Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Deep Breaths in a Hyper-Ventilating World

I believe there are always temptations to reduce our social consciousness both in its width of exploration and its depth of imagination. But I also think this might be a greater temptation for our larger world today. More and more, it seems our economic, political and social success is so largely dependent upon quarterly and weekly goals that any hope of being guided by life-long endeavors seems irrelevant. Consequently, the way we live and work is being radically reduced to current demands and opportunities. We are being dominated by the tyranny of the urgent.

A lot of this undoubtedly results from the rise of capitalism, which is dependent upon competition as a foundational piece for the global market. Competition forces manufacturers to beat one another to the consumer or beat one another in price. This is good for buyers … well, initially perhaps.

A great example of this trend, what I call “hyper-markets,” can be seen in one of America’s most controversial businesses: Wal-mart. Wal-mart is a direct descendant of “discount retail,” and while the Wal-mart website claims the foundational value or core idea that drives their business is customer service, I don’t think that’s what most people would say ( To most, Wal-mart is about the lowest price, and the vast majority of their advertisements make this their differentiator compared to other retail stores. Everybody knows what the bouncy happy face is all about.

In just over one month of being in Owensboro (which happens to have Kentucky’s largest Wal-mart store) I’ve had multiple conversations with people who shop at Wal-mart. And every single person has made it a point to mention Wal-mart’s prices as the reason they shop there. One person even quoted some supposed study, which found that the average shopper would save up to $17 or more a month if they were to shop at Wal-mart versus any other retail or grocery store. The point seems clear enough: you’ll save money today, so what harm can that do for the future?!

Well, clearly, low prices are not a bad thing. The crux of the debate comes back to this idea of competition. To be competitive, you have to be willing to change, to adapt – just ask Darwin. You have to decrease your long-term commitments and be in continual search of a more modern, efficient way to make a product for less. If you don’t, somebody else does, and your stores close down while other stocks rise.

This is where most critics of Wal-mart start in. Wal-mart seemingly has no long-term concern for manufacturers, sellers, buyers, retailers or breathing human beings. In short, they are bad neighbors who only come into town to monopolize retail or go over seas to manipulate manufacturing. They do business with you if you help them, but watch out if you don’t (or good luck getting a contract with them if you don’t meet their demands)! They are a commercial vacuum – sucking up local, less efficient retailers and distributors, engulfing quality jobs and ultimately procuring lots of revenue from people’s paychecks.

There is no doubt Wal-mart creates all sorts of activity wherever they go. People just aren’t so sure what kind of activity they produce. Either it’s healthy competition that will eventually lead to better business practices and a tighter world economy, or it’s degradation of commerce that will eventually strip the world market of dignity, local towns of quality goods and workers near and far of their own self-worth.

I tend to lean towards the later camp, but I also know it's way too simplistic to label Wal-mart the source and distributor of the world’s ills. Wal-mart is symbolic of the overall effects of capitalism.

Which leads us to another foundational piece of capitalism: competition is ultimately about companies making a profit. At the end of the day, profitability rules the roost, and a dollar earned yesterday means nothing compared to the ever-pressing demand of making a dollar tomorrow. Sure McDonald’s has sold billions of happy meals, but if they don’t find a way to compete and sell a million more this year, they are dead.

This too narrows corporate and communal attention. Every industry has been affected by these ideas. The entertainment industry tries to make movies it knows will cost relatively little while also getting a lot of people into the theatre … thus the rise in horror films of late. Other industries have different ideas of what profitability is, such as politics where profits might be another term in office or a majority in the house. But the evidence and effects of competition are the same: try to secure short-term success, always think in the now, don’t be afraid to change, evaluate yourself at least quarterly.

It is clear to see that time itself is being redefined by capitalism. It is becoming a commodity of great worth, so rather than people taking their time or celebrating time, our mentality is becoming chained to deadlines and time-tables. We become vexed in a no-man’s land: well aware of the value of time and desiring to maximize and expand our free time but also well aware of the scarcity of time and the need to make good on what little we are given.

Amidst this confusing world of material glut and scarcity of time, modern culture seems so much a proliferation of junk. Our landscape is populated more and more with evidence of easily made and easily discarded goods. And all of it is built upon the promise of securing immediate success or gratification. Never mind the landfills accumulating around and before us, or the mines of wisdom being discarded from our past!

I am reminded here of a small book I was reading today, which spoke of prayer as an act of breathing. We breathe in the good gifts of God, taking in blessings and the world’s treasures, and breathe out compassion and love and peace. Likewise, I would say a faithful life, a spiritual life, is a life of remembrance and deep gratitude. Living a faithful life requires deep breaths and healthy exhales; there needs to be room for our souls and hearts and minds to stretch out and play in the time and space God has given us, not in hurried, knee-jerk, hyper-active exercises of productivity. The Christian life needs to resist the temptations that competition dominates all of existence, resources and people are intended only for our profits (either monetary or otherwise), and time is a scarce commodity needing to be capitalized.

Thankfully, there are exceptions to this rule, and there are artists and robust souls throughout the world who are dedicated to thoughtful, relaxed ventures. But, more and more, artisans and true craftsman are becoming like the Desert Fathers of early Christianity: you can find them if you’re really looking, but it takes a great deal of commitment and searching. It also means leaving behind some of the more convenient, popular ways of the world.

I think we can also find alternative ways of living when we relax and try to take in Jesus’ life and ministry. It would do us well to take time and re-imagine Jesus walking with his disciples in Galilee – pointing to the birds of the air and the lilies of the field that have no need to worry about commercial endeavors such as buying clothes or building homes. “Take a deep breath; look around you; look in; look backward; look forward,” he might also say.

Jesus clearly modeled a richer, deeper and healthier paced life – everything with him had an increased sense of connectivity, history and depth; I like to believe with the Spirit’s (the Holy Breath’s!) help, such a life might still be possible for us today.

Breathe in. Breathe out. There’s more to life than low prices and quick fixes.


Monday, August 21, 2006

Final Fantasy

I did this one for you, Wyatt … and you too, Anna. I don’t think either one of you can realize the benefits you’re going to reap from what I’ve just done, but I like to think you’ll thank me sometime. You’ll wake up one day and it will hit you unassumingly: Wes seems more present, less distracted.

What did I manage to do? Well, it’s not so much what I did as what I did NOT do. I’ve decided not to partake in fantasy football this year. And, no this is not because I got ripped off last year in the championship game, which I did. I’m doing this because I went ahead and calculated the number of hours I spent researching player statistics, tracking game day performances, logging on to Yahoo to verify I really did score 30 points with Tiki Barber, fuming over playing Alge Crumpler in Green Bay, and fixating more over how I appeared in my profile picture than I did in real life: approximately 450 hours … give or take a few. That comes out to three hours a day for sixteen weeks of the year, plus an additional seven hours a day for Sundays. Or, in other words, that’s 18 days of my year … entirely devoted to winning a game not too far removed from the electric football board game my grandparents owned: ( – tons of time in preparation only to be baffled by the results.

Anna, you know I’m being cautious on my calculations. All told, there is no way to compute how much fantasy football affected me. By the time Sunday rolled around, my psyche was a jumbled mix of hopes and fears – completely consumed with hedging risks and maximizing opportunities. I would literally spend hours trying to find a kicker destined to have a breakout week. Like a commodities trader on Wall Street, I had a set of predictors: indoor vs. outdoor conditions, decent defense that would give up some yardage but not too much for a touchdown, average offense for the same reason, playing under a full moon, and kicking in same month as his date of birth (okay, I didn’t lean too heavily on the last two, but only because I couldn’t really track those stats).

Sadly, fantasy football even ruined one of my favorite ways to relax: actually watching football. Instead of napping through Cleveland versus San Francisco, I would be glued to how the tight end was performing (wait, I should probably think of a better way to say that). I would get all worked up about Steve Smith getting five more yards – as if my stress and enthusiasm were destined to change his performance. Goodness gracious, I can only imagine what Vegas feels like! Who has the nerve or stomach lining to put money on these chaotic events?

And, of course, there were the horrible effects of losing. Losing invited all the demons within to parade around rather loudly all week. As one who takes everything personally, I would somehow (and shockingly very naturally) associate the performance of eleven men whom I have never met nor ever shall meet as a general reflection upon my own worth or character. I considered sending players bonuses if they performed well. I considered hacking into my opponent’s team and altering his starting line-up. If there were a Christian version of the voodoo dolls, I probably would have considered that option as well.

Well, it’s pretty obvious by now: fantasy football was becoming a little too realistic for me. Or, the real world I was living in was becoming way too secondary, too much of an afterthought.

So that’s why I went ahead and did us all the favor and passed on fantasy football this year. I’m hanging up the cyber-cleats. You won’t even know they’ve been packed away, but, boy oh boy, you’ll be more than thrilled when you realize your ol’ man has gone from fantasy freak to just another arm-chair quarterback. It’s one step back into the real world.


Thursday, August 10, 2006

Bedford Stone

Anna said it well today: we are on our way to being knee deep in diapers and debt. Well, actually, the diapers have been there for a while, but the debt is about to get much, much bigger.

We officially signed a buyer's-seller's contract today for a Bedford stone ranch house - a lovely home we've been smitten with since we first saw it over a month ago. I'll try to post some pictures of it in the coming weeks, but for now we just ask you pray all goes smoothly with the acquisition of this home. We will have an inspection on Monday to verify the house is not destined to fall into a sink hole, and we are in discussion with a bank to secure the loan.

It gives me great delight to know we are possibly going to be living in a house with rich ties to Indiana history. Plus, Anna and I are hopeful we'll be able to make it something of a modern living space for the three of us. The previous owners were an older couple - into their 80's I believe. So, it definitely has some updating to do here and there. But, we're just thrilled over the possibilities. Well, that and the yard, which is full of older trees, protective shade and a small patch in the back for a garden.

I'm already full of anticipation and nerves ...


Friday, August 04, 2006


Did I ever tell you I saw Ladysmith Black Mambazo perform live? You would’ve liked it, I think, or at least I hope. It was in Los Angeles, the downtown part, which your mother and I did not really frequent that often. We stayed mostly in the Pasadena area. Except every once in a while, we would take off and go really far away – sometimes as far away as Northern California. Or we would go to San Diego or maybe just over to the west side of that great city. I wish you could see it, like we saw it. No doubt you’ll make it back out there again. I figure that will be a quest you’ll always sense you need to make – especially when you start to hear people’s reactions when you tell them you were born in Arcadia, California.

It really is quite amazing to think you were born there. Arcadia, I think, holds special worth in the subconscious of humanity – a certain ideal city even back to the great philosophers of the early civilized world. Where did I just read that, in a commentary on the Gospel of John if I’m not mistaken? This is what I found in the dictionary:

1 A region of ancient Greece in the Peloponnesus. Its inhabitants, relatively isolated from the rest of the known civilized world, proverbially lived a simple, pastoral life.
2 A city of southern California, a residential suburb of Los Angeles at the foot of the San Gabriel Mountains. Population: 48,290

There really are treasures in history; it’s sad we’ve become so concerned about present matters. I guess we’re not much different than any age. There’s probably only a remnant every generation that keeps the treasures – the richest things in life. Thank God they do.

You’d do well to unearth those treasures. I hope to teach you about those things even if I only do so by my own peculiar behaviors. Maybe you’ll see some strange books sitting on my shelf, and you’ll wonder why I’ve got a book and not a magazine. Actually, you’ll probably just wonder why I don’t use the internet for everything. But maybe you’ll get past that and actually take one of my books down from the shelf and read it; maybe it will become something like a wardrobe leading to Narnia. Even that probably doesn’t make sense; but, again, I hope it does.

There’s a lot of history that isn’t beautiful. You should know that too. In fact, it just makes history all the more important. Even now, while you sleep tonight, there is a battle going on in the Middle East – a war as old as our oldest stories. It’s sad. Many things have changed: weapons, boundaries, languages, cities, religions. Still, the warring keeps going. But to me the wars are even more senseless when people dismiss their history. Wisdom says we should learn from our mistakes, but there are many who cannot even remember twenty-five years. Perhaps it is too much to ask of humanity. We are so very limited.

I have been wondering to myself this week if a great many of our sins are not the product of limits. That’s stating the obvious. I’m aware of that, but, still, it has a certain profundity in my life right now. Clearly there are evil forces at play in the world, and all you have to do is pick up the paper to know what terrible atrocities we are capable of committing. I shudder even now as I recall a story I read today: ghastly. Perhaps by this time you’re old enough to realize the world is so full of such shocking cruelty that I don’t even have to give details; you’re mind might be able to imagine the severity of it all. I hope not. I hope innocence persists in you somehow. Indeed, I am sorry I’ve even gone on this tangent.

I only meant to make a point. I was going to say how much our media and world is consumed with evil. Evil makes money, I suppose. But, what I was thinking about was the underside of evil – the stuff that lingers deep beneath the surface of news stories, stuff like brokenness and abuse and tragedy. These three things seem to me like the great mass of ice resting beneath a iceberg you may also someday see. Just like our curious gawking at icebergs, we do spend much time looking at evil. Perhaps we are drawn to its presence in sorrowful admission that all of us are marked with brokenness and abuse and tragedy.

Now I’ve depressed myself. But, at the same time, I’ve reminded myself why I began this letter to you. I wanted to tell you about Ladysmith Black Mambazo. I bought their cd tonight on iTunes – a compilation of their greatest hits. They are a South African a cappella group, and their sounds are rich with peace and deep with comfort. I first heard them sing on a Paul Simon cd – your father’s favorite musician. They seemed like a great nation of prophets and peacemakers (even though they are only a handful of men), and it didn’t take much for me to envision them singing round a fire on an African plain. This was when I wanted very much to travel to Africa, to experience a land I believed was heaven on earth. I never knew what tragedies are bound in its soil, what struggles it knows even today.

That’s the history of Africa, though. But, like I said, even the sad parts of history enrich our present somehow. Right now, remembering the sadness of that land just adds to my appreciation of hearing Ladysmith Black Mambazo. They are caressing my ears in this prolonged night without sleep. They are carving out some space to hear the world again in innocence. I am thankful to God for their songs. Their last song on this album is a prayer, and I also give thanks to God for that; I find it much easier to pray a song than force the words on my own.

That’s how I felt that night in Los Angeles when I saw the group live – like I was praying or at least part of a spiritual congregation. It was beautiful. It was a summer evening in August or something like that. It could be hot in the summer there, and it had been that day. But, when you get to the heart of that city – unlike other cities – the weather could actually become pleasant in the evening with cool breezes running from the Pacific over city streets all the way to the skyscrapers. We arrived early with our friends Todd and Danielle, ate some bread and drank some wine. It was a public square of sorts in the middle of some executive buildings. In the middle of these rising monuments of modernity there was a stage down by a fountain. Perhaps I should call it a modern amphitheater – hard to explain really. I wish I could tell you more so you could track it down somehow.

Anyhow, they came out after some minor performances. I was thrilled to see them, a sort of life-long dream for me. The best part was I didn’t have to work very hard to see it. Before I knew it, there they were: Ladysmith Black Mambazo – a group of eight or so African men, dressed brilliantly with white shoes. I cannot forget the absolute whiteness of their shoes. Their dancing was crisp like that too.

I don’t know if you’ve seen someone sing live yet, but if you have perhaps you’ll notice that they’re nervous or that they really have to strain to make their voices work. This group didn’t seem to suffer any of these normal limitations. They just seemed to sing out of their gladness, as if they were just singing us a story their family had memorized ages ago. It was like how I imagine the nomads sang in biblical times – especially when they sang in their native tongue since it was so tribal and sure. Their song was their culture. I’m speaking now of Ladysmith Black Mambazo again, but I guess I could say the same for the Hittites. What are our cultural songs? I hope these have not been completely lost upon you and your peers. I fear they may already have been for me.

I guess we’ll both just have to listen very closely to the songs of the whole earth. There may yet be a few songs worth remembering and singing. I hope we might be like the remnant that has carried forth the treasures of fine literature and great thought. It is so rich to live close to those rivers; it is so hard to discern where they have disappeared beneath the surface.

[This piece was heavily – and I mean heavily – influenced by the book Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. I highly commend the book to you, and I hope my own stream of consciousness has not insulted her gift. Perhaps I should place a brief excerpt from Gilead on this page?]

Thursday, August 03, 2006


Yes, I was ignorant of the subtleties -
not aware of how much lay in each day.

It was only a few days, you know.
A short span in an ageless sea of time.

But, that's not what it seems to me.
Now all reversed, seeing eternity in today.

That eternity is the time without you,
the endless minutes I have to pass through.

These songs we casually listened to as one
now cut through my heart like jagged memories.

Your clothes are all too readily available,
your presence all around me in this space.

We've been building a world around each other!
We just didn't know it is built so unknowingly.

It's made of small gestures, mannerisms and flaws.
It's your warmth in an otherwise cold bed.

It's your silent smile to greet me in the morning.
It's the thoughts, the laughs, the glances - the sum.

How I made it to church was a minor miracle.
So I forgot how valuable is your mere presence!

There was a couple in front of me at church.
They innocently slid their hands together.

A simple gesture of mutual affection.
It broke me, right there . . . instantly.

Where does my hand go without you?
Where does my life go without you?

These too are emptied into this sea of eternity.
Realizations are building an ocean out of their worth.

How naive I was not to see it before as I see now.
All of you, every moment with you, is joy and gift.