Creational Theology

Our Haptic God

IMG_3650Even in suburbia there’s a residue of wildness. Walking alone the other morning before dawn, in the darkness before the birds make their first tentative calls, I heard a chilling shriek. It may have been the wolf on its prey. We’ve seen him nervously cross the road ahead more than once, glancing furtively around, and for a moment it’s a welcome reminder that the manicured place where we live was not always so tame and even yet is not in hand. Deer leap our fence and eat flowers, move through the corridors left between developments. Hawks circles overhead. Owls hoot in the still of the night, before the last lights are switched off. Raccoons and possums move at will over the terrain, one they know better than us. And beneath, water still slides slowly downhill, bearing away the earth, bit by bit by bit. Pretty ordinary, I know, yet it’s the place where I get saved.

D.L. Waldie, author of the memoir called Holy Land, says of his life in the not-so-middle-class suburb of Lakewood, California, that he could not “find whatever it is that makes it possible to live in the world outside of the everyday. To put it in its crudest terms: one isn't saved over there; one is saved here. Salvation doesn't arrive from over there; it arrives here in this place, whatever kind of place it might be.” Waldie locates his this-worldly salvation in the Incarnation: if God can pour himself into a man — if Creator can condescend to be creature — then, all of Creation is imbued with value. We are not saved by the world, but we are saved in the world. “The everyday isn’t perfect,” he says. “It confines some and leads some astray into contempt or nostalgia, but imbued with the Incarnation, it fires the imagination of others. The weight of everyday life is a burden I want to carry.”

But many people don’t want the weight of everyday life. Sometimes I don’t. Sometimes the walk into my office is deadening, or a rush hour drive seeing all the other people waiting at lights, eyes fixed ahead, rushing in or out, fills me with melancholy. I open the newspaper and my mind slides down a slippery slope of “what ifs.” It was like E.B. White said about life sometimes, given both his acute fears and chronic, lifelong, unspecified anxiety. “There would be times,” he said about his boyhood, “when a dismal sky conspired with a forlorn side street to create a moment of such profound bitterness that the world’s accumulated sorrow seemed to gather in a solid lump in [my] heart. The appearance of a coasting hill softening in a thaw, the look of backyards along the railroad tracks on hot afternoons, the faces of people in trolley cars on Sunday—these could and did engulf [me] in a vast wave of depression.” It was darkness he kicked at all his life.

I walk outside not only for its physical benefit but for its spiritual quickening. Waldie, also a walker, says that “walking is haptic in the fullest sense. All of the environment touches one when one is not in a car, when walking.” But it’s more than that. He says that “the presence of God is found in those moments when God rips your self-regard away. For me, that presence is revealed when you stop seeing the ordinary as a weight that needs to be dropped. It happens when the ordinary becomes transparent. You see in the operations of the everyday that which expands your moral imagination.”

Yesterday, I went out and walked the perimeter of our backyard, enjoyed sunlight streaming slant-wise and golden, lighting up the early fall leaves. There’s nothing extraordinary about it. You can see it too. Yet my children played here, grew their imaginations when the fence marked the boundary of their world. Our late dog knew it better than us, her own haptic running after squirrels and sticks and smells rooting her in this place.

Salvation is not some abstract deliverance, something particular to me; it happens in the here and now. It happens on these streets and in these neighborhoods and among these people. It happens in context. It happens in my backyard. The rescue plan that God has is as wide as the cosmos and as particular as my very ordinary home, and my very tiny little life. It reaches down into every crack and crevice of this world and will one day fill it. Salvation is haptic. He is in touch and on the move. In the burden of the ordinary He does His great yet often unseen work.

While I write, the window is open to the twitter of an unknown bird, to the flutter and sway of leaves, to the distant sounds of trucks downshifting. I turn back to my task. Cool air wafts in, gently and insistently tapping on my shoulder, saying, “Don’t you know? Haven’t you heard?”

Something Bigger In It

IMG_0001 (1)"A poem is a small thing with all manner of bigger in it."

(Brian Doyle, "A Flurry of Owls," in First Things, Oct. 2016)

All of Mary Oliver’s poems are small things. In opening one of her books of verse, what impresses first is the emptiness of the pages, something which I relish. All that space within which to rest and ponder! One poem, “Invitation,” asks “Oh do you have time/ to linger/ for just a little while/ out of your busy/ and very important day/ for the goldfinches/ that have gathered/ in a field of thistles/ for a musical battle,/ to see who can sing/ the highest note,/ or the lowest,/ or the most expressive of mirth,/ or the most tender?

Not now, I say.

My wife is an inspiration for such solicitude. On the far side of the lake today, she stopped, peering over the rails of the boardwalk fence, and said, “Look at the size of that tree stump. How tall it must have been, how old.” I stopped obligingly, but my internal fitness coach was saying, “This is not a nature walk. Keep moving. Stay focused.” But I leaned over at her bidding and gazed at the gnarly mass of wood half-covered in water. She is the first to see an unusual bird, a red fox, and deer grazing, to hear an animal sound that is misplaced - a signpost for the divine. She is the voice saying, “Oh, do you have time to linger?”

Do I?

Small things have all manner of bigger in them. The seed I crunched under my heel on rejoining the trail may have contained in it an entire tree, a microscopic blueprint of brown and green and science and time only God fully comprehends. The gray cat reclining by my feet carries the weight of history, albeit lightly, unconsciously. I read just now that she is descended from Near Eastern wildcats, having diverged from other cats around 8,000 BC in West Asia. Which explains a few things. The point: she has bigger in her even if it is represented here as a twittering waif, searching my face for the barest sign of movement toward, what else, the food bowl.

“My busy and important day?” Oliver is gently poking my ego. Do you think you are so busy, she says, so very important, that you can’t pay attention to what is happening around you, to a couple of tiny, insignificant birds? She’s right, of course. All that busyness, all that bluster, all those very important phone calls and consultations are less eternal than the “musical battle” of the goldfinches. There should always be time to listen to the not-so-empty pages of life.

Why do they sing? Oliver says “not for your sake/ and not for mine/ but for sheer delight and gratitude — / believe us, they say,/ it is a serious thing/ just to be alive/ on this fresh morning/ in this broken world.” Which is something like worship, I think. Or perhaps it simply is worship. There really is something bigger in it.

Next time I hold the bread and cup, I’ll try not to think about lunch, about what I have to do in my busy, important life, about the lightness of being of what I hold, about the absurdity of a plastic cup of grape juice and Wonder bread pointing to God incarnate. I’ll remember the goldfinches, the poem, the gray cat, and the tree and how pitiable they are as expressions of the divine — and yet within them, the universe. And so, within the cup and bread, everything that matters.

As Oliver concluded,

It could mean something.
It could mean everything.
It could be what Rilke meant, when he wrote:
You must change your life.

But, for now, it is enough that the white space of a late Summer afternoon is spread out before me and another poem open to me: “Be still,” says the author, “and know that I am God.” Outside the window, a crescent leaf flickers in the slight breeze, and I imagine that if I stare at it I can see all the way back to the seed, to the tree that produced that seed, back to the ancestral trees that started it all, back to the Garden, back to the Spirit hovering over the waters, back to Him.

That’s ridiculous, I think, some kind of crazy grace to see that way, to see the big in the little. Yet I pray for more grace, because it is a serious thing to be alive in a broken world.

[The poem is “Invitation,” and is excerpted from Red Bird: Poems by Mary Oliver, Beacon Press, 2008]

A Theology of Things

O-REDWOOD-TREES-facebook Many summers ago my family and I visited the giant sequoia trees of California, the ones preserved in Sequoia National Park. Reading an essay by turn-of-the-century naturalist John Muir a few days ago, I was reminded that these majestic trees — trees so broad and high as to be worship-inspiring — were not always protected but freely logged. Muir wrote his brief essay, “Save the Redwoods,” for The Sierra Club Bulletin, and it was published in 1920. Though Muir was not a Christian, having, as writer Paul Willis notes, “one foot in Emerson's Transcendentalism and one foot in what we would now call. . . fundamentalism,” the essay is imbued with biblical allusions, not surprising given that Muir’s father required him to memorize the entire New as well as much of the Old Testaments. Consequently, Muir was steeped in holy language.

So “Save the Redwoods” was an essay that flowed easily out of Muir’s Bible-saturated upbringing and one that resonated with the more generally religious culture of the 1920s. Muir called for a “righteous uprising in defense of God’s trees.” Referencing the denuding of the great 300-foot Calaveras sequoia, he even (though questionably, even offensively) casts the great tree as a Christ-type, noting that “This grand tree is of course dead, a ghastly disfigured ruin, but it still stands erect and holds forth its majestic arms as if alive and saying, ‘Forgive them, they know not what they do.'” When he speaks of “trees that are still standing in perfect strength and beauty, waving and singing in the mighty forests of the Sierra,” one cannot miss the allusion to Isaiah 55:12 and its trees of the field clapping their hands. In this he picks up on the mystery of the relationship between God and the non-human creation, about which theologian Karl Barth summed up beautifully when he wrote that “when man accepts again his destiny in Jesus Christ…he is only like a late-comer slipping shamefacedly into creation’s choir in heaven and earth, which has never ceased its praise.”

Muir is not far from truth. Creation does testify to God (Ps. 19), and in some mysterious way longs for redemption (Rom. 1). We cannot dismiss it or regard it solely in utilitarian terms, as mere raw material for our use. A theology of “things” is one that treats the natural world as more iconic windows into the transcendent, rich in metaphors for the Divine. Perhaps the best theology of the non-human world is what Oswald Chambers once referred to as “the unaffected loveliness of the commonplace” or, elsewhere, the “ministry of the unnoticed.” We walk by these testimonials to God everyday, often unaffected, and yet the rocks cry out if only we will listen. What do they say? At least, they say God made us, we are not as He intended us to be because of the great brokenness of the world, and yet we are being made right and will be restored in Paradise.

Writer Frederick Buechner is well known for entreating his audience to “listen to your life.” But it’s even more than that. Pay attention. Notice the commonplace, the common places that God so loved. God is speaking through the things of the world. So look.

Not So Ordinary Rescues

A few days ago my wife was walking in the neighborhood when she saw a black cat run across the road - “layin' down running” as my grandmother would have said - a red fox in hot pursuit. The fox stopped short when it saw her and reconsidered. She didn’t say so, but I suspect she glared at it, intervening on behalf of the cat. The cat looped around a house, its house, and disappeared through a flapping door in the side of the garage. Disappointed, the fox turned, retreating begrudgingly into the woods.

A day so later, we were walking together when we saw the black cat again, this time in pursuit of a tiny baby rabbit that hopped across the sidewalk, brushing against me before disappearing in some shrubbery. The cat turned and walked across the street in the direction of a mother rabbit (well, perhaps father) who hopped away, the cat in pursuit. My wife chased the cat, the ingrate, across the yard and back to its house, while the rabbit squeezed through a crack in a Mr. McGregor fence, safe, though separated from its baby. We fretted about that baby, about how the mother would find her, hoping I suppose that our fret-prayers would reach God’s ear.

Today, while walking, it was my wife who needed assistance. Moving from street to sidewalk, as a lone car came toward us, she fell in the grassy strip between the curb and sidewalk. I extended a hand and raised her up, brushed her off, took my shirt and dried her arm wet with dew, for which she smiled, an unneeded but sufficient reward. Later, I recalled, “Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their labor: If either of them falls down, one can help the other up. But pity anyone who falls and has no one to help them up” (Ecclesiastes 4:9-10).

That’s three to one: she rescued a cat, a mother rabbit, and a baby rabbit. But I “rescued” her. But who's counting? All point to a God who rescues us.

I know that these unremarkable events are, on one level, not worth writing about and not worth your time to read. Yet seen another way, these events and their loose association (at least in my mind) are what N.T. Wright calls “strange signposts pointing beyond the landscape of our contemporary culture and out into the unknown.” I’d add: Not so strange, even ordinary, signposts, a confluence of the mundane through which the transcendent seeps. Ordinary rescues, if you will, pointing to a larger project, one described by Wright as one where Jesus “took the tears of the world and made them his own, carrying them all the way to his cruel and unjust death to carry out God’s rescue operation” and, what’s more, a rescue where He “took the joy of the world and brought it to new birth as he rose from the dead and thereby launched God’s new creation.”

He stands between His people and a cunning Pursuer, glares at him and holds His ground, even chases him from light to dark. He reaches down and lifts us up, let’s our hurt be His, and wipes us clean. For that, we smile, and walk on.

Carrier, RIP

Product_Lg_performance_comfort_AC_24ACB7We lost our air conditioner yesterday. It was tired. In the last few years come summer it has struggled to climb the mounting heat and humidity. Various bandages had been applied during the course of its decline. Most recently, six weeks ago, a new coil was installed in the condenser on the exterior of our home, yet the technician was pessimistic even then, noting its age and clucking at the possibility of deeper issues. Still, I couldn’t bring myself to put it out to pasture. “You can make it,” I thought, maybe even to the unknown perhaps distant day we sell the house, my heart buoyed by its whirr and chill. I laid my hand on it, as if to encourage. “You can do it!” Yet it couldn’t.

Now it’s laying ignominiously on our lawn. Earlier, Fred and Sam, our interventionists, struggled to pull its long companion, the gas furnace and coil, from the wall of our attic where it had attached itself, tied by an umbilical cord that went through the wall and down, down, down to the condensing unit outdoors. I couldn’t watch this wrenching procedure. The sounds of the struggle filtered down to my study, nonetheless — grinding. prying, hammering, banging, and then one last gasp as it gave up its hold. Sweating, with labored breathing, they carried it out the front door, from whence it had likely come twelve years ago, and tossed it in the yard, tossed it because, after such a fight, one is no doubt slightly mad, like a boxer in a ring after several rounds.

It was a Carrier, God rest its coil. I’ll miss it. When I lay in bed at night listening to the sounds of the night, to the creaks and groans of a house settling on its haunches, its whoosh and whirr were almost as lulling as an oscillating fan, the faithful Galaxy we resurrected every time the Carrier failed. When it shut down, it had a signature and mysterious clunk, perhaps indicative of its last illness, one last whoosh, and then silence, a fluttering, noisy burst of wind followed by the exhale of a long nap — too long, sometimes.

Sam pried the condensing unit from its nest of concrete outside our den window. I imagined him coaxing it to give way, as one might encourage an aged parent to cooperate. Sam is Filipino, and earlier apologized for his accent. I now know him to be a believer in Jesus, a fan of Ronald Reagan, a son hoping to bring his mother to live with him in the States, all of which makes me feel better about this transition. I knew he would be gentle with the bones of the air handling unit and condenser, as a son with his mother. Yet right now Fred is backing down the drive and hits an overhanging branch, and Sam laughs and says, with accent, “He can’t drive.” But look at the work he does, I think.

Later, I looked inside the condenser in a way I hadn’t before. It’s cavernous, much of it open and vacant, its serpentine coils and refrigerant housed in the bottom, a fan and streamlined casing its shiny, fluttering face to the world. The new coil we purchased at great cost just six weeks ago, when the technician shook his head at us, shone. Like gold, I thought. My gold. It was my last attempt to stay its demise, temporary life support for a terminal patient.

We looked inside Fred’s truck. “Hmm, Fred keeps a dirty truck,” my wife said. I nodded. Parts, dirty rags, papers, and tools were strewn throughout, like a surgical bay gone awry. Tool-Man Tim would have been aghast. And yet these were the weapons of war, the detritus of life, held down by a mix of oil and dirt.

The new air handling unit, a Lennox, stands a good three feet taller than the squatty Carrier that was removed. If you stand on top of it, you can see the coastline. No, perhaps not. Yet it is very tall. My son asked if we could have it resituated, as it is now visible from our den window. Sometimes change is difficult to accept. We prefer the classic form of the Carrier to the hip, skinny jeans of the Lennox standing Babel-like just outside our window. A few summer thunderstorms, replete with hail, and a few mercury-high days near 100, and it may lose its pride and adopt a lower profile. And we will get used to it.

Our old Carrier had two speeds: on and off. This one is a continuum of speeds, adaptable, as if we need all that, as if we need 200 channels on our TV. And, above all else, it has more power, and we all need more power, right? But seriously, the old Carrier was sadly underpowered and its annual battle with the drenched air of a southern summer was like sending Robin to do battle when Batman was needed. It was too much for the poor lad, but he kept at it. The technician told us, with a gleam in his eye, that the Lennox would give us 100% when we needed it, but drop back to 35% when the heat subsided, sending in reinforcements as needed. The war is on, and I regularly monitor the battle from the fancy touchpad thermostat outside our bedroom.

It’s a durable name, Carrier. In 1902, a 25-year-old engineer from New York named Willis Carrier invented the first modern air-conditioning system. First designed to control humidity in the printing plant where he worked, in1922, he followed up with the invention of the centrifugal chiller, which added a central compressor to reduce the unit's size. (Do I sound like an engineer? I’m not.) It was introduced to the public on Memorial Day weekend, 1925, when it debuted at the Rivoli Theater in Times Square. For years afterward, people piled into air-conditioned movie theaters on hot summer days, giving rise to the summer blockbuster.

All of which makes it even harder to throw it aside for a Lennox upstart. I want to pretend I’m in the Rivoli Theater in Times Square. I can’t now. I’ve ditched it for the multiplex with the sticky floors. I don't even have a picture to remember it by.

This morning I even said to my wife, after sleeping with the Lennox for only one night, “I wonder if we could build a house that stayed cool without air conditioning.” The question hung in mid-air, steamy mid-air. That, I concluded, would require too many servants to fan me. But we could take turns.

Lunch, and After

This morning I carried a small space heater I keep in my “reading room” to the attic, figuring I did not need it anymore. I was wrong. There was a chill in the house this morning and afternoon, but my wife said she could tolerate it. So I guess I will too.

As we had lunch, the cat milled about my feet, whining, head-butting every protuberance, and yet if I make a move toward her she will run. Upstairs she will run. And so I yelled after her, “I’m not falling for it this time, you hear? I’m not coming up there.” And my wife said, “Sure you will.” But I didn’t. Cats toy with you, you know. Next I looked she reclined on the floor, upside down. It is what they do best.

My wife had been walking around the lake the other day with a friend from Uganda. Mind you, Ugandans are not into exercise walking but keep a pace that allows them to go the distance. They are always walking - to market, to water, to school, to work. They gracefully stroll. Any faster would be running. They persevere in walking. But while they were strolling, they saw a red-capped bird, a woodpecker perhaps, yet unlike others we have seen. Now, looking at Audubon’s guide, she identifies it as a pileated woodpecker. The largest woodpecker. Now we know.

But we’re drawn to the mockingbird, a few pages over. We read that one mockingbird will serve for a plethora of birds, as it can imitate the calls of up to 50 different birds. I carried my dishes to the sink. “And tractors, sirens, and dogs,” she added. And I thought: There’s a bird of birds, an actor, a soundtrack for the outdoors. So, if you think you have a diverse group of birds in the backyard, or a truck stop, look hard: it may be just one mockingbird. That annoying tapping? A pileated woodpecker, or your over-industrious neighbor in his latest DIY project. God toys with us, though in goodness.

Even inside by my window where I sit now, I hear the low hum of commerce, a siren, the revving of an engine, the slightest whistle of a breeze. Yet I can’t even see the next house. Brown has given way to green, as if God was infatuated with green and painted everything some shade of it, layer upon layer upon layer.

“The poetry of the earth is never dead,” said poet John Keats, a phrase that, reading it now, hearkens back to English literature, suffered in college but still alive in me now. And so these sounds and sights out my window — these earth wise glimpses — sound like music, and if I could chart them would make something like a symphonic score. Or a folk song, if that’s too grand. But it’s true. The Psalmist says that it’s true 24/7, because Creation is ever giving God glory in that “Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge. There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard. Their voice goes out into all the world, their words to the end of the world” (Ps. 19:2-4). And to the end of my backyard.

So, wherever you are, look around you. Do you hear that Voice? Not the mockingbird, not the pileated woodpecker, not the crow that caws overhead, but the Voice behind these voices, the One who says “It is good.”

Mapping Our Memory

If I were to draw a map of the memory of this weekend, there would be dead end roads, roads that peter out in the wilderness of unfulfilled longings, and tangential roads that seem to have no relation at all to the memories we have. On the other hand, there would be great intersections of thought, the bright confluence of shared experiences, and great refreshing swaths of village greens and blue water to soothe parched souls.

We took a trip to the coast. It was all these things. Somehow, in the bright and relentless Summer sun, a Appalachian breeze blew. Pelicans and sea gulls flew overhead, barely working their wings, the lightness of their beings soaring to the heavens and once came so close she could have reached out and touched their wings.

I was reading poetry by the pool and heard two teens talking about the beach at Monte Carlo. That doesn't happen everyday. A slight man helped his stout but partially paralyzed wife into the water. My skin hot to touch, I slid in too, into the deep, surfacing only to hang on the side, arms outstretched, like a beached sea lion on Fisherman's Wharf docks.

One night I sat with my daughter enjoying ice cream while a Sixty-ish couple settled into their van. A oversize lab crawled into the woman's lap, laying his great head and paws outside the window, a canine clerk at a fast food restaurant window. I smiled. My daughter left and my wife came and sat down with me, as I finished my oatmeal cookie cinnamon ice cream, not wanting me to be alone. She is smiling at me. I am never alone.

One night I shared a bedtime devotion with my 21-year old daughter, analogizing God's work in our lives to the building of a great skyscraper. For so long I say, we see nothing but the great hole of our lives, a lot of effort but nothing to show for it, but God is digging down so that he can build up, His work unseen. I am preaching to myself, really, but she says "I like to think of it as Him pulling back an arrow, so that He can let us fly," and at that moment the roads on our maps intersect in recognition, before we draw away on our separate journeys. I think back and remember crossing a road or sitting beside each other, holding hands almost subconsciously, not talking, feeling like US1 and US1Alt, having the same heading but separate terrain to traverse.

Maps make it all seem simple. The open road is an adventure. My advice: Carry a map at all times and pray yourself Home.


After reading less than one paragraph of Simon Garfield's Just the Type: A Book About Fonts, I can't stop noticing the shape and look of the typefaces all around me, whether the red, bold, all caps of the NO WAKE sign that I paddled wearily by today, against the tide and wind, or the artistic flourish on the face of a Hobie paddleboard we were shown later on by a bearded, mature surfer explaining the differences in the boards to us. I'm too old for this, I type, in Geriatric font.

At work I am surrounded by a stodgy Courier New which, I assume, someone believes is a dignified medium of legal documents, having gravity --- a serious font for serious matters. In fact, the relatively serious Times New Roman showed up in the waiver of liability I signed earlier today, where I agreed I would not hold the bearded surfer who called me dude liable if I killed myself vaulting through the waterway. Just once, I'd like to file a legal document in something more playful, like Chalkduster or Felt Marker. (I'd also like to enliven the briefs by relevant drawings, my own, perhaps something Rorschach-like, open to interpretation. . . but I'd like to keep my job.)

Fonts convey moods and are often selected to help sell us something, convey excitement, mark a brand (and include you in the tribe) or (as in the case of legal documents) invite sober consideration. Yet these messages are subconscious; we are not often aware of how we are being impacted. It's not devious, or usually not anyway, but it is often purposeful. Hobie? Dude, that makes me want to think I could get amped and catch a wave. But then, as I look over the surf shop employees, probably not.

Being aware of type is just a part of being attentive to the world, of living life with eyes wide open. Garfield's previous books about letter-writing, cartography, and stamp collecting are just as fascinating and eye-opening, a mind expanding experience without LSD. While we can't live in such a state of high alert that we are constantly aware of the richness of either natural, built, or cultural environment around us --- as such manic attentiveness would literally drive us crazy --- we can cultivate a better love of Creation, of the rich and varied world God has given us. Type is just one of those parts of life that can better enrich us if we notice and understand its effect on us. Even the pleasing Helvetica of these words I type makes me feel good, the letterforms pleasing to the eye. My own handwriting, not so much.

Maybe, say the words on the surfboard, you could do it, with a little practice, maybe on a steady longboard, maybe. . . For God so loved the world. . . . So should we. Even as tiny a thing as type. A word. A letter. The dot on an eye. All of it. Cowabunga.

Mapping My Reality

In rush hour the city is like a great lung that first inhales and then exhales, drawing me to work, and then sending me home. While the traffic flows in my city of work have increasingly become asymmetric — going all ways, that is, at once — there is still an identifiable flow of traffic to the center city in morning and converse outflow to the suburbs in evening. Commuting is organic and barely conscious, like breathing, a living product of tens of thousands of cars and their inhabitants on the move.

My car is a leaf on the breath of the city, floating home on air, shaking the dust of work off my feet on the exodus. Inbound, I worship in song or, in stillness, pray, readying for the battle of the day; outbound, I party. Morning is sober; evening I am drunk on the thought of home. Sometimes, even in heat and exhaust, I roll down the windows, let the air rush in, hear the engine — even, in the still of a traffic light, hear the call of a lone sentry bird on its own homeward flight. The open window lets me map the real, uninsulated from the current.

There is a regular current of air I travel, and yet I sometimes deviate for amusement. One path finds me floating through historic and inner ring neighborhoods, over a topography that is undulating, wooded, and without easily identifiable landmarks. I travel it so seldom that I grope my way each time, sometimes missing one or more of the 15+ turns, backing up or turning around, so that driving home becomes an adventure.

This afternoon, I dredged up a faded paper map of the city, spread its creased pages across the patio table, and beheld the webbed and meandering streets. I have always looked at maps, as I seem to have been born with a question: Where am I? Sitting in church as a young child I would draw elaborate maps of my world, or a fantasy world, while my father’s watch ticked out the minutes until benediction.

Unlike GPS, a map allows you to see things whole, to affix a grid of the city to your mind to orient yourself when lost. Finger on paper, I followed the wriggled lines of my deviated path home, realizing that it was not made for easy passage, being full of dead end streets, turn upon turn, and parks and divided highways that imposed barriers to passage. I tried to fix the names of streets in my mind, but I know they will leave me. In the end, the adventure will remain, a mirror to my spirit.

In Skyfaring, pilot Mark Vanhoenacker concludes that “whatever our idea of the sacred, our simplest questions — how the one relates to the many, how time equates to distance, how the present rests on the past as simply as our lights lie on each night’s darkened sphere — are rarely framed as clearly as they are by the window of an airplane. We look through it, over snowcapped cordilleras in the last red turn of the day, or upon the shining night-palmistry of cities, and we see the window is a mirror, briefly raised upon the world.” Just so, earthbound, I hold up my mirror to the city, on a drive, and ask, “Where am I?” Under a blinking caution light I slow to a stop and send a prayer skyward.


Shout for Joy

After arriving at home, a slight rain started. I pried open my study window to hear its patter, drops on shingle pooling, slow rivulets of water trickling down the roof’s slope into a gutter newly cleaned. A robin peered across the pine floor, eyes sharp for worms or seeds that make do. A downspout drip beat out a rhythm, kept time for evening thoughts.

The rain did not live up to the sky’s portent. Earlier, driving home, an untimely darkness descended, clouds pressing down, like a canvas tent-roof puddled by rain-catch threatening to burst any moment. But it refrained, only a light spray washing down, enough to speckle the windshield, like a playful flick of God’s wet hand.

On the radio, Karen Peris of The Innocence Mission sang “Rain or shine, this street of mine is golden. . . God is love, and love will never fail me.” Here now, by the window-gap, reminded, I reach for the CD, run my finger past Peter Himmelman’s Skin, smiling at his wit, until my fingers find the Is, and the album, My Room in the Trees, where, opening it, I find the words, “God is Love. . . I can walk under these clouds.”

An article I read on Walker Percy — whose book, “The Moviegoer,” perches promisingly on a shelf above — reminds me of his theory that people feel better in hurricanes, or bad weather. As the writer, Walter Isaacson, summarizes, “Percy’s diagnosis was that when we are mired in the everydayness of ordinary life, we are susceptible to what he called ‘the malaise,’ a free-floating despair associated with the feeling that you’re not a part of the world or connected to the people in it. You are alienated, detached.” Monks called it the “noonday demons” and, in its most chronic form, “acedia.” I know its atmosphere, a languid calm.

But my cat is at my feet, gazing intently, her gentle face pitched upwards, inquiring of me as I type this sentence. She has nothing particular in mind but my attention, to distract. But I forgive her, as she is a prop for mood, for ambience, who added to the sounds of the evening, memory of the drive, and thoughts of Walker Percy, make incarnate those words, “God is love.” I pick her up, drape her gelatinous and malleable form over my shoulder, and let her low purr reverberate through me until, satisfied, she pushes away, the rain slowing.

Percy was right. When my wife and I were dating (or friending, for lack of a better term), we were happy in the fury of a thunderstorm observed from the safety of the indoors. We loved the thunder, the rain, the clapping of God’s hands. Maybe it is the sense of security. More likely it is the wonder of connectedness to a Creation not safe, but good. And when the storms ended, perhaps malaise is not the word for what descended, but mundanity, the ordinary run-of-the-mill returning, like work and dishes, laundry and love: The ordinary works of love. Faithfulness in rush-hour. The stewardship of minutes. Grace.

The rain has stopped. Birds emerge and begin to chirp and tweet. The last muted light of day is failing. “Oh, its over,” sings Peris, “all the weather is gone.” A few soggy leaves strewn across gray shingles, drying, are all that remain, but these words. Here, at the end, my fingers still, like Peris, “I said so little. . . The words all flew away, up away from me, up into the trees, where they shout, shout for joy.”

For that I am thankful.

The New Old Day

“Every morning we enter a new day,” says Sally Lloyd-Jones.  "Who knows what the day will bring? God knows. . . . He has already gone ahead of us into the new day.”

But it doesn’t always feel that way, does it?  Sometimes it looks like more of the same thing.  When I drive to work, I travel the same road, stop at the same traffic lights, sometimes even pass a few of the same cars going in.  And then I do a little quick math in my head . . . “let’s see now, 31 years of work, averaging 48 weeks of work annually, times five days a week, so that’s 7440 trips down that road, under those lights,” I say to myself, with a sigh and a new gray hair.  It becomes difficult to look at that as new each day.  Yet it is.

The woman in the car next to me at the light is applying makeup.  I look straight ahead, feeling that I have intruded.  On the other side a Hispanic men smokes, tanned arm propped on the door, the smoke appearing and then, caught by the breeze, disappearing.  Ephemeral, passing, a vapor — that’s what it feels like.  The light turns green, and a man is crossing in the crosswalk in front of six lanes of traffic, and I feel impatience rising from the radiators of the cars, hands itching for the horns.  But he passes.  We motor off, leaning into the curve, into the day.

I’m carrying all the things I have to do today at work with me.  I mean figuratively.  They rumble around the cabin, weigh on my mind and, worse, keep me from attentiveness to the immediate.

But God knows, she says. “In the morning we can put our day in his hands. And let him bring into our day whatever he has for us.”  I tack a little verse with a big message on my windshield (figuratively), the one that says “Do not be afraid or discouraged, for the Lord will go personally ahead of you. He will be with you” (Deut. 31:8, NLT).  I imagine it hanging there, me straining to see the day through it.  And I steal a glance at my passenger seat and imagine Him there and, inexplicably, almost reach over. Silly.

I do reach over and turn the radio on.  But then I turn it back off.  I begin to tell him about my day, but he’s ahead of me.  I tell him anyway.  I gather all the words and put them in his hands.

Our Nearest Neighbors

In Lives of the Tress: An Uncommon History, Diana Wells laments the fact that we don’t know some of our closest neighbors, trees. She says that while we are more aware today of the importance of trees to the environment, we still aren’t on a first name basis. We might admire a forest (maybe), but we don’t know the names of most of its trees, and about their more ubiquitous residents (think pines), we may not speak kindly. As she says, “This once would have been unthinkable. When we read stories or poems from before our times, trees are called by their names, with the assumption that the reader will know exactly what is meant.” No more, unless you live with a professional or amateur arborist. My cat better knows the trees in our backyard than I do, but she is tight-lipped about them.

What’s the use, you might ask? It has something to do with the Incarnation. When the God who made the universe condescended to human form on a tiny insignificant planet in a minuscule galaxy among millions (and that’s worth pausing to consider), He was saying not just that the people He made for himself were valued but that every square inch of Creation was His and valued. If He calls us “beloved,” He also calls the world “loved,” and you can bet He knows the name and intricate workings of every tree. After all, photosynthesis was his idea. As Leland Ryken says, “The Incarnation of Jesus in human form affirms forever that human, earthly reality is worthy of study and love.”

When you’re out walking, look around. Notice your wooden, leafy neighbors. Learn their names. Lean against their trunks and savor their shade. If you take one, plant one. Be kind. Diana Wells says that planting a tree is a kind of prayer. She retells the famous saying of the first-century Jewish sage Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai, who said “If you should happen to be holding a sapling in your hand when they tell you that the Messiah has arrived, first plant the sapling and then go out and greet the Messiah.” Me, I’ll probably be reading a book when Messiah comes, made from a tree whose name I will not know. Should I finish it first?

A Backyard Walk

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sacrifice and Blood

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

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

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

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

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

One Last Serenade

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

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

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

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

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

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

Invisible People

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

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

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

Dropping a Pin

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

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

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

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

Traveling Afoot

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

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

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

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

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

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

Turning Your Mind Out to Play

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

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

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

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

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

The Skin of Suburbia

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

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

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

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

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

The Armchair Arborist

Diana Wells’ Life of the Trees: An Uncommon History, is a wealth of information for armchair arborists, succinctly and creatively written, about all kinds of trees. I reached for it today. I lay this afternoon in a hammock in our backyard, a rare moment of rest, really, and tried to sleep, but the noise of the birds was deafening. A flock of crows had landed in the treetops, and their coarse voices and thrashing in the leaves kept me awake when I was on the cusp of slumber. I rolled over on my back and stared up at the maple tree that towered over me, its thousands of multi-pointed leaves dappled in hues of green. On our bird feeder, a robin quietly chewed seed, tossing scraps for the squirrels, while I lay still and watched just feet away. The maple is fire-red in autumn, like a burning bush in the back 40, and I have seen it for 30 autumns.

Wells says that the color comes from anthrocyanins, which is what is produced when “cholorphyll is withdrawn from the leaves and the tree shuts down for the winter.” Like a sleeping pill, I think, like putting on a red nightshirt and contemplating winter. But that comes later. For now, I enjoy the color green and let my eyes travel up the trunk of the maple, see how at points it is bent and gnarled, like it endured a hard winter and wavered but kept on pressing toward the light. I imagine what it must be like to light on the uppermost branch and look around at treetops, a slight wind gently rocking my seat.

My wife says she’d like to know more about crows, that they are supposed to be smart. And I agree that I would too. I know that they are said to be among the world's most intelligent animals, which is why the scarecrows don’t scare, I guess. But I am thinking that they are being too loudly smart. She said she’s been watching them, that they have taken over our yard in the last few days. “The other day,” she said, “I saw one crow hop over to another one and put something in its mouth. That was so sweet.” That makes me smile, and I think better of them. I forgive them.

Just Beyond Our Grasp

You would think that we know most everything there is to be known about trees. We don’t, and as Alan Jacobs recounts in his short essay, “The Life of Trees,” most of what we do know is of recent vintage. He notes that when two great storms rolled across Britain in 1987 and 1990, uprooting thousands of old trees, botanists’ assumptions about the long taproots that anchored these trees in the ground were also uprooted. In fact, after being pitched indecorously bottoms up, they found that these trees didn’t have taproots at all but roots that, while extending only two feet down, stretched horizontally for vast distances.

Same with the crowns of our tallest trees. One scientist climbed into the canopies, discovering a rich and complex ecosystem and, not only that, flying squirrels so unfamiliar with human beings that they allowed scientists to scratch their heads. The tops of the tallest redwoods were discovered to be so dense and interlocking that “you could put snowshoes on and throw a Frisbee around.” All of which seems decidedly unscientific and fun. Oh, what we don’t know.

This reminds me once again how little I know about some of my closest neighbors, that is, the trees in my backyard. I don’t even know all their names, even though I look at them all the time. Maybe if I took the time to know them, to learn their names and particular characteristics, I would appreciate them more, pay attention to them more, understand when they are injured, have gratitude for the shade they provide and all the other unseen contributions they make to my life. Maybe I would stop thinking about myself all the time and more about others who are worth knowing and, even when known, are still full of mystery.

I didn’t know this: Cows, says Jacobs, “prefer tree leaves to almost any other food, but just can’t reach them. Sad, really.” No, funny, to think about a cow trying to reach a tree leaf. But I suppose we can’t quite grasp what we reach for either, but still we hope, wonder, and wait, among neighbors, among trees.

Guardian of the Galaxy

When Scripture uses the word "shepherd" to describe God, I'm tempted to say the word has grown cliche, that I've heard it so many times and are so far removed from its agrarian roots that it has lost its impact. That's my problem, not that of Scripture. But reading some of those verses today, my eye fell to other words or implied words that lay under the penumbra of that well-worn word and stretched my imagination. Knower. Life-giver. Protector. Giver. Fulfiller. Leader. Restorer. Seeker. Binder. Strengthener. Overseer. Those words are a little fresher.

The richest thought is captured when He says "I will seek what was lost and bring back what was driven away, bind up the broken and strengthen what was sick" (Ezek. 34:16, NKJV). That He is looking for me every moment of every day, tirelessly, and selflessly, and, not only that, has the power to restore me and all Creation --- that's something like a Cosmic Shepherd, bringing back and restoring all Creation to its purposes. Shepherd of Stars and Worlds and Space. Healer of Worlds. Protector of His own. Guardian of Galaxies. That is a shepherd.

A Wood Between the Worlds

"Surveys have been taken to assess strength of a local identification by determining how many locations in cities are immediately recognizable by residents. But there are other factors that make the home familiar; from the song of the cicadas at summer twilight to the violence of the prairie wind."  (Craig Miner, in The Wichita Reader)

I'm interested in those "other factors."  Like the red fox that crossed my path this morning. The familiar birdsong in the morning. The smell of rain on hot asphalt. The bright laser-sharp rays of morning sun through a pine forest. Even the regularity of dog-walkers, like Mike with Abby, or Tony with his aged canines. They all settle me here, make home familiar.

I picked up The Wichita Reader in Eighth Day Books on Douglas Avenue in Wichita, in a city of trees planted on the prairies of Kansas, home of Dorothy and Toto, where the wind always blows. When I go there, I go to Eighth Day, three floors of books in a white house and, oddly, feel at home. It's atmospherics: ink, dust, and mildew, I suppose, and tales of faraway places, and wise book tenders, and no one to rush me. I smile at the red head girl who who plies its lanes. I wished her home.

Eighth Day is The Wood Between the Worlds, you know, a place that opens to other places. Or it's Dorothy's spinning house that fell over the rainbow. I go there in my mind. But I'm dreaming again. The red fox moves away. The road bends uphill. Huffing, we climb. A woman stops and says, "Oh, he lives here. We see him all the time." I'm glad of it.

Honoring Trees

"Trees cannot talk, but they do speak. With our eyes focused on franticly flickering screens, perhaps our ears have grown dull to their still small voices, yet they whisper on."  (John Murdock, in "Remembering a Good Oak")

We don't have to worship nature (which is idolatry) or sentimentalize it (which obscures its deep meaning) to dignify it, to regard it in more than a utilitarian manner. I doubt the developers who recently clearcut a rolling tract of land near our home thought about this. Large oaks, some older than anyone I know, are gone, felled, shorn of branches, and loaded naked onto a truck bound for the paper mill. The deer who used to live here will have to find a new way, the fox adeptly alter his path, and I'll not ever see it the same. Pines I honor in mass, their creaking frames swaying in the wind. A good oak, however, an aged one, I sometimes see alone, rest my hand on it, just for a moment honor it for standing so long in a world of change. They should not have to fall unnoticed. 

One of the things I enjoy about great trees is their suggestion of immutability. In that, they imperfectly reflect God, who is unchangeable. The maples and pines in my suburban backyard aren't great trees like the stolid redwoods or sequoias, yet many were here before me, before this house of 30 years, and so are worth reflecting on. They offer some assurances. The world changes around us at a dizzying speed, and yet trees just stand, a silent witness to a God who is called a "strong tower" and a "rock." I wonder if someday, like the great trees of Middle-Earth, they too will rise up and say, "Enough."

An Antidote for Acedia

“The Bible is full of evidence that God's attention is indeed fixed on the little things. But this is not because God is a great cosmic cop, eager to catch us in minor transgressions, but simply because God loves us--loves us so much that the divine presence is revealed even in the meaningless workings of daily life. It is in the ordinary, the here-and-now, that God asks us to recognize that the creation is indeed refreshed like dew-laden grass that is ‘renewed in the morning’ or, to put it in more personal and also theological terms, ‘our inner nature is being renewed everyday’.”

― Kathleen Norris, The Quotidian Mysteries: Laundry, Liturgy and Women's Work

Acedia, as Kathleen Norris writes about in The Cloister Walk, is what the medieval monks referred to as the “noonday demon”, that heavy omnipresent sense that nothing matters, when you are numb to pain and joy, listless, depressed, and indifferent, when joy shrivels up and seems incapable of resuscitation. By God’s grace, I have not known such pervasive grayness, but I have touched its hem.

I experience such feelings at times when, on waking in the morning, in the twilight, I sigh at what the day may bring. In these times, the story I hear is one of monotony, sameness, and weariness. In her children’s devotional, Thoughts to Make Your Heart Sing, Sally Lloyd-Jones paints a picture of just what this is like. The picture is of a young boy sitting up in bed, head bowed and pensive, with an ominous, swirling dark cloud of thoughts pressing in. Her point is that we often experience unhappiness because we are listening to ourselves rather than talking to ourselves. Talk back to the darkness, she says, and “remind yourself of what is true, and who you are, and who God is and what he has done.” And it is in the literal and spiritual darkness that, when you can see only the murky outlines of the lamp, the chair, or the somnolent cat, or when you can’t see beyond the day, that you remember scripture, if you have any imprinted on your mind, when you take one single verse into your thoughts and roll it over and over, examining it from all angles, anchoring your thoughts to it. A verse like “Do not be afraid or discouraged, for the Lord will personally go ahead of you. He will be with you” (Deut. 31:8, NLT).

One morning this past week, I did just that, anchoring myself in a verse I first memorized, to my recollection, in my college years, the one that begins with “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, in all your ways acknowledge him” (Prov. 3:5-6). That refrain drowned out the minor key I awoke to, called me back to truth. Yet another morning I lay there for 30 minutes allowing an incessant litany of burdens to darken my thoughts. It takes an act of the will. It takes Spirit-enabled music that allows me to skip to a better track, a brighter and truer song. That’s not acedia, I know. That’s the skirt of acedia. And yet the remedy is the same.  Scripture is the primary antidote.

But there’s a powerful if lesser tonic that Norris calls attention to, and that’s the natural world. It's what happens when I get up and walk outside. Fifteen years ago, post-surgery and struggling with anxiety, that was about all I could do. Arising in the dark and listening to the rhythm of footfalls, to the breaths I took, even to the beat of my heart, I reminded myself that I was alive and might just live. I let my mind rehearse memories and reflected on the imprint of life in a particular place and moment, about the fascination of moving water, smooth rocks, and tadpoles under bridges, about wading in the pool under the railroad overpass as a child with my grandmother looking on, about the numerous friends I had, about how the hinges of my personal history had, inexplicably and wondrously, all swung open to God. And in that rhythm, in that focus on the particular, on the minutiae — purpose, direction, meaning, and thankfulness would well up. Joy would awaken. If God is fixed on little things, if His eye is on the sparrow, then so should I be fixed. Love the particular and you will see the love of God.

One of the most profound and impactful pieces of writing I have ever read is one by Frederick Buechner, one I read in a devotional of his writings called Listening to Your Life. It's about an an ordinary morning and his awakening to its life, to his life. I imagine he too awoke that morning rehearsing the cares of his day, yet arising he began to listen to what was happening:

"Creation is underway. Breakfast is underway. Steam from the kettle is fogging up the windows. The cat mews to be let in out of the wet. Getting her bathrobe hooked on the knob of a drawer as she tears by, my wife throws up her hands: 'Is it going to be this kind of day?' With my ear to the radio, I try to catch what the weather will be. Somebody is crying while somebody else says it is her own fault that she is crying. We break fast together, break bread together fast, with the clock on the wall over my wife’s head tick-ticking our time away, time away. Soon it will be time to leave for school. Soon enough it will be time to leave."

The antidote for acedia? The timeless words of God. The God-loved particulars of creation. Attention that grows love. Love that breaks out in joy.  Walking in Word and World with eyes wide open.



The Story We Must Tell Ourselves

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Glory in Things

Everything in the world has a hidden meaning. . . . Men, animals, trees, stones, they are all hieroglyphics. When you see them you do not understand them. You think they are men, animals, trees, stars. It's only years later that you understand. (Pablo Neruda)

I walked today. It was 27 degrees. I was not the only one chilled. Cars huddled near curbs, leaned in. One compact snuggled close to an SUV, as if to fit under its bumper. Telephone poles hunched their limbs, contracting. A mist seeped out of pavement cracks and drainage holes as I swished through the early morning dark, my footsteps muted by the fog.

During two and a half miles, I saw no one. No dog confronted me, no cat prowled through lawns or peeked from beneath shrubbery, and no tweeting bird questioned my intrusion. Not one single animate thing was apparent to me. Just asphalt, rocks, leaves, trees, a trickling stream, the cold steel of the bridge rails, the quickening air, and the streetlights' refracted beams laying in circles on sidewalks.

Until this morning I had not noticed how peopled my neighborhood was by green boxes, tall telephone boxes and traditionally built forest green cable boxes, squatting on their haunches. I lost count at 47.

Rounding one corner and turning up the hill, I noticed that the telephone poles each had a number, like LC4839. A name. I walked up to LC4839, looked around to make sure no one was watching, and laid hands on it. It resisted. I spoke to it. Still, it pressed hard against my hands, cold and unyielding. I remembered as a boy how we used to kick one particular streetlight in our neighborhood, making its light go out temporarily. I reminded LC4839 that I had reformed and would not kick it. Still, it resisted.

In the early morning, categories blur. I begin to think that the inanimate is not so insentient at all, that the rock I just kicked, scrambling down the road, might just. . . might just. . . cry out. At least in some way. I may be guilty of anthropomorphism, or worse, sentimentalism, and yet perhaps in some way poles and telephone boxes and rocks and other inanimate objects "live." Hmm.

Materials scientist Mark Miodownik (let's just call him "M"), a Brit who authored Stuff Matters: Exploring the Marvelous Materials that Shape Our man-Made World, may be responsible for my pre-dawn mysticism. In his hands, things like paper and concrete become characters in an unfolding, living collection of everyday objects. Talking about old paper, which yellows, he concludes that "the sensual impressions of old paper allow you to enter the past more readily, providing a portal to that world." And so perhaps the "things" I see and touch along my walk transport me somewhere else, to some other time or place. Stir in half-light and mist and the suburban landscape of my neighborhood engages and converses, whispering quiet truths.

Crossing a bridge, I let my hand run along concrete supports, kneel and touch a rounded curb, and I recall M's animated description of the many tons of concrete poured into the building of The Shard, a new tower near his London flat. After all the pouring of concrete into forms, floor upon floor, he notes that

What was left was a concrete tower seventy-two stories high: it was gray, raw, and wrinkly like a newborn. . . . But it was not idle. Inside the material, fibrils of calcium silicate hydrate were growing, meshing together and bonding with the stones and steel. The tower, in doing so, was getting stronger . . . . [T]he process by which this artificial rock develops its internal architecture and so its full strength takes years.

Remembering that description, as well as his elegant and poetic discussion of the chemical process underlying what he described, confirms that there is a sense in which everything is telling us something. "The heavens declare the glory of God," yes, and so do things here, on earth, in my neighborhood, on my street. In fact, this morning the concrete becomes a metaphor for the Christian's new life: God pours His life into us, making us new creations, re-forming us, and yet it is over a lifetime or eternity that our internal architecture develops, that through a mysterious unseen process we are made strong.

But the sun is rising, and the people emerge. A dog ambles down the sidewalk, tugging at its tender. The fog lifts and I exhale, as if to place a period at the end of my reverie. I greet the man with the dog, exchange pleasantries, and then wonder: Does he know?

The Grid

The grid is the plan above the earth. It is a compass of possibilities. . . . Seen from above, the grid is beautiful and terrible.

(D.J. Waldie, in Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir)

Recently I received a letter from a developer. Attached to it was a black and white copy of a subdivision plan for a small residential development on two tracts of largely forested land behind our home. It has a certain beauty. I imagine the draftsman laying out the lines of the cookie-cutter 10,500 square foot (1/4 acre) lots and marveling at the beauty of measurement, the consistency of the lines, the imposition of order on the disorder of woodlands and the efficiency of land being used for its highest and best use. Seventeen lots and 17 families, with dogs and cats and fences and children and streetlights and asphalt and backyard cookouts and adolescent angst. And school buses and dogs yapping and garage doors opening and shutting.

One modest brick home lay empty for a while, the man bought out. They carried it away, hoisted and hijacked. They left an old well house and a ramshackle outbuilding that was visited by my gray and white-chested cat. Soon they will be gone too, and my cat will prowl their absence.

And what of the owl whose "who" I sometimes heard even from inside our home? Or the deer who lay in the sun leaking through the tree canopy just beyond our slight fence?

Just now, looking out my window, I remembered an “adventure” walk with my then four-year old daughter through the undivided woods and grasses, nearly up to my chest and over her head. We collected “treasure,” like sticks and rocks and pinecones and special leaves, carrying them all back home as mementos, as a travelogue. I wish I still had them, saw them in that four-year old hand. She has flown, but I still have memories and rocks and trees and land, for now.

Looking at the map again, at the grid that snakes through the oddly sized tract, I smile at the sliver of land one owner refused to sell, the one that causes perturbations in two lots, making them trapezoids, not rectangles. Oh inconsistency! I imagine a grimace on the draftsman’s face, if slight, as he bends over his drawing or leans into his computer screen, annoyed by the inconsistency, at the disturbance to his omnipotence.

I don’t begrudge the families their homes. But the deer will eat their flowers too, the raccoons raid their garbage, paint fade and peel and roofs wear and downspouts rust. Cracks will appear in sidewalks and driveways, floors creak and ceilings drop. And the children will grow up and leave, as do they all.

And the beautiful and terrible grid will be unwound by the entropy of time, the irrepressible curse laid on the ground.

But that is not the end of the story. There is another grid. That one comes from God and is full of grace.

He Climbed Up in a Sycamore Tree

We all know that Zaccheus was a wee little man. Anyone who has come up through Sunday school and vacation Bible school has that song indelibly stamped in memory, so much so that the truth of the story lacks its punch, becomes trite and worn. It need not be.

He climbed a sycamore tree. Ever wonder, why a sycamore tree?

Scripture is so very particular when it could easily not have been, and all the sermons that I have heard have focused on the important but general principles of Zaccheus’s curiosity, his sin, his repentance, and the fruit of that repentance. The tree appears in the backdrop as a mere prop to boost a diminutive man into the sight of Jesus. No matter that it is a sycamore. And yet when we are told that “all scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,” (2 Tim. 3:16), it made me wonder if there is a reason that we are told that it was a sycamore.

The sycamore tree was a common tree grown for its edible figs. It was often planted along walks because it had low-hanging branches. and large palm-sized leaves. So it was a tree in the right place for Zaccheus — convenient, easy to climb, and able to conceal a wealthy tax collector.

In her book, Lives of the Trees: An Uncommon History, Diana Wells notes the legend that the leaves of the sycamore tree (a tree which actually derives from the oriental plane tree brought home to Britain by early crusaders), were believed to have been Adam and Eves’ first garments. This is not scriptural, of course, as it appears Adam and Eve were unashamedly naked until the Fall, when they were covered in animal skins and not leaves by God. No doubt the leaves came about in Britain because prevailing mores dictated some covering for the actors playing Adam and Eve in medieval religious mystery plays. And yet this large-leaved tree might have been chosen to remind us that though we may seek to hide our sin, there is, in the end, no place that Jesus cannot see and no one that he cannot reach — even a derided outcast like Zaccheus. And no one to cover sin but Jesus.

Wells also notes that Muslim poets said that in Islamic gardens the plane tree’s broad leaves, “fluttering like prayerful hands, led the other trees in praising God.” While metaphorical, the image does resonate with Isaiah’s vision of trees of the field clapping their hands (Isa. 55:12) and the Psalmist’s expression of Creation’s joy, with the rivers clapping and hills singing (Ps. 98:8). And so, in the end, what for Zaccheus was a place of covering for sin from which he could peer out in security at the latest Hebrew prophet, became a place of praise. Indeed, many commentators believe that because Zaccheus came down from the tree and received Jesus “joyfully” (Lk. 19:6), he believed while he was yet in the sycamore, even before Jesus’s request to lodge with him.

We’re not told, but perhaps as the smallish man descended, a wind stirred in that tree, and the hand-shaped leaves fluttered, and 2000 years later, the story of the wee little man still ripples across our lives. And the leaves of sycamores still softly lead in praise.

Whenever I hear that story now, I hear it fresh, and enfleshed. . . with a sycamore tree.


Caring for Words

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

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

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

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

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

Finding Your Place

When my daughter was in first grade, one of the things we did as a part of a merit badge was to catalogue all the trees and flowers in our backyard. Before then I was vaguely aware that we had pines and hardwoods, but I couldn't have told you anything else. I didn't know them. But when we finished our walk around the yard, armed with an Audubon Guide to Trees, I felt like I was more at home, like I better knew my place.

In speaking about our new life in Christ, Oswald Chambers says that "The first thing God will do is force the interests of the whole world through our hearts. The love of God, and even His very nature, is introduced into us. And we see the very nature of Almighty God focused in John 3:16 --- 'For God so loved the world. . . .'" The breadth of this claim, which is not anthropocentric, is clear from the Greek for world, kosmos, that is, the human and non-human universe. So this astonishing claim means the love of God for the entire creation, the universe, is poured through our hearts.

Yet the universe is an abstraction, too big for even the large-hearted Mother Teresas of the world to love, much less the small-hearted like me. Start with a tree. Start with the place where you find yourself. Walk around the neighborhood, or just next door, and ask God to help you love your place and people. Be mentored by a book like Annie Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, by her deep attention to a mountain and stream by which she lived. Slow down. Drive to work with the windows down (or, if you're lucky, the top down) so that you hear and feel the place around you, so you can let life in your four-wheeled world. Cultivate Dillard's attention to the peopled places we inhabit. I am so poor at this, so near-sighted.

This is a precursor to the "faithful presence" the authors write about in The New Parish: How Neighborhood Churches Are Transforming Mission, Discipleship, and Community," a book which seeks to root ecclesial life within the mutual concerns of the neighborhood, within "the new commons." They propose that the myth of individualism and "living above place" have fragmented the church. They call us back to what Chambers speaks of, the channeled love of Christ for the world, starting in our place. One of the ways the authors of The New Parish suggest doing this is by "learning to listen to what it is, not what you have assumed it to be or even what you want it to become." So we might ask who are we, and what is this place? To know the answers to those questions will likely reveal potentialities, as in who are we in this place, what could we in this place become?

That gives new eyes to someone out walking. And indeed the authors of The New Parish counsel a prayerful walking in the neighborhood, an attention to what is there, a gratefulness, and a lifting up of the place and people to God. I confess that in all my walking I have done too little of this, having been more on a pilgrimage of the mind than developing a love for my place, more intent on getting somewhere, both literally and mindfully, than in taking the time to stop and talk to my neighbor, to listen to the stream under the bridge, to pay attention to the mockingbird.

We have schooled ourselves in living above our place, flitting about in a virtual space of social media, not landing in the dirt of human experience. And for Christians, this has not been of much concern, at least not in its placelessness. Isn't our home, our place, up there in Heaven? Not exactly. As Len Hjalmarson reminds us in a new book, No Home Like Place: A Christian Theology of Place, "the Biblical story is not about going to heaven when we die: it's about heaven and earth becoming one: God's purposes in creation being fulfilled. The final great image in the bible is of that planet-sized garden city descending to (and merging with) earth, accompanied by the words, 'God's dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them' (Rev. 21:13 TNIV)."

So, while out walking, we better be mindful. The place to which we go will bear in it all the true and good and beautiful of this place in which we dwell. If I won't stop for the trees, won't take time to know them, it's doubtful I'll stop for my human neighbors either. God help me be mindful, and not only for a merit badge, this time.

The Greater Things

IMG_2888A poem compresses much in a small space and adds music, thus heightening its meaning. The city is like poetry: it compresses all life, all races and breeds, into a small island and adds music and the accompaniment of internal engines. The island of Manhattan is without any doubt the greatest human concentrate on earth, the poem whose magic is comprehensible to millions of permanent residents but whose full meaning will always remain elusive.

All this, for the price of two swipes of a Metrocard.

(Whitehead, Colson. The Colossus of New York: A City in Thirteen Parts. New York: Doubleday, 2003)

 A poem is a little thing, barely there, the best just a few lines and words on a sea of white page.  Oh sure, I wrote a poem once that had seven stanzas and droned on for some 98 lines or so, as have much brighter lights than me, but most are not writ so large.  They're more like a sparrow on a canvas of blue sky, an acorn waiting to be found, a pebble among pebbles by a stream - barely dicernible, hidden, common.  And yet their diminutive size is deceiving.  They testify to more.

So do people.

A week ago, I lay out there, in the backyard, in a hammock, watching birds swoop down and light on the bird feeder.  Little things.  I thought about how short is the life of a bird and how it passes quite unknown to the world, how its life is obscure and unknown to virtually everyone.   While we may appreciate the grace of birds, the beauty of their form, their ease of flight and freedom, rarely if ever do we think of just one bird. Yet God knows the comings and goings of a single bird; not a single sparrow falls to the ground that He doesn't blink, a tear well in His eye at what should not have been but is in a fallen world.

God made everything, sees everything, upholds everything.  These are dogmas that Christians subscribe to, but when you see a single bird, or a little poem, or the face of a Ugandan orphan, or a perfectly shaped leaf with a bead of raindrop on it lying in its fragility on the sidewalk, small ones in a sea of creations, then you know a little of the power of the dogma.  We know truth in the particular and not abstract.  His eye is on the sparrow --- indeed that sparrow, poem, fatherless child, leaf.

In 2 Corinthians 10:10, Paul says "we are his workmanship," and I am told that the Greek word for "workmanship," "poiema," is that from which the English word "poem" is derived.  We are crafted and made, and we bear the image of the Maker.  While we can't literally say we are God's poems, whatever that might mean, the word does suggest artistry.  And it means that even a single person is imbued with beauty and meaning, that every person is a sign pointing outside themselves to God.  Even when they are malformed and broken.  Even a city, even Manhattan, can in its compression shout glory.  

For a moment, at least, suspend theological precision and consider the poem of the world, God's world, as so aptly cast by poet Mary Oliver:

If it is all poetry, and not just one's own accomplishment, that carries one from this green and mortal world --- that lifts the latch and gives a glimpse into a greater paradise --- then perhaps one has the sensibility: a gratitude apart from authorship, a fervor and desire beyond the margins of the self.

So when you see a bird, a poem, a child, a leaf, you are seeing more than the particular.  Look to the margins of the one.  You'll get a "glimpse of a greater paradise."  The particular in front of you compresses into itself the greater things beyond itself, elusive now but ever so real.  

All that, for two swipes of the Metrocard, says Colson Whitehead.  Or a walk in the neighborhood.  Or an afternoon in the hammock.  Magical, and free.



Here is New York

Here-is-new-yorkWhenever I visit New York, I think of E.B. White’s 1949 essay, “Here is New York.” As you might expect, it’s evocative of the sights and sounds and even smells of the great city, a walking description of its streets and public places and architecture. Some things don’t change: throngs of shoppers in Midtown, the sometimes pungent mix of exhaust fumes, food, and garbage, the movement and anonymity. And yet some things do change, like the Bowery then is not the Bowery now:

Walk the Bowery under the El [the Third Avenue Elevated] at night and all you feel is a sort of cold guilt. Touched for a dime, you try to drop the coin and not touch the hand, because the hand is dirty; you try to avoid the glance, because the glance accuses. This is not so much personal menace as universal — the cold menace of unresolved human suffering and the advance stages of the disease alcoholism.

The poverty of the Bowery has now pushed on to pockets of North Harlem, or the Bronx. Or in the ostensibly blind man who moves through my subway car: “God bless you, have a good day,” he says. Places change but, as Jesus said, “the poor you will always have with you.” And the huckster.

But it’s a week ago and we’re not walking the Bowery but over a great bridge, the Brooklyn Bridge, upward through a crisp blue sky, behind us an island of skyscrapers. On every suspension line accessible from the walkway, pedestrians have attached locks, some engraved, leaving behind their own personal “I was here, I exist,” as if to prove it to themselves, to reach for one moment of fame. Turning to look at the city, I realize that no one must truly understand its dogma — the labyrinth of tunnels underlying it, the water and sewer pipes, the electrical conduits, the subway tubes, the myriad conversations, wi-fi signals, habitations and office cubicles, and the hopes and dreams both realized and blunted by despair. And yet, God knows its frame, the name of the least of its sparrows.

Walking on the Lower East Side, not far from the rise of the bridge, White encountered not the flophouses of The Bowery but the more “reassuring sobriety and safety of family life.” Heading east long Rivington, “[a]ll is cheerful and filthy and crowded,” he says,

Small shops overflow onto the sidewalk, leaving only half the normal width for passers-by. In the candid light from unshaded bulbs gleam watermelons and lingerie. Families have fled the hot rooms upstairs and found relief on the pavement. They sit on orange crates, smoking, relaxed, congenial. This is the nightly garden party of the vast Lower East Side. . . . folksy here with the smell of warm flesh and squashed fruit and fly-bitten filth in the gutter, and cooking.

Next day, Sunday, we attended church in the Upper West Side. Walking out, revived, we passed firemen washing their fire truck, a father with his young son, watching. To the firemen, the father said, “Thank you.” I know what he meant. I know he meant thank you for keeping on when so many of your fellow firemen died in the towers burning. Thank you for not giving up.

Rounding the corner of 83rd and Columbia Avenue, it seemed all families - mothers and fathers, and children on scooters, and in the sun-washed pavement I saw reflected something ricer than an atomized urban life — a community, people who greeted one another. Cafe tables lapped over the sidewalks, and families had brunch. Shopkeepers' doors were flung over to the breezes and some stood by their doors, beckoning. I began to think “I could live here.” We walked 25 blocks until, just past Lincoln Center, the Midtown bustle of upper Times Square began, and we tired, hailed a cab, and went to Langan’s, a favorite Irish pub where we passed the bar and sat in the back, where it was quieter, next to a table of ladies from the red hat club, their chatter muted by the piano and upright bass behind me.

Perhaps it was our pedestrian pace, but sitting there among the familiar wood-grained walls and white tablecloths I felt as if I had been in New York for a long time. Two days ago, I remembered, I was was walking in Central Park, all the way from the south entrance near the Children’s Zoo, past the Carnival of the Mall and Bethesda Terrace, through the nearly wild and relatively unpeopled Rambles, to Belvedere castle, where we climbed to see the Great Lawn and Reservoir and the north park beyond, and Harlem. The outer landscape gave way to the inner, and I remembered that almost 32 years ago, we were sitting in our hotel on our one-year anniversary, eating wedding cake left and saved for that day, and I had that sense, as you do at times, as God must at all times, that all times are present now. We were here, I think to myself, and New York is still here.

“At the corner of Lewis,” says White, “in the playground behind the wire fence, an open-air dance is going on — some kind of neighborhood affair, probably designed to combat delinquency.” It goes on still. Walking back through The Mall,stopping at the terrace, three African-American males, shirtless, have attracted an audience with their dance. Some white girls dance on the sidelines, egged on. On a park bench, we stop and pose for a picture, just across front he band shell. White: “Another hot night I stop off at the Goldman Band concert in the Mall in Central Park. The people seated on the benches fanned out in front of the band shell are attentive, appreciative.” Today, Shakespeare is being read.

“To an outlander, White says, “a stay in New York can be and often is a series of small embarrassments and discomforts and disappointments: not understanding the waiter, not being able to distinguish between a sucker joint and a friendly saloon, riding the wrong subway, being slapped down by a bus driver for asking an innocent question, enduring sleepless nights when the street noises fill the bedroom.” Sucker joints? Saloons? Some things change (air conditioning), some don’t (riding the wrong subway). And yet people long to be with people, else why would you live in New York?

The night we arrived we went to a concert at a club in Greenwich Village, just down from the fabled Bitter End, and we walked along streets where a youthful Bob Dylan was just a pedestrian, freewheeling, a nobody, while Woody Guthrie lay dying in a New Jersey hospital. I put out of hand to touch the building, something solid to root my dreams. After the concert, we sat talking with an old friend, a New York transplant from the Deep South. Until 1:00 AM. Until 1:00 AM. And that’s just the kind of thing you can do in New York, until 1:00, or 3:00, or all night if you like. Because you can. Because something is always open. And that’s the best kind of talking, late, when you can say what is on your heart, when you can drop the workday reticence. When you can be real.

I could live here, I say. I could forgive the man who cursed at me for getting in his way earlier that day. I could be gracious to another sparrow, falling. I could worship and work and listen to music and sit up and talk to all hours. I could walk 25 blocks at a time. I could greet people. I could smile. I could be disappointed and be enlightened and even change.

But I can do that anywhere, can't I?


Winging Toward Home

However far away they are, birds can find
their way home again and again and again.
But not God's children — God's children
aren't homesick for him.

God is our true home. Away from him,
we are lost.

(Thoughts to Make Your Heart Sing, by Sally Lloyd-Jones & Jago)

Perhaps the simple words of a child's devotion sums up much of what I have been trying to say to myself (and maybe a few others) over all these years. I often write about home — being home, missing home, finding home, our real home — because I think about home all the time. I'm a homebody, a body meant for a home, a lasting home. And a devotion meant for a six-year old sums it all up: “God is our true home. Away from him, we are lost.”

If you have ever moved from a home of some time, you know what it is like to lose a part of you in a place. By our possessions and our daily lives we invest a place with meaning. Nestled in a favorite chair by a window, we read, listening now and then to the familiar sounds of our home, from the hum of the refrigerator to the purr of the cat to the creaking of a floorboard above, a family member moving down familiar hallways. At night you lay in bed and listen to your house settle slowly back into the ground from which it rose, creaking under the weight, while the clock ticks out the seconds, only seconds, while we count, resting, resting deep in the bed of our place.

When you move you slowly divest a place of meaning, removing furniture, clocks, paintings, books, many more books, desks for writing, and the table of a multitude of family meals, and it becomes only a house again. Go farther and consider pulling up the carpet, removing the drywall, opening it to the world, and then even the frame of its existence passes away, even foundations are dug up and carried away, and there is only an impression in the dirt where it once was, even that covered in time by grass and shrubs and trees, until one day it passes into memory and farther still into a deep forgetfulness. Dust to dust. A life deconstructed.

That could be a depressing train of thought. I am glad I am not moving. And yet take heart.

We live on. We carry every memory of home with us, inside. Whatever love and hope and care with which we invest our places, none is lost. We live on eternally to see its fruition, to see all our earthly places reborn and completed in a new earth whose builder and maker is God.

“God is our true home. Away from him we are lost.” He is preparing a place for us, a final home. There, all that we love and cherish in our homes here, all the dear possessions and sweet memories, and even all the bad memories somehow transformed, will find rest. Jesus said, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him” (Jn. 14:23).

Oh, I'm homesick alright. All God's children do wing toward Home… again and again and again.


A Landscape of Grace

“This is the true nature of home. It is the place of Peace; the shelter, not only from all injury, but from all terror, doubt, and division.”  (John Ruskin)

Almost everyone has a place they call home. Emily Dickinson said, very simply, that “Where Thou art - that - is Home,” and often that is true, and yet still for many there is a longing for something more, something more like what Ruskin suggests.

Just before six this morning, I went out walking. I thought as I walked that I am blessed to be walking from, to, and in something of what approaches that place of Peace that Ruskin suggests. This morning the landscape suggested something more than what appeared. It became a landscape of grace. Walking in the stillness of fog, with only a light dripping of rain, alone, I thought of what Adam must have felt like that first day of existence in the Garden, when God walked with him, his presence as palpable as rain. Water from heavier rain, rushing under the bridge, became one of the four rivers coursing through the Garden, a river with an exotic name like Pishon. I walked through trees I could not name and thought of Adam considering each animal and each tree and naming it. What a privilege to give something a name, to define it, to give it shape by our words. The gentle contour of the road suggested grace, a cul-de-sac an opportunity for repentance, for turning, a stop sign a simple command: “You shall not eat.” I touched it and stopped, and then turned for home.

The best homes and places become for us huge multi-layered metaphors for our true Home in Christ. For the believer, all streets lead to Christ, even the ones with no name. The familiar rooms of our homes, our favorite chairs, our window with a view, remind us of the deep contentment that we will know in a New Earth. Every tangible thing in Creation becomes an icon, a window on a Triune God. They point beyond themselves. In Heaven, our God-senses perfected, perhaps we will then hear rocks cry out and trees clap their hands.

Yet this morning, I was content with the whisper of the fog, the holy mist that swirled around me, and the poetry of my heartbeat, that primal iambic pentameter. My prayers - inchoate, interrupted, and distracted though they were - were the baby-talk of a love language I’ll master on that coming Day.

That’ll be the day.


Sabotaging the Regime of Speed

AllFleshIsGrass"The power of history is not to make us more informed, but more whole. . . . Remembering is sabotage against the regime of speed. . . . It's an act of faith too."

(D.J. Waldie, in Where We Are Now: Notes from Los Angeles)

I once had a conversation with one of my children about the importance of history.  It amounted to a back and forth of "History is important" countered by "No, it's dumb."  I said "You remember how you walked up the steps to your room?  Now, what if you couldn't remember?"  (Visualize rolling of eyes.)  See, history is important, right?"  And then there was that conversation closer, "Oh, that's different."

That is different, only it's different because that's our own micro-history and what we were really discussing was macro-history, history writ large, like WWII, the fall of the Iron Curtain, or even medieval times.  About this, as it is well known, we have a cultural amnesia, living as we are in a time in which the disease of present-ism is epidemic. 

Others may speak eloquently to that, but what I was taken with was Waldie's initial comment that "remembering is sabotage against the regime of speed."  Our time is characterized by the idolatry of speed, whether it's faster hard drives, instant communication, or a flattening of the time from here to  there.  Pretty soon we can suspend disbelief and pretend there is no there, that everything is here, as it virtually is.  Right now, if I wanted to, I could see a place in and speak with a person from every time zone on the planet.  I don't want to.  There is something deeply unsettling about such a flattening of time and place and ignoring of the natural rhythms of day and night.  My contrarian bent rears its head.

For Christians, the regime of speed and homogenizing of time and place is deeply unbliblical.  Remembering - something we are repeatedly exhorted to do in Scripture - forces us to stop movement of mind and body, to, as God commands via the Psalmist, "be still and know that I am God,"  to take note of our place in our Creator's economy. Whether it is the constant exhortation of the Israelites to remember the Exodus, God's deliverance of his chosen people, or the Apostle Paul's exhortation to remember the death and resurrection of Christ, remembering is a rebel act of sabotage by which we are delivered by God from a regime of speed to a place of light where time nearly ceases in the presence of truth.  I think of those very long minutes that ticked by in 4th grade as my friends and I waited for the big hand on the clock to hit 3:30 and the bell to ring.  Like that, remembering is also waiting --- waiting for God, for revelation, for the jig-saw puzzle of the past to shed a bit of light on the present, for God to show up in the higgledy-piggledy details of a life already lived.

In his own inimical way, Waldie does not always draw out the meaning of a phrase, good prose-poet that he is.  He says remembering "is an act of faith too."  That bears thinking about, and our thoughts may carry us (as with poetic language) on paths not necessarily intended by the poet. But what I think this means is that when we remember rightly we mark our belief in a providential ordering of past events, both the big stories and our own little thread of personal history.  For if we don't believe that history is in any sense ordered, that all is random, that there is nothing predictable but unpredictability, then history is valueless.  The way home may not be the same way home as it was yesterday.  The ground may have shifted.  Power that corrupted 100 years ago may do so no longer.  People who can't seem to be good will all of a sudden act justly, kindly, and wisely all the time, or vice versa.  Even the atheist can't live with a nihilism that renders history meaningless.

Note I didn't say that history never appears random or seems meaningless.  It does.  Whether it's tsunamis or tornadoes or the less than equal distribution of resources to nations, or why we can never seem to get a leg up, lost our job, or suffer unrequited love, the question of why stretches far across the landscape of history, both communally and personally.

"An act of faith?"  I think he means not faith in history nor God forbid faith in man.  It's not the why of history but the Who behind it all that matters.  Why addresses secondary causes; Who, the primary.  When we know the Who, we can trust that all the seemingly meaningless threads of our lives will come together, in the end, in the One who holds together all things, and who on that day sets aside even time.  May He speed that day.

Until then, we wait, and remember, watch the clock, and somewhere in our past see what is timeless and beyond the regime of speed.

[The image is of a mult-media work by Asheville, NC Carol Bomer entitled "All Flesh Is Grass."  Carol describes it this way: This is an assemblage which includes a clock that turns the hand in front of a light box. The light box shines through a pair of X-ray hands (a poignant night light) that reach upward like the grass motif repeated twice at the top of the piece. The photo is my husband and friends when he was six. It has a removable frame which exposes text that reads, "...for all flesh is like grass, and all its glory like the flower of  grass; the grass withers and the flower fades, but the Word of the Lord abides forever."   I liked it for the clock, in its reference to time, in the time-lessness it exudes.  For more information on Carol's art, visit Soli Deo Gloria Studio.]

My Magic Kingdom

What is magic about the Magic Kingdom is that if you look at it through the right pair of eyes it points to a kingdom more magic still that comes down out of heaven prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.  The one who sits on the throne says, "Behold, I make all things new," and the streets of it are of gold like unto clear glass, and each of its gates is a single pearl.

(Frederick Buechner, The Eyes of the Heart)

In yet another chapter of his memoirs, The Eyes of the Heart, Frederick Buechner throws open wide the door to his library, office, and writing space, offering us a glimpse into the ordinary miscellany of his life, summoning the extraordinary and, indeed, magic to which the tangible items found there point.  Beloved books, framed autographs, a stone from a pilgrimage to the island of Outer Farne in the North Sea in honor of Godric, the bronze head of his childhood friend, poet James Merrill, and other relics and reminders testify to and summon recollections of the long dead and the long past.  And yet all is not memory, as all point to the past as well as beyond and to the future.  For Buechner, the tactile is luminous with meaning, two- or three-dimensional items summoning up a fourth dimension of time.  For him, the physical is bound up with meaning, even spiritual meaning.

Having lived mostly in one place for 33 years, I can't go anywhere without summoning up my past and receiving intimations of my future.  They come randomly.  That median dividing that busy four lane road is the same one I accidently drove over with a college years date some 36 years ago, the Mexican retaurant where I sometimes eat resides in the former theater where I took that same date that night to see George Burns in "Oh God," a movie we argued over on the way back to campus.  A median, a re-purposed theater --- they remind me that I was 19, that I had hopes for love, that I was awkward and undiplomatic, and yet, perhaps, just maybe, Janet Morgan remembers me differently.  I love the reassuring sensation that I was here all those years ago, that I am still here, and that somehow I will carry those memories and these places with me into the "all things new" of which Buechner speaks.

In the Incarnation God affirms the value of physical reality as something worthy of study and love.  And yet so many of us spend our time moving, surfing reality, breathing in a virtual reality, that we forget to see, touch, and taste what is right in front of us.  When I walk into my church of 33 years, layer upon layer of memories well up, of deep conversations, of hard and painful news, of leaving and comings, of new life and cold hard death.  I look aside and see people that I have known for all those years and realize that their lives point back to our beginnings and forward to an eternity.  That, I realize, is some kind of magic, some kind of transcendant reality.  When we Christians see reality as charged with that kind of grandeur, it might truly be said, as did Francis Schaeffer, that we have one foot on the ground and one firmely planted in midair.  There must be a bit of the mystic in all of us.

 My little home office is not as grand as Buechner's room, my library not so large.  And yet it also testifies.  A framed photo of a church in the village of Huemoz, Switzerland reminds me of my visit there with Edith Schaeffer before she died, the cowbells in the meadow, the church bell ringing, the feel of the grass on my back as I lay in the field and watched clouds race across the alpine skies.  It sends me plummeting through 90 years of life for her, from China to Philadelphia, to St. Louis to Huemoz to Rochester where she now rests.  All that and more from one photograph.

I could tell you about every good book on my shelves, speak to you about the music I have collected, the songs that reach deep into my past and point far into my future, but I kept you long enough.  That's my spiritual cartography, a map of my life.  And yet one book that rumbles at the edge of my desk must be heard:  Buechner's The Longing for Home.  This 1996 book is a large part of what set in motion eight years of my attempting to produce and distribute music that was acoustically-grounded, lyrically intelligent, and spiritually provocative.  Opening the flyleaf to this book recently, I found my handwritten notes for what became the liner notes to the Silent Planet Record compilation entitled Aliens and Strangers:

We live in discontent.  We ache at the brokenness of life.  For in our good moments, we sense our exile, our longing for a place called home.  We are aliens and strangers.

The music on this compilation is not your typical radio fare.  It is honest: true to the tragic brokenness of life and yet bearing the seeds of light and hope. Traverse it, and you'll find the signs point to a place called Home.

While there is more to it than that, and revisions made, it is deeply pleasurable to see that handwriting from 27 years ago, in a book that greatly mentored me, in an album whose music lives on, and, believe it or not, written on a coupon for the restaurant in the re-purposed theater to which I took Janet Morgan some 36 years ago.

"Oh God" was the movie.  "Oh God," life is rich.  "Oh God," I'm saying, with Buechner, "You are seeing everything for the last time, and everything you see is gilded with goodbyes. . . . For the last time you are hearing this house come alive because you who are part of its life have come alive. . . . Be alive if you can all through this day today of your life."

So, before I rise from this table, I promise God once again that I will do my level best to pay attention, to see what's in front of me, to reach out and touch things, to remember, dream, eschew the virtual for the real, to see in all these physical things, in my Magic Kingdom the "kingdom more magic still that comes down out of heaven prepared as a bride adorned for her husband" --- signs that point me Home.


The Weight We Share

Blue skyOne of the benefits of essaying (the writing of essays) is the freedom to sashay from one topic to another, like some sort of word association game.  Thus, it was with some ease that I moved from writing a review of D.J. Waldie's memoir of Lakewood, California, Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir, to a scholarly book of essays about the impact of the aerospace industry on Southern California. Blue Sky Metropolis is saved from a pedantic tone, however, by its narratives --- memoirs by D.J. Waldie and M.G. Lord, a biography of Lockheed's Robert E. Gross, details of the alt-space titans like Elon Musk and Burt Rutan, and, of course, by all those Okies in khakis that built the planes and missiles for WWII, the Korean War, and Vietnam.  It is, in the end, a story of people, and people never bore.

You can touch down at LAX and drive your rental car down the freeways and byways of Los Angeles County and never give a second thought to why people live where they do and like they do, but I have never been able to do that.  As Wade Graham's essay makes clear, the sheer volume of housing required by workers at the wartime aircraft manufacturing plants (Lockheed's plant in Burbank, for example, had over 18,000 employees in 1941) required assembly line methods that resulted in tract suburbs built around manufacturing nodes. Waldie's hometown, Lakewood, was virtually built in 90 days, a carefully planned grid of tract housing for workers employed by Douglas Aircraft Corporations's WWII manufacturing plants.  As Waldie notes here, the Douglas assembly buildings are nearly gone, and "The City of Tomorrow, Today," is still there, that tomorrow now yesterday.  As Waldie concludes, "None of my neighbors asked in the 1950s what their "city of tomorrow" would be fit for if tomorrow's assumptions were falsified.  Perhaps the persistent ordinariness of places like Lakewood is the only answer." Indeed, the quotidian of most folk is cleaning house, paying bills, going to work, and making ends meet.  Peopled as they are by the ordinary, these essays manage to speak to us of something beyond an aerospace industry, of hearts and souls alive in the rattle and hum of industry.

Convair staircaseNot that they are all about people.  One fascinating essay by Stuart Leslie, "Spaces for the Space Age,"  profiles the aerospace modernism of architect William Pereira.  Many of his lavishly landscaped corporate campuses, his structures of steel and glass that blurred the distinction between interior and exterior space, have already been demolished.  And yet consider the optimism carried by such structures, the impact they must have had on the very real people who worked in them.   To sit in the glass-encased lobby of the Convair Astronautics lobby, with its signature suspended and serpentine ramp to the second floor, must have imbued one with a sense of the future, of optimism, of a belief that the sky was the limit for what could be accomplished.  Behind Pereira's space-age structures lay blue-collar factories, and yet for a worker to arrive each day must have been a reminder that he (and occasionally, she) was involved in something crucial.  The code of secrecy that  governed such projects only reinforced the gravity of the endeavour.

Diminished though it is, the aerospace industry continues to leave its footprint on Southern California. Another essay by Patrick McCray, "From L5 to X Prize," documents the rise of an alternative space movement, one heralded by the 2004 24-minute flight of Burt Rutan's SpaceShipOne, who claimed the Ansari X Prize, a $10 million dollar purse offered to the first private team to build and launch a spacecraft capable of carrying three people 100 kilometers above the Earth's surface twice within two weeks.  Billionaire Elon Musk, who made his money in PayPal and software development, sited his Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) in Hawthorne, California, a first-ring post-WWII suburb of Los Angeles.  Hawthorne was founded in  the early 1900s, but its growth was moribund until Northrop Aviation moved to town in 1939.  The town boomed with dust bowl emigrants who flocked to blue-collar Northrop and subcontractor jobs, becoming known as the Cradle of Aviation.  (It's also the once site of the childhood home of Brian, Dennis, and Carl Wilson, the Beach Boys, now demolished for a freeway ramp.)  How fitting that Musk would locate SpaceX in this historic place, and how auspicious a beginning was that of last year's launching of the Falcon rocket to the space station.

Elsewhere, these essays explore the environmental effects of the aerospace industry, Chinese-Americans in the industry, labor relations, and that other aerospace mecca, the Silicon Valley. Strangely absent, however, is virtually any mention of the religious beliefs of the aerospace workers and how those beliefs shaped their experience of work or how their work impacted their beliefs.  Is that because most of academia regards religion as a minor player in cultural change?  A more generous assessment may be simply that these essays are only a beginning point in this project (though the Afterword does nothing to suggest that religion may be a topic in future studies).

In the end, I am brought back to Waldie's comment about the "persistent ordinariness" of places like Lakewood or Hawthorne or Inglewood.  In the midst of the boom and bust of the aerospace industry, in wartime and peacetime, in the spectre of then futuristic corporate centers, most workers came back to the quotidian.  The mundane.  That's the place where people live.  Whether driving down the 405, Sepulveda, or I-5, I don't think about great factories or great men of industry and commerce but of my Dad, or Waldie's father, men who got up every day and went to work, of women who raised families in 1100 square foot tract homes, and of a God who providentially and mysteriously weaves our lives together.  It's their dreams and hopes and burdens and woes that are all part of the weight we share, the weight of "persistent ordinariness" that just may be redeemed, little by little, day by day.



The Weight We Bear

Holy landWhat is beautiful here?
    The calling of a mourning dove, and others answering
    from yard to yard.  Perhaps this is the only thing beautiful 

(D.J. Waldie, Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir

In my graduate urban planning classes in the early 1980s, the post-WWII suburb of Lakewood, California was a whipping boy for all that was wrong with suburbia.  Stark black and white aerial photographs of what appeared to be a treeless, cookie-cutter development laid out on a grid were offered as examples of all that was wrong with suburban design.  One graduate text, Ian McHarg's Design With Nature, countered the kind of economic calculus that dictated the design of Lakewood, popularizing the notion of ecological design --- a humane, organic, and symbiotic relationship between nature and the built environment.  It was the kind of design by which we ended up with planned communities like Reston, Columbia, The Woodlands, or Celebration.

But I didn't grow up in that kind of planned community, but on a suburban Greensboro street.  Neither did D.J. Waldie.

Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir is not like any book I have ever read.  It consists of 316 readings --- most a few paragraphs long, some consisting of only a couple of sentences --- that are Waldie's reflections on the history of Lakewood and his life there.  One might call it an extended prose poem or, at least, poetic prose.  Certainly it is spare prose.  Mostly his reflections are narrated in the first-person, and yet on occasion he abruptly changes to a third-person voice, stepping out of himself to look on himself and his life in Lakewood as if to confirm his existence, to objectify his subjective musings.

After his mother died, he chose to live here with his father.
After his father died, he chose to stay here.  He stayed partly
because he said he would to the girl he had loved. 

His is a memoir that contains an understated affection for a place.  Though Lakewood's builders were exclusively concerned with maximizing profit, on putting as many houses as they could into the 3500 acres which they bought, his reflections are a testimony to the fact that even a place laid out on a grid, where the houses look similar in size and style and where one place could just as soon be another, can be invested by their human inhabitants with meaning, purpose, and community.  Yet he never says that.  He lets it be seen in what he doesn't say or what his observations imply.

You leave the space between the houses uncrossed.  You
rarely go across the street, which is forty feet wide.
    You are grateful for the distance.  It is as if each house on
your block stood on its own enchanted island, fifty feet wide
by one hundred feet long.
    People come and go from it, your parents mostly and your
friends.  Your parents arrive like pilgrims.
    But the island is remote.  You occasionally hear the
sounds of anger.  You almost never hear the sounds of love.
    You hear, always at night, the shifting of the uprights, the
sagging of ceiling joists, and the unpredictable ticking of
the gas heater. 

What he gives voice to is the tension of being together, and yet apart, of lying in a bed not 15 feet from the wall of a neighboring house where someone else is lying in bed, and listening, thinking, and wondering about life, like  you, and yet in some sense still a stranger to you.  Lying there and waiting.


On Idlewood I spent my first years in a house no bigger than the 1100 square foot houses of Lakewood, houses laid out at right angles, a more generous four to an acre.  We were middle-class, before there was upper-middle class, before I knew anything about class, just people who were rich and the rest of us.  In the mornings, fathers went to work.  Most mothers stayed home. Postage-stamp backyards were populated by children, swing-sets, clothes lines, and barbecue grills.  At night I lay in bed and listened to the low murmur of my parent's voices, to the chatter of my sisters, to, finally, the "shifting of the uprights, the sagging of ceiling joists, and the unpredictable ticking of the gas heater."  Well, at least the latter I remember, the furnace on and off, the frightening thought of the demon that lived in the pilot light. 

Then, my street seemed to stretch for miles, the houses generous.  To cross the street took parental mandate.  My world was circumscribed.  Had I seen an aerial photograph I would have taken note of monotony, of uniform rooftops at right angles on grid.  Power company.  Park. Highway.  Zoom in and see a blue station wagon parked street side, steps and walkway from the street to the front door, and me and my friend Georgie, in a sandbox with trucks.

Like Waldie, I knew no other place. 

Zooming in now compliments of Google World, I see the same house, same walk, same streets.  Someone is living in my home.  Children are playing.  If I listen to those early memories, I even hear the screen door flapping as we run in and out, in and out.


Waldie never left his 1100 square foot house.  He lived there with his parents until they died.  Then he kept living there.  He went to work for the City of Lakewood.  He invested himself in his place.  Neighbors died and new families moved in, creating a more multi-ethic neighborhood in place of the uniformly white neighborhood of his childhood, one where "Negroes" could not even be sold a house.

He stayed.  He cared for his parents and watched his mother and then father succumb to disease and death.  He remained unmarried.  He rooted himself in his parent's Catholic faith.

He could not choose to deny his father, even less his father's 
beliefs.  These have become as material to him as the
stucco-over-chicken-wire from which these houses are


    "I am still here," he often tells himself.  This is how he has
resurrected his father's obligations, which he sometimes
mistakes for his father's faith.
    "I will never go away," he once told the girl he loved,
because it suited her desperation and his notion of the
    Loving Christ badly was finally the best he could do.

 He stayed put.  After college he came back home and got a job.  He spent years seeing the details, the particulars of his house and surroundings, walking home from city hall on straight flat sidewalks four feet wide, by streets 40 feet wide, separated by a strip of grass seven feet wide, one tree required in front of each home on that strip of grass.  He details the construction of the home, its foundation, walls, rafters, attic, and roof.

    This pattern --- of asphalt, grass, concrete, grass --- is as 
regular as any thought of God's. 


 When I was about four, we moved to another suburb with more generous lots and larger, colonial styled homes.  You could no longer as easily hear what the neighbors were engaged in, though air conditioning was still minimal, windows still open, and sounds still wafted from the rooms next door.  We gathered around black and white TVs, watched Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie, dialed for dollars and ate bologna sandwiches.

My mother watched The Fugitive with David Jansen, a man unjustly accused.  She was riveted by his adventures.

We knew our neighbors, and then we didn't.  Each house stood alone, and yet we shared what developers had left us.  Wide streets.  Streetlights.  Curb and gutter.  And yet McHarg would have been glad to see the contours, the curved streets, the natural areas around streams, the hills retained, unlike Lakewood with its "houses on ground so flat that the average grade across the city's nine-and-a-half square miles is less than a foot."

We had no black neighbors then.  A Jewish couple did live across the street, a fact referred to respectfully as if righteous Martians had come among us, as in "they bought a new car, you know. They're Jewish."  We reminded ourselves that aliens were among us, a peculiar people, God's people.

My friends and I knew that neighborhood in a way our parents never would.  The paths we traveled took us through unfenced backyard shortcuts, through creeks and tunnels under roads, unbounded.  Our parents navigated streets; we traveled lightly, off-road, free.

Or I did, until my father died when I was just 14.


Holy Land is a mixture of scruptulously researched history and science of a place and terse, sometimes enigmatic, personal narrative of life in that place.  At one point Waldie muses on the aquifers that lie under his house, vast underground reservoirs of water that for many years supplied the water needs of Long Beach and Lakewood.  They have names, these layered aquifiers --- Artesia, Gage, the San Pedro Formation, Hollydale, Jefferson, Lynwood, Silversado, Sunnyside.  He speaks of them as if they are a part of him and his small home.  And technically, they are, as real property lawyers would say that if you own property in fee you own all the land right down to the center of the earth.  But he doesn't go that far: "Beneath them," he says, beneath all the aquifers, "two miles below my house, is a wide nameless valley."

Elsewhere, he details the city's flood control system, peculiar city ordinances (like one forbidding the telling of the future), the personal histories of the city's developers, real estate sale practices ("We sell happiness in homes"), shopping centers, and people of his neighborhood.  None of this is boring.  These ordinary details of life, taken together, give a richness to life without portraying it in a simplistic, sentimental, or nostalgic way.  Taken together, it doesn't glorify suburbia, and yet it dignifies these communities as places where real people live and love and get along, mostly.

The critics of suburbs say that you and I live narrow lives.
    I agree.  My life is narrow.
    From one perspective or another, all our lives are narrow.
Only when lives are placed side by side do they seem larger.


I have lived in the same home and same city for 29 years.  While that is less than half that of Waldie, and while I do not live in the house in which I grew up, I know something of what it means to stay put, of the constriction of choice that arises from a commitment to place.  We had a house fire.  We did not move.  We are very soon to be empty-nesters.  We do not plan to move.  To stay put constricts choice, entails a certain kind of narrowness.

In one quote early in the book, obtuse on its face, Waldie says "each of us is crucified.  His own crucifixion is the humiliation of living the life he has made for himself."  I did not understand the quote until the last essay in the book, where he links that crucifixion to that of Christ.  He describes a Good Friday service, and ends with a stanza of a traditional hymn, the Latin words of which are translated as

Sweet the wood
Sweet the nails,
Sweet the weight you bear.

If we stay put, what we bear is the weight of place, the constriction of choice, the burden of community, the inescapable obsolescence of all we see.  And yet, that humiliation, like Christ's, is grace and sets us free, gives us real life.

A place is more than wood and nails, though it is that.  It's the weight we bear.  It's the price of loving His world.  It's the "answering from yard to yard."


Repentance As Posture

One of the problems for many evangelicals, James Kushiner notes, is that we have come to associate repentance with a specific act, that is, conversion.  When Jesus says "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near," it is what Alexis Torrance calls "experiential repentance," what Kushiner summarizes as "an ongoing disposition of the soul that is shaped by both the knowledge of our daily failings and the invitation of a merciful God to return."  Indeed, he points out that the Greek verb for "repent" denotes ongoing repentance.  It is, in other words, a life-long posture of humility, a continual turning of bent wills from all that is morally bad, untrue, and ugly toward that which is good, true, and beautiful.  It is a Godward disposition, a grace-shaped turning toward light in which our wills are utterly dependent on the Spirit for obedience.  That paradox of our work and God's work is summarized in Phillipians 2:12, where Paul tells us to "work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure." Thus, even our desire to do what is good is enabled by God.

Kushiner says it is an invitation of a merciful God to return.  God persists and enables but doesn't compel in the sense of making us automatons.  It is our choice.  It is His grace.  Yet in some mysterious way, as the Reformers taught, God's grace is irresistible, a love that is so compelling that He inevitably draws His own to Himself.  And so the invitation, the turning, and the returning to God is continual, a "love that will not let me go," in the words of the hymn.  The posture of repentance, a life of grace-enabled turning, is fundamental to life in Christ.

But good posture takes time.  It likely takes a lifetime.  Eugene Peterson speaks of it as a "long obedience in the same direction." In repentance, says the ancient yet sage words of the Westminster Confession, 

a sinner, out of the sight and sense not only of the danger, but also the filthiness and odiousness of his sins, as contrary to the holy nature, and righteous law of God; and upon the apprehension of his mercy in Christ to such as are pentitent; so grieves for, and hates his sins, as to turn from them all unto God, purposing and endeavouring to walk with him in all ways of his commandments. (XV.2)

The Confession doesn't speak only of an episode, but of a continual turning. Of a posture.  I'm still learning.

I can sin before I even get out of bed in the morning.  My thoughts on awakening can so easily turn to some task I don't want to tackle, and ungratefulness seizes me.  Or I begin to fashion some idol in my mind of how the day should go should it suit me.  I have to repent before I even rise, have to return to a gracious God and say "thank you, your tender mercies are new every morning."  I am new every morning.

No one has ever reminded me better of that than a short excerpt from Frederick Buchener's Alphabet of Grace, only a truncated bit of which I can insert here.  Buechner is waking in his home, a new day before him, and he has a sense of the preciousness of it all, the treasure before him.  Listen in:

It is the first day because it has never been before and the last day because it will never be again.  Be alive if you can through this day today of your life.  What's to be done? What's to be done?

Follow your feet.  Put on the coffee.  Start the orange juice, the bacon, the toast.  Then go wake up your children and your wife.  Think about the work of your hands, the book that of all conceivable things you have chosen to add to this world's pain.  Live in the needs of the day.

I hope I think of that tomorrow morning.  Rather than roll over and into my dream of the day, I pray that I repent and return to a Creator who recreates every day, who invites me into a day brimming with possibilities ---the first day, and the last day.  I stretch out my hand, grasp a cool bed post, greet the cat lounging at my side.  Trace a sunbeam across the floor.  Feel a familiar home wake up around me.  Whisper thank you, thank you, for the nearly 20, 075 days of my life.

What time is it?, she says.  What time?  It's today.  It's the only one like it.  The first day and the last day.  It's our life.  Time to get up.  Time to follow our feet.  Time to stand.  Time to work on my posture, again.  Time to live in the needs of the day, I say.

What did you say?

Oh, nothing.  Everything.  Just everything.



Map in the Mind

MapIn Robert MacFarlane's epic compendium of journeys on foot, The Old Ways, he observes that maps of the Holy Land and West Bank made by the Israelis (or, before that, the British) "each had its own colonial biases of self-interest and misreading."  No doubt cartographers face numerous decisions about what to include or exclude, the relative importance of detail, and the value of notation.  It would be inevitable, I suppose, that each would bring to the task their own predispositions. Their maps are filtered through their minds and their own presuppositions about reality, through "legends" true and untrue.

Naming is, after all, an important and God-instituted means of our knowing and taking dominion over Creation, of obeying the cultural mandate of Genesis 1:28 and 2:15, to "fill the earth and subdue it," to "till it and keep it."  As theologian Loren Wilkinson reminds us, these twin verses both state in unequivocal terms the rule of man over nature and the role of man as servant of nature: humankind is the ruler of Creation not for self-interest but to help bring to fulfillment all of its potential.

 That humble rule is marked by a sympathetic "naming."  God brings the animals to Adam so that he can exercise his rule by naming each animal.  To name them, he must know them.  He must have observed their unique characteristics and given them a now unknowable name, one fitting them, one they could grow into.  Though we are not told of it, surely Adam also named the plants and trees of his garden, the places where he walked.  He was, indeed, the first cartographer, the first taxonomist.  So, we come by naming honestly.  We make maps.  They make us.  They are our way of taking dominion.  To leave that task to professional cartographers is to abandon our own place-making and, ultimately, to neglect our role to rule over what God has entrusted us.

 The developers of my small puzzle-piece of suburbia named its streets proper English words fitting its 1970s Williamsburg architecture, names like Winthrop and Gainsborough.  They no doubt sought to market the development in part via its courts and lanes, providing an illusion that one was buying into a quaint, English village.  I live in the map of their making, one that I have to adhere to for sake of public clarity, so the postal service can find me, so you can find me.  And yet I don't believe its the only or best way to map the place I call home.

MacFarlane walks the hills of Palestine with his friend Raja, using Raja's "map in the head," one signposted by personal memories and references.  Raja made his own hand-drawn map as well, one marked by pictures and event-captions, like "Where Penny and Raja came under gunfire, "Where I found a dinosaur footprint," or "Where Aziz picked up the unexploded missile."  MacFarlane is reminded of his walk on the English moor with Anne Campbell and her similar event-mapping: "Where the dragonfly had laid its wings out to dry."  "Where the eagle had preened."  Each notation bears a rich association with a unique spot, a Global Positioning System of personal observation.

I too have a map in my head.  There's "Where my children played in the rain," as I remember my then small ones splashing in water from a Summer shower.  Or "Daisy's house," for the good-humored golden retriever that greets me as I round the corner.  There's the" Last Lonely House," where in the wee morning hours a woman sits alone at a breakfast table, "Pooh-Sticks Bridge," where my stroller-bound son watched a sometimes trickling, sometimes rushing stream.  Kill Devil Hill.  Raccoon tree.  Mockingbird sings.  Albino fox crossing.  The Three Trees (all that is left of the old couple's home).  The Forest where the Fire burned.  The Gutter Geese.  Silent Chimes. Where I fell over a tree root.  Cactus Garden.  Pink house.  (Thank God, no missiles or gunfire.)  It's all there, in the map in my head.  I even wrote it down.  By doing so, I better know my place.  When I talk to my wife or children, we have some of these markers in common, a shared legend, a common story.  I might say "I saw the raccoon today," and they see that vine covered tree, or "over by the The Three Trees," and they know the place, the old house replaced by new homes, the forest cleared, the three trees the still visible reminders of another, a couple and their life.

One day, no doubt, we'll leave this rude Garden, and you won't find me out walking here.  My then grown children may return, find the map I've drawn, or summon up the one in their mind, and remember.  The impressions I've made may summon up the past in a way that  grounds them and propels them onward toward their own place-making.  The map in their minds may just help them find their way.

An Inner Walk

When I walk I am conscious of the ground beneath my feet, whether asphalt or dirt, the soundscape of the city or nature, the space unfolding before me.  No doubt our outer landscape has a powerful effect upon our inner landscape.  Indeed, in his journal of his own walkabouts, The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot, Robert MacFarlane says that "[f]elt pressure, sensed texture and perceived space can work upon the body and so too among the mind, altering the textures and inclinations of thought."

And so it does.

Walk my suburban path, full of green lawns and mature oaks and retirees picking up newspapers on settled driveways and minivans and dog-walking masters and busy bluebirds and robins with my vision limited by the tree-scape, and I feel a deep contentedness, a sense of boundaries, roots, home, blessing, swaddled in my place, wearing my own old path in my circuit like the grooves of a oft-played LP.  Jackson Browne. Running on Empty.  Seventies. Groove-fatigue.

Walk the desert, with unobstructed views that go on for 50 miles, trodding the paths of cowboys and indians and prospectors for gold and those on the move going west, west, west, until their feet lapped the waters of the Pacific, and I feel remarkably different.  Free.  Boundless.  Unsettled.  Possibilities, some which may have seemed foolhardy at home, loom large and realizable there, dangerous, like cacti and rattlesnakes, but not so fearful.  My "why" becomes my "why not."

Some even walked on the moon.  They were never the same.  Buzz Aldrin, the second man to walk on the moon, described the sensation as one of "magnificent desolation," sensing the "eons of lifelessness" in that place. No doubt that overwhelming absence contributed to the deep depression, alcoholism, nervous breakdown, and divorce after his return to Earth.  The moon was too boundless, space too empty.  Perhaps he began to sense that he was a mere atom amongst atoms unquantifiable. When you walk where hardly any others have walked, maybe you are stymied by the difficulty of not being able to communicate an experience to people for whom that walk would be incomparable, fantastical.

MacFarland concludes that, in the minds of poet-walkers like Edward Abbey, Richard Jeffries, or Thomas Hardy, "[p]aths were figured as rifts within which time might exist as pure surface, prone to weird morpholgies, uncanny origami."  That all sounds so mystical, like one foot is (as Francis Schaeffer said) "firmly planted in the air."  Yet sometimes the unseen world impinges.  One's soul is moved.

Twelve years ago I was discharged from the hospital after an emergency abdominal surgery.  For about nine months thereafter, I had an irrational fear.  The slightest discomfort yielded an overwhelming anxiety, a sense that I was going back into the hospital.  There was nothing wrong with me, and yet I could not escape it.  I prayed. I read scripture. I even took a few anti-anxiety pills.  But the thing that yielded the best result was to simply walk, and walk, and walk.  I settled into a deep routine where the only thing I had to focus on was putting one foot in front of another, footfall after footfall.  Eventually my mind rested, my spirit calmed by the mundane dependability of the unfolding landscape, birdsong, wind murmur, and low rumble of the city.  And then, the worry was gone.  Somewhere along the way, I let it go.  Walking gave dimension to my prayers, gave topography to my spirit.

Trust God. Keep walking.  Follow the cloud, the star, the inner voice that bids.  In the early morning dark, when alone, pray out loud. Pray loud.  Cry out to God if you need to.  Be the widow pestering the judge until an answer comes, until God comes, until rocks cry out and trees clap their hands, until the road bends upward before you and heaven comes down.  Take dominion over the earth.  Till it and keep it. Walk on until you meet God coming.  Just keep moving.




When Trees Clap Their Hands

"'Always, everywhere, people have walked, veining the earth with paths visible and invisible, symmetrical or meandering,' writes Thomas Clark in his enduring prose-poem, 'In Praise of Walking.' It's true that once you begin to notice them, you see that the landscape is still webbed with paths and footways --- shadowing the modern-day road network, or meeting it at a slant or perpendicular. Pilgrim paths, green roads, drove roads, corpse roads, trods, leys, dykes, drongs, sarns, snickets --- say the names of the paths out loud and at speed and they become a poem or rite --- holloways, bostles, shutes, drifitways lichways, ridings, cartways, carneys, causeways, herepaths."

(Robert Mcfarlane, in The Old Ways)

Many was the time as a young boy that I was deposited along with my younger sister with my grandmother for a time, for a day even, no doubt my mother, then in her early Forties, exhausted from the care of two young children.  We swung in a bench swing suspended from the massive arm of an oak tree, soaring dangerously high, the swing's chains slack and slapping.  We chased a multitude of cats around the barn, rolled in the fall leaves, played mother-may-i on the front stoop and lawn.  Inside, we watched my grandmother cook --- rolling out dough for biscuits, heaping ample amounts of lard on the counter, snapping green beans.

Mostly, though, we walked.  Donning her bonnet, we'd skirt the pasture, round the corner on a now impassable cartway, and walk or skip to the strawberry patch, eating our fill.  Hands red with berry juice, we'd run the rest of the way, to the creek that pooled under the Southern Railway bridge, wading into the cool water as my grandmother watched from shore.  Sometimes, dangerously I suppose, we'd walk a ways on the railway tracks, balancing on the rails, before turning for home, hearing the whistle of the deisel train behind us.

On those walks we visited an overgrown, intriguing cemetery, its headstones all higgledy-piggledy, Seuss-like, the names on the headstones near obliterated by the wash of rain.  Even then it was a graveyard in a forest, trees pressing in.  We took care not to step on the graves, on the long-lost relatives laying there.  Even today, they lay there, though there is no sign of their occupation.

We walked.  We walked through a then dry lake-bed, visiting elderly people, taking food to shut-ins.  Occasionally, we traveled a dirt road, but more often we navigated a meandering footway.  I took for granted our walks, and yet the wonder of discovery, of places and people, of the living and the dead, of what was and what was already past, stayed with me.

While the land remains, the paths and cartways are overgrown.  The dirt roads are paved, curbed and guttered.  Bends were made straight.  Semi-wilderness has been tamed.  And yet when I go there, something of that place and of those paths, of those walks and of that wonder, remain.

You don't have to read far in Robert Mcfarland's ode to walking and walkways, The Old Ways, to capture his sense of wonder in the landscape of journey.  His poetic prose and ample ability to describe his surroundings are delightful.  What he captures so well in this naturalistic writing is the spiritual quality of places and of the paths that link them.  Citing a phrase used by ornithologist W.H. Hudson, he notes how walking such paths may lead you to "slip back out of this modern world," of how so many wanderers "spoke of the tingle of connection, of walking as seance, of voices heard along the way."  There is peril as well as promise in that idea.

Certainly places and the paths that connect them are more than soul-less inanimates.  Given their creation by a God who made them good, who actively in Christ holds all things together, and who will one day redeem all things, as well as their trodding by those made in His image, they are imbued with His mark.  Seeing a familiar oak tree now, or setting foot on the remnants of a dirt path more than 25 years after my grandmother died and more than 45 years after walking it as a child, it's difficult to call them only dirt and bark.  They're carrying history.  They're bearing echoes of an older story, one God is telling and into which I walked but briefly.

I'm still walking.  Even suburbia retains its pathways.  Still, particularly for children, there is a path from here to there that doesn't involve sidewalks and streets but back yard detours and creekside trails, the faint furrowed impressions of the plowed fields that lay under backyards and forest remnants.  Not everything vanishes.  Bend down and touch the earth and know someone else trod there, behind horse and plow perhaps, before the pines moved in, before the hardwoods came, before I came.

I know I walk among dumb inanimates.  I know they do not have souls.  I know better than to worship the created thing and not the Creator.  And yet they are not mute.  Places and the old ways that link them call out to me.  They testify to glory.  Isaiah the prophet gives voice to creation when he prophesies of the coming Kingdom:

"For you shall go out in joy
     and be led forth in peace;
the mountains and the hills before you
     shall break forth into singing,
     and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.

(Is. 55:12).  

Likewise he Psalmist also enjoins creation: "Let the rivers clap their hands, let the hills sing for joy together. . ." (Ps. 98:8).  Poorly schooled as we are in spiritualizing scripture, perhaps we miss the physical reality that these words foresee: Perhaps rivers and hills and trees sing and clap even now, faintly, overcome by the din around us, by a world bearing the weight of the curse.  

Sometimes I think I hear them.  But whether I do or not, they will not forever be still.

My grandmother was a path maker, and we followed in her way. Flowers and bushes and trees were familiar neighbors to her, and had we listened we might have learned their names.  I regret I did not pay attention, did not heed her introductions.  Now, when I walk in an unfamiliar city, I write down street names, say them aloud to myself, fast, letting them form a poem or song if for no one but me.  Even city streets sing and clap His praise.  Streetlamps light up and call Him blessed.  Tall buildings sway in time to His song.  Old ways, even here.

But then, my grandmother might say I am only imagining things.  But she'd say it, I am sure, with a twinkle in her eye and, then, turn to walk.




A Theology for the Ruins: A Response to "Detroit City Is the Place to Be," by Mark Binelli

166367894While there are certainly cities and towns in the United States that have experienced decline, no major city has experienced such rapid decline as that seen  in the last decades by the once prosperous city of Detroit. With a large land area of nearly 140 square miles, its blight is stultifying in its immensity: 30 percent of the city is vacant land, there are 90,000 abandoned buildings, including massive automotive plants, 25 percent of the population has left in just one decade, it's the most violent city in the United States. And the tragic list of statistics goes on.

Many come to gawk, to tour the ruins, taking a morbid curiosity or attaching a certain weird sense of hipness to the decline. Not so with Mark Binelli, the author of the recently released Detroit City Is the Place to Be: The Afterlife of an American Metropolis.  Having grown up in Detroit, his is a more sympathetic telling of its woes.  In 2009 he moved into the city and settled in to walk, bike, talk, and gawk --- to, in his words, ask "what happens to a once-great place, after it has been used up and discarded?" More than that, he says "I wanted to know if my hometown could be saved," and, if Detroit could be saved (though he might not put it this way), if we all can be saved. Binelli is a good writer, powerfully sustaining a narrative of ruin yet ultimately failing in finding a sustaining basis for hope.

There are several mini-narratives at play in Binelli's book, all well-known to those who have studied the city and its decline, and the author does a good job of bringing these stories home by recounting the particulars of people and place. For example, to give us a sense of the kind of violence that is routine, he recounts the story of the gruesome murder of David Morgan, Jr., 61, murdered and dismembered by two twenty-something cocaine dealers as a message to other drug dealers eager to move in on their turf. He finds plenty to write about under the heading of political corruption and mismanagement, from the bribery, kickbacks, embezzlement, cronyism, and sex scandals of Kwame Kilpatrick to the financially-challenged city council President Charles Pugh. And weird art? He ventures into the ruins of the old Packard plant to see an installation by artist Scott Hocking, which consisted of empty television boxes (found on site) on top of exposed columns.  Scrappers (scavengers of old buildings), firefighters, arsonists, and washed-up auto union workers are just some of the characters that people the rest of his tale --- to the extent you begin to ask where the "normal" people live (if they do) or where there is a real community, intact neighborhoods.  Detroit seems to bear not only physical ruin but a human ruin with very little in the way of hope.  The lingering question is whether it is but a harbinger of Ameircan decline.

But perhaps the author just didn't know where to look. He could have talked to Lisa Johansen, Executive Director of the Central Detroit Christian Community Development Corporation (CDC2), an organization staffed by Christians who live and work in the community, who work on bringing resources for housing, job skills, education, and community-building back into the neighborhood where they all live. Surely there are other churches, non-profits, and volunteer organizations making a difference.  But they're not recounted here.  Where in fact are the people of faith in Binelli's tale? Did he deem them irrelevant? It is curious to read such a powerfully descriptive story that entirely omits any reference to the spiritual temperature of the city. Binelli evinces no hostility toward religion or the church, but its absence makes incomplete his telling.

Underlying the mini-narratives of the author's book is an unspoken, underlying non-narrative: one of meaninglessness, of a decline and despair which is only temporarily relieved by an existential glimmer of hope, one he finds difficult to sustain. In fact, in a book of 288 pages, that glimmer of hope he allows himself bleeds out, finally, in only the last nine pages, a telling indicator of its ephemeral quality.

In another continent, in another time, another people saw decline.  Some of that story is told in the Old Testament book of Nehemiah. At the heart of Jerusalem's ruin was a people who were spiritually bankrupt. Casting off God, they were abandoned, for a time, to captivity in Babylon, taken from their lands, their city destroyed. And yet not finally abandoned. A broken man, Nehemiah repented of both his sin and that of a nation and cried out to God for help. In the end, the walls of Jerusalem were rebuilt in 52 days, much to the surprise and chagrin of the surrounding peoples, and a people came home.

None of this is to suggest a particular judgment of Detroit or that Detroiters or Americans are God's chosen people. It is, however, to suggest that the narrative that underlies all others is a spiritual one, a theology of ruin from a people who have abandoned God and forsaken what is good, true, and beautiful, a fallenness that manifests itself in violence, corrupt politicians, unbridled greed, racism, and moral degeneracy. Deeper still, though, is a narrative of grace, of a God who can heal and rebuild a city and its people, who can even rebuild a nation committed to Him.

Neither the Government nor capitalists can save Detroit. God can. Detroit doesn't need post-modern artists who have no basis for a sustaining hope, who have no answer for hopelessness. It needs a  city on its knees.  It needs people committed to living, praying, and working alongside its people, building communities that look upward for hope and move outward in love. Now that would be a story. That's a theology for the ruins.  That's the place to be.

The Solace of the Quotidian

I go down to the shore in the morning
and depending on the hour the waves
are rolling in or moving out,
and I say, oh, I am miserable,
what shall---
what should I do?  And the sea says
in its lovely voice:
Excuse me, I have work to do.

("I Go Down to the Shore," by Mary Oliver, in A Thousand Mornings)

The economy of a poem is its virtue.  Every word of a well-crafted one must count so much that the acres of blank space on the page pour out meaning as well, rich in its absence of words.  At least it does with Mary Oliver's poems, poems which are deceptively simple yet profound.

So she goes down to the shore.  So do we all.  This is not a going just to walk, to gaze on beauty, to enjoy the sea air. She is going to the edge and staring out into Creation with questions: Why? What now?

And so I have been down to the shore, the edge of the city, to a forest in the early morning, alone.  Last year, in April, I went to a nearby state park alone on several mornings in the space of several months.  These were not nature walks, in the sense that I was there to observe the forest, the river, the bird life and fauna.  I was there to be alone and hear and see the regularity, the mundanity of a rock and stream and forest that pre-existed me and will live on after me, that will keep on. My mother was dying.  I walked a long sentence, stretching out the length of the path, a sentence saying what shall --- what should I do?  And the ancient river and stones and trees said, as they always say, Excuse me, I have work to do.

In her essay, The Quotidian Mysteries, Kathleen Norris reminds us that the "divine presence is revealed even in the meaningless workings of daily life," that "it is in the ordinary, the here-and-now, that God asks us to recognize that the creation is indeed refreshed like dew-laden grass that is 'renewed in the morning'" (Ps. 90:5).  And so I walk.  I do the mundane work of putting one foot in front of another even when that is all I can do.  I dig a path with my question.  Some questions have to be taken out and walked, given space in which to percolate.  The rhythm of footsteps, like the beat of my heart, answers my restlessness.  What should I do?

Some have said that poetic meter --- even the common iambic pentameter of so many poems and songs --- originates in the bodily rhythm of arms and legs in motion.  Even more, in the beat of our own hearts.  So when we walk, we hear music, we make music, reconnect with the song at the heart of Creation.  We consider the barely perceptible rhythms of a natural world whose work is excruciatingly slow: trees inch upward; maples and sweet gums shed their leaves reluctantly, oaks resist; rocks are sculpted ever so gently by wind and water and their ceaseless caress.  Excuse me, I have work to do, they say.

In the end, when I go down to the shore, when I step out on the earth and walk, I am reminded of the God who made me, of Christ who holds all things together, of the Spirit who works unceasingly, who stirs my heart to worship.  Walking becomes liturgy, a regular path to praise.  My breath, my heart, my stride, my motion --- they all remind me of my creatureliness, and that of my Creator whose image I bear.  And then, like today, something enters that rhythm, that mundanity of my existence --- a dog, smiling, approaches; a gargantuan leaf flutters down and catches in my wife's unsuspecting hand, as if God placed it there; a lone white birch tree sways slightly against a sharp blue sky (look up, it says); the gnarled roots of a what seems a prehistoric tree clutch the river bank; leaves crunch underfoot, announcing our coming.  Skipping rocks in the riverbed, I accidently plunge my foot, boot and all, under water.  I laugh.  What shall --- what should I do?

It is God who answers: Excuse me, I have work to do.

As do I.




How to Build a Booth

The Jewish Feast of Tabernacles, or Feast of Booths, was intended as a reminder of the Jewish nation's 40-year pilgrimage in the wilderness and, to a larger extent, to their very pilgrimage on the earth, to their status as aliens and strangers.  When Nehemiah mentions this feast after leading the rebuilding of the walls and gates of Jerusalem (Neh. 8:13-18), surely he remembered the estrangement of his exile --- his and that of his people.  The feast had a visible, very tangible symbol: the Jews built fragile booths from tree boughs and such, and lived in them for a period of time.  Reading about this I sometimes wonder what visible reminder God's people can now construct to remind us of our exile, to help us hold lightly to the world while still putting down roots and building houses and living among Babylon.

In Craig Bartholomew's Where Mortals Dwell: A Christian View of Place for Today, one of the things he argues is that the Christian's obligation is to image heaven (our place of lasting, perfect placement) by working to build a home here that not only points to, but in some mysterious way is already a part of, the greater home to be realized in the fullness of time.  This doesn't conflict with our sense of estrangement, our exile.  Rather, to build a home, literally and figuratively, prefigures our heavenly home.  It posits hope --- some significant continuity between this world and the one to come.  The tension we feel between place-making and exile is a good one: we hold lightly to what the world offers, yet we take all that is good, true and beautiful and adopt it and build upon it.  We seek to make our homes, our cities, and our country prefigure the one to come, and yet we come to the task humbly, realizing that we cannot erect heaven on earth.

How does my home prefigure Heaven's home?  For one thing, it is bounded.  It is protected from the elements and yet lets in light.  For another, in and of itself it has differentiation: special corners, a favorite chair, a stairwell, a study.  It's not all the same, or shouldn't be, but fits the contour of the land and of the lives of the people who dwell in it.  And it has a spiritual and physical foundation: it is literally rooted in earth, built on Christ. Bartholomew says more and, if you have a mind for it, you can take it up, but I have to get on with life, and place, and loving the world the way Christ loves it.

Jesus said he would prepare a place for us.  I, for one, look forward to that.  In the meantime, I attend to my own place-making by listening to what is around me and taking up all that is virtuous. The first step is learning to see and listen --- and that's a good part of what Outwalking is all about.

Oh --- if I start building a booth in the backyard, don't judge me.  Join me.

Attending to Wonder: The Photography of Robert Adams

Ex_adams"If we come across innocence, beauty, caring, joy, or courage, even in lost places, are we not obliged to acknowledge them in defiance of ironists?" 

(Robert Adams, Photographer)

It is always a pleasure to discover an artist --- in this case a photographer --- who enjoys finding what is true, beautiful, and good in the world, who overcomes cynicism to shine light on simply what is there for all to see.  Robert Adams does that without sentimentality, well aware of what is problematic in the world and yet hopeful.  Not many of us can make it to the exhibition of his work at Yale University, and yet we can still peruse the gallery online, each series prefaced by a text profound in its simplicity, each a provocation to wonder.

I found the most arresting of these photos those of mothers and children in a suburban mall parking lot, circa 1980, entitled Our Parents, Our Children.  Childrens' faces have a way of disarming our disinterested gaze, the face we often put on in regard to life.  If you let your eyes settle on a child's face, you begin to melt a little inside, see a soul of wonder.  Against a barren, paved backdrop, next to a pitiful tree in a planter, a mother holds her baby close, communicating love and concern and hope in a sterile landscape. One father (or, perhaps, grandfather) stands his baby girl on the hood of the car and appears to be letting her jump into his arms.  Sometimes Adams takes the shot from the child's perspective, and we see how large the world is from a place only three feet off the ground, how brave children must be to walk about in a world of giants and often insurmountable obstacles.

Adams is best when he asks questions, and in the text accompanying this series he asks:  "Are there affirmable days or places in our deteriorating world? Are there scenes in life, right now, for which we might conceivably be thankful? Is there a basis for joy or serenity, even if felt only occasionally? Are there grounds now and then for an unironic smile?" Of course, we would say.  Christians of all people have reason to say this, as they see the operation of common grace in the world.  And yet it's easy to miss it.

It's true that the photographs, whether landscapes natural or man-altered, often record what Adams recognizes as "a separation form ourselves, and in turn from the natural world that we professed to love," an unstated testimony to the dissonannce of The Fall.  The late Francis Schaeffer in an article that serendiptitously appeared about the same time many of these photographs were taken, put a theological name on the point made by Adams, that The Fall's ripple effects were separations --- first between man and God, then between man and woman, and then between man and nature and between man and himself.  Adams makes the point and yet points beyond to faith, hope, and love, even if he does not name the source of that trilogy.

Robert Adams is saddend no doubt by the lost of first-growth forest to clear-cutting and loss of lives to war, and no doubt much more, and yet neither his photos nor the associated texts rail against The Man or bitterly prophesy of impending doom, as might a man in his twilight years.  He doesn't dwell on our loss but reminds us of what we are gifted, of that for which we can be thankful.  His photos are a reminder to me that there is beauty all around --- in a patch of suburban lawn, a mall parking lot, an urban allyway, and even the empty buildings of a decaying urban center.  To a great extent it is what you choose to see or how you choose to see.  But not only that:  we also have the promise that Christ is at work reconciling all of creation to himself, with the hope that all of it will be liberated from its bondage to decay.

Adams leaves us with this profound last statement, one that still resonates with me.  He said that

Stanley Elkin suggested that “all books are the Book of Job,” and in general he was right. Certainly many writers and picture makers want to repeat in a fresh way what the voice out of the whirlwind said, that we are not the creator, and that rather than ask an explanation we ought to attend an inventory of wonders—the Pleiades, the morning star, the sun, the rain, the grass, the raven, the whale. Common to each is beauty. And so a promise. 

And so, when I am outwalking, whether in a suburban neighborhood or an alley in New York, I know my task: to attend to what is in front of me, to remember who I am, to see in dust the promise of life. If you want to better see, I commend the photography of Robert Adams to you.

(The photo above is from the gallery of photographs of Robert Adams exhibited at Yale.  This one, from Colorado Springs, 1968, suggests the impersonal tract housing that multiplied in the post-war boom.  A lone figure, no doubt a housewife, seems to be looking out the window, and you want to suggest what she might be thinking: Is it the dispair of "is this all there is" or the the joy of watching children play in the backyard? Or is it both?)



Singing in the Rain

Part of the human task is to discern how our lives are a part of a larger story, to trace the outlines of the plot, to envision a meta- and mega-narrative.

Yes, but it is raining, and I need a nap.  That's just too deep and too abstract to think about right now.

Outside my window, a lone bird, perhaps a chickadee, chirps.  He or she is not thinking of meta-narratives but just living the story, though the Psalmist does say that "The eyes of all look to you,/and you give them their food in due season./ You open your hand;/you satisfy the desire of every living thing" (Ps. 145:15-16).  Even a lone bird has desires, has expectations, is dependent on One.  Even a bird (I can't help myself) is a part of something bigger than the next worm.

I need a nap because I was awake at all hours last night listening to rain and thunder, and then more rain and thunder.  It was a night of naps punctuated by rumblings, and with the window open I could hear it all, hear the drama build, the plot thicken, until that one final moment when in one huge thunderous boom it passed.  One more page in an unfolding story, maybe no more than one more word in a very lengthy story, inexplicable in its interlocking subplots, full of tragedy, comedy, and fairy tale, and yet it moves on.

I don't take it for granted that I can think this way, that I can conceive a universal in all the disparate particulars of life: cars that need repair, bills to pay, sickness, washing dishes, getting up and lying down, meeting someone and not meeting many others.  And on that last point I like to tell the story of the time I was dining an a cafe in Tucson, Arizona and, on excusing myself from the table, crossed paths with a server who called out my name, first and last.  He was in my fourth grade class, not even a good friend, and I had not seen him in 34 years.  Amazing.  He said "You look the same."  He lied.  But the point is that I wonder what that plot detail was about, of what story that was a part.  Maybe it happened only so I could tell you about it, to marvel at the (I believe) divine providences that occur every day.

That's the kind of thing that rises to the surface when you lie awake at night, when the clock reads 3:39 and you listen to its hum, when you are hyper-attuned to the settling of the house, like some ancient creature sinking back down on its haunches long after its occupants have retired.  At least long after most have retired.

I don't know what much of it means, but I can trace a central theme in this huge story, the theme of grace, of a Writer who regards with kindness every character He creates, who cares even about one lone chickadee singing in the rain.  The Psalmist said it: "The Lord is faithful in all his words, kind in all his works" (Ps. 145:13).  To love what you make is one thing, but to be kind. . . that's something else.  What author is as tender with all his creations as this One?  What author, much to the grief it causes him, allows his creatures to participate in writing their stories, heaping injury on themselves and others at times?  What author writes himself into the story, becomes like his creations, honors them and dies to Himself for them?  If I don't like the way a story is turning out, I put it down, even throw it away.  He didn't.  He honors his promise that he would be faithful to his people, and though many of his creations are written out of the story there are those who stay to the end, who are kept to the end.

It sounds like a fairy tale, doesn't it? And yet if the Author of Life wants to write a story that asks us to believe that there is Someone outside the Story who is superintending it, certainly he can.  So many people live disconnected, disjointed lives of seeming randomness, passing from scene to scene with no sense that there is any larger meaning.  No author, no meaning.  No plot, no purpose.  And so it is a gift to find yourself in the biblical narrative.

I am Adam, created and fallen.  I am Israel, distracted and scattered, gathered and redeemed. I am Paul, a blind man given sight.  I am the paralytic of heart, given the legs of faith.  I am John of Patmos, seeing things I don't fully understand.

I am a lone chickadee, singing in the rain.  Expecting.  Hoping.  Waiting.  Singing.


Super 8


In 1971 urbanist William H. Whyte, mentor to Jane Jacobs ("The Death and Life of Great American Cities"), began the Street Life Project in New York City.  Whyte and his team trained Super 8 cameras on plazas, streets, playgrounds, and other small urban spaces and simply watched, via time-lapse photography, what people actually did.  What they found led to changes in the way we view the social settings of cities.  Whyte, the consummate participant observer, found that what people actually do and not what they say they do is the best key to the success of a place.  His observations seem, at times, remarkably unprofound, like common sense, and yet it was a common sense bereft of urban planners driven by notions of rationality and efficiency.  People were attracted to small spaces with high densities.

But better than the wisdom gained from such observation --- novel at the time but now more common if institutionalized (think web-cam, movement studies) --- are the black and white photos contained in the book that recorded his observations, The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces.  (There is also a one hour color film of the study here.)  The people.  Remember that this is 1971, the waning of the counterculture, pre-Watergate, and, judging by the photos, a time when life was of a slower pace, even in New York City.  African-American children ride bikes and play games in the middle of 101st Street in East Harlem, a couple kiss, a woman reads, people sunbathe.  Men watch women,  a woman and man (him in a checkerboard suit) clasp hands in the street, an older man points to the sky, a well-dressed  woman looks on.  People sit wherever there is room to sit --- on the ledge around St. Peter's church,  on a simple round bench at Rockefeller Center, or on the steps at St. Thomas church where the sun warms the stone.

What Whyte did was apply the power of observation so often used to study wildlife and natural areas to the urban landscape. In so doing, he unintentionally discovered more than just how people used small urban places.  He demonstrated the great diversity and richness of human social life.  Well-heeled shoppers, street people, children, the elderly, hippies, construction workers, office workers, policemen, and merchants all show up in his Super 8.  And he noticed something very important about place: "When you study a place and chart it and map it, you begin to acquire a proprietary right in it.  You do not reason this.  Obviously, you have no such right.  But you feel it.  It is your place.  You earned it."  He even noticed that he developed this same regard for people as he considered their patterns of behavior, sensing that "[t]hese are my people out there."

I would say it is much more than Whyte postulates.  Built in our very nature is a longing for community and for place, one that stems from our being made in God's image.  The triune God exists in community; we best image Him when we exist in community, not as isolated individuals.  Our very embodiment means that the body and place has deep meaning for us.  We are more human, and more humane, when we deeply connect with a people and a place.

In a new book, The Space Between: A Christian Engagement With the Built EnvironmentEric Jacobsen notes that "[w]e live in a culture that has become convinced that there is no longer any connection between geography (where one lives and the distinctive qualities of that place) and our experience of community."  We think place becomes irrelevant when social technologies foster relationships irrespective of place.  And yet I suspect a strange and disembodied anomie takes root when we live and interact primarily in front of monitors and television screens, with IPads and smartphones, and we begin to feel hollowed out and detached.

Whenever I travel one of the first things I do in a new place is to leave my hotel and walk in it.  These walks are always memorable, at least to me, however pedestrian they may seem to others.  I stop in a coffeeshop in Milwaukee and sit and listen to the conversations around me, see the somewhat different dress and features of the people that surround me.  I note street names, see people lounging on the grass and looking out their windows, reach out and touch brick and mortar, railings and trees, historic buildings and bridgeworks, relishing their physicality, their permanence.  And for a moment, like Whyte, I sense that the place is mine and the people, my people.  I am the Super 8.  But more than a mere recorder, I am outwalking in my place among my people.

God did the same.  He made a people and a place.  He walked in the cool of the Garden.  And throughout the history of the Hebrew people, he was never far way, covenantally bound with his people and their land, moving in and among them.  And then, quite amazingly, He came and walked among us.  His people, His place.  At the end of time, He will dwell with His embodied people (not spirits) in a real and tangible place.  Yes, we long for place and people --- for real community and "land" --- because it is who He is.

When I was a kid my friend Bobby and I walked the streets of our neighborhood, navigating backyards, jumping fences, avoiding dogs, and rehearsing for adulthood, among a place and a people that we will never forget.  Even now, I can remember the feel of fence posts, telephone poles, pavement, curb and gutter, and the grass in his backyard on which we lay looking out at stars.  It may only have been a barely noticed corner of suburbia, but I was Super 8.  I was outwalking.  Even now, I can see the street names, the navigable backyard paths, feel the asphalt under my feet.

I don't want to live life vicariously or virtually.  I don't want to just be a Super 8.  I want to live life among a people and a place that I deeply and intimately know.

I want to walk in it like God did.

 [The photo of William Whyte and his Super 8 camera, featured on the back cover of his book, The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces, is by Margret Bemiss, a researcher in the Street Life Project.]