Look to the heavens and see; And behold the clouds (Job 35:5)

“Bows and flows of angel hair and ice cream castles in the air
And feather canyons everywhere, I’ve looked at clouds that way
But now they only block the sun they rain and snow on everyone
So many things I would have done, but clouds got in my way
I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now
From up and down and still somehow
It’s cloud’s illusions I recall
I really don’t know clouds at all”.

The study of clouds is of no small practical importance to numerous people – meteorologists, farmers, sailors and aviators; but among all the cloud-gazers one group of people in society observe the clouds with greater philosophical interest than any other – the poets. All the great poets from Browning, Coleridge, Kipling and Longfellow to Shakespeare, Shelley, Tennyson and Wordsworth along with so many others down through the ages have had their head in the clouds, figuratively speaking. The poet/author who wrote the book of Job exhorts the reader to, “Look to the heavens and see; And behold the clouds.” So it is reasonable to ask what can be learned by beholding the clouds. While we may not have given it much thought, clouds also permeate the scriptures from Genesis to Revelation. Since that is so, it is good for us to contemplate the subject. We should look at clouds from both sides now, that is to say, in both a literal sense and also a figurative sense.

Consider, if you will, the presence of clouds. One of the things that I love about the autumn is the arrival of the first cool breeze that sweeps away the heat and the haze and the humidity of the late summer. With that refreshing breeze come those distinctive, fluffy white clouds that scurry across the sky and instantly I am caught up and carried back across time and ocean to days gone by. Once more, I am sitting on top of a hill, watching similar clouds as they move across the English countryside, casting their shadows across the patchwork quilt of fields below – some now bathed in sunshine, some now blanketed by shadows. The landscape doesn’t change – but the presence or absence of the sunshine makes a world of difference to the way we view things. And isn’t that an allegory, or picture, of the troubles that come into our lives? They can affect our view of God and our relationship to Him if we look only to our present circumstances. As I look out across the landscape of my life and those who I know and love, I am reminded that clouds have, at one time or another cast their shadows over many of us. The loss of a loved one; divorce; sickness; financial problems; job loss – all of these are clouds in our life.

The presence of clouds, speak to the trials of life. Again, going back to Job, we read: “For affliction does not come from the dust, nor does trouble spring from the ground; yet man is born to trouble, as the sparks fly upward.” Imagine Job and his friends sitting under the stars at night, around a fire, while he contemplates the calamities that have befallen him and his household – the loss of his children, the loss of his earthly treasures and the loss of his health. As he stares into the fire, numbed by the shock of all that has happened to him, someone stirs the fire to add another log and the sparks dance their way up into the dark night sky while those words lay heavily on his heart; “man is born to trouble as the sparks fly upward”. The clouds of life are a given – as surely as we draw breath we will face troubles.

Ponder these words penned by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, entitled “The Rainy Day”:

“The day is cold, and dark, and dreary;
It rains, and the wind is never weary;
The vine still clings to the mouldering wall,
But at every gust the dead leaves fall,
And the day is dark and dreary.

“My life is cold, and dark, and dreary;
It rains, and the wind is never weary;
My thoughts still cling to the mouldering past,
But the hopes of youth fall thick in the blast,
And the days are dark and dreary.

“Be still, sad heart, and cease repining;
Behind the clouds is the sun still shining;
Thy fate is the common fate of all,
Into each life some rain must fall,
Some days must be dark and dreary.”  

Not only do the presence of clouds speak to the trials of life but they also speak to the transience of life. If we revisit Job sitting around the fire we find him lamenting: “Terrors”, he says, “Terrors are turned upon me; They pursue my honor as the wind, And my prosperity has passed like a cloud”. Riches are fleeting, indeed. Where is our confidence placed for the future? Are we feeling comfortable with our savings and investments; with our career plans; with our retirement strategy? Do we look to our political leaders for direction and hope? But what about Job – didn’t he have every right to feel confident about the future? He was healthy, wealthy and wise. He was well respected in his community. His children brought no shame to his household. He helped the helpless and he served the Lord. And yet calamity upon calamity fell on him leaving him a broken and destitute man who wished he had never been born. His reputation evaporated along with his health and wealth.

And how often did Jesus refer to the fleeting nature of human existence? Recall, if you will, the parable of the Rich Fool. His land was fruitful, his barns were filled to capacity and he had more than he knew what to do with. But just like Job, calamity was about to befall him and he didn’t see it coming: “Soul”, he says to himself, “Soul, you have many goods laid up for many years; take your ease; eat, drink and be merry”. “Fool”, God replies, “Fool! This night your soul will be required of you”. Again, recall that Jesus likens our lives to the morning mist, which disappears with the rising sun and as grass, which withers and is thrown into the fire. How transient, indeed, our lives are and how often our plans are turned on their head when clouds overshadow our lives.

When considering the presence of clouds we should also consider the process of cloud formation. Sometimes the build-up of clouds is a gradual thing and you have time to anticipate the coming storm. I recall, many years ago, watching the company that I worked for slowly die. I was anxious, and nervous about the probability of being unemployed. It was like watching a little cloud on the horizon steadily grow into a menacing storm cloud as it moved toward me. I could see it coming and there was no way to avoid it – no way to escape from it. And that’s often the way it is in life. Perhaps it’s an unusual little lump you find in your body, or some other irregularity that creates anxiety, or the announcement by the doctor that your loved one has early indications of some disease that will slowly cause their vitality to seep away. The prognosis isn’t good and the long term outlook is bleak – the storm clouds are gathering. Or maybe it’s a problem child or a wayward spouse that’s breaking your heart. You see them heading for disaster but you can’t turn them away from the course they are on. And the clouds grow steadily darker until, finally, the storm breaks upon you.

But, sometimes, the clouds are upon you before you know it. When I was 14 years old, I was in the Air Training Corp (the equivalent of an air force ROTC) and we went off to summer camp at an RAF station in Devon in the southwest of England. One of our activities was a day on the moors, conducting an orienteering exercise. We were dropped in teams at various locations and given a map and compass and a destination point to get back to. First team back won the competition. Well, the moors of England are renowned as a wild and desolate place and the weather is extremely fickle. We started out on a beautiful, clear morning, but suddenly around midday thick clouds rolled in off the ocean and completely enveloped us in their swirling mists in a matter of minutes. It was so thick that we had to travel in single file holding the edge of the cape of the person in front of us while the leader continued to follow the compass heading. Had we not kept in physical contact, we would have been separated and lost. But, after a while, those clouds departed as quickly as they had come and we found ourselves back in the sunshine once more.

Sometimes, when the clouds of life are upon us before we know it we think we are alone, abandoned by God in the midst of our trials; but recall, once more, the words of Longfellow: “Behind the clouds, is the sun, still shining.” It is true to say that you could not see the clouds if the sun was not shining behind them. It’s a wonderful illustration of God’s sovereign control over all things.

So after having considered the presence and the process of clouds, what then, one might ask, is the purpose of clouds? One of the first things we have to realize is that God owes no one an explanation for what He chooses to allow in our lives. Poor old Job – all he wanted was an opportunity to plead his case before God and yet the heavens were like brass to his prayers. He argued with his friends, he justified himself. He emphasized his own righteousness based on his good works and he couldn’t understand why he was suffering while the wicked were enjoying the luxuries of life and ridiculing him. “Why?” he asks, “Why? Why is this happening to me?” And don’t we do the same thing? Yet listen to these words from the King James translation of Job 36:32, “With clouds he covereth the light; and commandeth it not to shine by the cloud that cometh betwixt.” With clouds He covers the light, and He commands it not to shine, by the cloud that comes between. Between what? Between us and God. Between heaven and earth. God places the cloud there for a purpose.  He causes the sun not to shine on us for a season. Why? The answer to that question can only be found by looking back from the vantage point of having gone through the storm – and maybe not even then. But consider Job 37:13, “He causes it to come, Whether for correction, Or for His land, Or for mercy.” What is the “it”, to which he refers?  The rains bound up in the clouds, of course.

Let us consider the three reasons given.

For correction – did He not use the rains to cleanse the earth of the wicked in the days of Noah?

For His land – listen to these verses from Deuteronomy 11:11 – “but the land which you cross over to possess is a land of hills and valleys, which drinks water from the rain of heaven”, and v.14,15 – “then I will give you the rain for your land in its season, the early rain and the latter rain, that you may gather in your grain, your new wine and your oil.  And I will send grass in your fields for your livestock, that you may eat and be filled.”

For mercy – think back to Elijah and to the drought and severe famine brought on the land by the sin of the people. Then think of the rain, which came to a parched and barren land after three years of judgment. But also when we think of mercy, consider the cloud that covered Israel and led them for 40 years while they wandered in the wilderness.  That’s mercy.

In the desert there are seldom any clouds. And where there are no clouds, there is no rain. And where there is no rain there is no growth. No growth? Who would want to live in a barren and parched land where there is no growth? And yet that is what we are seeking for our lives when we desire to avoid the clouds of life. Consider the Apostle Paul’s words to the Roman church: “We also glory in tribulations, knowing that tribulation produces perseverance; and perseverance, character; and character, hope.  Now hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us.” What are tribulations?  Are they not, simply, the clouds of life. Is it not, then, for our ultimate good that God allows the clouds into our lives?

img_7105“The sunset”, as one of my favorite authors – F.W. Boreham says, “The sunset is not the glory of the sun, it is essentially the glory of the clouds.  When the west is a pageant of fire, when earth and sky and sea melt into a riot of crimson and violet and gold, it is the clouds that most deserve our admiration.  As though they cannot bear to let it go, the clouds catch the dying sunshine and hold it, even after the sun has vanished from our sight.  They toss it to each other until every feathery fragment and fleecy tatter is ablaze.” He goes on to say; “When the sun sinks behind the clouds and appears through the vapor like a ball of fire, it is possible to behold it with steadiness and comfort.  You see the sun through the tapestry of the clouds as you can never see it in its unveiled splendour”. A clouded life, he therefore reasons, is a life of revelation. Men cannot look upon the sun when it is bright in the skies. Ah, but when it passes behind the clouds, that’s another story!

I walked a mile with Pleasure,
She chattered all the way,
But left me none the wiser
For all she had to say.

I walked a mile with Sorrow,
And ne’er a word said she;
But, oh, the things I learned from her
When Sorrow walked with me!

The clouded life, then, is one that can reflect the glory of God’s Son. It is a life through which God reveals Himself, in a way that we don’t otherwise see, when the skies are clear and the sun is shining.

So, having looked at the presence, the process and the purpose of clouds; let me conclude by looking at the promise of clouds. Acts 1:9-11, in speaking of Jesus’ ascension, tells us, “He was taken up, and a cloud received Him out of their sight.  And while they looked steadfastly toward heaven as He went up, behold, two men stood by them in white apparel who also said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand gazing up into heaven?  This same Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will so come in like manner as you saw Him go into heaven.” As we read in Matthew 24:30, “And they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.”

Revelation 21:1-4 declares, “Now I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away.  Also, there was no more sea.  Then I, John, saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.  And I heard a loud voice from heaven saying, ‘Behold the tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them, and they shall be His people. God Himself will be with them and be their God. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away.” There will be no more clouds in the life of the Christian; for they will have fulfilled that which they were sent to accomplish.



The Meeting Point Of Two Worlds

I saw Byzantium in a dream, and knew that I would die there.  That vast city seemed to me a living thing: a great golden lion, or a crest serpent, coiled upon a rock, beautiful and deadly.”  So begins the epic story of Aidan, an Irish monk chosen to travel with a company of fellow monks carrying an illuminated manuscript (The Book of Kells) as a gift for the Emperor of all Christendom who resides in Byzantium.  A true story no less, although fictionalized, but a remarkable journey that took far longer and a more circuitous route to complete than was originally envisioned.

Byzantium - Stephen Lawhead

Byzantium, Constantinople, Istanbul – for generations untold, that fabled city has been a destination or a gateway to the east for travelers.  Our own trip to that legendary city began with a book also – well, a lot of books actually.  We were invited to help deliver school curriculum material to an International School in Istanbul.  On the morning of our departure a perfect crescent moon and bright morning star hung together in the inky blackness of the pre-dawn sky – a reminder that next time we saw it we would be standing on Turkish soil. Our arrival at Ataturk airport was a reminder that Istanbul is (as Mustafa Kemal Ataturk said) “the meeting point of two worlds”.  Middle Eastern culture, customs and people intermingle with those from the west.  We were met by friends at the airport then, after a traffic-jammed ride past blocks of high-rise apartments festooned with air-conditioning units, TV satellite receivers and clean laundry, we found ourselves deposited on the doorstep of a small hotel in the Sultanahmet district.  It was actually quite a pleasant little hotel: clean and quiet (except for a nearby loudspeaker calling the faithful to prayer at about 5:00am) with a helpful and accommodating manager.  It wasn’t the Pera Palace, but then unlike Eric Newby’s account of his stay in A Short Walk In The Hindu Kush as a prelude to his Asian adventure, our plumbing worked quite well.

Hindu Kush Cover Pic“We grew fond of the Pera Palace; the beds had big brass knobs on and were really comfortable.  Our room seemed the setting for some ludicrous comedy that was just about to begin.  Probably it had already been played many times.  It was easy to imagine some bearded minister of Abdul Hamid pursuing a fat girl in black stockings and garters round it and hurting himself on the sharp bits of furniture.  In the bathroom the bath had the unusual facility of filling itself by way of the waste pipe without recourse to the taps.  We watched this process enthralled.”

 As it turned out, this occurrence happened every time the guest next door pulled the plug on his bath causing the water to back up into Newby’s tub.

Our first venture on foot in the narrow, winding roads of the historic section took us past a roadside vendor with his cart squeezing fresh juice from oranges and pomegranates (like this vendor we met in Izmir later in our trip):



Stores lining the Hippodrome.

We made our way up to the broad promenade of the Hippodrome (an ideal location for people-watching) which was filled with temporary booths for the vendors of food and gifts as it was the season for Ramadan.  The streets were mainly given over to tourists since the locals couldn’t eat, drink or smoke until sundown.

One storekeeper, who spoke excellent English (having worked for some time on Alaskan fishing boats), told us the fasting tended to make the populace a bit cranky. Understandably so, if one is used to coffee and nicotine to start the day!  The Hippodrome is now a large city square – a park-like structure with some interesting monuments commemorating its past history as a race course and the sight of a major massacre:

Throughout the Byzantine period, the Hippodrome was the centre of the city’s social life. Huge amounts were bet on chariot races, and initially four teams took part in these races, each one financially sponsored and supported by a different political party (Deme) within the Roman/Byzantine Senate: The Blues (Venetoi), the Greens (Prasinoi), the Reds (Rousioi) and the Whites (Leukoi). The Reds (Rousioi) and the Whites (Leukoi) gradually weakened and were absorbed by the other two major factions (the Blues and Greens).
A total of up to eight chariots (two chariots per team), powered by four horses each, competed on the racing track of the Hippodrome. These races were not simple sporting events, but also provided some of the rare occasions in which the Emperor and the common citizens could come together in a single venue. Political discussions were often made at the Hippodrome, which could be directly accessed by the Emperor through a passage that connected the Kathisma (Emperor’s Loge at the eastern tribune) with the Great Palace of Constantinople.
The rivalry between the Blues and Greens often became mingled with political or religious rivalries, and sometimes riots, which amounted to civil wars that broke out in the city between them. The most severe of these was the Nika riots of 532, in which an estimated 30,000 people were killed and many important buildings, such as the second Hagia Sophia Church, were destroyed. The current (third) Hagia Sophia was built by Justinian following the Nika Revolt.” (source: Wikipedia)

The Hippodrome was adorned with monuments by the various emperors.  Among the monuments brought was the pink sandstone Obelisk which was erected by Theodosius I in 390 AD.  It was originally made for Thutmose III who reigned in Egypt from 1479 to 1425 BC.

The Obelisk in the Hippodrome

The Obelisk in the Hippodrome

From the Hippodrome we made our way to what may reasonably be called the best known landmark in Istanbul – the Hagia Sophia (Church of the Holy Wisdom) – the epitome of Byzantine architecture known for its huge domed ceiling.  It was designed by the Greek scientists Isidore of Miletus, a physicist, and Anthemius of Tralles, a mathematician and stood as the largest cathedral for a thousand years.  From a church to a mosque, it now stands as a museum.

Entering the cool, dim and cavernous interior of the Hagia Sophia from the heat and bright sunshine of the day was taking a step back in time to a bygone era.  The walls, once adorned with gilded Christian iconographic images and subsequently covered with Islamic designs, are slowly being restored and the images are being uncovered once more. From the main level, a cobblestone ramp leads the visitor around the perimeter wall up to the gallery level.

The Hagia Sophia (Church of the Holy Wisdom)

The Hagia Sophia (Church of the Holy Wisdom)

Following in the footsteps of the multitudes who have worn those stones smooth with their feet, keeping ones balance with a steadying hand on the wall, one is swept along by the flow of history. Prelates and princes, worshipers and warriors have all placed their feet on those stones.  Perhaps one of the most fascinating images that remains unchanged (and that harks back to Aiden’s story) is the Viking graffiti that gives testimony to the sacking of the city by Viking raiders.

viking graffiti

The Vikings have hardly been the only trouble the city has seen.  Due to its unique position in the geo-political world it has seen more than its share of turmoil.  With the demise of the Ottoman Empire following the First World War, and the rise of the modern Turkish nation under the leadership of Ataturk (who died in 1938), Turkey chose the path of strict neutrality with the outbreak of World War Two; but as with many neutral cities such as Lisbon and Geneva, Istanbul became a hot bed of espionage and intrigue that carried on past the end of the war and into the Cold War era – a time so vividly captured in Joseph Kanon’s suspenseful novel Istanbul Passage.  Istanbul Passage Cover PicIt is quite apparent that Joseph Kanon has spent some time in Istanbul – he speaks of the layers of history that exist there and captures the geography, the atmosphere and the personality of the city remarkably well. All the famous landmarks are brought to life in his novel – the Grand Bazaar, the Spice Bazaar, the University, Topkapi Palace, the Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, the Galata Bridge and even Taksim Square (scene of the recent protests in Istanbul).  From the water traffic on the Sea of Marmara and the Bosphorus to the Dolmus mini-buses, the commuter rail system and the taxi cabs that run all over the city, Istanbul is a city on the move.  We were advised not to think of renting a car but to rely on taxis for transportation (which we did). Interestingly, the price of a journey is typically negotiated with the driver before the start of the trip. And when you have taken your first taxi ride, you quickly understand why driving yourself is not a good idea!

In addition to the Hippodrome and the Hagia Sophia, we were fortunate enough to visit the Grand Bazaar, the Spice Bazaar (sensory overloads for the eyes and the nose!), the Blue Mosque (where we were dogged by a persistent carpet salesman), the Galata Bridge (lined with fishermen standing shoulder to shoulder) and the Galata Tower (which offers a splendid view of the city).  We squeezed in a day trip by flying down to Izmir (arranged by our congenial hotel manager) to visit the ruins of the city of Ephesus and we also crossed over to visit friends on the Asian side prior to taking a tour boat up the Bosphorus to the point where it meets the Black Sea.  You can stand on a hill there with your arms outstretched and have your picture taken as though you are touching two continents – two worlds, as it were.

Istanbul is indeed a legendary city – full of the sights, sounds and smells of East and West converging at the meeting point of two worlds.

The Galata Bridge with the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque seen from the Galata Tower.

The Galata Bridge with the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque with the Sea of Marmara behind as seen from the Galata Tower.

Every Book Tells a Story

It is true to say that every picture tells a story – time, place, people and events – all are captured in the blink of an eye or the flutter of a shutter.  When it comes to old books the same is true – every book tells a story.  For me, one of life’s little pleasures is to find an old book that catches my attention.  Sometimes it may be on-line through e-bay or a bookseller site, most often it is while browsing a used bookstore in whatever city I may be visiting (I research them ahead of my visit), rarely it is in a garage or estate sale.  Walking into a previously un-visited used bookstore is first a pleasure to the olfactory senses akin to entering a coffee-roaster, a wine shop or a distillery (to understand why see  Secondly, it is a tactile pleasure – to take down those old books, feel their weight and open the cover in anticipation of what lies beneath.

The first thing one typically finds on the fly page is an inscription or dedication – perhaps the owner’s name or the giver and recipient’s names and possibly the date and place.

Dedications and Owner Names

Dedications and Owner Names

These are a few examples from some of my old books.  They cause one to stop and ponder the lives of these people and the times they lived in – the First World War, the Depression era and the Second World War.  “To dearest Uncle with treasured memories of a very happy month.  Freda 6/9/44”  Really?  Three days after the D-Day landing in Normandy. Fascinating!

Some are a little more typical – family gifts to children, for example.

Kipling's Rewards & Faeries

Kipling’s Rewards and Fairies

Rewards and Fairies was Kipling’s follow up to the famous Puck of Pook’s Hill.  It is delightful to contemplate Uncle Charles sitting down in front of the fire to read to his nieces and nephews after Christmas dinner in 1911 with no television or radio to distract them.

Books were always on my Christmas wish list – in fact, because our Dad worked in Fleet Street, he would bring home an extensive list of books he had access to and we children could browse the list and make our selections from it.  It was a delight, on Christmas morning to find those beautiful new books waiting under the tree for us – perhaps one of my favorite childhood memories.

One of the books I remembered clearly was Henry Williamson’s Tarka the Otter – the story (obviously) of an otter.  Set in Devon, England in the early 20th Century, it is a remarkably detailed and accurate catalog of the flora, fauna and overall ecosystem of that part of the country.  It also tells (unsympathetically) the story of Tarka from his birth to his untimely and tragic but noble death, along with an accurate portrayal of the annual otter hunts which took place in those years.  Just this past year, I decided to find a copy of the book and re-read it.  It was even better than I previously recalled.  When I opened the cover, there on the fly page sat an inscription:

TarkaConsidering that the recipient received his book around the same time I received mine; and given the fact that he had a very distinct name, my curiosity was aroused and I wondered what became of this boy.  As it turns out, he went on to obtain his PhD and is now the headmaster of a prestigious private school in New England.  It reinforces that old adage that ‘readers are leaders’.

Some books come into our possession via other means.  I don’t know if it is still common practice or not to will books to others, but I found this in one of my books:


It would appear Mr. Rich had a stamp made specifically for the diaspora of his library upon his demise.  That’s a nice way to be remembered by one’s friends and family members.

Another means by which books are transferred is as Advance Reader or Complimentary copies (as in this instance):English Forest

A charming little illustrated book with the stamp of the publisher.  It would appear that it was subsequently sold for the price of seven pence.  That alone should giver the reader some idea how old the book is!

One of the outstanding features of many old book dedications is the quality of penmanship.  In this digital era the art of writing is rapidly diminishing among the population at large (to say nothing of spelling!).  So when one opens the cover of an old book and discovers a beautifully written inscription with lovely penmanship (using a fountain pen), it is a visual pleasure (as in the following example – which has the added pleasure for me of coming from my hometown, Glasgow – significantly before my time (in fact while my parents were infants in Glasgow).Penmanship

Then, of course, there are often other surprises and stories to be told in the pages of the books by those things tucked between the pages.  Take a look at this website for some interesting examples:  I have heard of people finding such oddities as the skeleton of a Kipper (Smoked Haddock) which had been used as a bookmark!  Perhaps the one that delights me the most is this tram ticket from Melbourne, Australia which must have been placed there by the reader while riding the tram in the early part of the 20th century.  It has been there so long that the color of the ticket bled into the paper of the book.Tram Ticket
Another find that fascinated me came in a book by a favorite author Antoine de Saint-Exupery (The Little Prince; Wind, Sand and Stars) called The Wisdom of The Sands.  In this instance the story was told by several pieces of correspondence (hand-written and typed) and a snapshot of a castle or monastery (presumably) somewhere in Europe.  I have been completely unable to determine the location!  Regardless, it is a fascinating glimpse into the lives of two friends (male and female).  It is rather strange that it should have been left there when the book was discarded.  Perhaps someone was cleaning out a family member’s possessions upon their death and the book was boxed up with others in haste.  Who knows, but it is fun to speculate!WisdomFinally, there are those books that make their way to us from strange and exotic locations and one can only wonder how they traveled and by what route.  I have an old book of poems by Rudyard Kipling – a collection from his other books.  It was once part of the library of a hotel in the South of France (according to the stamp).  The hotel is still thriving and I’m sure they are not missing Mr. Kipling!HotelThere is a fellow in England who has a blog geared specifically to book dedications.  Of course, I find it quite fascinating!

Don’t forget to dedicate the books you give away – posterity will look on and wonder…

Of Songs and Maps

A few years ago while rabbit hunting on unfamiliar territory less than an hour from home we made a bad judgement call.  We had been following a creek through the woods which serpentined its way through the trees.  Having followed it for some distance with little or no action we decided to head back toward the trucks and instead of following back the path we had travelled we took a more direct route – so we thought – back to the parking spot.  What we didn’t realize was that while the creek was snaking its way through the woods it was also steadily curving away from us.  We realized our error when five camouflaged men with shotguns and a pack of hounds turned up behind a residential neighborhood.  It took some gumption for two of our number to go and knock on someone’s door and admit that we were lost.  The lady of the house (after enjoying the humor of the moment) was kind enough to give them a ride back to the trucks a couple of miles away.  That was the moment that I first decided to buy a GPS unit.

It’s not only helpful, it’s important to know where you are.  So now, wherever I am, I pretty much know exactly where I am within about 30 feet.  I have a hand-held GPS for the woods, a dash mounted GPS for the truck and a GPS App on my phone.  It would be pretty hard to get lost now.

Knowing one’s place in the world has always been important for mankind for numerous reasons.  As nomads it was important to know routes and mountain passes and pastures and water holes.  As settlers it was necessary to know one’s boundaries.  Good fences, it is said, make for good neighbors.

This month our Reading Group read Bruce Chatwin’s unique travelogue “The Songlines”.  It is a fascinating book – partly a fictionalized account of his experience and part ruminations from his years of journaling about nomadic people, which at one point in time, he was trying to organize into a book.  Sadly he never did.

ImageThe songlines are also known as The Way Of The Law to the indigenous people of Australia known collectively as aborigines but as diverse as the nations of Europe or Africa.  It appears that the main songlines originate in the north or northwest of the country and weave their way southward across the continent.  Chatwin speculates that these lines represent the travels of the first settlers who came to Australia.  Whatever they represent, however, one thing is certain; the traveler moving along a songline knows exactly where he is at any given point in time.  They are called songlines because the journey is undertaken by song.  Every part of the song represents a specific feature of the landscape during the journey.  The song is passed down from generation to generation and the songlines (which often intersect) represent territorial boundaries also.  These songlines were also the means of trade between various people groups.  A fascinating and complex system of mapping one’s environment and interacting with one’s neighbors in a way that is baffling to the western mind.

Conversely, we are used to seeing printed maps which would be meaningless to the Australian Aborigine.  In my early years I was (and still am) fascinated by the detailed maps of Britain know as the Ordnance Survey maps.  A book “Map Of A Nation” has recently been written by Rachel Hewitt on the creation of these maps.

Image The OS maps found their origin in the effort to subjugate the Scottish Highlanders after the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745 (Bonnie Prince Charlie etc.).  The efforts of the map makers were further encouraged by the threat of Napoleonic invasion and ultimately the whole of Britain was mapped in remarkable detail.  Like the songlines traveler, a person armed with an OS map of the area they are in, a vantage point from which to see the lay of the land and some basic map reading skills would be hard pressed to get lost.  I recall using OS maps as part of our fieldcraft exercises on the moors of Devon during my years in the Air Training Corps.  Streams, woods, hills, churches, farmhouses, roads and even footpaths are clearly marked.  The maps are a delight to use and to study (well, maybe I’m just a wee bit geeky like that).

This particular sample even shows the individual trees!  Seriously – how could you get lost?  We’ve come a long way from the songlines and navigating by the sun and stars to global positioning satellites and GPS units with the ability to see aerial views of our friends homes on the other side of the world, but the one thing that has remained constant is our need to be able to answer the question, “Are we there yet?”

The Survivalist Mentality

Hollywood, it is said, often reflects the mood of the country in what it offers on the big screen.  The latest box office hit is “The Hunger Games” – a dystopian story about a nation divided and oppression by a decadent central government.  In addition, a remake of the old cult classic “Red Dawn” – about the invasion of the US by foreign powers – is about to be released.  Now look at the current political rhetoric on both sides – yes, both sides – a house divided.  The Republicans declare that another four years of the current administration will bring us to ruin, while the Democrats claim that a Republican administration will only further divide the “haves” and “have nots” – along the lines of another current dystopian movie “In Time”.

A recent conversation at a party was sparked by a remark about someone having bought a new gun and from there it moved to the question, “How many guns are enough?”  Now I have no problem with guns (I own several myself), but when it comes to stockpiling them and ammunition against the “inevitable” collapse of civil society, I think it is time to step back and take a hard look at where we are and where we are heading.  During the Y2K scare (remember the anti-climax of that?), I took what I perceived to be some prudent steps in case of problems.  My biggest purchase was a portable water filter (which I subsequently gave to a missionary to Africa).  The dried goods I had accumulated were donated to a food bank.

So, in this day and age of paranoia what should we be thinking as we look to the future?  Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic novel “The Road” (which was also made into a movie about the same time as “The Book Of Eli” – another story of a dystopian future – albeit with a somewhat more hopeful ending than “The Road”), has a father and son scavenging to survive amid slavers and cannibals in a wasted land.  So the conversation at the party turned to the question, “Would you even want to survive the collapse of society with all of the implications that brings?”  It seems we have a fascination with the potential for the doom of mankind – the remake of “Planet Of The Apes”, “Contagion”, “Mad Max”, “On The Beach”, “Dr. Strangelove” and all those zombie and alien movies – it’s a long list so perhaps it is not such a new phenomenon – just a greater emphasis than before.

In my reading the other day, I came across the story of an early church bishop who challenged a silversmith (now a Christian) who was still making idols out of silver in order to earn a living.  The man replied, “I must live”, to which the bishop responded, “Must you?”.  And therein lies the rub.  Does the survivalist mentality suggest a lack of trust in God’s sovereignty?  Must we live if our world falls apart?  And are the lies and slander by both political factions only further fueling the paranoia of a nation struggling with itself and the future?

Adventures in Yellow Cabs

A friend recently blogged about their adventure in a cab in Bangkok, Thailand and it took me back to our trip to Panama in February. Our cab experience is fondly referred to as “the cab ride from Hell”.

Here’s how it went:
Our daughter and son-in-law were heading home a day ahead of us and they had the rental car so we got them to drop us off at the boat dock in order that we might take a day trip to the island of Taboga (picture a very run-down Catalina).  While waiting for the boat to take us there, my wife thought it would be good to know how much it would be to get a cab ride back to our hotel so she wandered over to the taxi stand and next thing I know she’s on the cab driver’s cell phone talking to his dispatcher (because the driver didn’t speak English and she didn’t speak Spanish).  It turned out to be about $14 for the cab ride and we leave knowing we can catch a cab when we get back.

So late in the afternoon we pull back in to the dock on the return boat (there’s only one boat out and one boat back each day) and lo and behold there waits the same cabbie – a fairly big rustic-looking fellow (like a character in a Hemingway story) in his 60s, I’d guess.  He beckons us over and we climb aboard his yellow cab.  We ask him to stop on the way back, close to the boats to pick up some ceviche from a restaurant we had previously dined in, and out of gratitude we buy him some too.  Before we leave the restaurant he indicates the time of day and tries to squeeze more money out of us for the fare because of rush hour traffic (don’t ask me how that was all communicated, but it was somehow!).  My wife says “No – $14!”.  Well, off we go.  “Westin – Playa Bonita” we tell him.  It’s about a 10 minute ride west over the Panama Canal.  The first notion that something wasn’t quite right was when he went past the turn-off to go west.  “Westin – Playa Bonita” we stress again.  He nods his head “Si, si!” (Now there had been a lot of traffic diversions because of the Iron Man triathlon that weekend) so, with some apprehension, we sit back as we head north.

Then the fun really begins.  We turn off the expressway onto an exit ramp that heads east towards a rather seedy-looking part of the city.  Have you seen the movie “Contraband” starring Mark Wahlberg?  Well, a good part of it was filmed in Panama City in those neighborhoods – especially the robbery and big shoot-out scene.  And there we were.  By now I was beginning to wonder if we were being kidnapped to be held for ransom (these thoughts go through your mind at a time like that) and was thinking the only thing I had was my shoe-laces and could I strangle him with one if I had to?  I know – I’ve been watching too many action movies.  Of course, I couldn’t let on to my wife who was getting very stressed out that I was worried – I kept trying to reassure her that everything was fine.

Meanwhile, the neighborhoods got worse as we got further into the city and we began to take a dizzying number of turns and the traffic was getting thicker as the rush hour piled on.  Our cabbie – with typical latin machismo – jostles with every other driver on the road, forcing his way in and out of the traffic while getting noticeably tenser with some steering wheel thumping and gesticulating arms thrown in the air, sprinkled with the occasional “Santa Maria!” and other such ejaculations.  At one point he pulls onto a broad sidewalk and we go flying past pedestrians like something from the “Bourne” movies or “The Italian Job”.  By this time we’re rather wide-eyed and my wife’s finger are leaving deep impressions on my arm.

After about an hour of this we find ourselves back in the downtown area (which is mildly comforting because it doesn’t seem like we’re being kidnapped after all) and we pull up in front of (you’ll never guess!) the Best Western Hotel!  Aaargh!!!  He wants us to get out of the cab and pay him there (and believe me, we were tempted to!), but we were a good distance away from our hotel.  “No, no, no!” my wife says.  “Westin – Playa Bonita – not Best Western!” and shows him a water bottle with the hotel’s name on it.  We should have done that in the first place, in retrospect.  Then he goes ballistic!  Have you ever seen a grown man completely lose it in the middle of the street?  Not a pretty sight!  It was just as well we couldn’t understand what he was saying.  So after he calms down a little we all get back in the cab and he indicates by pointing to his watch and check out ticket that he was due to get his cab back to the lot and didn’t have time to take us to our hotel.

Another hair-raising ride later, we pull into the cab depot and he goes off to speak to his dispatcher.  We scramble from the car which smells like it is ready to burst into flames because the brakes and engine have been so abused and by now my wife is on full meltdown mode.  There is an armed guard on the gate (who doesn’t speak English either) and she is telling him (with much arm waving) that the driver is “Loco!”.  Our driver comes back out and had obviously got an extension to his time in order to take us back and signals for us to get back in the car which my wife adamantly refuses to do.  He becomes somewhat insistent so she takes $17 (all the cash we had on us at that point in time), pushes it into his shirt pocket and starts “going off” on him (with more arm waving) telling him to go away – there was no way she was getting back in his cab.  He wanders off mumbling and complaining while we wait for another driver who understands enough English to get us back to the right hotel.  It cost us another $20 but it was money well spent.  Finally, what should have been a ten-minute cab ride and turned into a two-hour or more adventure came to a close as we pulled back into out hotel.

Looking at it in the rear-view mirror, so to speak, it is rather amusing and is a fun story to recount (but not so much at the time).  I just wonder how successful I would have been with my shoe-lace if it had come down to that?

A Light In The Dark

Luminescent lightning bug
Lingering on the lawn,
Lighting up the dark of night
Until the break of dawn.

When one think of summer nights, and perhaps more so from childhood, one tends to conjure up images of those magical yellow-green flashes of light flitting around the garden or through the woods.  Glow worms, we called them as children.  Fireflies to many, but lightning bugs here in the South.  Surely they are the inspiration for those mystical creatures, the fairies; and didn’t Tinkerbell light up in J.M. Barrie’s ‘Peter Pan’?  Who hasn’t tried to capture that magic in a glass jar at some point in time?  Perhaps we grabbed a dusty old jar from a shelf in the garden shed and set out in hot pursuit of the magical lights.  Sadly, our efforts got us a few glowing insects and the magic was lost, but can the magic be contained in an earthly vessel?  Perhaps so.

Frank Delaney, a master storyteller if ever there was one, says in ‘Venetia Kelly’s Traveling Show’ that “Most men have three lives, public, private and secret.”  There is a great deal of wisdom and truth to that statement.  A man’s reputation is his public life – his work ethic, his skill, his standing in the community, his generosity and his attitude towards others.  His private life is how he is known by his friends and family – by those who see behind the image he projects in public.  Ah, but the secret life – therein lies the rub!  For who knows a person’s thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him?  And are we not masters at deceiving ourselves?  How easily we justify faults in ourselves that we would be (are?) critical of in others. Sometimes bonhomie and generosity are used to hide the true character of a scoundrel while at other times it could just as easily be the outward appearance of piety that hides a similarly wicked heart.  How often gossip is cloaked in piety and called “sharing”!

As Elie Wiesel said, “We must not see any person as an abstraction. Instead, we must see in every person a universe with its own secrets, with its own treasures, with its own sources of anguish, and with some measure of triumph.” Or, as Alexander Solzhenitsyn wrote in The Gulag Archipelago: “Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either, but right through every human heart, and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. Even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained; and even in the best of all hearts, there remains a small corner of evil.”

It used to be that to describe someone as a “crackpot” was to label them as eccentric, but the truth of the matter (if we are honest with ourselves) is that we are all rather defective – we are all cracked pots, aren’t we?  Notwithstanding our obvious flaws, we don’t have to remain on the shelf, so to speak.  There is, as C.S. Lewis would say, a deeper magic at work in the universe.  For those earthen vessels that house the God presence are like those dusty jars containing the lightning bugs.  Unlike the fireflies, however, the light doesn’t flicker – it burns steadily and although the condition of the vessel often obscures the light within, still it burns.

To carry the analogy further, the private life of man is often like those fireflies trapped in a jar emitting brief sparks of magical light.  We will never truly shine until we are freed from these earthen vessels and know true freedom, but in the meantime we should glow as much as we can – “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”