Previous month:
May 2015
Next month:
July 2015

June 2015

A Backyard Walk

One of Carl Sandburg’s shorter poems, called “Window,” goes like this: “Night from a railroad car window/ Is a great, dark, soft thing/ Broken across with slashes of light.”  Another one, I have to set out as written in two stanzas, for full effect.  It’s called “Fog”: 

The fog comes on little cat feet.
It sits looking over harbor and city on silent haunches and then moves on.

I began to read that one to my shiftless cat, to try it out in the air, but she is no more, having left on silent haunches, a vapor leaving no trace.

Before reading those little poems, I filled the bird feeders in our backyard, while three sparrows twittered nearby, waiting.  The feeders showed the marks of squirrels who had gnawed at the rings below them, their metal tops, even peeled paint from their sides, to no avail.  Finishing, I walked the fence at our property line, noting the place where the remains of our pets are buried, the piled pine straw and leaves springing to my steps.  

Once, I turned back to look at our home, dirt to sky, for a moment trying to see it as someone who did not live there, but I couldn’t.  We’ve been here too long, so it’s an extension of us, rooted and real, an appendage.  At one corner of the house, a breeze whistles by, a soft thing, silent, which then moves on, blowing by my face, cool.  I turn to see a black cat, lean and lanky, gallop through our gate, startled. It turns to look at me, then moves on. As do I.

She calls to me from the door. My traditionally-built cat, sister of the vapor, is worried about the strange man walking in the back yard, a slash of light to her cat-eyes, as she sits alert on little cat feet. I call to her, to reassure, thrice, and go in, before night settles, dark and soft, with fog on city feet.

Silde Rules

I was too sick to go to work today, so I called in sick, leaving a voice message with the raspiest near-death voice I could croak out and then went to the pool with my daughter.  I figured I could be sick there just as well as at home.  Like some alternative therapy, the sun baked and water cooled, and I did feel better, as if I had dipped in the Pool of Siloam.  Sick, and suntanned.  

I felt slightly guilty, as if I was playing hooky from school.  Playing hooky, by the way, the Urban Dictionary says, is probably derived from the Dutch term hoekje (spelen) “hide-and-seek,” and sometime in the early 19th century came to be used for skipping school, or other obligations.  Tom Sawyer played hooky.  I did once and got caught. I like it, though.  

There weren’t many men at the pool.  There was a gaggle of women, regulars I’d judge, a fair number of whom looked tired and pregnant.  There were amoebic clumps of tracked out kids herded by YMCA staff, a military guy with a buzz cut, and sun-burnished lifeguards with bleached out hair and whistles and authoritative if adolescent voices.

I remarked on the double-entendre of the sign in front of the water slide that said “SLIDE RULES” to my daughter, but she looked at me quizzically, and I said “you know, like a slide rule?”, and she still didn’t get it, and I said, “abacus?,” and we concluded that it was probably unintentional.  No one here is over 40, so no one knows what a slide rule is.  Still, I smiled, as it was like finding a heart-shaped rock in the middle of a field, a found pleasure, a smile from God.

I forgot my hat.  At 56, I’m less vain, so I wrapped a shirt over my head.  I was reading Touchstone magazine, which is like reading Lamentations, a cheery venture on a sunny day, when I felt someone watching me.  Looking up I saw a young African-American kid with a nice face and a green Y t-shirt looking at me. “Hi, how you doing?” I said. He kept looking at me.  I said, “What’s your name?”  He said “Jonathan.”  I couldn’t understand the last name, though he gave it great expression, contorting his face as he said it.  “Been in the pool?”  No answer.  “No pool?”  He said, “No pool,” shaking his head. “Well, have a great day, Jonathan.”  I went back to reading.  I felt his eyes still watching me.  I should try that sometime. It’s really unnerving.

Being sick, interrupting routine, can be a good thing.  You stop working.  You let things slide.  You notice more.  You heal a little in the elements.  You see new things.  Best of all, you might spend the day with someone special.  Work can wait.

Love Trumps the Comma Queen

Last week I had a bit of required at-work writing I had to do.  When I completed it, I had 14 pages of text, double-spaced. Only thing is, there was a page limit of ten pages.  So, I began cutting.  I rewrote sentences.  I deleted redundancies.  I dropped paragraphs or, when I could not live with throwing away the words, I judiciously consigned them to footnotes. I eliminated articles of speech, giving the text a more immediate, punchy feel.  The word "certainly" and phrase ”in conclusion" had to go.  After three revisions, I pared it to exactly ten pages.  I smiled, enjoying the quiet delight of a pruned argument, hit "print," pulled the paper off the printer, felt its warmth, smelled its ink, laid it out on my desk like a new set of clothes. Sad, isn't it?

I don't have a lot in common with Mary Norris, author of Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen, who spent more than three decades in The New Yorker magazine copy department. But I did identify with her glee in finding a spelling error as a foundry proofreader.  The writer of a Christmas shopping column (the kind of thing you read in The New Yorker back then) was in the basement of Bloomingdales shopping for food staples and had included in the list sacks of sugar and "flower."  Bingo!  That's what a proofreader lives for.  The error had slipped by two readers, and she was the last before publication.  She was thrilled and went across the street for a lunch of beer and peanuts at The Alonguin to celebrate.  I can identify. . . with her glee, not he beer and peanuts.  Later, Norris received a note via inter office mail that said "I thank you, Eleanor Gould thanks you, the proofreader thanks you, the fact checker thanks you, we all thank you for doing what we in all our numbers could not do: catch the flower for flour in the Christmas list on food."  Signed by Gardner Botsford, an imposing name for a man she described as a "regal editor," she said "It elated me. I had made my first catch."

If you love words, you take delight in such findings, in the precision of language and the pruning away of excess.  However, the far better words are those of a friend, a child, or a mother who write with excess and inexactitude but say words like “I’m sorry” or “I love.”  Those sloppy letters deserve no red pen but can be riddled with redundancy, grammatically off, and verbose.  It’s OK.  Love and forgiveness allow for that, are even better for it.  Even the Comma Queen might agree.

Singing In a Foreign Land

Aliens&stSeveral years ago, when I heard the Jewish writer Michael Chabon speak, I wrote furiously in my notebook to try and capture his words.  I had read Chabon’s 2007 novel, The Yiddish Policemen's Union, a detective story that imagines an alternate history in which Israel collapsed in 1948 and European Jews settled in Alaska.  It was odd and untidy, but deeply affecting.  Chabon said “I write books from the place where I live, in exile.”  Chabon said his search has been for a home, a place to call his own. He said he feels like a stranger.  He said he “was born into an interrupted culture, mourning the loss.”  So, rather than wandering around lost, he began to “build a home in his imagination.”

Christians have to identify with his sense of exile.  In 1999, when I was in the early years of Silent Planet Records, we released a compilation called Alien and Strangers.  I’m listening to it now for the first time in a couple years.  My words in the liner notes, while a bit overblown to my ears now, say what I felt then and even more so now: “WE LIVE IN DISCONTENT. WE KNOW THE BROKENNESS OF LIFE. WE LONG FOR WHOLENESS.” “Even in the good times, we sense our exile. We are strangely disaffected.  All of us, indeed, are aliens and strangers, longing for a place called Home.”  The cover art, supplied by artist Carol Bomer, is a painting of a shadowy figure perhaps trapped at the end of a corridor, hands raised, conveying a sense of displacement.  Graphic artist genius Dave Danglis placed the painting on the screen of a surreal Fifties-era TV, a woman’s hand turning it slightly so we can view it, as if to say “look at who we are,” calling to us from a place outside of our time.  Even as I listen to the variety of music on that disc, it seems to come from another world, and the songs are unlike anything I hear now.

We live in Babylon, among a people who have forgotten God, who suffer in their lostness and identity amnesia, who, like Chabon, long for Home.  What makes Chabon commendable is his willingness to face up to it, to name what he feels rather than engage in elaborate self-deceptions.  Exiled to Babylon, the Jewish people said things like “How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” (Ps. 137:4). They wept, hung up their lyres, and longed for Jerusalem.  In Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles, he exhorted them in God’s words to “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce.  Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters.  Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper” (Jer. 29:4-7).  And He gave them a promise, that “ God will save Zion and rebuild the cities of Judah. Then people will settle there and possess it” (Ps. 69:35).

Littered through Aliens and Strangers, in a prophetic and unplanned way, are the words of exile and promise of restoration. From the “inkwell of prayer” and “the reservoir of tears,” Jan Krist pleads “May God have mercy/ and come and heal you and me/ Come and comfort/ Come and steel you and me/ Against the ghosts and the insecurities/ God have mercy/ Come and heal you and me.”  Matt Auten’s rich voice calls from eternity where He now resides.  Rick Unruh sings of the “hungry ghost inside of me,” how “each time I feel his cup, I plant the bitter seed, of another hungry ghost,” and I hear in his voice the emptiness of chasing after what the world offers.  And Pierce Pettis reminds us to hold onto “the kingdom come.”

Chabon is on to it.  Embrace your exile.  With a Godward imagination, look to Home.  But settle into life in the world.  Build, marry, have children, work for good, and pray for it.  Always pray. 

Smiling Back Into the Past

There are bits of Don Waldie’s memoir of suburbia, Holy Land, that read like Sanskrit. At first anyway. Alternating between a history of place and his own personal history are provocations like this one I turned to tonight: “When I walk to work, thinking of these stories, they seem insignificant. At Mass on Sunday, I remember them as prayers.”  I blew by it at first, a little nugget alone, number 206, but I think I understand.

I didn’t walk this morning.  I lay in bed, pulled the covers up to my chin, and wished it would rain like it did the previous morning, so I wouldn’t have to feel guilty about lying in bed.  I have a cold.  My legs are willing but my head says no.  So, I went out walking in bed, remembering, as I do in the morning when more sleep won’t come, retrieving past memories, fast forwarding to what could be memories, letting images roll by until I found one to focus on. It didn’t rain.

I was out walking with my grandmother, down by the railroad bridge where the creek runs and pools with a shady bank, where she watches us wade in the water, hands on her hips, her bonnet shading her eyes.  Another time we were stepping gingerly through an overgrown cemetery, a literal forest, as she stooped and dusted off the headstones with barely legible names and dates.  Another image flashed of delivering a pie to a neighbor, sitting “for a spell,” my sister and I impatient to leave. Picking up acorns among the trees. Beating a path through the woods. Playing with kittens in the woodpile. Putting black nuggets of coal in the wood stove.

Remembrance as prayer?  Maybe they are prayers of thankfulness.  Maybe a memory dwelled on is a conversation with God.  Maybe we are talking with Him about where we came from and who we are and who we are becoming.  In that conversation, I don’t think there is anything insignificant.

When our elders sit around and reminisce, we need to be patient: They are praying.  The contented ones are smiling back into the past with thankful hearts; the bitter and complaining ones, still wrestling with God, like Jacob, until He blesses them.  Both are praying.

Hope Among Loss

At lunch today, between bites of salad and over the din of what must have been 25 children in Chick-Fil-A, I was reading the penultimate chapter of Margaret Lazarus Dean’s Leaving Orbit: Notes From the Last Days of American Spaceflight.  Dean, likely in her early Forties, was writing about the landing of the last shuttle, the shuttle Atlantis.  Having finnangled a press badge, she was as close as any member of the public gets to such a landing, taking it all in, knee-deep in cordgrass, lacking insect repellant.  I wish I had been there for the two sonic booms that preceded the landing, quieter than a 747 jet, only its movement through the wind to create sound.  I wish I had been there as its oversize mass swept through the humid night sky to land, rolling until the words “wheel stop.”

Driving back to my office, I turned down a little used street, pulled to the side of the road, and idled there.  I had a few minutes.  I began reading again, captivated by this story of loss.  Dean joined some of the few members of the media that returned to watch Atlantis and, sentimentalist that I am, I tear up, like her, at the sight:  “As Atlantis comes near enough that we can make out details, we see that people are walking alongside it, men and women, wearing work clothes and jeans.  They walk slowly and reverentially, pallbearers, and though I know from reading that this tow back is always done slowly, today it seems intentional that they move as slowly as a funeral possession.”  And then she says that one person begins clapping, and then another, and then the most hardened, cynical journalists began clapping that hand-stinging kind of clap, hands overhead.  The walkers, she says “are not chatting, not smiling or drifting off thinking about what they are going to do after work or what to make for dinner.  The face straight ahead, their expressions solemn.”Even my vision clouded as I thought about the loss, about the end of an era.  Sitting there in a center of hip uptown, I wondered if anyone cared, if anyone here, many of whom were kids when Atlantis landed, even remembered or knew.  

Dean turns this into a meditation on greater loss.  Reflecting later on Apollo 11, the pinnacle of spaceflight, on Norman Mailer, a writer who witnessed it, she says “What he saw was a moment that felt like it was going to be the start of a whole new era.  I have never really tried to imagine what it would be like to be inside that moment, the sixties’ optimism that my parents’ generation is always trying to make people younger than themselves understand, not yet ground down into a cliche but a real palpable hope, an actual optimism that here, now, people could be different.”  And then the kick in the gut: “For as long as I’ve been alive that idea has been demonstrably false.”  And that, I suppose, is what washes over me, the sense of loss and the mourning over the human condition, and I can tick off the losses, the way the world has gone wrong, the way history repeats itself.

Blessed are those who mourn, says Jesus, for they shall be comforted.  I imagine for a moment, idling, stuck in between loss and gain, a God who works in unseen places to undo the curse, to set things right, maybe to even take us to the stars.  I think about men and women that still move among the echoing spaces of the Vehicle Assembly Building, in labs at NASA Ames, in cubicles at Goddard and Langley and JPL, who do their jobs and wait and hope against hope that something new will happen again, that men and women will again take to the skies.  It’s happened before.  I close the book, put the car in drive, and drive on.  There’s work to do.  I need to be about it.

Sacrifice and Blood

Every Summer we fight a battle with flying insects in our home. They come in all shapes and sizes, from errant fireflies needlessly signaling their way in the bright of our rooms, to various beetles and gnat-like flies crawling up lampshades, meandering down the walls, suspended from the ceiling, circling in orbits around our heads, and whirring around our ears. While we are called to love our neighbors and my definition of neighbor is expansive and challenging, I don’t yet love these neighbors. At least not here, inside my home.

How they intrude is unclear. The doors are not left standing open, as we slip in briskly and close them behind us, as if something is chasing us.  Windows?  Shut, as air conditioning is on.  In fact, in our middle-aged home where gravity is driving all things downward, some windows will not even open anymore.  One day the front of our home may be Suess-like, with off-center windows, mis-shapen and sad, windows about which real estate agents speak of as giving the house“character.”  Seals around doors?  Tight, seemingly impermeable.  So tight, on one, that I have to lean on the door to get the dead-bolt to click.  Click?  Thud, rather, the satisfying sound of safety.  My paranoia? Real. It is as if our walls are porous, allowing the insect world to march right in, and we are without defense, without arms.

One way of making peace with these small intruders is to see them as a metaphor, a common-defense mechanism for me that sometimes works.  In fact, everything in life is a metaphor for something else and, as Dorothy Sayers once said, “all thinking is analogic,” that is by analogy.  But let’s talk about that some other time, as there are more pressing matters to address.

I imagine myself explaining to a group of rapt listeners in some theology class or, at least to my two slightly bored cats, feigning interest, about the imperfect nature of our theological constructs and how they must bend and be malleable enough to be shaped by the Word, as they are our constructs, not God’s, our approximation of His truth, not infallible Truth, how the pesky insects are the annoying passages of Scripture that don’t seem to fit our perfect theological world, one we think immune to serious attack.  

Wham!  “Die, sucker!”  Yuch.  I wipe a smashed beetle off my hand.  I’m failing at love of neighbor, I’m afraid.  I hate these bugs.  I’m sorry.  Sometimes metaphor doesn’t work.  Sometimes it takes a death. Sometimes it takes sacrifice and blood.  But wait. . . that’s another metaphor.

Guardian of the Galaxy

0Under the category of gratefulness, add the oscillating fan.  Ours is relegated to the attic most of the time, what with air conditioning, but I am sitting under it now, as our air conditioning has trouble keeping up in near 100 degree heat.

My fan is a aged but well-preserved Galaxy 16 inch, with a metal cage around the whirring blades and a sing-songy voice, the effect of its turning, turning, turning, like Stevie Wonder singing Ebony and Ivory which, come to think of it, are its colors.  Galaxy makes me think of some Sixties-era wedding of space-age wonder to consumer products, a marketing ploy, and as I walk over to it to take a better look, I notice that the logo has a futuristic wave to it, as if to say “Buy me and you’ve arrived in the future.” Only now it’s more like back to the future.

I said aged. My Galaxy’s fan-cage, if that’s what you call it, is held together unceremoniously by a blue pipe cleaner which, now that I am up close and personal, appears to be hanging on for dear life.  “I. . . can’t. . . hold . . . on . . . much . . . longer” I imagine it sputtering out in a plea for help.  I readjust its arms, give it a squeeze of encouragement, rally it to the cause: “space, the final frontier,” and all that. Guardian of the Galaxy.  It sighs.  I’m grateful for its endurance, for its willingness to be forgotten most days, hibernating in the under-eaves of our third-floor and then called into near 24-7 service, a Galaxy reservist, air mover, oscillator.  But it comes of sturdy stock.

I read that the first oscillating fan (can we just say, “O-fan,” for short?) was invented by a German (they seem to have invented most things), Philip Diehl, in 1907.  Diehl married a sewing machine motor to fan blades in a polygamous union that produced a ceiling fan in 1887, adding a light to it later.  Then, in 1904 he added a split-ball joint, allowing it to be redirected.  (And this is beginning to sound much too technical. But stay with me.)  This mutated into the oscillating fan in 1907 — the great great great great great-grand father/mother/person of my Galaxy, a fan company now owned by Lasko, which doesn’t sound nearly as interesting.  Air was never the same.

My fan has the look of that Pixar lamp in its logo at the beginning of their films.  Redirect it down and it looks sad; up, buoyant; straight on, steady and reassuring, like the stroke of your mother’s hand across your brow, back and forth, back and forth, excising worries and calming fears.

In Uganda, we slept on some occasions under an O-fan, like kings and queens savoring the stirred air, an unsleeping servant doing our bidding.  “Keep it up, we would say,” until a power outage stilled its arms and it fell asleep, exhausted.  

In childhood, I spent a couple summers in a friend’s family’s rented beach house on Pawley’s Island with no air conditioning under an O-fan — hot, then sweating until I lay in a pool, then remarkably cold as the fan played across sunburned boy-skin, awakening with a dried shellac salty to my lick.

When we first married we stayed in my wife’s parents’ home for a few weeks in Summer, the same fan pushing night air from the far-away Appalachian foothills across paper and pen, lifting the pages of my notebook, up and then down, up and then down, like a incessant child gently saying, “I am here, can we play, must you work, just for a minute, please?”  I turn and smile, eyes shut, extend my arms and let it wash over me. “Yes, of course, of course.” It’s a Galaxy. Timeless. Carrier of the past.

I told my wife about my fan just now, in a prayer, before sleep. She said, “You mean my fan?” Of course. Yes, of course.

Inside Out

In Pixar’s new movie, Inside Out, Joy’s classic response to any difficulty is “We can fix this.”  Joy is a personification of 12-year old Riley’s emotion, as is Sadness, Anger, and Fear, among others.  The movie is witty and clever, classic Pixar, as it lets us peer into Riley’s brain as she deals with a traumatic move from Minnesota to San Francisco, a jarring relocation that ripples through her personality.

Aside from the plentiful humor (as when we are given a glimpse of the inside out of Dad, Mom, a boy, and a classmate, and even dogs and cats) there’s a lot to take from Inside Out — the importance of family; the value of long-term memories (even if some must fade); the resilience of a personality rooted in deeply felt, core memories of love and home.  But the best takeaway for me was the importance of both sadness and joy, indeed their inseparability, in the life of a fully-orbed personality, to our humanity.

My only quibble is that the real pairing is not joy and sadness but joy and sorrow.  Sadness belongs with that other ephemeral feeling, happiness, what Bob Dylan once called a “yuppie” word, back when we had yuppies.  Sorrow and joy go much deeper, and for the Christian joy is not so much emotion as a state of being anchored in faith, hope, and love — the natural state of the believer.  David as Psalmist, delivered by God from his foes and from death, weds sorrow and joy when he says “Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes in the morning,” and later, when he seems overtaken by the Lord’s rescue, when he exclaims that “You have turned my mourning into dancing” (Ps. 30:5b & 11a).

If we’re honest, hidden in all joy is a memory of sorrow and an expectation that, because of sin, sorrow will be with us always.  It’s a pairing that endures.  The Bible doesn’t tell us if there is a memory of sorrow in heaven.  There is the promise that in the new heaven and new earth that “neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Rev. 21:4b).  Yet, in some redeemed way, I think the memory of sorrow remains, seen through the lens of joy, redeemed. If a sinless Jesus wept, so might we in our sinless state shed tears that issue out of sorrow but land in joy. It hearkens back to another time when the Psalmist says “Those who sow in tears shall reap with shouts of joy! He who goes out weeping bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, bringing his sheaves with him” (Ps. 126:5-6). ]

Joy went back for sadness.  She wasn’t whole without her.  She couldn’t fix Riley alone.  So in heaven, a newly purposed sorrow, shorn of sadness, may come along, a part of who we are.  I don’t at all mind a sorrow without sadness, a sorrow with joy that makes me whole.  I even had a silent tear in Inside Out, the kind that wells up but quietly sinks back down before brimming over and rolling down your cheek.  But then, I’m a lush.  I still can’t think about Bambi’s father without a catch in my throat.




One Last Serenade

While there is no respite like a cold, air-conditioned home on a sweltering day, and no dearth of thankfulness for conditioned air, still there is something lost.  As with every technological innovation, for every two steps forward, there is a least one step back, a loss in the gain.

In 1962, when I was four, my family moved into a new home in the growing suburbs, a home which came with no air conditioning.  That soon changed.  A relative installed a fascinating (remember, I am four, a time when all things but bedtime fascinate) and oversized if underpowered machine under our outdoor steps that whirred loudly into service in the heat of Summer.  Life changed.  Windows were shut, screens made obsolete, and a new kind of quiet descended on our home.  It was the day we unplugged nature and turned inward.

We were fortunate but still in the minority.  My research reveals that families in the South made do by sleeping on the porch or even putting their underwear in the icebox.  (I don’t ever, ever recall doing anything of the sort with my underwear and would have been shocked to open our freezer and see such unmentionables there among the Kool-Aid popsicles.)  By 2007, however, the number was 86 percent.  As cool air spread across the country, Sun Belt cities that had been unbearable in the summer became more attractive places to live and work, facilitating a long-term shift in U.S. population.  Office workers became more productive.  The Summer blockbuster was born as people flocked to the cool of theaters, air conditioned as early as the 1930s.  I still recall reading a pre-1984 article from the sadly down defunct American Heritage magazine which surveyed the massive social revolution caused by air conditioning, almost as great as that of electricity, and the impact of what I read has remained attached to my brain when so many other articles and bits of information have been lost.

But something is lost.  Reading and then writing this afternoon, I was suddenly chilled and missing heat and sound. I  stepped out on the patio and into the near 100 degree temperature and settled into a chair, into air that lacked the sterility of the conditioned air of our home, felt the sun on my skin, and, in a few moments, my skin’s response by forming tiny beads of water, its natural air conditioning.  I’m also enveloped by sound, whether the cawing of crows overhead and tweets and whistles of wrens, tufted titmouses (love to say their name), and chickadees, the drone of an airplane or the muffled sound of traffic, the whine of a lawn mower, or, ever more subtly, the wind caressing the trees that sometimes creak as if to signal the wooden limbs of age.  In the house I am insulated from all this, kept in silence, antiseptic and unreal.

My wife grew up in a large high ceilinged home that had no air conditioning.  In the Summer, oscillating fans whirred and sang one to sleep.  The questions of owls and sticky cool of cross-ventilating breezes, the lonesome sound of a single car stopping and starting from the stop sign, the distant and faint sound of a train, the soft splash of rain on shingles — all were a part of a nighttime serenade.  Serenade.  The word is more suitable than I thought. “A complimentary performance of vocal or instrumental music in the open air at night, as by a lover under the window of his lady,” says my dictionary. And what is that but the wooing of a Creator who made it all and sent it all through an open window to stir our souls?  Air conditioning, for all it comfort, cuts us off from that voice, dulls our hearing.

Once I was picking my daughter up from camp in Missouri.  Entering the camp, I could not have imagined sleeping in the non-air conditioned cabins in the sticky Ozark air, lying in a pool of sweat, wakeful and homesick.  Leaving camp, with windows rolled up and cold air blasting, she rolled down the window and stuck her head out.  Incredulous, I said “Roll that up. You’re letting the cold air out.” She called back, “I will in a minute.  I want to smell the camp air one last time.”  One last serenade.

Telling our Stories, Again and Again

Daniel Taylor, who is himself a masterful storyteller, says that a “master story” is a story that defines who we are.  It’s something post-moderns would call a meta-narrative, that is, a “big story.”  

For the Jewish people, the master story was the Exodus.  To read the Old Testament is to hear constant remembrance of that defining story, of their rescue out of bondage, out of exile, by Yahweh.  There are other defining stories, such as the Babylonian exile, but even there the stories echo back to the one defining story, the Exodus.

For Christians, the master story is the Resurection, the story of the God-man who died for His people to deliver them from bondage to sin, and rose again, giving the promise of new life, of a second and lasting chance.  Come to think of it, even that story is a fulfillment of the incomplete deliverance of the Exodus, a perfect passage through a Red Sea of failure and suffering to a Promised Land of restoration, a lasting City.  

And then, we each have our own little master story that defines who we are.  An elderly friend of mine who is likely in the first stages of dementia, always speaks of his time as a missionary in the Fifties and Sixties.  No matter what the topic, no matter what the question, no matter how one might try and redirect the conversation away from a well-worn path to save our ears, all paths lead back to that era.  The story defines him.  Ultimately, even there, at the heart of his story, he hearkens back to the one story, the Resurrection, because in the end, his little story is bound up in what Christ has done for him.  He died for him, rose for him, and called him.  

If I need to hear the Resurrection story repeated again and again (and I do), then I need to hear my friend's story again and again and again.  By God’s grace I will listen to them both and find my own.  They will tell me how to live.  They will direct my path.

The Final Secret

An imperative like that contained in Leviticus 20:26 has always been a little scary to me. First of all, it’s Leviticus, which is a book foreign to most of us, full of bloody sacrifices, strange holy days and feasts, and ceremonial washings.  Even dietary restrictions.  Sometimes we don’t know what to do with that, so we just don’t read it.  But it’s also off-putting in that I know I can’t be holy, so it reminds me that I will fail, that I have repeatedly failed, that I fall far short of holy or perfect or righteous or just “pretty decent guy.” I’m not, not if you knew me like I know me.

But today in reading this I considered this not as exhortation but as promise. What if rather than saying “Get with it and get your act together and act like a Christian,” God is saying “I have made you holy, have taken you for my own, and will bring to completion the good work I have begun in you?” Which of course, in Christ, he has. The rest of the verse shows that it is He who has done the separating, as God says “I have set you apart from the nations to be my own.” It’s not our initiative but His.

Frederick Buechner said something like this about another hard-to-obey verse of Scripture. Buechner said “THE FINAL SECRET, I think, is this: that the words ‘You shall love the Lord your God’ become in the end less a command than a promise. And the promise is that, yes, on the weary feet of faith and the fragile wings of hope, we will come to love him at last as from the first he has loved us—loved us even in the wilderness, especially in the wilderness, because he has been in the wilderness with us. He has been in the wilderness for us. He has been acquainted with our grief.”

And so, in the end, the promise is that we too will be holy.  Beloved, chosen, treasured possessions of God that we are, we will finally become who He intended us to be: Holy.

Invisible People

In Picking Up: On the Streets and Behind the Trucks of the Sanitation Workers of New York City, writer Robin Nagle signs on as a sanitation worker, riding the garbage trucks and seeing life from the perspective of the “san” men.  What she discovers is that virtually all the people they encounter, with the exception of children and some of the elderly, treat them as if they are invisible.  Essential to the life of the city, this work force, largely male, are ignored, cursed at, and treated as inhuman objects. Nagle watched the men speak to others, many of whom would simply stare at them, not even acknowledging their existence. She observes that “[i]nvisible laborers are not supposed to make themselves noticed. They are meant to do their work and move along, heads down and mouths shut.”

What Nagle does in this anthropological study is dignify these laborers, bringing them into the light.  She cites sociologist Wayne Brekhus, who points to sanitation work as an example of an “unmarked” element of daily life.  He makes the case that important truths are lodged within the unmarked and the unseen.  I’m only 25 pages in and I can’t stop thinking about it. I went through my day today asking “who are the invisible people in my life?”  The custodian at my place of work is not invisible, and yet when I greeted him today I considered how little I knew about him, how little I had bothered to know about him.  So I spent a few minutes with him.  We talked about the weather and fishing.

Later, I n the check out line after lunch, I looked up and met the eyes of the cashier.  I asked her how she was doing today.  “I’m learning,” she said.  She was new, and the line was long.  “You’re doing fine,” I said.  Jesus was good at acknowledging the invisible.  Lepers, prostitutes, tax collectors, the woman with the bleeding disorder — all were treated with dignity.  He ate with them, touched them, and treated them as equals.  So, cashiers, tellers, garbage men, cleaners, repairmen, maids, and fat kids and rejects of junior high school who were cloaked in invisibility, in part, because of me — please forgive me.  You matter.

Dreaming Big

When you dream a dream as an adult — I mean a moon-sized daydream — you often discount it.  I do. You’ve been disappointed in life, had some dreams not pan out (maybe most), and so like money to be earned in the future, you discount it to present value. Which often turns out to be nada, or near nada. Like telling me I can have 1 million Ugandan shillings, only realizing that this stupendous-sounding amount is really only 50 cents. Oh boy.  

We do the same thing with prayer sometimes.  I do.  I pray for life-changing conversion of a person’s life, a thoroughgoing reformation, and then discount it, as in “may not happen in my lifetime,” or “may not happen at all,” until some nagging devil on my shoulder says “what’s the use?”  What’s the use in praying for national revival, for the Supreme Court, for legislators, for love and mercy and peace and the end of poverty and. . . well, you name it.  What's the use in praying for change in me?  

At those times I have a litany of God’s faithfulness that I repeat, like a pocket sermon.  Or more like flash cards.  I remind myself of the big dreams realized (Wilberforce comes to mind, the end of slavery), and the little prayers that get answered, like finding the book I lost.  I remind myself how God saved Paul (big) and me (little).  My memory is short and the devil hates remembrance, so I flash the past, remember God's faithfulness.  There are even cards for remembering prayers that got answered that I didn't even ask.  Like playing Jeopardy, I have the answered prayer, but what was the prayer?  God knows.  Funny how that happens.  

And then I read what Sally Lloyd-Jones says in her childrens’ devotional, Thoughts to Make Your Heart Sing, because I need it simple, need a child-dream, big and believed: “God is making all the sad things come untrue. He is making the end of the world happy. And all the dreams we have ever dreamed for ourselves? They are only shadows of the magnificent dreams God has dreamed for his children.”  So, all my dreams are caught up in and find their fulfillment in a dream God already had. How about that?  Life is but a dream. . . God had.

Dropping a Pin

In the opening of her beautiful memoir, West With the Night, Beryl Markham coined one of the most memorable beginnings to a book that I have ever read: “How is it possible to bring order out of memory? I should like to begin at the beginning, patiently, like a weaver at his loom. I should like to say, 'This is the place to start; there can be no other.’ But there are a hundred places to start for there are a hundred names — Mwanza, Serengeti, Nungwe, Molo, Nakuru.”

Perhaps the names of these African places are memorable because they sound exotic, and yet Markham was only being particular, only naming as a way of rooting us in reality, like dropping a pin on a map.  It’s something to hold onto.  I like to say those names aloud, as when I hear them I dream about them.

My memoir would have different names, but they are no less memorable. There were streets named Gracewood, Fernwood, Pender, Cornwallis, and others I can’t pin down where I grew up.  The houses weren’t thatch but colonial brick.  Pines grew instead of thorn trees.  And while I smile at the names picked by our suburban developer, names made for selling houses to middle-class families, for marketing a way of life, they nonetheless adhere to memory, exotic in their own way.  

All to say, we don’t remember in abstract.  We remember in particulars.  I don’t remember some abstract “childhood” but a particular house on a particular street.  God came to us enfleshed, incarnate, particular.  So do our memories.  Just name them.  Pin them down and dream on them.

Finding Rest

The first sentence of J. Oswald Sanders’ little book, A Spiritual Clinic, begins: “Strain and tension characterize our age.”  That was 1958, and yet the observation is timeless. That chapter is headed by an epigram, a simple truth, Jesus’ assurance that “I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28). The subtitle of the book is one of those overly longish ones preferred in those days and limited to unread dissertations now: "A Suggestive Diagnosis and Prescription for Problems in Christian Life and Service."  Somehow I can’t imagine that title flying off the bookshelves at Lifeway.

"I will give you rest."  It's difficult to rest.  A friend of mine used to say that his favorite thing to do was to go out into his backyard and lie down in the grass.  Sometimes he would fall asleep there.  I couldn't do that.  I imagine spiders and ants crawling over me while I sleep, or worse, a bug flying into my open mouth, an army of Lilliputians tying me up, and so on.  But for him rest was a state of mind.  He wasn’t worried.

I don’t think you can will yourself to rest.  It comes indirectly, a byproduct of God-centeredness.  He stays our twittering heart, our chicken-little mind, and says, simply, “Be still and know that I am God” (Ps. 46:10), and yet it's difficult to be still.  It takes work to rest; it takes a deliberate turning Jesus-ward.  I have been so agitated at times, so restless, that I cannot even read scripture, can barely pray, and so then I repeat any Bible verse I can remember (any will do) and pray something like "help help help."  Like a lullaby, I am eventually stilled.  And one day, having laid down in the rest of His words, I will lie down in the grass like my friend, care-less.  That may take some work though.  That may take some time.

Space to Dream

I ate lunch alone today.  Don't feel sorry for me.  I needed space to think, and my favorite Italian restaurant is perfect for that, like sliding on a pair of old shoes.

When I walked in, Lena, the hostess, said "Just one?," and I said, "Just me." I never even slowed down.  I pointed to the corner booth, said "I'm going to my hole," and she nodded.  This happens once every two weeks or so.  I sit down, they bring me what I always eat, keep the ice tea flowing, and pretty much leave me alone.  There's no chit-chat like a bartender might engage in with a single diner like me. Occasionally the owner, Frank, an Italian immigrant, walks out of the kitchen, maybe out onto the sidewalk, looks around, and comes back in.  We say hello.  But he knows what I am there for.

Today I am reading Leaving Orbit: Notes of the Last Days of American Spaceflight, by Margaret Lazarus Dean, an English professor at UT Knoxville. That's an ominous title. I am 96 pages in, and I keep hoping for more but keep coming up short.  Yet I can't stop.  Dean, who is quite a bit younger than me, is no doubt a fan of all things space, but so far this is a book about a young author writing a book, with shallow observations, laments over being born too late, and "ga-ga" moments, as when she spent a couple hours with Buzz Aldrin.  She deeply regrets being born too late to see the "heroic era" of spaceflight, and yet I have rarely read so many words about so little.  She pulls off the 528 Causeway on Merritt Island to watch with other tourists one of the last shuttle launches, and I long for rich descriptions of Discovery's liftoff, for deep reflections on the era, the flora and fauna of the island, anything.  But she doesn't have the words.  Asked her impression of the launch by a friend, all she can muster is "awesome," with the explanation that "sometimes the most complex events are summed up in a single word."  Maybe, but not that word.  But I still have a couple hundred pages to go, so maybe the fire is in the finish.

I take a bite of pizza. I am cutting my single oversized slice with knife and fork, making it last, as if I were writing Notes From the Last Days of Pizza, as if I need to describe it all to you, reader.  Frank's pizza is little more than a delicious sizzling piece of cheese held together by the slightest of flour atoms, like raclette, the only Swiss dish I care for.  Lena fills my glass, breezes by.  "Thanks," I say, not even looking up, deep in the Last Orbit, in space. I know why I'm reading the book. I'm a sucker for melancholy tales, for wistful longings, for lost dreams.  Or maybe, magically, I hope to see someone I know in these pages, might see what they see as they drive up to Kennedy Space Center, as the Vehicle Assembly Building looms staggeringly large over them, a building which seems to touch the clouds and welcome the sky. I'd look with their eyes over a archipelago of buildings strewn across Florida marsh and sand and wonder: What now? Seeing the open horizon, suddenly I don't feel so melancholy at all, even believe that Cape Canaveral-sized dreams are still worth dreaming, that even I might reach a metaphoric star.

"Thanks Lena," I say.  Thanks for that bit of space to fuel my day, to dream.

Traveling Afoot

Setting out this morning, I stooped and picked up a pine cone, a gift laid at my doorstep, and held it as I walked.  It’s multi-layered scales prick my skin, if I grip tightly, and I do. I hold it as a spiritual provocation, as a suggestion of the Word that is a double-edged sword.

A little farther I stoop and pick up a sweetgum ball and hold it in my other hand, for symmetry.  When a couple walk by me, I hide them in my hands, suddenly feeling odd for carrying them.  The gum ball is mute but the pinecone cries out, peers around my wrist.  But they say nothing, oblivious to my idiosyncrasy, just “good morning.”  I turn back to look at them after they pass. Their dog turns also, meets my eyes. He knows.

Today I rename streets, an exercise of dominion.  The one that starts with “W” I name “Wilderness,” as I like that image, imagine the hill it crests before streets and homes, when it was a lonely forest or lightly peopled farmland.  For a moment I let it all drop away and imagine earth beneath my feet on a rough-hewn trail over the hill between farmstead and pasture.  I look up and a hawk circles on thermals. At my feet, under a shrub, a post-it note brings me back, says “Wrong Address.”  I walk on.

At the creek, I lean over the rail, unclench my hand, and toss the Word into the water, watch it go downstream, its scales and points ready to do their work elsewhere.  I throw the gum ball after it, hope the Word will stick.  As I turn to go, I still feel its presence in my hand, an imprint, as I begin to pray.

In “Traveling Afoot,” George Maculay Trevelyan says “[t]here is no orthodoxy in Walking.  It is a land of many paths and no-paths, where everyone goes his own way and is right,” and I understand that some things are a matter of preference, and yet I hope my Walk is a long obedience in the same direction, as Eugene Peterson says.  Nevertheless, I diverge from my usual course, crossing the four-lane and tramping through a less-known neighborhood, oddly quiet, circling back behind a shopping center, where a worker takes a break, lounging on the steps having a cigarette. He nods.

The heat is rising.  I had hoped for some adventure.  But a pine cone and a bommyknocker (gum ball), and a few disparate thoughts and fragmented prayers will have to do.  It is enough.

Entertaining Angels

Today’s Listening: Entertaining Angels, by Jimmy A (1991) and Harvest Moon, Neil Young (1992).

In May 1992 my son was 5 months old and I left home, reluctantly (as I always do, in the end), to attend The Writing Institute at Glen Eyrie, a castle-like conference center near Colorado Springs, Colorado. Monte Unger led about six of us in “Magazine Article Writing for Christians.” I hadn’t written anything much by then, so I needed help, and Monte obliged in his fatherly way.

One of the first things he asked us to write, even before we came, was 200 words on the subject “Why I want to be a writer,” along with a headline and a subhead.  I still have it.  Next he had us revise these pain-stakeningly chosen words down to 100 words.  Oh, the hatch marks, the pain of the censor!  Then, we had to condense it to 25 words.  It was painful, giving up so much. Make every word count, he said. Spend them wisely. He could have taken us down to one single word. He spared us. I wish more attorneys did that.

There’s some pretty poor writing in my notebook from 23 years ago.  But Monte was encouraging.  “Very Clever” he writes in brackets beside what to me sounds like an awkward title.  “Great conclusion.”  “Pique.”  

Jimmy A is singing “I’ll Meet You In Heaven,” Pastor Scotty Smith in the background, preaching, Charlie Peacock, Phil Madeira, Phil Keaggy, the late Vince Ebo.   It’s good. It’s creative.  

In the notebook pocket from that weekend, behind a copy of The Independent, a local zine, is a program from Poetry 1997: Voices of Vision, March 11, 1997.  It has my name as a Finalist in the Poetry 1997 contest.  I read “In My Room, a poem about Brian Wilson.  My friend Pete drove 25 miles to the Regulator Bookshop in Durham to hear me read.  

Five years after Monte’s workshop I scraped up a few words from the soil littered with sentimental, lame words.  “Right,” scrawls Monte across my paper.  Poor guy.  To have to read this stuff.  

Eject Jimmy A. Insert Neil Young. “From Hank to Hendrix.”  Wonderful.  Effortless.  “Right,” I say.  In Glen Eyrie, I would go back to my room, alone, no internet, no phone, no TV.  I’d sweat out a few words.  Walk around the grounds.  Tear up what I wrote.  Write some more.  Read my Bible.  Pray.  And wish I was home.  Wish I had words for what I felt.  Wish I had names like Harvest Moon or Entertaining Angels.  I was just looking for me, for my own words.


Losing Home

There is a scene in Love and Mercy, the just released Brian Wilson (Beach Boys) biopic where Brian has future wife Melissa Ledbetter drive him to a dead end street in Hawthorne, California.  It’s where he grew up.  Only his home was razed to allow the building of a highway overpass.

That must be sad, when you can’t really go home, when the landscape has been so altered that you find it difficult to orient yourself, like you can’t find the north pole of yourself anymore. He lived at 3701 W. 119 Street. But the home he shared with his two brothers and father Murray and mother Audree is gone.  They are too.  

Seeing that scene reminded me of a very sad yet deeply affecting book I read, entitled The Place You Love Is Gone: Progress Hits Home. In this memoir and social commentary Melissa Holbrook Pierson writes of how progress came and changed the face of three communities she loved — Akron, Ohio; Hoboken, New Jersey; and the Catskill Mountains of upstate New York.  Recognizing that nostalgic longing for what is lost, Pierson says “We press our noses to the glass and wish ourselves inside the cabin’s warm embrace, even as we know there is no real going back. The loss of how we used to be — made from the materials of how we used to live — must simply be borne. We are too far gone.”

If you listen to anything written by Brian Wilson these days, you hear that loss in his voice and in his words. In “Pacific Coast Highway,” off The Beach Boys 2012 record, That’s Why God Made the Radio, he sings “Sometimes I realize/ My days are getting on/ Sometimes I realize/ It’s time to move along/ And I wanna go home.”  Maybe he’s just old.  Or maybe he’s giving voice to a longing we all have for a lasting, eternal home.  I recommend the movie.  I think I'll see it again. 

A Postman Warning

I had a Neil Postman moment today.  At dinner, talking about technology, about artificial intelligence, my first thought was not how amazing or how wonderful AI is but about the unforeseen negative consequences of radical advances in such technology. Postman eschewed television, particularly network news, his whipping boy, because of just such thoughts.  Because of our cultural worship of technology, few of us actually consider the consequences of technological advances until it’s too late.

Looking past my friend and over my Mongolian chicken, I considered the automobile.  What utility and even beauty they have, what wonderful extensions of who we are, and yet how they have changed us.  They have isolated us from our environment.  Cocooned inside, we move through natural and social landscapes with barely a thought of our surroundings.

I need a convertible, to better get in touch with nature and myself, I think.  This morning I saw a bluebird light on a telephone poll, greeted a man just arriving to clear the land on which houses will be built, waved at Tony, who was on “round two” with his more active dog, felt the rise and fall of the land, noticed the cracks in the sidewalk, remembered walking our children to school.  In a car I would have missed most of that.

What Postman said was prescient: “To be unaware that a technology comes equipped with a program for social change, to maintain that technology is neutral, to make the assumption that technology is always a friend to culture is, at this late hour, stupidity plain and simple.”  And that was in the Seventies. I had a gold Camaro then.

Actually, I love cars.  All I’m saying is that before adopting technology, we better know what it’s doing to us, better hold it lightly.

Holy Subversion

In the last scenes of The Life of Pi, the narrator, having made an astounding trip across the Pacific in the company of a Bengali tiger, tells two contrasting stories about his journey.  Asked which is true, he asks “Which do you prefer?” A more post-modern ending could not be written.  No one but the sociopath really believes that history and its truth — whether personal, societal, or world-shaping — is just a matter of what you prefer to believe.  Statements to the effect that “That’s your truth” or even statements about self-identity in contravention of the obvious (as in a human being saying “I am a dog”) are at best an acknowledgement that our perception of reality is shaped by many factors, among them place, upbringing, and circumstances, and at worst just a mask for self-idolatry, when I am god and what is true is what I say it is, and if I have power, I can make others submit to my definition of reality. This is the pulse of our culture. And yet I am aware of how easily I am infected.

I believe in what Francis Schaeffer called “true truth,” and yet for the sake of peace and acceptance I allow assumptions about the good and true to go unchallenged.  I don’t mean to suggest triumphalism or any sense that I fully know the truth, but I know that finding truth means beginning with God, with the Logos at the heart of all reality.  

Leslie Newbigin, a long-time missionary to India, recognized the Gospel’s claim to absolute truth.  Newbigin wrote that:

“We have to proclaim [the Gospel] not merely to individuals in their personal and domestic lives.  We do certainly have to do that.  But we have to proclaim it as part of the continuing conversation that shapes public doctrine.  It must be heard in the conversation of economists, psychiatrists, educators, scientists and politicians.  We have to proclaim it. . . as the truth about what is the case, about what every human being and every human society will have to reckon with.  When we are faithful in this commission we are bound to appear subversive to those who believe that the cosmos is a closed system. We may appear to threaten the achievements of these centuries in which this has been the reigning belief. In truth we shall be offering the only hope of conserving and carrying forward the good fruits of these centuries into a future which might otherwise belong to the barbarians.”

Newbigin echoed words I heard from Os Guinness nearly 20 years ago when he spoke of our task as one of “holy subversion.” Christ-followers cannot make our bed in this culture. We are a nation in exile. We tend to our families, train our children in truth, rescue those we can from the barbary of radical autonomy, testify to what is true for all, and wait. . . for restoration, for a Kingdom without end.  We can have no illusions that we will gain acceptance, yet even among a pagan culture there are good works to do.  Newbigin said that “[t]he incarnate Word is Lord of all, not just of the Church. There are not two worlds, one sacred and one secular.  There are different ways of understanding the one world and choice has to be made about which one is the right way, the way that corresponds to reality, to the reality beyond all the show that the ruler of this world can put on.”

Subversion?  Thinking this way is a challenge to me, and I fear I am not up to it. But God is.

Turning Your Mind Out to Play

We don’t usually walk in the evening, but we did tonight. The air felt different, tired and used, perhaps, as if it too needed a rest after rising and falling and swirling around all day.

I saw several people I had never seen before, including a doughy couple who merely grunted a greeting as they climbed a slight hill.  Garage doors were open that are never open in the morning, revealing the personality of their owners, some with tools carefully arranged and floors swept clean and others ramshackle and loved, full of excess.  One young couple emerged from a stodgy home that I would never have associated with youth, one I always expected a sweet but elderly couple to ambulate.

Some homes took on a different hue in the slanted light of evening, warmer and more alive than in the hours after dawn, awake. Crossing the creek, even the water sounded different, slower, less effervescent, pensive, navigating carefully.  On Winthrop, five rabbits took a late supper at a squirrel feeder inches off the ground.  Seeing us, hearing the thud of our shoes on asphalt, they retreated a few feet, watched us carefully until we moved away.  

As the light falls, she is praying, and I am trying to join the conversation, nodding, agreeing, while watching for little revelations, special in their own way.  Occasionally I join the conversation, one punctuated, easily, by parentheticals of explanation.  On one block she runs down the four lane to navigate a low hanging bush before traffic, as I say “I can’t make it,” suddenly winded.  She says she will wait for me on the other side.  But somehow I make it before the cars stream by.  On one daunting hill, I say, “I will be slow tonight,” winded again. “I just don’t have the same energy at night.” She slows and meets my pace. We reach the top and eventually I can speak again. But there is no need to. It is enough to walk with her.

In a small book I bought when last in Wichita, The Joys of Walking, Edwin Mitchell collects a number of essays on walking by the likes of Charles Dickens, Henry David Thoreau, and Hilaire Belloc, among others.  I think of it as darkness settles in, as these writers often walked nocturnally and had a power of seeing that I doubt many of us have today, given our distracted lives.  In one essay I thumbed back to later, Leslie Stephen says that “Walking is the natural recreation for a man who desires not absolutely to suppress his intellect but to turn it out to play for a season.”  I commend it for that, for a play for the mind.  And for prayer.  And with your best friend.  And at dusk as well as dawn.

Love and Mercy

BrianI’m a little bit of a Brian Wilson groupie. When I was 12 or so, I was at my aunt’s house and pulled out a couple of badly scratched LPs by The Beach Boys, All Summer Long and The Beach Boys Concert, plopped them on a portable record player my cousin had, and was overwhelmed by the crackling energy and screams of adoring female fans as the band ran through a stream of #1 hits. It was an American version of The Beatles, a band that my sisters adored and for which, at my immature age, I had no use.

Later, along about 1972, at the age of 14, I awoke to popular music, abandoned the country and bluegrass of my parents (albeit temporarily), and discovered Pet Sounds, Sunflower, and even heard rumors of an unreleased masterpiece, the famous lost album, Smile. I also began following the troubled genius and hit maker of the band, Brian Wilson.

The just-released biopic, Love and Mercy, is an artful and beautiful look at the troubled years of Brian Wilson. Alternating between the Sixties, when Brian began his pioneering studio work on Pet Sounds and Smile, as well as his mental demise, and the Eighties, when having come under the control of the faux-psychiatrist Eugene Landry he was rescued by the woman he married, Melinda Ledbetter, the movie follows a story well-known to his fans. And it gets it right and hits all the truths about this man:  Abusing, controlling father that he ever sought to please, but could never please. Cousin and band member Mike Love, who to this day eschews art for the sake of the commercial, who never quite appreciated the special nature of Brian’s music. And control-freak Eugene Landry, who in fact was more abusive to Brian than his own father.

The acting is top notch.  John Cusak nails the mannerisms and boyish innocence of the Eighties Brian, and Paul Dano looks the part of the Sixties Brian.  Elizabeth Banks likely looks better than the actual Melinda Ledbetter, and Paul Giamatti is the believably sick psycho that Eugene Landry really was. Even the Bohemian lyricist Van Dyke Parks, with his nonsensical verse, is so un-Brian and yet we know that's what he looked like and the way he talked.  But what shines through it all is the music, often melancholy but achingly beautiful.

The film promo says that it portrays the “personal voyage and ultimate salvation of the icon.” Indeed, it is an amazing work of grace that Brian Wilson still lives and makes music, given the abuse he has taken and inflicted on himself.  I do not know him, but having met him several times in the last several years, his eyes still tell me that he is afraid, that salvation is still elusive.  I've written so many times about Wilson. I feel so inadequate to talk about a movie or how I feel about seeing him on screen.  I've read books, bought all his CDs (some more than once), and written about him, even published a poem about him.  See what I mean? I am a groupie.

See the movie. Listen to Pet Sounds. Then pray that Brian Wilson will finally know the love and mercy to be found in Jesus.


How to Listen, How to Live

Andy asked me a few days ago “how I LISTEN to a large record collection.”  That’s a very good question.

Given the ubiquity of music and its easy availability, I find myself impatient, a skimmer and not a deep listener.  To fight that compulsion, which is not unique to music, you have to have a strategy.  In the past, I would periodically select five CDs from my collection of 1300 CDs, at random, and force myself to listen to them in turn, straight through.  But this takes commitment, as nothing culturally encourages you to take the time to do this.

At the topmost corner of the shelves alphabetically housing my CDs, I pull down the very first CD, an album called Gonna Get It Wrong Before I Get It Right, by Sam Ashworth.  I have to force myself to listen to it in its entirety, as I have some vague remembrance that not all of this record is pleasant, that it starts off well and then descends into mediocrity.  But at least it starts well, with the Beatlesque “Look Back,” penned by Ashworth along with Matt Slocum (of Sixpence None the Richer) and the talented John Davis.  

Getting down on the floor, I pry out the very last CD of the collection, So It Goes, by Rollyn Zoubek.  Who?  I have no idea who this is.  Ah. . . I see.  It was produced by an amazing friend and guitarist, Brooks Williams, and released in 2001.  I think that’s the last time I heard it.  But, I tell myself, I will listen to it all.  I will.  

If you think about it, the combined length of all these albums together, assuming 45 minutes per CD, is 975 hours, or 40 days of continuous listening, a number of biblical import.  And I’m not even a true collector.  Want to watch the dysfunctionality of a true collector?  Watch the movie High Fidelity, and then hug your spouse and children.  

So how do you listen to a large record collection?  Just like you live.  One CD, one day, one song, one moment at a time. Existentially.  With patience.  With commitment.  And with a measure of love.

A Rendezvous Assured

When I consider the tremendous accomplishment of putting a man on the moon in less than one decade, I can't identify with the kind of dedication, drive, commitment, and perseverance that it took.  What Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins did was amazing in and of itself, yet when you consider the thousands of men and women who worked the long hours and families that sacrificed to make it happen, it is all the more amazing.  For the most part, they were not motivated by either money or hope of fame. While they were dutiful Americans, duty only takes you so far.  They did it because of a passion for the object of their mission: to go to the moon.

In Rocket Men: The Epic Story of the First Men on the Moon, which I just finished reading, Craig Nelson tells the story well.  He captures the intensity of that mission, the world-wide renown and respect for the United States after Apollo 11, and then the irony of a nation that moved on and lost its passion for space after the "Giant Leap."  There is a generation that has forgotten and a younger one one that views it as a footnote in history not worth dwelling on — and even, perhaps, a waste.  A surprising minority even believe the visit to the moon was faked.

There are lessons to be drawn for the church.  Our one holy passion, as John Piper likes to say, is Jesus Christ.  We follow not for duty but because we believe in the God-man.  We persevere because of a God-enabled faith, because it is a mission that is worth every sacrifice.  It is not a facile project, not always enjoyable (though there are moments of elation), nor does it necessarily pay off, financially or otherwise.  Sacrifice and suffering is required, and as a result of following Christ, your life could become a hardship.  Ask the Apollo 11 astronauts about the result of their project. They were hounded by reporters and tabloids, at one moment admired and at another the subject of unfounded and scandalous stories.  Neil Armstrong was notoriously reclusive.  Buzz Aldrin fell into alcoholism and an extended depression.  Both divorced.  But they never gave up on space and never regretted their mission.  

A quote from the father of space-flight, Robert Goddard, is included as a coda to the book.  Goddard said “When old dreams die, new ones come to take their place.  God pity a one-dream man.”  That’s not exactly right, of course, though I understand his meaning.  The dream of Christianity, a fairy-tale like story of creation, fall, redemption, and restoration, is one that endures.  That it is under attack is evident.  That some are demoralized is apparent.  But just as Buzz Aldrin still believes that space is our destiny, still lights up with talk of rendezvous, so we believe that a new heaven and new earth is coming, that, to recall a fond allegory,  “Aslan is on the move.”

I was ten when Armstrong took his “giant leap for mankind.”  Many dreams have died since then.  And yet forty-six years later, the dream of space is still alive for many, from the hipster-nerds of SpaceX to the heady dream-labs of Ames and JPL, from the space cowboys buried in the bureaucracy of NASA to the cubicles and computer monitors of of old-line aerospace firm Boeing, from old men like Buzz Aldrin and Gene Kranz to children who lay in sleeping bags in backyards watching stars and dreaming of Mars.  Some of us still dream.  And some of us still hold out hope of a heaven come down, of a time when the God of dark matter, of galaxies, of comets, and the smallest, least significant follower, will give us the object of our dream — Himself. Even a lazy dreamer like me takes flight in that mission. That rendezvous is assured.

The Skin of Suburbia

“I don’t know why my place in the suburbs is adequate to the demands of my desire. I can’t imagine it satisfying more sophisticated consumers of place. It’s only the skin I won’t slough off, the story I want to hear told, my carnal house and the body into which I welcome myself." 

(D.L. Waldie, in Where We Are Now: Notes From Los Angeles)

I grew up in a 50s- and then 60s-era suburb, housing that was one step removed from the post-war Baby Boom tract housing built for returning soldiers or even, in the case of Don Waldie, for Okie transplants come to work in the aerospace industries of Los Angeles.  Waldie grew up in a tract house of 957 square feet in Lakewood, California. My house was bigger, and colonial, but it was suburbia nonetheless.  Curb and gutter.  Sidewalks.  Street lights.  Lawns.  Cars to wash in driveways, grass to cut, back yards to traverse at night, a park, a neighborhood school.  Fireflies in summer. Unlocked doors.  Oldsmobiles and Buicks.  Carports.  Backyard grills.  Sounds of arguments bleeding through the sideyards and into windows.  Capture the flag.  Street ball.  Bullys and bikes with playing cards flapping in spokes.  Milkmen and Charles Chips deliveries.

When I walk the streets of my suburb, I trace a bit of that history, let it seep back in.  I cross the creek and imagine it a tributary of the one near my childhood home, wonder if it too has tadpoles.  I kick a rock down the street and watch it skitter across the asphalt, and I remember absent-mindedly doing the same while walking home from General Greene Elementary.  A school streetlight flashes, and I flashback to the one I threw rocks at, the street light I used to kick out.  Sometimes I find myself in the nouveau lodgings of the hip and professional, of the sophisticates, and I try these digs on for size, imagine myself among the bustle of shops and restaurants, among the urbane.  I even say to my wife, “You know, you could walk to everything you need, if you lived here, if we did.”  Then I think about what it feels like to walk barefoot across my grass, to have no one tramping over my roof, to walk on a cool summer morning, alone or with my best friend, and hear the birds, the hum of homes, and the trickle of a brook, to feel the luxurious emptiness of its space and walk among its trees while the irrigation sprinklers rise to their call.

I love suburbia.  It’s a skin I won’t slough off.  It’s in my DNA.  It’s the only home I’ve ever known.  It’s adequate to the demands of my desire.

A Story of Grace

Everyone has a story, or several stories, any one of which makes up their personal narrative, their little slice of history all their own.  Most of them are little stories of little people in little places, yet what Francis Schaeffer said about such people, meaning you and me, changed my perspective years ago.  He said that "there are no little people and no little places. . . . Those who are think of themselves as little people in little places, if committed to Christ and living under His Lordship in the whole of life may, by His grace, change the flow of our generation."  And then he and his wife Edith lived that idea, giving their time and care to the least, to the mighty and the lowly.  In other words, they regarded the stories of the little people to be mighty pieces of history, worthy of being told.

I told a piece of my story of a little person in a little place recently.  Maybe it will help you tell yours.  I'd like to hear it.  Mine went like this:

"One of the things we need to do for each other is to tell our stories of how God has worked in our lives - stories of grace - and we have good reason to believe this is a good thing, as it is, after all, so much of what we find in Scripture.  God is the Author of stories which encompass tragedy, comedy, and fairy tale, that run the gamut of emotion, and in which every human story finds its meaning.

There is an historian, Thomas Cahill, who when telling stories of our past, focuses on what he calls “hinges of history” - those essential moments when everything seems at stake or some big transformation is made - and he talks about “gift-givers” - the people who made all the difference, like a Wilberforce, who helped set the world on a different path.  But what’s true for cultures is also true for each of us.  There are hinges to our own personal history, as well as our gift-givers.  Let me tell you about a few of mine.  Let me take you way back.

In 1972 I was 14.  I went on a church retreat and returned to find that my father had a heart attack.  He died two weeks later. That was really traumatic.  It made me very insecure, and I began searching for some hope that my life could change, because I felt like an outsider at school.  I came to faith in Christ by reading. My parents were believers, though they were non-communicative about faith.  I read my mother’s books of missionaries, Barclays Commentaries, really anything I could find in her library. And through those words I really embraced the faith I was reared in.  So my dad’s death was a hinge and the books were actually the gift-givers.  God was drawing me to himself.  That’s grace.  

In 1976 I graduated from high school.  Though I had become a Christian in high school, I had no fellowship, no discipleship in the faith other than that provided by books (good as they were).  I was uncomfortable with high school fellowships that seemed filled with kids who already had everything, already had plenty of friends.  I was painfully shy and insecure.  So I remained an alone Christian.  At the same time I knew that I needed fellowship. I had read about it.  I wanted things to be different.  I wrote letters to all the campus student fellowships at N.C. State, where I was admitted, something I now look back upon as a somewhat surprising initiative. All of them wrote back and let me know of their campus activities.  However, three students in leadership with Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship wrote long handwritten letters to me --- Sam, Rich, and Buck.  They told me there was a volleyball and ice cream social on registration day. I made up my mind to go.

When registration day came, I walked through campus and down the sidewalk on Dan Allen Drive.  There was a grassy area where a volleyball net was set up.  Three guys were sitting on a slight hill, their backs to me.  And here’s the hinge: Every natural impulse in me told me not to go over to them, that I could always go later.  And yet I did.  I did something really unnatural for me.  I walked over to strangers.  I recall it was like watching my feet move without willing them to move.  One of the guys I met there that day, David, is a friend I still have lunch with monthly, even after 39 years.  I met Bruce that day, and he became my roommate for three years and is still a fellow church member.  I met Tanya and Bette, both of whom have impacted my life.  I was welcomed into that fellowship, went to retreats, was in a small group Bible study, attended the Urbana Missions Conference, met my wife of 34 years, was discipled and became a leader, and grew in faith. Oh . . . and graduated from college.

Blessing upon blessing followed from that one decision to talk to those guys sitting on the hill.  I'm not presumptuous enough to think that it all came down to me.  My "hinge" was secured, fastened to the One who providentially guides all events. The guys who reached out to me, who wrote me letters and spent many hours with me, were "gift-givers," instruments of God's grace in my life who took part in His transformation of my life.  The "hinge" was that essential moment on a stretch of sidewalk on Dan Allen Drive when my feet took an unnatural path and the door opened in on a world of rich blessing I could just as easily have missed.  And that's just one "hinge of history," one seemingly insignificant moment in one life among billions. But it matters. They all do.

You know, we Christians often invoke Romans 8:28, “that for those who love God all things work together for good,” but to keep that from being cliche, we have to hear it fleshed out in stories. Just consider: What are my hinges?  Who are my gift-givers?  What story is God telling in my life?  And moment by moment, am I turning toward God, or away?  The pastor who married my wife and I once caught us in the narthex of the church we attended at that time.  He got up in my face, real close, uncomfortably close, and he said, “Steve, life has to be lived existentially!”  He looked crazy.  I didn’t know that word then.  I just nodded.  I looked it up later, and it just means moment by moment. Moment by moment we either turn toward God in faith, or away.  There are millions of little hinges, little decisions that make up a life of faith. Which way will you turn?"

So I Want To Be a Rock and Roll Star

“When you're a little kid you're a little bit of everything — artist, scientist, athlete, scholar. Sometimes it seems like growing up is a process of giving those things up, one by one. I guess we all have one thing we regret giving up, one thing we really miss, that we gave up because we were too lazy or we couldn't stick it out, or because we were afraid.”  (“Coda”, The Wonder Years, aired Feb. 8, 1989)

Kevin Arnold’s Mom made him take piano lessons. So did mine. I suppose I liked it at first, when I was in third grade, when I was selected to play “Dump Trucks on Parade” for the city-wide recital, but later, along about seventh grade, I began to resent it. I walked through the neighborhood to Mrs. Edgerton's house, passing girls along the way that I suddenly realized were girls, suddenly ashamed of my music books. And then, like Kevin, I’d have to wait in the chair while “Mozart” (the Ronald Hirschmueller of my world) finished his concerta (the actual name of this annoying boy escapes me).

The real clincher was the recital where I went to the piano and tried to start a piece and four times hit the wrong keys, froze up, and couldn’t start, and Mrs. Edgerton had “Mozart” come up and show me how to start, where to place my hands. That was humiliating. Shortly thereafter I quit. It was eighth grade and I was on the cusp of manhood and the piano was holding me back.

It’s true that “when you’re a little kid, you’re a little bit of everything.” When I had a chemistry set (which, by the way, was highly dangerous), I was a scientist, or an alchemist, or a magician. But after a few accidents and handful of explosions (none permanently damaging), my mother gave it away.

On the basketball court behind Brad’s house, I was an NBA star. Well, maybe not, but on occasion, I thought I was OK at hoops. I wasn’t.

I was a midway operator, astronaut, explorer, and actor.  I gave them all up.  I never dreamed of being a lawyer. I never even knew one. I was too lazy and too afraid to be a pianist. I didn’t think like a scientist, in formulas and theorems. I had no aptitude for sports, poor of sight and uncoordinated. And I wasn’t, as my grades revealed, gifted or disciplined enough to be a scholar.  I gave all that up.  I wondered aimlessly into college and settled down into computer science, and then education, and then sociology, and then a pre-law-what-the-heck-job-do-i-get-with-a-sociology-degree. I gave them up one by one.  I did a masters in city planning.  Gave that up too.  I went to law school for lack of any better option.

But sometimes I still want to be a rock star.  I just need an electric guitar, need to take some time and learn how to play, and then when my hair's combed right and my pants fit tight, it's gonna be all right.  At least that's what Roger McGuinn (The Byrds) said.

Here We Have No Lasting City

“All cities are like Troy in their potential to mingle tragedy and the commonplace, Homer knew. Brown reaches toward that knowledge without flinching. Though ambivalent as her photographs must be, she shows us flawed towns being made that may claim someone’s allegiance, temporarily answer their longing, and yet persist in memory. Homer know such places were as sacred as they were vulnerable — New Jerusalems turning into Troys.”  (D.L. Waldie)

The phrase that caught my eye was “temporarily answer their longing.” Waldie is commenting on a series of photographs of new subdivisions in process, the new indelibly flawed from the outset.

Lately, developers have bought up a wooded tract near my home, not much more than a stone’s throw away, all that was left of a country road neighborhood. They removed the Sixties-era houses set back among the trees, cut and stripped and shackled the great pines, and now grind their stumps into the ground and push dirt over their remains. The men who do this are not evil. We greet them most days, and they smile and look away, as if they are ashamed. Their great machinery makes short work of it. It is just their job. Now I can see the rolling topography once hidden, can already imagine how the land will drain, how the rain water will sound in the storm drains. Even the private drive that led to these homes has been taken up. The subdivision sign beckons with its verbage — “exclusive homesites.”

Mike said it made him sad.  His dog Abby, a sweet German shepherd, seemed to agree, looking longingly at the barren land. I know what comes next.  Grading.  Water and sewer.  Phone and electrical lines. Curb and gutter.  Asphalt streets.  The scaffolding of new homes rises. People look and dream. They don’t know what was there, will never know the families who sold out, the deer who moved quietly through the forest, the red fox who cut through wooded yards.  They just hope that it will “answer their longing.” I know what that feels like, and I know it might temporarily do that.

And yet paint will peel and asphalt crack and some lawns will grow unkempt. Children will grow up and move away. Entropy. Yet it will be a place that can be loved, for a time, if held lightly, yet only a suggestion of another country, “for here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come” (Heb. 13:14 ESV). That's what I'm waiting for.