Down at the Creek

“Careful!”

“I know, Dad.”

“Watch for the moss on those rocks. It’s deceptive. Slick, son. Please be careful.”

“Dad, I know.”

I watched my 10-year-old descend to the fast-moving creek below. Gray granite stones, many times bigger than we were, jutted from the north Georgia hills, some at incredible angles. Often they had carpets of green moss on them, especially if they received little direct sunlight or were near the water.

As I watched my son, I thought he scuttled. “Slow down!” I wanted to yell at him. He stepped on one massive gray stone, then another, then another, until he reached the bottom. He stepped onto the bank of the creek.

From twenty feet above I watched my son. With one foot on the rocky bank, he leapt onto stones that protruded from the creek bottom. At last he was on the other side of the creek from me, looking up at me. He had his hunting knife in its sheath in his right hand. He held it up, pointing it skyward, as if to say, “Dad, see. I didn’t drop it.”

“Dad, come feel this water. It’s freezing!”

It wasn’t freezing, of course. My son, after all, was wearing a t-shirt, shorts, and tennis shoes. And I was in shorts and hiking shoes, with only a t-shirt and my favorite cap on. It was probably fifty degrees outside, but when I did climb down and meet him in the creek, we dipped our hands in the cold north Georgia water. We felt the water together. The afternoon sun struck the creek, and reflections from quartz, mica, and shale flashed from the waves. The stones, though silent, spoke.

Once down, there was only one thing to do, and that was go up the other side. I waited to see if my boy wanted to lead. The other side was just as steep. Slowly I began scaling my way up by way of stones and by pulling on the laurel limbs that surrounded us.

My son found his own way up, too. When we both arrived at the ridge where we could see down to the creek again, we paused, caught our breath, and felt the presence. Of what exactly?

It was really just a walk through the woods within a mile of our house—woods that are filled with whitetail deer, black bears, coyotes, hawks, and more squirrels than one can count. But we did not see them this day. For my son, he saw time with his dad, climbing massive stones up and down on a sunny March afternoon, and descending steep creek banks to play in the creek. I felt analogous things, too, but also perhaps some things about time, some things about how beauty is not a cosmetic we purchase. I understood something about beauty being inseparable from God, about beauty calling one to praise him for his benedictions.

A New Civil War

I heard someone say recently that the West is in a civil war. But this civil war is not over states’ rights or slavery, he said. It is a war of worldviews, and at stake is the human soul. That sounds overstated, doesn’t it? A war of worldviews, and at stake is the human soul. But I wonder if he may be right.

This morning at work, a friend and I were talking over breakfast. He’d stopped on his way into work and bought us both breakfast. When we were together a few minutes later at a table in the office, he flicked on a nearby TV and we began eating our biscuits and taking in some of the day’s news. Today’s news included three main issues: 1) violence at our schools as recently evidenced in Parkland, FL; 2) another Islamic attack, this one in Montenegro; and 3) the death of Rev. Billy Graham.

My friend and I ate our biscuits and shook our heads at the state of events we saw splashed across the screen: 17 dead and 14 injured in Parkland, FL, and the community and nation reel; another Islamist hurls a grenade into the U.S. Embassy in Podgorica, Montenegro, then blows himself up; and 99-year-old Reverend Billy Graham, arguably the most effective Christian evangelist since the apostle Paul, has died. All three stories shared at least one theme: death. Death by violence in FL; death by suicide with the Islamist; and the death of Reverend Billy Graham, and how some secularists rage against his message of the Christian gospel—that Christ has come for sinners.

But how different are the worldviews? Strikingly. The young man who murdered his classmates and teachers in FL ripped life away from Cara, Chris, Gina, Alex, Joaquin, and more than a dozen others. Violence, death, suffering, and lots and lots of finger-pointing. I cannot read the soul of the murderer in FL. I cannot read the soul of the Islamist who threw a grenade into the American Embassy in Montenegro. I cannot read the soul of Rev. Billy Graham. But is the West in a type of civil war? Is there not a war of worldviews for the human soul?

Will more government intervention in our lives prevent murders like in Parkland, FL? Many on the political left emote that America needs more laws, more restrictions on guns, and some even argue for relinquishing American’s Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Many on the political right point out that thugs don’t obey laws; hence, more laws and restrictions would not have prevented this. It’s not the millions of Americans who own guns, and who are law-abiding citizens, that we need worry about. Instead, we should enforce the laws we have, screen people for psychological health, and possibly arm some government school employees. But AR-15s (originally named for the ArmaLite-15) don’t discharge on their own. Human will is involved. Human responsibility is involved. I, for example, own several weapons; they don’t own me. Human volition and responsibility are always involved. What worldview better assesses what we are witnessing? Is more government the answer? The political left wants bigger government and more laws. The political right wants smaller government, enforcement of current laws, and personal responsibility.

What if one proposed that there is a worldview out there that assesses this, and that man’s problem is not a primarily political one, but a moral and theological one? The biblical worldview posits that men and women are created in the image of God (Gen 1:26-27), that we are fallen creatures (Gen 3) because we chose (and continue to choose) to trust ourselves rather than God’s revealed will, and that we suppress the truth that God graciously gives us (Rom 1:18). The NT puts it this way:

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools (Rom 1:18-22 ESV).

In short, the biblical worldview diagnoses man’s root problem: he is a sinner. We are rebels against holy God. And our behavior is that characteristic of fools. We won’t prevent murder by banning AR-15s. We won’t prevent Islamic terrorists from murdering civilians by failing to call the reality of evil what it is. We won’t stop the raging mouths of secularists who inveigh against Rev. Billy Graham and his Christian message by forfeiting free speech.

I think what I overheard was right: there is a civil war in the West. I even think he may be right that there’s a war of worldviews over the human soul, and what it means to be human. We see what happens when we reject the biblical worldview. Names of victims scroll across our screens. Pundits point fingers. People bypass civility and rage at one another instead of reason. We prey instead of pray. We become, in short, darkened and increasingly foolish. Might we consider the biblical worldview? Rev. Graham was not a perfect man, to be sure, but he faithfully brought a message that not only assesses man’s problem but also includes God’s solution: the Christ.

 

Buffy

Looking back, it’s hard to remember the day of the week, the temperature, whether or not I had on my Adidas tennis shoes and camouflage cap, or even what month it was, or if it was 1981. Most storytellers include all those details, and I understand why. They authenticate what happens to the characters; they lend believability to the story. But my memory here centers around the feel of my dog’s warm body, and the feel of heat rising from the highway asphalt in front of Bohannon’s Builders Supply, and of sliding my hands under Buffy’s lifeless body after she’d been struck by a vehicle.

But I hope you will read on, and forgive me if I don’t remember if all this occurred in May or August, or even whether it all happened at ten a.m. on a Saturday. It was from my boyhood. The thing is, you see, it was terrible. This terrible thing is not really novel, nothing special. It’s a simple sad story about how my dog, a Chihuahua named Buffy, was killed on Highway 23 in Cochran, GA, and of how that memory speaks still. There may be some other ideas in all this, too, but you’ll have to decide for yourself.

Lots of kids lose their pets, I suppose. So my experience was not in any way unique or more powerful than yours. Anyway, my mom and I were dog lovers. My stepdad was, too. He was a great stepdad, but he was not as affectionate by nature as Mom and I were. Mom and I loved our animals completely. We doted on them. We spoke to them like they were children. They came to be family, you see. And Buffy was our family’s Chihuahua.

Chihuahuas are not particularly beautiful dogs to look at, I admit, but when you’re a boy, and you cannot remember your life without dogs, well, it does not occur to you to evaluate the aesthetics of your dogs. You just love them, and you believe they love you back.

Anyway, here’s what I remember. Sunshine. Lots of it. I remember how bright and sunny it was. I cannot be sure if it was May’s sunshine or September’s. I just remember it was an extraordinarily sunny day. And for middle GA, where I was raised, it gets real hot in the summers, and the humidity clings to you like you’re wearing a sweater. But I don’t recall humidity that day, so it may not have been during those long, slow, hot, humid days characteristic of late Georgia summers.

And I remember a breeze–you know, the kind that makes the pond’s surface ripple, as if a chill raked across it. I always loved the way wind would sweep across the ponds in our little area, when I would watch the ripples start on one end of the ponds, and the water’s face would obey the wind, as if God were conducting visible music on the surface of water.

And I remember Mom’s mascara, and the way it ran down her cheeks when we accepted Buffy had been killed. I suppose most of us know the facial features of our own moms. We know how their lips reveal emotion; the way their eyes sparkle when they’re happy or excited; the way their chins quiver when tears are nearing. But on this day, it was Mom’s mascara I remember. Well, it was not the mascara exactly; it was the way it made crooked black streaks down her cheeks when she and I cried over Buffy.

I don’t remember exactly where I was in our neighborhood. I can’t recall if I was fishing in one of the ponds, or picking up pinecones in our yard (Mom was avid about keeping our yard up), or whether I was riding my Go-kart. Memory is a strange thing.

The next thing I remember is being told, “Buffy’s in front of Bohannon’s. Go get her.” But I don’t remember who told me. It could’ve been Mom, my stepdad, a neighbor; I really have no idea.

And I remember my heavy feet. What do I mean? Simply that when you get news like this, your feet can turn into cement blocks, and your stomach can go all green and sour inside, and your words won’t come the way they normally do. It’s like your universe suddenly shrinks and expands simultaneously. It shrinks in the way your world is drawn to a single point of pain and loss and experience, where you feel like no one else ever has felt pain like this. And your world expands in the sense of sensations. You feel the warmth of your dog’s body; you remember the way the sheets floated on the summer breeze on the clothesline behind the house; you remember the heat and the blackness of the pavement in front of Bohannon’s Builder’s Supply on Highway 23, and so on. These were all things I’d seen and felt countless times, but in memory, they expand. They grow in import.

The next thing I remember is Buffy’s weight. I’d heard the expression “dead weight” before, but when you hold your dog on your forearms, and her brown head hangs limp, and she’s still warm, and your mind is racing, and your heart is breaking, and you suddenly hate the fact that cars and trucks are zooming down Highway 23 still, and the people inside them don’t know or care that something outside you and inside you has died.

And the last thing I remember is the rocks. We buried Buffy in the backyard. We wrapped her up, and after we’d dug a shallow grave between some pines in the backyard, we buried her, and placed rocks we had from our hunting club over her, to keep, I suppose, predators from destroying her lifeless body. The rocks were the color of chestnut and had splotches of white on them. I can still see those rocks in my mind’s eye today.

Sunshine, the breeze, Mom’s mascara on her cheeks, my heavy feet, the weight of Buffy in my arms, the way the universe seemed to shrink and expand at the same time, the feel of the heat from the asphalt in front of Bohannon’s, and those chestnut-colored rocks under the pine trees that marked Buffy’s grave. That’s it. What does it all mean? I don’t know exactly. Maybe something about the power of love and loss. Maybe something about the reality of acknowledging death in life. Maybe something about how sights, sounds, smells, and feels of our lives we tend to underappreciate until, well, they’re taken, and you feel their removal still.

 

Lily At Home

The Colonel

“You ever notice, chaplain, people don’t know their Bibles anymore?” the colonel asked.

The chaplain studied the colonel to see if he was asking with the desire to listen to the chaplain answer, or to hear himself. As the chaplain was about to answer, the colonel continued.

“You know, chaplain, I used to think it was just Millennials–the guys who can’t do fifty push-ups because their man-buns might come undone . . .”

The chaplain nodded his head slowly at the colonel to let him know he understood. The chaplain knew he would not have to say much because the colonel wanted to impress him.

“And what’s with women who now dress and act like men, but then get offended if we treat them like they are men? I mean, which is it?” Suddenly the colonel realized he’d left his original topic.

“What was I saying, chaplain?”

“You began with how few people know the Bible, sir.”

“Exactly, chaplain! But it’s even the older generation, too. You know that?”

“That’s been my experience, sir.”

“How old are you, chappy?”

“Forty-eight, sir.”

“Me, too, chaplain. But when I was coming up in the Midwest, at least my family taught us the Bible, and we even went to church. But people nowadays, chaplain—I just don’t know anymore.”

“Not much of a shared foundation anymore, sir. I’ve noticed.”

“You know, chaplain. I have an eleven-year-old son named Luke. Every night before I put him to bed, I read the Bible aloud with him for thirty minutes.”

“That’s great, sir,” the chaplain said. “He will remember that time with him and probably much of what you read with him.”

“You know what really gets me, though, chappy? It’s how he’ll hit me with a question a day or so later about something we read—something I didn’t think he was really tracking,” the colonel said.

“He may be beyond much of the West, sir,” the chaplain said, smiling a sad smile.

“Say again.”

“Firsthand knowledge of Scripture, sir, like you were saying,” the chaplain said.

“Exactly. He’ll up and ask me something about people loving darkness rather than light. Ain’t that something, chappy?”

“Yes, sir.”

“But what do we do, chaplain? With the world going the way it is, and all? I mean, I know the Bible, and my wife and I, we teach it to Luke. But this generation, and even our parents’ generation . . . I just don’t know, chaplain.”

“Sounds like you’re doing well, sir. Open the Scripture, read it, and share it with those who’ll listen.”

He watched the colonel listen to his own thoughts, and pictured the colonel with Luke beside his dad, perhaps under his boyish covers on his bed, listening to his father read of David and mighty men of valor, who surely resembled his dad the colonel, and his staff officers or non-commissioned officers; and a flaming sword that blazed amidst a ruined garden; and of Jewish boys perhaps his own age, cast into a furnace deep in the desert sands near the Tigris and Euphrates where his dad had battled and returned; and of trees cursed by Jesus as symbols of people not using their time the way God wanted, and . . .

Thus ran the chaplain’s thoughts as he watched the colonel listen to himself.

“You’re a good listener, chappy. Appreciate you.”

“Thanks, sir. Likewise.”

“Hey, sir?”

“What you got, chappy?”

“Tell Luke to keep reading, and that the chaplain says hello.”

“Good copy, chaplain.”

 

Thoughts on Wonder


Auggie, Via, Jack, Miranda, Daisy, Julian, and Bear. There are other characters, too: Julian, Mr. Browne, and Mr. Tushman. But these characters from Palacio’s novel Wonder are so true to life that you may say to yourself, “I know him!” and “Yes, that’s the way she is!” aloud. If you are like most readers who appreciate the story first and the artistry afterwards, I cannot say enough good things about this book.

Wonder is first of all a story. The protagonist is August, a fifth-grade boy living in New York, who is just like oodles of other ten-year-old boys. He likes to play video games. He loves Star Wars characters. He has a dog, Daisy, that licks him in the face because she loves him utterly. He likes to dress up for Halloween so that others cannot discern who is behind his mask. He longs to be accepted by his peers. He sometimes squabbles with his older sister, but loves her beyond words. He has stuffed animals on his bed still, but doesn’t want folks outside his parents and sister to really know that.

Wonder is secondly an exploration of tenderness. We readers get to see how fragile we are, not just as fifth-graders, but as people. We see how we jockey for positions—not just as middle schoolers, but as adults. Who will we sit with in the school cafeteria? Are people staring at us? Will people like us? Mustn’t we be cruel sometimes to get ahead? Wonder explores these questions in such a powerful way that my son, wife, and I all read it. And we all wept and laughed, too. If you think that sounds maudlin or overly sentimental, just read this book. Wonder recaptured for me the tenderness with which many of us were designed but that we’ve allowed life to harden.

Thirdly, Wonder reconnects us to each other by showing what courage and kindness accomplish. Palacio has created convincing characters here by revealing their sins and their glories. She shows how they failed at times to live up to what they nonetheless acknowledged was right. But haven’t we all? The author shows redemption in life, too. We see goodness in the world . . . not just evil. We see self-sacrifice, endurance, courage, compassion, and forgiveness.

I could go on and on about Wonder. Read this book, and be reminded of the capacities we have. You may relearn the greatness of some fundamentals; among them are courage, forgiveness, redemption, and kindness.

Notice

Only an hour of light remains. Today, of course, is the first day of a new year. And just as almost every other day if I’m home, I walk our family dog. He’s a male German shepherd, brown, gray, and black, several years old (not exactly certain how many years, though, since my family rescued him several years back from a shelter in south GA). I could go on and on. He’s special to us, as fellow dog lovers will understand. Anyway, he’s brown, gray and black, muscular but with a belly (I feed him too much), ears that make visitors think we have a wolf, and a keen nose. We typically walk down and back on the blacktop lane that runs in front of our house. Nothing special about today. It was just three thirty to four thirty on another Monday afternoon, and I opened the door to step outside with my dog.

Brewster’s black nostrils alerted him to the four does immediately behind the back porch of the house. They stood with their eyes on us, and their long gray ears pointed skyward like hairy pyramids. Their lean muscular legs were the identical colors of the forest floor, which was covered with crisp oak leaves down from the gray boughs above. The deer stood in silent intense motionless energy, eyes black as oil pools, watching.

“No, Brewster. Let’s go this way,” I whispered to him, and he headed to our usual route, disappointed I did not let him chase them. But on the way down the driveway, he turned his head back three times to the deer behind as if he and they exchanged a mystery or truce.

When we got to the top of the first hill, new timber had fallen on the left side of the lane. A rotten pine with holes from woodpeckers was wedged between the limbs of an oak twenty-five feet above our heads. And the wind was sending haunting sounds through the gulch below the road to our right.

Brewster marked his typical spots as I followed behind him with the leash in my hand. When he scared gray squirrels scurrying for the oaks, he’d chase them enough for them to look down on him and me from the trees, waving their tails in alarm, and barking at us till we passed on.

The January wind was as cold as I had ever felt in GA. My Columbia fleece top left my neck exposed and I reached to turn up the collar. I wanted to keep moving, but Brewster continued to stop and sniff what seemed like every few steps. He buried his nose in the frigid downed limbs, and pressed his snout in the brittle brown leaves, then scraped them back with his paws as if he were a buck marking territory.

How many times had we walked this way? Countless. But today, I noticed how green the moss growing in the shaded spots near the blacktop was, and felt the wind sting my ears and neck, and watched my shepherd chase the squirrels up the oaks again, and listened to the fallen pine wedged in the oak send haunting sounds tunneling down the laurel canyons. I did not think of news, schedules, of politics, but only of these sights and sounds, of today’s winds, of the particular ways the moss here reminded me of the felt on the billiard table my father had in our basement when I was a boy in high school. I thought of how watching the eyes of deer makes one feel small. I witnessed mystery, order, and providence in a walk with one’s dog.