how 20 years of life became a book

Front coverThe wonderful Russ Burpee, who used to greet worshippers in our church foyer with a warm hand and beaming smile, told me more than once: “You ought to collect your columns into a book, Charley. People would read it.”
I took his advice seriously, admiring Russ as I did. But I didn’t act on it. After all, my columns appeared every week in The Grand Rapids Press Religion section. Why would people want to read the same columns again just because they were bound together, and pay money for them to boot?
But as the years went by, the idea seemed to gain merit. The longer you stick with something it seems to acquire more value. Being a plumber for 20 years deserves a certain recognition. As I closed in on two score years of religion writing, a greatest-hits package beckoned.
Thus “Faith on First: Thoughts on God, Nature and Sacrifice Bunts,” which collects four score of the more than 900 columns I’ve written since 1994. That was when The Press’ previous religion editor, Ed Golder, asked me if I would like to inherit his job. Incredibly, I said yes, and even more incredibly, I loved it.
I hope that love is evident in the columns I’ve assembled. Truly, in my 35 years as a reporter and editor, no news beat has brought me as much reward as religion. In covering the meaning of life from week to week, I’ve met so many wonderful, interesting and inspiring people, some internationally famous, some who live down the block. It’s been a privilege to write about them, whether it’s the giggling wisdom of the Dalai Lama, the fortitude of Ed Dobson, the pot-stirrings of Rob Bell or the genius of Anthony Torrone and his amazing Lego creations.
It’s been a pleasure as well as to offer my thoughts on issues of the day and questions of the age. Such as: How did the universe begin? Where does the time go when it goes? Why doesn’t God answer when I ask him simple questions? And why do I keep losing my glasses?
The book also includes two of the blogs I’ve written here, a foreword by my friend and fellow journalist Pat Shellenbarger and an entirely made-up commentary by my favorite Detroit Tigers broadcasters.
Indeed, baseball is the colorful thread that ties these essays together, much like the Dude’s rug in “The Big Lebowski.” Baseball’s slow, ritual rhythms comfort my perpetually worried soul like a Gregorian chant. Why “Faith On First”? Because being on first base means you’ve gotten there through good effort. It feels good to be there, with the hope of rounding more bases and possibly coming home – much like the reassurance of faith.
If this sort of thing interests you, my book is available at Schuler Books & Music in Grand Rapids, where I will have a book-signing at 7 p.m. on May 8. If you don’t live in West Michigan, you can order it at http://www.schulerbooks.com, go to “Browse Our Shelves” and click on “Local Authors.”  Or just send me an email at honeycharlesm@gmail.com.
Self-promotion goes against the grain of any self-respecting reporter. But if Russ Burpee felt I should publish a book, that’s good enough for me. I hope you agree.

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a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second

That’s how long it took for the universe to get started, or even less. So say really smart astrophysicists after having detected “gravitational waves” left over from the Big Bang 13.8 billion years ago. Some say it might be one of the biggest scientific discoveries of all time.

To which I say, wow, hallelujah,Image and what was that again?

First of all, if no band has yet taken the name of “Gravitational Waves,” I hereby claim it should the Honeytones ever disband. (That will never happen, but I’ve still got dibs.)

Second of all, this is mind-blowing news of the first order, and of much higher quality than most of what passes for such. For this news points to how we actually got here, or, as one helpful video with a lovely British accent puts it, the beginning of everything.

But is it really the beginning of everything? Or if it is, what was there before the beginning? And who began it?

That is, what or who could take a “submicroscopic speck of primordial energy,” as The New York Times put it, and blow it up in the space of a trillionth of a trillionth etc., thereby starting a universe that now measures 14 billion light years across? And that’s just what we can see.

The discovery of little swirls in the universal background of microwave radiation – don’t ask me to explain it – by scientists camped out at the South Pole is breathtaking news. It’s almost like someone took a selfie of Genesis (the book not the band).

Reporters struggle to explain it to us mere laypeople. It’s like the ripples of sand left by the waves. It’s like seeing the same coffee cup cooled at the same rate wherever you look. It’s like a 40-minute jazz odyssey by Spinal Tap (that one is my contribution).

But what does it mean, exactly? Does it mean that the universe, or the un-universe, just sat there cold and dead until one day it decided to snap to life? If so, how long was it cold and dead before it snapped to life? And just how does cold, dead matter “decide” to snap to life?

With apologies to Neil deGrasse Tyson, who explains such things much more elegantly in the reboot of “Cosmos” now showing on Fox, these questions get my brain working overtime. These gravitational waves pull me toward the idea that there must have been a creator who got the waves rolling.

I was roundly slapped for posing that really unradical thought in my recent column on “Cosmos,” by an online commenter who said I might as well say a pink unicorn created all the flatulence on Earth. (Clearly this man has not read the Gnostic Gospel of the Pink Unicorn.) But Tyson himself, an agnostic, admits science doesn’t know the answer to Where It All Came From.

Certainly, a universe created by chance is at least as implausible as a universe created by a creator. The latter makes more sense to me. As the Jewish physicist and author Gerald Schroeder had posited, the universe could have started as an idea – God’s idea.

I don’t know about you, but to me a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth brings to mind a familiar phrase: Let there be light. 

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when lonely, I go Facebookin’

shivering boyThis morning I awoke with a general restlessness and insecurity. I was graced with a cup of strong coffee and the warm comfort of a real person, my dear Andrea. How nice to be able to start counting your blessings at 5 a.m.
But beyond that – Andrea must ready herself for work – how to answer this nagging insecurity, which borders uncomfortably on loneliness born of an unsettling dream? Why, all my friends from the ether, of course. Good morning Facebook!
Like Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks finding a bit of solace in the quaint “You’ve got mail!” of opening their AOL accounts – in the romantic comedy of the same name — I find comfort from a short dip in the lap pool of What My Friends are Doing and Thinking. With two keyboard clicks I’ve gone from the isolated pond of my own thoughts to the swimming community of theirs.
In 1966 Robert Parker sang of the joys of dancing in his minor hit “Barefootin.’”So permit me the little joys of Facebookin,’ aimlessly floating down the stream of other people’s lives while I try to get back to my own.
So today I see a touching video of an 11-year-old boy shivering at a bus stop in Oslo, Norway, and all the people who offered him their coats, scarves and gloves. It was a promo film for SOS Children’s Villages International’s campaign to find clothing for children displaced by the Syrian civil war. It was staged with a volunteer boy, yet still a welcome demonstration of human caring – something I personally am always glad to see.
Also: an aerial photo of the Great Lakes frozen over, compliments of my friend Steve from Stratford, Ont.; a funny Far Side cartoon posted by Kenny from Detroit; two cats snuggling into an open suitcase shared by Tracy of Ada; news of a land gift to Meijer Gardens from Jim of Grand Rapids Township; a much-commented-upon think post about Miley Cyrus from Brian of East Lansing; and, God bless him, a clip posted by John Serba of the just-late Harold Ramis and his classic “print is dead” scene from “Ghostbusters.”
As you can see, nothing here will change the course of American foreign policy. But it did change the course of my day just a little, drawing me out of myself which at the moment was not a wonderful place to be.
Facebookin’ can also be an annoying distraction, of course, especially if you’re not the one doing it. You’re trying to have real human interaction with this person but he just keeps scrolling through his phone like a little kid glued to his Gameboy. This kind of Facebookin’ does not enhance community, it nibbles away at it.
Facebook can also be a mindless way to not deal with your own stuff. Rather than pay attention to your discomfort and sit with it, as Pema Chodron would advise, you cover it over with superficial surfing of other people’s stuff.
And, I do worry about Mark Zuckerberg’s potential power over the entire human enterprise when he’s got the buying habits and musical tastes of more than 1 billion users at his fingertips.
Still. Facebook as community when you keenly feel a lack of it can be a balm to the troubled soul. It can even be a place of spiritual sustenance, lifting you from your closed-in mindset to a broader view of what’s happening out there as seen through others’ eyes. It brings you closer to other souls, whether troubled or content.
Well, I will not make definitive proclamations about the social good of Facebook. I will just say that today I was grateful for it. And now I must get back to my own “real life.”

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confessions of a ‘Downton Abbey’ slacker

 

Photo by Nick Briggs, Carnival Film & Television Limited

Photo by Nick Briggs, Carnival Film & Television Limited


One evening many years from now, when Andrea is knitting a sweater by the fireside and I am sipping medium-priced wine, the college student we had over for dinner will turn to me and say, “We’ve been studying the Golden Age of Television, in the early 2000s. ‘Downton Abbey,’ ‘Breaking Bad’ and all those awesome shows. You were there – how great was it?”

I will have to take a long sip of chardonnay, look at this expectant young person and say, “I’m sorry, but I missed it.”

The young person will be disappointed, but luckily Andrea will chime in, “Oh, I saw a lot of it. ‘Dexter’ was amazing. So were the ‘The Sopranos,’ ‘Oz,’ ‘Six Feet Under,’ ‘Sex and the City.’ And ‘Homeland’ – my God, it just about killed me.”

I will be able to honestly say I too loved “Homeland,” having endured every single episode of CIA agent Carrie Mathison (aka Claire Danes) and her bipolar, sweat-inducing heroism. But as for the rest, I will know as little about them as I will about “War and Peace,” which I still will not have read.

In this widely acclaimed Golden Age of Television, I am at best an outlier, at worst a cultural pariah. I experienced a certain amount of shame every time I was at a bar and people started going on about “Dexter,” and can you believe that last episode?  I listened timidly like they were talking about their investments, waiting for the opening to say, “So, how about those Tigers eh?”

Nowhere is this cultural cluelessness more acute than with “Downton Abbey,” which in its fourth season is the finest wine on TV. People structure their Sunday nights around it. The New Yorker writes about it and NPR talks about it. It’s one of the hottest cultural conversations going, but dolts like me have nothing to contribute.

I recently came out as a non-Downton-watcher on Facebook, admitting the guilt I feel. Holy cow. More than 40 comments came forth, everything from “Yes, you should feel guilty” to “Maggie Smith is incredible” (I know, I know!) to “I don’t watch it either” to “all the truly intelligent people everywhere on the planet watch Downton Abbey.” (Pretty sure that last one was sarcasm.)

Despite several fellow non-Downtoners coming to my aid, I felt even guiltier afterward. Truly, it was clear how much many of my friends love and watch this show. So why don’t I?

The feeling this engenders is more than guilt. It is that I am MISSING OUT. Just like I missed out on “The Sopranos,” “Madmen” and all the other shows friends told me I should watch. Worse, thanks to Netflix and iTunes, the opportunity is always there to still watch these shows. Just set aside an entire weekend, forget the laundry and you’ll be all caught up.

I have watched enough episodes of these shows to know I would like them. But there are two problems in catching up on “Downton Abbey”:

1) I do not binge-watch.  I grew up watching “Rawhide” at 8 p.m. Friday nights. I just will never feel right watching 10 shows in two days, as if time has no meaning in the universe.

2) I’ve already seen it. Back then it was called “Upstairs, Downstairs.”

I religiously watched almost every episode of that marvelous “Masterpiece Theater” series from 1971 through 1975.  I delighted in its rich characters: the regal but fundamentally decent Lord and Lady Bellamy; their dashing but disappointing son James; the haughty butler Mr. Hudson and feisty cook Mrs. Bridges; and most of all, the stern but kind-hearted maid Rose.

To see Mrs. Bridges offer up her “win the war pie” as a patriotic menu during World War I brings back the humor and poignancy that anchored my Sunday nights as I recovered from the Sixties. Forty-plus years later, I have no need of new characters to enact essentially the same story. I want my butler to be Mr. Hudson and my maid the lovely Rose. I would rather be nostalgic than hip.

Oh, I will probably watch “Downton Abbey” someday, with Andrea knitting by the fire after we’ve had our Sunday-morning drive.

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why was that man struggling in the snow?

Lake Michigan Drive 2A man was lying on the snowy sidewalk, struggling to get up. I saw him as I pulled up to an intersection on Lake Michigan Drive. No one else was stopping, so I thought I’d better.
As I turned around to park on his side of the street, I noticed he was clutching his arm in pain. Could be a heart attack, I thought. I called 911 and asked if they could get someone over there. The dispatcher asked me to find out more information first.
“Sir, do you need some help?” I asked. He had gotten on his feet by this time. His face was pale and unshaven, his eyes glassy and dull, his lank hair hung down. A string of saliva ran from his mouth to his sleeve.
He took one glance at the cell phone in my hand and said no thanks, he was all right. He started to walk away. “Is there anything I can do for you?” I asked. No, I’m okay, he said, although he clearly was not.
I filled in the dispatcher and went back to my car, feeling ill at ease and guilty. Of course there was something I could have done for him. For one, I could have taken him to The Other Way Ministries a few blocks away, where they could have fed him and found out his story.
But that would have meant driving him in my car. I wasn’t afraid he would hurt me, but I didn’t want to let him into my car and my life. Who knows where that might lead? I could end up hung up with him for a couple hours, for an entire day or even, conceivably, for years.
I pulled back onto Lake Michigan Drive and turned the car around, driving in the direction the guy was walking. He was gone. In the space of the maybe 30 seconds I’d taken my eyes off him, he had disappeared. I looked down side streets, in driveways, on porches. Nothing.
It was weird. Like the guy had actually vanished. As if he could have been a ghost, or an angel. Is it possible he was actually put there to see how I would respond? Was he some sort of divine test of my humanity? That seemed highly unlikely. And yet, I had to say, possible.
If so, I felt I had earned a C-plus at best. At least I had stopped, unlike several other motorists. But that was, indeed, the least I could have done.
Once before I had been confronted with such a situation, or test if you will. I was in college and working the night shift at a Big Boy in East Lansing. I was a cook and went out back to put something in the Dumpster. There, slumped against the building in the dark, was a woman, her face streaked with tears.
I asked if I could help. She assured me she was beyond help. I asked why. She told me a tale of misery, lost chances, sorrow. She had been drinking. The words flowed. I kneeled and listened. I sat there for maybe half an hour or more, however long it took for the cops to come. They took her away.
The encounter left me feeling empty and, again, guilty. Yes, at least I had done something for her. I had listened, paid attention. But surely there was more I could have done for this aching soul, one person among billions for some reason put in my way that night.
Was she also put there for a reason, like the man in the snow? Was it a test of my humanity? Did God want something from me? Or was it just random chance, like a leaf that just happened to fall at my feet in the scientific swirl of existence?
No way to know, of course. But these questions that nag me, and the haunting face of the man in the snow – these, I believe, are put there for a reason.

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God save the village green, and the Kinks

the kinks

playaway.com

Christmas, 1968 was a watershed for my musical evolution. Make that a tsunami. On that date I received three life-changing albums: “The Beatles” (aka the White Album), the Rolling Stones’ “Beggars Banquet,” and “Super Session,” a wonderful blues-rock amalgam by Mike Bloomfield, Al Kooper and Stephen Stills.
It was a power pyramid featuring the best of the First Great Rock Era, with the Beatles at its peak. I listened to all four sides of the White Album straight through on Christmas Eve, my headphones taking me on an incredible journey through every musical style they could produce, then insisted my brother do the same.
It was only years later – just now, in fact – that I learned the White Album was released the same day, Nov. 22, as another album that would later change my life in subtler ways: “The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society.”
“We are the village green preservation society/God save Donald Duck, vaudeville and variety,” the Kinks sing in choir-boy fashion on the opening track. “God save little shops, china cups and virginity.”
Huh? While Mick Jagger was railing away on “Street Fighting Man” and John Lennon screaming on “Revolution,” Ray Davies was mooning about a vanishing world of custard pie, antique tables and billiards. While the rest of us were manning the cultural and political barricades of the Sixties, Davies was taking a quiet walk into an idyllic past.
Forty-five years later, “Village Green” stands as the signature statement of one of rock’s finest songwriters and a quiet classic of the rock repository. Its 15 tracks are a kind of short-story collection, a suite about sentiment, the passing of time and the value of memory.
It was a complete commercial flop. Besides being so hopelessly out of step with the times, it wasn’t helped by the fact the Kinks were banned from touring in the U.S. at the time. (Kinks cultists, feel free to explain why. Something to do with a fight with the musicians’ union.)
For Davies, who was just 24 then, it’s also a remarkable transformation from the raw lust of “You Really Got Me” just four years earlier. As the world got louder and more violent, Ray’s songs got quieter and more introspective. I still find them nurturing and comforting as we mark 50 years since that other, traumatic Nov. 22 of 1963.
For such a young man, Davies has already come to regret the passing of a simpler England that seemed to be fading away. On the melancholy song “Village Green,” he laments:
“I miss the village green and all the simple people./ I miss the village green, the church, the clock, the steeple./ I miss the morning dew, fresh air and Sunday school.”
He could be writing about one of the little hamlets in the Cotswolds. More likely, it’s the village he imagined while walking around Hampstead Heath, the wild tract of fields and woods bordering his north London hometown of Muswell Hill. It’s an idealized world, but the ideal itself seemed to be crumbling under the street fighting and commercial development of the late Sixties.
Relationships, too, are not what they once were. In the album’s most memorable track, “Do You Remember Walter?,” Ray regrets how time has changed an old friend:
“Walter, remember when the world was young and all the girls knew Walter’s name? / Walter, isn’t a shame the way our little world has changed?”
In barely two minutes, Davies sketches the dissolution of two friends “who said we’d fight the world so we’d be free,” to a day when Walter wouldn’t even recognize him.
“I’ll bet you’re fat and married and you’re always home in bed by half past eight./ And if I talked about the old times you’d get bored and you’d have nothing more to say./ Yes, people often change but memories of people can remain.”
How to help preserve such memories? The idea of photographs preoccupies Davies on “Picture Book,” a bouncy number that was revived as a TV ad for HP printers, in the album’s one moment of commercial semi-success. He imagines looking through a photo album as an old person, dreaming over “pictures of your momma, taken by your papa, a long time ago.”
Surely there is some comfort in that. But on the album’s closing track, “People Take Pictures of Each Other,” Davies sees photos as a kind of cruel trick, a false way of trying to dry-freeze the stuff of memory:
“People take pictures of the summer/ just in case someone thought they had missed it/ and to prove that it really existed.”
The song’s jaunty cheerfulness belies its underlying sadness. “Pictures of things as they used to be” may seem to bring back the past, but they also are painful reminders of time’s passing:
“People take pictures of each other/ and a moment can last them forever/ of a time when they mattered to someone.”
He concludes an album of nostalgia on a note of regret: “How I love things as they used to be./ Don’t show me no more, please.”
“Village Green” itself is a kind of picture book, for me. Listening to it now, more than 40 years after I first discovered its magic, reminds me of how much I have changed from that young man — and how much different life is. Isn’t it a shame the way my little world has changed?
And yet I do find comfort in these sweet snapshots of times past. They remain my friends as I walk toward an unknown future, accompanied by the echoes of the Kinks’ choir boys:
“Preserving the old ways, from being abused./ Protecting the new ways, for me and for you./ What more can we do?”

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a Grand Rapids snow: 11/24/13

snow 1“A Grand Rapids snow”
mom always called it –
fat, soft flakes
coming down as thick as the fall leaves
still scattered dry and brown
across the freezing ground.

I saw them first on the road
between Boston and Adams streets
cinematic thru my windshield.

I let “Sleigh Ride” play
on the radio, not waiting
for Thanksgiving Day
(as I usually do)
for the haunting bell of the carols
ringing me back to childhood
and Andy Williams singing
“Do You Hear What I Hear?”

Today I heard it in the grocery
as the flakes began to tumble
in the parking lot
and so I decided
the season has already begun
not on my timetable
ordered so Advent-neat in my mind
but on your time, o God.

Your breath blew the flakes
past the bargain bins
before the mad crush begins
beyond my racing mind
mad with worry and ever out of time
back down thru all the years
the many, many days
most of which I have forgotten
to a time when all was still
and I watched the snow
and gasped at the lights
with untutored delight
and sang the carols
around the piano
which Mom played so brightly.

So it is today
as I stand among the flakes
of a Grand Rapids snow
to no tune, only a dog’s bark
and echoes of Andy Williams.

The flakes fall on my face
and swirl around my mind
each one a fragile memory
half-remembered
just before it melts.

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