Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Night Watch - Pilgrim at Tinker Creek 12

Night Watch -- Chapter 12
She is walking through the Lucas place and the ground is full of grasshoppers. She says, “Every step I took detonated the grass,” as she wades through the bursts and whirr of wings and clips of snapping hopper legs. She tells us about the transformation that is possible, from grasshoppers to a plague of locusts. “Swarms of locusts are ordinary grasshoppers gone berserk.”
What I wonder is, does this happen to all of us when we are restless, or when we are thrust together in close proximity, or when worked into a frenzied state? Do we transform from a state of harmlessness into a destructive plague? I even wonder about the biblical plagues of locusts (Joel 1:4). Could that really be about us?
Oh, the wonder of it all. That is the point. The world is wild and we with it. It is full of wonder if we will but pay attention. Wild life is all around and through and within. The fact of it says something.
A bobwhite who is still calling in summer is lorn; he has never found a mate. When I first read this piece of information, every bobwhite call I heard sounded tinged with desperation, suicidally miserable. But now I am somehow cheered on my way by that solitary signal. The bobwhite’s very helplessness, his obstinate Johnny-two-notedness, takes on an aura of dogged pluck. God knows what he is thinking in those pendant silences between calls. God knows what I am. But: bobwhite. Yes, it’s tough, it’s tough, that goes without saying. But isn’t waiting itself and longing a wonder, being played on by wind, sun, and shade? (220)
I didn’t know, I have never known, what spirit it is that descends into my lungs and flaps near my heart like an eagle rising. I named it full-of-wonder, highest good, voices. (224)

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek - Chapter 11 - Stalking

The point is that it (the world, love, fish, muskrats, or electrons) is all rather fleeting. What we can see or experience or ‘know’ must be stalked. We must go looking and learn to be still, or we will never see. We get, if we will set ourselves to the task, what Moses got, which was to witness the glory of God from the cleft in the rock, witnessing the fleeting ‘hind-parts’ of God (Ex 33:22-3). We may see the Promised Land from the top of Pisgah, and our longing for more, well, moments or glimpses are all you get.

I wonder if we could make room in our schedules to pay attention. Even if our attention was being paid to people, could we go listening? People are always revealing the story of their lives. Dillard talks about the spiritual quality of stalking fish. Have you ever tried to watch fish (not in an aquarium!)? Fish are pretty skittish in the wild. They would rather not be seen (stalked, captured, or eaten). They often do not look like the water-bottom. They are reflectors of light, fleeting flashes of glory. It is any wonder that Jesus calls fishermen?


I am prying into secrets again, and taking my chances. I might see anything happen; I might see nothing but light on water. I walk home exhilarated or becalmed, but always changed, alive. (186)

More men in all of time have died at fishing than at any other human activity except perhaps the making of war. ... You can lure them, net them, troll for them, club them, clutch them, chase them up the inlet, stun them with plant juice, catch them in a wooden wheel that runs all night – and you still might starve. They are there, they are certainly there, free, food, and wholly fleeting. You can see them if you want to; catch them if you can. (188)

If I freeze, locking my muscles, I will tire and break. Instead of going ridged, I go calm. I center down wherever I am; I find balance and repose. I retreat – not inside myself, but outside myself, so that I am a tissue of senses. Whatever I see is plenty, abundance. (203)

The Principle of Indeterminacy turned science inside out. Suddenly determinism goes, causality goes, and we are left with a universe composed of what Eddington calls “mind-stuff.” (206)

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek - Fecundity (10)

Chapter Ten: Fecundity

When it comes to reproduction, do we feel differently about plants and animals? I think we do. One could be a subject of polite discussion and the other is not. Why do you suppose that is?

There is tremendous growth pressure. It appears to be in the design of the Designer. Growth happens. Life is stubborn and insistent. Sycamore roots break sidewalks. Mushrooms can shatter a cement basement floor. And human beings will wreck themselves because of growth pressure. As we seek love and a companion and sex and children, it seems to be, in seasons, all consuming.

Consider life in the waters, in the ponds and lakes and oceans. Do you ever consider how much life and death and left-overs are teeming in the waters? We push these kinds of ideas away. It ruins swimming in the ocean. It makes us think, “That’s gross!” Of course I can hardly swim in a pond, or a lake, for the very same reasons. It is full of life! How does God consider the life of the barnacle? Are the individual barnacles important to God? What about the individual lives of whales? Or rats? Or cats? Or dolphins? Or horses? Or us? Does God care about the fish that we eat, or the cows?

Either Mother Nature is a monster, or human beings are a freak of nature, somehow different from the way of the cosmos. It could be that our emotions are a curse, that we should accommodate ourselves to the amoral natural reaction to life and death. This is also unacceptable to us. What does nature have to say to us about Creation and the Creator? I do not think we can close our eyes, or refuse to think about what we see. I suppose many do refuse to see and refuse to consider the implications of what they see. I cannot refuse either.


I don’t know what it is about fecundity that so appalls. I suppose it is the teeming evidence that birth and growth, which we value, are ubiquitous and blind, that life itself is so astonishingly cheap, that nature is as careless as it is bountiful, and that with extravagance goes a crushing waste that will one day include our own cheap lives. (162)

I never met a man who was shaken by a field of identical blades of grass. ... No, in the plant world, especially among the flowering plants, fecundity is not an assault on human values. Plants are not our competitors; they are our prey and our nesting materials. We are no more distressed at their proliferation than an owl is as a population explosion among field mice. (164)

Bamboo can grow three feet in twenty-four hours. (165)

“Acres and acres of rats” has a suitably chilling ring to it that is decidedly lacking if I say, instead, “acres and acres of tulips.” (167)

Rock barnacles: The barnacles encrusting a single half-mile of shore can leak into the water a million million larvae. ... My point about rock barnacles is those million million larvae in ‘milky clouds’ and those shed flecks of skin. Sea water seems suddenly to be but a broth of barnacle bits. Can I fancy that a million million human infants are more real? (168)

The pressure of growth among animals is a terrible kind of hunger. These billions must eat in order to fuel their surge to sexual maturity so that they may pump out more billions of eggs. (170)

Lacewings are those fragile green insects with large, rounded transparent wings. The larvae eat enormous numbers of aphids, the adults mate in a fluttering rush of instinct, lay eggs, and die by the millions in the first cold snap of fall. Sometimes when a female lays her fertile eggs on a green leaf atop a slender stalked thread, she is hungry. She pauses in her laying, turns around, and eats her eggs one by one, then lays more, and eats them, too. Anything can happen, and anything does; what’s it all about?

Valerie Eliot, T. S. Eliot’s widow, wrote in a letter to the London Times: My husband, T. S. Eliot, loved to recount how late one evening he stopped a taxi. As he got in the driver said, “You’re T. S. Eliot.” When asked how he knew, he replied, “Ah, I have an eye for a celebrity. Only the other evening I picked up Bertrand Russell, and I said to him, “Well, Lord Russell, what’s it all about?” and do you know, he couldn’t tell me.” Well, Lord God, asks the delicate, dying lacewing whose mandibles are wet with juice secreted by her own ovipositor, what’s it all about? (“And do you know...”) (170-1)

I have to look at the landscape of the blue-green world again. Just think: in all the clean beautiful reaches of the solar system, our planet alone is a blot; our planet alone has death. I have to acknowledge that the sea is a cup of death and the land is a stained altar stone. (177)

Are my values then so diametrically opposed to those that nature preserves? This is the key point. (178)

We value the individual supremely, and nature values him not a whit. (178)

Either this world, my mother is a monster, or I myself am a freak. We are moral creatures in an amoral world. (179)

Monday, November 24, 2008

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek - Flood

Chapter Nine: Flood

The book turns here. "Flood" is about a washing away. She writes a report about Hurricane Agnes in 1972.

My favorite line:

Tinker Creek is out of its four-foot banks, way out, and it’s still coming. The high creek doesn’t look like our creek. Our creek splashes transparently over a jumble of rocks; the high creek obliterates everything in flat opacity. It looks like somebody else’s creek that has usurped and eaten our creek and is roving frantically to escape, big and ugly, like a blacksnake caught in a kitchen drawer.

What an image? I would never have thought of a blacksnake caught in a kitchen drawer! Does that happen at your house? I am not opening your drawers if that is happening at your house!

We have seen some of these world changing weather events. Hurricane Andrew in South Florida in 1992, Katrina in 2005 and this year (2008), Ike. New Orleans will be changed by Katrina. Galveston has been changed by Ike. We will tell stories about our experiences in these storms. Something has been washed away. I wonder about floods of different types in our life. On one side of the flood our lives were a particular way, and then after the flood, life is different. It could be a death in your family. The flood could be a failed relationship, or the loss of a job, or a career. There is a line in the movie, Angels in the Outfield, where the children see the pitcher and excitedly say, “You used to be Mel Clark!” The pitcher gets it. He says to the kids, “Yeah, kid, I used to be.”

There is something on the other side of the flood. In our family, we have come to call it “new normal.” Old normal will not be returning. Our routines have changes. Our perspective is changed. Our bell has been rung, never to be un-rung. In our culture we use Latin phrases to speak of the era before, like ante-diluvium (before the flood) and antebellum (before the war). If find that interesting. We don’t talk about the present, or the future that way. We must, in some way, be like Lot’s wife (Gen 19:26) or a poor plowman (Luke 9:62), looking back over our shoulders, considering what we used to be.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Intricacy - Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

Chapter Eight: Intricacy

This is the culmination of the Via Positiva – Seeing God from what can be seen.
How hard would it be for you to make a tree? Would the task be easier if the tree did not have to actually work? It would not have to grow, or reproduce, or respirate. How hard would it be?

How hard would it be to make a kidney, with the intricacy of the nephron and a Henle’s Loop? Each nephron in your kidney about fifteen yards long. Each human kidney has about a million nephrons. We could not imagine a kidney, much less make one.

When we can see, when we can force ourselves to pay attention, there is an amazing complexity to the world around us, under our feet, over the next hill, and into the sky.

What do you think about evolution? I would say that evolution clearly happens. That in no way trumps the idea of a Creator. The more I can see, the more I believe in wonder, the more I am astonished at the extravagance of the Creator. The Creator creates! Look closely! There is a ‘wow’ in every molecule!


  • If you analyze a molecule of chlorophyll itself, what you get is one hundred thirty-six atoms of hydrogen, carbon, oxygen, and nitrogen arranged in an exact and complex relationship around a central ring. At the ring’s center is a single atom of magnesium. Now: If you remove the atom of magnesium and in its exact place put an atom of iron, you get a molecule of hemoglobin. (127-8)

  • ‘Nature,’ said Thoreau in his journal, ‘is mythical and mystical always, and spends her whole genius on the least work.’ The creator, I would add, churns out the intricate texture of least works that is the world with a spendthrift genius and an extravagance of care. This is the point. (128)

  • This is our life, these are our lighted seasons, and then we die. In the mean time, in between time, we can see. The scales are fallen from our eyes, the cataracts are cut away, and we can make sense of the color-patches we see in an effort to discover where we so incontrovertibly are. (129)

  • The average temperature of our planet is 57 degrees Fahrenheit. Of the 29% of all land that is above water, over a third is given to grazing. The average size of all living animals, including man, is almost that of a housefly. The earth is mostly granite, which in turn is mostly oxygen. The most numerous of animals big enough (for us) to see are the cope pods, the mites, and the springtails; of the plants, the algae, the sledge. (129)

  • Everything I have seen is wholly gratuitous. (130)

  • Utility to the creature is evolution’s only aesthetic consideration. Form follows function in the created world, so far as I know, and the creature that functions, however bizarre, survives to perpetuate its form. (136-7)

  • Of all known forms of life, only about 10 percent are still living today. (138)

  • Pliny, who knew the world was round, figured that when it was all surveyed the earth would be seen to resemble a pineapple, pricked with irregularities. (140)

  • Were the earth smooth, our brains would be smooth as well (no complex thinking required); we would wake, blink, walk tow steps to get the whole picture, and lapse into a dreamless sleep. (141)

  • ‘Every religion that does not affirm that God is hidden,’ said Pascal flatly, ‘is not true.’ (146)

  • No claims of any and all revelations could be so far-fetched as a single giraffe. (146)

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek - Spring

Chapter Seven: Spring

This is the penultimate chapter of the first half of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.  As Spring emerges, life makes itself visible again.  The word that captured me on this reading was heaves.  Life heaves from the ground, water lifts through the trees.  I wonder if we could be still and diligent at the same time.  Could we listen to bird-song with a sense of wonder?  In the Fall in Houston we could see thousands of birds competing for a place on the wires and telephone poles.  I would never stop to listen.  I might watch and wonder from inside the car, but I have better sense than to stand under the swirl of thousands of birds!

As with other chapters, Dillard wants us to pay attention to the extravagant life that surrounds us.  This Fall I read Justinian’s Flea by William Rosen.  He is talking about bubonic plague.  He reminds us that most of the biomass on earth is bacteria.  We don’t look.  And if we don’t look, then perhaps we do not have to consider or contemplate that life.  How are we similar to rotifers, plankton and paramecia, or bacteria?


The more we see, the more we consider the wonder and the awe.  There is life!  When we are willing to see it, I think it shapes our meta-narratives, the stories that define our lives, our context, our reality.  We live in a Design that grows and breathes.  We live in a world where energy comes from the sun, and miracles, weird and wonderful, happen.  Would we look Life in the eye?



There is a certain age at which a child looks at you in all earnestness and delivers a long, pleased speech in all the true inflections of spoken English, but with not one recognizable syllable.  There is no way you can tell the child that if language had been a melody, he had mastered it and done well, but that since it was in fact a sense, he had botched it utterly.

It does not matter a hoot what the mockingbird on the chimney is singing.  If the mockingbird were chirping to give us the long-sought formulae for a unified field theory, the point would be only slightly less irrelevant.  The real and proper question is: Why is it beautiful? (107)

Water lifting up tree trunks can climb one hundred and fifty feet an hour; in full summer a tree can, and does heave a ton of water every day.  A big elm in a single season might make as many as six million leaves, wholly intricate, without budging an inch; I couldn’t make one. (113)

I suspect that the real moral thinkers end up, wherever they may start, in botany.  We know nothing for certain, but we seem to see that the world turns upon growing, grows toward growing, and growing green and clean. (114)

There is a muscular energy in sunlight corresponding to the spiritual energy of wind.  On a sunny day, the sun’s energy on a square acre of land or pond can equal 4500 horsepower.  These “horses” heave in every direction, like slaves building pyramids, and fashion, from the bottom up, a new and sturdy world.(119)

I don’t really look forward to these microscopic forays...I do it as a moral exercise; the microscope at my forehead is a kind of phylactery, a constant reminder of the facts of creation that I would just as soon forget. (122)

If I did not know about the rotifers and paramecia, and all the bloom of plankton clogging the dying pond, fine; but since I’ve seen it I must somehow deal with it, take it into account. (123)

Exodus as Intentional Family Curriculum

These are notes from a Sunday Morning class I taught on October 26 at North Street.

I want us to spend some time in Exodus.  This is the foundation for a series of lessons I plan to preach in March and April of next year.  This is gleaned from a lecture by Walter Brueggemann.

Grandparents help grandchildren remember.  Exodus is an antidote to amnesia. Exodus is about tracing out connections.  Exodus is about tracing our moral codes, providing expectations for life, painting the picture of a river of belonging.

What if we read this as a key to the whole?

Exodus 10:1-2 (NRSV) 1 Then the Lord said to Moses, "Go to Pharaoh; for I have hardened his heart and the heart of his officials, in order that I may show these signs of mine among them, 2 and that you may tell your children and grandchildren how I have made fools of the Egyptians and what signs I have done among them—so that you may know that I am the Lord."


Exodus is intentional family curriculum.  It depicts the competition between Pharaoh and Yahweh. Youth (perhaps in every age) have no feeling of debt to the past. All of our grandparent’s stuff becomes antique and obsolete. 

Was it about amnesia?  The empire has a vested interest in local amnesia.  It makes for a group of people easy to control (or easier anyway).  Look to the theme of Deuteronomy 8, Don’t forget.

This was always in play.  The forces of forgetfulness would say, Join Alexander, Join Rome, forget particularity, jettison memory.


 1. Remember the midwives.  They are named Shiphrah and Puah. Pharaoh is not named.  The midwives are significant.  They refused imperial fear and coercion.  The future comes down to mothers.  They have seething courage.  They are the ones to hold up the pictures of the Disappeared (of Argentina).  These are the mothers who take a casserole to the grieving. These are the mothers who made fools of the commandos of Pharaoh.  They are HISTORY MAKERS. 

  1. Remember the terrorist activity of Pharaoh (and Moses).  Someone had to act.  The action did not come by innocence.  It was in Moses’ mis-adventure (murder of the Egyptian) that he challenged the status quo.  The truth is that oppression, forced labor, and exploitation requires confrontation. How?  We wrestle with that!
  2. Remember the theophony. The bush burns.  The Voice of Holiness calls.  It is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  We can expect an interruption from God.  He answers the cry of his people.  Exodus 3:10 (NRSV) 10 So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt." 
    1. Who? Me?  Yahweh says, “I will go with you.”
    2. What is your name?  YHWH.  Tell them.
    3. I have no power!  What if they will not listen?  What is that in your hand?  Put your hand in your cloak.  It will be a contest of power against power. (I am thinking he will need that with Zipporah, too!)
    4. And there will be a renovation of the economy.  The Nile will turn to blood.  The cattle and the land and the laws of inheritance will all be demolished.
    5. I can’t speak well.  I will speak through you.
    6. Send someone else.  No! 
  1. Remember the Bricks. 
    1. Produce bricks, and when it seems you have too much time, time for worship on your hands, then you could work harder.  Meet the quota.
    2. It is oppressive.  It is coercive economic theory.  That is true in academics, sports, sales, and church.
    3. There is no oasis unless you depart!!
    4. We have a tendency to absolutize the present power arrangements. If our grandparents knew that this was not always the way things were they could give us hope in the face of acquisitive power. 
  1. Remember the death of the Firstborn and the Passover.

  • The death of the first born raises a loud cry!  Every arrogant power is humiliated.  Pharaoh says, "Rise up, go away from my people, both you and the Israelites! Go, worship the Lord, as you said. 32 Take your flocks and your herds, as you said, and be gone. And bring a blessing on me too!" Exodus 12:31-32 (NRSV).
  • Truth and pain are brought against power by YHWH (not by rebellion, not by force of arms, but by ‘the death of a first born – Jesus).

When the people LEFT what they knew, they were afraid.  I understand that.  It is the place where you lose control.  They grumbled.  Moses told them, ‘You have only to be still.’

On the other side of the water we hear a moment of song. 

In chapter 15 Miriam sings.  The Lord will reign forever.  There is a regime change.  There is a new order.

There is no short cut for this story.  You cannot begin to live this out where you wish.  You have to live it out.

Michael Walzer, ( Exodus and Revolution, 149)

  • first, that wherever you live, it is probably Egypt;
  • second, that there is a better place, a world more attractive, a promised land;
  • and third, that “the way to the land is through the wilderness.”  There is no other way to get from here to there except by joining together and marching.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek - The Present

We spend so much of our lives getting ready to live.  Years ago I heard a mantra from Randy Harris that I think is terrific.  It has four parts.  I will be incompetent.  That is not a goal, but a confession before the fact.  The standards I am pursuing are idealistic and important.  I will not abandon the ideal.  I will be incompetent.  I will be fully present.  I will see Christ in the face of every person I encounter.  I will be Christ in every situation I encounter. 


When Annie Dillard speaks of The Present, she is living in the now.  I wonder how long we can pay attention to one thing.  How long does an experience last?  I wonder if we could pay more attention.  Consciousness is an interesting concept.  When the lights flicker on behind the eyes, when the neural network opens for reactive input, do we have any control?  Consciousness is vital, but self-consciousness is (or can be) a hindrance to being fully present.


Have you had those moments that you wish would at least pause?  We want to soak in it, or soak it in.  It is too much to think it could last forever, but it could slow, couldn’t it?  I am sure that is why we love photographs, or paintings.  We will even call it ‘a capture.’  But that is not really true.  The ‘capture’ is in our memory, and the ‘capture’ is nothing more than an aide for remembering.


Dillard writes:


  • This is it, I think, this is it, right now, the present, this empty gas station, here, this western wind, this tang of coffee on the tongue, and I am patting the puppy, I am watching the mountain.  And the second I verbalize this awareness in my brain, I cease to see the mountain or feel the puppy.  (80)
  • Experiencing the present purely is being emptied and hollow; you catch grace as a man fills his cup under a waterfall. (82)
  • There are a few live seasons.  Let us live them as purely as we can, in the present. (83)
  • Michael Goldman wrote in a poem, ‘When the Muse comes She doesn’t tell you to write; / She says get up for a minute, I’ve something to show you, stand here.’ (85)
  • I want to come at the subject of the present by showing how consciousness dashes and ambles around the labyrinthine tracks of the mind, returning again and again, however briefly, to the senses. (88)
  • Dorothy Dunnett: There is no reply, in clear terrain, to an archer in cover. Invisibility is the all-time great cover; and the one infinite power deals so extravagantly and unfathomably in death ... makes that power an archer, there is no getting around it. (91)
  • The least brave act, chance taken and passage won, makes you feel loud as a child. (91)
  • Arthur Koestler wrote, “In his review of the literature on the psychological present, Woodrow found that its maximum span is estimated to lie between 2.3 and 12 seconds.” (93-4)
  • In the top inch of forest soil, biologists found ‘an average of 1,356 living creatures present in each square foot, including 865 mites, 265 spring tails, 22 millipedes, 19 adult beetles and various members of 12 other forms ... Had an estimate also been made of the microscopic population, it might have ranged up to two billion bacteria and many millions of fungi, protozoa and algae – in a mere teaspoon of soil.’ (95)
  • The world is a wild wrestle under the grass; earth shall be moved. (98)
  • Like water flow: Ease is the way of perfection, letting fall. (102)
  • You don’t run down the present, pursue it with baited hooks and nets.  You wait for it, empty-handed, and you are filled.  You’ll have fish left over. (104)