her round and round her house, and then, there was Josie chasing him round the house, him running in his stumbling clumsy way, only when he looked back he saw it wasn't Josie at all but a white coated, stern Mrs. Hightower who had him by the collar, saying "Take these, Henry, now, you'll feel better, Henry," with Henry tying to pull away only to find he was paralyzed, unable to move away.  "Now, now, Henry," said Mrs. Hightower.

Henry woke to find himself alone in the dark, his hands clenched, his breathing labored.  He said two words: "God.  Help."  It took a moment before he even realized that he had said them aloud, the sound of his own voice seeming to echo off the bare walls of the bedroom.  5:15 read the clock.  Henry lifted the window shade and rested his nose on the cool glass of the window pane.  Two yellowish cat eyes stared back, startling him until he realized it was Sam -- Sam the mystic, the seer, the cat who knew all but said little.  That was what Henry's Mama used to say.  "Mama, what's 'mystic' mean?" he'd say.  And she'd just say, "Special, Henry, just special.  Sort of like you, Henry."   Henry never did quite make the connection between himself -- a pale-skinned two legged being, and Sam, a furry four legged creature much given to sleeping and eating.  And yet when he looked in Sam's eyes, he knew what to do.  Then he knew what he had to do.

Standing up, Henry switched on the light and quickly dressed -- jeans, t-shirt, comfortable shoes.  Then he reached for his backpack and stuffed in an extra change of clothes.  Finally, he reached up to the top of his chest of drawers and carefully brought down a wooden box, handmade just for him.  Opening it, he pulled out all the money inside, counting about $400.00 and stuffing it in his pocket.  It was a large part of what Henry had saved from the check he received each month.

Turning off the light, Henry walked down the hall, noticing in the moonlight each and every picture on the walls, as if he'd never seen them before.  There was the family photo:  Mother, Father (who he did not know), and himself, all smiling awkwardly against a fake forest backdrop.  He paused for a moment and looked at his mother smiling, and he smiled.  "I have to go now," he thought.  "Time's a'wastin'."

Opening the front door, he let the screen shut behind him, this time letting it shut slowly.  He jumped the three steps from the porch in one stride and brushed against the ankle high grass as he strode for the road.  Looking back, he saw Sam sitting on the porch now, watching him, wise cat eyes.  "Sam, I'm going.  You'll be OK now."  Sam just turned and walked away.  Of course he'd be OK.

Life's Iconicity

IconOne of the things that artists do and do well is to stare at something -- whether of the natural world, of relationships, or of culture -- until it gives up meaning, that is, until they see something of its essence.  In a proper sense, then, Christian artists value the world greatly as a window on the really real, on a spiritual reality, as a glimpse into the new heaven and new earth foretold in Revelation 21.  In this way, it's possible to speak of life's subjects -- all the many objects of our study, our love, and our attention -- as icons, as windows into a greater reality.  And if that's the case, you might argue that as Christians we should be and to some extent inevitably will be living iconically -- seeing greater reality beyond the shadowlands of this world.

Two things came together recently which made me think of this.  First was a sermon which had as its text the two parables of proper valuation, if we can call them that.  I'm speaking of the parable of the hidden treasure and the pearl contained in Matthew 13:44-46.  The point of the sermon was that we don't usually believe that the kingdom of heaven is a great "deal," that more often we regret what we'll have to give up in getting there.  Really, the argument goes, we should value that kingdom of heaven so much that we would gladly give up this life to have the kingdom of heaven now.  Why do we do this?  Why do we undervalue?  Because we don't believe what a great deal this is.  We think of heaven as some disembodied state where we float around singing all day when, in actuality, it's a very earthy, real place, where we are in recognizable bodies (only better).  In fact, all that is familiar to us now will be found there in the new earth, only deeper, richer, and more profound and without the confounding curse of sin.

The other revelation came from reading the first third of N.T. Wright's excellent book, Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense.  In Part One of the book, Bishop Wright speaks of four "echoes of a voice" in the world that we all -- Christian and non Christian -- hear and respond to in various ways: the longing for justice, the quest for spirituality, the hunger for relationships, and the delight in beauty.  All of these echoes are like signposts pointing outside themselves and, just maybe, to the Voice beyond.  Aha!  These echoes or desires are like icons.  We look through and beyond them to sense and appreciate the greater reality beyond.  For a nonbeliever, they are tantalizing hints of something Other;  for the Christian, looking through these created things by the lens of scripture, they are absolutely enriching.

Some examples help.  When I consider the longing for justice, I consider the imperfect and yet extraordinary South African Commission on Truth and Reconciliation which married justice and mercy.  What will it really feel like when righteousness and peace "kiss"? (Ps. 85:10).  When I consider the hunger for relationships, I think of marriage, a good marriage, where there is a intellectual, emotional, and sexual unity -- all of which points beyond itself to deeper and richer relationships in the world to come.  We desire spirituality, and I think of the times I feel closest to God and imagine the deep joy of knowing Him face to face.  And finally, when I stand on a mountain ridge on a crisp Fall day and watch the sun glint on a kaleidescope of color, I am moved in an inexplicable way, and so I imagine what it will be like to see deeply into the essence of these colors, to feel the depth and richness of the sky, the sun, and the towering trees.  Well, we lack the words, don't we?

Living iconically.  It's a strange word to us Protestants, but it's a good word, rightly understood.  Going back to that sermon again, I think that by rightly valuing the things of this world -- that is, by seeing them as icons, as windows on the new heaven and earth -- I'll better realize what a great deal the kingdom of heaven really is.  Who wouldn't want more and more of all the true, good, and beautiful of the here and now -- for a few trillion years, too? As Bishop Wright notes, we're talking about a deeper and richer kind of knowing here, more like the love of a person.  And that's just it.  What all these icons press as toward, all these echoes remind us of, is the One who made it all, the One to whom all thing inevitably point.  We're not content to just wander through the house picking up and looking at the things the spouse who is out of town has left behind as reminders, as echoes of their presence.  We want our love back, and we won't be content until we have them back.  We won't be content until we have Him -- face to face -- in a new heaven and a new earth.

Brave New Wanda: A Book Review

WandaIn Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, he writes of a future time when babies are born in laboratories -- a chilling, impersonal, and yet not so far-fetched prospect.  That possibility, and the title itself, is a point of departure for Lynda Rutledge's recent novel, Brave New Wanda, published by the start-up publisher, Wordfarm.  I was attracted to this independent publisher both because it includes some graduates of Wheaton College, former staff with InterVarsity Press, and at least one person with theological training.  In addition, they publish John Leax, a wonderful Christian writer.  And yet I suspected that they were into more than publishing books for the religious market.  I was right.

Indeed, you wouldn't find Brave New Wanda on the shelves of Lifeway or Family bookstores.  Not when the "f" word is used in the second paragraph of the first page!  I'm not in favor of gratuitous profanity, and yet I am strongly in favor of allowing a character to be authentic, to be who they are.  There's no need to clean up Wanda.  Wanda is a hardened and profane 13-year old girl who has been let down by life and by the people close to her.  When her mother dies, she shoots her stepfather in the foot with a rifle, puts her half-crazy grandmother and Wild Thing (her dog) in her mother's old Cadillac, and hits the road.  Her goal?  Find her real Daddy.

And that's where the fun begins.  It seems Wanda's mother had visited a shadowy artificial insemination clinic in Dallas.  That's where Wanda goes.  Page one.  What she finds is a web of deceit.  It seems that one of the doctors decided to donate sperm on multiple ocassions and, thus, is the biological father of dozens of children.  It's there she meets Patty Hightower, former Texas Beauty Queen, recently jilted by her husband who made off with his secretary, Patty who for whatever reason had not been able to have a child to complete her "perfect" existence, Patty who is having a very, very bad day.  She's thrown together with Wanda, and both discover who they are through the journey to find Wanda's "real" father.

In a real sense, Brave New Wanda asks the question that we all ask:  Who am I?  Wanda is searching for that perfect Daddy, the one who will welcome her into his life and make it all right.  Patty is looking for the idealistic lifestyle any beauty queen would want -- perfect husband, home in the suburbs, designer baby, important job, and, of course, perpetual good looks.  They both find out that what they thought they wanted is not what they need, that life is messy and grand, that the roots they sought -- the things that they thought would give their lives meaning -- were no roots at all.  Rutledge doesn't give us the answers, only hints, but that's part of the beauty of the book:  it's not all tied up neatly in the end, and yet the suggestion of resolution is there.  In the end, Wanda Ledbetter is brave, and new, brave enough to say to that donor Daddy "So here it is: I'm too mean to live but I'm too mean to wither, too, you hear.  Just so you know. . . . Hey, you don't know what you're missing."  And new enough to get some roots -- her own roots, ones that were there all along.

Brave New Wanda is a funny book built on tragic occurrences, written in a breezy style, dialog-rich and Texas through and through.  It reminded me a bit of a more poignant Clyde Edgerton.  I recommend it, not as the best book around, but as a piece of serious, enjoyable work.  Support an upstart publisher committed to publishing good books.  Buy this book.

Why I Love Cheerwine: A Story (Part Seven)

Cheerwine_7[Brigette, J.D., and Squirt.  The story continues.  This Part features a bit of dialog, which is difficult to make sound just right.  I find that reading it aloud helps, and yet still I'm not satisfied.  I begin to wonder if I know enough about these people.  Read the whole story to date, as revised, here.]

"What kinda name is that?"

"It's French," said Brigette. 'That's R-E-N-O-V-A-R-E.  Renovare."  Brigette didn't know why she did that -- lie, that is.  She found that she did it a lot, and about the most trivial of matters.  But, come to think of it, she did like the way it sounded.  Ren-o-vare.  She could just see it on a movie marquee, or in the credits running at the end of the TV series: "BRIGETTE RENOVARE."

"Well now.  I could tell you weren't from these parts, anyway.  Name's J.D.  And that's Squirt," he said, pointing to a scrappy blond-headed fellow still washing the driveway with the hose.  "Now, what's the problem?"

"My car.  It quit on me about two miles down the road.  I walked.  I had to.  I don't know what happened.  It just quit."

"Well, just sit down.  I'll hook it up and bring it in.  We'll check it out."  And with that, J.D stood up, slowly stretched, and walked in a stumbling gait toward the aging tow truck located at the corner of the lot.  Without turning, he yelled "Hey, how will I know the car?"

"It's red, a red convertible."

Again, without turning, J.D. raised his hand to acknowledge her, mumbling under his breath, "Figures."

She sat down, leaning her head back against the shop window, closing her eyes for a few moments just to rest her mind.  But she couldn't.  At this rate, she wouldn't reach Salisbury before dark.  Heck, she wasn't sure when she'd make it.  She'd have to call Francine.  Francine was the only kin she had nearby, as she was an only child.  Francine was always telling her to come for a visit.  Now was as good a time as any, she figured, what with all her troubles it was time to get out of town for awhile.

Francine used to visit her when she was young, and Brigette recalled fighting her, tooth and nail, over the slightest of things.  They were like that -- fast friends one minute, sworn enemies the next.  She remembered her puckish expression and short fat legs, always trailing her when they were running around the farm.  But Francine was smart.  She got the brains.  She went to college.  She got brains, and I got looks, Brigette said to herself, looking down at her wrinkled shirt, wet with sweat.  "Only it ain't doing me much good today," she said out loud.

"What ain't doing you no good?"

"Huh?"  She turned to see Squirt standing in the door of the office, drinking a soda, smiling at her.  "Oh, nothing.  Nothing at all.  I just meant I don't have time for this."  Squirt looked vaguely familiar and was possibly fairly handsome underneath all the grease.

"J.D.'ll fix you up.  He's the best mechanic in Rose Gardens."

"Yeah, the only mechanic in Rose Gardens."

"That too. . . . So, what kind of name is that -- Renovare?"

Brigette just rolled her eyes and put her head in her hands.

Conversation (With Real, Live People)

People_communicating_2I've recently had an opportunity to engage several folks in conversations -- significant and useful conversations -- the kind where you must listen and ask questions, where I was asking the questions and compelled by the nature of the assignment not to interject my own opinions.  Just listen and ask questions to draw them out into conversation.  I came to several conclusions about the nature of conversations -- some to do with me, some to do with conversation in general, and not a single conclusion, of course, original with me.

First, I discovered that despite the fact that I am an introvert and not excited about talking to people, I can do it and have, over the years, learned something of the skill of having a good conversation.  And that's just what much of it is:  an art to be learned.  Some people come on it naturally and thrive on it, like my daughter.  For example, when she gets on an elevator with people she doesn't know, she engages them by watching them and complimenting them on an article of clothing, asking how they are, or anything else to start a conversation.  And she's very natural about it.  She's born to it; others of us learn it, slowly.

Second, having real conversation reminds me how focused on self I really am.  Whenever you are thinking about what you will say next and not listening (which happens to me a lot), you're not having conversation.  You are talking past each other.  It's not surprising that much political discourse today is just that -- talking past one another.  No one is really listening.

Finally, by having to listen, keeping eye contact and not being able to add much to a conversation other than questions, I realize how complex and enjoyable conversation can be.  It involves setting, expressions, little nuances or inflections of speech, and gestures, and rests on some history of contact with the person.  When all these factors are operative, it makes for a challenging and enjoyable time.

Realizing this -- the beauty of good conversation -- also makes me aware of the severe limitations of email, instant messaging, on line forums ("communities"), and even blogs.  Compared to conversation with real, live people, they are, as Stephen Miller reminds us, impoverished.  In the recent Mars Hill Audio Journal 81, Miller, who has written the book Conversation: The History of a Declining Art, notes that little real conversation is occurring today, not like the conversation of, say, the 18th Century parlors.  We all know the limitations and dangers of email -- useful for communicating bits of information, but not very useful as a discussion forum for communicating on serious matters.  Instant messaging can be even worse, as you can spend a great deal of time on line with several people and end up saying very little in the cryptic messages that go back and forth.  Even blogs are deficient.  While more can be communicated and in a more thoughtful manner, the "conversation" is mostly one way.  I find it helpful as a discipline and as a nice way to organize my thoughts, but not very helpful in having discussions.  In fact, it detracts.  I'll often be with someone and begin to say something in conversation, and then realize that they've already read it on my blog, thought about it, and don't have much to say about it at that time, having already processed it and moved on.  In that way, it's sometimes not a discussion starter but a discussion stopper.  At some point I may take this discipline offline, and yet part of the way I get up for it and keep a certain level of seriousness about it is the knowledge that someone -- some handful of people -- may be reading it.

Talking to people can be uncomfortable and challenging.  That's part of why we need to do it.  It's not what I get up for every day (I'd rather stay in bed and read a book), but I need it, and I need to grow in it.  It's part of imaging God, that is, the Triune God that exists in community, in continuous dialog -- the God who is there and is not silent, neither within the Godhead nor toward us.  He's speaking to us.  And he's not waiting on an email.  He wants us.

Why I Love Cheerwine: A Story (Part Six)

Cheerwine_5[The continuing saga of Henry, and now, Bridgette, who ruminates on her misfortune.  To read the whole story to date, as revised, click here.]

She began to sweat, trickles of water running uncomfortably down her back in the 90 degree heat.  Dropping her pace a bit, she pulled off her maroon colored jacket, leaving her in a white tank top and tight, low-cut Calvin Klein jeans, her best.  She figured she'd attract some attention, dressed as she was, then reconsidered, given the kind of attention she might attract in these parts.  It was a moot point, anyway, because she was alone, alone on the road with nothing but row upon row of corn stretching as far as she could see in both directions.

Her feet hurt too.  Tossing the shoes was probably not a wise move on her part.  She considered returning to the car but seeing that it was far behind her now, she decided to press on toward town.  What was that her Mama once said? -- "Honey, you ain't got the sense God gave an orangutan, but you got the looks."  After barely graduating from high school, Bridgette enrolled in the Laurinburg School of Cosmetology, figuring that working at a salon would keep in touch with the latests fashions, and from there it would be a short move to modeling and then acting.  Because that was her goal -- acting.  Maybe "Desperate Housewives," or "Sex in the City," figuring that she'd had some training in both these already.

With that thought she began to walk faster.  The thought of sex and housewifing made her think of Vinny Torella and their brief but torrid marriage.  Torrid in more ways than one.  They broke things.  They fought.  They yelled.  They made up.  They broke things. They fought.  And that was just during the first week of the marriage.  After three months of marital discord, they were both exhausted.  Vinny moved into the trailer with his brother Pete, leaving Bridgette alone in the Spring Street apartment, the one above the Benson's garage.  After the breakup, her days alternated between work at Renovare Beauty Parlor and Spa, and hanging out with her best friend Lily, drinking Cheerwine at Franklin Drug's soda shop, a true relic that place.

"Honey, don't worry about Vinny.  He's a bum, a real jerk," said Lily.  "You can do better."  And yet her breakup with Vinny was the first crack in her plan to take on Hollywood, the first indication that she was not in complete control of her future.  And now this.  She had no job, no car, and no husband.  Bridgette stopped for moment, catching her breath.  Looking back down the blacktop, she could barely see her car now.  Turning back to face town, tears pooled in her eyes.  "Get a grip, girl," she said aloud.  Get over it.  Putting her head down, she took a deep breath and marched on toward town.

After a few more minutes of steady walking, she saw the green standard issue City Limits sign: Rose Gardens.  Beyond that, she saw a Texaco gas station, right on the edge of a short strip of shops -- many vacant, some closed this early.  A couple of greasy looking guys were milling around, one sitting on a bench in front of the open door of the station, another hosing down the lot.  Bridgette walked up to the one on the bench.  He watched her approach.  When she got closer, she saw that he was probably 40ish, with slicked back hair, a toothpick in his mouth, and greasy dungarees.  He looked up.  "Well," he said.  "Well now," he said again.  "What can I do for you?"

"I'm Bridgette, Bridgette. . . uh. . . Renovare.  And I've got a problem."


PhoneLast Friday Darlene left a message on my cell phone asking me to pray for her.  She said she was behind in the rent on the lot where her family had their mobile home.  She explained that she had been sick and gotten behind when she lost her job, that her credit was "shot," and that she had a court hearing Monday to determine whether she should be evicted.  She asked for prayer that God would grant her a "financial blessing," (which sounds suggestive of a "prosperity gospel" diet on her part.)

The problem with this is that I have no idea who Darlene is, but her 972 area code indicates that she's not from these parts.  When I listened to her message Friday, I wasn't sure if I should call her back and let her know she had the wrong number.  I figured she must have copied down a number incorrectly, perhaps one associated with one of the TV preachers (I have an 800 number associated with my cell phone. Yikes! can you imagine if your 800 number was one digit off from the number for Benny Hinn et al?).  I had visions of being sucked into a lengthy conversation where she relates all the personal trials of her life, ending with a final plea that I send money.  I was reluctant to take the risk.  I figured she'd get the number right next time.  But. . . I did pray for Darlene and her situation.  I figured that's as good as Benny Hinn praying, right?

Apparently Darlene did not get the number right the next time.  At 1:40 AM this morning, she left another message advising that she had gone to court and been granted an extension of time until October 23rd to pay her back rent on the trailer lot ($6000!).  She requested prayer that God would grant some financial blessing to allow her to pay the rent.  Well, I prayed.  But I wonder if I should call Darlene?

Naah.  To do so might tamper with the plot for my next short story, as I already have imagined more of Darlene's life than she will tell me, and it can't be half as interesting as what my mind has conjured up.  Let's see:  Darlene ( a nice southern name), trailer park, eviction notice, 972 area code (that's Dallas, oh my,  a place rich in imaginings), lost job, hard luck, televangelist, '"financial blessing," and so on.  To find out what her life is really like would destroy the fictional world that's already pressing in on me.  And besides -- her needs are on God's heart and mind, anyway.

So Darlene, thank you for the story.  I'm praying for you.  I hope and pray your story has a good ending, that your true needs are met.  And please, please don't send your money to Benny Hinn (if you are).  You better pay the rent.



Bridgette, Profanity & Realism

KeyboardBridgette has a sharp tongue and doesn't hesitate to curse and use profanity.  (See yesterday's post, "Why I Love Cheerwine" (Part 5): A Story).  As I was writing about her, that's who she became for me.  I haven't met too many women like her, but the couple I have met surpassed her eloquence and were like that all the time.   In contrast, I think Bridgette's just had a really, really bad day.  I'm not sure yet what she's like on a good day.  I'll see where it goes from here, where her character takes me.

But using profanity does, of course, bring up the issue of whether a Christian writer should ever use profanity in writing a story.  Someone may accuse me of "unwholesome talk" (Eph. 4:29) or admonish me to pay heed to Phillipians 4:8, which commends us to focus our thoughts on what is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, and praiseworthy.  I know the argument well.  I've thought about it all before.  The response, of course, is that I am writing what is true, that to be true Bridgette has to curse.  That is who she is and to write it that way is to be true to the reality of who she is.

At dinner tonight , my 12-year old daughter surprised me by saying that she read my story and I said a bad word: D-A-M-N.  I was surprised that she saw it and, to be honest, I was uncomfortable for a moment.  However, it was a good opportunity to explain to her how while I don't approve of such language and try not to speak in that way and certainly don't want her to. characters, like people, sometimes do.  I also told her that there are people in stories who do bad things, say bad things, and think bad things all the time, to which she said she knew all that -- she's reading the Redwall series and the vermin in those stories do all kinds of vile things.  I also told her that some stories weren't intended for children because some children lack the ability as yet to discern what is appropriate behavior.  (For that matter, some adults lack such ability.)  Of course, I'm really getting into this discussion and she looks at me and says something suddenly off subject like "Can I have a dog?"  Discussion closed.

God also inspired men to write a Book full of vile doings and bad language.  You know that, because like me, if you ever tried to read through the Bible with your children there are some parts that make you cringe and some (like Song of Solomon) that you'd rather not have to explain.  There's embarrassingly realistic things in Scripture.  It's not sanitized.

So yes, I know all the arguments.  And yet, realism gives me some discomfort.  If  Bridgette does in fact cuss like a sailor, do I fill the story with such language or merely give a taste of it and intimate more subtly that it's a fundamental flaw in her character?  And what if Bridgette has a relationship with a man?  How do I talk about that?  Or do I?  (I'm not sure I want to, you hear that, Bridgette?) Perhaps subtlety is called for, but she doesn't strike me as a subtle person.

Then maybe a story that reflects life is meant to cause a writer discomfort and tension because life itself causes tension and discomfort.  We live and work around people who often say and act in ways that are discomfiting.  We turn on the TV or see a movie and it's filled with the profane.  I remember one summer in college I spent working in a furniture stockroom with eight guys who were as profane as any I've ever met since.  It was uncomfortable.  But then, maybe I won't write about them anytime soon.

These are good questions to wrestle with.  I need help.  I need the Spirit, just a little of God's breath in what I write.

Why I Love Cheerwine: A Story (Part Five)


[The story began with Henry, the guy obsessed with Cheerwine, and switches now to focus on Bridgette, who has her own problems.  To read the entire story to date, which is continually being revised, click here.]

Bridgette kicked the tire of her red 82 Mustang convertible.  "Damn car.  I shoulda rented one back in Charlotte.  This one is a piece of junk, you hear that, a piece of junk!"  With that she kicked the tire again, only she missed and hit the fender, scuffing her red pumps.  "Now look at that," she said to herself, muttering a few other obscenities under her breath, glaring at the car, hands on her hips.  Looking up, she saw a sign, a green, cheery looking sign with flowers on it, announcing "Welcome to Rose Gardens, Rose Capital of the Southeast."  Very creative, she thought.  Very, very creative.  Probably one dinky flower shop and now it's the "rose capital of the southeast."  Sure it is.

Not a car in sight, either.  Reaching in and taking her Louis Viutton knock-off purse and the keys from the ignition, she slammed the passenger side door, rattling the car with the impact, and, throwing the purse over her shoulder and tossing her platinum blond hair back, she began walking down the side of the road.  The shoulder was still damp from the showers the day before, so when she looked down at her feet she saw the red shoes were taking on mud.  Bending over she pulled them off and in her best overhand backyard softball throw pitched them into the front seat of the car, deciding to proceed on barefoot.

It had been one helluva day, Bridgette thought.  When she got to work that morning at the Renovare Spa and Hair Salon, she'd no more come through the door than Carmen, the owner, told her to pack her things up and get out.  She was fired.  Right then.  She had a screaming fit right there in front of the customers, calling Carmen every mean and evil name she could summon up, until she saw Ms. Deitweiler's three-year old grand-baby come out from behind her mother and tell Carmen to "go to hell."  That brought her up short.  Where, after all, would a three-year old be getting such language?  She managed to get her things out of the Renovare Spa and Hair Salon only to trip over the curb on her way out to the car, spilling all her beauty products and skinning her knee.  And now this.  She lit out from town for a drive to clear her head, only to have the thing quit on her outside of the metropolis of Rosedale.  What kind of name for a town is that, anyway, Bridgette thought.  "I'm SO MAD," she said out loud.  A crow on the Rosedale sign looked at her as she passed.  "What are you looking at?  Mind your own business!"  Stooping, she scooped up a rock and threw it at the eavesdropping bird.  With a ping  the rock bounced off the sign, the crow fluttering away, due west, in the direction of town.

What Good is Good?

RykenA couple of years ago, one popular online music web site had as its moniker something like "where good music begins," or words to that effect.  I searched for a definition of good and, finding nothing, and being acquainted with the founders of the site, I asked them what they meant by "good."  An email back referred me to writer Annie Dillard, as if that would be sufficient.  Annie Dillard is, in some ways, a "good" writer, but that wasn't very helpful because they didn't tell me what about Annie Dillard was good.  To this day I still don't know what they meant by "good" but, then, the moniker is now gone and the business sold.

What good is calling something good when you can't define good?  Not much.  In his helpful essay, Art for God's Sake, Philip Ryken very helpfully points out that goodness is both an ethical and aesthetic standard.  Christian artists are not allowed to make anything immoral or that is designed to serve as an object of religious worship.  I understand this to mean that the art points beyond itself to something good, even if it does that by showing the consequences of sin.  Thus, for example, a novel may have a lot of immorality in it without being immoral, yet if immorality is glorified, that is, the particulars of the story point to a universal theme that says this lifestyle is acceptable or preferred, it is an immoral work.  Christians so often single out works that have immorality in them as off limits when we should look to see what the novel, film, or other work of art is saying about what is good (or true, or beautiful).  On the other hand, other Christians are uncritical consumers of music, books, and film without even asking questions about what they are saying about what is good.  What is called for is discernment, informed by Scripture and discerned in community with other Christians.

Ryken also says that good has an aesthetic component, and we also forget this.  Just because something is Christian in theme doesn't mean it is aesthetically good.  Good artists learn their craft.  They master the particular area in which they work.  Writers, for example, master words.  I was reading one of the articles my son was reading today about theater stage lighting, and I realized that it is an art that requires careful attention to many factors that derive from the nature of the play itself as well as the technical capabilities of the lights in use.  Lighting designers are not called "designers" for nothing; it is an art.

Next time you see a movie with someone and comment that it was "good," consider what you're saying.  Consider what's good about good.  It's not the only question to ask, but it is an important one.

Bounded Freedom and the Emerging Church

Playpen When our children were young, we began using the playpen as a safe environment for their play and exploration -- even though we knew that some people disapprove of them, regarding them as inhibitors of play, as confining, stifling the natural imagination and exploration children must engage in to grow in healthy ways.  What we discovered, though, was just the opposite.  Short periods of time in the playpen, with only two or three toys and a book led to a great contentment.  Oh sure, there were occasional difficulties, whining because they can see out and want to be with Mom, but once they figure out that that's not happening, they settled down and began to imagine the possibilities for the blocks or other toys they have with them.  As they grew older, we gradually moved them to a playpen-like time on their bed, and then in their room, first with a gate, then with no gate.  What we discovered (and this is not unique to us), is that the very sense of boundary led to greater freedom and contentment, a richer imagination and play. 

I've commented before that the best investment I ever made in a toy was one of the least expensive, that is, those large multi-colored cardboard blocks that look like bricks.  Those blocks were utilized by my son to build airplanes, trains, buildings, and more that I can't remember.  (Come to think of it, I kind of miss those blocks.)  What I'm saying is that he was freer to become who he could be, who he was meant to be, when his freedom was bounded.

I'm no authority on the "emerging church" movement, but from what I've read of it, I am concerned that they are less free -- indeed, will wind up very unfree -- because the freedom they profess and embrace is unbounded by any creed, by any common, articulated basis of belief. Indeed, there is no one willing to say "this is what we must believe; beyond this we will not go."  Tony Jones, Emergent's National Coordinator, says that "Emergent is an amorphous collection of friends who've decided to live life together, regardless of our ecclesial affiliations, regardless of our theological commitments.  We want to follow Christ in a community with one another." ("Missing the Point," by Peter J. Walker with Tyler Clark, in Relevant, July/August 2006). Well, hold on.  Who is Christ?  The Christ in me?  Jesus Christ?  The "historical Christ?"  And if you say regardless of theological commitments, what exactly do you have to talk about?  How do you determine what is true or good or beautiful? 

The moment you begin to say anything about who you are you make a statement about what you believe.  The danger here, of course, is that there is an implicit, unarticulated creed at work.  No, I misspoke:  the reality is that there is a creed at work because that's the kind of creatures we are.  We are creedal beings.  Without being explicit about what it is, there is no one to hold you to account, and, like the child who is given free run of the home, you become enslaved to the passion of the moment -- maybe some political cause, maybe an elitist attitude, maybe a beguiling heresy.  There is no one to say "past here, you cannot go."

I'm all for freedom of conscience, co-belligerency, imagination, and creativity.  But before anyone should get involved with the "emerging church," they better find out what kind of a church it is.  Watch what they do.  It's the best key to what they believe.  And read the Nicene Creed.  Beyond that we must not go.

Why I Love Cheerwine: A Story (Part Four)

[I was sipping my Cheerwine tonight, thinking about Henry.  Poor Henry.  Putty in my hands.  This is his continuing story, someone I hope can become a "rounder" character as I keep writing about him.Cheerwine_3  He reminds me of someone.  Read the story, as edited, to date, here.]

"Mr. Askew, can you stand up please?"

Henry quickly rose to his feet -- too quickly, maybe, because his legs felt quivery, like jello, and for a minute he thought he'd fall.  Looking down at his feet, he realized to his surprise that he had no shoes, and his lily white feet stuck out of the ends of his pants legs.  Looking up he saw an enormous podium about 20 feet away from him, only much, much higher than him.  There was a person behind the podium who had no face, just an enormous mouth on a white sphere, like the face had been erased, and sounds were emanating from it, angry sounds.  And he scared Henry.

"Is there something the matter, Mr. Askew?  Are you listening to me?

Henry's head began to throb.  He put his hands on each side of his head to try and stop the pounding.  Looking down as he did it, he noticed the table he was seated at was like those you find in a preschool, and his chair the kind little kids sit in as they play with puzzles and color, the kind Mrs. Holshouser had in her room at the Center.

Mr. Askew?  MR. ASKEW?

Henry looked up, and when he did he saw Cheerwine bottles, no kidding, cases and cases of bottles flying past him and that mouth, that enormous mouth shouting something that sounded like gibberish at him, all the time getting bigger and bigger.  He felt hands on him, squeezing him, shaking him, hurting him.

"No, leave me alone.  Leave me alone.  He began to struggle to get free, thrashing around wildly.  "I won't go. I won't. You can't make me. . ."

Henry woke to find himself in complete darkness.  For a moment, he didn't know where he was.  Listening, he thought he heard a clock ticking loudly, only he realized it was his heart beating out an exaggerated rhythm.  He was breathing heavy, his chest heaving, his body drenched with sweat.  Sam was oblivious, still asleep in his lap.  "Oh, Sam, that was a doozie, a real bad dream."  Sam twitched a bit, enjoying some nocturnal feline fantasy.  Henry wondered what kind of things cats dreamed of beyond the usual mice, food, climbing trees, being chased.  Whatever they dreamed, it couldn't be as crazy as the things he dreamed.  At least that's what he figured.

Carefully laying Sam on the sofa, he walked into the kitchen, turned on the light and opened the bread drawer.  He unwrapped the bread and laid two slices Merita Enriched Bread on the counter.  Reaching for the Jiffy peanut butter, he unscrewed the lid and, with a dull knife, began to spread big globs of it on a piece of the bread.  He felt his body calming as he began normal routines, leaving the dream somewhere back there.  Henry thought to himself that peanut butter must be one of the finest foods ever developed.  "It'll stick to your insides," Henry's mother used to say.  Henry smiled at that.  He figured he could eat peanut butter sandwiches for every meal, and sometimes he did.  He tried to interest Sam in peanut butter, but he wouldn't touch the stuff.  In that uppity cat way he merely sniffed at it and walked away with a disinterested amble as if he was saying "I can't believe you eat such stuff, Henry.  It's beneath me."  Henry liked Sam OK, he guessed, but for an animal that was supposed to be intelligent, he figured he sure was dumb.  Any person, and beast, who didn't like peanut butter and Cheerwine must not be too smart.

Finishing his sandwich, he opened the refrigerator door and pulled out a new bottle of Cheerwine.  For a moment, he just looked at the row upon row of Cheerwine bottles lining the shelves, and he felt better, secure, just knowing that he wouldn't run out anytime soon.  "I suspect in Salisbury everybody's got all the Cheerwine they need," Henry thought.  Why Henry imagined a swimming pool filled with the bubbly red liquid, and him on a float in the midst of it.  He liked thinking about such things.  He called it his "L.D. Peele moment," because he imagined that Mr. Peele lived that way, and inventor that he was, he for sure was busy developing other uses for Cheerwine while he floated in his pool.

Sitting back down in the brown recliner, his eyes rested once again on the envelope.  He set his drink on it.  "Do you mind if I use you for a coaster, Department of Social Services?, he said out loud to no one in particular.  Sam looked up at him from where he reclined on the sofa.  Henry thought to himself that it'd been a long time since anything good came to him in a white envelope.  There was a time when bills came to him, papers with numbers on them that confused him.  He'd stare at them, not knowing what to do.  Then the lady from the DSS, Mrs. Hightower, came and grabbed them all up off the kitchen table where they were littered and took them all away.  He never saw one again.  No one else wrote him.  Occasionally he'd get a catalog.  He liked to look at the pictures.

Sighing heavily, he reached for the letter, tore the end off, and pulled the letter out, carefully unfolding it and laying it in his lap.  As he read, the words began swimming off the page -- words like "inform," terminate,"  "move,"  "no choice," and that last phrase, "institutionalize you."  Then he couldn't focus.  He put the paper down in his lap, and laid his head back in the chair, remembering green walls and locked doors and his mother crying.

Why I Love Cheerwine: A Story (Part Three)


[I've been posting drafts of pieces of this story about Henry as I write it.  I'm also continually revising the story.  If you want to read the entire draft, as revised to date, you can find it here.]

As he turned into the drive of his house, Henry stopped whistling and started singing.  He sang hymns, mostly, and today he thought to himself that given his newly formed bond with Bozo, "Blest Be the Ties That Bind" would be appropriate.  The song had the additional reputation of being his Mama's favorite hymn, particularly that verse about "When we asunder part, it gives us inward pain, but we shall still be joined in heart, and hope to meet again."  He didn't know what "asunder" meant, but it didn't sound good.  He stopped to check his mailbox and, finding nothing, he broke into song, his pure tenor voice ringing out.  When he reached "and hope to meet again," he felt his throat tighten and he sang softer, and then he stopped just short of the door.  There, pinned to the door, was a manilla envelope.  He pulled it off the screen where it was attached with Scotch tape, turned it over and looked at its front.  "Department of Social Services," it said, in the corner, and there, right in the middle, it said "HENRY DAVID ASKEW."  The back of the letter was sealed up tight, with an extra piece of tape over the flap.

Henry raised the envelope to his nose and took a good whiff.  "Hmmm.  Smells important. " He imagined an office somewhere with a man leaning confidently back in his desk chair with a good looking secretary, like Josie Griffin, maybe, writing down what he said, just like in the old Perry Mason reruns.  He grimaced.  That made him worried, thinking about lawyers and courtrooms and big impenetrable books stacked up on the desks and men arguing over things he didn't understand, long strings of words punctuated by a "Henry" here and a "Henry" there.  "Just my luck it's some lawyer," he said out loud.  He stuffed the envelope in the pocket of his shorts and opened the screen door and front door, letting the screen door make a whack-whack-whack on the doorpost as he dropped it.

He never tired of walking into his house, from outside to inside.  He always marveled at how different it was inside from how it was outside, and how he even felt different inside.  Outside it's hot, inside it's cool; outside he smelled mown grass and hot steamy asphalt, inside he smelled an old smell, slightly musty, and yet somehow reassuring.  Henry remembered the time he got the tape measure and measured and figured out that the walls were only around 12 inches thick, and he marveled that such differences could exist within 12 inches of each other.  He shook his head and smiled.  "I got too much time on my hands, Sam, too much time," as he reached down and plucked his elderly tabby cat from the den chair, stroking its fur, eliciting a gravelly vibrato of a purr.  Walking to the fireplace mantle, he pulled the empty Cheerwine bottle out of his pocket and added it to the row of bottles already there.  There were Cheerwine bottles on the mantle, stacked in cases in the corner, filling the basement downstairs, and lining his bedroom wall.  Henry gave up counting them, though sometimes he tried to, just for something to do.

Sitting down in a brown recliner, he situated himself so as to cover the rip in the seat of the chair.  He made a mental note that he needed to get that fixed, though he couldn't figure out how to get it fixed.  Leaning back, Sam rolling on his back, eyes closed, he took the envelope out of his pocket and laid it on the table next to the recliner, smoothing it out where it was wrinkled.  "HENRY DAVID ASKEW," it said, and "Department of Social Services."  He leaned back, closing his eyes, and before long his chest was rising, and falling, rising, and falling, Sam oblivious to his motion, Henry's arms dropping to his sides languidly, a slight snore starting, the rays of sun streaming through the back door window getting longer and longer until they were gone, darkness wrapping Henry's house, a darkness with only a sliver of a moon.

Settling In: Why We Like a Home

Manhouse Sometimes people come to our house for a visit and then, upon leaving, remark that they felt so "at home" with us.  I'm always pleased to hear that, and yet I've never understood why it should be so.  We significantly remodeled our home about one and a half years ago, after a fire, and we've done little to it since moving back in.  Some walls have no pictures, some lights bulbs have no fixtures, and there are some odd mixtures of decorative items (love those 'tures) -- a kind of eclectic style, as a designer once remarked, for a fee.  That's a nice way of putting it, I guess, if expensive.  But still they say they felt so "at home."

Two articles I read in Books and Culture recently resonated with all my ruminating about the connection between faith and the built environment, one by Lauren Winner entitled "Getting Comfortable," in which she looks primarily at Winifred Gallagher's book, House Thinking, and one by Andrea Nagy entitled "Anti-Bland Design," in which she reviews Sarah Susanka's Not So Big House series.  I have skimmed Susanka's books but never seen House Thinking.  I wish I had -- about two years ago -- before we remodeled.

The bottom line of Gallagher's book is apparently this insight:  our surroundings call forth certain behavior.  This is intuitive, and yet not very articulable, and not very notable even when we do articulate it.  For example, overhead lighting always makes rooms seem bright, and yet somehow cold.  We might say such lighting ruins the ambiance (even though we're not sure what ambiance really is if called upon for a dictionary definition), whereas table lamps tend to create a warmer feel.  There's nothing brilliant about that insight, and yet just notice how few people seem to take note of it.  Visit a few homes.  You'll see what I mean.

Gallagher notes that entryways should mark a gradual transition form the world outside to an inviting home without dumping you abruptly into someone's den.  Amen.  People need time to adjust without feeling intrusive.  And yes, we have big, bright, airy rooms now, with lots of sunlight (it's all the rage), but (and I've noticed this) such rooms lose the sense of refuge that a closed in nook of space may provide.  A small, cozy room reminds me of all those cardboard and blanket-over-card-table forts my friends and I made (and my children made when younger).  What we liked about them was the sense of protection and refuge (their snugness).  Amazing what  blanket wall can do, or a tent canvas, for that matter.  The outside is close, perilously close, and yet we have the feeling of security created by a piece of canvas.  It's an ephemeral security and yet innate need. I like to think of the invisible hedge God places around us.  Such places remind us of our real and true and strong refuge.

If nothing else, these books are good reminders that we need to be cognizant of how our surroundings impact our behavior.  They also offer a helpful corrective to the bigger is better mentality (sorry, I bought into that a bit, and I repent).  Marketers tell us what we should have.  But our bodies and minds, if we listen to them, if we listen to God speaking through them, tell us much better what we need.  Homes ought to be places of refuge, a reminder of our sabbath-rest.  Now that's a home to hope for.

Why I Love Cheerwine: A Story (Part Two)

Cheerwine_1[I've thought occasionally of Henry today, wondering who he is, what he does, what he thinks about.  So, I have no idea where I'm going with this, but I'm becoming interested in who Henry is, letting him develop.  Read Part One from yesterday, and continue here.]

As he walked through the angle-high grass, Henry remembered Josie, Josie Griffin, the little blond-haired girl with the eyes that flashed and the downright foul mouth, that teaser Josie-miss-big-mouth Griffin.  He could hear her now -- "Hennnri, you retard, you nut-case, you weirdo, don't you come near me, Henry, go on back home Henry -- yabbering and yabbering, just being a regular pest.  But that was a long time ago, Henry thought, and Josie grew up and moved away, and when she came home on that rare occasion, driving her shiny convertible, she wouldn't even return Henry's waves or smiles.  Oh, the heck with Josie Griffin.  And yet, Henry stopped for a minute, the wind catching the seat on Grif's rusted old swing-set, and he remembered Josie laughing there, just a little thing, as he pushed her higher and higher into he sky.  Henry shook his head at that.  "I'm getting old Bozo, just goin' on like that, remembering things.  I'm going home."

As he turned the corner of Grif's house and made for the street, following the cracked front sidewalk of the house, Henry looked down the street to where it dead-ended.  "Bozo, go on home, boy!  You can't be coming with me now."  A dejected Bozo started to slink away.  "Aw, alright, one more sip."  Henry sat down this time, sticking the bottle right in Bozo's mouth, him lapping up the drink.  Then Henry took the bottle and poured it over Bozo's head.  "I hereby baptize you Bozo Griffin, in the name of L.D. Peeler, Salisbury, and Carolina Beverage."  The cherry liquid ran down Bozo's ears and into his face.  His tongue lashed out, trying to catch every drop of it.  "There, now it's official.  You and me -- we're brothers now.  Once a week, we'll break bread together, just like in church, you and me having bread and wine, Cheerwine.  Now, go on home."

Henry thought to himself that that Mr. L.D. Peeler must have been a genius.  He read that Mr. L.D. Peeler invented Cheerwine right there in the basement of his grocery store.  A man with a dream, that Mr. L.D. Peeler.  One night at home, Henry pulled out the 1999 Rand McNalley Road Atlas and found Salisbury, North Carolina.  It took him awhile.  He remembered looking at the small dot on the map for a long, long time, with all the squiggly red, blue, and black lines going through and around it.  It was beautiful, and confusing too.  He imagined Mr. L.D. Peeler's house.  Must be a big one, Henry thought, with a Cheerwine drink machine in every room, little ladies in gray outfits with aprons on bringing a  bottle of Cheerwine out whenever you wanted it, whenever you called.  Yes, Mr. Henry, they'd say, if he visited.  Two drinks Mr. Henry?  Yes, certainly Mr. Henry, as many as you want Mr. Henry.  Henry imagined Mr. L.D. Peele, still working away in the basement, perfecting the already perfect formula for Cheerwine.  Come on in Henry.  Can you hold that Henry?  Glad you could come, Henry, really glad you. . .

"You plannin' on moving in?"

"Huh -- oh, hello Grif.  Just messing with Bozo.  He's a good dog."

"Ain't worth a lick, Henry.  And stop giving him that Cheerwine.  Bad for his teeth."

"Nah, it ain't bad for his teeth, Grif.  Good for fleas, too."

"You're crazy, Henry.  You go on home.  I got things to do and I gotta give this dog a bath.  He's got something sticky all over him."

"Yeah, OK Grif.  Be seeing you."

Henry stood up and walked on down the steps, whistling to himself, something sprightly and hopeful, with just a touch of melancholy, mumbling under his breath.  "Crazy?  I'd rather be crazy than a slob."  It was rhythmic, the song, his arm swinging the now-empty Cheerwine bottle  back and forth in time, back and forth, his feet slapping pavement now, as he headed for home.

Why I Love Cheerwine: A Story (Part One)

CheerwineIn the neighborhood where Henry lived, automobiles were often put out to pasture in overgrown backyards, suspended over patches of sun-starved and brown grass, or higgledy-piggledy on one block or two, wherever they were left, like pensioners strapped for cash.  They rarely moved, just stayed there like that, remembering the good old days, Henry thought, days of speed and love and shine, when all their parts worked (or when they had all their parts).  Sometimes he patted them as he walked by, speaking softly to them, thinking it would help them to know someone cared.  "Nice shine you have today, Astro," he said, letting his hand fall along the hood from grille to windshield.  "Take care of yourself."

Henry liked how one backyard lapped over another, making for a sense of community, if you will, where folk like himself, harmless enough, could roam free, take shortcuts, or admire backyard additions from time to time.  Today, like every day, he was taking the backyard shortcut back from Elam, from the 7-11, where he went to buy a Cheerwine.  Henry stopped by the McCaffrey's garage and turned the bottle of Cheerwine up to the sky and took a long draw of the deep red liquid, letting it flood his mouth.  Bringing it down again, he said "that's good, damn that's good," making a mental note to check his supply when he got home.

He stopped and leaned down to pet the Griffin's dog, Bozo, a mixed lab-shepherd-terrier, if there is such a thing.  Grif had hit Bozo one time too many in the head with a rolled-up newspaper.  "Poor Bozo.  What's up today, Bozo?"  And there sat Bozo, looking up at Henry with his best nobody home look, tongue out, panting.  "Aw, I know what you want, you rascal."  Henry brought his Cheerwine bottle down and poured a bit into Bozo's mouth.  Bozo lapped it greedily.  "You the only dog I know likes Cheerwine, Bozo.  You're smart.  You're no dummy."  Henry gave Bozo a pat, and another, on the head, and walked on across the Griffin's backyard, whistling a song to himself, something sprightly and hopeful, Bozo following along behind.  (to be continued)

[I'm not sure where Henry came from, but I've been thinking about Cheerwine today.  The only restaurant in town that has it on tap stopped selling it, and I'm a little upset about it.  I guess I better write it out, you know.  But really, I needed to write something different, and while it's odd to publish this quickly something that needs developing, stay tuned.]

Four Steps for Producing Christian Art

LaughingThe late Hans Rookmaker, friend and mentor to Francis Schaeffer and many others, said a lot of insightful things.  Among them are his four steps to producing Christian art, which I just rediscovered.  Perhaps they have been said elsewhere, but I like his summary, simple and yet profound.  And yet, as I say below, perhaps they need some amendment:

  • Weep.  Look around you; see your world.  Look within you; know yourself.  Look up to God; learn his expectations.  Them let him break your heart.
  • Pray.  Never rush into publication.  Take time to pray each project into being.
  • Think.  Do not depend entirely on the tuggings at your heartstrings brought on by weeping.  Think your subject through.  Research it thoroughly.  Produce mature, intellectually sound and honest work.
  • Work.  Be prepared to do plenty of this, but never without the other three steps.

(Hans Rookmaker, in Art Needs No Justification)

I like the emphasis here on empathetic knowing, and yet not only looking and listening deeply to the world but on looking to God for insight.  In fact, I look at the weeping part (which need not, of course, be actual weeping) as part of prayer, listening to God in circumstances and events and people that surround us, seeing the world with his eyes and heart. "Jesus wept."  Shortest verse in the a New Testament, and yet so profound.  And so we weep too.

And yet left out here is that our weeping can also be tears of joy and laughter, because the world is just as profoundly comedic as it is tragic.   Occasionally it's the laugh out loud kind of comedy, but mostly the inward smile when we see grace at work -- like Sara laughing at the thought that she the wrinkled up old woman might have a son, or the very idea that Moses would be called to go to Pharaoh when speaking was the last thing he felt good at.  God shames the wise with the foolish, and so there's hope for me too.  After all, He speaks through asses.

One day, when there's no more weeping, there will still be laughing.  We'll laugh all day about grace, about the comedy that we, of all people, should find ourselves in a new heaven and new earth.  I can't believe we'll forget our past lives on the old earth, as they'll be stories to tell about who we were and who we have become, all day saying to one another "did you hear the one about so and so?  He's here.  Imagine that."  From that vantage point, it'll be funny, not sad.

Weep.  Laugh.  Pray.  Think.  Write.  And don't forget to laugh.