Unfortunately, we’ve had need for multiple forays to the pharmacy over the past few weeks. On my last two trips, I’ve happened upon a crime scene. With the first, I barely missed the burglar, and when I arrived the store clerks were all wired up about how brazen the fellow had been. Tuesday, however, I found myself right in the thick.

“Security to the office, security to the office.” An agitated voice crackled over the speaker system.

Minutes later, a woman burst out the door at the back of the store, young girl with the cutest frizzy hair in tow. The girl couldn’t have been older than six or seven, and her mom frantically drug her around the narrow store aisles calling out, “Where’s my cart? Where’s my stuff? I didn’t steal nothing. Nothing.”

Apparently protocol says that store security can question a suspect but can’t physically detain them – the police are required for that. So the woman was making her run for the parking lot before the officers arrived. Initially, when everything went down, the woman had left her purse and her daughter’s jacket in a cart, and during the brouhaha had gotten disoriented. She scurried past the shampoos and the St. Patrick’s Day candy and the Snuggies and the cough medicine in flustered circles, panting, searching furiously. “Where’s my stuff? Where’s my stuff? I didn’t steal nothing.” She brushed right past me on one of her sweeps, and there was a sadness and a terror that followed them.

She found her cart and made a beeline for the front entrance. As I left with our meds, two officers were at the front counter, taking inventory of the items security had taken from her. She’d lifted three or four bottles of perfume. The assistant manager wrapped them back in their packaging while describing the scene and the woman to the policemen.

The woman stole perfume. I don’t know her plans for the loot, perhaps something shady. But I wonder if a part of her simply wanted to feel good about herself, to wear a bit of glamour and to own a scent that would allure, to feel pretty.

Mostly, though, I wonder about the cute, frizzy-haired girl, about the fear she knew as the trouble escalated, about how she’ll remember, years from now, the day her mom drug her through the store trying to find her purse before the police came. I hope her mom held her long and tight that night. I hope her mom said, “I’m sorry, baby. That’s not who I am, that’s not who we are.”

When we talk about God making the world new, we’re talking about things like this, the sorrowful stories in our own neighborhoods. We hope and pray and work toward the good day when love and plenty and light will cover all. In that day, moms will have all they need, and daughters will have no reason to be ashamed or afraid.

 

moses_burning_bush_bysantine_mosaicMoses ran from Egypt, ran from his family, ran from Pharaoh, ran from his past. Decades had clicked by, four of them. Moses was a different man now, with a wife and a family and a livelihood. Moses had run himself into an entirely different story. The hard truth, however, is that when we run from our stories – when we run from ourselves — what we find whenever we get wherever it is we’re going is simply this: we’re lost.

When the Exodus narrative finds Moses, the Scripture says that he’s “beyond the wilderness.” Another version says he’s made his way to the “far side of the wilderness.” As any man who refuses to stop for directions on a road trip will tell you, there’s lost … and then there’s lost. Moses is lost.

The immediate fact is that he’s taken his flock beyond the boundaries, in need of fresh grass and good water. However, this episode situates the reality of Moses’ life: the man is out in the boonies, a long, long way from home. Where are you Moses? What are you doing?

What I find most remarkable about this tale is the fact that Moses seems quite fine with the state of affairs. Moses is taking care of his family, working his flock. Moses has not ventured into the wild for a pilgrimage or a rigorous spiritual retreat. Moses is not in search of an epiphany; he has not embarked on 40 days of Lenten fasting. Moses wants grass for his sheep.

Churchy folklore suggests that God only shows up to those who are searching vigorously. If we want to hear or see God, says those who supposedly know, then we’ve got to stretch our faith and push our spiritual muscle. We’ve got to repent or fast or give up all we own. We must answer the call to get radical and be willing to head off to a third-world country at the drop of a hat. These are the elements that keep God tapping his fingers, waiting perturbed until we get serious.

But then sometimes God just shows up in a burning bush and scares the living bejeezers out of you. Sometimes, purely uninvited, God finds you in the wild corners while you’re minding your own business and simply doing the best you can to keep your head above water.

The fact is that God comes looking for everybody.

Our church has a prayer we pray over one another every other Sunday. We pray this prayer just before the closing blessing, just before we walk out into God’s bright world to be God’s bright people. I’m not sure we know the power of what we’re praying, the hope in what we’re asking. But then, I think that’s the truth for most good prayers.

God, make your kingdom come in us, for the sake of your world. May we love you with our whole heart and love our neighbors as ourselves. May your cross carry us to die to selfish pursuits, and may your resurrection raise us to new life and radical love. Send us into your world in the name of the Father who created us, the Son who loves us and the Spirit who guides us. Amen.

When I shared Holy Work, the poem Miska commissioned poet John Blase to write for me as a Christmas gift, I said there was more to the story. I’ll give you one of the bits now. Christmas morning was a real kick because I had also secretly commissioned John to write a poem – but as a gift for Miska. Miska and I had plotted and schemed in order to surprise each other with the exact same gift.

Here’s the second from the series, the photo and the poem.

winn and miska.laughter

I’ll surely forget many
things, many days, but
I choose to remember a
moment when everything
was so black and white,
was so very clear to me.
I kept your hands to my
shoulder and flashed my
grin, the grin you said
yes
to so many days ago now.
You then spilled your laugh,
the laugh that you and only
you possess. I know the ax
can fall at any moment but
for the space of one frame
there was no one else on
the face of God’s earth but
you and your laugh and me
and my grin, two unveiled
faces wide and alive with
smiles of great sweetness
captured in the click of an
eye. In that stark moment
everything, yes everything
was so very clear to me.

Misty rain settled over downtown as I strolled Main Street, the bricked blocks where foodies, mom-and-pop town folk, book lovers, artists, baristas and students create the melting pot. We have a guild of street musicians, both locals and traveling troubadours, but my favorite will always be Harmonica Dave, sitting on his five gallon bucket and breaking it down with his jaw harp.

On this dreary, wet afternoon, Harmonica Dave had called it a day; but a couple blocks down, I passed a young musician busking for his day’s wage. Undeterred by the weather, his banjo hung off his shoulder while his black felt hat sat upside down near his feet, two lone dollars to his name. The scene provided nothing out of the ordinary, except this: the fellow held intense focus, tilting left then right. The man was standing in the rain balancing a purple flower in a pot on his head.

I only had a moment to consider this fact before an older gentleman passed this bard with the banjo on his shoulder and the flower on his head. The banjo player asked for a donation — but with a twist. “A donation to ward off the curse,” he said. I have no idea of the backstory. I have no idea who was leveling curses or what the curse entailed. I have no idea if the curse had something to do with the fact that there was a potted flower atop the man’s noggin.

The elder man brushed past. “I don’t believe in curses,” he answered briskly over his shoulder.

The banjo player stood undaunted, calling after him. “Maybe not, but don’t risk it. It’s not just you but all your descendants.”

This event was maybe a month ago, but I’ve thought about it several times since. I’ve wondered if that flower ever toppled off that fellow’s head. I’ve wondered if the elder man has any cause for concern for his progeny.

Since I’m a pastor, I find myself having more than your average number of conversations (though I have no idea who keeps these stats) on subjects of temptation and desire, shame and hope. These terrains of the soul are universal, common to all; but it’s remarkable how agonizingly difficult it can be to own these spaces.

These conversations, not to mention my own story, has led me to a simple conclusion: The Church should not teach people to lie. Unfortunately, though, too often we do. I say more about this on a piece for the good folks at A Deeper Church.

Fridays are Miska’s and my Sabbath. This usually includes at least an hour or two of one of our more rigorous spiritual disciplines: lying in bed watching Hulu, preferably with a small bag from Albemarle Baking Company in the bed with us. One commercial Hulu runs, over and again, stresses my sabbath experience. In this commercial, a certain cellular provider floods the screen with rapid images and text, highlighting the myriad ways their latest gadget can capture every solitary moment and detail of our lives. The experience overloads the senses.

Amid all the zooming and the pulsing data comes the narrator’s central thesis: “I must upload all of myself.”

Of course, this is ad copy, which means two things: (1) they don’t expect us to take them seriously and (2) what they are saying is sheer nonsense. The compulsion to broadcast our every opinion, our every whim, our every ham-and-cheese-on-rye for crying out loud – we call this narcissism. Of course, withholding yourself because of the meticulous way we are coiffing our public persona is narcissism too. It’s impossibly difficult to get loose of our self-absorption.

This is no theoretical question for me. I must wrangle with how much of my writing comes from a desire to feed the ego and how much comes as an expression of my vocation. In a business where publishers insist you have to build your platform, it’s a messy deal. The publishers have a point of course. A plumber’s gotta find folks who will pay him to fix their sinks, and any plumber who refuses to advertise because of his unsullied commitment to his craft will likely starve. Yet there’s something perverse about a writer or a plumber or a pastor or a real estate agent who are always trying to sell you something, especially when that something is them.

So what’s a person to do? I really couldn’t say, but this is what I’m thinking: the central question isn’t how much to share or not share. The focus isn’t the whens or wheres or hows. The truer question is how will I live well and true?

And this is not at all just about social media. How much of our energy do we give to the people and places we love? How do we interact with other’s expectations (a spouse, a parent, a boss, a pastor)? How do we give ourselves generously – but give in a way that’s truthful so that we’re actually giving ourselves rather than giving some false version of ourselves?

The ad ended with the punchline: “I deserve to be unlimited.” Not only is this false; it is also impossible. We are, thank goodness, all limited. This gracious limitation can set us free from the tyrannies that fight against our longing to live well and true. We are free to say ‘no.’

 

I raised my drooping head, my soul dripping shame, in order to ask forgiveness. There was barely space to get the words free because she had already begun to pull me into her bosom and to bury her cheek in my chest. “I forgive you,” she said, without hesitation. Without demand. Without holding any part of herself back as penalty for my foolishness.

In marriage, you find yourself replaying the story of the Prodigal time and again. Sometimes you’re the one watching for the other to come home. Sometimes you’re the one needing to come to your senses and make your way back. Either way, love must be the central player if our marriage is to truly be a marriage.

Though calendars collide for no good reason, I find it timely that yesterday we were marked with ashes and today we celebrate love. Surely there’s a rhythm there. Dropping our pretense, lowering our guard and welcoming mercy makes all the rest of it possible.

Wyatt, our ten-year-old, has pneumonia. Fever, coughing fits and bouts of exhaustion have turned him pitiful. Surprisingly, after a week of antibiotics, his fever returned; and so I took him for a second trip to the doctor. The pediatrician poked and prodded and asked serious-sounding questions. “Does your cough feel like a knife? Have you noticed headaches? Any joint pain?” Wyatt took this all in, thinking hard, asking clarifying questions and attempting to make sure he got the answers right.

When the doctor left the room to grab some contraption she assured Wyatt wouldn’t hurt but was necessary to measure the oxygen in his blood, Wyatt thought this turn of events sounded most grave. Of course, words don’t have to work hard to carry an ominous tone when they’re uttered in a fluorescent-lit space spreading yellowish illumination over the stainless steel sink and the large plastic container of hand sanitizer and the hard, green reclining chair draped in thin white paper.

Wyatt considered the doctor’s words and asked, “Dad, do you think I have cancer?”

I assured him he didn’t, but the cat was out of the bag, the idea had been let loose. “What if I only had one day to live, dad?”

“Well,” I said with a shrug, “I guess we’d want to make sure your last few hours were great.”

Wyatt liked this direction, the possibilities. He had energy for this conversation. “Dad, if I only had one day to live, I’d need to do three things. I’d have to get you to buy me a phone. I’d have to smoke a pipe with you. And I’d have to read Les Miserables in a single day.” He paused, reflecting satisfaction with his choices and plotting strategies for this 24 hour feat. “Yup, that would be hard to do…”

What a way to go – filled with assorted joys, so much that I’d have to stretch to my very last breath to get it done.

Speaking of love affairs, last year Miska commissioned my friend John Blase to write a poem for me, his poetic reaction to a picture the two of us hold dear. I love the poem, as I love all John’s work. I love the picture. I love the ‘us’ that makes this holy work.

There’s more to this story, perhaps I’ll share it sometime.

WinnMiska

Holy Work

We’ve sat close together in
this strange and beautiful
providence long enough now
to know the secret to love is
more skin to skin than eye to eye.
I have felt your grief and joy
as you have felt my anger and doubt.
And we have both felt the urge
to sacrifice. to make sacred.
Some would call this mere empathy
but I find their lack of imagination
deplorable. No, our love affair stands
in this world of contradictions
with the fundamental texture
of one fiercely earned: it is palpable,
or as the Italians would say:
L’ho provato sulla mia pelle
I have experienced that on my own skin.
This alone is love’s holy work.
an even loyalty, steady and clear.