Thanksgiving When Your Backyard is on Fire

25mph winds brought down power lines in our backyard yesterday. One line sliced through a dead tree near our yard like a lightsaber, bringing flaming wood down into the yard. Leaves that the winds has collected against the fence were the perfect kindling.

My wife (who is much better in a crisis than I am) called me from work to inform me about these goings on before calling 911. I rushed home from work to find first responders calming going about the business of containing the fire (which was actively spreading to the neighbor’s property.

Our dog had been sniffing around the first downed power line before Joanna saw the situation and called her in. An officer later told me that line had enough voltage to vaporize on contact. In other words, we could’ve easily lost our pup, but we didn’t. Something to be thankful for.

Joanna just happened to be off from work and home with our son when she saw the lines coming down. If she hadn’t been there to call emergency services, who knows how quickly the fire would’ve spread in the high winds. No one was hurt and our home didn’t burn. Something to be thankful for.

As a result of the downed lines, we lost power to the house. My in-laws took us in while my dad and brother took turns taking care of the dog while we were away. And I’m told we have power again. Family is something to be thankful for.

As a nice cherry on top, my parents gave me my late Grandmom’s typewriter and I am loving it. Grace to be thankful for.

Not every year brings something as dramatic as a fire on Thanksgiving eve. But every morning does bring new mercies, should we have eyes to see them. Wishing you and yours a very happy and safe Thanksgiving!

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Armed With Steele

Andrew Peterson (whose new book on creativity is out and amazing) has spoken about art as a blending together of honesty, beauty, and truth. If you put together honesty and truth without much thought for beauty, you get most of what passes for Christian music on the radio. If you have honesty and beauty, but no clear expression of the truth, you get something like Coldplay or Brian Fallon. When you get all three, you get someone like Rich Mullins. But when, Peterson says, when you have truth and beauty, but no honesty, the result is most hymns.

Now, on principle, I suppose I would’t disagree too much. But two of my favorite hymnists break that rule. Perhaps they are the Rich Mullins (Mullinses?) of hymnody: William Cowper (pronounced “cooper”) and Anne Steele.

 “Dear Refuge of my weary soul, 
On thee, when sorrows rise, 
On thee, when waves of trouble roll, 
My fainting hope relies. 
But O! when gloomy doubts prevail, 
I fear to call thee mine; 
The springs of comfort seem to fail, 
And all my hopes decline.”

That’s a hymn by Anne Steele. Sandra McCracken has popularized it, but Kevin Twit of Indelible Grace has really been at the forefront of bringing her poetry back into the conversation (let alone adding incredible music to her words). You can read about her life here. But the lines of her hymns have been such honey and moonlight for me because they combine honesty, beauty, and truth in a way that speaks to the wreck that I am.

How oft, alas, this wretched heart
Has wandered from the Lord,
How oft my roving thoughts depart,
Forgetful of his word!
Yet sovereign mercy calls, “Return!”
Dear Lord, and may I come?
My vile ingratitude I mourn;
O take the wanderer home.

That’s a Tuesday for me. My prayers are usually some inelegant, muttered version of “O take the wanderer home.” I wander often. My heart is a rover. And yet the unstoppable love that keeps me from going off the cliff calls me back. Even in my “vile ingratitude,” he calls me back because I am his.

She knows what it’s like to have a fainting hope and to breathe sorrows. She teaches me to ask of God, “Unveil thy beauties to my sight that I might love thee more.” I hope you can find her on Spotify or Pandora or wherever you get your earfood.

If you’re walking through this world, it’s nice to be armed with Steele.

1 Corinthians 15:12-19

Last night, I had the worst dream about you.
You decided I wasn't worth the pain.
And like a ship that couldn't wreck, I tried 
To strain against the waves of black and blue.
I just remember screaming through the rain
As you crept back into the tomb and died.
And as your lungs stopped moving, I sunk down
Beneath a freezing sea. But there were none
Now left to lend a saving hand, to drown
The fear. No Spirit to leave death undone.And so we lay there, you, under the ground,And me, under the ocean's depth around
My head. And the salt of my tears became
The sea. We'll have to re-brand and rename.

“But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead…”

I wrote this sonnet today. It’s in iambic pentameter with the rhyme scheme:

ABC ABC DEDE FF GG

The lopsided structure of the 14 lines gives it a disorienting feel with rhymes you would expect. That’s intentional to the subject. I’ve always been fascinating by Paul’s playing of the “what if” game in 1 Corinthians 15. If Christ is still dead, then we need to not call this Christianity. In fact, we’re the most pathetic bunch if the tomb still holds his bones. To me, that’s a nightmare. But I thought the passage was worth paraphrasing in order to remind myself of the importance of the empty tomb.

Happy Monday.

My wife, her sister, her sister’s husband, and I were at Hutchmoot this past weekend. As an Enneagram 4w5 who scores quite high in openness to experiences, it was like crack to me. It’s Rivendell transported to 2019 Nashville. Now, I’ve been through too many last nights of camp to be all that sad to let beautiful things like that go. The transitory nature of it is part of its glory. It’s the contrast that gets me.

Because there’s no buffer day for me, I have no time to process all that we experienced. I can’t take some leisure time fill out a notebook with all my thoughts and feelings and reflections. This is a baby step toward that end, but it’s not nearly enough. I have to go to work today.

Most people who attended Hutchmoot have to go to work today. The hard work of teaching and raising children in the home, keeping house, holding down a cubicle, sitting in class, staring at screens- the contrast is jarring.

Yet, as I was talking with the Lord this morning, he spoke to me out of Psalm 104. I like to think of as Wendell Berry’s psalm. It describes the creation and how creatures live out their ordained roles and functions and are sustained by the God of the wild. And two thirds through the poem, God says, “Man goes out to his work and to his labor until the evening” (Ps.104:23).

Before sin shattered and stained everything, work was God’s idea. And putting in a full day of good work (frustrating and tough and draining though it may be) is actually part of the original tapestry. Whether our day job is creative by nature or whether creativity has to grow slowly through spreadsheets like wildflowers through asphalt, we are a part of God’s spinning watercolor called Earth.

He waters the cedars. He feeds the cattle. He sees to it that we have wine, oil, and bread. He gives the lion cubs a meal in the dead of night. And man goes out to his work and to his labor until the evening. Bless the Lord, O my soul.

Hutchmoot and Monday are equally part of God’s calendar. Both are clothed by the Lord with splendor and majesty, even if one dazzles and the other sort of just sits there. Enjoy your Monday and all the hard work that it brings. Revel in the contrast. Tomorrow, we get another Tuesday.

“A Tree That Looks at God All Day…”

We have a dozen trees on the property.

It makes us sound like farmers or ranchers to say “on the property,” as if we have a back 40 to clear and plow. Our house is cozy and built in 1954. We mostly own grass. But out of that grass, we have twelve beautiful trees.

I forget who said it, but God didn’t merely make “trees.” He made oaks and maples and aspens and hickories. His artwork is utterly specific. I can’t decide if birds got me into trees or if Tolkien did. It was probably a combination of both.

When I worked as a shelver at a library, I snatched a wonderful book out of a pile that was being phased out of circulation. It’s called The Trees of Missouri by Don Kurz with illustrations by Paul Nelson. The state commissioned it in 2003 and I’ve enjoyed it since around 2012. It’s been a helpful friend to me.

On the east (facing the street), we have three silver maples. Silver maples are my absolute favorite trees. The name is delicious, but it’s actually the shape of the leaf that does me in. I haven’t found another tree that can best it. Silver maples are one of the earliest trees in Missouri to flower. They like the edges of streams, like the little creek on our northern property line. Their “whirlybirds” clog up our gutter, but delight my son to no end. I grew up calling them helicopter seeds.

The elderly silver maple with the ivy shawl is named Gwendolyn. The little one next to her is Jack. And the large fella caddycorner to the silver lady is Sylvester.

And then we have three sugar maples in a line along the south of the house. They are unnamed and untapped. Literally, I have yet to tap them for maple syrup. I bought a syrup kit a few years back, but I’ve yet to be of the right mind when the temperature is just right. It needs to be cool enough in the winter, but above freezing so that the sap will flow well. One of these days…

And then we have the sycamores. There’s a supporting character in the back yard outside of the fence, but he’s mostly just there to drop branches right where I need to mow. Treebeard, however, is the massive sycamore in our backyard. He dominates the landscape. When we bought the house in 2015, I dutifully measured his trunk to determine his age. While I can’t recall the exact number, I know it was only a few years old when our town was founded. By that reckoning, he’s easily over 160 years old.

It startles me, having something so massive and ancient living behind us while we sleep. It’s probably 110-120 feet tall, dwarfing our little cottage. Come winter, the goldfinches will feast on the seeds that Treebeard offers. The Osage Native Americans used sycamore inner-bark to make tea for flu season. As innocent as that makes our Ent sound, I’m still uncomfortably in awe of that enormous organism. I don’t want to even think about how far his fingers extend beneath the gopher-pocked earth.

Huddling awkwardly in the sycamore’s shadow is an eastern red cedar. She’s balding a bit on one side, but the fruit is lovely. Cedar waxwings love them, but I’ve yet to have them visit. Red cedars from the forests in Virginia and Tennessee used to provide us with the nation’s pencils before the incense cedar became the more popular choice. If Treebeard is old, Juniper (that’s her unoriginal name) might be downright antediluvian. Well, not quite. But some eastern red cedars down in the Ozarks have been aged at over 1,000 years. I hope Juniper keeps the faith.

And then there’s Dr. Seuss. He’s our other evergreen. I’m not entirely sure what he is. Possibly a cypress. His top is slumped sideways like a dog that just heard a strange noise. I respect his privacy so I’ll most likely leave him unidentified. He guards the corner of our yard, keeping watch on the two streets that entrap us.

Three silver maples. Three sugar maples. A mysterious conifer. Two sycamores. An eastern red cedar. There’s also a lackluster silver maple up by the south curb. But we don’t talk about him.

Rounding out the dozen is our Rose of Sharon. She’s currently in bloom and it’s incredible. My mom was the first to identify her. I didn’t even know she was there until our first summer here. Hibiscus syriacus is, as her given name suggests, not a Missouri native. Possibly Syrian (more likely Chinese or Indian), she made her debut on American shores around 1600. They don’t often fight the local vegetation except in Castlewood State Park. Don Kurz actually makes a note that it aggressively spread out into that St. Louis park and made it a stronghold for Sharon. That’s her name, by the way. Again, we save our creativity for other things. She holds sway with her purple buds by our overgrown garden.

Sharon.

“Only God can make a tree.”

Will September Ever End?

September is mostly an exercise in patience. It’s a month of waiting. I think of Anne Shirley’s lovely line about a world in which Octobers exists and can’t muster any similar enthusiasm for Septembers. There’s probably only one good song written about September.

But the ninth month has always felt unremarkable and transitional to me. It’s a steppingstone, a “Steptember stone”, worn smooth by the rush of pumpkin spice lattes and bonfires and scarves.

When I was small, it was a month at the hinge of a new school year. I had settled into my classrooms, but who knew what the remainder of the calendar held? Poor grades? Adolescent romances? Musical competitions? Worth the wait? Sometimes.

As a baseball fan, September is the waiting month for post-season. Will my team swoon? What will the Fall Classic look like? Can we hold off our rivals? Or will this month be the final stab in the throat of our playoff hopes? Worth the wait? We’ll see.

In 2013, I asked my girlfriend to marry me. Miraculously, she said “yes.” And then we waited. Six months of dating. Six months of engagement. The waiting is the worst part. But it’s been infinitely worth it.

Yet when it comes to the Church year, the waiting is the best part. That’s what Advent is about. September is good practice for Advent. We’re not quite done with ordinal time, but I can smell the apocalyptic hope wafting down from heaven around this time of year. And Christmas is only one hundred days from now. Worth the wait, I believe.

And when will the leaves turn? September is a waiting game with respect to autumn. On September 23, we begin the long descent into the darker months. The earth’s axis tilts perpendicular to the sun’s rays and the trees blush themselves to death. This, also, is worth the wait.

I wanted to post this sooner, but I had to wait. Enjoy your September while it’s still here. And may it be worth the weight of all thirty worn-out days.

The Exorcist

I remember when I finally saw the classic horror film, The Exorcist. It’s reputation preceded it. I’d seen clips and references for years. But at some point in college, it was on TV and I committed.

I remember laughing a lot. Maybe it was too late at night and I was tired, but I definitely smirked more than the director intended. It just seemed- what’s the word? Campy? Outdated? Hammy? Pea soup and levitating beds.

I was underwhelmed and moved on. But if the themes of that movie is true (the reality of aggressive evil, the vulnerability of humanity, and victory of good), perhaps the shtick of that movie does more than just fail to hold up. There’s a trivialization that comes with it. If all it costs to see a portrayal of spiritual realities is a movie ticket, they’re just another commodity to be consumed or ignored at my convenience.

The ancient Christian Church had an approach to exorcism that I find fascinating and instructive (if we can curb our “chronological snobbery”). The brilliant 2nd century theologian Origen tells a story of what happened once when he was preaching on the call of Hannah (1 Sam.2). A demon-possessed person in the congregation stands up and starts screaming. Origen calmly lead the church in repeating Hannah’s phrase, “My heart exults in the Lord,” until the spirit left this person. As a result, many of the people who had been skeptics were converted. (See Origen, Homilies on Samuel, 1.10.)

What?

What do I make of that in 2019? Is it campy and outdated? Well, certainly, the 2nd century didn’t seem to see spiritual realities as commodities to be bought for the price of admission. Origen knew that this sort of thing just happened. And when the power of God squashed the enemy so visibly, a lot of people were moved to conversion. Origen called them the “traces of that Holy Spirit who appeared in the form of a dove [that] are still preserved among Christians” (Origen, Contra Celsus, 1.46).

In 2nd century Gaul (modern France area), Irenaeus tells us that Christians “in Jesus’ name…drive out devils, so that those who have been thus cleansed from evil spirits frequently both believe and join themselves to the Church.” Tertullian knew this. When demons are exorcised through prayer, it “regularly makes Christians” (Apologies, 23.18). In the early 4th century, Lactantius, writing from the imperial capital of Trier, reported that when people struggling with demonic forces experience or taste the power of Christ, they discover that is more powerful than the evil that oppresses them. As a result, the church was able to “bring a great many people to God, in wonderful fashion” (Divine Institutes, 5.22.24).

I recently began reading Justin Martyr’s first and second apologies from the early 2nd century. He points out four specific sins that he thought he could trace directly to demonic oppression and enslavement: sexual compulsions, the magic arts, the desire to increase wealth/property, and hateful violence. But when Christians prayed for grace, Christ freed those who were enslaved. The pattern seems to hold. When evil was exorcised and the person was freed, they were able to believe the gospel and come to faith in Christ alone.

Exorcism took on an almost formal role in discipleship later on in the 4th and 5th centuries. Before a catechumen (a person who had been learning the faith) was baptized, the exorcist would come alongside this baby believer as the last step before getting triply dunked. And yes, churches had exorcists. Origen, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian- these fathers all just assumed that any Christian could exorcise demons. By the middle third century (like most things), exorcism had become a specialized skill set in the Church.

On the day of baptism, the bishop himself would come and exorcise the baptismal candidate. This was important for Christians to know who they were renouncing, not just to whom they were pledging allegiance. The Apostolic Tradition (an Egyptian 3rd century book of church order) tells us that the weeks preceding baptism were this constant process of fighting through enslavement to sin and confessing sins in which Christ dominated the “stranger” in the Christian’s life (the Enemy) and the Christian went through a “detox” from the dominant culture (Apostolic Tradition, 20.4).

All that to say, I think we could benefit from seeing the Christian life as something of an exorcism. I’m not saying we fill up our SuperSoakers with holy water and run riot through the streets. But as our struggle is against spiritual wickedness (Eph. 6:12), we need to withhold all opportunities from the devil (Eph. 4:27). I’m suggesting that Christian sanctification could be seen as a gradual and lifelong form of exorcism.

The more we are filled with the Holy Spirit (Eph. 5:18) and resist the devil (James 4:7), the more we draw closer to God in obedience and faith. As we detoxify our souls from the surrounding world (Rom.12:1-2), the Spirit is transforming us more and more into Christ’s likeness. This need not be as visibly dramatic as it was in the early church (and still is in many parts of the Global South). But the daily grind of fighting your sin and mocking the devil is just as dramatic and awful.

It’s part of the greatest story ever told. I bought that ticket. And Christ will see me through past the end credits.

This World is Not (Yet) My Home

I enjoyed the movie, O Brother Where Art Thou, when it came first came out nineteen years ago. I still like it a lot. I’m halfway through the Iliad with the Odyssey next on my list as far as classics go. It was a beautiful blend of old South Americana and mythology. Not to mention, the music was excellent. Alison Krauss is the heartbeat of American music.

But as I’ve read the Bible and read the fathers and Reformed theology, some of the lyrical themes of that wonderful movie’s soundtrack no longer sit right in my craw, beautiful as they are. “I’ll Fly Away.” “The Angel Band.” “I Am Weary (Let Me Rest).” So much of that beautiful soundtrack is dotted with old poems about “going home” and finding final and eternal rest in a heavenly home. That’s appropriate for the movie because it’s loosely based on the Odyssey, a story about a man trying to get back home.

And yet, if we can’t feel at home in this world anymore because we’re just passing through, what good is this world? What real need do we have to care for it if God is going to burn it up (as a certain type of theology promises). I once heard a popular preacher (speaking about global warming), “If you think it’s hot now, wait until Jesus gets a hold of it!” There are few more wicked sentiments I can think of for a man of the cloth to proclaim from a pulpit. It implies that the Creator is somehow chomping at the bit, eager to obliterate everything good that he made that was stained by sin.

And I’ve heard it geared towards teenagers as well. Take this world and give me Jesus. I’m not home yet. This is not where I belong. There could more harmful things to listen to on the radio. But this is just a more modern repacking of “I’ll fly away” and “this world is not my home.”

This is how Greek philosophy got its fingers around the gospel’s throat and never really let go. On the one hand, the Epicureans (“eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we die”) saw our bodies as cruise ships to be enjoyed until they shipwreck on the shallow reefs of indulgence. But on the other hand, the one that grabbed onto Christianity, the body was a prison from which the soul needed to escape. That’s what the disciples of Plato believed. Don’t indulge the body. Indulge the mind. Ignore the body. It’s evil and untrustworthy and too much like the animals. What matters is reason (the Logos). Feed the mind with knowledge. If you gain enough knowledge, you feed the soul and the soul is what matters.

Plato said that all the physical things you see are like shadows on a cave wall. There’s a fire behind you, but you can’t see the fire because you’re chained up in the cave and you can only see the shadows on the wall that the fire is casting. According to Plato, all physical reality is made up of shadows. They aren’t important. What really matters is the thing that is casting the shadow- the hidden thing, the thing that you can’t see. That’s what matters. In the words of Master Yoda, “Luminous beings are we. Not this crude matter.”

A good Platonist, Yoda was.

Plato believed that the young should be taught to welcome death, neither to regret nor lament it. Does that sound familiar? I’ve heard and seen too much nonsense about Christian funerals as a flavor of celebration. Grieving with hope gets replaced with the celebration of liberation. Plato believed that death is good, something to be greeted like an old friend. Why? He believed that because he believed death is the moment when the immortal soul is set free from the prison of the physical body.

Plato viewed death as a jailbreak for the soul. Biblical Christianity views death as the last enemy to be destroyed. What happens after death? Well, Plato said that judgment is based upon deeds. The wicked go to hell. But the righteous souls fly away to join the stars. Does that sound familiar? Socrates famously said upon his deathbed that the real “me” was not the corpse he would leave behind, but that which is inside the body before death. He said a human is a “little soul carrying around a corpse.”

Platonists believed that the virtuous joined the stars at death. They became stars. The immortal souls are implanted into human bodies (male, the superior, and female, the inferior) and the main task of the soul is to master the desires and emotions of the body: pleasure, pain, fear, rage, etc. Those who do that well enough go and join the stars.

Some prison breaks involve more pandamonium than others.

And so, if you believe the body is a prison and death is the jailbreak, why would you believe in a reality in which you are reunited with your prison? No prisoner wants to go back to the jail he just escaped. That’s why Plato is not very helpful in understanding the incarnation or the resurrection. Plato would certainly not have wanted to live out eternity in a physical world.

The Stoics, for instance, believed that at the end of the present age, everything would be dissolved by fire, and the whole order of the universe would end. Does that sound familiar? The Greeks didn’t want to live in a physical world. They wanted the physical world to burn so that they could have spiritual bliss.

Looking for truth in Alderaan places.

Epicureans said that death is the end of everything. Yolo. Carpe diem.

Platonists said that death is the beginning of everything. Don’t fear the jailbreak. Be ready to fly away.

If the world is Epicurean, the Church has become Platonic. In the first case, the resurrection is disbelieved as ridiculous. In the second, it is reduced as a irrelevant, a secondary curiosity that simply make our faith distinct. And on both views, this world is not seen as a home. It’s seen as a buffet to be used or an enclosure to be destroyed.

And yet, I understand the impulse to those songs. I understand the homesickness. But that other world for which we are made is a world that will one day come to this world so that “heaven and earth be one.” This world is not yet my home. But it will be. That’s my hope.

A Meditation on Cosmic Alchemy

Have you ever heard of the Maillard reaction?

It’s named after the man helplessly attached to this mustache, Louis Camille Maillard. Both he and the mustache were French.

I never cooked that much before I was married. My wife is an excellent cook and, after a few years of looking over her shoulder in awe, I began to do the occasional odd dish. And some of those occasional dishes were very odd, indeed. But cooking fascinates me in that it seems to be one of humanity’s earliest exercises in chemistry.

When you grill a steak or put some bread in the toaster, do you know that beautiful golden browning that appears on the outside? That’s called the Maillard reaction.

It’s a chemical reaction. The protein and sugars in your flank steak react with the heat to create a plethora of beautiful and delicious compounds. You can even see the Maillard reaction when your marshmallow turns all brown and crusty over the bonfire.

And yes, when you add heat, pathogens and parasites are burned alive and purges from your plate. The act of cooking breaks down complex molecules into simpler compounds that are easier to digest. But that’s the utility of it.

The beauty of the Maillard reaction is the color. Amino acids and sugars hugging it out under the stress of high temperatures. Yes, it’s chemistry, but I like to think of it as a kind of alchemy.

How does she achieve the Maillard reaction? Magic.

Pink to brown. White to gold. Brown to near black. Chemistry is a deep magic baked into the cosmos before we discovered it. Taste, sight, safety- these are all enriched and elevated when carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, and hydrogen can no longer stand the heat. A simple act of energy transfer coaxes a little bit of cosmic alchemy into our daily lives.

Hallelujah for the Maillard reaction. And happy Labor Day to those who will see it today.

Finding Figments

I’m 97% sure that Sasquatch exists.

The elusive North American great ape has yet to be categorized by modern Western science, but countless eyewitness encounters (not to mention the incontrovertible evidence of the Patterson-Gimlin film) suggest that small breeding populations dot the landscape across the States.

It’s easy to believe in a flesh and blood primate. The adorable little olinguito wasn’t discovered until 2013. The little deer-like saola wasn’t confirmed to exist until 2010. My favorite hide and seek champion is the giant panda. Locals were quite familiar with it, but Westerners didn’t encounter evidence for it until 1869 (some 500+ years after Marco Polo’s famous travels to China). Native Americans have told stories about the “large hairy men” for centuries. Bigfoot is no different.

I say that because what follows might sound like wishful thinking. But I really do think the odds are in favor of the modern world discovering Sasquatch. Above is why I do believe. Now, here’s why I want to believe.

America is more enchanted than we realize.

In part, Tolkien wrote his Middle Earth stories because he was frustrated with the lack of English myths. That’s partly why N.D. Wilson wrote his 100 Cupboards series. He wanted homegrown fairy tale this side of the pond. I feel that.

The gaping lack of our American mythos is tantalizing. It draws me. It makes me want to peel back the layers of forest and canyon and mud filled lakes and find delightfully unmanaged secrets growing silently away from our eyes.

Champ. The Beast of Bray Road. Mothman. Skunk apes. Thunderbirds. El chupacabra.

I’d like to see them all. I want them all to be real. America needs a little more enchanted spaces.

And yeah, I’m 97% sure Sasquatch exists.