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Steve West
I'm a writer, walker, and nature lover
Interests: walking, nature, and writing, reading (both good fiction and non-fiction), listening to music (particularly power-pop and alt-country), travel (particularly in the west)
Recent Activity
Beautiful, Gary. Thanks for adding such poetic prose to my small reflection! If I were to be a bird, it'd be a mockingbird, as I'd get to sing covers all day.
Toggle Commented 6 hours ago on Lunch, and After at Out Walking
1 reply
This morning I carried a small space heater I keep in my “reading room” to the attic, figuring I did not need it anymore. I was wrong. There was a chill in the house this morning and afternoon, but my wife said she could tolerate it. So I guess I will too. As we had lunch, the cat milled about my feet, whining, head-butting every protuberance, and yet if I make a move toward her she will run. Upstairs she will run. And so I yelled after her, “I’m not falling for it this time, you hear? I’m not coming up there.” And my wife said, “Sure you will.” But I didn’t. Cats toy with you, you know. Next I looked she reclined on the floor, upside down. It is what they do best. My wife had been walking around the lake the other day with a friend from Uganda. Mind you, Ugandans are not into exercise walking but keep a pace that allows them to go the distance. They are always walking - to market, to water, to school, to work. They gracefully stroll. Any faster would be running. They persevere in walking. But while they were strolling, they saw a red-capped bird, a woodpecker perhaps, yet unlike others we have seen. Now, looking at Audubon’s guide, she identifies it as a pileated woodpecker. The largest woodpecker. Now we know. But we’re drawn to the mockingbird, a few pages over. We read that one mockingbird will serve for a plethora of birds, as it can imitate the calls of up to 50 different birds. I carried my dishes to the sink. “And tractors, sirens, and dogs,” she added. And I thought: There’s a bird of birds, an actor, a soundtrack for the outdoors. So, if you think you have a diverse group of birds in the backyard, or a truck stop, look hard: it may be just one mockingbird. That annoying tapping? A pileated woodpecker, or your over-industrious neighbor in his latest DIY project. God toys with us, though in goodness. Even inside by my window where I sit now, I hear the low hum of commerce, a siren, the revving of an engine, the slightest whistle of a breeze. Yet I can’t even see the next house. Brown has given way to green, as if God was infatuated with green and painted everything some shade of it, layer upon layer upon layer. “The poetry of the earth is never dead,” said poet John Keats, a phrase that, reading it now, hearkens back to English literature, suffered in college but still alive in me now. And so these sounds and sights out my window — these earth wise glimpses — sound like music, and if I could chart them would make something like a symphonic score. Or a folk song, if that’s too grand. But it’s true. The Psalmist says that it’s true 24/7, because Creation is ever giving God glory in that “Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge. There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard. Their voice goes out into all the world, their words to the end of the world” (Ps. 19:2-4). And to the end of my backyard. So, wherever you are, look around you. Do you hear that Voice? Not the mockingbird, not the pileated woodpecker, not the crow that caws overhead, but the Voice behind these voices, the One who says “It is good.” Continue reading
Posted 9 hours ago at Out Walking
"My office is where the Brooklyn Bridge drops into Manhattan. I live in Brooklyn, and on good days, I walk across the bridge and into work." "Are you married," I ask. "No, not yet. I like New York. It's fun living there. I have a girlfriend. The restaurants are good, when I can afford them. But I think about North Carolina every day. I can't imagine raising kids in the City. I think I'll eventually make my way back." In Staying Put: Making a Home in a Restless World, Scott Russell Sanders stands against what he calls the "vagabond wind" of our culture, considering the "virtue and discipline of staying put." It's a book about nature and family and community, as these he says are "inseparable from the effort to be grounded in place." In one chapter of his book, Sanders focus on the influence that moving water has on our sense of place: "When we figure our addresses, we might do better to forget zip codes and consider where the rain goes after it falls outside our windows." There's that which falls on the impermeable surfaces of our homes and driveways and streets and is cabined into gutters and storm drains, dumped ignominiously into streams. There's that which falls onto the ground, seeps in and becomes part of a vast moving flow of groundwater, some of which is retained far below and some of which also flows downhill into streams and rivers. On our morning walk, we pass an unnamed brook, at times of drought a reluctant if persistent and hopeful trickle; in gully-washing rains a fulsome rush, swollen in pride. Anything that falls in --- leaf, branch, or hapless insect --- is pulled along. It has no name, yet I know where it goes. I say "brook," as our subdivision is called Brookhaven, and yet someone has said that a brook is a stream you can step over; not so, a creek. I think this is a creek. To try and step over - at least at certain points - is to step in. Where is it going? On to Crabtree Creek (which you definitely cannot step over), and then to the Neuse River, emptying into the Pamlico Sound below New Bern, and then on to the Atlantic. Home. So when I dip my toe or finger in this unnamed brook, I am sending some of me to the Atlantic. Leaving home. I have lived here for 40 years. I call it home. Were I to live in the City, I'd be thinking about this place. I'd stand in the middle of the Brooklyn Bridge, look down at the East River, gaze down its course to sea, and wish myself home. I'd think about North Carolina every day. Just like my friend does. "Look," I say, "so what is it about North Carolina that attracts you? You have a great city at your doorstep here." "I don't know. It's just a great place." I would have added: it's topography, the lay of the land; the cardinals, bluebirds, finch, and even mockingbirds that nest in our trees; pork barbecue; small towns; and the extraordinariness of it's very ordinary life. And that's just for starters. So I suspect, like falling water finds the sea, he'll make his way home. Continue reading
Posted 2 days ago at Out Walking
In Annie Dillard’s memoir of growing up, An American Childhood, she writes of the process of self-consciousness for a child: “Children ten years old wake up and find themselves here, discover themselves to have been here all along; is this sad?” What she describes is the necessary process of discovering yourself and the world around, of waking up, of gradually and then all at once having it dawn on you that you are unique and separate, and that the world is larger and more mysterious than you thought — well, if you thought. One such moment came for me before I was ten. I was riding in the car with my mother, going to my grandmother’s house, and I happened to look up from my book and notice a home I was passing, one more modest than mine, paint peeling, grass patchy and overgrown. A black woman was coming through the door, and the screen door was flapping on its hinges, and though I couldn’t hear it, I knew that sound. I was no longer a child. I was suddenly aware that I was different than this woman, than her family. Dillard says “I noticed this process of waking, and guessed with terrifying logic that one of these years far away I would be awake continuously and never slip back, and never be free of myself again.” Never be free of myself again. As necessary as this process of consciousness is, it is also sad, as it has the unfortunate consequence of making us think too much about ourselves and too little of others. And yet if a child is blessedly unconscious of self, he is also unaware of how his actions may impact others and, thus, he can act cruelly and selfishly. Our real goal as we grow old is to grow in wonder at and love for the world and others while cultivating our own self-forgetfulness. In The Freedom of Self Forgetfulness, Tim Keller writes that “True gospel-humility means I stop connecting every experience, every conversation, with myself. In fact, I stop thinking about myself. The freedom of self forgetfulness. The blessed rest that only self-forgetfulness brings.” Like children, it is possible for us to be blessedly unaware of ourselves. Yet unlike children, we are also aware of our tendency to relate everything to ourselves. Yet know the antidote: regular, moment-to-moment looking to Christ, who has forgiven us and accepts us just as we are (Rom. 8:1). Our identity is rooted in Christ. We wake up, for sure, but it's Christ we wake to. It’s true we’ll never be free of ourselves again. But our picture of self will be transformed by Christ. That’s not sad at all. That's freedom, that's joy. Continue reading
Posted Apr 16, 2016 at Out Walking
"The life of faith is not a life of mounting up with wings, but a life of walking and not fainting." (Oswald Chambers) No one I know uses the word "perambulatory" in ordinary conversation. That's a shame. It's a perfectly good word. If someone is walking we might say they are ambulatory. (Well, a doctor might.) However, perambulatory carries another sense: to walk about, travel around, go through. And that's what we do in life, we travel through and walk about. We even wander at times. That's how we discover and learn. That's how we grow. Scripture is full of perambulators. The Israelites walked from Egypt to the Promised Land. Nehemiah walked from Babylon to a Jerusalem in ruins. Jesus walked the hills and valleys of Palestine. The Apostle Paul journeyed throughout much of the known world by foot. Everywhere, the people of the Book walked. Not only that, scripture has much to say about how we walk. We are enjoined to walk in Christ, in the light, by faith and not sight, in truth, and by Spirit. Broadly speaking, the Christian life is described as a walk, a sojourn, one in which we are aliens and strangers in the world, one in which we often wander, knowing the object of our faith-walk, Christ, yet not always knowing where to take the next step. In Colossians 2:6 (ESV), Paul says that "as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.” Yet walking in Him can involve a fair amount of wandering; we know our destination but don't know quite how we will get there. We have tools (scripture, prayer) but we have no step-by-step instruction manual. In my drive home from work, one which takes about 25 minutes, I know exactly where I am going. I usually follow the same set of roads. Yet sometimes, when I have the time, I take a different route, one that takes me through neighborhoods, by streams, and under canopies of trees. One that requires many turns, curves and stops. One in which I am always slightly lost, as I refuse to memorize the route but just let it unfold before me. My wandering allows me to see things I haven't seen before or, at least, not regularly. I may be surprised by the sounds of birds, children playing on a lawn, new home construction, closed roads, or a road down which I have never ventured. I am not lost or, at least, am only a little lost. I am wandering home. In his book, Dusty Ones: Why Wandering Deepens Your Faith, A.J. Swoboda says that "Our efforts to learn to love and follow Jesus must meander through wherever we are as we wander our way through life." For Swoboda, wandering and discipleship are linked, as "One can wander and be right on track, just as being in the desert doesn't necessarily mean we are deserted." Wandering doesn't mean we're lost, just figuring things out. For Swoboda, "Christian spirituality is a slow train that must inevitably stop at every Podunk town." It is, as Eugene Peterson once wrote, "a long obedience in the same direction." To be sure, scripture speaks often of those who wander away from the commandments, from truth, who seek their own way, but "not all who wander are lost," says J.R.R. Tolkien, in a poem from his Fellowship of the Ring. That's worth remembering. If we know those who seem off track or wandering, who are perambulating, ourselves included, they may not be lost. And they are never deserted. Pray for them. Pray for yourself. Point to Jesus, the Author and Perfecter of our faith. They will yet come home. As will we. Continue reading
Posted Apr 2, 2016 at Out Walking
It all began well enough. While my wife and daughter were shopping, I propped myself up in the car, in a rectangular space touched by the spare shadow of a tree, and began to read. The book, Poems & Sketches of E.B. White, was a somewhat shelf-worn hardback, one I was delighted to find for $4.50 the other evening, plucked off the shelf where it would no doubt languish for months in the dusty poetry section. It is not, after all, Stuart Little. First up was a sketch by White entitled "The Hotel of the Total Stranger," a languid tale of a traveler, a Mr. Volente, checking into an unairconditoned Manhattan hotel. My eyes grew heavy. The sounds of traffic wafted in. A desert breeze teased. I lost my place, re-read a few paragraphs, repositioned myself, and read: "New York lay stretched in midsummer languor under her trees in her thinnest dress, idly and beautifully. . . . The trucks and the sudden acceleration and the flippant horn and the rustle of countless affairs somewhat retarded by the middle-of-summer pause in everything, these were the sounds of her normal breathing. . . ." Ah, metaphor. A bird just flew into the grill of a Ford Explorer, parked catty-cornered to me, reconsidered, and flew off. I looked away, embarrassed for him. I dove back in. Mr. Volente is remembering, his cab ride from Penn Station to his hotel a revisiting of personal history: the Child's restaurant where the waitress had spilled a glass of buttermilk on his blue suit, a catastrophe he had spun into a magazine article, the square where a small dog had been struck by a cab and killed, a cafe off Washington place where he and his wife dined the night they married, the room above the fire escape where the air was recycled: "In those days, he thought, there was no air conditioning: the same air remained in the small rooms and moved about, distributed by a fan, from table to table with the drifting smoke, until the whole place gathered over a period of months and years an accumulation of ardor and love and adventure and hope, a fine natural patina on floors and walls, as a church accumulates piety and sorrow and holiness." I had to pause there and look out over the cars toward the mountains and consider the church, walls caked with piety, layered with sorrows, enobled by prayers, aged like fine wine to holiness. I closed my eyes. The book fell closed. . . "Mr. West?" "Um. . . What? What was that?" "Mr. West, we are here. Your hotel?" I looked up to see a short stub of a man peering at me from an open door, a streetscape out the window, a city. "My hotel?" "Yes sir." I closed my eyes and wished it away. A dream. Rubbing my eyes I opened them on the book, picking up where I left off. Outside, a baby chattered, his mother fussily stowing him in the car. Birds twittered, decorated cars, and made off to laugh at their work. An aging biker revved his bike on Skyline, as if to hold off aging. Seventy-five year old words float in the shiny new of suburbia, seemed alien to a parking lot of late model cars. Mr. Volente. Mr. Volente is remembering. There is something here about the "lean and tortured years," about mornings alone spent in the apartment straightening up after the others had left for work, rinsing the dirty cereal-encrusted bowls, taking the percolator apart and putting it together again, and then "sinking down on the lumpy old couch in the terrible loneliness of midmorning, sometimes giving way to tears of doubt and misgiving (his own salt rivers of doubt), and in the back room the compensatory window box with the brave and grimy seedlings struggling, and the view of the naked fat lady across the yard." Mr. Volente, I say, I did not need that last image. I flip over to the last page of the book, because if nothing else a book, particularly one assembled with deliberation as was this, should begin well and end well, and because I need another image for my mind, and I land on "The Crack of Doom," which seems promising if foreboding. I glance at my watch. Will I have time to traverse the crack of doom before my wife and daughter finish their spree? I decide to go for it and plunge in. Earth is experiencing atmospheric disturbances. Elm trees die, a "loss considered unfortunate but not significant." Tropical storms increase. Sleeping sickness breaks out. Scientists figure out that a new disease, which affects people's necks in middle age, came from the habit of feeding orange juice to very young babies, in vogue around 1910. A man named Elias Gott discovers that all the trouble is due to radio waves. Eventually, the radio waves threw the earth off orbit, where it crashed into a fixed star, going up in "brilliant flame," a flash "noticed on Mars, where it brought a moment of pleasure to young lovers; for on Mars it is the custom to kiss one's beloved when a star falls." But what this apocalypse has to do with the crack of doom is unknown. Yet I want to flip back to the beginning, tell Mr. Volente that it doesn't matter anyway, that it will end in one "brilliant flame." But I don't. Why ruin his melancholy? Somewhere in this story is an inside joke, I imagine, yet it is outside to all, its contemporary readers all dead. The end flap says White is "witty, wise and pensive." Yet I am put off, as whoever wrote it never knew the man. The author of The Elements of Style would never have left off a comma after "wise" lest he be haunted by William Strunk. I take my pen out and edit it, insert the comma, and restore order to the world. I shut the book and settle back into my lumpy seat, my mid-day rest, let Mr. Volente remember, turn the radio on, and prepare for the end of the world. Continue reading
Posted Mar 21, 2016 at Out Walking
Don, are you no longer writing on KCET? I enjoy your writing; its attention to the particulars of place in LA makes me more attune to the particulars of my place. Thank you!
Toggle Commented Mar 17, 2016 on The Weight We Bear at Out Walking
1 reply
About 200 feet into the park, down a rutted trail that skirted the ridge above the river, she spotted a yellow flower just inside the guard rail, its glory ephemeral and slight, bowing as if apologetic for interrupting what was still winter. “I think it’s a trillium,” she said, stooping for a photo, composing the flower as would one engaged in portraiture. It was alone, a promise of more, over-eager for Spring. I kept the word. We crossed the Eno on the suspension bridge, jostled by a pack of scouts, swaying over the rapid flow below. On the far bank, we began the ascent of Cox Mountain; the namer, we thought, prone to exaggeration. The trail does lead nearly straight up for a 270 foot climb in elevation, as if to insist on its claim of height — a slight mountain, if in fact it is, or a large hill, yet enough to wind us. That there are no switchbacks is a giveaway: it is a pretend mountain, after all, yet we went along, believing. “I think we have been here before,” I said. “I told you.” She had told me, yet I thought it was another trail that day, some five years ago now. Then, we entered from another side, nearly alone, an electric buzz in the background, amorous cicadas a clearly excited amateur entomologist told us, migrants passing through, held up by love. We thought it the sound of the high tension electrical lines over the clearing, yet it was of another tension. Overhead, squirrels chatter and play chase. One sits on a branch above our heads gnawing noisily on a pine cone. As she approaches, it scrambles father up to a slender promontory from which it peers down, the cone still attached. Down, down we go until we stand on the alluvial banks of the river, the sun dancing on the water. I lean against a gnarled hickory tree, peer at the river’s run through an eyelet between its twin trunks. I snap a photo of her there by the water, taking a photo of the water’s play on rocks, and then turn to go when the stillness is interrupted by strangers. I need her along, as I have trouble slowing my gait enough to observe. This is not about destination but journey, about slowing down to let the world seep in. And I need it. Returning, at one point we follow the old track of the Hillsborough Coach Road, and I imagine the horses and wagons of farmers and grist and saw mill owners traversing it. They were not the first. According to Adam Morgan, whose North Carolina’s Wild Piedmont: A Natural History is a wealth of cogent insight, in 1701 English naturalist John Lawson met up with a group of Native Americans in the area headed by a one named Enoe Hill. The Indians were pushed out, the land logged, and over 30 gristmills built, the ruins of some of which still remain. So, the landscape has been altered. According to Morgan, the steep ravines and high bluffs that seem so natural did not exist before the Europeans came. Rather, what they saw was a valley of meandering streams and wetlands, the etched out valley bottoms the product of mill dam sedimentation. And then the forests are constantly changing, the pines pushed out by hardwoods. Still, altered or not, it’s beautifully dressed with oak, hickory, mountain laurel, and rhododendron. Some type of fungi, a parasite, juts from the bark of one hardwood I rested my hand on, the tiny shelves catching raindrops which birds then harvest. It wasn’t trillium after all but yellow trout-lily, all of which I later learn thanks to Audubon. Trout because the mottled leaves reminded someone of brook trout, though their aroma is far better. I learn that they live in colonies, some near 300 years old, like a communion of the saints, their sagging posture a precursor for asexual reproduction: a “dropper,” a tubular stem that grows out of a corm, penetrates deep into the soil before another corm is formed at its tip and the stem connecting the daughter and parent corm dies, an umbilical cord no longer needed. The cicadas have a better time of it. Apparently. Continue reading
Posted Mar 6, 2016 at Out Walking
"The well of your incompleteness runs deep, but make the effort to look away from yourself and to look toward Him." (Oswald Chambers, in My Utmost for His Highest) If you are anything like me (and I suspect you are), there are many things about life or about yourself that you can't seem to change or that simply don't change. Perhaps it is a person who you desire to see come to faith, or a habit you wish to break or adopt. Maybe it is writ large yet elusive, like peace in the Middle East or the end of ISIS. You have reached down into the well of your being, summoned all your resources, done all you can, and yet nothing. No lasting weight loss. No coming to faith of that friend. Not a glimmer of peace. Then, a seed of doubt or distrust is planted. Can God do anything? Will He do anything? There is a chipping away of trust. Chambers says "look away from yourself and look toward Him." He has the living water. He has what we need. How? I tell myself these truths regularly: First, I affirm that He is God Almighty not just God my friend, that He can do anything. Second, I affirm that He desires my good and that He has a good plan for the universe and will bring it to fruition in His good time. Third, I remind myself of what He has already done and is already doing, cultivating a posture of thankfulness. Fourth, I persist in praying for the thing I desire over and over and over again, like the widow before the judge, not because He is hard of hearing or too busy but because He desires that I come, until He either answers my prayer or reorders my desires. And fifth, I read scripture, the record of his dealings with the likes of me, to remind myself that every kind of plea I may make is the kind already answered by God. No, honestly, I am not regular enough at these things. I offer suffer temporary amnesia. I forget the truth. It's likely for that reason that forgetful Israelites repeated the stories of deliverance to themselves so often, stories of exodus and victory. It's the reason God began so many conversations with "Remember." It's why the Psalmist, after verse upon verse of woe and complaint comes round to a chorus of God's enduring love, faithfulness, and redemption. Across nearly a century, Oswald Chambers' voice echoes: "The thing that approaches the very limits of His power is the very thing that we as disciples of Jesus ought to believe He will do." He can do anything, and He will. Look to Jesus, Chambers says. Look to Jesus. Continue reading
Posted Mar 4, 2016 at Out Walking
"Isn't this great?," my son said, as he looked up from the oven. "I love this." We're cooking. The chocolate chip cookies, inchoate but promising, lay in doughy mounds on the cookie sheet. The ingredients for a bacon and spinach quiche are prepared and put to bed in the refrigerator. After washing dishes by hand and laying them in a rack to dry, I retire to the sofa. I am not allowed to cook, but I did get to measure out the flour, salt, brown sugar, and baking soda, like a chemist's assistant in the laboratory of my scientist son. I examine the bookshelf. A large 75th anniversary edition of The Joy of Cooking is juxtaposed with Advanced Aerodynamics, a bio of pilots Chuck Yeager and Burt Rutan, and the historical Moonshot, like one might expect of the library of a flying chef, gathering up the raw ingredients of space and making things, things for me to eat, while running on about gravity and thrust, Mars and cars --- he in the kitchen, peripatetic, gesticulating; I, reclining, reflecting. Our wife and mother, in contrast, happy to be working alongside us. "Let's watch The Martian!," he says, brightly. "Been there. Done that," I say, though I should have agreed. We settle on Johnny English, seconds or thirds for us all, yet still funny. We laugh as we wait for cookie dough to bake, eat between cachinnations. The window above his head is a rectangle of black, yet I know its view. Across a courtyard, in the distance, beyond the Stanford campus, one can see just a bit of the Coast Range. Beyond that is Half Moon Bay and the Pacific. If you could, look east, and there's Palo Alto and the Bay; north, Menlo Park, Redwood City, and end on end towns until San Francisco, until the Golden Gate, until Sauselito and Muir Woods and north and north in Kerouac country. The arranged books, the cooking together, the conversation, and, if you remove us, the regular patterns of his day --- waking, walking, working, --- transform a space into a place, give roots to what could have been ephemeral. With some attention, some deliberation, it is not. It is even, in some temporal sense, his home. ________________________________ In the opening essay in a collection of essays about place, entitled Why Place Matters: Geography, Identity, and Civic Life in Modern America, Wilfred McClay takes note of "an ordinary but disquieting phenomenon: the translation of place into space, the transformation of a setting that had once been charged with human meaning into one from which the meaning has departed, something empty and inert, a mere space." We all know this feeling from when we move from one place to another. We take out our last belongings, remove the paintings from the walls, sweep out even the last rubbish and dirt of our life there, and then sense the inevitable, a place giving way to space. Soon, no trace of us will remain. And though we may maintain relationships via the simultaneity of the Internet, they exist displaced and, in some way, not quite the same. But McClay says that what was once a normal yet not too common experience of displacement is becoming a more pervasive, enduring, and damaging phenomenon for many people. "As we become ever more mobile and more connected and absorbed in a panoply of things that are not immediately present to us," he says, "our actual and tangible places seem less and less important to us, more and more transient or provisional or interchangeable or even disposable." As a result of this lightly held existence, "[t]he pain of parting becomes less, precisely because there is so little reason to invest oneself in 'place' to begin with." In short, we have a deep need for community and yet less and less ability to develop and sustain it. McClay says that both commerce and government are only too willing to assist our displacement. "A national government and a global economy always tend in the direction of consolidation and uniformity, toward the imposition of a uniform standard." Efficiency requires commodification, transience, and predictability. Economically, we are only consumers; to hold to tightly to a particular place is antithetical to market forces. But what McClay says is that to be a healthy, dynamic society we must embrace a strong sense of place. Quoting historian William Leach, he says that "People require a firm sense of place so they can dare to take risks. A society whose common store of memories has been beaten down or shattered is open to further disruption; for such a society cannot defend or protect itself from the stronger incursions of those who know what they want and how to get it." Christians are called to be place-makers. When a shattered nation of Israelites was torn from their home and carried off into exile, God called them to"build house and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce." To a displaced people suffering displacement as a judgment for their unfaithfulness, he commands place-making, even in a space not of their own choosing. So too does he command us --- not to long wistfully for another place, not to avoid entangling ourselves in relationships, not to risk little so as not to be hurt much. But to dig in deep, to dwell, to settle in and make a place from the space where we find ourselves. ________________________________ The movie over, we gather our belongings and leave his place. We return to our hotel on El Camino Real, a space that is not quite a place for us given our very temporal lodging there. Nevertheless, even there we are place-makers. I take all my clothes out of my suitcase and hang them or fold them away in drawers, giving it some semblance of permanence. Having learned the name of African-born valet from a previous visit, we greet him and ask how he is, like a friend we seldom see. We enjoy the angle of the morning sunlight in our room. I place books on the desk, nightstand, and by the reading chair. We walk down University Avenue and under the ancient and broad-limbed trees of the Stanford campus. We eat locally, at Mayfield's and Peninsula. We drink up the sun and breeze. We go to church and mingle. I pretend, just for these days, that I live here in what would be a tiny overpriced bungalow, try to look carefully at the people city, as if I might never see it again. I make a place. I always do. It's what we do. It's what we're called to do. Continue reading
Posted Feb 15, 2016 at Out Walking
My wife is a gamer. I mean that in a very limited way. She doesn't binge in front of the Xbox, playing Call of Duty: Black Ops, though I expect she would do quite well. No, when we go out to lunch or dinner and wait on our meal, the backdrop of our conversation is often a game of IZee, which is really a form of Yahtzee played on her iPhone. Pass and play. She's competitive and yet gracious, whether winning or losing. I'm not. . . competitive that is. . . as I lose too much. I do try to be gracious. "Hey, you're almost winning," I say, as we wait on pizza. "What do you mean? We're tied." "Well, you're almost winning. One more point and you will win. I'm almost winning too." She smiled. The man and woman at the booth next to us stare at us. They are sitting on the same side of the booth, which is odd, and they are not smiling. I look back at the game. On many of the hundreds of occasions we have played this game, the words "permutations" and "combinations" enter my consciousness. A door opens on a tenth grade math class of some sort in which we studied these concepts. I'm looking out at the class, oddly enough, from the teacher's perspective, and my eyes sweep the class and go right to the large and open windows which look out on a flag pole, it's rope snapping in the wind, the ring that holds it clanging the pole. I have only the vaguest notion of what the words mean, but I think the sound of the phrase, permutations and combinations, was what I enjoyed, its assonance. "Your turn." I role a six, five, three, two, and six. I'm thinking. . . What are the odds I will role another six to give me three of a kind? But I have two rolls. If I save the two sixes and roll again, what are the chances that one of my three rolling die will be a six? What are the chances that all will be sixes? Should I save the two sixes or roll all five of them again? My head hurts. "Are you going to roll?" I'm thinking this has something to do with permutations and combinations, but I have no idea what to do with the concept anymore. I roll all five die. Hmmm. No sixes at all. What are the odds? Soundly defeated, I vowed to look up permutations and combinations when I got home. What I learned is that Yatzee has nothing to do with permutations, where sequence matters, and everything to do with combinations, with the probability that dice will be rolled in a certain combination. For example, the odds of rolling all of one number on the first roll of five dice (you yell "Yahtzee" here) is 1/5 x 1/5 x 1/5 x 1/5 x 1/5, or 1/3125, which is discouraging, of course, and utterly useless. Mr. Wizard is not playing IZee. The pizza is here. A few mouthfuls later, she won. Again. "You almost won," she generously said. "Essentially, we tied." I smile. She won by two points. I think that unwillingness to trumpet victory is called parity of hearts or, maybe, oneness. What are the odds of that? Continue reading
Posted Jan 30, 2016 at Out Walking
Of all the 17,897 Peanuts newspaper strips penned by Charles Schultz during his 50 years of creative endeavor, most of which I have not read, one exemplifies the surprising profundity that a four-panel comic strip could have under Schultz. Lucy and Charlie Brown are propped thoughtfully on a brick wall, and Charlie Brown says “You know what I wonder?,” and then, “Sometimes I wonder if God is pleased with me.” In the next (and third) panel, he turns to Lucy, whose expression has never changed as yet, and says “Do you ever wonder if God is pleased with you?” Lucy turns, smiling smugly, and says, “He just HAS to be!” It’s funny, as it plays on Charlie Brown’s self-deprecation and doubt and on Lucy’s assuredness, and yet there’s more to it than that. It’s as if Lucy protests too much. She too wonders, we think, though unlike Charlie Brown, she covers with her confidence, with her assurance. The question is one that resonated, no doubt with millions of readers: Does God really love me? And if so, then why are things not going well for me? Or, could he really love me? In A Charlie Brown Religion: Exploring the Spiritual Life and Work of Charles M. Schultz, author Stephen J. Lind does an excellent job exploring the way the late Schultz brought Christian faith to bear on his popular Peanuts series. No doubt all of us remember the poignancy of the animated A Charlie Brown Christmas, with Linus’s telling of the Christmas story, reciting verbatim the words of scripture at the end, but we’re likely unaware of Schultz’s deep if somewhat idiosyncratic Christian faith and his persistent employment of scripture — both as directly quoted as well as alluded to — in some of his strips and animated shows. At the time, in the mid-Sixties, network TV programmers were extremely reluctant to include religious references, much less scripture, in their programming. Told that having Linus read the Gospel of Luke was “too religious,” Schultz stuck to his convictions, saying “If we don’t do it, who will?” The rest is history. He had the presence to make it happen. A memorable Christmas special was born. A barrier was broken. Born in St. Paul, Minnesota, Charles Schultz saw little of church as a child. In school, he fared poorly, failing many subjects, a shy boy with no obvious future calling. When high school ended, however, his mother suggested that he take a correspondence art course. It was his first step into honing his own craft. Drafted in 1943, he served in Europe, but most agonizingly, his mother contracted terminal cervical cancer in the years before he left, so as he said goodbye to her, he knew that it was likely the last time he would see her. While deployed, his father Carl began attending a small Church of God congregation, and on return, Schultz did as well. It was there, through Bible studies and friendships that he came to a realization of faith sometime in 1948. Asked about it, he said “I accepted Jesus Christ by gratitude.” Haunted by nightmares of war, suffering the too-early death of his mother, the community of faith he found buoyed him. Lind gives good coverage in the book to the incremental and progressive achievements Schultz made in a career in comics. And yet the focus here is the continuing place that faith had in his life. He never forgot his roots in the Church of God or the pastoral and other friendships he developed there, never stopped reading and studying scripture (as evidenced by a well-used and marked Bible), and never stopped interjecting Bible truth into comic strips and animated specials. At the same time, none were preachy, none off-putting. As Lind writes, “Most of the salient religious references in the animated specials. . . used terminology , phrasing and anecdotes from Scripture to create laughter, not theological debate.” Nevertheless, the comic strips and animated specials often invited reflection. In 1983’s It’s An Adventure, Charlie Brown, one short, “Butterfly,” is rich with questioning. Out on the lawn, a butterfly lands on Peppermint Patty’s nose. She falls asleep and Marcie sends it fluttering away. Awakening, Marcie exclaims, “A miracle, sir! While you were asleep it turned into an angel.” Peppermint Patty is convinced that she was chosen to bring a message to the world. However, she is unable to get any attention from a televangelist or any other religious people. And though Marcie is trying to tell her that she made the whole thing up, she can’t hear it. As Lind explains, “[I]f the viewer is willing to think through the issue with the scene, an invitation is extended to consider one’s relationship to miracles. The scene asks why it is that some are so wonderfully quick to believe that a miracle has happened to them when the ‘real’ explanation is being repeated over and over. Yet the viewer is also prompted to consider why others, who are purportedly in the business of miracles. . . , are so wrapped up with the tedious business of Sunday school papers and sprinkler systems that they lose the ability to listen to news of the miraculous.” Witty and profound, rich with questioning yet without trite answers, Schultz provokes reflection by those willing to pause. Doubtless the questions posed were the ones he also asked. Though he never explicitly abandoned faith, at some point in life Charles Schultz stopped going to church. In a biography published in 1989, he was quoted saying “I guess you might say I’ve come around to secular humanism.” And yet Lind concludes, based on other comments by Schultz, that the statement neither reflected atheism nor a crisis of faith but, rather, a increasingly complex faith, a kind of biblical humanism or, perhaps, a Christian universalism. Lind says that “The view that Christ’s work had atoned for all of mankind’s sin, regardless of their religious affiliation, and that God knew the heart of each man and woman sufficient to determine if they were part of His kingdom, seems consistent with Sparky’s [Schultz’s] comments on faith.” If not universalism, it is certainly an openness to the inclusion in the Kingdom of those who do not even refer to themselves as Christians, who do not profess belief but who are “good” people. No one would refer to this as historic, orthodox Christian belief as reflected in its historic creeds, yet it seemed to be what Schultz embraced as he removed himself from the accountability of a church where new ideas could be discussed and, at times, countered. And though he did not stop discussing biblical theology with friends, they were also not of an evangelical ilk. In 1998 his friend Robert Short described him as a “Christian universalist,” explaining, using a Peanuts metaphor, that “he believed, as I do, that finally all people are going to be rounded up by Christ the sheep dog.” Whether he was correct is unclear; that Schultz’s own non-systematic theology has deep inconsistencies with the Bible is clear. After battling cancer, Charles Schultz died in his sleep from a pulmonary embolism on the night of February 12, 2000. He struggled with faith in his last days, not seeing the efficacy of prayers on his behalf, wanting to continue to be active, as he had planned, on into his Eighties. Perhaps he even contemplated that question by Charlie Brown, “Do you ever wonder if God is pleased with you?” Perhaps now he knows. Perhaps, as Lucy said, “he just has to be.” I recommend A Charlie Brown Religion, even if, like me, you were not a fan of Peanuts but simply one who brushed up against a cultural icon. Highly readable and focused, my only criticism is the inclusion of the epilogue which read more like a introduction to the Peanuts brand and muted the power of the conclusions Lind drew from Schultz’s life. That aside, well-written biographies like Lind’s instruct and inspire, even warn. In the life of Charles Schultz, there is much to commend — his winsomeness, generosity, creativity, work ethic, and love for others — and yet much that serves as warning. He had an affair when married to his first wife. He failed to instruct his children in faith, reasoning that they each needed to come to their own conclusions (despite scriptural admonitions to do so), and, giving up the life of a community of faith (also commended in scripture) veered into an individualistic and non-orthodox spirituality rooted in Christian faith but free-floating and amorphous. In the end, we can celebrate the many commendable qualities of his life, leaving the rest between him and his Maker. After all, in the end, every human being is a mystery fully known only by his God. Continue reading
Posted Jan 24, 2016 at Out Walking
"Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed.” ‭‭ Heb.‬ ‭12:12-13‬ ‭(ESV) Several months ago I was taking the stairs in our house from the ground to our second floor. I fell up the stairs, which is, I have to say, better than falling down the stairs, something I have also done. I banged my knee on the lip of a step. Since then, it's been a source of discomfort, not when walking but when taking stairs. Physical therapy consists of strengthening my weak knee, though the exercises are counterintuitive, meaning it has been explained to me how they will accomplish that, but I cannot make the connection. This particular passage of scripture comes after a reminder from the writer of Hebrews that God is the founder or author of our faith, as well as its perfecter. He counsels that hardship and trials are a form of discipline God uses to perfect our faith, which is our life. To people with drooping hands, that is, who cannot bring themselves to do another thing, and with weak knees, that is, who are disinclined to get up and take the next step, he says "lift" and "strengthen." How? By looking to Jesus (v. 2). How? By seeing in our circumstances a loving Father who cares enough to shepherd us through hardship to refine us and make us holy, to make us more fully who He intends us to be. How? By taking the long view, by persevering. My physical therapist forces me to do activities that are painful. He needles me, shocks me, pulls and twists me. If I didn't believe he knew what he was doing, I'd think him a sick little man. I do not appreciate what he does and want him to stop. Some people feel that way about God. I don't. I may not like His therapy, but I trust it is for my good. It is for my healing. I hold out hope that His therapy will make me whole. Continue reading
Posted Dec 29, 2015 at Out Walking
My wife and I retired early on Christmas Eve this year, that is, by 1:30. The elves must feel something akin to this: weeks of workshop labor, shorted sleep, and unhealthy food, and then, finally, when the taillights of Santa's sleigh crests the horizon, they take to their beds. It felt that way. To be horizontal and still alive is to be deeply thankful. The cat stared dreamily at me from her pillow-bed near our feet. As she settled deeper into her cushions, I lost consciousness. And then, out of the dark, a clunk. I looked at the clock: 1:30. "Was that a door shutting?," she said sleepily. "Must have been a cat," I said. Silence. I lay there. It could have been a cat, a very heavy cat, and yet the large one still lay at the end of the bed and the other wisp of a cat would not make such a large noise and, besides, was likely tucked away in a crevice somewhere. I threw off the covers and went to the window, lifting the blinds to peek outside. Fog curled around the single street light. A neighbor's window light cast a single square of yellow light on the lawn next door. A black cat stole across the street, the one we call the Mayor, dutifully checking drain pipes, ground holes, and sewer drains for riff-raff. The usual. But then, in the corner of my eye, something red moved. At the corner of my house, a man was pushing something, and having a hard time of it, calling out to the darkness, "On. . . "What are you doing over there?" "Nothing." I dropped the blind. "Go back to sleep." "Did you figure out what that sound was?" "A cat, I think." Scapegoat for all, the cat. Silent when accused. "Will you go down and check it out?" "Sure." I will? I guess I will. I didn't really want to, yet I started out my door, feeling my way. "Dad, did Santa come?," said my son from the darkness. "Sssh. He can't come if you're awake." That's what my parents told me anyway. "I'm not awake." "You have to be unconscious for him to come." I added that bit. That is, you have to at least act like you're sleeping. "I am unconscious. Can't you tell?" And then, after a pause: "Where are you going?" "Nowhere. Checking on things." From the other room, my daughter, "What's going on out there?" "Everyone go to sleep. I'm just checking to be sure all the lights are out." I started down the stairs, avoiding the creaking one. About halfway down, I heard a slight creak behind me. I paused, one foot in midair, and turned, only to see the cat behind me, one paw in the air. "You too?" I whispered. I knelt close to her face. "Listen, when we get to the bottom, you go right, I'll go left," I said. She nodded, ever so slightly. "And be quiet." At the bottom, she turned left, not right, inexplicably, and I followed. As she entered the kitchen, she dropped to the floor, paws spread. I crouched. "What is it?," I whispered. Looking up, I saw a small, bearded man in a red suit kneeling beneath our Christmas tree in the near-dark, placing packages under the tree. I rose, drew a breath too quickly, too loudly, and he turned. "Hey, you're. . ." He put a finger to his lips, smiling, indicating that I should remain quiet, and then turned to his work. Looking down, I saw the cat walk by me carrying a catnip mouse in her mouth. Then, looking up again, he was gone. Just vanished. I turned to walk back up the stairs. At the landing, I stopped. "Dad?" "Aren't you asleep?" "Yes, but did Santa come?" "I'm sure he'll get here. You go to sleep." "I am asleep. I can sleep and talk at the same time." And I can be awake and dream at the same time. "I want a sugarplum." "They don't grow here." "What is a sugarplum, anyway?" "Nite, son." I lifted the edge of the covers and slid back into bed, settling on my back. The cat lay unconscious in a half-circle at my feet. I re-positioned her gently with a slight kick. From the dark, my wife: "Did you see Santa?" "Yeah." "What'd he say?" "He asked if you'd been good." "And you said?" "I said you'd been better than me." "Was that OK?" "Well, he smiled, anyway." "You sure you saw him?" "I'm sure." "Sure you did." In the morning, I rolled over, opened my eyes. A catnip mouse lay beside me. The wisp of a cat sat on the floor beside the bed, looking up at me. "You see him too?" She meowed. "OK, that settles it." Continue reading
Posted Dec 26, 2015 at Out Walking
“All eyes tell us of helplessness and despair. And despite it all, Christmas comes. Whether we wish it or not, whether we are sure or not, we must hear the words once again: Christ the Savior is here! The world that Christ comes to save is our fallen and lost world. None other.” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer) If the latest issue of The New Yorker is an indication of what the urbane elites of our culture think of Christmas, the answer is: not much. In this year-end, double issue, the word “Christmas” is uttered once, and that in a flip send-up name-drop poem by Ian Frazier entitled “Greetings, Friends!,” an inane review of the past year’s newsmakers. The cover boasts a winter scene with what appear to be elves and reindeer in pandemonium. And that’s about it. That’s the holiday issue. Um, holiday is not mentioned either. The New Yorker was never Christ-centered, of course. For its writers, editors, and most of its readers, Christmas is no doubt wrapped in myth and tradition, a hectic season of gift-giving, parties, and some superficial sense of good cheer. In this issue, there is an article on global warming, the gloomy message of which seems to be that Southern Florida will be under water within 50 years and there is nothing we can do about it. In a “world-changers” issue, there are some profiles of those who are deemed world-changers, like Secretary of State John Kerry, and yet you have the distinct sense that “world-changers” is used in a tongue-in-cheek fashion, the editors knowingly winking at the readers as if to say, “not really, but we had to print something positive, and this is all we could muster.” Beyond this incarnate irony, however, is the Incarnate One. That’s the real story. In my fantasy, I imagine this event, the virgin birth of God, as the “Talk of the Town,” as the focal point of The New Yorker. There are articles of faith and hope and love, of the world-changing efforts of ordinary people. That’s not impossible. Nothing is impossible with God. Yet I won’t hold my breath. It was Christmas Sunday in 1930 when Bonhoeffer preached his Advent sermon. The world was in the throes of an economic depression. Facism and communism were on the rise. There were many reasons for helplessness and despair. And yet, into the midst of that, he could proclaim, “Christ the Savior is here.” And so can we. The New Yorker may have unwittingly pointed to something its writers may not really grasp. The last line of Ian Frazier’s poem speaks of the coming year, of “Jumping with both feet, not looking,/ On amazing grace depending.” Amazing grace, indeed. Christ, the savior, is here. Let that be the talk of the town. Continue reading
Posted Dec 20, 2015 at Out Walking
As Francis Schaeffer preached and lived, there are “no little people, and no little places.” People are made in the image of God - every single one of them - and no matter how marred the image in them, they do not lose it. Yet I am so often aware of how I do not live that. Clive James, a famous British writer that I only barely know of, has every reason to consider himself important, I suppose, given all the books he has read and written. He is in the last stages of his life now, in and out of the hospital. As he lay in his hospital bed one evening, watching a nurse clean up a mess he had made (I’ll spare the details), he suddenly recognized the image of God in her (though he does not know it as such): “She had a deformed body, with limbs all the wrong lengths. Life could not have been easy for her. But now she was making the end of my life easier for me. It was a night to remember, and I haven’t forgotten it for a second. I can only hope that the sum total of my writings has been as useful to the world as her kindness, but I doubt that this is so.” In a divine propinquity, I also heard two other stories in the last couple of days that reminded me that there are no little people. One was of that of former MMA (martial arts) fighter Justin Wren who, after an amazing vision given to him by God, now heads a mission the forgotten people of the Congo, the pgymies, “little people” who know him as “The Man Who Loves Us,” or “The Big Pygmy.” The other is of Amy DeBurgh of Shepherds College, who works with intellectually disabled people. The remarkable thing about both ministries is that they recognize that neither pygmies nor the intellectually disabled are “little people.” They are God’s images. In her interview, Amy says that when we limit God’s image in people by measuring it by an external standard, like intelligence or ability or appearance, we actually deny the image, that is, we deny that the reality that the image of God is “vastly immeasurable.” Schaeffer would nod assent, and add that when we touch the lives of those who the world thinks of as insignificant, we must realize that every soul is important, that the small kindness we show to the “little” person has ramifications far beyond what we can see. We can pray we see past the surface to the images of God among whom we live and work, particularly the forgotten ones, the ones who annoy, the ones who inconvenience, and the ones who have nothing (we think) to offer us. Especially them. Continue reading
Posted Dec 3, 2015 at Out Walking
It's Advent, even though most people don't know the word. Through the rain that falls today, puddling on the roof outside their windows, tapping on their gutters, many do wait and hope for something they can't quite name, to some kind of advent. The New Yorker magazine has an online archive of everything published by it since 1925, so I searched to see what a great writer like E.B. White might say about Christmas. In a small Comment on Christmas Eve, 1949, there is, sadly, no mention of the Incarnation, but in his voice you can hear the longing for something more and, like all writers, his voice gives expression to what many others cannot articulate. Into a world still recovering from a great world war, he said: "To perceive Christmas through its wrapping becomes more difficult with every year. There was a little device we noticed in one of the sporting-goods stores — a trumpet that hunters hold to their ears so that they can hear the distant music of the hounds. Something of the sort is needed now to hear the incredibly distant sound of Christmas in these times, through the dark, material woods that surround it." Well, there is "something of that sort." It is the simple yet profound texts of scripture centered in "for unto us a child is born." And it is not distant but God come near, at hand. White goes on to say that "[t]he miracle of Christmas is that, like the distant and very musical voice of the hound, it penetrates finally and becomes heard in the heart over so many years, through so many cheap curtain-raisers. It is not destroyed even by all the arts and craftiness of the destroyers, having an essential simplicity that is everlasting and triumphant, at the end of confusion." Everlasting. Triumphant. Heard in the heart? Call it religion and you might smother it. Make it a greeting card cliche and sentimentalize and trivialize it. But listen to what it might mean for God to submit himself to earthly form for one reason only: love. White again: “So this day and this century proceed toward the absolutes of convenience, of complexity, and of speed, only occasionally holding up the little trumpet (as at Christmastime) to be reminded of the simplicities, and to hear the distant music of the hound. . . . This [Christmas], many will be reminded that no explosion of atoms generates so hopeful a light as the reflection of a star, seen appreciatively in a pasture pond. It is there we perceive Christmas — and the sheep quiet, and the world waiting.” As in 1949, now. The world is waiting for the hound. . . of Heaven. Continue reading
Posted Nov 30, 2015 at Out Walking
“As for man, his days are like grass; he flourishes like a flower of the field; for the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place knows it no more.” ‭(‭Ps. 103:15-16‬) I'm sitting in the car waiting for my daughter, listening to a record I have not listened to for many years. It's Welcome to Struggleville, by the Vigilantes of Love. Don't you love that name? I'm just catching phrases of this fine record. . ."I'm been trying to negotiate peace with my own existence. . . The whole thing is full of decay. . . But in the rust I know the beast is falling." Well, the title says it all. Sin. Entropy. Fallen world. Yet, the Beast is falling. Victory is assured. I took a late walk earlier, in full sun. Winding down is in the air. Autumn is a visual reminder for an image-soaked culture that there is a time for everything. The trees are nearly bare. Leaves clog the creek. In the new development near my home, every tree has been removed along with longstanding homes, people having moved elsewhere. Even the land has been raked over, plowed, shaped, piped, wired, and paved. A sign says "Homes from the $600s,” but the land is empty. Deer, fox, birds: gone. And yet in months there will be new homes, grass, families, cars, bicycles, swing sets - in short, life. And the people will not know those who lived their lives here before, every trace of whom has been removed. That's a loss, I think. There should be a reminder of those who came before. This place mattered to them. If the people return months from now, they will barely be able to root their deep memories in the land, in the place where they arose. They had children here, grew families here, fought and argued here, entertained and read here. Gone. Loss permeates this small place; loss permeates our landscapes. As author Paul Pastor recently reminded readers in his review of Walter Wangerin's new memoir, "Fred Buechner, in the introduction to his own (second) memoir, Now and Then, wrote: if you tell your own story with sufficient candor and concreteness, it will be an interesting story and in some sense a universal story.' Buechner further casts his memoir as 'a call to prayer.' (Such calls are universal.)" So many stories still hang over the land, left to seed new lives. I just wish someone had gathered up the stories before they left. Prayers still linger. It’s not all loss. New lives will grow here. Children will be born, grow, and learn. God will do His work. The Kingdom will grow, even if small, in what is now empty. I walked today down paved streets with no houses. I said a prayer for those who come, a seed dropped in the ground that God will water. My daughter just texted. “OMW.” Welcome to struggleville, caught between loss and promise. I’m on my way. The Beast is falling. Continue reading
Posted Nov 25, 2015 at Out Walking
If you don’t read poetry, start. My friend Suzanne Underwood Rhodes says that “[i]maginative language - poetry - trains the mind in faith. For what is faith but divine realities we can only imagine, ‘the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen’ (Heb. 11:1)” In her guide to poetry, called The Roar on the Other Side, there are many fine poems yet, even better, she provides a guide to appreciating their music, to listening to the great truths and mysteries to which poetry point. Speaking of metaphor, one of the strongest tools of poetry, she says: “When Jesus proclaims, ‘I am the Bread of life,’ He removes all our fences of seeing. He is entirely bread - nourishing, flavorful, essential. Rising and resurrection are in the loaf too. It is bread enough for the whole world, and of this Bread we must eat or perish. ‘Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you’ (John 6:53). Is this metaphor? Is this not mystery? Let us keep silent.” Sometimes I am silent because I am in awe of their beauty; sometimes, because I understand nothing and wait, dumbstruck. That’s it: Sometimes before the words of a great poem, we must be silent, let the words was over us, let them do their work. As sometimes before the great God, we must be still, must wait, must listen for His voice. Let Him remove all the “fences of our seeing.” Let His still small voice come whisper in the wind. Where to start? Try Mary Oliver, particularly her collection entitled Thirst. Or Jane Kenyon, in her Otherwise. Or even, if you are brave, Denise Levertov, in a slight collection entitled The Stream & the Sapphire. You’ll find faith of a sorts in them, though I don’t know its precise contours. Poets aren’t often precise on matters like dogma. But you will find much more: little truth and big Truths, little poems pointing to greater realities, particulars like dirt and sky, and universals like goodness and beauty and sadness and joy. Read them aloud. Hear their music. Read them silently. Let pictures form in your mind. Tell someone what they say, if you can. You might find they begin quietly but, by the end of it, roar an dance in your head, arise unbidden while in the checkout line and bring the slightest of smiles to your mouth, a song remembered. Continue reading
Posted Nov 24, 2015 at Out Walking
With the recent killing of innocents in Paris recently, I thought of the last time I was in Paris. It was 2007, and my son and I had stopped there en route to Switzerland from England. We had traveled over to meet my writing partner Kevin and his daughter, and unbeknownst to us, halfway over, Heathrow was closed as result of the apprehended "shoe bomber". After doing some interviews in Cambridge and Oxford, we took the Chunnel train over to Paris. We had 36 hours to see Paris. My partner, who booked a flight from England to Switzerland, was stuck in England for three days, as no flights were going out. We had lunch in a cafe with a clear view of Notre Dame. I tried my French on the server. My son said, "Dad, don't ever try to speak French again." He was right about that. It was a beautiful Summer day, and the views of the city were quite amazing - the Seine, Notre Dame, the Eiffel Tower - a beautiful city with people more generous and helpful than I had remembered. Reading some of E.B. White's shorts and fillers for The New Yorker, I came across a single paragraph from one of his Notes and Comments fillers from September 2, 1944. Written upon the liberation of Paris, he says that on hearing the news of liberation, he couldn't think of what else to do but pull down the Encyclopedia Brittanica, turn to the article on Paris, and read its most "dullest" prose, only it came alive on that happy day: “‘Paris,’ we began, ‘capital of France and of the department of the Seine, situated on the Ile de la Cite, the Ile St. Louis, and the Ile Louviers, in the Seine, as well as on the banks of the Seine, 233 miles from its mouth and 285 miles S.S.E. of London (by rail and steamer via Dover and Calais).’ The words seemed like the beginning of a great poem. A feeling of simple awe overtook us as we slowly turned the page and settled down to a study of the city’s weather graph and the view of the Seine looking east from Notre Dame. ‘The rainfall is rather evenly distributed,’ continued the encyclopaedist. Evenly distributed, we thought to oneself, like the tears of those who love Paris.” Reading that, I imagine White hunched over the great book, his finger on the word “rainfall”, great tears welling in his eyes, tears of joy at liberation of that great city after its too long captivity. I imagine the tears shed only days ago, tears of sorrow, not joy. Still, I long for a “rainfall. . . evenly distributed,” a city of no fear. I can’t wait to hear that news. Continue reading
Posted Nov 23, 2015 at Out Walking
In a newspaper clipping from our local paper on January 11, 2007, Washington Post journalist Linton Weeks writes of shifting baselines and changing standards. The article is called “When Normal Is a Moving Target.” Anytime I hear someone say that 80 is the new 60, I think about the article. It piqued my attention because it tracks the subtlety of change, the largely unnoticed changing baseline by which we sometimes measure normal. According to the article, marine biologist Randy Olson says that shifting baselines “are the chronic, hard-to-notice changes in things, from he disappearance of birds and frogs in the countryside to the increased drive time from San Diego to Los Angeles.” The phrase was actually coined by a biology professor, Daniel Pauley, as he examined declining fish populations; then, he started seeing them everywhere. Sometimes baselines rise, as in longer life spans; sometimes drop, as in language, clothing, and manners. Mostly, however, given our skew toward dystopian scenarios, the literature on shifting baselines is riddled with a sense of loss and nostalgia, a lowered expectation, a settling for less. But Pauly says that the concept has a very positive purpose as well, as “it means we can endure loss,” functioning as a helpful defense mechanism. If every generation passed on the full burden of the past, Pauly says “we would paralyze the next generation.” So, what he suggests we focus on is the identification of which baselines are important and essential. If we look carefully and watch for the incremental changes, we can even change the changes. This is both knowledge and wisdom. To understand the past and the changes that are occurring is a huge step in reformation of individual lives and culture. For Christians, it resonates with the kind of remembering that God calls us to, the kind of looking about which Jesus speaks. As Christians, we recognize that all is abnormal, that culture, creation, and individual lives are malformed due to sin. To put it in naturalistic terms, all is subject to entropy. Yet at the same time there is a building up, a positive change that comes from a growing kingdom, from an Aslan on the move. As Francis Schaeffer often said, while we will not experience complete reformation on this side of Heaven, we can experience substantial healing, and if we push our time frame back far enough, we can see both decline and rebuilding throughout history, the friction of the kingdom of this world and the kingdom of heaven. Normal is not really a moving target. God’s standards are sure. The only way to check the cultural drift, the changing baseline of normal, is to look to the source, the Word, and when we are there confronted by how far we fall short, to remember Grace, about how God ever moves toward us in love. Always. Which means we are ever gaining, not losing, not paralyzed by loss but energized by grace. The trouble with normal? It’s not normal. Continue reading
Posted Nov 22, 2015 at Out Walking
“Everyone has a story to tell, and everyone is telling it.” (William Zinsser, in Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir) My son reminds me often that there will be no post-humous memoirs, that if I have any to write I must write them now, that he will not write them. But I suspect he would if there was anything to say. . . or, more accurately, if there was anyone to read what there is to be said. How do you construct a life? Someone who writes, like me — well, like half the world, if you include Facebook — could be constructed by reading their social media posts. That would be highly inaccurate, would be, in fact, a construct. Most everyone would be successful, thin (or, to compensate, brilliant), and happy. Or they travel and eat out all the time. Their posts are full of smiling, happy people. I think we know better. Life has major and minor themes. But too much honesty on Facebook and “friends” would collectively say “this is neither the time nor the place.” Keep it light. You could look at the letters they write. The over 1000 letters contained in the Letters of E.B. White, for example, give great insight into the life of a modest if gifted man, to good relationships with his parents and brother, and to a long and happy marriage to Katherine, as well as early insight into his gifts as a writer of wit. In one letter, written to his parents when he was 21, still in college at Cornell, he begins with “Dear Family: A robin woke me this morning but he should have held his peace, for he is a false prophet. The weather is beautiful though wintry. Spring dallies somewhere in the offing, like a backward child asked to perform.” I can tell you that the few letters I wrote home from college meant something to my mother, yes, but held no golden prose such as White’s, and she, not being sentimental, long ago disposed of them. Who keeps letters anyway? I do. In my closet is a stack of letters, perhaps 100 or more. Some are letters from my wife to me before and after we were wed. But, of course, they tell me about her and only indirectly about me. Still, I save them. You could interview me. “Me” is usually a good subject to engage me on as, like most people, I know a lot about the subject. But recollection is skewed. My version of some events may not match that recollected by my sisters, as in was I pushed off the tricycle, or did I fall off? The past is murky, clouded by the present. To some extent, as the title of Zinger’s book hints, we may be “inventing the truth” in the telling of it. Memoir doesn’t require fact-checking or corroboration. It’s about telling a good story. And yet, while such personal narrative is the author’s interpretation of a life, not being fiction, it should be rooted in fact. Further, it’s not self-indulgence, reprisal, or tell-all. Good memoir should have the same subtlety and understatement that make powerful any other good story. They leave mystery, as do lives. We don’t even fully know ourselves. I wish I had those letters I wrote my mother. I want to hear my 18-year old words. I want to hear what it is I thought important to tell her. The documentation of those years is incomplete and my memory muddled. But one thing I know: God was telling a good story, though not complete, full of good and evil, plot turns and twists, shadowy threats and unmerited good, of hard lessons and miraculous deliverances. And I’m not the only one. I can’t wait to read them all. Continue reading
Posted Nov 18, 2015 at Out Walking
A cold winter’s morning, clouded and still, is, if not dismal, shrouded. Over breakfast I stared out over a lawn returning to forest, overnight. The lawn care workers came a day ago and blew it clean, made tidy edges to the new green grass, let walks manifest themselves. But overnight God, with a few puffs of stiff breath, covered it again. Brown leaves lay scattered over the green, with a blanket of pine straw worked in like yeast in dough, the beginning of the end, God reclaiming his own. I frowned, slightly, and a shadow crept across the table and my soul. Then, a female cardinal alighted on the outdoor water dish for our cats, scarce four feet from me. She drank, chirping between sips. Occasionally she looked up at me in the window, briefly, before flying. My countenance changed as I turned away, to the words at the top of the page: “You have multiplied, O LORD my God, your wondrous deeds and your thoughts toward us; none can compare with you!” (Ps. 40:5) You could say it’s a matter of entropy, of inevitable order to disorder. Yet perhaps, it’s just our perspective; disorder may hold a deeper order; a bird carries hope. Who am I to say how the earth is husbanded? Who am I to Him? Continue reading
Posted Nov 17, 2015 at Out Walking
“Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God." (Eph. 5:25) Whenever we read a verse that commands us to walk, we know that a progression is anticipated, a forward motion with purpose and destination, not a circuitous path or retreat. What this verse commands is an advance in love, a walking forward in love relationally and societally. It can be cold out in the world. It was 37 degrees this morning, and forward motion was necessary just to stay warm. We passed one man and dog, both retracted, drawn in on themselves by virtue of the chill. Leaves lay quiet on the roadside, and our breath went ahead of us. We did not even pray until our bodies were warm. The other part of the verse is prefaced by the phrase "as Christ." How did Christ walk? He moved forward in relationship sacrificially, laying down his rights, even his life, for others. Thus, this is an advance of love via death, — if not a physical death, then thousands of existential deaths: giving up your right to win the argument, to have your way, to exact justice for every offense. We tend to view this as retreat, but it is not. It is an aggressive love, a long walk, a steady march of humility. We keep going. We pray up hill — breathless, short requests — and we pray downhill —- long exhales of gratitude. We pass carpenters, hammering, yelling in Spanish to one another, and I wonder of prayers are mumbled under breath or rest, inchoate, as day dreams. We pass on into intercession, to Lord, this and that; to Lord help, heal, and hinder. We walk on. At our wedding my wife and I selected as text the words of Philippians 2: 1-11, where we are called to model Christ in his humility. The centerpiece is the Great Condescension of vv. 5-7, where Paul says “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.” We are still working on our Little Condescensions, on getting low. Down, down, down the hill we go, and down, down down Christ came for us, walking all the way from Heaven’s Throne for us. Souls are won by this aggressive humility. Even worlds. Continue reading
Posted Nov 16, 2015 at Out Walking
I went to church today. I’ve done that virtually every Sunday for over 57 years, and while it may be that I miss an average of four Sundays each year, that adds up to a considerable number of sermons — roughly 2736. As infant and toddler I suppose I missed a few, though I was within their curtilage. My first conscious memory of listening was sitting next to father, drawing on the bulletin, periodically checking his watch and second hand for their terminus. I remember the interruption of one sermon where the pastor had to address his young and misbehaving son from the pulpit. When we have traveled on vacations as a family, we generally have gone to church where we are, as I always said why would we take a vacation from church? If our regular church is a hospital for sinners, our vacation churches are like urgent cares, and we need them on vacations as much or even more than we do at home, as entitlement and self-interest can take hold when the long-awaited vacation comes. Sometimes we are sicker (we sin more). We are always in need of treatment. It consists of diagnosis (sin) and prognosis (grace). There is physical exercise of a sort: we stand, we sit, we stand, we sit. The pastor, who is as sick as the rest of us, only slightly more aware of it, tells stories about the cure, recasting it in as many different ways as is necessary for us to hear, as hearing well is part of the cure. We read scripture, which is like a diagnostic manual. We sing, or we croak, but we open our mouths to receive, which is part of the cure (praise). We have a meal, odd though it be, a pittance to the eye but mystically multiplied like loaves and fishes within (communion). We are pronounced healed and discharged (benediction), and we exit to a world plagued by diseases. We’ll be back. We have to, as we’re sick. Church is one of my favorite places. So when I read someone as thoughtful and in many ways caring as E.B. White write about church as cold and lifeless, it saddens me, and I wonder to what churches he was exposed. In one essay he says “In this house we cling to a few relics of religious observation, but there is no heart in it. If we possess faith (and I guess we do), it is of a secret and unconsecrated sort ill of ease in church.” Hearing that “and I guess we do” makes me think that what he felt was the absence of faith, not its presence, and his visits to church were like excursions in a wax museum hospital, where he saw what was but not what is, what’s left when Christ is absent. On occasion I’ve been to some sorry churches. Terrible music. Sermons lacking any clear prescription. Lifeless singing. Yet always I find Jesus, in the words of Scripture, in the words of hymns, in a stained glass window, or even in silence. There may not be much care to be had, but it is urgent. Continue reading
Posted Nov 15, 2015 at Out Walking