Words That Give the Light of Christ

So many words and actions on Saturday, so many words of repentance and sorrow and yes–hope on Sunday. But today I have no words. I’m trying to listen to God, and I’m listening to Mother Teresa. I do want to give the light of Christ.
 
“We need to find God and God cannot be found in noise and restlessness. God is the friend of silence…Is not our mission to give God to the poor in the slums? Not a dead God, but a living, loving God. The more we receive in silent prayer, the more we can give in our active life. We need silence to be able to touch souls. The essential thing is not what we say, but what God says to us and through us. All our words will be useless unless they come from within—-words which do not give the light of Christ increase the darkness.”

The Transforming Power of Love

It’s likely, unfortunately, that you will hear of our little town on the news this weekend. After the trauma of a KKK group arriving for a rally last month, the White Nationalists and Alt-Right are coming from the 4 corners for a rally this weekend. They say they’re coming for a peaceful demonstration, but the ideology is anything but peaceful – and some of their videos and posters are truly disturbing. A number of groups have planned a variety of responses: from direct action at the park to education to community building to events to keep people away from the boiling cauldron. There’s been murmurings of subterfuge and violence from (what I hope are) fringe groups on both ends of the spectrum. From what I hear, the National Guard should be arriving Friday night. A tempest is brewing.

Though I would never want such a moment for my home, I’ve hoped that this chaos might yield a strange mercy, the opportunity to truly hear the pain of our neighbors, to own and then mend the ongoing effects of our beloved nation’s racism. However, I’m concerned that we run the risk of merely being hardened by the rage, that we might surrender the only true power that can yield heart-deep repentance and a genuine national healing. I fear that we might have given up on the transforming power of love.

I’m not talking about a wimpy, refuse-to-feel-the-weight love. I am talking about a love that defies the temptation to outrage-gone-violent (either violent actions or violent postures or violent words). I am talking about a love that refuses that old and tired but very powerful temptation to think in terms of enemies. I am talking about a love Dr. King knew when he said, “I have decided to stick with love; hate is too heavy a burden to bear.” I am talking about a love that would stand with the oppressed while weeping for the oppressor. I am talking about a love that knows deep in the bones that if we don’t get to redemption together, then it isn’t redemption. I am talking about a love that sees in every single human a beloved sister or brother, a child, a parent, one who is more than their actions or ideologies, more than their fears. I’m talking about a love that would rather surrender a thousand arguments than dehumanize another beautiful person carrying God’s very breath in their lungs.

I’m talking about a love that would carry Jesus to a cross, a love that would empower Jesus to say, in what must have seemed the ultimate act of foolishness: “Father, forgive them. They don’t know what they’re doing.” I’m talking about a love that can melt a Roman guard to tears, can turn a crucified criminal into a friend, a love that promises to recreate the world.

Perhaps this seems like the zany musings of a dreamer, recklessly naive. So be it. I’m belligerently on the side of love. I’ve thrown my lot in with the dying, forgiving Savior. Surely this transformative love seems a pipe dream. But I remember them saying something similar just before Easter morning.

Troubadors

On my jog down Main Street yesterday morning, I encountered a young couple busking. They were obviously new to the trade, out so early when the crowd is sparse and the tips will be almost nil. Perhaps this was their gig, just learning the ropes and stepping in slowly when there’s less risk, less comparison to the many fine musicians who, on the really good days, make Charlottesville’s downtown mall something like an open-air version of Austin City Limits. The fellow, hair flowing and guitar raging, wailed lyrics to songs I did not recognize. I would not call his voice powerful or beautiful or clear even, but he owned every syllable. I will not criticize; it worked for Dylan. The woman, however, sang meekly. As I ran closer, her voice grew softer and softer. Her eyes dropped to the ground. I think, for her, it was courage simply to stay in place and keep her mouth moving in hopes that sound might squeak out.

In the afternoon, I was again downtown for errands, and another couple had secured Main Street for their stage. This duo, however, were legitimate troubadours. I could imagine them as the coolest street-smart characters from a Dickens’ novel…if Copperfield had displayed a penchant for futuristic fantasy…and been set in Nashville. The fellow wore tight black pants, black boots and a black vest over his bare chest. A black-straw summer fedora topped his head, with a couple dark curls, like Jewish payots, dropping to his jaw. His guitar hung from his shoulders, and he played a folksy tune, a cross between the Avett Brothers and a circus tune if you can imagine.

The woman wore a black lace top and a black mid-length skirt. Black stockings rose to just below her knee, black shoes. Her body swayed as she worked the rhythm of her black accordion. Both musicians had face tattoos, shapes of elongated spider webs or perhaps a mythical Celtic symbol. They were a sight. And they could play and sing.

His fingers danced up the neck of his guitar, and she made that little accordion hum. The melody was haunting, crisp. This was music that, if you were to stay for more than a few verses, would eventually require some kind of commitment. Their open guitar case sat on the ground, a few wadded dollars and copies of a self-produced CD lying on the faded red velvet.

What fascinated me most, however, was two little bells sitting at the woman’s feet. These were the old brass-colored bells that you’d find in the mom and pop dry cleaners, the ones on the front counter with a note next to them saying, “We’re in the back. Ring for service.” The woman had these two bells with two different pitches (who knew?), and her feet tapped them, creating a magical rhythm that covered this space of crowded commerce with enchantment. She rang that bell and danced with her accordion, and we all were caught up in her beauty.

A woman with the courage to hold her ground and a woman with the courage to ring, ring those bells. We’re all in different places, we’re all learning to trust what we have to give. We all can add to the music of this old world.

A Matron of Grace

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.

Silver Angel

The first time I saw her, I did not know whether she was an angel or simply disturbed. With silver hair shimmering down her back, past her waist, I could not miss her form even given the distance. I know every inch of this sidewalk, these blocks, the feet and the faces that frequent this route with me, but she was new. The tiny courtyard where she stood, back turned to me, is the lone and final outpost where those from the institutional home can go for smokes. It’s a sad concrete island, with one small bench, where smoke from the mufflers mixes with the nicotine.

The silver-haired woman did not sit, and she did not smoke. She raised her hands, shoulder-high and palms up. The outcast island transfigured into a sanctuary. One quiet person in one loud space can transform ugly into beauty, isolation into presence, endings into beginnings.

As I jogged closer, she turned toward the street, and I could see her face turned upward. She had a gentle, expectant smile. A smile of contentment, of revelation. She opened herself to the sun. Her eyes were closed, but she drank the sunlight. The warmth washed over her open hands, like water poured from a basin. And her lips mumbled words – or were they trembling? The woman with silver hair stood in the bright, her countenance shining. She prayed into the light as an SUV and a Prius and one curious jogger passed.

The next morning, the scene repeated. Only this time, the shimmering woman stood outside the front door, atop the rickety stairs. She stood straight, a pillar. Her eyes closed and face upward toward the warm beams, hands hung by her side. The same radiance, the same settled, knowing smile. Cars whizzed, honks, a man walking in front of the fire station across the street yelled to a friend in a sedan. I jogged past. She did not move. She was in tune with something beneath it all, over us all.

I do not know if the shimmering woman is an angel, but if she is disturbed, one could do worse than being a bit disturbed.

A Banjo, a Flower and Curse

Misty rain settled over downtown as I strolled Main Street, the bricked blocks where foodies, mom-and-pop town folk, book lovers, artists, baristas and students create the melting pot. We have a guild of street musicians, both locals and traveling troubadours, but my favorite will always be Harmonica Dave, sitting on his five gallon bucket and breaking it down with his jaw harp.

On this dreary, wet afternoon, Harmonica Dave had called it a day; but a couple blocks down, I passed a young musician busking for his day’s wage. Undeterred by the weather, his banjo hung off his shoulder while his black felt hat sat upside down near his feet, two lone dollars to his name. The scene provided nothing out of the ordinary, except this: the fellow held intense focus, tilting left then right. The man was standing in the rain balancing a purple flower in a pot on his head.

I only had a moment to consider this fact before an older gentleman passed this bard with the banjo on his shoulder and the flower on his head. The banjo player asked for a donation — but with a twist. “A donation to ward off the curse,” he said. I have no idea of the backstory. I have no idea who was leveling curses or what the curse entailed. I have no idea if the curse had something to do with the fact that there was a potted flower atop the man’s noggin.

The elder man brushed past. “I don’t believe in curses,” he answered briskly over his shoulder.

The banjo player stood undaunted, calling after him. “Maybe not, but don’t risk it. It’s not just you but all your descendants.”

This event was maybe a month ago, but I’ve thought about it several times since. I’ve wondered if that flower ever toppled off that fellow’s head. I’ve wondered if the elder man has any cause for concern for his progeny.

Characters from 5th St.

Main stSince I take the same route for my pre-breakfast jog five or six days a week, I encounter many of the same characters. We’ve woven in and out of each other’s routines enough to recognize one another, though I suspect I’m easier to remember because half the time I have a small fuzzy bear loping behind me. Allow me a few introductions.

The first is a sixty-something fellow who strolls up the sidewalk on 5th street. He has a strong, purposeful stride and wears a black Ivy cap and, usually, a charcoal grey sweater. I say morning as I pass, and he replies in a no-nonsense tone, with the faintest smile. “Good morning. How are you?” My goodness, I love that man’s voice. It’s a ringer for Charlie Utter, Sheriff Bullock’s deputy in Deadwood. I feel better knowing this man walks our neighborhood.

Another sidewalk encounter offers a bit of drama. This is a younger chap, early thirties maybe. He wears a beanie, pulled tight over his head. Today the beanie was one of those with tassels hanging to the shoulders – too cute for a fellow I know as Grumpy Guy. Each time we pass, I say morning. Each time we pass, he stares dead ahead. Either stoned or ferociously angry at the world – I can’t tell, but it’s my mission to win him over, to get a hello from him. After today’s failure, I played out a fantasy. We somehow land at the same party. The music’s loud, and we both retreat to the back deck for quiet. It’s cold, and he’s pulled out the beanie with the tassels. We know each other, but awkwardly talk about the bad music instead. Turns out, the guy’s not grumpy at all. Or stoned. He’s actually a softie. He lives with his invalid grandmother, and he plays the tuba. We laugh when I admit I was always a wee concerned that one of these days he would answer my greeting with a punch to the face. He chuckles and says he wears ear buds tucked under the beanie, and he’s blasting Nirvana, paying little attention to the rest of the world. We laugh more. A good fantasy.

My favorite character this morning was a woman in a grey PT Cruiser. Stopped at a light, she laid on her horn for a good blast. I jerked her direction, and I found her smiling at me, thumb up and extended my way. She held her thumb high, making sure I saw. Way to go, she said. You got this.

Four of us met this morning. We’re not friends, we’re not exactly strangers. I can imagine, though, how we might all need one another. Grumpy Guy needs an old leathery deputy-type who’s gruff, but deep-hearted, to yank his chain (or his tassel, what have you) and call his bluff. And every good man needs a lost soul to salvage, an opportunity to pull another man from his slumber. Of course, we all need someone to cheer us on, to give us her uninhibited joy.

I’m sure each of them offer me something. I hope I have eyes to see and a heart to receive.

 

Skylight and Starlight

Well, I’m typing this on a bus, the Starlight Express from New York City back to Charlottesville. Did you get that – on a bus! Yet another technological wonder. I was at a conference, but I needed to come home early – our house is full of sick people.

I wanted to share this piece (interview, really) I did with Kate Barton and Skylight Studios. Juli Kalbaugh (our friend, painter and current housemate) works with Kate @ Skylight.

The conference I’m leaving and this piece I’m sharing have a common theme: the hope and belief that art can (should) do good and make our world more beautiful. I’d like to say more about it, but I’m running out of electrical juice on my laptop – and that is one technological feat that has yet to be conquered. But my friend Andrew Albers is working on it…

But what about you? Any art that has made your world more beautiful?

Cafes and Public Spaces

It is almost as if every great civilization in the world had taken a brief time-out from trying to kill one another to brainstorm what a perfect public space should look like. {Michael Idov}

A friend, Andrew Albers, passed along this Wall Street Journal story this morning. It hit a few chords for me.

I should offer this caveat: I take major issue with Idov’s jab at caramel frappuccinos (my favorite is actually java chip light), and slight issue with his side-swiping of laptoppers (I get his point, but there are virtues in working in public space, I think – though I wouldn’t want my coffee-haunts to become consumed with the solitary and the utilitarian).

Getting beyond those squabbles, I’m enchanted by Idov’s hopeful recasting of coffeehouses back to their original place as open, civic spaces where ideas and friendships and the latest news (along with a revolution or two) were on the daily menu. I mean, I’d love for one of my regular shops (here or here) to be a place like the one Idov mentioned, “where a sword fight once erupted over the correct pronunciation of a Greek word.” In fact, I think next week I may just sneak in a blade or musket and see if I can’t get one of the other regulars riled up (and I have just the word – only an hour or so ago Miska corrected my pronunciation of repartee. It’s French, not Greek, but it will do).

I love to write in cafes. My first book Restless Faith was written almost entirely in the Pendleton Cafe and Coffee Company. Chunks of my last two books, numerous articles and more than a few sermons have found their voice between sips of an Americano (hot shots, little room for cream). Some writers head to the secluded cabin to write. Usually, I head to the coffee shop on Main. The coffee shop is where I have meetings, where I meet new people, where I run into friends and where I learn new bits about what is happening in our town.

Still, I read Idov’s description – and I think he is on to something. I think our coffee house cultures often lack the same level of engagement as the older spaces, the expectation that you will meet and know others, the idea of the cafe as a civic space of ideas and shared communal practices. He says, “We’ve also used [the cafe] to balkanize ourselves…cafés here tend to draw specific crowds: a hipster café, a mom café, a student café…we use our coffeehouses to separate ourselves into tribes.” Whenever that is the case, it’s a shame.

Someday, I would love to help form (or participate in) a public space of the older sort, a place where I would read the paper, talk about the issues, write, expect to see old friends, welcome in new friends, share a sense of civic identity – and maybe even start a revolution or two. I have a measure of this now, but I want more.

I also wonder if it might be possible for the church to foster this sort of place (a guy can dream, can’t he?). We should be the first ones to carve out this kind of public space, but unfortunately, if anyone has balkanized itself…but I digress…

What might space like this look like for you? Do you have it now?

Eugene Williams

The first time I met my eighty-one year old neighbor, Eugene Williams, he said, “You know, you and me – we’re making history.” I was hooked. A few days later, I was back on his front porch, sharing pizza and Orange Crush with him and his wife Lorraine. Eugene shared tales of segregation and injustice, stories of my neighborhood. He told me how he was the third black to move on that end of the street – and how most of the whites quickly evacuated. He shared how he refused to use the cup labeled for “colored people” that hung above the water fountain at the old silk mill.
I walked into a world I never knew. I heard stories of my town and the way things once were. But more than anything else, I made two new friends.


Mr. Williams, a Charlottesville native, was born on Dice Street in 1928. Eugene has lived through much: a country clawing its way out of the Depression, WWII, segregation, the monumental Brown vs. Board of Education decision. He has seen many cycles of Spring and Fall in our city, many versions of city government, many people moving in and out of his town. As I’ve discovered, Mr. Williams has made many, many friends – he is beloved by many people from many walks of life.


And Eugene Williams should be much loved here – he has helped to make Charlottesville a better, more just place to live. When Charlottesville schools refused to desegregate (as did many Virginia public schools), Mr. and Mrs. Williams’ third-grade daughter, Scheryl, was bussed to one elementary while their white neighbor girl attended another. Eugene would have none of it – and he and his wife, along with a few other families, brought suit. Eventually, Scheryl arrived at Johnson Elementary, although unfortunately with a police escort. And again, when his fellow citizens needed an affordable place to live, Eugene risked most of his (and his wife’s and brother’s and sister-in-law’s) savings to purchase and renovate 21 properties that provided 62 affordable housing units for those needing a place with dignity to call home.

Mr. Williams would be the first to tell you there is more to be done. However, because Eugene Williams put his shoulder to the work of forcing Charlottesville schools to desegregate and because he put his money and reputation on the line to address the need for affordable housing in Charlottesville, all of us who live here receive the benefit. We owe Eugene Williams our thanks. Thank you, Mr. Williams. Thank you, neighbor.