Glorious, glorious spring has arrived in Charlottesville, and all the Colliers are clapping our hands in delight and gratitude. On Saturday we pulled out the bikes and made a family caravan, like a line of eager ducks, downtown to the outdoor City Market. Each weekend, the Market takes over an expansive parking lot and packs in vendor’s booths, tight as sardines. Organic plants (three tomatoes, one red pepper and two basil for us), fresh produce, baked goods (Wyatt scarfed a blueberry muffin nearly as big as his face), those dangerous handcrafted tacos (line stretching at least half a block) and every manner of artisan craft (jewelery, paintings, woodwork, you name it). It’s a marvelous mess of creation, humanity and goodness.

After Wyatt picked out his colossal-sized muffin, I went to pay and found myself among a small crush pressed tight between two vendors, one tempting us with an assortment of fluffy biscuits, the other displaying tarts and pound cake and cookies. A perilous spot. I stood behind an elderly woman, in her eighties I suspect. She was tall, but slightly stooped. She wore a faded denim shirt, full sleeves and a dark blue skirt flowing nearly to the ground. Her silver hair touched her shoulders, a beauty undiminished by her aged frame and her shuffling movement.

Attempting to step away from the table, the matron turned toward me. She caught me unawares, and I simply froze. We met face to face, only two or three inches separating us. Without a hiccup or any hesitation, she smiled, big blue eyes. She put her finger up right at my goatee. “My, my,” she chuckled. Her kind, raspy voice barely more than a whisper. “Isn’t that a cute mustache.” And then she moved past me.

That exchange, those words, have brought me joy for the past two days. A very human moment, right up close. It was the most natural thing for that dear woman to put her hand to my face, to hold my eyes with hers, to speak a word of delight. My only regret is that I wish I’d possessed the presence of body and soul that she carried so easily. I wish I had kissed her on her cheek.

Countryside Milky Way

In John’s gospel, each time Jesus encounters his friends and disciples during the wild days immediately after his resurrection, he pronounces a new reality, a blessing: Peace to you. Jesus does not speak these words in tepid piety, clinging desperately to a hope that peace might one day arrive. Rather, Jesus stands bold and strong, a Man drenched in victory. When you have descended into the depths of Hades and delivered a piercing, fatal blow to death itself, I suppose you are done with the niceties, disinterested in vague spiritual platitudes. You must speak the unadorned truth. Peace.

For us, the word peace can carry too docile a tone. As you know, peace emerges from the Hebrew word shalom which evokes well-being, an end of hostilities, the world made right. Shalom does not suggest (for it would be insanity if it did) that there is no such thing as violence, isolation, relational rubble, economic devastation or systemic injustice. Rather, shalom (whenever declared by Jesus and enacted by Jesus’ community through the Spirit) announces that the order of the world, because of Jesus’ Triumph, has met its match.

In those first post-resurrection days, Jesus did not suggest to the disciples that their life, hard-scrabble as it was, would soon all turn up tulips and lilies. Jesus told Mary Magdalene not to cling to him, surely inflicting confusion and anxiety. Soon enough, Jesus’ teaching about the persecution and hardships his followers would endure became the disciples’ reality. Yet Jesus declared shalom. Shalom in the midst of (not escape from) the world as it actually was, in desperate need of God’s transformation.

Shalom does not mean we deny all that lies shattered around us. Neither does it mean we escape into some internal privatized spirituality, not knowing how else to make sense of the harsh discontinuity between God’s shalom and our ruins. Rather, shalom means that God stands bold and strong in the dead center of our weary lives and speaks the reality – that God is with us, that God will not leave us, that one day the story will come to God’s good end.

Shalom means we can join with St. Julian of Norwich, “All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.”

poem in pocket

As you surely know, the Academy of American Poets has christened today National Poem in Your Pocket Day. The idea is to take poetry to the streets, carrying a poem with you, in your jacket or pants as well as in your imagination. Let the words linger. Let them play with you. Take an extra copy and pass the good word along to an unsuspecting coworker or seatmate on the bus.

I asked my friend (and one of my favorite poets) John Blase to pen us a short verse that we could carry with us today. He was generous to oblige. Tuck this away, take it with you.

A Fine Thing

A poem is a fine thing
to carry around in your pocket,
that and a few pennies to hand
children having complete nuclear
meltdowns near grocery store doors
because their exhausted mothers
don’t have any small change for
Champion the mechanized stallion.
Just smile and say ‘here ya go’
then walk away. If you linger
you’ll break the spell of kindness,
and shame will worm its way in
to cheapen your gift. Most people
live on the shame aisle. So just go
on about your business and leave
a mother and a child charmed.

Easter Sunday was Simon’s favorite day of the year. This was new because for most of his life, it had been Thanksgiving.

When the family was young, Thanksgiving meant laughter and stuffed bellies and football at the city park. Once the kids flew the coop, Thanksgiving provided the one time of year when everyone found their way back home. They rendezvoused at their Appalachian cabin and blew the weekend gorging on country ham and Mary’s famous yeast rolls. They sat by the fire, on the porch swings and on the lakeside dock, reading novels they’d swapped or catching up on the months they’d been apart. They picked up their decade-long Spades tournament, keeping a long-running tally on a legal pad sitting atop the fridge. No one knew what score they were playing to, nobody cared. They took meandering walks among the Hickories and the White Pines. On Saturday night, they went into town for Uncle Carter’s famous BBQ and then to The Rusty Nail for local mountain music. Thanksgiving carved out a haven of joy and simplicity.

Since Mary died, however, things were not so simple.

One might think that Simon gravitated to Easter because of the story of resurrection, the possibility that Simon might one day hold Mary again. The fact is Simon was not drawn to Easter so much because of what it said about the dead but because of what it said about the living.

The first Easter after Mary died, Simon sat in a pew toward the back corner. Mary had only been dead three weeks, and it was late Easter morning before Simon decided to actually show up for the service at St. Thomas. He didn’t want anybody telling him to say Allelulia. He didn’t want to make a joyful noise. He didn’t want to endure a boisterous homily. Jesus may have walked out of the grave, but Mary lay underneath six feet of cold dirt.

When the Reader read the Gospel text, however, Simon noticed how all the characters were running everywhere, frantic, and it amused him. Mary Magdalene running to the two disciples, then Peter sprinting off to the tomb, only to be overtaken by another disciple whose jet speed forever ensconced Peter as the brunt of Easter-sermon humor. All the running struck Simon as funny, and he chuckled, louder than he wished. Folks on nearby rows raised their heads and looked his way. The Reader seemed startled for a moment before she regained composure.

Patrick, Simon and Mary’s oldest son, had always been in a hurry, always forgetting something. At least twice a month, Patrick would leave his lunch or homework or tennis racket he needed for practice. He’d dial his mom or dad, asking them to make an emergency trip to school. Twice, when Patrick went backpacking with friends, he called Simon from the trailhead two hours away, once needing his sleeping bag and once his hiking boots. The last phone call caught Simon on a stressful weekend as a publisher’s deadline loomed. After a terse conversation, Simon slammed the phone. “What’s wrong with this kid? He busts around without a care in the world, expecting someone else to pick up his life. The boy needs to slow down, I swear…”

Mary stood at the kitchen counter, holding her tea. She watched Simon and smiled. Simon knew that look. He knew wisdom, ever so irritating in moments like this, was coming. “You know, Simon,” and Mary paused. She liked to pause when she knew she had Simon’s attention. “Patrick forgets because his life is so full, he can’t keep track of all the good things. I hope he keeps forgetting a few details as long as he possibly can. The chaos means he’s living.”

Simon did not know why the resurrection reading carried him to this memory. It must have been the chaos, the frantic running. Simon laughed, interrupting the reverent worship, receiving confused stares. Maybe Mary Magdalene and the disciples scurried about because, on that shocking morning, their life just took off without them, insisting they catch up. Maybe their circuits overloaded with all the previously unthinkable possibilities. Maybe they were invigorated with the brilliance of how much life mattered, how much their life mattered. In the first Easter story, Jesus’ grave split open, and this meant everybody needed to get moving, get busy living.

That afternoon, Simon dialed up Patrick, just to say hello and that he’d been thinking about him. Then Simon poured a dark cup of coffee, sat on his back porch as the sun warmed his face and wrote the first page of a new novel.

My earliest years were spent on a ranch in Tennessee. My co-conspirator Wil lived next door, and we enjoyed an idyllic childhood. There were horses and ranch hands, thousands of acres stretching over hills and woods all the way up to Lookout Point. The vast land brimmed with stories of Indian lore, the sort that would make a young boy’s hair stand up, wild stories that would convince him, especially on deep summer nights, that he saw ghosts from the old tribes.

Wil owned a pony named Snowflake that grazed in a small pasture just behind his house. Snowflake was docile enough, but she possessed a minor mean streak that, for some inexplicable reason, flared up around me. I have this effect on certain creatures. One afternoon, we saddled the pony for Wil to take a ride, and when he returned, Wil handed me the reigns before he went inside. I hopped atop the miniature steed, eager for my opportunity to enact fantasies of Wyatt Earp or Kit Carson.

I couldn’t have been in the saddle more than two or three minutes when the pony turned stubborn. I insisted on at least a gallant trot; Snowflake insisted she meander. Meander? How could a law man ride into the blazing thick of a frontier range war with a horse who will only grunt and crunch on weeds? I was the boss here, and I’d have none of this insolence. I gripped the reigns and gave Snowflake a swift kick to the flank. The next few seconds were a blur. I remember an angry snort. I remember a lurching sensation, my stomach jumping to my throat. I remember being launched, like those times at the pool when my dad would catapult me from his shoulders high into the air.

I woke up flat on my back, the sun warming my face, a large horsefly buzzing near my head. I don’t know how long I had been out, but Snowflake stood lazily across the field, munching and content. I stood up, muscles throbbing. I wobbled several steps to pick up my Stetson cowboy hat. Gingerly, I walked to the pony and picked up the reigns dangling on the ground, leading her, humbly, back toward the house.

For the next week, I walked sore, battle scars of a man who’d been bucked from the back of a wild mare and lived to tell the tale. This was the summer of legend.

Given that Christian faith rests on the fact that God thought so much of humanity that he insisted on it for himself, I cannot for the life of me understand why we Christians are often the ones most afraid of our humanity, most skittish about our bodies or our passions, quickest to think we must add some “spiritual” component to make an earth-bound good truly good. It was, after all, the Creator who introduced good to our vocabulary, and the Creator spoke this fine word not first over religious texts, theological ideals or evangelistic proclamations. Rather, God the gardener-artist took a gander at purple finches, expansive blue skies, lush honeydew and Adam and Eve’s naked bodies — and God said, Well, look what I did…Now that’s good. Good. Good. Good.

Jesus, as we know, was a Palestinian carpenter who spent his days honing his craft — the lay of the wood’s grain, how the steel blade would sing as it sliced from the proper angle, the smooth lines that told the tale of a master who knows his work. As Jesus took on his more “serious” ministry, we discover that he loved the wild air and took great joy in cooking breakfast at daybreak. Jesus always wanted friends near and entered a fury for those suffering indignity. Jesus wept when death stole a life, and Jesus cared for his mother with his own dying breath.

A beautiful novel, an exquisite meal, a night of good love, a ballgame or a movie with the kids, a traipse across the country, a day’s work at the shop or the office, the studio or the classroom – these are gloriously human acts, filled with possibility and beauty, overrun with God.

If our religion makes us less human, something’s wrong with our religion.

Well, alright. Here we are again. Another morning to wake, God. Another horizon of possibilities, treacheries, love and, to be sure, a little sadness. We never know what a day holds, but usually there’s a bit of each of these in the mix. If possible, Lord, double down on the joy and laughter. I’d appreciate that.

I’ve noticed how a lot of folks have been doing a lot of crazy stuff in your name lately. I guess that’s nothing new for you. I know I’ve contributed to this myself. I do wonder, though, if this weighs heavy on you. I know you carry the weight of the world, but you also carry the weight of our foolishness. I’m sure thankful, but I am sorry. I’m sorry.

There’s one thing I believe, and I’m pretty certain I learned it from you: Love holds us together. All of us. I forget this, but I want to remember. Will you help me remember? It really does change everything.

Alright, we’ve got to get to it now. The day’s calling us. I’ll be watching for Love today, watching for you.

Amen.

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“Well, are you going to kiss me or leave me hurting?” Mary was close, intimately close – but moved no closer. She was not a tease, and this was not a game. This was an honest question. Mary’s fingers intertwined with Simon’s, rubbing the back of his hand with her thumb.

For a good hour, they sat under moonlight, scrunched close as the music worked its groove. Otis and the River Boys would strip a guitar clean and then, without missing a lick, slide into a soulful melody so slow and aching you knew you were in love – even if you weren’t. There was electricity between the couple, their thighs pressed tight. The surging music provided good excuse for them to lean near and whisper in the others’ ear. Are you chilly? Simon asked. Do you want another glass of wine? Can you believe what Otis just did with those chops of his? As the evening progressed, the questions came more often, his lips lingering near Mary’s ear a little longer. The music drove a hard rhythm, but it gave only a tinny dink compared to the thump in Simon’s chest.

The past three years tested their vows. They promised to stay together, to honor one another. There were days when they believed they stayed true only because of the kids, but they both knew it was really something more. They had tasted something, they had known something together. This memory, still alive, gave them enough to live on until fresh light came.

But for a long while now, all had been dark. The bankruptcy and Claire’s death pulled them asunder in ways that shocked them, ways they could not understand. They hadn’t slept together in fourteen months. Conversation was often curt, so much pain between them, so much longing, so much sadness. There are few things more lonely than a soul-deep intimacy that has suddenly grown cold, a desire you know like your own soul – but can no longer set free.

Otis belted a tune of love and hot, long Louisiana nights. Mary watched Simon’s eyes. Simon knew this was going to be a magnificent summer.

long road

Perhaps some of us have a distaste for Lent because our life is already shot through with sorrow. We can’t bear days giving any more weight to what is broken, to all we lack. But Lent, we must remember, is far more than only a way to reckon with the wrong. It is even more a way of priming ourselves for the good. Disconnected as we are from communal rhythms, Lent runs the risk of becoming merely another exhausting exercise in isolated spiritual effort. I’d suggest we let that business go.

These days are a gift to receive, not simply another place where we buckle down and exert our last ounce of self-discipline. These ashen days allow us to welcome those who mourn, those life has bent low, those excluded from a life always lived on the upbeat. In a world of plastic cheer, Lent can provide a much-needed space for hospitality to those who are, for the moment, estranged to joy.

Best of all, Lent provides an extended space for the imagination, a stretch of time to dream of bright sunshine and hearty laughter, to lean toward all the raucous joy to come. Lent is not merely an affirmation of a world shot-to-hell but rather a promise that death’s days are numbered. Sorrow holds claim only to the few, fleeting night hours – but have you ever tried to hold back the morning, to chain the sun? We best ready ourselves for the fire and light. No one can stop the morning. No one can stop life.

Sunday’s text told us that Abraham believed in the God who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. This gives us the heart of Lent. What we know, real as it is, does not rule the day. Whatever is dead, whatever goodness does not yet exist – this is God’s Easter work. This is what we have coming.

Almighty God, whose blessed Son was led by the Spirit to be tempted by Satan: Come quickly to help us who are assaulted by many temptations; and, as you know the weaknesses of each of us, let each one find you mighty to save; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

lonely_tree

The readings for Lent commence with a dark energy even the Coen brothers would find it difficult to match, an apocalyptic-styled standoff set in the barren wild. Jesus and Satan. Forty days of wilderness and hunger, forty days of isolation and deprivation as the Tempter accosted, day and night, the weary Son.

In the sulfur-laced war room of Paradise Regained, Milton’s demons suggest the temptation lead with alluring women and all the tawdry passions, but Satan believed noble motives gave him better odds. In the temptation to turn stone to bread, for instance, the Tempter appears as a shepherd and appeals to Jesus’ mercy. If Jesus would do such a feat, pleaded the shepherd-devil, then Jesus would “comfort us with food, which we wretched people seldom taste.” Our attempts to know what is “good” apart from the God who is goodness itself will inevitably twist themselves inside-out.

Writer and director Denys Arcand’s Jesus of Montreal sets one of the temptations in a penthouse overlooking the Montreal skyline. The Tempter here is a tycoon of the entertainment industry urging Jesus to leverage his notoriety and publish a book that he guarantees will hit the bestseller list. As a writer who’s never likely to see such a list unless I pay $2.50 for a Sunday Times, I’ll admit this scene stung a little.

Jesus, we know, refused every offer. With each answer, Jesus returns to the words and ways of the Father. This is the same Father who, at Jesus’ baptism only days earlier, thundered from the heavens: “You, my dear Son. You’re beloved. And I’m crazy about you.”

I suspect that refusing temptation’s hollow (yet very powerful) siren call has much less to do with grit and rugged resistance and a lot more to do with having ears to hear the voice of love, having a heart supple enough to receive God’s delight flooding toward us.