Visual Education

December 11, 2017

GiottoLet me say up front that I possess at best a layman’s knowledge of art. Please, feel free to offer correction or clarification. I’d appreciate the help.

I spent two weeks in Tuscany this fall, and saw a lot of religious art. Some was extraordinarily beautiful (Botticelli) and some magnificent (Michelangelo); some, in parish churches or small chapels, was very ordinary. But the ordinary had a function just as much as the magnificent. It’s that function I want to comment on.

Churches are everywhere in Italy, and within the churches, so is art. Every church, large or small, rich or poor, had art, and the purpose of the art was instruction. Worshippers were mostly illiterate, and even for those who could read, no Bibles were available. The art was their Bible. Many of the churches I visited were so crammed with art you could spend days, perhaps weeks, studying all the paintings, frescoes, windows, statues and mosaics.

They had a kind of curriculum. At its cornerstones are certain scenes revisited again and again: the Annunciation, the Crucifixion, Mary and baby Jesus, Mary crowned Queen of heaven, the Last Judgment. There is also, less frequently: Adam and Eve, the Holy Family, the visit of the magi, the slaughter of the innocents, the pieta, the burial of Jesus. Many other biblical stories and many saints, prophets and apostles are portrayed. (For a quick refresher, google “Italian religious art” and click on “images.”)

Even if you know your Bible well, it’s not always easy to decipher who is who, but there are little tricks. (John always has a hair garment; Peter gets keys, and so on.) I assume that in those days before trains or cars, most people were familiar with only one or at most a handful of churches. Priests or nuns or parents explained the art to them. Worshipers grew up knowing who was pictured in their church as well as modern church-goers know where to find the Psalms in their Bible.

Two other elements pervade the paintings and make them difficult for modern people. One is invisible elements made visible. There are many angels, big and small, and not just the few that you find in the biblical stories. There are sometimes demons, too. Doves and other symbols signal the Holy Spirit. Haloes around the heads of some (not all) the godly people suggest an invisible but powerful sanctity. Add to that, there are often people in the paintings and mosaics who don’t belong there, historically speaking: popes and prophets and saints who lived hundreds of years later or before the events pictured. Sometimes the artist himself is there.

That is the second element: the obliteration of time. Renaissance art witnesses to real, historical people. These are not symbols or fantasy figures, but human beings, like us. Yet, time does not seem to be a barrier. Popes and princes and donors witness the crucifixion or worship Jesus in the manger. They could not be there, historically speaking, but in faith they are.

By faith I mean “confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.” The people who worshiped in those churches saw no angels. Nobody they knew sported a halo. Most of them were farmers or tradespeople, who lived by material facts. Why, and how, could they believe anything beyond what met their eyes? They needed faith.

The art is meant to help them grasp the unseen–that angels and demons are all around, that popes and prophets are witnesses, that the court of heaven hangs just over their heads. When they enter the church (as they do, week by week) they encounter an interpretation of reality that expands their vision and touches eternity. Did everyone believe? Of course not. But some did. Without the art, would anyone?

And we, who have no such art in our churches: what do we believe?


Christmas Carols

December 6, 2017

My father has been gone for 12 years. I think of him often at this time of year, because he so loved music, and particularly Christmas music. Thanks to him I grew up listening every Christmas to a record of the King’s College Choir (in Cambridge, England) singing Lessons and Carols. The sound of those angelic voices singing “O Come, All Ye Faithful” in the reverberating space of the college chapel moved something elemental in me. It might have been a sound from another world, unlike anything I knew in plain, foggy Fresno, California. In some small way I learned from that music the meaning of transcendence–a concept that, otherwise, I could not have taken in.

The story of Jesus’ birth touches us at a very deep level. You can say all you want about the doctrine of the incarnation, but we feel and understand it through our senses and our emotions, just as much or more than our intellects.

This connection often comes through music. What astonishing, multi-faceted beauty in song has been inspired by Christmas–and I am not referring to “White Christmas.”

“O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” Our deep longing, and hope beyond hope, are caught in that plaintive song.

“Joy to the World–the Lord is Come” occupies the other end of the spectrum. It is really a chorus of the Second Coming, when Jesus’ kingdom is fulfilled. “No more let sin and sorrow grow, or thorns infest the land.” Emmanuel has come, and with dash and vigor “Joy to the World” erupts with the news.

“O How a Rose E’er Blooming.” The delicacy, the utter silence with which the astonishing answer to our prayers is revealed. Jesus unfurls, like a rose.

Many of the carols capture this quiet magic. “What Child is This?”–as if to say, what am I seeing? Can I believe it?

“O Little Town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie.” It begins in the stillness of the night, unnoticed by anyone important. So it has always been, and so it remains today.

“Silent Night, Holy Night.” This is perhaps the greatest of all the carols. Simplicity and calm pervade the music and the words. When we sing it together, for a few moments all is calm, all is bright.

“O Come, All Ye Faithful.” The story calls us. Joyful and triumphant, we join in. O come, let us adore him.

“Ah, dearest Jesus, holy Child, make thee a bed, soft, undefiled, within my heart.” These are Martin Luther’s words. The story calls us, and we call back to the one who makes the story. “Be near me, Lord Jesus, I ask thee to stay close by me forever, and love me, I pray. Bless all the dear children in thy tender care. And fit us for heaven to live with Thee there.”


The Beginning of Globalization

November 27, 2017

Of all the books I’ve read in the last year, I’ve most frequently found myself referring to 1493. I read it by accident–my library had it available for e-book loan when I was headed out on a long trip–and it’s become a marker in my mental map of the world.

1493 is a clever title for a book that might be called The World After Columbus. The author, Charles C. Mann, went up against the fact that Columbus is very out of fashion, seen as an exploiter and a bumbler who pioneered the rape of indigenous Americans. Mann’s point isn’t that Columbus was or wasn’t a great man, it’s that his discovery changed the world as dramatically as any single event in its recorded history. “Columbus’s voyage did not mark the discovery of a new world, but its creation.” (xxiv)

Mann is a very well informed journalist who covers a huge front of information, dallying in interesting stories. Any reader is bound to come away with at least a dozen cocktail-party conversation pieces. Mann does like to entertain, but he’s aiming to expose something bigger: the indisputable fact that a new world began. Trade, both intentional and inadvertent (nobody intended to pass African grasses to the New World), created the world that is recognizably our own, founded on trade and international exploitation, ecological transformation and crisis, the global spread of disease, foods that know no national boundary, and international economics.

I knew about some of the exchange between Europe and the Americas–for example, how American potatoes and corn transformed European diets, and how Bolivian silver enriched Spain while also hollowing out its productive economy. (You could make more investing in ships going to Mexico than in building factories or roads in Spain.) I didn’t know anything about Spain’s beginning trade with China (80 years after Columbus’s discovery), and how that led to a complete transformation of China’s agriculture, a doubling of its population, and ultimately the political crises that destroyed so much of its economy. I also didn’t know that China–which had long looked down on Europe because it offered no product that China really wanted–moved into international trade because of Bolivian silver, which came to comprise China’s entire money supply.

Mann tells a lot about the spread of disease. I knew about cholera and smallpox, which played a large role in decimating populations and enabling their conquest. I didn’t know much about malaria, which is more insidious. Mann has a long discourse on the varieties of malaria and their effects on England and the Americas, including most of what would become the United States. He suggests that malaria played a potent role in the southern colonies’ adopting slavery.

What about horses and cows, which came to America with the conquistadors and quickly transformed the way of life of many native American tribes? What about tobacco? What about rubber? These were plants of little or no importance in their place of origin that became the source of great fortunes–and great ecological transformations–in other places around the globe. What about the rise of slavery, which went from a local practice to a global business that was essential to other global businesses–for example, the production of sugar, which was the source of enormous riches.

Mann effectively portrays the world we know, where everything affects everything whether we like it or not, and transformations occur for good or evil (more likely, both) invisibly and visibly, and on a human level, great riches, great suffering, ecological convulsions and political mayhem are the inevitable result. These forces were at play long before Columbus–think of the Roman Empire, think of the Silk Road–but they exploded globally after Columbus. The world Columbus inadvertently created is our world.

1493 is relevant not by telling us whether to support or oppose globalization but by making it clear how utterly ubiquitous globalization is. It is, literally, in the air we breathe. We can’t stop it, we can only seek to shape it. And because there are so many complicated, interlocking and invisible forces at play, our attempts to shape it will have many unintended consequences.

Adam Smith is best known for his idea of an “invisible hand” shaping the selfish forces of a free-market economy into a benevolent result. A globalized world of the kind the Mann describes is a free-market economy of much wider extent and scale. It does much greater good and evil, and no “invisible hand” appears anywhere. Our human reaction is to try to regulate and legislate, but it is hard to be optimistic that these forces can be regulated effectively–or perhaps at all. Do you have faith in a loving God? The alternative, in the world Columbus created, is to anticipate disaster.

Those Who Hope

November 21, 2017

Today is a big day for me: my novel Those Who Hope is finally released. You can buy it on Amazon ($13.99) or Kindle ($4.99). I hope you’ll  read it and give copies to all your friends and family for Christmas. If you do read it and like it, could you do me a favor and review it on Amazon? Those who know about these things say that has a big impact on spreading the word. 

Also, if you are really excited you can post on Facebook about it. Much appreciated!

Those Who Hope is the first in a series of novels set in a rescue mission drug and alcohol rehabilitation program. I’ve tried to capture the intersection of a very conservative Christian program (the rescue mission); the anarchy of addiction and homelessness; and the liberal environment of California wine country. Conflicts that speak to our times!  I’m planning to write at least 3 books in the series. In fact, I’m in the process of re-writing the second one right now, and hope to publish it early in the new year.

I sent out some pre-pub copies, and here’s what people said:

The stories of “bluff, leathery, riotous realities” in this book are riveting. Maybe they’ll move us into our own acts of compassion. —Luci Shaw, Writer in Residence, Regent College

I treasure books that make me laugh and books that make me cry. This novel by Tim Stafford did both. It offers unsentimental hope: the true craziness of the gospel. —John Wilson, Editor, Books & Culture (1995-2016)

The thing I love most about these characters is that they seem real. They are ordinary, everyday people, with the same flaws I observe all around me–and in myself. And now these characters are in my mind, and I can’t quit thinking about them. Joyce Denham, Author, Dragon Slayers and Secrets of the Ancient Manual Revealed

An emotional roller-coaster ride that is a must-read for anyone concerned about the growing problem of homelessness in America  – and the challenges, spiritual and otherwise, that face those trying to do something about it.” —Paul Gullixson, Editorial Director, The Press Democrat

Many of us, walking down a city street, try to avoid the eyes of the homeless. Those Who Hope allows us to look in the eyes of these men and see lives with humor, dignity, sorrow, and even joy. —Dean Anderson, Author, Bill the Warthog Mysteries

Tim Stafford’s beautifully layered story will keep you reading, but long after you finish, it will keep you thinking.” —Scott Bolinder, Executive Director, Institute For Bible Reading

I find my thoughts returning, as the days pass, to all the novel’s characters. Here are characters real enough to be lost and, in good time, found. —Peter Lundstrom, Author, God: The Short Version

 The descriptions in scene after scene just grabbed me. A sharp-eyed view from a master storyteller into a world of addiction, loneliness and hope. Robert Digitale, Author, Horse Stalker and Blaze and Skyfire

The Fire

November 15, 2017

On the night that fire ravaged Santa Rosa, Popie and I were staying at an airport hotel, preparing to leave for Italy the next day. Sleepless, Popie looked at her phone at about 3:00 a.m. Our neighbors were trying to reach us. They had banged on our door and got no response. They wanted us to know that Santa Rosa was burning and they were preparing to evacuate our neighborhood.

We didn’t sleep after that.

We were torn: we hated to cancel our long-planned trip, but at the same time all our thoughts were on home. It was difficult to get a clear picture of the risks, though our neighbors were great about giving updates. Most of them evacuated but a few stayed on. We decided that if our house was still standing when our flight boarded, we would get on it. If our house burned, we would cancel.

We boarded. Our house didn’t burn. We had an extraordinary two weeks in Tuscany, enjoying food, wine, art and history, but always with a corner of our minds on the events in Santa Rosa. Our house survived, but it was a near thing. If the winds had not suddenly died at about 4:00 in the morning the whole town would have gone up in flames, it seems clear now. Our house, less than a mile from the front and a short block from oak grasslands, was certainly highly vulnerable. With uncontrolled fires still burning all over the county, and predictions of more wind, we felt uncertainty all that week, and so did our friends and neighbors.

We were spared, but many of our friends were not. Fifty-one families from our church lost their homes.

We came home to join that. Some impressions:

–Everybody has a story to tell and they want to tell it. Going to church or walking the neighborhood is an invitation to long conversations about people’s experience of that night, about those of family or friends or neighbors, or even about experiences we read in the newspaper. Suddenly we have discovered our kinship with each other. We share a community.

— The scope of the destruction is stunning, especially Coffey Park, which is a suburban tract across a six-lane freeway from the brunt of the fire, and miles from any woodlands. Something like a thousand homes burned in that one dense neighborhood.

–More stunning is how absolute the loss is. When homes are destroyed by fire, flood, tornado or earthquake, there’s usually something left. But these homes are simply gone. Their burned-out cars and washer-dryers are the most prominent structures. Whole neighborhoods look like Hiroshima.

In the past week, the weather has turned, and rain has soaked us. There will be no more fires this season. Though people are still very much in shock, our attention has turned to the long road ahead. How do you rebuild? We had a terrible housing shortage before the fires. Where do all these people live? If they can’t find a place to live, they will surely leave. How would we live without the hundreds of doctors who lost homes? Without the teachers, fire fighters, county staff? Nobody has answers. Rebuilding those homes will take years. It’s unclear how we cope in the meantime.

Simran Found

September 28, 2017

I just learned that Simranjeet was found by family members. Apparently she is okay. I don’t know anything else.

Missing Person

September 27, 2017

A friend in Fresno asked me to post this notice about a friend of hers who has gone missing and was last seen in the Bay Area.

Simranjeet Grover


Student at Fresno Pacific University 2016-2017

Taught Biology at Roosevelt High 2016-2017

Last seen in the Bay area by relatives on August 19, 2017

1997 Mercury Marquis, Lic.3XUJ313, color: light grey

If you have any information, please call Marvin or Mary Friesen 559-860-9229 or Fresno PD detective Leo Arsitio 559-621-2111 (case#17-57765)

Abbie Hoffman and Donald Trump

September 27, 2017

In yesterday’s New York Times David Brooks names our president as the Abbie Hoffman of the right. It’s an interesting comparison. I remember going to hear Hoffman when I was a college student. I recall that the climax of his appearance (with Jerry Rubin?) was jumping on Rubin’s backside and riding him around the stage. I think it was supposed to be Henry Kissinger riding Richard Nixon, or something like that. I didn’t care for the performance–Hoffman offered more insults than ideas–and clearly Hoffman was acting like a clown. But the audience seemed to think it was pretty funny.

When you want to blow up something, you can use insults and clowns. Brooks says that the New Left of the sixties wanted to blow up the WASP establishment, and did. Now, he suggests, the New Right (alt-right?) wants to blow up the meritocratic Ivy League establishment, and has. Brooks suggests we will be searching for a new establishment that all sides can respect.

He’s on to something, I think, and it’s mainly this: Donald Trump isn’t our core problem, any more than Abbie Hoffman was. The problem is that a lot of people think Trump is pretty funny, and are happy to see him blowing up things that others respect.

The comparison between Hoffman and Trump suggests how far down we’ve gone. The New Left may have laughed at Hoffman, but they ran George McGovern for president. (And lost.) McGovern was a sober senator. The New Right ran–and elected!– a president who has the sobriety of a drunk at a New Years party. Imagine Abbie Hoffman elected president, and you have it.

I’m still grappling to understand how anybody could vote for Trump, and what exactly his supporters are protesting. But I need to remember that my parents’ generation felt the same way about us long-haired radicals in the sixties.

We’re a badly divided nation, where neither side appreciates the others’ good points, and neither side thinks the other side’s jokes are funny. Both sides want the other side to just shut up and go away.

Neither side is going anywhere, however; we are stuck with each other.

The Worth of a Man

September 1, 2017

I met Michael Navin when I was assigned as his “coach” at the Redwood Gospel Mission in Santa Rosa, California. That meant meeting with him weekly to talk about his progress in the drug and alcohol rehabilitation program called New Life. Michael was older than most, already in his sixties. He was short, slight and graying, and extremely quiet. Most of the time we met in the copy room, squeezed in next to boxes and office machines.

It was hard to get much information from Michael. He was depressed, and he had reasons to be. He had already been in New Life for over a year, in what is meant to be a 10-month program. To graduate, you have to jump through some hoops, including reciting several memorized passages from the Bible. Every time I raised the question of graduation, Michael said, without elaboration, that he wasn’t ready. That seemed to mean that he couldn’t memorize anything. His brain was fuzzy, and nothing would stick.

Occasionally somebody on staff would ask me about Michael. There was a sense that he was taking up space that somebody else could use to gain sobriety. Nobody pushed Michael, however, and he wasn’t easy to push. He had that gift of silent stubbornness you may remember from Melville’s story “Bartleby the Scrivener.” He didn’t explain or elaborate. He just said, repeatedly, that he wasn’t ready.

Eventually I came to the conclusion that he was terrified. And why not? What can a man do in his sixties, who has no obvious skills, who is extremely reticent, who has no money, and whose resume for the past year shows that he has been in an alcohol and drug rehab run by a gospel mission? So long as he could stay at the mission, he was safe. If he graduated, his prospects were dire. Michael saw no chance of employment. He did not want to sleep on the sidewalk.

As I got to know him better, I learned that Michael had gone to UCLA on a golf scholarship and played for several years on the PGA tour. Later he worked as a manager overseeing several liquor stores. He had previously been through a long residential program with the Salvation Army, and afterwards had been sober for years. He came from a very strong Christian family, and he was very loyal to and appreciative of his church. Not only did he attend every Sunday, he went to a men’s Bible study. People there knew him well.

Michael had a lot going for him: family, church, education. He was a steady worker. He just couldn’t stay sober.

Then a close friend of mine, Jim Bankson, offered Michael work scanning documents. It paid minimum wage, and most of the men at the mission wouldn’t have lasted a day at it. The tedium would kill them. But I had watched Michael doing the laundry every day. Sheets and towels for thirty guests, plus the regular laundry of the men in New Life–that meant a lot of tedium, but Michael didn’t seem to mind. He kept at it, day after day, and I knew if he could do that, he could feed documents into a scanner.

That job changed Michael’s life. He managed to graduate and after an initial period of adjustment settled down into eight hours a day of scanning. He could listen to his beloved San Francisco Giants on the radio while he worked. He walked a mile to work from the halfway house he moved into. The exercise did him good. His paycheck wasn’t much, but he didn’t have many expenses, either. He was visibly more confident, more communicative and more hopeful.

That went on for a couple of years. After Michael’s mother died in Florida he got a small inheritance that enabled him to buy a used car. We had lunch every week or two, and he wanted to treat me. He became a volunteer driver for a gospel mission program that took homeless people to eat and sleep in local churches. It meant being on the road before 6:00 every morning, but Michael was happy doing it. He was very appreciative of what people had done for him, and he wanted to return the favor.

Then, without warning, he stopped returning my calls. He canceled our lunch plans several times. The halfway house he’d been living in was closing, and Michael wasn’t sure where he could live. He was out of sorts. Jim called me; he was worried.

Michael called me from the hospital. He’d taken a fall and broken his hip. In the fall his phone was damaged; for some reason, my phone number was the only one that survived in the phone’s memory. He sounded quite disoriented. I later found out that he’d been living in a cheap motel that rented rooms by the week. He’d been going to bars because he was lonely and he wanted to meet women. Eventually he fell down drunk outside his motel room, crawled inside, and lay on the floor for three days before he was discovered and taken by ambulance to the hospital. He’d been drinking the whole time, on the floor, to numb the pain.

Fortunately, because of his job, he had health insurance. The doctors operated and he was transferred to a rehab facility. I visited him several times and we talked about what had gone wrong. He regained his cheerfulness and seemed hopeful that he could recover, though he was worried about where he would live. A cousin was working on finding a place. Jim let Michael know that he could come back to work whenever he was physically able. Michael was working at getting out of his wheelchair and learning to navigate life with a walker. His situation seemed hopeful.

Next thing I knew he was dead. His body was discovered in another motel, where he’d evidently drunk himself to death. He’s moved in after leaving another halfway house. He wasn’t in the motel too many days before a clerk tried to rouse him and then called 911.

Michael’s death shook me. It seemed like a terrible waste and a complete failure, and from a certain perspective it was. It didn’t have to end that way. He was given a good chance. People were cheering for him. But somehow he couldn’t manage it. Alcohol and loneliness apparently had too tight a grip on his soul.

As time has passed–six months now–I’ve found my view changing. People have highs and lows, victories and defeats. Michael ended on a very low note, but maybe that’s just an accident of when the music stopped. His death certainly shadows the rest of his life, but it isn’t the final summation.

When I think of him, I remember his little wistful smile, as though he knew a secret joke. I remember his unassuming manner, how humbly he let people into his life. There was good reason why people liked Michael, and why such a surprising number appeared at his memorial service. In all his struggles, he wanted to do right, and your heart went out to him.

Michael’s faith was genuine, if faltering, and I have no doubt that I will see him in the renewal. He was my friend; and so he will be.


A Thorn in the Heart

August 29, 2017

My first novel, published in 1992, has been out of print for ages. (Thanks to Amazon, you can buy a used copy for a penny, plus postage.) Now I’ve published it as a Kindle book, both paperback and ebook, so it will be preserved for the ages. That’s assuming that Amazon is for the ages, which at the moment seems as good a bet as any.

A Thorn in the Heart never got much of a chance in the marketplace. I used the word “penis” and that was too raw for some of the more refined gatekeepers in the Christian book industry. Zondervan, the publisher, was soon eager for the book to be forgotten. They got their wish.

It’s a mystery thriller set in a Sierra mountain town, and if I do say so myself has some terrific descriptions of backpacking. There’s also a lot of family drama, based on the disappearance of four developmentally delayed boys in a snowstorm. I don’t think anybody today will find it terribly titillating. I believe I’ve become a much better novelist since I wrote it, but I retain a fond spot in my heart for A Thorn in the Heart and hope others will enjoy it.

When I graduated from college, all I really hoped to do was to write fiction. Journalism came in the way, and I’ve always been grateful. Working for magazines I paid the bills, learned my craft, and had unimaginable fun. But I’ve never completely given up on fiction, and slowly but surely I’ve been able to build a decent list. (See my Fiction page for the details.) I’m currently hard at work on my sixth and seventh novels. I’m very grateful to have the chance to keep at it! And I still hope that one day I’ll write something that will stun everybody because it’s so good.