I was making myself at home. In the dark way of the world I had come to know what would be my life’s place, though I could not yet know the life I would live in it…I had come unknowing into what Burley would have called the ‘membership’ of my life. I was becoming a member of Port William.

{Wendell Berry, Hannah Coulter}

More than a few years ago, ecclesiastical authorities pulled me from my seminary womb, spanked me on the butt and scribbled my name on an ordination certificate. They sent me into the world, green and ignorant but effusive with zeal. One of my enterprising ideals was to de-bunk the ossified notion of church membership. I insisted the whole affair was a formality offering no more umph than signing up for the YMCA. We wanted ‘organic community.’ We wanted to ‘authentically live life together.’ We didn’t want structures but wanted to do ‘life on life.’ Apparently, we also wanted to craft our own clichés.

Years have, I believe, brought a humble measure of wisdom. Reading Wendell Berry and my Bible have added a bit more. I’ve reflected on all this with a piece for Deeper Church, if you’d care to tussle with these ideas further.

Twice in the past month, back pain has brought me low. Both times, the trigger was an extended board game with the boys, lying on the floor in an awkward position. I only refer to it as the ‘trigger’ because I refuse to believe I’ve arrived at the age where Monopoly and Settlers of Catan classify as a contact sport. With each painful onset, Miska has been kind enough to guide me through a series of yoga stretches (sun salutation, downward dog, cobra, baby cobra, camel, etc.), an exercise which brings some relief to my back but brings a whole new assault on my self-image. Miska’s too kind to laugh at a man in pain, but I know it’s all she can do to keep a straight face as I contort and grimace and massacre all the free-flowing easiness yoga seeks to create.

One minuscule suggestion, however, has stuck. “You need to protect your back,” Miska said. “Rotate your pelvis.” I’m slow on these sorts of things, so I asked clarifying questions and then made awkward attempts to implement her instructions. Miska patiently coached me through varying iterations: stiff as a board; sucking air, like Houdini bracing for a punch; finally landing on some oddly robotic waddle. “I don’t get it,” I exclaimed. “How do I rotate my pelvis?”

“Winn,” Miska said, “tighten your butt.” Amazing. That small tilt really does work wonders. We’re not going for a clinched bum, but, as Miska says, a subtle movement.

I’ve learned two things from this. The first is that being a tight ass is not, in every way, a bad thing. The second is that often it’s the slightest of movements, the smallest of gestures, the plain words and simple postures, that often bring the greatest relief and offer the most help. This is true in matters of the body but surely just as so in matters of the soul. The world may not be made new today, but a new kind of word spoken in a new kind of way can transform a moment. And if lots of moments in various spaces give birth to bursts of life, then who knows what kind of wonderful madness might happen.

Last Fall, the elderly woman who lived alone in the house on the corner of our street died. In December, the family (I assume) planted two “for sale by owner” signs in the yard. They painted the front door red and tied red bows on evergreen wreaths, hanging one wreath on each of the five windows facing the street. Overnight, a weary 1400 square foot rancher transformed into a cozy Christmas bungalow. They screen printed a five-foot wide banner in holiday colors, built a frame of PVC pipe and placed the sprawling sign right next to the sidewalk. Come Home for the Holidays it read. I was impressed with the ingenuity of these do-it-yourself realtors.

Today, as I jogged passed the unsold house, the red-bowed wreathes hung tired, limp and waiting to be packed away. The Home for the Holidays sign has come untied and half of it droops to the ground. Their scrappy push to move the house during the yuletide season did not pay off. I never noticed even a single potential buyer taking a tour.

I wonder if they regret the effort, if their plans now seem foolish. I wonder if anyone has rolled their eyes and muttered, “I told you so.” I surely hope not.

Miska has taken up a new craft this past month. She does this at least once a year, often in the fall or winter. I love this about her, the way an idea will grab her and not let her loose until she’s spent herself — the way she’ll get this wild energy, the kind a poet knows when the words are flying and most other pursuits, for a while, are lost to them. It is good to be so awake that you notice when something asks for your full attention – and it is good in those precious moments to just go with it, to say yes.

Sometimes, though, others will think you foolish. You will be told you ought be more practical or less engrossed. Sometimes you’ll even have a husband who, in a moment of absolute stupidity, will say something like this: just remember the interest will pass.

Hopefully, your husband (or wife or friend) will also (like me) receive a kick in the arse and get right-minded enough to return, hat in hand. Sorry, baby. Don’t listen to me. I’m an idiot. You go as crazy as you want with your art and your loves. You show us the way.

“From Jesus’ fulness,” says St. John, “we have all received, grace upon grace.” The truth of our world is abundance and plenty. Lies produce scarcity, miserliness and greed.

On December 26th, we set out on our Northern trek to visit my sister and her family in Michigan. As we backed out the driveway, flurries hit the windshield, and it occurred to me (with Miska’s help) that I had failed to check the weather. It turns out we were driving directly into an East Coast blizzard – meteorologists had christened the storm with a name for crying out loud. 7 hours yielded 113 miles, and we gave up in Pittsburgh with plans to regroup for a second go the next morning.

Somewhere during these travels (or was it during our 2 hour dead stop on I-70 while 4 tractor trailers were hauled off the guardrail and out of the ditch), our two boys entered a protracted dispute carrying financial implications. Miska halted the melee, insisted on their attention and said, “Guys, the only question you need to ask is this: right now, this moment, do I have enough?

Do I have enough? Enough love for the hour? Enough dollars for the day? Enough hope for the next stretch?

When we believe we are okay, that our life is in God’s hands and that truly, in the end, all will be well – then we are able to unclinch our fists and live God’s generosity toward others.

This past year, my hope has been to grow more profuse with my energy and money and time, more large-hearted. I’ve been given multiple opportunities to stretch into this way of living. On several occasions, I’ve blown it magnanimously; but I’ve also shined in a few places too. Even these reviews of glories and blunders teach us, for generosity always includes being generous with yourself.

I used to think the 12 Days of Christmas were the twelve days leading up to the 25th. Things turned topsy turvy when I discovered years ago that Christmas stretches almost two weeks and the twelve days merely commence on the 25th. What magnificence is this?

We’ve surrendered this practice too easily. We’ve forgotten the art of long, lingering feasts. You may think Christmas is over, back to the grind. Not hardly. It’s barely begun.

We’re moving ever deeper into the true, into the implications of Christmas, the implications of Incarnation.

God came to us because he wanted to join us on the road, to listen to our story, and to help us realize that we are not walking in circles but moving towards the house of peace and joy…Christmas is the renewed invitation not to be afraid and let him–whose love is greater than our own hearts and minds can comprehend–be our companion. {Henri Nouwen}

God is here. Party’s on.

virgin-mary-and-jesusGod has filled the hungry with good things. {Mary}

Over Advent, our church has attempted to memorize Mary’s Magnificat. Each time I utter Mary’s prophetic word directed toward herself, I chuckle: ‘From now on, all generations will call me blessed.’ I love Mary’s undaunted boldness – you have no idea how big a deal this is; you’re going to be singing about me. Forever. This is a sassy, confident young woman.

I also chuckle because this is precisely a point where low-church Protestants often get nervous, developing a twitch when the Virgin is constantly referred to as Blessed Mary.

But Mary was blessed, not only because she carried the Savior of the Cosmos in her womb but also because she had eyes to see what this Savior would bring to the world – and a keen heart to know how desperate we all are for these gifts.

We’re all hungry. We’re all scratching our way through this world. Some of us are familiar with the hunger pangs, while some of us are masters at avoiding the longings of our soul. No matter, hunger catches up to all of us eventually. And Jesus, God’s shocking and paradoxical revelation, has already arrived with the remedy. God is ready to fill us, whenever we are ready to be filled.

Advent’s been hard for many. I pray Christmas fills you to the brim. I hope Christmas arrives with bells and songs and lots of gifts and revelry – and maybe even a train ride or new pair of slippers or some childish joy.

photo

To all who’ve been dismissed or tossed aside ~

To all who, bittered by the cracks in your story, now tremble or seethe at the mention of ‘love’ ~

To every weary-boned parent saddled with regret or loss or despair ~

To every child, grown yet still yearning for tenderness and acceptance ~

To every one of us who compulsively judge our reflection in the mirror or replay conversations over and over or carry every criticism to a dark, dark place ~

To each of us who are ashamed of our fears and our machinations and who hide the fact that in our own sophisticated ways we still have to leave the light on at night ~

I pray that you will know, these beautiful days, the profound worth of your soul, the sturdy weight of your being. There is an astounding splendor in you – and I know this because the God of all beauty and power has called you into existence. And God delights in the sheer presence that is you. In these days, I pray you sing this song loud – and I pray you’ll sing it to another.

Do not fear, O Zion;
do not let your hands hang limp.
The Lord, your God, is with you,
a warrior who gives victory;
he will take great delight in you,
he will quiet you with his love;
he will exult over you with loud singing
as on a day of festival.
I will remove disaster from you… {Zephaniah 3:16-18}

What a word to be reading on Sunday, when Friday brought us to our knees. We hear a promise of disaster expunged, but for now, we’re buried by calamity. A quieting love — one day perhaps. But for so many, grief’s cacophony splits the soul.

Last night, while looking through some old files on a hard drive, I found a ten minute montage I’d saved, a string of old voicemail messages from Wyatt and Seth when they were three and four. The boys would call me while I was at work or away on a trip. “Daddy, I love you,” a tinny young voice crackled. “When you get home, can we go for a bike ride?” Tears came as I remembered these beautiful days, and more tears came as I remembered that for too many Sandy Hook families, these mementos are all they have left.

I could only think of my two boys, of the sorrow these fathers and mothers know. And I could only think of another child, a mere babe, who was born into a world where a madman murdered innocent children by the thousands. I could only think of a poor, blessed mother who would see her son’s life snuffed out before her very eyes. This son, this mother, know grief. They know the savagery of injustice. They weep.

They, better than most I must believe, know the promise that disaster will be relieved. They also know how much pain and suffering we will endure between here and there.

This suffering God. This is the God who is with us.

Wartburg Castle_A Mighty Fortress Is Our God

I’m told this is Wartburg Castle, the inspiration for Martin Luther’s A Mighty Fortress is Our God. That song gives me chills every time, almost enough to make me wish I were Lutheran. In college, my friend Karsten would belt out each line a cappella, and I’d sit mesmerized by his powerful voice but even more by the intrepid story this song proclaims.

This shot appeared on the #adventpicaday advent series a few of us have concocted on Instagram. One might not think the photo belongs in an Advent exercise. Mighty Fortress isn’t often thought of as an Advent tune, but it should be. They tell the same story, a tale of fierce love and bold rebellion against evil and darkness.

The baby came, a bulwark never failing.

 

See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me…The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight — indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap… {Malachi 3:1-2}

When I was a boy, if I left the house with a dirty face, my mom would seize me before I exited the car. She would lick her thumb and scrub my grubby cheeks until they shined. I don’t know which I hated worse – the wet finger or how my mom could (as any good mom can) scrub down to the bone. She met my protests with a smile and a renewed tenaciousness. “If you’d clean yourself” she’d say, “then I won’t have to.” She made her point. I now wash my face each morning.

My mom had one other standard trick (is there a book somewhere with a list of such things?): soap for washing the filthy or sassy mouth. Best I remember, I never received the oral suds, though it’s entirely possible I’ve blocked it from my consciousness. I do recall the threat, and I do have a vague recollection of my sister’s ordeal at the bathroom sink. Only last week, I channeled my mother and suggested to Miska that we whip out a bar of Dial. I’ve only got a little more convincing to do.

When we think of Christ’s coming – Christ’s adventing – we often consider only the warm manger glow, the angelic carols, the hope and goodwill to all, the merry Christmas everyone. We consider only the delights. This is all most appropriate, as the prophet Malachi reminds us that the messenger who comes is one who indeed is our delight. Still, the prophet’s next question stops us short: who can endure the day of his coming? who can stand when he appears?

The prophet Malachi sets the coming Messiah as one who, not unlike an obdurate mother, arrives to cleanse with kindness and fury.

When the King comes, the King burns with fire. The Holy One washes the world with a cleansing deluge. This is a gracious terror. The Christ child comes in tenderness, but true tenderness can not allow evil to wreck us. Love could never be so feeble. Love must do what Isaiah promised, what St. Luke echoed – love must make the crooked things straight.

Who can stand when the Son of God appears in all splendor and blazing glory? None of us. And yet – each of us, surrounded by the unrelenting love of God. For the end, says Luke, is that all flesh will see God’s salvation.