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May 2009

Home Again, Again (Part Two)

Com_Day_-_Celebration-102 “You can stand still for a moment, and somewhere in the distance you can hear laughter.” (Todd)

Yesterday, the first two teams left for Uganda, and we just received word that they arrived safely.  At this time I can well understand their complete exhaustion. After a five-hour van trip to Dulles, a four-hour wait for the flight, two eight-hour flights, and a one-hour drive to a “hotel,” all you want to see is some kind of a shower and a bed.  And yet the road from Entebbe to Kampala is full of life, even at 10:00 in the evening.

Here we are used to the night sky being lit up by bright outdoor lighting, but along this road, even though there is electricity, lights are dim.  People mill about the dusky roadside stores in a twilight.  They walk the dirt roadside in darkness.  There are small grocery stores, a pool hall, a discotheque, and other unnamed kiosks, end-on-end clapboard shacks colored mostly by the signs of cell phone providers.  People call to one another and sing.  Everywhere you hear singing and laughter, even in the midst of what looks like poverty or near poverty for most who live here.  The dust mixed with charcoal form burning fires and sewage and garbage makes the unique smell of urban Africa.

I’m a little envious of them just now, being whisked along in the vans, laden down by people, narrowly missing cars and motor scooters along the blacktop north of Entebbe, talking excitedly about what lies ahead.  For most of them, it is not a new experience, as many went to Uganda last year, but still every trip is a new experience, full of new impressions, personalities, and challenges.

I’m getting ready.  I have my packing list out.  I’m trying to summon up the memory of how I managed it all last year to help me plan this excursion.  More than that, I’m trying to summon the energy to walk, work, and water fields of experience we only touched down on last year, to meet new children, to give up my time alone, to forget about being dirty and at times uncomfortable, to turn down the heat on the American obsession with self, on my own me-centeredness.  Only God can do that.

They’ll be in Kaihura tomorrow.  They’ll walk the hill to Faith Kunihura’s home.  Maybe someone will have a man beside him as I did last year who is repeating to himself “This is God’s work, this is God’s work.”  It’s hard work, but it’s good work, and no matter what work goes on outside, God is doing a work inside us all.

Learning to Talk Again: A Review of Confident Conversation: How to Communicate Successfully in Any Situation, by Mike Bechtle (Revell, 2008, 208 pp.)

C Most of us actually began to talk around the age of two, and by the time we enter kindergarten provide a running commentary on everything we do. However, some of us never learn how to truly have great conversations with people and may spend a lifetime trying to be something that we're not or confronting new social situations with either fear or swagger. Mike Bechtle's short book, Confident Conversation, is a very genuine, non-gimmicky approach to working on better communicating with people (which is another way of learning to love people), chock full of practical advice and practiced wisdom. I do not make it a habit of reading "how to" books, as I often find them tedious and discouraging, another list of things I need to do or change, but I like this one because of its human-centered orientation and simple, common-sense wisdom.

The author first orients us by telling us that the key to good communication (and good relationships) is to develop conversational skills that fit our personality style, to become more of who we really are. In other words, introverts need not try and become extroverts, something they don't do well anyway. He says that if we recognize who we are, then we can nurture that and enjoy the uniqueness of others. He also moves us from a me-centered engagement (a focus on what we supply to the conversation) to an other-centered orientation where we become explorers. He helps us see both the positive and negative attitudes we can bring to a conversation, identifying filters of background and culture that may become barriers to good conversation. Though unstated, the author is making a biblical case for looking to the interests of others before our own (Phil. 2:4) and building a winsome case for all the "love one anothers" of Scripture.

In succeeding chapters, he spells out the practical implications of this new orientation. Don't know what to do when you walk into a room of people that you do not know? He tells us how to begin conversations in this and other sometimes challenging situations. He advises preparing for conversations, telling us to think ahead as to what the person may be interested in or may respond to. He suggests taking notes after conversations as a way to honor people, to remember their names, family members, interests, or concerns. In none of this is the tool offered as a means of gaining power in the social encounter but, rather, as a way of honoring the dignity of people, of remembering them.

He also gives advice on being a good listener, part of which, as painful as it can be, is to give up our conversational agenda. He tells us how to ask good questions and foster a genuine curiosity that will help generate questions. Reading this chapter, I was reminded of Jesus' questioning, probing manner with the Samaritan woman at the well, and how so often in conversations I alternate between a self-absorbed inner dialogue and chatter that doesn't allow room for exploring the other person's interests or questions. Both are borne of discomfort.

Finally, he deals with the special conversational situations of "hard" conversations, that is, the ones you'd like to avoid or extricate yourself from, telephone conversations, and email dialogues. A lot of what he says is common sense, and yet reading all these tips together is like a summary of folk wisdom. Some people do all this reasonably well, but many do not and yet how many of us have actually tried to develop our conversational skills as a way of growing more into the image of Christ? A final chapter is titled "A Mini Course for Communication and summarizes the book, really, in four principles: function uniquely, prepare thoroughly, explore expectantly, and focus outwardly. He encourages us to set goals and to patiently work at bettering our interactions with people conversationally.

I recommend Confident Conversation to introverts and extroverts alike, regardless of age, who would like to have better, more meaningful conversations. You're never too old to learn to talk. . . again.

We Are Stardust, We Are Golden

Woodstock_music_festival_poster I came upon a child of god
He was walking along the road
And I asked him, where are you going?

(Joni Mitchell, “Woodstock,” 1970)

When Joni Mitchell’s Ladies of the Canyon was released in 1970, I was 12 and not thinking about who I was or where my life was going or much of anything beyond the confines of my neighborhood.  I did not have an identity crisis, was not worried about world peace, and the Selective Service was way beyond the pale. I played Capture the Flag in the backyards with my friends, watched Gilligan’s Island, Hogan’s Heroes, and I Dream of Jeannie first-runs after school, and fought with my sister (two had moved out).  I didn’t know where Woodstock was, much less what was going on at Yasgur’s farm, or who Jimmy Hendrix or Janis Joplin or Joni Mitchell were.  Yet, in the midst of twelve-year old play, I remember feeling like I was on the cusp of something new, something just beyond my grasp.  I knew the world was changing but just didn’t know what it had to do with me.  That came later.

About 14 I discovered some of the incredible music of the late Sixties and early Seventies.  Sometimes I forget about the great singer-songwriters of the Seventies because of the fact that the decade was so infected by disco after “Saturday Night Fever” hit in 1975.  Looking back I have to first part the mirror-ball body-bumping spectacle of that music to see the golden music that was there all along.  A couple of days ago, I went to Pandora and typed in “Joni Mitchell” and it’s like an intimate friend, someone who was with me then, is playing song after song of my high school and college years, back-to-back tracks by Neil Young, Laura Nyro, Fleetwood Mac, Eva Cassidy, Van Morrison, James Taylor, Carol King, and the queen of melancholy herself, Joni Mitchell.  But I digress. . . . By the time I hit senior high school, folks weren’t going to Yasgur’s Farm anymore for enlightenment but boring down deep to figure out the meaning of life.  Just like personal introspection had taken root in the music, so we were consumed by the personal.

It was an intense time.  Let me see if I describe it for you.  One night I’m in my room on the ground floor of our house, and my friend John comes to my door.  He can’t speak, only stand there and look at me.  I ask him what’s wrong and all he can murmur is “Carol broke up with me.”  So we start walking and walking and walking, and he never says a word about it, despite my asking.  We end up at Pizza Hut, me unable to figure out what to do, him a despondent teenager sure that his personal life is forever ruined, that nothing would ever be the same.

And that’s how it went back then.  Every rejection was perceived as life-ending.  Of course it wasn’t.  At worst it made for a bad day or week.  But teenage vision is myopic, and we could not see over the rim of the pit we had dug for ourselves.  We had so little perspective, so little history of tribulation and trial to draw upon that we were unable to see God’s providences in our lives.  It was all present tense and so, so all about me.  Parents might reassure, but they remained on the periphery, distant planets in a solar system where we were the sun.

Well maybe it is just the time of year
Or maybe it’s the time of man
I don’t know who l am
But you know life is for learning
We are stardust
We are golden
And we’ve got to get ourselves
Back to the garden

Like everyone else in high school, I was trying to figure out who I was and who I wanted to be.  Nobody seemed to know anything.  I didn’t even know all the questions to ask, but I did sense that there was something wrong with measuring my worth by the expectations of others, by whether someone liked me or didn’t like me.

One day my mother (who did not offer many explanations for life but listened well) gave me a book called I Never Promised You a Disneyland, by Jay Kesler.  Reading that book, for the first time I felt like someone understood what I was facing as a teenager (which was mostly what all teenagers were facing).  I cannot even remember what the book said, but it was something like “we are stardust, we are golden, and we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden,”  if you want to be poetic about it.  In other words, it was a book that connected to the concerns of my life, reminded me of my immense worth because of the love of a very personal God, and pointed me back to the elemental things I had been taught all my life.  Of course it wasn’t the book that resulted in me making the faith my own, as many factors were at work in my life, but it was a precipitating factor, one which, if the writer knew, would make the writing of his book worth it just for my sake.

Maybe it was also those great singer-songwriters of the Seventies, the ones who made me ask questions and wonder.  Neil Young was looking for a “heart of gold,” Joni Mitchell said we were “golden,” and Dewey Betts and the others in America were out on the Ventura Highway writing about life and its discontents.  Believe me, it is not nostalgia that makes me write about this, as I would never want to return to the conflicting emotions and turmoil of that time, but I look backward in gratitude for music and books that made a difference.  Some people are helped to faith by real, live people; me, I had books and music to provoke me and even disciple me.  Even the good music of the nonbelievers led me to faith.

We are golden.  We are the handiwork of a living, personal God who made us for himself, with unique, immense worth, and who wrote himself into the story as the one who came along side us and asked: Do you know where you’re going?  I’m thankful to be able to answer that question in the affirmative, even as I cannot offer a detailed roadmap of how to get there.  I can only point you to the Writer himself, to the golden music that lies behind the mirror-ball spectacle of life that parades before us.  It's always been there.  That's my Woodstock.

Home Again, Again (Part One)

DSCN0098My face has been wearing excitement ever since you came.”  (Paul, a Ugandan man, on our coming)

I couldn’t get time to talk with you because my heart is full of joy and tears.”  (14-year old Daniel, on our leaving)

Those two comments bookended our trip to the village of Kaihura, Uganda last Summer.  One came in the midst of the singing and laughter that greeted us on our arrival; the other, jotted in a note given to me by Daniel’s friend on our leaving.  It’s both difficult to believe it has been a year since we were there and to believe that in less than a month we will return. 

Kaihura is not much more than a dusty stop on the road between Kampala and Ft. Portal, in the western part of Uganda not far from the border with the Congo.  The business district consists of a few tin-roofed shacks, painted with advertisements for cell phone companies.  Dirt roads and paths lead off road to homes, most of which are single room adobe buildings with thatch roofs or, for the fortunate few, tin roofs.  Windows are square holes; latrines, makeshift; electricity non-existent.  And yet, several thousand children, many of whom are orphaned, live in and around Kaihura, attending one of the three schools there, some walking several miles to school each day where they sit in classes sometimes with up to 100 students.

Here is here and there is there, and yet I have not forgotten them.  I’ve been reading my journal of last summer.  I realize I wrote so little because I was so exhausted every night when I lay down to sleep.  My scribblings  while in the van were barely legible, given the potholes and bumps along the way.  And yet, something of the experience comes through, some words like icons bid me look through them to the richly peopled landscape that lies beyond.  “I awoke to the sounds of a busy city, a man singing, women talking, traffic streaming by, the sound of sweeping” (Kampala),  “They carried our luggage up the hill from the bus stop, the man next to me repeating ‘This is God’s work, this is God’s work” (Kaihura).  At one point I say, maybe with too much drama, that “each day comes here with a hundred deaths, a moment by moment sacrifice of our own wants, needs, and desires for someone else. . . . I discover I am a novice at forsaking self-love.”  I remember not wanting to get out of bed in the morning, craving water and wanting to make sure I have enough, wanting just a little time alone to think, time to lie down and rest in the middle of a long day.  Words are almost better than the photos and video we shot, as words hold multi-layered possibilities, make me recall more than one place, time, or event, are actually fuller than images that say one thing about one place about one time.

IMG_0282 “But I am praying hard that God should keep us together in the Holy Spirit,” says Daniel in his letter to me.  Going back is a way of saying that we have not forgotten you.  More than anything, the Ugandan orphans want to know that someone knows their name, that someone thinks of them, that they matter to someone somewhere.  In a sea of faces, sometimes as many as a hundred staring back at me, it seems hopeless.  There were only 45 of us, and as many as a thousand of them.  But at least I know Daniel, and Sam, and Christina, and James, and Stephen. At least I know their names.

People v. God

Why god "How long, O Lord, must I call for help, but you do not listen? Or cry out to you, 'Violence!' but you do not save? Why do you make me look at injustice? Why do you tolerate wrong? Destruction and violence are before me; there is strife, and conflict abounds. Therefore the law is paralyzed, and justice never prevails. The wicked hem in the righteous, so that justice is perverted." (Hab. 1:2-4)

It may well be that we are to be content in our circumstances, that life itself is grace, but apparently that does not mean that we cannot complain and cry out honestly to God. The Psalmist repeatedly asks why and how long, and not always with affirmations of love or sovereignty. But it is in Habakkuk, a short Old Testament book, that I find something astonishing: an indictment of God. The prophet is saying something like justice delayed is justice denied, not mincing words but speaking forthrightly to God. And God answers.

I recently read a letter written by a Zimbabwe pastor that updated praying friends on the situation in his country. A once reasonably prosperous country is in the midst of complete disintegration. Their currency is worthless. As many as 90% of the people are unemployed. Teachers are leaving the schools as no one is providing their salary. The infrastructure is decaying. Medical clinics and hospitals are closing. Civilization hangs by a thread that is slowly unraveling. Why? Why doesn't God uproot greedy, corrupt, and self-aggrandizing leaders who have led the country into such a state?

Having been to Uganda, I can appreciate the semblance of civility and infrastructure that exists there compared to a place like Zimbabwe. And yet even there you find greed, corruption, tribalism, and violence. People are murdered over land disputes. Roads are blockaded and money demanded from travelers in exchange for safe passage. If you are able to help some people, others become envious. For every adult there may be 100 children --- orphans living in the bush or together in makeshift huts. Warfare and disease have taken so many of the parents that the children have been left alone. Why?

God's answer to Habakkuk goes like this: "For the revelation awaits an appointed time; it speaks of the end and will not prove false. Though it linger, wait for it; it will certainly come and not delay" (Hab. 2:3). In the end, Habakkuk's indictment is withdrawn, muted by the revelation that God is sovereign over all things, that the "Lord is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, he enables me to go on the heights" (Hab. 3:19), implying that God will sustain and even grow you (take you higher) as a result of the hardship you endure. As the Zimbabwean pastor says: "God is refining the faith of His people so that they would trust Him, no matter what, when He seemed uncaring, when He seemed silent, when He seemed inactive." Even as he sees fellow believers leaving his country, leaving an already weakened church, he is able to see how God is pointing "around the world at other places of spiritual need," sending those Africans who leave to extend His Kingdom in other needy places.

Last weekend Patrick, one of the Ugandan orphans I met last summer, came here for a heart operation. (Read about it here.) His Aunt Elizabeth, a pastor herself, came with him. I reminded Elizabeth that while they have little in material goods to give us, they have much to give us in their testimony of faith and in their prayers. In the midst of abundance, we have less opportunity to trust God. The Ugandans have to trust Him every day --- for food, water, and clothing, all of which we take for granted. Aid may come, or not; Westerners like us come, and leave. But God is constant. They know the answer to why and how long. It's simply trust, and obey, and wait. God is on the move, but all in His time.

Pandora’s Box

340px-Pandora_-_John_William_Waterhouse"[The Internet] creates a permanent puberty of the mind. We get locked in so much information, and the inability to sort that information meaningfully limits our capacity to understand. The last stage of knowledge is wisdom. But we are miles from wisdom because the Internet encourages the opposite of what creates wisdom—stillness, time, and inefficient things like suffering. On the Internet, there is no such thing as waiting; there is no such thing as stillness. There is a constant churning."

(Shane Hipps, in Flickering Pixels: How Technology Shapes Your Faith)

I am awash in music. Whether I am in my car, while working at my computer in my home or on the job, in restaurants, shopping, or putting gas in my car, life is lived out complete with soundtrack. Like most other products, technologically-savvy marketers have found ways to deliver music to me whenever I want it (and even when I don't). I'm part of the problem, as I confess I am a music junkie. What I can't determine is whether all this music is good for me --- and I'm not referring to content or quality as much as quantity. Why the compulsion to listen? Why do I feel the need to have the background of my day soaked in sound?

In this respect, Pandora, a relative newcomer to internet radio, has not been helpful. While our firewall at work blocks most streaming music (it won't allow Rhapsody), Pandora streams through unchecked. If you're not familiar with Pandora, it's a remarkable internet radio service that allows you to pick a song or artist and build a playlist of songs that are in a similar vein to that song. Actually, it's a cooperative process. Based on the song or artist you select, Pandora suggests and begins playing similar songs. You can accept or reject the song. Every time you make such a choice, you further give input to Pandora, allowing it to refine the song selection. For example, I began a station by playing "Baby Blue," by the Seventies power-pop group, Badfinger. Next up, Pandora selected "Who'll Stop the Rain," by Creedence Clearwater Revival. Why? If you want to know, it tells you. In this instance it said because it features "basic rock song structures, country influences, a subtle use of vocal harmony, extensive vamping and mixed electric and acoustic instrumentation." Well, I don't know about all that, but they guessed right --- I liked the song. And it's uncanny, because more often than not they do get it right.

Pandora grew out of the marriage of some astute musicians and computer geeks who conceived the Music Genome Project, a distilling of the essential qualities of music that then allowed them to map similarities. In their own words, they "set out to capture the essence of music at the most fundamental level. We ended up assembling literally hundreds of musical attributes or `genes' into a very large Music Genome. Taken together these genes capture the unique and magical musical identity of a song - everything from melody, harmony and rhythm, to instrumentation, orchestration, arrangement, lyrics, and of course the rich world of singing and vocal harmony. It's not about what a band looks like, or what genre they supposedly belong to, or about who buys their records - it's about what each individual song sounds like." It's ingenious, really, and though it has a significant subjective component, I am amazed at their ability to objectify (and then market) the factors that make up our usually unarticulated taste in music, so amazed that I have spent hours listening to Pandora.

Then lately I have been wondering how all this listening is shaping me, for better or worse. Like any new technology, I suspect it sows good and bad fruit. On the positive side, Pandora has introduced me to new songs and new artists and reminded me of songs and artists I had forgotten. I now listen to Yo La Tenga, when I had never heard of them before, and rediscovered The James Gang (please don't say "who?"), a group I lost to my high school years. It allows me to listen to full tracks at no cost. I either put up with a few advertisements or pay a modest $36 a year to enjoy advertisement-free listening and a longer time-out function. I enjoy the fact that both independent and major artists get paid when I play their song. And finally, I enjoy the element of surprise in finding out what song will be selected for me next. Of course, there is the portability of it as well, but that's nothing new.

On the negative side, I suspect I am also becoming captive to my tastes and less adventurous and patient in listening outside by personalized genres. To be fair, Pandora gives you a tool to deal with this, at least in part, by allowing you to click a button called "Add Variety," but I never do. I like my listening comfort zone, and Pandora feeds that taste-ghetto. Pandora also (and it's not alone in this) provides a veritable and portable glut of music --- at home, at work, in the car, and on your IPhone --- and thereby contributes to the impatient, non-evaluative listening many now major in. I pay little attention to words, know and care little about the new artists, and don't end up buying their album or song (at least not yet). I need not tolerate anything that doesn't immediately grab me by the musical short-hairs: I can skip a song easily enough and blacklist an artist so that their songs never play again. Once again, to be fair, Pandora allows only a limited number of skips or thumbs down on suggested songs before you are bumped from the station, but you can always log back on, so there is little disincentive to impatience and little incentive to listen beyond 30 seconds or so. It propels this propensity to skimming as does any kind of internet listening or browsing.

Consider how long it has been since you carefully listened to a song or, better yet, an entire album. Music now streams through my head and I rarely press pause so I can think about it. I get what I want when I want it, but I probably don't get what I need --- a balance between the stimulating, surprising experience of hearing all the music offered by Pandora and a more reflective, deeper, committed listening to a small cadre of artists that I commit to and support, a balance between the stimulation of music and the solitude and space of silence as I listen and reflect on the world outside and world in my head. Life is more novel than soundtrack, a story so rich that you cannot hear it without a measure of rest from the constant churning of sound (and information and image).

In Greek mythology, Pandora, whose name means sender of gifts, was also the one with the unchecked curiosity who opened the box that brought ill upon the world. It just goes to show that when it comes to new technology, we take the bad with the good. Pandora brings ill and unintended consequences. Its open box walls me in to my own prejudices even while it ostensibly opens me up to new musical vistas. When it comes to music, maybe this good gift of rediscovered or new music should prompt me to stop the flow and go deeper, getting to know a smaller amount of music by a small number of artists in a deeper way. Of course, that requires listening, not just hearing, and thoughtfulness, not distraction. In short, it requires the good sense to put the lid on Pandora's box at some point. Can we do that?

One of Us

CFN_side3 “What if God was one of us/ Just a slob like one of us/ Just a stranger on the bus/ Trying to make his way home?” (Joan Osbourne)

Because I had to drop my car at a repair shop to have some work done on it this morning, I decided to ride the city bus --- public transportation.  The bus stop, after all, was less than 100 feet from the place where I dropped my car, and I timed it so that I would not have to wait long.  As it was, the bus was six minutes late --- not too bad given rush hour traffic.

Standing on the side of busy Capital Boulevard, I was aware of the rush and press of traffic in a way I’m generally isolated from --- windows up, music on, filtered air cooling me.  Here it is a loud six lanes of cars, with hot auto exhaust and fumes roiling over me every now and then, and an occasional horn blaring.  The world is up and moving on a new day.  Every car carries a world within, a person or persons preoccupied with their own cares, plans, hopes, and dreams.  If you think about the multiplicity of it, it can be overwhelming.  And yet God knows each one by name, is intimately familiar with the world in which they live.  At one point I had a strange thought: What if a co-worker or someone else I knew saw me?  Would they think I had gone “green?”  I felt a silly sense of being on display, standing out here in my suit waiting for a bus.  I don’t see many men in suits riding buses.

None of my fellow passengers, most of whom are African-American or Latin-American in descent, are smiling.  No doubt they are thinking about the day ahead --- for a couple, maybe school, for others work, for one lady with a baby, two toddlers, and a baby carriage, perhaps work and on-site daycare.  They look different than my neighbors or co-workers, more like the cross-section of society you see in the DMV office, traffic court, or Wal-Mart.

“You need a transfer?”

“A what?”

“Do you need to change buses?”

Nope.  I’m staying with you.”

I am an educated man, and yet I barely know how to do this.  I don’t even recall ever riding a bus in this city before.  I put my dollar in the tray and take a seat next to a woman clutching a Wake Technical Institute notebook.  We pull away from the stop as I take my seat.

“So, you’re in school?”  Well, I considered saying that to the woman next to me, but I never did.  She’s looking out the window, as am I, listening to the hum of the diesel motor, the cadence of the wheels rolling over cracks in the asphalt. I am enjoying not having to drive, looking at familiar landscape yet able to study it in a way I cannot when I drive myself.  I wonder what it’s like to do this every day.  I think about how much reading I could get done.  I imagine the difficulty of doing it and staying warm and dry when it rains.

Three kids.  I bet she’s tired.  The youngest drops her toy on the floor, and the black man across from her picks it up and gently hands it to her.  Where has she been, or where is she going?  How long ago did these kids have to be gotten up, fed, clothed, and walked to the bus stop?

In all of 20 minutes I am dropped one block from my office. 

“Have a good day,” I say to the bus driver.

“You too.”

I didn’t see a single slob on the bus.  Just people not so different than me.  People going somewhere, people with dreams, here between the already and the not yet.

A Varied Grace

medium_7_38080 “As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace. . .” (1 Pet. 4:10, ESV)

When Peter speaks of “varied grace,” at first I want to cry foul, thinking it unfair for grace to vary.  Surely he doesn’t mean that God gives more grace to some than others!  But it’s His prerogative; that he gives one gift to me and ten to another is no concern of mine.  He gives me what I need.  My concern is that I use what I have for His glory.  My assurance is that I have what I need and what I can use for His purposes.  I have my place; you have yours.

We’re cleaning the garage today for the first time in perhaps four years, and because He gave me the gift of words and gave me this particular place, I’m here to tell you about it.  Maybe to some it’s simply a dirty but necessary job, a menial task not worth a footnote in the story of your life, but if you look at it closely, it’s more than that.  Everything matters.

Even the rubbish I sweep up with my broom speaks to me. Mixed with the dust of four years of life in our family is spilled grout from the remodeling of our home four years ago after a house fire that forced us out for ten months.  There are leaves and pine straw that have traveled in on my tires from countless comings and goings to work, school, church, late night grocery store runs, urgent care physicians and trips out of town alone.  A Cheerwine bottle cap reminds me of Henry, a mentally retarded man who lives in a story I wrote.  I pick up the bottle cap and put in in my shirt pocket so I can be reminded of him.

The larger items we clear from the garage are testimonies to hopes and dreams.  650 remaining CDs remind me that I once owned a record label that represented a dream and a loss.  I loved music, but business was not good to me.  A red Giant kids’ bike was what my children learned to ride, and yet they have outgrown it as they have seemingly outgrown riding for the simple joy of riding.  On a shelf sits a cardboard box labeled “Pinewood Derby,” and I know that despite the fact I have long since lost the need for what is in that box I will likely keep it around because it represents a special time, a father-son time.  Even the dirty blue carpet square at the steps takes me back to a time when our house was new and the carpet blue and I sat at my desk and watched my young children play around me.

Most of this we’ll give away or throw away, the dust and leaves and dirt swept into a garbage bag and firmly tied and placed in the trash can, and yet even the walls will speak.  They’ll tell about how a family lived and moved and had its being, of laugher and tears, of long bedtime talks and wakeful nights.  Walls whisper of inside jokes and secrets, of what only we can know.

They’ll tell the story of my life, not yours, of the grace that came to my home, not yours, about the varied grace of a God who moves in and lives in the dust and beautiful rubbish of our lives and gives what he wills to his children, of a particular grace only delivered here.

I lean on my broom for a while and look around the garage at the fading paint, the concrete floor that is settling back into the earth, separating from the wall, even nails working their way out of drywall, entropy at work.  I know we won’t always be here.  The house will not forever stand.  Perhaps someone will one day walk these future ruins as in Sarah Jewett’s short story and proclaim that “the people who lived and died in that. . . place knew Him. . . ., that the world was made for them, and God keeps them yet; somewhere in his kingdom they are in their places, --- they are not lost; while the trees they left grow older, and the young trees spring up, and the fields they cleared [or lawn they kept] are being covered over and turned into wild land again” (Sarah Orne Jewett, “An October Ride”).  Maybe.  Better yet, all will be remade, reformed into a new country that is beautifully reminiscent of the old country, of the old home place.  

Varied grace?  I have exactly what I need: a home, a family, a life, and words to spend on them.  Fair enough, Peter.