Daily thoughts on aesthetics and theology, and the entire world in between.

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Downsizing and dying

These days I've been in Los Angeles helping my parents downsize.

They are on in years now -- in their late 80s. The one can only walk very slowly; the other, well, she asks me the same questions over and over .

The move to a senior community comes with its own exertions; the weight of moving their things is quite different from the weight I carry inside me.

In midst of moving, I get a call telling me that a good friend's father just passed away in New York.

In midst of moving, I know I'm probably myself headed for a biopsy for another spot on the roof of my mouth. What can these spots mean? I've few people to talk to about this here in Los Angeles; and my parents don't know. Why worry them?

All of this in midst of:
"... do you still want this old bookcase? can we put this stuff on the curb? when is the donation truck coming ...?"

The piano I learned to play on is taken away to some Catholic church.

I've been thinking a lot about death and dying these days. How absolutely OTHER death is! And yet, and yet ...

This is what it's all about. If all of our confession merely stops short on this side of the divide, then there really is ... nothing. Better to just enjoy all these Lexuses and BMWs that seem to flourish here in Southern California. (But the drivers don't seem all that happy).

What is it going to be? Dirt ... or GLORY?

What is it going to be? Everything I've ever read in the Word: TRUE ... or ... nothing.

In midst of a thousand other displaced objects in the house, I see an old calendar with a trite saying for each month: February: Live Each Day to the Fullest. April: Help Me to See it's All Been for Good.

Help me to see it's all been for good.

I wonder: why do we humans have an instinct for better-ness? An instinct that life can be lived to the
fullest, which can be missed. An instinct that assumes that, beyond this messy reality, there must be a better reality? It must be an instinct God put there. Animals don't have calendars that say: "Help Me to See it's All Been for Good."

But we have calendars that say that.

I pick up an old book about a trip the book's author made to Ephesus. The place is all a ruin now, he writes as he sits on a knoll overlooking the old city -- and he was there in 1897. There's a lot of old books laying around here.

But he then says that the words of Paul's letter written from Ephesus are still new every day. Oh may it be so! And I do take comfort that I'm all of a piece with Paul's vision; that, somehow and I don't know how, at some point in my existence I'll be able to see Ephesus as Paul saw it. And that would not be a place Northwest-KLM can fly me to.

I'll be flying some other way.

I think of old Ralph Gwinn. Ralph was so confident he was about to see God that, with joy in his voice and energy in his failing body, he led us in a Bible study from the bed he would die on a week later.

I find myself wishing for more examples like Ralph: role models of people who knew how to die well.

I hope you're reading this Ralph, or whatever it is that passes for reading where you are.


Philippians 1.20 ... it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not at all be ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death.

The part I miss the most is the power of the Wind

Not all my friends know this, but speaking from a church pulpit has been a fairly regular part of my life since the 1980s.

Changing churches several months ago has significantly reduced my opportunities to do this. In fact, presently, they are nil.

It's been an adjustment. There's the freedom of not having to prepare throughout the week; that's true. But after several months, the thrill of that freedom is getting a bit old.

It's a freedom I'm not sure I'd like to be enslaved to.

The bottom line: I easily get to feeling like I've been sidelined.

Sidelined at 26 or 36 is one thing. Sidelined at 56, well, it feels like the cleats have been hung up for good. The thoughts are too complicated to describe in words, at least on a blog post.

These days I sometimes critically evaluate my preaching in the past. How hard it is to do well! That's because, besides all of the prep, there's one thing you can't control. It's what I call the anointing of the Holy Spirit while delivering the message. Some times you have it. Other times you don't. And it is
never formulaic, because the Spirit is Wind.

All there is is humility and hard work. If ever given the chance again, I would want to learn that humility more than in the past.

But the part I miss the most is the power of the Wind.


John 3.8-10 "The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit." Nicodemus answered and said to Him, "How can these things be?" Jesus answered and said to him, "Are you the teacher of Israel, and do not know these things?

A whiff of snoot

I finally see what struck me about a recent event Valerie and I attended.

It was one of those financial seminars with the offer of a free dinner at a good restaurant. Free food at Luna is hard to turn down; so we went.

The minute I stepped into the foyer I realized this was for "high income" folks. (Duh ... when it comes to money I'm not the brightest).

So then, how did
we get selected? This was my question. Well, we don't know, they said, your names just cropped up on our list. Anyway, heeere we go ...

Over the aroma of the great food, I caught the whiff of something else ... what was it? What was it?

It was ... it was ... it was a whiff of Philadelphia.

But why? Why did that evening remind me of Philadelphia?

Well, it wasn't just any whiff of Philadelphia (and Philadelphia has its share of odors).

It was a whiff of the Philadelphia Main Line: MONEY.

It was a whiff of snoot, that's what it was.
Swimming pools, movie stars ... you know how that Jed Clampett song goes.

There in a room at the Luna in Spokane, it felt like I had been transported again to Philadelphia, rubbing shoulders with a particular kind of snootiness I knew so well...

My! How money can make people a certain way! What way?

Well, I was invisible to them. They walked right by me. I didn't exist. They sat right next to me and ne'er a smile, ne'er a hello, not even a look in my direction. I love Valerie because she just simply engaged the people to her right in conversation. I felt like they put up with it. I wasn't that way with the folks on my left; I just couldn't get it up to bother them in their self-sufficiency.

(So I'm totally willing to say it was
my arrogance ... I know how complicated these things can be. One can be arrogant in having less money as well).

The wine was not included in the free meal, by the way.

When the folks next to us left -- they left early -- their signed check was on the white tablecloth for all to see. For two, they spent near 50 bucks on wine that evening.


Jeremiah 9.23-24 Thus says the LORD: "Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom, Let not the mighty man glory in his might, Nor let the rich man glory in his riches; But let him who glories glory in this, That he understands and knows Me, That I am the LORD, exercising lovingkindness, judgment, and righteousness in the earth. For in these I delight," says the LORD.

Looking for the Word for the Day

This is a new concept for me: instead of reading the Word in the morning (only), look for it in conversations through the day. For example:

"Why not rather suffer wrong?"
This came up over dessert with friends.

Later I found it in the Book: it is 1 Corinthians 6.7, where Paul is chiding believers about taking one another to court.

In our case, it was over a relational dust-up in which, if the offended party stood by his guns, he would be correct on principle but probably damage the other person. But "why not rather suffer wrong?" was advice that later led to healing in the relationship.

It was the WORD FOR THE DAY. It did not come early in the morning in the privacy of my room, sitting on my recliner with a Bible in my lap. It came in the hubbub of conversation late one evening.

And the advice wasn't even given to me. But I witnessed the working of the power of the Word.

Or this: "Be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger ... for the anger of man does not work the righteousness of God..." It is James 1.19-20.

This came in a conversation with a former drug addict at the Mission. Meth, coke; he did it all. Now old and grisly, he sat there in his tattered green jacket, with half his teeth missing. But a well-thumbed Bible was in his hands.

As we sat talking the thought crossed my mind: who's ministering to whom?

That morning I tried reading the Word, but felt empty and dry. So I started surfing the net and checking my email. Later I went to the Mission wondering what good I can do. That's when a former drug addict hit me with the WORD FOR THE DAY.

Looking for the Word through the day enriches each conversation. It takes me out of my bookish ways, as if reading the Scripture by rote in the morning -- and then forgetting it -- has any sanctifying power.

One last example: "it is better to give than to receive."

I haven't even looked up the address for this passage as I write this.
But "it is better to give than to receive" has been on-again-off-again on the radar of my consciousness the last several days.

It gives me a quiet joy, and a willingness to infuse the fabric of daily events with a spirit of giving.

It makes the ho-hum a little more special.


Okay I just looked it up: Acts 20.35: In all things I have shown you that by working hard in this way we must help the weak and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he himself said, 'It is more blessed
to give than to receive.'"

James 1.19-20 Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.

1 Corinthians 6.7 To have lawsuits at all with one another is already a defeat for you. Why not rather suffer wrong? Why not rather be defrauded?

Wasteful grace

The East Door is where a homeless man first enters the Mission; it is the gateway to the Rescue portion of the Mission's work.

Of all the men who come through the East Door -- not to mention the women and children who also walk through for free meals -- only a very small percentage go on to benefit from the Mission's Recovery and Restoration programs.

The overwhelming majority of them -- I would say 90% -- are simply there to freeload. And it is a very good deal; they get better food and shelter than many "middle class" folks have in other parts of the world.

When I first volunteered at the Mission, I felt these guys were just using the place -- and often with ungrateful attitudes. Not a few of my conversations with the men in the Day Room (which is what the East Door opens into) have to do with their gripes: how restrictive the Mission is; how holier-than-thou the staff is (they are not); how daily life at the Mission is boring; yada yada yada.

Then they are the first in line for three hot meals a day.

Besides a free bed, there's free showers daily; free laundry, free medical consultation; free legal advice; volunteers come to sew their clothes. Hosts of volunteers attend to these guys' every need.

Last year, the Mission served over 230,000 meals. Food was always on the table.

Who says that the miracle of feeding 5,000 people with no guaranteed supplies no longer happens? It happens every day, three times a day.

Nowadays I am simply struck by the on-going miracle that is the Union Gospel Mission.

I've learned that grace, in order for it to be grace, must be wasteful.

Love is wasteful. It is not measured. It gives and asks nothing in return.

Perhaps we see so few miracles these days because we keep too many accounts.


Mark 14.3-4 And being in Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as he sat at meat, there came a woman having an alabaster box of ointment of spikenard very precious; and she brake the box, and poured it on his head. And there were some that had indignation within themselves, and said, Why was this waste of the ointment made?

Luke 17.12-17 And as he entered into a certain village, there met him ten men that were lepers, which stood afar off: And they lifted up their voices, and said, Jesus, Master, have mercy on us. And when he saw them, he said unto them, Go shew yourselves unto the priests. And it came to pass, that, as they went, they were cleansed. And one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, and with a loud voice glorified God, And fell down on his face at his feet, giving him thanks: and he was a Samaritan. And Jesus answering said, Were there not ten cleansed? but where are the nine?

Matthew 18.12 "What do you think? If a man has a hundred sheep, and one of them goes astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine and go to the mountains to seek the one that is straying?

Way, Truth, Life

These are three characters written with one continuous stroke:

Way (dao-4), Truth (li-3), Life (ming-4).


John 16.4 Jesus said to him, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.

Oil pastels on paper.

Why Chinese conceptions are more artful

Here I've stylized two Chinese characters, and compared them with a well-known sign from American culture.

On the left is the character for "love," normally written:
愛. In the middle is the character for "virtue," normally written: 德. The I-love-New York, of course, is on the right.

What all three have in common is the red heart.

In both
-love and -virtue, notice how the character for heart is embedded in each word. So my stylized rendition substitutes the conventional way of writing "heart" with a Valentine's heart.

Love, already and concretely, includes heart. Virtue, already and concretely, includes heart. The aesthetics of each character emits a penumbra of meaning, as it were, that entails connotations of heart. Each character is a pool of meaning.

English works in a different way: abstract units, whether letters or words made up of abstract letters, convey meaning. Here, the N and the Y are additionally abstract because they are only the first letters of abstract words that are actually not there.

In this case, the Valentine's heart is something from an order of things totally separate from the order of words.

The aesthetic value of I-(heart)-N-Y is that something from another order of things -- the artwork of the heart -- has replaced the abstract arrangement of lines that mean LOVE.

Put another way, if all we had was I-L-N-Y, the sequence would be incomprehensible. It would not only have minimal aesthetic value; it would have little value of any kind. What is aesthetically striking about the I-heart-N-Y is precisely because the English tendency to abstraction has been breached with a symbol that more directly means "heart."

But in the Chinese cases,
心 is already and concretely in each character.

So in the Chinese cases, the use of the Valentine's heart for "love" is a symbol-to-symbol transformation. In I-heart-N-Y, the use of the Valentine's heart for "love" is an abstraction-to-symbol transformation.

In the Chinese cases, the art-value is intrinsic.

In the English case, the art-value had to be added.


Note: contemporary Chinese script used in mainland China deletes the heart from the word for love (). When some folks of my parents' generation bemoan the use of the "simplified" script, they are feeling the loss of the richness of meaning of some of these more utilitarian characters.

Frozen frames

The most meaningful memories I have of people are frozen frames:

A moment, a look, an action; single instances in which the complexity of a person is summed up in a frozen frame.

Like that one instant, when he was about 10, when we were playing touch football in our side yard in Blue Bell. There was a dispute about a rule -- I think it might have been how many 1-1000, 2-1000s to count before rushing the passer; it doesn't matter because the dispute is not part of the frozen frame.

Ten year old Jeremy stood me down. I can still see the determination in his eyes. At that moment I realized I might have a handful of a son here ... a fact that never occurred to me before.

He is almost 30 now, but that frozen frame endures.

Here is an incident in Ayn Rand's
The Fountainhead, a father thinking about his now-grown daughter:

But one picture came back to his mind ... It was a picture of her childhood, of a day from some forgotten summer on his country estate in Connecticut long ago. He had forgotten the rest of that day and what had led to the one moment he remembered. But he remembered how he stood on the terrace and saw her leaping over a high green hedge at the end of the lawn. The hedge seemed too high for her little body; he had time to think that she could not make it, in the very moment when he saw her flying triumphantly over the green barrier. He could not remember the beginning nor the end of that leap; but he still saw, clearly and sharply, as on a square of movie film cut out and held motionless forever, the one instant when her body hung in space, her long legs flung wide, her thin arms thrown up, hands braced against the air, her white dress and blond hair spread in two broad, flat mats on the wind, a single moment, the flash of a small body in the greatest burst of ecstatic freedom he had ever witnessed in his life ...


Citation from Ayn Rand, The Fountainhead, Book I, Chapter XII

Jack of all trades, master of none

This is how I'm feeling these days.

Oil pastel on board.


1 Corinthians 1.26
Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth.

Smooth ... like Keith Stone

One intersection away from the Union Gospel Mission is a large billboard advertising beer. It sports a picture of Keith Stone with a box of Keystone beer.

Keystone ... Keith Stone. Got that?

And both are so smoooooooth.

You can see variations of this smoooooth ad campaign here and here.

At the Mission, I meet many men who have a different tale to tell about beer. Once they start on a can, they can't stop until 6, 8, 12, 16 cans later. As a consequence their lives have been anything but smooooooth.

Rocky, bumpy, broken; these are better words to describe what they've been through.

I can't count the number of men who've lost everything because of beer: wives, homes, kids, businesses, self-esteem.

What most troubles me about the ad is the "look" of Keith Stone. His attire is everyman blue collar -- like most of the guys at the Mission. His eyes are focused on something far off, projecting a rugged but dreamy look, full of confidence that the future -- well, if not the future, at least the weekend -- will be going his way no-doubt-about-it.

So long as he lugs along that oversized box of Keystone beer.

This post is not about abstaining from alcohol; I enjoy my pizzas with beer and my meals with wine.
Okay: I love margaritas.

But there is such a gap between the ideal worlds advertising paints for us ... and the nitty-gritty reality of this world, this life.
To keep the nitty-gritty smooth, often the smooth spin of advertising must be denied.

That's all I'm trying to say. Nothing profound.

When I see that ad, I make a right turn to hang out with the guys at the Mission; nothing profound.