If we want to hear what's on another's heart, we'll have to shut up every now and then. If we are to receive, there has to be some empty space within us that is able to receive. Miska has been studying the Enneagram, an ancient way of describing our unique gifts and seductions. Miska tells me one of my perennial temptations is to be consumed with my inner thoughts, to be so stuffed with my ideas, with myself, that there is no space for others. It is true of my narcissistic self as it is true for all of us: something has to be lost in order for something to be found.

Last week, we walked through Jesus' ascension, that odd moment where Jesus returned to the Father. The way we imagine this story, either with an abracadabra and vanishing poof or with Jesus shooting into the Galilean sky like a Tomahawk missile, it's hard to be anything other than perplexed or embarrassed about the whole event. Jesus' ascension doesn't get much play because for the life of us we can't imagine why it happened. Whatever else, we think it must have been a sad day. Jesus was here, and then he wasn't. A cruel joke to rise from the dead only to disappear again. Of course, this wasn't the disciples reaction at all. After Jesus ascended to the Father, the Scriptures tell us that the disciples returned to town filled with joy, overwhelmed with hope and possibility. 

Jesus told the disciples that it would be good for them if he departed because when he did, the Spirit would come. And the Spirit would be everywhere, in every corner, in every heart. Jesus would have to be absent in one way in order for Jesus to be present in a pervasive and powerful new way. So the disciples gathered to await Pentecost, to await this powerful gift of God's Spirit. They felt the absence, but they eagerly anticipated the new reality God would soon create. 

With the disciples, we know the absence, even as we anticipate new creation. In the Christian year, Pentecost arrives Sunday. But Pentecost also arrives every moment. The invitation of Pentecost is to allow for the absence, for the undoing, for the emptying. And then, receiving the life God brings into that void, cooperate with God by unleashing our energy toward creative life.

Absence then creation is God's tandem maneuver. Creator-God moved into the earth's formless void and, with words that drop life like seeds, spoke our very existence into being. God moved into the dark empty that was Israel's Egypt and, from that barren sand, created a home, a place of belonging. Jesus surrendered to – and then erupted out of – the vast void of death. In other words, if you are in a wasteland, do not despair. Rather, hold on to your hat and your seat because these are exactly the places where God sends the Spirit. And where the Spirit goes, life and creation erupt.

God is, if anything, a creator, sculpting new beauty out of old and discarded fragments. This is why artists have so much to teach us. This is also why all of us are, in some form, artists. 

When you give your people your Spirit, life is created,
and you renew the face of the earth.
{Psalm 104.31}

Last year, Dominion Power sent a crew through our neighborhood, switching out the old style meter boxes with a new digital model that, at the end of each month, shoots our monthly kilowatt usage to who knows where. Probably to an accountant in Wisconsin. So far as I know, I'm not co-dependent on the electric company, but as much money as I give them annually, there's something lacking when I don't have an actual person stop by my meter, checking in to see how my energy's doing.

I wish there were meters we could hot-wire to our souls, to tap in and see how our energy's doing. Miska regularly asks me (as I do her), "How is your heart?" Too often, it takes me too long to answer. This hesitation often signals that it's time to perk up, time to pay attention. We all need a person (or several) who will ask us these sorts of questions, people who actually want to wait and hear the answer. There is no substitute for a living, breathing friend whose mere presence in our life offers grace. Over years, these soul-friends see the ebb and flow. They notice the signals that trouble is brewing or sadness has knocked us a blow. They have the courage to tell us we're pushing the edge and need to taper down, and they have the history and the love to remind us, in the sketchiest places, that we've been here before and will be here again. 

Long-life friends give space to slow words and slow questions. They understand that knowing what to say is not nearly as vital as being willing to pause and be present. To let the moment be whatever it will be. To simply enjoy the conversation.

These friendships rarely happen quickly, and they must always endure relational swampland – that mucky stretch that stinks and provides little immediate joy, the muck you simply have to sludge through. Friendship that endures the years – and thrives amid the years – continually releases the demand for friendship to be efficient or to follow a straight line. Dominion Power replaced the meter because another could do the job with less hassle, less people, less cost. Obviously, they're aiming for profit, not friendship.

Other than Miska, I have a couple friends who do this for me, and I hope I do this for them. I'm horrid at staying connected via the phone, but the last week or two, I had to ring a couple of my pals. I simply needed to hear their good voice. I needed to be connected with that solid ground we share. I'm committed to them; and they to me. I don't know where the years will take us, what swamps we will traverse. But I'll walk it with these men.

If you don't have such a friend, I truly pray you find one. Until then, you could be this friend for another.

Today, I met Bruce Heilman. Bruce is a World War II vet and member of the Greatest Generation. He is the Chancellor of the University of Richmond where he served as president for two decades. Bruce is also an avid Harley biker and tomorrow, to celebrate his 86th birthday, he sets out on a 8,000 mile bike trip, making a loop around the entire United States and motoring through all twenty border states before returning home to Virginia. 

Bruce had a bike in the 50's but traded it for marriage and a family. When Bruce turned 71, his wife Betty told him, "You got the kids and grandkids through college, now you can have your bike back." His current ride is a Harley Ultra Classic Electric Glide Patriot Edition (and I'm just repeating what I hear, I have no idea what that means) that Betty gave him for their 65th wedding anniversary. If you ask Betty what she thinks of Bruce's round the country trek, you recognize she's had practice with this question. "He's in the Lord's hands," Betty says.

"All of life is an adventure," Bruce quips. "It might not be as grand in some places as others, but think of life not as a burden but as an opportunity." This reminds me of poet David Whyte's conviction that we are to "release ourselves from necessity," from the weight of a life that has hoisted its demands upon us. Good living always involves responsibility, commitments that arrive with our good attachments to people and place and principle. However, vibrant life does not see these responsibilities as shackles but as one of the many experiences that will bring us some new gift. At 86, vibrant life grabs the handle bars of a Harley and sets out for the Pacific Ocean.

Before we left today, I cornered Dr. Heilman, shook his hand and said, "I just have to tell you, you're awesome." He paused and blushed a little, which made me like him even more. Then he answered. "Well, I'm not awesome because I'm riding a bike. I'm awesome because I'm old." I don't think it's either / or, but his many years add a potency that I find immensely attractive. Bruce had to leave our meeting early to finish last minute preparations for his ride; but before he got away, I made him promise me a coffee and conversation when he returns. 

When asked why he stills follows these adventures, Bruce replies: "I've got a motorcycle and the world's out there, so I'll just ride." Lead the way, Bruce. I'm right behind you.

if you missed part one, you may want to begin here

+++++

In all the years under his roof, I never heard Uncle Roe disparage his brother Ben. Not even when Ben let his hair grow wild and started wearing a kilt. Roe simply shook his head and chuckled, “Guess the trees told him to do it.”

The truth was less mystical. Our ancestors rode the tides from the Scottish isles, and Ben was a man drawn to the old ways and the old land. Roe understood this. A respect for weathered truths was another quality these brothers shared, even if they each wore it their own way. Pigs would crow before you'd catch Roe in a man-skirt or a man-tail. However, a couple days a month, Ben would walk into Skyline Hardware or the Dairy King with red plaid hanging from his waist down to his bony white knees.

Ben appreciated the Scots’ music and their customs and their drinks, but it was the fire of the people that beckoned him. “Those old Scots were alive,” Ben said. And if there’s anything Ben admired, it was a woman or man who had honed the craft of living.

Uncle Roe was just as keen on living, but the life he imagined took a vastly different shape. Roe believed Ben was an idealist, a disposition only suited for "giggly girls, priests and senile old men." Roe believed idealism dangerous, that it kept a man from inhabiting the hardship and the joy right in front of him. It wasn't that Roe lacked high principles, he simply believed they were naked facts, chiseled straight from the stone of hard, cold truth. Roe loved the woods and the sod ever bit as much as his younger brother, but he loved them differently. They both peered deeply into the world, but they often gathered distinct visions. Roe had the eyes of a father. Ben had the eyes of a lover. 

This schism explains why I dreaded the conversation Uncle Roe and I needed to have. Two months previous, Uncle Ben invited me to make the thirty mile ride to Renton to kick the tires on a truck for sale. On the drive, he asked if I would like to apprentice with him in his design firm. He knew I was considering an architecture degree, and he wanted to help. I was surprised at my immediate yes. Ben had barely finished the ask before I shot out my answer, and my visceral response had almost nothing to do with a future career. I recognized a desire I hadn't known existed only a minute previous: I longed for my Uncle Ben's voice. I'd always admired him, but I didn't really know him. There was something for me in his world, and he had just welcomed me to it. 

I wasn't sure how Roe would take the news. Since he'd always hoped I'd step into the family landscaping business, he'd be disappointed. Since I was abandoning his dream in order to work with Uncle Ben, he'd probably see it as a defection. Roe wouldn't try to change my mind, that wasn't his way. But I expected a flash of anger or worse – the silence of grief. When we sat at the kitchen table, he asked me what was on my mind. I wanted to work my way up to it, but nothing irked Roe more than a man who wouldn't say what he needed to say. "Uncle Ben has asked me to be his apprentice," I blurted.

Roe took it in, thought for only a moment and said, "Well, that's an honor and you'll be good at it. When do you start?"

I watched his face. All I found was generosity. "I thought you'd be disappointed or mad or … something."

Roe put his strong arm on my shoulder and squeezed several times, like he was giving a massage. His eyes were moist and kind. "Son, this is a hard world we live in. There's no time to begrudge a man's joy. I say you've got to find grace anywhere and everywhere you can find it."

He gave me another long squeeze and poured me a cup of coffee. We sat at the table for another long while. I don't remember most of what we talked about. Only that neither of us wanted to get up. I do remember he asked my opinion about a big job he was bidding on for the new hospital in Thompson County. And I remember us laughing. I remember him asking if I planned to wear a skirt.

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 was too young to remember, but both my father's brothers beat the ambulance to the hospital. Those three had many a scuffle over the years, but when a crisis hit, they lined up shoulder to shoulder. Neither my mother nor my father survived, but due to luck and the fastidious way my mom always strapped me into the car seat, I didn't have so much as a bump on my noggin. Ever since, they've called me Tank.

Uncle Ben and Uncle Roe both wanted to take me into their family, and though I haven't been able to get clear on all the details as to how they came to a decision, I ended up with Roe and Aunt Lucy and cousins Ron and Lilly who couldn't have become any more of a brother or sister to me than if we'd all popped out of the same belly whistling three-part harmony.

Uncle Roe and Uncle Ben shared genes and certain family traits: wit, loyalty, broad shoulders and an ornery streak. But in most every other way, they were oil and water. Roe was Republican and Lutheran. He liked his coffee black. He lived east of the river. When the community split over the big Co-op that moved into town, Roe sided with those who believed the benefit of a couple hundred jobs outweighed the harm of outside money. I've never heard Roe utter a cross word to any living creature, but I've also never seen him back down. Once Roe drove up on the Fentson clan, along with two or three of their drinking buddies, manhandling a couple migrant workers. Roe was outnumbered, but that wasn't a concern. As I've heard Roe say my entire life: "Right's right, wrong's wrong." Roe grabbed a PVC pipe from the bed of his truck and went to work making things right. When the fracas concluded, he had a shattered shoulder but received a string of effusive gracias. To Roe, this seemed a fair trade. 

Uncle Ben was a Democrat and a Baptist. He only drank tea, called coffee the bitter brew. He lived west of the river. Ben believed the Co-op would pervert all he knew and loved about this town of his. When the Co-op made an outrageous offer for Ben's 23 acres, an offer that would have meant neither Ben nor his great-grandchildren would ever know another care in the world, he asked the big wigs if they'd throw in a couple pairs of flame-retardant Levis because signing that contract would mean he was selling his soul to the Devil. Then Ben struck a match and tossed the freshly lit contract into the waste basket. Uncle Ben spent meandering afternoons in the woods talking to the trees. He wrote poetry and read Steinbeck. With the Co-op as a rare exception, Ben had a wide capacity for paradoxes and truths that seem to exist in tension.

Roe and Ben shared Christmas and Easter dinner, diligently (happily, even) honored the annual July 4th family gathering and never knew any hesitation about whether the other would be at their side in those moments when a brother must be a brother. Short of that, these two men lived at opposite ends of the county, but it might as well have been at opposite ends of the universe. 

 

(part two)

road to emmausIf someone set out to fabricate Jesus’ Resurrection story, concocting a seditious narrative that would rival Rome’s pagan gods as well as establishment Judaism while catapulting their inner cadre to prominence, the stories they gave us were a piss-poor job.

As rumors of Jesus’ Resurrection spread, there are no brave disciples overturning chariots and marching into the streets. No one says, “See, I told you so.” We don’t have so much as a quiet dinner party with one of the Sons of Thunder popping a bottle of bubbly. Rather, we find disbelieving apostles, frantic disciples sprinting back and forth to the tomb, dumbfounded (though, thankfully, courageous) women and poor Thomas who will never live down that one cynical line, especially since Carvaggio put the image to oil and canvas. Needless to say, the early days of the Resurrection do not offer us a jubilant bunch of Jesus’ followers feeling vindicated and revved to spread the message. They were too busy picking their jaw off the floor.

Two weary, disappointed disciples experienced one of these first Jesus-sightings as they traveled home to Emmaus. Jesus walked up beside them and whether by miracle or grief, we don’t know – but they didn’t recognize their master. When Jesus asked what they were talking about, Cleopas (whose emotions were surely coiled tight) flashed his irritation. “Are you the only one who doesn’t know what’s been going on in Jerusalem?” While it’s likely there were many who paid little attention to this supposed failed prophet’s fate, the irony is that the one receiving the irascible jab was the only one who knew in precise detail exactly what had transpired, all the horror and glory of the preceding hours. To this day, we still ponder what exactly Jesus did in those grey hours, what it means when the Creed announces that Jesus descended into Hades. What loss did Jesus know? What grief? What war did Jesus wage? What love sustained him?

Yet I can’t help but snigger at Jesus’ reply: “What things?” This is Jesus saying, go ahead, tell me about me. Jesus, as is his way, asking a question and opening a conversation.

They did. They told what they knew. A cruel death. Their hopes for a new Israel buried in a hole in rock. We had hoped, they lamented – and those words buckled under the weight of a long, tattered history of tears. Then, an empty tomb. “But no one’s seen Jesus,” they added. The vacant grave was a mystery; but as they saw it, only another cruel blow.

Then Jesus told the broad story, the story as he alone knew it. Jesus unfolded the great drama. Tracing the tale from the writings of Moses and through the writings of the prophets, Jesus sketched what the whole of Scripture had narrated: that One would come from God who, through humility and sacrificial love, would rescue Israel and the world.

The disillusioned disciples needed to tell the things they knew, and these sorrows were excruciating, grievous things to tell. However, even more, they needed Jesus to tell the things he knew because Jesus himself is the story of hope and life.

In our places of rage, fear, desperation, egression or ambivalence, we need to tell what we know, what we’ve experienced, the things that sit heavy on our soul. But even more, we need to hear the story Jesus tells, the story Jesus lives. Our story, left to itself, is not large enough or imaginative enough to envision the full scope. Resurrection happens all around us, but we often need fresh vision to catch sight of it.

The birds are back.

One small but inordinately vocal (and tenacious) feathered species has apparently added the Collier house to its annual Spring Virginia tour. Without making reservations but with plenty of brass, the little buggers descend on our alcove and set up house. Their intentions are focused: to mate and nest. I don't begrudge them their space; and I certainly agree that, given our stellar view of the Blue Ridge, it's a romantic spot for getting your groove on. However, we have a history now, and we've proven this doesn't end well.

It would be disingenuous of me not to confess that cute as they are, these birds are a pain in the tooshie. Their incessant, shrill chirping makes you want to gouge your eyes with a hot poker. Then do it again. A lovely birdsong is one thing. This sharp, metallic chorus is another thing altogether. And the shit, oh the shit – it's astounding the amount of mess a couple tiny birds can unload. If that ratio held for humans, I can't begin to fathom what changing diapers in our house would have been like. 

Besides the noise and clops of poo and the other filth the birds bring, there are altruistic reasons why I've decided that this time the birds can't stay. One year, a young toddler son (whose mother, by the way, had repeatedly told him to keep his grubby paws off the eggs) tried to sneak a small white pearl into his bedroom. He had lined a box with grass and twigs and hid it under his dresser. He wanted "to help the birdie grow." Needless to say, the bird did not come of age. Another year, our dog pounced on a nestling just after she cracked through her shell. Our boys are still working through the trauma. I could go on.

The cruel truth is that our house is not a gentle haven from which mommy and daddy bird can succor new life. Mere feet away from their chosen perch, we have a lush, sturdy tree they can inhabit, and I'm happy for them to do so. Only, not on the porch. Not this year.

But these birds refuse to take no for an answer. Yesterday morning, I gathered the ladder and cleaned out the beginnings of their 3 bedroom / 2 bath build. A couple hours later, I looked out only to see fresh foliage had returned. This has happened six times so far. Six times I've cleared out their sprigs, six times they've packed them back in. These chirpers are watching me, feathers crossed over their chest, saying, Listen, pal. I can do this all day

The story that keeps playing in my head is Jesus' parable of the widow who hounds the unjust judge until he caves and hands the woman her request. Since my options for characters I could play in the story are slim, I don't care to draw too many parallels. However, I do find my resistance wearing thin. 

One of my great disappointments in life is that I can't whistle. I can make some strange tinny noise while sucking in air, but it's a wimpish tone, with no bellow to it. And since I can only muster this neutered note while gathering wind, my chirp only lasts 10-12 seconds before I'm gasping for breath. It's embarrassing, particularly when your sons want you to teach them the licks. I still believe whoever whistled that opening for the Andy Griffith Show is a god. 

My dad, however – now he can whistle. When I was a kid, he'd tootle the usual tunes when a melody stuck in his head, but mainly my dad whistled to communicate. Whistling is dad's fourth language. A true linguist, dad has four primary tongues: English, Texan, sign language and whistling. Sign language was for when we were in a public setting and dad wanted to say something off the radar. It may have been as simple as granting me permission to exit church and go to the bathroom — but receiving confirmation via clandestine hand code made the whole thing excitingly cloak-and-dagger. Whistling, however, was for those occasions when dad wanted to reach every nook and cranny of the neighborhood. Dad had a powerful, looping whistle, and it signaled time to return home for dinner or chores or for an outing. That whistle was unmistakable. Dad could be a couple blocks away, and I knew exactly what it meant and would come running. 

I loved that sound. I hear it now. That powerful echo told me there was a place called home and that there was a dad standing there at the front steps waiting for me. 

St. John speaks of God as our shepherd and we the sheep. And the sheep, John says, know the Shepherd's voice. We know the whistle. John doesn't have much to say regarding our tenacious efforts to hear, preening toward every scrap of sound while anxiously deciphering its meaning (or not). John simply says the Shepherd speaks, and the sheep hear. And then the sheep follow. Of course, we could rightly protest with the hundred competing scenarios where things go differently, where the Shepherd seems difficult to hear – or where the sheep don't listen and don't follow. But of course, John doesn't say the sheep hear everything plain. We simply hear enough. We hear plain whatever we need to hear plain. That's the rub. Ever since Eden, we tend to believe we need more knowledge than we actually do.

But all we really need to know is the whistle. And to know that a Father filled with love waits for us at the front steps. 

Being National Poem in Your Pocket Day, today is the moment for letting words rather than the spare coins jingle in your pants or your purse or wherever you stuff things you want to carry with you for the day's adventure. I once thought poems as merely something that rhymed. However, because I've been given the good grace to have a wife and a couple friends who are poets – and because I've been knocked sideways by more than a few metered lines – I now know poetry to be more than repeating words finished with -ing. Poetry teaches us how to see and how to hear, how to observe and how to speak.

Poetry insists we watch for delicate distinctions, fully aware of how meaning can turn on the difference between a finch and a sparrow. Poetry coaxes us to nurture memory, aware that if we've forgotten old Moses terrified when the desert shrub struck flame, we won't encounter this splendid awesomeness when Whyte speaks of "the man throwing away his shoes / as if to enter heaven." Poetry provides us language that's as much about discovery as it is about stacking up facts. Of course, we'd have chaos if our tax forms were arranged in poetic verse, but wouldn't we have coldness and sorrow if our lovers and friends and our walks in the woods didn't play in things poetic?

Yesterday, Wyatt was discussing the Avengers, which led to a conversation about favorite superheroes. Wyatt ran through the list, outloud as he does. Noticing a pattern, he made an observation: "I don't really like girl superheroes. Well, I do like Cat Woman." 

"Why?" we asked. 

"I like Cat Woman," Wyatt concluded, "because of all the sneakiness."

That's one of the big reasons I love poetry: because of the sneakiness. Poems have a tendency to catch me when I'm dozing. They seem so docile there on the page, short and tidy, all mannered and in neat rows. And then that one line or phrase – a single word sometimes (syllable even) – and my head's buried in my hands or my heart's ripped wide. 

It probably seems plain enough why my writing self would love poetry so. However, does it strike you as odd for me to say that poetry affirms something about why I love the work of pastoring and the study of theology as well? To pastor, as I see it, is to be a resident poet, a poet for the parish. A pastor works his poetry amid the subtleties of babes and grandfathers, treacheries and joys, noting all the while that a sparrow is not the same as a finch. With this, studying theology (a curious attentiveness to God's story) is to ask questions and listen for nuance and to be swept away by beatific themes pregnant with possibilities. As Marilynne Robinson says, "Great theology is always a kind of giant and intricate poetry, like epic or saga." If our Christian teaching doesn't play well with poetry, we have most likely identified a problem. 

If all this is true, then we are desperate for poets, poets of every sort. We need women and men who live attentive to the life about them, their work and their family – which is to say, their art. We need brave and imaginative souls who see and hear and then help us see and hear. "The most regretful people on earth," says Mary Oliver, "are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave it neither power nor time." I think she's right. Give it power and give it time. Please, for all of us.