Sunday, July 29, 2012

Where Are We?

Several months ago, on a flight from Dallas, I overheard a short conversation between a young mother and her son. They were just settling into their seats, getting carry-on bags positioned and seatbelts secured. After looking around a bit, the young boy asked, “Mom, are we in church?” His mother smiled and said, “no son, we’re in Texas”.

I laughed quietly and wrote down the conversation in my notebook. Yet, for all the pleasure this little incident gave me, I couldn’t put my finger on the reason why I laughed. I’m still not completely sure, but I have an idea.

One possibility is that I find geographical blunders funny. I also find them a little bit dismaying. I have a handful of friends that believe I just returned from a trip to South America or Africa – when in fact, I visited the country of Honduras (in Central America!). These people have no clue where Honduras is and they never bother to find out.

Of course, I don’t expect a child to be so geographically informed. And I was pleased that his mother wanted him to know where he was. But I don’t think geography is the point here. I think the issue is a bit more fundamental than that. In our frequent concerns about place, many of us really do have trouble knowing where we are. This is, of course, a navigational issue. It is also a spiritual one. We certainly want to know how to get home. But we also need to know where home really is.

What I’m trying to say is that we somehow know of a domestic standard that is higher than our immediate experience. Maybe we know of this standard because we have visited beautiful homes and carefully landscaped villas. Or maybe we have seen these places in movies and books. Maybe we have memories of an ideal childhood retreat or vacation spot. Maybe we just know and can’t explain how we know.

Plato (as part of his idea of forms) called a true standard eidos. Such standards have become part of our Western heritage as the objects that cast shadows on a cave wall. We experience only the imperfect shadow, but the shadow itself hints of a true reality outside the cave that we cannot see. Somehow we all have an idea of what an ideal home really is.

There is a popular dialogue going around the Central Valley (of California) these days. It goes something like this: “Is this Heaven?” asks a visitor. “No”, is the reply. “It’s Fresno”. This, of course, is not meant to be a serious Platonic commentary. It is meant to be an endearing joke. At least it makes those of us who live in Fresno smile.

And maybe we laugh, and yet we wonder. Where are we really? If our Judeo-Christian heritage informs us of a better place beyond this vale of tears, should we even try to find our home here below?

Of course we should. And we should appreciate the beautiful places all around us. We should recognize them for what they are: imperfect semblances. To do so is an act of spiritual realization and healing. We live amidst the Created Order. To a greater or lesser degree (depending on where we live and how much we have destroyed it) the handiwork of Heaven is right here.

Of course some days are bleak, even if you live in a place like Neuschwanstein Castle. It rains, it snows, the roof develops a leak. The inventory of perfect days, even in Disneyland, can easily fit on a small sticky note. This is mortality after all.

Our goal of finding Shangri-La (or even a perfect weekend retreat) will ever be denied as long as we hope for perfect weather, perfect health, and perfect cooperation in a fallen world. But, if we allow them to, Jesus and Plato can keep us from despairing. Not all cavernous shadows are malignant.

A rose is still beautiful even if it’s raining. Our loved ones are still children of God even if they’re currently feeling a bit down – or even if we are. A faded butterfly pinned to the bottom of an old unit tray is cause for rejoicing. Somewhere - thanks to the Creator – there is a similar one flitting among wildflowers having a perfect day. It is a reminder, like so many other beautiful things all around us, that we are heirs of perfection. You can find hints of Heaven in Fresno. It just takes practice seeing through the fog.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

How to Wade a River

Some time ago, in a remote area of Central America, I went trekking with a friend of mine. We followed a trail that rural people and horses occasionally use to move cattle up and down the local mountain. It was a decent trail but the canyon was often narrow and a river ran over it in several places.

At first we experienced the river as an inconvenience. We felt obliged to sit down after each crossing in order to empty water out of our boots – and wring it out of our sopping socks. But eventually we just kept plodding along in wet footwear. There were just too many crossings.

At some points the crossings were simple. The water was only a foot deep. In other places it was a bit more difficult as water inched up to our waste and threatened to knock us over. The current made all of the crossings partially dangerous – at least to someone who doesn’t know the correct method of wading rivers.

This, however, was something I still had to learn. The first problem is the optical illusion of moving water over stones. You might think you can see clearly where to step, but this is not true. The uneven water surface makes it impossible to see the relative sizes of stones with the level of certainty needed to step with confidence. And this same optical illusion also makes it difficult to measure water depth. I can’t remember how many times I thought I was stepping into a deeper part of the river only to hit bottom much sooner than expected – kind of like stepping onto the basement floor when you think you have another step to go. It makes you move awkwardly - fumbling to catch your balance.

I’m not suggesting that you should step blindly. You can tell the difference between boulders and smaller stones. You can also judge fairly accurately where the major currents are going (the water moves that way).

I found that the safest way to manage the watery illusions was to step slowly onto the river bottom. This also helped me avoid the dangers of slippery rocks. Some of the biggest dangers in the river are stones covered with algae. Sometimes it is long enough to see easily. You can predict that the stones underneath these areas will be slippery.

It’s the stones with new algal growth that present the danger. They often look like any other stone until you step on them and quickly slide off. If you step slowly, you’re less likely to make a mistake. The key is to have your other foot safely and firmly planted before you commit your weight to an unknown stone.

And then there is the challenge of currents. It’s easy enough to see them when the surface currents are extensions of the water movement below. Sometimes this isn’t the case and unexpected currents can take you by surprise. The solution, again, is to move slowly and test the ground before you commit your weight.

Another helpful tip is to use a walking stick. It can help in a number of ways. You can judge depth with it. You can determine how loose some of the stones are. You can also put some of your weight on it if you start to lose your balance. If it hadn’t been for my walking stick, I would have fallen on many of the crossings.
All told, I learned four keys to successfully wade a river: step with reasoned intent, let the river guide where you finally put your weight, make sure you are firmly planted on one foot before you commit to another, and use the help of a walking stick.

I assure you that this is good advice. I only wish I had learned these lessons a little bit earlier. I don’t mean for wading rivers. I mean for managing life. As I plodded up and down the river over a period of two days, I realized that my life is often passed in the same way I hike. I move easily, as if I know where I am going. Each step assumes that the ground will be secure.

It has taken me years to learn that this is not always the case. When wading rivers (or in other insecure situations) it is wise to walk differently. Be smart about decisions. Use the best judgment you have. When finally making a step, be ready for surprises. Your foot might not land where, or how, you think it will. And then be sure of where you start from. You can catch yourself if you are firmly holding on to something secure.

Then, finally, get some help in making your decisions. Maybe a friend or someone you trust has experience that will help. Maybe the great (and sacred) literature of the world has some advice. Certainly a conversation with our Heavenly Father would be in order.

Maybe I’m just getting older and a bit more cautious than I used to be. Or maybe it’s the accumulating experiences of falling and getting bruised. Either way, I stand by my recommendations. And I mean what I say: I stand because of them.