Family History

History is a fateful enterprise. Just consider the stories told at family gatherings. When my 92-year old aunt tells stories of her early years, they are indisputable --- not necessarily because they are true but because she is the only living witness. And because she is the age at which she cannot be set straight. Her memories have calcified. If my father wouldn't take a much younger me to the local carnival, and she did, even if not true it becomes true by the telling. She tells me this story every time I see her. I've lost count. Such is the fluidity of memoir.

Even when memories are shared there is the matter of perspective. Though I remember being pushed from my tricycle as three-year old by my sister, my sister says different. No one else remembers, so this silly bit of family history will have to wait for resolution to another day, if at all, as there are no other known witnesses.

Yet there are great swaths of family history that are communal, shared by all, even if not all remember quite the same things. For my family, the memories might be of family vacations, often in Arizona, else-wise in the West. My son was strolled up the paved road of Sabino Canyon on the outskirts of Tucson at six weeks of age, my daughter when she was not much older, and so the expansive sky and dry air of the deserts, grasslands, and prairies of the West have become a part of who they are, of who our family is. Cacti prickle through our photo albums and rock and sky crowd out our family in family photos.

Communal history may be other things as well: back-seat Broadway on car trips, favorite television shows, side-by-side singing in church, animals, family jokes, holiday traditions, mealtimes. A family is not simply a collection of individuals; the sum is greater than its parts. It is our smallest society, a little church, and even a mission.

They don't all work, of course. Some are barely strung together, under the same roof, sharing the same last name, but with individuals moving in their own orbits. Even in the good ones (and I count ours good), it is work to continue to know each other, to share our lives, to say no to self and yes to the Body, to swim against the tide of personal autonomy that permeates our world. To have a conversation that is not distracted. To listen. To hold your tongue. To keep telling the stories that we share.

But it's worth it. There come those moments when it isn't work, when it just is, like breathing deep in the Sonoran Desert air, and you think, "This is wonderful. This is as good as it gets." Right before someone says "He/she touched me!" Oh well, the coyote's in the backyard again. And it's on.


ChiiledAs I have been reading Harper Lee’s “new” book, Go Set a Watchman, which involves many of the same characters from To Kill a Mockingbird, imagine my surprise to find Boo Radley mentioned on the first page of Tom Jackson’s Chilled: How Refrigeration Changed the World, and Might Do So Again. Jackson analogizes the refrigerator to Boo, “normally pale, frequently indoors, seldom thought about much but always there, and in the end (spoiler alert) we need it to make everything right.” I’m only 50 pages in, but what I love about this entertaining book is the way it takes something in the background, that we take for granted, and gives it a starring role. For a moment, anyway. Anyone ever make you feel that way?

I have a lot of memories associated with refrigerators. I hung out with refrigerators as a child, as my Dad was partners in an appliance dealership. After hours, we ran around the showroom and stock room, opening doors and closing doors, the new smell of rubber wafting out, clambering over boxes in search of hiding places, and pushing any button we could find. And then my best friend used to come over and enter our always unlocked kitchen door and help himself to some food in our fridge. Mostly, a cheese slice.

KelvinatorMy grandmother never quite got used to having any refrigerator but a Kelvinator, one of the early refrigerators, first produced in 1916. She called all refrigerators kelvinators, and until I was old enough to know better, I thought that’s what they all were. Then came Whirlpools and Maytags, and I had to adjust my thinking, allow for differing personalities. But the squatty Kelvinator stuck for a while.

My dad kept a pitcher of water in the refrigerator. He’d come in the house sometimes, and I’d be in bed in my room off the kitchen, and I’d hear him open the door, slide the pitcher out, uncap it, and take a long drink right from it. Guilty! Of course, we were told not to do that. Since I was the last one asleep, I heard it all. Once, very late, he came in. His mother had died. He took a very long drink that night and I believe he stood there for awhile, maybe leaning up against the refrigerator. I heard him.

I’ve been to Africa five times, and I can tell you, there are not nearly as many refrigerators on that continent as here, and almost none in rural villages. Air conditioning is limited to some shops and offices in the cities. Usually, the first cold air I feel in Africa is a blast from the interior of a KLM jet. . . when I’m leaving. I feel that and am already gone into the West, a whole world of heat and humidity and wood fire smell behind me.

When I worked for a department store in high school, I delivered a few refrigerators to buyers. But I don’t want to think about that. Putting one in a trailer is a challenge. That’s why I went to law school. I’d rather die by the law than on the steps of a trailer out of which we just dropped a refrigerator. Sorry, I didn’t want to think about that.

Do you know how a refrigerator works? Be honest. Or lie. Either way, Jackson does a good job of explaining it without getting all nerdy-engineer on us. I like this description: “A refrigerator is a ‘heat pump,’ which on the face of it is an uninspiring term. However, dig a little deeper into the concept and it reveals something rather amazing —- tiny acts of rebellion against the conformity of the universe.” What? As he explains, a heat pump pushes heat against the universal flow, pushing heat out of the food and freezer compartments into the surroundings, and as a result everything inside gets colder. Hmmm. And I thought it blew cold air into the compartments. I don’t know anything. Tiny acts of rebellion. War on the law of thermodynamics. I know about rebellion. My tiny acts of rebellion were so tiny no one noticed. Do those matter? (Like once I drank out of the pitcher of water, just like my dad.)

My mother’s refrigerator was always covered with magnets, cutesy ones as well as photo magnets. At least I think so. It’s been so long. I used to lean against its coolness and talk to her as she cooked or cleaned, as word seem to sound better in the air of the kitchen, and then I’d open the fridge and pull out an ice cold Coke, in the small bottle, with a chunk of cheddar cheese. Cheese and coke. And Matlock, her favorite TV show. During the show you could not talk with her, as she was glued to the screen, her head actually leaning forward to catch his every golden word. Before that, it was The Fugitive, with David Jansen, on whom she may have had a crush. I’d make more than one trip to the refrigerator. Tiny acts of rebellion. In fact, to my shame, I associate the refrigerator with TV; I can’t have one without the other.

He’s right. I need the refrigerator to make everything right. I might give mine a name: Boo. Excuse me while I go see Boo.

Scraps of Gold

I have a file in my home office, a red one, perhaps red for emergency, just before one labeled “AMAZING GRACE” in large felt marker caps, a providential juxtaposition.  In my lazy print, this one says “I Love Steve.”  In it I try to place every written word of encouragement I have ever received.  I’m blessed. It’s thick with love.  Even if I don’t withdraw the file very much, I like seeing it there, and tonight, as I draw it out, it’s bulging heft alone is encouragement.

Pastor Oswald Sanders once said that the most needed gift of all was that of encouragement.  And while we can and should encourage one another orally, the written word is the living word, the remembered word, the one that more often resonates in your soul.  Sanders also said that true leaders write letters.  I take these words out when I feel feel discouraged, to remind me of reality, to give me perspective, to put courage in me.  I try to use it not to feed my ego but as a check on morbid self-deprecation, which is the underbelly of ego.  Pride and self-pity, I learned long ago, both feed self- centeredness.

A brief glimpse at the file turns me away from self and toward God, in gratitude.  Too long and I might err.  In one note, a former co-worker says “I’m honored to call you friend."  Someone else says “I can’t imagine life without you.”  The scrawled penmanship of a teenage Ugandan boy says “I love you, papa.”  One friend says “you have helped us to keep going when we felt like giving up.”  In the middle of the card my eyes fall to the all-caps, bold, and underlined word “INCREDIBLE,” and I do feel incredible, reading that.  And here’s a homemade Thanksgiving note, on orange paper, that references a litany of deeds, mostly small, and concludes by acknowledging “you kept on loving me through it all.”  I stop there, as I am encouraged enough, for now.

A few such encouragements stay on my desk, 24-7, where I can catch them from the corner of my eye.  A card from my wife is prominent, the latest letter in a bottle.  There is a bundle of letters from camp written by my daughter, still carrying a trace of humid Ozark mountain air, addressed to “Dad and Mom” as if the letter carrier will know the very important addressees, and which bear watermarked stamps from Missouri with The Incredibles on them.  And, not least, there is a handwritten note from my son about me as father which I would discount but for the fact that he is a truth-teller.  These small pieces of paper are like gold, and it is barely enough to see them everyday.  Scraps of paper, that’s all, etched with ink.  But they speak life.


The first time I was a passenger in an airplane was at about the age of 10.  My friend and I boarded an Eastern Airlines DC-3 in route to Washington, DC, via Charlottesville.  We took turns by the window, faces pressed to cold glass, propellers whirring, our seats vibrating. It was 1968.  As we rose above the earth for the first time I sensed the expanse of place, beyond neighborhood and city, beyond home.  I knew maps but lost all bearing there in the air, didn’t know how to make sense of what I saw but wondered at its beauty.

I am not a pilot, but I know a few and know their love of flight.  In his recent book, Skyfaring, 747 pilot Mark Vanhoenacker is like a poet of flight, using finely crafted language to capture the feel of seeing the earth from above.  He says “Flight is the cartographic, planetary equivalent of hearing a song covered by a singer you love, or meeting for the first time a relative whose features or mannerisms are already familiar.  We know the song but not like this; we have never met the person and yet we have never in our lives been strangers.”  

For those who fly, the sky must be like coming home.  You already know the song.  You met somewhere in your imagination or maybe the tug of elevation was buried deep in some gene, was activated when your father tossed you in the air, was primed by the helicoptering swings from an adult’s arms, was nurtured by the flight of books, by high buildings and roller-coaster tracks to the sky, by watching a balloon float high above.  

The first flight must carry some sense of deja vu, some echoing memory of soaring.  And when you rise, when wheels are up and the ground falls away, and you poke through the clouds and float over a bed of air, an ocean of billowing cloud-sea just below, then earth-bound non-pilot that I am, all I can think is that it must be like hearing Pet Sounds for the first time, every time it happens, must be like those first chords of “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” or the fading train and dog coda of “Caroline, No.” Hearing it, feeling it, all I can say is “Play it again. One more time,” and hit repeat.  And I'm soaring.  Is that what it’s like?

Tea Leaves (On Mother's Day)

One of the most enjoyable things I remember about my mother were the few occasions on which she told stories of her childhood. She told of walking through a field of tobacco late at night, on the way home from working in a silk mill, probably as young as the age of 14. She was always a bit nervous, she said, as she passed one tumble-down house where men sat drinking on the porch. But there was a man there she knew, and she did not worry when she saw him present, as he knew her family and made sure the other men didn’t bother her. She liked to repeat that story, and so I suspect it was a reassuring one to tell herself, that someone was watching over her.

One story she told only once, to my knowledge, was how her older brother accidentally shot his younger brother of three or four, playing with a rifle and not knowing that it was loaded. She said she ran and met her Daddy walking back from the mill, and he didn’t say anything all the way back. Nothing at all. One can only imagine how that kind of family tragedy plays out in a child’s psyche, unwinds in a life of over 80 years.

Even during the Great Depression, she and her siblings always had enough to eat, she said, even if not much else. They played on the dirt road with an old bicycle tire rim and a stick to push it. Picked wild strawberries and blackberries. Did the wash with a hand-cranked strainer. Ploughed the garden. Slept three to a bed. One night, she remembered, giggling, the picture above the headboard of their bed fell off the wall in the night, scattering them, scaring them laughing. They used an outhouse. Washed their faces in a bucket of water that in winter iced over, in the house, before the wood stove was lit. She went to school, did well, and graduated, a mark of pride for her.

But mostly my mother said very little of her life, which I suppose is a mark of the quietness of her generation. After she died a few years ago, I looked through the pages of each book in her library of two to three hundred volumes, mostly Christian books, looking for things she underlined, notes she made, papers inserted. But the best I received were multiple bookmarks, indicating something that gave her pause on that page, perhaps, and which so made me pause on that page. But that’s like trying to read a life in tea leaves. “What were you thinking?,” I’d say to myself. ‘Why here?”

She left me with aphorisms aplenty. “Everything happens to you and Dick Tracy,” she would said, of those prone to calamity, one she often used of her older sister. “Those houses are so close together they can swap wives through the windows,” one that took me by surprise but made me smile. About my longish stint in the hospital: “A hospital is a good place to be from.” I asked her why the shades in her home were always drawn, except for an inch or two of light. “I might see something I don’t want to see.”

She stood ramrod straight. Even when elderly, she didn’t slouch. She hated to cook, but I never knew that because she never told me until much later in life. She disliked gardening. She liked to read. She was an avid watcher of David Janseen’s “The Fugitive,” “Gunsmoke,” “The Ponderosa,” and any other Western. She read Louis L’Amour books. As a family, the only movies I remember seeing were John Wayne movies, even Patton, even through his swaggering, swearing soliquoy at its beginning, during which time she wouldn’t look at me. My parents didn’t tolerate swearing and cussing, but John Wayne could be forgiven.

But as I said, these are snapshots in an epic personal history she was living and not telling. Most of my mother’s life is and will remain a mystery and even though my siblings and I might piece together more of her story via our collective memories, it still wouldn’t fill the gaps. All we have are a few tea leaves. But that’s OK. She loved both God and family well. She wasn’t effusive in her love, but when I was young and fell off my bike or got in a fight or broke the dish on the coffee table jumping up and down on the sofa, I’d run up and throw my arms around her, an embrace I can feel the shape of even today. And she would hang on tight. She always did.

Dinner With Callie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Still, I like it here.  Even alone.

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 Red Bike, Advent, & the Everlasting Lodging of the Father

Red bikeIf I'm given to somewhat mournful, melancholy Christmas music, I come by it honestly.  Take Sufjan Stevens' beautiful Christmas song, entitled "Justice Delivers Its Death," and the even more beautiful, edenic video that accompanied the song.  With words like "Lord, come with fire/ Lord, come with fire/ Everyone's wasting their time/ Storing up treasure in vain/ Trusting the pleasure it gives here on earth" you know that this isn't "Silver Bells," and yet the song captures a longing for something more than the rank materialism that prevails this time of year, longs for an end to it.  As Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote to a friend from his prison cell, "A prison cell is like our situation in Advent: one waits, hopes, does this and that - meaningless acts - but the door is locked and can only be opened from the outside." We're waiting for something that only began with an incarnate birth.  We're waiting for deliverance.  And we are not the key to that.

One Christmas morning when I was about six years old, I received a red bicycle from Santa.  It had 20-inch wheels and a basket on front.  I took the bike out for a ride on our street in Greensboro, and I immediately felt the sensation of freedom, of not being limited to just where my feet could take me.  This land is my land.  This ribbon of highway.  Surry Drive lay before me like Route 66.  And when it began to snow, I remember thinking something like "This is as good as it gets," felt some inarticulable sense of. . . of. . . deliverance from, if not a jail cell, at least from the cloistered life of childhood.  Free.  Bound for glory.  Only I couldn't put Guthrie's words to it then.  I squeaked out a mere "Cool!"

You think about such things in this season of  good cheer.  As Bonhoeffer preached on an Advent Sunday in 1928,

When once again Christmas comes and we hear the familiar carols and sing the Christmas hymns, something happens to us, and a special kind of warmth slowly encircles us.  The hardest heart is softened.  We recall our own childhood. . . . A kind of homesickness comes over us for past times, distant places, and yes, a blessed longing for a world without violence or hardness of heart, for the safe lodging of the everlasting Father.  And that leads our thoughts to the curse of homelessness which hangs heavy over the world.  In every land, the endless wandering without purpose or destination.

Bonhoeffer goes on to note that what weighs heavy on us in Advent is the reality of sin and death, and I would add that its our longing for justice, for a God to come and set all things right, undo the curse of homelessness, and bring to end the slog of the shadowlands.  Cheery?  Hardly.  For Bonhoeffer and most Christians throughout the ages, Advent has been a sober time.  The real celebrating starts with the Birth.

I rode my red bicycle a lot that winter.  Though this was before ET's screen debut and the dreams of every kid with a bike were visualized, at times I felt as if I could soar just so slightly above the pavement, hovering, indestructible.  And yet, I had accidents.  I ran into a parked school bus.  Showing off for a girl, I turned my red bike over, scraped all the skin off my arm, and yet contained all tears until I had furiously pedaled the half mile to my home.  Home.  Delivered.  The place where you can let it out, where you can be yourself, where, if you are blessed, your mother waits with open arms.

The "everlasting lodging of the Father." I had (and have) a great home, both cities of refuge for one who is sometimes fainthearted.  Still, I'm homesick.  Aren't you?

Comforting his disciples, Jesus said that "if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me, that you also may be where I am" (Jn. 14:3).  Some of us will leave our busted bikes where they crashed and bleeding run home crying.  For others it may be a call to dinner, like my Mom yelling out the kitchen door "Stephennnnnn" and even above the click-click-click of the playing cards on my tire spokes I hear her and throw down my red bike and come running.  And yet for others it's an incredible invitation to a party where all the uncool and poorly dressed people get to come too, where the the fans of Portlandia, Duck Dynasty, and Lawrence Welk break bread together.  It's the everlasting lodging of the Father.  Underneath the tinsel, colored lights, and holiday parties, that's what we're waiting for --- a place of our own. That's Advent.  


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."


Once Upon a Time. . . and They All Lived Happily Ever After

Many years ago I wrote a short bit of memoir --- probably no more than 600 words --- about an evening walk with my best friend of 14 on the night of the day my father died. I recall writing something about how we lay on top of my father's station wagon, under a star-punctured sky, as we awkwardly tried to say something to each other, and then, concluding that we couldn't, did what we always did: we walked.  What I wrote about that night probably wasn't profound, and yet it seemed that way when I wrote it. That remembrance seemed to capture the experience in a way I have been unable to since.  Unfortunately, I lost what I wrote, and I have never been able to reproduce it.  It was a very little "death," of course, compared to my larger loss, and yet still I lament the loss.

 At least one good contribution of post-modernism has been the attention to narrative, to the stories that we all live in and out of.  For the disenfranchised, it may be a narrative of loss; for elites, a narrative of power and, yet, soul-gnawing hollowness.  For me, it could have been just a narrative of loss and the fallout of loss in the life of a young man, but by God's grace that story took a different turn.  To use Frederick Buchner's Gospel trinity, it was a tragedy undone by the comedy of God's grace, one which continues to hold out the (true) fairy tale of resurrection and restoration.  That's a story I share with Buechner, one he has spent his whole life pondering. He summed it up like this:

"The sad things that happened long ago will always remain part of who we are just as the glad and gracious things will too, but instead of being a burden of guilt, recrimination, and regret that make us constantly stumble as we go, even the saddest things can become, once we have made peace with them, a source of wisdom and strength for the journey that still lies ahead. It is through memory that we are able to reclaim much of our lives that we have long since written off by finding that in everything that has happened to us over the years God was offering us possibilities of new life and healing which, though we may have missed them at the time, we can still choose and be brought to life by and healed by all these years later."

So, I am grateful to have a story to share, one that will stay with me always, one in which is hidden the seeds of new life.  I can say "Once upon a time. . ." and have something to say.

The alternative is painful to consider.  On that fateful day when the Israelites abandoned the worship of God and asked Aaron to make a golden calf for them to worship, God warned Moses that "Whoever has sinned against me, I will blot out of my book" (Ex. 32:23). This "book" is God's reality, the story He is telling.  It's a reality referred to variously throughout scripture as "the book of the living" (Ps. 69:28), "the book" (Dan. 12:1), "names. . . written in heaven," (Lk. 10:20), and "the book of life" (Phil. 4:3).  The point: There is one Author of life.  There is one story.  If you aren't part of this tale, you are lost.  You have no story.

Now that is frightening.  To lose your own story is not a little death but a big one, a negation of life.  And it need not be. Because this is a story which you can opt into, to which you are invited.  Imagine that: characters who in some mysterious way actually get to participate in the story, who can stand up on the page and address themselves to the author, who, incredibly enough, can by their petitions move the pen, shape the story.

At 14 I had little notion that there was any larger story being told that involved my life, that I had any significant part.  My father died.  I did not know what to do or say about that.  I went back to school. I worked.  I looked for acceptance.  I didn't know what it meant.  Isn't that true of so much that happens to us?  Yet, as you get older, you get glimpses of the larger narrative, of a God who imagined, made, and saved and who will deliver and remake and restore, who will tie all the subplots together in one final resolution, who will one day finally close the book, and say. . .

"They all lived happily ever after."  And we will.  Will you?


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.




Why I Can't Hate Camp

I never liked camp.  No.  Really, I hated it.  My daughter loves it.  She was there just a week ago, sweltering away in the heat, loving it.  Laying in bed with the fans running, the cicadas' crescendo rising and falling, wind whistling through screens.  She had a great time.

But I never liked it.  First there was the fact that camp was nothing like. . . well, like home.  In fact, that's just it: I wanted to be at home.  My nights were filled with what seemed like endless hours of waiting for sleep to come, or waking and not being able to sleep, counting sheep, sheets sticking to me, feeling things crawling on me.  I knew the sounds of sleep --- a moan here, a sigh there, the faintest signs of the great snores to come later in life.  I heard it all.  I credit this whole experience with the mild insomnia I still enjoy.

One night we slept out under the stars.  Only I didn't sleep.  I lay wake and watched the stars and missed home.  Tiring of sheep, I named cigarette brands, TV shows, and went through the family tree and named all the cousins and aunts and uncles and various other once-removeds.  I got up and walked around in the dark, circled my camp-mates. Even today, I'm still making lists, still getting up, circling.

Mostly, I spent those wakeful nights trying to figure out how I could get home.  There was a telephone in the camp office, but you were not allowed to use it, and the office was locked.  I could walk out, of course, but I had no idea where I was or how to actually get home.  I could feign sickness, but I never could fake anyone out about anything.  But still, I plotted.  I didn't cry.  At least there's that.

I wrote a few earnest letters of appeal home, something like "FREE ME" or "COME SOON," but no one came.

There were moments of distraction from my misery, when, for a few moments, I forgot about home.  

We buried a live turtle, and then dug him up, guilt overcoming some of us.

We had a scavenger's hunt in the pouring rain, searching for five live red ants.  We lost.

We were supposed to build a lean-to but were slackers.  Our counselor gave up on us, even said a few unChristian words (we'd heard them before).  We were ungrateful tweens.

The last night we gathered at the lake and sang Kum-Ba-Yah and other classic camp songs, only then they weren't classic because they hadn't lived long enough.  Well, neither had we.

The sixth day, they came for me.  The seventh day, I rested, at home.  And I hoped I never had to go back.

All this ancient history would be incomprehensible to my daughter.  She's a normal kid.  She loves camp, swims, hikes, does crafts, meets lots of people because for goodness sakes she's a flippin' extrovert in a house of introverts.  Incomprehensible!  She wrote a letter saying all the things she did in one day, and after reading it I felt like I had to lie down I was so tired thinking about it, all that in the nearly 100 degree heat of Missouri, spelunking, swimming across the lake, carrying a big cross for a mile, and so on and so on in some kind of super-girl olympic camp.

But then my non-letter writing daughter wrote us five long letters, a most amazing gift, and in one, said this: "Guess what??? I dedicated my life to God."  And that took me by surprise.  That really did.  Like all of us, she is a long project, and yet it is very good to be looking at the same map to life, finding our way (or better, being led) together.

So, did I say I love camp?  I do.  In the best of them, those sweltering, stinky, uncomfortable cabins and uncivilized environs are God-haunted and Spirit-worked.  And you may just come Home there.




For two of four nights last week, I have attended high school voice and choir recitals that featured Broadway show tunes, nearly four and a half hours of them. I don't want to hear any more show tunes any time soon, except perhaps those sung by my son or daughter. It's like being locked in the room and being forced to watch American Idol. So over the top. Missing subtlety. Don't get me wrong. There are some great show tunes and great voices. But.

(But you can't use "but" like that can you, dangling there at the end of a paragraph, all alone? Can you?)

The last couple of days I listened to melancholy, angst-ridden, world-weary, and sometimes angry and bitter singer-songwriters during drive time, all plucking away on their guitars, strumming like the pull of a brush through unkempt hair. I even listened to some spout socially conscious songs that I generally disdain just so I could feel good and mad at them for mixing politics and good music. I loved it. I felt better, cleansed. It was an antidote for all that peppiness.

You see, "Wicked" grows tiresome. During a rendition of "Aquarius" I was so embarrassed for the young woman I had to look down. I fiddled with my phone. And "Son of a Preacher Man," from Pulp Fiction? I fiddled with my phone some more. I didn't even like it when Dusty Springfield did it.

The Kinks ridiculed the whole broadway/american idol/showbiz dream in that great album of social critique, Everybody's In Showbiz, which in 1972 referred mostly to the life of a rock star or a movie star. In "Celluloid Heroes," they sing "I wish my life was a non-stop hollywood movie-show,/ a fantasy world of celluloid villains and heroes,/ because celluloid heroes never feel any pain,/ and celluloid heroes never really die." Everybody wants to be a star. Everyone is celebrity-obssessed. Everyone wants to live on beyond themselves. Everybody wants something more. Everybody wants. . . something. But.

But hold on a minute. Am I just a cranky 50-something irritated by having to sit so long in a hard chair? Yes, I suppose so. But.

But something is different here. When I was a kid I wanted to be a super hero and, later, a rock star.  My best friend and I tied towels around our necks and lurked about the neighborhood at night, ran faster than we thought we could, maybe even flew for a couple seconds.  As a teenager, I plugged in a moth-eaten tube amp and a Les Paul Gibson inherited from my Dad and played the biggest, loudest, fuzziest no-good chords I could find.  (My friend's dad said maybe I should keep my day job, and he was right.)  But I didn't really think I had a shot at super-heroeing or rock stardom, and it certainly wasn't for public consumption. It was a fun game of pretend.  It was in my head, a wonderful fantasy.  Yet surveys show that these days high-schoolers have off-the-chart unrealistic expectations of what life can hold for them.  Many will not earn any superlatives, much less achieve stardom (unless you count their Facebook page), will not be celebrated nationally, regionally, or locally.  The desire to be recognized and noticed is a human impulse but one that is ultimately dehumanizing, a great contraction of human life to image and persona.

You know, I'm not even that celebrated here at home.  


But I am loved.  I know that.  I also know that the Maker of the universe, the One who need not have noticed me, did in fact make me in His image and is at work redeeming His image in me, making me more human, more of who He intended me to be.  It's a long project, and one I could be more cooperative with than I am.  And yet what an amazing hope that my life is not contracting into some media-shaped image but expanding into the fullness of who God made me to be.  Now that's a wicked work of love.

My daughter sang a tune from The Addams Family. Now that's different. She was beautiful.  She's a rock star and super-hero all in one.  But.


It's a feat to get my wife, teenage daughter, and college-age son together for an evening of Monopoly, yet we managed to do it for five consecutive evenings this week. In the process, I learned a lot about human nature and capitalism. I hate to lose.  I like to win.

I follow a simple strategy in the game. I always buy everything I land on, even if I have to mortgage other properties in order to do so. My goal is to secure all of one color and then build houses and hotels as soon as possible. If you play it safe and try and steward your cash, you'll end up with no property (and less than all of the same color) and no opportunity to make the big bucks. It doesn't always work out. This highly leveraged approach (something like that of the real estate speculators of the 90s real estate market) may make me a winner or bankrupt me early in the game. And some of it is luck a/k/a "being in the right place at the right time," a roll of the die, an early place in queue.  In all this, I behave quite contrary to my real-life risk-adverse self.  I am a lawyer, after all; it's my business to manage risk.

Take last night, for example,when my daughter, who the previous night had cleaned our clocks, and has no interest in business, went into the game vowing to "whup our butts," a cocky capitalist. When it didn't work out that way, when the bubble burst, you have never seen such a deflated investor. My son adopted my "always buy" strategy and soon ended up bankrupt. My wife read catalogs and was content with the modest (and that's an exxaggeration) rent off two properties she liked, steadily amassing cash, bit by bit, prizing liquidity rather than hard assets. We had to end the game early (school night), though I think I won. So it goes in the rough and tumble world of the real estate business.

The night before, however, when both my son and I were losing to my daughter, we considered the benefits of communism. We didn't enjoy being on the short end of the capitalist system, where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. It takes money to make money, they say, and there is truth to that, even in Monopoly. We lamented the injustice of the system, even considered staging our own "Occupy" movement. I did a little research today, and the irony is that an early version of the game, developed in 1903 by Lizzie Magie, had as its object showing that rents enriched property owners and impoverished tenants. Oh, those activists, hijacking a good game!  But that night, my communism was worn lightly: I settled for a chocolate chip cookie instead., mollified and subdued.

I do like the simplified tax code. Add it up, take 10%, and pay it in or, if you don't want to crunch the numbers, just pay $200. Ten percent is good when you're only worth $18, as I was at one point, but when I was wealthy. . . well, it made my head hurt to think on it.  I paid the $200.  Chump change. Something like a flat tax. Were the game updated for 2012, we'd have a separate rule book for tax calculation along with a bevy of lawyers and accountants and a Keynesian-oriented government extra money to loan us.  But I digress. . .

In the end, Monopoly has some great moral lessons.  Like if you're gifted and talented and usually have things fall in your lap (not my problem), then you will lose at some point, and you just might develop an empathy for people whose lives are strung together by losses and can't seem to get ahead no matter what. Sometimes our lives are so insular that we don't see these people or aren't aware that behind their witty Facebook persona is someone struggling with being. . . yes. . . a loser.  At least they think they are a loser.  And then, Monopoly might just allow them to win sometime.

And then there's "pride goes before a fall."  One day you're up, hotels on Broadway and Park Place, and the next game you're busted, holding ten mortgaged properties and $18 of cash.  We're all just a step away from bankruptcy, financially and perhaps morally, and given the right set of circumstances, may find ourselves upside down in a world full of losers but in which no one wants to acknowledge that they are a loser.  Sometimes, I relish going to jail, as I can breathe there, stay out of trouble, and wait for a better day.  Winning is sheer grace in Monopoly and not so much a reflection of your skill.

But here's the best thing: At game end, no matter who wins or loses, we put the deeds and money away, fold up the board, look up, and are still loved by each other, no matter how cocky we were, how pitiful we were, what we said to each other in the heat of competition.  The game is just a scaffold on which we drape our family life, rediscover what we love about each other and what really annoys us about each other, remind ourselves what it is to hold our name in common.

We get on with the important things in life.

Pass the cookies, will you? 

The Urge for Going

Today is your day.
You're off to Great Places!
You're off and away!

(Oh, The Places You'll Go!, by Dr. Suess)

"Uncle Clarence, I think you missed a turn."

"Are you saying I'm lost?"

"No sir.  Back there, I just think you needed to turn on US 1 South.  There was a sign.  That's our road.  It says here on the map."

I was no more than seven.  I sat on the front bench seat between my uncle and aunt, a Rand McNally map open in front of me.  He pulled over.  He took the map and peered at it, as he took another drag on his cigarette.

"Where the heck are we?"

"Right here."  I pointed to the intersection of a black line and a slightly thicker red line.

"So you got us lost?"

"No sir.  Just go back to that road and take a right."

"You're the boss."  He handed the map back to me, swung the wheel around, and threw some gravel as he left the roadside turnout for the road.

I have always loved maps and roads.  Even now, over 45 years later, very little is as exciting to me as the sense of adventure prompted by a black line of asphalt unwinding in front of me, signs rolling by suggesting other adventures, roads not taken, every farmstead or small town prompting inquiry:  Who lives here?  What is it like?  What do they do?

I'm not alone in this wanderlust.  In Earl Swift's historical survey of the development of our highway system, The Big Roads: The Untold Story of the Engineers, Visionaries, and Trailblazers Who Created the American Superhighways (take a breath), he tells how in the mid-Twenties Americans took to the roads, such as they were, striking out from the cities "in search of elbow room, fresh air, a closer acquaintance with nature."  He describes early tent camps for travelers, then "motor courts" (one room efficiency cottages), and then the ubiquitous mo-tels --- roadside strips of rooms where you could pull your car right up to the door of your room,  drag the luggage in, get a bucket of ice and a cold Coke, and plop on the bed and spread out the map and dream about the next day, and the next, and the next.

My parents slept.  I never could fathom how, after a great day behind the wheel, windows down, taking in the heat and wind, the humidity or dust, they could reach a motel, with all its invitation to explore its passageways, parking lots, playgrounds, and pool, and then just go horizonal and snooze.  What do these people do to get so tired?  What's wrong with them?  

Our car overheated once.  We pulled over, let it cool, popped the hood and pulled off the radiator hose (holy smoke it was hot!), removed the thermostat until we could get to the next filling station, put some water in from the jugs we carried with us, and pressed on.  We drank Dr. Peppers while a laconic sole filling station attendant named Chester or something like that helped us out betwixt running back and forth to the pump.  It must have been  a hundred and forty degrees as I sat on the bench in front of the station office, listening to the ding-ding when cars pulled in and Chester mumbling about the difficulty with Olds, their lack of dependability, watching sweat roll off my Daddy's face.  

Later, when we had air conditioning, it failed on us, right outside of Yuma, Arizona, a wickedly hot place unfit for human habitation.  We cruised I-8, where it was completed, that is, at a ferocius 65 mph, wndows down, like being inside a furnace with a fan.  Lovely.

But it was lovely. A "ribbon of highway," someone sang (Woody Guthrie, I think), a big sky, a flat expanse of cacti and brush and roadrunners, towns with foreign, imagination-inciting names like Gila Bend, Payson, Winslow ("I was standing on a corner in Winslow, Arizona, such a fine sight to see," said the Eagles, later, and I was, at a corner diner, filled with weathered, sun-caked people from somewhere else, only no "girl my lord on a flatbed Ford" that day, anyway), Joseph City (the biblical Joseph?),  and off across the Painted Desert.  Did I mention it was hot?  It was hellishly hot.  My mother's bouffant hairdo had fallen, and she wrapped her head in a scarf.  I rode shotgun, my peon siblings and friends sweltering in the backseat, fooling around, getting in trouble, until my Mom reaches back and starts smacking anything that moves that she can reach.  It was such fun, and I say that with no sense of irony.  My Mom.  My Dad.  A windshield on tomorrow.  And Rand McNally, the godfather of road navigation, of highwayneering, the certainty of his red and blue and black lines giving comfort to our wanderings.

I didn't realize until much later that there was no Rand McNally, no reconnoitering road man, cruising America, copiously noting all the roads, actually traveling all the roads, making neat and tidy and reducing to paper a jumble of dirt and gravel and concrete and asphalt that was not always so --- just William Rand, and then Andrew McNally, publishers is all.  In The Big Roads, Swift documents just what a mess our highways were --- rutted dirt roads, mired in mud when wet, a storm of dust when dry, going nowhere, and everywhere, disconnected, confusing, lacking signage, just one great adventure for the hardy and mechanically able wanderers.  That's America.  That's us.  Oh, how we wander.

I was an early adopter.  My aunt taught me to steer the car when I was five, drive the car when I was eight, and plow with a tractor shortly thereafter.  After I mowed down five rows of precious tobbacco when I could not locate the brake, my informal license was rescinded.  I am, after all, a city boy who merely visited the country.  Imagine the lives I saved by running over that tobacco.

Try this sometime: Forget signage, maps, and GPS.  Just let the car go where it will.  Navigate by compass.  Out West, this is easy.  In Tucson, Arizona, a place I count as my neighborhood once removed, familiar as home, I can see 50 miles from the back patio of the room in which we customarily stay, counting four mountain ranges --- Catalina, Santa Rita, Tucson, Rincon --- and streets like Oracle and Campbell that just go on and on and on, vanishing into the distance.   I set sight on where I want to go.  Compass it.  Steer by intuition.  Get lost, temporarily, because no man is permanently lost and never lost enough to ask directions.  Sooner or later, something familiar will register on the screen of consciousness and nay-sayers will be put to shame.  Lost?  That's a TV show, that's all, or a mere failure of faith.  I am a wanderer, a man lost with purpose.

But I digress, I wander. . . The wheat-fields of Kansas are absolutely gorgeous, the Flint Hills, the tall-grass, just miles and miles of flat to rolling swells of hills.  Well, for a while, at least.  Astounding points of interest like "The World's Largest Hand-Dug Well, says Rand and McNally, a town called "Zook," and counties so desolate as to have only two towns, no stoplights, and miles and miles between farms.  I'm not even sure there really are towns in these places but mere crossroads, the names plotted by Rand and McNally to dignify and give definition to what is merely a long continuous wheat-field punctuated by a tenuous telephone line, like thread between toothpicks.  What do these people do for fun, I think?  In Wichita we stay in a round hotel.  There was a thing about round hotels with pie-shaped rooms in the Sixties, I guess.  Disconcerting to be in a place with no 90 degree angles.  That and a bratty sister and her girlfriend, all stuffed in one motel room.

It's deeply satisfying to be back on the open road, behind the wheel, parents and siblings and friend sleeping, crossing the Mississippi at 1:00 AM.  Hello Memphis, Cuba (yes, Cuba), Atoka, Brighton, Covington, Ripley.  Believe it or not.  Believe it or not we are off-interstate, off the beaten path, wandering, and I am 17 and mighty behind the wheel, plowing through the night, a dark and mysterious river off to the West, ominous in the early morning hours.  I imagine Huck and Tom floating down the river with Jim, water lapping over the sides of their raft.  Flippin.  Curve.  Gates.  Who named these places?  What goes on here?  Oh, what sights a sleeping family miss!

But is there a point to this wandering?  I suspect so.  I know the urge to go is an echo of something deeper, something built into our frail human frame, a longing for something more, to see the other side, infecting me from the time I took my first steps until today when I drove tree-lined streets in an uncharted midwest city, navigating by intution, and not well.  

At our worst, we are a little like Lamech, "restless wanderer[s] on the earth" (Gen. 3:12b).  At our best, we have to see around the next curve, our curiosity eating at us until we give in (just one more mile, we say, our addiction to the "next thing" confirmed.)  And yet, whether I am seven, or 17, or even 53, when I get to my destination, or even when on the way, I am also like an Israelite in Babylon, standing by the river and mourning what I left behind, longing for Zion (Ps. 137:1) --- out here in a foreign land, wanting to be where I belong.  In the end, after all curves have been rounded, I close a dog-eared Rand McNally and look longingly in the rear view mirror.  I think about my room, my friends, the very particular place in all the world where I rest and play, that I know like no other.  It's the place that neither my little seven-year old mind nor my over-confident 17-year old mind realize is but a shadow of my real longings.  And yet at 53, I can say with T.S. Eliot, "We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time."  And maybe, just maybe, we will know what we long for --- the Home beyond home --- even there. 

"Let's go home, Uncle Clarence."

"Yeah, no place like home, right?"

 Sure.  And yet somehow I know that when I get there, I'll feel the tug of somewhere new, the road, a red line out of here, numbered lines and odd-named towns that somehow speak of hope.



Shelter Me

The second intimation of deep, cosmic joy. . . is really a variation of the first: the sensation of shelter, of being out of the rain, but just out.  I would lean close to the chill windowpane to hear the raindrops tickling on the other side; I would huddle under bushes until the rain penetrated; I loved doorways in a shower.  On our side porch, it was my humble job, when it rained, to turn the wicker furniture with its seats to the wall, and in these porous caves I would crouch, happy almost to tears, as the rain drummed on the porch rail and rattled the grape leaves of the arbor and touched my wicker shelter with a mist like the vain assault of an atomic army.

(John Updike, in Of the Farm)

Lean close to the chill windowpane to hear the raindrops tickling on the other side. . . .  How appropriate to read this today, as a steady rain falls, as I lean in, prompted by Updike's words, to hear the rain but, not only that, to be reminded of the thin membrane that divides the interior of my warm and dry home from the elements without.  Shelter.

I am not alone, Updike says, and I say the experience is not singular even to me.  Many times as a child I lay curled on the floor of my parents' station wagon savoring the shelter and heat at my mother's feet. Many was the fort my sister and I built from a card table covered by a blanket, a light within, darkness without.  Many was the tent I lay in at night, reaching my hand out to touch the almost paper thin canvas that kept out the night.

In restaurants, I seek out corners, booths, places out of the open, hemmed in, protected.  I gravitate to corners, relish a window from which I can see without but be within.  An automobile seems impregnable, a mobile extension of home; a good book, order out of chaos; a lamp, a divider of night and day, of good from evil; a friend's face, assurance among strangers.

Shelter from the storm.  A temporal assurance.  A fallible yet real metaphor for the only true shelter, that "He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High/ will abide in the shadow of the/ Almighty" (Ps. 91:1).

Press your fingers to the inside of the old tent canvas, and rain may seep through.  SUVs crinkle in pileups. Houses sometimes leak, and windows crack. Like Updike, you can catch the deep, cosmic joy of being out in the elements, out in the world, and yet not of the world, of being sheltered.  You sense the deep shelter of the God in whose shadow you dwell, in whose house you live.  Outside that, it's cold and wet and dark.  Why would anyone want to live out there?

My sister said there were goblins out there, monsters that eat children.  I lifted the blanket corner, saw the spooky silhouettes of them, heard the groanings of the furnace, spied the flicker of the pilot light.  I dropped the blanket, felt something like joy from the fragile refuge we enjoyed, happy almost to tears. Even now that room in the darkness testifies to me of the shelter to come, becomes a prayer I summon every day: Shelter me, I say.  Draw the flaps around me.  Make me happy --- beyond tears.

[Do not think me so literate as to read John Updike.  The quote is from an essay on Updike by Larry Woiwode, collected in Words Made Fresh: Essays on Literature and Culture (Crossway, 2011).  You can be impressed by my reading that book, at least a little, though my comprehension of it is like that of seeing through a glass dimly.  Woiwode's book is the source of many a rumination, some which may find their way here, others of which may be inarticulable.]


Oh, Melancholia

My son accuses me of only listening to songs that are depressing and gloomy.  It makes me sad that he would think that.

Chalk that propensity up to years of listening to folk singers and singer-songwriters, many of whom major in angst and world-weariness.  No, I can't blame them.  Really, it's deep childhood trauma, the emotional scars of two events.  One, our dog, Pug (haunting name, isn't it?) died on Christmas Day.  Imagine that, a day on which the Incarnation is celebrated and our dog chooses that very day to "decarnate" himself.  Well, or something like that.  I was four, and you can imagine what I suffer from these 49 years later.

And then there were my three wicked step-sisters --- no, really just sisters, though the idea of stepsisters just sounds more wicked, doesn't it?  Before I had any dignity, that is, about the age of four, they dressed me up like a girl and paraded me around the neighborhood.  Have I forgotten?  Not on your life.  And yet, by God's grace this has not created any gender confusion but only contributed to this melancholia of which I write.

Oh, melancholia.  What a delicious disposition.  It's coming on Christmas. . . and if I had a river I'd skate away. . . at least that's what Joni Mitchell says in that kind of but not really Christmas song called, in true holiday fashion, "The River."  On the day after Thanksgiving I pull out all my lyrically saddest or most musically morose songs  --- all my Joni Mitchell sound-a-likes --- and play them over and over again on long car trips to wails of complaint and gnashings of teeth from the rear quarter.  I love it.  There is nothing like a sad Christmas song to cheer the heart.  Give me a minor key, anytime, an unresolved coda, a santa-brought-no-gifts-wife-left-dog-died-got-fired sort of faux country song, and I'm happy.  Sorta.

This Christmas I'm off to a particularly good start.  The Moravian Star I always hang over the side door lights up just fine indoors but won't light up outdoors.  Peters out just across the threshold.  It's inexplicable.  Spooked.  Gremlin-ized.  I'm afraid to task my son with it, as he may well make it more aerodynamic and yet still not solve the lighting problem.  (He's an aerospace student/pilot type.)  I'll make it fly --- one kick and I'll put it in my neighbor's front yard, and then we'll see if it lights up.

Got my daughter a Charlie Brown Christmas tree with one sad ornament on it.  The acorn don't fall far from the tree, does it?  Sad, sad tree, and she's so happy with it. I may even get a big tree and decorate it Charlie Brown style.  Very feng shui.  It takes a lot of effort to be lazy and call it simple.  One ornament.  Just one.

[Dad, what are you writing?

A new blog post.

About what?

Joy and happiness.

No you're not!  It's you.  It can't be.]

You see what I must put up with.  My melancholia is not respected, not taken seriously.  I am the butt of jokes, at the forefront of derision.  That makes me sad.

I am predisposed to words like bittersweet, ambivalent, or even adjectival phrases like happy-sad, as they all seem to be saying two things at once.  Keeps people hopping when you talk like that, and it suits my inwardly smiling melancholic disposition to find sadness inside of happiness, to be both-and not either-or.

But speaking of words, and getting to the point of this meditation on my melancholy, there seems to be a bias against the melancholic, a sense that it means someone who is depressed all the time.  Dig a little, though, and you see another definition, an older one: "pensive contemplation."  In that, I hear the Psalmist and Jesus, something to aspire to and not avoid.

When David declared in that most melancholy of psalms that "I lie awake; I have become like a bird alone on a roof (Ps. 102:7, NIV), he wasn't simply depressed but both burdened and comforted ---  he laments his sin and that of a nation and yet is comforted by assurances that God is faithful and compasisonate and will "rebuild Zion" (v. 16) and "respond to the prayer of the destitute" (v. 17).  He lay in a state of "pensive contemplation."  And when Jesus said "blessed are those who mourn," which is a state, as John Stott reminds us, to aspire to, a burden over the sin both without and within, he did not fail to promise that those who aspire to such mourning "will be comforted" (Mt. 5:4).  There is deep joy and hope and promise wrapped in a holy sadness over sin.

I can't play the truly sad songs, the lyrically nihilistic or musically chaotic.  I can't play them because they aren't true, beautiful, or good.  They embody the despairing sadness of a people without faith, hope, or love.  That's not me.

The melancholy songs speak to me because they carry the weight of sin and yet are better able to hold the promise of joy than the light and happy fluff.  A pensive contemplation is a posture that often suits me.  The deeper trauma that affects me is not sibling devilry or the loss of childhood pets but the trauma of grace.  From that, thank God, I will never ever recover.

That Other Country

A couple of weeks ago I remarked to someone outside my church that "people were dying all around me."  She advised that they had been dying all along, that I just hadn't noticed.  Fair enough.  Still, it seems there has been an unusual spike in deaths. For example, on October 15th my mother died.  One month previously, her brother died.  One month after her, the other brother died.  My cousin's wife's mother died.  My pastor's mother died.  A co-worker's mother died.  And so it goes.  People truly are dying all around me.

The monk, Benedict, once said that as a Christian one is to "keep death daily before your eyes."  When I wrote that quote down on January 11, 1997, I don't think I fully appreciated what it meant.  It's easy to avoid death in this culture.  I drive 20 minutes to work and back each day, and I pass no cemeteries.  I saw a rare funeral procession the other day, and no one seemed to know (or care) how to act in its wake.  Few pulled over or made way.  A couple of drivers even impatiently tried to pass the line.  And when death does come home to some, they do not know how to behave. They stumble over it, run from it.

When I was laid up in a  hospital once for six weeks, someone told me not to "waste my suffering."  I didn't want to hear that, and yet it was good advice, though it has taken me years to understand it.  Rather than giving into distraction or denial, it's better to let death wash over you, to live in it for a season.   I wouldn't say that's fun, but it is good.  I'm not at all happy about death, because it's not normal, was not intended by God, and yet it holds its lessons.  It's a great reminder that we live in a shadow-land of distractions and cares that diverts us from our homeward focus, that "other country" which all of scripture points to.

In an essay published over a decade ago, "The Glory of His Discontent," Don Hudson asserts that we are consoled in our own discontent --- our "holy" discontent --- in that God is also discontent.  He longs for  an end to the suffering of the world, to a final end to death, to a time when all is made right.  In imaging Him, we do likewise.  After all, something is amiss if we believe that this world is normal or as good as it gets, even though in the best of times we may deceive ourselves with such thoughts.

"Keep death daily before your eyes."  I doubt I can ever not do that now.  But I wouldn't have it otherwise, as it has made me a little more dependent on the only One who offers true consolation, to the One who knows our discontent better than do we.  Jesus wept.  God looks longingly out over a planet and people bent and marred by an unholy Disruptor, and He waits.  The Comforter comes and encircles us, carries the weight of our discontent.  And we live in the hope that our discontent will finally be undone, that all that is wrong will be made right. . . in that other country.

From Saint to Saint to Saint

"The colored sunsets and starry heavens, the beautiful mountains and the shining seas, the frgrant woods and painted flowers, are not half so beautiful as a soul that is serving Jesus out of love, in the wear and tear of common, unpoetic life."  (Frederick William Faber, in All for Jesus)

Of the nearly 400 books and notebooks which I cleaned out of my mother's house before she died, I found very few that yielded any personal reflections, any key to who she was and what she was thinking.  Perhaps it was characteristic of her generation not to speak about themselves.  But in additon to her well-marked Bible, one book that stands out (and which I have) is one I have seen on her nightstand or table by her chair for many years.  Streams in the Desert, by Mrs. Charles E. Cowman, is a book I never once looked at though it is one that my mother obviously read and re-read many times.  The cover of this 1992 large print edition (which, I confess, is nice for my eyes now), is well-worn from hands that carried it, opened it, and closed it, many of its pages falling from the binding.  It's not that she made notes in the book, as she did not, but she placed bookmarks in various places.  I can only guess at why the words on the marked pages meant something to her, and yet it gives me pleasure to follow her path, to look on pages that made her pause and reflect.

I didn't know anything about the author, Lettie Cowman, but I found out that she and her husband were missionaries to Japan and China during the early years of the Twentieth Century until they were forced to return home because of her husband's health.  She nursed him for six years.  Other than that, little more is to be found in her bio, and perhaps that is as it should be.  And yet her book, first published in 1925, has sold more than two million copies.  Like my mother's library and her bookmarks, it reveals the path she walked, the quotes and writings that meant something to her.  As such, it is a great source of encouragement to anyone struggling with a trial or difficulty.

One page marked by my mother had the quote from Faber in it.  Though the text does not make it clear, Faber was a Catholic priest in London who wrote, among other works, a book called All for Jesus, or the Easy Ways of Love Divine.  The fourth edition, the only one I found on Google Books, was published in 1854.  Reading just a little bit of it shows a man consumed with love for Jesus and for the common life he shared with his parishioners.  For example, he begins the book like this:

Jesus belongs to us.  He vouchsafes to put himself at our disposal.  He communicates to us everything of His which we are capable of receiving.  He loves us with a love that no words can tell, nay, above all our thought and imagination.  And He condescends to desire, with a longing that is equally indescribable, that we should love Him, with a fervent and entire love.    

And so it goes.  And then the quote that forms the epigraph for this short post has a beautiful phrase that demonstrates his celebration of the common life --- "the wear and tear of common, unpoetic life."  I love that sense that it is not the sainted who are to be revered so much as are the common, faithful Christians, those in the mud and muck of life, in the unpoetic trenches of daily obedience.  There is my mother who no doubt had her share of tribulation; Lettie Cowman, who cared for an ailing husband for six long years; and William Faber, parish priest faithfully serving his people --- the communion of saints, all now together in the presence of Jesus.

Don't discount the the paths taken by the aged and the long-dead.  They have tread where we shall go.  Follow the bookmarks of their lives.  Go from saint to saint to saint.



On October 15th, my mother died after a long bout with Parkinson's Disease.  She was 84.  I miss her.

I miss a lot of things.  I miss the ins and outs of my childhood, the home I grew up in, my father, my cat Pumpkin,  and my dog Faith.  I miss a world without cell phones, the internet, and cable tv which, despite the good they bring also bring so much that is destructive and distracting.  I have no love for nostalgia, for a time that I know to be somewhat illusory in memory,  yet what I really miss is my mother in that time, in a  time when she was there and all was right and the world was under her care.

A few days ago, coming home from a time with family, I passed by the exit to the hospice where she spent her last eight days of life.  I was overcome with sadness borne of what I think is really a lingering homelessness.  Though my mother had declined to the point where two-way conversation was not possible, she was still present in body.  There was always a place for me to go, a person to see, a reminder of the home I once had.  Though I long ago made a new home with my wife and family, my mother still represented my childhood home, the last physical reminder of that home.  Now, I really can't go home.

Francis Schaeffer once wrote (and no doubt many times spoke) of the world as we know it being abnormal.  It is not what it was intended to be.  Death is not normal.  My lingering homelessness is not normal.  When you are confronted by death, then like no other time you realize the contrast between what was intended by God and what is.  Loss is now part of our life.  The curse of sin, like a relentless entropy, is winding down the world.

And yet, thank God, it doesn't end there.  When my mother died believing in Christ, I sensed a new reality, one in which she is literally living on right now in the presence of Christ.  What I have assented to in my mind for many years I now assented to in heart.  And if she lives, then there is deeper magic at work in the world, one undoing the curse of sin and ultimately reversing death itself.

In some moments over the last year I allowed myself to think that all my mother did and thought, all the books she read, Bible study notes she took, dreams she had, and letters she wrote were all lost, would go to the grave with her.  They are not lost.  Every single thing she did mattered.  Not only is it part of her legacy but also a part of who she still is becoming. Nothing is lost but sin.  In Paradise she is only more of who she already had become.  There is no subtraction in death.

And yet still I miss her and what she represents.  I miss home.  I know something of what the Israelites felt in their Babylonian exile.  The Psalmist says that "[b]y the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion" (Ps. 137:1).  Whatever home they made in a foreign land, they longed for their true homeland.

Alien, stranger, sojourner, and exile --- so do I.  But my mother knows no homesickness or homelessness.  She's already Home.

I Went On Vacation Last Week. . .

. . . and Judy, the server at the resort restaurant, remembered us.  That's not too difficult, I suppose, as we have been making this journey to Tucson, Arizona for 30 years, 19 of them with children.  We stay in the same room, do many of the same things, and complain (though rarely) as if we are members of the family, investors in the property.  But we do feel like we "own" a bit of the place.  Once, the chef took us on a two-hour tour of the kitchens, something I would not have requested but found pretty illuminating (enough to know I would not want his job).  Once, I wrote the manager. He wrote back.  We lament any and every change (at least until we adapt).  

Mostly, however, we just look and listen.

In Arizona, you can see for miles.  Here, in the Piedmont of North Carolina, I can't see past my neighbors house.  In Tucson I roll over in bed in the morning, look out the window at an inevitably sunny, blue sky day, and I can see for 50 miles.  That openness is affective.  I want to play outside, hike mountains, eat outside, try something new.  I'm energized.  My older sister, who has never until now joined my family for a vacation, wondered if I was ADD.  Nope.  I told her she was just OLD. (Not really, as I'm not witty enough for that nor is she old enough for that, but I like that comeback.)

Did you ever get invited to someone's home and then, a captive audience, get sucked into watching home movies?  I didn't think so.  You don't know what you've been missing.  I won't do that to you. But I will offer you ten slides from my vacation, ten images that will stick with me.  Pat Patterson, an AM DJ in Raleigh back in the Seventies, used to "show" slides over the radio on his morning show. I'm just following his lead.  So. . .

Slide One: It's evening and we're sitting on the outside courtyard terrace of El Charro, the oldest Mexican restaurant in Tucson, and I have been served a favorite dish, carne seca, beef which earlier that day had been drying in a metal box about 20 feet in the air on a pole above my head. I feel so welcome; it's as if I'm with my extended Mexican family.  At least three waiters appear to be serving us.  I finish and want to start all over. (Click)

Slide Two: Sabino Canyon, in the Catalina Mountains that border Tucson on the north, is like a city playground.  A tram transports you 3.8 miles up in the canyon, over a road and multiple bridges spanning Sabino Creek, all built by the Civilian Conservation Corp and Works Progress Administration during the Great Depression.  When my wife's father was a student at the University of Arizona in the late 1930s, he'd drive his date up here.  Now, we take a tram up and walk out, scrambling over rocks, dipping in and out of icy cold water, and sometimes hiking the old phone line trail up on the ridge for a different perspective.  Not today.  That's me on the rock sunning.  Chief lizard. (Click)

Slide Three: In a place like this, you can really settle into a book, if you can sit still long enough and stop looking at the mountains and sky. I'm reading Paul Miller's A Praying Life, a book that asks all the questions that we Christians are ashamed to ask, like why don't we pray more, or is anyone listening, or did Jesus really mean it when he said "You have not because you do not ask." It made me want to ask more and believe more. Looking up at the jagged peak of Mt. Lemmon, sculpted by Someone who could move mountains, I could better believe that he was a Prayer-Answerer too. Sometimes I had to close my eyes and read. (Click)

Slide Four: Eating (again), we found the best pizza in the world at Magpies, a local restaurant in the very bohemian looking Fourth Avenue section.  That's barbecue pizza on my plate, a dish everyone else turns their nose up at, leaving more for me.  The well-aged checkerboard tablecloth reminds me of my childhood home.  On the way out we have nearly a pizza box of various kinds left.  We see a homeless man picking through garbage, and my brother-in-law calls him over and offers it to him.  He doesn't wait.  He starts eating right there at the window of the car. And I hear Precious Ramotswe say "God has not forgotten you." (Click)

Slide Five: I'm reclining with that Botswanan detective, Precious Ramotswe, at the pool.  That is, I'm reading The Saturday Big Tent Wedding Party, the latest installment of Alexander McCall Smith's #1 Ladies' Detective Agency series, a book full of gentle wisdom, and come across that phrase she utters to a distraught house-maid ("God has not forgotten you"), kindness incarnate, and I slow down and read it again, reminded that there are no little people. (Click)

Slide Six:  Take a peek at this.My gracious wife, instead of taking a shopping day in the artists' community of Tubac, about 25 miles from the Mexican border, is taking a hike with me, even in a skirt, fording the San Pedro River (admittedly a mere creek at this time), walking through forests and fields, climbing over cattle fences, and all this in the middle of a 90 degree day.  4.5 miles.  We never saw another soul.  The trial (oops, I mean trail) ends at a preserved Spanish mission, Tumacacori, one of our favorite places.  Try not to  think about it too much, but the river flow is actually the effluent from the Nogales Wastewater Treatment Plant.  Oh well. (Click)

Slide Seven: Here's a feel good shot.  My teenage son and daughter, walking ahead of us on the road, hand in hand, arm in arm, like best friends.  I'll savor that and remember it when the next inevitable spat arises.  Hey, did I just see her smack him?  Another day in paradise. . . (Click)

Slide Eight: Let's back up a bit, as I forgot one slide.  We're eating steak at Lil' Abners, a roadhouse, really, that I remember being in the desert outside Tucson but now sits smack in the suburb of Marana.  They have two things going for them: excellent steaks cooked on outdoor mesquite grills served with beans and salsa, and country swing provided by nearly 90-year old Dean Armstrong and his western swing band, also made up up elders (that's what they call old people out here).  And, in the background that's the same woman who was here last year, a regular, usually with a picture of her boyfriend on her t-shirt and her's on his.  But after 30 years of playing here, Dean has gone Home --- two weeks ago.  He was a gentleman and I'll miss him. (Click)

Slide Nine: A lot of people come to Madeira Canyon to birdwatch.  We don't.  Bird people sometimes look like birds.  Have you ever noticed that?  30 minutes in we're over a mile up, and those are pines, sycamores, and ash trees you see, with a little yucca mixed in.  We hiked up about two miles, and then out, seeing deer around us, considering what to do if confronted by a bear or bobcat.  Alone. Sometimes we stopped, all quiet, and just listened to the wind in the trees. Hear it? (Click)

Slide Ten: This may be the best.  We're all sitting in the second row of Catalina Foothills Presbyterian Church.  It's Easter morning.  We're practically embedded with the orchestra and choir.  Looking up through the windows all you can see are mountains and sky. Those are tears welling in my eyes, produced by music so beautiful, so poignant, so worshipful.  It's the closest I get to my home church without being home.  It's a fitting close to a week of rest, reflection, and wonder.

I still think about it.

Thanks for letting me share these slides with you.  I would have shown the 8 mm home movies, all four reels, but the kids with their Ipods and IPads and Wii and whatnot, the short attention spans, and all.  It would never work.  But maybe one image here will stick and provoke you, as it does me, to vacate once again, to take, like God did at the end of six days, a holy pause, look over what you've made and done, and say,"It's good.  It's really good." And be thankful for the beautiful mess that life can be.









Wide Awake

In the last few weeks, I have apparently entered a period of wakefulness at night, something I have been plagued with from time to time.  I am a light sleeper, I guess.  If the alarm clock light is too bright, I might awake.  The cat jumping on the bed may also do the trick.  Thunder will rouse me.  Maybe even a sigh from a child.  I don't usually stay awake, thankfully, but return to sleep fairly quickly.  In these times, nighttime can be just a series of naps, strung end to end. Sometimes I am sleepy the next day; often, I am not.

I've wondered why this is, even read about it, and I can't pin it on anything.  It comes, it goes. Like the wind.  Like the Spirit.

When I'm lying there for what few minutes I may be conscious, I sometimes do wonder if God has awoken me, if there is something I need pray about or maybe something I need to get up and do. Praying can be difficult, but I try, a kind of stream of consciousness, meandering and vague.  I wonder if God thinks it's like listening to a sleepy child, one trying desperately to wring one more minute out of the day but fading quickly, sliding into nonsense babble.  When my son was young he talked to keep himself awake, often to himself, falling asleep mid-sentence.  Maybe my babbling is what "praying in the Spirit" really is --- sensible only to God who hears the heart even when the lips speak gibberish.

Perhaps because of such punctuated rest, I remember more dreams.  In the last few weeks, I have been in a plane crash, narrowly missed being struck by a train which jumped its tracks and barreled down the yard beside my house, and suffered a home invasion.  A few nights ago a few large oak trees in my backyard uprooted themselves and walked away while I watched.  Eerie.  It'd be nice to talk about that, in the moment so to speak, but everyone is asleep, even the cats, though I nudge one with my foot to see if I can get a response.  No, just dead weight.

Sometimes I think I should get up and do something productive with the time, like balance the checkbook.  Likely that wouldn't be wise.  Or write letters, unintelligible though they may be.  But I don't.  I just lie there enjoying the quiet, the accentuated noises of the night.  Cicadas.  Now and then the creak of a settling house.  The faithfulness of the heat pump, coming on and turning off all night while we sleep, because we asked it to.  The sound of my breath.  The beating of my heart.  Rain on the roof, wind in the chimney.

I get up and look out the window at the street outside bathed in streetlight, see the neighbor's cat walk sleepily across the street.  I wonder if it has insomnia too?

I used to tell my children that there was nothing to be afraid of at night, that everything is in the same place as in daylight, only dark.  I don't think they believed me.

To think --- some people who sleep all night without awakening never get this pleasure, never know what they're missing.  Lucky me.


Her College Preview (and Mine)

One thing that is plainly apparent to me this college preview weekend is that the preview my daughter is getting, that is, the one she is interested in, is not the preview I am getting.  And that's OK.  I have to understand that it's really OK.

The first clue came when we arrived in the quaint mountain town of Lookout Mountain, Georgia.  The streets are right out of fairy tales.  There's Cinderella Drive, Elfin Lane, and the one on which we move, Red Riding Hood Trail.  It brought a big smile to her face.  Now I would never have thought to relate this fantasy land to a good college preview weekend.  It's a frolic for her, people, Red Riding Hood dancing her way into the college grounds, and me, I'm thinking about all the big bad wolves of academic majors, financing this experience, and keeping my daughter safe.  Irrelevant to her.  People are what matter.  God bless her.  We are so different.

And all of this is OK, I tell myself.  She is not me and I am not her, as if that was not painfully obvious. With me it's A+B=C, with her it's A+B+F+ (maybe G) times 8 = A PARTY.  What is the fun factor? And yet I have to believe that underneath the social factor is a desire to do and be something.

The truth is I want to go back to school, more than she wants to go.  So much to learn, so much to read, so much to write, and the luxury of focusing solely on learning.  Or, in her words, so many people to meet, so many fun things to do, so much freedom, and Dad to pay for the whole thing.  Does it get any better than this?

But it's a preview, that's for sure, and the truth is it will impact her in ways I won't be able to understand until later, if then, might not even hear from her mouth.  And yet to see her smile and walk off with a group of students, to watch her "try on" the independence of college --- well that's enough, isn't it?  I'm really OK about all this. . . .

The Good of Dying

"We like to think that it is we who benefit them, but the truth is that they benefit us, if we will let them, if we will simply lay down ourselves and die, which is alien talk to people who are not aliens in this world. But every father with ears to hear knows he must lay down and die, today and the next and the next, and pray for grace in the interstitial places, and give thanks that there is more watching over them than our weakling prayers." 

 (Tony Woodlief, in Somewhere More Holy)

Whenever I hear a person say that they don't plan to have children, at least not yet, and certainly not many, I cringe.  One of the best arguments for children is that you get to die to self.  You don't have to, of course, as you can determine as some (mostly men) do that they will go on with life just as always and let someone else handle them (a wife, day care, the TV), and yet only the hard hearted and habitually absent can avoid the character-shaping impact of a child.

I like the comment a friend of mine made several years ago as I picked him up to give him a ride to work. Obviously frustrated, I asked him what was wrong, and he said, "I can't ever do a damn thing I want to do." And that's right.  You can't, or at least it feels that way sometimes, and I would argue that you shouldn't be doing just as you want to and please to, not even if it is by mutual agreement with your spouse who also wants to do as they please.  Children are here for any number of reasons, but one major purpose they have is to expose what self-centered beings we really are and teach us to say "no" to ourselves.

This idea seems to be losing ground, as many think they can have it all, that is, have children, two careers, and do as they please, a kind of acculturated selfishness so built into society that it seems normal and anyone who says and does otherwise abnormal.  What an upside down world.  By saying no to ourselves we are really saying yes to being fully human, to being what God intended us to be, to being truly free from the passion of the moment.

I spent a couple of Summers working with orphans in Uganda.  They taught me a great deal, more than some college professors. They reminded me that I have no entitlement to personal time or space, that I have no right to time alone, that love --- even the pitiful love I had --- meant dying a thousand little deaths every day.  That I sometimes begrudged them my time, touch, or tenderness shamed me and made me a little more human, more the man God intended me to be.

You don't get over selfishness here, but look at it this way: in God's mercy, you're already dead to it, already wholly human.  We just need to do our best to catch up with Him --- to take hold, press on, fight on --- to say 'no" to ourselves, to die.

That does sound alien, doesn't it?

The Rest of Home

Pasture "This is the true nature of home.  It is the place of Peace, the shelter, not only from injury, but from all terror, doubt, and confusion."

(John Ruskin, 1856)

That so many people cannot believe in Heaven or, believing, cannot envision its nature, may be because the home that they grew up in bore no semblance of peace, was full of fear or confusion or doubt.  In short, it was more like Hell than Heaven, either in the evils perpetrated there or the very lack of which it stank.  There is no shortage of memoirs that tell of such homes, a plethora of films which record their ills.

The home in which I was reared was no such place. Whether as a child escaping neighborhood bullies, teenager on the short end of love, or college student confused and despairing of my options, home was a refuge for me, a place of acceptance no matter that I did not fit elsewhere, of comforting words when I was worn down by the relentless burdens of the world. I could even do wrong and still come home, my prodigal heart drawn to its peace.

At the age of five, I cut my two-year old sister's hair.  I received a sound spanking.  And yet still I  was served dinner that night, given a warm bed to sleep in, and kissed goodnight as if nothing had happened, all my sin covered over by a loving forgetfulness, as far as the east is from the west to my parents.

A year or so later, I set the top bunk bed in my room on fire playing with matches.  With my then three-year old sister on it.  My parents were drinking coffee in the kitchen.  I calmly told them that the bed was on fire.  My mother grabbed a wet dish rag (that's what we called them), beat the fire out, and then "beat the fire out of me."  Ouch.  And yet still I was given a warm bed to sleep in, a bowl of strawberries in sugar and milk, and kissed goodnight as if nothing had happened, though something had. O dish rag, where is your sting?

I grew up, of course, as did my younger sister, by God's grace unscathed, and came early to the conclusion that my home and all homes were imperfect, that my parents had feet of clay --- but still it was a place of peace, in its best moments a shadow of Heaven.  It wasn't just the rooms and halls and smells and furnishings of that place, of course, though they are indelibly imprinted in every memory, but the people tied to me by blood and commitment --- my mother, my father, my sisters.  That place is lost to me now as a place I can visit.  My father has long since gone Home.  My mother remembers me but can't remember what she did this morning or yesterday, still believes her long-departed mother is still in her home.  And when I visit my mother in her rest home (an old word I still prefer), despite her dementia and the institutional surroundings I am still in some sense coming home.  I shed all pretense, drop back to my natural speech, the language of home, and simply am a son with his mother, famous only for that fact, all of what I have and who I am and who I think I am irrelevant with her.

To disciples who believed that they might be left alone in the world, Jesus said "In my father's house are many rooms.  If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?  And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and take you to myself, that where I am you may be also" (Jn. 14:3-4a, ESV).  How comforting that he speaks of a home, of a house with rooms --- a tangible, physical reality, where we can enter into His rest, the rest of Home.

We can be thankful for whatever shadow of Heaven is granted us here, whether in the home in which we were reared or the home we now know or one we have brushed up against.  But if we were raised in one of those hellish homes, there is still this: "I go to prepare a place for you."  There may be no perfect home here, no lasting rest, but one day we'll sit down in a chair in our room in Heaven, put our feet up, look out the window, breathe a contented sigh, and survey a world more familiar and real than the one we have lived in and know without a shadow of doubt that we are Home.

I Did It for Love

SCAN0002 I don't much like old things.  I was hoping for a new attitude about them, a new sense of awe and wonder and curiosity, but when my wife and I went to the antiques extravaganza today, I hadn't changed,  I still don't old things.

"Honey, I'll make you a deal on that right there.  I don't wanna wrap it and take it home.  We'll even pay the sales tax."

I don't need to bring another thing in the house, and I sure don't need more kitsch. I know, I know. It's not all like that.  There's silver, china, furniture, ornaments, baby spoons, lamps, pottery, jewelry, and so on.  I just don't need it.

"Ma'am, I need that like I need another hole in the head, deal or not.  Thanks anyway."

I'm surrounded by useless inanimate objects. Once they had utility, once they meant something to someone, but now they are just for collecting, invested with no value, no utility.  Prim and proper elderly ladies sit behind counters, surrounded by cases and cases of memorabilia, only these things are now separated from their original owners, the value they once had, sentimental or otherwise, divorced from them. Customers peer over glasses at prices, examining buttons, old keys, charms, and so on, negotiating prices.

I did find a few books.  Moll Flanders.  Alice in Wonderland.  Madame Bovary.  The History of the United Netherlands.  The Poems of Francis Thompson. ("I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;/ I fled Him, down the arches of the years;/ I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways/ Of my own mind, and in the midst of tears/ I hid from Him, and under running laughter.")  "I pleaded, outlaw-wise, please free me from this antique extravaganza." I left the Hound with Madame Bovary, who may need the Hound of Heaven given her ways, and kept walking through the aisles.  In ten minutes, I had seen all I needed to see.

Just a bunch of old stuff.  These are not, after all, the vessels of gold and silver that Nebuchadnezzar had carried away from Jerusalem and which Cyrus sent back with the Israelites when he allowed the exiles to return (Ezra 1).  They are not revered historical documents, the Book of Kells, or some other antiquity. They are ordinary things that are old, that's all --- things which people like to collect.  Like some record collectors I have known, some of these people likely have a problem, are even obsessed with collecting. Imagine what their homes look like --- cluttered dens of useless antiquities.  What neuroses lurk in these aisles.  What hidden madness.

"Alice: But I don't want to go among mad people.

The Cat: Oh, you can't help that.  We're all mad here.  I'm mad.  You're mad.

Alice: How do you know I'm mad?

The Cat: You must be. Or you wouldn't have come here.

Alice: And how do you know that you're mad?

The Cat: To begin with, a dog's not mad. You grant that?

Alice: I suppose so.

The Cat: Well, then, you see, a dog growls when it's angry, and wags its tail when it's pleased. No I growl when I'm pleased, and wag my tail when I'm angry.  Therefore I'm mad."

You follow that?  I think I'll put Alice back on the  shelf in Stall # 24, right next to Moll Flanders.  

The snack concession just closed.  Curses.

I could read the first chapter of Madame Bovary.  I might blush, so I decline.  I lean back in my chair at the table just catty-cornered from Stall #14. 

I could just watch people.  Old people and old things.  And write, all over the program, the only paper I have, blue ink against pink paper, winding verse around the stalls and down the aisles.

I paid $7 for this.  Why you ask?  

I did it for love.  I'm mad about the girl.



"[T]ake comfort: as it was with Jesus, so it is with us today.  Trust and trustworthiness surround our lives. That which in the beginning granted us an infant peace is here yet again --- when we have been returned to helplessness. . . . If all my life, like Jesus's, is protected by the left hand and the right hand of God, why wouldn't I be able to speak peacefully of this terminal disease?" 

(Walter Wangerin, in Letters from the Land of Cancer)

I visited my mother in a nursing home last Friday.  When I arrived, the physical therapist was taking her to a group activity.  She and various other residents, all by all appearances over 85, were making smoothies --- you know, fruit drinks.  I listened in.

"Ms. Wilson, do you want to make a smoothie?"

"I can't swim."

"Ms. Wilson, we're not swimming, we're making a drink, a smoothie."

"I never touch the stuff."  She looked put out, shocked that someone would offer her a mixed drink.

What I enjoyed about the whole process was the way the women assisting the elderly folks asked them to do whatever they could do, assisting them where necessary but not trying to simply do it for them while they watched.  I had more than one laugh, not at their expense but in much the same way as we laugh at young children.

"What kind of fruit you want, Ms. Wilson?  You like strawberries?"


"Strawberries.  You like strawberries?"

"They'll do."

"How about blueberries?"

"Nope."  She pursed her lips.

The aide handed her a spoon and required her to pick up the strawberries, one by one, an excruciatingly slow process, as she dropped them about half the time or missed the cup.  And yet the aide was unfailingly patient.  

"Now, you want milk or orange juice?"

"Not milk."

"OK then, let's go over to the refrigerator and get the orange juice."  She helped Ms. Wilson stand up and, with her walker, slowly shuffle over to the refrigerator about ten feet away, open the door, and, with assistance, pick up the orange juice container.

"That don't look like orange juice."

"You're right."  It was a squarish container unlike any I had seen.

They helped her shuffle back to her chair.  Sitting down heavily, she exhaled loudly and closed her eyes.

"Let's let her rest.  Too much excitement."

Another elderly woman, who I was not introduced to, was sitting behind one of the aides.  She had a mischievous smile on her face.  Leaning forward she slapped one of the younger girls on the behind as she bent over the table.

"Too much hanging out there, Ms. Jones?

"Yeah, you needed that."

"I better keep my eye on you."

The aide roused Ms. Wilson and, with some difficulty, had her stand.

"We're gonna put our fruit in the blender now, Ms. Wilson.  Let's walk over there.  Come on."  After untangling her feet, Ms. Wilson moved toward the counter. "Now, take that cup of fruit and dump it in the blender."

"The what?"

"That thing right there.  We're gonna mix it all up."  Ms. Wilson dumped it in the blender.  "Now, push that button."  She guided her hand to the right button and Ms. Wilson pushed.  Nothing.  "Push it hard, now."  Ms. Wilson pushed again.

When the blender kicked in, it made a loud whirring noise.  It startled Ms. Jones.  She literally jumped out of her seat about three or four inches at the sound.  I don't think I've ever seen anyone actually elevate like that, like a startled cat.  Everyone laughed.

On the whole, being with these residents of the nursing home was much like being in a preschool class.  They enjoy the activities, some more than others.  They are asked to do whatever they can do but, just like toddlers, need assitance, get distracted, and tire easily.  They work and play alongside each other but mostly exist in their own world, not interacting much with each other.  They cannot live independently any longer and suffer the indignity of minds and bodies that won't function as they once did.

Yet what I sense in this home at least is that my mother and the other residents are treated as human beings, are valued and accorded dignity.  Though they do so, not many may still know why it is right to do so, but in essence we value the aged because of the Jewish and Christian belief, still to some extent embedded in our culture, that they are made in God's image and thus are to be valued in spite of their lack of utility.  Except for their need for health care, they are not important to our economy.  They do not consume much, so they are outside the market economy.  They cannot work, given failing bodies and minds.  There may come a time here when their caregivers and family have to fight for their right to treatment, when the attitude of doctors may be to just "let them die peacefully."  (That time has come in Europe.)  But not yet, and hopefully never.

Whenever I have seen my mother, she is dressed well, has makeup on, and is involved in something or has someone nearby attentive to her.  She is valued.  How we treat the aged is a measure of the character of our society.  If they become expendable because they cannot produce or consume, because they embarrass us or inconvenience us, then we will all lose our dignity.

As they are valued, I want to remind them --- remind my mother --- that the same Jesus who gave her peace as an infant (which, in a way, she is again), will give her peace now, when she has been returned to helplessness.  Away from their childhood and adult homes, in a place not of their choosing, a "rest" home, may they rest in Jesus.  And may we not forget.  After all, they are who we will be.

The Room of the World

Huge.46.232470While we can't pull back the cloak of eternity and peek behind the "In the beginning, God" of Genesis 1:1, to know all that God has been up to in an eternity past (if "past" is even a meaningful way to address the silence of that eternity), it is not all mystery.  If He is changeless --- if in fact his character is immutable --- then who He is as represented to us in Scripture is who He was even before Creation.  He was the same then as He is now as He will be in the future to come.  He is timeless and changeless.

What a comfort.

Everything else changes.

Yesterday we were blanketed with a nice snow, something not terribly common where I live.  Normal routines are upset, yet in a good way.  Time to clean house!  My wife and I braced ourselves, opened the door to our college-bound son's room (while he was out), and began trying to sift, save, salvage, and (serendipitously) share the memories of his 18 years.  It's all here.  Rare is it that he actually throws things away.  Things mean something to him, as they are visual reminders of interests, memories, and life, rooting him.  Not so in the room across the hall (sibling), where what matters is what is now, where possessions are expendable. 

Buried in a drawer is the carefully organized coin collection of his childhood, each compartment labeled in a child's handwriting, a one-time interest from which he has moved on.  There are Cub Scout Pinewood derby awards, pieces of paper with elaborate train and then aircraft designs, and scores of cassette tapes (that dates him), CDs, and books of stories.  We discovered unopened gifts from Christmas gone by, models, bead work, knitting paraphernalia, and more.  Underneath a pile of miscellany is a wooden desk we sometimes forget is the small desk at which he sat in childhood.  To work in his room is to discover a life, to see what interested him, what occupied his time.  It is to discover him.  And as he moves on with life, it's a comfort to know that the child he was he in essence remains, is what he is and will be --- that while he will grow and mature, he will not, even for eternity, be someone else, be someone we do not recognize.   Coming to faith, we may be new creations thank God but, in the end, we are not different persons --- the essence of our personality, as deep and mysterious as that might be, remains, even for eternity.

What a comfort.

Everything else changes.

Cleaning that room yesterday was an exercise of stewardly care for what my son imagined, created, and did for 18 years.  I might not have said it then, but ask me now and I might say, in the words of Genesis 2:15, that I was tilling and keeping creation --- his creation, the room of his world, the outpouring of his life.  I had no right to destroy anything, just rearrange, properly care for, and take care of what he had. OK, so I did throw away the broken plastic airplane, an agonizing decision that had to be made jointly by my wife and I.  But mostly, we need to ask him about what we do, do our best to cultivate the life he gave the room, and help it be a place that becomes more of what he already is.  Rightly understood, we're making it a place that better glorifies him, not in the sense that we worship him or stroke his ego, but in the sense that it better reflects the person God made him to be.

Never knew people could think so deeply about cleaning a room, did you?  It was a snow day.  I had time on my hands.  Idle thoughts are fertile ground for philosophizing, you know.

Sometimes we act as if we own the world. We don't.  The bright red cardinal that just landed on the snow outside my window was dreamed up by God, created for His glory, and exists to glorify him, to, if nothing else, be enjoyed by him.  The snow that fell has been a beautiful playground for many kids and even many more adults.  But it's enough that He enjoyed it.  Everything matters like that.  It's His stuff, not ours.  We can enjoy it, stand in awe at the mind that dreamed it up and molded and shaped it, grumble at its messiness and the clutter of a Person who never stops imagining, creating, recreating, tearing down, preserving, scribbling, drawing, and telling us. . . telling us every day that He loves the world, that He loves what he made, and who will one day put all things right --- will rearrange, reorder, renew, and even resurrect it all.  It is, after all, His room.

What a comfort.

But my son is not Him, of course, is good but not all good like Him, naturally, and this room is not the world, after all, so full of distractions and half-realized or poorly-tended creations.  Right now, I need to know what to do with all these old baseball cards, this book full of cut outs of vacuum cleaners (an old fascination), and the rock polishing set, for starters. I haven't even dared look under the bed.

Everything changes, but not my son, and certainly not God.  They're timeless, eternal.  And while my son's room just gets bigger next year along with his dreams, his creations, and his messes, the One who dreamed him up will just keep remaking him into more of who he really is or is meant to be, into more my son.

And that really is a comfort to me. Today, looking around his cluttered room, that gives me hope --- for his room and the room of this world.

The Like In His Love

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

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

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

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

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

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


Campfire400Today we delivered my daughter to overnight camp.  She's been looking forward to it for days, counting down the hours even, bubbling over with excitement.  Today, as we turned into the wooded entrance to the camp, she rolled down her window and said "Smell that air! Isn't it great?"  Well, no, I wouldn't say that.  It's hot, humid, and dusty, and the idea of a week in an unairconditioned cabin sounds horrible to me.  It's not relevant to her, though.

We'll miss her.  We pass by her empty bedroom and sigh.  There's an empty place here, a voice we don't hear, hugs we don't receive -- for a week that is.  We write her everyday.  We talk about her, pray for her, wonder what she's doing now, this minute.  Contrast this with her attitude about this separation.  I asked her if she'd miss us.  She thought about it for, well, maybe a second, and somewhat apologetically said she wouldn't, at least not much.  She said she'd be too busy.  We said we'd write.  She said she'd write, once, maybe.  Well, last Summer we wrote every day.  We received one postcard from her with two sentences.  That's how it goes.

This is foreign.  The two summers I went to camp you would have thought I was going to prison.  I cried before I went, plead with my parents to let me stay home, and when they dropped me at camp I looked longingly at their car driving away.  I just know I was the last to go to sleep in my cabin, every night, as I lay there wondering what was happening at home.  Oh, I got on with it, but in the corner of my mind, ever-present, was my dream of home, of leaving this place, this sorry camp.

It has bothered me that my daughter doesn't miss us, at least not much, until today when I made my peace with that.  For whatever reason, I think God left the "missing" part out of her.  He has his reasons.  Maybe she needs to do things that will require her to travel, to be away for long periods of time.  Maybe this frees her to move in the world with freedom, untethered by homesickness and roots like some of us.  It has it's down side, sure -- she may never know the deep love of place and community that us home-bound people may, that connectiveness, but perhaps she will be able to do things we cannot.

Only one thing I pray: that she'll develop a homesickness for Heaven.  And maybe, just maybe, she'll miss her Dad and Mom and brother a little bit too while she's out there with the people, living, enjoying it all.

Cousins From Another Planet

When I think of the 1992 movie My Cousin Vinny, I almost laugh out loud.  It was that funny.  Here's the plot:  While heading for college, teenagers Bill and Stan are arrested in Alabama under circumstances that point to them as having murdered a convenience store clerk. Unable to afford an attorney, they turn to Bill's cousin Vinny (played by Joe Pesci), a brash New Yorker who took six tries to pass his bar exam. Worse, until now he's only taken personal injury cases, none of which have gone to trial.  He has an even more abrasive fiancee Mona Lisa Vito, Vinny will have to straighten up fast, and keep out of jail himself, if he's going to win the case.  Vinny's a cousin, kin, and kin come to the rescue of family, right?  Yes, much to Bill and Stan's chagrin.  Vinny's the cousin from hell, but he redeems himself after all.

I thought of Vinny recently when I read Anthony Esolen's short article, "Dozens of Cousins," in the latest issue of Touchstone magazine.  Esolen laments the loss of extended family, of ties to anyone beyond the immediate family, the nuclear family.  He's talking about "those strange people called cousins, strange and familiar at once, whose blood -- nay, whose noses -- exert a powerful claim on your duty and who, in their numbers and their crazy variety and their blissful being-themselves, place you within a community whether you like it or not and remind you that you are not the most important person in the world."  I'll say.

Growing up I had something like eight cousins that I saw much of, and all of them were on my mother's side.  They all had their disagreeable propensities, were brats at one time or the other, played nice at other times, but regardless of how we got along, we knew we'd see them again and we'd better make up if we fought.  You see, we were family, in some weird way, even though I couldn't imagine that we were in the same bloodline at all.  I suspect Stan wondered that about Vinny, accepted his help (had to) and put up with his outrageous character -- because he was his cousin, he was family.  You don't have a choice.

As Esolen says: "A cousin always has to choose you to play on his team, though he doesn't necessarily have to choose you first; you can waltz into your cousin's house and ask to use the bathroom or get a drink of orange juice; you can just show up unannounced and pester him into a game of rummy.  Some kids find it hard to make friends, but a cousin has to like you even if he doesn't like you, and he comes readymade."  Cousins know stuff, private information, like what a nerd you were as a kid, how you cried all the time when things didn't go your way.  But that's OK, because you have information too.  Thus, we are bound together in our secrets.

We're told life is better when we have more choices, and that even extends to family.  So many people have no extended family ties, having burned those bridges long ago or never even bothered with them.  But expanding choice is not always a social good.  It's good to be plopped down in an extended family that you did not choose and be forced to deal with them.  Grow up to be a dignified attorney, and they'll remember the undignified moment when you got your pants caught on the barb wire fence running from Mr. Crumbie's strawberry patch.

You know, to be honest, I don't have a single cousin that isn't a little strange.  But it's OK -- I'm sure they feel that way about me too.  I like it that way.  You see, they're my cousins: I have to like them.  It's good for me.