Comfort Across the Ages

GiudgeAll day it seems I have been waiting until the respite when I can sit with book in hand and read. I had two such interludes of 15 minutes each; the reading was electric, a book entitled The Age of Edison: Electric Light and the Invention of Modern America. As I have lingering cough from a cold, the distraction of reading takes my mind off the tickle in my throat and discomfort of giving in.

Reading is respite, medicinal. In a 1964 anthology I discovered in my mother’s library, entitled A Book of Comfort, Elizabeth Goudge collects scripture, poems, and bits of prose and wisdom literature. Grudge, who died in 1984, was an English author and Christian well known for her 1946 fantasy The Little White Horse, a book that J.K. Rowling identified as a direct influence on the Harry Potter series. The title itself invites. In her preface, Goudge says

“The sources of our comfort are legion, and cannot be counted, but if we attempted the impossible and tried to make a list most of us would place books very high indeed, perhaps second only to faith, for reading is not only a pleasure in itself, with its concomitants of stillness, quietness and forgetfulness of self, but in what we read many of our other comforts are present with us like reflections seen in a mirror. If the light of our faith flickers we can make it steady again by reading of the faith of the saints, and hearing poetry sing to us the songs of the lovers of God. In the absence of children we can read about them, and in the cold and darkness of midwinter, look in the mirror of our book and see flowers and butterflies, and spring passing into he glow and warmth of summer.”

Stillness. Quietness. Forgetfulness of self. Those words seem alien to our time. I know only two ways to ways to cultivate such qualities: prayer and reading. It is a symptom of our time that on a weekend day I managed not more than 30 minutes of both such disciplines.

IMG_4188I don’t know if my mother read much of the book. Thumbing through the pages, they retain a stiffness that suggests she didn’t, that perhaps it wasn’t to her taste. But between pages 92 and 93 — perhaps where her persistence flagged — I found a handmade card to me from my Sunday school class, signed by Elizabeth, Wayne, David, Sherrie, Carla, Terrie, and Mrs. Hendren, enjoining me to “get well in one or two days.”

Having a cold, I needed that well-wish across a half-century as if yesterday. Comforted, I place the card back in the book, between pages 92 and 93. I may need it later.


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.


This is as good a time as any to talk about gunpowder. I confess, as a kid I loved it. One early memory is of igniting caps by banging them with a hammer in my driveway, or lighting a string of them with matches. Then, I graduated to firecrackers, about which there was a significant black market on our street. One kid always had M-80s (big firecrackers), and for the right price you could trade up, you know, like ten regular firecrackers for one whoppin’ big one. I guess he was kind of like a pusher, a drug dealer, except he peddled illegal fireworks, and we were moving up the chain to the big pops. His name was. . . well. . . let’s call him Big Eric. That fits.

We put firecrackers everywhere. In sidewalk cracks. Anthills (I’m sorry.) Under cars, in the house (seriously), in drainage pipes, down manholes, up gutters. Bottle rockets we held in our hand, lit and tossed in the air. Put them in soda bottles and fired them at each other. Shot them up drainage pipes under homes. Tied them to our bikes. In my neighborhood, it was like the 4th of July all summer long. Until the gunpowder gave out.

Once, following instructions from Big Eric, I emptied several firecrackers of their powder, enough to fill an ink cap, put a fuse in it, and sealed it with paraffin wax. I lit it. In the house. That cured me. I no longer love gunpowder. I still have all ten digits, but I don’t recommend it.

Big Eric moved away after third grade. I bet he joined the Army and worked in munitions.

Happy 4th. Be careful out there.

Guardian of the Galaxy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Telling our Stories, Again and Again

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

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

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

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

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

Dropping a Pin

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

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

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

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

The Skin of Suburbia

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

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

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

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

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

A Story of Grace

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


In college I had a friend named Adrian. Adrian was a believer in Jesus and yet his artistic temperment made him a bit eccentric, even socially awkward at times. He was an actor, a U2 fan when they were just a little Irish band, and a deep thinker who was a generous if honest critic of some of my earliest public writing (generally, longish letters to the editor). He was also prone to finding female companionship via the classifieds in The Spectator a/k/a "white male seeking white female" (this was prior to internet dating), which seemed a little risky to me, a little “out there,” or, in today’s parlance, creepy (and, I might say, largely disastrous), had poor hygiene (he lived alone, save for an equally sloven cat), and chewed food with his mouth open. I avoided meals.  But I loved him because he was generally kind, thoughtful, witty, full of grace, and a good writer though sometimes appropriately morose (which was fitting for an artist).

Once, he invited us to a university production of Hair. In the last scene, of course (I say, of course, but in my naivety I did not know it), the entire cast, for one inglorious moment, appear fully nude. That night we saw too much of Adrian and avoided his productions in the future save for one obtuse vignette that he assured me had no nudity (though, just prior to performance, he warned had quite a bit of language). Nevertheless, for a time, he provoked me well with his trenchant observations on life and his very public witness to faith via his student newspaper column.

Adrian wasn't a stereotypical Christian. I suspect he’s still unmarried, banging away on his typewriter in a decaying apartment building, and living alone with a cat. I can’t see him otherwise, don't have a category for a 60-ish Adrian. Twenty-five years on, I often wonder about him. Hearing the rousing opening of “I Will Follow,” Bono’s anthem of belief, I wonder if he still follows. I hope so.

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.

Slackers in Need of Grace

When I was 14 I got my first real job working as a "stock boy" in a local department store. It was an all-male crew, and we were a bunch of pimply-faced adolescents with a horizon no farther than the next pretty girl. Trucks carrying lawn furniture, mattresses, box springs, housewares, toys, and other stock would roll to the curb outside Receiving, and we'd hoist much of it on our skinny shoulders and carry it in past the bird-like and bespectacled Edna and her gaggle of female clerks. It was backbreaking work sometimes, but when you are 14 its a matter of your manhood and, besides, "backbreaking" is a middle-aged term and not one for adolescents.

We worked hard, as I said, sometimes, and Scott and Billy, all the time. Billy, an ox of a kid, wore green army fatigues, a white t-shirt, and a rope for a belt every day, like Jethro Bodean. Billy was generally good-natured if dim, unless a comment struck him wrong, and you never knew what would set him off, yet Scott could yank his chain and restrain him. Billy would say something profound every now and then, like cotton-patch proverbs, usually prefaced with “My daddy said. . .”, but I was blind and deaf then and couldn’t appreciate what I heard. Scott sauntered like the body-builder he wasn’t. He rolled his t-shirt up to hold a pack of cigarettes, Fonzi-style, only he was decidedly uncool, his machismo no doubt a mask for some deficiency we'd learn about later in Psych 101. He liked me, perhaps felt sorry for me, under-muscled wimp that I was.

The main form of humor for Scott and Billy was bodily noises, jokes of which they never seemed to tire. We tired of their labor. They carried boxes of chairs on their backs and seemed delighted when trucks would roll in. There was little slack in Scott and Billy. They worked hard all the time. The rest of us talked to girls, laid around in the stockroom drinking Cokes, hid from the bosses, and tried out new recliners, doing our best to do as little as possible, minimum effort for minimum pay. At the end of the day however, we punched the clock and all pulled the same number of hours, and at the end of the week received the same paycheck that Billy and Scott received. It doesn't seem fair, considering what slackers we were. We received what we didn't deserve.

In the parable of the Workers in the Vineyards, a landowner hires men in the morning and puts them to work, and then hires more later, and then yet more near day’s end. Some worked all day, some half a day, and others perhaps only a couple of hours. Theoretically, it wouldn’t have mattered if one worked only five minutes. In the upside-down economy of Jesus, all the workers were paid the same thing, as if they had worked all day. In this most un-American story, Jesus draws a picture of a countercultural realm where we don't get what we deserve, where a just-now believing thief on the cross inherits the kingdom of Heaven just like the most faithful of disciples, where, slacker that I am, I punch in to Heaven same as Billy Graham and Mother Teresa.

Pastor David Zahl describes it this way:

"Christ paints a portrait of a kingdom where reward is not a matter of output or merit but grace, where we are valued according to our presence rather than our accomplishment, where all the boss seems to require of his workers is their need. . . . What we learn is what we never quite learn, the message that is as bottomless as our need for it: God does not relate to us on the basis of our results, or of how well we stack up against others, but on the largeness of his generosity, the gift of his Son, who 'by his one oblation of himself offered a full, perfect and sufficient sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world."

But in the kingdom of this world, of course, grace is limited, meted out as it is by fallible humans, and so sometime in my second year of employment, I was canned. The assistant manager, Mr. Smith, let me go one day, and I drove home feeling dejected and friendless, as all my peers worked at the store. Looking back on it, I was living on cheap grace, and I endured a season of discipline. Only to return. My good friends father, who was senior assistant manager, re-hired me. Lesson learned. A turning. Call it repentance.

I didn't become a star employee. Not long after, I backed the delivery van into a house, chipping a brick and mangling the doors. We dropped and damaged a new sleeper sofa we were trying to fit into a double-wide, and Robby and I, huffing and puffing and sweating, with an angry owner and a bulldog straining at its chain, learned some new ways to curse. Buffing the floors one night I carelessly let a floor stripper (the machine, not the dancer) ram a display cabinet and damage some merchandise. But I learned to flip burgers in the snack bar, ring up customers, put up stock, and clean toilets (when Leroy the janitor was on a binge), and I spent a lot of time in Accessories and Sportswear talking to women, many the age of my mother or older, and I learned something about working and standing on your feet all day and raising kids and being faithful. In that forgiving place, slacker that I was, I grew up a little.

I now know it by another name: Sanctification. That ever-deepening realization that is rooted in the fact that I am getting what I don't deserve, that my need for Jesus is getting bigger every day, that the best work I do is resting on the perfect work He has done.

And Scott? A voice crying in the wilderness, like John the Baptist in redneck garb, standing outside Receiving, cigarette in tow, challenging me to repent of my lackadaisical ways and work a little harder, so I can fail even more, so that I can realize my deep, deep need of Jesus who forever employs and never lets go.

The One Jesus Loves

When you first meet someone, she might ask, “Who are you?”

And you might say, “Well I’m So-and-So. And I’m very good at this thing and that thing and here’s where I live and this is my family and —“

But do you know who God says you are?

The one Jesus loves.

(“Who Are You?,” from Thoughts To Make Your Heart Sing, by Sally Lloyd Jones and Jago)

When I was a very young child — oh say pre-school — I didn’t think much about questions like “who am I.” I wasn’t philosophical. That changed of course when school started and self-awareness set in. I wasn’t smart, I would say, but not dumb. I was no good at sports, I’d say, but at least not the worst. I was musical, but as that wasn’t so cool, I kept it to myself. I wrote things and read books, but you don’t score any points with girls or guys at the younger ages with such interests, so that too I kept close.

In sixth grade my friend Bobby and I dressed up (well, our mothers helped us dress) and went to our first dance at General Greene Elementary School, which was a pleasant old-style school: single-level, no air conditioning, with classrooms that had big windows you could fling over to let air flow and even doors that opened on the outdoors and through which we cascaded at recess. The dance was in the cafeteria. I’m not sure what we were thinking, but I suspect we had some unstated hope that a girl might dance with us. That didn’t happen. We stood around a while and left, as I recall, made light of the whole dumb affair. Walked home. Who needs girls? So add to my identity that I was musical, read a lot, wrote some things, was relatively bad at sports, and now, wonder of wonders, had no girlfriend. But I did have one good friend, a Mom, and a Dad, and you can go a long way on that.

By ninth grade, things were pretty well sorted out. If you did Google Earth on the patio where we congregated after lunch at Kaiser Junior High School, you would have seen perhaps four nodes of activity — the cool people (made up of guys and girls, the popular ones), the jocks (which intersected with the cool people at certain times), the freaks (long hair, spaced out, weird), the rejects (oddities, either deemed unattractive, uncool, or just creepy), and the musically obsessed (a grouping defined by conversation about music and toting of LPs, and sometimes intersecting with the freaks and the language of which was completely foreign to the cool people). So, now I had identity: I was musically obsessed. I had found my tribe. My membership card was an LP tucked under my arm, banding about names like Jethro Tull, The Who, Yes, and even Blind Faith or Audience, known almost exclusively to the insiders. My identity seemed settled to my adolescent mind.

That same year, however, I became the kid whose Dad had died. I didn’t know anyone my age whose Dad had died. For that matter, I don’t think I knew anyone whose parents had divorced. These things were uncommon. I remember going back to school after that and thinking how weird it was to be walking around as the kid whose Dad had died. No one really talked to me about that. But my friends did. I had two good friends by then. You can go a long way on two good friends. It begins to matter a little less who you think you are.

Nowadays, of course, I am husband, father, elder, attorney, writer, and so on. I like to think I am thoughtful, reasonably intelligent, and articulate, and sometimes I am. I’m still no good at sports, girls don’t matter (except one), and I remain musically obsessed (but not as bad as that guy, I opine). I still don’t like to ask questions, make phone calls, raise my hand in class, or dance. But I am more settled into Me, that what I do and where I live and who I know aren’t - as important as they are - the basis of who I am.

I am the one Jesus loves.

You can go a long way on that.

I have to keep telling myself that.

You Get Bigger As You Go

"When one breaks camp in the morning, he turns back again and again to see what he has left. Surely he feels he has forgotten something: what is it? But it is only his sad thoughts and musings he has left, the fragment of his life he has lived there. Where he hung his coat on the tree, where he slept on the boughs, where he made his coffee or broiled his trout over the coals, where he drank again and again at the little brown pool in the spring run, where he looked long and long up into the whispering branches overhead, he has left what he cannot bring with him, - the flame and the ashes of himself."   

(John Burroughs)

Some people seem to have no attachment to place. They float over the crust of the earth, dipping a toe in here and there, and yet when they move on it is as if that other place never existed, is forgotten, and they are free to begin again in the place in which they find themselves. I had a neighbor like that once who, in a brief conversation, said to me that she thought she would just move to this or that town, start over, as if she were deciding where to have dinner out that night, an easy decision when you are unmoored.

I can't do that, wouldn't want to do that. I left a little piece of myself everywhere I lived. And I don't want to lose any of it.

In the first 18 years of my life, I lived in two houses, one in a post-WWII suburb of cookie-cutter frame houses on a street with the Fifties name of Idlewood. The next was on Surry, in a neighborhood of colonial style homes, unfenced backyards, station wagons and Oldsmobiles. In the next seven years, I lived in eight different places - dorms, apartments, condominiums, and even my in-laws, etching memories into the walls of them all. In the last 30 years, I have lived in one house, and its hallways and rooms are deeply furrowed with memories, with conversations, with joys and sorrows.

My workplace has also been full of leavings. In the building where I have always worked, I have had at least 11 different offices in 30 years, on every side of the building, overlooking a courtyard, a heat-soaked roof, the city skyline, and the trees of a residential area. Sometimes I walk past a former office and look in on a younger person there and see myself, hear some almost forgotten conversation I had there, still hanging in the air, remember laughing with a former colleague, praying for a co-worker there. Such memories provoke thankfulness and a sense of fullness.

I confess to a bit of sadness at the loss of these places and times. Yet it's not usually nostalgia I feel when I remember, nor some vague sentimentalism. I don't idealize the past I remember, as remembrance is skewed by the present. But I do miss it like you might miss a distant relative. Sometimes, I try to return: I put my hand on the screen door of my childhood home, open it, and go inside. I walk down the hall and turn into my bedroom. What am I looking for? I'm not sure. I guess I'm looking for me, for the fragments of the me left behind.

In the latest issue of The Mockingbird, Ethan Richardson leads off an issue devoted to identity by noting the difficulty of perceiving ourselves rightly. He addresses what is called the End-of-History Illusion, which is "our tendency to believe, contrary to past evidence, that who we are now is who we will continue to be forever," which is, obviously, false. He points to Henri Nouwen's embrace of the "unadorned self in which I am completely vulnerable, open to receive and give love regardless of any accomplishments," a self emptied of self, one perhaps captured in John the Baptist's statement in light of Jesus' coming that "He must increase, but I must decrease" (Jn. 3.30).

But I think there's more to it than a shrinking of self. When Paul said that "if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation" (2 Cor. 5:17), what he points to is a new identity that we are growing up into, a re-identity, a becoming who were were intended to be all along. In light of Christ, we decrease, yes, but only as we increase and grow more into the people we were intended to be all along. All those fragments of me that I left behind, the sum total of all that I experienced and all that I thought of myself all become a part of the Me that He is re-creating, one just a little lower than the angels (Ps. 8:5). Bruce Cockburn said it in a song: "You get bigger as you go/ No one told me - I just know/ Bales of memory like boats in tow."

Underneath the melancholy of remembrance lies joy. One day, the Author of Life will gather up all the fragments I left behind, all the little bits of me, and put me back together again, redeeming and remaking all those bales of memory. When I break camp and turn back on that day, everything will be there, never to be left again. None of it is lost to flame and ashes. Every bit of it will be redeemed and become a part of the Me in Him.

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.


So You Want To Be a Rock 'n' Roll Star?

220px-TheByrdsSoYouWantToBeARocknRollStarWhen I was young I wanted to operate the midway at the fair. I sat in church next to my Dad and drew intricate layouts of the midway during the sermon, checking my dad's watch regularly to see if the big hand was on 12 noon yet. I can still feel the paper and my Dad’s fountain pen in my hand, see the faded watch face, hear the pastor’s words in the background. I thought I had found my calling.

As a teenager I settled on the more “realistic” goal of being a rock and roll star. My friends John, Bobby, and I formed a short-lived band. In fact, it might only have existed for a couple days, and mostly in my dreams, encouraged by a bedroom lined with posters of The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, and Yes. I wielded my late father's Gibson Les Paul Junior, a smallish electric guitar with a sunburst finish, which, combined with a ragged portable tube amp, produced wonderfully fuzzy, distorted sound as I whacked my way through "25 or 6 to 4," that great Chicago song. We stunk, really, and John's Dad, who actually was the drummer in a jazz trio, said I shouldn't give up the day job. Sage advice. We recruited fellow ninth-grader Wade, who we regarded as an authentic musician. Wade had shoulder-length hair, appropriately lazy hippie-speak, and walked over to John’s house, his “axe” (bass) slung on his back. After he heard a couple songs, he promptly left, shaking his head, and we quit the band, dejected.

As I moved toward college, after a semester in Mr. Darnell's technical drafting class, where he spent more time in wide-eyed discussions of extra-sensory perception and the mind-over-matter feats of Uri Geller (who slept in a pyramid) than in learning about drafting. I nevertheless decided I'd be an architect. However, I was not admitted to the School of Design. (But ask me anything about Uri Geller.) Then I declared a major in computer science. Nearly flunked out of that, staying up to all hours of the night or all night typing out punch cards and submitting them to the main frame computer which laughed and kicked them back to me. I switched to Sociology which, honestly, was a cake walk but without prospective employment. So I took up Social Studies education. One semester as a middle school teacher's aide cured me. I decided to go to law school.

So, you might say law was a last resort. I never even knew a lawyer before law school. I had seen Perry Mason, but that's about all I knew about the law.  (Well, I confess, I was picked up by cops for throwing rocks at a street sign once, but perhaps I shouldn't count that.)  I’m a case study of how one can fumble through school, majoring in everything and nothing, and yet, providentially, God planted me in a good place. 

I just wanted be a rock and roll star. In my weaker moments, I still do, kind of.

And yet it isn't given to many of us to have an exotic calling like that. Most of us work in ordinary jobs doing ordinary things which sometimes, by God's holy alchemy, come to extraordinary ends: some justice, some good, some beauty, some little light in the shadowlands of life. "Attempt great things for God," said William Carey. Or perhaps, as Frederick Buechner said, our "vocation is the place where our deep gladness meets the world's deep need?" No, all that’s all too grand, too world-saving. No, for most of us it's a regular persistence in works of small and regular obedience, of faithfulness in the little lives we lead in the little places where we live. Of love for the people and place in which we are planted.

In other words, to turn an oft stated maxim on its head: go small, and stay home, and you get to shine like a star anyway (Phil. 2:15). Don't worry too much about that big thing God may call you to do.  Just do the thing in front of you. Besides, having known a few, I can say that being a rock and roll star is not what it’s cracked up to be.

Like I said, I became a lawyer.  Bobby became an accountant.  John reached for the stars and became. . . a weatherman.

And all that's just fine. 25 or 6 to 4.

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.  


My Little Mid-Life Crisis

I recently bought my daughter a cool blue 2005 Mini Cooper SE Convertible. It's hot.  Really hot.  When she leaves for college in August, I'm going to drive it.  Yes I am.  I've been thinking about this: I want to practice jumping in the drivers seat and screeching out without opening the door.  I've seen it done in the movies.  It may be anatomically difficult, and I may injure myself, perhaps irreparably, but it goes with the turf.  You see, I gotta get myself a little mid-life crisis.

My crisis is I never had a mid-life crisis, and I wonder what I'm missing.  Clothes? Same old, same old. Hair? Less.  Same house, same job, same church, same wife (yes, honey) and so on.  But I love all those things.  What to do?  I figure I can kick-start the process with a supped up car.  Right?

It takes me back, way back.  My first car was the gold '72 Camaro I bought in 1974.  Oh yeah.  I went right from dirt bike to a "What you got under that hood a 350 V-8?" Camaro. And I was dangerous.  I'd crank up the 8-Track of Led Zeppelin and let it go.  The night I turned 16 my friend (who was a whopping three months older and had his license) and I drove all night over four counties.  Just because we could.  9 mpg.  Gas at $.32.  So, I guess I had my mid-life crisis at 16.

I want to drive top down.  Play Fountains of Wayne.  Get an attitude.  Drive between the pumps at gas stations.  Parallel park in spaces the size of my inbox.  Connect.  Chat with the drivers at stoplights. Wear 24/7 sunglasses. Out there.  You gotta get out there.  Try out extroversion, see if it's all they say it is. Stop listening to myself think all the time.  Play "Traffic and Weather," by Fountains of Wayne, with their frothy attitude and roadside hipness.  Turn it up.

When my daughter leaves home, I'll cruise the high school lots, hang out in her favorite coffee-shop, trace her absence all over the place.  Even listen to her music.  The Blend.  Sirius 20 on 20.  Summon up her smile, her wit, and her 18-year old life in the present tense.  Existential.

I'll drive her car to work, to lunch, to get ice cream, to the mall, to church.  I'll hang out in parking lots.  I'll do nothing.  I'll post statuses like "what's up i'm in my car eating at taco bell how about you?" or send pithy or inane or innocuous 140 character text messages to other people who like to send 140 character text messages.  Because that's just how they do it.  Stay connected.  Watch YouTube silly videos, because she did.  Drive just to drive and on cool nights leave the top down and turn the heat up high.  I'll drive downtown and think of all the conversations we had and all the things "dad you don't understand" and the accomplishment of getting her to laugh at a dumb joke and her hair blowing in the wind.  The same wind that blows across her midwest college town.  The same wind.

And about October, when it's too much, I'll hit I-40 and head due west, her mother and I, queue up a playlist of oh about 400 of my favorite songs, and watch the miles pass.  24 hours.  16 to 17 songs per hour.  400 songs.  Lots of sun and wind and particulate matter.  Truckers butting each other to establish dominance, says Bruce Cockburn.  Rumours of Glory.  Plenty of time.  Tick off the states --- Tennessee, Arkansas, Missouri --- and cross the "miss the mississippi and you" and somewhere out on those Great Plains, amongst the tallgrass and wobbly cowboys, east of the Pecos and West of the Ozarks, I'll find her.

Nope.  Nope.  Probably just stay right here.  Drive her Mini.  Touch up our empty nest.  Practice the rest of life.  Decorate her absence with memory.  Write letters.  Read melancholy poetry.  Wash the Mini.  Pray hard.  Live life.  Let go.

And miss her.

I'll miss her.

And when Christmas comes and she returns, soaked in independence, with new vocabulary and a midwest-tinged plain-speak, with stored up life that I missed because she was there and we were here. . . well, so she can have the Mini SE Convertible back, because it suits her and I'm tired of being beat to death by the wind and riding on the ground, numb in my posterior.  I had my little mid-life crisis.  I'll be over it.  But I'll never, never get over her.  I won't. We're like "traffic and weather."  We just go together.

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.



Being Historically Minded

Frustrated with learning some perhaps arcane details of American history, my daughter once opined that she didn't like history, that history was dumb.  I said sure you like history.  She said no, I don't.  I asked her how, when she left the kitchen table, she would find her way back down the hall, up the stairs, and into her room.  She said because she remembered going there, of course.  I said see, you like history.  That's different, she said.  I said no it's not.  Stop it, she said.  Well, I guess I need to learn to let frustration, irrational as it may be, have its moment in peace, put reason in recess.

We are all historians.  We have to be.

Today, I took off my shoes, walked down the hall from the condo where we are having a short vacation, entered the elevator, pressed G, exited, walked past the pool, pushed open the gate to the beach, and eased into the sand of the dune, and then, cresting the dune, walking right, right on down the beach.  I know this way.  I could probably walk it in my sleep.  I remember.

One writer I read today said that "it's not the places or things themselves that are important; it's the memories they represent."  Nonsense.  This place came long before me and will exist long after me.  It was good before our race was given it.  God said so.  It may be imbued with deeper meaning because of me, because of all who have come here, but it gave God pleasure long before we came on the scene.  It was good.  The meaning of the place is, in the end, a mystery.  God looked and saw it in a way so much deeper than we will ever see it --- every grain of sand, every creature in the swirling deep --- and He knew it as good in a fuller sense than we can ever know.  It doesn't need me in order to mean something.

Consider for a moment the long (indeed infinite) memory of the Creator, if indeed, being timeless he is not in all times at all time.  (Did I just say what I think I said?  I'm not sure I understand what I said.)  That is, when The Psalmist asks God to "remember," when Abraham reminds him of his covenant with Israel, it is an audacious thing for the creature to speak so boldly to the Maker of history.  Sure, He remembers.

Still, God has assigned us all the vocation of remembering --- of cultivating and seeding the living present with the knowledge of a dead past so that we remember who we are, how we got here, and how we get home.  Not only that, we live in a community --- a family, church, region, state, and nation --- that is animated by a collective memory, a myth, if you will.  Better yet, and rightly viewed, a true myth: the myth of creation, fall, redemption, and resurrection --- hallmarks of the Gospel, the end of all time.

Now, do you remember how to get to your room?  Do you remember how to get home?  Do you remember who you are?  That's history, and it's not dumb.  History speaks to us everyday.

Historian Jay Green says that while the historical profession has an important role to play in faithfully (if imperfectly) reconstructing the past, "the calling to think and act in historically minded ways is a more broadly human assignment."  It is for the Christian, he says, an "indispensable category of faithfulness."

We are made for remembering.  I remember I am but dust.  I am a crooked stick.  I have gone wrong and have continually veered off course.  I forget who I am.  But He remembers all that, and lifts me up out of miry clay, and calls me blessed, a little lower than angels.  If he remembers every grain of sand I walk on today, how much more He remembers me.

My daughter actually is a great historian, a master of my personal and family history of sometimes stupid jokes, unfullfilled promises, and little embarassments.  And yet, like the One who made her, she is gracious and chooses to forget my transgressions.  Well, mostly.  (For that matter, my whole family does.)  And yet her anti-history, her forgetfulness, is a reminder of God's perfect forgetfulness of my sin.  He sees past, present, and future through the Cross, and He forgets my wrong.  Perfectly forgets. Deliberately forgets.

Thank God.



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.




"I should be able to describe a patch of ground so faithfully that you would know it if you came upon it. . . and could traverse it if you had to, with no hazard to your life.  To do less for the interior landscape of a woman or man or child, or the pitfalls the world presents to them, is irresponsible."

(Larry Woiwode, in "Homeplace: Heaven or Hell," collected in Words Made Fresh)

Elsewhere Woiwode writes that writers "should expect to give an account, according to a teaching of Jesus, for every idle word that comes out of our mouths" (his emphasis).  It makes you want to stop writing, for that matter, when you begin to think of the responsibility attached to words --- for that matter, stop preaching, stop teaching, stop talking.  In an economy where words are cheap, where expression is profligate, Woiwide's scary words are a good wake up call to responsibility, and I am convicted.

Until I was about four I lived in a small, one story, cookie cutter house in a Greensboro suburb thrown up in the boom following World War II.  There was a patch of rutted grass in the front and a small hill, and then another patch of fescue and crabgrass and dandelions in the back, and then another hill, with a chain link fence at our property line and a swimming pool manufacturer on the other side.  I looked longingly through that fence at a concrete-lined and empty demonstration pool.  The fence represented the edge of my world; the pool, adventure.  I could not leave my yard, play in the street, go unescorted to a neighbor's house.  My life was bounded, carefully controlled, limited by loving parents who held me responsible for where my feet took me.  That was my patch of ground.  It was a topography shaped by love.  It was a frame in which a settled longing developed: I loved home, I wondered, I longed to push past the boundaries, I loved home --- an ever-widening circle of longing.  It was my patch of ground, but I was looking out, full of hope for what was to come.

Woiwode says our hope of the heavenly city, the place we long for, should not "dislocate us from our homework on earth."  Never has homework been given such a positive and yet sober connotation.  We have things to do, good things.

At yet at four my homework was simple.  Play here, not there; brush your teeth; keep your hands to yourself; don't talk to strangers; do look at people's eyes when you speak to them; go to sleep; say your prayers; use a napkin.  Behave.

But at 53, homework is a challenge.   I try and say a faithful word, and I sense the tug of ego.  Self rears its head, and even here, as I try and speak of it, I wonder if my even naming it will accrue to my benefit.  It's laughable!  Garrison Keillor, a frustrated poetry judge at one juncture, said "self expression is not what it's about, people!"  What he went on to say was that writers should write about the universals, about the particulars that might actually resonate with people --- not to emote on paper, try to impress, call attention to yourself, show off.

I'm a long way from the cookie-cutter house, leagues from the clarity of my parents' rules.  The homework is complicated, full of permutations and combinations, thorny word problems and moral dilemmas.  Full of too much me.  When Woiwode speaks of idle words I first point the finger at politicians, talk-show hosts, news commentators, and even (sadly) some preachers, but the wagging finger ultimately points back at me, accuses me of thoughtless words, puffed up words, carefully constructed sounds that only say "Look at me.  Aren't I clever?"

But we don't have time to navel-gaze about motive, to question every turn of phrase and every good deed.  Let's face it: We are people of impure motives.  But we have our homework that must be done, nonetheless, for love or for duty.  I have my patch of ground, and I have to describe it.  It's part of my homework, and there are no crib notes.

The name of the street I lived on?  I have to laugh.  It was Idlewood.  A warning, a challenge, a promise --- to the me to come.  To the day when no word will be impure or idle.

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.]


Looking Back. . . With Wonder

Growing up happens in a heartbeat.  One day you're in diapers; the next day, you're gone.  But the memories of childhood stay with you for the long haul.

I remember a place, a town, a house, like a lot of other houses, a yard, like a lot of other yards, on a street like a lot of other streets.  And the  thing is, after all these years, I still look back. . . with wonder.

(Kevin Arnold, in the Final Episode of The Wonder Years)

Say what you want about nostalgia, but the longing for the past or at least what we think was the past, has its rewards.

I discovered a new word a few days ago. Plangent.  As in resounding loudly.  Or as in a resonant and mournful sound.  Sometimes that is what the past sounds like.  It beats loudly in our ears, swells up in our hearts, as in a plangent longing for the past.

I don't think a plangent longing for the past is either helpful or even Christlike, and yet one can enter in for a moment so as to feel the weight of the past, to understand how it might feel for those who live in such lament, with the daily beat of missed opportunities, lost golden ages of youth, and past loves to preoccupy them.  But not only that.  The longing for the past is also a window through which we see our future, as the best of the past carries in it the seed of our future Home.

Kevin Arnold had it right.  In the Summer before 12th grade, on the cusp of college, he and Winnie Cooper sensed that change was coming.  They were no longer kids; the world was changing, and they were changing and would soon be moving on, saying goodbye to childhood, to the games and pettiness of the middle school years, to high school and changing relationships with each other and parents.  An older, wistful Kevin Arnold breaks in, the last words uttered in the series, saying "I can still look back. . . with wonder."

So here's to old girlfriends, backyard games, nights laying on the top of my father's station wagon looking at the stars and talking with my best friend.  To smelly locker rooms, long summers, first cars, and impossible dreams.  To a if not always happy at least less complicated life and world, where the boundaries were clearer and the people both bad and good more easily categorized.  To a street, a home, a room, and a family I could always come back to.

I never get over the obvious.  It was all there, and now it's gone.  Gone where? I don't know.  And yet it fills my mind, informing every thought and move, and sometimes seems closer than the ground beneath my feet.  I carry the past with me, not as burden but as a treasured gift that grows more weighty with time.

I am Kevin.  I grew up on those suburban streets, in those backyards, in a cookie-cutter house a lot like every other house.  Every morning I got up and my Mom made my breakfast and I walked to school or rode the bus or drove my car, and I sat in classes some good some boring and listened to the snap of the line on the flagpole the chatter in the halls and the droning of the teachers, and came home and watched Gilligan's Island or I Dream of Jeanie and ate a bologna sandwich and did a very little homework and ran and played until my Mom yelled out the door that it was dinner, and ate dinner feet in my chair and book in my hand and called my girlfriend or went to her house or walked the streets with my friends and then went to bed.  And then I got up and did it again, and again.

You know what?  Parts were sad, and parts were happy.  But when I look back, I am filled with wonder.  Those were, after all, the wonder years.  And yet they remind me that a wonder-working God does that every day, making my plangent longing for the past into a plangent longing for a Heaven with all the good and true and beautiful of the past.  I'm living the days of future passed.  Don't you like the way that sounds?

[I first wrote about The Wonder Years here in 2008, and then in 2009 here.  Maybe I should write a book about it, as I often relate life to something that happened in the show.  Never released on DVD, it is at least available now as reruns on The Hub Network.  The show had some excellent writing and captured what it was to grow up in suburbia in the late Sixties and early Seventies.  I commend it to you.]

Closer to the Edge, Closer to Home

Yes-band-logo During one rousing moment, the middle-aged woman next to me is shaking her head back and forth in ecstasy, undoubtedly reliving some bygone concert.  Behind me a man hoops and claps nonstop through every song, heedless of the actual beat.  On the other side a grizzled over-prime hippie keeps up a running commentary whether we want it or not; already inebriated, he continues to imbibe and opine. "You like Yes?" he says." I think "Yes, yes, after all, why would I be here if I didn't?"

This is Yes 2011.  An aging, perennially thin Steve Howe continues to play some amazing chops on the guitar.  A solid (that is, heavy) Chris Squire reminds us that a bass can play lead just as well as a lead guitar, only lower, a fact that resonates in my chest from the slightly too-loud music.  A balding (well, they are all balding) Alan White is amazing, still banging out a drum solo and hitting 8th notes at his age.  And while these prog-rock stalwarts keep on, there are signs of change: lead singer Jon Anderson is gone, replaced by a youthful Canadian singer, Benoit David, and keyboardist Rick Wakeman is replaced by look-a-like son Oliver Wakeman.  It's the same music, as both newcomers do a respectable job, but a Yes lineup without Anderson and Wakeman is a bit unsettling (not that the band hasn't been somewhat of a revolving door through the years).

This is Yes 2011.  I last saw Yes in 2004 on their 35th Anniversary Tour, in the Greensboro Coliseum with my then 12-year old son, his first rock concert.  I'm thankful I did, as the more historic lineup with Anderson and the elder Wakeman were on that tour.  Little did we know it might be their last one.  That evening held some historic significance for me, as I had first heard the band in that same arena in 1972, when they had a great deal more hair, the music was frightfully loud, billowing clouds of marijuana smoke rose from an arena floor, bong pipes were passed down the aisles, and police were stationed around the perimeter of the hall.  I was in the pit of this love fest of rock and roll moment, standing throughout on a folding chair on the fourth row from the front --- with my first date.  I was 14.  She was 13.  I didn't know what to say to her, but it didn't matter; the music was so incredibly loud we could not hear each other, even when we yelled.  Then, I was thankful for the volume.  It was one the best yet loudest and most illegal concert experiences I have ever had (though I assure all my smoke was second-hand). 

I suspect the band then was little different than me: the horizon of our life was the next day or, stretching our minds a bit, maybe the next week, and life seemed to stretch endlessly in front of us.  I had no idea the turns it would take.  I would not have been able to conceive of looking back on that moment 39 years later.

Last night I wasn't really reliving that bygone moment, though recalling it was inevitable, listening to time pass through the songs of youth.  Looking at these aging rocks stars, seeing equally aging fans caught up in the moment, I had to stop and remind myself that life is not, in the end, a "roundabout," a futile and nostalgic chasing after the youth of the past or narcotic numbing of the present as we all draw "close to the edge." In the timeless melodies and instrumental beauty of Yes, there is actually a deeper reminder that a Creator, the very "rhythm of life, is drawing me Home.  That's the "wondrous story."

But enough song titles.  I made it through that first date.  We broke up, though.  Maybe it was the perfume that smelled like marijuana (remember that?) or the distance (she lived cross town and I did not drive).  I don't know.  But perhaps in that Land ahead, I'll see her and share a redeemed memory of that amazing concert.  Maybe then we'll finally know what to say to each other. . . right after I introduce her to my wife.

October. . . and Larry

In the middle of U2's second album, October, released in 1981, the brevity of the title cut stands as a testimony of faith:

51VEZMBJhKL._SL500_AA300_ October and the trees are stripped bare
of all they wear.
What do I care?

October and kingdoms rise
and kingdoms fall
but you go on
and on.

For me the album is like a trip through the Psalms, reflecting a wrestling with faith, God, and others, as well as a resounding affirmation of faith --- much like you find from the Psalmist.  It was against its backdrop that my friend Larry was working out his salvation with fear and trembling.  Larry had graduated from college, took a printing job in town, and lived alone.  I think he was wondering what else there was for him.  Back then --- 29 years ago --- he and I would put this LP on in his tiny apartment and just listen, pausing every now and then to reflect a bit on the words.  Gloria/ In te domine/ Gloria/ Exultate/ Gloria/ Gloria/ Oh, Lord, loosen my lips.  It was exhilarating to hear. Then there's "Rejoice" and its chorus of I can't change the world/ but I can change the world in me/ Rejoice/ Rejoice.  In "Tomorrow," Bono sings Open up. open up, to the lamb of God/ To the love of He/ Who made the blind to see/ He's coming back/ He's coming back/ O believe Him.  But then there's also the angst of "I Threw a Brick Through the Window," a song Larry likely identified with, its My direction, going nowhere, going nowhere/ So I threw a brick through the window.

I worried a bit about Larry.  You see, the last two dates he had he met via the Personals ads in the old Spectator magazine, you know, "25 yr. old SWM looking for intelligent & fun SWF."  There was always history, stories which Larry sometimes shared with me.  In between U2 songs, that is.

29 years ago.  I don't even have a picture of Larry.  I don't know where he is. I don't even remember the last time I saw him.  But when I hear the melancholy strains of October, I think of him. . . and pray.

A Hinge of My History

Author and historian Thomas Cahill's sparkling prose is what animates his series of history books known as "Hinges of History."  Cahill has a wonderful way of bringing to life the habitations and byways and ideas of places like Medieval Ireland, the Palestine of Jesus, or Ancient Greece.  To the point, Cahill says that the "hinges" refer to "those essential moments when everything was at stake, when the mighty stream that was Western history was in ultimate danger and might have been divided into a hundred useless tributaries or frozen in death or evaporated altogether."  Then, in this narative of grace, he points to the arrival of great "gift-givers" who "provided for transition, for transformation, even for transfiguration, leaving us a world more varied and complex, more awesome and delightful, more beautiful and strong than the one they had found."  What he really recounts is how history is providentially undergirded, luminous from within if we only observe.

What is true of the great history of cultures is also true of you, and of me.  Our own personal histories are not just some long tragi-comic narrative, a purposeless muddling through of life, but histories framed by turning points, "hinges' if you will, moments in time when critical decisions were made, new life trajectories were set, and blessing or curse followed.  Inauspicious moments and seemingly small decisions can have long consequences, and while the results are not irredeemable (when they go bad) they often do force us into certain paths.  Like taking the wrong path at a fork in the road, we may not be able to go back but, rather, may have to make the best of the path we are on.  On the other hand, the blessings that can flow from seemingly insignificant decisions or events can also be portentous.

We all have our own hinges.  I recall one.  In 1976 I graduated from high school.  I had become a Christian in high school though I had no fellowship, no discipleship in the faith other than that provided by books (good though they were).  I was outside the main social circles of my large suburban high school, uncomfortable with high school fellowships like Young Life which seemed filled with kids who already had everything, already had plenty of friends.  I was painfully shy and insecure.  The social hurdle posed by a mass of popular kids was too much for me.  So I remained an alone Christian.

At the same time I knew that I needed fellowship.  I had read about it.  I wanted things to be different.  I wrote letters to all the campus student fellowships at N.C. State, where I was admitted, something I now look back upon as a somewhat surprising initiative from someone who lacked initiative.  All of them wrote back and let me know of their campus activities.  However, three students in leadership with Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship wrote long handwritten letters to me --- Sam, Rich, and Buck.  They told me there was a vollyball and ice cream social on registration day.  I made up my mind to go. 

When registration day came, I joined the crush of students and did what I had to do.  Then I walked through campus and down the sidewalk on Dan Allen Drive.  There was a grassy area where a vollyball net was set up.  Three guys were sitting on a slight hill, their backs to me.  And this is the hinge:  Every natural impulse in me told me not to go over to them, that I could always go later.  And yet I did.  I did the unnatural.  I recall it was like watching my feet move without willing them to move.

One of the guys I met there that day, David, is a friend I still have lunch with monthly.  Another guy I met that day, Bruce, became my roommate for three years and is still a fellow church member.  I was welcomed into that fellowship, went to retreats, was in a small group Bible study, attended the Urbana Missions Conference, met my wife of 29 years, became a leader, and grew in faith (as well as graduated from college).  Blessing upon blessing followed from that one decision to talk to those guys sitting on the hill.

I'm not presumptuous enough to think that it all came down to me.  My "hinge" was secured, fastened to the One who providentially guides all events.  In the mystery of God's sovereignty and my choice, the door could have swung the other way and I could have walked on by.  Thank God it did not.

The guys who reached out to me, who wrote me letters and spent many hours with me, were Cahill's "gift-givers," instruments of God's grace in my life who took part in His transformation of my life.  The "hinge" was that essential moment on a stretch of sidewalk on Dan Allen Drive when my feet took an unnatural path and the door opened in on a world of rich blessing I could just as easily have missed.  Even today, I drive that way, look at that sidewalk, imagine that field, remember, and give thanks to the One who pulled me in.

And that's just one "hinge of history," one seemingly insignificant moment in one life among billions.  But it matters.  They all do.

A Carpetbag of Jesus: Getting God Sideways

Since my mother has recently gone to live in a nursing home, my sisters and I have been cleaning out her home of the last 20 years, plowing through perhaps 40 years of notebooks, check registers, canceled checks, documents, photos, memorabilia, and so on.  My mother apparently did not believe in throwing much away.  Anything reusable was saved, from envelopes to place mats to candles to. . . well, you get the picture.  All this in a modest 1600 square foot house.

However, betwixt the exclamations of "Can you believe she. . . saved this, kept this, never threw away this, had this many clothes," and so on, what kept emerging was a sense of who my mother was, not just as mother to me but as an individual, as a person with a unique personality, her own hopes and dreams, her own disappointments, and her own routines and habits.  I better knew her by examining the trail of evidence of her life. You might say she came to me sideways, wrapped up in the leavings of her life. Remember that scene in Mary Poppins where she pulls all manner of things, including a lamp, from her carpetbag?  I felt that way when I began pulling things from my mother's closets, as if they had false bottoms or extended beyond the walls.  And yet the yoke is easy, the burden light; every item I encountered told me more about her, gave me circumstantial evidence of her presence and her life.

All this came in the midst of my reading Paul Alms's article, "God Sideways," in the latest Touchstone. Alms writes about how the the real stuff of church is not only or even primarily what is going on up front, what is being said from the pulpit, but rather how that message is mediated through the smells, sounds, and distractions of the pews, among the congregants.  If we came up in a church with no air conditioning (as I did), then the gospel is "hot," its message bound up in sweat, passion, flapping fans with pictures of Jesus on them, and the second hand of the watch tick-tocking away the time on my father's arm, as I waited for the interminable (and yet only 20 minute) sermon to end.

As Alms points out, "the good news of Jesus Christ is not abstract.  It is not like digital data we download. It comes with skin, it comes in minutes and hours we experience concretely.  It comes dressed in things that do not seem to matter.  But these indifferent things can become significant, moments associated with and attached to the presence of Christ."  What he means is that the gospel is incarnational.  That which originally came embodied in flesh and blood keeps coming to us embodied in our sensory perceptions, in what is going on in the pew --- in the noise of children, in the nodding heads, in the green of trees against blue sky ever so slightly stirring.  The peripherals become incomprehensible or unrooted without the words proclaimed from the pulpit, read from scripture, or said in prayer, and yet it all becomes a rich, multi-sensory experience as we let it settle in.  As Alms says, "Getting God sideways is how the church works. The straight-ahead message of the gospel slips out of the preacher's mouth in his idiosyncratic style and travels through the static of the group, through a thousand competing thoughts and sounds, and is received by a listener who understands it in his own limited way, and yet Christ is proclaimed."  God is present, shared, hidden, sideways --- and yet He is there.

My parents came from a quiet generation, one where the gospel was not so much spoken as lived out in the stuff of life.  They talked very little about themselves and to my memory preached few sermons to their children.  I didn't know until recently that there were married on Christmas Eve in 1947.  I still know nothing of how they met and courted.  My father served in WWII under Patton, crossing North Africa, then Sicily, Italy, France and Luxembourg, where he was wounded.  I knew none of that until recently.  He never spoke of it.  And yet the woman whose possessions I am sifting told me about who she was in all the quotidian details of life, in the clothes she washed, the meals she made, the sacrifices she made for me, the quiet letting go of me to college, marriage, and life away from her home.  The evidence is here, not only in their leavings but in history, in all the acts of love she practiced.

She didn't have to say it.  She didn't have to preach it.  In the end, a few words were all that were necessary to tell me the truth about who she was and who I was and what life was about.  I got all the gospel I needed of her --- sideways.

Last time I visited my mother I was strolling her around the halls and she looked up at me and said, "Have you got a girlfriend, Steve?"  I said "Sure do.  I married her."  (I'm 51 and have been married 29 years.) She's still being mother to her young son.  Then we're sitting looking out the window, the sun on our faces, and with her eyes closed she reaches out and makes as if to hang me something.  She says, "Here, take this."  So I reach down and make as if to take it.  (There's nothing there I can see.)  I said, "I got it."  After a minute or two she says, "I don't know what it was I gave you," and I say "I don't either, but I'll take good care of it, whatever it is."  And she says, "I know you will.  I know you will."

I think I know what she gave me.  It all came to me sideways, a carpetbag full of it.  I hope I can take good care of it and pass it on.  In my own idiosyncratic way I hope it slips out of me and passes through those near and far, laps up against the souls of people unknown.  I don't know how to make that happen. There's no direct way to do it.  If it happens, it happens sideways.  Maybe one day, when my kids are cleaning out my closets, they'll get it too.  And whatever it is they get, I know they'll take good care of it with God's help.

The Benefits of Cold Air

Joni+Mitchell "If you breathe the cold in deeply enough, it'll make you warm inside."

(Laura Ingalls Wilder, in Little House on the Prairie, the Musical)

Jane lived in a house across from the university, next to the house in which my high school girlfriend lived. In the early days of our budding romance, my girlfriend's father would yell and shout at me and threaten to call the police on me, red-faced and cursing.  That is, until he became better accustomed to me.  We were getting to know each other.  Anyway, the first time he did this, I didn't want to call his bluff.  I was afraid.  I ran next door.  I didn't know Jane but had seen her outside.  I figured she'd offer a hiding place to me, and she did.

Jane's parents, one of whom was a college professor, lived a somewhat bohemian existence, though I did not know that word then.  The yard was unkempt, vines grew up and over the wide front porch, tattered rugs covered the floors, and mismatched furniture filled the rooms.  There was air of cultivated neglect, I think, as if material things weren't meant to matter that much.  A heaviness, even sadness, seemed to hang over that home, and it's disorderliness only accentuated it.

That day Jane was playing a Joni Mitchell record, one with a  particularly sad chorus.  (Wait, I think that's every Joni Mitchell song!)  I don't remember what it was.  Maybe it was "A Case of You," with its "Oh I am a lonely painter/ I live in a box of paints," or maybe it was "The Circle Song," which carries her classic melancholy sound and lyric, with its 

And the seasons they go round and round 
And the painted ponies go up and down 
We're captive on the carousel of time 
We can't return, we can only look behind 
From where we came 
And go round and round and round 
In the circle game 

Life's a game, she says, and all we can do is go round and round and round.  Well, Jane breathed deep of that sense of frustration, of lostness.  And yet, cold though the wind might blow in that house, Jane seemed strangely warmed by it, as if she drank it in and let the blues roll over her until it lit a fire in her, like she was living some dark night of the soul knowing that it was good for her.  I liked it as an antidote to my effervescent girlfriend who brimmed with life.  On occasion, her happinness could be unbearable, perhaps because it was only part of reality, like an album of songs all in major keys.  Jane played the minor keys.  When I ran to her house, I traded G-C-D for Am-Bm-Em.  I learned that God made minor keys too and meant us to listen to them at times, to drink them in.  She'd play her guitar and sing her repertoire of Joni songs.  Bent over the guitar, stringy brown hair falling round her, she even looked like the singer-songwriter.

She taught me how to play "Blackbird" on the guitar.  I still play it, for myself, anyway.  I like that image of a "blackbird singing in the dead of night," encouraged to "take these broken wings and learn to fly."

And when I play it, I sometimes think of Jane, a shelter from the storm, a friend if briefly but one who taught me that there's more to life than happiness or sadness, that breathing the air of sadness can lead to a greater joy.  She didn't know all that then, and God knows I didn't, and yet I can trace His hand in Jane, and Joni, and even in the brimming spirit of a girlfriend who loved life and people in a way I found difficult. It all matters.  It all means something, even now, after all these years. I still breathe it in, and I'm still warmed by it.

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.

Please, Please Me: Reverie on My Childhood

200px-PleasePleaseMe "One, two, three, four. . ."

My sister is in the backseat with her best friend Jane, chattering away about boys and teachers and who knows what else, with their mini-skirts and go-go boots swinging back and forth, giggling and laughing at things indecipherable to me at five. "Oh, I love that song! Turn it up, turn it up," she says, and my mother obliges, the mono sound crackling through the car radio. My sister and Jane swoon in the backseat. I'm on my knees in the front seat, leaning into the backseat, trying to decipher their words. I don't get it. I don't understand sisters or girls or the music they love. I turn away, just disgusted and bored.

I didn't know it then, but the song was "Please, Please Me;" the band, the Beatles; the year, 1964. I wasn't thinking about the Beatles that year, and they weren't yet a household name in the United States, but they were coming. The album bearing the name of the UK #1 hit, having been released in 1963, didn't reach the United States that year, but the song came via another release, "Introducing the Beatles," in early 1964. I heard it, but I didn't know what I was hearing.

Listening to "Please, Please Me" now, in its newly remastered edition, it's almost understandable the sensation it caused in my sister and many other teenagers. When Paul reaches "four" in his countdown to "I Saw Her Standing There," the kickoff song for the album, it's almost a promise of things to come, a breathless "four" shouted into the mike. The boyish energy, the clean guitar sound, the working class British vocals, the driving bass --- they must have sounded exotic and exciting to my sisters and yet, to my parents and many others, bewildering. 


"Listen --- do you want to know a secret? Do you promise not to tell?"

Trina Payne and I had a secret. Despite our youthful stature, we were an item. I liked her, all six years of her. Or maybe I didn't. I wasn't sure. Or maybe it was just that she liked me so much. Sitting in my first grade class with Mrs. Teague, I'd catch her looking at me and smiling, and I have to admit that I enjoyed it. And yet I wasn't ready for the responsibilities that such affection entailed. For example, Trina insisted on hanging out with me during recess, when I was playing with the guys. I began to wonder what part of "secret" she didn't understand. Besides, I had no idea that this relationship brought with it a commitment to actually spending any significant time with each other. It was the idea of it and not its reality that captivated me.

So one day I'm exiting the cafeteria line with my tray of watered-down tomato soup, and I see a gaggle of girls gathered around Trina. it doesn't look good. I sit down at another table. One of the girls comes over and tells me Trina is saving pennies for our marriage! Good grief! This has gotten way out of hand, and so I decide I need to break it off and that I'll tell her just as soon as I can, but not today, and maybe not tomorrow, but soon, I promise myself, soon this will all end.

At nap time that day, we roll out our towels on the floor. Some kids actually sleep during that time. I never did. I look a couple of towels over and see Trina beckoning me. I go. I know this sounds crazy, and I don't know how it happened, but I let her kiss me. She said no one was watching. I know I made a promise to myself that I would break up with her, and so all this was very confusing. It was like the siren call of a mermaid, luring sailors to their death, nd that kiss was deadly. By the end of nap time, out secret was out. Everyone knew that Trina and I had kissed. Never mind that it was just a little kiss, on my cheek, a kiss it still was. I promised myself I would break up with her --- tomorrow.

At recess the next day, I did the deed. She cried. I felt like a heel. Her mother called my mother. And I learned that six-year old girls are terrible at keeping secrets.


"Well my heart went boom, when I crossed that room, and I held her hand, in mine. . . . Now I'll never dance with another, when I saw her standing there."

My friend Bobby and I had been looking forward to this day for a long time. We dressed up in shirt and tie and met out in the street after dinner. My Mom slicked back my hair. Exiting the door, I bounced down the front steps and took my hand and pushed my bangs back down over my forehead, like James Dean (who I did not know at the time).  I had adopted the concept of "cool," felt certain, confident, having nourished the idea of myself as a guy who could really make the moves on the 12-year old girls in the class.  Walking the quarter mile to the school, we were full of ourselves, gushing with possibilities for our evening out, checking off the girls we would sweep onto the floor.  We were deluded!

I guess we had visions of dancing with girls all night, and yet when we got to the school auditorium, we froze. We took our place along the wall with several other guys, watching the guys brave enough to dance. I never even got near a girl much less danced with one. I never even spoke to one.  I counted the lights above the dancers, tried to look above it all, drank a gallon of punch, and ate a lot of cookies. About 45 minutes into it, we left. Walking home in the dark, neither of us spoke about it.


"Come on, come on, come on, come on baby, twist and shout"

I discovered songs like "I Saw Her Standing There" or "Love Me Do" when I discovered popular music at the age of 13.  Until then, I listened to the music of my parents --- old-time country music and bluegrass.  Artists like Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, Jim Reeves, and Marty Robbins.  We watched the Glen Campbell show or even Hee Haw, more for music than comedy.

I don't know what the first bit of rock music I attached to would have been, but I know that the Beatles were among the first.  I bought Abbey Road and Let It Be when they were originally released, saw the movie Let It Be at least twice at the college theater on Tate Street in Greensboro.  I worked my way back through the catalog, an interesting process of going back to roots.  I love it all, but there is something raw and so exciting about this album of songs recorded live in Abbey Road studio in 1963, "whistled through" (as producer George Martin recalls) in a twelve-hour day, history in the making while I was busy being five.

I missed all this, of course.  It's all history to me, experienced vicariously via biography, documentary, and recordings, and yet it was there as a backdrop to my childhood.  In the wasteland of music in my college years (1976-1980), when disco dominated, I would come to believe that all the great rock music had already been made between 1963 and 1975.  That was a mistaken belief, of course, and yet I still feel like all my musical sensibilities were rooted in that era for which I was born to late.

The funny thing is my son says the same thing --- that he was born to late.

"In my mind there's no sorrow/ don't you know that it's so?/ They'll be no sad tomorrows/ don't you know that it's so?

[Like many other collectors of music, I recently bought the box set of all the Beatles' newly remastered albums, some (like Please, Please Me) in stereo for the first time.  I'm listening to them chronologically, one each week, and reacting to them.  What could I possibly say original about them?  Nothing, of course.  Except this is memoir, my personal recollection and reaction, and since no one has lived my life, maybe there is something unique about it.  Maybe it'll make you think about where you were and what you were doing so long ago, when these records were released.]

Don't Sweat the Small Stuff. . . Like College

Medium.92.460609 Recent discussions with my oldest child about impending college applications and vocational choices --- in short, choices which he believes may set the course of the rest of his life --- caused me to muse on the manner in which I selected a college, vocation, and job.  In the end, I'm proof that God can take poor choices and still bless you, still in the words of Jeremiah, "give you a future and a hope" (Jer. 29:11).

We are visiting colleges, poring over college admissions web pages, and taking the SAT and ACT multiple times in the hopes of making a thoughtful choice.  I did no such thing during my junior and senior years of high school.  Of course I took the SAT, once, with no advance preparation.  I applied to one college.  I did not get in.  (For some reason I chose the design school, which had standards, of course, that I did not meet.)  I changed majors, declaring the relatively sexy sounding computer science as my field of study.  I got in.  You see, I applied to this one college because my then girlfriend, an extroverted, gregarious, mildly flirty, disco-dancing girl one year older than me, was at college in the same town.  I spent my senior year checking up on her, calling, visiting, wondering where she was, and so on.  It was pitiful.  My selection of a college was driven solely by this concern that I needed to supervise this girl, be where she was, curbing her excesses, keeping an eye out for interlopers, and generally being a nuisance to her social life.

I was accepted in that college.  I piled the bulk of my possessions in my 1972 Camaro, moved in an aging dorm room with a high school acquaintance, and started studying computer science and my girlfriend.  Around mid-term, she broke up with me, leaving me for a pre-med student.  Around the same time, I received three of the dreaded pink slips, informing me that I had two Ds and one F.  I was not off to a good start in that college.  Two of the bad grades were in Computer Science courses.  I begged my Japanese professors to give me a break.  They raised my grades to Cs.  I finished the term and changed majors.  Sociology sounded interesting, whatever that was.  I figured it had to be easier than studying computer languages.  Besides, there were better looking girls in the liberal arts.  I took two girls out to a free college flick, The Nuremberg Trials (how's that for a chic flick?), had a great time sitting there, between them, astonished at my good fortune, and then was roundly dressed down by both of them the next day.  I was astonished.  I still don't know what I did wrong.  It was such a nice evening.

So, here I was.  I was in a college that I had made a hormonal and not rational decision about, in a major I knew nothing about and selected for the poorest of reasons, living with a roommate who had odd habits, and all this with no girlfriend, poor grades, and no clue as to where my future lay.  None of this is terribly unusual for college students. Yet in hindsight, I think I was right where God wanted me.  Three great things happened that year.  First, I learned what it was to be in Christian fellowship. I may have been doing poorly academically, but I had been kidnapped by God, surrounded by believing upperclassmen who were always there.  Second, I met a loyal friend who I still regularly see 33 years later, and who was there in the midst of my poor choices, offering encouragement and camaraderie.  And finally, I met my now wife of 28 years because I happened to be in the wrong college in the wrong major at the right time.  And that's just the beginning of how my poor choices were redeemed and made a part of the plan of a sovereign and good God.

All this gives me hope and tells me that no matter what choices my son makes, he'll be fine.  Like an errant driver with an insistent GPS, he'll eventually get home, because for the believer, that's where all paths, no matter how circuitous, lead.

We Are Stardust, We Are Golden

Woodstock_music_festival_poster I came upon a child of god
He was walking along the road
And I asked him, where are you going?

(Joni Mitchell, “Woodstock,” 1970)

When Joni Mitchell’s Ladies of the Canyon was released in 1970, I was 12 and not thinking about who I was or where my life was going or much of anything beyond the confines of my neighborhood.  I did not have an identity crisis, was not worried about world peace, and the Selective Service was way beyond the pale. I played Capture the Flag in the backyards with my friends, watched Gilligan’s Island, Hogan’s Heroes, and I Dream of Jeannie first-runs after school, and fought with my sister (two had moved out).  I didn’t know where Woodstock was, much less what was going on at Yasgur’s farm, or who Jimmy Hendrix or Janis Joplin or Joni Mitchell were.  Yet, in the midst of twelve-year old play, I remember feeling like I was on the cusp of something new, something just beyond my grasp.  I knew the world was changing but just didn’t know what it had to do with me.  That came later.

About 14 I discovered some of the incredible music of the late Sixties and early Seventies.  Sometimes I forget about the great singer-songwriters of the Seventies because of the fact that the decade was so infected by disco after “Saturday Night Fever” hit in 1975.  Looking back I have to first part the mirror-ball body-bumping spectacle of that music to see the golden music that was there all along.  A couple of days ago, I went to Pandora and typed in “Joni Mitchell” and it’s like an intimate friend, someone who was with me then, is playing song after song of my high school and college years, back-to-back tracks by Neil Young, Laura Nyro, Fleetwood Mac, Eva Cassidy, Van Morrison, James Taylor, Carol King, and the queen of melancholy herself, Joni Mitchell.  But I digress. . . . By the time I hit senior high school, folks weren’t going to Yasgur’s Farm anymore for enlightenment but boring down deep to figure out the meaning of life.  Just like personal introspection had taken root in the music, so we were consumed by the personal.

It was an intense time.  Let me see if I describe it for you.  One night I’m in my room on the ground floor of our house, and my friend John comes to my door.  He can’t speak, only stand there and look at me.  I ask him what’s wrong and all he can murmur is “Carol broke up with me.”  So we start walking and walking and walking, and he never says a word about it, despite my asking.  We end up at Pizza Hut, me unable to figure out what to do, him a despondent teenager sure that his personal life is forever ruined, that nothing would ever be the same.

And that’s how it went back then.  Every rejection was perceived as life-ending.  Of course it wasn’t.  At worst it made for a bad day or week.  But teenage vision is myopic, and we could not see over the rim of the pit we had dug for ourselves.  We had so little perspective, so little history of tribulation and trial to draw upon that we were unable to see God’s providences in our lives.  It was all present tense and so, so all about me.  Parents might reassure, but they remained on the periphery, distant planets in a solar system where we were the sun.

Well maybe it is just the time of year
Or maybe it’s the time of man
I don’t know who l am
But you know life is for learning
We are stardust
We are golden
And we’ve got to get ourselves
Back to the garden

Like everyone else in high school, I was trying to figure out who I was and who I wanted to be.  Nobody seemed to know anything.  I didn’t even know all the questions to ask, but I did sense that there was something wrong with measuring my worth by the expectations of others, by whether someone liked me or didn’t like me.

One day my mother (who did not offer many explanations for life but listened well) gave me a book called I Never Promised You a Disneyland, by Jay Kesler.  Reading that book, for the first time I felt like someone understood what I was facing as a teenager (which was mostly what all teenagers were facing).  I cannot even remember what the book said, but it was something like “we are stardust, we are golden, and we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden,”  if you want to be poetic about it.  In other words, it was a book that connected to the concerns of my life, reminded me of my immense worth because of the love of a very personal God, and pointed me back to the elemental things I had been taught all my life.  Of course it wasn’t the book that resulted in me making the faith my own, as many factors were at work in my life, but it was a precipitating factor, one which, if the writer knew, would make the writing of his book worth it just for my sake.

Maybe it was also those great singer-songwriters of the Seventies, the ones who made me ask questions and wonder.  Neil Young was looking for a “heart of gold,” Joni Mitchell said we were “golden,” and Dewey Betts and the others in America were out on the Ventura Highway writing about life and its discontents.  Believe me, it is not nostalgia that makes me write about this, as I would never want to return to the conflicting emotions and turmoil of that time, but I look backward in gratitude for music and books that made a difference.  Some people are helped to faith by real, live people; me, I had books and music to provoke me and even disciple me.  Even the good music of the nonbelievers led me to faith.

We are golden.  We are the handiwork of a living, personal God who made us for himself, with unique, immense worth, and who wrote himself into the story as the one who came along side us and asked: Do you know where you’re going?  I’m thankful to be able to answer that question in the affirmative, even as I cannot offer a detailed roadmap of how to get there.  I can only point you to the Writer himself, to the golden music that lies behind the mirror-ball spectacle of life that parades before us.  It's always been there.  That's my Woodstock.

Lie Down in the Grass

Medium.41.207435 Like most people of my generation, I grew up in the suburbs, in a cookie-cutter house in a subdivision with streets of non-descript names that tracked no heritage --- names like Fernwood, Gracewood, Ramblewood --- names chosen more for their marketing appeal than their legacy. In one sense, I could have stumbled into any suburb of that era and found myself among a similar people in similar houses on streets with similar names, just one kid among many, all different and yet all terribly the same. Of course, I thought nothing of it then. I slept out under the stars with my friends, just lying on a blanket in the grass. My grass. It was a life, my life, and a place, my place.

And yet it was my place.

In the vocabulary of most urban planners, suburb is a word uttered with some disdain. And yet for all their well-documented problems, I reject the idea that suburbs are simply places that are lifeless, deadening in their sameness, in their conformity. Why? Because human beings are made in the image of a creative and personal God, our individual personalities --- our beliefs about what is true, good, and beautiful --- always assert themselves. We are not all the same.

In the corner of my backyard, in my corner of suburbia, are two stones. They mark the places where two beloved animals were laid to rest, not forgotten but remembered, even here. If I lie in my hammock and close my eyes, I can see my old dog now, shepherding my then two-year old son around the yard, carrying a stick. I can hear the chatter one makes, the panting of the other, feel the hot breath on my arm and a slightly soggy stick placed on me, a tiny hand on my arm, the question hanging in the air: "Will you play now?" Those memories make my backyard different than yours, as they are rooted here.

There's something to be said for staying put, for letting your life and memories take root and grow in a place. Even in suburbia.

Maybe that's the problem. Americans are people on the move. Maybe most people don't pause in a place long enough to call it home. Or not for long. Our memories travel with us, not having time to attach to place. That's our lack.

And yet it's not my lack.

I live here, not there. The fence that separates me from my neighbor is much more than just a geographical barrier. In many ways, that very similar looking house next door is a different world. Memories are being made there.

And here.

Part of this is nostalgia, of course, a middle-aged man remembering fondly another time, and yet the past informs the present. The permanence I seek in remembrance is frustrated, of course, as we are pilgrims on this earth, and yet remembering is a dress rehearsal for a time when past, present, and future will be bound up in one Place. Jesus, after all, said he was going to prepare a place for us. No longer will we be sojourners but permanent residents of a place that is altogether familiar and new every morning.

A friend, Richard, told me this weekend that sometimes he just goes out in a corner of his backyard and lies down and takes a nap in the grass. I'll keep that image as one that profoundly suggests the importance of settling into a place. Of course, in the next breath Richard also said there's "nothing he likes better than a good head-scratch." He's full of profundities.

Next time you're in the backyard, lie down in the grass, will you? It's your place, after all.


huge_93_469049 It’s prom time.  Yesterday, I went with my son to pick up a tuxedo from the formal wear shop.  Business was good.  As I waited for the alterations, I watched no less than four awkward looking boys file in with their Mom or Dad.  One kid took 20 minutes to decide whether he wanted a red or pink vest.  He stood about six-four and seemed about half as wide as that, a hulking tower of a boy not yet full-grown.  He called his friend on his cell to ask him (or her) what they thought about the vest.  Tux, prom, date --- it’s all a big deal, you know.

Another kid strode in with his Mom, slightly stooped over with long hair in a pony tail, bearing an uncanny resemblance to John Lennon.  He knew exactly what he wanted.  “Give me the white tux with pinstripes.  I want a hat and a cane too.”  He pulled out $162 and laid it on the table.  He had a statement to make.  He was going to be seen.  He put that tux on and it was as if  John walked right off the Abby Road recording sessions.

I actually went to the prom at my high school when I was a sophomore, because my girlfriend was a junior.  She knew at least 1000 people in the high school.  I knew 25, about 15 more than I wanted to know. She was a textbook extrovert and I moderate introvert.  What an unlikely pair!

The best part of the prom was eating out at a nice restaurant.  The second best part was leaving it.  The worst part was being at it along with 500 other overdressed kids in an unairconditioned high school gymnasium with bad music.  I looked like a freak. . .

A freak in a light blue leisure suit. (It was the Seventies, after all.)

I scanned the room.  William Settles was stuffed in a vintage tux that looked like it had been his Dad and was sitting on a bleacher by himself as if he was above it all, sipping punch.  A lot of pre-disco awkward dancing was going on (well, maybe 30 kids were dancing).  My girlfriend saw her friend Barbara across the room and we lurched forward, navigating the crowd, saying hey here hey there.  I was looking for the door.  I excused myself and went and got some punch.  Leigh Pendergraph was getting punch as well, and not wanting to get entangled with her, I went outside and stood around for awhile.  Quite a while.  I went back in about an hour later and retrieved my girlfriend and we left.  And that’s it.  That’s my prom.

The next year my girlfriend (who now knew 1200 classmates) wanted to go again so we could sweat and hang out with 500 people and drink punch.  I said no.  I sent her with my best friend and told her to have a good time.

But maybe I should have gone.  Maybe I missed something I should have been paying attention to.  Maybe that’s a problem with being 16: you’re not paying attention to the moment you are in, to the unique season of life you are enjoying or, more likely, stumbling through.  I’m a little envious in some crazy way of my son driving off to a prom where he’ll know all 35-40 kids in attendance.  What did I miss back then?

The next day when I saw my friend I asked him if he had a good time.  He said he could take it or leave it, that it really wasn’t much fun.

But my girlfriend?  She had a great time. . . like a date with 500 people.  We should have sent her by herself.  She would never have known the difference.  Promise.

The World Has Fallen, and So Have I

Huge.43.217374 I grew up in a neighborhood that was like a lot of other neighborhoods, when the boxes we lived in were distinguished only by the names on the mailboxes.  It was a place where hard-working Americans circled the wagons to protect themselves from the outside world.  Our lives were made up of little moments, all delicately intertwined.  Maybe we weren’t aware of it then, amid the school paper drives and the scalloped potatoes and the sounds of the neighbors’ children playing, but life was rich there in our small sanctuary, and precious, and the only thing that could change that was death.

(The voice of narrator Kevin Arnold, from the ABC TV Series, The Wonder Years)

When I was young kids owned the neighborhood.  With little regard for property boundaries, we moved through backyards, over fences, played ball in the street or in our neighbor’s yard, and went in and out of our friends’ houses, sometimes without knocking.  In the Summer, doors were unlocked and often open, as were windows, and the sounds of families eating dinner, arguing, watching Gilligan’s Island, or listening to Tom Jones (for adults) or Jefferson Airplane (for teens) wafted out of the doors and windows and settled into our souls.  We had dominion over all things, and they were very good.  Our lives were a succession of little moments that left an indelible mark on our personalities, which somehow became part of who we became.

I threw a rock through Georgie’s window, not from spite but for adventure, listening to it crack, the glass shattering in the still air.  I just stood there.  I hid in my room, my conscience pricked, until my mother came for me.  I had to apologize to Georgie’s Mom, mumbling “sorry” while I stared down at my bare feet.  Later, I watched my Dad fix her window, though I never remember him chastising me over it.

When I was three, my mother brought my little sister home from the hospital, pulling up to the curb, the door opening and my mother climbing out with a small pink infant wrapped in a blanket.  I don’t recall a single thing that interested me about her.  I do remember that when my mother left me outside for moment with her in a stroller, I took the brake off and watched the stroller careen down the hill toward the street as my mother ran out of the front door.  My sister survived.  I did too, if barely.

My older sister bought the “Meet the Beatles” album when I was six and lay in front of our stereo listening to it for hours.  I looked at the picture of them on the album cover, four “moptops.”  I didn’t see what the big deal was.  Nor was I big on her white Nancy Sinatra “go-go” boots she purchased, she and her friend singing “These boots are made for walking, and one of these days these boots are gonna walk all over you” all the way to school sprawled in the backseat, feet hanging out the windows as we navigated the streets of our neighborhood.

We ran through the neighborhood playing secret agent, capture the flag, softball, as familiar with every tree, backyard, sandbox, creek, and street corner as I am with my own reflection in the mirror.  We made forts in the woods, caught tadpoles in the creek, waded under the bridge, climbed trees, went night swimming after hours in the neighborhood pool, and walked streets under moonlight envisioning ourselves as super heroes, knowing every house, every family, every person who lived there.  It was magical, that time, and though the world was in the grips of racial turmoil and war, that was beyond the horizon for me.  The world ended at the edge of my neighborhood, the world I knew.

When I was seven, I fell asleep in my room, only to wake and see my aunt at my door teary-eyed, advising me that my uncle had died.  It was my first encounter with death.  For a while after that point, I was afraid to go to sleep, concerned that someone would die while I slept, as if by being awake I could stop it.  That’s how a child’s mind reasons.  I recovered, but I don’t think I ever recovered the sense that life was a playground, Edenic, where nothing bad or at least nothing worse than a scraped knee would happen.  The world had fallen, and so had I.

As Christians we believe in the Fall, that cataclysmic moment when evil entered a good Creation and after which our first parents realized they were naked, when it dawned on them that they had fallen and all Creation along with them.  But it’s one thing to know this and another to experience it.  When my uncle died, I knew something was terribly wrong with the world, that the magical place I enjoyed as a child, a world free of suffering and pain, limitless with opportunity, and full of adventure, had changed.  I realized that I too would meet the same fate as my uncle.  Everyday from then on confirmed what I first sensed then:  that everything was bent and broken, that we were lost.

It was later that I realized that Christ was at work undoing the Fall’s damage, actually bringing healing to a world gone wrong.  I see evidence of that everywhere even as I see the continuing effects of the Fall.  And yet the world seems alien to me, and I feel estranged, like a man away from Home.  I guess I am.  I want to feel that same feeling of security and peace and play that I had in my neighborhood as a boy.  I want to run and not grow weary.  I want to climb to the high places and look out on my Home, the neighborhood I know.  One day I will.  

The Real Wonder Years


"But I think about the events of that day again and again, and somehow I know that Winnie does too, whenever some blowhard starts talking about the anonymity of the suburbs or the mindlessness of the TV generation, because we know that inside each one of those identical boxes, with its Dodge parked out front and its white bread on the table and its TV set glowing blue in the falling dusk, there were people with stories, there were families bound together in the pain and struggle of love, there were moments that made us cry with laughter, and there were moments like that one of sorrow and wonder."

(Kevin Arnold, as an adult, in the Pilot for the TV series, The Wonder Years)

That final bit of narration by the adult Kevin Arnold forms a particularly poignant ending to the Pilot episode of the 1988 television series, The Wonder Years. Every time I watch this TV show I find myself in the story. It's really a filmed memoir, with an older Kevin as narrator reflecting back on his years growing up in late Sixties suburbia, against the backdrop of the civil rights movement, racial tensions, and the Vietnam War --- all such events tangential to the life of an 11-year old and yet impinging at times with a sharpness. For example, in this episode Winnie's brother goes off to Vietnam and is killed, and it is the first time Kevin was aware that someone young, someone like him, could actually die. Sorrow and wonder. When he goes to talk to Winnie and finds her alone, he puts his coat around her, and unexpectedly she turns and kisses him. Wonder. And yet they don't know what to do after that, what to say, so as Kevin the narrator says "They just decide to put romance on hold and go back to being friends." They go swing. They are, after all, only 11.

I'm not sure my teenage kids would completely appreciate this show, as they haven't actually lived through all of childhood and had opportunity to reflect on it. But practically everything that happens in this ½ hour show and every emotion expressed resonates with me. All the wondering if a girl liked me or didn't, and if she did, what I should do about that. The fear of standing out, of being different. The moments when the larger world intrudes and scares or confuses. The home that is safe, and yet not able to keep out news of friends' parents divorcing, of the real effect of war, of violence. Our world was the home and the neighborhood, but as time went on it became increasingly clear that we couldn't stay there, that a larger world both beckoned and haunted us. Sorrow and wonder. I somehow have the sharpest and most intense memories of those years. Every time I hear the songs so carefully selected for that show --- songs by Joni Mitchell, Buffalo Springfield, or Neil Young, for example --- I'm hearing the soundtrack of my life, or at least a part of my life that seems to haunt everything I do and everything I am today.

Maybe the reason The Wonder Years so affects me is that have a longing within for a simpler time when life was bounded by my neighborhood, a place where I knew everyone and where nothing very bad ever happened, where my home was a respite against everything else that might be going on (even with a butthead of a brother named "Wayne), where Paulie, as nerdy as he might be, would always be my friend, no matter what. On the other hand, I'm well aware of the human tendency to idealize a past time, remembering the good and forgetting the bad. I'm not really interested in going back there, but I am interested in going through there on my way to a better destination.

What do I mean by going through there? It's really about the Godly use of memories. We are called not to live in the past, relishing nostalgia, but to remember the past as a present help and a future hope. The past teaches me lessons about how to live today, sure, but more and more it offers me glimpses into my future, to a time of a renewed heavens and earth that reminds me very clearly (and physically) of all that was good about my past. As Randy Alcorn teaches in his book, Heaven, Christians do not await the destruction of the earth and our ascension to a Heaven of disembodied souls but, rather, the renewal of this heaven and earth. On that earth, a rock will be more a rock than it ever was, the color green even more green, and Paulie more Kevin's friend than he ever was. A place where even bitter memories will be transformed by the good. Then, the people walking in darkness (that's us) will have seen not a twinkle of light, not a glimmer, but a great light. (Is. 9:2). Those will be the real wonder years.


Remembering Leigh

When I was in fifth grade, there was a girl in our class named Leigh Aston.  Leigh had red hair, a large nose, and freckles.  In our estimation, she was not pretty.  Several boys in the class made fun of her every day, telling her that she had “cooties” (whatever that was), playing pranks on her, and generally making life miserable for her.  The girls ignored her.  She had no friend in our class.  And I was complicit in this injustice.  Though I did not routinely make fun of her, I avoided her and never confronted any of the ringleaders of this jeering, and I never remember actually speaking to Leigh.  After two years of this, Leigh did not come back.  I do not know what became of her.

Not a year goes by that I do not think of Leigh and regret the cruelty meted out to her by immature kids who were insensitive, who accorded her no dignity, and whose unkindness must have been a daily trauma for her.  I was troubled then by what was done to her, and yet I was a silent member of the same pack.  I showed her no kindness, only indifference.  Though Leigh on rare occasion came to tears, on no occasion do I remember her meeting unkindness with anything other than a bowed silence, or even a sweet (but hurting) smile.  For what I did I have long since repented, and while I know that God has blotted out even the memory of that sin, I cannot forget.

I won’t forget Leigh because she is at least an annual reminder to me of the truth that all people are made in God’s image, that even the ugly, obnoxious, uncool, and misshapen are entitled to dignity, to decent treatment, not because of who they are or how they look or who they know or how cool they are, but because they are made in the image of the One who made them, the One who in human form “had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him” (Isa. 53:2).

I won’t forget Leigh because she is a humbling reminder of my capacity for sin, of the need I have for almost daily repentance of the ungracious and cruel way I can still treat people in my thoughts and (though more subtly) in the manner in which I actually treat them.  Just yesterday, I was standing in line to renew my driver’s license, one of those experiences (like traffic court) that is a great leveler of people, something people of all backgrounds must do. I looked around and mentally sized up the people there --- those of different race, chain-smokers, construction workers, and resident aliens --- and for a moment thought myself better.  You see, I haven’t changed so much from that unkind fifth grader that I was.

I don’t remember the name of a single other kid in those classes, but I will not forget Leigh.  She is a reminder to me that God is kind though we are unkind, that God forgives and forgets.  I just hope that by God’s grace a now nearly 50 year old Leigh is a beautiful picture of grace, and that God has long since blotted out from her memory our unkindness to her.

Noting Providence (A Story)

Look_2"He who notes providences, will have providences to note." (Matthew Henry)

When you're a kid, you know things.  You know things your parents are never going to know. 

Like, for example, the kind of things that can happen on the way to the Handy Mart by foot.  Now parents, they take the Chevy down Elam, up Ferndale, left on Elm, and then, right past the Morrison's big oak tree, they hang a right into the lot of the store.  They buy milk and eggs, exchange greetings with the clerk, get back in the car, and whip the wheel out of the lot and head for home.  It's purely practical.

But they miss a lot that way.  They miss the point, really.

You see, a walk to the store was a nighttime ritual for John and I.  If John was here right now and feeling poetic, he'd tell you that that walk was a metaphor for life.  (We learned that word in Mrs. Harrigan's Humanities class.)  A walk like that held peril and promise, ecstasy and agony, riches and poverty, villains and vamps.

Now get this.  One time we were walking down Elm, shuffling along, bemoaning some new indignity suffered in our junior high school, when I spied a crumpled up twenty dollar bill not two inches from the sidewalk, technically in Bridget Hanson's front yard but effectively within the curtilage of public property, where it likely landed on the sidewalk and was blown by the wind into Bridget's yard.  And even if it was in Bridget's yard, she didn't deserve it because she was a nasty chic with an attitude.  Well, John fell on it like he was protecting his platoon from a soon-to-explode grenade.  We debated whether to tell Bridget about our discovery, but not much, really.  We kept it.  Split it 50/50.  You see, that made up for the time the three neighborhood thugs (well, senior highs) made us turn our pockets inside out, spilling all our nickels and dimes and quarters on the street and then made us pick it up and then took all our money.  God gave it back to us.  Equilibrium was restored.

We talked about that particularly embarrassing moment all the time, we did.  John said next time he'd get his Dad's gun (unloaded, of course), stuff it in his pocket, and if we met up with the three delinquents, he'd brandish that revolver at them and say something like "beat it, or you're toast," or "make my day," something Clint Eastwood-like, and we'd watch them fall all over themselves trying to run away.  That kind of thing sort of jump started our imaginations, and so for several nights we'd imagine ourselves superheroes, being able to pick up a car or breathe fire and just basically scare the beejesus out of those idiots.  I think we almost talked ourselves into it.

Well, like I said, things happen when you walk.  Like you might just meet up with Angel Simms.  She lived on Ferndale, right next to Scotty something or other, the guy who fixed lawn mowers for a living and walked around half the time in his front yard in bib overalls with two miniature Chihuahuas hanging out of the front pockets.   The guy that always wanted to talk about our sorry good for nothing high school football team about which John and I couldn't give a flip and he'd just yak, yak, yak on about the team and its pitiful coach while we were making every excuse we could think of to move on.  But, back to Angel. . . . We'd walk extra slow past her house, hoping she'd be out, you know, maybe taking the garbage to the street or checking the mailbox or something.  Angel was pretty hot, and we were hopeless, or nearly so.  But we had our dreams.  We'd consider what we'd say to Angel should she be outside and should she notice us and should she talk to us.  Something like "how's it going, Angel," or maybe more nonchalantly, "hey Angel, didn't know you lived around here," and after that, we'd say. . . we'd say. . . well, we weren't sure what we'd say but maybe we'd claim that scripture verse then about "not worrying about what to say because at that time you will be given what to say" and something intelligent would just pop out, you know, and it'd be so beautiful Angel Simms would just reach over and kiss me and say "see you tomorrow at school" and that'd just be the beginning of a beautiful relationship.   Just the beginning.  That's not exactly how John dreamed it, where I appeared as a more tangential bit actor.  But it doesn't matter now anyway, since Angel never did come out and she moved away that Summer, quashing all our dreams.

Our favorite way to walk was to cut through the various backyards, beginning with Mr. Highfill's backyard which, though enclosed by an eight-foot redwood fence, was surmountable, given that a board in the fence was loose.  We'd have to be careful though, as Highfill's bald head would occasionally pop up out of nowhere and he'd say something like "what are you boys up to?" and you just had to believe there was an accusation in that question, an insinuation, and I don't think I'm imagining things. I think he suspects it was me who shot the bottle rocket up the drainage pipe under his house that night about midnight.  He'd be right.

Anyway, if we made it past Highfill we'd find ourselves in the backyard of the Rabinoffs, people my Mom warned us to steer clear of because they were Jews and were peculiar, like they had four heads or something.  Whenever reference was made to the Rabinoffs their Jewishness came up, as in "Mr.  Rabinoff bought a new Cadillac yesterday.  Those Jewish people, you know. . . ." It'd usually trail off like that, like you'd know what they were talking about, that enough had been said.  But actually, the Rabinoffs were pretty cool Jews.  Their dog, Igor or something, was a terror, however.  I think he didn't like Christians.  He'd growl and lunge at John and I if he were out, gnawing on the mesh fence that contained him, foaming at the mouth, until Mr. Rabinoff came out and yelled something like "Shalom, Igor, shalom," and Igor'd collapse in a puddle of spittle, spent.

If we made it, and we usually did, we'd traverse the edge of the Rabinoff's driveway dropping out of the underbrush onto Ferndale where, one night, to our dismay, we ran right into Roxanne Anders sitting on the curb, a cigarette in one hand, a Budweiser in the other.  Thirteen year old Roxanne put the fear of God into John and I, so we tended to avoid her.  The best way I can put it is that she was interesting but scary, the kind of girl that if you got mixed up with would mess you up real good, like a teenage version of the sirens of waywardness mentioned in Proverbs.   So there she is, striking a pose in her short shorts and halter top, and John and I instinctively sped up and kind of grunted at her as we passed hoping she'd leave us alone.  But it was too late.

"Hey Purcell, Maddry, where're you going so quick?"

"Hey Rox," I said.

"How about a beer?"

"Nah, I gotta get to the store."

"Come on.  Sit down right here, both of you.  I need to talk to you."

I felt my defenses crumble.  I sat down on one side, John on the other, and for the next 45 minutes Roxanne recited a litany of troubles with her parents, all the time leaning in close to me, putting her hand on my knee, blowing smoke in my face, some musky perfume enveloping me.  I couldn't even say anything much.  Sweat was pouring off of me and I felt feverish.  I knew I had to leave.  If we stayed we'd be playing spin the bottle with Roxanne before you knew it and with our luck we'd be standing in the middle of the street in our undershorts, Roxanne fully clothed, and her old man would come out with a shotgun.  And that'd be that. Dead kids in underwear.

"Holy cow, I gotta run!"  I jumped up and took off up the street, John in tow, Roxanne yelling for us to come back, that she wasn't finished.  Sure she wasn't.

But that's what I mean.  Anything can happen.  Peril mixed up with promise. Sin and salvation. That walk was full of implications for life, missed opportunities, wondrous providences.  It's all right there, if you just looked for it.

John moved, you know.  He's a weatherman.  Last I heard he was living in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, living in a pup tent in a KOA campground.

Angel Simms works at Target and is still hot. Roxanne Anders went to pharmacy school, putting better use to her knowledge of controlled substances. And Scotty's been dead ten years now, buried in his overalls as he wanted, right next to those Chihuahuas. The Koreans took over the Handy Mart. They're planting a Korean Presbyterian Church in the old Harris Teeter building.

When my Mom died, Carla and I and our three kids moved into the old house in the neighborhood. I'm the mailman here. On good days, I still like to walk the route past familiar landmarks and be thankful for my blessings, that "behind a frowning providence," as the hymn says, "He hides a smiling face," that somehow all that stuff that happened back then was a part of a great big mysterious plan God has for us all. That doesn't explain why John's living in pup tent or why a chic with looks and brains like Angel ended up in a dead end job in Target or why those guys took our money, but I can live with all that mystery. I don't require an explanation for Acts of God. That's providence. We just have to look where we're going. That's our job.

When you're eleven, you don't always know these things. When you're a kid, you just can't know some things that parents know.

Fearing Well

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What You Do In High School (My First Job)


When I consider the amount of time my children spend on homework now, I wonder what I did with all the time I had in high school.  The afternoons and evenings seemed to stretch out in front of me, timeless, and we made it up every day.

Like one day my friend John and I lay prone in front of my stereo determined to discern the lyrics of ZZ Top's "LaGrange."  One part came easy.  It went like this:  "Uh huh huh huh huh. . . . You know what I'm talkin' about." [BIG guitars here] Somewhere between the last "huh and the "You" he was mumbling something, but we couldn't figure it out, and not owning the record, and not having the Internet, we had only our own ability to discern.  We actually didn't know what he was talking about, but it sounded intriguing, exciting, and maybe something our parents wouldn't approve of.

Well, I guess that's the kind of thing we did with our time.

Every school night, religiously, we watched Johnny Carson from 11:30 -1:00, John falling asleep just short of the last bit of applause.  I let myself out, leaving him there in the Lazy-Boy recliner, snoring.

Most nights we walked shadowy, tree-shaded streets to the convenience store to buy a Pepsi, and back, hoping a girl, any girl, would be outside.  They usually weren't, so we didn't have to figure out what kind of cool thing we could say.  In other words, not much happened.  I certainly don't remember doing any homework.

Our big break came when we started working at Roses, a department store, because there were girls there from other high schools who we figured didn't know our shrinking reputations, and we were right.  We were poor employees, prone to laziness and mishap.  For example, one time we backed the delivery van into a house, bending the door so that we had to tie it to the van to keep it shut.  The homeowner was a little upset, writing on our delivery paperwork "Ran into house; broke off a section of brick."  When our boss, Mr. Smith, saw that, his face turned red in like one second and the vein in his neck popped out and he said. . . well, better not say what he said.  Later, we dropped a sleeper-sofa off the porch of a trailer we were delivering it to.  The man accepted delivery anyway. He was real nice about it.  I tell you, we almost ripped a new door in that double-wide.

One time my co-worker, Robbie I think, who dated my cousin once, wasn't paying attention and drove up on a sidewalk and nearly flipped the van.  You know how they say your life passes before you at such times?  Not true.  I think at that age you don't believe you can die, so your life doesn't pass by you because you don't believe you're going anywhere.

Once, riding alone in the step-van, doors open, I rounded a curve on my way to make a pit-stop at my girlfriend's house.  I took it a little fast, I guess.  The hand-truck fell out the side passenger door and rolled down the road behind the van.  I stopped, jumped out, ran back and retrieved the hand-truck, turned and looked up, only to see that the van was rolling toward me and the four lane road behind me.  I ran back to it, jumped in, and managed to stop it.  I nearly passed out.  Still, my life didn't pass before me.  I did, however, think of Mr. Smith and what he might have said if the van had crashed into a car or tree.

My girlfriend's mother said I was white as a sheet, like I'd seen a ghost.

I worked with two older guys, Scott and Billy.  Neither were very intelligent.  I'm being nice when I say that.  They really weren't playing with a full deck.  Scott believed he was God's gift to women.  He had a tattoo on his forearm and rolled his sleeves up high on his arms, making his muscles bulge, rolling up his Winston cigarettes in one sleeve.  Billy, God bless him, weighed 250 pounds, dressed every day in green army fatigues and a t-shirt, with a rope for a belt.  That's right, an ordinary white rope like you might tie a boat up to a dock with.  One time we had Billy looking all over Roses for the key to the third-floor swimming pool.  Yes, he was gullible, and yes, we were cruel.  But the boys were loyal to me, offering to "beat the #%&@! out of anyone who messed with me."  Once I almost had to take them up on that.

Generally, I worked in the deep recesses of the stock room, burrowing tunnels in and out of cardboard boxes of patio furniture, toys, and household items.  In my own small-minded way, I took some pleasure at this task, organizing the mountains of stock in various fashions.   I guess you could say we were inventory control, but we didn't do too well at monitoring things.  For example, it was months before we realized that we were missing a case of Listerine each month.  We only figured that out when we saw Leroy, our janitor, tipping one up and draining it dry one day.

On a few occasions I worked in the snack bar.  I'll spare you that story, as you may have a weak stomach.

One day, Ida Simmons, an older lady who worked in the Lingerie Department, motioned me over to her as I emerged from the stock room, trying to walk as cool as I could by the Sportswear Department where chicks shopped.  She wanted to tell me about her son, who was in college, a world away from me of course.  Standing there, listening, my biggest concern was what to do with my eyes and my hands.  Do I look over here at the panties, or at the bras, and what do I do with my hands?  I put them in my pockets, afraid I'd rest them on one of the half-dressed mannequins.  I was deathly afraid of being embarrassed.  I couldn't understand the old men I saw standing around in the Lingerie Department holding their wives' pocketbooks while their wives were in the dressing room, as if that was normal.  I mean, where's the dignity in that?

In between all this fun and foolishness, I emptied trucks of furniture, moved stock around, ran the cash registers, delivered furniture, swept and mopped floors, and cleaned bathrooms (when Leroy was on a binge).  I worked with blacks and whites, lower middle-class kids and rich kids; the young, middle-aged, and elderly; kids from my school and other schools.  I did it all.  I learned that not everyone was like me, and that some people would accept me for who I was.  I learned to talk to girls and women, as I was surrounded by them.  I learned that Scott and Billy, despite their bravado, were just insecure kids.  I experienced grace as, despite all my screw-ups, I kept my job.  I learned how to work.  You might say it was the school of life for me.  Life in and out of high school.

But John and I never figured out what they were singing.  Just "uh huh huh huh huh. . . . You know what I'm talkin' about."

But you do know what I'm talking about, don't you? 

[Any similarity between the events and persons described and actual persons and events is somewhat factual, somewhat imagined, and, hopefully, all true. Uh huh huh.]

The Trip to Bountiful

Shack2_2"When the Lord brought back the captives to Zion, we were like men who dreamed.  Our mouths were filled with laughter, our tongues with songs of joy" (Ps. 126:1-2)

In 1993 I had the dark providence of spending six consecutive weeks in the hospital, a first for me, and the first time I had been away from home for that length of time.  I felt that I was exiled there, imprisoned by my sickness, and at points I was not certain when or if I would return.  It was the most difficult trial I have ever faced --- particularly given that at points I felt abandoned by God.  What I mean is that I could hang onto the idea of God in my head but felt no supernatural presence with me.  And yet looking back I can see that He was with me in the form of the Body of Christ, in the flesh and blood people who came daily to encourage me.  And yet they always left, and I couldn't.  Every day I could stand at the end of a hall and watch people coming and going, a parade of life, and envy them their freedom, the homes that they could return to at the end of a day, the normality of their life.

The day did come, however, when I returned home.  I remember standing in my bedroom looking at everything --- the the doorframes, the chair by the window, the nightstand of unread books, and the hall to my children's rooms.  I went around touching things, running by hand over the banisters, the hearth, the bedspread, and the good solid doors.  I saw the pencil marks on the wall where we charted our children's growth.  I took deep breaths of the smell of my house, unique and missed.  I was like a man who dreamed.  I could not believe I was home.

Years ago now I saw a movie called The Trip to BountifulGeraldine Page plays an old widow woman living with her son and daughter-in-law in a small town in Texas.  Her abiding desire is to go home, home to her birthplace and to her house, to see again the place where she grew up and lived, to remember.  But as kindly as her son and his wife are, they can't seem to understand why she'd want to go there, and they won't take her.  So she boards a Greyhound bus and takes herself.  When she finally makes it to Bountiful, her home, she finds her the old house vacant and unoccupied, open to the elements, and yet she had to go there to remember and appreciate not just what she used to have but the home she now had with her son and wife.  She realized God's bounty by looking back, in seeing His providence in her life.

I called my friend Kirk while I was in the hospital, one Sunday afternoon.  Kirk did a radio show on the local college station.  I asked him to play a song that would encourage me.  He played Bruce Cockburn's "Wandering Where the Lions Are," a great song inspired by Cockburn's reading of the strange novels of Inkling Charles Williams.  The words spoke to me:

I had another dream about lions at the door
They weren't half as frightening as they were before
But I'm thinking about eternity
Some kind of ecstasy got a hold on me

And I'm wondering where the lions are...
I'm wondering where the lions are...

I find that the only way to think about eternity or heaven is to think about home.  And that's what I was doing.  When I got home and saw it for real.  It could have been heaven for all I was concerned.  I saw it all with new eyes, with wonder and deep appreciation.  No lions, at least none at those doors. 

I think I know how the Israelite exiles felt on returning to Zion:  This is it.  This is as good as it gets.  This is Home.  They were laughing all the way Home.

I don't know how people live uprooted and non-home lives, blowing here and there, moving every two years for career or just, as one woman once told me,  for something "new." We need a home to come back to.  It's through the memory  and, hopefully, the tangibility of that home that we see through to eternity, to our real Home.

Want to see Heaven?  Look carefully around your own home, or the one you remember, or the one you always hoped for.  Then multiply by 100.  That should do it.  Dream on that.  That just might be laughter in your throat.

The Luminous Particular: The Poetry of Jane Kenyon

HousewithsnowThis Morning

The barn bears the weight
of the first heavy snow
without complaint.

White breath of cows
rises in the tire-up, a man
wearing a frayed winter jacket
reaches for his milking stool
in the dark.

The cows have gone into the ground,
and the man,
his wife beside him now.

A nuthatch drops
to the ground, feeding
on sunflower seed and bits of bread
I scattered on the snow.

The cats doze near the stove.
They lift their heads
as the plow goes down the road,
making the house
tremble as it passes.

(Jane Kenyon, from Otherwise)

I love accessible poetry, and the late Jane Kenyon's spare poems, rich in images of the particulars of everyday life and yet simple and direct, typify all that I like about poetry. Yes, all, because Kenyon ultimately connected to the Universal behind all those (as her husband Donald Hall called them) "luminous particulars" of her poetry as she came to faith in God.

Kenyon died in 1995 at the age of 48 of leukemia after many years of writing poems rooted in the particulars of life on and around her New Hampshire farm. She had two great struggles in life: the lifelong struggle with bipolar disorder which gave her over to bouts of depression, and then to cancer, which ultimately took her life. And yet she lived well. She noticed things. Her poems have the effect of drawing the reader in where you ultimately make the poem your own. For example, in "This Morning," I can feel what it must have been like there on that New Hampshire farm, and then I am transported to my childhood room, waking up and "hearing" the snow outside, just knowing that the quiet means it has fallen, listening for the sounds of my parents, for the smell of coffee and eggs, joyful at the prospect of another school cancellation and an impromptu holiday. The images are different, the setting suburbia and not a New England farm, but the poem has worked its magic on me. Kenyon has done her job. She has made me remember and feel something rich.

On of her own favorite poems was the following, called "Let Evening Come."

Let the light of late afternoon shine through the chinks in the barn
moving up the bales as the sun moves down.
Let the cricket take of chaffing as a woman takes up her needles and her yarn.
Let evening come.
Let dew collect in the hoe abandoned in long grass.
Let the stars appear and the moon disclose her silver horn.
Let the fox go back to its sandy den.
Let the wind die down.
Let the shed go black inside.
Let evening come.
To the bottle in a ditch,
to the scoop in the oats,
to the air in the lung,
let evening come.
Let it come as it will and don’t be afraid.
God does not leave us comfortless.
So, let evening come.

God does not leave us comfortless. I encourage you to read Jane Kenyon. You'll find the true, the good, and the beautiful among her words.

Judging Not By Covers

I recently inherited two boxes of approximately 75 books, old and mostly Christian books which my 84-year old stepfather managed to squirrel away from my almost 80-year old mother. My mother suffers from the early stages of dementia, or Alzheimers (we're not sure which), and sadly she is not reading much anymore. So he is cleaning out a bit of her library of books, books that meant a great deal to me when I was younger.

In the living room of my mother's modest home is a upholstered chair. It has a floral pattern to it, now fading, and I remember that as a young boy its curves fit me perfectly (not so, now.) I would curl up with a book in this chair and not be seen for hours. I read a lot of science-fiction. After all, I was a member of the Science Fiction Book Club when I was eight. But lacking enough books, I also read books in her library. I remember a book about a mountain doctor, William Barclay's commentaries, World Book encyclopedias, and many, many Christian books by authors like William Wiersbe, Joyce Landorf, Elizabeth Eliot, and Billy Graham, among others. That's the thing about readers -- they will read anything available, even if it's not exactly what they would choose. At nine, Christian books by women weren't my first choice, but they were what we had. And they did me good.

Thus, opening the first of these boxes did bring back memories. There's the familiar smell of old paperback books which must have to do with age and dampness and ink and paper. It's the same everywhere. The covers are ragged in some cases, the pages browning. In some my mother has written her name in cursive -- the hand of a healthy woman in the middle of her life, with four children at home to care for -- and in others, nothing. In some there is underlining; others, blank page upon page, seemingly untouched. Like me, I wonder if some books were hoped for reads that she never got to.

Out of the 75 books I culled about ten that seemed to have some enduring value. In E.M. Bounds's classic, The Necessity of Prayer, I read of Bounds that "[a]s breathing is a physical reality to us so prayer was a reality for Bounds." That makes me want to read on, though perhaps my mother was too busy with childen to do so. In D.L. Moody's Prevailing Prayer,there is much underlining, and she even writes out the "Nine Elements Essential to True Prayer." She is learning and growing in her faith, and I smile thinking of how engaged with life she had to be at that point.

I picked up a book by Oswald Sanders entitled A Spiritual Clinic: Problems of Christian Discipleship, first published in 1958. Cost: 25 cents. I wondered if such discipleship problems were different in 1958 than they are almost half a century later. A review of the contents page confirms that there is nothing new under the sun, with chapters on suffering, despondency, prayer, determining God's will, and so on.

Two books by India missionary Amy Carmichael catch my attention. In Mimosa, she tells the story of a Hindu girl she watched come to faith and whose life she followed. First printed in 1925, the 1969 copy I held was the eighth edition. I conclude that eight editions probably makes it worth reading. In addition, Carmichael writes in simple yet beautifully descriptive prose. I suspect my children may enjoy this one. Another of Carmichael's books, Rose From Brier, also appears helpful -- "helpful thoughts for those who are ill," it says. As she had twenty years of illness, I suspect she knew what to say. I wonder if my mother read it during a time of illness?

Picking up Fritz Ridenhour's Tell It Like It Is, a faded and crinkled songsheet falls out, and I recognize that this is a book I bought while in college, and the songsheet is one from our Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship Chapter -- some of the first Christian songs other than hymns that I has sung. I wasn't going to bother with the book, with it's cartoonish cover and crew-cut topped Ridenhour on the back, and yet when I saw that the very first page was the poem "The Hound of Heaven," a classic poem of God's pursuit of His people, I decided to keep it.

The fact is, slickly packaged books may hide poor literature or bad theology, while old books with tattered covers and less than appealing typeface may contain gems of prose. Like my mother: At 80 she may be aging, forgetful, easily confused, and a bit fragile, and yet inside, deep down in her personal history, there are gems. I have to remember that. These books help.

On Idlewood

House_1The house in which I lived until about the age of four was a 1950s style single story frame "cottage", with a front screen door that went flap-flap-flap when you dropped it and a wooden front door that had a small triangular window set in it.  It wasn't quite like the picture, but these houses remind me of the cookie-cutter design of the houses in that neighborhood.  Of course, I could not have said that to you then, given my young age, all my memories now filtered through my middle-age lens.

The people next door to us, at least on one side, were Greek, with a son named Georgie with whom I played.  Their Greekness was evident and in descriptions of them to others they were always referred to as "the Greek people."  I threw a rock through their front living room window, but they were forgiving.  My Dad fixed the window.

Idlewood was a so Fifties name for my street, denoting suburban tranquility.  Maybe it was, and perhaps it wasn't.  That's difficult to speak of when you are four.  Besides, the world is small at four; the world I could walk on extended just a bit beyond Georgie's yard, perhaps as far as my sister's friend's house about five houses up, where she took me one time.  The backyard sloped down to a fence just beyond our playhouse, from where nose pressed through chain link I could overlook a swimming pool supply company, one with sample pools out back.  And that's about it for my world.

Revisiting this place in my mind is like looking at a photo album where most of the pictures have been lost.  My bedroom: lost.  The kitchen -- eating homemade french fries, sitting on the counters the night the rat got in the house.  The dining room: the monster that lived in the window fan.  The living room: shag carpet under my feet as I walk out one morning to see my Mom talking with an unidentified lady.  The front yard: My Mom coming home from the hospital with my little sister, the same place where I took the brake off the stroller and let her roll down the hill some time later.  (She survived, faring better than me.) 

Why these memories?  Why do I remember these things and not others?  I have no idea, but I trust that God has given these memories for some purpose and shielded me from others for my protection.  We have the promise that all things work together for the good of those who love Him, so I can be confident that even these memories left me work together for my good.

Just a tattered old photo album.  Now, if I could just find the rest of those photos.

Mom, She . . . [Fill in the Blank]

ThinkingI sometime decry revisionist historians or, more commonly, those who seem to have a selective or simply inaccurate memory of events that transpired some time ago.  Such things are not uncommon or, rather, are common; we are flawed rememberers, continually recasting events in a way favorable to us.  As a lawyer, I see this all the time.  People see things from different perspectives.  We seek the objective truth, what really happened, but so often it's like trying to describe an elephant to someone when all you can see of it is the trunk.  It's not necessarily inaccurate, it's just not fully accurate.  And then maybe your own prejudices or sinful tendencies color your perception.  I can offer personal examples.

When I was about four years of age, my sister pushed me off my tricycle.  I fell on the asphalt and scraped my chin and had to have stitches.  This is one of the few things about being four that I remember.  I instinctively blamed her, as in "Mom, she pushed me!"  Only thing is, she says she didn't do it.  Did she?  Or in my childish mind did I simply blame her for my own carelessness?  Well, I've carried that belief for all these years, only it may not be true, and we certainly won't know if it's true in this life and likely won't care if it is true in the one to come.  That's sin and perspective:  Big sister pushes little brother.  That's what older siblings do, right?

In the grand scheme of things, it won't matter much whether I simply fell or my big sister pushed me.  We've gotten over that a long time ago.  (We, did, didn't we sis?)  But the fact is, not remembering, or remembering only what we want to remember, can be fatal for nations and individuals.  Take the Hebrews on exodus.  After weeks of manna (and there's only so many ways you can serve manna), they were remembering Egypt in a somewhat idealistic light,as in "There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted. . .," never mind that they would have been dead Hebrews had they stayed in Egypt.  Memory is selective.  That and the golden calf ended with several thousand folks getting put to the sword.

This is one reason the church is important.  Remembering is a communal task.  Left to ourselves, there is no one to challenge us, no one to question our accounts of God's dealing with us, no one to help us remember the foolish things we have done (so we don't repeat them) or encourage us by the right things we have done (so we can see God's working in our lives).  And if we fail at corporate remembrance, God will likely send a prophet to us -- a burr in our saddle, a pain in the neck, a disagreeable kind of person who says all the most unpleasant things to us.  It's a good incentive to remember His providential care, the ends of foolishness and egotism, and the promise of contentment and peace if we follow Him.

Can you help me remember?  If I blame someone else for my troubles, can you help me check the facts?  And if I'm discouraged, can you help me remember His covenant promises?  As I told a friend a few days ago, thank God I can't have my way all the time, that he has saved me from myself.  Thank God He has saved me from my selective skewed memories as well and has provided a remembering community for me to be a part of.  We'll never get His story completely right, but we can try.

Christmas Snow

BikeThe last time I saw snow on Christmas was a Christmas morning in 1966 or 1967 in Greensboro, North Carolina.  Underneath the tree that morning was a purple bike with a banana seat and high handlebars.  As soon as the presents were opened, I took it outside in the cold, pedaling down the asphalt, past my friend Bobby's house, wondering for a moment what he had that morning under his tree.  I felt the first snowflakes, my father watching me cruise down the street on that deliciously cool Spyder 5-speed bike from Sears.  It was a perfect Christmas.  I haven't felt snow on Christmas in the nearly 40 years since then.  And I've never had a bike quite like that bike.

I realize now what tumultuous times those must have been for my parents.  It was a time of draft dodgers, hippies, and race riots, and we had our fair share of all those in our city.  Coming home from Wednesday night prayer meeting at church, a regular of churches then, we were stopped at a checkpoint by the police.  A curfew had been imposed at 9:00 because of rioting near A&T University.  I had little understanding of that then.  Shutting down the city at 9:00 was a drastic thing even then before the advent of 24-7 shopping and eating, even before people really did much shopping at all after 6:00.  People were home for the evening.  Shops were closed.  And here the police were on the streets and people were told to go home and stay off the streets.  On TV we heard sober reports of crowds throwing bottles and rocks, angry men shouting, and I'm sure my parents wondered what the world was coming to.  Really, I was clueless, my world limited to the a small orbit around my parents, my neighborhood, and my school.

We took my sister and her friend to school one morning, junior high school, and I remember she was bragging about her go-go boots, white Nancy Sinatra boots ("these boots are made for walking,/ and that's just what they'll do,/ One of these days these boots are gonna/ walk right over you.")  My sisters were weird and often spiteful and mostly useless to me then.  I was an only boy.  On account of that, I most often did as I pleased and was allowed to.  It's a wonder I survived childhood and teenage years.

But back to Christmas. . . I remember lying awake then, hearing my parents talk around black coffee at the kitchen table just outside my room, those comforting murmurs and small laughs.  I was willing myself awake, trying to wait and see if I heard reindeer on the roof, watching the patterns of car headlights on the walls as cars passed on the street outside.  Later, much later I thought, I heard noises in the basement, things being moved about.  One Christmas I even thought I heard the hooves of reindeer on the roof.  I was too afraid to go and look, afraid it wouldn't be real.

I loved that snow the best, though.  A purple Spyder five speed banana seat high handlebar bike in the snow.  That's hard to beat for a ten year old.

Middle School Musical

IntrovertAt this very moment, there are eleven -- count that -- eleven 12-13 year old girls downstairs for my daughter's 12th birthday.  They are a trip to watch.  Earlier this evening, each time a new girl would get dropped off by a parent, the whole troupe would run to the door and have a tremendous group hug for the arrivee, everyone talking at once.  We eventually sat them all down for pizza and had each one go around the table, say their name, tell their favorite color, and state one of the most embarrassing things that had ever happened to them.  Now that was rich.  The expressions were marvelous.  Everything form lost diapers, missing underwear, wearing pajamas to school, or saying stupid things like the time by daughter left a voice message for a friend, ending with, "well, I'll see you tomorrow, in Jesus name, Amen." 

I love 12-year old girls.  There's no teenage attitude yet, no cool factor in play, and yet they're changing.  You can see the future written in their faces and, if you know their Moms, you can often see their Moms in them.  They still love to play.  They had two games of sardines in the dark and, honestly, the decibel level was dangerously high from all the screams.  We'll be very, very tired tomorrow.

But we love this.  I could do it every week.  When I watch them I sometimes realize  what I lacked in my growing up.  I don't remember having any birthday parties, though I'm sure I did.  I don't remember huge slumber parties.  I had two close friends, and I remember them well.  But I did not have the rich web of friendships my children have. Now before you say "you poor, poor boy," you should know that I'm sure a good part of that was me.  I am an introvert, and I'm happy with that.  I really enjoy being with a few people, like a whole lot more but don't care to see them too often, try to love all as Christ would, and, well, enjoy time alone everyday.  People wear me out.  So if you see me, on occasion, eating lunch alone at a restaurant, reading a book, don't say what I used to say about such folk -- "that poor man, he has no friends."  I have great friends.  It's just that sometimes I need to be alone, so I can think, so I can try and make sense of what's going on or reflect on life via the fictional characters in a good novel.  (By the way, I love this Q&A about introverts here.)

Introvert that I am, I have to leave the girls for awhile and retreat to my study, like I am doing now.  They were last heard singing along to the evening movie, High School Musical, loudly, and even dancing some.  They're absolutely great.  And tomorrow, when they're gone, and I think about them, I know I'll smile.  Wouldn't you?  So if you see me sitting alone, and smiling, don't ask me if I'm OK.  I am.  I'm just thinking about my middle school musical. eleven 12-year old girls, a snapshot of a moment in time, something to treasure.  I hope something of that 12-year oldness carries on into adulthood.  I hope they can still play.

Girls and the 14 Year Old

Billbrd I'm going to be perfectly and embarrassingly honest here in talking about girls.  You see, at 14 I had been thinking about girls in a favorable way since, oh, about 12 1/2.  The only problem was they didn't seem to be thinking of me in a favorable way.  They didn't talk to me, and I was clueless about what to say to them.

After lunch in eighth grade we'd congregate on the plaza outside the school.  We began with a herd of guys in one corner, a gaggle of girls in another, a few girls and "advanced" guys in one corner, and the class cast-offs (you know what I mean, the geeks now running major corporations) in another corner.  One by one we guys watched our numbers dwindle as guys would go over to what we called "the dark side" (the girls).  What were we doing?  Mostly immature stuff, but I was usually carrying maybe 10-15 LPs to school every day and talking with 2-3 other guys about music, which, then, was Jethro Tull, Traffic, The Who, The Beatles, Yes, and more.  Those were good years in music.  Anyway, I think we were all secretly envious of the defectors, though we trashed them behind their backs.

Well, at 14 my best friends John and Bobby and I went to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina together, the Las Vegas of teendom, on the bus, of course.  We were, naturally, desperate to meet a girl and figured this was it, our big weekend.  Friday night we cruised the Pavilion but couldn't get up the nerve to talk to one single girl.  We left that night rather ashamed of ourselves, though we never said it.  Saturday night we stood and watched three girls riding the Himalaya, the really fast roundabout.  We saw them, and they saw us.  They looked pretty nice, at least at that speed and at a distance.  After the ride stopped, they came right over to us.  Wow.  That was exciting.  However, the closer they got, the less nice they looked.  In fact, they looked pretty bad.

Well, they had nice personalities, anyway.  We consoled ourselves with that.

It's not a pretty picture, but that's just how we thought about life. . . at 14.

Fire and the 14 Year Old

Clip_image002_35 I don't seem to recall much of anything that happened before I was 14.  I think everything happened that year.  A girlfriend, finally.  John moved to town and the adventures began.  We went to the beach with the church youth group and roamed Emerald Isle all night.  Every school night we watched Johnny Carson until 1:00 a.m., and then I crept home in the darkness to find my bed.  Didn't hurt me one bit, I guess.

That was the year Winfrey Settles lit up our chemistry class.  Winfrey was a tall gangly kid who was a little short in mind, or presence of mind, at least.  That day in science class we had our pegboards set up and Bunsen burners roaring.  Fire is a dangerous thing to put in the hands of a 14 year old.  My memory begins with the teacher shouting "Winfrey, Winfrey, stop, stop!," and Winfrey was blowing for all he was worth, the flames engulfing the pegboard, him almost hyperventilating.  It was fun for everyone but Mrs. Sessions and Winfrey.  He disappeared for the rest of the day.  And, well, I have no idea what happened to him and don't plan on attending my 30th high school reunion this year to find out.

I remember Winfrey because, you see, Settles comes before West and he was always near me in our alphabetically arranged classes. That's me, between Zimmerman and Settles, consigned to be between two morons for all time.  (Sorry if that's uncharitable, but it's true, and I told them that then so I'm not going behind their backs.  Zimmerman is another whole story.)  They're probably brain surgeons or in charge of the Transportation Safety Administration.  I don't even want to know.

I don't know the eternal, enduring significance of that moment we all shared with Winfrey, but when I think of it, I smile.  And that's worth something.