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.

The End of the Matter (Part two)

Lily fled hearing only her own footsteps. “I will be maligned,” she thought. Her pulse thrashed within her eardrums in ridicule. “They will mock me.” She hoped to evade Donald or any other deacons in Beulah’s foyer who might still be welcoming congregants. She thrust one of Beulah’s front doors open. The morning sun blinded her for several steps as she pressed towards her small car. When she entered, she realized she had left her iPhone on the chair inside.

Moments later her apartment came in view. She opened her door, dropped her purse and keys on the kitchen table, and collapsed onto her Queen Anne chair. Alice’s book about hearing from God lay upon the kitchen tabletop. Powerless, she bent forward over her knees and wept into her hands. Several minutes passed. She went to her bathroom and cleared her nose. She stared at her swollen eyes in her mirror. She crossed her apartment again and lay upon her bed and stared at the books upon her nightstand. She longed to be on the moors with Catherine and Heathcliff rather than in Glim with Beth Aims and Desiree Dramal. If Michael saw me now, he would say I look like Miss Havisham, she thought. She was surrounded by literary ghosts, she believed, visible only to her.

“Ms. Rood? May I come in?” Nathanael spoke firmly but calmly from outside her front door.

Lily shook and leapt from her bed and dashed towards her mirror.

“Nathanael?”

“Yes. You forgot your phone. May I come in?”

“How did you know where I lived?”

“Ms. Rood. I’m the headmaster. May I come in, please?”

When Lily opened her apartment door, Nathanael looked at her with complete solicitude. “Thank you. Your phone.”

“Thank you. Come in. I…am sorry, Nathanael. I don’t know—“

Nathanael took a couple of steps into the small foyer where he could see into Lily’s kitchen and into the living room. Books lined the walls. Surrounded by thousands of pages of words, yet she could not speak.

“It is alright. I am not here to pry. You have your reasons. Now you have your phone. I will return to Beulah.”

He turned to Lily’s front door. “I’m glad you’re at Covenant. We are better because of your presence. I remember my English teacher when I was your students’ age. Mr. Winthrop used to read Faulkner’s acceptance speech. He’d read those words about how ‘ . . . the basest of all things is to be afraid . . .'” and Nathanael ceased and turned to leave. Lily had read the same words to her students. Alice’s book lay upon her kitchen table like an oracle. Bronte, Woolf, and the Bard lay upon her nightstand, and Nathanael had come and was now departing, smiling solicitously at her. Already she bore the gravity of his absence.

Thoughts on the Death of R.C. Sproul

Sometimes just mentioning a man’s name makes a statement. I am not alone this week in mourning the loss of R.C. Sproul. He died just days ago near his home in FL. His ministries are manifold. They include Ligonier Ministries, sermons, lectures, teaching series, apologetics resources, CDs, and books, books, books. For me, R.C. Sproul made more than a statement. He formed and re-formed much of my thinking. Sproul’s ministry legacy will endure. Why? He was a stalwart defender and soldier of Christian orthodoxy. He had a pastor’s shepherding heart. He had a sharp theologian-philosopher’s mind. He had the sensitivity and attention to detail of a poet-writer.

When I was grappling with intellectual questions surrounding the problem of evil, R.C. did not sidestep tough questions surrounding the sovereignty of God and the existence of evil. He wrote volumes about how God is altogether holy, altogether sovereign, and how evil is obviously part of God’s decree to exalt Christ while calling all men to repent and turn to the saving gospel. Sproul did not evade tensions that thoughtful seekers asked. Through Ligonier Ministries and R.C.’s books, I discovered answers to tough questions.

Like thousands of others, my first exposure to R.C. Sproul was through his book The Holiness of God. I can still remember reading of his descriptions of Isaiah 6, and of how Isaiah learned of God’s consummate holiness. In light of God’s glory, Isaiah saw his own sinfulness, and the atoning work of God through the gospel. To read, and then later to listen, to Sproul explain the gospel by plumbing the holiness of God shook my thinking to its foundations.

After I read The Holiness of God, I went on to read and study Sproul’s other works. They are too numerous to mention all of them here, but they’re easily found. I remember reading Chosen by God and The Consequences of Ideas and Lifeviews. For me, those books were especially meaningful. Why? Because Sproul, and this is so important to me, he did not evade the thorny issues. He tackled the Bible’s teaching of predestination head- on in Chosen by God. He did not pander to keep from hurting feelings. He was, in short, faithful to God’s Word, but kind in his delivery.

In The Consequences of Ideas, Sproul walked me through the history of thought and showed how the Bible cohered where Greek ideas came up short, and/or omitted parts of universal human experience. He showed me (again) how the empiricism of Locke, Berkeley, and Hume failed to account for all the data. He showed me how Kant and Hegel fell short of answering fundamental questions and experiences. He showed me how existentialism and secularism had their philosophical feet planted in midair. In Lifeviews, Sproul tackled head-on the tendencies that many people have to settle for sentimentality, pragmatism, pluralism, and hedonism rather than the truth.

When my wife and I went to R.C.’s church in FL a few years ago to hear him in person, I was thrilled. I’d read his books for years. I had listened to him on teaching conferences. I had watched his lectures on Reformed theology and apologetics. And after his sermon, he sat on a chair in the church narthex and greeted us. My wife and I stepped up. He had breathing tubes in his nostrils. He shook our hands as I introduced us to him. True to form, he was gracious. He asked where we were from and where I’d studied during seminary years, etc. But he was a pastor, too, a gracious, faithful, gentle giant and theologian, one for whom I’m grateful. As just one more who is in your debt, R.C., thank you for your faithfulness to use what God granted you. Well done.