Friday, July 31, 2009

"They're Called Bums"

When I teach world religions, I ask students if they remember this conversation from the movie Pulp Fiction. Vincent and Jules have both witnessed an unusual event, but Jules thinks the event is a miracle and sign from God, and he plans to abandon his gangster life.

VINCENT So if you're quitting the life, what'll you do?
JULES That's what I've been sitting here contemplating. First, I'm gonna deliver this case to Marsellus. Then, basically, I'm gonna walk the earth.
VINCENT What do you mean, walk the earth?
JULES You know, like Caine in Kung Fu. [RIP, David Carradine.] Just walk from town to town, meet people, get in adventures.
VINCENT How long do you intend to walk the earth?
JULES Until God puts me where he want me to be.
VINCENT What if he never does?
JULES If it takes forever, I'll wait forever.
VINCENT So you decided to be a bum?
JULES I'll just be Jules, Vincent – no more, no less.
VINCENT No Jules, you're gonna be like those pieces of s*** out there who beg for change. They sleep in garbage bins, they eat what I throw away. They got a world for 'em, they're called bums. And without a job, residence, or legal tender, that's what you're gonna be – a f****** bum!
JULES Look my friend, this is just where me and you differ –
VINCENT – what happened was peculiar – no doubt about it – but it wasn't water into wine.
JULES All shapes and sizes, Vince.
VINCENT Stop f****** talkin' like that!
JULES If you find my answers frightening, Vincent, you should cease askin' scary questions.

In my classes, I discuss people like sanyassi in the Hindu culture, as well as Theravada Buddhist monks, who have renounced earthly ties and rely upon the benevolence of others. I make the point that, for world-renouncing to “work,” the indigenous culture must be supportive of such a lifestyle. You’re not going to find too many sanyassi in America, though; we relate to homeless persons, for instance, with suspicion and disdain.

These thoughts are probably hypocritical, since I'm not embracing a personal, indigent lifestyle. But I don't mind scary questions. I’ve been reading a few chapters of Simon Tugwell, O.P., Ways of Imperfection: An Exploration of Christian Spirituality (Springfield, IL: Templegate Publishers, 1985). His chapter on Francis of Assisi is interesting. Tugwell writes, “The monastic tradition had assumed that the development of a proper spiritual life depended on the monks being protected against disturbances and temptations; but the Franciscans made it their boast tht their enclosure was no other than the whole world. If this is God’s world, ruled by his providence, we ought not to have to protect ourselves against it. Whatever happens is God’s gift to us" (pp. 129-130).

The author concludes that the source of Francis’ love of nature--for which we think so fondly of the saint--is this belief in God’s providence. But though we think sentimentally of Francis’ love, he was no armchair lover of the outdoors. He actually wanted to be completely unprotected as he faced nature. He even tried to prevent a friend from extinguishing the fire that had caught his habit: “Dearest brother, do not harm brother fire,” he said (p. 130).

The Franciscans were not supposed to be mendicants; they could work and be paid if they could be. But they were not supposed to be in jobs that gave them authority over others, and if they could not find jobs, they of course must beg. “It is not proverty as such, that [Francis] values, it is rather the readiness to be in a position in which it is impossible for you to insist on your own will. The whole point of Franciscan life is a radical converation away from a life of self-will to a life of submission…The heart of conversion must accordingly be the disappropriation of your own will” (p. 131).

The whole point, though, is not to be obedient on principle, but to follow Christ and to be like Christ. Christ himself went through life obedient and unprotected. Christ accepted the cruelty and vulnerability of the Cross. Francis did not sentimentalize this approach to life: Christ was obedient and because of it was cruelly killed, after all. But if we follow Christ in this way, we discover “a new way of relating to other people”; poverty and vulnerability leads to love of others (p. 133).

It also leads to personal happiness. Francis told the story of a traveler who, on a rainy and cold night, would not be accepted into a place of lodging for the night. “I tell you,” says Francis, “if I have patience and am not upset, this is where true happiness lies, and true virtue and the salvation of my soul” (p. 132).

"Walking the earth" is risky! On the other hand, living unmindful of God in the world is risky, too (as Vincent in Pulp Fiction eventually discovered).

Within the next few weeks I’ll bring in some thoughts from John Wesley whose theology and example are closer to our own experiences than 13th century Francis, though perhaps similarly scary!

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Health Care: What Would Jesus, Paul, or Teddy Do?

I’ve been following some of the current health care reform news lately. One of the more helpful pieces is a New York Times editorial, "Health Care Reform and You." Here is the site:

The author notes that “The reforms would help the poorest of the uninsured by expanding Medicaid… Some middle-class Americans … would get subsidies to help them buy coverage through new health insurance exchanges…” The plan would also help the underinsured through health insurance exchanges that would begin in 2013. Additionally, the plan would help people who lose health insurance when they lose of change jobs.

An aim of the plan is to reduce health care costs, which are raising in part because “the system … pays doctors and hospitals for each service they perform, thus providing a financial incentive to order excessive tests or treatments.”

A major problem with the plan is $1 trillion needed to help uninsured Americans, which would presumably be funded through taxes on wealthier families. Another problem is choice: what if you want a more expensive treatment and the system refuses (as in the case of a Kentucky woman, back in the 1990s, who, if I remember the case correctly, was approved for a lumpectomy but she wanted a mastectomy).

Yet another problem, according to the NY Times piece, is that the reform plan may threaten Medicare Advantage plans which help many people (including my elderly mother). Yet traditional Medicare may still cover people’s costs.

Conservative commentators worry that the “nationalizing” of health care will simply add a new layer of problems to the existing system, since who will manage such a large scale government program? Will doctors and hospitals continue to provide good services if their payments are reduced? Does anything in the system address the problem of malpractice lawsuits and doctors’ need for expensive malpractice insurance. See for instance Dennis Prager’s comments at

In addition, a CNN Money report listed several freedoms that would be lost in reform: freedom to choose the content of your health-care plan, freedom to choose high-deductible coverage, freedom to be rewarded for your healthy lifestyle, freedom to keep your existing plan, and freedom to choose your doctors.

Needless to say, Jesus was interested in people’s health! During the Middle Ages, until the 16th century, hospitals were church-sponsored and -operated facilities. In our own time, the way Christians fall on health-care issues is closely related to their political options: whether freedom of health-care choice is more beneficial in the long run, whether government regulation is appropriately introduced in order to address a social concern, and so on. Although I haven’t surveyed all or even most of the media discussion on this issue, I think it’s interesting that GOP President Theodore Roosevelt was certainly an advocate of appropriate government regulation for the sake of the public good. But his progressivist example is less frequently heard these days among the GOP than “government is the problem” rhetoric.*

Interestingly, I found a website for “Christian Healthcare Ministries” based on people sharing one another’s medical costs, based upon the mandate of Galatians 6:2! See
Would Jesus and Paul favor such a program, or a large government program aimed at the common good (remember that Paul was not anti-taxation and anti-government: Romans 13:6-7), or some other solution?

* Later that same day I found this essay from a progressivist point of view:

A Psalm That Does Not Go Far Enough

Reading Graeme Goldworthy again recently (see July 27th entry), I was struck by his conviction that we should read the Bible in light of the accomplished, saving work of Christ. “[W]hile there is much in the Bible that is strictly speaking not the gospel, there is nothing in the Bible that can be truly understood apart from the gospel” (Preaching the Whole Gospel as Christian Scripture, Eerdmans, 2000, p. 95).

Well, sure, one might say, but we don’t always do that. There was a painful time in my life when I appreciated the fifty-first Psalm 51. Many of us have had Psalm 51 moments! Looking back, though, I prayed the psalm as David would’ve prayed it, a penitential request to be restored to God. But I did not pray the psalm with the simultaneous conviction that Christ’s death and resurrection has saved me from all my sins and that the Spirit has preserved my relationship with God. I believed these things, of course, but somehow I did not connect the classic psalm of repentance and Christ’s accomplished salvation. I prayed the psalm without also embracing the Gospel!

I thought of this again recently as I read a classic book, When the Well Runs Dry by Thomas H. Green, S.J. (Notre Dame: Ave Maria Press, 1998). He writes about the spiritual darkness: “this misery is clearly a case of desolation, anxiety, turmoil, loss of faith, hope, love, peace--and St. Ignatius tells us that such desolation can never be the voice of God for one who is seeking him. Thus the cardinal principle is never to make or change a decision at such times. We should never trust our judgment of what God is doing, or how we stand before him, when that judgment is formed in desolation” (p. 132).

Connecting Fr. Green and Goldworthy, we've a good reminder that, when we’re sorrowful about sin or desolate about our lives, we cannot thereby trust our sad feelings with regard to God. We cannot even pray Psalm 51 with the notion that it says all to be said about repentance and restoration. We are already restored to God through Christ (Eph. 2). We have to hold to Christ and know that the power of sin and desolation has already been destroyed and that God still loves us fervently.

Plundering the Egyptians

In my June 3 thoughts, I noted that church leaders, rather than pushing an ill-fitting program upon a church, need to understand the Spirit’s will concerning that congregations’ special circumstances and ministry needs.

A report came out this summer from the Hartford Institute, concerning megachurches.
The August 2009 issue of Christianity Today (CT), specifically the “Where We Stand” column, contained a reference to the study.

How much should churches rely upon marketing strategies, organizational techniques, and economic/business principles to spread the Gospel? The author of the CT essay (page 20) notes that megachurches have succeeded in large part because of their marketing and organization.

Why not? Paul himself wrote that he tried to adapt himself depending upon his audience in order that he might bring some to Christ (1 Cor. 9:19-23). As the essay notes, we expect missionaries to adapt to the culture to some extent. In Exodus, the Hebrews “plundered the Egyptians” on their way out of Egypt (Exodus 12:35-36), and I‘ve seen more than one parallel made between that story (where the Hebrews use things available in the society for their well-being) and the adaptability necessary to do effective evangelism and ministry. (Albert Outler makes that parallel, for instance, in his book Theology in the Wesleyan Spirit, Nashville, 1975).

On the other hand, as the CT essay importantly notes, Paul’s writings contain no “growth strategies” but focuses on the power of Christ and the Spirit to give us faith and wisdom.

Church leaders need to stay faithful to that biblical witness. The CT author writes, “It’s no secret that too many evangelical leaders are captivated more by business culture than biblical culture, spending more time absorbed is strategies and effectiveness and relatively little time in prayer” (p. 20). But since many lay leaders in congregations do come from the business world (and perhaps see no conflicts between that world and the Bible's), it's all the more important for pastors to have Bible and culture in proper perspective.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Observing Summer Grass

Unfortunately I've lost the habit of relaxing in the grass outdoors. Not that I’m too lofty and proud to do so; I’ve little pride at all in that regard. But I’ve a fair complexion and every health expert advises people like me to smear on sunblock (SPF 5000) any time we even glance out the window. A news report this week even stated that tanning beds (which I’d never use anyway) are as deadly as arsenic. (“Tanning Beds and Old Lace”… doesn’t have the same ring…)

When I was a teenager in the early 70s, I liked to work on my tan. A dermatologist actually advised me to get a lot of sun because of my acne! Those were the days.

I read poetry in the sun. I knew little of poetic styles, virtually nothing about 20th century poetry, but my hometown library had a book The Chief American Poets (ed. by Curtis Hidden Page, Boston, 1905, 1933). I liked the blank verse of William Cullen Bryant.

To him who in the love of Nature holds
Communion with her visible forms, she speaks
A various language …

Such cadences appealed to me compared to the more conventionally “poetic” styles of the other poets represented therein, but not only that. My grandmother had recently died, and I suppose the poetic expression of Nature as care giver---the image of going to death “sustained and smoothed By an unfaltering trust” --conjoined with my immature efforts to comprehend her death. The celebration of the American wilderness corresponded in my mind to the pioneer history associated with Grandma's farm (her father was a descendant of early settlers of the locale). According to the book's footnote, Bryant had written “Thanatopsis” when he was sixteen or seventeen. Could I learn to express myself like that at the same age, I wondered? (The answer is a resounding No, but nevertheless, Bryant remained a favorite.)

I enjoyed Walt Whitman for similar reasons. One passage in Whitman reminded me of Grandma’s farm.

In the door-yard fronting an old farm-house, near the white-wash’d palings,
Stands the lilac bush, tall-growing, with heart-shaped leaves of rich green,
With many a pointed blossom, rising, delicate, with the perfume strong I love,
With every leaf a miracle......and from this bush in the door-yard,
With delicate-color’d blossoms, and heart-shaped leaves of rich green,
A sprig, with its flower, I break.

Whitman's carefree persona was inviting.

Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road,
Healthy, free, the world before me
The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose.

I dug my toes into the hot grass of our backyard and said, too,

I loafe and invite my soul,
I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.

Here was an exuberance and an affirmation of life which I appreciated amid my shallow-seeming, adolescent dreams of popularity.

A vast similitude interlocks all,
All distances of space however wide,
All distances of time,
All souls, all living bodies though they be ever so different …

Another favorite book was Masters’ Spoon River Anthology. I imagined his chatty graveyard as a pretty country place. I liked the honestly with which the Spoon River people spoke, including the overly dramatic. "Fiddler Jones" was a happier spirit than some:

The earth keeps some vibration going
There in your heart, and that is you…
And if the people find you can fiddle,
Why, fiddle you must, for all your life.
What do you see, a harvest of clover?
Or a meadow to walk through to the river? …
I never started to plow in my life
That some one did not stop in the road
And take me away to a dance or picnic. I ended up with forty acres;
I ended up with a broken fiddle—
And a broken laugh, and a thousand memories,
And not a single regret.

"Not a single regret:" that's impossible for even the most adventurous person. But I liked, and still do, the idea of embracing your gifts. Unlike the teenaged me, I now know that we often realize our most precious gifts in just that way: people affirm and validate them for us.

These are quiet, solitary memories amid other, more sociable teenage summer moments. I never did get a deep, rich tan, and I never wrote much poetry besides a few pieces. But I'd still rather read a book of poetry than almost any novel. That's because I needed the guidance and assurance of authors at this time of my life, and poetry provided. Thank you, old anthology, Edgar Lee Masters, and summer sun!

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The Ghosts of Versailles

My family and I saw John Corigliano’s opera, “The Ghosts of Versailles” at the Opera Theater of St. Louis a few weeks ago. The opera premiered at the Met in 1991 and, unfortunately, has only so far been released on a VHS. (Meanwhile Thomas Ades' opera "The Tempest," which premiered two years ago, is already on CD.) The St. Louis theater commissioned Corigliano to make the opera more intimate for a smaller theater.

I tend to enjoy a performance at the time then think about it later. Although some of the dance segments crowded the small stage, the music and story were very enjoyable. Of the well-known operas based on Beaumarchais plays, I’ve never listened to “The Barber of Seville” (other than the aria “Largo al Factotum”) for some reason, but I love “The Marriage of Figaro,” so my favorite aspect of “Ghosts” was the adventures of the Almaviva household. The story of Beaumarchais and Marie Antoinette was also poignant as the ghost queen accepts her long-ago death--so that she won't lose the love of Beaumarchais. I'd love to hear the opera again.

The article is from 1991.

Monday, July 27, 2009

The Gospel and Its Fruit

I’ve been rereading Graeme Goldsworthy’s Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000). Here is a quote.

“We are saved and made into the image of Christ not by our efforts to imitate him. Such an idea reduces the gospel to ethical effort. We recognize that the gospel tells us of the absolutely unique work of Christ, both in his living and his dying, by which we are saved through faith. We cannot imitate or live the gospel event as such. We can only believe it. We cannot work our way to heaven by moral endeavor. We can only depend on the finished work of Christ for us. We cannot command other people to live or do the gospel. We must proclaim the message of what God has done for them in the gospel. We follow the New Testament in calling on people to live out the implications of the gospel, but we cannot urge people to actually live the gospel, for that was the unique work of Christ. This distinction between the gospel and its fruit in our lives is crucial” (page 4).

When I was younger, I was troubled by the kind of evangelism that depended upon salesmanship and persuasion. The Holy Spirit may work through human persuasion, of course, but the Spirit may also work through quiet, encouraging preaching as well. Paul himself, after all, did not consider himself a particularly good speaker, but he boasted of the Spirit’s work among his churches. If a preacher proclaims the truth of the gospel, she has been faithful, and the Spirit moves among the people as God wills.

However, would a preacher be considered faithful from a human point of view if she does not have results to report? Paul cautioned that a person could make “a good showing in the flesh” and yet fail the gospel (Gal. 6:12).

In recent years I’ve also been troubled by the pressures which pastors face to motivate, train, and implement volunteers. “[T]o equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ” (Eph. 4:12) is the text around which many pastoral leadership guides are based. An important goal of pastors should be the empowerment of the laity to serve and help one another.

An excellent goal! So is leading people to Christ. But too much emphasis on “empowering the laity” can lead to works-righteous preaching, “moral endeavor,” and a terrible failure to convey “the finished work of Christ for us.” Pastors can become too focused in their preaching on getting people to “step up” to serve. My fear is that people will hear the gospel message as the exact opposite of what pastors want to communicate: the gospel is the things we do, the committees on which we serve, our own goodness. In motivating people to give and serve more, pastors may actually help people (in Goldsworthy’s words) “live reasonably decent but gospelless lives” (p. 151).

Balancing human efforts with the principle of sola gratia is trickly; one wants to avoid Pelagianism (or, as Hauerwas would quip, practical atheism) in our churches, but nor does one want to stop challenging people to embrace discipleship. Goldsworthy suggests, among other things, “to institute a training program for all church members engaged in any kind of teaching or pastoral ministry. At the heart of such a program must be a basic course on the unity of the Bible as shown in biblical theology” (p. 151). He argues that the leaders of our churches should be regular Bible readers able to articulate the gospel message, and not just decent people willing to volunteer.

Something to pray about for our congregations and pastors!


Facebook friends introduced me to the expression “FML,” an addendum added to their news of unfortunate events, embarrassing twists of fate, and unhappy experiences. Without too much imagination, I figured the expression is an abbreviation for “f*** my life.” While verifying my surmise online, I found a website,, which contains short descriptions of assorted calamities and humiliating moments. These, in turn, have been collected into a published book F My Life.

The expression is crude but understandable: how badly you feel when you’ve said or done something well-intentioned but inappropriate, or when your best laid plans backfire in some way! I feel that way when I’ve done my best in a situation but, for whatever reason, the circumstance goes awry and I feel foolish.

Without being too irreverent, I thought of some biblical FML moments. Several passages in Job immediately spring to mind, but so does this one from Jeremiah.

Cursed be the day I was born! May the day my mother bore me not be blessed!
Cursed be the man who brought my father the news, who made him very glad, saying, "A child is born to you—a son!"
May that man be like the towns the LORD overthrew without pity. May he hear wailing in the morning, a battle cry at noon.
For he did not kill me in the womb, with my mother as my grave, her womb enlarged forever.
Why did I ever come out of the womb to see trouble and sorrow and to end my days in shame?
(Jer. 20:13-18)

"FML" indeed! The Israelites' despairing complaints typified their experience of Wilderness.

The whole congregation of the Israelites set out from Elim; and Israel came to the wilderness of Sin, which is between Elim and Sinai, on the fifteenth day of the second month after they had departed from the land of Egypt. The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. The Israelites said to them, ‘If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.’ (Ex. 16:1-4)

From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages, as the Lord commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. The people quarreled with Moses, and said, ‘Give us water to drink.’ Moses said to them, ‘Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?’ But the people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against Moses and said, ‘Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?’ So Moses cried out to the Lord, ‘What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.’ (Ex. 17:1-4)

Then all the congregation raised a loud cry, and the people wept that night. And all the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron; the whole congregation said to them, ‘Would that we had died in the land of Egypt! Or would that we had died in this wilderness! Why is the Lord bringing us into this land to fall by the sword? Our wives and our little ones will become booty; would it not be better for us to go back to Egypt?’ (Num. 14:1-3)

The migrating Israelites unfortunately became a historical example of impatient despair in the face of adversity.

Needless to say, a despairing, disappointed response to personal situations should not be a fixed part of a religious person‘s outlook (or anyone‘s for that matter). “Rejoice in the Lord always,” says Phil. 4:4: “always,” not when things are going well. But the psalms give us permission to bring problems and disappointments forthrightly to God; the error of the Israelites was to lose all hope.

Psalm 77 is one of my favorites. In the first half, Asaph expresses forthright unhappiness about life and toward God.

You keep my eyelids from closing;
I am so troubled that I cannot speak.
I consider the days of old,
and remember the years of long ago.
I commune with my heart in the night;
I meditate and search my spirit:
‘Will the Lord spurn for ever,
and never again be favorable?
Has his steadfast love ceased for ever?
Are his promises at an end for all time?
Has God forgotten to be gracious?
Has he in anger shut up his compassion?’
And I say, ‘It is my grief
that the right hand of the Most High has changed.’ (vss. 4-10).

Can’t you hear the disapproval of sunny, “I’ve got the victory” Christians in response to a complaint like that? But this is Holy Scripture.

But the second half rehearses God’s blessings, in an “object lesson” of verse 11, “I will call to mind the deeds of the Lord; I will remember your wonders of old.” The psalmist recalls the works and wonders of God.

I try to curb my own “FML” moments by recalling God’s mercies. This is definitely one of my struggles and I don’t succeed as often as I wish--despairing moments, after all, resist a larger outlook than one’s personal pain. But it might be a good idea for us to make lists periodically of God’s wonders and mercies. The mercies could be personal, or examples from the Bible. The goal is to move out of the moment’s pain--the disappointment, the hurt of pride--to the consoling truth of God’s redemption.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Cold-Blooded Altruism

A classmate-friend altered me that this week’s New Yorker (July 27, 2009) contains an article that features a mutual acquaintance. The article is “The Kindest Cut” by Larissa MacFarquhar and concerns people who donate their kidneys to strangers. (Although the link is now dead, I originally found the article at: )

The acquaintance, named Kim, and her husband had served as missionaries in Mozambique and now served as pastors in an economically depressed area near Baltimore. The New Yorker piece discusses her motivation, the surgery itself, and the good prospects of the man (unknown to her) who received her kidney. “If you’re sitting around with a good kidney you’re not using, why can’t someone else have it?” Kim said. “For a couple of days of discomfort, someone else is going to be freed from dialysis and be able to live a full life. Gosh, I’ve had flus that made me feel worse [than the surgery]” (p. 51). This and the other featured stories are pretty amazing.

MacFarquhar notes that kidney donation surgery has a very low risk. Meanwhile, 87,000 people die of renal disease each year. The thought of dialysis is horrible to contemplate. So why don't more of us show love to others through donation? Why, indeed, does such a thing repel some of us? “Most people find it uncomplicatedly admirable when a person risks his life to rescue a stranger from fire, or from drowning," writes MacFarquhar. "What, then, is it about saving a stranger by giving a kidney, a far lesser risk, that people find so odd?… [P]erhaps it’s that organ donation, unlike rescue, is conceived in cold blood, and cold-blooded altruism seems nearly as sinister as cold-blooded malevolence. Perhaps only the hot-blooded, unthinking sort can now escape altruism’s tainted reputation…” (p. 40).

Lame as it sounds, I suppose Murphy’s Law prevents me from embracing this kind of altruism: that is, what if a family member or close friend needed a kidney after I donated one of mine to a stranger? I’d feel like I let down those I love.

Of course, that means I love those closest to me more than strangers. And as Jesus says, “even the Gentiles do that" (Matt. 5:47).

Saturday, July 25, 2009

"Take the Highway That's the Best"

Since moving to St. Louis in June, I’ve been exploring old Route 66. The website provides information about the several alignments through the city. We live not too far from the old Manchester Road alignment (now signed MO 100), and from old Bypass 66 (I-270 and U.S. 67). The best-known St. Louis alignment, Chippewa Road and Watson Road (MO 366) is interesting and features a local landmark, Ted Drewes Frozen Custard. Unfortunately a well-known motel, the Coral Court on Watson Road, has been razed and the land used for condos. The Coral Court offered 4-hour rates to truckers but people used the opportunity for clandestine rendezvous. I also discovered the route of the 1910s National Old Trails Road, an early transcontinental route which, from Santa Fe west, became US 66. In St. Louis, this route went Lindell to St Charles Rock Road.

Forty years ago this summer, my parents and I took a trip to the Grand Canyon. I was twelve. I wish I could remember many details of the fabled highway. Not all the route was yet superseded by interstates in 1969. I’ve vague memories of futuristic tourist signs, historical markers in the middle of nowhere; small, sit-down restaurants, towns with smal business districts, full-service gas stations, lonely little motels with cheap furniture that imitated that of home. When “in need” we stopped at small roadside parks. We spent some time visiting the Will Rogers Museum before pressing on.

I took books along on such travels. They came home unread, but I had a good resolve. “All tourists cherish an illusion,” writes Aldous Huxley, “they imagine that they will find time, in the course of their travels to do a lot of reading…They start for a fortnight’s tour in Frace, taking with them The Critique of Pure Reason, Appearance and Reality, the complete works of Dante and the Golden Bough. They come home to make the discovery that they have read something less than half a chapter of the Golden Bough and the first fifty-two lines of the Inferno.” As a boy I cherished similar illusions; actually I still do.

On that Grand Canyon trip, we traveled in a Holday Rambler camper attached to Dad’s tan ‘69 pickup, which was painted “Paul Stroble and Son” on the side. Unfortunately one of my clearest memories of the trip was a family meltdown in New Mexico. We stayed at the Kampground of America (KOA) at Tucumcari. “See Tucumcari Tonight!” declared the Route 66 billboards. Our nerves had become frayed; Dad’s bitchiness and unwillingness to stop “making time” made Mom cry, and for once in my childhood I scolded Dad for his attitude.

My memory is a little vague on whether we stayed the next night in Flagstaff or the night after that. I'm afraid we must've traveled the 450 miles that next day. Dad needed more "work" than just one scolding from his family. I know that we saw the Painted Desert in the late afternoon, and traveled too late to find a place to stop. We pulled up to the fence of the geodesic dome of “Meteor City” and considered spending the night. But we feared the isolation with no campers nearby. Finally we reached Flagstaff very late. The KOA was full, so we had to sleep in the parking lot. I bawled, so tired and frustrated.

The next day we proceeded north to the Grand Canyon, then to Page on into Utah and southern Wyoming. The rest of the trip bequeathed brighter memories.

Years later I retraced that route, hoping to reclaim more Western memories: the “Whiting Brothers” billboards, the “Fat Man” signs west of Tucumcari, the almost cubist, orange, blue and red motel strip of Gallup’s Business 66, the sad series of western towns like Lupton, Goodwater, and Winslow. I gained rather than reclaimed memories; the Canyon was our draw forty years ago and Dad wanted to “make time,” that oxymoron.

My life, though, took me to Flagstaff for a few years (1987-1991), and I got to see our daughter born in the very town where my parents and I had spent a short, weary night. The KOA is still there, near the junction of old 66 and US 89.

Given the inconveniences and weariness associated with travel, I wonder why we love it so. But the reality and metaphor of the open road are rich and rooted deeply in the American experience. The lonely trompe d’oeil apex of a road seems to beacon: “Afoot and lighthearted I take to the open road,” wrote Whitman, “Healthy, free, the world before me, The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose.” The modern automobile road has allowed the pioneer legacy of travel and wanderlust to endure and thrive. The curse of Cain--to be forced to wander, east of Eden--has become for us one of our dearest pleasures.

The metaphor of the open road is also related to that of the “spiritual journey”: God guides me through my life as I wander, sometimes with a clear view of my destination, sometimes with no clue as to the way ahead. “This earth is not my home, I’m just a’passing through,” goes an old hymn. Recall that well-known fable of Jesus and the traveler on the beach; the traveler perceived two sets of footprints during good times and only one when life became difficult, and the traveler could not understand why. Well … we all know the denouement. Jesus takes the initiative as we travel and carries us when we’re weary.

The image of “journeying” is apt because of its incompleteness. Who would claim to have arrived at the fullness of God’s blessings in this life? Who’d want to be around a person who made such a claim? By describing our lives as an unfinished journey, we have impetus to keep growing in God but also permission to accept our imperfections (Phil. 3:12-14).

The open road is, for me, balanced by another myth: that of the traveler who wanders in order to return home. Sections of old Route 66 have been designated as a National Landmark, recognizing that a road is not just a means but also a beloved place. Perhaps we can connect that image to the New Testament theology of eternal life, especially in John’s Gospel wherein God’s life is not just a future Heaven but a present fullness of life and power.

We can trust God to accompany us, to carry us when necessary, to stop when we need to stop, and to keep us on the right way.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Moving, part 5: Utah D

Five weeks after we moved from Akron, OH, to St. Louis, MO, I'm finally back to blogging. Our house is in pretty good shape now, although the guest room is undecorated and the basement is still filled with unpacked boxes. Since we're renting this house for a year, some of our belongings will probably remain in boxes, although I'm in the process of sorting. Do we really need this or that keepsake if it's tucked away unseen?

An update on my post "In Circulation" from 04/19/09. In 1999, my dad, Emily, and I started collecting the "state" quarters as they began to be minted (5 a year for 10 years). Dad died later that year but E. and I continued to collect them. Last year, quarters for all 50 states were minted. The only one we couldn't yet find in change was "Utah" from the Denver mint. I finally found one Tuesday, which was Dad's birthday.