Marriage and the Multi-Ethnic Church

A coalminer’s daughter and a German-immigrants grandson; he became a pastor and she the pianist. Difficult ministries and challenging relationships. Six children and 20 years in the south; I am but one. Enter: a high school graduate who never attended college, to the dismay of his highly educated and high society parents, married to the grand-daughter of a share-cropper from the woods of Georgia. Religion played a minor role at best, often none at all. They had four children; my wife is the oldest.

I grew up thinking people like me were middle class and people like here were upper class: the rich. She grew up thinking people like her were middle class and people like me were lower class: the poor. I grew up in rural Mississippi, she in the sprawling urbanity of metro-Atlanta. I spent my weekends tramping lonely through untroubled woods; she, with friends, at movies, cruising.

What happens when two cultures meet? There are only three options: Either one is destroyed and the other remains, or vice versa; or else the two become one and produce an offspring that is neither one nor the other but is a marrying of both, a retention of core values, key ideals, and dreams that fold into each other to produce something never before envisioned. We call this marriage.

I still struggle with my father’s anger, and she with her mother’s criticism. I withdraw when hurt; she advances. I am an introvert, while she is extroverted. But her love for family, for the connectivity of generations is a love that runs deeply in me, despite never having lived close to extended family. She has learned to value a spiritual heritage and I financial wisdom. I’ve learned to enjoy the delicacies of a nice dinner out, and she the experience of larger-than-life movies.

I guess I don’t understand the failure of multi-ethnic churches. How often have we heard of such organizations splitting in divorce: Over music, over heart-felt expressions of charisma; over preaching styles; over what Christmas decorations are used; over who leads Sunday School; over how to dress; over what are appropriate programs to spend money on? Every one of these individual issues has ten to twenty others attached to it—along with voice and unvoiced expectations; yet, each also has parallels in marriage where also two cultures collide.

I’ve never heard of such a church being referred to as a marriage. Partnerships, yes. Cooperative agreements, sure. Mutually beneficial endeavors, sometimes. But not marriage. And yet where else can we expect to find the tools necessary for seeing two cultures become one without losing the identity of either but in marriage? In marriage, it is called one flesh. “It isn’t instantaneous,” marriage counselors say. “It takes hard work. Sometimes you will want to quit. You can’t. You can cry, you can get angry, you can yell and scream. But you can’t quit. That’s what marriage is.” Culture issue after cultural issue threatens the marriage: how to spend money, where to spend the holidays, how to raise children, whether “yes Ma’am” is something the children will say or not, where to live, what kind of work to have, who works inside and who works outside the home, childcare, cars, interior design. But it’s marriage and we’re Christians so we fight it out, sometimes peacefully and laughing, sometimes with broken hearts and tears, always with love, with repentance, with hope, with anticipation of glory.

Why not in the church? What does one flesh look like in the church? What does it mean for two cultures to be willing “to leave father and mother and cling” to one another, bound by a common Savior? What does it mean for me to be uncomfortable with the way a brother worships? What does that look like in marriage? What does it mean for me to give way to an element that is not to my “liking” but in no way unbiblical, not sin? What does it mean for me to have my bedroom organized in a way that isn’t to my preference?

What color will the carpet be, the paint on the walls, the shutters on the front, or the person sitting in the pew beside us? None of these questions can be answered outside of the covenant of marriage, and a willingness to let discomfort displace preferences for unity and purity.


Self-Beauty: In the Eye of the Beheld

I love watching a less than “gorgeous” man and woman who is wrapped in tender affection for his or her spouse. These individuals are mirrors of a deep love. They are free of their own compulsion to be attractive and beautiful—free even of their own preoccupation of attractiveness (as some form of ideal, owned or observed)—and are content with a beauty withheld in the eye of the beholden.

By contrast, individuals of compelling beauty and physical appearance somehow never seem free of thoughts for their own appearance. Such are constantly about the smoothing of a shirt or dress, the twisting of a hair, the batting of eyes, the waggle of hips, the raised chin, the cut gaze, or some other action of ornamentation. That awareness seems to seek the eyes of the beholder for a chance to glimpse the insignificant reflection of self in the glaze of longing eyes.

Such love is questionable, deliberating whether to draw attention to self or not. Can it be that beautiful people are self-fulfilling in their beauty by the ornate-ness of their appearance and compelling distraction of their actions? But plainer people—and I do not mean ugly or homely, but those of a softer beauty than Hollywood has ever known—theirs is a freer affection.

Note how insanity in plainer people bends a doubting affection that loves in order to be loved. Pride in the beautiful produce a corrupted affection that loves as an expression of self-love. Given the opportunity, I would watch simpler people a hundred times in repetition, rather than set my eyes upon the most beholden this image-frenzied culture has ever put forward. For when "the bride eyes not her garment, but her dear bridegroom’s face,” (and vice versa) something transpires that exceeds pornographic candy and heart-borne emotional platitudes. It is a beauty never seen on the cover of any magazine.


Indian Winter and a Season of Death

Indian Winter. That is what I call this strange in betwenness that is neither Winter nor Fall. A grey sky hangs over yards of brown grass. Even the evergreens seem tired, worn out from the waiting. Friday—my birthday—we went to two separate nursing homes to visit shut-ins. The smell of death was in those places. Men and women robbed of nearly all dignity sat or lay in inhuman postures or positions. One woman was so curved as to seem not to have a spine. Her face drooped, her hands gnarled and twisted. And it strikes me that such places have become the modern catacombs—more even than a graveyard: for in a graveyard, the bodies have given up their last breath and, whether Heaven or Hell have received them, God only knows—their bodies return to dust, for from dust they have come and to dust they have returned.

But what of these catacombs of the living, these half-way houses for bodies that have not been allowed to rest, to die with dignity? I watched part of a PBS special on becoming old and dying (link here). Again and again, I read the ignorance on the faces of young men and women who knew nothing of the subject. The act of dying has became a private matter; and once so, it was shuttered off to the catacombs. We lost that knowledge—knowledge of the markings of life’s end, of what the body does when it can go no further, when light falls and night comes. In the matter of death, we are like savages attempting the manipulation of machinery of which we know nothing: Push this button. Pull that lever. Yes, give another surgery, another injection, one more machine for breath and food until life becomes the result of manipulation of electronics. We actually medicate to the point that the body can no longer naturally end its own continuance and long after the heart, lungs, limbs and inner workings of the body have died once, life remains—twisted and distorted by the interventions of ignorance.

Mistake me not! I despise that expression of medicine called Euthanasia—for it is God who gives life, and surely it is God who takes it away. But what of the woman who, one-hundred years ago would have died already, sustained by unnatural means and “is more machine now than man.” Or Mr. Tipton, for whom the only break in the rolling hours of boredom is the opportunity to sleep, and “to sleep perchance to dream,” and in dreams to walk once more a youth unhindered by decay and age. But even this is taken away by troublesome nurses—for in his daytime sleeping he is more prone to pneumonia—till every joy is denied for fear it may induce the body’s decay all the more quickly.

Our ignorance of death is corrupted the more because of our general uncertainty of the afterlife. If—as the movie The Fountain purports—life is but a cycle to be unbroken in life, death, and rebirth; where is hope? So a tree grows from the decaying flesh of a buried human and from that tree, fruit, that feeds hungry children who grow, age, marry, give birth, grow old, and die; to be put in the ground again to fertilize the harvests of men till we have all become cannibals of some generation past. And if—as Rand purports in her Objectivism—when life becomes the measure of motion between the terminui of production (as the main derivative of purpose) and consumption (as the natural terminus of production); what happens when neither production nor the possibility of it remains? Where is hope? Where then is the meaning of life?

Take every joy, you sustainers of life, and let the fear of death drive your continuance. Forego life’s every sweet and blessed delight—pure intimacy baked in the constancy of fidelity; sweet moderation of indulgent tastes and culinary delicacies; sunsets and the clouds of vicious storms; rainbows and the devastation of floods; a freshly mown lawn, a loaf of warm bread, a cup of coffee, and these graying days—and you may live another week or month, a prepaid year at the end of life. But at what cost? Tommy forwent a walk in the snow with Lizzie today in hopes that tomorrow he might save her from cancer; there may be a fountain, or Tree, of life. But wisdom is not born of long life, else every old man and woman should be wise. And how do we sacrifice the beauty of the present in vain preservation of a memory that will be faded tomorrow?

Let man examine his end and consider the journey. For tis better to come to the end of life with recognition of lacking than with the presumption of wholeness; for if whole, heaven has nothing more to offer and hell may be thy home. But if lacking, then whether days be long or short, and whether the hours of life passes like a cheerful hour or whether a stormy night, we long for what this life cannot, will not, should not promise. Eternal life awaits, but not in a tree or production, but in a dignity of a Lord who calls out, “Come all who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give thee rest.”


Reflections on Atlas Shrgged: 1

Ayn Rynd wrote, “A sacrifice is the surrender of a value. Full sacrifice is full surrender of all values..” Rightly so, if one’s sacrifice is the Objectivism of her ordination. Consider, for Rynd—having witnessed the dehumanizing horrors of Communism and the vanity of the Social Gospel both of the early 20th Century—production and preservation became central values. Sacrifice then would require giving up either production or preservation.

And yet, now we stand—as it is some 100 years later—and find a culture that has embraced her godlessness (atheism), rejected the “mystics of the spirit” and rejected the proposition of a God beyond full comprehension. Production has become our beginning terminus, and so Rynd should be delighted? But consider the final terminus of a road begun of production. When one’s purpose is to produce, satisfaction is not derived until that same also engages in consumption. And where production tests the fortitude of man—his willingness to engage in unending hours of mindless labor for a paycheck or privilege—consumption frees him, if only for a moment. And so, like the alcoholic who at first sustains his job in order to “live for the weekend,” eventually not even the weekend satiates, when a stronger anesthetization is required. In time, he will forgo the frequency of the drink in order to relinquish the unpromising production, the unfulfilling labor, the work without purpose—without explanation to the why’s of life, to the in-and-out intricacies of human dignity.

Rynd missed it: Production is no more the beginning terminus of man’s purpose and meaning than consumption is the ending terminus. Rather, when man’s terminus are singular—resulting from a closed loop system rather than one which is linear—he finds meaning, purpose—yes, even joy!—throughout the various phases, including production and consumption, but never limited to.

Consider: I rise early to make a meal for a hungry family. Since production and preservation are but elements within the closed system, no core values are sacrificed in order to provide care. I derive joy from the act of service—a willful sacrifice of material possessions in an act which dignifies the life of another. We visit shut-ins on their birthday. These, of all humans, are the worst in a system of pure Objectivism. These humans produce nothing, and consume all. These corpses of life contribute nothing to the “produce-consume” model. Shall we kill them? Shall we forsake the lifelessness of the aged because they take what they can not repay?

It is our science that has sustained them beyond the function of their bodies? It is our science that has promised them this decade of disingenuous life. We have sustained them and then shuttled them off to the peripheries of life.
Where their experience could serve a map for our progress, we reject them. Where their errors could serve a warning in our own trials, we ignore them. Where they built upon the foundations of those before in order to offer us a chance to build, we ignore their efforts or, worse still, despise them.

But consider: when value is inherent—in people as in gold—purpose derives not from ability or appearance. Sacrifice reinforces core values rather than undermines them. Just as a piece of gold is of value whether in rough form or finished, so a human—whether strong in the wind of youth, or tempered as in the maturity of mid-life, or even gnarled and twisted as in the final days—is worthy of value, of consideration, of respect, of tender compassion—yes, even of sacrifice, that in what we give up we make room to hold all the more firmly that which is of greatest value; not merely as in the life to come, but here and now, in the very present. Through sacrifice, then, we raise up the banner of value that supersedes ability while never, negating it.


Fall, and the Process of Life & Learning

Yesterday, for almost no apparent reasons, I found myself on the verge of tears. It were as though some invisible shadow passed over my scope—and whether because of falling leaves mingled with uncharacteristically warm weather, or because another year folds over into an almanac of remembrances…I don’t know. But a sorrow resides at the heart of this lethargic Fall.

I am busy about the business of course evaluation critique for Institutional Assessment—a task as exciting as the lifeless description above. Not that I object to evaluative measures of effectiveness, but the paradigm of knowledge and transformation seem as much the inconclusive terminus of the current production-consumption model. Both exclude process. Consider: knowledge gained transforms, but it also reveals unknown ignorance which drives the pursuit of knowledge in exploration of further transformation. Learning has a beginning terminus, but it is the line of unbroken directionality: it never ends. Nor does the tree begin or end at the seed or the carcass of rotting wood, nor does one season mark the beginning and another the end, for each rolls into the other, transforming the face of earth and sky with the distinct strokes of color, hue, and shade.

Where once my recollections played back like a train of linear direction, now I find the seasons are self-contained transfer stations for remembrance. And so—watching Jonah descend the steps of his elementary school this morning—I saw myself at six, entering past the large curved exterior of Waynesboro Elementary School, over wooden floors in a hall that rose impossibly high for a first-grader. There—past offices and the special rooms of teacher conferences, past where a side hallway led toward the lunchroom—I turn to enter the door of Mrs. Porter’s room. In the framed outline of the doorway, I see her sitting behind her desk. Shane and Cain are already there. Turning back, I see the length of the hallway stretch toward the wide open space of outside and the shadow of my own father watching me, small, grow even smaller with perspective. And I am him and he is me and I believe he must be thinking about his childhood and entering the classrooms of his youth under the watchful eye of his father in a never ending repetition of father and son till at the dawn of time Adam stood in the morning sun and watched Able play among his tendered sheep.

God, these colors of Fall are a haunting shade of florescent orange and they call me out and in, down to the earthy places and up to the span of heaven. And where the brokenness of life breaks in—KS and her struggle with a brain tumor; and AB longing for you know what; a child bound by a self-imposed perfection that makes her sick; and a church looking for a pastor—I look for light in the darkness. Meanwhile, leaves fall in the stirring breeze, and if I venture to catch one, I will gain a wish (or so I pretend): a wish that freezes time and turns it back in a forward progression of growth and life apart from death and decay. A wish that makes me child and son while remaining man and father. A wish that lets the pages of the almanac live again.

This longing waits. I hold back tears. I fight them back.


Leaves and Pebbles (not Leaps and Bounds)

I’ve spent nearly two hours now signing my name to card after card in careful repetition. Careful repetition: the very phrase rings like an oxymoron to modern productivity and consumption. Yet I find a part of myself revealed in the manner by which the pen slides across the paper—a swirl, a twist, and the sound of metal against parchment. Like a Pointillist, these dots of thought, action, and process fill up the canvas of my life, revealing a picture that only time will tell. Wherein did I begin to believe that greatness is that singular action which, mindful as I must be, I will see, seize upon, and make a name for myself? Is it greater greatness to sway the masses with a face of promise and words of honesty, or to sit beside the bed of a dying man, no longer able to rise, nor even to sit—humbled by the mercilessness of aging? Is it greater greatness to forgive the a murder than forgive the careless drivers who, ten times a day, unapologetically cut me off?

These insignificancies are like the leaves of a tree: the autumn-yellowed maple is a thing of beauty, and yet it is little more than the collective summation of one insignificant leave upon another. Or those tiny stones which make up a binding presence of concrete: one, by itself, wounds the heel and troubles the foot. But together, mixed with the fine powders of lime and mortar, these stones are an unbreakable force—as I found, pouring the footer for a new mail box post on Monday night. A cold drizzle of rain had fallen since early in the afternoon. The sun was gone and a haze of mist and fog left the air heavy. I easily dug in the soft soil: 18 inches deep. I easily mixed the Quickcrete with water, turning it with repetitive motions in a white bucket. Poured out, it sloshed into the hole, gurgling here and there where it seeped between the reinforcing supports, or where a pocket of air gave way to the weight of dust, gravel, and water mixed. Flattened, covered, I let it sit—setting to the task of cleaning my tools, an act of repetition: fill the bucket and swish is around; empty and repeat. Spray off the shovel, then rub with gloved hand at resistant cement; repeat.

A few tiny pebbles poured out of the bottom of the bucket as I cleaned it: insignificant, disregarded, petty, worthless. And yet, was that not what I paid for: insignificant pebbles well mixed with insignificant dusts and sands—when mixed become a support that only a great effort will undo? So I am forced to acknowledge anew: there is meaning in the insignificant.

And so I drive home the same repetitious path each way; the journey is different. I rake the discarded leaves from my yard with the same repetition of movement; but the process is new. I inscribe my name with ink across card after card to the sound of paper fibers tearing; but I am revealed anew, a Pointillist, a tree; a leaf, a stone.

Will wrote, “Be not afraid of greatness; some are born great, some achieve greatness, and others have greatness thrust upon them.” Each of these people attain to greatness by leaps and bounds—the suddenness of a decision, a flash of heroism, a moment of unparalleled restraint. With due respect, I add that for many others, greatness is less a fact of “leaps and bounds” and more a summation of the insignificant moments of faithfulness, constancy, and commitment. Such men and women as these build greatness by pebbles and leaves. Pebbles and leaves are the makings of the tree’s beauty and the concrete’s strength. Strength and beauty, pebbles and leaves. Greatness is born of meaning mined from details too often overlooked.


October Reflections

How is it that I have change so? This morning I sat to write notes of praise and encouragement to the young students of my Sunday school class. And yet, with every written word, my mind stole off to some secret distraction: unanswered email, unfinished house projects, unchanged oil, a video game. I found that I nearly despised the very process as though there were no meaning or value in such actions, dismissing them as twaddle.

I find, and not for the first time, that the stray twig once tolerated has grown and now threatens the health of the tree. Once tertiary limbs now draw resources from the trunk. I am a tree in danger of branching at all the wrong places.

Too long the wandering feet of worldly distractions have tramped the garden of my mind. I set anew to the task of fencing, as Robert Frost’s neighbor and cry with him, “Something there is that doesn’t love a fence.”

I live as though activity proves viability, and volume quality. “When what I most enjoy, contented least…” I pray for intimacy with God and He drives me to His Word. I seek Him in the pages and find instead the blood-stains of my growing need. I hurry and move about; I multitask, all the while forgetting that He is as much about the journey as the process, and more about the roots than the limbs; more about the notes of encouragement to children, when I have embraced the lie that more is more. “Less is more,” Dane Ortlund recently reminded me. “Less is more,” he said, summarizing the message of 2 Corinthians. Less is more.

And so I walk along the ancient fence and seek to patch the places made open to the ways of culture: consumption, complacency, capitalization. The blood-stains reveal a double wound: my unworthiness and His sacrifice. That which I write to five-year-olds comes home, through my own hand to my own heart, “In Christ we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our sins, according to the riches of his grace.” Theirs no more than mine.

If salvation were simple cognition, then I am reborn everyday, a child, a sapling. Let winter run its course: I will prune this tree.


Silence…without End.

When I’ve asked—in the five years following 9/11—what is most remembered about that day, many people describe noise.: explosions and collapse, chaos, sirens, and cries for help (for those at ground zero); hours of unedited news coverage (for the rest of us), editorial commentaries, government reports, theories and conspiracy-theories, songs, documentaries, TV specials, and now movies.

Yet, some people like me barely hear the noise. We are those troubled by the silence.

There were the silent scenes of explosion and fire as the planes crashed one after another into the towers (and the Pentagon): silently smoke billowed from the 110 story buildings; silently—as we watched the news reports—the first tower crumbled followed by the second: silent, in that the cameras were too far away.

There were the silent, blank gazes of the men and women that emerged from the wreckage—scarred by images of living-death. On the front page of newspapers, there were the frozen pictures of falling bodies screaming silent screams as people chose to jump rather than stay inside and face the inexplicable, unimaginable alternative.

There were the silence concerns beneath newscasters’ comments, amidst the myriad of voiced reports—the silence of unanswered questions: How did this happen? Why did it happen? What could we have done? What can we do now? How do we prevent it next time? Will there be a next time? Will it ever happen again? Will it…O God…when?

Even Wall Street was silent. Wall Street—the icon of security for capitalistic consumers: silent.

There were the silent skies in the days that followed. All planes were grounded and—for those living near an airport—that silence proved deafening.

And there was the silence of empty space once filled with tower—and with tower, business; work and conversation; relationships and people: life. There was the silence of fear (we all felt it) and the silence of nauseating horror. Americans have subjected ourselves to so many movies of horrific Armageddon just to make us scream. But this time, reality snuffed out so many cries as we sat or stood or fell numbly into states of shock, disbelief, uncertainty, and depression: silent.

The unending noise continues on: one politician blaming another for this catastrophe and that debacle; blogspheres rampant with hypothesis; conspiracy-theorists with their “specu-mentaries” brandished as true; Hollywood’s theatrical renditions; and justifications of excuse as excuse for libel.

Sometimes, I think, the noise comforts us—drowning out the gnawing realities of our emotional intelligence—by filling up the emptiness with something, anything. In some ways, we have become like children drumming loudly against a bedrail so as not to hear the soft creaks of an old home or whispering wind. Preferring that which we can control, the noise has become our blanket and security so that we need not face the whispering doubts of our hearts.

But eventually the noise ends, and in the darkest parts of the waking night the silence returns—that silence which haunts my waking moments and troubles my deepest sleep. That silence which surrounds so many recollections of 9/11 like a wall of jagged steel and glass—a perpetual scar on the landscape of our collective memories. In the silence, we cry. In the silence, we wait. Eventually, noise always ceases, but the silence never dies.


Lived by the Week

Atlanta fades into the early fog of a rainy day—and with it, her buildings, her traffic, and her people, along with every marking of urbanization. A week has ended and another begins, in much the same way that one road finds its conclusion on the first-laid cobblestones of another. I think now, looking back, I did not live this week so much as the week lived me—instructing me in every way common to man.

Well it was that the week ended with rain—falling lightly upon the old quarry-lake, whispering in the trees which were once part of one great unending wood, though now they are sparse, thin, and little more than a failed attempt to keep at bay the growing metropolis that leaves no place alone. From Nana’s sunroom, I could almost see the city with its malls and shops and hurried people rushing too and fro—that is, till the falling rain met the rising mist to settle in one impenetrable shield of water about the trees, lake, and house. I took up a guitar and picked out a lonely sound. And so, together—those gentle strings and whispering streams—soothed this city-worn soul.

GA can be best described by the two conversations which ended it. Dr. BM, late of Cleveland, met me as I roamed the hallways early Friday morning. Questioning my choice of literature—namely, the Agrarian Essays of Wendell Berry—we embarked upon a conversation more akin to a lecture of faculty to student than of friend to friend. He interrupted my every remark. I never did make my one and only point—that broken as we are, even the most desperate among us longs for relationship. “You must listen to me,” he began again and again, going on and on about postmodernity being little more than modernity gone to seed. Mercy opens doors for evangelism, I suggested. “The two are utterly distinct and must not ever be confused,” he insistently countered, “for it leads to the errors of the last generation.”

Interrupted by time, I left, almost convinced of his argumentation…until I met with BS who shared of the spiritual shortcomings of the church, as it has ministered ineffectively with the brokenness of his own life. He has long grieved, and grown frustrated. I listened intently as he poured out situation after situation in which the evangelical church had failed to answer the great human question—How is it that I reconcile the splendor of my divine making with the sacrilege of my brokenness? Like one of those newer books, I found myself the odd-man-out in a three way conversation between Dr. BM and BS.

BS: How it is that the deep riches of the reformed tradition have perpetually left me longing for an expression of heartfelt worship and experience unlike that of so many evangelical churches?

BM: What do you mean, by perpetually longing? You must listen to me: don’t you see…

So it would go, all the while BS hoping beyond hope that his heart would find a resonance of compassion in the words and wisdom of Dr. BM; and the good doctor, going on and on, interrupting this statement and that, demanding a reply but not waiting to get one, and so on, till the exasperated BS shut down and, rightly so, closed himself to further dismissal.

As we drove along Peachtree, I asked, “BS, are you an INFP?” He smiled. “Yes,” he said. The buildings rose around us and eventually fell away as we hid ourselves in La Madeline’s where the smells of fresh bread and coffee stirred our hearts with a fullness of life often lost in the city. I am convinced that we Intuits are the bastard children of the modern age. Called to play by rules that are contrary as sight to a blind man, we stand as outsiders to a system devised by Keynesian Economics, Newtonian Physics, and Berkhof-ian Systematic Theology. No wonder Emerson, Thoreau, and Dillard chose places where such “models” could not confine the Intuit’s heart, mind, or will.

How many pastors, alumni, and commissioners at GA I met with, I cannot say: two hundred perhaps? The hours passed indistinguishable from one another for nearly four days, as later the city towers passed in as rapid succession, just as raindrop after raindrop fell upon the quiet waters of the wild places. I only remember the cry of the human soul—as Dr. BM demanded rightness and BS pleaded for mercy. Lord, grant a peace in this I pray. Grant us peace

A sigh. A reprieve from the modernists models. I sit free (among the woods) of the intrusive feelings of others. BM remains convinced he is right. BS remains convinced he is lost. I am a student of the common man, worn by the living of a week that lived me. History like the week rings like a tome, In the beginning… The week began. The sun rose. Clouds broke. A yawn and a stretch. Awake, O sleeper, awake. Lord, let me now awake.


Looking Back in Vain

One week ends. One begins. I run in the late-afternoon heat to the beat of boyhood music—hoping to shed a few pounds along with the burdens of a week gone by. I have taken on the weight of a world’s problems. They haunt me. I wake in the dead of night—too cold or too hot—unable to sleep. My own mind whispers the cries of a thousand prayers to heaven: a spouse for each of the lonely (DJ, AB, SC, KK, DC); a child for each of the barren (MK, JS, RA); rest for the weary (AH, JW, JH); comfort for the grieving (too many to name). All creation groans, but I can hear its cry!

The sound of feet upon the graveled path sounds like the march of troops to war. In the wind, I imagine the sounds of soldier cries as they count out the steps to victory and defeat. In a time of war—when so many go to fight, when so many die, and the rest return to despair—I will not entertain melodrama; and yet, I feel so much a warrior, mortally wounded by the fight, wanting neither recognition nor award nor medal of honor, but only a long yard with a flourishing garden of flowers and fruit stretching into the undiscovered country of Mississippi woods and to the sunset beyond.

Saturday, I cut the grass, and how it passed so quickly. That (grass) which was cut first, which lay the longest hour in the sun had faded brown before the fumes of gasoline had cleared the air of the other end of the yard. And surely I understand now that man is like grass: Like the flower of the field, he flourished. The wind passes over it and it is gone, and it’s place remember it no more.

Friday, thoughts with GA—and my responsibility there—has consumed most of my workweek. If not for details of travel, room assignment, and shipment of supplies, I am constantly dinged by the irregular reminder of some minor detail that I’ve forgotten or, because of busyness, neglected. O, that all of life were not the running of this track, and the passage of the same growth of clover here, the same buried bottle-cap there, or the same coolness that wafts from the undergrowth at the south end where a stream can be heard bubbling somewhere in the shade of sagging trees!

Thursday, I met with others who will join me in Atlanta, and met an unexpected resistance. D___ had tasked them to arrange other meetings and I, left in that wake, to make sure the booth was managed well. In such moments, I see the unveiling of my weakness in leadership, my failure to cast a vision that is embraced by others and taken up with great fervor. I see the conflict of relational differentiation and find nothing within myself to combat (nor to conquer) the fears of failure and rejection (on the one hand) or gentle firmness (on the other).

Relational equity is as its lowest ebb. No time! NoTime! they cry, as though justification is born out of winds of change. The old line rings, there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother, and I sigh with sickness at the longing for such a one as that—who, with unflinching stability, is as much carried away with solidarity and comfort as I. But we are a misunderstood people—the Felling-Intuits among us (INFJ)—fearing what we most desire, foregoing every relationship for the emotional space that can be found on in untroubled woods…

…or along such paths as that upon which I run. There is freedom here, where—in the sound of ear-bud music, the soundtracks of life drums and droll out the rhythm of our steps, like a soldier off to war, like a man in search of a brother-like friend, like an Intuit in pursuit of peace from the emotional invasion of a thousand unprotected feelings.

Creation groans; I sign in reply and only the sound of my feet (kissing gravel) supports the strings of that heart-borne exchange. The grass withers, the sun sets, the week ends, as all wars eventually do, and the old lines from that long-ago song ring in my ears:
"I’m going to live my life
Like every day is the last
Without a simple goodbye
It all goes by so fast

"I’m going to look back in vain
And see you standing there
When all that remains
Is an empty chair

"And now that you’re gone
I can’t cry hard enough…
I can’t cry hard enough,
For you to hear me now."


The Neo-Reader’s Response (or, The Book I’m Waiting to Read)

The Wall Street Journal tells me what I should think about politics and what stocks I should (and should not) buy. Time magazine tells me what to think about the Iraqi conflict and TV Guide tells me what to watch. People Magazine tells me what to wear and how to look, while Credenda Agenda tells me what’s wrong with the world. All of these works are trying to change me, alter my thought process, my desires, my hopes, what I think about after the children fall asleep and I lay in bed, awake in my dis-ease.

As a(n aspiring) writer, I would never subscribe to the reduction of a text to what my response is: how it makes me feel, what I want to do when reading it. But then again, I’m waiting for someone to legitimize that how a text evokes my responsiveness is at least a certain reality: not the ontological expression of word and meaning, but the ontological realities of being changed by a word, transformed, enlightened, inspired, converted. Language is futile if it ends at the point of being spoken or written. Instruction is impotent even when there is no response. Imperative must compel, whether by fear or whether by grace.

Most writing takes for granted the assumption that we will have a response. Sure, there are hermeneutical principles, a cooperative endeavor that a reader must embrace: a willingness to heed, to listen, and to consider. But eventually, he must also respond: to agree, to argue, to dismiss, to muse, to reject, to embrace, to love, to live…differently.

Objectivity is non-existent; at the least, post-modernity has helped us shed that skin of the enlightened version of it. But consider the Gospel: there is the ontological reality of the incarnation, the God-Man who, scripture says, was born, lived perfectly, suffered fully, died, and was raised from the dead to sit at the right hand of God. And then there are the internal implications that this ontological reality has: a life dead to sin, alive with purpose, empowered by a new indwelling nature received by faith. Archibald Alexander speaks of the seal and the wax:

"There are two kinds of religious knowledge which, though they are as intimately connected as cause and effect, may nevertheless be distinguished from one another. These are, firstly, the knowledge of the truth as it is revealed in the Holy Scriptures and, secondly, the impression which that truth makes on the human mind when rightly apprehended. We may compare the first to the inscription or image on a seal and, similarly, compare the other to the impression made by the seal on the wax. When that impression is clearly and distinctly made, we can understand, through our contemplation of it, the true inscription on the seal more satisfactorily than if we tried to discern the inscription directly on the seal itself."

Or, as Rev. Steve Smallman says, “There is a distinction between the Gospel and the Gospel in you: yes, the Gospel is what happened ontologically 2000 years ago, but the Gospel in us is what happens in our lives as we are united to Christ.”

So…I guess I’m waiting. I’m waiting for a book that invites me to bring my muddled emotions to the lines of the page and explore the path set out before me, with the intention that I arrive somewhere in the end—but arrive having been changed by the process itself: that I know myself better. Can it be rightly called a dialogue on self-reflection? Can it be rightly called the legitimacy of the reader’s reaction? Is it really a neo-reader response criticism? I don’t know. I am just stricken daily by how little we know ourselves, and how impacting such ignorance is played out in our knowledge of God, as in the words of Calvin, “Our wisdom, in so far as it ought to be deemed true and solid Wisdom, consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.”

Maybe what I’m looking for is fiction and personal testimony (a.k.a non-fiction) that echoes the Bible by inviting the blessedness and brokenness of creation into the same room to dance: as grace and glory displace grief—and not just ontological grief—but my grief, your grief, and our commonly shared grief. Maybe I’m waiting to read someone write a critical approach that says, “The writer and the reader are opposite termini upon the same line. The one reflects and writes, while the other reads and reacts. At each extreme, one can tell where the onus rests. However, there is no distinct line of demarcation at which point one might declare that beyond such-and-so a point the onus is on the reader and before such-and-so a point it rests upon the writer. It is not a monologue to which the reader merely listens, but ultimately a conversation into which he, with his emotions, thoughts, and experiences, brings a voice that sings either in harmony or dissidence with the words of the writer and so all writing is expression, interpretation, and reaction.”

So, as the two most recent books read have been poor selections, and as I absolutely refuse to begin with a negative post, let me submit to you—the reader—this consideration of a text that I’ve yet to read, but which I think is the validating compromise that the emotional romanticism, the pessimistic realist, and the optimistic rationalists hope to find.


The Soundtracks of Life

I listen to Red Mountain and drive five miles under the speed limit, while the car behind me weaves in and out of view from my side mirror: he would pass were it not that Sunday brought as many police as it did slow drivers. Let him swerve; it is Sunday, and I march to a slower beat than has coursed through me the week over.

Depression swallowed me most of these last few days. I lived in the gullet of that ancient foe, despairing of life. The tribal rhythm that beat in my veins came in contrasting waves of weak-abandonment and anger. Anger is the worst of the two for it leaves me hollow, empty, sad. At least with the abandonment, I wish to sleep. But anger drives and drives one to foolishness, madness till I cry, “I am betrayed. I am betrayed.”

Tuesday night I lay in the semi-dark haze of almost night. Zeke’s foot slowly beat upon the wall of the next room, drumming out the slowest tempo; it rang hollowly throughout the house, only then to echo in my soul. God, I hate the monster that betrays me. I lay, assuredly I did—I lay upon the bed I had decimated in my wrath not twelve hours earlier with a blow of bitter scorn. Splintered shards of cherry wood still clung to the sheets, while I—longing for sleep—felt my life played out in the percussion of my son’s foot.

Meanwhile, giant machines drove up and down the road scraping off the layers of blacktop and cement: three inches deep, two lanes wide, and ten miles long. They grown under the yawning light; I groan, and wish at times that I could be so scraped. That I, like some ancient road, might be ground down to the heart of who I am. Or, better still, that I—like Lewis’ Eustace—dragon-like though I be, might feel the singular claw of the lovely Aslan penetrating past the thick skins of anger, depression, and despair, might render me whole again.

After the bed broke under my anger, the silence broke by Isaac’s frustration. He sat upon my lap and reproved me again and again, while I apologized as many times. He said, repeatedly, “You are a bad daddy.” I almost believed him, while behind his words, another uttered those same lies. But then, like a ray of hope, Jonah’s voice broke in—and with it the host of heaven and the promise of salvation for all those who die at the end of their own means, only to be born again by the wings of Christ—“Isaac, he isn’t a bad daddy. He just has sin.” I am Paul: wicked man that I am, who will free me from this body of death? I am Eustace. I am the scraped road which roughly bears up under the weariness of life’s journeys.

Darkness breaks. A ray of hope. The music changes and I smile at the silliness of driving slowly on a Sunday afternoon. The troubling beats of music have died, giving way to this gentle theme, born of heaven, echoed in the heart of the saved sinner: if ever I loved thee, my Jesus tis now. Sing on, ye ancient tunes: ye are the soundtracks of life.


Commodity of Time

At the intersection of Burgundy and 141, a shoe lies just to one side of the slow lane, along with broken bottles, various parts to various cars, and a sundry of unrecognizable fragments from human life. How these unassociated objects came to fill up one crossroads of culture and time, God only knows: What series of unlikely events caused an orphaned shoe to be abandoned here? What collision of motion and matter caused some vehicle to cast off these fragments of composition? Given a lifetime of replays and backward weeks, I would spend one of them watching the composition of a collage—neither fully art nor truly junk.

But time is not a commodity to play—like penny slots—nor history at the whimsy of any, but recollection. I come to the end of another week, unable to wait until Saturday, anxious to write before I forget. My memory, played back over, grows more and more like that street corner: littered with fragments which tell nothing by themselves but which, part to whole, are the key to some event.

Tired, but motivated to push through the piles that build, at home and at work, I worked the week hard. I drank two Pepsi’s—I have not had one in four years—and wonder why the crisp spritz perpetually reminds me of fall-fairs in otherwise forgotten fields of Mississippi, attended a lifetime ago.

Graduation is this week, and the echoes of my own graduation two years ago rise up with the early winds. A cool breeze stirred up the smell of freshly-cut grass and sickly-sweet smell of mulch. I spotted the faithful mower, Wade, busy about his work even before I could set to my own.

Jonah alone, of the three boys, was awake this morning when I readied myself for work. I sat down next to him in the playroom and he asked, “Will you play war with me?” I agreed and took up Batman against the Blue Power-Ranger. With kerpows and ba-bangs our figures locked in mortal battled against one another. The motions of the toys manipulated in our hands, the sounds that came from our mouths, seemed so comical that we could not help but laugh. And I wondered—in a moment of somber reflection—whether in heaven, all the wars of this life will seem so much play and humor, as glory transforms horror to reveal a sovereign grace where history only remembered hardship.

And yet, for now, the hardship remains. At church, a young woman dies. Diagnosed with some minor issue, a burst aneurism and a stroke later, she comes to the end of one life even as Christ prepares her for the next. What will she remember of the fight and battle? Certainly our sorrows go into heaven with us, for only then can the Savior wipe away every tear. Life is no commodity.

Meanwhile, Humanity embarks upon a technological biology, marrying creature with the created, manipulating this genome and that strand, convincing that bacteria to shit silicone or this virus to eat cancer. The Peter Singers of the world proclaim the end of Down-Syndrome. They hum the victory of science, aborting the would-be Stephen Hawkings of our age and all others who appear the sundry of unrecognizable fragments of human existance. I fear that the eradication of the obviously-broken is a denial of the universal longing that troubles us all; we live forever, but are less human than machine, less the outlets of sympathy that have forever validated the echo of the divine marking our souls.

If I were MacGyver, I might save some helpless woman by building some weapon of pacifism from the byway-ruins of cultural crossroads: a shoe, a bolt, a broken light. If I were Batman, I would be content to contend forever against Blue-Ranger. If I were St. Peter, I might deliver the future-Hawkings from the future-Sangers—declaring the words of Christ, “The blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them.”

Time is no commodity, and the journey of life runs in one direction: forward. Like Grandma said—looking at my boys—during that last visit, before she died, “They don’t grow down, do they. Only up.” By what unlikely events have the seemingly randomness of these thoughts come together to litter the intersection of my memory? Though not art, I do not have it in me to give it up like so much junk.


Amiss in May

By noon on Friday, I could not bear to sit in my office any longer. The weight of what seem a thousand projects pressed upon my shoulders. I could feel the familiar beginnings of depression, agitated by circumstance, busyness, and the reality that none of my projects are anywhere near completion. The sky loomed gray in the west, beyond the peak of the administration building. The temperature dropped to forty-five degrees in the cold rain. Even the Red-Tailed hawk, which often chooses that same peak, was not to be seen. Something was amiss in May.

Driven to the outdoors, I stood looking at the piled pilings of disassembled playground that filled the back half of the driveway. It mocked me, like the Albatross, hung around the neck of the foolish mariner who shot it for whimsy; I would shoot it too. But it would do no good. So I set to my labors, painstakingly painting every side, angle, and beam—new and old—of the task. The wind tore at my bare legs, while my jacket shielded my arms and chest. Five hours of bending, twisting, reaching with the roller first, then the brush, and then the roller again. The wind blew. Hercules, I mumbled, won’t you trade tasks for a season?

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. And then, after the Fall, God said, "By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return." I have eaten of that bitter dust this week, troubled by the nagging doubts of insecurity. How is it that some people must always abide the derision of men? Others, like myself, must abide the secret-telling of arranged meetings and undisclosed topics of conversation, spoken of in my presence in ambiguous language, and with all of the high-school gossip. It is as though some, by their very hinting at secret knowledge or undisclosed matters gain, somehow, for themselves an intrinsic value and importance. Not I. Never I, while the secrets of friends wound more than the curses of enemies.

Wednesday night, I meant to escape off alone. Shannon gave me permission to leave the bedtime routine to her. “Go,” she said, “And have fun.” I meant to see the Sentinel. But the exhaustion which depresses me during daylight hours convinced my body it could do nothing; but sleep. And sleep I did, for some twelve plus hours. Morning broke: disappointment. Why can’t I delight in the rest from my labors, and why does sleep renew the body but not the spirit? More questions to ponder, in this backwards week.

Tuesday: MLB and a 5:30 wakeup. Monday nearly wasted completely, distracted as I’ve been by the silliness of stocks. MMM is up. NFLX is down. CRDN is down then up and down and…I begin to wonder whether I should sell the one to buy the other and the possibilities of thirty cents here and twenty cents there compounded by the difference in share price of 40% is confiscation for the mind. Do I think that I can conquer the great hoard, that through the amassing of wealth, I should have power and with power, recognition and with recognition, command that…that…no more secrets be told by friends in the presence of friends? Would I also command that the Red-Tailed hawk always observe from the same perch?

Perhaps I do better to turn off the computer and walk away. Perhaps, like that dear bird, I need only a new perspective. Let the Spring bring what it may, whatever be amiss. Let stocks fall while hawks rise; there is no secret knowledge. Hercules is silent; he will answer my challenge, and so I eat by the sweat of my face, till I return to the ground.