Book Review: The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis

Reflections for staying open this week: Watching salmon return to spawn
I had the opportunity to hear Ben Pink Dandelion speak last weekend at North Seattle Friends Church. His topic was early Friends in the context of Christian theology. One of the points I particularly came away with was not exactly new, but somehow it hit me differently.

While most Christian theology is based on creating a church to wait for end times, Quakers built their church on the premise end times were upon us. With unmitigated, universal access to God through internal revelation, the only thing standing in our way from salvation was our will. Other Churches built a complex series of rituals, expectations and doctrine required for believers to “hold out” on evil, but Quakers really seemed to think if we overcame our will anyone could be saved. Right away and forever. In the question and answer period, someone asked Ben about his own personal spiritual journey, “had he ‘come up through the flaming sword’?” In his answer, he shared that he had had mystical experiences but (and I paraphrase) he said he had not had the kind of unequivocal experience that kept him completely dedicated to his spiritual path. Compared to early Friend’s absolute certainty, he felt doubts at times.

The Screwtape Letters reinforced for me that obvious blunders or questioning one’s faith may not really be what evil is all about. If we are offered salvation in the here and now, is it making the occasional mistake that condemns us or does slow, grinding indifference consume our hope of ever finding inward salvation? The fear of making any mistake could be amplified if Jesus is waiting right around the corner, for sure. But Lewis mentions in my edition’s introduction that he imagines a tedious, bureaucratic and ultimately hollow hell rather than a spectacularly gruesome inferno. Wouldn’t the path to a place like that look tedious, detached? Throughout the book, his protagonist dwells on the subtle deviations overlooked by his underling on a quest for total corruption. Is it a waiting Christ we should worry about, or a demon on our back? How common is total corruption really? Like Ben described, isn’t it more typical to trip up here and there? How do we really find the unshakable certainty early Friends said they had and, if we cannot, how do we pick ourselves up rather than succumb to the status quo?

It’s my opinion neither early Friends nor any really faithful person can have unshakable faith. When Friends got around to writing their journals late in life, they had the benefit of hindsight to cast their missteps in the context of deeper spiritual wrestling. They kept coming back for more. If we are to take evil seriously, as Lewis suggests, we cannot think of it as an obvious corrupter but instead as a series of subtle justifications that divert us from our common purpose. It is a slowly built cynicism. If we can keep ourselves open, committed, eyes on the prize, I sense we have a good chance of escaping some demonic dinner plate.

Another reflection: Mt. Rainier’s shadow on the morning sky

Book Review: “Goatwalking” by Jim Corbett

I will admit that the title and cover of “Goatwalking” drew me in.  I had only a vague memory of the term “sanctuary” that kept me reading the jacket.  I was truly fascinated when I picked up the book and read in earnest. 

Jim Corbett’s narrative style appeals to me: he waxes philosophical with just the right mixture of fantastic imagery (he loves Quixote) and cowboy anecdotes.  He doesn’t jump right into his work with the Sanctuary movement, for which he is (in)famous, till late in the book.   “Goatwalking” is really a series of essays and excerpts from his journals, woven into a rationale for returning to nomadic lifestyles as a gateway to gospel order. Jim talks about his evolution as a goatherder learning to reconnect with his faith and surroundings, complete with fascinating information about goatherding and how following flocks is communing with our Biblical ancestors.  Many intellectuals could have left it there, but he jumps then into talking about how his herding through the Southwestern deserts eventually helped him build an underground railroad for central American refugees as they sought asylum in the US. As I look back on my reading, it’s almost a intellectual leap to link these ideas but the logic flowed naturally as I read. 

I can tell from his work that Jim was a Friend and a truly dedicated man. He saw way open to build an interfaith movement to exploit loopholes in US immigration law as US sponsored death squads were displacing thousands of people in El Salvador and Nicaragua.  Goats fade in prominence as he describes the huge amount of organizing he did in border communities in the 1980’s, building networks of supportive churches, handing out literature, and eventually standing trial for his work.  “Goatwalking” was published in the early 90’s, as his trial had wrapped up and he clear was reflecting on the fruits of his work.  He died in 2001, I was disappointed to learn.

Shortly after I returned to Olympia about 5 years ago, ICE had been raiding local communities to arrest immigrants and anti-war veterans were being harassed for their military resistance in protests.  In that context, a coalition of local groups joined up to draft a proposal for the Olympia City Council, designating Olympia a “Sanctuary City” for immigrants and war resisters regardless of their legal status with the US government.  A lot of work went into planning the proposal, which we knew would largely be symbolic but that we hoped would pave the way for some cross-movement building.  The day that we hoped to hand in the proposal, organizers held a rally and march downtown that was meant to raise up the issue.  During the march, some folks took it upon themselves to throw bricks through bank windows which is what made the paper.  Before long, the sanctuary proposal was completely discredited and in short order so was the City council (for other reasons)

This experience came back to me as I read Jim’s book, thinking about how much work it takes to organize communities and movements.  And not all work is speaking truth to the authorities, because sometimes they’re caught up in their own red tape.  Sometime the work is within, nourishing oneself on goat’s milk (which apparently is enough to keep you alive in the desert) and spiritual discipline.  I’m sorry that I never got to meet Jim Corbett in person, but I’m curious to learn more about the movement he helped build



I’ve decided I really enjoy places that show their seasons. Being from the Northwest, which does have distinct seasons but doesn’t always display them nicely, the dormant/cold to lush/warm cycle I first discovered in North Carolina has become a spiritual ritual for me. I travel so much I miss it by default but this year has been awesome.

I arrived in Italy this time from the cold in Washington, only to find an even colder and barer landscape. Everyone was hunkered down for the winter and by arriving in January I almost feel like I disturbed their hibernation. In the Villagio della Gioia, we shuffled through the mud because we had too. Arriving in Israel I could see they were just breaking free of winter, the tail ends of rain for them brought another meter of snow in Italy I missed completely.

Now I come back and it’s Gorgeous. Spring is gorgeous. Villafranca, the area around the villagio, is full of orchards now in bloom. Cherries and apples and many things I don’t recognize. One of my favorite things is to see the pruned branches blooming in the grass below the riot of blossoms above. It reminds me of the image of Christ, cut from humanity but still with us in spirit, expending all His earthly energy in Love.

I ate rabbit for an easter meal today. It’s part of a balanced Romangolo diet; they think more about doves than rabbits at this time of year. I enjoyed it, symbolism be damned.

A New Year

I’m sitting in my grandmother’s house listening to the heater vents blow.  I feel so appreciative of this sound.  I know it is surrounded by warm carpets and the art and knick knacks I’ve grown up around in short visits and dark spells of retreat.  These objects of family and warmth and history are more stable than any of the other physical places of “home”  I’d like to hang onto.  I have my family around me here. Now.   I have my love visiting from far away.  I’ve shown her  around my hometown and now feel ready to take off with her into a new adventure.

I’m appreciating memories and moments of love because there has been such darkness in my life this year.  As I sat with friends around a circle of candles in the darkness on Solstice eve, or stared into the depths of a fire in the woods on the night of, I thought about how tough this year has been.  My night has been my own.  I’m just wrestled with my head and heart so much this year.  Talking with my mom as I drove down the slick highway, I had to brake harder than I wanted to as I was lost in the punctuation of describing how much has changed for me.  I don’t see her much so she notices the big things that shift for me more than the small.  And she says she sees a difference too.

Welling up

thewellNow that I’ve started talking about my town and the fill beneath it, I’ve released some thoughts that just have to flow.

For one thing, I can’t help but eddy a bit around some of the most beautiful features of this fair city.  Besides the Security Building (OoLaLa) one can’t help but mention the much less auspicious artesian well.  This well, the source  late night refreshment after all manner of carousings, community contention, the wettest parking lot in town, a slightly metallic aftertaste and strange cadre of devotees, is totally sweet.

All of Olympia’s infill brushes miraculously close to a fresh, clean and unimaginably cool aquifer. I imagine all manner of subterranean dwarves have their way with it before we get to it, but by the time it spills in sunlight its giving our beer an edge and  putting a skip in our step.  I fill up jugs from the most (un)regulated open air pipe in town to drink on my boat.  When I’m drinking the water later, I feel incredibly lucky to have it.  Incredibly lucky.

You can see Ankara peek over the hill

dscn1162So Kenan tells me as time goes on I will stop caring whether this writing makes sense or has any point to it. I’ve struggled to prove him wrong lately, feeling fairly untethered in my thoughts. With the hum of city life all around here, it does become difficult to sift through what is meaningful and what isn’t. I’d say my last posts are a fairly weak effort to squeeze something soulful out of myself.

But no squeezing is necessary today. Today Naciye indulged me with a trip to the local lake. I was shocked to discover such a beautiful place so close to the city, especially since I never even heard it mentioned before last week. Most baffling was my friends attitude to such a simple treasure so near by. When Naciye got her foot stuck in the mud she reluctantly admitted she was more comfortable in the city. Kenan begged off coming along with us with the disappointing excuse of “having to work,” but the other day he even mentioned not missing the sight of trees that much anyway.

How could this be? What does this or any city really have to offer that swaying reeds and fresh chilly breezes, even shoreline muck, can’t deliver? I guess city folk justify the relevance of urban life with its culture, art and activity, but what about the simple culture of geese honking at the setting sun? What about the art and technique of skipping stones? What about the hustle and bustle of a herd of rabbits grazing under strings of lights? (I can even forgive the cigarette butts)

My mantra these days is balance; I’ve certainly not perfected it. But as sure as my footing on a floating dock, my love of simple beauty buoys my soul.