The Gospel According to Steinbeck


“We don’t take a trip, a trip takes us.” – John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley

We parked our motorcycles at the curb in front of the John Steinbeck Public Library in Salinas and paused a moment to get our bearings. We had meant to stop at the Steinbeck Museum for our afternoon break, but Pastor Dave, the only one of us three motorcycling pastors who had his phone mounted on his handlebars and Bluetooth connected to a com unit in his helmet had entered a little bit of misinformation into the guidance system. So there we were at the library. Not at the museum. “Let’s walk,” said Dave. “It’s only a few blocks and it will be good to stretch our legs.” So, carrying our helmets, jackets draped over our arms, off we went. For a few blocks. Very. Long. Blocks. And more than a few. Or maybe it just felt like that because our footwear, ideal for long miles on motorcycle foot pegs was a little less well-adapted for city hiking. And yet, because we were on foot we saw the town differently than if we had simply motored through it.  The buildings stood out, each proclaiming both its individuality and the timeless, simple elegance of a bygone era.

 “Try to understand [each other]. If you understand each other you will be kind to each other. Knowing a [person] well never leads to hate and almost always leads to love.” –John Steinbeck

If you ever find yourself near Salinas with a little extra time on your hands, the Steinbeck Museum is worth every minute  you can spare. I confess that I have not read much of his work beyond what was required in high school. I have seen a few old movies adapted from his works or written by him for the screen, but it has been so long ago that I had forgotten, if I ever knew, just how much impact he had on this country. To walk through settings that evoke both the scenes of his life and work as well as the decades and social conditions of the time while surrounded by quotes from his writing and well-selected video clips of film and stage scenes from his pen was a powerful and moving experience. I learned long ago that the Word of God can come to us in unexpected ways and through unexpected voices. I was reminded once again that one persistent, prophetic person whose eyes are wide open, who is really thinking about what they see and why they are seeing it, a voice who is not afraid to name both the injustice and the beauty of the world can make a difference, can nudge the slow tide of transformation in the direction of God’s vision for us all.

“But the Hebrew word, the word timshel—‘Thou mayest’— that gives a choice. It might be the most important word in the world. That says the way is open. That throws it right back on a man. For if ‘Thou mayest’—it is also true that ‘Thou mayest not.” –East of Eden

Life is a journey. That little chestnut is such a cliché that we tend to file it under the pile of overdue bills in the unsorted stacks of “things we’ll deal with later” in the cluttered corners of our souls. Cliché or not, it’s still true, and sometimes it takes an actual journey to remind us of that truth. We make choices or we don’t—which is also a choice. We pay attention or we don’t. We follow the map or just follow the road we’re on because we’re not sure where we’re going anyway. And even if we’re very careful and sure of our route the truth remains: “We don’t take a trip. A trip takes us.” Stuff happens. People say things. People do things. We respond. Sometimes our responses are good and appropriate. Sometimes not so much. Sometimes we stand firmly in the life and love and light of Christ. Sometimes in our own shadows.

“I believe that there is one story in the world, and only one. . . . Humans are caught—in their lives, in their thoughts, in their hungers and ambitions, in their avarice and cruelty, and in their kindness and generosity too—in a net of good and evil. . . . There is no other story. A man, after he has brushed off the dust and chips of his life, will have left only the hard, clean questions: Was it good or was it evil? Have I done well—or ill?” –East of Eden

 “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect,” said Jesus in Matthew 5:38, except that he probably didn’t intend to say that at all, at least not in the way we tend to hear it. Walter Wink in his book Naming the Powers points out that in both Hebrew and Aramaic there is no such word as “perfect” as in flawless. Even the Greek word which gets translated as “perfect” was only very rarely used to mean flawless. In all three languages the word that gets translated as “perfect” really means “whole” or “complete.” Be whole as your heavenly Father is whole. Be complete as your heavenly Father is complete. Be the person God made you to be. Have integrity, be consistent, be good, be generous and loving, be forgiving, but don’t delude yourself that you can ever be flawless…at least not in this life. Doesn’t that make more sense? How much evil has been perpetrated by people trying to obtain or enforce some kind of externally defined “perfection?” How many people have twisted their own souls out of shape by trying to be flawless in a world where flawlessness is a self-righteous trap?

“And now that you don’t have to be perfect, you can be good.” –East of Eden


The Light Side of Lent

“Every desirable and beneficial gift comes out of heaven. The gifts are rivers of light cascading down from the Father of Light. There is nothing deceitful in God, nothing two-faced, nothing fickle.” -James 1.17 (The Message)

Lent came early for me this year, its deep, contemplative shadow absorbing some of the shine of Christmas, Epiphany and Transfiguration, not dimming those shining feasts, exactly, but certainly making them stand out in starker contrast so that I could examine more of their details, looking past the sheer brightness of the revealed Christ to see the very human Jesus who is often overshadowed by all that incandescent divinity, obscured under the heaviness of all that light. You have to look through some pretty dark lenses and filters if you’re going to see what’s happening on the surface of the sun.

What happened was this: on the 5th day of Christmas I learned that in a deep and dark precinct of my body, a place where, literally, the sun don’t shine, a gang of cells had become rebellious, mutating and multiplying according to their own whim instead of according to their ordained function. In other words, cancer. If it had its own way, this gang of cells would take over everything, never realizing that in doing so they would destroy themselves by contaminating and collapsing the little universe in which they live and move and have their being, namely me.

Ah, but even in the valley of the shadow there are rivers of light cascading down from the Father of Light; even the cross has to stand in the light to throw a shadow. I am blessed to live in a time when there is a potent tool to suppress the cellular rebellion inside me. And get this… that tool is—are you ready?—light! Light is quite literally saving my life. In the 2nd week of Epiphany I began my own little Lent. Every day for 40 days (really, 40 days!) I go to a clinic and lie down on a table under a linear accelerator which bombards me with a stream of photons. Photons. Particles of light! It works like this: the rebellious cells can’t stand the photons, the light. They wither and die. But the healthy cells adapt. “And this is the judgment,” says John 3:19, “that the light has come into the world but some love darkness because they are up to no good.”

Oh, the metaphors! Oh, the analogies! One could riff on all the cancerous business of contemporary culture or personal failings for all 40 days of Lent and still barely scratch the surface. But let’s not. Yes, there are devils and beasts in the dark hollows of our personal wildernesses, but there are also angels. See Mark 1:13 if you don’t believe me.

So here is Lent–forty days to shine a little light on what ails you. Forty days to shine some light into the darkness of your duffle and see if anything slithers away. Forty days to lay out your laundry in the sunshine and maybe dispose of some of those old attitudes and ideas that never did fit quite right on a child of God. Here is Lent—a good gift of a season full of shadows, but shadows that testify to the presence and power of the Light.

Note:  My 40 sessions of radiation therapy will be complete on Tuesday, March 17, the Feast of St. Patrick. 

A Quiet Place

Thoughts Along the Way…

I stood there on a beautiful green hillside, standing just at the edge of the shade made by a canopy erected for the occasion, my guitar slung over my shoulder, my fingers on the strings poised to play. But no music came to my fingers. I had led the procession up the hill from the hearse, carrying my service book, walking ahead of the pall bearers who carried that beautiful walnut casket, a work of art with its satin finish, carrying within it the mortal remains of an even more beautiful and complex work of art, God’s own handiwork, God’s baptized child, our friend and companion on the journey, John.

The casket was settled gently on the stand above the grave. The pall bearers removed their white gloves and took their places amid the others gathered for the words and rites that would commend our John’s life into God’s hands and commit his body to the earth. As Sandy, John’s widow, had requested, I was going to play something on the guitar, some music to speak to our souls before the words to speak to our hearts. So there I stood with my guitar, ready to play, people looking at me, some expectantly, some with peace, some with encouragement, some with a plea or yearning for something I could only guess at, and all I could think about for a moment in that moment was the noise.

Huge earth movers were shaping new hillsides for new graves a few hillsides away, their giant diesel engines growling across the landscape. Just beyond them a crew in a helicopter was doing something undoubtedly important to the power lines held aloft on their giant towers that always look to me like the Martian monsters from H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds. C.S. Lewis once described the Kingdom of Hell as The Kingdom of Noise. I think that’s a pretty apt description. This was supposed to be a quiet, peaceful moment in a quiet, peaceful place where we could all let a bit of gentle music and words of promise carry us to the edges of our own deep wells of thought and feeling. But how could I begin to cut through all that noise? What is an acoustic guitar against the growl of earth movers and the whopping of a helicopter?

I must have looked as if I was waiting for a signal, and maybe I was. Sandy looked at me, smiled and nodded, and I realized in that moment that if this was not going to be the quiet place in the world that I was hoping for, that I thought it should be, that I had expected, then I was going to have to find a quiet place in me. The music would have to come from a quiet place in me and I would have to trust that somehow the quiet would be powerful enough to cut through the noise.

I closed my eyes and listened. Blest Be the Tie That Binds was flowing from my fingers, and when I looked up, I could tell that others could hear it, too. The melody then rewove itself into Just As I Am and as I played, unconscious of my playing, I let those notes full of grace speak to my own heart. Without a pause my fingers moved into Simple Gifts, the old Shaker tune that promises us that “When true simplicity is gained, to bow and to bend we will not be ashamed, to turn, to turn ‘twill be our delight, till by turning, turning, we come round right.”

Somehow, the quiet cut through the noise. Somehow the melodies of unity, grace and simplicity pierced the wall of mechanized cacophony that had seemed so overwhelming. Somehow people heard it all the way to the edges of the crowd. “Not by might, not by power, but by my Spirit,” says the Lord. And in all truth, the Spirit was my amplifier in that moment.

I won’t pretend to tell you that the music wafting from my guitar carried everyone to a place where they were prepared to truly hear the power and truth of all those words of hope and promise we speak as we lay our loved ones to rest. But it carried me to a quiet place where I could speak those words with faith, confidence, and something akin to joy.

So very, very often the world seems to be doing its very best to bury our better, deeper thoughts and feelings in a coffin of noise. So very, very often the thing we need most, long for most is simply a quiet place to think and feel and, depending on the situation, speak aloud to ourselves where it is quiet enough to hear our own voices. Sometimes we desperately need to get away to a quiet place. But since the world won’t often let us do that, we need to find that quiet place inside us. There is strength there. There is beauty there. There is power and grace and love there. And music.

Pro Gloria Dei,

Pastor Steve