Biblical Studies

His Aim is Me

Tpt-child-front-coversmall The trumpet child will lift a glass
His bride now leaning in at last
His final aim to fill with joy
The earth that man all but destroyed

(The Trumpet Child, from Over the Rhine)

The last chapters of the book of Daniel are so confusing.  Kings rise and fall and merge together like a swirling pallet of colors.  Angels appear.  Strange visions are given of a surreal being like a man, "with a face like the appearance of lightening, his eyes like flaming torches. . ., the sound of his words like a multitude" (Dan. 10:6). There are terrible visions of great battles, allusions to even greater spiritual conflicts. There is deception and intrigue and murder, persecution of God's people, and an inexplicable "abomination that makes desolate" (Dan. 11:29, 12:11).  There are numbers too, like "1,290 days" and "1,335 days," hints of timing and appointed times still veiled in mystery. Stumbling out of a large Bible study tonight, my head was ringing with the historical corroboration, the fulfilled prophecies, the meanings given these verses by the one teaching.

But I don't know about all that. I find easy answers suspect. I am a man of words and this is what I heard: 

"man greatly loved" 

"O man greatly loved" 

"a hand touched me" 

"one in the likeness of the children of men touched my lips"  

"one having the appearance of a man touched me and strengthened me." 

Whoever it is speaking, angel or pre-incarnate Christ, it is personal, and Daniel is treated with high regard, as a dear friend. He is the object of affection and physically touched in a way that confirms that concern and renews him physically.  Daniel is loved.  And if he is loved then I am loved.  God is reaching out from beyond the stars, falling in beside me, putting his hand on my shoulder and saying, "man greatly loved." In all our study, in all the parsing of Bible verses and peering down the corridors of time and church history and even fascination with apocalyptic literature, we can lose the fact that God is not the great abstraction, the amorphous intellect, the Bible not a book of code or a jigsaw puzzle but a lovers tale.  And we're in it. It's like we're looking at a letter from our long-distance girlfriend, reading and re-reading her words, trying to figure out what she meant by this or that, when we could just hold it to our nose and get a whiff of love.

The church is emptying out.  Men are scattering. I find myself alone by my car, fumbling for my key, already carrying the weight of the next day's concerns, even the weight of life itself, and I hear it again, "man greatly loved, man greatly loved." I straighten up and take a breath.  Something like joy is coming on, nibbling at the edges, giving me strength.

Begin Here, Now: A Review of "The Hole In Our Gospel, by Richard Stearns

51pnAvUiESL._SL500_AA240_"I believe we have reduced the gospel from a dynamic and beautiful symphony of God's love for and in the world to a bare and strident monotone."

Go to any third-world country and the immensity of the need is overwhelming.  It's tempting to despair of making any difference.  When you leave and return home, normal routines can insulate you from this sea of lack, from the images, sounds, and smells of a world deprived of the most basic of necessities.  What are you to do?  Assuage your guilt by sponsoring a child?  Try not to think about it?

From his first trip to the third-world country of Uganda, Richard Stearns, President of the Christian relief organization, World Vision, has been asking that question: What do I do?  What, in fact, do we do?  The Hole In Our Gospel is his attempt to wrestle with those questions, challenging both himself and the American church to a whole gospel, to a gospel that puts feet to its words.  Part biography, part catalog of need, and part sermon, Stearns issues a wake up call to Christians in America.  By our pietistic emphasis and distraction by materialism, he says we have robbed the Gospel of its core, of it life-changing, society-renewing power.  Appropriately beginning with the Gospel, he demonstrates how it extends beyond just a simple transaction, a decision point of faith, to kingdom living.  Whatever else he says in the book, he roots his challenges in Scripture, in a Gospel of faith and works.

This is personal --- so much so that as the reader you never have the sense you're being lectured or talked down to.  The tendency not to trust God, not to act in faith and obedience, is one Stearns recounts from having lived it.  A Christian, a churchgoer, and the successful head of a major corporation, Stearns gave up a great deal to take the job as President of World Vision.  More than lost income, though, was lost pride, as he felt like he had nothing to offer the organization.  As successful as he was, he could not see what he had to offer the organization.  He felt scared and helpless.  But the question he wrestled with then is the same one for us all: Are we willing to be open to God's will for our life?

There are plenty of statistics here, numbers that numb the mind and stir the heart. 854 million people do not have enough food to sustain them.  25,000 people die each day of hunger.  Lacking access to clean water, five million people die each year to water-related illnesses.  One-third of the world's population is infected with the TB bacillus (that's two billion people).  And yet he balances this bad news with good news.  The under-five mortality rate has been cut in half since 1970.  Polio has been virtually eradicated.   Adult literacy has increased from 43 to 77 percent since 1970.  Shockingly, he points out that the tithe given by Christian churches averages two percent of income, demonstrating how adept we are at holding onto our money and yet how much need would be met if we simply gave the full tithe.  There's more, bad and good, but the point is that he doesn't beat us up with statistics but simply opens a window into the challenge, helping us take the focus off ourselves and our felt needs that pale in comparison.

Statistics and scripture are animated by abundant personal anecdotes, stories of families and children encountered in other countries and how simple things made a tremendous difference in their lives.  The cynic in us wants to say so what, what does one person matter, and yet some of these stories show the power of one person who does small things with great love.  He challenges us to take our time, talents (all that is uniquely ours), and our money and use them, to fill the hole in our Gospel by beginning where we are.  In the end it's a challenge to do two things:  Go, and give.  That's all.

So, will you?  Will I?  As I told a friend the other day, rather than asking why you should go, or why you should give, rather ask why you shouldn't go, and why you shouldn't give.  Presume that the love of Christ always pushes us out, even to the edge.  Let God stop us.  Let's begin here.  Now.

He took me a while to read this book.  It's not that it's long, but simply required self-examination along the way.  It comes with a helpful study guide that may make it suitable for missions committees or small groups.  Just read it.  You'll change.

The Twelfth Day of Christmas: Twelfth Night

Snow_11Fittingly, the last stanza of the song, with its twelve drummers drumming, is symbolic of the twelve points of doctrine found in the Apostles Creed.  Actually, I never counted them, but it appears there are in fact twelve!

I'm stopped short for a moment when I read the very first article of the creed --- "Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth" -- because so much is affirmed in this short phrase.  I like what the Heidelberg Catechism (Q. 26) says about what we mean when we say this: "That the eternal Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who out of nothing created heaven and earth with all that is in them, who also upholds and governs them by his eternal counsel and providence, is for the sake of Christ his Son my God and my Father.  I trust him so completely that I have no doubt that he will provide me with all things necessary for body and soul.  Moreover, whatever evil he sends upon me in this troubled life he will turn to my good, for he is able to do it, being almighty God, and is determined to do it, being a faithful Father."  There's really great truth and warm assurance in that summary of what we confess. 

With that, we come to the end of the 12 days of Christmas, a merry song that might also be a good mnemonic for Christian truths.  For some Christians, tonight is celebrated as the Twelfth Night, the last night before Epiphany, which historically is a celebration of the Visitation of the Magi.  I've always wanted to have a 12th Night party!  It's not to happen this year.  But at least I can remember what great gifts I have been given in faith and celebrate the gift of a New Year.

New Year's Promise

Cd11  I'm so boring.  It's New Years Eve and I'm not at a party reveling, not even watching the hoopla of Times Square, but passing it listening to the somulant strains of The Innocence Mission's 2000 EP entitled Christ Is My Hope.  This collection of strummed hymns and originals seems of appropriate weight for reflection, saving me from making too much of the moment or too little.  Nothing much, after all, will change with the passing of the hour. And yet so much can happen in the space of one year.  Hearing these hushed hymns reminds me that some things don't change, that God does not change, that sin and need are in all generations and faith, hope, and love line the walk of life right out to its horizon. Charles Spurgeon used just that image of "looking down the long aisles of your years, at the green boughs of mercy overhead, and the strong pillars of lovingkindness and faithfulness which bears up your joys" to encourage his parishioners.  And so it encourages me.

The Psalmist says "The years of our life are seventy,/ or even by reason of strength eighty;/ yet their span is but toil and trouble;/ they are soon gone, and we fly away" (Ps. 90:10).  And later, "teach us to number our days/ that we may get a heart of wisdom.  And so, maybe it is appropriate to stop and reflect, to consider what was and what may be.

This year my son will graduate from high school and leave home, and that will be the hinge of a door opening leaf of a book turning that will mark time's passing.  This year my mother whose body and mind are giving way to the years will leave her home and enter a nursing home where she will most likely live out the rest of her days, bringing to an end a chapter of life but opening up new chapters as well.  We fly away.

There is no guarantee that I will not face hardship, sickness, or even death this year, though I feel fine now and things seem to be going well.  It's just that I have few guarantees.  God does not promise me freedom from hardship, illness, injury, nor does He shield me from the peril of prosperity, of forgetting from whence all good gifts come.  As I walked in the mornings this week I sometimes meditated on one line from Psalm 23: "I shall not want."  I wondered what that could possibly mean, as I have known want and certainly Ugandan Christians I have known have experienced devastating want.  "I shall not want." When it comes right down to it, the only promise I have for the new year is that God will be with me, is with me, whether feast or famine.  That's everything that matters and yet to all who watch for the external nothing much to see.  It's like the Psalmist said in beginning Psalm 90: "Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations."

When I walk tomorrow, I think I'll dwell on the last verse of Psalm 23, the one that says "I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever."  The house may be ramshackle on the outside, but inside the fire is warm and the company divine.  I could sit here and talk forever.  Sometimes, like when you are with a good friend, you need not even talk but just sit in each others' presence.  That's my hope for 2010: to dwell in God's house, to settle into residence, to quit trying to make the exterior look presentable and simply enjoy the hospitality of the Homemaker who gives rest to the weary.  I want to live in Him.  Don't you?

The Weather of Advent

Index Either I'm just irritable or there's something the matter when you cannot find a quiet place to work.  I'm in a hotel, en route to visit out of town relatives, and I can barely think for the noise.  My room is not quiet.  The TV is set to The Food Network and my kids are enraptured by its savvy host, and I'm conscious of the banter of the chef, the sizzling of food, the litany of ingredients.  I go to the lobby, and the TV is set to The Weather Channel.  I do not need to know the weather.  I can see it outside the window.  That someone can market a 24/7 channel that focuses on nothing but weather is a testament to our collective boredom and the banality of most other programming.  I move to the pool room, and it's hushed and humid, but there is, inexplicably, nowhere to sit except in the pool, and I'm not dressed for that.  In this entire hotel, there is no place available to me that is relatively quiet.

So, "join the weather channel for a guaranteed white Christmas," as the commentator says, as the "local on the 8s" screens by to the strains of "joyful, joyful, we adore thee" overlaid by a male voiceover of "tonight, cloudy, low of 43."

"Two foot snowfall for some parts of New York City," he says. I can't get it out of my head.  "Jim Cantore. . .  Carl. . .  How is it out there? . . . when you start getting the compacted stuff, keep the back as straight as you can. . . if we get rain, it'll make things more difficult" and so on, and so on.

It's all so important. Oh to be a Weather Channel personality.  Where do you go from there?  There is a career in banter.  And we watch this stuff!

I am incredibly annoyed that I have to live with such intrusions.  I can't turn off the lobby TV because someone somewhere has determined that in the marketing of the hotel it is important to have that sound, to give a sense that something is alive, something happening here, in this hotel.  And if we turn off the TV, there will be background music playing, also carefully chosen, aimed at some target demographic, to make them feel a certain way.

"Today, sun, along with patchy clouds."  It's the "Local on the 8s" again, back around for another assault on me, another reminder that there is nothing new, just sun, storms, earthquakes, tornados, more sun, floods, hurricanes, and tsunamis --- a cycle of blessing and curse.  It's all terribly exciting and so important, so immediate.  Above all, make it immediate.

It's Sunday morning.  I'm trying to think about the advent of something really important.  Not immediate. Not noisy.  Not compelling.  Not exciting.  At least not in any sense that we now understand those words.  I want to think about the Incarnation, the entry of God into the world in human form, a story that has become so familiar to me that I have difficulty recognizing its nature as "news," how the weather of life on earth changed with that advent.

"Of course you want to stay right here with us on The Weather Channel."  Do I?  I don't think so.  I'm rebelling.  I grab the remote, power off the TV.  Amazing.  Not a thing happened.  It's quiet.  I think I'll just sit here and see what happens.  Maybe Jesus will walk right in.  Maybe I'll wait right here for the News, the Good News.

"Today, partly cloudy, and quiet, very quiet.  We here at The Weather Channel will observe a day of silence, a day to reflect on the meaning of the Incarnation, about the weather of His birth, the climate of his coming, and the global warming of His love.  Stay with us, will you?"

Sure.  That kind of weather I need.  Quiet is good weather for Advent.

A Blessed Longing: Advent

Medium.20.100381 "When once again Christmas comes and we hear the familiar carols and sing the Christmas hymns, something happens to us, and a special kind of warmth slowly encircles us.  The hardest heart is softened.  We recall our own childhood.  We feel again how we then felt, especially if we were separated from a mother.  A kind of homesickness comes over us for past times, distant places, and yes, a blessed longing for a world without violence or hardness of heart.  But there is something more --- a longing for the safe lodging of the everlasting Father."

(Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in an Advent sermon, Dec. 2, 1928)

Eighty-one years after he spoke the words from a pulpit in Barcelona, German pastor and theologian Bonhoeffer's words still echo, across decades of war, oppression, and injustice, across the boundaries of race, ethnicity, and nation, across generations and gender.  Still, he captures a sense we may all have as we approach Christmas, as we know the tension between what is and what is not.

In 1928 Bonhoeffer was 22 years old, appointed Assistant Pastor to a German-speaking congregation in Spain.  His text was Revelation 3:20, the familiar "I stand at the door and knock."  His first words were "Celebrating Advent means learning how to wait."  And yet, at 22, what did he know about waiting?  And how could he speak any words that might offer spiritual comfort or challenge when even he was not yet a believer?  After all, he himself did not become a Christian, by his own account, until 1931, when he said he "discovered the Bible." And yet God can speak, even across time, through young, unregenerate pastors.  He may not have understood the ramifications of what he said, but God still used him.

As you grow older Advent becomes more and more about waiting, and there is an increasing sense of longing --- even blessed longing --- that what is to come will be what is, that wrong will be righted, that all all things will be set right, that the groaning of creation Paul writes about in Romans 8:22 will resolve in the rejoicing in the Heavens of Revelation 19.  Our homelessness becomes more poignant, our pilgrimage more urgent, our strangeness and alienation from the world more intense.  We wait.  "Celebrating Advent means learning how to wait," he says.

In the Summer of 1991 my wife and I traveled to Prague, in the Czech Republic, for two weeks for a mission trip devoted to street evangelism.  I have never been more homesick as an adult.  Very few people in newly liberated Prague spoke English.  Signs and menus were in Czech, a consonant-rich language full of hazard for those like us who have to guess at the meaning of words.  The disposition of the people could only be described as melancholy.  They had plenty of time to talk, but if you were looking for affirmation by smile or word you would likely not receive it.  We walked the Charles Bridge, Wenceslas Square, and Hus Square and, but for each other, felt deeply alone, aliens and strangers in their world.  Despite what we were there to do --- meet people and engage them in conversations about spiritual things --- we longed for home.  We actively waited for the day we could return to the familiar.  And when we did return we felt, even in the cosmopolitan air of the Atlanta airport, that we were home, really home.

If I slow down and reflect, if I slip out of this season of buying, partying, and doing all that I am supposed to do --- if I just become still and listen, then I can know what Advent is about.  It is not about happiness.  Reflect on the world outside and inside, about the depth and breadth of sin in the world and in ourselves, and the feeling you have is a troubling one, a sense of wanting to return to a idyllic time of innocence in the past, perhaps, but more than that, to a future time of blessedness, a time when there are no tears, no pain, and no death, when lions lay down with lambs, when we wait no more.

"The celebration of Advent is possible only to those who are troubled in soul, who know themselves to be poor and imperfect, who look forward to something greater to come.  For these, it is enough to wait in humble fear until the Holy One himself comes down to us, God in the child in the manger.  God comes.  The Lord Jesus comes.  Christmas comes.  Christians rejoice!"

So slow down, I tell myself.  Reflect on what is.  Listen and hear a voice across the years that resonates with our own experience, our own troubled souls, our own blessed longing for home.  God, Bonhoeffer said, is the one knocking at the door of our heart.  "The cries of the marketplace and of those who sell shoddy goods are all too loud.  But the knocking goes on and, despite the noise, we hear it at last."  What shall we do?  As Bonhoeffer points out, when we open the door, we will be troubled, afraid because we are sinners, afraid because we have let in the Judge, and yet "[i]t is only by facing up to the fearfulness of the event that we begin to understand the incomparable blessing.  God comes into the midst of evil and death, to judge the evil in the world --- and in us.  And while he judges us, he loves us, he purifies us, he saves us, and he comes to us with gifts of grace and love."

"Celebrating Advent means learning how to wait."  So, may we wait well.

[All quotes are from Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Christmas Sermons, as edited and translated by Edwin Robertson.  I recommend the book.]

A Promise for Exiles

DSCN0156 At the corner of my desk, just beyond the edge of my computer display, sits a digital photo frame.  Every day when I come into the office, I turn it on.  Almost 300 pictures scroll through its slide show as I work, practically all of them of the orphaned children of Kaihura, Uganda.  Mostly I do my work, focused on the screen, the lives of these children playing out on the margins of my day.  Occasionally, however, I catch a child's face and eyes out of the corner of my eye, and I stop and look at him, for a moment remembering what it was like to be in the midst of so many of them during trips there the last couple of years.

There are two "tough" guys, arms around each other; an older sister holding her infant sister; the black faces and dark probing eyes of four school friends staring back at me; a crowd of faces, some smiling, some steely, some inquisitive, some impassive; a grassy plain of elephants not more than 100 miles away from the village that most of the children will never see.  I can hear their laughter and chatter in Rotoro, their broken English, and their questions, feel the touch of their hands on my white skin.  Soon, however, I turn back to what I am working on, the words on a page, the faces relegated once again to the margins.

One of my favorite verses of Scripture is that contained in Jeremiah 29:11, where the prophet quotes God in a letter from Jerusalem to the exiles of Babylon, as saying "For I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, to give you a reason and hope."  It's a verse of assurance, one I have often quoted to myself or an anxious friend to provide comfort that, despite the confusion of life at times, God is sovereign and has a plan, to "prosper," "not harm," to "give. . . reason and hope."  When I think about these orphans, however, the verse begins to lose its easy quotability.  What, after all, would it mean to say to an orphan that God will prosper him or her, give them reason (to live, to work, to become educated), and give them hope?  The average life span in Uganda is 43, so many of these children will die at what is for us an early age, either from cholera, malaria, AIDS, or some other opportunistic disease. Many will not complete secondary school, lacking funds to pay the school fees, and only a handful, if any, will make it to university.  And yet, even with such prospects, many have faith in the God of Jeremiah, the one who will prosper.  What can that mean?

Verses of Scripture, like newspaper quotes, soundbytes, and memories, need context to be understood aright.  Jeremiah said these words to a people in captivity, exiles who longed for the familiarity and freedom of their homeland.  However, the promises he gave them were not of immediate deliverance.  It would be another generation that would be delivered from captivity, as he told them it would be 70 years before they would see their homeland: "This is what the Lord says: 'When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my gracious promise and bring you back to this place'" (Jer. 29:10).  He gave them a very practical message, telling them to live where they were, to commit themselves to life in the present: "Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. . . . Marry. . . . [and] find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage" (Jer. 29:5-6). Far from segregating themselves from the time and place in which they lived, simply getting by until their deliverance, He told them to "seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile" (Jer. 29:7).  And he told them not to listen to the pipe dreams of false prophets, people who made promises that could not be kept and gave false hope.

So what does Jeremiah 29:11 mean for the orphans of Uganda?  It means the same thing it does for all of us exiles in a foreign land, who long for a homeland where things are set right, for people who  sometimes cry out like Habakkuk, asking "how long shall I cry for help and you will not hear?" (Hab. 1:2).  For those who believe it, the promise is not that you can be whatever you want to be if you just work hard enough, or even that God will give you money, health, or recognition if you seek Him. Rather, it is the voice of a Father telling his children that they are not on the margins of his work but at the center of his mind and heart.  He's saying: "Live here.  Settle down.  Commit to the future of life here.  Work for the good of your community.  Wait for me, children.  I will deliver you, if not in life, then in death.  Much is at stake, more than you realize, but I will never forget you.  I will come for you."

One of the songs the orphans sing, in Rotoro and English, is "God is so good, God is so good, God is so good, He's so good to me."  I think it's the song of God's exiles, singing their way back home.  If they can sing it, so can we.

A River Runs Through It

River Whenever I pass over a river, I cannot help but stare.  Whether it is a river in my own locale --- the Neuse, Haw, Cape Fear, Eno, Great Pee Dee, or Deep, or even the creek that dribbles under the street I walk each morning --- or ones distant --- the Nile, Mississippi, Columbia, Hudson, Potomac, or Missouri --- or ones I only read about, like the Congo, I'm mesmerized by them.

In Jinja, in Eastern Uganda, there is a place on the Nile River where you can take a boat to the source of the Nile, a source I always presumed to be Lake Victoria, almost a sea in itself, the second-largest freshwater lake in the world, and yet it's not.  Bubbling up from deep and powerful groundwater springs, water pours out, enough to feed a river that winds its way north all the way to the Mediterranean.  Before a dam was built downriver and the water table was raised, I'm told the water from the springs would shoot five feet above the surface of the river, a testimony to the power of the deep, reminding me of the biblical account of creation, the great and powerful movements that must have occurred in those days.

Maybe it's the power of the river currents, the sense of movement, the fact that life abounds around them, or their sheer beauty, but something draws us to them and always has.  Our great and small cities are mostly on rivers.  In fact they provide water and transportation for many people.  Even civilizations rise and fall with the rivers.  But it's more than that.

There's something elemental about water, as there is about earth and about light, something that resonates deep within us, that we not only need for physical sustenance but for spiritual life.  We sense that not only in the still and tranquil waters but in the frightening power of the currents or even the devastation of floods. The tranquil creek that ran through the woods at the back of my childhood home is the same one that overflowed its banks and flooded our home.  Rivers can never be taken for granted, as I recall watching them in amazement even in their devastating power.  I can't erase the image of flooding last year in a midwestern town, the picture of a town at war with the river that threatened to destroy their way of life, or even the devastation that Hurricane Floyd brought to many towns in our region several years ago.

But just as rivers can symbolize judgment, an outpouring of God's general judgment against sin, so they can be a source of hope, of comfort amidst the difficulties of life.  It was, after all, the rivers of Babylon by which the exiled Israelites sat and wept as they remembered and longed for their home (Ps. 137:1).  Was it that the waters of the Euphrates and other streams and canals that ran in and then out of the city gave them hope that they too would be delivered out of the city one day?  Or did they just provide a tranquil place to rest?

Rivers also symbolize life.  It's a river, again, that flows out of Eden to water the Garden (Gen. 2:10), and in the New Eden of Revelation a river once again that flows through the New Jerusalem (Rev. 22:1-2).  It is God who turns "rivers into a desert, flowing springs into thirsty ground" (Ps. 107:33). Life abounds in and near rivers.

In John 7:38 Jesus promises that out of those who believe in him will flow "rivers of living water."  Meditating on this verse, Oswald Chambers notes the richness of the metaphor God provides by His creation, how, for example, "[a] river touches places of which its source knows nothing," bringing to mind how our lives lived in Christ touch places we may never know of, how we are not, after all, "little people" of no effect but "little people" of mighty effect if we stay connected to our Source, Christ.  He reminds us that "[a] river is victoriously persistent," overcoming barriers and obstacles, sometimes by going around, sometimes by dropping out of sight for many miles, moving underground, only to surface again in some distant location, even, as with the source of the Nile River, with great power, reminding us that our lives flow on in Christ, around obstacles, even invisible, but not without great effect.

Al this is to say that a created thing like a river holds great lessons for us, great encouragement,  and is a signpost of the Kingdom, a window on a deeper spiritual reality. Whether they give us hope, comfort, life, or encouragement to press on in faith, rivers mean something. 

So tomorrow morning when I walk the bridge and pass over an unnamed creek that winds through my subdivision, I'll have a lot to think about and much for which to be grateful.  If I listen well to its rippling, I may just hear a clap of joy (Ps. 98:8).  I may just think of my Home, where a river runs through it.

Life on Shuffle

Medium.41.207415 On a long road trip recently, I experienced something by choice that is a rarity in this time.  I probably have at least 500 songs on my IPod, a fraction of what is available to me at home but plenty to choose from.  Only I didn't.  I put the IPod on shuffle and for nearly four hours disciplined myself to listen to every song that came to me, unbidden, welcoming it, considering its lyric and sound.  Interestingly enough, at least every other song I felt the compulsion to skip the song, surprising considering that I chose these songs! But I take that as a symptom of cultural attention deficit disorder to which I'm not immune.

Within reason, we can now listen to whatever song we want to listen to, at any time, in almost any place, as many times as we like.  Music is ubiquitous --- widely accessible, portable, and taste-driven.  If I want it, I can have it.  Now.  I do not have to wait.  In a not so distant time, we had to wait for a DJ to play our favorite song on the radio, whether "In a Gada Da Vida or "Bus Stop." Or if we were lucky we'd find the record and buy it in a record store and take it home and listen.  If we push back farther in time, prior to the phonograph, to hear a song we had to hear it live.  We had to be there.  And we had to wait for that time. We had to anticipate that experience.  Choice was limited but experience rich and savored.

Something is lost in this expansion of choice.  By taking songs as they came, by abandoning choice and denying whatever momentary passion came over me, I realized that my experience was richer.  I wasn't bored.  I was more attentive.  I discovered a richness in songs that at first I wanted to skip.  I enjoyed the surprise of hearing what was next. I enjoyed the restfulness of not choosing.  Some oft-skipped bit of progressive rock on Yes's Fragile CD needed to be savored, not skipped on the way to the immediately captivating "Roundabout."

It's a great lesson for life, this shuffling through, if I allow it.  I don't have to have my way. I need not make a choice.  What if, when I go to a restaurant, I just tell the server to bring me his or her favorite dish, if I tell them to just "surprise me?"  I might try that sometime. What if rather than trying to be right in every discussion I just let someone else be "right," if I just let them "win?"  What if, rather than avoiding an office mate by not walking by their office, I just walk by their office and see what happens?  What if rather than attempting to carefully control the events of my day I just accept what comes, savor it, learn from it, and pray through it.  It's not fatalism, as choice cannot be escaped, but it is a long restfulness and acceptance that likely will bring greater enjoyment of the moment.

In the Gospel accounts of Jesus' life, one has a sense of a man who moved in the direction of his calling, ultimately a calling requiring his death, but one who responded to the need of the moment, to the person he beheld.  When the woman touched the hem of his robe, he stopped and addressed her.  Though weary, when the crowds sought him out, he was there for them.  Though sleeping, he awoke at his disciples' insistence to calm a storm.  Though omnipotent and sovereign, he refused to pull rank and flatten those who would crucify him. Though a man with a mission, he accepted what came because life on shuffle was, in the end, just life on God's time.

G.K. Chesterton, one of the most quotable of men, once said that "Self-denial is the test and definition of self-government." By having so many choices, by not having to deny ourselves much, we become slaves of our passions, both the relatively benign ones like what song I will listen to next to the more dangerous ones like what food I will eat (gluttony) or who I will sleep with (sexual immorality).  Market economies and liberal democracies thrive on the notion that an expansion of choice is always good, that having what I want when I want it is always good.  It's not.  In the end, self-government is, in God's economy, an agent of freedom and enjoyment.  Limiting choice can lead to a greater enjoyment of what we have.  The notion that I don't have to have what I can have is a freeing thought.

I'm just going to put life on shuffle.  I'm just going to see what happens next.

Why I Am Particular

Char-grill_07 "At the risk of approaching a definition, a bohemian conservative believes humans ought to appreciate, live amidst, and even love the eccentric particularity of physical nature, of distinctive persons, of local culture, of odd traditions that reach back before memory, and more generally of the person rooted in time and place–a historical expression as unique as the proverbial snowflake.  The bohemian conservative appreciates less the abstract beauty of the woman on the billboard and more the peculiar beauty of the woman who works at the diner.  The bohemian conservative does not love the individualist as much as the eccentric person who is rooted in cultural soil unprocessed by sanitizing consumerism.  The bohemian conservative admires the unique and peculiar over the abstracted perfection of a universal form."

(Ted V. McAllister, in "The Strange Lament of a Bohemian Conservative")

I regularly have to ask forgiveness for being contrarian just to be contrarian, for disliking what everyone else likes, for going to the movies when no one else goes, for eating at restaurants that not many other people seem to know about, for not reading a book that everyone else likes, and so on.  Sometimes I just get an attitude.

But if I'm particular about the particulars of place and time and space,  I like to think it's based on a principle, one that is creational.  God made a world of diversity, not uniformity, created man and woman, not woman and woman, made all different kinds of plants and animals to be named, not one kind of plant and one kind of animal.  You might even say that the Trinity itself is the root of it all, a wonderful particularity in the midst of unity.  As summarized in many confessions, Father, Son, and Spirit are of one substance yet remain three distinct persons.  Trinity and Creation thus compel me to regard particularity, in all its forms, as normative, as God's will for the world.

But that's enough theology.  It just comforts me to know sometimes that there is some authority behind what I want to do.

I like Char-Grill for burgers, not McDonalds, because it's particular, only here, unknown much beyond the borders of Wake County.

In Wrightsville Beach, I always buy my gas at Tom and Nancy's gas station, because I like seeing a husband and wife run a business together, because they always come out and greet me as I pump gas, and because they sound like they're from the place where they live and do business, and because I can't find them anywhere else.

When I visit a city, town, or region, I want to do what the people that live and work and eat in that region do. I don't want to eat at Chilis, but Jacksons.  I want to walk down the streets of Boston, with all their Boston-sounding names.  I want to hear some local music.  I want to know what's interesting about this place.

And I certainly don't want to watch Western TV shows in Kaihura, Uganda, even if I can, but prefer a place fairly untouched by the "sanitizing consumerism" under which we labor.

My teenagers don't understand this.  They love what they love and have little time for the unpredictability of a local restaurant, of the unknown, for the quaint eccentricities of place.  I don't even remember being that way.  The most wonderful thing for me is an open road, a new place, and someone to share it with.  Picture this:  On midnight of the day I turned 16, armed with my learner's permit and a friend three months older with a license, I drove all night over four counties, stopping at corner stores, restaurants, and by the sides of the road (to soak up place and freedom, of course).  Why?  Because I wanted to see particular things, to experience something different than where I lived. Because I could.

And another thing: When I'm 75 and, God willing, looking across the room at my wife, she'll still be particular to me and profoundly mysterious, like everything that God thought up and made. Like those roadside stores and diners I saw at 16, like Tom and Nancy, like the stories my aunt tells of another time, like the cats that walk the halls of our home and curl at our feet, like that particular tree on that particular road on my way to work, like everyone I ever knew.

Jesus was a particular man.  So am I.

People v. God

Why god "How long, O Lord, must I call for help, but you do not listen? Or cry out to you, 'Violence!' but you do not save? Why do you make me look at injustice? Why do you tolerate wrong? Destruction and violence are before me; there is strife, and conflict abounds. Therefore the law is paralyzed, and justice never prevails. The wicked hem in the righteous, so that justice is perverted." (Hab. 1:2-4)

It may well be that we are to be content in our circumstances, that life itself is grace, but apparently that does not mean that we cannot complain and cry out honestly to God. The Psalmist repeatedly asks why and how long, and not always with affirmations of love or sovereignty. But it is in Habakkuk, a short Old Testament book, that I find something astonishing: an indictment of God. The prophet is saying something like justice delayed is justice denied, not mincing words but speaking forthrightly to God. And God answers.

I recently read a letter written by a Zimbabwe pastor that updated praying friends on the situation in his country. A once reasonably prosperous country is in the midst of complete disintegration. Their currency is worthless. As many as 90% of the people are unemployed. Teachers are leaving the schools as no one is providing their salary. The infrastructure is decaying. Medical clinics and hospitals are closing. Civilization hangs by a thread that is slowly unraveling. Why? Why doesn't God uproot greedy, corrupt, and self-aggrandizing leaders who have led the country into such a state?

Having been to Uganda, I can appreciate the semblance of civility and infrastructure that exists there compared to a place like Zimbabwe. And yet even there you find greed, corruption, tribalism, and violence. People are murdered over land disputes. Roads are blockaded and money demanded from travelers in exchange for safe passage. If you are able to help some people, others become envious. For every adult there may be 100 children --- orphans living in the bush or together in makeshift huts. Warfare and disease have taken so many of the parents that the children have been left alone. Why?

God's answer to Habakkuk goes like this: "For the revelation awaits an appointed time; it speaks of the end and will not prove false. Though it linger, wait for it; it will certainly come and not delay" (Hab. 2:3). In the end, Habakkuk's indictment is withdrawn, muted by the revelation that God is sovereign over all things, that the "Lord is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, he enables me to go on the heights" (Hab. 3:19), implying that God will sustain and even grow you (take you higher) as a result of the hardship you endure. As the Zimbabwean pastor says: "God is refining the faith of His people so that they would trust Him, no matter what, when He seemed uncaring, when He seemed silent, when He seemed inactive." Even as he sees fellow believers leaving his country, leaving an already weakened church, he is able to see how God is pointing "around the world at other places of spiritual need," sending those Africans who leave to extend His Kingdom in other needy places.

Last weekend Patrick, one of the Ugandan orphans I met last summer, came here for a heart operation. (Read about it here.) His Aunt Elizabeth, a pastor herself, came with him. I reminded Elizabeth that while they have little in material goods to give us, they have much to give us in their testimony of faith and in their prayers. In the midst of abundance, we have less opportunity to trust God. The Ugandans have to trust Him every day --- for food, water, and clothing, all of which we take for granted. Aid may come, or not; Westerners like us come, and leave. But God is constant. They know the answer to why and how long. It's simply trust, and obey, and wait. God is on the move, but all in His time.

A Varied Grace

medium_7_38080 “As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace. . .” (1 Pet. 4:10, ESV)

When Peter speaks of “varied grace,” at first I want to cry foul, thinking it unfair for grace to vary.  Surely he doesn’t mean that God gives more grace to some than others!  But it’s His prerogative; that he gives one gift to me and ten to another is no concern of mine.  He gives me what I need.  My concern is that I use what I have for His glory.  My assurance is that I have what I need and what I can use for His purposes.  I have my place; you have yours.

We’re cleaning the garage today for the first time in perhaps four years, and because He gave me the gift of words and gave me this particular place, I’m here to tell you about it.  Maybe to some it’s simply a dirty but necessary job, a menial task not worth a footnote in the story of your life, but if you look at it closely, it’s more than that.  Everything matters.

Even the rubbish I sweep up with my broom speaks to me. Mixed with the dust of four years of life in our family is spilled grout from the remodeling of our home four years ago after a house fire that forced us out for ten months.  There are leaves and pine straw that have traveled in on my tires from countless comings and goings to work, school, church, late night grocery store runs, urgent care physicians and trips out of town alone.  A Cheerwine bottle cap reminds me of Henry, a mentally retarded man who lives in a story I wrote.  I pick up the bottle cap and put in in my shirt pocket so I can be reminded of him.

The larger items we clear from the garage are testimonies to hopes and dreams.  650 remaining CDs remind me that I once owned a record label that represented a dream and a loss.  I loved music, but business was not good to me.  A red Giant kids’ bike was what my children learned to ride, and yet they have outgrown it as they have seemingly outgrown riding for the simple joy of riding.  On a shelf sits a cardboard box labeled “Pinewood Derby,” and I know that despite the fact I have long since lost the need for what is in that box I will likely keep it around because it represents a special time, a father-son time.  Even the dirty blue carpet square at the steps takes me back to a time when our house was new and the carpet blue and I sat at my desk and watched my young children play around me.

Most of this we’ll give away or throw away, the dust and leaves and dirt swept into a garbage bag and firmly tied and placed in the trash can, and yet even the walls will speak.  They’ll tell about how a family lived and moved and had its being, of laugher and tears, of long bedtime talks and wakeful nights.  Walls whisper of inside jokes and secrets, of what only we can know.

They’ll tell the story of my life, not yours, of the grace that came to my home, not yours, about the varied grace of a God who moves in and lives in the dust and beautiful rubbish of our lives and gives what he wills to his children, of a particular grace only delivered here.

I lean on my broom for a while and look around the garage at the fading paint, the concrete floor that is settling back into the earth, separating from the wall, even nails working their way out of drywall, entropy at work.  I know we won’t always be here.  The house will not forever stand.  Perhaps someone will one day walk these future ruins as in Sarah Jewett’s short story and proclaim that “the people who lived and died in that. . . place knew Him. . . ., that the world was made for them, and God keeps them yet; somewhere in his kingdom they are in their places, --- they are not lost; while the trees they left grow older, and the young trees spring up, and the fields they cleared [or lawn they kept] are being covered over and turned into wild land again” (Sarah Orne Jewett, “An October Ride”).  Maybe.  Better yet, all will be remade, reformed into a new country that is beautifully reminiscent of the old country, of the old home place.  

Varied grace?  I have exactly what I need: a home, a family, a life, and words to spend on them.  Fair enough, Peter.

When Here Was Here and There Was There

huge_8_40898 After dinner almost every night, my friend Bobby used to come over.  He didn’t knock any longer. He just walked in, as the door was unlocked.  We walked through our neighborhood to a corner store, bought a Pepsi, and walked back.  There was more to it of course.  In the early years, there were pretend stories about being superheroes, imagining ourselves saving the world from certain destruction.  In the later years, there were interactions with a host of characters that peopled the streets of our neighborhood --- bullies, girls, old men, and dogs --- some to be avoided, some to be sought, and conversations about school, and girls, and life beyond high school, and girls, and so it went.  But every night, when we turned the corner onto Surry from Fernwood and stood outside my house for a moment finishing our conversation, he went home, and I went home, and that was it. . . until school the next morning, that is.

In my early working years, I used to work late at times.  I even went into work on Saturdays on occasion, finishing a brief I was writing, catching up.  But when I left the building and went home, I left work behind.  I had no cell phone, no email, no pager --- no connection but the telephone on the wall to link me to the other world of work.  When I came home, I was done: work was another place, another time.

In most respects, we have lost the distinctions of place.  In her book, Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age, Maggie Jackson studied the behavior of families, looking specifically at how much time they spent physically with one another, noting in one sad (to me) finding that when fathers came home from work, “children rarely greeted [them], and often didn’t even look up when the dad entered house.”  Her conclusion is an indication that distinctions between places have broken down in a 24/7 world:

Perhaps because we virtually check in with one another all day, the act of moving across a physical threshold naturally becomes devoid of meaning.  In a placeless world, who needs to acknowledge the return to a location?  Moreover, a boundaryless world means that coming home doesn’t signal the end of the workday any more than being on vacation is a time of pure relaxation or being under one roof marks the beginning of unadulterated family time.  The physical and virtual worlds are always with us, singing a siren song of connection, distraction, and options.  We rarely are completely present in one moment or for another.  Presence is something naked, permeable, and endlessly spliced.

I’m not sure I appreciate all of what is signaled by such a loss, but perhaps one thing is a lack of appreciation of the rich diversity of the physical environment around us.  As titillating as the virtual world can be, there is a bland superficiality that settles in as you surf and skim along the surface of life.  After all the emails and twits and postings on Facebook, we may wake up one day and realize we could have been having a real conversation with a person sitting right in front of us in a real place.  We forget how much that matters when we have instant access to what a person is doing and thinking right now.  We have bodies and faces for a reason.  We need to see each other, spend time with one another, keep distinctions between here and there.

In some ways it is difficult to draw instruction for the current day from simply looking at the life of Jesus in an agrarian, pre-technological society.  And yet the forecast for the new heavens and new earth is a promise of a physical reality of streets, rivers, rooms, and houses, of a God who says we will “see his face. . .  (Rev. 22:4).  It’s a post-technological society when places will be places, people will be distinct, here will be here and there will be there, when our own backyard and a long conversation with a friend will be enough to preoccupy us for eternity.

Back to the Playpen

Crib "To be modern is to be torn in two. We celebrate freedom as if we can do anything we want, if we put our minds to it. At the same time, we bemoan the way our genes, our childhood, and social forces determine everything we do. When we grow bald, lose our temper, or get laid off, experts tell us that we really have no choice in the matter. Life is preordained by factors that outflank our feeble will. Yet at the same time we celebrate will power as if everything is contingent and subject to our control. The decline of providence has left us intellectually schizophrenic. We define freedom as the opposite of submission and obedience but end up feeling hardly free at all." (Stephen Webb)

By some inexplicable paradox, we are most free when we are not at liberty to do as we please. Take my son, for example. When he was a baby, his most free place was his most bounded --- first crib, then playpen, then bed, then room. By limiting his physical environment, we found his imagination grew, as blocks in the playpen became all sorts of creations, or his bed became a submarine, train, airplane --- anything he could dream. Give him free run of the house, though, and he bounced from item to item, never really focusing well enough to actually settle, captive to each new distraction. It's not unlike the experience my mother had as ac child by necessity. Having grown up in the Great Depression, she and her siblings used to play with an old tire all day. That's it! Listening to her I had the sense that they were more free and thus happier because their physical environment --- their access to toys --- had been limited, albeit by necessity and not choice.

These days, of course, kids and adults have access to most everything. We are constantly distracted by yet another web page, a new text message, a game, or a constantly changing TV screen. Unless you visit a third-world country or join a monastic order, it is difficult to limit your environment in such a way as to feel what my mother felt, to live a bounded life such that you find out who you are and what you can dream and do. Limits seem necessary in order for us to be free, as what passes as free in the world is really a bondage to our passions, an enslavement to the present. Consider if Twitter or Facebook really help make you freer, help you act more in accordance with who you really are and not who you want to appear to be. They can enslave us to expectations, whether our own or others.

The most free people I have met are generally the ones who have submitted themselves most completely to God. They may appear to us to be locked into a life of mundane hardship --- perhaps caring for an aged parent, running a health clinic in a third-world country, pastoring a small congregation --- and yet they best understand who they are and where they are headed. They may be physically bounded, by choice or necessity, but in submitting to God's purposes in it, they end up most free.

Consider author Flannery O'Connor. At a young age she found her life physically bounded due to the debilitating limitations of an illness called lupus. She was forced to abandon the literary world of New York and live with her mother on a farm in Georgia, and yet she wrote stories that wonderfully captured the nuances of human behavior, thoughtful essays exploring the connections between faith an literature, and rich correspondence that revealed an unbounded imagination and deep sense of who she was. In it all she kept her humor, describing herself in childhood as a "pigeon-toed child with a receding chin and a you-leave-me-alone-or-I'll-bite-you complex." She was not free to do as she pleased, but she was free to be who God intended her to be.

Nor would anyone say that any of the Apostles were free in the sense moderns or post-moderns define the word. They were shipwrecked, ill, beaten, imprisoned, chased out of town, hungry and thirsty, without possessions, and ultimately martyred, and yet their Godly imaginations were free to envision God's purposes for them and the world and to live more free of earthly passions. They knew who they were and where they were going.

It's difficult, of course, to figure out how to give yourself boundaries that would permit greater freedom, and yet I know where to begin.  An open Bible.  An open heart.  Obedience.  Submission.  Limiting distractions.  And as a writer, a blank page.  Consider the possibilities of a blank page informed by an open Bible and open heart.

Maybe the road to freedom is bondage. . . to a God who knows no bounds.  Maybe we need to stop running amok in the house and get back in the playpen.

Meet Mike, Steward of the Small

Toaster Yesterday I went to see Mike, the owner of a small appliance repair shop. The shop is located in a non-descript office strip, off any main road. You have to look carefully to find Mike's shop or you'll miss it. Inside the storefront, there is a small counter in the entry room. There are some toasters on the wall that look ancient, dusty packages of electric razor blades, opened and unopened packages of batteries. A child's scooter is parked near the door, marked "New, $17.95 or Best Offer," and an aging (though undoubtedly once futuristic) vacuum cleaner is propped against the wall, "$45, or Best Offer." Behind the counter I can see through to a small room stacked with open box after open box of parts, presumably triage for small appliances, those modern conveniences we take for granted. For Mike, they are lifeblood, how he makes a living.

"Hey. I need a new battery for this thing," I say, handing him my razor.

"What's the last time you replaced it?"

"How about never? I think I've had it nine years.

"You got your money's worth, huh?

"Yeah." Sorry about how dirty it is."

"No problem. This is clean compared to some I've seen."

And how many thousands of electric razors has he seen? Mike looks to be around 40, a bit overweight, a rounded face framed by thin black hair. Not hip. Not cool. Just a guy. He takes my razor back in the back, and I hear an older voice from someone I can't see.

"Mike, put that back where you got it from. You always leave things lying around."

"I'll get it. Don't worry about it."

I note the parental tone, and I realize that Mike has likely been here a long time, apprenticed to a father who will pass the small appliance repair business on to his son. I realize there can't be a lot of money in the business, with the volume light and the transactions small. Besides, so many people simply throw away their razor or toaster before trying to have it fixed. Why bother, they say? And yet somehow Mike and his Dad have kept at it, stewards of the small.

Life is filled with the stories of people like Mike, dutifully working at unnoticed jobs doing things most people care little about. He fixes things. Others build things. Even more clean streets, parks, houses, and office buildings. Someone, for example, largely unnoticed, regularly sweeps the stairs we rarely use in my office building, wipes down the handrails, polishes door moldings, empties trash, and cleans restrooms. They are little people doing little jobs, some would say, and yet they have a dignity we would do well to note.

When Scripture says man is made in God's image, every human life was invested with worth. Some people, like Mike, are just doing a job, tilling and keeping creation, keeping things working, taking care of what's here. But they are no less important because of their "small" job.

A story is told of how Francis and Edith Schaeffer were once late for the National Prayer Breakfast, where Francis was to speak, because Edith stopped to talk at length with the maid cleaning their room. In so doing they lived out what Francis Schaeffer had often preached, that there were "no little people." The President and other VIPs at the breakfast could wait.

I don't really know Mike, but I suspect he has his own dreams, his own disappointments, and a life outside the repair shop. He gets up every morning and goes to work. He's hit middle age and wonders if there's more, wakes up at night and thinks about high school and friends he no longer sees, wishes he had a little more hair. He's just an ordinary guy, like me, waiting for something more.

Let It Rain

rain Just a couple weeks ago, a newspaper columnist was speculating on whether we were entering another period of drought.  It only goes to show how a mere thought (a fleeting “what if?”) is elevated to concern and then to worry when it is nearly impossible to prognosticate about the future.  Yesterday it rained.  Today it is raining.  And tomorrow rain is in the forecast.  Drought is still possible, but I expect to see an article on flooding at this point!  Much like the depth and breadth and length of a recession, the weather defies prophecy.  We live today, and today it is wet.  The economy is down today, and tomorrow is an educated guess, at best.

Jesus told his disciples to “not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on” (Mt. 6:25).  I do not need to do an exegesis of the verse or compare it to the practically identical one in Luke to know what it means.  It means we are not to worry.  And yet we find it tempting to worry about most everything.  Will the plane I just boarded crash?  Will my child who just pulled away in a car be in an accident?  Will I lose my job?  Where will I get the money to pay the bills?  A flood of “what ifs” crowd into our thoughts, robbing our joy in the moment, if we allow them. 

The antidote, says Jesus, is to “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.”  He asks us to exercise faith, to focus not on the “what ifs” but the kingdom of the here and now.  He assures that the same God who cares for Creation, for lilies and sparrows, will care for us, that He knows what we need.  It’s the here and now over the then and what if.  The same Jesus who says “sufficient for the day is its own trouble” is the one who says life is more than food, clothing, or even trouble.

It’s still raining.  Rivulets of water trickle off the roof outside my window.  There’s a train whistle in the distance, a reminder that life is moving on with a locomotion all its own to places we don’t know and circumstances we can’t imagine.  But that’s OK.  Let it rain.  Let the train roll on.  God is faithful.


distracted-cover As of late I have noted that many people I admire are encouraging us to fast from a technology dominated lifestyle.  In recent news, the Pope and Italian bishops are encouraging youth to give up IPods, Facebook, and other technology for Lent.  Chuck Colson gives the same encouragement in today’s Breakpoint article, telling us to “take a technology sabbath.”  And my pastor has given up Facebook for Lent.  That I am reading Maggie Jackson’s new book, Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age, a probing study of our collective attention deficit disorder caused by digital technology, is, perhaps, a divine propinquity: God is trying to get my attention. 

To provide punctuation to these “coincidences,” last night I was reading a short story by Charles Dickens entitled ‘The Wreck of the Golden Mary,” and an old sea captain, lost at sea with crew and passengers, has these thoughts: “O, what a thing it is, in a time of danger and in the presence of death, the shining of a face upon a face!  I have heard it broached that orders should be given in great new ships by electric telegraph.  I admire machinery as much as any man, and am as thankful to it as any man can be for what it does for us.  But it will never be a substitute for the face of a man, with his soul in it, encouraging another man to be brave and true.  Never try it for that.  It will break down like a straw.”  Like Jackson, like Colson, like the bishops and my pastor, all of this drives home the way in which our technology can reduce intimate, human contact, how we need to see a human face.

I can remember, of course, when all this was different.  I had no computer at home.  I had no cell phone.  I had no IPod or PDA.  And TV, while it provided a distraction, a bit of entertainment, was not omnipresent.  And yet it’s difficult to summon up the feel of that era.  Imagine:  If you wanted to know what someone was doing, you called them on the phone or went to see them, and besides, did you really want to know what they were doing all the time, or what they were thinking?  I never gave it a second thought --- then. What did I care what my friend was doing after dinner?  Nowadays, we know a lot more about a lot less.  We read blogs and Facebook pages and monitor Twitter feeds and text messages so we won’t miss anything.  That’s anything.  This need to be connected is a compulsive thing, really, the need to check in, to see what is happening. But the fact is, we were perfectly content, perhaps more content, when we weren’t so connected.

This hyper-connectivity is a compulsion for both introverts and extroverts.  Introverts, who prefer their own thoughts to the chatter of people, can pick who they interact with and when and on what level.  They can think before they speak. Extroverts can cultivate networks of “friends,” something which energizes them.  And yet both find themselves dehumanized by superficial contacts, perhaps even driven by the sense that they can control their relationships by removing someone from their friend list, or ignoring them for a time, or just saying things online that they’d never have the nerve to say in person.  Step back from it for a moment, a long moment, and you see at once how silly and yet how damaging it can be.  And yet most people don’t even know what’s happening to them.

Maggie Jackson believes we are either in the twilight of culture or one on the cusp of a renaissance of attention.  She says that “Twilight cultures begin to show a preference for veneer and form, not depth and content; a stubborn blindness to the consequences of actions, from the leadership on down.  In other words, an epidemic erosion of attention is a sure sign of an impending dark age.”  I don’t know if she’s right, but I do know that technology has not made us better or happier people, that it’s becoming amazingly difficult to have an undistracted conversation or, for that matter, moment with anyone, that we can live as families in one house and yet carry on most of our life in a virtual reality divorced of place: we can be anybody, anywhere, at any time in the netherworld of cyberspace.

I’ve said it before:  I’m no Luddite.  As the captain said, I admire machinery as much as any man, but no machine can substitute for the human face, the peril and promise of real, tangible places filled with real, live people. 

One of the many interviews that Jackson did for her book was one with an undertaker, Tom Lynch, who told her countless examples of how people don’t want to face the physicality of death --- one more indication of how we are preferring our own reality, a virtual one where we don’t have to face death, to a real and physical world.  Lynch read Jackson a quote from poet Robert Pogue Harrison, who noted that we must choose “an allegiance --- either to the post-human, the virtual and the synthetic, or to the earth, the real and the dead in their humic densities.”

I’ll take the earth, the real and, yes, the dead.  Dirt, mud, rain, sun, and people, washed and unwashed, liberal and conservative, winsome and weird.  That’s the right stuff.  Now, if I can just wean myself from the press of the machine.

[Stay tuned:  Ten Ways to Overcome Our Attention Deficit.  Coming Soon]


Huge.48.244813 "For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known." (I Cor. 13:12)

You can add diminished vision to the list of ailments that come along with growing older. I have been nearsighted since third grade, and though it is correctable to a point, I have reached the point of diminishing returns. To see perfectly at distance, I will not be able to see perfectly close; yet if I am corrected so that I see close things well, I cannot see as well at a distance. In addition, I have "floaters," little spots and threadlike things that move across my field of vision. As I understand it, these are cloudy particles that float within the vitreous --- the clear, jelly-like fluid that fills the inner portion of the eye. In my case (and the case of most others), these particles are harmless if annoying, a "part of the natural aging process," my optometrist says. Naturally.

I've caught myself the last few months lamenting the fact that I have to put up with less than crystal clear vision, that I might even have to don reading glasses (which, heretofore, I have been too vain to use). Yet like a lot of things that challenge us in life, as I drove away from the doctor today I tried to consider the lessons in it for me.

I am thankful that I can see nearly perfectly. When my mother took me to the eye doctor when I was eight, we drove away from the doctor, my hand clutching the case with my new glasses. Before we left the parking lot, I remember taking those ugly gray rimmed glasses out of their case (actually, they would be fashionable now) and putting them on. I was awestruck by the clarity of my vision. I remember telling my mother that the trees had branches and limbs, and that I could see each individual leaf. I was fascinated by what the world looked like in detail. I am reminded of the importance of really noticing what is around me, of paying attention, of focusing, of the need to cultivate a sense of wonder at the richly detailed Creation around me. Forty-two years and many broken glasses and lost contact lenses later, I am still in wonder.

I am humbled by how dimly I see. No doubt my vision will not improve as I age. And yet its diminution only reminds me of the truth that no matter how much I have seen, I am aware of so much more I have not seen. That's even more spiritually true. Self-knowledge and knowledge of God is clouded, beset and obstructed by other distractions, floaters in my field of vision. The closer you get to understanding God (an audacious thought, anyway), the more you realize how far you are from understanding. Yet I can celebrate the reminder that one day I will see clearly, visually and spiritually, that I will fully know God, much as I am fully known by Him. What's even more exciting is that I not only will see God more clearly but will see everything else more clearly in His light. I saw robins on the snow this morning, and yet I can't fully appreciate what they are, can't fully see their glory. One day I will. One day I'll look at a robin and say, "so that's what you really are." I'll be eight again, a kid with new glasses, seeing things he's never seen.

I am challenged to look beyond my present circumstances. Floaters, like any distraction, are temporal. They may endure, and yet the challenge for me is to look at a larger landscape beyond what's quite literally under my nose. For the most part, I don't notice these annoying blemishes on my vision, as I am preoccupied with other matters. A brief to write. A conversation with my wife. The cat that stayed in a tree for 16 hours before we were able to pry it loose. It's only when I fixate on the floaters that they bother me. That's really true with any nettlesome concern or bother. A fixation on it is distracting and only leads to self-pity. There are greater things at hand, a larger work going on, and there is the promise of a future when all such distractions will be removed.

Every challenge brings opportunity. Wakefulness at night brings solitude and time for prayer. A new ache reminds me of how well my body has served me and what an amazing creation it is. And "floaters" remind me that one day I will no longer see dimly but will clearly and deeply, understanding the essence of the things that God has made, knowing Him and being known fully. Naturally.

I Think I Can’t, I Think I Can’t

Huge.10.51083 So often we can, when we think we can’t, or we cannot, when we think we can.  We are so often poor at accurately assessing our own gifts and abilities.  More often, we fail to trust God, the one who gives us all we have.

Take Moses, for example.  Brought up in Pharaoh's court, he undoubtedly had access to education and all its benefits, including training in leadership and public speaking, and yet when God goes to him after he has fled to Midian, he thinks he cannot do what he is asked to do, but he can.  God says “I will send you to Pharaoh that you may bring my people, the people of Israel, out of Egypt,” and he says “Who am I that I should go” and “They will not believe me or listen to my voice” and “I am not eloquent. . . I am slow of speech and of tongue.”  Excuses, excuses.  Even after God promises to be with him, promises to speak through him, he ultimately begs out, saying “Oh, my Lord, send someone else.”  God sends Aaron not to be with Moses because Moses needs him but because Aaron is the tangible sign of God’s presence, a concession to Moses’ lack of trust.  He thinks he can’t, but he really can.

Moses is not remembered as a weak, ineffectual, shrinking sort of man.  In Stephen’s speech to the Sanhedrin recounting the history of God’s people, he says that “Moses was instructed in all the wisdom of the Egyptians, and he was mighty in words and deeds” (Acts 7:22).  Is this revisionist history?  Moses, mighty in words?  In Stephen’s account, faithful to the Genesis narrative in every way, he curiously omits any reference to Moses’ protestations before the burning bush, going from “I will send you to Egypt,” to “This man led them out, performing wonders and signs in Egypt. . .” (Acts 7:34, 36).  Moses is not remembered for his poor assessment of his abilities, for his fear and lack of trust in God, but for faithfully doing what God said.  God did it through him.

This is reassuring.  God gives us the ability to do anything He asks of us and even makes concession for our small faith, for our fear, but giving us tangible signs of his presence.  That might be an encouraging friend.  It might be the entire church community.  For that matter, it could be your dog.  It is, after all, God who is “with his mouth,” who “taught him what to say.”  As Peter said, “His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness. . . “ (2 Peter 1:3), and Paul reminds us that it is Him “who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us” (Eph. 3:20).  With God, when we think we can’t, He can.

Maybe you’re like me.  I have a list of things I cannot do, things that seem too daunting for me, that ultimately I avoid because, in the end, I am afraid I might fail.  And yet, if God wants me to do it (and that is key), I cannot ultimately fail, can I?  I think I can’t, but really I can.

Letting Go


Last week my hard drive crashed. I love it when that happens. Seriously, I do.

It's a liberating feeling to know that all those categorized emails, old documents, photos that you never got around to printing or using in any way, and even the checkbook register are gone, consigned to data oblivion on a hard drive that is so sick it won't give them up. At first I was upset, then sad (the loss!), and then as I began to think about it a great sense of relief came over me. I get to start over. Clean slate. Tabula erasa. Like declaring bankruptcy and being liberated from debt. Mostly, I do not even know what I lost, so I can't even really miss it until I need it which, in most cases, I won't! I move with ease. My four-year old Windows computer boots and loads programs quicker without the drag of all that data detritus, orphan files, and unused programs. I'm free!

If you're like me, you horde data, sometimes from fear (the IRS will audit me!) and sometimes from the sense of power it gives us, of mastery over our lives. We save the emails, and we even back up our data (my backup failed). And yet much of what we save doesn't really help us, is not even needed. I think I had over 400 emails carefully filed away in subfolders, but frankly, most were never accessed again after being filed. I have to believe that this crash was providential, God's way of helping me let go, His provision of a new start for 2009.

It's not that there aren't things I won't miss. Like emails about what a great person I am (I read those when I'm discouraged). Or a photo here and there (most of mine were saved to DVR, or I would not be so happy). The financial data? I can reconstruct the expenses I need to tell the IRS about. Why would I want to be reminded about what I shouldn't have spent money on last year?

Spiritually, this is the best thing that's happened to me in 2009. It reminds me that I live in the present, in the eternal now, that I need to press on, as the Apostle Paul says, forgetting what lies behind. I'm reminded of the fresh start I get every moment from a God whose "tender mercies are new every morning" (Lam. 3:22-23), who is always forgetting my sin and looking on me as a new creation.

I think I'll get a Mac.

My Lack + Jesus in 2009

Like many of the stories of Jesus in the Gospels, the feeding of the crowds with a few loaves and a few  fishes, recounted in all four Gospels, is one we can grow indifferent too because of its familiarity.   And yet as I was reflecting on the various “lacks” I felt in 2007 (while trying to remember to be thankful for the gifts),  God opened my eyes to the purpose of our various poverties --- all our senses of what we lack.

Personally, I lack discipline to maintain regular times of prayer, Bible reading and study, and day by day obedient living.  And that’s just for starters as to what I lack.  I lack discipline in general, in terms of writing, in terms of consistent parenting, and physical exercise.  I don’t seem to have what I need to get the job done.  I’m struggling with a writing project, and have been all year, and I don’t know how to begin.  It seems overwhelming.  It’s easy to begin focusing on what I “can’t do.”  But I’ll stop.  The encouraging part is coming.

We are in a desolate place.  The disciples asked Jesus “How can we feed these people with bread here in this desolate place?”  That’s really our state.  We are a people that are not who we were meant to be in a place that is not our home with a great lack in our lives, like the Israelites exiled to Babylon.  So part of what I have to do is recognize my lack of all that I really need to get anything done.

We are not without Jesus.  They may have had little, but the disciples had Jesus, and that was enough.  That’s who they went to with their lack.  That’s who they asked their questions to.  So many times I can sit around in my lack and do not really carry it to Jesus, carry to Him even the question of “how do I begin” or “what can I do?”  I’m ignoring the One who, as in the story’s desolate place, I can be sure will have a compassionate and able response.

We have something to give.  Jesus said “How many loaves do you have?”  And so He says to us, “What do you have?”  That’s where we begin.  We take what we have, and as pitiful as it may seem, we offer it up to God.  Jesus does that in Matthew’s account, giving thanks for the few loaves and few fish, and then offering it to the people.

With Jesus, what we have is more than enough.  Given to God, with thanks, the little that the disciples had was more than enough to meet the need.  In fact, there were seven baskets of food left over after the multitude (over 5000) had had all they could eat.  That should say to me that the little that I have is more than enough for any need set before me --- more than enough, that is, plus Jesus.

Another year is over, and as Paul says, the one thing we do is “forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead” (Phil. 3:14).  The promise of the story is that if we admit our lack, if we offer up what we have, then with Jesus it will be more than enough.  What He did through one small boy can also be done through us.  Can you believe that?

[As you begin another year, this could be a year when you read the Bible.  I lack the ability to do it.  But my lack plus Jesus will suffice.  The schedule provided here gives four daily readings. I’ve not used this approach before, but it is flexible and has forgiving aspects (like only giving readings for 25 days each month).  Will you attempt it too?]

This Wonderful Life

its-a-wonderful-life-title If you, like me, find yourself watching Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life this time of year, you are not alone by a long shot.  The 1946 movie starring Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed is a movie classic, a study in the choices we face in life, whether to follow dreams, to do as we want, when confronted by responsibility and duty.  More than that, it’s a movie that reveals the mystery of God’s providence (without saying so) for, in the case of George Bailey, the veil is pulled back for a time to show him what life would have been like had he not been born and, conversely, the great good that occurred, largely unbeknownst to him, because of his life of virtuous choices.

In an essay in Touchstone, entitled “Potterville Nation,” Anthony Esolen takes a decidedly bleak look at the world and decides it is just that --- a place, like Potterville, not Bedford Falls, full of greed and avarice, of people chasing the vain imaginations of their hearts, of churches that encourage rather than stand in judgment over such vanities.  According to Esolen, the message of It’s a Wonderful Life “ is not simply that every life is important, but that what makes my life important, in the long view, in the providential view, is almost always what the world considers silly, small-town, no-account, trivial --- a waste.”  And for Christians, those similarly trivial, daily, choices are the stuff of true spiritual pilgrimage, of a life where even our poor choices are redeemed by a God who “works all things together for the good of those who love Him” (Rom. 8:28).

We may live in a place, in a world full of greed, avarice, and evil, yet if we look for them we will find plenty of George Baileys who are faithfully doing what is necessary --- going to work, spending time with children, teaching school, cleaning houses and offices, fixing streets, and so on --- and not leaving to chase vain imaginings.  When I visit New York City or Los Angeles, for example, I’m keenly aware of the vanities of life, of crime, of urban blight, and yet at the same time I’m amazed that things work reasonably well most of the time.  People get up and go to work.  Teachers teach.  The garbage is picked up.  Water flows 35 stories up to my hotel room.  Streets are passable. People often do what is required --- never, perhaps, from entirely pure motives, but still they do it.  By God’s grace, there is civilization, not anarchy.  Look for good and you will find it.  It’s not all Potterville but if you look again it’s Bedford Falls.  Look at what sin has twisted and see the potentiality of good or, at least, believe in God’s providential reordering of evil to good, of His undoing of the curse.

At the end of my our Christmas Eve viewing of It’s a Wonderful Life, it occurred to me that it was unlikely that anyone who acted in the film was still living.  One is.  Karolyn Grimes, who played young Zuzu, George Baily’s daughter, six at the time and now 68, has had a life filled with tragedy --- her mother died when she was 14, she lost her father in a  car crash a year later, was sent to live with an aunt in what she referred to as a “bad home,” never made it in acting, lost her first husband in a hunting accident, lost her second husband to cancer, lost her 18-year old son to suicide, and lost all the money she had in the recession of the early 2000s.  Can you imagine?  And yet she can still say this: "There have been adverse things happen in my own life, but there are balances out there. And the movie itself has affected my life so much because I have George Bailey's philosophy … that friendships and caring and loving will carry you through anything.  I really feel like Zuzu is kind of a mission maybe, I don't know. I think that there is a higher power at work and that I had to go through a lot of adverse situations in my life to understand other people's pain.”

Thank God there is a “higher power” at work, a hand of providence.  Thank God we don’t have our way all the time.  Thank God for the trivial, small-town, and seemingly insignificant lives we live.  We may never know all the good that’s come of it, and all the evil left undone.  If you believe God is on the move, it’s a wonderful life after all.

God With Us

hand A couple years ago I was in Cambridge, England visiting with Ranald Macaulay, son-in-law of Francis Schaeffer.  I asked him about the first time he met the late  L’Abri founder, and he gave me an image I have not forgotten.  He was a college student then, and Schaeffer was meeting with several students, holding forth on some topic in an apartment or dorm room.  Ranald said Dr. Schaeffer took his hand and placed it beside his face, as close as possible and yet not touching, and said “God is this close to us.”  It’s a simple image, but it’s one way of visibly expressing a truth we take for granted and yet often fail to really believe in the moment-to-moment reality.

I often lament the fact that I cannot actually see God, that He never really shows up in the flesh for me.  I envy the early disciples who could see, touch, and hear Jesus, who witnessed his miracles, and who were visibly and audibly comforted by His presence.  And so when God seems distant, when prayer seems like a one-sided conversation,  when I feel alone --- I hold my hand up to the side of my face, sense its closeness, and remember what Schaeffer said: God is there.  He has not left us alone.  He’s that close.

There are very few moments when I’ve really grasped what it means to say Emmanuel: God with us.  Sometimes I get a glimpse of it, the fact that God was embodied --- baby, boy, and man --- and endured the whole of human existence.  Dorothy Sayers summed it up well:

For whatever reason God chose to make man as he is --- limited and suffering and subject to sorrows and death --- he [God] had the honesty and courage to take his own medicine.  Whatever game he is playing with his creation, he has kept his own rules and played fair.  He can exact nothing from man that he has not exacted from himself.  He has himself gone through the whole of human experience, from the trivial irritations of family life and the cramping restrictions of hard work and lack of money to the worst horrors of pain and humiliation, defeat, despair, and death.  When he was a man, he played the man.  He was born in poverty and died in disgrace, and thought it was worthwhile.

Yes, he suffered and died.  But that “he suffered the trivial irritations of family life” somehow makes His incarnation real for me, as it is less dramatic and more like my everyday experience.  That enfleshes what sometimes becomes abstract doctrine.  He was (and somewhere still is) a man, capable of being touched, of eating and drinking and laughing and weeping. 

In no other religion do you have a God who becomes weak, who sanctifies the physical world by entering into it to suffer with and for us.  God walked on the earth.  He ate and drank.  He suffered the toil of work and conversations petty and the profound, the interesting people as well as the bores, the mundane and spiritual.  He knew what it was like to be me.  He is real, and He is as near to me as the hand beside my face.

The Curse of Homelessness


"When once again Christmas comes and we hear the familiar carols and sing the Christmas hymns, something happens to us... The hardest heart is softened. We recall our own childhood. We feel again how we then felt, especially if we were separated from a mother. A kind of homesickness comes over us for past times, distant places, and yes, a blessed longing for a world without violence or hardness of heart. But there is something more--a longing for the safe lodging of the everlasting Father. And that leads our thoughts to the curse of homelessness which hangs heavily over the world." (Dietrich Bonhoeffer).

Seventeen years ago my wife and I went on a two-week mission trip to Prague, in the Czech Republic. Prague is a historic city, one of the few European cities not bombed during World War II, the pulpit of Reformer Jon Hus, and yet despite its historicity we found this new democracy still under the shadow of modernity, the historic center city ringed by dehumanizing Stalinist era apartment buildings, the newly free people still under the pall of the secular state, not sure yet what to do with their new freedom. The rankest pornography was openly sold on Wenceslas Square, and all sorts of bohemians, misfits, Goths, and shady underworld figures lurked on the streets. At times, evil was palpable. One night a group of us were standing on the Charles Bridge, a pedestrian concourse over the river lined by statutes of saints. We were singing folk songs while others of us were trying to converse with people in the crowd. At one point a strange man with puppets dangling on a string came right up to us and shook what looked like demon puppets in front of us, hissing things in some unknown tongue. Then, and at other times, I was possessed with a compulsion to run, to go home, to shake the dust off my feet and leave a God-forsaken place filled with people who, at their best, were melancholy, unsmiling, or at their worst, devils. Or so I thought.

We were profoundly and deeply homesick in a way I had never felt before. I didn't belong. As I walked to the street car stop each day, I looked into the sullen stares of people who neither looked like me, talked like me, or seemed to have any warmth at all toward me. We felt alone, alienated, and even oppressed, the weight of a foreign land bearing down on us. Menus and signs were indecipherable. Waiters in restaurants seemed to ignore us. Even the church we visited seemed distant. We were aliens and strangers, in a scriptural sense, and despite what we did each day --- mostly street evangelism --- we carried around in our consciousness a ticking clock that measured how long it would be until we could return home to all that was familiar, to a people we knew, to places where we were comfortable.

Although the sense of homelessness is most acute when we are in a strange land like The Czech Republic, the condition is chronic and, in a sense, blessed for any Christian. I feel it when I read the newspaper accounts of war, economic decline, and famine. Driving to work, stopped at a traffic light, I'm overcome by a sense of heaviness, of the weight of sin, and yet I remember the promise that "[b]lessed are those that mourn [for sin], for they shall be comforted." Facing some difficulty, I want to run home, home to my childhood home where I could be fed, housed, pampered, and comforted, and yet I can't really go home like that anymore. None of us can. I can drive the streets of my old neighborhood, stop in front of my now smallish looking brick homeplace, try to imagine it as it was. . . and yet I can't go there. It's gone, peopled by strangers. There is no comfort to be found in a past home, only nostalgia.

At Christmas, this sense of exile, like being in Babylon with only a memory of Jerusalem, is even more profound. I want to go to bed waiting for Santa to come, unable to sleep, willing myself awake, sure that I hear reindeer hooves on my roof. I want people who have died or moved to come back, to all be there in my childhood home again, around the fire. I want the world outside to be set right, the headlines to broadcast good news, everything to be undone, or remade, as the hymn says, "as far as the curse be found." I want back every single one of my childhood pets --- my dog (who died on Christmas Day 1965), my longsuffering cat, my poor cat-eaten hamster. Every single one of them. It's neither right nor good nor natural that they are gone. It wasn't meant to be that way.

For a Christian, the blessedness of being chronically homesick is that we have a final Home for which we can hope, a familiar and yet newly rich place in which everything that should not have happened will unhappen, where what was wrongly done will be undone, where even remembrance is turned to good in some mysterious way. "We long for a city whose builder and architect is God," says the Apostle Paul (Heb. 11:10), and I do. I want a place where we'll wake each day expectant at what gifts will be left for us, for what old friends we'll be reunited with, for singing and magic and laughter. Where the footfalls we hear will be the sound of Jesus at our door, to sit with us for as long as we want. Where even the melancholy Czech will let loose and smile. And where I get my cat back, with a full and dignified tail this time.

Everywhere we turn it'll look like Home --- "the safe lodging of the everlasting Father."

The New Tribalism?

7531300213 “If you follow marketing trends, you’ve probably been hearing a lot about “tribes” lately. It’s the idea that our culture is a collection of groups with a shared identity, mission or leader. Seems obvious enough. We’ve all seen Braveheart and have a pretty good idea of what a tribe is. But what does it mean for an artist in the 21st century? I think it provides one model for how an artist can have the freedom to create their art and make a living doing it.”  (Joe, at Noisetrade 101)

I don’t intend to pick on Noisetrade, or Joe, or anyone else who is the business of trying to support themselves as artists.  I’m well familiar with niche marketing, or even tribe marketing.  Find your tribe.  Sell to it.  Develop a loyal following.  Most artists will do well to follow this as a model for trying to get gigs and sell music.  But let’s face it --- as a model for the good society, for a culture built around shared values, it’s detrimental.  To the extent it builds a following, it does so around consumption, around music, and around a person.  That model would seem to contribute to the further balkanization of society, because tribes built around something as innocuous as music (in terms of bringing about societal collapse) may also begin to look alike, think alike, and choose to associate with other tribe members.  It’s one step from that to dissing other tribe members and then, at some point, really losing the ability to appreciate and converse with one another.  This is not healthy!

Music should be a bridge across “tribes,” something that brings people of different political and social views, of different lifestyles and looks, and of different racial and social classes together.  Finding something in common, if only in music, can lead to conversation, and conversation can lead to understanding, and understanding might just lead to some consensus about what is true, good, and beautiful, about what a good society ought to look like.  Sometimes I get the sense that no one is much interested in that anymore.  It’s more about who looks like me, thinks like me, and (well) buys like me.

In the end, it’s not my tribe that matters.   The Apostle Paul said that we are not to seek our own good, but the good of our neighbor (1 Cor. 10:24), and the admonition to do good extends to everyone, not just our immediate neighbor, not just our tribe (Gal. 6:10).  Rather than reach our tribe with music, why not reach out to a larger group?  Some artists do this quite effectively.  For example, I went to a Josh Groban concert with my wife.  I saw the requisite swooning women, of course, but I also saw men and women of every age group --- all attracted by his artistry and a music that really transcended the boundaries of language, religion, age, race, and preference.  I don’t prefer him, but I came away with a great appreciation of his music and his artistry, and his ability to reach across tribes.  Frankly, that should be not just the goal of the artist but of us all.

Finding an Imperative


After many years of trying to use ready-made devotionals aimed at children for family devotions, I am abandoning them. First of all, there is a certain dumbing down of the mysteries of Scripture and delights of investigation by the study of it. We sometimes never get past what the writers say. Second, the stories are sometimes inapplicable or plain corny. Finally, while they refer to Scripture, they do not often encourage self study or a pondering wonderment. My kids finally just said give us Scripture. Now some of that may be because they perceive it to be shorter, but I have to think some of their desire is to deal with Scripture on its own terms and find their own answers.

So this week my wife gave us all six scriptures, taking Luke 1 and dividing it up into 4-6 verses a day. We're going to try and read it in personal devotions each day and think of one application we can share at the dinner table or at some coming together that day. For three days now I have done this. It takes about 5 minutes. I tried to come up with a 2-4 word imperative phrase for each passage. What surprises me is that it's not difficult at all, even when you are dealing with a passage that is simply an incomplete piece of historical narrative. However, given the counsel of 2 Timothy 3:16-17, a verse that commends the usefulness of all Scripture, why am I surprised?

Pursue the truth. In Luke 1: 1-4, something you might skim by as an introduction to the "real" book, Luke says that while many have written up the truth of the Gospel stories, stories handed down to him, he himself "carefully investigated everything from the beginning." Luke made the truth his own by pursuing it himself. So while I may benefit from the insights of others, in the end I need to pursue the truth myself, investigating things I have a question about on my own. It also was a good reminder that the Christian faith and church tradition I have passed down to my children is mine, not theirs', at least not until they make it their own. They may do so and not wind up looking doctrinally precisely like their parents, nor need they. (I raised little Calvinists but need to let go of that if need be!)

Persevere in faithfulness. In Luke 1:5-10, we are told of the priest Zechariah and his wife, Elizabeth, and what stood out to me was that they were "upright in the sight of the Lord," and yet "they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren; and they were both well along in years." In that culture, barrenness was stigmatic, and there must have been some (and maybe they were among them) that questioned why God did not bless them, and yet they persevered. The lesson to me is to persevere in faith, even for a lifetime, even when there is no fruitfulness to perceive, and in spite of evidence to the contrary.

Pray unceasingly. In Luke 1:11-17, the angel of the Lord appears before Zechariah and tells him that he will have a son, John (the Baptist), and not just any son but one who will be a "joy and delight" and who will bring back to the Lord many of the people of Israel. The angel says "[Y]our prayer has been heard." The implication is that all of those barren years the prayer for a child had been made, unceasingly, and heard. It tells me that I need to pray unceasingly and doggedly, even about the same thing, for as long as it takes. I have a few things to "worry" God with daily!

As it goes, this week we have had different things that have kept us from discussing these verses as a family. And yet, I'm eager to do so. I hope my children are as well. One of them recently asked me "why they had to read the Bible since they had already read it." Maybe an exercise like this will show them why. It sure reminds me of the ability of Scripture to speak afresh into your present circumstance no matter how many times you read it. I'm old. I should know this by now.

Prisons of Our Own Design

prison “I refuse to be/ locked up in here like a prison cell./ All I ever get is a meal and four walls./ I used to be just fine in here/ but not anymore./ Gonna break these steels bars.”  (Jill Phillips, “Steel Bars,” from Self-Titled)

Early in my legal career, I met a woman imprisoned in her own bitterness.  Ramona had suffered a palsy of the right side of her face which had left her disfigured, with one side of her face without muscle tone.  Those given to dark humor referred to her as the “woman of fallen countenance,” but there was nothing really funny about it. For five years Ramona had seen doctors, lawyers, and therapists, seeking a way out of her misery.  By the time she sued the doctors and I met her (I represented the doctors), her face had recovered some of its tone, and she looked surprising good.  The palsy, at least, was not what made her ugly.  Rather, it was the bitterness that had taken root in her.  Her eyes, face, tone of voice, gait, and posture all communicated her bitterness.  Though she could have recovered and been a moderately attractive woman, wearing her bitterness, nursing it over the years, had warped her.  She was in a prison of her own design.

A friend of mine who does physical therapy for the elderly reports seeing the same kind of physical manifestations of bitterness, a nursing of grudges or regrets or lack of gratitude, that infects some of the aged.  The circumstances don’t really matter.  She cared for two women who were Holocaust survivors.  One smiled and was grateful for anything done for her; the other had a sour expression and cursed all who came near.  I hope I never become the latter.

Jesus said he came to set the prisoners free.  It is Jesus who was prophesized would “bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness” (Is. 42:7).  Whatever steel bars we have erected around our souls, He will free us.  The funny thing is that the way out is open, the door is not locked from the outside but from within.  And when we get out we will realize the poverty of a “meal and four walls,” of whatever plan, emotion, or material things we clung to.

In The Last Battle, the climax of C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, just before the destruction of the Old Narnia and the children and others believers enter into Aslan’s Country, Eustace, Jill, all the surviving dwarfs, and Tirian are thrown into the stable where the false Aslan is kept.  Although Tirian expects to see the inside of the dark, dingy stable, he instead finds that he is in a beautiful, luscious land.  And yet there the dwarves sit, imprisoned by their own unbelief, unable to see the beauty of the land before them.  Eustace and Jill can see the beauty of Aslan’s Country, but the dwarves can see only a dirty stable and its four walls. They are in the prison of their unbelief, willing to settle for a dirty stable over the beauty before them.

Ramona eventually settled her lawsuit against doctors who were, as we admitted early on, negligent in the treatment of an ear  condition.  A sloppy surgeon had severed a facial nerve, causing the palsy.  As a result, she had enough money to provide for herself and her family for the rest of her life, and yet for all I know she may yet be a prisoner of her bitterness, living off the poverty of her new wealth, lacking even the one thing that had kept her going all those years: her lawsuit.  I don’t want to live like that, do you?  When I find myself imprisoned by some fear or entrapped by some unhealthy desire, with God’s help, I’m coming out.  Maybe I was happy once with a meal and four walls, but no more.

Living with Style (Rule Five): Be Open to Change


"Revise and rewrite." (William Strunk, Jr. & E.B. White, The Elements of Style)

If you think your life is going well, that while you may not be perfect you may be "practically perfect," as Mary Poppins said, think again. We are not a finished manuscript. The story of our life is being constantly revised and even rewritten, thank God, an often painful process but one in good hands and for good purpose.

Writers know all about this pain, and Strunk and White are right on mark in saying that "it is no sign of weakness or defeat that your manuscript ends up in need of major surgery." In a time before word processors, they used more vivid imagery to convey the seriousness of what had to be done: "Do not be afraid to seize what has been written and cut it to ribbons. . . . [S]cissors should be brought into play." Ouch! Sometimes, the writer is even taken back to one good page, one good paragraph, or one good sentence, cutting away everything that he worked so hard for, had invested so much in. And yet it's not wasted work. Sometimes a writer has to set out on a path, committing himself to a particular story or theme, before he can discover the better path.

Jeremiah reports the Lord as saying "See, I will refine and test them, for what else can I do because of the sin of my people?" (Jer. 9:7). Just as a writer must bring judgment on his writing, cutting away what is dross, so God brings a refining judgment on His people. Sometimes the change is incremental, some specific sin, for example, that besets us. But sometimes, as with the Apostle Paul, we realize that we have spent our whole life serving a God of our on construct and, thus, God reveals how deeply flawed we are and gives us a new place to start from.

A friend of mine recently shared with me how as a teenager he had an image as a Christian youth leader, one he knew was false but one he also tired to carefully maintain. When God revealed his hypocrisy, it was difficult for him to confess it publically, because it meant starting over, confessing that what he had seemed to be was not what he actually was. But he did. He's never regretted that, and his holding on to that image seems ridiculous now, like insisting on writing pulp fiction when you could write a story like "To Kill a Mockingbird." Like him, I have to let go everyday of what I think I am and be open to God's reordering and rewriting of my life.

For Christians, revising and rewriting is really just being open to God's conviction and then responding, being willing to set aside our image of ourselves, our own constructs, and be open to change, even serious change. "Scissors should be brought into play," say Strunk and White. The scissors may cut, but the comfort is that what's given back to us is so much better than what we so tenaciously held on to. He is, after all, the Author of Life. He writes the best stories.


Living with Style (Rule Four): Have Substance

style “Write with nouns and verbs.” (William Strunk, Jr. & E.B. White, The Elements of Style)

Admittedly, this is one rule I had to think about before making a broader application of it to life in general. Times like this make me wonder if I’m stretching the analogy. But I don’t think so. A good life is surely like good writing, and so why shouldn’t every rule of writing apply?

Good writing is rooted in the particulars of place and time. Nouns and verbs, and not airy adjectives, are what “give to good writing its toughness and color.” Similarly, we all know when we are speaking to someone who has many words, even some that sound quite impressive, but which mean absolutely nothing because they are not rooted in more substantial particulars. You can fill my head with what you plan to do, your ideals, and so on, but until you actually tell me exactly what you will do and when you will do it and how you will do it, it’s fluff, mere prefatory language that leaves me shaking my head and wondering “what was that all about?” Say what you will, but “[t]he adjective hasn’t been built that can pull a weak or inaccurate noun out of a tight place.” Nor can grand promises and expressions of hope pull a noncommittal person out of a tight spot.

Having worked in the music business at one time, I know all about this. Label A&R reps are adept at stroking the client, flattering egos hungry for praise, loving every idea, hopeful about all things, sure that this record will launch a career, only to fail to deliver. When they tire of talking, they simply stop returning your call. Many a day I would have preferred being told “We don’t like the record, and we don’t want to sell it.” The Bible does say, after all, to “let your yes be yes and your no be no. . .” (Mt. 5:37a). The simple truth, nouns and verbs, is so much clearer, so much tougher, than all the wasted adjectives.

Sometime, listen to children speak. They use nouns and verbs. They speak plainly. They may offend by their frankness, but they offend plainly, not subtlety. Strunk once said “if you’re going to be obscure, be obscure clearly.”  Similarly, he might have said, “if you are going to offend, offend clearly.” Have substance, in other words. Say what you mean. Make it concrete.

In its often spare sentences, Scripture is a reminder that plain speak is commended.  “Come, follow me.” “Take, eat.”  “Feed my lambs.”  Even, “Come and have breakfast.”  Jesus himself spoke directly and simply, most often with strong nouns and verbs.  When you know who you are and what you are about, your conversation is not cluttered with needless adjectives, endless qualifications.  Would that politicians would learn such directness!

The bottom line:  Have substance.  Speak plainly and directly.  Qualify only when necessary.

Living with Style (Rule Three): Aim for Something


"Work from a suitable design." (William Strunk, Jr. & E.B. White, The Elements of Style)

There are people who plan and others who don't. In the most endearing of times, we call the latter "free spirits;" in their most frustrating times, "irresponsible." A suitable design for life is not so much whether to plan or not to plan, however, as whether there is a specific vision that animates our day. The abundant life requires that we aim for something worthy of aspiration, that we envision an end. Slavish adherence to a set of rules or principles is deadening and inflexible and makes us difficult to live with because we are moribund legalists. In contrast, living in the moment and doing as we please, however, is rank antinomianism and gets us nowhere fast --- a slave to our passions of the moment. A suitable design, or vision, keeps us pointed in the right direction and yet malleable in regard to means. We are free within bounds, more free, really, than the free-spirit.

Strunk informs writers that "[d]esign informs even the simplest structure, whether of brick and steel or of prose." By extension, we might say that no one really lives without design, without an underlying presuppositional structure for their life, though the design may be subconsciously adhered to, a body of assumptions about life's purpose that have taken root experientially and unnoticed. Both the carpenter and accountant live out of a design. Yet while the design may be subconscious, the point is not that it should be a detailed regimen. Strunk again: "This does not mean that you must sit with a blueprint always in front of you, merely that you had best anticipate what you are getting into. To compose a laundry list, a writer can work directly from the pile of soiled garments, ticking them off one by one. But to write a biography the writer will need at least a rough scheme; he cannot plunge in blindly and start ticking off fact after fact about his man, lest he miss the forest for the trees and there be no end to his labors." I feel that way sometimes. At the end of the day there have been no end to my labors, and yet all I have to look back on is a list of ticked off items with no sense of the larger design they fit into.

Suitable design acknowledges the moving of the Spirit. Take the Apostle Paul, for example. His overriding design or vision was to preach the Gospel to the Gentiles (Rom. 15:15-16, NIV), and yet while he planned certain things he was often led by circumstances to change his plan. He advises the saints in Rome "that I planned many times to come to you (but have been prevented from doing so until now). . . (Rom. 1:13, NIV). One imagines that the logical, methodical mind of Paul would be frustrated at plans gone awry, and yet his larger vision was intact: he preached the Gospel wherever he was to whomever would listen.

In the end, unlike the mere task of writing, Christians acknowledge a design and Designer behind their own temporal designs, a Story behind our stories. Our designs are imitative of a greater design. We have the assurance that even our detours, even the frustrating rabbit-trails we find ourselves on all lead back to the main road, the road Home, and that a good and perfect Author has us in hand.

C.S. Lewis said "Aim at heaven and you will get earth thrown in. Aim at earth and you get neither." What is it that you are aiming at? Do you have a suitable design? Strunk says that "even the kind of writing [or, life] that is essentially adventurous and impetuous will on examination be found to have a secret plan: Columbus didn't just sail, he sailed west, and the New World took shape from this simple and, we now think, sensible design." So what direction will you sail?


Living With Style (Rule Two): Act Naturally

Style_3"Write in a way that comes naturally." (William Strunk, Jr. & E.B. White, The Elements of Style)

To be yourself must be one of the most often said maxims and most difficult to enact principle of all. "All you gotta do is act naturally," sang Beatle Ringo Starr in 1965, and I'm sure it was taken to heart by the Beat generation, but what after all is it to act naturally? It's sometimes difficult to discern who you are when so much of your life is spent in imitation of others. And yet there is something appealing about being comfortable in your own skin, about being uniquely who you are.

Writers struggle with trying to find their own "voice," to sound like themselves and not someone else. Christians struggle with not imitating the world, with being who God intended them to be and no one else. As Paul tells Gaius, "do not imitate what is evil but what is good" (3 John 11). But neither the call to imitation nor the many others admonitions in Scripture to a holy lifestyle conflict with being who we are, with being unique individuals before God.

Strunk reminds writers that "[t]he use of language begins with imitation," reminding us that the imitative life, which begins in childhood, continues long after, because it is almost impossible not to imitate what one admires. And yet the right kind of imitation is a key to being yourself. Strunk again: "Never imitate consciously, but do not worry about being an imitator; take pains to admire what is good. Then when you write in a way that comes naturally, you will echo the halloos that bear repeating."

Brother Lawrence, the poor monk in charge of sandals, the self-described "great awkward fellow who broke everything," practiced God's presence by continually conversing with Him.  I have no doubt that the man was comfortable in his skin, that he acted naturally.  The monk practiced the presence of God by, as he put it, "keeping the soul's gaze fixed on God in faith --- calmly, humbly and lovingly, without allowing an entrance to anxious cares and disquietude."  He would not quit the conversation.  He habitually looked to God.  He didn't say it was easy but, rather, was a habit formed by trying and failing, trying and failing.  He wasn't at all into imitation, but was focused on God.

Maybe Luther had it right when he summarized our duty as to "love God and do as you please." Or we might rephrase it as "love God and act naturally." If we focus on God, if we practice His presence, we will be on the way to being ourselves, the selves that God created us to be. There's nothing wrong with learning from the lives of other Christians, of seeing the habits of holiness in their life and being inspired to holiness in your own life, just as young writers learn the styles of great writers before they develop their own voice. That unique voice or life is, in the end, a product of many imitations, until unconsciously it becomes the unique person we are. The ironic conclusion is that you don't become yourself or become natural by trying. Rather, aim at God and find yourself. Then your life will "echo the halloos that bear repeating."

Living With Style (Rule One): Lose Yourself

Style_2“Place yourself in the background.” (William Strunk, Jr. & E.B. White, The Elements of Style)

One of the books on my bookshelf at work and at home is the revised edition of Cornell professor William Strunk’s “little book” of grammar and style, as later revised by his student, E.B. White, the author of Charlotte’s Web and a regular essayist in the Saturday Post before his death. I’ve written about Strunk and White before, but suffice it to say I’m a devotee and read The Elements of Style devotionally. That is, I often pick it up and read a page to encourage a greater devotion to the English language, to grammar, syntax, and style, to, above all, economy of words. Only today, however, I realized that Strunk and White’s maxims on style in written expression are also excellent provocations for living “peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness” (1 Tim. 2:2), for, if you will, living with style.

How can we not see these maxims as guides for Christian living? I have no idea what, if any, religious persuasion Strunk or White had, but I have to smile at the most assuredly unintended second meanings that their “reminders” of style have, of how they connote a far greater mystery than they imagined. Their “mystery story, thinly disguised,” is more mysterious and fulsome than they could have imagined.

“Place yourself in the background,” they say right off. And here I could quote chapter and verse of all of what they briefly say, but won’t. Suffice it to say that “the first piece of advice is this: to achieve style, begin by affecting none --- that is, place yourself in the background.” What they mean is that good writers should focus on “sense and substance,” not their own “mood and temper.” When you focus your energy on the task at hand, proficiency in the use of language, the “mood and temper of the writer will eventually be revealed.” Get out of the way. Stop worrying how you will appear, or how you will sound, or what impact you will have. Stop trying to find yourself and simply pay attention to the task at hand, to writing well, and who you are will emerge. Lose yourself.  Paradoxically, you don’t find yourself by focusing on yourself.

Good writers of fiction learn the craft. They serve the characters that beg to be written. They write not to sell books or impress people but because it is what they want to write, feel called to write, or must write. Good writers love the word.

The Apostle with the argumentative style of a lawyer said that we were to “do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but [must] in humility consider others better than [ourselves]” (Phil. 4:3). He said we were to “conduct [ourselves] in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ” (Phil. 1:27), not worthy of the opinions of others. We are commended to live in Christ, to “press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:13). It’s a life lived coram deo, not coram mano, a life lived out before God and not before others. In fact, the only work I have to do is that of continually resting on the finished work Christ has done for me. If I do that, everything else follows. But if I try to do everything else for everyone else, I will not get there. The “mood and temperament” that is revealed will not be my own as shaped by Christ but that of others shaped in me. Thus, one of the mysteries of style is not focusing on style at all but on that which brings style. For writers, that’s word and craft --- the work of writing well. For Christians, that’s Word and craft --- the work of resting on Christ, of living out of an identity shaped by the Word who always accomplishes His work in us.

It’s not easy. Strunk said that “[w]riting is, for the most part, laborious and slow.” And so is the Christian life. It requires that we “cultivate patience,” that we wait for God who wills and works in us. Place yourself in the background. Lose yourself. Live with style.

[By the way, I highly recommend the beautifully illustrated hardback edition of Strunk and White’s classic.  Check out the book and the video preview by its illustrator here.]

Remembering From Where We Came

clockbusinessman If you were a contemporary of Adam, Seth, Methuselah, or even Noah, the word change probably had little meaning to you.  Life was what it was, and little changed from year to year much less from century to century.  There were still sheep to graze, disputes to settle, crops to plant, and natural disasters to weather.  Adam lived 930 years, time enough to watch his son Seth live well or badly for 800 years, and time enough to regret his first sin time and again.  Methuselah lived longer than any recorded human being at 969 years.  How much change did he see in 969 years?  Not much, I suspect, and though Noah witnessed a life-changing event, a catastrophic flood, no doubt in the many years before the flood life went on, badly it seems, pretty much the same.  On Noah’s birth, his father Lamech said “Out of the ground that the Lord has cursed this one shall bring us relief from the painful toil of our hands” (Gen. 5:29).  Consider the unending weariness of day in day out toil for not decades but centuries.  Not much changed.

Yet today, change is an existential fact of existence, on the lips of not only politicians, technocrats, and self-help gurus, but a fact of life all around us.  The very pace is dizzying, and given the rate of change we suffer both a collective and individual amnesia about how much things have changed.  For example, I forget sometimes that I did not always either at work or at home sit and type in front of a computer screen, communicate by email, or glean a great deal of my information from the internet.  Oh, I remember that it hasn’t always been this way, but I have a difficult time remembering what I did instead of these activities or what it felt like without this technology.  At work, for example, I largely researched legal issues using books in a library, took notes on my research, outlined my argument, and dictated sometimes lengthy briefs.  Now I do my research largely on the computer at my desk, type a rough draft myself, organizing as I go, and email it to my secretary to be finalized.  In that change, which was a gradual one, it occurs to me that something has happened both in the way I think and in how I regard information.  Somehow, the information I find on the internet seems more malleable, less fixed, than what I saw in those casebooks on dusty library shelves, and less esteemed when viewed at the privacy of my desk than in the silence and solemnity of an imposing library.  Since I’ve stopped dictating, I’ve also lost the ability to organize my thoughts in my mind, putting together sentences as I speak.  I also have less face-to-face contact with my secretary and more by the less personal and nuanced vehicle of email.  (Don’t think of me dictating with a secretary perched on the corner of my desk, furiously writing shorthand on a steno pad.  I dictated alone, and sent her the tape!) 

I blinked, and things changed.  It’s not just there at work but all around us.  A new mall goes up.  I can’t remember what the landscape looked like before, as the very land has been reshaped.  No one seems to have any time.  Why?  I’m not sure why, only that it seemed that my parents had a lot more time for seeing other people during my childhood in the Sixties.  So, we sense that things have changed all around us, that we in fact have changed, and while we may speak of it wistfully and anecdotally, we have a difficult time expressing how this change has impacted us or even recognizing how much things have changed.

Some time ago iconoclastic fisheries scientist Daniel Pauly coined the term “shifting baselines” to address the phenomenon of change.  A baseline is a reference point. When we begin to lose track of our reference points from the past, allowing them to shift, we can begin to lose track of change.  In other words, we don’t know how we got to where we are, because we don’t exactly know from where we came.  Pauly is all gloom and doom over this, mostly over the world-wide loss of fisheries, and yet the term itself doesn’t require a tracking only of decline.  Rather, it can be a helpful encouragement to track positive change, to not forget, as a reference point, how bad things were at some point in the past and how much better things are now.  Or how bad we were in the past and how much we have grown since then.  In fact, to not bother tracking positive change in our own lives is to profess belief in sanctification and yet at the same time deny by our inattention and inaction what God is able to do and has within us.

We can ask God to redeem our work, and then believe that he will --- not completely but yet partially --- in this life.  We can believe that we can become more honest, more kind, more self-controlled, and so on.  We can believe and see marriages change, wetlands restored and reclaimed, and historic homes redeemed from decay.  And yet if we don’t have some sense of a baseline, we won’t easily be able to appreciate the change, leading to a nagging sense that nothing much has changed and, in fact, that much has gotten worse.  I don’t want to be in my 80s wistfully recalling some golden age, how things are “going to hell in a handbasket,” when my memory is faulty because I have little in the way of a baseline by which to measure change.  We are predisposed to sin and its consequential hopelessness.  Somehow, we need to work on remembering well, on tracking personal, cultural, and natural change --- for better and for worse.

There are at least three ways that I can think of to do this.  One is regular journaling.  Reading how you thought about something 25 year ago gives you a reference point for how your thinking has changed today.  A second way is one my wife is good at but one I fail at.  That’s marking a particular Bible verse with an event to which it spoke to.  The note triggers memory of the event, some trial or some joy, and along with the verse we are reminded of how we reacted to that event at the time and consider how we might react now.  Finally, we can ask other people who have known as well for a long period of time.  Often they are better at tracking our change over time than are we.  This can also be done collectively as, for example, if I sat around a table with some people I have worked with for over 20 years and we talked about how things have changed in the work environment in that time.  We might want to recover something that was lost, or appreciate something that has changed for the better.  Change need not be bad, but it does need to be noticed.  Baselines shift, unless we remember from where we came.

As those who believe in Providence, in a God who does in fact work all things for the good of those who love Him, we believe that while there are negative forces at work in the universe and in us, He who is in us is greater than the one who would tear us down, that life is not all order to disorder but that in fact there is a countervailing force that is building a new thing, a Kingdom that will never end.  I believe if I know how we got here from there, it will not lead to despair but to great hope --- the glorious hope that this Story has a happy ending after all.

The Best Party in Town

"If the world is sane, then Jesus is as mad as a hatter and the Last Supper is the Mad Tea Party. The world says, Mind your own business, and Jesus says, There is no such thing as your own business. The world says, Follow the wisest course and be a success, and Jesus says, Follow me and be crucified. The world says, Drive carefully --- the life you save may be your own, and Jesus says, Whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. The world says Law and Order, and Jesus says, Love. The world says, Get, and Jesus says, Give. In terms of the world's sanity, Jesus is crazy as a coot, and anybody who thinks he can follow him without being a little crazy too is laboring less under a cross than under a delusion." (Frederick Buechner, from The Faces of Jesus)

One of the types of actions I used to bring as an attorney were civil proceedings for the involuntary commitment of persons deemed to have a "mental defect" such that they posed a danger to themselves or others. The subjects of these proceedings often appeared quite normal, even charming, but if they took the stand their answers would increasingly betray some sort of psychosis --- a delusional belief that judges, attorneys, and the court system were a part of a gigantic conspiracy targeting them, or that they were Jesus, or that people on television were talking to them. Just to name a few such delusions. However, the more I spent time with psychiatrists who examined them, the more uncomfortable I became. Sometimes it seemed that these probers of the mind regarded anyone who believed too deeply, or too much in one thing, particularly if the beliefs were religious in nature (which often they were), as delusional. I began to wonder about myself, if in fact I believed enough in what I said I believed, enough to be committed myself.

Writing the Corinthian church, Paul tells them that he and his fellow disciples have become "fools for Christ," and goes on to describe their chosen state as weak, dishonored, hungry, thirsty, in rags, brutally treated, homeless, subject to hard work, cursed, persecuted, slandered, becoming the "scum of the earth, the refuse of the world" (1 Cor. 4: 10-13, NIV). Today, psychiatrists might describe Paul and those of his bent as mentally ill, for who would choose such a state? Of Paul and the others with him commentator Matthew Henry says that "Theirs was voluntary, it was pleasing poverty. They thought they had a rich amends for all the outward good things they wanted, if they might but serve Christ and save souls." In other words, Paul chose to act in a way contrary to what he knew would bring esteem, wealth, or good reputation in the world. He was, in a word, crazy for God. The difficulty he experienced was the world's just desserts for his abnormal behavior. Yet the blessings he experienced were God's rewards for a life fully devoted to Him and lived according to a generally unseen but very real Reality.

Compared to Paul, most of our lives seem pretty sane. Put us in a room with Paul, Peter, Jeremiah, Ezekial, and the like, and we might feel like the world had gone mad. Like Alice at the Mad Tea Party with the Hatter, Dormouse, and March Hare, we might think we had walked into a world where nothing meant what we thought it meant, where what we took for granted is turned upside down. We might even sense that there is danger about, that the people we see are in some way disturbed. But that's not because what they say is nonsense, but because it strikes us as so different than what the world says. Read the upside down logic of the Beatitudes, where the meek inherit the earth, and the persecuted get the Kingdom, and you have the sense that it's a crazy poem meant for a tea party, and the Hatter and March Hare are having a joke at our expense. If you read it with sane eyes, that is. But like readers of Lewis Carroll who were steeped in the culture that he was poking fun at, if we read it as ones who are steeped in a Reality that operates quite differently than the world around us, we see it for what it is: a summation of the counter-cultural Kingdom and a guide to life coram Deo. You see, the Mad Tea Party only looks mad; it's really quite sane, even exciting, if you know what's going on, if you get the "joke." Even if they say, "No room, no room" (as did the March Hare), it's really just an invitation. There's a place at the table for you and me. Scum of the earth? Refuse of the world? Welcome to the party.



The Good Thing About Trouble

If you haven't figured it out by now, not every physical ailment has a remedy, nor does every heartache, anxiety, or other difficult emotional state have an antidote. Even doctors aren't omniscient, pastors don't generally have many or even easy answers to what ails us, and lawyers. . . well, let's leave them out of it prone as they are to obfuscation. The world around us and the world in us are beset by troubles and, despite the increase of knowledge, trouble endures. You can mask it by buying and surrounding yourself with things to make you feel better, by Prozac-induced happiness, or by a false sense of worth (and transcendence) brought on by the worship of work, sex, reputation and status, or tribe (by that I mean identification with a particular niche lifestyle defined by age, lifestyle, fashion, and so on). But it all comes up empty in the end, a mask over reality.

When I was sitting in a doctor's office recently awaiting an appointment, I picked up a three-year old copy of Newsweek and flipped right to an article entitled something like "The Purpose of Sadness." I was whisked away by a stout nurse before I could finish the article, but the gist of it was that sadness and other "negative" emotional states serve a purpose, that a perpetually induced state of happy euphoria is not, in fact, desirable. That's good sense. That's why Joni Mitchell's music resonates with the troubled, or why the blues as a genre never fade. And it even happens to be biblical.

The Letter to James is one oft-traveled wrinkle in the fabric of Scripture that I have turned to of late, and despite the radical differences between the pre-modern, agrarian society of the first century and our post-modern, largely urban one, it speaks clearly to human conditions that have not changed in centuries. For people who are troubled or in trouble, it commends prayer: "Is any one of you in trouble? He should pray" (Ja. 13). Sick? It says we call the elders of the church so they can pray. In other words, tell the church. But once again prayer is what we are to do first and always. Medicine, counsel, therapy --- all may be helpful, but James says the "prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective" (Ja. 5:16). We are, as James says, "healed" (Ja. 5:16). Really? Are we really healed? By faith we can say "yes," that in all the ways that matter, we truly are healed.

If we cannot sleep, we can pray "help me sleep," but the answer may be "rest in me," and perhaps we learn to rest in Him even though physical rest escapes us. If we are riven by anxiety, perhaps we ask for peace, but maybe the answer is "cast all your cares on me," an existential turning over of every concern to God. If we are suffering pain, perhaps we pray for relief of the pain but receive instead the gift of perseverance. We're troubled. We're beset. We don't know why. We want relief, and now! Sometimes God grants that relief, sometimes not. Sometimes he simply is saying to us that He is interested in who we are becoming in Him, in restoring His image in us, the one so marred by Adam's sin.

None of this makes it easy. Of course, we'd rather have our troubles lifted. We'd rather not have to endure sadness or financial difficulty or growing old or any other kind of fallout of a world bent since Adam. On the other hand, what joy will we miss if we waste our trials, if we attempt to submerge our troubles under a veneer of happiness or activity? James says "Consider it pure joy, brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything" (Ja. 1:2-4). I used to read this and think "Isn't there a shortcut? Isn't there a way I can become mature without trouble?" I don't think so. We want what He has to give us, and this is sometimes the way He gives it.

The title of a new Brian Wilson song says it well: "Midnight's Another Day." There's darkness before day, trouble that brings fresh growth. But there's no new day without night. Pray, says James.

The Like In His Love

1580700059 “He calls His own. . . by name.”  (John 10:3)

If you’re like me, it’s very difficult to remember the names of people that you have just met or who you see only occasionally and do not know well.  Once, my wife and I attended a church where the pastor, who we really enjoyed, could never remember her name, mispronounced it, or called her something else altogether.  We’ve all done it.  Once is easily forgotten, but this kind of serial forgetfulness begins to make us feel less of a person, like someone without a name.

Frank Zappa can name his kids Dweezle and Moon for whatever weird and inexplicable reasons (although the naming may have had something to do with illegal controlled substances), but naming is a sobering as well as exciting prospect for most of us.  A child is born, and we labor over the right name, a name that they will hopefully grow into, aspire to, or be influenced by the legacy of.  Somehow, that name becomes a part of their identity and even summons up the essence of who they are or will be.  When we say their name, the mere word is a icon for who they are, a way of seeing into the essence of who they will or have already become. 

Naming, if you recall, is one of the first activities of the Creator.  “And God said ‘Let there be light’ and there was light” (Gen. 1:3).  After pronouncing it good and separating light from darkness, we’re told that “He called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night” (Gen. 1:5).  After a few days he gets around to man, who He says is made in His image, a being named man, meaning Adam.  What does the image-bearer do?  All we are told is that he is placed in the Garden of Eden “to work it and keep it,” (Gen. 1:15) and even to eat of all but one of its trees.  But then it is said that God brought all the animals to Adam and “whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name” (Gen. 1:19). He names, and then we name. We image Him.  He even names his woman Eve, which means life-giver, and that having occurred after sin had entered Eden, one wonders if this was a mark of rebellion, God being the only true life-giver.  Surely names are given spitefully or in spite of a person’s true character, as well as for more noble reasons.

All this is to say that naming is an important part of our cultural task, of what we make of the world --- so important, in fact, that Jesus calls us by name.  What does it mean to say he calls us by name?  What I take from it is that he is calling us to be who we are in Him, our real Self, the one He created and, but for the brokenness caused by sin, the Self we would be.  Calling us by name also demonstrates His sovereignty over us, not the rule of a dictator but the “ownership” of a father over a child and with it the love he has for that child.  I am known.  I am loved.  I am challenged to be who I can be in Christ.

Somehow it’s more than (dare I say) simply that He loves us, as amazing as that is.  After all, he loves some people I consider annoying or who have habits I detest.  What gives?  Sure, love means He overlooks those things.  But there’s more to it.  I think He likes me, that is, the Me that is really Me, the one He made, the one I can be through Him.  I think about my own children.  I love them like any parent would (or should).  More than that, I like them.  I like not just who they are but who they can, by God’s grace, become (as they do not always act like who I believe they can be).  Sometimes I can see through the things that may annoy me about them to what I really like about them.  Then I know that God does the same with me.  He knows me.  He loves me.  He likes me.  It’s a big deal to me that there’s a like in His love, that He calls me by name.  You’re loved, of course, but have you ever thought about God liking you?

The Challenge of Context

signs[W]hat if our preferences in amoral matters have been shaped by cultural habits that are seriously (but not obviously) out of alignment?  What if our standards of practicality, our sense of what constitutes ‘common sense,’ reflect (yet conceal) a set of distorted values deeply embedded in the matrix of everyday life?  What if the conventional assumptions about living well that are embodied in our culture’s institutions and practices are at odds with the divinely established pattern of human well-being?”  (Ken Myers, Mars Hill Audio)

If you’re like me (and you are in this respect), you make countless decisions everyday and live and move in a context that you take for granted, that you only occasionally have opportunity to reflect upon.  That’s the challenge of living in the world, but not being of the world, of radically identifying with the place and people among whom you live, and yet living among them, to use scriptural words, as an “alien and stranger.”  That’s the difficulty of context, the tension we feel because we live in a particular place, among particular people, as citizens of a particular country, and yet our true Home is somewhere Other, a place to which our souls aspire but to which, for now at least, our bodies have no access.

Ken Myers has a way of asking just the right questions.  They’re questions I wish I could hold in my mind every day.  Generally, however, I live an unexamined life, making assumptions about what is practical or what is best without any conscious consideration of an objective standard.  Two things can change this.  One is a traumatic or at least serious aberration of our world --- maybe a death, maybe our own brush with mortality, or maybe simply a drought --- something to make us realize that life as we know need not and likely will not always be as it is.  Another is when we voluntarily (as in my recent trip to Uganda) or involuntarily (as in a job relocation or all-expense paid trip to Iraq) are removed from our context, becoming like exiles in a foreign land, among a foreign people.  Lifted from our familiar context, we lose the cultural reference points and are thrown back on a deeper standard, something more implicit.  For Christians, that would be Scripture --- not just the Bible itself but how that Bible has been rooted in our being, been incarnated in the habits of our mind.  We find out who we are.  Maybe we learn that for the first time.

When I was six, I was riding in the car with my mother to visit my grandmother, something I had done many times.  As we turned down a particular road near my grandmother’s house, I looked out the window and saw an African-American woman open the screen door of a small, clapboard mill house and look out.  It was 1964 and the first time in my life I remember reflecting on context, realizing that the familiar world I lived in was not like the one in which this woman and her family lived.  Nothing has been the same since then.

Nor should it be.  That tension that I feel between love of place and people and alienation from place and people is God-sanctioned, His way of reminding us that this world is not our Home, that what I assume is not necessarily what is best.  We live in context.  We love the place and people among whom we find ourselves.  Yet every day I need to ask the question “why?”  I need to consider why I do what I do.

Having Everything, Possessing Nothing

moneybag "The way to deeper knowledge of God is through the lonely valleys of soul poverty and abnegation of all things. The blessed ones who possess the kingdom are they who have repudiated every external thing and have rooted from their hearts all sense of possessing."  (A.W. Tozer, The Pursuit of God)

A.W. Tozer, who penned The Pursuit of God in 1948 while on a train between Chicago and Texas, knew little of the materialism and consumerism of this century, and yet he was able to speak words such as these that are so relevant and yet strangely unearthly now.  What does he mean to repudiate every external thing, to root out every sense of possessing?  How exactly do we do that when we live in a culture and in a time of abundance?  That’s what I mean when I say his words sound “unearthly” --- it’s as if he’s speaking to us from another planet.  Our way of thinking, habits, and even theology at times so situate us in the tide of consumerism that it’s difficult to even get our head above water to see where the tide is carrying us.

Clearly Tozer did not repudiate “every external thing” if it meant not living in a house, not having furniture, not having books, and not buying a train ticket.  He possessed things.  It’s likely he even possessed things which went beyond the barest necessities.  So what did he mean?

What he didn’t mean was the embrace of some sort of asceticism, the practice of some sort of rigorous self-denial, extreme abstinence or austerity.  In such a focus non-possession of things becomes a worshipped possession in and of itself, a form of idolatry.  Besides, ascetics are no fun.

He also wasn’t simply exhorting the rich, though they face a special temptation to possess things.  Street people who carry all their belongings on their back or in a shopping basket may still possess and hoard.  There are rich and poor misers, the only difference being that one has more to be miserly about.

Tozer was on to something different, something the title of his book makes explicit:  Life is about the pursuit of God, not the pursuit of things.  The latter is a different book, one you’ll find littering the self-help and financial sections of the local bookstore and, unfortunately, even the shelves of some Christian bookstores, its message cloaked in religiosity.  So how do we repudiate external things and root out our possessive bent?  By focusing on pursuing God, not on either the acquiring and keeping or, conversely, on the giving up of external things.  I have some practical advice which I have sometimes followed and often violated:

  • Hold, don’t clutch.  I once heard a pastor say that we must live life openhanded.  Things come our way at times, and other times they don’t.  Regardless, when I find myself becoming protective of a possession, am worrying about it, or are unwilling to share it, I need to question what I am pursuing.
  • Don’t buy on impulse.  Whenever I buy on impulse, I’m generally giving in to emotion, often because I think or am persuaded that what I buy will make me happier, make my life easier, or will keep me up to date.  It’s easier to see the lie of that emotional pull with some distance.
  • Give on impulse.  Though most of my giving is prayerfully considered, sometimes I hear of an immediate need and realize that I need to give. . . right then!  Give as the Spirit leads, habitually and prayerfully, and sometimes impulsively.  It helps root out that sense of possessing and makes you free.
  • Focus on God.  When I pursue God, I realize the riches I have:  eternal life, a meaningful existence, the fruit of the spirit, and the beauty of family, friendship, and creation.  Everything in the world tells me I need something else to make me happy.  I don’t.  I can’t escape that lie, but its voice is muted by regularly denying it.
  • Be aware of the poor, but enjoy what God gives.  You can’t alleviate world hunger or poverty, no matter what you do.  You can, however, be aware of needs at home and in the world at large and respond to a need at a specific place or to a specific person.  What you have, enjoy.  If you don’t enjoy it, give it away.

And that’s about enough for now.  If I could do these things, I might go far toward what Tozer suggests.  I need to realize that I have everything I need and truly want, and yet possess nothing. I’m working on making my aim true.

God's Parallelism

best One of the distinctive features of the Hebrew Psalms is a literary device known as parallelism.  While less rich a device in the translated English, it nonetheless remains a feature of most of the Psalms, a curious or perhaps sometimes irritating tendency to always be telling us the same thing twice, as if we didn't get it the first time.  The Psalmist tends to repeat himself, as if we need to hear a second time so we understand.  See what I mean?  It can be irritating to be told the same thing twice.

And yet it's not so in the context of poetry because phrases are not being repeated so much as to teach, to emphasize a point, as they are to produce beauty in their cadence, in their appearance as words on a page, in their sound.  C.S Lewis, in his book Reflections on the Psalms, declined to ascribe the Psalter a purely didactic function, noting that it seemed "appropriate, almost inevitable, that when that great Imagination [Who]. . . had invented and formed the whole world of Nature, submitted to express Itself in human speech, that speech should sometimes be poetry.  For poetry too is a little incarnation, giving body to what had been before invisible and inaudible."

When I hear the parallelism of the Psalms I don't hear the nagging voice of a mother saying "Clean your room.  Clean your room.  Clean your room. . . NOW," each phrasing louder and more emphatic, but I hear the chorus of a great song of which you never tire, like "I've got a ticket to ride.  I said "I've got a ticket to ride."  Better than that, you can ride the roads of your city all day, pound the pavement, scratch away at life from your cubicle, and then look out the window and smile, humming "his love endures forever."  "His love endures forever."  That song never grows old but resonates in the fabric of creation, in the breeze blowing the maple tree outside your open window, in the heat rising from the sidewalks, and in the smile on a cat's face when she greets you at the end of a long day --- that is, that song has parallels in human experience.  When we hear that assuring phrase, we instinctively say "Say it again.  Tell me again."  Just like when we see a great sunset, we still want to see another, and another, and another.  In fact, there is such abundant parallelism in Nature, in human relationships, and in our own day-to-day activities that we can see the poetic nature of life itself --- the repetition of putting children to bed at night, almost but not quite the same way every night, or the regularity of meals, sleep, day and night, and so on, all repetitive and yet each not precisely repeatable.  (I could be accused here of making a lot of nothing, but I don't think anything in life is insignificant.)

I encourage reading the Psalms aloud and appreciating them as poetry, as audible expressions of the sometimes inarticulable longings of the human heart.  The parallelism is there by providential design to heighten the beauty of the form God used to express his truth through very fallible wordsmiths.  It's only a visible expression of a godly parallelism in all of life, the repetition of the good, every day.  There's great assurance in that, a good rhythm of life, so enjoy the parallelisms of life.  Enjoy them.

Now, let me say all that again in a slightly different way. . . .

In the Company of Darkness

7347600021 As strange as it may sound, we can all be thankful that Psalm 88 was included in the Psalter.  This psalm is unbroken distress from beginning to end with nary a word of affirmation of trust or hope in God.  The Psalmist says his "soul is full of troubles," that he is "like the slain that lie in the grave," that God's "wrath lies heavy upon me," and so on and so on, billowing clouds of blackness lingering above his words.  Finally, in the end, he accuses God of having "caused my beloved and my friend to shun me" and says that "darkness has become my only companion."  It is the voice of one who has faced lifelong trouble and suffering, without relief.

Although I cannot stand in the writer's shoes, I can identify with his sense of unrequited loss, as I suspect anyone who has lived a while can.  I was lamenting today the apparent loss of the ability to any longer sleep an unbroken eight hours without awaking, a small loss in the context of the universe of loss.  And yet even small losses are real and lamented at times.  And at times, like the writer of Psalm 88, I am not prepared to immediately make great affirmations of trust in God, of hope that this will change.  There is some wrestling to be done, some being in the moment of loss.  Psalm 88 says that's OK.  That's part of the reason that the psalm is likely there for us.

There is a difference between grief, our human reaction to loss, and self-pity.  True Christian grief says, "I remember my affliction and my wandering, the bitterness and the gall. I well remember them, and my soul is downcast within me. Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope:  Because of the LORD's great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. … Though he brings grief, he will show compassion, so great is his unfailing love. For he does not willingly bring affliction or grief to the children of men" (Lam. 3:19-33).  On the other hand, self pity turns our gaze inward.  It is a morbid self-introspection and, ultimately, if it persists, can turn to bitterness and even unbelief.  It's a "Lord, do you not care. . . ?" (Lk. 10:40) that grows exponentially if it's not nipped in the bud.  But note, though there are no affirmations of hope and trust, the writer of Psalm 88 is engaged in a dialog with God.  He is praying to the One who has answers for his grief.  Maybe he can't make the positive affirmations that other psalms of lament come around to, yet, nevertheless, he's still talking to God.  And that is hopeful.

Let's face it.  Sometimes loss is so acutely felt that you can't say the words you know are true, or hope are true.  You can only cry out to God, argue with God, even accuse God.  That He condescends to allow us that fearsome privilege, that He even gives us this psalm as a pattern for doing just that, only demonstrates how great a condescension He has made for us (Phil. 2:5-8).  Eventually, once we have said our piece and shut up, we'll hear something like "let not your hearts be troubled," "fear not," or "rejoice." And for me, the one who cannot sleep the sleep of a child, there is the promise that He will give me "rest" (Mt. 11:28), if not now, then soon.  Very soon.

Things of the World, Grow Strangely Bright

tree Whenever I walk in a place, I begin to take dominion over it, to make the place my own.  Habitual paths create a familiarity that is settling.  The maple tree at that bend in the path is the one with the squirrel's nest about 20 feet up, with the bent trunk testifying to some past storm; the boulder, just there, retaining the warmth of the Spring sun even at dusk; that robin could just be the same that walked across my path yesterday, just here; the cooler breeze in this dip in the trail a familiar change, one I've felt before.  You see, I know this path, this lake, these birds, trees and breezes, the rise and fall of topography, the winter sun and summer sun, the cacophonous sound of the geese, just in from other parts, the distant sound of traffic, of the world waking up, the smell of breakfast through an open window, that woman who never looks up as she passes, the gossiping women who can be heard clear across the lake.

In this place, in my neighborhood, I can put names to what I see.  Street names like Godfrey, Gainsbororugh, Winthrop, and Redmond, or family names like Vaughn, Mangum, and Parker, or a love-sloppy dog named Sandy or a matronly cat named Rachel.  Deer crossing the neighbors back yard.  A racoon climbing a pine tree.  A pink ribbon on a mailbox and a just married sign on my neighbors' front door.  The dappled light of early morning sun on my terrace.  A chipmunk hurriedly chewing and storing seeds before diving back into his den under my steps.  A male cardinal slinging birdseed to the dove below the feeder.  A barking dog.  A hoot owl? Green leaves against azure blue sky.  Trucks passing on.  The newspaper waiting on the driveway.   The long sigh of my still sleeping child.  All familiar, all deeply settling.

In Psalm 1 we are told that the blessed life is one "like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in season. . . ."  The simile is one of settling in, of being rooted, of drawing sustenance from being in one place, of being in the right place.  The blessed man is described as one who finds "his delight in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night."  Reading the Psalms this side of Christ's coming, of God's revelation of Himself in the perfect man, we understand that the psalm commends settling into the full revelation of God, the perfect expression of which is found in Christ.  Matthew Henry says that "[t]o meditate in God's word is to discourse with ourselves concerning the great things contained in it, with a close application of mind, a fixedness of thought, until we are suitably affected with those things and experience the savour and power of them in our hearts."  In other words, we settle into God's revelation.  We roll around in it, if you will. 

Conversely, when the psalm speaks of the wicked, it plainly portrays them us unsettled, unfixed, as "chaff that the wind drives away," lacking roots.  In fact, Henry says that the word wicked "means such as are unsettled, aim at no certain end and walk by no certain rule, but are at the command of every lust and at the beck and call of every temptation."  The wicked, the unblessed, the unsettled and uprooted, pass through life like wind, blown about, never really knowing God nor His world.

If being blessed is being settled in the full revelation of God, then it means first being settled in God's Word, in His special revelation about Himself.  And yet as paramount as knowing God's Word is, there is more to it than this.  Part of God's revelation, part of what I am settling into, is His world.  Psalm 19 aptly links the law of God, his special revelation, with Creation, His general revelation.  The sense you have in reading this psalm is of a person who not only meditated on God's law but on God's world.  This writer can move easily from "[t]he heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. . . ." to "[t]he law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul. . . ."  The Psalmist meditates on Word and World.  Love for Word is inseparable from love of World.

What does the psalm say about Creation?  It says "[d]ay to day [it] pours out speech, and night to night [it] reveals knowledge."  If I listen, I can hear two melodies ---- one in a major key that tells me what is right, good, and true; one in a minor key that tells me what is bent, gone wrong, and untrue.  Part of the deep settledness of the Christian life is learning to love the things of the World, to see in their luminous particularity God's revelation of all that is true, good, and beautiful, to see the things of the world (to invert the words of the song) grow strangely bright, as we turn our eyes upon Jesus, as we settle into, sink roots into, the fullness of His revelation to us.

Think about that, next time you're out walking.  Settle in.

What's Happening to Us

weepForTheWipingOfGrace "God is not concerned about our plans; He does not say --- Do you want to go through this bereavement; this upset?  He allows these things for His own purpose.  The things we are going through are either making us sweeter, better, nobler men and women; or they are making us more captious and fault-finding, more insistent upon our own way.  The things that happen either make us fiends, or they make us saints; it depends entirely upon the relationship we are in to God."

Oswald Chambers, in My Utmost for His Highest (May 22nd)

"You don't look 49," he said.

"And you don't look 70," I said.  I added "we must be living right," a quip that I know isn't entirely or even mostly true.

" I don't think living right has anything to do with it.  My wife lived right all her life, did good to everyone, helped everyone, and we just found out she has cervical cancer.  That's not much of a reward for living right, is it?"

Of course not, and of course such aphorisms, while having a semblance of truth, aren't really very useful, aren't even very true.  There is utility in living right.  Perhaps we're less likely to contract lung cancer if we don't smoke or have a heart attack if we eat well and exercise or  escape divorce and its repercussions if we avoid infidelity --- and yet the most fit sometimes have heart attacks, children die young, and generous and kind old ladies get cervical cancer.  We all know that.

I don't want trial and suffering to come to me or mine or even friends.  Who would?  And yet the older I get the less I pray against such things as I pray about what happens to me and mine while enduring such things.  For after all, didn't James say to "[c]ount it all joy, brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness," (Ja. 1:2)?  Am I becoming "sweeter, better, nobler" as a man?  I hope so.

Visit the elderly in nursing homes and assisted living facilities and you can see the result of lives lived unto God or without Him.  One person has suffered much, and yet is sweet in spirit, full of grace, living in gratitude, counting it all joy.  Another has suffered much less, perhaps, yet is embittered and angry, arguing about petty grievances, fixated on some regret or some perceived wrong.  The difference is the relationship to God.  When we have that right, then what's happening is an inward transformation even despite (or because of) an outside trial.  Otherwise, I waste away, eaten up by the sins of resentment and anger that trial produces apart from God.

Today I heard that CCM musician Steven Curtis Chapman's five-year old child was killed in their driveway in a tragic accident, run over by his teenage child.  Can you imagine the weight of this suffering?  And yet I don't doubt that this family will not become embittered but will be strengthened in faith, in the end.  Lots of bad things happen.  God uses them in our lives for good, ultimately.  That's what's happening to us.  I hope I can remember that and live from that truth when (and not if) I face my next trial.

[As an odd addendum to this, I should add that my cat has chosen Oswald Chamber's classic devotional for me to read the last two days.  She has pulled it off the bookshelf twice, leaving it there for me to find.  Perhaps, despite the nature of her race, she is a pious cat.  Or is it just a fascination with the tasseled page-marker that playfully dangles from the book?]

[The image reproduced above is of a painting by my friend, Carol Bomer, entitled "Weep for the Wiping of Grace."  You can read more about the painting and Carol's other work here.]

Why We Know It Was Winter

untitled While the authenticity of Scripture is attested to in many ways, one of the more ubiquitous and remarkable qualities it has for me is its particularity, its deep rootedness in space and time and in its mediation through human agency. By the later I mean that God did not simply dictate the words of Scripture to a scribe who faithfully wrote them down, but used human authors --- with their own particular personalities and in their own social and historical context --- to write what God intended (actually, superintended) to reveal of Himself. I don’t know if mediated is quite the right word. Patrick Henry Reardon uses the word fermented, meaning that each author of Scripture is like a fermenting agent bringing a distinctive flavor and consistency to Scripture, binding it to a real person. It is so easy to forget this self-evident fact about the nature of Scripture, reducing it to abstractions, and yet when particular time- and space-bound phrases leap off the page at you, you’re brought up short: these are real people in a real place at a real time. I laugh. Of course that’s what I believe, but that nefarious Purveyor of Abstractions (Satan) majors in high-sounding religious maxims, knowing that divorced from the really real, abstractions are more malleable and dispensable. They are not tied down.

Let me give you an example. Yesterday I was reading the Gospel of John, the most abstract of the Gospel accounts. In John 10: 1-18 Jesus introduced two rich metaphors, referring to himself as both the “shepherd” and “door” (or “gate”) and to believers as “sheep.” But beyond these visual images, things that are real and help tie down the analogies Jesus is drawing, the whole passage is sandwiched between the healing of a man born blind (a real man, in a real place, a man who grew testy under examination by the Pharisees, saying “I told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again?” And then, tongue in cheek, saying “Do you want to become his disciples?”) And then immediately after this discourse, verse 22 picks up with “At that time the Feast of Dedication took place at Jerusalem. It was winter.” Not summer, but winter. As far as I can tell there is no reason for the existence of the phrase “It was winter” other than to tie us to space and time. This Book is so good about that.

If you think this so self-evident that there is no reason to speak of it, I appeal to Francis Schaeffer, missionary to Europe, founder of L’Abri. Picture him in a hayloft next to his home in the Alps in 1955, Chalet Bijou, pacing back and forth, the wood boards creaking under his feet, the hay swishing, cow bells clanging from the fields nearby, re-examining the very basis for his faith and concluding, ultimately, that the truth of Scripture was the only thing that made sense of reality. When he later preaches on what he learned, and then writes it down in True Spirituality, over and over and over he makes the point that Scripture is rooted in space and time. He did it, of course, to counter liberal theology, an emasculated view of God which used all the same words like incarnation and resurrection but had long sense ripped the words out of the reality of space and time --- planting, as Schaeffer said, “one foot firmly in the air.” And yet it’s not just an argument against liberalism. It’s personal. You have the sense that the knickered, bearded man is simply in wonder at a story that is really real, that really happened --- in a particular place, at a particular time. It was winter (in Jerusalem). A sassy former blind man now cast out of the synagogue has taken up with Jesus, the man who put mud (real mud) on his eyes and spit on him and now he sees.

Forgive me for waxing on about such self-evident matters. I feel like pastor Tim Keller who, when lying ill unto death in the hospital, reading a book on the evidence for the resurrection, realized that it was real. There was a body. It bled and died. It went missing. It popped up again. The dead come alive. Of course he always believed that Jesus died and rose again, but at that moment, he really believed, he was astonished that this thing had really happened in space and time.

Now this never gets old. This is an incarnated revelation, truth that is bound up with particulars, truth with body and texture. That’s the reason we know it was winter.

Fearing Well

child “When I was five, growing up in Pittsburgh in 1950, I would not go to bed willingly because something came into my room. This was a private matter between me and it. If I spoke of it, it would kill me. . . . I lay alone and was almost asleep when the damned thing entered the room by flattening itself against the open door and sliding in. . . . The light stripe slipped in the door, ran searching over Amy’s wall, stopped, stretched lunatic at the first corner, raced wailing toward my wall, and vanished into the second corner with a cry. So I wouldn’t go to bed.” (Annie Dillard, in An American Childhood)

“I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more.” (Lk. 12:4)

Though I have forgotten much of childhood’s events and even more of the depth of its emotions, I will never forget the sense of fear that darkness could bring on. One of my earliest memories is of a hysterical conviction that the burning red face of Satan resided in the window air conditioner in the dining room of my first childhood home. I would not enter that room willingly or alone. I tell you, it was real. And I was two.

We moved, trading suburb for suburb, and yet the darkness was still populated with shadowy child-eating goblins that I could see just out of the corner of my eye, just on the edge of vision, bogeymen that sprung up when my back was turned only to disappear when I turned around (if I dared). If I was in the basement coming up the stairs, I ran. I could feel the heat of its hand on my backside, just inches from grasping me before I emerged in the light at the top of the stairs, the kitchen, where the settled warmth of lamplights and the smell of evening coffee dispelled the fear. I quickly closed the door, composed myself, and took my place at the table, another narrow encounter with the Underworld avoided. I was safe, for now.

It wasn’t just the basement. My bedroom, shared with my younger sister, lay off the hallway between my parent’s and sister’s bedrooms. The back of the room was a bank of windows, barely curtained from the dark, cold thin panes of glass all that separated me from the devils of the outside. I made a game of it. If I ran as quickly as I could, toward my parent’s bedroom, I could avoid his gaze, his prying eyes, the glare of the creature who looked in my windows at night, who saw me lying in my bed, asleep, who but for the window panes’ thin veneer of security would have me, would spirit me away.

There was another problem. I couldn’t sleep. I lay awake, long after the stirrings of my sister had ceased, the rise and fall of her breathing taking on a quiet regularity, and long after my father began to snore, lightly. I lay awake, my head covered by the sheets, listening to a house alive, the structural and mechanical murmurings and whisperings of the day now rising to lively conversation in the dark --- the hum of the refrigerator motor answering the intermittent call of the air conditioner fan, pipes groaning like some inexplicable digestive mystery, and then a creaking, just now and then, like the house was settling back on its haunches, its vigilance giving way, cracks appearing in its armor, mice and ants and other nocturnal animals and insects entering in. I lay wake for a long, long time, for what felt like all night, convinced that my mother would enter the room at any time, telling us to get up for breakfast, asking us how we slept, and then comforted by the first rays of daylight I would spring to my feet and insist that I had not slept at all and felt just fine. That never actually happened.

At one point, my insistence that there were creatures outside became tiresome. I moved to a cot in my parent’s room. I know that they tried many things I cannot now remember before resorting to this, telling me I’m sure that God was with me watching over me. I wouldn’t have disbelieved this, but I needed something I could see. I lay awake watching my Dad sleep. I lay awake long after everyone had gone to sleep.

I lived. I grew up. Like most kids, I shed those monsters somewhere along the way. Some kids have those fears, some don’t. Maybe it’s that we thought about things more, analyzed life more and didn’t just live it. Maybe we had well-endowed imaginations. Maybe some event, real or imagined, provided the explicable or inexplicable reason for our insecurity. Maybe it’s genetic, a “chicken-heart” gene. But I know it is not unusual for some kids to have fears of the dark, to see monsters in the shadows.

We grow up. But we trade fears of bogeymen for new fears --- fears of death, perhaps, or losing our job and being destitute, of being embarrassed or of failing miserably, or of being alone.  These are the phantoms of adulthood, the ones we may laugh at, distract ourselves from, or suffer under.  Just like the creature in the cellar, the monster outside the window, they are real.

Jesus says time and time again, "do not be afraid."  Do not be afraid of those who kill the body.  But wait a minute.  That hurts, and I don't want to die, yet anyway.  I'm sure my mother told me something like this.  And I'm sure I wanted something with skin on to calm my fears. 

In the end, it's impossible not to feel fear, not to realize that bad things can happen, that life won't be a holiday tomorrow, or the next day, even if it is today.  But I've come to a new understanding of these admonitions to not be afraid.  Jo Kadlecek says that in addition to warning us of danger and keeping us safe, "fear was also meant to push us overboard --- arms flailing, legs kicking, eyes stinging --- so that we could be, have to be, rescued."  Saved, she means.  Saved by a story, the story, by the One who we can trust to be with us in our fear and uphold us.  That doesn't mean I'm not afraid at times, but it does mean I don't live there in fear, I'm not debilitated by fear, when I leap into Jesus's arms, when I rest on him alone.  I move my bed into his room.  I lie awake looking at the placid calm of His rest, while storms rage around him and phantoms move in the dark, keeping my eyes on Him when everything around me may look mighty scary.  I rest in Him alone.

One day, though I don't remember when, I got up from my cot in my parents room and looked at that dark pane of glass in my room, and then got in my bed again.  I didn't live in fear.

And Annie Dillard figured out that the light stripe that came in her room was just the reflection of the car headlights on the road outside.  Then she slept.

All I know is the deliberativeness of resting on Jesus alone, of casting myself into His arms.  Fear may not be dispelled immediately, but like melting ice cubes in the hot sun of His care, they will depart.  We'll live, in Him.

The Other Side of Beauty

glassess "Christian philosophers have been singularly alive to the sadness which beauty may provoke.  'When we admire the beauty of visible objects, we experience joy certainly,' observed the medieval thinker Hugh of St. Victor, 'but at the same time, we experience a feeling of tremendous void' . . . . Beauty, then is a fragment of the divine, and the sight of it saddens us by evoking our sense of loss and our yearning for the life denied us."  (Alain de Botton, in The Architecture of Happiness)

It's 11:38 p.m.  You just finished paying the last bills, put away the dishes from dinner, put in a load of laundry, folded what seemed a hundredfold small articles of clothing, fed the animals, and put the toys back in the toy chest (even the Matchbox cars pushed under the sofa).  You hoist a brimming laundry basket and, dimming the last light, wearily turn and head up the stairs.  At the top of the stairs you set the laundry basket down, thinking you will look in on your son and daughter where they sleep.  You stand at the side of their bed and watch their deep breathing, the sweetness of a face at peace, see the perspiration on their face as the surplus energy of a full day of play oozes out.  A feeling of joy wells up in you, unbidden, the kind that swallows up all your deep weariness.  And then you sense something else underneath the joy, something you recognize as a profound sadness, and you turn to leave, an unspoken prayer caught in your throat.

It's late June, and you just walked the over 300 steps to the top of Bridal Vail Falls in the Yosemite Valley.  You recognize the reality from John Muir's detailed descriptions or Ansel Adam's black and white photos.  You're out of breath from the ascent, but the view from up top is rewarding.  The water in the fall is full, thundering over the edge of the cliff, filling the air with mist, a dramatic evidence of purposeful and not accidental creation. It is enough to provoke a prayer of praise, heartfelt and, yet, woven into the prayer, a longing for more and an inarticulatable sense of loss.

Saturday evening there is a party in your home.  Good friends gather around a fire, laughing, enjoying memories.  You're talking about your children, when they were young, laughing at some funny comment, remembering some shared event.  Laughter almost brings tears.  You sip a cup of your favorite English tea, the mug warming your hands.  Looking at the familiar faces around you, you exhale a great thankfulness, happy for this moment together.  Then, a certain wistfulness begins to impinge, stealing some of the intensity of that sense of wholeness.  You know the time together will end.

tresspass On the other side of whatever beauty we experience --- whether family, nature, or friendship --- lies a sense that it is incomplete, temporal, and sure to be dashed by some event, word, or deed.  When we know beauty, it's as if we stare into Eden, for a moment, our soul flooded by a sense of what it is like, and yet close behind comes the realization, common but displaced by temporary amnesia, that the way back to Eden is barred, "cherubim and a flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life" (Gen. 3:24).  A neon sign flashes "NO RETURN."  An ominous guard, feet squarely planted, arms crossed, bars our path.  Trespass is not allowed.

In his commentary, Matthew Henry says that this image was, for Adam and for us, a reminder of God's displeasure, of his judgment, that the way of deliverance and of wholeness is not back to Eden but on to a new heavens and earth, promised through the seed of the woman.  Viewed this way, what we sense when we peer into a moment of sublime beauty is both the judgment of the Fall --- that temporal and incomplete feeling of joy, thankfulness, and peace we have in an experience of beauty --- as well as the hope and expectation of something more --- a recreated, perfect heavens and earth.  God gives us a vivid visual reminder that the way back to Eden is foreclosed as a prompt to set our hearts on what He promises --- an experience of beauty and wholeness that will never end and which is not undercut by sadness or longing.  The beauty we now experience, whatever its manifestation, is, as C.S. Lewis once said, "not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news of a country we have never yet visited."  This beauty "must bear at best only a symbolical relation to what will truly satisfy."

Many people stop at beauty.  Don't.  Look through it both to see the way to Eden foreclosed and, yet, the promise of true Beauty yet to come.  "No longer will there be any curse" (Rev. 22:3). In this Great Reversal, we'll be bidden to take and eat of the tree of life.  And we will.

Why I Don't Have to Like Harvey

caddy When I was a neophyte record mogul (that's a joke, people), there was an artist I worked with who had a manager who was absolutely the most difficult and unlikable person I have ever dealt with.  Let's call him Harvey, just to personalize him, and his poorly managed artist, Lucy.  Harvey initially directed me, as is his prerogative, to have no contact with Lucy but to only deal with him.  This was annoying,inconvenient, and sad since part of the reason I was in the business was because I enjoyed the friendship and peculiar perspective of artists.  Then, during our ensuing re-negotiations over a contract (which took a ridiculous four or five months), he sent me sizzling one-page late night  faxes, in 10-point typewriter type, single-spaced, with a plethora of profanity sprinkled throughout.  One fax alone, in one page, had 23 four-letter words!  Since I had a home office, I had to censor the fax machine.  (I had never met anyone who made such liberal use of profanity.  Of course, I've never been in the military either.)  Thereafter, he proceeded to upset Lucy on numerous occasions (resulting in weepy phone calls), disagree on about every point imaginable, and alienate radio promoters, press, and distributors.  I later found out that Harvey had been ordered off the premises of the last record label Lucy was signed to.  I wish I had known.

I didn't like Harvey.  You wouldn't either.  Being a Christian, that used to bother me,  as I somehow felt like I should be able to like him, to, as my mother and other mothers have said, "find the good in him." It was a noble objective but, in Harvey's case, not reasonable.  You see, he was completely disagreeable.  I couldn't find good, and even if I had, it would not have made me like him.

But I don't have to like him.  In fact, I don't have to like anyone.  Of the 1227 times the word "like" appears in the Bible, it seems never to have been in the context of a command to "like" someone.  Most of the time it is used in a simile, in a way of comparing things.  Conniving Jacob comes in to see blind Issac, and the old man says 'Ah, the smell of my son is like the smell of a field that the Lord has blessed'" (Gen. 27;27).  Jesus says "Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls" (Mt, 13:45).  And John, awestruck by a vision of Heaven, grasps for comparisons, saying he "heard what sounded like a great multitude, like the roar of rushing waters and like loud peals of thunder, shouting: 'Hallelujah! For our Lord God Almighty reigns'" (Rev. 19:6). 

In the few places the word is used in the sense of taste or preference, its object is clearly not a person, nor are we ever commanded to "like" a person.  "And Abimelech said, 'My land is before you; live wherever you like'" (Gen. 20:15). Or maybe it refers to how you spend your money: "When the Lord your God has enlarged your territory as he promised you, and you crave meat and say, 'I would like some meat,' then you may eat as much of it as you want" (De. 12:20).  Live where you like, eat as much meat as you like, spend your free time as you like, and so on.  Never, however,  are we commanded to like anyone.

This is a freeing thought. There are a lot of people in the church universal that I might not like --- the obnoxious, the confrontational, the militant, and the tactless --- much less those still in unbelief.  And yet, I'm not off the hook.  Jesus says "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you," (Mt. 5:44)  Commendable things like patience, gentleness, and kindness are the fruits of the Love that resides in me and is working its way out in me (Gal. 5:22).  When Jesus saw the vain and egocentric and profane and manipulative Harveys of his world, "he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd" (Mt. 9:36).  And we are told to do likewise, to "love, because he first loved us" (1 Jn. 4:19).

After a few years, I'm done with Harvey.  Lucy moves on.  I find out, later, that Harvey is an alcoholic, that he was estranged from his father, that I really met him on his way down.  I begin to feel a little of what Jesus felt, too late, that he was a needy and helpless man who needed the love of Christ but couldn't then receive it.

Near the end, I flew to Atlanta and Harvey picked me up in a red Cadillac convertible at the airport, sporting shoulder-length blonde hair and large orange-tinted sunglasses.  I was impressed, in a way, and repulsed.  In the recording studio, he sat in the corner, burned incense, and smoked cigarettes, agitated and in the way of the producer, telling me stories of the artists he had worked with (you'd know their names) and the people he knew (and I should know).  I was awed of the man, in a way, novice that I was, but I did not like him.  And I didn't need to like him.

I should have better loved him, though.  Jesus did.

The Matter of Why Space Matters

space God loves matter, which is why he made lots of it (God must love space even more.) 

(Cornelius Plantinga, in Engaging God's World)

When Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins were hurtling through space toward the moon in Apollo 11, they had no idea what they were hurtling  through.  We still don't.  At least we don't know much. In fact, my cats may know just as much for all I know.

I think of space as emptiness, as the absence of things, or matter, and yet scientists say that's not really the case.  As I understand them, outer space is not completely empty (that is, a perfect vacuum) but contains a low density of particles, predominantly hydrogen plasma, as well as electromagnetic radiation, dark matter and dark energy --- mostly the latter two "dark" twins, except we really don't know what they are or if they're really there (kind of like imaginary playmates).  For instance, dark matter is said to be a mysterious substance which scientists think accounts for most of the mass in the universe but that is invisible to current instruments.  We don't really know for sure that it's there, and yet this stuff we can't see accounts for 96% of the universe.  But you know scientists; they positively live to postulate.

But enough of that.  I think of space more in the sense of spaciousness, an openness filling the yawning gaps between good solid things like trees, stars, and people.  There's a lot of it around.  God made it, so he must love it (says Plantinga), and given how much of it there is, he must love it a lot.

God does love space --- the sparseness of it, the roominess of it, the solitude of it, the wonder of it, the silence of it, and the noise of it.  And so should we, or so do we, but for sin's curse.  Because of sin, some of us can't abide being alone in the solitude of space. Agoraphobics, those who fear open places, hide in their rooms, undone by the expanse of space and place.  And some of us, like nettling bureaucrats, rush to fill every interstice of human experience with a regulation, rule, or command --- legalists to the core who can't abide the inevitable space in our codifications of appropriate behavior.  And yet it was not to be this way.

Our distant ancestor, Job, marveled at the emptiness of space, wondering that "he spreads out the northern skies over empty space; he suspends the earth over nothing," (Job 26:7) and later concluding that "these are but the outer fringe of his works; how faint the whisper we hear of him!" (26:14).  The Psalmist kicks back on the grass outside Jerusalem and wonders aloud: "When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him?" (Ps. 8:3-4).  Part of what he considers in those heavens is the juxtaposition of visible objects like stars with the vast spaciousness of space, the separation of what is from what is not.  Kant said space is relationship, a way to order our experience of reality; Newton, that it was absolute, a part of reality.  I think it's both.  Sitting in my office, I enjoy space as something real I can move around in and also the sense of space as a juxtaposition of the empty with definite objects like walls and desks and windows.

I love space.  When I open Scripture to the Creation account of Genesis 1-3, I'm thankful for the vast spaciousness of the Word that made it all.  Behind the words "God made" lies a rich and infinite domain of interpretation, of room for human exploration.  And when I hear the reassuring words of "Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path," (Ps 119:105), I'm glad the Word is the lamp and not the path, that I have a sure guide but a vast landscape through which to find my way.  That's space. That's the kind of space God gives us.

Leaving the space of outer space and the vastness of the landscape of life, I'm thankful for the simple yet profound space of a poem.  No one better illustrates the fulsome nature of space with poetic verse than the spare poetry of William Carlos Williams:

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

(The Red Wheelbarrow).  Writing about the poem in Understanding Poetry, poet Robery Penn Warren said that "[r]eading this poem is like peering at an ordinary object through a pin prick in a piece of cardboard. The fact that the tiny hole arbitrarily frames the object endows it with an exciting freshness that seems to hover on the verge of revelation."  In other words, more is said by what is unsaid than by what is said. 

And consider the short story, the poor stepchild of the literary world.  (Evidence: The Atlantic Monthly, which published short stories by our finest writers for 150 years, abruptly stopped publishing stories in 2005.)  A story like Flannery O'Connor's "The Geranium," which touches in a concrete way on racism, radiates outward into the unknown.  Who was Old Dudley?  What was his early life like?  What will happen to him?  We don't know.  We can imagine.  We can place this snapshot of life in a greater context we supply -- in space.

We may not know if space is matter, but we know it matters.  If we love it, like God does, if we wonder at it and relish its existence, life will open.  We won't be afraid, but free.

Waves can't break without rocks that dissolve into sand
We can't dance without seasons upon which to stand
Eden is a state of rhythm like the sea
Is a timeless change

Turn your eyes to the world where we all sit and dream
Busy dreaming ourselves and each other into being
Dreaming is a state of death, can't you see?
We must live through who we are

If we can sing with the wind song
Chant with thunder
Play upon the lightning
Melodies of wonder
Into wonder life will open

We are children of the river we have named "existence"
Undercurrent and surface pass in the same tense
Nothing is confined except what's in your mind
Every footstep must be true

If we can sing with the wind song
Chant with thunder
Play upon the lightning
Melodies of wonder
Into wonder life will open

(Bruce Cockburn, "Life Will Open," from Sunwheel Dance, 1971)

The Naked Will

"Professors in countless clasrooms in many different disciplines report that students have already been welll taught that, when they are faced with any moral proposition, the proper response is 'That's just your opinion.' They are resistant, then, to resolving disagreement by reasoned arguments. They aver, 'You choose your good, and I'll choose mine.' Reasoned debate is replaced by naked will. I choose. Don't ask me to give reasons --- I just choose." (Michael Novak, "Remembering the Secular Age," First Things, June/July 2007)

Over 15 years ago now, my wife and I hosted a 17-year old French-speaking exchange student from Switzerland via a Young Life exchange program called Amicas. I assumed that Marie (name changed) was a Christian and, naturally, that she was on board with the moral imperatives of Christian belief. I had a few things to relearn that first month.

The second or third day she was with us, she informed us that her sister was living with a man, was pregnant, and had an abortion. She saw no problem with this. They loved each other. They did not need a baby now. Now granted, this was not shocking news in 1991 as it was not uncommon. However, what was uncommon in my world was to hear another Christian justify it. In the end, after I explained my opinion and its rationale, she used the discussion-ending "That's your opinion; I have my opinion. That's true for you, but not for me." I told her that wasn't truth at all, but preference, that I was talking about what was really true. But it was over. She did not want to talk any more.

When you reach the point that you no longer profess to believe in truth, then conversation becomes meaningless. As one of my graduate school professors once said, as he did not believe in truth the only thing he believed in was power. All that mattered was who had more guns or money. All that mattered was who won.

In this kind of environment it's very difficult to have rational discussions. For one thing, no one is interested in what they view as a dead-in discussion. What's the point, after all, in talking about what is true (or good or beautiful) if, in the end, there is no standard by which to measure such things?

In this time, I think you must live out truth, show and not so much tell it. And that's what we tried to do with our exchange student. We simply loved her as best we could and lived our family life as authentically as we could, our failures on display, of course, as there's nowhere to hide when you live together. Sure, you might not have outright arguments with your spouse but there is that argument that is a silent one, when an icy chill descends on the home for a time, when maybe a few choice words were said in a certain tone. You don't hide that.

At the end of the year, when she left us, she gave us a letter. Leaving the airport my wife read it to me. Among other things, there was this: "You know the discussion we had earlier in the year? I have thought about this, and I agree with you." Was that because of my brilliant argumentation? I expect not, as it was a stumbling and too emotional discussion. Perhaps our shining life of marital bliss? I doubt it. We had our moods, said things we did not mean, wanted what we wanted sometimes no matter what was best for all. But it was all in the open, and we knew when we were wrong, and in our home was an inevitable standard we could not keep. So what's that leave? Grace. We did not perfectly love, and yet we were perfectly loved. We did what we did because we ought to or we did what we ought not do knowing we ought not. Whichever way it fell, the standard was there. What was true and good mattered.

What Marie was telling us those first days was that she believed what she did because she wanted to believe it. And that's that. Maybe what she came to believe, I hope, was that the true and good wasn't simply a function of her naked will, but existed independently of her, that truth really mattered and wasn't simply chosen.

And my professor? He's no longer at my graduate school, did not rise in the ranks to a deanship. Not enough power, I guess.

Little Bitty Unhappy Centers

Marketplace"We awaken and find that we have jumped into a culture moving at breakneck speed, powered by great economic forces dedicated to servicing and expanding the appetites of the voraciously hungry selves we've become, and we eat and eat and eat and we're just as hungry as before, so we eat and eat. . . and we're still empty. Hungry. Alone. And we realize that we have become, as we see in flashes of dark honesty, tiny centers, the tiniest centers imaginable. And these tiny centers are not holding."

(Eric Miller, "Nuclear Centers," in Touchstone Magazine, April 2007)

One of the many positive things about being with many elderly people is that they are more often than the middle-aged or young beyond the foolishness of consumption. Either they never had the money to follow their passions where they will, where their appetites took them, or having the money, they realized too late in life, perhaps, like Solomon, that all chasing after wealth, possessions, and sex is vanity, meaningless, that "[a]man's efforts are for his mouth, yet his appetite is never satisfied" (Ecc. 6:7). My mother, for example, is and has been for years unfazed by new cars, new clothes, new carpet, new restaurants, and so on. In fact she, like so many elderly people, find comfort in the familiar, the tried and true or, at least, the known rather than the unknown. Culture motors by, going somewhere barely articulable ("you deserve it!"), and here they are smelling the billowing exhaust of progress, only when the smoke clears they sense a certain peaceableness and contentment about where they remain. Why, after all, they say, would we want to go to Europe when the beach is so nice? Why would we want to try the Red Robin when the Barbecue Lodge where we've eaten well for the last 20 years is perfectly fine? To say they may discover something new is no answer at all for them.

What Eric Miller is lamenting and critiquing in his short article is our loss in the West of a defining center, one which has historically been a Judeo-Christian framework, one that filtered down through nation, neighborhood, church, school, and family. We found our identity as part of something larger than ourselves, something not driven or defined by the market but by the people we lived with and not the ones we shopped with. As he says, when we want to have a sense of belonging, when in other words we are lonely, "we end up looking for the codes and symbols of those who are part of our own self-selected, generation-driven market niche and follow along, being sure to reserve the right to leave (whether job, church, town, or marriage) at a moment's notice, and so protect our 'freedom.' Sadly, this form of belonging is a faint shadow of the sort of thick membership that words like 'commonwealth' and 'neighborhood' and 'family' and 'church' and 'college' demand." Solomon's wisdom echoes down the centuries: such a life is hollow and empty, and still we chase it.

We laugh at the routines of the elderly at times, their aversion to change, and while it's true that their comfort and tradition can blind them to the God-given opportunity that a new thing may yield, they often have a contentment that we lack. For example, every now and then I have lunch with two gentlemen in their late Sixties, men who have not retired but who have given up the day to day occupational ladder-climbing. Both can well afford to eat where they will, and yet they inevitably and routinely meet weekly at a restaurant sandwiched between a thrift store and a repair shop in a local, somewhat dated strip shopping center for meat and vegetables --- the familiar, the good, and the true. It is not new. It does not fit any market niche. And yet they enjoy a certain community in this place, one hand to mouth and the other free to wave and shake hands with the various people they see in that restaurant.

When I am with my mother, I realize that she wants for nothing, nothing, that is, except to see her family and to enjoy familiar places and routines. For some older folks that's a withdrawal, a kind of giving up on life; for others, a deep contentment and rest, a reflection on the fact that much that passes for life is vanity and the rest can't be bought.

We're not really happy being the center of our world, particularly when everyone is a center. We can't hold it together too well. Deep down we don't know who we really are and where we're really going. Our strivings would be humorous to God were they not so sad.

I know real life doesn't reside in the new and shiny. I've had shiny things, and they grow dull. But the pull of appetite is strong, and I am weak. Thank God "the one who is in [me] is greater than the one who is in the world" (1 Jn. 4:4). He is the real bread of life, the only one worth hungering after.

Why We Go Home

Memory_tree"[M]emories are by their very nature fragmented, isolated, and arbitrary as glimpses one has at night through lighted windows." (Housekeeping, by Marilynne Robinson)

After I rounded the corner on Surry Drive, I came to a stop next to a field of foot high grass. I used to dread cutting the grass in that field. It felt like it took all day, back and forth and back and forth with the push mower, sweat pouring off me. Now it looks smaller by far, unkempt too.

"Where did we live?"

"Right there, Mom."

I have my Mom in the car with me, her car really, as she doesn't drive any longer and this car is easier for her to get in and out of with her arthritis. Her face is a bit puzzled, I think, and I wonder what she is remembering. Maybe she's like me. I could sit here in the car and conjure up at least two dozen memories of this house and its environs within five minutes or so. But I wonder what she remembers.

"That's where the Nodars lived, on the corner, that house."

"Norma lived there? That house is too small."

"Yeah, that's it alright. Next door were the Helmanns, and then the Highfills, and then the Jewish family --- what were there names? --- then Bobby's house, and the Hahns.' I'm pointing them out with my finger, somewhat amazed that I can remember.

"Oh yeah."

I move on. I know it looks suspicious, a strange car sitting here scrutinizing houses. For a moment I imagine seeing a Dad out in the yard of my old house, walking up and telling him I used to live here, hoping he'd ask me in. I mean I haven't seen my old bedroom in, well, maybe 30 years or so. But no, I suppose that won't happen, or if it did, it'd be a bit wierd.

What am I looking for? I'm not sure. But I think I want to recollect who I am and where I came from. I draw some reassurance from that, that I had a home and maybe that I'll have one beyond this earth, that though we all grow older and move away the old places are still there and the memories we have still inhabit them.

I drive on. No one out. I try to see what would have been in my childhood: a purple Sears Spyder bike with high handlebars and a banana seat; a backyard game of capture the flag played over three or four backyards, walking to the corner store scheming up some superhero adventure, laying in sleeping bags on the sideyard of a house wondering if I could make it outside all night. It's an odd feeling. Those memories are near enough to touch, almost, and yet 35-40 years away. In fact, were I to stop the car I could stand in the very spot where certain things occurred --- like where the neighborhood bully Brad Bullah inexplicably helped me fix my bike, and act of kindness when no one else was around --- and yet the memory occupies (or occupied) that space in a different time.

I think this odd feeling we have in the presence of places that evoke memories is God-given. It's speculative, of course, but I suspect that when we attain glory we will somehow see the passage of time in a different light. And while we will not be God, the one who is timeless (and outside time), we will be eternal, and that must bring a different perspective to these memories. I can't believe we simply forget everything, because in forgetting we lose who we are.

"Let's go by Momma's house. I haven't been over there in a long time."

"OK." She's talking about her mother's house, my grandmother, who lived in the same house as long as I knew her.

I drive on, repeating street names, like Pender, Gracewood, Conrwallis, Pembroke, and so on, faintly comforted by the sound of the spoken names, the fact that they have endured. And in my mother's face I see the light of recognition, as through a glass dimly. One day it will all be clear. One day we'll all get home.