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Virginia Stem Owens has written an interesting little volume And the Trees Clap Their Hands. The subtitle is Faith, Perception, and the New Physics. These things are discussed but this book reads more like a confession, Stem Owens reveals she is a spy. She is busy ransacking the world for secrets. She stuffs them in her pockets while going about her business undetected. It could have been titled A Handbook about Being a Spy. In this book it is her intention to pull the reader into a spy story.

She has been verified in the last census. The house she lives in, the clothes she wears, the food she eats, the cars she drives do not distinguish her from others. She disguises as an ordinary citizen, making her contribution of children, taxes, and casseroles while all the while she is up to something different. Stem Owens strikes a trail and sticks to it. She spreads her senses wide and pulls them back in to see what she may have snared in the wind. She is on a stake out, waiting in unlikely places “ready to pounce on reality should it choose to reveal itself.” She stalks and ambushes, wrestles and gouges whatever meaning she is able, “You must be ready when it comes flying at you.” Readiness is in contrast to self-indulgence. Self-indulgence is fatal for spies. “To ring bells and go barefoot is self-indulgent, and would only call attention to yourself.”

There is danger in this vocation. The greatest is not to be discovered or even to be tortured. The greatest danger for the spy is to forget the mission. The worst thing that can happen is to forget who you serve or to begin thinking that Babylon is all there is. The danger is real. She knows this because she is surrounded by many who have already defected. She is surrounded by others who have forgotten or even renounced the mission. The danger is real. The spy spends so much time and effort learning the language, adopting the customs, and practicing the habits of this land that gradually she becomes her cover. It is easy to forget what one is about.

She knows her way around. She does not need a map for where she lives, but one is necessary for what she hopes for “It is buried treasure that needs a map.” So she slinks out the gate with map in hand. She is disguised not by her own skills or cunning but by the blindness of those around her. She understands the constant danger. But if she winds up like John the Baptist with her head on a platter, she will not blame Herod or the headsman. They are only issuing the known penalty for those who commit such treason.

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I have been enjoying a little book by Virginia Stem Owens called And the Trees Clap Their Hands. She has called my attention to the fact that I sometimes wish I were in a different place. I do not always get to choose where I am, who I am with, or what I am expected to do. I am simply where I am and this is where I must work in this particular moment.

I suspect many of us would love to spend less time in some places and more in others. We aren’t the first to feel this way. In her book she claims that she is “not particularly pleased with the state in which I am called at present, It’s not what I would have chosen for myself.” She would rather be sitting in a cedar tree, where as a child she learned to see clearly and to listen to the world’s heart beat.

Of Tolkien she says “The imagination that housed Lothlorien led the life that God had assigned to him, and in which God had called him, even… the Oxford suburb.” This is the reality for each of us. We all live in our circumstances. We do not choose them, they are simply the places we find ourselves. May we be faithful in them.

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