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.

Often forgiveness can be an act of restrained power, where one who has been wronged and thus holds the noose chooses to let the rope go, to relinquish their ability to exact a high price. How many women have returned the house key to their wayward husbands begging for another chance? How many fathers have picked up the phone or written checks or taken midnight drives to the local precinct for the child who breaks their heart again and again? How many friends have welcomed back, with open arms, the betrayer or the squanderer or the friend who simply does not know how to be a friend?

For others of us, however, forgiveness is so difficult precisely because we have no power. The husband does not want to return. The child never calls. The friend, oblivious to the grief they have inflicted, bop along with their grand life and their fabulous new relationships — and if they ever even think of us at all, their thoughts come laced with condescension about how we sensitive souls are so easily offended. It is one thing to be wronged. It is a whole other thing when the person who has wronged us doesn’t give a damn.

This is why I believe forgiveness to be an immensely courageous act. To forgive is to relinquish the one weapon we still hold: our bitterness, the acid that seeps from our wound. The transgressor may not care about us now, but we believe that somehow our scorn or our coldness might one day exact revenge. Maybe one day they will feel the pain – and when they do, they will see us once again.

Jesus told Peter that we must do the hard work to forgive (which means to release, to let go) 77 times, which of course is not the number to stick at the bottom of the ledger but a signal that forgiveness rolls on and on. For some of us, this means we will have to face that one wrong with a tenacious grace, releasing over and over that single treachery that left such a gash in our soul. The memory wakes with us each morning, the sorrow slithers into our mind each night. And with great courage, we release it into the arms of love.

This does not mean we roll over and take abuse or injustice. Forgiveness, like love, speaks truth and knows how to say a firm ‘no.’ However, to forgive simply means that we refuse to hold power over another. We refuse to play the part of God. We know that love, not bitterness or revenge, is our only hope.

Of the many ways we could categorize a man, surely this is the most precise: one who can wear a kilt and one who cannot.

I’ve long had fantasies of wearing the Collier tartan, but a man should know his limits so the idea has never gone far. With Miska immersing herself in the Outlander series and with our conversations scheming of how to manage a Scottish walking tour, the moment has been ripe for my Gaelic visions to return. Imagine my delight, then, when I walked up to the counter at the convenience store and there behind the cash register stood a brawny man in a black t-shirt and a green and black plaid kilt. With cropped haircut and bulging, beefy arms, he appeared ready to stroll onto the green to win the Highland Games (the old world games – now televised on ESPN – where kilted men do things like tossing a cow over their shoulder for a hundred yard dash or race to clear a small forest with their teeth and bare hands).

I plopped down my credit card, watching him with a little bit of awe. “I love your kilt, man. I’ve always wanted one, but I don’t think I could pull it off.”

He grinned. “What do you mean? Of course you could.”

“I don’t know. I don’t think I have it.”

“Well, here’s what you do. You buy a Comfy Kilt, they’re made for just wearing around the house. Try it on, get the feel of it. Figure out your way to wear the plaid.”

“A Comfy Kilt?” I was intrigued, though this rugged man at the jiffy mart giving me recommendations for lounge wear was not something I could have anticipated.

“You should do it,” he insisted. “You should.”

The fact is that each of us may need to find our version of a Comfy Kilt. If there is something within us to try or to do, we can ease into it, but we must not ignore it. There’s no need to fear being foolish or to give too much concern for how our skill is undeveloped or our courage shaky. Just try it on. Take it for a spin. Dip that toe in the icy water. Maybe we’ll find our own flash of brilliance. Or maybe we’ll shake our head and say, now that was ridiculous. Either way, it simply doesn’t matter.

It seems important for me that one day I buckle up the plaid, though surely (at first, at least) in the safety of my own castle. Almost certainly, the whole experience will be laughable. But then, isn’t laughter its own kind of gift?

 

canopy road

It is remarkable the vast energies we exert in our attempt to avoid suffering. Painful relationships, painful memories, difficult conversations — it’s so easy, so tempting, to ignore those things that will cost us dearly if we stay with them. How many hopes abandoned, possibilities squelched, friendships withered – all because we did not surrender ourselves to the suffering they would require?

The apostle Paul believed that one of the many signs of a genuine love was the tenacity to be patient in the midst of suffering. We cannot truly love another if we are committed to not suffering. We cannot be present with others in their suffering if we are not willing to suffer along with them. We may not know how to silence the voices of shame or how to circumvent the reality confirmed by the oncology report or how to mend a shattered dream. We, of course, cannot return a boy to his mother or cleanse the mind of foul memories. We can, however, mourn with those who mourn. We can weep. We can bear with the pain and not turn away.

The way of love will always require some manner of suffering, the willingness to lay down one’s own well-being for the good of another. Perhaps this is why marriage provides us with one of our ultimate human enactments of love. Vigen Guroian says that marriage is an act of martyrdom, and he is right. If I want to truly love Miska (and I do), it will in some measure be the death of me.

But it will also be my life. Oh the joy. We suffer, not because we’re sadists but because we are committed to the truest and highest good, for ourselves and for others. We suffer for the joy that is set before us.

I believe that every one of us wants to matter. We want people to listen to us or to follow us or to want us in their circle. In elementary school, the daily draft for lunchtime soccer found us scrupulously counting how many poor souls were left in line with us while we kicked the dirt and pretended to barely pay attention. In our grown up years, we watch jealously for who gets the party invites or the promotions or the skyrocketing social media stats. Miska and I have a friend who jokingly (I think) refers to her A-list friends and her B-list friends. I refuse to ask which list we make. If it’s not A, I prefer not to know.

Because of our desire to make it good (and this is not altogether a bad thing, we were made to splash our beauty on this world), we may begrudge others who hit the highlight reel. It’s a normal, human reaction, but it can be ugly. There’s a reason they call this the green-eyed monster.

However, when we live with the fear that our life may wash out with nothing of worth to show for it, a more insidious temptation seeps in. We begin to guard our life, to tame our voice. We begin to watch too closely for others’ reactions. We take our cues from everywhere but our own still, solid soul. We may believe that our possibilities are dwindling, that the power brokers must be wooed by our impeccable one-shot precision. Like Smeagol and his ring, we clutch our passions or our quirkiness very close.

This is why the old teachers told us that if we were to be true and to live well it is essential for us to risk our significance. To live with integrity, we must lay down the demand (though not the desire) that our life make spectacular impact. We must risk being the fool. We may still hope for that grand epitaph, but we leave the words for the dead to those who write the words for the dead. And what we do is we live. We live true. We give what we have. And we trust that goodness and love will write our final story.

 

boyplayingfootball_winncollier