Out running this morning, I sighted two big-breasted cardinals, blazing red. I wonder what it would be like to have to live up such a brazen coat of feathers? It’s not like you could ever hide or blend into the crowd. I imagine that sometimes it’s a burden, but also gives them their strut. I think all of us need a little strut.
It’s interesting you mentioned the Carver story – I just bought my first collection of Carver stories. I was surprised to find I had a hard time getting into it, but I’m sure I’ll give it another crack. I love that image of you and your crackly Baptist knees kneeling for the ashes, with Easter burning in your eyes. Whatever else happens to us, whatever sorrows we experience, whatever fears, whatever blow to our hopes or passions, that Easter burning — that hope of life breaking loose — is what keeps our heart thumping and our eyes watchful. Truth is though that every year, come January and February, that fire dwindles. I need to remember the story again. I need to be pulled out of myself. I need God. I guess that’s why we keep showing up, isn’t it?
You know moments like Ash Wednesday get, for me, at the heart of what it is I think I’m supposed to be doing as a pastor. I stopped going to pastor’s conferences long ago and haven’t read many pastors books in quite a while. Most of the time, running into all that feels like trying to read Swahili. But standing in front of a line of friends, putting my finger on the forehead of a person I love, looking them in the eye, marking them with the cross, reminding us both of our mortality and our need for mercy and assuring us both that God’s love will carry us even through death — that calls something deep out of me.
Ken’s dad died Saturday night, I’m not sure if you heard yet or not. I felt that one, returning to my own mother’s death. I hate death. I hate the separation. It makes me nervous sometimes when I think of the future we don’t exactly understand. I believe that our future is bound up in God’s love, and most days that’s enough for me. But I’m a man of dust and there are days when I crave more certainty about how this love I have for Miska, for Wyatt and Seth, for my friends, for this splendid world will continue. I want to have more clarity for exactly how none of it’s lost and how it goes on forever. But I find that God rarely considers that brand of certainty a high priority. I wish God would ask me my opinion on such things every once in a while.
With you, I’m disappointed we haven’t found a home for publishing our letters yet, but I’m glad we keep writing. I’m glad it’s about friendship most of all. And sooner or later, when the time’s right, we’ll fling our stuff into the wide world, especially the other letters, the ones that otherwise won’t see the light of day. Until then we’ll work on getting Jubilee out there. I’m eager for March 22nd. I’m eager to get my hands on your finished volume. I need more Blase poetry in my life.
In the midst of vexing troubles, we encounter an invitation to nurture a persistent steadiness, an unflinching commitment to stick with a conviction or just cause that expands our life and calls us forward with joyful (while dogged) faithfulness and openness (a generosity toward those who are our friends as well as toward those who are not so much our friends). And in the midst of these same troubles, we encounter a temptation to feed an always-on-the-prowl fixation that, while wrapped in righteous rhetoric, camouflages a fearful heart, an angry or reactionary vengeance, a restless perfectionism, an inability to sit with ambiguities long enough to grapple with the long demands of love or the cost of our absolutist posture.
These two ways of being in the world need to be distinguished. The former is the fruit of a wide and hopeful vision. The second is an exhausting failure of our imagination, a signal we have not yet been undone by that unbounded provocateur: mercy.
It’s not even Valentine’s Day for crying out loud, and yet the daffodils scattered across our front yard are punching their way out of the cold, hard dirt, reaching up toward the sunshine. This resurrection is an even more rigorous task than usual for these flimsy green shoots because the mammoth Ash we had to bring low refused to go quietly and left in its wake piles of split logs, mulch ground from the small branches and a towering pile of shavings from the mother of all stumps we had to grind out of the earth if we ever wanted to have another tree make its home here again. Yesterday, a fellow moved a truckload of wood, and underneath crouched those defiant, dainty daffodils, bits of green hanging on for dear life, nearly flattened to the ground, but pushing forward slivers of yellow and white. What’s a couple tons of wood to a tough ol’ daffodil?
They’ve got spunk, these early-bird jonquils. After all this effort, they’re out there basking in the warm rays, all the while daring Old Man Winter to bring his worst. Surely somewhere in the flora’s biological memory, it knows the warmth is a ruse, that we’re not done with the serious cold snaps. Yet there they are, risk-takers with a flair. If these daffodils could make their way to Vegas, there’d be a crowd around their blackjack table for sure. They might lose every dime to their name, but they’d go down in a blaze of fury and glory.
Such beauty and tenderness, such courage and tenacity. I hope they make it through the coming weeks. But if they don’t, I will be grateful for their burn-in-the-wind life.
I wonder if, in all our bluster and saber-rattling and amid all our work to make ourselves safe, we’ve forgotten one of those most essential things: to be human, to honor this wonder of our shared life, how we are joined to one another. I wonder if the world we have made safe will be a world worth being safe in at all? I wonder if the ones we harm (or maybe worse: never even acknowledge) all the while fortifiying this mythical cocoon will ever haunt us when we are old and still breathing and still clinging to our shrinking life? There are far worse things than putting our home and life at risk. Didn’t our revolutionary patriots tell us as much? There are far worse things than laying our life down for another. Didn’t Jesus instruct us along these lines?
And I also have to ask if, in the ways we wield our incredulity or rage or our principled opposition, if we need to take particular care not to forget one of the most essential things: to be human, to honor the marvelously distressing fact of our shared life, how we are joined to one another. I wonder if the world we win, if we do so by dehumanizing another, will be a world worth having once we’ve won? Will it be a world we’re proud to hand our children, a world worthy of the hopes and ideals we vigorously defend?
I spent a good portion of my Saturday splitting wood. My friend Tom let me use his beefy, old hydraulic splitter which is a good thing because I’m working with massive sections of trunk from this mammoth ash, and these pieces are big ol’ mothers. Of course, once they get to manageable size, the fun starts because there’s nothing like the thrill of splitting a log with one great swing of the axe. Seth and I decided to name our axe Big Bertha or maybe The Grim Reaper.
However, as I was rolling those gargantuan slices of trunk and heaving them onto the splitter, I remembered the advice from my high school football coach during weightlifting: “Lift with your legs, not your back.” It does make all the difference. Saturday, with my back, I was exerting all kinds of energy and making grotesque facial expressions and grunting noises but was about to snap something I’d rather not snap or blow something out I’d rather keep intact. When I used my legs, there was a sturdiness, an ease even – and also there was a better gauge of my limitations. It’s good to know when to push harder; it’s also good to know when to stop.
This all got me wondering how many things in my life, or in the world around me, I’m trying to lift with my back (my straining, my chaotic energy, my fear, my not-quite-righteous indignation) instead of my legs (my steadiness, my muck-along faith, my reliance on the grace, mercy and love that unnerves most every power or idealogy in this world). I’m not sure, but something tells me that in these days before us, we’re going to be tempted to lift with our back, but we’re really going to need to lift with our legs.
This may seem like a story about football, but it’s really a story about love.
In 2001, Miska and I moved to Clemson, South Carolina, where a little town and a little circle of friends welcomed us and, over the years, became part of the intimate fabric of our lives. I’ve been passionate for college football since I was a boy, but I was unprepared for Clemson. When we arrived, the Tigers’ football program was mediocre, flashes of brilliance overwhelmed by moments of disaster. However, the Clemson faithful captured me. They were generous to the fans of opposing teams, unflinchingly supportive of their school and all sports, had the most massive tailgate parties, were rabid in their enthusiasm (I mean, orange overalls…) and there was something sturdy mixed in with all this that went far deeper than only winning or losing. As Dabo Swinney, Clemson’s coach, says, “It’s all about love.” That says it right. These Clemson people loved their school, their history, the Blue Ridge mountains that surrounded them. And they loved one another. It’s cliche, I know, but the place really is like a big family – and it gets in your bones. So many of our dearest friends were Clemson students or alums, and they exuded a vibrancy, a joy, that was radiant. Like a bee to honey, I couldn’t resist.
I went to a small private college and never had this kind of loyalty or esprit de corps around a university. Once I realized what had happened to me and how, without intending to, I had thrown in my lot with Clemson, I’ve always wished I had attended the school or been a fan since childhood. However, both our boys have this. They were born in Clemson, and when they were only wee tikes I’d carry them atop my shoulders into Death Valley. Seth was all-in orange and purple from the beginning, and after we moved to Charlottesville, Virginia, every year for Seth’s birthday, we road trip to a Clemson home game (sometimes Wyatt joins for a second game or the Spring game). Seth’s a man of tradition, and every year, he wants the same routine: pick him up at noon from school with Bodo’s packed for lunch, stop at Zaxby’s in SC for dinner, pre-game lunch at Moe’s on game day, a stop in at Judge Keller’s or the Tiger Sports Shop to look at gear, scream like mad for 3.5 hours inside Memorial Stadium, dinner at Bojangles on the ride home. Obviously, good nutrition is not a priority. Those weekends are about a day on the gridiron, but they’re so much more. It’s a father and a son, sharing a passion, putting miles on the road together. It’s me enacting, year after year, how much I adore this son of mine. I hope he’ll remember, come every fall and even when he’s old, how much he was loved.
So when Clemson stamped their ticket for a trip to the 2016 College Football National Championship, there was pandemonium in our house. I looked at tickets early, but they were astronomical. However, on Saturday night before the game, I saw how ticket prices had plummetted and how redeye flights to Vegas were dirt cheap. So, I woke the boys Sunday morning and told them to pack their bags because we were heading to Phoenix. Their eyes went wide, they jumped out of bed, and the next three days were a joyful, chaotic flurry. I never imagined being able to actually sit in the stands at a National Championship game, especially cheering on your team. And to surprise my boys with this trip and then sit between them, one of them hanging their arm around my shoulder the entire fourth quarter – that was pure magic.
After arriving home from Phoenix and hoping that Clemson-lightning would strike twice, I reserved a hotel on the outskirts of Tampa, the sight for the game more than a year away. I snagged a good price, and I knew that come January 2017, rooms would be scarce and prices outrageous. I did this in hopes for one more opportunity to take the boys to see Clemson play for all the marbles, maybe even a chance at redemption since they came up short in the desert. The boys knew we’d try our best to go again; however, this year, ticket prices never came down and as of Saturday night this time, they were hovering around $1200 a piece. I told the boys the chances of finding tickets we could afford were next to nil and that it probably made sense to admit we’d done our best but to call it quits. Seth, ever the faithful one, said, “But dad, we’ve got to at least try. And anyway, I just want the trip and the experience with you.” After clearing the lump in my throat, I loaded up the car.
We left Sunday morning at 6 a.m. and drove through North Carolina where, for more than 2 hours on I-95, we creeped and skidded across sheets of ice. The temperature gauge said 1˚. Every time I thought of turning the car around, I’d look over at Wyatt and Seth, eager, hopeful. We kept pointing South. On Monday, we pulled into the HCC parking lot at Raymond James Stadium and over the next 3.5 hours worked the parking lots and sidewalks in search of tickets. The entire time, we saw only 2 genuine tickets (along with a number of scalpers hawking counterfeits), and they were $2,000 each. The boys were troopers, but I’ll be honest, I was struggling. I wanted so badly to at least get those boys in, at least get Seth in.
About an hour before kickoff, when things were looking grim, we made our way over to the one merchandise tent we could find because Seth had decided that if he couldn’t get inside, he at least wanted to get one of the Clemson National Championship scarves. Of course, the scarves were all sold out. Are you freaking kidding me? Maybe this is the place where I’m supposed to say that the trip was epic and we made memories and getting tickets wasn’t really the point. But getting tickets was at least part of the point. The trip was indeed epic, and I’m so glad we gave it a go. But it still smarts, that we were right there, so close, and I couldn’t get them inside.
Finally, as the bands and the announcer warmed up the crowd for the tip off and after it became obvious there were no tickets to be had, we dashed to our car, dialed up the radio and gunned it toward the hotel. We rushed into the Flying J Truck Stop, loading up on pizza, wings, Dr. Pepper, “fruit” snacks and blueberry muffins. We raced to our room and for the next 4 hours raised holy ruckus on the third floor of the Country Inn & Suites. When Deshaun Watson threw that final TD to Hunter Renfrow, we screamed and pounded and ran in circles. Wyatt jumped up and down on the bed like it was a trampoline. My eyes may have been wet.
That night, Wyatt came over to me and laid his hunk of a frame over me, placed his arms around my neck and buried his head into my chest. “Dad, it’s okay that we didn’t get into the game. I just wanted to watch it with you.” So yeah, it’s all about love. It truly is.
Because I’m married to Miska, I’ve become modestly conversant in the Enneagram (really only conversant enough to keep asking Miska questions like: so what is that number that does xxxx??” or this is probably my distintegrating 5-ness, huh?). I’ve gone so far as getting the daily Enneathought emailed to me, something I send directly to the trash folder on days I can’t stand another moment of introspection. And yet there are days when something will hit me square in the solar plexus, like I’ve got a big bullseye painted on my chest. Several times, the opening line will be: “Today, try to do the opposite of your personality pattern.” Well gee, thanks.
But it’s a good word, sometimes we need to intentionally do the opposite of whatever has become too easy for us, too “natural” – only it isn’t really natural at all. It’s just the way we’ve learned to withdraw from our life, to live by inertia. It’s just too, too easy. I’m not talking about working something up or resolut-ing ourselves to death (Good God, no). I’m simply saying that our life is too marvelous to waste by collapsing into a bored sluggishness.
So New Years lands past the halfway point of Christmastide, a time when these two different accountings of time are telling us similar things: to enter our life, to pay attention, to give ourselves to these days and these people that surround us. Maybe this would be a good day, or a good week, to do something that is the opposite of what, left to our boredom or disappointment or compulsions or lethargy, we’d do. If sadness comes easy, poke at a little happiness. If we always stay on the surface to avoid the pain, ponder something a little deeper. If you always withdraw into your internal cave, ask a friend (or someone you’d like to be your friend) over for dinner. If you have a really hard time being alone, take a walk in the woods or curl up for an afternoon by the fire with a fine book. There’s joy to be had, but sometimes we have to intentionally seek it.
Well, you should have all the far-flung children home now, and I know you’re taking the week off. I bet you guys will see a pile of movies and eat more than a pile of food. I think one of the signs of mature friendship is taking genuine joy in your friend’s joy. I’m grinning ear to ear thinking of the swell in your chest when you woke this morning (at 4:30 or so, I imagine?) and remembered what these next few days bring. I bet even ol’ Jack had an extra spring in his step when he trotted out into the frosty cold this morning to do his business.
I always love this turn. Thanksgiving: the week of thanks. Last night, I met with a few folks who do dinner and swap stories on Sunday evenings. We usually open with the evening hours, but this week we took a cue from one of the refrains from the Psalms (“God’s steadfast love endures forever”) and prayed our own words of gratitude. Sometimes, you try this sort of thing and it feels forced. Sometimes you try it, and there’s a little there but it dies out quickly, which is fine. Last night, however, the gratitude kept coming and kept coming. I actually didn’t have much to say myself, but I soaked up all the thanks around me.
Gratitude releases something in us, I believe. It’s an important discipline. When our heart is fearful or cold or stodgy, when we feel resistant toward others or suspicious or envious, gratitude somehow shakes some of this loose – or starts to shake some of this loose. Today, I’m thankful for the Mocha Irish Cream Cake with Irish Cream frosting Miska made for my birthday. I’m thankful for two boys who kept checking in with me about my birthday, wanting to make sure I was enjoying myself and that I knew they loved me. I’m thankful for this perennial with blazing red-orange leaves that sits right outside the window where I write; yesterday the wind was whipping these fiery leaves back and forth and for a split moment, I was alarmed because I thought there were flames in front of our house. I’m thankful for Rick Bass’ Winter that I’ll be diving into soon. I’m thankful for this massive pile of wood from our downed Ash in the front yard and for how I’m going to feel like a gen-u-ine Lumberjack splitting these logs. I’m thankful I have you for a friend. I’m thankful for a handful of other friends, men and women who are dear to me and who help me stay eyes-open in this world. I’m thankful to God who gives all these good gifts and so many more.
And you know, today, I want to say how thankful I am to the folks who read our words. It’s strange sometimes putting these letters out here in the open. We write these letters to one another, but we also offer them in this place because we hope others might find them helpful or encouraging. All of us who write need folks who actually read what we offer and think it’s worth something. We need folks to buy the books and share us with their friends, folks who give us a thumbs up every now and then and tell us to keep at it. I’m thankful for those folks, and I know you are too.
So we’ll watch some of the Macy’s Parade Thursday morning, and I’ll remember my Grandma Oden and how I’d watch it with her and then when I lived far away, how I’d call her to make sure she had it on. Then we’ll suit up for the famous Collier Turkey Bowl football game, with neighbors. Then we’ll gorge ourselves on ham and stuffing and honey apple cake (no turkey for us) and say our thanks. We’ll watch a little more football, eat a little more food, say a little more thanks. It’ll be grand.
I saw the photo of the three college amigos sitting on your couch, and they all looked happy. I know you and Mer were happy to have them there, though I suspect you gulped a few times when you saw the cashier ringing up the piles of food on each trip you made to King Soopers. We have that gulping experience often now with these young turks filling our house with testosterone and appetites. I, like you, am so glad to plop down the cash for groceries and sneakers and braces and burritos and jeans and deodorant (lots) and more groceries and then more sneakers followed by more groceries, Still, I am looking forward to the day when Wyatt and Seth are grown and footing the bill themselves and look back on these days and say, “I had no idea…” I’ve been looking back at my mom and dad a lot recently and thinking “I had no idea…”
Well, today’s the day the Big Tree’s coming down. It’s an ash, more than 100 years old, a real massive, regal tree. I’m sad to see it go. We never named this great tree, probably because we knew we wouldn’t have it for long and didn’t want to grow too attached. He has a twin who’s still strong and healthy, and I’ve christened the twin Stogie. Miska doesn’t like the name at all, doesn’t seem noble enough or earthy enough or something. I think we’re going to plant a Weeping Willow back near this spot, but I’ll clear the name with Miska this time. I’ve learned my lesson. Anyway, the tree crew arrived early this morning, and they are having a time out there. The guy up top, maybe 30 feet high, is cutting and whooping, and the boss man’s giving fist bumps to his compadre as they’re feeding limbs into the chipper. That chipper’s something, like Jaws just chomping and cracking those burly limbs like they’re nothing more than toothpicks. It’s good to see folks good at their work and taking such pleasure in it.
A few hours ago, my friend Tom the master carpenter stopped by. He’s going to take a large hunk of the tree and build us a bench. This tree has been part of this property, providing joy and comfort, for more than a century, and it’s going to continue to do the same for decades more. Tom and I talked trees and carpentry, but then, as we typically do, we began to talk about life, about what we see in the world. We both see, as you mentioned, a lot of passions and a lot of fire (a lot of anger). What saddens me most about our current state of affairs is that we are losing our ability to truly hear the other. We are dividing and taking sides and building motes around our enclaves in ways that are ripping apart our common life (and I use common life in both senses: our shared life and our ordinary life – we’re destroying both). It’s like we’re all being tossed into that chipper and crushed to smithereens. I know that, at least on paper, somebody wins (elections, culture wars, theological arguments); but I don’t believe that the way we’re going about all this, anybody wins at all. We’re throwing one another, and ourselves, into these steel jaws of death grinding us down until there’s nothing left except, I guess, a mess of good mulch for starting over and growing something new. And maybe that’s the hope here, that somehow after we’ve razed things to the ground, we’ll see our folly and start to build something new, something that is really of course very, very old. I sure wish we could wake up first and not torch the whole thing. I do.
In the meantime, though, we do things like say goodbye to good trees and make benches for sitting in the shade and thinking and welcoming friends. We give out candy to the neighborhood ghouls and minions. We wait for our children to make the journey home and we make trips to King Soopers with fat wallets that will quickly grow skinny. We write friends letters to remind one another we’re not crazy, that we believe in goodness — that we believe in this goodness very much.
The Pharisees of the New Testament have come too easily to be synonymous with “hypocrite,” which is more than a little unfair. The Pharisees were the ones who, amid an imploding world, kept the faith. And in the story Jesus told in Luke 18, the Pharisee was an upstanding fellow. He didn’t gouge his customers for profit, didn’t sneak around on his wife, didn’t do underhanded deals. His word was his bond; he was the sort of fellow you wanted as your neighbor, your business partner – heck, your pastor. The other fellow in the story, however, was a real scoundrel, a shady tax collector. He was, in the words of Robert Capon: “the worst kind of crook: a legal one, a big operator, a mafia-style enforcer…living for years on the cream he’s skimmed off other people’s milk money.” He was “a fat cat who drives a stretch limo, drinks nothing but Chivas Regal, and never shows up at a party without at least two $500-a-night call girls in tow.”
So the Pharisee was a good fellow, but as the story goes, he was so very full of himself, so very self-righteous, that he didn’t think he had any need for grace. The tax collector, however, was a wreck. He’d hit bottom and knew he was in a bad way. The Pharisee, because he was so drunk on his own goodness, spurned the grace he needed. The tax collector, because he could not keep up the charade of his own goodness, opened himself wide to let the grace pour in.
Of course, perhaps this is all humdrum and some of us are getting restless because I’ve hinted that this story might have something to say about a certain electoral engagement soon approaching. Well, there’s a word in this story that has not received appropriate attention: contempt. Jesus tells us that this Pharisee felt contempt for the tax-collector. To feel contempt is to disdain another, to regard them as nothing. To pour contempt on another is to dehumanize them, to reject their value and beauty as an image bearer of God. In Jesus’ eyes, contempt was the Pharisee’s severe brand of self-righteousness. But here’s the thing about self-righteousness: it makes us feel so good, so smart, so quick with the cutting wit; it make us feel superior, part of the right crowd, part of the righteous crowd. And yet it leads us into a dark hole. When we feed our contempt for another human, we drink deep from a bitter cup. We gulp in the soul’s poison.
There are, to be sure, many serious matters to be weighed with this election. There are issues of grave concern threatening severe consequences. We ought to think hard and promote ideas that are true and just and healing. But whatever comes on election day, if we’ve surrendered our shared humanity, we have surrender far too much. If we are people of faith and yet our political opinion evidences contempt for other women and men God dearly loves (in spite of who they’re voting for), then our faith, in this instance, has gone dead. It’s one thing to disagree with Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton or those who support them – but contempt is something entirely different. Our contempt might feel so good in the moment. It may gain us some of those coveted thumbs up on FB or knowing chuckles at the office – but contempt will destroy our souls.
We can not say we are fighting a righteous cause or a just cause if we lie about another human, if we slander another human, if we degrade another human’s dignity. The truth as we see it may be pointed, it may even sting – but if we become contemptuous, we really need to pause and look deep in our soul.