christ massy time

Preface: the photography attached to this blog is a bit shocking, and does very much have a context in the discussion, if you can be patient enough to get through the entry.

In the coming to the end of the year, as we advance into the new, it is also nice to recollect, and to return to the origins of [not just] the year, but also those of our calendar, our culture, and our community.  For myself, this year was particularly colored by dramatic changes in the economy, the way business and work have functioned in the past, which in turn has partially changed the way people treat one another… and the changes on the whole have been kindly and occasion to be optimistic, if not about material gain, about a growing richness of community.  It sometimes takes dirth to realize that kindness is true richness.  I would like to back up, however, and look briefly at an earlier time.


I think often about this earlier time; a time before television and rapid communication, a time before mechanization and industrial process, a time in which people arrived at conclusions so powerful, we began to inherit them in our biology.  Christmas, so called, is one of these mimetic inheritances.  I say “people arrived” here as though they made the discovery of this religious episodic narrative… and I think they did.  That’s the way I choose to think about it, which, I’m sure would be staunchly contested by the seminary (though I’m not sure these days).  That “they arrived” would be an interpolation in comparison to the commonly received notion that Christ happened, and then changed the world.  And here’s where I think they “arrived”: Christ was an answer to a previously nagging question; a question which preceded him by a couple of thousand years.  The Israelites dwelt with this question for so long that they began to forget its importance.  The question is something like this: If God is all powerful, all seeing, all knowing, etc., then why do good people suffer?  Which, as a question (especially for an academic), might turn into this: Since good people suffer (obviously), is God actually all powerful?  And then to this: “Who is God?”… which is not a terrible question to ask in this time as the days grow dark, the earth cools again.

Strangely, these are the questions people ask in the face of integrating the chaos of their lives with a deeper faith, and the questions are answered by the church like this: God works in mysterious ways.  Or so I gather.  I have never been a big fan of churches.  What I think is fair to say, however, is this: as people come into closer proximity with this question, “Why do we suffer?”, the church offers answers, rather than pointing to the books from which all the practices originate: The Bible.  Meaning, the church does not point to the actual narrative.  In the Torah, the reader is presented with all manner of mysteries and blunders on the part of God.  (Recall Nietzsche’s question, “Is man one of God’s blunders, or is God one of man’s blunders?”)  To speed read through it in an attempt to find a pretext for Christianity, let us think about Noah, and then Job.  Noah is more than 400 years old (book of Genesis) when God decides to wipe everything out.  Noah is one of the good ones, one of the only good ones apparently, and God warns him before hand that he is going to flood everything and start over again because He doesn’t like what he sees going on amongst the “youth.”  This is a particularly human yearning to start over again, almost like a child smashing a sand castle to build a better one, another day with better weather and potentially better tools.  In the unfolding narrative, God visits his creation with various forms of pestilence, storms, a huge flood, suggestions of infanticide, and tremendous personal suffering… coming to a climax in the story of Job.  Job is put through seemingly every possible form of human suffering, by God–in a strange dialogue between God and the Devil, a bet, to see who’s right about what Job will do in the face of meaningless iniquity.  Here is a fantastic reading of the story:

Around Samuel II, it could be argued, the Israeli community becomes weary of the suffering their God has visited upon them.  If this were looked upon in more dramatic terms, like an audience member getting to peek behind the curtain, backstage, and then back onstage again… it could be interpreted as the Israelis becoming weary of suffering in general (whether or not their God is responsible for it) and yearning for another story… another play.

Enter Christ.

We move from a narrative in which God visits untold suffering upon his creation to one in which God Himself suffers to an infinite degree.  It could also be viewed this way, in a phenomenology of God: the followers of Yahweh became weary of their vengeful God and invented a new one: a more caring, merciful God; one who understands their condition better.  The Hebrew God may realize the errors of vengeance and realize the need to experience the human condition first hand.  So He “comes down” to do it… and when he’s in the garden lamenting, “Father, why have You forsaken me?”  (Eli, Eli, Lama Sabachthani?) … he is not so much asking, “Why do I have to die?” as “Are you there?”… I mean, why else would Christ be asking if He’s God after all?  The answer to His question may very well be an empty reverberation… because His “Father” is not there… He has taken the place of the Father and must now go through the only unequivocal act a human can choose to do: die.

I find it remarkable and beautiful that these questions can be found in the texts themselves which seem to be so commonly passed over.

Christ did not say, “I die, so that you don’t have to.”  He just bucked up and did what He knew He had to.  He may have known, that in order to prove something greater than the individual, He must die… and in so doing proved his point right then.  Then the church came up with a lot of nonsense, in my opinion.

And now we celebrate this individual…


…except that there has been a painful bait and switch.  Christ got swapped for Santa Claus, and a practice of endurance and radical kindness was replaced with one of creature-comfort-consumer-capitilization.  I don’t mean that in a negative way necessarily; I am as guilty as anyone of enjoying the more trivial pleasures of this “holiday.”  I just want to faithfully and respectfully look backwards, at that which offered the groundwork for our contemporary culture, our calendar, and Christmas.

I know I cannot discuss God and please everyone… but what I find so entirely remarkable about the discussion is the unfathomable depth of the texts themselves… and how they seem to indicate a strange absence of God the character and Presence of God the spirit of compassion.

Consider this statement by Adam Phillips in On Kindness:

People want safety, whatever the cost.  Perhaps it is one of the perils of secularization, that if we no longer believe in God–in a Being who is himself invulnerable and so is capable of protecting us–we cannot avoid confronting our own relative helplessness and need for each other.  If there is no invulnerability anywhere, suddenly there is too much vulnerability everywhere.  How do we deal with this?  In his novel Raw Youth (1875), Dostoevsky describes a morning when people wake to find themselves alone in a godless universe.  Instead of bewailing their loss, they turn to each other, substituting their own tenderness and concern for divine protection.  Acknowledging human vulnerability, they respond to it positively.  Kindness, for them, becomes a way of experiencing their vulnerability that tests the strengths and limits of their resources to deal with it.  When God is dead, kindness is permitted.  When God is dead, kindness is all that people have left.

And if Christ is alone in his questioning of the “Father”–He leaves us alone in his dying, leaving a powerful encouragement to find kindness for one another, and perhaps God there, rather than a faith in something that could not be real.

Sons of Jefferson

Many fail to grasp what they have seen,

and cannot judge what they have learned,

although they tell themselves they know.


I’m sure there is a portion of the brain  in which resides resolution.  The place where a pattern, a wish, a design, galvanizes and takes on the hard sheen of a determined will to make that fleeting dream become real.  A little cloud of electrostatic neural syanptic impulse which takes on the aspect of a small storm, in that part of the brain which makes a plan about physically accomplishing something hitherto immaterial, fleeting, and dream like.  The storm of this section of the brain–let’s call it the backal lobe–floods the nervous system, courses through the spine, proceeds into the liver and informs muscle tissue and ligaments of its intentions.  And a person begins the work.

The Thanksgiving holiday of 2009 brought a cold clear layer of weather over Spokane, Washington, where my family lives, and where I grew up.  During the last couple of visits I had heard about a friend of a friend of the family who was working on a somewhat crazy project at his property about an hour and a half away, near remote Ford, WA.  I was intrigued with subsequent descriptions of this project and proposed to go visit this fellow, working on a dream of his.

Earlier that day he told my father on the phone, “Thomas Jefferson spent 32 years working on Monticello; I have only been at it for 12, so be prepared.”  He likewise told my father that the fee for a tour of his project was a copy of The Times, since the drive to get one was about an hour.  So we went out there.  Reading my dad’s handwritten directions to the place, which were just a reporter’s scrawl of an almost verbatim monologue about the subjective experience of the drive, was like reading a physicians prescriptive course of action for a patient… things like, “R.  10 miles, you’ll see a Chevron and a Starbucks… a few minutes later road forks… R.  then another three.  wait for dip.  four more.  look for marker 43.  mail boxes.  take first right.  special dirt drive…”  (reads like dirt diet)  “then take diet… 100 yards…”  (reads like pills)  I’m reading it, saying, it looks like we’re supposed to go on a dirt diet and take 100 pills.  (Which seems about right for some mental health issues.)  No road names, no definitive distances.  It was remote too, about forty minutes north of Highway 2… and because of the confusion about the diet and the number of pills, it took some time to find the right dirt drive.

We arrived.  The first thing that struck me, besides the remoteness of the place, was the large circular turn-around drive, demarcated with substantial highway DOT style bollards… which seemed old, like maybe from the 50’s with bits of re-bar bearing through the well used concrete uprights.  A weighty gray blanket of clouds had rolled over this part of Washington and flattened the light.  I could see coming in the signs of a long-time building project: piles and piles of bricks, previously used bricks, piles of plywood, limestone, building lumber, etc.  We pulled in behind a half sheeted out-building and got out of the car.  This is what we were looking at:


It is a 3/4 version of Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello.  It has been under construction for 12 years.  He wasn’t using metaphors.  His name is Dan Sisson, and he’s building Monticello.  Emerging from half used piles of bricks, expired batches of mortar, ladders, mouldings, building membranes, and gravel, is a history professor’s own personal version of the life work and home of one of the most innovative founding fathers.   It is not exactly clear what the strategy has been with the building process, but it’s clear there’s been one: make Monticello.  By any means necessary.

The building is situated on a bluff which, just behind the house, drops off steeply.  It looks out over a valley which returns up about a mile to the west.  This positioning gives the 3/4 Monticello a grandeur and stately quality… if in more Northwest terms.  In examining the house, there is no question that the mind behind this building is about as native to this valley and its neighbors, as the building is.  I circled the front the of the property with my dad before approaching the front door, eying the components of the house… the individual pieces, the window packages, the roof, the flashing, the masonry… were disparate in a sense, but there was a strange cohesion to the building, almost in spite of the potentially discordant ingredients.  Christopher Alexander speaks about a palpable spirit to a place… a beingness to a building which supercedes the mere sum of its parts (in Luminous Ground).  This place has that.


We had a brief welcome and glimpse of the inside before beginning the tour of the outside.  Upon meeting Dan, I realized he had that ageless quality (like over 45 and under 100) typical of a professor who has used the pursuit of knowledge to preserve himself.  He explained that Jefferson had done a lot of the work on original Monticello himself, and that he too had experienced many setbacks in the building project.  It was very hard not to imagine Jefferson marching around his Virginia estate with armfuls of bricks, or pulling measurements off a ladder, maybe with a wig on and a slave balancing the ladder for him below.  I learned that Dan’s largest passions, as a history professor, are Thos. Jefferson and Lewis and Clark… which seemed appropriate: you sort of had the perfect distillation of those two right here, just 150 miles north of where the explorers had first portaged in the Columbia basin, this part of the world seemingly as populated as that when L & C first ventured west.

Compare to the original:


The building shown on the $2 bill:


“What are these from?” I asked, pointing to the concrete bollards in the drive.

“Those are from some road work that was being done about 14 miles away,” he began.  “I was waiting in a construction line on the highway and got out of the car and started talking to one of the flaggers.  I was looking at all these uprights and asked him, ‘Are you putting these in?’  He replied, ‘No way, we’re taking them out!’  I asked him what they were going to do with them and he said they were just going to take them to the dump.  So I told him I would love to have them.  The flagger said, ‘Tell us where you live, we’ll back up and drop ’em off.’  So that’s how I got those,” he said, looking at me, and with lifted eyebrows added, “Free!”

With that we commenced the tour of a house built, for the most part, out of materials Dan had scavenged from some other part of the world.  Lumber from off-cuts at a mill up the road.  Tons and tons of bricks from an old woman that had deconstructed a brick building on her property.  A window kit from a window maker in Bend, OR that liked what Dan was doing and gave him first dibs on all their surplus: $50/window instead of sometimes $3,000 and up.  He pointed to the garage/out-building and said, “that cost about $2,200.”  It wasn’t sided yet, but was a sizable building.  The cost of much of the building, as Dan carefully re-iterated throughout our tour, was Free!  As I learned more, any funny discrepancy in craft or material began to fade away, and what emerged was a truly authentic endeavor, built by someone working from a passion, not a prescriptive idea about his life.

The distinguishing feeling here was very simple: for nearly ten years, I have been designing and building things… as well as studying how others do so; a predominant theme throughout the endeavor of building is COST.  And more often than not, what are thought of as the “coolest” things are also the most expensive.  Humans can be like crows in this wise: they love shiny pretty things, and they do whatever they have to to get them, which, these days, often means going into debt.  So here, watching the story of this building unfold, I became aware of a man abiding by principles foreign to [basically] the rest of the populace… principles which were espoused in the founding of our country, not least by the man who designed the original Monticello.  The other detail that follows from this distinction is: that which is made in a strict adherence to principle will inevitably LOOK different from what most people make, and are accustomed to.

(When we arrived, we passed into the house over a partially finished European marble floor in which was circumscribed a 14′ diameter compass, indicating cardinality and correctly oriented.  The room was about 18 degrees Farenheit.  To the left rises the elliptical staircase, going up into the dome.  To the right is a classical library, about 50% finished, replete with books and a 12′ high rolling library bookcase series.  Pass through double doors and come into the only warmed part of the building, heated by a lovely wood stove… a large room with 12′ ceilings, large living area with a whole wall of West facing glass, a grand piano that Dan’s wife, Karen, plays and a cute kitchen made of salvaged cabinetry, butcher blocks, and eclectic set of appliances.  Karen was sitting next to the stove reading with their German Shorthair Pointer laying next to her.  Their bed had been moved into this room for purposes of efficiency.  And there was plenty of room.)

At every move along the tour was a story of re-use, re-claimed material, salvage, economy (the Greek root of economy is oikos nomos… law or way of the house), thrift and ingenuity.  Of course this guy could get a loan and make this house more polished, more like its predecessor, more shiny, but instead he is making it more completely like his dream, which is doing it on his own, without borrowing anything.   Among the stories of how he accomplished the various sections of the building, one stands out, and it is how he was able to make the dome to 3/4 Monticello.  Six years ago Dan had finished the hexagonal upper wall section of the building and was ready to have the capital fabricated.  He contacted several aluminum fab. shops and had bids originated… which ranged from $60-85,000 to accomplish (which is about right) and, obviously, this is probably more than he’s spent on the entire building thus far, so he forebore on the construction of the dome.  One day–after this–he was driving along a country road and passed a property on which was a man and the crackling blue light of a tig welder, working on what looked like a boat.  Dan stopped and started talking to this guy, who, it turns out, is a doctor with a peculiar nervous system condition, in which he cannot sit still for very long, or sleep for very long; he has therefore adopted several hobbies passionately: one of them aluminum tig welding and fabrication.  He had many hulls of aluminum boats sitting around his property.  Dan began conversing with the Doctor and, luckily, the topic of his Monticello project came up.  He described the dome he was trying to build and at some point inquired of the Doctor if that would be something he might entertain building.  The Doctor looked at him and said, “That would be wonderful.”  Soon after they met at the project and the Doctor-Welder said he would love to work on the dome.  They made measurements and arrangements for fabrication and delivery and strategy of installation.  Dan finally worked up the hard question: how much will this cost?  The Doctor said he would call him and let him know, after he’d figured out material costs, etc.  A week later they talked on the phone.  “Well?…” Dan inquired.  “…Well, the materials will be about $1,400,” the Doctor explained.  “Yes…?” Dan said on tenterhooks.  “So, how does that sound?” the Doctor asked… ending the question by implying that the dome would cost as much as the materials alone.  And that is what he intended to build it for: the cost of materials… because the building activity, for him, is how he stays alive.

With a few reasonable exceptions, the dome basically came out perfect… especially considering the cost and context:


Apparently, it was quite a feat to place this dome on the building.  The plate for it seems to be about 30-35′ off the ground, and Dan placed it on the building with a telescoping front-loader.  He then temporarily bolted the aluminum shell to the plate.  One day not too long after installation, he came home to discover the dome had shifted dramatically off the plate, such that about three feet of daylight was visible at one edge of the plate.  Dan could come up with no explanation for how this VERY HEAVY shield of aluminum could have shifted so dramatically.  He nervously took his question to the engineering department of his university, and found an engineer who was able to explain that he had basically added a wing foil to the top of his building and it had created so much lift that it skipped off the plate.  He said it needed way more attachment and that Dan was lucky it didn’t tear the whole building apart.

He looked at me and winked.

We turned inside after a solid hour tour of the building.  We went in to have tea and discuss Dan’s theory about how the past Presidential Administration has effected a coup d’etat.

As we crossed over the threshold into the foyer and compass floor room, Dan tucked the Times we’d brought him under his arm, looked at us and said, “You know the best thing about this house?”  I nodded in question…

“I don’t owe a dime on it.”