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February 2008

Real Christianity: A Review of "The Faith," by Charles Colson & Harold Fickett

thefaith Like most of his books, Chuck Colson's The Faith abounds with poignant stories of faith, real people living out the radical claims of Christianity in the world.  I think that this is what makes his books so readable.  He doesn't so much fill his books with "lite" anecdotes as with a series of short stories meant to heighten our awareness of what the faith is all about.  When he relates the story of the courage of Amish schoolgirl Barbie Fisher, who asked to be sacrificed so that the other girls might be spared, we're moved by this almost otherworldly behavior. Or he tells the older story of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor who, though he could have stayed safely in America, went back to Nazi Germany to be among his people and ultimately die because of his faith.  Then there was a story I did not know, that of Jesus Amado Sarria, a man who headed up a network of assassins on behalf of the Cali drug cartel in Columbia and yet came to faith and forgave those who murdered his wife.  Colson offers these stories of love, courage, and forgiveness to demonstrate the practical outworking of the faith in our lives.

His purpose in writing the book is to combat the growing and pervasive ignorance about the Christian faith --- even among Christians --- in an era of anti-theism, neo-paganism, and a resurgent Islam.  It's a primer on basic truths of the faith for Christians who, while they may focus on a relationship with Christ, have not come to understand how the faith is a comprehensive view of the world and our place in it.  Colson moves through chapters on God and the Faith, where he covers themes like Creation, Fall, Redemption, Revelation, Truth, and the Trinity, and on to Faith and Life, where he discusses Reconciliation, the Church, Sanctification, the Sanctity of Life, and Last Things.  It's a highly readable, non-controversial "mere Christianity," fleshed out in the many stories that no doubt co-author Harold Fickett helps him tell so well. 

I recommend this book for new Christians, as an inspiring and yet meaty introduction to a Christian worldview.  For those already schooled in Christian worldview, the book may not only be a good reminder of what we believe but the stories will remind us why we believe as we do and why and how it matters.  As Colson says: "The orthodox Christian faith is the one source that can renew culture because it relies on a wisdom far beyond humankind's own that can yet be known by reason.  It constantly calls people to the practice of virtue and charity guided by this greater wisdom."  The challenge, as always, is living out what we say we believe.

Larry Norman 4/8/47 - 2/24/08

wideSRD-005 God rest his soul, Christian music pioneer Larry Norman passed away Sunday morning around 2:45 A.M.  Though Larry has spent the last three decades suffering health issues, interpersonal conflicts, and likely diagnosed and undiagnosed mental illness, the trilogy of albums that he released in the early Seventies --- So Long Ago the Garden, Only Visiting This Planet, and In Another Land --- were pure genius.  I cannot even begin to recite all the crazy wonder of these songs --- songs like "Six Sixty Six," "I Am the Six O'Clock News," "PeacePollutionRevolution," or "Nightmare."  Wow.  Weird? Eccentric?  You bet.  But he made me a believer then in the power of music to speak the Gospel truth.  The music was good, as good as any secular counterpart.

I met Larry once.  My partner Tony and I were standing backstage behind the Silent Planet Records Acoustic Stage at the Cornerstone Music Festival in 2002.  A whiteish-blond haired guy with a "handler" on each side strode up to our RV "green room" for performers and strode right in, looking like he was straight out of 1970.  That was Larry Norman.  Unchanged.  Timeless.

I'll end with a portion of Larry's liner notes from his 1975 record, In Another land:

some people say there is no God, others
say that we are all God. sometimes i look
out over the city late at night and all the
lights look like diamonds and rubies on a
black jewelers cloth, all set in straight little
rows and sprinkled on the hillsides - and i
wonder how we have fallen so far.
and then i look up in the sky with its far
superior jewels; i look up and i find myself
waiting. and smiling.

The subtitle of that same album might serve as an appropriate epitaph: Death is conquered though you slumber.  Rest in peace, Larry.

[You can find more information on Larry Norman and his last words to fans here.]

Please Stop The Music! (and Bring On the Patrons)

photo The recent announcement that No Depression Magazine was ceasing publishing, preceded only by a week or so of the announcement that CCM Magazine was ceasing publication, is only further evidence that the music business is in decline. In 2001, sales of blank CDs exceeded sales of CDs with music on them, further evidence that people are downloading music files from the Internet and burning their own CDs. While you might say that artists are now free from the corporate machine (and there’s enough blame to lay on the record labels, who won’t garner a lot of sympathy), few want to pay much if anything for their music. And that’s a problem: when you don’t value something economically, you get exactly what you pay for --- a lot of crappy music.  I can only say: Please stop the music!

If you’ve cruised the aural halls of MySpace Music recently, it’s simply astounding how much music has been placed on the Internet. Most of it is terrible. Any kid with a laptop can record himself singing and playing the guitar, or messing around with his friends in a garage band, and post it. If you compare it to a record store, the shelves are cluttered with a huge inventory of albums literally falling off the racks and begging for attention. There is no reliable filter to assist you in finding something good, and the filters that do exist, while helpful, are of limited utility because their own standards may be too low at least ambiguous. For example, I subscribe to Paste Magazine so that I can get the sampler CD, but I generally find only one or two songs that are listenable, and even then it is rare I buy the album based on that song.

My conclusion is that most people who are making music for public consumption shouldn’t be doing so, and yet they won’t stop since it’s so easy to put it out there. Economic concerns used to weed out poor performers. Not now. Bad music has even been mainstreamed. For example, in the liner notes for the recent soundtrack for Juno (which, I understand, is a good movie), the producer quips how great he thought it would be to record a bunch of teenagers sitting around playing and singing crappy songs. Well, that’s a majority of what’s on the CD, and that’s what some people are paying for.  Sheesh.

Back to the problem: Other than record collectors and the minority of honest record buyers, people no longer want to pay for music. For goodness sakes, it’s everywhere. Why pay? Why? So we can get something worth paying for.  Will that happen? No, it won't.  We're beyond that point.

There are those who have a lot of ideas about how to use the Internet and other marketing techniques to sell music. The latest I read was David Byrne’s Wired Magazine article: “Survival Strategies for Emerging Artists — and Megastars.”  It's all about a more creative approach to using the Internet and digital distribution.  Everyone's trying to find a better business model or tweaking the one we have.  I have another idea.

What if we just went back to patronage?  You know, before the advent of recorded music (and for some, after) artists survived economically because they had patrons.  There was one person or a group of persons, the Church, or even a King who simply gave the artist the financial wherewithal to do what he was made to do: paint, compose music, conduct orchestras, and so on.  There was no music business.  Patrons might sponsor concerts in their parlors and invite friends in to hear the music.  These were the inspiration for today's house concerts.  A group of patrons would literally set the artist free not to worry about the business of making music.  The patrons could be a sounding board, people to whom the artist could be accountable (for use of time, productivity, work product, lifestyle, and so on.)  These patrons are huge believers in the giftedness of this particular artist, their vocational calling, and the need for their music.  Their patronage would free the artist from the warping effect of the market or the fans (who can be fickle and demanding).

So how would they make money?  To some extent, they don't need to.  Patronage sets them free from this economic imperative, but it doesn't free them from accountability for work.  The patrons can insist that the artist write good songs, play gigs in the community, and maintain a relationship with the patrons.  The artist belongs to a community, usually local, and cannot go it alone.  This results in less mimicry and more originality, as the artist is not trying to "make it." 

This kind of function is well-suited to the Church though, sadly, has been little exercised.  Churches go through a process of confirming the call of missionaries or pastors, identifying their gifts and providing a structure of accountability for the exercise of their gifts.  Could they not do the same for artists?  I have no problem at all serving on such a committee and saying to a budding young artist : "You know, we appreciate you, and while we don't know what all your gifts are, we can tell you it definitely isn't in music."  This kind of candor, if listened to, would help encourage the truly gifted and prevent the others who are gifted in non-artistic ways from experiencing a lot of unwarranted hardship and grief.  Artists, like pastors and missionaries, may have to do some tentmaking at the outset or long-term, but they would not depend on a fickle market to validate their gifts and call.

Will this end crappy music?  No, but if those making it get little to no traffic on their web sites, they may eventually stop and do something else with their lives.  Will this stop people from downloading their music for free (you know, from stealing)?  No, but it won't matter.  The artist with patrons will have a community endowing him and little reason to be concerned about illegal downloading.  They'll have an endowment, supplemental income from gigs in the community, and even, if they sense the demand, record sales to the ones who love and support them (the community coming to the gigs).  They don't need radio, labels, or distribution.  You can have the music for free, if that's what you do, but that's not what it's all about.  This artist is set free to really give his music to the community.

And that would be better than this whole business of music.

[For more on this issue, visit a recent post "The Selling of the Free," on my friend Tony's blog here.  I think there's a lot to be said for creative packaging and even releasing in vinyl, but like Tony I don't think that alone will answer the decline of the business.]

Mastering the Bittersweet: A Review of Working Man's Cafe, by Ray Davies

davies The photo of Ray Davies that adorns the front of his album, Working Man's Cafe, is perfectly fitted to the bittersweet content and the sardonic wit of this former Kinks frontman.  There's Ray, half-smiling, half-frowning, his reflection caught in a window.  Or maybe that's a grimace, a wink, a kind of challenge to the buyer that "you're gonna love this music, and you'll hate it too."  But no, I really like this record.  It's witty, sweet at times, wistful and nostalgic, melodically strong, often rocking, and always interesting.

I first heard the Kinks in high school, about 1973, the melodic, jangly "Lola" blasting out my inexpensive Zenith record player.  You know, "la-la, la-la Lo_la, e-o-le-e-Lo_la."  I didn't know until later that Lola was a transvestite.  In fact, I think Ray may have been a factor in my education on that point.  But in the coming year, I worked my way through the Kinks catalog, like Muswell Hillbillies, where Ray sings "I'm a twentieth century man but I don't wanna be here."  (He still doesn't.)  Or there's the out-of-space-out-of-time alienation of "Acute Paranoia Schizoprenia Blues," or that lovely critique of the social service busy-bodies in "Here Come the People In Gray" who "are gonna take me away to Lord knows where." 

But whereas Muswell Hillbillies is a social commentary on working class woes in North London, Working Man's Cafe reveals Ray's ambivalence about American culture, a wry bit of commentary from a now over 60 rock star.  For example, the lead-off song, "Vietnam Cowboys," finds Ray lamenting the homogenization that flows from globalization, not in any heavy-handed or fully conclusive way (and thus, not shrill or propagandistic) but rather simply pointing out the ironies.  Like "Cowboys in Vietnam making their movies," or hamburgers in China and sushi bars in Maine.  He picks up that wistful theme in the title cut, "Working Man's Cafe," when he says "Everything around me seems unreal/ Everywhere I go it looks and feels like America/ We've really come a long way down the road."  The alienation surfaces again in "The Real World" in the observation that "everything looks the same the whole world over now," with Ray wondering "where is the real world?"

There's echoes of Muswell Hillbillies as well in "No One Listens," where Ray laments the inefficiency and inhumanness of bureaucracy: "Now I'm stuck here in the system/ They ain't gonna listen, nobody listen/ they ain't gonna listen to me."  But the most intimate plea, the focal point of Ray's cry for meaning is found in "Hymn for a New Age," where, after saying what he doesn't believe --- that "God is a man with white hair/ sitting in a big chair/ judging the world and its morals/ Forgiving today so we can sin again tomorrow" --- he admits to the honesty of "I need something to connect to/ Someone to help me through/ Something I can pray to" and says "We need a hymn/ I believe/ I need something to look up to/ I believe I wanna pray but don't know what to."  Ray Davies speaks for all who recognize the God-shaped vacuum in their hearts, the empty place needing filling, and at 62 he probably recognizes that all he has tried thus far won't fill it up.  As other songs on the album make clear, human remedies don't seem to suffice.  Morphine may dull the pain ("Morphine Song"), human love is temporal ("Peace In Our Time"), and idealistic visions of who we are will disappoint ("Imaginary Man").  Ray Davies needs a new hymn.  A lot of us do.

Musically, this album is always interesting and more memorable than last years Other People's LivesFrom the rollicking faux-country of "Vietman Cowboys" to the Kinks-like British-rock of "You're Asking Me" to the ballad "Working Man's Cafe" and rock of "Hymn for a New Age," Ray keeps it interesting.  It's really just the Kinks, oozing out of Ray Davies.

I recommend the Limited Edition CD/DVD set of this record.  It includes four bonus cuts which are worth having, as well as a video of ray's 2001 tour of America, a home movie set to the music of "Working Man's Cafe" and an interesting piece given that he was on the road just after 9/11 and was able to witness eerily quiet airports, for example.  Buy the record here.  Listen to "Hymn for a New Age" here:

The 41st Day: Unfinished Business

cat If you have wondered where I have been for eight days, let's just say I had some unfinished business to attend to.  That Forty Days on the Edge (the subject of my blog posts for the last month or so) along with other fortuitous circumstances have pushed me right over the edge.  I went willingly, but I can tell you the drop is hell.  Yet the landing easy.  It's like a new country down here.

So what am I talking about?  I'll have to spare you the details, but what I experienced in the last week is the sense, finally, of how ugly my sin sin really is, how expensive grace was, and yet how relentless God's love is.  I made a graceful landing because that's where I live, in grace, and Jesus meant it when he said "my yoke is easy."  I got a good look at myself in a mirror, and the theology I'm schooled in worked its way into my fingertips: I am what God says I am.

I have always viewed sanctification --- that process of becoming more like Christ --- as a sort of self-improvement project.  Sure, I'm not perfect, there's much work to do, but I have goals and I'm getting better, right?  Surely there are some positive things you can point to, but I really think this misses the point.  The problem with getting better is that along the way you keep finding out more and more about how bad you really are.  And that's really the point: the more sinful you are, the more you need God.  If, after all, you're getting better all the time (to quote the Beatles), you eventually work God out of a job, right?  That we don't see all our sin all the time is a concession to our frailty; that kind of knowledge would likely be the death of us.

I don't mean to imply that I have finished this business.  No, I think the past week has just been a realization of how big a project I really am and how unable I am to contribute much to the process.  With the Cross, the business of sin was really finished.  But in this life, my work (my only work really) of resting on Christ's finished work is never done.  My heart accuses me.  I'll do what I can.  But mostly I'll just point back to the Cross and say, "Deal with that, will you?  Deal with that."

Life On the Edge (Day 40): Praying Through Reality

air Setting your thoughts on things above, as Paul exhorts us to do in Collosians 3:1-2, is not to ignore what is around us or to treat life as a waiting room for eternity, holding to the idea that that is where real life begins.  Rather, we look not around life or above life but through life to a greater reality, to the eternal in the temporal.

Years ago I read a book by Edith Schaeffer entitled The Life of PrayerWhile I have lost the book and most of my memory of it, I do remember her saying something so elementary but so imprinted on my memory:  She recalled riding on a bus, with all the people around her --- all the noises of people chattering, bus engine groaning, honks honking, babies crying --- and yet praying through the sounds and sights of reality.  Essentially, she carved out a space of solitude in her own mind, there in the midst of a messy reality that threatened her concentration, carrying it all to God in prayer.

When we pray as Edith Schaeffer did on that bus, we can carve out a space in the midst of the swirl of life and take up the life around us in our prayers.  The babies crying become prayers for weary mothers, for new lives where the Gospel is ingested and lived.  The chatter of strangers becomes prayers for redeemed relationships, honest work, encouraging words, and for hope to replace the despair that some labor under.  Even the grinding of the bus gears becomes prayers for an end to the groaning of creation for redemption, for the making new of places where we live, for clean air and water and air, for livable, beautiful cities, for food for the hungry, for an end to the cries of the unborn --- for all things to be made new.

In this way, in taking up the life around us, carrying it to God, we participate in what Christ is doing every moment of every day, sitting at the right hand of God, reminding Him of his covenant love, of His promise he cannot not keep, telling Him that this is the world He loves, these are the people He made, and that He who has already done justice at the Cross must now extend mercy and hear His people as they pray because He is love.

I'm setting my thoughts on what's above by looking at what's right in front of me: a man sleeping in an airport lounge chair, weary and homebound; the forest life clear across the airfield; the children playing on the floor at their mother's feet; the flight crew on the tarmac; the sun warming my back by the window; the loudspeaker announcements of delays and gate changes; the smell of Maui tacos and Starbucks coffee.  Outside lies magic, says John Stilgoe, and he's right, because in it we see God's glory and through it we pray.  It's a sometimes messy reality around me, a cacophony of sight and sound, and I'm praying right through it.  And I'm not closing my eyes.

[The "40 Days On the Edge" posts have been my ruminations in light of Stephen Smallman's devotional entitled "Forty Days On the Mountain," read in conjunction with Harvard Landscape History Professor John Stilgore's "Outside Lies Magic: Regaining History and Awareness in Everyday Places."  Both books may be ordered by clicking on them where they are listed in the sidebar under "Current Reading."  I've completed this 40 day exercise, but I'll have some concluding thoughts on the journey in a couple days --- but tomorrow I rest (no media Sunday)]

Life On the Edge (Days 38 & 39): Light and Momentary Afflictions

Jacobs Yesterday my business partner Kevin and I spent about eleven straight hours with Sylvester Jacobs and his wife, Janet.  Janet is English; Sylvester, American.  Janet is white; Sylvester, black.  Both spent a year at L'Abri, the Christian community founded by Francis and Edith Schaeffer in Huemoz, Switzerland, in the late 1960s.  We were interviewing the Jacobs for the autobiographical project we are working on, The Tapestry Project, where ultimately we seek to tell the story of the Schaeffers and L'Abri and the unique impact they have had on the world.

That impact is evident in the lives of this couple.  Sylvester went to L'Abri shortly after dropping out of Moody Bible College in the mid-1960s.  Already having suffered a great deal under the scourge of racism where he grew up in Boynton, Oklahoma, he was discouraged by what he found at Moody.  Along with a number of public pledges you had to make if you attended Moody (no dancing, smoking, etc.), he was required to sign a secret pledge that had to do with interaction with white students.  He was not supposed to speak to white women on campus, for example, and yet in evangelistic work they did in the black neighborhoods of South Chicago he was required to mentor these same women that, when they arrived back on campus, he could not interact with.  In trying to make sense of things --- in trying to determine if God was real --- he ended up at L'Abri, where, as he said, he was treated as a human being, as one with dignity, where he came to feel at home in his skin.

Sylvester went on to become a photographer in London and, then, to work with the worst of the worst kids in a school with Muslims, Hindus, Christians, and kids speaking 52 languages.  He saw fruit from that work, a result he says came out of the way he was treated at L'Abri --- with love, with dignity, as a human being made in the image of God.

For Sylvester, racism in his past, after his inter-racial marriage, even today is an affliction but one that is light and momentary.  It is, as the Apostle Paul says, a "light and momentary affliction. . . preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison" (2 Cor. 4:17).  I'll write more about my interview with Sylvester and Janet and others on The Tapestry Blog when my trip is complete in a day or so.  But for now it struck me that his life, one God has given him much grace to view with a forgiving spirit, show that this treasure we have in jars of clay is from God, not man.  For that, we can rejoice.

Life On the Edge (Days 36 & 37): Unveiled

skyline All this talk of glory in the devotionals form the last two days reminds me of Gerard Manley Hopkins' great poem, God's Grandeur, a poem that celebrates the glory of God as revealed in Creation:

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.

It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;

It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil

Crushed.  Why do men then now not reck his rod?

Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;

And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;

And wears man's smudge and shares man's smell: the soil

Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;

There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;

And though the last lights off the black West went

Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—

Because the Holy Ghost over the bent

World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

Smallman reminds us that God is now unveiled to us in Jesus.  When we look at Jesus, we see the glory of God.  I'd go farther.  When we look at the world, the back streets, strip malls, wooded lots, rivers, shorelines --- all those places we walk and ride through, which we live in  --- through Jesus we now see their glory, a glory veiled to those who do not know the Father of Creation.  Sure, when Stilgoe catalogs his observations, he's looking at the same things we are, but what I notice in reading his book is that he has no context within which to place his observations, cannot see through them to their glory.  Without Christ, we cannot see the "dearest freshness deep down things," to use Hopkins' phrase.

Sure, it's a fractured glory.  We see that "all is seared with trade," that the big-box stores squat heavy on the landscape, that all "wears man's smudge," that urban decay is evident, that what once was "modern" is now simply old.  But for all this, Hopkins says "nature is never spent."  There's hope for the restoration of all things, substantially here, but in whole in a new heavens and a new earth.

[The "40 Days On the Edge" posts are my ruminations in light of Stephen Smallman's devotional entitled "Forty Days On the Mountain," read in conjunction with Harvard Landscape History Professor John Stilgore's "Outside Lies Magic: Regaining History and Awareness in Everyday Places."  Both books may be ordered by clicking on them where they are listed in the sidebar under "Current Reading."]




Once: A Movie About What We Really Want

clip_image002On the recommendation of a friend, I finally watched Once last night. This is a beautiful, sweet, beguilingly simple yet powerful movie that has deeply affected many people. Shot with what appears to be a single camera, it unfolds like a home movie, offering an intimate portrait of two people and their developing friendship around the music they share together. I’ll warn you now --- I can’t comment on the movie without revealing its plot line, so turn back now if you can’t handle a spoiler.

The movie begins with actor Glen Hansard playing and singing his heart out on the streets of Dublin, guitar case open for contributions.  Marketa Iglova, a Czech flower girl, stops to listen, and they strike up a conversation.  Now here's the other quirky thing --- these folks are known as Guy and Girl in the credits, so we never actually find out their names.  I never actually notice this while watching until the credits rolled.

With a tagline of "How often do you find the right person?" you're all set up for romance.  You figure that after some awkwardness, maybe some standoffishness, that eventually this budding relationship must result in a sexual liaison, all the more so because Hansard is lonely, missing his girlfriend who he is still deeply love with and who has gone ahead of him to London, and Iglova is separated from her husband, living with her mother and her little girl, and wondering if he would ever come.  I mean, it has to happen, right?  Wrong.  The refreshing surprise of this movie is that a deep friendship develops between a man and a woman, a real phileo love with nary a bit of eros love.  Now that, in this time, is a miracle, and this is a good part of the reason people have gravitated to this film.  We deeply desire a true friend, someone who understands us, and this Girl and Guy grow to understand one another and help one another.  Marketa gives Glen the confidence he needs to continue his music, and Glen befriends Marketa who is trying to survive in a alien place without her husband.  Just friendship.  No sex.

The other thing that's refreshing about the movie is its tenderness, its humanity.  When a street person steals Glen's bit of change in his guitar case, Glen chases him down, but not to pummel him but, in the end, to give him the money.  Then there's the community of the musicians, all having a good time just paying and singing, as even a skeptical engineer in the studio comes to join in.  Another deep desire --- community.

And what about the music?  Enchanting, passionate, lovely.  These are moving melodies that stick to you and follow you around all the next day, and in this day when music bombards us from all over, this is quite a feat.  I have to have this soundtrack!

No nudity.  No violence.  No sex.  Very little profanity, really.  So why's the movie rated R?  Because of the inclusion of a half dozen or more uses of the F word, no doubt, though the inclusion of this language adds nothing to the film and its deletion would not affect it in the least.  It's there, no doubt, to push this movie over to an R rating so we will all know that it is a serious movie for adults and one that probably belongs in art houses (which is mostly where it ended up).  Otherwise, this would be a PG rated movie.

Nevertheless, if you can tolerate the word, you'll love this enchanting movie and its music.  The day after, you'll forget the word, but you will not forget the story and music for a long time.  Highly recommended.

[See more about the movie, including a trailer, and listen to the soundtrack here.]

Life On the Edge (Day 35): Living Words

WordsFor many children their first introduction to letters is the wooden alphabet blocks that they play with for hours on the floor. Though their first interaction with words is the spoken words of (usually) their parents, their introduction to letters is through something as tangible , tactile, and three dimensional as blocks, something they can touch and feel, something with height, depth and width. From these "building blocks" they progress to words, sentences, paragraphs, and stories, and though the words they later have read to them and then read to themselves have the appearance of two-dimensionality, most readers know that the realities they point to (because all words point outside themselves) are three-dimensional and even four-dimensional if you add the element of time. That is, they point to a greater reality than what appears on the page, an imagined reality that may even change over time.

In part, it's this experience we have when we read Scripture. We are told that the Word is "God-breathed" (2 Tim. 3:16), "living," and "sharp as a two-edged sword." Presented with a scroll of prophecy, the Apostle John was told to "[t]ake it and eat it" (Rev. 10:9-11). These are but some examples of the way Scripture --- a book of words --- is presented as having height, depth, and width, of being tangible. The Bible is a talking book, a looking-glass showing us more about ourselves, God, and reality as we read it. Illumined by the Holy Spirit, imbued with the life of God, this is no ordinary book but really is the breath of God for us, our very life. It is, as A.W. Tozer says, "the inevitable outcome of God's continuous speech."

This "continuous speech" of God is not limited to the words of Scripture but is also filling Creation. Memories carry the Word of God for us as we see the providential hand of God in our lives. Creation points to God as well. The heavens "declare," "pour forth speech," and "proclaim," and "[t]heir voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world" (Ps. 19). There's not a thing outside my window that isn't being used by God to "pour forth speech," to get my attention and teach me about Him.

Come to think of it, there's not a thing out my window that's ordinary, not a word in the Bible not speaking to me. I just need to better listen.

40 Days On the Edge (Day 33): Covenant Love

churchsign What I have to keep reminding myself each day is that God loves me with an unconditional, sacrificial love, one undergirded by his covenant promise, a promise he cannot break as it would go against his very nature.  I know this.  I am not that forgetful.  But I have to continually preach it to myself, reminding myself to believe it, because this is a love I know no analogy for here on earth.  This is an otherworldly love.  Truly it is beyond our minds to fathom the depth of it.

Maybe all theology is really summed up in that cliche phrase: Jesus loves me.  If we really understand what we are saying when we say that, if as prodigals we were able to look our Father in the eye, we would understand all that we need to know about God.  He loves us.  He will not let us go.  If we run, he will hunt us down, find us, and show us His love.  There is no resisting this love.  Truly He is the hound of heaven.

Things may look crazy at times.  Following Christ may look foolish.  His word to us may be a mystery.  And yet like Peter we must say "Lord, to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God" (Jn. 6:68-69).  Like Moses, we can boldly say "Oh Lord, please let the Lord go in the midst of us" (Ex. 34:8).  And He will.

What Buechner Gives Us

b For many years I've been an unabashed fan of pastor, teacher, and writer Frederick Beuchner.  Sometimes I even find that things I have written are stylistically like what he writes.  I'd like to think so, but the fact is he is simply an inspiration for me and his writing is something I aspire to.

I was pleased recently to discover that a Frederick Buechner Institute has been founded at King College In Bristol, Tennessee, the initial Director being former Calvin College professor Dale Brown.  A number of years ago Brown wrote a book entitled Of Faith and Fiction: Twelve American Writers Talk About Their Vision and Work, interviewing writers like Doris Betts, Garrison Keillor, Walter Wangerin, Clyde Edgerton, and, of course Frederick Buechner, and his survey of Buechner's fiction,  The Book of Buechner: A Journey Through His Writings, has just been released.  Although the Institute has only begun its work, already it has posted various articles, sermons, and essays by Buechner, as well as a video of Buechner reading three of his sermons at National Cathedral in 2006.  It's the only time I have ever seen a video of him.

If you have never read Buechner, I suggest for fiction that you begin with Godric, his Pulitzer prize winning novel of a very human and yet godly Irish monk.  For memoir, I suggest The Sacred Journey, particularly the first few pages.  I love Buechner's earthy and yet spiritually-charged writing, his attention to the world around him, and his great mining of memory for meaning.  Reading his memoirs is an education in paying attention to your life and, really, seeing Providence at work.  Theologically, he is imprecise; although I believe him largely orthodox in his mere Christianity, he would not consider himself an evangelical, and his opinions on homosexuality would cause a stir in conservative Christian circles (and also illustrate the squishy nature of his theology).  That aside, there's no one quite like Buechner.

I believe what he says is true: "There is no event so commonplace but that God is present within it, always hiddenly, always leaving you room to recognize him or not to recognize him, but all the more fascinatingly because of that, al the more compellingly and hauntingly."  So that's what he has taught me --- to look for God in every memory, every face, every tree and field and place. . . to listen to my life and the life of the world.  For that I'll always be thankful.

Life On the Edge (Day 32): Being Still

7504600113 Over 25 years ago I was a part of a small group using the Navigators 2-7 Bible study and scripture memorization system.  It's amazing what has stuck from that series.  Even though I've done little to no scripture memorization since then, I can still remember many of the verses I learned back then.  When I consider how much I have forgotten since then this is a minor miracle.  I cannot even remember everyone that was in that small group.

One of the things we did as a group then, whether recommended by Navigators or done on our own initiative, was to go to a wooded local state park, spread out, and armed with nothing but a Bible, spend a half day in prayer.  Alone.  I assume I did pray and read my Bible, but I remember thinking that I'd never make it, that I would have nothing to do at some point.  I'm sure at that time in my life (well, and often since) I'd never prayed more than 20 minutes at one time , and then not often that much.  I remember how quiet it was, about fighting the thought that we were wasting time, but then enjoying the simple solitude and opportunity to talk to God about literally everything I could think of and then some, and then, finally, when I couldn't do that any longer, to meditate on scripture and listen to the world around me.  It was an unusual experience.  (And keep in mind this was before cell phones and the Internet or even computers for that matter were in widespread use.)  Could I do the same now?

Solitude is a way of being powerless before God, of giving up our striving to please God or anyone else.  At the end of solitude there is no product you can point to, nothing you have actually accomplished (nothing to be proud of, really).  And when you finish talking to God, when you get all that out of the way, you can finally just shut up and listen.  We live in a state of perpetual distraction, unable to simply be still.  Like Moses, Elijah, Job, or Isaiah, when we worship our best is when we simply bow before him and rest.

Maybe a dark closet is the best place, after all.  Not much there to distract.