Given that Christian faith rests on the fact that God thought so much of humanity that he insisted on it for himself, I cannot for the life of me understand why we Christians are often the ones most afraid of our humanity, most skittish about our bodies or our passions, quickest to think we must add some “spiritual” component to make an earth-bound good truly good. It was, after all, the Creator who introduced good to our vocabulary, and the Creator spoke this fine word not first over religious texts, theological ideals or evangelistic proclamations. Rather, God the gardener-artist took a gander at purple finches, expansive blue skies, lush honeydew and Adam and Eve’s naked bodies — and God said, Well, look what I did…Now that’s good. Good. Good. Good.

Jesus, as we know, was a Palestinian carpenter who spent his days honing his craft — the lay of the wood’s grain, how the steel blade would sing as it sliced from the proper angle, the smooth lines that told the tale of a master who knows his work. As Jesus took on his more “serious” ministry, we discover that he loved the wild air and took great joy in cooking breakfast at daybreak. Jesus always wanted friends near and entered a fury for those suffering indignity. Jesus wept when death stole a life, and Jesus cared for his mother with his own dying breath.

A beautiful novel, an exquisite meal, a night of good love, a ballgame or a movie with the kids, a traipse across the country, a day’s work at the shop or the office, the studio or the classroom – these are gloriously human acts, filled with possibility and beauty, overrun with God.

If our religion makes us less human, something’s wrong with our religion.

Well, alright. Here we are again. Another morning to wake, God. Another horizon of possibilities, treacheries, love and, to be sure, a little sadness. We never know what a day holds, but usually there’s a bit of each of these in the mix. If possible, Lord, double down on the joy and laughter. I’d appreciate that.

I’ve noticed how a lot of folks have been doing a lot of crazy stuff in your name lately. I guess that’s nothing new for you. I know I’ve contributed to this myself. I do wonder, though, if this weighs heavy on you. I know you carry the weight of the world, but you also carry the weight of our foolishness. I’m sure thankful, but I am sorry. I’m sorry.

There’s one thing I believe, and I’m pretty certain I learned it from you: Love holds us together. All of us. I forget this, but I want to remember. Will you help me remember? It really does change everything.

Alright, we’ve got to get to it now. The day’s calling us. I’ll be watching for Love today, watching for you.

Amen.

tumblr_mtw7pktaK11st5lhmo1_1280

“Well, are you going to kiss me or leave me hurting?” Mary was close, intimately close – but moved no closer. She was not a tease, and this was not a game. This was an honest question. Mary’s fingers intertwined with Simon’s, rubbing the back of his hand with her thumb.

For a good hour, they sat under moonlight, scrunched close as the music worked its groove. Otis and the River Boys would strip a guitar clean and then, without missing a lick, slide into a soulful melody so slow and aching you knew you were in love – even if you weren’t. There was electricity between the couple, their thighs pressed tight. The surging music provided good excuse for them to lean near and whisper in the others’ ear. Are you chilly? Simon asked. Do you want another glass of wine? Can you believe what Otis just did with those chops of his? As the evening progressed, the questions came more often, his lips lingering near Mary’s ear a little longer. The music drove a hard rhythm, but it gave only a tinny dink compared to the thump in Simon’s chest.

The past three years tested their vows. They promised to stay together, to honor one another. There were days when they believed they stayed true only because of the kids, but they both knew it was really something more. They had tasted something, they had known something together. This memory, still alive, gave them enough to live on until fresh light came.

But for a long while now, all had been dark. The bankruptcy and Claire’s death pulled them asunder in ways that shocked them, ways they could not understand. They hadn’t slept together in fourteen months. Conversation was often curt, so much pain between them, so much longing, so much sadness. There are few things more lonely than a soul-deep intimacy that has suddenly grown cold, a desire you know like your own soul – but can no longer set free.

Otis belted a tune of love and hot, long Louisiana nights. Mary watched Simon’s eyes. Simon knew this was going to be a magnificent summer.

long road

Perhaps some of us have a distaste for Lent because our life is already shot through with sorrow. We can’t bear days giving any more weight to what is broken, to all we lack. But Lent, we must remember, is far more than only a way to reckon with the wrong. It is even more a way of priming ourselves for the good. Disconnected as we are from communal rhythms, Lent runs the risk of becoming merely another exhausting exercise in isolated spiritual effort. I’d suggest we let that business go.

These days are a gift to receive, not simply another place where we buckle down and exert our last ounce of self-discipline. These ashen days allow us to welcome those who mourn, those life has bent low, those excluded from a life always lived on the upbeat. In a world of plastic cheer, Lent can provide a much-needed space for hospitality to those who are, for the moment, estranged to joy.

Best of all, Lent provides an extended space for the imagination, a stretch of time to dream of bright sunshine and hearty laughter, to lean toward all the raucous joy to come. Lent is not merely an affirmation of a world shot-to-hell but rather a promise that death’s days are numbered. Sorrow holds claim only to the few, fleeting night hours – but have you ever tried to hold back the morning, to chain the sun? We best ready ourselves for the fire and light. No one can stop the morning. No one can stop life.

Sunday’s text told us that Abraham believed in the God who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. This gives us the heart of Lent. What we know, real as it is, does not rule the day. Whatever is dead, whatever goodness does not yet exist – this is God’s Easter work. This is what we have coming.

Almighty God, whose blessed Son was led by the Spirit to be tempted by Satan: Come quickly to help us who are assaulted by many temptations; and, as you know the weaknesses of each of us, let each one find you mighty to save; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

lonely_tree

The readings for Lent commence with a dark energy even the Coen brothers would find it difficult to match, an apocalyptic-styled standoff set in the barren wild. Jesus and Satan. Forty days of wilderness and hunger, forty days of isolation and deprivation as the Tempter accosted, day and night, the weary Son.

In the sulfur-laced war room of Paradise Regained, Milton’s demons suggest the temptation lead with alluring women and all the tawdry passions, but Satan believed noble motives gave him better odds. In the temptation to turn stone to bread, for instance, the Tempter appears as a shepherd and appeals to Jesus’ mercy. If Jesus would do such a feat, pleaded the shepherd-devil, then Jesus would “comfort us with food, which we wretched people seldom taste.” Our attempts to know what is “good” apart from the God who is goodness itself will inevitably twist themselves inside-out.

Writer and director Denys Arcand’s Jesus of Montreal sets one of the temptations in a penthouse overlooking the Montreal skyline. The Tempter here is a tycoon of the entertainment industry urging Jesus to leverage his notoriety and publish a book that he guarantees will hit the bestseller list. As a writer who’s never likely to see such a list unless I pay $2.50 for a Sunday Times, I’ll admit this scene stung a little.

Jesus, we know, refused every offer. With each answer, Jesus returns to the words and ways of the Father. This is the same Father who, at Jesus’ baptism only days earlier, thundered from the heavens: “You, my dear Son. You’re beloved. And I’m crazy about you.”

I suspect that refusing temptation’s hollow (yet very powerful) siren call has much less to do with grit and rugged resistance and a lot more to do with having ears to hear the voice of love, having a heart supple enough to receive God’s delight flooding toward us.

There are a myriad of reasons we might choose to walk, with the Church, through lenten shadows, but I believe the most powerful call is love.

We love the goodness of life, and we must reckon with how the life we know strikes too many vicious blows against this goodness. We mourn for the wounds we’ve known. We mourn for others who have suffered too much and experienced too little of the beauty. It is necessary to have space for grief, to acknowledge straight-on where the darkness, we insist, must give way to light.

We love our bodies. We are not simply bloated minds, grotesquely extended with only ideas and assertions and theological propositions. Our body aches for ways to encounter what our heart knows – that our life contends with hope, that the promises to which we cling must test their mettle. Our whole person wants to resist evil. We are restless to enact a bold, unflinching no to our own destructive choices. We long to step into the weary but dogged line of courageous rebels, in solidarity with the whole of humanity, digging in our heals, clinching our fists. Our bodies are ready to engage this fight.

We love our world, and all our neighbors in it. In Lent, we do not carry only our sorrows but the sorrows of the world. We make space to sit with the brokenhearted and to grieve with those who fear that they are truly alone, that ruin is their end. Lent will not allow us to pretend that everyone is well. Lent allows us to practice the art of presence.

We love the promise of hope. Lent is the time when our hopes pull taut. The days lengthen (and this is the original meaning of the word lent), and our eyes rise toward the horizon. The muscles stretch. The dimness begins to break. We know brightness will be here soon, and we must hold on. We must be ready for the piercing joy. We will ready ourselves, and we will hold up those who are too weak to face the soon-coming glimmer on their own.

Whatever reason you might enter Lent – for God’s sake, do it for love.

6a01116862b939970c0147e3de7d9e970b-800wi

Last year, a story hit the newswires of a pod of pilot whales floundering in perilously shallow water off the Everglades. Forty or Fifty short-finned whales stuck close to a narrow shoreline, and they were not moving back out to the deep waters, to safety. Several of the blackfish were ill, and this caused real worry among conservationists. Pilot whales are intensely loyal creatures, and when one of their number is sick or in jeopardy, the rest of the pod will not leave. The draw a circle and stay close.

This image – drawing a circle and sticking close – says a lot about the way I want to live, the kind of community I want to live in. I’ve sat with friends as we sifted through the rubble to try to piece their life back together. Friends have sat with me, in long stretches where I had nothing to contribute, where my darkness kept me locked up, closed off. But none of this mattered because we were friends, because we had entered together into a life where each of us were part of the whole. To be a friend means a lot of things, but at the least it has to mean we will not leave. We will stick close.

To be a friend is to be thankful for the joy and to endure the hard, knowing that life ebbs and flows. And if we miss one another in the sorrow, well, then we’ve simply missed one another. Whenever we don’t know what to do with a marriage that’s teetering or a child that’s on the edge or a friendship where’s there’s pain or uncertainty, we can simply draw a circle and stick close. I think we can do that.

Here’s a line from St. Pophyrios of Kavsokalyvia: Whoever wants to become a Christian must first become a poet.

And then here’s where St. Pop sent me: It is not sufficient to accumulate the facts. Someone’s got to sing us a song. Someone’s got to let the poetry loose. Someone’s got to bring the funk.

I’m trying to tend to these ideas with piece for A Deeper Story. I’m not sure if I quite said what I wanted to say, but then that’s part of the poetry, part of the funk.

The morning began with a crash. Miska left the house at 5:45 for Bikram Yoga, and I woke at 6:30 to get breakfast and the boys rolling. Groping for the bathroom light, I knocked over a large Mason jar sitting on the edge of our sink. The jar shattered across our tile floor, and I was suddenly wide awake. Surely you’ve picked up that I am not an efficient or organized man, but I will say that over the years my thirty-minute-school-lunches / breakfast-for-Miska-and-two-boys / herding-Wyatt-out-the-door-for-school routine has become a work of precision that would make any NASCAR pit crew envious.

Today, however, the twenty minutes it took to pick up jagged chunks, scour the floor for the tiniest of slivers, vacuum the carpet next to the bathroom and get mounds of glass into the trash can threw the morning into a frizzy. I dashed about the kitchen tossing lunches together, throwing something that I think resembles breakfast in front of the boys and then spending maddening minutes desperately searching for my keys. I did find them … hanging in the keyhole of our front door where they had been all night, an invitation to all comers. Miska loves it when I do that.

I did get Wyatt to school just before the bell, but when I walked back into our front door, Seth (who goes to school 45 minutes later) greeted me. “Dad, we have a serious problem.”

I understand that last week’s snow storm frustrated many of Cupid’s escapades, and this was certainly the case for Charlottesville’s elementary students. Since school was cancelled, there was no party with chocolate kisses and no exchange of valentines. This was disappointing because Seth bought a box of valentines that included, with each, a self-applied mustache tattoo. Seth is a 4th grade romantic hipster bad-boy.

At any rate, the powers that be determined valentines would be exchanged today, and over the weekend Seth assembled his to distribute. However, upon review this morning, Seth realized he had left out two of his classmates. “I’ve got to get two more valentines, Dad. I have to. And I have more in the box.”

“Great,” I answered. “Go get them.”

“Well…the box is in the trash”

This, mind you, is days-old trash flush with rancid remains, wet coffee grounds and old pizza. This is the trash that is now full of sharp bits of glass strewn throughout. This is a Level One Hazmat scenario.

I grabbed a couple white 3 x 5 cards and handed them to Seth. “Buddy, you’re going to have to use these and make two more valentines. I’m not digging into that trash.”

But of course, I did. Seth was distraught, and that does this ol’ dad in. This will almost certainly be the last year we have a boy handing out valentines to his classmates, and while that’s a small thing, I think most of the beauty in our lives is made up of the small things.

Besides, you can’t let a mustache tattoo go to waste.

 

 

Jean-Christophe Verhaegen

Jean-Christophe Verhaegen

A Christian has every reason to love this good old world. And I do not mean love merely in an ethical sense or as an act of Christian duty. I mean we, of all people, should be the ones most ravaged by the pink glow above the Blue Ridge on a crisp morning, the ones who linger the longest in front of a canvas colored with life, the first to delight in a French Cabernet or a slice of potato sourdough drizzled with wild honey. When we read how Virgil has died in the war and how Hannah must now brave her days alone and raise their daughter who will never know her daddy, we have reason to be first to wince at the pain, the first to give thanks for the power of the story and the first to sit with a tear and at least a little awe for the one who could tell us such a tale.

This world, with its land and its people, was God’s idea. God was the Creator who, at every twist along the way, couldn’t help himself, exclaiming over and again, “Good. Good. Good.” Then, when the whole shebang was done, God clapped his hands and let out a big guffaw and said, “Well, now I’ve done it. This, friends, is real good.”

Old Uncle Jack, one of Berry’s numerous characters teaching us how to be human, how to be a neighbor, spouse and friend, “lived all his life loving solid objects.” Old Jack took God at his word.

God said, “Now, this is good.” And Old Jack answered, “Don’t you know it.”