Wednesday, December 29, 2010

A Wrinkle in Time

I received as a Christmas gift the Loeb Classical Library translation of Marcus Aurelius Antoninus. Marcus was a Roman emperor from the second century whose meditations (written in Greek) have survived. As I cracked the spine of this little gem, I anticipated having to strain my grey cells in order to find the parallels and analogies between the writings of a second-century philosopher-general and twenty-first-century America. Then in Book I, part 12 I read this, in the midst of Marcus' list of virtues learned from various persons in his life:

"[I learned] from Alexander the Platonist, not to say to anyone often or without necessity, nor write in a letter, I am too busy, nor in this fashion constantly plead urgent affairs as an excuse for evading the obligations entailed upon us by our relations towards those around us."

This from an emperor of the second century, read now in a time when the most popular response to "How are you?" is "Busy!" and when Veggie-Tales' recasting of the parable of the good Samaritan makes busy-ness the excuse for not helping a stranger. I look no further for relevance, and rest assured that there is no significant gap between the humanity of Marcus Aurelius and that of our world today.


Monday, December 27, 2010

Sacred Writing

When we arrived in Pasadena and I stepped into the classrooms of Fuller Theological Seminary, I was reading from a copy of the Jerusalem Bible, a Roman Catholic translation, given to me by a friend some years before. I was told early in my Fuller studies that the faculty encouraged the uniform use of the New Revised Standard Version for coursework. Thus in the spring of 2003 I purchased my first NRSV (with Apocrypha). It went with me everywhere, almost every day, during my three years of study. By the end of seminary, it had been pulled out of and stuffed into my bag so many times that the plastic laminate had peeled off more than a quarter of the cover's surface.

But the tome carries more than scars of overuse. Unlike some whom I have met, who believe that only the printer's ink may shadow the pages of the bible, lest the punishments of Revelation 22:18 come upon them, I write often in my bibles. (I even cross out English words, though never Hebrew or Greek.)

And stuff which I consider worthy of memory finds its way onto the flyleaves of my bibles. Here is the front leaf of this artifact:
The top paragraph reads: "The Bible is not like a bookcase of oils, ointments, and pills, to be drawn on when crisis occurs and in uniform fashion. Rather, it is like a personal trainer and dietician--it shows us what techniques to mix and try, always affording accountability and discipline, in pursuit of a final goal which is higher than we are now."

Below that is a (inaccurate?) quote from the Dave Matthews Band song, A Christmas Song, "Father, with all this hatred, why do you fill me up with love, love, love . . .?"

Then the three locations of the Shema (Deu6.4-10; Num15.37-41; Deu11.13-21).

Then a yellow post-it note with phrases in Armenian, learned from Sara's boss in Pasadena: how to say "Good-bye" (manak parov), "How are you?" (inch bess ess), and "Well" (lavem).

I wrote in the table of contents where each of our canonical books is found in the Hebrew bible (Torah, Neviim, Ketuvim), and my own abbreviations for the books (because for some reason I thought three-letter abbreviations took too long to type?).

As I studied the scriptures in seminary, I marked up my NRSV, always looking for patterns, main ideas, and the nooks and crannies where the Spirit whispered.
Now, five years after graduating seminary, it's time to retire this old faithful. I have been using a new copy of the NRSV that Sara gave me four years ago (perhaps she took the hint from the curling laminate); and when I preach in Nineveh I use the New International Version because that's what's in the pews. Sara's NRSV is already more full of scribblings than this old one, and it would take me longer to figure out what these old notes mean than it would to find again their inspiration.

A Dieu, old friend. Your words have not been lost.

~ emrys

Just Awesome

What do you get when you mix up an unfinished fleece knot-pillow, one pair of 3-D movie glasses, a hip toddler and logistical help from Daddy?

Pure Awesome.

~ emrys (aka "Gaga"), with his Lady

p.s. The pillow has written on it, "For God so loved the world." Hip, yet spiritually relevant. Awesome.

The Next Installment of Adventure

Now, to share the stories and photos of days gone by, we no longer have to have friends over for tea in order to page through scrapbooks or get out the old slide projector.

Thanks to the wonders of laptop formatting and online publishing, we can print off as many of our travel journals and photos as we can pay for! So if you've been reading our blog and want to have a hard copy of all our witty and touching entries; or if you wonder what the hundreds of photos that we didn't upload to the website look like, you can order the third installment of Our Great Adventure: Europe 2006. It's available here.

Never fear, though, friends--we'll still have you over for tea!
~ emrys

Saturday, December 25, 2010


I recently had an indirect encounter with a church's insurance company. We (one congregation) were told that we could not, under any circumstances, borrow the van belonging to another congregation. We could rent it (an impossibility on our timeline), but not borrow it.

It occurred to me in this encounter that the insurance company was taking the simplest path to its appointed task: to cushion risk, financially, and to reduce risk in order to reduce financial responsibility. Of course, the easiest way to reduce the risk of another congregation wrecking your client's van (and then you having to pay for it) is to prohibit another from borrowing it in the first place.

Every party involved (myself, our congregation, our insurance company, the leadership of the other congregation) was willing to take the risk of lending the vehicle . . . except this insurance company. Too much risk.

And it occurred to me: what if we all ran our lives like insurance companies, minimizing risk?

I would never drive down the hill in front of our house, to reduce the risk of running into the creek.
We would never let our daughter go down the stairs by herself, to reduce the risk of falling headlong.
Most of us would never eat anything with exotic ingredients, to reduce the risk of anaphylaxis.
None of us would ever have children, to reduce the risk of suffering weeks or months on end of insufficient sleep and abundant misery.
None of us would ever get married, to reduce the risk of domestic conflict.
Humanity would quickly decide it is better not to be born, to reduce the risk of death.

And here we spend twelve days celebrating the decision of a god to be born, running the risk of all of the above, in order to deliver us from all of the above.

I praise Yahweh for being quite unlike our insurance companies.

Merry Christmas.


Thursday, December 16, 2010

Lights of the Season!

I love Christmas decorations, and especially Christmas lights. At a time of the year when it gets dark so early, the added colors and twinkles just make me grin! Last year, this was one of my favorite photos of Gwendolyn discovering Christmas lights:

Here are the 2010 Christmas Light shots - she's turning into quite the big girl!


Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Pi in the Sky

or, The Sword of Damocles.

In 2006 a friend of mine from high school went public with a unique form of art: hand-inked minuscule letters and numbers which, when viewed from afar, take on a larger form. His debut piece is Pi, the first 100,000 digits of the mathematical constant inked in a spiral. Each hand-drawn digit is about 1/8 of an inch high.

To celebrate his arrival on the art scene, Tyler Gregory sold prints of Pi, one of which we bought when we arrived in New York (for the perfect price of $314.15). The piece had appeal for both Sara and me: I enjoy cool art of all kinds; Sara was a math major in college. Late in 2006, Pi arrived on our doorstep, rolled up in a long box, and was promptly stashed in a closet. There it remained for four years. Until this week.

1,000 digits of pi take up a lot of room, no matter how small you print them. Pi is a single piece of paper 44 inches across. And there is only one accessible space in the house where the framed diameter of Pi will fit: over the bathroom door at the top of the stairs.

Having selected the dwelling place of Pi, I set to work on framing it. Two years ago a friend from the congregation at Nineveh made the wooden frame for Pi out of reclaimed barn boards. He did a wonderful job crafting them, but they have set in the corner of the living room for two years. Part of the motivation for framing Pi this week was the guilt of walking by that unassembled frame one too many times. How very sad for Tom's good gift to go unused!

Both rounds of window replacements gained me large plates of glass from picture windows. It just so happened (if you believe in coincidence) that the plate glass was the same size as Pi. Thus between the generosity of a friend and the divine providence of home renovations, a frame which, from a retailer, would likely have cost me in the hundreds of dollars cost me only a thank you and some elbow grease. Here's the assembly of glass and frame in the living room, done in stolen moments when toddler feet were not active:

After four years rolled up on the closet, Pi needed to spend some time getting the bends out. And my biblical commentaries got more use than most of them have seen in months:
A 44-inch square work of art in a wooden frame and a plate of heavy-duty glass together result in an assemblage which is, if nothing else, heavy. Since Pi was to be hung overhead and over a doorway, we procured the heaviest framing wire that the craft store peddled, and I ran double wires across the frame, connected both by eye screws and metal strapping. This baby isn't going anywhere:

After so much labor, Tyler Gregory's debut piece is ready to be hung:
It took two attempts at configuring the ladder and four hands lifting the 45-plus-pound artifact, but a last Pi found its proud place at the top of the stairs, from whence it will greet every visitor to our home:

Since our home is not an art gallery, it's not designed with optimal lighting for artwork. So perhaps the connoisseur had best view Pi from the upstairs living room:
There is a Greek legend about the king Dionysius and one of his courtiers, Damocles. Damocles thought it would be great to be king, so Dionysius gave him the position. But in order to give Damocles the feel of the pressures of royal life, he hung a sword, point down, by a single horse hair over the seat in which Damocles sat.

I couldn't help but think of that parable as we hoisted Pi up over the bathroom door. Yet I'm confident the weight of entering our bathroom will be nothing like the burden of Damocles, since we used steel instead of horse hair to hang it.

~ emrys

Saturday, December 11, 2010


We just finished watching the last episode of the TV series Lost, which completed its sixth and final season last spring. When we began watching the series on Netflix I was also reading Franz Kafka's The Castle, an early-20th century existentialist novel. Kafka's story revolves around the central character, K. (whose name remains only an initial throughout the novel), who is trying to get to the Castle on the hill in the center of the town. Four-hundred-plus pages are spent on various and sundry permutations of K. trying to navigate the political, social, and legal systems of the village and at every turn experiencing frustration. The novel ends with K. lost in the confusing, self-contradictory tangles of relationships within the town, never even approaching within sight of the Castle nor vindicated in his hope of joining the Castle's employ.

The parallels between Lost and The Castle are stunning. At every turn in the six seasons of narrative, the viewer of Lost discovers that what she thinks are the reasons behind events and choices are not the real reasons. Something previously hidden, and now only partially revealed, comes into play. Part of the allure of Lost for this viewer was the tantalizing possibility--like the one a reader feels for K.--that in the end what cannot possibly make sense will at last sound reasonable. Over six seasons, the layers of plot, setting, and character development reach mystical proportions, building the expectations of viewers to a dizzying pitch.

The Castle and Lost conclude their stories on opposite poles of the same narrative spectrum. K. never gets to the castle; the plot drops off almost mid-sentence. The passengers of Oceanic flight 815 discover that they're all dead (the viewer sort of knows this for at least the last two seasons), which is as good as ending your novel mid-sentence. Despite an attempt to make sense of it all by the only character who is confirmed dead from the beginning (Jack's father, Christian Shepherd--ha!), the attempt does not hold water. There are too many loose ends for the last episode to fulfill its calling as denouement.

The Castle and Lost could not be more different in the tone of their lost-ness. Kafka wrote in one of the most depressing eras of Continental philosophy, and was working out that depression in an almost-biographical novel. The lostness of K. is a reflection of the conclusion that all authority, purpose, and motivation are an impenetrable fog from which human existence cannot emerge. Meaninglessness is disconnectedness, and hope is obscured by a blinding blizzard.

Lost concludes that the nonsensical propositions upon which the plot is based will ultimately leave the characters happy. Like all narratives written by and for American popular culture, this one ends with a warm golden light in which we're all bathing together--all, that is, except those whose contracts with ABC ended before the final season. The last scene is really a thinly veiled replacement for the "farewell" episodes of long-standing sitcoms that finally break down the fourth wall, a time in which the actors celebrate how fun it was to work together. It doesn't matter what happened over the six seasons of Lost; it was just good to be together.

Two ends of the same spectrum may be two sides of the same coin: depending on your assertions about it, meaninglessness can be heaven or hell. An American reader getting through Kafka is existential hell. Not only does the plot never go anywhere, it doesn't end happily, or at all. The same viewer watching Lost might find heaven in the process: meaningless entertainment with a warm fuzzy finish.

Of course these categories only apply for one who accepts the premise of both Kafka and Lost that it's all meaningless. If one takes a philosophical stance for meaning, then Kafka may be worthwhile only for passing a philosophy course and Lost only for passing the time.



I was in the kitchen working on a project when Emrys calls downstairs "Come see what your daughter has learned how to do". I grabbed the camera and went upstairs, noting that in this moment she was my daughter. This was the scene as I topped the stairs:

Leading experts agree that ladder climbing is great for developing gross motor skills for children. Usually they master this skill around three years old, not 22 months. So while she has yet to climb out of her crib, ladders now must be stored flat if there's any chance she's going to find it!

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Safety First

Since scratching his cornea with a flying paint chip at Sonlight in 2004, Emrys assiduously dons his safety glasses while working with tools. Recently he broke the faithful pair that had protected his ocular gems for the past three years. And needing to pad his purchase at the local hardware store in order to justify using his credit card today, he picked up a new pair. The spirit then moved him to try them on at the supper table this evening:

Certainly he'll soon be winning awards for most glamorous Tim Allen impression.

Doing new and strange things at the supper table comes with particular liabilities these days, for you see a certain toddler insists that if Mommy or Daddy can do it, so can she. So when Daddy tried on his safety glasses, Gwendolyn insisted that she be included in what must have been great fun:

For some reason, when the manufacturing company lined out the specs for these specs, they did not take into account the petite slope of a 20-month-old nose. Strange, that. In spite of this oversight, however, Gwendolyn still managed to keep the glasses on her face, which she announced with no small measure of glee: "I did it!"

Life with a toddler is dangerous. Be sure to wear safety glasses.

Bedroom Renovation, Month 10

That's right, we're only two months away from the anniversary of the beginning of the renovation of our bedroom. That was supposed to take about two months. I guess good things come to those who wait.

But better things come to those who stop waiting and get it done.

Sara doesn't like the rustic square trim around our existing windows and doors. So for the new closet doorway she elected to go with a rounded trim joined at forty-five degrees. Here's the trim up close:

And stepping back for the big picture:

The trim has been urethaned, but the doors have not yet--notice the spanky sheen on the trim. Someday soon maybe I'll get around to finishing the doors.

Or maybe I'll just wait a little longer.


Shifting Space

We are gradually preparing to divide Gwendolyn's room (which now doubles as a guest room, for those guests who can tolerate being awoken in the morning by an early-rising toddler) into two rooms: Gwen's room and a separate guest room. In the grand scheme we have it in mind to punch a new doorway into the guest room side and make a semi-permanent wall between the two rooms. In the on-the-way-to-grand scheme we plan to put up a quasi-permanent wall (read: partition) between the halves of the room with a door that can be locked securely enough to keep Gwendolyn on her side. Toward this end, last week we started moving furniture. First the set of cube shelves had to come out of Gwendolyn's room:

and go into the corner of what has become our "office space":

This initial step left some chaos in the GwenGuest room to be sorted out. Here's the view from the far end of the GwenGuest room after the cube shelves migrated:

The book shelf, wardrobe, and dresser that stood against the wall we moved over, back to back, along the imaginary line that will one day actually divide the GwenGuest room in two:

Here's the new room, from the guest side, with dresser and mirror backed up on that imaginary line:

Sara dreams that in the next couple of months we'll have a partition wall set up along that line, with a folding doorway on the right hand side. I hope I get all my other projects on deck done so that can happen!


Monday, December 06, 2010


This morning we woke up to about three inches of snow at our house - just enough to have to shovel the driveway. As we finished up breakfast, Emrys asked if Gwendolyn had snow pants - she did. I mentioned that he could get the purple sand shovel and she could help him shovel. We were cleaning up breakfast and Gwendolyn had disappeared. A few minutes later she came toodlin' down the stairs with a purple shovel in hand. I have no idea where it came from and later realized that the shovel I had in mind that Emrys found was actually green. Since she doesn't miss a trick, she heard "purple shovel" and "go outside" so she was ready to go. So we bundled up the little one until she resembled the Stay-Puff Marshmallow and off she went.

After Stay-Puff had sufficiently frozen herself, she came back in and did not want to take her snow pants off. When a diaper change was necessary before nap time, we finally convinced her the the snow pants needed to take a nap too and she could put them to bed on the guest bed and get them when she gets up. She's not up yet, but if history with this tactic says anything (we often put toys down for a nap in the guest bed that need not be in her bed to sleep), it's that she will be off to wake up her snow pants as soon as she's up!

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

More Presence Than Presents

It has begun. I heard for a second time on the news today a story about someone trampled by a stampede of shoppers. We used to sing about Grandma getting run over by a reindeer; the truth, as they say, is stranger than fiction.

Which brings to mind for me what started all this hullabaloo: God declared, "I'm tired of being separate from these humans whom I created and love. So I will come and be with them." Thus Jesus Christ was born. God brought the divine presence to a humanity that desperately needs it.

The risky arrival of a newborn into the world is Yahweh's "I love you" to humanity. How different from the gift that says, "I love you enough to trample strangers on the threshold of Target so that you could have this X-Box." As a long-time receiver of Christmas gifts, I think it is time for me to put my theological money where my mouth is and say, I don't need presents. I need presence.

I want to see you, talk to you, eat with you, drink with you, laugh with you, enjoy the silent and still night with you this Christmas. Do not give me a present; give me your presence. By the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Christ will be in you, for me, on that day. So let us be together and relish the Presence who is the greatest gift. Let us not obscure the Immutable with the plastic. Let us not hide the glorious with the glittering. Let's do the real gift-giving of Christmas, by giving presence rather than presents.

But you will object, won't you? It's tradition, and gift-giving can be as much a blessing to the giver as to the recipient. Should I deprive you of that pleasure? Perhaps not. Therefore let me offer suggestions--a compromise, if you will--for finding the presence in the presents.

Give me an I.O.U. for supper out at some dive where they'll let us stay and talk over cold coffee all evening. Bring me a bottle of wine with two, three, or four glasses, a corkscrew, and the introduction, "It's five o'clock somewhere!" Enjoy the company of my daughter for an evening while my wife and I get away for a date. Set a date to reconnect over the phone. Send a restaurant gift certificate with enough value that I need to bring someone else, or more. Send a card that tells me you've donated money in my honor for clean water in Burkina Faso, with a prayer for me to read aloud. Or just come over, if it's been too long. If you really must get me something, then please make it yourself--from scratch. Let it carry, in the very fiber of its being, your presence instead of a peeled-off price tag. I love you, and I'd rather just have you than any other thing in the world.

I have so much stuff that I can't keep it clean or in its place most days. More often than not I succumb to the temptation to sacrifice life for stuff, much like the Life offered at the first Christmas was trampled for the sake of riches. I don't need more of that. I need fewer presents and more presence.

May your Christmas be full of the same.