Under the Sea

We’re all up to our necks in it: deadlines, bills, school supplies, car repairs, health concerns, the neighbor’s noisy music, that stinky something in the refrigerator that’s gone bad and can’t be located.  And when we’re personally standing firm and holding fast, others around us are drowning.  Look to your right and left at the next stoplight.  See that guy?  The weary one?  See the angry mom?  The weepy kid?  That’s the human condition, right there.  A philosopher might say it better than I can:  “Everything is meaningless, utterly meaningless!  What do people get for all their hard work?  Generations come and generations go, but nothing really changes.”  All our lonesome days under the sun, we strive, we struggle, we gain and lose again.  What’s it all about?                                       

I wasn’t familiar with Jason deCaires Taylor until last week, as I searched the internet for images of slavery.  The first sculpture I found, a ring of people holding hands, popped up on a number of sites and was described as a memorial to the slaves lost during the brutal Middle Passage.  (I have learned now that Taylor actually didn’t set out to create a memorial, but welcomed this interpretation.)  That image, and all the varying photos of it, haunted me.  Who built such beauty?  Who thought to leave it hidden under ocean?  Won’t it be destroyed by salt and water?

What else is tucked away out of view under the green waves?

I’ve been snorkeling in the Florida Keys just once, and never scuba diving.  I’ve put my face down out of the bright air and under the blue surface and discovered an entirely new world.  It boggles the mind that such beauty exists in our midst, under our noses (or under the hulls of our paddle boats, more like) unseen and unvisited by all but a few.  And I have only broken the surface, never dived down to the depths.

Of course, there are shipwrecks, fascinating museums to loss and adventure.  And in several scattered places in the world there are underwater sculpture gardens, or lone statues, like “Christ of the Abyss” in the Mediterranean.  But Taylor really takes the cake.  This man (born in 1974, same year as me! has he learned the secret of freezing time? how else can he have accomplished so much??) married his love of diving with his love of sculpture, and the result is dozens of incredible works of art making habitats for coral, starfish, shark.

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If his sculptures could think, if they took stock of the world, what would they find?  Look to your right, look to your left — sorrow and weariness and trouble and decay.  How quickly we age!  How alone, unseen, forgotten, we are.  Where is our creator, who set us here and left?

“So now I hate life because everything done here under the sun [under the water?] is so irrational.  Everything is meaningless, like chasing the wind.  I am disgusted that I must leave the fruits of my hard work to others.  And who can tell whether my successors will be wise or foolish?”  (Ecc. 2:17-19)

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And so, despair.  Look down, brood.  Stick your head in the sand.  Return to dust.  Oh, it’s all vanity.

And let’s face it, if Taylor’s ranks of men and women were all alone under the sea, if never visited by angelfish or mermaid, then all his work would fade to oblivion for no greater good than the fact that they existed in the first place.  Like Solomon’s parks and gardens, they would disappear under the silt of time, unmourned.

But some of Taylor’s creations seem to sense another story.  Instead of gazing down into the muck, they are looking up.

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man in seaweed looking up

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The existence of an entire world above them must sound far-fetched to the underwater dweller.  Farms?  Airplanes?  Roller coasters?  Impossible, surely.  But then, what is that light that pierces the water day after day?  Who are these visitors who come and go?

Under the water, under the sun, everything is futility.  But if indeed there is another reality, another truth, an entire bright world where a person can breathe free, well, that puts another spin on it, don’t you think?

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(All photographs in this post are depictions of the work of Jason deCaires Taylor, and I didn’t take a single one.  For more of his unbelievable work, visit http://www.underwatersculpture.com.)

Remember That Smell

A couple of weeks ago, we watched an old movie with the kids.  First time in maybe twenty years I’d seen it.  Our oldest son had been talking about space, aliens, galaxies far, far away.  Could there be life out there, somewhere?  So we rented E.T., popped some corn, settled back.  As with all old movies, there were bits I remembered, sections I’d forgotten.  Maybe you remember this scene, the one where Elliot saves the frogs?  He and E.T. have gotten their wires crossed somehow, so that when the toady little alien downs a six pack, Elliot ends up drunk.  When Elliot stares down at his science-class dissection project, tender-hearted E.T. incites a revolution.  Soon Elliot has set a dozen frogs loose, and his classmates gleefully join in, throwing the lucky amphibians willy-nilly from the window.

Who didn’t smile to see the frogs go free?

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Then last week, chatting with our youngest son’s science teacher, she reminisced about dissecting frogs, how in her day they’d open them up live, so they could see the beating heart.  “We’d just stick a pin right into its brain and twist it.”  Apparently this rendered the frogs not only motionless, but unable to feel, and before they finished the poor creature off, they chloroformed it for good measure.  Of course, the animal rights people didn’t like it.

We don’t do that any more.

Our culture gets a bad rap for celebrating death, but there are a great many folks from all different political persuasions who celebrate life.  It’s a constant theme in our movies, from E.T. to Charlotte’s Web, or over in the adult aisle, Unbroken, Schindler’s List, Marley and Me.  We root for the vulnerable, the prisoner, the unloved, the oppressed.  We cheer for the underdog and the pet dog.  We revile cruelty, whether embodied by fur coats, Nazis, slavery, or lion hunters.  Anything that tramples and obliterates what is beautiful or helpless or endangered receives the full measure of our American wrath.  But it wasn’t always so.

There was a time in our culture when unwanted kittens were routinely tossed into the river in a burlap sack and drowned.  No one thought much about skinny dogs or abused horses, let alone stray cats.

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Can you imagine the outcry today if they did to puppies what they did to frogs?

A culture that is cruel to animals is usually unkind to people, too.  There was a long, long time in our history when Africans, shackled and stripped, filled the cargo hold of ships.  It was expected that the majority would not make it to the East Indies alive.  In 1829, the Reverend Robert Walsh described a slave ship he’d helped to intercept and set free:

“She had taken in, on the coast of Africa, 336 males and 226 females, making in all 562, and had been out seventeen days, during which she had thrown overboard 55. The slaves were all inclosed under grated hatchways between decks. The space was so low that they sat between each other’s legs and [were] stowed so close together that there was no possibility of their lying down or at all changing their position by night or day. As they belonged to and were shipped on account of different individuals, they were all branded like sheep with the owner’s marks of different forms. These were impressed under their breasts or on their arms, and, as the mate informed me with perfect indifference ‘burnt with the red-hot iron.’”  (“Aboard a Slave Ship, 1829,” EyeWitness to History, http://www.eyewitnesstohistory.com (2000).)

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underwater slave memorial

The beautiful monument in the photo above (created by Jason de Caires Taylor) is located in Grenada’s Moilinere Bay.  It pays tribute to the many, many African people who died en route from West Africa to America.

How did we ever view other human beings as disposable?

I think it happens slowly.  A little meanness, a little envy, a little hatred.  We are careless.  We don’t speak up when we should.  We let things slide.  It’s not so bad, really.

At the end of the day, we are left with the bloody fruit of genocide:  mass graves, twisted bodies, piles and piles of shoes.

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That racial hatred, which for so many centuries justified unthinkable violence and perverse sadism, is still alive and well, though it has gone through a metamorphosis of sorts.

We wouldn’t stand for wholesale murder, remorseless torture, or straight-up genocide these days unless it was really, really well-disguised.  If somehow, we believed it was a kindness, if we believed it to be mercy…  If some propaganda convinced us it was harmless, and necessary for our liberty, perhaps it could continue to exist.

It’s hard to even imagine that ordinary Germans could fall for Nazi mythology, could move from happy couples and pretty girls to annihilating an entire race.

How does it happen?

Hang on.  Abortion isn’t comparable to genocide.  It doesn’t target anyone in particular, but is an equal opportunity tragedy.  Right?

“Planned Parenthood is the largest abortion provider in America.  78% of their clinics are in minority communities.  Blacks make up 12% of the population, but 35% of the abortions in America.”  blackgenocide.org

eugenics, noun: the science of improving a human population by controlled breeding to increase the occurrence of desirable heritable characteristics.

Well, it’s unfortunate, right?  That so many African-Americans need to resort to abortion.  But it’s not really eugenics, it’s just a sad side effect of poverty.  Coincidence.  And although it’s kinda sad, at least it’s not cruel.

We’ve evolved past all of that.  Right?

Testimony from Holly O’Donnell, a StemExpress technician entrusted with procuring fetal remains, describes a post-abortion procedure that is eerily reminiscent of dissecting frogs.

“So she has one of her instruments, and she just taps the heart, and it starts beating.  And I’m sitting here, and I’m looking at this fetus, and its heart is beating, and I don’t know what to think.”  O’Donnell is instructed to harvest the brain.  Her coworker “gave me the scissors and told me that I had to cut down the middle of the face.”

Is it human?  Is it alive?  Is it an “it”?

At least the frogs were given chloroform.  And I’m thinking, as I see this video, as I hear the horrific description, that we’d never allow this to happen to frogs in a public school science class, not anymore.  We’d never let it happen to a stray dog.  So why do we let it happen to a human being?

compassion, noun: PITY, sympathy, empathy, fellow feeling, care…

Having compassion means to suffer with.  When I am roused to compassion, I feel a pang in my heart accordant with the pain of the person on whom I have compassion.  We Americans, the “milk of human kindness” in our veins, we feel compassion on creatures in distress.  We exert energy to bring justice to end oppression.  We fight for equality.  We cry out for victims, people and animals alike.

Scientifically we have no room to differentiate between unborn and born members of a species.  A tiny being is no less a being than a big one.  A human with fingers, toes, face, gender, beating heart, is it not deserving of our protection?


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Oh, my pro-choice friends, I know it’s repugnant to you to see this rash of unscripted videos.  You have believed for so long that abortion is a necessary evil to preserve the freedom of the unfortunate.  But you have been led astray.

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Abortion is evil, on so many levels.  It has specifically been designed and used to rid the population of the poor, of particular racial groups.  It unleashes cruelty and unthinkable horror on the helpless, regardless of race.  It’s presented as a gift to women, who are often manipulated at the moment of their greatest fear and despair.

These videos remind me of a scene from Amazing Grace, the film.  William Wilberforce, the abolitionist, could not evoke the pity of his fellow Englishmen enough to overturn slavery.  At last he resorted to some bait and switch.  To “thank” his well-heeled friends, he offered an afternoon cruise around the harbor, tea served, violins playing.  When they pulled alongside a recently returned slave ship, the stench of death from its cargo hold was overpowering.  Wilberforce stopped the boat.  Out came the handkerchiefs to cover delicate noses.  No! cried he.  “Remember this smell!”  These were the liberal elite of his day, above such disgusting matters.  It took a visceral blow to break through their defenses.

We’ve had a visceral blow this month, images we didn’t want to see, stories we didn’t want to hear.  If ever you’ve spoken out for the rights of frogs and dogs, if ever you’ve rallied for peace, if ever you’ve wept for the casualties of war, now is the time for a tender-hearted revolution.  Maybe a culture that champions the well-being of animals can harness that compassion for human beings.

Remember that smell.

Moving On

Three houses we’ve bought together, three mortgages, three front doors to hang a wreath, three ovens to bake birthday cakes (sixty four cakes in fifteen years, oh my), three streets to call home, lots of crazy neighbors.  (Crazy Darryl and The Crazy Carpet Lady take the cake.  Put those two in a room together and you’ve got a whole cuckoo’s nest.)

Each time we’ve moved so far was necessary for work; we’ve never moved just to upgrade the house.  But each time our criteria was slightly different:  we want to live in the inner city, we want a big backyard where the dog won’t get shot (again), we need to downsize to live in a more expensive city, we can upsize for a cheaper town.

Then, last year.  Last year we were hoping to move again, just across town, just to find a better spot.  Just – such an under-qualified word.  How it misses all the push and pull of conflicting priorities, the nail-biting, the big dreams and big fears.  We just want a little more room, we just want to be more hospitable, we just want to fall asleep without gunshots down the way.   This one decision is a microcosm of our whole worldview.  It prizes out our thoughts on debt and wealth and simplicity, beauty and freedom and neighborliness, incarnation, restoration, faith and risk, nature-loving introversion and urban hospitality.  It forces us to consider the perspectives of others and decide whether others’ perceptions have any bearing on our decision-making.  We have seen houses that cost more but seem less pretentious and bargain houses in opulent neighborhoods; houses closer to our field of ministry but too fancy pants, houses spare and simple but too far away.

Then there are questions more ethereal and hard to pin down (because all those other questions are easy.)  Like, what does God really care about?  Is He happy when our kids are safe and carefree?  Is He happy when His gifts make us smile?  Is He pleased when we make sacrifices to serve? Is He offering liberty and choice when we cling to duty and resignation?  Where can we make the most impact?  Where can we find the most joy?

Did God make me a country girl at heart and stick me in the city to refine and challenge me, or is staying square-pegged in my round hole missing out on what He made me for?  How can I bloom where I’m planted?

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Moving or staying isn’t clear cut.  Maybe it never is, whether the moving is literal, with boxes and bags, or relational, moving ahead with a commitment or moving on from a friendship.   Maybe the answer isn’t likely to be, “Yes, definitely, take a new job, remodel the kitchen, go back to school, buy a dog.”  Maybe the answer is more often found in the waiting.  “Be joyful now.  Give generously today.  Make the world a better place at this moment.”

Two of our closest friend-families are moving this month.  One literally sold all but their clothes and a few bins of odds and ends — had a yard sale and everything — and moved halfway around the world to follow Christ into spiritually desolate lands.  Their agonizing/liberating/invigorating/joyful decision process weighed happiness, sacrifice, safety, cost, and calling.  They concluded that the intersection of their gifts and the world’s great need required the big and bold step they took.  We waved them off at the airport with equal parts laughter and tears.

If I thought they were forsaking joy to leave, I’d have thrown myself at their feet and wrestled them out of the check-in line.  But I don’t believe they have abandoned joy, they’ve followed it deep to the source.

Our other friends, no less godly, are driving an RV across the country and moving to rural Wisconsin.  They, too, weighed their options:  happiness, sacrifice, safety, cost, calling.  They too, followed the urging of Spirit.  Funny enough, these guys are our urban friends.  I can as easily imagine them in Manhattan or San Fransisco, yet they are heading to humble farm country to serve in a homespun church.  It’s an amazing thing about the Christian life — there is no one-size-fits-all solution.  Evidently it takes all kinds of people to reach all kinds of people in all kinds of places.  And apparently God is endlessly creative in sanctifying us, burning off the dross, making us shine.

But how do we figure it all out?  Go here, stay there…  Martin Luther, you know, was asked what he would do if he knew Christ were returning tomorrow.  “Plant a tree,” said he.  Do the best you can every moment.  Maybe we overthink things sometimes.

We aren’t moving any time soon.  The market in Colorado has conspired against us.  But the house-hunting process, super-frustrating, was also fascinating.  It gave us a mirror to see our own hearts.

More and more I am persuaded:  every turning point, every event, every choice, and every landscape thrusts all of these questions at us if we have ears to hear.  It’s all an opportunity to evaluate our hearts, to draw a step nearer to God.  Who is this God, we can ask.  What has He made me for?

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God, giver of all good gifts — author of freedom — sacrificial lamb.  God who both delights in blessing and has no qualms about asking us to give everything, take up our cross, and follow.  How can we know this paradoxical God if not through the prism of all our thousand desires and our wildest, misguided, dreams?

Roots

There are places in the world where a family’s tree can be traced back 1,000 years.  A thousand years of gnarled roots in the same square patch of soil:  great-great-great grandparents on the same street where the children play today.  But in America, not so much.  Even the first nations here were a largely migratory people, following herds across the plains from month to month.  And the Europeans, late-comers all, left home and hearth behind to chase grand dreams over terrifying oceans.

Faith, in America, means action.  Cast off, set sail, take a leap.  There is a reckless launching associated with our faith; we trace it back to Paul, the original pioneer, or Peter, leaping overboard.

But there is another kind of faith, and it is still. 

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It is a listening faith, a waiting.  It is empty-handed, expectant, not sowing or reaping or storing in barns.  No grandstanding here, no whirling dervish.   This faith does not say, see what I can do.  This faith shivers in delight at the breath of God.

It is a deepening faith.  Drought drives it deep, storms make it strong.  It leans in, presses down.   It knows the secret of the stream.

Around the block from my childhood home there used to be a weeping willow by a stream.  The creek poured through pipes snaking unseen below the neighbors’ basements, emerging only in the forgotten patches of woods beyond our streets.  Here the trees were thick, the air steamy.  Six hundred and fifty three species of woody plants, to be exact, thrive in my home state of NC. And here was my wild willow, sprung up voluntarily by the water’s edge.  Underneath I found a perfect place to hide, perching among the roots that clung to the bank, listening to the wind play in the branches, the water burble over stones.  This tree painted for me a picture of faith.

“Blessed are those who trust in the Lord and have made the Lord their hope and confidence.  They are like trees planted along a riverbank, with roots that reach deep into the water.  Such trees are not bothered by the heat or worried by long months of drought.  Their leaves stay green, and they never stop producing fruit.”  (Jeremiah 17:7-8)

It’s not the roots that make a tree green and lush, it’s the living stream. 

In Colorado there are no steamy deciduous forests.  It is high desert country: tumbleweedy plains, rocky mountains.  We have conifers, lots of them, and aspen.  And growing in groves beside every dry creek bed, we have cottonwoods.  Biggest of Colorado trees, they thrive in our dry climate simply because they are rooted streamside.

One tree — one tree! — may suck in a ton of water every single summer day.  One tree may of this water blossom forth six million leaves.  One cubic inch of soil may contain 6,000 miles of root hairs for a single grass plant.  What kind of roots, then, can sustain a cottonwood?  A sequoia?

“Measuring as he went, he took me along the stream for 1,750 feet and then led me across. The water was up to my ankles.  He measured off another 1,750 feet and led me across again. This time the water was up to my knees. After another 1,750 feet, it was up to my waist.  Then he measured another 1,750 feet, and the river was too deep to walk across. It was deep enough to swim in, but too deep to walk through.

“He asked me, ‘Have you been watching, son of man?’ Then he led me back along the riverbank.  When I returned, I was surprised by the sight of many trees growing on both sides of the river.  Then he said to me, ‘This river flows east through the desert into the valley of the Dead Sea. The waters of this stream will make the salty waters of the Dead Sea fresh and pure.  There will be swarms of living things wherever the water of this river flows. Fish will abound in the Dead Sea, for its waters will become fresh. Life will flourish wherever this water flows.  Fishermen will stand along the shores of the Dead Sea. All the way from En-gedi to En-eglaim, the shores will be covered with nets drying in the sun. Fish of every kind will fill the Dead Sea, just as they fill the Mediterranean. But the marshes and swamps will not be purified; they will still be salty.  Fruit trees of all kinds will grow along both sides of the river. The leaves of these trees will never turn brown and fall, and there will always be fruit on their branches. There will be a new crop every month, for they are watered by the river flowing from the Temple. The fruit will be for food and the leaves for healing.'”  Ezekiel 47:3-12 (NLT)

Urban trees, horticulturists say, do not have deep root systems, but broad.  In city landscape on hard-packed dirt, trees claw on wherever they can find a roothold.  Slowly, one millimeter at a time, they change hard concrete into crumbs, burst through pipes, climb walls.  Cities may not be hospitable to trees, but life finds a way. 

  

I want deep roots.  I want green leaves in times of drought, unflappable branches in times of storm.  I want to hear nothing but the sound of wind in the branches, the sound of water over stone.  I want to find cracks in the hard-packed city soil, to break through cement and climb over walls. 

  

Here is joy, in the stillness by the stream.  Here is love, sustaining.

“May your roots go down deep into the soil of God’s marvelous love.  And may you have the power to understand, as all God’s people should, how wide, how long, how high, and how deep his love really is.  May you experience the love of Christ, though it is so great you will never fully understand it.  Then you will be filled with the fullness of life and power that comes from God.  Now glory be to God!  By his mighty power at work within us, he is able to accomplish infinitely more than we would ever dare to ask or hope.”  (Ephesians 3:18-20, NLT)