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October 2014


It's a beautiful day in Menlo Park, California, and I am having my son's car washed at the local car wash, Ducky's, watching Mercedes and other nice vehicles roll out. 

Earlier, I deposited my wife at the coin laundry in Palo Alto, along El Camino Real, just down from Stanford University. We haven't been to a coin laundry since college, over 30 years ago. It took us a while to figure things out. I only had a 20-dollar bill, so I fed it to the machine and it spit out 80 shiny quarters. I don't think I have held that many quarters in my hand, that is, two hands, for a long time, maybe since I collected coins as a boy, until a debt was called in and I liquidated the collection before the heat came down on me. I felt wealthy, like it might last me a long time. It didn't, of course, anymore than it did when I was a boy.

The laundry is a storefront, with a clock like we had in elementary school to count out the seconds for you while you wait for the washing, the faded walls peppered with colorful plaques here and there with encouragements like “Laughter is life's best medicine: LAUGH.” I smiled. A closed door has a sign on it that says “BOO,” some condescension to our time. It's hypnotic, the waiting, watching clothes tumble, a fetching repose. I'm taking it in, savoring the moment, as I don't know when I will get back to a coin laundry.

So I left her there with others who, for whatever reason, don't have a washer and dryer, and it made me wonder if I knew anyone who lacked a washer and dryer. I'm not sure. That shows how insular life can be, I suppose, so I am glad we came, glad to interact with the Hispanic attendant, who educated us college graduates on how to use washers. I'm humbled. I need to be put in my place.

But car washes and coin laundries are collateral benefits. The biggest thing? After five weeks, we have seen our son, been updated on his life here at Stanford, and seen that he is well, and that gladdens our hearts. 

That, and the quarters still jingling in my pocket.


Life Among the Mean

“It is inbred that we have to do exceptional things for God; but we have not. We have to be exceptional in the ordinary things, to be holy in mean streets, among mean people, and this is not learned in five minutes.” (Oswald Chambers, My Utmost for His Highest)

No doubt the modern language rendition of English missionary Oswald Chambers' classic devotional uses a word other than “mean” to describe streets and people, as our understanding of the word in today's less literate culture is limited. Mean streets are not streets full of unkind people, and mean people are not just the unkind, but Chambers has a much richer meaning in mind: streets which are mean are those walks of life which are common, humble, undignified, and plebeian, which are inconsequential and insignificant. In short, little.

He is talking about the quotidian, about mundane, ordinary life, life that attracts little attention or notice. My life, and probably yours. "Little" lives.

I used to think God wanted me to do something big. Now I know he wanted me to do something even bigger, to live exceptionally by His grace in the ordinariness of each day, a day in which I pay bills, make phone calls, write a letter, do taxes, clean the garage, attend church, answer emails, and clean dishes.

To the extent I do these things for his glory, I have lived an exceptional life. There are no little people.  We are God's images, little Christs, and that's not little.


Caring for Words

A couple of years ago I attended the Calvin College Festival of Faith and Writing. I heard Marilyn Chandler-McEntyre speak about "Caring for Words." Of her twelve practical strategies of care, two resonated most loudly.

Love words as having value in and of themselves, she said. That is convicting, and leads to repentance, as I have loved words so often merely for utility, for what they can do for me and to others and not for the gift they are. Words like "refuge" and "respite," my wife reminds me, are beautiful, and so now I pause and consider their sounds, which almost summon up what they suggest, like onamonapias on the slant, which form images that refresh, even though I haven't left my chair.

"A word itself is a seed to be dropped," she said, and so I simply leave these two with you: refuge, respite.

Attend to translation. She meant "stepping into someone else's frame of reference is like stepping through the looking glass." So go ask Alice. Have tea with a Mad Hatter. Engage a Queen of Hearts. Or stoop low and enter the thatch hut of an African's home in the fields of Koreng, Uganda, absorbing the liquid speech of another. Step to the cubicle next door, ask a question, and listen. Play with small children. Attend to translation.

A word is a free-standing column in Solomon's temple: practically good for nothing, only beautiful. Just like people, worth loving, even when they can't do anything for us.

Following the Echoes: A Review of "Close Circle," by Jeff Larson

51vEpR2n6oL._SL1500_If there is any heir to the sun-washed California folk-pop of Seventies supergroup America, it is Jeff Larson. The Bay Area-based singer-songwriter has put heart and soul into an avocation of music, drawing on the support of a close circle of musical friends that includes Gerry Beckley and Dewey Bunnell (of America), as well as Jeffrey Foskett (Brian Wilson, The Beach Boys). His latest release, Close Circle, is no exception. Musically, the album is built around his effortless guitar playing and soaring voice. What saves the music from being overly mellow is the mix of instruments and diversity of sound, varying tempo, mixing in ukulele, dobro, and mandolin, and offering some spunky electric guitar to provide a more organic root. That instrumentation, and the beautifully layered background vocals supplied by Beckley and Bunnell, among others, provides a rich tapestry of sound, one following of the echoes of that West Coast Seventies sound.

Lyrically, the songs also refresh the soul. You won’t find angst or blood -on-the-tracks confession, and yet the generally upbeat music accompanies lyrics that cut a swath through a normal life — which is not unusual in that Larson works a regular 9-5 job like most of the rest of us. From the plea of “Rescue” (“will you rescue me/ when darkness comes”), to a reminder to keep the faith even when you are knocked down by some trial (“Even When the Rain Comes”) to sending a child off to college (“Goodbye Ocean Street Beaches”) to trying to connect with an old friend (“Arizona Again”), he writes of experiences that are universal and, thus, ones we can all connect with. Even though there may be an underlying melancholy or struggle, the music — largely bereft of minor chords — keeps the listener on an upward tack, encouraging us to “keep it open. . . even when the rains come.”

Spend a little time letting this music wash over you. Take a drive on a sunny Fall day and let it help give you the “Lay of the Land,” a kind of sonic landscape for remembrance and promise and hope. Get it on Amazon or iTunes.



Dinner With Callie

When I came home tonight, I was greeted only by the cat who, characteristically, greeted me at the door, turned her back to me, and went to the other room, throwing herself on the floor as if to say, “oh, it’s only you.” The house was quiet. My wife is at a women’s retreat, so I have the run of it. But it’s no fun to run alone.

I ate dinner alone. . . well, not so alone. Callie, our fulsome feline, lounged languidly on the floor at my feet. The leftover pizza was quite good. . . well, chewy, actually. . . aged, really. . . which makes me eat more slowly, chew more, and eat less. . . well, a little less. . . well, perhaps not less but, you see, it is a thin crust, and nourishing, as they say, as you say when you are really eating something not so great for you but nonetheless not terrible but bad enough to need justification.

So, rather than fill the air with TV voices and bask in the poor fellowship of the LED, I was quiet. I was so quiet I could hear myself chew. It’s not really pleasant to hear people chew. So I took to talking to Callie, remarking that “It looks like rain,” sighing intermittently between bites, asking her if she enjoyed her dinner (no comment), making small talk, all the while knowing that “I’m just the human that will do while Mom is gone,” knowing that I will have to do. And so will she. Because other than her sister Lilly, who is barely here anyway, who I rarely glimpse for more than a second as her backside rounds a corner — there is no one else.

After dinner I read a short devotion, as is our habit. Habit persists even when there is no “our.”I started reading it to myself and then thought, what the heck, I’ll read it to the cat. It was on prayer. It was called “Get Up. . . and Pray.” There is the part in it where Anne Graham Lotz turns to the reader and says — “What about you? How’s your prayer life? Are you rushing through your prayer time? Neglecting it all together?” — and I turn to Callie, as if to ask her, and her eyes are blank, like mirrors, like big question marks looking back at me, saying softly, “What about you?”

Chastened, I resolve that I will pray that night, for my friend who is writing a book to know what book, for my wife, for my children, for the nation, for the entire world. To infinity and beyond! It’s like the declarations you boldly make about dieting or reading more books or writing more real letters or genrally getting your act together. I’ll be at it for a awhile, I know, but it’s so quiet, and there’s time, and I can take all the time I need and. . .

But my 91-year old aunt called. Even though she had the usual complaints, I was glad to hear from her. She self-describes herself sometimes (no, every time) as “not a medicine taker,” as having “a little bit of dementia,” and often tells me the same stories which she laughs at and which I laugh at too, again, and again, and again. She’s lonely. At least I have the cat.

And I have the absences by which I am warmed. Children at college, their rooms still echoing their presence, the left behinds reminding me of all they did in their sojourn here and pointing outward to what will come. “Zoo Story” promises the book on my daughter’s shelf. “Reach for the Skies” says Richard Branson’s book in my son’s room, number two in a stack of ten, right after the one on Mars. There you go. And when your spouse is temporarily absent, halls and walls and sitting places still resonate with dangling conversations, impressions formed by years of talk and movement lit by the slanted rays of sunlight that filter through the pines. (Callie is disgusted at this poetic prattle, and leaves the room.)

Jesus said “the son of man has no place to lay his head,” and yet he exaggerated for effect, didn’t He, employed hyperbole to show that life here is not what meets the eye, that Home is somewhere and somehow Else, that we are aliens and strangers and sojourners in this place, in our homes, even with the people that form our family.  

Still, I like it here.  Even alone.