Tasting Life Twice

Archive for the category “Sunday Leftovers”

X Marks the Spot

“Something hidden. Go and find it. Go and look behind the Ranges–
“Something lost behind the Ranges. Lost and waiting for you. Go!”
   ~ Rudyard Kipling

My uncle is a man of many interests and talents.  One of his interests is collecting memorabilia and one of his talents is finding profit in doing so.  A few months ago, he bought a collector’s set of GI Joe figurines for $700.  These soldiers were still in their original boxes and hadn’t seen much combat duty in the battlefield of little children’s hands.  A few days after purchasing the set, the seller contacted him and asked if he’d be willing to sell two of the fifteen he had just purchased.  She said she knew someone else who was interested, and needed just two pieces in order to complete a set.  As you would expect, my uncle was hesitant to turn around and sell what he had just purchased, saying, “I hate to break up the set but give me the person’s contact information and I’ll consider it.”  He contacted the prospective buyer and the man said he was willing to buy two GI Joe collectibles for $4,200 in order to complete his own set.  My uncle thought that made good business sense and, wisely, he agreed to it.  While awaiting the cashier’s check, he admitted he was a little skeptical about the offer.  But the check arrived.  The following day, a FedEx envelope came to the house with an unlikely return address:  One Steinbrenner Drive, Tampa, Florida.  It turns out, the prospective buyer was Hal Steinbrenner, one of the co-owners of the New York Yankees.  After the transaction was completed, my uncle received a picture from Steinbrenner with the G.I. Joe figurines proudly displayed in his training camp office.

That’s a great story.  My uncle has better business acumen and decency as I probably would have held out for more.  I would have required field level World Series tickets or tried to get Steinbrenner in a bidding war with the owner of the Boston Red Sox.“Yes sir, I will consider selling them to you but I must tell you, I have another prospective buyer interested in the two toy soldiers.  Some guy named John Henry from Beantown.  He really wants them and he’s offered a lot.  How much are you willing to pay?”

I don’t think we ever outgrow our fascination with stories of hidden treasure and fortuitous discovery.  We love the accounts of adventurous hunts and unexpected finds.  I reflected on that this week while preparing for a sermon I gave yesterday morning.

A few days ago while at the tire shop, I watched a PBS special on the “lost cities of the Amazon”.  It was a television version of the story told in a spellbinding book, The Lost City of Z, about Colonel Percy Fawcett who disappeared deep in the interior of the Amazon while searching for a lost civilization that he was certain existed.  Then, the Sunday paper told of the growing popularity of geocaching, a modern scavenger hunt where people use GPS devices to find objects hidden somewhere nearby.  Later in the day, I read how the Antiques Roadshow just had their highest appraised find ever, a collection of Chinese cups in Tulsa, Oklahoma that are valued at over $1 million.  Still later in the day, I watched Cave of Forgotten Dreams which tells of the Chauvet Cave in southern France and the oldest collection of paintings known to exist.  Back in 1994, three guys were looking for cavernous openings when they felt a draft, removed some rocks and repelled deep into the hollow of an unknown cave.  What they discovered upon entering the cave was a Paleolithic art gallery displaying many different primitive animals.  And then there’s Teri Horton.  Who can forget that story?  A seventy-three year old truck driver from Missouri, Teri goes into a thrift store and buys a painting for $5 as a gift to her discouraged friend.  Turns out, that $5 painting might be a Jackson Pollack piece and worth $50 million.  In the 2006 documentary film, Who the #$&% is Jackson Pollock, Horton is offered $9 million from a Saudi Arabian art collector but she holds out, wanting the art establishment to validate that the painting she has, is, in fact, a Jackson Pollock piece (it’s the principle of the thing, you see).  And this morning, while on my way to the office, I noticed how many people slowly drive through neighborhoods looking in other people’s trash to find some valuable throwaways. 

Taken together, these are stories of treasure.  Stories of hidden treasure.  Stories of treasures hidden in plain sight.  Jesus used to tell stories describing the presence of God this way – the kingdom of God is not something a long time ago in a land far, far away, but right now, right here; at this time, in this place.  The kingdom is “in your midst”, the kingdom is “at hand”, the kingdom is “within”.  The gifts of God are somewhere on your property, in the grass underneath your feet and in the spice rack of your kitchen cabinet, in the particularities of your own personal history (the good, the bad, the ugly), in all that makes you, “you”.  Like clues in the game of letter-boxing, like an easter egg hunt in tall grass, like a child’s game of hide-and-seek, “grace is everywhere”, (George Bernanos, Diary of a Country Priest). 

Barbara Brown Taylor makes note of this when she writes in An Altar in the World:

“People seem willing to look all over the place for this treasure. They will spend hours launching prayers into the heavens. They will travel halfway around the world to visit a monastery in India or to take part in a mission trip to Belize. The last place most people look is right under their feet, in the everyday activities, accidents, and encounters of their lives. What possible spiritual significance could a trip to the grocery store have? How something as common as a toothache be a door to a greater life?

….the accumulated insight of those wise about the spiritual life suggests the reason so many of us cannot see the red X that marks the spot is because we are standing on it. The treasure we seek requires no lengthy expedition, no expensive equipment, no superior aptitude or special company. All we lack is the willingness to imagine that we already have everything we need. The only thing missing is our consent to be where we are.”


Making Saints from an Old Bucket

image Yesterday at church I made reference to Wendell Berry’s essay, “The Work of Local Culture”.  He uses an evocative metaphor of an old bucket hanging on a fencepost and the miracle of making earth that takes place inside there over many years.  He connects what goes on inside that bucket with what goes on in the work of an individual life and community.  His image helps one appreciate the value of storytelling, the slow growth that is involved in becoming “a human being fully alive” and the role that our losses (“death, gravity and decay”) play in bringing about life. 

For many years, my walks have taken me down an old fencerow in a wooded hollow on what was once my grandfather’s farm.  A battered galvanized bucket is hanging on a fence post near the head of the hollow, and I never go by it without stopping to look inside.  For what is going on in” that bucket is the most momentous thing I know, the greatest miracle that I have ever heard of: it is making earth.  The old bucket has hung there through many autumns, and the leaves have fallen around it and some have fallen into it, or been carried into it by squirrels; mice and squirrels have eaten the meat of the nuts and left the shells; they and other animals have left their droppings; insects have flown into the bucket and died and decayed; birds have scratched in it and left their droppings or perhaps a feather or two.  This slow work of growth and death, gravity and decay, which is the chief work of the world, has by now produced in the bottom of the bucket several inches of black humus.  I look into that bucket with fascination because I am a farmer of sorts and an artist of sorts, and I recognize there an artistry and a farming far superior to mine, or to that of any human.  I have seen the same process at work immemorially over most of the land surface of the world.  All creatures die into it, and they live by it….

However small a landmark the old bucket is, it is not trivial.  It is one of the signs by which I know my country and myself.  And to me it is irresistibly suggestive in the way it collects leaves and other woodland sheddings as they fall through time.  It collect stories, too, as they fall through time.  It is irresistibly metaphorical.  It is doing in a passive way what a human community must do actively and thoughtfully.  A human community, too, must collect leaves and stories, and turn them into account.  It must build soil, and build that memory of itself – in lore and story and song – that will be its culture.  These two kinds of accumulation, of local soil and local culture, are intimately related.

Playing the Part of Those Who Forgive

Recently, I came across this beautiful story in a book by Thomas Long.  The author writes:

A minister friend of mine in Atlanta at a downtown church planned one evening to go out to eat with his wife to celebrate their anniversary. His wife met him at the church, and the two of them headed out to the parking lot to take the car to the restaurant. But when they got outside they encountered a crisis. An elderly woman, a desperate look on her face, was kneeling on the sidewalk beside a man, her husband as it turns out, who was lying on his back in pain clutching his chest. My friend’s wife ran quickly back into the church to call an ambulance, and my friend leaned over to comfort the man. “We have called for some help and they will be here soon…”, he began, but the man interrupted him.

“Charlie, forgive me,” the man said.

“I’m not Charlie,” my friend said. “My name is Sam.” What Sam did not know until later is that Charlie was the man’s son, and years before, the man had, in rage over something, disowned Charlie, and the two had not spoken in years.

The man looked up at Sam and reached out and touched his hand, “Charlie, please forgive me.”

“Just relax,” Sam said. “Somebody will be here soon to get you to the hospital.”

But the man suddenly clutched in terrible pain, and it was now clear that he would not make it to the hospital. With his last gasping energy he pulled on Sam’s arm and begged. “Charlie, please forgive me.”

Sam followed his faithful instinct, reached out and put his hand on the man’s forehead as a blessing and said, “I do forgive you. I do forgive you.” Those were the last words the mans ever heard in this life.

Home is Where the Hearth Is

A week ago, I read an interesting article about how technology changes culture. In his essay, “Rekindling Old Fires”, Andy Crouch summarizes the insights of Albert Borgmann on what happened when the furnace room replaced the central fireplace:

image The fireplace used to be the hearth – the center of a home both literally and figuratively. The Latin word for hearth is focus and the activities of premodern homes in both Europe and America were indeed focused on the place that provided warmth, light, and sustenance all at once. The hearth demanded skills of many sorts, and almost every member of the household contributed to it in one way or another – chopping and stacking wood, carrying the wood to the fire, building and tending the fire, covering it at night so there would still be a fire in the morning. It also posed dangers, to children, with its heat and sparks. The heart was a powerful presence – so much so that the Romans had a goddess devoted to it.

Later in the day, the article was illustrated for me. Caleb and I made a quick trip to Hannibal to attend my niece’s baptism. Later, we went over to my brother’s house. On an unseasonably cold night, a bunch of us sat around a backyard fire pit and listened to a football game on the radio amidst the sound of crackling firewood. We sat as close to the fire as we possibly could, hoping to blunt the harshness of the cold. Conversation was enjoyed as we looked at each other through the flickering flames and the sacrifice of smoke. But mainly, we all watched the fire.

My brother came out of the house with a fresh pot of coffee and saw each of us centering our gaze on the fire. He said, “I heard on the radio this week there are three things people will stop to stare at: a fire, a creek, and a car wreck.”

We are reminded in Psalm 84: “the Lord God is a sun and shield; the Lord gives grace and glory. No good thing does he withhold from those who walk uprightly.”

In other words, God is our light and warmth and home is where the hearth is.

Shabby, God-haunted Saints

image Over the past year, our church has been studying the life of King David.  David has always been a fascinating and complex figure.  The stories which have been preserved describe him as both a warrior and poet; a Don Corleone godfather and a pious, sweet singer of psalms.  At times, he is thoughtful and warm-hearted; other times impulsive and cold.  Depending on who is telling the story David can come off as either a man of action who is a shrewd, political strategist or as a monkish man of solitude who is given to finding his soul beside still waters.  To add to the intrigue, David – who violated most all of the ten commandments – is held up as the “man after God’s heart” and the standard by which later kings are judged. 

While preaching through the David narrative (1 and 2 Samuel), I happened to  read a biography on Martin Luther King.  Often times people will diminish the greatness of King’s achievement because of his sexual infidelities.  The suggestion is that because King failed in the one area, his entire moral compass can be questioned.  imageThe author of the biography makes a compelling point that can go a long way to humanizing our hagiographies and helping us to understand both who David is and who we are. 

But such baser aspects in the Promethean moral protagonists in history – Gandhi himself, by the later testimony of associates, could be exquisitely vindictive, curtly cold to family and others close to him personally, with ‘an insatiable love of power and implacability in its pursuit’ – hardly diminish the splendor of such figures. Rather, they lend them a far grander human meaning than their eventual, depthless pop exaltations……we have not yet learned to accommodate in our understanding of such figures what the ancient seers, Sophocles and the King David chronicler and Shakespeare and Cervantes, knew – that while evil can wear the most civil and sensible and respectably rectitudinous demeanor, good can seem blunderous and uncertain, shockingly wayward, woefully flawed, like one of Graham Greene’s dissolute, shabby, God-haunted saints. And what the full-bodied reality of King should finally tell us, beyond all the awe and celebration of him, is how mysteriously mixed, in what torturously complicated forms, our moral heroes – our prophets actually come to us. (A Life of Martin Luther King, Marshall Frady).

Perhaps who ever did this, get’s the idea.



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