Thursday, May 22, 2008

Big and Old

It seems that people, finite and small, are generally fascinated by anything bigger or older than we are. God, dinosaurs, and outer space all capture us with their mystery because they’re too large and too ancient for us to understand.

While I love the universe and its existential enormity, my small, insecure ego sometimes wonders how the universe feels about me. We’ve never actually had a conversation about it. A sub-freezing void freckled with black holes and imploding stars doesn’t exactly seem welcoming. I’ve noticed, however, that when governments send astronauts up into outer space, the universe doesn’t usually spit them back out.

That must be a good sign.

And as interesting as dinosaurs are, I think we only feel comfortable studying them because the fossils we find buried underground seem to have lost their enormous appetites. Otherwise, I’m not sure 5th graders would be very excited about writing book reports on gigantic monsters that eat scientists.

And God? I’m still trying to figure him out. He’s big. And old. But I’m almost certain there’s nothing to be afraid of.

Monday, May 19, 2008

thinking inside the box

Everything that’s not in a box ought to be.

One day this room will be clean.
Completely clean.
The floor will be empty.
The walls will be bare.
The clutter clear.

And then it will all move to a fresh floor.
In a fresh room.
In a fresh place.

My chaos in a cardboard box.

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Sunday, May 18, 2008

Short Shelves

Today is the fourth Tuesday of the month, a death day. Sometimes I stay home on the morning of the fourth Tuesday and chat with my exterminator when he comes to squirt poison on the baseboards, but today I don’t feel like making small talk with an almost-stranger. Today is a quiet day. Today is an alone day. Today is a day when I feel like scurrying into a social corner to hide and hope nobody finds me. Since Phil, my exterminator, has a key to my house, there’s no need for me to stay home just to open a door he can unlock for himself. And so, this morning I ran away from home. I left a check on the counter to pay the assassin for his services, packed my computer, and escaped to the library to read and write and watch the books.

It’s a little overwhelming to sit in the library and write, surrounded by so many words that have been used so well for so long. Writing here makes me feel small, like a little boy singing “row, row, row your boat” while the Boston Philharmonic roars in the background. I feel like I’m crashing a party, trying to maintain conversation with sophisticated strangers I’ve watched and admired my whole life while stuttering foolishly about how much I love them and how I’ve read all of their work and how I wish I could be as wise and eloquent as they are. The library is intimidating. I feel insecure and inadequate here. All the clever phrases and elegant ideas that live on these shelves are gracious to let me sit quietly and scribble on my pad while they whisper their magic around me.

If I look across the library’s horizon of bookshelves, my eye moves from right to left across the tall skyscrapers of adult fiction, biography, and science & technology to the squatty suburbs of children’s literature at the far end of the room. In this section, where the books turn tall and skinny, their bookcases shorten to accommodate the limited reach of curious children. In the children’s section the shelves are low and proportional to the small readers who wander through them. Adult visitors to the library might have to ask where in the grown-up sections they can find Stephen King, Stephen Hawking, or a history of World War II, but it’s obvious where Dr. Seuss lives. He’s right across from Peter Pan and two books down from Curious George. He lives where the shelves turn short, in the children’s section of the local library.

Librarians put these short shelves in the children’s section not because they want to be condescending to young readers, but because they realize a child can’t read what he can’t reach; and he won’t reach for what he can’t see. They learn this logic in library school where the classes are quiet and everyone sits according to the Dewy Decimal System. Smart librarians know that there’s no point in putting a book over a child’s head. If you do, he’ll assume that what is out of his reach is also beyond his grasp. And then he’ll get frustrated and go home and play video games instead.

I must admit, I miss the days of the short shelves, when everything was easy to reach and easy to read. Today I remind myself that while there is wisdom to be found on the high shelves of philosophy and history, theology and ethics – wisdom need not hide in shadowy corners full of mice and fear. There is also truth close to the ground and well within reach. Incarnate. Full of color and life. And short sentences. And easy words. And joy.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Portrait with a Stranger

Before the Statue of Liberty started modeling her coppery green gown for the hungry masses, before the Eiffel Tower pretended to pump oil from the ground beneath Paris, before Big Ben became London’s alarm clock – back when the Grand Canyon was just a mediocre valley on the undiscovered side of our pancake planet, the Greek historian Herodotus wrote a travel pamphlet telling the ancient world where they should spend their summer vacations. Shortly after it was published, the seven destinations listed in this pamphlet became widely known as the Seven Wonders of the World. According to Herodotus, even if your kids were screaming in the back of the chariot, even if the Motel 6BC was holding a reservation for you, even if you were down to your last doubloon, these were the seven stops that shouldn’t be missed. These were the vacation spots that Fred, Wilma, Barney, and Betty saved all their pennies and pebbles to see.

It would be nice to know which landmarks Herodotus held in such high esteem. Unfortunately, along with countless maps and ketchup packets, his original list has been lost in the glove compartment of time. We will never know exactly which wonders the historian chose for his own family vacations. But in the centuries since Herodotus, other world travelers have followed the historian’s example and written numerous other "wonders of the world" lists. We now have The Seven Wonders of the Natural World, The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, The Seven Wonders of the Modern World, The Seven Man Made Wonders of the World, and even The Seven Underwater Wonders of the World. Some of the more recent lists writers have even chosen to break with tradition and not limit themselves to seven wonders. Many of their lists are so exhaustive and list so many attractions and make our world seem so wonder full that it seems a wonder we don’t each have our own personal tourist attraction in the backyard.

In September 1999 a movement was made to update one of the traditional Wonders of the World lists. Because most previous lists had been compiled by committees of world travelers and other special interest groups, it was decided that the sight-seeing public should have some input as to the most important and impressive sights on our planet. Thanks to the modern wonder of the World Wide Web, starting in 2001 travelers were given the opportunity to vote online for the tourist attractions they felt were most worthy to be placed on the new list. The twenty finalists included the Statues of Easter Island, Greece’s Acropolis, Stonehenge in the United Kingdom, and the Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

I had no idea we were having a planet-wide popularity contest until I personally visited Rio de Janeiro and saw their famous Christ the Redeemer statue. Christ the Redeemer is a 130 foot statue of Jesus that overlooks the city of Rio with his arms opened wide, as if he is offering Brazil an oversized hug.

I visited the statue with a group of teenagers during the summer of 2007 after we shared a week long missions experience in Rio. As we patiently waited for the cable car that would tow us up the mountain, my friends and I entertained ourselves by wandering through Christ the Redeemer’s gift shop and photo gallery. Ironically, very little of the tourist information we read on the plaques and posters at the bottom of the Redeemer’s mountain say much about the statue’s religious significance. They tell more about how the statue was built and who built it than why they chose the image of Jesus. Walking through its educational exhibit, it feels as if the monument is an attraction, but the Jesus is an afterthought. In fact, most of the tourists I saw on my visit didn’t seem to be flocking to Christ the Redeemer because he’s the redeemer. It seemed that they stood in line and bought their tickets to see the statue simply because it is over twelve stories tall, is featured in every Brazilian travel brochure, and had been nominated as one of the Seven Wonders of the World.

I wonder how Jesus feels about being a tourist attraction?

As we stood in line waiting and talking, one of my friends noticed that on each of our tickets a printed advertisement encouraged tourists to Vote No Cristo (Vote for the Christ). That’s all it said. "Vote for the Christ." In the US, it seems the religious right has been begging voters to do this in every recent election, as if Jesus has taken time out of his busy schedule to run for office in an attempt to set our country straight. But the advertisement on our tickets wasn’t a political statement. Instead, it was Brazil’s campaign for Christ the Redeemer to become one of the new Seven Wonders of the World. In July, 2007, Brazil succeeded. After eight years of campaigning, Jesus made the list. The votes were counted and Jesus was officially voted prom king.

When my friends and I stepped off of the cable car at the top of the mountain, I expected to climb a few stairs and turn a corner to see a grand statue of Jesus standing with his arms opened wide to the world, welcoming the tourists and camera carrying travelers that scurried beneath his enormous feet. I expected to see children holding their mother’s hands and old men wearing shorts and socks with sandals. I expected to see young people carrying backpacks and listening to MP3 players as they took pictures of this wonder of the modern world. I expected to see people either looking at Jesus, looking at the spectacular mountaintop view, or at least looking at each other. In other words, I expected to see people who could see the statue.

That’s why I was surprised by the blind man.

But there he was. Standing at the overlook. Tapping his red-tipped cane against a step. Smiling as the wind whipped his silver gray hair. A blind man.

In my travels, I haven’t encountered many blind sight-seers. The phrase itself seems to belong in a list alongside "jumbo shrimp" and "military intelligence." Maybe I am limited by my own sighted imagination, but I would assume that most traditional sightseeing destinations must have little to offer a blind tourist. Without the benefit of sight, the Grand Canyon must be an enormous disappointment. Sitting shy and quiet in her frame, the Mona Lisa couldn’t possibly live up to her reputation. To a blind traveler, China’s Great Wall probably feels just like every other wall in the world, only with fewer corners.

So why was there a blind man at the Christ the Redeemer statue? Short of climbing 130 feet up Jesus’ soapstone body and running his hands over Christ’s Volkswagen sized face, I couldn’t imagine that the statue could be as captivating to him as it was to me. Even if he stood on a chair with his hands stretched high overhead, the blind man couldn’t have tickled the bottom of The Redeemer’s feet with his red-tipped cane. And since postcards of mountaintop views aren’t usually printed in Braille, why would a blind man spend his day at the statue?

I mean no disrespect to the blind community or to those with friends or family who cannot see. It has just never occurred to me that a blind person might want to pay thirty dollars to ride a cable-car to the top of a mountain and see a statue that he cannot see.

But the blind man wasn’t alone. Holding the hand that wasn’t holding a cane stood a woman. Smiling, the woman guided her husband through the crowd, patiently describing every sight with an animated play-by-play commentary. She swept her free hand through the air in front of her like a game-show beauty showing off today’s fabulous prizes. Slowly, I worked my way toward the couple so I could hear what the woman was saying to her husband. Unfortunately, she spoke in a language I couldn’t understand, a language crafted with unknown letters, strange accents, and odd markings that made it much more exotic than my Tennessee English. But while I couldn’t understand the woman’s words, it wasn’t hard to imagine what she must have been saying to her blind companion . . .

". . . the boats below are so amazing. From here their white sails and gleaming hulls look like specks of sugar scattered across the blue . . ."

". . . over to your left the mountains tumble into the ocean, crashing themselves against the waves. It’s so magnificent! There are children playing on the beach . . ."

She turned toward the statue. "If you can believe it, we’re almost standing in his shadow! He’s the color of fresh baked bread and taller than our apartment building. Up there," she pointed toward the statue with a finger her husband would never see, "a group of gulls are resting on his head! Oh my! Jesus has birds in his hair . . ."

The woman paused for a moment.

". . . He’s not smiling, exactly, but his face is calm and pleasant, like a grandfather watching children play in the backyard. I wish you could see how straight and steady his arms are . . ."

The blind man may not have been able to see the boats below him or watch the waves or look at the statue, but at least he wasn’t alone. Standing in the breeze, he had someone next to him, holding his hand, describing the view, painting pictures with her words. These words could never be adequate, but at least the woman cared enough about her husband not to let him stumble around in the dark.

Armed with his red-tipped cane and trusting the warm touch of his wife, the blind man spent an afternoon tapping his way around the feet of Jesus, able only to guess at the real wonder of Christ the Redeemer standing right in front of him. But for those of us who are followers of the Christ we cannot see, aren’t we all essentially bind men tapping our way around the feet of Jesus? Don’t we all sometimes feel limited and alone, like we’re walking with our eyes closed, unaware of what seems obvious to everyone else? Aren’t we all feeling our way through a faith we don’t completely understand, searching for the wisdom to keep us from stumbling in the dark, looking for the God that we’re told is all around us?

I am ashamed to say that at this point my good-boy manners ran out and I was forced to let the adolescent idiot inside me run free. The beauty of the moment was lost to its irony.

On the crowded observation deck I stood shoulder to shoulder with the blind sight-seer and his wife as they talked about the statue. Thankfully, due to the crowd and chaos, I don’t think the couple noticed when I waved so my friend Joel would turn and see me standing next to them.

If he was listening closely, the blind man might have heard the click of Joel’s camera. If she was paying attention, his wife might have seen its flash. But neither the blind man nor his wife could possibly have known that the grinning tourist having his picture taken next to them didn’t care if Christ the Redeemer could be seen in the background. I didn’t care if the monument was visible behind us. I was much more concerned with the kind, unconsenting couple in the foreground who didn’t know that they were posing for a portrait with a stranger. I wanted to be sure that when the picture snapped, the three of us looked natural, like friends smiling next to each other in the sunshine. I wanted a photo I could put in a frame and talk about at parties.

"Are those your parents," people would ask. "I didn’t know that your dad was . ."

Joel clicked a single digital exposure. Unfortunately, the picture didn’t turn out very well. The blind man blinked.

Shortly after my trip to Rio I met a beautiful blind woman named Lisa who has continued to trust Jesus even after losing her sight as an adult mother of three. Even though she has been forced to deal with challenging new limitations, Lisa’s humor and grace are staggering. She peppers conversations with surprising little statements like, "Do you like my shoes? I think they're cute, don’t you?" Lisa is so confident and comfortable with herself that you find yourself answering her questions before you realize she’s never seen her shoes.

I told Lisa my story of the blind man at the Christ the Redeemer statue and asked her if she could explain why a blind person would spend an hour standing at the base of a statue he would never see.

She said, "You want to trust people when they tell you what they see. But even though you’re blind, you still want to experience things for yourself. You want to be able to say, ’I may not be able to see what’s in front of me. But at least I’m here.’"

I may have no idea of how magnificent and grand the big picture of God truly is. I might be blind to the stunning beauty of His greater plan for creation. Even with my arms stretched high overhead, I am sure I have no idea of how high and wide and deep is the love of God which surrounds me. In fact, most days I feel like I am stumbling around in the dark, tapping my way through a life of faith, blind and questioning, desperate for someone to take my hand and show me a better way, oblivious to the towering Jesus that stands right in front of me.

But at least I’m here.

Stick for Sale

Today my nephew tried to sell a stick at a yard sale. While I was busy getting rid of coffee mugs, Christmas ornaments, and old shoes, Braden was selling a stick.

Yard sales are essentially eBay in the wild. With card tables. Without computer screens and user names for shoppers to hide behind, yard sales let you watch as people search for treasure in your trash. Standing among tables piled high with unappreciated Christmas presents and neglected what-nots, yard sales give suburban scavengers the freedom to scrutinize rejected possessions and haggle over worthless junk.

Maybe that’s why only the brave among us host these front-yard thrift parties. It takes a certain amount of courage to clean out your closets and decide that you’re willing to build a public display from everything you’ve found in the dark corners of your house. It’s hard to assign value to your own junk. You feel like a monster as submit your cherished Scooby Doo cereal bowls and your sixty-four tape collection of Little House on the Prairie to the cold scrutiny of card tables only to watch as neighbors judge the junk you’ve spent a lifetime collecting.

"I can’t believe you actually own sixty-four tapes full of Little House on the Prairie . . ." your across the street neighbor might say. When he does, he might then turn away and mumble "that’s the most pathetic . . ." Or, the discovery might ignite a spark of something special between you and your neighbor. He could just as easily continue, "So do I! Do you have episode number fifty-three where Pa digs the well . . ."

That’s the risk of displaying your life’s leftovers and intimate secrets for strangers, family, and friends. Sometimes you feel judged as people casually pick through your collected life. But sometimes, when a curious shopper stops to admire a trinket or appreciate what others have ignored, you find comfort in the knowledge that we’ve all collected the same trash.

Of course, most of our yard sale fears are unfounded. Yard-sale scavengers might sometimes be discriminating and judgmental, but they will also buy almost anything for the right price. Before Braden came to visit, I sold a sack of Christmas ornaments and a pair of swim goggles to a bearded man wearing a hat. Apparently, his family is planning to celebrate the holidays by bobbing for Christmas. Around 9:00 I sold a short woman four Tupperware tops without their bottoms. It felt a little indecent. Several people asked if I had any electronics for sale. I said no. I don’t trust people who sell electronics at yard sales.

I even sold a wet suit to a woman who wanted to know if it would keep her dry.

I think God understands when you laugh at yard sale people.

With all this perfectly wonderful junk on display, my nephew tried to help by selling a stick. He found the small branch under a tree where he was busy trying to keep the grass off his shoes. Braden is five years old and doesn’t like to be messy. Freshly cut grass in the morning is messy. It makes your shoes look like nature has thrown confetti all over them and leaves your socks wondering why the rest of you weren't invited to the party.

While Braden wiped the confetti off his size three sneakers, he found the stick. And decided to help.

Braden has always been a good helper. He loves to help you eat the icing off your cake. He likes to help you get wet while he’s taking a bath. He’s also good at helping you play in the backyard. Some children help their parents and teachers only because they’re told to or because they want to be rewarded for their efforts with candy and praise. My nephew, however, is an exception to the candy reward rule. Braden likes to help simply because he wants to be near you while you’re doing whatever it is you’re doing.

On the morning of my yard sale, Braden wanted to help sell all of the things I was either tired of using or shouldn’t have bought in the first place. And a stick.

When he picked up the stick and started to play with it, I couldn’t understand why the child had chosen to entertain himself with a broken tree branch playing with the wonderful junk I was trying to sell. There were four chipped baseball bats and a pile of stuffed animals well within reach. And what child wouldn’t be happy playing in a box of old socks?

"Boys will be boys," I thought as I left Braden to enjoy his stick.

Braden, however, didn’t want to simply play with the stick. He wanted to sell it. Just as I was about to remind the boy that his mother would probably be unhappy if he managed to poke out his eye with a stick, Braden’s attention turned to a Hispanic woman digging through a pile of slightly used shoes. He held the stick out to her as if this particular stick was the most wonderful thing in the world. How have you lived this long without it? It’s just what you need! "Excuse me," he said in his most polite voice. "Do you want to buy this stick?"

The pause that followed was filled with innocent and awkward. Braden stood in the grass with his tiny hand extended, smiling the precious smile of a child who still believes that please is a magic word. While he shuffled his feet in a nervous dance of hope and terror, Braden’s eyes filled with a fear that he will only fully understand the first time he asks for a date or uses the words "I love you."

"Do you want to buy this stick?"

To a five-year-old, a stick is still a treasure, worth a few shiny quarters. It is a magic wand and a baseball bat, a sword and a shovel. It can attack a tree and poke things you’re afraid to touch, including (but not limited to) sleeping dogs, wasp nests, and girls. A good stick is at least as valuable as a tennis racket and more useful than an old waffle iron. It was therefore reasonable for Braden to assume that the old woman might actually want to buy a slightly used stick. She could use it to beat her husband or maybe stir some soup.

Unfortunately, the woman hadn’t used her imagination in a while. It had gotten rusty. She didn’t need a magic wand or a baseball bat, a sword or a shovel. She had no desire to attack a tree or poke a sleeping dog. She didn’t want the stick.

Braden clearly couldn’t understand the woman’s apathy. Why hadn’t she immediately accepted his offer and produced a handful of cash from the infinite mystery that is a mother’s purse? Braden assumed that buried beneath the gum and tissues, mints, makeup and other womanly gadgets, the woman must have had at least two spare quarters that wanted to be spent on a stick. But she wasn’t interested. The woman looked down at Braden like he was offering her a cup of lava or a few dozen mosquito eggs and walked back to her station wagon empty handed, oblivious that she had just rejected a five-year-old child who had only just begun to explore the wonders of a free-market economy.

The woman drove away without realizing that when Braden offered her the stick, he wasn’t really trying to make a sale. He was trying to make a friend. When Braden spoke to the woman, he was essentially asking a question he will continue to ask for the rest of his life.

Is what’s important to me important to you, too?

Is what’s valuable to me valuable to you, too?

Do we both think the same things are beautiful?

Do we both think the same things are funny or clever?

Do the things that break my heart break yours also?

Will you please decide that what I have to offer is valuable and worth your attention?

Would you like to buy this stick?

Whenever we try to find what we have in common with another person, we always risk finding instead what will keep us separate. But if we never risk rejection, we also never risk acceptance.

Fortunately, Braden’s innocence still protects him from the fear and insecurity future years will bring. When the ungrateful woman walked away, Braden didn’t cry or pout or even attack her with his tree sword. Instead, he dropped the branch and took up the new task of cleaning an old file cabinet with a barbecue brush.

Braden doesn’t like for things to be messy.

Later in the day, after Braden went home and the buzzards carried away everything of real value, a few yard sale snobs slowed their cars just long enough to glance at my picked-over tables. When they realized I had nothing they wanted, they sped away, avoiding eye-contact, anxious to find a coffee table the next block over or a few rare records across town. I tried not to let these suburban drive-bys hurt my feelings, but they did. I guess I’m not as secure with myself as Braden is, skipping through the yard with his clean shoes and four-foot bravery.

That’s why, when I walk out of my house every day, I leave everything valuable locked inside, hidden behind closed curtains and doors. If people had full access to my history, I’m afraid they might find all the memories that have filled my past, the stories that have built my present, and casually disregard them as unimportant or uninteresting.

"Would you like to buy this stick?"

If people were free to wander through my closets, I am scared they might poke thorough the boxes and uncover all the secrets I've wrapped so carefully and packed away in safe places on high shelves. I am afraid they will decide that I just have too much junk. The work isn’t worth it. And I can’t risk that. My confidence, like interest rates and my property value, is simply too fragile.

"I know it’s not particularly flashy or brilliant. It’s terribly ordinary. But it’s the best stick I have."

Sometimes I wonder if people understand that every conversation, every joke, every story, and every smile is essentially one person offering himself to another person, posing the same basic question. Every awkward silence, every nervous laugh, every spoken or written word is really me asking in my most polite voice,

Do you want what I have to offer?

Will you see that I am valuable?

Would you like to buy this stick?

I ask these questions hoping you will see that I am not just dead wood, broken and useless. If you look close enough you will find that I am also a sword, a shovel, and a magic wand. I am a child. A lover. A sometimes failure. I am even reasonably useful if you use your imagination. I can dig a hole or stir some soup. Or be your friend.

Would you like to buy this stick?

Before you answer, I need for you to close your eyes and use your imagination. I need for you to be willing to look into my deep darkness, and sadness, and fear, and hurt, and hope and not cringe or laugh at what you find there. I need for you to realize that every house has a closet full of unappreciated treasures and misunderstood trinkets. And trash. I need for you to understand that sharing those things with the world is scary.

Very scary.

And so, if one day I gain the courage of a five year old and really offer myself to you, please don’t walk away. I might not handle the rejection as well as Braden did.

Would you like to buy a stick?