Wednesday, April 27, 2011

My Mother Sang to Me

The one thing I regret never having said to my mother was a question: "Who sang to you?"

She sang to me. To us. From her we were given a deep and abiding love for music.

Where He Leads Me I will Follow. She sang that to me and I cried. Reflecting, I suppose, in some deep, subconscious toddler fashion upon the trials and joys of Christian discipleship. At any rate, she thought it was cute.

I taught my sisters to sing harmony. Three part harmony, because there were three of us and three notes make a chord. Of all the things I miss about making music, singing harmony is the thing I miss most.

The rain sings on my roof, each drop sounding a different note. It is as if God is singing me to sleep in the most soothing voice imaginable. A voice as of many waters and I am reminded what exquisite harmonies there will be in heaven. Isaiah tells us that all creation will sing:

For you shall go out in joy and be led forth in peace:
And the mountains and the hills before you
Shall break forth into singing,
And all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.

Harmonious singing and rythmic clapping.

Who sang to you?

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

A Dead Man Speaks

The yellow-red flame of the low-burning fire was the only light in the room. The old woman moved slowly, placing the objects around the blaze, as monstrous shadows flickered and danced on the walls. The black-handled dagger, point facing west, the clay bowl of pure water, the small container of earth were all arranged with care on the low altar.

Once again, she peered with a suspicious glare at the hooded figure opposite her. She feared exposure to the king’s agents. The silver shekels the stranger offered, however, were real enough and coin had been scarce since Saul had cut off all spiritists and mediums from the land.

“Surely you know the king’s decree,” she reminded the man a second time. “Why have you set a trap for me to bring about my death?”

“As surely as the Lord lives,” he spoke, “no harm shall come to you for this thing.”

“Whom shall I bring up for you?”

“Bring up Samuel.”

Staring deep into the guttering flame, she began to mumble the ancient incantation; words from a dimly remembered time when Nimrod was king at Babylon and all men spoke the same tongue. She sprinkled a palmful of wormwood shavings onto the fire and it flared a brilliant blue. A generous pinch of the red poppyseeds from her pocket caused a thick purplish smoke to rise from the flame and fill the room with its sickly-sweet aroma.

She uttered the last guttural syllables of the spell and settled back on her haunches, eyelids fluttering rapidly. The purple smoke eddied and curled upward from the altar and a dim form appeared to take shape there. The witch’s scream pierced the stillness.

“You are Saul! Why have you deceived me?”

“What do you see?”

“I see a spirit coming up out of the earth!”

She fell backward with a piteous moan. The scent of the fumes was overpowering and Saul struggled with the urge to run screaming from the close confines of the chamber. Staring at the apparition before him, Saul fell on his face to the ground, heart hammering with terror, scarcely able to breathe.

“Why have you disturbed me?” A thin quavering voice filled the room.

“The Philistines come against me and God has turned away from me,” Saul babbled. “I have called on you to tell me what to do.”

“Why consult me, now that the Lord has become your enemy?”

“But He no longer answers me. What shall I do?”

“The Lord has taken the kingdom from you, as he promised through me, and given it to David. Tomorrow you and your sons will be with me.” The old man’s voice diminished as he spoke.

Saul trembled, prostrate on the dirt floor, weak from hunger and fear. A hand touched his shoulder and he flinched, whimpering as he did so.

“My king, you must eat,” the woman spoke.

He refused, but she set about preparing a meal and placed it before him.

The king of Israel ate his last meal.

Thursday, April 21, 2011


The priest raises the stone knife high under the blazing sun. With his free hand, he holds the drugged but struggling victim as he calls on the name of Huitzilopochtli, the sun god. His hair is matted with the blood of those already sacrificed on this altar high atop the massive stone pyramid. He is dressed in the skins of previous victims. He plunges the knife into the chest of the victim, whose cries are drowned out by the pounding of drums, and pulls out the still beating heart. He lifts high this sacrifice, symbolic of the life blood that will appease the god of the sun and strengthen him in his nightly struggle against the god of darkness. The limp body of the victim is kicked flopping down the steep, blood-slippery steps of the pyramid to lie in a heap with those already sacrificed. The sun will continue to rise in the land of the Aztecs.

The god is called Molech, though he has many other names. Set in a grove upon a high hill, he towers above his worshipers, bronze and silent. The acolytes stoke the fire burning in their god’s belly. The noise of flutes and drums is heard as the priest steps forward, holding the sacrifice, and begins his incantation. Molech’s arms extend, palms upward, from his waist and emanate a dull red glow as the idol is heated by the adding of wood to the fire inside its hollow metallic body. The voice of the priest rises in pitch as the flutes wail and the drums throb louder and faster. The priest raises the sacrifice high above his head. The heat from the idol is becoming unbearably hot and the priest’s voice rises to a scream to be heard above the frenzied drumming and the nerve-rending wailing of the flutes. The living infant is placed on Molech’s super-heated arms, its cries drowned out by the noise of the instruments. Molech has been appeased. The Ammonites will have rain for their crops and victory over their enemies.

A man closes the door to his study and lights a stick of incense. From a purple Crown Royal sock, he pulls a one-hit pipe and a small baggie of marijuana. He loads the pipe and takes a deep lungful of smoke. As he holds it in, his mind begins to experience the familiar floating sensation and his body relaxes. Now, shut off from the world and from his family, he can spend his evening playing his guitar or simply listening to music as his mind wanders through mist-laden corridors of forgetfulness.

On the other side of the house, his wife clears away the dishes and walks into the living room. Settling on the couch with her purse, she produces a small bag full of prescription bottles. Selecting one, she takes from it a green and white capsule and places it in her mouth, washing it down with a drink of iced tea. In a short while, as 20 mg. of Prozac begins coursing through her bloodstream and into her brain, she will drift downwards into oblivion and the disconnect she seeks.

Alone in her bedroom, their daughter sits cross-legged on the floor staring at the contents of a small pink box in horror and fascination. The chorus of Linkin Park’s “I’ve Become So Numb” sounds from the stereo. Little-by-little, she surrenders to the waves of despair washing over her and she takes from the pink box an Exacto knife. She applies it slowly, precisely to the skin of her forearm and the blood and the pain become her reality and her release.

Peace of mind. Now more than ever before, we seek it. We search for it, not in religious ritual, but in the achievement of personal goals. Relationships, community, even family are sacrificed in the pursuit of this new god, this old god. Peace of mind is a drug-induced high, a pharmacological numbness, even a rending of the flesh in an effort to feel. Something.
What is real?
Where is salvation?

The sound of a hammer striking nails echoes down the hill, across the valley and through the streets of the empty town. A cross is raised and set in place. On it, a man beaten and disfigured beyond recognition, begins the agony of death by crucifixion. The priests are there, but pagans preside over this ceremony while these “righteous ones” stand out front and shake their heads and offer mockery. Beside them women weep and only one of the disciples has the courage to come and watch. Crushed under the burden of human iniquity, the victim struggles for brief gasps of air in a haze of pain and rejection. After six long, slow, tortuous hours, he cries out with his dying breath to his God: “Father, forgive them.” The midnight-dark sky emits squalls of rain and the rocks of the city are rent by an earthquake.

God has provided the sacrifice.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

My Foolish Heart

Richard Dawkins on the existence of God: "There is at bottom no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.

Spirit of Christmas Past: What is the matter?
Scrooge: Nothing in particular.
Spirit: Something, I think?

Dawkins whistles in the darkness of his own choosing. Nothing, he says. Something, I think. Nothing is not blind. Nothing is not pitiless, not indifferent. Dawkins is describing "Something." And "Something" has upset him, angered him, stirred up deep emotions within him.

I recognize this man.

I often ask myself, how does anyone who gives any thought to their life live without God?

Then I remember.

And I think this: to willfully persist in unbelief, in anger, in disappointment, in denial, is to acknowledge (in some way) God's existence.

God is there.

Even to the unbeliever

What torment!

Is this hell?

I remember my affliction and my wandering, the bitterness and the gall. I well remember them, and my soul is downcast within me. Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope.

Because of the LORD's great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.     -Lamentations 3:19-23 

Friday, April 15, 2011

Hanging Ten on the Rim of Hell

Are you praying?

When we talk about our prayer life, everyone I know says, "I don't pray enough."

My prayers often lack fervency, are perfunctory, are shallow, and seemingly clang to the ground after bouncing off the ceiling.

In my Reformation Study Bible (p. 1432), the note on "Hell" says, "Those who are in hell will know, not only that for their doings they deserve it, but that in their hearts they chose it."

I know people for whom I fear the fires of hell. Not that I am better than they are.

Oh no.

In many cases they are better people, better parents, better neighbors; to my shame.

Good people. But there is no apparent desire for the things of God: no desire to worship him, no hunger for His Word, no compulsion to cry out to Him: "Abba, Father."

And I read statements like the one quoted above, or Jonathan Edward's Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God

The imagery of someone suspended above the gaping maw of hell on a rotten plank or by the thinnest strand of a spider's web is one of horror.

Someone I know is skating blithely around the very rim of eternal destruction with no thought to what looms beneath them.

Are you praying?

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Turn the Page

Going through a dry spell here lately. Drier than Ezekiel's dry bones.
What causes that, you suppose? That distance from God. Easy to say, "Well, unconfessed sin." Or simply, "The Devil."

Yeah. I know that. But it's more than that, maybe. Like this spiritual lethargy; the lack of energy.

I'm reminded of the Bob Seger song with the line that goes:  "And you don't feel much like ridin', you just wish the trip was through." Then it goes to that ominous sounding E minor.

Wow, that's it. I'm living in a minor chord.

We all know that the major chords are the bright perky happy-sounding stuff. Think Mozart. You know; God's laughter.

Whew. Gotta think happy thoughts. Gotta count my blessings (so simple, it's dumb, right?). Gotta get on my knees and confess that sin (I know that) or better yet ask God to reveal that sin so then I can confess and repent.

Gotta turn the page.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Grave

As for man, his days are like grass, he flourishes like a flower of the field; the wind blows over it and it is gone, and its place remembers it no more. Psalm 103:15-16

“It’s supposed to be right here somewhere.”

The two men studied the tombstones, working their way across the older part of the cemetery. The markers in this section were small, lichen-encrusted slabs of marble, a foot wide and half again as tall.

“Daddy, are you sure we’re looking in the right place?”

“This is where she said it was; third row from the back, but she couldn’t tell which plot. There was a water-stain on the page of the register.”

The old man moved slowly, eyes straining at each weather-worn inscription.

“Here it is.”

The son moved to stand beside his father and looked down.


DIED NOV 3 1926

The old man knelt, pain knifing through arthritic hip joints, and with the wire brush he carried, began to clean the small stone.

The car crept along the asphalt path. The little girl looked to the right where her father pointed. Rows of weather-stained gravestones stretched before her.

“Look on your side. Which one looks different?”

“They all look alike, Daddy.”

“Keep looking.”

She spotted it at the same moment he stopped the car; not quite white, but standing out plainly from the gray slabs around it.

“There it is.”

He opened the trunk of the car and brought out a wire brush. She carried the white silk rose, and together they approached the grave.


DIED NOV 3 1926

“This is my grandma, Daddy?”

“Your Papaw Ray’s mama. She died just two weeks after he was born.”

“She has the same name as Aunt Deb.”

"That's right."

“He never knew where she was buried until ten or twelve years ago," the father continued. "He and I came out here one Saturday afternoon in the fall and he found it.”

“He kept it cleaned off?”

“Whenever I came home, we would come out here.”

She hugged her father, tears filling her eyes.

“Daddy, did he miss her like we miss him?”

“Yeah, I think maybe so. But he doesn't have to anymore. And someday we won't have to miss him."

The girl nodded her understanding and knelt before the little marker, running her fingers across the name on the weathered marble.

As she pushed the stem of the rose into the ground in front of the stone, he knelt and began to brush away the lichen that had grown on it since last time.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

In Dreams

       A candy-colored clown they call the sandman, tiptoes to my room every night.

      He sprinkles colored stardust and he whispers “Go to sleep, everything is alright
      Roy Orbison (1936-1988)

We rode in the old Chevy pickup again last night, you and I. It had been a while, and reminded me of the first time. You drove then, I recall, because I had strained my back and didn’t want to wrestle with that big old steering wheel , and we stopped to pee behind some trees at a little country church a quarter mile off the highway.

I dreamed about my dad last night, for the first time in a perhaps a year or more. The dreams were more frequent in the year after he died. The one I remember best (the Pink Floyd dream, I call it) came to me several months after his death. Oddly enough, I have absolutely no recall of the visual elements of the dream. I could hear the acoustic guitar riff at the beginning of the song and then the opening words, “So. So you think you can tell heaven from hell…” and it was like he was speaking these lines to me over the recording. I woke up, and the song’s title reverberated through my mind: Wish You Were Here. Was he inviting me to heaven? I had been out of church for years, having gotten mad at God, and had no thought of returning. I couldn’t remember the last time he had broached the subject. I had made it plain that this was not a matter I wished to discuss. The dream haunted me.

My psychology professor told us that we dream every night and that if we make a conscious effort, we can remember those dreams. She had us keep a dream journal for a week. Amazingly, I remembered four or five of the dreams quite vividly. What did they mean? She didn’t know. It seems that the dark subterranean recesses of the human mind are uncharted territory. That’s the thing about dreams. Even the people who study them admit they haven’t a clue what they mean.

So we have these dreams and no one knows the purpose or meaning of them. Some themes seem to be common. Flight (actual or figurative) is one. A trapped, helpless feeling is another. There may be some oppressive person or presence causing a feeling of dread. Freud supposed that dreams are the outward manifestation of some masked traumatic event from one’s childhood.

        Have the lambs stopped screaming yet, Clarice? –Thomas Harris.

Is writing a waking dream? I read somewhere once that “Writing is a struggle against silence.” My first response to this statement was, “How pretentious!” Then I smiled to myself and thought that, with two women in the house, writing at our place is a struggle for silence. A struggle for silence. That phrase kept returning. Do we write to silence whatever it is in our heads that compels us to write?

When you’re in the writing groove; when the thoughts are really rolling and the words are flowing off the end of your pen or the tips of your fingers like blood from a freshly opened vein; it’s like you’re channeling the deepest, innermost depths of your being. Like a dream. Except you’re putting it all on paper. And if you don’t get it down at the exact precise moment of revelation, it’s lost; gone forever except for tantalizing glimpses and snatches. Just like a dream.

        In dreams I walk with you. In dreams I talk with you. –Roy Orbison.

What is being communicated when we dream? Who or what are we communicating with? Are we communicating with our memories when we dream? Not just with people, but with events long gone and half-forgotten? Do we escape the pressures (there’s always pressure) of day-to-day living to relive better times (as we recall them) in fragmented fashion? In my psychology dream journal, I recorded a vivid dream in which I was walking down a country lane on a Sunday morning, headed toward church. Petty’s Chapel Church on the Wire Road in Lee County, Arkansas (where I attended church as a young boy). Small clouds of dust rose around my feet as I walked alongside a wooden flatbed trailer being pulled by a small tractor. On the trailer were arranged several wooden cane-bottom chairs (from somewhere else in my childhood). Beside me walked my daughter, aged perhaps seven or eight (although she was twenty at the time of the dream). At my other hand walked my dear friend, Richard Smith. I sensed we were both younger than we actually were in reality (he in his sixties, I in my fifties). What was the conversation? There seems to have been earnest discussion (as Richard and I often have), but about what I have no idea. What was Sandy doing there? Simply walking beside me, holding my hand, though the other children in the dream, strangely silent, were seated in the chairs on the trailer. I remember her blond hair shining in the early morning sun that filtered through the trees lining the road.

        In dreams you’re mine, all of the time. We’re together in dreams. –Roy Orbison

When I wrote "The Photograph," I took two separate items: a picture, and an incident from his childhood related to me by my dad. As I linked these together in my imagination and on the page, it was as though my subconscious surfaced and I began to write; not just what I knew or what I had been told, but things that I sensed and understood innately about this man who loved me and my sisters and my brother.

I’d like to say “hi” to my mom sitting at home listening, and to my daddy, sitting on the fifty yard-line in heaven. –Rodney Tolar, color commentator-KFFA radio, at the Barton Bears opening home game. Fall 1998.

“Your muffler is getting a hole in it,” you said. You were always giving me automotive advice. Sometimes I took and used it, other times not.

“Your door’s not closed good,” I replied. “Close it and you won’t hear the muffler.” Or I can turn the radio louder, I thought. Then I woke up.

       Is all that we see or seem but a dream within a dream? –Edgar Allan Poe

I used to think that it might be fun to record my dreams for a month, put them all together and try to arrange them in some kind of order. Then I could try to categorize them somehow and try to make some sense or find some continuity in them. I would put the ones about my dad in one section, the ones about flying (I dreamed a lot of these during my first marriage) in another and so on.

We write what comes to us. Just as our thought life (subconscious or otherwise) becomes our dream life, so our thought life fuels our writing. We always hear, “Write what you know!” So what do you know? What do you think about, meditate on, dwell on? Jesus said, “Out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks.” Just as dreams can reveal what is in our heart of hearts, the deep subconscious, so the heart, when tapped by the writer, can reveal wonderful things, awful things, things that can break the reader’s own heart, convulse him with laughter or terrify her into sleeplessness.

The real reward from writing might be found in what we learn about ourselves. As when we contemplate our dreams, when we read over the scribbling we have poured out on the page, we look for truth. Is it always there? A better question might be, “How great is your propensity for self-deception?” If what you write is true and real, you will know it. What’s more, the reader will know it. Then you’ve shared it and that’s the best thing of all.

       And just before the dawn, I awake and find you gone.
       And I can’t help it, I can’t help it if I cry. -Roy Orbison

Every time I go to Arkansas, I pass that little country church sitting in the middle of a cotton field off Highway 79. I always think of you when I do.

           Only in dreams,
           in beautiful dreams. –Roy Orbison

And so our dreams go unexplained. There is no conclusion to dreaming. Old men nap in the sun and dream of past glories, real or imagined. A baby dreams at its mother’s breast and smiles. I write, and dream of a day when others will read these scratchings and make sense of them. Maybe some half-formed idea in the pages I write will germinate in the mind of one more talented, more inspired than I. Maybe then, maybe long years after I have passed from this world, I will have fulfilled my purpose. My dream.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Dreams of War, Dreams of Eternity

The lone warrior picked his way down the steep path that led from the Plateau of Gilead to the valley of the Jabbok River. After he had left Rabbah, Eleazar had run the first fifteen miles at a steady jog. His brain swirled with conflicting emotions. He thought of how he had been a soldier from his youth, and Israel had been constantly at war with her enemies, with only brief interludes of peace. He thought of his wife.

Finally, Naarah and I can be together, he thought. I can tend my olive trees and my vineyard and my sons and not have to worry about when the next call will come, to take up the sword.

Try as he might, Eleazar’s thoughts kept returning to the death of Uriah. We all know and accept that each battle may be our last, but today, almost certainly, Uriah was deliberately placed in the front line of battle and left without support. Can God’s anointed one do what I’m certain David has done? he thought. Laying his head on a flat stone, Eleazar fell into an exhausted sleep. Then the dreams came, as they often did after battle.

In his dream, he saw Uriah contending at the gate, as he had that day. Only in the dream, there were no Ammonites, but a crowd of giants, arrayed in Philistine battle dress. Eleazar tried to rise and run to Uriah’s aid, but could not and looking down, saw that he was bound hand and foot. The giants pressed the Hittite backward, but he fought valiantly, till he stumbled and fell. Then they were on him, hacking at him with their great swords in a fearful slaughter. Eleazar tried to scream at them to stop, but could not call out. At last, they turned and took notice of him, turned and advanced inexorably toward him as he strained to free himself. When he looked up at them again, there were not giants there, but warriors, with stumps of legs or arms, or with smashed faces, or crushed skulls; men Eleazar had slain in battle, coming to exact their revenge; closer, and closer, and closer.

Eleazar started from the sweat-soaked dream. He shivered, in spite of himself, as the images of horror replayed themselves in his mind.

“You suffer from evil dreams, my son.”

Looking around, he saw an old, but richly dressed man squatted on the opposite side of his dying campfire. The ancient one was gazing at Eleazar in contemplative fashion.

“Did you speak to me?”

“I said, ‘you suffer from evil dreams.’”

“I sometimes do on the evening after a battle. Many soldiers do, I am told.”

“Ah, you are one King David’s men, then. How goes the siege at Rabbah?”

“Poorly.” Eleazar felt no desire to discuss the day’s events with this ancient, nor did he see the need to inform the stranger that he no longer carried a sword for David. Come to think of it, he reflected, his sword was still sticking in the ground in Joab’s tent. He smiled at the thought.

“Yet you smile, things must not be as bad as you say.”

“I smile because I am going home to my wife. Who are you, old man? And why do you roam the high pasturelands of Gilead at night? You’re not dressed as a shepherd.”

“Can only warriors and shepherds roam at will throughout Israel? Surely, the children of Israel ceased to be slaves when God brought them up out of Egypt.”

“Our people have been slaves in this land, as well,” Eleazar replied. “A man of your years must remember the days of Saul, when the Philistines had forbidden to us the very weapons of resistance. Perhaps it is well that warriors such as I roam the land so that ancient ones such as you may remain safely in their houses at night.” This response brought a smile to the face of the stranger. He studied Eleazar in silence before he spoke again.

“It is well, indeed, that God has raised up men like yourself, to do battle with Israel’s enemies. Yet you have troubling dreams, and always after the slaughter of battle, you say.”

Eleazar nodded acknowledgement. He was loath to discuss his dreams or their possible implications with this stranger, but something about the old man’s demeanor invited intimacy, and drew Eleazar to express his innermost thoughts.

“I am counted a great warrior by my people,“ he said without pride, “and it is true, many have fallen by my sword. It seems strange, however, that an accident of birth has made me an Israelite and my enemy a Philistine, or Jebusite or an Ammonite. What if the situation was reversed? Would I be a mighty warrior, still, in God’s eyes, though I were slaying his chosen people?”

“Eleazar, you have nothing but what has been given to you.” Eleazar was startled by the man’s use of his name, and opened his mouth to question this, but the old one continued, ignoring his reaction. “No king is saved by the size of his army; no warrior escapes by his great strength, but the eyes of the LORD are on those who fear Him, on those whose hope is in His unfailing love.”

“I have heard David say these words.”

“The king is the LORD’s anointed, a man after God’s heart.”

“If you had seen what I’ve seen today, you wouldn’t be so quick to sing David’s praises,” Eleazar replied. Once again, the stranger was silent, regarding Eleazar as though pondering his fate. The warrior stirred uneasily under the gaze of this ancient one.

“Is not the king a man, even as you are a man? If you are troubled in your heart over those you have justly slain, in the service of your God and your king, how much more will God trouble the heart of the one who has shed blood unjustly? Do not judge another man’s servant, Eleazar.”

“You know my name, who are you?”

“Sleep now, my son. You have come far, but you have yet farther to go.”

Eleazar stared into the dying embers of his campfire. When he raised his eyes, the old one was gone. Looking around him, he slowly recognized the place in the light of the full moon. Long, long years ago, Jacob, son of Isaac, son of Abraham had named this place Peniel: The Face of God. Feeling exhausted, nearly unto death, he laid his head upon the stone and sank into a deep, dreamless sleep.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Enough and to Spare

What is enough? What does it mean? How much is it? Why do we, at times, view it from a negative point of view?

exempli gratia: 

Enough is enough.

I've had enough.

Too much is never enough.

"Adequate for any demand or need; sufficient (says Webster)."

There's another perspective. The one about which I need reminding constantly. The biblical perspective:

"How many of my father's servants have bread enough and to spare?"

Enough and to spare.


And to spare.

Think of that!

"And now unto Him that is able to do exceeding abundantly above all we ask or imagine...."

That's King James for "enough."

Father, forgive me for being so ungrateful.

There's always enough.

And the rest is gravy.

Thank you, LORD.