Category Archives: Essay

Blank male Facebook profile

Through the Looking Glass

(A three-minute read)

I’m not the first person to duck out of the social media sphere, and I won’t be the last.

It’s not about Lent, really, although I’m observing it. It’s about a larger need to withdraw from the relentless shallowness of my life online. I’ve been there since 1996 and a quarter-century is quite long enough.

Besides, you and I can pull off a meaningful relationship without instant access to each other’s opinions, moods and outbursts. Can’t we?

If we’re connected, we’ll stay connected.

With some people I love, once a year is enough to keep the flame burning. Not because I dislike them, but because I know them and I trust them.

If you and I can only connect through social media, were we really that connected in the first place? If not, why continue the fiction? This isn’t meant to be harsh, just an honest, loving question for myself.

If I read every rant, meaningfully responded to every prayer request, or dove down every rabbit-hole I run across daily online, I’d do nothing else. My life would be full, but my spirit would be empty. My time would be used up, but I’d have nothing to show for it, really.

Meanwhile, the invisible algorithms push me more and more toward thoughts and ideas they think most represent me. Or at least the digital avatar they have built of me. They push me further and further down a narrowing tunnel. I’m suffocating.

It’s time to emerge. If I stayed, I’d remain connected with hundreds of you all the time, but only by a digital thread. These two-dimensional relationships are truly looking through a glass, darkly.

If I leave, I’m more free to choose and to think and to believe, and to seek meaning. I’ll have more time to stop for the one who’s in front of me.

So, it’s time for me to step back. If you want to stay in touch by subscribing here – great. I love you and always will. If it’s too much bother – I understand; I’ve felt that way too. Meanwhile, I love you and always will.

Pleasant Lines is not about building a dynasty, or an edifice, or a career, or something worthy of promotion. I merely write because I’m called to write. You can read if you are called to read.

So – even though you won’t see links to my pieces on Facebook any more, the pieces themselves will still be here, every week, usually on Thursdays. Sometimes on Fridays when I get busy with other stuff.

Like right now, I’m working on a novel. Well, a series of books really. It began as a novel, then expanded into a set of four as the story grew. Now the outline looks like six books. The outline for Book Five is almost complete. I have 8,113 words down in Book One, as of this writing. There’s a long road ahead.

Fortunate Child began as a simple coming-of-age story set in the 1970s. It has now grown to have a strong romance sub-plot as well, and some serious multi-generational conflicts. If you subscribe here, you’ll eventually get some samples, after I get farther along in Book One.

I have a collection of poetry that’s slowly coming to completion. Some of what’s already on the site may be included, perhaps in a different form.

The other thing I’ve been researching is a series of historical novels about Iron Age life in Britain. Why not? It lies all around me here. The pre-Roman period is largely unknown, but recent archeological finds and theories of the last quarter-century make for a vivid backdrop against which to set a sweeping saga.

Braveheart it ain’t. No woad-painted bodies. I hope to begin writing that before the end of this year.

So that’s what I’m up to.

What are you up to? Write me and let me know. Comment here, or use the contact form found on this site. You might even know my email address or telephone number.

I’m not hard to find, when you choose to find me.

money

Poverty’s End

(A six minute read)

A typical view

A friend of mine expressed anger recently over the seeming heartlessness of billionaires. The rich are oppressors, she says, because they ‘exploit others for their own wealth and comfort.’ After some discussion about making a general case out of a specific, we agreed that this generality is no more apt than saying poor people are morally deficient.

But it’s true that some people who make seemingly unthinkable amounts of money employ thousands who, even with a full time job, can’t afford the basic stuff of life.

That’s just to say that vast inequities exist, as they have throughout history. Many of us think we have answers, but if the solutions were so obvious, wouldn’t they be in place by now? Jesus said there would always be some people who are poor. 1 Obviously He was right, but we work to feed them just the same.

The number of families who rely on food pantries is shocking. Recent studies in the US put the number reliably at one household in seven. This is especially true in urban areas where the better jobs are, because the cost of living is higher there.

Here in the UK the situation is the same.

It’s easy to say ‘there is no justice in this.’ And it’s difficult to make a dent. My church, located in the borough of Lambeth, has a food bank each week, serving perhaps 150 people. This is out of nearly 50,000 Lambeth residents thought to live in poverty.

It’s hard to ground myself when I dive into a sea of statistics. Big data is a big ocean with mighty currents. Not only is this sea of information hard to swim in, it’s also hard to grasp the fullness of it from the shore.

It’s far more meaningful to find a partner, ignore the sea, and take a walk on the beach. That leads me to people like Brian.

An atypical view

I met Brian one windy wet November day as he huddled in the grimy entrance of the Clapham Common Underground station. There’s a small landing at the top of the stair where an unhoused neighbor often hangs out with a cup to attract spare change, or asks for a bite to eat.

Something about Brian was compelling, so I asked if I could join him, dropping to the cold pavement to introduce myself. Many of these conversations jump right to ‘the story’ and the reason they are in need, and oh – do I have any money?

Not so with Brian. He was welcoming, not suspicious. His greeting was warm. He asked after my health, about my family. He was full of curiosity and joy. It was as though I had knocked on the door of his home and was invited in.

18 months prior, Brian was standing precariously on the Albert Bridge, steeling himself to give his life over to the cold swiftness of the Thames below. He’d lost his job, had a couple of other bad knocks after that, and found himself on the street. He was in despair.

Death, interrupted

At that moment, a small group of people happened along.

‘Hey mate! Y’all right?’ one of them cried.

Brian wavered, he told me, unhappy that they broke his concentration as he summoned the willpower to jump. But something about the young man’s voice drew him back.

‘It was like I knew that voice,’ he told me. ‘There was hope in it, something I needed.’

After he answered their questions about why he was there, they asked to pray for him. He said yes. As they did, a warmth came over him, he said.

He looked off in the distance, as though seeing the scene again in real time, and then continued his story. ‘I felt a love like I’d never known,’ he said. He felt truly seen by another person for the first time in a long time. Someone was listening. Someone cared. Someone stopped to love him.

What happened next astounded him. ‘It was like my eyes were opened for the first time. I knew God had a plan for me and that I should trust him.’ He chuckled and shook his head in wonder. ‘Those kids. They said, “Don’t blame God for your troubles. He’s the one who came to save you!”‘

He smiled so hard his eyes closed. ‘And to prove it, He sent those young people to save my life and give me true life.’

An answer that satisfied

Brian said the Jesus they talked about was a different Jesus than he’d known growing up in church. This Jesus, they said, will eventually come to judge the world, ‘but first He came to save the world. He came to save me,’ he said.

Brian walked off that bridge full of God’s love, and with a gift. One of the group gave him a Bible, which he pulled out of its waterproof wrapper to show me proudly.

‘I’m working through the book of John right now,’ he continued. We talked for a while about the Father as ‘the vinedresser’ in chapter 15, and how he prunes us so we will bear more fruit. Brian allowed as how he was being pruned by his life on the street. I shared about how I was currently receiving cancer treatment.

God didn’t cause those things, being a loving God. But He meets us there when we reach out for Him.

I sometimes pray for my neighbors whom I encounter like this. Brian and me? We prayed for one another. I felt a need for the grace that was on his life, and the peace he knew. Here was a man with no physical resources, and yet he refused to consider himself impoverished. ‘I have riches beyond count,’ he told me.

After we spent a half-hour together I was getting stiff, and the cold was seeping into my bones.

My privilege allowed me to get up and move on. As the rain came in earnest, I descended into the Underground. At the landing I looked back and saw him above me, now intent on the next person coming into his life.

Next time I saw him, a couple of weeks later, he was in conversation with a local mission worker. An appointment was being made to get him undercover – into a room of his own, away from the cold pavement and on some financial assistance. I have never seen him again, and hope he is well.

Poverty’s end

At least I know for certain that Brian’s poverty problem was solved. It was solved that night on the Albert Bridge.

Is yours? Do you think poverty is only about food and shelter? Or is there more to it?

Meanwhile, whatever we believe, we keep working for justice. Even if it’s just one belly at a time, or one soul at a time. Feeding each is a victory.

1. Matthew 26:11

The Shoreham Cross

In Memoriam

(A four minute read)

It’s not every day one sees a giant cross overhanging a valley. When it burst into view as we walked up the River Darent, we stopped in our tracks. But that comes at the end of the story, not the beginning.

The beginning of the story was the Great War.

Men suited up and shipped out, knowing death might await them. We remember them now: the sons, the brothers, the fathers, the friends.

Some of the elderly among us undoubtedly remember specific ones. Perhaps he was a grandfather or someone more removed by blood, yet perhaps even one whose hand they once held.

For us younger ones, they are pictures in dusty albums, whispering their stories in quiet voices that drown out the thunder of the cannon that flung death across the blasted wastelands of Verdun and the Somme.

Their voices whisper to us from Flanders fields, from the names etched on a hundred cenotaphs. Far away in memory, but still close to the heart.

As an American living in Britain, I’m touched by these memorials in perhaps a different way than the native-born. I moved from a nation that celebrates its patriotism to one that lives comfortably within its own history. It’s quite a shift. For me, every walk here is a walk back through time.

An unusually chilly October Saturday found me and my wife Melanie paying our respects at St. Peter & St. Paul’s Church in Shoreham to kick off our weekend ramble. It’s astonishing and humbling to stand in a place full of 800 years of prayer.

St. Peter and St. Paul’s held the runway for our ramble: A brickwork walkway; a corridor through trees sheltering the cemetery.

Shoreham is not on the shore; it’s in the middle of Kent, 50 miles from the Channel. As we walk, we travel further back in time as we head uphill through Dunstall Woods. The name seems Saxon: Dunn staell, probably ‘brown building’. Just like Shoreham: scor ham, possibly ‘dwelling at the foot of a steep slope’, that same slope now graced by a memorial cross.

OS Maps showed us more history descending to the river: a tumulus, a Roman villa site and where a Palace once stood. I was sad about stupidly forgetting the lunch, but pleased that a fine Otford establishment was open to give us fare.

It was full of steam, hot coffee and the type of conversation that’s an eavesdropper’s dream. Small towns are the same the world over. Full of intertwined lives and drama to match. There are no secrets there.

That reality undergirds the memories, and explains the memorials. Lives intertwined.

So it was, with stuffed bellies and hearts full of reflection, that we wandered downriver and, with surprise, beheld the cross overhanging the valley of the Darent. The beginning of the story and the end are the same. We find ourselves at the cross.

We lingered, thinking on the loved ones’ blood spilled for freedom: earthly freedom in a free land, and our heavenly freedom in Christ.

Let us never forget man’s sacrifice, nor the Son of Man’s.

Photo of soldier: Library of Congress, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons