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March 2011

Closer to the Edge, Closer to Home

Yes-band-logo During one rousing moment, the middle-aged woman next to me is shaking her head back and forth in ecstasy, undoubtedly reliving some bygone concert.  Behind me a man hoops and claps nonstop through every song, heedless of the actual beat.  On the other side a grizzled over-prime hippie keeps up a running commentary whether we want it or not; already inebriated, he continues to imbibe and opine. "You like Yes?" he says." I think "Yes, yes, after all, why would I be here if I didn't?"

This is Yes 2011.  An aging, perennially thin Steve Howe continues to play some amazing chops on the guitar.  A solid (that is, heavy) Chris Squire reminds us that a bass can play lead just as well as a lead guitar, only lower, a fact that resonates in my chest from the slightly too-loud music.  A balding (well, they are all balding) Alan White is amazing, still banging out a drum solo and hitting 8th notes at his age.  And while these prog-rock stalwarts keep on, there are signs of change: lead singer Jon Anderson is gone, replaced by a youthful Canadian singer, Benoit David, and keyboardist Rick Wakeman is replaced by look-a-like son Oliver Wakeman.  It's the same music, as both newcomers do a respectable job, but a Yes lineup without Anderson and Wakeman is a bit unsettling (not that the band hasn't been somewhat of a revolving door through the years).

This is Yes 2011.  I last saw Yes in 2004 on their 35th Anniversary Tour, in the Greensboro Coliseum with my then 12-year old son, his first rock concert.  I'm thankful I did, as the more historic lineup with Anderson and the elder Wakeman were on that tour.  Little did we know it might be their last one.  That evening held some historic significance for me, as I had first heard the band in that same arena in 1972, when they had a great deal more hair, the music was frightfully loud, billowing clouds of marijuana smoke rose from an arena floor, bong pipes were passed down the aisles, and police were stationed around the perimeter of the hall.  I was in the pit of this love fest of rock and roll moment, standing throughout on a folding chair on the fourth row from the front --- with my first date.  I was 14.  She was 13.  I didn't know what to say to her, but it didn't matter; the music was so incredibly loud we could not hear each other, even when we yelled.  Then, I was thankful for the volume.  It was one the best yet loudest and most illegal concert experiences I have ever had (though I assure all my smoke was second-hand). 

I suspect the band then was little different than me: the horizon of our life was the next day or, stretching our minds a bit, maybe the next week, and life seemed to stretch endlessly in front of us.  I had no idea the turns it would take.  I would not have been able to conceive of looking back on that moment 39 years later.

Last night I wasn't really reliving that bygone moment, though recalling it was inevitable, listening to time pass through the songs of youth.  Looking at these aging rocks stars, seeing equally aging fans caught up in the moment, I had to stop and remind myself that life is not, in the end, a "roundabout," a futile and nostalgic chasing after the youth of the past or narcotic numbing of the present as we all draw "close to the edge." In the timeless melodies and instrumental beauty of Yes, there is actually a deeper reminder that a Creator, the very "rhythm of life, is drawing me Home.  That's the "wondrous story."

But enough song titles.  I made it through that first date.  We broke up, though.  Maybe it was the perfume that smelled like marijuana (remember that?) or the distance (she lived cross town and I did not drive).  I don't know.  But perhaps in that Land ahead, I'll see her and share a redeemed memory of that amazing concert.  Maybe then we'll finally know what to say to each other. . . right after I introduce her to my wife.

The Woman Behind HeLa: A Review of "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks," by Rebecca Skloot

Lscks Though she may be a science writer, author Rebecca Skloot has a gift for taking esoteric topics over which non-scientists' eyes may glaze and writing about them in a winsome, broadly accessible, and humanizing way.  Her first full-length book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, is no exception. Part science, history, biography, and race relations study, Skloots' meticulously researched topic --- the medical and human legacy of a cancerous cell line taken from a poor African-American woman without her knowledge or consent --- is put in the context of its time, illuminating the issues and lives swirling around this seemingly inconsequential event that had enormous positive ramifications for medicine, and yet one which caused such difficulties for the family of Henrietta Lacks.

For those who don't know (which likely includes most of us), the cancerous tissue taken from Henrietta Lacks in 1951 by doctors at Johns Hopkins led to the famous and ubiquitous HeLa cell line.  From that cell line  --- which, unlike most normal cells, continues to thrive and divide and multiply even to this day (hence, its "immortality") --- mind-blowing medical advances have been made, including cancer treatments, breakthroughs in gene mapping, cloning, and fertility, and yet the world until recently knew next to nothing about the woman who gave us these cells.  Worse yet, her own family --- tobacco sharecroppers and then Baltimore factory workers --- had little idea of what their mother gave the world.  To the extent they did, their knowledge was incomplete, mired in confusion, and eclipsed by their own difficulties.  And when multi-billion dollar businesses began to profit off the HeLa cell line, they wondered why they had so little and struggled so much as well as why their mother, sister, and grandmother was so unknown to the world when so much money was being made off her.

According to Skloot, she became intrigued by Henrietta Lacks when she heard her name in a college-level biology class she took when she was 16.  She wanted the back-story, one no one seemed able to provide.  After college she picked up the story in a decade-long study that reads almost like an anthropological participant-observer study.  Skloot herself becomes a character in the story, writing about how she researched the book, how she met the Lacks family, and all her many interactions with them, both good and bad.  It truly is an anthropological study, in that the background and culture from which Skloot came --- educated, white, and nonreligious --- is far removed from that of the Lacks --- poor, undereducated, and religious.  Part of the beauty of the book is watching the two peoples interact and begin to trust and, in a real sense, grow to love each other.

For writers, other pleasures abound.  First, there is simply the evident work ethic embraced by the author.  The time, personal involvement, and attention to detail over the better part of a decade evidence her commitment.  Writing is not easy, but it can be rewarding.  We can better savor the meal when we appreciate the ingredients and labor that went into it.  Another pleasure is hearing the Lacks family members speak in their own words, in their dialect, something they requested and a request the author adhered to, all to the good as it lends the book credibility in its honesty and human warmth.  Science is one thing.  These are real people.  As was Henrietta Lacks.  And while Skloot provides plenty of detail about her sources, enough to serve as a primer on how to go about researching such a book, it's tucked away in an endnote, not cluttering up a flowing, almost novel-like tale.

Christians may find particular delight in watching the author, a self-described nonreligious person who never prayed, interact with a sin-wracked and struggling and yet often deeply religious family.  The strangeness of religious experience is never more evident than in this passage, when one of Henrietta's sons, Gary, ministers to his overwrought and hysterical sister, Deborah, while Skloot is watching the loud preaching, praying, singing, and weeping:

I'd been watching all this from a recliner a few feet away, dumbfounded, terrified to move or make noise, frantically scribbling notes.  In any other circumstance I might have thought the whole thing crazy.  But what was happening between Gary and Deborah at that moment was the furthest thing from crazy I'd seen all day.  As I watched, all I could think was, Oh my god. . . I did this to her.

And then Gary came for Rebecca Skloot.

This story moves you, educates you, and humanizes you, like all great stories should.  And while the policy issues surrounding use of tissues, both the nature of consent and who should profit, are important, at the heart of this book is the story of its people.  For that reason alone, you should read it.

The Trouble With Trouble

Yesterday, walking through my neighborhood, I felt as if I carried a heavy sack of trouble with me --- the unrest in the Middle East, a earthquake-tsunami-irradiated Japan, a hospitalized friend --- trouble that dogged my every step.  "Well, we're living in the last days, you know," says a Christian acquaintance, and I want to say (but do not say, since he may have meant to reassure me) that telling me that is like telling me "Well, we're  living, you know," since my view is that we've been in the last days since Christ came the first time.  Trouble has been here, is here, and will be here until Christ returns.  And yet, walking that morning, dwelling on the headlines, it's easy to lose perspective.  When I consider the tragic loss of life in Japan, the stoic and fatalistic mindset I read in the faces I see, the megalomania of the Libyan dictator, or the frailness of my friend, emotion can put me in a well of darkness out of which it is difficult to see.  And in that well, shadows and bogeymen abound.  That's the trouble with trouble: it always get worse down there in the well.

At such times, there are  two ways I lose perspective. First, at that moment I lose hope.  I forget that great, unexpected good so often comes from calamity.  The Bible is full of such stories.  Take Joseph, thrown into a well and sold into slavery, rising to a position as Pharaoh's Chief of Staff.  God always has a way of taking the unlikely and elevating them, of rescuing us form a world gone wrong.  Then there is the great promise of providence, that "God works all things for the good of those who love Him, who are called according to His purpose."  You can't read the Bible without stumbling all over such stories, such promises.  By God's grace, by remembering, I need to reclaim that high ground.

The other way of losing perspective is a chronological fixation that leads me to regard my time oe circumstances as somehow more troublesome or difficult than other times, that our time is somehow more unique than all other times.  No one is picking the day and hour of his coming, you know, but (wink, wink) just look at what going on in the Middle East and how about that earthquake and, well, we're living in the last days you know.  Well, of course we are.  At such times, I need the Wall Street Journal.  You heard me: the Wall Street Journal.

What I appreciate about some of the seasoned stock market and business investors who often write in the Journal is the principled approach to investing that they have which keeps them blessedly free of emotion-driven decisions.  When the market drops, they don't sell off. They look for opportunities.  They revisit and remind themselves of their principles, forged in a less volatile time, and they remember.  What do they remember?  They remember other such swings in the market, other crises, and they have the rich historical perspective to even act contrary to emotion, to buy, for example, when everyone may be selling.  Their perspective demonstrates a reasonable faith in the market, a belief in good companies and their stock which overrides the volatility of the time, and ultimately it demonstrates hope, hope informed by history that time will heal, will restore and even, sometimes, surpass what has been lost.  They are reasonable optimists in a time (all times, really) when most make decisions based on fear. Something intuitively tells them, "Fear not."

And that's the voice I hear today: "Fear not."  To His quaking disciples, Jesus said "Do not let your hearts be troubled," and He says it to us.  He's really asking that we focus on Him, the First Principle, the one who does not change.  When the times are volatile, when the earth moves under our feet, when a tsunami of water or cares overwhelms us, we act on the same truth we've always known.  The truth that was truth in a good time is truth in a troubled time.  We too can walk on water if we keep our eyes on Him.

I wish I could say that when I returned home from the walk the troubled mind I began with was gone.  It wasn't.  And yet I felt like I had been given a glimpse of the landscape behind and ahead, one that gave me hope.


The Limits of Cartography

I have a lust for maps and map-making.  Nothing much equals the delight I have in pulling out the Rand McNally Road Atlas and poring over the lines and names on the pages, planning my every move.  I'm a planner, a dreamer, an imaginer of all that will happen and all I will see along the way.  Sometimes the actual travel is melodramatic; I have already been there in my mind.

And yet I so often find that my imagination has gotten ahead of life.  Things happen unexpectedly.  Someone's sick.  There are delays.  Accommodations need to be changed.  We scramble to rebook, to modify plans, to adapt.  We never really know what is around the next bend in the highway.  Sometimes that's unsettling.  And yet it can be exciting, as a new and unplanned discovery may await us.

The road trip or the family vacation is an apt metaphor for the spiritual journey, for our walkabout with God.  Christ is my guide and Scripture is my road map, and yet I do not know where life will take me, what awaits me around the next turn of events.  In the final essay of Alan Jacobs' collection, entitled Wayfaring, he describes it this way:

The light of Christ. . .  --- the light that is Christ --- . . . illuminates with perfect clarity your next step, but blots out the surrounding territory.  Christ is the Word of God, and the psalmist tells us that the word is a lamp unto our feet and a light unto our path: it shows us where to place one trembling foot, but it does not make us authoritative cartographers of the whole territory.

Jacobs goes on to note the limitations of our Guide's revelation to us, noting that "it's worth remembering that when people ask Jesus the cartographic kind of questions --- 'Will many be saved or only a few?' --- Jesus tells them to mind their own spiritual business."  The question, really, is simple: Where do I take my next step (or, spiritually, what does faithfulness look like now, today, in this place, in this moment?)  Doing so, we have faith that the following step will be illuminated at that moment, that trust in Jesus will be proven warranted.  Sure, He gave us scripture to mark out the boundaries of our travels and a theology that represents our best attempt to see the landscape ahead in some holistic fashion, to understand where we are and to settle in our imagination a good dream of what's ahead.  As a result, there are things we know --- that He is good, that He is trustworthy, that He is present, and that Heaven is sure.  And yet there is much we do not know --- things we don't plan on happening.

In the front of my Rand McNally, there is a disclaimer to the effect that "we cannot be responsible for any errors, changes, omissions, or any loss, injury, or inconvenience sustained by any person or entity as a result of information or advice contained in this book."  Scripture --- that map for the soul --- makes another claim, of course, promising that it's "breathed out by God and profitable. . ." (2 Tim. 4:16).  William Rand and Andrew McNally could make no such claim.

And yet, I'm not giving up maps.  I want to dream well.  I want to know the possibilities, the parameters of the path.  And yet things happen out there, providences aplenty.  I want to be ready for a holy detour, one trembling step at a time, in His light, at my feet, on the way, Home.

A Universe in a Grain of Sand

"To change the world we must first change the way we see it; we must see it from a different perspective.  A cultivated mind can see the universe in a falling leaf, an orchard in a seed, an ocean in a drop of water, eternity in a grain of sand."  

(Joshua Choonmin Kang, in Scripture By Heart)

When my children were young, we would go for strolls and then walks through the neighborhood, parks, and woods, stopping to touch and handle and talk about everything.  A twig or leaf would be a reason to talk about a tree, a rock about the earth, the water in a stream about lakes and rivers and faraway places.  We would move from the particular to the whole, effortlessly it seemed, as natural as any conversation.  We were like amateur ecologists, seeing connections in everything, a web of life.

Back in the house, we'd turn on a spigot and talk about where water came from, the pipes that wound under the city and into the house, and to where the water swirling down the bathtub drain disappeared.  Turning a light switch on and off and on and off we would marvel at the power we had, and a power outage would give us new things to talk about, new connections to explore.  The curiosity of young children made us consider things we took for granted, marvel at the wonder of life right outside our door, the complicated and wondrous workings of a home, a city, and a world.  Nothing was to be taken for granted.  Nothing stood alone.

Perhaps it was all that talking, that wondering about connections and origins, or maybe it is the schooling in ecology or planning that I received in urban design school, or then again maybe it is innate, a God-implanted DNA that drives me (and all of us) to move from particular to universal, from a grain of sand to eternity.  Or maybe it is all of that.  But what I know is that I can't stop thinking about those connections, about how the leaf crunched up in my young son's hand is connected to a twig, a branch, a limb, a trunk, a tree --- to soil, water, and sun, to a Creator who breathes life into and upholds and sustains all things by the power of His word, by His very life.

 What Joshua Kang is saying in Scripture By Heart is that meditating on scripture enlarges our perceptivity of reality.  We begin to see connections within scripture, great themes of creation, fall, redemption, and restoration, and then looking out at the world we see how it resonates with those very same themes.  Peering into the landscape of Creation we reflect back on God's words and appreciate anew what once we may have taken for granted.  We weep over tragic loss of life to tsunami and we better appreciate that shortest of scripture verses, "Jesus wept."  We hold a leaf and marvel at the power of the sun in photosynthesis and better appreciate the phrase "In Him was life, and that life was the light of man."  We begin to see things whole, looking out at a world through the prism of His breath, His word.

 I am not the first reader to remark on the amazing propinquities that often occur when reading more than one thing at a time.  At the same time that I was working through Kang's mediations on memorizing scripture, I was nearing completion of Roy Peter Clark's "meditations" on grammar, The Glamour of Grammaran infectious (and instructive) guide to language by a man obviously in love with words, at play in in a life of language.  Near the end of the book Clark hints at a divine mystery behind language:

Language is a gift, a treasure of evolution but also a spark of the divine.  The ancient Hebrew word dabar describes the power of a personal God to speak directly to men and women.  In the Gospel of Saint John, Jesus is Logos, the Greek form of Word.  The word spirit comes from the word meaning "to breathe," and breath gives us life and something more, the ability to turn air into language.  

Clark goes on to contrast the babble of confusion in language after Babel to the clarity of language at Pentecost, concluding that "[i]t is the power of the written and spoken word within us, a power so great it can feel --- when used for a good purpose --- like magic."  It reminds me the too rare feeling I have when I write or say something that seems too good to originate with me, too perceptive, and I sense a grace at work, a Babel-wrecking Spirit that fills me with language, speaking and writing through me.  It's quite unbidden.  It's grace.

Like a smooth pebble in my young son's hand, a crumpled leaf clasped by my little girl, I am holding onto a few scriptures, rolling them over and over in my mind.  And sometimes I see connections, perceive that behind the rooms of the words are larger rooms of meaning, deeper connections to other words, grander themes of creation, fall, redemption, and restoration. I pull the thread of one verse and find it reaches back into a tapestry of words, of life itself, back to a God who holds all things in His hand, pull until taut I realize Who has hold of the other end and is pulling me in.  Just as I can't imagine not pausing with my young son to watch the water in a stream flow, to wonder from where it comes and to where it rushes, I can't brush by scripture and not ponder its meaning, its connection to the whole, to the Writer who set it down.  At least I better not.

A universe in a grain of sand?  You bet.  It's all there, full of magic and mystery.  You just have to stop, take hold of it, and listen.



Why You Should Read "Major Pettigrew's Last Stand" (Or Any Fiction, For That Matter)

A77693316bout halfway through Helen Simonson's first novel, Major Pettigrew's Last Stand, I felt the tug of a voice I thought I had silenced long ago.  "Why are you wasting your time on a story," it said, and "Fiction is a waste of precious time" --- old questions that continue to taunt.  After all, I should be learning something, right?  I should be reading my Bible, right?  Right. . . and wrong.

I pulled Leland Ryken's The Liberated Imagination off the bookshelf, a dogeared book worth every cent I spent on it and one that excels at answering these questions.  There it is: "The function of the arts is to heighten our awareness and perception of life by making us vicariously live it."  Ryken goes on to say that art partly functions as revelation, giving us a heightened "awareness of ourselves, of people, of the world, of God."  It gives shape to our experiences.  It posits universals of human experience in particulars of time and place that may not be familiar to us.  Yes, I need to read my Bible but even more I need to read life through the lens of my Bible, its light refracted through the panes of stories told by others, stories in which I find myself and sometimes more powerfully by His hiddenness, God.

That's what happens in a good, true, and beautiful story like Major Pettigrew's Last Stand.  A contemporary novel set in a small village in the south of England, it masterfully portrays the sights, sounds, and manners of an English village.  The first unusual thing is that this is a novel that tells of a growing friendship and love between two elderly people. Not only that, they are from different social groups.  Major Pettigrew is a retired military officer, widowed, a man with a sense of duty and obligation, and yet one wounded and left lonely by the deaths of his only brother and his wife, as well as by a son who seems to care only for money and status.  Jasmina Ali is a widowed Pakistani shopkeeper, an outsider in a community that tolerates her and yet is increasingly uncomfortable with the relationship that threatens to test the social conventions of the community.

It's a slow build, as you might expect, and yet a rewarding one.  In the process, we see the Major confront prejudice, his own and that of the community, and we watch him change, dropping a petty grudge he held against his father, learning to forgive his son, and reaching out to those in need.  In what he learns, we learn too.  We see ourselves.  And that's what a good story can do.

The only unrealistic part of the story is the apparent ease with which Mrs. Ali and Major Pettigrew dispense with their significantly different religious backgrounds.  They do not even have one significant discussion of the very different religious traditions they apparently hold to --- I say apparently because the depths of their convictions are unclear.  There is mention of God and serious conversation about meaning that would seem to lead to discussion of the competing claims of Christianity and Islam.  And yet it doesn't.  This could reflect a naivety on the part of the author, a hope or belief that there's really not too much difference between the two religions at the end of the day.  Or it could be that religion just isn't very important to the author and so she can't posit a story where it's important to the characters (unless you are an extreme believer, like Mrs. Ali's son.)  For me, this the one unrealistic chord in an otherwise very believable story.

In the end, though, this doesn't mar a story that shows that no matter what deep-rooted prejudices you may have, no matter how you think your life is laid out for you, and no matter how set in your ways you may be, there is always hope.  There can always be a "last stand."  So when that voice begins to taunt again and argue the frivolity of reading fiction, I have an answer: It's helping me better understand myself, God, and others.  It's building a better me.  That's enough for me.

To Abide

41398498 Where I sit there is an arc of sunlight that stretches across my left side ending in a trapezoid of warmth on the cherry wood of my desk.  Like my somnolent cat who lounges across another patch of light on the carpet, I could abide here for a long time.  Gravity already draws my eyelids shut.  Warmth, rest, time --- they all pull me in, at least until I remember why I'm here.

There are some scripture phrases you hear all your life if you are, as I have been, blessed to have heard the Bible read all you life, and yet how quickly they become cliche or invisible if unused.  Like the box of miscellany at the corner of my office, the one I mean to sort through and dispose of, the one I now walk by countless times each day and do not notice, so I often do not notice the oddity or the profundity of a word of scripture, the richness of its meaning or application.  Like an onion, scripture is multi-layered: peel back one layer of meaning and you find another, even another question.  Walk around it, look at it from different angles, and you may begin to wonder whether you had it wrong all along.  You have a sense of its "roundness," its multi-dimensionality.  Like the box in my office, to get to the bottom of it you need to spend time with it, to abide with it.

This abiding is what Joshua Choonmin Kang is encouraging in the recently published Scripture By Heart: Devotional Practices for Memorizing God's Word.  I have to confess that the subtitle's word, "memorizing," instigated a knee-jerk reaction in me, a rebellion against anything that smacks of rote and ritual.  Images of elementary-age Sunday School where the matron of the class asked us to recite scripture by memory (aloud, here, now, in front of everyone?) flashed in my mind.  And yet there was also the positive memory of a small group Navigators 2:7 series from my college days that continues to bear fruit in scriptures I can still call to mind.  There must be something to it.  Kang's book is helping.

To "abide in Christ" is to live in, dwell in, and exist in Christ, to, in essence, move in with Him.  When my wife and I moved in this house and to this small patch of suburbia 25 years ago, it was new and unknown.  We grew into it.  We learned its dimensions, its creaks, its smells, and we made it our own.  It is our abode.  We dwell here.  We know this place.  And yet, I'm often aware of how we take it for granted.  Like right now, I appreciate anew its orientation, one that permits sunlight to splash across my desk at just the right angle.

Knowing scripture is something like knowing what you have in Christ, the furniture of our abode, our orientation, our space and light, the roominess of our habitation.  The metaphors may be mixed and imperfect, but the point is that knowing the words of God in scripture are part of what it is to know Him.  Waking in the night, in darkness, I see the shapes of the furniture around me and know I am home.  Waking in the darkness of the soul, I can see and hear the words of scripture spoken, giving comfort, telling me that all is well.

So I'm trying not to think of it so much as memorizing scripture but as better knowing and appreciating where I live --- in Christ. Like a blind person, I want to be able to navigate in the dark, to know where I live so well that I can live and move in it from memory.

One verse I remember clinging to during a trying first year of college was Phillipians 4:13, "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me."  I have no difficulty summoning that verse to mind.  Like a well worn recliner, I reclined on its promise a lot that year, sometimes even doubting if it would hold me.  Now I see the verse less as one of hoped for accomplishment as one of perseverance, not "I will succeed" but "I will persevere."  Having lived longer, I realize that the to be true the verse has to be true not only for me but for everyone who believes --- a man trapped far below the ground in Chile, a Ugandan orphan, or an aged parent who can no longer always summon my name.  It has to be true for them as well.

So, Scripture By Heart is a welcome encouragement to abide in Christ, to live well among the furniture of His words, so that one day, when we see Him face to face, we'll realize He has dwelt here all along.  We know Him by knowing His words.