When Jesus Comes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


The Urge for Going

Today is your day.
You're off to Great Places!
You're off and away!

(Oh, The Places You'll Go!, by Dr. Suess)

"Uncle Clarence, I think you missed a turn."

"Are you saying I'm lost?"

"No sir.  Back there, I just think you needed to turn on US 1 South.  There was a sign.  That's our road.  It says here on the map."

I was no more than seven.  I sat on the front bench seat between my uncle and aunt, a Rand McNally map open in front of me.  He pulled over.  He took the map and peered at it, as he took another drag on his cigarette.

"Where the heck are we?"

"Right here."  I pointed to the intersection of a black line and a slightly thicker red line.

"So you got us lost?"

"No sir.  Just go back to that road and take a right."

"You're the boss."  He handed the map back to me, swung the wheel around, and threw some gravel as he left the roadside turnout for the road.

I have always loved maps and roads.  Even now, over 45 years later, very little is as exciting to me as the sense of adventure prompted by a black line of asphalt unwinding in front of me, signs rolling by suggesting other adventures, roads not taken, every farmstead or small town prompting inquiry:  Who lives here?  What is it like?  What do they do?

I'm not alone in this wanderlust.  In Earl Swift's historical survey of the development of our highway system, The Big Roads: The Untold Story of the Engineers, Visionaries, and Trailblazers Who Created the American Superhighways (take a breath), he tells how in the mid-Twenties Americans took to the roads, such as they were, striking out from the cities "in search of elbow room, fresh air, a closer acquaintance with nature."  He describes early tent camps for travelers, then "motor courts" (one room efficiency cottages), and then the ubiquitous mo-tels --- roadside strips of rooms where you could pull your car right up to the door of your room,  drag the luggage in, get a bucket of ice and a cold Coke, and plop on the bed and spread out the map and dream about the next day, and the next, and the next.

My parents slept.  I never could fathom how, after a great day behind the wheel, windows down, taking in the heat and wind, the humidity or dust, they could reach a motel, with all its invitation to explore its passageways, parking lots, playgrounds, and pool, and then just go horizonal and snooze.  What do these people do to get so tired?  What's wrong with them?  

Our car overheated once.  We pulled over, let it cool, popped the hood and pulled off the radiator hose (holy smoke it was hot!), removed the thermostat until we could get to the next filling station, put some water in from the jugs we carried with us, and pressed on.  We drank Dr. Peppers while a laconic sole filling station attendant named Chester or something like that helped us out betwixt running back and forth to the pump.  It must have been  a hundred and forty degrees as I sat on the bench in front of the station office, listening to the ding-ding when cars pulled in and Chester mumbling about the difficulty with Olds, their lack of dependability, watching sweat roll off my Daddy's face.  

Later, when we had air conditioning, it failed on us, right outside of Yuma, Arizona, a wickedly hot place unfit for human habitation.  We cruised I-8, where it was completed, that is, at a ferocius 65 mph, wndows down, like being inside a furnace with a fan.  Lovely.

But it was lovely. A "ribbon of highway," someone sang (Woody Guthrie, I think), a big sky, a flat expanse of cacti and brush and roadrunners, towns with foreign, imagination-inciting names like Gila Bend, Payson, Winslow ("I was standing on a corner in Winslow, Arizona, such a fine sight to see," said the Eagles, later, and I was, at a corner diner, filled with weathered, sun-caked people from somewhere else, only no "girl my lord on a flatbed Ford" that day, anyway), Joseph City (the biblical Joseph?),  and off across the Painted Desert.  Did I mention it was hot?  It was hellishly hot.  My mother's bouffant hairdo had fallen, and she wrapped her head in a scarf.  I rode shotgun, my peon siblings and friends sweltering in the backseat, fooling around, getting in trouble, until my Mom reaches back and starts smacking anything that moves that she can reach.  It was such fun, and I say that with no sense of irony.  My Mom.  My Dad.  A windshield on tomorrow.  And Rand McNally, the godfather of road navigation, of highwayneering, the certainty of his red and blue and black lines giving comfort to our wanderings.

I didn't realize until much later that there was no Rand McNally, no reconnoitering road man, cruising America, copiously noting all the roads, actually traveling all the roads, making neat and tidy and reducing to paper a jumble of dirt and gravel and concrete and asphalt that was not always so --- just William Rand, and then Andrew McNally, publishers is all.  In The Big Roads, Swift documents just what a mess our highways were --- rutted dirt roads, mired in mud when wet, a storm of dust when dry, going nowhere, and everywhere, disconnected, confusing, lacking signage, just one great adventure for the hardy and mechanically able wanderers.  That's America.  That's us.  Oh, how we wander.

I was an early adopter.  My aunt taught me to steer the car when I was five, drive the car when I was eight, and plow with a tractor shortly thereafter.  After I mowed down five rows of precious tobbacco when I could not locate the brake, my informal license was rescinded.  I am, after all, a city boy who merely visited the country.  Imagine the lives I saved by running over that tobacco.

Try this sometime: Forget signage, maps, and GPS.  Just let the car go where it will.  Navigate by compass.  Out West, this is easy.  In Tucson, Arizona, a place I count as my neighborhood once removed, familiar as home, I can see 50 miles from the back patio of the room in which we customarily stay, counting four mountain ranges --- Catalina, Santa Rita, Tucson, Rincon --- and streets like Oracle and Campbell that just go on and on and on, vanishing into the distance.   I set sight on where I want to go.  Compass it.  Steer by intuition.  Get lost, temporarily, because no man is permanently lost and never lost enough to ask directions.  Sooner or later, something familiar will register on the screen of consciousness and nay-sayers will be put to shame.  Lost?  That's a TV show, that's all, or a mere failure of faith.  I am a wanderer, a man lost with purpose.

But I digress, I wander. . . The wheat-fields of Kansas are absolutely gorgeous, the Flint Hills, the tall-grass, just miles and miles of flat to rolling swells of hills.  Well, for a while, at least.  Astounding points of interest like "The World's Largest Hand-Dug Well, says Rand and McNally, a town called "Zook," and counties so desolate as to have only two towns, no stoplights, and miles and miles between farms.  I'm not even sure there really are towns in these places but mere crossroads, the names plotted by Rand and McNally to dignify and give definition to what is merely a long continuous wheat-field punctuated by a tenuous telephone line, like thread between toothpicks.  What do these people do for fun, I think?  In Wichita we stay in a round hotel.  There was a thing about round hotels with pie-shaped rooms in the Sixties, I guess.  Disconcerting to be in a place with no 90 degree angles.  That and a bratty sister and her girlfriend, all stuffed in one motel room.

It's deeply satisfying to be back on the open road, behind the wheel, parents and siblings and friend sleeping, crossing the Mississippi at 1:00 AM.  Hello Memphis, Cuba (yes, Cuba), Atoka, Brighton, Covington, Ripley.  Believe it or not.  Believe it or not we are off-interstate, off the beaten path, wandering, and I am 17 and mighty behind the wheel, plowing through the night, a dark and mysterious river off to the West, ominous in the early morning hours.  I imagine Huck and Tom floating down the river with Jim, water lapping over the sides of their raft.  Flippin.  Curve.  Gates.  Who named these places?  What goes on here?  Oh, what sights a sleeping family miss!

But is there a point to this wandering?  I suspect so.  I know the urge to go is an echo of something deeper, something built into our frail human frame, a longing for something more, to see the other side, infecting me from the time I took my first steps until today when I drove tree-lined streets in an uncharted midwest city, navigating by intution, and not well.  

At our worst, we are a little like Lamech, "restless wanderer[s] on the earth" (Gen. 3:12b).  At our best, we have to see around the next curve, our curiosity eating at us until we give in (just one more mile, we say, our addiction to the "next thing" confirmed.)  And yet, whether I am seven, or 17, or even 53, when I get to my destination, or even when on the way, I am also like an Israelite in Babylon, standing by the river and mourning what I left behind, longing for Zion (Ps. 137:1) --- out here in a foreign land, wanting to be where I belong.  In the end, after all curves have been rounded, I close a dog-eared Rand McNally and look longingly in the rear view mirror.  I think about my room, my friends, the very particular place in all the world where I rest and play, that I know like no other.  It's the place that neither my little seven-year old mind nor my over-confident 17-year old mind realize is but a shadow of my real longings.  And yet at 53, I can say with T.S. Eliot, "We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time."  And maybe, just maybe, we will know what we long for --- the Home beyond home --- even there. 

"Let's go home, Uncle Clarence."

"Yeah, no place like home, right?"

 Sure.  And yet somehow I know that when I get there, I'll feel the tug of somewhere new, the road, a red line out of here, numbered lines and odd-named towns that somehow speak of hope.



Only Eighteen Inches: Why We Need New York

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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












I Went On Vacation Last Week. . .

. . . and Judy, the server at the resort restaurant, remembered us.  That's not too difficult, I suppose, as we have been making this journey to Tucson, Arizona for 30 years, 19 of them with children.  We stay in the same room, do many of the same things, and complain (though rarely) as if we are members of the family, investors in the property.  But we do feel like we "own" a bit of the place.  Once, the chef took us on a two-hour tour of the kitchens, something I would not have requested but found pretty illuminating (enough to know I would not want his job).  Once, I wrote the manager. He wrote back.  We lament any and every change (at least until we adapt).  

Mostly, however, we just look and listen.

In Arizona, you can see for miles.  Here, in the Piedmont of North Carolina, I can't see past my neighbors house.  In Tucson I roll over in bed in the morning, look out the window at an inevitably sunny, blue sky day, and I can see for 50 miles.  That openness is affective.  I want to play outside, hike mountains, eat outside, try something new.  I'm energized.  My older sister, who has never until now joined my family for a vacation, wondered if I was ADD.  Nope.  I told her she was just OLD. (Not really, as I'm not witty enough for that nor is she old enough for that, but I like that comeback.)

Did you ever get invited to someone's home and then, a captive audience, get sucked into watching home movies?  I didn't think so.  You don't know what you've been missing.  I won't do that to you. But I will offer you ten slides from my vacation, ten images that will stick with me.  Pat Patterson, an AM DJ in Raleigh back in the Seventies, used to "show" slides over the radio on his morning show. I'm just following his lead.  So. . .

Slide One: It's evening and we're sitting on the outside courtyard terrace of El Charro, the oldest Mexican restaurant in Tucson, and I have been served a favorite dish, carne seca, beef which earlier that day had been drying in a metal box about 20 feet in the air on a pole above my head. I feel so welcome; it's as if I'm with my extended Mexican family.  At least three waiters appear to be serving us.  I finish and want to start all over. (Click)

Slide Two: Sabino Canyon, in the Catalina Mountains that border Tucson on the north, is like a city playground.  A tram transports you 3.8 miles up in the canyon, over a road and multiple bridges spanning Sabino Creek, all built by the Civilian Conservation Corp and Works Progress Administration during the Great Depression.  When my wife's father was a student at the University of Arizona in the late 1930s, he'd drive his date up here.  Now, we take a tram up and walk out, scrambling over rocks, dipping in and out of icy cold water, and sometimes hiking the old phone line trail up on the ridge for a different perspective.  Not today.  That's me on the rock sunning.  Chief lizard. (Click)

Slide Three: In a place like this, you can really settle into a book, if you can sit still long enough and stop looking at the mountains and sky. I'm reading Paul Miller's A Praying Life, a book that asks all the questions that we Christians are ashamed to ask, like why don't we pray more, or is anyone listening, or did Jesus really mean it when he said "You have not because you do not ask." It made me want to ask more and believe more. Looking up at the jagged peak of Mt. Lemmon, sculpted by Someone who could move mountains, I could better believe that he was a Prayer-Answerer too. Sometimes I had to close my eyes and read. (Click)

Slide Four: Eating (again), we found the best pizza in the world at Magpies, a local restaurant in the very bohemian looking Fourth Avenue section.  That's barbecue pizza on my plate, a dish everyone else turns their nose up at, leaving more for me.  The well-aged checkerboard tablecloth reminds me of my childhood home.  On the way out we have nearly a pizza box of various kinds left.  We see a homeless man picking through garbage, and my brother-in-law calls him over and offers it to him.  He doesn't wait.  He starts eating right there at the window of the car. And I hear Precious Ramotswe say "God has not forgotten you." (Click)

Slide Five: I'm reclining with that Botswanan detective, Precious Ramotswe, at the pool.  That is, I'm reading The Saturday Big Tent Wedding Party, the latest installment of Alexander McCall Smith's #1 Ladies' Detective Agency series, a book full of gentle wisdom, and come across that phrase she utters to a distraught house-maid ("God has not forgotten you"), kindness incarnate, and I slow down and read it again, reminded that there are no little people. (Click)

Slide Six:  Take a peek at this.My gracious wife, instead of taking a shopping day in the artists' community of Tubac, about 25 miles from the Mexican border, is taking a hike with me, even in a skirt, fording the San Pedro River (admittedly a mere creek at this time), walking through forests and fields, climbing over cattle fences, and all this in the middle of a 90 degree day.  4.5 miles.  We never saw another soul.  The trial (oops, I mean trail) ends at a preserved Spanish mission, Tumacacori, one of our favorite places.  Try not to  think about it too much, but the river flow is actually the effluent from the Nogales Wastewater Treatment Plant.  Oh well. (Click)

Slide Seven: Here's a feel good shot.  My teenage son and daughter, walking ahead of us on the road, hand in hand, arm in arm, like best friends.  I'll savor that and remember it when the next inevitable spat arises.  Hey, did I just see her smack him?  Another day in paradise. . . (Click)

Slide Eight: Let's back up a bit, as I forgot one slide.  We're eating steak at Lil' Abners, a roadhouse, really, that I remember being in the desert outside Tucson but now sits smack in the suburb of Marana.  They have two things going for them: excellent steaks cooked on outdoor mesquite grills served with beans and salsa, and country swing provided by nearly 90-year old Dean Armstrong and his western swing band, also made up up elders (that's what they call old people out here).  And, in the background that's the same woman who was here last year, a regular, usually with a picture of her boyfriend on her t-shirt and her's on his.  But after 30 years of playing here, Dean has gone Home --- two weeks ago.  He was a gentleman and I'll miss him. (Click)

Slide Nine: A lot of people come to Madeira Canyon to birdwatch.  We don't.  Bird people sometimes look like birds.  Have you ever noticed that?  30 minutes in we're over a mile up, and those are pines, sycamores, and ash trees you see, with a little yucca mixed in.  We hiked up about two miles, and then out, seeing deer around us, considering what to do if confronted by a bear or bobcat.  Alone. Sometimes we stopped, all quiet, and just listened to the wind in the trees. Hear it? (Click)

Slide Ten: This may be the best.  We're all sitting in the second row of Catalina Foothills Presbyterian Church.  It's Easter morning.  We're practically embedded with the orchestra and choir.  Looking up through the windows all you can see are mountains and sky. Those are tears welling in my eyes, produced by music so beautiful, so poignant, so worshipful.  It's the closest I get to my home church without being home.  It's a fitting close to a week of rest, reflection, and wonder.

I still think about it.

Thanks for letting me share these slides with you.  I would have shown the 8 mm home movies, all four reels, but the kids with their Ipods and IPads and Wii and whatnot, the short attention spans, and all.  It would never work.  But maybe one image here will stick and provoke you, as it does me, to vacate once again, to take, like God did at the end of six days, a holy pause, look over what you've made and done, and say,"It's good.  It's really good." And be thankful for the beautiful mess that life can be.









The Limits of Cartography

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

At Connemara, Slashes of Light

IMG_0606 Night from a railroad car window
Is a great, dark, soft thing
Broken across with slashes of light.

("Windows," by Carl Sandburg, in Carl Sandburg: Collected Poems, Paul Berman, ed.) 

Tiger is the name of the barn cat that lives at Connemara, the home of Carl and Lillian Sandburg for the last 22 years of the poet and writer's life.  A hospitable cat, welcoming guests easily from the red barn she scouts, she makes us feel at home, as if we have come to visit the Sandburgs, see Lillian's prize goats with their soft and docile faces, peruse the 14,000 volumes of books in the Sandburg home, or sit on the front porch and think and talk and think some more, enjoying the view of the lake and the mountains beyond.  And we do feel at home.

My first experience with the American journalist, poet, folk singer, and hobo Cal Sandburg was as a child.  His six-volume biography of Abraham Lincoln contained in my mother's library of mostly devotional books (many of which I read at some point) intrigued me but proved too fulsome a history for a tween to crack.  But I remember its heft, the feel of it in my hands, and the weightiness of its many words.  I wondered at a man who could write so many words about one single man.  I looked at his picture, his shock of white hair, and thought him a word-god, transcendent.

He wasn't, of course.  Walking through his house, left much as it was the day he died, I sense his ordinariness, his humility, his modesty.  I can imagine sitting in his front room visiting, the furnishings plain and simple, the man unpretentious.  He might read me a new poem or even sing me a song.  The only thing unusual about his home was his sharing of it with 14,000 books.  Everywhere you bump into words, rub up against history.  There he sits, I imagine, in a cluttered study, banging out the words to a new poem, typewriter on an upended orange crate, because "if such was good enough for General Grant it's good enough for me."  Pulitzers are relegated to a hidden cabinet, no "how great thou art" wall of commendations and awards to be found.  No car in the garage either, as he said that a car would keep him from walking, and in walking you get to meet people.  And people were his stock and trade, the very voices of his poems.

On a granite outcropping beside his home, there is a single bench chair, and I imagine him sitting there, paper and pen in hand, thinking over his life and the life of others he knew.  He said once that "[i]t is necessary now and then for a man to go away by himself and experience loneliness; to sit on a rock in the forest and ask of himself, 'Who am I, and where have I been, and where am I going?'"  There, at the bottom of Little Glassy Mountain, I might ask myself that too and, turning back to the house, ask myself what I will leave behind.

I would like to have known the man.  I doubt our politics would align (as he was a socialist of sorts), and yet he championed the rights of the ordinary folk and seemed to live his life with some modesty and humility, a voice for the common man.  He also held to no organized religion and, though it was not a major theme of his work, did at times rail against those he thought misappropriated Jesus, as in his vituperative lambasting of the evangelist Billy Sunday in his poem of the same name, saying "I won't take my religion from a man who never works/except with his mouth and never cherishes a/ memory except the face of the woman on the/ American silver dollar."  Surely, had he read the poem to me on the porch of Connemara, I may have nodded in agreement to parts of it, because much has been said and done in God's name with which He may not be pleased.

Nature had a way of smoothing over his rare venom.  Even in many of his poems not geared toward children, a gentleness is evident, as in "The fog comes/ on little cat feet./ It sits looking/ over harbor and city/ on silent haunches/ and then moves on."  I imagine him playing with grandchildren, watching Edward R. Murrow on television (the only thing he ever watched), sitting at a modest table having breakfast with Lillian and his girls, watching birds out the window, and retiring to his office upstairs, cluttered and discomfiting to me, anyway.

Here, on the eve of Christmas Eve, I wonder if he knew the One who came for him, for every man, the one of whom he wrote

I've been out to this suburb of Jerusalem they call
          Golgotha, where they nailed him, and I know if
          the story is straight it was real blood ran from his
          hands and the nail-holes, and it was real blood
          spurted out where the spear of the Roman soldier
          rammed in between the ribs of this Jesus of

Was he a friend of this man?  Did he know the One who haunted all the lives of the people he met, the places he saw, the words he wrote?  At Connemara, I can hope that he knew more than the dark, dark night from a rail car window, with only slashes of light.  I can hope he knew the God-Man who came to save. 

What Interstates Are Good For (Besides Cracker Barrel)

In the past four days, my little family (Mom, Dad, two teenagers) spent a total of 15 hours and 52 minutes in what amounts to a seven by seven room --- a car, that is --- with only brief excursions outside for necessities.  We were traveling to and from Raleigh, North Carolina to Lookout Mountain, Georgia, the site of Covenant College, a prize well worth the trip along the interstates.  On the whizzing car trip, I had time for a few observations, none of which may strike you as particularly original but, of course, there are no new revelations but only new ways in which old revelations come to roost.  Herein are my observations:

1.  Tennessee must license about anyone given the way they drive.  Other than Maryland drivers, who are in a class by themselves and better resemble the better drivers in Uganda, they are some of the worst drivers in the country.  On the east side of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, there is a particularly winding (for an interstate) stretch of I-40.  It sets these hillbillies free.  I now know why, when I used to frequent Nashville, most cars were dented or otherwise beat up.  It's the cost of all that reckless abandon.

2.  Thank God for Cracker Barrel.  I'm serious.  Their ubiquity is a testimony to the fact that most plain folks like me, the kind I see in Cracker Barrels all over the country, were taught by their Mommas to eat their vegetables.  How many places can you eat vegetables along an interstate highway?  Where else can you find great classic music like that of Buck Owens, Portner Wagner, and Marty Robbins alongside Chicago and Creedence Clearwater Revival?  Furthermore, eating my vegetables, listening to country music, and browsing the sugarland of candy that's the same as the kind I grew up eating (too much of), made me think of my family and, after recalling with horror (OK, not horror, but gentle remorse) that I had missed two of my sisters' birthdays, as well as my MOTHER's birthday (OK, that one I really, really feel bad about), I bought greeting cards, nice ones too, with animals on the front doing ridiculous things.  I felt better.  The only thing I regretted was that I did not have time to have a rock in their rocking chairs on the porch.  Now that's a shame. 

3.  People, even people who love each other, are not meant to be cooped up in a car the size of a small bathroom for over seven hours.  Even otherwise mature teenagers break under the pressure.  There are odd mood swings.  At one point my son and daughter are almost giddy with pleasure at their camaraderie, breezing through a collection of show tunes and other pop songs, singing, oblivious to our front seat ruminations; the next, they are clearly annoyed and ready for their space, as evidenced by the pleas of "he touched me" or tell her to. . ." or "you're rude."  After hearing this awhile, I'm ready to stop at whatever passes for the local pub, and I don't even drink.  But like I said, the confines of space are cruel and unusual, and when we arrive at home and the doors are flung open on a larger world, all will be forgiven. Like at the end of our one way trip to Heaven, we'll step out on firmer ground, in a bigger room, and all we said and did will be forgiven and the less becoming parts of our past will grow strangely dim.  I'm just a weary pilgrim, traveling through this world of bickering. . .

4.  I'm thankful when traffic stops dead on the interstate in a beautiful rural area like that between Knoxville and Asheville.  You can actually take your eyes off the bumper in front of you with obnoxious stickers and focus on what you're driving through.  It's plumb beautiful,  Not the drop dead beauty of the Tetons but, rather, an older kind of beauty, softer and more subtle.  For a moment, I consider just pulling to the side and parking, as I am nearly parked anyway, moving along at the average speed of five miles per hour, and just getting out of this contraption, breathing some mountain air, and sticking my toes in the cold water of the Pigeon River. I had that thought somewhere around Cosby or Hartford, Tennessee. About then I remembered stories of feuding hillbillies and wondered if I might get shot at or something exciting like that. I settled for rolling down the window.

5.  On long trips like this, conversational lulls can be frequent and sometimes long.  I fill the interstices like we all do, with daydreams, plans, and internal talk.  You know you do it too.  You carry on an internal dialog with yourself.  Sometimes I do it just to see how it will sound if I actually said it, like, if I said to a friend, "you know you should really think about doing this or that. . ." or maybe rehearsing the sound of something I might write.  I can actually hear it in my head.  Anyway, without these lulls in conversation, where would I be?  You wouldn't have the benefit of all this wisdom borne of reflection.  So I'm thankful.  And you better be.

6.  I'm also thankful for the relatively smooth ride most interstates provide.  My rear (can I say that here?) is especially thankful.  I mean, I have traveled the roads of Uganda and I have to tell you that local beauty is magnificent but one quickly loses the ability to appreciate it after three or four hours dodging big potholes so you can run over other big potholes.  That being said, on some stretches of the road it seems that someone on the road crew fell asleep at the switch because either icing or filling was poorly mixed in this recipe. Ka-bump, ka bump, ka-bump, and the like for several miles.  But then I think, how many times have I been asleep at the switch or worse?  So I try and forgive the men or women who did this to us.

7.  Remember road trips as a child when you used to pass the time by counting things?  I do.  One of the things we used to count was graveyards.  Have you tried that lately?  It's nearly impossible to find one from an interstate highway.  I theorize --- have we as a society pushed death out of sight and mind, because we don't won't to think about it?  Because we have no hope for life beyond death?  Someone just cut me off.  I'm thinking about it (death), someone's anyway.

8.  Some people aren't very original in naming towns.  In Tennessee, you have Nashville.  We got that one too in North Carolina and I bet it's a lot more civilized and less full of flim-flam persons (I guess there are women flim-flam persons but I never met one and the one in the book by Guy Ownes is a man).  There's Cleveland, and I bet it's prettier than the one in Ohio, the one Chrissie Hynde says is gone anyway (The Pretenders, "My City Was Gone").  There's Wildwood, an overused name if ever I heard one, and not very descriptive.  Wear Valley, as in "this valley really begins to wear on you after living here all your life and never gettin' beyond the crick and this holler."  New City (oh, sure) and Athens (toga, anyone?) and even Philadelphia (population 533).  It's all been done.  But Soddy- Daisy?  I don't think that one's been done.  Two communities joined in matrimony.  Soddy married up, I hear.

9.  The thing about Cracker Barrels is that you don't usually find them in the midst of big cities.  People there are too uppidy, eating noveau cuisine (tiny portions of raw fish served on huge white plates with obscene pricetags) or atmosphere that's meant to make you feel important.  I feel at home in Cracker Barrel, like I am among my own.  I feel plenty important.  These folks enjoy their food (they have well-developed midriffs) and like to set a spell and talk about politics (the conservative kind, mostly) or weather or maybe huntin' and guns.  Though I didn't mention it to my family, I secretly hoped for a Cracker Barrel around the Biltmore Village exit in Asheville.  I was deluded.  These folks have probably zoned out "trash" like that.  We ate at Panera Bread (fast food for the better-heeled), shook the dust from our feet, and beat a path over the mountain.

10,  Lest you think this just a promo piece for Cracker Barrel, let me finish with one final observation.  If I could write this in the form of a song, I would, but I have no talent in that regard.  The people that keep these roads as nice as they are work all night to do it.  My heart goes out to them.  The last one I flew by was manning a solitary drill about midnight at the edge of a blocked lane of the interstate between Durham and Raleigh.  Now what kind of a life is that?  Where is his family?  What sacrifices has he made to put food on the table?  Mister, I know you don't read blogs, but I sent a prayer up for you and left it in the air behind these taillights.  There are no little people.  You are out here doing what you do so I can drive my family on a decent road.  To your dog, wife, and children (and not necessarily in that order), my hats off (I mean that figuratively.)  May God bless you and them tonight.

So there you have it.  That's what you get for 15 hours on the interstate.  If you don't write down these profundities, you might forget them.  And probably you will.  But I won't.  And the next time I eat at Cracker Barrel, you can bet I'll think about this trip and maybe a few others out there on the interstates.  Thank God for them.

Lots of Things Growing

IMG_3969  “[I]t’s the little savors and little things that count more than big ones. A walk on a spring morning is better than an eighty-mile ride in a hopped-up car, you know why? Because it’s full of flavors, full of a lot of things growing. You’ve time to seek and find.”

(Grandfather Spaulding, in "Dandelion Wine")  

Not writing the last several weeks, as I vowed I would do, has not been easy.  As big a pain as it is to write sometimes --- the sheer discipline of it, you know, the audacity at thinking you have something to offer the world, the hyper-consciousness that makes you obsess over the mundane --- it may be as big a pain NOT to write.  Almost, anyway.  I feel like I missed things, that I have forgotten important things, that somehow I have not processed it all, that I have looked but not seen.  And maybe I have.  Maybe writing for me is essential to seeing.  Maybe not writing is like trying to hold your breath when you need to breathe.  Maybe words are the very air that I live on. 

And then, maybe I’m too dramatic.  "Words the very air I live on?"  Oh come on.  Still, I can’t help but sense I missed something in all my zeal not to miss something, to just live it without writing it, that maybe I didn’t live it well enough. I didn’t inhale deeply enough. 

[insert deep breath here] 

Looking around the airport where I am seated now, I realize that at least some of what I missed I did not really miss, that staring at the flowing water of Utah's Virgin River and a backdrop of jagged mountains is way better than what passes for commerce and society and even fashion.  How trite it all seems.

There is the infernal din of CNN, the video monitors that play on even when no one is watching, the perkiness of commentators who move from the tragic to the comic with barely a blink.  The other sound in my ears is that of people talking on cell phones, their private conversations suddenly and without consent a part of my world. Top it with the banal sameness of airport lounges. I could be anywhere, or nowhere.  I feel small and anonymous here, small and yet known by that river, under that sky, feet treading the red dirt of earth. 

[insert airline flight, a God-bless-you-honey 75 mile an hour harrowing taxi ride into downtown New Orleans, three somnolent hours in a oh-so-important seminar, and a blessed dinner with the just plain folks of a diner called "Mothers" (red beans and rice and bread pudding)] 

[insert another deep breath] 

I refuse to pay the Hilton $17 a day for internet access, so after dinner I hoofed it across the street and down the block-long casino cacophony of Harrods, and into a Starbucks for free access.  It comes with a price though --- somewhat smokey air, a din from the slot machines and music, the whir of machines sucking Louisiana dry of money, the sober and solitary expressions of those victims perched before their fleecing robots. 

But, thanks to the casino, I have a memory of Day One of our Summer vacation.  We've alighted briefly, feet barely touching the ground of Las Vegas, here for one thing and one thing only, to see Cirque de Soleil's production of The Beatles Love.  Oh was it good.  But oh what you must endure to see it. 

Some of the most poorly dressed and inadequately dressed people must visit Las Vegas.  It’s a preposterous city, excessive in every way, a glittering R-rated Disneyland rising out of desert, dependent on the poor Colorado River and the pervasiveness of sin for life, a giant excuse for naughtiness by its surreal existence in a barren land, so far from home, so far from the people and responsibilities that check baser impulses.  Anything goes here. 

To get to the theater, which is in The Mirage hotel, you have to walk across the casino floor.  What a sad and lost looking bunch of people mill about there.  I explained to my children how many were at this moment squandering money that could be used to support their own families, to invest in companies, and for other worthwhile and charitable purposes, and yet here they were playing a “sucker’s game” in the hope of winning, all odds against them. Everything is geared to getting you in the game or back in the game.  To get anywhere, you have to walk through the casino.  Valet parking? Free.  Free because if you waste time self-parking you’ll spend less time in the casino.  The show?  Unlike Broadway, these shows are amazing but truncated, limited to a mere 1 1/2 hours so you will return to the casino promptly to be separated from your money. 

The antithesis of Vegas or Harrods New Orleans is the natural air and quiet of Utah. I love Springdale, Utah. I love Zion National Park. My favorite part of it all is the contrasts --- the red cliffs of the canyon walls against a cobalt blue sky, the green of ferns growing on a wet cliff wall, the chalky Virgin River that rushes through the canyon floor, the brilliant white of cumulus clouds floating over red mountain tops, blue pool water against stone walls. I’m listening to the thunder. It’s monsoon season here, which means occasional afternoon showers.  Like that day when we took the canyon tram to the last stop, hiked in a mile on a mostly level path, and then dropped into the brisk water of the river, gingerly making our way upstream in search first of Orderville Canyon, the only break in the sheer canyon walls, and then to the aptly named Wall Street, where the canyon walls press so close, so “narrow,” the river rushing through it, wall to wall, mostly knee deep but on occasion chest high.  We never made either.  Short of Orderville it began to rain, and we heard thunder, and like most others in the water who had some sense we turned around and walked out, concerned about the danger of a flash flood.  I found it tough going anyway.  Because of the murkiness of the water, you could not see you footing, and the risk of a turned ankle or worse preoccupied me.  I moved slowly.

But that was then, and this is now.

I treasure these memories of fresh air and bare earth.  Little savors.  Much better than the hopped-up life of the city.  Full of flavors.  Full of something or Someone that is for me, Who exists out there in Creation unmediated by human hands.  Jesus said seek, and you will find.  What do you find?  You find lots of things growing. Lots of little things.  You find a Kingdom without end world without end.  Amen.

[deep sigh]

File Under: Vacation Memories and Profundities

No tel I'm back from our annual Southeastern Arizona vacation.  Back to reality, that is.  But I did procure some memories.  Here's a few, in no particular order:

The Grottoes:  Two hours east of Tucson, in the Chiricahua Mountains near the New Mexico border, lies Chiricahua National Monument.  Established by President Calvin Coolidge in the 1920s (see, he did do something), it’s a landscape more lush than the desert scrub-land around it, a place that receives enough rainfall to support pine and birch trees, a forest island, really.  But these trees are punctuated by giant boulders stacked precariously one atop another, as if God as an afterthought threw the remainders of the raw material of Creation out, where they landed in piles.  It’s absolutely gorgeous.  In one portion, called the Grottoes, reached by a quarter mile hike, the boulders are so arranged that they form a labyrinth of cave-like openings.  My son and daughter scampered over them, like they were not teenagers but young children.  So did I.  My daughter proclaimed that she would live there and bedded down on a ledge under one ominous looking boulder.  And she probably would if she could, at least until another thought entered her mind.  I told her she’d have no internet access there.  She said she didn’t care.  And she really wouldn’t.  It’s a hopeful thought.

Lil’ Abners Steakhouse:  City slickers may turn their noses up at it and prefer the uppity steak houses, but I still like the roadhouse feel of this desert institution in Marana, on the outskirts of Tucson.  Once, 26 years ago, we traveled out in the desert on a winding two-lane road through darkness to get here, way beyond the city.  Now the suburb of Marana threatens to overtake it, a four-lane road, streetlights, and shopping centers all around.  And yet, step on the property and you step back in time.  Nothing has changed much except prices.  We sat inside at picnic tables and ate steaks cooked outdoors on an open mesquite fire, served up with all you can eat ranch beans and salsa and buttered Texas toast.  It’s one of those meals that’s so good that when you finish you wish you could eat it again.  We ate at Lil’ Abners twice.  Both times we saw the same couple there, a 40-something woman in a halter-top and tight jeans next to a man who was always sitting sideways on the bench --- intertwined in some fashion with each other, just a part of the wildlife here.  From them I got an idea for an anniversary present:  the man had a t-shirt on with a picture of the woman dressed in the very same outfit she had on that night.  Now how cool is that?  Only at Lil’ Abners. 

About 8:00, the band kicked up with guitar, fiddle, steel guitar and mandolin, singing old time country and western music and bluegrass, like the "Orange Blossom Special," "Tonight I Started Loving You Again," "Folsom Prison Blues," and so on.  Here’s the thing:  Not a one of the band members is under 80.  Dean Armstrong, the leader, who I have been seeing for 26 years, looks as if he’s over 100, dressed in a black suit and cowboy hat, looking and sounding no different than he did 26 years ago.  Oh, how I hate to leave this place.

Church:  I love going to Catalina Foothills Presbyterian Church (PCA) when in Tucson, and we were able to go on Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, and Easter Sunday.  The music is riveting, even chilling, and drives me to worship.  The pastor is from Mississippi, and so the voice reminds me of home.  The theology is sound, the worship excellent, and the people friendly.  After the service today, I turned to my wife and said, “Can we move here so we can go to church here?”  Were I impulsive, I would do so.  I love my home church and would not so lightly leave it, but it makes me wonder why I don’t ever leave worship feeling quite so blessed as I do in this church.  It’s not a fair comparison, of course.  This is a church over twice the size of ours, with abundant musical talent, a large staff, and a huge choir, but still it provokes me to think about how we can make our worship more excellent, not for performance or spectacle but to help create better worshipers.  Of course the view is inspiring: the windows behind the choir look out on the peaks of the Santa Catalina Mountains.  I can't bring those home.

No Clock, No Time:  I could get used to waking up with the sun, without an alarm.  For eight days, I woke up, went back to sleep, woke up, went back to sleep, laid around, and generally got up when I felt like it.  That’s usually not a lot later than I normally do, but I can tell you that this is the civilized and decent way to sleep and exist.  You can come up with a lot of profound thoughts in the early morning hours, when things once seemingly impossible seem possible.  Listening to the sounds of others sleeping is also deeply reassuring.  Of what?  Well, maybe just a deep thankfulness that we individuals have been sovereignly thrown together for life as a family, for better or worse.  That’s the kind of thing that can occur to you when you leave time outside and pretend you have all time in the universe at your disposal. 

Clocks intrude and mechanistically shape our existence.  If we aren’t careful (and many aren’t), we end up making time an idol.  And scripture warns that when we worship what we make, we end up becoming like the thing we make: cold, mechanical, and prone to alarm, our hearts tick-ticking our life away.  (Note to self: think about that some more. . . when I have time.)  I was glad to be rid of the clock for a week.  I was glad to be out of routine, acting on impulse at times, just sitting in one place sometimes and thinking a new thought, vacating one life for another once removed.

Can't Stop Dreaming:  Maybe it was the climate, the extra sleep, the out of ordinary cuisine, or the rested mind, but I have never had such imaginative and memorable dreams.  On occasion, I woke up, ready to return to sleep so the dream (like a novella) would continue.  In one humorous episode (which seemed very serious to me in the dream), I was apparently the guest pastor at a church, asked to deliver the sermon.  Before the service, a pastor or someone in church leadership asked what I would preach on.  I said "Its Only Rock 'N Roll."  I even gave him three points that I would make (wish I could recall those, don't you?).  Then, just before I go on, I realize I haven't a single note to speak from.  I woke up, thank God and, I assume, to the relief of the congregation (what kind of dream were they having, I wonder).  Late in the week, as if my brain was running out of material, I began to dream about old girlfriends.  No, that wasn't pleasant at all.

The Spa:  No, you don't have to turn in your man-card if you partake of a spa, men.  But you do have to be wary.  I think the women on steroids who work in these places do not like men.  The first time I had a massage, I came out and asked my wife if it was supposed to hurt, because it did.  The woman masseuse had a vice grip on my neck, drove her elbow into my back, and beat on me for nearly an hour, all to the soothing sounds of Indian flutes and rippling water and wind, while every now and then, in a hushed tone (as if I might be asleep), she kept telling me what next form of abuse might be administered.  This time I said "no elbows", please.  I felt like saying "be nice."  Maybe I'm exxagerating a  little.  So, it's relaxing.  That's about it.  The aromatherapy and all the talk about releasing toxins?  I'm not a believer in any of that.  When it was all said and done, I slid off the table floated back to my room, like jello, putty in their hands, man-card still in my pocket.  Try it.  My son says he will never, never, never, never, never, do any such thing.

So, that's it for another trip to Tucson, Arizona, home of the No-Tel Motel.  (No, we didn't stay there but often passed it on the way downtown.  We prefer the Westward Look Resort.  But the No-Tel has a more interesting name, don't you think?)  Now, it's time to plan another one.

Checking Out, Checking In

Being on vacation is in some ways like inhabiting another dimension.  Thoughts of work and the concerns of home impinge.  Emails remind me that life goes on, that bills await payment, work rests in my inbox, and people still have problems, of course.  

I delete emails. 

I absentmindedly can't remember to return calls.  Given that it's three hours later at home, I always seem to have the excuse that it's not a good time.  Really, though, I resent the intrusion, am guarding the space I have.  After all, I'm checking out.

I quit checking Facebook.

I give Twitter a rest.

I am here, not there, and all the problems and concerns of that world will remain for when I return.  I have to remember that.

But it's not such a different world after all.  Sitting on my patio this morning, looking past the wash that I walk in, I can see 50 miles, clear across a city of over one million people, and I read this: "How lonely sits the city that was full of people" (Lam. 1:1).  I know the writer is lamenting a Jerusalem emptied out in exile, and yet looking out across the city I cannot help but feel the writer pointing out toward the city here, feel a tinge of exile myself.  We are not where we belong.  I can vacate my own city but no matter where I am, people are by and large living in exile, emptied out of life with the One who made them.

There are those who say that the desert, mountains, and air here are spiritual. They worship place in a kind of neo-paganism.  Walk a little while in the evening air, stare long enough at the mountains, watch the wildlife around you, and you are tempted to say the same.  And yet the strangeness of the place, its vivid nature, is really a window to the God who made us, holy ground only in the sense that it bears His mark.

It's like the full moon in the sky tonight.  It has no light of its own but simply reflects the light of the sun that it's given. Everything is full of His light.  Everything, even in exile, points to Him.

Rocks really do cry out. The heavens do declare the glory of God.  They pour out speech.  Thy never stop talking, never stop proclaiming that God is great, and good, and will bring all the exiles Home.

A vacation can give you space to have thoughts like that, give you time to check in.

Letting Time Go

8:45     Went to breakfast
10:00   Went back to room

My daughter is tweeting her vacation.  Well, not really.  She's just writing things such as this down in a one by two inch memo pad she carries in her pocket.  She's not publishing it, at least not yet.  I asked her why she is doing this.  She says she doesn't know.  It's just fun, she says.  I asked her if I could see her list. She said no.


This afternoon I walked out of our ground level hotel room door, crunched across the gravel between our room and the path that circles the property, navigated the cacti on the hill and started walking.  It was like being among old friends.  I suppose it is the starkly different surroundings of the desert that make me hyper-attuned to the plant life and wildlife around me.  I see pine trees around 355 days a year.  I take them for granted. Here, it's not so.

I decide to get off the gravel path, which is a bit too cultivated, and I take to an adjacent wash that is just dirt.  Maybe in the Summer the wash may be full of water, during a monsoon rain, but now it's bone-dry. Imagine the sound of the birds which are everywhere here.  Two desert hares skitter across the wash, two of the eight to ten I see in the 40 minutes while I walk.  I've seen javelinas (wild pigs) here on occasion, rooting in earth and snorting.  None today.  I've even seen a coyote, warily watching me from a distance.  In the heat of the day they are likely farther up in the hills that are shadowed by the Santa Catalina Mountains.  I look up at them.  It's difficult to believe that 11,000 feet up, where I see green, there is a birch and fir tree forest, maybe even snow.  The browns and greens are in such sharp contrast to an azure sky, the blue so piercing it almost hurts.  I look down and ahead.  Last time I was here I nearly stepped on a rattlesnake.  Not everyone here is friendly.

Let me introduce you.  Here is the palo verde tree, and there, and there. They're all around. The word means green stick, a tree with green branches that photosynthesize in the place of leaves which are difficult to maintain in the desert.  There is the jumping cholla, a cactus so named because its needles ended up (that is jumped) into the hindquarters of many a cowboy.  They don't really jump.  There's the staghorn cholla, which is severe looking and has a tinge of red its green branches, and the barrel cactus, a fat squatting type.  Yucca.  Brittle-bush with yellow blooms.  Prickly pear cactus, with its Mickey Mouse ears.  And towering over them all the saguaro cactus, many of which were germinated in the last century. I mean the 1800s. Because the arms on each of them all have a different shape, I even recognize some.  After all, I have been coming here for 25 years.  They haven't changed much.  Maybe they grew a foot in all that time.  Maybe not.  They will outlive me and my children and grandchildren will visit them.

I said old friends.  Maybe what I really mean to say is that I am among my elders.  Walking here I have the sense of timelessness.  I see mountains that were here long before the first settlers came West.  Most of those here preceded me.  They may be inanimate, but if rocks cry out and trees clap their hands (as Scripture says), then perhaps these elders say something too.


11:00    Went to pool
12:00    Tired. Bored.  Went back to room.

What is it with this hyper-attentiveness to time? I'm not sure what possesses her.  It's not a journal. Nothing profound in what she writes down.  Maybe it's just documentation, validation that she is here.

I could have told her that.

Maybe, just maybe, she'll take to the wash and find something there to really write about, something that will make her stop counting time, stop measuring it at all.  Maybe she'll discover things that are timeless.

Like the cactus wren poking his head from his nest in the saguaro.  At 1:22.

On Vacation Eve

I woke up yesterday morning with the sensation that something was over.  Oh, my vacation.  Only thing is, I hadn’t even left town.

I booked the airline tickets last September, on the cusp of Fall, thinking and dreaming of what a warming excursion our annual trip to Arizona over Spring Break would be after a long Winter.  That hope and dream lay dormant through holiday diversions, pleasant as they can be, through a a wet and cold January and February, through the sometimes tedium of work, the lingering curse of the three flights up/ three flights down.  And so here I am --- trip planned, hotel booked, itinerary in draft with appropriate white space for spontaneous and unplanned hikes, sunset walks, undiscovered eateries, and long conversations --- and I find myself haunted by a sense of melancholy, of déjà vu.  I can see the end of my vacation, the very last day, when we shake the last desert dust from our shoes and board the prison bus back to Life, with all its responsibilities and duties, with all its unpleasantries and disagreeable people, with all its sameness. How bleak!

I am a sad little man.

(from the son): Yes, you are. . .

What would Freud say?

(from the son): Dead white men don’t say anything.

I love traveling with my family.  Little epiphanies occur all the time, punctuated by an occasional horrific arguments.  At home we argue in brief.  We’re too busy to really get wound up.  I have to go to work. They have to go to school.  There are bills to pay.  On vacation you can. . . well. . . follow the thought, see what happens, crank up the volume (it’s only rock and roll), get to the heart of the matter, find out after all what an unsanctified lout you really are, discover the wonder of forgiveness, how soon enough no matter what is said, it’ll be time for dinner and a night out and whatever you argued about falls way way back there in history, as insignificant as what you learned in 9th grade Logic class. And you think how wonderful all these people are that you travel with. And they really are.

(from the son): Dad, aren’t you supposed to pay taxes around this time of year?  How’s that going anyway?


(from the son): Where did you come from anyway?  Are we really related?

But I digress.  I was talking about vacations, their joys, their opportunities to get to know your family better, discover new things, new places, and new foods.  All so true.  I hear anew some new expression one of my children have had for some time, only I’ve been too busy to listen, or hear about some plan or dream or see how they have matured, only in Life, as it whizzes by, I cannot slow down enough to notice that new tree-ring of growth on my offspring.  Or the ever wondrous smile on my wife’s face or the pearls of wisdom that fall from her lips.

(from the son):  This is getting sappy.

OK.  Back to melancholy, a state of mind that has its enjoyments, its temporal pleasures.  I guess part of the reason I find vacation-eve bittersweet is the sense that I am leaving home, and I enjoy this place, this Life, even with its burdens, because most of what I know is here, most of who I know reside here.  Indeed, part of who I am resides here.  So, leaving here means leaving part of me, and I like me well enough not to want to leave me.  Well, that makes me sad.

(from the son):  That’s pitiful.  Do you just sit around thinking up such stuff?

I love these conversations.  He’s reading over my shoulder, chomping away on his chips and cheese, like a prisoner at his first meal after being sprung from the penitentiary.  Oh, Education, what have you done to him?

(from the son): More than it did for you.

See, it’s beginning already.  That glorious sharpening of iron upon iron.  The verbal arm-wrestling.  The privilege of insult.  I love the boy, his head filling the airplane window, him going forth into all the world and taking dominion.

Did I say my daughter was beautiful?  She is.  Like a picture, her profile outlined by the airplane window.  I love that girl.

(from the son):  What kind of picture is that?  America’s most wanted?  A mug shot?

That’s part of the joy of it, you see?  The love of brother and sister, the mutual affection, their deep depreciation of one another.  Which brings me back to. . .

Melancholy.  Ahh.  A vacation nearly over before it begins.  I see the end of it now, the returning, and when we deplane I'll see it in the faces of the people walking to their gates while we walk out into the warm Tucson son.  So sad.

(from the son): Can we change the topic?


Actually, I think it'll be fun, this vacation, even if it must end.  It makes me appreciate home.

Oh, the Places We Could Go

57colonypark I love planning vacations, perhaps even more than being on vacation, particularly road trips.  I pull out the large orange Rand McNally road atlas or, better yet, go buy an up to date one for the year, all the time dreaming about where and when and how and what, thinking about all the places we could go, things we could see, history we could soak up.  I bring it home and open it up on the table and spread it out before me.  Then I add to it the brochures I have received by mail, or Fodors and Frommers Guides I have bought, and I settle in for spell of dreaming.  I study pictures in the travel brochures, trace the snaking lines of red and black and blue highways in the atlas, tick off the names of towns, and visualize the look and feel and smell of all the places we will go.  Oh, the places we will go.

No one else is much excited about this planning.  One is concerned about what we will eat.  One is concerned about who we will meet.  And another is concerned about where we will sleep and shop.  Mostly, I just want it to be local.  I want it to be something unique to the places we visit, something I cannot find here.  I want to eat local, meet local, and shop local.  We have Outback and Taco Bell at home.  We don't have a place like "Butts by the Creek" (a barbecue lodge), Lil' Abner's (a desert steakhouse with a two-pound steak cooked outdoors on mesquite), a beach filled with multi-colored sea glass (somewhere in Cape Breton), or the confluence of weirdness and hipness (Venice Beach).  I want an out-of-place experience, to walk in someone else's backyard for awhile, to feel what it would be like to be someplace else, to, in a sense, not be me.

This is a time for imagination, not reality.  I call it the dream stage of vacations.  For a time, reality is suspended and you assume that you give sin a couple weeks off, kicking its dust off your feet as you pull out of the driveway in your station wagon, windows down, luggage rack laden with suitcases, lawn chairs, bikes, and most of the garage, afraid to look back lest you change into a pillar of salt.  Goodbye suburbia.  Good riddance cookie-cutter houses.  Goodbye tired routine.  Goodbye cats, faces pressed to window glass.  It's dream time.  Oh, the places we could go.

But.  And that's a big, big but.  Road trips ain't tidy.  One car, four people. miles to go, the inevitable mis-steps along the way (motels that look like crack houses, jarring road construction, a big stretch of ugly landscape, an encounter with plain folks who are just teensy bit too plain spoken, and local diner food that isn't like Grandma's cookin' at all), and by golly when I checked the rear view mirror sin reared its ugly head setting right smack between my young'uns who done commenced to picking on each other.  Wait a minute.  I'm somewhere in the Ozarks in my vacation dreaming!  I'm sounding a bit too colloquial. 

But the guidebook I'm reading said it'd be this way.  "Of course it isn't all pretty," it says on page one.  And I appreciate the candor, because when the dreaming stage is over, reality sets in.  The fact is, vacations bring out the best and worst in us.  Sad to say, you can't take a vacation from yourself.  We have to bring ourselves with ourselves.  Sometimes, out there in Eureka, Arkansas, after a little (huge) family spat, you may wonder why you did this, what happened to the dream.  But look at it this way.  You get to find out how bad you are, what a selfish pig-headed brute you remain, while you're surrounded by the people you love and who love you in spite of you.  They are merciful.  You can go to bed and wake up and the slate will be clean, all forgiven, and you'll look out the door of the Holiday Inn at the highway ahead and realize it doesn't get much better than this, catch a glimpse of the road twisting out of town and believe in second, third, and even fourth chances, that over every hill and around every curve is something new and some one new.  Even you can change.  Oh, the people we can be.

But I'm not there yet.  I realize that vacations are like that, reality writ large, but right now I'm dreaming. Let me enjoy it.  I want to turn my wheels into the Great River Road, follow Route 66, trace the path of Lewis and Clark, criss-cross the Big Muddy, eat all kinds of barbecue and local specialties, tick off towns like Hannibal, Vicksburg, Crosby, Kaskaskia, eat at the Front Street Cafe, West Side Cafe, and East Bend Diner, dip my toes in the mighty Mississippi, and sleep where famous and infamous people slept, hang with locals, and walk their streets. Oh, the places we will go!

When I was three I used up on the car seat between my Mom and Dad, seat belt-less, and watch the road, giving directions to my Dad, looking at the map even before I could read it.  I'm still doing it.

"Savor, and enjoy," says the guidebook.  So true.  So right.  I think I will do just that.

Home Again, Again (Part Four): Disappointment and Hope

DSCN1230 Hannington, our driver, embodies so much that is good about the Ugandan people.  He is resourceful, hard working, unfailingly polite (“yes, please), and of good humor --- all characteristics that generally apply to the people we encountered on our trip.  And yet as humbled as I was once again by the generosity and hospitality of the people we met in Uganda, this was a sobering trip for me as I became aware of their failings, individually and socially.

In the village of Koreng, what began as a fairly orderly distribution of school supplies and shoes ended in a lot of pushing, shoving, and grabbing as needy kids and parents realized that there would not be enough for everyone.  In Kampala my wife and I witnessed the pride of two African men --- both concerned with position and status and self.  And while most people are kind, sometimes I do not know whether the kindness extended is fully genuine or whether we muzungus (foreigners) are viewed as a means to an end --- gifts, sponsorship, or monetary support.  On a larger scale, the system of government and of justice in Uganda is thoroughly corrupt, from side of the road bribe solicitations for traffic fines to payoffs to legislators and judges to double invoicing and other unethical practices by private contractors.  As one man told me, the roads in Kampala remain pothole-ridden not because there is no money to fix them but because two-thirds of the money “stays on the table,” that is, lines the pockets of government bureaucrats and contractors.  Christian law students I spoke with at Kampala International University struggle to understand how they are to survive with faith intact in such a corrupt system.  And if you turn the clock back a bit, these are the same people who produced killers like Idi Amin and Milton Obote.  You only have to go next door to Rwanda to discover what evil neighbors are capable of. 

The Ugandans are, after all, human.  Surprise!  It was a healthy disappointment to learn that in many ways they are just like me, just like us all, a mix of good and bad motives, subject to the same temptations and failings.  I say a disappointment because we tend to idealize a place and people when we first encounter it, because in its newness we are overwhelmed by its contrast to the familiar world we know with all its failings.  I say healthy because when you can see a place and people more realistically you are better able to know how to assist them and encourage them in the good without, hopefully, serious and ill unintended consequences.

Yet my disappointment is no deeper than my hope.  Our house mother at Agape Children’s Village, Mama Christine, served us with, it seems, no concern as to what she might secure from the relationship.They were many children who seemed simply to enjoy our friendship while expecting nothing in return --- no gift, no money, no sponsorship --- though they have great needs.  It’s encouraging to go to a law school where I can speak about my faith openly and be warmly received by students, faculty, and administration in a way that would not happen in most law schools here.  It is encouraging to worship in a church where no one is watching a clock, where a three-hour service is not only normal but relished.  While traffic in Kampala is as bad as that of Los Angeles, drivers are much better mannered and accidents fewer.  Headmasters take on the jobs of running schools where there are little to no facilities, no books, and intermittent pay with a dedication that they often describe (as one did to me) as “a calling from Almighty God.”  And while structural problems like corruption and government ineptitude do not lend themselves to easy solutions, I am thankful that electricity has come to Kaihura, somehow, that there are some good roads on which to drive, and that  in a city as large as Kampala anything at all works.   Last but not least, there are people here who love God, serve others, and seek the good of their communities.  Faith Kunihura saw the “image of God” in the orphans of Kaihura and, with little resources of her own to begin with, has done a great deal to help them.  Pastor Michael Okwakol and the people of Agape Baptist Church are serving the orphans of Agape Children’s Village and even reaching out to the remote community of Koreng.  Thus, my disappointment with the Ugandans is no deeper than my disappointment with myself, my neighbors, and my own country.  We are all thoroughly tainted by sin and yet, knowing Christ, are being renewed every day in His image.  There is hope for Uganda just as there is hope for the United States.

We tried to teach Hannington a good Southern expression like “ya’ll come on,” maybe as a help to getting people back in the van so we could travel on.  After a few minutes, he mastered the expression, albeit a very British-sounding version of it, but he would not use it.  He said it wouldn’t be polite.  He gives me hope.

[I’m glad to be safely home from Uganda and back to blogging.  It was a rewarding if sobering trip.  I hope to post some pictures of the trip soon, and will be back to blogging more regularly.]

Home Again (Part Three)

DSCN0272_4They just live who they are everyday.  They don’t have to be anyone else.” (Emma)

Before I leave on a long trip, I usually take some longing last looks at my home, yard, and neighborhood, and this time it is no different.  Who knows if the fireflies that are so abundant right now will be here when I return?  Or if the house wren eggs in our hanging fern will be there or will have hatched?  It’s not that things here are so much different in two weeks, it’s that when you go to a place like Uganda and then return, you are just a little bit different, and so things at least seem different.

I have the usual mixture of feelings on leaving --- excitement, some uncertainty, and some sadness.  I’m already longing for home and I haven’t even left.  But one thing I know will be true: we will be welcomed enthusiastically by friends, some we know and some we don’t yet know, people who really do seem to have one face, one character, people just living who they are everyday.  To some, I’ll just be “Papa Steve” or “Uncle Steve,” making me feel like some distant relative coming back for a visit.  It’s a good feeling.

I won’t be blogging here for the next 15 days.  Nevertheless, you can come along with us by reading our team blog here.  You might just see an entry from me.  Pray for us.

The Disappearing Landscape: Why the Meadow Restaurant Remains

Photo "The way to love anything is to realize that it may be lost." (G.K. Chesterton)

There's no billboard on Interstate 40 East hawking the Meadow Restaurant. You won't find a website for the restaurant. And most people in Raleigh I tell about it don't know of it, much less of the community of Meadow. And yet this jewel in the rural landscape of eastern North Carolina is an important stop between Raleigh and Wilmington or the beaches of the southeast part of the state. Slow down or you'll miss it.

During the last 25 years I've travelled the road between Raleigh and Wilmington hundreds if not thousands of times. At one time, there was no Interstate 40 east of Raleigh. I took a two lane road, NC 50, through Garner and Benson, with a short jog on NC 242 over to US 421, which took me into Wilmington. I tried to time it right for lunch or dinner at a corner restaurant in Benson, name now lost to me, that had great home cooking. Unfortunately, it was bought by Hardees and demolished. That's the fate of most such local restaurants. I'm always looking for the kind of food I ate growing up, and it's hard to come by. That's why I'm glad for Meadow.

Meadow is the first exit off I-40 East after its intersection with I-95. That makes it about 45 minutes east of Raleigh. From the highway, it's about ½ mile to the community, which consists of a crossroads with a gas station, volunteer fire department, and the Meadow Restaurant, a one story, non-descript concrete block building with minimal signage. A feed building is located immediately behind the restaurant, gaping doors open to traffic.

Yesterday I pulled my car in right between two pick-up trucks (two of several in the lot) and felt immediately at home. For whatever reason I have the sense that a parking lot full of pick-ups means that ordinary people, people who know the taste of good home-cooked food, country people, must eat here, and they continue to eat here because it's at least as good as it is at home.

"You want the buffet, sweetie?

I'm sold. They even know how to address a man here.

"It's $7.25, all you can eat."

Heck, that's less than the fare at Café Carolina in Raleigh, and the spread here makes the yuppie food of the Café look paltry.

"Yes, ma'am. I'm having the buffet."

"Sweet tea?"

"Is there any other kind?"

Sherilee smiles and pours my glass full and leaves a two quart pitcher of tea on the table. I realize I have definitely made a good stop today.

Mike, an associate now retired, told me about Meadow 20 years ago. Usually, however, I'm in a hurry, whizzing by the rural farms and towns of eastern North Carolina, not thinking much about Meadow. But that's going to change.

I walk over to the buffet and have the overwhelming sense that my grandmother might walk out of the kitchen. There's every kind of home-cooked garden vegetable: limas, corn, collard greens, string beans, pintos, squash, yams. There are three or four meats as well, including fried shrimp (which was fresh and tasty), trout, pork barbecue, and fried chicken. They even had pork rind!I loaded up my plate, set down, and started in. Looking around, there were a lot of middle to elderly men, with John Deere hats on, some couples, and two elderly ladies sitting alone at their lunch.

"Everything OK?"

"It' better than OK," I say. "It's great. How long has this place been open?"

"28 years."

"I don't think I've been in here for several years or so."

"Well, we changed some."

"Not much. It's like I remembered."

"Well, enjoy it."

Finishing the main course, I walked over to the dessert buffet. My goodness. I should have started here. There's nowhere in the city you can see a spread like this. I reach for the pitiably small dessert plate about the same time as another man. We look at each other and at the plate. We both say, at about the same time, "That ain't gonna do," and we walk over and get a dinner plate.

There is a four foot square tray of homemade banana pudding, the meringue two to three inches in height. I take a generous portion. I fill the rest of the plate with chocolate pie --- not icebox pie, mind you, but the real stuff, with a meringue covering that looks like the topography of the Rocky Mountains. I had no more room on the plate, so I had to leave the six different homemade cakes untouched. But I'm only one man. There's only so much I can handle.

I understand what they mean when they say this is "comfort food." I feel amazingly comforted that a place like this exists, that people like I grew up around are still around, rural people who go to small country churches of less than 100 people, waitresses that are still "waitresses" and not "servers" and who unabashedly call you "sweetie" and "honey," establishments where the focus is on the food and not the ambience. Meadow is a good restaurant because I could take my Mom here, and she'd be happy. In fact, listening to the waitresses here talk to the older customers, I realize that they are being honored.

The Meadow Restaurant is still with us because some people still remember the taste of a home cooked meal. On our way between cities, we urbanites just need to slow down and get off the interstate long enough to see what the rest of the world is like. If you do that, you might discover a hidden gem. You might just realize how much poorer we'd be without such places. Next time I may even skip the interstate and drive the rural back roads for a while and get a good look at what we might lose.

[The Meadow Restaurant is located 11 miles east of Benson, just off I-40 at the Meadow exit, #334. Take a right at the stop sign at the end of the exit ramp and go about a half mile to the stop sign at the crossroads. Take a left and then turn right into the restaurant parking lot. The lunch buffet is $7.25, dinner $9.50. I recommend lunch, both for price and freshness of food, and coming no later than 11:30. The banana pudding is still warm!]

Needed: A New Cartography

Map When I was a kid and we took family vacations, always driving, I almost always whined my way into the front seat where I could be seated between my parents, riveted on the landscape unwinding in front of me. I was fascinated with where I was going --- as the mailboxes, billboards, cars, houses, cows and landscape streamed past me. I didn't sleep; I was afraid I would miss something. By the time I began reading, I was studying the Rand McNally road atlas, plotting new trips, pondering the names of cities and towns I had not visited, dreaming about what life must be in such and such a place, over the Appalachians, by the sea, along the route of a lonely road through an (apparently) empty western state. I was always ready to go. I sat in the front seat, directing my Dad, calling out highway names, distances to the next town, what was coming next, the map unfolded in my lap, a multi-colored promise of what was to come.

But maps are mostly one-dimensional. They don't tell you what it felt like to drive through a racially tense East St. Louis in 1966, when my Dad had us lock our doors and roll up our windows, running red lights, fear moving us on through streets full of people. They can't convey the awe of looking into the Grand Canyon or over Niagara Falls, though later the names on the map became iconic, windows for remembrance. They can't tell you how my younger sister nearly drowned in a mountain stream which, on the map, is just a thin and jagged blue line, how my cousin (who traveled with us once) went sleepwalking through our motel's property one night, or what it smelled and felt like to drive over the Mississippi, windows down, after midnight.

Just now, I'm looking at a map of the East Africa country of Uganda, tracing the highway from Kampala to Ft. Portal, and the place where my friends live, Kaihura, doesn't even rate a "dot" on the map. On this map, they don't exist, and the roads, which seem to suggest you can get anywhere, belie the reality that many are washboard rough and riven by potholes, lined with people walking and carrying too-large bundles. And the smells! I have not yet seen a scratch and sniff map. Maps suggest peril and promise, help us dream, but until we've been there, had an experience of a place, they don't tell us much.

Author Maggie Jackson says that "our maps echo our veneration of exploration, our facility with space-shifting, our enchantment with posing new questions and storytelling." But she goes on to say that "a society that leaves no room for attachment cannot make songlines. We are not using maps to ground ourselves but to enable us to keep moving on." We have been an excessively mobile society, relishing our ability to jet across the country for weekend in LA, and then back to the East coast for Monday work. Though I can't handle that kind of displacement, I often confront a weekend with a single question: "Where can we go next," like the byline for a travel magazine. What Jackson is saying is that our liberating mobility has a cost, that "[t]he tempo of travel blurs the landscape, and our vehicles increasingly enfold us in a bubble of remove."

Maybe the kid in me still seeks liberation from the mundane, adventure rather than dutiful plodding in one place, the sensual sights, sounds, and smells of a new place, where no one knows me, where I can be what I want to be. In the end, maybe that's it --- we want to be set free from the mundane and able to be all that we were meant to be. We open the map, load the car, board the plane, and set our eyes on what's next, dreaming of what it will be like. And yet I have never returned from a single road trip or vacation thinking I had arrived at Shangri-La. Something is still missing, and however idyllic the place I ventured to, every bad habit and selfish propensity went with me. Whatever the bright colors on the map promise, they will come up short. In the end, we need a different kind of map, a map of the human heart, one that delivers on its promise to set us free. I don't think Rand McNally will do. We need a new cartographer.

Coming Home to Joy (Notes from Kaihura)

logo21 [I wrote these recollections of our recent mission trip to Uganda while on the long plane trip coming home. They are by no means all I have to say about the wonderful people of Kaihura, but they begin to tell about what it is like there, and what it is like to leave. Please continue to read the Embrace Uganda blog to hear more.]

When I walked down the loading bridge to the plane in Entebbe, a blast of cold air hit me. Air conditioning. Settling into my seat, I realized that I had suddenly crossed over, from a mostly pre-modern world to a very modern world. It made me sad.

I am still trying to hold in my mind specific images of Kaihura, particularly the faces of our friends. Saturday morning they met us at Faith’s home, the orphan children from Home Again and the children from the Dorcas Vocational School, as well as pastors and adults who had welcomed and assisted us, and we walked the quarter mile down dirt roads to the tiny business district of Kaihura, the children insisting on carrying our luggage.

Our bus came. We boarded. As we looked out the window of the bus, our Ugandan friends were weeping. My friend Sam, a gifted 18 year-old young man, was standing in the back, wiping tears from behind his sunglasses. Joanne, with whom I played many games at Home Again, was her usual placid self, but tears were in her eyes. Daniel did not cry but stood right in front looking at me. He wrote me a letter, and drew a picture of flowers for me, but at 15 was too concerned at becoming emotional to deliver it himself. Stephen, who has broken his arm, was looking on. I pointed to each of them and waved, wanting them to know that I was saying good bye to them as individuals, that I would miss them, that there were no little people in Kaihura. When you look out and see 400 kids looking intently at you, it’s sometimes overwhelming to realize that each one is made in God’s image, that each one is a soul in need of redemption, that each one has dreams and troubles of their own.

Behind me I hear the uncharacteristic sobbing of my 13-year old daughter Anna. In front of me, my 16-year old son Stephen was crying. And so was I. Not only because I would miss them but because unlike us they could not leave behind the relentless hardship of life, a life they lived, however, with faith, hope, and love. But then as sad as it was to say goodbye to them, just as sad were those faces of the countless other adults and many children of the community who stood outside their homes and shops and alongside dirt streets and the main road and sadly watched us leave, most of whom I had not been able to get to know, leaving them to substandard, often unaffordable health care, poor education (despite the dedication of some teachers), and with neither running water nor electricity. We were leaving.

During the course of the two weeks, Stephen and I interviewed all 25 teenagers that went on the trip, in addition to some others. These kids raised their own support and often more in order to come. Some were curious. Some felt called by God. None were prepared for the overwhelming love they experienced and the work God did in them and through them in a relatively short time --- exposing self-centeredness, teaching them how to worship freely, and meeting their need for phileo love, the deep love of authentic friendship that the children and adults here gave to them. They also grew in their love for one another --- helping, loving, and sharing with each other. Practically all of them wanted to stay. Several of them cried at the mention of leaving or when they began to talk of how being there had affected them.

We adults have said many goodbyes. We forget what it is to be a teenager, where goodbyes seem for a time to be the end of life as we know it and we cannot imagine a world without whatever it is we leave behind. We have also had mountaintop experiences only to return to the mundane plain of life. We know that life will go on, that we will return to the familiar patterns of life on the other side. We say we have perspective. And yet we too easily guard our emotions, steeling ourselves against disappointment. Maybe deep down we are tainted by a cultural cynicism. And yet what these young people give us is a sense of the intensity of experience because they are less guarded, more engaged emotionally, and more in touch with the present moment. Can you remember that time in your life? It’s worth trying to remember, worth letting go of talk of perspective and letting the intensity of the moment, whether of sadness or happiness, wash over you. Then you will go on, but you will not be the same.

I don’t want to be the same. Perspective tells me that I live in a different world than my Ugandan friends, and yet my heart tells me we are the same. I find myself already adapting my conversation and attitudes to the world I live in, and yet I feel a bit estranged. I am home, and yet ill at ease, aware that something is amiss. Something is. To use scriptural words, being an “alien and stranger” on the earth takes on new meaning. I’m feeling alienated. It feels strange. And yet it feels better. I have a better sense that this world is not my home, that my citizenship is not here.

I don’t want to be the same. I don’t want to forget. I plan on surrounding myself with pictures of my Ugandan friends, visible reminders of faith, hope, and love, and talking about what I heard, saw, and learned. If I can remember the faces of my friends standing on that roadside in Kaihura, I can change. God can do a work in me too. We may have had tears, but God promises that “those who sow in tears shall reap with shouts of joy,” shall “come home with shouts of joy” (Ps. 126:5-6). I’m not happy about leaving. I’m not completely happy about being home. But there is joy knowing that God is at work in Kaihura. . . and in me.

For Prayer (Embrace Uganda)

Well, we are almost ready to leave, and today my attention turns outward from home to travel.  We're all a bit excited about what is upcoming in our trip to Uganda.  Please continue to check the blog for updates on our team.  But there's another thing you can do as well.  You can pray for us.  Here are some good prayers:

  • logo21 That will have safe travel.  We go by van to Washington Dulles, and then 7 hours by plane to Amsterdam, and then after a 4-hour layover, another 7 hours to Uganda.  No bed in between!
  • That we will all have good health while we are there.  We have all the necessary immunizations, will be on anti-malaria medication, and have the usual over the counter medicines with us, but pray for our health. 
  • That we would think not of ourselves and our inconveniences but of those we are there to serve.  Pray we might serve them joyfully.
  • That God would change us all while we are there, making us more aware and grateful for his provision for us and more aware of the needs of others.
  • That, as we are able, we would have opportunity to share the hope of the Gospel with others.

Today's post on the blog, by Dirk Hamp, is both encouraging and sobering, about the promise and peril in Uganda.  I think some of the folks already there are overcome at times with the needs.  We do what we can, and we rely on God to ultimately carry all of the suffering.

Thank you for your prayers.  Enjoy the blog.  And come back here after June 30th to hear more about my perspective on the trip.

On Leaving (Embrace Uganda)

logo21 I am going far away.  On Monday my family and I join 30 other parents, students, and teachers for a two-week mission trip to the village of Kaihura, Uganda.  You can imagine what getting ready for this trip has been like, and what a week of anticipation, packing, and last-minute details this has been.

But mostly, like the eve of every long trip I have ever taken, today has not been about that far away place, largely unknown to me, unexplored, full of uncertainty, but about this place, about home, about the familiar and certain places and sounds that are as second nature to me as breathing.  Today I've been walking through this place and saying goodbye.

I don't think we were meant to be wanderers.  I cannot imagine a person or a people who do not want a home and homeland, who move through life as transients.  We're meant to put down roots, to find our promised land, a place and life that in its best moments anticipates a true Home and Homeland to come.  When I'm leaving, I'm reminded of this.

Today, I said goodbye to the still water of the lake, to the geese with their young, to pine trees and gray squirrels that inhabit my yard.  I said goodbye to the robin, the goldfinch, and the two deer that have been munching grass in the unclaimed woods behind my home.  I leave behind the music of this place, like Claire Holley's "Visit Me," a song that carries the sound of home, with its country sound and pedal steel, just a little wistful, just a little longing.  I will miss every comfortable chair, every quiet corner, every footfall of my children in our home, and the purr from contented cats.  I'm homesick for it all!

You might accuse be of being sentimental, but I don't think of it that way.  I love home.  I think the more I love home the more I know of my eternal Home.  My duty now is to love His world, to love a particular place, a particular home.  And when I go away, far away, it's in part to have my own love for home nurtured.

We're going far away.  We need to go.  We'll make new friends, have our eyes opened, be given new visions.  But I can't wait to come home.

[You can follow our trip on our blog.  Everyone is posting.  You might even see a post from me.]

Things of the World, Grow Dim (Embrace Uganda)




Turn your eyes upon Jesus,
Look full in His wonderful face,
And the things of the world look strangely dim
In the light of his glory and grace.

You may recall the melody of this old and shopworn praise song.  I do.  While I cannot easily sing it anymore without a slight cringe, if you divorce it from the tune for a moment, the words are right on: In the light of Jesus, the one who gives meaning to everything of the world, the things of the world do look dim by comparison, and yet by His light we better see what is true, good, and beautiful.

If your family is like mine, you are used to a significant measure of peace and prosperity as compared to the rest of the world. For many months, my wife and I have felt that we needed to be awakened --- not only for our sake but for the sake of our children.  We assume much, take for granted much.  I think and write often about the built environment and marvel at how cities work --- clean water flows via underground pipes and sewage is carried away, electricity is dependable and relatively inexpensive, streets paved an almost entirely without potholes, the grocery store has every food item I could possibly need and more, 95% of us are employed, even the worst schools give the basics and most do much better, and so on.  And yet, even marveling at all this, I cannot hold it in my mind for more than a few minutes.  Life goes on and I assume much.  I'm not confronted everyday with poverty or public infrastructure that is non-existent or substandard.

Late last year we heard of an opportunity to join other students, parents and teachers from Trinity Academy of Raleigh, our children's school, and a local organization called Embrace Uganda, on a two-week missions trip to the village of Kaihura, Uganda.  Kaihura is about three hours drive over rough road from Kampala and Entebbe Airport, a small village in the mountains with little electricity, no running water, and no healthcare.  Our entire family committed to going.  We decided we wanted to share the same experience.  We'll be helping with some additional construction at a vocational school there, working with the orphanage, doing soccer and other games, and carrying books to start the village's first library.  You can find out more about it here

As I prayed about going on this trip, I was confronted by a number of issues:

  • Fear.  What if I or a member of my family had a major health concern while there? I confess this was the largest obstacle for me.  We did the prudent thing, making sure we have medical evacuation insurance, but we are a long way from a quality hospital.  The "what ifs" are haunting.  And yet the bottom line, the thing I return to, is that we are all in good health, have a doctor along on the trip, and have this opportunity to trust God.  "[F]or God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control" (2 Ti 1:7).  And I know better than to make decisions based on fear (even though I feel it at times).  Will I trust God?
  • Calling.  As we considered whether to go, we all prayed for guidance.  And yet what are we looking for?  God has rarely hit me over a head with something, and I still cannot say I have a passion for going, but I do have a passion to be changed, to be molded by God into a shape more resembling who He made me to be.  I think that's where we all come down, putting ourselves in an uncomfortable place so God can use us.  But shouldn't I feel more passion for this mission?
  • Selfishness.  Every Summer our family takes a long two-week vacation.  I love these times.  I love being together, even if the biggest arguments I have had with my children come on vacation.  We have years of shared memories from these trips.  This Summer we will not do that, or, at least we will not do it alone.  I have to share my kids with many other people.  I'll miss this.  I also miss home, familiar places and things, my books, my music, my church, my friends, and good restaurants.  And yet it's only two weeks, right?  All of this tells me how self-centered I have become, how used to having things my way.

You know, I don't want to leave home.  I don't want to do without a shower and toilet using a latrine, carrying water from a well and bathing from a bucket, interacting daily with tons of people, a stranger in a strange land.  I'm just being honest.  But I do want to change.  I'm praying that song --- that as I look to Jesus the things I love too much in this world will grow dimmer, that I'll see through them to what matters.  Pray for our preparation.  Pray for our safety.  But most of all, pray that God would transform us and conform us to the image of His Son.

Baby, I Can Drive My Car (On the Landscape of Loss)

Scdilsobsign2This week I had the unenviable work-related obligation of traveling for nearly four hours each day for four consecutive days along the same stretch of three interstate highways. The firat part of Day One I listened to practically the entire Book of Romans on CD, a mental feat given the long run-on sentences of the Apostle Paul. That required some concentration which, frankly, I lacked, given what has happened and was happening outside my window. Thus, I shifted to an assortment of music --- Matthew Sweet, The Beach Boys, America, and Yes --- as a soundtrack for what I saw.

I both love and hate interstate highways, and I guess I love and hate cars. (More accurately, I love cars but hate what the car has done to the landscape of life.) Enough has probably been written on the effect of the car on society, much of which I read in undergraduate school in sociology and in graduate school in urban planning. But I guess what I can describe here is the inevitable sense of loss I experienced as I rode these marvelous (for speed, that is) interstate highways and enjoyed the speed and feel of the car under me.

Riding by farmland, some of which is now fallow, I know that the highways were preceded by eminent domain, that necessary evil of the modern state. Land, even land in your family for generations, can be confiscated by the government for any public purpose. It is unlikely that society could function without that power, and yet the loss is deeply felt. I remember well presiding over a condemnation action for the government, taking a 100 acre patch of scrub forest, pineland, and swamp for an expanding military installation, and watching a 70-year old man weep on the witness stand as he talked about his land, remembering hunting with his father on the land, picnics, and visiting the now delapidated homeplace on the land. We can shake our heads and say change is inevitable, but all such change comes with loss. And that's the loss I feel today, knowing that farms have been taken, bisected, and inevitably altered by the highway I now glide along. Even communities were separated by the limited access highways. And then the highways lured the next generation to cities and the promise of better jobs and a more exciting life than was offered in rural America. Progress, yes, and an end to a way of life as well.

Turning onto 1-95, southbound, I see the first of what must be hundreds of billboards for the tourist trap called South of the Border. This rural anomaly might be called a "classic" but for its blighted feel. I came here as a boy with my parents for fireworks, as they were illegal to sell in North Carolina. It later became, however, a place of outlet shopping and illegal lottery operations. It's ugly, and yet I know that it employed many rural poor and brought tax dollars into an otherwise poor county. But I wonder if they regret ever letting it in?

There are still scenic delights along the way, even on an interstate at great speed. Rivers hold some natural beauty, still, as in the Pee Dee River or the great Cape Fear. There are acres of pinelands in South Carolina and the blessed absence of billboards for a time. Nature impinges, but still it is like a movie rushing by. I roll down my window so I can feel and smell the air and try to grab some sensation of what kind of place this is. The highway is its own "place," and in one sense there is little to separate one interstate highway from another. I get off on an exit for gas. I pay for it, and the lady behind the counter is real, with a southern accent, someone from this place (which is Dillon, SC), and I know the movie has stopped for a moment and reality has cohered. It's a curious encounter for me, like most, in an unimportant in-between place, and yet it reminds me that most of life happens in these in-between places.

At times the highway parallels the remains of U.S. 301, the former north-south corridor, and the effects of the "superhighway" are on display. Just off the highway, the "Exit Motel" is but the last name for a motel property that in the Fifties and early Sixties was likely a quite comfortable stopover for families traveling south for vacation. Now, graffiti is scrawled across one large wall, the windows are vacant, and the parking lot crumbling and deserted. It's this way all along 301, limited access having ruined many a business that depended on a steady stream of traffic.

Inevitable change, right? It's "inevitability" makes it difficult to imagine alternative scenarios, and changes to the landscape make it difficult to remember how it was before. A kind of cultural forgetfulness sets in. Perhaps it truly is inevitable. Certainly it's not all bad. And yet loss pemeates the landscape.

How appropriate to be listening to The Beach Boys. That America is gone. How sad is that?

Travel Can Be So. . .

Journalpage_1On a trip a few years ago, I asked my daughter to write in a journal about her trip.  I want her to write well, so I asked her to write with her senses.  So, this is what I got -- complete honesty.

We need to write like children.  I sometimes think I write what I like to hear myself say, not what I want to say.  It's an adult thing.  We become accustomed to thinking about how we will be perceived, almost to the point of it being a subconscious impulse.  We need to be like children.  They don't care.  They're just honest.

The Urge for Going

Rand_1 I am not sure why it is, but to plan a trip brings me about as much joy as it does to actually go on a trip.  It's been this way since my earliest memories, one of which is sitting in the front seat with my parents, map in hand, directing them to stay on this road, turn right here, or watch for this sign.  What was I -- six or seven?  I could barely read.

Road maps actually do make for some great reading and imagining.  Take California, for instance.  Tonight I have the Rand McNally 2006 Road Atlas open, the oversize one (affectionately known as simply "RM").  It's 138 pages of possibilities and dreams.  As I pore over it places come alive in my mind, almost like that magic book Lucy found in the Voyage of the Dawn Treader: a spell to make hidden things visible.  Indeed.

Ah, Northern California, the end of Jack Kerouac's wanderings, a place of dreamers, idealists, loners, expatriates, cowboys (believe it or not), and beauty, created beauty. Put your finger down anywhere on the page and hidden places begin to come into view.

J0382747 Rahnersville, Hydesville, McCann, Garbersville, Laytonsville.  Who was Layton or Garber for that matter?  Were they 49s who came West to make a fortune and, finding none, put down roots and became town founders?  I don't have a good feeling about Hyde.  He probably killed a man, or more than one man, and now lives on in infamy.  Most of these are small towns, down a faint line of a road, what RM calls "unimproved," and that makes me wonder why the town didn't amount to more.  And is there any doubt who owns "Potter's Valley?"  That, I confess, I have an ill feeling about too, but maybe I'm just thinking of that greedy, conniving, cheatin' old man Potter in "It's A Wonderful Life." I guess there are upstanding Potters around.  Why, indeed, I knew a judge named Potter.  Oh yeah.  He was known as the "Hanging Judge."  So much for good Potters.

And what's the story behind Susansville and Janesville, not 10 miles apart?  Estranged sisters?  Loving wives?  Town matrons or benefactors?  Or was it "Honey, I'm naming the town after you?"  Lots of possibilities here.  And frankly, I don't know what to think of the Town of "Hooker."  A brothel?  Or just (sorry Hooker family), just an unfortunate surname?  And what about Denny, a near no-place at the dead end of 12 miles of, yes, "unimproved" road?  Poor Denny, exiled like Ishmael, out there, alone.  Or Denny, the loner, the self-made man, going it alone until he got a town named after him?

Some places suggest events -- like Burnt Ranch.  Or they suggest the character of the town, like Whiskeytown.  (Hmmm. . . not far from Hooker it is.)  Or perhaps the general outlook of a folk, like Happy Camp or simply Day.  The latter falls off the tongue well:  "It's a good day in Day today."  I could not find a corresponding "Night" though.

In the midst of these rather comm names, some uppity Southern Californians or East Coast folks plunked down names that they stole from elsewhere -- Nice (France), Lucerne (Switzerland), Capetown (South Africa).  Those names do nothing for me and denote a lack of imagination in my book.  And what, pray tell, are they doing in the backwoods of Northern California?

There are stories written all over this one page of RM.  I feel the pull to go, to see for myself what the names are all about.  And why is that?  Why is it so captivating?  Why do we have, as Joni Mitchell said, such an "urge for going?"

Part of it, I think, is that we are, as Scripture tells us, exiles, nomads, strangers, and sojourners on this earth.  Since leaving the settled peace of the Garden we have been on the move, looking for something, for Home, for what lies over the next hill, around the next corner, to see if something better is out there.  Jesus said to "Go," as in "Go into all the world. . . .," and we've all been going ever since, for all kinds of reasons, good and bad.  His command had a goal, a reason for our going, and that was to "make disciples," to live coram deo, love coram deo, and enjoy what He has made and get to know it, coram deo.

Yes, I'm restless.  I acknowledge that I have found my real place, my Home, with Christ, and yet I see it only partially now, so still I wander.  Yes, I know things, but I want to know more, to walk all over the book of this world, the one He made, to watch Him make hidden things visible to me, little by little, through a glass darkly now, a little clearer tomorrow, and the next day.  I don't want to take anything for granted, leave any rock unturned, miss anything He puts in front of me.

At the end of the going, when I reach the ocean, when I go as far as I can go, I want to know why I'll say Eureka! just like that 49er who reached the sea and cried "Eureka!." Why did he do that?  Bottom line, I want my own town, named after me, but I'll get much better than that.  One day I'll inherit it all.  That's what the Man said.

Now, like RM says right there on the cover: "Get Rolling!" I gotta get going.