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.

Do you think sometimes the fowl look at us
cockeyed with our sacks of Universal Birdseed?
Really? they ask, looking down their itty-bitty beaks
at our grand and generous gestures.
You can’t even settle on a single flavor of instant
oatmeal for the two bucks in your crew
yet you seem to think the entire lot of us –
Finches, Pewees, and Warblers (for starters) –
can be tossed into one universal bag?
We thank you for the gift and will not,
in our irritated befuddlement, bite the hand
so to speak. However, we’d love for you to take
a moment to know our name, to notice my fine
speckles and my pal’s fire-drenched colors.
We’ll take your Universals if we must, but
we’re not so much the ones missing out.
You are.

The poor fella was wrapped tight as a Twizzler. He had himself knotted this way and that with questions about Plan A’s and Plan B’s and what-might-have-beens if only he’d had better sense or swerved left instead of right. We can be downright violent with ourselves whenever we walk into that inner torture chamber where ugly brutes named guilt and shame guard the door.

“Does God have a plan?” he asked, desperate for me to say yes.

I’m never quite sure what’s behind these phrases we like to toss about, so I asked. “What do you mean by plan?”

He looked at me, head cocked, and he paused. “Well, I don’t actually know.”

Slowly, he began to work it out. He feared that he’d screwed his life up so much that it was beyond repair. A trail of missteps and hard knocks and gutter balls brought him to the moment where he wanted to know he wasn’t forever consigned to God’s Plan B, a life that was at very best only second fiddle.

I interrupted the maddening circle these conversations inevitably create because one truth had become very clear to me. “I think the question you’re really asking is if you are loved. And the answer – absolutely – is yes.”

He looked up, eyes moist. “I’ve always had trouble believing that.”

“I don’t have much to offer on Plan A’s or B’s or LL’s,” I said. “But I know that love carries you. I know that there isn’t a moment in your life when you aren’t drowned in love. I don’t know about these mysterious, Oz-like, behind the curtain plans, but I know that you are loved. And I know that, because of love, you are okay.”

 

treehouseTwo Christmases ago, Miska gave me a splendid coffee table book, New Treehouses of the World. I have never owned a treehouse, but my cousin Tim and a few of his pals built a magnificent tree fort that I envied as a child. Tim was a few years ahead of me, and the fort was in disrepair by the time I was old enough to have been able to enjoy it. However, in seminary, I stayed with my aunt and uncle several nights a week, and each day on my way home from class, I’d pass that rotted-out beauty and pine for what might have been.

The book sat on my dresser for an entire year unopened until last December when I was packing for two days at Holy Cross Abbey, a Trappist monastery where I planned to retreat. I was exhausted and in much need of a spiritual infusion. On a whim, I tossed the bulky Treehouses into my backpack. I had not opened the book in the entire year prior, and this beefy hardback was not the sort of book you take on travels. Nor was it the sort of spiritual tome one would normally consider part of the reading list during days with the Trappists. Yet there it was in my North Face pack, and I couldn’t possibly tell you why.

On the drive north, I began to think of what God might have for me during my time, and the word that repeatedly returned to me was play. This was not the word I would have picked, which is at least half a reason for thinking it’s something to pay attention to.

I pulled into the parking space for the retreat house, aware that the crisp air and the tree’s brittle branches matched the tone of my soul. When I stretched out of the car, an old, very fuzzy grey cat slowly strolled my way. The cat, acting as guestmaster, purred a hello, turned to point me toward the front entrance and then, having done his duty, slowly patted away. I’m not one to pause for a cat, but I stood there for a moment chuckling. The greeting struck me as magnificently playful.

That evening, I laid on the twin bed in my monastic cell; and though I had planned to spend time in focused, contemplative prayer, my brain had all the perkiness of cold molasses syrup. I opened a book of Thomas Merton’s spiritual letters to read, followed by a volume of poetry and a couple theological works. I thumbed several pages of each, but they all made me weary. Run out of options, I pulled out the treehouse book and into the wee hours of the night, I gobbled up pictures of play spaces from around the world. I remembered my boyhood fantasies and my love of rugged spaces. I considered what it would be like to craft one of these tree abodes, hopefully building it with my sons. In that little cell, I played.

St. Gregory of Nazianzus, that theologically prolific fourth-century bishop, reminded us that “man is the play of God.” God’s high creation, his own image, came as an act of play, of joy and delight and imagination run wild. When our theology is so serious and our discipline so stringent that we no longer have hearts at play, then we have massively missed the point. Prayer and play, these are two ways of talking about the same thing.

Lent is 40 days. Easter runs 50. This matters.

While Lent blocks the exit for those chipper souls who’ve never seen a sorrow they couldn’t deny, Easter opens the floodgates on parched souls who’ve come to believe only in a life barren and brittle.

But – and this is what we must not miss – Easter trumps Lent. Lent owns its grey space, and the good news is no good news at all if we do not sincerely wrangle with the sad facts scattered about us. But then Easter comes and flips on the sunshine and cranks up the jukebox and opens the windows and breaks out the margaritas. Death is very real, Easter says, but Jesus alive is more real. Get up and dance.

Easter does not arrive as a joy easy won. Easter is the dance of the mourner who has grabbed the alleluia in a headlock and won’t let go. In Easter, those who dwell in the valley of the shadow of death gather up their courage and bend their ear to the Church’s witness of the risen Jesus. Then, in an act both brave and costly, these reckless souls let the light in. They open themselves to another possibility. They slowly start to tap their toe. With all their might, no matter how fragile or sparse, they begin to practice joy. They begin to Easter.

I was dead, then alive.
Weeping, then laughing.

The power of love came into me,
and I became fierce like a lion,
then tender like the evening star.
― Rumi

resurrection_Hans_Multscher_-_Resurrection_-_WGA16328

 

People of the risen and conquering Jesus, lift up your weary hearts. Lift up your sorrowed eyes — your Jesus has risen from the dead. Easter’s for real. Jesus lives. And all the dying and all the deaths that lay claim on you have been crushed by the power of Jesus Christ, the one who descended into the very bowels of hell and marched out with a victor’s dance. Rise up and live. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Spirit. Amen.