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August 2007

What You Do In High School (My First Job)


When I consider the amount of time my children spend on homework now, I wonder what I did with all the time I had in high school.  The afternoons and evenings seemed to stretch out in front of me, timeless, and we made it up every day.

Like one day my friend John and I lay prone in front of my stereo determined to discern the lyrics of ZZ Top's "LaGrange."  One part came easy.  It went like this:  "Uh huh huh huh huh. . . . You know what I'm talkin' about." [BIG guitars here] Somewhere between the last "huh and the "You" he was mumbling something, but we couldn't figure it out, and not owning the record, and not having the Internet, we had only our own ability to discern.  We actually didn't know what he was talking about, but it sounded intriguing, exciting, and maybe something our parents wouldn't approve of.

Well, I guess that's the kind of thing we did with our time.

Every school night, religiously, we watched Johnny Carson from 11:30 -1:00, John falling asleep just short of the last bit of applause.  I let myself out, leaving him there in the Lazy-Boy recliner, snoring.

Most nights we walked shadowy, tree-shaded streets to the convenience store to buy a Pepsi, and back, hoping a girl, any girl, would be outside.  They usually weren't, so we didn't have to figure out what kind of cool thing we could say.  In other words, not much happened.  I certainly don't remember doing any homework.

Our big break came when we started working at Roses, a department store, because there were girls there from other high schools who we figured didn't know our shrinking reputations, and we were right.  We were poor employees, prone to laziness and mishap.  For example, one time we backed the delivery van into a house, bending the door so that we had to tie it to the van to keep it shut.  The homeowner was a little upset, writing on our delivery paperwork "Ran into house; broke off a section of brick."  When our boss, Mr. Smith, saw that, his face turned red in like one second and the vein in his neck popped out and he said. . . well, better not say what he said.  Later, we dropped a sleeper-sofa off the porch of a trailer we were delivering it to.  The man accepted delivery anyway. He was real nice about it.  I tell you, we almost ripped a new door in that double-wide.

One time my co-worker, Robbie I think, who dated my cousin once, wasn't paying attention and drove up on a sidewalk and nearly flipped the van.  You know how they say your life passes before you at such times?  Not true.  I think at that age you don't believe you can die, so your life doesn't pass by you because you don't believe you're going anywhere.

Once, riding alone in the step-van, doors open, I rounded a curve on my way to make a pit-stop at my girlfriend's house.  I took it a little fast, I guess.  The hand-truck fell out the side passenger door and rolled down the road behind the van.  I stopped, jumped out, ran back and retrieved the hand-truck, turned and looked up, only to see that the van was rolling toward me and the four lane road behind me.  I ran back to it, jumped in, and managed to stop it.  I nearly passed out.  Still, my life didn't pass before me.  I did, however, think of Mr. Smith and what he might have said if the van had crashed into a car or tree.

My girlfriend's mother said I was white as a sheet, like I'd seen a ghost.

I worked with two older guys, Scott and Billy.  Neither were very intelligent.  I'm being nice when I say that.  They really weren't playing with a full deck.  Scott believed he was God's gift to women.  He had a tattoo on his forearm and rolled his sleeves up high on his arms, making his muscles bulge, rolling up his Winston cigarettes in one sleeve.  Billy, God bless him, weighed 250 pounds, dressed every day in green army fatigues and a t-shirt, with a rope for a belt.  That's right, an ordinary white rope like you might tie a boat up to a dock with.  One time we had Billy looking all over Roses for the key to the third-floor swimming pool.  Yes, he was gullible, and yes, we were cruel.  But the boys were loyal to me, offering to "beat the #%&@! out of anyone who messed with me."  Once I almost had to take them up on that.

Generally, I worked in the deep recesses of the stock room, burrowing tunnels in and out of cardboard boxes of patio furniture, toys, and household items.  In my own small-minded way, I took some pleasure at this task, organizing the mountains of stock in various fashions.   I guess you could say we were inventory control, but we didn't do too well at monitoring things.  For example, it was months before we realized that we were missing a case of Listerine each month.  We only figured that out when we saw Leroy, our janitor, tipping one up and draining it dry one day.

On a few occasions I worked in the snack bar.  I'll spare you that story, as you may have a weak stomach.

One day, Ida Simmons, an older lady who worked in the Lingerie Department, motioned me over to her as I emerged from the stock room, trying to walk as cool as I could by the Sportswear Department where chicks shopped.  She wanted to tell me about her son, who was in college, a world away from me of course.  Standing there, listening, my biggest concern was what to do with my eyes and my hands.  Do I look over here at the panties, or at the bras, and what do I do with my hands?  I put them in my pockets, afraid I'd rest them on one of the half-dressed mannequins.  I was deathly afraid of being embarrassed.  I couldn't understand the old men I saw standing around in the Lingerie Department holding their wives' pocketbooks while their wives were in the dressing room, as if that was normal.  I mean, where's the dignity in that?

In between all this fun and foolishness, I emptied trucks of furniture, moved stock around, ran the cash registers, delivered furniture, swept and mopped floors, and cleaned bathrooms (when Leroy was on a binge).  I worked with blacks and whites, lower middle-class kids and rich kids; the young, middle-aged, and elderly; kids from my school and other schools.  I did it all.  I learned that not everyone was like me, and that some people would accept me for who I was.  I learned to talk to girls and women, as I was surrounded by them.  I learned that Scott and Billy, despite their bravado, were just insecure kids.  I experienced grace as, despite all my screw-ups, I kept my job.  I learned how to work.  You might say it was the school of life for me.  Life in and out of high school.

But John and I never figured out what they were singing.  Just "uh huh huh huh huh. . . . You know what I'm talkin' about."

But you do know what I'm talking about, don't you? 

[Any similarity between the events and persons described and actual persons and events is somewhat factual, somewhat imagined, and, hopefully, all true. Uh huh huh.]

A Cork, a Rock, a Leaf: Hearing Life Through Brian Wilson

Bwnow_3Fans have turned out for Brian's concert tours in recent years to pay tribute to his iconic stature and to witness the valedictory public gestures of one of rock music's most unlikely survivors.  These events are actually very curious affairs, juxtaposing splendid playing and great songs with the odd sight of the sixty-something-year-old man at center stage, sitting at a piano he doesn't play, singing awkwardly and strenuously with help from a teleprompter, sometimes gesturing inscrutably with his hands.  The thousands of adoring fans clapping and dancing in the audience, however, see nothing at all unusual.  They've found their bliss because they're actually hearing something different, something more poignant and more personal.  They're hearing the songs the way they remember them, at summer camp during their awkward years, or at a party in high school, or while singing along with a car radio on a cross-country family road trip.  They're hearing history in each note that comes out of Brian's mouth, an awareness of what he's been through since he first sang that note, and what they've been through since they first heard it.  They're hearing a voice they identify now, colored with overtones of a voice they identified with then.  They're hearing the voices of Dennis and Carl, and remembering the voices of their own departed loved ones.  They're thinking of the web of tumultuous journeys that somehow reached that moment of convergence on that miraculous day.  As the concert winds to a close, Brian's final plea for "Love and Mercy" is not only granted but embraced, effusively and unconditionally.  He accepts the affections with the grace and humility of am unwilling hero, "just a hard-working guy," as he once said.  He helps us see that what we all really want out of life is as accessible as it is profound, that a little love and mercy can go a long way.  (Philip Lambert, in Inside the Music of Brian Wilson: The Songs, Sounds, and Influences of the Beach Boys' Founding Genius)

When I was 14 or 15, I used to sit in my room and listen to the then black vinyl 33 1/3 rpm recordings of Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys.  While I had heard the surfing, car, and girl songs from childhood (I had older sisters), I never truly connected with the music until the 1971 release of Surf's Up, with its cover art (and Brother Records) logo depicting a stooped rider on horseback, a melancholy juxtaposition with the traditionally effervescent Southern California music.  I was perilously deep in adolescence, trying to understand my place in things, wondering if I'd ever have and keep a girlfriend, all the usual concerns of adolescent boys, and so the not so happy music of Surf's Up spoke to me, especially one particularly morose but beautiful song called "Til I Die," a Brian Wilson compilation that, yes, had the ocean in it but no girls, cars, or surfing.  There was a beautiful sadness to the words, Brian singing over and over again in multi-layered vocals

Surfsup_5I'm a cork on the ocean
Floating over the raging sea
How deep is the ocean?
I lost my way

I'm a rock in a landslide
Rolling over the mountainside
How deep is the valley?
It kills my soul

I'm a leaf on a windy day
Pretty soon I'll be blown away
How long will the wind blow?

Until I die.

Those words seemed to fit perfectly with the sad horseman on the cover and the caked and dried up lake bed pictured in the inner sleeve.  And they described how I felt at times and, no doubt, how many teenagers still feel at times.  At 15, some days time seemed to stand still, and I'd say "how long?" like the Psalmist at times, and other times fleeting moments of pure joy seemed to rush past.

From Surf's Up I began to work my way back, discovering the sunnier and beautiful Sunflower release of 1970, and then further back into albums released in my tween years and unknown to me, like Pet Sounds, Smiley Smile, Wild Honey, Friends, and 20/20.  I became aware of the mythical lost album, Smile, and sought out bootlegs and various interpretations of its rise and demise.  In that process, I felt like I came to know Brian Wilson, to see his genius and yet the deadening effects of his abusive father and the strength sapping effects of alcohol, drugs, and record labels who cared only about not messing with the formula for success.  There were years of inactivity, of sad and uninspired Beach Boys albums, and then occasional bursts of creative activity, only to see Brian succumb again to some new difficulty.  Only in the last decade has he reached a more stable, productive, and contented position in life.  And I'm amazed.  The first time I saw him in concert I was astounded that he could even walk onto the stage and face an audience.  And as I've seen him five or six times over the last few years, I've watched him relax, enjoy himself, and look more and more normal, that is, less scared.

You might say he's iconic for many fans, including me.  There's a lot I don't mean by this.  I don't mean he's the best performer, musician, or singer I've ever heard.  I don't mean I idolize him or worship the ground he walks on.  I've met him several times and yet never ask for his autograph (which he would willingly give) because I care nothing for it and it seems an indignity to even ask for it.  What I do mean is what Philip Lambert says in the quote above.  Essentially, seeing Brian Wilson I see my life.  I see grace at work.  Given the way Brian treated his body, he should be dead.  In fact, his two brothers and his parents are dead.  Or he could be in a mental institution, suffering his own personal demons.  I look through him to points in my life that were turning points, hinges on which my destiny swung, and I know that my life could at many points have taken a different trajectory, skidding off the road, floundering in a back alley somewhere.  That it didn't is by God's grace.

So when I go to a Brian Wilson concert, I see myself, and then I see more of God.  My overwhelming feeling is of gratitude --- that I'm alive, that Brian's alive, that I'm not a cork floating on an angry sea, a rock careening down a mountainside, a leaf blown here and there by a random wind.  Even when he's awkward, saying mildly inappropriate things, gesticulating oddly, and so on, I'm only reminded of my own awkwardness, my lack of social grace, and my discomfort in certain settings.  In some ways, I'm still an awkward kid, and so is he.

When my partner Tony and I produced Making God Smile: An Independent Artists' Tribute to the Songs of Beach Boy Brian Wilson back in 2002, we released it on his 60th birthday, a present to him.  I was amazed at the love for the man, all the artists contributing their songs, writing about him as one who they appreciated and felt an affinity with.  It would embarrass him to read all that, to know how these younger musicians felt about him when he had never met them.  For many of them, his music formed a large part of the soundtrack for their lives.  Mine too.

I don't know how many concerts Brian has left in him, but I'll catch as many as I am able, riding a wave of emotion right on through that final song, like an altar call, when he sings "love and mercy/that's all we need tonight," and we say Amen.  And when the lights go down for the last time, I'll miss him, and yet I can hope that, after a time, we'll all see him and hear him again, no longer a cork, or a rock, or a leaf, but a whole man, restored, recreated. 

Surf's Up, Brian.

Life Moves in Mysterious Ways: The Music of Phil Madeira

PhilI first heard Phil Madeira at the Cornerstone Music Festival when he played with the Lost Dogs, that "CCM" supergroup with Terry Taylor, Derri Daugherty, Mike Roe, and the late Gene Eugene. Phil is irreverent at times and yet a humble man of faith, gruff on ocassion and yet a real sweet guy. Though he's been in the Christian music scene for years and years, in many ways he really doesn't belong there. Christian, yes; CCM radio friendly, no. And yet he is a sought after session musician because the man plays virtually everything --- starting with drums and famously known for his Hammond B3 Organ! Well, I may exxagerate a bit, but I'm quite sure he plays at least ten instruments.

Ditto his production work. He produced CDs for Greg Trooper, Brooks Williams, and Jason Harrod, just to name a few. Phil can rock with the best, yet his preference is the rootsy country vibe you'll find in his solo recordings. My only regret is that I did only one CD with Phil, 3 Horse Shoes., and yet it is definitely a fine record and it was a privilege to have him on Silent Planet Records.

3_horse_shoesPhil Madeira - 3 Horse Shoes

In Spring 1996, to coincide with a pub tour of the UK, Phil independently released Off Kilter, a solo record, on which he played virtually everything. While in England, he started writing 3 Horse Shoes, which features the great talents of Antoine Silverman, Derri Daugherty, Steve Hindalong, Terry Taylor, John Hartley (The Woodthieves), Tammy Rogers (Dead Reckoning), Buddy Miller (Emmylou Harris), Al Perkins (Flying Burrito Brothers and you name it!), Phil Keaggy and Gordon Kennedy, Wayne Kirkpatrick, Tommy Sims (Bruce Springsteen), as well as Madeira's band. Essentially composed in a pub, the record exults in the sort of fellowship Madeira experienced while touring through England. With those names, you get the picture: this is pure Americana, alt-country, whatever they call it now.

A departure from the solitude of last year's Off Kilter, 3 Horse Shoes is about camaraderie and celebrating life. While touring the UK with Phil & John & the Woodthieves, Madeira spent his free days in the countryside, walking and meditating on the riches bestowed on him: Family, friends, and creativity. As Phil says, "The music literally poured out of me during that particular time. I was being healed of the sadness that I alluded to in Off Kilter. I was being reminded, in an ever-so-kind way, that I was still a child of God, and that every person I encounter is important to him."

While Phil stays firmly in the genre of the '70s oriented singer/songwriter style of his previous record, 3 Horse Shoes features a large ensemble of players, and the music has a more exciting dynamic than ever. From the encouraging words of "It's Gonna Be Alright" to the biting wit of "Christmas This Year", Madeira's emotions are, as usual, laid bare without ceremony.

Reviewer Steve Stockman said that "if Frederick Buechner wrote songs, these would be they." Need I say more?

Give a listen to "Mysterious Ways" here: Mysterious Ways.

All payments are securely made through Paypal.  First-class mail shipping is included in the cost, and shipment will be made within 48 hours from ordering.  If you are not fully satisfied with any CD you receive from OutWalking, please email me for a full refund.

That Lucky Old Sun: A New Work By Brian Wilson

Brian3When I heard a couple months ago that Brian Wilson would be previewing a brand new orginal work in a series of concerts at the Royal Festival Hall in London, I wanted to go. . . badly. But, of course, one doesn't just hop across the Atlantic for a concert! Nevertheless, I snagged some great seats for a show and figured that if I could combine it with business I would go, and if not, well there's always Ebay right? As it turns out, I do have business in Europe that I was able to work around this concert, and so my business partner and I are going!

Here's what the official press release says about the new work:

In September 2007 legendary writer, producer, arranger and performer of some of the most unforgettable and inspirational music in rock history, Brian Wilson, returns to the Royal Festival Hall, his “spiritual home away from home” for six nights. The concert repertoire will include the world premiere of a brand-new work. Commissioned by Southbank Centre as part of its opening season, Wilson reveals that the piece “is called That Lucky Old Sun (a Narrative)”, and as he describes it, “will consist of five ‘rounds’ with interspersed spoken word.”

Last summer Brian Wilson found himself singing the 1949 classic song That Lucky Old Sun, which then became the inspiration for a completely new narrative. He went to Tower Records and bought the Louis Armstrong version of the track and was inspired. The new work will have different parts, including the original music of That Lucky Old Sun, a spoken-word narration as well as newly composed songs. One of the new songs, Midnight’s Another Day, has been described by Mojo Magazine as “glorious.”

Brian Wilson teamed with Van Dyke Parks, his old ‘sidekick’ and lyricist behind Smile, over the past year on the narratives for a new album. The piece features ten songs and five narratives which will be interrupted by That Lucky Old Sun, the narrator telling the story. The five narratives are cameos on life and the heartbeat of Los Angeles.

OK, so that's intriguing. Spoken word? I'll admit, I'm unsure what to think about that, but as I enjoy poetry I'll give it a chance. Brian's last solo album, Gettin' In Over My Head, was a bit disappointing, with mostly reworked and unreleased material from some Eighties sessions and a number of superstar appearances (like Elton John and Paul McCartney) that did not save the record.

For this reason, I was pleasantly surprised to hear one of the new songs recently released on his website, entitled "Midnight's Another Day." It's the best original work from Brian (and lyricist Van Dyke Parks) since 1998's Imagination. Give it a listen here. Also, here are the lyrics (which you will not find on the website:

Midnight's Another Day

Lost my way
The sun grew dim
Stepped over grace
And stood in sin

Brian_4Took the dive but couldn't swim
A flag without the wind

When there's no morning
Without you
There's only darkness
The whole day through

Took the diamond from my soul
And turned it back into coal

All these voices
All these memories
Made me feel like stone

BAll these people
Made me feel so alone

Lost in the dark
No shades of gray
Until I found
Midnight's another day

Swept away
In a brainstorm
Chapters missing
Pages torn

Waited too long
To feel the warmth
I had to chase the sun

Brian5All these voices
All these memories
Made me feel like stone

All these people
Made me feel so alone

Lost in the dark
No shades of gray
Until I found
Midnight's another day

Ah, it reminds me the melancholy of "Til I Die," off the Surf's Up album. And isn't that an interesting line: "Stepped over grace/ And stood in sin?" I'm looking forward to hearing the whole work and, subsequently, the album.

Well, enjoy the song. And if you'd be interested in two tickets for the show on September 15th, email me soon.

Long Live Indie Music

I'm always amazed not only at the quantity of music in the marketplace but also at the gems one can discover in the independent marketplace, that is, band-distributed records. Lately I've been listening to two releases that I think are refreshing, both of the power-pop genre:

Cdjunebug1Junebug -- Fourth: This North Wales-based band is delightful, and unknown. This simple, no-frills band produced CD-R contains some older material (released in anticipation of their official new release in 2008.) Influences include 60's bands (The Beatles, The Beach Boys), new wave (Split Enz, XTC) and indie (The Stone Roses, Teenage Fanclub). I'm a sucker for jangly guitars and Beach Boys stle harmonies, so this one was a no-brainer for me!

Seasidestars_themagicofstereoSeaside Stars --- The Magic of Stereo: A Berlin band with a Beach Boys/Teenage Fanclub sound, I love the beautful guitar pop and lush vocals on this record. I'm so attracted to this music that I have a difficult tiem making it to the lyrics to find out what they are singing about!

Check out these recordings at the best distributor of power-pop: Not Lame Records.

Saving Babel's Words: A Review of The Archivist’s Story, by Travis Holland


Given its context of Stalinist Russia, I knew that it was unlikely that The Archivist’s Story would be a happy or humorous novel, and I was right. Travis Holland has captured the deadening effect of collectivization on the Russia people and the inhumanity of a society where trust and friendship are rare and fear of authority a daily concern. And yet, it’s a story of the power of one man to act courageously in the face of such fear and reprisal, treating decently and humanely even one who hates him.

Pavel Dubrov is a former teacher now assigned to the archives of the infamous Lubyanka Prison, the hellhole into which countless political dissidents, intellectuals, and writers are cast. Pavel works under the insufferable Lieutenant Kutyrev, a true believer in the Revolution. Every day he organizes files containing the manuscripts of writers imprisoned in the Lubyanka, and then, one by one, carries files to the incinerator. It’s a particularly distressing task for a teacher, for one who loves books, and it comes to a head over his encounter with an unknown manuscript written by Issac Babel, the well-known writer of Red Calvary. Holland chronicles Pavel’s lonely and anguished existence well,  contrasting it with the continued humanity he exhibits. For example, when Kutyrec becomes ill, Pavel escorts him home to his family, even over Kutyrec’s objections:

“I don’t want your help,” Kutyrec says.

“What are you going to do, stand around for God knows how long in your condition waiting at some bus stop? In this weather? Be sensible. Let me help you.”


Why would you help me? That is the deeper meaning behind Kutyrec’s question. Because you need my help, Pavel thinks. Because you are human.

This colloquy illustrates the fundamental theme of the story: one man’s attempt to reclaim his humanity in the face of the gross inhumanity of a police state. When events appear to seal Pavel’s fate, when he loses most of what is dear to him, he takes action, not only preserving Babel’s words but also the letters of his friend and, at least temporarily, the manuscripts of many of the files he was tasked with archiving.  His actions testify to the importance of words, their enduring value.

In the end, the story is not all sadness, and affection grows for the characters even as the author propels us to what we sense is a bittersweet conclusion. When I can say, at the end of a story, that I miss its main character, as I did here, I know the reading has been worth it.

Travis Holland has done well. His prose is accessible and persuasive in rendering 1939 Moscow and lives caught in that place and time. It’s a profound first novel and one I recommend. And to think --- I bought the book without a recommendation but solely based on a reading of the jacket notes and first paragraph. Sometimes the risk is worth it.

How to Lose Your Religion


"At the foundation of Jesus Christ's kingdom is the genuine loveliness of those who are commonplace.  I am truly blessed in my poverty.  If I have no strength of will or a nature without worth or excellence, then Jesus says to me, 'Blessed are you, because it is through your poverty that you can enter My kingdom.'  I cannot enter His kingdom by virtue of my goodness --- I can only enter it as an absolute pauper."  (Oswald Chambers, in My Utmost for His Highest)

In a recent newspaper article, Los Angeles Times writer William Lodbell chronicles the loss of his faith in God ("Faith Found, and Lost, News and Observer, Aug. 17, 2007).  Finding himself in a troubled marriage, Lodbell writes of how a friend took him to one of the many independent evangelical mega-churches in Southern California where he heard the Bible preached and taught in a relevant way for the first time.  Attending a retreat where for 36 hours he was treated to singing, prayer, heart-felt sharing, and Bible teaching, he had an experience of being filled with the Holy Spirit.  He believed.  Returning to LA, he convinced his editors to allow him to cover religion, because he wanted to show people of faith in a positive light.  By all accounts, he did well at it.

Later, Lodbell converted to Catholicism because he said its low-key evangelism, history, and ritual appealed to him.  On the news front, he was assigned two difficult stories --- the Catholic sex scandals and then, on his own initiative, he began looking into the Trinity Broadcasting Network and the lavish lifestyle led by Benny Hinn and others.  He said that he "understood that he was witnessing the failure of humans, not God.  But in a way, that was the point.  I didn't see these institutions drenched in God's spirit.  Shouldn't religious institutions, if they were God-inspired, reflect higher standards than government, corporations and other groups in society?"   He stopped attending church, ultimately concluding that he did not believe.  "I saw that belief in God, no matter how grounded, requires at some point a leap of faith.  Either you have the gift of faith or you don't.  It's not a choice.  It can't be willed into existence."

Reading this sad story, there was so much I found to agree with.  So often churches and parachurch organizations fail us, pastors and youth leaders sin, badly, and people let us down.  Lodbell was right to be grieved by this.  And his question is one that I suspect we've all had:  If this life in Christ is real, shouldn't there be more evidence of it in our churches, in our lives?  Reading his story I felt the heavy tug of the reporter's pessimism, the downward spiral of doubt and unbelief.  I don't like what I feel, but I don't think it's good to deny what I feel or the doubt this produces.  The question is where does doubt take you?

That doubt takes me back to my poverty, back to the point where I can say that I really don't have anything in me that truly measures up, where I can't say I am getting better all the time.  And if I can say that about myself, I can understand that this same poverty is the state of other believers.  The experience of sanctification is, for me, more a growing awareness of my poverty, of how sin corrupts every apparently decent thing I've done, of how far short I am of any Godly benchmark, and yet it's also an increasing awareness of the greater richness of God's grace toward me and His Creation.  When I begin to realize what a pauper I am, and what a ragged lot we all are, then I begin to see and more fully appreciate the evidence of God's grace among us, around me, and in me.

Lodbell saw the sin in the church and could no longer believe.  Interestingly, he never turns the focus to himself, to how he failed to measure up.  Looking for God to produce results, he saw only failure, only hypocrisy.  Had he revisited his own poverty, the poverty that presumably brought him to church in the first place, he may have seen life with new eyes, have seen the grace of God at work all around him.  If he'd done so, he may have lost his religion. . . but retained his faith.

But then I really have to turn the attention back to me. Am I asking God to measure up? Am I holding him responsible for "shepherds" that bilk their flocks, for pastors that abuse their wives, for all that passes for religion? Am I asking Him to perform for me that my faith might be legitimized? Then I have to remember that He already gave everything for me, even life itself. He died. That should be enough.

The Trip to Bountiful

Shack2_2"When the Lord brought back the captives to Zion, we were like men who dreamed.  Our mouths were filled with laughter, our tongues with songs of joy" (Ps. 126:1-2)

In 1993 I had the dark providence of spending six consecutive weeks in the hospital, a first for me, and the first time I had been away from home for that length of time.  I felt that I was exiled there, imprisoned by my sickness, and at points I was not certain when or if I would return.  It was the most difficult trial I have ever faced --- particularly given that at points I felt abandoned by God.  What I mean is that I could hang onto the idea of God in my head but felt no supernatural presence with me.  And yet looking back I can see that He was with me in the form of the Body of Christ, in the flesh and blood people who came daily to encourage me.  And yet they always left, and I couldn't.  Every day I could stand at the end of a hall and watch people coming and going, a parade of life, and envy them their freedom, the homes that they could return to at the end of a day, the normality of their life.

The day did come, however, when I returned home.  I remember standing in my bedroom looking at everything --- the the doorframes, the chair by the window, the nightstand of unread books, and the hall to my children's rooms.  I went around touching things, running by hand over the banisters, the hearth, the bedspread, and the good solid doors.  I saw the pencil marks on the wall where we charted our children's growth.  I took deep breaths of the smell of my house, unique and missed.  I was like a man who dreamed.  I could not believe I was home.

Years ago now I saw a movie called The Trip to BountifulGeraldine Page plays an old widow woman living with her son and daughter-in-law in a small town in Texas.  Her abiding desire is to go home, home to her birthplace and to her house, to see again the place where she grew up and lived, to remember.  But as kindly as her son and his wife are, they can't seem to understand why she'd want to go there, and they won't take her.  So she boards a Greyhound bus and takes herself.  When she finally makes it to Bountiful, her home, she finds her the old house vacant and unoccupied, open to the elements, and yet she had to go there to remember and appreciate not just what she used to have but the home she now had with her son and wife.  She realized God's bounty by looking back, in seeing His providence in her life.

I called my friend Kirk while I was in the hospital, one Sunday afternoon.  Kirk did a radio show on the local college station.  I asked him to play a song that would encourage me.  He played Bruce Cockburn's "Wandering Where the Lions Are," a great song inspired by Cockburn's reading of the strange novels of Inkling Charles Williams.  The words spoke to me:

I had another dream about lions at the door
They weren't half as frightening as they were before
But I'm thinking about eternity
Some kind of ecstasy got a hold on me

And I'm wondering where the lions are...
I'm wondering where the lions are...

I find that the only way to think about eternity or heaven is to think about home.  And that's what I was doing.  When I got home and saw it for real.  It could have been heaven for all I was concerned.  I saw it all with new eyes, with wonder and deep appreciation.  No lions, at least none at those doors. 

I think I know how the Israelite exiles felt on returning to Zion:  This is it.  This is as good as it gets.  This is Home.  They were laughing all the way Home.

I don't know how people live uprooted and non-home lives, blowing here and there, moving every two years for career or just, as one woman once told me,  for something "new." We need a home to come back to.  It's through the memory  and, hopefully, the tangibility of that home that we see through to eternity, to our real Home.

Want to see Heaven?  Look carefully around your own home, or the one you remember, or the one you always hoped for.  Then multiply by 100.  That should do it.  Dream on that.  That just might be laughter in your throat.

Summer Reading (Quick Hits)


Although I'm reluctant to do it, I sometimes put books down and take up some magazine and newsletter reading.  I simply find that books offer a richer experience while reading magazines and newsletters, while enlightening for a moment, simply doesn't stick to me.  However, I have read a few articles that were worthwhile mentioning and worth re-reading.

World Magazine's recent books issue had an excellent "interview" with Southern novelist Flannery O'Connor entitled "Instruments for Good."  Actually, since O'Connor is long dead, they asked questions and answered the questions using quotes from O'Connor's Mystery and MannersIt's an excellent summary of what it is to be both Christian and writer, and I recommend it to both writers and readers of fiction (as I do her book).  In fact, the whole issue is worth perusing, as it includes an article comparing the fictional worlds of writers Jan Karon and Wendell Berry ("Fictional Communities"), a list of their all-time favorite 100 books (which I didn't find terribly convincing), and a survey ("Backward Atheist Soldiers!") and critique of the recent handful of anti-religion books, such as Christopher Hitchen's God is Not Great, which confirmed what I thought:  if you want to hate religion and not believe in God, you'll do it even if there's scant evidence for your position.

On that note, Udo Middleman, son-in-law of the late Francis Schaeffer, provides a more extensive critique of the anti-God writers in the Summer issue of Footnotes, the newsletter of The Francis Schaeffer Foundation. I always find a unique perspective in his views as a European Christian.  He points out the great fallacy of lumping Christianity together with all other religions.

Finally, as Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity, is always a good read, I spent some time there, in the July/August issue, particularly with Anthony Esolen's "Esther's Guarded Condition: Dying When Common Sense and Decency Have Departed," an account of his experience with his mother-in-law as she lay dying in hospital, of how they had to insist to hospital staff that she be fed intravenously and were made to feel that they should simply let her starve to death as she was dying anyway.  I have not been in this situation, but one day I will be, and this first-hand account is part of my preparation.

Well, my magazine and journal stack remains about a foot high, but that, folks, is enough of such reading for now.

Where Stories Live


"There's something delicious about writing the first words of a story.  You can never quite tell where they'll take you.  Mine took me here."  (Beatrix Potter, in the movie, Miss Potter)

These first words spoken by Beatrix Potter in the opening scenes of the movie of her life, Miss Potter, so aptly sum up the excitement of telling a story, of not knowing the end in the beginning.  That's part of the joy of writing, the sense of discovery along the way.

I have read that some successful novelists map it all out in the beginning --- the characters, the background, the conflict or point of tension, and the resolution (conclusion).  I'm sure it works, but how boring it seems.  I haven't written a novel, yet, but I'd much prefer to begin someplace, perhaps with a character in a particular scene, and see where it goes.  You can never quite tell where they'll take you.  Characters take on a life of their own and seem to propel a story.  It's not that you never look ahead, as you must see something of what is coming in order to write, but maybe you only see the next step and not the whole life.  After all, a writer is creator, not Creator; not omniscient nor omnipotent.  And characters are free, aren't they, to be who they are?

I'm struggling with this now.  I began a story just this way several months ago.  There's Henry, and Babette, each of whom I'm following and whose lives have not yet intersected.  I stopped writing because I'm not sure I know who they are, or at least I don't sufficiently know who they are.  I have some sense that they will meet, but how, and when?  Do I just begin again, going day by day and seeing what happens?  Do I plan it out?  A little of both?

Perhaps it isn't either/or but both/and.  I think of our own lives under God's rule: "In his heart a man plans his course, but the Lord determines his steps" (Pr. 16:9).  Like us, characters live and have free will in their story, and yet the writer is sovereign and has a purpose that will prevail, incorporating all their plans into his one plan.  Or maybe its like Paul said, that we are to "continue to work out [our] salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in [us] to will and to act according to his good purpose" (Phil. 2:12-13).  Characters have a life of their own, and yet they are forever guided by our good purpose; all their diversions can be worked into that good purpose, in the end.

There's tension in any writing.  That's where stories live.  I just want to get to the point where I can say Mine took me here.

Bright Shoots of Everlastingness: Essays on Faith and the American Wild, by Paul J. Willis (A Review)

Shoots_2If you have enjoyed essays by E.B. White, Annie Dillard or Wendell Berry, you'll likely enjoy these essays by Westmont College English Professor Paul Willis.  Willis writes warmly, descriptively, and authentically, whether writing about his faith or about mountain climbing.  In this 2005 collection of essays, entitled Bright Shoots of Everlastingness: Essays on Faith and the American Wild, most previously published,  Willis covers a range of topics, with the majority split between his largely positive (if sometimes peculiar) life in and amongst the evangelical subculture and his second great love, the mountains of the Western United States.

For example, in the title essay, "Bright Shoots of Everlastingness," he speaks warmly of his conversion at the early age of nine and a somewhat mystical experience of that day:

In that moment of coming through the door [to the balcony of the church] I walked into a presence that had been there, I was quite sure, all along.  It was quiet, powerful, good, and deep.  It was a presence that included me, and all things around me.  The clock at the back of the sanctuary, the miserably worn rug in the aisle, the chipped wooden balcony seats, the faded red curtains behind them --- all things were permeated by whatever this quiet, ongoing presence was.  They were not different, but more themselves, transfigured in their everyday best.  I had not come to a different place but was seeing the place as it always was.  Every minute of perception up to this point had just been bumping about in the dark.

There's humor as well, as in his essay on dancing ("Care to Dance?"), a frowned upon practice that he finds initially exciting but ultimately less interesting than reading or a walk in the forest, not a moral choice at all but a choice between good and better:

The world was a different place than I had ever thought it --- a good place, on the whole, and I would choose the best parts, and conscience would not equally matter for every choosing.  Or maybe conscience did matter, and the most important moral choice was to separate strong pleasure from weak, the good from the banal.  The trick was to enjoy something a long time --- maybe forever.

And then there's the mountain climbing, essays descriptive not only of the climbing but of the natural and social environment of the climbing, not only the what of climbing but the wondering why of climbing.  In this context, there are difficult things, like the loss by his brother Dave of fingers and portions of his feet during a climb-gone-bad of challenging Mount McKinley and then later of his horse-mate Sonya ("One Fine Morning").  There are alsothe musings on life that percolate to the mind's surface while climbing in the San Rafael Wilderness of California ("A Wilderness Journal"):

I camp beside Santa Cruz Creek, in a hollow beneath huge oaks, interwoven, arch within arch.  Alone at my table, writing by candlelight, I think I hear voices --- in the wind, the water, the leaves, the crickets.  Why do I hear them?  Because I want to, or because I am afraid to?

As with any collection of essays written at diverse times and for diverse publications, it's difficult for a publisher to know quite what to include and how to sequence them, and whether, in fact, they stand together, thematically, or should be read as simply a diverse collection.  Despite the subtitle of the book, and despite the attempt to organize it in sections called The Shores, the Mountain, The Valley, The Hills, and Epilogues, ultimately the stories did not work collectively but singularly for me.  And that's OK.  I did, however, think the subtitle a bit misleading, as "Essays on Faith, the American Wild, or Other Things" or, simply, "Essays," would have been more accurate.  Willis also addresses faith in certain essays, but he generally doesn't explicitly integrate faith with his experience of nature in his nature essays.  I expected more integration, as in Cindy Crosby's By Willoway Brook, a book which better integrates the inward and outward journey.  But this is a small criticism, really, as I am happy to read each essay and take it for what it is --- an experience in nature, an honest observation on the journey of faith, or simply an interesting issue for C.S. Lewis fans ("The Wardrobe Wars").

A bit more unsettling for me was a statement (unnecessary I think) included in the short introduction: "So far, the God of my youth has not gone away.  He --- or she --- still roams the peaks and meadows of memory and imagination" (emphasis mine).  Yes, He does, but She doesn't.  If Willis is uncertain about how to address God (though Scripture seems perfectly clear on this point), then of what else is he uncertain?  The theological point does not discount the value of the fine writing here, but it does mean I do not read it for theological clarity nor can I assume that Willis is orthodox in his faith (though he may well be).  I suspect that's as it should be anyway.  He doesn't need to validate his faith, but he could have avoided the unnecessary comment which was momentarily off-putting.

It's simply good to see a collection of essays by a Christian writer like Willis.  This book probably won't make it to the shelves of your local Christian bookstore, but I'll put my copy where it should be --- right next to E.B. White's Collected Essays. They're that good.