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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)
Recent Activity
When I was 14 I got my first real job working as a "stock boy" in a local department store. It was an all-male crew, and we were a bunch of pimply-faced adolescents with a horizon no farther than the next pretty girl. Trucks carrying lawn furniture, mattresses, box springs, housewares, toys, and other stock would roll to the curb outside Receiving, and we'd hoist much of it on our skinny shoulders and carry it in past the bird-like and bespectacled Edna and her gaggle of female clerks. It was backbreaking work sometimes, but when you are 14 its a matter of your manhood and, besides, "backbreaking" is a middle-aged term and not one for adolescents. We worked hard, as I said, sometimes, and Scott and Billy, all the time. Billy, an ox of a kid, wore green army fatigues, a white t-shirt, and a rope for a belt every day, like Jethro Bodean. Billy was generally good-natured if dim, unless a comment struck him wrong, and you never knew what would set him off, yet Scott could yank his chain and restrain him. Billy would say something profound every now and then, like cotton-patch proverbs, usually prefaced with “My daddy said. . .”, but I was blind and deaf then and couldn’t appreciate what I heard. Scott sauntered like the body-builder he wasn’t. He rolled his t-shirt up to hold a pack of cigarettes, Fonzi-style, only he was decidedly uncool, his machismo no doubt a mask for some deficiency we'd learn about later in Psych 101. He liked me, perhaps felt sorry for me, under-muscled wimp that I was. The main form of humor for Scott and Billy was bodily noises, jokes of which they never seemed to tire. We tired of their labor. They carried boxes of chairs on their backs and seemed delighted when trucks would roll in. There was little slack in Scott and Billy. They worked hard all the time. The rest of us talked to girls, laid around in the stockroom drinking Cokes, hid from the bosses, and tried out new recliners, doing our best to do as little as possible, minimum effort for minimum pay. At the end of the day however, we punched the clock and all pulled the same number of hours, and at the end of the week received the same paycheck that Billy and Scott received. It doesn't seem fair, considering what slackers we were. We received what we didn't deserve. In the parable of the Workers in the Vineyards, a landowner hires men in the morning and puts them to work, and then hires more later, and then yet more near day’s end. Some worked all day, some half a day, and others perhaps only a couple of hours. Theoretically, it wouldn’t have mattered if one worked only five minutes. In the upside-down economy of Jesus, all the workers were paid the same thing, as if they had worked all day. In this most un-American story, Jesus draws a picture of a countercultural realm where we don't get what we deserve, where a just-now believing thief on the cross inherits the kingdom of Heaven just like the most faithful of disciples, where, slacker that I am, I punch in to Heaven same as Billy Graham and Mother Teresa. Pastor David Zahl describes it this way: "Christ paints a portrait of a kingdom where reward is not a matter of output or merit but grace, where we are valued according to our presence rather than our accomplishment, where all the boss seems to require of his workers is their need. . . . What we learn is what we never quite learn, the message that is as bottomless as our need for it: God does not relate to us on the basis of our results, or of how well we stack up against others, but on the largeness of his generosity, the gift of his Son, who 'by his one oblation of himself offered a full, perfect and sufficient sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world." But in the kingdom of this world, of course, grace is limited, meted out as it is by fallible humans, and so sometime in my second year of employment, I was canned. The assistant manager, Mr. Smith, let me go one day, and I drove home feeling dejected and friendless, as all my peers worked at the store. Looking back on it, I was living on cheap grace, and I endured a season of discipline. Only to return. My good friends father, who was senior assistant manager, re-hired me. Lesson learned. A turning. Call it repentance. I didn't become a star employee. Not long after, I backed the delivery van into a house, chipping a brick and mangling the doors. We dropped and damaged a new sleeper sofa we were trying to fit into a double-wide, and Robby and I, huffing and puffing and sweating, with an angry owner and a bulldog straining at its chain, learned some new ways to curse. Buffing the floors one night I carelessly let a floor stripper (the machine, not the dancer) ram a display cabinet and damage some merchandise. But I learned to flip burgers in the snack bar, ring up customers, put up stock, and clean toilets (when Leroy the janitor was on a binge), and I spent a lot of time in Accessories and Sportswear talking to women, many the age of my mother or older, and I learned something about working and standing on your feet all day and raising kids and being faithful. In that forgiving place, slacker that I was, I grew up a little. I now know it by another name: Sanctification. That ever-deepening realization that is rooted in the fact that I am getting what I don't deserve, that my need for Jesus is getting bigger every day, that the best work I do is resting on the perfect work He has done. And Scott? A voice crying in the wilderness, like John the Baptist in redneck garb, standing outside Receiving, cigarette in tow, challenging me to repent of my lackadaisical ways and work a little harder, so I can fail even more, so that I can realize my deep, deep need of Jesus who forever employs and never lets go. Continue reading
Posted Apr 14, 2015 at Out Walking
About 4:30 last night I woke to the sound of coyotes yapping and howling. It was an eerie sound, much less soothing than the sound of rain on the roof or the calls of owls, both of which I have heard while here in southeastern Arizona. Their revelry lasted only thirty seconds or so, and while it sounded like a pack of maybe twelve ravenous canines right outside our door, it was probably only two or three who could have been a thousand or more feet away in an adjacent wash that snakes down from the Santa Catalina Mountains. They are ventriloquists, throwing their voices in ways that make them seem more proximate and numerous than they really are, which is another way of saying they are deceivers. But whatever they were doing out there, my slumber was over. I lay there. The coyotes went silent, the owls took up the song, their questions lingering, repeated for emphasis, perhaps, or sociability. I'm full of questions too. When you awake in the night and lie there questions seem to come easily, ones that lay beneath the surface of the rattle and rub of life. They percolate up to consciousness. I turn them into prayers, some sensible, some inchoate. I'm a little out of my head, semi-conscious, and yet the Spirit takes my sometimes unintelligible scribbling and translates it into a final draft, so I don't worry about it. I ramble on. But that was last night, and this afternoon I am sitting on the veranda talking with my son about orbital dynamics, or astrophysics, or some little subject like that, punctuated by chips and guacamole, a subject we can both understand. He is like a wise owl on these subjects and I am a coyote, saying little, but dangerous. I make a lot of racket for maybe 15 seconds, yet he holds forth longer, owlish, with less bluster, more nuance. He just explained something to me that I do not understand. I need an explanation of the explanation. But my mind is lazy. I ate a chip. He went back to typing. Heat rises from the top of his head. I know it is there because from the time he was a little boy his head would get hot when he thought real hard. And he's thinking pretty hard. Me, not so much. He's telling me about a spaceship passing by Jupiter, ejecting a cube-sat (that's a baby satellite, a swaddled bundle of. . . instruments) which is thrown out to crash on the surface of Jupiter's moon, Europa, how a door opens and it being spring-mounted is cast out. Like a jack-in-the-box, I say. And he agrees. That's my contribution. And I'm sure I bungled that explanation, but await his dissertation for the real stuff. Just before dawn, as I lay there working on world issues interspersed with meandering prayers, the birds woke. At home I never hear the birds as I do here, where there is a cacophony of tweets and chirps and flutterings that signal sunrise. Excitement, expectation, joy. Before long, light tinges the curtain pulled over the patio window, and it glows. The owls sleep. My family sleeps. I lay there looking at the ceiling. A few days ago, I remember, I was riding a horse in the foothills of the Catalinas. I was first up, on Susio, right behind our Sixties-ish guide, Frank, who has lived here all his adult life. I am a tentative rider, lacking temerity, and the horse knows it. And unfortunately for me, Susio has a habit of wandering to the edge of the trail, threatening to brush against cholla cactus, falling into a small ravine, or God forbid falling off the edge of the trail and rolling down the mountain, crushing me or filling me with cactus needles. In theory I know Susio knows this trail better than me, and yet I don't fully trust him. I'm watching him. An owl watches me. Along about dark, I hear a mockingbird, running through his Top 40, and I suspect that I am the subject of his derision. I tell Frank that we are fresh back from the Desert Museum, and after a pause, he says his favorite animal is the otter. He says that when you see the otter "you just gotta smile." I give assent. You somehow can't imagine a bad day for an otter. I remember the otter that we saw earlier in the week, how he surfaced and rolled over on his back and smiled a whiskered grin at us, how we smiled back. But Susio is going off-road again, and my reverie is ended. My son is still tapping away on the keyboard. A breeze lifts my hair and I look out to the city, east to the Rincon Mountains, covered by a fuzzy haze which I know is dust, swept up by the winds. I'm on vacation, I remind myself. It's like elementary school recess: the bell rang, and I ran out, free, where I can think about anything I want, light out on a whim, and spend time with friends, which are, and always will be, family --- my wife, my son, my daughter. If this sounds disjointed, if the transitions are blurred, if the transmission crackles like a radio transmission from Europa, it's a testimony to a mind unhinged, at recess. Let me stay a little longer, please, under the moon and stars and satellite sky of this desert. I'll be in soon. Continue reading
Posted Mar 25, 2015 at Out Walking
“The Bible is full of evidence that God's attention is indeed fixed on the little things. But this is not because God is a great cosmic cop, eager to catch us in minor transgressions, but simply because God loves us--loves us so much that the divine presence is revealed even in the meaningless workings of daily life. It is in the ordinary, the here-and-now, that God asks us to recognize that the creation is indeed refreshed like dew-laden grass that is ‘renewed in the morning’ or, to put it in more personal and also theological terms, ‘our inner nature is being renewed everyday’.” ― Kathleen Norris, The Quotidian Mysteries: Laundry, Liturgy and Women's Work Acedia, as Kathleen Norris writes about in The Cloister Walk, is what the medieval monks referred to as the “noonday demon”, that heavy omnipresent sense that nothing matters, when you are numb to pain and joy, listless, depressed, and indifferent, when joy shrivels up and seems incapable of resuscitation. By God’s grace, I have not known such pervasive grayness, but I have touched its hem. I experience such feelings at times when, on waking in the morning, in the twilight, I sigh at what the day may bring. In these times, the story I hear is one of monotony, sameness, and weariness. In her children’s devotional, Thoughts to Make Your Heart Sing, Sally Lloyd-Jones paints a picture of just what this is like. The picture is of a young boy sitting up in bed, head bowed and pensive, with an ominous, swirling dark cloud of thoughts pressing in. Her point is that we often experience unhappiness because we are listening to ourselves rather than talking to ourselves. Talk back to the darkness, she says, and “remind yourself of what is true, and who you are, and who God is and what he has done.” And it is in the literal and spiritual darkness that, when you can see only the murky outlines of the lamp, the chair, or the somnolent cat, or when you can’t see beyond the day, that you remember scripture, if you have any imprinted on your mind, when you take one single verse into your thoughts and roll it over and over, examining it from all angles, anchoring your thoughts to it. A verse like “Do not be afraid or discouraged, for the Lord will personally go ahead of you. He will be with you” (Deut. 31:8, NLT). One morning this past week, I did just that, anchoring myself in a verse I first memorized, to my recollection, in my college years, the one that begins with “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, in all your ways acknowledge him” (Prov. 3:5-6). That refrain drowned out the minor key I awoke to, called me back to truth. Yet another morning I lay there for 30 minutes allowing an incessant litany of burdens to darken my thoughts. It takes an act of the will. It takes Spirit-enabled music that allows me to skip to a better track, a brighter and truer song. That’s not acedia, I know. That’s the skirt of acedia. And yet the remedy is the same. Scripture is the primary antidote. But there’s a powerful if lesser tonic that Norris calls attention to, and that’s the natural world. It's what happens when I get up and walk outside. Fifteen years ago, post-surgery and struggling with anxiety, that was about all I could do. Arising in the dark and listening to the rhythm of footfalls, to the breaths I took, even to the beat of my heart, I reminded myself that I was alive and might just live. I let my mind rehearse memories and reflected on the imprint of life in a particular place and moment, about the fascination of moving water, smooth rocks, and tadpoles under bridges, about wading in the pool under the railroad overpass as a child with my grandmother looking on, about the numerous friends I had, about how the hinges of my personal history had, inexplicably and wondrously, all swung open to God. And in that rhythm, in that focus on the particular, on the minutiae — purpose, direction, meaning, and thankfulness would well up. Joy would awaken. If God is fixed on little things, if His eye is on the sparrow, then so should I be fixed. Love the particular and you will see the love of God. One of the most profound and impactful pieces of writing I have ever read is one by Frederick Buechner, one I read in a devotional of his writings called Listening to Your Life. It's about an an ordinary morning and his awakening to its life, to his life. I imagine he too awoke that morning rehearsing the cares of his day, yet arising he began to listen to what was happening: "Creation is underway. Breakfast is underway. Steam from the kettle is fogging up the windows. The cat mews to be let in out of the wet. Getting her bathrobe hooked on the knob of a drawer as she tears by, my wife throws up her hands: 'Is it going to be this kind of day?' With my ear to the radio, I try to catch what the weather will be. Somebody is crying while somebody else says it is her own fault that she is crying. We break fast together, break bread together fast, with the clock on the wall over my wife’s head tick-ticking our time away, time away. Soon it will be time to leave for school. Soon enough it will be time to leave." The antidote for acedia? The timeless words of God. The God-loved particulars of creation. Attention that grows love. Love that breaks out in joy. Walking in Word and World with eyes wide open. Continue reading
Posted Mar 9, 2015 at Out Walking
"What If. . .," the 2010 direct-to-DVD Christian film starring Kevin Sorbo (and not to be confused with the 2014 mainstream theatrical release, "What If?), is an "It's a Wonderful Life"-like story of Ben Walker, a successful, self-centered CEO of a major corporation who, fifteen years ago, left his college sweetheart Wendy (Kristy Swanson), and ultimately his faith, in order to pursue a lucrative business opportunity, abandoning seminary for an MBA. When Ben's car breaks down on the way to the airport, he is visited by an angel who tells him that he needs to see what his life would have been like had he followed God’s calling. Suddenly, Ben finds himself in an alternate reality, married to Wendy, with two daughters, and getting ready for church on a Sunday morning, where he’s scheduled to give his first sermon as the new pastor. After the usual shock, disbelief, and attempt to escape, he comes to grip with his faith, realizing that he has missed his calling. Yes, I know. We have seen the story before, and this is not a movie that has any unpredictable twists to it. It is entertaining and heartwarming, another lesson on the value of taking stock your life and reconsidering the direction in which you are headed. But Les Miserables it's not. But I am not here to critique the movie. We can find many Christians who render scathingly critiques of this and many other Christian cinematic offerings as sentimental, cliche, hokey, and poorly produced and acted. These critiques often have some validity, and it is true that life is generally more complex than the narratives of these movies lead us to believe. However, I found "What If. . ." valuable as an indictment of my own heart, which is more jaded and cynical than I thought. Ben Walker's life dramatically changes, and my impulse is to disbelieve it or call it simplistic, perhaps because I don't sufficiently believe that God can change people. Wendy prays a heartfelt prayer for her doubting husband, and I feel. . . what? . . . embarrassed by her sincerity, at the childlike nature of her prayer, at the spectacle of someone praying a sincere prayer onscreen? And when Ben begins to read the Bible I question his sincerity in a time when you rarely see a Bible read in a mainstream movie by anyone who is not mentally disturbed, bigoted, or judgmental. Feeling these emotions, I realize anew that we live and breathe the air of a disaffected time, when people have lost hope for "change," when having been disappointed by ministry leaders, pastors, teachers, and (naturally) politicians, we look askance at every assertion of faith. "What If. . ." may follow a predictable narrative, and perhaps change is often halting and fragmented and incomplete, and yet this movie and others like it remind me that faith and prayer and radical change are possible, that the same God who appeared to a rebel Saul can, virtually overnight, remold him into a faithful Paul. And when a nagging voice in my head suggests that this kind of change doesn't happen anymore, I remember that even in my lifetime I have seen Watergate "hatchet man" Chuck Colson come to faith and found the life-changing ministry of Prison Fellowship or seen more than one man I have known give up alcohol and philandering to return to a faithful wife. Yet, this age is so suffused with the lies of fatalism and cynicism that a regular remembering prompted by the Word and the testimony of others is necessary to counter it. "What if. . ." real change is possible? The testimony of Scripture is that it is. I need to remember that. And this decent movie is also a welcome reminder that God still changes people. Continue reading
Posted Mar 2, 2015 at Out Walking
The words “Once upon a time” are likely some of the most portentous words in literature. Hearing them, we expect a story. The words always, as Frederick Buchner says, contain “the promise of magic.” We expect something that makes sense of reality, that gives meaning to what we experience. For Christians, all stories that assume a narratable world resonate with echoes of a universal story, one with sin and salvation, Fall and Redemption, peril and promise, even if the story is fractured or, ostensibly irreligious. In pre-modern times, at least in the Western world, life existed against a backdrop of the biblical story. You might live contrary to the Story — attempting your own narrative — but you lived in an anti-narrative, always in reaction to the universal story (as in “God is not sovereign, I am”). Modernity existed on the capital of this pre-modern understanding. As Robert Jensen says, “Modernity was defined by the attempt to live in a universal story without a universal storyteller.” It had to end, and end it has in post-modernity, with great attention to stories but no universal story, with no narratable world and, thus, no meaning. That seems an impossible and nonsensical conclusion on this snowy day. I walked on white-dusted streets this morning, well aware that I was walking in a Story with a Storyteller. If there is no Story and no Storyteller, then why am I lifted by the beauty of snowfall? Why do I care about justice? Why do I hope? Why did I feel sadness at seeing the deer struck on the highway a couple nights ago? I really have a difficult time believing that most people, deep down, underneath layers of cynicism, don’t believe in meaning, don’t believe that the world is narratable. Perhaps they don’t, but they live in a world where the universal narrative is hidden beneath a commitment to individual autonomy, masked by “rights” assertions. Jensen’s point, however, is that given the non-narratable world “out there,” the church must be that world. As he summarizes: Out there — and that is exactly how we must again begin to speak of the society in which the church finds itself — there is no narratable world. But absent a narratable world, the church’s hearers cannot believe or even understand the gospel story—or any other momentous story. If the church is not herself a real, substantial, living world to which the gospel can be true, faith is quite simply impossible. The challenge is to tell the Story with integrity and with life, to actually re-enact it in and through the life of the church so that others see its truth, its correspondence to reality and its coherence. To a world of fractured and incoherent half-truths, we can say “once upon a time” and mean it, telling and living a Story that is true in all places and at all times. And so, on a walk in the snow, when beauty wells up, you have a place to put it —- once upon a time. Continue reading
Posted Feb 24, 2015 at Out Walking
Francis Schaffer, the late, knickered American who with wife Edith founded a ministry of hospitality in Switzerland called L’Abri in 1955, is often referred to as an apologist, but at heart he was a pastor and his ministry pastoral, as his letters attest. In them he married theology to practice, doctrine to personal care. In a 1971 letter he wrote to Lynn, a young woman struggling with depression, his pastor’s heart is evidenced by his words to her, carefully shaped and (often) dictated, perhaps (as was often the case) in the wee hours of the morning. To Lynn, to anyone struggling with depression, he says: The wonder is that when we know God’s forgiveness is based upon the infinite value of Christ’s finished work, we can have peace of mind and knowledge of His love, even in the midst of our weakness and depression. And again, we all have depressions too; since the Fall, none of us are psychologically healthy or perfect morally. And I must say that depressions are very hard. This is not unknown to me; though most people do not know it, I have my own periods of depression which are very difficult. . . . I speak her not from theory but from experience — in the midst of our down times we can know that His arms are about us, and that He does not let us go when our hands are as weak as water. In one paragraph, he manages to channel the great doctrines of the Fall, Justification, and Sanctification — there in that sense of God’s sustaining presence --- into a a shepherd’s love for a single person, spoken not from a place of spiritual superiority but out of his own vulnerability. It’s a good lesson for us all, as doctrine, as one pastor has said, must be “lived out through the fingertips.” Speaking the truth through our weakness and vulnerability can be our strongest ministry. I met Edith twice and both times felt as if she immediately knew me, though a stranger. I believe it is because she had deeply absorbed the truth that we are all made in God’s image. I deeply regret that I never met Dr. Schaeffer but look forward to spending eternity with him, in a time when we are not weak as water. Continue reading
Posted Feb 22, 2015 at Out Walking
My old standby writing idea prompter, poemcrazy, has a few prompts to get you writing. Stand on your head for as long as possible. Notice details upside down. Ever done that lately? It hurts. And I had a heck of a time getting my feet up there, even up against the wall. My cat upside down looks like my cat hanging from the roof. Like I said, it looks like my cat, asleep. Sleeping upside down. Dance. Write. Nope. Left that back in the Seventies with the disco ball. The Bee Gees. John Travolta. The day the music died. I don't even want to think about that. Gary Snyder suggests you pad your knees and crawl through the wilderness for a while for a close up extra-sensory perception of the terrain. Umph. So that's what happened to Gary Snyder. This is what's left of the Sixties Beat poet who uttered great profundities like “I see a vision of a great rucksack revolution thousands or even millions of young Americans wandering around with rucksacks, going up to mountains to pray, making children laugh and old men glad, making young girls happy and old girls happier, all of 'em Zen Lunatics who go about writing poems that happen to appear in their heads for no reason and also by being kind and also by strange unexpected acts keep giving visions of eternal freedom to everybody and to all living creatures." Still at it. I think he needs to meet some punctuation. But here it's 8 degrees outside with a wind chill of minus 5 and it's 11:30 p.m. So I crawled around the house. I found a dusty penny under the edge of the bed. The cats' pipe-cleaner toy. Cat's freakin'. Next. Listen to your breath. Be aware that it's automatic and that breathing, being alive, is effortless. Only trouble is that when you start thinking about breathing you can't stop thinking about breathing. You don't want to forget to take the next breath. You wonder how long to go between breaths. You begin to think about each and every inhale and exhale. You worry you might stop. I really don't want to write about that. Practice silence. Spend a whole day without speaking. Then write. What? I'm an attorney. I don't do silence. Words build up in me if I do that. They have to get out. Stare at a fire. Let the heat and light fill your body. (Creepy.) Write the fire's poem. What? I'd rather throw some paper in these, see stuff burn. That's what men do. Crackle and pop. These really aren't working for me. And writing about writing is tiresome anyway. I'd rather write about my cat, who at this very moment is kneading or, as we say, "making' biscuits," getting lower, lower, until she melts into the blanket, with that far away look in her eyes that tells me she is . . . well . . . out there with Gary Snyder . . . "having some visions of eternal freedom" or something like that, her eyes getting heavy, lids dropping, dropping, until they close and she gives in, a contented sigh escaping her body. I'll wake in the night, see her sleeping on the ceiling, have to check myself to see if I'm real. Or I'd rather write about the fantastic and useless fact, learned in law school, that ownership in fee simple of this .54 acre plot of land we inhabit includes everything above, right out to outer space, making allowance for navigable airspace, and everything below, all the way to the center of the earth. Which makes me feel like I have a lot of nothing, frankly, unless there's gold down there, or oil, or less economically speaking, Native-American antiquities. Bones. Whole city, maybe. Or a satellite up there. Which makes me a bit uncomfortable. “Oh to be delivered from the rational into the realm of pure song,” said Theodore Roethke, and so, sometimes, part of the path to that deliverance is simply writing, for the sake of writing, even if it’s about nothing much. Which this isn’t. Have a conversation with your shadow. With that, I leave you, poemcrazy. Continue reading
Posted Feb 21, 2015 at Out Walking
The late humorist James Thurber once said that "humor is emotional chaos remembered in tranquility." Another way of saying it is that humor requires a certain remove. Distance. Sure it does. The funniest things I remember were also the most embarrassing for me, mostly in my teenage years, and mostly involve my failed attempts to connect with or impress a member of the opposite sex. I'll spare you any details. In ninth grade Modern Grammar class, Mrs. Joyner, an eccentric "old maid," a slight but fearsome teacher, broke with punctuation and syntax and usage each week to tell stories or have us listen to stories. One I have not forgotten was a telling of "The Night the Bed Fell" by James Thurber himself, set in motion by a vinyl record spun on a turntable on loan from the library. One of many stories of his childhood in 1920s Cincinnati, I remembered it as hilarious in its slapstick telling of what happened when Thurber's fathers's attic bed fell, about a hysterical mother, slamming doors, his father's incorrect conclusion that the house was afire, and the dog Rex's attempt to eat his cousin Briggs. So when I was in Wichita recently and in the wonderful Eighth Day Books on Douglas Avenue, I bought a copy of Thurber's short memoir of those early years, My Life and Hard Times, from Victoria, the tender of all those wonderful books, both of us remarking on what a classic story it was. Later, waiting for my wife to run an errand, I took ten minutes to read the story. It was not nearly as hilarious as I recalled from my hearing of it 42 years ago at the age of 14. But it is funny, in the smile-to-yourself-funny kind of way. Others were funnier. Like "The Dog That Bit People," about his mother's unqualified defense of the family dog who had the habit of biting everyone but her. When the dog bites an important business associate of her husband's, Mrs. Thurber defends him as a good judge of character, letting us know that the man is untrustworthy. Or when Muggs bit Mrs. Rufus Sturtevant and Lieutenant Governor Malloy, it wasn't his fault, she said, but theirs, as "when he starts for them, they scream, and that excites him." And though it may be exaggerated for effect, the story has a ring of truth about it, as anyone who has witnessed a coddling dog owner's justifications for bad behavior can attest. In "The Night the Ghost Got In," pandemonium again sets in upon the Thurber household. Thinking burglars are in the house and panicking, Mother throws a shoe through the window of the house next door, to rouse Boswell so that he can call the police. Grandfather, who had jumped to the conclusion that the police were deserters from Meade's army, shot a gun that grazed one of the policemen, one named Zither. And that's just how it seemed to go in the Thurber house. Something was always happening. And that, like in all households, such memorable events are punctuated by long stretches of normality, we are not concerned. In the Thurber household, this, we are led to believe, is normal. It's tempting to say that Thurber exercised literary license with the events of his early life (that is, lied), that his telling is part truth and part fiction, and yet biographers note that he had a photographic memory, making them wont to challenge the minutest detail. Perhaps all our lives would be so humorous if we could remember so vividly and yet choose to remember the good. Even in his last 15 years of life, when he was nearly blind, Thurber was a prolific writer, continuing to remember and rearrange memories in the inner mind. In those later years, he once said that "my one-eighth vision happily obscures sad and ungainly sights, leaving only the vivid and the radiant, some of whom are my friends and neighbors." Would that we were all so blind and so enraptured with the good. Continue reading
Posted Feb 20, 2015 at Out Walking
Marilyn came out to the pool to see us yesterday afternoon as we lounged. She is the bartender and asked if she could get us anything. We said no. Probably in her late Sixties, she has a nice smile, and her eyes agree with her smile. She says that if we get bored she has plenty of stories to tell. We laugh and go back to our reading as she slowly returns to the bar, navigating the pool, a slight shuffle in her walk in uncomely black brogans. We are admiring the colors here in California, the adobe walls of the building juxtaposed with the green of the trees and the crisp blue sky. A bluejay lands on the tree, weaves among its needles, and leaves, flying up and over the wall. It makes me think of Southern Arizona, and I make a note to read up on the psychological effect of certain colors. Sometime. But Marilyn is back, and though unbidden she has a story to tell. It's about her prized 29-year old Mustang convertible, and she gives us the details of its horsepower and longevity, about how the air conditioning lasted 23 years before failing, and how the transmission was fine until recently when she had to drive it in first gear all the way to the dealership. She has pictures, several, that she takes out of an envelope one by one, and they depict the car posed in her driveway, with a background of modest tract houses that look like those in which Kevin and Winnie live in The Wonder Years. She even wrote to the CEO of Ford Motor Company about her car, and he wrote back, and Alan (she is on a first name basis with him) is quite amazed at the longevity of her Mustang. Marilyn said she tired of a stick shift and asked her son, Cory, to help her buy an automatic, as he drives down from Fremont to see her every week, and he made a very good deal on a Hyundai. She loves the car. She shows us its picture. She told us how she was stopped by a policeman after going through a yellow light, and how he let her go, telling her to "hold it down." He asked her where she worked, and she said she tended the bar at The Westin, and he said he didn’t go to bars like that, and she thought I don’t go to bars like you go to either, and he waved her on. She told us with some distress how her car was leaking oil and she had to have it towed from the hotel parking lot the other night, and how she couldn't believe that would happen to a new car. She couldn’t believe that could happen and she hoped it would be ok. But we are thinking about how her son must mean the world to her. She did not mention a husband. Maybe he died, or maybe she is divorced, but she has Cory. And her Mustang. And a leaking Hyundai. At the pool under a California sun, I'm reading a 1979 book of essays by Joan Didion, called The White Album, all because of the first sentence: "We tell ourselves stories in order to live." In one of his many columns, D.L. Waldie, author of one of my favorite memoirs, Holy Land, appropriates that quote. It's a provocative one, as it made me wonder what stories I am telling myself. Oh, I know the right answer, the Sunday School answer, the one theologian D. Martin Lloyd Jones gave, that we are to preach the Gospel to ourselves, the narrative of grace, and yet there are times when the little stories that wind through my head begin to collectively stage a coup d'état on that truth, when a story laced by doubt begins to impinge. Times like that I have to start over again, like when you forget to say "Mother may I?" and, reluctantly, because you forgot, because you know better, in spite of the fact that you know how the story goes, you have to go back to start, kicking at the dirt, anxious to get on with it, and begin again. So, lying in bed in the early morning hours, when doubt circles and weaves its tale of disappointment, frustration, or impatience, when I ache from lying too long or from the broken record of seemingly unanswered prayers (or at least ones not answered the way I like), I stretch my hands upward to take hold of a story that is bigger, better, and bolder than all the fiction that I'm entertaining, the one that says "In the beginning, God created, the one that says "for God so loved the world [and me] that he gave his only son," and the one that says “death shall be no more” --- chapter headings in a great saga of redemption, in the little story of me. I have to take hold of that story every morning, as I may lose it during the day. But I don't know what story Marilyn is telling herself. Maybe it's a nostalgic one she relives when she drives her red Mustang up the 101, one about youth and about the "wild" spirit she remains. Or maybe it's one told vicariously through her one and only son to whom she clings after being cast off by a husband who simply moved on. I don't know. But I do know that I was too self-indulgent, too begrudging of my time, too wedded to my book to offer her one single photograph from the album of my life, one scene from a narrative that makes sense of it all, a snapshot of the Only Begotten on the move. But now the sun has gone behind the building, and a chill has entered the air. And Joan Didion, who is a masterful recorder of stories and cataloguer of places, and who is confused and anxious, is telling me of her life with her husband and child in the Bohemian Los Angeles culture of the late Sixties, of a recording session with Jim Morrison and The Doors, of her fascination with the Hoover Dam and all the means by which water pours into a dry California --- and yet, reflecting on the disparate images of those years, she concludes with the hopelessness of "writing has not helped me see what it all means." She says that life seemed to be "a story without a narrative." For all her powers of perception, she sees but through a glass, darkly, barely. It is, as poet Joan Kenyon says, "otherwise." And it is, for Marilyn and Joan Didion, a tale still unfolding, one which, God willing, may yet surprise. Continue reading
Posted Feb 19, 2015 at Out Walking
Anne, it was a good friend, Norm Bomer, formerly of Gods World Publications, who let me know of your mother's poetry. In fact, he recited a poem from memory and (being a writer) had interviewed her before her passing and recalled his talk with her. Her words will live on and have a legacy beyond even our lives, which is quite amazing and quite a blessing. You,and your siblings were quite blessed to have such good and godly parents!
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Thank you, Mike. For all of you how wonderful to have this legacy by which to remember her. Steve West
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For most of us, the materials that make up the stuff of life — things like steel, concrete, wood, paper, and plastic — are part of the backdrop of our existence, barely noticed, if at all, except for their utility. We place our hand on the door of our car and take for granted the complex types of materials of which it is made. Or we toss a chocolate in our mouth fully unaware of the material properties of which it is made, of the processes that turned an unpromising nut into a pleasure-inducing food. Much less do we appreciate the complex interior structure of the tables at which we sit, the plastics that mold our environment, or the ubiquitous concrete that is responsible for the shape and texture of our urban environments. We pass through, unaware. Not so with Mark Miodownik, a materials scientist who has written a love letter to materials. Called Stuff Matters: Exploring the Marvelous Materials That Shape Our Man-Made World, Miodownik writes personally and winsomely, even poetically, about paper, chocolate, silica aerogel, concrete, and other materials we take for granted. (Well, maybe not silica aerogel, but that is its own story.) Sit across from him on the roof of his flat in London as he proclaims the wonders of materials. He is obsessed. He is in love. As just one example, take paper. Listen to his description of the unfolding of a paper shopping bag, a critical yet barely noticed part of the thrill of buying something we desire: “It comes out first in its flat-pack condition, but then its bottom is pushed out and it makes that glorious sound of thunder as the concertinaed paper sides are deployed into their upright positions. There it sits on the shop counter, like a butterfly recently emerged from its chrysalis: perfect, elegant and poised. Suddenly my purchase seems right, now that the clothes have been allocated this special receptacle to chaperone them back home.” It’s enough to make me want to buy something now, to place a shiny Apple product in a draw-stringed recyclable bag. Paper, like all materials, carries meanings that we project on it, even meanings sellers hope we adopt. But there’s more: The back of an envelope becomes a “theater of ideas.” Handwritten letters carry the very ball-point pen impressions of a friend: “The paper itself becomes a simulacrum of the loved one’s skin, it smells of their scent, and their writing is as much an expression of their unique nature as a fingerprint.” Yellowed paper carries the patina of history, of authenticity. Books on shelves and tables define who we are and who we want others to think we are, “a kind of internal marketing exercise.” Paper is everywhere, and yet lost on us, and when it is gone, as has nearly happened with newspapers, we feel a vague and often inarticulable loss: “The rustle of the paper will no longer be a part of the ritual of Sunday afternoons; newspaper will no longer sit underneath muddy boots, or lounge folded up on train station benches; it will no longer be crumpled into a ball, to light a fire, or be thrown cheekily at an unsuspecting sibling. None of these uses of newspaper are essential in and of themselves, but taken as a whole they paint a picture of a very domestic, useful, and much loved material. A material that will be missed.” But there’s more to it than just a discussion of paper. Read his illuminating chapter on concrete and never think of it in the same way. In the author’s descriptions, concrete comes alive, continues to develop and strengthen even after it is poured, expand and contract as if it were breathing. His ode to chocolate is, well, delicious, and his love affair with silica aerogel, the lightest solid in the world (an ephemeral, mesmerizing material that is 99.8 percent air), downright giddy: “Aerogels seem to have the ability to compel you to be involved with them. Like an enigmatic party guest, you just want to be near them, even if you can’t think of anything to say.” And then there’s plastic, carbon, porcelain, and biomaterials. Along the way, there is science, yes, but any slog one faces as you delve into it is likely not the author’s fault but due (as in my case) to a lazy brain. Attentiveness pays off. For Christians, Miodownik's passion is a welcome if unexpected stimulus to a love of Creation. The Church has grown in its appreciation of the natural environment, from the late Sixties publication of Francis Schaeffer's Pollution and the Death of Man to Loren Wilkinson's Earthkeeping. In the last decade its has even come to a theology of place, with books like Eric Jacobsen’s recent The Space Between: Christian Engagement With the Built Environment. Yet, the Church has yet to develop a theology of things, of the inanimate. This is not that book, as Miodownik's religious convictions are not evident. And yet it is a welcome pre-theology of the inanimate stuff of Creation, a warm-up for wonder. Stuff matters, says Miodownik. Christians agree. The Creator called forth the atoms that make up our world. And into the brokenness of that world, Christ comes, giving importance to every animate and inanimate thing in the unfolding of a cosmic salvation. Books like this re-enchant the world around us, one made invisible by the speed of life, by the flattening of distances and homogenization of place. The author reminds us that all is not what it seems, that materials embedded in our everyday lives hold deep meaning for us, that they are a part of our identity and not just a backdrop for the human drama. Scripture mysteriously says of Christ that “in him all things hold together” (Col. 1:17b, ESV). We may not be able to reduce that to scientific observation, and yet Miodownik’s passion for materials allows us to look, if “through a glass dimly,” at the wonder of that belief. Continue reading
Posted Feb 8, 2015 at Out Walking
Everything in the world has a hidden meaning. . . . Men, animals, trees, stones, they are all hieroglyphics. When you see them you do not understand them. You think they are men, animals, trees, stars. It's only years later that you understand. (Pablo Neruda) I walked today. It was 27 degrees. I was not the only one chilled. Cars huddled near curbs, leaned in. One compact snuggled close to an SUV, as if to fit under its bumper. Telephone poles hunched their limbs, contracting. A mist seeped out of pavement cracks and drainage holes as I swished through the early morning dark, my footsteps muted by the fog. During two and a half miles, I saw no one. No dog confronted me, no cat prowled through lawns or peeked from beneath shrubbery, and no tweeting bird questioned my intrusion. Not one single animate thing was apparent to me. Just asphalt, rocks, leaves, trees, a trickling stream, the cold steel of the bridge rails, the quickening air, and the streetlights' refracted beams laying in circles on sidewalks. Until this morning I had not noticed how peopled my neighborhood was by green boxes, tall telephone boxes and traditionally built forest green cable boxes, squatting on their haunches. I lost count at 47. Rounding one corner and turning up the hill, I noticed that the telephone poles each had a number, like LC4839. A name. I walked up to LC4839, looked around to make sure no one was watching, and laid hands on it. It resisted. I spoke to it. Still, it pressed hard against my hands, cold and unyielding. I remembered as a boy how we used to kick one particular streetlight in our neighborhood, making its light go out temporarily. I reminded LC4839 that I had reformed and would not kick it. Still, it resisted. In the early morning, categories blur. I begin to think that the inanimate is not so insentient at all, that the rock I just kicked, scrambling down the road, might just. . . might just. . . cry out. At least in some way. I may be guilty of anthropomorphism, or worse, sentimentalism, and yet perhaps in some way poles and telephone boxes and rocks and other inanimate objects "live." Hmm. Materials scientist Mark Miodownik (let's just call him "M"), a Brit who authored Stuff Matters: Exploring the Marvelous Materials that Shape Our man-Made World, may be responsible for my pre-dawn mysticism. In his hands, things like paper and concrete become characters in an unfolding, living collection of everyday objects. Talking about old paper, which yellows, he concludes that "the sensual impressions of old paper allow you to enter the past more readily, providing a portal to that world." And so perhaps the "things" I see and touch along my walk transport me somewhere else, to some other time or place. Stir in half-light and mist and the suburban landscape of my neighborhood engages and converses, whispering quiet truths. Crossing a bridge, I let my hand run along concrete supports, kneel and touch a rounded curb, and I recall M's animated description of the many tons of concrete poured into the building of The Shard, a new tower near his London flat. After all the pouring of concrete into forms, floor upon floor, he notes that What was left was a concrete tower seventy-two stories high: it was gray, raw, and wrinkly like a newborn. . . . But it was not idle. Inside the material, fibrils of calcium silicate hydrate were growing, meshing together and bonding with the stones and steel. The tower, in doing so, was getting stronger . . . . [T]he process by which this artificial rock develops its internal architecture and so its full strength takes years. Remembering that description, as well as his elegant and poetic discussion of the chemical process underlying what he described, confirms that there is a sense in which everything is telling us something. "The heavens declare the glory of God," yes, and so do things here, on earth, in my neighborhood, on my street. In fact, this morning the concrete becomes a metaphor for the Christian's new life: God pours His life into us, making us new creations, re-forming us, and yet it is over a lifetime or eternity that our internal architecture develops, that through a mysterious unseen process we are made strong. But the sun is rising, and the people emerge. A dog ambles down the sidewalk, tugging at its tender. The fog lifts and I exhale, as if to place a period at the end of my reverie. I greet the man with the dog, exchange pleasantries, and then wonder: Does he know? Continue reading
Posted Jan 16, 2015 at Out Walking
The grid is the plan above the earth. It is a compass of possibilities. . . . Seen from above, the grid is beautiful and terrible. (D.J. Waldie, in Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir) Recently I received a letter from a developer. Attached to it was a black and white copy of a subdivision plan for a small residential development on two tracts of largely forested land behind our home. It has a certain beauty. I imagine the draftsman laying out the lines of the cookie-cutter 10,500 square foot (1/4 acre) lots and marveling at the beauty of measurement, the consistency of the lines, the imposition of order on the disorder of woodlands and the efficiency of land being used for its highest and best use. Seventeen lots and 17 families, with dogs and cats and fences and children and streetlights and asphalt and backyard cookouts and adolescent angst. And school buses and dogs yapping and garage doors opening and shutting. One modest brick home lay empty for a while, the man bought out. They carried it away, hoisted and hijacked. They left an old well house and a ramshackle outbuilding that was visited by my gray and white-chested cat. Soon they will be gone too, and my cat will prowl their absence. And what of the owl whose "who" I sometimes heard even from inside our home? Or the deer who lay in the sun leaking through the tree canopy just beyond our slight fence? Just now, looking out my window, I remembered an “adventure” walk with my then four-year old daughter through the undivided woods and grasses, nearly up to my chest and over her head. We collected “treasure,” like sticks and rocks and pinecones and special leaves, carrying them all back home as mementos, as a travelogue. I wish I still had them, saw them in that four-year old hand. She has flown, but I still have memories and rocks and trees and land, for now. Looking at the map again, at the grid that snakes through the oddly sized tract, I smile at the sliver of land one owner refused to sell, the one that causes perturbations in two lots, making them trapezoids, not rectangles. Oh inconsistency! I imagine a grimace on the draftsman’s face, if slight, as he bends over his drawing or leans into his computer screen, annoyed by the inconsistency, at the disturbance to his omnipotence. I don’t begrudge the families their homes. But the deer will eat their flowers too, the raccoons raid their garbage, paint fade and peel and roofs wear and downspouts rust. Cracks will appear in sidewalks and driveways, floors creak and ceilings drop. And the children will grow up and leave, as do they all. And the beautiful and terrible grid will be unwound by the entropy of time, the irrepressible curse laid on the ground. But that is not the end of the story. There is another grid. That one comes from God and is full of grace. Continue reading
Posted Jan 6, 2015 at Out Walking
The world was not perfect — it never had been and never would be; it was full of pitfalls and problems, of fear, of regrets and of bitter tears. Here and there, though, there were tiny points of light, hard to see at times, but there nonetheless, like the welcoming lights of home in the darkness. The flames that made these lights were hard to ignite, but occasionally, very occasionally, we found that we had in our hands the match that could be struck to start one of these little fires. (Mma Ramotswe, in The Handsome Man’s De Luxe Cafe, by Alexander McCall Smith) I couldn’t sleep last night. It had something to do with the fact that the world is not perfect. After realizing that I had been staring wide-eyed at the ceiling for several minutes, I got up. I told my wife “I can’t sleep, so I’m going to go read for a while,” waking her of course, for no reason really. I suspect that’s a holdover from 50 years ago when, as a child, waking up in the middle of the night, I would walk down the hall to my parent’s bedroom and let my Mom know that I couldn’t sleep: “Mom, I can’t sleep.” She’d say “Just lay down, and be real still, and you’ll go back to sleep.” Profound. I don’t know why that didn’t occur to me. I did that and, eventually, though I might have to get up and tell her that again, have her take me back to bed and tuck me in, I went to sleep. Well, I grew out of that coddling practice though not the need to announce my insomnia. (Thankfully, my wife usually doesn’t remember me telling her and is always gentle in her unconscious response.) In college there was a variation of this. I’d be having a difficult time at school, academically or relationally, and I’d get in my car and drive home, pull in the driveway and see the light in the kitchen window. I knew my Mom would be in there sitting at the kitchen table drinking black coffee. Opening the door and letting the screen slap behind me, I stepped into yesterday. Nothing had changed. By the time I was fed and watered and bedded down, all was well. I was anchored by normality, and I went to sleep in my teenage year’s bed, surrounded by all that I had left behind, home. I don’t have that home anymore. And my mother is, as Mma Ramotswe says, “late.” I do have a green chair, warm blanket, a sleeping wife, a candle in the window, and a book of big truths wrapped in modest garments — tiny points of light. And the welcoming light of home. And the Light of lights. And that’s enough. Continue reading
Posted Jan 3, 2015 at Out Walking
Some Christmas songs are really suitable for listening year round. One from this season that I recommend is Jason Harrod's "Out In the Fields," from his Christmas EP of the same title. As the EP dropped December 18th and is an digital only, indie release, you may have missed it unless you are a Harrod fan. While the EP is an enjoyable and fresh mix of hymns and carols, such as "Angels From the Realms of Glory" featuring some buoyant trombone playing, and this one original tune, it's worth picking up just for latter, which will join my Christmas play list for years to come. "Out of the Fields" has several memorable lines, built around questions by a faith-challenged, melancholic narrator, but the bit that seems at its center is this: O Lord Invisible where are you hiding? Where do you burn and whose way do you light? Out in the fields we are watching and waiting We need a Redeemer to come make us right Or even this earlier re-phrasing of it: Light inaccessible where are you shining? Where do you burn and whose face do you warm? Out in the fields we are ready for finding --- smoldering stars waiting to be reborn The song contains a longing not for just the coming of a Jesus who can remake us and make all things right. I like the questions, which are not unlike those the Psalmist asked. I like the honesty of the narrator, riven by doubt and faithlessness. And I like the hope, driven home by a driving electric end where the instruments cry the inarticulable. I'll play it all year. You'll find it here. Continue reading
Posted Jan 2, 2015 at Out Walking
Returning on a family trip this New Years Day, I asked my son to play the Top Billboard charting song for the year of each of our graduations from high school. It was insightful and fun, as it led to other listening and forced us all to listen to songs we might not otherwise have chosen. My daughter graduated in 2013. We declined to play the lyrically nasty Number One of that year, “Blurred Lines,” by Robin Thicke, featuring T.I. and Pharrell, on my son’s recommendation. I looked up the lyrics later. I can’t repeat most of the them here, except to say the mildest part of it was “you're an animal, baby it's in your nature/ Just let me liberate you,” and it goes downhill from there. My son fared little better, with Ke$ha’s (and how do you pronounce a name with a dollar sign in it?) “Tik Tok,” which is a girls-go-dance-and-party song. Turning to 1976, the year of my graduation, I felt like things had to be better, though I was concerned about the incursion of disco into the playlist. The number one song in 1976 was “Silly Love Songs,” by Paul McCartney and Wings. The lyrics are, in fact, light and silly, but they are not profane. The melody, unfortunately, sticks in your head. Finally, my wife’s year of graduation, 1973, produced “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree,” by Tony Orlando and Dawn. While I’m not particularly fond of the song (though it is infectious, as are most pop tunes), it apparently had a storied tradition rooted in folklore. A convict is returning home after three years imprisonment, and he tells his love to tie a yellow ribbon around the oak tree if she welcomes his return. There are, to his surprise, 100 ribbons around the tree on his return. Variants of the story date back even as far as the civil war, when a woman’s tying a yellow ribbon in her hair was a sign of welcome to a returning soldier. So you have to respect the writers for re-working the story and putting it in song, particularly at a time when many soldiers were returning from an unpopular Vietnam War. The yellow ribbon was a symbol for a welcome homecoming which resonated in a culture not particularly welcoming to returning vets. As a mark of how the culture has shifted — from the meaningful to the silly to the nasty — just compare these songs. It’s quite a shift. And then go listen somewhere else, because there is still a lot that is true, good, and beautiful --- somewhere back of the Top 100. Start here or here. Continue reading
Posted Jan 2, 2015 at Out Walking
"'Well done,' said Aslan in a voice that made the earth shake. Then Digory (the son of Adam) knew that all the Narnians had heard those words and that the story of them would be handed down from father to son in that new world for hundreds of years and perhaps forever. But he was in no danger of feeling conceited for he didn't think about it at all now that he was face to face with Aslan. This time he found that he could look staright into the Lion's eyes. He had forgotten his troubles and was absolutely content." (C.S. Lewis, in The Magician's Nephew) There is a particular place on the hardwood floor in front of our refrigerator that creaks when you stand on it, creaks greatly. It's annoying. I know because one day shortly after its inception or, at least after I noticed it, I stood on it rocking back and forth - creak, creak, creak- transfixed, somehow, until my wife said "would you mind stopping that?" I stopped. I guess it annoyed her too. Just for a moment, a fleeting moment, the thought occurred that maybe that creak was only the beginning of the end. The floor would eventually crack and collapse, carrying half the kitchen down with it into the abyss, my savings account following. But that's silly, I realize. Or is it? It's that same feeling you get when you are driving down the road and just for a moment you wonder if the wheels might come off the car, or the axle break. Or that fleeting thought that a parking deck might collapse over your head. An elevator cable break. The Government be unable to pay its debts. The Walking Dead be cancelled. (I'm not really worried about that last one, but someone is.) (You do get that feeling also, don't you? Don’t you?) I realize this is how neuroses form. That if you dwell on such thoughts, you begin to be obsess and engage in irrational behavior about which you cannot be dissuaded. You begin avoiding elevators, parking decks, or even driving. Or going to the fridge. Which might not be a bad thing. Now, grant you, neurotic is not pyschotic, at least. But then, it might lead to that, couldn't it? Couldn’t it? I look around in my home office where I am writing this bit of paranoia, and I see that there are probably 200 books and as many CDs, in heavy bookcases, as well as my rather weighty desk, and not to mention my not slight mass, and a file cabinet, and a lamp, and. . . and. . . and while I know that contractors know something about building houses, I think about all that pressing down on a few perhaps splintered two by fours of wood, and the third floor and roof pressing down on that, and I wonder if it's possible that it might. . . well. . . break. Sometimes, albeit rarely, these kinds of things are suggested to my pliable mind, and if any take root, anxiety blooms. And yet the Apostle Paul says “Have no anxiety about anything,” a command that seems nigh impossible to obey, if indeed it is a command. As Frederick Buechner says about Paul’s admonition, “In one sense it is like telling a woman with a bad head cold not to sniffle and sneeze so much or a lame man to stop dragging his feet. Or maybe it is more like telling a wino to lay off the booze or a compulsive gambler to stay away from the track.” We humans seem bent to it, predisposed to worry. Sick, lame winos, we are. And yet what Paul tells us to do is to pray, in everything God bless him, and that as consequence, our hearts and even our minds will be kept in Christ Jesus. He doesn’t say the house won’t collapse or the economy go south, but he says Christ promises to keep us in a way that passes understanding, in a way that we can’t be gotten at no matter what. Which is another way of saying that I’m really in trouble, or will be regularly, but He will be with me and guard both heart and mind. And in this Paul, imprisoned while writing such words, might have even smiled at the irony of his imprisonment: behind bars, guarded, unable to leave, and yet in Jesus, better guarded, free to stay in Him no matter what and even walk out of prison should God will it. Or not. Next time the floor creaks, and the Enemy makes a suggestion, I’ll pray. I might also smile at the absurdity of the idea that he can get at me, guarded as I am in Jesus. I'll remember I am kept in Him quite apart from what I can do with my thoughts. Besides, eventually He'll fix the floor and everything else and say to me, "Well done," and a quivering I will go, shaken but loved. Continue reading
Posted Dec 28, 2014 at Out Walking
In 1958 Ross Bagdasarian, Sr. (a/k/a David Seville) wrote a song called”Christmas Don’t Be Late.” The song rose to #1 on the Billboard charts and won three Grammy awards. The single sold 4.5 million copies in seven weeks and several times in the following years re-entered the Top 100. You know it, of course, as “The Chipmunk Song,” sung by the fictitious trio of Alvin and the Chipmunks and as a song played (and played one too many times) for comic relief. Bagdasarian sang all the lyrics, his main recording innovation being to use tape machines that could vary speeds so as to create more understandable dialogue. To me the song was always an irritant, and I thought it’s lyrics trite. And they are. But wait. If you listen to the contemplative rendering of the song by Rosie Thomas, who adds a couple verses, you’ll understand why it is one of my favorites this Christmas (along with others on her Christmas album). Under Rosie’s care, the song is transformed. It begins in a child’s perspective, as it always did, longing for Christmas to “hurry fast,” for a “hula hoop” and a “plane that loops the loop.” But then the perspective broadens, first to a concern for others in the family, for Someone or something (Christmastime?) to “please bring joy to Mom and Dad,” to “help my brother, he’s been sad,” all of which immediately makes you wonder what weighs on Mom and Dad, and why is brother sad? And then the longing broadens to include a concern for everyone, it seems, for “love for all and peace,” to “comfort those who need a friend,” to “fill their hearts with happiness.” And then the zinger of longing, the “may they know He came for them.” All the while there is a continual longing for a Christmas to “please don’t be late,” it needs to come now because “the world cannot wait.” And when I hear that — particularly when I hear the plaintive voice of Rosie Thomas sing it — I hear a longing for a Christmas beyond what we know, a coming not only of the Jesus child but of a Jesus King who will dry up every tear and set things right, who will not be late. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a man who knew something about sadness and waiting, and who preached many a sermon on Christmas under the shadow of Hitler's Germany, said in one of those sermons that “God wants to be guilty of our guilt and takes upon himself the punishment and suffering that this guilt brought to us. . . . Now there is no more reality and no more world that is not reconciled to God and in peace.” He spoke of “the unfathomable mystery of the love of God for the world.” If that sounds too universal in scope, perhaps it expresses God's heart for all Creation to be made whole even if not all people come, even if some settle for Christmas now, lights and snowmen and presents and Santa. He came. For a Mom and Dad who are weighed down by too many Christmases of disappointment in themselves, in each other, in life. For a brother who is sad. For a shop-clerk whose feet are tired and mind weary of “and so this is Christmas, and what have we done,” and longs to go home. For the man at Waffle House nursing a cup of coffee at midnight on Christmas Eve. For a trucker on the highway early Christmas morning, alone on the freeway, Merle Haggard on the radio singing “Sing Me Back Home Again.” For a Christmas that, in the end, on December 26th, didn’t live up to what it promised, that didn’t make you happy but merely distracted you from life for a moment. Or one that even in its finest moment, when your gaze is on the Infant Lowly and the miracle of Incarnation, the longing for a Kingdom come but not yet come in fullness remains. But I can tell you this: When I wake up the day after Christmas, a trio of chattering chipmunks will be in my head, still asking that Christmas not be late, and Rosie imploring that the world can’t wait. Hearing them, I hear “Come, Lord Jesus, come.” I hear promise and hope. I hear the mystery of of the love of God for the world and the unwinding of the curse. I hear the promise of Christmas to come. I can hardly stand the wait. Continue reading
Posted Dec 19, 2014 at Out Walking
When I was twelve, I was lying in my bed, presumably asleep, and I heard a voice speak my name. I sat bolt upright in the darkness. I believed then that it was God that spoke my name. Nothing else happened. There was no visible appearance, no light, no revelation. Just a single word. I know that this kind of experience is, if not normal, at least not rare. My wife recalls sitting in her bedroom as a teenager and sensing the presence of Another in the room with her, one she believed was Christ. One member of our Presbyterian church — a church not given to fascination with extraordinary manifestations of God’s presence — once called the elders to his home to pray, as he and his wife and young daughter were rattled by an ominous presence in their home. Another woman told of a visible demon appearing in her bedroom. Forty-four years later, time has muted the power of the voice that spoke my name. Maybe I was dreaming. Maybe I heard a voice because I needed to; I was an adolescent on the cusp of a larger awareness of my unsettling smallness in a world of intractable problems. And yet God knew my name. Maybe a post-modern cynicism peppers remembrance with a dogged doubt, makes me question my own perception. Yet, while faith is rooted in Word, not voices and visions, scripture is full of the regular if not common impingement of the unseen on the seen. When I read missionary narratives, I am commonly confronted by the miraculous, by the permeable barrier between the physical and spiritual world. Reading At the Foot of the Snows, the late David Watters’s story of his Bible translation work among the Kham people of Nepal, I was reminded again that God does work in uncommon ways. Watters, a linguist, his wife Nancy, and their young sons Steve and Daniel, settled in the remote village of Taka-Shera in Western Nepal in 1969. Caught in a blinding snowstorm about 12,000 feet up while doing initial reconnaissance, his guide balked at proceeding further. As he tried to decide whether to retreat or go on, he writes of the mysterious appearance of footprints that led them through a mountain pass: We stood at the edge of a great chasm separating us from the pass that was now hidden by gathering, swirling snow-clouds. The chasm was about five hundred feet deep, and the narrow ledges of of the near-vertical precipice wall were piled deep with ice and snow. As we peered over the edge, afraid of getting too close, we noticed on a narrow ledge straight below us faint foot-tracks, almost covered over from drifting snow. From there they disappeared. As Watters and his companion proceeded, the disappearing foot-tracks would strangely reappear, just ahead. Reaching the base of the precipice, he describes conditions as a total whiteout, visibility zero. He says “We stumbled blindly into drifts of snow, unable to even see them. But just ahead, fifty feet away, we could make out the faint indentations of the foot-tracks. . . . On they went without the slightest deviation, straight towards the pass 1,500 feet above us.” When I read such accounts, a little voice whispers “Really?” I begin to wonder if time and remembrance has morphed the true (perhaps, “a” footprint) into disappearing, reappearing “angel-tracks,” if the story has passed into legend. And yet context militates against such a reading. Watters’s account is not focused on the extraordinary, recording such occurrences but not dwelling on them. He is intelligent, articulate, honest when he need not have been, and not given to exaggeration or the fantastical. His Christianity is matter of fact, not sleeve-worn, and his account is like that of an anthropologist, not a missionary. I believe what he saw. And I believe the voice I heard 44 years ago. I need to stop reducing God to the manageable, qualifying His work so as not to be disappointed, and believe that He can show up any time, walking across the surface of my day, disappearing and reappearing like angel-tracks in the snow. Continue reading
Posted Dec 10, 2014 at Out Walking
We all know that Zaccheus was a wee little man. Anyone who has come up through Sunday school and vacation Bible school has that song indelibly stamped in memory, so much so that the truth of the story lacks its punch, becomes trite and worn. It need not be. He climbed a sycamore tree. Ever wonder, why a sycamore tree? Scripture is so very particular when it could easily not have been, and all the sermons that I have heard have focused on the important but general principles of Zaccheus’s curiosity, his sin, his repentance, and the fruit of that repentance. The tree appears in the backdrop as a mere prop to boost a diminutive man into the sight of Jesus. No matter that it is a sycamore. And yet when we are told that “all scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,” (2 Tim. 3:16), it made me wonder if there is a reason that we are told that it was a sycamore. The sycamore tree was a common tree grown for its edible figs. It was often planted along walks because it had low-hanging branches. and large palm-sized leaves. So it was a tree in the right place for Zaccheus — convenient, easy to climb, and able to conceal a wealthy tax collector. In her book, Lives of the Trees: An Uncommon History, Diana Wells notes the legend that the leaves of the sycamore tree (a tree which actually derives from the oriental plane tree brought home to Britain by early crusaders), were believed to have been Adam and Eves’ first garments. This is not scriptural, of course, as it appears Adam and Eve were unashamedly naked until the Fall, when they were covered in animal skins and not leaves by God. No doubt the leaves came about in Britain because prevailing mores dictated some covering for the actors playing Adam and Eve in medieval religious mystery plays. And yet this large-leaved tree might have been chosen to remind us that though we may seek to hide our sin, there is, in the end, no place that Jesus cannot see and no one that he cannot reach — even a derided outcast like Zaccheus. And no one to cover sin but Jesus. Wells also notes that Muslim poets said that in Islamic gardens the plane tree’s broad leaves, “fluttering like prayerful hands, led the other trees in praising God.” While metaphorical, the image does resonate with Isaiah’s vision of trees of the field clapping their hands (Isa. 55:12) and the Psalmist’s expression of Creation’s joy, with the rivers clapping and hills singing (Ps. 98:8). And so, in the end, what for Zaccheus was a place of covering for sin from which he could peer out in security at the latest Hebrew prophet, became a place of praise. Indeed, many commentators believe that because Zaccheus came down from the tree and received Jesus “joyfully” (Lk. 19:6), he believed while he was yet in the sycamore, even before Jesus’s request to lodge with him. We’re not told, but perhaps as the smallish man descended, a wind stirred in that tree, and the hand-shaped leaves fluttered, and 2000 years later, the story of the wee little man still ripples across our lives. And the leaves of sycamores still softly lead in praise. Whenever I hear that story now, I hear it fresh, and enfleshed. . . with a sycamore tree. Continue reading
Posted Nov 23, 2014 at Out Walking
I’m on drugs. Last week, as a result of rotator cuff surgery, I was given some pain killers to help ease the pain. The oblong-shaped slick blue pill slips down the throat easily enough. More difficult is that I have to pry it out of a tall smoky green bottle. You have to push down and turn the top clockwise. That’s a test for a man who has had rotator cuff surgery. But the pill does relieve the pain you get from trying to open the bottle. Unfortunately, there are some side effects. For example, my dreams are surreal. If I wrote them down, it’d be like the ramblings of what I imagine someone tripped out on acid might say. Last night, the family and I ran out of gas on a road near our neighborhood. No matter. We crawled through the window of a house owned by some old friends. Only they live 300 miles away. And their kids and ours are adults now. Our friends are excited to see us and not at all upset that we crawled through their window and didn’t knock on their door. Within what seems like minutes, we’re all sitting around watching a floor model black and white TV that our family had in the Sixties while dressed in pirate’s outfits. Just as if we do that all the time. We appear sober. But that’s just one episode. Imagine having six short naps throughout the night, each one accompanied by such a dream, like a multiple-feature at the local drive-in theater. Wait a minute. I think I dreamed that too. There aren’t any drive-ins left, right? Which is OK by me because the one drive-in movie I remember was in the company of a girl in middle school. And her mother. And my best friend. And her enormous dog which her Mom made me feed one-half of my hamburger. To the dog which sat between me and the girl. The big blue pill makes me sleepy as well. Some friends came to visit while I was high. . . I mean, medicated. I’m carrying on a conversation with them with my eyes closed. They are smiling. “What?,” I say. “Did I say something funny?” “You’re going to sleep,” they say, and they smile, knowingly, as if they have a secret. “No, no. . . I’m listening,” I say, as my eye lids flap shut. I added, “Just turn the TV on and hand me the remote.” Or did I just think that? I went back to work today, hoping for normality. That was probably a mistake. I was on the telephone with another attorney and somewhere along the line, I lost the thread of the conversation. No matter. Attorneys are used to talking in order to hear themselves. He didn’t even notice. I signed some documents too. I tried not to do anything that required intelligent thought. And you can stop thinking that, right now. Sometimes my mouth hangs open, and I’m not aware of it. I mean, just when I’m on the medication. They could cast me in Dumb and Dumber, or for that matter an old Cheech and Chong movie. You don’t need to be awake for those. Move slowly and mumble. Laugh at everything. Talk with your eyes closed. I got that. But really, all of this musing on my altered state is just a set up for a deeper theological meditation on the nature of God. Wait for it. Granted, this is dangerous, given my state of mind, but just consider how it is for God, who is timeless and body-less, to be in all places at once and see all times at once. J.I. Packer, who definitely doesn’t do his theology while on drugs, says this is part of what it means to say that God is transcendent, that is, he is “limited neither by space (he is everywhere in his fullness continually) nor by time (there is no “present moment” into which he is locked as we are).” And thus, God’s “present”, His reality, is marked by a singular type of propinquity: all things in time and space are near. Which brings me back to my dreams, or yours, which seem to ignore the inconvenience of time and space, juxtaposing different times and spaces in such a way as to give us a glimpse of God’s singular propinquity — all things are “here” and “now.” So you see, a little blue pill can be your ticket to ride after all. Nevertheless, surgery is a hard road to enlightenment. “Honey, where’s my pirate suit?” Continue reading
Posted Nov 18, 2014 at Out Walking
At Sweetwater Branch, just after crossing into Tennessee, we walked down the incline to stand on the wide bank of the creek, listening to the water sing over the rocks, on its way to the Tennessee River. We went closer, the earth giving slightly under our feet. Then closer, I squatted and rested my hand on the water, then plunged it under, letting its cold etch the place in memory. “Well, OK,” she said, “if you're doing it so am I.” She moved closer, putting her hand in. To prolong the image, I picked up a leaf and threw it on the slow moving water, watched it spin and pick up purpose, the current catching it, watching it waft by the undercut rock cliffs. “So you think we should wash our hands after putting our hands in that water?” “No, it has to be clean,” I say, hopefully, and besides I think, that would be like wiping off a kiss. As we moved deeper into Tennessee, the leaves took on the appearance of late Fall, the curves became necessary and not just a part of the aesthetics of parkway construction. At two points we left the paved road to travel segments of the old Trace, one lane and rugged, bumping over ruts, a fast breeze blowing through the car. We saw no one. And that's how it's often been, like entering Yosemite or Yellowstone and finding only a handful of people around, greeting you but reticent to intrude on your solitude, or similarly struck dumb in wonder. Once we saw a coyote standing in the right-of-way, head lifted, catching a scent, oblivious to our passing. Writing this now, I was reminded of the estrangement from fellow creatures that Annie Dillard writes of, her sense that we belong here at times and at other times “seem set among them as among lifelike props for a tragedy — or a broad lampoon — on a thrust rock stage.” We are “strangers and sojourners,” she says, echoing a biblical theme, “soft dots on the rocks.” But maybe she was having a bad day. Or more likely, she has a half-truth, as there is both tragedy (sin), comedy (grace), and fairy tale (hope) in our days, and we belong here and yet we don't. The closer we came to milepost 444, the more I felt it slipping away. I knew that we were on the outskirts of civilization. The traffic picked up. The grass was cleaned up, citified. And then, at TN 100, it just ended. Terminus, said the map. No announcement, no farewell signage, no waving trees in my rear view mirror, no coyote looking wistfully after us. She said, “Let's do that again.” And I would if… but there are too many ifs. I settled for a picture of the sign, a crumpled leaf, a tingle of Sweetwater cold in my fingers, the bark of a bald cypress, the cold stones atop the final resting place of a “melancholy” Meriwether Lewis, the feel of cotton on a bush in a field of white that stretched to the horizon, and… Someone to share it with. Continue reading
Posted Nov 10, 2014 at Out Walking
A tunnel cuts into this greenness Under the roof of this wild place Down into the heart of darkness Along the Natchez Trace There is no way to fill the silence Measure the lateness of this age But for the turning of the seasons Along the Natchez Trace Oh, Mississippi Show your hand, I'll Read your fortune and your fate Oh, Mississippi I'll trace your lifeline Along the Natchez Trace The journey is forever lonely Each step a slow and measured pace Always mindful of the bandits who wait Along the Natchez Trace Oh, Mississippi I'd like to know you But you will not show your face Lost in a dream state Some still wander Along the Natchez Trace There is no way to fill the silence Measure the lateness of this age But for the turning of the seasons Along the Natchez Trace (“Natchez Trace,” from Chase the Buffalo, by Pierce Pettis) About twenty miles north of Jackson, there is a turnoff for Cypress Swamp. We take it. Leaving the car, we step carefully down a hill, down to a bridge that crosses shallow water filled on both sides with ancient bald cypress, the trunks of which splay out as they near the water, trunks that seem like twisted vines, wrapped together for encouragement. Above, their canopy needles the sky. Interspersed among them are the tupelo, a hardwood, their leaves softening a sharp blue sky. I read that the Spanish conquistador Hernando de Soto would have passed some that still live, and so we are hushed, listening, as if something important might be missed. If I wore a hat, I would take it off to them. I don't, so I stretched out my hand and rested it on one cypress's sinewy bark, an acknowledgment of age, perhaps, or kinship, a help to self-forgetfulness. That this tree would stand here in silence all these centuries, see the turning of the seasons, while we come and go, renders me small, a child among elders. Later, I put both hands on a pine tree, a soaring giant whose diameter at base must have been two to three feet. Unlike the cypress, it's bark was like armour, plate upon plate, mottled and crisp. Touching it brought me back to the pines of my backyard that real when the wind blows, awkward and gangly compared to this giant. Later, picking up a stick and swishing it in the air as I walked, I was following my grandmother again, through the woods to visit her friend, while she swishes a branch in front of her. I picked up a leaf, crumpled it in my hands, and remembered pressing leaves between wax paper during kindergarten. I touch things as a way of knowing them and, perhaps, as a way of remembering. I don't think they have souls, but there is a way in which they speak. Creation is not silent. Even rocks cry out. ----------------------------------------- Mississippi is dark. We prowled around Jackson last night in what seemed a room with the lights dimmed, squinting to make out details, to find Anjou, a recommended French restaurant. It was 6:00 and seemed like midnight, like everyone had gone to bed and turned out the lights. I wondered if it was just me and my failing eyes or something else. So I googled it. Of course. I got an earful, well, eyeful,about LED lights, low energy and dim. Most of the complaints were about Marxist, socialist city councils, at least the ones I can repeat. We crept back to the hotel under the cover of darkness. Had I a flashlight, I would have held it out the window to light our way in the darkness of Mississippi, along a Trace with no moon. --------------------------------------- We are sensual creatures, so things like ambient lighting or touch make a difference, even though we don't always know enough to articulate how they impact us. In a book I am reading called Stuff Matters, materials scientist Mark Miodownik explores the psychophysical aspects of materials, that is, why the way they feel or sound has such an effect on our experience of them. And yet, he recognizes that we can't live in such a way as to be attuned to their impact all the time. He rightly says that “Most of the time we ignore them. We have to: we would be treated as lunatics if we spent the whole time running our fingers down a concrete wall and sighing.” Or touching trees. I'll stop talking about that. I'll stop being that guy. ---------------------------------------- From Jackson to Tupelo, the Trace unfolds on a beautiful ordinariness. Gentle curves, slight rises, hayfields newly mown, here and there a farmhouse set back off the road shyly reminding us that in most places the roads has no more than 800 feet of right of way, that what we mostly see is private land kept rural by cooperative agreements, easements, and economics. Mostly it is, after all farmland, not ripe for subdivisions. Today was a long drive, but it was musical, like a dance through wood and meadow, serenaded by the songs of Alabaman Pierce Pettis. We listened to his Chase the Buffalo at least three times, and yet my wife said she didn't tire of it. At dinner, I said, as we often say, “What was your favorite thing today?” She said, “Driving.” Just that. Well, maybe she added "with you." At one point, we exited the road and walked a bit of the Old Trace, perhaps a lane wide, its surface tread by thousands upon thousands of feet and hooves. I walked until it simply vanished in a tangle of trees and scrub, indiscernible. Lost. I wished it back. Continue reading
Posted Nov 9, 2014 at Out Walking
Most profound of all things I heard today were the words from a man picking up cigarette butts from a road that led down to the Mississippi River from downtown Natchez. We were ascending the road and he was bent a bit, at his task, and my wife said “Thank you for keeping things so beautiful.” He said “I need to make a difference.” I appreciated that man rooting me in place, reminding me that I was not just hovering over Mississippi, like some detached observer, but could rest there, if lightly, among flesh and blood, on streets called Pearl and Auburn and Canal, under live oaks decorated with the dreadlocks of Spanish moss, under the rich sky so blue and branches so green. Later, we pretended to be Natchezians, walking among the people at a Chili Cook-Off to benefit the Childrens' Home. I tried 14 different chili concoctions, sharing them with my shirt, but finally settled on that served up by the local fire department, which was surprisingly lacking in smoke and fire but rich with flavor. Even the brief exchange with the fireman had the effect of keeping me from drifting in my own thoughts, the words we exchanged solid and earthy and real, tethering me to the ground. At 4:30 AM this morning, I finished A Loving Life: In a World of Broken Relationships, by Paul Miller, and he quoted a passage from B.B. Warfield. Warfield was talking about how Christ took no account of himself, even his divine self, but was “led by His love for others into the world, to forget himself in the needs of others.” And then Warfield lays down his pen and points his finger at himself and at me through himself and says “Self-sacrifice means not indifference to our times and our fellows: it means absorption in them. It means forgetfulness of self in others. It means entering into every man's hopes and fears, longings and despairs: it means manysidedness of spirit, multiform activity, multiplicity of sympathies. It means richness of development. It means not that we should live one life, but a thousand lives - binding ourselves to a thousand souls by the filaments of so loving a sympathy that their lives become ours.” Perhaps that's why I write. So I can live a thousand lives. So for a moment I can forget about myself and my incessant needs and complaints and try to imagine life by making a difference picking up cigarette butts, fighting fires, hawking lunch to passersby, sweeping streets, cleaning rooms, or selling cars. So I can walk along the ancient Sunken Trace and hear the footfalls of “kaintucks” and post men and circuit riding preachers, cold and hungry and tired, watch them play cards and write letters to their wives and talk about their days at a “stand” like the Locust Inn, where a solitary ranger jumps to welcome us like she's not seen anyone all day. I wonder what she does when no one comes, if memories of those who came here take substance and speak to her, if maybe, all alone, she begins to speak to them. And yet I've barely scratched the surface of self-forgetfulness, let thousands of souls pass unnoticed. But writing them down, here, is a start, anyway, the beginning of the end, a pebble rippling through the sea of forgetfulness. Continue reading
Posted Nov 8, 2014 at Out Walking