Thursday, January 31, 2013


From "The Writer's Almanac" for January 31, 2013:

It's the birthday of Thomas Merton, born in Prades, France (1915). Merton was a Trappist monk, but he was also the author of more than 50 books, 2,000 poems, and a personal diary that spanned much of his lifetime.

Merton decided to write his master's thesis on William Blake, and he found himself deeply influenced by Blake. He converted to Christianity, and in 1941 he entered a Trappist abbey in Kentucky, where he remained for most of his life. In his diary from this time, Merton wrote, "Going to the Trappists is exciting. I return to the idea again and again: 'Give up everything, give up everything!'" Merton had become well-known throughout the world, in part because of his writing, in particular his autobiography
The Seven Story Mountain (1948).

I know that it isn't Poetry Friday but this is special. I'll write more of Merton in one of my reflections on turning 70, but for today, in honor of his birthday--in honor of how my life was changed / is changing because of this "saint," here's his poem:

In memoriam: Father Louis—“I would be a saint”

You come to me dancing
lightly on the balls of your
feet, robe swaying,
blue jeans revealed beneath,
singing, tap-dancing to
rhythms found in the
beat of your mystic heart.

Some say lop-sided; some: impish;
a crooked smile on your face,
inviting me to join another
Dance. You say, don’t worry
about your bearlike clumsiness
lack of natural rhythms,
tone deafness, and monotone.

Join me, you say: join the Dance
join the Dancer—allow
his holy grace to
transform your elephant toes;
to fit your gooney feet with
ballet slippers, tap shoes
Or ballroom black pattens.

You come, smiling,
singing some song of silent mirth;
you come, grinning,
calling forth my grin;
irresistible, contagious, it
breaks like morning sun across the pain—
Gilead balm.

Your bent knees—
silent before the Silence of God—
bend my knees to serve that Silence.

Join me, you say, remember—
The Dancer took my resistant feet,
clumsy, at first, hesitant and cautious
at strange new steps, tuned them
to Silent songs, deepest rhythms,
and bade me dance.

Join me, you say, hand outstretched
to mine; your other stretched to
the One—and you join us—through
your grasp I grasp
the Hand of the Dancer:
and the three of us—
awkward Trinity—
trip the fantastic light,
filled with mystic joy.

—amk (12/10/93)

Monday, January 28, 2013

SECOND CUP—Milo Chapman and the summer of church camp

Continuing reflection upon achieving my 70th year—

There is so much to say about Milo Chapman. He was (and in key ways still is, though dead now for many years) a major force in my life. A surrogate father to Judy, he was also president and dean and teacher at WPC. While I was never in his classroom, I count him among the great teachers of my life. I was having the not unusual struggles of college students making sense out of the Bible and faith and reason (as they were taught and modeled for me growing up) and life and learning, none of which seemed to conform very well to anything else. I was reading the Bible and going to church and, yes, Sunday school—just as I was always admonished to. I understood that the Bible is an important book and, as a person who grew up in a Christian culture, I knew it was supposed to be sacred and True. Yet, there are all these problems, which I’ll not enumerate because there was nothing particular unique about them. I was, however, really struggling. I went to see Milo—actually, then, Dr. Chapman (I would never have called him Milo then). I went a Judy’s urging. He gave me two life-changing gifts:

One, simply, he listened. He is the first person to hear me and my doubts/struggles with faith who did not attempt to solve them for me. By that I mean, he did not try to explain anything, tell me that it was normal, or dismiss them as silly (which, no doubt, some were).

Two, simply, he gave me a book that I still own: John Bright’s The Kingdom of God. What I came to understand was this: My struggles were with the pieces: I had no frame to put them in. Like a jigsaw puzzle, I didn’t have the outside pieces connected so that a great image would occur. The Kingdom of God did that for me: it gave me a big picture. My purpose here is not to describe that, but simply to say, I was heard and responded to in a meaningful way by a person who really had no reason to. As important as that book and the other Book were and are to me, Milo’s response—and the relationship that emerged from this meeting—were/are far more important.

The largest gift Milo gave me, however, occurred after this. My struggles were not easily resolved by reading one book; I was still struggling with all kinds of questions and issues—at one point, even denying Jesus as God. My first year at WPC was a really rough year in terms of faith and intellect. I knew I couldn’t keep it up; I knew I needed to make a choice but that choice seemed so much about perfection and having it all straightened out. So much of what I understood about being faithful had to do with having it all worked out. But the real struggle was deeper. I have always struggled with the meaning of things and their implications (which is why I was baptized so late in life, but that’s another story). The deeper truth, then, as it often still is, is simply that I was afraid of deep, relational commitment.

I spent the summer after my first Warner year working at the Mt. Palomar Baptist Camp outside of San Diego. What a great summer! I made $5.00 a week (much to my parents’ chagrin) and room and board. Worked hard and hiked everywhere. I loved it. I also read widely, trying to get it figured out. At the end of summer, I went back to WPC—without any of the questions really resolved, not much straightened out, but with a clearer sense of “This is the year. I can't continue to live like this."

The first Sunday of the academic year, 1993, I found myself at Holladay Park Church of God in Portland, OR, and Milo Chapman was the preacher. His topic—amazing that I actually remember, right? I remember this as if it were yesterday—was “I am a Christian, but am I Christian?” More amazing to me than the question, though, was his answer: “Yes, I am a Christian, but, no, I am not Christian.” Whew! At this point I thought of Milo as the nearest to a saint I’d ever know and if he could confess such a thing, then, perhaps, I could make the commitment I knew I needed to make. Perhaps, after all, it was about relationship and journey.

It was a liberating moment—a moment when I understood that I did not have to have it all worked out. It was a journey that began with a desire to be Christian who did not have to be perfect. I count that Sunday as the date of my conversion; it is another touchstone. It is another time when God showed up—in one of the ways God has usually shown up for me: in the life and friendship of another person on the Way.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

SECOND CUP— On achieving 70

It’s been some time since I’ve blogged (too bad, by the way, that there isn’t a more nuanced and felicitous term for these normally very personal journeys—something like “perjourn” i.e., a personal journal). It is time. Actually, I really didn’t stop perjourning; I’ve been writing some reflections about turning 70 but have experienced some reluctance to share. Yet, I think it may be time. If you are reading this, I guess, I decided that it is time:

Reflections on achieving 70

For most of my adult life, the biblical phrase “three score and ten” as a definition of life’s tenure has echoed around my sense of who I am, where I am, why I am, and where I am going. I don’t mean that in any morbid sense—quite the opposite, actually. I mean it in the human condition sense. Perhaps because I am a reader and a payer of attention to life, mortality has been a consistent theme in my life. It may be also because I’ve been a teacher of literature, Bible, and humanities; that fundamental fact of human existence—“it is appointed unto man once to die”—has never been far away from my consciousness.

My 70th birthday is achieved, and it calls me to remember and reflect—a primary spiritual practice, as I so often tell my students. What I am most aware of at this date is another fundamental reality—another life theme for me—that who I am, where I am, why I am, and where I am going is deeply imbedded in life with others. Friends and family and locations—biography, relationships, and geography: all sacred. So, my reflections in Morning Joe, over the next few days, will focus on persons and places and events.

Theologically, when God shows up in my life it is normally in connection with people in particular places and times. Often I rail at God because God seems so distant; the truth is, more than I admit, God has shown up in my life. Why am I reluctant to talk of these things? So, this reverie is really about “God sightings.” I believe God is profoundly relational—I mean that in the deepest sense of God’s ontology. I believe that the Trinity is an attempt to express that ontology. Like so many biblical and theological metaphors, it fails because God is simply beyond any capturing—even as it is important for us to keep trying. As created beings, imago dei, so are we fundamentally, ontologically relational.

The Rublev icon is, for me, the most powerful expression ever written about this unfathomable idea. The manner in which God, Son, and Spirit regard each other—the beauty of requited love; the chalice among them—the beauty of gifted love; and the open space at the table—the beauty of inviting love. We are welcome at this Table; we are welcome into this relationship. The power of the icon for me is that it is trinity and “quadrinity.”

The end of a year and semester and the beginning of a new year and semester, a birthday, a labyrinth walked in reverie and reflection, driving to Tabor Space for a final exam, another labyrinth—it occurs to me that God shows up still. God, when I’m paying attention, shows up. Probably more often, perhaps all the time; I’m just not slowing down enough. But I want to write about these unforgettable moments, these forever life shaping, formational moments and persons, liminal and often dark, when suddenly, like angels at a certain birth, luminosity and choirs and, yes, certainty, however fleeting….

The arrangement of these pieces will be random; I’ll not give into the easy tyranny of chronology. I am writing about kairos moments that really transcend time—in important ways these pieces are as fresh to me today, however tempered by life and reflection, as they were when they happened.

DEATH: That said, however, I will start with a first—first in chronology and, as much as it is possible to say, first in influence. He was born, lived six hours, and died—the short and disconnected life of Jeremy Todd Kelly. Our second son. We were still living in Red Bluff, CA. He died of Hyaline Membrane Disease, a disease and a death we have in common with the Kennedys. I’ve told this story so often that I’m uncertain what to say; the point of these reflections, however, is God. This death touched our lives in so many ways—it was our first really personal encounter with death; it has never been far from our consciousness; it is one of the reasons that we adopted our daughters; it began the life long process of changing me into a human being; it was, for me, the moment when God became Presence.

It was a long, hard day. To this day, I am grateful to my pastor, Jay Barber, for being present. (I think he actually drove home from a family vacation to be with us.) He knew what was needed for such times—I knew nothing. He made all the necessary arrangements—the ones that church and state seem to require. He left the phone calls and the explanations to me. Those were, of course, hard: disappointment comes hard for people who are eagerly awaiting good news.

That night. Judy still in hospital. Joel with grandparents. All the well-meaning persons gone. I am home alone. I am finally able to stop and to be. And the anger and disappointment and loss fight each other for control, even as I am out of control. These clichés finally give way to sadness. A profoundly quiet sadness in a profoundly quiet home in which a crib waits for a baby. Into that empty silence a Presence came. I’ve tried over the years to think of how to describe it and have never found a more apt image than the one I held that night. I was enveloped by a great warm bear. Living. Not like a coat or blanket to keep out the chill. Real. Complete. Not fearful. As angry as I had been and as sad I was, I knew who it was. I had a clear sense of “God,” and I had a clear sense of “loved.” How long did it last? I have no idea. I guess the honest response is that it has lasted ever since.

This moment is a touchstone.

In subsequent years, I have known the same anger and disappointment and sadness at life’s “damned dailiness,” as L’Engle said, or at its deeply frustrating meaninglessness. That moment returns—I remember. I know again that I am not alone.

While I still wonder at the “absence” of God in the death of Jeremy, I never wonder at the presence of God in Jeremy’s absence.

In important ways, this is the story of my life—of our life. Nearly all of the stories that follow this one are rooted here. My journey with God really begins here.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

First Cup—Arthur’s Top Ten (more or less) Books of 2012

Bring Up The Bodies, Hilary Mantel. A sequel to Wolf Hall (also a wonderful novel); Mantel continues the story of Cromwell, chief adviser, procurer (some might say “pimp”), to Henry VII. Historically well done, great characterization, good story, strong morality tale—can really feel the tension of living under the gaze and “protection” of a difficult and nearly omnipotent leader.

The Book Thief, Markus Zusack. How to capture this amazing and unusual book? The terrible power of love, the seductive power of books, the dangerous power of promises, the strange power of friendship and love—in a wonderfully written, brilliantly crafted narrative set in the Nazi era but set in a small town where everyone knows everyone.

Galileo’s Daughter, Dava Sobel. I think if I put any book at the top of the list, it would be this one. This book is worth reading simply because of the language: sheer beautiful writing! I’m tempted to use the word exquisite. But the story of this man and his wonderful daughter is one of the greatest I’ve ever read. I finished a biography on Leonardo da Vinci just before I started this; when I was done with “daughter,” I thought, “Why do we think Leonardo matters so much? Galileo is the one who changed the world—my world, our world—and redirected the whole future of humanity!” If you want to understand the world better, if you want to read nearly perfect writing, if you want to experience one of history’s true “hinge” points—this is the book.

Sacré Bleu, A Comedy d'Art, Christopher Moore. Ever since I read Lamb, I’ve watched for Moore’s novels. They never disappoint. They often delight—with a sort of naughty delight: should I be reading this? Yet, they challenge—like a roller coaster in the middle of a midway; you have to hold on tight and pay attention; you may want to close your eyes, but you know you’d better not. Inventive and playfully serious, this novel takes you on an amazing murder mystery ride (who killed Van Gogh?) into the art world of late 19th century Paris, guided in part by Lautrec.

The Hare With The Amber Eyes, A Family’s Century of Art and Loss, Edmund de Waal. I think this might be #2 on my list. Like Galileo’s Daughter, this is nearly a perfect book. It is a memoir that captures a horrendous and wonderful epoch in European history by tracing the history of a collection of netsuke owned by the family Ephrussi—one of Europe’s richest families. It is the story of the art world and the story of a family finally trapped by Hitler’s holocaust. Beautifully written and difficult to put down and, finally, satisfying.

Housekeeping, Marilynne Robinson. I’m not sure, but this might be #2. (Actually, I think I’ll quit that ranking business. All of these books are powerful.) Robinson, however, is on my list of authors I always check on, like Doig, Enger, Leavitt, Chabon; well, that list could go on forever. (Housekeeping, by the way, is considered one of the 100 greatest novels of all time; her Gilead, well, is simply priceless.) Robinson’s novel, Home, would have been on my top 10 list if I’d written one last year. It’s a re-telling of the parable of the prodigal son that picks up after the son comes home. Very powerful story as well. Housekeeping is the story of women in a family, trying to hold it all together. It is not only a story about keeping house but also a story about keeping a spiritual house—in the face of abandonments and lost relationships.

Bird by Bird, Some Instructions On Writing and Life by Anne Lamott. It just occurred to me that this list could be titled “Books People Gave Me to Read.” (Even the idea of this list was suggested by Patrick Nachtigall’s own list.) The Book Thief was loaned to me by Mike and Miffy Davis; Galileo’s Daughter by Cole Dawson; The Hare With The Amber Eyes and Railsea were given to me by Joel; Bird By Bird was recommended by Bill Dobrenen. Thank you, friends!

What can I say about Anne Lamott? I’m a sucker for autobiographical reflection and Lamott is one of the best. My list here includes Madeleine L’Engle, Kathryn Norris, Ann Dillard, Don Miller, and Frederick Buechner; oh, and Wendell Berry—these have never failed me! Bird by Bird is a collection of essays on writing. Anyone interested in how to write well will find significant and enjoyable help in these essays. This book contains two of my favorite admonitions: “Listen to your broccoli” and write “shitty first drafts.”

When Jesus Became God, The Struggle to Define Christianity During the Last Days of Rome by Richard Rubenstein. After the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, perhaps the most crucial development in the history of Christianity is the question of the divinity of Jesus—the famous battle over one letter: Homoousian or Homoiousian? Was Jesus of the same or similar essence with the Father? This book describes the history—the often nasty and brutal history—of this battle, which in many ways is still with us. This well-written account will be helpful for anyone interested in the history of that famous time when Christianity became “respectable; for anyone wanting to understand the significance of the question; and for anyone who is still trying to work “the problem of Jesus” out on their own.

Railsea by China Miéville. If you like dystopia; if you like innovative and startling rewordings of great stories (Moby Dick and Treasure Island); if you like inventive language; if you like a complete new world with astonishing verisimilitude; if you like great character development…oh heck: if you like a rollicking good story—read this novel! An inventive and never slavish retelling of two (or three) great novels set in a dark future in which trains (not boats) go in hunt of giant moles (not whales) and where the quest for treasure takes you to where the tracks end.

Well, either this is one short or one long. The next two are really textbooks. (Where were texts like these when I was in college?!) These also come to me via recommendation, sort of: both were texts named by Cassie Trentaz for inclusion in the course we teach at WPC titled Rel 320: Spirituality, Character, and Service.

Hearing the Call Across Traditions, Readings on Faith and Service; Adam Davis, editor. :Hearing the Call" is a rich collection of essays, poems, religious texts, sermons, a variety of literary genres, philosophy, and history—in the context of the themes service and social justice. I have found it challenging and enlightening and enjoyable. If you, like me, are minimally informed about how the great religions of the world teach us to live in our world with our amazing and strange and wonderful neighbors, you will be informed and enlightened by this text.

On Our way, Christian Practices for Living a Whole Life; Dorothy C. Bass and Susan R. Briehl, editors. There’s a great deal of discussion going on in Christian circles about discipleship, which boils down to the question, “How then shall we live?” This is a wonderful collection of essays that does a fine job of providing answers to that question through the exploration of Christian practices—historical ways of living faithfully in the world: study, discernment, community, friendship, singing, creation care, making a living, honoring the body, knowing and loving our neighbors of other faiths, peacemaking, justice, and living in the God’s presence. My students and I find these practices to be challenging, demanding, and, often, liberating.

So, I close this (more or less) top ten list with deep appreciation for writers and books—may they live long and prosper—and for friends who love books so much that they can’t stand to keep them to themselves. In that spirit, I pass this on to any who stumble upon it. May these help you to see more clearly and to love more dearly. They are about the abundant life, which, for me, is a life with books.

Happy New Year!