The past months have been dark and difficult for our home, Charlottesville, Virginia. The murder of Hannah Graham in September sent the community into mourning. Last week, Rolling Stone published an investigative article detailing a gang rape at a frat house party, but beyond this, the expose pointed to a broader systemic failure to believe and protect victims. (Severe Trigger Warning for this article should you choose to read. When I first read the article, I had to set it aside and return to it later.) There is outrage here at the University and in the city, as there should be. Institutions face a powerful temptation to maintain equilibrium, but this is an occasion where at least a few leaders need to lose their cool and light a fire and where everyone in power needs to make justice and truth their first priority.

This is not at all about only UVA; cities and universities everywhere face these horrors. However, this is also not only about the crimes but about our wider cultural impulse where sex-as-objectification exists as the norm. Other people (and their bodies) are often little more than material for us to use and then discard at will. We learn a lot of truth from our clichés: sex sells. It is not lost on me that this article came from Rolling Stone, and while I’m thankful that they brought evils to light, I can’t forget how the Stone has sold more than a few issues with overtures to sensationalized and dehumanizing sexuality.

In this one moment, I want to speak to my fellow men. Can we have a collective backbone and stand up to create a different reality? Can we become men of integrity and character who are a safe community for women? Can we have true friendships with women, where they know that we want nothing from them other than their true self, their heart and their soul and their wisdom and strength, their imagination, their laughter?

Can we throw down the hammer when another man in our company demeans a women or objectifies her or uses power in ways that harm rather than heal? Can we return to our best ideals? Can we help one another become better men? Can we have courage and learn again what it means to love, to give rather than take?

 

If you ever have the good fortune, as I have, to spend time at AA meetings, you will quickly learn that most of the pretense gets checked at the door. Sitting in the room on those grey metal folding chairs listening as each person speaks out their name and their struggle (without hesitation or excuse) levels a powerful jolt. In the circle sits high-octane surgeons, influential politicians, retirees on social security, wide-eyed college students, tenured professors, homeless men, stay-at-home moms, clergy. Desperation serves as the great equalizer.

In AA, you reckon with stark choices: lie and toss a match on your combustible life or tell it straight and move toward wholeness. There’s no secret sauce to AA’s impact, just a good dose of reality and a room of people courageous enough to face it head on. I once asked someone to explain to me the essentials for an AA meeting. “Just grab a couple alcoholics and your own coffee pot.”

I am not an alcoholic, but I love these spaces. Most of us spend so much of our energy trying to convince others of our power, success, skill or wit, it’s a beautiful and freeing thing to be in a room where the shared truth is how everyone believes that left to ourselves, the one thing we can count on is a fantastic train-wreck.

This conviction sits at the heart of Christian faith: we need help. Amazing then, isn’t it, how much effort we exert polishing our pristine image, how much anxiety we carry as we attempt to tamp down our distress or cover for the fact that we’re a bumbling mess. As St. Anne (Lamott) says, “My only hope and salvation is that I’m not left to my own devices, and to my own best thinking, and our collective best thinking…Botox is our best thinking, along with drones.” But we are not alone. God is with us, and help is near. We only need to be honest enough to admit we need it.

snow hut

When I was young, a Christian who was supposed to understand such things insisted that putting much attention to this scorched and bedraggled world was like polishing the deck of the Titanic. The sentiment didn’t sit right with me, but I couldn’t say exactly why. In the same way, I could not explain why every time I sighted the jagged grandeur of the Rocky Mountains, I felt consumed with reverent joy. I could not explain why each time I walked into the Grand Canyon it was as though a thundering beauty swallowed me whole.

Why did I crave to know the stories of the street where I lived, the histories of the families who were our neighbors and kin? Why did I take such pleasure in Lolita’s tamales and Miss Alma’s banana pudding (the cold version, with Nilla wafers and whipped cream, of course)? Why did Appalachian melodies sink into my body, a kind of holy haunting? Why did those marvelous books with words like flint strike wonder in my soul? If this whole shebang was only a temporary shell lurching toward a final apocalyptic fireball, why did all of it feel like grace?

But then I remembered the first Scripture I was ever taught, the truth my mother and father gave to me before I could walk or speak: For God so loved the world. I heard these words again. I heard these enchanted words anew. God loves this world, and I was simply caught up in the affair.

We have a simple task, and a happy one. Some say that we should concentrate upon this world as though God did not exist. We say rather that we should concentrate upon this world lovingly because it is full of God… {Alexander Schmemann}

Creation is nothing less than the manifestation of God’s hidden being. {Philip Sherrard}

I have lost my wedding ring. Twice. The first occasion was in the first year of our marriage. The ring disappeared at some point in the middle of a volleyball game, probably during one of my monstrous strikes where sheer power and velocity ripped the metal from my fingers. Probably. A group of friends, on hands and knees, scoured the ground with me until, to my great relief, we found the ring. The second time was years later in South Carolina. I could not pinpoint the timing, but my best guess was that it slipped off my hand while mowing the lawn. After days of searching and the kindness of a friend with his metal detector (I have very interesting friends), I conceded that my wedding band was finally gone.

We had planned to save up and purchase a new ring, but two years later we had yet to swing it. For her 35th birthday, Miska wanted a second tattoo, and she requested that I get inked with her — a wedding band tattooed on my finger. Something permanent, forever unthreatened by my penchant for losing things. So long as I never tangled with the Chicago mafia, this ring should never, ever slip away from me.

At the time, tattoos were illegal in South Carolina, so we drove to Athens, Georgia to have the work done by an artist who hung his needle at the Midnight Iguana. The experience inflicted less pain than I anticipated, and the adventure provided a weekend of joy and romance with Miska. The symbol of my love and commitment forever seared into my body.

Over the years, the tattoo has launched many conversations. More than once, after a person clarifies that my tat is indeed a wedding band, they look at me with incredulity and ask, “But what if you get divorced? That’s really permanent” – as if my ink appeared in Vegas after a bender with no consideration for the inevitability that some day I’d regret the foolishness. I can’t tell you how much joy I receive from what follows. I look them in the eye and say, “Oh, that’s the point. Nobody’s getting this. I’m a goner, for life.” Typically, they respond to my effusive conviction with even more dubiousness. They raise their eyebrows. They take on a tone like a parent talking to a child about the Easter Bunny, affirming my very, very sweet sentiment. Once a hotel clerk visibly smirked, rolled his eyes and exhaled an under-the-breath chuckle laced with mockery.

I do not care. I’ve given my life away. This little patch of ink provides only one of the simple reminders.

 

Several years ago, my pastor reflected on what he believed to be the most pernicious temptation for those in ministry. He did not mention sex scandals, financial impropriety or theological heresy. Rather, his prime concern was one word: ambition. The desire to achieve, to build a movement or grow a church or be revered as a leader with real savvy — all these seductions are particularly vexing because they appear so noble. If a pastor siphons church funds to build a vacation home in Miami or pursues a string of affairs with parishioners, these transgressions are easy to rebuke. So long as the church grows and the stats trend upward, however, the scenario fits our Western model of inevitable spiritual progression and, because of this, resists deeper discernment.

Yet we do have cues indicating how we pastors have surrendered our calling. If a pastor always has to have the first (or final) word…if a pastor always pushes for more, for bigger and faster — and never encourages anyone to slow down… if a pastor never has time for a slow, meaningful conversation…if a pastor never exits preaching-mode…if a pastor induces fear or nervousness or icky-reverence but never kinship… if a pastor never trembles before a text or quotes a line of poetry or offers those immensely spiritual words: “I don’t know.”… if a pastor never says “I love you” in ways that do not manipulate but come tender and flow deep into your soul… if a pastor’s ego fills up every room he enters…

I highlight pastors because our errors seem particularly egregious and especially difficult to call out. However, similar things could be said for those of us who are writers, for entrepreneurs, for plumbers, for teachers, for PTA members, for any of us who are consumed by the greed for accolades, driven by the lust for successful performance. Whenever achievement is our end, then our end will ruin us. And it will wound all those in our path.

A publisher once asked Thomas Merton to write a piece on the “The Secret of Success,” and he refused. “If I had a message to my contemporaries,” Merton wrote, “it was surely this: Be anything you like, be madmen, drunks, and bastards of every shape and form, but at all costs avoid one thing: success…”

I don’t entirely understand how to parse this. It is not as though failure is a preferred virtue. I suspect, however, that we intuitively know what Merton means. We know, in our age of unbridled ambition, how this way of being in the world rakes our soul bare. We know the pride and the vaunted hubris. We know that it wearies us. We know that we want something better.

outside dinner party

Jesus once told a story about a king who threw an outrageous extravaganza to celebrate his son’s happy nuptials, a bash sure to blow the socks off every party planner in the kingdom. 5 star chefs filled the tables to overflowing. A chart-topping band stood ready to get the dance floor moving. The party giveaways would put Oprah’s Favorite Things to shame. However, in a shocking turn of events, every single one of the RSVP guests decided last minute they had better options and would not make the festivities. The king swallowed his pride, weathered the outrageous insult and pleaded with the guests. Please, join us. The dinner’s ready. You won’t have to wait. It’s all gratis. It will be fun, I promise. Come, party with us. Yet again, every guest brushed off the invite.

But the king refused to surrender the party. This king never gives up on the possibility of joy. He sent his servants out a third time, instructing them to gather everyone they found, the riffraff and the wealthy entrepreneur, the ones who get invites to all kinds of parties as well as those who never get the call. Bring them all, good or bad, the king said. Robert Capon describes the scene:

[The King] doesn’t give a fig that they look like pigs and smell worse. He doesn’t care that they don’t know hors d’oeurves from Havana cigars. He doesn’t care that they eat with their hands and blow their noses without handkerchiefs. In other words, he does not make any stipulations about them at all. They do not have to get their act together in order to be worthy of the party, any more than the prodigal son had to guarantee amendment of life before getting the fatted calf. They have only, like the prodigal, to accept the acceptance and go with the flow. The king and the father, you see, are party people.

So in streams the motley assortment of high society debutantes, roughnecks and more than a few moochers. And the king was glad to have each and every one. However, off in the corner sat a solitary sulker. This was the one person who had refused the king’s gift of a wedding garment, the gift allowing everyone proper attire for the gala. Always the kind host, the king asked, “Friend, how did you miss the gift at the door? Why don’t we go pick out any suit you like.”

But the brooding man sat mute. His silence leveled yet another snub of the party, another rebuff of the king. Apparently it’s possible to be at the party without really being at the party. At least the first set of guests had the decency to not feign interest, but this silent, sulking guest mocked the generosity with his defiant posture. So the king gave the man what he wanted. The man obviously had no desire for the festivities, so the king removed him from the banquet hall. But everything about the story tells me this: the door was always open. With only the slightest wisp of interest, the king would again welcome the man back onto the dance floor.

The sad truth is this: not everyone wants the party. Everyone gets the invite, but not everyone has the good sense to show up for the soiree. But the party’s waiting for us, always. If you’ve ever wondered if you’re included – you are. And if you’ve ever wondered if you’ve run so far that you wouldn’t be welcomed back – you haven’t.

Several years ago, I made a request of a man I dearly love, a man who has probably had as much influence on me as any person outside my family. My request was personal and relationally risky. I felt the queasy stomach that comes whenever you put yourself on a limb, exposing your desires and wondering if you’re going to look foolish or needy or prove to be a bother.

Still, I made the ask. And the answer was no. While the kind response provided a straightforward reason, he did not strain to soften my inevitable disappointment. He did not work hard to offer alternative possibilities, the way one motivated by guilt frantically searches for anything to relieve the tension. He did not pile on the many reasons why this situation was out of his control. The truth is that his answer was in his control. He simply concluded that he would not be able to meet my desire, and that was the end of the matter.

The finality landed a punch in the gut. I was not angry, but I was genuinely sad. I’m still sad some days when I reflect on the episode. However, I believe this dear man offered, through his refusal, a gift more precious to me than if he had granted what I wanted. He modeled for me the necessity and the power of a straight, unequivocal no.

It’s rare these days to find a woman or man who knows themselves so well that they are clear on where they must say yes and clear on where they must say no. Even rarer is the person so comfortable in their own skin that they know they do not bear the responsibility for how another handles the fact that they can not deliver. Those of us who live our lives under the weight of another’s expectations become a frail or embittered shell of our true selves. Do not walk this road. We need the true you, the strong you. To stay true, we must learn to say no with increasing frequency. We need to learn the courage of our no and trust that others will need to learn this same courage as well.

Some of us have a tendency to get trapped in our head, to go round and round with ideas and dilemmas, furrowing our brow and sinking ever further into the labyrinth of our mind. Miska tells me this comes as no surprise to her because, a she reminds me, I’m a 5 on the Enneagram (5 with a 4 wing if you’re curious about that sort of thing). I’ve been married to Miska long enough to know she must be right, but I didn’t need the Enneagram to tell me how I’ve always felt the lure to fall deep into myself whenever I confront a difficulty or a vexing question, whenever I felt the weight pressing upon me.

This life of the mind is good, but it must not exist unto itself. One may turn to Barth or St. Ephrem when grappling with a theological quandary, but one should also walk among the trees and listen to the sounds of love while sitting under the moon’s quiet glow. We need our own thoughts (and we often need the courage to keep our own counsel), but we also need the wisdom of friends (even the friends we think are not privy to or skilled in the issues we ponder). We need the laughter of children. We need the solid things: earth, strawberries, warm kisses, sweat on our brow, the burn of muscles straining with labor.

If you are like me, whenever we find ourselves locked inward, becoming more and more removed from the actual people and places of our lives, we need to close up the mental shop and head out into our good, wide, physical world. Go for a walk and feel the crunch of leaves under foot. Listen to that crackling cadence. Dial up a friend and tell them you simply needed to hear the sound of their voice. Pick up the woodworking tools that have set idle in the garage too long. Grab a bottle of wine and a block of cheese and take the one you love to a secluded place where words and time and tender touches will draw you back into the solidness of your life. I know of an English professor who made it a spiritual practice to purposefully and thoughtfully touch one solid thing every day, to just make contact and be reminded of the goodness of God’s physical world.

Our mind is a beautiful thing, but we don’t want to get lost in there.

 

door to hell

For many, the church is the loneliest place they know. To be sure, the church owns no monopoly on leaving the soul cold, and many of us endure isolation in all the spaces of our lives, estranged in our homes, in our neighborhoods, in our workplace, in every place where we would have hoped to discover friendship. However, I believe this loneliness particularly acute within our spiritual communities precisely because we claim something better. We claim to be a people where everyone belongs, where everyone is gathered into the family. We are a people of the Table, where all find welcome and everyone has a seat.

No community, spiritual or otherwise, will be able to entirely eradicate the weight of loneliness. For some of us, our cravings and demands for connection with others are insatiable, our expectations way out of whack. Still, the church at times disappoints us with greater sting because we long for something more than frantic activity or fresh piles of biblical information. I want to encounter another actual human. We do not want to be prodded, pushed somewhere. We want to be where we actually are – and to be there in that one spot with someone else.

Several years ago, I sat in a circle with the intention, I thought, of listening to one another’s stories. Within a few moments, however, it was obvious that the group facilitator (the one billed as something like the ‘expert listener’) was not actually listening with open mind and heart to the person across from him, but rather he was waiting to hear certain key words or phrases that he could then use as a pivot to present the material he wanted to disseminate. He had a destination where he wanted the group to land, and he intended to use the story medium to get us there. I felt used and very, very lonely.

There is no cure-all for our loneliness, but I would like to see our churches return to the very human art of conversation. This work will be slow and clunky. It will be inefficient. It will certainly create lots of mess. The “movement” may not, in the end, get off the ground. But if we practiced genuine conversation, we would find ourselves to be more richly human which, as I understand it, means we will be more like Jesus. And that sounds about right to me.

John O’Donohue once gave four questions to ask yourself, question that help us to locate the good conversations (i.e. ones that are more than “just two intersecting monologues”):

When was the last time you had a great conversation, in which you overheard yourself saying things that you never knew you knew?

When was the last time you had a great conversation where you heard yourself receiving from somebody words that absolutely found places within you that you thought you had lost?

When was the last time you had an encounter with another that created a sense of an event of a conversation that brought the two of you on to a different plane?

When was the last time you had a great conversation that continued to sing in your mind for weeks?

If you have difficulty recalling the last time you’ve enjoyed such an exchange, I’d encourage you to go looking. I hope our churches can become communities where these conversations happen. I truly do.

I’m a competitive fellow. Yahtzee. Foosball. Air Hockey. It does not matter. I fear I’ve passed this to our sons. After a recent round of Spades where Wyatt exploded the game with a daring Blind Nil, he thumped his chest and announced his triumph and slid around the wood floor performing a gyration that we’ll just be generous and call a victory dance. After the spectacle, Miska looked at me with no small measure of satisfaction and said, “You have met your match.”

This competitiveness sometimes makes an appearance on my morning runs. If I see a jogger ahead of me, I’ll often set a bullseye on their back in hopes that I can gobble up the distance between us. My plodding pace rarely pulls the steam necessary to accomplish the feat, but I remember Browning’s wisdom about a man’s reach exceeding his grasp and my defeat then seems connected to the great mythic struggle which is, of course, a kind of a victory all its own. We competitive types work very hard to convince ourselves we’re still in the game.

This morning, however, I began my long, straight stretch down 5th Street when I heard from behind the faint patter of feet. With sound so distant, I guessed I still had a block on them; but the cadence and light, easy steps told me this was, unlike me, a runner deserving of the name. And I knew exactly what was happening: a bright red bullseye aflame across my back.

Immediately, I hit the accelerator. I’m not sure it would ever be fair to say that I dash, but my legs responded with eagerness, as though they’d been training and waiting for such a time as this. For the next 1/3 of a mile, I hit and maintained my top speed. I’m not suggesting I was Carl Lewis, but I was determined that this runner on my tail would have to pay a price to take me down. He would not waltz past me, grinning and offering me a breezy “hello.” Twice, I glanced sideways, catching only a peripheral glimpse of my black-clad nemesis gunning for me. Twice, I revved my engines for that last ounce of breakaway burst.

I aimed for Brookwood, where I would turn left and begin my slow, final run up the steep incline to our house. If I could reach Brookwood before my lean, swift adversary overtook me, I would not be churned under by his powerful gait.

Elated, my toe touched the corner of Brookwood and 5th. I turned and took several steps up the hill, then spun around to spy the runner and measure my margin of victory. No one was there. I looked up the entire stretch of 5th toward downtown, and only saw one woman in pink walking the opposite direction toward the bus stop. No nemesis. No sprinter gunning for me. I was racing shadows.

I think we spend too much of our life running from shadows. The opinions and judgements we presume others will hurl at us. The histories that linger at the edges of our soul. The self-condemning mantras that consume our inner dialogue. All the dreadful possibilities of how our life might go very, very wrong. Of course, shadows have an upshot. Sometimes they do get us moving. But we can only keep up the pace so long.

Sometimes we might need to stop in our tracks, turn full circle and face whatever’s dogging us. If it’s a mirage, then we’ll know. If not, we can give the fast-closing terror a slap on the rump as it passes by and say, Alright, good one. But I’ll get you next time.