Tag Archives: Musings

It seems so small, so long ago.

Late last night we planned to drive our kids to school this morning on our way to the city. So this morning I watched from the living room as their school bus pulled up to the driveway, sat in wait for a minute or so, and then pulled away. It reminded me of that morning in Manitoba (it seems so long ago) that our kids nearly missed the bus, when I ran out in my bathrobe (and little else) waving and yelling at the bus at the end of our road. I don’t remember all the details of that episode, although I’ve probably written about it here. I just remember it being late and Luke—probably 4 or 5 at the time—being upset because we couldn’t find his proper mittens. I was begging him, pleading with him to just take the (wrong) mittens I had given him because we needed to catch the bus, then running out in my bathrobe, waving frantically at the bus and starting the van to drive him there.

This morning I felt a wonderful calmness as I saw that bus sitting there for a moment and then pulling away. The kids wouldn’t need to run this morning or start their day in a panic induced by panicked parents.

It put me in mind of quiet mornings in Manitoba when I didn’t have a class. I tried to imagine myself having breakfast and a cup of tea in our little kitchen. The trailer was 14 feet wide. Subtract another 4 feet or so for wall thickness and counter space. We had no more than a 10 x 12 chunk of floor space in our kitchen to use for cooking and for eating at a standard-sized table for six (four on the sides, two on the ends). In this tiny space we cooked, ate, played games, and welcomed many guests. Our living room was no bigger and our bedrooms were much smaller. Our headboard and bedside tables couldn’t fit side-by-side; we had to wedge the headboard behind the tables.

It was such a small space, but we made it work. Perhaps it helped that we knew we were there for only a short while. We live in a much bigger space now—a house that’s probably bigger than we even need. But we are no more or less happy in the larger space than in the smaller space.

That trailer was so small. Five of us, for three years. There’s a lesson in there.

(It seems so long ago!)

New Year Randomicity

1. Hey! We’re almost a quarter of the way through January already! Interpret the exclamation marks as excitement or alarm as you see fit!

2. Sitting here reading with John Barry’s score for Dances with Wolves playing in the background. It’s a beautiful score. I’m not sure if it’s the same without knowing the film, but it’s gorgeous. It occurred to me that after all these years Dances with Wolves is still one of my favourite films. Other films come and go in Marc’s Film Canon, but that one has stayed at or near the top. It gets everything right, as far as I’m concerned: setting, score, plot, themes. And even Kevin Costner has a decent turn as an earnest, idealistic soldier. The Last Samurai and Avatar are poor imitations. I’m sure Dances with Wolves is itself an imitation, but it’s GOOD.

3. Last weekend I solemnized my first marriage. No big deal.

4. I don’t really have any New Year’s resolutions, other than an unofficial desire to spend at least 20 minutes a day walking. Since it’s January 8 and I haven’t spent 20 minutes walking in any of those eight days, I guess that’s not going to happen. So, I won’t walk 20 minutes every day…YET. I will walk 20 minutes some days. Hopefully more days as the weather improves and as I remember that we have a treadmill. Facing our TV. With Netflix.

5. I did write down some things that I want to spend more time thinking about this year. Some highlights from the journal:

“What do I need? Don’t buy anything I don’t need.” I’m not yet sure whether the remastered blu-ray special edition of the original 1989 mini-series Lonesome Dove (starring Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones and Danny Glover and Ricky Schroder and others) is a want or a need..

“What makes or should make Christians different? Is it belief? Is it action? Is it both? Neither?” I know the standard/stock answers. It nevertheless bears further thought. Things aren’t always what they seem or how I understand them to be.

“The nature of the incarnation.” That’s a biggie. It means I need to read more T.F. Torrance, for one. And scripture. Oddly enough, I came across this in the book I was reading tonight: “We cannot live as if the incarnation had not occurred.” That’s quite a profound statement. Exclamation point and star in the margin. I don’t think Christians consider the incarnation enough. God become human. We tend to think mostly about sin and forgiveness and we do this mostly without thinking about the incarnation. The author follows that up with this line: “God has taken upon himself our earthly existence and claimed it for his Kingdom.” Another good one!

6. Between now and February 4 I have to read 4 books and 33 articles for a theology class I’m taking, as well as write a short book review. I was intending to write an anxious “Eep!” after my to-do list, but now that I’ve written it down it doesn’t seem like nearly such a big deal. Mind you, that’s less than a month away and in the meantime I have meetings and other work and family.

By the way, this is for a theology class I’m taking… IN SAN DIEGO! Too bad I’ll be hunkered down in a (the cynic in me says) dark basement room in the hotel.

Sunday thoughts on a Monday morning

Sometimes during a church service I become aware of what we are doing–the raw details of it, I mean. Usually this is during the singing time, when, depending on where I am, 50 or 100 or 120 men, women, and children stand and sing songs together, we stand reading words from a screen or from a book and sing. What a strange thing! What are we doing? Sometimes the songs are beautiful, sometimes the words seem meaningless, but always we sing. How strange!

This thought and feeling came over me again yesterday morning. I again became aware of how odd and unprecedented it and even not normal it seemed. People from 5 to 90 facing forward, singing songs.

And then it dawned on me. It’s not just the standing reading theological and worshipful words on a screen, it’s the whole package. We are singing together: people of all ages, genders, and races, singing together about and to a God they have gathered together to worship. People of different incomes, walks of life, opinions, histories, all gathered together to sing, to listen, to learn, to worship, to pray. This is remarkable, when you stop to think about it.

I realized that it’s not just the words we sing, but the act of singing together itself that is powerful and symbolic–no, even an enacting of the Kingdom of God.

 

The warmth of memory

Last year at this time Dixie and I would have been in the middle of our dinner at the St. Paul Hotel (?). We would have already seen Wallace Shawn walk in and out of the restaurant and I would have already spilled most of my glass of wine into the purse belonging to the lady at the table next to ours. We would have been in St. Paul for 24 hours or so already, having had breakfast at Mickey’s Diner and done some shopping at the Mall of America, and been in the audience for this episode of A Prairie Home Companion.

That weekend has quickly become one of my favourite memories–one of those special moments that will forever have a warmth to it as it comes to mind. I have a number of these moments, all of them occurring during my married years, so they are all Dixie and me and sometimes the kids.

There was the Thanksgiving weekend with Dixie’s family, including Granny and Grandpa, at the cabin on Christopher Lake. It was a beautiful cool-but-not-cold autumn, the aspens still holding on to most of their bright yellow leaves, but the musty smell of drying and decomposing leaves nevertheless filling the air. We’d go for sauntering walks on the ski trails nearby, grandpa too. We’d snooze on the deck overlooking the lake. We’d play games.

There was the weekend Dixie and I spent at the mineral spa in Manitou Beach. The mineral spa wasn’t all that impressive (floating around in extra buoyant water is only interesting for so long). However, the Saturday night of that weekend we went to Danceland, famous for one of the last original hardwood-on-horsehair dance floors.

We spent the evening dancing polkas and the charleston and a number of other styles. The lighting, the general atmosphere, the dancing in the crowd of mostly seniors and retirees. Something about that evening was magical and it remains with me as one of those moments.

There were particular locations in our 10th anniversary trip to England–our London hotel, early morning market in Oxford, cream tea in Lyme Regis.

There are others I’m sure that aren’t coming to mind at the moment. Memories that stick with me in a way that other memories do not. And as much as I may want to recreate that experience, as much as I wish I could do that again, these moment can never be truly recreated. Having been done before, they will already have lost that edge of newness, and expectation–something that wasn’t there before these moments were experienced the first time–tends to undermine the effort of recreation. That’s what makes these moments special I think–because we don’t see them coming. They just happen and until you’ve experienced it you won’t know that it’ll be one of those moments.

I’ve marked this date in Google calendar for every year in perpetuity. It’ll send me an email reminder every year at this time. And every year around September 24, I’ll listen to a recording of that show and I’ll think of our time together in St. Paul, Minnesota. The show, the diner, the Italian bistro around the corner from our hotel, Garrison Keillor’s bookstore in the basement of a building up the hill and beyond the Anglican cathedral. The memory will stir feelings deep inside me, and I will think of that time with joy and fondness and also a bit of sadness, because as beautiful as that memory is, that moment can never be relived outside of my memory.

But that’s probably a good thing, I guess. That moment is probably best as a memory. Memory has probably shaped in a way that may not even reflect the reality of the moment–or perhaps it’s not that it has been reshaped, but that memory has teased out the things that one doesn’t catch in the moment.

Quiet now… Garrison is singing.

On theological mumbo-jumbo.

I don’t have a habit of giving myself theological labels. But I have said that, insofar as I know what it means, I am not a Calvinist. I am deeply troubled by Calvinism’s notion of predestination, whether it is double predestination or single (which, in my view, is by implication the same as double predestination). It may well be that I simply don’t understand the nuances of Calvinist thought, but, Calvinism having been explained to me a number of times, it never gets any clearer.

I’m reading an article by D. A. Carson–”God’s Love and God’s Wrath”–for a major paper due in a couple of weeks. It occurred to me as I read that I cannot deny the general notion of “election” because it’s there in scripture. Whether it is “clearly” in scripture is debatable. In fact, how we understand election is one of the foundational differences between Calvinists and Arminians. The notion is there. We’re just can’t agree on what it means.

As much as I cannot deny the notion of election, I equally feel like I am not in a place to take that notion much further than that: there are “elect”. Beyond that we start getting into the question of who’s “in” and who’s “out”, which, while not completely inappropriate, too easily devolves into sectarianism and a level of dense and nit-picky theological mumbo-jumbo that exhausts me in its sheer unhelpfulness. As if we can have any degree of certainty about who “the elect” might include. Even if we do manage to define every theological concept relevant to “election” to its finest point, so little of it (if any at all) is, in the end, in our control, that thinking about it seems like an exercise in futility.

I guess it’s a pastoral bent in me that rails against this kind of discussion. The gospel is not about who is “elect”, it’s about Jesus Christ as (and currently Scot McKnight’s King Jesus Gospel is influencing my thought) the fulfillment of God’s work to set the world right through his covenant promises to Israel (or something like that). That leads to salvation. We can’t determine with a great deal of certainty whether or not we are among the elect who will be saved until it’s too late to do anything about it (if indeed we could do anything about it!). So what’s the point of worrying about who is “elect”? All we can do is trust in and follow the example of the one who lived, died, rose again, and ascended into heaven, and will return. Never mind “elect”.

Maybe I’ve missed the point of Calvinist “election” entirely. Or maybe this makes me an Arminian.

Not that it matters.

Simple pleasures

In lieu of our normal Wednesday night Bible study, tonight Dixie led us in the first of a two-part workshop on Sabbath (as credit towards one of her classes). She opened the workshop by having us close our eyes and imagining “a day of delight would be like for you.”

Without much hesitation, this is what came to mind: I wake up whenever my body wakes up. I wake up to a house that is quiet, clean, organized, and full of light. I get up and make a hot cup of tea and sit quietly, maybe read a book. It is a cool, sunny day, so later I might go out and meander on a nature trail or in the fields or along some gravel roads.

A good day so far, but I didn’t get much further than that before Dixie added, “there are no restrictions on your day, no financial barriers, nothing…” You might expect the details of my imagined day of delight to change, given unlimited resources. But the truth is, it changed little. Only the location changed. Now it wouldn’t be here, it would be in a small town in England somewhere. But I’d still ease myself into the day with a cup of tea, read a book and go for a walk.

I didn’t have more time to finish my imagined day. I’m not sure what I’d add: a leisurely lunch and/or supper in a cafe or pub somewhere. Maybe a (half?) round of golf. My imagined day of delight assumes some things that would make such a day work–namely, that I would not be anxious, but was in a state of relaxation sufficient to sit still and ponder, to meander rather than power-walk; that I would not be distracted by TV or internet. But that really is my ideal day.

Perhaps you don’t believe it. Perhaps you think that given unlimited resources and no space/time barriers, I would actually imagine a day of adventure or culture or travel. But right now I would not. I think appreciation of simple pleasures–appreciation of quiet moments in a loud and busy day, a well-brewed cup of tea, or some simply culinary delight like a cinnamon bun–can take a person a long way towards contentment. Those kinds of things are attainable even in the most chaotic times of life. Adventure, culture, travel, these are all good, but they are rare treats for the average person–and once they’ve been experienced, they often make “normal life” seem dull or even depressing. But a cup of tea, for example, is something I can appreciate daily, with near-zero expense and only a little effort, and it enhances rather than detracts from “normal life”.

A Letter About Doubt

I wanted to follow-up on something at the end of our conversation. I said, “Doubt is not necessarily a bad thing.” And then you said, “But it could be.” To which I replied, “Of course it could be.” I’m not entirely happy with my response.

Doubt could be a bad thing if you assume doubt means a loss of faith, if you assume doubt borders on Agnosticism or Atheism. Some people assume this and then, rather than explore their doubts from within (which is where their problems lie), they start looking elsewhere, as if doubts can be dealt with through another belief system. But it can’t. They will eventually find the same struggles there.

That’s why the Psalms really are a great thing to turn to. Read Psalm 13 sometime soon. The Psalmist, in his own way, asked the same questions you are asking,

“How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I wrestle with my thoughts
and day after day have sorrow in my heart?”

Read that Psalm–slowly; soak it in. You could even make it your own prayer. The Psalmist doesn’t have it all together. Nobody does. Doubt is a universal struggle. That’s not meant to diminish your questions and concerns in any way, but simply to say that you are not alone, you are not an oddity among people of faith.

What’s unique about the Psalmist, though, is that he didn’t keep these things to himself and didn’t walk away from God. Instead, he dared to direct his questions and doubt and anguish at God. If I have some kind of issue with a friend or family member, the solution isn’t to walk away but to address that friend. Otherwise I’m not dealing with the problem. In one way or another, if I don’t address the source of the problem, I am simply ignoring the issue. If your questions are about God, don’t shut him out of the conversation and struggle, but be honest in your prayers.

I mentioned that we shouldn’t let our current mood or state or whatever dictate the entire course of our lives. This moment isn’t the only moment in your life–there have been many and there will be many. There are certainly pivotal points of change in life, but it seems to me that more often than not we fall into those moments. We don’t make a choice one day to take this moment of doubt or this moment of anger and let that guide my life from here on in. Psalm 13 kind of addresses this in a small way: “I trust in your unfailing love.” The Psalmist remembers God’s faithfulness and the things that God has done for him and the people of Israel. Psalm 77 is another Psalm of struggle, and there it says, “I will remember the deeds of the Lord.”

There’s something poignant in Bruce Cockburn’s words (at least, as I understand them):

Derailed and desperate
How did I get here?
Hanging from this high wire
By the tatters of my faith

Sometimes all we have to go on is what has come before–whether that is the faith of the “saints” (that is, Christians that have gone before) or our own faith to this point (or our baptism) and we choose to carry on in faith through this season.

Daniel Taylor, in that book I was telling you about, says this:

Normally doubt is seen as sapping faith’s strength. Why not the reverse? Where there is doubt, faith has its reason for being. Clearly faith is not needed where certainty supposedly exists.

Doubt does not mean you have lost your faith or no longer believe, nor does it mean that you are heading in that direction. And your doubts in themselves don’t make or break the truth of something. Doubt means simply that you have questions and uncertainties about your beliefs and about God. To have faith means to carry on in spite of uncertainties and seasons of doubt.

[...]

I hope this is helpful…

Evil, suffering, beauty, goodness.

It’s pretty common in film and television to see people who are functionally atheistic or non-religious to turn to God when it suits them. For instance, a character who under normal circumstances does not profess belief in God or practice any sort of religious observance, will begin to pray when there is an in-flight emergency or when they are up for a big promotion. I’ve been watching through the Seinfeld series again and noticed an unusual twist on this theme.

In the season 4 episode entitled “The Pilot, Part 1″, NBC finally confirms that they will begin shooting the pilot for the sitcom George and Jerry have been writing. George begins to panic about what might happen, so he visits his therapist. They have the following conversation:

George: What if the pilot gets picked up and it becomes a series?

Therapist: That’d be wonderful, George! You’d be rich and successful!

George: That’s exactly what I’m worried about. God would never let me be successful–he’ll kill me first! He’ll never let me be happy.

Therapist: I thought you didn’t believe in God?

George: I do for the bad things!

This is a clever observation about how we approach the subject of God. When bad things happen, the question of God inevitably arises. Under normal circumstances–when things are “good”–God rarely comes to mind.

I’m not suggesting that the question of a loving, all-powerful God allowing pain and suffering isn’t problematic or important to consider. I do think that the question is rather lop-sided. The question is always fundamentally, Can I believe in a God who allows these things to happen? or Can such a God be good? Beauty and goodness, on the other hand, rarely, if ever, come into the conversation. I’ve never heard anyone ask, Can I believe in a God who creates such profound beauty?

It seems to me that a balanced approach to the question must include not only evil and suffering, but also beauty, goodness, and from a Judeo-Christian perspective, redemption–that is, God’s response to evil and suffering.

I realize, of course, that God’s love and goodness is itself in question. What I’m talking about, however, is not God’s own goodness per se. Instead, just like the existence (for lack of a better term) of evil and suffering raise questions about God, so should the existence of goodness, beauty, and love.

I don’t know precisely how we bring these things into the discussion. I don’t like the idea of weighing evil and suffering against goodness and beauty, as if they were on a scale, and answering the question based on which “weighs” more (even if one could argue that, at least in the long run, goodness and beauty win out).

Still, it seems to me that if we are talking about a God who creates and exists–which I think we are when we ask about evil and suffering–then we must equally consider goodness and beauty. If we don’t, evil and suffering seem to become issue conveniently chosen simply to support a foregone position. The issue isn’t completely dealt with if beauty and goodness are not included.

Analog cameras and pixel peepers

An advertisement on the back of the November 1989 issue of National Geographic talks up Kodak’s new (at the time) EKTAR film. “You’re looking at a 2500% blowup with detail never before possible in a 35mm color print film,” it says. There’s close-up picture of a defeated football player. Inset is the original, uncropped photograph.

In fact, I found the image on Google:

What I find remarkable is that while Kodak boasts “detail never before possible”, the blow-up is actually quite soft. It is far from “tack sharp,” as they say. I read this and remembered several years back when I researched dSLR cameras, read lens reviews, followed the forums. What photogs seem to do these days is called “pixel peep”. They take a photograph, view it at maximum resolution and beyond, and then evaluate the lens or camera responsible based on how crisp the photograph is. I found this odd, as did others, since nobody ever looks that closely at a photograph. At normal viewing size, these photographs could be brilliant, but at the ultra-zoom level, they show flaws.

I remember, too, that the Pentax K10D, which I ended up buying, lost some marks from reviewers because its out-of-the-box settings didn’t produce a desirable quality of photrograph. The problem? The photographs were too soft. They weren’t “tack sharp”.

I’ve never been able to take a “tack-sharp” photograph. Partially because I don’t often use a tripod, partially because that particular Pentax model was design to produce film-like photographs. This is just fine by me. Surely there are other features in a photograph that are more important for judging its quality.

All this to say that that 1989 Kodak advertisement would not make the grade today. The never before possible “detail” in the blow-up would make the pixel-peepers scoff.

I wonder, have we lost something in our age of “tack-sharp” photographs and pixels in the millions? Do digital photographs have the same warmth and “personality” as analog photographs did? I suspect not. That’s not to say that I’m not thankful in many ways for digital cameras–mostly for their instant and forgiving output–or that there aren’t many brilliant and beautiful digital photographs taken. Yet I find that my dad’s old Minolta XG-1 (it’s older than I am) consistently yields better photographic results. And–sometimes–I crank up the ISO on my Pentax to add some of that “noise” and grain that is so hated these days. It may not show detail like cameras can these days, but I kind of like it.

Desultory reading

I finished reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude yesterday. It came highly recommended–more than 10 years ago, mind you–from a friend who also recommended a number of other books I have loved. Were it not for him, I would not have read Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany or Buechner’s Godric, for instance. It is a book chosen by Oprah for her book club (one wonders if she or any of her viewers actually read it). One friend told me–and this was confirmed in the publishing story in the back of the book–that it was said that this book, along with the book of Genesis, is required reading for the entire human race.

Solitude has been sitting on my shelf for at least 10 years. I made an attempt at reading it shortly after buying it, but didn’t make it much past 50 pages. It was too surreal and I kept losing track of all the names (there are many Aurelianos and Arcadios and Joses) and the plot. I picked it up again about a month ago and started reading from the beginning. This time the story captured me more than the first time, and I kept track of the names using the family tree printed in the front pages of the book.

Midway through I began to realize that the story wasn’t going anywhere. At least, not in any sort of linear sense. Nobody claimed that it would, but still, it really was just events in the lives of one family. I began to hope that there would be a payoff or resolution at the end, as a reward for the work of reading through the middle hump. There was a resolution and a payoff of sorts, but it was underwhelming. I certainly don’t see how it should be required reading.

What am I missing with some of these greats of Western literature? What do I need to “get” in order to understand the acclaim?

Here’s what I need to do: I need to stop reading books out of obligation. Obligation to the canon or to acclaim. If we’re talking about pleasure reading, obligation is opposite of the direction I want to go in.

A couple of weeks ago, Scot McKnight published a post about reading habits. He said this:

I don’t know about you, but I can create a stack of books to read and then a new book arrives in the mailbox and I decide to read the new book. On the day before we left for Israel Alan Jacobs’ new book, The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction, arrived, and I said to myself, “That’s a book to read on the flight.” And I did. Which decision illustrates the whole point of Jacobs’ new book: read at whim.

Why “whim”? Lower case “whim” in Jacobs’ dictionary means “thoughtless, directionless” but upper case Whim means this: “Read what gives you delight — at least most of the time — and do so without shame” (23). One of my favorite writers, who often writes about reading, calls this “desultory” reading — a kind of wandering and meandering from one book to another. More or less, that’s how I have been reading for years. What strikes me today as a “must-read” becomes sometimes a “read later” and sometimes to a “I’m not even interested now.” Whim is a good word for it, and it’s a good habit to establish.

Desultory reading is what I have done in the past, and I have read some wonderful books as a result. I once bought a book based solely on its cover art and the blurb on the back (but mostly the cover art). I liked that book enough to buy another by the same author, which became one of my favourites. Without reading at whim, without the serendipitous choice, I may never have read The Shipping News or Dracula.

Desultory reading choices are made by feeling. If I own the book, the choice is usually made at those times when I spend a few moments browsing my bookshelves and reading the first couple of paragraphs of the book. I’m not sure how it works in bookstores. I just know it’s feeling–guts. It’s serendipitous.

I sometimes muse about what I will read next. For a time, I thought the next work of fiction I would read is Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. But that was again an obligation–it is acclaimed, it comes highly recommended by friends. But I didn’t feel the choice.

I didn’t know it was the wrong choice until a week or so ago, when I was again perusing my books. I opened The Kite Runner and read the short first chapter. I was hooked. The opening words spoke nostalgia and regret, for which I am a sucker.

I sat on a park bench near a willow tree. I thought about something Rahim Khan said just before he hung up, almost as an afterthought. There is a way to be good again. I looked up at those twin kites. I thought about Hassan. Thought about Baba. Ali. Kabul. I thought of the life I had lived until the winter of 1975 came along and changed everything. And made me what I am today.

Yes, this book was recommended to me. But I’m going to read it because it feels right. I might be disappointed. I might think it’s the best thing I’ve read in a while.

The key is serendipity.