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February 2015

Once Upon a Time

The words “Once upon a time” are likely some of the most portentous words in literature. Hearing them, we expect a story. The words always, as Frederick Buchner says, contain “the promise of magic.” We expect something that makes sense of reality, that gives meaning to what we experience.

For Christians, all stories that assume a narratable world resonate with echoes of a universal story, one with sin and salvation, Fall and Redemption, peril and promise, even if the story is fractured or, ostensibly irreligious. In pre-modern times, at least in the Western world, life existed against a backdrop of the biblical story. You might live contrary to the Story — attempting your own narrative — but you lived in an anti-narrative, always in reaction to the universal story (as in “God is not sovereign, I am”). Modernity existed on the capital of this pre-modern understanding. As Robert Jensen says, “Modernity was defined by the attempt to live in a universal story without a universal storyteller.” It had to end, and end it has in post-modernity, with great attention to stories but no universal story, with no narratable world and, thus, no meaning.

That seems an impossible and nonsensical conclusion on this snowy day. I walked on white-dusted streets this morning, well aware that I was walking in a Story with a Storyteller. If there is no Story and no Storyteller, then why am I lifted by the beauty of snowfall? Why do I care about justice? Why do I hope? Why did I feel sadness at seeing the deer struck on the highway a couple nights ago? I really have a difficult time believing that most people, deep down, underneath layers of cynicism, don’t believe in meaning, don’t believe that the world is narratable. Perhaps they don’t, but they live in a world where the universal narrative is hidden beneath a commitment to individual autonomy, masked by “rights” assertions.

Jensen’s point, however, is that given the non-narratable world “out there,” the church must be that world. As he summarizes:

Out there — and that is exactly how we must again begin to speak of the society in which the church finds itself — there is no narratable world. But absent a narratable world, the church’s hearers cannot believe or even understand the gospel story—or any other momentous story. If the church is not herself a real, substantial, living world to which the gospel can be true, faith is quite simply impossible.

The challenge is to tell the Story with integrity and with life, to actually re-enact it in and through the life of the church so that others see its truth, its correspondence to reality and its coherence. To a world of fractured and incoherent half-truths, we can say “once upon a time” and mean it, telling and living a Story that is true in all places and at all times.

And so, on a walk in the snow, when beauty wells up, you have a place to put it —- once upon a time.

Weak As Water

ImagesFrancis Schaffer, the late, knickered American who with wife Edith founded a ministry of hospitality in Switzerland called L’Abri in 1955, is often referred to as an apologist, but at heart he was a pastor and his ministry pastoral, as his letters attest. In them he married theology to practice, doctrine to personal care. In a 1971 letter he wrote to Lynn, a young woman struggling with depression, his pastor’s heart is evidenced by his words to her, carefully shaped and (often) dictated, perhaps (as was often the case) in the wee hours of the morning. To Lynn, to anyone struggling with depression, he says:

The wonder is that when we know God’s forgiveness is based upon the infinite value of Christ’s finished work, we can have peace of mind and knowledge of His love, even in the midst of our weakness and depression. And again, we all have depressions too; since the Fall, none of us are psychologically healthy or perfect morally. And I must say that depressions are very hard. This is not unknown to me; though most people do not know it, I have my own periods of depression which are very difficult. . . . I speak her not from theory but from experience — in the midst of our down times we can know that His arms are about us, and that He does not let us go when our hands are as weak as water.

In one paragraph, he manages to channel the great doctrines of the Fall, Justification, and Sanctification — there in that sense of God’s sustaining presence ---  into a a shepherd’s love for a single person, spoken not from a place of spiritual superiority but out of his own vulnerability. It’s a good lesson for us all, as doctrine, as one pastor has said, must be “lived out through the fingertips.” Speaking the truth through our weakness and vulnerability can be our strongest ministry.

I met Edith twice and both times felt as if she immediately knew me, though a stranger. I believe it is because she had deeply absorbed the truth that we are all made in God’s image. I deeply regret that I never met Dr. Schaeffer but look forward to spending eternity with him, in a time when we are not weak as water.

Writer's Block

My old standby writing idea prompter, poemcrazy, has a few prompts to get you writing.

Stand on your head for as long as possible. Notice details upside down. Ever done that lately? It hurts. And I had a heck of a time getting my feet up there, even up against the wall. My cat upside down looks like my cat hanging from the roof. Like I said, it looks like my cat, asleep. Sleeping upside down.

Dance. Write. Nope. Left that back in the Seventies with the disco ball. The Bee Gees. John Travolta. The day the music died. I don't even want to think about that.

Gary Snyder suggests you pad your knees and crawl through the wilderness for a while for a close up extra-sensory perception of the terrain. Umph. So that's what happened to Gary Snyder. This is what's left of the Sixties Beat poet who uttered great profundities like “I see a vision of a great rucksack revolution thousands or even millions of young Americans wandering around with rucksacks, going up to mountains to pray, making children laugh and old men glad, making young girls happy and old girls happier, all of 'em Zen Lunatics who go about writing poems that happen to appear in their heads for no reason and also by being kind and also by strange unexpected acts keep giving visions of eternal freedom to everybody and to all living creatures." Still at it. I think he needs to meet some punctuation. But here it's 8 degrees outside with a wind chill of minus 5 and it's 11:30 p.m. So I crawled around the house. I found a dusty penny under the edge of the bed. The cats' pipe-cleaner toy. Cat's freakin'. Next.

Listen to your breath. Be aware that it's automatic and that breathing, being alive, is effortless. Only trouble is that when you start thinking about breathing you can't stop thinking about breathing. You don't want to forget to take the next breath. You wonder how long to go between breaths. You begin to think about each and every inhale and exhale. You worry you might stop. I really don't want to write about that.

Practice silence. Spend a whole day without speaking. Then write. What? I'm an attorney. I don't do silence. Words build up in me if I do that. They have to get out.

Stare at a fire. Let the heat and light fill your body. (Creepy.) Write the fire's poem. What? I'd rather throw some paper in these, see stuff burn. That's what men do. Crackle and pop.

These really aren't working for me. And writing about writing is tiresome anyway.

I'd rather write about my cat, who at this very moment is kneading or, as we say, "making' biscuits," getting lower, lower, until she melts into the blanket, with that far away look in her eyes that tells me she is . . . well . . . out there with Gary Snyder . . . "having some visions of eternal freedom" or something like that, her eyes getting heavy, lids dropping, dropping, until they close and she gives in, a contented sigh escaping her body. I'll wake in the night, see her sleeping on the ceiling, have to check myself to see if I'm real.

Or I'd rather write about the fantastic and useless fact, learned in law school, that ownership in fee simple of this .54 acre plot of land we inhabit includes everything above, right out to outer space, making allowance for navigable airspace, and everything below, all the way to the center of the earth. Which makes me feel like I have a lot of nothing, frankly, unless there's gold down there, or oil, or less economically speaking, Native-American antiquities. Bones. Whole city, maybe. Or a satellite up there. Which makes me a bit uncomfortable.

“Oh to be delivered from the rational into the realm of pure song,” said Theodore Roethke, and so, sometimes, part of the path to that deliverance is simply writing, for the sake of writing, even if it’s about nothing much. Which this isn’t.

Have a conversation with your shadow. With that, I leave you, poemcrazy.



Thurber, and Remembering Well

The late humorist James Thurber once said that "humor is emotional chaos remembered in tranquility." Another way of saying it is that humor requires a certain remove. Distance. Sure it does. The funniest things I remember were also the most embarrassing for me, mostly in my teenage years, and mostly involve my failed attempts to connect with or impress a member of the opposite sex. I'll spare you any details.

In ninth grade Modern Grammar class, Mrs. Joyner, an eccentric "old maid," a slight but fearsome teacher, broke with punctuation and syntax and usage each week to tell stories or have us listen to stories. One I have not forgotten was a telling of "The Night the Bed Fell" by James Thurber himself, set in motion by a vinyl record spun on a turntable on loan from the library. One of many stories of his childhood in 1920s Cincinnati, I remembered it as hilarious in its slapstick telling of what happened when Thurber's fathers's attic bed fell, about a hysterical mother, slamming doors, his father's incorrect conclusion that the house was afire, and the dog Rex's attempt to eat his cousin Briggs.

So when I was in Wichita recently and in the wonderful Eighth Day Books on Douglas Avenue, I bought a copy of Thurber's short memoir of those early years, My Life and Hard Times, from Victoria, the tender of all those wonderful books, both of us remarking on what a classic story it was. Later, waiting for my wife to run an errand, I took ten minutes to read the story. It was not nearly as hilarious as I recalled from my hearing of it 42 years ago at the age of 14. But it is funny, in the smile-to-yourself-funny kind of way.

Others were funnier. Like "The Dog That Bit People," about his mother's unqualified defense of the family dog who had the habit of biting everyone but her. When the dog bites an important business associate of her husband's, Mrs. Thurber defends him as a good judge of character, letting us know that the man is untrustworthy. Or when Muggs bit Mrs. Rufus Sturtevant and Lieutenant Governor Malloy, it wasn't his fault, she said, but theirs, as "when he starts for them, they scream, and that excites him." And though it may be exaggerated for effect, the story has a ring of truth about it, as anyone who has witnessed a coddling dog owner's justifications for bad behavior can attest.

In "The Night the Ghost Got In," pandemonium again sets in upon the Thurber household. Thinking burglars are in the house and panicking, Mother throws a shoe through the window of the house next door, to rouse Boswell so that he can call the police. Grandfather, who had jumped to the conclusion that the police were deserters from Meade's army, shot a gun that grazed one of the policemen, one named Zither. And that's just how it seemed to go in the Thurber house. Something was always happening. And that, like in all households, such memorable events are punctuated by long stretches of normality, we are not concerned. In the Thurber household, this, we are led to believe, is normal.

It's tempting to say that Thurber exercised literary license with the events of his early life (that is, lied), that his telling is part truth and part fiction, and yet biographers note that he had a photographic memory, making them wont to challenge the minutest detail. Perhaps all our lives would be so humorous if we could remember so vividly and yet choose to remember the good.

Even in his last 15 years of life, when he was nearly blind, Thurber was a prolific writer, continuing to remember and rearrange memories in the inner mind. In those later years, he once said that "my one-eighth vision happily obscures sad and ungainly sights, leaving only the vivid and the radiant, some of whom are my friends and neighbors." Would that we were all so blind and so enraptured with the good.

The Story We Must Tell Ourselves

Marilyn came out to the pool to see us yesterday afternoon as we lounged. She is the bartender and asked if she could get us anything. We said no. Probably in her late Sixties, she has a nice smile, and her eyes agree with her smile. She says that if we get bored she has plenty of stories to tell. We laugh and go back to our reading as she slowly returns to the bar, navigating the pool, a slight shuffle in her walk in uncomely black brogans.

We are admiring the colors here in California, the adobe walls of the building juxtaposed with the green of the trees and the crisp blue sky. A bluejay lands on the tree, weaves among its needles, and leaves, flying up and over the wall. It makes me think of Southern Arizona, and I make a note to read up on the psychological effect of certain colors. Sometime.

But Marilyn is back, and though unbidden she has a story to tell. It's about her prized 29-year old Mustang convertible, and she gives us the details of its horsepower and longevity, about how the air conditioning lasted 23 years before failing, and how the transmission was fine until recently when she had to drive it in first gear all the way to the dealership. She has pictures, several, that she takes out of an envelope one by one, and they depict the car posed in her driveway, with a background of modest tract houses that look like those in which Kevin and Winnie live in The Wonder Years. She even wrote to the CEO of Ford Motor Company about her car, and he wrote back, and Alan (she is on a first name basis with him) is quite amazed at the longevity of her Mustang.

Marilyn said she tired of a stick shift and asked her son, Cory, to help her buy an automatic, as he drives down from Fremont to see her every week, and he made a very good deal on a Hyundai. She loves the car. She shows us its picture. She told us how she was stopped by a policeman after going through a yellow light, and how he let her go, telling her to "hold it down." He asked her where she worked, and she said she tended the bar at The Westin, and he said he didn’t go to bars like that, and she thought I don’t go to bars like you go to either, and he waved her on. She told us with some distress how her car was leaking oil and she had to have it towed from the hotel parking lot the other night, and how she couldn't believe that would happen to a new car. She couldn’t believe that could happen and she hoped it would be ok.

But we are thinking about how her son must mean the world to her.  She did not mention a husband. Maybe he died, or maybe she is divorced, but she has Cory.  And her Mustang. And a leaking Hyundai.

At the pool under a California sun, I'm reading a 1979 book of essays by Joan Didion, called The White Album, all because of the first sentence: "We tell ourselves stories in order to live." In one of his many columns, D.L. Waldie, author of one of my favorite memoirs, Holy Land, appropriates that quote. It's a provocative one, as it made me wonder what stories I am telling myself. Oh, I know the right answer, the Sunday School answer, the one theologian D. Martin Lloyd Jones gave, that we are to preach the Gospel to ourselves, the narrative of grace, and yet there are times when the little stories that wind through my head begin to collectively stage a coup d'état on that truth, when a story laced by doubt begins to impinge. Times like that I have to start over again, like when you forget to say "Mother may I?" and, reluctantly, because you forgot, because you know better, in spite of the fact that you know how the story goes, you have to go back to start, kicking at the dirt, anxious to get on with it, and begin again.

So, lying in bed in the early morning hours, when doubt circles and weaves its tale of disappointment, frustration, or impatience, when I ache from lying too long or from the broken record of seemingly unanswered prayers (or at least ones not answered the way I like), I stretch my hands upward to take hold of a story that is bigger, better, and bolder than all the fiction that I'm entertaining, the one that says "In the beginning, God created, the one that says "for God so loved the world [and me] that he gave his only son," and the one that says “death shall be no more” --- chapter headings in a great saga of redemption, in the little story of me. I have to take hold of that story every morning, as I may lose it during the day.

But I don't know what story Marilyn is telling herself. Maybe it's a nostalgic one she relives when she drives her red Mustang up the 101, one about youth and about the "wild" spirit she remains. Or maybe it's one told vicariously through her one and only son to whom she clings after being cast off by a husband who simply moved on. I don't know.  But I do know that I was too self-indulgent, too begrudging of my time, too wedded to my book to offer her one single photograph from the album of my life, one scene from a narrative that makes sense of it all, a snapshot of the Only Begotten on the move.

But now the sun has gone behind the building, and a chill has entered the air. And Joan Didion, who is a masterful recorder of stories and cataloguer of places, and who is confused and anxious, is telling me of her life with her husband and child in the Bohemian Los Angeles culture of the late Sixties, of a recording session with Jim Morrison and The Doors, of her fascination with the Hoover Dam and all the means by which water pours into a dry California --- and yet, reflecting on the disparate images of those years, she concludes with the hopelessness of "writing has not helped me see what it all means." She says that life seemed to be "a story without a narrative." For all her powers of perception, she sees but through a glass, darkly, barely.

It is, as poet Joan Kenyon says, "otherwise." And it is, for Marilyn and Joan Didion, a tale still unfolding, one which, God willing, may yet surprise.


Why Stuff Matters: A Review

StuffFor most of us, the materials that make up the stuff of life — things like steel, concrete, wood, paper, and plastic — are part of the backdrop of our existence, barely noticed, if at all, except for their utility. We place our hand on the door of our car and take for granted the complex types of materials of which it is made. Or we toss a chocolate in our mouth fully unaware of the material properties of which it is made, of the processes that turned an unpromising nut into a pleasure-inducing food. Much less do we appreciate the complex interior structure of the tables at which we sit, the plastics that mold our environment, or the ubiquitous concrete that is responsible for the shape and texture of our urban environments. We pass through, unaware.

Not so with Mark Miodownik, a materials scientist who has written a love letter to materials. Called Stuff Matters: Exploring the Marvelous Materials That Shape Our Man-Made World, Miodownik writes personally and winsomely, even poetically, about paper, chocolate, silica aerogel, concrete, and other materials we take for granted. (Well, maybe not silica aerogel, but that is its own story.) Sit across from him on the roof of his flat in London as he proclaims the wonders of materials. He is obsessed. He is in love. As just one example, take paper.

Listen to his description of the unfolding of a paper shopping bag, a critical yet barely noticed part of the thrill of buying something we desire:

“It comes out first in its flat-pack condition, but then its bottom is pushed out and it makes that glorious sound of thunder as the concertinaed paper sides are deployed into their upright positions. There it sits on the shop counter, like a butterfly recently emerged from its chrysalis: perfect, elegant and poised. Suddenly my purchase seems right, now that the clothes have been allocated this special receptacle to chaperone them back home.”

It’s enough to make me want to buy something now, to place a shiny Apple product in a draw-stringed recyclable bag. Paper, like all materials, carries meanings that we project on it, even meanings sellers hope we adopt.

But there’s more: The back of an envelope becomes a “theater of ideas.” Handwritten letters carry the very ball-point pen impressions of a friend: “The paper itself becomes a simulacrum of the loved one’s skin, it smells of their scent, and their writing is as much an expression of their unique nature as a fingerprint.” Yellowed paper carries the patina of history, of authenticity. Books on shelves and tables define who we are and who we want others to think we are, “a kind of internal marketing exercise.” Paper is everywhere, and yet lost on us, and when it is gone, as has nearly happened with newspapers, we feel a vague and often inarticulable loss:

“The rustle of the paper will no longer be a part of the ritual of Sunday afternoons; newspaper will no longer sit underneath muddy boots, or lounge folded up on train station benches; it will no longer be crumpled into a ball, to light a fire, or be thrown cheekily at an unsuspecting sibling. None of these uses of newspaper are essential in and of themselves, but taken as a whole they paint a picture of a very domestic, useful, and much loved material. A material that will be missed.”

But there’s more to it than just a discussion of paper. Read his illuminating chapter on concrete and never think of it in the same way. In the author’s descriptions, concrete comes alive, continues to develop and strengthen even after it is poured, expand and contract as if it were breathing. His ode to chocolate is, well, delicious, and his love affair with silica aerogel, the lightest solid in the world (an ephemeral, mesmerizing material that is 99.8 percent air), downright giddy: “Aerogels seem to have the ability to compel you to be involved with them. Like an enigmatic party guest, you just want to be near them, even if you can’t think of anything to say.” And then there’s plastic, carbon, porcelain, and biomaterials. Along the way, there is science, yes, but any slog one faces as you delve into it is likely not the author’s fault but due (as in my case) to a lazy brain. Attentiveness pays off.

For Christians, Miodownik's passion is a welcome if unexpected stimulus to a love of Creation. The Church has grown in its appreciation of the natural environment, from the late Sixties publication of Francis Schaeffer's Pollution and the Death of Man to Loren Wilkinson's Earthkeeping. In the last decade its has even come to a theology of place, with books like Eric Jacobsen’s recent The Space Between: Christian Engagement With the Built Environment. Yet, the Church has yet to develop a theology of things, of the inanimate. This is not that book, as Miodownik's religious convictions are not evident. And yet it is a welcome pre-theology of the inanimate stuff of Creation, a warm-up for wonder.

Stuff matters, says Miodownik. Christians agree. The Creator called forth the atoms that make up our world. And into the brokenness of that world, Christ comes, giving importance to every animate and inanimate thing in the unfolding of a cosmic salvation. Books like this re-enchant the world around us, one made invisible by the speed of life, by the flattening of distances and homogenization of place. The author reminds us that all is not what it seems, that materials embedded in our everyday lives hold deep meaning for us, that they are a part of our identity and not just a backdrop for the human drama.

Scripture mysteriously says of Christ that “in him all things hold together” (Col. 1:17b, ESV). We may not be able to reduce that to scientific observation, and yet Miodownik’s passion for materials allows us to look, if “through a glass dimly,” at the wonder of that belief.