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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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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 2 days ago 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
“Dear Lord, please make me want you. It would be the greatest bliss. Not just to want you when I think about you but to want You all the time, to have the want driving in me, to have it like a cancer in me. It would kill me like a cancer and that would be fulfillment.” (Flannery O’Connor, A Prayer Journal) Even in her prayers, Flannery O’Connor used the grotesque (cancer) to illuminate grace — here, the grace of being possessed by God, of being filled with a desire to know Him. In her recently published prayer journal, kept by a youthful O’Connor from 1946-47, she gives us insight into a person desperately seeking God and yet aware of her shortcomings: “Dear God, I cannot love Thee the way I want to. You are the slim crescent of a moon that I see and my self is the earth’s shadow that keeps me from seeing the moon. . . . [W]hat I am afraid of, dear God, is that my self shadow will grow so large that it blocks the whole moon, and that I will judge myself by the shadow that is nothing.” She was throughout her life keenly aware of the shadowlands of which C.S. Lewis wrote. I would like to reduce the footprint of my self-shadow, and yet it’s a difficult thing to do. Even as I write this, the shadow looms, as I wonder what you will think of it or of me, or if you will read it. Like humility, there is no straight line to selflessness, to becoming so opaque, so self-emptying, that the moon of Christ shines through. Yet if, as Picasso said, “art is the lie that tells the truth,” then deliberate indirection may be the key to a good and artful life. We become more transparent by focusing not on what we do, as there are all kinds of ways to call attention to self and congratulate ourself, but on Who we see. Here are a few suggestions for reducing your shadow by repositioning Who you see. Meditate. On Scripture. On a verse or a phrase. Forget about memorizing it. You’d only congratulate yourself for doing so. Forget the commentary. The point is not knowledge. Just let the verse or phrase roll around in your mind for a day or week or more and see what happens. I have taken to copying out a verse on a 3x5 card and carrying it with me, in my shirt pocket, enjoying the tactile sense of its presence with me, stiffly provoking me. (You could also write it on your palm or, to use an Old Testament example, tie strips of it around your wrists.) Let it seep into you. Let it touch you. Take a walk. Not a power walk. Sans music. Just consider the largeness of what is around you. When I walk, I like to touch things - an oak tree rough, a signpost smooth and cool, leaves brittle and crumbling. Strange, I know, but again the tactile brings home the fact that I am a bit player in a much larger story being told. And yet, the verse in my pocket is elevating, proclaiming "Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come." Pray wildly. Follow every detour and tangent the mind takes. Bring no agenda to prayer but simply pray where you are, where your mind takes you. It may not be the way to always pray, and yet it has the salutary goal of helping to liberate us of a self-congratulatory discipline. I assume the pathways of my mind are superintended by God, so this kind of prayer is a way of remaining in conversation with Him, on his agenda. Or even if they are distractions placed there by the devil, they are repurposed by being swept up into the conversation with God. So, there you have it. You thought about a verse. You took a walk. You prayed a distracted kind of prayer. Brother Lawrence you may not be. You can't escape the self shadow, as you can even congratulate yourself on these small things. And yet, over time, you may become a little more transparent and your shadow a little less long. Me? I'm congratulating myself on the great advice I just rendered you. I can only laugh at Grace that has to do it all, that, ultimately, must save me from myself. There is no technique to gain humility but staring at (fixing our eyes on) Christ, praying O'Connor's prayer: "Dear God, please make me want you." Indeed, save me from my shadowed self. Continue reading
Posted Jan 25, 2014 at Out Walking
“This is the true nature of home. It is the place of Peace; the shelter, not only from all injury, but from all terror, doubt, and division.” (John Ruskin) Almost everyone has a place they call home. Emily Dickinson said, very simply, that “Where Thou art - that - is Home,” and often that is true, and yet still for many there is a longing for something more, something more like what Ruskin suggests. Just before six this morning, I went out walking. I thought as I walked that I am blessed to be walking from, to, and in something of what approaches that place of Peace that Ruskin suggests. This morning the landscape suggested something more than what appeared. It became a landscape of grace. Walking in the stillness of fog, with only a light dripping of rain, alone, I thought of what Adam must have felt like that first day of existence in the Garden, when God walked with him, his presence as palpable as rain. Water from heavier rain, rushing under the bridge, became one of the four rivers coursing through the Garden, a river with an exotic name like Pishon. I walked through trees I could not name and thought of Adam considering each animal and each tree and naming it. What a privilege to give something a name, to define it, to give it shape by our words. The gentle contour of the road suggested grace, a cul-de-sac an opportunity for repentance, for turning, a stop sign a simple command: “You shall not eat.” I touched it and stopped, and then turned for home. The best homes and places become for us huge multi-layered metaphors for our true Home in Christ. For the believer, all streets lead to Christ, even the ones with no name. The familiar rooms of our homes, our favorite chairs, our window with a view, remind us of the deep contentment that we will know in a New Earth. Every tangible thing in Creation becomes an icon, a window on a Triune God. They point beyond themselves. In Heaven, our God-senses perfected, perhaps we will then hear rocks cry out and trees clap their hands. Yet this morning, I was content with the whisper of the fog, the holy mist that swirled around me, and the poetry of my heartbeat, that primal iambic pentameter. My prayers - inchoate, interrupted, and distracted though they were - were the baby-talk of a love language I’ll master on that coming Day. That’ll be the day. Continue reading
Posted Jan 11, 2014 at Out Walking
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When I was young I wanted to operate the midway at the fair. I sat in church next to my Dad and drew intricate layouts of the midway during the sermon, checking my dad's watch regularly to see if the big hand was on 12 noon yet. I can still feel the paper and my Dad’s fountain pen in my hand, see the faded watch face, hear the pastor’s words in the background. I thought I had found my calling. As a teenager I settled on the more “realistic” goal of being a rock and roll star. My friends John, Bobby, and I formed a short-lived band. In fact, it might only have existed for a couple days, and mostly in my dreams, encouraged by a bedroom lined with posters of The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, and Yes. I wielded my late father's Gibson Les Paul Junior, a smallish electric guitar with a sunburst finish, which, combined with a ragged portable tube amp, produced wonderfully fuzzy, distorted sound as I whacked my way through "25 or 6 to 4," that great Chicago song. We stunk, really, and John's Dad, who actually was the drummer in a jazz trio, said I shouldn't give up the day job. Sage advice. We recruited fellow ninth-grader Wade, who we regarded as an authentic musician. Wade had shoulder-length hair, appropriately lazy hippie-speak, and walked over to John’s house, his “axe” (bass) slung on his back. After he heard a couple songs, he promptly left, shaking his head, and we quit the band, dejected. As I moved toward college, after a semester in Mr. Darnell's technical drafting class, where he spent more time in wide-eyed discussions of extra-sensory perception and the mind-over-matter feats of Uri Geller (who slept in a pyramid) than in learning about drafting. I nevertheless decided I'd be an architect. However, I was not admitted to the School of Design. (But ask me anything about Uri Geller.) Then I declared a major in computer science. Nearly flunked out of that, staying up to all hours of the night or all night typing out punch cards and submitting them to the main frame computer which laughed and kicked them back to me. I switched to Sociology which, honestly, was a cake walk but without prospective employment. So I took up Social Studies education. One semester as a middle school teacher's aide cured me. I decided to go to law school. So, you might say law was a last resort. I never even knew a lawyer before law school. I had seen Perry Mason, but that's about all I knew about the law. (Well, I confess, I was picked up by cops for throwing rocks at a street sign once, but perhaps I shouldn't count that.) I’m a case study of how one can fumble through school, majoring in everything and nothing, and yet, providentially, God planted me in a good place. I just wanted be a rock and roll star. In my weaker moments, I still do, kind of. And yet it isn't given to many of us to have an exotic calling like that. Most of us work in ordinary jobs doing ordinary things which sometimes, by God's holy alchemy, come to extraordinary ends: some justice, some good, some beauty, some little light in the shadowlands of life. "Attempt great things for God," said William Carey. Or perhaps, as Frederick Buechner said, our "vocation is the place where our deep gladness meets the world's deep need?" No, all that’s all too grand, too world-saving. No, for most of us it's a regular persistence in works of small and regular obedience, of faithfulness in the little lives we lead in the little places where we live. Of love for the people and place in which we are planted. In other words, to turn an oft stated maxim on its head: go small, and stay home, and you get to shine like a star anyway (Phil. 2:15). Don't worry too much about that big thing God may call you to do. Just do the thing in front of you. Besides, having known a few, I can say that being a rock and roll star is not what it’s cracked up to be. Like I said, I became a lawyer. Bobby became an accountant. John reached for the stars and became. . . a weatherman. And all that's just fine. 25 or 6 to 4. Continue reading
Posted Dec 29, 2013 at Out Walking
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“We have become so accustomed to the idea of divine love and of God’s coming at Christmas that we no longer feel the shiver of fear that God’s coming should arouse in us. . . . The coming of God is truly not only glad tidings, but first of all frightening news for everyone who has a conscience. Only when we have felt the terror of the matter, can we recognize the incomparable kindness.” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer) If children know only happiness at Christmas, then we as adults can know an even greater happiness. We know, like children cannot yet know, the lack and lust of our own hearts, the countless sins of commission and omission. Our ledger is full of black marks and growing. And so, when we consider what God has done in His condescension, in his Incarnation, Bonhoeffer’s “cheap grace” is not an option: we know our failings, we know what we deserve, and so we know that what we receive as gift is pure grace. I am thankful that I had a good scaring as a child. In my childhood church, I recall watching prophecy films about the end of the world, the projector wheels turning, dramatic and sobering. On the way home in the dark once, I lay down in the floorboard at my mother’s feet, sheltered from what was sure judgment. Then, as a preteen science fiction reader, I was steeped in the fantastical and yet not so unreal as to be unbelievable stories of Issac Asimov and Robert Heinlein, so much so that I dreamed of terrors and, for a time, had to move into my parents’ room just so I could sleep. After that, Hal Lindsey’s pre-millenialist End Times manual, The Late Great Planet Earth, was a logical next step, a kind of Bible-based science fiction. The Antichrist. Armageddon. One world government. Nuclear war. It was all coming true, in my lifetime. I just knew it. While I no longer agree with Lindsey's interpretation of Scripture, I credit him (and perhaps Asimov and Heinlein as well) with scaring me into the Kingdom. I wanted to be among those raptured. I was frightened of being left behind. In the shadow of the Cold War, I lay awake at night sometimes wondering when the bombs would fall as part of the judgment. (I had a big imagination.) I felt, as Bonhoeffer puts it, “the shiver of fear that God’s coming should arouse.” So, I am put off at times by the sentimentality and sweetness of Christmas. That helpless baby lying in a manger is also the one who will come with fire and judgment. On that terrible day, left on our own, none of us could complain. Justice will be done. The Christ in the manger points to the Christ on the cross, the One resurrected, the one who comes on that Great Advent to make all things right. We best approach the helpless babe first on our knees, trembling, as He is our Judge. He is the one who will separate the sheep from the goats, the one who will "make all things new" (Rev. 21:5). We must absorb the bad news before we are quite ready for the good news. You hear little of this “proper scaring” during Advent. At some point in my teenage years, I understood more fully that the God who judged my sin also covered it, that the baby Jesus was more than judge. He stood between my sin and God. He was not only judge but savior. I could walk through the hallways of my high school not weighed down by failings but free. All the Falls of my life were overthrown by Springs. The ledger may continue to fill with what I owe and yet "Jesus paid it all," in the words of the old hymn. Rightly understood, this first Advent is a harbinger of a terrifying Day. But for believers, like children, we have all the more reason to be happy. We need not fear judgment. We are the recipients of a present of grace that has no bottom. Bonhoeffer says that God comes into the very midst of evil and of death, and judges the evil in us and in the world. And by judging us, God cleanses and sanctifies us, comes to us with grace and love. God makes us happy as only children can be happy. . . . We are no longer alone; God is with us. We are no longer homeless; a bit of the eternal home has moved into us. In a final letter, written on her deathbed, author Flannery O’Connor admonished the recipient to “be properly scared, and [to] go on doing what you have to do, but take the necessary precautions.” Christian, I hope at some point in life you have had a proper scaring. If not, consider anew the Great Advent. Look to a baby in a manger who will bear all our sins away, as far as the East is from the West. Happy Christmas, all. For the love of God, Happy Christmas. Continue reading
Posted Dec 24, 2013 at Out Walking
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If I'm given to somewhat mournful, melancholy Christmas music, I come by it honestly. Take Sufjan Stevens' beautiful Christmas song, entitled "Justice Delivers Its Death," and the even more beautiful, edenic video that accompanied the song. With words like "Lord, come with fire/ Lord, come with fire/ Everyone's wasting their time/ Storing up treasure in vain/ Trusting the pleasure it gives here on earth" you know that this isn't "Silver Bells," and yet the song captures a longing for something more than the rank materialism that prevails this time of year, longs for an end to it. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote to a friend from his prison cell, "A prison cell is like our situation in Advent: one waits, hopes, does this and that - meaningless acts - but the door is locked and can only be opened from the outside." We're waiting for something that only began with an incarnate birth. We're waiting for deliverance. And we are not the key to that. One Christmas morning when I was about six years old, I received a red bicycle from Santa. It had 20-inch wheels and a basket on front. I took the bike out for a ride on our street in Greensboro, and I immediately felt the sensation of freedom, of not being limited to just where my feet could take me. This land is my land. This ribbon of highway. Surry Drive lay before me like Route 66. And when it began to snow, I remember thinking something like "This is as good as it gets," felt some inarticulable sense of. . . of. . . deliverance from, if not a jail cell, at least from the cloistered life of childhood. Free. Bound for glory. Only I couldn't put Guthrie's words to it then. I squeaked out a mere "Cool!" You think about such things in this season of good cheer. As Bonhoeffer preached on an Advent Sunday in 1928, When once again Christmas comes and we hear the familiar carols and sing the Christmas hymns, something happens to us, and a special kind of warmth slowly encircles us. The hardest heart is softened. We recall our own childhood. . . . A kind of homesickness comes over us for past times, distant places, and yes, a blessed longing for a world without violence or hardness of heart, for the safe lodging of the everlasting Father. And that leads our thoughts to the curse of homelessness which hangs heavy over the world. In every land, the endless wandering without purpose or destination. Bonhoeffer goes on to note that what weighs heavy on us in Advent is the reality of sin and death, and I would add that its our longing for justice, for a God to come and set all things right, undo the curse of homelessness, and bring to end the slog of the shadowlands. Cheery? Hardly. For Bonhoeffer and most Christians throughout the ages, Advent has been a sober time. The real celebrating starts with the Birth. I rode my red bicycle a lot that winter. Though this was before ET's screen debut and the dreams of every kid with a bike were visualized, at times I felt as if I could soar just so slightly above the pavement, hovering, indestructible. And yet, I had accidents. I ran into a parked school bus. Showing off for a girl, I turned my red bike over, scraped all the skin off my arm, and yet contained all tears until I had furiously pedaled the half mile to my home. Home. Delivered. The place where you can let it out, where you can be yourself, where, if you are blessed, your mother waits with open arms. The "everlasting lodging of the Father." I had (and have) a great home, both cities of refuge for one who is sometimes fainthearted. Still, I'm homesick. Aren't you? Comforting his disciples, Jesus said that "if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me, that you also may be where I am" (Jn. 14:3). Some of us will leave our busted bikes where they crashed and bleeding run home crying. For others it may be a call to dinner, like my Mom yelling out the kitchen door "Stephennnnnn" and even above the click-click-click of the playing cards on my tire spokes I hear her and throw down my red bike and come running. And yet for others it's an incredible invitation to a party where all the uncool and poorly dressed people get to come too, where the the fans of Portlandia, Duck Dynasty, and Lawrence Welk break bread together. It's the everlasting lodging of the Father. Underneath the tinsel, colored lights, and holiday parties, that's what we're waiting for --- a place of our own. That's Advent. Continue reading
Posted Dec 10, 2013 at Out Walking
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One of the ways I tend to approach the various holidays we are given is to try to invest them with greater meaning, to establish and celebrate traditions, to discover their roots and nurture their fruit. At Thanksgiving, our least commercialized holiday, we gather with family for a meal, watch the Macy's Day parade, think about the Pilgrims and Squanto, and consider, albeit briefly, that for which we are thankful. I didn't read Robert MacKenzie's The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us About Loving God and Learning From History to dispel such efforts, but to enlarge them. I had been schooled sufficiently in a post-modern skepticism to doubt that we had much of the original story correct, and yet I wanted to know what that first thanksgiving was all about, if we had any of it right or had manufactured it out of whole cloth. I received all that and more from MacKenzie's well-documented, widely accessible book. The author, a Professor of History at Wheaton College, while documenting his work carefully, has not written an academic tome. The style is engaging and warm, and if he occasionally lapses into the first-person, it is only to demonstrate the profound impact that these ancestors of the past have for him. He disciples us both historically and spiritually, providing not only historical information but schooling us in a Christian view of the past, of how we have misused the past and yet how our reflection on it may be redeemed. In a time that suffers from "presentism," when history is dismissed as irrelevant or suffers Chesterton's "chronological snobbery," he reminds us of how important is its study, particularly for Christians, reminding us that [h]istory is utterly central to Christianity, for its core doctrines rest on theological interpretations of historical events, such as creation, the fall, the incarnation, the cross and the resurrection. (Go back to the Apostles’ Creed and note just how many of its statements are historical claims.) Through eyes of faith we recognize all of human history as “a story with a divine plot”—not cyclical, as many of the ancients believed, but linear, with God at its beginning, the cross at its center and the return of Christ to mark its culmination. And because God is the author and Lord of human history, we should see it as a sphere that he has created—and thus a form of natural revelation—every bit as much as the physical world around us. So as the author looks at the Pilgrims and that first Thanksgiving, don't think of it as history, if that hurts too much. Think of it as a primer on how we are to remember and speak of fellow human beings. . . in this case those who just happened to have died before any of us or anyone we ever knew were born. What we learn, of course, is that our limited knowledge of that first Thanksgiving in the Fall of 1621 is really derived from all of 115 words written by Edward Winslow, assistant to William Bradford, Governor of Plymouth Plantation. Ready? Here goes: Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a more special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors. They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week. At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others. That's it. What we know is that there was a celebration, that Indians came, and that there was a meal. What we don't know is whether the Indians were invited or just, as Winslow puts it, "came up among them." What is now billed as a multi-cultural love-fest likely would have been tense, given that all of two years later the Pilgrims' fort was adorned with a severed Indian head and in light of the misconceptions that they had about each other. We also know that the meal bore little resemblance to what we eat today (and likely did not include turkey), and nowhere did it receive a billing as a Thanksgiving (though undoubtedly the devout Pilgrims did offer thanks, glad as they were not to face starvation as they did the previous Winter, their ranks thinned by 50% in that time.) While such autumn harvest festivals appear to have continued, the Pilgrims reserved Thanksgiving Days for a special event, not a yearly celebration, as they would have regarded it as presumptuous to designate a special day for thanksgiving before its time. Rather, thanksgiving days arose from special proclamations and were solemn days of prayer, not festivals. That brief summary does not do justice to the evidence-check that the author does, one that tempers our belief in the traditional story of Thanksgiving, yet Professor MacKenzie is not out to burst our holiday bubble or set aside our celebrations. Rather, he goes on to tell us how he finds the Pilgrims inspirational, encouraging, challenging, and convicting. In doing so he offers us a primer on Christian moral reflection and displays a gracious if unsentimental view of those who have come before us, counseling humility when drawing conclusions. As he reminds us: To say that we see the past “as through a glass, darkly” only begins to capture the magnitude of our inadequacy. But there is One, the architect and Lord of history, who comprehends that incalculable expanse perfectly and exhaustively. When we realize this, it should cause us to drop to our knees and declare with the psalmist, “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me” (Psalm 139:6). In this sense, gazing into the past is like gazing into the night sky. Our natural response should be one of wonder and awe and a humbling awareness of our own limitations. Authentically Christian education always promotes such awareness. If an integral component of wisdom is self-knowledge, “the first product of self-knowledge is humility,” as Flannery O’Connor reminded us. He is interested not in making idols of our ancestors but in seeing them as heroic and yet very human people. He is interested in honesty, accuracy, and in how study of the past reveals God's glory --- and the latter, in his view, comes from seeing the power of God manifested in the weakness and frailty of humanity. While the actual details and educated speculations about the Pilgrims and that first Thanksgiving are interesting, I found myself more drawn to their legacy, to what they bequeathed us. Here the author's reflection on what we know of the Pilgrims is rich. He finds that the Pilgrims inspire by their communal perseverance in the face of trials more arduous than most of us will ever face. He is encouraged by the fact that these "plain men" of "moderate abilities" (using their own words), though flawed and weak by worldly standards, were used by God in powerful ways. Finally, he is challenged and convicted by their implicit indictment of the radical individualism of our American lives as well as the worldliness of the church, our preoccupation with this world and its ways as opposed to the one to come. The Pilgrims remind us that we are all of us pilgrims, "strangers and aliens" in the world. As the author says, "It is not their poverty that I find most convicting, but their hope of heaven." His extended reflection on our history ends with humility and doxology, on our "littleness" and His "bigness" --- the only right place for the Christian to stand after reflection on both Word and World. I highly recommend The First Thanksgiving. Read it to learn more of our history. Read it to learn how to think about history. Better yet, let it school you in humilty and awe before the mystery of what has been and what will come. Let it free you from yourself. In the end, the book became for me a work of devotional literature, a meditation on God's providence, a school of humility, and an aid to worship. Finished, something like this prayer drifted upward frome a heart unsprung from what my mind absorbed: "Come Lord Jesus, come, and deliver me from my hellish preoccupation with myself, from the petty, puckish, and paltry preoccupations of my days, from the ill-formed judgments of others past and present, from presumption and pride. Teach me what it means to be a pilgrim. Keep before me the hope of Another Country. Yes, "come Lord Jesus, come." Continue reading
Posted Nov 26, 2013 at Out Walking
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"The power of history is not to make us more informed, but more whole. . . . Remembering is sabotage against the regime of speed. . . . It's an act of faith too." (D.J. Waldie, in Where We Are Now: Notes from Los Angeles) I once had a conversation with one of my children about the importance of history. It amounted to a back and forth of "History is important" countered by "No, it's dumb." I said "You remember how you walked up the steps to your room? Now, what if you couldn't remember?" (Visualize rolling of eyes.) See, history is important, right?" And then there was that conversation closer, "Oh, that's different." That is different, only it's different because that's our own micro-history and what we were really discussing was macro-history, history writ large, like WWII, the fall of the Iron Curtain, or even medieval times. About this, as it is well known, we have a cultural amnesia, living as we are in a time in which the disease of present-ism is epidemic. Others may speak eloquently to that, but what I was taken with was Waldie's initial comment that "remembering is sabotage against the regime of speed." Our time is characterized by the idolatry of speed, whether it's faster hard drives, instant communication, or a flattening of the time from here to there. Pretty soon we can suspend disbelief and pretend there is no there, that everything is here, as it virtually is. Right now, if I wanted to, I could see a place in and speak with a person from every time zone on the planet. I don't want to. There is something deeply unsettling about such a flattening of time and place and ignoring of the natural rhythms of day and night. My contrarian bent rears its head. For Christians, the regime of speed and homogenizing of time and place is deeply unbliblical. Remembering - something we are repeatedly exhorted to do in Scripture - forces us to stop movement of mind and body, to, as God commands via the Psalmist, "be still and know that I am God," to take note of our place in our Creator's economy. Whether it is the constant exhortation of the Israelites to remember the Exodus, God's deliverance of his chosen people, or the Apostle Paul's exhortation to remember the death and resurrection of Christ, remembering is a rebel act of sabotage by which we are delivered by God from a regime of speed to a place of light where time nearly ceases in the presence of truth. I think of those very long minutes that ticked by in 4th grade as my friends and I waited for the big hand on the clock to hit 3:30 and the bell to ring. Like that, remembering is also waiting --- waiting for God, for revelation, for the jig-saw puzzle of the past to shed a bit of light on the present, for God to show up in the higgledy-piggledy details of a life already lived. In his own inimical way, Waldie does not always draw out the meaning of a phrase, good prose-poet that he is. He says remembering "is an act of faith too." That bears thinking about, and our thoughts may carry us (as with poetic language) on paths not necessarily intended by the poet. But what I think this means is that when we remember rightly we mark our belief in a providential ordering of past events, both the big stories and our own little thread of personal history. For if we don't believe that history is in any sense ordered, that all is random, that there is nothing predictable but unpredictability, then history is valueless. The way home may not be the same way home as it was yesterday. The ground may have shifted. Power that corrupted 100 years ago may do so no longer. People who can't seem to be good will all of a sudden act justly, kindly, and wisely all the time, or vice versa. Even the atheist can't live with a nihilism that renders history meaningless. Note I didn't say that history never appears random or seems meaningless. It does. Whether it's tsunamis or tornadoes or the less than equal distribution of resources to nations, or why we can never seem to get a leg up, lost our job, or suffer unrequited love, the question of why stretches far across the landscape of history, both communally and personally. "An act of faith?" I think he means not faith in history nor God forbid faith in man. It's not the why of history but the Who behind it all that matters. Why addresses secondary causes; Who, the primary. When we know the Who, we can trust that all the seemingly meaningless threads of our lives will come together, in the end, in the One who holds together all things, and who on that day sets aside even time. May He speed that day. Until then, we wait, and remember, watch the clock, and somewhere in our past see what is timeless and beyond the regime of speed. [The image is of a mult-media work by Asheville, NC Carol Bomer entitled "All Flesh Is Grass." Carol describes it this way: This is an assemblage which includes a clock that turns the hand in front of a light box. The light box shines through a pair of X-ray hands (a poignant night light) that reach upward like the grass motif repeated twice at the top of the piece. The photo is my husband and friends when he was six. It has a removable frame which exposes text that reads, "...for all flesh is like grass, and all its glory like the flower of grass; the grass withers and the flower fades, but the Word of the Lord abides forever." I liked it for the clock, in its reference to time, in the time-lessness it exudes. For more information on Carol's art, visit Soli Deo Gloria Studio.] Continue reading
Posted Nov 17, 2013 at Out Walking
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"One drifting leaf on a windowsill can be a city dweller's fall, pungent and melancholy as any hillside in New England." (E.B. White) Late Fall is my favorite time, a time of deciduous glory, a last flinging of yellow, orange, and red before the browns and evergreens of winter command. Leaves skip across my lawn, a ragged throw. Some, blown by the exhaling sky, gather by fenceposts, huddle and gossip, while others flap in the breeze, clinging to twigs. I am wasting time well, sitting here and listening in. That everything is falling makes some people sad. I understand that. "Why can't the earth just get over it," said one friend, "just drop the leaves all at once, and then we can get on with the Christmas lights and something happy?" There is the sense that everything is dying, and yet that is an emotional response to what appears on the surface. Underneath that lies reason for joy. I walk. On familiar streets I begin to see the lay of the land, its contour now revealed by trees near bare, and I realize that developers have superimposed house and streets and water and sewer over what was already given, on what persists. In some places the leaves form a foot deep covering, over time decaying and seeping nutrients back into the soil, giving life even in death. Sight increases and deeper thoughts come. "If everything is dying," I say to my friend, "it sure is a lovely dying." In late Fall, glory goes down deep. Roots grow stronger, life percolates beneath, and yet the evidence is hidden. The leaves crunching underfoot tell me that they are ready to go, that death will yield new growth. Trees whisper sap, creak of the past, stand tall and comfort. I put my hand out for a pine and rest it there, for empathy. I am not ready to go, and yet some things must die even in me. Late Fall portends a season of hidden fruit. God works down under. I am Judah down under Nebuchadnezzar, an Israelite down under Pharaoh, Jonah in the whale, Myra Scovel in a Japanese prison, writing "'Dear God,' I cried,/ before the gates clanged shut,/ 'However dark my cell may be,/ grant that its window/ frame a tree.'" God gave her not just a tree but "pink ecstasy along a bough,/ spring against sky!" We are all of us waiting. I look up at an azure sky, then down to feet that fall. I have to keep walking. I have to die to self, to those dreams about me that become idols if they persist. I have to realize I cannot hold the world, even my little one, in check. That I have no control. That I must let the world spin and seasons turn. And yet I have to keep believing that great and good and yet ultimately mysterious things are going on down under, in me, in those I love, in the world even, though I can't see them, that “he who began a good work in [me] will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 1:6). Soon it will be Winter, and then I really have to believe, have to accept that buried under the snow or on the other side of a bitter wind lies light, that new life will sprout in what dies. All I need to remember is "one drifting yellow leaf." That'll be my Fall. That'll be my "pungent and melancholy" hope of Spring. That'll be what I take and hold. Continue reading
Posted Nov 11, 2013 at Out Walking
Sorry folks - we are all sold out for Thursday. I can waitlist if there is a cancellation. Email steve.westAToutwalking.net to waitlist. Continue reading
One thing about a house concert: there is only so much room. We have room for 65 people, albeit 65 cozy people, and we have only five seats left. If you have been procratinating, please book now. I'm fairly certain that we will soon sell out. Don't miss a great concert. What concert? Audrey Assad, of course, this Thursday at 7:30. To reserve, click here. Continue reading
If you haven't reserved yet for our concert this Thursday, please do. I only have about 20 seats available, and I expect them to go. Audrey puts on an excellent show, with worshipful, original songs and fresh takes on standard hymns. Really, it will be a wonderful evening. Just listen to the words of "Sparrow" in the video below. Find out more and reserve your seats here. We hope to see you Thursday! Continue reading
What is magic about the Magic Kingdom is that if you look at it through the right pair of eyes it points to a kingdom more magic still that comes down out of heaven prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. The one who sits on the throne says, "Behold, I make all things new," and the streets of it are of gold like unto clear glass, and each of its gates is a single pearl. (Frederick Buechner, The Eyes of the Heart) In yet another chapter of his memoirs, The Eyes of the Heart, Frederick Buechner throws open wide the door to his library, office, and writing space, offering us a glimpse into the ordinary miscellany of his life, summoning the extraordinary and, indeed, magic to which the tangible items found there point. Beloved books, framed autographs, a stone from a pilgrimage to the island of Outer Farne in the North Sea in honor of Godric, the bronze head of his childhood friend, poet James Merrill, and other relics and reminders testify to and summon recollections of the long dead and the long past. And yet all is not memory, as all point to the past as well as beyond and to the future. For Buechner, the tactile is luminous with meaning, two- or three-dimensional items summoning up a fourth dimension of time. For him, the physical is bound up with meaning, even spiritual meaning. Having lived mostly in one place for 33 years, I can't go anywhere without summoning up my past and receiving intimations of my future. They come randomly. That median dividing that busy four lane road is the same one I accidently drove over with a college years date some 36 years ago, the Mexican retaurant where I sometimes eat resides in the former theater where I took that same date that night to see George Burns in "Oh God," a movie we argued over on the way back to campus. A median, a re-purposed theater --- they remind me that I was 19, that I had hopes for love, that I was awkward and undiplomatic, and yet, perhaps, just maybe, Janet Morgan remembers me differently. I love the reassuring sensation that I was here all those years ago, that I am still here, and that somehow I will carry those memories and these places with me into the "all things new" of which Buechner speaks. In the Incarnation God affirms the value of physical reality as something worthy of study and love. And yet so many of us spend our time moving, surfing reality, breathing in a virtual reality, that we forget to see, touch, and taste what is right in front of us. When I walk into my church of 33 years, layer upon layer of memories well up, of deep conversations, of hard and painful news, of leaving and comings, of new life and cold hard death. I look aside and see people that I have known for all those years and realize that their lives point back to our beginnings and forward to an eternity. That, I realize, is some kind of magic, some kind of transcendant reality. When we Christians see reality as charged with that kind of grandeur, it might truly be said, as did Francis Schaeffer, that we have one foot on the ground and one firmely planted in midair. There must be a bit of the mystic in all of us. My little home office is not as grand as Buechner's room, my library not so large. And yet it also testifies. A framed photo of a church in the village of Huemoz, Switzerland reminds me of my visit there with Edith Schaeffer before she died, the cowbells in the meadow, the church bell ringing, the feel of the grass on my back as I lay in the field and watched clouds race across the alpine skies. It sends me plummeting through 90 years of life for her, from China to Philadelphia, to St. Louis to Huemoz to Rochester where she now rests. All that and more from one photograph. I could tell you about every good book on my shelves, speak to you about the music I have collected, the songs that reach deep into my past and point far into my future, but I kept you long enough. That's my spiritual cartography, a map of my life. And yet one book that rumbles at the edge of my desk must be heard: Buechner's The Longing for Home. This 1996 book is a large part of what set in motion eight years of my attempting to produce and distribute music that was acoustically-grounded, lyrically intelligent, and spiritually provocative. Opening the flyleaf to this book recently, I found my handwritten notes for what became the liner notes to the Silent Planet Record compilation entitled Aliens and Strangers: We live in discontent. We ache at the brokenness of life. For in our good moments, we sense our exile, our longing for a place called home. We are aliens and strangers. The music on this compilation is not your typical radio fare. It is honest: true to the tragic brokenness of life and yet bearing the seeds of light and hope. Traverse it, and you'll find the signs point to a place called Home. While there is more to it than that, and revisions made, it is deeply pleasurable to see that handwriting from 27 years ago, in a book that greatly mentored me, in an album whose music lives on, and, believe it or not, written on a coupon for the restaurant in the re-purposed theater to which I took Janet Morgan some 36 years ago. "Oh God" was the movie. "Oh God," life is rich. "Oh God," I'm saying, with Buechner, "You are seeing everything for the last time, and everything you see is gilded with goodbyes. . . . For the last time you are hearing this house come alive because you who are part of its life have come alive. . . . Be alive if you can all through this day today of your life." So, before I rise from this table, I promise God once again that I will do my level best to pay attention, to see what's in front of me, to reach out and touch things, to remember, dream, eschew the virtual for the real, to see in all these physical things, in my Magic Kingdom the "kingdom more magic still that comes down out of heaven prepared as a bride adorned for her husband" --- signs that point me Home. Continue reading
Posted Sep 19, 2013 at Out Walking
One of Audrey Assad's musical loves is the songwritwers of the Seventies, and it's true that if you can get past the polyester-mirrorball-bumping disco that hit the airwaves in 1975 (that was, for me, "the day the music died"), there were some great singer-songwriters. . . like Harry Chapin, Cat Stevens, Joni Mitchell, and Paul Simon. So, though most of what you hear at an Audrey Assad concert is original, without a doubt we'll be treated to her take on one of these great songs - like Bridge Over Troubled Waters, a beautiful song which, after repeated covers over the years, grew stale and cliche'd, but which she manages to freshen. Don't miss out Reserve your seats now. Tell your friends. Visit the concert page here to reserve. Continue reading
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Now you have even more reason to reason to reserve a seat for Audrey Assad. Audrey will be joined by an up and coming songwriter who, if you must compare, sounds a bit like Mumford and Son, with an energetic, driving acoustic sound. He'll be playing a three-song set as an opener for Audrey. Check out his sound below. If you haven't already reserved a seat, you better do it now. Seats are going, and the pace of reservations is picking up. Don't be left out. Reserve here. And check out John Tibbs here. See you on September 26th at 7:30! Continue reading
Folks we are only two weeks out from the Audrey Assad concert. That's Thursday, September 26th, at 7:30. Are you coming? If so, don't miss out on getting a seat. Click here to reserve you seats! As a special treat, a three-song opener will be provided by Audrey's guest artist and friend, John Tibbs. Check out the single featured on his website. And, just to whet your appetite for Audrey, catch this video of a live perfomance. See you on the 26th! Continue reading
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I'm very excited to announce that we will be hosting Audrey Assad in concert on Thursday, September 26th, at 7:30 PM. Audrey has been with us twice previously, once solo and once with Sara Groves, and she is a consummate performer with a beautiful voice. This time, as part of her tour in support of her new release, Fortunate Fall, she will have the support of some fine musicicans --- all the better to showcase her fine talent. For more details and to reserve a seat or seats, click here. Continue reading
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I'll be posting all the details very soon, but for now please save the date of Thursday, September 26th, 7:30 for a very special house concert with Audrey Assad. Last time Audrey was here, two years ago, this concert sold out! This time she will be touring with supporting musicians in conjunction with the release of her new album, Fortunate Fall, a beautiful album of fresh worship songs. Only 65 seats will be available. Be sure and join us on September 26th. Reservations may be made here beginning Saturday, September 7th at 8:00 AM. Don't miss this! Continue reading
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One of the benefits of essaying (the writing of essays) is the freedom to sashay from one topic to another, like some sort of word association game. Thus, it was with some ease that I moved from writing a review of D.J. Waldie's memoir of Lakewood, California, Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir, to a scholarly book of essays about the impact of the aerospace industry on Southern California. Blue Sky Metropolis is saved from a pedantic tone, however, by its narratives --- memoirs by D.J. Waldie and M.G. Lord, a biography of Lockheed's Robert E. Gross, details of the alt-space titans like Elon Musk and Burt Rutan, and, of course, by all those Okies in khakis that built the planes and missiles for WWII, the Korean War, and Vietnam. It is, in the end, a story of people, and people never bore. You can touch down at LAX and drive your rental car down the freeways and byways of Los Angeles County and never give a second thought to why people live where they do and like they do, but I have never been able to do that. As Wade Graham's essay makes clear, the sheer volume of housing required by workers at the wartime aircraft manufacturing plants (Lockheed's plant in Burbank, for example, had over 18,000 employees in 1941) required assembly line methods that resulted in tract suburbs built around manufacturing nodes. Waldie's hometown, Lakewood, was virtually built in 90 days, a carefully planned grid of tract housing for workers employed by Douglas Aircraft Corporations's WWII manufacturing plants. As Waldie notes here, the Douglas assembly buildings are nearly gone, and "The City of Tomorrow, Today," is still there, that tomorrow now yesterday. As Waldie concludes, "None of my neighbors asked in the 1950s what their "city of tomorrow" would be fit for if tomorrow's assumptions were falsified. Perhaps the persistent ordinariness of places like Lakewood is the only answer." Indeed, the quotidian of most folk is cleaning house, paying bills, going to work, and making ends meet. Peopled as they are by the ordinary, these essays manage to speak to us of something beyond an aerospace industry, of hearts and souls alive in the rattle and hum of industry. Not that they are all about people. One fascinating essay by Stuart Leslie, "Spaces for the Space Age," profiles the aerospace modernism of architect William Pereira. Many of his lavishly landscaped corporate campuses, his structures of steel and glass that blurred the distinction between interior and exterior space, have already been demolished. And yet consider the optimism carried by such structures, the impact they must have had on the very real people who worked in them. To sit in the glass-encased lobby of the Convair Astronautics lobby, with its signature suspended and serpentine ramp to the second floor, must have imbued one with a sense of the future, of optimism, of a belief that the sky was the limit for what could be accomplished. Behind Pereira's space-age structures lay blue-collar factories, and yet for a worker to arrive each day must have been a reminder that he (and occasionally, she) was involved in something crucial. The code of secrecy that governed such projects only reinforced the gravity of the endeavour. Diminished though it is, the aerospace industry continues to leave its footprint on Southern California. Another essay by Patrick McCray, "From L5 to X Prize," documents the rise of an alternative space movement, one heralded by the 2004 24-minute flight of Burt Rutan's SpaceShipOne, who claimed the Ansari X Prize, a $10 million dollar purse offered to the first private team to build and launch a spacecraft capable of carrying three people 100 kilometers above the Earth's surface twice within two weeks. Billionaire Elon Musk, who made his money in PayPal and software development, sited his Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) in Hawthorne, California, a first-ring post-WWII suburb of Los Angeles. Hawthorne was founded in the early 1900s, but its growth was moribund until Northrop Aviation moved to town in 1939. The town boomed with dust bowl emigrants who flocked to blue-collar Northrop and subcontractor jobs, becoming known as the Cradle of Aviation. (It's also the once site of the childhood home of Brian, Dennis, and Carl Wilson, the Beach Boys, now demolished for a freeway ramp.) How fitting that Musk would locate SpaceX in this historic place, and how auspicious a beginning was that of last year's launching of the Falcon rocket to the space station. Elsewhere, these essays explore the environmental effects of the aerospace industry, Chinese-Americans in the industry, labor relations, and that other aerospace mecca, the Silicon Valley. Strangely absent, however, is virtually any mention of the religious beliefs of the aerospace workers and how those beliefs shaped their experience of work or how their work impacted their beliefs. Is that because most of academia regards religion as a minor player in cultural change? A more generous assessment may be simply that these essays are only a beginning point in this project (though the Afterword does nothing to suggest that religion may be a topic in future studies). In the end, I am brought back to Waldie's comment about the "persistent ordinariness" of places like Lakewood or Hawthorne or Inglewood. In the midst of the boom and bust of the aerospace industry, in wartime and peacetime, in the spectre of then futuristic corporate centers, most workers came back to the quotidian. The mundane. That's the place where people live. Whether driving down the 405, Sepulveda, or I-5, I don't think about great factories or great men of industry and commerce but of my Dad, or Waldie's father, men who got up every day and went to work, of women who raised families in 1100 square foot tract homes, and of a God who providentially and mysteriously weaves our lives together. It's their dreams and hopes and burdens and woes that are all part of the weight we share, the weight of "persistent ordinariness" that just may be redeemed, little by little, day by day. Continue reading
Posted Sep 2, 2013 at Out Walking
Thank you, Mr. Waldie. Your book is moving in many ways and on more than one level. Suburbia, whether old (like Lakewood) or new, like Celebration, is where most of us live and apparently want to live. We'd best cultivate the best in it (and in ourselves). Without laying out a blueprint, Holy Land helps instruct what is, in the end, a very human experiment in living together, one which in its best moments, I think, points to a new heavens and new earth. Best wishes to you for a long life there in Lakewood.
Toggle Commented Aug 11, 2013 on The Weight We Bear at Out Walking
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What is beautiful here? The calling of a mourning dove, and others answering from yard to yard. Perhaps this is the only thing beautiful here. (D.L Waldie, Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir) In my graduate urban planning classes in the early 1980s, the post-WWII suburb of Lakewood, California was a whipping boy for all that was wrong with suburbia. Stark black and white aerial photographs of what appeared to be a treeless, cookie-cutter development laid out on a grid were offered as examples of all that was wrong with suburban design. One graduate text, Ian McHarg's Design With Nature, countered the kind of economic calculus that dictated the design of Lakewood, popularizing the notion of ecological design --- a humane, organic, and symbiotic relationship between nature and the built environment. It was the kind of design by which we ended up with planned communities like Reston, Columbia, The Woodlands, or Celebration. But I didn't grow up in that kind of planned community, but on a suburban Greensboro street. Neither did D.L. Waldie. Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir is not like any book I have ever read. It consists of 316 readings --- most a few paragraphs long, some consisting of only a couple of sentences --- that are Waldie's reflections on the history of Lakewood and his life there. One might call it an extended prose poem or, at least, poetic prose. Certainly it is spare prose. Mostly his reflections are narrated in the first-person, and yet on occasion he abruptly changes to a third-person voice, stepping out of himself to look on himself and his life in Lakewood as if to confirm his existence, to objectify his subjective musings. After his mother died, he chose to live here with his father. After his father died, he chose to stay here. He stayed partly because he said he would to the girl he had loved. His is a memoir that contains an understated affection for a place. Though Lakewood's builders were exclusively concerned with maximizing profit, on putting as many houses as they could into the 3500 acres which they bought, his reflections are a testimony to the fact that even a place laid out on a grid, where the houses look similar in size and style and where one place could just as soon be another, can be invested by their human inhabitants with meaning, purpose, and community. Yet he never says that. He lets it be seen in what he doesn't say or what his observations imply. You leave the space between the houses uncrossed. You rarely go across the street, which is forty feet wide. You are grateful for the distance. It is as if each house on your block stood on its own enchanted island, fifty feet wide by one hundred feet long. People come and go from it, your parents mostly and your friends. Your parents arrive like pilgrims. But the island is remote. You occasionally hear the sounds of anger. You almost never hear the sounds of love. You hear, always at night, the shifting of the uprights, the sagging of ceiling joists, and the unpredictable ticking of the gas heater. What he gives voice to is the tension of being together, and yet apart, of lying in a bed not 15 feet from the wall of a neighboring house where someone else is lying in bed, and listening, thinking, and wondering about life, like you, and yet in some sense still a stranger to you. Lying there and waiting. _________________________ On Idlewood I spent my first years in a house no bigger than the 1100 square foot houses of Lakewood, houses laid out at right angles, a more generous four to an acre. We were middle-class, before there was upper-middle class, before I knew anything about class, just people who were rich and the rest of us. In the mornings, fathers went to work. Most mothers stayed home. Postage-stamp backyards were populated by children, swing-sets, clothes lines, and barbecue grills. At night I lay in bed and listened to the low murmur of my parent's voices, to the chatter of my sisters, to, finally, the "shifting of the uprights, the sagging of ceiling joists, and the unpredictable ticking of the gas heater." Well, at least the latter I remember, the furnace on and off, the frightening thought of the demon that lived in the pilot light. Then, my street seemed to stretch for miles, the houses generous. To cross the street took parental mandate. My world was circumscribed. Had I seen an aerial photograph I would have taken note of monotony, of uniform rooftops at right angles on grid. Power company. Park. Highway. Zoom in and see a blue station wagon parked street side, steps and walkway from the street to the front door, and me and my friend Georgie, in a sandbox with trucks. Like Waldie, I knew no other place. Zooming in now compliments of Google World, I see the same house, same walk, same streets. Someone is living in my home. Children are playing. If I listen to those early memories, I even hear the screen door flapping as we run in and out, in and out. _________________________ Waldie never left his 1100 square foot house. He lived there with his parents until they died. Then he kept living there. He went to work for the City of Lakewood. He invested himself in his place. Neighbors died and new families moved in, creating a more multi-ethic neighborhood in place of the uniformly white neighborhood of his childhood, one where "Negroes" could not even be sold a house. He stayed. He cared for his parents and watched his mother and then father succumb to disease and death. He remained unmarried. He rooted himself in his parent's Catholic faith. He could not choose to deny his father, even less his father's beliefs. These have become as material to him as the stucco-over-chicken-wire from which these houses are made. ******* "I am still here," he often tells himself. This is how he has resurrected his father's obligations, which he sometimes mistakes for his father's faith. "I will never go away," he once told the girl he loved, because it suited her desperation and his notion of the absurd. Loving Christ badly was finally the best he could do. He stayed put. After college he came back home and got a job. He spent years seeing the details, the particulars of his house and surroundings, walking home from city hall on straight flat sidewalks four feet wide, by streets 40 feet wide, separated by a strip of grass seven feet wide, one tree required in front of each home on that strip of grass. He details the construction of the home, its foundation, walls, rafters, attic, and roof. This pattern --- of asphalt, grass, concrete, grass --- is as regular as any thought of God's. ________________________ When I was about four, we moved to another suburb with more generous lots and larger, colonial styled homes. You could no longer as easily hear what the neighbors were engaged in, though air conditioning was still minimal, windows still open, and sounds still wafted from the rooms next door. We gathered around black and white TVs, watched Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie, dialed for dollars and ate bologna sandwiches. My mother watched The Fugitive with David Jansen, a man unjustly accused. She was riveted by his adventures. We knew our neighbors, and then we didn't. Each house stood alone, and yet we shared what developers had left us. Wide streets. Streetlights. Curb and gutter. And yet McHarg would have been glad to see the contours, the curved streets, the natural areas around streams, the hills retained, unlike Lakewood with its "houses on ground so flat that the average grade across the city's nine-and-a-half square miles is less than a foot." We had no black neighbors then. A Jewish couple did live across the street, a fact referred to respectfully as if righteous Martians had come among us, as in "they bought a new car, you know. They're Jewish." We reminded ourselves that aliens were among us, a peculiar people, God's people. My friends and I knew that neighborhood in a way our parents never would. The paths we traveled took us through unfenced backyard shortcuts, through creeks and tunnels under roads, unbounded. Our parents navigated streets; we traveled lightly, off-road, free. Or I did, until my father died when I was just 14. ________________________ Holy Land is a mixture of scruptulously researched history and science of a place and terse, sometimes enigmatic, personal narrative of life in that place. At one point Waldie muses on the aquifers that lie under his house, vast underground reservoirs of water that for many years supplied the water needs of Long Beach and Lakewood. They have names, these layered aquifiers --- Artesia, Gage, the San Pedro Formation, Hollydale, Jefferson, Lynwood, Silversado, Sunnyside. He speaks of them as if they are a part of him and his small home. And technically, they are, as real property lawyers would say that if you own property in fee you own all the land right down to the center of the earth. But he doesn't go that far: "Beneath them," he says, beneath all the aquifers, "two miles below my house, is a wide nameless valley." Elsewhere, he details the city's flood control system, peculiar city ordinances (like one forbidding the telling of the future), the personal histories of the city's developers, real estate sale practices ("We sell happiness in homes"), shopping centers, and people of his neighborhood. None of this is boring. These ordinary details of life, taken together, give a richness to life without portraying it in a simplistic, sentimental, or nostalgic way. Taken together, it doesn't glorify suburbia, and yet it dignifies these communities as places where real people live and love and get along, mostly. The critics of suburbs say that you and I live narrow lives. I agree. My life is narrow. From one perspective or another, all our lives are narrow. Only when lives are placed side by side do they seem larger. _________________________ I have lived in the same home and same city for 29 years. While that is less than half that of Waldie, and while I do not live in the house in which I grew up, I know something of what it means to stay put, of the constriction of choice that arises from a commitment to place. We had a house fire. We did not move. We are very soon to be empty-nesters. We do not plan to move. To stay put constricts choice, entails a certain kind of narrowness. In one quote early in the book, obtuse on its face, Waldie says "each of us is crucified. His own crucifixion is the humiliation of living the life he has made for himself." I did not understand the quote until the last essay in the book, where he links that crucifixion to that of Christ. He describes a Good Friday service, and ends with a stanza of a traditional hymn, the Latin words of which are translated as Sweet the wood Sweet the nails, Sweet the weight you bear. If we stay put, what we bear is the weight of place, the constriction of choice, the burden of community, the inescapable obsolescence of all we see. And yet, that humiliation, like Christ's, is grace and sets us free, gives us real life. A place is more than wood and nails, though it is that. It's the weight we bear. It's the price of loving His world. It's the "answering from yard to yard." Continue reading
Posted Aug 4, 2013 at Out Walking
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While I rarely have the luxury of reading a book in one sitting, last Sunday afternoon was an exception. I settled myself in my wife's green "ladies' chair" and cracked open Rod Dreher's The Little Way of Ruthie Leming: A Southern Girl, a Small Town, and the Secret of a Good Life. Five hours and 268 pages later, I stood up, finished, and walked out the door to the far corner of a wooded back yard. I turned to face my home of 28 years, trying to see it as a stranger might, wondering about the life of the family inside, about what joys and trials they may have had, the dynamics of relationships. Mostly, those are matters I keep close. But Rod Dreher did write about the inner life of his extended family, and we can all be glad he did. The Little Way has as its heart the loving but conflicted relationship between Dreher and his younger sister Ruthie, all as set against the backdrop of the small-town community of Starhill, Louisiana. Ruthie stayed home, married, and had children, taught school, and embraced the small community in which she lived. Dreher, on the other hand, ached to escape its suffocating smallness, much of its bucolic charm lost on him. After college at LSU, he left both home and faith, working as a journalist in Washington, New York, Dallas, and Philadelphia - in short, anywhere unlike the town in which he was reared. "You were our dreamer," his mother said. "Ruthie wasn't. She was satisfied with what she had in front of her. You had your head in books all the time. She loved nature, and being outside." Ruthie shot deer, skinning a buck herself. Dreher gagged, retreated to books and to worldly spinster aunts, and once having his intellectual interests piqued by the academic atmosphere of LSU, never turned back. All this was a mystery to Ruthie. Listening to a philosophical discussion between her brother and a friend once at LSU, where they were both in college, Ruthie, exasperated, said "What is wrong with ya'll? Listen to you. You sit her for hours talking about this crap, and it doesn't mean anything. You're just talking; you're not doing anything!" Over time, a wall grew between Ruthie and her brother. And yet Ruthie was one of the most loved people in Starhill and West Francisville Parish, never giving up on difficult kids, believing the best about all, and accepting her last illness without anger at God, at peace with God and man, except, perhaps, her brother who, inexplicably, left, while she stayed. In writing this memoir, Dreher throws open the door on life in his family, exposing the hearts and minds of many family members and friends who still live in the small town of Starhill, revealing his own struggles with his father, the smallness of his world compared to the "little way" of Ruthie. While the author found his way back to faith, albeit Catholicism and then Orthodoxy, he also quite surprisingly found his way back to Louisiana, recognizing the value of place, of home, when Ruthie contracted lung cancer just shy of her 40th birthday. In watching her gracefully deal with that awful reality and seeing a community that rallied around her, he realized that there was much to gain from staying put or, failing that, from going home, from the ties that bind. In leaving, he was able, finally, to come home for the first time. Dreher reflects on why we leave our communities, on why so many live an unrooted life: Contemporary culture encourages us to make islands of ourselves for the sake of self-fulfillment, of career advancement, of entertainment, of diversion, and all the demands of the sovereign self. When suffering and death come for you - and it will - you want to be in a place where you know, and are known. You want - no, you need - to be able to say, as Mike [Ruthie's husband] did, "We're leaning, but we're leaning on each other." Dreher acknowledges that we can't all go home, that we can't (indeed, shouldn't) all stay, even that the places from which we come are, for all their goodness warped by sin. Even selfless Ruthie could not quite, in the end, forgive her brother for leaving. But the lesson, perhaps, is that we shouldn't be so quick to leave home or whatever place in which we find ourselves, that we should do the hard work of building relationships and binding ourselves to the streets and buildings and landcapes in which we providentially find ourselves. We should, in other words, go out for walk, make a mental map, build up a reservoir of sounds and sights, of a place and its people. Much as God did in the Incarnation, we should move into the neighborhood, living fully embodied lives in the places assigned to us, so that one day, we may say, with the Psalmist, "The lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; indeed, I have a beautiful inheritance" (Ps. 16:6, ESV). If Dreher had not written this book, few of us would know Ruthie Leming. Her "little way" would be unknown, a story remembered by a few hundred people in Starhill, Louisiana. And yet, because he did tell it, we see now in that little story a much grander story, one universal in scope, a modern (true) myth of what it means to live unto God in a world that swirls around us. The message: Stay. Go home. Or make a home. But for God's sake, settle down. Standing there in my backyard, looking at our home, I'm full of questions: Could it really have been 28 years? Can my children really be grown and off on their own? Looking down at the stones marking the graves of a beloved dog and cat, I shake my head, incredulous that they have been dead over 12 years. Is it really possible in a culture of shifting allegiances that I still work and worship and walk in the same places and am wed to the same one after all this time? I'm very, very glad I stayed. I'm very glad to be home. In this holy land, I see Home. Continue reading
Posted Jul 19, 2013 at Out Walking
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If you have wondered where Outwalking has been, it's absence has been due in part to the fact that I was in southwest Uganda from June 16-30, serving as part of a mission to churches in that area with Amazing Grace Adoptions and Orphan Care. It wasn't that I didn't blog, because I did, writing here on the official mission blog. I hope you'll visit the blog to see what we were up to there in the Kisoro District. But just in case you don't, I'll share some excerpts here. The Kisoro District of Uganda is far from the capital city of Kampala, about a 10-hour bus trip, and thus far from the minds of the government officials there. As a result, government support of the community is lacking. Poised as there are on the border with the Congo, a resource-rich if troubled country, and Rwanda, a comparatively better off and yet still troubled country, they have seen their share of refugees. Add to that a drought that has affected them for nearly a month, and the material poverty is palpable. And yet material poverty is the good soil of spiritual wealth For eight days we followed Pastor George to eight of the 16 churches he has planted. George and his wife Rubina have no salary, no bank account, and no other stable source of income. Nevertheless, they have several children and have managed to take in orphans to raise as their own. Like nearly all Ugandans in rural areas, they "dig," as they say, providing for themselves by planting and harvesting their own crops from small plots of land. One day at breakfast, Pastor George says this: “When I walk to visit the churches, I sometimes don't know where I will sleep. Sometimes I sleep outdoors. Sometimes I sleep in a church with no windows or doors. When I lay down, I don't know if I am going to wake up. Then, I find myself moving, and I am up. I do not know how God will provide, but I know that He will.” I do not even know how to think in this way. Like most people from the West, I have multiple safety nets to fall back on should trouble come - savings, insurance, family, and government. Most Ugandans have nothing --- nothing but God, that is. How can God grow the kind of faith in me that I see in this man? One day we drove to the end of a rutted dirt road, finally disembarking to walk the rest of the way to a church because the bridge was impassable. It was like following the Apostle Paul. The road teemed with people walking. Women carrying baskets of fruit, beans, or rocks on their heads; men pushing bicycles laden with bamboo, mattresses, a bed frame, potatoes; and children staring and waving from doorways and dirt yards shared with goats and chickens. In the fields, women slung hoes, digging at the rich earth, babies strapped to their backs. They flocked around us. They all know Pastor George. That night I recalled the words of Frederick Buechner from The Magnificent Defeat: “Jesus is apt to come, into the very midst of life at its most real and inescapable. Not in a blaze of unearthly light, not in the midst of a sermon, not in the throes of some kind of religious daydream, but… at supper time, or walking along a road.” So, out walking He comes. Walking along a road. So what did we do? Pastor George asked for nothing but one thing: that we come and encourage his people. So, feeling our weakness, our inadequacy, we came. We taught Bible study to men and women over half of whom lack a Bible but who are adept at listening, eagerly absorbing the Word. We prayed for people. We heard of their difficulties. We sang. They sang. We ate the lunch they prepared for us: beans, rice, Irish potatoes, cooked cabbage, and tough sinewy beef that proved too tough for most of us. We loved on the children, played games, enacted parables, heard sad stories of sexual abuse and what seemed like demonic visitation. Powerless, we called on the omnipotent One to help them, the Father to the many fatherless, to a people adopted and made co-heirs with Christ of spiritual riches unencumbered by material wealth. Many times I thought surely there are people who can teach Bible study better than me, who know the Bible better than me. And yet I was reminded that those people were not there, and I was. So I just opened my mouth and prayed to God that He would fill it. And something came out. We began and ended our days in weakness. For a devotion after breakfast our first day, we read II Corinthians 12:1-10, and considered Christ's words to Paul, his answer to his plea to have some ailment of mind or body removed from him: "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." The words stood up on the page and walked with us for two weeks, taking life in the life we lived. Standing outside a church one day, within sight of Congo, Pastor George told us how the grandmother of the pastor used to walk all the way to Kisoro to come to his church, nealy 25 miles. One day she offered to give him the land for the church. The church members then built the church, rock by rock. Each one gives. “If you can't give money, bring a rock to church,” George says. Rock by rock. That's how it goes there. That's how they live out the gospel. That's how we have to live out the Gospel. That's how the Kingdom gets built. Continue reading
Posted Jul 5, 2013 at Out Walking