Jean-Christophe Verhaegen

Jean-Christophe Verhaegen

A Christian has every reason to love this good old world. And I do not mean love merely in an ethical sense or as an act of Christian duty. I mean we, of all people, should be the ones most ravaged by the pink glow above the Blue Ridge on a crisp morning, the ones who linger the longest in front of a canvas colored with life, the first to delight in a French Cabernet or a slice of potato sourdough drizzled with wild honey. When we read how Virgil has died in the war and how Hannah must now brave her days alone and raise their daughter who will never know her daddy, we have reason to be first to wince at the pain, the first to give thanks for the power of the story and the first to sit with a tear and at least a little awe for the one who could tell us such a tale.

This world, with its land and its people, was God’s idea. God was the Creator who, at every twist along the way, couldn’t help himself, exclaiming over and again, “Good. Good. Good.” Then, when the whole shebang was done, God clapped his hands and let out a big guffaw and said, “Well, now I’ve done it. This, friends, is real good.”

Old Uncle Jack, one of Berry’s numerous characters teaching us how to be human, how to be a neighbor, spouse and friend, “lived all his life loving solid objects.” Old Jack took God at his word.

God said, “Now, this is good.” And Old Jack answered, “Don’t you know it.”

Our first two years of marriage, when we lived in Tallahassee, Florida, Miska worked in the office of the Speaker of the House. Miska kept the staff’s schedules, greeted politicians and lobbyists and expended her energy grinding out the administrative minutia that push forward the rusty wheels of government. Miska even wore suits to work. None of this was right of course – it was death to her soul. Only, she didn’t exactly know this yet. She had to live into the deeper truths of who she is.

Over dinner at a mom-and-pop Italian restaurant (checkered tablecloths, little candle, the whole bit), we had a conversation that altered the trajectory of our life. We moved to Denver for Miska to go to grad school, and though I had no idea what my job would be or how we would pay the bills, I knew important things were happening. Something powerful and alive had begun to resurrect in her heart, and I was hellbent on not missing that beauty.

In the years since, Miska’s voice and art, her way in the world, has grown solid and true. She’s a joy-maker. Miska is, at her core, a creator. Wherever she decides to give her energy, good and beautiful things blossom.

For years, Miska has offered her creative art via her presence with people, in her work as a spiritual director. She’s kept most of her other craft close, only shared with family and a few friends. Sometimes this has frustrated me. I love what Miska creates, and I’ve wanted her to let her work out into the world. She has resisted. “The time’s not right,” she’d say. Typically, I’d feign agreement, while really thinking whatever...

Now, however, it’s time. I get to share at least some of her craft.

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Broken Elm offers Miska’s all-natural, hand-crafted skin care for women and men (that’s the apothecary) and, for the moment, hand-printed tea towels (that’s the mercantile). You’ll want to check out her philosophy on all this. I love it.

And in honor of the grand opening, there’s free shipping if you spend $30 (code: StartTheParty). Just in time for Valentine’s Day, gents.

The 12º chill did not stop him, though if he had even a lick of sense, it would have. The run was long and frigid, and the hot shower and hot coffee could not wrest the cold from his bones. Still, these were the hours he’d been given for writing his sermon, the words he listened for each week, the words that sometimes arrived as a slow burn but sometimes limped in with hat in hand, apologetic for their plainness.

So he settled by the fire, with his grandmother’s worn, patchwork quilt. He watched the flicker and curled his toes toward the warmth. Whatever comes will come. And it will all be a gift.

Many insist that Christian maturity means our faith grows larger and larger, but I believe that as we deepen into good life, our faith actually grows smaller and smaller. I do not mean that we come to believe in less or to believe with less fervor (though a wise professor once said, “The older I get, the more I believe in a smaller number of things.”), but rather that our beliefs find themselves decreasingly enamored with abstract theological notions all the while more and more attached to people with names and stories, to places with histories and hopes, to our own sorrows and joys.

In this deepening, narrowing place, our faith finds itself inextricably woven to the neighbor who’s spent 56 years waking to the love of his life but now wakes alone, to the child who carries our love and our blood but also our crushing regret, to the friends and the questions and the work that has made us who we are. Faith is not a set of grand truths preserved in a hermetically sealed silo. Faith is what we come to know, to hope, as we live into our actual life with the God who promises to meet us and make us within these days we’ve been given.

This means, at the least, that when we find ourselves with eyes bright, heart quiet and love attuned, we’ve likely found a place where our faith is growing fabulously smaller. Gratitude and contentment will be your friends here. Do not spend a moment critiquing whether or not this is the brand of faith you have been taught to expect. Simply give yourself to the Spirit’s invitation and whisper “thank you.”

Dr. King’s dream was for all of us, even for those of us who did not want his dream, even for those of us who reproached him and persecuted him and said all manner of evil against him – even for those who fueled the anger that ultimately gunned him down at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. It takes a brazen man to hold the dream of a future that, by all logical accounts, is pure insanity. It take a tender man to hold this dream for those who love you and for those who hate you, knowing that healing must arrive for all of us – or it will arrive for none.

We desperately need women and men who see a future the rest of us are unable (or unwilling) to see. We need dreams that pierce through the tinny noise, blow past our parochial concerns and unhinge our narrow agendas. The time is now (the time has always been now) for dreamers whose imagination burns bold and bright, unfettered by the assumptions the rest of us have accepted as gospel. And we will know our dreams are the noble and explosive sort when they unnerve us with their daring and shock us with their unflinching generosity.

I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant. ~ MLK

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Many people I know and love are in transition. Some are packing their belongings and moving cross-country. Some are welcoming children into their lives. Some, for the first time, know an empty, quiet home. Some are saying “I do.” Some are lamenting how “I do” was not strong enough to hold them together. Some fear the future; some are eager. All will, in one way or another, be changed. All of us will.

Whenever we let loose of what we’ve known, or what we’ve wanted to hold tight, we experience true loss. It is right to grieve friendships or dreams or a way of life we can no longer keep near. Whenever we embrace a transition we’ve eagerly awaited, we find a brightness that enlivens. It is right to run forward, to give ourselves wholeheartedly to new possibilities.

Either way, however, we simply continue our story. We are becoming the person we are intended to be. When we move further into our life, we do not leave behind all that was before. Rather, we carry it with us (or maybe it carries us). The identity we’ve been given continues to form us and instruct us. We simply allow life to stretch us into new places. Our heart grows larger.

 

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image by gareth weeks

We who spend our days in the ecclesial world feel a grave temptation to think of the church in idyllic terms. We often speak of The Early Church (and precisely this way, all caps) with hushed solemnity as if it were some perfected version of Christian life that we must scratch and claw to recreate. As if these little bands of would-be disciples did not have grumpy parishioners and troubled kids, as if their marriages weren’t on the skids and their fervor didn’t wear thin. As if they did not have their share of wild sex scandals. As if the apostles didn’t shake their heads at times in frustration for all the folks who were not “on mission” (whatever that happens to mean in a moment).

I wonder if our fascination with The Early Church exists because we are so disappointed with the real church. If we can lionize a community that doesn’t actually exist, then we can save ourselves from having to live in the grind of the one that does. The longer I pastor, the more I believe that we are to live in the church we have, with the people we have. This is the only church that exists right now, for me.

Wendell Berry’s Port William community exists in multiple ways as a midrash on our refusal to live well in the places where we are, with people as they are, welcoming all their grime and glory. Wendell describes Port William:

It was a community always disappointed in itself, disappointing its members, always trying to contain its divisions and gentle its meanness, always failing and yet always preserving a sort of will toward goodwill. I knew that, in the midst of all the ignorance and error, this was a membership…

A membership. A community that is bound together in a time and in a place. A membership that exists not because of its grandeur or vision or ability to accomplish things – but a membership that exists because, well, it simply is

My vision gathered the community as it never has been and never will be gathered in this world of time, for the community must always be marred by members who are indifferent to it or against it, who are nonetheless its members and maybe nonetheless essential to it. And yet I saw them all as somehow perfected, beyond time, by one another’s love, compassion, and forgiveness, as it is said we may be perfected by grace.

michael costa

Image by Michael Costa

walk_forward_winn_collier_writerIn a culture obsessed with centerfold beauty and youthful vigor, we rarely know what to do with the fading years, the aging bodies. We are tempted to think of a withered frame or declining health as the great tragedy. However, I will tell you the greater tragedy, and it is not a life where the flame has been reduced to flicker. It is a life that never kindled the fire. The deepest sadness is not for the one with their life almost entirely spent, but the one who never really spent their life at all.

Some men live their years as mere shadows of other men. These shadow-men never buckle on their courage or plant two firm feet in a place or with a people they call their own. They never mark out their land. Some women never step into their strength or own their unique beauty. Existing as mere caricatures, they bridle their truest self. Perhaps their strength scares them, perhaps the disapproval of others chains them. I cannot say. I can only say that none of this is true living.

There comes a point in our life, and I think the 40′s is as good a decade as any, when we must decide to walk out from the shadows, to cast off the caricatures. We must be brave. While friendships and brotherhood will come to mean more and more to us, we will rely less and less on others’ opinions. We will live in the fellowship of courageous women and men, giving and receiving, journeying together – but we will not wait for their cues to brandish our gifts and unleash our passions. We see the glory in others, and we speak it. We see the glory in ourselves, and we receive it.

A final word. You can not make such a transition happen. Any pushy attempt at self-made maturity will only yield foolishness: self-importance, braggadocio and a brand of adult-adolescence far too prominent in our day. You can only watch and wait, listening to and learning from those wise ones ahead of you. And then, when your time comes (and here I believe the only wisdom we have is the old truth: you will know it when it arrives), we rise up and say yes. We walk forward.

double french windows winter2

Simon pushed back his flannel sheets, sat upright and gingerly tested the cold pinewood floor. His wife Mary would never have forgotten to return the rugs after a wash, particularly in these frigid months. But Mary was gone now, and Simon forgot all kinds of things.

Try as he did to grasp every lingering memory, the fruit of forty-one years, it disturbed him how easily these pieces of himself slipped away. The scent of orange, cardamom and cinnamon in the kitchen each December. The way Mary would kiss his chest in the wee hours of the night. And Simon’s truest vision – Mary in her studio, grooving to Marvin Gaye and the Commodores while she coaxed canvas to life. How Simon loved to watch her working the tunes and working the oils and brushes.

When Simon built Mary’s studio in the grove behind their two story craftsman, he designed the double french windows in the precise spot allowing him to see her from his own nook in the corner of the house where he wrote. He explained to Mary how the windows needed to go just there to catch the afternoon light, and he never confessed his ulterior motive for the architectural feature. Simon was as true a man as ever there was, but he also believed every romance needed a few fiery secrets. So for decades he watched her and he loved her.

Their marriage was indeed a romance, born of toil and tears and common love: a steamy courtship, a grey decade, children that tested their mettle, years where they feared the entire dream would crumble, and then, catching them both by surprise, a second courtship steamier than the first. The entire story was grit and passion and, to be sure, harsh days they planned to one day forget. But they were wrong. There wasn’t a single day of their life, not one – not even the darkest, to which Simon did not cling.

But now Simon was cold. And now, five days after Christmas, the house was barren again as the children and the grandchildren had returned to New Hampshire and Seattle.

Simon dressed, his standard denim shirt and Mountain Khakis. He set the coffee to brew and stoked the kindling in the fireplace. He fried two eggs and toasted an English muffin. He read a bit of Merton and a few chapters from A Place on Earth. Then Simon stood up and dampened the embers.

Steaming mug in hand, Simon walked across his backyard. The bright sun warmed his face, and the snow crunched beneath his boots. He unlocked the studio, turned up Marvin Gaye. For the next hour, Simon studied canvas after canvas. Content, Simon settled into Mary’s leather chair and peered out the french windows. It was only a moment before he began to chuckle, shaking his head. Simon had a straight line across their yard to the desk where he made his living wrangling words, a full view of his swivel chair and his shelves of books, his framed map of Yellowstone National Park. “Well, I’ll be,” Simon whispered. “I’ll be…”

{This week, John Blase and I conclude our Advent reflections with the Gospel reading for the fourth week of Advent, Matthew 1:18-25}

Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid

Each time I’ve read this text this year, my imagination falls on the description of Joseph’s response after he receives the gut-wrenching news that Mary’s expecting a baby. Joseph knew good and well he had nothing to do with this unseemly development, and Mary’s story about Spirit and angels and the like must have struck him as a particularly elaborate attempt to redefine the obvious.

Yet – and this is what gets me – Matthew says that Mary’s “husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.” Unwilling to expose her to public disgrace. In a world that sputters on the fumes of controversy and defense of the tribe, I wonder what it would be like (and I’m imagining precisely those places where we believe our identity most threatened – or those places of public discourse where we are certain so much is at stake) to be bullheaded in our unwillingness to expose another to disgrace.

We often equate courage with those who thump their chests and “tell it like it is,” but I believe that often the bravest thing is to relinquish the compulsion to be right, to possess a trigger finger for mercy, to live gently. It’s a good thing to honor others’ dignity with such vigilance that there are lines we simply will not cross. Winning the issue or defending our “rights” provides a sorry excuse for crushing another human.

Though Joseph exhibited heroic valor, this entire story leads to the angel’s charge for Joseph to not be afraid. This is the word angels speak whenever they hit the scene. Apparently it’s the word we all need to hear. The angel prodded Joseph to push his courage further, to not merely refuse to disgrace Mary but to rouse his truest instincts and embrace Mary along with all the uncertainty sure to accompany.

It requires courage to love. It takes courage to live with our guard down and our arms open. But this is what happens when God appears. This is what happens when Emmanuel arrives, God with us.