Our Jordan River

Francis4“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. For by it the people of old received their commendation.” (Heb. 11:1-2)

One of the earliest sayings at L’Abri, the Swiss-based ministry of Americans Francis and Edith Schaeffer, was “put your feet in the Jordan.” By it ministry workers drew attention to the practicality of faith: faith first, then action based on faith.

Schaeffer was a pastor of churches in Pennsylvania and in St. Louis in the 30s and 40s in what was then the Bible Presbyterian Church. Sent by a mission board to Europe in 1948 to assess the state of the post-WWII church and what could be done to assist it, he witnessed the physical devastation of the war as well as the spiritual devastation caused by theological liberalism.

Later in 1948 that same mission board sent Schaeffer, his wife Edith, and his three daughters-Priscilla, Susan, and Debbie—to Europe, both to strengthen existing churches and continue a work with Children for Christ, neighborhood bible clubs for children that they started in St. Louis. That work continued for a number of years, but the doctrinal squabbling in the denomination ultimately led to a crisis of faith for Schaeffer.

Then living in Champery, Switzerland, Schaeffer paced back and forth in a hayloft, re-examining everything that he believed. Ultimately he emerged, confirmed in his faith, to sever his ties with the denomination and begin L’Abri, a ministry of hospitality to any who would come, providing honest answers to honest questions. You might just show up at the Schaeffers’ home, be offered a meal and a place to sleep, and have your questions engaged. The Schaffers wanted their lives there to be a visible manifestation of the Gospel, a true spirituality.

Because the canton they were living in at the time was Catholic, Schaeffer, being Protestant, faced opposition to his ministry, and so he was ejected from the canton in 1955. Exiled, you might say, uncertain whether they could even stay in Switzerland. Over the years the Schaeffers referred to this exile many times, much as the Jewish people might look back to the Exodus or to the Babylonian captivity. Ultimately, however, in God’s providence, they were given permission to live in the neighboring canton, which was Protestant, and purchased a modest chalet in a village named Huemoz. For many years, not having the use of a chapel, they held church in their living room.

Looking back at that first Sunday in Chalet le Melezes, nine years later, preaching his last Sunday in the chalet before moving to a chapel, Schaeffer reminisced about that first church service in 1955. “We met here. It was a very strange moment,” he said. “We had no permission to live in Switzerland or in the Canton of Vaud. For all intents and purposes we were still ejected. The house was not bought, nor did we have enough money to buy it. We were here, and that was all. Our ties had been cut off with the situation in the States. In a way the room was a fitting symbol of our situation. We were here but almost suspended in space as far as anything that the natural eye could see.. . .There were no resources, we weren’t allowed to go back to Champery to preach. The whole thing was a moment in a very thick fog.”

Schaeffer said that as far as the natural eye could see, there was nothing. He looked to his congregation, which consisted of his wife and three daughters, his son, a toddler, and three other people. That was his church. Somewhat like the Israelites, there was exile: an unknown future, little money, and a yet a calling and promise of God’s faithfulness.

He couldn’t see then all the lives his family would impact, all the many who came to faith because of his witness, all the books he would write, his involvement in the pro-life movement, and so on. He was just a pastor with his family—no church building, not much of a congregation, no financial resources, and no home. But he felt certain that L’Abri was a work that the Lord called his family to.

Faith. The assurance of things hoped for. But does it work? Is faith practical? This was a real question for Schaeffer as it is for us.

Schaeffer often spoken of how salvation extends through space and time. Col. 1:19 says “For in him [Jesus] all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.” This is forward-looking. This is comprehensive (“all things”). God not only justifies us by His finished work on the cross, but He keeps on saving us through sanctifying us and eventually glorifying us in Heaven. If I believe on the Son, He promises me eternal life, faith not performance being the instrument of His deliverance.

So our faith in what God will do, in what He will accomplish, extends to everyone and everything. Schaeffer often talked of the separations caused by sin—between God and man, man and man, man and nature, and in man himself. Sin has social, ecological, and psychological consequences. In many of his books he addressed the brokenness in different areas of life and applied a Christian worldview. In recordings of Saturday evening discussions at L’Abri in the 1960s Schaeffer addressed race relations, homosexuality, technology, the environment, animal rights, artificial intelligence, and more—all marked by brokenness. Through salvation God will bring substantial healing to each of these divisions, to all of this brokenness, he said, until He finally restores all things in a new heaven and new earth. So when we say that we have faith in God, we mean something far-reaching. God will reconcile all things to Himself. He is going to heal everything, set everything right.

Schaeffer also talked about the practicality of faith. 1 Jn. 5:4 says “For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith.” Faith overcomes. Do you feel like that? I don’t always feel like that. And yet there it is. Schaeffer insists that faith is very practical, to be acted upon. He says we are to use it, to exercise it, trusting the Creator moment by moment. So we have to ask ourselves: am I trusting God in this very moment? with this relationship? with this illness? with my job? for the salvation of a family member? for the words I speak? for the very next thing I do? Or I am relying on myself or living like a Christian atheist, professing faith but not acting on faith?

If you read the rest of Hebrews 11 each of the many persons listed there had to exercise faith in an unseen God moment by moment, whatever their circumstances. Noah, subjected to taunts by everyone around him, built an ark, no small thing; Abraham left his homeland and went to a strange land; by faith Moses left Egypt. And the author goes on, indicating that this is only a partial list of those who acted by faith. By faith.

And if you read farther down in Hebrews 11, speaking of the people of faith mentioned, the writer says, “These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth.” These words must have resonated with the Schaeffers in 1955, when they did not know where they would live or how they would continue. And they likely resonate with us as well, as we live in a world that does not share our beliefs, as we feel like exiles and strangers here with a world that often seems upside down.

The Schaeffers had plenty of opportunities to exercise their faith, to see its practicality. Early on they had determined that they would make no pleas for financial support but would just pray and ask God to provide the funds and the workers for the ministry. They exercised their faith. And God did provide---usually just what they needed and no more.

When they were ejected from Champery, Edith Schaeffer had eventually located Chalet le Melezes, but it was for sale, not rent, and they had no money to buy it. She prayed for a sign, an audacious and very specific prayer for $1000 to be sent by 10:00 a.m. the next morning. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to Edith, an American couple, the Salisburys, had come into some money and decided to invest it in God's work. They had been praying about it for three months, and they felt certain that they were to send the Schaeffers the money—exactly $1000 for work with youth, which it largely was at that time. When Helen Salisbury wrote a letter telling them that they were sending the money, it was late evening, and they were going to bed, planning to mail it the next day. But Art Salisbury felt that he must mail it that very night. He rose and drove through a blinding rain storm to mail it right then at the main post office.

Consider the timing. The coincidence. Consider the prophetic confirmation that it be used as a house for young people. All came together in a very specific, very timely answer to prayer. While more remained to do, God answered their very specific prayer in a very specific way. Faith was practical. And that was only one of many such occurrences.

Put your feet in the Jordan. In Joshua 3 the Israelites are on the brink of going into the Promised Land, near the end of their long exodus out of Egypt, standing at the edge of the Jordan River, and Joshua says that as soon as the feet of the priests carrying the Ark of the Covenant touched the water, the waters parted and they were able to cross the river: faith first, then action upon faith. They put their feet in the water. The Jordan River is not what it once was, its flow greatly diminished by all those taking water from it. But back then it flowed briskly and they likely would have drowned in it. But they entered, in faith. And God held the water back.

Put your feet in Jordan. Believe and act on faith. We can have confidence as we obey. Today, we cross the Jordan not with priests carrying the Ark of the Covenant, but with Christ, our High Priest. He goes before us. And so this call—put your feet in the Jordan—is a call for us as well: to believe, to have faith but also to act upon that faith in the moments of our lives—in whatever situations God has brought us into. How is it that God is calling you to act on your faith?

I’ve been challenged by a recent book I read called The Christian Atheist. The subtitle is Believing in God but Acting As If He Doesn’t Exist. The author’s exhortation in the book is to do more than believe but to act on what we believe. Like if we believe people are going to hell without the Gospel, then why do we hesitate to share the Gospel with them? Or if we believe in prayer, then why do we act as if God doesn’t answer prayer? He challenges us to go beyond first-line faith, to step over the line.

"In every moment of time," Schaeffer said, "our calling is to believe God, raise the empty hands of faith, and let fruit flow out through us." Empty, because we don’t even supply faith. God does. Schaeffer might also have said, “In every moment of time, put your feet in the Jordan.”

What is your Jordan River? Step out on faith. Step across the line. Trust God, even for a little, and then watch what happens. Expect something to happen. Watch for it.


A River Where Mercy Flows

711005DF-599D-4423-8104-503749867B6CThe photo on the cover of Michael Kloster’s recently released L.A. River-a view upriver of the East Fourth Street Bridge from the concrete bottom of the channelized L.A. River-is not a pretty one. High-tension electrical lines and towers flank the now concrete river, chain-link fences prevent errant children and others from the dangers of sliding down its banks, weeds sprout from cracks in the concrete, and a sheen of runoff tops what appear to be near-stagnant waters confined to the middle of the channel.

In saying “river,” one must smile. As Kloster’s photographs taken along its 51-mile length testify, this is a river long tamed, a changeling he calls it, an outlier which doesn’t fit the mental image archives we may have of rivers. Most of the year, little water flows. Then again, when it rains hard, it carries so much water it threatens at times to top its banks. Before it was rendered concrete, it did.

Kloster’s black and white photographs-some panoramic-were made using a mid-18th century technique called ambrotype, a wet-plate collodion process which requires the photographic material to be coated, sensitized, exposed and developed within the span of about fifteen minutes. It’s cumbersome, he says, requiring lots of water and a portable darkroom housed in his van, yet the images it produces are unique-ghostlike, even dreamy, bearing the idiosyncrasies of the chemical process used to create it. And given the absence of humans in most of the photos, the contrast between the sterile urban infrastructure of the Fourth Street Bridge area or East First Street Bridge and rail yard and more natural settings like the Glendale Narrows and the Elysian Valley is heightened. Human communities crowd the river, yet we see little of them. Images of concrete seem an alien intrusion on the landscape, the bleak urban landscape like the remains of city emptied of its people. Well-intentioned as the channeling may have been, given the damaging periodic floods, it still leaves an ugly mark on the land, like a clearcut woodland or strip-mined Appalachian mountain.

An essay by Los Angeles historian D.J. Waldie reminds one of the human context of the river, the neighborhoods ravaged by periodic and damaging floods which persuaded the Corp of Engineers to transform it to a concrete lined channel after the flood of 1938. It also serves to militate against a manichean view of the denaturation of the river as simply innocent nature versus ruthless government engineers.

Though it concludes the book, I turned to the essay first to allow Waldie’s prose and command of history to provide context. He provides a narrative of human interaction with the river, beginning with the First People through missionaries, Spanish pueblo, frontier settlement, birth of Los Angeles, and finally, after many damaging floods, its channelization by the Corp of Engineers beginning in the mid-1930s. The end result: “Destitute of greenery, sunk in its depressed bed, unavailable as open space behind chain-link fences, the concrete channel exists primarily as a stage for movie car chases.” And while there is a plan for rehabilitation, Los Angeles is growing denser, and thirstier, so how much water will actually flow is unclear-except in floods. Yet, there is some hope. “A future Los Angeles River could become an anti-freeway,” says Waldie, “not dispersing communities but drawing them together.”

Overall, the emotion stirred by slow examination of the photographs on a Sunday afternoon is sadness, as I contemplate what Waldie calls a “terrible beauty,” as I compare this river to one I know best, the San Pedro of southeastern Arizona, the last major, free-flowing undammed river in the American Southwest, particularly the stretch between Tubac and Tumacacori. There is no similarity. One is free; the other, bound. One rural, one urban. The essays by Frank Gohlke on “The Lure of Rivers” and Kloster himself on “Changelings and Outliers: Photographing the L.A. River” do little to remedy my melancholia, even as they give some basis for a promise of change, for the prospect that Angelenos may accommodate themselves to the changing river, the “wild child” of rivers, rather than seek to master it.

Yet a ray of hope is subtly offered by Waldie. As an epigram for the last section of his essay, titled “Michael Kloster’s Photographs,” he includes one sentence that looks to the future: “Yes, we’ll gather at the river.” In an America no longer hymn-literate, most will not recognize it as a bit of Robert Lowry’s 1864 hymn, “Shall We Gather at the River;” even less, its roots in the fantastic imagery of the Bible’s apocryphal last book, Revelation. The quote is from the chorus, which anticipates the Christian hope of restoration and reward.

Yes, we’ll gather at the river,
The beautiful, the beautiful river;
Gather with the saints at the river
That flows by the throne of God.

It would be easy to relegate this historic hymn to 19th century pietism, and yet for those who will believe in a true fairy tale of another time, it also has feet in the present: what will happen when faith is exercised by those who may gather? What kind of substantial healing can occur now by imperfect beings in a bent world?

A lot, said Christian pastor Francis Schaeffer in the late 1960s. “I can say, ‘Yes, the tree is a creation like myself,’ wrote Schaeffer. “But that is not all that is involved. There ought to be a psychological insight as well. Psychologically, I ought to ‘feel’ a relationship to the tree as my fellow-creature.” Thus Schaeffer articulated a kinship with the non-human creation that was, if not radical, one virtually unarticulated in Christianity. Reflecting on his long ocean voyage across the Atlantic to Europe in 1948, he said that “[m]odern man has no real ‘value’ for the ocean. All he has is the most crass form of egoist, pragmatic value of it.”. To think of non-human things as “low,” as having only what value might come from their utility to man, is “an insult to God,” he wrote. “The value of things is not in themselves autonomously, but that God made them - and thus they deserve to be treated with high respect.” He might say the same of this blunted river, shorn of its dignity.

“Yes, we’ll gather at the river.” In the ruined paradise of the L.A. River lies the hope of something new—the already, the soon to be, and the not yet. There might be, as Schaeffer often said, “substantial healing” and the hope of something more.


Junk Mail

Hyg0LSkuSxmeAeNTKZ2GQwI rip up a lot of things that come in the mail. I enjoy the tearing sound and am slightly annoyed at those mailings that anticipate this and try and force me to open the envelope by including plastic or some other material not easily torn. I just work harder.

I do have a slight tinge of guilt that accompanies the tearing. As much as the USPS has been criticized, it does an amazing job. In Neither Snow Nor Rain: A History of the United States Postal Service, Devin Leonard reports that 300,000 USPS letter carriers deliver 513 pieces of mail every day. Every day. And somebody had to design this junk that comes my way, print it, sort it, load it on trucks or airplanes, and bring it to me. The letter carrier is the last link in a human chain. I should frame this mail. I should honor it.

But no.

This afternoon’s mail includes a report from the electrical utility that serves me telling me how I stand in regard to my neighbors: not well. Guzzling power here, apparently, which I blame on the cats shed fur clogging the HVAC intakes. Ok, so I opened that one.

Another is a blue newsprint letter from missionaries we do not support but who have been sending us newsletters for 25 years. I ripped it up, but out of guilt I read the half I retrieved, which was in broken sentences, which makes for interesting reading. I did catch the words faith, hope, and. . .well, I think love was on the other half, unretrieved.

“Make the smart stop. Get $70 off,” squealed a tire store flyer. Nope. I tire of slogans, pitch-singing advertisements.

God bless the letter carriers. Leonard reminds me that Ben Franklin and Abraham Lincoln were letter carriers back when they were mailmen. So was Walt Disney and Bing Crosby. So was writer William Faulkner, but he was fired. “I will be damned,” he said, “if I propose to be at the beck and call of every itinerant scoundrel who has two cents to invest in a postage stamp.”

I’m invited to a gourmet dinner at Ruth’s Chris Steak House. Oops, no, my son is. He’s 27, and the meal comes with a retirement planning pitch. He can wait on that. Then again, he’s been old since he was two. I retire it to the recycle bin.

Oh, here’s the other half of the blue newsletter from the missionaries we do not support. Let’s see, if I put them together I can read the whole thing. It makes sense now. Yet there’s something off kilter here: “When you agree with God’s Word, your success rate grows upward.” What kind of success is that?

Leonard says letter carriers by and large are satisfied with their jobs. “Their mailbags may be much lighter these days, but they still have their junk mail or ‘job security,’ as letter carriers call it,” he says. Well, I’m just glad I can support them. I hope that those who pick up the recycle bin feel likewise.

“Let us take that off your hands!” “20% off.” “#1 Selling Walk-In Tub.” Nope, not yet. 

“Be enchanted, Dazzled, and Smitten!” It’s a collectible crystal kitten with butterfly, “shimmering,” with an “unconditional, 365-day guarantee.” No, though this cat is a lot cheaper than my two living cats have proven to be. But don’t get me started.

There’s a letter from Donald J. Trump. Sorry, it’s marked “Personal and Confidential.” I can’t talk about it. But I can tell you that half the letter was better than the whole.

The NRA has offered me a preprinted membership card. I don’t own a firearm, though, as I have been told I am not responsible enough and too distracted and absent-minded. I don’t disagree.

“Free wine chiller and beach day set. FREE.” I don’t drink wine. “Sun + sand. You + us. It all adds up.” I’m not a math whiz but I don’t think that necessarily adds up: you plus us could be a lot of people.

President Lyndon Johnson’s Postmaster General, Lawrence O’Brien said in a 1966 speech that the United States did not become balkanized because of its mail service, describing it as “a chain of paper that transported the elements of Americanism through thousands of miles, across mountains and desert, from city to frontier, a chain stretching into clearing and valley.” For a moment, I stopped ripping up the mail. That’s a big claim.

“ENTER TO WIN, a Viking Cruise for 2!” I’ve not been on a cruise and don’t plan to, yet near kin feel differently and may yet prevail upon me.

There are more than one “opportunities” to obtain new credit cards, all screaming low promotional rates, bonus points, and various wards. Rip.

I rip them all in half, gather them up, and throw them in the green recycling bin. What I waste, I think.

Except one. It’s an envelope that contained only a form that my daughter sent to me from the Lone Star State, that had no note but had my name and hers in her own distinctive pen with a stamp she licked. It traveled a long way to be here with me. I don’t tear. For a few days at least I’l let that one smile fetchingly across my desk, calling out my name.


Plotting the Resurrection

FOdyOSpvQ3yRVet%bWi2FQ“But someone will ask, ‘How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?’ You foolish person! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. And what you sow is not the body that is to be, but a bare kernel, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. But God gives it a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body.”

(1 Cor. 15: 42-44, ESV)

A friend recently told me that his house of many years had to be “jacked up.” It had begun to settle and sag with time, and cracks had begun to form in the walls at places. I didn’t see them, but he said it was so.

At the age of 34, our house is also showing signs of age. My wife, who is more observant than me, recently noticed the ragged edges of the siding on our third story dormers, evidence of water damage. I called a roofer, and in the matter of a day, it was stripped and replaced. Naked boards are thrust against the sky, as they still need the modesty of paint. But the house must be power washed first, because we also want to have the trim painted while we’re at it, and that can’t be scheduled for another month. Then we (I mean she, of course) saw that water had also rotted the base of the frames around two outside doors. The roofer was more than happy to replace those, for a price.

A week later, while we were out of town, our neighbor texted us to say that water had been streaming down our driveway for a day or more, that our sprinklers in the back yard had been running nonstop. We thanked her. Our lawn service person, Robby, put a stop to that. But the problem remains undiagnosed and the prognosis unclear. Until today, that is, when John, from a company called Under Pressure, came by to tweak and twaddle the various sprinkler heads. And speaking of a lawn service, without the weekly efforts of a crew of landscapers, or failing their help or more concerted effort by me, or if the neighbors didn’t care or the city was dysfunctional in enforcing public nuisance laws, the grass would be waist high in weeks. I knew a house like that, once; it was going back to nature, dust to dust, ashes to ashes.

There are other signs of . . . let’s not mince words . . . decay, aging, entropy: cracks in the patio need filling before grass pushes through, rooms need paint, well-tread carpet needs replacement, windows stick and won’t open despite near hernia-producing efforts, and for some reason despite my very limited plumbing skill the toilet gurgles randomly. I took the lid off the tank and stared at it for a while, but it would not perform, and when I put it back and turned to leave, it gurgled. Houses and their accoutrements toy with us, you know. Oh yes: the refrigerator’s fan motor complains (until my wife fixed the seal on the door), the floors creak (meaning there’s no stealthy entry of the refrigerator), the air conditioner fails at an inopportune time, the fireplace needs cleaning by a chimney sweep, bats roost in our attic after the squirrels were enticed to leave, a pipe bursts under our front lawn, listing pines must be removed as they threaten the neighbor’s home, the mailbox badly needs replacing (that was a major project for us), and cracks have appeared in the driveway. That’s for starters. If you are a homeowner, all of this will sound familiar. Mind you, this stuff happens over years, and keeps happening.

Confronted by such entropy, some people just move to a new (or newer) home. But I don’t think I want a new home, at least not now, because it won’t be this one. Some with the money remodel every four years to “freshen up.” I don’t mind a facelift but I still want it to be the same place when the lift is over. Others spend their Saturdays maintaining and fixing every sag and seepage, every crack and crumble. I see them. They make me tired. Still others put their finger in the dike and pray a lot because the swell of the left undone is rising; barbarian elemental forces of nature are at the door.

But me, I’m plotting the resurrection. I don’t want to spend my days keeping up but would rather be with my wife, visit my children, lay in the hammock or sit under this blue umbrella and think and listen to the trees sway and the squirrels chatter and watch the robins and wine and cardinals that visit. We take a few precautions, of course. We did have the siding repaired. We’re cleaning the attic, slowly, in a multi-stage project. Next, perhaps by Fall, we’ll move to cleaning the garage. Some fresh paint may be warranted. The bats took up with the neighbors, and then another. There’s time. It’s unlikely the house will fall down around us. We’ll just kick at the creeping to-do list until it bleeds daylight-which there’s plenty of, of course, because it’s not just house but home.

For now, I want this house and none other, but I want it redeemed and made right and imperishable. I want it to be one in which the paint never fades, the walls never crack, where the memories of life herein are muraled all over its rooms, and where it glows in a golden light of a late afternoon sun that never ends. The house beyond the house. The home it was meant to be, all the good in it perfected. I’m waiting for the day when all things are made new. Even this house, the kernel of what will be.

*I’m indebted to E.B. White for the phrase “plotting the resurrection,” one he coined in an essay on his wife, Katherine. It’s clever.


Never Alone

0EBC6A36-E687-4094-82BD-57825835231FFor a while this afternoon, I lay in a hammock suspended inches above the pine straw floor of my backyard. The cords of the hammock are blackened from years outdoors, and it lists precariously, requiring one to lay not dead center but just off-center, askew. It suits me. Balanced there, hammocked between earth and sky, I watched the light slant across the lawn while a still cool breeze lightly brushed my skin.

A week ago we left our digs in the Catalina foothills and headed west for the Tucson Mountains, one of four ranges that ring Tucson. Climbing the turns of Picture Rocks Road, we crested the pass and, like always, caught our breath at the view on the other side—sloping red-rock mountainsides and foothills thick with the green of sahuaro and prickly pear cacti and the yellows blooms of the green-trunked palo verde trees. As the hills bottomed out, the Avra Valley’s shimmering desolation caught the sun. Exclamations similar to those uttered in the past escaped our mouths as we pressed on. Off to the northwest, the sunlight glittered off the groundwater recharge basins of the Arizona Aqueduct. The sun remained in the eastern sky, the temperature rising but still moderate.

I opened my eyes to the canopy of trees above where I lay, imagined branches tickling the sky, swaying in the wind. A robin hopped across the lawn. I remembered the mockingbird performing atop a house’s weathervane earlier that day, working its repertoire, and the two geese who uncharacteristically were perched on a neighbor’s house, trumpeting to wake the sleeping inhabitants, before flying off wingtip to wingtip for the lake beyond. I closed my eyes.

Off Kinney Road we found Hohokam, a dirt-packed backcountry route that snaked back over the foothills. At a T-intersection with Golden Gate, we turned right leaving a dust cloud in our wake. A mile down we came to the trailhead for the Sandero-Esperanza Trail. There were no other cars in the dusty lot, and as I opened my door the refrigerated air gave way quickly to the parched air that traveled here from the Pacific, air that stirred over the Joshua trees of the Mohave, the ocean moisture wrung from it, before stroking me.

The first mile of the trail was fairly easy, as it made straight for Wasson Peak across the desert floor. As we walked whiptail lizards scurried off trail, and occasionally a chipmunk ran ahead of us until veering into the brush. The last almost mile was a strenuous climb, the trail switchbacking up to the ridge line where over a hundred miles away you can see the mountains of Sonora, Mexico.

A blue jay alights on the fence encompassing the yard, surveys the scene, before flying to a shrub nearby. A hummingbird—unusual in my yard—flits low amongst the undergrowth of my neighbor’s yard before I lose it in the forest. The sky is open above me, hemmed in only by the canopy of green overhead.

Some people speak of desert as if it is wasteland. Yet it’s not. Life abounds in the Sonoran Desert, whether it’s a cactus wren or coyote, a rattlesnake or roadrunner—though much of it is nocturnal. The advantage of this time of Spring is that everything is blooming: yellow Palo Verde trees, red-laced branches of ocotillo, flowering sahuaro cactus, and wildflowers dropped gratuitously across the desert floor. Lush, if dry conditions prevail—the brown desert floor giving way to green vegetation and then on to cobalt blue sky where the contrails of jets from Douglas Air Force Base streak, their endings breaking up into the blue.

Sometimes I look out on the cholla, creosote bush, and sahuaro; on the red-rock hills, jagged peaks, and uncountable grains of sand; and on the emptiness of the blue that envelops it, and beyond to the vast and largely empty dark matter of space—and I feel the push of sadness even in the beauty of the place. If no Love was behind it all, if He was not there and not present after all, then no one would care about this place, and as night falls it would not even be forgotten as there would be no one to forget it.

Yet “God so loved the world.” That changes everything. That ever-present, ever-pursuing and radiating love means that everything here is constantly flooded with a Creator’s love and omnipresence—like a hovering and caring parent—even in the loneliness of a winter night or sizzling heat of a summer day. No one and no thing is alone.

The wind blows and tilts my hammock. The sun sets. At anytime my wife may peer through the second floor window into this twilight, cradling our laconic cat, and see me lying here. She will know I do not slumber. She will know where I am.


Canyon-Walk


F3E25601-7AA9-4C5D-A7C6-59C2896566C4“Saying nothing. . .sometimes says the most.”

(Emily Dickinson)

“Where do I go?”

“Virgil, you stand right there. I have to pay.”

Virgil is white-haired older man, a barrel cactus of a man, with a large square head topped by a ball cap. Large tent-like dungarees hang from his waist. He’s standing in front of me, completely obscuring the seated ticket-taker.

“Do I go over there?”

“No Virgil, you stand right there. That woman right there will be your driver. You’ll go with her. We’re going to walk up.”

Virgil stands there, unmoving. His hands rest at his sides. Connie, the blond-haired woman doing the talking, is paying. Her friend Joanne tells me she is from Oracle, or Oro Valley, or Elroy--I can’t remember--and her sun-bleached hair and crinkled skin is evidence she’s native. But Connie is from Michigan, is visiting, and has never been to Sabino Canyon before.

Virgil still hasn’t moved. Beside him, Connies’s laconic teenage daughter looks out over the desert, over the prickly pear, saguaro, and yellow-flowering brittle bush, toward the mountain slopes of the Rincons. Yet I suspect she doesn’t see them, doesn’t know that Rincon means corner, that the corner of the range is made by the three peaks of Mica, Tanque Verde, and Rincon, that between the Rincons and the Catalinas, where we will walk, is Redington Pass. Her cell phone with no cell signal is dormant in her hip pocket, beckoning, and her mind is in Michigan, wondering what her friends are doing.

We could be nearing 100 times of hiking in this canyon, spread over nearly 35 years. And when you have done something that many times, incongruities offend, are personal.

“Where are the trams?” my wife asks. Unfamiliar enclosed green buses stand ready to shuttle us the nearly four miles in and back. “Why is the ticket booth shuttered?”

The woman behind a folding table taking payment assured us that new open air trams were coming and that the ticket booth would be replaced by a kiosk where you could buy your own tickets, that in the future you could buy tickets online, on the tram, or at the self-service kiosk. It’ll be better, she said, more convenient.

But I don’t believe her. I liked buying the tickets from the crusty old woman behind the window who acted like she was doing me a favor when we made the exchange, when I slid cash across the portal and she laid an orange or green ticket on the hand-slicked counter and pushed it toward me, the ticket that the tram driver would collect and tear and return in part to me. And I don’t want a green-friendly tram but diesel fumes and creaking connections and the slight anxiety I felt as we passed over the six narrow bridge crossings accompanied by a very-human narration of canyon sights and lore, the words of which we mouthed from memory as the driver made his case.

There’s the cliff wall that some climb, he’d say, the face in the rock, the formation that looks like Snoopy on his doghouse withWoodstock too, the place where in 1948 thirty-three year old Deputy John Anderson fell to his death after rescuing a kid who was stranded on the ledge below. He’d tell us how the stone bridges were built during the Great Depression by the CCC, the Civilian Conservation Corp, about Hollywood in the canyon, about the great flood of a few years back. He’d point out the Mexican oak, mesquite, saguaro, and cottonwood. We’d listen like it was a song of which we never tire, and we don’t tire of it, as the landscape is alien--not as foreign as it once was--yet like a home you only see once a year.

This time we walked the nearly four miles into the canyon to the turnaround, unwilling to pay for an enclosed shuttle. We started boldly, like horses out of the gate, straining against the reigns, yet we soon slowed--the road winds slowly, gradually, yet relentlessly uphill, with a sharper climb at its apex.

Sometimes we were alone and all we heard were the calls of quail and doves and cactus wrens, the sometimes trickle of the creek, the wind rubbing against Palo verde limbs or soft in the Mexican oak branches or, when gusty, the creaking of the Sahuaro cacti. On three bridge crossings the spring-melt flowed over the bridge to perhaps an inch depth, and we walked on our heels through it, penguin-like. When we passed others my wife greeted them, yet over half of them did not acknowledge her, an astounding statistic even if only anecdotal, yet they may have their own preoccupations. We had ours.

Sometimes we are are lost in our own rumination, other times reviewing some event or previewing what’s yet to come. When I am too lost and forget to listen, she takes my hand for a moment, summoning me back to us, to footfalls on pavement, to the whip tail lizard spooked by our passing, to a rocky outcrop that we photograph every year with the sun bleeding out behind it, the rock haloed--to remind me, without words, that “We are here, together, now.”

And I am lost, sometimes, with prayers worried out of me, petitions that begin to mire in circumstance yet when they bubble out escape my hands and waft up over the canyon walls, where God hears. I let them go. I exchange them for gratitude, for some remembered promise, like ““Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows” (Matt.‬ ‭10:31‬ ‭ESV‬‬). His eye is on the sparrow.

On the way down we pass Joanne and Connie and the daughter heading up. We say hello. Passing, I turn back and say, “How’s Virgil?”

“Oh, he’s riding up and down on the van,” says Joanne. “We see him pass sometimes. He’s having a great time.”

We walk on. Sabino Creek moves on, and somewhere after it exits the park, it drops down below ground to move unseen, and we say it is gone, that it has dried up. But just because we can’t see it doesn’t mean it’s not there.



Walking Over Death

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_16d“Dark times are allowed and come to us through the sovereignty of God. Are we prepared to let God do what He wants with us? Are we prepared to be separated from the outward, evident blessings of God? . . . . Until we have been through that experience, our faith is sustained by feelings and by blessings. But once we get there, no matter where God may place us or inner emptiness we experience, we can praise God that all is well.”

(Oswald Chambers, My Utmost for His Highest, April 4)

My daughter reminded me when walking on the beach last week that the shells that crunched under our feet are the remains of dead animals: snails, coral, and the like. And I know that the sand itself is what’s left of quartz rocks that made their way to sea and via wave and water are now honed down to their rock hearts. Today, children play on this burial mound under a blue-white sky, moving the remains around with brightly colored buckets and shovels while parents talk or read. Sun wash blinds to what is really happening; the seen masks the unseen.

We are often unaware of where we are, of what we live atop, of even who we are-that our lives are built atop the lives of those who have gone before us, whose names are lost to the depths and ebb and flow of time.

But God sees.

Amid death and decay, there are beautiful certainties that the prophet Jeremiah (Chap. 31) reminds me of: grace in the wilderness, everlasting love, life like a watered garden, mourning turned into joy, gladness traded for sorrow, satisfaction for the weary soul, replenishment for the languishing soul, and then this: “And it shall come to pass that as I have watched over them to pluck up and break down, to overthrow, destroy, and bring harm, so I will watch over them to build and to plant, declares the Lord” (Jer. 31:28).

Pruning. Creative destruction. God plucks out waywardness, dependence on anything but him; overthrows self-regard; destroys the lust of eye and flesh-all towards the end of rebuilding and replanting us in new patterns, in tilled rows of earth and sky.

“I love watching the waves, the tides,” says my wife as we walk, “because it reminds me of the constant love of God for me.” I think about the violence of the love, the constant wearing away of the shells and grains of sand, the smoothing of the line where land meets sea.

God’s love is no sentimental love, no pandering love, but one that strips away the old to make me new, that sometimes takes me through darkness so that I will cling to Him all the more and know a love that will not let me go, a relentless love that breaks down even as it builds up, that tills and plants.

Farther down the beach, two women walked toward us, heads cast down, examining shells. As we neared my wife dropped a translucent green piece of sea glass behind her, a gift for the observant. We passed. Turning back, we saw one woman stop, exclaim, as she spied and scooped up the sea glass.

We walked on, smiling. That’s how it is: even in death, glory; even in worn-down remains, beauty. And surprise at what treasure God brings.


No Mild Savior

YgDB0S4yTvSvq3z803BhRwSomewhere someone is using a leaf blower. Men like leaf blowers. They wrest a mild order from the world while dinner cooks. And perhaps a bit of decompression is going on, a working out and winding down of the day’s troubles, troubles filtered through the whine.

When the blowing stops, I hear children’s voices and a fatherly voice--by tone, an instruction. Men huddle on the unfinished back room of a recently framed-in house behind me and in murmurs plot the next day. A truck door slams and an engine wakes. Underneath all this the groan of traffic can be heard, the comings and goings, the hum of homecomings, garage doors haled. Twittering and chirping birds are interspersed in the days-end sounds and, beneath that, the swish of branches in the breeze. Rays of sunlight stretch across the lawn as the earth turns.

I turn back to the poem I’m reading by the late James Tate about a raccoon named Elvis, the one he tried to shoot with a shotgun but ended up sleeping with. Reading such verse and pondering their meanings is what I do instead of blowing leaves. It has a calming effect. I didn’t know anything about Tate until now, because I don’t usually read journals like The Paris Review. Until today.

Dinner is on, somewhere. The wind rubs against the magnolia leaves and the over 35-year old volunteer quivers, like the tremor of the aged. The unseasonably humid air cools as it licks my face, a dog just happy to see his master. A plane’s motor bemoans its passing. A black-wash shadow cast by my neighbors’ house creeps up the side of my home.

Tate is odd. In his absurd poem entitled “The Government Lake,” also the title of a recent posthumous collection of his poetry, a man is in his car headed to the toy store. A policeman diverts traffic due to a fallen tree. The man drives for hours in a hypnotic trance. Finally he stops the car and begins walking. He comes to a lake with a dock and walks to the end of the dock where he sees a tire in the water--no, a man; no, a tire. Then this:

A man walked up behind me and said, “This government lake is off-limits to the public. You’ll have to leave.” I said, “I didn’t know it was a government lake. Why should it be off-limits?” He said, “I’m sorry. You’ll have to leave.” “I don’t even know where I am,” I said. “You’ll still have to leave,” he said. “What about that man out there?” I said, pointing to the tire. “He’s dead,” he said. “No, he’s not. I just saw him move his arm,” I said. He removed his pistol from his holster and fired a shot. “Now he’s dead,” he said.

I think Tate’s having a joke on us.

Sleepy dusk twitters from workday birds. Jet flayed over sky. A last construction worker in an orange vest slogs wearily to his truck.

Empty bird feeder. Mottled gray stone. Picnic-less table. Osmantis trees. Shaking blue umbrella. Creaking, aged pines--thin men with green heads in the clouds.

Now I have a small brown paper bag in my hand, a mallet in the other, and I’m walking among the towering pines toward the plot at the back fence which serves as our animal graveyard. The last burial was that of my daughter’s gerbil, and that was many years ago. He didn’t get a memory stone. This time, it’s one of her beloved geckos, and I am her pall bearer. I keep the box she was laid in level out of respect, an honor guard with a carefully folded flag, body. I lay her gently on the pine straw, dig a hole in loamy black earth, place her in it, and cover her.

And then, I pause and pray. Even a soulless gecko, with its small brain and bug eyes, is one of God’s own, and more, was one of my daughter’s beloveds. She was sad this morning when she discovered her lifeless body.

Next month she will marry.

Tate did make me smile with this poem, “The Blue Booby,” which I dedicate to the gecko, may she rest In peace:

The blue booby lives
on the bare rocks
of Galápagos
and fears nothing.
It is a simple life:
they live on fish,
and there are few predators.
Also, the males do not
make fools of themselves
chasing after the young
ladies. Rather,
they gather the blue
objects of the world
and construct from them

a nest—an occasional
Gaulois package,
a string of beads,
a piece of cloth from
a sailor’s suit. This
replaces the need for
dazzling plumage;
in fact, in the past
fifty million years
the male has grown
considerably duller,
nor can he sing well.
The female, though,

asks little of him—
the blue satisfies her
completely, has
a magical effect
on her. When she returns
from her day of
gossip and shopping,
she sees he has found her
a new shred of blue foil:
for this she rewards him
with her dark body,
the stars turn slowly
in the blue foil beside them
like the eyes of a mild savior.

That’s all it takes, apparently, for blue booby marital accord--just a new shred of blue foil. I could feel that way about blue. I look away.

Pete has put away his leaf blower.

Dinner is on.

The children have been summoned.

The rich, black earth has settled over her lizard body to await a new heavens and new earth.

I look up to where stars hide behind the dusky, still sunlit, blue-foil sky, behind the eyes of which lie no mild Savior.


His Father’s Son: Singer-Songwriter Pierce Pettis on Life and Legacy


91Axtan0pCL._SX522_Pierce Pettis is taking stock of life. His first solo release in ten years, Father’s Son (Compass, Jan. 19) offers a retrospective on the past and a prayer for the future. As Pettis sums it up: “The overall theme, at least for me, is ‘Father’s Son’—and all that can imply. I’m thinking of my own father, as well as being a father. Two of my grown children are writing and doing music, experiencing a lot of the things I did. So there’s that.” Pettis reminds us that “there’s also the Hebrew/Aramaic name Barabbas, or Bar Abba, which literally means ‘son of the father.’ Or more literally, ‘Daddy’s son.’”

Pettis has been at it for a while. He began his long career as a writer at the legendary Muscle Shoals Sound Studios in Alabama and later as a staff songwriter for Polygram/Universal Music in Nashville. His songs have been covered by artists ranging from Garth Brooks and Dion to Joan Baez and Art Garfunkel. Probably his best known song is “You Move Me,” covered by Garth Brooks and Susan Ashton. As Pettis says, “That one helped me buy a house. Pretty hard not to like that one.”

Yet Father’s Son contains more of his deft lyrics, great playing, and passionate voice—even if the years have left his voice more well-rutted gravel road than slick blacktop. The songs exude gratitude and contentment even amidst the challenges life presents—and Pettis has had some in the ensuing years. In the album’s lead cut, “Wouldn’t Change It For the World,” he observes “we all have something from which to recover,” and yet when all is said and done he resolves that he “wouldn’t change it for the world.”

The songs move easily from the transcendent to the immanent. “More” is a recognition of Pascal’s oft-quoted recognition that there is a God-shaped vacuum in every heart: “A thing resounds when it its true/ When it’s ringing all the bells inside of you/ Like a golden sky on a summer eve/ Your heart is tugging at your sleeve and/ you cannot say why/ But you know there’s more.” And “Mr. Zeidman” is a true story about his small Alabama hometown’s one and only Jew, who “had a smile for every child/ A piece of candy, too/ There was kindness in the hands/Of our one and only Jew.” “Don’t Know Where I Am” is a testimony of a man losing his way, moonless: lost at sea, alone under the sky, floating far away.

Although Pettis identifies as a “most unworthy and undeserving Christ-follower,” he moves easily in and out of Christian circles, writing and playing with contemporary Christian music songwriters like Andrew Peterson as well as mainstream writers like Tom Kimmel and Kate Campbell. It seems well-crafted songs are respected, no matter what the source. Part of that acceptance owes to Pettis’s congeniality: his enthusiasm, warmth, and passion for life are infectious—even if he sometimes leaves his audience behind. After telling one story at a concert, he observed that he “had to realize that not everyone was in his head.”

Like all of his albums released since 1994, Father’s Son includes a song penned by the late Mark Heard—this time, “Look Over Your Shoulder.” Pettis recalls Heard’s deep influence: “Mark influenced me with his artistic integrity—for which, he would have credited Francis Schaffer, who was his mentor. Mark took his work seriously and himself, lightly. He was also very funny.” He has a poignant recollection of Heard: ‘Look Over Your Shoulder’ was the last song he ever performed in his life. I know that because Pam (Kate) Dwinell Miner and I were on stage with him at the time, at the Cornerstone Festival in Illinois. So that song is pretty personal to me. Don’t think Mark could have picked a better exit song."

As to the future, “Instrument,” the closing song on Father’s Son, may just sum it up: “Make me faithful, make me grateful/ Make me useful in this life/ All this living without giving/ Give me one more chance to try.” Between the regrets and blessings of his life, faith and craft keep Pettis centered. He is, after all, his Father’s son.


Awake

Fullsizeoutput_81b9I’ve had trouble sleeping lately.

No. No, I’m not worried about anything.

My wife asks me what I think about when I am lying awake there in the night. Well, how long do you have, I think? It’s like asking her what she dreamed, and she begins trying to explain an incredible, fantastical adventure, a multi-layered parade of short stories laid end to end until she finally gets frustrated and says oh, never mind, it’s just too complicated.

It’s a bit like that.

I think about the thin mostly wooden membrane that separates me from the night, from owls and coyotes and deer grazing on the fresh green grass of suburban lawns, from the cold asphalt of ribboned streets, from the water drizzling down the curb and gutter, emptying into drainage pipes and then into the unnamed streams that traverse our subdivision, from granite rocks and pines and oaks and wild holly trees and sleeping squirrels and robins resting in nests, and from the nightlight moon over it all just doing what they were made to do.

Until Christ comes.

Come, Lord Jesus, come.

The streets of my neighborhood are not laid out on a grid. By the Eighties, the grids of Fifties and Sixties subdivision construction had fallen into disfavor, attacked by urban planners and critics of suburbia who called places like where I have spent my entire life--suburbia--evil, even calling it God’s Own Junkyard, to use the title of one book. Tell that to the bluebirds at the feeders, to the jonquils pushing through the topsoil, to the raccoon halfway up the tree, to the ivy advancing from our neighbor’s yard, and to the red fox crossing the street in front of me. This place is not evil; we’re just the latest occupants of this forest home, keeping the wild at bay by cutting grass and pulling weeds and washing streets. Streets follow the contour of the land, rise and fall, and cul-de-sacs lead off the mains like beckoning doors, to places others call home.

I think about the weight of things: the books in my study, the wood beams and plywood and insulation above me, the accumulated stuff of memory in our attic, the roof and rafters and shingles that are our first defense against the elements. All that weight pressing down on the two by fours that hold it up. I stop thinking about that. This, I think, is how people go crazy. It’s like when, on occasion, I hear about the size of the federal debt, or I’m driving and wonder if the tires might spin off the car or the axle break, or I pause and consider the rather small supports in the parking garage that hold up four floors above me--and I begin to get anxious.

I go to Jesus.

How do people live without the certainty that Christ holds all things things together? How in the night hours do they subdivide reality into the known and unknown and not end up stuck in a cul-de-sac of longing?

I think about the weight of memory--one memory piled on top of another. About all the places that I’ve slept. About when I’d visit my aunt as a child and lie awake in the cold in a big bed in her guest room with layers of musty-smelling blankets pressing down on me, with all those spooky looking paintings staring down at me, the house creaking when the furnace came on, the graveyard just behind the back yard of the house, reaching for me. It’s no wonder I couldn’t sleep.

Up above geese track through a night sky, I surmise, making their way from lake to lake, like pearls on a necklace, and I think about that poem by Anne Porter telling God that

You who speak without words
To your creatures who live without words
Are hiding under their feathers

To give them a delicate certainty
On the long dangerous night journey

And I wonder if she’s talking about us really, about me, and I think about riding at night with my parents with our headlights searching the dark, cocooned against the unknown.

Sometimes I recite by memory a verse or two of scripture, soundless though heard in my mind. I imagine the words written in the inky air of the room, like skywriting, or silhouetted in the rectangular light of the window, until the letters begin to break apart and dissolve against the night.

I try to pray. The prayers come unwound, skitter off into the air, sucked up by the intake of the HVAC, only to be launched into the outside air, into the night, to climb up, up, heavenward. No, actually, as I speak them they are, like the voice over a telephone across the world, instantly before the Lord, for whom all places are as one.

I used to ask my mother--who had more severe insomnia--what she thought about when she lay awake. She said she “solved all the problems of the world.”

I may take that up. I may take up where she left off and see what headway I can make.



A Map, a Lamp, an Alien World

Fullsizeoutput_8181“About thirty miles south of the main road, the track we had been following led us to the edge of a vast plain. Then it disappeared. . . .[W]e came to an immense network of saucer-shaped salt pans interlaced with crescents of grass savanna, touches of woodland, and wisps of palm islands. Some pans were filled with brackish, unpotable water and flowery masses of orange, purple, green, and red algae; others were covered with a thin salt crust. We were at the edge of an alien world---no roads, no trails, no people.”

Cry of the Kalahari, Mark and Delia Owens (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1984)

From Mabele, Botswana you can hire a boat to take you out onto the waters of the Linyanti Swamp, where you can close in on elephants standing deep in the water, wrapping their trunks around the reeds and pulling them up by the roots, shaking their great heads, ears flapping, to free them of water, and stuffing them into their cavernous mouths. Across the swamp lies rural Namibia. Natives move about between round thatched huts that dot the landscape and wave from the shore.

From Mabele you can take a road through Chobe National Park, entering at the Ghoha Gate, camp at Savute, and then motor on from there to the Moremi Game Reserve, in the Okavango Delta, one of the prize wildlife regions of Africa. Much of it is a dirt road, and the ride in an open air Land Cruiser can be punishing: The wind dries your skin, a relentless sun sizzles, and dust accretes on your clothing and skin.

On the map Botswana seems contained and manageable. Solid, reasonably straight yellow lines with hopeful numbers like B334 lead from Kasane, near the border with Zimbabwe and Namibia, as far as Muchenje, near Chobe’s Ngoma Gate, and from there a lesser white line leads to the Okavango, a line which grows thinner and less distinct as it goes, suggesting change---and yet the clarity and certainty of the line reassures.

On the ground the going is less certain, though no less colorful as lines on a map. A rustle in the trees along the road may portend a gray mud-caked elephant, who crosses ahead of us. Giraffes’ angular heads and craning necks may bob above trees as they winnow the leaves and lope across the plain. After rains, ruts may appear in roads and the going becomes circuitous, the Land Cruiser weaving from side to side in the road like a drunken load of partiers homeward bound from a late night bash. Roads lead out into the bush, only to peter out in brush or be blocked by a tree pushed down by an obstructionist elephant. In swamped roads the Land Cruiser sinks, water sloshing up above the running boards---none of which appears on the map. Signage is often lacking, so you depend on the driver to ferret out the way, or make a new way.

I’ve pored over maps since I was a child. It’s no crime: I slept with Rand McNally, a dream on each page, a promise of adventure. Most fascinating to me were areas---then, the Western United States, and now, the Kalahari Desert of Botswana---that looked vast and empty and mysterious, or that had the faintest and loneliest of markings. In large areas of the Kalahari, there aren’t even the faint lines designated as “tracks,” which are appropriated animal corridors---vast empty places like the white space on a page of poetry. And the names on the page---Kumchuru, Kkhomodimo, Tshwane---are like one-word poems, beckoning across the miles of desert, punctuating the unfolded sheet of Africa. My eyes land on Deception Valley, and it’s a reminder of Picasso’s summation of art as “the lie that tells the truth.”

A map deceives even as it tells the truth. I haven’t been to the Kalahari, yet I know that the vacant blotches on my map are not empty. Inside the cover of Mark and Delia Owens’ 1984 book, Cry of the Kalahari, there are named pans and hills and valleys that populate all that empty. Their seven-year adventure living in an unexplored area with no roads and no people but rich in lion, leopards, and hyenas is rich in detail. They survived, if barely. But the map gives little hint of the unforgiving nature of that land, only the single word: deception. To know the poem that is Africa, you must go there, just as you would go anywhere. You must walk among its lines and words, its pans and plains---all true, but more true in the living.

The Psalmist may have said more than he knew when he said “Your Word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” As a map the Word is essential. Yet its interstices---all those open spaces and pans and hills and valleys hidden there have to be named in our walking. We have to get down in it, mine the poem for all it means.

I just put a finger on the map, at random. Underneath is a single straight green line that demarcates the edge of the Central Kalahari Game Reserve. There are no towns or safari camps where I landed, just a thin white line that tracks the wild. It’s likely that no one lives there, that weeks and months pass with no human being walking there. Yet even there God moves. His Spirit hovers over the plains and salt flats. He knows every springbok and lion, elephant and jackal, wildebeest and bat-eared fox. No map can do justice to that wild particularity. One day I’d like to walk that alien world with Him, the full moon a lamp unto my feet.


Love Is a Feeling to Be Learned

51dhV8JhQ2L._AC_US436_QL65_In 1976 I was sitting in my dormitory room, a freshman at university, reading a 1971 book by Walter Trobisch, entitled Love Is a Feeling to Be Learned. That September I had moved in with a high school acquaintance, Rick, a stocky design school student who was the son of one of my mother’s good friends. It was an antiquated building, the oldest dormitory on campus. A clanging announced the onset of radiator heat; a Southern Railways train periodically roared noisily through campus a block away, rattling our single window; and goings on by the less studious echoed off the uncarpeted hallways. But I kept reading. The noise receded to the background. Trobisch’s prose was riveting.

More booklet than book, Trobisch’s point was not novel and yet was paradigm-changing for me: Love is not merely or primarily a feeling but an action, verb and not noun. Scripture gets at it when it observes that God “set His love” on Israel (Deut. 7:7). God sets His love on us. In His case, it was His deliberate choice to love the loveless, to reach across time and space, the infinite to the finite, and love, with all that entails. When we set our love on someone, we choose, irrespective of feeling, to commit ourselves to relationship with them, to do the work of love. But I didn’t know that then. Until then, I thought of love as something you fell into and out of - a frustrating roller-coaster of emotion. Trobisch changed that.

I still have the book 42 years later and, on recently re-reading it, marveled at its relevancy, frankness, and wisdom. More than that, reading this book or any book by Trobisch is a warming and resuscitative experience. A pastor and counselor, you sense that he is almost across the table from you, having a conversation with you and only you, the world dropping away.

Still more, Trobisch evinces a willingness to get involved, reaching out of the pages of his book and across the decades to the reader - to the perplexed, despondent, and lovelorn. Evidence: In the front of the book, he writes this: “Some of the readers of this booklet may also feel the need of a personal conversation with a trustworthy advisor. It is certainly preferable to find such a counsellor in your vicinity whom you see often at regular intervals.” Then this amazing invitation: “However, in case you find no one, you may write to me and I shall try to help you by correspondence.” He signed his name, followed by his personal address: Lichtenberg 6, A-4880 St. Georgen i.A., Austria. I would write him if I could, if nothing more than to thank him.

Rick is eating cold pizza for a late breakfast, fuel for tackling introductory calculus problems. He warned me: It’s an all-male dorm, yet there’s a girl in the shower, a sometimes live-in down the hall. I thank him. “How can you eat that,” I say. “How can I not,” he says. He teeters back in his chair and sips hot tea, before diving back into the inexplicable: calculus. I don’t think Rick has a girlfriend or dates, but I don’t ask him.

“You may write to me and I shall try to help you.” This and other books by Trobisch had a worldwide publication. Many of them, beginning with 1965’s I Loved a Girl, were based on such letters as Trobisch invited. Who today would carry on such correspondence? Who today would make such an unselfish offer? Trobisch founded no ministry, sought no donations, charged no fees. He simply offered to help, if he could.

Trobisch was born in 1923 and came of age in Nazi Germany. At 18 he was drafted and sent to the Russian front. He survived the Battle of Stalingrad, but was severely wounded. During that tumult, he embraced Christ, the faith in which he had been schooled at home. After recuperating, he was sent to the Russian front again, where he was wounded again and narrowly escaped. During recuperation in Vienna, he was able to study theology. Yet once recovered, he was sent to the front for a third time, this time in Italy, where he was wounded yet again. In recovery there, he became convinced of the evil of the Nazi empire. Recalled to Germany to defend the Homeland, he was captured by Americans. When he was found to be a theological student, he was released. He walked 300 miles to his home in Leipzig, through a country littered with the destruction of war. Finding that the communists of now East Germany were in control, he fled to West Germany. Ultimately, he completed his studies in the United States, at Augustana University, where he met his wife Ingrid.

Walter and Ingrid accepted a call to Cameroon, in West Africa, in 1953, where he became a chaplain and teacher. It was there that he entered into a counseling ministry focusing on relationships, marriage, and sex. His correspondence with Francois and Cecile, two West Africans, became the letters that make up I Loved a Girl and I Love a Young Man. In them, youth world-wide found that the particular cultural context in which this couple’s problems arose were overshadowed by the universal experiences they shared with all.

Returning to Austria for a study sabbatical in the 1960s, he was inundated by hundreds of letters from young people seeking answers. He answered them. Sometimes Ingrid answered them. Yet all were answered.

“Happiness is only a part of love - this is what has to be learned,” wrote Trobisch. “Suffering belongs to love also. This is the mystery of love, its beauty and burden.” I put the book down on my desk and look out my dormitory window. In the park across the street, couples sit and talk, leaning in toward one another. Rick left for the cocoon of his design studio. In a few minutes William will come by for a visit, and we’ll talk of love and lack of love, of how to navigate relationships with women, of frustrations and trouble, much of our own doing.

I don’t know what happened to Rick. I moved out after that year and lost track of him. I lost track of William as well. I don’t know if they married or remain alone. I don't know what they learned or failed to learn about love in the decades that followed. The next year I met my wife. I set my love on her. It’s still setting right there.

I’m not nearly as wise as was Walter Trobisch. You probably shouldn’t write me for advice. But I can tell you that he was right: Love is a feeling to be learned. You learn it in the doing of it.


A Winter Diary (Excerpt)

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“I am always humbled by the infinite ingenuity of the Lord, who can make a red barn cast a blue shadow.” (E.B. White)

Saturday

Snow is in the forecast, yet the weather people hedge their bets, prognosticating winter weather so as to cover rain, freezing rain, sleet, or snow, to be vindicated in their predictions no matter what the Lord brings. A gray, cold sky is promising; even the birds have gone quiet; a blue shadow is over the land. A construction worker hammers away, and I hear in his frenetic tapping expectation. Advent.

I put the kettle on for tea. I peruse the selections. Opting for a more radical course, I chose Holiday Chai. I’d like to say I know what chai means but confess I don’t. I look it up. “A drink of tea made with cardamon and various other spices,” I read. Cardamon? “The aromatic seed capsules of a tropical Asian plant, Elettaria cardamomum, of the ginger family, used as a spice or condiment and in medicine.” A chai is also “a shed or other aboveground building where a winemaker stores wine in casks.” A red barn, perhaps. “Elettaria cardamomum,” I say, aloud, and my voice sounds odd around such a phrase so early in the morning. Chai Holiday wasn’t bad. Like drinking a Christmas tree.

The tree we bought a week ago is slurping water. Yesterday the well of the tree stand was dry. In little more than one day, it drank over four liters, measured out by the Diet Coke bottle I use to fill it. Then again, the cats have been hovering near the tree and have been known to drink its elixir. Cat chai. I need to check it. I let one cat out, with assistance. “You’ll thank me later,” I say. “Ciao.” She slinks away beneath the shrubbery.

I went out for a walk alone. No one was around. Ambition seized me and I began working through a mental prayer list, yet I continually veered off the path of piety. I thought about the pine trees leaning toward my neighbor’s home and the impending winter weather. I found myself walking down the dirt streets of Kampala, Uganda, with Ugandan friends. I circled back to prayer, only to detour to lists and plans and wonderings, mixing the impious with the pious.

I came in, settled in my chair, and read Psalm 121. “The Lord will keep. . . your life. . . . The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in.” The verse is an epigram in the front of a book I read entitled Picking Up. The author, anthropologist Robin Nagle, signed on with the sanitation workers of New York City for a first-hand report on their world. Her trashy book is staring at me from its perch high on the bookshelf.

There are men on the roof. No, I am not delusional. Men are extending ladders onto our high roof and cleaning off the roof and gutters. Their work boots clomp up and down its incline. Pine straw and leaves shower from the eaves. High in the pines, squirrels scurry from branch to branch, busy putting away winter stores. A male cardinal alights in the tree outside my study window, cocking his head to look at me before taking flight.

“Awoke early and lay still in the dark,” wrote E.B. White circa 1942, an unremarkable statement recalling an impromptu, unplanned stay in an inn found in a place with the unlikely name of China, Maine. And yet I identify here, 76 years later. I always awake early. This morning I awoke aware that for the first time in a couple of days I could breathe easily, having had until then a tremendous head cold. I lay there breathing thanks, grateful for the ingenuity of the Lord in giving us two nostrils, as in practice I have found that even though one may be occluded, the other will function. And that’s probably more than you wish to hear about that.

“Lay still in the dark,” wrote White, “listening to the singing in the next room.” Two nights ago, after a showing of Disney on Ice with a far younger crowd, I sat in my study listening to my 24-year old daughter sing. That is a beautiful sound, liquid and pure, seeping in between the molecules of the drywall. I stopped my typing so I could listen and smile.

That I get to be here, that I get to see and hear all this. It’s humbling, here, in the shadow.


Paying Attention

AC476616-2E83-4694-B0E4-F908CC423C99It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch

a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway

into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.

(“Praying,” by Mary Oliver, in Devotions: The Selected Poems of Mary Oliver, 2017)

At lunch a few days ago, a friend said, “Look, you have four hours in a car. What do you do? You don’t want it to be dead time. You want it to matter.”

He’s right. I want to pay attention.

When I pull back the curtain on the single window in our hotel room, a rectangle of cool blackness fills in. There’s a sheen of water painted on blacktop, tree limbs shellacked with ice, a dusting of powdered snow on car tops. On the ridge above me the lit squares of apartment windows tell me someone’s home. Dreams flicker in the night.

I want to pay attention.

A man leans against a car, huddled against the cold, smoking a cigarette. A lonely car passes on an elevated road, taillights winking. A light pole leans in over the car park as if to say, all is well, light dispels the darkness, and then straightens, dutiful and mum.

All is not well, I know. Sidewalks are broken, paint peels. Walls crack and cars rust. Weeds push up through cracks. Light wanes. Houses sit abandoned by roadsides. Rooms sit empty during long days, waiting for their people to return. And a million pines and oaks and maples stand in the chill air, waiting, Spring deep in their veins. Sometimes I think you can hear even the inanimate groan for redemption.

Yesterday, in a moment of weakness, we bought doughnuts and while eating too many sat and watched a conveyer carry the unglazed holy ovals through the waterfall of sugar, yet a bearded worker plucked a few off the line and without emotion threw them away. My wife, who is tenderhearted toward even the inanimate, said, “Why is he doing that? What’s wrong with them?” What’s wrong with everything, I thought, a decidedly true yet too sober thought I did not share. Malformed and misshapen, I continued, following my rumination, born in sin and broken. All of which is a lot for a doughnut to carry, too much metaphor for dough.

I want to pay attention. I’m not beyond making much of a few small stones or weeds in a field. Or lights in a window. Or a doughnut.

On my desk: a leather wallet, fitted to me, made by Toyo, a leather worker, now 20 years old and rich with the memory of his Arizona shop; a collection of essays by E.B. (Andy) White, on the cover of which he sits on a hard bench tapping loudly away on a typewriter before a window open on the Atlantic, salt in the air and licking his keys; a small folded card with the handwritten name of Amber “It was my pleasure to tidy up the place,” the letters full and round and leaning back on their heels as if to say “do you have a problem with that?;” a coupon for one dollar off at a local restaurant, at the thought of which I feel my son who is 2000 miles away nodding behind me, knowing me and my ways. Reading glasses staring at me. A black rectangle I have just put to bed. Virgil Wander, a book that carries the scent of Lake Superior and rusting factories and a musty theater. Car keys splayed out, my house key inviting. A keyboard missing the number two button. And an index card bearing a verse that ends with “the upright shall see His face.”

And so we shall, at the thought of which my melancholy lifts as light dispels darkness. I rise and look out the window again. New, unblemished snow covers the ground, and the light pole leans in and says “behold His face” - a promise which holds my attention.


By a Thread

IMG_0350Lord, I curl in Thy grey
gossamer hammock
that swings by one
elastic thread so thin
twigs that could, that should
break but don’t.



*

I do nothing. I give You
nothing. Yet You hold me

minute by minute
from falling.

Lord, You provide.

(Denise Levertov, excerpt from “ Psalm Fragments (Schnittke String Trio),” in The Stream & the Sapphire)

While I have downed a Lake Superior of iced tea in my six decades of life, the amount of hot tea I have consumed would, I estimate, barely fill a bathtub. Mostly I drink hot tea when in Africa, where ice is as scarce as gold. Everybody’s doing it there, one of the better legacies of colonialism. Here, not so.

But today I awoke with a scratchy throat and, after a nap, told my wife I would take some hot tea on the veranda. Well, we don’t actually have a veranda, but I liked the sound of that word, “veranda,” which I read is not of European but Hindi descent. That’s exotic and makes up for the fact that I am drinking hot and not iced tea. Besides, piazza is a stretch; patio, too pedestrian.

My wife brightened at the thought that I would be drinking hot tea and were he here my son would join her in her gladness. Somewhere, a trumpet sounded. She began to educate me on the finer things involving tea: the cupboard with its many kinds of tea, including Russian tea (“heartier,” I think she may have said), Five Roses (South African), and so on. She bid me smell that Russian tea, and I did, unscrewing the lid of its container and dipping low for pass, a sniff.

“I’ll just have this,” I said, reaching for the English Tea. Black. Pekoe. (I need to look up “pekoe.”) I need to start somewhere. On the blue packaging it said “good anytime of the day,” which is a surprisingly optimistic statement for the English. I can’t really believe them, yet I’m in.

On the veranda where I write, a single leaf just sashayed its way from twig to earth. Why did it decide at this very moment to let go? What wooden thread snapped? Then another, yellow; another, red. The backyard is like a brilliantly trashed urban back alley, overflowing in color.

“This is a big lemon slice, so we can share it. If you like lemon in iced tea, you’ll probably like it in hot tea.” And yes, I allow as I probably will. If I like tea, that is, which I don’t much like, hot that is. I watch the teapot. The cat watches me. I don’t look at her. I know what is on her mind.

Our copper teapot has long lost its whistle. Now, it just makes an airish sound, like me trying to unsuccessfully whistle through my fingers. Or a novice trying to play a saxophone. It’s lost its music. It soldiers on.

“I think I’ll have it without sugar,” I say bravely.

“You won’t like it. Try some honey.”

I agree honey sounds good. Besides, it may be good for my throat, which is the only reason I’m drinking hot tea. That, and the veranda, just the thought of which makes me smile.

The honey is reluctant. I tip the bottle up and squeeze, harder than I think I should have to. A drop appears, stretching slowly toward my waiting spoon. It’s taking its time, I think, and yet I fill two teaspoons, dive them under the tan-colored liquid, stir, and turn toward my wife. I tell her I am going out on the veranda, tea in hand. To write, I say. Something will come to me. I take a few books for inspiration. It feels very righteous, even if I haven’t even written a word. She reminds me to put the honey back in the ziplock plastic bag, and I do, cautioning me that I should make sure it is completely sealed because “if even a tiny corner is left unsealed, an ant will find it.” And I imagine a scout ant not believing his good fortune when he sniffs the stout honey smell wafting from that corner, the message he will bear for his queen. Yet not this time.

The cat is still watching me, trying to catch my eye. I see what she’s about.

The sun just dropped below a cloud, rooflines outlined against a graying sky. Red maple leaves are piling up. The window opens, and my wife’s head pops out.

“Are you praying?”

“No.” Well, maybe I am. Or want to be. Or should be.

“Can I ask you a question?” Please ask me a question to take my mind off the blank page staring back at me.

It’s our inexpensive intercom system, floor to veranda. I crane my neck up to meet her smiling face. We talk. We don’t resolve a thing, really, but I enjoyed the talk and think she did too.

The sky darkens. I think of all that lies in front of me this week and all that drags behind me, and I begin to feel the weigh of left undone and still to come.

The window opens again. “I have another question,” she says, smiling. And I think, so do I. I like questions.

Someone is blowing leaves, with no regard for their kaleidoscope display. The cicadas have begun. The temperature drops. The gossamer hammock invites. So, here at dusk, I give in, rock in its grip, do nothing but be held by a heavenward thread that will not break.


Call to Worship

A042C3F3-0C29-4146-A229-8F20D658A5ACThis morning, while my wife went off to a heathen art class (her words), my son and I attended church. While it is not an unfamiliar church, we visit only once a year . . .if for 37 years. That makes us regular attenders, sort of, or at least something other than just visitors. We were early. My son said, “Oh no, we’re early. I don’t like to be early. We may have to talk with someone.” I said, “It’s OK, maybe we’ll see Winston.” Winston is a pastor here who once impiously yet innocently used the word “HELL” in a conversation in the narthex of the church. I have admired him ever since. I even wrote him a letter after that.

After glad handing with the doorman (and door-woman), I strode into the sanctuary and made my way to the front of the 500-seat room, to the second row, and sat. It’s a holdover of an old, somewhat contrarian habit dating from my children’s childhood - contrary, that is, to the observation that new people sit in the back of the church and will leave if there are no open seats. Not us! Plenty of room up front, particularly in the penumbra of the pastor. If we sit up front in a new church, the reasoning also went, they (and we) would pay better attention and they would better behave (the children, that is). Mostly, it worked. I was better behaved.

I sat, yet my son informed me that I was sitting on the wrong side, motioning for me to move. Heavens. How could I forget? I did move. He was right. We sat down behind a man I did not recognize, with a balding head and a microphone attached to him. Oh, the new pastor. We didn’t speak. I don’t make it a habit of speaking to pastors prior to the sermon. I might distract them. They might forget the tightly coiled script in their heads and somewhere in the sermon forget an apropos anecdote, the punch line of a joke, or commit some Freudian slip. I don’t want to be a cause of expositional error. We sat mum.

The music was. . . Well, never mind about the music. I took leave and rewound the clock to this morning. When I could sleep no more and could count the bedsprings so insistent were their jabs, I arose. It was 5:30. Based on what I was told by another occupant of the room, my electric razor, zinging behind the closed door of the lavatory, sounded like a lawn mower, and the quarter inch crack of light that beamed blindingly from the finger-high space beneath the shut door was much too much light, too too soon, on vacation time. So I left. Taking care with the door, I stepped out under a sky lit by a waxing 5/8 moon, turning right down the brittle asphalt path that encircles the property.

Trust and obey, for there’s no other way, to be happy in Jesus. . .

I’m mindful of rattlesnakes, though I’ve never seen one on this walk. The lead landscaper, a reticent man named Jeff, took down all of the Beware of Rattlesnakes signs because, as he was told, they “made people nervous.” He gave them to us, depositing them on our balcony with a plastic vase of purple flowers, a small kindness from a shy man. Occasionally we see him out on the property, in a rare idle moment, meandering along the path, a hand behind his back. He’s holding a cigarette but is embarrassed by it. My wife let’s him know that we’ll keep his secret.

To the east there’s the faintest light behind the peaks of the Catalinas, highlighting a few brooding clouds, outlining the jagged peaks. Rabbits scatter as I walk, their white tails flashing. I planned to listen to music but unplug so as to hear the birds wake, the doves cooing, two spaced 15 feet apart on the telephone line, staring straight ahead, as if they had a spat during the night. Surely it will be repaired. Or, perhaps, they await the rising sun, like me, to see the colors of the mountains change, the cacti swathed in new light, the desert floor coming into sharp relief.

And, can it be, that I should gain and interest in the Savior’s blood?

Wondrous love, desert love. Somehow when I come here I am interested in everything - every tree, bush, and flower, every rabbit, range and river, dry or running wet - when at home the life in the world so often passes unnoticed. A runner overtakes me and passes. I turn up the road to the horse corral and stop. A coyote emerging from the corral path walks away from me, a hundred feet away, his body and head outlined against the mountain. He turns to look at me, his province invaded, and then moves away. Twenty feet more and he turns again to check my progress, before moving away into the wash.

I round the east side of the property, muscle up the incline, pass the vacant tennis courts, pass out onto the road. At the patch of grass around the fountain, the sprinklers wet my ankles. Back on the sidewalk, the black of the night sky melds to indigo. A couple walk ahead, and I’m gaining on them, so I circle back to give them room, turn, and then they disappear down the sidewalk. I press on. Meeting an smiling older woman walking toward me, cane in hand, I tell her about the coyote. She wants to know how many there were. One, I say. She waves her stick, says “I’m not worried about one, but I keep the stick for if there’s more than one.”

Lord, I want to be a Christian in my heart, in my heart.

“A disciple is someone who has been captivated,” says the pastor, “by the most beautiful person of all, Jesus.”

The moon blinks off. The sun peaks the corner of the Catalina’s. I turn for home, remembering all I have seen.

Rejoice, the Lord is King.


Trees, Unforgotten

C3098F86-A1C0-4F6A-AD46-824C4B4A5165“Between every two pines is a doorway to a new world.” (John Muir)

Over 34 years ago, our patch of land was hewed from a mostly loblolly pine forest, a relatively young stand which grew up after the mature hardwoods that originally grew here were painstakeningly cut and the land farmed. The red clay dirt proved unsuitable for farming and was abandoned, and the pines, the eager first comers, grew their lanky trunks and green crowns, such as they were, until profit was in sight and the cutting began. I wasn’t here, of course, for the cutting, digging, and plowing and surmise this only from the relative youth of the trees and knowledge of the area. This wasn’t always suburbia; out on the edge of my memory, it was country, a land of red dirt roads and farm houses, clapboard churches and volunteer fire departments, fields of tobacco and woodlots.

To his credit, the developer of this land cut as little as was needed. Some homeowners cut more. We didn’t, preferring forest to sunlight. Sometimes in strong winds the pines bend and wave and creak, aged denizens as they are. One fell after an ice storm, dropping parallel to our house, breaking our fence yet sparing our roof; it lay there like an apology, welcomed. No tree has ever hit our home. I like to think there is a collective gratitude, a wooden pact to spare their guests that indignity, all of which makes me think carefully about whether to take any down.

In our front yard three of those pines lean slightly toward our neighbor’s home, threatening. They’re not much to look at, as what branches and green they have are near sky and all on one side, the side facing my neighbor’s home, like awkward, cock-eyed giants reaching for the West. A couple of weeks ago I called a tree man to discuss my problem. I expected a sympathetic knower of trees, a dispenser of palliative care, but he was matter of fact, all business. He never even touched the trees.

Later I lay in the hammock under the trees. A hammock is a wonderful place to think. And I must think. I lay there thankful for tree-shade, for green against blue, for the aged trunks, for pine cones and tree pollen which is the dust of life, and the sap of the sage - for life so abundant in the trees.

In Lives of the Trees, Diana Wells spends all of five pages on the ignoble pines - all variety of pines. Pines can grow in poor soils and adapt to very different climates. Their cones hang down and not up like firs. And those pinecones that littered my driveway after Hurricane Michael? They are the female reproductive organs of the trees. That explains why some cultures regarded them as symbols of fertility. Pine needles can be eaten and provide some nourishment, though, having tried some, I cannot recommend it. Pine bark can be used to make a kind of tea, though I haven’t tried that and won’t. Wells writes of Li-Li Weng, a seventeenth century Chinese artist and gardener who wrote “When one sits in a garden with peach trees, flowers and willows, without a single pine in sight, it is like sitting among children and women without any venerable men in the vicinity to whom one may look up.” Some respect is accorded age, even the age of a tree.

In reassuring his people through the prophet Isaiah, God says “I will put in the wilderness the cedar, the acacia, the myrtle, and the olive. I will set in the desert the cypress, the plane and the pine together, that they may see and know, may consider and understand together, that the hand of the Lord has done this, the Holy One of Israel has created it” (Isa. ‭41:19-20‬ ‭ESV‬‬). So in God’s redemptive history, even the often misshapen, wopsided pine is exalted, made part of the greening of the desert, part of the comfort of a God who says “For I, the Lord your God, hold your right hand; it is I who say to you, ‘Fear not, I am the one who helps you’” (Isaiah‬ ‭41:13‬ ‭ESV‬‬). Knowing that, I can never look at a pine again without assurance that I need not fear, that the God who made the pines and held them up for all their years will hold me up too.

“I believe the Bible has a forest of trees because trees teach us about the nature of God, says Matthew Sleeth. “Just like a tree, God is constantly giving. Trees have been giving life long before human beings had a clue oxygen existed. Trees give life, beauty, food, and shade. . . . No wonder God uses trees to instruct us about life, death, and resurrection. Trees, like God, give life even after death.” Sleeth says that trees are the most mentioned non-human living thing in scripture, a number that says “pay attention.”

For love of neighbor, the trees may need to go. I’m neither a tree-hugger nor overly sentimental and recognize the utility of trees and the God-allowed natural calamities that fell many thousands of trees each year if not month. Yet it would be wrong not to pause before ending the long lives of these trees and recognize that they too are a kind of neighbor entitled to neighbor-love. The felling of a tree is not earth-shattering, and certainly will not register in human history nor, for long, in my personal history. Yet it is no small thing. It matters as much as a sparrow that falls from a tree. “[N]ot one is forgotten before God” (Lk. 12:6).

I think I’ll call an arborist. An arborist may understand.


My Interlocutors, My Dance

Images“Thank you for meeting with me today. After 34 years of work at the same place, I felt like I needed to explain a few things about my leaving” I looked up. To a one, the men and women who peered at me were aged, unsmiling, and slightly bemused. The one in the middle shuffled some papers.

“Well, go on.”

“On August 30th, I retired.”

“Have you filed a proper motion? You can’t have a new trial without a proper motion and hardly ever then.”


“Oh no, no, perhaps I misspoke [I didn’t]. I said retired, not retried.”

“Hmmf. That’s not allowed.”

“Your honor, perhaps it is more appropriate to say that I have changed jobs. . .


“Well, do say what you mean.”

“If I may. . .”

“You may.”

“As I was saying, on August 30th I left my job. The next day my wife and went to the coast. We had a great day on the beach. Sunny skies, ocean breezes, the waves breaking. Late in the day we swam in the ocean, splashed around until we tired, and then lay facedown on the beach, directly on the sand, our feet trailing in the water, promptly falling asleep. When I woke up, I felt a great peace. I said to myself, ‘This must be what its like to be retired.’”

“Only you said try were not retired.”

“Right, right. I’m getting to that. But first. . . That word, ‘retired,’ is actually related to a French word. . .

“Well, that’s the first thing you said that makes sense. French people are good at not working.”


“Your honor, please.”

“Go on, go on.”

“The word, 'retire,' refers to a movement in ballet. So, you see, to retire is really to engage in a kind of dance, a different movement.”

“Nonsense.”

“Oh no, it makes perfect sense. Life is like a dance, you see, and this withdrawal from my former work is simply a new movement, one part of the great dance, the dance of life.”

“I thought you were a lawyer.”

“In my former life, yes.”

“And now you’re dancing to a different beat?”

“You might say that.”

“Well what is it you do now?”

“I’m a writer.” Loud guffaws issued. They looked knowingly at one another, nodding their heads, and then turned to stare at me. I said, “Why are you looking at me like that?”

“Well because writers don’t really work, do they? They just do a lot of navel-gazing and then spew out a bunch of rubbish, blabbering on about the meaning of a rock, for example, making something out of nothing. It certainly can’t be as important as your work as a lawyer.”

“Perhaps not.”


“Have you made any money at it?”


“Not much.”


“I thought not. Then why do it?”


“I think I am called to do it.”

“Who called?”

“Well. . . Him.” I pointed up.

“Oh, him. Well, far be it from me to argue with him. Higher court, and all that. . .Tell me about some of your scribblings. . . I mean, writings.”

“Well, I recently wrote about a water fountain.”


“Oh really. . .”


“And a fence around my backyard. . .”

“Thrilling.”


“”The first car I owned.”

“I know the world is richer for it.”

“And I am at work on a book about an American missionary to Europe, Francis Schaeffer.”

“Who? Never heard of him.”

“Well, that’s the point. By writing about him, I might introduce him to a new audience.”

“Well why don’t you tell us about a typical day at this writing.”


“I’d love to. I get up at 5:45 and my wife and I walk for about an hour. Sometimes I see things I want to write about as I walk, like a telephone pole, a fox chasing a cat, the brook that passes under street before the rise of Kill Devil Hill. We often pray, but we get distracted. We follow the distraction. We pray about the distraction. Or maybe we forget to pray. Maybe we just talk. Maybe we’re just silent, deep in our own thoughts.”

“Exercise is fortifying. I commend you.”

“Well, not too quick. Sometimes we sleep in. But even then I’m thinking. I wake up and listen to the house, the sounds it makes, the whirring of the heat pump, the rain slapping the window, the purr of the cat, the birds waking just before dawn, a truck on the highway. . .”

“Yes, yes, I get the point. What do you do next?”

“After the walk, or after rising, I shower, dress for work (no pajamas or shorts, shirt tucked in), eat breakfast, and have a personal worship time. I read my Bible. I pray.”

“Pray again?”

“Of course. Only sometimes I miss.”

“That’s bad, right? God doesn’t like that, does he?”

“God loves me just the same. I missed out on time with Him, that’s all. Anyway, after that I go to work. I have an office on the third floor devoted to nothing but writing. I read a bit, do my research. Then I sit in my chair and stare out the window. I try to take myself back to the village of Huemoz, Switzerland, in 1957. As all the pictures I have are black and white, I have to add the color -- the wildflowers in the fields, or the white on the snow-capped Alps, or the yellow of the post bus that passes periodically on its way to Villars. I hear cowbells, laughter, and conversation - always conversation. Then I go back to my desk and write a line, or two, on my way to a page. A page a day, page on page, until its done. Bird by bird, as Anne Lammott says.”

“That’s it, a page a day? That doesn’t seem very productive.”

“Well, you forget about the rest of the page, the empty white space of the page, all that’s left unsaid. I have to make choices, you see, about what to include and what to leave out. People have to fill in the white with their own images, helped by the words I do include on the page. I guess it does look like a lot of nothing, but it’s not. John McPhee, who has done a lot of writing, said once he did his research for an article, on oranges I think, and then lay on the picnic table in his backyard for two weeks trying to figure out how to organize his material. It looked like he was doing nothing. But he wasn’t.”

“I'll bet he took a few naps. Anyway, is that it?”

“Well, I suppose so.”

“What do you hope to get out of all this? Not money, I presume.”

“Peace, I guess. Peace at being in the place where God would have me be, I suppose. Money if he gives it; the satisfaction of being in the right place, if not. I don’t write because it’s fun; it’s generally not. I don’t write because it’s lucrative; it’s seldom that. There are a lot of easier things to do - like being a lawyer. Or painting houses. I don’t love writing. John McPhee says that people who say that they love to write aren’t writers at all. If they were they wouldn’t say such ridiculous things.”

“For God’s sake, man, you’re an attorney. Why waste your time and what talent you have on writing about trees or some obscure American pastor?”

“Do you like music?”

“Of course. Beethoven. Bach. Even the Gershwins.”

“Well that’s why I write. When it all comes together, when the right words fall in place, it’s like a song. I read it aloud and there’s melody to it, a rhythm, a beat, some truly tiny distant echo of the song the stars made at Creation. It doesn’t happen much, but I live for those rare moments when I've done the best I can, and I stand back and say with all humility, how could I have written that? And then it has its own life and begins to talk to me and teach me.”

“Well, you’re either delusional or on to something.”

"I appreciate you hearing me out about this.”

“It seems a foolish course to us, a huge waste of time and one with little money-making potential.”

“I see how it appears.”

“But we’ll consider what you said and let you know what we think. For now, carry on. Or should we say, dance on. And God help you.




The Eyes of the Heart

Fullsizeoutput_7f72A few weeks ago my wife and I were cleaning out some closets or files (at the moment I’ve forgotten which) and discovered the pellet-pocked National Rifle Association 5 Meter BB Gun target saved from her happy years at Camp Yonalossee. Not a sentimentalist, she threw it away. I retrieved it and retained it, a reminder of her aptitude. It’s in a manilla folder marked “resources,” a place where I file clippings and salvaged memorabilia of uncertain use, items that portend meaning if as yet unknown. I pull it out of the folder and examine it again. Some shots went wide, clipping the edges of the target, yet a number hit their mark, I note, sobered by her eye, her resolute fire.

She’s always had a good eye. In 1987 when we were in Kenya and Tanzania on safari, she spotted a serval cat at a distance of over a thousand feet without the aid of binoculars, identifying it for our guide, Elvis, who was impressed if initially doubtful. “Good eyes, Madam,” he said, after confirming her sighting with binoculars. Servals are shy cats, with overly long legs, small heads, and demure faces. They catch their prey by leaping up to ten feet high and pouncing with both front paws, and often play with their prey before eating it. I look sideways at my large cat, with her overly short legs, laconic eyes, and domestic demeanor, and I can’t quite make the connection.

My eyes are not so good. I have been severely near-sighted since third grade, and now I have “floaters.” In the terminology of the retina specialists, they are caused by posterior vitreous detachment, something which happens as you age. The white matter of the eye tends to pull away from the back of the eye. The result is like looking through spidery webs, particularly noticeable when looking at a bright sky or light-filled windows. There’s no recommended treatment. They annoy but don’t impact my already-compromised vision. Remarkably, the brain has a way of filtering them out of consciousness, like the items heaped at the bottom of the stairs for weeks that you’ve meant to carry upstairs, yet haven’t. You eventually don’t notice them. Much.

"Did you find her?, she said, referring to the fluid waif-like cat, sister to the large one. "I've looked everywhere," I say, and I did. At least I thought I did. First floor. Second floor. Under the beds, behind chairs, in all the usual hiding places into which only she can slither. I can't find her! But of course, she finds her, her lugubrious fur-covered gelato stuffed in a crack behind the bed. Eyes do not fail my wife. With effort, the cat is retrieved, pried from the carpet. Perhaps I could have seen her, but my eyes have been trained to inattention, it seems, lazy and impatient.

In one of his memoirs, Eyes of the Heart, Frederick Buechner lets us peer into his Magic Kingdom, his palace of memory. Looking around the various photos and other memorabilia of his study, he summons up voices from the past, let’s them speak to him and he to them. It’s as if he pulls out his file called “resources” and examines an item at a time, letting it speak and give up meaning. He concludes it this way:

What is magic about the Magic Kingdom is that if you look at it through the right pair of eyes it points to a kingdom more magic still that comes down out of heaven prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. The one who sits upon its throne says, “Behold, I make all things new,” and the streets of it are of gold like unto clear glass, and each of its gates is a single pearl.

So that's it. If we have the eyes to see, Buechner is saying, then everything points beyond itself to something greater. Yet when I train a BB gun on life, I don't always fare so well. Things are not quite in focus. The spidery webs of brokenness born of detachment occlude my vision. I often miss the mark and go wide. Yet with the graces of Word and prayer, I begin to see more of the Kingdom. I glimpse the heaven in and beyond the world. What is it that the Apostle says? Having the eyes of your heart enlightened, that you may know the hope to which he has called you. That’s my target. That’s the serval cat in my sights. That’s the Reality beyond my occlusion. I just need the eyes to see.


Cleaning the Fountain

Fullsizeoutput_7f09I love cleaning the fountain, I said, which if not precisely true, is not false. I do it for her. I am under her spell. We are doing it together.

The fountain has three copper pieces: a bowl circular yet fashioned in waves; a centerpiece of four cattails surrounded by leafy fronds; and a motor covered by a hand-sized cup. Oxidation has blued the copper, giving color. Water presses upward and drops to the pool below, spare music for the afternoon.

She is directing me, and I am trying to keep my mind on what I am doing, which is no small thing, as the sound of the water is dream-inducing. First, she says, you lift the centerpiece with cattails and fronds directly up out of the water, taking care to lift by two fronds so as not to bend the piece. And stay upright, she cautions, and take care, as one of the fronds might put your eye out. I lift it, eyes averted from its nakedness, and place it flatly on the walk, lifeless and inanimate.

Returning, I help her scoop water out of the bowl, using the cup that covered the motor. She pulls up pine straw, baring earth, and shows me how she pours the water just so and then covers it, so it all looks undisturbed. (I make a note that this is more complicated than I first imagined.) After many scoop-scoop-scoops, copper on copper, splashing of water, I scrap bottom. To remove the rest of the water, she says, you gently cup your hands under the sides of the bowl and tip it forward, like this she says, demonstrating, so as not to crack it. A healer, she shows me the thin lines of adhesive applied to previous cracks, copper-love. I cup and tip it, tenderly, as holding a baby.

She hands me a brush. She demonstrates how to brush the sides and bottom of the bowl carefully, removing the slime. I take over. She sits on the steps at our door, coaching. I like the rhythm of the brushing, the ease of the cleaning, the new clarity of the copper beneath. My mind wanders, as it is wont to, while she watches.

We are wandering the dusty streets of Tubac, in southern Arizona, walking by the many artisans, just above the oft-dry Santa Cruz River. The fountain was born in Tubac, fashioned by a metalworker named Lee Blackwell, we later recall, the copper mined in the mountains nearby. Sometimes, rather than shop the artisans, I give her space to shop at ease, without the company of my impatience, and I walk the nearly six miles of the Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail, which is a mighty name for a dirt walk beside a river that mostly hides beneath the desert.

When you finish that, she says, we’ll rinse it. I finished. I rinsed.

I walk the trail from Tubac, just below the Presidio, the site of the original Spanish garrison, winding through the cottonwoods, willows, and mesquite, watching for rattlesnakes that love the heat of the day. Once, she came too. I took her hand and helped her over downed trees and between the slats of a fence. Sometimes, I just took her hand.

Once we rinsed the bowl, we moved to the centerpiece, pulling pine straw and debris from its innards, taking care, of course, for our eyes. As we could, we scrubbed, lightly. Then, carefully clasping two fronds in hands, I set it back down into the bowl, seated it. She cleaned the motor. She is nothing if not thorough. She instructed. I listened and nodded, imagining the calls of the birds along the Santa Cruz, the crunch of the compacted desert sand underfoot, the solitude of the walk. I cross the river, which trickles in the Spring, and make my way to the mission at Tumacacori where the Holy stills ghosts its ruins, where she will drive and pick me up.

Now we fill it, she says, and we sit down side by side on the few steps that lead to our door. We are quiet. I feed the hose around the handrails, and we listen to its filling, so full together.


A Bird Nest & A Little Broken Glass

F9030A5F-1B08-41CC-9797-2CF93656F546“For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.”

(‭‭Colossians‬ ‭1:19-20‬ ‭ESV)‬‬

Two boys are playing catch in the newly shorn forest behind my house. I hear the slap of ball on mitt, an indecipherable exclamation here and there. From the periphery of my vision, movement: arms waving, gesticulations, sighs. Then, laughter. The ball arcs high.

Poet Ted Kooser writes about such common things, yet under his pen the ordinary becomes luminous. An inhabitant of the Great Plains - a region that coastal elites often contemptuously regard as flyover country - his poetry shines a flashlight down into the people and places of the region.

It might be a fence that garners his attention:

The red fence
takes the cold trail
north; no meat
on its ribs,
but neither has it
much to carry.

And reading that brief observation or, better yet, sounding it out with an out-loud reading, you hear the tension of unburdened freedom and yet aloneness, a person striking out into the cold solitary and yet resolute, even defiant.

Or it could be a change in the weather, read by animals, as in

You will know that the weather is changing
when your sheep leave the pasture
too slowly, and your dogs lie about
and look tired; when the cat
turns her back to the fire,
washing her face, and the pigs
wallow in litter.

And so on, and so on. The geese are too noisy, says Kooser, and swallows fly low, skimming the earth, and the swan flies at the wind. They know. Kooser is saying watch the animals and they will tell us.

And that’s mostly what he does in these poems: he watches the human and nonhuman creation. Reads the clues. Catches glimpses of underlying meaning.

A siren. Two female cardinals sit side by side in a nearby tree, the bright red male nearby. Wife and concubine? Cicadas interject. Birds twitter. A jet descends, followed by the sound of a single-engine prop plane. Traffic hums in the background. The wind stirs.

In “In An Old Apple Orchard,” the wind is personified:

The wind’s an old man
to this orchard; these trees
have been feeling
the soft tug of his gloves
for a hundred years.
Now it’s April again,
and again that old fool
thinks he’s young.

This afternoon, the wind barely lifts his finger to rustle the branches above my head. He naps on the forest floor, like a cat splayed out and dreamy, his periodic twitching and restlessness moving the tree bough ever so slightly, his soft hand the lightest brush against my skin.

Or maybe Kooser animates an ironing board, as in “Song of the Ironing Board,” letting it speak in its steamy, heated used-up voice:

So many hands lay hot on my belly
over the years, and oh, how many ghosts
I held, their bodies damp and slack,
their long arms fallen to either side.
I gave till my legs shook, but then
they were up and away. Thus the lovely
soft nap of my youth was worn down.
But I gave myself and was proud.

And with that, the wind he stirred, like he heard in the iron’s song some longing for more, and brushed more boldly across my neck, threw a puff even in my face. For a moment, he thought himself young, and it April, and the earth new.

On two facing pages of Kindest Regards, Kooser’s latest collection of poetry, the titles juxtapose the epitome of the mundane: Dishwater. Applesauce. There’s more on the following pages: A Jar of Buttons. Sparklers. Old Dog in March. Shoes. Laundry. Ladder.

There’s poetry in titles, even in just naming. A blower interrupts my reverie, modulating with its fanning motion, with its reminder of work undone. Traffic hums constant beneath the twitter of the aviary. An empty, unoccupied house is a vacant stare into my backyard. The wind wakes, exhales.

Why poetry? Why something so small, so obscure, and so useless? Because, says Kooser, were he to comment on his observations of the ordinary, “the good works of the Lord are all around,” and the “cross is only God knows where.” The poet goes looking. We can look over the shoulder of the God-conscious poet and see hints of the divine in the stuff of life. Says Kooser, in “The Red Wing Church,”

There’s a tractor in the doorway of a church
in Red Wing, Nebraska, in a coat of mud
and straw that drags the floor. A broken plow
sprawls beggar-like behind it on some planks
that make a sort of roadway up the steps.
The steeple’s gone. A black tar-paper scar
that lightning might have made replaces it.
They’ve taken it down to change the house of God
to Homer Johnson’s barn, but it’s still a church,
with clumps of tiger-lilies in the grass
and one of those boxlike, glassed-in signs
that give the sermon’s topic (reading now
a bird nest and a little broken glass).
The good works of the Lord are all around:
the steeple top is standing in a garden
just up the alley; it’s a henhouse now:
fat leghorns gossip at its crowded door.
Pews stretch on porches up and down the street,
the stained-glass windows style the mayor’s house,
and the bell’s atop the firehouse in the square.
The cross is only God know where.

Kooser looks at the works of God dispersed, at the steeples and pews and bells displayed in Creation. It’s still a church. God knows where the cross is. It cuts across His good works. It stands over all things.

That’s why I am here, outside, in the humidity and heat of the day, listening to the slap, slap of a ball on mitt, to the planes overhead, to the cicada-cries, to the wind tapping on my bare knees, saying did you see, did you hear? Did you hear the sermon in the wind?


Oh, Mercy

EA62F4D4-ABFA-4FF2-8217-A216AB7044E7“The Lord is good to all, and his mercy is over all that he has made.”

(Ps.‬ ‭145:9‬ ‭ESV‬‬)

Last night there was a wind off the Atlantic that hummed and whistled through the balcony doors. Then, a gust brought a flapping of the unsecured storm shutters where they had been hastily opened in a driving rain that greeted us midway down the coastal plain and endured well after our coming. I put down the book that I had taken to bed, opened the whistling door, and secured the shutter. Rain-chastened, I returned to bed.

Earlier in the afternoon we had watched a woman come to the ocean edge in a steady downpour, try unsuccessfully to open an umbrella, and finally settle into a chair wrapped in a towel to watch the waves slap the shore. Another couple were doing the same, both presumably drawn by something elemental, nameless, their thoughts ebbing and flowing like the tide, first expansive, then contracting, their eyes searching the frothing waters. Other than these, there were no others. The beach lay fallow.

In the book I lay reading, Draft No. 4, writer John McPhee’s memoir on the writing process, he says that a “lead” for a nonfiction article “should not be cheap, flashy, meretricious, blaring.” I had to get over that he did not bother to put “and” after the last comma in that series, something William Strunk would not allow. He is John McPhee, after all. I also had to look up meretricious, an annoyance. (It means “apparently attractive but having no value or integrity.”) He says the lead “should be a flashlight that shines down into the story.” That makes me think of the Psalmist who said ““Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (Ps.‬ ‭119:105‬ ‭ESV‬‬). God’s Word, a flashlight to eternity.

The wind whistles eternity. Out in the dark the Gulf Stream swirls. Sand, the broken down and weathered granular fragments of quartz and other rocks and minerals, moves while we sleep, creeping toward the mainland, accreting on the sound side, eroding on the ocean side. Ocean dark meets the dark of sky at an eternally receding horizon. Out on the ocean a light marks a fishing vessel alone at sea.

A flashlight that shines down into the story? “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth,” is about the most promising lead imaginable. Questions form. Who is God? Other than God, what else was there before the beginning? Did God always exist? How did he create? What did he create? To what end did he create? The lead shines down into the great story that follows.

Under the dunes blanketed with cordgrass, there are warrens of rabbits sleeping, emerging just before dawn to nibble at the grass, flopping easily, silently until the sun rises. A mockingbird lets go songs in the night. The rain stops, but the air is sopped with water.

McPhee, on interviewing: “You can develop a distinct advantage by waxing slow of wit.” To some, I would add, this comes natural; others, it takes practice. One law enforcement agent I once knew presented as Mayberry’s Goober in uniform, yet wasn’t: criminals talked freely with him and were helped on their way to jail. I look around for a handy interviewee, yet all slumber. Slow of wit, I interview the night.

A feral cat plies the moonless night. Mice, wary, retire early. A lone beachcomber meanders in and out of the tide, drunk in thought. The light on the ocean blinks against the night. Where dark meets dark at the horizon, the dim outline of thunderheads lean in. Eternity whistles in the wind.

McPhee again: “Block. It puts some writers down for months. It puts some writers down for life. A not always brief or minor form of it mutes all writers from the outset of every day.” But you’re not a writer, you think, thank God, and yet every person faces block in the often small and yet sometimes incessant demon that says “you can’t do it” can’t get up can’t talk with that person can’t change one more diaper wash one more pile of clothes listen to one more unhappy client. Can’t. His advice? Write your mother.

Dear Mom, I write, scrawling my thoughts into the night, there’s a brawl in the sandy lane of the beach access road, and I can’t sleep due to the beat beat beat of the party next door, and did I mention that I took up surfing for my 60th (catch a wave) birthday and that I’m sitting on top of the world? And that the sand of barrier islands is a great metaphor for the of the temporal ever-shifting circumstances of life and the seagrass-planted dunes a hedge against the feral? I didn’t think so.

“Is it wrong to alter a fact in order to improve the rhythm of your prose ?,” says McPhee. And then, “I know so, and so do you.” Oh mercy. Chastened, I withdraw the light on the sea, feral cat and retiring mice, rabbits in their warren, and beachcomber that I conjured from the night. And the drunken brawl and party next door and surfin’ safari prevarication. I apologize yet add, “they could have been.” Part of me wants to rise out of bed and on a midnight walk fact-check this bit of prose before withdrawing it. Even ring up the local surf shop (hey dude) and reserve a lesson. Because it could have been and maybe is or maybe will all come true. Sigh.

I turn off the light. The other shutter flaps. I leave it. Yet sleep hesitates. I continue my letter to the night. I think about a light on the ocean, tiny in the darkness of sea, about a man on the sand casting great hopes against the flood of night, about the resoluteness of the few perched on the ever-shifting sand, arrayed against the fury of the waves and wind, about the near-silent footfalls of the feral cat and the shushed quiet of the dune mice, about the mockingbird’s operetta, about the great mercy of a God who shines a searchlight into our eternity, who is kind in all His works.

I omit the “and” before the final comma in that series, McPhee-like in my rebellion, before sleep comes.


Behind the Fence

IMG_1949“So they all went away from the little log house. The shutters were over the windows, so the little house could not see them go. It stayed there inside the log fence, behind the two big oak trees that in the summertime had made green roofs for Mary and Laura to play under.”

(Laura Ingall Wilders)

When we moved into our home over 33 years ago, there was no fence enclosing our back yard. The forest from which our subdivision was hewed lapped up to nearly our back door and, there being only woods and a country lane behind us, our existence and identity dribbled out into the world that preceded us, a world of forest life and piney woods that before that were likely a cutover or timbered woodlot that became farmland. In one place the land still bore the marks of its furrows. Our claim was staked, literally, by orange-tasseled wooden posts in the corners of our lot; an invisible and imaginary line ran between them and then from each of them on to the street in front of our home, a trapezoid imposed on an unruly Creation. With that, our lives were bounded.

We erected a fence only because of the arrival of our faithful German Shepherd, to contain her. We needn’t have bothered. Given her interest in what was going on in the home and not out, she lingered near the portals, her longing face windowed in the doors. But she died 21 years ago, and our children who, but for the fence, may have wandered off into the dark woods, red riding hood like, have crossed the imaginary lines and live outside the lines --- and yet, surely, they remain tethered here.

There’s not much need for a fence now. The deer easily vault the four feet, bed down in our pine straw, purloin our bird seed from the feeders, and peer curiously and cautiously into our windows. Our modest, malleable near liquid cat it gives no pause; in the morning she glides through its rungs effortlessly, melting into the leafy ether of the diminished woodland, unfailingly returning under cover of darkness, admitting nothing. (She learns things we cannot fathom. That, or nothing.) Squirrels chatter right over its heights. And birds, they have another universe, a sky unbounded.

This bounded land is ours, right down to its subterranean depths, to the center of the earth, and up to navigable airspace. If I wanted to, I could begin digging through the topsoil and, with effort, through red clay, down to bedrock. People may wonder about my large hole, but no matter. It’s mine. All mine. But I won’t do that. The most I have dug is about two feet into unyielding earth. Thus, my inheritance must remain largely untapped and unknown. That’s grace: I have been given much more than I can know or appropriate.

I’ve walked outside the fence. A neighbor, at some point prior to our residency here, placed an old bathtub in the narrow strip near the corner of our lot. Why, I don’t know, whether to water the animals or through mere neglect. Once, a gentleman who lived in the brick house on the country road behind us hiked to our fence and, inexplicably, cast something over the fence into our yard. My wife was on it. They had a discussion over the fence, one polite enough, after which he retreated, admonished. He didn’t do that again. We also had an ice storm once, and a tree fell across the fence. It still bears its wound but has sprung back, resilient.

Walking along the fence today, I run a stick across its wire mesh. It makes its own music, a bit dull but resonant. Just like people, all fences make different sounds. The one I occasionally slammed into playing dodge ball on the elementary school court clanged, a prickly schoolchildren minder; the oversize bars around the zoo elephant went thunk-thunk-thunk as in don’t-even-think-about-it; the plastic fence around my child-size barnyard animal set barely made any sound; the tapping of my wedding ring on the fence behind which we waited more than once is the sound of bliss, bounded by vow.

Some people don’t like fences, preferring a world of untrammeled unboundedness, much like the backyards I ran through as a child. Not me. Fences define. Behind them we refine who we are. Rarely are they impermeable: the immigrant deer and squirrels come, and visitors are let in. Sun and rain and wind touch us all. Yet without a fence we may forget who we are; with a fence we are free to become more of who we are.

“The lines have fallen for me in pleasant places,” says the Psalmist, and “indeed, I have a beautiful inheritance.” Turning, looking back from the line of my lot, leaning against the fence, I see our place, our lives, our memories, our home. My children played in the shade of the trees that grow here, explored, pretended, and imagined. The fence reminds me that it’s here and not over there where life is lived. Life grows in a place, a bounded place, and is freer and more defined by its boundaries. It becomes home. And “home,” said Laura Ingall Wilders, “is the nicest word there is.” Life flourishes behind the fence. “Jesus, be a fence around me,” sings Fred Hammond in the old Sam Cooke song. “This is my prayer Lord that I pray each and every day/ That you would guide my footsteps lest I stumble and stray/ Lord, I need you to direct me all the way long/ Oh Lord be a fence all around me everyday.”

I let go the fence. I go inside. I look out the unshuttered windows of my home at the piney woods and pray, “Lord, be a fence around me everyday, Lord be a fence today.”


Rain, Delight

A53DAAB5-83F8-438B-9788-4A58BAAB79BD“You shall no more be termed Forsaken, and your land shall no more be termed Desolate, but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her, and your land Married; for the Lord delights in you, and your land shall be married.” (‭‭Isaiah‬ ‭62:4‬ , ESV‬‬)

We were nearly a mile and a half into the canyon when we saw the first sign of life. A Western tanager, a brilliant yellow bird with a red head and black wings, alighted on a tree branch jutting up from the canyon bank, hundreds of feet above his normal riparian habitat. He flew higher and, being an avid singer, chirped a plaintive song marking territory, before darting away up canyon.

It is the first day of our time here, and we began late, so the sun is high in the New Mexico sky and we feel it sap our energy. We’ve walked down into Frijoles Canyon of Bandolier National Monument, meeting no one on the way, down to see the Upper Falls, only there is no falling water. Drought lays heavy on the land, and the creek that the guidebook says runs year round has vanished, gone covert, snaking slowly underground, until the rains swell, until the summer monsoons come and the creek re-emerges, transformed. I look down to where the canyon drops away into woodland and see the muddy-brown flow of the Rio Grande, the trees a bosky ribbon of green along its bank, and yet here it is only dry, the green defiant but tired.

Fire is an ever-present danger, so the backcountry of Bandolier and campgrounds are closed. Just north, in the long inactive caldera of the Valle Caldera Preserve that we visited yesterday, the green observed from the lip of the caldera is deceptive: the grasses are desiccated, and the wind that sweeps across the plain could whip a spark into a hellish fire that would consume all in its path. The ranger in the caldera, a woman from Jemez Springs, reminded us of the nineteen firefighters who lost their lives there in 2013, overtaken by flames while battling the Thompson Ridge Fire, an inferno that at its height burned an acre a minute.

But the tanager is waiting for water, as are the towering, stolid Pondera pines that anchor the canyon floor, their reddish bark brilliant against a blue sky, resilient even in the parched landscape. As are the grasses of the caldera and its herds of elk and coteries of prairie dogs darting here and there, dropping down a hole here and popping out of a hole there, comic. And yet the land and its life, though conditioned to drought, are beginning to suffer under the effects of this drought’s desolations, a tragic reminder of both the fragility and resilience of life in the desert. We drink water and turn to go back.

“Take small steps,” she says, “as it’ll conserve your energy.” I do. I let her lead, as her eyes are sharp and concentration better than mine. I have been accused of daydreaming.

I have in fact been daydreaming, my feet moving but my head walking elsewhere. I confess I have been thinking of those great scientists of nearby Los Alamos, like physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, Niels Bohr, or Ernest Lawrence, who back in the mid-Forties, at the founding of the secret city, escaped the confines of the closely guarded community, part of The Manhattan Project, and came here, on horseback or on a road built by the Civilian Conservation Corp in the 1930s, for solace from the conflicted thoughts that sometimes haunted their building of an atomic bomb, a horrible weapon to kill many to save many more. And so while I am here, the trail dust stirred by my every footfall, my thoughts are in 1943, stirred by those men riding horses through the canyon, comforted by the seemingly stable and only slowly changing nature of the canyon. “Science is not everything,” said the often poetic Oppenheimer, but science is very beautiful,” and so too is nature --- not everything, far from everything, and yet beautiful if fraught, riven by sin.

There were once people who lived in Frijoles Canyon --- Anasazi, ancestral people, native Americans --- who dug caves in the canyon walls out of the “tuff,” a soft rock made from compacted volcanic ash. We visited their leavings. On the second day we rose very early and entered the canyon just after dawn, walked two miles in, and climbed ladders reaching 120 feet up the canyon walls, entering some of the caves and alcoves of these ancestors. In the cool of the morning we saw life we did not see in yesterday’s mid-day heat --- a bright-eyed rock squirrel foraging for food not more than five feet from us, coyotes flanking a lone mule deer, hoping for a meal, lizards scurrying across our trail. A nuthatch on a tree branch. A flicker (or woodpecker), heard but not seen. We heard the distinctive, plummeting call of the red-tailed hawk. Even the creek in places bubbled up life, evidence that all is not lost and the promise of more to come.

Two days later, the rains do come. From my window on Santa Fe, miles from Bandolier, I imagine the tanager drinking from a pool, the pines drawing deep draughts through their roots, the coyotes lapping life-giving water from a now coursing Frijoles Creek, the waterfall now living up to its name, a trickle giving way to a torrent cast down the rock wall. Periodically thunder peals, like God’s voice announcing his delight. His rain, his delight.


Strange Cases, Found

IMG_0334“Wanna sit at the bar?”

Hosts assume that persons dining alone want to sit at a bar, presumably where they won’t feel so alone. They’re often wrong.

“Nope. Booth, please.”

I slide into a cavernous coop made for six people, back to the kitchen, face to the door. Plenty of room for me and my friends, the ghosts of past conversations, the phantoms of a long memory, or for worlds conjured up by words.

I dine alone once each week, an introvert’s allowance, a pittance for my sanity. I need time to process. I need time to observe and reflect. I need to do a little life summary, take my pulse, make sure I am still living and not just existing. I need to get away from the phone, the screens, the. . .well. . .people. I recognize that it would be problematic to do this every day. But I don’t.

“Hi, I’m Penny.”

Penny is the server. She calls me honey. But here in this corner of the South, in this particular restaurant that doesn’t cater to transplants or the hip, there’s no romance in that sweetness, just hospitality.

“Is Penny short for Penelope?” I can’t hear Penny without hearing The Beatles’ “Penny Lane,” its “in my ears and in my eyes/ Here beneath the blue suburban skies.”

“Yep, but that’s a mouthful.”

Sure is. Penny is probably in her Forties but looks like she’s in her Sixties, aged by smoking and life’s burdens. Penelope seems too fussy; Penny, too girlish. I give her my order. She whisks away yet continues to supply copious amounts of ice tea to fuel my meditations.

I’m reading an article in the New York Times Magazine, a lengthy feature by Jack Hitt entitled “The Strange Case of the Missing Joyce Scholar.” Hitt is chasing down what became of a renowned Boston University professor, John Kidd, a James Joyce scholar who two decades ago simply disappeared. I have never heard of the man. Never read Joyce’s Ulysses either, and certainly never knew of the insane obsession that the novel is for certain folks. None of these people would deign dine with a denizen like me. The author ultimately locates the Gandalf-ish looking Kidd in Rio de Janeiro (of course) still very much alive and obsessed with yet another novel.

While I read Hitt’s article mostly for the journalistic chase, his dogged pursuit of the facts, the heart of it was found in what was to Hitt perhaps just an aside, a tangential observation. Hitt is commenting on Kidd’s compulsiveness, such as his obsession over the size of a period at the end of a paragraph of Ulysses, a giant black dot on the page at the end of the last chapter featuring the novel’s protagonist, Leopold Bloom. Essays have been written on the dot which, according to Hitt, “ends a long, hilarious chapter that parodies the kind of crisp, cold tone associated with scientific discourse,” as if Joyce is saying, “Just shut up.” Essayists opine otherwise, of course. As Hitt summarizes, “Some see the big dot as Earth, viewed from the heavenly throne of God, who is often understood to be the annoyingly precise narrator of this chapter. Some think it’s a black hole or maybe Bloom’s open mouth, finally collapsing into sleep at the interrogator’s moronic questions.” I won’t even mention some of the more lively (or profane) interpretations. What I can say is that reading about such tripe in a place frequented by blue collar workers, to people who deal in the brick and mortar of life, is a surreal experience.

“You need anything else?”

“Thanks Penny. I don’t. I’m just reading.”

“Stay as long as you like. We’re open until eight.”

“I won’t make it quite that long.” It’s only noon.

Hitt gets to the point later in the article, as he addresses Kidd’s compulsion for completeness:

“Theorists who study folk art sometimes describe those crowded, image-packed creations, like Howard Finster’s ‘Paradise Garden’ or Grandma Moses’ ‘Country Fair,’ not merely as a prominent theme but as a kind of mental illness common to the form. They argue that these artists’ works are expressions of a compulsion to fill an existential emptiness. This anxiety has its own Latin name, horror vacui, fear of the void — and Kidd brings this intensity to his understanding of every book he reads.”

Horror vacui. People like Kidd and other “artists of completion” help us see in sharp relief the void in a human life lived apart from God, even if that void is hidden beneath a veneer of distraction or steady soliloquy of self-love . Considering why people commit suicide, Walker Percy said “We do not know where we came from, why we are here, or what comes at the end. We do not know what it means to have a good life or a good death.” Kidd’s compulsion masks the fear of the void; obsession hides emptiness. All of which is tragic of course, part of the brokenness of a God-denying yet Christ-haunted world.

“There is a God-shaped vacuum in the heart of each man, said Blaise Pascal, “which cannot be satisfied by any created thing but only by God the Creator, made known through Jesus Christ.” God gives us someone like John Kidd to show us the extreme, to bring to the surface what lies at the soul of every person. For Christians, Christ is our holy obsession. Completeness is found only in Him. The Apostle Paul says “to live is Christ, to die is gain” (Phil. 1:21). Meaning can’t be made up. We can’t self-define. Meaning is part of the givenness of life, a gift.

Penny is back, this time a bit awkwardly (for me, anyway) she sits across from me, refilling the sweeteners and jellies at the table. For a moment I wonder if she is aware of the void in her life and how she fills it.

“Don’t mind me,” she says, as if she were non-existent, a non-entity. I know better. Everyone is to be minded. Everyone matters.

As for John Kidd? Pray for him, that his void might be filled to overflowing with the death and life of Christ. God takes strange cases. He gets to the bottom of our empty. Then, He fills us up.

I left Penny a good tip, but I should have offered her more. Next time, I just might.

[The photo of present-day John Kidd was taken by Lalo de Almeida for The New York Times.]