This world is a splendid and magnificent thing. Our lives are wonders to behold. Having no language to top the Creator’s own description, we take a wide, contented gaze and simply exhale, “My, my, this world is good.”

But we are in disarray these days, our world and our lives seeming so fragile, our bright hopes sullied. The truth is there’s much evil and sadness in our world, too much death and too much anger and too many stories of friends and strangers clinging at the brink. Some of us have lost our keen-eyed wanderlust for the horizon, the splendors ahead, the good to come. We are no longer able to hold on to the belief that bright love will write the final chapter.

But it will, friends, it will. The God of all love and goodness, the God who promises to bring tears and evil to its end, is not fragile. God has not forgotten. “My, my, this world is good.”

So have hope. Dig in. Love bold. Go dance. Write a novel. Make babies. Clean up a river. Plant a grove. Bike the Eastern shore. Rent a convertible and tour Route 69. Receive the Eucharist with gusto. Learn to play the sax. Give yourself to big ideas and big causes. Laugh in the face of fear. Do something foolish with a friend simply because they’re your friend. Grab the one you love and kiss them extra hard and extra long. Cry. And then laugh. And then cry again.

If the Christian story says anything at all, it says this: the gloom we know is not the final tally. The God who named the world good gets the final say. The heart of Christian hope is the promise that death is, in the end, merely a two bit player in the great drama.

In Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin, the pastor offered the eulogy at the funeral of a young girl who died tragically and too soon, and he knew this hope:

The preacher coughed and asked for silence and said he had a few final words. He went through the formalities of prayer and the old biblical Ashes to ashes and dust to dust, but then he said that it was his firm belief that ashes could someday return to wood, that was the miracle not just of heaven, but the miracle of the actual world, that things could be reconstituted and the dead could come alive, most especially in our hearts

Ashes return to wood. Sorrow to gladness. Cold hearts burn again. One day, everyone will experience the truth that is already here, if we’ll see it. My, my, this world is good.

One of the most tragic moments you will ever witness is when a person begins to believe that their life does not matter. Among the many confusions of our modern moment, this must be one of the most vexing: the belief (often an undercurrent more than stated outright) that there is no purpose or meaning, that an unclenching claim to the base truth of a thing – justice, love, courage, noble choices, sacrificial friendships – are remnant shadows of a simpleton age. One who arrives at this conclusion may regret the fact or wish she could return to the time before she knew this alarming reality, but pandora’s box has been wrenched open. Almost certainly, some moral compass remains, evidenced by an instinctive revolt when a child is harmed or a minority oppressed or a mountaintop’s beauty razed for the sake of a buck, but the awful idea sticks: What I do does not, in any lasting or significant way, matter.

This is a lie, and this lie kills the soul.

The witness of the Scriptures and the actions of Jesus tell a radically different story. The invitation God gives is for us to rise up from the dirt of the ground and give ourselves to good work, exerting goodness wherever we humans have lost our way. God taps us on the shoulder and asks us to be the ones who wipe off the muck and unearth the world’s beauty, the ones who herald the splendors of what God has named true living, the ones who announce by our life and labor that every solitary spec of human effort done in response to God’s good vision for his world absolutely, positively matters.

And it is not just that ‘the world’ matters, though it does, a great deal. You matter. Your life is your participation. When Abraham Heschel spoke with young people, he would plead with them: “Start working on this great work of art called your own existence.” This was not gushy self-help. This was the prophetic pronouncement that our lives are the gifts we have been given by the God who beams over the sheer fact of us. This was the prophetic charge to take our life seriously, to see our life in all its glory and then to live with fire and conviction. We live with the magnificent knowledge that our days and our dreams and our failures and our successes all, by God’s grace, participate in the kingdom and the beauty and the hope that God promises will be coming.

You exist, and this absolutely matters. I’m glad you’re here on this big dust ball, each and every one of you. I’m glad you’re alive and kickin’ up dirt, making a beautiful mess and loving like mad and giving us what only you can give us. Your life matters.

Recently, I had the chance to lead a small circle of folks into the home of friends. We toured the house, hearing stories about the space, what the rooms represented and what their hopes were for the life that would blossom between those walls. We blessed each room, and we blessed our friends who would call it home. This occasion was one of the reasons I’m a pastor, and it’s one of the most Christian acts I know.

I recount the story at Deeper Church.

My dad taught me that our name was an honor we were to guard, something gifted to us – but something we must hold in safekeeping both as a debt to those before us and as the richest inheritance I would pass to my own children. My mom gave me a plaque when I was in the third or fourth grade, lettering on a bronze plate fixed to dark chestnut. It hung by my bed. I don’t remember the exact text, but it had “Collier” in bold letters across the top followed by a poem about a father giving a son his only treasure, his good name. The poem was cheeky, but the point stuck. Your name matters. Where you come from matters. Being a Collier means something.

Our name, I believe, is one of our pearls of great price. A good name cannot be bought, but – and here is the power – it can most certainly be given.

I remember my grandpa R.J. Collier’s lean frame perched on the top step of his porch, working those cigarettes, his cap tilted askew and his overalls hanging off his thin body, his green 1953 Chevy pickup parked next to the house. My grandma Collier died before I was born, and so visits to my grandpa lacked the gregarious matriarchal energy I’m told I would have experienced if my dad’s mother had still been alive. Grandpa Collier gave all the grandkids $5 in McDonald’s gift certificates every Christmas, and we in turn supplied him with a case of bottled Coca-Colas (R.J. insisted on the glass bottles).

When my dad, fresh out of high school, went to the bank to arrange a loan for his first used car, he met a roadblock because he was under-21 and possessed no credit history. The banker looked over his file and said, “So, you’re R.J. Collier’s son?”

“Yes,” my dad answered.

“Well, I know R.J., and that means I know something about you.” The banker picked up his pen and signed off on the loan, with nothing other than “Collier” as collateral.

When I have serious talks with Wyatt or Seth about their character or integrity, about how they are to treat others or how they are to make choices in this world, I’ll usually say something like, “You’re a Collier man, and this is how Colliers live.” My father and mother, like their fathers and mothers (this story could be written for my mom’s family – and for Miska’s family too), has handed us an identity. Being a Collier means something. I only hope to live up to the truth of it.

A friend told me recently that in English history, a Collier (a coal-er) was one who delivered coal to his neighbors. A Collier was one who went house to house carrying the light and carrying the heat. I like that. I like that very much.

hammocks_boys

Our nephew Micah who’s been living with us for the past year graduated from high school, and with his job as a barista going full steam and his college plans set, he moved in with new roommates. I’m sure the situation will fit the college lifestyle better than bunking with aunt and uncle, though I still insist that Miska and I can, when necessary, drop it like it’s hot. Wyatt and Seth were sad to see their very cool cousin go, but the grief was eased by the fact that Micah’s parting gift was to leave behind his Xbox 360.

With Micah’s departure, Seth regained his room. This meant Miska painting and organizing, resulting in fresh colors and one wall covered in chalk paint so that Seth’s artistic inspirations could have a large canvas. A couple weeks ago, Seth proffered a request, “Can I have a hammock in my room?” Now, you could not know this, but I have a love affair with hammocks. Friends of ours have a hammock in their yard, and on more than one occasion when they’ve been out of town, I’ve asked if I could use their house – and  it’s largely due to the hammock. Two years ago, I went hiking with several friends to Dolly Sods in West Virginia. One friend strung up a hammock, and when everyone else went on the day hike, I could not pull myself away from the swinging nest. I laid there, book in hand, enjoying the breeze and the contented experience of being rocked like a baby. Despite this love, however, I’ve only actually owned one hammock, purchased at a tourist-trap market in Mexico. It was a cheap nylon model, and it ended up in a garage sale next to the 25¢ golf balls.

So when Seth asked for a hammock, he did not need to make a strong case or ask pretty please. I bought two, one to install in each boy’s room. I considered a third for our bedroom, but I could not for the life of me concoct a reasonable case for how it would accentuate Miska’s well-designed feng shui.

I called a friend who has manly tools and who finds his way to a stud by tapping on drywall and would only snicker were I to pull out my battery-operated beeper. I called this friend because I have two boys who will now have a swinging bed mounted in their room. There is trouble in our future, no doubt, but my hope was to at least minimize the range of injuries for which we should prepare.

After an hour of tapping walls and considering hanging options and making a run to Martin’s Hardware for supplies (twice), we installed the hammocks. Seth has nested in his for hours at a time, reading. Wyatt has slept in his hammock the past two nights. I bought double-nester hammocks, partly because we got them on a screaming deal but mainly because I don’t know why you’d ever want to close off the possibility of curling up with your son and holding him tight and blessing the fact that there is such a moment so good.

The first day we hung them, I laid in the hammock with Seth. He laid his head on my shoulder. We sat and drifted easily back and forth. We were quiet. After a few minutes, Wyatt said, “Hey, Seth, I’d like a turn with dad.” Wyatt climbed in, resting his head on my shoulder. We drifted. I could swing with these boys forever.

 

hoh-rain-forest-olympic-national-park_51546_990x742

Hoh Rain Forest in Olympic National Park, taken by Wai Chee Wong

Gordon Hempton, the acoustic ecologist who speaks of finding and preserving that “one square inch of silence,” recounts how it typically goes when he takes a friend into the Hoh Rain Forest in Olympic National Park (the place Hempton refers to as his cathedral). On the hike into the lush, dense timber (Olympic is home to the tallest trees in North America, some over 300 feet tall), Hempton describes how there is often chattery conversation as they ease their way out of urban life and into an entirely other ecosphere. Yet on the return trek, after their encounter with the magnificence and the deep hush, there is barely any conversation – and if they do speak, it is always a whisper. “Quiet is quieting,” Hempton says.

The week of Dallas Willard’s death, one of Dallas’ philosophy doctoral students at USC recounted the numerous ways Dallas influenced him. The student, now an accomplished philosopher in his own right, made one observation I have been unable to shake. “In my five years studying with Dallas,” he said, “I found it almost impossible to be anxious around him.”

Quiet is quieting.

 

______

Hempton recorded the sounds inside a piece of Sitka Spruce driftwood on Rialto Beach in Olympic National Park as the tide poured over top. The sounds have been described as “surf plucking the inner hollows of a piece of driftwood to make them vibrate like the strings of a violin.” You’ll want to use headphones to pick up the nuance, but this is silence for the soul.

One of the great temptations of a pastor is the greedy pull to say too much. We get so enamored with the sound of our own voice that we interrupt every silence and chatter over every mystery, spraying our neon pronouncements where sparse and hallowed words would do. We grow accustomed to being the first to pick up the mic, the first to have an authoritative or conclusive word. In an enflamed, issues-driven culture, this temptation prods with unrelenting aggression. Perhaps we fear irrelevance or fear losing our following. If we no longer scratch people’s itch, who are we then?

Of course, pastors no longer hold a monopoly on this narcissistic seduction. Technology has made it so that anyone with ten minutes and a couple fingers can unload a screed or a 140 character denouncement. If there’s an opinion to be had or an opportunity to show our intellectual (or theological or cultural, what have you) superiority, we’re quick on the draw.

Some of the best – and most troubling – advice I received from my pastor was when I asked him how he would have handled a particular hot-potato issue if he were still shepherding his parish. “My position,” he said, “would be to not take a position.” This is not at all to say that those of us who write or preach or craft lyric or verse never say anything with bite and commit only to accepted talking points. God help us, no. I’ve certainly never known my pastor to back away from a stout word when the moment required it.

This is, however, a suggestion that we refuse the pernicious allure to stay on top, to grab the momentum, to make sure we’re heard, to maintain the admiration of our tribe (or the attempt to build a tribe). It would do our souls well to, every once in a while, abandon speaking and get comfortable with silence. We might get comfortable shrugging our shoulders and saying, “I don’t have the foggiest.”

My suspicion is that a fair bit of our prattle (and perhaps I should only speak for myself) comes from fear. We fear uncertainty. We fear being left out. We fear the important people and important ideas (whoever and whatever those are) will move on without us.

One of my favorite sections of dialogue in Marilynne Robinson’s Home is when Congregationalist minister John Ames and his best friend, the aging Presbyterian Robert Boughton, have another roundabout concerning predestination. At one point, feeling a tad testy, Ames says,

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 make nonsense of a mystery, just because that’s what people always do when they try to talk about it. Always. And then they think the mystery itself is nonsense. Conversation of this kind is a good deal worse than useless. In my opinion.

These days, it may be the way of things to catch whatever fire’s blown up and add wind to the flame, but I suspect we’re losing something vital in the exchange. I also believe this blabbering posture hurts the poignancy of those moments when we do have something true to offer, some true fire burning in our gut. A poet who keeps me piqued with razor-edged vigilance will ultimately lose me. She may have sold me her verse for a bit, but I will not have found myself amid her one-pitch offering. And I will be unable to follow her into this world that knows too narrow a space for the whole of me, the laughter as well as the siren, the unsettledness as well as the dogma.

Call to Worship

Just down Ridge Street, only a couple blocks from my house, a trio in neon orange vests semi-circled near heavy machinery. An orange sign propped atop the sidewalk informed me that road work was ahead. A line of orange cones cut into the paved lane, requiring drivers to creep through the tight squeeze. The youngest of the three gripped the T-handle of a jackhammer, steel driver resting ready on asphalt marked with blue spray-paint lines where the steel would bust the ground to smithereens. He clutched tight, but too tense, like a little-leaguer with his bat before the first pitch on his very first opening day.

The other two encouraged him, “Hold that big button now. Be ready.” One of them fired a growling generator, and the man clinching the steel watched me out of the corner of his eye, not wanting any strange faces to interrupt this moment he’d probably been dreaming of for years. I’m familiar with this fantasy, steering a wild jackhammer, blasting concrete and rock until nothing’s left but rubble and exhausted energy. I know what it is to be on the verge of sheer joy, sweaty palms and excited, taut muscles, ready.

Music

Is it blasphemy to say The Band did “Atlantic City” better than The Boss himself? A strong mandolin makes everything better.

Passing the Peace

The one fellow who refuses to look me in the eye continues his bulldogged persistence. Several weeks ago I thought we had a breakthrough, but apparently I only caught him when he let his guard down and allowed his eyes an inadvertent glance as I brushed past. In this sacred environ, he is the equivalent of the bookish man who refuses to surrender his one spot on the pew and who will walk out at 12:01 if the service has not concluded. Thankfully, there’s also a young newcomer who walks peppy and every single day tips his baseball hat at me when he says hello, like he’s the sheriff and I’m one of his townfolk.

Silence

Some mornings, I listen to one of Krista Tippett’s interviews. She always posts the edited version (the one produced for broadcast) and the unedited version (the complete feed, without any doctoring, thus including hiccups and technical snafus and rabbit trails that will surely never see the light of day). Perhaps my favorite part of the unedited track is the long pauses, the silences that make their way into a conversation that is real, not scripted. These silences come when you are not trying so hard to sound smart but rather to listen well, to be present with the one sharing your conversation. If there is a word I think we need to use more, it’s pause.

Blessing

Me to Wyatt and Seth: I love you. Have a great day. I’ll miss you.

Miska to me: I love you, beloved.

This morning around the breakfast table, we opened our box of question cards. Each person receives a card, and each person answers a question. Seth’s card asked him to state our family motto. Because Seth takes such things seriously, he needed time to consider and asked us to return to him. Midway into the next person’s question, Seth’s hands shot up, and he blurted out, “I know it! Be loved. Be brave.”

You wonder if your knucklehead parenting has done anything more than make plain as day your woeful inadequacies, if anything you have said or done has even begun to break through. And then, over sourdough and oatmeal, your son says Be loved. Be brave.

That gets at the soul of it. If the boys know they are loved, and if they hear the call to courage, I believe we’ve covered the bases.

I hope these words for each of us. As far as mottos go, we could do a lot worse.

Be loved. Be still and know that you are loved. Receive love when it’s offered – and watch for it because it will be. I know anger and meanness will swing your way, but I promise you that love will come too. Hear love in the wind. Look for love in the common kindness of a friend. But the most difficult part, as I’ve come to see it, is to let love reach us. It’s a scary thing to live awake and open.

Be brave. The temptation will be to back up or quiet down. To pull in. But we need good, solid people who will live the one life only they can live. And live it in technicolor, with an audacity that makes it impossible for the rest of us not to marvel at the goodness of it all.

Be loved. Be brave.

The first time I saw her, I did not know whether she was an angel or simply disturbed. With silver hair shimmering down her back, past her waist, I could not miss her form even given the distance. I know every inch of this sidewalk, these blocks, the feet and the faces that frequent this route with me, but she was new. The tiny courtyard where she stood, back turned to me, is the lone and final outpost where those from the institutional home can go for smokes. It’s a sad concrete island, with one small bench, where smoke from the mufflers mixes with the nicotine.

The silver-haired woman did not sit, and she did not smoke. She raised her hands, shoulder-high and palms up. The outcast island transfigured into a sanctuary. One quiet person in one loud space can transform ugly into beauty, isolation into presence, endings into beginnings.

As I jogged closer, she turned toward the street, and I could see her face turned upward. She had a gentle, expectant smile. A smile of contentment, of revelation. She opened herself to the sun. Her eyes were closed, but she drank the sunlight. The warmth washed over her open hands, like water poured from a basin. And her lips mumbled words – or were they trembling? The woman with silver hair stood in the bright, her countenance shining. She prayed into the light as an SUV and a Prius and one curious jogger passed.

The next morning, the scene repeated. Only this time, the shimmering woman stood outside the front door, atop the rickety stairs. She stood straight, a pillar. Her eyes closed and face upward toward the warm beams, hands hung by her side. The same radiance, the same settled, knowing smile. Cars whizzed, honks, a man walking in front of the fire station across the street yelled to a friend in a sedan. I jogged past. She did not move. She was in tune with something beneath it all, over us all.

I do not know if the shimmering woman is an angel, but if she is disturbed, one could do worse than being a bit disturbed.