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.

Almighty and everlasting God, you govern all things both in heaven and on earth: Mercifully hear the supplications of your people, and in our time grant us your peace

In Sunday’s collect, the Church asked me (and a number of you as well) to pray these words, this request for peace in our time. This is an urgent appeal. We are not making a dreamy, docile petition for the distant reclamation we believe will come at the end of things, when the lion lays down with the lamb and heaven and earth are finally joined as one fabulous new creation. No, we are asking for God to act now. This moment. In our time. Would God act in such a way that we’d stop killing one another in Syria and Afghanistan? Would God protect the daughters we were unable to protect last night? Would God salvage our family teetering on the brink?

The deepest scandal of Christian belief is not that we affirm the impossible truths that God has acted in Jesus Christ by fulfilling Israel’s vocation, dying on a cross, rising from the dead and forming his new, visible Body on earth via the Spirit. Rather, our outrageous scandal manifests whenever we announce that God is acting now.

Of course, this is scandal even for those of us silly enough to make such a claim. We utter these words, if we have any sense at all, with fear and trembling. We cannot pretend to presume where God will act or when God will act or if God’s actions will correlate in any way at all with what we had in mind when we suggested the whole idea. Annie Dillard was right to recommend we all wear crash helmets when we pray.

Requesting God to act in our time, on our street, in our soul, is the most ridiculous, lunatic invitation we could ever conjure. It is also the only sane hope in a world that’s proven absolutely impotent at turning itself right-side up.

This morning as the family cleared the breakfast table, Miska put her arms around me and pulled herself in close. Seth, mouth still stuffed with bagel and cream cheese, made an observation. “Puppy love.”

“No,” Miska answered (and here you’ll have to imagine the sultry Spanish accent she carried), “No, this is a long love affair.” Then, to my delight, she leaned even closer and left a sweet gift with her lips. Seth, as any 9 year old boy should, groaned and buried his face in his hands. I sat there grinning and perky, taken off guard but hoping against hope that this breakfast banter wasn’t the end of things.

There was a stretch in our marriage when a morning simply couldn’t have gone like this. There was too much ice, too many questions, too much loneliness. The first four years of our marriage had been spectacular in almost every conceivable way, but life grows and love changes – and if you don’t go along for the ride, you’ll find yourself lying in bed with a stranger.

Through a multi-year traverse, a story maybe we’ll sit down and tell fully someday, we clawed our way back to a truly shared space. Back to the long love affair. Now, we’re in the days when we make our boys squirm because of our flirtatious amore. We’re in the days when even breakfast gets exciting every now and then.

 

Jesus lost his cool a time or two, like that iconic episode tossing tables in the Temple – and there were a few terse conversations with his disciples when Jesus’ words arrived with a wallop. But for the most part, Jesus seemed to have a very long fuse. You have to have a good sense of humor to be Jesus in this crazy world.

It’s funny how often Jesus would put the brakes on a moment, interjecting an odd request or unveiling a disruptive truth, only to evoke little more than blank expressions and a few emotionless blinks of the eye. The gospels tell of several times when Jesus explicitly asked the people not to spread any stories about him, but we all know that a man holding a wild tale will bust a seam if he doesn’t get to share. St. Mark must have chuckled when he scratched this line: “but the people told all the more.”

It was his own mother for crying out loud who, at a wedding party, dismissed Jesus’ theological objections with a mere wave of her hand. The festivities were full tilt, but the hosts faced an impending embarrassment: the kegs were nearly dry. Mary came to her son, expecting a remedy, but Jesus was disinterested. “My time has not yet come,” he said, leveling a nuanced announcement of eschatological priority and salvific intent. This single line has sent theologians down a thousand trails.

Mary, however, wanted wine. She paused for perhaps a nanosecond, as a courtesy, then turned to the servants and said, “So, about the ale – Jesus will take care of it, do what he tells you.”

And Jesus didn’t seem to mind. He filled the casks to the brim — and for all those other cases, I don’t recall any time where he chastised a follower for blurting out something that was supposed to stay quiet. Jesus knows what every father and mother discovers. You do your best, and then you roll with it.

snow light over barn

The earth, O Lord, is full of your love.

The Psalmist prays this singular line fixing our attention on the center truth of the universe. Interspersed among other words describing acute distress, affliction, lies, entangling wickedness, rage and derision, this single-line prayer, in the most literal sense, grounded him.

These sparse words grounded him in God’s kind faithfulness by grounding him in the very dirt on which he knelt. The earth, goes the prayer, is full of God’s love. Not the temple. Not his friendships. Not the fulfillment of miraculous provision. Not even, in this case, Holy Scripture. But the dirt – the boulders and the pebbles and the shrubs and the miles-deep stratum of soil, rock and shale – course with the relentless love of God.

And this love of which the Psalmist speaks is defined by compassion, tenderness, a heart-rich kindness that will not let loose. The Latin word is misericordia, a tenacious love pursuing those whose hearts know too well the miseries of this world.

The ground on which we walk and live, struggle and weep, dance and make love, pulses with God’s active, tender mercy. In the truest sense, we are held up, every moment of our life, by love.

Gravette Arkansas

On a Sunday in January 1983, I dangled my legs from an orange-padded pew and listened as my dad preached ‘in view of a call’ at Parkview Baptist Church. That afternoon, I dangled my legs from the paisley-and-polyester quilted bed at the Best Western, sucking back sobs as my dad told us we would be selling our fifth-wheel trailer, stepping off the road and settling down in Waco, Texas. I didn’t know these people, and I didn’t want our life to change.

My feet now reach the floor, but this past Sunday I sat with that same church (now meeting in a different location and without the orange pews) as they honored my dad for faithfully serving as their pastor for three decades (and still counting). Even more, we celebrated fifty years since my dad took up his call to ministry. In these years, it’s impossible to say how many he’s married, how many he’s buried. How many withered hands has he held? How many prayers has he spoken, for a son to return or a daughter to miraculously recover, a bill to be paid or a family to be made whole? How many stories of tragedy and abuse has he carried? How many injustices has he sought to make right? How many times has he laid his weary bones on the bed, asking God for mercy for one of his people and maybe, if God willed it, a little mercy for himself too?

The good folks at Parkview lovingly refer to my dad as ‘Preacher,’ and anyone who’s enjoyed his ministry in these years would give him good marks. However, if I can be frank, I’ve known a number of high octane preachers — and a fair number of them were (are) scoundrels I wouldn’t trust with a $5 bill. The truth is that a father’s preaching skill, impressionable though it may be, does little for a boy waiting for his dad to come home and toss a baseball in the front yard before supper.

I will tell you, however, what matters to a son. It matters that my dad was the same man at the dinner table as he was behind the pulpit. He doesn’t own a halo and he made his fair share of mash-ups – but he wasn’t fake. Not for a minute. I don’t believe I’d be a Christian today if my dad had played the church game. It matters that my dad loved his family and stayed true to my mom – and that he was generous and loyal and kept his word. It matters that my dad said he loved me – and that I’ve never doubted that these words are true. It matters that my dad has given himself to what he believes, even when it cost him. It matters that my dad has, with his life, practiced love.

This past weekend, it struck me how much my dad’s life is intertwined with this dear place and these dear people. He knows their histories and their kids, their financial woes, their joys and terrors. Whenever he’s with us in Virginia, it annoys me how I can’t get my dad to turn off his blasted cell phone. While I still wish he would pop that piece of machinery in the suitcase for an afternoon, I understand that at least part of the reason why it’s so hard for him to step away is because he can never turn off being their pastor. He’s given so much of himself, and you can’t simply shut that down.

Thirty years ago, I didn’t want to move to Waco because I didn’t know the people, the place. But my father does. He’s spent thirty years making their stories his life’s work. And that – from a son to a father – matters.

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.