Monday, May 31, 2010

hope takes a helmet

One of the many things my wife does well is preach.

I look forward to Sundays to hear her offering (no, I don’t get a sneak preview, as a rule) because she listens hard to both God and the world around her before she starts talking. And our world (meaning our personal world) has a lot to say these days: I’ve made yet another career adjustment, we are buying and selling houses so we can make room for her parents to come and live with us as her father’s Alzheimer’s worsens (I just can’t bring myself to say, “progresses”), things are hopping at church, and our growing swirl of friendships here in Durham is proving to be sturdy support.

On Pentecost, she quoted Annie Dillard. The words have yet to let loose of me:

On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping God may wake someday and take offense, or the waking God may draw us out to where we can never return. (Teaching a Stone to Talk)
I’ve almost stopped in a couple of pawn shops to see if I could find a crash helmet. I need to be reminded to show up awake and ready to engage the God of prairie dogs and platypuses, of cyclones and shooting stars and, well, sea squirts.

Yeah – you heard me. Sea Squirts.

I had never heard of the strange creatures until Ginger mentioned them yesterday (and then – get this – NPR did a story on them today). Turns out these spineless vertebrates share about eighty percent of our genetic map, so they are quickly becoming aides to all kinds of research, not the least of which is Alzheimer’s, which is how Ginger found them as she was reading about what scientists are learning about what is happening to her father. And she was talking about him in the context of Romans 5, and these verses specifically:
Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.
When I was in high school, I had a job as an office boy for a doctor’s clinic. Every afternoon I would drive about fifteen minutes from Westbury High School in Houston to the Clinic of the Southwest and spend a couple of hours doing whatever odd jobs they had for me to do. My ride was timed most everyday to hear Paul Harvey (it was the day of AM radio, after all) and “The Rest of the Story.” Each afternoon, he would unfold the story of someone’s life, usually reaching a point of extreme adversity, tragedy, or failure and then tell us to wait until after the break for (dramatic pause) the rest of the story, which was one of endurance, character, and hope.

The hope, it seemed, never came without the heartache.

I learned from Ginger that the term “Ordinary Time,” which describes the weeks from Pentecost until Advent, is a new term, liturgically speaking and doesn’t mean ordinary as in plain or uneventful, but ordinary as in without special emphasis: rather than looking at one aspect of Jesus’ life, we are looking at the big picture. We have moved from birth to death to resurrection to the birth of the church, now let’s move on to how the story plays in the middle of our polarized culture, in the wake of oil spills, in the continuing fog of war, in our desperate need for crash helmets and sea squirts.

I have to admit the introduction of the sea squirts sent my mind wandering, but only to make a connection to another Annie Dillard story, this time from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek:
Along with intricacy, thee is another aspect of the creation that has impressed me in the course of my wanderings. Look again at the horsehair worm, a yard long and thin as a thread, whipping through the duck pond, or tangled with others of its kind in a slithering Gordian knot. Look at an overwintering ball of buzzing bees, or a turtle under ice breathing through its pumping cloaca. Look at the fruit of the Osage orange tree, big as a grapefruit, green, convoluted as any human brain. Or look at a rotifer’s translucent gut: something orange and powerful is surging up and down like a piston, and something small and round is spinning in place like a flywheel. Look, in short, at practically anything – the coot’s feet, the mantis’s face, a banana, the human ear – and see that not only did the creator create everything, but that he is apt to create anything. He’ll stop at nothing
Utility to the creature is evolution’s only aesthetic consideration. Form fellows function in the created world, so far as I know, and the creature that functions, however bizarre, survives to perpetuate its form. Of the intricacy of form, I know some answers and not others: I know why the barbules on a feather hook together and why the Henle’s loop loops, but not why the elm tree’s leaves zigzag, or why butterfly scales and pollen are shaped just so. But of the variety of form itself, of the multiplicity of forms, I know nothing. Except that, apparently anything goes. This holds for forms of behavior as well as design – the mantis munching her mate, the frog wintering in mud, the spider wrapping a hummingbird, the pine processionary straddling a thread. Welcome aboard. A generous spirit signs on this motley crew.
The point of the dragonfly’s terrible lip, the giant water bug, birdsong, or the beautiful dazzle and flash of sun-lighted minnows, is not that it all fits together like clockwork – for it doesn’t, particularly not even inside the goldfish bowl – but that it all flows so freely wild, like the creek, that it all surges in such a free, fringed tangle. Freedom is the world’s water and weather, the world’s nourishment freely given, it’s soil and sap: and the creator loves pizzazz.
What do I make of all this texture? What does it mean about the kind of world in which I have been set down? The texture of the world, its filigree and scrollwork, means that there is the possibility for beauty here, a beauty in which answers in me a call I do not remember calling and which trains me to the wild and extravagant nature of the spirit I seek.
In these days where I am once again sharing time and space with teenagers, I see that one thing that still gets traction among adolescents is that cynicism is somehow cool. Let me just say, “No.” Hell, No. Cynicism is cheap and lazy – an escape hatch from both life and learning. If patience leads to endurance and then on to hope, cynicism leads to, well, not much of anything except more cynicism. It’s an existential cul de sac.

And, I must say from personal experience, a seductive one. I have to own up to my own slide into cynicism when I watch the lack of imagination with which most of our governmental leaders appear to approach their jobs. But I am made for more than taking cheap shots at easy targets. I am called to do more than add my voice to the polarizing cacophony of our culture. I am meant for more than pointing out what is wrong, or allowing myself to feel superior. I was breathed into being by the One who dreamed up horsehair worms and sea squirts, who thinks I come in a little lower than the angels and right alongside the Schnauzers, who expects me to live with all the joy and pain that I might endure what it takes to be created in the image of an untamed God.

Hope, my friends, takes a helmet.


Saturday, May 22, 2010

getting ready

One of the classes I’m teaching this quarter is a Creative Writing elective. Hardly a day goes by that one of the students declares he or she is unable to write anything because of “writer’s block.” My response is generally one of amusement, since they appear to have plenty of ideas to talk about. And I also look at my writing for the last couple of months and find I have not put many words on the page. It is May 22nd and I have made four entries for the entire month.

I’m an not without ideas and have ample time, I suppose. I am also reading more these days and giving a good deal of energy to all that is involved with moving Ginger’s parents here to Durham to live with us. Yet the words don’t feel ripe, somehow.

Somewhere along the way, in a book on writing, I remember the author quashing the idea of writer’s block, or at least the inclination to feel guilty because the words weren’t making it to the page. A writer, the author continued, is either writing or getting ready to write; both take time and energy. I continue to turn those words over in my mind. These are days of preparation for, attending to, and listening.

I’m getting ready.


Sunday, May 16, 2010


Language was opening me up in ways I couldn’t explain and I assumed it was part of the apprenticeship of a poet. (Jimmy Santiago Baca, A Place to Stand)

c.1300, from O.Fr. aprentiz "someone learning" (13c.), from aprendre (Mod.Fr. apprendre ) "to learn, teach," contracted from L. apprehendere (see apprehend). Aphetic form prentice was long more usual in English. The verb is first attested 1630s. (


I learned how to be a cook by watching
and listening to those whose hands
were already calloused before
I ever picked up a kitchen knife.
Now I have calluses of my own.
I learned how to be a poet by reading
and listening to those whose hearts
were already broken open before
I ever chased down a metaphor.
Now I have a hunger for words.
I’m three weeks away from my last shift in
the kitchen and the calluses
are already fading, peeling off, though
I am still making dinner at home.
Cooking is in my blood.
I’m five days away from my last writing,
though my heart has been opened
up already, I have fallen private,
forgetting to write out loud for friends
who gather like dinner guests.
I teach for a living, though my calling
is to learn, to apprentice,
to soak up smells and sounds, words and wonders,
to come to table and tablet that
I might taste and see what is good.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

book review: god is not one

When it comes to faith, I started early.

I was five years old when I walked down the aisle at Westbury Baptist Church in Houston, Texas and gave my heart to Jesus. I was the oldest son and namesake of a Southern Baptist preacher, the son of two parents who sang me to sleep with hymns I still sing, and what I understood was Jesus loved me and the best thing I could do was love him back. So, as I have often joked, I turned from my life of sin and sex and drugs and gave my life to God.

I was about fourteen or fifteen when I began to come to terms with my faith in a more significant way, but even then it was pretty much me and Jesus. I didn’t go on a quest to search out the religious options available to me; I opened my heart to the God I knew. I have stayed a Christian and have bet my life on the reality of the Incarnation and the Resurrection, and I have to understand that one of the significant reasons I am a Christian is I was born into a family that taught me what questions to ask and where to look for both answers and more questions.

I realize I am a couple of paragraphs into my book review without mentioning Stephen Prothero’s new work, God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World--and Why Their Differences Matter, but the book took me back to my childhood and how I came to faith because it challenged me to read through his descriptions of the “great religions” of the world with a different ear. (I have to jump to his conclusion for the quote.)

[T]here is a secular way to talk about religion. This . . . way does not assume that religion in general, or any religion in particular, is either true or false, because to make such an assumption is to be talking about religion religiously. It aims instead simply to observe and report, as objectively as possible, on this thing human beings do, for good or for ill (or both). (336)
I know. He said we should have a secular conversation about religion. He’s right. As I read through the chapters about the religions other than my own (Islam, Confucianism, Hinduism, Yoruba, Buddhism, Judaism, and Daoism), I began to see where our sound byte world has left me with a postage stamp view of a panoramic landscape, no matter which religion was being explained. As I read the chapter on Christianity, I realized a religion cannot be fully described, even in a very well written chapter. And he writes well because he writes with a keen secular eye, full of compassion and interest without choosing sides or seeking an agenda beyond the invitation for conversation.

What I learned, again, is the way to be a good conversationalist is to listen first.

He offers one phrase tag lines for each of the religions discusses and a formula for how he breaks them down (problem, solution, technique, exemplar) for the purpose of comparison, but the point is not to end up with a simplistic understanding; he’s making a case for understanding the religions of the world are not merely rephrasings of the same truth, as our emphasis on tolerance or inclusion often leads us to think. We will not learn how to talk to each other by finding ways to feel alike, or watering down what matters so our colors blend.
I hope for a world in which human beings can get along with their religious rivals. I am convinced, however, that we need to pursue this goal through new means. Rather than beginning with the sort of Godthink that lumps all religions together in one trash can or treasure chest, we must start with a clear-eyed understanding of the fundamental differences in both belief and practice between Islam and Christianity, Confucianism and Hinduism.
Some people are sure that the only foundation on which inter-religious civility can be constructed is the dogma that all religions are one. I am not one of them. Every day across the world, human beings coexist peacefully and even joyfully with family members who are very different from themselves. (335)
I read those words today, after returning from a family gathering for my youngest nephew’s graduation from Wheaton College. Trust me: he’s on to something.


P. S. -- This review is part of a virtual book tour.

Monday, May 10, 2010

ties that bind

I’m writing this morning from a hotel in Napier, Illinois, which borders Wheaton, Illinois, home of Wheaton College, which, for the last four years, has been home for my nephew, Scott, who graduated yesterday. As much of the family as could get here gathered to celebrate him and his achievement, as well as making time for Mother’s Day and closing it all out with Ginger’s birthday celebration at Portillo’s, a Chicago favorite (or so we were told).

Scott is one of the good guys. No -- one of the great guys. He has a strong mind, a huge heart, a free spirit, a great voice, and he plays a mean guitar. Saturday night we got to hear his bluegrass band, The Creepers, play their final concert together. The band was born out of their friendships. When they arrived on campus four years ago, a bunch of guys on the same hall started jamming together on Saturday mornings and from there they grew into a band that has been, arguably, the biggest draw on the Wheaton campus. The families of the guys gathered at the house of the sister of the fiancée of one of them and listened and laughed with them for a couple of hours as they sang their way back through their memories into the present tense and the tangible bonds of love that we could see connecting them as they serenaded us.

I couldn’t help but think of Pierce Pettis’ wonderful lyric to “You’re Gonna Need This Memory”:

if all we got for all our trouble
is just this box of souvenirs
still it's worth a lot just to remember
just so we know that we were here
We were altar builders, conspirators of indelible hope, singing and clapping and laughing and loving our way into a memory that marked us all. We did not leave the same as we had come because the guys dared to friend each other (if I can borrow a Facebook verb) with such reckless abandon. They spent four years singing and playing and caring about each other without plans to hit the road or record a hit; they have been friends for the sake of being friends, singing their own soundtrack, and are now striking out in different directions, yet still tethered by the bonds of love.

I’ve only got a couple of paragraphs before I have to pack and start working our way back to Durham and the ties that bind us there, but I’ve spent the morning in memories of my own, grateful for friends from dorm rooms long ago, with whom I gathered for jam sessions of our own (even singing some of the same songs) – grateful that I can say to Scott with some certainty that love of friends and family travels well, reaches far, and reminds us who we are.


Tuesday, May 04, 2010

tin soldiers

As I remember we sang a lot
about tin soldiers even as
our friends and brothers
drew lots to see who would
wade through rice paddies
and not come home
or come home dead inside

I was thirteen the spring
of the Kent State shootings
tin soldiers and Nixon coming
go ahead and hate your neighbor
the image of the girl
with her arms wide open
sticks in my mind
as though I saw her myself

Forty years on I’m not sure
any of us healed or remembered
well but finally on our own
one bloody morning after
another, still looking for
peace but not hard enough
one tin soldier still rides away