On the Trail of the Trite Profound

A.J. Hamilton:

To herald the imminent arrival of autumn, here’s my most popular post to date. Enjoy!

Originally posted on Of Dust and Mist:

A tunnel on a bike trail in Lynchburg. Photo courtesy of www.LynchVegas.com

A tunnel on a bike trail in Lynchburg. Photo courtesy of LynchVegas

The other day, my family of five had an idea: renting bicycles. It was an adventurous thought. I hadn’t ridden in many years, and my three kids didn’t have opportunity to learn until recently. So on a sunny Saturday, after loading up on lunch and water, we stepped into our local bike shop and got fitted for rentals. There was a bike for everyone except my youngest, but we chose to add a tag-along to my husband’s bike so she could participate with us.

After a short orientation, we hit the city trail. Clint led our caravan, pulling little Cora who was holding her handlebars and peddling her one wheel with honest ambition. Behind her were Sabrina and Trevor, trying to get their adult-sized bicycles into motion for the first time, picking up speed with wobbling uncertainty…

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Ken Cleaver: Car Exorcist

They say the sunsets over Lincolnshire, Illinois are bright and beautiful, especially if viewed from any of its tall, glittering buildings. The nights, however, are often black and cold and windy. Not a place to be caught alone.

Ken Cleaver knew the nights. A seminary student by day, he spent his evenings as a security guard for a multi-building corporation that was perched on one of the town’s best-known streets. He was a likable guy who’d found rapport with fellow guards, many of whom shared his faith in an almighty God. He was young, yet his hard work had earned him a seat at the security desk, away from laborious duties in the unforgiving elements. Ken appreciated his company’s care of its employees: the security office was commissioned to aid its people in any problems encountered on site. Guards were even trained in jump-starting vehicles.

Ken recalls one incident that required skills beyond his job training. It happened on a wintery evening when the last rays of daylight had vanished. Ken was sitting at his post behind an office window, watching folks in their cold-weather gear scurry toward the exit, their posture already braced against the wind beyond the door. Suddenly, a young woman was at his window. Her hair was disheveled. Her cheeks were reddened. Her brow was wrinkled with worry. Her car wouldn’t start.

As he picked up the phone, Ken assured the woman that his team would help her. He called the guard on duty in the lot where she was parked and told him the situation. Then Ken accompanied the lady in distress to her car.

The three gathered around the paralyzed sedan beneath lampposts with amber lights, the kind that throw an unattractive cast over people and cars alike. Beside them sat the security truck, engine warm, yellow hazard lights flashing. The lot guard quickly went to work connecting the jumper cables between the car battery and the portable charger he’d brought. He had mechanical aptitude, says Ken, and seemed to know what he was doing.

A cold battery is hard to revive, so the guard wasn’t discouraged that the first attempt to start the engine was unsuccessful. His method required that the cable ends sit for a few minutes between tries in order to allow electrical charge to flow into the dead battery. The wind whipped in defiance as the three people waited. Ken explained the process to the car owner to encourage her perseverance.

The second attempt to start the car failed. The woman looked worried again. Feeling a tad helpless himself, Ken tried to relieve the tension with a quip, “I’m a pastor and don’t know much about cars. I could probably lay hands on it, but that’s all I can do.”

The guard moved the cables from the portable charger to the truck battery and then asked the woman to turn her key in the ignition. No luck. More waiting. Ken felt a tug in his thoughts to do just as he’d offered. He stiffened and thought, What if it doesn’t work? Then he’d make God and himself look foolish. He could also be risking his employment and maybe even causing trouble for his company. As a well-studied student, he was quick to quote biblical justification for his resistance. He remembered a passage in Isaiah 7 where the Lord invites King Ahaz to pray for a sign. Ken’s mind recited the response of fearful Ahaz: “I will not ask; I will not put the Lord to the test.”

He shivered among his companions. The coldness of the night sank more deeply into their garments. Steam rose like spirits from their mouths when they exhaled, but the car gave off no clouds of life on the next crank. Finally, the guard shrugged and removed his cables. The woman’s countenance sank. Ken was reminded that “the God who is big enough and powerful enough to create the universe is certainly big enough to start a car engine.”

With that, he stepped forward and offered one last possibility for getting the car going. After all, there was nothing left to try. He placed his hands on the frozen battery and prayed, “Lord, we can’t start this car by traditional means. Would you start it and show your power today? I ask this in Jesus name. Amen.”

Ken asked the owner to get in her car and start it. The engine turned immediately and smoothly and hummed happily. The woman’s face lit up with delight. She shook hands with the two men and gave credit to God for the miracle before driving away in her liberated ride.

The guard got into his truck and offered Ken a ride back to the office. Ken Cleaver stood in a state of surprise about the result of his prayer. Then he felt guilty over his unbelief. Behind him, his fellow guard summed up the event simply: “That shouldn’t have happened, but it did. It just proves that God has the ability to do whatever he wants.” True, thought Ken as he climbed into the truck. Another voice echoed in his head: “Call to me and I will answer you and tell you great and unsearchable things you do not know” (Jeremiah 33:3).

The truck drove away from the amber lights and the empty parking space. The only matter that remained was what to write in the incident report.

The Secret of a Lasting Marriage

This weekend I’m attending the 50th wedding anniversary celebration of Larry and Barbara Melton. That’s right: 50 years together. When’s the last time you witnessed a 50th anniversary? It’s common knowledge that we live in a society where lifespans are expanding, but marriages are shrinking. We grow up watching the emotionally high, even magical, weddings of media and compare them to the dysfunctional, even hellish, marriages of reality. Between false ideas and bad models, it’s no wonder so many Americans are avoiding marriage altogether. Yet we still long for its ideal, and we highly respect couples who have stayed together for 25 years or more. So what’s the key that unlocks “happily ever after”?

Blah, Blah, Blah

We’ve all looked for the secret to a lasting union. The number of promising articles, books, conferences, etc. litter us like the rice we throw on wedding couples. We want a formula, a precise number of steps that ensure we marry the right person and nurture a rewarding relationship. Instead, we discover that life is messy. People are messy. Nothing in our personal reality follows the carefully plotted storylines of our favorite movie romances. Our own best-laid plans get thwarted somehow. We turn to the Bible and find several examples of messed-up marriages but no perfect picture. Jesus never drew the ideal husband or wife in the sand; he never explained what the perfect marriage looks like. He gave few ground rules, and he kept repeating that we should love him first and love others as ourselves.

That’s all. Love him. Serve others.

Those of us who begin marriage as Christians carefully fill ourselves up with love and try to meet the needs of our spouse. Despite a strong beginning, time inevitably proves us weak, and our relationship becomes bland at best. As failures and offenses mount, and as our models fall apart, we begin to think there is no such thing as a thriving, mature marriage after all.

Enter cynicism.

E. E., Etc.

Larry and Barbara understand the temptations of cynicism. In fact, they are pretty honest about their struggles. After so many decades together, they’ll admit to a list of offenses and moments of doubt about their marriage. They don’t hide behind some romantic image or pretend to have all the answers. Yet their family and friends respect them for their honesty. It’s one characteristic of their success, and we know that open communication is often touted as one of the major factors of a good relationship.

The Meltons say they didn’t always have an open relationship. Like so many couples, they began on a foundation of emotion that wore away in the tempest of life’s struggles. They had no guide in their youth, and sources of help were not easily accessed. Problems were naturally complicated by children whose well-being depended on their union and a military system that separated them and moved them around. In time, each of them was driven toward Christ for help with their circumstances. Learning about and embracing Christ’s forgiving love was the beginning of transformation in their personal lives. They became better people, but they remained a bit disconnected with each other.

Relational problems can seem overwhelming for any couple with history, but God’s creative power is infinite. For the Meltons, he used a tool called E.E., otherwise known in Baptist circles as Evangelism Explosion. E.E. trains folks in how to share their faith with others. By opening up about their love for the Lord, the Meltons found a common passion and common work that naturally drew them closer to each other. Through loving God and serving others, including each other, they were filled and blessed in return. They’d found the secret to staying together.

Today, the Meltons know what holds them together, and they’re committed to protecting their center. Like the rest of us, they may face struggles in their daily practice, but they’ve tasted the reward of perseverance in love. They continue to follow the wisdom of their favorite scripture passage, Proverbs 3:5-6, which says,

“Trust in the Lord with all your heart
and lean not on your own understanding;
 in all your ways submit to him,
and he will make your paths straight.”

As they prepare for their anniversary party this weekend, I’m sure they’ll wonder at their journey and marvel at the number of people who share in their reward. I hope they’ll dance in a great cloud of witnesses who could learn a few of their moves.

Here’s to you, Mr. and Mrs. Melton!

Priceless Silence

The Hidden Place

Stop thinking and just go. The day is still beautiful.

Reluctantly, I left. I drove away with a cacophony of voices in my head. They would not be blown off merely by the country air slipping past my old truck. No setting, no contrived mood could solve my problems, yet I drove anyway. It was better than sitting still.

I found the narrow gravel road that summer trees were trying to hide. I followed its winding way to the end and parked my truck. Here was a green field lined with leafy trees. The sky above was pale blue as the sun began to blush orange. In the middle of the field was a perfect circle of bright blue. It was a pool of clean, calm water, waiting just for me.

I entered the pool deck and set down my things one by one, pausing at my music player. What song could distract my mind this time? What music would promise me a moment of peace? I made a mediocre choice and then sat at the water’s edge. If serenity were here, it would not descend suddenly. I would have to pursue it.

After a few minutes of swirling my feet in the water halfheartedly, something stirred but not by me. It came from my music player. It was the unselected sound of ocean waves. These waves were powerful; they took me over by surprise. I melted into a cool sea—my personal ocean—watching light patterns on its glassy surface rippled by my own movements. At first, I heard only the rhythm of waves. Then beyond that, I heard trees rustling amid a lazy breeze. There were birdsongs and dragonfly dances mixed with seagulls and lapping water. And for the first time in a long time, I wasn’t thinking of anything at all. My mind was quiet. I felt both buoyant and anchored. I had stumbled upon contented peace. . . and the feeling of good company.

The Hidden Face

In C.S. Lewis’s novel, Till We Have Faces, Queen Orual is at the end of her life, standing before the gods with a long list of complaints, a whole book accusing them of the wrongs they have done her. Once she has passionately blurted them out before a veiled god-judge, he answers her with “utter silence,” as she puts it, “long enough for me to have read my book out yet again. At last the judge spoke. ‘Are you answered?’ he said. ‘Yes,’ said I.”

When I first read that ending, I was dissatisfied with the way the author resolved this problem. It felt like a cop-out, like pseudo-religious profundity that didn’t have meaning at all. How could Orual’s argument be quenched by nothing? How could the judge’s silence be a satisfying answer?

I, too, have had complaints. I, too, have received God’s silence, yet it never felt fulfilling. I perceived it to mean “You are not ready to know yet” or “Have patience and watch for the answer” or “Stop thinking of yourself and focus on this something else which is closer to the truth you seek anyway.” To me, silence was discipline, not reward; the answer seemed deferred but not wholly withheld. Could it be possible to be satisfied in never knowing at all?

Today, after emerging from that holy bath, I say “yes.” And the reason has nothing to do with believing God or trusting God and especially not believing and trusting myself. There was no psychology in the rhythm of the waves, no message spelled by the dragonflies’ dance, no hymn in the songs of the birds—nothing to teach, interpret, analyze, or persuade. God simply surrounded my senses: he inhabited the sights and sounds and touch of nature in a fresh way by simultaneously presenting to me the ocean and the countryside. It was an omnipresent perfume to my soul. The result was a peace that outweighed my pains. I doubted this was ever possible, yet here was a space and a time in which all things—even I—were truly lovely and pure and at peace.

This is ultimately what we all want. Billionaires would give up their money for this. Celebrities would give up their fame. Models would give up their beauty. People everywhere would be willing to suffer to get this and keep it. This is nothing less than God himself in quiet communion. This is more valuable than answers.

Light and Honey

Originally published January 2011

A good father is hard to find. And often strongly desired. Just ask Dennis, who learned at age eight how deeply he craved one.

It was a typical Sunday church service. Dennis was sitting in the congregation like other boys his age when the preacher hooked his attention with a Bible story. In the Book of Acts, Chapter 9, Saul is traveling the road to Damascus, bent on persecuting Christians. Suddenly he sees a heavenly light and hears a voice saying “I am Jesus.” It is the beginning of a new, better life for Saul. The preacher explained that God is our heavenly father tangibly expressed in the person of Jesus Christ. Dennis was intrigued. He wanted a father like that, powerful and good, who would also show himself to be very real.

Two weeks went by, and every night Dennis was awakened with an urge to get out of bed. He says, “It was like somebody grabbing my shirt and pulling me up out of bed. ‘I got something to show you. Get up. Get up. Get up!’” One night, Dennis decided to obey the urge. He walked to his back door and opened it. “The biggest, the brightest light was shining in front of my face I’d ever seen in my whole life. It was brighter than day. [The night] was pitch dark but I couldn’t even see the driveway, it was so bright.” Dennis shut the door, afraid. He realized it was the Lord, but he was not ready to follow him yet. In his heart, he told God that he first wanted to learn about the world and then he’d come back to him. According to Dennis, “He let me do just that.”

For 40 years, Dennis explored what the world offered, including illegal drugs. He struggled but also obtained some good things: a nice job, some inherited land, a new house, a wife, and even two children. But everything changed one night when Dennis arrived home to find his brother waiting for him. Apparently, his brother was angry over what Dennis had. A heated argument followed, and Dennis was shot in the neck. He fell to the ground, unable to move. He begged God to let him live to see his kids graduate into adulthood. They shouldn’t be without a father.

Dennis lay in the hospital in severe pain and total paralysis. His head was in a steel band. Every day he asked God to take away the hurt. One night, about six months later, he woke up to discover that all his pain was gone. He thanked God and then asked for the ability to move his fingers. The very next day he moved his fingers. Then he asked the Lord to let him talk, and he regained his ability to speak. “It was a miracle,” says Dennis.

Yet he found the problems of his heart and mind to be bigger challenges than his body. First, he had to forgive his brother and face him in court.  Both seemed impossible, and Dennis looked to several sources for help. No one had the answers—the healing—that he needed. Then he remembered the one who had miraculously restored his health before. So he prayed to the Lord, the only righteous judge, to help him forgive: “Immediately, that day, that cloud went over my head because I forgave him in my heart. That was the . . . greatest thing I’d ever seen from God. He showed me real forgiveness. I said ‘Thank you, Lord’ and I let the courts take care of it.”

Meanwhile, his wife hurt over their losses, and she, along with Dennis, went deeper into drugs. Their marriage fell apart. The children graduated, but Dennis felt his life was out of control. In desperation, he frequently visited the prayer chapel at his church and begged the Lord to take away his temptations. Ultimately, he confessed his struggles to the pastors there and agreed to submit to their counseling. He went to church services, Bible studies, and even turned over his finances to their guidance. He also agreed to go to the local Elim Home for addiction recovery. The church body showed him loving support, and his studies in the Bible showed him the truth about God and himself. He no longer desired drugs. In fact, he discovered a hunger for God’s Word.

One evening on the grounds of the Elim Home, Dennis found a piece of honeycomb. Curious, he took it back to his room and finished his daily study.  His workbook quoted Psalm 19:7-10 which states that God’s Word “gives light to the eyes” and is “sweeter than honey from the honeycomb.” Dennis looked at the honeycomb in his hand.  It was a token from his Father, the real one who now filled his childhood craving.

It had been a long, rough road for Dennis, and the light he found required him to give up most of his old, dark life, but it was worth it. Today his passion is to live for his heavenly father and, like Saul, he wants to share his joy with other struggling travelers who know that a good father is hard to find.

In the Midst of Steam

Steampunk: you may not be familiar with the term, but you’ve probably encountered its meaning. If you like Wild, Wild, West, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, the latest Sherlock Holmes movies, or the new TV show called Penny Dreadful; if you like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, H.G. Wells, or Jules Vernes, then you may already be a steampunk fan whether you know it or not. Considering that Merriam-Webster just added it to the dictionary, it’s time you got to know it better.

Steampunk? What?

Steampunk is a genre of entertainment based on Victorian style and technology. It often reimagines the modern age driven by steam-powered machines and mechanical devices instead of electronic ones. It’s been defined as “Victorian science fiction” and “Victorian alternate history.” Because of its focus on highly styled and highly observable machinery, it could also be described as technological romanticism. While its origins may be attributed to late-19th-century styles and inventions, steampunk has developed throughout various fiction works of the 20th century. The term itself was coined in the late 1980s by K.W. Jeter to explain the themes that he and other authors were exploring in their stories. Since being named, steampunk has evolved into a style that is influencing today’s literature, film, art, music, and fashion. Incredibly, its growing fan base has made all things Victorian almost mainstream.

Victorians are Vogue?

All things old are new again—at least, if they come from 19th-century England or America. How is it possible that American society (and some places abroad) would want to revisit a time period that we spent so many decades trying to put behind us? Aside from its great literature and gadgets, the Victorian Era has been greatly criticized for its social (and fashion!) constraints which narrowly defined acceptability and encouraged image over genuineness. Yet a closer look reveals intriguing comparisons between then and now.

Like then, we increasingly are becoming socially restrictive. Political correctness and centralized governance are efforts to stabilize a society that is drifting apart morally and politically. In the vacuum left by moral relativism and individualism, our younger generations place high value on group membership and “group think.” They intuitively understand that freedom must be tempered by control, and they are looking for ways to balance it. For example, to our coming-of-age citizens there is a little appeal in the Victorian answer to the gender question. Men could know they are men, and women could be confident they are women, even if it takes a constraining corset—although we still want the freedom to mix it up. That’s where steampunk fashion gets creative.

Compare also our technology. The Victorian Era saw the maturation of the Industrial Revolution, a time when mechanical inventions and processes dramatically changed the way we lived. Not only did new gadgets improve our house chores, but they created an entirely new segment of the work force: factory workers and office professionals. The average Victorian probably wondered at the quickening pace of living and the technology that was reaching into every part of life. The world was becoming strange to them.

Sound familiar? Today we are caught up in another technology wave: digitization. Our gadgets have gone electronic, made of invisible parts, and are doing our thinking for us at lightning speed. They tell us when to get up, what to eat, what to buy, what our stats are, and who we should marry. They turn all our relationships into digital code. They’ve changed how we live, how we work, and even how we talk. We are realizing we are addicted, and it’s a little scary.

Alternate & Aesthetic Appeal

So we see ourselves in the past, but what makes us embrace steampunk in particular? There’s more than one reason why our attention is turned to “Victorian alternate history.” Deep down, our collective conscious wants to know if we’ve missed a better path. Could we have gotten here a different way? We also want to foresee the outcome of our present, parallel era. If we’ve been here before, then what can we expect next? Steampunk lets us imagine: what if steam remained the dominant source of power in our society? What if electricity were merely a supportive source? What if digitization were never discovered? Would we be better or worse for it?

The central attractiveness of steampunk is its highly styled machinery. It beckons us to piece together our own complex machines with tangible parts, usually aesthetically fashioned. We can build from the ground up, and we can see how each piece works in harmony with the rest in order to accomplish a greater function. Again, these machines are a microcosm of a well-ordered society. Their observable parts reassure us of control and creative achievement. How we miss these elements now!

Goggles On!

There’s no denying that steampunk is a fun fad with a bonus benefit of exercising our imaginations. As it lingers, and as it gets ever closer to mainstream acceptance, it’s irresistible to analyze its cultural meaning. So, in the spirit of steampunk, I will imagine a little story of the future. Time will tell if it becomes an alternate history or not.

If our society, with its characteristics defined herein, continues in the direction acknowledged herein, we may see a new Victorian Era ahead. Outwardly, it will look very different from the original, but it will have embraced Victorianism. Social order and behavior will be well defined. Interactions will carry more formality as we relearn how to have relationships in the aftermath of our social media disillusionment. Appearances will remain important to us at this stage. We will be compelled to keep conventions. Social repression will finally birth a burst of creativity and invention. Technology will continue to advance and may even pave the way for colonial expansion into outer space. That expansion will make us question again who we are, and we will turn once more to individualism in order to find out.

Should this prove true, then time is clockwork after all. But what an elaborate machine it is!


Informative sources:





Strauss-Howe generational theory

Humor Comes from the Sky

Calling Card

Patsy is the best cook around these parts. She cooks for any and every reason, and she’s learned the secret of turning a talent into a personal ministry. Her specialties will cure any ill and make any gathering a party. No one turns down an invitation to her tasty wares—even the experimental ones. So when she splurges on some high-quality steaks, you’d better come running.

Perfect steaks pair nicely with a perfect summer Sunday. It was on such a day that Patsy got up early to marinate the meat and to prepare some made-from-scratch side dishes—yeast rolls, fresh garden salad, mashed potatoes, green beans. It would be a modest meal topped off with homemade strawberry shortcake that featured hand-picked berries and fresh cream. Her artwork was already half-done by the time she got home from church. The family would come soon. It was time to carry those steaks to the grill.

Grilling is a specialized cooking skill that typically requires time and teamwork in order to make a masterpiece. After 40+ years of marriage to Patsy, Donald had mastered his tongs, so when the steaks were brought out, his faithful, old grill was already fired up. The meat was laid gingerly onto its bars, juices sizzling on their surfaces, and the lid was lowered. The sacred wait was begun.

Steaks need tender care and coaxing to reach their full potential. Tucking, turning, stroking, and gentle talk are precisely timed moves in the grilling ritual. Donald checked the meat. It was about halfway done now and smelling delicious. His stomach groaned impatiently as he closed the lid again. That’s when it happened: the glass window in the lid shattered.

Some things don’t belong on a steak. Glass shards are some things. The grill master raised the alarm; the cook came running. Two greyed heads consoled and consulted over their crisis. Oh, the money, the work, the time! Who could serve a meal without its centerpiece? Maybe, just maybe . . . Donald shut down the grill, and Patsy moved the meat pieces onto a platter, eyeing them carefully as she carried them toward the kitchen. Maybe she could clean off the tops, maybe she could finish cooking them in the oven. Everything else was ready, and (she heard the sound of tires on the gravel of her driveway) the relatives had now arrived.

Coincidence is merely creative orchestration. As Patsy fretted over her food, a bird flew over her head. It dropped guano onto her steaks in perfect, ignorant timing. Well now, that made the answer clear: there’s something bad about this meat. Patsy chuckled in spite of the waste. This plate she bore was now a masterpiece, a story told in a chef’s language. Although the steaks were discarded, and disappointment waited at her table, it was, strangely, a satisfying meal.

Rain Check

From a child’s perspective, the sky is an awesome mystery worth talking about regularly. And sometimes, because it can’t be touched, you talk to it. But you never expect it to talk back. One day, for me and my buddy, it did.

Mickey was my next-door neighbor and the same age as me. So it was only natural that we’d spend our casual summer days playing together in our yards. On a typical day, we played games, invented role-play adventures, swam in an inflatable pool, and evidentially ended up on the swing set. I remember one time swinging and staring up into the late afternoon sky. The sun was no longer directly shining on us, but the sky was light and crowded with several cloud types, all white and reflective. I wondered what it was like to be up there. Then I turned my attention to Mickey’s conversation.

A drop of water touched my arm. Another touched my leg. Was it raining? Mickey felt it, too. We looked up, but we saw no gray clouds passing over us. We looked around, but there were no sprinklers or other sources of spray. The drops continued, and we knew we were supposed to stay out the rain. We ran into the open door of my parents’ garage, and we waited. This had to be some kind of short-lived rainfall that often passes in the summertime. Sure enough, in a couple of minutes, we held our hands out into the air and discerned that the rain had stopped. We ran out to our swings.

A few minutes later, we felt the beginning of another sprinkle of rain, so we ran back to the doorframe for cover. We were a little confused but not frustrated. This was just another way to play. Out to the swings once more we ran when the rain stopped. Where was the source of this mysterious rain?

My father stepped into the garage to work on some chore. I asked him how it could be raining without rain clouds. He looked up briefly to verify that the clouds looked rainless. Then he shrugged and replied, “I don’t know. Maybe God is playing a game with you.”

God plays? This was a profound and awesome surprise. He actually wants to have fun? With me? Mickey and I giggled at the thought. My dad stepped back into the house. Once again, light sprinkles of water touched my skin. This time, however, I fought the urge to go inside. The rain kept falling. Mickey and I kept playing. We were both grinning. This was better than any game we could have made up.


A perfect photo bomb

A perfect photo bomb