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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Hope Among Loss

At lunch today, between bites of salad and over the din of what must have been 25 children in Chick-Fil-A, I was reading the penultimate chapter of Margaret Lazarus Dean’s Leaving Orbit: Notes From the Last Days of American Spaceflight.  Dean, likely in her early Forties, was writing about the landing of the last shuttle, the shuttle Atlantis.  Having finnangled a press badge, she was as close as any member of the public gets to such a landing, taking it all in, knee-deep in cordgrass, lacking insect repellant.  I wish I had been there for the two sonic booms that preceded the landing, quieter than a 747 jet, only its movement through the wind to create sound.  I wish I had been there as its oversize mass swept through the humid night sky to land, rolling until the words “wheel stop.”

Driving back to my office, I turned down a little used street, pulled to the side of the road, and idled there.  I had a few minutes.  I began reading again, captivated by this story of loss.  Dean joined some of the few members of the media that returned to watch Atlantis and, sentimentalist that I am, I tear up, like her, at the sight:  “As Atlantis comes near enough that we can make out details, we see that people are walking alongside it, men and women, wearing work clothes and jeans.  They walk slowly and reverentially, pallbearers, and though I know from reading that this tow back is always done slowly, today it seems intentional that they move as slowly as a funeral possession.”  And then she says that one person begins clapping, and then another, and then the most hardened, cynical journalists began clapping that hand-stinging kind of clap, hands overhead.  The walkers, she says “are not chatting, not smiling or drifting off thinking about what they are going to do after work or what to make for dinner.  The face straight ahead, their expressions solemn.”Even my vision clouded as I thought about the loss, about the end of an era.  Sitting there in a center of hip uptown, I wondered if anyone cared, if anyone here, many of whom were kids when Atlantis landed, even remembered or knew.  

Dean turns this into a meditation on greater loss.  Reflecting later on Apollo 11, the pinnacle of spaceflight, on Norman Mailer, a writer who witnessed it, she says “What he saw was a moment that felt like it was going to be the start of a whole new era.  I have never really tried to imagine what it would be like to be inside that moment, the sixties’ optimism that my parents’ generation is always trying to make people younger than themselves understand, not yet ground down into a cliche but a real palpable hope, an actual optimism that here, now, people could be different.”  And then the kick in the gut: “For as long as I’ve been alive that idea has been demonstrably false.”  And that, I suppose, is what washes over me, the sense of loss and the mourning over the human condition, and I can tick off the losses, the way the world has gone wrong, the way history repeats itself.

Blessed are those who mourn, says Jesus, for they shall be comforted.  I imagine for a moment, idling, stuck in between loss and gain, a God who works in unseen places to undo the curse, to set things right, maybe to even take us to the stars.  I think about men and women that still move among the echoing spaces of the Vehicle Assembly Building, in labs at NASA Ames, in cubicles at Goddard and Langley and JPL, who do their jobs and wait and hope against hope that something new will happen again, that men and women will again take to the skies.  It’s happened before.  I close the book, put the car in drive, and drive on.  There’s work to do.  I need to be about it.

Guardian of the Galaxy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One Last Serenade

While there is no respite like a cold, air-conditioned home on a sweltering day, and no dearth of thankfulness for conditioned air, still there is something lost.  As with every technological innovation, for every two steps forward, there is a least one step back, a loss in the gain.

In 1962, when I was four, my family moved into a new home in the growing suburbs, a home which came with no air conditioning.  That soon changed.  A relative installed a fascinating (remember, I am four, a time when all things but bedtime fascinate) and oversized if underpowered machine under our outdoor steps that whirred loudly into service in the heat of Summer.  Life changed.  Windows were shut, screens made obsolete, and a new kind of quiet descended on our home.  It was the day we unplugged nature and turned inward.

We were fortunate but still in the minority.  My research reveals that families in the South made do by sleeping on the porch or even putting their underwear in the icebox.  (I don’t ever, ever recall doing anything of the sort with my underwear and would have been shocked to open our freezer and see such unmentionables there among the Kool-Aid popsicles.)  By 2007, however, the number was 86 percent.  As cool air spread across the country, Sun Belt cities that had been unbearable in the summer became more attractive places to live and work, facilitating a long-term shift in U.S. population.  Office workers became more productive.  The Summer blockbuster was born as people flocked to the cool of theaters, air conditioned as early as the 1930s.  I still recall reading a pre-1984 article from the sadly down defunct American Heritage magazine which surveyed the massive social revolution caused by air conditioning, almost as great as that of electricity, and the impact of what I read has remained attached to my brain when so many other articles and bits of information have been lost.

But something is lost.  Reading and then writing this afternoon, I was suddenly chilled and missing heat and sound. I  stepped out on the patio and into the near 100 degree temperature and settled into a chair, into air that lacked the sterility of the conditioned air of our home, felt the sun on my skin, and, in a few moments, my skin’s response by forming tiny beads of water, its natural air conditioning.  I’m also enveloped by sound, whether the cawing of crows overhead and tweets and whistles of wrens, tufted titmouses (love to say their name), and chickadees, the drone of an airplane or the muffled sound of traffic, the whine of a lawn mower, or, ever more subtly, the wind caressing the trees that sometimes creak as if to signal the wooden limbs of age.  In the house I am insulated from all this, kept in silence, antiseptic and unreal.

My wife grew up in a large high ceilinged home that had no air conditioning.  In the Summer, oscillating fans whirred and sang one to sleep.  The questions of owls and sticky cool of cross-ventilating breezes, the lonesome sound of a single car stopping and starting from the stop sign, the distant and faint sound of a train, the soft splash of rain on shingles — all were a part of a nighttime serenade.  Serenade.  The word is more suitable than I thought. “A complimentary performance of vocal or instrumental music in the open air at night, as by a lover under the window of his lady,” says my dictionary. And what is that but the wooing of a Creator who made it all and sent it all through an open window to stir our souls?  Air conditioning, for all it comfort, cuts us off from that voice, dulls our hearing.

Once I was picking my daughter up from camp in Missouri.  Entering the camp, I could not have imagined sleeping in the non-air conditioned cabins in the sticky Ozark air, lying in a pool of sweat, wakeful and homesick.  Leaving camp, with windows rolled up and cold air blasting, she rolled down the window and stuck her head out.  Incredulous, I said “Roll that up. You’re letting the cold air out.” She called back, “I will in a minute.  I want to smell the camp air one last time.”  One last serenade.

Fly You to the Moon

In Rocketmen: The Epic Story of the First Men On the Moon, Craig Nelson recounts an experience which Apollo 11 Communications Chief Ed Fendell had after Neil Armstrong had taken that "small step" onto the surface of the moon. In the aftermath, Fendell went home, slept a couple hours and headed back to Johnson Space Center, to Mission Control. Stopping at a Dutch Kettle to eat some breakfast, he overheard two older men, gas station attendants, talking about the moon landing: "One of them says to the other, he said,'You know, I went all through World War II. I landed at Normandy on D-Day.' And he said, 'It was an incredible day, an incredible life, and I went all the way through Paris and on into Berlin,' whatever the heck he was talking about. He said, 'But yesterday was the day I felt proudest to be an American.' Well, when he said that, I lost it. It all of a sudden hit me as to what we had done, you know. And I just threw my money down, grabbed my paper, and walked out and got in the car and started to cry."

Reading that tears came to my eyes too. When Fendell was crying in his car, I was ten and likely asleep in bed, the full gravity of the moment lost on me, though I do recall our family gathered around a 9 inch black and white Zenith TV watching a man on the moon. But reading about it now, I have the greatest admiration for men who with razor-sharp focus and dogged determination did what John F. Kennedy called for: a man on the moon.

But I was ten and my world was bounded by a few backyards, maybe a neighborhood, as far as my bike could go or was allowed to go. I went to school, watched Gilligans Island, played Capture the Flag, bothered my sisters, and generally grew up, and the space program was relegated to the periphery of my vision (perhaps for good reason, as I would have made a lousy engineer and even worse astronaut). God gave me smaller dreams. But to some He gives big dreams. I have met a few of them. They are passionate, focused, and at times obsessed. And not always very good at much else. But they can fly you to the moon. They can do that.




The Weight We Share

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

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

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

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

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

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



The Woman Behind HeLa: A Review of "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks," by Rebecca Skloot

Lscks Though she may be a science writer, author Rebecca Skloot has a gift for taking esoteric topics over which non-scientists' eyes may glaze and writing about them in a winsome, broadly accessible, and humanizing way.  Her first full-length book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, is no exception. Part science, history, biography, and race relations study, Skloots' meticulously researched topic --- the medical and human legacy of a cancerous cell line taken from a poor African-American woman without her knowledge or consent --- is put in the context of its time, illuminating the issues and lives swirling around this seemingly inconsequential event that had enormous positive ramifications for medicine, and yet one which caused such difficulties for the family of Henrietta Lacks.

For those who don't know (which likely includes most of us), the cancerous tissue taken from Henrietta Lacks in 1951 by doctors at Johns Hopkins led to the famous and ubiquitous HeLa cell line.  From that cell line  --- which, unlike most normal cells, continues to thrive and divide and multiply even to this day (hence, its "immortality") --- mind-blowing medical advances have been made, including cancer treatments, breakthroughs in gene mapping, cloning, and fertility, and yet the world until recently knew next to nothing about the woman who gave us these cells.  Worse yet, her own family --- tobacco sharecroppers and then Baltimore factory workers --- had little idea of what their mother gave the world.  To the extent they did, their knowledge was incomplete, mired in confusion, and eclipsed by their own difficulties.  And when multi-billion dollar businesses began to profit off the HeLa cell line, they wondered why they had so little and struggled so much as well as why their mother, sister, and grandmother was so unknown to the world when so much money was being made off her.

According to Skloot, she became intrigued by Henrietta Lacks when she heard her name in a college-level biology class she took when she was 16.  She wanted the back-story, one no one seemed able to provide.  After college she picked up the story in a decade-long study that reads almost like an anthropological participant-observer study.  Skloot herself becomes a character in the story, writing about how she researched the book, how she met the Lacks family, and all her many interactions with them, both good and bad.  It truly is an anthropological study, in that the background and culture from which Skloot came --- educated, white, and nonreligious --- is far removed from that of the Lacks --- poor, undereducated, and religious.  Part of the beauty of the book is watching the two peoples interact and begin to trust and, in a real sense, grow to love each other.

For writers, other pleasures abound.  First, there is simply the evident work ethic embraced by the author.  The time, personal involvement, and attention to detail over the better part of a decade evidence her commitment.  Writing is not easy, but it can be rewarding.  We can better savor the meal when we appreciate the ingredients and labor that went into it.  Another pleasure is hearing the Lacks family members speak in their own words, in their dialect, something they requested and a request the author adhered to, all to the good as it lends the book credibility in its honesty and human warmth.  Science is one thing.  These are real people.  As was Henrietta Lacks.  And while Skloot provides plenty of detail about her sources, enough to serve as a primer on how to go about researching such a book, it's tucked away in an endnote, not cluttering up a flowing, almost novel-like tale.

Christians may find particular delight in watching the author, a self-described nonreligious person who never prayed, interact with a sin-wracked and struggling and yet often deeply religious family.  The strangeness of religious experience is never more evident than in this passage, when one of Henrietta's sons, Gary, ministers to his overwrought and hysterical sister, Deborah, while Skloot is watching the loud preaching, praying, singing, and weeping:

I'd been watching all this from a recliner a few feet away, dumbfounded, terrified to move or make noise, frantically scribbling notes.  In any other circumstance I might have thought the whole thing crazy.  But what was happening between Gary and Deborah at that moment was the furthest thing from crazy I'd seen all day.  As I watched, all I could think was, Oh my god. . . I did this to her.

And then Gary came for Rebecca Skloot.

This story moves you, educates you, and humanizes you, like all great stories should.  And while the policy issues surrounding use of tissues, both the nature of consent and who should profit, are important, at the heart of this book is the story of its people.  For that reason alone, you should read it.

The Mixed Legacy of Air Conditioning

air When I picked up my daughter from camp in the Ozark Mountains of southwestern Missouri today, she did not complain about the lack of air conditioning and over 90 degree weather of the past two weeks.  However, after a three hour closing program in the heat, I eagerly climbed into the car, rolled up the windows, and hit the “Maximum AC” button.  The cool air flowed and I began to breathe again.  Then my daughter rolled her window down and I felt the blast of hot air circulate through the car.  I asked her if she felt OK, did she need air, and she said she was fine, that she “just needed some Missouri air.”

My daughter had gotten used to life without conditioned air, could smell the difference in the air, enjoyed the feel of natural air, even hot air.  I had a picture of her come to mind, lying in her bunk, sweating at first, the night still hot, then as her body cooled, actually getting cold under the fan, listening to cicadas, to the breeze in the trees, to raindrops on the roof, smelling that musty smell of old wood, wet clothes, and insufficiently washed campers.  I know she loved it all.  She was simply taking in a last breath of it before returning to the air conditioned world of civilization.

I don’t really remember a time without air conditioning.  When we moved into a new home in 1962, when I was four, we put in central air.  Since then it has been a fixture of my life.  My wife grew up differently.  She lived in an older home with no air conditioning.  It had high ceilings, large windows, and a canopy of old oak and maple trees shading it. If on occasion it was uncomfortable in the Summer, having lived there for a while myself, there is still something I miss about it.  Part of living in that house was the sense of connection with the world outside.  With the windows open at night, we took in the noises of the neighborhood outside, both the human and non-human.  We felt the seasons change.  And if we were in a troubled season of our own, there was a comforting constancy about the sounds of traffic passing by, cicadas that always sang, birds that woke us with their morning chatter, trees that creaked in the wind, a steady rain with the sometimes gush sometimes drip of water in the downspouts.  We were a part of something greater than ourselves, something larger than the environment we had made for ourselves.

I had forgotten how much air conditioning changed our lives.  I had particularly forgotten how this technology has both positive and negative impacts on us.  A 2005 article in American Heritage Magazine lamented the mixed results brought by the widespread use of air conditioning, noting that while business productivity increased, “[p]orch culture in rural areas, and stoop and street culture in the cities, declined as Americans chose to stay indoors and watch television instead.”  Forced outside for the sake of cool air, we were more neighborly.  Even vocational life changed around seasons.  I have a friend whose father shuttered his real estate practice in June and took his family to a un-air-conditioned cottage at the beach for the Summer, enjoying cooler ocean air, slowing down.  Even I can remember when work slowed down in the Summer, even in the 1980s.  Not so, now.

Not everyone liked air conditioning, either.  Playwright Horton Foote (“Tender Mercies,” “The Trip to Bountiful”) complained in 1995 that “Every place is air conditioned.  I don’t hear the train whistles like I used to.  That haunting lonely sound.  When the cotton mills were running full-time and they had a cotton seed mill, we would have this wonderful odor permeating the house.  I find myself thinking, ‘What was that really like and why did it vanish?’”  Novelist William Faulkner refused to allow air conditioning in his steamy Oxford, Mississippi home, rejecting this modern effort to "do away with the weather." (And yet, the day after his funeral in 1962, his wife, Estelle, installed a unit.)  Because the availability of air conditioning has so affected the way our homes and public buildings are designed, we find it difficult to do without it; structures once built to cool us passively --- with large windows, high ceilings, and fans --- now often have smallish windows or windows that do not even open.  Weather becomes an abstraction for most of us, since regardless of temperature, we live and work and shop in places that are pretty much the same temperature year round.  In that, something is lost.

There’s no going back, of course.  Porch culture is unlikely to return, even though we glimpse it fleetingly in moments of widespread and lengthy power loss.  And yet just because you have a thing like air conditioning doesn’t mean you have to use it all the time.  Open a window.  Feel that hot Missouri air.  Sleep under a fan.  Listen to cicadas.  Remember that you are a part of a larger community, a larger world outside --- not for some dip into nostalgia but because you need it. . . now.

Expelled: See It Now

240x240_ai Don't wait.  Run to the theatre to see Expelled, Ben Stein's documentary exposing the reasons why the Academy thought police will not allow scientists to teach about intelligent design.  It's well-produced, entertaining, and informative.  Stein travels all over the world speaking both to the many scientists expelled from teaching for even mentioning "intelligent design," as well as to committed atheists like Richard Dawkins, who essentially believes religious believers are idiots.

Running through this movie is a comparison of what is happening to academic freedom with the Berlin wall, with those who want to wall out free-thinkers who want to follow the evidence where it leads.  This is not some Bible-thumping fundamentalist propaganda piece, nor is it Creation Science, a movement I always had some difficulty with because of its quite literal interpretation of the Genesis account (aka six 24-hour days), meaning it is treated as simply historical narrative with no poetic component, and in its attempt to fit the Bible to science.  These are scientists, some Christian, some not, who simply want to follow the evidence where it leads, and who are quite honest about their biases and presuppositions, something you can't say about many Darwinists.

See it now.  This movie is playing in major theatres, but films like this don't hang around if people don't buy tickets.  Better yet, take a skeptic. Take your kids. Take anyone who simply wants to think.  Find a theatre and time here.

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!

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)

The Genius of Nature

MeaningfulWhile I am no scientist nor mathematician, I appreciate the value of both areas and the importance of thinking Christianly about both. Generally I've gotten no farther than the valid point that the universe and its natural laws are worth studying because the Creation tells us of the Creator. Furthermore, the scientific vocation seems to have roots in a specific taxonomical task given to Adam: naming. But beyond these principles, I could say little. That's changed.

Two recently published books are of great help in discerning a Christian view of the scientific task. The first and less readable book is Benjamin Wilker's and Jonathan Witt's A Meaningful World: How the Arts and Sciences Reveal the Genius of Nature. Essentially, the authors make an argument for the meaning-full nature of creation over and against the previaling nihilism of our culture. Where esle can you find Shakespeare and Hamlet alongside Euclidean geometry and the periodic table? It's an ambitious, densely worded book, and while I could not complete it, I read enough to see its value. It's just that for the layman I wish this argument for the design of nature had been made in a few less pages and with less academic language. However, if you are in the sciences, this is a helpful book to read --- one which demonstrates the beauty of mathematics and science, of order over chaos and chance.

ScienceA more approachable book is that of Covenant College Science Professors Tim Morris and Don Petcher, entitled Science and Grace: God's Reign In the Natural Sciences. Here the intent of the authors is to set forth a constructive way for Christians to be involved in the sciences, going beyond the evolution-creation battles and even demonstrating how Christians can find common ground with nonChristians in the sciences. If you are of a Reformed traditon, the book's roots in covenant theology will be familiar, as will many of the thinkers whose thought is sumamrized, men like Charles Hodge, Abraham Kuyper, and Herman Dooyeweerd. Quite apart from the application to the sciences, I benefited simply from the theological perspective provided, a very nice summary of a biblical world and life view. The book would make a good textbook for a philosophy of science course (which I suspect it has been) and a good gift for any high school graduate heading into a scientific field of study. I enjoyed its positive, non-adversarial perspective and its encouragement for Christians to really make a difference in an important field.

Abraham Kuyper once said that "there is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human exiatence over which Christ, who is sovereign over all, does not cry: 'Mine!'" Perhaps if we rested in this assurance, we wouldn't reagrd our relationship with culture, science or otherwise, as a battle but rather, a war already won but whose victory is not yet fully evident. We could relax, do good work, and love our neighbor --- even the scientist next door.

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.

Getting to know Your Neighbors

Cicada_1Woah, now.  Sorry.  I didn't mean to scare you.  This may look like one of those bad, bad grasshoppers that scared all the little kids in Disney's It's a Bug's Life but, nope, this is the face of a cicada.  Cute, isn't he (or she)?

It's mid-November here in North Carolina and, amazingly enough, I have the window open this evening, and these cicadas are making a constant sound, one that is such a part of the landscape (or is that soundscape?) that we don't even think about them any longer.  So, I'm just sitting here wondering what cicadas look like and what good are they, so I googled "cicada" and would you believe it I landed right smack on a blog of cicada advocates -- Cicada Maniacs, that is.  There are frequently asked questions, like How Can I Tell a Male From a Female? or Do Cicadas Pee and, If So, Why? and even Is It Safe for My Kids to Eat Cicadas?  I worry about some people.  Don't go too deep here.  They did dispossess me of one notion:  katydids are most emphatically not cicadas.  (No, they are not June bugs, either.)  What's the big deal?  Well, consider how you feel when someone (usually from north of the Mason-Dixon line) asks if you are from "Carolina," as if North and South Carolina are quite the same.  We know better.  Well, cicadas and katydids know better too.

I promise not to get too legal on you here, but given the existence of the cicada lobby, I could not help but think of Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas's famous dissenting opinion in the 1972 decision of Sierra Club v. Morton, where Justice Douglas argued (against the majority) that the Sierra Club should have standing to sue, even though it suffered no injury, because the inanimate objects which were at issue -- trees, rivers, wildlife -- had standing.  Well, if trees, why not cicadas?

I'm making fun of all this, but really, tonight I'm just enjoying the sound of these katydids. . . I mean, cicadas (old habits die hard).  I just don't want to look at them.  And I don't want to know if they pee.

Good night, good neighbors.

Dethroning Naturalism?

CollinsAn article in today's News and Observer, "Scientist sees room for belief," profiles Christian doctor-researcher Francis Collins, the man who led the drive to unlock the human genome, and his new book, The Language of GodIn it, Collins champions the view that science and evolution can co-exist, that, as Francis Schaeffer once said, there is "No Final Conflict" (his essay on the topic) between science and faith.

Language_1 Mind you, Collins is not a proponent of intelligent design or creationism, per se, but a believer that the evidence points to evolution, albeit a theistic evolution.   Heavily influenced by C.S. Lewis, Collins sees evidence for God in the human propensity to believe in a moral law and in a human compulsion to worship, tendencies which cut across civilizations, times, and social strata, much as Lewis argued in Mere Christianity ("[H]uman beings, all over the earth, have this curious idea that they ought to behave in a certain way, and cannot really get rid of it.")

I can bear a Christian who believes in a God-ordained evolution, even though I do not regard the evidence for evolution as compelling.  Even Francis Schaeffer himself, though not a believer in theistic evolution, believed "that there is a certain possible range of freedom for discussion in the area of cosmogony while bowing to what God has affirmed" (No Final Conflict).  What I cannot abide is the naturalist, or materialist, the one who believes that science explains all or, more specifically, that a certain discipline (like neurobiology) explains all human behavior.  That's what you have in Greg Graffin.

Graffin is the creative force behind a punk band called Bad Religion.  He also has a doctorate in zoology from Cornell.  He believes that the "religion" of naturalism is far superior to theology for understanding the world, that, in fact, all truth is knowable only by empirical investigation.

Preston Jones, a Christian and history professor at John Brown University, engages Graffin in a long discussion via email over the nature of truth.  He doesn't make a convert, but in the process Jones demonstrates the grace and charity in which such a discussion should occur.  He has an openness to learning and changing belief that, oddly Jones or tellingly, Graffin does not demonstrate, at least not much.  The discussion, reproduced in the book, Is Belief In God Good, Bad or Irrelevant?; A Professor and a Punk Rocker Discuss Science, Religion, Naturalism & Christianity, is an interesting one in that we have so few opportunities to actually eavesdrop on such a conversation.  Often, a committed atheist as Graffin will simply not engage.  It's a testimony to Jones's humility that he warms to conversation and that they have a civil discussion, one in which real discussion occurs and not just a staking out of positions.  I recommend the book to anyone interested in the topic but, more than that, for an example of how to have such a discussion.

In the end, however, what is so troublesome is that Graffin cannot acknowledge that his naturalism is based on presuppositions held in faith, much as the Christian's beliefs are rooted in empirically unprovable presuppositions.  There's a certain attitude that comes across -- one of superiority or, being more generous, of simple naivety.  Even though Jones reminds him that just about every new discipline that has come along has proclaimed itself the queen of the sciences (my own, sociology, did just that) and were all ultimately dethroned, he cannot believe that science ultimately does not explain all phenomena.  That's not education but presumptuousness.

Collins is much more interesting.  Is it possible to accept theistic evolution?  Can a designer-God so create that the very complexity of the design makes it appear as if it evolved through natural selection?  Of course.  Does science really lead us there yet?  I think not.

Tick, Tick, Tick (Part VII): Trippin' With Hugh Ross

Hugh_ross_2 "God's invisibility and untouchability keep our yearnings focused right where they rightly belong, on the supernatural realm that awaits us.  His written Word combines with evidences in this spectacular but limited physical realm to communicate that His desire and plan involve transporting us, at some future point along our time line, across our dimensional barriers into His super-dimensional realm."  (Hugh Ross, in Beyond the Cosmos: The Extradimensionality of God: What Recent Discoveries in Astronomy and Physics Reveal About the Nature of God)

I've met my Timothy Leary, and his name is Hugh Ross.  Reading this Christian physicist's book, Beyond the Cosmos, is mind-altering, even mind-expanding, sans psychotropic drugs.  While I'm only about halfway through the book, already I'm fascinated by Ross's ability to help us imagine what is really unimaginable -- the existence of more than four dimensions and how such an understanding (if you can call our imaginings, "understanding"), helps us begin to appreciate the paradoxes of scripture, like the Trinity, the omnipresence of God, the nature of Heaven, predestination and free will, and so on.

While reading about this, a question came to me that I don't think Ross directly addresses, that is, if we are made in the image of God, in what sense, if any, do we image (using the word as a verb) the super-dimensionality of God?  For example, as God is not bound by our space and time dimension, is there some faint way in which we participate in such transcendence by virtue of having been made in God's image?  I think maybe so.

Perhaps some of the odd sensations we have are a result of this imaging.  For example, most people have experienced deja vu, a sense of having been in a place before.  Well, perhaps in some sense we have.  Perhaps this is a very, very faint reflection of God's super-dimensionality, his omnipresence.  Or, as I have mentioned before, I feel at times the sense of being very close to my childhood.  Perhaps this propinquity is a pale reflection of God's being outside of our plane of time.  And then there are the really odd coincidences.  For example, a few years ago I was in Tucson, Arizona at a restaurant, nearly 3000 miles from home, when, getting up to excuse myself I passed in front of a waiter.  He stopped me and said "Aren't you. . ." and said my full name.  I said yes.  He said "I was in your 5th grade.  You haven't changed a bit."  Well, given that it had been 32 years, that was amazing.  I did not recognize his name or his face.  So why do things like that happen?

These odd happenings can be nothing, of course, or they can be as I have mentioned -- God's image-bearers experiencing in just the slightest way a touch of God's super-dimensionality.  For me it's just a reminder, a message from beyond, that we were built for glory, for something indescribable.  Like Ross says, it keeps our yearnings focused right where they belong, on that place called Heaven.

Read Hugh Ross.  It's quite a trip.

Tick, Tick, Tick (Part IV): Velocity

P2hands60 Velocity
(A Poem About Chronos Time)

At night
I know her passing,
a train of images
and melancholy dreams.
Sometimes slow:
     waiting for release from loss
     for a child to be born
     suffering to pass
     even love.
But these days
what I feel,
dizzying and divine,

Pblue Remember
that time
we drank deeply
of each
liquid word,
savoring their
rich and potent
taste, warming
our souls-grown-cold, until
drunk on this new wine
I danced
my laughing audience
into the New Year?, or

That other time,
lethargic and
dazed, when we
shuffled quietly
into that (please God)
New Year come?

P2handsb_1 It was your
mother who said that
"travel is broadening,"
(and she knew), but
I know too that
"travel is deepening"
as we run
these grace-laid

I rewind
those word-
pictures now,
the happy-sad
soundtrack, loud
enough to wake the
living, to awaken
me.  I grasp
treasures in
her train while I

Pretend I can
thrust my hand
into her passing,
catch the hem of her
cloak, slowing her
onward rush, only to
pull back, awed and
hushed by her

Pchicago3So I wait,
clock tick-tocking
on my right,
life breathing
on my left,
smelling the
holy smoke
certain fire
and clamor of her

l o  c   o    m     o      t       i        o         n. . . .

[The poetry is my creation, but I am thankful for the use of the paintings of Mark Dahle.  The paintings with hands seemd to fit the lines "Pretend I can/ thrust my hand/ into her passing. . .," which suggests the possibility that we can sometimes slow down Time's velocity by holding on to some moment, at least for a time.  (Actually the two hands paintings were inspired by Mother Teresa, says Mark.) The last painting seemd to suggest the last passage in the poem, the part about "smoke. . . fire. . .clamor." (And for Mark, it's about Creation.)  You can see more of and purchase prints of Mark's work here.  And if you're wondering why the poem is strung out like it is, it's a device to suggest movement, or velocity, the passage of Time.]

The Colors Green and Blue

Pine_treeLying on my back today in my back yard, looking up at the pleasing green of the pines against the blue sky, a question popped into my head:  Why does the juxtaposition of the colors green and blue, or more broadly, the colors in the natural world around me -- mostly brown, green, and blue -- create such a pleasurable feeling?  I have to think that a red sky and orange trees would not create the same sensation.

I can put what I know about color and our perception of it in a thimble, but I know a few things. Newton observed that color is not inherent in an object but, rather, the surface of an object absorbs some colors in the spectrum and reflects others.  Thus, what we perceive is largely a result of the composition of an object.  So, color is inherent in the way things were created.  It need not have been.  But it is.  Why?

It's also well-known that color influences mood and feeling in common experience.  Though human emotions are unstable and variable, it is also accepted that there are a number of general and universal reactions to color, that is, some things are true at substantially all times, in all places, and among all people.  Those are things we might even call natural laws or creation ordinances, things inherent in the way God made the world (though I am not sure if theologians have ever used these words in this way).

But back to the trees and the sky.  Psychologists know that, broadly speaking, the "cool" colors --  blue and green, for example -- tend to evoke a calming effect, while "warm" colors -- red and orange, for example -- tend to excite.  (One researcher notes that people will gamble more and place riskier bets if seated under red lights as opposed to blue ones.  Thus, Las Vegas is full of red neon lights.)  Thus the green of the pine needles and the blue of the sky have a calming effect on me, a pleasing, soothing effect.  No doubt you know what I mean.  It's a universal feeling.

Then I thought of Psalm 19.  The Psalmist says "The heavens declare the glory of God;/ the skies proclaim the work of his hands./ Day after day they pour forth speech;/ night after night they display knowledge./ There is no speech or language/ where their voice is not heard./ Their voice goes out into all the earth,/ their words to the end of the world."  The Creation is pouring forth speech.

At that thought I sat up and asked my wife what she thought God was trying to tell us by making the sky blue and the leaves and pine needles green.  She said I had too much time on my hands.  Maybe so, but I think what He is saying is something like this: "Do not be troubled.  Fear not. Peace be with you."

The late Rich Mullins said it best in a song called "The Color Green," from his album entitled A Liturgy, A Legacy & A Ragamuffin Band:  "Look down upon this winter wheat/ and be glad that you have made/ Blue for the sky and the color/ green that fills Your fields/ with praise."  He has to be glad, but I'm glad too.

There are no accidents in nature.  The sky is blue for a reason.  The leaves and pine needles are green for a purpose.  And the feeling they evoke is no accident either.

Peace be with you, they say.

Intelligent Design and Intelligent Designers

Dscf0049_edited Adrian Bejan is a distinguished professor at Duke University, an engineer.  In 1995, while listening to a speech by a Nobel laureate, and hearing him state that the design of living things is random, Bejan reacted strongly. He disagreed.  And so, "constructal theory" was born.

Now it's not that I understand much of what engineers say, but when I read about Bejan and saw what he was doing, I began to smile.  Bejan's theory is that by studying the design of living things, we can copy (or mimic) nature's successes in our own human constructs. He urged people in his discipline to consider the shapes of trees, river basins, or human lungs as promising blueprints that man-made devices should follow.

Random?  To the contrary, Bejan states that "[t]he design of living things is determined. That can be described with a principle.  I'm the guy with the principle."

Reading about Bejan, I recalled a classic land-use planning text by Ian McHarg called Design With Nature.  In this seminal book from the mid-Seventies, McHarg argued that humans can copy nature's designs to build better structures.  It was a tremendously influential book, and when I discovered it in graduate school, I was quite taken with it.

Dscf0094_edited It's not that Bejan or McHarg necessarily believe in "creation," as opposed to "nature."  Bejan alludes to evolution (presumably not necessarily to the exclusion of creation, of course) and McHarg laid all the problems with the environment at the feet of Christendom (a dubious attribution).  But the point here is not to debate creation v. evolution or discuss the mistakes of unbiblical ideas embraced by the church, but to notice where both men are pointing (the created order) and what they say about it's nature (it's designed) and what they tell us (we should pay attention to it).  You couldn't make a better case for a creational theology!  Sometimes theology and truth come from the most unlikely places (engineers and land use planners).

There's nothing new about looking to creation for insights about God.  That's general revelation, as opposed to special revelation (scripture).  But theologian-pastor T.M. Moore makes an excellent case for the development of a creational theology in a 2005 book called Consider the Lillies: A Plea for Creational Theology.  It's a book steeped in Reformed theology and Moore's own experience of trying to discern something of God's ways and workings from creation, and bears the artist's mark as well (he cites poets like Gerard Manley Hopkins, for example).

Citing Psalm 19:1-4, Moore draws four conclusions: (1) there is a revelation of God in all creation; (2) this revelation is profuse and constant; (3) this revelation is clear and unmistakable; and finally, (4) it is ubiquitous (inescapable, unavoidable).  Creation is, in other words, a virtual treasure trove of accumulated wisdom about God and about how things best work.  This is precisely what Bejan and McHarg discovered (sans the God-talk) and yet what so few seem to recognize.

Dscf0013_edited Viewing the world this way is truly illuminating.  I recall the forests of giant sequoias my family and I wandered through in California a couple years ago.  Not only are they grand and awesome, reminding us of God, they also teach us so much.  For example, I discovered that though they have very shallow roots their roots are interlocking, allowing them to support one another.  Consider the wisdom of that for the body of Christ.  I learned also that fire is necessary to allow them to germinate, setting free millions of seeds.  Consider the fruit of trial and hardship for the Christian.  Think how much of what a tree does for its life (and our lives) that goes unseen -- producing oxygen, photosynthesis, and more.  Consider how much of our working out of our salvation is unseen by those around us.  These are just facile lessons from a non-engineer, non-biologist.  But it's really just the tip of what settled wisdom lies in creation.

So you see why I am smiling. Bejan and McHarg and their disciples discovered what Christians have known all along -- to consider the lilies, to learn from the natural world.  But we can be thankful for their reminder and their applications of creation's wisdom.