Ecchoing Green

God sits enthroned above the circle of the earth . . .

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Location: New Hampshire, United States

Saturday, August 22, 2009

The River God

I have a dilemma.

I’m not overly “green” – I mean, we try to recycle our cans, bottles, and paper; we don’t drive SUVs (which has as much to do with cost as conscience!); we use compact fluorescent lightbulbs (again, cost more than principle), etc. No doubt we could do a lot more.

We could do much more in the spiritual arena as well, though we try. We’re faithful Sunday churchgoers, we pray with our children before dinner and before bed, read the Scriptures, and talk openly about our faith as a family.

I was raised in church – steeped in it like a tea bag in hot water, to the saturation point. Our social life revolved around faith. Three services a week, almost without fail. I’ve estimated that I missed church on Sunday morning fewer than ten times from birth until college.

I’ve wept at rural Baptist revival meetings; sung at full volume in my wife’s grandmother’s African-American church; known the presence of Christ in the quiet dignity of the Mass; inhaled the censer’s smoky perfume in the great Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. I love church because I meet the Lord there.

But back to that green thing. I’m no enviro-theist, and so it feels like blasphemy to say this – but sometimes I feel His presence even more strongly on a day like yesterday. Not in church, but in a river.

See, summer in New England is all too brief, and so yesterday I took a day off and drove with my wife and three young children an hour and a half north, to New Hampshire’s White Mountains. We’ve got a few favorite spots there, especially Lost River Gorge. It’s a place where glaciers carved deep grooves in the mountainsides and left boulders jumbled about. Decades ago a local entrepreneur installed a series of boardwalks and wooden ladders in the gorge and started charging admission for people to climb through the small caves between boulders.

I stood shin-deep in cool mountain water, watching my 7- and 5-year old boys splash and climb, build small cairns out of smooth rocks, explore and jump and laugh like children naturally do (what a grace). Our 18-month-old daughter, not willing to be outdone, mimicked them and scaled the rocks more nimbly than their old dad. We played until threatening clouds approached and the sound of thunder drove us back to the car. Good thing we left the minute we did – the rainstorm that followed was as intense as any I’d ever seen in Texas or Kansas, save the hail.

We drove back across Kancamagus Pass (elevation only 2,855 feet but it feels a lot higher) toward Lincoln and the highway that would take us back home. Even in the driving rain, with visibility only about 100 feet, I felt exhilarated. Better still, I felt totally satisfied, in love, at peace, and grateful. Just watching the boys play was like worship. Not like – it was worship at its best and most God-honored. Maker of it all – He was there, right there with us, in the water flowing over the rocks, in the mist covering the hills, in the smiles of my children, in our hearts. That is church, my friend.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Day's End


It’s a bit mysterious, neither fully light nor fully dark. There is some feeling of completion, the workday over, yet at the same time anticipation—scaring up dinner, getting the kids dressed for bed or getting ready to meet a friend in town. Night’s coming on, but it’s not yet here. In the meantime, shadows are deepening and I’m close to switching on the headlights as we near the short trail, trying to get a little fresh air before we settle in.

The boys love this little retreat hard by a busy road. It’s got a nice, easy trail, moss-crusted stone wall, open field, and a couple of big granite boulders for climbing. The fact that a giant of 20th-century literature lived in the modest farm-house behind us doesn’t impress them one bit; for them the Frost Farm is a place to streak across the close-cropped grass and run headlong down bumpy trails. So far we’ve avoided major injury. So far.

This evening, as light fails by degrees, the boys stand quivering at the starting line—the trailhead—as my wife and I hesitate. The trail’s surrounded by thick foliage this time of summer and is substantially dimmer than the field in which we stand. Is it safe? Anyone else back in there? Coyotes? Bears? Bogeys? We know the way but fear getting off track anyway.

I push ahead—actually, the kids sprint on in and I follow at a fast walk, soon overtaking them. We go on like this, my wife now in the lead as I stop to examine the leaf our youngest is holding out, then hurrying to catch up with his older brother, whose red shirt bobs along in front. Sooner than we’d thought, we emerge from our green tunnel into the sun’s benediction. “Can we do it again?” beg the boys.

Raising a family can be a lot like standing at that wood’s edge with the sun slowly extinguishing itself—unsettling. Tough to see what’s ahead; easy to give way to fears of unknown pitfalls, hazards, wrong turns. Indeed, we have and will continue to encounter many of these things along the path. But, God willing, we will struggle our way along and finally blunder out into the last of the bright light at day’s end . . . and all will be well.

Thursday, July 06, 2006


Living in rural Missouri some years ago on very little money, I had steadily downgraded my wheels and now found myself in a 1967 Mercury Cougar with a lot of problems. One day I picked up the car from the local garage after replacing the thermostat for the fourth time. My mechanic Doug—he was no automotive snob; you should have seen what he drove—dropped the keys in my hand with a sad look and said, gently, “lost cause.”

I looked around the garage for a second opinion and locked eyes with Tiny, who was, of course, a very large man. I need to relate an observation about Tiny at this point. (Two, actually, though this has nothing to do with the story. He had a doppelgänger, another mechanic about half his size that looked like a mirror image of him: bushy beard, dark hair, same ball cap with the same crease in the bill, wearing grease-stained jeans, short-sleeved blue shirt, vaguely brown boots. It was unnerving.) The observation is this: Tiny never spoke. He never grunted. He never made any opinion known about anything.

As I looked at him, silently pleading, he slowly nodded his great bushy-bearded head in assent. The car was doomed. I bled my meager bank account dry and left the garage in a bad mood.

Walking toward the car, I could see that it was covered in a patina of dust. Splash marks in the dust left by large, scattered raindrops were just beginning to appear. I got in the car and flipped on the wipers, which didn’t work. No matter; the rain stopped before it ever really began, and I pointed the chrome nose of the Cougar out of town. A number of miles down the road was a little state park that I loved, a stretch of green on both banks of a river that was sheltered by lush trees and underbrush—my destination.

Or so I thought. I never made it that far. Rather I got sidetracked by a small country chapel nearly hidden by summer-thick trees. I don’t remember much about it these years later—just that there was a shrine to the Virgin a short distance from the rough wooden building. Also, one thought: this may have been the perfect location for a church. Beside a gentle river, in a grove, a green lawn spread out in front of its front door; if God couldn’t be found here, God was not to be found. I didn’t go inside the building to worship; I worshipped where I was, “in church” in every reasonable sense.

Confronted at one point with a spreading tree on the edge of the church’s lawn, I was possessed by a very Zacchaeus-like thought: to climb. I did. The elevation didn’t change my perspective; in fact, I felt stupid. But no one was there, so I climbed back down with a new appreciation for the urge that made a little man take to the trees to get a look at God’s son. I felt like, in that place, I had glimpsed him too.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Desert Aire

I set out early on Labor Day a few years ago for a drive to no specific destination. At the time I am living in a paradise of green and soft, gentle mist west of the Cascades in Washington state. My plan is simple: get out the map, trace a route, fill up the tank and go.

After leaving Seattle and driving east on I-90 for 130 miles or so, I point the truck south on 243, a route that skirts along a high ridge beside the sluggish Columbia, once-raging river now docile as a house cat. I see gulls gliding overhead, winging off toward the service station at Vantage and the bridge over the river, in search of scraps left by travelers. Looking for a better view, I turn my wheels to the right and coast off of the blacktop onto a little strip of sand that looked like a driveway.

Big mistake. After I reach the top of a small rise, I realize I’m not going much further. I slam into reverse, trundle back down the hill, and bury the tires deep in the sand.

I spot two flat sections of board about 3’x2’ that look like manna from heaven. Surely there’s a patron saint of stupid drivers shaking his head somewhere beyond the cloud-scrubbed September sky. Can I wedge the boards under my tires far enough for rubber to grab wood and pop me out of this pit? I try to ignore the swarm of gnats, slog through calf-high sand, grab the boards and jam them as far under the rear tires of my little truck as I can manage. I climb back into the dusty cab and pop the emergency brake, shift into first, rock the gas and clutch, lurch forward—and crack those boards right in half.

Okay, how about using the board to dig out my buried tires? The more I dig, though, the more sand floods in, like some Sisyphean dream. Nothing to do but walk back to the station across the Columbia. Just five miles or so, right? No sweat—it’s not even that hot. I’m sure I can find some help . . . 1:00 PM on Labor Day . . . right?

Luckily I don’t get far before a truck with an old Jeep on a flatbed trailer stops. Though the driver looks at me like I’m an idiot, he’s too polite to say so and instead says pleasantly, “is that you stuck back there?” I tell him yes, and he climbs out of his cab and produces a well-worn tow rope. Just then another truck pulls up and offers help, so we hook up my frame to his bumper and—SNAP. The tow rope breaks. While we take the longer end, back the truck up, and tie the remaining length around my frame again, the kind woman in the passenger seat of the good samaritan's truck reassures me that everything is all right. “Don’t worry about it. I’ll tell you about stupid—I went mud-hogging with bald tires once. Talk about getting stuck.” That’s great, except . . . who said anything about stupid?

Eventually I’m out and on the flat surface of the blacktop again, offering profuse thanks to all. I begin driving south on 243 again. As I skirt the river gorge, I am headed toward names on a map that possess a strange drawing power: Schawana, Saddle Mountains, Horse Heaven Hills, Desert Aire. This is desolation, and it is good. Irrigated orchards crowd beside the road, in the shadow of the Saddles, stark vertical bluffs with huge drifts of sand and dirt piled halfway up their sides. The colors on this clear day are fantastic—light and shade together, the hilltops bright and the gulleys black. The sky is shifting shades of blue, gray, white, dun: inhospitable and beautiful.

As I drive the great loop toward the Hanford nuclear site, my senses become more acute. The hexagonal basalt columns that make up part of the hills stand out like sentinels. Magpies, brilliant black and white with small heads and long tail feathers, streak by. On a low hill, across from the tiny outpost of Desert Aire, four white letters elevated on posts read H-O-P-E. The tops of the mountains look like upstrokes from some giant paintbrush, hazy with dust and the glaze of midafternoon.

I cut east on highway 24 toward the great unknown—the Hanford Nuclear Power Plant. (The story of that place could, and does, fill volumes.) Here is real desolation. Five, then 10 miles without seeing another vehicle, though I can see the plant itself off to the right from some distance away, looming up out of the arid land like a shrine to power and industry. Signs draped on the barbed wire fence warn: “NO TRESPASSING;” “AREA CLOSED.” The scrub-brush prairie cradling the road reminds me of north Texas, except for the gentle hills to the left and right; covered with dead grass like dust-colored velvet; they look as if they’re soft to the touch. Here too, the shadows and the sky are many colors.

The sun is getting lower in the sky, and the nose of my truck is pointing into the Columbia National Wildlife Refuge. Bouncing down the rough gravel road that leads into the area, I notice birds lighting at the mouth of a shallow cave in low basalt bluffs, its edges stained with white droppings. The scrub prairie here is pierced occasionally by dark outcroppings of rock, largely composed of those same hexagonal pillars I saw by the mountains. Cattails grow in the marshy ground by the roadside. Sounds are muted: birds singing, a unseen plane in the haze above, muffled gunshots. The air is dry, slightly warm, the sky cloudy with streaks of blue.

As I trace highway 24 back north I manage to get lost somewhere in the broad prairie between Othello and Royal City but know I’m heading west; the white monolith of Mt. Rainier in the southwest corner of my windshield tells me so. I’m still a long way off; that’s one large mountain. All around is corn, irrigated fertile farmland, stacks of hay bales like a child’s blocks, empty apple crates, and high pale sky. I flash by Royal High School and a cemetery where a woman and young girl stand in silent tribute before one of the headstones.

I drive home the same way I came, in silence. Something stays with me, under the surface, beyond reach. A disturbance kicks up a cloud of birds off to my right, and they wing off into the distance. The light is fading, and I don't know when I will ever be this satisfied again.

Friday, June 30, 2006

Bonde la Ufa

As I write this I am thinking of a man I used to know, a man who has recently died and about whose death I just have learned. This was a good man, kind and self-sacrificing, who was a missionary in Kenya. I was friends with his youngest son, and when I was ten years old, my parents (God bless them for this!) sent me to visit my friend and his family. I flew from Houston, Texas to Amsterdam in the company of a family acquaintance and from then on to Nairobi, a long, long flight.

Seriously jet-lagged when I arrived, I vaguely remember being bundled into a car and hitting the road for the long drive northwest to a town called Kitale, in the shadow of Mount Elgon. Sitting in the backseat between two other boys, I was rocked to sleep almost instantly by the thrum of the motor, the steady rhythm of tires on asphalt, the warm breezes that blew through open windows. I remember waking up after what must have been several hours and feeling a terrible pain in my neck; I had fallen asleep with my head leaning straight back. But I regained my senses immediately, as a sight that I’ll never forget seized me through the windows. Pain? What pain? I was staring at the edge of the world.

We were driving a narrow road that skirted the Rift Valley, a cleft that appeared, in the eyes of a ten-year-old, to have no end. Instantly, that green divide, dappled by shifting shadows from clouds overhead, burned itself into my memory as deeply as my own mother’s voice. In that moment a door opened that led me on to new thoughts. The world grew bigger in my mind and before my eyes. I began to realize that there was much more “out there” than I knew—maybe more than I could ever know.

And that view was only the primer’s first lesson. There were other introductions to this immense new world, too numerous to count—a swaying cobra, hood spread, that rose up in the backyard and made us run away screaming; “wood-borer” bees, black and about the size of my ten-year-old thumb; the tangy taste of edible clover and sweet nectar of tiny white flowers that we were introduced to by Kenyan boys who became our friends. I can’t forget the sight of a lake, far below the high road, literally covered by flamingos, glaring pink under the harsh sun—surely it’s no exaggeration to say that they numbered in the thousands. And earlier that morning, a valley whose floor was covered in mist, tops of trees floating in the fog like islands on a gauzy sea.

Toward the end of my stay, we made a trip to the Masai Mara Game Reserve in western Kenya, near the border with Tanzania. The savannah held species of animals that I had seen in zoos, in pictures, or in dreams, all roaming free—elephants, lions, Cape Buffalo, giraffes, hyenas, zebras, gazelles. I was mesmerized . . . and terrified. We saw all these animals and more. We saw impossibly tall, striking Masai men and women who walked with a regal bearing, swathed in red and brown cloth and carrying spears. We saw hordes of children our age and younger that rushed our car at a rural gas station, smiling and waving and speaking Swahili to us. And we prayed.

This family prayed to a God who was infinitely larger than I had known. They lived in a fantastically immense world. Visiting with them had begun a process of inquiry in me that I pray never ends.

Walking the Circle

I saw a remarkable thing in a remarkable place, Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. Perched on the crest of Nob Hill, the church offers many beautiful sights to admire: ornate doors with biblical scenes played out in bronze relief, murals depicting the history of the city lining the cathedral’s interior walls, replicas of the Chartes labyrinth in a courtyard and in the sanctuary that are walked daily by seekers. But the most outstanding feature of the church may be missed by tourists whose eyes are drawn immediately to the more spectacular sights. This feature is a small chapel in the nave of the church. Its altar bears a triptych designed by the late artist and activist Keith Haring, a stainless steel creation that was completed two weeks before his death in 1990. On this altarpiece—a folding metal screen with three panels—is depicted, in Haring’s unmistakeable style, the life of Christ.

In the back corner of the chapel is a simple, glass-enclosed book. Called the Book of Remembrance, the leather-bound volume contains the names and death-dates of deceased men and women whose loved ones have requested their commemoration. The display case is lit from above by a single, bright light. Curious to read the names, I placed both hands on the transparent case lid and bent forward, pausing and reading each name and date silently. It struck me that many visitors must do the same thing, allowing these people who mattered and matter to others to live on through the simple act of an unspoken roll call. As I finished and turned to leave, moved, I saw the misty outline of my fingers on the glass shimmer and shrink beneath the piercing light, and the message was unmistakeable: life is fleeting.

Blue Star redux

Route 3 in Maine is designated a “Blue Star Memorial Highway.” The designation comes from a national movement, post-WWII, to honor America’s armed forces by placing this name on certain state and national roads. In 1945, the National Council of State Garden Clubs approved the Blue Star Memorial Highway Marker program, formalizing the program. During the war, family members of many soldiers put a small service flag on display in a window of the family home; a blue star on the flag indicated that a family member was serving overseas.

The plaques that alert motorists to those routes’ special significance also bear a blue star and read like this:


The first time I drove Rt. 3, heading out of Bar Harbor back toward Boston, I happened to notice such a plaque, and I was puzzled. What did it mean? What was the background of this memorial? When I got back home I looked into the program’s history and understood.

But something else was bothering me. For a year I wondered why this sign caught my eye, why the phrase stuck with me.

It took another drive down Route 3 to unveil my eyes and show me the reason. Understand the physical layout of the road; as you approach the town of Bar Harbor, you’re aware that open water is on your left, but the view is largely screened by trees—that is, until you come around a bend and the trees taper off, and you’re greeted by a sight that takes away your breath. As my wife and I drove the road, this time heading towards town, I looked left when I knew the sign was coming up and saw something completely different. I glanced at the sign, but only fleetingly; my eyes were drawn towards the expanse of water known as Frenchman Bay. Spreading out before us were the waters of the Atlantic Ocean, dotted with green islands and wreathed, early on this summer morning, with mist.

The revelation hit hard; the first time by, I had been so wrapped up in the details of the sign that I had completely missed the majesty behind it. It reminded me of a story my mother had told me some years earlier. She had been driving with her mother, by that time in her mid-eighties and growing more fragile by the day. My grandmother had pointed enthusiastically to something by the roadside and fairly shouted “isn’t that beautiful!” My mother, following the crook of her finger, saw only a ramshackle barn falling to pieces, and replied, “what, that piece of junk?” My grandmother, with joy in her eyes, said, “no! Look past the barn.” And my mother saw a spreading oak tree in the orange blaze of autumn’s glory, and was humbled.

That was how I felt.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

A Window Seat

At church last Sunday, my mind wandered. It was not the fault of the preacher, whose sermon, despite its low-wattage delivery, was simple and profound. It was rather the fault of the artist who had designed the stained-glass windows in the small chapel we occupied. These windows, each given in memory or honor of some long-dead parishioner, depict in rich color events from the life of Jesus. They are beautiful but relatively standard fare—besides the one detail that so captured me.

Several of the scenes—a miraculous healing, the Last Supper—take place indoors, in what appears to be a medieval house. In the very back of these rooms, almost unnoticed, are small windows. Far from static, monochrome panes, these windows are alive with the color of a stormy day—blue shot with gray and white, growing darker as your eyes ascend from the bottom pane to the top.

The windows are stunning for something beyond the color and the light. No landscape is visible through them, no figures, buildings, trees, hills—only that luminous sky. They simply hint at what must lie beyond the glass. Is this world of the gospels a land of dust, heat, and light, as we commonly conceive of 1st-century Palestine, with water-pots, camels, Roman legionnaires, Solomon’s Temple? Or is it the countryside outside 17th-century Amsterdam, with canals, windmills, oxcarts and an autumn storm coming on? We don’t know. Our thoughts are not limited to a scene laid out before us. We may dream of a world in which Christ walked among the landless and the broken (for the poor are always with us), blessing and healing them and confronting the religious establishment of the day, either in the courtyard of the temple or on the steps of the cathedral.

This window-maker was a great craftsman, without a doubt.

Divine Topography

In The Winter’s Tale, Shakespeare wrote of “unpathed waters, undreamed shores.” The great playwright lived during the golden age of geographic discovery, when new lands still were being discovered and the general perception of the world was being radically stretched.

Compared to Shakespeare’s time, there’s very little we don’t know about our planet. Satellites, GPS, topographic maps, the USGS, Google Earth, etc. have reduced the globe to a series of quadrants, gridlines, and compass points. Much of the mystery is gone when one can learn all one needs to know about Papua New Guinea on the Internet and then buy a plane ticket there with a few mouse clicks.

One thing is certain, though: we still have to bow a knee when we consider the earth itself, God’s true creativity on glorious display. Who knows what any of us might have crafted out of the unmolded clay that became the world? The fact is, God made a wondrous place. Yes, scripture says that the fall broke the world, and human beings continue to do their worst to accelerate the destruction, but think about it—have you ever stood on a rocky beach, spray whipping around you as the sun sinks low in the western sky, and stared at the “unpathed waters” stretching out before you? Sure, some map somewhere has got your line of vision charted, but who cares? You are looking into the very heart of mystery—the heart of God.

God, I am humbled by the mystery of You.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Blue Star Memorial Highway

It struck me somewhere between Ellsworth and Bar Harbor, Maine that I was never going to find a better church than this one. What other church had such imposing walls, such a high ceiling, this kind of lighting, such grand music and preaching? And the variety in its many locations—I could feel at home in this church on Mount Desert Island, along the Columbia River gorge or a deserted stretch of highway in eastern Washington, in the flatlands of Texas, a tallgrass prairie in Kansas, or on the dark edge of Eminence, Missouri at dusk.

On this weekend trip, I could almost have marked our passing from one state to another by the type of churches crowding the highways—nearly all Catholic churches from suburban Boston to the northern Massachusetts border, a mix of Catholic and Protestant, including a variety of evangelical churches, in New Hampshire, and Baptist churches in increasing numbers as we drove further along coastal Maine. This kind of territorial demarcation based on Christian denomination is not by itself unusual—“The South” is delineated by Southern Baptist churches practically as much as it is by state borders, and Methodist churches in North Carolina are nearly as plentiful as mile markers. This was striking only in the sense that I was not looking for such a contrast; rather it found me.

Places of worship define, limit, and divide/set against/polarize—you choose the verb—human beings. In some ways they also define and limit God, or YHWH, or Allah, or the particular deity being worshipped within their walls. Inside a place of worship, God is made to fit into a certain definition based on the belief structure of those present within that place. Outside that place, God is not, as the cliche goes, in a box.

The struggle to come to grips with this idea is titanic for those who truly seek to know God—or at least to know as much of God as we are given to know in this life. We are challenged in scripture not to forsake the meeting together of us who seek and worship, yet we know that God is so great, so immense, so beyond our comprehension that God cannot be contained by the walls of our minds any more than by the walls of buildings. The nature of God—even trying to talk about it makes clear that the weighty idea cannot be grasped in full.

Over and over scripture makes clear that God is greater than our cognitive abilities, even while speaking of God’s wings, eyes, arms, breath. Read Job, or Psalms, for examples. We are finite and cannot fully conceive of God. It is an act of mercy that those who wrote down their thoughts and conceptions of God used points of reference to which we can relate, for the most part.