I once read a poet I admire insist that if he had his way, he would write in isolation, anonymous. No one would even read his work until perhaps centuries later when someone stumbled upon his unsigned verse in the musty library of an old monastery. He would never be part of the give and take, that unique relationship between writer and reader. He would never have his name attached to his work, the signature that says, These are the words I have born into the world, for better or worse. This is the work that has been my labor and my pleasure. Who am I to critique another man’s dream, but for my two cents, this anonymous business is poppycock.

While I absolutely write for me (writing is often my way of prayer; writing is one of those few things I simply must do in this world), I also absolutely write for you. I am not merely doing art for art’s sake, but I hope and pray I’m also doing art for your sake. The truth is that (because I could not help myself) I would write even if no one ever read, even if I could never publish a book or scratch out a magazine piece for print, even if no one would ever receive what I had to give. I would write, but my writing would not be complete. You are required for that.

When I was seven, my mom gave me an old Sanger traveling salesman typewriter. Even as a young boy, she saw a glimmer of something in me, and I will always be grateful that she paid attention and encouraged me to bang out sentences. Immediately, I loaded a sheet of onion skin paper and began to hammer out my memoir titled My Life. I only completed 1/3 of a page before I ran out of material, but I immediately went searching for the next word. And I haven’t stopped since.

Over the past few days, something has returned to me again and again: deep gratitude to each of you who, in receiving my words, have encouraged me to keep searching. I’m grateful for those of you who have said “Thank you, this mattered to me” and those of you who’ve pushed back and made me work harder. It is a mysterious grace to me that there are a handful of folks in this world who buy my books and read my articles and return to these pages regularly, kind folks I can think of as “my readers.” This is no small thing. I wish I had something more eloquent to offer you, but what I feel, very profoundly, right now is this: Thank you.

The Annunciation_Francesco Mochi

But Mary was very perplexed by Gabriel’s words…’How can this be, since I am a virgin?’… {Mary}

I love the story of God born to a virgin because of how utterly outrageous it is. If we were aiming to create a religion perfectly suited for the modern mind, we failed with gusto. Our vast intellect, rigorous experimentation and unflagging chutzpah have conquered the moon, polio and more than a few mysteries of the atom. We have debunked old delusions and learned to snicker at the naivete of older generations. And if we know anything at all, it’s this: virgins don’t have babies.

Of course, this brilliant observation would not be news to Jews of the first century – or to anyone at anytime for that matter. Our primal urges as well as our survival as a human population means that, in every age, we possess a clear understanding of at least the basic components required for a child to find its way into a woman’s belly. Yet here we have our first story of Jesus, and it is absolutely ridiculous.

When we review Jesus’ life, however, we know that his arrival simply had to be absurd. Everything Jesus would teach us, every way he would move in this world, would be entirely nonsensical to the established truths and entrenched powers. If we think the virgin birth was Jesus’ most ludicrous moment, we’re not paying attention.

But the question for us, the tension this story and all Jesus’ stories create for us, is this: will I receive the absurd and fantastic love of God? Will I, like Mary, say, Here I am, crazy as it sounds. I’m in. And will we stay put so that we can welcome with wide arms the joy, the love, the wonder?

I treasure the story because it forces me to ask: When the mystery of God’s love breaks through into my consciousness, do I run from it? Do I ask of it what it cannot answer? Shrugging, do I retreat into facile clichés…Or am I virgin enough to respond from my deepest, truest self, and say something new, a “YES” that will change me forever? {Kathleen Norris}

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This reflection comes from the Gospel reading from this week’s lectionary: Luke 1:46-55. Many thanks to John Blase and Kelly Hausknecht Chripczuk for being my cohorts this Advent. 

I hope that you play and laugh, that you give and receive much love over these next few days. Have a very merry Christmas.

Capadocian Freco 11th Cent

From this day, all generations will call me blessed… {The Virgin Mary}

On this third week of Advent, the virgin Mary sings her song. This courageous woman bore, through sweat, ridicule and the travail of her own body, the One who would save us all. It is no small thing that in a world where men controlled every sphere of power it was a woman who carried the hope of the world.

To be sure, Mary was no passive woman only familiar with the way of the meek and mild. Mary knew a fierce gentleness. She sang of how her child would overthrow empires and unravel systems of injustice — even as she sang hope over all who were hungry, all who were desperate for help, all who had been cut low by the grief of life. Mary was a friend to the weary and a threat to the powers. Women of tenderness and strength always are.

Today, I cannot think of Mother Mary without thinking of my own mother, the wonderful woman who carried me into existence, the woman who nurtured me and prayed over me, the good woman who released me into my future with more than a few tears. I think of the woman who shares my life, the woman who labored so that our two boys might know this world, a woman who labors over them still.

It is a costly thing to surrender your body so that another might live. Jesus knows this, but Mary knows this as well. Mary bore our one hope into this world, a cosmos shot through with both wonder and misery. No wonder we call her, even as she foretold, the Blessed Mother.

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Each Monday during Advent, John Blase, Kelly Hausknecht Chripczuk and I reflect on the same Advent text from the week’s lectionary. This week, it’s Luke 1:46-55, Mary’s Magnificat.

starry night

Get you up to a high mountain,
     O Zion, herald of good tidings;
lift up your voice with strength,
     O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings,
     lift it up, do not fear;
say to the cities of Judah,
     “Here is your God!”
       {Isaiah}

The prophet’s words on the opening days of Advent gave the body an alarming jolt. Anger and indignation. Disillusionment and fatigue. These are not revelations I expect to find printed on any of the holiday cards or included in any of the annual Christmas letters that will soon cover our kitchen blackboard. Advent leads us to joy, but first it reckons with the grief. And we’ve had more than a small share of grief in recent weeks, haven’t we? There are moments when I do wonder whether we will make it, whether this old world might not just release a final, death-rattle gasp and release us into the dark.

But the prophet who weeps is also the prophet who refuses to surrender hope. Isaiah, after the tears and the sorrows have their proper say, kneels beside the haggard woman, the broke-down man. Isaiah drapes his arm around weary shoulders and whispers into tired ears, Get up, now. Get up. This is not where it ends. We have work to do. And the work is to announce good tidings.

When the time has come (and only then – but absolutely then), we dry our tears. We shake the soot and the ashes from our head and our heart. We grab the weathered hands of those around us, and we sing. Our shaky voices unite in a happy song of protest and faith. We drench the cold night with a melody that heralds our stubborn insistence: We are not forgotten. Here is our God!

As God’s people, we weep and mourn over the world’s travails, over our own regrets and sadness. We do not peddle false fantasies. However, far more, we are belligerent in hope. We sing the glad song with tenacious, raspy voices. We cry into the dark. It is not only angels who bring good tidings of great joy. This work is ours as well. So, we lift up our hearts. And we sing.

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Each Monday during Advent, John Blase, Kelly Hausknecht Chripczuk and I reflect on the same Advent text from the week’s lectionary. This week, it’s Isaiah 40:1-11.

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O that you would tear open the heavens and come down… {Isaiah}

Whenever Advent becomes the parlance of The Economy or The Industry (especially the Christian industry), we can be certain the Advent known by frightened shepherds and half-crazed prophets, the Advent familiar to a gutsy virgin and a threadbare people, has grown (to some degree) estranged to us. Advent’s force does not arrive via strategically orchestrated initiatives, certainly not from a writer’s well-timed Advent series. The very best we can do is hold tight and try not to mangle the whole affair while we wait for the mystery to happen.

Advent’s force does not answer cue, bidden by the craft of preacher, activist or entrepreneur. Advent first pierces the cold air as a desperate groan from those living at the jagged edges, from those who taste sorrow’s bitterness, those accustomed to the crush of disappointment, of fear. Advent comes first for those who have made a wreck of things, those who carry a legitimate complaint, for those whose existence teeters on the brink. If you do not know any pain, if you have no yearning for what is not yet true, if you have no pang of grief for your sorrow or the sorrow of another…if there is no raw, raspy voice somewhere in the hollows of your soul that every now and again whispers into the ravaging night, God, please…Please tear the heavens and come down… then some of what Advent offers will always stand remote for you.

And this is okay; it simply means you’re not yet ready. But tuck this in your pocket because someday… someday you will be.

Israel cried out for Yahweh to rend the skies, to move, to act — precisely because God was not acting. For generations, God had gone silent, and Israel, fearful that their history and their future might finally be extinguished, begged God to do what God had done for the ancients. On Sinai, the mountain trembled under the weight of the Voice, and on Sinai, Israel (besieged by the thunder and the darkness and the deluge) trembled as well. On Sinai, the people’s terror was so great that they wanted nothing to do with this God who cracks the sky, and they pleaded for Moses to deal with God and leave them be. But now the fear of ruin loomed larger than the fear of thunder. Now Israel stood desperate for God to act, to speak, to do anything that might assure them they were not abandoned.

And God would act. The Heavens would rip asunder so Love could descend. But now is not the time for that story, not yet. This is the moment for the groan, for the question of whether we will survive, the moment to wonder if there will be anything left of us at all.

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Each Monday during Advent, John Blase, Kelly Hausknecht Chripczuk and I will reflect on the same Advent text from the week’s lectionary. This week, it’s Isaiah 64:1-9.

The past months have been dark and difficult for our home, Charlottesville, Virginia. The murder of Hannah Graham in September sent the community into mourning. Last week, Rolling Stone published an investigative article detailing a gang rape at a frat house party, but beyond this, the expose pointed to a broader systemic failure to believe and protect victims. (Severe Trigger Warning for this article should you choose to read. When I first read the article, I had to set it aside and return to it later.) There is outrage here at the University and in the city, as there should be. Institutions face a powerful temptation to maintain equilibrium, but this is an occasion where at least a few leaders need to lose their cool and light a fire and where everyone in power needs to make justice and truth their first priority.

This is not at all about only UVA; cities and universities everywhere face these horrors. However, this is also not only about the crimes but about our wider cultural impulse where sex-as-objectification exists as the norm. Other people (and their bodies) are often little more than material for us to use and then discard at will. We learn a lot of truth from our clichés: sex sells. It is not lost on me that this article came from Rolling Stone, and while I’m thankful that they brought evils to light, I can’t forget how the Stone has sold more than a few issues with overtures to sensationalized and dehumanizing sexuality.

In this one moment, I want to speak to my fellow men. Can we have a collective backbone and stand up to create a different reality? Can we become men of integrity and character who are a safe community for women? Can we have true friendships with women, where they know that we want nothing from them other than their true self, their heart and their soul and their wisdom and strength, their imagination, their laughter?

Can we throw down the hammer when another man in our company demeans a women or objectifies her or uses power in ways that harm rather than heal? Can we return to our best ideals? Can we help one another become better men? Can we have courage and learn again what it means to love, to give rather than take?

 

If you ever have the good fortune, as I have, to spend time at AA meetings, you will quickly learn that most of the pretense gets checked at the door. Sitting in the room on those grey metal folding chairs listening as each person speaks out their name and their struggle (without hesitation or excuse) levels a powerful jolt. In the circle sits high-octane surgeons, influential politicians, retirees on social security, wide-eyed college students, tenured professors, homeless men, stay-at-home moms, clergy. Desperation serves as the great equalizer.

In AA, you reckon with stark choices: lie and toss a match on your combustible life or tell it straight and move toward wholeness. There’s no secret sauce to AA’s impact, just a good dose of reality and a room of people courageous enough to face it head on. I once asked someone to explain to me the essentials for an AA meeting. “Just grab a couple alcoholics and your own coffee pot.”

I am not an alcoholic, but I love these spaces. Most of us spend so much of our energy trying to convince others of our power, success, skill or wit, it’s a beautiful and freeing thing to be in a room where the shared truth is how everyone believes that left to ourselves, the one thing we can count on is a fantastic train-wreck.

This conviction sits at the heart of Christian faith: we need help. Amazing then, isn’t it, how much effort we exert polishing our pristine image, how much anxiety we carry as we attempt to tamp down our distress or cover for the fact that we’re a bumbling mess. As St. Anne (Lamott) says, “My only hope and salvation is that I’m not left to my own devices, and to my own best thinking, and our collective best thinking…Botox is our best thinking, along with drones.” But we are not alone. God is with us, and help is near. We only need to be honest enough to admit we need it.

snow hut

When I was young, a Christian who was supposed to understand such things insisted that putting much attention to this scorched and bedraggled world was like polishing the deck of the Titanic. The sentiment didn’t sit right with me, but I couldn’t say exactly why. In the same way, I could not explain why every time I sighted the jagged grandeur of the Rocky Mountains, I felt consumed with reverent joy. I could not explain why each time I walked into the Grand Canyon it was as though a thundering beauty swallowed me whole.

Why did I crave to know the stories of the street where I lived, the histories of the families who were our neighbors and kin? Why did I take such pleasure in Lolita’s tamales and Miss Alma’s banana pudding (the cold version, with Nilla wafers and whipped cream, of course)? Why did Appalachian melodies sink into my body, a kind of holy haunting? Why did those marvelous books with words like flint strike wonder in my soul? If this whole shebang was only a temporary shell lurching toward a final apocalyptic fireball, why did all of it feel like grace?

But then I remembered the first Scripture I was ever taught, the truth my mother and father gave to me before I could walk or speak: For God so loved the world. I heard these words again. I heard these enchanted words anew. God loves this world, and I was simply caught up in the affair.

We have a simple task, and a happy one. Some say that we should concentrate upon this world as though God did not exist. We say rather that we should concentrate upon this world lovingly because it is full of God… {Alexander Schmemann}

Creation is nothing less than the manifestation of God’s hidden being. {Philip Sherrard}

I have lost my wedding ring. Twice. The first occasion was in the first year of our marriage. The ring disappeared at some point in the middle of a volleyball game, probably during one of my monstrous strikes where sheer power and velocity ripped the metal from my fingers. Probably. A group of friends, on hands and knees, scoured the ground with me until, to my great relief, we found the ring. The second time was years later in South Carolina. I could not pinpoint the timing, but my best guess was that it slipped off my hand while mowing the lawn. After days of searching and the kindness of a friend with his metal detector (I have very interesting friends), I conceded that my wedding band was finally gone.

We had planned to save up and purchase a new ring, but two years later we had yet to swing it. For her 35th birthday, Miska wanted a second tattoo, and she requested that I get inked with her — a wedding band tattooed on my finger. Something permanent, forever unthreatened by my penchant for losing things. So long as I never tangled with the Chicago mafia, this ring should never, ever slip away from me.

At the time, tattoos were illegal in South Carolina, so we drove to Athens, Georgia to have the work done by an artist who hung his needle at the Midnight Iguana. The experience inflicted less pain than I anticipated, and the adventure provided a weekend of joy and romance with Miska. The symbol of my love and commitment forever seared into my body.

Over the years, the tattoo has launched many conversations. More than once, after a person clarifies that my tat is indeed a wedding band, they look at me with incredulity and ask, “But what if you get divorced? That’s really permanent” – as if my ink appeared in Vegas after a bender with no consideration for the inevitability that some day I’d regret the foolishness. I can’t tell you how much joy I receive from what follows. I look them in the eye and say, “Oh, that’s the point. Nobody’s getting this. I’m a goner, for life.” Typically, they respond to my effusive conviction with even more dubiousness. They raise their eyebrows. They take on a tone like a parent talking to a child about the Easter Bunny, affirming my very, very sweet sentiment. Once a hotel clerk visibly smirked, rolled his eyes and exhaled an under-the-breath chuckle laced with mockery.

I do not care. I’ve given my life away. This little patch of ink provides only one of the simple reminders.

 

Several years ago, my pastor reflected on what he believed to be the most pernicious temptation for those in ministry. He did not mention sex scandals, financial impropriety or theological heresy. Rather, his prime concern was one word: ambition. The desire to achieve, to build a movement or grow a church or be revered as a leader with real savvy — all these seductions are particularly vexing because they appear so noble. If a pastor siphons church funds to build a vacation home in Miami or pursues a string of affairs with parishioners, these transgressions are easy to rebuke. So long as the church grows and the stats trend upward, however, the scenario fits our Western model of inevitable spiritual progression and, because of this, resists deeper discernment.

Yet we do have cues indicating how we pastors have surrendered our calling. If a pastor always has to have the first (or final) word…if a pastor always pushes for more, for bigger and faster — and never encourages anyone to slow down… if a pastor never has time for a slow, meaningful conversation…if a pastor never exits preaching-mode…if a pastor induces fear or nervousness or icky-reverence but never kinship… if a pastor never trembles before a text or quotes a line of poetry or offers those immensely spiritual words: “I don’t know.”… if a pastor never says “I love you” in ways that do not manipulate but come tender and flow deep into your soul… if a pastor’s ego fills up every room he enters…

I highlight pastors because our errors seem particularly egregious and especially difficult to call out. However, similar things could be said for those of us who are writers, for entrepreneurs, for plumbers, for teachers, for PTA members, for any of us who are consumed by the greed for accolades, driven by the lust for successful performance. Whenever achievement is our end, then our end will ruin us. And it will wound all those in our path.

A publisher once asked Thomas Merton to write a piece on the “The Secret of Success,” and he refused. “If I had a message to my contemporaries,” Merton wrote, “it was surely this: Be anything you like, be madmen, drunks, and bastards of every shape and form, but at all costs avoid one thing: success…”

I don’t entirely understand how to parse this. It is not as though failure is a preferred virtue. I suspect, however, that we intuitively know what Merton means. We know, in our age of unbridled ambition, how this way of being in the world rakes our soul bare. We know the pride and the vaunted hubris. We know that it wearies us. We know that we want something better.