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.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

journey (part two): navigating the fog...

I live in Central California in the San Joaquin Valley, the land of Tule fog (pronounced TUU-lee). Some of you that read this blog have lived in it all your lives, so you understand the metaphor in the title very well.

We rather fondly call the San Joaquin “THE valley”. We do have some justification for that pride in that it is one of the largest and certainly the most fertile of valleys in the United States, stretching for several hundred miles on a northwest-southeast line through the heart of California. THE valley meets the great Sacramento River Valley at its northern terminus. Between the two, most of the almonds, most of the table grapes (at least in the heart of the summer), pistachios, walnuts, cotton, kiwi and literally hundreds of other fruits, nuts and vegetables that you eat come from these two valleys. In Kern County alone where I live, most of the carrots, especially the packaged “baby carrots” sold in stores all over the United States and throughout the Pacific Rim countries come from two processing facilities less than 10 miles from my home. (Look on the back of the package for Grimmway Farms or Bolthouse Farms. Grimmway produces seven of the eight juices that Campbell uses to make V-8 for all V-8 sold west of the Rockies.)

Fog is of great benefit to our valley. I’m told by farmers that fog, in part, is what enables our fruit and nut trees to produce so well. I’m not an arborist so I don’t understand the mechanism involved, but we do produce a lot of good food.

Good food is one thing. But if you’ve ever driven in Tule fog, you know how hazardous that can be.

I remember one especially foggy Sunday evening when we lived in Riverdale, a tiny agricultural community in the heart of the valley. I had preached for the evening service at our church and wasn’t feeling very well. (Sermons sometimes make me sick.) By the time we were ready to leave, the fog was incredibly thick. It was the Sunday before Christmas and the Methodist Church in town was performing their Christmas cantata. Our neighbors were involved, plus I love choirs, remember? (see earlier post) Dorothy drove the few blocks to the Methodist Church in fog so thick that by the time we were halfway there we discovered we were on the wrong side of the street. That was only two or three blocks into the trip!

We couldn’t imagine it any thicker. We were wrong. That night as we caravanned home from the cantata with neighbors (we lived two miles outside of town on a dairy inhabited by an extended family—wonderful people!), we stayed maybe five or ten feet from the bumper of the car in front of us, close enough so that we didn’t lose sight of their tail lights. We were traveling five miles an hour, maybe a little faster. I have no idea how Parke Halvorsen, who was in the lead car, knew where we were going. Once we made it into the long driveway and split off toward our house, we drove right by our neighbor’s Christmas lights that had to be no more than 15 feet away. You couldn’t see them. And, yes, they were on.

That’s thick fog.

To use this as a metaphor, that feels like what it’s like to navigate on the suture zone. It’s not just that there are no familiar landmarks around. In some cases you can’t see even those things that are nearby.

Have you ever thrown a rock into the fog? It just swallows the rock. Or seems to. Unless, of course, there is a window hidden behind the fog you threw your rock into. Then you hear the sound of breaking glass. Sometimes when you’re in the fog, somebody hidden out there in the dimness is the one throwing the rocks at you. Rocks hurt. So do telephone poles. When you are driving, an unseen telephone pole is as real as a seen one if you run into it, fog or no fog. When the fog is thick, you worry about what you can’t see, because what you can’t see can hurt you. And sometimes does.

Funny thing, though. If your points of reference keep disappearing, pretty soon you are focused on the only ones that remain. You can’t afford to worry about anything else. Shoulders tense up, your head begins to throb and your hands are welded to the steering wheel. And your eyes? Your eyes literally hurt from staring so hard at things that are barely there. If at all.

Once on the way to Fresno, I couldn’t see the telephone poles. All I could see was one yellow stripe in the middle of the road. Occasionally I had to stop and open my driver-side door to see the stripe. When that one disappeared I could just see the next one coming up a few feet in front of the car. I used the stripe to orient myself. To point the way.

How does one navigate in the kingdom of God in the midst of this foggy transition period from modernity to whatever is coming next? Where is the cloud? Where is the flame?

Perhaps we’re in the cloud.

I’ve always pictured the children of Israel marching through the desert with the cloud and flame well ahead, leading the way. What if the cloud and flame were much closer? What if they wanted to watch the horizon instead, but God was just right next to them? All around them. Blocking the view of anything but the cloud. Would it have been frustrating? Would there have been a tendency to want to “just get on with it!” Build a golden calf that we can get our eyes and hands on? Or to retreat back to the comfort of a warm clear house and just stay home?

Perhaps the God of the cloud says, “Trust me. I’m going to remove all the signposts but me. You don’t need the distraction, children.” Perhaps he only shows us where to put the next footstep. Perhaps he shows us only the next yellow stripe on the road. Perhaps all we are given are the taillights of his car just in front of us. And we have to keep up lest the dim taillight disappear altogether and we be tempted to turn around and go home where all appears so much safer, but isn’t.

I think, at least in some ways, this is us. Cold, uncomfortable, fearful, staring and listening as hard as we can in the Cloud of God. So that we can take one more step.

More later in Journey (part three)…

In the meantime,

Grace and peace!



Anonymous Marshall said...

Hello, Owen, et al:

Three poems on fog, the first of which yields new and interesting results in this current context:


Here in the Valley, winter gives us green.
Summer’s lots and roadsides turn to brown,
Non-petitioned stalks and pods that dry
Becoming swords and barbs to bleed a thigh,
Neglected graveyard trash, a threat of fire –
So are the fields of purgatory dire.
But the shadow of the tule fog becomes
A river bottom, energy that hums
And arcs and detonates, that gives us moss
Grown fat on every face to stain our clothes,
Spears of grass and fern as tall as boys,
The lowly, epic infancy of trees.
Each brick is caked, and every sidewalk crack
Is all the history of man rolled back.

March 8 & 9, 2003



I am trying to walk a line
Where maybe there’s no line to walk,
To shout out loud and shake the stars
And hear my Jesus talk.

July 6, 2004



Is Balaam-and-the-talking-ass
Equal to the Son of God
In verisimilitude, or is
There something of an even/odd,

A scale on which to weigh the Truths
Of generations, men whose pens
Were dipped in blood on rocky paths
They dared for bliss, a proper lens?

My students, reading Frankenstein,
All fail a quiz if I ask, “Q:
How many neck bolts?” A: not one.
They read, yet they already know.

I once was certain, oh so sure.
I taught a parish what was right.
My hands, my eyes, the page endure,
In simple candlelight.

August 3-5, 2004

10:51 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,


11:44 AM  

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