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Steve West
I'm a writer, walker, and nature lover
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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My wife is a gamer. I mean that in a very limited way. She doesn't binge in front of the Xbox, playing Call of Duty: Black Ops, though I expect she would do quite well. No, when we go out to lunch or dinner and wait on our meal, the backdrop of our conversation is often a game of IZee, which is really a form of Yahtzee played on her iPhone. Pass and play. She's competitive and yet gracious, whether winning or losing. I'm not. . . competitive that is. . . as I lose too much. I do try to be gracious. "Hey, you're almost winning," I say, as we wait on pizza. "What do you mean? We're tied." "Well, you're almost winning. One more point and you will win. I'm almost winning too." She smiled. The man and woman at the booth next to us stare at us. They are sitting on the same side of the booth, which is odd, and they are not smiling. I look back at the game. On many of the hundreds of occasions we have played this game, the words "permutations" and "combinations" enter my consciousness. A door opens on a tenth grade math class of some sort in which we studied these concepts. I'm looking out at the class, oddly enough, from the teacher's perspective, and my eyes sweep the class and go right to the large and open windows which look out on a flag pole, it's rope snapping in the wind, the ring that holds it clanging the pole. I have only the vaguest notion of what the words mean, but I think the sound of the phrase, permutations and combinations, was what I enjoyed, its assonance. "Your turn." I role a six, five, three, two, and six. I'm thinking. . . What are the odds I will role another six to give me three of a kind? But I have two rolls. If I save the two sixes and roll again, what are the chances that one of my three rolling die will be a six? What are the chances that all will be sixes? Should I save the two sixes or roll all five of them again? My head hurts. "Are you going to roll?" I'm thinking this has something to do with permutations and combinations, but I have no idea what to do with the concept anymore. I roll all five die. Hmmm. No sixes at all. What are the odds? Soundly defeated, I vowed to look up permutations and combinations when I got home. What I learned is that Yatzee has nothing to do with permutations, where sequence matters, and everything to do with combinations, with the probability that dice will be rolled in a certain combination. For example, the odds of rolling all of one number on the first roll of five dice (you yell "Yahtzee" here) is 1/5 x 1/5 x 1/5 x 1/5 x 1/5, or 1/3125, which is discouraging, of course, and utterly useless. Mr. Wizard is not playing IZee. The pizza is here. A few mouthfuls later, she won. Again. "You almost won," she generously said. "Essentially, we tied." I smile. She won by two points. I think that unwillingness to trumpet victory is called parity of hearts or, maybe, oneness. What are the odds of that? Continue reading
Posted Jan 30, 2016 at Out Walking
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Of all the 17,897 Peanuts newspaper strips penned by Charles Schultz during his 50 years of creative endeavor, most of which I have not read, one exemplifies the surprising profundity that a four-panel comic strip could have under Schultz. Lucy and Charlie Brown are propped thoughtfully on a brick wall, and Charlie Brown says “You know what I wonder?,” and then, “Sometimes I wonder if God is pleased with me.” In the next (and third) panel, he turns to Lucy, whose expression has never changed as yet, and says “Do you ever wonder if God is pleased with you?” Lucy turns, smiling smugly, and says, “He just HAS to be!” It’s funny, as it plays on Charlie Brown’s self-deprecation and doubt and on Lucy’s assuredness, and yet there’s more to it than that. It’s as if Lucy protests too much. She too wonders, we think, though unlike Charlie Brown, she covers with her confidence, with her assurance. The question is one that resonated, no doubt with millions of readers: Does God really love me? And if so, then why are things not going well for me? Or, could he really love me? In A Charlie Brown Religion: Exploring the Spiritual Life and Work of Charles M. Schultz, author Stephen J. Lind does an excellent job exploring the way the late Schultz brought Christian faith to bear on his popular Peanuts series. No doubt all of us remember the poignancy of the animated A Charlie Brown Christmas, with Linus’s telling of the Christmas story, reciting verbatim the words of scripture at the end, but we’re likely unaware of Schultz’s deep if somewhat idiosyncratic Christian faith and his persistent employment of scripture — both as directly quoted as well as alluded to — in some of his strips and animated shows. At the time, in the mid-Sixties, network TV programmers were extremely reluctant to include religious references, much less scripture, in their programming. Told that having Linus read the Gospel of Luke was “too religious,” Schultz stuck to his convictions, saying “If we don’t do it, who will?” The rest is history. He had the presence to make it happen. A memorable Christmas special was born. A barrier was broken. Born in St. Paul, Minnesota, Charles Schultz saw little of church as a child. In school, he fared poorly, failing many subjects, a shy boy with no obvious future calling. When high school ended, however, his mother suggested that he take a correspondence art course. It was his first step into honing his own craft. Drafted in 1943, he served in Europe, but most agonizingly, his mother contracted terminal cervical cancer in the years before he left, so as he said goodbye to her, he knew that it was likely the last time he would see her. While deployed, his father Carl began attending a small Church of God congregation, and on return, Schultz did as well. It was there, through Bible studies and friendships that he came to a realization of faith sometime in 1948. Asked about it, he said “I accepted Jesus Christ by gratitude.” Haunted by nightmares of war, suffering the too-early death of his mother, the community of faith he found buoyed him. Lind gives good coverage in the book to the incremental and progressive achievements Schultz made in a career in comics. And yet the focus here is the continuing place that faith had in his life. He never forgot his roots in the Church of God or the pastoral and other friendships he developed there, never stopped reading and studying scripture (as evidenced by a well-used and marked Bible), and never stopped interjecting Bible truth into comic strips and animated specials. At the same time, none were preachy, none off-putting. As Lind writes, “Most of the salient religious references in the animated specials. . . used terminology , phrasing and anecdotes from Scripture to create laughter, not theological debate.” Nevertheless, the comic strips and animated specials often invited reflection. In 1983’s It’s An Adventure, Charlie Brown, one short, “Butterfly,” is rich with questioning. Out on the lawn, a butterfly lands on Peppermint Patty’s nose. She falls asleep and Marcie sends it fluttering away. Awakening, Marcie exclaims, “A miracle, sir! While you were asleep it turned into an angel.” Peppermint Patty is convinced that she was chosen to bring a message to the world. However, she is unable to get any attention from a televangelist or any other religious people. And though Marcie is trying to tell her that she made the whole thing up, she can’t hear it. As Lind explains, “[I]f the viewer is willing to think through the issue with the scene, an invitation is extended to consider one’s relationship to miracles. The scene asks why it is that some are so wonderfully quick to believe that a miracle has happened to them when the ‘real’ explanation is being repeated over and over. Yet the viewer is also prompted to consider why others, who are purportedly in the business of miracles. . . , are so wrapped up with the tedious business of Sunday school papers and sprinkler systems that they lose the ability to listen to news of the miraculous.” Witty and profound, rich with questioning yet without trite answers, Schultz provokes reflection by those willing to pause. Doubtless the questions posed were the ones he also asked. Though he never explicitly abandoned faith, at some point in life Charles Schultz stopped going to church. In a biography published in 1989, he was quoted saying “I guess you might say I’ve come around to secular humanism.” And yet Lind concludes, based on other comments by Schultz, that the statement neither reflected atheism nor a crisis of faith but, rather, a increasingly complex faith, a kind of biblical humanism or, perhaps, a Christian universalism. Lind says that “The view that Christ’s work had atoned for all of mankind’s sin, regardless of their religious affiliation, and that God knew the heart of each man and woman sufficient to determine if they were part of His kingdom, seems consistent with Sparky’s [Schultz’s] comments on faith.” If not universalism, it is certainly an openness to the inclusion in the Kingdom of those who do not even refer to themselves as Christians, who do not profess belief but who are “good” people. No one would refer to this as historic, orthodox Christian belief as reflected in its historic creeds, yet it seemed to be what Schultz embraced as he removed himself from the accountability of a church where new ideas could be discussed and, at times, countered. And though he did not stop discussing biblical theology with friends, they were also not of an evangelical ilk. In 1998 his friend Robert Short described him as a “Christian universalist,” explaining, using a Peanuts metaphor, that “he believed, as I do, that finally all people are going to be rounded up by Christ the sheep dog.” Whether he was correct is unclear; that Schultz’s own non-systematic theology has deep inconsistencies with the Bible is clear. After battling cancer, Charles Schultz died in his sleep from a pulmonary embolism on the night of February 12, 2000. He struggled with faith in his last days, not seeing the efficacy of prayers on his behalf, wanting to continue to be active, as he had planned, on into his Eighties. Perhaps he even contemplated that question by Charlie Brown, “Do you ever wonder if God is pleased with you?” Perhaps now he knows. Perhaps, as Lucy said, “he just has to be.” I recommend A Charlie Brown Religion, even if, like me, you were not a fan of Peanuts but simply one who brushed up against a cultural icon. Highly readable and focused, my only criticism is the inclusion of the epilogue which read more like a introduction to the Peanuts brand and muted the power of the conclusions Lind drew from Schultz’s life. That aside, well-written biographies like Lind’s instruct and inspire, even warn. In the life of Charles Schultz, there is much to commend — his winsomeness, generosity, creativity, work ethic, and love for others — and yet much that serves as warning. He had an affair when married to his first wife. He failed to instruct his children in faith, reasoning that they each needed to come to their own conclusions (despite scriptural admonitions to do so), and, giving up the life of a community of faith (also commended in scripture) veered into an individualistic and non-orthodox spirituality rooted in Christian faith but free-floating and amorphous. In the end, we can celebrate the many commendable qualities of his life, leaving the rest between him and his Maker. After all, in the end, every human being is a mystery fully known only by his God. Continue reading
Posted Jan 24, 2016 at Out Walking
"Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed.” ‭‭ Heb.‬ ‭12:12-13‬ ‭(ESV) Several months ago I was taking the stairs in our house from the ground to our second floor. I fell up the stairs, which is, I have to say, better than falling down the stairs, something I have also done. I banged my knee on the lip of a step. Since then, it's been a source of discomfort, not when walking but when taking stairs. Physical therapy consists of strengthening my weak knee, though the exercises are counterintuitive, meaning it has been explained to me how they will accomplish that, but I cannot make the connection. This particular passage of scripture comes after a reminder from the writer of Hebrews that God is the founder or author of our faith, as well as its perfecter. He counsels that hardship and trials are a form of discipline God uses to perfect our faith, which is our life. To people with drooping hands, that is, who cannot bring themselves to do another thing, and with weak knees, that is, who are disinclined to get up and take the next step, he says "lift" and "strengthen." How? By looking to Jesus (v. 2). How? By seeing in our circumstances a loving Father who cares enough to shepherd us through hardship to refine us and make us holy, to make us more fully who He intends us to be. How? By taking the long view, by persevering. My physical therapist forces me to do activities that are painful. He needles me, shocks me, pulls and twists me. If I didn't believe he knew what he was doing, I'd think him a sick little man. I do not appreciate what he does and want him to stop. Some people feel that way about God. I don't. I may not like His therapy, but I trust it is for my good. It is for my healing. I hold out hope that His therapy will make me whole. Continue reading
Posted Dec 29, 2015 at Out Walking
My wife and I retired early on Christmas Eve this year, that is, by 1:30. The elves must feel something akin to this: weeks of workshop labor, shorted sleep, and unhealthy food, and then, finally, when the taillights of Santa's sleigh crests the horizon, they take to their beds. It felt that way. To be horizontal and still alive is to be deeply thankful. The cat stared dreamily at me from her pillow-bed near our feet. As she settled deeper into her cushions, I lost consciousness. And then, out of the dark, a clunk. I looked at the clock: 1:30. "Was that a door shutting?," she said sleepily. "Must have been a cat," I said. Silence. I lay there. It could have been a cat, a very heavy cat, and yet the large one still lay at the end of the bed and the other wisp of a cat would not make such a large noise and, besides, was likely tucked away in a crevice somewhere. I threw off the covers and went to the window, lifting the blinds to peek outside. Fog curled around the single street light. A neighbor's window light cast a single square of yellow light on the lawn next door. A black cat stole across the street, the one we call the Mayor, dutifully checking drain pipes, ground holes, and sewer drains for riff-raff. The usual. But then, in the corner of my eye, something red moved. At the corner of my house, a man was pushing something, and having a hard time of it, calling out to the darkness, "On. . . "What are you doing over there?" "Nothing." I dropped the blind. "Go back to sleep." "Did you figure out what that sound was?" "A cat, I think." Scapegoat for all, the cat. Silent when accused. "Will you go down and check it out?" "Sure." I will? I guess I will. I didn't really want to, yet I started out my door, feeling my way. "Dad, did Santa come?," said my son from the darkness. "Sssh. He can't come if you're awake." That's what my parents told me anyway. "I'm not awake." "You have to be unconscious for him to come." I added that bit. That is, you have to at least act like you're sleeping. "I am unconscious. Can't you tell?" And then, after a pause: "Where are you going?" "Nowhere. Checking on things." From the other room, my daughter, "What's going on out there?" "Everyone go to sleep. I'm just checking to be sure all the lights are out." I started down the stairs, avoiding the creaking one. About halfway down, I heard a slight creak behind me. I paused, one foot in midair, and turned, only to see the cat behind me, one paw in the air. "You too?" I whispered. I knelt close to her face. "Listen, when we get to the bottom, you go right, I'll go left," I said. She nodded, ever so slightly. "And be quiet." At the bottom, she turned left, not right, inexplicably, and I followed. As she entered the kitchen, she dropped to the floor, paws spread. I crouched. "What is it?," I whispered. Looking up, I saw a small, bearded man in a red suit kneeling beneath our Christmas tree in the near-dark, placing packages under the tree. I rose, drew a breath too quickly, too loudly, and he turned. "Hey, you're. . ." He put a finger to his lips, smiling, indicating that I should remain quiet, and then turned to his work. Looking down, I saw the cat walk by me carrying a catnip mouse in her mouth. Then, looking up again, he was gone. Just vanished. I turned to walk back up the stairs. At the landing, I stopped. "Dad?" "Aren't you asleep?" "Yes, but did Santa come?" "I'm sure he'll get here. You go to sleep." "I am asleep. I can sleep and talk at the same time." And I can be awake and dream at the same time. "I want a sugarplum." "They don't grow here." "What is a sugarplum, anyway?" "Nite, son." I lifted the edge of the covers and slid back into bed, settling on my back. The cat lay unconscious in a half-circle at my feet. I re-positioned her gently with a slight kick. From the dark, my wife: "Did you see Santa?" "Yeah." "What'd he say?" "He asked if you'd been good." "And you said?" "I said you'd been better than me." "Was that OK?" "Well, he smiled, anyway." "You sure you saw him?" "I'm sure." "Sure you did." In the morning, I rolled over, opened my eyes. A catnip mouse lay beside me. The wisp of a cat sat on the floor beside the bed, looking up at me. "You see him too?" She meowed. "OK, that settles it." Continue reading
Posted Dec 26, 2015 at Out Walking
“All eyes tell us of helplessness and despair. And despite it all, Christmas comes. Whether we wish it or not, whether we are sure or not, we must hear the words once again: Christ the Savior is here! The world that Christ comes to save is our fallen and lost world. None other.” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer) If the latest issue of The New Yorker is an indication of what the urbane elites of our culture think of Christmas, the answer is: not much. In this year-end, double issue, the word “Christmas” is uttered once, and that in a flip send-up name-drop poem by Ian Frazier entitled “Greetings, Friends!,” an inane review of the past year’s newsmakers. The cover boasts a winter scene with what appear to be elves and reindeer in pandemonium. And that’s about it. That’s the holiday issue. Um, holiday is not mentioned either. The New Yorker was never Christ-centered, of course. For its writers, editors, and most of its readers, Christmas is no doubt wrapped in myth and tradition, a hectic season of gift-giving, parties, and some superficial sense of good cheer. In this issue, there is an article on global warming, the gloomy message of which seems to be that Southern Florida will be under water within 50 years and there is nothing we can do about it. In a “world-changers” issue, there are some profiles of those who are deemed world-changers, like Secretary of State John Kerry, and yet you have the distinct sense that “world-changers” is used in a tongue-in-cheek fashion, the editors knowingly winking at the readers as if to say, “not really, but we had to print something positive, and this is all we could muster.” Beyond this incarnate irony, however, is the Incarnate One. That’s the real story. In my fantasy, I imagine this event, the virgin birth of God, as the “Talk of the Town,” as the focal point of The New Yorker. There are articles of faith and hope and love, of the world-changing efforts of ordinary people. That’s not impossible. Nothing is impossible with God. Yet I won’t hold my breath. It was Christmas Sunday in 1930 when Bonhoeffer preached his Advent sermon. The world was in the throes of an economic depression. Facism and communism were on the rise. There were many reasons for helplessness and despair. And yet, into the midst of that, he could proclaim, “Christ the Savior is here.” And so can we. The New Yorker may have unwittingly pointed to something its writers may not really grasp. The last line of Ian Frazier’s poem speaks of the coming year, of “Jumping with both feet, not looking,/ On amazing grace depending.” Amazing grace, indeed. Christ, the savior, is here. Let that be the talk of the town. Continue reading
Posted Dec 20, 2015 at Out Walking
As Francis Schaeffer preached and lived, there are “no little people, and no little places.” People are made in the image of God - every single one of them - and no matter how marred the image in them, they do not lose it. Yet I am so often aware of how I do not live that. Clive James, a famous British writer that I only barely know of, has every reason to consider himself important, I suppose, given all the books he has read and written. He is in the last stages of his life now, in and out of the hospital. As he lay in his hospital bed one evening, watching a nurse clean up a mess he had made (I’ll spare the details), he suddenly recognized the image of God in her (though he does not know it as such): “She had a deformed body, with limbs all the wrong lengths. Life could not have been easy for her. But now she was making the end of my life easier for me. It was a night to remember, and I haven’t forgotten it for a second. I can only hope that the sum total of my writings has been as useful to the world as her kindness, but I doubt that this is so.” In a divine propinquity, I also heard two other stories in the last couple of days that reminded me that there are no little people. One was of that of former MMA (martial arts) fighter Justin Wren who, after an amazing vision given to him by God, now heads a mission the forgotten people of the Congo, the pgymies, “little people” who know him as “The Man Who Loves Us,” or “The Big Pygmy.” The other is of Amy DeBurgh of Shepherds College, who works with intellectually disabled people. The remarkable thing about both ministries is that they recognize that neither pygmies nor the intellectually disabled are “little people.” They are God’s images. In her interview, Amy says that when we limit God’s image in people by measuring it by an external standard, like intelligence or ability or appearance, we actually deny the image, that is, we deny that the reality that the image of God is “vastly immeasurable.” Schaeffer would nod assent, and add that when we touch the lives of those who the world thinks of as insignificant, we must realize that every soul is important, that the small kindness we show to the “little” person has ramifications far beyond what we can see. We can pray we see past the surface to the images of God among whom we live and work, particularly the forgotten ones, the ones who annoy, the ones who inconvenience, and the ones who have nothing (we think) to offer us. Especially them. Continue reading
Posted Dec 3, 2015 at Out Walking
It's Advent, even though most people don't know the word. Through the rain that falls today, puddling on the roof outside their windows, tapping on their gutters, many do wait and hope for something they can't quite name, to some kind of advent. The New Yorker magazine has an online archive of everything published by it since 1925, so I searched to see what a great writer like E.B. White might say about Christmas. In a small Comment on Christmas Eve, 1949, there is, sadly, no mention of the Incarnation, but in his voice you can hear the longing for something more and, like all writers, his voice gives expression to what many others cannot articulate. Into a world still recovering from a great world war, he said: "To perceive Christmas through its wrapping becomes more difficult with every year. There was a little device we noticed in one of the sporting-goods stores — a trumpet that hunters hold to their ears so that they can hear the distant music of the hounds. Something of the sort is needed now to hear the incredibly distant sound of Christmas in these times, through the dark, material woods that surround it." Well, there is "something of that sort." It is the simple yet profound texts of scripture centered in "for unto us a child is born." And it is not distant but God come near, at hand. White goes on to say that "[t]he miracle of Christmas is that, like the distant and very musical voice of the hound, it penetrates finally and becomes heard in the heart over so many years, through so many cheap curtain-raisers. It is not destroyed even by all the arts and craftiness of the destroyers, having an essential simplicity that is everlasting and triumphant, at the end of confusion." Everlasting. Triumphant. Heard in the heart? Call it religion and you might smother it. Make it a greeting card cliche and sentimentalize and trivialize it. But listen to what it might mean for God to submit himself to earthly form for one reason only: love. White again: “So this day and this century proceed toward the absolutes of convenience, of complexity, and of speed, only occasionally holding up the little trumpet (as at Christmastime) to be reminded of the simplicities, and to hear the distant music of the hound. . . . This [Christmas], many will be reminded that no explosion of atoms generates so hopeful a light as the reflection of a star, seen appreciatively in a pasture pond. It is there we perceive Christmas — and the sheep quiet, and the world waiting.” As in 1949, now. The world is waiting for the hound. . . of Heaven. Continue reading
Posted Nov 30, 2015 at Out Walking
“As for man, his days are like grass; he flourishes like a flower of the field; for the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place knows it no more.” ‭(‭Ps. 103:15-16‬) I'm sitting in the car waiting for my daughter, listening to a record I have not listened to for many years. It's Welcome to Struggleville, by the Vigilantes of Love. Don't you love that name? I'm just catching phrases of this fine record. . ."I'm been trying to negotiate peace with my own existence. . . The whole thing is full of decay. . . But in the rust I know the beast is falling." Well, the title says it all. Sin. Entropy. Fallen world. Yet, the Beast is falling. Victory is assured. I took a late walk earlier, in full sun. Winding down is in the air. Autumn is a visual reminder for an image-soaked culture that there is a time for everything. The trees are nearly bare. Leaves clog the creek. In the new development near my home, every tree has been removed along with longstanding homes, people having moved elsewhere. Even the land has been raked over, plowed, shaped, piped, wired, and paved. A sign says "Homes from the $600s,” but the land is empty. Deer, fox, birds: gone. And yet in months there will be new homes, grass, families, cars, bicycles, swing sets - in short, life. And the people will not know those who lived their lives here before, every trace of whom has been removed. That's a loss, I think. There should be a reminder of those who came before. This place mattered to them. If the people return months from now, they will barely be able to root their deep memories in the land, in the place where they arose. They had children here, grew families here, fought and argued here, entertained and read here. Gone. Loss permeates this small place; loss permeates our landscapes. As author Paul Pastor recently reminded readers in his review of Walter Wangerin's new memoir, "Fred Buechner, in the introduction to his own (second) memoir, Now and Then, wrote: if you tell your own story with sufficient candor and concreteness, it will be an interesting story and in some sense a universal story.' Buechner further casts his memoir as 'a call to prayer.' (Such calls are universal.)" So many stories still hang over the land, left to seed new lives. I just wish someone had gathered up the stories before they left. Prayers still linger. It’s not all loss. New lives will grow here. Children will be born, grow, and learn. God will do His work. The Kingdom will grow, even if small, in what is now empty. I walked today down paved streets with no houses. I said a prayer for those who come, a seed dropped in the ground that God will water. My daughter just texted. “OMW.” Welcome to struggleville, caught between loss and promise. I’m on my way. The Beast is falling. Continue reading
Posted Nov 25, 2015 at Out Walking
If you don’t read poetry, start. My friend Suzanne Underwood Rhodes says that “[i]maginative language - poetry - trains the mind in faith. For what is faith but divine realities we can only imagine, ‘the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen’ (Heb. 11:1)” In her guide to poetry, called The Roar on the Other Side, there are many fine poems yet, even better, she provides a guide to appreciating their music, to listening to the great truths and mysteries to which poetry point. Speaking of metaphor, one of the strongest tools of poetry, she says: “When Jesus proclaims, ‘I am the Bread of life,’ He removes all our fences of seeing. He is entirely bread - nourishing, flavorful, essential. Rising and resurrection are in the loaf too. It is bread enough for the whole world, and of this Bread we must eat or perish. ‘Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you’ (John 6:53). Is this metaphor? Is this not mystery? Let us keep silent.” Sometimes I am silent because I am in awe of their beauty; sometimes, because I understand nothing and wait, dumbstruck. That’s it: Sometimes before the words of a great poem, we must be silent, let the words was over us, let them do their work. As sometimes before the great God, we must be still, must wait, must listen for His voice. Let Him remove all the “fences of our seeing.” Let His still small voice come whisper in the wind. Where to start? Try Mary Oliver, particularly her collection entitled Thirst. Or Jane Kenyon, in her Otherwise. Or even, if you are brave, Denise Levertov, in a slight collection entitled The Stream & the Sapphire. You’ll find faith of a sorts in them, though I don’t know its precise contours. Poets aren’t often precise on matters like dogma. But you will find much more: little truth and big Truths, little poems pointing to greater realities, particulars like dirt and sky, and universals like goodness and beauty and sadness and joy. Read them aloud. Hear their music. Read them silently. Let pictures form in your mind. Tell someone what they say, if you can. You might find they begin quietly but, by the end of it, roar an dance in your head, arise unbidden while in the checkout line and bring the slightest of smiles to your mouth, a song remembered. Continue reading
Posted Nov 24, 2015 at Out Walking
With the recent killing of innocents in Paris recently, I thought of the last time I was in Paris. It was 2007, and my son and I had stopped there en route to Switzerland from England. We had traveled over to meet my writing partner Kevin and his daughter, and unbeknownst to us, halfway over, Heathrow was closed as result of the apprehended "shoe bomber". After doing some interviews in Cambridge and Oxford, we took the Chunnel train over to Paris. We had 36 hours to see Paris. My partner, who booked a flight from England to Switzerland, was stuck in England for three days, as no flights were going out. We had lunch in a cafe with a clear view of Notre Dame. I tried my French on the server. My son said, "Dad, don't ever try to speak French again." He was right about that. It was a beautiful Summer day, and the views of the city were quite amazing - the Seine, Notre Dame, the Eiffel Tower - a beautiful city with people more generous and helpful than I had remembered. Reading some of E.B. White's shorts and fillers for The New Yorker, I came across a single paragraph from one of his Notes and Comments fillers from September 2, 1944. Written upon the liberation of Paris, he says that on hearing the news of liberation, he couldn't think of what else to do but pull down the Encyclopedia Brittanica, turn to the article on Paris, and read its most "dullest" prose, only it came alive on that happy day: “‘Paris,’ we began, ‘capital of France and of the department of the Seine, situated on the Ile de la Cite, the Ile St. Louis, and the Ile Louviers, in the Seine, as well as on the banks of the Seine, 233 miles from its mouth and 285 miles S.S.E. of London (by rail and steamer via Dover and Calais).’ The words seemed like the beginning of a great poem. A feeling of simple awe overtook us as we slowly turned the page and settled down to a study of the city’s weather graph and the view of the Seine looking east from Notre Dame. ‘The rainfall is rather evenly distributed,’ continued the encyclopaedist. Evenly distributed, we thought to oneself, like the tears of those who love Paris.” Reading that, I imagine White hunched over the great book, his finger on the word “rainfall”, great tears welling in his eyes, tears of joy at liberation of that great city after its too long captivity. I imagine the tears shed only days ago, tears of sorrow, not joy. Still, I long for a “rainfall. . . evenly distributed,” a city of no fear. I can’t wait to hear that news. Continue reading
Posted Nov 23, 2015 at Out Walking
In a newspaper clipping from our local paper on January 11, 2007, Washington Post journalist Linton Weeks writes of shifting baselines and changing standards. The article is called “When Normal Is a Moving Target.” Anytime I hear someone say that 80 is the new 60, I think about the article. It piqued my attention because it tracks the subtlety of change, the largely unnoticed changing baseline by which we sometimes measure normal. According to the article, marine biologist Randy Olson says that shifting baselines “are the chronic, hard-to-notice changes in things, from he disappearance of birds and frogs in the countryside to the increased drive time from San Diego to Los Angeles.” The phrase was actually coined by a biology professor, Daniel Pauley, as he examined declining fish populations; then, he started seeing them everywhere. Sometimes baselines rise, as in longer life spans; sometimes drop, as in language, clothing, and manners. Mostly, however, given our skew toward dystopian scenarios, the literature on shifting baselines is riddled with a sense of loss and nostalgia, a lowered expectation, a settling for less. But Pauly says that the concept has a very positive purpose as well, as “it means we can endure loss,” functioning as a helpful defense mechanism. If every generation passed on the full burden of the past, Pauly says “we would paralyze the next generation.” So, what he suggests we focus on is the identification of which baselines are important and essential. If we look carefully and watch for the incremental changes, we can even change the changes. This is both knowledge and wisdom. To understand the past and the changes that are occurring is a huge step in reformation of individual lives and culture. For Christians, it resonates with the kind of remembering that God calls us to, the kind of looking about which Jesus speaks. As Christians, we recognize that all is abnormal, that culture, creation, and individual lives are malformed due to sin. To put it in naturalistic terms, all is subject to entropy. Yet at the same time there is a building up, a positive change that comes from a growing kingdom, from an Aslan on the move. As Francis Schaeffer often said, while we will not experience complete reformation on this side of Heaven, we can experience substantial healing, and if we push our time frame back far enough, we can see both decline and rebuilding throughout history, the friction of the kingdom of this world and the kingdom of heaven. Normal is not really a moving target. God’s standards are sure. The only way to check the cultural drift, the changing baseline of normal, is to look to the source, the Word, and when we are there confronted by how far we fall short, to remember Grace, about how God ever moves toward us in love. Always. Which means we are ever gaining, not losing, not paralyzed by loss but energized by grace. The trouble with normal? It’s not normal. Continue reading
Posted Nov 22, 2015 at Out Walking
“Everyone has a story to tell, and everyone is telling it.” (William Zinsser, in Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir) My son reminds me often that there will be no post-humous memoirs, that if I have any to write I must write them now, that he will not write them. But I suspect he would if there was anything to say. . . or, more accurately, if there was anyone to read what there is to be said. How do you construct a life? Someone who writes, like me — well, like half the world, if you include Facebook — could be constructed by reading their social media posts. That would be highly inaccurate, would be, in fact, a construct. Most everyone would be successful, thin (or, to compensate, brilliant), and happy. Or they travel and eat out all the time. Their posts are full of smiling, happy people. I think we know better. Life has major and minor themes. But too much honesty on Facebook and “friends” would collectively say “this is neither the time nor the place.” Keep it light. You could look at the letters they write. The over 1000 letters contained in the Letters of E.B. White, for example, give great insight into the life of a modest if gifted man, to good relationships with his parents and brother, and to a long and happy marriage to Katherine, as well as early insight into his gifts as a writer of wit. In one letter, written to his parents when he was 21, still in college at Cornell, he begins with “Dear Family: A robin woke me this morning but he should have held his peace, for he is a false prophet. The weather is beautiful though wintry. Spring dallies somewhere in the offing, like a backward child asked to perform.” I can tell you that the few letters I wrote home from college meant something to my mother, yes, but held no golden prose such as White’s, and she, not being sentimental, long ago disposed of them. Who keeps letters anyway? I do. In my closet is a stack of letters, perhaps 100 or more. Some are letters from my wife to me before and after we were wed. But, of course, they tell me about her and only indirectly about me. Still, I save them. You could interview me. “Me” is usually a good subject to engage me on as, like most people, I know a lot about the subject. But recollection is skewed. My version of some events may not match that recollected by my sisters, as in was I pushed off the tricycle, or did I fall off? The past is murky, clouded by the present. To some extent, as the title of Zinger’s book hints, we may be “inventing the truth” in the telling of it. Memoir doesn’t require fact-checking or corroboration. It’s about telling a good story. And yet, while such personal narrative is the author’s interpretation of a life, not being fiction, it should be rooted in fact. Further, it’s not self-indulgence, reprisal, or tell-all. Good memoir should have the same subtlety and understatement that make powerful any other good story. They leave mystery, as do lives. We don’t even fully know ourselves. I wish I had those letters I wrote my mother. I want to hear my 18-year old words. I want to hear what it is I thought important to tell her. The documentation of those years is incomplete and my memory muddled. But one thing I know: God was telling a good story, though not complete, full of good and evil, plot turns and twists, shadowy threats and unmerited good, of hard lessons and miraculous deliverances. And I’m not the only one. I can’t wait to read them all. Continue reading
Posted Nov 18, 2015 at Out Walking
A cold winter’s morning, clouded and still, is, if not dismal, shrouded. Over breakfast I stared out over a lawn returning to forest, overnight. The lawn care workers came a day ago and blew it clean, made tidy edges to the new green grass, let walks manifest themselves. But overnight God, with a few puffs of stiff breath, covered it again. Brown leaves lay scattered over the green, with a blanket of pine straw worked in like yeast in dough, the beginning of the end, God reclaiming his own. I frowned, slightly, and a shadow crept across the table and my soul. Then, a female cardinal alighted on the outdoor water dish for our cats, scarce four feet from me. She drank, chirping between sips. Occasionally she looked up at me in the window, briefly, before flying. My countenance changed as I turned away, to the words at the top of the page: “You have multiplied, O LORD my God, your wondrous deeds and your thoughts toward us; none can compare with you!” (Ps. 40:5) You could say it’s a matter of entropy, of inevitable order to disorder. Yet perhaps, it’s just our perspective; disorder may hold a deeper order; a bird carries hope. Who am I to say how the earth is husbanded? Who am I to Him? Continue reading
Posted Nov 17, 2015 at Out Walking
“Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God." (Eph. 5:25) Whenever we read a verse that commands us to walk, we know that a progression is anticipated, a forward motion with purpose and destination, not a circuitous path or retreat. What this verse commands is an advance in love, a walking forward in love relationally and societally. It can be cold out in the world. It was 37 degrees this morning, and forward motion was necessary just to stay warm. We passed one man and dog, both retracted, drawn in on themselves by virtue of the chill. Leaves lay quiet on the roadside, and our breath went ahead of us. We did not even pray until our bodies were warm. The other part of the verse is prefaced by the phrase "as Christ." How did Christ walk? He moved forward in relationship sacrificially, laying down his rights, even his life, for others. Thus, this is an advance of love via death, — if not a physical death, then thousands of existential deaths: giving up your right to win the argument, to have your way, to exact justice for every offense. We tend to view this as retreat, but it is not. It is an aggressive love, a long walk, a steady march of humility. We keep going. We pray up hill — breathless, short requests — and we pray downhill —- long exhales of gratitude. We pass carpenters, hammering, yelling in Spanish to one another, and I wonder of prayers are mumbled under breath or rest, inchoate, as day dreams. We pass on into intercession, to Lord, this and that; to Lord help, heal, and hinder. We walk on. At our wedding my wife and I selected as text the words of Philippians 2: 1-11, where we are called to model Christ in his humility. The centerpiece is the Great Condescension of vv. 5-7, where Paul says “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.” We are still working on our Little Condescensions, on getting low. Down, down, down the hill we go, and down, down down Christ came for us, walking all the way from Heaven’s Throne for us. Souls are won by this aggressive humility. Even worlds. Continue reading
Posted Nov 16, 2015 at Out Walking
I went to church today. I’ve done that virtually every Sunday for over 57 years, and while it may be that I miss an average of four Sundays each year, that adds up to a considerable number of sermons — roughly 2736. As infant and toddler I suppose I missed a few, though I was within their curtilage. My first conscious memory of listening was sitting next to father, drawing on the bulletin, periodically checking his watch and second hand for their terminus. I remember the interruption of one sermon where the pastor had to address his young and misbehaving son from the pulpit. When we have traveled on vacations as a family, we generally have gone to church where we are, as I always said why would we take a vacation from church? If our regular church is a hospital for sinners, our vacation churches are like urgent cares, and we need them on vacations as much or even more than we do at home, as entitlement and self-interest can take hold when the long-awaited vacation comes. Sometimes we are sicker (we sin more). We are always in need of treatment. It consists of diagnosis (sin) and prognosis (grace). There is physical exercise of a sort: we stand, we sit, we stand, we sit. The pastor, who is as sick as the rest of us, only slightly more aware of it, tells stories about the cure, recasting it in as many different ways as is necessary for us to hear, as hearing well is part of the cure. We read scripture, which is like a diagnostic manual. We sing, or we croak, but we open our mouths to receive, which is part of the cure (praise). We have a meal, odd though it be, a pittance to the eye but mystically multiplied like loaves and fishes within (communion). We are pronounced healed and discharged (benediction), and we exit to a world plagued by diseases. We’ll be back. We have to, as we’re sick. Church is one of my favorite places. So when I read someone as thoughtful and in many ways caring as E.B. White write about church as cold and lifeless, it saddens me, and I wonder to what churches he was exposed. In one essay he says “In this house we cling to a few relics of religious observation, but there is no heart in it. If we possess faith (and I guess we do), it is of a secret and unconsecrated sort ill of ease in church.” Hearing that “and I guess we do” makes me think that what he felt was the absence of faith, not its presence, and his visits to church were like excursions in a wax museum hospital, where he saw what was but not what is, what’s left when Christ is absent. On occasion I’ve been to some sorry churches. Terrible music. Sermons lacking any clear prescription. Lifeless singing. Yet always I find Jesus, in the words of Scripture, in the words of hymns, in a stained glass window, or even in silence. There may not be much care to be had, but it is urgent. Continue reading
Posted Nov 15, 2015 at Out Walking
My grandmother never drove a car. To travel with her meant walking, usually through paths in the woods leading to neighbors’ homes, a strawberry patch, the Southern Railway bridge with a pooling creek beneath it to swim in, or to an old cemetery in the trees, overgrown and unkempt, returning, dust to dust. She was intimately familiar with the land around her home and the ways of travel by foot. She never traveled over the landscape but moved in it. Yet she would never have thought much about it. Many of us, however, will never know that feeling of closeness to the land, given the freedom of travel by car over the world or virtually via the internet. That’s a loss unseen to most, so I’m glad I knew it as a child. Wendell Berry says that “[t]he difference between a path and a road is not only the obvious one. A path is little more than a habit that comes with knowledge of a place. It is a sort of ritual familiarity. . . . It is the perfect adaptation, through experience and familiarity, of movement to place; it obeys the natural contours; such obstacles as it meets it goes around. A road, on the other hand. . . embodies a resistance against the landscape. . . . It wishes to avoid contact with the landscape.” His is a Manichaean view of reality. It’s not so simple. I follow a sidewalk every morning when I walk, and yet the roads I travel follow the contour of the land and are not made simply to move me from Point A to B. Some thought was given to the land and context. Further, the very fact that there is a sidewalk is a suggestion that a closer experience may be had by walking. Not enough people take the suggestion. When I walk, I sometimes engage my imagination. I peel away the houses, telephone lines, streets, and sidewalks, one at a time, like they are mere overlays on the topography. I imagine I am on a path made by habit and familiarity through a forest or meadow. Sometimes, when I face an open stretch and know it is safe, I even close my eyes momentarily and walk trusting my memory for what’s ahead, and the sounds of the land become richer. In Psalm 37:29, the Psalmist says that “the righteous will inherit the land and dwell in it forever.” One meaning of “dwell” is to linger. Familiarity and habit and love for a place can only take root when we linger, and merely driving through it will not give us that rich sense of dwelling. If you can, walk in your place. If you can’t then sit outside in it and listen. Find a way to sink deep in it. Let it seep into and be part of you. Continue reading
Posted Nov 14, 2015 at Out Walking
E.B. White writes an endearing and prescient comment about his wife Katherine's fall laying out of the spring bulb garden, the only gardening task she dressed the part for, one he said was "carefully charted and full of witchcraft." She sat in a canvas chair placed for her at the end of the tulip plot, with clipboard and diagram in hand, while her helper showed her brown bag upon bag of bulbs, ready for "internment." Then this: "As the years went by and age overtook her, there was something comical yet touching in her bedraggled appearance on this awesome occasion --- the small, hunched-over figure, her studied absorption in the implausible notion that there would be yet another spring, oblivious to the ending of her own days, which she knew perfectly well was near at hand, sitting there with her detailed chart under the dark skies in the dying October, calming plotting the resurrection." Aa much as White wrote, he kept Katherine at the margins, her story her own. But in that one sentence, he spoke worlds. He spoke of faith and hope and, finally, love. It's possible he even said more than the thought he said. Each of us face not only the death that Katherine faced, but a hundred other smaller deaths in a life. Maybe you thought you'd become a brilliant scientist or author, and you didn't. Maybe you thought you'd live in a bigger house, or be in a better marriage, and you're not. Maybe you just thought you'd have an hour of time for yourself today, and you didn't, because there were clothes to wash and a house to clean and children to run to and fro. If you're really alive, you're also dying to yourself moment by moment. And yet all is not lost. There is a life underneath the surface, a dream being nurtured in the winter of our dying. Spring is coming. For now, bedraggled though we are, let us with laughter calmly plot the resurrection, when the dream underneath our dreams comes true. Continue reading
Posted Nov 13, 2015 at Out Walking
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It’s November, time for kicking leaves lying shoe deep on the roadside, to hear their swish and crunch, dead but heaped in piles of memory, let go to make room for new life. Fall is my favorite time, particularly late Fall, past the prime of colored leaves, before the lights of Christmas, a time when the sky opens up for view, the trees, ever more desolate, deserted, and bare. Many people are overwhelmed with sadness at Fall, an autumnal depression setting in. Not me. Poet Robert Frost even wrote a poem called “My November Guest,” in which he gives verse to a Fall sadness. He says, “My Sorrow, when she’s with me,/ Thinks these dark days of autumn rain/ Are beautiful as days can be;/ She loves the bare, the withered tree;/ She walks the sodden pasture lane.” Later, Frost speaks of Sorrow, a personification of his melancholy, as “glad the birds are gone away,” of the “faded earth, the heavy sky.” For me, the same things I love about the desert begin to be true of a topography shorn of leaves. Gradually, the sky opens up, the contour of the land can be seen, the skeletal trunks and limbs and branches of trees can be seen, undrapped, the tree in its essence. What was once claustrophobic opens up. What was once hidden is now known. I smile at the hiddenness of glory, of glory past its prime. This morning I stooped to pick up a browned oak tree leaf that was at least a foot long and six inches wide, like a massive hand outstretched. Had I reached up to shake it when it was still on tree, I could not have fully grasped it, like a child holding an adult’s hand. I traced its lines, like a practitioner of palmistry: prediction death, then new life. In another poem, “A Late Walk,” Frost speaks of how “A tree beside the wall stands bare,/ But a leaf that lingered brown,/ Disturbed, I doubt not, by my thought,/ Comes softly rattling down.” Rattling down. Reading that, I imagine the cry of that last leaf, of the last hanger-on, losing grip, accepting its fate. Sad? Not really. Like a desert river going underground, all the life is still there though hidden, waiting to break out. A little death before a greater life to come. Time for kicking leaves. Time not for sorrow but for hope, casting off the old and waiting for the new. I’m full of anticipation. Continue reading
Posted Nov 12, 2015 at Out Walking
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“An acorn is only small. To look at it you’d think it weak and not very important at all. . . . [b]ut. . . a whole forest is inside a single acorn.” (Sally Lloyd-Jones, in Thoughts to Make Your Heart Sing) What we are really saying when we say, “Christ in us, the hope of glory,” is not fully comprehensible. That’s like saying a whole forest is in an acorn. Except it’s more. In 1976, as a struggling college freshman, a campus pastor had lunch with me. Actually, he didn’t eat. I understand why now: he didn’t have the money. I should have bought his lunch for what he shared with me. I was churched but not biblically literate. That day he took me right to 2 Peter 1:3-11, which begins with “His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us. . . .” He laid stress on all, which is what I needed to hear. I knew all about what I was supposed to do, as what I recalled of church and Sunday School was moralistic; what I needed to hear was what God was doing, what He had given me. There’s a host of things that we are exhorted to do in that passage, and yet what occupied my mind on my walk this morning was what or Who had taken up residence inside of me, the very same point the pastor made 39 years ago. The God who made the universe — the planets, galaxies, and seemingly endless infinity — is living in me. He’s given me everything I need for life. If it doesn’t always feel that way, that’s my shortsightedness. Sometimes, I feel like nothing but a tiny acorn lying on the sidewalk, good for nothing much, trampled on by pedestrians, washed down gutters by rain, overcome, unable to help myself or anyone else. And yet, if by His grace and promise I come to rest in soil and take root, a forest. Let’s be honest. We struggle with believing that. We do not yet see it fully manifest. Yet if we did see all that God is doing through us, we might think ourselves mighty, when only He is mighty. That’s the meat of it. That’s what we are. God desires and wills that we flourish not just here but for eternity. Yet it’s an unusual power, not tapped by bold action but by humility, by prayer, by quietness. Our exercise of power is our exercise of powerlessness, of dependence on our Source. One of E.B. White’s most enduring collections of essays is a book entitled One Man’s Meat. All the essays in it were written from the saltwater farm in Maine to which White and his wife removed themselves, leaving New York City. The power of the essays comes from their humility as well as, in what is well said by Roger Ansell, their “sense of early morning clarity and possibility.” Bright hopefulness in a new day. While there is no indication that White had a saving faith in Christ, he did have a lighter faith in a new day, the kind that comes from small acts of faithfulness to the reality of the needs around him: the cow that needs to be milked, the pigs to be fed, the fence to be mended, the garden weeded. It’s a shadowland of hopefulness, and yet his small acts of faith bore fruit. One man’s meat. It’s more than that. In small exercises of faithfulness, a towering forest of life will grow. I walk on, giving way to the mighty acorns. Continue reading
Posted Nov 11, 2015 at Out Walking
Keith Anderson is hosting a Derek Webb concert this Friday in Wake Forest. This is a part of Derek's 10th anniversary Mockingbird house show tour on Saturday, November 14 at 8 pm. As some of you know, Derek is a talented and sometimes provocative musical artist. Most of his music has been marketed in the Christian music industry, but he has also challenged the status quo thematically and musically in that framework. He is touring in celebration of the 10th anniversary of his pivotal third record, Mockingbird, which contains songs that challenge the listener’s perspective of nationality, possessions, and relationships in light of the kingdom of God. You can reserve a seat for $20. All of the money will be used to cover the costs of the event and to support Derek. Tickets: http://derekwebbmockingbirdwf.eventbrite.com More on Keith's house concert series is here:http://houseontherockconcerts.com/ Continue reading
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“Cartographers call blank spaces on a map ‘sleeping beauties.’” (Annie Dillard, in Teaching a Stone to Talk) Last week in the spacious clime of Arizona, I laid a map of the state out on our coffee table. I did the same tonight. The map had plenty of blank spaces, and I was drawn to them, to the emptiness and wonder. East of Tucson, north of I-10 and Benson, there is cavity of space labeled Allen Flat, one through which the thin blue line of the San Pedro River runs, as optimistic a blue as you will find, as rivers in Arizona are largely underground save in monsoon season, when normal watery introverts lose their manners and gush all over everyone. Literally. In those times the San Pedro runs bold. Forty miles in, down a crooked gray line of a road, hyphenated to indicate tentativeness, lies what qualifies to the cartographer as the town of Cascabel. I’ve not been there but have fun imaging its character and residents. The website for Cascabel indicates it is “inhabited by diverse individuals, animals and plant species.” Diverse individuals is what my eye landed on. There is a community center; its calendar features lots of white space, yet there is a “peelum stickum gathering,” whatever that is, and, naturally, yoga. Ranch hands doing yoga. That’s worth traveling up the washboard road into the valley to see. But Cascabel is civilization. My eyes fixate more on the white space around it, like a poem full of blankness, and I imagine walking miles outside of town, past the lights of the last ranch, and sitting on a rock on the Rincon Mountain foothills while the sun sets. Quiet settles in, and if you speak, your words sound odd, as if they don’t belong. You pocket your watch, because it doesn’t matter; you hear its muffled ticks cry out from the dark. You lean back on a rock that has been sitting in one place longer than you’ve been alive, let its coolness lull you. Dusk comes, and the quails go to the trees to roost, and you suddenly remember that Cascabel was named for a rattlesnake. You look around and step gingerly back to town. Continue reading
Posted Nov 10, 2015 at Out Walking
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After returning late last evening from Arizona, a place of generous sun and expansive thinking, I woke this morning to a steady rain and truncated vision. I peeked out my window and could see to the corner, maybe four houses down, but no further, my world suddenly shrunken to dollhouse size from the arena of sky and mountain.. Yesterday, I opened my window on 50 miles, an over 9000 foot high Mount Lemon, and what seemed to be a party of dogs on the other side of the wash, living large. That’s “wash,” a usually dry low-lying area that occasionally fills up to overflowing with water. We call them gullies here. Here I look out, and it’s as if a shroud has been pulled over my world, the lights turned down low, a 25-watt world juxtaposed with yesterday’s 100-watt world. Drip, drip, drip. I sat in my office today watching water puddle on the roof. On the way in, it was as if God had washed the color from the world in my absence. Most of the leaves couldn’t wait for my return but let go under the rain and apparent wind; they lie heaped up in gutters, littered over driveways, and propped against one another in yards, wet, floating down the creek over which I pass. It was a city new to me after our diversion. I visited the local dive for lunch, nestled in the underarm of an aged strip shopping center. I had home cooked vegetables for the first time in 10 days — black-eye peas generously topped with diced onions, green beans seasoned with fatback, and collard greens stiffened by cider vinegar. Mix in the server’s accent, the server who nonchalantly sat down across from me in the booth to do her figuring, and it was the South, newly foreign. It has its pleasures, though it will take some getting used to. First day back. I went to the eye doctor. He said “You’ve got a whopping floater in your left eye.” I said, “I know,” and I’m thinking tell me something I don’t know. He said “You have two options. Do nothing and live with it. Or, have surgery, with the risk of blindness.” I checked out. The elevator was excruciatingly slow. When the doors opened, I stepped on board with eight other people. A sizable cavity remained, but the two young women still waiting said they’d wait for the next one. It could be quite a wait. One of the other passengers, an elderly lady who didn’t mind thinking aloud, said, as the door closed, “There’s plenty of room. I don’t know what’s the matter with them.” They don’t live in Arizona, that’s their problem. There, you run up stairs, hike canyons, walk miles to church (for the experience), dream big, stretch your mind out over a valley, a mountain, and on near to Mexico, eat in a roadhouse in the desert with steaks cooked outside over mesquite fire, wander around alone in a canyon or ghost town, where all you can hear is your breath, slightly labored as you walk uphill. You try new things. You can even fail big, as the sun still rises the next day. Even a telephone pole, seen against a setting sun, summons up the Cross, means new life. I miss it, just a little. Yet with dilated eyes, the world does seem brighter, a touch Arizona-like. And I’m not blind. There’s that, of course. Continue reading
Posted Nov 9, 2015 at Out Walking
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We took another hike today. It was about 100 feet roundtrip, from the parking lot into the local In-N-Out, for a hamburger, fries, and drink. In-N-Out has a limited menu: hamburgers, fries, and drinks. I think I said that. That's it. It's also a West Coast phenomena. The first one we ever hiked into was the original one in Westwood, in Los Angeles, near the campus of UCLA. In-N-Out is the only restaurant I know of where you can actually take in Scripture while you eat. The drink cups have the John 3:16 reference printed on the underside of the cup. Drink it down a little before you raise your teetering cup and look for it. Take my advice on that. The hamburger wrapper references Revelation 3:20 ("Behold I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.") That one seems particularly appropriate. And then the french fries are in a bag that references Proverbs 24:16 ("[F]or the righteous falls seven times and rises again, but the wicked stumble in times of calamity.") I had to look that one up. I like its hopefulness. I've been to In-N-Out many times, whenever I come West, and I know the scripture references are there, yet I always look for them. I looked around the restaurant. No one else appeared to be examining the bottom of their drink cup, checking out the seam of their french fry wrapper, or closely regarding the hamburger packaging. Even if they did, it's likely that half the people would not even know that it's a Bible reference, given the extent of cultural illiteracy. The family that owns the restaurant chain thought it important to place these references on the packaging. They have not explained why, and they need not do so. Outside the windows, a totally white clad young man is practicing Kung Fu moves alone in a parking space. "All I'm saying is that's weird," I say. We look on. In a few minutes an older woman and man arrive. The boys hugs the woman affectionately, pats her gently on the back. "Look," my wife says, "that's his mother." Suddenly, he's not so weird. He loves his Mom and is not ashamed to commit a public display of affection in the middle of the parking lot. "We'll let him pass," I say. I don't usually eat hamburgers and fries, yet earlier today, on the other side of the mountain, far away from the restaurants of the city, a thought settled in my head: In "N Out. I said to my wife, "Let's go to In-N-Out." Her eyes brightened, as did mine. And now, we are reading the Bible and eating hamburgers together and watching the show outside, and He is here, together like a slightly greasy "cord of three strands" (Ecclesiastes 4:12). What could be better? Continue reading
Posted Nov 8, 2015 at Out Walking
We had big plans for today, our last day in Arizona. We were going to hike the loop trail in Catalina State Park, on the western slope of the Santa Catalina Mountains, catching what is often a strikingly beautiful sunset over the Tucson Mountains. Then, after a quick change, it would be dinner out at a favorite, Wildflower, a sweet end to what was both a productive and fun time away. It was not to be. After breakfast, my wife began feeling bad --- mostly headache, body aches, and general weakness. By mid-afternoon, we cancelled our plans. I took her to the local Urgent Care around 4:00. It appears to be a bacterial infection, that is, a "stomach bug," and so she received a shot of anti-inflammatory medicine and started antibiotics. Hopefully she'll be well enough to travel tomorrow. I took myself to dinner at the McDonald's drive-through, something I never do at home. I wanted something cheap and filling, as I am not really hungry. At the window I told the young man my order, and then said, "How are you?" "Tired," he responded. "Me too. But you have a longer night ahead, right?" "Yep. 2:00 a.m." "Who eats burgers at 2:00 a.m?" "You'd be surprised." I'm sure I would. For a moment, I dwelled on what it must be like to work the fast food window at 2:00 a.m., and I had a moment of empathy for this young man who is tired but has six more hours to work. I parked in a parking space to eat, uncertain if the smell of the food would be a problem for my patient. On the radio, David Jeremiah was preaching. I'm glad. I sat through the whole sermon as I finished my burger. I don't usually listen to preachers on the radio, but I did tonight. I needed to hear what he said because I was feeling a bit down because of our last day being ruined by sickness. What Jeremiah said, in part, was that all temptations are rooted in unbelief, in a lack of trust in God. My own temptation to self-pity is rooted in a lack of trust that God is with us even when we face sickness, and in a particular kind of amnesia --- a forgetting of how he has protected and safeguarded us in the past. (We have all been sick on vacation before, on multiple occasions.) Sickness has a way of reminding us of our mortality and limitations, and it is a time, like any time of trial or hardship, for remembering God's faithfulness. A verse we read earlier in the week at breakfast came back to me: "For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust" (Ps. 103:14). We get sick. Our plans are frustrated. We are tempted to self-pity. We forget His benefits. She may be physically sick, but I am at risk of a greater sickness. Yet a very honest radio preacher set me straight. I pulled into Oracle, headed for the hotel. In the nearly moonless darkness, I can't see the Catalinas. But by faith, I know they are there. And I know too that the hikes we took, the laughs we shared, and the talks we had earlier this week are there too, etched in memories conscious and subconscious, and this is but one day in the many that will live on into eternity. And we will be well. Continue reading
Posted Nov 8, 2015 at Out Walking
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On the flight home from Arizona, I've managed to digest over a hundred more pages of Abigail Santamaria's carefully researched biography of Joy Davidman, entitled Joy: Poet, Seeker, and the Woman Who Captivated C.S. Lewis. Joy is the woman who became the wife of C.S. Lewis. Prior to becoming a Christian, she was a brilliant if often insufferably condescending woman, her commitment to Marx and communism total. Her poetry was political, an apology for a Marxist ideology which allowed her to heap praise on Stalin, her morals lax to non-existent, and her humor biting and often at the expense of others. Had I lived then and met her (a highly doubtful proposition, as she moved in the circles of the intelligentsia), I would not have liked her or her writing. But I just reached the point in the book where Joy begins to turn. She has lost faith in the Soviet Union and communism, after Stalin made a pact with the Nazis. Her first husband, Bill Davidman, also a writer, has called her from his office in the City and told her he is having a nervous breakdown. It is late, and she does not know where he is or if he will come home to her and her two small boys, even if he is alive or dead. But then this, in her words, as she sat fretting in her room, near despair, wondering if Bill was alive or dead: "There was a Person with me in the room, directly present to my consciousness --- a Person so real that all my previous life was by comparison mere shadow play. And I myself was more alive than I had ever been; it was like waking from sleep. So intense a life cannot be endured for long by flesh and blood; we must ordinarily take our life watered down, diluted as it were, by time and space and matter. My perception of God lasted perhaps half a minute. In that time, however, many things happened. I forgave some of my enemies. I understood that God had always been there, and that since childhood, I had been pouring half my energy onto the task of keeping him out." In the end, Joy found herself on her knees, praying, "the world's most astonished atheist." She said her "awareness of God was no comforting illusion, conjured up to reassure me of my husband's safety. I was just as worried afterward as before. No; it was terror and ecstasy, repentance and rebirth." That wasn't the end of it. But that set her on a quest to discover the God whose presence she felt. Eventually, her quest led her through Narnia to a Lion who knew her name and who had, as she said, always been there. Not everyone receives the gift of Presence in the way that Joy Davidman did. But I have known others who can testify to such visitations, and the ones I know are not prone to imaginings or to looking for supernatural occurrences. Yet felt or not, all believers are promised His presence. In the air or on the ground, that promise means you are never without a companion in your journey, One who not only cares but who has the power to move mountains and hearts, the power to carry you through, the One with us to the ends of the earth, and even beyond. That should be enough, for now. Continue reading
Posted Nov 8, 2015 at Out Walking