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Steve West
I'm an attorney, writer, and house concert promoter
Interests: walking, nature, and writing, reading (both good fiction and non-fiction), listening to music (particularly power-pop and alt-country), travel (particularly in the west)
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If there is any heir to the sun-washed California folk-pop of Seventies supergroup America, it is Jeff Larson. The Bay Area-based singer-songwriter has put heart and soul into an avocation of music, drawing on the support of a close circle of musical friends that includes Gerry Beckley and Dewey Bunnell (of America), as well as Jeffrey Foskett (Brian Wilson, The Beach Boys). His latest release, Close Circle, is no exception. Musically, the album is built around his effortless guitar playing and soaring voice. What saves the music from being overly mellow is the mix of instruments and diversity of sound, varying tempo, mixing in ukulele, dobro, and mandolin, and offering some spunky electric guitar to provide a more organic root. That instrumentation, and the beautifully layered background vocals supplied by Beckley and Bunnell, among others, provides a rich tapestry of sound, one following of the echoes of that West Coast Seventies sound. Lyrically, the songs also refresh the soul. You won’t find angst or blood -on-the-tracks confession, and yet the generally upbeat music accompanies lyrics that cut a swath through a normal life — which is not unusual in that Larson works a regular 9-5 job like most of the rest of us. From the plea of “Rescue” (“will you rescue me/ when darkness comes”), to a reminder to keep the faith even when you are knocked down by some trial (“Even When the Rain Comes”) to sending a child off to college (“Goodbye Ocean Street Beaches”) to trying to connect with an old friend (“Arizona Again”), he writes of experiences that are universal and, thus, ones we can all connect with. Even though there may be an underlying melancholy or struggle, the music — largely bereft of minor chords — keeps the listener on an upward tack, encouraging us to “keep it open. . . even when the rains come.” Spend a little time letting this music wash over you. Take a drive on a sunny Fall day and let it help give you the “Lay of the Land,” a kind of sonic landscape for remembrance and promise and hope. Get it on Amazon or iTunes. Continue reading
Posted Oct 4, 2014 at Out Walking
When I came home tonight, I was greeted only by the cat who, characteristically, greeted me at the door, turned her back to me, and went to the other room, throwing herself on the floor as if to say, “oh, it’s only you.” The house was quiet. My wife is at a women’s retreat, so I have the run of it. But it’s no fun to run alone. I ate dinner alone. . . well, not so alone. Callie, our fulsome feline, lounged languidly on the floor at my feet. The leftover pizza was quite good. . . well, chewy, actually. . . aged, really. . . which makes me eat more slowly, chew more, and eat less. . . well, a little less. . . well, perhaps not less but, you see, it is a thin crust, and nourishing, as they say, as you say when you are really eating something not so great for you but nonetheless not terrible but bad enough to need justification. So, rather than fill the air with TV voices and bask in the poor fellowship of the LED, I was quiet. I was so quiet I could hear myself chew. It’s not really pleasant to hear people chew. So I took to talking to Callie, remarking that “It looks like rain,” sighing intermittently between bites, asking her if she enjoyed her dinner (no comment), making small talk, all the while knowing that “I’m just the human that will do while Mom is gone,” knowing that I will have to do. And so will she. Because other than her sister Lilly, who is barely here anyway, who I rarely glimpse for more than a second as her backside rounds a corner — there is no one else. After dinner I read a short devotion, as is our habit. Habit persists even when there is no “our.”I started reading it to myself and then thought, what the heck, I’ll read it to the cat. It was on prayer. It was called “Get Up. . . and Pray.” There is the part in it where Anne Graham Lotz turns to the reader and says — “What about you? How’s your prayer life? Are you rushing through your prayer time? Neglecting it all together?” — and I turn to Callie, as if to ask her, and her eyes are blank, like mirrors, like big question marks looking back at me, saying softly, “What about you?” Chastened, I resolve that I will pray that night, for my friend who is writing a book to know what book, for my wife, for my children, for the nation, for the entire world. To infinity and beyond! It’s like the declarations you boldly make about dieting or reading more books or writing more real letters or genrally getting your act together. I’ll be at it for a awhile, I know, but it’s so quiet, and there’s time, and I can take all the time I need and. . . But my 91-year old aunt called. Even though she had the usual complaints, I was glad to hear from her. She self-describes herself sometimes (no, every time) as “not a medicine taker,” as having “a little bit of dementia,” and often tells me the same stories which she laughs at and which I laugh at too, again, and again, and again. She’s lonely. At least I have the cat. And I have the absences by which I am warmed. Children at college, their rooms still echoing their presence, the left behinds reminding me of all they did in their sojourn here and pointing outward to what will come. “Zoo Story” promises the book on my daughter’s shelf. “Reach for the Skies” says Richard Branson’s book in my son’s room, number two in a stack of ten, right after the one on Mars. There you go. And when your spouse is temporarily absent, halls and walls and sitting places still resonate with dangling conversations, impressions formed by years of talk and movement lit by the slanted rays of sunlight that filter through the pines. (Callie is disgusted at this poetic prattle, and leaves the room.) Jesus said “the son of man has no place to lay his head,” and yet he exaggerated for effect, didn’t He, employed hyperbole to show that life here is not what meets the eye, that Home is somewhere and somehow Else, that we are aliens and strangers and sojourners in this place, in our homes, even with the people that form our family. Still, I like it here. Even alone. Continue reading
Posted Oct 3, 2014 at Out Walking
Folks, I regret to say that we are maximum capacity for Saturday's concert. I often have a couple cancellations, so please join our waiting list by emailing me at steve.westAToutwalking.net. Continue reading
Folks, if you have been procrastinating, better stop. We only have 13 seats left. We expect a sell out. Head on over to the site HERE and reserve now. Don't miss a great house show with a great band! And check out this frag of a movie on the B2C tour of a couple years ago. Continue reading
When my daughter was in first grade, one of the things we did as a part of a merit badge was to catalogue all the trees and flowers in our backyard. Before then I was vaguely aware that we had pines and hardwoods, but I couldn't have told you anything else. I didn't know them. But when we finished our walk around the yard, armed with an Audubon Guide to Trees, I felt like I was more at home, like I better knew my place. In speaking about our new life in Christ, Oswald Chambers says that "The first thing God will do is force the interests of the whole world through our hearts. The love of God, and even His very nature, is introduced into us. And we see the very nature of Almighty God focused in John 3:16 --- 'For God so loved the world. . . .'" The breadth of this claim, which is not anthropocentric, is clear from the Greek for world, kosmos, that is, the human and non-human universe. So this astonishing claim means the love of God for the entire creation, the universe, is poured through our hearts. Yet the universe is an abstraction, too big for even the large-hearted Mother Teresas of the world to love, much less the small-hearted like me. Start with a tree. Start with the place where you find yourself. Walk around the neighborhood, or just next door, and ask God to help you love your place and people. Be mentored by a book like Annie Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, by her deep attention to a mountain and stream by which she lived. Slow down. Drive to work with the windows down (or, if you're lucky, the top down) so that you hear and feel the place around you, so you can let life in your four-wheeled world. Cultivate Dillard's attention to the peopled places we inhabit. I am so poor at this, so near-sighted. This is a precursor to the "faithful presence" the authors write about in The New Parish: How Neighborhood Churches Are Transforming Mission, Discipleship, and Community," a book which seeks to root ecclesial life within the mutual concerns of the neighborhood, within "the new commons." They propose that the myth of individualism and "living above place" have fragmented the church. They call us back to what Chambers speaks of, the channeled love of Christ for the world, starting in our place. One of the ways the authors of The New Parish suggest doing this is by "learning to listen to what it is, not what you have assumed it to be or even what you want it to become." So we might ask who are we, and what is this place? To know the answers to those questions will likely reveal potentialities, as in who are we in this place, what could we in this place become? That gives new eyes to someone out walking. And indeed the authors of The New Parish counsel a prayerful walking in the neighborhood, an attention to what is there, a gratefulness, and a lifting up of the place and people to God. I confess that in all my walking I have done too little of this, having been more on a pilgrimage of the mind than developing a love for my place, more intent on getting somewhere, both literally and mindfully, than in taking the time to stop and talk to my neighbor, to listen to the stream under the bridge, to pay attention to the mockingbird. We have schooled ourselves in living above our place, flitting about in a virtual space of social media, not landing in the dirt of human experience. And for Christians, this has not been of much concern, at least not in its placelessness. Isn't our home, our place, up there in Heaven? Not exactly. As Len Hjalmarson reminds us in a new book, No Home Like Place: A Christian Theology of Place, "the Biblical story is not about going to heaven when we die: it's about heaven and earth becoming one: God's purposes in creation being fulfilled. The final great image in the bible is of that planet-sized garden city descending to (and merging with) earth, accompanied by the words, 'God's dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them' (Rev. 21:13 TNIV)." So, while out walking, we better be mindful. The place to which we go will bear in it all the true and good and beautiful of this place in which we dwell. If I won't stop for the trees, won't take time to know them, it's doubtful I'll stop for my human neighbors either. God help me be mindful, and not only for a merit badge, this time. Continue reading
Posted Sep 21, 2014 at Out Walking
With less than one week until the concert, tickets are going fast. And now this: By exclusive arrangemeent, this big-hearted band will make available to EVERY attendee a FREE digital download of their 7-song Live 1999 EP. So don't waster any time. Seats are limited. Reserve now right here! Continue reading
In one week we'll have the pleasure of hosting Burlap to Cashmere in concert. That's Saturday, September 27th at 8:00 PM. Are you coming? A couple years ago, Christianity Today, in a positive review of their last album, compared this band to "Folk-pop with world music; compare to Paul Simon, Mumford and Sons, Gipsy Kings." Fair enough. But put all that together in one sound: acoustic sensibility, great songwriting, and ethic sounds. Then you have something unique. And as much music as I listen to, B2C always sounds fresh and unique. I hope you will come. It beats sitting around watching TV on a Saturday night. Just watch this. Get more details and reserve a seat here. Continue reading
I appreciate an artist or band with a strong work ethic and perseverance. And that's really true of Burlap to Cashmere, a band together now for nearly two decades. This video showcases a song off their debut Nineties album, so, yes, they are a bit younger. And yet the sound is the same. You can see them in my house on Sept. 27th. If you act quickly. I really want to give these guys a warm North Carolina welcome, so please reserve now. Bring some friends. As always, I make a money-back guarantee. I can do that because I can't imagine anyone being disappointed by this group of fine musicians and people. For all the details, and to reserve click HERE. Continue reading
A while back, after the release of Burlap to Cashmere's 2nd album, I wrote this blog post. Here's a little bit of it: These are guys you want to invite over for a meal, take home, keep around for awhile, guys obviously in love with making music, enjoying being with one another. Fronted by Delopolous and his cousin, Johnny Philippidis, with a beat laid down by long-time friend Theodore Pagano, this is family music, soaked in the sounds of the Mediterranean, mixed with a little Cat Stevens and Simon and Garfunkel, and simmered in the stew of what I imagine to be a big, lovable, sometimes loud Greek family, with cryptically profound lyrics that won't leave your head. So, I like them. I think you will too. But if you want to see and hear their "orchestrated love song," you'll need ot reserve a seat. . . soon. For more information and to reserve, go HERE. And just listen to this video! Continue reading
Beautiful. I love this song. Just let it wash over you, like a little Simon and Garfunkel. B2C isn't always this mellow, but I am thankful for this reflective song. But the point is, you need to see them live. You need to be in our home on September 27th. You need to meet these guys up close, personal. Give this a viewing. And then go here and reserve your seats. How about now? Continue reading
If you're like me, you procrastinate. And then, it's too late. Don't wait to book your seat for Burlap to Cashmere. These guys are the real deal, and I cannot quite believe they will be in my house (ok, a little bit of hero-worship here, I'll admit). They are that good. I found a little bit of an interview with lead singer and writer Steven Delopolous that intrigued me. He said: As a band, Burlap To Cashmere has never been about an agenda. But there’s always been a story. There’s always been something mystical behind it that all we can do as human beings is listen. So if you go back to the Old Testament, a lot of those prophets were not perfect people. They were not perfect people. David was not a perfect man. I don’t know if you’ve heard, but he was a mess. They all were. But what made them different from the rest was that they listened and they expressed from what they heard. I think what makes this band a spiritual band and the reason why we do fit into the evangelical, Christian circuit is because we’re not too far off the tree. I’m a Greek Orthodox Christian. I hopefully do as much listening as my evangelical friends do and hopefully express it. To answer your question, we don’t have an agenda. We don’t say that we’re this or we’re that. We try not to wear any labels at all. I liked hearing that, as no one likes to be hit by an agenda. Let it flow naturally through a story. That's what you'll get at a B2C concert. Read more of that here. Also, check out a video of these guys in their younger days playing "Basic Instructions" at the largest Christian music Festival in the country, Creation. It's incredible. They still play the song, although they'll have to take it down a notch in the house. Sorry! Check out the full details on the concert on the main page here. And please help me pass the word along by sharing ths post or email with others. Can you believe they are coming? I can't. Continue reading
Whenever I read the story of Joshua — the marching silently around the city seven times, the blowing of the horns, the shouts, the walls falling down — I can’t help but think of that Eighties rock classic, “The Walls Came Down,” by The Call, a song written by the late Michael Been. Musically, the song enacts the sense of impending destruction, the falling of walls. And while Been may have been taking predictable (and perhaps simplistic) pot shots at the military-industrial complex as the genesis of wars, I suspect there’s more to it than that; it, after all, just a three and one-half minute song. While written before the Berlin Wall came down, it seems to fit that event so well. More than that, it points to an apt metaphor for divine agency: Jericho’s walls, which excavations indicate may have been as much as four and a half feet in thickness, fell not because of soldiers, horns, or shouts, but because God willed it. Just so, He makes other declarations, knocks down other walls, as Julie Miller once sang, “Walls of fear and walls of doubt/ Walls of pride can’t keep Him out/ He walks through walls/ He walk through walls” (from “He Walks Through Walls, 1991). God is on the move. Nothing can stand in the face of divine agency. The shout given by the Israelites was one of faith. God had already declared victory. They only gave voice to it. That God gave them victory was pure grace, a fortified city given into their hands. It would be a false reading to say that their shout caused the wall to fall flat. God did not say “I will give” but “I have given.” But perhaps the military analogy puts you off, or the destruction that happened afterward. So, focus here: What is our shout of faith? What is it that God has declared about our lives? Somehow it’s here I am compelled to get it wrong, to think that God is saying “I will give if you (fill in the blank), not “It is finished. There are many such declarations like that which God made to the Israelites. But one that I hear in my head repeatedly is that of Colossians 5:17: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation.” Not becoming new or new if I do the right things, but “is new.” I have to remind myself of that because the face in the mirror is still the same. I often can’t see the new me, but I have to take it on faith. Maybe shout. Remind myself that I have been transferred from the dominion of darkness to the kingdom of light (Col. 1:13). Done. Maybe that’s what the Israelites were doing: they were preaching to themselves, reminding themselves of what God had said, that He “had given” the land to them. So too has he taken dominion over me. There’s a another great Michael Been penned song by The Call, entitled “Let the Day Begin.” It’s a reminder of newness, of life that begins again every day: “Here's to you my little loves/ with blessings from above/ Now let the day begin/ Here's to you my little loves with blessings from above/ Let the day begin, let the day begin, let the day start.” So maybe, when you find the stultifying wall of works-righteousness facing you, or some other personal demon, take a walk around it. Circle it six times. Blow the horn. Shout the truth to yourself: I am a new creation. And wait for the sound of walls coming down. Let a new day begin. Continue reading
Posted Sep 7, 2014 at Out Walking
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I am probably more excited about hosting this concert than any I have ever hosted. Since hearing Burlap to Cashmere in concert several years ago at The Arts Center in Carrboro, and then later in Greenwich Village in NYC, I have wanted to have these guys here, close up. They have a unique, folk-rock sound, tinged with Medittaranean influences. They enjoy each other and, indeed, grew up playing songs together. And while it's not woship music, you'll detect the undercurrent of faith in lead singer Steven Delopoulos' lyrics. For more information and to buy tickets, click HERE. Meanwhile, take a peek at this video of that NYC concert I attanded. Wow. What a great song. Continue reading
When I was in college anomie was a big word. In Sociology 101 we talked about the reduction of people to numbers, the depersonalization of the arena-sized classroom, the sense that you were nothing but a cog in a gigantic wheel going nowhere. That was the Seventies, and we were reeling from Watergate, gas shortages, the Vietnam war, and the advent of disco (particularly the latter). Honestly, as a freshman, I was not thinking such lofty thoughts. As I sat in the back of the biology classroom with one million other students, a mere speck in the eye of the academy, squinting to make out the professor down front, I was thinking about my girlfriend who broke up with me. Or my next move, as in girl move. In retrospect, I was preoccupied with my own concerns but not thinking much about my image, my tribe, my brand. I didn’t have an IPhone (the Dark Ages, people), watch particular TV shows, or identify myself by what car I drove, food I ate (Vegan, locally-sourced, gluten-free), or brand clothes I wore. I may have been self-centered (no, I was self-centered), but I do not recall making decisions based solely on how I would be perceived but by what I wanted. I wanted to figure out who I was, but I wasn't consciously trying to build an image. I was just. . . me. . . whoever "me" was. The court of public opinion of me was really, really small. The world has changed. In the latest volume of The Mockingbird, in an article entitled “Searching Low and High for the Who Behind the Who,” David Zahl notes that it “used to be that only museums and boutiques were curated. Today, people are curated, lives are curated.” Even as I say this, I’m tempted to think of how you perceive me. Intelligent? A little hip? (I wish.) Bookish? Thoughtful? I try not to think about such things, and yet they creep in. Honestly, can you blame me? We’re swimming in a tidal wave of identity-preoccupation. It’s not so much the question of who I am but who I want you to perceive me to be. And that’s a particular kind of self-absorption that we need a way out of. I only know one way. And Zahl nails it. He says the moment of grace comes when we stop asking "Who am I?" and start asking "Who are you?" That Godward focus leads to a kind of self-forgetfulness, the kind where, as Tim Keller says, we not only do not care what others think, we do not even care what we think of ourselves. As Keller says in The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness, "True gospel-humility means I stop connecting every experience, every conversation, with myself. In fact, I stop thinking about myself." Because all that matters is what Jesus thinks of me, and He declares me holy (because of Him) and beloved. No condemnation. Case closed. Love alone that will not let me go. There's no direct path to humility, to a God-shaped identity, because when you get there, you won't be thinking about getting there, because I suspect you will have already forgotten yourself. But for most of us, issues of identity rear their head every day, and we have to confront them by doing what Keller says: we have to re-live the Gospel every day, every moment. And if you catch yourself obsessing over perceptions, laugh at the foolish project you have embarked on and live in the love of Jesus. Stop staring in the reflecting pool of self, and meditate on the Source out of Whom our identity flows. Once I was carrying one of my favorite singer-songwriters to his hotel after a gig. I blathered on about one of his songs and how much it had spoken to me. I expected him to be grateful, to respond warmly. He said nothing. I was looking for appreciation. But now I know. He had forgotten himself, and he did not want to be reminded, did not want to begin to think he was a gift to the world, that he was who I thought he was. He was performing for an audience of One, and it wasn't me. I want to be like that. Continue reading
Posted Aug 29, 2014 at Out Walking
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Q: Do you have any children? BD: Every man with medical problems has children. Q: What are your medical problems? BD: Well, there’s glass in the back of my head. I’m a very sick person. I can’t see too well on Tuesdays. These dark glasses are prescribed. I’m not trying to be a beatnik. I have very mercuryesque eyes. And another thing – my toenails don’t fit. (Bob Dylan, in a 1968 interview) I went to the doctor today. An orthopedist. (Thank you spell check.) I told him my upper left arm hurt, that I thought maybe I had arthritis, because my mother had that. He looked thoughtful. He put me through some motions — some fine, some that made me wince — and then he announced that I probably had rotator cuff (RC) issues. After an X-ray, he was more definitive: “Darn. Definitely rotator cuff” something or another. I said what do you do for that. He said therapy. I said great, I need therapy. He said physical therapy. I said good I guess I need that too. I said why does this happen, and he said there was a chronological component to this. You mean old?, I said. He smiled. I’m regularly reminded that I am old as dirt. That’s OK. At least I don’t have glass in the back of my head. Q: What do you think of the new Bob Dylan? BD: What’s your name? Q: Dave Moberg. BD: Okay. What would you think if someone asked you, What do you think of the new Dave Moberg? What new Dave Moberg? I was walking across the street to the doctor’s office one day not long ago. A white-haired elderly man was walking briskly across the street, head down. When he reached me he looked up and said, ominously, “Growing old ain’t for sissies!” I nodded. I was thinking he’s not that much older than me. The doctor said look, we do this, you’ll be a new man. The new Steve West? I’m skeptical about that. I’m thinking that “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation.” Bye, bye old; hello, new. But that’s not for sissies either. Growing new, growing younger, is hard. And getting born is not an exercise, but grace. Q: Why do some of your songs bear no relation to their titles? BD: Give me an example. Q: “Rainy Day Women No. 12 & 35.” BD: Have you ever been to North Mexico for six straight months? Q: Not recently. BD: Well, I can’t explain it to you then. If you had, you’d understand what the song’s about. Ha, ha. So I have my first therapy appointment tomorrow. The therapist is supposed to show me some exercises that will help get rid of this issue with the RC, eventually. Th last time I was here he put needles in me. Needling, they called it, though it’s really acupuncture. The doc said that if I can’t tolerate these exercises I can get a shot of cortisone. And if all that doesn’t work, I can have surgery. I can? I’m not even going to say anything about the glass in my head. Or the mercuryesque eyes. Or my tendinitis, heel spurs, floaters in my eyes, or sleeping habits. But I might tell him about Queen Jane, Georgia Sam, Poor Howard, Mack the Finger, Louie the King, Cain and Abel, the Hunchback of Notre Dame, Cinderella, the Good Samaritan, Orphelia, Einstein disguised as Robin Hood, Dr. Filth, the Phantom of the Opera, Cassanova, Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, Angel, Sweet Melinda, Saint Annie, Louise, Johanna, the guilty undertaker, the lonesome organ grinder, a dancing child with a Chinese suit, Shakepeare, the senator, the preacher, the rainman, Ruthie in a honky-tonk lagoon, Queen Mary, sweet Marie, the Persian drunkard, Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands (saying prayers like rhymes), John Wesley Harding (friend to the poor), Frankie Lee and Judas Priest (“don’t go mistaking Paradise for that Home across the road”), St. Augustine, the hobo, the drifter, the landlord, the immigrant, Frank, Vera, Terry Shute, and Peggy Day. (Take a breath.) Thank you, Bob Dylan, for all those people, real or not. And the Father of Night. The Ragman. The Bearer of All Burdens. And the One who makes all things new, even me. Even dirt. The One who makes the new Steve West. I might tell him that Bob Dylan and me are not that much different. That he has ailments too. That he just writes better songs. That the new Bob Dylan looks old as dirt but is growing newer everyday. That eventually I’ll get over this RC thing and all the rest and all to come. Me and Bob Dylan. When he returns. When He returns. What are you getting at? What’s this blog post have to do with anything, anyway? What’s it mean? Have you been to North Mexico Lately? Not recently. Then I can’t explain it to you. If you had, you’d understand what I’m talking about. I’m sure you would. Continue reading
Posted Aug 27, 2014 at Out Walking
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“I am Oz, the great and terrible. Who are you, and why do you seek me?” When I was in Kansas in October last year, spending Fall Break with my daughter, I found a beautiful Penguin Threads edition of The Wizard of Oz in a bookstore, softbound yet housed in a multicolor, textured cover, with a long introduction about the author, L. Frank Baum, and annotations throughout. Never having read the story, I decided to spring for it. I didn’t like the movie — scary as a child, creepy now — and yet I knew the story was a bit different and, besides, the tactile pleasure of holding a book with a great cover is a pleasure. Yet Baum’s words are even better. I was hooked from the first page with his description of the spartan homestead “in the midst of the great Kansas prairies,” the “great gray prairie on every side,” where the “sun had baked the plowed land into a gray mass,” and a house that “was dull and gray as everything else,” and Uncle Henry who never laughed and Aunt Em who covered her ears and screamed when Dorothy would laugh. There’s a theme here. Not enticing. And not accurate, really, as the Kansas prairie glows golden in the sun, and even in the Flint Hills rises and falls, beautiful in its own way. But Baum is interested in contrast, his opinions of the harshness of rural life coloring his perceptions. I’ll read that book. It’s a keeper, even if a tad dark. At least there are no singing munchkins. While I have had great use for books on Christianity and the Arts, Jerram Barrs’ Echoes of Eden is one I will store for reference. It’s an elucidation of themes more succinctly stated in Francis Schaeffer’s classic Art and the Bible, from the late Sixties, still a valuable guide. Barrs was a long-time L’Abri worker and associate of Schaeffer and now heads the Francis Schaeffer Institute at Covenant Seminary, so it’s no surprise he echoes his mentor. However, his chapters on Tolkien, Lewis, Harry Potter, Shakespeare, and Jane Austen may appeal to those who are looking for fresh insight into those authors and/or books. No munchkins here, thank goodness. Another book on art and faith, For the Beauty of the Church: Casting a Vision for the Arts, is a great collection of essays you can dip into without wholly committing to the whole read. Essayists include Lauren Winner, Eugene Peterson, and Jeremy Begbie. I read Peterson’s “The Pastor: How Artists Shape Pastoral Identity,” and Barbara Nicolosi’s “The Artist: What Exactly Is an Artist, and How Do We Shepherd Them,” as I know a lot of artists and realize they have the capacity to provoke and disturb and bless all at the same time, and yet we don’t always receive them well. I’m saving this one, at least to read Lauren Winner, one day. And maybe, one day, in toto. Maybe on my way to Kansas. My wife went to The Gospel Coalition Women’s Conference, from which I was excluded, even though I grew up with three sisters, talk to women better than men (well, women talk more and about more things), and wanted to go to Orlando. (Really, I wanted her to go, and I watched online, so went anyway and didn’t have to worry about having the right clothes or hair.) She brought me the book, Crazy Busy, by Kevin DeYoung, which, thankfully, is mercifully short (as its subtitle says). The cover has a person running with an exclamation mark for his head. I feel that way sometimes. One chapter is entitled “A Cruel Kindergarchy - Diagnosis #3: You Need to Stop Freaking Out Over Your Kids.” I better read that. In fact I better read the whole book. It’s only 118 pages long. I can do this. I detect in its pages heart, courage, and brains, and I need more of those in the whirling of my days. That dastardly devil, Screwtape, has been annotated as well. The annotated edition of C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters has red lettered annotations in the side column of each page, so you need not keep flipping to the endnotes. I like that, because when I have to flip to the endnotes, I get irritated eventually, like Oz, like “Ain’t nobody got time for this.” This hardbound edition of letters from Screwtape’s letters to Wormwood, the lesser devil, has beautifully large type (it’s kind of like a large print edition without being saddled with that moniker). His comment in Letter 13, that “It seems to me that you take a great many pages to tell a very simple story,” is what most people might say about lawyers, those henchmen of the Devil, stacking word on word to obfuscate. But I digress. I love this book, will read it again, and may even write a few more of my own such letters. Screwtape, like Oz, is terrible but cowardly, all smoke and lights behind his curtain. An impostor. Nepal may as well be over the rainbow given how far away and remote it is. At the Foot of the Snows is an account of the late David E. Watters and family, who lived among the unknown Khami Magar of that mountain country, translating the Scripture into the Kham language. Never heard of this family, but I’m glad for however this book came to my attention, as it is engaging and inspiring, in even its first few pages shining with honesty and God’s providential care. I was on board after the Forward by Pastor Mike Jones, where he says that “the account of David and Nancy’s walk of faith encouraged me to embrace the story God is seeking to write in and through my life.” That’s not an original thought, but it continues to excite me — the idea of God as Author not just of life but of my life. I have 56 years of story, and yet I have an eternity of character development and plot ahead of me. There are amazing quotes here that preface each not-too-long chapter, like this one by Kenneth Hale: “Every language is a unique and collective human genius, as divine and endless a mystery as a living organism.” Makes you think, doesn’t it? And yet it’s not just language that is wonderfully mysterious but literally everything, inscrutable. If nothing else books like this remind me that life is not, as Baum said, just a different shade of gray, an endless prairie of the mundane, drab and unchanging. It’s an adventure, full of color and mystique. Full of books, and companionship, and a yellow brick road and a real Oz that one day will take us Home where we’ll have all the heart and brain and courage we need. And looks. And better songs. And that is a good place to end on a Sunday afternoon. “Oh, Aunt Em, I’m so glad to be home again!” Continue reading
Posted Jul 16, 2014 at Out Walking
The most notable feature of Carl Sandburg's preserved home at Flat Rock, North Carolina is its 11,076 books. There are books in bedrooms, hallways, dining rooms, and the kitchen, and a second home full of books he did not deem worthy of including in the main home. Little slips of paper marked pages in each book that had something worth coming back to. He worked his collection, mined it's combined insights, treasured its wisdom. I'm still working on that. On the table behind my office desk, there is a teetering stack of about 18 books that I have intended to read. Some have been waiting a few years, gathering dust. I keep adding to the stack, and the ones on bottom are slowly sinking, compressed, to be dug out by some future archaeologist who will draw gross and silly conclusions about American culture from my books. (I have imagination.) In my bedroom nightstand, there are something like 25 more books. I mean to read them, I really do. But you begin to lose consciousness of them; they melt into the paint, lay dormant. Then, when I add to it the sample books I have added on my IPad, there must be 60 books or so I mean to get at. I'm getting behind. Guilt nips at me as I imagine what their authors might say to me. So, Sunday afternoon I decided to do something about it. I drew out ten books and decided I would at least skim the contents of each, read the preface and first chapter, and then decide if I really needed to read the book. Books not worth having around I would put in the disposal pile; books worth keeping but not to further read, in another pile; and, in what I hoped would be a very small pile, I would place books that I really wanted to read and felt would be profitable. . . now. So, I read one short story out of John Grisham's Ford County, a collection of short stories. I had never read Grisham, figuring him not literary enough, but he is an entertaining and capable writer. The story, entitled "Blood Drive," a rollicking late night journey to Memphis by three good old boys to give blood for a friend, one sidetracked by a strip joint, gang shooting, and other antics, was hilarious. That book's a keeper. Then it was on to Algebra: The X and Y of Everyday Math. I know. . . what was I thinking? (It was on sale.) I appreciated the philosophical way it started, with a quote from Augustine of Hippo about how "mathematicians had made a covenant with the Devil to darken the spirit and confine man in the bonds of Hell," the clarity and playfulness of its prose, and the mini-bios of mathematicians inserted throughout, but it doubt I'll continue. I will save it for when I retire. Next up: The New Media Frontier: Blogging, Vlogging, and Podcasting for Christ, a collection of essays on such matters. I'll save this as a good resource and a book to loan out. It has, for example, an essay on blogging for pastors and attempts to address how such tools might be used as a help for pastoral care, as well as an essay on theological blogging and one on youth ministry in the Facebook age. While generally upbeat, it sounds plenty of cautionary notes along the way. Given the rapid way media use changes, I give this one little shelf life and plan to hand it off to pastors pretty quickly. My sister loaned me The Pleasure Was Mine, by Tommy Hays, a local North Carolina writer. It's a story of Prate Marshbanks, a man losing his wife of 50 years to Alzheimer's. It's moving, and yet the sadness is lightened by the humor and the relationship Prate develops with his grandson (well, not much yet in one chapter). Hays' characters are believable, and so I plan to return to this book. . . in the future. A friend suggested Daniel Taylor's Letters to My Children: A Father Passes On His Values, years ago, I am ashamed to say. Taylor tells good and true stories to his children, answering questions he imagines them having, as if (or in the event) he's not around to answer them. And yet, serendipitously, he is also answering his own questions, like "What Price Popularity," where we all get a sense of what people-pleasers we can be, of how conscious we are of appearances. I'll keep it, and even recommend it, and yet I feel like I have already been writing about such things for years and so doubt I'll read more. It's signed: "To Steve: Blessings in all your stories." Yes. "Calvin, '08." Thank you for the in person prompt, Daniel Taylor, all those years ago. Oh my goodness. The Gospel According to Lost, by Chris Seay, really takes me back. Our family watched all nine seasons on Netflix in six months and, in the end, turned to each other and said "huh?" Seay teases out the questions and tries to shine the light of Scripture on them. I'll keep it, but I have lost so much of the story that I don't think it profitable reading until I can watch it again, if ever. His statement that "the Lost narrative is uniquely intertwined with the Judeo-Christian and the beauty of Christianity found in its unyielding proclamation that no one is beyond redemption," is provocative. Maybe in a long cold winter I'll take the plunge again. [Title deleted], a self-published title by a good friend, is, sad to say, not good. This one I need to move out. I barely made it past the first page. Friend yes, good writing no. Christian Aid Mission publishes the thin volume, Finishing the Task: How Indigenous Missionaries Are Reaching the Unreached in the 21st Century. Reading these amazing stories of healings, answers to prayer, escapes from danger, preservation during imprisonment, and the such I vacillate between near cynicism (a product of a smallish faith) and a hunger for a fuller reality of Christ's life in me. Are these stories embellished, containing elements of legend? I might have thought so until I met Pastor George in Uganda last year. Thank you, whoever gave me this, or sent it, like God-mail. This is the real thing, an antidote for unexercised belief. (Get the book free here.) Choosing Your Faith (In a World of Spiritual Options), by Mark Mittleberg, is much better than I thought, a bit easier to read than Tim Keller's Reason to Believe. Good for skeptical yet inquiring friends, it makes the case that faith is inevitable --- the question is faith in what or in who? I don't know that I'll read more, but I definitely want it as a resource and as a giveaway. Finally, Mission Drift: The Unspoken Crisis Facing Leaders, Churches, and Charities, sounds an alarm for how we individually and corporately can stay true to our commitments, to our mission. It documents how some have gone astray (YMCA becoming simply Y) and others stayed true (Compassion International). It doesn't encourages stasis necessarily, but helps us own up to and examine carefully how we change and if we should change. As I serve on a church Session and several non-profit boards, and sense the pull of circumstance on my own priorities, I think this book will be a valuable resource, one I will read and loan out. The stack is getting smaller. Sandburg would smile at my pittance of books. Continue reading
Posted Jul 7, 2014 at Out Walking
When you first meet someone, she might ask, “Who are you?” And you might say, “Well I’m So-and-So. And I’m very good at this thing and that thing and here’s where I live and this is my family and —“ But do you know who God says you are? The one Jesus loves. (“Who Are You?,” from Thoughts To Make Your Heart Sing, by Sally Lloyd Jones and Jago) When I was a very young child — oh say pre-school — I didn’t think much about questions like “who am I.” I wasn’t philosophical. That changed of course when school started and self-awareness set in. I wasn’t smart, I would say, but not dumb. I was no good at sports, I’d say, but at least not the worst. I was musical, but as that wasn’t so cool, I kept it to myself. I wrote things and read books, but you don’t score any points with girls or guys at the younger ages with such interests, so that too I kept close. In sixth grade my friend Bobby and I dressed up (well, our mothers helped us dress) and went to our first dance at General Greene Elementary School, which was a pleasant old-style school: single-level, no air conditioning, with classrooms that had big windows you could fling over to let air flow and even doors that opened on the outdoors and through which we cascaded at recess. The dance was in the cafeteria. I’m not sure what we were thinking, but I suspect we had some unstated hope that a girl might dance with us. That didn’t happen. We stood around a while and left, as I recall, made light of the whole dumb affair. Walked home. Who needs girls? So add to my identity that I was musical, read a lot, wrote some things, was relatively bad at sports, and now, wonder of wonders, had no girlfriend. But I did have one good friend, a Mom, and a Dad, and you can go a long way on that. By ninth grade, things were pretty well sorted out. If you did Google Earth on the patio where we congregated after lunch at Kaiser Junior High School, you would have seen perhaps four nodes of activity — the cool people (made up of guys and girls, the popular ones), the jocks (which intersected with the cool people at certain times), the freaks (long hair, spaced out, weird), the rejects (oddities, either deemed unattractive, uncool, or just creepy), and the musically obsessed (a grouping defined by conversation about music and toting of LPs, and sometimes intersecting with the freaks and the language of which was completely foreign to the cool people). So, now I had identity: I was musically obsessed. I had found my tribe. My membership card was an LP tucked under my arm, banding about names like Jethro Tull, The Who, Yes, and even Blind Faith or Audience, known almost exclusively to the insiders. My identity seemed settled to my adolescent mind. That same year, however, I became the kid whose Dad had died. I didn’t know anyone my age whose Dad had died. For that matter, I don’t think I knew anyone whose parents had divorced. These things were uncommon. I remember going back to school after that and thinking how weird it was to be walking around as the kid whose Dad had died. No one really talked to me about that. But my friends did. I had two good friends by then. You can go a long way on two good friends. It begins to matter a little less who you think you are. Nowadays, of course, I am husband, father, elder, attorney, writer, and so on. I like to think I am thoughtful, reasonably intelligent, and articulate, and sometimes I am. I’m still no good at sports, girls don’t matter (except one), and I remain musically obsessed (but not as bad as that guy, I opine). I still don’t like to ask questions, make phone calls, raise my hand in class, or dance. But I am more settled into Me, that what I do and where I live and who I know aren’t - as important as they are - the basis of who I am. I am the one Jesus loves. You can go a long way on that. I have to keep telling myself that. Continue reading
Posted Jul 4, 2014 at Out Walking
"When one breaks camp in the morning, he turns back again and again to see what he has left. Surely he feels he has forgotten something: what is it? But it is only his sad thoughts and musings he has left, the fragment of his life he has lived there. Where he hung his coat on the tree, where he slept on the boughs, where he made his coffee or broiled his trout over the coals, where he drank again and again at the little brown pool in the spring run, where he looked long and long up into the whispering branches overhead, he has left what he cannot bring with him, - the flame and the ashes of himself." (John Burroughs) Some people seem to have no attachment to place. They float over the crust of the earth, dipping a toe in here and there, and yet when they move on it is as if that other place never existed, is forgotten, and they are free to begin again in the place in which they find themselves. I had a neighbor like that once who, in a brief conversation, said to me that she thought she would just move to this or that town, start over, as if she were deciding where to have dinner out that night, an easy decision when you are unmoored. I can't do that, wouldn't want to do that. I left a little piece of myself everywhere I lived. And I don't want to lose any of it. In the first 18 years of my life, I lived in two houses, one in a post-WWII suburb of cookie-cutter frame houses on a street with the Fifties name of Idlewood. The next was on Surry, in a neighborhood of colonial style homes, unfenced backyards, station wagons and Oldsmobiles. In the next seven years, I lived in eight different places - dorms, apartments, condominiums, and even my in-laws, etching memories into the walls of them all. In the last 30 years, I have lived in one house, and its hallways and rooms are deeply furrowed with memories, with conversations, with joys and sorrows. My workplace has also been full of leavings. In the building where I have always worked, I have had at least 11 different offices in 30 years, on every side of the building, overlooking a courtyard, a heat-soaked roof, the city skyline, and the trees of a residential area. Sometimes I walk past a former office and look in on a younger person there and see myself, hear some almost forgotten conversation I had there, still hanging in the air, remember laughing with a former colleague, praying for a co-worker there. Such memories provoke thankfulness and a sense of fullness. I confess to a bit of sadness at the loss of these places and times. Yet it's not usually nostalgia I feel when I remember, nor some vague sentimentalism. I don't idealize the past I remember, as remembrance is skewed by the present. But I do miss it like you might miss a distant relative. Sometimes, I try to return: I put my hand on the screen door of my childhood home, open it, and go inside. I walk down the hall and turn into my bedroom. What am I looking for? I'm not sure. I guess I'm looking for me, for the fragments of the me left behind. In the latest issue of The Mockingbird, Ethan Richardson leads off an issue devoted to identity by noting the difficulty of perceiving ourselves rightly. He addresses what is called the End-of-History Illusion, which is "our tendency to believe, contrary to past evidence, that who we are now is who we will continue to be forever," which is, obviously, false. He points to Henri Nouwen's embrace of the "unadorned self in which I am completely vulnerable, open to receive and give love regardless of any accomplishments," a self emptied of self, one perhaps captured in John the Baptist's statement in light of Jesus' coming that "He must increase, but I must decrease" (Jn. 3.30). But I think there's more to it than a shrinking of self. When Paul said that "if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation" (2 Cor. 5:17), what he points to is a new identity that we are growing up into, a re-identity, a becoming who were were intended to be all along. In light of Christ, we decrease, yes, but only as we increase and grow more into the people we were intended to be all along. All those fragments of me that I left behind, the sum total of all that I experienced and all that I thought of myself all become a part of the Me that He is re-creating, one just a little lower than the angels (Ps. 8:5). Bruce Cockburn said it in a song: "You get bigger as you go/ No one told me - I just know/ Bales of memory like boats in tow." Underneath the melancholy of remembrance lies joy. One day, the Author of Life will gather up all the fragments I left behind, all the little bits of me, and put me back together again, redeeming and remaking all those bales of memory. When I break camp and turn back on that day, everything will be there, never to be left again. None of it is lost to flame and ashes. Every bit of it will be redeemed and become a part of the Me in Him. Continue reading
Posted Jun 27, 2014 at Out Walking
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A poem compresses much in a small space and adds music, thus heightening its meaning. The city is like poetry: it compresses all life, all races and breeds, into a small island and adds music and the accompaniment of internal engines. The island of Manhattan is without any doubt the greatest human concentrate on earth, the poem whose magic is comprehensible to millions of permanent residents but whose full meaning will always remain elusive. All this, for the price of two swipes of a Metrocard. (Whitehead, Colson. The Colossus of New York: A City in Thirteen Parts. New York: Doubleday, 2003) A poem is a little thing, barely there, the best just a few lines and words on a sea of white page. Oh sure, I wrote a poem once that had seven stanzas and droned on for some 98 lines or so, as have much brighter lights than me, but most are not writ so large. They're more like a sparrow on a canvas of blue sky, an acorn waiting to be found, a pebble among pebbles by a stream - barely dicernible, hidden, common. And yet their diminutive size is deceiving. They testify to more. So do people. A week ago, I lay out there, in the backyard, in a hammock, watching birds swoop down and light on the bird feeder. Little things. I thought about how short is the life of a bird and how it passes quite unknown to the world, how its life is obscure and unknown to virtually everyone. While we may appreciate the grace of birds, the beauty of their form, their ease of flight and freedom, rarely if ever do we think of just one bird. Yet God knows the comings and goings of a single bird; not a single sparrow falls to the ground that He doesn't blink, a tear well in His eye at what should not have been but is in a fallen world. God made everything, sees everything, upholds everything. These are dogmas that Christians subscribe to, but when you see a single bird, or a little poem, or the face of a Ugandan orphan, or a perfectly shaped leaf with a bead of raindrop on it lying in its fragility on the sidewalk, small ones in a sea of creations, then you know a little of the power of the dogma. We know truth in the particular and not abstract. His eye is on the sparrow --- indeed that sparrow, poem, fatherless child, leaf. In 2 Corinthians 10:10, Paul says "we are his workmanship," and I am told that the Greek word for "workmanship," "poiema," is that from which the English word "poem" is derived. We are crafted and made, and we bear the image of the Maker. While we can't literally say we are God's poems, whatever that might mean, the word does suggest artistry. And it means that even a single person is imbued with beauty and meaning, that every person is a sign pointing outside themselves to God. Even when they are malformed and broken. Even a city, even Manhattan, can in its compression shout glory. For a moment, at least, suspend theological precision and consider the poem of the world, God's world, as so aptly cast by poet Mary Oliver: If it is all poetry, and not just one's own accomplishment, that carries one from this green and mortal world --- that lifts the latch and gives a glimpse into a greater paradise --- then perhaps one has the sensibility: a gratitude apart from authorship, a fervor and desire beyond the margins of the self. So when you see a bird, a poem, a child, a leaf, you are seeing more than the particular. Look to the margins of the one. You'll get a "glimpse of a greater paradise." The particular in front of you compresses into itself the greater things beyond itself, elusive now but ever so real. All that, for two swipes of the Metrocard, says Colson Whitehead. Or a walk in the neighborhood. Or an afternoon in the hammock. Magical, and free. Continue reading
Posted May 25, 2014 at Out Walking
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Whenever I visit New York, I think of E.B. White’s 1949 essay, “Here is New York.” As you might expect, it’s evocative of the sights and sounds and even smells of the great city, a walking description of its streets and public places and architecture. Some things don’t change: throngs of shoppers in Midtown, the sometimes pungent mix of exhaust fumes, food, and garbage, the movement and anonymity. And yet some things do change, like the Bowery then is not the Bowery now: Walk the Bowery under the El [the Third Avenue Elevated] at night and all you feel is a sort of cold guilt. Touched for a dime, you try to drop the coin and not touch the hand, because the hand is dirty; you try to avoid the glance, because the glance accuses. This is not so much personal menace as universal — the cold menace of unresolved human suffering and the advance stages of the disease alcoholism. The poverty of the Bowery has now pushed on to pockets of North Harlem, or the Bronx. Or in the ostensibly blind man who moves through my subway car: “God bless you, have a good day,” he says. Places change but, as Jesus said, “the poor you will always have with you.” And the huckster. But it’s a week ago and we’re not walking the Bowery but over a great bridge, the Brooklyn Bridge, upward through a crisp blue sky, behind us an island of skyscrapers. On every suspension line accessible from the walkway, pedestrians have attached locks, some engraved, leaving behind their own personal “I was here, I exist,” as if to prove it to themselves, to reach for one moment of fame. Turning to look at the city, I realize that no one must truly understand its dogma — the labyrinth of tunnels underlying it, the water and sewer pipes, the electrical conduits, the subway tubes, the myriad conversations, wi-fi signals, habitations and office cubicles, and the hopes and dreams both realized and blunted by despair. And yet, God knows its frame, the name of the least of its sparrows. Walking on the Lower East Side, not far from the rise of the bridge, White encountered not the flophouses of The Bowery but the more “reassuring sobriety and safety of family life.” Heading east long Rivington, “[a]ll is cheerful and filthy and crowded,” he says, Small shops overflow onto the sidewalk, leaving only half the normal width for passers-by. In the candid light from unshaded bulbs gleam watermelons and lingerie. Families have fled the hot rooms upstairs and found relief on the pavement. They sit on orange crates, smoking, relaxed, congenial. This is the nightly garden party of the vast Lower East Side. . . . folksy here with the smell of warm flesh and squashed fruit and fly-bitten filth in the gutter, and cooking. Next day, Sunday, we attended church in the Upper West Side. Walking out, revived, we passed firemen washing their fire truck, a father with his young son, watching. To the firemen, the father said, “Thank you.” I know what he meant. I know he meant thank you for keeping on when so many of your fellow firemen died in the towers burning. Thank you for not giving up. Rounding the corner of 83rd and Columbia Avenue, it seemed all families - mothers and fathers, and children on scooters, and in the sun-washed pavement I saw reflected something ricer than an atomized urban life — a community, people who greeted one another. Cafe tables lapped over the sidewalks, and families had brunch. Shopkeepers' doors were flung over to the breezes and some stood by their doors, beckoning. I began to think “I could live here.” We walked 25 blocks until, just past Lincoln Center, the Midtown bustle of upper Times Square began, and we tired, hailed a cab, and went to Langan’s, a favorite Irish pub where we passed the bar and sat in the back, where it was quieter, next to a table of ladies from the red hat club, their chatter muted by the piano and upright bass behind me. Perhaps it was our pedestrian pace, but sitting there among the familiar wood-grained walls and white tablecloths I felt as if I had been in New York for a long time. Two days ago, I remembered, I was was walking in Central Park, all the way from the south entrance near the Children’s Zoo, past the Carnival of the Mall and Bethesda Terrace, through the nearly wild and relatively unpeopled Rambles, to Belvedere castle, where we climbed to see the Great Lawn and Reservoir and the north park beyond, and Harlem. The outer landscape gave way to the inner, and I remembered that almost 32 years ago, we were sitting in our hotel on our one-year anniversary, eating wedding cake left and saved for that day, and I had that sense, as you do at times, as God must at all times, that all times are present now. We were here, I think to myself, and New York is still here. “At the corner of Lewis,” says White, “in the playground behind the wire fence, an open-air dance is going on — some kind of neighborhood affair, probably designed to combat delinquency.” It goes on still. Walking back through The Mall,stopping at the terrace, three African-American males, shirtless, have attracted an audience with their dance. Some white girls dance on the sidelines, egged on. On a park bench, we stop and pose for a picture, just across front he band shell. White: “Another hot night I stop off at the Goldman Band concert in the Mall in Central Park. The people seated on the benches fanned out in front of the band shell are attentive, appreciative.” Today, Shakespeare is being read. “To an outlander, White says, “a stay in New York can be and often is a series of small embarrassments and discomforts and disappointments: not understanding the waiter, not being able to distinguish between a sucker joint and a friendly saloon, riding the wrong subway, being slapped down by a bus driver for asking an innocent question, enduring sleepless nights when the street noises fill the bedroom.” Sucker joints? Saloons? Some things change (air conditioning), some don’t (riding the wrong subway). And yet people long to be with people, else why would you live in New York? The night we arrived we went to a concert at a club in Greenwich Village, just down from the fabled Bitter End, and we walked along streets where a youthful Bob Dylan was just a pedestrian, freewheeling, a nobody, while Woody Guthrie lay dying in a New Jersey hospital. I put out of hand to touch the building, something solid to root my dreams. After the concert, we sat talking with an old friend, a New York transplant from the Deep South. Until 1:00 AM. Until 1:00 AM. And that’s just the kind of thing you can do in New York, until 1:00, or 3:00, or all night if you like. Because you can. Because something is always open. And that’s the best kind of talking, late, when you can say what is on your heart, when you can drop the workday reticence. When you can be real. I could live here, I say. I could forgive the man who cursed at me for getting in his way earlier that day. I could be gracious to another sparrow, falling. I could worship and work and listen to music and sit up and talk to all hours. I could walk 25 blocks at a time. I could greet people. I could smile. I could be disappointed and be enlightened and even change. But I can do that anywhere, can't I? Continue reading
Posted May 6, 2014 at Out Walking
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When I first met Sara Beth Go (then Sara Beth Geoghegan), it was at a house concert in my home in 2009. She was loudly banging out tunes on our Baby Grand. When I asked her about the volume level, she unapologetically said “That’s how we do it in Nashville.” Well, OK. It was a sweet if loud evening of stories, jokes, sing-a-longs, an impromptu high school chorus, and sweetly sad love songs and fresh takes on faith from her then new release, Tired of Singing Sad Songs. I asked her back, and back, and back. Is she tired of singing sad songs? Apparently not. But it’s OK. Unlike her last offering, you won't find direct references to Christian faith in her latest, Wish It Had, or the slightest of nods to the CCM music industry (which is just fine), but what you will find is a kind of sweet snarkiness, a wit and whimsy reflected in these songs of longing, these parables of unrequited, moribund, or complicated love — one person’s attempt to navigate in a world where love is still a precious and rare commodity. Point in fact: The lead track, “Kids in the City,” gives voice to twenty-something relational longings: “I don’t know where exactly this is going to go/ Kids in the city we don’t wanna be alone/ Puttin’ up signs and looking for hope.” (Whimsy? Check out the video.) There’s plenty of break ups, “I thought we’d grow old/ the day your mother told me I was pretty/ Now it’s such a pity” (“Wish I Had”) or the holiday blues of “It was the worst New Years ever/ When you told me your heart wasn’t in it” ("Worst New Years Ever"). And yet as much as there is a longing for love there is an appreciation for how the memories we form make us who we are: “Funny, it’s funny what you remember/ All the pieces, the pieces come together/ To make you who you are/ To tell a story, a story that’s your alone” (“Pieces”). In such lyrical territory, you might think that, as Neil Young (aging rock star, kids) once quipped, “these songs are guaranteed to bring you right down.” Not so. What you get with Sara Beth is not an earful of simmering angst, or world-weary muddling through, but life and love as adventure. Hope remains. She still believes. Sonically, the mood is boosted by the buoyancy and playfulness of the songs. A little ukulele here, bells here, the ba-ba-ba of background vocals, strings, an up and down bass line. It’s so fun to break up and look for love, the songs seem to say. Of course not, and yet Sara Beth’s point seems to be that love is worth it, worth the risk: You might say I’m foolish and reckless But I will not put a fence around my heart Just be safe and protected And yes it hurts more than it really should And yes it will be worth all the good and bad. (“All the Good”). Love is scary, and messy, and risky, and yet Sara Beth says go for it: “"For me in life, it's never been black and white. I want to connect the dots from A to Z and make this really pretty, but it's still a tangled mess. God is simply asking that we trust Him, that we believe the gospel." And that, people, is what it comes down to. A grand adventure. A trust walk. A two-steps-forward-one step back kind of GPS-less walk in the direction of Love. So go buy Sara Beth Go’s Wish It Had. Play it loud. And hope that when she does meet the right man she still has something to write about. I think she will. <a href="http://sarabethgo.bandcamp.com/album/wish-it-had" data-mce-href="http://sarabethgo.bandcamp.com/album/wish-it-had">Wish it Had by Sara Beth Go</a> Continue reading
Posted May 4, 2014 at Out Walking
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Most people have never heard of medical missionary, author, and poet Myra Scovel. Chalk that up to books long since out of print and the presentism that has hold of culture. I’d like you to know her. My used copy of Scovel’s 1970 collection of poetry, The Weight of a Leaf, bears her autograph and the words “For Helen, in memory of David, all God’s best for her, as He has given David. Purdue, 1970.” Nothing like place and time and signature to root a book of poems in reality, 44 years ago. So long. I was twelve when she etched those words. Myra Scovel and her husband, medical doctor Frederick Scovel, met when he was a medical student at Cornell and she a nurse, marrying after his graduation in 1929. The next year they and their newborn son sailed for China as missionaries. After language training in then Peking (Beijing), they were assigned to a hospital in the Shantung province. Pre-war, pre-communist takeover, they were treating opium addicts and every kind of illness until internment for six months by the invading Japanese in 1943. Deported by the Japanese, Myra had her sixth child within hours after their ship docked in he United States. In 1946, after the war, they and their six children returned to China, remaining there until 1951 when, like many other missionaries, they were forced out by the Chinese Communists. After six years service in India, they returned to the United States for good in 1959. That story you can read in The Chinese Ginger Jars, Scovel’s memoir published in 1962. The narrative moves at a quick clip, like a nurse on duty, and yet her descriptive powers are on display, as in this line about Peking: “The whole city seemed steeped in the culture of its people, mellow as the smooth cream ivory of its curio shops, wise with a wisdom drawn from the deep pools of its clearest jade, relaxed as the curve of a temple roof against the sky.” Oh, how the world has changed. But all of this, interesting as it is, is just the soil for the flowering of Scovel’s poetry which, though faith-rich, is rarely sentimental, preachy, or limited to religious themes. That sets it apart from much other “Christian” poetry of that time, and that’s what makes it so human and readable. That and its economy. The Weight of a Leaf leads off with a poetic dedication “To Li Po, Poet,” with Scovel dwelling on the timelessness of Li Po’s words 1200 years prior: Yellow the willow by your mountain pool, one golden leaf following your skiff as you painted brush strokes for these words twelve hundred years ago. “Shall goodwill ever be secure? I watch the long road of the River of Stars.” As she finds herself in Li Po’s poem, on the eve of yet another world war, so we can find ourselves in Scovel’s careful words. In the title poem Scovel writes of the bending inward of wills in human love: “We have bent to love/ as a twig bends/ to the weight of a leaf.” In some poems there is naked honesty before God, as in “For You, Lying There,” when she gives voice to her anger at the humiliations of old age, when, being told that “God must have his reasons” she blurts out “Do not speak of such a God to me./ Unless spring comes for you, what blasphemy!/ If seed-break-sod for you has no relation,/ death is but one vast humiliation.” Or there is the fear of a life being laid bare, as in “Why Am I So Afraid”: Why am I so afraid to let God speak? He will want to throw out the rubbish of my life, all the dear, accumulated rubbish. He will clean me out, down to the bare essentials of my being. I am afraid, afraid of that nakedness. And yet it’s not all so heavy. One of my favorite poems to read out loud is “How Did the World Get So Clean, Mother?” She answers the child-question with God washed the day and hung it out to dry, dripping with dew. Sun shone, wind blew. When evening came, the cherubs, pink from play, folded it with lavender to put away. She doesn’t wholly escape sentiment, particularly when writing of family, but neither does the award-winning Mary Oliver when writing of her beloved dogs (in her Dog-Poems). Even a fine poet can lose the universal that makes a poem timeless, that makes it matter to readers she does not know, when writing about those things they hold dearest. We can forgive. Myra Scovel’s poems are light. Spare. Full of space. And yet, even a frail and hardly noticed leaf of a poem has weight. In a world of brash narratives and self-important posts, a little poem can shine, quietly whispering Truth. Find the poetry of Myra Scovel. Whether in the dust and ink of the used bookstore or the low-ranking pages of Amazon, dig it out, take up, and read. Continue reading
Posted Apr 21, 2014 at Out Walking
"Your prayer might be so little that it may not seem like a prayer at all. But it's enough. God hears it." (Thoughts to Make Your Heart Sing, by Sally Lloyd-Jones & Jago) Sometimes I ask God for answers to big and crazy prayers. Make Sharon sober. Turn Jacob's heart to the Lord. Heal John of his cancer. Sometimes I go even bigger. Bring revival and reformation to our nation. Feed the children of Uganda. Transform North Korea and open it to the Gospel. I think of Strunk and White's wonderful maxim for writers: "Omit needless words." And so I try and and keep it simple. "Lord, help." I might add, "please." And like the widow seeking justice, I don't mind begging. Help. Help. Help. I stopped adding the qualification "if it be your will," as He and I have an understanding: I ask for what I want, and He, being God, and seeing the big picture, gives me what I need or maybe others what they need or whatever in His Goodness and Bigness he knows is best. He is Father, and he is one father who always knows what is best. Sometimes I draw a picture for God of what I want. Not a literal one, mind you, though I think that would be great (only I can't draw). I draw one in my imagination. I see a healed John leaping and jumping around, playing basketball with his kids, and I present it to God. "See, that's what I want." He might say, "yes, that's what I want too," or He might redraw the picture and say, "Isn't this better?," or He may redraw it in some completely indescribable abstract art kind of way and give it to me and not say a word. Well, that's like the Christmas present from your parents you had absolutely no use for until one day a few years later you said "oh yeah, that's what that was for," or, just maybe, you never know what it is for. That's God for you. He's good, but you just have to trust him. After all, he says "If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!" (Matt. 7:11). If the exclamation mark matters at all it means sweet, soft-spoken Jesus must have yelled that. Better pay attention. But I do little prayers too, and God likes them. He cares about one lost sheep. He will help you find a lost coin. Even help you find the missing sock or lost hairbrush. He might, like he did for me one time, help me walk over to a bunch of people I did not know and say hello. Thirty-eight years later, one of them is a fast friend. Somebody said once that I should keep a "prayer notebook." I understand. It helps you see God's faithfulness. And yet I never kept a record of all those requests my parents answered by "yes," or "no," or "we'll see." And I still believed in them. So I didn't keep the notebook anymore. I just keep asking and watching what He will do. I laid on my bed today, as I was a bit sick, and while I was there I dreamed up a big, big prayer, imagining a beautiful answer. I drew a really nice picture for God, and I know He will appreciate it. And He will answer. Someday. Somehow. I prayed a little one too (comparatively speaking). I said "Get me up from here. Please." He did. Sometimes, though, I have writer's block. I don't know how to pray. I know there is a mess of tangled words and plot lines, but I stare at a blank page. I remember one writer told me he played indoor mini golf for a year when he was supposed to be writing a book. It's something like that. Only I watch Warehouse 13 reruns. Where to start? How to encapsulate this prayer in a nice sentence, or even a paragraph? Nothing. The Spirit has to take over then, writes out a prayer in invisible ink and you hold it up to the light or in a mirror and you see what it was that you needed to be asking but couldn't figure out how to ask. I was that way with my parents when I was a little kid. I didn't know what I needed or wanted much of the time, but I knew they had it or would know what to do. Big and crazy prayers. Little bitty prayers. Inarticulable prayers. They all matter to Him. Continue reading
Posted Mar 3, 2014 at Out Walking
However far away they are, birds can find their way home again and again and again. But not God's children — God's children aren't homesick for him. God is our true home. Away from him, we are lost. (Thoughts to Make Your Heart Sing, by Sally Lloyd-Jones & Jago) Perhaps the simple words of a child's devotion sums up much of what I have been trying to say to myself (and maybe a few others) over all these years. I often write about home — being home, missing home, finding home, our real home — because I think about home all the time. I'm a homebody, a body meant for a home, a lasting home. And a devotion meant for a six-year old sums it all up: “God is our true home. Away from him, we are lost.” If you have ever moved from a home of some time, you know what it is like to lose a part of you in a place. By our possessions and our daily lives we invest a place with meaning. Nestled in a favorite chair by a window, we read, listening now and then to the familiar sounds of our home, from the hum of the refrigerator to the purr of the cat to the creaking of a floorboard above, a family member moving down familiar hallways. At night you lay in bed and listen to your house settle slowly back into the ground from which it rose, creaking under the weight, while the clock ticks out the seconds, only seconds, while we count, resting, resting deep in the bed of our place. When you move you slowly divest a place of meaning, removing furniture, clocks, paintings, books, many more books, desks for writing, and the table of a multitude of family meals, and it becomes only a house again. Go farther and consider pulling up the carpet, removing the drywall, opening it to the world, and then even the frame of its existence passes away, even foundations are dug up and carried away, and there is only an impression in the dirt where it once was, even that covered in time by grass and shrubs and trees, until one day it passes into memory and farther still into a deep forgetfulness. Dust to dust. A life deconstructed. That could be a depressing train of thought. I am glad I am not moving. And yet take heart. We live on. We carry every memory of home with us, inside. Whatever love and hope and care with which we invest our places, none is lost. We live on eternally to see its fruition, to see all our earthly places reborn and completed in a new earth whose builder and maker is God. “God is our true home. Away from him we are lost.” He is preparing a place for us, a final home. There, all that we love and cherish in our homes here, all the dear possessions and sweet memories, and even all the bad memories somehow transformed, will find rest. Jesus said, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him” (Jn. 14:23). Oh, I'm homesick alright. All God's children do wing toward Home… again and again and again. Continue reading
Posted Feb 16, 2014 at Out Walking