We have a cat in our house. I've never been fond of these coy creatures who strut about like they own the joint. However, Wyatt loves cats, and I love Wyatt. So on Wyatt's ninth birthday, we adopted a felis catus that had been abandoned in a cardboard box on the doorstep of our local vet. They couldn't nail down the cat's age, but she is well beyond kitten. They pulled most of her teeth, rotted as they were. We have no idea of the cat's original name, which was welcome news to Wyatt because this meant he could pick a new one. For a boy, naming your pet is half the reason for having a pet at all. We purchased a litter box and a couple toys and new feeding dishes. Spark took up residence in Wyatt's room, settling on Wyatt's bean bag as her nest and perch. 

We assume Spark has abuse in her background. She was skittish her first months in our home. In high school, a friend spotted a cat sunning on the sidewalk where we walked. He snagged the feline by the tail and twirled her, screaching as only a terrorized cat can, above his head in large, looping arcs. At the height of one of his whirls, he released the cat, catapulting the shrieking projectile toward the roof of a building near us. She survived the ordeal, but all that to say that the world can be cruel to the Sparks among us.

The beauty for Spark is that she's found herself a Wyatt, a boy who will hug her and talk to her and who would surely punch in the nose any ruffian who intended to toss her on a roof. Some mornings, Wyatt will come downstairs with his t-shirt covered in white cat hair, proof of all the play and love he's pouring on that little creature who has now found a place to belong. 

Each of us have a bit of Spark in our story. And, I pray, everyone of us has a Wyatt. 

If you are a man with roots than run South (or Southwest, as in my case), then chances are that cornbread claims a sacred place, alongside other relics like grits, football and music with a twang. My grandma made cornbread (straight, not sweet) in cast iron skillets, the kind with decades of grease massaged into every crevice. On special occasions, she would go more elaborate and pull out a cast iron sheet with small molds of corncobs cut into the pan. Dinner offered a basket overflowing with piping hot, individual sized loaves of cornbread. The bread looked cute, all sitting there dressed up like corn freshly shucked; but we knew what it really was – and we were eager to dive in.

When we hear the word form, we often think of something like that. A form is the shape of something, but it may or may not have congruence with what's actually inside. However, the Bible's word for form means something more. In Scripture, a form is the outward visibility of something's true inner quality. In other words, St. Paul would say that the form of cornbread looks like cornbread. And oh how we could play with that image for a bit.

Imagine then what the Scriptures mean when they tell us that Jesus was "in the form of God." We read this little section of Philippians, electric with all its mystery and possibility, each year at the beginning of Holy Week, the week we find ourselves in, the week when Jesus does the absurd, the week when God dies. Apparently, God has a form. Only, for the first bulk of human history, humans had not been able to see that form. We didn't have the capacity for such a vision. 

Until Jesus. The scandal of Paul's words is not the assertion that Jesus is a good human presenting to us a model of God-like life or even that Jesus is a good human who also happens to be Divine in some impossibly mysterious way (though Jesus was human and was divine and it is mysterious). Rather, Paul announces that Jesus is what God looks like when God goes physical. Jesus acted as he did and lived as he did because this is the way God lives and acts. If God was to be humanly visible, then Jesus was the necessary expression. Sometimes you can tell a book by its cover.

Jesus did not go to a cross and suffer humiliation to illustrate some other truth about God or to exert unthinkable energy to finally get our attention. Jesus certainly did not surrender his entire being as an act of appeasement to twist a begruding Father's arm toward mercy. This is the daring claim: Jesus is what God looks like when God takes human shape. When God goes visible, then God lays down his life for others. God does not exploit what is rightfully his to exploit. God surrenders himself for the sake of love. 

Stanley Hauerwas, resisting sentimentalized visions of Jesus' passion, warns of the "bathos [which] drapes the cross, hiding from us the reality that here we first and foremost see God." If we want to know what God is like, we look at Jesus, walking the via dolorosa, the way of grief and suffering. 

The shape God takes, the shape love takes, is cruciform. God's form is Jesus, suspended on a cross, crying out for the healing of the world.

jan richardson

Today and the next couple days that follow offer the calm before the storm. Palm Sunday comes with a flurry (though it always seems an eerie day I don't know quite what to do with), and Maundy Thursday will arrive soon enough — those somber final hours before the initiation of the maddening affliction Jesus will endure. On Thursday, the events take on a convulsive pace, spasm after spasm of death. The flurry of revelry subsumed by the fury of rejection. But today and tomorrow and the day after, we have stillness.

Perhaps Jesus needed these days. By now, Jesus was well aware of what was to come, all the perdition he must embrace. Soon, he would pray to the Father and ask if there might be any other way. Perhaps Jesus needed these days with his friends. I wonder the conversations he shared with that motley crew. Those poor fellows always seemed a step behind (or three or four), but how Jesus loved them. I imagine Jesus cherished these quiet hours. And I imagine there was laughter. I suspect there was added tenderness in Jesus' way and words. Death would fall heavy on Jesus; but, God knows, it would also fall heavy on those Jesus loved. The grief of loss can be the harshest burden, especially if you don't know how the story ends; and the gospels paint the picture of disciples who had not a clue of where this story went. Their agony would be great, and Jesus knew it.

Perhaps this was why Jesus wept over Jerusalem on the day he entered the city among the Hosannas and the waving palms. Jesus was alone in his knowledge that the people "had not recognized the time of God's coming" to them. (Luke 19:44) Jesus was alone in bearing the burden of the cataclysm those he loved would suffer. Everyone else rejoiced, but for Jesus the Cross had already begun.

We're told the way of the world will be won by big players and big ideas. Cultural landscapes, so we're told, shift with the tremors of voluminous visions and cataclysmic bursts when a people or an idea swells to an irrepressible quake. We are told these things, and perhaps those who tell us know what they're talking about. There are even a few spherical truths that have transformed me. So, I won't argue. 

But I will offer an alternative account: my world turns on subtleties. That fresh path of freckles on Wyatt's nose. The coffee Miska made this morning, with extra grinds since she knows I prefer it stout. The friend bristling with anger but who, if you brush past the prickly and into the raw, you'll discover fear and maybe sadness too. That lone bird scooping the air with his broad wings. The tender curve of Miska's bare back. The midnight "I love you, dad," from a boy named Seth who can barely keep his eyes open. A God who became a man, a man with a name and a story.

On my run this morning, I stopped at a red light. A fellow walking to work downtown came up beside me. We stood there, ready to pounce on the flashing symbol telling us "Walk." He pulled out his ear buds and said, "I've seen you since the first of the year. You're doing a good job." My crosswalk mate noticed a face, a human. He pauses at the subtlety of a stranger. I'm glad he did.

Miska has these words from Mary Oliver up on our kitchen blackboard:

that light is an
invitation to happiness
and that happiness, when
it's done right, is a
kind of holiness,
palpable and redemptive.

What Mary's offering is subtlety, no way around it.

In the car this weekend, Miska told Wyatt and Seth they needed to keep the noise in check when they got home.

"Why?" Seth asked.

"Because dad's studying," Miska answered.

"Why is he studying?"

"Well," Miska explained, "he's studying for a sermon."

"Oh…" Seth murmered, contemplating some ephemeral mystery before finishing: "Dad's the best pastor in the world."

The wheels were turning…

"You know," Seth added soberly, "Dad's like God to me."

There was no way that Wyatt, ever the stickler, was going to let this pass unchecked. "Well, maybe God's helper."

"Yeah," Seth said, reconsidering, "he still sins."

 

Children splatter extravagant love, unlike we adults who fastidiously measure our responses so as not to get carried away. Children also blurt out the truth, reminding us – whenever we get a little big for our britches – that we're not nearly so much the stuff as we pretend. Thank God for the children. 

In 1911, perhaps still hung over from the fumes of the Industrial Revolution or simply doubling down, Frederick Wilson Taylor penned The Principles of Scientific Management. "In the past, man has been first," Taylor said, "in the future the system must be first." Frederick believed that the system made the person, not a person the system.

I'll leave it to you to decide what you think of Frederick's assertion. I'll only say that there's no system I've found that can make my boys embrace their manhood or that can fuel tender love in my heart for my wife. No efficiency regimen I know of tells a friend "happy birthday, I'm glad you were born." The General System is not going to shut down sex trafficking in Bangladesh or Atlanta. Each of these requires a woman or man with heart and soul, a person of courage and character.

Contrast Frederick's musings with the recent PBS documentary on the Amish. Watching this piece carried me back to my childhood when we'd travel once or twice a year to Nappanee, Indiana, to have work done on our portable house. We lived in a forty-foot travel trailer, and the factory was in Amish country. We'd visit Amish Acres and stuff ourselves with family-style old world food. Amish Acres is not an actual Amish business, but rather, something like the Disneyland of Amish culture (an irony beyond measure). Still, we enjoyed it, as well as the Mennonite donut shop. I mainly loved all the black buggies and the posts for tying up the horses around town. To a kid who always imagined himself smack in the middle of a Western movie, it didn't get much better.

It would be a mistake to think of the Amish as simply Luddites who idyllically resist modern advancements. Rather, the Amish have made many of their lifestyle choices because of their guiding commitment to being a people who live in community. When grappling with cultural change and new technology, they wrangle with this question: how will this adaptation impact our community? They don't allow phones in their homes – not because they believe Satan arrives via electrical wires but because they believe that once they get accustomed to calling their neighbors on a device from their kitchen, they'll eventually stop dropping by to see their neighbor for a chat in the kitchen. If they need to talk to their friend, they have this odd hunch that it's best done face-to-face.

Amish don't use mammoth, gas-powered farm equipment because they want to depend on their neighbors, not a machine, come harvest time. The Amish don't own cars – not because they believe that hell arrives on wheels (they can ride in a car, they just can't own one) but because they believe that once their life conforms to traveling distances further than a buggy can carry them, they'll begin to work in far-flung towns. Eventually their family and communities will scatter. As one Amish man said, "If you want to love God — and live simply and close to the land — and if you want to live within 20 miles of your family your whole life, being Amish is a good way to do that."

I'm obviously not Amish. I couldn't be. It's not my life or story, not to mention the embarrassing fact that I'm completely incapable of growing facial hair for something as amazing as those Amish beards. But I admire the Amish. I admire their rooted sense of life and land and place. And I think Frederick Wilson Taylor was a doofus. 

 

I was a foolish, foolish boy. Miska and I had been dating plenty long to be at the point where a fellow needs to put up or shut up. Embarrassed as I am to admit it, I was in the grip of a selfish line of thinking: "There are billions of women in this world, and I've only met a couple thousand. Who's to say I won't someday, somewhere, meet someone better for me…?"

Who's to say… as if love comes announced from some external authority. Someone better… as if love takes shape by probability calculations.

Of course, I was to say. Love does not arrive at that final moment when, having all possible options closed and the edict unequivocally delivered, we finally limp to the altar and declare, after rummaging through every single alley, yes – you. Love leads the way. Love charges in. Love names the truth and then leaps after it. Love comes as a tender surprise, but then it asks us to surrender our mind, body and soul. Love knows nothing of the penchant for playing the numbers and hedging our bets. Love doesn't tamp down the danger; love sets the fire.

But my love hesitated because of fear. Fear of what I didn't know. Fear that I might be wrong. Fear of what I might discover later. Fear that new information or experiences might alter the truth I perceived. That fear, rational as it may have been, kept me from loving the one woman right in front of me, this mysterious, exquisite woman. I was a boy who had yet to become a man. I had yet to give myself to the glorious terror of love.

Love is the center of the universe. God's love for the world, God's love revealed in Jesus Christ. To be loved (and to love in return) requires risk. We hear God's call in Jesus; and we say yes – or we don't. Love will wait for us. Love will whisper to us and, at times, ravage us. However, love – if we'll have it – requires that we lay our cards on the table. Love will require that we leave behind our adolescent machinations and step into mature love, love that lays down self-protection and walks into the beauty and joy that only comes along the way, not before. There will always be other possibilities, a thousand reasons not to love. We might be wrong, we might. But God, in love, invites us to come and see. To take the risk and come and see.

In my young years, I held a naive conviction that I would marry someone I couldn't possibly live without. Now, I don't know what that even means. However, that posture selfishly offered me a kind of perceived safety that comes from absolutist certainty. It would require nothing of me other than the ability to see the obvious. It was a numbskull's vision of love. I discovered, however, that the true question was not can I live without Miska?, but do I want to live without Miska? That second question swelled with danger, but the answer I could not contain was no, god help me, no. And with that, I embraced the peril of love. And I became a man.

Personal knowledge is impossible without risk; it cannot begin without an act of trust, and trust can be betrayed. We are here facing a fundamental decision in which we have to risk everything we have. There are no insurance policies available. {Lesslie Newbigen}

The boys and I were trapped in the car. We crept toward the red light that flashed green only for a nanosecond, ruefully congratulating the two or three vehicles that made it past while mocking the rest of us strung-out in the agonizing row. The boys were in the finest of moods, and by the finest of moods I mean the sort where every word (every. single. word.) ignites a small land war. I despise traffic, and the boys' fighting is, to my soul, like that chalkboard thing, the one with the nails and the scratching. The whole setup was lovely.

Given this perfect storm, I lost my cool. I may or may not have uttered the word "bitching" during my fatherly attempt to explain to my boys their delightful behavior. As part of my exemplary dad moment, I rashly decreed that they were banned from the Puffle Party. Certainly you don't know what such a thing as a Puffle Party might be, and I'm not much better informed. It's an online game of some sort and yesterday, March 15th, was the magical day when the entire Puffle world as we know it was set to metamorphose, or so I'm told. "It's a once in a lifetime event, dad," Wyatt cried amid contorted moans befitting the apocalypse or water boarding but surely not a missed Puffle Party.

I let the moment pass, and after finally maneuvering through that blasted red light, we eventually made it home. Everyone was sad and quiet. These are the moments when we parents wonder what it is exactly we're doing, how we got here and how to pull it back together. I played my part, but these boys don't have any halos hovering over their heads. They were awful. Double awful. Do you tow the line and make them pay the piper? Do you veto the judgment and risk bad precedents? Heck if I know.

I do know this, though. I'm a bit of a softy. And I always hope to err toward mercy and crazy love, if it's even possible to err on such things. You should check out a Puffle Party, it's wild in there.

As (perhaps) the concluding house-warming gift for my new digs, my pal Nathan Elmore wrapped these words up for me.

 

Apparently the notion that we use 10% of our possible brain function is a widely perpetuated myth—the certifiable stuff of urban legend, according to the neurologists and neuroscientists. Nevertheless, I have no doubt that my mind contains merely 10% of its available aptitude for conscious associations when it comes to this one very diminutive thing: the chili pepper that goes by the name jalapeno.

As a general rule, I really don’t care for warm, burning sensations that bounce around in the mouth using/abusing their totalitarian reign to persecute me, a plebian to be sure. Yes, true, I’m also a weakling about handling such sensations. So I don’t typically invite the jalapeno over for breakfast, lunch or dinner. It is, in fact, very un-welcome and un-affirmed in the places where I eat.

By virtue of this unyielding intolerance, I can only pull, or download, two associations for the pepper which originally hails from the Mexican city of Xalapa. Sadly, that is all I’ve got in this ostensibly vast cerebrum: two prominent associations. And Winn Collier is the second.

The first involves an 83-year-old son of a Cumberland homesteader in Crossville, Tennessee.

Joseph (Joe) Elmore, my grandfather on my father’s side, is—as far as I know—one of the only men the world over who drives a red minivan and keeps a Styrofoam cup in it for the express purpose of tobacco-spitting. It sounds relatively hipster cool, but trust me the view from the passenger seat borders on nauseating. Then, of course, there’s his driving.

A man of multiple heart-attack scares, our beloved Grandpa Joe—“you ain’t no kind of man if you ain’t got land” (O Brother, Where Art Thou?)—still cultivates an extensive vegetable garden on his five-acre lot on Backwoods Way in Crossville. The street was officially renamed Backwoods Way (it wasn’t born with that name) by the residents themselves to suit perfectly the basic sensibility of the place. Socrates himself would be quite proud: the renaming was a quintessential example of Know thyself.

In matters of religion and faith, Grandpa Joe is undeniably a straight-shooter—a fundamentalist Christian whose cassette-tape collection of hellfire preachers is as impressive as his ability to steer any conversation into an apocalyptic scenario for Anglo culture in America. In other less significant matters, he is anything but a straight-shooter. For instance, when Wal-Mart arrived in Crossville, he suddenly became rather fond of saying that he was on his way to meet up with so-and-so at the Wal-Marts. Like R.E.M.’s song about comedian Andy Kaufman, you are always left to wonder if this guy has something up his sleeve—even if it involves seemingly unwittingly adding an “s” to the name of an exceptionally familiar big-box retailer.

One day, several years back, Grandpa Joe’s word-play games ventured into another stratosphere. In attempting to describe a food he had tried recently, he casually dropped the word jalapeno. No one could have predicted his un-careful pronunciation: jap-a-leno. An incredible slip of his rural tongue or an extremely sly joke, he had all of us in absolute stitches for days. He also had managed to offend both the Hispanic community and the Japanese community in one motion—a weirdly impressive feat. To this day, this singular verbal moment by Grandpa Joe is re-told as a legendary folktale in holiday family gatherings.

My other jalapeno association involves a much younger fellow, a guy who would become a close friend and genuine colleague at a university church in dear old Clemson, S.C.

He is a preacher, to be sure, but with no proclivity for giving or receiving hellfire sermons. He also is a very fine writer who, in his own words, suspects that truth—not just a good joke—“is best told slant.” Here it must be said: No one likes a jalapeno quite like Winn. And no one asks for jalapenos to be added (at no additional charge!) to their grilled chicken salad quite like Winn.

It didn’t matter in the least if you were a national chain named for a Beatles song (Ruby Tuesdays along S.C. Route 123), a university “dive” phoning it in with passable pub grub (Tiger Town Tavern on College Avenue), or an international mom-and-pop joint serving adequate Mediterranean fare (Riviera Restaurant on Old Greenville Highway). Winn was, and is, and is to come, no respecter of asking the burning question: Do you happen to have any jalapenos?

All serious kidding aside, the jalapeno inquiry, metaphorically speaking, could stand in for any number of spicy, flavorful questions that Winn is in the habit of asking. He has made it his life’s existential manner—not to mention the impetus of his spiritual writing, and now, his doctoral studies—to ask. And those of us who know him and read him are very much drawn into the orbit of this unique manner. Furthermore, and further-more, we are drawn in the direction toward which this manner is spinning.

After giving us a glimpse into his geographically wandered youth, Winn writes in his mini-bio: “Years later, I would discover how hungry I am to experience people and place and story.” This indeed seems the insatiable hunger lurking within, around and through my friend’s often-compelling words and ever-thoughtful questions—his manner, yes. I, for one, continue to be thoroughly engaged.

Upon the occasion of Winn’s newly designed website, then, perhaps it is no surprise that I could not help but remember one small but evocative intersection of people, place and story—an experienced moment, or series of culinary moments, when I, too, was made hungrier for precisely such things. To tell the tale, one word should suffice: jalapenos.

 

Nathan F. Elmore writes at: nathanfelmore.com.

A couple mornings a week, during my morning jog, I meet the motherly trio: two pregnant women, with their capri pants and floppy sun hats, accompanied by the matron of the bunch. They have babies in their belly and babies in the two strollers they're pushing. By the look of things, they won't have much sleep or sanity until somewhere around 2026. They are aglow, though. They greet me with smiles. They're far cheerier than I am, though that may have something to do with the fact that at the point I encounter them, I've just topped a grueling climb up the Hill of Retribution. I've given the Hill (the one with the mother of all inclines) this name because with each plodding, grinding step, it seems I'm atoning for some past sin.

But the happy pregnant women with their cute floppy hats walk the neighborhood and engage in lively conversation. They are spry and joyful, and they always greet me with a warm hello. If I were pregnant (and a woman, which I guess would be necessary), I'd want to be their friend.

Today, after we greeted and passed, I heard one of the pooch-bellied women say, "Whatever your body feels good doing, you should do." The words weren't intended for me (or anyone like me, I understand), but I received them.

There is an attentiveness to body and soul and space that creates an open-handed, leisurely way of being present in our world. Most of us are concerned with narcissism and nihilistic consumption. I get it. However, that's not attentiveness. Rather, that's a manic-like failure to tune into the truth in you and the people around you. When we are attuned to our yearnings and our rhythms, to our tears and our pleasures, to those places (and people) who either drain or infuse life – then we have wisdom about the path to follow and the path to avoid.

Miska has encouraged me to create a violence-free zone around my heart, a place where I refused to do injury to myself by the words I receive or the lies I believe. This is good wisdom. Some of us cling fiercely to the ways we've screwed it up – or might screw it up. We playback the conversations. We relive our mistakes. We see the badness in us, but we refuse to take in the beauty. If this is you, then take words from an effervescent pregnant woman, lugging a stroller down the street while carrying a small watermelon in her tummy: Pay attention to what feels good

Follow what's good and leave the rest behind.