Religion

They Say He Is On the Move

"They say Aslan is on the move—perhaps has already landed." (Mr. Beaver, to the children, in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, by C.S.Lewis)

"[T]he story holds to a single course.  It looks across the open frontier to the Country whose forces move unseen among us; for they are the things that matter most, 'and the life of the spirit has no borders.'"  (Amy Carmichael, in Gold Cord: The Story of a Fellowship)

"Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end."  (Isaiah 9:7a)

Laura Hillenbrand's recent novel about Louis Zamperini, Unbroken, is, without saying it in so many words, a story of God's providence.  Time after time, from the age of two on through his life, Zamperini has brushes with death, from his climb out of a second floor window as a toddler and flight down the street to his near drowning when his WWII B-24 Liberator lost engine power and went down in the Pacific Ocean.  Entangled in a web of fuselage wiring, he was pulled by the sinking plane toward the sea floor, unable to free himself, momentarily blacking out, only to inexplicably find himself conscious, disentangled, and floating upward toward the light of the ocean surface, saved.  It becomes a powerful metaphor for spiritual liberation and a reality for the latter converted Zamperini.

I need reminders like this, stories about the ongoing power of God to save and heal and liberate, to do what seems impossible, to frustrate the devolution and entropy of a world gone wrong by melting a chill winter of sin that at time seems to reign, if only by permission.  Bad news can be overwhelming.  Friends divorcing.  Children rebelling.  Governments snuffing out freedom.  The White Witch of endless winter seems to ride on over the earth, seems to have won at times.

But then I read of Zamperini. Or I remember the promise in the whispered words of Mr. Beaver: "They say Aslan is on the move."  Or, even better, an old prophet reminds me that "of the increase of his government there shall be no end," and my mind is drawn back to a Christmas sermon some 23 years ago when my pastor delivered this message of "good government growth," one that has remained with me when so many other sermons have been lost in a fog.  And it gives me hope that He is on the move, that the promise of Jesus, the one whose very name means "God saves," is real. Disentangled from Zamperini's cords of death, we will rise to the surface, liberated, saved, whole if battered.

And yet lostness is all around.  Yesterday, perusing the aisles of a popular independent bookstore, the shelves bulged with empty spirituality --- the occult, zen, new age, mysticism, radical feminism --- and novels of brokenness, vanity, and eroticism.  I had to leave, sickened.  I could more easily bear the stench of the slums of Nairobi or Kampala than the smell of dying in that place.

Amy Carmichael, turn of the century missionary to South India, well knew that smell of death.  And yet, better than me, she could go there to the temples where young girls were enslaved and forced into prostitution, could endure miserable conditions and discouraging lack of progress and what seemed like hopeless situations with confidence that God would work, that He was still active in the world, that something unseen was being done even while on surface there seemed to be no hope, no encouragement, even from other missionaries.  She kept in mind that other Country, the Life underneath the world, the One upholding and sustaining it.  He is the same one who said to a complaining Habakkuk, "For still the vision awaits its appointed time; it hastens to the end --- it will not lie.  If it seems slow, wait for it; it will surely come; it will not delay" (Hab. 2:3).

We walk in fields of gold.  Unseen forces work among us.  Inch by inch He claims the earth, His government ever increasing.  The White Witch of winter may do her work seemingly unhindered, and yet defeat is certain, her end in sight.  He is on the move.

Taking a walk today over a wood, with a backdrop of mountains, I looked up more than once and paused.  I thought of Amy Carmichael looking at the mountains west of the village of Dohnavur, and me looking at these mountains, and time dropped away, became irrelevant.  She might as well have been standing next to me, saying "These mountains were a wonderful help.  They were so unchangeably strong and tranquil and serene that just to look at them strengthened us.  Often, caught and tangled in the throng of things, we used to stop and let their calmness enter into us, and we prayed that we might serve with 'a quiet mind.'"  Hearing her say that, knowing Zamperini's story, hearing my pastor across time speak of the promise of His government, that He is on the move, I kept walking.  I keep walking.  He has come.  He is coming.


Every Person, a Universe

"We must not see any person as an abstraction.  Instead, we must see in every person a universe with its own secrets, with its own treasures, with its own sources of anguish, and with some measure of triumph.  

(Elie Wiesel, from The Nazi Doctors and the Nuremberg Code)

In law school, we Christians spent a lot of time considering how and under what circumstances we could represent criminals.  Yet, in the end, for all the anguish it may cause, it comes down to one fundamental belieft: all people are made in the image of God.  Thus, there is a dignity accorded to all human beings, even the badly soiled and defaced image of God in the child molester and serial murderer. And yet it is not at the extremes that I forget this fact but, like all important principles, it is lost in the quotidian, in the everyday slog of life.

Perhaps we tend toward abstraction and generalization because we don't want to be bothered with the complexity and mystery of the person in front of us.  The cognitive dissonance caused by a "bad" person who commits an act of genuine kindness offends our categories, and yet it happens all the time.  Even I am more or less than who I think I am, as even I cannot fully fathom the mystery of what it is to be me.  And yet this too is a way we image God in his inscrutability and incomprehensibility.  Despite what is revealed about God and what we know of ourselves, in the end of me and Him lie mystery.  After all, He put a universe in me and you.

All of this should give me some humility as I look at other people.  Despite all I think I know, there is more I do not know.  My predictive ability is limited.  Despite their effervescent appearance, I know not what anguish they live with; their melancholy, what joys they know.  I am finite.  And yet there is One who knows me fully, the One who said to Jeremiah "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart. . . " (Jer. 1:5 NIV).  We are amazed at the universe without, the endless and expanding galaxies, and yet the universe within is just as unfathomable, just as immense.

So, when you think you know someone, think again.  Be mindful that these are not abstractions but beautiful and terrible embodiments of mysteries.  C.S. Lewis said it best:  "You have never talked to a mere mortal.  Nations, cultures, arts, civilization—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendors."

And then, think again:  The God who made the universe without and the universe within came from outside those universes and poured His immortal self into a body in these universes.  That is the truest and most incredible fairy-tale of all.  And we're only on the first page of a very long and good story.

A year ago in Uganda I went with a friend, Faith Kunihura, to visit an even poorer community near the one in which we worked.  Behind the thatch hut where one family lived, I saw a lean-to with a man lying on a mat, obviously sick.  Upon inquiry we found out that the man was a stranger to this family, and yet they were doing what they could to care for him.  We touched him and prayed for him.  Walking away, Faith said to me: "I'm glad you showed me that man.  Looking at him, I saw the image of God lying there."

Universe. Immortal horror.  Everlasting splendor.  But not an abstraction.


Life as Drama

Another one of those books I wish I could read but will never find the time to do so is Kevin Vanhoozer's The Drama of Doctrine.  This time it was mediated for me not by Books and Culture but via the insightful summary provide by Denis Haack in "Discernment 301: From Story to Drama," from the latest issue of Critique, the magazine of Ransom Fellowship.  Haack (who I can read) summarizes Vanhoozer like this:

[I]magine life as being in a play, a full drama unfolding on a stage before a watching world.  Think of the canon of the Scriptures as a script, in which we have a part to play.  The community of God's people then becomes the company of actors, pastors and elders are unit directors under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and theologians are specialists that help us make proper sense of the script.

Hacck notes the freedom in the script, how the actors, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, can improvise, going beyond the script (which is not fully fleshed out) but never against it.  In this drama, "faithfulness means being so steeped in God's word that our responses are shaped by its truth even when applied to situations not specifically addressed in any text in the Bible." As we live coram deo, we settle more deeply into the script, more fully into our part, until by God's grace we are so immersed in the role that we become the character.  We become ourselves.  We become who we were meant to be.

I love the idea of life as a play ever since I first picked this up from Frederick Buechner's Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy & Fairy Tale.  This play is epic: tragically marred by sin, wondrously redeemed by the comedy of grace, and full of the almost too good to believe fairy tale of hope --- that all will turn out all right in the end.

Excuse me while I learn my lines.   I have a long way to go.


A Testament

Whenever I travel out of town, and particularly when I travel alone, one of the first things I do is open the drawer of the bedside nightstand to see if there is a Gideons Bible placed there.  Often there is.  I take it out a place it on the table, not only so or even mainly because I will read it (I prefer a new translation), but because I want something there to testify to me that I am not alone, that I am accountable to God while I am away from home.  It keeps me from making excuses.  It may encourage me to read it.  It reminds me not to even turn on the television, which will inevitably result in a wasted evening.  

More than any of these things, however, it is a visible reminder of what Francis Shaeffer once said (and which is the title of a book he wrote): "He is there, and he is not silent."  Whether it is in the emptiness of a hotel room far from home, or in the absence you can sometimes feel when God seems distant or silent, the tangible Word is a reminder that the One who made the world did not just rest from his work and then leave us be.  He spoke.  He continues to sustain.  He continues to speak into our lives.  The heavens declare the glory of God. The face of Christ shines in a fellow believer.  And the Word is incarnate and weighty in the heft and hue of the printed Word.

I've taken to carrying the digital version of the Bible on my IPhone for ease.  It doesn't quite measure up.  Somehow, as convenient as this can be, its distinctiveness is lost.  It seems more ephemeral, less durable, less weighty.  When I pick up the Gideons Bible, I consider the effort someone had to make to place it there, and I'm reminded of how the Bible alone has saved many people and sustained many more.  For example, I still recall the testimony of Christian singer Barry McGuire, who began his career with the secular Sixties folk group, The New Christy Minstrels, of being alone in a hotel room, despairing of his life, and coming to faith through the words of a Gideons Bible.

He is there, and he is not silent.  Don't take for granted the intimacy and love of a Superior Being, one who needs nothing from us and yet who condescended to speak to us through words.  And then, amazingly, who became the Word living among us.

That book is indeed is a testament.  It bears witness.  And I need that, don't you?

 


A Singular Empathy

One of the most helpful essays relating to the topic of empathy that I read in the recent issue of The Pedestrian was entitled "Empathy with the Enemy," by Roman Krznaric.  In it the author explores some of the ethical dilemmas and yet personal and social benefits from engaging in what he calls "empathetic imagining" which is, simply put, imagining what it is to be somone other than yourself.  The hope is, of course, that by doing so, by putting yourself in someone else's shoes, you will better understand their concerns and needs, leading not only to mutual understanding but peaceable and more productive relationships.  The ramifications of this kind of empathy for personal relationships, racial and international harmony, and even appropriate aid to the poor should be evident.  Only thing is, it's not so easy.

Krznaric notes that the concept is easily invoked by liberals (a group with which he identifies) in the context of arguments for imagining life from the perspective of the "deprived or marginalized, the voiceless or powerless," and yet he argues that "if empathy is truly to take its place as a central value in contemporary culture, we need to put it to test in the most difficult situations, where it can lead us into a moral maze: into seeming contradictions rather than clarity." In other words, we have to extend our empathy even to those whose actions we disdain or which are morally repugnant to us.

The author should know.  Two visits to Guatemala gave him ample opportunity to discover just how slippery empathy can prove.  In the first visit, he was ensconced in a peasant village where he served as an international human rights monitor (the country was wrapping up 36 years of civil war).  In the next visit he came to interview some of the members of the wealthy, ruling oligarchy, ostensibly as an objective reporter seeking the status of things in the country post-civil war.  These were some of the racially biased who had hired death squads to kill many of the same peasants he had stayed with.  His aim was to discover the oligarchy's outlook, to empathize, not agree with their outlook.  When he interviewed one of the women, she became emotional talking about the imprisonment of her son by rebels.  In that moment, he empathized with someone whose outlook he found repugnant.  He saw her as human: a woman who loved her son and suffered not knowing his fate.  He felt genuine compassion.

The situation embodied what he calls the problem of "empathetic dissent" --- that is, how do you empathize with someone whose views or values you disagree with?  What he found was that such empathizing does not suspend moral judgment.  Rather,  he says "the ability to step into someone else's shoes can place you in a strong position to reason with them and persuade them to change their views.

Reading this I was both convicted at my own lack of empathy and made aware of the cultural forces that make it difficult to do so.  Americans are very self-absorbed.  Our advertising tells us how much we need to be thinking about ourselves.  The public persona we project and are so aware of on Twitter, Facebook, and other social networks elevates and seemingly makes important our every move, status change, interests, likes, and dislikes.  Frankly, even as I write this blog post it's tempting (and laughable) to consider the importance of what I write.  How often do I draw back and really consider what others must perceive about anything, how they must feel, and why they have the opinions (even the stupid and obnoxious ones) that they do?

I cannot help but think of this verse from Phillipians 2:4, where Paul says "Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others."  It is in the context of a whole section which commends the sacrificial example of Christ.  Truly, deeply empathizing, it seems to me, isn't possible without the transforming power of Christ.  For most of us, if we truly empathized with our enemies, we might hate them all the more.  Only Christ can make enemy-lovers out of enemy haters.  He does it by showing us that though we may be different in degree (I haven't killed anyone lately, that is), we are not different in kind.  We all fall short.  We all sin.  We all need redeeming by the only One who can fully and completely empathize with our state and who has the power to remedy it.  His is a singular empathy.  Without his, our's is dead in the water.


In the Shelter of Each Other

"In the shelter of each other, we will live, we will live (never walk alone)."

(Jars of Clay, "Shelter")

Today I've been playing over and over again the new album by Jars of Clay, entitled The Shelter. While it is all good, I always find myself back at this chorus from the title cut, a chorus that is both descriptive and normative, that expresses what is and what can be.  We all want shelter.  We all need shelter.

The Psalmist repeatedly recalls the refuge provided by God when he speaks of being in the shadow of his wings, picturing God as a nurturing, protective bird, providing shelter and protection under his wings, in His shadow.  "How priceless is your unfailing love! Both high and low among men find refuge in the shadow of your wings," he says (Ps. 36:7), or he entreats God to "hide me in the shadow of your wings" (Ps. 17:8).

The word "shelter" even became descriptive of a certain brand of Christian ministry.  For example, L'Abri Fellowship began in Switzerland in 1955 when Francis and Edith Schaeffer decided in faith to open their home to be a place where people could find answers to their questions about life and faith and for a practical demonstration of Christian care. It was called L'Abri, the French word for "shelter," because they sought to provide a shelter from the pressures of an increasingly secular culture, a quiet haven to explore what is true, good, and beautiful.

Some may remember Shelter Records, a now defunct record label started by Leon Russell and producer Denny Cordell in 1969, one of the fledgling artist-oriented labels that became more common with the ascent of the artist and demise of the label.  I don't know the philosophy of the label, if it had one, but I suspect it was intended as an artist-friendly haven, a refuge of sorts (which brings to mind another now defunct label, Refuge Records).  Indeed, if you google the word "shelter," a slew of ministries and organizations pop up.  Homes for battered and abused women, animal rescue groups, child advocacy groups, and ministries to the homeless, just to name a few. 

That the word describes many ministries (using the word loosely), both Christian and secular, is a testimony to the deep need and longing for shelter that each person has, and the problems that exist in society can be traced to the misplaced pursuit of that shelter --- for a place where there is protection, where there is unconditional love.

For Christians, God is the one who provides ultimate shelter, as all other dwellings --- family, friends, social networks (such as they are), and church will fail us.  Our dependence on that ultimate shelter and the promise and hope of a secure dwelling in Heaven keeps us from attempting to meet all our need for shelter from any earthly medium.  And yet these imperfect, temporal shelters are the mediators of God's permanent shelter, the face of His love, the shadow, however mottled, of his wings.  As the song later says, "God has given us each other, and we will never walk alone." Community will never be enough, never satisfy.  Only God can be our shelter.

But rather than focus on my need for shelter, the better questions are who I am called to provide shelter for and what that shelter looks like.  I cannot shelter the world, of course, with all its shelter-needy people, so who has God called me to shelter?  And how do I shelter them in a way that makes them not dependent on what I provide but points them back to the ultimate source of their shelter, not themselves (self-reliance), not even each other (their family or community, as important as that is), but to a Father who will supply what they need for eternity?

For example, my family provides for the education and support of four Ugandan young people between the ages of 16 and 20 and probably will for several years.  (By American standards, the investment is small, so don't think too highly of us!)  We are "sheltering" them, if you will, and yet there are many more like them that we don't know and even knowing could not afford to shelter. Why these young people?  I always answer that they are the ones God put in my path.  I don't know what else to say.  I'm more concerned about the how of sheltering them --- is there a way to help them without creating an unhealthy dependence?  will they be self-supporting once they complete their education?  Caring for them in this way is the right thing to do, as it is part of loving them, but if it creates dependency, then we haven't loved them well.

To shelter someone is just another outworking of the command to love one another.  In practice, you can't practically demonstrate love for everyone.  Only God so loved the world, right?  To love everyone is a platitude that may in practice look like loving no one.  We have to bring it down to street level, from an aerial view to the human traffic in our face, asking Love who? and Love how?  Love is particular.

If there is any peace
If there is any hope
We must all believe
Our lives are not alone
We don’t all belong
God has given us each other
And we will never walk alone

So who has God called you to shelter?  And how will you do that?


What Lies Beneath

"A river touches places of which its source knows nothing, and Jesus says if we have received of His fulness, however small the visible measure of our lives, out of us will flow the rivers that will bless to the uttermost parts of the earth."

(Oswald Chambers, My Utmost for His Highest, September 6th)

On the north side of metropolitan Tucson, Arizona, just at the edge of the foothills that now take the city up to the edge of the Catalina Mountains, runs the Rillito River.  If you live or stay in the foothills, Oro Valley, Oracle or beyond, and work in Tucson proper, you cross the river each workday at one of a limited number of crossings, bridges that span its length.  As we are never there during Summer monsoon season, the Rillito is mostly a joke to my family, as the "roaring" Rillito seldom has more than a trickle of water in it, and that rarely.  For most of the year it is a dry riverbed, like many in the desert southwest, merely a depression in the desert to be spanned.

Of course, there is more to the Rillito than meets the eye.  There is a coursing river that flows under the stream bed at all times, sometimes high and sometimes low, a latent, writhing watercourse that lives and moves and has its being quite out of seeing.  In fact, it becomes a small tributary of a great aquifer (or underground lake) that supplies a significant percentage of Tucson's water supply, that is, enough for the needs of over one million people.  Much like an iceberg, what lies under is much more significant than what lies over; what we don't see dwarfs what we do see.

Chambers' devotion for September 6th, one that I recall reading each year over the many years I have read My Utmost for the Highest, is one that has always resonated with me.  Prone as I am to live by sight and not by faith, I forget that what God is doing is like some great underground river, touching people I do not even know or ones I know in ways I do not suspect.  As Chambers says, "God rarely allows a soul to see how great a blessing he is," just as by sight alone we have no idea of the powerful effect the Rillito has beneath the desert floor.

Indeed the whole river analogy is memorable because it so well pictures God's working in our lives and in life as a whole.  First, we can know with assurance that our small, faithful acts of obedience have fruit beyond what we can see.  This is encouraging.  To see more would in fact tempt us to be prideful.  The very hiddeness of the fruit keeps our focus off our self and on the Source of the flow.  As Chambers says, "Never let anything come between yourself and Jesus Christ, no emotion, or experience; nothing must keep you from the one great sovereign Source."

Second, it is of great comfort to know that underneath the tapestry of the life we see, a powerful self-sustaining source of all that is true, good, and beautiful is constantly flowing.  A providential power moves in the deep recesses of aquifers and underground caverns, sustaining all life above ground and working out all things to His own ends.  What we don't see is far greater than what we do see, a humbling and sobering acknowledgment that regularly need be made.

Finally, when we appreciate the power of the Source, we are helped to view obstacles as temporary --- no, as really nothing compared to the power of the river.  Chambers notes that, confronted by an obstacle, a river will "soon make a pathway around the obstacle," or "drop out of sight for miles, and presently emerge again broader and grander than ever."  God in us is unstoppable if sometimes hidden.

So, take heart from all this.  I am.  I look at my life and the world around me and see only brief glimmers of how God may have used me, certainly not enough to live on, not enough to sustain me and give me hope. That drives me back to the Source, to remembering Who is really working out his salvation in and through me and the mystery of results, of our long obedience in the same direction.

And another thing: I'm not going to demean the Rillito any longer.  When I bike alongside it or drive over it every year, I'll just nod in recognition of the great work it's doing.  Unseen.  It's been there all along.  You just have to have faith.


What We'll Be Doing at the End of Time (Part Two)

On of the topics I enjoy thinking about is Heaven, about that place we'll spend virtually all of our time, if we can even use the word "time" to describe it.  I like thinking about the continuities and discontinuities between this earthly life and our heavenly life, and I like what I've discovered.  I like knowing that we don't begin heaven-life with blank slates but with redeemed memories, shorn of the painful effect of them in some way I cannot imagine.  We don't become different persons but remain the personalities we are, of course, recognizable in our fundamental dispositions, attitudes, and character, redeemed of course and emerging in a way that is faithful to who were always have been and yet purged of every sinful aberration or excess of that person we were. Meeting each other on the other side, we will be recognizable, both physically and in personality, and we might think to ourselves, "Oh, I always knew that this is who you really were."  And that's another thing:  we are physical and sensual, living flesh and blood, similar and yet somehow much more of who we were always meant to be, indeed, all of what we were meant to be.  Jesus, after all, was still recognizable, still the person he always was, both before and after the resurrection --- embodied albeit enhanced, sensual (eating fish), and yet changed (able to walk through walls).

I was reminded today of yet another continuity between this life and heaven's life.  Listening to a chapel sermon by Niel Nielson, the President of Covenant College, a point he made,  though an aside to his sermon, stuck to me.  He spoke of the continuity between our various callings here on earth and what we will be doing in heaven.  His point was that there is no discontinuity but, rather, a great continuity between the good we do here and Heaven, that our callings find their consummation in Heaven. As a lawyer, I like thinking about that.  The big mystery: What good is a lawyer in Heaven?  (This presupposes that there are lawyers in Heaven, a point which for some may end the discussion.)

It’s true that lawyers have worked a lot of mischief, stemming back to that serpent lawyer who recast God's admonition not to eat of the fruit one particular tree to "Did God really say, 'You must not eat from any tree in the garden'?"  He planted doubt and sowed dissent, something lawyers know how to do and do well. The old joke is that before Creation, when chaos reigned, lawyers were already here, that they were the ones responsible for the chaos!  But that’s not really their calling.  Lawyers, on their best days, bring order from chaos, whether it’s assembling, analyzing, and presenting the information in a written brief or court trial or helping clients sort our the messes they find themselves in --- a kind of ombudsmanship.  People and organizations often have a mixed up jumble of interrelated problems.  They don't know how to untangle themselves.  They can become emotional, behave irrationally, and further harm themselves. Lawyers help identify the issues, understand how things got that way, and determine how best to shape a response to those problems.  Or else they prospectively and prophylactically try to ward off such problems in the future.  Whatever the situation, reactive or proactive, they are creators (with a little “c”) of order, countering the powerful tug of entropy, the unwinding of all that is right and good and beautiful, redeeming and bringing substantial restoration to broken relationships and social settings with all the love and care they can apply. . . .

. . . . on their best days, that is.  In fact, that's less descriptive of my profession than it is normative.  Really, that's more a prayer for what we can be.

So what is there for us to do in Heaven, when the lack of sin's full employment threatens to rob of us our vocation?  There is still a need for order.  The lack of sin does not make everyone omnipotent, omniscient, or omnipresent, attributes reserved for God.  Someone still needs to say "drive to the right of the center line," or "a red light means stop." Otherwise there will still be many automobile accidents, though both drivers will humbly take the blame, deal sinlessly with what has happened, and emerge from the rubble not the least concerned with their cars and the best of friends.  Or something like that.  The point: Someone will have to say what side of the road to drive on and when to stop.

But wait a minute.  That's not lawyers, that's politicians.  And we all know there is a special place reserved for them.  God help them.


What We'll Be Doing at the End of Time

"Childhood's time is Adam and Eve's time before they left the garden for good and from that time on divided everything into before and after.  It is the time before God told them that the day would come when they would surely die with the result that from that time on they made clocks and calendars for counting their time out like money and never again lived through a day of their lives without being haunted somewhere in the depths of them by the knowledge that each day brought them closer to the end of their lives."  (Frederick Buechner)

I am glad that Fall is here, both by calendar and by temperature, finally, but I'm sad that another Summer has passed, indeed that time has passed.  I walk the steps to my office and think "was it really 26 years years ago that I first stepped int this place?"  I visited a park, briefly, this early evening, and while waiting for my wife and watching a mother and young child pass by, I considered how many years had passed since I had passed in the same way, a blond-haired boy and redhead in tow.

Time is part of what came unwound in the Fall, part of what befell the first Father and first Mother on that fateful day of expulsion.  The ticking began, and the meter continues to run.  The sense of passage of time is real to us and part of the curse, part of the suffering and travail of the world.  It wasn't meant to be this way.  

Part of the hope deep beneath Buechner's sigh is the restoration of childhood, the unwinding and undoing of the curse, when time will be over and the end of our time will not haunt us.  It's happening already. Have you ever had one of those absolutely magical moments when time seems to stand still, when your eyes are opened just a bit to the fact that there is a deeper reality, a truer Truth than what we see?  My son is a young man, and yet there are moments talking with him that I sense there is an old soul within, a timeless soul, one with wisdom beyond his years and beyond his sensing. My daughter speaks, and I hear not the voice of a teenager but the voice of a woman, and I smile.  Or you're in a place and you have the uncanny sense that you've been there before, though you haven't, and perhaps it is that for a moment the door opened on timelessness and you had a peek.

That's Heaven you're knocking up against.  You get to wake up when you want.  You're having one long conversation with God, with no regrets over yesterday and no anxiety about tomorrow.  In fact, maybe "yesterday" and "tomorrow" are not even in the lexicon.  There are a string of eternal nows within which to live.  Time, what the Greeks called chronos, or quantitative time, has ceased, is not even remembered, and the only time you know is what they called kairos, time in a qualitative sense.  Like a childhood Summer, when the last school bell rang and the season ahead stretched interminably and unimaginably into the future, like a world without end.

That's Heaven.  World without end.  Time out, for good.


The Beat Goes On

"Try listening to a lecture or sermon as if you had never heard English before.  Listen for the flow of syllables --- some strong, some weak.  What do we mean by an accented syllable?  Is it louder?  Does it take longer to pronounce than its neighboring syllable does?"

(Suzanne U. Clark, in The Roar on the Other Side)

If, as I do, you sometimes have a difficult time staying awake during the sermon on Sunday morning, try something different.  Forget about the content for the time being and assume that the three points will in some way prick you nonetheless and provide inspiration and provocation later, when you've shaken off the slippery slope of Sunday sleep. (Say that ten times quickly, will you?)

Pretend the pastor is not speaking English, a not far stretch of the imagination with some pastors, I know. Listen not to what they say but how they say it.  Why stress what they stress?  Why pause where they pause?  What accent the syllable they accent?

Speech is poetry, really, with a musical quality about it.  Poet Suzanne Clark reminds us "that the most prominent sound pattern in English is an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed one.  When used as a deliberate pattern in a poem, it is called an iamb. . . . Of course in speech the pattern is random and inconsistent."  In poetry, she says, order is brought to the randomness: "The iambic meter --- presenting the pattern at regular intervals --- has historically been the prevailing one."

Even when random and inconsistent, the intriguing thing about the iamb's prevalence in speech is that it always surfaces.  Just listen to the sermon.  You'll hear it, the rising and falling of stress, the rising and falling of voice.  What it is, I believe, is our unconscious imitation of the "THUMP-thump" of our own heartbeat, the music we effortlessly make, our own internal rhythm.  And that, I suspect, is a rhythm built into Creation itself --- "there was evening, and there was morning --- an iamb placed in Creation by a God who some believed even put in Creation a "music of the spheres."  Hmmm.

And then, perhaps all this is a lot of rubbish.  Nevertheless, listen to the sound of the sermon anyway. You may just wake up to more than its iambs.  "Beautiful words have interesting sounds with value quite apart from sense," says Clark (once again, a good thing in respect to some pastors).  So listen.  And then when you bow for prayer, put your hand to your heart and realize that there is a reason you sound like you do. And let a small word of praise escape your mouth that that beat goes on, and on.



Walk On

One Sunday, many years ago, a Polish woman was invited to give a brief testimony of faith at our church. I have not forgotten it.  It was not brief but ended up practically displacing the sermon, becoming the sermon. The woman, whose name was Christina, I believe, told how she was part of Solidarity, Lech Walesa's Polish labor union.  When the danger for her in Poland increased, she escaped to Austria where, in a refugee camp, she heard the Gospel.  As exciting as her story was, full of excitement and danger, the memorable part of her testimony was this line: "When I heard the Gospel, I knew that this is what I had always believed."  Not ever having heard the Gospel, what did she mean?

One of the things that C.S. Lewis addresses in his book, Reflections on the Psalms, is what he calls "second meanings."  What he suggests by the word is the answer to the question of how we view the Psalms in light of the fuller revelation of Christ that we now know, in a way that the Old Testament writer could not have known.  Lewis says that when the fuller truth is found it doesn't undercut the truth intended by the writer of the time but is, rather, a mere "prolonging of the meaning in a direction congenial to it."  He says "[t]he basic reality behind his words and behind the full truth is one and the same."  As an example, he cites Plato who, as a pagan, was able to see the possibility of a Christ figure, and had he known the reality, it would not have surprised him, as it was an extension of the same truth.

So, that's what Christina meant when she said "I knew this is what I had always believed."  She knew the necessity for a Creation to presuppose a Creator, the reality of the Fall in the broken society around her, and the need for someone like Christ, a deliverer from beyond to come in and repair a world gone wrong.

What is even more interesting is this:  Given that there are "second meanings," can we not say that there will be third, fourth, and fifth meanings?  What understandings of Word and World will we have 100 years from now, whether in the faithful generations that live on beyond us or in our glorified state?  Scripture does say that "Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face.  Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known" (1 Cor. 13:12).  It suggests that revelation is progressive, that the depths of who God is and who we are are not fully plumbed.

So when I read a verse like "God is love," I realize that beneath that three-dimensional phrase lies an incalculable depth of meaning.  Just as when I marvel at a full moon in the pre-dawn morning, I realize that the moon I see is not the light I may see in a glorified state, where grass will be greener and blue sky bluer, in a place where you can inexplicably run and not grow weary.

Even in Heaven, when we see Him face to face and know Him, as we still are most definitely not Him, surely there are ever increasing meanings.  And as we read back on these ancient texts, written as they will be on our hearts, we'll meet fuller meanings everyday --- all extensions of the same truth, the one Truth, the Gospel truth.  Like those children in Narnia after the last battle, we'll walk on, "further up and further in."

So, walk on. 


The Good of Dying

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

 (Tony Woodlief, in Somewhere More Holy)

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

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

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

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

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

That does sound alien, doesn't it?


Summer's Promise

IMG_0420 It's finally come.  It's the last minute of the last day of the last period of sixth grade.  While Mrs. Edgerton drones on, we're watching the second hand on the clock, counting down the moments, waiting for the last bell.  When the big hand on the clock is straight up, it happens.  The bell rings.  We run out of the rooms, our teachers' voices of caution ignored, and burst out of the doors of the classroom building.  Free. Summer spreading out in front of us like the Atlantic Ocean.  Full of possibilities, full of promise, and seemingly endless.

But that was then and this is now.  In a do anything anytime all the time kind of world, Summer has lost its distinctiveness.  Heck, some kids go to school most of the Summer.  A full palette of activities await most of them, programming to take the place of school, someone else guiding your imagination.  All those years ago we decided what our day would be.  We dreamed it, and if we could make it happen, we did it.  We woke up with hope, with the promise of a new day, living for that day unaware of even the calendar, of the passage of time, marking the passage of time from breakfast to dinner walking the streets and forests, building forts and tree houses out of scrap wood and tree limbs, playing in the creek, riding the buses all over town just to ride, to see where we could go, making "bombs" out of firecrackers that our resident pryomaniac, Billy Burkholter, always seemed to have an abundant supply of (I don't recommend this, kids), trying once again to get the nerve up and praying please God could this be the day to talk to one of the many girls we came across in our neighborhood travels.  We thought it and we did it, or at least talked about doing it, or at least dreamed we did it, and sometimes in fact do actually do it.  When my mother yelled my name from the back door alerting me to dinner, I came home knowing I had lived that day.

But that was then, and things have changed.  But need they?

Sunday morning I woke up with the crazy thought that Summer has endless possibilities.  I had been viewing it as a string of end to end activities punctuating my otherwise year-round routine of 8 to 5 work. And I wasn't excited about that.  I asked God to give me a big vision for Summer, something like my twelve-year old self had on that last day of school.  I want to wake up and think "I wonder what will happen today.  What can I dream up?  Better yet, what will God do?"  I don't have it quite yet, but I'm asking God for a God-sized vision of my Summer, to show me the possibilities.  

One day in third grade my friend Brian and I lost track of time.  We were walking home from school together, taking our time, talking about important stuff like. . . like. . . well heck, I can't remember now what it was but it had to be really important, you know.  And as we were walking we decided to explore one of those drainage pipes that pass under roads and handle runoff, the big kind, the kind little kids like us can stand up in.  We lost tack of time, worried our mothers to death, walked in a couple hours later almost missing dinner gleeful with the adventure we imagined had taken us into uncharted subterranean territory, that had given us stories that would make us the stuff of legend in our neighborhood.  Only our mothers didn't quite get it, didn't sense what this could mean for us.

I want to lose track of time.  I may have to get in trouble.  Someone may not understand.  I may have to do something spontaneous, like get up in the middle of the night and drive to the Atlantic Ocean in a convertible with the top down and put my feet in the water and drive back home just to say I did and just because I want to.

The clock is ticking.  I'm just waiting for the bell to ring.  When it does I hope I'll run as fast as I did when I was 12, that I'll burst from my routine-laden days and see Summer laid out before me, just like the Atlantic Ocean, and there'll be wonder in my soul once again.

Jesus once said we should only "fear him who can destroy both body and soul in hell" (Matt. 10:28).  In Hell tormented people must be slaves of routine, devoid of wonder, taking great care to never, never follow a stray thought, a "what if."  Bureaucrats, that is.  People who can look at a day and not see its possibilities, who have forgotten the meaning of wondrous.  I don't want to be one of them.

One time a friend and I were in Southern California, mixing business and pleasure.  Finding ourselves with some time on our hands one day, we struck out down the PCH, heading south, in search of a classic surfboard maker.  It took a while, but we found his small shop in a town north of San Diego.  It was a long way to go to meet him.  Come to find out, he had died nine years earlier.  We enjoyed letting his son, now in charge, talk about his Dad.  Then we got back in the car and headed back to LA.  That was unplanned and a little ridiculous.  But I won't forget that trip down the PCH, talking to my friend, seeing the ocean at times off to the West, talking to the son of a surf-god, eating tacos at a local restaurant.  It's the stuff of Summer's promise.  It's detours like that that help define us, that remind us of what it means to live and not just exist.


A Hinge of My History

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


On Your Graduation (And Mine)

[No one has ever asked me to speak to a graduating class of high school seniors, and I don't really want to do that, but I have thought about what I might say to them if I were asked.  A few years ago, I did the same thing, only then I did not have a graduating senior.  I do now.  Looking back at what I wrote then, it seems a bit preachy and wordy.  I like this better.]

Here you are, finally.  Did you think this day would never come?  I know that you're sitting here with a mixture of excitement, anxiety, and impatience, but bear with me.  I only have five things to say.  Here goes.

Life is broken, but all is not lost.  You know what I mean.  Lots of things are screwed up, from oil spills to wars to bad hair to lousy days when you can't even figure out what's wrong or why a blue funk has come over you.  You know it wasn't meant to be this way. Sometimes you feel like someone left you standing on a street corner without a full set of instructions.  Yes, it's broken, under a kind of curse ever since Adam and Eve decided to eat the fruit.  And yet something else is happening.  The curse is being undone.  Pay attention and you'll see it --- in a smile, in a friend, in someone who does something for you for nothing, nothing at all. If you focus on all the bad, pretty soon you won't be able to see anything else.  So focus on what's good, true, and beautiful, and pretty soon that's what you'll naturally be predisposed to see.

Live where you live, not where you think you want to live.  In a world of immediate accessibility, when you google anything and anyone, it's easy to want to be somewhere else, to live virtually.  But when Jesus walked the streets and hills of Palestine, he didn't wish he was anywhere else.  He grew up there.  He ate meals there.  He fished.  He preached.  He never went more than 100 miles from his home.  So with you. Like the Jews in exile, don't pine for somewhere else, for home, or for the next thing, but settle in and live and love where you are.  That may be your college, a town far from home, or it may be right here.  Find the beauty of the place where you find yourself.  You'll be a lot more content and better able to bless those around you if you do.

Cut the crap.  Look around you.  Your classmates are the best crap-detectors you have.  They know when you're suckin' up to teachers or not being yourself.  They know religious talk from true spirituality.  There are a lot of people-pleasers in the world and in the church, people who say all the right words because it's expected of them, or because they want to fit in.  Don't.  The church needs people who will speak the truth in love.  You need friends who won't tell you what you want to hear or what they think you want to hear but what you need to hear, who'll call you out if need be.  The Bible says "let your yes be yes and your no be no."  See that you do.

Have the right passion.  You'll meet a lot of people who are passionate about a lot of things: vegetarianism, running, film, music, food, sex, and so on.  You name it and you will find a group to advocate it, brand it, and market it.  It all goes to show that we were meant to have a passion --- only people will fill it, fill that void, however they can.  Ask God to give you a passion for Him.  Then ask him to reveal His vision for you.  There is something only you can do.  So pray hard.  Nag God.  Be the persistent widow who won't stop until you get what you came for.  In all of that begging, wondering, and hoping just remember this:  YOU are His passion.  Not only does He love you, He likes you --- not the petty you but the you He made in His image, the one He's transforming you into thank God.

Don't be afraid.  Fear is paralyzing and often unfounded, and most of what we fear never comes to pass and the things we don't have time to fear may be the things that actually come to pass.  You don't know how you'll manage college, life, or love, but He does.  The only antidote for fear is faith.  Take God at His word.  Ask him to increase your faith.  Act not on the fear you may feel but on the promises of the God you know.  The Bible is replete with people who did the unthinkable and the unlikely, from a quivering Moses who went before the most powerful man in the world to ask that he let his people go to a shepherd boy who went up against a giant to a once cowardly Christ-denier on whom Jesus built his church.  If God is with you, nothing can prevail against you.

There's a lot more I could say, but you'll hear all that and more from someone else.  Now as you're sitting there, uncomfortable and hot in those robes, with those ridiculous boards on your heads, you're probably thinking when will this old guy shut up.  Well, I had to say it.  You see, I'm graduating too. Everything I said to you I'm still working on.  Some kids are on a five-year plan; I'm on a life plan. Graduation is gradual.  Life is a university.  And God is a kind headmaster.  May He bless you, and me, on our graduation.


The Rest of Home

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

(John Ruskin, 1856)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



A Carpetbag of Jesus: Getting God Sideways

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


(Get Me Out of This) House of Mirrors

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The last 24 hours has been a trip through a house of mirrors. Everywhere I turn, I see myself, only it's not the carefully cultivated self of my imagination, the person I think I am or hope I am in my best moments. Rather, these mirrors are mirrors of the true, showing me the grotesque, the sinner that I am.

Ha, ha.  It's just a fun house, some would tell me.  That's not really you.  But it is.

No one likes to come face to face with who they really are.  You're perking along, half a decade old, figuring you've got a few things mostly licked, that you're really mostly OK, not perfect, not substantially perfect in fact, but hey you're not all that bad --- God's working on you and making progress.  Not so fast. It only takes a few incidents to peel back the curtain and show you what you're really made of, how far you have to go, how much you are in need of grace.

Yes, it's true.  I'm a clutching, selfish materialist, in love with my stuff.  I always like to think of myself as someone who "lives life with hands open," and yet it only takes a couple of requests and I begin to put the nails in the coffers.  I have all kinds of reasons, sensible reasons, to deny these requests of me.  But the real reason is fear, fear that if I open the door any wider the Mac Truck of need will drive right through and take all I have.  Oh, I despise that image in a mirror.

I sat in my chair a full 10 minutes and looked out the window today, mourning this face in the mirror, useless to my employer.  If anyone had seen me, they would have thought that I was studying some object out the window, but really I was peering in, not out.  Would that it were out.

Where's the exit?  I turn the corner on one sorry image only to confront another.  Is that me?  Angry?  I'm an even-keel person, always pretty calm, rarely losing my temper.  And yet the face in the mirror is one of anger.  Funny thing about anger.  You talk to yourself.  You make up little conversations you might have with the offender, and rehearse little digs you'll make, rack up points.  You think about their demise, how their pride will go before a fall (and how you can help them down that path).  You catch a glimpse of that image out of your eye, the one you are avoiding, and it scares you a little.

I sat in my chair a full 15 minutes on that one.  Stewing.  Stirring the ashes of vengeance which is mine says the Lord, and yet maybe the Lord needs a little help I think.

Sickening.

I went to lunch.  Alone.  I sat at an outdoor cafe, at a table in the sun, the wind almost uncomfortable it was so brisk.  I watched people walk past me.  Could they see it? Could they see how ugly I was?Someway, halfway through my salad, two pieces of bread downed, I was done, or undone at least.  I began to smile, inside anyway, at the humor of it all.  Sometimes the best response to sin is to laugh at its absurdity, at the ways it toys with us.  

It really is a fun house, a house of the absurd.  Or maybe it's the house of truth.  Or maybe it's both.

But I know one thing: I'm just glad to be out of there.


To Get Good and Old

410aRJ0oBOL._SL500_AA300_  "My project, then.  To get good and old.  Spiritually to approach my losses with the same craft and talent and devotion which I bring to the writing of a novel, a poem, a sermon."

(Walter Wangerin, writing to his family and friends, in Letters from the Land of Cancer)

Walter Wangerin is dying.  Ever so conscious of his losses, the things he can no longer do, he is still able to write a line like the above, to not fall on bitterness and self-pity, a morbid introspection that makes him of no account to anyone.

I know nothing about such dying.  Yet the smaller health issues I have faced along the way, even the flu or common cold which I share with the rest of the world, provide glimpses of what I might be like in such circumstances. Maybe God gives me --- gives us all --- these small challenges in order to build our faith, to tell us who we are when sickness makes us focus on our ailment to the exclusion of others.  I can tell you I don't like what I see.

That's why I'm reading Wangerin's book, a collection of letters he sent to family and friends during his treatment for lung cancer.  I want to see how he approached these circumstances with grace, what he struggled with, how he persevered, and how he was able to get both good and old at the same time.  Mind you, Wangerin's no ordinary letter writer.  He's a masterful wordsmith, even in his letters, even in pain, and yet in all respects he is like his readers, subject to the same irritability and pettiness as all of us.

How do you get good and old?  Old is easy; I'm working on the good part.

Wangerin says his sickness --- indeed all sicknesses --- are "as creative a passage as any writer ever wrote.  And that grants it the possibility of depth, gravitas and fulfillments and joy."  His journey is one we will all make.  What better a time than now to get advice on how to walk that path.

I recommend this book as a kind of Hitchiker's Guide to the Rest of Life."  And death.


His Aim is Me

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

(The Trumpet Child, from Over the Rhine)

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

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

"man greatly loved" 

"O man greatly loved" 

"a hand touched me" 

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

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

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

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


Dignity

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

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

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

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

"I can't swim."

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

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

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

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

"What?"

"Strawberries.  You like strawberries?"

"They'll do."

"How about blueberries?"

"Nope."  She pursed her lips.

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

"Now, you want milk or orange juice?"

"Not milk."

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

"That don't look like orange juice."

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

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

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

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

"Too much hanging out there, Ms. Jones?

"Yeah, you needed that."

"I better keep my eye on you."

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

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

"The what?"

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

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

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

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

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

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


Heaven's Waiting Room

Huge.96.480020 "There are no ordinary people. You have never met a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations, these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat."  (C.S. Lewis)

"Whose cell phone is that? Turn your cell phone off, Ma'am.  TURN YOUR CELL PHONE OFF!  NOW."

It's a rotund African-American security guard, yelling at us all, all of us waiting in the uniform blue seats in the square room, with the signs on the walls of do's and don'ts ---- a non-descript government building. Take a number (You are a number.)  Take a seat (Behave.)  Go to the appropriate window when your number is called.  (Red Hall, Blue Hall, A, B, C, D).

"Sir, please turn your phone off."

"It is off.  I'm just reading emails." And the weather.  And the stock report. Texting home.  Updating my status.  I have a lot to do.  I'm important.  And who does this guy think he is, I want to know.

"The sign says 'no electronic devices.'  Sometimes I can be a little lenient, you know, but if someone cops an attitude, if they're gonna be a hard ___ (Did he really say that?) I'll show 'em the door.  You know what I'm saying?  You know?"

"No problem.  I know what you mean."  (Not really.)  That'd be just great. The white man in a suit (the only person in a suit) gets kicked out of the Social Security Administration office.  I put it away.  Now what? No book, no email, no blog reading, no backgammon games.  I look up for the first time and look around me. Where do these people come from?  None of them look like people I work with, or even people I shop with or eat in restaurants with.  All ages, Oriental, African-American, Latino, poorly dressed, half-dressed, several obese women and men, some obviously handicapped, some lethargic (perhaps out of work?).

I hate to say it, but I have a realization that I've got an attitude.  I don't want to wait. I particularly don't want to wait with these people.  They're not like me, or they?  A creeping snobbery threatens me.  I begin to generalize. (Probably don't need benefits.  Feeding at the federal trough.)  I'm uncomfortable.

Then it dawns on me that these are the very people I will share heaven with.  I am going to heaven by God's grace, not my goodness (which there is precious little of), not as one of the beautiful all together well-dressed intelligent articulate well-mannered slightly but not too obnoxiously hip people, but as one reconstructed by Him, reformed by Him, redressed by Him.  And some of these people will be there too. 
And. . . some. . . of. . .these. . . people. . . will. . . be. . . there. . . too.  They will.

Everyone should have to go to the Social Security Administration office and wait.

Everyone has to go to DMV for their license renewal.

Everyone should sit in a state district courtroom and watch the people who parade through.

Everyone has to serve on a jury.

And everyone should go to Wal-Mart on a weeknight after midnight and watch the clientele.  They may not be like you and me.  And yet they are like you and me.

These experiences are great levelers.  They remind us that as different as we are, we are all human, all needy, all sometimes stumbling through life by God's grace, and all saints or devils behind whatever human face or facade we have.

Those people in Heaven?  They're going to look like these people here, only we'll be so warmed by their souls that we'll not see any external blemish.  It doesn't say anywhere in the Bible that we'll look the same, that some won't be weightier than others, some shorter, some taller, that some won't talk a lot, more than us, or have annoying habits.  None of that will matter.

So I try for a minute, right here, to imagine the loud lady across from me in Heaven with me.

I'm trying.

I think I need a better imagination.

"Number 22, Window 14, Red Hall."

That's me.  Goodbye immortals.  Goodbye saints.  Goodbye devils.  See some of you in Heaven.  Maybe even you, lady.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Room of the World

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

What a comfort.

Everything else changes.

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

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

What a comfort.

Everything else changes.

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

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

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

What a comfort.

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

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

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


A Plea for Routine

Huge.10.50617"It looks as if they [Anglican clergymen] believed people can be lured to go to church by incessant brightenings, lightenings, lengthenings, abridgments, simplifications, and complications of the service.  And it is probably true that a new, keen vicar will usually be able to form within his parish a minority who are in favour of his innovations.  The majority, I believe, never are. . . . [T]hey don't go to church to be entertained.  They go to use the service, or, if you will, to enact it. . . . The perfect church service would be one we were almost unaware of; our attention would have been on God. . . . I can make do with almost any kind of church service, if only it will stay put."   

(C.S. Lewis, in Letters to Malcolm)

When out walking today, I did not wear my long underwear.  I hope I can say that here, reader.  Search all my blogs and you'll find nary a mention of underwear.  So, it's overdue.

Six days a week, on good weeks, I walk the same well-trod sidewalks and streets.  I turn the same corners, register the same trees, say hello to the same elderly gentleman out walking the same dog, make note and avoid the same tree root thrust out of the sidewalk, give a Monk-like touch to the same stop sign as I round the final turn, traverse the same rutted road side where there is no sidewalk, and silently tick off the steps to home. And, in winter, I wear the same long underwear.

As much as I love walking in varied surroundings and enjoy the outdoors, whether natural areas or city streets, I'm not focused on my surroundings when I do this walk.  In fact, I'm barely aware of where I am. That's just the way I want it.  I have two objectives: exercise, and prayer, and stray thoughts.  (Oops, that's three.)  That's right, I want to let my mind come unhinged, a kind of free association permeated by prayer, a sanctified mindful distraction.  I don't need outside distractions when I'm trying to focus on following every thought that arises internally.  I don't need novelty.  I need to keep moving.  I need to focus my thoughts. Forgetting your long underwear on a nippy, windy day is a distraction, chilling both objectives.

Lewis has it right.  Just like my walk, there are settled paths in worship that are best when left in place so that the forms themselves recede like a well-worn pair of shoes, leaving us to just be the worshippers we were meant to be.  We breathe best when we don't have to think about breathing.  We fall asleep best when we're not thinking about falling to sleep.  We relate best to others when we're not trying to follow some technique.  We worship best when we are so at home in the forms of worship that we are simply enacting the worship, actors in a drama unaware of props and set.

So forget novelty.  Give me a ruddy path, an order of worship for the ages, hymns and songs that have endured. . .and long underwear.

I've seen a lot of church.  Novelty can be so boring.  More and more, I'm for staying put, for, as Lewis said, "permanence and uniformity."


The Eighth Day of Christmas

Snow_7Eight maids-a-milking?  You know, I really don't think the objects of the song have any relation to that which they are supposed to symbolize!  But these eight maids point to the eight beatitudes: Blessed are the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake (Matt. 5:3-10).

These eight "blesseds" become real to me many years ago when I read John Stott's commentary on the Sermon on the Mount, entitled The Message of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7): Christian Counter-Culture.  Stott lays out the case for a truly counter-cultural community of Christian fellowship marked by radical obedience to Christ.  The beatitudes really are characteristics that each Christian, by God's grace, should strive to exemplify.  The promises follow as blessings for those who seek after each quality.

I used to trip over the one that says "blessed are the meek."  I don't want to be meek if being meek means being a doormat for the world.  But I've come to see the strength in humility, in not thinking more highly of myself than I ought, in bearing with the faults of others, and in serving others -- even if these things are a struggle for me.  To be honest, they are a huge struggle!  And sometimes, to be mourning over the sin the world, feeling the accumulated weight of it on heart and mind, is difficult to call blessed.  And yet the more we feel it the more we know God's grace, sense His presence.

Maybe today is enough to pause, reflect, look heavenward, and acknowledge the graciousness of a god who calls us blessed. who loves the ones he has made, and who graciously shows us glimpses of life beyond sufficient to shore up our short-sighted faith.


The Sixth Day of Christmas

Snow_5"Six geese a-laying?"  Hmmm.  Six days of creation, apparently.  Scripture begins with an account of Creation that is incredibly brief and yet theologically rich.  The fact that God is Creator and First Imaginer is fundamental to all creative activity.  As creatures made in God's image, we image His creative nature.  We cannot help but create.  It is who we are.  The only question is for whom we create.  Will our imaginings honor and glorify God or honor ourselves?

A lot of ink has been spilled on the question of whether the six days of creation are 24-hour days or merely long periods of time.  Both are defensible positions.  However, the big story of these days is that God initiates and superintends the creative process.  It is not the product of random forces.

Creation's rootedness in the Trinity is also instructive for our own creative activity.  Creation occurred in community, a triune community of love -- Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  To me that implies that our own imaging of this creative activity is not simply self-expression but arises out of community.  For Christians, this is the Body of Christ, the Church.  There is accountability.  We do not create in a void.  Creative activity should be encouraged by the Church; artists should be accountable to the Church.  There is mutuality.

Finally, God's creative activity builds on itself, like a good story.  It reminds me that He is not done yet, that His Kingdom is growing, that He is at work even now re-creating human beings to more reflect His original design for them, that one day his work will be done and He will truly, and finally, rest in what He has made and remade.


The First Day of Christmas


SnowIt's probably the case that most evangelical Christians do not know that the "twelve days of Christmas" actually begin with Christmas and end on Epiphany, January 6th, the day Eastern Orthodox Christians and some others celebrate the coming of the wise men.  If asked, most would likely say the twelve days begin 12 days before Christmas.

Contrarian that I am, I like to think of my Christmas celebration beginning with Christmas and going on until January 6th - the twelfth day.  And yet the culture around me provides no encouragement.  Today is a big shopping day -- all sales and returns.  For most folks Christmas is over.  Even school begins for my children on January 5th.  I'm swimming upstream.

But I can do one thing.  I can continue to think on His coming in the flesh, on the meaning of His incarnation for my life in a new year.  One helpful tool is the song, "The Twelve Days of Christmas."  Some say this historic and mirthful song, seemingly secular, is a catechism of faith in secret code used by persecuted Catholics during the 16th century religious wars in England.  AS has been pointed out here, that's doubtful.  Nevertheless, it's a useful mnemonic device and one you can make use of during these twelve days.  I intend to do so.

You can read more about the twelve days of Christmas, and the song here.  The partridge in the pear tree?  Well, that symbolizes Jesus, the one we celebrate , the one who watches over us, sheltering us under his wings. (Lk. 13:34).  In these somewhat lazy after-Christmas days when, exhausted form the festivities and shopping, you might rest, just a little, think on Him outside the clutter of Christmas culture, when you can better hear His voice.

Merry Christmas.


The Weather of Advent

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


A Blessed Longing: Advent

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Father of Night

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I am a walker and have my settled paths.  I follow a routine of time, place, and manner.  Normally I walk in the morning, beginning in pre-dawn darkness, watching the Eastern sky gradually brighten as I tread lightly on sidewalks or asphalt, hearing only the swish of my clothing as I brush along, passing no one, homes dark and sleeping.  Had I dog ears I might sense the vibrations of the snoring people or the murmurs of just-waking workers, the sighs of babies swaddled in cribs, perhaps the padded feet of children on hallways to parents' rooms --- awake, ready.  Morning, with its stillness, quiet, and faint stirrings is promise, a hope of new things, a day never lived before.  When the birds awake and begin their singing about midway through my walk, just before dawn, it is a chorus of hope.

Evening is something else.  Tonight I walk the same paths but in a different time.  I feel as I do when I rise in the middle of the night to stumble to the bathroom.  I know I'm on a familiar path, but it seems so different at night, and I am not myself.  The hills are harder to ascend, the uneven sidewalk more difficult to see, the birds absent, the cicadas massaging my ears with their crescendo chorus like a lullaby.  I find it more difficult to believe at night: more difficult to believe in the promise of a new day, maybe disappointed at the lost promise of this day, a little overcome by the descending darkness. 

A full moon mutes my melancholy. I know that it is reflecting the light of a seemingly absent sun.  But not just that.  I hear children playing in backyards after dinner, laughing.  Smells of dinner waft through windows open to the evening air.  And in the "golden hour" just before darkness descends, the last slanted light of day gives a glow to everything, makes the hard edges of rooftops, walls, trees, and streets soft and yielding.

Moon

When my son was young and sometimes afraid of the dark, I used to remind him that nothing had changed in the dark.  All his toys were still there, as were his parents, only darkened.  I wasn't speaking the whole truth, of course, because it truly is different at night, in darkness, but I was asking him to trust me, letting him know that I was there in the darkness, just there on the other side of his voice.  He is not so different than me.  Darkness tugs at my belief as well.  And yet, walking darkened paths, the dappled light of streetlights under my feet, I am reminded that the Father of Light inhabits the darkness too, right there on the other side of my voice, Father of darkness as of day, "the One of Whom we most solemnly praise."

In the end, there is no darkness.  The promise is that "there will be no more night" (Rev. 22:5).  Turning the corner, I see the light of home, yellow warmth spilling from the windows.  I quicken my pace.


Life on Shuffle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Our Disembodied Music

Huge.10.51755 When I was a teenager of 14 or so, a big event for me was the purchase of a record album. At that time, music was a full-orbed experience: I saved my money, looking with anticipation to buying an LP (my first, as I recall, cost $3.49), I went to the record store (at that time, The Record Bar), handled all the various LPs of interest on display, talked to other shoppers and the manager, made the purchase, walked home with that large LP tucked under my arm (anticipation swelling), plopped on the floor of my room (often with a friend), took the plastic off, carefully slid it out of its sleeve (I can still smell that new vinyl), put it on the turntable, settled in to listen all the way through each side, and perused art, lyrics, and liner notes as it played. It was a great experience! The impression it made upon me is confirmed by the fact that I can remember many of those early purchases --- picking up the box containing George Harrison's All Things Must Pass collection with the bearded ex-Beatle seated on front, relishing the unusually sunny disposition of Neil Young on the cover of Comes a Time (at which a very long-haired hippie said to me, "hey man, he's smiling, can you believe that?"), waiting eagerly for the release of the Concert for Bangla Desh only to discover with dismay that the whole first side of Disc 1 was taken up by Ravi Shankar playing the sitar (sorry, sitar fans). I could go on. I know, you must think it pathetic . . . but remember that I was only 14.

200px-AllThingsBWCover Those days are gone, of course, and for those younger than 40, perhaps never existed. Since that time I have witnessed the advent of the compact disc, a development which truncated the tactile experience of buying and listening to music to a smaller, less impressive package but, nevertheless, still a visible, tangible commodity. I have the seen the advent of the internet and online shopping, which reduced the communal experience of the record store to just me and my computer and exposed me to a plethora of often mediocre music competing for my attention on the internet, a virtual flood of noise. Finally, I have seen music made portable and ubiquitous. It's on my phone, PDA, and IPod, where it can be instantly purchased and downloaded. It blares at me in every store I enter, from discreetly placed speakers along the streets of our new shopping centers, in restaurants, when pumping gas, and in doctors' offices --- disembodied sounds divorced from context, from tangible package, from artist, from community --- simply floating through my life and rarely coming to rest.

Given the ubiquity and portability of music, it is no surprise that the music industry is in a severe decline, as Mark Geil documents in a "Music in Recession," a summary of the state of the Christian music industry featured in a recent Christianity Today. On every front there is bad news --- artists can't make a living, touring and festivals are cutting back, record sales are crumbling (and have been since the CD reissue market peaked and declined), record labels are folding or shrinking, and commercial radio is down 30 to 40 percent. And yet while the article takes a shot at the amount of illegal downloading and what that has cost the industry, no where does it ask why people regard music as not worth paying for. It doesn't take a genius to conclude that when something is everywhere and at all times available for free, devaluation is inevitable. Even without illegal downloading, music is so plentiful that you can have all you want. So why pay?

As wonderful as it is to have music so accessible and new music so readily discoverable, the disembodied sounds we listen to nowadays are nowhere as rich as what was had in a time when they were heard in the context of a complete album, when buying and even listening were often communal experiences, where listening was multi-sensory with the packaging an extension of the artist's craft. In the end, when you had an LP, you really had something --- a physical work of art that you could hold, persue, talk about with friends, and see on your shelf. I know little about most of the artists whose songs I listen to now, but then I could have told you a great deal about them from perusing their lyrics, liner notes, and art work, supplemented, of course, by Rolling Stone Magazine, then a counter-cultural newspaper, or, in Christian circles, by True Tunes, an art-zine focused on the really cool music of the Christian culture. When I download a song now, I sense that I have almost nothing, sound divorced from context, from artist, from anything tangible that I can hold. I value it little, and that is why I am unlikely to pay for a download unless that is the only medium by which I can hear a song.

For my teenage son, this way of thinking is incomprehensible. That there is no physical product is no big deal to him. That there is no context is also not problematic. He cites the lower cost and portability of downloads as far superior to the album culture. He is interested in the song, not the artist, and certainly not the album which may contain songs he does not want. Lower cost, portability, and selectivity are certainly benefits of the digital music era, but it is difficult for him (and I surmise others of his age) to see that there is a cost. They do not know what they have missed; there is no love lost for albums when there is no loss.

Albums were a richer experience, but you might say so was listening to live music in parlors, street fairs, church, and home sing-a-longs when music to be heard had to be heard live. No one would want to turn back the clock to that era, even if we could. The phonograph and radio were a natural outgrowth of peoples' desire to take the music with them. And yet in all technological progress there is loss. Music has become cheapened both by its ubiquity and portability, more often a subjective, individual experience (think ear buds) and less often a communal experience. Even our buying of music has become an individual experience: one man, one computer screen. Any virtual buying community is a cheap substitute for hanging out in the record store talking about music. That kind of community is consigned to record collectors viewed as eccentrics by most.

We can't turn the clock back, but I suggest that the economic downturn actually can help restore value to music. As Geil notes, the industry collapse can get rid of the stardom mindset that some artists have, lead to greater improvisation, and weed out people who don't have anything to say in favor of those who do, and I would say of those who have not only an inner calling for the music but one confirmed by their community of faith or patronage. It may also restore greater connections between artists and their fans, artists like one of my acquaintances, Luke Brindley, who eschew labels and ask fans to financially invest in their recordings. I also still think a lot of people want to hear music in community, and house concerts retain a following in part because of their intimacy, not only with other people but with the artist. Finally, by buying physical product (CDs or even special vinyl releases), we can let artists and labels know that we care about context, that we want to know more than a song title and artist name. Perhaps we might not only save the CD but also preserve vinyl for those who care.

For Christians, the respect for and love of the physical is bound up in the Incarnation. In Jesus God was not simply a voice but a person one could see, touch, and hear. Christianity is, rightly understood, a sensual religion: the stuff of everyday life matters. Thus, a musical product which is a fuller and more sensual expression of the artist's imagination is more incarnational, and in this case more is better. The analogy is imperfect, of course, but I don't want a disembodied music any more than I want a disembodied Jesus. Just as we have an embodied religion, we need an embodied music. We're made for it.


When Here Was Here and There Was There

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

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

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

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

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

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


Back to the Playpen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Meet Mike, Steward of the Small

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

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

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

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

"You got your money's worth, huh?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Seeing in the Dark

Bebb

"Antonio, I busted in there as mad as a hornet, but you can't stay mad when you start thinking things like that.  Once you begin noticing the lines a man's got round his eyes and mouth and think about the way his folks gave a hopeful name to him when he was first born into this world, you might as well give up."

"I said, 'Virgil, the night is dark, and we are far from home.'  How come it was the words of that old hymn popped into my mind just then to say?  I don't know, but it did.  I said, 'The night is dark, Virgil Roebuck, and home's a long way off for both of us.'"  

(Leo Bebb, to Virgil Roebuck, in The Book of Bebb, by Frederick Buechner)

I revisited an old friend, Leo Bebb, this past weekend.  Bebb is the former con man, flim-flam artist, and most profound reverend at the center of Frederick Buechner's quartet of novels, collectively known as The Book of Bebb.  Bebb is a provocative mixture of the sacred and profane, a man who has seen it all, sinned much, and yet is all the more full of grace. His encounter with Roebuck --- his non-believing, bitter nemesis --- is indicative of the charitable way he viewed the unlovely, perhaps because he knew that he was not so much different than them.

What Bebb is referring to here is a conversation he had with Roebuck. It's one of the most profound "sermons" I have ever read or heard, painful in its honesty and rich in grace, and yet because of the profanity I doubt it'll be preached from any pulpit, and I cannot reprint it here. But take my word for it: Bebb reaches Roebuck in that moment because he understands what is behind the crusty exterior of the man. He knows something of his pain, and Roebuck knows it, and because he knows it, for a moment Bebb has credibility. Roebuck really listens.

I often watch people, but much less often do I regard them as does Bebb, "noticing the lines a man's got round his eyes and mouth," considering what particular struggles they have. I particularly have difficulty regarding those who are annoying or embittered in this way, people who are unpleasant to be around. Maybe even people who are not happy. We like happy people, you know. And yet these are just the people I need to take a better look at, because if I can have compassion for them then I should be able to have compassion for anyone.

It's said that if you pray for such people, you'll begin to have compassion for them. In other words, God will give you eyes to see what is behind their unpleasantness. But it's also true that if you write stories about them you will begin to know them as well. Indeed, the best stories are the ones that portray their characters as the complex people we all are. They help us see the hope in a name given by parents to a child, the promise and peril of being human.

There is a young woman I met in Africa named Fortunate. Can you imagine that? Her parents gave her a name that they hoped she might see fulfilled. Similarly with Grace and Faith, two other women I met. Names with promise.

Thanks to Bebb, I'm a little closer to seeing people for who they are and, maybe, a little more compassionate. I'm better seeing in the dark.


Moving, Again

Medium.1.8764

In Haven Kimmel's novel, The Used World, there is a wonderful description of the effect of time and decay on an abandoned house, on the gradual process by which the house loses its quality as a home. One of the main characters visits her rural homeplace, walking through each room, noting how the memories of sounds, smells, and sights, while still faintly present, had faded. The home was well on its way to becoming a mere house.

I'm moving my office today. It doesn't really compare well to moving from a home, but still I will miss the place I have spent the last nine months. I packaged up all my pictures and various diplomas within two hours, and I'm sitting now with a few open files, my phone, and my laptop. It's already changing. Most of what I remember about this room is what I brought to it, and those being loaded on carts and moved, not much is left. In a few minutes I'll shut the computer down, take my coat off the coat rack, and walk down and around the hall to my new office, and that'll be it.

I'll miss the trees out my window and the morning sun which is a great comfort when you face a difficult day. "In His light we see light," says the Psalmist, and I'll miss the morning light. I'll miss the trees too, reminding me of how durable we are when we are firmly rooted in God's promises. I'll not forget morning prayers looking at an oak tree that is older than me (some things are), reminding me how temporal life is, how we are moving through in route to our real Home, our ultimate (and most fulfilling) work, our lasting and enduring eternal relationships. The squirrels moving through the branches of the trees and birds perched on a power line were also great companions, as this office, in a somewhat isolated area of our building, is alone. But I was never alone.

But enough of this sentimentalism. I have judgment to exercise! Once again, the tares of obsolete or superseded periodicals must be thrown out, the wheat of current, useful reference books saved. I may judge poorly. Ensconced in my new digs, months from now, I may wish I had kept this or that. I am fallible. And yet the process reminds me that my Mover is lovingly and perfectly judging me all the time, cutting away the dross of bad habits and saving and adding to what is good, conforming me to the image of Christ, steadily telling me to press on.

He, the One in Whom we live and move and have our being, says the Apostle Paul, is behind all our moving. As Jesus says, He is preparing a place for us, and we are being prepared for that place. Every habitation, whether office or home, is a dim reflection of the deep settledness we will know there. And I'm ready. Things change. God doesn't. Thank God, we do.

Before I save and power down, before I shut the door one last time, let me just make this disclaimer: I get attached to places. Can you tell?


Big and Little Incarnations

ThroughTheNeedlesEye Next Christmas we’ll run away ‑‑‑at least, that’s what my wife and I sometimes half jokingly, half seriously say to each other each December.  December has to be the heaviest month of the year.  It has to endure the weight of religious tradition and commercial hysteria and socializing to the point that I sometimes wonder if it may burst from the demands placed upon it. 

I don’t know if  this month brings you the Christmas of Christians, Hannakuh, Ramadan, Kwannza, Winter Soltice, or just buying, selling, and a gnawing empty that says there must be more.  Like any writer, I can only write from where I am ‑‑‑Bethlehem’s baby.  For Christians, life is rooted in the centrality of the Incarnation.  So too is writing. 

The Incarnation affirms that human, earthy reality is worthy of study and love and retelling.  It’s a favoring of the concrete, particular, earthy stuff of life ‑‑‑the good, the bad, and the ugly.  Yet at the same time it reverberates with something Other ‑‑‑something that transcends those particulars and points to a greater truth.  Whatever we make of this Incarnation, writers know this from experience, from craft, from our own attempts to incarnate reality in words.  We know that the better story or poem is one that connects with people where they are ‑‑‑in the rattle and rub of everyday life.  At the same time, and often serendipitously, we know that a greater truth emerges from the details.  It rears up, sometimes befuddling, sometimes amusing, sometimes filling us with wonder and even more questions.  In the story or poem, the writer says “I am with you reader” while, at the same time, he reveals some truth that transcends both the writer’s and the reader’s particular circumstances.

Even artists who attempt to create art from randomness ‑‑‑such as musician John Cage ‑‑‑cannot escape the tug of the transcendant.  Even out of the randomness, pattern emerges, meaning surfaces, like some natural law.

Dorothy Sayers once wrote an essay where she explained that Christians see this world as a novel, which has a whole universe of action within its pages but no independent reality.  Its reality depends on God, who alone is real in his own right.  But people are made able to enter this true reality, which is called heaven, so that when they die, “It is not as though the characters and action of the book were continued in our next like a serial; it is though they came out of the book to partake of the real existence of their author.”  God with us, God apart from us; immanent, transcendant; earthy and out of this world.

I am pro‑creation because I believe, like many others before me, that our creating is an inevitable and wonderful aspect of our created nature.  We, the characters in this tale spun by God, are telling our own tales, living out our lives in ways that sometimes surprise, sadden, or amuse our Maker. You know how it feels, don’t you?  We’ve all carefully sketched out our characters’ lives, only to find that they possess a freedom that inevitably asserts itself.  We ourselves are little incarnations that continue to incarnate reality, in what we create. 

A Hebrew baby.  A dutiful, albeit surprised young father.  A young girl with an illegitimate child.  The smell of wet hay, manure, and unwashed bodies.  A surreal visitation.  Dumbstruck sheep‑tenders.  A cow, a donkey, a cat, and a dog look on.

All details: concrete, particular, the stuff of stories.  Yet something greater emerges. It’s the mystery of every incarnation ‑‑‑every story, every poem, every God become man.

But the Incarnation is more than an affimation of the worthiness of what is created and what we create.  It also confirms that the most powerful and meaningful things ‑‑‑ including good writing ‑‑‑ are those which so often appear powerless, subtle, indirect, and deceptively modest.  Frankly, I am tired of hearing art validated as “bold” or “shocking.”  And I’m frustrated by the prostituting of art by its politicization.  The Writer of the Gospel tale told it simply, with understatement, and with an indirection and subtlety that has frustrated many a theologian.  When you end the story, you can’t quite put your finger on God.  Seems appropriate, doesn’t it?  Rather, the Author says “I love these characters, so much that I will become one of them so that I can liberate them from the reality of my making.  At the same time, I leave them free to unmake themselves, to ignore me and to ultimately write themselves out of existence, because they have no existence apart from me.”  The Incarnation says that the most powerful things come in apparent weakness ‑‑‑Word become flesh.  It says that good writing is that which is sutle and indirect, yet so full of meaning that its full expression is often beyond its author.

Finally, the Incarnation tells us that our creations, our writing, our truthtelling, is set in the context of love.  This goes against the flow of art culture because, for many artists today, free expression is sometimes viewed as the sine qua non of human existence.  Any kind of self‑censure is demeaned as cowardice ‑‑‑a failure to speak the truth, to say what must be said.  It’s almost as if what can be written must be written.  Yet as important as self‑expression is ‑‑‑as telling the truth is ‑‑‑we don’t believe that it is the highest value.  That place belongs to love.

The Incarnation wasn’t about some political or moral agenda, much as some would have made it that way then or utilize it for their own political program now.  No, the Author of Life wrote Love into the Universe in the most unexpected and personal way ‑‑‑a tiny baby, born of wide‑eyed poor folk with barely a roof over their heads in a tiny, insignificant country half‑way around the world.  And yet, it’s a story that continues to speak because its both chock‑full of the particular ‑‑‑baby, unwed mother, common folk, angels, prostitutes, tax collectors, and other unsavory folk ‑‑‑and yet, at bottom, it’s about something we all want to understand ‑‑‑Love.  It’s a tale told in Love and for Love.

So writing is more than expression, more than just telling the truth, more than message or agenda.  Not all that can be said, should be said, for Love.  Not enough that should be said, is said, for Love. Love both provides a boundary in our writing and the challenge, the challenge to say what should be said; the restraint not to say what would wound or hurt.

Frederick Buechner, who has written painfully personal memoirs of his life, has explained that he never wrote about his mother until after she died.  Why?  Because he was concerned that she would read it and that it would damage his relationship with her.  Not all that can be said, should be said, for Love.

You may regard the Incarnation as, at best, myth, and at worst, as a lot of rubbish.  So be it.  I’m not here to convince you otherwise, even if I could.  I haven’t even said all that could be said about the connection between the Word enfleshed and our words enfleshed.

But do this, will you? ‑‑‑Next time you do anything creative --- from writing a story to planning and cooking a meal --- watch order and meaning assert themselves, note the power in the sutlety of a little poem or story or beautiful meal, marvel when love enters the equation of creation.  Then ask yourself: Why?

 

[Originally published February 6, 2006]


God With Us

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

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

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

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

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

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


The New Urbanist: A Review of Eric Jacobsen’s “Sidewalks in the Kingdom: New Urbanism and the Christian Faith”

Sidewalks

Most of us, Christians included, take for granted the places in which we live and rarely get beyond superficial considerations about traffic and congestion or good restaurants or convenient shopping. Besides, more and more we are people who do most of our living on the interior --- in our automobiles, houses, and offices. The exterior, including the built environment around us, is simply the backdrop on which our interior lives are played out. Not so for Eric Jacoben. His 2003 book, Sidewalks in the Kingdom: New Urbanism and the Christian Faith, is a testimony to his passion for cities, his commitment to seeing our urban areas through the lens of Scripture, and his goal of bringing us into an attentive consideration of the places where we live.

A pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Missoula, Montana, Jacobsen is also a keen observer of and participant in city life. His book is divided into two parts. First, in a section entitled "Thinking About Our Cities, he shares a philosophical and theological perspective on cities, beginning with a consideration of how sprawl has affected our lives and ending with a section on "Learning to See Our Cities: A Theological Approach," where he roots our resurrection hope in community rather than the individual, relates stewardship not only to nature but to the built and cultural environment, and encourages the discipline of seeing city places as "gift-places," as holy sites where God meets us and reminds of the future hope of a New Jerusalem. To receive the blessings of cities, he says we need to "train our eyes to see the corner coffee shop and grocery in a neighborhood as the rare and beautiful species that they have become. We need to learn to stand back in awe at the broad, tree-lined avenue that has as a terminating vista a grand public building. . . . and take advantage of the pedestrian-friendly setting of the grid-pattern layout with ample sidewalks for walking (alone or with our children), treating each corner as a fresh opportunity for exploration and adventure. . . ." What he counsels is a settledness that requires reflection for a people often too busy to see the majesty of what is at hand.

In a second section, entitled "Markers of the City," he attempts to define what makes a city, using six markers: public spaces, mixed-use zoning, local economy, beauty and quality in the built environment, critical mass, and presence of strangers. He finds the markers helpful in suggesting what is good and valuable in existing cities and what needs to be repaired, relating the existence of public spaces, for example, to incarnational ministry, noting that public space requires sharing and, thus, an opportunity to practice love and kindness, promotes relationships, and facilitates communal discourse. He demonstrates the value of a local economy to local culture and community, lamenting the narrowness of our thinking about economic decisions, noting that "[w]e compare prices, and if we can get the same product for even a slightly lower price, we will do so. What we need to learn is to take one more step and say 'What else is being impacted by the purchase of this product?'" It's a good point, as not every cost is factored into our economic decisions. In other chapters he links density with connectivity and the existence of strangers with opportunities for hospitality, weaving in and out anecdotal strands that illustrate his points and challenging us to a New Urbanist perspective, one that values a rediscovery of the classic virtues of the city.

This is not always an easy book to absorb. There is a lot being said about things we don't usually give much thought to. Having finished the book, I have the sense that I need to read it again, carefully, or make it a part of a discussion group. But that's really a testament to the thoughtfulness of the project, to the many years the author has been engaged with the topic. I recommend the book for pastors, church planters, community leaders, and city planners, to anyone concerned with the nature and shape of our cities, for the ordinary places where we all live. As Eugene Peterson says in his foreword to the book, "Geography and theology are biblical bedfellows." Jacobsen shows us why.


A Kingdom Among the Fall

Leaves

This weekend I had an opportunity to walk in my neighborhood for the first time in a few months. I have a heel spur, an invisible but quite real ailment than I've been recuperating from by not doing my usual exercise walks, so I'll pay a little for this indulgence, but I'm happy to pay for it, this once, as it is Fall and the leaves are falling and the air is clean and the sun is shining. I love this time of year.

There's still the tint of red, orange and yellow in the trees, some leaves clinging stubbornly to branches, sunlight filtering through and blue sky reappearing where it was once blocked by limbs full with leaves. Everything seems sharper --- the sunlight, the sky, the limbs and leaves, and even the sound of my feet striking the sidewalk and kicking up piles of fallen leaves, the shuffling sound they make interrupting a still morning. It's 9:00 and it's unusually quiet. No one is out. Only one car has passed me. Even the birds seem to be sleeping in. The trickle of water in the creek I pass over is almost deafening, whereas at other times of more activity it's hardly noticeable.

It's tempting to be melancholy at Fall, particularly late Fall. I know some people find it a depressing time, a time when everything is dying, with no Christmas cheer yet to brighten their souls. This Fall in particular portends sadness, or even fear, as not only leaves have fallen but stock markets, jobs, and, for some I know, health. And yet while I'm worth less on paper today than 60 days ago, a part of me is enjoying this slowdown, this economic fall, while praying for those who have lost jobs and are so deeply impacted by it. What I mean is that even economies need to rest sometime. We need to rest. The less frenetic pace is appealing. I went shopping for some clothing, and clerks were readily available to help me. Prices seemed reasonable, for once. A friend and I went to a popular restaurant the other day, and it was only moderately crowded, whereas it normally would have been packed. He said "This is how life ought to be," even while acknowledging that his business has. . . fallen. What he meant is that life should have wide margins, room to just live and enjoy simple things, like a meal, or a walk, without the compulsion to do more sell more be more live more.

So my response to the economic downturn, the falling all around me, is to take a walk, to try and remember while things are falling that there is a steady ground beneath me and that there is a lot of life going on under the surface, that God is at work in unseen ways to work all things for the good of those who love him. The media loves calamity and crisis, and sellers of goods profit on our fears. But as Jill Carattini said recently: "There is indeed an alternative, but it is neither safe nor easy. It involves laying down our fears to follow Christ with faith's daring; it involves opening our lives to a world that scares us, and rejecting the anxiety of a world convinced the sky is falling. The Christian alternative to a culture of fear is a kingdom of hospitality and abundance, vulnerability and generosity, love and self-sacrifice--the very kingdom Christ shaped with his living and dying, and invites us to do the same."

So resolve to enjoy every moment of this Fall, of every fall. Take a walk. Give something away when you feel like you can't. Don't succumb to fear. Walk on the steady ground of Jesus. Kick the leaves and make some noise to remind you that every leaf that falls also nourishes the soil that brings new life every Spring. Use this lull and temptation to fear as a door to what really matters, as an opportunity to reflect on God's economy and provision. Rest and work and hope in Jesus, because his Kingdom is here among the Fall.


God’s Holy Experiment: Brother Yun, the Chinese Church, and the Back to Jerusalem Movement

heaven As I gravitate toward a reading diet that focuses primarily on either theology or literary fiction, I was pleased to discover the 2002 book, The Heavenly Man, which is the autobiography of Brother Yun, a leader in the Chinese house church movement as well as one of the visionaries behind Chinese Christians’ goal of taking the Gospel “back to Jerusalem.”  Written with Paul Hathaway, Director of Asia Harvest, the book is a compelling story of Yun’s conversion and total commitment to Jesus Christ, a commitment that led him to suffering the great trials of poverty, imprisonment, torture, and separation from his family, and yet Yun’s story of complete dependence on God also demonstrates the many blessings of God even amongst suffering.

Like many of our time, I suffer from the twin plagues of cynicism and skepticism, and so I came to this book ready to question or even disbelieve its claims of miracles, looking for some skewed theology or sensationalistic claims.  Yet I found none.  What I did discover was a man who, despite his sufferings, maintained his humble reliance on God, was immersed in Scripture and prayer, was full of love for fellow prisoners and even captors, and received visions from the Lord and miraculous interventions that he did not seek and yet sorely needed.

Some examples may help give one a flavor of what life was like for Yun.  During Yun’s first imprisonment, where he was subjected to beatings and electric shocks, he was somehow miraculously able to fast from both water and food for 75 days, earning the respect of both fellow cellmates (who were generally cruel to him) and prison guards. Not humanly possible, of course, but his own account is corroborated by his wife and another prisoner.  It led to him being called “The Heavenly Man.”  Yun later escaped from a heavily guarded prison by simply walking out, past guards who did not see him, through a gate that was inexplicably standing wide open, and into a taxi that took him away into hiding.  Whenever I doubted the story, I was reminded that nothing occurred to Yun that did not have a precedent in Scripture and was corroborated by at least one (and often more than one) witness.

Yun is also forthright about his own failings.  He admits, for example, that his last imprisonment, in Myanmar (Burma) would not have happened if he had heeded his wife’s wisdom and prompting by the Lord, that he placed to much trust in his having a German passport.  He also admits that his own busyness and refusal to rest had at times alienated him from his family and led him to make unwise decisions.

Yun maintains that “how we mature as Christians largely depends on the attitude we have when we’re faced with suffering,” that the Lord “gives us these trials to keep us humble and dependent on him for sustenance.”  That being said, Yun is frank about the agony as well as the discouragement and bitterness he faced at times.  Even in this, he was Job-like, crying out to God in his distress and suffering and yet remaining faithful, continuing to trust the One who saves us from our captors (whoever or whatever they may be) and gives us joy in the midst of suffering.

The Heavenly Man is not a difficult book to read, and yet its content is emotionally charged.  It’s 347 pages of life at the edge of faith, about a life fully dependent on God.  As Western Christians, I doubt many of us know anything like what Brother Yun experienced, and yet we can be challenged to a deeper faith and walk by his example.  Read it to be challenged.  Read it to be informed.  It’s an uncomfortable, holy provocation.

[For a more detailed survey of the mushrooming growth of Chinese Christianity, I recommend David Aikman’s Jesus in Beijing: How Christianity is Transforming China and Changing the Global Balance of PowerAikman, a former Beijing bureau chief for Time magazine, and a Christian, believes Christians will make up 20 to 30 percent of the population of China within just a few years.  Perhaps the most arresting chapter highlights the growing role of Christians among the educated elite - artists, writers, intellectuals, even Party members.  It’s rich with detail and yet is a bit dry at times.]


Remembering From Where We Came

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Geography and Theology

7107000080 In the Christian imagination, where you live gets equal billing with what you believe.  Geography and theology are biblical bedfellows.  Everything that the creator God does, and therefore everything that we do, since we are his creatures and can hardly do anything in any other way, is in place. All living is local --- this land, this neighborhood, these trees and streets and houses, this work, these shops and markets. . . . God’s great love and purposes for us is worked out in the messes in our kitchens and backyards, in storms and sins, blue skies, daily work, working with us as we are and not as we should be, and where we are, on “sidewalks in the kingdom,” and not where we would like to be.

(Eugene Peterson, in the Foreword to Sidewalks in the Kingdom: New Urbanism and the Christian Faith, by Eric O. Jacobsen)

Although suburbia is much maligned by urbanists and environmentalists for waste of land, stupefying conformity, lack of community, and more, it is where many of us live and make our homes.  It is where I have lived all my life --- where I took my first steps, where I played capture the flag and rode bikes, where I had my first “dates” sitting on curb and gutter and walking the streets, where I am still rearing children and dogs and cats.  And I love these particular places where I live, so steeped in memories, shaped by walks and gardens, and resonating with the sounds of children playing.  For all their faults, much living has been done in these non-rural, non-urban places.  They are, inevitably, particular.

As Christians we have a faith that is tied to dirt and sky.  On the one hand, it is an earthy faith bound to places with names like Ur and Bethlehem and Nazareth and Jerusalem and to a people with names like Urbanus and Stachys and Phlegon and Hermes (Rom. 16:9, 14), believers about whom we know nothing and yet God deemed it important to include their names in His limited revelation to us.  Why?  Because people are important --- particular people.  Because places are important --- particular places.  Our faith is not a matter of abstract principles but of truth worked out in a real world full of people and places with names.  And yet we’re not left with only dirt.  We’re called to view life in light of transcendent truths --- a blue sky of meaning.  We see something out of this world, so to speak, in the mundane, ordinariness of this world.

Eugene Peterson says that we need “to see these ordinary places where so many of us live as gift-places, as holy sites.”  So down the hall, in the kitchen, walking in the backyard, I ask the question “what is God saying to me?”  Because I’ve lived in my home, on this particular piece of dirt, for 23 years, it is a place rich in memories.  I have to think that in Heaven, all this particularity must have some meaning, that we won’t have a collective amnesia when we arrive there but will bring with us our memories of people and places, memories somehow transformed and deepened in our glorified state, as we see how all things were working for the good of those who love God --- even the places we live and work.

I don’t what all of it means.  Yet I know that just as Jesus lived in the ordinary and mundane, just as Scripture features the people and places of Palestine, so too the places and communities in which we are rooted have meaning.  It’s holy dirt, under a holy sky. Believe that and nothing can ever be the same.


The Challenge of Context

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

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

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

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

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


Having Everything, Possessing Nothing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


In the Company of Darkness

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

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

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

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


Things of the World, Grow Strangely Bright

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


What's Happening to Us

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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