life in the suture zone...

In the earthquake faults between tectonic plates, the suture zone is the in between place where they meet. I find in that a metaphor for the times in which we live... and invite your conversation in the suture zone.

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Location: Bakersfield, CA, United States

... a struggling, but mostly joyful, apprentice of Jesus.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

journey (part three): enduring the silence...

I am about to fly back to Abilene, Texas, to help my son drive home from his first year at university. There are somewhere between 1400 and 1500 miles of asphalt between Abilene and home. That’s a lot of time to be together. A lot of conversation. And a lot of silence for purposes of reflection, sleep (not the driver!) and just a sense of needing some mental space. I miss my son and I’m looking forward to it. I treasure these times.

I don’t think he’ll mind me sharing this (I hope). But when he was younger, he used to talk a lot. I’m ashamed to admit it, but I often didn’t hear what he said back then as he explored his way through his imagination by means of these one-sided conversations. My son creates wonderful fantasy stories in his head. And back stories. And languages. And environments and cultures and such. (And, as you may have noticed if you read his comment earlier, he’s a deep thinker and well-spoken. An honest assessment, I think!) It’s a wonderful gift that I hope will allow him some means of income in the future. But it was hard to listen. And he knew that. But he would say, “That’s okay, Dad. I know you’re not listening but I just have to say this.”

I thought of this last Sunday afternoon as Tone’s oldest son, Griffin, still a preschooler, manipulated his Power Ranger action figure through flips and various other gyrations from chair to chair in our worship center. And Griffin is an imaginative talker, too. He came up and explained all of what was going on to Tones and me. I lost the last half of the conversation. Didn’t understand his words and his thought process either one.

As he double-back-flipped his Power Ranger off on another adventure, Tones turned to me and asked something like, “Do you think God ever feels this way with us?”

We are a society that cannot stand silence. We even use noise to counteract other noise. If ever you doubt this, reassess your position the next time you pull up to a traffic signal next to some punk kid with head banger music blaring and with the bass rattling your lungs (and his trunk lid) through the $500 sub-woofer he’s mounted in his trunk. Tell me you don't turn up your stereo louder! Uh-huh....

Have you seen the new ad for Bose headphones? They were developed for those who spend time on airplanes who want to escape from a talkative neighbor and the sound of jet noise and the yipping lap dog whose owner keeps trying to set it down in her carry-on kennel during the red-eye flight from Los Angeles to Fort Lauderdale. They use sound to cancel out other sounds, usually background noise. But the escape is usually into loud music or some droning lecture recorded for posterity and burned onto a CD. Or, it’s books-on-CD where you can listen to your favorite author as you travel through the air or down the highway. Then there’s the iPod, complete with unassuming ear buds with the distinctive white wires hanging down and connecting with that technological marvel, a hard drive on steroids. Full of music or pictures or video clips or whatever you want to take with you. It’s big enough to hold a complete CD library. A big one.

It’s wonderful for long car trips. You never run out of something to listen to. Put it on shuffle mode and you’re set for a cross-the-USAmerica roundtrip. You’ll never be bored. And you’ll never hear the same song twice. It is the smallest and most impenetrable wall ever created. A wall of sound that holds people at a universe’s length.

Isn’t this true, also, of DVD players in minivans? No offense, parents. Just asking…..

Whatever happened to silence?

This is one reason I like the remote outdoors. When my son and I were in Alaska two summers back, we took the bus into Denali National Park where Mt. McKinley is located. (The locals call the mountain Denali, it’s native name.) The guidebook I read suggested that one get off the bus on the return trip, out in the middle of nowhere, and wait for half an hour for the next bus to arrive. During the 30 minutes of waiting, you could enjoy the sounds of silence that you can find nearly nowhere else in the world. I went up there expecting to do that, but I chickened out. When we got to Eilson Visitor’s Center some 60 miles into the park, the silence was still incredible. And frightening. Enough to convince me not to follow the guidebook's suggestion. (In part, I was afraid of not having room on the next bus. No way did I want to spend the night in Denali, stranded with the bears and moose and caribou and wolves!) All you heard was nature. No ambient sound of cars on freeways or trains screeching into town or forklifts moving pallets from this place to that… no unloading of trucks or train cars… no whine of electric transformers or fluorescent light bulbs… no sound of the refrigerator compressor kicking on and off… no sound of the automatic ice-maker dropping ice cubes into the nearly empty reservoir… or any of the rest of the 24-hour per day dull roar that dampens our existence.

Did you know that silence is an ancient Christian discipline? It is seldom practiced, however, in these days of frenetic searches for something to fill the time and sound and activity void. Because silence is hard to take.

I just spent a week in Bishop, California, on business. Stayed in a hotel. Did you know I didn’t even turn the television on? True, at night I fired up iTunes on my Powerbook as I was drifting off to sleep (City on a Hill songs, folks… good stuff!). But much of the time I spent with no radio, no television, no CD or iTunes music – nothing but silence. I am growing to love silence. Very much.

The truth is that often there is silence on the journey with God. Not our choice, but his. And often we fill it with chatter, non-stop chatter, about this care and that concern and this Power Ranger chasing Spiderman. And I have to wonder if Tones’ question isn’t very appropriate for us. Perhaps God is saying, “My child, if you would just shut up long enough, we could enjoy some silence together. Then, finally, you just might be able to hear me. Really! I’ve been waiting for you to shut up for a long time, to relieve yourself from the chatter addiction to the noise of life and Bible text systems and systematic theologies... and simply be with me in my presence.”

Do you think God may ever think that about us?

Anyone who has done any kind of backpacking knows that one does not have conversations with one’s neighbors when hiking up switchbacks on an uphill climb. Let’s face it. Much of our Christian walk is uphill. (Anyone want to dispute that?) Silence is preferred. But it's good to do the journey with someone else. And, hopefully, your journey is conducted with other Christians and other kinds of God-seekers. May you at least hear the collective crunch of your companions' footsteps on gravel.

But what do you do when you can hear an echo? When your voice is all you hear echoing off the ceiling, chattering away as you try to scatter the fearful ghosts of abandonment, loneliness and total irrelevance, as you hum (or more likely sing at the top of your lungs) a chase-the-ghosts-away graveyard song. Comedians call that silence “walking the room,” a euphemism for being so bad that people get up and leave. In cartoons it’s characterized by the sound of crickets. No one is listening, they say. That’s the conventional wisdom.

Perhaps Someone is listening. Perhaps Someone just wants us to shut up long enough to hear the echoes of God.

Our journey is not always on level ground, is it? If you’re traveling uphill right now, even with a group, perhaps it’s time to hear the rhythm of your collective footsteps… and God. In the silence.

On your journey this week, this month, this year, may God bless you with times of good, uncomfortable silence.

Grace and peace!



Blogger Tones said...


Great series of posts! This last one IMHO was the best. Maybe it's just the one that applies to me the most. I love the idea of just hearing my hiking companion's footsteps. I think a sign of a good companion for this journey is someone who is willing to be silent (especially in those uphill times when there's nothing one can say). Great post.


7:49 AM  
Anonymous Marshall said...

Great posting, Owen!

Actually, in reflecting upon what you've written, I am led to share a confession to illustrate a point. I believe that we need to practice silence not only so that we might hear God, but so that we might hear our true selves. I believe this to be essential to standing "in the light."

As I've said in earlier postings, I've been practicing Buddhist mindfulness. (I am heartened to hear it described as an ancient Christian discipline.) One of the repercussions of my practice has been an increasing knowledge of who I truly am, as opposed to who I'm trying to be. Last evening, as I was brushing my teeth, TV off, music off, I realized that I no longer accept the New Testament's strictures upon sexuality.

I hadn't known this about myself. I had been admitting to myself (and thus to God) only that I was struggling, but not that I no longer believed. But the truth is that I had been faking belief on this issue.

Why would I do that? To escape the judgment of others. But I think that that way lies spiritual stagnation. I gotta face the truth! And the truth is that, as of now, I am no longer convinced that all New Testament teachings about sex are God's word, but believe instead that some may be a product of culture. After all (I reason), there are a variety of sexual mores throughout the Bible. By Jesus' time, monogomy was the norm; in Moses' time, not so. There was a right and wrong about sex during both eras, but not the same one...

Or perhaps there was the same one, but on a deeper level, to do with responsibility. Might the rightness of sexual intimacy, I question, take different forms in different cultures? I see logic and good sense in the sexual mores of eastern philosophies that hold that the basic philosophical agenda "do no harm"is all one need be concerned with as regards sex. Perhaps, I think, in a culture in which many women are their own wage-earners the responsibility inherent in the sex has changed... Etc.

Am I proud of this reality? No. Rather, however, I am happy to have dropped one more curtain of pride. I think I was exhibiting pride earlier while I was denying my true feelings and beliefs. But now, I am open in the light before self, God, and others on this issue.

Understand, I still want to be right with God, and acknowledge that perhaps I am being foolish - but if I am, I am. This is reality. I don't expect my brethren to understand - although I have often been surprised of late - but I actually believe I may be growing spiritually in regard to sex while it may seem to others that I am a withering branch.

But I make no grand claims about my own wisdom. Rather, I boast about my weakness. God is welcome and encouraged to come in and institute change, to reason with me, to mold events, to break the laws of physics - I am his. I am not shutting him out; rather, I'm saying, "I think I'm approaching the light...If I'm decieved, help."

God knew what he was in for.

My point is that I am in earnest dialog with God, enabled by silence. For me - sadly - the church has often been a dis-allower of silence, and of honesty. I do believe that one needs the community of believers - I believe that trusted others are one of the avenues through which we may hear God. But I believe that authentic spiritual growth involves the risky step sometimes of silencing "the voices of [our] accursed human education" (D. H. Lawrence).

Meanwhile, Lord, I am listening.

(I shall be very interested to read responses to his posting.)

12:32 PM  
Anonymous Marshall said...

That was a tough admission above, but I'm adamant that I will not hide in the dark, either by avoiding my brothers and sisters in Christ, or by pretending assent. I've met enough lonely Christian sisters since Carol's leaving to know that both are common...



The truth is that I miss her. At the core
of me is a man who grieves for what he has
been told. She said with frequency she loved
me, she respected me, I was a gift
from God. So now I write to an ador-
ing imaginary readership. I drinks
too mush. And every plan I make is contrived
to fill the void she left. A woman’s breast,
a woman’s breath – hers were my world, my god.
How mammoth is my loss! My doubts
about the Bible turn into a scheme
to publish my detailed… It is not odd
I look for checks with which to pay such debts.
Religion has bounced. I place my hopes in him.

January 16, 2005



I am trying not to try to fill the void.
I am trying not to try to be clever enough
or wise enough or stable enough or strong
enough. Beer or wine or pot or a kid
in tight jeans willing to call her teacher’s bluff,
poetry, poetry, poetry, rabid song,
acquisition, food, the glory glory
of a charismatic service… Please,
God, save me from the strong desire to save
myself. I am trying merely to let my story
be, my days unfold, to experience
in quiet what I have to feel, I have
to go through to be filled again – with love,
Lord, please, this time, the health we are dreaming of.

January 16, 2005



Experimental falderal… She’s gone.
She’s gone, she’s gone, she’s gone, she’s gone, she’s gone.
She’s gone. I hide from the fact, I push myself
to take on strange new shapes, devolve into
a fetal spirit. Everything is pain
or something desperate to avoid the pain.
Poetry is an act above the gulf,
the blissful ignorance of Pepé Le Pew
the instant before. To be, just be – a damned
hard state. “With God all things are possible.”
But religion, too, is falderal. I wait.
I hope. From time to time, my heart is slammed
into the mat by failure. Gravity’s pull.
I pray to feel it rather than to dull with wit.

January 24, 2005



Now he’s gone and joined that stupid club.
– Wendy O’Connor, mother to Kurt Cobain

What is this thirst for porn and drugs? And why
this guilt? – the belief that a man is more than his sum
of chemical constituents. For Kurt
and Jimi, Janis, Jim, the absolute.
Most of humanity, however, we
contend and muddle through. Not slim
as we would like, with food we numb our hurt.
Once told we were stupid, we ever face the dirt,
and never a stranger’s eyes. Screwed by dad,
we screw any man who will accept. Hit
by mom, we ever only aim to please.
Peel any spirit down to its golden bud,
it’s beautiful. Wipe away first the shit.
This stupid club. We stand tall on our knees.

January 24, 2005

2:36 PM  
Anonymous Marshall said...

I'm sort of taking over here writing so much, but you've given me a lot to think about, Owen.

I'm reflecting this morning, once again, on your primary metaphor here, "the suture zone." I'm thinking that perhaps I'm waaay out there in the suture zone, not just between branches of Christianity, but between Christianity and other traditions/experiences... I've grown quite liberal (or so I think), such that I'm not sure my comments can, in the end, be helpful here. They may prove too provocative.

I spoke with my ex-wife last night for a while, openly, comparing how our divorce sort of re-booted old compulsions inside us. We each, in our separate ways, are calling upon God but struggling with the Bible.

A lot of my struggle involves the portrayal of God, particularly in the Hebrew Bible, as so very angry so much of the time. My mother was a woman of incredible highs and lows when I was young, and I remain damaged by her outbursts. I believe that the ancient Hebrews had genuine encounters with the divine, but that, to some extent, the Hebrew God in the text is anthropomorphized. I believe that God has anger, but not that he loses control. I smile, remembering that a professor once had on his office door a few "Cliff's Notes on Cliff's Notes - for people who don't have time to read the original Cliff's Notes." One of the entries was on the Old Testament: "God creates man, and everything man does gets God mad all the time."

Health has come to be a key concept to me, a concept that has its elements in the Bible, but that arises in me from extra-biblical experience. I feel strongly that that which is healthy is best, and I seek a healthy relationship with self, with others, with God. The Bible, sadly, has fueled many a masochist and many a sadist...

I would like to find a community of seekers like that suggested by Bill Moyer's "Genesis: A Living Conversation," one in which all views of the Bible are welcome, in a climate of grace and civility - a genuine human conversation, a voyage of discovery.

I sat one night some weeks ago before a mirror and sobbed, admitting to self and God that I didn't choose this restless mind, the sources of compulsion in my life, my "terminal tendencies," etc. I am genuinely doing the best I can. From the suture zone indeed, I report back that I recall the verse of the Jesuit Gerard Manley Hopkins:

"O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap
May who ne’er hung there."

I have come to believe that The Bible is the word of God in the sense that it arose from genuine encounters with the numinous, but I cannot accept the doctrine of inerrancy. Where is authority? - in the Pope or someone like him? (I would say no); in The Bible (I would say no) God himself.

But how to hear his voice with consistent clarity...?


Birds don’t have to ponder Jesus Christ…

It’s not that I am trying to escape
Accountability – I want to be
A noble man, courageous, kind, and just.

It’s not that Carol’s leaving felt like rape;
If Love, I’m fine with pain’s apology.

It’s not a cavalcade of evidence
Astronomy, biology insist
Existence is a stumble in the dark.

It’s that…it’s that for all that we make sense
Of God, insisting on the palm, the fist
Demolishes the holy book. A shark
Beneath the words of life I hold in terror.

Mama hit me for the smallest error…

June 30, 2004

9:53 AM  
Blogger Owen B. said...

Hey, Marshall...

I'm on the road back from Abilene right now. Just a few minutes to type in a response before I have to hit the road again.

Your comments and presence are welcome here. This is not just about common paths and gifts found in different strands of Christianity. It's also about common paths and gifts to be found in man's search for God period.

No time now to say more. I do have some reflections on the things you've said.

And thank you for blessing my blog with your poetry. Poetry and stories and plays and art say things syllogisms never even thought of. (smile)


7:46 AM  
Anonymous Marshall said...

Thank you, Owen, for the kind posting above. I have had a significant weekend, relevant to "The Suture Zone," so I offer below further personal reflections on how we hear God through "coincidences":

1: I go through great pain that forces me to realize I have been dishonest with God & others in the interest of pleasing my now-ex-wife. I had not thought I could live without her.

2: I get "re-set," indulging in compulsions so old I had thought myself no longer capable of them, but being forced in the process to get real and be humble.

3: One evening, I rededicate my life to God, realizing that he will have to work with me, for I am already doing my best...& my best falls very short.

4: Having made a decision to limit my book & CD buying to about $50 a week (I know, I know - that's a limit?), I come upon "The Message Remix," admire it, but don't buy it right away.

5: I admit to God & man that I no longer believe that all New Testament teachings about sex are God-breathed - for me, with my codependent nature, a bold admission.

6: I feel odd having admitted the above, as though I may be outcast, but I cannot regret it.

7: I call my ex's house to talk with a daughter, who it turns out isn't home, & I am surprised to have a long, open discussion with my ex, as friends, about our highs and lows since the separation. I tell her I forgive her, for I know she was doing the best she I have been. I close by telling her she is a "good person." She tells me I am, too.

8: The next evening, I go to a party with some friends; we drink & get high; but, leaving, I preface a statement about nothing more than strawberries with the announcement that I am religious. I am surprised to find myself inundated with abuse: "Drive me home, Jesus!," "Come on, God!" I never get to the word "strawberries."

9: I feel that God has spoken to me. God has arranged in me the courage to speak openly with religious friends about my doubts, & the courage to speak openly with my agnostic or athiest friends about my faith - & my value does not lie in pleasing either, but in seeking God, genuinely, without guile.

10: The abuse of the night before gives me the impetus not only to invite God to work with me, but for me to work with him. Consequently, I go & buy "The Message Remix" & set myself the task of reading the Bible afresh in the coming year, listening for the voice of God, but speaking to God & man with intellectual and emotional integrity.

I think often now of the passage, "Perfect love drives out fear" & of the moment in "Perelandra" in which Ransom is about to tell a lie in service to the truth, but is unable in such proximity to God.

Quite some time ago, I took to heart the passage in which Jesus says "seek & you will find." That, combined with "God is able," from Romans 14, form the heart of "my" gospel these days. I can no longer crawl in fear of a heavy-handed, abusive Father, saying all the while that he loves me. I seek with integrity, and I trust a genuine loving God to do the rest. I dream of a church family, open to all, for which that, not dogma, is the basis.

Lots of love,


2:46 PM  
Anonymous Marshall said...

Forgot to include, in the bullets above, your invitation to participate in this blog, Owen. It came at just the right time to help focus my thoughts.

That last sentence resonates, doesn't it? In Romans 5:6, we are told that Jesus died for us "at just the right time." My experience has been that God does everything "at just the right time." Either I am deceived, or sensitivity to God's timing is one of the avenues through which we might hear his voice in the silence.

- Marshall

3:06 PM  
Blogger Owen B. said...

Marshall said...
sensitivity to God's timing is one of the avenues through which we might hear his voice in the silence

I agree.

That's an impressive list, Marshall. I think the fact that you keep finding things to add to it points to something else. That is that we are all on a journey. We are not finished yet. Where we find ourselves tomorrow or next week or ten years from now might be very different than where we are and what we are understanding today. At the same time, it's okay for us to find ourselves here at this place today. God can handle it. We're not going to do injury to him or ourselves if we continue to seek him in openess and honesty.

One of our main challenges on (or in -- I'm struggling with finding the appropriate preposition) the suture zone is that the landscape is not as it was described to us by our modernist peers. The assumptions of modernity, while helping us to make sense of our world at the time, have been weighed in the balance and found wanting.

Sometimes that includes our view of God. God as an angry and capricious father bent on beating the hell out of his children is a warped view of God based on my reading of the texts. True, there are some incredibly challenging texts about God. No question of that. The tensions among all the biblical and extra-biblical texts about God bear in them the truth that man has never been able to get his arms completely around God. Thank God, this is true. Otherwise....

At the same time, I think we have to let God be God. Sometimes that places our lives and behavior in conflict with where he wants us to go or with who he wants us to become. These things seem impossible to us. They are impossible. Except for "God presence", they are. (By the way, my present definition of the Kingdom of God is "God presence".) But when God is present, some pretty amazing things can happen. Over time. Sometimes a very long tim. And sometimes, as a prerequisite, he insists on shattering our poor notions of him. This is neither comfortable nor desireable by us -- sort of like a perpetual root canal or a never-ending 10-point earthquake, at least for a time. But necessary for God to do his work.

I'm thankful to see some things in your list.... your honesty, your forgiving of Carol (the mutual forgiveness), your openess to the voice and leading of God, your very human struggle with making sense of what is going on in your situation, your continuing to see the hand of God in the midst of this....

Whatever the challenges, whatever the doubts, it is better to be on the road with God than anywhere else. Even if you're mad at him. Even if you wonder if he's really there.

I'm reminded of what God told Paul in the midst of his struggle:

"My grace is sufficient, for my power is made perfect in weakness."

Grace and peace be yours, Marshall!

P.S. BTW, a couple more things for your list.... Isn't it interesting that before you even mentioned it that I was thinking of Anne Lamott in regard to you... and that I was about to recommend Eugene Petersen's The Message as a profoundly life-changing version/paraphrase of the Bible? Hmmmm.... I would again suggest that you pick up A New Kind of Christian by Brian McLaren. Blessings, my dear friend.

12:24 PM  

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