You know your marriage has weathered well when love brings you to the place where you bear the other’s sharp word or dark mood, knowing as you do that these raw places cover a weary or wounded soul and require tenderness, not scorn or assault. Forgiveness is given, easily, before it’s ever asked, the scuffle brushed away, no more bother than a stray piece of lint.

How many times have I come to Miska, heart in hands and a bit embarrassed, only to find the woman who said yes to me eager to say yes again? I barely form the words, and she greets me with, “Yes, of course, yes.”

An essential to good marriage, good friendship – to good life in human communities – is the commitment to discovering the truth in another and then believing that truth with them and for them – and sometimes in spite of them. However, in our gotcha culture, we look for opportunities to score points and exploit wounds and pounce on others’ failings. If you have any doubt, stay tuned for the political commercials or facebook postings soon coming to a screen near you.

I once viewed God this way: scrupulously judging my every move and every belief, eager to send a jolt my way when I missed a step. With this misguided vision of God, too many of us defend “truth” in ways that are at odds with the One whose self-giving love defines Truth. However, what if God sees our true self and our best efforts and, rather than growing angry over our missteps, chuckles and smiles and says, “Yes, of course, yes.”

C.S. Lewis welcomes me with these words: “This is the courtesy of Deep Heaven: that when you mean well, He always takes you to have meant better than you knew.”

Most Sundays, I write a blessing to speak over our church. I speak the words before we depart, hoping that God’s Spirit will take plain words and lodge them in places I could never reach. It is a great joy, to speak a blessing over friends. My preference is to write the blessing myself, but there are words in Scripture that just blow any blessing I’d write to smithereens. This is one of them, from St. Paul. Breathe in these words. Open your hands and receive them.

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirt. And may it be so. Amen.

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The introductory offer of Let God: Spiritual Conversations with François Fénelon @ $2.99 for Kindle (and Kindle apps on other devices) ends this weekend.

 

I asked Miska to marry me (the first time) on a snow swept mountaintop, under the stars. I think she saw the proposal coming, but the mind and the heart do their own thing in moments like this, and Miska’s instinctive response was to ask, repeatedly: Are you sure? Are you sure? She clutched the ring and echoed the question: are you sure? Seven times, if I remember correctly.

She couldn’t have known, as I didn’t even know myself, but those three words sliced into a hidden, wounded place. Those three words put language to one of my deepest fears: that I might be wrong, that I might be foolish, that I’ll miss some of the facts or hold a wrong belief or opinion and will, in the end, be uncovered as a fool.

The quick story is that she said yes, but her question unnerved me. I freaked out. Three days later, she gave me back the ring. A month after that, I got my crap together, and Miska was kind enough to roll the dice on me one more time. However, the themes in that story have grown to be annoyingly familiar.

I have friends who seem to have never known a doubt, never second-guessed a conviction or belief. I have no idea what that would be like.

For folks like me, however, it’s a mistake to think that because our mind wavers and absolute certainty remains eternally illusive, this means we must forever waffle, never stand firm. We may have to endure a perpetual, nagging “what if?” playing in the background, but this only means our beliefs require more courage. The ground on which we stand may be harder won and our ground will most likely be a smaller territory than others triumphantly claim – and surely, we’ll move our flag from time to time (a virtue, if you ask me). But if we’ll learn to trust the things we know even if we don’t know we know them (we might need to chew on that for a moment) and if we’ll allow ourselves to live more playfully and more whimsical, we will find our steady ground. And we’ll discover than being foolish ain’t all that bad.

As St. O’Conner said in the Second Gospel of Wise Blood: “Faith is what someone knows to be true, whether they believe it or not.”

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As a gesture to my Fénelon book being Kindle-available (and on sale for $2.99 for a few more days), I leave you with a pertinent line from one of the letters in Let God: “True faith never delivers the sort of human certainty we constantly look for. True faith won’t let us grab hold to safety or latch on to dry formulas…God is God, you know.”

In 2005, I read Father Joe, Tony Hendra’s memoir of his encounters with “the man who saved [his] life.” The opening lines sets the table: How I met Father Joe. I was fourteen and having an affair with a married woman.

Obviously, Tony was a troubled youngster. One awkward (but ultimately fortunate) day, the husband walked in on his wife and Tony in each other’s arms. Concerned for Tony’s well-being, the husband contacted an English Benedictine abbey and connected Tony with Father Joe who, for the following decades, became Tony’s guide, spiritual father and friend.

I believe all of us, even those of us with far less memorable prompts than Tony, find ourselves in need of wise spiritual guides, friends who will listen to our stories, learn the contours of our heart and then help us to see the truth and help us to stay true to our path. This world is confusing. And wearying. We need help.

I have a good father who I talk with regularly. He counsels me on any major decision, and he listens in on many minor ones. My dad is a man of integrity. He is a gift.

I also have a pastor. He’s retired now and lives a good distance from me. We converse via letters. It’s a slow, leisurely conversation that happens across miles and months. It’s not so much his answers to my questions that I find life-giving (in fact, answer would be a bit generous – he’s sparse on specific advice); rather it is the patient, plodding reminders he offers, simple nods toward what is true and beautiful and worthy of my love and energy.

Let_God_Francois_Fenelon

Several years ago, I found another wise, spiritual guide, another pastor of sorts: François Fénelon. Two friends introduced me to an old volume of letters passed between Fénelon and those he was guiding in faith, most of whom served in the debauched court of Louis XIV. These letters, old as they were, touch on precisely the themes I wanted to explore: fear, doubt, faith, hearing God, prayer, loneliness, friendship, community, boredom, relentless noise, suffering.

I was so taken by Fénelon’s gentle (but sharp) voice that I wanted others to hear these conversations. I wanted others to find a guide in Fénelon even if they hadn’t yet found their own flesh-and-blood pastor or Father Joe. So, I wrote a book, and Paraclete was kind enough to publish it. However, it never was made available digitally. I’m pleased to announce that now it is, on the Kindle and the Kindle app on ipad, etc.

For the next 8 days or so, it will be available for $2.99. Then the price will jump. You may download it, and if you find that you like it, I’d much appreciate it if you’d pass the word to your friends, small groups — or even irreligious friends curious about matters spiritual. There really is something here for most everyone. And as you might know in this crazy book world, if friends don’t help me out, my work is dead in the water.

I was supposed to be at the beach today, feet buried in the cool sand and nose buried in the first of several good books. Wyatt and Seth riding the wild waves on their boogie boards and digging for hermit crabs. Miska breathing the air that has, for her entire life, provided balm to her soul. However…

Saturday morning, we loaded the car and began our 6 hour trek to the Atlantic Ocean. Though I’m more of a mountain man, I always look forward to the space and the beauty and the laughter — but the rest of the family, now they have a love affair with the beach. Miska actually has some mystical connection with the waves and sand. I’d attempt to explain it to you, but I don’t quite understand it myself. Her heart awakens, and her soul quiets. She hears things out on those sun-drenched shorelines. I’ll just have to leave it at that. All summer, we’ve been gearing for this week. You can imagine an 8 and 10 year old’s revved up energy, asking at regular intervals how much further?, how much further?, how much further?

We pulled into the driveway of the beach house and folded out of the vehicle, breathing our first salt air. We grabbed a load of gear and stepped into the house. To my horror, luggage and groceries filled the living room and kitchen. Everywhere, I saw all the things you’d expect to see from a family of happy vacationers just unloading into their beach house for the week, all the things we were just beginning to unload ourselves. No one was there. I suspect they were dipping their feet in the water and getting the lay of things.

We quickly exited and stood in front of our car, shell-shocked. I pulled out my phone and searched quickly for old emails. The short of it is that I made a dad-sized snafu. I had us down for the beach on July 28th. However, we are supposed to be there August 4th.

I don’t exactly remember, but Miska tells me I had to walk away from them for a minute in order to “gather my strength for enduring the weight of the family’s crushing disappointment.” If you know us Colliers, you know we never pass on a good existential crisis. If we see the ship sailing toward tragedy, heartache or impending drama, we don’t attempt to outmaneuver. We point straight ahead and raise the sails.

I walked back to the trio-in-mourning and told them I’d made a big, fat hairy mistake and that we were going to have to drive back to Charlottesville. Miska put on a brave face, but she was entirely deflated. Wyatt, true to form, had a barrage of frenzied questions, searching for some other resolution. Seth looked at me as though I’d just drowned his puppy.

We piled back in the car, and though I risk cliché, I can only describe my emotions this way: I wanted to cry. Of course, many have far greater difficulties than our luxury of having the option of a beach vacation to begin with, screwed up or not. But these days are important to my boys. They’re vital to my wife. We’d saved and skimped and held out through a weary season with the joy of this week in sight. Joy is an essential thing. And as we started re-tracing the road back home, there was little joy in our Honda.

Insult to injury is the $150 I blew for a trip that yielded nothing more than miles on the car and a story my boys will one day tell their own family on their own road trip. A royal, epic fail.

The sky grew dark. A rain storm moved in. Gloom settled around, and inside, our vehicle. The wipers fought against water, and my eyes did too. I felt shame over my forgetfulness. I felt foolish for dropping the ball. I have always hated disappointing people, and now I was knee-deep. I knew we would be okay. Life was not over. I don’t want to over-dramatize. But neither do I want to slough this blunder off for less than it was. We were sad, and I made us sad.

A little ways down the road, night now covering the lightning-illumined sky, Miska put her hand on mine. “Grace,” she said. She squeezed my hand, and I knew the words she had no need to speak: be kind to yourself. Some men have women who would use this occasion as arsenal for many a war to come. My wife is not one of those women. At the moment where she could easily castigate me (and with good cause), she squeezed my hand as we drove together through the dark rain.

The boys have learned Miska’s grace. Wyatt said, “Dad, it’s okay. This way, I get to stay up past midnight, and we get to eat out for dinner.” Seth, who needs to suck the marrow out of any tragedy, took a tad longer; but yesterday he walked up behind me to deliver a massive hug — and at various points throughout the day, he repeated: “Dad, thanks for everything you do for us.”

The good news is we’ve rearranged schedules so we will cue the trip again come Saturday. The better news is that grace came to me from the woman and the two boys who have long been, to my soul, God’s truest sacraments.

 

We dropped the boys off for summer camp, and I half wanted an invite to stay. Just after the entrance, we passed a paintball course and the archery range. Once we parked, I sighted a massive water slide and a 15 foot high platform from which you would jump, drop onto a wide rubber launch pad called “the blob” and then catapult into the water. Rock climbing wall, skate ramp, zip line. Mercy.

Before leaving, I noticed a small hut, painted funky blue, near the lake’s edge. Scribbled across the front, in psychedelic scrawl, was the shanty’s name: The Sugar Shack. I like the whole bohemian motif, but my boys first time away from any part of our family circle would be a week mixing it with young beauties at a place that has a spot, next to the lake no less, dubbed The Sugar Shack. Mercy.

Miska and I were undeterred, however. We were crossing our own threshold – that blessed (and for years now, entirely unfathomable) moment where we get a second taste of what life was like when there were two, not four, in the clan. The week would be all for pleasure: good books, vineyards, local culinary spots we’ve wanted to try, late mornings with premium coffee. I overheard Miska humorously describe our plans to a friend: “We’re going to pull down the shades and descend into hedonistic revelry.” Now those are words that would make any husband perk up. Our own sugar shack. Mercy.

Wyatt and Seth loved camp, everything about it. Yesterday, they regaled me with energetic tales of the Shack. It was amazing, profound, eye-opening. They had no idea what they’d been missing, and they were certain life would never be the same. I braced for the details: Apparently, The Sugar Shack serves snow cones with any variation of the available 50 flavors of syrup, all for 50¢.

Mercy.

Every summer – and every marriage – needs a place called The Sugar Shack.

Two stories jolted me this weekend. One from Aurora, Colorado and one from the dusty village of Bethany. The two, I believe, need to be heard together.

In the story of Lazarus, Jesus’ competing emotions give us pause. As Jesus arrived in Bethany and encountered two heartbroken sisters, both Jesus’ friends, John tells us that Jesus grew angry. Modern translations, perhaps uncomfortable with this seemingly ill-timed flash of temper, tone down the language. The NIV says Jesus “was deeply moved in spirit and troubled.” However, the text says Jesus was angry, and the Greek word used carries the imagery of a horse, with flaring nostrils, fighting against its bridle. The word fits well describing a bar room brawl, but how does it possibly fit the Son of Compassion who has arrived late to his friend’s bedside, the friend now entombed? How does anger fit a moment when Jesus greets a sister in convulsive tears?

But anger was only one emotion Jesus revealed. Mary asked Jesus to follow her to Lazarus’ burial spot. Jesus had arrived too late to intervene, but at least now he could pay his respects. After great tragedy, all we’re able to do is make peace with loss, gather the broken shards and make the best of whatever follows. A pastor from a church only minutes from the theater where the shooting occurred in Aurora this weekend gave a humbled, grieving response: “I don’t have any answers. I can only listen and hug.” Every pastor I know has echoed these words. I hate these words. They show my utter helplessness.

Sometimes, though, this is all that is left for us to do: bury the dead. To say goodbye. To pray against all odds that this won’t be that final dreaded straw, that our faith won’t finally fail, that hope will come again.

But anger, we’ve said, was only one emotion Jesus showed us. After Mary invited Jesus to Lazarus’ tomb, the Scripture simply says, “Jesus wept.” The floodgates opened, and the water poured. Jesus was not taken aback by the fact of his friend’s death. Earlier in the narrative, Jesus pointedly told his disciples that Lazarus had died. Rather, Jesus buckled under the weight of the sisters’ grief and the pain of a world so far from Eden. Jesus entered the sorrow of weeping Mary and burdened Martha and dead Lazarus. Jesus was angry at loss, so angry that he wept. And then so angry that he stared down death and told Lazarus to walk out of his tomb.

Anyone who says God takes pleasure in death and destruction (and I still shake my head when some say such idiotic things) needs to read their Bible better. God does not cause evil, but (to our frustration and bewilderment) neither does God always stop evil. God, in Jesus, does something far more scandalous, far more bewildering: God enters the very places overwhelmed with evil. A tomb, for instance. And a cross. In a theater where a madman unloads his firepower. In a hospital ward. In your heart, and mine. God grows angry. And God weeps.

And God promises to one day entirely overwhelm death. May it be so.

I do not believe in dour Christianity. Following Jesus surely means we are to surrender all we possess to the God who reigns Almighty. However, we’re dealing here with the one who, as St. Paul says, became poor so we might be made rich. The eternal tale of pauper to prince.

I do believe in a faith of raucous joy. I believe in the God who instructed Israel to an annual tithe solely for the purpose of funding a flamboyant party. I believe in a God who invites us, each week, to a feast of wine and bread. I believe in a God who laughs and who, every now and then, pokes us until we can no longer stay grim but instead succumb to the Holy Jester and let loose a ripping guffaw.

God is not sparse or frugal. God lavishes abundance. While we are right to resist rampant consumerism, let us not make the tragic mistake of replacing it with the faith of miserly prudes. While we are right to join the poor, let us always arrive singing of how our God owns the cattle on a thousand hills, which in our day must at least include a few city blocks housing fine restaurants that know how to lay a dandy spread and how to rearrange the tables so dancing and music can pour into the night.

Whatever our take on matters of economy and Christian discipline, let us never forget to laugh. And party.

I’ve lost my wedding band. Three times. The first mishap occurred during a volleyball game, my ring flying off my hand during a vigorous block. Friends dropped on all fours and scoured the ground, retrieving the ring from the grass within minutes.

A few years later, we were traveling I-40 and stopped in Jackson, Tennessee to clean up puke from two boys who were cycling through their second round of the virus from Hades. In a moment of exasperation, I flung my arm in the air. The ring sailed off my hand, hitting the asphalt with a metallic ding, bouncing and then rolling down the black top. Catching an incline, the ring gathered steam, and before I could catch up, it dropped over the edge of a drainage grate, down with the muck and out of reach. An hour or two later, several kind men from Jackson’s traffic department arrived, wrenched the grate from the concrete and fished out my tarnished band.

In 2007, my good luck ran out. I spent much of the day tending to our yard, and it wasn’t until showering that I recognized my ring missing. Our friend Michael arrived with his metal detector, revved to have a real live emergency requiring his machinery. Salvaging a man’s token of eternal love provides purpose more noble than unearthing bottle caps or buffalo nickels at the beach. Unfortunately, after a few disappointing hours, the ring was pronounced truly gone.

I planned to save for a replacement, but the following year Miska had an alternate idea. For her thirty-fifth birthday, Miska wanted a second tattoo. Only, for this occasion, she wanted me to join her, and she suggested an inked wedding band. Surely you’d know I’m not the tat type, but what man could say no to such a request? I’m a romantic, and if I’m ever to have permanent markings etched on my body, it would be for the purpose of permanently declaring my love for Miska my fidelity to the vow of marriage.

People often remark on my ring. Clerks at checkout lines point it out, and friends are curious if it hurt and how I found the design. A couple of years ago, at a hotel in Denver, the concierge ogled over the tattoo. He grew animated, peppering me with questions. When I told him it was my wedding band, his face contorted. He took a step back, with a look of disgust, like I’d just greeted him with a Heil, mein Führer! 

“Why would you ever do a thing like that?” A rebuke, not a question. “What will you do when you don’t want to be married to her anymore?”

It took me a moment to make sure I heard him correctly. Regaining my footing, I said, “You may be missing the point.” I took my room key and headed for the elevator.

There’s a reason why I searched like mad for that missing ring those three times, and it had to do with much more than dollars. There’s a reason why my hand felt bare, and my heart a little too, those stretch of months with no ring to call my own. Few would be foolish enough to say it doesn’t matter, it’s just a symbol. Wearing that ring is itself a way of being faithful, a way of renewing your vow every time you slip it on. When a man removes his ring before he steps into a bar, this act, with no further hanky panky required, carries the treachery of betrayal.

True symbols allow us to participate in whatever reality they symbolize. We are physical people in a physical world, and God has gifted us with physical encounters, mysterious symbols that welcome us to participate in tangible grace. Much of the church knows them as sacraments. When I am buried in water, grace covers me head to toe. When I drink wine and eat bread, Jesus feeds me and sustains me.

I couldn’t tell you precisely why or how this is so. But then neither could I tell you exactly why my inked ring renews my marriage covenant or why I wanted to tag that clerk on the jaw for playing loose with my promise.

Whatever difficult place your labor takes you this day, whatever energy you exert, whether you conclude with a toast or the end is merely the moment you lose your grip, may you receive these words in your bosom. Whether your great challenge is a child in need, a marriage in shambles, a job out of reach or a faith wearing thin, may these words lodge in your soul. Whether your day is arduous and vexing or simply another opportunity to gratefully recount God as your life and the giver of all good things, may this blessing find its home in you.

O God of peace, who has taught us that in returning and rest we will be saved, in quietness and in confidence will be our strength; By the might of your Spirit lift us, we pray, to your presence, where we may be still and know that you are God; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.*

 

*from the Book of Common Prayer, adapted from Isaiah 30:15