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October 2010

My Fall

now is the wind-time
the scattering clattering
song-on-the-lawn time
early eves and gray days
clouds shrouding the traveled ways
trees spare and cracked bare
slim fingers in the air
dry grass in the wind-lash
waving waving as the birds pass
the sky turns, the wind gusts
it must it must

("Autumn," by Debra Reinstra)

Out walking this morning, I enjoyed the untidiness and clutter of Creation.  Leaves and pine straw blanket lawns normally manicured and sharply edged, blow across streets, gather in clumps near drains.  Some trees look askew, asymmetrical, like poorly clad elderly folk or hastily clad youth. Still, the colors of dying leaves are rich, a last flame-out before passing, before their falling.  I kick the leaves as I walk, making a noise that carries me back to my childhood and yet reminds me that I am older now.

Allen Young writes that "[a]lthough autumn reminds us that nothing is 'pristine,' it prunes summer's luxuriant foliage, revealing the stark contours of mounds, crevices, and stream banks.  It is difficult to hide in the fall."  And as we get older, thank God, it is more and more difficult to hide who we are.  Our idiosyncrasies accentuate.  Our ways become set.  Our sins seem more evident.  Our speech less guarded.

I like late Autumn best, when there is still a hint of color in the trees, and yet they are so translucent that I can see through them to the essence of the land, to the curve of a hill, the rise of a mountain, the intricacy of trunks and branches and twigs, the leafy nests of squirrels, the glittering stillness of the lake water beyond normally opaque foliage, rocky outcrops, and the backyard living rooms of homes. It is a time when the land gives up its secrets.  Perhaps our autumn is a time we give up ours as well.

And it's a mess.  And we're a mess.  A beautiful mess.

This morning I walk thinking of that frightening passage in Luke 12:3 (ESV), that "whatever you have said in the dark shall be heard in the light, and what you have whispered in private rooms shall be proclaimed on the housetops." It's sobering to think that just like the Fall will expose more and more of the real lie of the land to us until the Winter leaves it nothing to hide, so we move through life as God strips away our defenses, exposing our lie, as we submit to Him or, if we don't, then involuntarily submit on that last Day.  But then the comfort, the promise of Spring and a new Summer of life: "Fear not; you are of more value than many sparrows. . . . and everyone who acknowledges me before men, the Son of God also will acknowledge before the angels of God" (Lk. 12:7-8).  As Pastor Ray Stedman says:

Everything is wide open. No aspect of life can be hidden away. Knowing that, many of us are a little afraid to appear in glory. We know truths about ourselves that we do not want known. But Jesus says, "When you stand there with your entire record exposed for everybody to see, I will look at you and say, 'You are mine.' I will acknowledge your name before the Father and all his angels. This sinner, this defiled person, this unworthy character -- I want the universe to know -- he is mine!" That is what he promised to do. . . .

Rounding a curb, I catch a patch of pansies in the corner of my eye and stop, relishing this life amid the clutter of fallen leaves, the dying all around.  The sky turns, the wind gusts/ it must it must.  But that's not the end of the story.  Spring will come.  Until then, what a beautiful mess.

What Remains

When you come right down to it, all of us individually are somewhat like the church at Sardis, the one described in Revelation 3:1-6.  I would like to use the objectified and dispassionate voice of "all of us" but in truth I can only answer for me.  Most commentators believe that the churches mentioned in the first three chapters of the apocalyptic book are both historical (actual churches) and types of the church throughout history.  Not only that, I believe I have to turn the uncomfortable truth-ray of these verses on myself and admit that they are all more or less true of me.

Like these folk, sometimes I am like a dead man.  I have the reputation of being alive, but I am dead.  There are times when God seems distant, not because he is but because I am distracted and removed, caught up in myself and my concerns, living like an orphan.  I'm active, and there are works, but they lack spirit.  They are not complete.  They do not come from pure motive but from the keeping up of appearances, as in "Look at me.  I'm alive." Some works can come from a hollow religion, not from pure religion but from an impure justifying of myself.  The Westminster Divines had it right: "Good works are only such as God hath commanded in his holy word, and not such as, without the warrant thereof, are devised by men, or upon any pretense of good intention."  Commenting on this, G.L. Williamson says there is a real sense in which unbelievers can never do a truly good work, and believers can rarely do a perfectly good work (if they can at all), because there is "imperfect conformity of conscience to the Word of God."  Like that song by Jays of Clay, "Dead Man (Carry Me)":

Carry Me,
I'm just a dead man
Lying on the carpet
Can't find a heartbeat
Make me breathe,
I want to be a new man
Tired of the old one
Out with the old plan 

Life and a truly good work comes only when I am inhabited by the Spirit.  So I'm a little bit of Sardis, needing awakening everyday, repenting of poor motives and remembering what I have received which is, of course, everything, all I need, life itself.  If I know that, how can I attribute anything to myself?

OK, so I'm dead without Christ, dead every moment of every day that I turn away from God. I admit it.  I turn around and face God and remember He did it all for me.  What now?  He says to "strengthen the things that remain" (v. 2).  Some commentators think John was referring to people, specifically the faithful ones mentioned later in these verses, and some to practices.  I assume it was all the above but, as to me, I think it is saying that I am to build rightly on the things that remain, offering what I have as a service to God,  not focusing on what I lack but on what I have.  For example, if God hasn't given me the money to be a huge giver, then I can find creative ways to give of my time, of "what remains," not fretting about what I cannot do (which is common) but strengthening and building on what I can do.  If, as in my case, he has given me little profound to speak but with a great love of words, then I can write and write and write in service to Him.  If I have an insufficient love of His Word, then I can stop fretting and open the Book of Life and study it as a way into the love of the Book of His Word.

Strengthen what remains, he says.  In the end, what remains is the deposit He has left, the residual investment that He has not withdrawn but rather said "use it."  Put your hand to the plow.  Lean in. Lean into Him.  If you can't give it all, can't even give most of it, then offer up what you can.

As a friend often says by way of summing up: "That's what I'm talking about."

Life as Drama

Another one of those books I wish I could read but will never find the time to do so is Kevin Vanhoozer's The Drama of Doctrine.  This time it was mediated for me not by Books and Culture but via the insightful summary provide by Denis Haack in "Discernment 301: From Story to Drama," from the latest issue of Critique, the magazine of Ransom Fellowship.  Haack (who I can read) summarizes Vanhoozer like this:

[I]magine life as being in a play, a full drama unfolding on a stage before a watching world.  Think of the canon of the Scriptures as a script, in which we have a part to play.  The community of God's people then becomes the company of actors, pastors and elders are unit directors under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and theologians are specialists that help us make proper sense of the script.

Hacck notes the freedom in the script, how the actors, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, can improvise, going beyond the script (which is not fully fleshed out) but never against it.  In this drama, "faithfulness means being so steeped in God's word that our responses are shaped by its truth even when applied to situations not specifically addressed in any text in the Bible." As we live coram deo, we settle more deeply into the script, more fully into our part, until by God's grace we are so immersed in the role that we become the character.  We become ourselves.  We become who we were meant to be.

I love the idea of life as a play ever since I first picked this up from Frederick Buechner's Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy & Fairy Tale.  This play is epic: tragically marred by sin, wondrously redeemed by the comedy of grace, and full of the almost too good to believe fairy tale of hope --- that all will turn out all right in the end.

Excuse me while I learn my lines.   I have a long way to go.

Books and Culture and Me

Sepoct I'm actually wondering, even before I write this short note, if its title,"Books, Culture, and Me," really fits.  I don't really hang out much with a bookish, scholarly crowd.  I often eat at places where law enforcement officers and construction workers eat.  Even tonight, having dinner with some co-workers, the conversation focused more on dogs, beer, and TV shows (not that I know anything about beer, mind you).

That's why I like to read above myself sometimes, like when I read Books and Culture.  I can't do it for long, as my eyes begin to glaze over or my head dips toward my chest as my eyes close, but I do it nonetheless for my betterment, for the sake of culture, because even if most of my friends don't read it or talk about the kind of things found in its pages, you never know. . . I might just meet someone somewhere who is really into such high-brow matters, who eschews sports for the movement of words on a page.  Mostly, I like that someone reads the books reviewed in its pages and interprets them for me.  At least sometimes I like that.  Sometimes I just wonder why they read these books at all or how they find the time.

Take this issue, for example.  Jeremy Begbie, whose brain set next to mine would be like placing Jupiter next to Pluto (he'd be Jupiter), writes a review of Christopher Page's apparently masterful and scholarly survey of the history of the Western church oh for about a piddling 1000 years (through AD 1000, that is) through the eyes of its singers, a book whose scope is daunting by its very title, The Christian West and Its Singers: The First Thousand Years, all of this in a mere 692 pages.  As much as I would like to think I could read such a book, it's highly unlikely that I will or that I have the patience or time to stay with it.  And yet Begbie distills it down to a mere 1000 words for my pea-sized brain and challenged attention span.  I'm appreciative.  Just to pick up a thought like this one quoted by Begbie is enlightening: "The use of the voice is one of the principle continuities between the states of bodily life on either side of the grave."  He gives me a sentence I can ponder for quite some time.

Then there's another short review, "The Holy Gaze," where Frederic Mathewes-Green gives me a much deeper appreciation for the meaningfulness of iconography.  There's this wonder-provoking quote: "It has been said that God was the first iconographer, since we are living images of Him." Would I ever think of that?  Probably not.  And what are the ramifications of that truth?

Then there's Philip Yancey, in "Life in a Bubble," the bubble being the late 1960s fundamentalist Christian college in which he was educated.  He writes both with great appreciation and with a gentle critique, the kind of nuanced remembrance that makes me appreciate him and accord him credibility.  He opens up the world of such a school in that time so that it does not become a caricature for me to be dismissed but a place full of human beings doing what they thought best at that time to instill and conserve Christian values.  Where else could I hear such a voice?

And that's just for starters.  I'm only 16 pages into a meaty 46 pages issue.  There's more to come.

Wait'll the guys at the local greasy spoon hear about this.  Or don't.

[I highly recommend Books and Culture.  Wow your friends.  Impress people.  Or settle for the more modest goal of looking over the shoulders and through the minds of those who read the books we seldom read and think the thoughts we need to think.  Subscribe here.]


The Presence of Our Absence

One of the most perceptive, non-kneejerk critiques of the technologies like Facebook that take and keep us online is made by Shane Hipps in a recent article in Relevant Magazine called "What's [Actually] On Your Mind?"  Quoting Marshall McLuhan, "we are what we behold," a pithy recognition of a nascent idolatry.  The technologies we use are "dramatically transforming our understanding of ourselves, our definition of community and our experience of God," he says.  The problem is that very few users are cognizant of the deep impact these technologies have on them. 

First, he references the exhibitionism of Facebook, our fascination with the image we project.  We are not so much who we really are but who we want others to think we are; a subtle narcissism takes hold.  As Hipps says, "we become creators and consumers of our own brand," carefully arranging photos, quotes, favorite books, music, and so on in a way that projects not just what we love but what we want others to think we love.  Is this cynical?  I don't think so.  I feel the pull of it myself.  I'd like you to think I am an intelligent, culturally-saavy Christian, one who reads books above himself, listens to artful music, reads a passel of hip blogs, and all in all knows a little about everything.  It's me, you see. . . or is it?  Is it just what I truly like or what I want to like or want to be thought of as liking?  Sometimes it becomes difficult to distinguish between the image of the beholder and the beholder, particularly when you are constantly checking yourself out.

He also points out how that while Facebook connects us to more digital relationships, it actually erodes our ability to form meaningful relationships in real life, particularly for the still developing egos of adolescents, some of the largest users of social media.  The technology becomes an obstacle to healthy developmental progress in young people.

And with Twitter, a technology that encourages us to externalize our every thought, "we create a condition of absence in a world that desperately needs our presence."  We are so very there, tweeting ourselves into every moment, and yet we are profoundly absent in any real sense. Impulsivity and impulsive thinking are encouraged.  I often tweet links to articles I find interesting, and yet I suspect few people take the time to actually read them.  We are moving too fast, our attention spans truncated by the breathless pace of of the instant thought.

The solution?  Hipps suggests a technology fast, the point being to find a way to gain enough distance from the technology so that you can perceive its effect upon you.  (I should note that this works with television as well.)  Not staring at your online persona for a while may help you notice who you really are --- what your real likes and dislikes, personality quirks, and genuine gifts may be.

Can you do it?  Are you afraid you'll miss something?  I have done it, and I guarantee you will not miss a single thing of importance.  As I told my boss one time, if it's that important, call me.  You know my number.

The Power of Words: A Review of "The Mockingbird Parables," by Matt Litton

79575998Until a few years ago, I had not seen nor read To Kill a Mockingbird.  That was to my great loss.  The book --- a sobering and yet ultimately life-affirming and hopeful story of racism --- is one of the great American novels.  The movie, a faithful retelling of the story with stellar acting by Gregory Peck and the supporting cast, particularly Mary Badham, who played "Scout," is also one of my perennial favorites.  The book and movie are a repository of virtuous character while at the same time contrasting that character with the impiety of religious hypocrisy and small-minded prejudice.

It is that repository of virtue that is ably mined by Matt Litton in The Mockingbird Parables: Tranforming Lives Through the Power of Story.  In ten meditations  on the characters and events of the book, filtered through his personal experiences, the author fleshes out the ramifications of these parables or stories for how we live in the world.  His avowed purpose is to help the reader "rediscover what it means to be a good neighbor --- and to experience the gospel message retold in modern language, unobscured by religious dogma."  For this reader, he succeeds.

From the outset Litton is all about de-familiarizing the gospel so as to bring its truth home to us.  For example, in the first chapter, "Discovering Our Divine Mysterious Neighbor," he analogizes the question that the movie asks, "Who is Boo Radley," to the question we all ask and keep asking in life, "Who is God?"  He addresses our tendency to domesticate God, taming Him, much as the townspeople of Maycomb, instead of accepting the mystery of Boo have "chosen instead to ignore define him, ignore him, and keep him in his place."  He speaks of seeking as being essential to our relationship with God, one that is never static, resting in a definition of God, but remains dynamic, as it must with a Being that is infinite and not fully comprehensible to us.  He is also one who is constantly pursuing us, a truth that the author says is pictured in Boo Radley's leaving items for the children in the knothole of an oak tree.

And so it goes, each chapter opening us up to another truth --- the responsibility to care for our neighbor and for Creation, courage, financial responsibility, parenting, and finally, in a powerful ending, in the way we communicate with one another, the very words we use.  I found this last chapter to be the most powerful in the book, a reminder of the divine nature of our communication, of the great power of words to hurt or heal, to build up or to tear down.  The model is Atticus Finch, a man the same at home as in public, a man who measures out his words carefully and always to build up or, when they must tear down (as when he exposes Mayella Ewell to be a liar), to serve a higher good never rejoicing in the tearing down but doing what must be down to preserve the truth.

Litton's words hit home.  The Christian community, whether politically left or right, can be some of the worst offenders in their use of language in the public square, having to have the last word, not listening, having to be vindicated to be right.  He commends instead the many scriptural admonitions to listen before speaking, to letting our conversations be full of grace, to letting our words build bridges rather than create division.  As he summarizes: "Atticus Finch affirms to us, and To Kill a Mockingbird reminds us, that it is the mission and deepest responsibility of the words we use to communicate hope, to spread truth, to be agents of grace and change to the hearts of our fellow men and women, and to speak God's reality of compassion into the souls of our neighbors."

As a result of reading this book, I can return to Harper Lee's novel with a new appreciation of how it resonates with the truth of the Gospel, and I can return to the Gospel narratives with the great analogies of the word-pictures of the novel to help put hands and feet to the meaning of scripture. Laced with scripture, memoir, and the images of the book and movie, I heartily recommend reading To Kill a Mockingbird, watching the movie, and then reading The Mockingbird Parables as a way of letting the overly familiar words of the Gospel become unfamiliar so as to become more real.

Having said all this, the one chapter that I felt was too polemical for the context of the book was the one on the role of women in faith.  That women are affirmed by Jesus and given high and equal stature to men by Jesus is unquestioned and the corrective offered by the author to any contrary notion is commendable and certainly evidenced by analogy in Harper Lee's book.  To then argue that women should be ordained and share in pastoral leadership is another matter, one on which Christians disagree.  Litton attempts to make that case but fails to account for the counter-arguments that are made, arguments that do not necessarily accord an inequality to women but a different role ascribed by scripture.  This chapter seemed out of place and weighed against the irenic spirit of the rest of the book.  All that being said, many of the insights here, as elsewhere in the book, are valuable and don't detract from the positive impact of the book as a whole.

I recommend The Mockingbird Parables.  Read it and be transformed through the power of story, through the power of the Gospel.

A Testament

Whenever I travel out of town, and particularly when I travel alone, one of the first things I do is open the drawer of the bedside nightstand to see if there is a Gideons Bible placed there.  Often there is.  I take it out a place it on the table, not only so or even mainly because I will read it (I prefer a new translation), but because I want something there to testify to me that I am not alone, that I am accountable to God while I am away from home.  It keeps me from making excuses.  It may encourage me to read it.  It reminds me not to even turn on the television, which will inevitably result in a wasted evening.  

More than any of these things, however, it is a visible reminder of what Francis Shaeffer once said (and which is the title of a book he wrote): "He is there, and he is not silent."  Whether it is in the emptiness of a hotel room far from home, or in the absence you can sometimes feel when God seems distant or silent, the tangible Word is a reminder that the One who made the world did not just rest from his work and then leave us be.  He spoke.  He continues to sustain.  He continues to speak into our lives.  The heavens declare the glory of God. The face of Christ shines in a fellow believer.  And the Word is incarnate and weighty in the heft and hue of the printed Word.

I've taken to carrying the digital version of the Bible on my IPhone for ease.  It doesn't quite measure up.  Somehow, as convenient as this can be, its distinctiveness is lost.  It seems more ephemeral, less durable, less weighty.  When I pick up the Gideons Bible, I consider the effort someone had to make to place it there, and I'm reminded of how the Bible alone has saved many people and sustained many more.  For example, I still recall the testimony of Christian singer Barry McGuire, who began his career with the secular Sixties folk group, The New Christy Minstrels, of being alone in a hotel room, despairing of his life, and coming to faith through the words of a Gideons Bible.

He is there, and he is not silent.  Don't take for granted the intimacy and love of a Superior Being, one who needs nothing from us and yet who condescended to speak to us through words.  And then, amazingly, who became the Word living among us.

That book is indeed is a testament.  It bears witness.  And I need that, don't you?



Prayer is in very deed the pulse of the spiritual life.  It is the great means of bringing to the minister and people the blessing and power of heaven.  Persevering and believing prayer means a strong and abundant life.

(Andrew Murray, in The Prayer Life)

The words were written by Andrew Murray not long after a conference of ministers at Stellenbosch, South Africa, April 11-14, 1912.  Imagine the weight of words spoken and written then and read now across practically an entire century.  They are still true.  There was concern then about the low state of spiritual life in the churches, and the ministers came together to find out, if they could, the source of the evil.  There was confession and repentance and, ultimately, Murray says that "the Lord graciously so ordered it that we were gradually led to the sin of prayerlessness as one of the deepest roots of evil."

Before I say, "isn't this as true now?," I need to stop and consider if it isn't true of me.  And it is.  This most important thing in the world, the very means of maintaining a relationship with the Creator and Sustainer, is the very thing I shortchange.  And it has to be because I do not regard it as important as everything else combined.  And that is not only a weakness, it is a sin.

It is a sin to be repented of, and I sat in my car tonight as I waited for my daughter and did just that. I suspect (no, I know) that it is not over.  But it is always the place at which to begin.  But that's the great thing about this Other Friend: He always takes you back.  And Murray says we only need put ourselves in His hands, as only He can deliver us from prayerlessness.

(Ironically, my spellchecker does not know the word "prayerlessness."  Is that not telling?)

The Brook Speaks

What is the vitality and necessity
     of clean water?
Ask the man who is ill, who is lifting
     his lips to the cup.

Ask the forest.

(Mary Oliver, in Evidence)

There is something of God in the sight, sound, and sensation of water.  I'm not thinking primarily of great waters, like those of Niagara or Victoria Falls, the Amazon, the great rapids of the Colorado or Green Rivers, oceans, or the geysers of Yellowstone.  Just ordinary waters --- neighborhood brooks, for example, that bear that name because to say they are streams is hyperbole and rivers but a joke. These are the meandering, inch-deep, barely audible trickles that you find in the dips of your neighborhood.

In our neighborhood, along my regular walk, at the foot of what my children used to call "kill-devil hill," lies one such brook.  It is the low place in the road across which my wife and I used to stroll our babies, then walk our toddlers, take breath before we climbed the hill to school with our young children.  I take it for granted.  If it only knew what it has added to our lives.  We stood here many times with our children and threw "pooh-sticks" (for Winnie-the-Pooh) into the water (when there was water), watched and listened, perhaps threw a pebble into it to hear it splash.  Once, when there was less underbrush, in late Fall or Winter, my young son and I decided to explore by following the "river," to find it source.  We grew tired and gave up too soon, but not until we had wandered the outskirts of many backyards, giving ourselves a wholly different perspective on the homes and people who lived in them.  It was an adventure, we said.

They grew up of course and don't find a walk much to their interest, much less an "adventure."  And yet I still walk it, still pause at the brook now and then, still watch and listen.  After heavy rains it is wide and lazy, drunk with silt, like a person who has over-indulged.  In drought it barely seeps by and yet carries on, mustering enough liquid to maintain decent coverage, to keep up appearances.

You can't look at a brook or stream or river without wondering from where it came and to where it leads.  If you wonder, that is.  Some people seem not to ever wonder.  They drive by in their cars or run by intensely in their I-am-working-out-cannot-be-bothered-to-speak-or-notice mode, oblivious to its speech.  The brook speaks, like "the heavens declare the glory of God," worships like "the rivers clap their hands," testifies of source and end, of Alpha and Omega.  But you have to listen. People are ever hearing and seldom listening.

There is something of God in the brook.  Said the river: imagine everything you can imagine, then keep on going (Mary Oliver, "At the River Clarion").  That's part of what the brook says, of course.  It reminds me that there is a Source from which we all came, that there is an End to which we move, that whether I am rich or poor I will simply keep moving, persevere, until the end, until I become a bit of a tide on a distant shore in a Far Country, my simple song swallowed up in a great tidal wave of song.


But even then, even in such grandeur, it won't forget the people young and old that watched it flow, that took the time to listen.  To wonder.

The Gold Cord

"All that has happened in India is never out of mind.  But the story holds to a single course.  It looks out across the open frontier to the Country whose forces move unseen among us; for they are the things that matter most, 'and the life of the spirit has no borders.'"

(Amy Carmichael, in the Foreword to Gold Cord)

They are old books and not common these days to see on the shelves of a Christian bookstore, but nevertheless Amy Carmichael's writings are still in print and still read.  In cleaning out my mother's home for sale recently, I discovered one of her books, Gold Cord: The Story of a Fellowship, first published in 1932 but here in a 1974 printing.  I set it aside, until recently.  On the cover is a young Indian girl, her head wrapped in a scarf, a thoughtful look and slight smile on her face, hands together and fingers slightly, tentatively touching.  Her face has stared up at me from an open box of salvaged items for days.  Opening it, there is scale drawing of the Dohnavur Compound; in the back, a not to scale drawing of the Southern Corner of the Tinnevelly District, showing the "walled temples from which young children have been saved."  The names of towns are written in cursive, places like Sattan's Tank, Palamcottah, Sermadevi, and Vallioor.  The binding is remarkably intact, the glue showing signs of age and yet holding.  Letting the pages fan in front of my face, it has the smell of an old house or houses, the words aged through the decades.  I was 14 when this book was purchased.  It lay there all these years.

Carmichael, a Presbyterian missionary, went to India in the late 1880's after hearing Hudson Taylor, who started the China Inland Mission, speak about missionary life.  She founded the Dohnavur Fellowship in Tamil Nadu, 30 miles from the southern tip of India, to rescue Indian children, mostly young girls, who were forced into prostitution to support Hindu temple priests.  She saved thousands of children from a life like this and, even with all this, found time to write 35 books. 

That her life was inspiring is a well-known truth.  She likely moved hundreds of other men and women to give themselves to missionary work, including Jim and Elizabeth Eliot.  But what captured me as I began to read this book was the beauty of her prose.  I picked the book up as I passed by one day, on the way to my desk.  Before I knew it, I had read three chapters while standing. I don't usually read while standing.

She bgins not with theology or dry explanation but with story, told well, descriptively, with the senses, with feeling:

On a hot September day in 1918, some happy Indian children set out to trace their mountain river to its source.  After the rains in June and October, the river is a glory of rushing water pouring down a deep ravine; but in dry, burnt-up September, it is shallow and, from below, bare boulders as big as cottages looked like the steps of a giant staircase.  It would be easy, we thought, to find the source.

She goes on to use the stream as a metaphor  for the story of The Dohnavur Fellowship, flashing back to Sunday morning on a street in Belfast, recounting a calling there by God on her life, like a voice spoke to her, knowing that "[n]othing could ever happen again but the things that were eternal."  Back to the metaphor of water, she speaks of that moment as a source of all that was to come:

From this pool flowed the stream that is the story.  There are so many stories already in the world, and so many are splendid and great, that it is difficult to believe it can be worth the telling.  But if I can only tell it under direction, it will carry at least one quality of clear, running water --- sincerity.

This is a story artfully told, of an India that has changed, of a land still foreign to most of us, of a life of sacrifice daunting to even consider now, much less at the turn of the century.  It is, as she describes it, a gold cord, strung with beads, a linking of story to story in one greater narrative.  It is a story that "holds to a single course," one that "looks across the open frontier to a Country whose forces move unseen among us," a story not yet fully told, only anticipated

To honor this fine book, these golden words from yesterday, I think I'll read another chapter --- standing.  Perhaps you would as well.

Wide Awake

In the last few weeks, I have apparently entered a period of wakefulness at night, something I have been plagued with from time to time.  I am a light sleeper, I guess.  If the alarm clock light is too bright, I might awake.  The cat jumping on the bed may also do the trick.  Thunder will rouse me.  Maybe even a sigh from a child.  I don't usually stay awake, thankfully, but return to sleep fairly quickly.  In these times, nighttime can be just a series of naps, strung end to end. Sometimes I am sleepy the next day; often, I am not.

I've wondered why this is, even read about it, and I can't pin it on anything.  It comes, it goes. Like the wind.  Like the Spirit.

When I'm lying there for what few minutes I may be conscious, I sometimes do wonder if God has awoken me, if there is something I need pray about or maybe something I need to get up and do. Praying can be difficult, but I try, a kind of stream of consciousness, meandering and vague.  I wonder if God thinks it's like listening to a sleepy child, one trying desperately to wring one more minute out of the day but fading quickly, sliding into nonsense babble.  When my son was young he talked to keep himself awake, often to himself, falling asleep mid-sentence.  Maybe my babbling is what "praying in the Spirit" really is --- sensible only to God who hears the heart even when the lips speak gibberish.

Perhaps because of such punctuated rest, I remember more dreams.  In the last few weeks, I have been in a plane crash, narrowly missed being struck by a train which jumped its tracks and barreled down the yard beside my house, and suffered a home invasion.  A few nights ago a few large oak trees in my backyard uprooted themselves and walked away while I watched.  Eerie.  It'd be nice to talk about that, in the moment so to speak, but everyone is asleep, even the cats, though I nudge one with my foot to see if I can get a response.  No, just dead weight.

Sometimes I think I should get up and do something productive with the time, like balance the checkbook.  Likely that wouldn't be wise.  Or write letters, unintelligible though they may be.  But I don't.  I just lie there enjoying the quiet, the accentuated noises of the night.  Cicadas.  Now and then the creak of a settling house.  The faithfulness of the heat pump, coming on and turning off all night while we sleep, because we asked it to.  The sound of my breath.  The beating of my heart.  Rain on the roof, wind in the chimney.

I get up and look out the window at the street outside bathed in streetlight, see the neighbor's cat walk sleepily across the street.  I wonder if it has insomnia too?

I used to tell my children that there was nothing to be afraid of at night, that everything is in the same place as in daylight, only dark.  I don't think they believed me.

To think --- some people who sleep all night without awakening never get this pleasure, never know what they're missing.  Lucky me.


A Tender Revelation

When you think of the Book of Revelation, all kinds of fantastical images and sounds spring to mind: creatures with "six wings. . . and full of eyes all around and within," thunder, lightening, torches, thrones, a "pale rider named Death," a moon like blood, stars falling to earth, earthquakes, a sea that becomes bood, locusts that "were like horses prepared for battle," and even a dragon.  And that's just for starters.  Unfortunately, I can never read these chapters without seeing it through the lens of Hal Lindsey's 1970 book, The Late Great Planet Earth, a book that as a teenager frightened me into taking seriously the claims of the Gospel but the theology of which I now reject.  As one reviewer said:  "A generation later, many of its former supporters now see in its pages a complete misreading of Holy Scripture, sensationalistic attempts to correspond Biblical prophecies to current events, and an unhealthy enthusiasm for seeing the world obliterated."  And yet many have bought into and may forever see Revelation in light of the same dispensationalism which reverberates throughout the Left Behind series. 

I'm thankful that Lindsey's book led me to the Gospel.  And I do not fault his intention to awake a sleeping church to the times.  And yet Chapters 4-20 of Revelation are still largely a mystery to me, biblical and even evangelical scholars holding widely varying views of their meaning.  But that's OK. I do not have to understand it all.  I can leave it open.

But in looking at the Book this week, two verses became meaningful, even compassionate, as I considered their import.  The first is in the context of a reference to the "seven golden lampstands," symbolic for the churches, where John says he saw "in the midst of the lampstands one like a son of man," (Rev. 1:13).  What a comfort: Christ is among his people, in the midst of the church, whatever it is going through.  He is present.  It connotes an intimacy, a desire to be among us, with us, alongside us.  He says elsewhere "For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them (Matt. 18:20).  Do you, like me, forget that He is really present?   Not only is He present, as a friend might be present, but unlike friends most of the time, He actually has all the power to do something for me or us or in our midst.  To appropriate this, sometimes I imagine His hand on my shoulder, lightly, as a friend might offer reassurance.

But there's more. Later, to him who perseveres in faith, He promises "to. . . give a white stone, with a new name written on the stone that no one knows except the one who receives it" (Rev. 2:17b).  Matthew Henry points out that the white stone alludes to the ancient practice of giving a white stone to someone acquitted of guilt; the new name, that of our adoption.  We are declared innocent.  We are welcomed into the family.  We are given a new name shared only between us and Jesus.  This reminded me of how our Ugandan friends will sometimes give each other "pet names," significant and sometimes known only to the giver and the one receiving it.  All this speaks of a high degree of intimacy between Jesus and us.  This too, I forget, treating Jesus at times like a kind but absent friend.

I suspect there is more of this in Revelation, but I'm resting in Chapter Two right now.  Yet reading ahead, I can see that for all its bluster, for all its gloom and doom, one could even find this a tender Revelation, a dark cloak of words threaded with a white string of grace, its message: Be ready.  I will come.  Take heart.  I am with you to the end.

I could stop here and be content.


A Singular Empathy

One of the most helpful essays relating to the topic of empathy that I read in the recent issue of The Pedestrian was entitled "Empathy with the Enemy," by Roman Krznaric.  In it the author explores some of the ethical dilemmas and yet personal and social benefits from engaging in what he calls "empathetic imagining" which is, simply put, imagining what it is to be somone other than yourself.  The hope is, of course, that by doing so, by putting yourself in someone else's shoes, you will better understand their concerns and needs, leading not only to mutual understanding but peaceable and more productive relationships.  The ramifications of this kind of empathy for personal relationships, racial and international harmony, and even appropriate aid to the poor should be evident.  Only thing is, it's not so easy.

Krznaric notes that the concept is easily invoked by liberals (a group with which he identifies) in the context of arguments for imagining life from the perspective of the "deprived or marginalized, the voiceless or powerless," and yet he argues that "if empathy is truly to take its place as a central value in contemporary culture, we need to put it to test in the most difficult situations, where it can lead us into a moral maze: into seeming contradictions rather than clarity." In other words, we have to extend our empathy even to those whose actions we disdain or which are morally repugnant to us.

The author should know.  Two visits to Guatemala gave him ample opportunity to discover just how slippery empathy can prove.  In the first visit, he was ensconced in a peasant village where he served as an international human rights monitor (the country was wrapping up 36 years of civil war).  In the next visit he came to interview some of the members of the wealthy, ruling oligarchy, ostensibly as an objective reporter seeking the status of things in the country post-civil war.  These were some of the racially biased who had hired death squads to kill many of the same peasants he had stayed with.  His aim was to discover the oligarchy's outlook, to empathize, not agree with their outlook.  When he interviewed one of the women, she became emotional talking about the imprisonment of her son by rebels.  In that moment, he empathized with someone whose outlook he found repugnant.  He saw her as human: a woman who loved her son and suffered not knowing his fate.  He felt genuine compassion.

The situation embodied what he calls the problem of "empathetic dissent" --- that is, how do you empathize with someone whose views or values you disagree with?  What he found was that such empathizing does not suspend moral judgment.  Rather,  he says "the ability to step into someone else's shoes can place you in a strong position to reason with them and persuade them to change their views.

Reading this I was both convicted at my own lack of empathy and made aware of the cultural forces that make it difficult to do so.  Americans are very self-absorbed.  Our advertising tells us how much we need to be thinking about ourselves.  The public persona we project and are so aware of on Twitter, Facebook, and other social networks elevates and seemingly makes important our every move, status change, interests, likes, and dislikes.  Frankly, even as I write this blog post it's tempting (and laughable) to consider the importance of what I write.  How often do I draw back and really consider what others must perceive about anything, how they must feel, and why they have the opinions (even the stupid and obnoxious ones) that they do?

I cannot help but think of this verse from Phillipians 2:4, where Paul says "Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others."  It is in the context of a whole section which commends the sacrificial example of Christ.  Truly, deeply empathizing, it seems to me, isn't possible without the transforming power of Christ.  For most of us, if we truly empathized with our enemies, we might hate them all the more.  Only Christ can make enemy-lovers out of enemy haters.  He does it by showing us that though we may be different in degree (I haven't killed anyone lately, that is), we are not different in kind.  We all fall short.  We all sin.  We all need redeeming by the only One who can fully and completely empathize with our state and who has the power to remedy it.  His is a singular empathy.  Without his, our's is dead in the water.

Sanctified Development

"We owe it to the fields that our houses will not be the inferiors of the virgin land they have replaced.  We owe it to the worms and the trees that the buildings we cover them with will stand as promises of the highest and most intelligent kinds of happiness."

(Alain de Botton, in The Architecture of Happiness)

Where my house stands was once a pine forest, and before that farmland, the furrows still visible in one place, and likely before that a mature stand of hardwoods.  And though my neighborhood of homes has stood here for some 26 years, as difficult as it is to think of it, the neighborhood may eventually decline, then gentrify, or even be razed to create more high density development, wiping out any notion that I lived here.  In fact, it may well be that were I to visit here a century from now, familiar landmarks would be missing, and I would feel disoriented, even lost.  

Even now, walking 26 years later on the same roads, there is evidence of change.  The modest brick home and country road I once looked forward to seeing has been widened, the home torn down, the elderly couple moved off to relatives or an old folks' home, the only evidence of their being there, the only orienting landmark the trinity of trees that centered their front yard --- two dogwoods and an ornamental pear tree.  I'm thankful whenever I pass them.  They tell me that not all is lost to change, that the developer had a heart.

New, however, is not necessarily bad, not something to always lament.  We sometimes cling to the past in a nostalgic way, remembering selectively, seeing it through rose-colored glasses.  We are promised a new heavens and new earth, and I doubt we'll be lamenting the passing of the old.  With redeemed memories, memories transformed by God, we'll see the true and good and beautiful of the old in the new, like it was there all along.

Still, when I round that corner, when I look for that trinity of trees, I have hope that God provides something in that new earth that reminds me that these trees are still here, that the old is enfolded in the new.  All the good here is carried forward.

The promise of development, the challenge even, is that what we do to the land, places, and buildings we have is faithful to the people and places that inhabit them, so that when we tear down or plough up the earth, it becomes more of what it can be and not less of what it was, that its sanctification will, albeit dimly, mirror our own, that in these remade places we will see something of the place Jesus has gone to prepare for us.

That's a lot to hope for, I know, and yet God's remaking of my own architecture tells me He can also remake that of the world around me.  Now and then, I see it.


The End of Reading: Why We Should Read Good Fiction

The end of reading is not more books but more life. (Holbrook Jackson)

“I have sought for happiness everywhere, but I have found it nowhere except in a little corner with a little book,” said Thomas a Kempis, and so might I say.  Readers are like that, you know.  As a child I remember one particular chair in one particular corner of our home, and the many books I read there.  I read through meals, sometimes as long as four hours or so at a time, emerging as if from some dream, somnolent, somewhere in the twilight between the imaginative world and reality.  It took some time to come home. But then my sister said something like sisters say, and I said something not so nice back, and the mashed potatoes were passed and reality re-cohered for me.  Yet I never came back quite the same. My life was changed in some inarticulable way.

I still have some of those childhood books, some pilfered from my mother's library.  In recently cleaning out her home for sale (she is in a nursing home now), we did not save much, and yet I did save many of her books, like Amy Carmichael's The Golden Cord, A.W. Tozer's The Knowledge of the Holy, and Hannah Whithall Smith's The Christian's Secret of a Happy Life --- all nonfiction, and yet by age alone much less worthiness these books are our "elders," due a degree of respect.

I like looking up to my bookshelf of books, some of which I consider not just elders or mentors but dear “friends,” books that continue to speak to me and, I suspect, will continue to teach me the rest of my life.  Sometimes I re-read just the first page of Beryl Markham’s West With the Night: “How is it possible to bring order out of memory? I should like to begin at the beginning, patiently, like a weaver at his loom. I should like to say, ‘This is the place to start; there can be no other.’  But there are a hundred places to start for there are a hundred names – Mwanza, Serengeti, Nungwe, Molo, Nakura.”   And then I feel the book tugging at me, saying, “Read on, read on,” and I find myself saying aloud those African names, just to hear them.  I will read it again, I say, another day, as I reluctantly place it back on the shelf. 

If you take the time to read this blog, you probably read books, as there is nothing much here for the pragmatic who have no use for books.  But in the interest of book-evangelism, of encouraging a ministry of words, let me tell you four reasons why reading good fiction is important to our understanding of ourselves, our relationship with God, and our relationship with others.

Good books enlarge our sense of reality.  They have the subtle effect of deepening our understanding of other people as we vicariously experience joy and sorrow through the lives of the characters.  In his novel (more recently, movie), No Country for Old Men, Colman McCarthey writes of a man who, while out hunting in a desolate part of East Texas, stumbles upon a drug deal gone bad, four men dead, and over $2 million dollars in a satchel and no one around.  He takes it, but how he takes it and how he wrestles with having it can teach us all about the insidious nature of greed.  Good fiction makes us more aware of what is real by presenting it in a fresh way.  We come to a greater understanding of others who, after all, are a lot like us.

Good books deepen our understanding of ourselves.  Joseph Epstein says that “we use books like mirrors, gazing into them only to discover ourselves.”  What is true of the Bible is, to a lesser extent, also true of good fiction.  We read of all its rag-tag characters, the best of which are beset by sin, and we see ourselves.  But we begin to change.  We see who we really are.  We see our need for Jesus, the one who saves us every day from ourselves.  For example, I knew what I needed, who I needed when I read this bit of dialogue in Hwee Hwee Tan’s Foreign Bodies between Andy (a twenty-something student fresh off a Damascus Road conversion experience) and fellow student (and love interest) Clare, who attempts to rationalize and scientifically explain his conversion experience: “I want God.  Somewhere along the line they killed God, and I want him back.  I want God resurrected, living in me.  But I don’t want the hippy, new age, pop culture, user-friendly, thought of the day, Celestine prophecy, spiritual quest as narrated as an adventure novel. . . . I want God.  I want something that will fill all of me, every nook and cranny, touch every cell, course through the blood, fill the spaces of the mind, touch the unphysicality of the soul. . . . I want God.  I want it all back.”  Isn’t that what we all want?  Reading that, I realized how small I had made God and how much I was missing.

Good books deepen our relationship with God.  Sometimes there’s a problem with the Bible.  We’ve read it so much, heard the stories so many times, that it’s all become a bit too familiar to us, like a two-dimensional flannelboard.  The deep truth and reality of it can wash over us and yet not settle in our soul.  A good book can defamiliarize the familiar stories and let us see truth in a fresh way.  I think of Frederick Buechner’s Leo Bebb, from his Book of Bebb, a charlatan, a flim-flam artist, a pastor, a sinner among sinners – and yet, Leo Bebb continues to speak the truth to me, reminding me that God loves sinners, something that’s easy to acknowledge but difficult to believe (that is, that we are really so bad, or that God could really be so good).  Addressing his congregation, Bebb said “The Kingdom of Heaven is like a great feast.  That’s the way of it.  The Kingdom of Heaven is a love feast where nobody’s a stranger.  Like right here.  There’s strangers everywhere’s else you can think of. . . . There’s strangers got married and been climbing in and out of the same fourposter for thirty-five, forty years, and they’re strangers still. . . . But here in this place there’s no strangers, and Jesus, he isn’t a stranger either.  The Kingdom of Heaven’s like this.”  That’s the way Leo Bebb talks and keeps talking to me. 

Books cultivate virtues that, as Christians, we care deeply about.  Reading produces thoughtfulness, patience, good reasoning, humility (as we withhold judgment until we have all the facts, or have read all the way to the end), and solitude (as we do this thing mostly alone).  You can probably think of even more, but this is a good start.  Books, both in their content and in the very process of their reading, aid our spiritual growth.

Once upon a time.  Once, upon a time.  Can you really bear not to read on, not to see what story unfolds?  Frederick Buechner says “all beginnings have a legendary quality about them, a promise of magic,” and indeed they do.  So, pick up a good book this week.  Open to the first page.  It all begins here: Once upon a time. . . .

Dear John, Wherever You Are (A Belated Birthday Wish)

"Rita, take a letter will you?"

"Yes sir."

I love saying that.  There's only two rooms in this office suite, if you want to call it that, a ten by ten room with one window for me and another room for Rita no bigger than a walk in closet, with a musty smell hanging over the place.  But still. . . I love saying that, mashing the button on the completely unnecessary intercom and summoning her to my office.  To take a letter.  

"The usual, Mr. Richards?"

"Of course.  The usual."

Rita perched on the edge of my desk, steno pad in hand, pen ready.  

I'm old school, really.  I like to dictate because I believe words have to be spoken, said out loud, to have weight, to test them, to let them hang in the air a moment so the sound of them can stir the air and rustle the imagination, so you can visualize them and call back the malformed and inert ones, publish and polish the golden ones.

Rita takes shorthand.  You wouldn't believe how difficult it was to find someone these days that could teach her that arcane method.  The secretarial schools don't even teach it.  I found a 75 year old former secretary to Benjamin Lippin (God rest his soul), still living in a flat on the upper west side, that agreed to take her on.  That's a feat.  Rita's not the brightest bulb in the pack.  But she's serviceable. . .

"You want me to come back later when you're done pondering?"

. . . and I've known her since grade school.  Lovely Rita, we used to call her.

"I said you want me to come back?"

"No, I'm ready."

I leaned back in my chair, got ready to put my feet up on the desk, then thought better of it.  Better pace for this one, considering who it was addressed to.

"OK.  Ready."

Dear Mr. Lennon. . .  No, scratch that.  Dear John. . .  That's better.  More familiar.  He'd like that.  Just one of the blokes.

"Dear John. . ."

"Rita, you don't have to repeat what I say.  That's really disconcerting."

"OK.  I got it.  Right. . . You're writing a dead person?"

"Just take the letter, Rita.  You know I don't like commentary.  Who I write is my business."  I had to regularly remind Rita that I was the one giving the letter and she was the one taking the letter.  It may not be divine revelation, but at least I was the one superintending what revelation it was, and she was a mere scribe.

"Right."  Rita chewed the end of her pen, rolled her eyes, and set in again to write.  She had a point. How do you write a dead person?  Where to address it?  Believing as I do that souls live on in Heaven or Hell, what was I to do?  Send two letters?  Throw one off the top of the Empire State and leave one in the furnace of Death Valley?  Or just drop them in the mail and let the clerks in the Postal Service sort it out over coffee?

"You were saying?"

"Yes, yes, I'm getting to it, Rita.  Patience, please."

"Alright already.  I'm just saying, it's almost lunch and I gotta meet Jimmy, you know."

"I'm thinking."

What I really want to tell him is that I appreciate his honesty, how he told the truth --- none of that sappy stuff his counterpart wrote.  And when he said we should imagine there's no heaven, how when I did that, I couldn't live with it, how it drove me to believing.  I even forgive him for that acerbic "How Do You Sleep at Night," his poison pen letter to his counterpart.  I want to tell him I'm sorry he had to die so young, so quickly.  So tragically. That his music was the soundtrack of my high school years, my turnable playing it late into the night. "Love."  "Instant Karma." "Jealous Guy." "Crippled Inside" (you nailed it there John).

Karen Demski, that not very pretty girl in my first year law school torts class, screamed in class, broke down, and ran out the door when she found out he had been shot.  That's how bad it was.  Like a little bit of her died right then.  I won't forget that, won't forget the prayer that was really behind "all we are saying is give peace a chance."  He'd be 70 had he lived.  There's so much I could say.  So much. I even have two cats, one named Yoko and one named John.  And a dog named Mean Mr. Mustard.  And a fish named Polythene Pam (or "PP" for short).  Guinea pig named Old Flat-top died, though.  

"I'm ready, Rita."

Dear John.  

Happy birthday.  

Thank you.

Sorry this is late.



In the Shelter of Each Other

"In the shelter of each other, we will live, we will live (never walk alone)."

(Jars of Clay, "Shelter")

Today I've been playing over and over again the new album by Jars of Clay, entitled The Shelter. While it is all good, I always find myself back at this chorus from the title cut, a chorus that is both descriptive and normative, that expresses what is and what can be.  We all want shelter.  We all need shelter.

The Psalmist repeatedly recalls the refuge provided by God when he speaks of being in the shadow of his wings, picturing God as a nurturing, protective bird, providing shelter and protection under his wings, in His shadow.  "How priceless is your unfailing love! Both high and low among men find refuge in the shadow of your wings," he says (Ps. 36:7), or he entreats God to "hide me in the shadow of your wings" (Ps. 17:8).

The word "shelter" even became descriptive of a certain brand of Christian ministry.  For example, L'Abri Fellowship began in Switzerland in 1955 when Francis and Edith Schaeffer decided in faith to open their home to be a place where people could find answers to their questions about life and faith and for a practical demonstration of Christian care. It was called L'Abri, the French word for "shelter," because they sought to provide a shelter from the pressures of an increasingly secular culture, a quiet haven to explore what is true, good, and beautiful.

Some may remember Shelter Records, a now defunct record label started by Leon Russell and producer Denny Cordell in 1969, one of the fledgling artist-oriented labels that became more common with the ascent of the artist and demise of the label.  I don't know the philosophy of the label, if it had one, but I suspect it was intended as an artist-friendly haven, a refuge of sorts (which brings to mind another now defunct label, Refuge Records).  Indeed, if you google the word "shelter," a slew of ministries and organizations pop up.  Homes for battered and abused women, animal rescue groups, child advocacy groups, and ministries to the homeless, just to name a few. 

That the word describes many ministries (using the word loosely), both Christian and secular, is a testimony to the deep need and longing for shelter that each person has, and the problems that exist in society can be traced to the misplaced pursuit of that shelter --- for a place where there is protection, where there is unconditional love.

For Christians, God is the one who provides ultimate shelter, as all other dwellings --- family, friends, social networks (such as they are), and church will fail us.  Our dependence on that ultimate shelter and the promise and hope of a secure dwelling in Heaven keeps us from attempting to meet all our need for shelter from any earthly medium.  And yet these imperfect, temporal shelters are the mediators of God's permanent shelter, the face of His love, the shadow, however mottled, of his wings.  As the song later says, "God has given us each other, and we will never walk alone." Community will never be enough, never satisfy.  Only God can be our shelter.

But rather than focus on my need for shelter, the better questions are who I am called to provide shelter for and what that shelter looks like.  I cannot shelter the world, of course, with all its shelter-needy people, so who has God called me to shelter?  And how do I shelter them in a way that makes them not dependent on what I provide but points them back to the ultimate source of their shelter, not themselves (self-reliance), not even each other (their family or community, as important as that is), but to a Father who will supply what they need for eternity?

For example, my family provides for the education and support of four Ugandan young people between the ages of 16 and 20 and probably will for several years.  (By American standards, the investment is small, so don't think too highly of us!)  We are "sheltering" them, if you will, and yet there are many more like them that we don't know and even knowing could not afford to shelter. Why these young people?  I always answer that they are the ones God put in my path.  I don't know what else to say.  I'm more concerned about the how of sheltering them --- is there a way to help them without creating an unhealthy dependence?  will they be self-supporting once they complete their education?  Caring for them in this way is the right thing to do, as it is part of loving them, but if it creates dependency, then we haven't loved them well.

To shelter someone is just another outworking of the command to love one another.  In practice, you can't practically demonstrate love for everyone.  Only God so loved the world, right?  To love everyone is a platitude that may in practice look like loving no one.  We have to bring it down to street level, from an aerial view to the human traffic in our face, asking Love who? and Love how?  Love is particular.

If there is any peace
If there is any hope
We must all believe
Our lives are not alone
We don’t all belong
God has given us each other
And we will never walk alone

So who has God called you to shelter?  And how will you do that?

What Lies Beneath

"A river touches places of which its source knows nothing, and Jesus says if we have received of His fulness, however small the visible measure of our lives, out of us will flow the rivers that will bless to the uttermost parts of the earth."

(Oswald Chambers, My Utmost for His Highest, September 6th)

On the north side of metropolitan Tucson, Arizona, just at the edge of the foothills that now take the city up to the edge of the Catalina Mountains, runs the Rillito River.  If you live or stay in the foothills, Oro Valley, Oracle or beyond, and work in Tucson proper, you cross the river each workday at one of a limited number of crossings, bridges that span its length.  As we are never there during Summer monsoon season, the Rillito is mostly a joke to my family, as the "roaring" Rillito seldom has more than a trickle of water in it, and that rarely.  For most of the year it is a dry riverbed, like many in the desert southwest, merely a depression in the desert to be spanned.

Of course, there is more to the Rillito than meets the eye.  There is a coursing river that flows under the stream bed at all times, sometimes high and sometimes low, a latent, writhing watercourse that lives and moves and has its being quite out of seeing.  In fact, it becomes a small tributary of a great aquifer (or underground lake) that supplies a significant percentage of Tucson's water supply, that is, enough for the needs of over one million people.  Much like an iceberg, what lies under is much more significant than what lies over; what we don't see dwarfs what we do see.

Chambers' devotion for September 6th, one that I recall reading each year over the many years I have read My Utmost for the Highest, is one that has always resonated with me.  Prone as I am to live by sight and not by faith, I forget that what God is doing is like some great underground river, touching people I do not even know or ones I know in ways I do not suspect.  As Chambers says, "God rarely allows a soul to see how great a blessing he is," just as by sight alone we have no idea of the powerful effect the Rillito has beneath the desert floor.

Indeed the whole river analogy is memorable because it so well pictures God's working in our lives and in life as a whole.  First, we can know with assurance that our small, faithful acts of obedience have fruit beyond what we can see.  This is encouraging.  To see more would in fact tempt us to be prideful.  The very hiddeness of the fruit keeps our focus off our self and on the Source of the flow.  As Chambers says, "Never let anything come between yourself and Jesus Christ, no emotion, or experience; nothing must keep you from the one great sovereign Source."

Second, it is of great comfort to know that underneath the tapestry of the life we see, a powerful self-sustaining source of all that is true, good, and beautiful is constantly flowing.  A providential power moves in the deep recesses of aquifers and underground caverns, sustaining all life above ground and working out all things to His own ends.  What we don't see is far greater than what we do see, a humbling and sobering acknowledgment that regularly need be made.

Finally, when we appreciate the power of the Source, we are helped to view obstacles as temporary --- no, as really nothing compared to the power of the river.  Chambers notes that, confronted by an obstacle, a river will "soon make a pathway around the obstacle," or "drop out of sight for miles, and presently emerge again broader and grander than ever."  God in us is unstoppable if sometimes hidden.

So, take heart from all this.  I am.  I look at my life and the world around me and see only brief glimmers of how God may have used me, certainly not enough to live on, not enough to sustain me and give me hope. That drives me back to the Source, to remembering Who is really working out his salvation in and through me and the mystery of results, of our long obedience in the same direction.

And another thing: I'm not going to demean the Rillito any longer.  When I bike alongside it or drive over it every year, I'll just nod in recognition of the great work it's doing.  Unseen.  It's been there all along.  You just have to have faith.

What Interstates Are Good For (Besides Cracker Barrel)

In the past four days, my little family (Mom, Dad, two teenagers) spent a total of 15 hours and 52 minutes in what amounts to a seven by seven room --- a car, that is --- with only brief excursions outside for necessities.  We were traveling to and from Raleigh, North Carolina to Lookout Mountain, Georgia, the site of Covenant College, a prize well worth the trip along the interstates.  On the whizzing car trip, I had time for a few observations, none of which may strike you as particularly original but, of course, there are no new revelations but only new ways in which old revelations come to roost.  Herein are my observations:

1.  Tennessee must license about anyone given the way they drive.  Other than Maryland drivers, who are in a class by themselves and better resemble the better drivers in Uganda, they are some of the worst drivers in the country.  On the east side of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, there is a particularly winding (for an interstate) stretch of I-40.  It sets these hillbillies free.  I now know why, when I used to frequent Nashville, most cars were dented or otherwise beat up.  It's the cost of all that reckless abandon.

2.  Thank God for Cracker Barrel.  I'm serious.  Their ubiquity is a testimony to the fact that most plain folks like me, the kind I see in Cracker Barrels all over the country, were taught by their Mommas to eat their vegetables.  How many places can you eat vegetables along an interstate highway?  Where else can you find great classic music like that of Buck Owens, Portner Wagner, and Marty Robbins alongside Chicago and Creedence Clearwater Revival?  Furthermore, eating my vegetables, listening to country music, and browsing the sugarland of candy that's the same as the kind I grew up eating (too much of), made me think of my family and, after recalling with horror (OK, not horror, but gentle remorse) that I had missed two of my sisters' birthdays, as well as my MOTHER's birthday (OK, that one I really, really feel bad about), I bought greeting cards, nice ones too, with animals on the front doing ridiculous things.  I felt better.  The only thing I regretted was that I did not have time to have a rock in their rocking chairs on the porch.  Now that's a shame. 

3.  People, even people who love each other, are not meant to be cooped up in a car the size of a small bathroom for over seven hours.  Even otherwise mature teenagers break under the pressure.  There are odd mood swings.  At one point my son and daughter are almost giddy with pleasure at their camaraderie, breezing through a collection of show tunes and other pop songs, singing, oblivious to our front seat ruminations; the next, they are clearly annoyed and ready for their space, as evidenced by the pleas of "he touched me" or tell her to. . ." or "you're rude."  After hearing this awhile, I'm ready to stop at whatever passes for the local pub, and I don't even drink.  But like I said, the confines of space are cruel and unusual, and when we arrive at home and the doors are flung open on a larger world, all will be forgiven. Like at the end of our one way trip to Heaven, we'll step out on firmer ground, in a bigger room, and all we said and did will be forgiven and the less becoming parts of our past will grow strangely dim.  I'm just a weary pilgrim, traveling through this world of bickering. . .

4.  I'm thankful when traffic stops dead on the interstate in a beautiful rural area like that between Knoxville and Asheville.  You can actually take your eyes off the bumper in front of you with obnoxious stickers and focus on what you're driving through.  It's plumb beautiful,  Not the drop dead beauty of the Tetons but, rather, an older kind of beauty, softer and more subtle.  For a moment, I consider just pulling to the side and parking, as I am nearly parked anyway, moving along at the average speed of five miles per hour, and just getting out of this contraption, breathing some mountain air, and sticking my toes in the cold water of the Pigeon River. I had that thought somewhere around Cosby or Hartford, Tennessee. About then I remembered stories of feuding hillbillies and wondered if I might get shot at or something exciting like that. I settled for rolling down the window.

5.  On long trips like this, conversational lulls can be frequent and sometimes long.  I fill the interstices like we all do, with daydreams, plans, and internal talk.  You know you do it too.  You carry on an internal dialog with yourself.  Sometimes I do it just to see how it will sound if I actually said it, like, if I said to a friend, "you know you should really think about doing this or that. . ." or maybe rehearsing the sound of something I might write.  I can actually hear it in my head.  Anyway, without these lulls in conversation, where would I be?  You wouldn't have the benefit of all this wisdom borne of reflection.  So I'm thankful.  And you better be.

6.  I'm also thankful for the relatively smooth ride most interstates provide.  My rear (can I say that here?) is especially thankful.  I mean, I have traveled the roads of Uganda and I have to tell you that local beauty is magnificent but one quickly loses the ability to appreciate it after three or four hours dodging big potholes so you can run over other big potholes.  That being said, on some stretches of the road it seems that someone on the road crew fell asleep at the switch because either icing or filling was poorly mixed in this recipe. Ka-bump, ka bump, ka-bump, and the like for several miles.  But then I think, how many times have I been asleep at the switch or worse?  So I try and forgive the men or women who did this to us.

7.  Remember road trips as a child when you used to pass the time by counting things?  I do.  One of the things we used to count was graveyards.  Have you tried that lately?  It's nearly impossible to find one from an interstate highway.  I theorize --- have we as a society pushed death out of sight and mind, because we don't won't to think about it?  Because we have no hope for life beyond death?  Someone just cut me off.  I'm thinking about it (death), someone's anyway.

8.  Some people aren't very original in naming towns.  In Tennessee, you have Nashville.  We got that one too in North Carolina and I bet it's a lot more civilized and less full of flim-flam persons (I guess there are women flim-flam persons but I never met one and the one in the book by Guy Ownes is a man).  There's Cleveland, and I bet it's prettier than the one in Ohio, the one Chrissie Hynde says is gone anyway (The Pretenders, "My City Was Gone").  There's Wildwood, an overused name if ever I heard one, and not very descriptive.  Wear Valley, as in "this valley really begins to wear on you after living here all your life and never gettin' beyond the crick and this holler."  New City (oh, sure) and Athens (toga, anyone?) and even Philadelphia (population 533).  It's all been done.  But Soddy- Daisy?  I don't think that one's been done.  Two communities joined in matrimony.  Soddy married up, I hear.

9.  The thing about Cracker Barrels is that you don't usually find them in the midst of big cities.  People there are too uppidy, eating noveau cuisine (tiny portions of raw fish served on huge white plates with obscene pricetags) or atmosphere that's meant to make you feel important.  I feel at home in Cracker Barrel, like I am among my own.  I feel plenty important.  These folks enjoy their food (they have well-developed midriffs) and like to set a spell and talk about politics (the conservative kind, mostly) or weather or maybe huntin' and guns.  Though I didn't mention it to my family, I secretly hoped for a Cracker Barrel around the Biltmore Village exit in Asheville.  I was deluded.  These folks have probably zoned out "trash" like that.  We ate at Panera Bread (fast food for the better-heeled), shook the dust from our feet, and beat a path over the mountain.

10,  Lest you think this just a promo piece for Cracker Barrel, let me finish with one final observation.  If I could write this in the form of a song, I would, but I have no talent in that regard.  The people that keep these roads as nice as they are work all night to do it.  My heart goes out to them.  The last one I flew by was manning a solitary drill about midnight at the edge of a blocked lane of the interstate between Durham and Raleigh.  Now what kind of a life is that?  Where is his family?  What sacrifices has he made to put food on the table?  Mister, I know you don't read blogs, but I sent a prayer up for you and left it in the air behind these taillights.  There are no little people.  You are out here doing what you do so I can drive my family on a decent road.  To your dog, wife, and children (and not necessarily in that order), my hats off (I mean that figuratively.)  May God bless you and them tonight.

So there you have it.  That's what you get for 15 hours on the interstate.  If you don't write down these profundities, you might forget them.  And probably you will.  But I won't.  And the next time I eat at Cracker Barrel, you can bet I'll think about this trip and maybe a few others out there on the interstates.  Thank God for them.

A Pedestrian Empathy

Tp-Issue-Image-1_0 Tp-Issue-Image-1_0 I spent a little time today reading a new journal that intrigued me.  I'm an early adopter when it comes to such new magazines or journals, particularly when (as is often) you cannot find them online or in the library.  

The Pedestrian is an unpretentious entry into what has to be a limited market.  It bills itself as a journal "that seeks to explore the ordinary," that, as the editors explain, "the people and things that are familiar – or have become too familiar – might be allowed to enchant."  In it you'l find a collection of classic essays from the past as well as new contributions that carry on the conversation, each issue exploring a common theme --- this one, empathy.

I'm holding Issue One --- yes, holding, because this is not primarily an online journal, though selected pieces from each journal are posted online.  Holding, because holding is believing for me, words having extra weight when they are etched in paper and touched and smelled.  Yes, smelled --- the ink on paper, newness, the aroma of ideas.

That it seeks to explore the ordinary doesn't mean that it is elementary.  Some of the entries take concentration, like the excerpt from C.S. Lewis' classic exploration of how to read literature or how to view visual art, "An Experiment in Criticism."  Like always, I find myself rereading Lewis' sentences, either because I am slow-witted, easily distracted, or simply overwhelmed by the profundity of his words.  Plus, some entries are simply longish, at least by today's standards, like Virginia Woolf's "Memories of a Working Women's Guild," her preface to a collection of letters written by working women in 1893, interesting but somewhat difficult to plow through, and oh so long.  But then there are concise pieces like that of actor Anthony Lawton's "A Book for My Son," where in less than four pages he manages to make a valid point: "To the extent that we use empathy as a first step in self-advancement, our hearts will be a savage place.  To the extent that we use empathy as the first step to charity, our hearts will be civilized." As he explains, it's just a little bit of the book he's writing to his son, a book about "everything," a book he believes will be about 900 pages in length.  Let's hope the world still reads such tomes when his son is of age.

G.K. Chesterton (on lamp-posts, of all things), Madeleine L'Engle (from A Circle of Quiet), and even Adam Smith. . . well, you see the variety of what lies here.  If you don't find an essay valuable, there is always another perspective, personality, or style --- just keep turning. I enjoy the mixture of old and new, the opportunity to focus on a single theme, the sense of wisdom imparted by the life experiences represented here, from authors of renown who speak to us from the grave to authors known and unknown who speak out of or into our time.

I recommend The Pedestrian, if you are willing to make the effort and take the time to absorb the words, if you're not seeking just information or titillation but, as I said, an opportunity to grow a little wiser from the reflections of others. For this pedestrian, just an ordinary guy, it was a good walk in words.  I can see my way just a little better now in their light.

What We'll Be Doing at the End of Time (Part Two)

On of the topics I enjoy thinking about is Heaven, about that place we'll spend virtually all of our time, if we can even use the word "time" to describe it.  I like thinking about the continuities and discontinuities between this earthly life and our heavenly life, and I like what I've discovered.  I like knowing that we don't begin heaven-life with blank slates but with redeemed memories, shorn of the painful effect of them in some way I cannot imagine.  We don't become different persons but remain the personalities we are, of course, recognizable in our fundamental dispositions, attitudes, and character, redeemed of course and emerging in a way that is faithful to who were always have been and yet purged of every sinful aberration or excess of that person we were. Meeting each other on the other side, we will be recognizable, both physically and in personality, and we might think to ourselves, "Oh, I always knew that this is who you really were."  And that's another thing:  we are physical and sensual, living flesh and blood, similar and yet somehow much more of who we were always meant to be, indeed, all of what we were meant to be.  Jesus, after all, was still recognizable, still the person he always was, both before and after the resurrection --- embodied albeit enhanced, sensual (eating fish), and yet changed (able to walk through walls).

I was reminded today of yet another continuity between this life and heaven's life.  Listening to a chapel sermon by Niel Nielson, the President of Covenant College, a point he made,  though an aside to his sermon, stuck to me.  He spoke of the continuity between our various callings here on earth and what we will be doing in heaven.  His point was that there is no discontinuity but, rather, a great continuity between the good we do here and Heaven, that our callings find their consummation in Heaven. As a lawyer, I like thinking about that.  The big mystery: What good is a lawyer in Heaven?  (This presupposes that there are lawyers in Heaven, a point which for some may end the discussion.)

It’s true that lawyers have worked a lot of mischief, stemming back to that serpent lawyer who recast God's admonition not to eat of the fruit one particular tree to "Did God really say, 'You must not eat from any tree in the garden'?"  He planted doubt and sowed dissent, something lawyers know how to do and do well. The old joke is that before Creation, when chaos reigned, lawyers were already here, that they were the ones responsible for the chaos!  But that’s not really their calling.  Lawyers, on their best days, bring order from chaos, whether it’s assembling, analyzing, and presenting the information in a written brief or court trial or helping clients sort our the messes they find themselves in --- a kind of ombudsmanship.  People and organizations often have a mixed up jumble of interrelated problems.  They don't know how to untangle themselves.  They can become emotional, behave irrationally, and further harm themselves. Lawyers help identify the issues, understand how things got that way, and determine how best to shape a response to those problems.  Or else they prospectively and prophylactically try to ward off such problems in the future.  Whatever the situation, reactive or proactive, they are creators (with a little “c”) of order, countering the powerful tug of entropy, the unwinding of all that is right and good and beautiful, redeeming and bringing substantial restoration to broken relationships and social settings with all the love and care they can apply. . . .

. . . . on their best days, that is.  In fact, that's less descriptive of my profession than it is normative.  Really, that's more a prayer for what we can be.

So what is there for us to do in Heaven, when the lack of sin's full employment threatens to rob of us our vocation?  There is still a need for order.  The lack of sin does not make everyone omnipotent, omniscient, or omnipresent, attributes reserved for God.  Someone still needs to say "drive to the right of the center line," or "a red light means stop." Otherwise there will still be many automobile accidents, though both drivers will humbly take the blame, deal sinlessly with what has happened, and emerge from the rubble not the least concerned with their cars and the best of friends.  Or something like that.  The point: Someone will have to say what side of the road to drive on and when to stop.

But wait a minute.  That's not lawyers, that's politicians.  And we all know there is a special place reserved for them.  God help them.