After the fire

When the flames came over the top of the ridge a few weeks ago, I was in the middle of cleaning out the storage shed. Folders full of financial paperwork on one side, diaries from my childhood on the other, I was simplifying. Mostly in my mind was this: what can I get rid of?

A few hours later, when it became clear that the fire was going to continue to burn through the night and possibly right down into my canyon, my thoughts began to shift to this: what should I save?

I went first to the obvious — the hard drives and the important papers. In retrospect, I understand the hard drives, but if the house had burned down, I’m not sure that I would have cared that I had saved my old tax forms and bank statements. But these were the first things I tossed in the back of the car.

Then things got more complicated. I began to walk slowly through my house. It was almost like touring a museum. Look at something, some object, pick it up, this carved giraffe from Africa or this jar of sand from the Swiss Alps, consider the stories, imagine its absence, weigh it against everything else in the house, make a decision. The giraffe stays. The sand comes with me.

The diaries from my childhood came too. How else am I to know who I am? The box of negatives from before the digital age overwhelmed us all. I packed a small bag of clothing and toiletries. No sense in having to wear the same T-shirt and jeans for a week if I don’t have to. The laptop, which these days is my file cabinet, correspondence, creative expression, and connection to the world, the laptop came along.

In a burst of faith, I watered the lawn.

It was dark by then and huge walls of flame were beginning to wrap around the canyon. Out my window the hillside across from me was deep orange with the reflected light of the fire.

But there was still time and room in my car. What else? The big things were ruled out. No furniture or appliances. Also no books. If you start to take one, they’ll all want to come along. The same with the music. I took photos of the bookcase and the CD rack.

From there the process started to get silly. That sleeping bag was expensive. And it’s comfy. The sleeping bag comes along. And this pair of shoes. My circles around the house started to get faster and more frenetic. With time and a little motivation, the miser in me begins to come out. 

Finally, just after I caught myself tossing a wine corker (expensive, beautifully crafted) into the car, I realized the slippery slope that I was on. Another half hour and I’d be hitching my car up to the house and trying to drag it down the hill. Then what would I have gained?  Nothing but the same headaches with a crappier view.

I realized then that the fire was doing me a favor. I was seeing more clearly. I was discovering what was most important. I was letting go of what wasn’t. I’ll confess that there was a small part of me that hoped that the fire would come right on down the canyon and take it all.

It didn’t. From where I’m sitting this morning, I can see the blackened hillside where it burned so ferociously. Unpacking the car was harder for some reason than packing was. The giraffe and the jar of sand are reunited again — for how long, I don’t know, but the giraffe is keeping a wary eye on me, our true relationship now revealed — and the clarity of flame exchanged for the ambiguity of life. But the lessons have stayed with me. After the fire, you can’t help but see things a little differently.


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Book Review: On The Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness by Andrew Peterson

book cover

I have to admit that I was a little skeptical about this one. Andrew Peterson is high on my list of favorite singer/songwriters, but I wasn’t sure that his considerable talent would translate well to the novel format. After all, you need more than a couple verses and a hooky chorus to make a storybook sing.

But aside from a few reservations about the sheer ridiculousness of some of the character names, I loved it. I found the book to be really enjoyable, suspenseful, quite funny, and possessed of its own unique voice.

The story follows the fantastic adventures of three children–Janner, Tink, and Leeli–as they look for treasure, hide from the bad guys, and try to unravel the mysteries of their own past. The pace and tempo are similar in some ways to the Harry Potter books, but with much more fun and much more hope.

Along the way, they are chased by all manner of strange creatures, including toothy cows (which are hilarious to imagine, but not to meet in person) and the Fangs of Dang (which are smelly, ill-humored villains with a taste for maggotloaf.) They explore Anklejelly Manor. They end up in the Fang dungeon twice. They narrowly escape certain death numerous times. In the end, they…well, you’ll have to read it, I guess.

For me, what made this book more than just light entertainment was the presence of two deeper themes. The first–a fierce love of family–was a refreshing departure from the dysfunctional relationships and remote or absent adults of so many other modern children’s stories.

The second theme, which gave this book its heart, was the acknowledgement of and longing after something deeper, some mystery beyond understanding. To quote Frederick Buechner quoting Rinkitink, the king of Oz, “Never question the truth of what you fail to understand, for the world is filled with wonders.” After a day of near disaster, little Leeli sings a song of sadness and hope that makes even the dragons fall silent. And then the moment of beauty passes without explanation and we never understand what really happened there on the rock overlooking the Dark Sea. But in the gloom a light shimmers and brings hope of something bigger, some deeper magic. Despite the danger and doubts, still we discover a world full of wonder. As far as I’m concerned, that, and a toothy cow or two, is all you really need for a pretty good adventure.

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Andrew Peterson on a Sudden Joyous Turn

I kept watching Aedan and Asher’s faces during certain parts of the movie, like when Shelob poisons Frodo and Sam feels that all is lost. The boys were looking upset, so I paused the DVD and talked to them about eucatastrophe. It’s a word Tolkien coined in his essay “On Fairy Stories” which means, basically, the opposite of catastrophe. He calls eucatastrophe the “sudden joyous turn”. It’s that moment when all seems lost, when evil seems to have finally overcome every good thing, when the hero can go no further. Then light prevails against the darkness. The good guys win.

When you’re writing a story, like I am now, you realize that there’s not much story if there’s nothing at stake. If there’s no evil, no enemy, no point at which the hero is at the end of his rope, then the thing falls flat for some reason. But if we want the good guys to win (and almost universally we do), why do we put our heroes through so much? Because we grow into what we are meant to be by walking through the fire.

I told the boys about how the story of Jesus’ resurrection is the ultimate eucatastrophe. When Jesus, the perfect man, God made flesh, cries out and exhales his dying breath, the sky is black and roiling, the ground shakes, the dead emerge from their tombs and haunt Jerusalem, and the sheep scatter. But Sunday morning, more than just the sun rises. Everything changes. It’s not just a story, it’s the story. A sudden joyous turn, indeed.

– from The Rabbit Room blog

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On The Value Of Things, Apart From Me

“The world exists, not for what it means but for what it is. The purpose of mushrooms is to be mushrooms; wine is in order to be wine.  Things are precious before they are contributory … Creation is God’s living room, the place where He sits down and relishes the exquisite state of His decoration … God made the world out of joy; He didn’t need it; He just thought it was a good thing.”- Robert Farrar Capon, quoted in Everything Must Change by Brian McClaren 

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In April of this year I visited South Africa. While in some ways Africa is on everybody’s mind right now, I have this feeling that we are all also a little tired of it. Especially when it comes to AIDS in Africa. Been there, done that, is the basic idea.

To be honest, I think I feel a little that way.

Well, nothing changes that like a little firsthand experience. American churches send over short term teams to try to do some good. I don’t know that Africa benefits a whole lot, but maybe we do, which maybe makes it worth some of the hassle and expense. In any case, I went there for work and ended up being changed a little in the process, trying to figure out what to do with what I saw, trying not to get mad at God, trying to find the grace in the middle of the struggle. I wrote a little about it here and then this week made a video about it.

This is for Valrey and Jonas and Motlope and for all the others out there without a voice.


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On The Mountain

I woke up in the dark yesterday morning to the sound of rain on the roof. I am still temporally misaligned. My timezones, present and past, are sliding closer, but it will be another few days before things are right. By the time the sky had started to lighten, I had been awake for a couple hours, partly from the jetlag, partly from thinking too much. Since the dog needed some exercise and I had spent plenty of time already this week in fog, we made tracks for the hills.

The rain was stopping and the clouds had started to break by the time I was on the trail. Above me on the hill was the first light of sunshine. When I reached the viewpoint, I regretted not bringing a camera (the better to see things with?). The valley was still wrapped in fog and to the east everything was misty and beautiful. The kind of morning that makes you think of prayer as a rational activity.

Being in the state I was, the only thing I could think to pray was “help, help, help”, which I think is a pretty good prayer in general. Then I stood there with my arms out and the dog running in circles around me. And at that moment the fog decided to slide up the hill and gather all around me, so that the valley below and the mountain above became vague outlines and then disappeared altogether and I was left on a small point of land surrounded by air that glowed as if it were lit by angels. Things stayed like that for a few minutes, all ablaze with crazy, golden light, until the fog slid past and the sun climbed into the clouds above and things went back to normal.

I’ve read about something like this happening before, but those people wanted to build tents and stay there. I can’t do that because I have a job, and because there are rattlesnakes. But it did make me want to stop for awhile, especially when climbing down into the valley meant going back down into the grey. So I sat there and said “thank you” out loud a couple times. Then I went down the hill.


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Gallery: Courage

Courage gallery thumbnailI just returned from a trip that included some time in St. Petersburg, Russia. I don’t write very much about the work that I’m involved with on this blog, but I wanted to share these pictures. These are some of the kids that I spent time with last month. They let me intrude in their lives in a variety of ways, one of which was to take portraits of them. Maybe it’s just me, but I like these pictures and I think they’re alright just as photographs. But there’s more to it than that.

Each of the kids in these photos has a story to tell which includes more difficulty, pain, and struggle than most of us ever will face. Each of them have been abandoned (or worse) by parents, survived the Russian orphanage system, and are working to make something better of their lives. I felt privileged to work with them. The photos in this gallery are dedicated to them and to their courage.


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