O God, whose blessed Son made himself known to his disciples in the breaking of bread

Last Wednesday was one of my days to be at the University of Virginia, and I parked on the opposite side of Grounds from where I typically park (it’s Grounds here, not campus. We’re persnickety about these things). My return route to my unusual parking spot meant that I walked past the 24 hour Dunkin’ Donuts. In general, Dunkin’ is not an establishment I frequent. On any normal day, I’d stride by without a thought. However, inspiration hit, and I thought I could score dad-of-the-year points by surprising the family with after dinner treats. I popped into the shop and walked out with a bag carrying 2 chocolate covered donuts with sprinkles, 2 blueberry donuts and one reduced fat blueberry muffin.

To review: I parked in a spot I never park on Wednesdays which meant I walked a route I never walk on Wednesdays which meant I strolled past the donut shop that I never enter on a day that I shouldn’t have even been near. Yet there I was holding a bag of donuts that never should have been. Got it?

When I arrived home, I unloaded my gear. As I hung my keys on the hook by the door, I heard Wyatt upstairs talking while Miska prepared dinner. Apparently Wyatt had harangued Miska into letting him tinker with her iphone, and Wyatt was in the middle of a conversation. “Siri,” he said earnestly, “please bring me donuts.”

Can you imagine the shock on his face (and mine) when, seconds later, I walked into the kitchen carrying the bag I was not supposed to have?

I do not care to turn this story hokey by making some appeal to providence. Sometimes, donuts just happen. I will say that I may or may not have grabbed the phone after everyone was in bed and secretively asked Siri for a best-selling novel and for Clemson to win a National Championship.

Dumbfounded by this moment, however, I’ve found myself struck by the gospel reading and the prayer the lectionary offers us this week. John’s gospel reminds us that after his resurrection, Jesus cooked fish over the charcoal fire for his friends. Then, in a reprise of their Last Supper, Jesus broke bread for them and fed them. There are many powerful ways Jesus could have chosen to share himself, and yet, as the prayer says, he chose to reveal himself in the breaking of bread. Jesus gave us bread that nourishes the body and heals the hunger — and this was not bread whole but bread broken.

Then with this broken bread that would sate our ravenous longings, Jesus said, “This is love. Eat and be full.”

I know many people in my sphere who are desperate for love today, desperate to be full, desperate for wholeness and healing. Gandhi said that some people are so hungry that God can only come to them as bread. The good news is that if bread (or love or joy or belonging or hope or friendship – or even donuts, I guess) is what you need, then God in Christ comes to you as exactly that. I pray you will find your bread today, and I pray you will eat to your heart’s and to your belly’s content.

Do you think sometimes the fowl look at us
cockeyed with our sacks of Universal Birdseed?
Really? they ask, looking down their itty-bitty beaks
at our grand and generous gestures.
You can’t even settle on a single flavor of instant
oatmeal for the two bucks in your crew
yet you seem to think the entire lot of us –
Finches, Pewees, and Warblers (for starters) –
can be tossed into one universal bag?
We thank you for the gift and will not,
in our irritated befuddlement, bite the hand
so to speak. However, we’d love for you to take
a moment to know our name, to notice my fine
speckles and my pal’s fire-drenched colors.
We’ll take your Universals if we must, but
we’re not so much the ones missing out.
You are.

The poor fella was wrapped tight as a Twizzler. He had himself knotted this way and that with questions about Plan A’s and Plan B’s and what-might-have-beens if only he’d had better sense or swerved left instead of right. We can be downright violent with ourselves whenever we walk into that inner torture chamber where ugly brutes named guilt and shame guard the door.

“Does God have a plan?” he asked, desperate for me to say yes.

I’m never quite sure what’s behind these phrases we like to toss about, so I asked. “What do you mean by plan?”

He looked at me, head cocked, and he paused. “Well, I don’t actually know.”

Slowly, he began to work it out. He feared that he’d screwed his life up so much that it was beyond repair. A trail of missteps and hard knocks and gutter balls brought him to the moment where he wanted to know he wasn’t forever consigned to God’s Plan B, a life that was at very best only second fiddle.

I interrupted the maddening circle these conversations inevitably create because one truth had become very clear to me. “I think the question you’re really asking is if you are loved. And the answer – absolutely – is yes.”

He looked up, eyes moist. “I’ve always had trouble believing that.”

“I don’t have much to offer on Plan A’s or B’s or LL’s,” I said. “But I know that love carries you. I know that there isn’t a moment in your life when you aren’t drowned in love. I don’t know about these mysterious, Oz-like, behind the curtain plans, but I know that you are loved. And I know that, because of love, you are okay.”

 

treehouseTwo Christmases ago, Miska gave me a splendid coffee table book, New Treehouses of the World. I have never owned a treehouse, but my cousin Tim and a few of his pals built a magnificent tree fort that I envied as a child. Tim was a few years ahead of me, and the fort was in disrepair by the time I was old enough to have been able to enjoy it. However, in seminary, I stayed with my aunt and uncle several nights a week, and each day on my way home from class, I’d pass that rotted-out beauty and pine for what might have been.

The book sat on my dresser for an entire year unopened until last December when I was packing for two days at Holy Cross Abbey, a Trappist monastery where I planned to retreat. I was exhausted and in much need of a spiritual infusion. On a whim, I tossed the bulky Treehouses into my backpack. I had not opened the book in the entire year prior, and this beefy hardback was not the sort of book you take on travels. Nor was it the sort of spiritual tome one would normally consider part of the reading list during days with the Trappists. Yet there it was in my North Face pack, and I couldn’t possibly tell you why.

On the drive north, I began to think of what God might have for me during my time, and the word that repeatedly returned to me was play. This was not the word I would have picked, which is at least half a reason for thinking it’s something to pay attention to.

I pulled into the parking space for the retreat house, aware that the crisp air and the tree’s brittle branches matched the tone of my soul. When I stretched out of the car, an old, very fuzzy grey cat slowly strolled my way. The cat, acting as guestmaster, purred a hello, turned to point me toward the front entrance and then, having done his duty, slowly patted away. I’m not one to pause for a cat, but I stood there for a moment chuckling. The greeting struck me as magnificently playful.

That evening, I laid on the twin bed in my monastic cell; and though I had planned to spend time in focused, contemplative prayer, my brain had all the perkiness of cold molasses syrup. I opened a book of Thomas Merton’s spiritual letters to read, followed by a volume of poetry and a couple theological works. I thumbed several pages of each, but they all made me weary. Run out of options, I pulled out the treehouse book and into the wee hours of the night, I gobbled up pictures of play spaces from around the world. I remembered my boyhood fantasies and my love of rugged spaces. I considered what it would be like to craft one of these tree abodes, hopefully building it with my sons. In that little cell, I played.

St. Gregory of Nazianzus, that theologically prolific fourth-century bishop, reminded us that “man is the play of God.” God’s high creation, his own image, came as an act of play, of joy and delight and imagination run wild. When our theology is so serious and our discipline so stringent that we no longer have hearts at play, then we have massively missed the point. Prayer and play, these are two ways of talking about the same thing.

Lent is 40 days. Easter runs 50. This matters.

While Lent blocks the exit for those chipper souls who’ve never seen a sorrow they couldn’t deny, Easter opens the floodgates on parched souls who’ve come to believe only in a life barren and brittle.

But – and this is what we must not miss – Easter trumps Lent. Lent owns its grey space, and the good news is no good news at all if we do not sincerely wrangle with the sad facts scattered about us. But then Easter comes and flips on the sunshine and cranks up the jukebox and opens the windows and breaks out the margaritas. Death is very real, Easter says, but Jesus alive is more real. Get up and dance.

Easter does not arrive as a joy easy won. Easter is the dance of the mourner who has grabbed the alleluia in a headlock and won’t let go. In Easter, those who dwell in the valley of the shadow of death gather up their courage and bend their ear to the Church’s witness of the risen Jesus. Then, in an act both brave and costly, these reckless souls let the light in. They open themselves to another possibility. They slowly start to tap their toe. With all their might, no matter how fragile or sparse, they begin to practice joy. They begin to Easter.

I was dead, then alive.
Weeping, then laughing.

The power of love came into me,
and I became fierce like a lion,
then tender like the evening star.
― Rumi

resurrection_Hans_Multscher_-_Resurrection_-_WGA16328

 

People of the risen and conquering Jesus, lift up your weary hearts. Lift up your sorrowed eyes — your Jesus has risen from the dead. Easter’s for real. Jesus lives. And all the dying and all the deaths that lay claim on you have been crushed by the power of Jesus Christ, the one who descended into the very bowels of hell and marched out with a victor’s dance. Rise up and live. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Spirit. Amen.

christ cross stone

In 1983, Eric Wolterstorff died in a tragic accident while climbing the Alps. He was 25. His father Nicholas, a theologian and philosopher from Yale, journaled his sorrow in the months that followed. Among his weary words were these:

I tried music. But why is this music all so affirmative? Has it always been like that? Perhaps then a requiem, that glorious German Requiem of Brahms. I have to turn it off. There’s too little brokenness in it. Is there no music that speaks of our terrible brokenness? That’s not what I mean. I mean: Is there no music that fits in our brokenness? The music that speaks about our brokenness is not itself broken. Is there no broken music?

If we are to walk backwards in our world and if we are to reckon with the true horrors, then we need broken music. We need brave people who are not afraid to linger in the falling-apart places. I do not mean folks who by their disposition only see the bleak, for bleak is thank goodness not at all the whole of it. I do not mean artists who use the grotesque as their shtick or politicians who use our fear of calamity to bolster their power. I mean people who know the Beauty of the world but who also know there is a wasteland in the human soul. People who know Love but who also, deep in their marrow, know how many of our nights and days are overwhelmed by sadness.

And we do not need people to pontificate all these sorrows we know full well but are unable to escape. We need brave souls who will enter with us, who will help us meet our afflictions honestly and help us grapple in the dirt. We need friends who know that we must, like Jacob, wrestle into the cold midnight with an angel or a demon – who can say which just yet?

We need musicians who will sing the song with us – and sometimes for us – that we have not yet been able to sing. We need poets who will write the costly verse, born out of their own travail, and then offer it as gift to those of in such disarray that we are unable to locate the language. We need writers who, after they have cut their skin and their soul and bled onto the page, say, “Come, I’ll walk with you for the next hard mile.” We need preachers who don’t merely give us homilies from on high but who wonder with us if the good news could be true – and then preach with the conviction of one whose very life hangs on this hope. We need the broken ones.

Of course, offering one’s broken self for the healing of another is central to the Christian narrative and to how our faith takes on flesh in every time and place. Good Friday gives us a God broken. A God shattered under a dark sky. A God with us in our bleakest place. A God spilt out as balm for our wound, as hope that points us toward Easter.

Today is Flannery O’Connor’s birthday. She would have been 88, and I would have taken great joy watching this iconoclast toss firecrackers into our modern sensibilities. Strange, isn’t it, to think O’Conner could have lived into the era of YouTube if lupus hadn’t cut her low at 39. O’Conner’s first claim to fame happened when she was six. A British newsreel company traveled to her family farm in Millsville, Georgia to capture young Flannery’s (she went by Mary then) feat: she taught a chicken to walk backwards. “I was just there to assist the chicken,” she said, “but it was the high point in my life. Everything since has been anticlimax.”

Hyperbole, of course, but O’Conner did, in so many ways, walk backwards into her world. She was a farm girl, spending much of her energies raising both barnyard poultry and exotic fowl (with particular interest in peacocks). She was Southern, which made her an oddity among the literary elite. She was Catholic, which made her an oddity among the Southern aristocracy. Yet she was a person of her place, a person of her people. She wrote the world in which she lived. When criticized for her stories’ dark underbelly, O’Connor was unmoved. “The stories are hard but they are hard because there is nothing harder or less sentimental than Christian realism… when I see these stories described as horror stories I am always amused because the reviewer always has hold of the wrong horror.”

The Christian way, from its very core, is to walk backwards. In yesterday’s reading from the prophet Isaiah, the image of the bloodied Messiah offering his cheeks to those who ripped his beard would not leave me. “I did not hide my face from insult and spitting,” said the suffering Savior. God never hides from insult or spitting, from the dark nightmares of our world, from the sorrowful stories we live. God does not hide from the horror. God steps into the very middle of it.

Isn’t it strange that Christian faith has so often been used as a means to deny our bleakest realities? Isn’t it strange that some of our weakest art, our most naive fiction, our blandest passions, arrive with the label ‘Christian’ plastered upon their fragile façade? How can God heal what we will not acknowledge? How can Christ’s passion strike into the crucible of our lives if we do not own the fact that there is a powerful darkness, if we do not tell the truth of how we flail and rage but appear entirely helpless to enact any remedy? With our Christian edicts and our moral announcements, perhaps we’ve got hold of the wrong horror.

And how can the beauty we offer possibly embody our full glory and splendor if we believe our gritty, emblazoned humanness unworthy of our keen attention and our unvarnished description?

We need art that carries us into our full humanness, that won’t let us go until we do justice with the bare facts of our lives. We need stories that grapple with all of our humanness, narrating both the havoc and the luster. We need to be reminded that Easter announces our hope that ruin is not the end. There is joy. There is life. But they come through, not around, the valley of the shadow of death. And this traverse will surely seem like walking backwards.

 

 

A day or two ago, I got caught up in a flash of inspiration. These don’t come often, and when they do, you’ve got to grab that dragon and ride, ride, ride.

What started to be one thing ended up another, and lo and behold a (very) short story came to life. It shaped up as a tale about a three-ring circus, a brave letter and a woman who calls it like she sees it. The story starts like this:

Fred and Amy were neighbors on Rural Route 28. Their mailboxes shared a weathered post at the end of the gravel lane. This seemed fitting since their families also shared a weathered pew at Zion Presbyterian Church. Fred and Amy, along with Stan the tire salesman and Robert the county’s public defender, made up Zion’s Pastoral Search Committee. Though a thankless job, their assignment did mean that every Thursday night, they’d sit in the church’s empty manse, drink Folgers and have a few minutes to shoot the shit. Then they’d return to the pile of resumes that supposedly represented the last hope for their beleaguered flock. (read on)

I wrote this for a friend, but I’ve discovered it was even more for me. This story gets at some of my deepest frustrations with the predicament we find ourselves in – but also it gets at my grandest hopes for I what I mean when I use the word pastor. I’d be pleased to share it with you.

Oh – and may I add: if you have a pastor, go easy on ’em, chances are they’re getting their teeth kicked in at least a couple times a month. And if you have a good pastor, tell ’em so. They may not act like your gratitude matters, but I absolutely promise you that it does.

calendar1959

The calendar hanging on your refrigerator, the one tucked behind your kid’s crayola project and the magnet reminding you to “Keep Calm and Carry On,” may be the most rebellious and spiritually formative thing you own. You’ll notice how each week, right as rain, commences with Sunday. This is the day older Christians referred to as the Sabbath. A day for leisure, for church, for the Sunday paper, for the comics, for a visit on the porch with friends drinking sweet tea and swapping stories about the neighbors.

My dad told me how his mom spent chunks of Saturday cooking fried chicken, peas, rolls and chocolate cake so no cooking would be necessary on Sunday. Saturday night meant a bath out in the garage, the old wash tub filled with hot water his mom carried via multiple trips from the kitchen stove. Anything considered a chore would be done on Saturday because Sunday was a day of rest.

In the Christian tradition, Sabbath is the day our week starts. We begin with a lull. We commence, not with sweat or labor, but with loafing, with three-hour naps, with conversations immune to the pressure to get somewhere but more than comfortable with long pauses and long thoughts. These Sabbath spaces possess enough quiet to pay attention to the wind and the smell of rain – and to the one sitting with you. In our Sabbath interludes, prayer happens as God intended, laced through our ordinary laughter and joy.

The Christian week begins with rest. I can’t imagine a more counter-cultural affirmation. The rhythms of our world have gotten cattywonkus. For many of us, Sunday is the day we’re cramming last bits from our to do list, capping off a week of fury and frenzy. Then, the way we see things, the week kicks off on Monday, the day we get to work, the day we recommit to serving the man and paying the bills. In this twisted narrative, the week begins with us working, not with us resting.

This is not so much about how we count our days but about how we count our lives. In a world where we yield to heavy shackles, defined by our production or our corporate rank or our Google Analytics report, it is a subversive act to shut it down and take a nap.

According to the Biblical story, however, our lives commence with respite. The Jewish day went from sundown to sundown. This meant that the Hebrews started their day by going to sleep. When they woke, fresh from a long slumber, they discovered that God had never slept. The world still turned on its axis, and the sun still shone bright. As they entered their day’s work, rested and invigorated, they were merely joining God in God’s creative activity. But only for a while, until it was again time to call it quits, crawl under the covers and let God be God. We really can cease our labors, because God’s labor holds this whole shebang together.

Of course, Advent signals the start of the Christian year. Advent, a time of waiting, a month-long Sabbath. We’re all revved and geared up for the start of things, to get the ball rolling, to turn over a new leaf. And then we wait. And wait. And wait. We’ll get to our cue, our time to punch ‘go.’ But first, we watch and slumber and drink hot chocolate with our kids. Sabbath is stitched into every rhythm of our life.

Next time you pass your fridge, linger a moment at that line of Sundays. Then linger a little longer.