When we are wrought with some debilitating fear, crushed by guilt for a failure or indiscretion, perhaps when we’re teetering with anxiety over all that could go wildly wrong – I get the sense that sometimes God simply does not care.

I do not mean that God forgets how, in God’s deep being, he exists as love. I do not mean that God abandons his tender attention toward the slightest spaces of our lives, treating us with the gentleness known only by the One who counts every hair on our head and makes certain even the lilies of the field have all they need. Rather, I mean that God provides us a gift, allowing us to encounter how the things that seek to unravel us are simply not as powerful or important as we’ve imagined. They are far less significant than the steady love that holds us.

I imagine God listens tenderly to our run amok mind, letting us spill clean, gathering it all. Then, I imagine God giving a slight shrug of the shoulders, tilting his head, tenderness in his eyes. Ah, that’s no biggie. Save that energy. You may actually need it one of these days.

Running on 5th Street this morning, I spotted one of Charlottesville’s Finest from the motorcycle patrol unit moving slow in traffic ahead of me. Tall, beefy and toned, the officer’s biceps bulged from his uniform. The Kevlar vest fitted under his shirt added to his intimidating dimensions, making it obvious this officer worked the gym, not the donuts. The officer wore solid black, from his taut shirt to his black pants down to his thick leather boots .

The officer pulled to a stop light. His beast of a machine, merely idling, sounded hungry. The muscular officer, firearm strapped to his side. The cycle grumbling. A man not to be tangled with.

Pulling closer, my ears caught tunes pulsing from the bike’s radio. Would you believe the officer had Pharrell Williams belting “Happy”? I may have even seen his leather boot tapping the asphalt.

Joy is everywhere.

Dancing

fence tree yard

In several unrelated settings recently, I’ve heard people describe (with immense gratitude) their spiritual community as “safe.” This struck me as odd and beautiful. Odd because one rarely hears safe attached to church. It is true of course that too often church is the last place we encounter unflinching acceptance that invites us to express eviscerating doubt, paralyzing fear or the numbing loneliness that a sermon and song could never fix (an inexplicable predicament when our prayers and worship are shaped by the Psalter, the most uncensored religious text I could imagine) — but none of that’s exactly what I mean. I simply mean that safe is rarely a religious word. It’s simply not part of the eclessial lexicon. Maybe it should be.

In each of these conversations, the person had encountered something generous, something spacious and healing in the rhythms, posture and tenderness of their spiritual circle. Best I could understand, they found room to breathe, room to be themselves, even if the selves they are right now seems to have little to offer and arrives as a Grade A mess. They knew the joy of the slow knowledge (over time) that their community possessed the strength and the patience to bear their full selves, that they would be honored and would receive tenderness and would never be shamed. There was room to be playful and to fail and to have a long stretch where their head’s just not right and they are not “productive” members. They’ve been told that their mere presence is enough, that it’s a gift – and they’ve slowly begun to believe it. So safe might be odd, but it’s also so, so beautiful.

Many of us live in fear of being exposed. Exposed for not being as smart as people think we might be or expect us to be. We fear what would happen if someone saw us in the true muck, at our absolute worst. We fear (particularly in church settings) what will happen if we ‘fess up to the shadow themes in our story or let loose with the questions that haunt us. We play the charade because we lack courage, and perhaps we lack courage because no one else has courage. Perhaps we are all afraid together. Perhaps none of us feel safe. Perhaps we are all alone, in the same big room.

So when someone tells me they have found a safe place, I perk up. I want to belong to a safe community. I want to be a safe person for others.

Most nights, I go to each boy’s bedside and tell them goodnight. I make a slight sign of the cross on their forehead, bless them, say a short prayer for love and rest, tussle their hair and kiss them on the cheek. There are nights when I do this with fatherly joy. There are also nights when, because they are 10 and 11 and have mastered the children’s equivalent of digging their bony elbow into my rawest nerve, I do this in faith, trusting the love I know is there.

One might hope that one’s sons, over the many years enacting this ritual, would sense a little of the gravity and maybe even begin to cherish these moments. I’m not asking my two sons to pit themselves against one another, like Esau and Jacob, scheming or pleading for my better blessing. I’d simply like them to put down Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix or my collector’s edition of Calvin and Hobbes which they took without asking and actually notice that their father loves them, blast it.

Several weeks ago, I was in the room of my youngest. Sign of the cross, prayer, kiss on the cheek. “Good night, bud,” I said, hand on his head. Seth looked up, as if my voiced pulled him out of a fascinating dream sequence. Seth began to chuckle. “What?” I asked.

“Uhmmm…” Seth’s smile broke wide, more laughter. “I wasn’t really paying attention.”

Of course, this is where I jerked my hand away, leveled my most shaming look and slowly backed out of his room in disgust. Such a disappointment, this distracted, childish son of mine.

Ridiculous. I actually chuckled too, gave Seth another pat on the head. I probably asked him what girl was tiptoeing through his mind. I told Seth I loved him and left him to his sweet fantasies until the next night when we’d cue the whole spiel again. Obviously there was nothing heroic here, just how most any dad would respond to his goofball son being a goofball son.

Yet some of us think God a worse father than this. Somehow, many of us have learned to live in shame (or terror) of the ways we believe we disappoint the One who loves us. We live on the razor edge, vigilant over our every action, every motive, every belief. We’re so fearful that we’ll forget to pay attention, and heaven knows we can’t let that happen.

I believe God would love to chuckle with us in these moments. Keeping a close watch, getting things correct – these are not the center. Love is the center. “But still,” says Hafiz, “God is delighted and amused you once tried to be a saint.”

Every so often (but not as often as I’d like), when the moon is just so or there’s been a little too much wine a little too late in the evening, I find my way back to this recurring dream.

We live in a village, an odd place nestled amid the lush green and rolling hills of the Shenandoah but also surrounded by the Rocky’s rugged ridges where aspens stand sentinel. We grow strawberries, apples and blackberries in the valley, but most afternoons we fill our knapsacks to overflowing and walk above the timberline for lunch with a view. Our neighborhood swimming hole is a high mountain lake, a spot we call Blue Magic. Many, wide-eyed, have reeled in their first trout at Blue Magic. Many, wide-eyed, have felt love’s first fire under the stars on a sensuous summer night. At this place, life blossoms.

We live on Maple St., a winding avenue lined with century-old oaks and swaths of verdant Midnight Kentucky Blue Grass surrounding every Craftsman cottage. Our little half-acre has a name, as do all the homes in our village. The hand carved wood sign attached next to the deep purple door on our wide, shaded front porch reads Elm Grove, but most of our friends simply refer to it as Elm. “Dinner at Elm tonight,” they’ll say. Or “Gonna run over to Elm to trade out books.” Our friends surround us, as friends should. Their homes, like their lives, create what we mean whenever we say neighborhood. Two doors down sits The Fable House. Across the street, you’ll find Casa del Amor and Shalom. One block behind us, The Abbey and River Stone. Each home a place filled with laughter, a place where we know ourselves more than we could ever have known ourselves on our own.

Each of us works our trade. I have a little writing shed behind our cottage, fitted just between Miska’s herb garden and the three-level tree fort Wyatt and Seth built. The fort’s a little cattywampus, but nobody cares. I craft my novels the first half of the week and craft my sermon the second, though these two acts overlap more than some prefer. I visit parishioners, but I just think of it as visiting friends.

If you’re rolling your eyes because this sounds sweet and idyllic, hold on for one more bit: the first Friday night during Spring and Summer, we take turns at each others’ place for a homemade ice cream fest (the hand-churned sort) with every conceivable flavor: chocolate chip, strawberry, peanut butter mocha, caramel apple – all loaded with fresh cream and piled high. We eat bowl after bowl, and we never gain an ounce.

Give a man his dream.

Glorious, glorious spring has arrived in Charlottesville, and all the Colliers are clapping our hands in delight and gratitude. On Saturday we pulled out the bikes and made a family caravan, like a line of eager ducks, downtown to the outdoor City Market. Each weekend, the Market takes over an expansive parking lot and packs in vendor’s booths, tight as sardines. Organic plants (three tomatoes, one red pepper and two basil for us), fresh produce, baked goods (Wyatt scarfed a blueberry muffin nearly as big as his face), those dangerous handcrafted tacos (line stretching at least half a block) and every manner of artisan craft (jewelery, paintings, woodwork, you name it). It’s a marvelous mess of creation, humanity and goodness.

After Wyatt picked out his colossal-sized muffin, I went to pay and found myself among a small crush pressed tight between two vendors, one tempting us with an assortment of fluffy biscuits, the other displaying tarts and pound cake and cookies. A perilous spot. I stood behind an elderly woman, in her eighties I suspect. She was tall, but slightly stooped. She wore a faded denim shirt, full sleeves and a dark blue skirt flowing nearly to the ground. Her silver hair touched her shoulders, a beauty undiminished by her aged frame and her shuffling movement.

Attempting to step away from the table, the matron turned toward me. She caught me unawares, and I simply froze. We met face to face, only two or three inches separating us. Without a hiccup or any hesitation, she smiled, big blue eyes. She put her finger up right at my goatee. “My, my,” she chuckled. Her kind, raspy voice barely more than a whisper. “Isn’t that a cute mustache.” And then she moved past me.

That exchange, those words, have brought me joy for the past two days. A very human moment, right up close. It was the most natural thing for that dear woman to put her hand to my face, to hold my eyes with hers, to speak a word of delight. My only regret is that I wish I’d possessed the presence of body and soul that she carried so easily. I wish I had kissed her on her cheek.

Countryside Milky Way

In John’s gospel, each time Jesus encounters his friends and disciples during the wild days immediately after his resurrection, he pronounces a new reality, a blessing: Peace to you. Jesus does not speak these words in tepid piety, clinging desperately to a hope that peace might one day arrive. Rather, Jesus stands bold and strong, a Man drenched in victory. When you have descended into the depths of Hades and delivered a piercing, fatal blow to death itself, I suppose you are done with the niceties, disinterested in vague spiritual platitudes. You must speak the unadorned truth. Peace.

For us, the word peace can carry too docile a tone. As you know, peace emerges from the Hebrew word shalom which evokes well-being, an end of hostilities, the world made right. Shalom does not suggest (for it would be insanity if it did) that there is no such thing as violence, isolation, relational rubble, economic devastation or systemic injustice. Rather, shalom (whenever declared by Jesus and enacted by Jesus’ community through the Spirit) announces that the order of the world, because of Jesus’ Triumph, has met its match.

In those first post-resurrection days, Jesus did not suggest to the disciples that their life, hard-scrabble as it was, would soon all turn up tulips and lilies. Jesus told Mary Magdalene not to cling to him, surely inflicting confusion and anxiety. Soon enough, Jesus’ teaching about the persecution and hardships his followers would endure became the disciples’ reality. Yet Jesus declared shalom. Shalom in the midst of (not escape from) the world as it actually was, in desperate need of God’s transformation.

Shalom does not mean we deny all that lies shattered around us. Neither does it mean we escape into some internal privatized spirituality, not knowing how else to make sense of the harsh discontinuity between God’s shalom and our ruins. Rather, shalom means that God stands bold and strong in the dead center of our weary lives and speaks the reality – that God is with us, that God will not leave us, that one day the story will come to God’s good end.

Shalom means we can join with St. Julian of Norwich, “All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.”

poem in pocket

As you surely know, the Academy of American Poets has christened today National Poem in Your Pocket Day. The idea is to take poetry to the streets, carrying a poem with you, in your jacket or pants as well as in your imagination. Let the words linger. Let them play with you. Take an extra copy and pass the good word along to an unsuspecting coworker or seatmate on the bus.

I asked my friend (and one of my favorite poets) John Blase to pen us a short verse that we could carry with us today. He was generous to oblige. Tuck this away, take it with you.

A Fine Thing

A poem is a fine thing
to carry around in your pocket,
that and a few pennies to hand
children having complete nuclear
meltdowns near grocery store doors
because their exhausted mothers
don’t have any small change for
Champion the mechanized stallion.
Just smile and say ‘here ya go’
then walk away. If you linger
you’ll break the spell of kindness,
and shame will worm its way in
to cheapen your gift. Most people
live on the shame aisle. So just go
on about your business and leave
a mother and a child charmed.

Easter Sunday was Simon’s favorite day of the year. This was new because for most of his life, it had been Thanksgiving.

When the family was young, Thanksgiving meant laughter and stuffed bellies and football at the city park. Once the kids flew the coop, Thanksgiving provided the one time of year when everyone found their way back home. They rendezvoused at their Appalachian cabin and blew the weekend gorging on country ham and Mary’s famous yeast rolls. They sat by the fire, on the porch swings and on the lakeside dock, reading novels they’d swapped or catching up on the months they’d been apart. They picked up their decade-long Spades tournament, keeping a long-running tally on a legal pad sitting atop the fridge. No one knew what score they were playing to, nobody cared. They took meandering walks among the Hickories and the White Pines. On Saturday night, they went into town for Uncle Carter’s famous BBQ and then to The Rusty Nail for local mountain music. Thanksgiving carved out a haven of joy and simplicity.

Since Mary died, however, things were not so simple.

One might think that Simon gravitated to Easter because of the story of resurrection, the possibility that Simon might one day hold Mary again. The fact is Simon was not drawn to Easter so much because of what it said about the dead but because of what it said about the living.

The first Easter after Mary died, Simon sat in a pew toward the back corner. Mary had only been dead three weeks, and it was late Easter morning before Simon decided to actually show up for the service at St. Thomas. He didn’t want anybody telling him to say Allelulia. He didn’t want to make a joyful noise. He didn’t want to endure a boisterous homily. Jesus may have walked out of the grave, but Mary lay underneath six feet of cold dirt.

When the Reader read the Gospel text, however, Simon noticed how all the characters were running everywhere, frantic, and it amused him. Mary Magdalene running to the two disciples, then Peter sprinting off to the tomb, only to be overtaken by another disciple whose jet speed forever ensconced Peter as the brunt of Easter-sermon humor. All the running struck Simon as funny, and he chuckled, louder than he wished. Folks on nearby rows raised their heads and looked his way. The Reader seemed startled for a moment before she regained composure.

Patrick, Simon and Mary’s oldest son, had always been in a hurry, always forgetting something. At least twice a month, Patrick would leave his lunch or homework or tennis racket he needed for practice. He’d dial his mom or dad, asking them to make an emergency trip to school. Twice, when Patrick went backpacking with friends, he called Simon from the trailhead two hours away, once needing his sleeping bag and once his hiking boots. The last phone call caught Simon on a stressful weekend as a publisher’s deadline loomed. After a terse conversation, Simon slammed the phone. “What’s wrong with this kid? He busts around without a care in the world, expecting someone else to pick up his life. The boy needs to slow down, I swear…”

Mary stood at the kitchen counter, holding her tea. She watched Simon and smiled. Simon knew that look. He knew wisdom, ever so irritating in moments like this, was coming. “You know, Simon,” and Mary paused. She liked to pause when she knew she had Simon’s attention. “Patrick forgets because his life is so full, he can’t keep track of all the good things. I hope he keeps forgetting a few details as long as he possibly can. The chaos means he’s living.”

Simon did not know why the resurrection reading carried him to this memory. It must have been the chaos, the frantic running. Simon laughed, interrupting the reverent worship, receiving confused stares. Maybe Mary Magdalene and the disciples scurried about because, on that shocking morning, their life just took off without them, insisting they catch up. Maybe their circuits overloaded with all the previously unthinkable possibilities. Maybe they were invigorated with the brilliance of how much life mattered, how much their life mattered. In the first Easter story, Jesus’ grave split open, and this meant everybody needed to get moving, get busy living.

That afternoon, Simon dialed up Patrick, just to say hello and that he’d been thinking about him. Then Simon poured a dark cup of coffee, sat on his back porch as the sun warmed his face and wrote the first page of a new novel.

My earliest years were spent on a ranch in Tennessee. My co-conspirator Wil lived next door, and we enjoyed an idyllic childhood. There were horses and ranch hands, thousands of acres stretching over hills and woods all the way up to Lookout Point. The vast land brimmed with stories of Indian lore, the sort that would make a young boy’s hair stand up, wild stories that would convince him, especially on deep summer nights, that he saw ghosts from the old tribes.

Wil owned a pony named Snowflake that grazed in a small pasture just behind his house. Snowflake was docile enough, but she possessed a minor mean streak that, for some inexplicable reason, flared up around me. I have this effect on certain creatures. One afternoon, we saddled the pony for Wil to take a ride, and when he returned, Wil handed me the reigns before he went inside. I hopped atop the miniature steed, eager for my opportunity to enact fantasies of Wyatt Earp or Kit Carson.

I couldn’t have been in the saddle more than two or three minutes when the pony turned stubborn. I insisted on at least a gallant trot; Snowflake insisted she meander. Meander? How could a law man ride into the blazing thick of a frontier range war with a horse who will only grunt and crunch on weeds? I was the boss here, and I’d have none of this insolence. I gripped the reigns and gave Snowflake a swift kick to the flank. The next few seconds were a blur. I remember an angry snort. I remember a lurching sensation, my stomach jumping to my throat. I remember being launched, like those times at the pool when my dad would catapult me from his shoulders high into the air.

I woke up flat on my back, the sun warming my face, a large horsefly buzzing near my head. I don’t know how long I had been out, but Snowflake stood lazily across the field, munching and content. I stood up, muscles throbbing. I wobbled several steps to pick up my Stetson cowboy hat. Gingerly, I walked to the pony and picked up the reigns dangling on the ground, leading her, humbly, back toward the house.

For the next week, I walked sore, battle scars of a man who’d been bucked from the back of a wild mare and lived to tell the tale. This was the summer of legend.