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June 2008

For Prayer (Embrace Uganda)

Well, we are almost ready to leave, and today my attention turns outward from home to travel.  We're all a bit excited about what is upcoming in our trip to Uganda.  Please continue to check the blog for updates on our team.  But there's another thing you can do as well.  You can pray for us.  Here are some good prayers:

  • logo21 That will have safe travel.  We go by van to Washington Dulles, and then 7 hours by plane to Amsterdam, and then after a 4-hour layover, another 7 hours to Uganda.  No bed in between!
  • That we will all have good health while we are there.  We have all the necessary immunizations, will be on anti-malaria medication, and have the usual over the counter medicines with us, but pray for our health. 
  • That we would think not of ourselves and our inconveniences but of those we are there to serve.  Pray we might serve them joyfully.
  • That God would change us all while we are there, making us more aware and grateful for his provision for us and more aware of the needs of others.
  • That, as we are able, we would have opportunity to share the hope of the Gospel with others.

Today's post on the blog, by Dirk Hamp, is both encouraging and sobering, about the promise and peril in Uganda.  I think some of the folks already there are overcome at times with the needs.  We do what we can, and we rely on God to ultimately carry all of the suffering.

Thank you for your prayers.  Enjoy the blog.  And come back here after June 30th to hear more about my perspective on the trip.

On Leaving (Embrace Uganda)

logo21 I am going far away.  On Monday my family and I join 30 other parents, students, and teachers for a two-week mission trip to the village of Kaihura, Uganda.  You can imagine what getting ready for this trip has been like, and what a week of anticipation, packing, and last-minute details this has been.

But mostly, like the eve of every long trip I have ever taken, today has not been about that far away place, largely unknown to me, unexplored, full of uncertainty, but about this place, about home, about the familiar and certain places and sounds that are as second nature to me as breathing.  Today I've been walking through this place and saying goodbye.

I don't think we were meant to be wanderers.  I cannot imagine a person or a people who do not want a home and homeland, who move through life as transients.  We're meant to put down roots, to find our promised land, a place and life that in its best moments anticipates a true Home and Homeland to come.  When I'm leaving, I'm reminded of this.

Today, I said goodbye to the still water of the lake, to the geese with their young, to pine trees and gray squirrels that inhabit my yard.  I said goodbye to the robin, the goldfinch, and the two deer that have been munching grass in the unclaimed woods behind my home.  I leave behind the music of this place, like Claire Holley's "Visit Me," a song that carries the sound of home, with its country sound and pedal steel, just a little wistful, just a little longing.  I will miss every comfortable chair, every quiet corner, every footfall of my children in our home, and the purr from contented cats.  I'm homesick for it all!

You might accuse be of being sentimental, but I don't think of it that way.  I love home.  I think the more I love home the more I know of my eternal Home.  My duty now is to love His world, to love a particular place, a particular home.  And when I go away, far away, it's in part to have my own love for home nurtured.

We're going far away.  We need to go.  We'll make new friends, have our eyes opened, be given new visions.  But I can't wait to come home.

[You can follow our trip on our blog.  Everyone is posting.  You might even see a post from me.]


hush When I first discovered Claire Holley in 1999, it was because I was smitten with her then second album, Sanctuary, a tribute to old-time music.  The traditional hymns and other songs, as well as the originals, hearkened back to my life as a child, sitting at the feet of my father and friends on Friday nights, playing just such music until the wee hours of morning enlivened by cup after cup of black coffee.  It conjured up another time, another place, as well it might have for Claire Holley, as she was inspired to do the album by her own father.

holley_01 Claire's newest recording, Hush, is not like Sanctuary, not filled with hymns or an old-time sound, and yet it still reminds me of those simple, sweet songs and arrangements.  Part of the album has the sound of lullabies, not surprising in that Claire is now a mother.  And yet that's not all of it.  The songs on the record, uniformly well-crafted, are presented in an understated and yet powerful way, testifying not to deep angst or political headlines but to normal, everyday life  ---- missing someone you love ("Visit Me"), leaving someone you love ("Leaving This Town"), a nighttime walk under the moon ("Under the Moon"), a wedding ("Wedding Day"), or the several songs that are no doubt inspired by her child, from shooing away monsters ("Go Away Now") to bath time ("Another Day") to bedtime ("Say Goodnight").  They're not lyrics to knock you over. . . and yet they do, simply by their testimony to the beauty of the ordinary times and events of life.

Musically, the album maintains a low-key acoustic feel, and there is a good variety in tempo, sufficient to keep the record interesting. My favorite tracks are "Visit Me" which, with the pedal steel, gives off a wistful sense of longing, much like Gram Parson's classic "Hickory Wind," and the feel-good vibe of "Leaving This Town."  But really, I like it all.  It may not be Sanctuary, but there's more Claire Holley in Hush, and it's all good.

God's Parallelism

best One of the distinctive features of the Hebrew Psalms is a literary device known as parallelism.  While less rich a device in the translated English, it nonetheless remains a feature of most of the Psalms, a curious or perhaps sometimes irritating tendency to always be telling us the same thing twice, as if we didn't get it the first time.  The Psalmist tends to repeat himself, as if we need to hear a second time so we understand.  See what I mean?  It can be irritating to be told the same thing twice.

And yet it's not so in the context of poetry because phrases are not being repeated so much as to teach, to emphasize a point, as they are to produce beauty in their cadence, in their appearance as words on a page, in their sound.  C.S Lewis, in his book Reflections on the Psalms, declined to ascribe the Psalter a purely didactic function, noting that it seemed "appropriate, almost inevitable, that when that great Imagination [Who]. . . had invented and formed the whole world of Nature, submitted to express Itself in human speech, that speech should sometimes be poetry.  For poetry too is a little incarnation, giving body to what had been before invisible and inaudible."

When I hear the parallelism of the Psalms I don't hear the nagging voice of a mother saying "Clean your room.  Clean your room.  Clean your room. . . NOW," each phrasing louder and more emphatic, but I hear the chorus of a great song of which you never tire, like "I've got a ticket to ride.  I said "I've got a ticket to ride."  Better than that, you can ride the roads of your city all day, pound the pavement, scratch away at life from your cubicle, and then look out the window and smile, humming "his love endures forever."  "His love endures forever."  That song never grows old but resonates in the fabric of creation, in the breeze blowing the maple tree outside your open window, in the heat rising from the sidewalks, and in the smile on a cat's face when she greets you at the end of a long day --- that is, that song has parallels in human experience.  When we hear that assuring phrase, we instinctively say "Say it again.  Tell me again."  Just like when we see a great sunset, we still want to see another, and another, and another.  In fact, there is such abundant parallelism in Nature, in human relationships, and in our own day-to-day activities that we can see the poetic nature of life itself --- the repetition of putting children to bed at night, almost but not quite the same way every night, or the regularity of meals, sleep, day and night, and so on, all repetitive and yet each not precisely repeatable.  (I could be accused here of making a lot of nothing, but I don't think anything in life is insignificant.)

I encourage reading the Psalms aloud and appreciating them as poetry, as audible expressions of the sometimes inarticulable longings of the human heart.  The parallelism is there by providential design to heighten the beauty of the form God used to express his truth through very fallible wordsmiths.  It's only a visible expression of a godly parallelism in all of life, the repetition of the good, every day.  There's great assurance in that, a good rhythm of life, so enjoy the parallelisms of life.  Enjoy them.

Now, let me say all that again in a slightly different way. . . .

Very, Very Short Stories: Brian Doyle's "Epiphanies & Elegies"

e At the recent Calvin College Festival of Faith and Writing, I attended a workshop led by Brian Doyle.  Though the precise topic of the workshop is lost to me now, the experience is not.  Doyle told story after story, became emotional, and in general was one of the most animated of writers I have ever experienced.  So, I was hooked.  I bought his latest book, Epiphanies & Elegies, a collection of, as he says, "very short stories," which, naturally, they are, although they present as free verse poems, most barely taking up a page of the book.  Perhaps they best qualify as "prose-poems," though once you read a few it hardly matters what you call them.

Certainly these are not inaccessible poems or stories.  Like Doyle himself, they are rich in color and emotion, with language easily understandable and descriptions of events to which most can relate.  There are poems about animals and children, war poems, Irish poems (Doyle is of Irish-Catholic background), and prayers.  While he doesn't shrink from darker subjects (try "Death of a Phoebe," where a deceased bird leads him to contemplate his own mortality), his humor is remains intact, with poems like "Instructions for the New Puppy" and "Wiping Paul."  There's soccer games, confession (the Catholic kind), sitting in church, children crawling in bed with parents, and all other kinds of ordinary, everyday life experiences --- all presented honestly, artfully, and with emotion.  Bottom line:  You want Brian Doyle as your friend, as someone to hang out with, or failing that, you want him at your party.  But enough generalizing.  Try a Doyle poem for yourself:

Things I Know About
Children I Don't Know
As Told To Me By My Twin Sons
Sprawled Like Trout In The Bathtub

Randall loves rocks and is a liar.
Jack can blow bubbles with bubble gum
And can make the bubble go in and out
Of his mouth without popping it.
Ian is the fastest runner.
Kate is the best reader in the class.
Laura is the best writer, though.
She can even write in cursive.
Anthony will only play with John.
John steps on people's feet on purpose
And he'll kick you when he's angry.
Joe's brother died last year in his sleep.
Amy's dad died this year. He was a doctor.
Alex wears the same shirt every day.
Zachary is mean to Cole all the time.
Cole is funny but no one plays with him.
Kevin says he smoked a cigarette once
But no one believes him, not even a little bit.
Victoria has really cool sunglasses.
Elizabeth's mom and dad are divorced.
Justin's mom is very fat.
Robert's dad yells at him in front of everybody.
He even yelled at the principal once.
Melissa's sister kisses boys in the sixth grade.
Allison is allowed to walk home alone from school.
Corey says he can do things that he can't,
Like ride a bike and do tricks on a skateboard.
Carl wears glasses and loses his temper.
Ariadne likes to draw rabbits.
We don't know anything about Molly.

Doyle is the Editor of Portland Magazine, author of some seven books, and a contributing essayist and poet to magazines such as Harpers and The Atlantic Monthly (which, alas, is no more.)  But honestly, he's just like us, really.  Sometimes he cries when he reads stories.  Or he yells for joy and laughs out loud.  He has kids that do crazy things.  He worries about things, prays a lot, and loves animals dearly.  He's passionate about life.  And he'd make a good friend. . . in small doses.

Go West, for Grace: A Review of Leif Enger's "So Brave, Young, and Handsome"

leif Since one of my favorite books of all time is Leif Enger's Peace Like a River, I was eager to read his second and just-published novel, So Brave, Young, and Handsome, to see if the story lived up to the that first novel, a New York Times bestseller.  I'm happy to say that it largely succeeds, even though there isn't a character quite as compelling as either of the children in that first novel.  But in a sense, it's unfair to compare.  It is, after all, a different story.

In this novel, Enger tells the story of an aging train robber who, having retired from a life of crime, decides to seek out the forgiveness of a young wife he abandoned many years before.  Writer Monet Becket, who somehow managed to write a successful first novel, is struggling, not able to write a follow-up, with success long behind him.  Monte and his wife and his young son, Redstart (who immediately makes you think of the kids in Peace Like a River), live simply in 1915 Minnesota, where he befriends the aging outlaw, Glendon Hale, and then decides to accompany him on his quest.  Much happens as they seek to escape the ex-Pinkerton, Charles Siringo, a man who is relentless in pursuit even as his own health is failing.  Along the way there are many adventures and just as many characters, none completely bad and none completely good.  In the end, both Monte and Glendon come to terms with life, understanding what they need to do and who they are.  Both encounter grace.

Enger writes prose that is lyrical and yet very accessible.  Characters and scenes are richly drawn, and the story is one I did not want to lay down until the end, even then wondering how their lives continued.  There's a bit of irony here in the writing of the story, with Enger perhaps telling us about himself, about the difficulty of writing a second novel when your first was hailed as a great success.  And yet Enger is not Monte Becket; he does succeed.  The other surprise about the novel: there is no coarse language or sexual situations presented.  They are not missed, of course.  Good novels do not need them, and yet given the prevalence of such writing, it is a welcome surprise.

I recommend So Brave, Young, and HandsomeDon't compare.  Read it for the story that it is.  Maybe you'll just take your own quest.

Glory (On Reading Psalm 8)

[Pastor Andy is doing a series of sermons this Summer on the various types of psalms.  Today, the sermon was on Psalm 8, a "psalm of creation."  It's a favorite of mine, and hearing it made me remember how several years ago I "re-imagined" (for lack of a better word), several psalms, trying to write highly truthful (but quite errant) "new" psalms that followed the train of thought in the inerrant psalm of scripture.  It's a way of making the truth your own, and this rewriting was, I felt, one of my better attempts.]

    after reading Psalm 8

Glory, glory, glory.

Rocks sing their mineral hearts
buckle & warp & cry a
raucous, rocking praise.

I listen to cicada skies
drink moon-shine
smell silhouetted trees, the
hum of homes so kind,
so kind.

I see infinity in the eyes of my
seventeen-something cat (“Someone’s
home,” I tell her with a pat),
feel the feathered nap of night,
the promise-purr of
starry light.

Your work. Great work.
Great play, in just six
somehow days. Even these
pines creak Your praise, making
darkness slide away.

Then me.
Only me.
You care

By the nape of my neck, You
stood me up, said
I had a life-lease, a
dignified but qualified
reign and rule. . .

So --- this is
my land
my grass
my trees,
my birds, buildings, bumblebees.

My cactus
ah, my cucumber
     (how I love cucumber.)

My wind, willow, wisp,
moon, music, mist ---
All mine, mine, mine!
All grace to this broken
king of man.

Glory, glory, glory.
To Giver be all glory.