Wednesday, December 26, 2007

The Holly Bears a Berry

I've been singing this song aloud since a week ago, after hearing Eileen Ivers performing it at her concert in Concord NH. We actually have a holly bush growing in front of our house. It's a very old carol, and it maintains the feel of the original carols that were actually dancing songs written for celebrations of all kinds. This one's lots of fun to sing, and we've more than once found ourselves, the whole family, singing this out while driving together in the car.

To see the music and hear a MIDI of the tune, go here. To hear it performed, go here.

The holly bears a prickle as sharp as a thorn;
And Mary bore Jesus on Christmas Day morn.

And Mary bore Jesus our Saviour to be
And the first tree in the greenwood, it was the holly.
Holly, holly,
And the first tree in the greenwood it was the holly.
Now the Holly bears a berry as white as the milk
And Mary bore Jesus, who was wrapped up in silk.
Now the Holly bears a berry as green as the grass
And Mary bore Jesus, who died on the cross.
Now the Holly bears a berry as black as the coal
And Mary bore Jesus, who died for us all.
Now the Holly bears a berry as blood is it red
Then trust we our Saviour who rose from the dead.

The holly bears a bark as bitter as gall;
And Mary bore Jesus Christ to redeem us all.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Incarnation between the Lines

Our Christmas Eve service is remarkably simple. It is modeled after the Lessons and Carols so near and dear to our Anglican friends, but way less refined. Lacking the cathedral spaces, robed choirs, and all that stuff, we get along with a small group of readers rotating through the readings, and singing songs chosen to illuminate the theme of the reading. There is usually one or two “special music” numbers, but mostly it is reading and singing. Since the group probably number about 30 people, even the singing was simple.

But it serves. You can’t go wrong in my book just reading the actual words. Sermons, meditations, devotionals…all that is just fine, but put a good reader behind the book and let everyone listen to what’s actually there on the page….it’s hard to beat.

Most of the passages read this evening were not from the gospels. They were taken from the Pentateuch and the Prophets. Only the last 2 or 3 were actually Gospel accounts. The language of the Prophets is hard to play down. Then you come to the accounts of the Arrival and if you really get what He is laying down, it can blow your socks off.

It stood out to me because I’ve been getting a lot of imagery around the baby. First of all, let me say that babies are overrated -- especially when they first come out. They are all wrinkled up and funny colored, and generally feeling ill-treated and crabby. This whole “holy family tableau” thing with the quiet and gentle glow surrounding the wax figures of Mary and Joseph and the Blessed Christ Child – it just ain’t right. Look, I never met Mary, but it’s pretty hard for me to imagine that even she wasn’t pretty close to hysterical for giving birth to her first baby in a STALL! My wife is a pretty strong woman, but I can only imagine the pyrotechnics that would have been involved in that situation, and I wouldn’t blame her one bit. Maybe the medieval stories about no crying and Mary’s magical holy epidural were true, but somehow it rubs my sensibilities the wrong way. I just can’t buy it. (If you want a slightly more humorous take on that, I refer you to the classic short novel “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever.”) Life for a refugee family is no piece of cake.

Then there was the whole shepherds watching over their flocks by night scenario. Have you ever seen an angel? Me neither. But why is it, EVERY time one of those guys pops up, the first words out of their mouths are “Don’t be afraid?” I can hazard a guess. It’s probably because they are REALLY, REALLY SCARY.

A friend of mine once posited that Angels probably appeared that night rather like lightning with a voice. Who of us, if a bolt of lightning struck even 50 feet from us wouldn’t have to check our pants afterwards? And then, imagine if the lightning stuck around to have a conversation. Huh. Kind of puts a different perspective on what them shepherds were dealing with.

Angels. Legions of them. Can you imagine what it’s like to have thousands of lightning bolts shouting Good News! At the top of their metaphorical lungs?

And why? Because the Great Miracle, the invasion of creation, and material, and humanity by the Most High God is not something to let pass unremarked, apparently.

When we hear “Peace on Earth” we like think that means “Niceness for Everybody.” This is because of the sops, sentimentalists and schmaltzers who want to take all the rough edges off the story, and go all soft-focus. Reality is too harsh, and any God who would actually get real and dirty this way is too wild. He needs to be tamed. As our Pastor observed this evening it is easy to make nice and feel warm and fuzzy over the baby, but not so easy to get those warm fuzzies over that bloody mess of shredded flesh hanging on the cross. It’s too hard to look at. So the simpering classes only see the baby all clean and dry and happy, and they dray on about how Christmas is about hope, and renewal, and peace winning out over blah blah blah. It is all that, but only because it’s so much more than that.

I suspect (I wasn’t there, so I can’t say for sure) that what those angels really were getting at was something closer to “The War between God and Man is as good as finished!” They were doing a victory dance in the end zone and trash talking the Enemy. “In Your Face!” they shouted to Death, as they spiked the life ball hard in the real Astroturf.

C-Day was the cosmic D-day. As Athanasius said, “the incorporeal and incorruptible and immaterial Word of God entered our world.” We think a hydrogen bomb exploding is powerful. Ohmygoodness yes. But this! This! This is HUGE! And we treat it as if it is just a sweet ending to a syrupy story.

The Immaterial comes to town. He enters not as a visitor, but as one who belongs here. He was not tacked on, but became one of it’s creatures. He moved from incorporeal to very corporeal in all it’s implications, while still maintaining all that He was before and without it. It is a great mystery. It is The Great Miracle. I think there is no better name for it than that.

When you really listen, it’s in the text. If you are like me, though, you have to listen to what is really going on here, and not pay too much attention to the overlay that has been placed on it by our overfamiliarity. When I heard it tonight, it pricked me a little. Not like the Angels appearing, but enough to set me going. The rest of the Christmas deal I can take or leave. But that small significant moment is what I live for.

Thanks be to God for His unspeakable gift.

Dispatching Advent

Well, I pretty much missed the chance to make comments on Advent, which is really too bad. Although observing Advent has never been a great strength of mine, it has been growing as a presence in my mind over the years. It’s value may, I think, lie powerfully in the idea of making the Feast that much greater by virtue of the preceding fast. If Advent is no more than the run up to Christmas, it really differs little from the practices of the infidel hordes who scurry madly about in a mass-induced hysteria, all the while claiming “Peace, Peace on earth!!!” It is a ludicrous irony.

Now that I am beginning to see Advent as the long night of waiting, the filling of lamps and the trimming of wicks, in preparation for the coming of the master (a la the parable of the 10 virgins)…then it begins to make sense. If it is the companion season of Lent, where we prepare our hearts to receive the Great Miracle, then it makes sense. I think I may be moving toward defining for myself a true rule or practice for Advent. I have about a year to figure it out. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Also, when Advent is treated this way, then a 12 Day time of Feasting really does appeal. I’m kind of liking the idea.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Newest Family Member

My wife is a stone cold dog freak. Her life is not complete without a dog. She has been this way since we first met, and I have just had to come to terms with the fact that although I too and furry and smelly, I cannot seem to fill that place in her heart that belongs to dog kind.

Our good old Buster dog died 2 years ago. We have been dogless since, and that has been a long dry spell for my Bride. This year was to have been The Year of the New Dog, but what with all the upheaval we have been experiencing, we never managed to acquire a new pet.

Our daughters have inherited the dog love. So I have had three women mooning away over dogs in general and in particular all year long. It is a favorite pastime of my oldest to read any of several books she owns on dogs. She is becoming quite the authority on various breeds, their uses and temperaments. Her mother has taken to surfing dog rescue websites, as well as sites of shelters. She finds profiles of dogs she likes, prints them out, and then brings them to the dinner table where we discuss the pros and cons of various dogs brought before the council. This has provided hours of entertainment for the whole family.

Nevertheless, as month after month goes by without actually getting a live dog for our house, my daughters have taken to lowering the stakes in a desperate bid to obtain SOME kind of animalian companionship. The poor girl got desperate enough to move down the food chain as far as fish, in hopes that a low enough bid might actually get the pet train moving in the right direction.

Last night, my Bride and I were on a date (by our own adult selves!) and decided that it might be time to actually act. We have been talking about purchasing a small pet for them recently, to at least give the girls something to focus on until we get a proper dog. So, to cut to the chase, we went to the local Petsmart, and brought home with us the newest member of our family.

Meet Gus, our new rat.

The name is not set in stone, but it seems to be the one we are settling on. It is chosen in commemoration of Augustus Ceasar (a major character in recent home school history studies on the Roman Empire). Whether Mr. Ceasar would be impressed by having a rat named after him is dubious, but since he is more than slightly dead, I am not overly concerned with his dignity.

Of all the other pet rodent options, he seems to have the best mix of activity/restfulness and sociability/solitariness. Gerbils are active and interesting, but don’t like to be handled. Hamsters have a tendency toward aggression. Word has it that Fancy Rats like being handled (if accustomed to it) and are active enough to be interesting without seeming manic. After meeting our rat, and handling him, we determined that he seemed like a nice boy. Since we already possessed an aquarium to provide a starter home, for about $40, we got what we needed to get things started and brought him home.

The plan was to present him on Christmas Day, but what the heck. Rather than hide him in the basement store room for 2 more days, we opted to let the girls start enjoying him today. As I write this he is resting on my chest, curled up inside my fleece pullover. He loves to crawl up inside my wife’s long black hair, nestling against her neck under the curtain of her tresses. He is about 6 inches long, not counting the tail. He is a juvenile, and we expect him to grow about half again as large when full grown.

The girls are fascinated, and it will be fun to see how he grows on us. I suppose, however, that when we get our dog, we will not be getting a terrier.

I'm Not Done Yet

Well, just back from my multi-week hiatus. Business and family have kept me moving briskly so that there has been little time for actually posting to a blog. So, for all three of you that read these things, I hope you will soon be rewarded for checking again. Thanks for being interested enough to see what I’ve put up here. While I do this mostly as a personal exercise, I am grateful for an audience.

I have a long list of topics that have been fermenting in the cask of my cranium. God willing, some of that will bubble over and spill out into this forum. Some of it may be pretty stinky. You have been forewarned.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

That's My King!

In the church calendar, this day is commonly celebrated as Christ the King Sunday. It is the last Sunday of the cycle of the liturgical year, and is the gateway to Advent. It is eschatological, looking forward to the concrete establishment of Christ's rule. Like Advent, it also has a clear element of the here and now, for Christ does indeed rule right now.

I'd like to refer you to a video I discovered a while ago. It is video presentation based on a portion of a sermon by S.M. Lockridge. I'll let the video speak for itself except for this one comment: Amen!

Christ the King

People of God, Stand up!

You are now come together into the presence of the High King of Heaven.
He is the Most High God, the Almighty. Heaven and Earth are full of His glory.
He is the Rider of the Storm, whose eyes are lightning, and whose feet, thunder.
He is mighty in battle. He dwells with His people and guards His own with His right hand.
He is mercy to the humble, salvation to the lost, and hope for the dying.
He is the Hammer of Judgment to lawbreakers, Destroyer of the Proud, scourge of evildoers.
He provides for His people, and gives gifts to all who serve Him and love Him.
He is the wild Lion of Judah
, The Alpha and Omega, the Bright and Morning Star.

O, Exalt your King
For this same King is also our deliverer. He came to dwell with us, and rescue us.
He came as a baby, as a tiny newborn infant – wee, weak, and wailing.
He grew into a man, ate meat, drank wine, and cut wood with callused hands.
And as the prophets foretold, he was executed in humiliation and pain.
In his death he took our shame, our weakness, and our darkness into the Great Pit.
And when he burst the gates on his way out, he left them there, to be forgotten forever.

Shout in Triumph.
For although His kingdom seems incomplete now, His victory is assured.
On that day, He shall ride a white horse, in righteousness He will judge and make war.
Out of His mouth will go a sharp sword to shatter His enemies.
His fierceness and wrath shall crush them, like grapes in a winepress.
We shall see His title written boldly upon Him – King of Kings and Lord of Lords.
And He shall establish His dominion over all – and that dominion shall never end.

Prepare yourselves
For He returns to claim us as his own, to bring us to dwell with Him always.
He purchased us with a price, ransomed us from death by His own Godly Blood
His death shall cancel ours, remove its sting, and make it null and void.
His Life brings you together to worship Him. To live in him and love Him.
To Fear Him, to Serve him, to Proclaim his deeds, to obey his commands.
For it is right to do so. He is our King. He is our High King.

Let us Worship our King.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Come, Ye Thankful People, Come!

Come, ye thankful people, come, raise the song of harvest home;
All is safely gathered in, ere the winter storms begin.
God our Maker doth provide for our wants to be supplied;
Come to God’s own temple, come, raise the song of harvest home.

All the world is God’s own field, fruit unto His praise to yield;
Wheat and tares together sown unto joy or sorrow grown.
First the blade and then the ear, then the full corn shall appear;
Lord of harvest, grant that we wholesome grain and pure may be.

For the Lord our God shall come, and shall take His harvest home;
From His field shall in that day all offenses purge away,
Giving angels charge at last in the fire the tares to cast;
But the fruitful ears to store in His garner evermore.

Even so, Lord, quickly come, bring Thy final harvest home;
Gather Thou Thy people in, free from sorrow, free from sin,
There, forever purified, in Thy garner to abide;
Come, with all Thine angels come, raise the glorious harvest home.

Words by Henry Alford. You can hear the tune usually associated with this hym here

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Nothin' gonna Break My Stride...

I'm a sucker for inspiring stories of courage in the face of long odds. Here's a good one.

Found this over at

Casual Fridays Ad Absurdam?

Found this at Blog and Mablog:
The heroin addict "was under the influence of the idea that some aspects of reality are more real than others: that the seedy side of life is more genuine, more authentic, than the refined and cultured side—and certainly more glamorous than the bourgeois and respectable side. This idea could be said to be the fundamental premise of modern popular culture"
(from Theodore Dalrymple, Life at the Bottom, p. 119).

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Open {click}

I recently purchased a new pocketknife. I have a thing for pocketknives. I feel strongly that a well prepared man should carry with him a blade. Something sharp and utilitarian, available at a moment’s need for whatever task may be at hand. I have had a fair number of knives in my life, but I tend to favor cheap small blades that are easy to carry, have no gewgaws, and are easy to replace if lost or broken. A knife is simply a useful tool. Having one makes life easier, and in some cases, I really believe it can save a life. It’s one of those things that you may not need most of the time, but when you do, you really need it.

I tend to carry one of three different knives, depending on the occasion. When dressed for business, I have a lovely little 2-inch penknife with an imitation antler handle. The blade is narrow and the handle makes it look just a little bit classier than your standard working blade. It’s small size means that I can carry it discreetly while wearing suits and sport coats. For camping I carry a Camp King, the classic boy scout knife. It has a simple blade that is half way between a spey and a drop blade in shape (rounded with a slight point), an awl, screwdriver, can opener and bottle opener. It is a civilian version of the classic “Demo Knife” carried by soldiers since WWII. I like it’s basic utilitarian design, no frills. Tough simple and cheap. I carried this the entire time I walked the AT in 1996 and came to love it. It is, however, just a little bulky for carrying around when dressed up.

For casual use, I have carried several different knives. I recently purchased a nice little folding lock blade with a 2 inch modified clip blade. I was inspired to purchase this knife (for the extremely high price of $7.00 at Lowe’s ) by Chick Wetherbee, the instructor of my fire making class.

What’s so special? I can open it and close it with one hand.

That may not seem like a big deal, but I cannot stress to you how cool it feels to take a knife out of your pocket, open it with the same hand, use it, close it, and put it back all with the same hand. It feels cool, and it really makes the knife much more useful.

So I’ve been practicing. Open it. {click} Close it. Open it.{click} Close it. I’ll sit in front of the TV or talk on the phone and practice opening and closing my knife until it’s second nature. You never know when I may have to rush over to a car wreck and reach inside to cut the seat belt to free the poor slob who just crashed. One wants to be ready. Life could depend on it.
I like my new knife.

The Living Oxymoron

Ok, I know this is old news, but....

Rudy Giuliani and Pat Robertson? <choking and gagging noises>

What <more noises>....what IS that, exactly?

Dumb oxes? Complete morons? Separately they are what they are. But put them together? The resulting reaction could undo the very fabric of the universe. might just do nothing, and that may be what they both deserve for foisting this charade on...well...whoever.

Ya Gotta have Goals

I have a new goal in life.

Apparently, some hacker named Kozo Haraguchi now holds the world record for the 100 meter sprint for the division for men age 99-95. He ran it in 22.o4 seconds.

Yeah. Whatever. I'm going to beat that when I get to his age.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

I Make Fire


If you were dropped in the middle of the White Mountains of NH, deep in the wilderness, with nothing but the clothes you had on, and whatever was in your pockets, which of those four items would be your top priority?

This is the question that we began with last Friday night. Along with my friend Frank, I was taking part in a class on Primitive Firemaking at the Amoskeag Fishway in Manchester NH. We were to learn the rudiments of making fire with materials that we could scavenge in the wilderness. Our instructor’s name was Chick Wetherbee, and for the first hour we discussed basic philosophy and techniques of wilderness survival. After that, Chick showed us how to construct a basic bow drill, he demonstrated the technique, then lets us at it. What a terrific experience!

Chick is apparently a PhD (field unkown), owner of Earthward Natural Foods in Amherst NH, a Naturopathic healer, and student of Tom Brown, the world renowned tracker and author of many highly regarded texts on wilderness survival and tracking. He is a compact, sturdy looking man, with a good natured face, a slightly coarse voice, and the manner of one who knows what he is talking about. In the course of the evening, he showed himself also to be a skilled teacher. Although not every student was able to coax fire out of the wood before the evening was over, a significant cross section did so and that had much to do with Chick’s constant oversight, coaching, direction and assistance.

A bow drill is an ancient tool for making fire. The drill itself consists of 4 basic parts; the baseplate, the hand plate, the spindle and the bow. The two plates have indentations into which the ends of the spindle fit. The spindle has wrapped around it the string of the bow. The spindle is then placed so that the ends of the spindle fit into the sockets made in the plates. As the bow is moved back and forth, it causes the spindle to spin in the sockets. By pressing down lightly on the handplate, you can create just the right level of friction so that the wood becomes quite hot. It also generates a fair amount of smoke and dark brown dust as the spindle is literally drilling down into the base plate. When done with proper skill, the wood becomes hot enough that the little pile of dust actually ignites and forms a small glowing coal in the notch cut into the wood on the base plate. This small coal is then carefully transferred into a bed of tinder, where it is nurtured and coaxed, until the everything is ready. Then just a small puff of air will cause the tinder to burst into flame. You can see detailed demonstrations with pictures here.

The best wood seems to be softwood other than pine. Pine has too much sap that tends to seal up the pores in the wood and reduce the friction. Cedar, hemlock, spruce are good. Many hardwoods are also good as long as they are dry. For tinder we use jute twine that we picked apart to form a fuzzy bundle. Other recommended tinders would include milkweed down, crumbled dry leaves, cattail down, anything that can be broken down to a fuzzy mass with lots of surface area to burn.

Chick also showed us how to make cord from the stems of milkweed or day lily leaves. I’m sure there are other plants that would do as well. You just need to find a plant stem of leaf with long fibres that can be twisted and wrapped into a cord. According to Chick, a cord like this would probably serve to make one or two fires, and then have to be replaced. I tried twisting a little bit of the cord as he recommended and was surprised at the strength of it. Even so, our drills used parachute cord, just to make the learning process simpler.

Knowing the mechanics is one thing. Feeling the technique is another thing altogether. In native peoples, the making of fire was a sacred task. It is no wonder, as the ability to make fire was necessary to survival. And yet the making of fire requires a fairly light touch. Chick explained the most common mistake for men is to bear down too hard. A heavy hand is not desirable, for the making for fire does not depend so much on strength as on sheer technique. One must learn how to feel the right pressure and the right speed. For these reasons, it seems that some tribes allocated the duty of firemaking to 10 year old girls. They were seen to be strong enough, but were patient and able to sustain the lighter touch that the young boys did not seem to master as easily.

Chick provided the pieces, and we set to with a will. I drilled completely through my board once, producing prodigious amounts of smoke and dust (and a tremendously loud and constant squeaking noise that would certainly scare away any animals I may have been hoping to snack on later, had I actually been in the wilderness), but no coal. I drilled a second hole and got to work on it. About this time, my friend Frank managed to get his fire going. I fumbled with my camera, but was too late to catch the spark. 10 minutes later, as I was gamely churning away, Chick came over, put his hands on mine and started coaching me through it. “More pressure,” he would say. “Lighten up…ok now go a little faster. Faster. Good. Keep going. Lighten up a little…” After a few minutes of this he said, “Ok, stop.” I sat back and saw that the smoke this time was not coming from the hole, but from the little pile of dust. I gave slightest puff (one must treat a new coal very gently or it is likely to go out) and it glowed red in response. It was a most gratifying moment. I had set my rig up so that the coal would easily fall onto a small piece of tinder. I gently prized the dusty ember onto the tinder, picked it up and placed it on the tinder bundle. Chick showed me how to cradle it as we walked outside, not wanting to things to burst into full flame inside the building. When everything was ready, Chick told me to give one good puff. I did, and the whole bundle burst into flame in my hands. I held it for a second or two, until it was about to scorch me, and then dropped it on the sidewalk. I had given my camera to Frank, and he fumbled too, so I have no picture of the actual flame. You’ll just have to take my word for it.

It will take some practice to master this craft, for sure. I managed to do with some very direct assistance from Chick, which was good, but I found it hard to see for myself what I was doing, as his hands were in the way. I need to manage it myself at least a few more times before I’ll be comfortable with the technique.

I asked Chick how long it took him to make his first fire with a bow drill. He said it took six months. That was 17 years ago. He seems to have got it figured out now, as in his initial demonstration to us, he got a coal in less than 30 seconds, and full flame in about a minute.

After both Frank and I had gotten our fire made, we looked at each other and decided it was time to eat. We cleaned up, said goodbye and made our way to Shaheen’s Irish Pub downtown, where good fresh beer, delicious fish and chips, and good conversation rounded out the evening nicely. I think I might make fire-making a Friday night ritual.

In case you were wondering, fire is not first on your survival priority list. The first item should be shelter, followed by water, then fire and food. Hypothermia is the greatest and most immediate danger to the unprepared, therefore one has to construct a warm dry shelter as soon as possible. Thirst will get you, but you have a couple of days before it becomes dangerous. You can manage reasonable well without food for about two weeks before it becomes a real problem. One could argue that food would come before fire, since it is important to cook any food you can catch to avoid the possibility of sickness from parasites or bacteria.

So what did I do last Friday? I pulled a bit of the power of the sun out from a tree with my hands. What did you do?

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Perelandra and the Music of God

I have just read C.S. Lewis’ Perelandra again for probably the 4th time, but the first in about 20 years. As before, it leaves me feeling a little breathless, a bit dazed, but this time for different reasons. I recall when I first read it, I found it interesting in the way one finds a puzzle interesting. In fact, large sections I did not care for at all. It is not a book of fast moving and exciting plot developments. It contains long sections of expository dialog. It even has rather extensive pieces of pretty florid oratory. Much of the action is not action at all but descriptive passages of Ransom’s (the main character) observations of Perelandra (or Venus). But within all that is woven some astounding theology. Strangely enough, this theology, and the way Lewis expresses it, is what makes it so compelling, forceful and ultimately heartening to me.

The novel is essentially a thin veneer of narrative, covering over and holding together a fairly wide ranging essay on metaphysics and theology. In it he performs a sort of theological thought experiment. What would happen if God created another world and placed another Adam and Eve in it? Would they be tempted? Would they fall? And what happens if they do not fall? And what could it all mean anyways?

In Lewis’ own spiritual autobiography (Surpised by Joy) he talks about his first experiences with Joy when he heard the old Norse Sagas and was transported by this feeling of “Northerness” that came out of those tales. Much of the power of Lewis’ work for me arises from his ability to transmit that feeling to me in his writing. I can’t put my finger on it, but there is something about his writing that sets up a powerful vibration deep inside. It’s like the best sermon, the one you go to church on Sunday morning hoping to hear every Sunday. It’s the sermon that opens up the Word in ways that not only help you to understand it in new ways, but to feel it.

I have known people that are hard core theology wonks. I like to read their blogs, in fact. They revel in tightly constructed argument (in the philosophical sense), the minutiae of sources, and mastery of the subtle shades terminology. I am not one of those. I just don’t have the patience for it.

I also have known people who don’t have the chops to be a true wonk, but they sure like to play with it, for the sheer joy of it. These I call the theology geeks. Like a kid with a video game they can banter about the “big questions” forever nonstop. I am closer to being a geek than a wonk, because there is at least a bit of joy and fun in it. But I’m not really a geek either. I like answers more than questions.

I am more like a musician. No…that’s not right either. I am more like the educated and appreciative audience. I am the one who sits in the mezzanine and cries for the beauty of the aria. I am the one who stands at the end of the concert, not because everyone stands, but because my heart is about to explode for the joy inside me. For I think that what I really want out of theology is not knowledge or mastery…it is beauty.

Lewis always claimed that he was no philosopher or theologian. Perhaps he was right. Although to my ear his work seems plenty rigorous (meaning his essays like The Abolition of Man, or Miracles), I am not an especially good judge of what is the most rigorous argument. Lewis was perhaps more of a theological musician. He found a way to express truth about the One True and Living God in words, but musically. The scales of his music came straight from the Word. He played his melodies on pen and paper.

The wonks and the geeks tend to be too much in love with the mechanics of the thing. A music wonk would want to know how to tune the instrument to the perfect 800 mhz pitch. The geek would want to see how fast he could play just to show he could do it. My love of music is much more childish and earthy. I simply love the music the way it makes me feel. I love music for what it does for my heart. It lifts me, it carries me. It touches my heart, and opens me up. It lights my world differently. I can see better by it.

When I read Lewis I know the mechanics and structure of good theology are there, but that’s not what appeals to me. When I read Lewis, he helps me to love God more. I hear God more clearly. I see him more vividly. And I want to give myself to Him more completely.

To put it another way, Lewis’ writings are like the sermon you always hope to hear on Sunday morning. That sermon (that ideal of sermons) leaves you not only seeing and understanding God more, but loving Him more. When we love more truly and more deeply, we surrender more truly and more deeply. It is not with our minds alone the we comprehend God. As it is written:

“thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment.”

Monday, November 5, 2007

Wings of a Dove

On a recently aired episode of A Prairie Home Companion, they featured the old gospel tune On the Wings of a Dove. They did a bit of a sendup on the old standard, coming up with variations using different birds.

Sing these to the Tune of On the Wings of a Dove . You can hear the original bit, including the tune here (the singing starts about 8:20 into segment 4).

On the wings of a large gray goose
He sets your spirit loose
He will introduce
You to Hera and Zeus.

On the wings of a chickadee
He sets your spirit free.
For eternity
You'll be glad as can be.

On the wings of an albatross
He takes our souls across
And comforts our loss
With horseradish sauce.

On the wings of a great white swan
We rise to meet the dawn
Then we will be gone
To the beauty salon.

On the wings of a great horned owl
We will join other fowl
Let the timberwolves howl
We'll throw in the towel.

These got me thinking, so I came up with a few additional choruses of my own.

On the back of a big ostrich
I see a time in which
I’ll climb out of the ditch
And be (spiritually) rich.

On the wings of a great penguin
I will feel quite sanguine.
He’s forgiven my sin.
I have peace deep within.

On the beak of a singing lark
Morning shall chase the dark.
I can hear the dogs bark
Heaven is a nice park.

On the song of a sweet brown thrush
My heart feels such a rush.
I cannot say hush
To a song that’s so lush.

On the wings of a woodpecker
Your debt is a deal breaker.
They will bring a wrecker.
It will haul off your car.

On the wings of a flying duck
I fly high off the muck
I shot a big buck
He has given me luck.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Gazing into the Abyss

Just read an fascinating essay "Gazing into the Abyss." by Christian Wiman. The Hound of Heaven is indeed active, and working, and we cannot predict His way of tracking and following and finding those whom He seeks. Here is a portion:

So now I bow my head and try to pray in the mornings, not because I don’t doubt the reality of what I have experienced, but because I do, and with an intensity that, because to once feel the presence of God is to feel His absence all the more acutely, is actually more anguishing and difficult than any “existential anxiety” I have ever known. I go to church on Sundays, not to dispel this doubt but to expend its energy, because faith is not a state of mind but an action in the world, a movement toward the world.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

The Francophone Boys

Tonite I had the chance to just hang out for a few hours. I chose to go to a bookstore and read. I selected one book, not a serious book, but a novel that I knew I would enjoy, I chose a seat and just gave myself over to the story for a few hours. I knew that I would not be able to complete the book in the time I had, but I’ve never really been that bothered by coming and going in the middle of stories. This is something I think I’ve cultivated watching TV. I can come in at the middle of a movie I know little or nothing about, and quickly pick up what’s going on and watch it to the end. I have more trouble, if the story is any good, leaving it in the middle, but I can do it.

The best part of the evening, though, was not the book. Near me sat 5 old guys, mostly in their late 50’s to 60’s, white haired, balding, wrinkly, fat and skinny, conversing most amiably…in French. I would guess by their ages, and their comfort with the language that these were not students just finding their way through the gallic conjugations. My guess is that they probably grew up speaking French, and this was a chance to simply get together with a bunch of other guys from the “old neighborhood” and talk like the old days. It’s not altogether uncommon around here. My mother grew up speaking French exclusively until about age 8. She can still recall the nuns in Catholic schools in Manchester teaching in French. After she moved out of Manchester (arguably the center of francophone New Hampshire) she lost her French language very quickly. Apparently, not everyone left it behind as completely as my mother.

I myself know very little French language, but know they talked a little politics (this is New Hampshire after all), a little about the movie Papillon, and just about general guy stuff – as if it was a barber shop in Montreal. It was a beautiful just to be around the spirit of their gathering. It made me want to speak French just to be half as cool as they were.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Capon on Fathers and Mothers

The following are some excerpts from Bed and Board: Plain talk about Marriage, by Robert Farrar Capon (now out of print, but available used). I have become rather besotted by some of Capon’s writings lately. I was first introduced to him through An Offering of Uncles: On the Priesthood of Adam and the Shape of the World, which I am now reading slowly for the second time. I have wanted to comment on that book here, but have been unsure exactly where to begin. I’m hoping that in the second reading it will become clearer to me.

The first excerpt is about being a father. The second about being a mother. I found them at Femina, a blog by Nancy Wilson, the wife of Doug Wilson, author of several other books on my influential books list, and of the blog with one of the coolest titles ever -- Blog and Mablog. I found these quotes so affecting that I deemed them worth pulling over to share with you.


Be their teacher. And expect a lot from them. Avoid, of course, the mistake of demanding they learn things you don’t give a hang about…But if you’re honestly wild about math or letters, music or shopwork, give them both barrels and make them sit still for it. They will gripe and you will get grouchy, but if you really love it, something will rub off that will stay with them like the smell of fresh bread. So don’t be afraid to demand your kind of stuff of them. They aren’t going to see that many people who care. It would be nice if their father could be one. It would be something to hold in their hands all their lives.

Be their Lover. Give yourself, your humor, your small talk, and the minor affections of your hands and eyes. Don’t keep it all in the solemn now-let’s-you-and-Daddy-talk -about-your-report-card vein. Give them the best of your offhand style. Let your sons grow up learning what a man who acts out his caring looks like. Let your daughters learn what it’s like to have a man around who works at quickening their response. It might just pay off in a decent son-in-law.

Be a just Judge. Children can stand vast amounts of sternness. They rather expect to be wrong; and they are quite used to being punished. It is injustice, inequity and inconsistency that kill them. Fathers, provoke not your children to wrath, lest they be disheartened. It is precisely the sight of injustice that triggers anger, and it is precisely the helpless rage of inferiors that takes the heart out of them and produces most of the cynics, skeptics and smart alecks in the world. You are first of all the Guardians of the Law. Develop a passion for fairness. If you overdo anything, make it that.

One more. Delight in them openly. Speak your praise of them. Be their Priest. Look at them with the widest eyes you can manage, and don’t be ashamed to be seen at wonder. You will not see their like again. What a shame if they should leave without ever knowing they have been beheld and offered up by an astonished heart.”


“To be a Mother is to be the sacrament — the effective symbol — of place. Mothers do not make homes, they are our home: in the simple sense that we begin our days by a long sojourn within the body of a woman; in the extended sense that she remains our center of gravity through the years. She is the very diagram of belonging, the where in whose vicinity we are fed and watered, and have our wounds bound up and our noses wiped. She is geography incarnate, with her breasts and her womb, her relative immobility, and her hands reaching up to us the fruitfulness of the earth.

…The mother is the geographical center of her family, the body out of whom their diversity springs, the neighborhood in which that diversity begins ever so awkwardly to dance its way back to the true Body which is the Mother of us all. Her role then is precisely to be there for them. Not necessarily over there, but just therethereness itself, if you will; not necessarily in her place but place itself to them; not necessarily at home but home itself.
..But remember, you are a landmark…You are and remain the bodily link with our origin. You are the oldest thing in the world; don’t be in a hurry to forget any of your history.

..You are not only a link with something. You are the thing itself; and you are the sacrament, the instrument, by which we learn to love the things that are. Your body is the first object any child of man ever wanted. Therefore dispose yourself to be loved, to be wanted, to be available. Be there for them with a vengeance. Be a gracious, bending woman. Incline your ear, your heart, your hands to them. Be found warm and comfortable, and disposed to affection. Be ready to be done by and to welcome their casual effusions with something better than preoccupation and indifference.

…Children love fat mothers. They like them because while any mother is a diagram of place, a picture of home, a fat one is a clearer diagram, a greater sacrament. She is more there. I can think of no better wish to all the slender swans of this present age than to propose them a toast: May your husbands find you as slim as they like; your children should always remember you were fat. “

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The Bitter and the Sweet

At the ripe old age of 42 I began drinking coffee. I had avoided it for years, since it tasted pretty much like burnt beans to me. While I love sour flavors, I have never been one to appreciate bitter flavors. Grapefruit, gin, many kinds of greens, any number of medicinal concoctions – all of them turned me off with their bitter astringency. So I avoided coffee even through college and the early stages of my career. Nevertheless, a few years ago I reached a point in my life and my business where I simply needed chemical assistance. Too many early mornings after burning the midnight oil. I viewed coffee as a delivery system for caffeine, and I found that with enough sugar and cream, almost anything can be made mostly drinkable. I still take my coffee sweet and light, but less sweet than I used to, and often less light, depending on how heavy I pour. I don’t know if I’ll ever take it black, but since I never thought I would drink coffee at all, I can’t rule it out.

In the past two years I have learned to actually like coffee. I not only seek it out for it’s medicinal qualities, but I’ve come to actually enjoy the flavor. I like it strong, too. Sweet, as I have said, but strong. I am of the opinion that there is no such thing as coffee that is too strong. Only people that are too weak.

Recently, my wife and I have been playing around with chocolate. Not the waxy cheap Hershey’s variety. We’ve been exploring the intense flavors of chocolate with a high percentage of cacao – that’s the pure chocolate stuff. Less milk (or none), less sugar, and more of the stuff that makes chocolate chocolate. In fact, we recently purchased a small bag of cacao nibs, little pieces of the actual chocolate bean. You can’t get more pure or direct than this – perhaps unless you melted it in a spoon, drew it up into a syringe and shot it directly into your veins.

As a food, chocolate is about 3000 years old. It was first cultivated in South America, and it’s properties were noticed and celebrated early on. It was a sacred food, and it’s eating was surrounded by myth and ritual. The Olmecs, Mayans, Aztecs and Incas all drank chocolate, hot, unsweetened, spiced with chilis and poured out to make it frothy. I have also read that warriors and hunters would chew the beans, sometimes living on them for days with no other food. The fat content of the chocolate bean is very high (about 40% I think) and it’s high concentration of alkaloid substances make it an excellent energy endurance food.

The particular alkaloid prevalent in cacao is theobromine (C7H8N4O2, or 3,7-dimethylxanthine, or 3,7-Dihydro-3,7-dimethyl-1H-purine-2,6-dione for you organic chemists in the crowd). The figure on the left is Theobromine. the right is caffeine.

Theobromine literally translates as food of the gods. It is unclear whether this means food FOR the gods, or food FROM the gods. Either way is good, I suppose. Theobromine is a close analog to caffeine, an alkaloid with which we are much more familiar. Like caffeine, another member of the methylxanthine family, it is a stimulant, but it’s effects are quite different from those caffeine. Caffeine is like injecting nitrous oxide into an internal combustion engine. The effects are immediate, dramatic, and short lived. Theobromine is more like putting an octane booster in the gas tank. The effects are noticeable, but much gentler and longer lasting than caffeine. Theobromine does not affect the central nervous system, but it does dilate the blood vessels, reducing blood pressure. It stimulates the cardiovascular and muscle systems, as well as the kidneys. It produces a mild pleasurable effect on the body, and lasts about 3 times as long as caffeine in the blood. Yet the difference between caffeine and theobromine is a couple of extra hydrogen molecules.

So I am experimenting with eating the chocolate bean. I left for a run this morning with a wad of cacao nibs (broken pieces of cacao beans) tucked into my cheek. I wanted to see if they had any effect on my performance. This is not really a scientific trial – there are way too many variables unaccounted for. Nevertheless, I wanted to see if I noticed anything. I did, but not really what I expected.

I noticed that I seem to be coming to terms with bitterness. To chew on cacao beans is a pretty intensely bitter experience. A few years ago I would have spit them out. This bitterness still makes me wince a bit, but I get through it, and I even manage to note some of the other essences that chocophiliacs rave about – floral and berry flavors, hints of lavender and wine. I like the idea of eating a food that has been around for thousands of years, that has been used by warriors to sustain them over long periods. I’m not sure if they chewed on “nibs” exactly, but I’m pretty sure they didn’t have chocolate bars. These are all reasons for doing this, but what’s particularly interesting is that I am doing it at all. I don’t yet find the bitterness pleasant (as some people apparently do) but I find that I can tolerate it.

I suspect this may have parallels elsewhere in my life. There has certainly been a degree of bitterness in my world lately. Fear, anxiety, fatigue, uncertainty, all flavored by traces of anger and blame. That’s just the feelings around the circumstances. It’s not even the circumstances themselves. It all makes for some difficult pills to swallow, and it tastes pretty awful going down. Yet there is nothing else for it. Life is what it is and you eat what you are served when it comes around. Still, is it possible to learn to love the bitterness?

I think maybe it is. I think, in fact, that may be a good part of what spiritual growth is about. I think maybe this is where we find the difference between knowing God, and knowing about Him. I wrote in one of my earlier posts about my puzzlement over the apparent lack of Christian tradition around purposely cultivating a peaceful heart. We all know about the myriad of eastern traditions and techniques – zen meditation, koans, chi gung, yoga, ayurveda and so on. We seldom read about a technical approach to Christian enlightenment. How does one attain to the “Peace of Christ that passeth all understanding” exactly? It’s not that the Christian tradition is void of such things. It’s not hard to find, if one looks, various practices and rules – Desert Fathers in caves, ascetics sitting on poles, vows of silence, the Benedictines, Dominicans, Franciscans and Jesuits. Various mystics practicing many types of devotion. Yet such practices do not seem to have the same hold on Christian thought as they do on the eastern religions. Perhaps this is because ultimately our peace, our joy, our enlightenment does not depend on technique and it does not depend on us. It is about a Person, and it comes from Him and flows back to Him.

Christ enlightens the darkened heart. Christ brings peace from the turmoil. Christ turns the ugly soiled things of life into pure white linen. Christ makes it new, makes it bright, and enfolds it into Himself and in so doing gives it back to us as it was meant to be. Christ is Joy -- and our Joy, and Peace and Life is in Him and is Him.

There are kinds of knowing. This is a kind of knowing that is beyond the command of information. Jesus says “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” I am thinking that He did not mean that he shows the way, although He does. He means the He is the way Himself. And when we release ourselves to Him and His work, we join ourselves to Him and we come to know Him more.

I am starting, just starting, to glimpse how Christ takes the bitterness of life and turns it. He alone can take that bitterness and redeem it, turning it into all kind of goodness. How is it, on a cosmic, historic scale that He takes Adam’s disobedience and turns it into something even better than if Adam had never sinned? The Apostle Paul wrote, “the gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died by the trespass of the one man, how much more did God's grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many!” How much more did it overflow! How much more!

This kind of turnabout is His specialty. And if He can turn about a whole world gone wrong, what can He do with my life, my bitterness? Indeed, what WILL He not do with it?

So can I learn to love the bitterness? To love to see what life Christ will bring from it? Perhaps by His grace --perhaps I can. I chew the beans, taste them, swallow them, and thank Almighty God for them. They are His gift, bitterness and all.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Hooh Rah! Red Sox!

Everybody loves a winner. I have no compunction about piling on. I am an admitted fair weather fan, one of those roaches that come out to cheer on the team during the championship game, but otherwise pretty much ignore them the rest of the season. At least I'm consistent. I'm the same way for all professional sports, without regard to...well, much of anything.

I have to say though, I KNEW the BoSox were going to win The Series the minute I tuned into game one. How could you possibly take seriously any team that would go out to play a Major League Baseball World Series game dressed like they had jumped straight out of a Jetson's cartoon. Really!

I also should note that the whole thing is just a little weird. I did grow up in New England. I do remember what it was like to wait just to see how the Red Sox would screw it up this time. It was a grand tradition. Now that we can say that 2004 was not a fluke, and now that the Patriots are truly dominating their sport, and now that even the Celtics are apparently showing signs of possible intelligent life, it seems to be a glorious time (leaving the Bruins out of it for the time being) to be a New England sports fan. Not that I'm paying any attention to any of this.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Guilty Pleasures

A few weeks ago, a friend asked me what my guilty pleasures were. She was specifically referring to music, but it’s an especially fascinating question when you apply it to other areas. I define a guilty pleasure as something that you really like, but you don’t like to admit it. The reason for your reluctance to own up to your cravings really doesn’t matter much, but it is instructive. For instance, there are some things I keep quiet because they don’t really fit in with a certain image I have of myself…ok, a certain image I like to project of myself. Sometimes it’s just that you know that your pleasure is a lowbrow thing. In some cases (not mine) you just feel that it’s somehow morally wrong.

Of course, if it actually is a matter of morality, one should just stop doing it. But the kind of guilty pleasure I’m talking about is more a matter of taste.

And as we all know De gustibus non est disputandum, especially since Quidquid latine dictum sit, altum videtur. So here is my basic list.

This is an easy choice. My guilty pleasure is ABBA. I listen to an ABBA tune once, and I can’t get those crazy Swedes out of my head. And I LIKE that I can't get it out of my head. Catchy tunes, scintillating harmonies, hooky hooks. And none of them could actually speak a word of English. You gotta admire that on some level.

I also like Gilbert and Sullivan and Burl Ives. I would have to include Sugar Sugar by the Archies. I can't help it, I like it.

I have to admit a certain fondness for most anything by Bernard Conrwell, especially the Richard Sharpe series. But those aren’t too bad really. Cornwell is a fine storyteller, does first rate research on his historical settings, and one comes to love his characters. If I truly come clean about actual guilty pleasures, I would have to admit that I have enjoyed any number of Dick Marcinko’s Navy Seal stories. The writing is horrible, the storytelling is completely formulaic, cliché-ridden and predictable – but I still enjoy it. For my money, it's hard to beat hard drinking, foul mouthed, bad ass former soldiers going renegade to save the world from being overrun by Tangoes. Guns, bombs, blood and dirt. That's some good reading right there, you betcha.

I have always been fond of Reader’s Digest, even as a kid. My kids seem to be picking that up as well.

I remember as a kid going to see a film called the Devil’s 8 in a Saturday Matinee at the Scenic Theater. I suppose it really wasn’t a good movie for kids to see, and I had never heard about it since. It was a total B movie (maybe even a C) but it made such an impression on me that I never forgot it. I can’t remember any of the plot, just that there were good guys, bad guys, lots of cars racing and flying through the air and guns. It was like, the coolest thing ever. I just looked it up on IMDB, and here are the tag lines.

They're the dregs of the prisons... scum of the chain-gangs... welded into a shock squad to smash an Underworld Empire the law can't touch!

All they had was a skill for violence and nothing to lose but their lives!

Nice! I’m sure my mother would have been proud.

On a more up to the minute note, I will say that I have no problem whatsoever viewing movies commonly pigeonholed as ‘chickflicks” with one proviso – that they are actually good stories. When Harry Met Sally, and Sleepless in Seattle are two that come to mind that I thought were pretty enjoyable. I wouldn’t rate them as best movies ever, but I enjoyed them because they were good stories about likeable people, well told. I did not cry at any of them, but I did laugh a lot.

For some time I followed the Highlander series. Immortal sword wielder defeats other immortals by chopping off their heads and receiving their power into himself in an orgy of lightning, thunder, screaming and roaring. Totally ridiculous. Lots of fun.

I never feel guilty about food. Ever. I eat what I want, and I don’t eat what I don’t want. If you don’t like it, that’s fine. Just means more for me.

Monday, October 22, 2007

God's Bombs

I recently had the opportunity to preach on a Sunday morning. Our Pastor was away, he asked me to fill the pulpit duties for him on that day. This is not the first time I have done so, but it is always a strange experience for me. The strangeness has nothing to do with standing up before a large assembly to speak – I do that for a living so there is no mystery there. It has much more to do with the nature of preaching itself.

Whenever I prepare and deliver a sermon, I am powerfully aware that what I am doing is akin to handling dynamite. The power inherent in THE WORD is always latent -- until it becomes manifest. And then all bets are off. Anything can happen. In Hebrews 4:12, the writer likens God’s word to a two edged sword, a devastating weapon. He compares it for it’s ability to cut through armor and clothing and flesh and bone, just as God’s message cuts through our defenses and into the very center of our beings. If the Writer were writing this today, he might choose a more powerful and modern weapon for his metaphor. Perhaps a Rocket Propelled Hand Grenade, or a Barrett M82A1 .50 caliber Sniper Rifle. One would certainly exhibit a great deal of care when handling an extremely sharp blade. How much more so with modern ordinance capable of extraordinary destruction upon the slightest press of a trigger.

But God's Word works as a kind of reverse dynamite. It can indeed blow up your life, but the blowing up only feels like destruction. What is destroyed is the former self. What emerges from the dust and rubble is the new man. It would be like building a house by tossing a couple of sticks of dynamite into a grove of trees. It wouldn’t work with dynamite and actual trees, but somehow, when you throw the Word of God into a grove of people, God uses the resulting explosions to build His kingdom. Go figure.

As I was pondering this most recently, it also occurred to me that if I’m feeling a little nervous about doing the preaching for this reason, then how should I feel about HEARING the preaching? After all, when I’m listening to the Word of God, the grenades are being launched at me. YIKES! Makes one sit up a bit straighter and feel more alert. One may not be able to avoid being shot at, but one might should pay attention to see it coming. I understand the soldiers in combat often develop a rather ambivalent attitude toward bullets and bombs, figuring that if it’s meant for me, then it’s gonna get me. There is no escaping, once God has you in his sights. His aim is accurate, and his weapons are unstoppable. If He means it for you, you are done for.

But NOT done for. In fact, if He means it for you, you are just getting started. You don't die -- you live more completely and more fully than before. Again, the metaphor is like the negative of the truth. It makes everything look strange because all the colors are reversed. God’s bombs heal us. God’s bombs put things in their right places. God’s bombs bring peace. The process may feel a lot like getting blown up, but the ultimate end is reassembly of the shattered walls of creation.

I think I’ll always be a little nervous when I preach. I think I’m learning to think more clearly when I receive the Word as well. I shall try to resist the urge, upon the reading of the lesson, to duck under the chair while shouting, “INCOMING!”

Red Sox

All who know me know that I cannot be counted as any kind of authentic sports fan. I like sports, and love athletics. I just do not find it especially interesting to watch professionals play. Not enough to sustain my interest over the course of a season. Certainly not enough to pay any significant attention to statistics like a real fan would.
I do however, love New England generally, and NH in particular. That, I think, will permit me to express a certain degree of sincere and heartfelt enthusiasm for our local baseball team on this particular night.

Yay Sox!

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Broad Minded Turnips

I ran into this G.K. Chesterton quote while splashing around in someone else's blog. I liked it, so I stole it and dragged it over here. Read til the end for the punch line.

The human brain is a machine for coming to conclusions; if it cannot come to conclusions it is rusty. When we hear of a man too clever to believe, we are hearing of something having almost the character of a contradiction in terms. It is like hearing of a nail that was too good to hold down a carpet; or a bolt that was too strong to keep a door shut. Man can hardly be defined, after the fashion of Carlyle, as an animal who makes tools; ants and beavers and many animals make tools, in the sense that they make an apparatus. Man can be defined as an animal that makes dogmas. As he piles doctrine on doctrine and conclusion on conclusion in the formation of some tremendous scheme of philosophy and religion, he is, in the only legitimate sense of which the expression is capable, becoming more and more human. When he drops one doctrine after another in a refined skepticism, when he declines to a system, when he says he has outgrown definitions, when he says he disbelieves in finality, when, in his own imagination, he sits as God, holding no form of creed but contemplating all, then he is by the very process sinking slowly backwards into the vagueness of the vagrant animals and the unconsciousness of the grass. Trees have no dogmas. Turnips are singularly broad-minded."
--G.K. Chesterton

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Working, Waiting, Watching

I’m at an odd place here.

I started this blog to provide a place to work out some of the random thoughts that come to me while driving, while conversing, while living, and expressing them in a more cogent and complete format. I did not intend to for it to become a Me-blog, full of self-disclosure and emotional auto-surgery. Throughout most of my writing here, I have been purposely vague regarding people I love. I don’t believe that a public internet space is the best place to reveal all manner of personal details. If you review my writing carefully, you can see that I never mention the names of my family, or post pictures of them (except the ones with my bride and I mugging for the camera at In and Out Burger). There are certainly no photos of the girls, as I feel especially protective of them, particularly when it comes to cyberspace.

But now I’ve gone and done it. I posted some of my personal drama for all to see. I certainly welcome the prayers and support of my friends, as well as the strangers that have apparently found their way to my writing. Thank you all. At this point, however, I feel I owe a bit of an explanation. I’m going to attempt to provide some detail, and yet still remain fuzzy on certain parts because I still want to maintain a certain cyber-distance here. For those of you who actually do know me and my family, I welcome you to call or write, and I’m more than happy to share details with you. For the rest of you who only know me through what I write here, know that I do indeed appreciate your reading. And I do appreciate the comments and kind words offered. Nevertheless, because I’m not really trying to open the entire book of my life for the entire world, I hope that you will forgive a certain terseness of expression and imprecision on certain details.

So…what’s the problem that has created all this ruckus?

It falls into three categories. First, my business. I have been engaged in a business for 4 years now. I have seen a certain measure of success in the beginning, and the last 3 years have been an up and down ride, mostly trending down -- at least trending well below the requirements of my life. I have poured my life into this business, expended great amount of energy and effort, learned much, and used up almost every penny of my savings. In the process I have ignored much that needed doing simply for lack of funds. I have come to a point of crisis. My frustration is such that although I can’t imagine what else to do, I also can’t quite imagine continuing on as I have.

Which brings me to the second category – my finances. Suffice it to say that I have nothing left. This is a problem which can be managed if one has a) high flexibility b)low responsibility c)good prospects for the future. My problem is that I have low to moderate flexibility, high responsibility, and after so much struggle to so little effect, I am finding it difficult to envision good prospects. A friend recently suggested applying for government aid and the idea repulses me. I can’t bring myself to do it. I have been carrying debt that I cannot pay right now, my cars and my house have some serious problems with deferred maintenance, my body likewise, and I’m left deciding which bills will not get paid this month. This has been going on so long that I am left feeling drained and just tired of the struggle.

What is the third? On top of all this, my wife has been struggling with health issues for some years. We have been living for the last three under the spectre of Multiple Sclerosis. Recently, some of this came to a head when she awoke one morning unable to see from one eye. To cut through the intervening events, it appears to be uveitis (inflammation of the eye) which is usually a signal of other conditions taking place within the body. Specifically it usually points to an auto-immune condition, or a rheumatic (inflammatory illness) condition. We are not sure what this may mean in the long run, but we suspect it will not be very good. On the other hand, we may be getting just a little closer to finding out what has actually been plaguing her for all these years, and find a treatment. The greatest problem is that we simply don't know. The possibilities for this range from the deadly to the chronically inconvenient. One tries not to mentally go to the worst case scenario, for while it may be true (or may not) dwelling there yields few benefits. Yet that is where the mind tends to want to go. It is a discipline to keep a firm grip on reality yet a strong focus on the best possible outcome at all times. For my wife, this raises all kinds of questions about what she needs to do to take care of herself, including considering whether she can continue to operate our home school. These are enormous questions. Mostly, we just want her to be well because we love her.

Of course, all this comes at a price. While I am glad for the doctors and the work they have been doing, the fear created by the news they are uncovering is heightened by the fact that I have absolutely no idea of how I am going to pay for all this. We have some health insurance (for which we pay most dearly – a significant source of our financial ills) but it by no means covers everything. By the time this is all done, I could foresee this doubling or tripling our debt. I’m just making that number up, but it seems feasible. Again, this would be manageable if I could see how I could make the money to pay for it. My challenge is that I do not seem to have the wherewithal within my current business to obtain to that.

So here I am. Something’s gotta give. And perhaps something is. We have been alert and looking to see how God is working in this. We know that He seems to like to work through the agency of the people around us, but we have also tried to be alert for outright miracles. We wouldn’t put it past Him. He has a history of that sort of thing.

Today we had a most candid conversation with a man who has been a good friend, mentor and teacher throughout this process. He brought me into this business. Today he listened. He asked a few questions and learned some things of which he was not aware. He promised to work with us to find a way to make things work. This conversation has been extremely helpful.

I have found a way to possibly reduce the cost of our family health insurance. I will be pursuing that immediately.

We have been amazed at how many people have responded by pointing us to resources, people they know who know something about this sort of thing. Others have stepped up to tell us (and show us) how much they care by actually providing physical help, taking the girls so we can go to doctor’s appointments, or accompanying my wife when I cannot. Others who cannot do that have offered innumerable words of encouragement and prayer, and we are exceptionally grateful for those. In a time when we find ourselves praying more than every, we especially appreciate the prayers of others.

The medication my wife is taking is helping. Her eyesight is improving as the inflammation reduces. We have been pleased by the physicians she has been working with.

These then, are the great dragons of my life now. We work, and we work and we work. That does not stop. We also wait and wait and wait. And perhaps we learn slowly, slowly, to trust and depend not on our own arms, but on the arm of the LORD to slay them. We learn slowly, slowly to live by the power of His Spirit, and in this to ascribe to the One True and Living God the glory due Him.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Arise My Soul, Arise!

Arise, my soul, arise,
shake off your guilty fears;
The bleeding sacrifice,
in my behalf appears;
Before the throne my Surety stands,
Before the throne my Surety stands,
My name is written on His hands.

He ever lives above,
for me to intercede;
His all redeeming love,
His precious blood, to plead;
His blood atoned for every race,
His blood atoned for every race,
And sprinkles now the throne of grace.

Five bleeding wounds He bears;
received on Calvary;
They pour effectual prayers;
they strongly plead for me:
"Forgive him, O forgive," they cry,
"Forgive him, O forgive," they cry,
"Nor let that ransomed sinner die!"

The Father hears Him pray,
His dear anointed One;
He cannot turn away
the presence of His Son;
The Spirit answers to the blood,
The Spirit answers to the blood
And tells me I am born of God.

My God is reconciled;
His pardoning voice I hear;
He owns me for His child;
I can no longer fear
With confidence I now draw nigh,
With confidence I now draw nigh,
And "Father, Abba, Father," cry.

Words by Charles Wesley

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Random Collisions

Lazlo's Chinese Relativity Axiom:
No matter how great your triumphs or how tragic your defeats -- approximately one billion Chinese couldn't care less.

Give a man a fire and he'll be warm for the night. Set a man on fire and he'll be warm for the rest of his life.
--Terry Pratchett

Most people want to serve God--but only in an advisory capacity!
-- unattributed

Some people are like Slinkies. They really aren't much good for anything, but they still bring a smile to your face when you push them down a flight of stairs.
--Kevin G. Barkes

Wednesday, October 10, 2007


As a rule, Dragon Slayers are not prone to whining. Most of the whiners are weeded out early in the interview process. It is simply not a trait conducive to effectiveness in saurian combat. So part of being a Dragon Slayer is a built in toughness, a tolerance for pain, a high concentration of grit and gristle and grin and bear it.

Even so, one might be excused for the occasional flinch, the momentary outburst, the reflexive grunt when struck. No one ever said that dragons die easily. In fact they are renowned for being tough, clever, persistent and crafty enemies. They will seldom go down without giving almost as good as they get, inflicting injury and harm wherever they can strike. So Dragon Slayers get hit. A lot. It goes with the territory. When you step out of the castle and onto the battleground, you give up the safety of the walls and you are fairly begging to take one on the chin. Does it really matter that much if you made noise when the tail whacked you? Or is it more important that you simply got up to go at it again?

And there is the real issue. It is one thing to stand there and take the hit. It is another to rise again after uncounted knock downs to attack with vigor and intrepid fortitude.

Teddy Roosevelt was a dragon slayer. He understood this well.

It is not the critic that counts – not the one who points out where the strong man stumbled or where the doer of deeds could have done better. No, the credit belongs to the one who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by the dust and sweat and blood – who spends himself in a worthy cause, whose heart knows the great enthusiasm and the great devotions. If they succeed, they know in the end the triumph of high achievement; but if they fail they at least fail while daring greatly, so that their place shall never be among those cold and timid souls which know neither victory nor defeat.

Victory is not mine, yet. Let me just say….at least I am still standing, and that counts for something.

Bracing for the Next Blow

There are times when life strips you and empties you and all you can do is stand and wait for whatever is going to happen. It is a labor to acknowledge the reality of reality, yet maintain a firm focus on the best possible outcome. Rather than seeming full of promise and possibility, the future seems to bring one humiliating blow after another. One wonders where providence leads, what God is up to, and how this will all play out. There is a strong sense that it’s out of my control, and that all I can do is continue to work, but mostly just watch God work. It is, I suppose, a measure of the weakness of my faith that my confidence that I’m going to like the outcome is pretty low. It’s more like I’m bracing for the impact. Here is where I acknowledge that “liking it” isn’t really the point.

There has been much praying for strength, wisdom and grace. There has been much praying of the Lord’s Prayer. There has been much praying of Psalm 23. There has been much wondering if it is all being heard. There has been much wondering if any of it is being heard. There has been much wondering whether if it is being heard, what’s being done about it.

This is all cryptic to those of you who don’t know my specific situation. Suffice it for now that it involves loved ones, emergency room visits, medical specialists, lots of medical testing, limited health insurance, uncertain diagnosis and prognosis, a profound shortage of cash, and lots of medical terminology that does not bode well.

Yeah. I really don’t know what to do here. I have been struggling for so long to slay the dragons, but my quest has been confounded at almost every turn. So, I stand stripped and empty and I wait.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Just Answer the Question

One of my favorite things is to answer the question “How are you?” In our culture, this question fills the role of protocol. It is a social lubricant, not really a question, not even really words, just noise we make to signal to each other that we are social and generally wish to get along. A real answer is not expected. The custom is to return an appropriate corresponding social signal. Once the pleasantries are over, the business begins.

So it is a great delight to answer this question with a totally appropriate but wholly unexpected answer. I have several stock answers laid up, ready to use at a moment’s notice and I think I shall come up with a few more.

How are you?
Outstanding! (spoken with unnecessary gusto)

This is my most common answer. It is simple and direct and the tone carries all the meaning. It makes people snap to attention, smile, and often comment on how that’s the best thing they’ve heard all day.

How are you?
If I was any better, there’d be two of me.

How are you?
If I was any better, vitamins would be taking me.

How are you?
I’m so good I’m thinking of franchising myself.

How are you?
I’m just high on life! Oh Yeah! Thanks for asking.

How are you?
I’m enormously wealthy, thank you.

(When asked the inevitable follow up question, explain in a matter-of-fact tone that you are wealthy in love, family, freedom, etc. Watch their eyes roll back in their heads. It’s terribly amusing. When they say “I thought you meant money.” Say, “Oh yeah, that too.” You don’t have to tell them that you mean that simply by living in America and being better than federal poverty level, you are still likely to be among the 10% of the most wealthy people in the world. )

How are you?
Well, I have many super powers and a colossal bulk that frightens evil villains.

How are you?
Great. I killed 3 dragons today. I’m a little sore, but still…I’m great!

The possibilities are endless. It really annoys some people. Others really love it. Either way, it's good.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Primary Sources

There is a great temptation in this day and age to take one’s reading filtered. Scholars, pundits, commentators, journalists, and writers of all kinds generate streams of words that trickle out of the sumps and springs of our culture, run down the sides of our societal landscape and into the vast oceans of words and ideas that form our collective consciousness. Some of what is written is quite useful, good, truthful, and a portion of it even qualifies as beautiful. Much of it is about other words, other writings, other comments, other stories. We write and we write about writing, and we write about writing about writing.

Case in point – you are reading some of it right now.

Unlike drinking water, however, filtered reading is not purer or even tastier. Filtered water may seem more palatable and feels safer. None of that nasty giardia lamblia, or cryptosporidium to worry about. But in the process of filtering much is lost and something is typically added. When hiking the Appalachian Trail I carried a large and expensive water filter to purify my water. It was heavy, but I preferred it to dropping musty tasting chemicals into my water. But even this filter would add traces of iodine to my filtered water.

There were times, especially in the southern states, where I was extremely glad to have a quality filter. The water sources were sluggish and sometimes stagnant. Muddy water was more common than clean water. In these cases, the filter was a godsend. But as I moved further north I found more and more springs and high altitude streams to drink from. Especially once into the New England states I began to simply not use my filter at all. If I’m standing in a place that is already higher than 90% of the population of humans OR animals, and the stream originates from someplace higher still, and if it is quick running over rocks and rills, I figure that drinking it is pretty safe. I might still filter if the source is near human or animal habitation, either wild or domestic. I might still filter if that water source is slow moving or stagnant. But more and more I found it to be safe and rewarding to drink directly from the source – the pure unadulterated water spurting from the heart of the earth herself.

I think this says a great deal about our reading. There is a generally recognized canon of “Great Books.” The list may vary in length and selection depending on who makes it. Most of these lists are oriented toward Western thinkers and those works foundational to western civilization. Some go broader to include Oriental works as well. It is not that these books are held to be true in all their ideas. They are considered great because they contain powerful ideas, powerfully expressed – so much so that in many cases the ideas contained in them have changed the world.

I have read much about these books. I have actually read very little of the books themselves. As I mentioned before, it takes work. First you have to find them. They are not always down in the valleys, along the highways where they are easily accessible. In fact, much of what you find in along the roads must be filtered. The purer better reading requires climbing and effort and sweat to attain. One has to be in a certain mental condition to get to where one can drink from those wells.

But, if my metaphor holds true, it is totally worth it. The experience of drinking directly from a mountain stream, plunging your face into the frigid water and sucking deep draughts of cold liquid diamond is elemental and altogether delicious. There is no better tasting water in the world. I suppose a scientist could argue, stating that the mineral content is not appreciably different or better than tap water, and that the risk of contamination is higher, but it’s not about minerals. It’s about the spirit of the water, I think.

I suspect the same may be true of the great books. There is something valuable in the work, in the spirit of the original work, the primary source. It is colder, fresher and cleaner, even though the language may be archaic and strange to the ears. The ideas are direct, unfiltered and bear with them a raw energy not present in commentaries and criticisms. Not that we should not read writing about writing. I suspect, however, that I would do well to drink more from mountain streams than I do, and I would do well to read more of the primary sources than I do.

We cannot afford to be lazy in anything we do. We can least afford it when it comes to our hearts and our minds.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Food, Booze and Books

A friend of mine recently commented on my remarks on books that are difficult to read.

Just because everyone else likes something doesn't mean you have to. I don't like eating at fancy restaurants, I'd rather watch a game at a bar than in the stadium, and I don't like any of those books either.
This got me thinking. My comments about the books I haven’t read were intended more as a commentary on me, not a comment on the books. The fact that I find so many of the great books difficult is because they are difficult. Is that an excuse not to engage with them?

Reading great literature gives you the opportunity to sit under the teaching of the greatest minds of all time – of ALL time. A teacher can be long dead, his bones turned to dust, but through his book, he can teach you. You can learn from him. Sometimes this will only happen if you have the courage, the tenacity, the will and, indeed, the intellect, to engage him on the page. It is certainly a different experience from working with a living teacher, but at the same time, it is not. Some teachers are clear, pleasing to work with. They reach out to you and attempt to shape their ideas to your understanding. Other teachers dish out almost grudgingly, making you work for each step of growth in understanding.

The question is, which is more important; the ease with which you can grasp the idea, or the power of the idea itself? It is useful to separate the value of the content of ideas in a book, from the style or manner of the writing of it. There have been certain teachers in my life that I did not like at all. Yet my time with them was extremely valuable. I cannot say that they did not care about my learning. They did. Style was not the issue.

The fact is, some ideas are hard, and must be hard won. There is no other way.

What especially struck me about my friend’s comments is that in some ways it sounded much like me 20 years ago. Eating in fancy restaurants? Not for me. High falutin’ digs? Not comfortable. I have since learned that this says more about me than about the restaurant. How did I learn this? I have paid my money and I have eaten at fancy restaurants. I discovered that there are few experiences that parallel truly excellent dining.

My first experience, and most memorable (we always remember the first time, don’t we?) was at La Poulet au Dents in Norwich VT. I’m not sure it’s spelled correctly, but it is supposed to mean The Teeth of the Hen. I don’t believe it exists any longer. I took my bride there when we were on a vacation visiting family in NH during our time in exile in the Midwest. It was, up until that time, the most expensive meal I had ever had. It cost us over $100.00 in 1989. For a young married couple on limited means this was a significant splurge.

And it was pretty classy. It’s one of those places where the busboy comes out between courses with a little silver whisk broom and dustpan to sweep off your tablecloth. Yet I must say, it was one of the most delightful experiences I have ever had. We simply put ourselves in the hands of the staff. From the beginning we explained to our waiter that we had not experience with this type of cuisine or establishment and we asked for his recommendations. We were feeling adventurous and willing to try new things (as we usually are when it comes to food). Neither the staff nor the food disappointed.

When it was all done, I sat back feeling an amazed and delighted contentment. I had paid over a hundred bucks for a truly astounding experience of beauty and sensual delight. It was completely worth it, and my horizons had been greatly expanded.

I likened it to attending a musical concert. Many musical concerts will end up costing at least that much to attend. Yet we don’t think that’s particularly odd or unusual. This was music for the palate and the nose and the skin and the eyes. It was the shared enjoyment of good things, with someone I love deeply, and whose company in that quiet sharing was delightful. It came at a cost, and the return on that investment was enormous. You do get what you pay for. This is true on many levels.

More recently I have experienced something similar with another friend who introduced me to single malt scotch. This is certainly not a drink for the weak or flighty. It is a drink to be considered, pondered and enjoyed (pardon the pun) soberly. It actually takes a certain degree of concentration to appreciate it. This does not mean that it is a bad liquor. It is just that it is not an easily accessible liquor, aesthetically speaking. But is it worthy? Oh yes. Oh my yes!

Just don't expect to mix it with 7-up. You can drink it that way, but you will completely (and I mean COMPLETELY) miss the point.

So what does food and booze have to do with books? Just this. I am still young. I am growing into these books. I will be reading until I am dead. I will never stop trying to read War and Peace. I will someday actually tackle Calvin. My difficulty with these books simply means that I have some maturing to do. Someday, I may even learn to love opera. Some people for whom I have tremendous respect assure me that there is much in opera that is worthing learning to like.

Just because it is an acquired taste does not mean that it isn’t good. It just means that I can’t find that goodness yet. But when the time is right, I am confident that I will be ready to learn.