It is summer yet, but barely—
some days already suitable for sweaters.
Light’s vast expanse is shrunk, 
tailored ever tighter, as if the year
became obese but has been dieting
and will with winter shrink 
to skeletal. 

After eight, my dog and I go out 
and find the yard is deep in darkness.
I thought to take a flashlight
to help us find our way, but discovered 
that the scant rags of light left over
from the day’s rich finery 
are enough for us. 

Wendell Berry writes about a hunter
so exasperated by his temperamental
lantern that he tossed it down a hollow,
then proceeded better than before. 

Perhaps I’ve huddled
close to lamps and lanterns overmuch. 
The darkness has more light 
than I imagined, and in it 
I can see the stars. 


I recently read Tish Harrison Warren’s wonderful little book Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life. For her, the regular, mundane events of our daily lives are practices that shape our souls. She finds the spiritual significance of such apparently unpromising candidates as making the bed, brushing teeth, and losing keys. This post is about the last of those everyday events.

When she loses her keys, Tish begins with rational problem-solving. When she still can’t locate them, she proceeds to self-condemnation, then anger and blaming others. She searches frantically, then tries to regain her equanimity with self-talk and a quick prayer. Finally she lapses into despair. A little while later, she finds her keys under the couch.

We’ve all been there, losing perspective and panicking over some relatively minor aggravation. Warren points out that such events are more than minor inconveniences. They are apocalypses.

An apocalypse is not just an ancient literary genre characterized by extraordinary creatures, destruction, and divine intervention. The root word actually means “an unveiling or uncovering.” Warren explains this apocalyptic character of her lost keys as follows:

“In my anger, grumbling, self-berating, cursing, doubt, and despair, I glimpsed, for a few minutes, how tightly I cling to control and how little control I actually have. And in the absence of control, feeling stuck and stressed. those parts of me that I prefer to keep hidden were momentarily unveiled.” p. 52

I have such apocalypses regularly. Sometimes it’s about losing something, though losses usually don’t make me melt down to the extent that Warren describes. There are plenty of other situations that are more revealing for me:

  • The train from St. Louis to Chicago is running late and I might miss the train to Michigan. I tell myself that the worse result from not getting there in time would be that I would have to reschedule a few appointments tomorrow and spend the night in a hotel that Amtrak is paying for. Still I fret for hours (and end up missing my connection by 10 minutes). Apocalypse.
  • At my mom’s house, I want to use the kitchen sink but my mom is there. I wait impatiently, annoyed that she’s not moving faster. Truth be told, in my pride I think I’m more important than her and should have access to the sink whenever I want it. Apocalypse.
  • The stock market goes into free fall. I am concerned about my investment accounts. I spend way too much time checking the latest price of the stocks I hold. I tell myself that my security depends on God rather than on my account balance, yet I’m acting as if the opposite were true. Apocalypse.
  • I’m out in the yard when a young woman wearing a sleeveless blouse and short shorts strides by. I stop what I’m doing and watch her. What’s going on in my mind? I’m objectifying her. I’m evaluating her attractiveness, as if she is of greater worth if she is curvy and cute than if she is plump and plain. Apocalypse.

I can make excuses for each of these, saying that they are minor faults that don’t hurt anyone. Yet fretfulness and self-importance and greed and objectification hurt me and also affect how I relate to others. Better to do as Warren suggests:

“In these small moments that reveal my lostness and brokenness, I need to develop the habit of admitting the truth of who I am–not running to justify myself or minimize my sin. And yet, in my brokenness and lostness, I also need to form the habit of letting God love me, trusting again in his mercy, and receiving again his words of forgiveness and absolution over me.” p. 56

This twofold process–admitting how we’ve strayed and accepting God’s forgiveness–isn’t original with Warren. It comes from the time of confession found in many worship liturgies. This practice is essential to our spiritual, emotional, and relational well-being. It also prepares us for gratitude and praise. Thank God for ordinary apocalypses–when we respond with confession and trust, they are the means by which we’re being made whole.

Sunrise, Sea of Galilee

Sunrise, Sea of Galilee

One morning midway through my recent trip to Israel, I got up early, just before sunrise. Our tour group was staying at a resort on the Sea of Galilee, and I decided to go down to the dock and start the day in quiet reflection. I took a seat, and soon was captivated by the motion of the water. Medium-sized waves slanted toward the shore at regular intervals. Nothing unusual about that. But there were also smaller waves heading straight out from the shore, and a light wind rumpled another set of waves–ripples really–atop the other two wave patterns. I was entranced. I couldn’t recall ever having seen water acting quite this way.

Wadi Qelt

Wadi Qelt

Water had been a significant theme for our trip up to that point. Every day as we got on the bus, we found the aisle stocked with dozens of two-liter bottles of water. We were encouraged–even hectored–to top off the water reservoirs in our backpacks whenever we had the opportunity and to drink regularly throughout the day. This injunction was typically followed by a warning–“If you start to feel thirsty, you’re already getting dehydrated.” During a long hike down Wadi Qelt in sweltering conditions on our second day, a couple members of our group got overheated and nearly collapsed. I joined with a few others in helping one of these people down off the hillside to a stream in the valley. She was so weak it took over a half-hour for us to help her walk about a hundred yards. I was fearful for her, concerned that she couldn’t make it back to the bus or that she would have to be hospitalized. After she reached the stream and sat in the cool water for five minutes, though, she revived remarkably well, and was able to hike without difficulty another half-mile to our pickup point. Another encounter with water was a swim in the Dead Sea, salt content over 30%. The sea was so buoyant that it was hard to get my feet underneath me when I wanted to stand up. One person got water in an eye, and it took a great deal of effort to get that eye clear again.

During the first part of our trip, the most meaningful encounter with water for me was at En Gedi. We went there the day after the long, dusty wilderness hike I mentioned above. En Gedi is located alongside the Dead Sea in the desert, so I expected another day of dirt, rocks, and sun. I was surprised when, upon exiting the bus, we walked along a tree-lined path to a welcoming pool of water feed by a clamoring waterfall. Tim, our tour leader, told us we were in Wadi David, named after the eponymous former shepherd boy and future king who hid here from King Saul. The wilderness offered protection, and, as at this wadi, water in the desert provided refreshment.

Waterfall at En Geti

Waterfall at En Gedi

Tim talked about the importance of water in this arid wilderness. He cited a number of passages in the Psalter in which the psalmist wrote about being thirsty or desiring water. Among such passages is Psalm 63, described by the compilers of psalms as written by David when he was in the Judean wilderness. It begins:

“O God, you are my God, I seek you,
my soul thirsts for you;
my flesh faints for you,
as in a dry and weary land where there is no water”

The image is vivid: just like parched land longs for water, so the psalmist longed for God. The land is characterized as not only dry but also as weary. According to the Dictionary of Biblical Languages, the term here means “faint, i.e. pertaining to being a weakened physical condition, requiring food, drink, and rest in order to recuperate.” Lacking a recent sense of God’s presence, David is weakened, in need of God in order to recover. Fortunately, he has a prior experience with God to draw on:

“So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary,
beholding your power and glory. (v.2)”

That gives him resources that, like food and water, revive him:

“My soul is satisfied as with a rich feast,
and my mouth praises you with joyful lips
when I think of you on my bed,
and meditate on you in the watches of the night;
for you have been my help,
and in the shadow of your wings I sing for joy. (v. 5-7)”

Why did this site and this psalm resonate so much with me?  Later I realized that for the last six months, I had been, if not in a desert, at least in a parched place. In January my church disbanded. I tried to remain part of a Bible Study while looking for another church, but that study has been suspended for the summer. I don’t exactly feel distant from God, but I do feel distant from his people, and that leaves me thirsty. I’m glad I was able to go on this trip with a church group–not my church, mind you, but still a group that served as church for me for a time. I appreciate the refreshment I received.

As for the waves in the Sea of Galilee, I decided to turn them into a metaphor. Here’s what I came up with:

  • the big waves slanting toward shore represent God’s unceasing initiative to make all things new,
  • the small waves going out are our yearning for the newness and wholeness that God is bringing about,
  • but our temptation is to focus not on God but the ripples of daily frustrations and annoyances.

May I do better at ignoring the ripples and responding wholeheartedly to the never-ending waves of love that constantly wash from God towards us.

Hiking up Tel Azekak

Hiking up Tel Azekah

I wrote recently about going to Israel with a tour group. The tour was intended as a pilgrimage; as I said in my earlier post, it was difficult to put aside my touristy ways and become more of a pilgrim, but it did eventually happen. I want to write more about some of what I learned during this Holy Land pilgrimage.

Our tour was led by Tim Keiper,a  former professor of Education at Western Washington University who became interested in Biblical history and archeology and went to Israel to study at Jerusalem University College.  One basic message Tim repeated over and over again in varying ways is that context matters. That certainly isn’t a new idea for me; for a long time my faith and understanding has been enriched by learning more and more about the cultural, historical, geographic, and literary contexts of the Biblical text. It is one thing to think of context while sitting at home reading the Bible or a commentary, though, and another thing to think that way while in the actual locale where Biblical events occurred. I think that’s true whatever sort of Holy Land tour you take, but it’s even more true when, as with Tim’s tour, the group both walked some portion of the land every day and  listened to a detailed explanation of Biblical references pertaining to that portion of the land.

I want to write about the two elements of the tour mentioned in the previous sentence. This post will be about  walking the land; a subsequent post will be about Tim’s teaching. In my earlier post, I wrote about walking the land as follows:

“We hiked a lot, climbing up and down hills and over rock-strewn paths, sometimes over paths that we had to take more by faith than by sight. During one grueling four-hour hike, some of the group ran out of water and others were near collapse, having to be helped to a nearby stream in which they could sit to cool down.”

It was hot every day except the last two, when we were in Jerusalem. It seemed to me at first that Tim was making things unnecessarily difficult for us by having us hike so much. In particular, I thought this the second day, when our bus let us off about a half-mile from the archeological dig at Bet Shemesh. We dutifully trudged down a dusty road, along a rock-strewn path, and up the tel, only to see another tour group exiting their bus in a parking lot a couple hundred feet from the site. I’ll admit it: I envied them!

To Bet Shemesh

To Bet Shemesh

Over the course of the tour, though, I came to appreciate our hikes. I was even disappointed when at places like Capernaum and Chorazin we had only a short distance to walk! What did I appreciate? As I alluded to above, I appreciated the deeper, more encompassing sense of context it gave me. Over and over again I marveled at the people who walked this land thousands of years ago without sunscreen, electrolyte replacement tablets, bottled water, or an air-conditioned hotel waiting at the end of the day. I imagined that living in these conditions either drew them closer to God or prompted them to reject him and look for an easier religious path. As I walked in the arid wilderness, along flowing streams, and up large hills, I gained more appreciation of the historical events that occurred in and the Biblical passages that referred to each kind of setting.

All that hiking was a gift in another way, in that gave me time for reflection (though I had to work to get rid of my self-generated distractions before I could make productive use of that time). I found myself singing hymns and praying. I reflected on the parts of the Bible that the Israelites may have been thinking about when they were walking through this landscape. For example, I thought of the Songs of Ascent, psalms that were sung by pilgrims going up to Jerusalem for religious festivals. I must have recited Psalm 121, the only one of these psalms I know by heart, at least a couple dozen times. I also recited the Beatitudes and other passages from the Sermon on the Mount while hiking in areas where Jesus taught.

I was one of the older people on the trip, and all that hiking left me sore at the end of the day. Soreness was part of the experience, though. I was gaining not just a cognitive understanding of the Biblical context but a kinesthetic one as well. Sitting at home now, my body still remembers well what it experienced!

All that hiking also helped prepare me for the second aspect of context I mentioned above, the teaching that Tim gave regarding Biblical references to the places we went and things we saw. I’ll talk about that in a subsequent post.

Yikes! Coming down Mt. Arbel. Photo: Hannah Cranny

Yikes! Coming down Mt. Arbel. Photo: Hannah Cranny


At Masada

I recently traveled to Israel. I went with a church group on a tour designed to enhance our faith by learning more about the history, geography, and culture of Biblical times. This was intended to be a pilgrimage and I tried to approach the trip with that mindset. In other words, I tried to be something other than a tourist.

According to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, a tourist is “a person who travels to a place for pleasure.” In contrast, the term ‘pilgrim’ can refer to any traveler, but more specifically it is “one who travels to a shrine or holy place as a devotee.” I am a devotee of the triune God–Father, Son, and Holy Spirit–and saw this trip as an opportunity to visit the places where God shaped his chosen people, especially those places where Christ walked and taught. As with most pilgrims, I hoped the movement that occurred would not merely be external but also internal, a journey closer to the heart of God.

The problem with such aspirations is that, regardless of my desire that it were otherwise, my schema for travel is mainly that of the tourist, not of the pilgrim. Our tour leader had prepared an ambitious itinerary of sites to visit, starting with Old Testament sites such as Azekah, Bet Shemesh, Tel Lachish, and En Gedi. Eventually we also went to New Testament sites such as Capernaum, Chorazin, and Caesarea Philippi and relevant extra-Biblical sites like Masada and Gamla. The tour ended in Jerusalem. The leader gave extensive talks explaining what we were seeing and relating it to the larger cultural, historical, and Biblical context. All this was interesting, but I was stuck in a tourist mindset. My thoughts were focused on such touristy matters as getting good photos, chatting with others on the tour, watching people on the street, eating well, and getting back to the air-conditioned bus (the last was understandable in that temperatures were regularly in the 90s and topped 100 degrees Fahrenheit at least once).

Hiking in the Wilderness

Hiking in the Wilderness

I think I managed to eventually think more like a pilgrim and less like a tourist There were a couple of things that prompted the change. First, there was the pure physicality of the trip. We hiked a lot, climbing up and down hills and over rock-strewn paths, sometimes over paths that we had to take more by faith than by sight. During one grueling four-hour hike, some of the group ran out of water and others were near collapse, having to be helped to a nearby stream in which they could sit to cool down. When matters of endurance and survival are foremost, it’s hard to maintain a tourist’s mindset. Too, such exertions fostered reflection on the conditions that the Israelites faced. When God compared his provision for his people with shade or water, that referred to deliverance in life-and-death conditions, not to superficial satisfactions. I have much more sense than I ever did that the story of God’s dealing with his people is bound to the geography and climate of where they lived.

The other thing that helped me think more like a pilgrim was a series of fasts. I got the idea for the fasts after Tim, our tour leader, said that a disciple is one who wants to become like his teacher. That’s something I want, but at the same time I tend to interfere with it happening. I got to thinking about what I was doing to keep from becoming like Jesus. My touristy ways were obviously part of the problem. So, over the course of five days, I fasted one day each from:

  • taking photographs
  • looking at my map
  • taking notes
  • using the internet
  • initiating conversations

Each fast removed something that was taking up too much of my attention. I started noticing and appreciating my environment more–the coloration of plants and stones, the sound of the wind in the trees, the feel of the trail beneath my feet. My mind had more empty space that started filling with prayer and song. I thought the fasts would be hard, but for the most part I enjoyed the freedom they gave me.

Now I’m back home, no longer a tourist or a pilgrim. Yet I think that the dichotomy between tourist and pilgrim pertains to daily life as well as to traveling. I too often act like a tourist, thinking in terms of my immediate satisfactions and not attending to how I’m being shaped by what I am doing. I need to be more aware that I am always being shaped one way or another–bent towards self-centeredness or towards humility and wholeness. I don’t yet know what I need to do to consistently take a pilgrim’s attitude toward my daily experiences. Whatever it takes, I do hope to become a perpetual pilgrim, always on a journey of spiritual transformation.


The recent pop song “Stand by You” by Rachel Platten includes the following lyrics:

Even if we can’t find heaven, I’m gonna stand by you
Even if we can’t find heaven, I’ll walk through Hell with you
Love, you’re not alone, ’cause I’m gonna stand by you.

It’s an uplifting anthem even though, if you really think about it, if you’re actually walking through hell, having someone beside you would probably only marginally improve the experience. Presumably the language is figurative, and the message is “I’ll be with you even through the hard times.”

The video for the song doesn’t contain any walking-through-hell scenes, either literal or figurative–not that I could tell, anyway. Instead, it shows Rachel singing and people showing warmth and caring to others. At one point, what looks like a church choir joins Rachel, clapping and dancing enthusiastically. Maybe no one is finding heaven, but they certainly seem optimistic in their pursuit of it.

All this reminds me of my church. I wrote last September that we had dwindled to just a few members and were considering disbanding. That prospect troubled me, since those who remained had invested so much in the church, serving and supporting one another. Though the situation looked grim in one sense, in another way I thought we were exactly what a church should be. I wrote about our conversations with each other then:

“It felt at the meeting like we had spent years climbing a mountain, slipped back down nearly to the base, and were wondering if we had it in us to climb the mountain again. But what if the mountain has nothing to do with how many members we have or how many attend Sunday services? What if the mountain we needed to climb was to be faithful to Christ through hardship and to let him shape us so that we became more like him? In that case, judging from what happened at the meeting, we’ve already climbed the mountain and are at or near the summit.”

We decided then to continue as a congregation, and worshiped together every week for almost five months. We had a few more people who were once peripheral members attend more often, but for the most part it was the same dozen people who continued praying for each other, singing together, studying the Bible, and sharing our joys and sorrows with each other.

Recently we had another meeting. The pastor said that, though we weren’t in financial difficulty yet, we couldn’t afford to pay his salary for an extended period of time. He was feeling pulled to be in a larger, more conventional church. A few other people expressed the same desire, and some of the rest acknowledged that, as much as it pained them, the best decision would probably be to disband. We all said that we want to maintain our relationships, and we made plans to meet regularly with one another once our Sunday morning services stopped. Our last worship service as an organized church was yesterday.

I am said about this. I’m consoled, though, by the thought that, during our time together, we truly constituted the church of Christ, and did so more purely and maturely than I had ever seen before.

What does all this have to do with finding heaven? A few weeks ago, I ran across a reference to something Jonathan Edwards said about the church and heaven. Edwards asked, how is the church like heaven? He decided that what made the church on earth like heaven wasn’t the signing or the Bible reading or the sermons. It wasn’t the meetings and activities that members attended or the charismata, the gifts they possessed. It was love. D.A. Carson, who summarized what Edwards said about the church, added:

“The greatest evidence that heaven has invaded our sphere, that the Spirit has been poured out upon us, that we are citizens of a kingdom not yet consummated, is Christian love.” (In Showing the Spirit: A Theological Exposition of I Corinthians 12-14)

So, having been part of a church where everyone loves everyone else–and lives out that love by listening, encouraging, reaching out, and helping–is to have found heaven. My church no longer meets, but still it lives on, as long as that love endures (and the Apostle Paul promises that it endures forever–see I Corinthians 13:13). Sure I’m sad, but mostly I’m grateful. Why did God bless me by letting me experience heaven while still on earth? I may never know. But, having found heaven (or, rather, being found by it), I look forward to the next time I’m there, regardless of which side of the grave that happens.

I’m interested in life story—the story that each of us constructs out of the circumstances and events of our life and that reveals who we are—or at least who we think we are. Psychologist Dan McAdams claims that we each develop a coherent life story in late adolescence or early adulthood and that story provides us with a sense of identity. In my life story, I am the protagonist. As with any story, each person’s life story has a setting, a plot, themes, and character development. The story we construct is selective: we don’t try to include everything we’ve done or experienced, but instead select carefully those that we think open a window on who we are (or imagine ourselves to be).

Life stories aren’t static, of course. The person I thought I was at age 20 is not the person I now think I am. That means that I tell a much different story about myself now than I did then. Of course, we experience our lives as continuous, and thus tend to think we are the same persons we were decades ago, though on reflection it is evident that we’ve changed a lot.

This is a picture of me taken sometime in the late '60s.

This is a picture of me taken sometime in the late ’60s.

In thinking about how life stories change over the decades, I decided to try to reconstruct what I would have said about my life around the time I became a novice adult. Here’s how I think I would have told my life story the summer of 1968, when I was 20.

“I grew up in the west side of Grand Rapids, Michigan. My parents are Dutch American, though there wasn’t much emphasis on our Dutch heritage, except in the area of religion. The Dutch immigrants to West Michigan were part of the Reformed tradition, and I was sent to Christian schools that taught Bible and religion along with more traditional academic subjects. I think I received a much better education than I would have had I gone to public schools. As a result I think of myself as better able than the average adult to analyze and contribute to understanding and solving important societal problems.

“I’m the oldest of three children in my family. My dad is an accountant and my mom is a housewife. Though I think my mom is too controlling sometimes and my dad can be wishy-washy, on the whole I have no complaints. My parents aren’t wealthy, but seem to be a little better off than the parents of most of the other kids I know. A big part of our family history is the swimming pool my parents had built in their backyard about ten years ago. I love swimming, and have been on high school or college swim teams for most of the last five years. It’s been good discipline for me, and has given me a place to belong.

“My parents have been able to pay private college tuition for me. I attend Calvin College, the college associated with the denomination that my parents belong to. I don’t belong to the denomination, since I’m rather skeptical about its teachings. For a while I doubted there was a God. I’ve decided that there must be one; it seems to me that human nature could only be as it is if there were some sort of divinity that made us. Still, I don’t think that anybody has a handle on who God is. Last semester I wrote a paper about the inadequacy of the Reformed views of free will and election. My prof commented that I was a real skeptic, which I took as a compliment. I do go to church services and find some sermons to be interesting, so I haven’t given up completely on religion.

“My parents and their friends are pretty conservative politically, and I started out that way. In junior high, one of my favorite teachers talked a lot about the danger of Communism. I became quite concerned about the Communist menace, and, under the influence of that teacher, was persuaded for a time that the John Birch Society had the right idea about defending our country. By the end of high school, I had changed my mind, and am now much more liberal than anybody in my family. The Viet Nam war had quite a bit to do with my changed perspective. I just don’t believe that it matters all that much to us if a little country far away is democratic or Communist. I think that the counter-culture provides a good critique of American pride, greed, and the like. Hopefully, the society will change as we young people get older and start having more influence! I’m rather proud of myself for thinking independently about social issues.

“Though I feel pretty good about my intelligence and capacity to think, I am not very confident socially. I have some good friends, but lots of people my age won’t have anything to do with me. Unfortunately, most females are included in that category! I do understand their reactions; I’m just too awkward and uncomfortable socially. Sometimes I walk in a room of people, sit down, and say nothing, knowing full well that I should say something but not knowing what to say. It’s a real problem. I’m getting better, though. I plan to live in the dorms rather than in my parents’ house next semester, and I think that will help. One of the benefits of being an introvert is that I am quite comfortable with my own company. I read a lot, and enjoy the world that I enter when I am immersed  in a book.

“As for the future, I don’t know what I’m going to do. I’m majoring in history, which I really enjoy, but I don’t know what I want to do with it. I’ve got a while to decide, though. On the whole, life is good and I’m proud of myself for what I’ve accomplished so far. I work hard at my studies and have worked part-time and summer jobs, so I’m not just letting my parents take care of me. Working at a produce warehouse weekends and summers has taught me a lot about how working class adults live, and that’s broadened my perspective.”

That’s who I was the summer before my junior year in college, as best as I can reconstruct it. It’s remarkable how I changed in the years that followed. Within two years, I was a Christian convert; within three, I was married; and within four I entered graduate school in psychology. A few months ago, I wrote a  five sentence life story as a way of trying to conceptualize my identity as concisely as I could. That story looks a lot different from the one above. At the same time, there are several areas of continuity—my introversion, interest in reading, and politics, for example.

Over the past few years I retired from full-time work and am spending most of my time staying with my parents, helping them. Thus, as in early adulthood, I’m currently in a period of accelerated change. As I see it, I am not so much remaking myself as being remade. I view this process as redemptive, as the work of God. That’s a view that the 20-year-old me would never have held. I’m grateful for who I was; more, for who I am; still more, for who I will be.

A week ago, Harold Knight, who blogs at “Me, Senescent,” wrote a post titled “A Subject I Know Next to Nothing About.”  He was writing about joy, and his title alludes to his history of depression and the consequent paucity of joy through much of his life.  He wasn’t complaining, and he emphatically states that he doesn’t despair, making the insightful observation that to despair is to have more certainty about life’s awfulness than any of us can truly claim to have.

His post got me thinking about the presence or absence of joy in my life.  I wrote a couple years ago about joy, especially about how the Romantics thought of it.  Drawing on their conceptualization, here’s how I differentiated joy from happiness:

“Unlike happiness, then, which I can experience in isolation and largely by my own initiative, joy is a force that comes upon me from without (or wells up from some spring deep within); I can’t achieve it, I can only hope to be worthy of it.  When it comes, it unites me with a larger force, be it Nature, Spirit, Being, or the Infinite.”

I am less happy with my life right now than I have been for years—it’s been hard to adjust to partial retirement, serve as a caregiver for my parents, and travel back and forth between Michigan and North Carolina every month.  Experiences of joy happen about as frequently as ever, though.  Here are some things that have brought joy in the past month or so:OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

  • My dog greeting me when I arrive home.
  • Finding a beautiful woodblock print to buy.
  • Seeing the first tiny tomatoes growing in my garden.
  • Being outdoors on a brisk summer morning after several hot and humid mornings.
  • Driving through mountains in West Virginia.
  • My 21-month-old granddaughter giggling as I imitate her hand movements.
  • Participating in worship.

In each case both the experience and the joy it produced was unexpected.  I don’t mean that in every instance I had no hint that the event itself would occur—after all, tomato plants tend to produce tomatoes, and I’m aware when I enter West Virginia that I’ll be seeing some mountains.  I didn’t expect that I would experience the presence of tomatoes or the massive solemnity of the mountains in the way I did, though.   I had the sense that something unbidden but blessed had happened.  A transcendent element was present, and I felt that in some way God had given me a gift.

Let me expand a little more on the last item, joy from participating in worship.  I can sit through entire worship services without a hint of joy, even if the liturgy is meaningful, the music enjoyable, and the sermon well-crafted.  From time to time, though, something takes place that resonates deep within.  As often as not, it is something that connects with me in a deeply personal way—it reminds me of something about myself or my life.  That personal quality causes me to feel that the event is meant for me, that I in particular am being blessed (though I recognize that others may be blessed by the same event to an equal or greater degree than I am).

This happened most recently when I was in St. Louis from July 11 to 15 to help my son and his family move into the house they bought there.  We worshiped Sunday morning in a congregation affiliated with the Christian Reformed Church, the denomination in which I was raised.  Nothing about the service was remarkable until the song that followed the sermon.  The pastor said most members of the congregation wouldn’t know it “Because it’s from the red 1956 Psalter.”  It’s titled “The Seasons are Fixed by Wisdom Divine,” and it’s a paraphrase of Psalm 104.  Here’s the first verse:

The seasons are fixed by wisdom divine,
The slow-changing moon shows forth God’s design;
The sun in his circuit his Maker obeys,
And running his journey hastes not nor delays.

I hadn’t heard or thought about the song in perhaps 40 years, but I’m sure I sang it multiple times as a child and adolescent.  I love everything about it—the grandeur of the language, the series of descending notes in the first line, the verse describing lions creeping out at night to share God’s bounty—quite a remarkable image, I think.  I sang heartily, and felt I had somehow returned briefly to the rather less complicated and more incredulous faith of my youth.  An inner storehouse of memory had been opened to reveal a treasure.  I felt joy.

Image from

Image from

The feeling dissipated fairly soon, as it usually does, but some echo of it is present as I remember the experience.  Thanks be for joy, the unexpected visitor arriving on otherworldly wings.

Surveys find that reported life satisfaction and positive emotions tend to increase as we age, at least until we reach the point where infirmity starts detracting significantly from our quality of life.  Most of the elderly are fairly optimistic about their remaining years.  In fact, author Paula Span suggested in a recent New York Times article that many of them are much more optimistic than circumstances warrant.  She cites findings from the “United States of Aging,” a telephone survey of Americans over age 60.   Among those over 70, 23% thought their overall quality of life would improve in the next five to ten years, and 49% thought it would stay the same.  Eighty-six percent of those over 70 thought they would be able to stay in their home for five to ten years without making significant modifications.  The vast majority of survey respondents thought that they would be able to maintain their health over the next five to ten years and that, should an accident or unexpected medical problem occur, they would be able to pay the associated expenses.  Span says, “I see much grimmer tidings elsewhere on a daily basis,” citing statistics showing paltry savings and frequent medical problems among the elderly.   She tries to puzzle out the reasons for the respondents’ optimism, concluding that it reflects at least in part a developmental change associated with aging.

Right now I’m something of an exception to the rule that we become more happy and optimistic as we age.  I’ve had a dip in life satisfaction over the past six months or so as I’ve retired from my primary job and moved to Michigan to be of assistance to my parents.  I still work part-time; my three part-time jobs  together equal about three-quarters of a full-time job.  My income is reduced, and I’m driving back and forth between Michigan and North Carolina frequently.  Less money and a peripatetic lifestyle trouble me some, but the biggest change is that I’ve developed more negative expectations about the future.  That in turn comes from the time I spend with my parents.  It’s not so much that their advanced age reminds me that they’ll soon die—and that I’ll eventually follow them.  Thinking about death is disconcerting only for those who haven’t quite come to terms with their inevitable mortality.  There is actually a substantial body of research indicating that thoughts of death can have beneficial effects on how we live our lives (see a report of this research here).  I’m less troubled by death than by what might come before death.

My parents are in their own home and, for now anyway, are able to cover their expenses reasonably well.  That doesn’t mean that they have a very pleasant life, though.  My dad has dementia.  He still knows who he is, recognizes family members and some friends, and can feed himself and help dress himself.  However, he has to be told the most basic things, remembers very little (even the household schedule, which is repetitive to the point of monotony), and is miserable whenever away from my mom.  He fears being alone, and, whenever my mom is away, he anxiously awaits her return.  At night, he always needs to be reassured that someone will come to get him in the morning.  My mother works hard to keep up the household and keep dad satisfied.  She is plagued with various physical limitations, tires easily, and is clearly weary of the task of answering the same questions and trying to comfort someone who can’t be comforted for more than a moment.  My mom has said, “I think we’ve just lived too long.”  I understand why she has that view.

So I’m no longer much of an optimist when it comes to the end of life.  Perhaps I’m even a pessimist, in the sense of having mostly negative expectations for what it will be like should I live to my mid-eighties or beyond.  I would say that I’m a hopeful pessimist, though.  Health may deteriorate, memory may fade, and friends may die, but I hope to still be sustained by qualities that can survive all these losses.  The Christian tradition talks about the fruit of the Spirit—qualities that God’s Spirit develops in those who open themselves to his activity.  The Apostle Paul’s letter to the Galatians lists these as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.  Take the first three of these—if my heart were to constantly be filled with love of others, if I were to be always joyful about God’s faithfulness and mercy, and if I had an abiding sense of peace that is unperturbed by life situations, then deprivation and decrepitude would matter much less.  Some days, I seem to be showing exactly the opposite of the qualities that Paul cites.  I know that spiritual formation is a lifelong process, though, and I trust that God’s Spirit knows better than I do how to develop these characteristics in me.  So, at this point I’m a hopeful pessimist, the in-breaking kingdom of the heavens being the only real reason I see for hope.

I’m about to leave my position at Methodist University and move to Michigan.  I’ll soon be vacating my university office, so I have to decide what to do with the books and papers there.  I started the process of going though my bookcases and file cabinets over a week ago, and am over half done.  I’ve recycled perhaps forty pounds of paper and given away about fifty books thus far.  I’ve also been emptying out book cases and file cabinets at home to make room for what I’m removing from the office.

Objects—books and papers in the office, countless other things (notepads, paper clips, dishes, plastic containers, magazines, grocery store coupons, etc.) at home—constantly accumulate, like snow drifting against a wall during a blizzard.  My subjective sense of how this happens is that things accrue on their own despite my best efforts to disperse them.  But of course this isn’t accurate: it’s me who is carrying everything into my home or office and then stacking, straightening, filing, shelving, or otherwise organizing it.  The things we bring into our lives come to dominate our living space, our consciousness, and our time.  George Carlin’s famous rift on stuff (“A house is just a place to keep your stuff while you go out and get more stuff”) is painfully, poignantly accurate.

Besides filling the space around us and absorbing our attention, our possessions are part of our identities. Psychologist William James wrote that “[A] man’s self is the sum total of all that he can call his, not only his body and his psychic powers, but his clothes, and his house, his wife and children, his ancestors and friends, his reputation and works, his land and horses, and yacht and bank account.”  I’m not just defined by my relationships and reputation (James called this the Social Self) and by the contents and capabilities of my mind (James’ Spiritual Self); I’m also defined by my physical existence, including the objects I’ve accumulated.  In the last few days I’ve been attending much more than usual to this Material Self.  I can conclude from the contents of my office that I’m a collection of psychology texts, of books about human personality and potential, of lecture notes, of meeting minutes, of exams that I’ve given through the years, and of outdated psychological tests.  Or at least I was all those things.  I’ve gotten rid of nearly all the meeting minutes and most of the old exams and textbooks.  I decided I didn’t need them anymore; or, to put it another way, I changed my definition of myself.  I used to be the kind of person who had such things, but that’s no longer who I am.

Having gotten rid of a decent proportion of what’s in my office, I’m still struck by how much I’ve retained.  I can identify with hoarders, who start out defining themselves by what they collect but, unable to make distinctions, end up losing themselves beneath piles of debris.  I have to admit that I don’t actually expect to make use of everything I kept; some things I am simply attached to and am not ready to relinquish.   My holding onto things I’m unlikely to use probably stems from not fully coming to terms with surrendering significant aspects of my life.  Perhaps, as anthropologist Ernest Becker would have it, an underlying motive is denial that I will eventually die and have no further need of any of these things.  In that context, I was interested to find a brief article by cultural historian Philipp Blom on the reasons why humans collect things (he’s talking about formal collections such as baseball cards, modern art, or Grateful Dead memorabilia, but I think his views apply to informal aggregations as well).  He compares collections to a pharaoh’s tomb:

“Carefully arranged around the sarcophagus are representatives of the king’s possessions, of the wealth and the resources he needs to live on in the afterworld. Their presence is symbolic, but it assures survival. It is remarkable how many collectors chose to be immortalized through their collections, either by naming and donating them, by a continued presence as founder’s portrait or statue, or even as a wax work.”

So, do the papers and books I’ve retained represent a wish for immortality?  Will I want my casket lined with the books that I didn’t get around to reading in this life and the course notes that I’ll use when teaching at the great university in the sky?  I hope not; I hope that in the years to come I’ll loosen my grasp on my possessions, and will eventually surrender them so that I’m better able to take hold of what is yet to come.

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