The Gift of Wakefulness

insomnia I'm not sleeping very well.  I haven't always been this way.  I think, perhaps, that before I was 40, I did in fact sleep through the night, rarely waking, but I haven't been that way for a long time.  I wake up once, and then I go back to sleep.  Lately, however, I wake three to four times a night, and I do not always return to sleep.  I am not worried about anything.  I am not sick.  I do not have sleep apnea, or a host of other things that may keep you awake.  I'm just . . . awake.

My children and my wife do not know the sound of the house around us at 2:00, or 3:30, or 4:45.  I do.  The air conditioner fan turns on, and off, then back on.  The refrigerator hums.  Someone snores, or turns over, and the bed creaks.  And there are other strange creaking sounds that are mysterious, perhaps the house settling back into the earth, forecasting its demise one distant day.  That's the newspaper deliveryman, the paper landing with a plastic-wrapped thud on concrete, headlights playing off the walls.  Around 6:00 the birds awake, and my cat begins to move about, with an odd chirping meow, letting me know she's up.  And then there's the sound of remembrance, and you think of a childhood trip with your family to the mountains where you stopped by a mountain stream for a picnic, or a long-forgotten smell of a home you grew up in, or the beckoning of a voice you have not heard in a while calling you to dinner.  The world is at rest and you can really listen to it and remember and consider things that get pressed out of your mind during the day when our thinking is more economic.  At night we can afford to waste time, to be expansive. . . that is, if you cannot sleep.

I've been lamenting this lack of sleep, silently (mostly) complaining about it, as well as engaging in a bit of uneducated self-diagnosis.  But the bottom line is that I haven't a clue as to why I am not sleeping that much.  Today, however, I suddenly realized how rich I am, what a gift I've been given in what I considered lack.  Someone said this last week, in another context, that we should not live in our lack but in our wealth.  I think that was meant for me.

It's one thing to be wakeful because you are suffering pain, anxiety, or some other trial.  It would be difficult to call that a gift.  It would also be difficult to call wakefulness a gift if it caused you to have difficulty functioning during the day.  But none of that is generally true of me.  A few years ago my good friend Jerry told me that he was only sleeping two hours a night.  He was delighted.  The rest of the night he wrote songs, read his Bible, and walked all over the mountain on which he lived and through his neighborhood praying for people.  I felt sorry for him then.  I figured he would crash and burn at some point.  I thought he was crazy, even manic, and yet he considered it the spiritual high point of his life.  Nothing bad happened to him.  After several months, he began to sleep again.  Now I think God gave him a gift, a crazy irrepressible wakefulness, delighted that Jerry could spend time alone with Him.  I never heard him complain about it.

This kind of wakefulness is not what I would call ideal, but I have no choice.  It's given.  You can't seek it, or you will crash and burn.  I wonder some days how I function on all but four-five interrupted hours of sleep. And yet God promises rest to those who come to Him, saying "Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest" (Mt: 11:28).  In fact, rest is the optimum state of the believer, "for we who believed enter that rest" (Heb. 4:3).  Sleep is a "sweet" gift to the laborer" (Eccl. 5:12), and yet that's not my gift right now.  It just may be that His "rest" does not include a lot of sleep but means he'll sustain me as I trust Him through the night watches.  He just may have things for me to do and think at night.  Besides, have you worked at sleeping?  It's counterproductive.  Kind of like trying to work at being saved.

Just this past week two other friends told me they were having trouble sleeping.  Maybe I'll call them up tonight.  No, maybe not.  It may not be a gift to them but a trial.  But  next time you see me, ask me what I been doing with my nights.  Whatever I do, I hope its Godward.  Pray I'm resting in Him.  I'll let you know how it goes.

A Rational Faith: A Review of Tim Keller's "The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism"

reason Pastor Tim Keller has had a lot of experience talking to non-believers and skeptical seekers.  After all, Keller lives and pastors in the sophisticated urban world of New York City, where a plethora of belief systems are available (or not).  In The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism, Keller manages to do two things well.  First, he winsomely confronts the questions and arguments raised by doubters, including "There can't be one true religion," or "How could a good God allow suffering?" or "Science has disproved Christianity."  Second, he offers reasons for faith, challenging skeptics to examine the clues for God, the problem of sin, the reality of the cross, and the resurrection.  What I particularly enjoyed about the book is that Keller never overstates his case, always admits truth in skeptic's arguments, and is never shrill or combative in tone.  It's an excellent book for Christians who desire to understand the questions of those nonbelievers they may relate to on a day-to-day basis, as well as for seekers who desire to explore the arguments for faith.

Throughout the book, Keller acknowledges a great debt to the work of C.S. Lewis, and yet Keller is more accessible than Lewis, more American, and more conversational.  There are liberal quotations from Mere Christianity and The Great Divorce, among other works.  Keller also (yet more subtly) pays homage to Puritan pastor Jonathan Edwards, his Reformed faith permeating the book and undergirding all that he says.  And yet his writing is informed by his own experience in talking with people, as evidenced by the many quotes from real conversations he has had with skeptics.

When taking on the new atheists --- Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and others --- he contends that their arguments are based on what some call "strong rationalism," a belief that "no one should believe a proposition unless it can be proved rationally by logic or empirically by sense experience."  As Keller says, most philosophers reject "strong rationality" as an impossible standard to meet.  His approach is that of "critical rationality," which "assumes that some systems of belief are more reasonable than others, but that all arguments are rationally avoidable in the end."  We don't insist on  irrefutable proofs but look for the system of belief which has the most explanatory power, which best makes sense of reality.  This is a helpful distinction that avoids the pitfalls of strong rationality and relativism.

Keller writes pastorally --- with intelligence and warmth.  His arguments are cogent, his prose sufficiently personal and animated to hold interest, and his love of God evident.  I heartily recommend the book.

Live, Pray, Consume

In today's devotional from Ravi Zacharias Ministries, "Consuming Church," Margaret Manning laments the pervasive consumerism of society and its infiltration of the church.  She says:

consume But what has a consumer-driven mentality done to the way in which we participate in and view the church? Our casual language about “church shopping” belies one of the more subtle impacts. No longer do we see the church as the organic representation of Christ’s body, Christ’s mission in which we are joined as “members,” but we are instead “shoppers” examining who has the best product. How many programs does this church offer? What about the quality of the music program? And how about the preaching? Is it relevant and does it speak to my life, my circumstances? Do I leave Sunday worship feeling better and happier?

I know this is a danger, and perhaps it's an old story.  Church marketing techniques are well-known, and often success is measured by "sales," that is, people in the pews, but I am concerned more with what to do about this tidal wave in my own life and, beyond that, for culture at large.  When consuming is how I was reared, is what I know, is what is preached to me from every billboard, TV screen, movie, web page, and urinal (yes, ladies, they even put ads in there), how do I unlearn what has become a way of life?  And beyond that, how does an economy like ours return to an emphasis not primarily on consuming but on producing and saving?  I often sense that if I do not continue to spend, the economy will grind to a halt, if we don't keep borrowing money and spending then the GNP will sink, and we'll end up in another Great Depression.

But then I know I haven't a lick of economic sense.  I haven't the slightest idea what to do about the economy, how to get us out of this enslavement to consumption.  All I know is that it can't be right, can't be all there is to living in the world. 

Take stock. Look around.  There are a lot of things that bring joy and pleasure in life that you didn't pay for, that you can't buy.  Maybe I just need to look at those things more --- the moon above the pine trees, my family moving through our home, sunlight through a window, a cardinal on the feeder, the chatter of the neighbor's children playing, crisp air, and unmerited grace.  The things I tend to love so much pale in comparison. 

A Bright Week

180px-St_Isaacs_cathedral_royal_doors For Orthodox churches, Easter Monday, the day after Easter, is known as Bright Monday. In fact, the whole week is treated as one continuous day, with every day being prefaced by the word “Bright.” As a member of the Reformed church, where worship is shorn of much in the way of imagery or symbol, it’s times like this that I feel somewhat short changed. There ought to be a name for the days after Easter. There ought to be an extended celebration of the Resurrection, remembrance of the new life that we have with Christ, not just a continuation of business as usual. In this regard, the Orthodox worship is rich with symbolism that reminds us what has happened as a result of Christ being raised from the dead.

There’s that word “bright,” for example. The word itself connotes a week characterized by gladness or happiness, a stark contrast to the sober tenor of Lent and Good Friday. And then Orthodox services during the week are distinctly different. Everything in the services is sung joyfully rather than read. Normal fasting rules are suspended. All week the doors on the iconostasis, a wall of icons and religious paintings separating the nave from the sanctuary in a church, are kept open, the only time that occurs during the year, a visible reminder of the open tomb.

I need such visible reminders of what has transpired. Christ died and rose again, in the flesh, with a body, and thus there is the promise that we will do so as well. I need a week of brightness to cement that miracle in my memory so that I will never forget the hope I have. Something universe-shattering has happened. Christ became flesh and blood so that “through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death. . . and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery” (Heb. 2:14-15).That’s you and me. Then too there’s the “bright” promise of a recreated world where sin is banished and we live eternally with Christ in non-decaying bodies. That’s plenty to consider this bright week.

Perhaps a week of such brightness may be a partial antidote to my dalliance with the trivial, from my addiction to this world and dependence on earthly circumstances, from my failure to live existentially in the light of the cross and in the shadow of the Second Coming. The tomb is open. The body is not there. The Lord has risen. And so too shall we.

Enjoy the Early Easter: It's Your Last One

9274701299 While I haven't verified this information, I consider the source trustworthy, so I'm passing it along:

As you may know, Easter is always the 1st Sunday after the 1st full moon after the Spring Equinox (which is March 20). This dating of Easter is based on the lunar calendar that Hebrew people used to identify Passover, which is why it moves around on our Roman calendar.  
Based on the above, Easter can actually be one day earlier (March 22), but that is rare.
This year is the earliest Easter that any of us will ever see in our life time.  And only the oldest among us have ever seen it this early (you have to be 95 years old or more).  And none of us have ever, or will ever, see it a day earlier!

The next time Easter will be this early (March 23) will be the year 2228 (220 years from now).  The last time it was this early was 1913. The next time it will be a day earlier, March 22, will be in the year 2285 (277 years from now). The last time it was on March 22 was 1818. 

Bottom line: No one alive today has or will ever see it any earlier than this year!

I suppose some people sit around thinking about such trivia.  I simply wanted to know why this Easter did not match up with my children's Spring Break!

Why We Know It Was Winter

untitled While the authenticity of Scripture is attested to in many ways, one of the more ubiquitous and remarkable qualities it has for me is its particularity, its deep rootedness in space and time and in its mediation through human agency. By the later I mean that God did not simply dictate the words of Scripture to a scribe who faithfully wrote them down, but used human authors --- with their own particular personalities and in their own social and historical context --- to write what God intended (actually, superintended) to reveal of Himself. I don’t know if mediated is quite the right word. Patrick Henry Reardon uses the word fermented, meaning that each author of Scripture is like a fermenting agent bringing a distinctive flavor and consistency to Scripture, binding it to a real person. It is so easy to forget this self-evident fact about the nature of Scripture, reducing it to abstractions, and yet when particular time- and space-bound phrases leap off the page at you, you’re brought up short: these are real people in a real place at a real time. I laugh. Of course that’s what I believe, but that nefarious Purveyor of Abstractions (Satan) majors in high-sounding religious maxims, knowing that divorced from the really real, abstractions are more malleable and dispensable. They are not tied down.

Let me give you an example. Yesterday I was reading the Gospel of John, the most abstract of the Gospel accounts. In John 10: 1-18 Jesus introduced two rich metaphors, referring to himself as both the “shepherd” and “door” (or “gate”) and to believers as “sheep.” But beyond these visual images, things that are real and help tie down the analogies Jesus is drawing, the whole passage is sandwiched between the healing of a man born blind (a real man, in a real place, a man who grew testy under examination by the Pharisees, saying “I told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again?” And then, tongue in cheek, saying “Do you want to become his disciples?”) And then immediately after this discourse, verse 22 picks up with “At that time the Feast of Dedication took place at Jerusalem. It was winter.” Not summer, but winter. As far as I can tell there is no reason for the existence of the phrase “It was winter” other than to tie us to space and time. This Book is so good about that.

If you think this so self-evident that there is no reason to speak of it, I appeal to Francis Schaeffer, missionary to Europe, founder of L’Abri. Picture him in a hayloft next to his home in the Alps in 1955, Chalet Bijou, pacing back and forth, the wood boards creaking under his feet, the hay swishing, cow bells clanging from the fields nearby, re-examining the very basis for his faith and concluding, ultimately, that the truth of Scripture was the only thing that made sense of reality. When he later preaches on what he learned, and then writes it down in True Spirituality, over and over and over he makes the point that Scripture is rooted in space and time. He did it, of course, to counter liberal theology, an emasculated view of God which used all the same words like incarnation and resurrection but had long sense ripped the words out of the reality of space and time --- planting, as Schaeffer said, “one foot firmly in the air.” And yet it’s not just an argument against liberalism. It’s personal. You have the sense that the knickered, bearded man is simply in wonder at a story that is really real, that really happened --- in a particular place, at a particular time. It was winter (in Jerusalem). A sassy former blind man now cast out of the synagogue has taken up with Jesus, the man who put mud (real mud) on his eyes and spit on him and now he sees.

Forgive me for waxing on about such self-evident matters. I feel like pastor Tim Keller who, when lying ill unto death in the hospital, reading a book on the evidence for the resurrection, realized that it was real. There was a body. It bled and died. It went missing. It popped up again. The dead come alive. Of course he always believed that Jesus died and rose again, but at that moment, he really believed, he was astonished that this thing had really happened in space and time.

Now this never gets old. This is an incarnated revelation, truth that is bound up with particulars, truth with body and texture. That’s the reason we know it was winter.

Gnarly Christians

CIMG0437_edited Well I feel
like I have to feel
something good all the time.
With most of life I cannot deal
but a good feeling I can feel
even though it may not be real.
And if a person, place or thing
can deliver
I will quiver with delight.
But will it last me all my life
or just be one more lonely night?

The lust, the flesh
the eyes
and the pride of life
drain the life
right out of me

("The Lust, the Flesh, the Eyes & the Pride of Life," Mike Roe & The 77s)

In my backyard there is a red maple tree that is probably about the same age as me.  It is not aged, yet anyway, but it has stature.  It has been here long enough to garner respect.  In other words, it is mature.  It looks much diminished now, gray and leafless, nothing like the brilliant fiery scarlet of its leaf display in the Fall, and yet at its crown there is promise --- reddish flower clusters appear among the still-leafless twigs.

From a distance, the tree has a dignified look --- upright, well-apportioned, and crowned with that red burgeoning promise.  Lay down underneath it, though, and look up through its branches, and you understand that life has not been all easy for the maple.  The trunk that appeared so straight from a distance is gnarled and bent, as if it had been assaulted by something periodically before righting itself.  Some branches, twigless, are broken off; others, bend downward as if sad.  However, many branches thrive, dividing into more and more branches and twigs, thrusting upwards.  The best is at the very top, the crown, with its red flowered display basking in the sun.  That fruitful display rests on the foundation of many years of growth through drought, ice storms, and hurricanes.

The maple is a good metaphor for my sanctification --- the huge lifelong project that I am for God.  The broken or downturned branches represent poor decisions, wasted ventures, and misplaced priorities ---- all fruitless, all dead ends for me.  Paul tells us not to love the world, that "the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes and the boasting of what he has and does comes not from the Father but from the world" (1 Jn. 2:16).  I suspect all these non-starters are the product of such unrequited lust, of loving the world. 

The gnarly trunk represents the various circumstances that have assaulted me in life, difficult things unexpected or self-inflicted, and yet the upright trunk persuades me of the benefits of being well-rooted, of persevering, or reaching for God.  I'm thankful we're both still standing.  Paul says "[w]e are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying around in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies" (2 Cor. 4:8-10).

It's so easy to be distracted, so easy to love the world.  TV commercials, magazines, catalogs, and internet ads all tell me that there is something else I need, something that will make me "quiver with delight." Popular culture is is riven with things calculated to induce lust --- for people, places, or things.

The red maple in my yard reminds me to keep a Godward focus, to live in the world but draw my life from God, to be singleminded.  It's a symbol of what it is to abide in Him.  I may be gnarly on close inspection, but I'm still standing.

40 Days On the Edge (Day 19): Finding Sabbath

skiffle_bop_115 What is the last time you experienced Sabbath?  Even for Christians, that term has fallen out of usage, and that's not surprising since most don't practice it.  Other than the fact that Christians somewhat regularly attend church on Sunday, their Sunday practices and habits are not so different than those of non-Christians.  Most Christians I know eat at restaurants on Sunday, shop at the mall or grocery store, do yard work, attend or play in athletic events, do house work, work on the car, watch TV, surf the Internet and respond to emails, and so on.  They may not go to work at the office (though some do), probably because I don't know many who work in retail, but they do all of these other things that are similar to what they do every other day of the week.  So Sunday, what some term the Christian Sabbath, is, but for church attendance, just another day for many.

I am a non-Sabbatarian, that is, I do not believe that the Fourth Commandment's requirement of a particular day when work ceases and we enter a holy rest is a part of the moral law.  But when I observe the unceasing commerce, the non-stop activity around me, sometimes I wish I held that belief, and I even consider keeping the day because I think it's a wise thing to do.

God promises believers His rest, his Sabbath.  While I know that more is entailed than the promise of a particular day, the day God gave the Israelites is symbolic of that deeper rest, and symbols have tangible meaning.  Most of us have lost that symbol.  And having lost the symbol we are in danger of losing the rest He promises in a substantial if imperfect way now.  His rest, His Sabbath, is really a gift, not a burden, a time of refreshment, not a time when a killjoy God takes away our toys and requires us to be in church all day or thinking holy thoughts.  We don't have to do the things that we do all week.  We can lay aside all diversions.  We can worship, rest, enjoy Creation, do some extended reading, and play with our children.  Those tangible things done on one particular day are the memory that we can cherish during the rest of the week and the promise we can incorporate into our work-days in some way.  It is also the promise of a deeper, more fully-realized rest to come.

I'm old enough to remember the cultural Sabbath of the South.  Stores were not open.  There was no email and no Internet.  We did not eat out.  Back then as a child I sometimes wished that something would happen, just for some excitement.  Now, I wish it back.  Not because I think it's required, but because I think it prudent and wise, just as I am not required to wear my wedding band to cherish my marriage, and yet that tangible ring is a reminder of all that is promised in marriage.

I need a Sabbath rest.  How about you?

The Bleak Midwinter

One of the reasons that I am enjoying some of Christina Rosetti's poetry is her melancholy disposition.  While the word "melancholy" can mean gloomy or depressed, it also means a sober thoughtfulness, or pensiveness, and as I understand it that is a more traditional and perhaps biblical way to approach Advent.  Rosetti seems to capture that in two of my favorite of her poems, the two set to music and sung by everyone from The Kings College Choir to Julie Andrews to Sara McLachlan.

church window In the bleak midwinter
Frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone;
Snow had fallen,
Snow on snow,
Snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter,
Long ago.

(Rosetti, In the Bleak Midwinter)

That "snow on snow, snow on snow" bit of repetition has a way of driving home the bitter cold and hardness of the world, not just the frozen ground but the layer upon layer hardness of life into which Christ was born.  And it is hard sometimes.  I could even now rattle off a litany of ripple effects of sin --- drought, disease, war, broken families --- abnormalities likely far worse in the 19th Century time in which Rosetti lived.  And yet she can still write

Love came down at Christmas
Love all lovely, love divine;
Love was born at Christmas
Star and angels gave the sign.

(Rosetti, Love Came Down)

Christina_Rossetti_3 It's not surprising that Rosetti was "soberly thoughtful."  While she was born into a well-off London family in 1830, when she was about twelve or so, her family suffered severe financial difficulties because of her father's debilitating physical and emotional illness.  At 14 she had a nervous breakdown, and thereafter she suffered from bouts of depression.  She came to faith in the Anglican church, perhaps as a result of all her trials, and she was devoted to Christ the remainder of her life.  In fact, though she became serious about two men, she married neither, both for religious reasons.  She remained unmarried the rest of her life.  So, she lived with her mother , and after her mother died, alone.  She's not unlike some other hymnwriters or poets whose best work seems to proceed from their most difficult trials.

In the midst of all those cheery Christmas songs, I continue to gravitate to the sobering songs, the ones that acknowledge the reality of sin and the difficulty of waiting.  Advent is all about waiting, and it's not over with with the birth.  We wait for the promised death of death, for the setting right of all things --- including me.

I have no wit, no words, no tears;
My heart within me like a stone
Is numb'd too much for hopes or fears;
Look right, look left, I dwell alone;
I lift mine eyes, but dimm'd with grief
No everlasting hills I see;
My life is in the falling leaf:
O Jesus, quicken me.

My life is like a faded leaf,
My harvest dwindled to a husk:
Truly my life is void and brief
And tedious in the barren dusk;
My life is like a frozen thing,
No bud nor greenness can I see:
Yet rise it shall--the sap of Spring;
O Jesus, rise in me.

My life is like a broken bowl,
A broken bowl that cannot hold
One drop of water for my soul
Or cordial in the searching cold;
Cast in the fire the perish'd thing;
Melt and remould it, till it be
A royal cup for Him, my King:
O Jesus, drink of me.

(Rosetti, A Bettter Resurrection, 1879)

That's what we are: fallen leaves, faded leaves, broken bowls.  And yet He comes to make us whole, dying so we might live.

Rosetti was serious about faith.  It's said that she gave up playing chess because she thought that her wish to win the game had become too strong. She believed that this would be a chance to become a more humble believer.  When I read that, I thought it sounded crazy, but then it made me realize how inattentive to my sin I am, how little I think about the passions and motives that drive me.

I don't play chess.  But I need more sober attentiveness to my life.  I need to make a move.

Fearing Well

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


light "[A]t twenty-four he smoked his first joint and came to believe he understood with perfect clarity the purpose and configuration of the universe and his place in it, until he woke up the next morning with somebody else's shoes on."  (Edgar Mint, in The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint, by Brady Udall)

It is not a profound or original thought that we humans are prone to think highly of ourselves, to consider the product of our hands or the words we speak as important, perhaps novel at times.  I'm well acquainted with this attitude.  Occasionally (ok, several times), I have written something late at night, the words scrolling down the page, seeming golden nuggets of prose guaranteed to wow my handful of readers.  While I've never ingested or smoked illegal controlled substances, occasionally the sensation I experience then is a little like what I understand to be the epitome of a "good trip" on LSD: enlightenment, new revelations, a sense of amazing productivity.  I go to bed satisfied that, while it's only a start, I'm well on my way to writing something truly profound. . . until I wake up the next morning with, figuratively speaking, "somebody else's shoes on."  The enlightened verse, the flourishing prose, the grand idea shaped in my drunken word-binge sounds like mimicry, is unoriginal or forced, or is impotent because I cannot find a way to sustain the effort, to continue the thought.  I may have been deluded, but the writing was worth it, wasn't it?

In the end, writing, like everything else worth doing, is just plain hard work, not simply the product of inspiration or an episode of enlightenment, and I do not like hard work. But it's not just writing, but life itself, that is hard work, and yet Jesus promises that our "yoke is easy, our burden light."  What does this mean?

Jesus never promises us an easy time of it.  At the center of all our creative activity (which is everything we do that is not destructive), is the paradox of Philippians 2:12-13: "Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed --- not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence --- continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose."  Matthew Henry says the language used, "work out your salvation," "signifies working thoroughly at a thing, and taking true pains."  So then, this creative activity is not easy, in fact is painful at times.  And yet the promise of grace is that God is the One working, ultimately, enabling us and bringing to fruition his will through our labors.  That's a relief. It’s also humbling. I work, but He is really the one who’ll make something profound of it. I can go to bed knowing that when I think I’ve written something deep and evocative, I probably haven’t, and yet the effort I offer up to God is nonetheless worth it.

Annie Dillard says that "[w]hen you write, you lay out a line of words.  The line of words is a miner's pick, a woodcarver's gouge, a surgeon's probe.  You wield it, and it digs a path you will follow.  Soon you find yourself deep in new territory.  Is it a dead end, or have you located the real subject?  You will know tomorrow, or this time next year."  Or perhaps, I would add, you will not know in this life.  I would say that if we are doing the work God talks about, yielding up our labor to Him, giving it to Him, then there are no dead ends.  Just as all writing is useful if offered up to God, so all living is useful if done in the knowledge that God is really the one at work in it.  Even that graduate degree you worked and slaved for and received and now can't figure out why you subjected yourself to, because it has nothing to do with what you find yourself doing now, is valuable.  You laid out a line of words.  You dug a path.  You got to the end and wondered why you did what you did.  And yet it mattered.  Sometimes you're blessed to know why.  You might call that enlightenment.  Sometimes you think you know why, and then wake up with someone else's shoes on.  You're humbled. You thought too much of it, of yourself, and yet it’s still valuable. You might not have been enlightened, but there’s light in it somewhere. You may know tomorrow, or not.

In her short book, The Quotidian Mysteries, poet Kathleen Norris opines that in giving us repetitive, uninspired, or tedious tasks to do --- whether writing when you feel you have nothing to say or fear as much the morning after, washing dishes that will only return dirty the next day, or painting a room --- God is really inviting us to play. What is mundane to us is delightful to children precisely because they know how to play. So that’s it: I get to play with words. And while I find it difficult at times, I understand that even in times that I write drivel, I can play by enjoying the shape of the words on the page, or the sound of a word. Washing dishes, my daughter and I noticed recently the different shapes of our drinking glasses and speculated as to what each one was “saying” --- one fragile and thin glass decidedly feminine, another thick goblet for a sturdy drink. And why shouldn’t I enjoy playing in the water with shiny things that make lots of noise? Kids do.

In these almost mindless or uninspired moments, something happens. God is present, entreating us to consider what we are doing and not listlessly drift somewhere else in our minds. Pay attention to the task before you. Read the Bible. Pray. Write. Wash dishes. Paint the room. Do the laundry. Cook dinner. Then do it again, and again. By God’s grace, in the midst of it all, there will be enlightenment. You may not understand “with perfect clarity the purpose and configuration of the universe and [your] place in it,” but you will glimpse His purposes, His delight, if ever so dimly.

And tomorrow you’ll be wearing your own shoes.

In Ordinary Time

CIMG0256 "Be still, and know that I am God."  (Ps. 46:10a)

One of the reasons I have visited Arizona and other Western states once or twice a year for the last 25 years is, apparently, for solitude --- to be in a place where I can listen to and see things I have difficulty experiencing in the Eastern urban area where I live. Even in a park near my home, the sounds of traffic, airplanes, and people’s voices are ever-present --- the horns and motors, the drone of planes, the bits of “he said, and I said, and can you believe” kind of conversations that I weave in and out of, a constant soundtrack that obscures a more subtle layer of things to see and hear.

Last Wednesday I stood beneath this enormous concrete cross about 25 miles east of Nogales, Arizona, just past the wispy community of Lochiel, constructed as some sort of memorial to one of Coronado's fellow conquistadors by the side of the dirt and gravel road we traveled on through the fields of the San Raphael Valley, making our way to the old mining town of Bisbee. There was no one around. Not a car. Not a house. Not even livestock. We passed two vehicles on our journey --- a Border Patrol agent and a mailman in a dusty pickup truck, both doing their lonely work along a not so well-traveled road.

CIMG0257 Given the lack of man-made sounds and structures, I was entranced by the few things I did see and hear when we stopped our car. There was the cross juxtaposed with the clear, empty blue sky --- a testimony, a claim, a reminder that we are not alone. There was a windmill flagged by the biblical name of Samson. Surveying the landscape, there was a single shade tree, perhaps an Arizona sycamore or scrub oak, golden fields of grass, called llanos, as far as I could see, and mountains and hills on three sides --- behind us, the Patagonia Mountains, north of us, the Canelo Hills, and east, the Huachuca Mountains --- their colors changing as the sun moved lower in the sky, shadows growing longer with day’s end.

Listening carefully, at first I heard nothing, just silence. But then I began to notice the soft rise and fall of the wind, the gentle rustling of the grasses, the occasional squeak of the windmill as the blades turned. I heard and saw a few cactus wrens, alighting for a time on the telephone lines stretched overhead, and I looked up and noticed how the wires form a musical staff, the wind’s whistling sound like a song stretched over them.

CIMG0263 I looked at my watch and realized that seconds and minutes and hours don’t mean much here where time might be measured by the position of the sun, where most days are the same except for the variables of weather. Let’s just call this ordinary time, where no clocks are ticking, no appointments waiting, where there is no “breaking news,” where what happened today on the stock market is of little interest, where the machinations of the politicians in Washington have little impact, where no one cares who did what to who in Hollywood or what happened on The Office last night.

One of my favorite writers, Frederick Buechner, majors in a celebration of silence, of learning to reflect on and contemplate our lives. That’s difficult if we are always in an urban environment. Buechner says: “Pay attention to what happens to you. Pay attention to who you see. Pay attention to what you say, what they say. Pay attention to what the day feels like. Observe. That wonderful phrase, ‘religious observances,’ means, among other things, just what it says. Observe religiously. Observe deeply. Don't just get through your life, as all of us are inclined to do, on automatic pilot, not much noticing anything. “

I think of Elijah, asleep under a broom tree in the desert outside Beersheba in Judah, waiting for God to do something, anything, or sleeping in a cave in Horeb, waiting for the gentle whisper of God’s voice in the wind, a voice saying to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

CIMG0269 If I lay down here and slept, awakening on a new day, it would likely be the same. The tree would still be doing its important work of photosynthesis and shade-bearing, the windmill still turning, if there is wind, or not. The cross would still boldly if silently make God’s claim to every square inch of this universe and make restless travelers like me consider a Kingdom where a king comes not to take the riches of the land and make vassals of its peoples but to give not only riches but His life away.  Christ, the King of love.

It might rain, or it might not. The wind may blow, gently or with bluster, or not, faintly humming over the telephone lines overhead.

It’s all strangely comforting. If I’d had time, I might have stayed awhile, looked around, and better listened to the sound of ordinary time. Who knows? I might have even heard a voice calling my name, saying to me, “What are you doing here?” and then, “Go back the way you came.”

The Other Side of Beauty

glassess "Christian philosophers have been singularly alive to the sadness which beauty may provoke.  'When we admire the beauty of visible objects, we experience joy certainly,' observed the medieval thinker Hugh of St. Victor, 'but at the same time, we experience a feeling of tremendous void' . . . . Beauty, then is a fragment of the divine, and the sight of it saddens us by evoking our sense of loss and our yearning for the life denied us."  (Alain de Botton, in The Architecture of Happiness)

It's 11:38 p.m.  You just finished paying the last bills, put away the dishes from dinner, put in a load of laundry, folded what seemed a hundredfold small articles of clothing, fed the animals, and put the toys back in the toy chest (even the Matchbox cars pushed under the sofa).  You hoist a brimming laundry basket and, dimming the last light, wearily turn and head up the stairs.  At the top of the stairs you set the laundry basket down, thinking you will look in on your son and daughter where they sleep.  You stand at the side of their bed and watch their deep breathing, the sweetness of a face at peace, see the perspiration on their face as the surplus energy of a full day of play oozes out.  A feeling of joy wells up in you, unbidden, the kind that swallows up all your deep weariness.  And then you sense something else underneath the joy, something you recognize as a profound sadness, and you turn to leave, an unspoken prayer caught in your throat.

It's late June, and you just walked the over 300 steps to the top of Bridal Vail Falls in the Yosemite Valley.  You recognize the reality from John Muir's detailed descriptions or Ansel Adam's black and white photos.  You're out of breath from the ascent, but the view from up top is rewarding.  The water in the fall is full, thundering over the edge of the cliff, filling the air with mist, a dramatic evidence of purposeful and not accidental creation. It is enough to provoke a prayer of praise, heartfelt and, yet, woven into the prayer, a longing for more and an inarticulatable sense of loss.

Saturday evening there is a party in your home.  Good friends gather around a fire, laughing, enjoying memories.  You're talking about your children, when they were young, laughing at some funny comment, remembering some shared event.  Laughter almost brings tears.  You sip a cup of your favorite English tea, the mug warming your hands.  Looking at the familiar faces around you, you exhale a great thankfulness, happy for this moment together.  Then, a certain wistfulness begins to impinge, stealing some of the intensity of that sense of wholeness.  You know the time together will end.

tresspass On the other side of whatever beauty we experience --- whether family, nature, or friendship --- lies a sense that it is incomplete, temporal, and sure to be dashed by some event, word, or deed.  When we know beauty, it's as if we stare into Eden, for a moment, our soul flooded by a sense of what it is like, and yet close behind comes the realization, common but displaced by temporary amnesia, that the way back to Eden is barred, "cherubim and a flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life" (Gen. 3:24).  A neon sign flashes "NO RETURN."  An ominous guard, feet squarely planted, arms crossed, bars our path.  Trespass is not allowed.

In his commentary, Matthew Henry says that this image was, for Adam and for us, a reminder of God's displeasure, of his judgment, that the way of deliverance and of wholeness is not back to Eden but on to a new heavens and earth, promised through the seed of the woman.  Viewed this way, what we sense when we peer into a moment of sublime beauty is both the judgment of the Fall --- that temporal and incomplete feeling of joy, thankfulness, and peace we have in an experience of beauty --- as well as the hope and expectation of something more --- a recreated, perfect heavens and earth.  God gives us a vivid visual reminder that the way back to Eden is foreclosed as a prompt to set our hearts on what He promises --- an experience of beauty and wholeness that will never end and which is not undercut by sadness or longing.  The beauty we now experience, whatever its manifestation, is, as C.S. Lewis once said, "not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news of a country we have never yet visited."  This beauty "must bear at best only a symbolical relation to what will truly satisfy."

Many people stop at beauty.  Don't.  Look through it both to see the way to Eden foreclosed and, yet, the promise of true Beauty yet to come.  "No longer will there be any curse" (Rev. 22:3). In this Great Reversal, we'll be bidden to take and eat of the tree of life.  And we will.

A New Architecture

fallin down Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me.  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 will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.  And you know the way to where I am going.  (John 14-1-4)

For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.  (Heb. 11:10)

A few years ago my I visited some old friends who moved away when their children were young and with whom I had not been for several years --- perhaps as much as a decade.  One morning, as I was coming up the stairs from the downstairs guest room, my eyes caught sight of scuff marks on the white walls.  Needs painting, I thought.  I paused.  My eyes drifted up to the place where the wall meets the ceiling.  I noticed how cracks had appeared, how the wall had begun to separate from the ceiling.  The rest of the morning I could not take my mind off of the house, noticing black marks and scratches on the floors, peeling paint, stains, and the chipped edges of walls.  Walking the halls, I heard the creaks of floorboards working their way off their fittings, like the creaking of mature bones.  The smells of new paint, wallpaper, and varnish that I remembered from years before were gone, replaced by a settled mix of musty age, dust taking root in carpet, humidity seeping into walls, invisible mildew and the smells of many, many cooked meals adhering to the furniture and draperies.  The house had matured.  Once full of shine and fresh smells, it now knew the imperfections of age.  It had been lived in and had been a silent witness to the laughter of birthday parties, the tears of smaller and larger heartaches, the hurried mornings and leisurely Sunday afternoons.  I realized how much I had missed by not having my friends close by, and how much this place had seen and meant to them, how much living had been done.  A bittersweet feeling welled up in me.

People build things.  They always have.  They adopt places as their own, build houses, and buy and attach themselves to objects, and they hold all of these with some affection, with some love.  And knowing love, they also inevitably consider loss.  In his book about how buildings affect us, The Architecture of Happiness, Alain de Botton recounts a conversation between Sigmund Freud and the poet Rainer Maria Rilke on a mountain walk on a beautiful summer's day:

The psychoanalyst was glad to be outdoors (it had been raining all week), but his companion walked with his head bowed, his eyes fixed on the ground, and remained taciturn throughout the excursion.  It wasn't that Rilke was oblivious to the beauty around him; he simply could not overlook how impermanent everything was.  In Freud's words, he was unable to forget "that all this beauty was fated to extinction, that it would vanish before winter came, like all human beauty and all the beauty that men have created or may create."

I think I understand how Rilke felt.  Whether walking in my friends home or my own home, I am keenly aware of their impermanence, of their advancing age, of how they're drawn back to the earth by the leveling forces of gravity, rain, wind, and sun.  We can struggle to keep up appearances through new paint, carpet, kitchen remodels, or even by a take-down and rebuilding, but despite the beautiful places we create and re-create, they last but for a time.  For most, this depressing conclusion is held off only by a suspension of disbelief in aging and death or a continual remaking of a place, like the woman my builder friend knows who remodels her kitchen every two years.  An aging kitchen likely would remind her that her kitchen won't last forever, that, more importantly, she won't last forever, that all is destined for decay.  Viewed this way, architecture is a fantasy, a cruel joke, an attempt to create something beautiful, functional and permanent when all is hopeless.

And yet there is another way to look at it.  While it's true that my friend's home is aging, that he is aging along with me, there is a permanence to what we build.  Our hope is that God is preparing a place for us, a city.  In his new architecture, not only will He craft new hearts and habits but new buildings, streets, houses, parks, courtyards and trails.  All the good we now make --- all that is beautiful --- is a shadow of the permanent architecture we'll know in a restored earth --- a very physical, tangible reality.  In fact, the genesis of my friend's new home in a restored earth is already here --- in the bricks, wood, and nails of the temporal one he now knows.  And the affections he now has for particular sunny nook, a comfortable chair in a cozy corner, and a perspective through the window, as well as for objects such as his favorite old sweater, wood-carved box, or even the beautiful lines and styling of a classic Corvette --- all foreshadow the love he will have for the new architecture of our restored earth.

We are not ascetics, nor are we called to disdain the physical.  Rather, we are called to have a proper affection for the tangible reality in which God has settled us.   C.S. Lewis once said that "every created thing is, in its degree, an image of God, and the ordinate and faithful appreciation of that thing a clue, which, truly followed, will lead back to Him."  Conversely, he warned that "every created thing, the highest devotion to moral duty, the purest conjugal love, the saint and the seraph, is no more than an image; that every one of them, followed for its own sake and isolated from its source, becomes an idol whose service is damnation."  Buildings, gardens, natural places and urban parks --- all, loved properly, lead us to God.  Idolized, they lead us away from God.

He's preparing a place.  He's building a new city.  It's made out of what we know and yet He will make all things new.  That which we properly love here we will also love there, in a remade earth.  The houses there are foreshadowed by the houses here.  We'll recognize them.  We'll be at home, finally.

The Matter of Why Space Matters

space God loves matter, which is why he made lots of it (God must love space even more.) 

(Cornelius Plantinga, in Engaging God's World)

When Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins were hurtling through space toward the moon in Apollo 11, they had no idea what they were hurtling  through.  We still don't.  At least we don't know much. In fact, my cats may know just as much for all I know.

I think of space as emptiness, as the absence of things, or matter, and yet scientists say that's not really the case.  As I understand them, outer space is not completely empty (that is, a perfect vacuum) but contains a low density of particles, predominantly hydrogen plasma, as well as electromagnetic radiation, dark matter and dark energy --- mostly the latter two "dark" twins, except we really don't know what they are or if they're really there (kind of like imaginary playmates).  For instance, dark matter is said to be a mysterious substance which scientists think accounts for most of the mass in the universe but that is invisible to current instruments.  We don't really know for sure that it's there, and yet this stuff we can't see accounts for 96% of the universe.  But you know scientists; they positively live to postulate.

But enough of that.  I think of space more in the sense of spaciousness, an openness filling the yawning gaps between good solid things like trees, stars, and people.  There's a lot of it around.  God made it, so he must love it (says Plantinga), and given how much of it there is, he must love it a lot.

God does love space --- the sparseness of it, the roominess of it, the solitude of it, the wonder of it, the silence of it, and the noise of it.  And so should we, or so do we, but for sin's curse.  Because of sin, some of us can't abide being alone in the solitude of space. Agoraphobics, those who fear open places, hide in their rooms, undone by the expanse of space and place.  And some of us, like nettling bureaucrats, rush to fill every interstice of human experience with a regulation, rule, or command --- legalists to the core who can't abide the inevitable space in our codifications of appropriate behavior.  And yet it was not to be this way.

Our distant ancestor, Job, marveled at the emptiness of space, wondering that "he spreads out the northern skies over empty space; he suspends the earth over nothing," (Job 26:7) and later concluding that "these are but the outer fringe of his works; how faint the whisper we hear of him!" (26:14).  The Psalmist kicks back on the grass outside Jerusalem and wonders aloud: "When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him?" (Ps. 8:3-4).  Part of what he considers in those heavens is the juxtaposition of visible objects like stars with the vast spaciousness of space, the separation of what is from what is not.  Kant said space is relationship, a way to order our experience of reality; Newton, that it was absolute, a part of reality.  I think it's both.  Sitting in my office, I enjoy space as something real I can move around in and also the sense of space as a juxtaposition of the empty with definite objects like walls and desks and windows.

I love space.  When I open Scripture to the Creation account of Genesis 1-3, I'm thankful for the vast spaciousness of the Word that made it all.  Behind the words "God made" lies a rich and infinite domain of interpretation, of room for human exploration.  And when I hear the reassuring words of "Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path," (Ps 119:105), I'm glad the Word is the lamp and not the path, that I have a sure guide but a vast landscape through which to find my way.  That's space. That's the kind of space God gives us.

Leaving the space of outer space and the vastness of the landscape of life, I'm thankful for the simple yet profound space of a poem.  No one better illustrates the fulsome nature of space with poetic verse than the spare poetry of William Carlos Williams:

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

(The Red Wheelbarrow).  Writing about the poem in Understanding Poetry, poet Robery Penn Warren said that "[r]eading this poem is like peering at an ordinary object through a pin prick in a piece of cardboard. The fact that the tiny hole arbitrarily frames the object endows it with an exciting freshness that seems to hover on the verge of revelation."  In other words, more is said by what is unsaid than by what is said. 

And consider the short story, the poor stepchild of the literary world.  (Evidence: The Atlantic Monthly, which published short stories by our finest writers for 150 years, abruptly stopped publishing stories in 2005.)  A story like Flannery O'Connor's "The Geranium," which touches in a concrete way on racism, radiates outward into the unknown.  Who was Old Dudley?  What was his early life like?  What will happen to him?  We don't know.  We can imagine.  We can place this snapshot of life in a greater context we supply -- in space.

We may not know if space is matter, but we know it matters.  If we love it, like God does, if we wonder at it and relish its existence, life will open.  We won't be afraid, but free.

Waves can't break without rocks that dissolve into sand
We can't dance without seasons upon which to stand
Eden is a state of rhythm like the sea
Is a timeless change

Turn your eyes to the world where we all sit and dream
Busy dreaming ourselves and each other into being
Dreaming is a state of death, can't you see?
We must live through who we are

If we can sing with the wind song
Chant with thunder
Play upon the lightning
Melodies of wonder
Into wonder life will open

We are children of the river we have named "existence"
Undercurrent and surface pass in the same tense
Nothing is confined except what's in your mind
Every footstep must be true

If we can sing with the wind song
Chant with thunder
Play upon the lightning
Melodies of wonder
Into wonder life will open

(Bruce Cockburn, "Life Will Open," from Sunwheel Dance, 1971)

Spirit So Big

dream "There is no other day. All days are present now. . . . This moment contains all moments."  (C.S. Lewis, in The Great Divorce)

Fall has come to my home, and it's welcome.  A couple days ago the 90 degree heat finally gave way to chill 50-something mornings and 78 degree days, with sharply blue skies and radiant sunlight.  I opened the windows, and the sounds of the neighborhood returned to the interior of my home after the hermetically-sealed air conditioned silence of the hot and humid Summer --- the morning birds waking, the squirrels fussing about whose tree this is anyway and where oh where did I hide that nut, the slap of the newspaper on the driveway, the garage doors opening for the first over-achieving employees on their way to work, the thud of a pine cone (or sleepy bird) on my roof, the waking creak-stretching of my settling home.  I know I've been here before, last year, for sure, and the one before, but even, I remember, as a child --- waking in the morning before anyone else, listening.  I roll over, locate myself in time: 6:38 a.m.

Last night I took a drive in this air, the windows down and moonroof open to a nearly full moon, drinking up the blackness of the night and just-so-cool air, listening to one voice, that of Jan Krist, singing "And the spirit gets so big/ and the body gets so small/ The spirit clutters all life's corners/ and it spills into life's halls/ And the spirit gets so big" ("Spirit So Big," from Love Big, Us Small).  The heat came on.  Headlights probed the darkness.  At that late hour, the blacktop seemed noticeably relieved, restful even.  I've been here before, driving, dreaming,

I cannot now remember how many years ago it was that I first heard the music of Jan Krist, but it was unlike anything I had ever heard before, a revelation to me.  It was lyrically deliberative music, fresh out of life-experience, with a sound like the gentle encouragement of a friend.  Right now, I can hear these songs --- "Spirit So Big," "Put Her to the Test," "Wing and a Prayer," "Can't Close My Eyes" --- and a dozen times and places rush in, all present now, in this moment.  There's a first performance, unsure of herself, and yet painfully honest and gifted; more than a dozen concerts, showcases, and radio interviews in a places from Albuquerque to Cleveland to Peoria; difficult conversations and laughter among friends; the business of the business, and the music, always the music.  Ten or fifteen years later it's all here, all real, every day present now.

I'm not being nostalgic.  I'm not being mystical.  I'm not suggesting I want to return to some past moment that I've made larger than life by selective memory, or that there is some mysterious thing going on here that we can never, never understand.  It's just that it's my common experience that these images and remembrances of past events, people, and places are palpable.  The distance between them and me is paper thin.  They're here.  There's truth in what the aged mean when they say "It seems like just yesterday that. . .", and I know now what they mean.  In a real sense, It was just yesterday.  We've been there before.

6:40.  Was it just last night I was listening to those songs?  It seems I was tunneling back through the years in those moments and I'm still connected, always connected.  I roll over, close my eyes, and those places are still there, and I feel that if I put my hand out in the early morning air I might just touch them.  Almost.

It didn't have to be this way.  We need memories, for sure, so we don't repeat all our mistakes, forget our own faces, forget where we left our keys and even what the keys are for.  Memories could have been just the practical stuff, the stuff we need to get by, two-dimensional black and white text messages or soundbytes of "just the facts," and not the rich four dimensional realities they are.  And if everything matters, then this matters.  We're made this way for a reason.

I think it's because we're made for eternity.  Cast a line back to the deep pool of those opening chapters of Genesis where God fingerpaints the panoramic drama of Creation in great broad strokes, and I land here, on Chapter  1, verse 26, where the self-existent, Eternal One says "Let us make man in our image. . . ."  Reel that verse in and try to take hold of its slippery existence and you'll realize how difficult it is to grasp.  Certainly it means we image God in some clear ways.  Dorothy Sayers, for example, said we image Him as creators, and  we do.  Jan Krist does.  Everyone does.  But it's much more than that.  Marred as we are by sin, and fallen from the grand place we were intended to occupy, we still image God --- in his timelessness, his eternality.  When we sense the almost tangible presence of memories, we experience a fleeting and pale imitation of what He knows all the time, or all the not-time, that this moment contains all moments, that all days are present now.  Time drops away.  Everything's present now.

Driving, driving.  I've been here before.  In a '72 Camaro, my just sixteen -year-old self slicing through the darkness of four counties, after midnight, liberated at last from the confines of the walking/biking life, the eight-track playing The James Gang, Traffic, or Led Zeppelin, stopping late night in a foreign county for a Coke, and  laughing with my best friend John.  The air is the same, the same feeling of freedom and pure joy, driving with the music on.

6:45.  The alarm sounds.  I've been here before.  I put my feet on the floor, rise again, making memories, imaging God, surrounded by a crowd of witnesses, all the places I've been, the people I've known, the things I've done, all with me now.  And I'm thankful: I've lost nothing.  Time has passed, I've moved on, people have left, I'm older.  But they're all here, all with me.  I'm timeless.  I'm built for eternity.  The body gets smaller, but the spirit's so big. 

Thank you, Jan.

What Lies Ahead

grass"The last thing I wish is to arouse factual curiosity about the details of the after-world."  (C.S. Lewis, in The Great Divorce)

One wonders if Lewis was being tongue-in-cheek because, of course, The Great Divorce, like The Last Battle or any book dealing with what lies ahead, speculates about the factual details of Heaven.  Lewis makes this statement at the end of the Preface to his fantasy, reminding the readers that "[t]he trans-mortal conditions" of the story are "solely an imaginative supposal: they are not even a guess or speculation at what may actually await us."  His point is a moral one, to be certain, and yet however fantastical, his is an imagination rooted in an actual belief in the factuality of Heaven, and so what he imagines is bounded by the truth he does know about that place.  Thus, The Great Divorce is worth reading not just for its moral import but also for the vision it gives of what we might find in Heaven.

Our narrator is just off the bus from Hell.  His fellow passengers do not find this "vacation" to their liking.  The grass is more grass than the grass they remember.  It hurts their feet.  It is more substantial.  In fact everything is more of what it essentially is.  The colors are richer; the music, indescribable; the beings they encounter, more human.  It is, in sum, the really Real, more real than anything they have known.  However, our visitors find it unbearable.  Most of them even want to return to Hell, to their own petty concerns, to a lonely and gray existence.  For sure, Lewis has a point to make:  the condemned choose Hell, and keep choosing it, unable because of their pride and arrogance to give up their cause, whether vanity, self-importance, or whatever.  Yet I'm more interested in the fascinating glimpse of what they were rejecting and what Lewis is suggesting about Heaven's nature even here on the edge of Heaven.

Have you ever caught a glimpse or heard from a distance the sound of the Really Real, something beyond what is here?  I suspect you have had what Lewis elsewhere called “patches of God-light on the woodlands of our experience.”

It’s a beautiful, crisp Fall day and you’re watching your children play on a playground, the breeze blowing the leaves, the sunlight falling in mottled patches on the adjacent forest floor and warming your face, laughter settling in on you, and you close your eyes and think it doesn’t get much better than this.

You’re listening to some haunting bit of music from a movie soundtrack, something that stirs emotion and fills your mind with images from the movie, of a peaceable homeplace someplace, a family gathered with each other around a table, and it seems as if Home has come over you, and you’re completely at rest.

You're standing at a music festival at the back of a large open air circus tent, watching and listening to a succession of singer-songwriters take the stage, each song like a message to just you, and you might as well have been floating just above the scene you're so entranced by the sound and words.

You just walked in someone's old home and the smell of the place --- a musty mix of lived-in-ed-ness --- and you're home again, back to your first home, that small stick-built post-war bay boomer cottage on a quite street in then suburbia, and the people and places of that home, for a moment, crash in on you, tangible as the present life in front of you, and you smile.

Or maybe it's just the robin that just turned and met your eyes straight on in some extraordinary avian-human mind-meld. (Maybe that one's just for extreme birders.)

And yet every experience like this also has in it the sense of loss, of unfulfillment, of some unrequited need, a sense that there must be more and a knowledge that the experience will, sooner rather than later, end.

Compared to Heaven, to the really Real, Lewis said that our life here was a life in shadows, every experience, even the worst, holding in it something of Heaven, our souls being molded now to receive the greater substantiality of that place.  Seeing a tree, a scenic vista, or children playing, or hearing great music, whether Mozart, Yes, or Johnny Cash, we see potentialities, or at least a glimpse of what is possible in a place where blue is really Blue, or a C chord is fuller and richer than we can imagine, or the smell of fresh brewed coffee or homemade bread so rich and full that in our present state we might be overcome (like if we had the nose of a bloodhound, even now).

Seen this way, reality is iconic.  With the Spirit's help, we see through it to a greater Reality. 

Now . . .God help me pay attention.

[The Great Divorce is the first book in the Great Books series sponsored by Every month you read a different classic book, and you receive a CD that interprets the book, giving background on the author and important themes. If you're interested, check it out here.]

The Paradox of Man


[A]ll things grow more paradoxical as we approach the central truth"  (G.K. Chesterton)

Less than two weeks ago the man who hired me for my one and only job as an attorney was sentenced to 70 months in federal prison.  He took part in a scheme to funnel funds through his trust account to offshore accounts, thereby running afoul of tax laws and anti-money laundering laws.  Ironically, and sadly, he will serve time in prison with some of the same type of people he sent to prison. 

Confronted by this horrific scenario, we who were his former associates collectively shake our heads.  What happened? Why did he do it?  And yet the better question is why do any of us not do the same thing and worse?  This man was an encouraging, motivating leader who had a great deal to do with shaping the office within which I work into an exciting, productive place with highly motivated, competent, and dedicated people.  He loved his family.  He cared about his state and community.  He was always supportive of me when, as an attorney, I had much to learn.  Much good could be said about him.

What can be said about the paradox and inscrutability of biblical truths like incarnation and trinity are just as true about man.  As well as you know a person, as well as you think you know yourself, you never really grasp the full truth of who they are.  Human beings are paradoxes and mysteries, simultaneously capable of great altruism and grasping greed, self-sacrifice strangely intertwined with vanity and pride.  Even when I think I know my own motivations, I suddenly realize that my motives are mixed, as when I show an interest in what someone is doing only because I want them to ask me what I am doing.  It's tragic, really, and yet the best response I have to such tragedy of character is laughter, or at least a smile, and an appreciation that in some ways I'm helpless to do anything about the drama that's being played out.  The comedy of it is very close to its tragedy. 

I don't mean to suggest, as might a mystic, that we can't really know anything, that everything is mysterious, but simply that knowing what we do makes us acknowledge what we don't know, that the more I know myself and others the more I realize what mysterious bundles of paradoxes we are.  Ultimately, only the One who made us truly knows us.  And this is not surprising.  He made us in His image, a finite representation of His infinite being which, after all our searching out of his nature and character, is incomprehensible.  In Concise Theology, J.I Packer summarizes it like this:  "God is great, says Scripture: greater than we can grasp.  Theology states this by describing him as incomprehensible --- not in the sense that logic is somehow different for him from what it is for us, so that we cannot follow the workings of his mind at all, but in the sense that we can never understand him fully, just because he is infinite and we are finite."  As his image-bearers, something of God's incomprehensibility is caught up in who we are.  The natural response is humility and worship, not worship of man but of God who man bears to the world.

The man who hired me, the one I worked under, is a good man, but, like me, a bent man.  It's just that his paradoxes are more evident, more public than mine.  Right now I don't think he can smile or laugh at this drama, though he may in time find the humor in God's grace, in the public humiliation of one who is built for glory and  favored by God.  On another day, he'll shine, his paradox undone, the darkness of this moment supplanted by pure light.

The Better Politics of Stories


If you've been a regular reader of this blog, you'll know that despite its variegated content it does assiduously avoid commentary on one set of topics --- politics and social issues.  It's neither apathy nor lack of opinion that prevents me from eloquence on such things, but both fear of embarrassment and principle.  First, I feel woefully ignorant about most social and political issues, and sometimes the more I read about them the more ambivalent and confused I become.  I don't watch the network news because, like the late Neil Postman, I want to be educated and not entertained with news.  Well, no I'm not actually like Postman. He's a really smart guy. I read the newspaper.  I read enough to know what I don't know.

But my second reason for my reluctance is on principle: I dislike the Manichean tendency of most political and social discourse, the sense that the issue is black and white, that there is a clear choice between right and wrong and, the writer would tell me, "I'm right and they're wrong."  I also don't like the prevalence of ad hominen attacks (attacks on the person), as when commentators simply call a politician a "liar" or otherwise suggest that they are stupid, lazy, or immoral.  The language of many commentators is so acerbic; witty is one thing, nasty and biting is another.  The language of talk show hosts, many politicians, and political weblog writers is tiresome and unilluminating.  I know this is a gross generalization, but I think it largely true.

In a recent editorial in our local newspaper, Peder Zane, who usually reviews books, nails the problem with much of the social and political advocacy surrounding big issues.  In "Rhetoric Heats Up, Reality Fogs Up," Zane asks "Are we being told the whole truth about global warning?"  He notes that one of the statistics used by Al Gore and other advocates of serious (and expensive) action to combat global warming is that the 10 hottest years in American history have occurred since 1995.  When it was subsequently pointed out that the statistic was dead wrong, NASA retracted it, but there was little to no coverage of the retraction.  Advocates of global warming action continue to use the statistic or, at best, ignore the contrary evidence, and conservative pundits trumpet the error as proof that the whole thing is much ado about nothing, or at least nothing we can or should do anything about.

What Zane concludes is that the error was buried or ignored because it constitutes an "inconvenient truth."  The findings don't necessarily undermine the case for global warming, but they do complicate it.  Complicated stories are difficult to sell to the public.  They do not create a groundswell of support.  Complex issues like global warming are full of research findings that are at times contradictory, paradoxical, and incomplete, with every conclusion qualified and provisional.  This leads to a public waxing over of the eyes --- a loss for the advocate.  And yet most people instinctively know that most things are never so simple, never so cut and dried.  Why?  Because we know that's how people are, their actions full of mixed motives.  And we know that's how we are.

Furthermore, we Christians should know better.  Despite the perspicuity of the Gospel --- its plan of salvation so simple and clear that even a simpleton can understand it and come to faith in its truth --- when we attempt to plumb the depths of each truth --- like Trinity, Incarnation, God's sovereignty and individual freedom, to name a few deep truths --- we grow in understanding and, yet, at the same time realize how utterly mysterious and paradoxical these great truths are (and how far short of understanding the mind of God we are).  It doesn't mean we don't act on what we know, and yet a humility undergirds our action, a deepening knowledge that the more we know the more we realize how much we don't know, the more we know God the more we realize just how incomprehensible He is.

The Gospel story is just that --- a mysterious story where not everyone acts the way we expect, where even God surprises us.  There's an adulterer and murderer who is deemed "a man after God's own heart.."  Another murderer is chosen to lead God's people out of Egypt and through the wilderness.  One murderous zealot becomes an apostle; a liar, too.  Even Christ himself has a prostitute in his ancestral line.  In true stories, there are all kinds of surprises.  People aren't always what they seem.  Things are complicated, wrapped in mystery, and sometimes impenetrable.  And yet these good stories seem so much more true than most of the "stories" told by the advocates of political and social action, who so often ignore or gloss over inconvenient truths because they don't fit their story and may distract the audience who may waver in their support.  As G.K. Chesterton once said, "The simplification of anything is always sensational."  Complexity is not.

I don't know a lot about politics and have even less of use to say about it.  I don't know what causes global warming, and I don't know what to do about it.  I'm trying to understand.  I'll act on what bit of truth I have.

But I do know people.  And what I read in stories (the good ones, anyway) tell me more about what to do in life than Al Gore, Rush Limbaugh, or most blogger-advocates.  That's the politics of stories.  That's the Gospel.  That's the politics of the heart and soul.

How to Lose Your Religion


"At the foundation of Jesus Christ's kingdom is the genuine loveliness of those who are commonplace.  I am truly blessed in my poverty.  If I have no strength of will or a nature without worth or excellence, then Jesus says to me, 'Blessed are you, because it is through your poverty that you can enter My kingdom.'  I cannot enter His kingdom by virtue of my goodness --- I can only enter it as an absolute pauper."  (Oswald Chambers, in My Utmost for His Highest)

In a recent newspaper article, Los Angeles Times writer William Lodbell chronicles the loss of his faith in God ("Faith Found, and Lost, News and Observer, Aug. 17, 2007).  Finding himself in a troubled marriage, Lodbell writes of how a friend took him to one of the many independent evangelical mega-churches in Southern California where he heard the Bible preached and taught in a relevant way for the first time.  Attending a retreat where for 36 hours he was treated to singing, prayer, heart-felt sharing, and Bible teaching, he had an experience of being filled with the Holy Spirit.  He believed.  Returning to LA, he convinced his editors to allow him to cover religion, because he wanted to show people of faith in a positive light.  By all accounts, he did well at it.

Later, Lodbell converted to Catholicism because he said its low-key evangelism, history, and ritual appealed to him.  On the news front, he was assigned two difficult stories --- the Catholic sex scandals and then, on his own initiative, he began looking into the Trinity Broadcasting Network and the lavish lifestyle led by Benny Hinn and others.  He said that he "understood that he was witnessing the failure of humans, not God.  But in a way, that was the point.  I didn't see these institutions drenched in God's spirit.  Shouldn't religious institutions, if they were God-inspired, reflect higher standards than government, corporations and other groups in society?"   He stopped attending church, ultimately concluding that he did not believe.  "I saw that belief in God, no matter how grounded, requires at some point a leap of faith.  Either you have the gift of faith or you don't.  It's not a choice.  It can't be willed into existence."

Reading this sad story, there was so much I found to agree with.  So often churches and parachurch organizations fail us, pastors and youth leaders sin, badly, and people let us down.  Lodbell was right to be grieved by this.  And his question is one that I suspect we've all had:  If this life in Christ is real, shouldn't there be more evidence of it in our churches, in our lives?  Reading his story I felt the heavy tug of the reporter's pessimism, the downward spiral of doubt and unbelief.  I don't like what I feel, but I don't think it's good to deny what I feel or the doubt this produces.  The question is where does doubt take you?

That doubt takes me back to my poverty, back to the point where I can say that I really don't have anything in me that truly measures up, where I can't say I am getting better all the time.  And if I can say that about myself, I can understand that this same poverty is the state of other believers.  The experience of sanctification is, for me, more a growing awareness of my poverty, of how sin corrupts every apparently decent thing I've done, of how far short I am of any Godly benchmark, and yet it's also an increasing awareness of the greater richness of God's grace toward me and His Creation.  When I begin to realize what a pauper I am, and what a ragged lot we all are, then I begin to see and more fully appreciate the evidence of God's grace among us, around me, and in me.

Lodbell saw the sin in the church and could no longer believe.  Interestingly, he never turns the focus to himself, to how he failed to measure up.  Looking for God to produce results, he saw only failure, only hypocrisy.  Had he revisited his own poverty, the poverty that presumably brought him to church in the first place, he may have seen life with new eyes, have seen the grace of God at work all around him.  If he'd done so, he may have lost his religion. . . but retained his faith.

But then I really have to turn the attention back to me. Am I asking God to measure up? Am I holding him responsible for "shepherds" that bilk their flocks, for pastors that abuse their wives, for all that passes for religion? Am I asking Him to perform for me that my faith might be legitimized? Then I have to remember that He already gave everything for me, even life itself. He died. That should be enough.

Dwelling Well

House"Lord, you have been our dwelling place throughout all generations." (Ps. 90:1)

This past week I have seen many different dwelling places --- everything from a battered Harlem brownstone to an $11 million dollar midtown penthouse as I walked the streets of New York City. Some people dwell very well, some not so well, but even among these extremes, there is a place which the residents of both call home, a dwelling, "shelter from the storm." Even those who live on the streets fashion a "home" of sorts, even if only a cardboard box under a bridge. Almost everyone dwells somewhere. Few are truly homeless.

Our dwellings give us both the reality and illusion of security. Truly they are a refuge for us (the Hebrew word translated as "dwelling places" is rendered as "refuge" in Ps. 71:3) in more than one way. To varying degrees, they protect us from the elements, whether it be the canvas flap of a tent, an earthen wall of a mud hut, the thin wall of a cardboard box, or the brick and granite of the Midtown apartment. And yet, the security we have is temporal and not inviolate. Our dwellings flood, burn, and are broken into by thieves. How fleeting is our sense of security when such things happen.

In the best of dwelling places, we also know the security of a community of love, that is, the primary community of the family. Truly home is a refuge. I well remember driving home for the weekend after a difficult first year at college, feeling my own sense of failure, and coming to a place where I knew that none of that mattered, to a place where I was loved unconditionally. And yet even this is imperfect. There are arguments, disunity, and even a breakup of the family. It too is not inviolate.

Like me, I suspect that you too have your particular places in your home where you feel especially content. Maybe it's a corner chair, your desk, or the window seat where you read. Maybe the light is different here, or perhaps there is a plesant memory or series of memories you associate with this place. Whatever it is, you are drawn to this place, long for it, and feel safe in it.

We both make too much of and too little of our homes. I've been in some massive designer homes that have the latest kitchens and fashionable layouts and yet do not feel like a dwelling place or refuge at all. In a sense, those with such homes may think too little of them --- they can be mere adornments lacking in personality and the chaotic character of a lived-in space, the warmth of messy living. And then they also think too much of them, investing their time and money into something that is temporal. When we remodeled our home after a fire a couple years ago, I remember felling a sense of loss even as I enjoyed the expanded and changed spaces in our home. Some parts of the home I associated with certain memories. As I said, I feel a loss, as these places are now gone. They cannot be recovered.

In the end, our dwelling places are just shadows of a greater, coming reality. They are regular reminders of the true and permanent security we will enjoy in Christ in a restored heaven and earth, when "the dwelling of God is with men" (Rev. 21:3b). Then we can give up our cardboard boxes as there will be no need to keep the world out in a world without walls. As I tell my kids: Take everything good you know of this place we call home, and imagine that being magnified a hundredfold. Now take away all the bad. That's something like Heaven. That's our true dwelling place.

Wanderlust and Homecoming

Route_66"I am a product of long corridors, empty sunlit rooms, upstairs indoor silences, attics explored in solitude, distant noises of gurgling cisterns and pipes, and the noise of wind under the tiles. Also, of endless books." (C.S. Lewis, in Surprised By Joy)

When I was a very young boy, I was sent to bed for the night but often found myself awake, lying in bed. I watched the headlights from cars passing on the parkway outside, how they would begin at the corner nearest the window, where the wall met the ceiling, and then as the car passed by would move around two walls of my room. It was hypnotic and better than counting sheep, which never seemed to work for me. Even then, I remember wondering where people were going so late at night, and I imagined perhaps they lived on the other side of town or maybe in another state. The world was awake outside my window and things were happening, and yet I was bed-bound.

That was the beginnings of my wanderlust. Later I rode shotgun with my parents at the age of six or seven, map open, directing them to "turn right, here," or "take the highway there," falling asleep with the red and blue lines of the map and city names playing in my mind. And I remember it was never enough to simply be somewhere but only to be going somewhere, planning a trip, wondering what was around the next turn, what the new day would bring. The real thing was never quite as good as what I imagined it to be, never living up to the promise of the map in my hands. Talk to me now and I'll be planning a trip. Ask me. I'm dreaming up one now. The map is on the floor by my desk.

However, concurrent with this wanderlust is a competing desire to go home. When I'm traveling I take great pleasure in thinking of home and longing to return there. In fact, I think that homelust, if that's a word, begins the day I set out. When you are wandering, nothing is quite like home. You sleep poorly. The food is inconsistent in quality. I'm constantly thinking of family and friends at home, of the things of home, and longing for those familiar places of my house. Really, I'm homesick.

I'm not sure what all this means spiritually. Eudora Welty once said that "one place comprehended can make us understand other places better." Undoubtedly the child C.S. Lewis wandering the rooms and halls of his home, often alone or with his brother Warnie, is a product of that place, of its sounds and places. To recall it is to root yourself, to remember a secure place. Perhaps that's a part of homesickness --- a remembering of a place familiar to us and where we feel secure, where we know ourselves and others best: the step at the top of the stairs where I sit to have a conversation with my wife; the particular sounds outside my open window; my daughter singing to herself; the chair by the bedroom window; or the way the light plays on the stone wall outside the den window. This is home.

Perhaps I long for the unfamiliar for its heightening of the familiar. Maybe I wander so I can better know my home. Maybe, just maybe, all this wandering and homesickness is just a dress rehearsal for the day I really go Home.

Stranded in Babylon

Starnded_in_babylon"By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion. . . . How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land?" (Ps. 137: 1, 4)

Years ago the enigmatic Christian rock pioneer Larry Norman released a record entitled Stranded in Babylon. I always loved that title. Pair it with Larry Norman with his shocking long white hair, snarling voice, and prophetic stance, and you get the sense that he is (as another of his album titles proclaimed) "only visiting this planet." While not all of us may seem as visibily out of place as Larry Norman, no doubt all of us feel a sense of estrangement, even strangeness, in the world, a place we regard as home and yet a place which, at certain times and places, we profoundly sense is not in fact our true Home. We are "aliens and strangers," says the Apostle Peter, meaning we are strange and alien and ill at ease relative to the world because we belong elsewhere.

This sense came home to me dramatically in the Summer of 1988 when my wife and I visited Hungary and what was then Czechoslovakia. At that time both countries were behind the Iron Curtain of Communism. We came mostly as tourists but actually had buried in our luggage some Bibles to surreptitiously deliver to a Campus Crusade worker in Hungary who was there officially to teach English. We weren't actually aware enough to realize at that time how serious a problem this could be, were we caught. But we made it into the country and the handoff went well.

It was the third or fourth day, after a trip on a Czech train into Prague, seated across from a Communist military officer who never, never smiled, that a profound homesickness settled in, a sense that I was far. far from home among a strange people. Arriving at the train station, we could not figure out how to secure a taxi and could not use the pay telephone, and no one spoke English. It took nearly an hour to obtain a taxi, and even then we weren't confident we would make it to our hotel. I could not read the restaurant menus or even make an educated guess as to what we were ordering. English was rarely spoken. The people were melancholy in disposition, unsmiling, depressed even. The city squares and marketplaces were not bustling, lively places but seemed sad, lonely, and hopeless, even though there were historic and beautiful places to visit. The food was barely edible. In the parks, no one lounged or played on the grass. I found out later that this was because people were prohibited from congregating. There were no evident signs of faith, hope, or love. After one day of this, I was ready to go home, longing for home.

Those exiled from Judah to Babylon in the sixth century B.C. were evidently homesick. More than that, they were despairing of ever seeing Jerusalem again, and they were angry. When you curse your captors by saying "Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!" you're obviously upset. We cringe to think of such anger, such despair so deep that music and songs stop, that you hang your harps and lyres in trees so as not to be taunted by your captors to sing a song about the Homeland" (v. 2-3).

I doubt that most of us have ever had that deep a sense of estrangement. I haven't. But sometimes it breaks through. Jesus said "blessed are those who mourn," and we realize the depth of sin, the brokenness of the world, the hopelessness of change in the world without God. And sometimes we can't make it to the rejoinder, "for they shall be comforted," for we are not comforted, not yet anyway, or not enough, but can only say how long --- how long must all this last? How long will God tarry? How long will He allow sin to have apparent rule in the world? How long, in fact, until we are on our way from Babylon to Zion? I'm sick of sin --- my own, yours, and the whole wretched mess it makes of all Creation. I don't want to sing, play, listen to music, or do anything. I want out of here.

Oh, I'm being dramatic, I know. I rarely feel quite like that. But on ocassion I do, when I hear of something like the Virginia Tech killings, something which happens every day in certain places throughout the world. Then I may not want to hear songs and there is a veneer of gray on the world. But then, thank God, the promises begin to tap gently on the door of my mind and senses. Someone smiles at me. Someone lets me in the stream of traffic. A rabbit stops in the path and looks at me before hopping away. The breeze moves the trees ever so slightly, moves the water on the lake. Thirteen turtles are sunbathing together on a log, shell upon shell. And the color blue looks refreshingly. . . well. . . blue, like it's a new blue today.

We may not be Home, but we are not alone. And Babylon does have its pleasures.


"For all of us, cynicism will destroy us. For those of us who claim to be Christians, cynicism is forbidden." (Jerram Barrs, "The Saturation of Cynicism," in Covenant, Spring 2007)

In a recent article in Covenant Magazine, Jerram Barrs traces the roots of our postmodern pessimism and cynicism --- the scornful, mocking attitude that is the outward expression of a belief that people are unsincere and inevitably will exhibit the worst of human behavior. Barrs traces this deep-seated attitude to five factors: a loss of belief in truth, a loss of hope, a loss of respect for authority, a loss of respect for everything sacred, and a loss of moral certainty. The operative word is "loss." Much has been lost. He goes on to prescribe the antidote: a sober realism (as opposed to a naive optimism) and, in essence, faith, hope and love, particularly love. Our faith gives us an assurance that all will be put to rights, that evil will meet judgment. We hope in salvation, that human hearts and this world will be renewed and changed and not end in tragedy, whether environmental collapse or thermonuclear war or under a terrorist scourge. And finally, love. As Barrs says: "Love is clear-eyed; but love is also full of hope, for it sees the way that Christ's love has already begun to change us. Love is clear-eyed and full of hope even when it means we have to count the cost of disappointment and even betrayal. Only love will arm us against cynicism in all its ugliness and destructive power."

The gravity of human existence this side of Eden draws us downward toward hopelessness and cynicism. It oozes from the ink of the local paper, falls from the sneer of the news commentator, and permeates the narratives of many popular songs. It's believed that artists, once they get a taste of popularity, will inevitably sell-out, go for the money, that is. Politicians, once elected, will serve themselves, not their consituents; and the errant relative will, without doubt, return to their usual selfish behavior. Isn't that the way of it? Isn't that what we are?

I confess I feel the pull of this gravity as much as anyone. I need regular doses of two revelations. First, the narratives of the Bible, the great stories within the one Story, remind me that no matter how bad we become all is not lost. Grace is at work amid the unraveling of Creation. God will redeem a people and a physical reality in His own time. I need the regular reaasurance of that promise.

But secondly, I need the regular beauty of the natural revelation. A walk in the woods, that is. A foray into nature reminds me that there is an incredible and well-ordered Home around us that has great restorative properties, that is able to heal itself and heal us. I guess what I sense in such places is the mark of the Creator, like signposts along the way, promises that all will be made right. Trees will one day be tree-ish in fullness, in a way we cannot now imagine. The red of the male cardinal will be redder and him more cardinal than he is now. No more will we live in shadows, in a place that, relative to the New Creation, is like various shades of gray compared to a panolpy of color. No more will all be bent and ill-formed.

I'm ever falling into cynicism, and God is ever pulling me upright to gaze on the possibilities of Grace, on a longed for New Creation. God will mend every broken thing. And I'll stop falling.

The Pursuit of Happyness

HandNo, I'm not talking about the recent movie which I have not seen. Rather, today's events provided a stark contrast between two lives --- that of writer Kurt Vonnegut, who died today, and that of Apollo 16 astronaut and 10th man on the moon, Charles Duke, who I heard speak tonight. both of whom pursued happiness. Duke became a believer in 1978, four years after he walked on the moon. Vonnegut never did.

I am not intimately familiar with Vonnegut's books, though I know the titles --- like Slaughterhouse-Five, the one most people know about. My wife can summon to mind a disturbing image from this book, which was required reading in her high school. Slaugterhouse-Five is an absurdist classic, a crazy part sci-fi trip through time with Billy Pilgrim (also later the name of a quite good band) which is also a plea against the butchery of war (hence, the title Slaughterhgouse-Five, which was the name of the POW camp in which Vonnegut was confined during WWII). Vonnegut was intimately familiar with the hell of war, having witnessed Nazi cruelty as well as the firebombing of Desden by the Allies. He made it a darkly funny and yet deeply serious polemic against war. Some men come to faith in such circumstances; some don't. A modern day Mark Twain, he did not embrace faith but, according to what I read of him, believed that the only thing redeeming in mankind was human kindness. And yet what a slender reed upon which to ground hope.

Charles Duke, on the other hand, presented a very common life story, one we have all heard. He pursued a career in military avaiation, became a test pilot under Chuck Yeager, entered the NASA Astronaut Corp in the Sixties, and eventually went to the moon and back on Apollo 16. And yet at the pinnacle of success his life as husband and father was a shambles. His wife came to faith. Later, he came to faith. He experienced a turnaround in his family life. Now that's an old story, one you can read about in his book, Moonwalker, and when I listen to such stories, I hear the broken record of human existence. It's like life is one story of men making idols of everything but their Creator, and I'm tired of the song and ready to move on, not just in my life but in the big story of human life. I want a new song. I appreciate what God did in Charlie Duke's life, but part of the story (the pre-conversion part) is like fingernails on chalkboard. I want to say "Please stop."

Thinking about these two men makes me both sad and glad: glad that Charlie Duke found a new song, and sad that Kurt Vonnegut, a man who knew much of the fallenness of man, settled for one outward indicia of God's grace, human kindness, as the only answer to what he perceived as the meaninglessness of life. Would that he had followed that evidence to its source and embraced the Singer Himself.

Faith and Quantum Theory

Ricklondon_einstein_optI am thankful for a physicist like Stephen Barr, who can write about a subject as strange and mysterious as quantum physics and still be understood by a layman. In his "Faith and Quantum Theory," from this March First Things, he summarizes the essence of this branch of physics, updates us on the continuing difficulties with the theory, and ponders its meaning for Christian faith -- for how we view the universe around us. I was enlightened, and while I need go no farther in the esoteric world of quantum physics, I'm glad to know what all the fuss is about.

I knew of the basic puzzle of quantum physics --- something called wave-particle duality --- but I did not realize all its implcations. If you don't know, this duality is the paradoxical conclusion that light acts as both particle and wave. That this conclusion was disturbing to Einstein is comforting, as my much lesser mind really cannot grasp its implcations, but at least I know that something is mighty wierd about it, like saying 2+2=4 and 2+2=5 are both true equations. Barr cites Feynman, who called this duality "the only real mystery in science," noting that we "cannot make the mystery go away by explaining how it works."

The wave-particle dulaity led to something called the Uncertainty Principle, which basically implies that even if one had all the information there is to be had about a physical system, its future behavior could not be predicted exactly, only probabalistically. The standard interpretation of quantum theory says that for these probabilities to have any meaning at all there must be a definite outcome, and only when a person looks at the physical system and comes to a conclusion is there a definite outcome. Thus, the implication here is that we do not live in a strictly deterministic universe (where, say, whether you fell today is the result of whether someone raised their hand 1000 years ago) but one with free will, where the human, the mind, is something different than the rest of reality (even if it too is in basic ways a physical system). Is this the case, or do we simply not know all the hidden factors that might resolve the dilemma? No one realy knows, and no new breakthrough has been made in over 40 years that would put us any closer to knowing how to resolve the paradox.

What I took from all this is, first, an awe at the complex fabric of Creation. We know things about reality. In fact, sometimes we think we know a lot. But the more we know the more it seems that all the basic mysteries at the core of reality are not resolvable. For example, most of space is made of of something unknown to us. Consider just that: Over 95% of the universe is made of an unknown substance. And that's for starters.

Second, the dilemma of the wave-particle duality seems analogous to the dilemmas (if you want to call them that) of very core doctrines of the Christian faith, particularly the dual nature of Christ. Jesus is fully human, and yet fully divine. We can describe the duality and profess its truth, and yet we cannot begin to explain it. Nor can we explain the Trinity, the eternality of God, or the Incarnation. Sometimes, attempts to "explain" such mysteries only violate the basic doctrine as given, much as attempts to explain wave-particle theory may end up violating the basic truth that there is a duality. I'm reminded of the modalists, who attempted to explain the one-in-three nature of the Trinity by postulating one God with three faces, a violation of the doctrine in that it negates the three separate persons of the Trinity, leavning us with simply, one God.

That's not to say that we don't grow in our understanding of physics or of God, or that some paradoxes may ultimately be resolved, but I don't think that this will happen in regard to either the dual nature of Christ or the wave-particle duality. There is an answer. It's just that our finite minds cannot hold it. That in itself is reassuring: we don't have all the answers.

The Irrepressible Self

SameWe were not really the Midwest, my father explained; that would be Iowa or Nebraska, Kansas --- hopeless places. We were the Upper Midwest, as the weaterman said, elevating us above the dreary mean. My father pointed with derision at the cars with Iowa license plates, hauling boats on trailers behind them, as we passed them on Highway 200 going north. "Will you look at that," he said, "Those Iowa people have to lug that boat all the way up here." My brother and I looked at the dummies in the Iowa car as we passed. "They're crazy to get to the water, they"ll even fish in the middle of the day," he said, as if the Iowa Bedouins were so water mad that a school of walleye could toy with them in the noon heat, while my father cooly appeared at dawn and twilight to make the easy Minnesota-savvy kill. He pointed out to us, over and over, the folly of the Iowans and their pathetic pursuit of standing water.

(Patricia Hampl, from A Romantic Education)

While we often lament the homogenization of culture, how a certain sameness permeates our country no matter where we go, I think the drive toward inviduality is irrepressible. Take Patricia Hampl's humorous memory of growing up in Minnesota, for example. Is it any doubt that Minnesotans are way, way different from Iowans, even if they look and act the same to us in the South? It's as if someone referred to "Carolina" as if South and North Carolina are one and the same place. No way. No matter how much the same things are, people and groups, states and cities and towns, even neighborhoods, find ways to differentiate themselves. I think it's creational, and I think it's something we can celebrate in a time when pop culture is so omnipresent, when the same big-box stores and chain restaurants are around every corner. And while there is an ugly side of it that we need avoid, we should rejoice in the good. (Like any good gift of God, this diversity and tendency toward differentiation can be divisive and ugly and perverted.)

Take denominationalism. You are Baptist. I am Presbyterian. Or maybe you like liturgy and historic forms in worship. I like more spontaneous worship. You come to take notes, to learn, and to take away something relevant. I come to praise God, to experience. These things are driven by our personalities, the primary impulse we have when it comes to that organic thing called the Body of Christ and the corporate experience (oops, there's that word) of worship. Really, it's a beautiful thing to see this diversity, and yet we can use it as a divisive thing when pride comes in. Like people from Minnesota thinking the Iowans dumb, we may regard folks in another denomination as misguided or, worse, as heretical. It's not that the differences aren't important or that they need to be smoothed over in niceness, just that we are called to be humble and loving in discussing our differences.

Really, there is a tension here: One impulse we have is to be like one another, to identify with each other, and yet the competing impulse is to differentiate ourselves from each other. We are alike, and yet we are not the same. It makes life interesting.

So what am I really saying? Just this: That people in Iowa may really be stupid to live where they do, but what I want to know is what that says about people who live in Minnesota. (Minnesotans, let me hear from you!)

Thinking Locally, Acting Locally?

TvIn a post entitled "My Village, My Problem," Catherine Claire wonders to what extent being well-informed about the world outside our local community is productive or even biblical. Her thinking on this is prompted by a letter written by C.S. Lewis, where he considers the same question and says, in part, this: "It is one of the evils of rapid diffusion of news that the sorrows of all the world come to us every morning. I think each village was meant to feel pity for its own sick and poor whom it can help and I doubt if it is the duty of any private person to fix his mind on ills which he cannot help. (This may even become an escape from the works of charity we really can do to those we know)" (C.S. Lewis, The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis: Volume II, Letter of Dec. 20, 1946). It's worth considering to what information we need to subject ourselves and to what end.

A year or so ago I read, rather belatedly, the late Neil Postman's critique of televison, particularly network news, entitled Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. His point was that most televsion news was not to inform, but to entertain. We find it titillating. There is little to nothing we can do about what we see and yet we continue to watch, almost voyeuristically. Well, I found myself in agreement. I quit the news. Now when I see it I find it repulsive and annoying. The sensationalistic stories, the cult of personality, the jabbering heads, and the lack of any serious in depth coverage is terrible. Mostly, I do not watch.

Despite its drawbacks and editorial bias, I do read the local newspaper. There are useful articles with some depth at times (I'm not talking about USA Today, which is like TV), and there is local information that I may be able to do something with (like an article about good hikes in the area). I also read Time (which has more in depth coverage than TV news) and World Magazine (for a decidedly and admitted Christian perspective on the news. I do find some things I can pray for this way, and I am helped in an understanding and appreciation of my community and world.

I suppose what I object to is the immediacy of network news, or even internet news. It makes everything seem urgent or important. It may not be. And it certainly may not be something I need to worry about. You know, I can do very little about global warming, whatever its cause. But I can listen to a friend's problem, help a needy family, and pick up trash in the park near our home. That's thinking locally and acting locally.

The Dangers of Presentism

CrossWhen I look back at things I have written, I realize that I have a preoccupation (healthy, I think) with the themes of time, memory, and place. That's why it's pleasing when I discover someone who is thinking in a similar vein.

This happened today with Jill Carattini's "People With a Past," today's devotional from Ravi Zacharias Ministries. She points to the danger of presentism, a word coined by Richard Weaver to refer to the "cultural fixation with the current moment." Such a preoccupation with the present moment and its incident historical amnesia is a dangerous thing. If we forget yesterday we will be doomed to repeat yesterday's mistakes today. We have no context within which to root and test all the information we are bombarded with every day.

Even more shattering for me as a consequence of presentism would be the loss of connection to the past, a personal and cultural history that has shaped who I am. It is a past that can anchor me in the relentless cultural and personal drift that swirls around me. Recently I was trying to remember what it was like not to have a cell phone, a PDA, high-speed internet (for that matter, even a computer), and email. When I began work in my present position about 23 years ago, no attorney had a PC at his or her desk. Briefs were written or dictated. (If you have in mind a secretary perched on the edge of my desk, pen and steno pad in hand, hanging on my every word, scribbling shorthand -- think again. That was before my time!) There was no email. There was no internet (at least not for non-geeks). What in the world did you do with the time, some might say? Well, I recall a great deal more discussion, more collegiality, more lunches out with colleagues, and a generally slower pace existence. And yet it's difficult to put myself psychologically in that place today, to feel what it must have been like. The best approximation is the rare ocassion when there is a natural event, a hurricane, say, that knocks out power, creating a wealth of people time which would have otherwise have been filled with TV, internet, phone calls, and email. For a moment we are forced by circumstances to make do, and we rediscover a feeling we may have forgotten. We realize that things have changed significantly, and yet we don't remember.

All this to say that remembering the past is useful in the present: it may lead us to create and allow space in our lives for silence, conversation, and thoughtfulness. It may also help us not to let the present --- with all its currency --- be a tyrant over our lives. We don't have to heed the call of the present. I think sometimes we forget that.

As Carattini concludes, "For the Christian, history is all the more a sense of hallowed ground, for it is ground where God has walked and our faith is kept. We believe that history resides in the able hands of the one who made us to live within time. We believe that who we are today has everything to do with events we have not seen. And we live as a people called both to remember and to be ready, for we look to the author of the entire story, who was and is and is to come." Be wary of presentism, what C.S. Lewis called "chronological snobbery." Let the past inform the present and make it richer. Be critical of the "new," testing it to discern its value. As Scripture says, "Test everything. Hold on to the good" (1 Th 5:21).

On the Twelfth Day of Christmas: Tweflth Night

Snow_11Fittingly, the last stanza of the song, with its twelve drummers drumming, is symbolic of the twelve points of doctrine found in the Apostles Creed.  Actually, I never counted them, but it appears there are in fact twelve!

I'm stopped short for a moment when I read the very first article of the creed --- "Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth" -- because so much is affirmed in this short phrase.  I like what the Heidelberg Catechism (Q. 26) says about what we mean when we say this: "That the eternal Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who out of nothing created heaven and earth with all that is in them, who also upholds and governs them by his eternal counsel and providence, is for the sake of Christ his Son my God and my Father.  I trust him so completely that I have no doubt that he will provide me with all things necessary for body and soul.  Moreover, whatever evil he sends upon me in this troubled life he will turn to my good, for he is able to do it, being almighty God, and is determined to do it, being a faithful Father."  There's really great truth and warm assurance in that summary of what we confess. 

With that, we come to the end of the 12 days of Christmas, a merry song that might also be a good mnemonic for Christian truths.  For some Christians, tonight is celebrated as the Twelfth Night, the last night before Epiphany, which historically is a celebration of the Visitation of the Magi.  I've always wanted to have a 12th Night party!  It's not to happen this year.  But at least I can remember what great gifts I have been given in faith and celebrate the gift of a New Year.

On the Eleventh Day of Christmas

Snow_10In a time when we can connect with and be a part of a worldwide community of people through the internet (though I doubt such a tenuous connection qualifies one in using the word "community"), it's instructive to note that Jesus spent most of his limited public ministry with a small group of men and a few women.  As the song intimates there were eleven faithful apostles (the eleven pipers piping), as Judas betrayed him.

That this is a good model of ministry has been recognized by many.  One I remember well is that of Robert E. Coleman's Master Plan of Evangelism, first published in 1963, and which is now in its second edition and ninth printing, meaning it must have something to say.  In it Coleman states his premise that Jesus's methods were as much a part of his evangelism as was his message, and he proceeds to detail a method that focused on intensive discipleship of a small group of men as opposed to mass conversions.  Master_plan Coleman said that "[m]ost of the evangelistic efforts of the church begin with the multitudes under the assumption that the church is qualified to preserve what good is done. The result is our spectacular emphasis on numbers of converts, candidates for baptism, and more members for the church, with little or no genuine concern manifested toward the establishment of these souls in the love and power of God, let alone the preservation and continuation of the work."

I doubt there's any serious disagreement with the thrust of what he said, which was a healthy corrective to large scale evangelistic campaigns which tallied up converts and then moved on to their next conquests.  With a Christianity that's a mile wide and an inch thin, not only here but in places like South Korea and Africa where there are many converts and a growing church, his book is worth revisiting.

But I'd go farther than Coleman, or at least farther than his book details.  Christians need discipling not only in spiritual disciplines -- Bible reading and study, prayer, and worship, for example -- and moral instruction, but also in integrating faith and all of life.  That's nothing new, and yet it's not often practiced.  We're put here to "till and keep" the Creation, given a mandate to develop culture with love and zeal for God's glory.  There's a lot of work to do because we spend so much time running from the culture, setting up our own alt-culture, that we fail to do the challenging work of loving the one we're in, of helping restore in some small way the communities, cities, trades, vocations, and institutions we all find ourselves a part of.

That has to be a part of any master plan of evangelism.  What does Jesus say?  "In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven."  Would it not be evangelistic for Christians who have been discipled in a culture-reforming Christianity to so live such that others see us as the ones who will preserve culture?  (It doesn't mean everyone would like us, as some want to destroy a culture built on Christian assumptions about the good, true, and beautiful.)  Maybe we need to leave the church building and spend most of our time with non-Christians, involved with them in our communities.  Scary thought, isn't it?

Coleman's method also seems a good one for a cynical culture, one mistrustful of institutions like the church.  Personal contact and deep community is necessary for the building of the church.  And yet, it's risky.  And it's uncomfortable.  Maybe that's where we (where I) need to be.

On. . . the . . . Tenth. . . Day. . . of . . . Christmas (Are We There Yet?)

Snow_9I have a petty love of perfection.  Having begun something, I feel compelled to finish it.  Tenth day of Christmas?  Bah!  I'm tired of the song and ready to move on.  And yet, maybe that's good.  Maybe it's time to get creative.  Sure, the ten lords-a-leaping are supposed to refer to the Ten Commandments, but there are a lot of other tens out there.

Like Bo Derek.  Dudley Moore thought she was a "10" but found out when he finally met up with her that a "10" isn't necessarily what you think it is, that reality doesn't match the ideal.

Ever wonder why it is we usually count to ten or rank things one to ten? Probably because we have ten toes and ten fingers.  And I'll let you wonder why we have ten of those.

And then there's those words with ten in them, words I'm seeing everywhere, like ten-tative, or ten-t, or ten-drils, or ten-dacious.  It's enough to make you ten-se.

But sticking to scripture, ten proves to be a popular number.  Ten shekels, ten silver coins, ten minas.  Ten days, ten times, ten years.  Ten female donkeys, ten bulls, ten sheep.  Ten loaves, ten cheeses, ten concubines.  Ten basins, ten candlesticks, ten tables, ten lampstands. Ten talents.  Ten is all over the place, almost as popular as three.

10Some people really are quite taken with what might be called Bible numerics.  For example, Andrew Harris says that "[t]en implies completeness of order, nothing lacking and nothing over. It signifies that the cycle is complete and that everything is in its proper order. Thus ten represents the perfection of divine order. "  Hmmm.  Indeed, he has a whole website devoted to such things.  (Ah, poor Aussie spends his time on such ten-der things!  It's a strange world down under.)

As for me, enough of such silliness.  I'm going to bed.  It's ten o'clock, and I've spent ten times too much time twittering on about these tens.  (Alliteration, now that's something worth talking about.  Another day maybe.)

On the Ninth Day of Christmas

Snow_8You know, I just realized: Christmas is way over for the rest of the world and here I am on the ninth day of Christmas.  Oh, what contrarian glee!  Folks, it's not even Epiphany yet!  The candles in the windows are still lit.  Come on now.

The nine ladies dancing of the ninth day are supposed to symbolize the nine gifts of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.  When I think of each of these, I can think of something to do in regard to each, some way I can do something to effectuate the particular fruit in my life.  Self-control?  Bite my tongue.  Don't blurt out what I'm thinking.  Kindness? Take a sick neighbor a meal.  Rake their leaves.  Pick up the groceries the lady dropped in the grocery store.  Hold the door.

But two of these fruits -- joy and peace -- seem different. . . like in that you can't get there from here.  You can't just do something to see these fruit in your life.  You have to aim somewhere else to get the thing you want.

When I think of peace, I think of that oft-cited verse from Philippians 4:6-7: "Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.  And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus."  I used to dislike this verse because I focused on the "Do not be anxious part of it." I could never quite do that.  You can't aim at not worrying.  You just worry!  I found that the best thing I could do was simply to aim at Jesus, to focus on thanking him for what I had.  Then peace will come -- not immediately, perhaps, but sooner or later.  Aim at Jesus and you get peace as a byproduct of that relationship.  To the extent I don't experience that, I'm just imperfect and growing in my trust in God over the circumstances of my life.

Joy is the same way.  Get joy?  How do you do that?  It's not the same as being happy.  You can't just turn it on.  It's something different -- a deep, settled contentment that comes from knowing God.  Again, I think this comes by focusing not on what might make me happy but simply on God.

So what's new about all this?  Absolutely nothing.  But it's  a new year and I want to aim at the right thing, at the right person.  I might just have joy and peace.

On 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-CultureStott lays out the case for a truly counter-cultural community of Christan 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 those these things are a struggle for me.

On the Seventh Day of Christmas

Snow_6. . . my true love gave to me, seven swans-a-swimming.  These alliterative swans are generally taken to symbolize the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit -- prophecy, ministry, teaching, exhortation, giving, leading and compassion (Rom 12:6-8; 1 Cor. 12:8-11).  But there are many sevens in Scripture, and the seven that are more meaningful to me today are the seven "I am" statements by Jesus in John's gospel.

According to Alister McGrath, "there is a direct similarity between the verbal form of these sayings and Exodus 3:14, in Which God reveals himself to Moses as 'I am who I am.'  There thus seems to be an implicit declaration of divinity on the part of Jesus within each of these sayings" (McGrath, in Incarnation).  This renders the almost consistent tendency of people to refer to Jesus as a "great man" (as musician Ben Folds did recently in an interview with Relevant magazine) or great moral teacher as absurd or plain ignorant.  People who go around telling other people that they are God are the butt of jokes or the subject of pity or, in a few cases, the object of fear, as most of them inhabit our mental institutions or are the petty dictators of third-world countries.  They are not great men in any commonly understood way.  While I knew of this gospel writer's concern to establish the divinity of Christ (as in "the Word was God), I had never equated these seven metaphors that  Jesus applied to himself with a claim to divinity.

The seven "I am" sayings are as follows:

6:35             The bread of life
8:12, 9:5    The light of the world
10:7, 9        The gate for the sheep
10:11           The good shepherd
11:25           The resurrection and the life
14:6              The way, the truth, and the life
15:1, 5         The true vine

All of these "I am" sayings point back at the Old Testament acts of God as well as to the acts of Jesus.  For example, when Jesus says he is the bread of life, he points back to the manna that was given the Israelites in the wilderness, the bread supplied by God which sustained them on the journey.  He's saying that when we feed on him, when we draw our life from him, we will never go hungry, that all our spiritual emptiness will be met.  As McGrath says, "We see here again one of the great themes of the New Testament: that God's gracious promises and gifts under the Old Covenant are continued and extended under the New."

I am, I am, I am.  These are powerful statements.  Jesus did not use the indirect simile, but the much more powerful metaphor, to state his identity.  He's saying "I'm your spiritual nourishment, I'm the source of enlightenment, I'm the only way to heaven, I'm the only one who can guide and protect and watch over you and keep you safe, I'm the only one who can give you life here and in eternity and raise you from the dead, I'm the one true path, the one truth, the only place you will be able to grow and be nourished.  People, I am God."  Understood rightly, we'd either worship him or lock him up. 

I can't think of a better seven things to remember here at the cusp of a new year than these seven.  These great "I am" sayings are powerful reminders that God is able to keep us, to preserve us, to remake us.  As I reminded my children today, he has made us a new creation, but He's not finished yet with them or certainly with me.  His recreative activity is constant, as He is remaking me in his image every day.  I'm not destined to repeat my failures of the past year.  Despite evidence to the contrary, people do grow and change.  I can lose 20 pounds, though I didn't last year.  I can grow in my love for my neighbor, though I failed many times at this last year.

If I just abide in Him, he will be my great I AM.  Tomorrow is a new year, a new day, and a new moment.  Take heart: there is hope for us all.  Happy New Year.

On the Sixth Day of Christmas

Snow_5Six days of creation.  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.

On the Fifth Day of Christmas

Snow_4Doubtless there are many Christians who do not spend much time in the Old Testament, who regard it as full of obscure laws and a harsh and scary God who seems unlike the meek and gentle Jesus.  In fact, some would say we now live under grace, not law, and so all those laws have no place in our lives today.  That's a failure to appreciate and make distinctions among the various types of laws which we find in the Old Testament.

The five golden rings of the song are taken as symbolizing the first five books of the Old Testament, known as the Torah or Pentateuch.  And while these books certainly contain historical narrative, they are in fact full of laws -- ceremonial, civil, and moral laws.

The moral law is that which applies at all times and in all places.  Think Ten Commandments.  Murder is always wrong.  So is adultery.  These things don't become right even if a culture says they are right.  Furthermore, these laws are expressions of moral principles that carry in their penumbra more than just just the act proscribed.  Jesus so well expressed their far-reaching implications when, for example, he said that to hate someone is in fact to murder them.  The moral law applies to us all and indicts us all. This law is so embedded in the fabric of creation that many natural law theologians and philosophers can trace its outline in all cultures in all times.  Perhaps.

The civil law is the application of the timeless moral law to a particular cultural and historical context.  While these laws may not be appropriate to our context, they are instructive case law, showing how a particular people, the Israelites, applied a moral principle, and hopefully helping us see how to apply the principle in our own time and place.  Honoring our mother and father, for example, is rooted in the principle of submission to God-instituted authority, but how that might play out in a particular employer-employee relationship might be a matter of prudence, considering the specific context.

Finally, the ceremonial law, all those regulations regarding sacrifice, is truly abolished, now that the perfect sacrifice of the Lamb of God has been made.  These laws are still instructive in helping us better understand the sacrifice made by Jesus.  We don't offer sacrifices for sin anymore; Jesus died once for all sin.

Having said all this, I'm still aware that when I read the Old Testament it is a different experience than reading the New Testament.  God does exercise his justice more readily.  And yet throughout these books of law, I see God's grace, his restoration of his people.  It is, after all, one story told in one book.  Frankly, however, I long for the day when law is so written on our hearts that we need not even think of it.  It will be a part of who we are, as easy as breathing.  Soon.

On the Fourth Day of Christmas

Snow_3Four calling birds.  Four Gospels.  Four testimonies to the same good news that God is reconciling the world to himself.  Four personalities.  Four perspectives.

We have a much "rounder" picture of Jesus with four writers than we would with one writer.  God uses the personalities and particular backgrounds and sensibilities of each of the four writers of the Gospels to present a picture of a royal-servant-shepherd-brother Jesus who defies caricaturization.  He is God.  He is human.

It's interesting just to examine how each writer chooses (under God's superintending grace) to begin.  Eschewing all recommendations on how to begin a book, Matthew begins with a genealogy of Jesus.  A list!  His aim, presumably, is to show that Jesus is the rightful heir to the throne of David, the Ruler of his people, the promised Messiah.  And yet there is Rahab the prostitute in the lineage, affirming the humanity of Jesus as well. 

Mark begins with John the Baptist's baptizing of Jesus the man, ready to begin his public ministry, skipping genealogies and the birth account completely, focusing on the action, much like a journalistic account might.  Just that description of John the Baptist right up front in Chapter One is enough to pique the reader's interest, what with his eating locusts and wild honey and dressing in camel hair clothing with a leather belt.

Luke begins with an assertion that "I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning," with the goal of writing an "orderly account."  And it is.  But it's probably the account where we see the compassion of Christ most fully, a social concern.  It's the only one where we hear about Jesus the boy.  (For a fictional and yet not unbiblical account of Jesus the boy, I suggest reading Anne Rice's Christ the Lord.)

Finally, in John, storytelling wanes and doctrine gains ascendancy.  John begins with the well-known "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God."  It's a statement of fundamental doctrine, of a Trinitarian view, right up front.  Jesus is God.  He is divine.  And yet he is human.  It is John who penned the shortest verse in the New Testament: "Jesus wept" (Jn. 11:35).  Jesus was "deeply moved in spirit and troubled" (Jn. 11:33).  And there is that intriguing ending: "Jesus did many other things as well.  If every one of them was written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written" (Jn. 21:25).  What an odd statement!  It makes you wonder what John left out.  And yet maybe the point is not to prompt us to useless speculation but to enter into and know Jesus ourselves, and in knowing him begin to experience a fuller and deeper knowledge of him than can be communicated in mere words on a page.

I'm thankful for four accounts of one story.  That they don't match up, that each emphasizes different things or contain different details reminds me that this is a real story told by real people about a real Jesus, the Lord.

On the Third Day of Christmas

Snow_2"On the third day of Christmas, my true love gave to me, three French hens. . . ."  It's unfortunate that the three could not have been more intelligent birds, as hens (I testify from experience) seem to be the dolts of bird-dom.  These three are said to signify the trilogy of theological virtues the Apostle Paul refers to in 1 Cor. 13:13 and elsewhere.  However, I much prefer commentator John Gill's description of them as the three theological "graces," signifying that they are imparted by God in his regeneration of us and not the product of our work.  Maybe it is a reminder that it is grace that we have three dumb and not intelligent birds to remind us of the three graces!

Having said so, I don't mean to imply that the graces are fully-realized.  As Gill says, "faith may droop and hang its wing, hope may not be lively, and love may wax cold, but neither of them can be lost."  Thank God for grace as I'm not much good at realizing the virtues on my own and left to myself would falter in faith, lose hope, and love only when it paid off for me (which is no love at all.)  Undoubtedly you've experienced what I have commonly recognized -- that my faith is impure, tainted by doubt; my hope ephemeral, and plagued now and then by doubts; and my love exercised with mixed motivations, always self-serving to some degree.  Thank God for his grace.

Paul also says that the greatest of the three is love.  Gill says that this is because love is more durable, that is, it will endure for eternity.  In essence, love was present in the Trinity prior to Creation and will continue throughout eternity.  God is love.  In addition, while faith and hope well serve us as individuals, through love we serve others -- so love is, as Gill perhaps unfortunately says, more "useful" -- unfortunate in that the word has a pragmatic emphasis.  Better to say that love is fundamentally other-centered and, so, more fruitful. So what happens to faith and hope in heaven?  Gills says that "in the other world, faith will be changed for vision, and hope for enjoyment, but love will abide, and be in its full perfection and constant exercise, to all eternity."

Today, be thankful for the three graces, and spend them wisely.

The Second Day of Christmas

Snow_1"On the second day of Christmas, my true love gave to me, two turtle doves. . ."  As the lone partridge represents Jesus Christ, who is at the center of Christmas, the two turtle doves are said to represent the Old and New Testaments, the two books of the Bible which together represent God's self-revelation in space and time.  It seems to me that there are two things to note here.

First, there is the obvious and yet not so widely accepted view that the two testaments are in fact God's revelation and not simply the creation of men who took disparate records of legend and fact and concocted a story to their liking.  Orthodox believers hold that the words of scripture were superintended by God, that is, not dictated and transcribed but filtered through the personalities and perspectives of the various authors and yet in such a way that the end result is objectively true and without error in its original form (and without any significant or meaningful error) in their translations.    This time of year, as at Easter, there are always a few documentaries on television and books on the shelves which seek to shed light on the "historical Jesus."  They all generally begin from an assumption that supernatural events cannot occur.  That being the case, they end up, not surprisingly, where they began, by concluding that the Incarnation was really just a normal human birth, after all.  To the contrary, Christians believe that God can act in history in a supernatural way and, thus, the evidence (and there is evidence) leads to the conclusion that Jesus was God enfleshed, the one to whom the testaments testify.  There are innumerable books to read on this, but I might suggest Alistar McGrath's Incarnation which, though not a full apologetic for the Incarnation, sheds light on its meaning for us -- in prose and poetry, and accompanied by fine art.  The Incarnation has never been disproven, just disbelieved.

Second, the relation between the two testaments is not a matter to be too dogmatic on.  Orthodox Christians differ in the degree of continuity and discontinuity that they see between the two testaments.  There are the severest Dispensationalists, who insist that practically everything in the Old Testament is now dispensed with by the New Covenant, the law of love, and is a mere shadow of what we now enjoy.  Then there are Reformed Christians who see much more continuity between the Testaments, distinguishing between the moral law (which continues), the civil law (which is instructive in its application of moral law to a particular cultural context and so suggestive to our applications in our cultural context), and the ceremonial law (which is abolished but remains instructive in its shadowing of Christ).  It's a difficult subject, and one worth studying. 

For me, the best thing to remember is that this is ultimately one story which unfolds in two books, the main character always present and yet shadowed in the one, and then center stage in the latter.  God created.  Man turned from God.  God  redeemed.  God restores.  The grand themes are ever present in both testaments.  Two turtle doves, one partridge, one song.

On 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 today and going on until January 6th.  And yet the culture around me provides no encouragement.  Tomorrow is a big shopping day -- sales and returns.  For most folks Christmas is over.  Even school begins for my children on January 3rd.  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.  The evidence for that is inconclusive.  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 today, the one who watches over us, sheltering us under his wings. (Lk. 13:34).  Merry Christmas.

Loving Things (And Letting Go of Mathoms)

PossessionsI've been urging myself and my children to do a bit of cleaning in anticipation of the given fact that some new items, things that take up space and attention, will be entering our home this Christmas.  I look around and realize that there are many unused items here in our home, and yet those that were gifts are difficult to give away.  There is some guilt associated with that.  We have a relative who we believe has actually given us back a gift we gave to her several years ago.  That's the concern about regifting -- who actually gave us this thing we have no need for?

As writer Jill Carratini reminds us, there's a name J.R.R. Tolkien coined for such items in his story, The Hobbit.  "Anything that Hobbits had no immediate use for, but were unwilling to throw away, they called a mathom," writes Tolkien. "Their dwellings were apt to become rather crowded with mathoms, and many of the presents that passed from hand to hand were of that sort."  A couple of years ago we had a house fire that conveniently took out our attic, dispossessing us of many, many mathoms in the process.  I would not recommend that method.

With all the buying going on this time of year, it's useful to consider why we buy things and, thus, why we end up with so much mathom.  It's probably not too much to say that when we cannot let go of things it is a form of idolatry.  Somehow these items make us feel important and become a part of our identity.  When I look up and see the CDs or books lining my shelves, I realize that part of why I keep them is that they have become a part of who I am, and to lose them might be to lose a part of myself.  If that sounds silly, try giving away some things.  You may be free of this propensity.  Perhaps it's not a problem for you just the way it's not a problem for my daughter.  She has very few possessions and little attachment to the ones she does have.  I could clean her room out, taking every toy, book, and article of clothing, and it would barely faze her.  But in my sons room piles of books are stacked up around the room, electronic equipment is everywhere, old toys, tools,, clothing, games, and more.  It's quite a contrast.

But then there's good side to every tendency.  Books are a part of who I am.  There are stories that have deeply effected me and continue to nourish me -- not like Scripture, of course, but in significant ways nonetheless.  And music.  Well, music is like blood to me. To hear some songs is to conjure up feelings, time periods, places, and people that are all a part of who I am.  We don't exist in some free-floating way.  We are embedded, rooted, tethered to the soil, to place, to our habits, hobbies, families, and friends.  This is where we live.  Love it, but don't worship it.

Yes, I need to give some mathoms away, but  need to keep things that matter.  I love them. They are part of me.  I need to treasure them, but not store up treasures on earth.  (God did say He loved the world (a/k/a cosmos, didn't He?  And so should I.)  But let someone else love the mathom.

A Good Christmas Appeal

LettersEvery year in December, I receive innumerable letters from Christian organizations appealing for funds.  Most are summaries of their important activities, informative yet not always very provocative reading in and of themselves.  Others pull at emotional heartstrings or hot-button social/moral issues, and these are particularly demeaning in their approach; they are there to elicit knee-jerk responses, not thoughtful considerations of where to give scarce funds.

However, one letter which I receive I read in its entirety and regard as a gift to me.  Ken Myers, of Mars Hills Audio, writes a fund-raising letter the way it should be written.  There is no appeal to sentiment or emotion but, rather, a mini-essay on what it means to be faithful culturally, as in how to live and behave as a Christian in all realms of life.  In so doing, Ken indirectly tells us about Mars Hill Audio, because that's essentially what they do through their monthly program of commentary and interview.  Only at the end does he plainly and honestly ask us to consider giving, and by then our minds are stirred and we are almost ready to send a gift just as a thank you for the wonderfully encouraging letter we just read.  Well, that's how to appeal for funds.  He's got me.  And yet he'd be the first to tell me to prayerfully and thoughtfully consider when and to whom to give, all as a matter of faithfulness.

This month's letter takes issue with those Christians and Christian ministries who urge us to strategically target the influential as a way to change society, or to make the gospel attractive as way to gain the world's admiration.  Quoting Eugene Peterson, he notes that the practice of targeting influential leaders is not a practice backed by biblical precedent.  As Myers says:

"Faithfulness to the Lord of all Creation is cultural faithfulness; it is faithfulness in every realm of human experience, from science to sports, from making movies to making babies, from how we build relationships to how we relate to buildings.  Following Christ is a matter first of inner transformation, and then of living faithfully in accord with the order of Creation as he made and is redeeming it, in all of our cultural convictions and practices concerning a host of abstractions and concrete realities: food, sex, time, music, history, language, technology, family, justice, beauty, agriculture, and community."

Along the way, I become acquainted with a sonnet, "Annunciation," by John Donne, am treated to a summary of pithy comments by Eugene Peterson, a very good writer and thinker, read a quote from J. Gresham Machen from a 1912 Princeton address on "Christianity and Culture," and am prompted to find and listen to an unknown and not likely widely known fifteenth-century English carol entitled "I Sing of a Maiden."  Well, it's like a full meal in a four-page letter.

Perhaps I exaggerate the degree to which I am impacted by the letter, but forgive me as I'm "in the moment."  I can't, however, exaggerate the effect steady listening to the Mars Hill Audio Mha_logo programs has done for me.  I recommend them.  Read the letter here.  Sign up for a trial CD or MP3 program here.  You'll have a more thoughtful 2007.

The Happy-Sad in Christmas

SadI know that I have a penchant for the bittersweet.  Riding in the car tonight with my family, I was playing a CD containing a selection of Christmas songs.  On came John Lennon's "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)" and my son, who hates any sad song, said what kind of Christmas song is that, when Lennon delivers that first line in that weary voice "And so this is Christmas, and what have we done. . .," what kind of song is that anyway?  Christmas is supposed to be a happy occasion, right?

Well, it is, and it isn't.  And as I tell him, it's not about happiness, anyway, an enjoyable yet ephemeral state, but but about something deeper.  That something would be joy, and sorrow is so often intertwines with joy.  Jesus comes, and yet looking forward, we see that he has come to die.  We experience the absolute joy of freedom from the curse of sin, and yet we know it was bought at a price.  Out on a walk in the woods, we know the beauty of creation, and yet we know that death and decay are all around us, that things are winding down.  We rejoice in the hope of resurrection and the restoration of all things once and for ever and ever, and yet we know that much sorrow and hardship will occur before that time.

Almost 15 years ago, now, my wife and I were riding around the small town of Lebanon, Oregon, with fog and rain, away from home at Christmas and among strangers, feeling so lonely and dispossessed.  There was song on the car CD player, Bob Bennett's "Here on Bright Avenue," with the lines "If those who sow in tears/ will reap in joy somehow/ then surely I am watering/ my fields of future now."  In his sadness, Bennett is musing on the promise of Psalm 126:5, that "those who sow in tears will reap with songs of joy."  And it reminded me then, and now, that hope hides in darkness, that deep and true joy is bound up with sorrow.  Because of this, I can't dismiss sad Christmas songs, provided the sadness ultimately points to something deeper, something that God will do.

For some people, Christmas is just blue, and all they can do is preoccupy their minds with the  distractions of buying, partying, and fleeting holiday cheer.  But for Christians, the deep sadness we know and perhaps feel points beyond itself to something deeper.  Joy --- to, and for, the world.

Chesterton, Again

Chesterton1smallG.K. Chesterton has to be one of the most quotable people that every existed.  You can almost put your finger down at any place in any of his many books, essays, and other writings and come up with a pithy, witty, meaningful quip.  So I was pleased to discover that not only are there many sites devoted to Chesterton, but there is an entire site of just his quotes here.

His quotes range from the simply witty ("Misers get up early in the morning; and burglars, I am informed, get up the night before") to the profound ("Women are the only realists; their whole object in life is to pit their realism against the extravagant, excessive, and occasionally drunken idealism of men") to thoughtful truisms ( "The riddles of God are more satisfying than the solutions of man.")  In fact, I admit it: I like to quote Chesterton more than I like to read him, as I find him tedious going sometimes.  In fact, he's tedious tonight, so I'll just leave you here with a quote that urban planners should heed:  "Some people leave money for the improvement of public buildings. I can leave dynamite for the improvement of public buildings."  Given that, I'm sure he'd have something to say about the faddishness of the roundabout in traffic planning.  In fact, he's probably already said it!

Sensible Fairy Tales

Grimms"I left the fairy tales lying on the floor of the nursery, and I have not found any books so sensible yet."  (G.K. Chesterton, in Orthodoxy)

As a child one of my favorite books was Grimm's Fairy Tales.  The bookcase in our den had a large green hardback version with a magical sort of figure etched into the cover.  It was well-used, as when I started reading it at about seven or eight, the binding was already in poor shape.  I treasured it, carrying it to my room where I lay on the floor by the window and pored over its short stories.  I almost believed them.  Well, maybe sometimes I did believe them, or at least I believed that they could have been true.  Wolves might have talked, but don't.  There could be dwarves, but aren't (at least not the seven dwarves kind).  Stories that struck me as utterly believable then, as quite sensible, now seem preposterous seen from an adult perspective.  And yet, like Chesterton, next to the one outrageous and preposterous Story that we Christians hold to, they seem very, very sensible.

What Chesterton observes is that in contrast to the modern world's scientific fatalism -- the sense that "everything is as it must always have been" -- fairy tales reminded him that the "facts" of existence are really miraculous and willful, things that could have been different but are not, occurrences like sunsets that repeat themselves perhaps not because of some impersonal and deterministic dynamic but because a Being willed it, because a Being even enjoyed it.  This Being could have things be this way or that, repeat or not repeat.  And so things are as they are -- grass is green and sky is blue -- by choice.  In this sense, fairy tales remind us of the wild possibilities for the world.  Things could have been different; that they are as they are is a miracle and a delight.

The Gospel is the fairy tale of all fairy tales.  It is a story that no materialist can believe.  When people come back from the dead, the scientist or materialist chalks it up to fantasy.  And it is. . . fantastic that is.  But like C.S. Lewis said, the Gospel is the true myth.  And we might just as well say it's the true fairy tale.

At Christmas, I like to think I'm living inside a beautiful dream or an unfolding drama or a grand fairy tale that's true.  It's miraculous.  A transcendent Being, the one who dreamed it all up, wrote himself into the human drama, taking the modest form of a baby, spending most of his life making furniture and helping build houses for folks and then getting himself killed and coming back from the dead to walk around and eat and talk like a normal person.  That's a fairy tale.  It didn't have to happen that way.  Only it did -- by choice.

God's Fairy Tale.  If I didn't own the book already, I'd buy it.

Vocations, and Occupations (II)

Manyelling"The kind of work God usually calls you to is the kind of work (a) that you need to do and (b) that the world needs to have done. . . . The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet."  (Frederick Buechner, in Beyond Words)

If so, if Buechner is right, then perhaps I missed it.  Perhaps many of us have.  Or maybe, living under the curse, not all of us or even many of us can be fully employed in our calling but must simply have jobs to provide for ourselves, our families, and the work of our church and, as Mary Oliver said, keep as our vocation that thing which makes us happy, where we feel God's pleasure, where we have deep gladness.

And what about deep hunger?  What does the world hunger for?  Truth and meaning might be one thing - as sense that life has a deeper significance or that I have meaning.  Or maybe justice -- as sense that good will be rewarded and wrongdoing punished.  And relationship -- that I might be understood, appreciated, even loved.  Vocationally, these longings should be in my sights and I need to be asking about the thing I seem to love how the doing of that thing will, by God's grace, meet some deep hunger.

I have to remind myself that the "job" is significant because it is God's provision for me and others, if nothing else.  But vocation -- that's where I must focus.  That's the summons that should not be disregarded.  In lawsuits, when you don;t heed the summons you get held in contempt or suffer judgment by default.  I'd like to avoid that.  I'd like to show up, heed the call, and see what happens.  Wouldn't you?

Vocations, and Occupations

Audience"This I have always known --- that if I did not live my life immersed in the one activity which suits me, and which also, to tell the truth, keeps me utterly happy and intrigued, I would come someday to bitter and moral regret."  (Mary Oliver, in A Poetry Handbook)

Elsewhere, Mary Oliver notes that "[o]f necessity I worked for many years at many occupations.  None of them, in keeping with my promise, was interesting."  Her point is that she determined early in life not to spend her energy on but the one thing that was her calling, that is, the thing that kept her "utterly happy and intrigued," and while she often had to work at something to pay the bills and live, it was never anything interesting, by choice, as she wanted to save her energy for the one thing to which she was called.  Another word for that one thing, in the richest understanding of the word, is vocation. 

Vocation has lost much of the divinely imbued meaning it once had, but the dictionary still captures some of this richer sense.  The American Heritage Dictionary has as one of its definitions this:  "An inclination, as if in response to a summons, to undertake a certain kind of work, especially a religious career."  We could add that understood this way, all proper vocations are religious careers, in that they are followed in response to God's call, even if unacknowledged.  In a legal context, we ignore summons to our peril; similarly, to ignore a calling has perilous consequences  -- boredom, frustration, and fruitlessness, for starters.  Sometimes we ignore calling because we are afraid; other times, out of pride.  We might fail, we might not make any money, it might not be viewed as an appropriate or suitable career path, it is not a vocation well-rewarded in this culture, and so on.

I think Mary Oliver had it right.  Don't fritter away time and attention on uninteresting or mildly interesting work.  Focus on the one thing where, in the doing of it, to use Eric Liddel's words, you "feel God's pleasure."  Then, if need be, do something uninteresting or even menial, something not requiring great mental energy, something that comes easy, to make money and support yourself and your family.  Don't malign that "job," but be grateful you have it and, yet, don't treat it as a calling. 

Heed the summons.  Show up every day at your vocation, even if it's just pen and paper (or the digital equivalent).  If it's your calling, it may not be easy, and you may not get rich or make any money (hence, the other "job"), but you can't lose when you're in the place where God calls you, can you?

So, what am I waiting for?

Making New Words For Timeless Truths

Alpha2The language of faith can become dry and lifeless by it's overuse and inattentive use over time.  I suspect that many of the words we take for granted in the vocabulary of faith are like that.  We fail to see their radical import, even their offense; because they have been used so much they have lost their original meaning.  Several years ago I was having a discussion with a friend -- a long, long discussion over many months -- regarding the church as an institution.  I cannot do justice to his concerns or, perhaps, his critique, but I know that part of it was the hypocrisy of church, and a part of that was the words we use so freely.  One day, I said look, if you don't like the words, make some new ones.  Make your own.  I said it like this, a part of a longer prose poem I wrote for my friend and, ultimately, for me:

Yes, yes, I know the words
those people use,
But let's make new words.
Let me do it.
Let me try it.
Let me tell the Story in my words,
in my story.
Let me jot it down,
make a note,
hold it in my memory:
my holy writ,
an alphabet of grace,
my invitation,

to a place called Home,
so familiar
so unknown
the place that scares you deep inside
like new Love.

And that's just a bit of that discussion, but an important piece of it.  That's why today's devotional from Ravi Zacharias Ministries, called "Many, Many Words," by Betsy Childs, resonated with me and brought back a memory of that long conversation.  Childs addresses the growth of euphemisms, which are vague and mild expressions which are substituted over time for ones which seem to be blunt or offensive.  The "euphemism treadmill" is "the process by which, over time, a common euphemism becomes so identified with the word it has replaced that it loses any power to shield from offense."  She says that the problem is that many of our words of faith have become euphemisms and, thus, have lost their rich meaning.  She says that many of the words we employ familiarly in the conversation of our faith actually signify "fearsome, unsettling spiritual realities."  But you'd never know it.

The answer to this treadmill?  I've already said it.  Make new words.  Recast the faith in fresh language that conveys the power of the text and, thus, of the spiritual reality.  And failing that, understand what you are saying when you use a familiar word.  Appreciate the brashness of the language of scripture.  When we sing "our God is an awesome God," let's consider that if we are awed by God we have a healthy fear of Him, because He is fearsome.  He is not just cool (which is how the word is often used nowadays.) 

Listen to what you say.  Find some new words for the alphabet of grace.

Poems That Endure; People That Endure

"There has to be some overwhelming experience of love, or of something, that the poem chronicles or records. It cannot be the subject of that love. If it's only that, if it's only language, then the poem is not going to survive. Poems that survive are the ones that come out of human beings who've had some expeience that needs to be testified to or recorded or given body. They are not just pleasing in themselves. We need to be able to master and explore and mine the nature of language itself, but it's the degree to which the poem is more than that which gives you real art. Some previous, wordless experience is being given a verbal equivalent. This is what I am looking for: poetry that lets the wordless original experience shine through the words."

(Franz Wright, in "A Conversation With Franz Wright, Image, #51)

Reading this interview with the poet Franz Wright will make you thankful, not envious of a "gift"for language which has caused him as much pain as it has caused him bliss.  Winner of many honors, including the Pulitzer Prize, Wright spent years as an alcoholic, a manic depressive, and in all manners of self-abusive behavior -- before becoming a Christian and being baptized in the Catholic Church.  Thank God.  He is, by his own admission, still a rough character, but he has been changed by Love.  If I had met him on the street several years ago, he would have looked like a scary, deranged homeless person.  (He said that, not me!)  I would not have known he was a brother in Christ on his way to realizing this for himself.  I suspect I would have been on my way as quickly as I could.

I thought of this today, in near isolation, in 18 degree bitter cold on the top of Roan Mountain, near the Tennesse-North Carolina line, when two men asked for a ride down the mountain with my family.  Two strangers. I let them in.  The older one said "Up here we're backpackers; in the city we're homeless people."  That was a curious thing to say.  We remembered the admonition that we are not to "forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some people have entertained angels without knowing it" (Heb.13:3).

They could have been angels, they could have been like Franz Wright, or they could have been just plain backpackers. But one thing is for sure: I don't know how to heed that Scripture without some risk.

The priest who helped Franz Wright said he was scared of the guy at first.  I'll bet he was.  I was a little scared too - now that I think about it.