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December 2010

At Connemara, Slashes of Light

IMG_0606 Night from a railroad car window
Is a great, dark, soft thing
Broken across with slashes of light.

("Windows," by Carl Sandburg, in Carl Sandburg: Collected Poems, Paul Berman, ed.) 

Tiger is the name of the barn cat that lives at Connemara, the home of Carl and Lillian Sandburg for the last 22 years of the poet and writer's life.  A hospitable cat, welcoming guests easily from the red barn she scouts, she makes us feel at home, as if we have come to visit the Sandburgs, see Lillian's prize goats with their soft and docile faces, peruse the 14,000 volumes of books in the Sandburg home, or sit on the front porch and think and talk and think some more, enjoying the view of the lake and the mountains beyond.  And we do feel at home.

My first experience with the American journalist, poet, folk singer, and hobo Cal Sandburg was as a child.  His six-volume biography of Abraham Lincoln contained in my mother's library of mostly devotional books (many of which I read at some point) intrigued me but proved too fulsome a history for a tween to crack.  But I remember its heft, the feel of it in my hands, and the weightiness of its many words.  I wondered at a man who could write so many words about one single man.  I looked at his picture, his shock of white hair, and thought him a word-god, transcendent.

He wasn't, of course.  Walking through his house, left much as it was the day he died, I sense his ordinariness, his humility, his modesty.  I can imagine sitting in his front room visiting, the furnishings plain and simple, the man unpretentious.  He might read me a new poem or even sing me a song.  The only thing unusual about his home was his sharing of it with 14,000 books.  Everywhere you bump into words, rub up against history.  There he sits, I imagine, in a cluttered study, banging out the words to a new poem, typewriter on an upended orange crate, because "if such was good enough for General Grant it's good enough for me."  Pulitzers are relegated to a hidden cabinet, no "how great thou art" wall of commendations and awards to be found.  No car in the garage either, as he said that a car would keep him from walking, and in walking you get to meet people.  And people were his stock and trade, the very voices of his poems.

On a granite outcropping beside his home, there is a single bench chair, and I imagine him sitting there, paper and pen in hand, thinking over his life and the life of others he knew.  He said once that "[i]t is necessary now and then for a man to go away by himself and experience loneliness; to sit on a rock in the forest and ask of himself, 'Who am I, and where have I been, and where am I going?'"  There, at the bottom of Little Glassy Mountain, I might ask myself that too and, turning back to the house, ask myself what I will leave behind.

I would like to have known the man.  I doubt our politics would align (as he was a socialist of sorts), and yet he championed the rights of the ordinary folk and seemed to live his life with some modesty and humility, a voice for the common man.  He also held to no organized religion and, though it was not a major theme of his work, did at times rail against those he thought misappropriated Jesus, as in his vituperative lambasting of the evangelist Billy Sunday in his poem of the same name, saying "I won't take my religion from a man who never works/except with his mouth and never cherishes a/ memory except the face of the woman on the/ American silver dollar."  Surely, had he read the poem to me on the porch of Connemara, I may have nodded in agreement to parts of it, because much has been said and done in God's name with which He may not be pleased.

Nature had a way of smoothing over his rare venom.  Even in many of his poems not geared toward children, a gentleness is evident, as in "The fog comes/ on little cat feet./ It sits looking/ over harbor and city/ on silent haunches/ and then moves on."  I imagine him playing with grandchildren, watching Edward R. Murrow on television (the only thing he ever watched), sitting at a modest table having breakfast with Lillian and his girls, watching birds out the window, and retiring to his office upstairs, cluttered and discomfiting to me, anyway.

Here, on the eve of Christmas Eve, I wonder if he knew the One who came for him, for every man, the one of whom he wrote

I've been out to this suburb of Jerusalem they call
          Golgotha, where they nailed him, and I know if
          the story is straight it was real blood ran from his
          hands and the nail-holes, and it was real blood
          spurted out where the spear of the Roman soldier
          rammed in between the ribs of this Jesus of

Was he a friend of this man?  Did he know the One who haunted all the lives of the people he met, the places he saw, the words he wrote?  At Connemara, I can hope that he knew more than the dark, dark night from a rail car window, with only slashes of light.  I can hope he knew the God-Man who came to save. 

They Say He Is On the Move

"They say Aslan is on the move—perhaps has already landed." (Mr. Beaver, to the children, in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, by C.S.Lewis)

"[T]he story holds to a single course.  It looks 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 Gold Cord: The Story of a Fellowship)

"Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end."  (Isaiah 9:7a)

Laura Hillenbrand's recent novel about Louis Zamperini, Unbroken, is, without saying it in so many words, a story of God's providence.  Time after time, from the age of two on through his life, Zamperini has brushes with death, from his climb out of a second floor window as a toddler and flight down the street to his near drowning when his WWII B-24 Liberator lost engine power and went down in the Pacific Ocean.  Entangled in a web of fuselage wiring, he was pulled by the sinking plane toward the sea floor, unable to free himself, momentarily blacking out, only to inexplicably find himself conscious, disentangled, and floating upward toward the light of the ocean surface, saved.  It becomes a powerful metaphor for spiritual liberation and a reality for the latter converted Zamperini.

I need reminders like this, stories about the ongoing power of God to save and heal and liberate, to do what seems impossible, to frustrate the devolution and entropy of a world gone wrong by melting a chill winter of sin that at time seems to reign, if only by permission.  Bad news can be overwhelming.  Friends divorcing.  Children rebelling.  Governments snuffing out freedom.  The White Witch of endless winter seems to ride on over the earth, seems to have won at times.

But then I read of Zamperini. Or I remember the promise in the whispered words of Mr. Beaver: "They say Aslan is on the move."  Or, even better, an old prophet reminds me that "of the increase of his government there shall be no end," and my mind is drawn back to a Christmas sermon some 23 years ago when my pastor delivered this message of "good government growth," one that has remained with me when so many other sermons have been lost in a fog.  And it gives me hope that He is on the move, that the promise of Jesus, the one whose very name means "God saves," is real. Disentangled from Zamperini's cords of death, we will rise to the surface, liberated, saved, whole if battered.

And yet lostness is all around.  Yesterday, perusing the aisles of a popular independent bookstore, the shelves bulged with empty spirituality --- the occult, zen, new age, mysticism, radical feminism --- and novels of brokenness, vanity, and eroticism.  I had to leave, sickened.  I could more easily bear the stench of the slums of Nairobi or Kampala than the smell of dying in that place.

Amy Carmichael, turn of the century missionary to South India, well knew that smell of death.  And yet, better than me, she could go there to the temples where young girls were enslaved and forced into prostitution, could endure miserable conditions and discouraging lack of progress and what seemed like hopeless situations with confidence that God would work, that He was still active in the world, that something unseen was being done even while on surface there seemed to be no hope, no encouragement, even from other missionaries.  She kept in mind that other Country, the Life underneath the world, the One upholding and sustaining it.  He is the same one who said to a complaining Habakkuk, "For still the vision awaits its appointed time; it hastens to the end --- it will not lie.  If it seems slow, wait for it; it will surely come; it will not delay" (Hab. 2:3).

We walk in fields of gold.  Unseen forces work among us.  Inch by inch He claims the earth, His government ever increasing.  The White Witch of winter may do her work seemingly unhindered, and yet defeat is certain, her end in sight.  He is on the move.

Taking a walk today over a wood, with a backdrop of mountains, I looked up more than once and paused.  I thought of Amy Carmichael looking at the mountains west of the village of Dohnavur, and me looking at these mountains, and time dropped away, became irrelevant.  She might as well have been standing next to me, saying "These mountains were a wonderful help.  They were so unchangeably strong and tranquil and serene that just to look at them strengthened us.  Often, caught and tangled in the throng of things, we used to stop and let their calmness enter into us, and we prayed that we might serve with 'a quiet mind.'"  Hearing her say that, knowing Zamperini's story, hearing my pastor across time speak of the promise of His government, that He is on the move, I kept walking.  I keep walking.  He has come.  He is coming.

The Visions (A Very Short Story)

The first time it happened Jennie Bob and me was in the WalMart Supercenter Produce Department. I was thumping melons for ripeness, eyeing red delicious apples, and thinking how it'd come to this, a man doing grocery shopping with his wife, though mind you I love my wife but was worried I'd lost my man-card by condescending to this.  And that's when I heard Jennie  Bob say J.B. I'm going down, I'm going down.

She was white as a sheet and by the time I got turned her legs give out and so I set her right down there in the aisle, no mean task seeing how's I weigh about 145 and look like a gnawed on stick of beef jerky and Jennie Bob's pushing 230 and more like a pear.  More to love, I tell her.  Anyway, at this point she's puffing like a freight train, got her eyes closed, leaning back against the produce counter, saying oh Lord, oh Lord, oh Lord.  And then she gets real quiet.  I ask her if she's alright, take my hands and put them on her shoulders and shake her gently.  

That's when it happens.  Her eyes pop open and she's looking kinda crazy staring up at the produce and she says "Their names shall be Tofu and Hummus."  Say what, Jennie Bob? "Their names shall be Tofu and Hummus."  At this point I'm thinking something's done sprung loose in her brain, given the crazy talk, but she assures me that the Lord has spoken to her in a vision and that she will have two babies and that she's supposed to name them Tofu and Hummus.  So why couldn't she have had the vision in a hardware store so we coulda got kids with names like Oil or Tool or Jack?  But I guess you don't plan these things.

Anyway, the manager came over, fussin' all over her and making a big deal about it, offering to pay for our groceries (which I took him up on) and helping us out to the truck.  Jennie Bob's looking just like her old self by this point.  I get the groceries in the car, wishing I had made it farther in the store with a bigger haul before getting the offer of payment, and then I'm getting in my door and she's still over there standing by her door.  I ask her ain't she coming.  And she said well in my delicate condition I need help with the door J.B.  See, that what I'm talkin' about.

Well, the rest of that week I was her honey do.  Honey, can you fetch me a glass of ice tea.  Honey can you clean those dishes, wash the laundry, get a pillow to prop me up on.  By the end of the week I was getting tired of it and ready to have my own vision that might have something to do with a huntin' trip or anything else that might get me out of the double-wide.  All week Jennie Bob had been setting around on her big you know what watching Oprah and As the World Turns and Wheel of Fortune, a pure waste of a nice big-screen TV like we had.  I was getting sick and tired of it, sick and tired.  I'd just get done with the dishes, the laundry, the cleaning and set down on in my Big Boy recliner and kick back and I hear her say J.B how about bringing me my comforter I'm cold and you know women my condition can't afford to take a chill.  I'm sick of it, I tell you.

So I ease out of the recliner and head to the linen closet and I'm gettin' the comforter and I hear her commence to yelling Yes Jesus Yes Jesus and then there's a thud and I turn around and see her laid out on the floor, all twisted up writhing like a snake.  I run back over there, say are you ok, Jennie Bob, and she stops all of a sudden and says do I look OK?  That's what I'm talkin' about.  That's what I'm talkin' about.

She said she had another vision. Said she was all decked out in a fur coat with jewelry eatin' in a fine restaurant with white tableclothes and waiters thick as flies.  And she said JB I think it was Malone's Steakhouse and maybe you'd better get on the phone and get us a reservation and take me shoppin' cause I need to buy some things so as to be ready for it, that it must be our destiny, that we are designed for higher things.

And I said honey, you can't do that in your delicate condition.  I got her back up on the sofa, tucked in the comforter, made all over her like I was her mama or something.

Well, that evening I got my own vision.  I'm more private about such matters, but I can say it had to do with a gun, a shiny new Ford 150 Truck, and a huntin' dog named Bear.  I saw it clear as if it were right in front of me.  My destiny.

And that's what I'm talking about.

[Author's Note: Ever wonder why you write some things? So do I.]




Every Person, a Universe

"We must not see any person as an abstraction.  Instead, we must see in every person a universe with its own secrets, with its own treasures, with its own sources of anguish, and with some measure of triumph.  

(Elie Wiesel, from The Nazi Doctors and the Nuremberg Code)

In law school, we Christians spent a lot of time considering how and under what circumstances we could represent criminals.  Yet, in the end, for all the anguish it may cause, it comes down to one fundamental belieft: all people are made in the image of God.  Thus, there is a dignity accorded to all human beings, even the badly soiled and defaced image of God in the child molester and serial murderer. And yet it is not at the extremes that I forget this fact but, like all important principles, it is lost in the quotidian, in the everyday slog of life.

Perhaps we tend toward abstraction and generalization because we don't want to be bothered with the complexity and mystery of the person in front of us.  The cognitive dissonance caused by a "bad" person who commits an act of genuine kindness offends our categories, and yet it happens all the time.  Even I am more or less than who I think I am, as even I cannot fully fathom the mystery of what it is to be me.  And yet this too is a way we image God in his inscrutability and incomprehensibility.  Despite what is revealed about God and what we know of ourselves, in the end of me and Him lie mystery.  After all, He put a universe in me and you.

All of this should give me some humility as I look at other people.  Despite all I think I know, there is more I do not know.  My predictive ability is limited.  Despite their effervescent appearance, I know not what anguish they live with; their melancholy, what joys they know.  I am finite.  And yet there is One who knows me fully, the One who said to Jeremiah "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart. . . " (Jer. 1:5 NIV).  We are amazed at the universe without, the endless and expanding galaxies, and yet the universe within is just as unfathomable, just as immense.

So, when you think you know someone, think again.  Be mindful that these are not abstractions but beautiful and terrible embodiments of mysteries.  C.S. Lewis said it best:  "You have never talked to a mere mortal.  Nations, cultures, arts, civilization—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendors."

And then, think again:  The God who made the universe without and the universe within came from outside those universes and poured His immortal self into a body in these universes.  That is the truest and most incredible fairy-tale of all.  And we're only on the first page of a very long and good story.

A year ago in Uganda I went with a friend, Faith Kunihura, to visit an even poorer community near the one in which we worked.  Behind the thatch hut where one family lived, I saw a lean-to with a man lying on a mat, obviously sick.  Upon inquiry we found out that the man was a stranger to this family, and yet they were doing what they could to care for him.  We touched him and prayed for him.  Walking away, Faith said to me: "I'm glad you showed me that man.  Looking at him, I saw the image of God lying there."

Universe. Immortal horror.  Everlasting splendor.  But not an abstraction.

Christmas Listening: The New, the Old, and the Strange

Kids-in-the-boat-hires-300x267 Though I have a lot of Christmas albums, there are very few that I can regularly listen to this time of the year in their entirety.  Generally, I make playlists of the songs I enjoy.  Yet there are a few that sustain my interest because they are either well-crafted collections of new Christmas songs or innovative or inspired renditions of classics.  In the end, a substantial part of what goes into listening is subjective, but this season I can only tell you that these ten albums are ones that are worth my sustained listening.  The first three are new this year; the last seven are (at least in our home), classics.  I hope you enjoy sampling these (as every title is linked to a page where you can listen):

The New

1.  Songs for the Advent Conspiracy - Mike Crawford and His Secret Siblings.  For Christmas music, this is definitely non-mainstream.  A benefit CD supplying funds to build wells for the poor in Western Kenya, the CD is a ministry of Jacob's Well Church in Kansas City Missouri. A collection of originals and classic Christmas songs, the music has a melodic feel, Americana at times and other times like some sort of space-rock.  I like both it and the cause --- every bit. (I also appreciate the four-panel gatefold CD with original art.  Nice touch in a digital age.)  It's about as strange as the CD I bought about 15 years ago by The Revolutionary Army of the Infant Jesus, but that's another story!

2.  Christmas - Andy Gullahorn and Jill Phillips.  One of my favorite new CDs, this husband-wife duo have put together a warm, textured recording of originals and classics, including some of my favorites (like "Some Children See Him").  I think this is one I can listen to all year.  It's folk-pop at it's best, with nary a clunker.  (But you can skip Track 13, which I believe is their young daughter singing.  Cute, but one listen is enough!)

3.  Songs for Christmas - Phil Wickham.  This guy is CCM through and through, and yet I like the CD. He has a voice reminiscent of DC Talk's Kevin Max.  Nice.  And the renditions of classics are truly beautiful and inspired.  Favorite track: "Prelude/The First Noel."

The Classics

4.  December in Vermont - Diane Zeigler.  An absolutely gorgeous recording by a singer-songwriter with a killer voice.  It's mellow, devotional tone is perfect for a late night in the dark around the Christmas tree.  

5.  Winterfall - Lee Spears and Donna Michael.  This instrumental CD of hammered dulcimer and piano has stayed in my CD player every year since its release in 1987.  It provides a gorgeous sonic backdrop for my workday.  Spears is a North Carolina hammered dulcimer maker.  I generally can't listen long to a dulcimer by itself, but paired with the piano, the total sound is mellow, the percussive effect pleasantly muted.

6.  December - The Moody Blues.  An awesome performing symphonic rock band from the Seventies, the Blues made this great seasonal recording in 2003.  Justin Hayward has one of my favorite male voices, and uses it to great effect here in both classics and originals.

7.  The Animals Christmas - Art Garfunkel and Amy Grant.  Written by the great songwriter Jimmy Webb, this retelling of the Christmas legend pairs CCM crossover artist Grant with one-half of Simon and Garfunkel.  Two great voices.  Inspired writing and arranging.  This one will never go out of print.

8.  Home for Christmas - Amy Grant.  Four Christmas albums!  That's how many Amy Grant has made, and that's not even counting The Animals' Christmas.  And yet this is the most consistent of the bunch: a classic, well-done collection of carols.  For when you just want to hear traditional carols.

9.  Come Rejoice - Judy Collins.  Whatever you think of Judy Collins, she has an amazing voice and is a fine entertainer (I've seen her twice).  Unlike her best of collection, where the sixty-something Collins appeared in the buff (my wife and I had to modify that cover art for the sake of our children and us), she appears fully clothed here.  I love her renditions of "Away in a Manger," "Cherry Tree Carol" (listen to the words of this odd but poignant song), and the original "Song for Sarajevo" (which, though not about Christmas, now forever reminds me of Christmas).

10. Songs for Christmas - Sufjan Stevens.  I don't what this is doing here at the bottom, because I love this quirky 5-CD box set.  Stevens manages to wed a campfire sing-a-long to a choir and a lot of plunky banjo and simple guitar and who knows what other odd sounds for a recording that is down right worshipful.  Listen to "Holy, Holy, Holy," and see if you don't worship.  Buy the box.  Digital downloads just don't do this lovingly prepared box set justice.

And there you have it.  Except for a playlist of those few songs culled from other Christmas CDs, this is what I'll listen to this Christmas.  Enjoy!  And please make a few suggestions of your own.