Connecting October to April

IMG_0463At the perimeter of the yard, huddled by the fence, lies our grill, veiled, like it is ashamed of its diminutive stature. Arcing above it is a maple that once near died but many years since has bent toward the sun and thrust upward, and the bashful grill there teeters, like a child with its newly-steadied mother, head buried in her skirts.

“I remember when that magnolia was only this high,” my wife said over our lunch, holding her hands about twelve inches apart. “And now look,” as she pointed out past the patio toward the corner of the back yard at a volunteer maybe 25 feet high, its rust leaf backs toward us. “It’ll probably never bloom,” she predicted. “It never has.”

I say something about lack of sun, to which she nods. But then I think, never say never. God majors in great reversals, changing seasons, upending the predicted.

I look down. An 80-year old Ted Kooser, poet, is staring at me from the back cover of his latest book, Red Stilts, his forehead wrinkled, sweatered against the cold, expression pensive. An old man. Yet still child-like in how he sees. “The garbage truck’s tires had left two keyboards/ impressed in the snow, with the shadows of threads/ for the sharps and flats, at least a hundred octaves/ reaching far into silence, and a tattered leaf/ appeared as if out of thin air, sat down, and started/ playing,” he writes in “Recital,” telling of the cardinals, finches, and juncos that, perched in nearby bushes, play audience, chirping approval. And that, for sure, is rendered with the eyes of a child, to hear music in the tire tracks of life’s dirt.

There’s a recital here too: the percussive beat of the nail guns tacking up one of the last new houses to be constructed behind us, the rhythm of the lawn mower’s whine, a circular saw that intermittently chimes in, and the twill and peep of birds peppering through.

The air has changed. Humidity is up. Rain is coming, someone said. Which makes me glad for a blue umbrella, a shelter for these thoughts.

“I watched a moth fly round and round the moon,/ or so it seemed as I stood looking up,” writes Kooser in “A Moth, a Moon,” and I think about the candle flies I scold that sometimes fly around the lamp I read by, somehow slipping by all our defenses, our closed windows and quickly-shut doors, as if they crawled on their bellies through the hairline cracks between window and sill, drawn by the light. But I take it back, let them fly round my moon, give in to their silent nattering, read on, only occasionally swiping away at their exuberant joy at light.

Something is amiss with our bird feeder, I note, the seed gathered on one side, inexplicably. “Probably a deer pushed it with its nose,” she says. Maybe. Or maybe the world is off balance. Askew. Lilting. And everything is off, spinning madly, needing someone to set it right.

I’m musing now about how “its impossible to keep the dust away/ from any color painted on Nebraska, despite/ the thin, transparent drop cloths of the rain,” as Kooser writes after ruminating on a greened out and flowering roadside ditch. So, for a moment I drive down a blacktop Nebraska road with him, as he sees for me, pointing out “the barns, in clear plastic slickers of rain,” the ones that “stand at the side of the muddy gravel road/ where they wait for the men to come home/ from the tavern in a fleet of old pickups/ awash in the misty gray waves of the hills.”

When once we yield to Christ, said Oswald Chambers, we are emptied out, the old nature replaced by the new. “The first thing God will do with us is to ‘force thro’ the channels of a single heart’ the interests of the whole world,” says Chambers. “The love of God, the very nature of God, is introduced into us, and the nature of Almighty God is focused in John 3:16—‘God so loved the world. . . .’” And that introduces a new kind of seeing, a love for the world—the cosmos—that apart from God we don’t have.

So, with Kooser, we can feel a kinship with the inanimate and animal, a birdbath or wheelbarrow, a squirrel or a robin—even a wooly caterpillar. “I came upon you on a sidewalk,/ black as a hyphen slowly crossing a page,/ as if you were trying to connect/ the last word in October with a word in/ the April to come,” he writes, stopping on a Nebraska sidewalk to see his inching neighbor who “looked like a casket being borne/ by a half-dozen soldiers walking in step,” a “casket [ ] draped with the flag/ of your country, orange like a leaf,” taking off his cap and bowing, “as they carried you into the distance.” Just a hyphen. Just a bridge between October and April. Just a bearer of the love that flows from God through us.

What am I thinking about? she might have said but didn’t. Everything. Hyphens. Ditches. Nebraska roads. Tire tracks. Moths and roadside barns and a veiled grill. What a few words will bear across the world. About the love of God shed abroad on every single square inch of all that is.

I look back at Kooser again, sweatered, bifocaled, a single sprig of white hair caught by the Great Plains’ wind, a man in love with the world in all its spareness and extravagance, its shadowed alleys and sun-filled rooms, connecting October to April, our fall with our redemption. That could be me one day, I think—minus the Pulitzer Prize.


Home Calling

04321631-2B2E-4ADB-B030-540785DAD1DC“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. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland.” (Heb.‬ ‭11:13-14‬)

Writing about the young adulthood of Georgia-born Leighton Wilson, early 19th century missionary to West Africa, Erskine Clarke draws attention to the impact of place on personality. “At some deep level of affection and self-understanding, he began to identify with this spot of ground, this particular place along the Black River,” says Clarke.

For Wilson it was in large part the natural world--pine forests, cypress swamps, and cotton fields--yet mixed in with the natural environment were more cultivated influences. “Leighton’s memory and therefore his sense of self became intertwined with this specific place as the place insinuated itself into his most elemental senses: the sound of the night wind in the pines outside his window, the fragrance of new-plowed ground in the spring, the feel of matted pine straw under his feet, the taste of food prepared in a plantation kitchen, the sight of winter smoke rising from home fires, and the light of a winter sun on the forest floor.”

That was the Georgia low country in the 1820s, not suburbia in the 1960s, and yet even the homogenized neighborhood of the 1960s and early 1970s that served as my childhood home had its on particular sights and sounds: the low voices of my parents around the kitchen table drinking coffee and reviewing the day, the lights of passing cars on my bedroom walls, the cicadas trill as the day ebbs, the smell of newly cut grass, the wind in my hair as I rode my red bike to the neighborhood pool.

A few months ago, I went back there. Not content to just drive through, I parked in gravel lot near the overgrown site of what was formerly the neighborhood pool and walked. In some ways it felt that a miniature of what I remembered and I too big to fit the diorama. And as I later told my sister, who asked why I went there, it was underwhelming: I couldn’t quite recapture that sense of what it had been like to have grown up there.

Yet I tried.

Leaving the car, I walked down a grassy knoll to the creek. The footbridge remained, as did the sidewalk to the pool removed many years ago, its location now overgrown by a mature wood lot. The concrete steps to the showers remained. I took them. Green tentacles of ivy snaked across them, concrete edges of the steps had crumbled in places, and edges blurred where dirt had washed over them and rooted grasses--and yet, inexplicably, they remained, going nowhere, landing in a forested glen.

I had a red bicycle I rode the five blocks between my house and the pool, sometimes bumping over the swishing grass of the park, sometimes speeding down the road, helmetless, wind whistling in my ears, crying out to my friend to wait, to wait up.

I removed my sunglasses. I wanted to see it as a boy of eight, bare chested, a shine on my face born of the wonder of the moment. I walked up the stairs and, turning, stood for a moment, closed my eyes and heard the sounds of children yelling and water splashing, smelled the chlorine, heard the sound of showers and chatter in the bathhouse, remembered climbing the fence after midnight one night and taking a swim with a friend.

Turning to leave, I walked through a mowed field that used to be tennis courts, crossed the road, and stared down into what had been a cleared area next to a creek full of minnows and tadpoles, and recalled the echoes of our calls in the bridge tunnels we traversed, like spelunkers. Now overgrown, the pale outline of a trail remained, and yet it was inaccessible. I stared down into a wooded area where my friend and I once built a fort from wood salvaged from a nearby construction site, fully intending to stay overnight. We didn’t.

I followed the road a hundred feet or so to a four-lane parkway that ran behind my childhood home. Stopping behind my house, I looked up at the windows. Gray painted siding was peeling. An old car was parked in the driveway, hoisted on blocks. Patchy and weedy grass licked the brick foundation. My eyes moved across the shuttered windows, following my path from bedroom to bedroom as I moved, as my siblings married and moved on and we were promoted to the next (and better) room, finally resting in the ground floor room with easy access to a door and adventure.

There to the left of the house, on that hill, was where I learned to ride my red bike. After some coaxing, my aunt placed me on it and pushed me down the hill, careening toward the four lane. I crossed our driveway, fell off in my neighbor’s backyard.

Turning the corner of the block, I circled around and stood in front of the walk leading up to my front door. There’s the window over the kitchen sink where my mother prepared our breakfast and dinner every day, day in and day out. As a child I pulled out a bottom drawer and climbed onto the counter to watch her peel and cut potatoes and carrots, snap green beans, mix lard and flour and roll out dough to make biscuits and laid their hand-rounded shapes on a greased sheet to bake.

There’s the double window in the dining room, the table where I wrestled with my homework, where my mother, already tired from her day, endeavored to assist me. On the wall was a picture of an old man praying, head bowed, hands clasped, candle burning, a piece of bread and chalice on the table before him.

Those steps were where I sat and tried without success to rethread the chain on my bicycle. Tears fell, inexplicably, as if riding again with my friends was the most important thing in my life. Seeing me there an older kid in the neighborhood, a bully who had never said a kind word to me, stopped. He fixed my bike and told me it was OK.

Clarke said of Leighton Wilson that his “experience of distant places would always be filtered through these early memories, and his voice, however tempered by other places, always carried the sounds and intonations of a Black River home.”

When my mother wanted to call me in for dinner in those years, she’d lean out the side door of the house, the one off the kitchen, and yell my name at the top of her lungs. I’d hear it no matter how many backyards away I happened to be. And I’d come.



Take Out

61Fg55sCsJL._AC_UY436_QL65_In these pandemic times, we have a well-oiled operation for food gathering. I pull up at the restaurant, click “I’m here,” and within minutes a masked stranger approaches the car. I crack my window a paper-thin virus-inhibiting sliver.

“Steve?”

How about that? He knows my name. Yes, I say, and I open the window a bit wider and wrench our meal from his gloved hands, compacting it as I pull it through the opening. I am thankful beyond measure.

I park in a spot under a tree, for shade and ambience, at the corner of the car park where I can watch drivers, some masked, swivel in. We put down the windows. It’s hellish hot but, hey, God made it and so it’s good, right? I think to myself that it really doesn’t get much better than this: food, good company, conversation, shade, a slight breeze off the Atlantic, some 120 miles east, a table with a view, people at a distance. A bird alights on a tree branch no more than four feet away, beak open. The floor show. He looks at me, mouth still ajar.

“I think they do that to help cool off,” she says.

“Ummm.” I think it’s a ploy, currying favor. I know better. He has a good life here in the penumbra of “my pleasure.” Yet she is most likely correct, as she is the nature watcher; I, lost in my head. He hops onto the hood right in front of me, beak still open. I consider the horn for amusement, then reconsider given others’ sensibilities. Poor bird. She tosses him a french fry. Our pleasure, I prepare to say, but decide against. He’s either blind or ignores the fry as in poor taste, as beneath him. He arcs away.

I find suitable music, something teary and world-weary to make us oh so thankful we don’t live in the song and which makes the food taste even better, while she whips out trays and placemats. We have assorted condiments, neatly stowed in zip lock bags. We’ve gotten good at this. I say grace, obliged to have food, and then it’s game on. Yahtzee. I click the box, “Play with a friend.” That’s how it all began, as friends.

I prefer that she win, and I often tell her so, yet I don’t think she believes me. She is just more competitive than me. And I’m used to losing. Really. I rarely win at games, and I deeply dislike timed games. Too stressful. Or games where eyes are on you. I thought I was alone in this until an office party given by support staff required our participation in a timed, team tournament which required a lot of balloon popping and educated guesswork. It’s unbelievable how nervous one can get about throwing a dart at a balloon in the presence of 25 other people. It could have been the Olympics. Another attorney, Robert, was visibility perspiring at the task, up next in the competition, rattled by the attention. I sympathized with his discomfort. We talked about it. My team lost, of course. Don’t pick me for your team. You’ll lose. Losing is just so much less stressful.

What? I won Yahtzee? That’s grace. God saying you’re lost but now you’re found. I said, “I wish you had won,” and she said, “I wish I had too. Let’s go again.” I don’t exactly remember if she actually said that, but I suspect she thought it. We played again, and she won. Next time she can take a victory lap around the car. She’s still my friend.

“P.S. A pileated woodpecker stopped by here yesterday morning for about half an hour. I am enclosing a chip he threw down from a tree on our front lawn, where he was trying out a hole for size.”

I love that. It’s from a letter by Edmund Ware Smith (“Smitty”) to E.B. White (a/k/a “Chief", or "Whitey"), “Tuesday, 1957,” written between the time of her birth and mine, I think, two middle-aged men writing witty letters to one another. And sending a wood chip in the mail. I thought about that because of the begging bird on the hood just now, who took his open mouth and left.

It’s from a newly published book, Chickens, Gin, and a Maine Friendship, which collects the letters White and Smith wrote to each other between 1956 and 1967. The letters were given to the Skidompha Public Library in Damariscotta, Maine by White in 1980. From there they went into a vault, not to be discovered until September 2018, when a bank clerk pried open the creaking vault and, pfffffffffff, blew the dust off a stack of yellowed envelopes, and tossed them on the desk of former director of development (how much development can there be in tiny Danariscotta, population around 2300?) Torie DeLisle, who, believe it or not, is not a mature 86-year old bespeckled retired schoolmarm but a youngish thirty-something farmer. She wrote the preface to the book, in which she called the letters a “rare and precious gift” twice in five paragraphs. And so they are.

“You gonna take your turn?”

“Sorry. Got distracted.”

“What are you thinking about?”

Chickens and gin. Bar Harbor, Maine. Whales. The aged. Those letters just laying there in the dark for 40 years. My disappearing food. “Oh, that bird. Where’d he go?” I asked.

If you wondered about those proper names, so did I. Skidompha is an acronym of first letters in the names of Skidompha’s library’s founding club members and, according to the library’s website, started its existence above the Charles M. Jones General Store on Main Street in Damariscotta. And that town name, Damariscotta, is an Indian name meaning “river of little fish.” So now you know. Well, the river of little fish caught a bigger fish with these letters, I’ll say.

It takes a little longer for her to eat than me. Well, it takes about ten times as long. That’s because she paces herself, and I don’t. It’s in the genes. Her father could spend 30 minutes on one Taco Bell taco, whereas I can eat one before I knew I had one. Sometimes I look at my shiny clean plate or empty tray before me and wonder what happened.

“He just didn’t enjoy his food as much as you,” she says.

“I’m just passionate, that’s all,” which explains a lot. . .and nothing. I’ve tried slowing down, but it feels like playing a 45 rpm record at 16 rpm speed. And if I have to explain that to you then you’re too young to be reading this.

“Very dark here today--just enough light in the sky to strike a match by,” says Whitey to Smitty on New Year’s Day, 1958, a wonderful description of a nearly pitch dark day and of a time when people carried matches for, as they say, “their matchless friends,” and lighting up after a meal was common. That seems like a pleasant habit, a relic of bygone days, except for the fact that it will kill you. About Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, which White was in the process of revising in 1959, Smith says, “It made me try to write sentences with no words, which its why you haven’t heard from me before now,” recalling Strunk’s famous exhortation spit in exasperation at his thick-headed Cornell students: “Omit needless words! Omit needless words! Omit needless words!”

I’m sorry, that’s enough excitement. I dislike sentences with exclamation marks, which occurs regularly in texts and emails. But it is a direct quote.

Well, we’ve finished the meal and the game. Time to go, I suppose. Yet I like our corner, our tree, and even the bird who has the spunk to openly beg. We might just linger for a while.

Both White and Smith were published in a large, five pound (says Smith) 1965 textbook entitled Values in Literature. Smith summed up their contributions: “ My piece is an honest thing about crawling through a sewer pipe. Yours is an equally miserable thing about hens.”

And you, reader, have had to endure this meager offering about the most mundane of subjects: take out. You can thank me later or just omit these needless words. Just remember: There is nothing so mundane that one can’t write about it. Underneath the mundane, there’s always a bit of magic. . .miserable, magical mundanities.


Today’s News

FA30ACC6-2A69-4AF5-BF22-D4A5134E2C6DLate afternoon light
shines through chinks in the barn,
climbs hay bales at dusk.

Light always gets in, I tell myself. Someone way different than me, and yet not, smiles and says hello as we walk past. People take up brooms and clean glass-strewn streets. She points to the sky, says “Look, that crow has something in its beak, orange,” and I manage to look as it skims a rooftop, passes beyond my seeing. A city worker cleans the sidewalk, looks up to greet us. Unemployment, quite unexpectedly, goes down. Someone planted flowers by the walk. A restaurant founded by Sam and Bo renamed itself Peace & Love. A biker nearly runs into me, then dismounts, says “I’m sorry, I know better.” She sews, I write, the cat sleeps; the sun dips lower in the sky, the moon rises.

“What’s on the calendar for tomorrow?” she says.

“Nothing but an all day appointment with you,” I say, which earns a smile. Light. A pandemic swept in and cleared out my days, baled me out of busyness, interrupted my self-importance, renewed my friendship with our four square where splintered sunlight shines through chinks in the pines.

We get takeout. Park facing a field or wood lot for entertainment, hoping for a cat, bird, swaying pine, rustling leaf, a surprise. It’s happened before. A bit of sunlight nettles its way between the trees that stolid, comfort and reassure. I crack a window, take in a couple inches of air off the Atlantic with a hint of the Gulf. Trays, green placemats, condiments aplenty are summoned, hands held, thanks returned.

Sometimes we play a word game, words from jumbled letters, hewing new brain cells to replace ones we are fast shedding.

“What screen are you on now?” I say.

“Oh, 3679.”

I’m on 29. She works at it, determined; I daydream. She gets six letter words from her six letters; I get two letter words from six letters, like “it” and “so” and, if I get lucky, graduate to “say” or “sno”. No, no, that last one is not a word, I know.

I guess I’m just stupid.

“I like the music it makes,” she says.

“Ummm. . . .What’s that laser thing that just fired at your words?”

“Oh, I get a special word ‘cause I have so many points.” Cause I’m brilliant. Cause I’m on LEVEL 3740.

“Uh-huh.”

Once, a couple weeks ago, we were having a form of takeout--yes, let’s call it that--parked in her now takeout food-infused vehicle, slurping down a box of sugar-encrusted, diet-breaking, but oh-so-sweet Krispy Kreme doughnuts, and she let go a little chink of light. “I like the way you do things,” she said. Just out of the blue. Suddenly, I felt emboldened. I had another doughnut. That comment, buoyed by three doughnuts, powered me all the way home. It doesn’t take much.

On that walk this morning we saw a loon staring pensively into the distance just below the drawbridge, as light played off the water. Thinking about civilization and its discontents, I suppose, or where the next meal was coming from. It flapped away before she could snap a pic.

Tide was up. Reed-covered water sloshed beneath the walkway as cars tracked overhead. Crossing, the world shook beneath our feet. We go down, crossover, take the less-traveled path under the oaks, speed up and pass a doddering millennial couple with a baby in tow, giving a wave as we track round.

People all matter, I remind myself. Dogs matter. The crabs burrowing in the mud matter. Everything matters, I think.

Every dog we see has light in his eyes, strains at their leashes to meet us, to say hello, to sniff and wag and slather, until brought up short by a leash, protesting.

We forgot to pray, or maybe we did pray. Sometimes we are just deep in our own thoughts. Me, I have an inner conversation about what everything means, a running argument sometimes, fierce. Sometimes I think about what’s for lunch.

“Do not love the world or the things of the world,” said John this morning as I squinted at the print of his letter, and then he tells me it’s all passing away anyway. But he’s talking about “the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride in possessions.” Not the marsh, moonlight, mint, or mockingbird that performs its great repertoire each morning at our car park. Not the squirrel that crossed inches from our feet. Not the heron. Not the “pearl sky raining light like hail.” Not the people trying so hard just to figure everything out.

We “were darkness but now we are light in the Lord,” says Paul, whose light falls all around us. No matter where or when you are, no matter how stolid the barn of indifference, no matter what walls we build, light always gets in, climbs up the bales, and, one day, will cover us in its shine.


Allies

IMG_0198“The world is hard to live in, it seems to me, and we need allies. Your house can be a hero, too. And how else could it ever be home, if you did not fall in love with it?”

(D.J. Waldie, in California Romantica)

Like many of you, I have been under near house arrest for weeks. When you are in one place that long, you begin to see things. I’m not hallucinatory, mind you, just super-sensitized to my surroundings, allied with the body of my captor—paint (gray, pollen-sheened), fiber cement siding, pink insulation, two-by-four frame, sheetrock, more paint (egg shell white, improved by whacks, bumps, and stains)—to which I am deeply grateful for bearing the weight of the elements: tornado (narrow miss), earthquake (tremulous, but tame), three-foot snows, freezing rain, and fallen trees, not to mention frigid air and searing sun.

These days we’re having a conversation. I’m teasing words out of sticks and bricks and mortar, listening to the creaks in the flooring, the remains of long-ago conversations, watching the cat soak up the sun that stretches languidly across the floor. Melancholy, my familiar friend, deserts me, and happiness pushes to the front of the line, and I think of Jane Kenyon’s poem, “There’s just no accounting for happiness, / or the way it turns up like a prodigal / who comes back to the dust at your feet / having squandered a fortune far away.” Stay for awhile, I say.

A house adapts and takes on your character, keeps watch and listens to to your voices. Put a bookcase in an empty room, fill it with books, and it beckons, all those words clamoring for attention, whispering once upon a times. A bed, a nightstand, a blanket and chair, and a room becomes somnolent, a sleep aid. Recline and prop a weighty tome against a lap pillow and it whispers sleep, sleep.

Today I meant to make sense of my files, so I opened the drawer and looked down into its recesses. Confused voices emerge. Nags. Chatter of the put-aways. Whines of the forgotten. I close it, make an excuse, take a walkabout and listen elsewhere.

A hallway with doors becomes an adventure; a patio, an invitation; a stoop, meditative; corners, surprises; windows, light falls; a heated oven, a hearth; a sofa, a conversation; a table by the window, a puzzle, hope, rest, thinking-place, challenge, with a soundtrack of birdsong; a now vacant room, a sun catcher, repository of possibilities, and memory of what and who once resided there.

It’s aging. In some places, cracks appear where the wall has separated from the ceiling. High-traffic corners evidence lost paint, marks, and cat dusting. A switch plate reclines slightly from the wall. Well-walked hardwoods testify to chairs pushed back from dinner conversations, soles slapping wood between sofa and refrigerator, children hammering, people partying. Yet no walls have cracked, roofs sagged, or floors collapsed. Yet, anyway. It is enough.

“But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God, not us,” says the Apostle Paul, and I think of Who lives and moves and has his being here, even here, and the One who holds the very atoms together, whose weighty hand keeps us from flying off into space. Who makes a place for us. Who gives us a home. Who inhabits us.

When we rebuilt this house after a fire years ago, one span required a steel beam. Were I an engineer, I might not worry, yet I’m not and I sometimes do. Most of the house is wood, a three-story frame resting on a concrete foundation atop clay. Clay and sticks-stubble with a heart of steel. Sometimes I lie in bed thinking about the weight pressing down on that steel, wood, concrete, and clay—an oaken desk, hundreds of books, grand piano, roof, and all those memories, not to mention gravity that pulls it down, down, into clay that compresses. Sometimes I wonder how it has held up and for a moment feel a twinge of anxiety and wonder if I should lighten its load, slough off a few books, sell some furniture, give up some remembrances.

I don’t think so.

My ally stands. “Here’s a place—a fragile, earthen vessel, admittedly, yet one that will hold you, for now,” it says. And in the night, I whisper thank you to the hero that it is and to our co-belligerents: trees that clap their hands in wind, clay-rooted rocks that shout their praise, the owl and fox and robins and cardinals and every other thing God has made that come alongside and say, we’re here. We’re here with you.


The Kinship of Things

07034AAF-CCF9-4B48-ACAB-2E3CA3A9062CI was away recently.

Sometimes, when we go on vacation or are away for an extended period of time, I feel a twinge of sadness for my house, for all the rooms that are unattended, unread books murmuring on the shelves, walls ready to hear words, flatware in the drawers yearning to be taken up, floors longing to meet feet trodding, windows pining to be looked out, tables awaiting the press of elbows reclining, a reading chair unread, unoccupied. I lock the door behind me and turn away, and I feel the house’s tentacle of need reaching out--need to be loved, to be occupied--and as I walk away I feel a vague sense of betrayal.

Man may be a little lower than the angels, an image-bearer of God, yet there is still a kinship with things.

When I am away, I sometimes think about what is going on in the house. Morning sunlight stretches across a den floor as the sun travels across the sky, and dust particles float suspended in the air before settling softly into the carpet, onto the end table, grasping the slender lamp harps. As the sun rises, the light contracts. A shadow of a cloud darkens the rooms, momentarily. The last glimmers of the sun rest on a chair where I often read, glints through the pines, slips behind a neighbor’s home. Shadows deepen. Night settles and the streetlights and porch lights from other houses illuminate the rooms. A streetlight flickers on. A black cat sets up a neighborhood watch.

Time is passing. The microwave announces hour and minute in blue. Our remaining analog clocks tick, tick, tick, measuring time for no one. Water waits in pipes, ready for taps to open so it can be on its way. The refrigerator condenser fan hums and falls silent, hums again and falls silent. The furnace wakes itself from sleep to blow as needed, though it’s not much needed, and no one says “it’s too hot” or “it’s freezing in here.” The darkened screen of the television flickereth not. Photographs look out on vacancy, call out to no one, smiles frozen. Piano keys await fingers, strings taut and ready. The house waits, through the hours of the night. Tomorrow, it wakes, and does it all again.

Now I’m back.

While I was away, I was reading Amor Towles’s novel, A Gentleman in Moscow. His protagonist, Count Alexander Ilyick Rostov, 30 years old, is confined by the Bolsheviks in 1922 to the Metropol Hotel under orders that if he ever left the hotel he would be shot. The Metropol is a grand hotel—as in The Ritz in Paris or Plaza of New York—yet, still, Rostov is a prisoner, stripped of his freedom and evicted from his spacious suite and exiled to the sixth floor attic rooms. And yet, he finds a way to plumb the beauties of the hotel and its various personalities, and live a full life.

We’re all under a moderate form of house arrest these days—locked in. Our confinement is more social than physical, more a disruption of familiar habits and physical contact than confinement. We chafe at our restrictions. Yet lately I’m reminded that with constraints comes opportunities, even creativity, and a renewed love for things we take for granted.

My infant son, “confined” to a playpen, bed, or room at a young age, given no more than three toys, would create far more than if given ten things to occupy him. My mother, a child of the Great Depression, used to tell me how she and her brothers and sisters milked a day of play out of an old tire and a stick. And given paper and pencil during an eternally long sermon in my childhood, I produced elaborate maps, drawings, and plans for neighborhoods and cities.

So, I’m trying to learn the lesson of constraints. I sit in different places in the house, stare out different windows, to see if I have different inspirations, new thoughts. I listen to squirrels scamper across the roof, raindrops drip-drip-dripping from the eaves, a cacophony of birds who have no fear but sing. I just listen. I take inventory, discover misplaced scraps of writing, old notes, and cards. An old CD, pulled from its shelf and played, transports me--sometimes to the place and time I bought it, even a conversation about it.

I sleep more, dream more, and awake in the night more, listening to a house content to settle and creak its happiness to be filled, to be needed.

I keep my neighbors at a distance, and yet hold them close.

I pray longer. I add prayers to those already etched in the rooms of this house. Old conversations linger and poke at my memory. God fills up the house and always did, so I walk around looking for Him, talking to Him, walking with Him to show me what He sees, what He knows.

I play more music, the sounds waltzing through the rooms, and I sense the house must be glad to be needed, to be occupied, to be found again, to be noticed, to be attended, to be a home.

Sometimes I go outside. I stand in the backyard and look at the house’s roof lines and right angles and windows, its chimney, shutters, and downspouts. It may not be the Metropol or Ritz, but its mine, I think, and looking at it I feel something like love. Then, full up, I go back in and attend to it, thankful for its kinship.


Eating the Past

Predict3Carol doesn’t look a bit like my mother. She wears too much makeup, her cheeks rouge red, her hair too black for natural color. Yet she calls me honey, as did my Mom, and she makes sure I have enough to eat.

Leaving home today, I drove a few blocks to the pinnacle of our neighborhood, a stop sign, and idled there. My friend had bowed out of lunch, with regrets, and I was on my own. I had been thinking about losses that morning, glasses half-empty, and I was pensive, melancholy, not good company anyway.

I miss my Mom. I miss my Dad. I miss my crazy fun aunt. I miss my 20-year old cat, my childhood of tree-forts and creek-wading and capture the flag, my red Schwinn bicycle with the basket and playing cards click-clacking on tire spokes. I miss ball in backyards, walking the block with a friend, laying on the top of my Dad’s blue station wagon and staring at the stars, the cicadas’ song rising and falling.

I’m gladly sad to have these losses and misses and time to contemplate them. I stare at the stop sign, surprised that no one has come from behind as I sit here idling too long in a neighborhood well emptied out of office -bound commuters. “Be still and know that I am God,” I recall from a passage I read this morning. I wait a little longer, then motor off right, answering a calling, asphalt singing on tires, choir-like. “Arise, and eat,” I hear, recalling other words from days ago.

I came here by the window so I can eat meat and vegetables and biscuits like I ate in my childhood home and stare out at people who come here--farmers in blue jeans and ball caps, construction workers with clay-encrusted work boots, state workers with ill-fitting shirts and loosened ties, attorneys in suits sans jackets, and college students eating food from home to remind them of where they came from.

These are my people, even while I know they all have a fatal affliction, a crack in their soul that has led each of them to do something wrong, or even yet, who are still caterwauling wildly through life, bent to no good. Broken. But still, I claim them.

When Elijah was being chased by Jezebel (a great name for a villain), he went off into the desert and, dismissing his servant, lay down under a scrubby tree, depressed. “Lord, it’s enough,” he rasped, his throat dry with dust. “I’m done. Take my life. I’m no better than my fathers.” Angels came and attended him, said “arise, and eat,” and his acedia was swept away under that broom tree. I swallow hard, my throat drying.

“Do you want some more ice tea?” Carol offers. Oh, I do, I do, I tell her. Please. As she tips the pitcher over my glass, I remind her once again of our decades-long acquaintance as she migrated from one restaurant to another, all of the same ilk. “That one? That was a good place to work,” she said. “I just came in one day and he said he was closing--that very day. I guess he just got tired of it.” Lord, it’s enough, I’m done, I imagine him saying. I remember his cigarette burning down in the ashtray next to the cash register, his bark from the kitchen, him locking up his loss that last day.

I am not depressed. Not at all. Just supping with the past. Just retracing a few tracks to remember where I’ve been.

“Be still.” Spiritual tenacity is what that’s about, said Oswald Chambers, inverting the usual understanding of the word to “working diligently on the certainty that God is not going to be worsted.” That’s so British. Unperturbable. Stiff upper lip and all. I can’t identify with that, yet I do look around at my people and sense that hope is somehow mustered in that room--in a child laughing, in men and women who will push away and go back to work, in crops that will be replanted, in another day in the office.

On a gray day like this one, with headlines that portend plague and poverty, when the din of voices shouting from the screens around me causes me to lose my bearings, I come here. I sit still. I wait. I listen to the music of conversation. Take, and eat, says Carol. I mutter a prayer. I take up the wafer of the past. I wash it down with the astringent, sweet liquid of the present. I look out the window of what’s to come. Then, nourished, I push back and do the next thing.

I pay the bill.

[The photo was taken by Ken Liszewski. It was Ken’s TV. The idea for it came from the perpetually creative mind of Dave Danglis, of Pinwheel Creative, in Lima, New York. It was featured prominently in the artwork for the 1999 release of Aliens and Strangers, a compilation of Silent Planet Records artists which, along with Tony Shore, I put together for the label. You can still purchase that compilation of singer-songwriters here.]


Oddities, Thankfully


5F79E29F-2090-4E75-A1E4-E03F67EA5EE2_1_105_c“Give me such philosophic thoughts/ that I can rejoice everywhere I go/ in the lovable oddity of things.”

(An excerpt from “The Prayer of the Elephant,” in Prayers from the Ark, by Carmen Bernos de Gasztold)

My son has been reading a light book entitled Capture Dynamics and Chaotic Motions in Celestial Mechanics. The other day I peeked inside it’s cover, ever desirous of a good story. The first sentence I could make out, though it wasn’t a particularly rousing one, went, “The basic differential equations are defined that we will use throughout the book.” That’s not a strong lead. And then there was something about the “n-body problem.” I then lost the thread of the story, such as it was. From then on there were sentences with strange letters and numbers like this: “a2x(6df/42.4) x (whatintheworldisthis)%€¥^x37.” Also, there were no pictures. I was a wee bit disappointed.

“Dad, what’s that you’re writing?”

“Limericks, son. A bit of haiku.” I lied.

“At least it’s not sad. . . It’s not sad, is it?”

“Oh no no. Just. . .tragedy, comedy, fairy tale. Life. You know.”

“I was afraid of that.”

I asked him to explain Chaos Theory one evening at bedtime; I genuinely wanted to know. I was familiar with a form of that theory from law school where it was the unstated but understood governing principle. Chaos is fundamental to legal practice--indeed, the profession depends upon it--but it went differently here.

I’ll say. Before my eyes got heavy, we had passed the moon and were somewhere in the hinterland of the universe, out beyond predictability, near chaos, where things come undone. Apparently, from what I recall, the goal is not to enter chaos with your spacecraft but navigate as close as possible in order to leverage its effect to propel you forward.

But these are, we agreed, lilliputian differences, of bare consequence. There’s not much difference between lawyers and rocket scientists. The delivery is different. Both can be combustible. Both find opportunity in near chaos.

“Is there a plot, some kind of narrative or story in your book?”

“Sure. It’s step by step, a description of a process.”

I nodded. I changed the subject. “We don’t know what gravity is, do we?” Or, for that matter, I thought, why a number divided by zero is undefined. Mysteries. Oddities. He acknowledged as much. We’ve ridden that horse before. I won't bring that up again.

“Let’s stick with chaos, ok?” he says.

I then left him there in his hibernaculum, returned to bed and book, to a story set by the River Thames, to a saturnine, traditionally built, and fulsome bedmate curled in a ball at my feet, eyes channeling the far reaches of the galaxy.

The book, Diane Setterfield’s novel, Once Upon a River, centers on a puzzling occurrence in pre-Industrial Revolution England, a young girl who dies and then comes back to life. Stories and deeper mysteries ripple out from that event. I alternate that story with poems from the Polish poet Anna Kamienska, collected in Astonishments. (I didn't know who she was either, until a week ago.) They too circle mysteries. I like this one:

How to depart and not thank
animals and most of all the cat
for being so separate and for teaching us
with its whole body the wisdom of focus

I extend my foot a bit, give the bit of fur at bed’s end a slight provocation. A bit of animal enrichment, I opine.

Just as before a wedding I’ll have no time to thank you
all corners and radiators
I thank every spoon
God bless you since who else would bless you.

I think of all that dark matter miles above my head, extending into infinity. All that stuff that we don’t know how to define. Thank you. All those planets spinning for who knows what, mostly unseen to our largest eyes on sky. Thank you. All the spoons in the drawer downstairs, even the bent ones. Thank you.

All those gray squirrels asleep in leafy nests high in the trees and the mental maps of all the places they have hidden nuts dancing in their wee brains. The fox and deer that move silently in the deep night. The owls who call out, the HVACs that hum and whirr, the street signs that name places for no one watching.

And you I thank for knowledge
fragile tea-cup
you who taught me how to depart
There are things worth more than we ourselves

I did ask him what an “n-body” was during the bedtime story. I forget what he said. I was trying hard to listen, but. . .

“Are you writing a blog in your head again?” he said. “You know you can never fly a plane, don’t you? You'd be looking out the window dreaming up something and crash.”

I smiled. Flying is just a metaphor.

“Oh, and I didn’t actually say half that stuff you’re writing in your head.”

“That’s called literary license, son. Writers do that all the time. Besides, it’s my story.”

I left him with his book of formulas, returned to bed, readjusted the cat, switched off the light, and lay there in the dark matter considering chaos and other oddities.

And now depart all of you along with a crowd of holy statues
I've had enough of you and enough of thanking
The silent night looks at us with the eye of the abyss
What are we in that dark pupil

I sighed.

Thank you, light. Bed. People everywhere. Chaos. Oddities.

God.



That Infant Disturber of the Peace

“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace but a sword” (Matt. 10:34b)

In a season when we say, “Peace on earth,” Jesus says, “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” He goes on to say that he will set families at odds, that if we love our families more than him, we are not worthy, says that if we lose our lives for his sake, we will gain our lives. Writing about these hard words, Oswald Chambers says, “Jesus Christ came to send a sword through every peace that is not based on a personal relationship to himself.”

In short, every sense of well-being and security not based on a relationship with Jesus will be wrecked by a God who knows that our own glory is only in knowing him. Dying to self—to what I want, desire, and need—and living unto God is the door to life, to abundant life. Be of good cheer, Jesus says. Then, take up your cross. Die. His burden is easy.

But that was this morning when the house was quiet and you could think, when your thoughts had room to drift out of your head and down quiet hallways, settle onto stairway landings, rest in vacant spaces, sit on the sills of windows. You’re at the mall trying to squeeze your SUV into an available space marked C, for confident or perhaps conceivable, and you had to inhale to slip through the slender opening between your door and the car and were thankful that you were still trim enough to squirm through. And you thought you were done shopping, but there was that one item you needed. And then you remembered another thing you needed while sitting at the stoplight, and you wrote it on the back of a gas receipt stuffed in the cupholder. But you lost the paper in the crevice made for tiny people hands between the seat and the console. You thought a bad word, but at least you didn’t say it, today.

You bought a Cinabon, just to soak up frustration, though you know you shouldn’t have, and besides, it’s Christmas, almost, you remind yourself. Sitting there eating it, slowly, you remembered the squirrel you saw at lunch yesterday deftly navigating the thin edge of the black fence behind your home carrying an oversize pine cone, like a tight-rope walker with a balance beam, stopping to strip away the husk to get at seeds and how, once down, he stopped and looked at you, dead on. Like he said, “What? What? This is what I do.”

Nothing bothered the squirrel. Not the screeching circular saw at the home being constructed behind me. Not the hammers arresting silence. Not the blond real estate agent pacing back and forth on the unfinished patio, cell phone in hand, barking at someone, gesticulating, while the cement churned and workers looked on. Not the whine of a motorcycle on the avenue. Not the 747 passing overhead.

You just remembered the second item you needed, pushed back from the table, joined the throng of shoppers humming along to “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.”

It’s said that the common ground squirrel can bury up to 1000 nuts and, remembering where each one is, dig them up later for a meal. That doesn’t sound common but extraordinary. Yet I suspect they lose a few. I have seen them scurrying about in the pine straw, all a titter about their lost nut. “I know I put it out here,” I can almost hear them say, “and yet, it’s not here.” They move on but then circle back. “I may have missed something,” they say.

I may have missed something, I think. I forgot to buy something. Someone will be forgotten. Someone in my extended family. A child. No one will say anything, but they’ll remember me as the uncle who forgot. You put your hand to your head, and not softly, as if the percussive effect may jar loose a memory.

My wife told me that a woodpecker has an area in its head behind its beak that acts as a shock absorber to his intermittent head-banging. I don’t know. There may be a reason why he (not to be sexist, but it seems like a man thing) is banging his head on an aluminum gutter. But I’m glad of it. The other morning a woodpecker was working out on my neighbor’s metal gutter, like a rivet gun, as if it might yield an insect, but won’t. Perhaps he was frustrated: it was one of those days when nothing seems to work, to come to fruition, when there’s nothing to point to as achievement. He may have forgotten something.

I may have forgotten something. And then there are a lot of “what ifs.”

What if, when I finish here, another Suburban has parked next to me and I cannot get in the door?

What if the parking garage collapses?

What if my kids are smarter than me? (Wait a minute. . .)

I worry about things, but I needn’t have. When I return to my car there is a Fiat parked next to me in the shadow of my side mirror, leaving ample room for me to slip in, settle into the seat, close the door, recline my seat, and close my eyes. Just rest a minute before I get going, I think.

Only I just remembered another item I forgot.

I thought that word again.

I was going to wrap this little journey up nicely, circle back to Oswald Chambers, mention the squirrel and woodpecker again. But I forgot where I was going with this. Only thinking back about those hard things I read this morning, about what Jesus said, I see a little more of who the baby Jesus really was, that Infant Disturber, that One who brings peace yet disrupts every false peace. It was like a sword in the stone of my heart.


Door of Destitution

FBEDB30B-8BD6-48D5-A021-70E8BD90B31BThis morning I opened the window in my office just an inch or so to better hear the rain, tapping on the shingles, dribbling down the tree, its steady percussion a soothing music seeping in my room, reminding me that I am no more than an inch from the elements.

In my personal worship time, I become a scribe. I write facts, lessons, and applications in a nonstandard size journal that my daughter bought for me in Johannesburg, South Africa—round, full letters spilling across the page. “See what large letters I write to you as I use my own hand,” said the Apostle (Gal. 6:11), and like a Braille maker I bear down to impress, to leave my mark. “This is the sign of genuineness in every letter of mine; it is the way I write” (2 Thess. 3:17‬b), he says, and so, apostle, disciple, I make my mark, blue the page with tilting print that marches, soldiering across the blue line.

The rain has stopped, left a sheen on the tree bark of the maple out my window. Beads of water cling to branches. The wind lifts what leaves hang on; periodically one lets go, sashays on air currents to the mottled ground below. Gathered with others there, destitute, they await what’s next.

“We have to enter into His Kingdom through the door of destitution,” says Oswald Chambers, once again his words stretching across time and space. I imagine the disciple writing those words in a wood shack in a dusty desert camp near Cairo, Egypt during World War I, where he served as a YMCA Chaplain, men milling about in the lull before war. “The greatest blessing spiritually is the knowledge that we are destitute,” he writes. “We have to enter into His Kingdom through the door of destitution.” A dry wind rubs against the building, and fine sand has seeped through window cracks and door jambs. He brushes it away from his paper.

It’s raining again, God’s cleansing. Living things rise up out of the earth. Trees lean over, gather, conspiring for their winter work. “Give praise with psalms that tell the trees to sing,” writes poet Anne Porter, and I put my finger on the window pane, the glass cold, and wish them songs. But only a dog barks a psalm of complaint. I draw back, lay down my pen, turn the pages of the journal back—October, September, August—and feel the heat of summer sizzle from its leaves. August 22: “I need to pray God into all that I do.” August 7: “Pray about everything—never fear, but love.” And in the heat of July, the fire of resolve: “In my writing, push back against the antichrist, against the spirit of the world, saying ‘Christ has overcome, Christ rules, Jesus is coming soon.’”

Destitute. These applications written in earnest mock me. I have nothing in my hands. Even my pen will run dry, the journal pages crumble, dust to dust.

I entered the door behind him, closed the desert behind. The latch clicks, and the disciple-soldier turns in his chair and looks at me. Our eyes meet. “We have to realize that we cannot earn or win anything from God; we have to receive it as a gift or do without it,” he offers softly. I hang my head.

A song is rising from the forest floor. Destitute leaves, decaying ever so slowly, quietly obey, do their work, with promise of the day they will rise again, be made new. I look down at the last two words in my journal, just written, the ink barely dry: “Christ alone.” There’s a very faint period after the words, tentative, as if that phrase is pushing forward, awaiting more. I put down my pen, turn to go, look back.

And he smiles.



Thy Kingdom Come


5FD145FC-6696-42A9-962F-45F5BBA6B43DAt the end of that day—Labor Day—a spray of quickly vanishing sunlight bathed the side of a new home constructed behind us. Falling so quickly, I can watch a diagonal shadow creep up the house wall, the sky’s blue deepen, the sun itself dropping, squeezed between the pines. And now, twilight settles in. The cicadas’ song swells and ebbs.

For many people summer ended with the close of that day. They’ll sputter back into their driveways by early evening, sunburned, put the grills away, clean up, and figure out what to do with the rest of their lives. Tomorrow is a workday for most, an odd Tuesday that feels Monday-like, and the sense sets in that the next day will be the same. And the next. And the next. And the little summers of the weekend may come too seldom, like em dashes betwixt our sentences, punctuating the little dramas of our lives.

But wait. This is beginning to sound like a country song. Before you know it, the truck will break down, the dog run off, and Ruby will take her love to town. There’s more to it, right?

Sure there is.

Walking this morning, I made note of the operation of the second law of thermodynamics. I don’t really know anything about that particular law, even if I am a lawyer, but I know it has to do with how things move toward entropy, or disorder, over time, and disorder is something lawyers created. Well, actually Satan did. But let’s not quibble between taskmaster and henchmen.

Sidewalks were cracking. Untended yards grew weedy and unkempt. A carport held a virtual junkyard, spilling out into a mildew-stained driveway. On some homes, paint peeled or faded. Someone parked mattress and furniture castoffs behind a strip shopping center. Dumpsters yawned in the early morning sun, chasms of detritus.

Yet all this is external. The saddest entropy is what lies behind the walls. Busted-up families. Opioid addiction. An unraveling moral code. But there’s more to it, right?

Sure there is.

We let a few prayers snake up over the trees that lined the walk, got off a few shots into enemy territory, whispered “thy kingdom come.”

That prolific English theologian, N.T. Wright, reminds us that “thy Kingdom come,” that second petition of The Lord’s Prayer, isn’t about some otherworldly place but about the here and now. “Earth is our world, our space,” says Wright. Think of the picture of the kingdom coming in Revelation, he says. “It isn’t about humans being snatched up from earth to heaven. The holy city, new Jerusalem, comes down from heaven to earth. God’s space and ours are finally married, integrated at last. That is what we pray for when we pray ‘thy Kingdom come.’”

It’s dark now. Yet windows of light appear in the darkness, shine rectangular pools of light on lawns and forest floors, like promises of a rising sun, reminders of the day.

I saw other things on our walk: Manicured lawns. Tended flower gardens with blooms spilling through fence slats. A man running toward us smiled and waved. A cross walk signal that worked. Streetlights that burned and flickered off in the new day.

And our little prayers--just murmurings above the din of the world--took rest with others at the altar of a Father who answers every plea, every thy kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven.


Joy

ABDDFA50-88B0-479B-9A88-2ABC9BB06696“Joy, which was the small publicity of the pagan, is the gigantic secret of the Christian.”

― G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy

Flying west from the coast we were silent, each in our own thoughts, the asphalt singing under our wheels. A few drops of rain were cast from the sky in some eastern county, leftovers, quickly brushed away by the slap of the wipers. I tilt the visor to ease her view when the sun presses through, watch her from the corner of my eye paging through a magazine, bright pictures shining in her eyes, her attention rapt.

We lit out from home three days ago. Our passenger, corralled and cabined, kept a wordless watch in the back seat. Only an occasional, soft complaint escaped her lips, more reminder of her presence than cavil. Once reassured, quiet, she settled into an uneasy rest.

Our plan was as always. Go to where the road ends. Dock. Covertly hike the sky, our rattling porter announcing our coming. Speak to no one, firstly. Unlax into the spell of habitation. Lay claim to the waters. Bask in the Sun. Let words fall over us. Feast. Be of good cheer. Take heart and put courage in each other. Go out among the English, finally. Watch the sky. Let waves break over our minds. Sit together. Roll the dice. Ink letters with the smooth point of a pen, impressing words on pages, mouthing their sounds. Draw from the well of memory. Bask in the Son. Row gently, softly, steadily across the waters.

One fair day we spied a heron in the long grass, alone. Stealthily we rowed the shallow brackish pools of Middle Marsh, our oars windmilling through the salt air. Below, oysters resting in their beds looked up at us, their pale hearts winking, their muckish home sliding past. A finger trailing water plowed ripples that lapped up on reeds.

Half-way in, people, like aliens, surprise us. We hale them as they slide quickly past, leaving us alone. We meander, thrust our noses through sloughy isthmuses until freed we enter open water. At end, we turn, let the tide carry us back out, as she wonders aloud where the water has traveled from, how far it has come to be with us.

How far He has come to be with us, I think.

A day later, we let words escape into the air above the marsh as we walk round its perimeter, hearts beating time. We offered thanks, registered complaints only to withdraw them, made supplication. She greeted man and woman along the way, as I did, sometimes. At the bridge she stopped to peer over, as she always does, as my feet itch to go, go is what they know. But I stop, because she sees better, sees more: High tide. White heron. Wind tickling water. Boats, lifted, basking in the sky. Happiness incarnate in canine cover.

Sometimes, leaving, I consider turning around and going back. “Do you want to go back?” I say. She smiles. “Of course.” But I don’t, the longing unrequited.

The rain has started again. The wipers, unbidden, do their work. Soon the water will be gone. Soon the rain will end. Soon all will be wiped away. Soon, we’ll turn into the long drive of home.


Freaky, Freaky People

8B9937D6-6217-459F-B98E-450EC8C16E03In 1971, Canada’s psychedelic rockers Five Man Electrical Band had a top ten hit entitled “Signs.” I had the record, both the 45 RPM disc and LP on which it appeared, entitled “Goodbyes and Butterflies,” and my friend and I regularly drew it from its slip-sleeve and spun it over and over on the mustard-colored portable Zenith with the drop-down turntable that I had in my basement bedroom. I was 14, on the cusp of the teenage years, and the words of the song produced some empathy in me for the then ubiquitous “hippies,” a word often used in the pejorative in my home.

I missed Woodstock. I missed the Summer of Love. I missed the civil rights milestones, like Selma. I was born too late. That’s not something to lament and yet, oddly, I do.

“Sign said: Long haired freaky people need not apply,” sang guitar player Les Emmerson, going on to address the put down the narrator faced in trying to get a job, eat in a restaurant, or walk onto someone’s property--all because of hair length. And then there were all those signs saying “do this, don’t do that, can’t you read the signs?” Not cool, not cool at all, and we nodded in assent to this sticking it to “the man.”

Hippie was not a term that had any currency in high school. It was “freak.” The long- and frizzy-haired guy and his chick hang-on in the black cape--a mysterious couple that always seemed to be loitering under the trees while we sat in geometry class sweltering in then non-air conditioned rooms--were simply freaks, and while we treated them with some derision, as weird, we also quietly respected them for their independence. We labored over Pythagoras’ Theorem; they, well, over each other.

My teacher stood at the window, hands on her hips. “Look at them,” she said. “Disgusting.” She shook her head. No, I thought, just sadly weird. Respectfully sad in a way I could not articulate.

I grew my hair long, bought a pair of moccasins, wore ripped jeans. I thought it gave me outsider status and dared to think I might be cool. Yet I declined the regular offers of joints and LSD by high school pushers. I wasn’t a freak. I was an imposter, a wannabe; grace kept me from ever dropping out and turning on.

Author Flannery O’Connor once said that “[t]o be able to recognize a freak, you have to have some conception of the whole man, and in the South the general conception of man is still, in the main, theological.” In 1960 when she wrote those words, she was pre-hippie, though not pre-freak. Even then, in a South she described as “hardly Christ centered,” she recognized that it was “Christ-haunted,” adding that “[t]he Southerner, who isn’t convinced of it, is very much afraid that he may have been formed in the image and likeness of God.” She said “the freak can be sensed as as a figure for pure essential displacement.”

I know O”Connor didn’t have in mind the freaky kids in my high school, the non-conformists. And yet like the grotesque characters of O’Connor’s stories, they too were displaced, and as we had some sense of the whole man, we knew they were outsiders. Off. Weird.

Even at 14 I understood that I was made in the image of God, even if I did not know what that meant. I had read Genesis 1 more than any other passage of scripture, and I accepted as a given that it was true, that at least I was made and not a cosmic accident, no matter what we were told in science class. Made for what I wasn’t sure. But I felt confident that the displaced, freaky couple under the trees were somehow “off,” that they had lost a reference point for life beyond themselves. That went up in smoke somewhere under the trees where the wind snapped the flagpole rope and, carrying the slightest odor of marijuana, wafted in the open windows. These latter-day beatniks had some attraction for me, yet I was very much afraid that I had been formed in the image of God and not in an image of my own making. I was still trying to figure that out, the freak tugging at me. But God had set up camp in me.

Oswald Chambers once said, “When I stand face to face with Jesus Christ and say—‘I will not,’ He will never insist; but I am backing away from the re-creating power of His Redemption.” In high school “I will not” had some attraction to me. The freaky, freaky people in the corridors of my school, the outsiders, were a society of “I will nots,” and their anti-establishment mantra appealed.

For whatever reason sometime during my junior year I began reading Christian books--missionary stories on my mother’s bookshelves, Jay Kesler’s “I Never Promised You a Disneyland,” Barclay’s commentaries, and InterVarsity’s now defunct HIS Magazine--all of which brought down into reality the Bible stories and sermonizing I heard as a kid but which seemed like fairy tales about some far-away place and not my life.

Perusing the record store bins one afternoon, I found a treasure: Larry Norman’s “In Another Land.” Norman was dressed in black with shocking near white shoulder-length hair on a background of what looked to be another planet. A genuine Jesus-freak.

When I played it at home, when I heard Norman sing, “He’s an unidentified flying object,” all I could think was “wait until the freaky, freaky people hear this.” Just wait. That did it for me.


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 Kolster’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 Kolster’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.

Kolster’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 Kolster 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 Kolster’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.