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September 2010

Her College Preview (and Mine)

One thing that is plainly apparent to me this college preview weekend is that the preview my daughter is getting, that is, the one she is interested in, is not the preview I am getting.  And that's OK.  I have to understand that it's really OK.

The first clue came when we arrived in the quaint mountain town of Lookout Mountain, Georgia.  The streets are right out of fairy tales.  There's Cinderella Drive, Elfin Lane, and the one on which we move, Red Riding Hood Trail.  It brought a big smile to her face.  Now I would never have thought to relate this fantasy land to a good college preview weekend.  It's a frolic for her, people, Red Riding Hood dancing her way into the college grounds, and me, I'm thinking about all the big bad wolves of academic majors, financing this experience, and keeping my daughter safe.  Irrelevant to her.  People are what matter.  God bless her.  We are so different.

And all of this is OK, I tell myself.  She is not me and I am not her, as if that was not painfully obvious. With me it's A+B=C, with her it's A+B+F+ (maybe G) times 8 = A PARTY.  What is the fun factor? And yet I have to believe that underneath the social factor is a desire to do and be something.

The truth is I want to go back to school, more than she wants to go.  So much to learn, so much to read, so much to write, and the luxury of focusing solely on learning.  Or, in her words, so many people to meet, so many fun things to do, so much freedom, and Dad to pay for the whole thing.  Does it get any better than this?

But it's a preview, that's for sure, and the truth is it will impact her in ways I won't be able to understand until later, if then, might not even hear from her mouth.  And yet to see her smile and walk off with a group of students, to watch her "try on" the independence of college --- well that's enough, isn't it?  I'm really OK about all this. . . .

God at Home: A Review of "Somewhere More Holy," by Tony Woodlief

51xA7r2CtgL._SL500_AA300_ It is fitting that Tony Woodlief's latest book --- indeed, the book of his life --- begins with a nod to Frederick Buechner.  Buechner, now in his Eighties, is a man who has spent his whole life trying to understand his childhood home, the inexplicable suicide of his father, and the implications of that for his life and, even more, how that home colors his vision of our final Home.  In Somewhere More Holy, Woodlief brings that Buechner way of seeing to his own home, seeing its sacredness, glimpsing Heaven in its rooms.

Somewhere More Holy is an open, authentic, and honest memoir of sin and salvation, of tragic loss, of depression and adultery and unbelief that came in the aftermath of that loss, and yet of the grace that sustained a man, a woman, and a home.  It is the story of two people orphaned in the sense that they never knew the semblance of a real home in their own upbringing, and who, once realizing their adoption by God, fumble toward family and home in God's grace, with fits and starts.  In its particulars, we find the universals that inevitably work themselves out in our own lives and homes, that remind us of our humanity.

When Woodlief cracks open the door to his heart and home, he doesn't hold back.  As he says about this honesty: "One of the things that Celeste and I have learned about building a home is that it will never feel safe until you scare your ghosts out into the open." And scare he does.  Sexual abuse and family cover-ups. Serial homes. Death. Divorce. Anger. Adultery. Unbelief.  Just to read of the suffering and death of his young daughter is painful enough, and yet the demons he wrestles with in the aftermath are even more frightening.  Reading it, you can't help but reflect back on your own life and wonder how you would deal with such loss, with a God who wounds in such a near fatal way.

And yet this isn't just one of those blood on the page memoirs with a litany of horrors endured, barely. Rather, there is a point to all this, a lesson Woodlief gives at the outset and shows working out through the remainder of the book.  The lesson is this:

We didn't understand that, however much he may love us, God allows his children to be wounded. We didn't yet see that home is a sacred place, and sacred places must be sanctified by the heart's own suffering. . . . Most importantly, we hadn't yet discovered that beyond these stony truths, grace abounds. A home, we are learning even now, can be built in spite of all that our ghosts and the world itself do to try to stop us. That is what we strive for, and perhaps what you strive for as well.

What greater wound could there be than watching your young daughter suffer and die from a brain tumor? It is a Job-like wounding that pushes Woodlief to the limit, nearly to breaking, and yet as the story unfolds you see that the God whose absence was palpable was never really far away.

And that's just the introduction.  After giving us the short version of the story and letting us see the end up front (perhaps so we do not lose hope), he goes on to develop the story via the framework provided by the rooms of his home.  Though the subject matter is serious (life is, after all serious business), the author's wit and humor buoys the spirit throughout, like when he writes about what it's like to have dinner with four young boys ("boy animals are the only creatures to transform eating into a spectator sport").

In the end, this is not just a memoir about one man's struggle with great tragedy, but one that shows us what a home is intended to be, a sacred place, "the place that makes us better than we ever could be alone," the place "where we learn grace, where we glimpse heaven."  Truly it is somewhere more holy.

I highly recommend Somewhere More Holy.  Read it and return to the rooms and corridors of your own home and see them for the hallowed places they really are.  And the places they can be by God's grace.

What We'll Be Doing at the End of Time

"Childhood's time is Adam and Eve's time before they left the garden for good and from that time on divided everything into before and after.  It is the time before God told them that the day would come when they would surely die with the result that from that time on they made clocks and calendars for counting their time out like money and never again lived through a day of their lives without being haunted somewhere in the depths of them by the knowledge that each day brought them closer to the end of their lives."  (Frederick Buechner)

I am glad that Fall is here, both by calendar and by temperature, finally, but I'm sad that another Summer has passed, indeed that time has passed.  I walk the steps to my office and think "was it really 26 years years ago that I first stepped int this place?"  I visited a park, briefly, this early evening, and while waiting for my wife and watching a mother and young child pass by, I considered how many years had passed since I had passed in the same way, a blond-haired boy and redhead in tow.

Time is part of what came unwound in the Fall, part of what befell the first Father and first Mother on that fateful day of expulsion.  The ticking began, and the meter continues to run.  The sense of passage of time is real to us and part of the curse, part of the suffering and travail of the world.  It wasn't meant to be this way.  

Part of the hope deep beneath Buechner's sigh is the restoration of childhood, the unwinding and undoing of the curse, when time will be over and the end of our time will not haunt us.  It's happening already. Have you ever had one of those absolutely magical moments when time seems to stand still, when your eyes are opened just a bit to the fact that there is a deeper reality, a truer Truth than what we see?  My son is a young man, and yet there are moments talking with him that I sense there is an old soul within, a timeless soul, one with wisdom beyond his years and beyond his sensing. My daughter speaks, and I hear not the voice of a teenager but the voice of a woman, and I smile.  Or you're in a place and you have the uncanny sense that you've been there before, though you haven't, and perhaps it is that for a moment the door opened on timelessness and you had a peek.

That's Heaven you're knocking up against.  You get to wake up when you want.  You're having one long conversation with God, with no regrets over yesterday and no anxiety about tomorrow.  In fact, maybe "yesterday" and "tomorrow" are not even in the lexicon.  There are a string of eternal nows within which to live.  Time, what the Greeks called chronos, or quantitative time, has ceased, is not even remembered, and the only time you know is what they called kairos, time in a qualitative sense.  Like a childhood Summer, when the last school bell rang and the season ahead stretched interminably and unimaginably into the future, like a world without end.

That's Heaven.  World without end.  Time out, for good.

Why I Like "Z"

One of the unusual things that grammar guru Roy Peter Clark suggests in his wonderfully fun book, The Glamour of Grammar, is that the reader "adopt" a favorite letter of the alphabet.  What an odd suggestion, I thought, as I read that.  One adopts children, philosophies, and bad habits (just to name a few things), but letters?

I asked my wife and children if they had a favorite letter and "no" was all I got.  Never thought about it. Well, maybe there was a mild insinuation that I had too much time on my hands if I needed to ask such a question.  My daughter may have said "that's dumb," in her delicate way.  So I dropped it.  Until today, that is, when I picked the book up again. How, after all, would you begin to select a favorite letter, and what criteria would you use?

I thought about shape.  Beauty, after all, is in the eye of the beholder, and I decided I couldn't tolerate the sharp lines of "A" or "E" or "T" or other such angular characters, as it suggested rigidity and, frankly, they seemed more masculine to me, projecting strength.  I also don't like "B" and "D," as they seem overweight, bulging midriffs, not that I don't like overweight people, just the tendency I have to eat too much (and don't want to be reminded of, and these letters may be nags).  While my eye is attracted to the comeliness of the feminine form, the flowing lines of "S," I decided on "Z."  Why?  There's something just fun about writing a "Z," as I always think of Zorro's emblazoned signature "Z" every time I write it.  The flourish.  The style.  The wildness.  I also like beginnings and endings. Being last has it's advantages. Often, you are the one remembered.

So that's it too; letters aren't just pretty faces but immediately suggest things. Quick: think of every word that begins with "Z" without the aid of a dictionary. OK, so there's Zorro (there he is again), zipper (an amazing invention, when it works, and as proper noun, a terrifying midway ride), Zoroastrian (some kind of weird religion, I think), zinc (mettalurgy, anyone?), zilch (as in "I got zilch, man," the response Sam my fellow furniture moving employee always had), zone (think "Twilight Zone" or "zoned out," like my 9th grade friend Wade), Zimmy (short for Robert Zimmerman a/k/a Bob Dylan), Zagat (is that a game??), Zach (good kid who is uncannily like Igor on Winnie the Pooh)), zinnia (planted some of these when I was a kid), zenith (the peak of something and a one time TV manufacturer), Zulu (mean African dudes), Zondervan (a book publisher), zapped (as in "Mommy, sister got zapped when she stuck her finger in the electrical outlet"), zeppelin (still a fascination of my son), zeitgeist (hmmm. . . now I need a dictionary), and. . . well, I'll stop here.  This is actually fun, though, and I'm beginning to think that "Z" is really good to hang out with, as he/she (I think Z is a he, but don't ask me why) seems to have a good time.

Clark isn't the only one to suggest that letters have personality.  Listen to what Alain de Botton says in The Architecture of Happiness, a book I read a couple years ago and hadn't thought about until now:

Even in something as diminutive as the letters of a typeface, we may detect well-developed personalities, about whose lives and daydreams we could without difficulty write a a short story. The straight back and alert upright bearing of a Helvetican "f" hint at a punctual, clean and optimistic protagonist, whereas his Poliphilus cousin, with a droopy head and soft features, strikes a sleepier, more sheepish and more pensive tone.  The story may not end well for him.

So de Botton brings up something I had not considered: typeface.  My "Z" is only one of a family of diverse Zs. I don't want to play favorites.

Now that I think about it, maybe I won't think about de Botton's book anymore. (That he writes such books must mean he is independently wealthy and can think about such things all the time.)

Oh, a Zoroastrian is a follower of Zoroaster (is that akin to a slow roaster? tiny, tiny joke - don't be offended you Zoroastrians).  It is perhaps telling that the grand poo-pah of the religion's name means "whose camels are old."

This has been fun, but it's late and I need to go.  What's the point of all this?  I'm not sure.  I guess just simply to suggest that letters are more and mean more and suggest more than what they are.  And to think: I've been taking them for granted all these years, fascinated as I am by words, those suck-ups to letters.

I'm sorry "Z."

The Beat Goes On

"Try listening to a lecture or sermon as if you had never heard English before.  Listen for the flow of syllables --- some strong, some weak.  What do we mean by an accented syllable?  Is it louder?  Does it take longer to pronounce than its neighboring syllable does?"

(Suzanne U. Clark, in The Roar on the Other Side)

If, as I do, you sometimes have a difficult time staying awake during the sermon on Sunday morning, try something different.  Forget about the content for the time being and assume that the three points will in some way prick you nonetheless and provide inspiration and provocation later, when you've shaken off the slippery slope of Sunday sleep. (Say that ten times quickly, will you?)

Pretend the pastor is not speaking English, a not far stretch of the imagination with some pastors, I know. Listen not to what they say but how they say it.  Why stress what they stress?  Why pause where they pause?  What accent the syllable they accent?

Speech is poetry, really, with a musical quality about it.  Poet Suzanne Clark reminds us "that the most prominent sound pattern in English is an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed one.  When used as a deliberate pattern in a poem, it is called an iamb. . . . Of course in speech the pattern is random and inconsistent."  In poetry, she says, order is brought to the randomness: "The iambic meter --- presenting the pattern at regular intervals --- has historically been the prevailing one."

Even when random and inconsistent, the intriguing thing about the iamb's prevalence in speech is that it always surfaces.  Just listen to the sermon.  You'll hear it, the rising and falling of stress, the rising and falling of voice.  What it is, I believe, is our unconscious imitation of the "THUMP-thump" of our own heartbeat, the music we effortlessly make, our own internal rhythm.  And that, I suspect, is a rhythm built into Creation itself --- "there was evening, and there was morning --- an iamb placed in Creation by a God who some believed even put in Creation a "music of the spheres."  Hmmm.

And then, perhaps all this is a lot of rubbish.  Nevertheless, listen to the sound of the sermon anyway. You may just wake up to more than its iambs.  "Beautiful words have interesting sounds with value quite apart from sense," says Clark (once again, a good thing in respect to some pastors).  So listen.  And then when you bow for prayer, put your hand to your heart and realize that there is a reason you sound like you do. And let a small word of praise escape your mouth that that beat goes on, and on.

A Not Too Hidden Wholeness - Luke Brindley's Treasure in a Broken Land

A-hidden-wholeness I first heard Luke Brindley about ten years ago, when his Spring Song release made it into my hands.  At the time, I was in the music business, swimming in singer-songwriters, with several demos or full-length CDs (and cassettes!) stuffed in my mailbox everyday.  I listened to them all, one minute of each of the first three songs.  And yes, it's true --- you do get a fairly accurate indication of the way things will go in that sampling. Most did not make it further.  Spring Song did.  It was likely because it reminded me (perhaps a little too much) of a singer-songwriter giant in my eyes and ears, the Canadian Bruce Cockburn, and yet I think I felt there was more to it as well, something original and not just derivative, like a younger writer just beginning to find his voice.

A lot has happened in ten years.  How much the world has grown up.  And how much Luke Brindley has grown up, both in life experiences and in music, as it should be. Listening to his just released A Hidden Wholeness, I sense that he is, if not fully grown, a long way from Spring Song. And yet, you can still hear the voice of the child in the man, a comforting sense to me that he has not forgotten his roots as he continues to circle his musical home.

The album is a sonic delight, everything I ever wanted in music.  To resurrect a tag line I used to use in the record business, it is "acoustically grounded, lyrically thoughtful, and spiritually provocative." It is, in short, the kind of music I return to despite the journeys over the years into many other genres.  It's like coming home.

Brindley knows how to rock, as songs on some previous records testify to, but this is not that record, not that it doesn't have some upbeat moments.  This is, rather, a more mature and fully developed folk-pop record that heralds back in some ways to those early recordings, like Spring Song and How Faint the Whisper.  Only this time around the songs are more instrumentally diverse, lyrically deep, and better produced.  For me it's a near perfect blend of folk and pop, with some moving melodies that pull you right in, like "We Go Together," a song about persevering in life, together, in spite of what comes your way, or the punchy pop of "Broken Land," with the chorus, "honey take my hand, through this broken land," bringing to mind the late Mark Heard's "Treasure in a Broken Land."

Broken, but not without hope.  And that seems to be the thematic thread that runs through these songs: life is difficult, often confusing, but "as dark as it's gotten/ it ain't dark yet" ("We Go Together") and "only love's gonna tear down these walls ("Wrecking Ball").  Thematically, "Broken Land," which also serves as the album's last word, is the center of the album, with its searching hope, Brindley singing about "looking through the city for the real life giver," and about how he's "heard rumors of redemption, maybe they're true," hope springing out of doubt.  Even religion fails him, and yet the essence of true religion remains, or at least seems to haunt him:

i was raised in the pews of a dozen small churches
tongues of fire conjured when the choir would sing
beyond the din of the deceivers and the orphaned believers
i heard the Lord knockin' so i let him in

now that refuge of hope has been torn down for years
and my spirit still fights with my flesh
but if you cornered me in my clearest moment
asked me if i'd do it again, i'd say yes

And yes, I believe he would.  And maybe we would too.

A Hidden Wholeness is a fitting return to roots for Luke Brindley, a cup of water to this thirsty man.  I highly recommend it.  Two quibbles though: For those who still care about physical product, the print on this artistic record is much too faint, the title indecipherable and the song titles practically so.  And given the importance of lyrics in this kind of music, their absence is an inconvenience.  But that has nothing to do with the excellent craft wielded here.  Listen.  Soon.

Walk On

One Sunday, many years ago, a Polish woman was invited to give a brief testimony of faith at our church. I have not forgotten it.  It was not brief but ended up practically displacing the sermon, becoming the sermon. The woman, whose name was Christina, I believe, told how she was part of Solidarity, Lech Walesa's Polish labor union.  When the danger for her in Poland increased, she escaped to Austria where, in a refugee camp, she heard the Gospel.  As exciting as her story was, full of excitement and danger, the memorable part of her testimony was this line: "When I heard the Gospel, I knew that this is what I had always believed."  Not ever having heard the Gospel, what did she mean?

One of the things that C.S. Lewis addresses in his book, Reflections on the Psalms, is what he calls "second meanings."  What he suggests by the word is the answer to the question of how we view the Psalms in light of the fuller revelation of Christ that we now know, in a way that the Old Testament writer could not have known.  Lewis says that when the fuller truth is found it doesn't undercut the truth intended by the writer of the time but is, rather, a mere "prolonging of the meaning in a direction congenial to it."  He says "[t]he basic reality behind his words and behind the full truth is one and the same."  As an example, he cites Plato who, as a pagan, was able to see the possibility of a Christ figure, and had he known the reality, it would not have surprised him, as it was an extension of the same truth.

So, that's what Christina meant when she said "I knew this is what I had always believed."  She knew the necessity for a Creation to presuppose a Creator, the reality of the Fall in the broken society around her, and the need for someone like Christ, a deliverer from beyond to come in and repair a world gone wrong.

What is even more interesting is this:  Given that there are "second meanings," can we not say that there will be third, fourth, and fifth meanings?  What understandings of Word and World will we have 100 years from now, whether in the faithful generations that live on beyond us or in our glorified state?  Scripture does say that "Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face.  Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known" (1 Cor. 13:12).  It suggests that revelation is progressive, that the depths of who God is and who we are are not fully plumbed.

So when I read a verse like "God is love," I realize that beneath that three-dimensional phrase lies an incalculable depth of meaning.  Just as when I marvel at a full moon in the pre-dawn morning, I realize that the moon I see is not the light I may see in a glorified state, where grass will be greener and blue sky bluer, in a place where you can inexplicably run and not grow weary.

Even in Heaven, when we see Him face to face and know Him, as we still are most definitely not Him, surely there are ever increasing meanings.  And as we read back on these ancient texts, written as they will be on our hearts, we'll meet fuller meanings everyday --- all extensions of the same truth, the one Truth, the Gospel truth.  Like those children in Narnia after the last battle, we'll walk on, "further up and further in."

So, walk on. 

The Kindness of Words: A Review of "A Welcome Shore," by Suzanne Underwood Rhodes

Shore One of the kindest books I read this past Summer was A Welcome Shore, by Suzanne Underwood Rhodes. I say "kind" because to read the short narratives of this book is like having a friend take you by the arm for a walk and a long conversation, one that covers the little tragedies and comedies of life, one punctuated by the rejuvenating sound and air of the ocean.  It is, in short, a good and insightful walk in words, guided by a gifted wordsmith.

She begins in the fragile aftermath of divorce, of deep brokenness, and yet as her meditations on faith and life unfold, it is evident that the author's feet are on the solid ground of grace.  She draws vivid metaphors, like this one comparing her former weather-ravaged house to her dying marriage:

My house was the mirror of a dying marriage.  Ivy twisted through cracks in the cinderblock, and cave crickets like frog-sized horrors sprang out of the basement's dark.  During storms, rain gushed in at ground level, and there was always a kind of seepage at the heart of the house that put me on edge, a damp uncertainty as I tended soup or made the bed or went upstairs to soothe a child's fretting.

A house, a town, the natural world around her --- this is someone who knows the importance of place, the deep rootedness of life and the importance of our relationship to the immediate world around us.  She says that "Geography, the spaces on this 'pale blue dot,' cannot be understood apart from each of us in relation to the place where we have been set down, for the world was made the home of man and woman."  This particularity, this attention to place, extends not just to the natural world of birds, starfish, butterfly shells, and sea glass but also to the names and faces she encounters, people like Grandmother Lillian, Claire Evelyn, O.D and Ruth, and Delmas Jones, as if we have come upon them on our walk and, after making our greeting, are given given me the "backstory" on each of them.

In deep faith, she is a kindred spirit of Luci Shaw (who wrote the Forward for the book); in her keen observation, she recalls the seaside observations of Mary Oliver.  And yet the voice is uniquely her own, like her memories of houses in which she once lived, high school, visits with old friends, or moments with her husband.  There is a wonderful ordinariness about her stories.  If we haven't traveled her exact path, we can at least draw our parallels and nod knowingly at her tentative conclusions.

When it comes to faith, she has a provocative way of defamiliarizing the familiar.  For example, she says "prayer is pheasant-like," a phrase that sends me wondering to the encyclopedia to find out more about these birds.  Or "prayer is an embryo: unspoken, understood."  It is not Sunday morning language.  It's like being given a piece of treasured sea glass to hold, to enjoy, to wonder from where it came.

And that's how it goes.  A walk through the shoreline, tributaries, channels, and tide pools of her life. . . and ours, as we see in her experiences our own.

Near the end, there is this prayer: "Lord, keep me from the poverty of habitual sight."  Yes, Lord help us all.  But while you wait on the Lord, start here, with this kind book, this walk with someone who tends to see things new.

Read A Welcome Shore.  It's 117 pages of pure pleasure, a needed walk in Word and World.

What We Can Fly On

Over the city in an airplane
I can see everything below
The houses they look so tiny
The cars look like dots
We've only got fifteen minutes to go

The sun shines down on the great big beautiful scene

I'm hopin' this rainy weather clears up
My lover is waiting at the airport
Soon she'll be kissing me hello

And I tell her all about you and I

Airplane, airplane
Carry me back to her side
Airplane, airplane
I need God as my guide
Down, down on the ground
Can't wait to see her face

("Airplane," from The Beach Boys Love You, written by Brian Wilson, 1977)

When I hear this quirky little Brian Wilson song, I don't know whether to talk about Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys, about whom I know more than you'd like to hear, or about airplanes, about which I know very little.  But as to the latter, maybe I'll just begin and this narrative will take flight (poor pun purposed).

My first flight on an airplane was circa 1967 when a friend and I were allowed to fly to Washington, DC from our home in Greensboro, NC to visit some other friends.  It was an Eastern Airlines DC-3, about which I cannot speak authoritatively except that it had the distinctive hum and vibration of a propeller-driven plane.  That ride was literally a window on a much larger world than I had known until then, "the houses they look so tiny/ the cars they look like dots."  I was never quite the same after that. My appetite for travel whetted, I longed to travel farther than my feet or Schwinn bike would carry me, to see what was over the next hill or grasp the breadth of a landscape below me.

I first heard Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys about the same time.  I was staying with my aunt in her home full of antiques, curios, and memorabilia, a huge mall of stuff crammed into every available space of a 1200 square foot home, next to a creepy graveyard, with paintings of half naked women on the walls (inexpensive reproductions of fine art).  Bored, I was rummaging through her drawers and found a vinyl LP of The Beach Boys All Summer Long and In Concert recordings.  No covers.  No sleeves.  Scratched.  I put the In Concert LP on a portable Zenith record player and was soon entranced by the energy of their performances against a wall of screaming kids.  It was something like the sound of that DC-3. I was hooked.  My world had changed.  The landscape below was larger, everything else that seemed to matter now like dots, so tiny.

Come to think of it, that Brian Wilson would make a song about flying is somewhat ironic.  It was also in the mid-60s that he suffered a severe anxiety attack when flying with the band from Los Angeles to Honolulu.  That was when he gave up touring.  And he gave up flying.  At least he did for a long time.

My son flies planes, and he listens to Brian Wilson.  He likes the sound of both.

If you bother to look up the recording The Beach Boys Love You, you may be taken aback at the child-like nature of the lyrics.  I mean it has songs like "Roller Skating Child," "Johnny Carson" ("Who's the man that we admire/ Johnny Carson is a real live wire"), and "Solar System," ("If Mars had life on it, I might find my wife on it").  Well, you see what I mean.

Learning to fly a DC-3 is on my son's bucket list.  I suspect he'll get to do that.  And when he does, he'll hear those engines and feel those good vibrations and connect with something that defines who he is. Just like I did.  You see, back when I was his age I wanted to meet Brian Wilson.  I finally did. And when I shook his hand and looked in his blue eyes and asked him why he wrote what he wrote, he said "God gave it to me."  That's enough for me. I can fly a long time on that.

The Good of Dying

"We like to think that it is we who benefit them, but the truth is that they benefit us, if we will let them, if we will simply lay down ourselves and die, which is alien talk to people who are not aliens in this world. But every father with ears to hear knows he must lay down and die, today and the next and the next, and pray for grace in the interstitial places, and give thanks that there is more watching over them than our weakling prayers." 

 (Tony Woodlief, in Somewhere More Holy)

Whenever I hear a person say that they don't plan to have children, at least not yet, and certainly not many, I cringe.  One of the best arguments for children is that you get to die to self.  You don't have to, of course, as you can determine as some (mostly men) do that they will go on with life just as always and let someone else handle them (a wife, day care, the TV), and yet only the hard hearted and habitually absent can avoid the character-shaping impact of a child.

I like the comment a friend of mine made several years ago as I picked him up to give him a ride to work. Obviously frustrated, I asked him what was wrong, and he said, "I can't ever do a damn thing I want to do." And that's right.  You can't, or at least it feels that way sometimes, and I would argue that you shouldn't be doing just as you want to and please to, not even if it is by mutual agreement with your spouse who also wants to do as they please.  Children are here for any number of reasons, but one major purpose they have is to expose what self-centered beings we really are and teach us to say "no" to ourselves.

This idea seems to be losing ground, as many think they can have it all, that is, have children, two careers, and do as they please, a kind of acculturated selfishness so built into society that it seems normal and anyone who says and does otherwise abnormal.  What an upside down world.  By saying no to ourselves we are really saying yes to being fully human, to being what God intended us to be, to being truly free from the passion of the moment.

I spent a couple of Summers working with orphans in Uganda.  They taught me a great deal, more than some college professors. They reminded me that I have no entitlement to personal time or space, that I have no right to time alone, that love --- even the pitiful love I had --- meant dying a thousand little deaths every day.  That I sometimes begrudged them my time, touch, or tenderness shamed me and made me a little more human, more the man God intended me to be.

You don't get over selfishness here, but look at it this way: in God's mercy, you're already dead to it, already wholly human.  We just need to do our best to catch up with Him --- to take hold, press on, fight on --- to say 'no" to ourselves, to die.

That does sound alien, doesn't it?

Of Journals

Though I did not blog during most of the Summer (exactly two months, that is), I could not help but write in a journal.  Journals are different than blogs, or at least they should be.  When you are not writing for publication, even the most modest of publishing on a little read blog, you truly have no reason to write but for the love of writing itself, or perhaps some tidy sense of the self-improvement that may follow from attending to your life.

You don’t have to use good punctuation . . . .  and if you want to SCREAM AND SHOUT AND BE RUDE, you can.  You can wonder about all the things you'd like to ponder and yet don't in good company because they might think you'd gone soft on doctrine or had gone to the dark side politically.  (Now you're wondering about me, aren't you?)

Ideas percolate in journals.  You can be extreme, make rash statements, set out ill-formed and incomplete thoughts, and in general gush and dribble and stumble your way through a string of words.  There is no one to impress.  No one is listening.  It's just me. . . and Him of course.  And I'm not worried about Him, you see, as He knows well and good what I would write if I could write the perfect truth about me, could peel away all the self-deceptions I foist on myself.  So I just drone on, trying not to clean it up, just letting the words flow out in a flood of disorder.  It's humbling.  It's a bit like prayer: I'm not going to be rewarded for my pearls of wisdom, my wonderful phrasing.  No one is listening.  I say what I want to say.

And yet, in the middle of journaling one day, I had the ridiculous and egotistical sense that if (just if, and this is a big if) I get to be a famous writer and die in my prime, then the almost certain posthumous publication of my journals that is sure to follow will expose what a poor writer and sorry human being I am.  So, I tidy it up.  It is the bane of my existence, to self-censor.  Wait a minute: Journals are places of freedom, and that means the writer must be free of any concern that they will see the light of day.

I like what Madeleine L'Engle says about journals: "No thing is inappropriate for a journal.  God can take our grumpiness, our anger, our fear; and our fumbling words can suddenly be given a new meaning and we glimpse a new understanding of redemption."  She says our journal is "[o]ur own unique story between us and God, and God knows all our emotions, including those we may have been taught to repress."  In other words, they are private, not public, despite what some blogs appear to be nowadays.  I recommend them to all, even if it's just a post-it note you jot a word or two on, or those gilded journals you buy at uppity booksellers or the cheap black and white theme books I used until recently.  But write it down.  Just write it down.  And keep it to yourself, OK?

Nevertheless, I worry about privacy.  So, people near and dear, if you have anything to do with the settling of my modest estate, please bury me with my journals. OK?  The world will be better off, or at least not worse off, without them.

But just in case. . . I better fix a few things.

The "Magic" in Words

Glamour"Language and magic.  Where is the connection?  Think about it this way: when we form letters to write words, we create something out of nothing, so that the still air or the empty space on a page fills with meaning, as if a wizard created a blizzard from a clear blue sky."

(Roy Peter Clark, in The Glamour of Grammar: A Guide to the Magic and Mystery of Practical English)

Granted, Roy Peter Clark's new book on grammar does not contain the pithiness of that classic by Strunk and White, The Elements of Grammar, but the point is not so much instruction as it is romance.  Clark loves words, and he wants to share those words with us, to woo us with punctuation, pronouns, and apostrophes, to, in a way that the more staid William Strunk and E.B. White might not countenance, to give us a sense of the magic that lies in grammar.

Magic?  I cannot comment on the book as a whole quite yet, as I am only slowly making my way through it, but the phrase quoted above did jump off the page when I read it --- "when we form letters to create words, we create something out of nothing" --- and I thought immediately of the way God creates, creation ex nihilo (out of nothing), and how He spoke by word nonetheless into being all that exists.  Surely he could have just thought it, and yet he spoke it into being.  That's deep magic, to use Aslan's words in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.  In making words there truly is magic.

In A Poetry Handbook, poet Mary Oliver says that there is a "part of the poem that is a written document, as opposed to a mystical document, which of course the poem is also."  When you read Oliver's poetry, the words are quite simple and accessible, and yet the sum of the parts is greater than the whole.  Perhaps that is what she intended to say, that somehow words on a page point to realities beyond our full experience, hinting at but not plumbing (indeed, unable to fully plumb) their depths.  Word are iconic, meaning they tend to represent something else to us, work only by way of analogy.

All that is true, but there is more to it.  Dorothy Sayers, in The Mind of the Maker, says that in our creating, in our word-making even, we are imaging the Creator.  Because He created, we create.  And even though we cannot create ex nihilo as could He, still we image that kind of creation faintly when we scratch words on a page, when we set them down in a way not exactly like any way set down before.  There may be nothing new under the sun, and yet there are new ways of combining the raw stuff of words into poetry and prose to make what seems new, to make what is fresh.  When we do that we participate in something divine, imitating the Creator, icons if you will (images, or likenesses) of that Creator.  Sayers even breaks it down further, seeing the full Godhead in the act of creating, the perfect idea representing the Father, the incarnation of that perfect idea the Son, and the movement of that idea and response by the reader as akin to the work of the Spirit.

Seeing words in this way gives them dignity.  Even a little word like "it," one common and ubiquitous in writing and speech, is important and can stand up to the boasts of a word like "irenic" or the headiness of a word like "ecclesiology," a word not bandied about by most construction workers in Taco Bell.  "It" has much more utility.  And yet, they are all important, all full of dignity.  And of course so are their makers.

You didn't know all that was going on when you open your mouth to utter a word or typed a word on the keyboard, did you?

Magic?  Certainly.  Glamour?  It's much more than glamour.  When we make words, skillfully or awkwardly, we represent a word-full Creator to the world.  We're all word-makers; the best handlers of words (like Tolkien) are world-makers; and God. . . well He cannot stop making worlds.  It's who He is.

So next time you open your mouth to speak or set pen to paper or finger to keypad to dash off an email, consider the weightiness of what you do. What Mary Oliver said of poetry can be true of anything well-written or said: "[They are] not words, after all, but fires for the cold, ropes let down to the lost, something as necessary as bread in the pockets of the hungry." Let's spend them well.

Hard Questions, Crazy Love

"Are you willing to say to God that He can have whatever he wants?  Do you believe that wholehearted commitment to Him is more important than any other thing or person in your life?  Do you know that nothing you do in this life will ever matter, unless it is about loving God and loving the people He has made?

(Francis Chan, in Crazy Love)

I don't like thinking about these questions at all.  To be honest, I can answer them affirmatively in some theoretical sense, but when it comes to reality, when it comes to how I really live my life, I can't.  To write them down where I have to see them takes only a smidgen of courage, like keeping Chan's book lying on my desk where I can't escape its red cover, the words "crazy love" beckoning me.  It says: "What are you going to do about this?  Will you just read me and put me down?"

In 1976 I was a freshman in college where I became an enthusiastic part of Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship.  On December 26th, I found myself on the campus of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champlain for the triennial Urbana Missions Conference.  I barely knew where I was going, just that I wanted to be with these people, these Christians.  And then to see 17,000 gathered in one place was overwhelming to me.  

On Thursday evening, the last evening of the conference, Billy Graham addressed us.  I grew up hearing Billy Graham on television.  I knew the sermon. I knew the call.  But that evening was incredible.  Billy Graham asked who would go wherever God sent them.  Many stood.  I stood up.  It was an incredible moment, a sobering moment, and one I cannot forget.

I didn't go far, really, but sometimes, when I read questions like Chan's, I wonder if I rationalized things God said to me, if I made excuses, if I'm really willing to go anywhere and do anything and give anything up for Him.

Love is the only power that will make a person do such a thing.  Love is the only thing He will accept.  All I know to do is pray for that kind of love.

Don't Read This Book: Francis Chan's "Crazy Love"

62597032 I wish I hadn’t read this book.  I’m glad I did.

Francis Chan is a provocative God-lover who seems to think about only one thing: God.  And he seems to know me, that is, he knows how I think.  He’s knows himself so well and, thus, knows human nature, that at many times while reading this book I discovered that he had already anticipated my thoughts, my rationalizations, my deference to ambivalence, my dismissals of idealism --- that is, he’s authentic and right on target.  In other words, he’s a pain in the. . . well, you know what I mean.

Until recently the pastor of Cornerstone Church in Simi Valley, California, Chan is the real deal.  A popular pastor of this megachurch and best-selling author, a profile in Christianity Today recently notes that in contrast to many of his ilk, he lives very modestly in a tract home in a down and out area of Simi Valley, and he gives away 90% of his income.  He what?  And he is leaving this successful church for what? (He doesn’t know yet.)  Doesn’t this make you want to read on?

Crazy Love, subtitled Overwhelmed By a Relentless God, is a call to a radical obedience to God motivated not by fear or guilt but by love.  Chan tells us that we need to run to God because He is all that matters or, at least, nothing else matters except in the light of what He says.  It is a call to take Scripture at face value, trust God, and do what it says.  For too long, he says, the Church has rationalized and excused the dramatic claims God makes on our lives.  When Jesus tells us to love our enemies and do good to those who hate us, He means it.

He asks hard questions.  Like “why do I drive the car that I drive?”  Or “why do I live in the house in which I live?”  And yet he asks them not to produce a guilt-driven charity or even asceticism, but as a way of helping us examine ourself.  I appreciate his deep perception of human nature.  I love his rich use of Scripture.  I envy his love of God.  I am glad he gives us the freedom to respond to a loving God without making his experience a principle for our lives.  I read Rich Christian in a World of Hunger and just came away full of statistics and laden with guilt; I came away from this book longing to want to love God more.

In the first three chapters of the book Chan provides a picture of God’s majesty, his awesomeness, if you will, the idea being that we have lost a sense of how incredible a Being it is who desires a relationship with us.  With that settled, he turns to us.  I found particularly difficult the chapter which provides a profile of the lukewarm Christian.  He nailed me with this bullet: “Lukewarm people do not live by faith; their lives are structured so they never have to.”  God is satisfied with our leftovers, he says, but demands a total surrender.  Why do we hold back?

Even better, though, is is profile of those obsessed with Christ, consumed by their love for them.  He says they are lovers, risk-takers, friends of all, crazy ones, humble, servers, givers, sojourners, engrossed, unguarded, rooted, dedicators, and sacrificers. He says things like “People who are obsessed with Jesus aren’t consumed with their personal safety and comfort above all else.  Obsessed people care more about God’s kingdom coming to this earth than their own lives being shielded from pain or distress.”  In one chapter he gives short profiles of people who are living out this radical faith, from the well-known to the neighbor down the street.  

But in the end Chan wisely never tells us what to do, how to live our lives, but calls on us to go to Jesus, pray, and examine ourselves, asking: “Is this the most loving way to do life?  Am I loving my neighbor and my God by living where I live, by driving what I drive, by talking how I talk?”  They’re questions I’ll be asking.

I recommend the book.  It’s orthodox in doctrine, personal in appeal, full of grace, and deeply unsettling.

[I'm slow getting around to this book, published in 2008.  Chan already has a new book, Forgotten God: Reversing Our Tragic Neglect of the Holy Spirit.]

Lots of Things Growing

IMG_3969  “[I]t’s the little savors and little things that count more than big ones. A walk on a spring morning is better than an eighty-mile ride in a hopped-up car, you know why? Because it’s full of flavors, full of a lot of things growing. You’ve time to seek and find.”

(Grandfather Spaulding, in "Dandelion Wine")  

Not writing the last several weeks, as I vowed I would do, has not been easy.  As big a pain as it is to write sometimes --- the sheer discipline of it, you know, the audacity at thinking you have something to offer the world, the hyper-consciousness that makes you obsess over the mundane --- it may be as big a pain NOT to write.  Almost, anyway.  I feel like I missed things, that I have forgotten important things, that somehow I have not processed it all, that I have looked but not seen.  And maybe I have.  Maybe writing for me is essential to seeing.  Maybe not writing is like trying to hold your breath when you need to breathe.  Maybe words are the very air that I live on. 

And then, maybe I’m too dramatic.  "Words the very air I live on?"  Oh come on.  Still, I can’t help but sense I missed something in all my zeal not to miss something, to just live it without writing it, that maybe I didn’t live it well enough. I didn’t inhale deeply enough. 

[insert deep breath here] 

Looking around the airport where I am seated now, I realize that at least some of what I missed I did not really miss, that staring at the flowing water of Utah's Virgin River and a backdrop of jagged mountains is way better than what passes for commerce and society and even fashion.  How trite it all seems.

There is the infernal din of CNN, the video monitors that play on even when no one is watching, the perkiness of commentators who move from the tragic to the comic with barely a blink.  The other sound in my ears is that of people talking on cell phones, their private conversations suddenly and without consent a part of my world. Top it with the banal sameness of airport lounges. I could be anywhere, or nowhere.  I feel small and anonymous here, small and yet known by that river, under that sky, feet treading the red dirt of earth. 

[insert airline flight, a God-bless-you-honey 75 mile an hour harrowing taxi ride into downtown New Orleans, three somnolent hours in a oh-so-important seminar, and a blessed dinner with the just plain folks of a diner called "Mothers" (red beans and rice and bread pudding)] 

[insert another deep breath] 

I refuse to pay the Hilton $17 a day for internet access, so after dinner I hoofed it across the street and down the block-long casino cacophony of Harrods, and into a Starbucks for free access.  It comes with a price though --- somewhat smokey air, a din from the slot machines and music, the whir of machines sucking Louisiana dry of money, the sober and solitary expressions of those victims perched before their fleecing robots. 

But, thanks to the casino, I have a memory of Day One of our Summer vacation.  We've alighted briefly, feet barely touching the ground of Las Vegas, here for one thing and one thing only, to see Cirque de Soleil's production of The Beatles Love.  Oh was it good.  But oh what you must endure to see it. 

Some of the most poorly dressed and inadequately dressed people must visit Las Vegas.  It’s a preposterous city, excessive in every way, a glittering R-rated Disneyland rising out of desert, dependent on the poor Colorado River and the pervasiveness of sin for life, a giant excuse for naughtiness by its surreal existence in a barren land, so far from home, so far from the people and responsibilities that check baser impulses.  Anything goes here. 

To get to the theater, which is in The Mirage hotel, you have to walk across the casino floor.  What a sad and lost looking bunch of people mill about there.  I explained to my children how many were at this moment squandering money that could be used to support their own families, to invest in companies, and for other worthwhile and charitable purposes, and yet here they were playing a “sucker’s game” in the hope of winning, all odds against them. Everything is geared to getting you in the game or back in the game.  To get anywhere, you have to walk through the casino.  Valet parking? Free.  Free because if you waste time self-parking you’ll spend less time in the casino.  The show?  Unlike Broadway, these shows are amazing but truncated, limited to a mere 1 1/2 hours so you will return to the casino promptly to be separated from your money. 

The antithesis of Vegas or Harrods New Orleans is the natural air and quiet of Utah. I love Springdale, Utah. I love Zion National Park. My favorite part of it all is the contrasts --- the red cliffs of the canyon walls against a cobalt blue sky, the green of ferns growing on a wet cliff wall, the chalky Virgin River that rushes through the canyon floor, the brilliant white of cumulus clouds floating over red mountain tops, blue pool water against stone walls. I’m listening to the thunder. It’s monsoon season here, which means occasional afternoon showers.  Like that day when we took the canyon tram to the last stop, hiked in a mile on a mostly level path, and then dropped into the brisk water of the river, gingerly making our way upstream in search first of Orderville Canyon, the only break in the sheer canyon walls, and then to the aptly named Wall Street, where the canyon walls press so close, so “narrow,” the river rushing through it, wall to wall, mostly knee deep but on occasion chest high.  We never made either.  Short of Orderville it began to rain, and we heard thunder, and like most others in the water who had some sense we turned around and walked out, concerned about the danger of a flash flood.  I found it tough going anyway.  Because of the murkiness of the water, you could not see you footing, and the risk of a turned ankle or worse preoccupied me.  I moved slowly.

But that was then, and this is now.

I treasure these memories of fresh air and bare earth.  Little savors.  Much better than the hopped-up life of the city.  Full of flavors.  Full of something or Someone that is for me, Who exists out there in Creation unmediated by human hands.  Jesus said seek, and you will find.  What do you find?  You find lots of things growing. Lots of little things.  You find a Kingdom without end world without end.  Amen.

[deep sigh]