Monday, November 24, 2014

Christian Wiman & Eugene Peterson

In October, my wife and I had the unique privilege of being a part of a weekend with these two men.  I am stilling pondering the conversations.  I will try to write on more of this soon, but here is a visual beginning:

Poet and Pastor: Christian Wiman & Eugene Peterson from Laity Lodge on Vimeo.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Of Sea, and Sunsets, and a Land without Time

“as wave upon wave rolls in, breaks on the beach, and sinks away in the endless gray water; eternally one and ever another…life is but a moment before the ancient, primal sea.  And we are unable to turn our gaze away, for hours on end we stare over the foamy crests, outward – to where? – we hardly know ourselves, but it draws our gaze into the endless distance, out to where the sun sinks into the sea, where the waves rise, and the soul stretches out, wants to know what the eyes cannot sense – wants to know about what is beyond the grey sea – or whether it just continues on eternally like this, without and end, without a beyond, a process of becoming and passing away with neither measure nor goal – and yet as intensively as it searches, it always sees the same drama…no hope…eternal hiddenness.”

Surviving fragment of a sermon by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, from November 28, 1928

Recently, we have spent a week on the island of Kauai, enjoying warm days devoid of schedules, routine, and the seemingly endless hurry of the mainland.  Each day, we three spent a good amount of our time simply gazing out at the endless breaking waves on the beachfront; enjoying local surfers plying the waves for hours.  It’s remarkable how soothing this can be; how soft and gentle upon the busy and weary urban soul.  

In reading and conversation during that week, I learned that the ancient Hawaiians had no form of time keeping before the arrival of European explorers, and historians are unaware of any reference to their use of anything resembling a sundial to keep track of the time of day.  Hence, there were no Hawaiian words referring to precise time prior to the arrival of Europeans; before the arrival of our schedules, and meetings, and “efficiency”.  

Before we came, there were just these warm and gracious people, and this brilliant blue sky, pure white clouds, palm trees, and the sound of the endless breaking of this deep blue ocean.  Before we Europeans arrived came there were only the perpetual nightly sunsets of saffron, leaded grey, and brilliant red gracing the horizon.  Nightly gifts of Providence fading toward eternity.  

The last time we visited here was nine years ago.  Our daughters were just 11 and 14, and we enjoyed a fun vacation on two islands, engaged in all sorts of kid-friendly activities.  This time there are three of us, as Older Daughter is starting off a new post college life, away in Chicago with her new job, and tribe of warm friendships.  There is a gentle bittersweet to this trip.   Earlier this week we three took a trip back in time to a place we visited during our last stop here.  It was if we each were being drawn back to relive something deeply good and full of mercy. 

Tunnels Beach is on the far north shore of Kauai, north of Waimea Bay, where the road stops and you just cannot drive anymore.  After the Big War, there was an attempt to build a road around the north end of the island, but this is one of the wettest spots on the planet, and after months of surveying and planning and then attempting to dig into the jungle, the effort was abandoned; surrendered to nature and given back to the persistent rain and endless time of this island.  

Tunnels is also known as one of the easiest and best spots on this island for snorkeling.  We headed to the end of the road,  across to the beach, and into the blue waters; warm and gentle.  We swam out into the surf, suddenly surrounded by an abundance of ocean life right beneath us.  Reef fish of every imaginable color and size, eels slithering at arm’s length – a striking gift before our eyes.  Coming back up for air, you take a look back at the beach and are rendered nearly speechless at the vista of the deep green mountains that descend down to the beach, of palm trees, and of brilliant blue water around you.  I’m not sure if the tears in my eyes were from the salt water, or the brilliance of that view.  

Or perhaps it was the sudden and deep understand of Who it was that designed all this rich tropical beauty for us to absorb.  After just a few minutes of exploring, we encountered the gentle and constant underwater attendants of the reef – soft green adolescent sea turtles gently swimming through the tide.  We spotted at least three; each one wearing on his face what seemed to us like a soft smile as they gazed back at us - we awkward large white creatures wearing what must look like space suit snorkel gear on our faces.  I suspect those turtles know something of timelessness, as they drift softly through the immense sea. We are intruders in their world, but they tolerate us with smiles on their faces.  They have no schedules, no place to be today.
But I have a schedule.  It’s kept in my electronic calendar on my cell phone.  And on my PC at work.  It’s backed up on The Cloud, don’t you know.  I am proud of that schedule there; it gives my life purpose and meaning.  It keeps me occupied and feeling like I am making a difference.  That schedule affirms the vibration of some protestant work ethic deep within me.

I noticed something each late afternoon from our beachfront vista.  Something we dubbed “The Big Event”.  Every night, without fail, as twilight approached, the beachfront road would fill with cars and trucks, each containing a local or two just getting off work – coming to the beach for the end of the day.  And then from the rooms behind ours came more folk; the obvious tourists, dressed in mainland styles that gave away their point of origin.  Some brought beach blankets, others a bottle of wine to share, each quietly coming forth together.  Sitting and standing silently or in quiet conversation.  

And we were with them there each night to witness something simple, and timeless, and in a way even sacred.  It was sunset time.  Each night the sky would fill with colors indescribable and gorgeous.  For just those few moments at the close of the day, we were all quietly sharing a “moment before the ancient, primal sea.”  And, we were unable to turn our gaze away.   It was timeless, and beautiful, and fleeting.

And I standing there, thought of Bonhoeffer's words.  I wished that my soul could stretch out.  I wanted to know what my eyes cannot sense.  And yet, I have this strange comfort in knowing that I have seen enough in these years to feel that my life is carefully attended by the Artist of those sunsets, by the Alchemist of these seas, and that time, whatever that means, is held for me in a deep and sacred place.

I think the ancient Hawaiians, with their lack of time keeping, may have a great deal to teach me. 

Saturday, August 09, 2014

Review: The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work

An apology for the recent lack of content here, I propose to post more soon.  We shall see if that actually happens.

I have recently come across a remarkable book that I must recommend, with caution:

It is generally recognized that approximately one third of our adult years will be spent working.  Given this, it would seem logical that there would have been a vast number of books written on the depth of the meaning and purpose of work. 
Mysteriously, meaningful treatments of the purpose and philosophy of the Western World of work are lacking, which raises the potential significance of Alain De Botton’s, The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work (2009).  De Botton is a luxurious writer who has the ability to describe life and its ironies with poignant, gentle and touching language.  This effort is one of the most evocative and thoughtful treatments of the working life I have read, and yet, there is something profound and cosmically important missing from this otherwise beautiful book.
De Botton begins by poetically describing the world of cargo ships, their worldwide destinations, and even those whose hobby is “spotting” these giant ships and they come and go the world’s ports.  From here, the reader explores the beauty and pain, and indeed the pleasures and sorrows of a vast array of occupations, from cookie manufacturing to rocket science, to accounting, landscape painting, and logistics, among many others.  The array of occupations is diverse and fascinating.

If we are honest, most of our working lives are rather mundane and insignificant if taken on a daily basis.  The language used by De Botton to describe the working of his diverse cast of characters is sweeping and often poetic.  Who of us would not want a man of his writing skill to describe with thoughtful clarity the work we dutifully attend to each day? 

However, in the end, the reader is left flat, with a lack of encouragement, substance, meaning and purpose in this touching study of work.  After all the glowing language and intriguing descriptions, the reader is left feeling at a loss for virtually any good news about work.  Alas, from De Botton’s view, there is little purpose in the act of work; the news mostly is that of the “sorrow” side of work.  There is also a rather persistent subtle theme on the vacuous and empty soul of capitalism, which is fascinating, given the author is the son of a very wealthy European family.  

The final sentences of the book reveal a profound emptiness, which is my greatest sorrow and largest problem with this otherwise wonderful book:  “Our work will at least have distracted us, it will have provided a perfect bubble in which to invest our hopes from perfection, it will have focused our immeasurable anxieties on a few relatively small-scale and achievable goals, it will have given us a sense of mastery, it will have made us respectably tired, it will have put food on the table.  It will have kept us out of greater trouble”.
A bit of research reveals the reason for the sad ending to this book.  De Botton is an atheist, having been raised entirely outside of any religious tradition.  So much so, that in January 2012, De Botton published Religion for Atheists, about the benefits of religions for those who do not believe in them.  Now that is fascinating; go ahead people, steal the ideas of great religions, just don’t believe any of them.

To me, a lack of belief in God is the primary trouble with this otherwise outstanding book.  In the end, our work, all of it, and all of us, are essentially meaningless.  It keeps us out of greater trouble.  How sad, to lead a life, and produce a book, that essentially in the end instructs us that all is meaningless and devoid of purpose. 

As an inspiring response to the hopelessness of De Botton, I would heartily recommend “Every Good Endeavor” by Tim Keller.

Monday, June 09, 2014

Pale Blue Dot

Here is something entirely existential for your consideration:

“Look again at that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar," every "supreme leader," every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there-on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam."

- Carl Sagan

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Whitman, "Oh Me!, Oh Life!"

Apple has recently developed a commercial that is simply brilliant, and quotes from Whitman's poem, "Oh Me!, Oh Life!".  There is far more going on here than selling IPads.  These lines were penned more than a century ago, and yet, seem so fresh and current to our world.  The questions asked here are deep and profound, and seem more pertinent the older I get.  There is Gospel in the answer to this poem.

O Me! O Life!

By Walt Whitman
Oh me! Oh life! of the questions of these recurring,
Of the endless trains of the faithless, of cities fill’d with the foolish,
Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?)
Of eyes that vainly crave the light, of the objects mean, of the struggle ever renew’d,
Of the poor results of all, of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me,
Of the empty and useless years of the rest, with the rest me intertwined,
The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life?

That you are here—that life exists and identity,
That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Sarah Jarosz at the Largo

Last Wednesday night a small group of friends, along with about 200 other happy fans, gathered at The Largo on La Cienega to enjoy the music of Sara Jarosz.  Miss Jarosz has been nominated for two Grammys; we will be rooting for her on Sunday night.  What a great troupe of talented musicians, what a remarkable evening! 

Below is a clip from a concert we missed at The Troubador a year or so ago.....our experience was just as warm and wonderful as this:

And for her encore, Miss Jarosz chose this song by Paul Simon - and for the first time in a long time, I sat in the dark and remembered the long ago joys and disappointments of my youth; thankful for the poets and song makers of those days, and today.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Christmas and Family Together

This afternoon we said goodbye to our Canadian family - five from age 12 to forty something who traveled more than 2,000 miles just to be with us for the week of Christmas.  What an honor and what a joy.  What a lot of laughs!

They were all such great sports, tolerating the goofiness of our little family here, and our odd American Christmas revelry; the church family service with crying babies, noisy kids in the pews, and a particularly despicable King Herod.  There was the noisy Christmas dinner at the home of dear friends, with all the usual characters of weirdness and relation that the years seem to collect.  Board games and car rides, Christmas crackers and basketball in the back yard.  Its all a blur, where did the time go?

The house is a bit quieter now than it has been for the past week.

And in the quiet this afternoon, I stumbled upon this lovely and dare I say transcendent song by Mary Chapin Carpenter, joined by one of my favorites, Aoife O/Donovan -- Transcendental Reunion

The lyrics are below, followed by an concert version of this song, which is allowed for embedding.  Also I would strongly recommend you go view the better version on YouTube, recorded during the Transatlantic Sessions, with dobro guitar master Jerry Douglas.  It is simply lovely.

This song helps me to reflect on the mystery of the blessing of family.  A belated Merry Christmas to all.  And may the New Year give you the ability to recognize how much of life, even the little moments, are really transcendental in nature, if we will just pay attention.

From 20,000 feet
I saw the lights below me
twinkling just like Christmas
we descended slowly
            and the curve of the world passed
            with all of that flying
            above the mighty ocean
            and now we all are arriving
grab the carry on baggage
join the herd for the mad run
take a place in the long line
where does every one come from?
            as we shuffle on forward
            as we wait for inspection
            don’t be holding that line up
            at the end lies redemption
            Oh Oh, Hey Hey, Ah Ah

Now I’m stamped and I’m waved through
I take up my position
at the mouth of the cannon
saying prayers of contrition
            please deliver my suitcase
            from all mischief and peril      
            now the sight of it circling
            is a hymn to the faithful
Forgive me for my staring, for my unconcealed envy
in the Hall of Arrivals where the great river empties
            it’s hand carts and porters
            all the people it carries
            to be greeted with flowers
            grandfathers and babies          
            Oh Oh, Hey Hey, Ah Ah

There is no one to meet me
yet I’m all but surrounded
by the tears and embracing
by the joy unbounded
            the friends and relations
            leaping over hemispheres
            transcendental reunion
            all borders vanish here
We are travelers traveling
we are gypsies together
we’re philosophers gathering
we are business or pleasure
            we are going or coming
            we’re just finding our way
            to the next destination
            and from night into day
            Oh Oh, Hey Hey, Ah Ah,
            Oh Oh, Hey Hey, Ah Ah

In a giant bird’s belly
I flew over the ocean
from 20,000 feet high
how those lights were glowing

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Laudate Dominum - W.A. Mozart Lyrics - Sublimity Defined

Recently, I came upon this solo and choral piece, composed in 1780 by Mozart, designed for liturgical use in the Salzburg Cathedral. The the work was intended for vespers held on a specific day on the liturgical calendar.  This was Mozart's final choral work composed for the cathedral.  I cannot stop listening to this, it has become my Advent devotional.  I play it as I drive home from work, as I drive to instruct classes at UCLA, and as I drive home, giving thanks for my class and the opportunity to be out in the world.

The first part of the text is the entire Psalm 117, and the second part is the standard Doxology which appears at the conclusion of many texts, including all the psalm chants.

Can we just pause for a moment in the midst of this annual insanity of Christmas rush to reflect on the profound mystery of the immaculate conception, the embarrassment and shame that followed that young couple who were both awakened in the night by visions of angels, and then the small, seemingly insignificant birth of a little baby boy in a barn.  

Events that put together, still conspire to change the course of history, even today.  It is enough to make me weep.

The translation goes like this:

Laudate Dominum omnes gentes, Praise the Lord, all the nations,
laudate eum omnes populi. praise him, all the people.
Quoniam confirmata est For his loving kindness
super nos misericordia ejus, has been bestowed upon us,
et veritas Domini manet and the truth of the Lord endures
in aeternum. for eternity.

Gloria patri et filio Glory to the Father, Son,
et spiritui sancto, and to the Holy Spirit;
sicut erat in principio as it was in the beginning,
et nunc et semper is now, and ever shall be,
et in saecula saeculorum. world without end.
Amen. Amen.

Amen, indeed.  Merry Christmas to all.

Monday, December 09, 2013

Norris Family Christmas Update - 2013

Christmas Cheer from our family to you!

This has been quite a busy year for us Norris folk. Exhibit A: a sampling of the places we four, separately and together, have been in the past 12 months. New York, Minneapolis, Tuolumne Meadows, Oakhurst, Quito (Ecuador!), Chicago (twice), Austin, San Diego, Santa Rosa, the Ecuadorian Amazon, Maui, Toronto, Yosemite Valley, Amsterdam, San Francisco (twice), Brussels, Seattle (thrice!), and Copenhagen. The three trips to Seattle were due to 1) Husky season football tickets, 2) oh yes, we have a daughter in school there. I am tired just thinking about it all!

A Graduate! Huzaah!
Kelly Norris is a proud graduate of DePaul University, with a Bachelor of Science, majoring in Elementary Education! Kelly’s graduation ceremony was one for the record books, with her dearest friends; Joni, Emma, and Whitney (from College of Charleston, Tulane, and Loyola New Orleans respectively) all in attendance. Another graduation gift was the presence of dear family friend, Jill Williams, from Austin. Add to that pomp and circumstance, one eager grad ready to tackle life, and two very proud parents. Mix in some outstanding gourmet dinners full of celebration and laughter. Kelly is now working hard almost full time at the Rose Bowl Aquatic Center, tutoring kids part time, and coaching the special needs swim team. It is such a joy to hear Kelly tell stories of the children she patiently works with each day; some of the tales are hysterical, and the twinkle in her eye when she tells them is priceless. In her spare time, she gets credit for the European and Ecuadorian visits noted above. Up next, she plans to teach English abroad, prospective locations include Ecuador, Thailand, and Chile. Right now, Kelly is loving having time to do as she pleases, especially after 16 years of school and constant structure. Ah, to be young again!

From the Rainy Pacific Northwest
Heather is now a sophomore at the University of Washington. It’s safe to say that this past year has been the hardest, busiest, and richest year of her life. Heather spent 10 weeks this past summer as a counselor at Yosemite Sierra Summer Camp, where she was stretched in many ways leading a different cabin of girls every two weeks. Her camp experience solidified her desire to pursue early childhood psychology in the coming years at the UW. She also has a nanny job for a family of FOUR girls all under age 7, which gives her great joy. Classes are hard, but she is studying subjects she cares about deeply. She is living in Christian community, has solid friendships, and is learning to love the Pacific Northwest, in spite of the gloom and fall cold/wetness. Heather is planning on returning to camp next summer, where she will continue to fall in love with the beautiful back-country of Yosemite, and pursue with joy an investment in the lives of kids. She wants all to know she feels continuously blessed by all the Lord has given her. Come to think of it, we all do.

For Others, with Love
Nancy continues in her role as the President of the Board of Club21 – a learning and resource center for families of children with Down syndrome. This Fall the Club21 Annual Walkathon was a smashing success, with over 700 people in attendance and nearly $100,000 raised in a single day! She is also serving as an Elder at Hollywood Pres, our church of 25+ years, serving with Steve on the Young Life Area Committee, and also working with teen moms. This summer, Nancy also took a week to help her parents, Cliff and Ruth, move from their Toronto house of 42 years into a nearby city-view apartment. All reports are that they are greatly enjoying their new digs! Nancy celebrated a significant birthday this summer with a lovely candlelight backyard dinner gathering. Present were of some of those that she dearly loves; and both girls made it home from hither and yon for the Big Event.

25 Years!
This past September the four of us paused just long enough from all the busy-ness of life to escape. Completely. This Fall marked our 25th wedding anniversary, and a celebration was called for! We four all piled onboard a west bound plane headed for Hawaii. Thus followed nine days of gentle Maui trade winds, snorkeling with turtles off a catamaran, paddling a real outrigger with a genuine descendent of King Kamehameha, zip lining 1,000 feet above the forest, laughing, watching the sunrise at the top of a volcano (Dad slept in, thank you), swimming in the surf, laughing harder, lounging by the pool, a road trip to Hana and the grave of Charles Lindbergh, breathtaking sunsets, and so many stars in the night sky you could cry. Did I mention that we laughed a lot? And I will admit, I teared up several times at the gentle beauty of those countless tropic stars, mindful of their Maker - we are so blessed to have been given the gift of the relationships in our family for all these years, and I am graced beyond measure to be married to my lifelong companion on this amazing journey, Nancy.

As for me, this fall I began a new chapter, teaching a real estate analysis class with UCLA Extension. I love the classroom, and after 30 years of experience in the field, am honored that others might think I have something to share. I also continue my involvement with Fuller Seminary, serving on the Advisory Panel to the School of Intercultural Studies.

In past years here, I have attempted to say something of modest theological significance concerning the impending Christmas season. This year, I’ve decided it’s high time to let someone with far more wisdom and writing skill do the honors. So, below, you will find a mediation on Christmas from Frederick Buechner, a pastor and writer, that reflects upon the Christmas miracle in quite exquisite language. Please know that your friendship is part of our Christmas miracle and thankfulness.

Christmas Peace, Joy, Laughter, and Love to all from our home to yours!

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Frederick Buechner - Christmas

Without any prior warning, this past Sunday marked the first Sunday of Advent.  Is anyone ready for the Christmas Season to be thrust upon them again?  There were Christmas decorations in Costco starting before Halloween.  Each year, it seems we are less prepared, less ready, and perhaps even less accepting that Advent, the Season of Hope, is upon us. 

Given this, it seems fitting to share here a Christmas meditation by Frederick Buechner, a pastor and writer.  I have never read anything that comes closer to summing up my emotions, wonder, and sometime distant sadness mixed with hope at this time of year.


The lovely old carols played and replayed till their effect is like a dentist's drill or a jackhammer, the bathetic banalities of the pulpit and the chilling commercialism of almost everything else, people spending money they can't afford on presents you neither need nor want, "Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer," the plastic tree, the cornball crèche, the Hallmark Virgin. Yet for all our efforts, we've never quite managed to ruin it. That in itself is part of the miracle, a part you can see. Most of the miracle you can't see, or don't.
The young clergyman and his wife do all the things you do on Christmas Eve. They string the lights and hang the ornaments. They supervise the hanging of the stockings. They tuck in the children. They lug the presents down out of hiding and pile them under the tree. Just as they're about to fall exhausted into bed, the husband remembers his neighbor's sheep. The man asked him to feed them for him while he was away, and in the press of other matters that night he forgot all about them. So down the hill he goes through knee-deep snow. He gets two bales of hay from the barn and carries them out to the shed. There's a forty-watt bulb hanging by its cord from the low roof, and he turns it on. The sheep huddle in a corner watching as he snaps the baling twine, shakes the squares of hay apart, and starts scattering it. Then they come bumbling and shoving to get at it with their foolish, mild faces, the puffs of their breath showing in the air. He is reaching to turn off the bulb and leave when suddenly he realizes where he is. The winter darkness. The glimmer of light. The smell of the hay and the sound of the animals eating. Where he is, of course, is the manger.
He only just saw it. He whose business it is above everything else to have an eye for such things is all but blind in that eye. He who on his best days believes that everything that is most precious anywhere comes from that manger might easily have gone home to bed never knowing that he had himself just been in the manger. The world is the manger. It is only by grace that he happens to see this other part of the miracle.
Christmas itself is by grace. It could never have survived our own blindness and depredations otherwise. It could never have happened otherwise. Perhaps it is the very wildness and strangeness of the grace that has led us to try to tame it. We have tried to make it habitable. We have roofed it in and furnished it. We have reduced it to an occasion we feel at home with, at best a touching and beautiful occasion, at worst a trite and cloying one. But if the Christmas event in itself is indeed—as a matter of cold, hard fact—all it's cracked up to be, then even at best our efforts are misleading.
The Word become flesh. Ultimate Mystery born with a skull you could crush one-handed. Incarnation. It is not tame. It is not touching. It is not beautiful. It is uninhabitable terror. It is unthinkable darkness riven with unbearable light. Agonized laboring led to it, vast upheavals of intergalactic space/time split apart, a wrenching and tearing of the very sinews of reality itself. You can only cover your eyes and shudder before it, before this: "God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God . . . who for us and for our salvation," as the Nicene Creed puts it, "came down from heaven."
Came down. Only then do we dare uncover our eyes and see what we can see. It is the Resurrection and the Life she holds in her arms. It is the bitterness of death he takes at her breast.
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