It is a strange thing to see your mother in a wooden box, lying there so gently, as if you could simply lean over and whisper into her ear to wake. For her funeral, my mom wore the dress she had originally purchased for Miska’s and my wedding. My mom released her son into the world. And now we have released my mom into God’s care.

It is such a strange thing to lay a hand on your mother’s casket, to speak a blessing over her life. Emotions and memories rush forward at such a moment, but the sturdiest thing I felt was gratitude. Gratitude for her tears and her tenacity, for her commitment to my dad, for the ways she sought out those who had been left out or wounded or silenced. One morning before her funeral, I ran my old jogging route, and I stopped in front of the house that was my childhood home. For several minutes, I walked back and forth in front of the old house, fearing the neighbors would think me a loon. I remembered all the years, all the tenderness. I remembered a few arguments, tense moments. I remembered laughter and meals around the table. I remembered love. Through tears, the words that spilled out over and again were only this: ‘thank you.’

A friend recently passed Kahil Gibran’s words to me: When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight. And this is true. Sometimes you also weep because of regrets or things that will never be. But somehow it is true that if you trace those things back far enough they do somehow work their way to delight, to hopes, to joys you knew or joys that lingered as you searched for more. In the strange twist, grief and gratitude seem to walk together.

As I say goodbye, for now, the only words I have are this: Mom, I love you, and I thank you. 

mom's stone of blessing

We buried my mom today, and a craftsman chiseled this blessing into the stone that greets you as you enter the grounds. This blessing reminds us that this soil, like all God’s earth, is hallowed. I am so thankful for my mom’s life. We have now returned my mother to God’s care and her body to the earth, where God’s very ground will cover her and surround her with the fullness of love.

The Spirit of God is around you
In the air that you breathe
And his glory in the light
That you see
And in the fruitfulness
Of the earth and the joy
Of its creation
He has written for you day by day
His revelation
He has granted you day by day
Your daily bread

It’s become too easy a thing for us to appeal to the great outlier, to ‘mystery.’ Mystery is a word that should be spoken (if it must be uttered at all) with gravity, with at least the hint of tremor. An appeal to mystery does not relieve us of hard thinking. God knows it does not relieve us of the need for steely-eyed courage. It’s a mystery should never be the tagline diffusing all the tension, but rather the invitation to gather up all the fortitude we can muster and walk deeper into the mercy that perplexes and astounds us.

If we have never sat dumbstruck in front of a blue-swept mountain ridge…if the sorrows of a friend have never sunk like icy lead into our chest…if a single word from a stranger or one line from a novel has never caught our breath…if we’ve never felt the terror and aloneness of Gethsemane – then we are so new and green to this twisting and very long path. And there is no shame in being new; in fact, these virgin days provide their own beauty and wonder. However, these are the days we must learn to listen more than we speak.

John Ames, a Congregationalist pastor in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, learned this silence: “I’m not going to apologize for the fact that there are things I don’t understand. I’d be a fool if I thought there weren’t. And I’m not going to force some theory on a mystery and make foolishness of it, just because that is what people who talk about it normally do.” To walk amid mysteries, at least in a way that is faithful and true, often requires a simple skill – the courage to go mute, to refuse to add words when only silence will do.

To speak of mystery does not make all difficult things light and free. The fact that mysteries surround us may allow the world in which we live to be honest or bearable or once again overwhelmed with grace – but mysteries, if they are true, require grit and patience and bravery.

 

I once read a poet I admire insist that if he had his way, he would write in isolation, anonymous. No one would even read his work until perhaps centuries later when someone stumbled upon his unsigned verse in the musty library of an old monastery. He would never be part of the give and take, that unique relationship between writer and reader. He would never have his name attached to his work, the signature that says, These are the words I have born into the world, for better or worse. This is the work that has been my labor and my pleasure. Who am I to critique another man’s dream, but for my two cents, this anonymous business is poppycock.

While I absolutely write for me (writing is often my way of prayer; writing is one of those few things I simply must do in this world), I also absolutely write for you. I am not merely doing art for art’s sake, but I hope and pray I’m also doing art for your sake. The truth is that (because I could not help myself) I would write even if no one ever read, even if I could never publish a book or scratch out a magazine piece for print, even if no one would ever receive what I had to give. I would write, but my writing would not be complete. You are required for that.

When I was seven, my mom gave me an old Sanger traveling salesman typewriter. Even as a young boy, she saw a glimmer of something in me, and I will always be grateful that she paid attention and encouraged me to bang out sentences. Immediately, I loaded a sheet of onion skin paper and began to hammer out my memoir titled My Life. I only completed 1/3 of a page before I ran out of material, but I immediately went searching for the next word. And I haven’t stopped since.

Over the past few days, something has returned to me again and again: deep gratitude to each of you who, in receiving my words, have encouraged me to keep searching. I’m grateful for those of you who have said “Thank you, this mattered to me” and those of you who’ve pushed back and made me work harder. It is a mysterious grace to me that there are a handful of folks in this world who buy my books and read my articles and return to these pages regularly, kind folks I can think of as “my readers.” This is no small thing. I wish I had something more eloquent to offer you, but what I feel, very profoundly, right now is this: Thank you.

The Annunciation_Francesco Mochi

But Mary was very perplexed by Gabriel’s words…’How can this be, since I am a virgin?’… {Mary}

I love the story of God born to a virgin because of how utterly outrageous it is. If we were aiming to create a religion perfectly suited for the modern mind, we failed with gusto. Our vast intellect, rigorous experimentation and unflagging chutzpah have conquered the moon, polio and more than a few mysteries of the atom. We have debunked old delusions and learned to snicker at the naivete of older generations. And if we know anything at all, it’s this: virgins don’t have babies.

Of course, this brilliant observation would not be news to Jews of the first century – or to anyone at anytime for that matter. Our primal urges as well as our survival as a human population means that, in every age, we possess a clear understanding of at least the basic components required for a child to find its way into a woman’s belly. Yet here we have our first story of Jesus, and it is absolutely ridiculous.

When we review Jesus’ life, however, we know that his arrival simply had to be absurd. Everything Jesus would teach us, every way he would move in this world, would be entirely nonsensical to the established truths and entrenched powers. If we think the virgin birth was Jesus’ most ludicrous moment, we’re not paying attention.

But the question for us, the tension this story and all Jesus’ stories create for us, is this: will I receive the absurd and fantastic love of God? Will I, like Mary, say, Here I am, crazy as it sounds. I’m in. And will we stay put so that we can welcome with wide arms the joy, the love, the wonder?

I treasure the story because it forces me to ask: When the mystery of God’s love breaks through into my consciousness, do I run from it? Do I ask of it what it cannot answer? Shrugging, do I retreat into facile clichés…Or am I virgin enough to respond from my deepest, truest self, and say something new, a “YES” that will change me forever? {Kathleen Norris}

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This reflection comes from the Gospel reading from this week’s lectionary: Luke 1:46-55. Many thanks to John Blase and Kelly Hausknecht Chripczuk for being my cohorts this Advent. 

I hope that you play and laugh, that you give and receive much love over these next few days. Have a very merry Christmas.

Capadocian Freco 11th Cent

From this day, all generations will call me blessed… {The Virgin Mary}

On this third week of Advent, the virgin Mary sings her song. This courageous woman bore, through sweat, ridicule and the travail of her own body, the One who would save us all. It is no small thing that in a world where men controlled every sphere of power it was a woman who carried the hope of the world.

To be sure, Mary was no passive woman only familiar with the way of the meek and mild. Mary knew a fierce gentleness. She sang of how her child would overthrow empires and unravel systems of injustice — even as she sang hope over all who were hungry, all who were desperate for help, all who had been cut low by the grief of life. Mary was a friend to the weary and a threat to the powers. Women of tenderness and strength always are.

Today, I cannot think of Mother Mary without thinking of my own mother, the wonderful woman who carried me into existence, the woman who nurtured me and prayed over me, the good woman who released me into my future with more than a few tears. I think of the woman who shares my life, the woman who labored so that our two boys might know this world, a woman who labors over them still.

It is a costly thing to surrender your body so that another might live. Jesus knows this, but Mary knows this as well. Mary bore our one hope into this world, a cosmos shot through with both wonder and misery. No wonder we call her, even as she foretold, the Blessed Mother.

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Each Monday during Advent, John Blase, Kelly Hausknecht Chripczuk and I reflect on the same Advent text from the week’s lectionary. This week, it’s Luke 1:46-55, Mary’s Magnificat.

starry night

Get you up to a high mountain,
     O Zion, herald of good tidings;
lift up your voice with strength,
     O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings,
     lift it up, do not fear;
say to the cities of Judah,
     “Here is your God!”
       {Isaiah}

The prophet’s words on the opening days of Advent gave the body an alarming jolt. Anger and indignation. Disillusionment and fatigue. These are not revelations I expect to find printed on any of the holiday cards or included in any of the annual Christmas letters that will soon cover our kitchen blackboard. Advent leads us to joy, but first it reckons with the grief. And we’ve had more than a small share of grief in recent weeks, haven’t we? There are moments when I do wonder whether we will make it, whether this old world might not just release a final, death-rattle gasp and release us into the dark.

But the prophet who weeps is also the prophet who refuses to surrender hope. Isaiah, after the tears and the sorrows have their proper say, kneels beside the haggard woman, the broke-down man. Isaiah drapes his arm around weary shoulders and whispers into tired ears, Get up, now. Get up. This is not where it ends. We have work to do. And the work is to announce good tidings.

When the time has come (and only then – but absolutely then), we dry our tears. We shake the soot and the ashes from our head and our heart. We grab the weathered hands of those around us, and we sing. Our shaky voices unite in a happy song of protest and faith. We drench the cold night with a melody that heralds our stubborn insistence: We are not forgotten. Here is our God!

As God’s people, we weep and mourn over the world’s travails, over our own regrets and sadness. We do not peddle false fantasies. However, far more, we are belligerent in hope. We sing the glad song with tenacious, raspy voices. We cry into the dark. It is not only angels who bring good tidings of great joy. This work is ours as well. So, we lift up our hearts. And we sing.

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Each Monday during Advent, John Blase, Kelly Hausknecht Chripczuk and I reflect on the same Advent text from the week’s lectionary. This week, it’s Isaiah 40:1-11.

Wintercholia.Small

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down… {Isaiah}

Whenever Advent becomes the parlance of The Economy or The Industry (especially the Christian industry), we can be certain the Advent known by frightened shepherds and half-crazed prophets, the Advent familiar to a gutsy virgin and a threadbare people, has grown (to some degree) estranged to us. Advent’s force does not arrive via strategically orchestrated initiatives, certainly not from a writer’s well-timed Advent series. The very best we can do is hold tight and try not to mangle the whole affair while we wait for the mystery to happen.

Advent’s force does not answer cue, bidden by the craft of preacher, activist or entrepreneur. Advent first pierces the cold air as a desperate groan from those living at the jagged edges, from those who taste sorrow’s bitterness, those accustomed to the crush of disappointment, of fear. Advent comes first for those who have made a wreck of things, those who carry a legitimate complaint, for those whose existence teeters on the brink. If you do not know any pain, if you have no yearning for what is not yet true, if you have no pang of grief for your sorrow or the sorrow of another…if there is no raw, raspy voice somewhere in the hollows of your soul that every now and again whispers into the ravaging night, God, please…Please tear the heavens and come down… then some of what Advent offers will always stand remote for you.

And this is okay; it simply means you’re not yet ready. But tuck this in your pocket because someday… someday you will be.

Israel cried out for Yahweh to rend the skies, to move, to act — precisely because God was not acting. For generations, God had gone silent, and Israel, fearful that their history and their future might finally be extinguished, begged God to do what God had done for the ancients. On Sinai, the mountain trembled under the weight of the Voice, and on Sinai, Israel (besieged by the thunder and the darkness and the deluge) trembled as well. On Sinai, the people’s terror was so great that they wanted nothing to do with this God who cracks the sky, and they pleaded for Moses to deal with God and leave them be. But now the fear of ruin loomed larger than the fear of thunder. Now Israel stood desperate for God to act, to speak, to do anything that might assure them they were not abandoned.

And God would act. The Heavens would rip asunder so Love could descend. But now is not the time for that story, not yet. This is the moment for the groan, for the question of whether we will survive, the moment to wonder if there will be anything left of us at all.

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Each Monday during Advent, John Blase, Kelly Hausknecht Chripczuk and I will reflect on the same Advent text from the week’s lectionary. This week, it’s Isaiah 64:1-9.

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.