The Field of Our Souls

IMG_0264On a one acre tract behind my grandmother's house, she planted turnips and cabbage, corn and cucumbers, pumpkins and watermelons, and more. Each Spring she tilled the field, turning over the hardened ground, plowing under old growth and unsettling the compacted soil. Black earth yielded under her plow. From my viewpoint behind the fence, peering between the wires, she seemed invincible, a sturdy master of the field. While I only remember her hitched to a bobbing gasoline-powered tiller, I recall being told she earlier plowed behind a horse, the stirrups thrown over each shoulder.

Most of us have no experience with tilling fields, so when we read in Genesis of that primary task of the newly created man, we don't fully appreciate it. "God placed the man in the garden to till it and keep it," says the writer of Genesis. (2:18), and it that one pregnant sentence humankind's mandate is subsumed: break up, up end, turnover, and expose --- disintegration wth the end of integration, breaking apart to make whole. Yet if in fact we are made in God's image, then we image Him in his own tilling and keeping, in his own creative destruction.

Psychologists speak of cognitive dissonance, a kind of mental stress produced when we hold two different ideas or when our beliefs don't match our behavior. God can be its agent. The unsettling conviction that we are hypocrites, that our actions don't align with our beliefs, is disintegrating: we lack integrity. God take s a tiller to our complacency, upends our sense that we are OK, and shows us just how sinful we are. Yet he disintegrates us only to assist us in reintegrating word and deed. He is interested in the integrity of our soil, that we have fruit, a good yield.

Hearkening back to Genesis 1:28, another portion of the creation account, humankind is instructed to "subdue" the earth. The Hebrew for subdue is a very strong word. The Westminster Shorter Catechism says that "Christ executeth the office of a King, in subduing us to himself." So, God is at work subduing our hearts, upending our lives in order to make us fruitful. Denis Haack says that what God is really up to is creating disequilibrium, a "state of unease, sometimes severe, that occurs when a person experiences or learns something that does not fit into their preconceived view of life and reality." Like cognitive dissonance, few can live with the dis-ease, and so, as he notes, we seek equilibrium, either by changing or transforming our worldview to accommodate the new information or by rejecting the new information and clinging to our old framework.

Cognitive dissonance. Disequilibrium. Dis-integration. A mismatch between who we think or say we are and who in reality we are, between word and deed. It's what leads even the Apostle Paul to cry out "For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. . . . Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?" (Rom. 7:19, 24). There is only One. The One who destroys our petty idols, who shatters our tidy compaction and turns over our lives, is the same one who gives us life, who produces fruit, who reaches down into the soil of our hearts and does a tiller's work.

There is more to do than ploughing a field. After, my grandmother walked the rows, stooped over, and planted seeds by hand. It was dirty work, her hands in black earth, breaking up resistant clods and smoothing over holes filled with seeds. I watched her stand, hands on hips, and (I now imagine) sigh a long exhalation over her work and think, "It is good." Through the fence where I watched then, she was just an old lady in a field, bonnet to the sky, yet through the field of time, she is God brooding over the field of our souls.


But, the Children

$_32When I began lighting trees for Christmas in the lawn surrounding my home, I was a young man. There was a certain excitement about sinuous cords and electricity, star lights in a winter chill. And for the lights, foreign born and cheap, it was their month of glory, or so I liked to imagine. No longer mute, they sang from the trees with their humming electrical hearts.

Yet, I confess, I did not know the trajectory of my passion. What began with three trees expanded to a drapery of lights over the azaleas, to the Osthmantus trees in the backyard, to the large and unknown tree that brushes against the playroom wall, to all the shrubbery and plantings that hugged the back wall. I confess a tiny bit of resentment grew in my heart.

A few years ago, I was at work in mid-November with, of course, the tree lights. I woke them from their hibernation under the eaves of the house where they lay coiled and cabined, untangled them from their long sleep, and juiced them to see if they lived on, lit for another year. Those that didn't, that were either dark or significantly dark, I consigned to hell which, for such tawdry baubles, means the rubbish bin. I show mercy on whom I will show mercy and have not the power to redeem nor repair their darkened souls.

Once the wheat is separated from the chaff, I drug the bin in which they rested down the stairs, or hefted them, depending on my mood, and sat them at the top of the driveway, abuzz in gathering anticipation. I gathered electrical cords, laid the infrastructure in the beds of pine straw, and plotted my work of creation. Using a perhaps six foot orange pole of unknown origin, I began carefully, like an artist at canvas, hoisting the strands and laying them carefully around the tree. And yet, I tire and soon revert to more abstract art, throwing handfuls of lights over the tallish upper branches of the trees, randomly, like the musical compositions of John Cage or the "paintings" of monkeys and elephants. My method is rude, but effective. Viewed from a distance, through squinted eyes, it is an impressionist painting, I think.

Yet back to that tiny bit of resentment. In throwing handfuls of lights a few years ago, I apparently injured my rotator cuff, producing pain and leading to surgery. No more abstract act. No more throwing lights. It's just not the same. I have suffered for my art.

This year I said to my wife, just on the eve of winter, "Maybe we can just not put up the lights this year." And she said, "But the children would be disappointed." Oh yes, the children. For a moment I imagined our laconic cats watching from the windows, noses pressed to glass, dispassionately observing, not a single thought of Christmas lights in their heads or, for that matter, any thought in their noggins. Yet perhaps even such as these desire to look into such things.

But, the children. Their disappointment. About that she is probably right, so I reconsidered. Last Sunday afternoon, after a nap, near twilight, on the eve of dinner, after the consolations of church, we tackled the first tree. Last year she had taken down the lights, which is my least favorite part of the job, separating them by tree, coiling them carefully, and storing them away not under the eaves but in the garage. It is a more appropriate place, and she was good to them, and yet, as you will see, the new lodgings bred some resentment.

All out, we took to the lower tree. She climbed to the top of a teetering ladder, as I comforted myself by the fact that a fall would be into a soft pine straw bed. Or on me. She wrapped an unlit cord around the treetop, a beginning. Then, done, we plugged it in. Nearly one-half the strand was dark. A resentful strand. She looked at me. I looked at her. A small, silent curse -- no, a pre-curse -- passed between our faces. "Don't cuss," I said. But of course she wouldn't. We smiled slight smiles and let go the curse. "Let's jiggle it," I said, a remedy for most mechanical malfunctions, and we did, and yet we failed to revive it. Reprobate, I thought. We ripped it down. I consigned it to, where else, but eternal damnation.

In the end, 90 minutes later, in the dark, we finished one tree. She stood back, smiling. "It looks wonderful, the best ever," she said, unfailingly cheerful. Stepping back to look, I felt a crunch underfoot. Oh, the faulty light string. Sorry, I thought, as I looked down. But I wasn’t. Who started all this anyway? And don’t say Tim Allen.

But, the children. In the end, it will all be worth it, I think, their lit faces basking in the window candles, the buzz of electricity humming in their ears, and the starry cheer of a lit lawn lifting their hearts on a cold and rainy day. In the light of it, even the melancholy brighten. Christmas is coming.


A Way of Seeing

The desk at which I sit is in a room at the edge of the continent, suspended over a spit of land that but for intervention might just as easily not have been. Orin Pilkey, a geologist who taught at Duke University, argued passionately over the years that barrier islands should be allowed to move, to erode on the seaward side and accrete on the sound side, God shuffling sand in the sandbox of time. But, thanks to the Army Corp of Engineers, it was not to be. And so, here I am.

On one corner of the desk is the slightly askew biography of E.B. White which I just completed in the car today, waiting while my wife shopped. I love to shop with my wife, in the car, or on a bench, with a book, moving in interstate commerce like a man in a dream. There are snippets of conversation and lunch and public displays of affection (hand-holding) interspersed with the threads of Andy and Katherine White's long lives together which I cannot dispel but which float in and out of the stores, like wispy contrails of the past. In the boutiques I am welcome, and yet my eyes glaze over in the face of choices, like the 150 different kinds of tea that a buoyant clerk told us about. I fixate on text - a greeting card, a cookbook, a plaque, a sign - until awakened by my wife's bright smile and movement toward the door. Like Andy and Katherine, we make a wonderful waste of time together until, my 30 minutes up, "I'll feed the meter," I say, and I retreat to the car on a cobblestone side street after sliding a quarter in the slit of the sentry's metallic face, its hiss its only acknowledgement of my ransom. Captive, I read.

Otherwise, my desk holds one too-thin billfold which, in Millennial fashion, has barely any cash, as well as a coupon for ten dollars off at the dry cleaners, ragged from where I tore it, but the sight of which and the thought of its slight savings bringing an inner smile. Sad, isn't it, this frugal delight? But, to continue, there are spare rings from our just-hung curtains, hoisted by Paul from New Jersey who has lived here for 23 years and is remodeling his own home and who loves to talk. And there is a dish of quarters and pennies, for laundry or parking meters or just to hold so to enjoy the tactile feel of saving, a Bible, unmarked, because I dislike writing in my books, a devotional, My Utmost for His Highest, in which today Oswald Chambers exhorted me across the corridors of time to "stop listening to the tyranny of [my] individual natural life and win freedom into the spiritual life," and, sideways, buried under E.B. White, a book that I mean to read, entitled Befriend, commanding by its presence, and, awaiting a new home, a bookmark holding the word "ruminate," which, I suppose, is what I do: ruminate. Mull. Ponder. Essay.

At the far-right corner of the desk, underneath a dish, which is underneath a pair of reading glasses which someone lately needs, is a copy of William Strunk and E.B. White's The Elements of Style, a masterpiece of brevity, clarity, and wit. (I have four copies, in different places, for backup upon backup.) Though commanding in tone, White once wrote that in writing the book he felt like he was "posing as an expert on rhetoric" when the truth was that he did his own writing "by ear. . .and seldom with any exact notion of what was going on under the hood." And yet somehow the pistons fired in his writing and he drove on, leaving us in the wake of his pure exhaust. Who can ever forget the memorable beginning of Charlotte's Web: "Where's Papa going with that ax?, says Fern to his mother, and with that we see the. Open road of both peril and promise.

It's sad to me that the last book on the desk, Edith Schaeffer's A Way of Seeing, has long been out of print, but then it came out in 1977, nearly 40 years ago. In every circumstance Edith saw the hand of God, and the short ruminations here are, in her words, "seeds for you to plant and watch grow in your own mind" --- a beginning, embryonic and not yet grown.

My desk measures three by four feet, a small piece of real estate in a vast universe. Yet the few items here contain worlds. "Where are we going tomorrow?," I say, and we conclude: nowhere. Why should we? I cannot even plumb the depths of twelve square feet of desk.


Creation's Balm

"Be still, and know that I am God" (Ps. 46:10a, ESV)
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Yesterday, in the village of Crossnore, I bought a packet of cards illustrated by Kyron, age 11. "When I am upset," Kyron says, "it helps to look and listen to God's creations." He grasped a truth that many adults can't seem to hold: in a rapidly moving world flickering by, one bathed in the noise of social media, the natural world's relative calm and peace is a balm to the soul.

South of Crossnore, we stopped for lunch at Louise's Rock House Restaurant, whose claim to fame is that it is built on the confluence of three counties, the server seemed grumpy, short. Glasses were set on the table with a thud. The food, once served, was palatable but without promise, not exactly what a friend had enthusiastically recommended. But when I tasted the strawberry rhubarb pie, the clouds parted. I lifted it to eye level. "It's like looking back at the Old Testament in light of the New, a new dispensation," I said. "Grace," a friend more succinctly stated. Suddenly, the main course was remembered more fondly. Perhaps that had been a smile behind the crust of our server's face, her brusqueness just her way, the odd geography of serving in three counties. On the way out she even thanked us.

At any given moment there are more than a few people upset in the world. Drop your present focus, for a moment, and consider what those on the eve and even end of World War II faced: the upset of world conflagration. E.B. White, who suffered from anxiety and sometimes acute depression throughout his life, was one of them. To calm what he called the "mice in his head," he husbanded his animals, took care of his saltwater farm, went sailing in the cold Atlantic waters off the shore of Maine, let the dachshund in, then out. The animals he could do something about; war, not much.

White also wrote of Stuart Little, a two-inch tall son of a New York couple who looks surprisingly like a mouse and yet who despite his smallish size leaves the city on an adventure --- life, really --- and heads north. We don't ever learn the end of his adventure, what he is looking for or what he does, but it is telling where the author places Stuart: in the natural world.

Right before leaving the city, Stuart has a conversation with a repairman who recommended north as a good direction. "Following a broken telephone line north," the repairman said, "I have come upon some wonderful places. Swamps where cedars grow and turtles wait on logs but not for anything in particular; fields bordered by crooked fences broken by years of standing still; orchards so old they have forgotten where the farmhouse is. In the north I have eaten my lunch on pastures rank with ferns and junipers, all under fair skies with a wind blowing. My business has taken me into spruce woods on winter nights where the snow lay deep and soft, a perfect place for a carnival of rabbits." The unusually pensive repairman concludes by saying that, "I know these places well. They are a long way from here --- don't forget that. And a person who is looking for something doesn't travel very fast."

It's as if White is saying that life is challenging, upsetting even, busy, fast, and broken, and yet take courage, he says, from the enduring elements of the natural world around you. Pluck and passion and attention to God's gifts will take you far --- perhaps, even, calm the "mice in your head."

The children who come to the mountain community of Crossnore have had, as I have read, plenty to upset them. They are the troubled castoffs of foster families who do not know how to deal with them, who cannot tame the mice in their heads and hurt in their hearts. In the quietness of Crossnore, working behind a loom, painting, gardening, and worshipping among the mountains and trees, they somewhat heal as they (and we) await a fuller healing.

On the way out of Louise's Rock House Restaurant, the screen door slapped the frame behind us. "I'd eat there," my friend said, "just to hear the screen door shut. You don't hear that anymore." I would too, I thought. Remembering that moment now, looking back down the corridor of time that is a day now shut behind us, I remembered leaves piled up against unopened doors and gates, the swell of mountain peaks, a chill early morning wind lashing the gables of our room, young women working patiently at looms, rocky cliffs, and the rhythm of a highway, north, like it was all one long prayer for peace, a balm for troubled souls.


Traffic & Weather (Errata)


W8umf9wzs1qt9m~"I hate people who are not interested in themselves." (E.B. White)

A man hailed me while on my way in from lunch. "Hey, excuse me, sir, you got any work for me?" I didn't have any work. He said he thought I was a congressman. I've heard that before. He carried an upended rake over his shoulder, whether for real or as a prop for penury. We walked two blocks together, an unlikely pair, and he shared his opinions about the election with me which, not surprisingly, made as much sense as those of the more educated which I had been party to. It was a Socratic dialog: he asked questions and I turned them back on him, and he was happy to oblige. I told him nothing. At the corner, our paths diverged and he went on talking to the wind, his voice trailing off under traffic.

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"We belong together, like traffic and weather," as sung by Fountains of Wayne in their song of the same name, is not a compliment, is it? Or is it? Better, I think, is this one from a Marshal Crenshaw song: "You're my favorite waste of time." Or even, as Crowded House sang, "Everywhere you go you always take the weather with you." Or Rhett Miller’s “Singular Girl, which has the chorus, “Talking to you girl is like doing long division, yeah,” which I kind of think is not positive but takes a moment to sink in. Men, enjoy the wit of these lyrical backhands, but don't try them at home, or you might not enjoy the weather.

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"If I obey Jesus Christ," says Oswald Sanders, "the Redemption of God will rush through me to other lives, because behind the deed of obedience is the Reality of Almighty God." Reading that I fixed on the capitalized R in Reality, on the surreal idea that underneath or behind the perceived reality (lower case) we traffic in the Really Real, the True Truth. Sanders elsewhere says that when we obey -- always freely and without compulsion -- our little acts of loving obedience become "pinholes through which [we] see the face of God, and when I stand face to face with God I will discover that through my obedience thousands were blessed." Thousands? That’s a lot to see through the pinhole. And yet we don't know the shores on which the tiny ripples of our acts of love lap and enliven. We don't know the weather we make.

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One of my pastors likes to remind us in respect to outreach to the community that all we need to do is begin by "raising our spiritual temperature by one degree." Introverts needn't aspire to extroversion, meaning I don't have to, thank God, have a party for the neighborhood. At least not yet.

First up: I’ve begun asking colleagues at work to have lunch with me, many of whom are only acquaintances that relate to me only in a professional capacity. One I had lunch with last week said he and his wife didn't much like the outdoors. I never met anyone like that. My temperature went up. "Do you eat out much," I said. He said he usually ate at his desk. And here I was thinking everyone was eating out all the time, an introvert with an extrovert-sized imagination! But I'm finding that's what most men do.

Next up: Walking every morning, we often pass neighbors in the street, their dogs at leash end. I've been thinking,”this is exercise, not a social call, so keep moving," but now I'm thinking "stop, engage, even walk along beside," and at the bus top we pass every other day, I might even linger and engage the students chattering over their lit screens. Awkward, perhaps, yet warming.

I might even better engage a man with a rake over his shoulder and an opinion to share rather than wishing him gone.

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Watching the short order cook at the Asian restaurant this evening, I was thinking about how helpless I would be at his job. I'd have to work my way up from attorney to short order cook. I would lose orders, slop steaming water on the boss, and quit before the night was up. I couldn’t live in his sloshy efficiency.

The only analogy to my profession is to those attorneys who keep a steady diet of traffic court. There's a lot of sleight of hand, diverse ingredients, and on some days, plenty of hot water. Managed pandemonium. Sloshy efficiency and sandpaper justice. And oh yes, lots of weather.

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I was shy as a child and, truth be told, am still predisposed that way. I tremulously attend large social gatherings with lots of people I do not know. I do not like to raise my hand in class, even in Sunday School where people are friendly and largely known and iron is sharpening iron. I also don't like timed games where people are watching you. It's not that I don't know what to do about it - sidle up to a group huddled in conversation, listen, then dip tentatively into the conversation, for example. But honestly, it's exhausting work.

In Shrinking Violets: A Field Guide to Shyness, John Moran says that while shyness is not viewed positively in America, in some other countries like Sweden, the word has a positive connotation, so diffidence or thoughtfulness would better sum it up. But then, I'd have to live there to enjoy their good vibes, and its cold and I might have to become a socialist, God forbid.

Moran says that shyness is particularly well-suited for writers, a heartening thought. "Shyness turns you into an onlooker”, he writes, “a close reader of the signs and wonders of the social world.” So, the next time you see me not talking or on the outskirts of the social terrain, give me some room: I'm watching for signs and wonders, and I can only do that from back here, because up close the world spins too fast and begs my engagement. Let the extroverts and gregarious among us work the signs and wonders; me, I’ll interpret them.

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Yesterday I got in the traffic and head to the library where I buried my head in the archives for the entire day. How wonderful. I spoke to the archivist who is, naturally, a bookish, owlish man who peers at me between lines of text. We understand one another.

I find it like time travel. I sit in front of a monitor, put on headphones, click, and am instantly transported nearly 60 years in the past to a small Swiss village named Huemoz, to a living room of clattering tea cups among the intensity of conversation, a knickers-clad saint with a high-pitched voice holding forth with earnestness and grace on truth there, in L’Abri, where there is a steady stream of traffic in ideas.

Signs and wonders indeed.

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Yesterday, my wife was walking in our backyard and uncovered the stone marking the grave of our loyal, eternally smiling German Shepherd, Faith. She was a shepherd only in appearance and intelligence, but inside was meek as a lamb, submitting to our then older and much smaller cat who bore the name of a fruit, Pumpkin.

Faith let small children hit her on the head, wrestled tree trunks but hid under the bed during thunderstorms, peeled a grape before eating it, babysat children for free, and brought my newspaper from the street every morning, no matter the weather, as if it was the most important thing she would do that day.

E.B. White, who was partial to the dachshund, about whom he wrote, “Depart,/ You break his heart," had another view of the shepherd: "German shepherds are useful for leading the blind,/ And for biting burglars and Consolidated Edison men in the behind.” Had he met Faith, he’d have to rewrite his poetic summation, she being a licker, not a biter.

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You can’t have a gluten-free Jesus. He said “I am the bread of life. Take. Eat.” Dietary restrictions are one thing, but when it comes to the One who is life and love incarnate, we are to swallow the whole thing, and if we die we die, In Him.

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In Gold Cord, the 1932 story of the Dohnavur Fellowship of India, Amy Carmichael says that “the books of the world come to us, and we know what this present age is saying, and now and then find a grain of gold in the heap of words.” It’s often easy for me to see the heap of gold in nature. An autumn maple of brilliant red leaves is as true a sight as one could wish for. Or, for that matter, a heap of golden leaves, raked, that make a soft bed. And yet like turn of century India, it’s not so easy to see such gold in a culture which traffics in the unholy.

It’s tempting to believe a lie that little prayers don’t matter, that there are no ripples on far shores cause by our infinitesimally small acts of obedience, that the life of a dog doesn’t amount to much, that there are no signs and wonders. Yet that would be a mistake. Kneeling by a pooling mountain stream all those years ago, Carmichael sees fallen leaves beneath the water: “On the floor lay a heap of battered, sodden leaves, some still faintly coloured, red, orange, yellow, some dull and brown like shadows of leaves. And now and then a current moving gently would slip under the heap and carry some of the leaves through golden gates, where, caught in a scurry of white, the bruised things would be broken up and swept swiftly down the stream. Poor marred things. But were they poor? They were on their way to make others rich. The forest and the glory thereof, the fern by the river-side, the little flower, the moss, live on the food that the dead leaves give.”

That’s us. Take and eat. We’re living on the faithfulness of those who have come before us, the memory of Christ’s sacrifice. It has to be not only remembered but re-enacted in every generation. That re-enactment is by a living sacrifice that makes others rich. Do that, and it’ll change the weather. In God’s economy, little sacrifices make one rich. Redemption rushes through us to others’ lives.


Our Haptic God


IMG_3650Even in suburbia there’s a residue of wildness. Walking alone the other morning before dawn, in the darkness before the birds make their first tentative calls, I heard a chilling shriek. It may have been the wolf on its prey. We’ve seen him nervously cross the road ahead more than once, glancing furtively around, and for a moment it’s a welcome reminder that the manicured place where we live was not always so tame and even yet is not in hand. Deer leap our fence and eat flowers, move through the corridors left between developments. Hawks circles overhead. Owls hoot in the still of the night, before the last lights are switched off. Raccoons and possums move at will over the terrain, one they know better than us. And beneath, water still slides slowly downhill, bearing away the earth, bit by bit by bit. Pretty ordinary, I know, yet it’s the place where I get saved.

D.L. Waldie, author of the memoir called Holy Land, says of his life in the not-so-middle-class suburb of Lakewood, California, that he could not “find whatever it is that makes it possible to live in the world outside of the everyday. To put it in its crudest terms: one isn't saved over there; one is saved here. Salvation doesn't arrive from over there; it arrives here in this place, whatever kind of place it might be.” Waldie locates his this-worldly salvation in the Incarnation: if God can pour himself into a man — if Creator can condescend to be creature — then, all of Creation is imbued with value. We are not saved by the world, but we are saved in the world. “The everyday isn’t perfect,” he says. “It confines some and leads some astray into contempt or nostalgia, but imbued with the Incarnation, it fires the imagination of others. The weight of everyday life is a burden I want to carry.”

But many people don’t want the weight of everyday life. Sometimes I don’t. Sometimes the walk into my office is deadening, or a rush hour drive seeing all the other people waiting at lights, eyes fixed ahead, rushing in or out, fills me with melancholy. I open the newspaper and my mind slides down a slippery slope of “what ifs.” It was like E.B. White said about life sometimes, given both his acute fears and chronic, lifelong, unspecified anxiety. “There would be times,” he said about his boyhood, “when a dismal sky conspired with a forlorn side street to create a moment of such profound bitterness that the world’s accumulated sorrow seemed to gather in a solid lump in [my] heart. The appearance of a coasting hill softening in a thaw, the look of backyards along the railroad tracks on hot afternoons, the faces of people in trolley cars on Sunday—these could and did engulf [me] in a vast wave of depression.” It was darkness he kicked at all his life.

I walk outside not only for its physical benefit but for its spiritual quickening. Waldie, also a walker, says that “walking is haptic in the fullest sense. All of the environment touches one when one is not in a car, when walking.” But it’s more than that. He says that “the presence of God is found in those moments when God rips your self-regard away. For me, that presence is revealed when you stop seeing the ordinary as a weight that needs to be dropped. It happens when the ordinary becomes transparent. You see in the operations of the everyday that which expands your moral imagination.”

Yesterday, I went out and walked the perimeter of our backyard, enjoyed sunlight streaming slant-wise and golden, lighting up the early fall leaves. There’s nothing extraordinary about it. You can see it too. Yet my children played here, grew their imaginations when the fence marked the boundary of their world. Our late dog knew it better than us, her own haptic running after squirrels and sticks and smells rooting her in this place.

Salvation is not some abstract deliverance, something particular to me; it happens in the here and now. It happens on these streets and in these neighborhoods and among these people. It happens in context. It happens in my backyard. The rescue plan that God has is as wide as the cosmos and as particular as my very ordinary home, and my very tiny little life. It reaches down into every crack and crevice of this world and will one day fill it. Salvation is haptic. He is in touch and on the move. In the burden of the ordinary He does His great yet often unseen work.

While I write, the window is open to the twitter of an unknown bird, to the flutter and sway of leaves, to the distant sounds of trucks downshifting. I turn back to my task. Cool air wafts in, gently and insistently tapping on my shoulder, saying, “Don’t you know? Haven’t you heard?”


Clear-Eyed Populism

"We do not need the grace of God to stand crises, human nature and pride are sufficient, we can face the strain magnificently; but it does require the supernatural grace of God to live twenty-four hours in every day as a saint, to go through drudgery as a disciple, to live an ordinary, unobserved, ignored existence as a disciple of Jesus. It is inbred in us that we have to do exceptional things for Christ; but we have not. We have to be exceptional in ordinary things, to be holy in mean streets, among mean people, and this is not learned in five minutes."

(Oswald Chambers, in My Utmost for His Highest, Oct. 21)

When the very apologetic alarm went off this morning at 6:30, I hesitated. I understand why some people cannot seem to get out of bed as, for just a moment, I wondered what by all accounts should be an ordinary day might hold. A shadowed cat waited on my desk, dimly visible in the pre-dawn light, and when my slight movement to turn off the alarm alerted her, she advised that she had been waiting for something, though I don't know what, for some time. I too am waiting for something, I think.

Every day holds mostly ordinary things, but you wouldn't know it by reading college admissions brochures and catalogs or watching the fantasy lives of those on television. Everyone must be exceptional, do exceptional things, and save the world eventually. Everyone can realize their potential. Everyone can be whoever they want to be. But while that may be something that some of those with enough money, education, and stable upbringing may achieve, it is not the experience of most. So, I understand why some may not look forward to their days or, at least, may have more modest expectations.

Some might lump me with the elites, and yet those are not my roots. My family was solidly middle-class, not even upper-middle class. I thought we lived in a large house but, in hindsight, it was not. I worked in a department store for most of high school, around working people of even more modest backgrounds. In college, I had a string of summer jobs that kept me shoulder to shoulder with the lower middle class, or lower. I worked in a mattress factory and in a furniture warehouse, a minority in a largely African-American workforce. My "people" weren't doctors and lawyers and educators but small businessmen, sales clerks, factory workers, and auto mechanics. They were like most Americans.

"Are you ready to walk?" I say to my wife.

"Not yet," she says.

Well then, more time to ruminate beneath the covers of my day.

I realize that part of what I am lamenting is the still unshaken belief of elites in progress, that we can fix our problems, that whoever we want to be or whatever we want is ultimately achievable. Yet it's not. Christopher Lasch wrote a prophetic cultural critique in 1991, entitled The True and Only Heaven, only parts of which I have mind enough to read, where he put a nail in the coffin of the beguiling and persistent ideology of progress. As Susan McWilliams recently summed up Lasch's book in an essay in Modern Age, "Democrats and Republicans alike speak the languages of individualism and globalism, promising ever-expanding choices on an ever-expanding scale. No one of any prominence seems to be asking whether the visions attached to those promises are realistic, much less desirable." “How does it happen that serious people continue to believe in progress,” Lasch asks, “in the face of massive evidence that might have been expected to refute the idea of progress once and for all?”

Lasch speaks sympathetically (though realistically) of populist sentiment --- views held by many Americans --- when he champions (according to McWilliams) "the idea of limits (as opposed to limitless expansion), an admiration for small-scale proprietorship (as opposed to widespread consumerism), a cultivation of the pursuit of useful callings (as opposed to luxury and worldly success), a commitment to self-governance (as opposed to rule by technocratic experts), and a sensibility of guarded hope (as opposed to blind optimism). Reading this I hear the voices of E.F. Schumaker, who wrote the Seventies book called Small is Beautiful or, in a more contemporary vein, Wendell Berry, who writes of rural life. Much of the populace understands the idea of limits (you can't spend more than you make, you can't be someone you are not), though some indulge the fantasy for a time.

But this is a lot to think about before breakfast, before rising for the day. I throw back the covers and begin the rituals of the day, the quotidian of our lives.

Later, walking, we cross the bridge over the channel, pause and lean over, and see an unusual sight: trout running thick in the brackish water. An army of boats is anchored, and lines are thrown in the water, fishers balanced on their decks. On the other side of the bridge, nearly a dozen sailboats are moored, resting in the calm water.

"That would make a good picture," she says, and our imaginations meander over hull to the people cabined there, rocking on a gentle current.

"Someone probably has taken one," I say. I try my best to pay attention, but there are voices in my head, a running dialog with Lasch and McWilliams about progress and disappointment and hope, a pedestrian thinking about our pedestrian lives. As I walk, I watch cars, knowing that many of the drivers are en route to ordinary jobs, that many are cleaners, construction workers, tradesmen of various sorts, and restaurant servers. They don't have large bank accounts. They may have a fantasy of winning the lottery, but most know that they will barely stay afloat, and that not without hard work and discipline and favor, whether luck or Providence.

I am not elite. I am not so different than the man who cleans my office each week. Our skin color, educational background, and bank accounts may differ some, but we each get up and go to work each day, each must perform a fair number of routine tasks. My luxury is that of rumination: I get to read and write more, to languish in pools of words.

I have little use for partisan politics. As Lasch recognized, the parties are mainly two groups of elites battling one another over variations of the same beliefs. His hope was that a true populism would emerge outside the categories of left and right that would be capable of sustaining a reasonable social life. Mine is deeper. Mine is imbued by the Gospel.

I am a clear-eyed populist. Human life is fundamentally spiritual, shaped by tragedy, comedy, and fairy tale: realistic and modest in expectations because of sin, shot through with tragedy; grateful for the comedy of whatever gifts of beauty and material provision come my way by grace; and hopeful that the true fairy tale of the human project --- God's promise to rescue his people and restore all things to what He originally intended --- will at last undo the curse. Change can be significant, yet halting and incomplete, and yet our fullest hope is not for this world but one to come. We dress rehearse here for real life on a more eternal stage.

"We haven't prayed yet," she says, and I think, "How could we have made it so far without that?" How indeed? So, we begin our pedestrian, ordinary prayers to a God who will do exceptional things in ordinary lives, who makes holy people among mean (ordinary) people in mean streets, who walks with us as we walk on.


A Time to Kill

I woke up a few days ago with a mind to kill. I had been plotting since the day before, choosing my victims, deciding on the method of death, consulting with an expert on lethal force. Now I was ready. On waking, I skipped the normal routines of food and shower (keep it lean and focused, I thought) and made for the door.

My son's home in the desert southwest is xeriscaped by default, the back and front lawn covered in pebbles, punctuated by two palm trees (transplants, as they are not native to the southwest) in the front and two palo verde trees in the back. Yet with the summer monsoons, grass had thrust its way to the surface in spots -- under eaves, near the water spigot, snaked up through driveway seams, and in the relative shade of trees. Some more timorous shoots even grew alone in the unyielding sun, spiteful. Crabgrass Cong, I mutter to myself. But not for long.

The day before, as I premeditated, I went to the local plant nursery. Bryan helped me. Bryan was a bit scraggly, sun-baked, encrusted with the dust and sweat of honest outdoor work, with a goatee and sunglasses which he wore indoors and out.

"What can I help you with, man?”

"Bryan, I wanna kill."

He cocked his head, smiled a toothy grin, and said, "I can help you with that. You know what you're doing?"

"Yeah, I just wanna kill. I WANT TO KILL."

"Yeah, right, we covered that."

I'm sorry about that. Some of the monologue from Arlo Guthrie's classic "Alice's Restaurant" came to mind. That part between him and a recruiting officer at the draft board. But that was another war.

“This should fix you up right here." He pulled a smallish, unimpressive looking potion off the arsenal shelf. "Now it says you mix two and a half ounces to a gallon of water," he said, pausing for effect, "but I just use four." He tapped the bottle and smiled deviously.

"Kill those suckers, right?"

"Right. Can't take any chances."

"So what do I shoot them with?"

"Spray. You spray 'em, dude. You need one of these." He held up a one gallon jug with a gun attached to it via a black hose.

"Napalm."

"Whatever."

We picked up a bag of pre-emergent stuff as well. Granular poison. Kill those Herbi-Cong weeds before they reared their heads above ground. These people at A.J.'s Landscaping mean business. I like this guy.

"Do I need a permit for this thing?"

"Naw. The Man don't care."

"Sweet."

At the cash register, after paying, I cast a backward glance on leaving, wistful, envious even. Look at all those "shovels and rakes and implements of destruction" (oops, Arlo Again). What a great place to work.

I did my research. I read up on weeds. Parts of Richard Mabry's weepy Weeds: In Defense of Nature's Most Unloved Plants, nearly had me convinced to leave the "botanical thugs" and "vegetable guerillas" alone. Mabry says that all of our definitions of weeds have one thing in common: they are human-centered. "Plants become weeds," he says, "when they obstruct our plans, or our tidy maps of the world." It was like listening to Tokyo Rose propaganda, the smooth words that would undercut my resolve. To create sympathy for the enemy. Banish the thought! Steel yourself, man, I thought.

That night I had the craziest dream. I was taking out the trash which goes in a big plastic dumpster in the ally behind my son's house and a policeman named Obie arrested me, cuffed me, shoved me in the patrol car, and drove off. On the way to the jail we stopped at a restaurant and he showed me big glossy photos of me buying those implements of destruction, of me talking to Bryan, me sitting there with cuffs on and Obie eating a cheeseburger and fries and me ravished but cuffed to Obie so every time he ate a bite he took me along. Cruel and unusual punishment. I was maltreated, malnourished, and maligned. And at the station he turned me over to a recruiting officer who gave me 40 pages of documents with fine print to fill out, like I was some kind of lawyer. I asked him why I was filling out all these forms, and he said it was so the Man could find out if I was morally fit to serve. And I said to serve what, and he said to serve your country. I stood up at that and saluted. And I said in the interest of full disclosure that I did throw some rocks at cars when I was in middle school, so he said go sit on that bench over there. I sat down next to an undefined person on one side and on the other a 300-pound guy in a very small t-shirt that had two kittens on the front of it, and I said I like your shirt and grinned, and laughed. He didn't.

I don't remember anything else.

I woke to the sound of 'copter blades. A Huey. No, no. Just a ceiling fan. I extricated myself from beneath the bed where I had taken refuge.

I better get my act together, I thought. There's killing to be done. It was barely light outside. I threw on my workout clothes, looking camo in dawn's light.

"You need to wear goggles when using that stuff?," my wife said.

"Uh. . ." Not sure. I put my hat on.

"Probably not. I never wore them when I sprayed flowers and all."

Right. She's a veteran. She used to chase the mosquito truck on her bike while it laid down DDT, and she's fine. Really. I went back to my task. She went back to sleep. I slipped out the back door.

I did a little reconnaissance first. I peeked around the corner of the house. Yep. Eaves urchins. I surveyed the back yard. There they were, huddled up against fence posts, clinging to cracks between steps, plottin' and schemin'. I shook my head. "This is the end," I said. "You're goners."

I filled the jug with water, uncorked the potion and, having nothing to measure out four ounces with, estimated. Let's see - three ounces is about the size of a deck of cards, and he said four, and. . . Oh, what the heck, I poured half a bottle in and recorked the jug. That oughta do it.

You had to pump this thing, like an air rifle. Pressurized, I strode out onto the yard. Apocalypse Now, you herbi-Cong, you wicked weedy wanderlings. Wither and die. "Purple Haze," that lovely Jimi Hendrix song, was my soundtrack for destruction.

I sprayed and sprayed, pausing every minute or so to reload. I mean pump. Some of them I sprayed twice for good measure. The sun beat down. The poison glistened on the blades. When I was done I dumped the remainder on a particularly ominous clump of weeds near the water spigot, stooped and pulled several clumps out with my teeth. . . no, no, with my hands. At the end, I was relieved. This killing is hard work.

Leaving for home a few days later, exiting the driveway, I noticed the weeds still there, still thriving. “It looks like I don’t have much to show for it,” I said.

“Oh, I think they’re dying," my son said, generously. "They look a little brown.”

Maybe. Then again, I’m over it. I'm not much good at killing, it seems. I even conceded in hindsight that, as Emerson graciously quipped, a weed is simply "a plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered." Maybe I was too hasty. Maybe a few weeds can be successfully integrated with native plants. Maybe these botanical immigrants are OK.

Bryan would not approve.


A Declaration of Dependence

If you spend a lot of time with religious people (and I do), it is easy to fall into the well-worn track of works-righteousness, that somehow by doing the right things and avoiding the wrong things, we will get to, if not heaven, at least some sense of equilibrium, that God is if not fully pleased at least reasonably happy with us. I understand. I am a parent. My children were so schooled in right and wrong that it may easily have been thought by them that doing the right things and staying out of trouble are what being a Christian is all about. And because the Bible is full of imperatives that we rightly talk about, it's easy to lose perspective.

Some common grace is operative here: do the right things and you most likely will avoid some nasty consequences and certain benefits may inure. But that's not the Gospel. That's a declaration of independence, not a fist to the sky but a more benign self-sufficiency. Ours is a declaration of dependence.

Oswald Chambers nails it: "Sin is a fundamental relationship; it is not wrong doing, it is wrong being, deliberate and emphatic independence of God." And then: "A man cannot redeem himself; Redemption is God's 'bit,' it is absolutely finished and complete." In the race of life -- in the struggle to do right, win the approval of others, gain recognition, please God, and even, oddly enough, be humble -- the moment we look to Christ, declaring our dependence and not independence, we are whisked to the finish line where the Father says, "This is my beloved, in whom I am well pleased." You've won.

So what's left to do? Nothing, and everything. Nothing that will gain you more favor than you now already have, everything that will be for God's glory and our full humanity, to our right being. Gospel indicatives precede Gospel imperatives. You are holy; now, be holy. You are saved; now work out your salvation. The battle is won; now fight the good fight.

Reaching the finish line, Jesus carries us across the line, sets us down, and says, "You won. Now, run. For the love of God man, run. Run for the pure joy of it. Keep your eyes on the prize that is already yours. Be perfect. Be holy. Do this. Do that. Don't do this. Don't do that. You have nothing to prove but everything to gain. Fix your eyes on me and run.


Meet Dylan, a Millennial

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

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

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

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

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

There he is, a real person.

"You know Frank?," he says.

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

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

"I hope he's ok."

"Oh sure, he's fine."

I look down at my salad. Dylan leaves.

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah, you got that right.”

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

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

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


A Cat's Choice in Reading

IMG_0251Our cat, the ample one, is asleep on top of the pillow where I lay my head at night, her eyes squeezed tight, her white-glove paws draped over its edge, her ear twittering every now and then, an antenna to the slightest perturbation. I suppose that's fine, and I ponder for a moment whether her life is merely the interstices between naps or the naps are her life. But she doesn't philosophize about such things.

Weighing down one corner of my desk is the hardbound volume of The Complete Stories, by Flannery O'Connor, illustrated by one of her beloved peacocks perched on a tree branch. It looks as if it's been through a fire, its cover smoked. I read (or perhaps re-read) the first story in it yesterday evening, and I have been thinking about it since.

"The Geranium" tells of Old Dudley, a white man from the South who has gone to live with his daughter in New York City, and now regrets it. Everyday Old Dudley watches a man across the way in another apartment building place a potted geranium on the window ledge. He expects it. He waits for it. And today was no exception. Asked by his daughter to retrieve something from a neighbor a few floors below, he goes down. On return he grows winded and collapses on the stairs. A well-dressed Negro helps him up the stairs and to his room, exploding his categories of what was appropriate.

As Old Dudley says, "He hadn't looked at the nigger yet. All the way up the stairs, he hadn't looked at the nigger. 'Well,' the nigger said, 'it's a swell place, once you get used to it.' He patted Old Dudley on the back and went into his own apartment. Old Dudley went into his. The pain in his throat was all over his face now, leaking out his eyes." When Old Dudley sat down by the window, he began to cry. He looked down and saw that the geranium had fallen off the window ledge and lay cracked on the ground below. A man was at the window. "Where is the geranium," Old Dudley quavered. "It ought to be there. Not you."

"The Geranium," the first story that O'Connor wrote, is about racism and exploding categories, about how difficult it can be to change when set in your ways, about the cognitive dissonance that is created when the categories into which we put people don't match the reality we are confronted with. The expected (a geranium on a window sill, the subservient Negro that Old Dudleyused to hunt with down in Alabama) goes missing, falls and is even cracked open, and we have to reckon with that. We cannot long live with dissonance. At once we face our own dissonance, as we empathize with the aged man forced by his infirmities to live away from his home, confronted with a well-dressed Negro renting an apartment across the hall, while recoiling at his bigotry.

My cat has shifted, now facing away from me. She sinks further into the pillow, as if to say, "why bother?"

"Would you like to hear another story?" I say. "One about a dog? Or maybe a poem, just a little one? Something light?" I pull out Mary Oliver's collection, Red Bird, and choose a poem entitled "Percy and Books (Eight)," which I thought appropriate, and read it aloud to her:

Percy does not like it when I read a book.
He puts his face over the top of it and moans.
He rolls his eyes, sometimes he sneezes.
The sun is up, he says, and the wind is down.
The tide is out and the neighbor's dogs are playing.
But Percy, I say. Ideas! The elegance of language!
The insights, the funniness, the beautiful stories
that rise and fall and turn into strength, or courage.

Books? says Percy. I ate one once, and it was enough.
Let's go.

Now she is on the floor by my feet, her tail rising in a spasm every now and then. She chirps, and turns green eyes toward me, searching. Maybe she does not like it when I read a book.

"Which did you like," I said. "The one about the dog or the one about the geranium?" Is the dog poem a sentimental throwaway, I think, or is there something deeper? Is "The Geranium" one of those "beautiful stories that rise or fall and turn into strength, or courage?

But by now she's back on the cratered pillow, back turned, as if to say, "neither." And I wonder if I too, having been prodded, will now return to sleep or whether the beautiful words will have their way with me.


Something Bigger In It


IMG_0001 (1)"A poem is a small thing with all manner of bigger in it."

(Brian Doyle, "A Flurry of Owls," in First Things, Oct. 2016)

All of Mary Oliver’s poems are small things. In opening one of her books of verse, what impresses first is the emptiness of the pages, something which I relish. All that space within which to rest and ponder! One poem, “Invitation,” asks “Oh do you have time/ to linger/ for just a little while/ out of your busy/ and very important day/ for the goldfinches/ that have gathered/ in a field of thistles/ for a musical battle,/ to see who can sing/ the highest note,/ or the lowest,/ or the most expressive of mirth,/ or the most tender?

Not now, I say.

My wife is an inspiration for such solicitude. On the far side of the lake today, she stopped, peering over the rails of the boardwalk fence, and said, “Look at the size of that tree stump. How tall it must have been, how old.” I stopped obligingly, but my internal fitness coach was saying, “This is not a nature walk. Keep moving. Stay focused.” But I leaned over at her bidding and gazed at the gnarly mass of wood half-covered in water. She is the first to see an unusual bird, a red fox, and deer grazing, to hear an animal sound that is misplaced - a signpost for the divine. She is the voice saying, “Oh, do you have time to linger?”

Do I?

Small things have all manner of bigger in them. The seed I crunched under my heel on rejoining the trail may have contained in it an entire tree, a microscopic blueprint of brown and green and science and time only God fully comprehends. The gray cat reclining by my feet carries the weight of history, albeit lightly, unconsciously. I read just now that she is descended from Near Eastern wildcats, having diverged from other cats around 8,000 BC in West Asia. Which explains a few things. The point: she has bigger in her even if it is represented here as a twittering waif, searching my face for the barest sign of movement toward, what else, the food bowl.

“My busy and important day?” Oliver is gently poking my ego. Do you think you are so busy, she says, so very important, that you can’t pay attention to what is happening around you, to a couple of tiny, insignificant birds? She’s right, of course. All that busyness, all that bluster, all those very important phone calls and consultations are less eternal than the “musical battle” of the goldfinches. There should always be time to listen to the not-so-empty pages of life.

Why do they sing? Oliver says “not for your sake/ and not for mine/ but for sheer delight and gratitude — / believe us, they say,/ it is a serious thing/ just to be alive/ on this fresh morning/ in this broken world.” Which is something like worship, I think. Or perhaps it simply is worship. There really is something bigger in it.

Next time I hold the bread and cup, I’ll try not to think about lunch, about what I have to do in my busy, important life, about the lightness of being of what I hold, about the absurdity of a plastic cup of grape juice and Wonder bread pointing to God incarnate. I’ll remember the goldfinches, the poem, the gray cat, and the tree and how pitiable they are as expressions of the divine — and yet within them, the universe. And so, within the cup and bread, everything that matters.

As Oliver concluded,

It could mean something.
It could mean everything.
It could be what Rilke meant, when he wrote:
You must change your life.

But, for now, it is enough that the white space of a late Summer afternoon is spread out before me and another poem open to me: “Be still,” says the author, “and know that I am God.” Outside the window, a crescent leaf flickers in the slight breeze, and I imagine that if I stare at it I can see all the way back to the seed, to the tree that produced that seed, back to the ancestral trees that started it all, back to the Garden, back to the Spirit hovering over the waters, back to Him.

That’s ridiculous, I think, some kind of crazy grace to see that way, to see the big in the little. Yet I pray for more grace, because it is a serious thing to be alive in a broken world.

[The poem is “Invitation,” and is excerpted from Red Bird: Poems by Mary Oliver, Beacon Press, 2008]


A Theology of Things

O-REDWOOD-TREES-facebook Many summers ago my family and I visited the giant sequoia trees of California, the ones preserved in Sequoia National Park. Reading an essay by turn-of-the-century naturalist John Muir a few days ago, I was reminded that these majestic trees — trees so broad and high as to be worship-inspiring — were not always protected but freely logged. Muir wrote his brief essay, “Save the Redwoods,” for The Sierra Club Bulletin, and it was published in 1920. Though Muir was not a Christian, having, as writer Paul Willis notes, “one foot in Emerson's Transcendentalism and one foot in what we would now call. . . fundamentalism,” the essay is imbued with biblical allusions, not surprising given that Muir’s father required him to memorize the entire New as well as much of the Old Testaments. Consequently, Muir was steeped in holy language.

So “Save the Redwoods” was an essay that flowed easily out of Muir’s Bible-saturated upbringing and one that resonated with the more generally religious culture of the 1920s. Muir called for a “righteous uprising in defense of God’s trees.” Referencing the denuding of the great 300-foot Calaveras sequoia, he even (though questionably, even offensively) casts the great tree as a Christ-type, noting that “This grand tree is of course dead, a ghastly disfigured ruin, but it still stands erect and holds forth its majestic arms as if alive and saying, ‘Forgive them, they know not what they do.'” When he speaks of “trees that are still standing in perfect strength and beauty, waving and singing in the mighty forests of the Sierra,” one cannot miss the allusion to Isaiah 55:12 and its trees of the field clapping their hands. In this he picks up on the mystery of the relationship between God and the non-human creation, about which theologian Karl Barth summed up beautifully when he wrote that “when man accepts again his destiny in Jesus Christ…he is only like a late-comer slipping shamefacedly into creation’s choir in heaven and earth, which has never ceased its praise.”

Muir is not far from truth. Creation does testify to God (Ps. 19), and in some mysterious way longs for redemption (Rom. 1). We cannot dismiss it or regard it solely in utilitarian terms, as mere raw material for our use. A theology of “things” is one that treats the natural world as more iconic windows into the transcendent, rich in metaphors for the Divine. Perhaps the best theology of the non-human world is what Oswald Chambers once referred to as “the unaffected loveliness of the commonplace” or, elsewhere, the “ministry of the unnoticed.” We walk by these testimonials to God everyday, often unaffected, and yet the rocks cry out if only we will listen. What do they say? At least, they say God made us, we are not as He intended us to be because of the great brokenness of the world, and yet we are being made right and will be restored in Paradise.

Writer Frederick Buechner is well known for entreating his audience to “listen to your life.” But it’s even more than that. Pay attention. Notice the commonplace, the common places that God so loved. God is speaking through the things of the world. So look.


Not So Ordinary Rescues

A few days ago my wife was walking in the neighborhood when she saw a black cat run across the road - “layin' down running” as my grandmother would have said - a red fox in hot pursuit. The fox stopped short when it saw her and reconsidered. She didn’t say so, but I suspect she glared at it, intervening on behalf of the cat. The cat looped around a house, its house, and disappeared through a flapping door in the side of the garage. Disappointed, the fox turned, retreating begrudgingly into the woods.

A day so later, we were walking together when we saw the black cat again, this time in pursuit of a tiny baby rabbit that hopped across the sidewalk, brushing against me before disappearing in some shrubbery. The cat turned and walked across the street in the direction of a mother rabbit (well, perhaps father) who hopped away, the cat in pursuit. My wife chased the cat, the ingrate, across the yard and back to its house, while the rabbit squeezed through a crack in a Mr. McGregor fence, safe, though separated from its baby. We fretted about that baby, about how the mother would find her, hoping I suppose that our fret-prayers would reach God’s ear.

Today, while walking, it was my wife who needed assistance. Moving from street to sidewalk, as a lone car came toward us, she fell in the grassy strip between the curb and sidewalk. I extended a hand and raised her up, brushed her off, took my shirt and dried her arm wet with dew, for which she smiled, an unneeded but sufficient reward. Later, I recalled, “Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their labor: If either of them falls down, one can help the other up. But pity anyone who falls and has no one to help them up” (Ecclesiastes 4:9-10).

That’s three to one: she rescued a cat, a mother rabbit, and a baby rabbit. But I “rescued” her. But who's counting? All point to a God who rescues us.

I know that these unremarkable events are, on one level, not worth writing about and not worth your time to read. Yet seen another way, these events and their loose association (at least in my mind) are what N.T. Wright calls “strange signposts pointing beyond the landscape of our contemporary culture and out into the unknown.” I’d add: Not so strange, even ordinary, signposts, a confluence of the mundane through which the transcendent seeps. Ordinary rescues, if you will, pointing to a larger project, one described by Wright as one where Jesus “took the tears of the world and made them his own, carrying them all the way to his cruel and unjust death to carry out God’s rescue operation” and, what’s more, a rescue where He “took the joy of the world and brought it to new birth as he rose from the dead and thereby launched God’s new creation.”

He stands between His people and a cunning Pursuer, glares at him and holds His ground, even chases him from light to dark. He reaches down and lifts us up, let’s our hurt be His, and wipes us clean. For that, we smile, and walk on.


Carrier, RIP

Product_Lg_performance_comfort_AC_24ACB7We lost our air conditioner yesterday. It was tired. In the last few years come summer it has struggled to climb the mounting heat and humidity. Various bandages had been applied during the course of its decline. Most recently, six weeks ago, a new coil was installed in the condenser on the exterior of our home, yet the technician was pessimistic even then, noting its age and clucking at the possibility of deeper issues. Still, I couldn’t bring myself to put it out to pasture. “You can make it,” I thought, maybe even to the unknown perhaps distant day we sell the house, my heart buoyed by its whirr and chill. I laid my hand on it, as if to encourage. “You can do it!” Yet it couldn’t.

Now it’s laying ignominiously on our lawn. Earlier, Fred and Sam, our interventionists, struggled to pull its long companion, the gas furnace and coil, from the wall of our attic where it had attached itself, tied by an umbilical cord that went through the wall and down, down, down to the condensing unit outdoors. I couldn’t watch this wrenching procedure. The sounds of the struggle filtered down to my study, nonetheless — grinding. prying, hammering, banging, and then one last gasp as it gave up its hold. Sweating, with labored breathing, they carried it out the front door, from whence it had likely come twelve years ago, and tossed it in the yard, tossed it because, after such a fight, one is no doubt slightly mad, like a boxer in a ring after several rounds.

It was a Carrier, God rest its coil. I’ll miss it. When I lay in bed at night listening to the sounds of the night, to the creaks and groans of a house settling on its haunches, its whoosh and whirr were almost as lulling as an oscillating fan, the faithful Galaxy we resurrected every time the Carrier failed. When it shut down, it had a signature and mysterious clunk, perhaps indicative of its last illness, one last whoosh, and then silence, a fluttering, noisy burst of wind followed by the exhale of a long nap — too long, sometimes.

Sam pried the condensing unit from its nest of concrete outside our den window. I imagined him coaxing it to give way, as one might encourage an aged parent to cooperate. Sam is Filipino, and earlier apologized for his accent. I now know him to be a believer in Jesus, a fan of Ronald Reagan, a son hoping to bring his mother to live with him in the States, all of which makes me feel better about this transition. I knew he would be gentle with the bones of the air handling unit and condenser, as a son with his mother. Yet right now Fred is backing down the drive and hits an overhanging branch, and Sam laughs and says, with accent, “He can’t drive.” But look at the work he does, I think.

Later, I looked inside the condenser in a way I hadn’t before. It’s cavernous, much of it open and vacant, its serpentine coils and refrigerant housed in the bottom, a fan and streamlined casing its shiny, fluttering face to the world. The new coil we purchased at great cost just six weeks ago, when the technician shook his head at us, shone. Like gold, I thought. My gold. It was my last attempt to stay its demise, temporary life support for a terminal patient.

We looked inside Fred’s truck. “Hmm, Fred keeps a dirty truck,” my wife said. I nodded. Parts, dirty rags, papers, and tools were strewn throughout, like a surgical bay gone awry. Tool-Man Tim would have been aghast. And yet these were the weapons of war, the detritus of life, held down by a mix of oil and dirt.

The new air handling unit, a Lennox, stands a good three feet taller than the squatty Carrier that was removed. If you stand on top of it, you can see the coastline. No, perhaps not. Yet it is very tall. My son asked if we could have it resituated, as it is now visible from our den window. Sometimes change is difficult to accept. We prefer the classic form of the Carrier to the hip, skinny jeans of the Lennox standing Babel-like just outside our window. A few summer thunderstorms, replete with hail, and a few mercury-high days near 100, and it may lose its pride and adopt a lower profile. And we will get used to it.

Our old Carrier had two speeds: on and off. This one is a continuum of speeds, adaptable, as if we need all that, as if we need 200 channels on our TV. And, above all else, it has more power, and we all need more power, right? But seriously, the old Carrier was sadly underpowered and its annual battle with the drenched air of a southern summer was like sending Robin to do battle when Batman was needed. It was too much for the poor lad, but he kept at it. The technician told us, with a gleam in his eye, that the Lennox would give us 100% when we needed it, but drop back to 35% when the heat subsided, sending in reinforcements as needed. The war is on, and I regularly monitor the battle from the fancy touchpad thermostat outside our bedroom.

It’s a durable name, Carrier. In 1902, a 25-year-old engineer from New York named Willis Carrier invented the first modern air-conditioning system. First designed to control humidity in the printing plant where he worked, in1922, he followed up with the invention of the centrifugal chiller, which added a central compressor to reduce the unit's size. (Do I sound like an engineer? I’m not.) It was introduced to the public on Memorial Day weekend, 1925, when it debuted at the Rivoli Theater in Times Square. For years afterward, people piled into air-conditioned movie theaters on hot summer days, giving rise to the summer blockbuster.

All of which makes it even harder to throw it aside for a Lennox upstart. I want to pretend I’m in the Rivoli Theater in Times Square. I can’t now. I’ve ditched it for the multiplex with the sticky floors. I don't even have a picture to remember it by.

This morning I even said to my wife, after sleeping with the Lennox for only one night, “I wonder if we could build a house that stayed cool without air conditioning.” The question hung in mid-air, steamy mid-air. That, I concluded, would require too many servants to fan me. But we could take turns.


Solitude


ImageBetween Wichita and Salina, the land is not so flat as you might imagine but full of ever so slight dips and rises, like the gentle sloshing of a lake. Here and there the seemingly perdurable prairie is even punctuated by bluffs and more substantial rises, the result of the scouring of glaciers in retreat. Farmhouses look out on the undulating gold of not yet cut wheat, or the waving green of feed corn.

Nor is it dry. The landscape is traversed by creek beds with running water, like East, West, and Middle Emma Creeks, or Turkey Creek; ribbons of green trees line their banks. Trees also line fields as windbreaks, or clump campanionly together in the midst of fields, or stand solitary in the foreground. Writer Willa Cather once spoke about the prairie of her feeling of “motion in the landscape ... as if the shaggy grass were a sort of loose hide, and underneath it herds of wild buffalo were galloping, galloping."

Earlier I heard a man leaning over the counter of the hotel lobby claim to the hotel clerk that Kansas was "flyover" land --- meaning boring, uninteresting, and good for little but farming. Yet since I started coming here three years ago, I think it anything but flyover. The fields of gold make me want to walk through them, letting them give way to my presence and then hem me in behind, erasing my presence. The creeks beckon me to get my feet wet, or sit on their banks and watch for wildlife. The abundant bird life almost gives me aspiration to become a birder. Sometimes I imagine my wife and I shut up in a farmhouse with food, a Bible, paper, pen, and a few good books, and nothing more, as a way to better listen to life, to hear again, to shut out distraction and frivolity and noise in order to let in life. We might try it sometime.

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A week ago, when we were leaving for the West, we sat in an airport lounge waiting for a flight. I decided not to check my cell phone. Not that it didn't beckon. It's smallish screen is a portal to diversion, whether the cat videos and "look at us and where we are having a great time" postings of Facebook, or the more cerebral callings of the essays and articles saved to my reading list. I ignored it. I looked around.

Heads were bowed, not in supplication or stupor but over the bright screens of smartphones. One family across from me --- a mother, father, and two preteens --- were all hunched over the gleaming screens. Sculpted, they could have been made to look reverent, heads bent over electronic prayer books which, in some way, the screens serve, as they embody and call forth wishes --- for something to buy, for a connection to someone or something, for escape from the monotony of life, for, ultimately, salvation.

A few weeks ago my wife and I rented a movie called Notting Hill. Julia Roberts plays an American movie star who meets and falls in love with an unlikely man, the awkward owner of a bookstore in London (Hugh Grant). The movie was enjoyable enough, if predictable, and yet in all the scenes of people sharing meals together, riding buses, and standing on street corners, there was something odd: in a relatively recent modern setting, no one had a cell phone. People were looking up, talking with one another, reading books or newspapers, or simply looking around. Checking the date of the movie, I saw that it was released in 1999. Seventeen years and the human landscape has completely changed. Life is now mediated through screens.

Are we addicted to our smartphones? To our screens? In a recent article in Comment Magazine, Alan Jacobs addresses our addiction. He says we are not addicted to our smartphones. Rather, "we are addicted to one another, to the affirmation of our value—our very being—that comes from other human beings. We are addicted to being validated by our peers." Jacobs goes on to say what as Christians we ought to know but mostly don't seem to appreciate:

"Our 'ecosystem of interruption technologies' affects our spiritual and moral lives in every aspect. By our immersion in that ecosystem we are radically impeded from achieving a 'right understanding of ourselves' and of God's disposition toward us. We will not understand ourselves as sinners, or as people made in God's image, or as people spiritually endangered by wandering far from God, or as people made to live in communion with God, or as people whom God has come to a far country in order to seek and to save, if we cannot cease for a few moments from an endless procession of stimuli that shock us out of thought."

There is nothing new, of course, in our incessant need for validation, for affirmation from our peers. That compulsion predated the advent of smartphones, and yet the 24/7 connection to a social network ensures that no one need be alone anymore. When as a teenager I sought the approval of my peers - whether in dress, in speech, or in actions - I still unavoidably and regularly found myself alone, even if just when I went to bed in the evening. Now, no one can escape the crowd, the incessant connection. No one need deal with solitude, with the lack of validation, to who they might be if there is no one to tell them who they are, no one to "like" their postings, no one to respond.

So what are you doing when you post on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter? What is it that you seek? As a writer I would like to know that I communicated, that what I wrote resonated with someone, and yet that hoped for result is impure, tainted by the need for validation. Did anyone "like" it? Did anyone comment? The only way I know around this is to avoid the compulsive checking of Facebook by turning my phone off or leaving it behind, thereby guarding my solitude and social space. And the only place to look for validation, for an understanding of who I really am, is in the Word, in the revealed truth of who God says I am: a member of the guilty remnant, yet forgiven, adopted, and free. In fact, the more I stare into the mirror of the Word, the more inoculated I will be from the need for validation from the world.

It was Blaise Pascal who, seeing the movement of the world, reflected that surely all of man’s ills must stem from his simple inability to remain quiet and alone, serenely in the comfort of his own home. Be still and know that I am God," the Psalmist says, and, I would say, be still and know that you are His.

I know better than to idealize Kansas or solitude. Behind every kind Dorothy there is a sour Auntie Em, behind every Glinda an Elphaba. And even in solitude may lie a latent and destructive self-love. But beyond the incessant need for affirmation, in the quietness of His presence, and perhaps in the solitude of a prairie, we will find ourselves closer to Home, not validated but loved, not only "friended" but called beloved.


Getting Low

At dinner this evening I drank four or five (who's counting?) glasses of caffeinated ice tea. Afterwards, a little mountain of yellow Splenda packets lay in a mound in front of my plate. I call it my pile of shame. I admit it is unsightly, and while my profligate nature is regularly pointed out to me by those closest to me, I persist. I like sweetness.

I have a few other bad habits. For one, I am often in the midst of some important philosophical discussion with myself, when I should be paying attention to what is going on around me or being said to me.

"Dad, are you listening?," my son might say, and does say. And I know I should be listening, but somewhere just the other side of a discussion on spectrometers and their use in space or trajectories or attitudes or rockets or something important like that I check out and start thinking about where music came from or why sidewalks are the width they are or what that bird is I just heard or why my parents never told me we were going on vacation until the last minute when they tossed us in the car without warning and headed for the hills. "Dad, are you listening to me?, he says. Obviously, not well enough. My mind is built for essay; it naturally wanders. I wonder why? I feel bad about that. I probably missed portions of my children's lives due to my distraction.

Another bad habit: I eat too much. After dinner, I had two and three-quarters Krispy Kreme doughnuts (spelling the number out makes it seem even bigger). This establishment is astonishingly close to where my son may soon live. After dinner, we high-tailed it over there for some real sugar. I entreated my able and ready son to "take a bite" of the double dark chocolate doughnut, and he obliged, taking an ample crescent portion out of the round, leaving a Ms. Pacman shaped remainder, and sparing me the shame of having to say that I ate three doughnuts when my wife enquired. As I polished it off, she said, "That would have been two bites for me; don't you want to eat smaller bites and make it last longer?" She's right, of course, but no, no, I actually don't, I thought. I want it fast and furious. I want a big taste, not a lot of nibbly little tastes. Still, my son said what I thought: "That was so good, but I feel so bad." Oh well. Reform will wait a day. We're recovering.

Yet these excesses, along with others unmentioned, are welcome in one sense. They are reminders of my low anthropology, of the fact that my capacity to live sensibly and faithfully vanished with the Fall. And they point me to my need for a Savior, of a sweet communion that I can rejoice in with excess, and of a time when my thoughts can wander all the way into eternity. Bad habits are not all bad; they help in getting low, in reminding me of who I am and Who I need.

I was thinking about this today when I was crossing a busy street. Oh, that's another bad habit - not looking both ways when crossing the street, when I'm busy thinking. I'm working on that.


Surprise Ahead


IMG_3949“I think that the dying pray at the last not ‘please,’ but ‘thank you,’ as a guest thanks his host at the door… . Divinity is not playful. The universe was not made in jest but in solemn, incomprehensible earnest. By a power that is unfathomably secret, and holy, and fleet. There is nothing to be done about it, but ignore it, or see. And then you walk fearlessly, eating what you must, growing wherever you can, like the monk on the road who knows precisely how vulnerable he is, who takes no comfort among death-forgetting men, and who carries his vision of vastness and might around in his tunic like a live coal which neither burns nor warms him, but with which he will not part.”

(Annie Dillard, in Pilgrim from Tinker Creek)

Oh, for heaven's sake. Leave it to the gifted but often morose Annie Dillard to sum up the Triune God, the one in three who from time eternal has existed in perfect love and is working out his fallen work of Creation in a divine comedy, as “not playful.” I think not — that is, not not playful — that is, God is playful. That's not to say life is not also tragic and fraught.

When I was a young child everything was altogether lovely and benevolent. Even the monsters that lurked in the basement or peered in the windows scurried at the sound of my father’s voice, in the embrace of my mother’s arms. And then, of course, it wasn’t. I was riding one day jump seat to my mother and as we turned a corner I saw, on a hilltop, a smallish, ramshackle house on the porch of which an African-American woman was stooped, sweeping, and I knew that we were not all the same, that there was some inequality at work, some inarticulable injustice. Then, the President was shot, there were riots in the streets and at school, and my uncle died, in roughly that order. Not to mention that in junior high school when team captains chose team members in PE, I was in the clump of last-chosens. Oh well.

There is something utterly serious about the world. Great rocks repose moribund for decade upon decade, unseeing and cold-hearted. The wind variously screams in the swirl of a great storm, yet whispers in the pines on a moonstruck night, lays still in a summer doldrums, as if gathering strength for a mighty exhale. Food being a great leveler, a robin, two squirrels, and a hyperactive chipmunk feed at the floor of the feeder, gleaning what a careening over-large bluejay has knocked loose. Tilting pines stand, reaching, thrusting green into a blue, blue sky. They are all about the serious, earnest business of life, or existence. And yet not so solemn, not so incomprehensible.

Two squirrels chase each other, like brother and sister playing, skittering over a pine straw floor and up and around and down the tree trunk, even leaping at times in their play. Right near where my hand rests, an ant rushes by, start-stop motion, on his tiny mission, intent in his small mind, even his hither-thither motion comic in its way. A God who brush-strokes blue across the heavens, makes a wildebeest from what appears a collection of spare parts, arrays birds with spectacular color and song, gives a mockingbird the repertoire of a Top 40 DJ, makes human beings of such oddly varying shapes and sizes and dispositions — not playful? No, hidden inside the earnest life that Dillard so keenly observes, so sees in such minute detail, is a holy laugh.

I think she missed it.

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What is the trajectory of the world? In the gospel accounts of Matthew and Mark we hear of it: “And when you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed. This must take place, but the end is not yet” (Mk. 13:7). Since the fateful fruit was eaten, entropy has been at work; a curse lays over every inch of the universe. Do not be alarmed? The gospel writers lay out a panoply of woes, of false prophets, warfare, earthquakes, famines, persecution by religious and political leaders, and families broken and at odds. Why not be alarmed? Because this is not just some end times prophecy but life after the cross, the tragic effects of sin, the expected stage on which is played out a war in heaven.

All this, and yet the robins still come to the feeder, the geese fly overhead, trees bud and flower, the brooks and rivers flow, and many deeply flawed mothers and fathers still love their children. People hope and pray and love and learn. Strangers render ordinary kindnesses, and beautiful stories are still told.

Underneath the rumors of woe there is another rumor: that of glory. That of a healing of a world gone wrong.

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We live in a wabi-sabi world. I read recently of artist Steven Wagner-Davis, who out of necessity at first and then for art, began making imperfect materials into works of art. Thought the Japanese aesthetic philosophy of wabi-sabi carries with it often unrecognized elements of Buddhist thought, it also embodies truth that Christians recognize: flawed beauty. Creation is a flawed beauty, and God is at work recreating, acting in His grace to substantially heal the world and, one day, to completely heal it.

As Wagner-Davis says, “There is something special about taking things that are used and tainted and making something beautiful out of them. Art can be regenerative and represent what God does with us to make us new and beautiful again.” In other words, sanctification in route to glorification.

So, here's my posture on my best days, and on all days the one I believe: In a wabi-sabi culture of death-forgetting men, I cling to the belief that what I carry in my tunic is the Word of Life, vast and mighty and life-healing, a burning light for a world that is still pregnant with truth and life and hope.

I just don't look like much, yet. My habit is frayed, the live coal of my faith waxing and waning. And I am not quite fearless, yet I cling.

_________________________________

I'm too hard on Annie Dillard. Elsewhere in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek she hints at God's playfulness. She relates a story of her childhood in Pittsburgh, when she'd take a precious penny of her own and hide in for someone else to find. She’d squirrel it away in a crevice in the sidewalk or the crook of a tree, and then she would take a bit of chalk and draw arrows pointing to the penny, providing labels such as “SURPRISE AHEAD” or “MONEY THIS WAY.” She says, “ I was greatly excited, during all this arrow drawing, at the thought of the first lucky passer-by who would receive in this way, regardless of merit, a free gift from the universe.” She did this more than a few times, her impulse compulsive.

Once in junior high school, my friend and I were walking to the store and spied a twenty dollar bill in the lawn of Rebecca Entwistle, a young woman we suspected to be of ill repute. There were no chalk marks on the sidewalk, so sigh announcing it. We concurred that it was a gift, but we spent no small amount of time hashing out to whom it was given. In the end, we split it and parted amicably. I believe God played with us by putting it there, smiling to see how we dealt with it.

God did not make a world in jest. Yet that does not mean that He deals with us in incomprehensible solemnity. Behind the sometimes frown of Providence there is a smile, an earnest mirth at the heart of the universe, a comedy of grace. Like Dillard, I am greatly excited that some might find it, that the chalk marks of my life might, in His grace, point the way: “SURPRISE AHEAD.


Loving the Home You're With

When you hear of the refugee crisis on Europe or elsewhere, it’s easy to generalize and scuttle thought of such things to a mental file labeled “inadequate information” or even “uncomfortable to think about.” Yet Tim Stafford’s article in the May/June issue of Books & Culture, entitled “Cities of Refuge,” both humanizes the “crisis” by particularizing it while, at the same time, not pointing a finger of blame or prescribing a remedy. He simply brings to light what is really at stake: the struggles of the many men, women and children who have fled Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, and other places of strife for a place of safety. Few, no matter what their political persuasion, would be unmoved or unsympathetic to their plight.

Consider this: 1.2 million refugees entered Germany last year alone. To get there, all of them had to endure long walks, hunger, corrupt transporters, perilous boat trips across the Mediterranean, and abusive border patrols. Stafford followed the road the refugees traveled backwards through Europe — from Germany back through Austria, Croatia, Serbia, and finally Greece. What he finds is primarily people who are generous and open to helping the refugees, and yet a concern that Germany — the ultimate destination of most of the refugees — has taken on more than it can handle. And yet many Christians regard it as a gift, an opportunity to share the Gospel with those who might never otherwise have heard. For example, one pastor Stafford interviewed, Glen Ganz, said, “This is the biggest migration in human history. If you believe that God made the world, and rules the world, you have to pay attention to what goes on. This is a sign of the time.”

Stafford sums it up well, concluding that: “Now that I have reached the end of our journey, I find I don’t know how to summarize it. It is like witnessing an earthquake or a tornado: there is not much analysis to be done, just description. These are the people. These are their stories. These are their responses, however feeble. I don’t know what comes next. Nobody does.” Having talked to many people, he says that “not one ventured to describe a comprehensive solution.” Yet it’s this very lack of precision that made me hopeful, as it gives one a sense of humility and dependence on God. If the article had prescribed a solution to this epic migration, I would have been suspect. Simply telling the stories helped me enter the world of these refugees for a moment, sense some of what they felt, and simply cry out to God, “how long?” Isn’t that part of our response to great suffering? Their exilic plight brings to mind the cry of the Babylonian exiles, whose laments were given expression by the Pslamist’s cry of “How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” (Ps. 137:4). How?

Yet that’s our cry as well, or should be. Exile should in the DNA of Christians everywhere. It is the very state of being in the world but not of it. To the extent we feel marginalized, disenfranchised, alienated, uncomfortable, and restless in our time and place, it’s healthy if not easy. We are, after all, “aliens and strangers in the world,” (1 Pet. 2:11) or said another way, we are estranged and alienated. In the West, for too long we have not felt that; now, we better. This phrase is not just descriptive but prescriptive, when read in conjunctive with other scriptures. Earlier Peter tells us, in v. 17, to “live our lives as strangers here in reverent fear.” He is saying: Be strange. Be alien. Remember you don’t belong here. Remember your homeland. Remember that you are exiles here.

Our citizenship is in heaven (Phil. 3:20). Our lives are to be transformed by the Gospel and not conformed to the world. Though we bear witness to and serve the community of non-believers around us, we do not integrate their beliefs with ours but affirm what is true, good, and beautiful wherever we find it. We build our homes and lives among them, yet know that we are in very fundamental ways not like them, having our own language, practices, and beliefs rooted in revelation and not in mere agreement or personal autonomy. We have to wisely, humbly, courageously, and hopefully figure out how, in this time and place of exile, to be good aliens.

When Stafford talks with refugees, they long for a home that no longer exists, and for one to come. They want to settle, to have work, to be able to provide for themselves and families. They want to laugh again, to live. They want to dwell in the land, even as exiles. They want to be good aliens.

God says to the exiles through Jeremiah, "Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. . . . Marry. . . . [and] find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage" (Jer. 29:5-6).  He says to the anxious exiles in Babylon “I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, to give you a reason and hope."  He says to us: Settle. Be holy. Be different. Yet don’t circle the wagons and wait for the Army. Live. He says they are to carry on with a full life in the world they are in.  Though they are aliens and exiles, he calls them to a thorough engagement in love with that world, telling them to "seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you in exile" --- not their own peace and prosperity, but that of the community's. 

Want to be a good alien? Accept that you are different and will only feel more different as you grow in faith. Your spiritual DNA is different. You belong elsewhere. And yet, though you are peculiar, settle in. This is our home. We know this place better than anyone. Everything true, good, and beautiful should foreshadow an eternal home. Be fully engaged in the life of this world, with the people all around you. And finally, love the world. Ask God to show you everything that is true and good and beautiful, and rejoice in it. Add to it. Make it flourish.

Just remember: This is a shadow. The real is to come. If you can’t yet be in the Home you love, love the home you’re with.


Lunch, and After

This morning I carried a small space heater I keep in my “reading room” to the attic, figuring I did not need it anymore. I was wrong. There was a chill in the house this morning and afternoon, but my wife said she could tolerate it. So I guess I will too.

As we had lunch, the cat milled about my feet, whining, head-butting every protuberance, and yet if I make a move toward her she will run. Upstairs she will run. And so I yelled after her, “I’m not falling for it this time, you hear? I’m not coming up there.” And my wife said, “Sure you will.” But I didn’t. Cats toy with you, you know. Next I looked she reclined on the floor, upside down. It is what they do best.

My wife had been walking around the lake the other day with a friend from Uganda. Mind you, Ugandans are not into exercise walking but keep a pace that allows them to go the distance. They are always walking - to market, to water, to school, to work. They gracefully stroll. Any faster would be running. They persevere in walking. But while they were strolling, they saw a red-capped bird, a woodpecker perhaps, yet unlike others we have seen. Now, looking at Audubon’s guide, she identifies it as a pileated woodpecker. The largest woodpecker. Now we know.

But we’re drawn to the mockingbird, a few pages over. We read that one mockingbird will serve for a plethora of birds, as it can imitate the calls of up to 50 different birds. I carried my dishes to the sink. “And tractors, sirens, and dogs,” she added. And I thought: There’s a bird of birds, an actor, a soundtrack for the outdoors. So, if you think you have a diverse group of birds in the backyard, or a truck stop, look hard: it may be just one mockingbird. That annoying tapping? A pileated woodpecker, or your over-industrious neighbor in his latest DIY project. God toys with us, though in goodness.

Even inside by my window where I sit now, I hear the low hum of commerce, a siren, the revving of an engine, the slightest whistle of a breeze. Yet I can’t even see the next house. Brown has given way to green, as if God was infatuated with green and painted everything some shade of it, layer upon layer upon layer.

“The poetry of the earth is never dead,” said poet John Keats, a phrase that, reading it now, hearkens back to English literature, suffered in college but still alive in me now. And so these sounds and sights out my window — these earth wise glimpses — sound like music, and if I could chart them would make something like a symphonic score. Or a folk song, if that’s too grand. But it’s true. The Psalmist says that it’s true 24/7, because Creation is ever giving God glory in that “Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge. There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard. Their voice goes out into all the world, their words to the end of the world” (Ps. 19:2-4). And to the end of my backyard.

So, wherever you are, look around you. Do you hear that Voice? Not the mockingbird, not the pileated woodpecker, not the crow that caws overhead, but the Voice behind these voices, the One who says “It is good.”


Staying Put

"My office is where the Brooklyn Bridge drops into Manhattan. I live in Brooklyn, and on good days, I walk across the bridge and into work."

"Are you married," I ask.

"No, not yet. I like New York. It's fun living there. I have a girlfriend. The restaurants are good, when I can afford them. But I think about North Carolina every day. I can't imagine raising kids in the City. I think I'll eventually make my way back."

In Staying Put: Making a Home in a Restless World, Scott Russell Sanders stands against what he calls the "vagabond wind" of our culture, considering the "virtue and discipline of staying put." It's a book about nature and family and community, as these he says are "inseparable from the effort to be grounded in place."

In one chapter of his book, Sanders focus on the influence that moving water has on our sense of place: "When we figure our addresses, we might do better to forget zip codes and consider where the rain goes after it falls outside our windows." There's that which falls on the impermeable surfaces of our homes and driveways and streets and is cabined into gutters and storm drains, dumped ignominiously into streams. There's that which falls onto the ground, seeps in and becomes part of a vast moving flow of groundwater, some of which is retained far below and some of which also flows downhill into streams and rivers.

On our morning walk, we pass an unnamed brook, at times of drought a reluctant if persistent and hopeful trickle; in gully-washing rains a fulsome rush, swollen in pride. Anything that falls in --- leaf, branch, or hapless insect --- is pulled along. It has no name, yet I know where it goes. I say "brook," as our subdivision is called Brookhaven, and yet someone has said that a brook is a stream you can step over; not so, a creek. I think this is a creek. To try and step over - at least at certain points - is to step in.

Where is it going? On to Crabtree Creek (which you definitely cannot step over), and then to the Neuse River, emptying into the Pamlico Sound below New Bern, and then on to the Atlantic. Home. So when I dip my toe or finger in this unnamed brook, I am sending some of me to the Atlantic. Leaving home.

I have lived here for 40 years. I call it home. Were I to live in the City, I'd be thinking about this place. I'd stand in the middle of the Brooklyn Bridge, look down at the East River, gaze down its course to sea, and wish myself home. I'd think about North Carolina every day. Just like my friend does.

"Look," I say, "so what is it about North Carolina that attracts you? You have a great city at your doorstep here."

"I don't know. It's just a great place."

I would have added: it's topography, the lay of the land; the cardinals, bluebirds, finch, and even mockingbirds that nest in our trees; pork barbecue; small towns; and the extraordinariness of it's very ordinary life. And that's just for starters.

So I suspect, like falling water finds the sea, he'll make his way home.


Waking Up

In Annie Dillard’s memoir of growing up, An American Childhood, she writes of the process of self-consciousness for a child: “Children ten years old wake up and find themselves here, discover themselves to have been here all along; is this sad?” What she describes is the necessary process of discovering yourself and the world around, of waking up, of gradually and then all at once having it dawn on you that you are unique and separate, and that the world is larger and more mysterious than you thought — well, if you thought.

One such moment came for me before I was ten. I was riding in the car with my mother, going to my grandmother’s house, and I happened to look up from my book and notice a home I was passing, one more modest than mine, paint peeling, grass patchy and overgrown. A black woman was coming through the door, and the screen door was flapping on its hinges, and though I couldn’t hear it, I knew that sound. I was no longer a child. I was suddenly aware that I was different than this woman, than her family.

Dillard says “I noticed this process of waking, and guessed with terrifying logic that one of these years far away I would be awake continuously and never slip back, and never be free of myself again.” Never be free of myself again.

As necessary as this process of consciousness is, it is also sad, as it has the unfortunate consequence of making us think too much about ourselves and too little of others. And yet if a child is blessedly unconscious of self, he is also unaware of how his actions may impact others and, thus, he can act cruelly and selfishly. Our real goal as we grow old is to grow in wonder at and love for the world and others while cultivating our own self-forgetfulness.

In The Freedom of Self Forgetfulness, Tim Keller writes that “True gospel-humility means I stop connecting every experience, every conversation, with myself. In fact, I stop thinking about myself. The freedom of self forgetfulness. The blessed rest that only self-forgetfulness brings.” Like children, it is possible for us to be blessedly unaware of ourselves. Yet unlike children, we are also aware of our tendency to relate everything to ourselves. Yet know the antidote: regular, moment-to-moment looking to Christ, who has forgiven us and accepts us just as we are (Rom. 8:1). Our identity is rooted in Christ. We wake up, for sure, but it's Christ we wake to.

It’s true we’ll never be free of ourselves again. But our picture of self will be transformed by Christ. That’s not sad at all. That's freedom, that's joy.


A Perambulatory Faith

Image"The life of faith is not a life of mounting up with wings, but a life of walking and not fainting." (Oswald Chambers)

No one I know uses the word "perambulatory" in ordinary conversation. That's a shame. It's a perfectly good word. If someone is walking we might say they are ambulatory. (Well, a doctor might.) However, perambulatory carries another sense: to walk about, travel around, go through. And that's what we do in life, we travel through and walk about. We even wander at times. That's how we discover and learn. That's how we grow.

Scripture is full of perambulators. The Israelites walked from Egypt to the Promised Land. Nehemiah walked from Babylon to a Jerusalem in ruins. Jesus walked the hills and valleys of Palestine. The Apostle Paul journeyed throughout much of the known world by foot. Everywhere, the people of the Book walked.

Not only that, scripture has much to say about how we walk. We are enjoined to walk in Christ, in the light, by faith and not sight, in truth, and by Spirit. Broadly speaking, the Christian life is described as a walk, a sojourn, one in which we are aliens and strangers in the world, one in which we often wander, knowing the object of our faith-walk, Christ, yet not always knowing where to take the next step. In Colossians 2:6 (ESV), Paul says that "as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.” Yet walking in Him can involve a fair amount of wandering; we know our destination but don't know quite how we will get there. We have tools (scripture, prayer) but we have no step-by-step instruction manual.

In my drive home from work, one which takes about 25 minutes, I know exactly where I am going. I usually follow the same set of roads. Yet sometimes, when I have the time, I take a different route, one that takes me through neighborhoods, by streams, and under canopies of trees. One that requires many turns, curves and stops. One in which I am always slightly lost, as I refuse to memorize the route but just let it unfold before me. My wandering allows me to see things I haven't seen before or, at least, not regularly. I may be surprised by the sounds of birds, children playing on a lawn, new home construction, closed roads, or a road down which I have never ventured. I am not lost or, at least, am only a little lost. I am wandering home.

In his book, Dusty Ones: Why Wandering Deepens Your Faith, A.J. Swoboda says that "Our efforts to learn to love and follow Jesus must meander through wherever we are as we wander our way through life." For Swoboda, wandering and discipleship are linked, as "One can wander and be right on track, just as being in the desert doesn't necessarily mean we are deserted." Wandering doesn't mean we're lost, just figuring things out. For Swoboda, "Christian spirituality is a slow train that must inevitably stop at every Podunk town." It is, as Eugene Peterson once wrote, "a long obedience in the same direction." To be sure, scripture speaks often of those who wander away from the commandments, from truth, who seek their own way, but "not all who wander are lost," says J.R.R. Tolkien, in a poem from his Fellowship of the Ring.

That's worth remembering. If we know those who seem off track or wandering, who are perambulating, ourselves included, they may not be lost. And they are never deserted. Pray for them. Pray for yourself. Point to Jesus, the Author and Perfecter of our faith. They will yet come home. As will we.


E.B. White in the Car Park

It all began well enough. While my wife and daughter were shopping, I propped myself up in the car, in a rectangular space touched by the spare shadow of a tree, and began to read. The book, Poems & Sketches of E.B. White, was a somewhat shelf-worn hardback, one I was delighted to find for $4.50 the other evening, plucked off the shelf where it would no doubt languish for months in the dusty poetry section. It is not, after all, Stuart Little.

First up was a sketch by White entitled "The Hotel of the Total Stranger," a languid tale of a traveler, a Mr. Volente, checking into an unairconditoned Manhattan hotel. My eyes grew heavy. The sounds of traffic wafted in. A desert breeze teased. I lost my place, re-read a few paragraphs, repositioned myself, and read: "New York lay stretched in midsummer languor under her trees in her thinnest dress, idly and beautifully. . . . The trucks and the sudden acceleration and the flippant horn and the rustle of countless affairs somewhat retarded by the middle-of-summer pause in everything, these were the sounds of her normal breathing. . . ." Ah, metaphor.

A bird just flew into the grill of a Ford Explorer, parked catty-cornered to me, reconsidered, and flew off. I looked away, embarrassed for him. I dove back in.

Mr. Volente is remembering, his cab ride from Penn Station to his hotel a revisiting of personal history: the Child's restaurant where the waitress had spilled a glass of buttermilk on his blue suit, a catastrophe he had spun into a magazine article, the square where a small dog had been struck by a cab and killed, a cafe off Washington place where he and his wife dined the night they married, the room above the fire escape where the air was recycled: "In those days, he thought, there was no air conditioning: the same air remained in the small rooms and moved about, distributed by a fan, from table to table with the drifting smoke, until the whole place gathered over a period of months and years an accumulation of ardor and love and adventure and hope, a fine natural patina on floors and walls, as a church accumulates piety and sorrow and holiness."

I had to pause there and look out over the cars toward the mountains and consider the church, walls caked with piety, layered with sorrows, enobled by prayers, aged like fine wine to holiness. I closed my eyes. The book fell closed. . .

"Mr. West?"

"Um. . . What? What was that?"

"Mr. West, we are here. Your hotel?"

I looked up to see a short stub of a man peering at me from an open door, a streetscape out the window, a city.

"My hotel?"

"Yes sir."

I closed my eyes and wished it away. A dream. Rubbing my eyes I opened them on the book, picking up where I left off. Outside, a baby chattered, his mother fussily stowing him in the car. Birds twittered, decorated cars, and made off to laugh at their work. An aging biker revved his bike on Skyline, as if to hold off aging. Seventy-five year old words float in the shiny new of suburbia, seemed alien to a parking lot of late model cars.

Mr. Volente. Mr. Volente is remembering. There is something here about the "lean and tortured years," about mornings alone spent in the apartment straightening up after the others had left for work, rinsing the dirty cereal-encrusted bowls, taking the percolator apart and putting it together again, and then "sinking down on the lumpy old couch in the terrible loneliness of midmorning, sometimes giving way to tears of doubt and misgiving (his own salt rivers of doubt), and in the back room the compensatory window box with the brave and grimy seedlings struggling, and the view of the naked fat lady across the yard."

Mr. Volente, I say, I did not need that last image.

I flip over to the last page of the book, because if nothing else a book, particularly one assembled with deliberation as was this, should begin well and end well, and because I need another image for my mind, and I land on "The Crack of Doom," which seems promising if foreboding.

I glance at my watch. Will I have time to traverse the crack of doom before my wife and daughter finish their spree? I decide to go for it and plunge in.

Earth is experiencing atmospheric disturbances. Elm trees die, a "loss considered unfortunate but not significant." Tropical storms increase. Sleeping sickness breaks out. Scientists figure out that a new disease, which affects people's necks in middle age, came from the habit of feeding orange juice to very young babies, in vogue around 1910. A man named Elias Gott discovers that all the trouble is due to radio waves. Eventually, the radio waves threw the earth off orbit, where it crashed into a fixed star, going up in "brilliant flame," a flash "noticed on Mars, where it brought a moment of pleasure to young lovers; for on Mars it is the custom to kiss one's beloved when a star falls."

But what this apocalypse has to do with the crack of doom is unknown. Yet I want to flip back to the beginning, tell Mr. Volente that it doesn't matter anyway, that it will end in one "brilliant flame." But I don't. Why ruin his melancholy? Somewhere in this story is an inside joke, I imagine, yet it is outside to all, its contemporary readers all dead.

The end flap says White is "witty, wise and pensive." Yet I am put off, as whoever wrote it never knew the man. The author of The Elements of Style would never have left off a comma after "wise" lest he be haunted by William Strunk. I take my pen out and edit it, insert the comma, and restore order to the world.

I shut the book and settle back into my lumpy seat, my mid-day rest, let Mr. Volente remember, turn the radio on, and prepare for the end of the world.


An Eno Walk

IMG_4660About 200 feet into the park, down a rutted trail that skirted the ridge above the river, she spotted a yellow flower just inside the guard rail, its glory ephemeral and slight, bowing as if apologetic for interrupting what was still winter. “I think it’s a trillium,” she said, stooping for a photo, composing the flower as would one engaged in portraiture. It was alone, a promise of more, over-eager for Spring.

I kept the word.

We crossed the Eno on the suspension bridge, jostled by a pack of scouts, swaying over the rapid flow below. On the far bank, we began the ascent of Cox Mountain; the namer, we thought, prone to exaggeration. The trail does lead nearly straight up for a 270 foot climb in elevation, as if to insist on its claim of height — a slight mountain, if in fact it is, or a large hill, yet enough to wind us. That there are no switchbacks is a giveaway: it is a pretend mountain, after all, yet we went along, believing.

“I think we have been here before,” I said.

“I told you.” She had told me, yet I thought it was another trail that day, some five years ago now. Then, we entered from another side, nearly alone, an electric buzz in the background, amorous cicadas a clearly excited amateur entomologist told us, migrants passing through, held up by love. We thought it the sound of the high tension electrical lines over the clearing, yet it was of another tension.

Overhead, squirrels chatter and play chase. One sits on a branch above our heads gnawing noisily on a pine cone. As she approaches, it scrambles father up to a slender promontory from which it peers down, the cone still attached.

Down, down we go until we stand on the alluvial banks of the river, the sun dancing on the water. I lean against a gnarled hickory tree, peer at the river’s run through an eyelet between its twin trunks. I snap a photo of her there by the water, taking a photo of the water’s play on rocks, and then turn to go when the stillness is interrupted by strangers.

I need her along, as I have trouble slowing my gait enough to observe. This is not about destination but journey, about slowing down to let the world seep in. And I need it.

Returning, at one point we follow the old track of the Hillsborough Coach Road, and I imagine the horses and wagons of farmers and grist and saw mill owners traversing it. They were not the first. According to Adam Morgan, whose North Carolina’s Wild Piedmont: A Natural History is a wealth of cogent insight, in 1701 English naturalist John Lawson met up with a group of Native Americans in the area headed by a one named Enoe Hill. The Indians were pushed out, the land logged, and over 30 gristmills built, the ruins of some of which still remain. So, the landscape has been altered.

According to Morgan, the steep ravines and high bluffs that seem so natural did not exist before the Europeans came. Rather, what they saw was a valley of meandering streams and wetlands, the etched out valley bottoms the product of mill dam sedimentation. And then the forests are constantly changing, the pines pushed out by hardwoods. Still, altered or not, it’s beautifully dressed with oak, hickory, mountain laurel, and rhododendron. Some type of fungi, a parasite, juts from the bark of one hardwood I rested my hand on, the tiny shelves catching raindrops which birds then harvest.

It wasn’t trillium after all but yellow trout-lily, all of which I later learn thanks to Audubon. Trout because the mottled leaves reminded someone of brook trout, though their aroma is far better. I learn that they live in colonies, some near 300 years old, like a communion of the saints, their sagging posture a precursor for asexual reproduction: a “dropper,” a tubular stem that grows out of a corm, penetrates deep into the soil before another corm is formed at its tip and the stem connecting the daughter and parent corm dies, an umbilical cord no longer needed.

The cicadas have a better time of it. Apparently.