Thursday, June 8, 2017

When We Become Ourselves

I just finished Neil Gaiman’s “The Ocean and the End of the Lane” for the second time.  And I am left wishing that I could un-remember it as the protagonist does in the story.  This is just about as high-praise as I can give.  I want to forget the whole thing so that I can live through it anew once more.  I want to walk down the lane and through the fields of memory and hold Lettie Hempstock’s hand again.  I want to encounter the loathsome and sensuous Ursula Monkton again and see her meet her match.  I want to see goodness and light.  I want that all again for the first time. 

Both times I visited this world, it was through the audio-book version.  Gaiman’s measured and melodic cadence of voice smoothly unshackles ones imagination.  If he tells me that there are two moons in the sky – well, then, haven’t there always been?  I’ve listened to a lot of books during my work commute and I know how a reader can make or break a text.  He is completely comfortable in portraying a range of characters and masterfully handles dialect and accents.  So right out of the gate, this is something special. 

The writing is sublime.  Restraint is the watchword.  In a magical story like this it’s so easy to overplay a hand.  To dive in too deep or paint with too much color.  But Gaiman’s deft hand (and I suspect wise eyes reading drafts and offering constructive criticism) knows how to move the pieces so that we’re constantly wanting to know more about the characters.  Again, one would usually see that as a fault.  But really – how much do you know about anyone?  Everyone has hidden depths and characters in a novel are no different.  Gaiman’s characters are anything but two-dimensional.  They are three or sometimes four dimensional.  They move in and out of reality as naturally as setting the table. 

But it is the story that shines. 
Image result for lettie hempstockSerious spoilers ahead.

There is a moment near the beginning of the book that sets the course for the remainder.  In it, two children are unexpectedly faced with an overwhelming and fearful presence.  All I have ever known – all I have ever read or seen tells me that the children need to get away.  They need to run.  Or hide.  Or use some clever way to disappear or perhaps trick the evil so they can make it to the next chapter.  That isn’t what happens.  Instead eleven-year-old Lettie lays down the law.  Unexpectedly and frankly incredibly, it becomes slowly apparent that Lettie has complete control.  She has authority and dominion over this thing.  It is a great scene.

And one can’t help but being left with the feeling that Lettie, her mother and grandmother are in a fashion, the Son, Spirit and Father.  I don’t think Gaiman was aiming at that analogy.  It just happened.  The three of them are ancient and new.  They milk cows and have an ocean in their pond.  They see the wreck people make of their lives and nudge them in a new direction.  They throw themselves between the guilty and the justice – because they are love.  And those who benefit from their sacrifice can barely remember it and don’t truly appreciate its breadth even when they do remember it. 

Grownups really are a lot like children as Lettie’s Gran tells the boy.  They look strong and play tough.  But at the end of the day – or end of their lives – they yearn to laugh and play.  They desperately want to believe the unbelievable.  Serious mindedness gets in the way and we forget what grass feels like between our toes.  But one clear morning the fa├žade of this world will be peeled away and we will be ourselves - true and free.



Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Michael Card - an overdue thanks

Very early in my marriage, just over 25 years ago, my bride plunged cheerfully into contemporary Christian music.  At that time, I was still squarely in the Jimmy Buffett phase of life and looking forward to many years of carefree, escapist music.  In college (Go Hokies!), I had finally been exposed to some new sounds that my small town’s K-Mart didn’t carry, and didn’t intend to carry since pickup trucks were not represented prominently in the lyrics.

So it was with a condescending tone that I smiled and offered a less than heart-felt “Thank you” to my wife when she returned home from a concert and placed in my hands a twin-CD of Michael Card’s ‘The Ancient Faith’. 
Ah well – thanks honey.  I’ll just file that over here by the dog-food and paid bills.  It was a sweet thought.  It was well intentioned. 

It changed my life.

That CD currently rests on top of a stack of CD’s on my desk here at work.  Its edges are worn.  The cover is faded.  The style is perhaps somewhat dated.  And having handed out copies through the years, I know it’s not for everyone.  All I can tell you is that the themes and passion for God got a hold of my insides – heart and soul.  To me, it’s an amazing work.  It paints the Old Testament with colors I didn’t know existed.  I’ve listened to it for those 25 years and still discover facets that I hadn’t heard before. 

The work is strong across the board – but particular favorites include:

‘Asleep on Holy Ground’ – recounting Jacob’s dream.  “He limped away on holy ground, awakened from the dream.  Having learned his costly lesson from the ways of the Nazarene.  That pain’s the path to blessing, Love will fight us to be found, and God remains a dream to those, who sleep on holy ground.”

‘The Way of Wisdom’ – on Proverbs.  “The Way of Understanding lies in not how much you know.  For the Pathway is a Person that you come to love and so you can stop pretending that it all depends on you.  For it’s not how much you love, as much as how much He loves you.”

Over twenty years ago, on a bright August day, we welcomed our first child into the world.  After literally being up all night, I drove home in the morning from the hospital to collect some things for my lovely wife.  On the way, Michael was on the cassette player singing about the Song of Songs.  “Set me like a seal on your heart, for love is unyielding as the grave.  The flash of it is a jealous fire no flood can quench for Love is as strong as death.” All the world was right and hopeful.  I was a dad and God was in His heaven. 

On returning to the hospital, I learned that newborn Hannah’s breathing was labored and they wanted to air-lift her to Roanoke.  I had to make another run to our house this time to gather clothes for my trip with her.  And this time, Michael’s words were from Job and they hit me with such force – “Oh Lord send a Comforter now to my door, so that this terror will frighten no more!  A Counselor between us, to come hear my oath; Someone who could lay a hand on us both.”  It was a rare moment, when I felt God was saying to me, “Remember who you are – and who I Am.”  Tears spring to my eyes even now on the thought of it.  How good is God.  How weak and fragile we are. 

And it’s not too much to say that outside of the Bible and friendships, Michael Card has had as large an impact on my faith as anything else.  This little essay isn’t intended to get you to listen to his music – although I wish you would.  But to say a long overdue thank you to a Brother.  I know your sacrifices have been great – and the load heavy.  You have kept the faith.  Thank you.



Sunday, January 1, 2017

The Architect & Builder

A legend has grown up around a site visit that Wren made one day at the construction of St. Paul’s.  Not being known personally by the laborers, he could mingle among them incognito.  Approaching one stonecutter, he asked him what his task was.

“Cutting stone”, replied the man who dully returned to his work.

Moving on, he asked another the same question, “What is it you’re doing?”

“I’m paid three and six each week to cut and place this stonework”, was the reply this time.

Finally he approached a third man and made an inquiry about his work, “What is it you’re doing?”

The man straightened from his task, turned and looked the architect straight in the eye and said, “I’m helping Christopher Wren build this magnificent cathedral.”

It’s easy to become distracted from our purpose of a task.  That might sound silly – after all the purpose of taking out the trash is to, you know, take out the trash.  But little things make big things and there is a purpose behind them all.  Yes, I crawl out of bed in the mornings to go to work and provide for my family.  But I hope that there is a deeper purpose.  One that is abiding and even eternal.  Eternal in one sense that, like my father, I pass on a work-ethic to my children.  But eternal in another sense that God has put me here to be a part of His great work.  He is the Architect and Builder.  We are in this together. 

I am a structural engineer by trade.  When I do my job right, no one ever knows.  Beams are hidden by ceilings and walls conceal columns.  My work is simply a part of a greater work.  My life is part of a Greater Life.  And in Him, there is satisfaction and the greatest purpose of all.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

The Sun Also Rises

As I write this, there is a thin blanket of snow on the ground and the sun is just rising.  It’s rising near the crossing of two ridges in the distance that form a ‘V’ and creates a landmark that is very close to the point in the sky that the sun dips at solstice.  The sun goes that far – but no further.  It has now (happily!) started its rise in the other direction and each day is a bit longer.  I can sit at my table and literally watch the earth move.  It is perhaps a sign of age that the psychological pendulum is moving once again in the other direction.  Spring is coming as fast as it can.

That is some comfort in these times.  All of our work for good or ill cannot change that action that God has set into motion.  If we sought to set up dictators or cast down kings, the sun would rise in the morning with pinpoint accuracy.  His ways are not our ways nor His thoughts ours.  As the singer Kendall Payne relates,

“He won’t say the words that you wish that He would

Oh, He don’t do the deeds, you know that He could”

So I tell this to myself.  I am a long time political-junkie but have found myself taking it too seriously. It is important.  These are serious questions.  But the sun rises.  Peoples basic needs remain.  The seeds in the ground will break the earth in April.  I need to keep perspective.  That is hard to do in this information age.  

Thus ever that God is love.  That message has (I hope) started to change me.  People recognize counterfeit love.  If it’s not genuine and true – they know.  If I am loving them because I have to – well that ain’t love is it?  I hope I do more God-centered loving in 2017.  And do it with recklessness.  Scripture says I am supposed to come like a little child.  When my kids were young, they would jump from the steps into my arms.  They knew that even though the distance was great, I would not let them fall.  I need to jump more.

Happy 2017


Sunday, November 29, 2015

Mongrels - Fear Not

Ps 56:4  In God I will praise his word, in God I have put my trust; I will not fear what flesh can do unto me.

Sometimes it’s important to remember who you are.  In our part of the country, we are mongrels. It’s important to remember that.  We Appalachians are a soupy mix of predominantly Scots-Irish-Germans that were kicked out of Europe, kicked out of Ireland and kicked out of the Northeast of America.  Our forefathers slunk down the spine of the mountains and settled on lands that – truth be told – no one else was much interested in.

Our standard-bearers no doubt came from all sorts of dubious circumstances.  Otherwise why would they risk life and limb travelling across the ocean with only the clothes on their backs?  They scraped out a living in these mountains and built a life that improved each generation.  Yes – we’re a hard-scrabble people and we have our faults.  But we have a history of being magnanimous and generous to the weak and oppressed – irrespective of race or creed.  (For more on this, I recommend Sen. Jim Webb’s excellent ‘Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America’).   We are not an arrogant people.  Or at least we didn’t used to be.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Charlie Brown - On Perseverance

I grew up in an ancient time called the 1970’s, when America was a land of mystery and confusion.  Fresh off the end of the War That Shall Not Be Named and deep into Nixon’s throat, there was little to be excited about or hopeful for in the Land of the Free.  

Dodge gave us the Dart and my dad coasted the truck as much as possible in order to avoid the lines at the pump.  Throw Jimmy Carter into the mix and it’s not a far stretch to imagine America as a dystopian wasteland.  It was worse than that actually – there were bell-bottoms. 

In 1972, I was 8 years old.  I wasted time watching Hee-Haw reruns and despairing over Redskin losses (what goes around…).  There was a small saving grace: it usually came in the form of the Sunday funnies.  Most notably the colored funnies, and especially catching up with the round-headed kid – good ‘ol Charlie Brown.  Having sprung for the Weekly Reader book club offers of a wide variety of Peanuts paperback classics, I knew the whole gang and all their proclivities.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Teach Me

Is. 1:17 Learn to do good

Being good is not natural.  The way of goodness is not my inclination.  Once we perhaps were all good.  But upon the Fall, our best goodness was not good enough.  Sin is now my long constant companion.  I can feel its weight and know its face.  As I drift away from Christ in the busyness of my days, its face becomes clearer.  But we can learn to do good.  It is a conscious act.  We can make good things happen.  Yes - they may remain tainted with sin and bear the dirt marks of pride.  But the paint-by-numbers art is still cherished by the Father.

Being in the image of God carries with it a desire for justice.  To see justice, rebuke the oppressor - defend the fatherless and plead for the widow.  Is that how we learn?  God grant me the your eyes to see injustice and the courage to confront it.  God grant me the heart to drive out sin and cleanse my spirit.  God teach me and let me learn.