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.

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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.

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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.”

Our first two years of marriage, when we lived in Tallahassee, Florida, Miska worked in the office of the Speaker of the House. Miska kept the staff’s schedules, greeted politicians and lobbyists and expended her energy grinding out the administrative minutia that push forward the rusty wheels of government. Miska even wore suits to work. None of this was right of course – it was death to her soul. Only, she didn’t exactly know this yet. She had to live into the deeper truths of who she is.

Over dinner at a mom-and-pop Italian restaurant (checkered tablecloths, little candle, the whole bit), we had a conversation that altered the trajectory of our life. We moved to Denver for Miska to go to grad school, and though I had no idea what my job would be or how we would pay the bills, I knew important things were happening. Something powerful and alive had begun to resurrect in her heart, and I was hellbent on not missing that beauty.

In the years since, Miska’s voice and art, her way in the world, has grown solid and true. She’s a joy-maker. Miska is, at her core, a creator. Wherever she decides to give her energy, good and beautiful things blossom.

For years, Miska has offered her creative art via her presence with people, in her work as a spiritual director. She’s kept most of her other craft close, only shared with family and a few friends. Sometimes this has frustrated me. I love what Miska creates, and I’ve wanted her to let her work out into the world. She has resisted. “The time’s not right,” she’d say. Typically, I’d feign agreement, while really thinking whatever...

Now, however, it’s time. I get to share at least some of her craft.

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Broken Elm offers Miska’s all-natural, hand-crafted skin care for women and men (that’s the apothecary) and, for the moment, hand-printed tea towels (that’s the mercantile). You’ll want to check out her philosophy on all this. I love it.

And in honor of the grand opening, there’s free shipping if you spend $30 (code: StartTheParty). Just in time for Valentine’s Day, gents.

The 12º chill did not stop him, though if he had even a lick of sense, it would have. The run was long and frigid, and the hot shower and hot coffee could not wrest the cold from his bones. Still, these were the hours he’d been given for writing his sermon, the words he listened for each week, the words that sometimes arrived as a slow burn but sometimes limped in with hat in hand, apologetic for their plainness.

So he settled by the fire, with his grandmother’s worn, patchwork quilt. He watched the flicker and curled his toes toward the warmth. Whatever comes will come. And it will all be a gift.

Many insist that Christian maturity means our faith grows larger and larger, but I believe that as we deepen into good life, our faith actually grows smaller and smaller. I do not mean that we come to believe in less or to believe with less fervor (though a wise professor once said, “The older I get, the more I believe in a smaller number of things.”), but rather that our beliefs find themselves decreasingly enamored with abstract theological notions all the while more and more attached to people with names and stories, to places with histories and hopes, to our own sorrows and joys.

In this deepening, narrowing place, our faith finds itself inextricably woven to the neighbor who’s spent 56 years waking to the love of his life but now wakes alone, to the child who carries our love and our blood but also our crushing regret, to the friends and the questions and the work that has made us who we are. Faith is not a set of grand truths preserved in a hermetically sealed silo. Faith is what we come to know, to hope, as we live into our actual life with the God who promises to meet us and make us within these days we’ve been given.

This means, at the least, that when we find ourselves with eyes bright, heart quiet and love attuned, we’ve likely found a place where our faith is growing fabulously smaller. Gratitude and contentment will be your friends here. Do not spend a moment critiquing whether or not this is the brand of faith you have been taught to expect. Simply give yourself to the Spirit’s invitation and whisper “thank you.”

Dr. King’s dream was for all of us, even for those of us who did not want his dream, even for those of us who reproached him and persecuted him and said all manner of evil against him – even for those who fueled the anger that ultimately gunned him down at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. It takes a brazen man to hold the dream of a future that, by all logical accounts, is pure insanity. It take a tender man to hold this dream for those who love you and for those who hate you, knowing that healing must arrive for all of us – or it will arrive for none.

We desperately need women and men who see a future the rest of us are unable (or unwilling) to see. We need dreams that pierce through the tinny noise, blow past our parochial concerns and unhinge our narrow agendas. The time is now (the time has always been now) for dreamers whose imagination burns bold and bright, unfettered by the assumptions the rest of us have accepted as gospel. And we will know our dreams are the noble and explosive sort when they unnerve us with their daring and shock us with their unflinching generosity.

I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant. ~ MLK

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