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April 2011

I Went On Vacation Last Week. . .

. . . and Judy, the server at the resort restaurant, remembered us.  That's not too difficult, I suppose, as we have been making this journey to Tucson, Arizona for 30 years, 19 of them with children.  We stay in the same room, do many of the same things, and complain (though rarely) as if we are members of the family, investors in the property.  But we do feel like we "own" a bit of the place.  Once, the chef took us on a two-hour tour of the kitchens, something I would not have requested but found pretty illuminating (enough to know I would not want his job).  Once, I wrote the manager. He wrote back.  We lament any and every change (at least until we adapt).  

Mostly, however, we just look and listen.

In Arizona, you can see for miles.  Here, in the Piedmont of North Carolina, I can't see past my neighbors house.  In Tucson I roll over in bed in the morning, look out the window at an inevitably sunny, blue sky day, and I can see for 50 miles.  That openness is affective.  I want to play outside, hike mountains, eat outside, try something new.  I'm energized.  My older sister, who has never until now joined my family for a vacation, wondered if I was ADD.  Nope.  I told her she was just OLD. (Not really, as I'm not witty enough for that nor is she old enough for that, but I like that comeback.)

Did you ever get invited to someone's home and then, a captive audience, get sucked into watching home movies?  I didn't think so.  You don't know what you've been missing.  I won't do that to you. But I will offer you ten slides from my vacation, ten images that will stick with me.  Pat Patterson, an AM DJ in Raleigh back in the Seventies, used to "show" slides over the radio on his morning show. I'm just following his lead.  So. . .

Slide One: It's evening and we're sitting on the outside courtyard terrace of El Charro, the oldest Mexican restaurant in Tucson, and I have been served a favorite dish, carne seca, beef which earlier that day had been drying in a metal box about 20 feet in the air on a pole above my head. I feel so welcome; it's as if I'm with my extended Mexican family.  At least three waiters appear to be serving us.  I finish and want to start all over. (Click)

Slide Two: Sabino Canyon, in the Catalina Mountains that border Tucson on the north, is like a city playground.  A tram transports you 3.8 miles up in the canyon, over a road and multiple bridges spanning Sabino Creek, all built by the Civilian Conservation Corp and Works Progress Administration during the Great Depression.  When my wife's father was a student at the University of Arizona in the late 1930s, he'd drive his date up here.  Now, we take a tram up and walk out, scrambling over rocks, dipping in and out of icy cold water, and sometimes hiking the old phone line trail up on the ridge for a different perspective.  Not today.  That's me on the rock sunning.  Chief lizard. (Click)

Slide Three: In a place like this, you can really settle into a book, if you can sit still long enough and stop looking at the mountains and sky. I'm reading Paul Miller's A Praying Life, a book that asks all the questions that we Christians are ashamed to ask, like why don't we pray more, or is anyone listening, or did Jesus really mean it when he said "You have not because you do not ask." It made me want to ask more and believe more. Looking up at the jagged peak of Mt. Lemmon, sculpted by Someone who could move mountains, I could better believe that he was a Prayer-Answerer too. Sometimes I had to close my eyes and read. (Click)

Slide Four: Eating (again), we found the best pizza in the world at Magpies, a local restaurant in the very bohemian looking Fourth Avenue section.  That's barbecue pizza on my plate, a dish everyone else turns their nose up at, leaving more for me.  The well-aged checkerboard tablecloth reminds me of my childhood home.  On the way out we have nearly a pizza box of various kinds left.  We see a homeless man picking through garbage, and my brother-in-law calls him over and offers it to him.  He doesn't wait.  He starts eating right there at the window of the car. And I hear Precious Ramotswe say "God has not forgotten you." (Click)

Slide Five: I'm reclining with that Botswanan detective, Precious Ramotswe, at the pool.  That is, I'm reading The Saturday Big Tent Wedding Party, the latest installment of Alexander McCall Smith's #1 Ladies' Detective Agency series, a book full of gentle wisdom, and come across that phrase she utters to a distraught house-maid ("God has not forgotten you"), kindness incarnate, and I slow down and read it again, reminded that there are no little people. (Click)

Slide Six:  Take a peek at this.My gracious wife, instead of taking a shopping day in the artists' community of Tubac, about 25 miles from the Mexican border, is taking a hike with me, even in a skirt, fording the San Pedro River (admittedly a mere creek at this time), walking through forests and fields, climbing over cattle fences, and all this in the middle of a 90 degree day.  4.5 miles.  We never saw another soul.  The trial (oops, I mean trail) ends at a preserved Spanish mission, Tumacacori, one of our favorite places.  Try not to  think about it too much, but the river flow is actually the effluent from the Nogales Wastewater Treatment Plant.  Oh well. (Click)

Slide Seven: Here's a feel good shot.  My teenage son and daughter, walking ahead of us on the road, hand in hand, arm in arm, like best friends.  I'll savor that and remember it when the next inevitable spat arises.  Hey, did I just see her smack him?  Another day in paradise. . . (Click)

Slide Eight: Let's back up a bit, as I forgot one slide.  We're eating steak at Lil' Abners, a roadhouse, really, that I remember being in the desert outside Tucson but now sits smack in the suburb of Marana.  They have two things going for them: excellent steaks cooked on outdoor mesquite grills served with beans and salsa, and country swing provided by nearly 90-year old Dean Armstrong and his western swing band, also made up up elders (that's what they call old people out here).  And, in the background that's the same woman who was here last year, a regular, usually with a picture of her boyfriend on her t-shirt and her's on his.  But after 30 years of playing here, Dean has gone Home --- two weeks ago.  He was a gentleman and I'll miss him. (Click)

Slide Nine: A lot of people come to Madeira Canyon to birdwatch.  We don't.  Bird people sometimes look like birds.  Have you ever noticed that?  30 minutes in we're over a mile up, and those are pines, sycamores, and ash trees you see, with a little yucca mixed in.  We hiked up about two miles, and then out, seeing deer around us, considering what to do if confronted by a bear or bobcat.  Alone. Sometimes we stopped, all quiet, and just listened to the wind in the trees. Hear it? (Click)

Slide Ten: This may be the best.  We're all sitting in the second row of Catalina Foothills Presbyterian Church.  It's Easter morning.  We're practically embedded with the orchestra and choir.  Looking up through the windows all you can see are mountains and sky. Those are tears welling in my eyes, produced by music so beautiful, so poignant, so worshipful.  It's the closest I get to my home church without being home.  It's a fitting close to a week of rest, reflection, and wonder.

I still think about it.

Thanks for letting me share these slides with you.  I would have shown the 8 mm home movies, all four reels, but the kids with their Ipods and IPads and Wii and whatnot, the short attention spans, and all.  It would never work.  But maybe one image here will stick and provoke you, as it does me, to vacate once again, to take, like God did at the end of six days, a holy pause, look over what you've made and done, and say,"It's good.  It's really good." And be thankful for the beautiful mess that life can be.









A Keeping God

In Psalm 121, the Psalmist uses the word keep (or keeper) six times in eight verses.  Repetition is a writer's way of drawing attention to a certain theme, and this propensity, along with the parallelism of the psalms, heightens a conviction that something important is being communicated.  And yet like all scripture, its spiritual truth must be mediated through the mundane and even tragic events of the world.  It must be incarnated in life.

Yesterday's Wall Street Journal contained a more than two-page article on one such life experience.  It took time to read, and I gave it the time, given its rarity.  Seldom will you find such an extensive, in depth newspaper article, and yet the WSJ remains exceptional: a newspaper that can feature such longish articles and yet which still manages to make money.  The story, that of Futoshi Toba, brought home to me like nothing I have seen or read has to date the soul-wrenching choices faced by many in the midst of the earthquake and tsunami that hit northern Japan.  Toba was mayor of Rikuzentakata, a small town devastated by the worst natural disaster to strike Japan in decades.  In Toba's case, he had to choose between meeting his obligations to protect his community --- to do his job --- and attempting to rescue his wife.  His actions saved many who depended on him but cost him the life of the one who he loved most.  He is plagued by doubt about that choice, the article trailing off with the pregnant question he asks aloud: "What kind of a human being am I?" 

The article makes no mention of Toba's religious faith, though statistically speaking it is unlikely that he is a Christian.  Yet, were he, what would it mean to say that God is his "keeper?"  Of what would Toba have assurance if he prayed the word of the Psalmist, ""The Lord will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life?"

I might ask the same question about my mother who is, I am told, in the last stages of an illness, Parkinson's Disease, that will contribute to her death.  Or the woman I learned about yesterday, Karen, who at 42 faces death from leukemia.  What is certain is that God will neither keep my mother nor Karen nor Toba from death, that both those near to us in kinship and friendship and those far from us, as well as ourselves, will taste death.  Some will suffer more than others, but all will see it.  This truism, of course, was well known to the Psalmist.  So how is it that God keeps our lives?

When the Psalmist says "I lift up my eyes to the hills," his evident focus is Zion, the hill of God, the Holy City.  So something eternal and not temporal is in mind, something unseen and not seen.  What he seems to be saying is that God will keep us spiritually --- by his power, by his presence, and by his provision.  By reminding us that he is  is the "one who made heaven and earth," he draws attention to this unique keeper, one who has the power to make universes and, thus, who certainly has the wherewithal to protect us.  It's not that this power doesn't have practical, temporal resonance.  It does.  God provides food, water, shelter, Christian fellowship, and all manner of things to "keep" us, and yet he also allows hardship, holy silence, and suffering to "keep" us in ways that material comforts cannot.  In fact, it's not too much to say that this Keeper will use everything at his disposal (and that is, literally, everything) to keep us.  He never sleeps but always attends.  His is a holy provocation in our sloth, a holy nurture in our need.  It is one thing to be kept.  It is another to be loved and kept.  The kept can't always get what they want, whether it's a longer life, more food, or freedom from pain, but they will get exactly what they need.

I told my African "son," Joseph, an 18-year old Ugandan orphan, of my mother's plight, because I knew he would understand and appreciate it like one who is intimately familiar with the keeping of a God who allows even lifelong affliction.  And he did.  He said that " All I can say Dad is that God will stand and be by your side and I know he will welcome her soul. It is bad Dad and in my heart I can feel it!"  He is telling me that God will keep her and keep me, and he should know.  He has lost both his parents.

Say a prayer for Futoshi Toba, that God will be His Keeper.  Lift Karen to the Keeper, that she will be kept from reflection on her infirmities and stayed on her Father in Heaven.  Say a prayer too for my mother, that God will keep her eyes on the hills, the source of her help and hope.  "For this slight momentary affliction is preparing for [them] an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison. . . (2 Cor. 4:17), as they are lovingly cared for by a keeping God.