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February 2011

Another Time, Another Place: A Review of Bo Caldwell's "City of Tranquil Light"

City-of-tranquil-light So often when we think of the lives of missionaries, we either rhapsodize over the exotic places they serve and the selfless lives they lead or we critique the patronizing or paternalistic attitudes exhibited by some of their worst examples.  It just shows how little we understand about the reality of their lives. In her new book, City of Tranquil Light, Bo Caldwell remedies our stereotypes.

This is a quiet, reflective, extended meditation on the lives of a man and woman who devote their entire lives to serving a village in North China in the early pre-WWII decades of the 20th century. Based on the lives of her maternal grandparents, Caldwell crafts a work of historical fiction that is rich with poetic descriptions of the Chinese landscape and people, warm with love of place and people, and uplifting and yet non-sentimental in the telling.  Alternating between first-person narration by Will Kiehn and letters by wife Katherine, the story develops thoughtfully and slowly.  We trace the challenges and joys of their love for one another and the blessings of ministry as well as the hardships of drought, famine, disease, and loss --- all against the backdrop of a nation changing, a nation on the brink of civil war.  Will and Katherine loved a place and a people, and the insight given through this story helped me better understand how a life of such privations can be preferred over one of relative luxury.

It is an honest story.  Will and Katherine have to deal with a deep personal loss, one that left them estranged for a time and filled with doubt of and anger towards God.  And yet the overcoming of these difficulties is not a facile one but one gradual, even partial, the loss never understood, the wound never completely healing.  Somehow, that is encouraging.  As Will says near the end of the story and of his life, "To search for a reason. . . seems futile.  I have come to accept that at present I have only a partial view of reality; there are answers I will not be given until I leave this life.  I know that my God is the Lord of wheat fields and oak trees, of mountains and valleys, and that His answers, like His works, often require time."

It is also a deeply encouraging story.  It oozes with hope that imperfect human beings who seek after God and falter, doubt, and even disobey at times can be used for great things in the lives of the few or many.  It even demonstrates the purpose God has for the aged, as Will, knowing that he can no longer serve in China and will live out his days in a senior citizens' facility, reflects on how "[m]y days and nights are uncomplicated now.  I rise early and follow a schedule of prayer, for I believe that is how I am best able to serve at this time in my life."  What great works have come of the prayers of the aged, those now consigned to the fringe of society?  And just when I thought that the great "message" of the book was complete, the author deals so tenderly with the loss of a spouse that Will has served with all his life, the grieving that follows, and the life rejoined.  This too is encouraging.

In the end, however, it is not enough to tell an honest and encouraging story.  It must be told well.  Caldwell manages that with aplomb.  Her relatively spare prose gives the narrative a spaciousness like that of a poem, allowing plenty of room for the reader's mind to imagine and reflect, slowing the rush to climax and allowing us to "live" the book.  In other words, it's not a page-turner but a page-holder: you want to pause and dwell on a phrase or an image as you read, holding it just a while longer before moving on.  It is also told well because of the extensive research Calwell put into it, something she describes as slow but thorough.  She is able to merge much of what she read about the lives of missionaries in Will and Katherine and yet bring it into sharp focus by eliminating the multitude of tangents and distractions that crop up in real life.  It is a work of subtle beauty.

I highly recommend this book.  It will inspire and encourage and maybe provoke some to a life of service among another people in another land, to be a real missionary.  And yet it will make us all better human beings.  Isn't that one of the reasons we read fiction?

Every Breath I Take, Every Move I Make

The Christian life is not a quiet escape to a garden where we can walk and talk with our Lord; not a fantasy trip to a heavenly city where we can compare our blue ribbons and gold medals with others who have made it to the winner's circle.  The Christian life is going to God.  In going to God Christians travel the same ground that everyone else walks on, breathe the same air, drink the same water, shop in the same stores, read the same newspapers, are citizens under the same government, pay the same prices for groceries and gasoline, fear the same dangers, are subject to the same pressures, get the same distresses, are buried in the same ground.

The difference is that each step we walk, each breath we take, we know we are preserved by God, we know we are accompanied by God, we know we are ruled by God; and therefore no matter what doubts we endure or what accidents we experience, the Lord will preserve us from evil, he will keep our life.

(Pastor and Author Eugene Peterson, in a commentary on Psalm 121)

To demonstrate the reality of God's presence, Francis Schaeffer used to ask gathered students to place the palm of their hand to their cheek, as close as possible without touching, so close that you could feel the warmth emanating from it but, again, without touching.  And then he would say something like "there is God with you, infinite and yet personal."  I've taken to using this tactile reminder of God's presence of late, particularly when concerns, specific and ephemeral, press in on me.  Just this morning, waking in the dark, as I felt a heaviness resting on me just as I awoke, so I freed an arm from the warmth of the covers and brought it to my face, thanking God for His nearness, that not only is He there and not silent but He is ever-present, ever-powerful, and ever-knowing.  Really, it is He who presses in, who hems me in on all sides.

I cannot say that I always feel that nearness of God's presence, but I am thankful for the times that He does something to remind me of just how close He is, of how my life is superintended by Him, how every choice, whether bad or good, which I have made have been in the end mysteriously caught up in what He is doing.  As a young child of maybe five, riding with my mother to see my grandmother, I saw an African-American woman standing in the door of a very modest house, and I believe God opened my eyes then to the realization that human beings were different and yet the same, and I began to see the world with a larger sense of its humanity.  In elementary school, lying in bed at night, certain I would never go to sleep, I watched the lights cast by passing cars as they moved across the walls, and God made me wonder about the people in the cars and where they were going and where they lived.  Later, while in junior high, awakening suddenly in the night, I was convinced that God said something audible to me, said my name.  That's all, just my name.

And those moments are just for starters.  I seem forever to be looking back for these reminders so as to be more deeply rooted in the present and more assured of the future of a God who is present, who, as He promised, will never leave us.

Rummaging through some books rescued in the cleaning out of my mother's home, I found one my father had given her on their anniversary in 1961.  It's called The Art of Living, an inspirational book full of maxims organized by topic.  The one that caught my eye was "The Art of Traveling."  One such maxim said this:  "Travel hopefully.  'To travel hopefully,' writes Robert Louis Stevenson, "is better than to arrive.'"  It reminded me of how living existentially, or moment by moment, is really a pilgrim's state of being, constantly practicing the presence of Christ, remembering that He is at work keeping us.  He guards, protects, and preserves.  As Eugene Peterson said, we "travel the same ground that everyone else walk on," and yet each step we take and breath we breathe we can know He is present and, in the words of the doxology, "is able to keep [us] from stumbling and to present [us] before the presence of his glory with great joy. . ." (Jude 1:24).

This may not be a quiet garden but Heaven's noisy anteroom.  And yet He keeps me.  He watches over me.  Every breath I take, and every move I make.  With that thought, I sit back in my chair, bring my hand to my face, just so, and know: He is near.


The Problem of Choice

I'm tired of making choices,  having to figure out what to do with my time, what kind of cereal to buy, what to read and not read, what to listen to and not listen to, and even what clothes to put on in the morning. It is just too much effort.  In addition, having all those choices constricts my freedom. Really.

Consider my lunchtime today.  Most lunches I have with either my wife, my son, or one of a handful of friends.  I don't often choose the restaurant.  I let them.  But today was one of those almost bi-weekly occasions when I am free to eat alone.  I enjoy it.  I also make no choice.  I go to the same favorite restaurant and order the same meal.  They know me.  They often know what I want.  I love it.

I took something to read.  Now there's a choice.  I pick The Pedestrian, a book of essays, and dive in.  I'm making myself read everything, from the beginning, resisting the urge to skim or find that one bit of prose that hooks me in the title or first lines.  I play a game with myself, telling myself I have no choice, that I must read all the essays, from the beginning to the end and not skip over any.  I've done the same thing with music, making myself listen to an entire album all the way through without skipping any songs, or putting the IPod on shuffle and requiring myself to listen to whatever comes up.  It's my own petty war against the boosters of choice as an unparalleled social good, a protest against a cultural given. Or maybe I'm just contrarian.

The funny thing is that being anti-choice has some salutary effects, as I thought it might.  First, this artificial constriction makes me better able to appreciate whatever is in front of me.  I give it time. Those essays for example: one a humorous reflection on why farming wasn't what it was cracked up to be, another on implements of torture (which I might rather have skipped, but didn't), another on a hammer passed down through three generations, and another on mowing a field.  (The theme of the issue is "tools.")  I learned quite a bit about farming, about a hammer that had, well, been around a time or two, about how you cut a field of hay in Southern England in the early part of the 20th century.  I could easily have skipped any of those essays, but I didn't and feel richer for it, because you discover things, like this line from E.B. White: "I find it incredibly difficult to combine manual labor with intellectual, so I compromise and just do the manual."  Think about that.  That's funny.  Maybe it's more than funny.  Maybe it's profound.  I haven't figured that out yet.

Reading those essays took some focused attention, and I read them in sequence assuming that the editor of the journal may have some yet (f0r me) as undiscovered purpose in arranging them so.  My point: I am better able to absorb, understand, and appreciate the beauty of the words in front of me by letting them have their way with me, by being a slave to them for a time, by letting their subtleties wash over me.  You might say I "abide" in them.

Another good effect of a constriction of choice is that you are better able to understand how most of the world lives and the gratitude they may have --- often more so they us --- if they have anything at all.  Many of my Ugandan friends wake in the morning and the only choice they have about how to dress is to wear what they had on the day before.  In other words, they have no choice.  They may have Sunday clothes, but they often have only one set of everyday clothes.  They do not complain.  They relish what they have.  That is an attitude, really a blessing, that we who are "blessed" with many choices find difficult to come by, our attention diverted by yet another choice.  And yet we can glimpse it when we artificially constrict our choices, when we reflect deeply on, listen well to, or even savor the taste of what is before us.

Though choices we must make, having multiple choices is not an unqualified good.  In fact, in the midst of all this freedom I somehow feel less free, more enslaved by every whim and passion, and yet more easily bored and restless.  Maybe when Jesus says "abide in me" and do not let your hearts be troubled," he speaks even to the restlessness of choice, the perilousness of listening to whim, passion, and fashion.  He's saying rest.  Rest in me.  Focus on me.  Abide in me.  And then be content with what you have in front of you.  Live with a book or a song or even a food until you know it and fully appreciate it.  See it from my perspective.  Take whatever comes and learn to appreciate it.  That's when you become free.


An Antidote for Cynicism

One byproduct of a legal education, whether pedagogical or experiential, is a pervasive cynicism.  Lawyers are trained to question credibility and motive, to probe deeply behind professed motives, characterizations of events, or individual backgrounds.  We know all too well that what appears on the up and up at first blush is often not the truth or, at least, not the whole truth and nothing but the truth.  However, a healthy skepticism that often helps uncover truth all too often degenerates into cynicism, a disposition to disbelieve the motives or sincerity of anyone.  And then before you know it, that forensic skepticism turned cynicism infects his or her entire view of the world, lapping over into family and other relationships, resulting in a jaded view of all people, a mistrust of all those in authority, and a tendency to view institutions as repositories of people who know the right words to say and yet have less than good intentions at heart.

But I shouldn't be so hard on lawyers.  They are the butt of so many jokes, and yet even that is a part of the tearing down of a respectable profession.  No, lawyers' cynicism is now part of the schooling of popular culture.  Saturday Night Live is funny at times, but at what cost?  Everything is made fun of to the point where nothing is taken seriously.  So too with The Office, where office life is played for a joke.  When I have seen these shows, I often laugh.  Later, however, I am left empty at the cynicism and even nihilism that underlies the laughter.  Life is a joke, they seem to say, and even what they take so seriously is really meaningless.

Christians know that people are rarely what they seem.  Doesn't the Psalmist remind us that "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God?"  Five-pointer Calvinists begin their doctrinal acrostic, TULIP, with "Total Depravity," meaning not that everything we do is as sinful as it could be but that everything we do, however good, is touched by sin.  Sometimes that "T" is like a scarlet letter seared in my head.  I take the garbage down to the curb, saving another family member the trip, and yet I'm hopeful I may get some credit for this that may inure to my benefit.  I sacrifice my time to go on a mission trip with the sincere motive of helping others and sharing the Gospel, and yet I have a nagging sense that I have done this good thing to garner some attention, to show people how selfless I am, to assuage some "white man's burden" of my own.

And yet it's one thing to know the reality that all men are sinners, a knowledge that grants me a sober view of reality, idealistic claims in this world, and even protestations of innocence, and yet another to be a cynic.  To be a cynic is to give up hope on human beings and institutions, to, in the end, believe that nothing will change and nothing will get better and that to believe otherwise is naivety. Christians are neither naive nor idealistic in any worldly sense.  We believe, as did the late Russian novelist and dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, that the "line between good and evil runs through the human heart."  We know the entropic hold of sin on the world, how it mars every good thing, and yet we also know the truth of "thy Kingdom come, thy will be done," that in the end all things will be set right, all motives made pure, and all actions made good.  To believe that day has come or that we unaided can bring it into being is naive.  To believe it will never come is to peer into the darkness of despair. 

It's easy to be a cynic.  The tide of this world is with us in this.  Prolonged exposure to much of television, political commentary, and even some music desensitizes us to its numbing effect.  I need to take to heart these words and guard what I say or fail to say: "Therefore encourage one another, and build one another up. . ." (I Th. 5:11).  Satire has its place, as it unmasks pretension, preferably our own.  But you can't live on it.  It only tears down.  We don't want to sit in the seat of mockers and scoffers (Ps. 1).  Faith, hope, and love build up.  Give voice to that.  Let's pour that into all we do, into all that we say.

My Morning With E.B. White

One thing about Saturday mornings that is enjoyable is the fact that I do not have to get out of bed at any particular time.  It doesn't mean I sleep later, though.  I awoke at 5:45, as usual, my biological clock ringing and the gray cat complaining that there was no water in the sink to drink.  And yet, I lay there thinking of everything and nothing in particular.  Draped one leg out of the bed so the gray cat, who has a foot fetish, could make multiple passes at it, claiming me, I suppose, which is undoubtedly the case.  I lay there longer, conscious but not willing to move, until 7:45, actually, at which point I realized that perhaps by some miracle I had gone back to sleep.  I sat up. I reconsidered and lay back down.  I sat back up, noting the rain on the roof and the grayness seeping in the windows, and I reconsidered yet again, and yet I got up nonetheless, there being some smug satisfaction prized only by the small-minded at rising before the rest of the household, that is if you do not include the gray cats, and I certainly do not include them for this purpose.

Mounting the recumbent bike I busied myself at going nowhere fast.  Listening to a sermon by Tim Keller.  Exploring tangents like what to eat for lunch set off by something Keller said, no doubt.  I seem to associate sermons with food, as they typically precede a time or constitute a time of perceived hunger. Keller finished just short of my finish.  I went downstairs and considered breakfast.  I started the bread toasting first, because there is nothing better than the waft of toasting bread.  I scrambled egg whites and then lay them in a plate, anemic.  Salted them even though salt is bad for you and yet justified it to myself in that my blood pressure was a bit low last time I checked and could use some stimulus, so the salt was actually healthy I reasoned.  Toast, scrambled egg whites. . . oh yes, some yogurt, and grapes, and a huge cinnamon roll.  Actually, I dreamed the last item.  I sat down at the table by the window and prepared to dive in, prayer said, picked up the latest copy of The Pesdestrian, and set to reading E.B. White's essay, "My Day," circa 1941, not a bit concerned about the poor birds outside who had been without bird seed for days now, who undoubtedly were weak and falling from the trees and sky by fatigue brought on my undernourishment.

But I tell you all this just to say that E.B. White can write about his day of ordinary things and it sounds quite better than my morning of ordinary things, and you need to read it.  He essays in a way that is so ordinary and yet which infuses the ordinary with humor (because it is humorous), insight, and humanity.  He reminds me that even my ordinary morning is all of those things and more.  And when I hold it up to the refracted light of his prose, it has a faint light of its own.

But back to White.  Here he is on the eve of WWII writing about an ordinary day as if nothing else important is going on in the world, as if there is nothing serious he needs to be doing, and on numerous moments he makes me smile, inside at times and sometimes slightly outside, at nothing that would be very funny to my kids or my wife if I were to describe it and yet which is funny becuase life is funny when you think about it, when you think about the things that happen and the things that people say and the thoughts you may have.  Take this colloquy between White and the plowman neighbor:

        The plowman mentioned the smoke pall when I was talking with him in the afternoon, and I asked if he knew where the fire was.

        "Canada," he replied.

        "What part of Canada?" I asked.

        "The whole of it," he said.  "They tell me the whole of Canada is ablaze."

        "That's a big fire then," I answered.  "Canada is a large place, larger than the United States even."

        The plowman considered this distasteful pronouncement a moment.  "Well then," he said, "it is a big fire."  But he added cheerfully, "Anyways, it'll have to cross a pile of water 'fore it gits to us."

        I nodded in perfect agreement, for this seemed a spiritual rather than a geographical discussion, and I felt instructed and renewed.

There's more, of course, much more than I can say.  White returns home to the farm "and settled down to work, and worked diligently for about four minutes and then remembered that I was to call for some children, this being the last day of school and a picnic having been arranged."  And that's funny too, and oh so ordinary.  He "worked diligently for about four minutes.'  Life intervenes.

I learned two new words reading White's essay, not that he bandies unknown words about to impress us.  One was "sartorial," meaning "of or pertaining to clothing or style and manner of dress," a word I doubt I'll try out as I do not know anyone who uses it.  But it was, after all, 1941.  The other word was "integument," a covering or coating, White referring to the smell of lilacs that covered the farm while out doing is evening chores.  Probably won't use that one, either.  And yet those maybe useless words are enriching and will probably come back to me at some time, and I'll smile that I know them even if I don't use them.

Insights come to you in the ordinariness of a day, but only with reflection and only with time.  White picks up a neighbor for help and heads to an abandoned farmstead near him to pick up a farm implement with which to roll his field, a place described by him as remote and quiet.  In the midst of his work, he began to dream about what it would be like to start life over again in the old Harrick place, free of all responsibilities, fresh, and alone, and he says this:

        A Man sometimes gets homesick for the loneliness that he has at one time or another         experienced in his life and that is a part of all life in some degree, and sometimes a secluded or         half-mournful yet beautiful place will suddenly revive the sensation of pain and melancholy         and unfulfillment that are associated with that loneliness, and will make him want to seize it         and recapture it; but I know with me it is a passing want and not to be compared with my taste         for domesticity, which is most of the time so strong as to be overpowering. 

And I find myself nodding slightly, because I know what he is speaking of.

The gray cat has taken to joining me on my desk as I write, winding back and forth with the goal of distraction, and so I write her in right here,  make he a part of what I'm saying.  

When I went to the wild bird store to get feed for the poor helpless birds that inhabit my backyard, the lady who chirped a greeting to me said "nasty day, outside, isn't it? and I allowed as to how it was.  One of those sissy dogs that forgot it was a dog, that surrendered its dog-card, lay curled up in a blue basket behind the counter, red sweater on.  I bought the bird seed.  The fat birds who visit my yard, who have perpetrated this racket on all my neighbors, will not die today, anyway.

After E.B. White, I found it all mildly humorous.  The bird-like woman in the bird store.  The pathetic dog,  The largesse of the Yukon Denali whose hindquarters had lapped over into my under-occupied parking space. The gray cat with the foot fetish.  The other gray cat who just knocked my book with White's essay on the floor, who just activated the voice control on my cellphone, as if she were intelligent life.

And the surprising intervention of the profound in all this comedy.  A sense of homesickness for something that, as with White, is not even describable.   A nodding agreement of shared domesticity, of ordinary loveliness.

I like to think of the late E.B. White as the prophet of the ordinary, a truth-teller of the mundane. Reading him enriched my morning.  Reading him brought a little shine to the day.

[I highly recommend White's essays, many of which you will find collected in the Essays of E.B. White.  For an excellent journal of essays, both modern and classic, check out The Pedestrian: Explore the Ordinary.  And of course, you can write your own.]



Wandering Aim-fully

One of my favorite pastimes is wandering in large public libraries.  Other than books or records, I am not fond of shopping and after a time can be a nuisance and drag on my wife (though she is too kind to ever say that).  I need something else to do, and she needs me to find something else to do other than dreamily murmuring my way through clothing stores with her.  Libraries afford great relief, at least the traditional ones, great halls like the New York Public Library or Boston Public Library or even the quiet not so dignified stacks of North Carolina State University's D.H. Hill Library, a place where I have spent many hours running my fingers down musty smelling pages, alone with words and yet strangely warmed, one of a long line of perusers or borrowers, a community across time.

The new libraries seem too noisy and media driven.  I prefer perusing the shelves or losing myself deep in the book stacks.  It requires time and suspending the need to accomplish a task, find a certain book even, or entertain oneself.  One question frames my wandering: what here is good, true, and beautiful?  Such times of wandering aim-fully are the precursor to serendipity, the good soil in which words might take root and give new insight.

I like wandering, though much like play it is a preoccupation given over to children and retirees, an idleness viewed as the province of those with little else to do but wake up and wander about, tolerated but only amusing to those with important work to do.  In a society that values time management, productivity, and intensity even in recreation, pure wandering is viewed as akin to idleness, a lazy indulgence.  

Writer Alan Jacobs doesn't think it is.  In his recent collection of essays, Wayfaring: Essays Pleasant and Unpleasant, he calls such wandering aim-fully "wayfaring," an orientation fundamental to our nature as Christians.  According to Jacobs,

An old phrase holds that to be a Christian is to be homo viator: the human being as wayfarer, as pilgrim.  Wayfarers know in a general way where we are headed: to the City of God, what John Bunyan, that great chronicler of pilgrimage, called the Celestial City --- but we aren't altogether certain of the way.  We can get lost for a time, or lose our focus and nap for too long on a soft patch of grass at the side of the road, or dally a few days at Vanity Fair.  We can even become discouraged --- but we don't, ultimately and finally, give up.  And we don't think we have arrived.

What Jacobs applies to the writing of essays --- those meanderings of the mind --- is equally applicable to life --- part of his point, of course.  Reading essays, like wandering the library, like walking around a town like I have many times with no particular destination in mind, is a meandering pregnant with possibilities and hope.  I still remember the African-American man leaning out of the open window of a brownstone in Milwaukee on one of my walks many years ago now, his face lit up in a smile, just taking in the world.  Or the ravaged inner city of St. Louis, where flowers bloomed amid weeds and rubble --- three-dimensional essays, worlds pleasant and unpleasant and yet not without hope.  As Jacobs says, "Hope comes from knowing that there is a way --- and that we didn't make it.  That is why the road's unexpected turnings need not alarm us; this is why it is possible to enjoy even the unpredictable, whether it comes from without or within."

That observation hints at another virtue to wandering aim-fully: it requires trust in a God who will superintend our wanderings, provided we aim for Him.  Holding lightly to my to-do list, my calendar, and my time requires giving up control --- a control I never really had anyway.  Here's the instructions for such a day, ones I would like to heed more regularly:  Wake up.  Aim for God.  And set out.  Watch what happens.  Keep your eyes open.  Take hold of the unexpected and wrest the good, true, and beautiful from it.

When you wander aim-fully in life as in words, you never know what will happen. But it will make you wonder at a God who is behind every turn in the road, who hems you in at every side, who occupies the interstices of your every lapse in thought --- the Guide for Wayfarers.  May you wander well as you seek Him.

 [After a month off, I am glad to be back to the more regular and aim-ful wandering of this blog.  In the interim, I did redeem the time.  I wandered through various books.  I took walks.  I completed an outline for a book.  I did something.  I also did nothing, you might say, and it was very good. Very good.]