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.

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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.


The Remedy for Amnesia

"The well of your incompleteness runs deep, but make the effort to look away from yourself and to look toward Him."

(Oswald Chambers, in My Utmost for His Highest)

If you are anything like me (and I suspect you are), there are many things about life or about yourself that you can't seem to change or that simply don't change. Perhaps it is a person who you desire to see come to faith, or a habit you wish to break or adopt. Maybe it is writ large yet elusive, like peace in the Middle East or the end of ISIS. You have reached down into the well of your being, summoned all your resources, done all you can, and yet nothing. No lasting weight loss. No coming to faith of that friend. Not a glimmer of peace. Then, a seed of doubt or distrust is planted. Can God do anything? Will He do anything? There is a chipping away of trust.

Chambers says "look away from yourself and look toward Him." He has the living water. He has what we need. How? I tell myself these truths regularly: First, I affirm that He is God Almighty not just God my friend, that He can do anything. Second, I affirm that He desires my good and that He has a good plan for the universe and will bring it to fruition in His good time. Third, I remind myself of what He has already done and is already doing, cultivating a posture of thankfulness. Fourth, I persist in praying for the thing I desire over and over and over again, like the widow before the judge, not because He is hard of hearing or too busy but because He desires that I come, until He either answers my prayer or reorders my desires. And fifth, I read scripture, the record of his dealings with the likes of me, to remind myself that every kind of plea I may make is the kind already answered by God.

No, honestly, I am not regular enough at these things. I offer suffer temporary amnesia. I forget the truth. It's likely for that reason that forgetful Israelites repeated the stories of deliverance to themselves so often, stories of exodus and victory. It's the reason God began so many conversations with "Remember." It's why the Psalmist, after verse upon verse of woe and complaint comes round to a chorus of God's enduring love, faithfulness, and redemption.

Across nearly a century, Oswald Chambers' voice echoes: "The thing that approaches the very limits of His power is the very thing that we as disciples of Jesus ought to believe He will do." He can do anything, and He will. Look to Jesus, Chambers says. Look to Jesus.


Place-Making

"Isn't this great?," my son said, as he looked up from the oven. "I love this."
We're cooking. The chocolate chip cookies, inchoate but promising, lay in doughy mounds on the cookie sheet. The ingredients for a bacon and spinach quiche are prepared and put to bed in the refrigerator. After washing dishes by hand and laying them in a rack to dry, I retire to the sofa. I am not allowed to cook, but I did get to measure out the flour, salt, brown sugar, and baking soda, like a chemist's assistant in the laboratory of my scientist son.

I examine the bookshelf. A large 75th anniversary edition of The Joy of Cooking is juxtaposed with Advanced Aerodynamics, a bio of pilots Chuck Yeager and Burt Rutan, and the historical Moonshot, like one might expect of the library of a flying chef, gathering up the raw ingredients of space and making things, things for me to eat, while running on about gravity and thrust, Mars and cars --- he in the kitchen, peripatetic, gesticulating; I, reclining, reflecting. Our wife and mother, in contrast, happy to be working alongside us.

"Let's watch The Martian!," he says, brightly.

"Been there. Done that," I say, though I should have agreed. We settle on Johnny English, seconds or thirds for us all, yet still funny. We laugh as we wait for cookie dough to bake, eat between cachinnations.

The window above his head is a rectangle of black, yet I know its view. Across a courtyard, in the distance, beyond the Stanford campus, one can see just a bit of the Coast Range. Beyond that is Half Moon Bay and the Pacific. If you could, look east, and there's Palo Alto and the Bay; north, Menlo Park, Redwood City, and end on end towns until San Francisco, until the Golden Gate, until Sauselito and Muir Woods and north and north in Kerouac country.

The arranged books, the cooking together, the conversation, and, if you remove us, the regular patterns of his day --- waking, walking, working, --- transform a space into a place, give roots to what could have been ephemeral. With some attention, some deliberation, it is not. It is even, in some temporal sense, his home.

________________________________

In the opening essay in a collection of essays about place, entitled Why Place Matters: Geography, Identity, and Civic Life in Modern America, Wilfred McClay takes note of "an ordinary but disquieting phenomenon: the translation of place into space, the transformation of a setting that had once been charged with human meaning into one from which the meaning has departed, something empty and inert, a mere space." We all know this feeling from when we move from one place to another. We take out our last belongings, remove the paintings from the walls, sweep out even the last rubbish and dirt of our life there, and then sense the inevitable, a place giving way to space. Soon, no trace of us will remain. And though we may maintain relationships via the simultaneity of the Internet, they exist displaced and, in some way, not quite the same.

But McClay says that what was once a normal yet not too common experience of displacement is becoming a more pervasive, enduring, and damaging phenomenon for many people. "As we become ever more mobile and more connected and absorbed in a panoply of things that are not immediately present to us," he says, "our actual and tangible places seem less and less important to us, more and more transient or provisional or interchangeable or even disposable." As a result of this lightly held existence, "[t]he pain of parting becomes less, precisely because there is so little reason to invest oneself in 'place' to begin with." In short, we have a deep need for community and yet less and less ability to develop and sustain it.

McClay says that both commerce and government are only too willing to assist our displacement. "A national government and a global economy always tend in the direction of consolidation and uniformity, toward the imposition of a uniform standard." Efficiency requires commodification, transience, and predictability. Economically, we are only consumers; to hold to tightly to a particular place is antithetical to market forces.

But what McClay says is that to be a healthy, dynamic society we must embrace a strong sense of place. Quoting historian William Leach, he says that "People require a firm sense of place so they can dare to take risks. A society whose common store of memories has been beaten down or shattered is open to further disruption; for such a society cannot defend or protect itself from the stronger incursions of those who know what they want and how to get it."

Christians are called to be place-makers. When a shattered nation of Israelites was torn from their home and carried off into exile, God called them to"build house and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce." To a displaced people suffering displacement as a judgment for their unfaithfulness, he commands place-making, even in a space not of their own choosing. So too does he command us --- not to long wistfully for another place, not to avoid entangling ourselves in relationships, not to risk little so as not to be hurt much. But to dig in deep, to dwell, to settle in and make a place from the space where we find ourselves.

________________________________

The movie over, we gather our belongings and leave his place. We return to our hotel on El Camino Real, a space that is not quite a place for us given our very temporal lodging there. Nevertheless, even there we are place-makers. I take all my clothes out of my suitcase and hang them or fold them away in drawers, giving it some semblance of permanence. Having learned the name of African-born valet from a previous visit, we greet him and ask how he is, like a friend we seldom see. We enjoy the angle of the morning sunlight in our room. I place books on the desk, nightstand, and by the reading chair. We walk down University Avenue and under the ancient and broad-limbed trees of the Stanford campus. We eat locally, at Mayfield's and Peninsula. We drink up the sun and breeze. We go to church and mingle. I pretend, just for these days, that I live here in what would be a tiny overpriced bungalow, try to look carefully at the people city, as if I might never see it again.

I make a place. I always do. It's what we do. It's what we're called to do.


Permutations & Combinations


ImageMy wife is a gamer. I mean that in a very limited way. She doesn't binge in front of the Xbox, playing Call of Duty: Black Ops, though I expect she would do quite well. No, when we go out to lunch or dinner and wait on our meal, the backdrop of our conversation is often a game of IZee, which is really a form of Yahtzee played on her iPhone. Pass and play. She's competitive and yet gracious, whether winning or losing. I'm not. . . competitive that is. . . as I lose too much. I do try to be gracious.

"Hey, you're almost winning," I say, as we wait on pizza.

"What do you mean? We're tied."

"Well, you're almost winning. One more point and you will win. I'm almost winning too."

She smiled. The man and woman at the booth next to us stare at us. They are sitting on the same side of the booth, which is odd, and they are not smiling. I look back at the game.

On many of the hundreds of occasions we have played this game, the words "permutations" and "combinations" enter my consciousness. A door opens on a tenth grade math class of some sort in which we studied these concepts. I'm looking out at the class, oddly enough, from the teacher's perspective, and my eyes sweep the class and go right to the large and open windows which look out on a flag pole, it's rope snapping in the wind, the ring that holds it clanging the pole. I have only the vaguest notion of what the words mean, but I think the sound of the phrase, permutations and combinations, was what I enjoyed, its assonance.

"Your turn."

I role a six, five, three, two, and six. I'm thinking. . . What are the odds I will role another six to give me three of a kind? But I have two rolls. If I save the two sixes and roll again, what are the chances that one of my three rolling die will be a six? What are the chances that all will be sixes? Should I save the two sixes or roll all five of them again? My head hurts.

"Are you going to roll?"

I'm thinking this has something to do with permutations and combinations, but I have no idea what to do with the concept anymore. I roll all five die. Hmmm. No sixes at all. What are the odds?

Soundly defeated, I vowed to look up permutations and combinations when I got home. What I learned is that Yatzee has nothing to do with permutations, where sequence matters, and everything to do with combinations, with the probability that dice will be rolled in a certain combination. For example, the odds of rolling all of one number on the first roll of five dice (you yell "Yahtzee" here) is 1/5 x 1/5 x 1/5 x 1/5 x 1/5, or 1/3125, which is discouraging, of course, and utterly useless.

Mr. Wizard is not playing IZee. The pizza is here. A few mouthfuls later, she won. Again.

"You almost won," she generously said. "Essentially, we tied."

I smile. She won by two points. I think that unwillingness to trumpet victory is called parity of hearts or, maybe, oneness. What are the odds of that?


A Charlie Brown Religion: A Review

9781496804686_p0_v3_s487x700Of all the 17,897 Peanuts newspaper strips penned by Charles Schultz during his 50 years of creative endeavor, most of which I have not read, one exemplifies the surprising profundity that a four-panel comic strip could have under Schultz. Lucy and Charlie Brown are propped thoughtfully on a brick wall, and Charlie Brown says “You know what I wonder?,” and then, “Sometimes I wonder if God is pleased with me.” In the next (and third) panel, he turns to Lucy, whose expression has never changed as yet, and says “Do you ever wonder if God is pleased with you?” Lucy turns, smiling smugly, and says, “He just HAS to be!” It’s funny, as it plays on Charlie Brown’s self-deprecation and doubt and on Lucy’s assuredness, and yet there’s more to it than that. It’s as if Lucy protests too much. She too wonders, we think, though unlike Charlie Brown, she covers with her confidence, with her assurance. The question is one that resonated, no doubt with millions of readers: Does God really love me? And if so, then why are things not going well for me? Or, could he really love me?

In A Charlie Brown Religion: Exploring the Spiritual Life and Work of Charles M. Schultz, author Stephen J. Lind does an excellent job exploring the way the late Schultz brought Christian faith to bear on his popular Peanuts series. No doubt all of us remember the poignancy of the animated A Charlie Brown Christmas, with Linus’s telling of the Christmas story, reciting verbatim the words of scripture at the end, but we’re likely unaware of Schultz’s deep if somewhat idiosyncratic Christian faith and his persistent employment of scripture — both as directly quoted as well as alluded to — in some of his strips and animated shows. At the time, in the mid-Sixties, network TV programmers were extremely reluctant to include religious references, much less scripture, in their programming. Told that having Linus read the Gospel of Luke was “too religious,” Schultz stuck to his convictions, saying “If we don’t do it, who will?” The rest is history. He had the presence to make it happen. A memorable Christmas special was born. A barrier was broken.

Born in St. Paul, Minnesota, Charles Schultz saw little of church as a child. In school, he fared poorly, failing many subjects, a shy boy with no obvious future calling. When high school ended, however, his mother suggested that he take a correspondence art course. It was his first step into honing his own craft. Drafted in 1943, he served in Europe, but most agonizingly, his mother contracted terminal cervical cancer in the years before he left, so as he said goodbye to her, he knew that it was likely the last time he would see her. While deployed, his father Carl began attending a small Church of God congregation, and on return, Schultz did as well. It was there, through Bible studies and friendships that he came to a realization of faith sometime in 1948. Asked about it, he said “I accepted Jesus Christ by gratitude.” Haunted by nightmares of war, suffering the too-early death of his mother, the community of faith he found buoyed him.

Lind gives good coverage in the book to the incremental and progressive achievements Schultz made in a career in comics. And yet the focus here is the continuing place that faith had in his life. He never forgot his roots in the Church of God or the pastoral and other friendships he developed there, never stopped reading and studying scripture (as evidenced by a well-used and marked Bible), and never stopped interjecting Bible truth into comic strips and animated specials. At the same time, none were preachy, none off-putting. As Lind writes, “Most of the salient religious references in the animated specials. . . used terminology , phrasing and anecdotes from Scripture to create laughter, not theological debate.” Nevertheless, the comic strips and animated specials often invited reflection.

In 1983’s It’s An Adventure, Charlie Brown, one short, “Butterfly,” is rich with questioning. Out on the lawn, a butterfly lands on Peppermint Patty’s nose. She falls asleep and Marcie sends it fluttering away. Awakening, Marcie exclaims, “A miracle, sir! While you were asleep it turned into an angel.” Peppermint Patty is convinced that she was chosen to bring a message to the world. However, she is unable to get any attention from a televangelist or any other religious people. And though Marcie is trying to tell her that she made the whole thing up, she can’t hear it. As Lind explains, “[I]f the viewer is willing to think through the issue with the scene, an invitation is extended to consider one’s relationship to miracles. The scene asks why it is that some are so wonderfully quick to believe that a miracle has happened to them when the ‘real’ explanation is being repeated over and over. Yet the viewer is also prompted to consider why others, who are purportedly in the business of miracles. . . , are so wrapped up with the tedious business of Sunday school papers and sprinkler systems that they lose the ability to listen to news of the miraculous.” Witty and profound, rich with questioning yet without trite answers, Schultz provokes reflection by those willing to pause. Doubtless the questions posed were the ones he also asked.

Though he never explicitly abandoned faith, at some point in life Charles Schultz stopped going to church. In a biography published in 1989, he was quoted saying “I guess you might say I’ve come around to secular humanism.” And yet Lind concludes, based on other comments by Schultz, that the statement neither reflected atheism nor a crisis of faith but, rather, a increasingly complex faith, a kind of biblical humanism or, perhaps, a Christian universalism. Lind says that “The view that Christ’s work had atoned for all of mankind’s sin, regardless of their religious affiliation, and that God knew the heart of each man and woman sufficient to determine if they were part of His kingdom, seems consistent with Sparky’s [Schultz’s] comments on faith.” If not universalism, it is certainly an openness to the inclusion in the Kingdom of those who do not even refer to themselves as Christians, who do not profess belief but who are “good” people. No one would refer to this as historic, orthodox Christian belief as reflected in its historic creeds, yet it seemed to be what Schultz embraced as he removed himself from the accountability of a church where new ideas could be discussed and, at times, countered. And though he did not stop discussing biblical theology with friends, they were also not of an evangelical ilk. In 1998 his friend Robert Short described him as a “Christian universalist,” explaining, using a Peanuts metaphor, that “he believed, as I do, that finally all people are going to be rounded up by Christ the sheep dog.” Whether he was correct is unclear; that Schultz’s own non-systematic theology has deep inconsistencies with the Bible is clear.

After battling cancer, Charles Schultz died in his sleep from a pulmonary embolism on the night of February 12, 2000. He struggled with faith in his last days, not seeing the efficacy of prayers on his behalf, wanting to continue to be active, as he had planned, on into his Eighties. Perhaps he even contemplated that question by Charlie Brown, “Do you ever wonder if God is pleased with you?” Perhaps now he knows. Perhaps, as Lucy said, “he just has to be.”

I recommend A Charlie Brown Religion, even if, like me, you were not a fan of Peanuts but simply one who brushed up against a cultural icon. Highly readable and focused, my only criticism is the inclusion of the epilogue which read more like a introduction to the Peanuts brand and muted the power of the conclusions Lind drew from Schultz’s life. That aside, well-written biographies like Lind’s instruct and inspire, even warn. In the life of Charles Schultz, there is much to commend — his winsomeness, generosity, creativity, work ethic, and love for others — and yet much that serves as warning. He had an affair when married to his first wife. He failed to instruct his children in faith, reasoning that they each needed to come to their own conclusions (despite scriptural admonitions to do so), and, giving up the life of a community of faith (also commended in scripture) veered into an individualistic and non-orthodox spirituality rooted in Christian faith but free-floating and amorphous. In the end, we can celebrate the many commendable qualities of his life, leaving the rest between him and his Maker. After all, in the end, every human being is a mystery fully known only by his God.


Spiritual Therapy

"Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed.”
‭‭
Heb.‬ ‭12:12-13‬ ‭(ESV)

Several months ago I was taking the stairs in our house from the ground to our second floor. I fell up the stairs, which is, I have to say, better than falling down the stairs, something I have also done. I banged my knee on the lip of a step. Since then, it's been a source of discomfort, not when walking but when taking stairs. Physical therapy consists of strengthening my weak knee, though the exercises are counterintuitive, meaning it has been explained to me how they will accomplish that, but I cannot make the connection.

This particular passage of scripture comes after a reminder from the writer of Hebrews that God is the founder or author of our faith, as well as its perfecter. He counsels that hardship and trials are a form of discipline God uses to perfect our faith, which is our life. To people with drooping hands, that is, who cannot bring themselves to do another thing, and with weak knees, that is, who are disinclined to get up and take the next step, he says "lift" and "strengthen." How? By looking to Jesus (v. 2). How? By seeing in our circumstances a loving Father who cares enough to shepherd us through hardship to refine us and make us holy, to make us more fully who He intends us to be. How? By taking the long view, by persevering.

My physical therapist forces me to do activities that are painful. He needles me, shocks me, pulls and twists me. If I didn't believe he knew what he was doing, I'd think him a sick little man. I do not appreciate what he does and want him to stop. Some people feel that way about God. I don't. I may not like His therapy, but I trust it is for my good. It is for my healing. I hold out hope that His therapy will make me whole.


A Christmas Eve Visitor

My wife and I retired early on Christmas Eve this year, that is, by 1:30. The elves must feel something akin to this: weeks of workshop labor, shorted sleep, and unhealthy food, and then, finally, when the taillights of Santa's sleigh crests the horizon, they take to their beds. It felt that way. To be horizontal and still alive is to be deeply thankful. The cat stared dreamily at me from her pillow-bed near our feet. As she settled deeper into her cushions, I lost consciousness.

And then, out of the dark, a clunk. I looked at the clock: 1:30. "Was that a door shutting?," she said sleepily.

"Must have been a cat," I said. Silence. I lay there. It could have been a cat, a very heavy cat, and yet the large one still lay at the end of the bed and the other wisp of a cat would not make such a large noise and, besides, was likely tucked away in a crevice somewhere.

I threw off the covers and went to the window, lifting the blinds to peek outside. Fog curled around the single street light. A neighbor's window light cast a single square of yellow light on the lawn next door. A black cat stole across the street, the one we call the Mayor, dutifully checking drain pipes, ground holes, and sewer drains for riff-raff. The usual. But then, in the corner of my eye, something red moved. At the corner of my house, a man was pushing something, and having a hard time of it, calling out to the darkness, "On. . .

"What are you doing over there?"

"Nothing." I dropped the blind. "Go back to sleep."

"Did you figure out what that sound was?"

"A cat, I think." Scapegoat for all, the cat. Silent when accused.

"Will you go down and check it out?"

"Sure." I will? I guess I will. I didn't really want to, yet I started out my door, feeling my way.

"Dad, did Santa come?," said my son from the darkness.

"Sssh. He can't come if you're awake." That's what my parents told me anyway.

"I'm not awake."

"You have to be unconscious for him to come." I added that bit. That is, you have to at least act like you're sleeping.

"I am unconscious. Can't you tell?" And then, after a pause: "Where are you going?"

"Nowhere. Checking on things."

From the other room, my daughter, "What's going on out there?"

"Everyone go to sleep. I'm just checking to be sure all the lights are out."

I started down the stairs, avoiding the creaking one. About halfway down, I heard a slight creak behind me. I paused, one foot in midair, and turned, only to see the cat behind me, one paw in the air.

"You too?" I whispered. I knelt close to her face. "Listen, when we get to the bottom, you go right, I'll go left," I said. She nodded, ever so slightly. "And be quiet." At the bottom, she turned left, not right, inexplicably, and I followed. As she entered the kitchen, she dropped to the floor, paws spread. I crouched. "What is it?," I whispered.

Looking up, I saw a small, bearded man in a red suit kneeling beneath our Christmas tree in the near-dark, placing packages under the tree. I rose, drew a breath too quickly, too loudly, and he turned.

"Hey, you're. . ."

He put a finger to his lips, smiling, indicating that I should remain quiet, and then turned to his work. Looking down, I saw the cat walk by me carrying a catnip mouse in her mouth. Then, looking up again, he was gone. Just vanished. I turned to walk back up the stairs. At the landing, I stopped.

"Dad?"

"Aren't you asleep?"

"Yes, but did Santa come?"

"I'm sure he'll get here. You go to sleep."

"I am asleep. I can sleep and talk at the same time."

And I can be awake and dream at the same time.

"I want a sugarplum."

"They don't grow here."

"What is a sugarplum, anyway?"

"Nite, son."

I lifted the edge of the covers and slid back into bed, settling on my back. The cat lay unconscious in a half-circle at my feet. I re-positioned her gently with a slight kick.

From the dark, my wife: "Did you see Santa?"

"Yeah."

"What'd he say?"

"He asked if you'd been good."

"And you said?"

"I said you'd been better than me."

"Was that OK?"

"Well, he smiled, anyway."

"You sure you saw him?"

"I'm sure."

"Sure you did."

In the morning, I rolled over, opened my eyes. A catnip mouse lay beside me. The wisp of a cat sat on the floor beside the bed, looking up at me.

"You see him too?"

She meowed.

"OK, that settles it."


The Talk of the Town

“All eyes tell us of helplessness and despair. And despite it all, Christmas comes. Whether we wish it or not, whether we are sure or not, we must hear the words once again: Christ the Savior is here! The world that Christ comes to save is our fallen and lost world. None other.” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer)

If the latest issue of The New Yorker is an indication of what the urbane elites of our culture think of Christmas, the answer is: not much. In this year-end, double issue, the word “Christmas” is uttered once, and that in a flip send-up name-drop poem by Ian Frazier entitled “Greetings, Friends!,” an inane review of the past year’s newsmakers. The cover boasts a winter scene with what appear to be elves and reindeer in pandemonium. And that’s about it. That’s the holiday issue. Um, holiday is not mentioned either.

The New Yorker was never Christ-centered, of course. For its writers, editors, and most of its readers, Christmas is no doubt wrapped in myth and tradition, a hectic season of gift-giving, parties, and some superficial sense of good cheer. In this issue, there is an article on global warming, the gloomy message of which seems to be that Southern Florida will be under water within 50 years and there is nothing we can do about it. In a “world-changers” issue, there are some profiles of those who are deemed world-changers, like Secretary of State John Kerry, and yet you have the distinct sense that “world-changers” is used in a tongue-in-cheek fashion, the editors knowingly winking at the readers as if to say, “not really, but we had to print something positive, and this is all we could muster.”

Beyond this incarnate irony, however, is the Incarnate One. That’s the real story. In my fantasy, I imagine this event, the virgin birth of God, as the “Talk of the Town,” as the focal point of The New Yorker. There are articles of faith and hope and love, of the world-changing efforts of ordinary people. That’s not impossible. Nothing is impossible with God. Yet I won’t hold my breath.

It was Christmas Sunday in 1930 when Bonhoeffer preached his Advent sermon. The world was in the throes of an economic depression. Facism and communism were on the rise. There were many reasons for helplessness and despair. And yet, into the midst of that, he could proclaim, “Christ the Savior is here.” And so can we.

The New Yorker may have unwittingly pointed to something its writers may not really grasp. The last line of Ian Frazier’s poem speaks of the coming year, of “Jumping with both feet, not looking,/ On amazing grace depending.”

Amazing grace, indeed. Christ, the savior, is here. Let that be the talk of the town.


A Divine Propinquity

As Francis Schaeffer preached and lived, there are “no little people, and no little places.” People are made in the image of God - every single one of them - and no matter how marred the image in them, they do not lose it. Yet I am so often aware of how I do not live that.

Clive James, a famous British writer that I only barely know of, has every reason to consider himself important, I suppose, given all the books he has read and written. He is in the last stages of his life now, in and out of the hospital. As he lay in his hospital bed one evening, watching a nurse clean up a mess he had made (I’ll spare the details), he suddenly recognized the image of God in her (though he does not know it as such):

“She had a deformed body, with limbs all the wrong lengths. Life could not have been easy for her. But now she was making the end of my life easier for me. It was a night to remember, and I haven’t forgotten it for a second. I can only hope that the sum total of my writings has been as useful to the world as her kindness, but I doubt that this is so.”

In a divine propinquity, I also heard two other stories in the last couple of days that reminded me that there are no little people. One was of that of former MMA (martial arts) fighter Justin Wren who, after an amazing vision given to him by God, now heads a mission the forgotten people of the Congo, the pgymies, “little people” who know him as “The Man Who Loves Us,” or “The Big Pygmy.” The other is of Amy DeBurgh of Shepherds College, who works with intellectually disabled people. The remarkable thing about both ministries is that they recognize that neither pygmies nor the intellectually disabled are “little people.” They are God’s images. In her interview, Amy says that when we limit God’s image in people by measuring it by an external standard, like intelligence or ability or appearance, we actually deny the image, that is, we deny that the reality that the image of God is “vastly immeasurable.” Schaeffer would nod assent, and add that when we touch the lives of those who the world thinks of as insignificant, we must realize that every soul is important, that the small kindness we show to the “little” person has ramifications far beyond what we can see.

We can pray we see past the surface to the images of God among whom we live and work, particularly the forgotten ones, the ones who annoy, the ones who inconvenience, and the ones who have nothing (we think) to offer us. Especially them.


The Sound of Heaven

It's Advent, even though most people don't know the word. Through the rain that falls today, puddling on the roof outside their windows, tapping on their gutters, many do wait and hope for something they can't quite name, to some kind of advent.

The New Yorker magazine has an online archive of everything published by it since 1925, so I searched to see what a great writer like E.B. White might say about Christmas. In a small Comment on Christmas Eve, 1949, there is, sadly, no mention of the Incarnation, but in his voice you can hear the longing for something more and, like all writers, his voice gives expression to what many others cannot articulate.

Into a world still recovering from a great world war, he said: "To perceive Christmas through its wrapping becomes more difficult with every year. There was a little device we noticed in one of the sporting-goods stores — a trumpet that hunters hold to their ears so that they can hear the distant music of the hounds. Something of the sort is needed now to hear the incredibly distant sound of Christmas in these times, through the dark, material woods that surround it."

Well, there is "something of that sort." It is the simple yet profound texts of scripture centered in "for unto us a child is born." And it is not distant but God come near, at hand.

White goes on to say that "[t]he miracle of Christmas is that, like the distant and very musical voice of the hound, it penetrates finally and becomes heard in the heart over so many years, through so many cheap curtain-raisers. It is not destroyed even by all the arts and craftiness of the destroyers, having an essential simplicity that is everlasting and triumphant, at the end of confusion."

Everlasting. Triumphant. Heard in the heart? Call it religion and you might smother it. Make it a greeting card cliche and sentimentalize and trivialize it. But listen to what it might mean for God to submit himself to earthly form for one reason only: love.

White again: “So this day and this century proceed toward the absolutes of convenience, of complexity, and of speed, only occasionally holding up the little trumpet (as at Christmastime) to be reminded of the simplicities, and to hear the distant music of the hound. . . . This [Christmas], many will be reminded that no explosion of atoms generates so hopeful a light as the reflection of a star, seen appreciatively in a pasture pond. It is there we perceive Christmas — and the sheep quiet, and the world waiting.”

As in 1949, now. The world is waiting for the hound. . . of Heaven.


Welcome to Struggleville

“As for man, his days are like grass; he flourishes like a flower of the field; for the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place knows it no more.”

‭(‭Ps. 103:15-16‬)

I'm sitting in the car waiting for my daughter, listening to a record I have not listened to for many years. It's Welcome to Struggleville, by the Vigilantes of Love. Don't you love that name? I'm just catching phrases of this fine record. . ."I'm been trying to negotiate peace with my own existence. . . The whole thing is full of decay. . . But in the rust I know the beast is falling." Well, the title says it all. Sin. Entropy. Fallen world. Yet, the Beast is falling. Victory is assured.

I took a late walk earlier, in full sun. Winding down is in the air. Autumn is a visual reminder for an image-soaked culture that there is a time for everything. The trees are nearly bare. Leaves clog the creek. In the new development near my home, every tree has been removed along with longstanding homes, people having moved elsewhere. Even the land has been raked over, plowed, shaped, piped, wired, and paved. A sign says "Homes from the $600s,” but the land is empty. Deer, fox, birds: gone. And yet in months there will be new homes, grass, families, cars, bicycles, swing sets - in short, life. And the people will not know those who lived their lives here before, every trace of whom has been removed. That's a loss, I think. There should be a reminder of those who came before. This place mattered to them.

If the people return months from now, they will barely be able to root their deep memories in the land, in the place where they arose. They had children here, grew families here, fought and argued here, entertained and read here. Gone. Loss permeates this small place; loss permeates our landscapes.

As author Paul Pastor recently reminded readers in his review of Walter Wangerin's new memoir, "Fred Buechner, in the introduction to his own (second) memoir, Now and Then, wrote: if you tell your own story with sufficient candor and concreteness, it will be an interesting story and in some sense a universal story.' Buechner further casts his memoir as 'a call to prayer.' (Such calls are universal.)" So many stories still hang over the land, left to seed new lives. I just wish someone had gathered up the stories before they left. Prayers still linger.

It’s not all loss. New lives will grow here. Children will be born, grow, and learn. God will do His work. The Kingdom will grow, even if small, in what is now empty. I walked today down paved streets with no houses. I said a prayer for those who come, a seed dropped in the ground that God will water.

My daughter just texted. “OMW.” Welcome to struggleville, caught between loss and promise. I’m on my way. The Beast is falling.



A Song Remembered

If you don’t read poetry, start. My friend Suzanne Underwood Rhodes says that “[i]maginative language - poetry - trains the mind in faith. For what is faith but divine realities we can only imagine, ‘the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen’ (Heb. 11:1)” In her guide to poetry, called The Roar on the Other Side, there are many fine poems yet, even better, she provides a guide to appreciating their music, to listening to the great truths and mysteries to which poetry point.

Speaking of metaphor, one of the strongest tools of poetry, she says: “When Jesus proclaims, ‘I am the Bread of life,’ He removes all our fences of seeing. He is entirely bread - nourishing, flavorful, essential. Rising and resurrection are in the loaf too. It is bread enough for the whole world, and of this Bread we must eat or perish. ‘Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you’ (John 6:53). Is this metaphor? Is this not mystery? Let us keep silent.” Sometimes I am silent because I am in awe of their beauty; sometimes, because I understand nothing and wait, dumbstruck.

That’s it: Sometimes before the words of a great poem, we must be silent, let the words was over us, let them do their work. As sometimes before the great God, we must be still, must wait, must listen for His voice. Let Him remove all the “fences of our seeing.” Let His still small voice come whisper in the wind.

Where to start? Try Mary Oliver, particularly her collection entitled Thirst. Or Jane Kenyon, in her Otherwise. Or even, if you are brave, Denise Levertov, in a slight collection entitled The Stream & the Sapphire. You’ll find faith of a sorts in them, though I don’t know its precise contours. Poets aren’t often precise on matters like dogma. But you will find much more: little truth and big Truths, little poems pointing to greater realities, particulars like dirt and sky, and universals like goodness and beauty and sadness and joy.

Read them aloud. Hear their music. Read them silently. Let pictures form in your mind. Tell someone what they say, if you can. You might find they begin quietly but, by the end of it, roar an dance in your head, arise unbidden while in the checkout line and bring the slightest of smiles to your mouth, a song remembered.


Rainfall, Evenly Distributed

With the recent killing of innocents in Paris recently, I thought of the last time I was in Paris. It was 2007, and my son and I had stopped there en route to Switzerland from England. We had traveled over to meet my writing partner Kevin and his daughter, and unbeknownst to us, halfway over, Heathrow was closed as result of the apprehended "shoe bomber". After doing some interviews in Cambridge and Oxford, we took the Chunnel train over to Paris. We had 36 hours to see Paris. My partner, who booked a flight from England to Switzerland, was stuck in England for three days, as no flights were going out.

We had lunch in a cafe with a clear view of Notre Dame. I tried my French on the server. My son said, "Dad, don't ever try to speak French again." He was right about that. It was a beautiful Summer day, and the views of the city were quite amazing - the Seine, Notre Dame, the Eiffel Tower - a beautiful city with people more generous and helpful than I had remembered.

Reading some of E.B. White's shorts and fillers for The New Yorker, I came across a single paragraph from one of his Notes and Comments fillers from September 2, 1944. Written upon the liberation of Paris, he says that on hearing the news of liberation, he couldn't think of what else to do but pull down the Encyclopedia Brittanica, turn to the article on Paris, and read its most "dullest" prose, only it came alive on that happy day:

“‘Paris,’ we began, ‘capital of France and of the department of the Seine, situated on the Ile de la Cite, the Ile St. Louis, and the Ile Louviers, in the Seine, as well as on the banks of the Seine, 233 miles from its mouth and 285 miles S.S.E. of London (by rail and steamer via Dover and Calais).’ The words seemed like the beginning of a great poem. A feeling of simple awe overtook us as we slowly turned the page and settled down to a study of the city’s weather graph and the view of the Seine looking east from Notre Dame. ‘The rainfall is rather evenly distributed,’ continued the encyclopaedist. Evenly distributed, we thought to oneself, like the tears of those who love Paris.”

Reading that, I imagine White hunched over the great book, his finger on the word “rainfall”, great tears welling in his eyes, tears of joy at liberation of that great city after its too long captivity. I imagine the tears shed only days ago, tears of sorrow, not joy. Still, I long for a “rainfall. . . evenly distributed,” a city of no fear. I can’t wait to hear that news.