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.

the-wizard-of-oz-dvd-cover-63

 

Happy birthday, Lyman Frank Baum. You were one crazy coot.

Can you imagine a world with no Oz, no Scarecrow or Tinman or Cowardly Lion, no Toto, no Dorothy clicking her red shoes? While the witch still freaks out my boys and Miska has never really jumped on the Baum bandwagon, even they wanted to see James Franco in the updated backstory. Even they honor the fact that Baum gave us something profoundly unique.

I heard a radio story last year narrating how Wizard of Oz had been reworked (plagiarized might be a better term) in Russia a couple decades after Oz made its splash in the U.S. Baum’s creation captured the Russian imagination so powerfully that ‘Emerald City’ became an iconic cultural moniker. Shopping centers, childcare centers and even night clubs popped up all over the country with the name ‘Emerald City’ plastered in bold, green letters. When a Russian cultural historian was asked about this ironic phenomenon (remember the stereotype of hardened enemies in the Cold War rebuffing all things Capitalist and American) was possible, he answered: “We were desperate for magic.”

We are all desperate for the magic. Baum made us a little magic. Why don’t you go out and live well and live bold and give us a little more.

I’m not the brightest skittle in the bag, but I’ve got enough sense to know a mom should not scoop poop on Mother’s Day. Emboldened by this remarkable insight, I took over one of Miska’s chores Sunday, gathering the fertilizing mounds our sweet dog Daisy deposits regularly across our back yard. Revelations hit at the oddest moments, and you simply have to take them as they come. Scouring the grass for lingering remnants, I thought of how many messes Miska and I have cleaned up over our years together. I’ve come to believe that a commitment to cleaning mess gets at the heart of the nitty-gritty grind of love, the sheer tenacity to stick with each other and piece together the broken pieces and the broken dreams (again and again) until you step clear into another of those beautiful but far too rare stretches of love come easy.

More than a few of our messes involve two boys, boys who both own our hearts and who regularly push our very last nerve and make us think we just might end up in the loony farm. If you want to push my guilt-o-meter, you can pounce on me during a bad day (or month) and start in with the litany of questions from God knows where about all the fatherly ideals someone decided we’re supposed to live up to. I’m not beating myself up over here. On the whole, I think I’m a pretty fine pops, but still there are far too many times when I have a short fuse or miss a really important cue or am too selfishly entangled that I forget that two of my main callings in this world are named Wyatt and Seth.

Miska and I tell the boys we’ve already started their therapy fund. When they turn 21, we’ll hand them their tubs of dollars and quarters, the name of the best therapist in town, and we’ll load up with them to go sit on those couches and sort out the myriad of ways we’ve screwed them up. Death and taxes are inevitable, but having your kids rack up a list of valid grievances is pretty darn certain too.

But here’s what I need to remember, and I’m guessing a few of you need to remember it too. Love is sturdier than we think. As Temple Gairdner said, “After a while you find what has stood the shaking and abides.” And as the Scriptures tell us, what stands fierce and bold, beaten but unmoved, is love. Love abides.

Where there is true love, there is an impenetrable barrier. Love can take the furious gales, the egregious mistakes, the lapses in judgment. Love (and I’m speaking of genuine, selfless love) truly does cover a multitude of sins.

 

I understand this day we’ve set apart for mothers carries, for some, the hollow heaviness you’ve been unloading for years. I know that for others it pierces into your wounded sorrow as your longings go unfulfilled. I hurt for you. I pray with you. I hope for grace and love to flow your way.

But your heaviness bears witness to a profound good that should have been, a blessing that your soul aches to know. I must also bear witness to that beauty. We need more of this beauty, not less.

I understand it’s now chic to label these cultural moments as Hallmark fabrications. Allow me to dissent. If you wish, steer clear of the Gold Crown stickers and Target, quite fine. But do not miss the opportunity to bless a mom. Do not miss the opportunity to say, Thank you, mom who loved me or Thank you, woman who gave me a picture of mother when I had none to call my own. I do not despise Hallmark for prodding us. I only regret the Church didn’t think of it first.

The Church should be the first to bless. We should bless singles and married, bless the weary and the joyful, bless the mothers and the father and the children, bless the old and the young, bless the birds and the trees, bless all of God’s good creatures – and perhaps in the blessing, they will know they are loved. Perhaps in the blessing we will participate in their salvation.

As a man married to a woman who gives her heart and soul to children who will never, never (not for a single day) know what it is to wonder if they’re loved, I must bless. As a man who is son to a courageous woman who has given herself to the long, long work of love, I must bless.

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Women of grace, beauty and immense courage: When you desire to nurture and create life, you embody for us the power and creative love of the Trinity, the God whose very being emanates life. When you bring flesh and bone from your womb, you renew for us the holy truth that God, from the very beginning, births all that is good and beautiful in our world. When you show us what is true and pray over us with tear-drenched faith and point us toward the God who loves us, you articulate what God’s Spirit longs to speak into our heart. You, woman and mother, are a prophet of the Living God.

For those who ache for the children you’ve lost or the children you’ve yet to know,

For those who know wounds and loss from your own mother or children,

For those in the thick of the bone-wearying labor of loving children – and especially those who think you’ve been drained of every last ounce of energy,

For those with regret,

For those who, on behalf of your children or another’s children, wage war against some evil that would ravage them,

For those who are loving, mothering or blessing children not your own,

For those with new life in your belly,

For those who need to know the powerful ways your love, nurture, prayers, tears, fears, anger, weariness, hope, laundry, meals, midnight watches, exasperation and laughter have all participated in God’s mysterious act of creating beautiful life,

We bless you.

May the God who filled Mother Eve with life and who filled Prophetess Deborah with wisdom and power and who brought our Savior into the world through a women of remarkable courage, fill you with all mercy and joy today. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

I think the future God has in mind includes all my friends living in the same neighborhood, within a few blocks. And we all have big front porches. Evening walks are the highlight of the day, and you always know one of those porches is where you’ll end up when your heart is heavy or when you’re laughing your head off and need a pal to laugh with you – or when you need to blow off steam because you’ve had all you can take of the numskulls.

I really don’t have the foggiest idea how our joyful end will shake out, but I’m betting all my marbles that it’s at least as good as this.

barbershop1I’ve always wanted the experience of Calvin, Eddie, and JD in Barbershop – or those ragamuffin friends who shared gossip and Mayberry’s political intrigue under the lather of Floyd the barber. If I ever found an Eddie, I’d go in at least twice a week for a trim, but mainly to get the wisdom and to leave with a belly aching from waves of deep-gut laughter.

Instead, my last twenty years have been spent jumping from shop to shop, mostly vanilla corporate enterprises with all the zest and character of a microwave waffle. The models plastered on all the posters look like they stepped out of Abercrombie & Fitch, heads overflowing with perfect hair and eyes offering that ‘come hither’ smoky gaze. The fellas in the pictures surely have the six-pack abs to match, six more reasons I know I don’t belong. Usually, the stylist takes quick inventory of me, cueing up her pitch for product sales. My ever-widening bald spot is the easy target. Typically, I can’t count to 50 before I hear: “So, have you ever thought of trying our hair growth system?” or “I wonder if you’d be interested in our hair-thickening shampoo?” Eddie wouldn’t be caught dead in a joint like this.

I think Eddie wouldn’t be caught dead in a lot of the places we create. For all our talk about building communities (can you even actually build a community?), I wonder if what we’re frantically and fastidiously replicating is really only a bland and hollow shop where we hawk our wares and put our best face forward, where we can get things done as efficiently as possible.

I tell you, I want something jagged and real, even if it’s abrasive and unpredictable. I want the kind of friendships, the kind of church, where it’s plain as day that, from beginning to end, the only thing holding that tattered lot together is grace and good old fashioned forgiveness. I want to belong to a place where you know that if you pull that one scraggly string, the whole kit and caboodle would unravel to the ground. But nobody pulls that string because the love that binds you is too strong. So you simply let the string hang, and it reminds you to never get carried away by the illusions that you’ve got everything squared.

Several weeks ago, I went into one of these style shops and was surprised to discover I had stepped into a jolt of real life. There was an older woman seated behind me, her hair up in foil. Several other women were gathered round her, and they were emphatically extolling the virtues of the TV drama Dallas. One of the friends explained how she planned to catch up on the latest episode from her DVR that evening. “Oh, you are in for a treat tonight,” the foiled woman answered, with a twinge of gleeful revenge. “The Ewings are going to get their due.” Several other women slapped their legs and cackled their agreement.

“Now isn’t JR dead?” asked one woman who was not yet part of the Dallas obsession.

“Oh, JR is dead,” answered the foiled woman. “Dead dead. He died for real, so they had to kill him off right.”

“Yeah, he’s dead,” a third woman added. “He’s dead, and he’s not coming back.”

The whole bunch of ladies fell into laughter. The Ewings were going to get their due, and that was mighty fine with them.

I think Eddie would have stayed in this shop a while, me too.


I recently heard Marie Howe, Poet Laureate for the State of New York, respond to a question asking her to explore a deep and provocative statement she had offered in a lecture a few years earlier. The words she’d pieced together in that talk were ironic and stunning, something you’d expect from a master poet. I sat upright, glad the interviewer had made this query. I waited to receive a profound truth. Instead, Marie laughed at herself dismissively. “Oh, what a thing to say” — and Marie laughed more, like she had genuinely cracked herself up. “I have no idea what I meant with that.”

I wish those of us who stand behind a pulpit would follow Howe’s example more often. “Wait, everybody. I have no idea what I just said. That sounded good on paper Thursday, but let’s be honest – that’s just ridiculous.”

I wish more of us who put words to paper would be easy with this kind of humility. Since there’s nothing at stake for us, there’s no need for all the shame when our words fall flat and no need to hang our every hope on the validation of … I don’t even know who, I’m so confused these days.

But many of us — and I only use examples from the world I know best — are too busy pimping our words. We’re frantically rubbing our words together like two damp sticks, desperate for a flicker, desperate for someone to notice a spark. We are striving, striving – and we are exhausted.

I wish more of us who put children to bed at night and kiss our lover at day’s end, more of us who work to pay the mortgage and piece together a life, could walk slowly into the present grace, receiving whatever comes, be it brilliance or banality. I wish we would know the joy of receiving the one whiff of fresh cut grass, the one wave of a son looking out the window as his mom drives him off to school, the one hour that asks you to sit a while. To stop all the striving and sit.

But strive we do. Our world’s eaten up with it. We are so fearful that we will be forgotten, that we will be alone. We are so fearful that, after all our efforts, our life will be sand slipping through our fingers. We are so, so fearful. We do not need to be afraid. We do not need to grasp. There will be enough love for us.

When I’m given to jealousy over those who receive more or when I’m left in the corner to doodle with the children while the adults laugh and clink drinks, my impulse is to strive, to fight, to yell all the louder to get attention. This is not the way of love. This is not the way of rest. This is not the good life.

Whatever I’m given will be enough. It will be enough. As Mary Oliver says, “It doesn’t have to be the blue iris, it could be weeds in a vacant lot or a few small stones…”

When we push and pull to craft a name or a platform or a bank account, we end up with less, always less. St. Augustine offered a sobering word to our age: “By striving after more, man is diminished.” I see the world around me diminishing at a frightening pace. I pray to God it will stop. I pray I will stop.

When I pause to trace the narrative of how I was able to bumble my way through the publishing labyrinth and into the writing vocation, the generosity of a handful of people (three to be precise) lead the story. Margaret Feinberg is one of those three.

margaretIf I recall, we first met on a writing project, a series of books I was editing for a new publishing house. The publisher passed along chapter contributions I was to consider, and Margaret’s words rose to the top of the pile. I was intrigued because she had a richness, an intimacy, to her voice that I’d seen precious little of among Christian authors. I immediately liked Margaret for two other unrelated reasons: (1) at the time, she was a ski instructor in Crested Butte (thus, living one of my second lives), and (2) if existing vocabulary didn’t fit her work’s needs, she’d simply craft her own words. For our project, Margaret concocted Inbetween, which she described as the “place between here and there. A piece of ground in the middle of take-off and landing…[where] paths are lined with sealed envelopes and foggy dreams.” Good, right? I’m pretty sure that a couple years later I plagiarized, using Inbetween without appropriate credit. Margaret, this is my public apology.

Over the next few years, Margaret had my back. She encouraged my writing. We commiserated over the lay of the publishing land. I remember several calls where we walked one another through potentially treacherous publishing negotiations. I doubt that two of my books would have ever seen the light of day if Margaret hadn’t been on my side. Margaret introduced me to Leif, her very cool husband – and they even allowed me to crash their house in Juneau, where I enjoyed the Alaska experience and watched their dog Hershey (it was on that trip that Margaret introduced me to Madeleine Peyroux, and I will be forever grateful).

Of course, in the decade since we met, Margaret has gone on to smashing success. Beyond selling over 600,000 copies of her various books and publishing efforts, Christianity Today named Margaret one of the 50 women shaping culture and church – and she’s received multiple other accolades and descriptors. You can read all about them on her bio.

Amid all this, though, what matters most to me is that Margaret is the same sincere and love-drenched Margaret I met ten years ago. Every once in a while, Margaret and Leif remind me that they pray for me, and I believe them. Margaret writes what she has come to believe – and she writes those things that she hopes to believe even more. Margaret writes as a woman who has seen something true, something she must tell us.

Margaret’s new book Wonderstruck has this quality. In it, she narrates the ways God found her anew, the ways God took her by surprise. Margaret began her traverse with these lines:

I have a hunch that I’m not the only one who has misplaced the marvel of a life lived with God. Faith invites us into an enchanting journey—one marked by mysteries of divine beauty, holy courage, irrepressible hope, unending love. But in my life, any sense of the splendor of God had faded. I knew I needed God to reveal himself once again to awaken me from my sleep, to disturb me from my slumber. And so I prayed for wonder.

I like the idea of wonder, very much. I also like how, in Wonderstruck, Margaret recommends the practice of three-word prayers. I can manage that.

Thank you, Margaret, for living generously. I hope many, many others receive the generosity you freely give.

When we say, The Lord is my shepherd, we have just contradicted the powers of this world and the anxieties of our soul. If the Lord is truly my shepherd, then truly, I shall not want. Truly, I have everything I need. And if we do not live in want, if there is no lack and we really do have all that is necessary to make our way in this life we’ve been given, then what in God’s name do we fear?

We fear that the ‘enough’ will peter out. We fear that we will not be seen, that our voice or our words won’t matter. We fear that aloneness is our final lot. Too many of us fear there will be no food at the end of the month or that our children will never escape the violence. We fear the lurking dread that we will be found out, stark naked in the square, our insufficiency and foolishness bare to all. We fear that it’s all a lie, we fear that we don’t have all we need.

Yet to every fear, this pronouncement: The Lord is my shepherd.

And this is the shepherd who lays us down in green meadows and guides us beside clear, blue waters. In a culture that knows next to nothing of gentleness and peace, this is a strange and beautiful promise.

As we know too well, however, all is not sunshine and clovers. It’s interesting to me that, on certain years, the lectionary has us pray Psalm 23 in both Lent and Easter. The Shepherd is with us in life, and in death. Life under the shepherd’s care does not mean we’ve found the lucky formula for circumventing the dark sinkholes of our world, not in the least. The shepherd showed us the cries of one abandoned. The shepherd descended into the hellish caverns. Then the shepherd says, follow.

And follow we can, with boldness and hope and even a bit of wanderlust in our eye – because even when we go (and we will) through the valley of the shadow of death, we possess the courage to stare evil down and say, “Move over, bub. I’m passing through. The Shepherd’s got this.”

Our lives are more secure than we’ve ever imagined. But it is a disruptive security because it means we relinquish authority over defining what it is we need — and we like to be in charge of what we need. We like to keep tally, and we find a perverse comfort in fretting over our future. However, there is no need to fret, no need to keep score, no need to fear.

As St. Augustine said, “When you say ‘The Lord is my shepherd,’ no proper grounds are left for you to trust in yourself.” And when you don’t have to carry the weight of trusting in yourself, you’re free as a lark.

 

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.