Meet Dylan, a Millennial

Dylan hasn't figured out what to do with his life. He's 25. With a little prompting from me, however, he does know what I usually order for lunch.

"I got that," he says. "I'll remember next time." He hurries off to fill the order: a slice of cheese pizza, salad, no croutons, ranch dressing, and unsweetened ice tea.

When he brought my tea, I looked up at him. My little snippet of conversation with him made me realize he wasn't just an appendage to the menu, that an actual person was standing in front of me, an image of God. Wow. I looked at Dylan, squinted my eyes, and tried to imagine that imprint of divinity on his wrinkled black shirt, but it was elusive.

"So, how are you," I said. He allowed as to how he was fine. He asked about me, and I said I was fine, too. That's good. We're both fine. Everybody is just fine. The whole world is fine. But not really. Of course, whenever anyone honestly answers that question we shy away, are in a hurry all of a sudden, answer our cell phone, or make for the door. Danger, we think. Needy person ahead. But Dylan is fine, today anyway. We've got that out of the way.

He returns with my salad. "Here you go."

There he is, a real person.

"You know Frank?," he says.

"Sure, I know Frank. I've been coming here for years. Where is he, anyway?"

"He's been taking some time off, something to do with his hands."

"I hope he's ok."

"Oh sure, he's fine."

I look down at my salad. Dylan leaves.

Ach. Humans, I think. What to say. How to relate. I think about the book I've been reading with my community group from church about how postmoderns come to faith. Dylan is a postmodern, though he may not know the term. He's in process, struggling, trying to belong, to find his place. I wonder how I can bring up spiritual things. I think about some of the questions suggested in the book, like "what do you think is the meaning of life," or "are you interested in spiritual things," but listening to them in my head they just sound awkward. I eat salad, study a sugar packet’s fine print.

"Here's your pizza. Care for some bread?"

"Nope, trying to watch my figure." He turns to leave. "Hey, Dylan, is this your only job?" Lame, but I was trying.

“Yeah. Well, I was studying Computer IT in college, but I dropped out. I don’t know what I want to do. I used to sell computers out of my parents’ garage.”

“Well, it sometimes takes a while to figure out what you want to do, doesn’t it?”

“Yeah, you got that right.”

I guess I could have invited more, like asking him how you go about figuring out what to do with your life. And maybe I will. Next time.

But wait. Part of what I am feeling in this encounter with Dylan is the need to “do evangelism.” In a recent article in Critique, John Seel suggests that this way of doing evangelism is counterproductive among millennials, that a better picture is one of “shared pilgrimage,” of coming alongside someone and making a meaningful connection rather than giving the sense that we have already arrived and are just calling them to come aboard. In the article, Seel says that Millennials are often “haunted by the possibility of an unseen spiritual world,” and he suggests several onramps to that spiritual longing.

All to say, Dylan is not fine, and neither am I. But perhaps we can talk about that, next time. Maybe that’s an onramp to eternity.

Singing In a Foreign Land

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

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

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

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

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

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.

A Rendezvous Assured

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

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

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

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

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

The Years the Locusts Ate

n Joel 2:25 the Lord says through the prophet to His people, “I will repay you for the years the locusts have eaten-- the great locust and the young locust, the other locusts and the locust swarm-- my great army that I sent among you.” Matthew Henry says this is a prefiguring of the gospel, the years being the judgment we experience when we live apart from God and under the law; the repaid years, the blessings to which we are restored having experienced God’s grace by repentance.

I was reminded of this when listening to British septuagenarian and singer-songwriter Bill Fay. His song, “ I Hear You Calling,” off his latest album, "Who Is the Sender?," and a remake of his 1971 recording, has these lines: “Some say messiah coming/ give me back my time/ All my time is lying on the factory floor/And all my time is lying on the factory floor.” I found that sense there, that having been consigned to the drudgery of factory work for many years, the narrator looks forward to the redemption of all that time when Christ returns and restores all things.

I suspect we all have some lost years, some wasted parts of life, some days when we served only ourselves or labored under the curse and failed to look to the Cross. What a great promise that we’ll get all that time back, that the years the locusts ate will be repaid. Indeed, the One who owes us nothing will give us all. 

Round Words

"I keep on speaking the language of the Christian faith because, although the words themselves may well be mostly dead, the longer I use them, the more convinced I become that the realities that the words point to are very real and un-dead, and because I do not happen to know any other language that for me points to these realities so well."  (Frederick Buechner)

For the unbeliever, words like redemption or salvation are either flat and lifeless or, worst, have some negative connotation, as in intolerance or self-righteousness. Yet for the believer, these words are round, having depth and breath, like a well that never ceases giving water. At times they are flat to me too; other times they rise up on the page and shout at me and then I think that the realities to which they point are ones you can never really fully explore.

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.

An Antidote for Acedia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Finding Your Place

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can You See the Real Me?

When I was in college anomie was a big word. In Sociology 101 we talked about the reduction of people to numbers, the depersonalization of the arena-sized classroom, the sense that you were nothing but a cog in a gigantic wheel going nowhere. That was the Seventies, and we were reeling from Watergate, gas shortages, the Vietnam war, and the advent of disco (particularly the latter).

Honestly, as a freshman, I was not thinking such lofty thoughts. As I sat in the back of the biology classroom with one million other students, a mere speck in the eye of the academy, squinting to make out the professor down front, I was thinking about my girlfriend who broke up with me. Or my next move, as in girl move. In retrospect, I was preoccupied with my own concerns but not thinking much about my image, my tribe, my brand. I didn’t have an IPhone (the Dark Ages, people), watch particular TV shows, or identify myself by what car I drove, food I ate (Vegan, locally-sourced, gluten-free), or brand clothes I wore. I may have been self-centered (no, I was self-centered), but I do not recall making decisions based solely on how I would be perceived but by what I wanted. I wanted to figure out who I was, but I wasn't consciously trying to build an image. I was just. . . me. . . whoever "me" was. The court of public opinion of me was really, really small.

The world has changed. In the latest volume of The Mockingbird, in an article entitled “Searching Low and High for the Who Behind the Who,” David Zahl notes that it “used to be that only museums and boutiques were curated. Today, people are curated, lives are curated.” Even as I say this, I’m tempted to think of how you perceive me. Intelligent? A little hip? (I wish.) Bookish? Thoughtful? I try not to think about such things, and yet they creep in. Honestly, can you blame me? We’re swimming in a tidal wave of identity-preoccupation. It’s not so much the question of who I am but who I want you to perceive me to be. And that’s a particular kind of self-absorption that we need a way out of.

I only know one way. And Zahl nails it. He says the moment of grace comes when we stop asking "Who am I?" and start asking "Who are you?" That Godward focus leads to a kind of self-forgetfulness, the kind where, as Tim Keller says, we not only do not care what others think, we do not even care what we think of ourselves. As Keller says in The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness, "True gospel-humility means I stop connecting every experience, every conversation, with myself. In fact, I stop thinking about myself." Because all that matters is what Jesus thinks of me, and He declares me holy (because of Him) and beloved. No condemnation. Case closed. Love alone that will not let me go.

There's no direct path to humility, to a God-shaped identity, because when you get there, you won't be thinking about getting there, because I suspect you will have already forgotten yourself. But for most of us, issues of identity rear their head every day, and we have to confront them by doing what Keller says: we have to re-live the Gospel every day, every moment. And if you catch yourself obsessing over perceptions, laugh at the foolish project you have embarked on and live in the love of Jesus. Stop staring in the reflecting pool of self, and meditate on the Source out of Whom our identity flows.

Once I was carrying one of my favorite singer-songwriters to his hotel after a gig. I blathered on about one of his songs and how much it had spoken to me. I expected him to be grateful, to respond warmly. He said nothing. I was looking for appreciation. But now I know. He had forgotten himself, and he did not want to be reminded, did not want to begin to think he was a gift to the world, that he was who I thought he was. He was performing for an audience of One, and it wasn't me.

I want to be like 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.


A Landscape of Grace

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

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

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

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

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

That’ll be the day.


A Proper Scaring. . . at Christmas


“We have become so accustomed to the idea of divine love and of God’s coming at Christmas that we no longer feel the shiver of fear that God’s coming should arouse in us. . . . The coming of God is truly not only glad tidings, but first of all frightening news for everyone who has a conscience. Only when we have felt the terror of the matter, can we recognize the incomparable kindness.”

(Dietrich Bonhoeffer)

If children know only happiness at Christmas, then we as adults can know an even greater happiness. We know, like children cannot yet know, the lack and lust of our own hearts, the countless sins of commission and omission. Our ledger is full of black marks and growing. And so, when we consider what God has done in His condescension, in his Incarnation, Bonhoeffer’s “cheap grace” is not an option: we know our failings, we know what we deserve, and so we know that what we receive as gift is pure grace.

I am thankful that I had a good scaring as a child. In my childhood church, I recall watching prophecy films about the end of the world, the projector wheels turning, dramatic and sobering. On the way home in the dark once, I lay down in the floorboard at my mother’s feet, sheltered from what was sure judgment. Then, as a preteen science fiction reader, I was steeped in the fantastical and yet not so unreal as to be unbelievable stories of Issac Asimov and Robert Heinlein, so much so that I dreamed of terrors and, for a time, had to move into my parents’ room just so I could sleep. After that, Hal Lindsey’s pre-millenialist End Times manual, The Late Great Planet Earth, was a logical next step, a kind of Bible-based science fiction. The Antichrist. Armageddon. One world government.  Nuclear war. It was all coming true, in my lifetime. I just knew it.

While I no longer agree with Lindsey's interpretation of Scripture, I credit him (and perhaps Asimov and Heinlein as well) with scaring me into the Kingdom. I wanted to be among those raptured. I was frightened of being left behind. In the shadow of the Cold War, I lay awake at night sometimes wondering when the bombs would fall as part of the judgment. (I had a big imagination.)  I felt, as Bonhoeffer puts it, “the shiver of fear that God’s coming should arouse.”

So, I am put off at times by the sentimentality and sweetness of Christmas. That helpless baby lying in a manger is also the one who will come with fire and judgment. On that terrible day, left on our own, none of us could complain. Justice will be done. The Christ in the manger points to the Christ on the cross, the One resurrected, the one who comes on that Great Advent to make all things right. We best approach the helpless babe first on our knees, trembling, as He is our Judge. He is the one who will separate the sheep from the goats, the one who will "make all things new" (Rev. 21:5). We must absorb the bad news before we are quite ready for the good news. You hear little of this “proper scaring” during Advent.

At some point in my teenage years, I understood more fully that the God who judged my sin also covered it, that the baby Jesus was more than judge. He stood between my sin and God. He was not only judge but savior. I could walk through the hallways of my high school not weighed down by failings but free. All the Falls of my life were overthrown by Springs. The ledger may continue to fill with what I owe and yet "Jesus paid it all," in the words of the old hymn.

Rightly understood, this first Advent is a harbinger of a terrifying Day. But for believers, like children, we have all the more reason to be happy. We need not fear judgment. We are the recipients of a present of grace that has no bottom.  Bonhoeffer says that

God comes into the very midst of evil and of death, and judges the evil in us and in the world. And by judging us, God cleanses and sanctifies us, comes to us with grace and love. God makes us happy as only children can be happy. . . . We are no longer alone; God is with us. We are no longer homeless; a bit of the eternal home has moved into us.

In a final letter, written on her deathbed, author Flannery O’Connor admonished the recipient to “be properly scared, and [to] go on doing what you have to do, but take the necessary precautions.” Christian, I hope at some point in life you have had a proper scaring. If not, consider anew the Great Advent. Look to a baby in a manger who will bear all our sins away, as far as the East is from the West.

Happy Christmas, all. For the love of God, Happy Christmas.

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.  


Sabotaging the Regime of Speed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Weight We Share

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

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

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

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

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

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



The Weight We Bear

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Like Waldie, I knew no other place. 

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


When Jesus Comes

IMG_1727If you have wondered where Outwalking has been, it's absence has been due in part to the fact that I was in southwest Uganda from June 16-30, serving as part of a mission to churches in that area with Amazing Grace Adoptions and Orphan Care.  It wasn't that I didn't blog, because I did, writing here on the official mission blog.  I hope you'll visit the blog to see what we were up to there in the Kisoro District.  But just in case you don't, I'll share some excerpts here.

The Kisoro District of Uganda is far from the capital city of Kampala, about a 10-hour bus trip, and thus far from the minds of the government officials there.  As a result, government support of the community is lacking.  Poised as there are on the border with the Congo, a resource-rich if troubled country, and Rwanda, a comparatively better off and yet still troubled country, they have seen their share of refugees.  Add to that a drought that has affected them for nearly a month, and the material poverty is palpable.  And yet material poverty is the good soil of spiritual wealth

For eight days we followed Pastor George to eight of the 16 churches he has planted.  George and his wife Rubina have no salary, no bank account, and no other stable source of income.  Nevertheless, they have several children and have managed to take in orphans to raise as their own.  Like nearly all Ugandans in rural areas, they "dig," as they say, providing for themselves by planting and harvesting their own crops from small plots of land.

One day at breakfast, Pastor George says this: “When I walk to visit the churches, I sometimes don't know where I will sleep. Sometimes I sleep outdoors. Sometimes I sleep in a church with no windows or doors. When I lay down, I don't know if I am going to wake up. Then, I find myself moving, and I am up. I do not know how God will provide, but I know that He will.”  I do not even know how to think in this way.  Like most people from the West, I have multiple safety nets to fall back on should trouble come - savings, insurance, family, and government.  Most Ugandans have nothing --- nothing but God, that is.  How can God grow the kind of faith in me that I see in this man?

One day we drove to the end of a rutted dirt road, finally disembarking to walk the rest of the way to a church because the bridge was impassable.  It was like following the Apostle Paul.  The road teemed with people walking.  Women carrying baskets of fruit, beans, or rocks on their heads; men pushing bicycles laden with bamboo, mattresses, a bed frame, potatoes; and children staring and waving from doorways and dirt yards shared with goats and chickens. In the fields, women slung hoes, digging at the rich earth, babies strapped to their backs.  They flocked around us.  They all know Pastor George.  That night I recalled the words of Frederick Buechner from The Magnificent Defeat: “Jesus is apt to come, into the very midst of life at its most real and inescapable. Not in a blaze of unearthly light, not in the midst of a sermon, not in the throes of some kind of religious daydream, but… at supper time, or walking along a road.”

So, out walking He comes.  Walking along a road.

So what did we do?  Pastor George asked for nothing but one thing: that we come and encourage his people.  So, feeling our weakness, our inadequacy, we came.  We taught Bible study to men and women over half of whom lack a Bible but who are adept at listening, eagerly absorbing the Word.  We prayed for people.  We heard of their difficulties.  We sang. They sang.  We ate the lunch they prepared for us: beans, rice, Irish potatoes, cooked cabbage, and tough sinewy beef that proved too tough for most of us.  We loved on the children, played games, enacted parables, heard sad stories of sexual abuse and what seemed like demonic visitation.  Powerless, we called on the omnipotent One to help them, the Father to the many fatherless, to a people adopted and made co-heirs with Christ of spiritual riches unencumbered by material wealth.


Many times I thought surely there are people who can teach Bible study better than me, who know the Bible better than me.  And yet I was reminded that those people were not there, and I was.  So I just opened my mouth and prayed to God that He would fill it.  And something came out.  We began and ended our days in weakness. For a devotion after breakfast our first day, we read II Corinthians 12:1-10, and considered Christ's words to Paul, his answer to his plea to have some ailment of mind or body removed from him: "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness."  The words stood up on the page and walked with us for two weeks, taking life in the life we lived.

Standing outside a church one day, within sight of Congo, Pastor George told us how the grandmother of the pastor used to walk all the way to Kisoro to come to his church, nealy 25 miles. One day she offered to give him the land for the church. The church members then built the church, rock by rock. Each one gives. “If you can't give money, bring a rock to church,” George says.

Rock by rock. That's how it goes there. That's how they live out the gospel. That's how we have to live out the Gospel.  That's how the Kingdom gets built.


Repentance As Posture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What did you say?

Oh, nothing.  Everything.  Just everything.



Changing the Weather

Cover_May2013_120-04-15-2013-101005There are chilly winds blowing in the world.  And yet we have a way of selectively reading reality, filtering out or minimizing the things we don't want to think about, turning up our collar to a frigid truth if we venture out, warming ourselves by the glow of hearth and home.  But sometimes reality gushes in, and we realize that indeed a hard rain is falling.

Two recent articles in First Things changed the normally sunny weather I travel in.  In one by Wesley J. Smith, entitled "Medicinal Murder," the author documents the steady expansion of euthanasia in Europe.  As case in point, he cites Belgium, where suicides are termed by many in the medical community as a "beautiful death," not merely suicides of terminally ill persons but even of those who, because of depression or lack of will to live, are ready to end it all.  Furthermore, he documents the ungodly linkage of euthanasia with organ harvesting.  Society now benefits from mercy killings.  And when there are legal violations of euthanasia laws, enforcement is lax or nonexistent.  Thus, a cultural shift has ocurred where death is celebrated as one more benefit of human autonomy: you can choose when to die, and society and the medical profession will help you and even profit from your death.  Smith notes that once euthanasia is legalized, the categories of people eligible for it expand, but the rest of society ceases to think it matters.  He believes this trend is symptomatic of cultural nihilism.

Perhaps you know this.  Perhaps the essay only confirms what we already know.  But it is worth reading for the last paragraph, where Smith offers the antidote:

What is the antidote?  Love.  We all age.  We fall ill.  We grow weak.  We become disabled.  Life can get very hard.  Euthanasia raises the fundamental question of whether our culture will retain the moral capacity to sustain a culture of care for those who have entered life's most difficult stages.  On that question, it seems to me, hangs the moral future of Western civilization.  For as the Canadian journalist Andrew Coyne has cogently warned: "A society that believes in nothing can offer no argument even against death.  A culture that has lost its faith in life cannot comprehend why it should be endured.

So that's it?  Love?  Not taking to the courts, mounting advocacy for life, passing laws to protect the elderly and infirm?  Just love?

In that same issue of First Things, in an article entitled "Lena Dunhams's Inviolable Self," Alan Jacobs contrasts the moral world of Jane Austen and the apparently amoral world of Girls, an HBO series in its first season.  He describes a sexual fantasy that one of the main characters, Adam, has about his rape of an 11-year old heroin addict.  As shocking as this is, what Jacobs focuses on is even more shocking: In all the reviews of the show none of the journalists admit to the possibility that there could be a moral dimension to Adam's reverie.  And apparently fans have no problem with all this either.  They continue to watch.  This is in contrast to the moral world of Jane Austen, where there are categories of right and wrong and we all know what they are.

Once again, however, the antidote to this amorality is not, Jacobs says, to meet it head on.  He concludes: "To someone who thinks Adam's fantasies are unproblematic, or even commendable, there is nothing for me to say.  I confront a linguistically unbridgeable gap; I confront incommensurability." In other words, these two worlds do not connect.  As I said to someone I was having a heated discussion with many years ago, we have lost the ability to communicate, at least propositionally, as we do not share the same understanding of the world and, in a sense, the same language.  We talk past each other.

So what do we do?  Jacobs says that what we need "is not condemnation. . . but better art and better stories --- better fictional worlds. . . . [N]ot the abolition of mythic sandboxes but the making of sandboxes in which to play with true, or truer, myths."  Rather than simply condemning the fictive world of Girls, we can write and film truer stories that capture the imagination, that give viewers or readers a vision of a different reality.  Rather than shows about the "beautiful death" of assisted suicide, we offer up excellent stories of the reverberating compassion and love that might surround the disabled or aged, stories that help people imagine that compassion grows in the face of suffering, in standing with the dying, not in ending their lives.

We may reach some people by arguing propositional truth.  But in this time we may reach more by telling better stories, by opening a portal to the True Truth at the heart of Reality.  In a culture that no longer speaks our language, our venue for persuasion has shifted.

A decade ago I was standing at the back of the Acoustic Stage at the Cornerstone Music Festival when a muddied grunge-rock fan ambled up.  He stood gaping at what he heard.  "This is beautiful, man, just beautiful.  What is it?"  The acoustic, story-driven songs resonated with him.  All he had heard was the loud and gutteral screaming of the bands playing in the tent next door.  He was mesmerized by the different reality of the Acoustic Stage.  And as a result, I was able to tell him what he was hearing.

"Art," Picasso said, "is the lie that tells the truth." "Tell it slant," said Emily Dickenson.  Christians, get busy lying.  And get busy loving.  That's the antidote for a culture gone wrong.  That just might change the weather.




Map in the Mind

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


An Inner Walk

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

And so it does.

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

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

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

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

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

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




When Trees Clap Their Hands

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

(Robert Mcfarlane, in The Old Ways)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Is. 55:12).  

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

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

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

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




The Solace of the Quotidian

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As do I.




Inventing the Truth

Does a snippet of an author's personal story really help you understand and interpret the author's words?  Does it make you more interested in what the author writes?  Apparently publishers think so, for they keep pumping out nonfiction books that, whatever the ostensible subject, are light on serious research and heavy on Me.  This is a regrettable trend on two accounts.  It conflates experience with understanding, as if dropping by for a visit or meeting a local were all it took to become an expert.  And it produces book as ephemeral as magazine articles, hardly worth keeping on the shelf.

(Marc Levinson, in "Casting Copper As Victim," in The Wall Street Journal, October 13-14, 2012)

Levinson's comment about a book he was reviewing echoes with a sentiment expressed several years ago by Garrison Keillor.  Asked to be a poetry judge, and after reading piles of bad poetry about mostly bad experiences, Keillor concludes that "Experience becomes literature when it no longer matters to the reader whether it's true or not."  That is to say, the story is told so well that no one cares if it's really true.  Unfortunately, the same can't be said of a work of nonfiction, as we expect nonfiction to be true.  At least we ought to.

And yet the lines are increasingly blurred in a world that has lost the sense of a truth that is true, of True Truth, that is, of a truth that corresponds to reality.  People believe everything, and nothing at all, and even have no difficulty holding logically inconsistent positions.

Take memoir, what you might call perspectival truth.  Reading it we understand its limitations, that we are hearing one perspective on a situation, on a life.  And yet as much as I enjoy the genre I often have the sense that I am being deceived for the sake of a good story, that the details of a life are embellished.  I feel cheated, as I want it to be true.  Given that there are some notable examples of bestsellers that turned out to be blatant falsehoods spun well, I am suspicious.  I want the truth.  It may be a truth limited by the author's limited experience, yet still I want the truth as far as the author knows it.  

But that's not the only problem.  The greater problem is when people no longer care if the memoir is really true, when it doesn't really matter.  Memoir becomes fiction, and we don't care because maybe we want it to be true or need it to be true.

 The best memoirs are the synoptic gospels.  In them, Hebrew men tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth, a truth superintended by the Holy Spirit and yet not dictated, a truth shaped perspectivally by their own unique personalities and yet nonetheless true.  The Spirit tells the story of Jesus --- gives a memoir of His life, death, and resurrection --- and uses mere men in the telling, condescends in a fashion to their own limitations of perspective, and yet makes sure that the message is true.

While our own memoirs are not so perfect, that is, God is not so involved in creating an authoritative, inerrant account of our lives, allowing our imperfections to affect the telling, we can pray we tell it straight, that God will inhabit our telling so the truth we tell is True Truth.

The fact is, I want to get it straight, but I love a good story.  When I'm tempted to slant the truth, to write the memoir I think I wish I had, I pray God would help me write the one I in fact have, the one He gave me.  It can't get any better than that.

"Jesus wept," says John, because he saw it.

Cleopas saw a resurrected Jesus on the Road to Emmaus and said "did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road," because he saw Him and Luke set it down.

I'm glad that's really, really true.  Because if He can weep over a world gone wrong, then so can we. And if Cleopas can see a resurrected Christ, then He lives and so do we who can rejoice in our tears.

Pray God we tell it straight.

How to Build a Booth

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

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

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

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

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

Attending to Wonder: The Photography of Robert Adams

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

(Robert Adams, Photographer)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Starving Phantoms

“I think I have been learning about faith as long as I have lived in fear. Maybe longer. Whenever I am afraid, it is because I am also believing in something unseen, and like faith, it too requires an agile imagination. Both seem to have a way of growing bigger depending on how much attention we give them although one seems fed by truth and goodness while the other is fanned by worry and dreaded ‘what ifs.’”

(Jo Kadlecek, in Fear: A Spiritual Navigation)

My 89-year old aunt has been seeing things, we think.  First, there were the boys walking around on her roof and whispering under her window at night.  Never mind that she hears poorly, too deaf to notice feet padding around on shingles, shushed voices plotting on the exterior.  Never mind that its been over 100 degrees on the roof, a literal "hell" of a playground for adolescents.  Then there were gypsies in the trees, a girl with a bandanna, weeping.  And now, "wharf" rats slinking through her side yard, "big as a cat."

When I tell her that no one else has seen such things, that maybe it is her imagination, she can only say "Well, I'm not crazy."  After a couple phone calls at 3:00 AM and 26 calls to 911 in a month and a half, I am not sure about that.  Yet, thankfully, things have died down.  There are no more emergency calls, as she has concluded that the police are incompetent.  She stopped bothering the good neighbors, as "those people" think she needs to be "evaluated."  Yet for all her bellicosity, I think she is just afraid.  Phantoms have come to roost in her mind.

I doubt that anyone lives life without at least one fear, without some episode of fear.  Whatever their focus -- death, penury, or a nameless anxiety --- every fear seeks to occupy our every waking moment, fill even our dreams.  Dwelled upon, they grow, hulking over our day, a shadow over every move.  In its worst case, as with my aunt, the fear actually takes shape, becomes a visible, audible phantom that haunts, that preoccupies and lives on the edge of consciousness, waiting for nightfall to manifest itself.

Better let Christ be the one who haunts.  Jesus says that "perfect love casts out fear."  The only antidote for fear is a steely focus on Jesus.  As the Louvin Brothers concluded on their classic song, "Weapon of Prayer," --- "Still the helpful hand above, on the weapon made of love/And against him none on earth prevail."  You cannot fight fear dead on or banish it with words.  We fight it with Word and prayer, by going to the one who has already won.

I have been ravaged by fear before.  In fact, I don't have to think long to find something worth fearing.  Oddly enough, on occasion I have felt a sharp pang of fear on behalf of civilization itself, that everything that mostly functions will suddenly collapse, that we will drown in debt, that a hate-mongering ayatollah will unleash a dirty bomb on us, that the ice caps will melt and our great cities drown.  Possible, yes, but irrational, a seed planted by the sower of fear, the destroyer of all that is good, true, and beautiful.

Word and prayer.  A focus on Jesus.  But there is one other thing: a remembrance of His faithfulness in life events, a going back to the memorials we set up in memory for when God delivered us from some peril of body or mind, for when in His good providence He allowed suffering and yet drew us to Himself and delivered us in the midst of it.  The Psalmist repeatedly remembered God's past faithfulness as an assurance of His faithfulness to come.  So too should we.  As Jo Kadlecek says, "[F]ear is simply a spiritual memory lapse, a forgetting that God loves a human's soul enough to protect her."

The boys are on the roof.  They whisper outside our window.  There are gypsies in the trees.  But Christ slays the phantoms of this world.  They die in His light.  Feed on Christ and starve the phantoms.

Super 8


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I want to walk in it like God did.

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



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 Signature of Place and Time

What if the Postal Service's resurrection was found in a renewed conversation of places --- letters between Christians exploring what it means to be Christ's church in their own places? What if we could discipline our language and create a common formational practice among our young people by encouraging personal, meaningful writing from one place to another?"

("Slow Mail: The Discipline and Joy of Handwritten Letters," by Ragan Sutterfield, in Englewood Review of Books, Vol. 2, No. 1)

 In the concluding paragraph of his first letter to the church at Corinth, the Apostle Paul says "I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand" (1 Cor. 16:21).  He does it again when writing the church at Colossae (Col. 4:18) and Thessalonica (2 Thess. 3:17a) and, in respect to the latter, adds that "[t]his is the sign of genuineness in every letter of mine; it is the way I write" (2 Thess. 3:17b).  No other letter of an apostle bears these words, though John's second two letters each add "[t]hough I have much to write to you, I would rather not use paper and ink.  Instead I hope to come to you and talk face to face, so that our joy may be complete" (2 Jn. 12; 3 Jn. 13-14).  Paul's writing the conclusion of his letters or, at least, signing them, is a mark of authenticity.  His unique signature bears witness to the genuineness of his words, present, like an etching, even when he cannot be.  What John adds is his preference for physical presence over pen and ink, a letter being no match for face to face conversation.  John recognizd that physical presence was superior to a letter, Paul that a letter written in his own hand superior to that written by what Matthew Henry called an amanuensis (an assistant who takes dictation).  And both are superior to modern-day digital media.

What have we lost by this cultural drift?  And who will remember what is lost when the generation that remembers a non-digital and internet age is gone?  A digital book will never have the substantiality of a hardcover book, an MP3 file the tactility of a recording, or an email the weight of a letter.  And none of them will have the presence of a person --- whether storyteller, musician, or friend.  We may settle for less than presence and must do so much of the time, but to consider such accommodation progress is sad, a product of a disincarnate culture.  In one of his many prescient comments, the late Marshal McLuhan said that "[d]iscarnate man is not compatible with an incarnate Church."  It may have been his way of saying that the Body of Christ requires presence, requires embodiment, and cannot live in a people who seem to prefer disembodied connections.  Tweets, status posts, and text messages are a poor substitute for face to face life together.

One path back for me has been letters. . . not many thus far, and perhaps not as substantial as what Ragan Sutterfield suggests, but it's a start. Here I am, on vacation, and in the drawer of our hotel room is stationary embossed with the hotel name, with envelope, and I wonder what was the last time someone wrote a letter on a sheet of it, and if I could, if I would take the time to do so.  Who will I write?

When I read Sutterfield's article on letter-writing, the cynic in me said "get real."  How in the world do we discipline ourselves much less young people who may never have written a letter nor communicated in much more than 140 characters or less than instantaneously to write a letter?  Why would they do that?  Why would they take the time?  There are reasons to do so, but the case for it is so subtle that it would not be compelling.  It is a pleasure to be discovered, not commanded.

Maybe, just maybe, the best way is to take the time to write them a letter, to invite a conversation.  They may just take you up on it.


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.]


The Antidote for (c)hristmas

Your words were found, and I ate them;
          and your words became for me a joy
          and the delight of my heart,
for I am called by your name,
          O Lord, God of hosts.
I did not sit in the company of revelers,
          nor did I rejoice;
I sat alone, because your hand was
                    upon me,
          for you had filled me with indignation.

(Jeremiah 15: 16-17)

Sometimes, in the midst of all the run-up to Christmas, it's nigh impossible to catch the real Christmas.  Not that I didn't try this year. I read books about the Incarnation.  I attended a Lessons and Carols service.  I considered the Christian meaning with which we invest what are essentially pagan celebratons.  And yet while all of this is good, I feel like a minnow trying to swim upstream in a torrent of Christmas marketing and obligatory social functions and gift-giving.  Sometimes, perhaps a little like Jeremiah, I can't sit in the company of the revelers but feel the emptiness of it all.  I've been here before. 

The best Christmas I remember was also the most difficult for my wife and I.  Some time after Thanksgiving of 1991 we received a call from a counselor at a pregnancy life care center in a small town in Oregon informing us that an unwed mother she counseled --- a high school senior --- had chosen us to parent her soon-to-be-born child.  That Advent season was just that: an advent, a season of expectancy not just of His birth but of this immediate birth.  While filled with joy, we also pondered what it all meant, questioned how it would transpire, and considered the possibility that it would all unwind.  To believe otherwise took faith and hope.  Ultimately, it took love --- the love of a child that had not come from us, who had been borne outside us but providentially for us.  Thus, Advent was in some ways all awry, fraught with the thoughts not of the Incarnate One, but the child to come, and yet in so many ways our thoughts and preparations were suggestive of exactly how Advent should be observed, took us out of the Christmas rush and onto another focus entirely: a birth.

Two days before Christmas, we received an urgent call from the counselor.  The birthmother was in labor and desperately wanted us present at birth.  We booked tickets for our 3000 mile journey, left tree and gifts and family, moved our foreign exchange student across the street to live with neighbors, and left.  Arriving, we were informed it was false labor.  Since it was too expensive to fly home and then back for true labor, we settled into a mom-and-pop motel in a town of no more than 2500 people, strangers in a strange land.  It rained every day.  Fog and mist enveloped us. Sheep moved in a meadow outside our window.  We bought cheap paper Christmas decorations and stuck them on our walls.  On Sunday, being Presbyterians, we went to the local presbyterian church.  The "sermon" was a reading of "How Grinch Who Stole Christmas." I waited for the application.  There was none.  We felt alone, missed home, family, friends, and church.  We waited.  We spent our days having lunch and driving around with a very pregnant teenage girl --- a girl and our baby.  We waited some more.  But eventually, a baby boy was born, and we came home on January 7th, just over two weeks later.  Advent, Christmas, and even Epiphany were over.  We missed it.  Or did we?

Maybe that's the only antidote for christmas --- for the false one, the cultural one that is destined to collapse the day after --- to be wrenched out of the place in which you find yourself and be set down in a foreign land.  All I know is that when you have been stripped of what passes for Christmas here and set down in a place where your focus is on a child to come, Advent becomes a sober waiting, the birth a celebration, Christmastide a long settling into a new reality.  Unto us a child is born, Isaiah says.  For us, a child was born.

Scripture has its own way of working in us a new reality, of course.  It's just that sometimes it's so difficult to really hear what it is saying in the midst of all that swirls around us.  We say "unto us a child is born" --- in fact, we say it every year --- and yet we behave as if it happens every day.  But on at least one Christmas it wasn't like that for me.  It was unique, otherworldly, and world-changing.  And if that birth was so momentous, how can I ever again pass by the words "unto us a child is born" and not be awestruck at the reality of the Creator of all poured into a little boy?

Really.  Unto us a child is born.  As Jeremiah would say: "Eat that."  Revel in that.  Be indignant about any Christmas that passes for a celebration of less than that.  Sit alone and ruminate on the love of a God who poured Himself out for a world that will celebrate anything but His birth. Rejoice, and be glad.



Oh, Melancholia

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Dad, what are you writing?

A new blog post.

About what?

Joy and happiness.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That Other Country

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

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

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

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

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

From Saint to Saint to Saint

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Civilization and Its Contents

Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.  (Isaiah 58:12) 

Sometimes I like to ride with the windows down in my car, even on an interstate highway.  Usually the road noise, the wind, and the traffic, all combined with a superficially uninteresting bit of highway, would be plain annoying, and so I screen it out in an air-conditioned, music-filled mobile cocoon. Not today.  Finding myself alone and with a weekday off, I drove to the Cabelands Section of the Eno River State Park, for observation, exercise, and solitude.  Entering my car, I decided to be attentive, to try to notice and experience everything along the way.  It's amazing what you take for granted.

I cannot even leave the subdivision without being thankful for a multi-layered fabric of built environment.  What was once farm and forest is now underlain by a web of water and sewer pipes and power and telephone lines, graded and shaped to accommodate roads, curb and gutter, sidewalks, and signage.  Houses have been built, rebuilt, and improved, lawns put in and maintained, parks laid out and schools built.  Parents walk kids to school and stroll babies on sidewalks.  Dogs walk masters.  Cats prowl and scowl at passersby.  One man has been building a wrap-around porch on his home --- for the last eight years.  A bicycle reclines at the corner of a lawn where it dropped its last passenger.  Life has grown from the dirt up, imperfect and yet communal.  A once undifferentiated landscape of pines has become a human habitation, cultured and full of human life.  I find myself marveling and being thankful for all the people involved in making such a place, for the families represented here, for the community that has developed even if it is not what it could be.

On the highway, it's a sensual assault with the windows down.  Tractor-trailer trucks are incredibly noisy neighbors, and yet I consider what the transport of goods on a modern highway means, as in jobs and fresh produce and other goods.  Even to begin to tell the story of highways and their thousands of miles of concrete and asphalt is to wonder at the investment they have been and yet the freedom they have brought to us.  Even the strip shopping centers are evidence of commerce, of jobs and livelihoods. While the weeds in the median and adult video store may mar the landscape, there is much good in what I see, much to be thankful for.

What I am really celebrating is civilization.  Go to any third-world country and you see the many de-civilizing impacts of war, disease, governmental corruption, and poverty.  Many things work here. Many things don't work there.  Civilization, as bent as it is by sin, still has many contents.

One of the ways in which I begin to appreciate God's provision in community is through this kind of attentiveness, and thankfulness is a way of recognizing that God is the source of communal life, of civilization itself.  James Howard Kunstler says that "[a] community is not something you have, like a pizza.  Nor is it something you can buy, as visitors to Disneyland and Williamsburg discover.  It is a living organism based on a web of interdependencies --- which is to say, a local economy."  I don't know about you, but when I think of economy, I think of money.  And yet Kunstler's point (and the rare attentiveness I had today) remind me that "economy" is about more than economic wealth.  It's about human capital, social investment, and spiritual commitment, about people who pay forward to next generations, about a community that transcends time and yet binds itself intentionally to one place.  It's a neighborhood.  My neighborhood.

Even in a natural area like that surrounding the Eno River, I cannot escape the pull of community.  The 91 acres on which I walked today provided a source of livelihood for John Cabe and his family, remnants of which (a mill) you can still see.  He gave the land to the next generation as a park.  A deepwater pond on the site was actually a early 1960s quarry from which granite was removed to build the nearby Interstate 85.  We move freely through Durham on a road we owe, in one sense, to McCabe. He has both a legacy in the built and natural environment.  He believed in his community.

Jesus said that "where your treasure is, there your heart will be also" (Mt. 6:21).  Civilization --- a local economy --- is dependent on people who are attentive and thankful, postures which cause us to treasure what we have.  And if we treasure the places we inhabit, we'll also find our heart is in them. Even its lost corners, broken sidewalks, and aimless wanderers can be healed by a people who care and by a God who makes all things new.



Only Eighteen Inches: Why We Need New York

IMG_0136 "On any person who desires such queer prizes, New York will bestow the gift of loneliness and the gift of privacy."  
(E.B. White)

Do not stumble over the language.  In the Summer of 1948, when E.B. White wrote these words, "queer" meant simply strange or odd from a conventional viewpoint.  And it's true, isn't it, that most of us would not regard loneliness (as opposed to privacy) as a gift.  Nor would we naturally associate loneliness or privacy with a teeming city like New York.  Yet it can be a gift and can often be more easily found in the city than the suburb, in the city rather than the small town.  New York is, in its own way, a Zion, a place to look and listen and soak up a world through which God is speaking, its canyon-like streets, mountainous buildings, and rippling streams of humanity every bit as revelatory as those of the natural world.  It is a place to prize the gifts of loneliness and privacy as a vista from which to see things one may not see as easily elsewhere.

I do not always eat alone.  I do have friends, some I even enjoy having a meal with.  Yet eating alone in a large city permits observation.  About seven years ago (I always say "seven years when I cannot really remember how long it has been but know it's been quite some time), I was eating alone in Milwaukee.  The food in the cafe was inconsequential, neither so good nor so bad as to be memorable.  Its acceptable nature allowed me to do what I had come for: watching and listening.  What I heard and saw became part of a poem.  I looked out the window and saw, for example, a bum passing by, and he became "santa claus looking worn &/ frail, an overdressed rabble of a/man, bearded, half-blind, under-/nourished, with a sack of treasure/on his back."  Seeing him I realized that what separated me from him was not only eighteen inches of glass and sidewalk but the grace of birth, place, and family circumstance that put me here and him there, that but for eighteen inches of grace he and I were much the same.  

Turning to my side, however slightly so as not to arouse attention, a man and woman --- lovers, friends, or associates --- were engaged in conversation, and the "woman sips, motions, shrugs,/dismisses, her upturned laugh/rippling through the air."  Did I detect under the laughter and banter a darker current, a deep pool in the city's canyon?  Only 18 inches away, maybe I did, maybe I didn't.  Observations are often tentative.

In his short essay, White describes a phenomenon many of us likely know from eating alone in the city.  Taking his lunch one day in an inevitably crowded cafe, perhaps the now-closed Schrafft's on Fifth Avenue that my wife may remember from New York excursions with her mother (not to say that she is much older than me!), no doubt at a little table by a little table by a little table, with conversations heeped one upon another, he found himself inches away from an actor he recognized though did not personally know. It bears telling:

When I went down to lunch a few minutes ago I noticed that the man sitting next to me (about eighteen inches away along the wall) was Fred Stone.  The eighteen inches were both the connection and the separation that New York provides for its inhabitants.  My only connection with Fred Stone was that I saw him in The Wizard of Oz around the beginning of the century.  But our waiter felt the same stimulus from being close to a man from Oz, and after Mr. Stone left the room the waiter told me that when he (the waiter) just arrived in this country and before he could speak a word of English, he had taken his girl for their theater date to The Wizard of Oz.  It was a wonderful show, the waiter recalled --- a man of straw, a man of tin.  Wonderful!  (And still only eighteen inches away.)  "Mr. Stone is a very hearty eater," said the waiter thoughtfully, content with this fragile participation in destiny, this link with Oz.

I know exactly what he means, the connection and separation of that eighteen inches, the slight and yet profound rubbing of one life against another in the city.  It's possible to feel both a deep loneliness and yet a deep participation in the life of a city, both a continuity and discontinuity of existence.  Mostly, I like it.  It's a place of great revelation, for "fragile participation in destiny."

In another reflection from his walk around New York, White falls to simile to describe the city: "A poem compresses much in a small space and adds music, thus heightening its meaning.  The city is like poetry: it compresses all life, all races and breeds, into a small island and adds music and the accompaniment of internal engines."  I think I know about those internal engines, the labyrinth of tunnels, power lines, water and sewer pipes, and who knows what else that lie underneath the city streets.  Pause at the corner of 44th Street and Broadway and feel the subway train pass beneath, and it's as if the city lives, its internal engines droning.  Stand outside the Amsterdam Theatre and ponder the feet that have moved through its doors, sense the community of saints and sinners that stretch backwards and forwards in time --- the communion of humanity.

But there is something deeper still.  An eternal engine powers all the activity here, and when I stop and listen I hear it: the bruised glory of humanity, the sometimes misdirected creativity and ingenuity of a people made in the image of a Builder of worlds.  Walking down Seventh Avenue, past the shops and restaurants spilling life onto the streets, I sense there's faith and love and hope --- eighteen inches away.  In the car horns and drone of traffic and jumble of conversations, I'm hearing life, and it is glorious and sad all at the same time, both a hymn of praise and a lament of loss.

It'd be easy to avoid the city.  I could light out for The Rambles of Central Park and lose myself in a relative wilderness.  I could stick to the vast emptiness of the West, hole up in my home, retreat to a hotel room.  But the city is my destiny.  It's where the people of God live, where a distance of eighteen inches will, soon and very soon, mean nothing.  Where even the gifts of loneliness and privacy will be swallowed up in love, remembered, if at all, as mere shadows of the Real.












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.

The Trouble With Trouble

Yesterday, walking through my neighborhood, I felt as if I carried a heavy sack of trouble with me --- the unrest in the Middle East, a earthquake-tsunami-irradiated Japan, a hospitalized friend --- trouble that dogged my every step.  "Well, we're living in the last days, you know," says a Christian acquaintance, and I want to say (but do not say, since he may have meant to reassure me) that telling me that is like telling me "Well, we're  living, you know," since my view is that we've been in the last days since Christ came the first time.  Trouble has been here, is here, and will be here until Christ returns.  And yet, walking that morning, dwelling on the headlines, it's easy to lose perspective.  When I consider the tragic loss of life in Japan, the stoic and fatalistic mindset I read in the faces I see, the megalomania of the Libyan dictator, or the frailness of my friend, emotion can put me in a well of darkness out of which it is difficult to see.  And in that well, shadows and bogeymen abound.  That's the trouble with trouble: it always get worse down there in the well.

At such times, there are  two ways I lose perspective. First, at that moment I lose hope.  I forget that great, unexpected good so often comes from calamity.  The Bible is full of such stories.  Take Joseph, thrown into a well and sold into slavery, rising to a position as Pharaoh's Chief of Staff.  God always has a way of taking the unlikely and elevating them, of rescuing us form a world gone wrong.  Then there is the great promise of providence, that "God works all things for the good of those who love Him, who are called according to His purpose."  You can't read the Bible without stumbling all over such stories, such promises.  By God's grace, by remembering, I need to reclaim that high ground.

The other way of losing perspective is a chronological fixation that leads me to regard my time oe circumstances as somehow more troublesome or difficult than other times, that our time is somehow more unique than all other times.  No one is picking the day and hour of his coming, you know, but (wink, wink) just look at what going on in the Middle East and how about that earthquake and, well, we're living in the last days you know.  Well, of course we are.  At such times, I need the Wall Street Journal.  You heard me: the Wall Street Journal.

What I appreciate about some of the seasoned stock market and business investors who often write in the Journal is the principled approach to investing that they have which keeps them blessedly free of emotion-driven decisions.  When the market drops, they don't sell off. They look for opportunities.  They revisit and remind themselves of their principles, forged in a less volatile time, and they remember.  What do they remember?  They remember other such swings in the market, other crises, and they have the rich historical perspective to even act contrary to emotion, to buy, for example, when everyone may be selling.  Their perspective demonstrates a reasonable faith in the market, a belief in good companies and their stock which overrides the volatility of the time, and ultimately it demonstrates hope, hope informed by history that time will heal, will restore and even, sometimes, surpass what has been lost.  They are reasonable optimists in a time (all times, really) when most make decisions based on fear. Something intuitively tells them, "Fear not."

And that's the voice I hear today: "Fear not."  To His quaking disciples, Jesus said "Do not let your hearts be troubled," and He says it to us.  He's really asking that we focus on Him, the First Principle, the one who does not change.  When the times are volatile, when the earth moves under our feet, when a tsunami of water or cares overwhelms us, we act on the same truth we've always known.  The truth that was truth in a good time is truth in a troubled time.  We too can walk on water if we keep our eyes on Him.

I wish I could say that when I returned home from the walk the troubled mind I began with was gone.  It wasn't.  And yet I felt like I had been given a glimpse of the landscape behind and ahead, one that gave me hope.


The Limits of Cartography

I have a lust for maps and map-making.  Nothing much equals the delight I have in pulling out the Rand McNally Road Atlas and poring over the lines and names on the pages, planning my every move.  I'm a planner, a dreamer, an imaginer of all that will happen and all I will see along the way.  Sometimes the actual travel is melodramatic; I have already been there in my mind.

And yet I so often find that my imagination has gotten ahead of life.  Things happen unexpectedly.  Someone's sick.  There are delays.  Accommodations need to be changed.  We scramble to rebook, to modify plans, to adapt.  We never really know what is around the next bend in the highway.  Sometimes that's unsettling.  And yet it can be exciting, as a new and unplanned discovery may await us.

The road trip or the family vacation is an apt metaphor for the spiritual journey, for our walkabout with God.  Christ is my guide and Scripture is my road map, and yet I do not know where life will take me, what awaits me around the next turn of events.  In the final essay of Alan Jacobs' collection, entitled Wayfaring, he describes it this way:

The light of Christ. . .  --- the light that is Christ --- . . . illuminates with perfect clarity your next step, but blots out the surrounding territory.  Christ is the Word of God, and the psalmist tells us that the word is a lamp unto our feet and a light unto our path: it shows us where to place one trembling foot, but it does not make us authoritative cartographers of the whole territory.

Jacobs goes on to note the limitations of our Guide's revelation to us, noting that "it's worth remembering that when people ask Jesus the cartographic kind of questions --- 'Will many be saved or only a few?' --- Jesus tells them to mind their own spiritual business."  The question, really, is simple: Where do I take my next step (or, spiritually, what does faithfulness look like now, today, in this place, in this moment?)  Doing so, we have faith that the following step will be illuminated at that moment, that trust in Jesus will be proven warranted.  Sure, He gave us scripture to mark out the boundaries of our travels and a theology that represents our best attempt to see the landscape ahead in some holistic fashion, to understand where we are and to settle in our imagination a good dream of what's ahead.  As a result, there are things we know --- that He is good, that He is trustworthy, that He is present, and that Heaven is sure.  And yet there is much we do not know --- things we don't plan on happening.

In the front of my Rand McNally, there is a disclaimer to the effect that "we cannot be responsible for any errors, changes, omissions, or any loss, injury, or inconvenience sustained by any person or entity as a result of information or advice contained in this book."  Scripture --- that map for the soul --- makes another claim, of course, promising that it's "breathed out by God and profitable. . ." (2 Tim. 4:16).  William Rand and Andrew McNally could make no such claim.

And yet, I'm not giving up maps.  I want to dream well.  I want to know the possibilities, the parameters of the path.  And yet things happen out there, providences aplenty.  I want to be ready for a holy detour, one trembling step at a time, in His light, at my feet, on the way, Home.

A Universe in a Grain of Sand

"To change the world we must first change the way we see it; we must see it from a different perspective.  A cultivated mind can see the universe in a falling leaf, an orchard in a seed, an ocean in a drop of water, eternity in a grain of sand."  

(Joshua Choonmin Kang, in Scripture By Heart)

When my children were young, we would go for strolls and then walks through the neighborhood, parks, and woods, stopping to touch and handle and talk about everything.  A twig or leaf would be a reason to talk about a tree, a rock about the earth, the water in a stream about lakes and rivers and faraway places.  We would move from the particular to the whole, effortlessly it seemed, as natural as any conversation.  We were like amateur ecologists, seeing connections in everything, a web of life.

Back in the house, we'd turn on a spigot and talk about where water came from, the pipes that wound under the city and into the house, and to where the water swirling down the bathtub drain disappeared.  Turning a light switch on and off and on and off we would marvel at the power we had, and a power outage would give us new things to talk about, new connections to explore.  The curiosity of young children made us consider things we took for granted, marvel at the wonder of life right outside our door, the complicated and wondrous workings of a home, a city, and a world.  Nothing was to be taken for granted.  Nothing stood alone.

Perhaps it was all that talking, that wondering about connections and origins, or maybe it is the schooling in ecology or planning that I received in urban design school, or then again maybe it is innate, a God-implanted DNA that drives me (and all of us) to move from particular to universal, from a grain of sand to eternity.  Or maybe it is all of that.  But what I know is that I can't stop thinking about those connections, about how the leaf crunched up in my young son's hand is connected to a twig, a branch, a limb, a trunk, a tree --- to soil, water, and sun, to a Creator who breathes life into and upholds and sustains all things by the power of His word, by His very life.

 What Joshua Kang is saying in Scripture By Heart is that meditating on scripture enlarges our perceptivity of reality.  We begin to see connections within scripture, great themes of creation, fall, redemption, and restoration, and then looking out at the world we see how it resonates with those very same themes.  Peering into the landscape of Creation we reflect back on God's words and appreciate anew what once we may have taken for granted.  We weep over tragic loss of life to tsunami and we better appreciate that shortest of scripture verses, "Jesus wept."  We hold a leaf and marvel at the power of the sun in photosynthesis and better appreciate the phrase "In Him was life, and that life was the light of man."  We begin to see things whole, looking out at a world through the prism of His breath, His word.

 I am not the first reader to remark on the amazing propinquities that often occur when reading more than one thing at a time.  At the same time that I was working through Kang's mediations on memorizing scripture, I was nearing completion of Roy Peter Clark's "meditations" on grammar, The Glamour of Grammaran infectious (and instructive) guide to language by a man obviously in love with words, at play in in a life of language.  Near the end of the book Clark hints at a divine mystery behind language:

Language is a gift, a treasure of evolution but also a spark of the divine.  The ancient Hebrew word dabar describes the power of a personal God to speak directly to men and women.  In the Gospel of Saint John, Jesus is Logos, the Greek form of Word.  The word spirit comes from the word meaning "to breathe," and breath gives us life and something more, the ability to turn air into language.  

Clark goes on to contrast the babble of confusion in language after Babel to the clarity of language at Pentecost, concluding that "[i]t is the power of the written and spoken word within us, a power so great it can feel --- when used for a good purpose --- like magic."  It reminds me the too rare feeling I have when I write or say something that seems too good to originate with me, too perceptive, and I sense a grace at work, a Babel-wrecking Spirit that fills me with language, speaking and writing through me.  It's quite unbidden.  It's grace.

Like a smooth pebble in my young son's hand, a crumpled leaf clasped by my little girl, I am holding onto a few scriptures, rolling them over and over in my mind.  And sometimes I see connections, perceive that behind the rooms of the words are larger rooms of meaning, deeper connections to other words, grander themes of creation, fall, redemption, and restoration. I pull the thread of one verse and find it reaches back into a tapestry of words, of life itself, back to a God who holds all things in His hand, pull until taut I realize Who has hold of the other end and is pulling me in.  Just as I can't imagine not pausing with my young son to watch the water in a stream flow, to wonder from where it comes and to where it rushes, I can't brush by scripture and not ponder its meaning, its connection to the whole, to the Writer who set it down.  At least I better not.

A universe in a grain of sand?  You bet.  It's all there, full of magic and mystery.  You just have to stop, take hold of it, and listen.



Every Breath I Take, Every Move I Make

The Christian life is not a quiet escape to a garden where we can walk and talk with our Lord; not a fantasy trip to a heavenly city where we can compare our blue ribbons and gold medals with others who have made it to the winner's circle.  The Christian life is going to God.  In going to God Christians travel the same ground that everyone else walks on, breathe the same air, drink the same water, shop in the same stores, read the same newspapers, are citizens under the same government, pay the same prices for groceries and gasoline, fear the same dangers, are subject to the same pressures, get the same distresses, are buried in the same ground.

The difference is that each step we walk, each breath we take, we know we are preserved by God, we know we are accompanied by God, we know we are ruled by God; and therefore no matter what doubts we endure or what accidents we experience, the Lord will preserve us from evil, he will keep our life.

(Pastor and Author Eugene Peterson, in a commentary on Psalm 121)

To demonstrate the reality of God's presence, Francis Schaeffer used to ask gathered students to place the palm of their hand to their cheek, as close as possible without touching, so close that you could feel the warmth emanating from it but, again, without touching.  And then he would say something like "there is God with you, infinite and yet personal."  I've taken to using this tactile reminder of God's presence of late, particularly when concerns, specific and ephemeral, press in on me.  Just this morning, waking in the dark, as I felt a heaviness resting on me just as I awoke, so I freed an arm from the warmth of the covers and brought it to my face, thanking God for His nearness, that not only is He there and not silent but He is ever-present, ever-powerful, and ever-knowing.  Really, it is He who presses in, who hems me in on all sides.

I cannot say that I always feel that nearness of God's presence, but I am thankful for the times that He does something to remind me of just how close He is, of how my life is superintended by Him, how every choice, whether bad or good, which I have made have been in the end mysteriously caught up in what He is doing.  As a young child of maybe five, riding with my mother to see my grandmother, I saw an African-American woman standing in the door of a very modest house, and I believe God opened my eyes then to the realization that human beings were different and yet the same, and I began to see the world with a larger sense of its humanity.  In elementary school, lying in bed at night, certain I would never go to sleep, I watched the lights cast by passing cars as they moved across the walls, and God made me wonder about the people in the cars and where they were going and where they lived.  Later, while in junior high, awakening suddenly in the night, I was convinced that God said something audible to me, said my name.  That's all, just my name.

And those moments are just for starters.  I seem forever to be looking back for these reminders so as to be more deeply rooted in the present and more assured of the future of a God who is present, who, as He promised, will never leave us.

Rummaging through some books rescued in the cleaning out of my mother's home, I found one my father had given her on their anniversary in 1961.  It's called The Art of Living, an inspirational book full of maxims organized by topic.  The one that caught my eye was "The Art of Traveling."  One such maxim said this:  "Travel hopefully.  'To travel hopefully,' writes Robert Louis Stevenson, "is better than to arrive.'"  It reminded me of how living existentially, or moment by moment, is really a pilgrim's state of being, constantly practicing the presence of Christ, remembering that He is at work keeping us.  He guards, protects, and preserves.  As Eugene Peterson said, we "travel the same ground that everyone else walk on," and yet each step we take and breath we breathe we can know He is present and, in the words of the doxology, "is able to keep [us] from stumbling and to present [us] before the presence of his glory with great joy. . ." (Jude 1:24).

This may not be a quiet garden but Heaven's noisy anteroom.  And yet He keeps me.  He watches over me.  Every breath I take, and every move I make.  With that thought, I sit back in my chair, bring my hand to my face, just so, and know: He is near.


The Problem of Choice

I'm tired of making choices,  having to figure out what to do with my time, what kind of cereal to buy, what to read and not read, what to listen to and not listen to, and even what clothes to put on in the morning. It is just too much effort.  In addition, having all those choices constricts my freedom. Really.

Consider my lunchtime today.  Most lunches I have with either my wife, my son, or one of a handful of friends.  I don't often choose the restaurant.  I let them.  But today was one of those almost bi-weekly occasions when I am free to eat alone.  I enjoy it.  I also make no choice.  I go to the same favorite restaurant and order the same meal.  They know me.  They often know what I want.  I love it.

I took something to read.  Now there's a choice.  I pick The Pedestrian, a book of essays, and dive in.  I'm making myself read everything, from the beginning, resisting the urge to skim or find that one bit of prose that hooks me in the title or first lines.  I play a game with myself, telling myself I have no choice, that I must read all the essays, from the beginning to the end and not skip over any.  I've done the same thing with music, making myself listen to an entire album all the way through without skipping any songs, or putting the IPod on shuffle and requiring myself to listen to whatever comes up.  It's my own petty war against the boosters of choice as an unparalleled social good, a protest against a cultural given. Or maybe I'm just contrarian.

The funny thing is that being anti-choice has some salutary effects, as I thought it might.  First, this artificial constriction makes me better able to appreciate whatever is in front of me.  I give it time. Those essays for example: one a humorous reflection on why farming wasn't what it was cracked up to be, another on implements of torture (which I might rather have skipped, but didn't), another on a hammer passed down through three generations, and another on mowing a field.  (The theme of the issue is "tools.")  I learned quite a bit about farming, about a hammer that had, well, been around a time or two, about how you cut a field of hay in Southern England in the early part of the 20th century.  I could easily have skipped any of those essays, but I didn't and feel richer for it, because you discover things, like this line from E.B. White: "I find it incredibly difficult to combine manual labor with intellectual, so I compromise and just do the manual."  Think about that.  That's funny.  Maybe it's more than funny.  Maybe it's profound.  I haven't figured that out yet.

Reading those essays took some focused attention, and I read them in sequence assuming that the editor of the journal may have some yet (f0r me) as undiscovered purpose in arranging them so.  My point: I am better able to absorb, understand, and appreciate the beauty of the words in front of me by letting them have their way with me, by being a slave to them for a time, by letting their subtleties wash over me.  You might say I "abide" in them.

Another good effect of a constriction of choice is that you are better able to understand how most of the world lives and the gratitude they may have --- often more so they us --- if they have anything at all.  Many of my Ugandan friends wake in the morning and the only choice they have about how to dress is to wear what they had on the day before.  In other words, they have no choice.  They may have Sunday clothes, but they often have only one set of everyday clothes.  They do not complain.  They relish what they have.  That is an attitude, really a blessing, that we who are "blessed" with many choices find difficult to come by, our attention diverted by yet another choice.  And yet we can glimpse it when we artificially constrict our choices, when we reflect deeply on, listen well to, or even savor the taste of what is before us.

Though choices we must make, having multiple choices is not an unqualified good.  In fact, in the midst of all this freedom I somehow feel less free, more enslaved by every whim and passion, and yet more easily bored and restless.  Maybe when Jesus says "abide in me" and do not let your hearts be troubled," he speaks even to the restlessness of choice, the perilousness of listening to whim, passion, and fashion.  He's saying rest.  Rest in me.  Focus on me.  Abide in me.  And then be content with what you have in front of you.  Live with a book or a song or even a food until you know it and fully appreciate it.  See it from my perspective.  Take whatever comes and learn to appreciate it.  That's when you become free.


Wandering Aim-fully

One of my favorite pastimes is wandering in large public libraries.  Other than books or records, I am not fond of shopping and after a time can be a nuisance and drag on my wife (though she is too kind to ever say that).  I need something else to do, and she needs me to find something else to do other than dreamily murmuring my way through clothing stores with her.  Libraries afford great relief, at least the traditional ones, great halls like the New York Public Library or Boston Public Library or even the quiet not so dignified stacks of North Carolina State University's D.H. Hill Library, a place where I have spent many hours running my fingers down musty smelling pages, alone with words and yet strangely warmed, one of a long line of perusers or borrowers, a community across time.

The new libraries seem too noisy and media driven.  I prefer perusing the shelves or losing myself deep in the book stacks.  It requires time and suspending the need to accomplish a task, find a certain book even, or entertain oneself.  One question frames my wandering: what here is good, true, and beautiful?  Such times of wandering aim-fully are the precursor to serendipity, the good soil in which words might take root and give new insight.

I like wandering, though much like play it is a preoccupation given over to children and retirees, an idleness viewed as the province of those with little else to do but wake up and wander about, tolerated but only amusing to those with important work to do.  In a society that values time management, productivity, and intensity even in recreation, pure wandering is viewed as akin to idleness, a lazy indulgence.  

Writer Alan Jacobs doesn't think it is.  In his recent collection of essays, Wayfaring: Essays Pleasant and Unpleasant, he calls such wandering aim-fully "wayfaring," an orientation fundamental to our nature as Christians.  According to Jacobs,

An old phrase holds that to be a Christian is to be homo viator: the human being as wayfarer, as pilgrim.  Wayfarers know in a general way where we are headed: to the City of God, what John Bunyan, that great chronicler of pilgrimage, called the Celestial City --- but we aren't altogether certain of the way.  We can get lost for a time, or lose our focus and nap for too long on a soft patch of grass at the side of the road, or dally a few days at Vanity Fair.  We can even become discouraged --- but we don't, ultimately and finally, give up.  And we don't think we have arrived.

What Jacobs applies to the writing of essays --- those meanderings of the mind --- is equally applicable to life --- part of his point, of course.  Reading essays, like wandering the library, like walking around a town like I have many times with no particular destination in mind, is a meandering pregnant with possibilities and hope.  I still remember the African-American man leaning out of the open window of a brownstone in Milwaukee on one of my walks many years ago now, his face lit up in a smile, just taking in the world.  Or the ravaged inner city of St. Louis, where flowers bloomed amid weeds and rubble --- three-dimensional essays, worlds pleasant and unpleasant and yet not without hope.  As Jacobs says, "Hope comes from knowing that there is a way --- and that we didn't make it.  That is why the road's unexpected turnings need not alarm us; this is why it is possible to enjoy even the unpredictable, whether it comes from without or within."

That observation hints at another virtue to wandering aim-fully: it requires trust in a God who will superintend our wanderings, provided we aim for Him.  Holding lightly to my to-do list, my calendar, and my time requires giving up control --- a control I never really had anyway.  Here's the instructions for such a day, ones I would like to heed more regularly:  Wake up.  Aim for God.  And set out.  Watch what happens.  Keep your eyes open.  Take hold of the unexpected and wrest the good, true, and beautiful from it.

When you wander aim-fully in life as in words, you never know what will happen. But it will make you wonder at a God who is behind every turn in the road, who hems you in at every side, who occupies the interstices of your every lapse in thought --- the Guide for Wayfarers.  May you wander well as you seek Him.

 [After a month off, I am glad to be back to the more regular and aim-ful wandering of this blog.  In the interim, I did redeem the time.  I wandered through various books.  I took walks.  I completed an outline for a book.  I did something.  I also did nothing, you might say, and it was very good. Very good.]