Stubborn Joy

Nathan Dumlao
Recently, we celebrated my dad’s birthday-eve which is a grand occasion not only because today my dad arrives at 75, a biggie, but also because it’s been two decades since I’ve been able to sing him happy birthday in person or watch him puff out candles stuck in a big tub of banana pudding loaded with nilla wafers.
 
So what are you going to do on a Spring evening when your dad’s in your house and celebrating 3/4 of a century of good life? You’re going to ask him what he wants for dinner, of course. And what’s he going to say? Steaks, of course.
 
So I fired up the charcoal and asked Alexa to fire up The Platters. I like these soulful artists very much, but even more, they’re tunes from dad’s high school days in Garland, Texas. And on your birthday, you get the steaks you like and the banana pudding you like and the music you like. So the steaks sizzled to the serenade of “The Great Pretender” and “Enchanted” and “You’ve Got the Magic Touch.”
 
Toward the end of our evening, the playlist shuffled to The Platters’ rendition of “Joy to the World.” I started to tell Alexa to switch the song, so out of place to hear Christmas music in April when the grill’s blazing. But they kept singing to me, repeating that sounding joy, repeating that sounding joy. And I wanted to hear more. I wanted The Platters to belt out this joy for the whole neighborhood. They say joy is subversive. I know this to be true. We must, as the poet Jack Gilbert reminded us, “have the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless furnace of this world.”
 
We can live without a lot of things in this world, but I’m not sure we can live, or live in any way that’s actually living, without joy. So be bold and stubborn today: accept your gladness, your joy. And if you can’t find any, watch for it, be open to it. I believe joy will find you.

Faithful with the Little Things

Last week on my run, I cut across the high school parking lot as I always do. The glint of copper and silver caught my eye, and there on the blacktop I beheld a quarter, a dime, a couple nickels and pennies. It wasn’t enough to make a poor man stop being poor, but it was real money, just lying there and waiting for someone to notice. Because I am the son of John W. Collier, there was no question what my next move would be. From the time I was barely big enough to waddle alongside my dad, anytime he would see any coin – any coin, a single penny – abandoned anywhere, he would always stop and pick it up, drop it in his pocket and say, “God says if you are faithful with the little things, he’ll trust you with bigger things.” I can’t tell you how many times I saw my dad walk out of his way to pick up a dirty ol’ penny, how many times he enacted his version of being faithful to the little things. If I had a penny for every time he picked up a penny, then I’d have a dump truck load of pennies.

So of course, I stopped, crawled down on the sticky asphalt and fingered the tiny scattering of coins. I tossed the grimy metal in my pocket, and I thought of what my dad would say right about then. I smiled, and I went back to pounding the pavement.

On my first run this week, I passed exactly that same way. I’m pretty darn certain it was even the exact same parking spot. And gosh almighty if there wasn’t another pile of coins, larger than the first one, just lying out in the open sun, like it was waiting for me. This time there were two quarters and several dimes and maybe 5 nickels and more pennies. It still wasn’t enough to buy 1/2 a latte at the coffee shop, but I doubled my take in one swoop. I’m no mathematician, but I have seen a calculator–and I know that crazy rule of compound interest. If this trend were to continue, I’d get to be faithful over bigger things indeed. So, grinning ear to ear and imagining my dad grinning ear to ear, I dashed off with a real jingle in my pocket.

Now I don’t know if Michael the Archangel gets a kick out of these distractions and dropped those coins, all the while chuckling and ribbing a few of his celestial buddies (watch this…). Or maybe some poor tenth-grader has an as-of-yet undiscovered hole in his North Face backpack and leaves coins strewn from here to kingdom come. But either way, I’m picking ’em up. That’s what my dad taught me. I’m raking it in.

 

 

There’s Still the Music

At times, it’s tempting to believe that the sadness has finally drowned out the joy, that all the rage or the disillusionment or the despair that overwhelms the soul has silenced every simple and beautiful song. But then you hear your two sons and their guitars, plucking their way through an old tune. You hear their attempt to find their voice, to make the words their own. You see their intensity, the way the melody gives them a language they have not accessed before. And your heart returns home again. You still know the despair and the sorrow, you’re no fool. But you know something else more: there’s still the music in the world.

Something Marvelous

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My oldest son (13) is now a solid two inches taller than me, the same two inches I spent most of high school begging God to grant me. Three or four times a week, he asks Miska to come and be the official eyes while we stand side-by-side so he can mark his progress. I was traveling four days last week, and nearly the first thing he said after I walked through the door was “Dad, I think I’ve grown taller.” He insisted we stand nose to nose so he could check. Whenever he looks down at me now, he’s beaming wide.

Wyatt’s also begun to walk into the kitchen and wrap his arms in a bear hug around Miska, catching her off guard as he lifts her into the air and swings her around like a doll. The other day he wanted to do leg squats while somehow strapping his younger brother Seth on to serve as his weights. I shut that one down, but he kept insisting how much sense it made and how easy it would be to use his brother as a dumbell.

Some days, the constant comparison grates on me (could we possibly compare how much he towers over me once a week??), but I know he’s testing his mettle. He’s seeing how he stacks up. My son is growing in awareness of his strength and his body, his manhood. And it’s so very good.

My son wants to know that he has strength in him, that he can do hard things and wonderful things. He wants to know for sure that there’s something marvelous about him – and he wants us to recognize this goodness too. He wants to stand beside us and imagine his place there and move toward it. Don’t we all want something like this?

The Allure of Responsibility

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If we are to live wholehearted, there is another word which matters a great deal, a word that has fallen out of favor in our über- independent, you-should-do-anything-you-can-dream self-talk: responsibility. There are many things I am not responsible for (and it’s important to get those things clear, or we’ll suffocate for sure). As Walker Percy said, “Lucky is the man who does not secretly believe that every possibility is open to him” However, there are some things I alone am responsible for – and it is my great task to see to them. There are few things (though perhaps only a few) worthy of the weight of our life.

There are two boys in my house who have only one fella to call dad, and that’s me. Miska has only one man to whom she has pledged her love and fidelity, and she has received this pledge from only one man in return. These responsibilities have been handed to me, and I gladly received them (though I was so young and mostly ignorant when I said ‘yes’). These responsibilities are mine. They are a trust, a bond, a calling. Whatever jolt of inspiration I might receive, whatever great stirring of wanderlust or new possibilities – if they pull me from these responsibilities, then they are lies.

There are a few words I must write, a few people I must pastor, a circle of friends who I will walk beside, come hell or high water. There is ground I must tend to, a horizon I must walk toward. To abandon any of these would be a wound to me and to those around me.

To insist we must be attentive to the unique contour of our life is not to throw fuel on the narcissism of our age, where we flit from one whim to the next with little regard for the world or our responsibility to it. Here, we have no silly suggestion that our entire life should be one long, uninterrupted string of thrills and chills. Just the opposite, attentiveness to our life helps us to know where we must lay down our life, if our life is what’s called for. Not everything will be worthy of this sacrifice, but some things are. Some things absolutely are.

Family Name

My dad taught me that our name was an honor we were to guard, something gifted to us – but something we must hold in safekeeping both as a debt to those before us and as the richest inheritance I would pass to my own children. My mom gave me a plaque when I was in the third or fourth grade, lettering on a bronze plate fixed to dark chestnut. It hung by my bed. I don’t remember the exact text, but it had “Collier” in bold letters across the top followed by a poem about a father giving a son his only treasure, his good name. The poem was cheeky, but the point stuck. Your name matters. Where you come from matters. Being a Collier means something.

Our name, I believe, is one of our pearls of great price. A good name cannot be bought, but – and here is the power – it can most certainly be given.

I remember my grandpa R.J. Collier’s lean frame perched on the top step of his porch, working those cigarettes, his cap tilted askew and his overalls hanging off his thin body, his green 1953 Chevy pickup parked next to the house. My grandma Collier died before I was born, and so visits to my grandpa lacked the gregarious matriarchal energy I’m told I would have experienced if my dad’s mother had still been alive. Grandpa Collier gave all the grandkids $5 in McDonald’s gift certificates every Christmas, and we in turn supplied him with a case of bottled Coca-Colas (R.J. insisted on the glass bottles).

When my dad, fresh out of high school, went to the bank to arrange a loan for his first used car, he met a roadblock because he was under-21 and possessed no credit history. The banker looked over his file and said, “So, you’re R.J. Collier’s son?”

“Yes,” my dad answered.

“Well, I know R.J., and that means I know something about you.” The banker picked up his pen and signed off on the loan, with nothing other than “Collier” as collateral.

When I have serious talks with Wyatt or Seth about their character or integrity, about how they are to treat others or how they are to make choices in this world, I’ll usually say something like, “You’re a Collier man, and this is how Colliers live.” My father and mother, like their fathers and mothers (this story could be written for my mom’s family – and for Miska’s family too), has handed us an identity. Being a Collier means something. I only hope to live up to the truth of it.

A friend told me recently that in English history, a Collier (a coal-er) was one who delivered coal to his neighbors. A Collier was one who went house to house carrying the light and carrying the heat. I like that. I like that very much.

For Dad

Gravette Arkansas

On a Sunday in January 1983, I dangled my legs from an orange-padded pew and listened as my dad preached ‘in view of a call’ at Parkview Baptist Church. That afternoon, I dangled my legs from the paisley-and-polyester quilted bed at the Best Western, sucking back sobs as my dad told us we would be selling our fifth-wheel trailer, stepping off the road and settling down in Waco, Texas. I didn’t know these people, and I didn’t want our life to change.

My feet now reach the floor, but this past Sunday I sat with that same church (now meeting in a different location and without the orange pews) as they honored my dad for faithfully serving as their pastor for three decades (and still counting). Even more, we celebrated fifty years since my dad took up his call to ministry. In these years, it’s impossible to say how many he’s married, how many he’s buried. How many withered hands has he held? How many prayers has he spoken, for a son to return or a daughter to miraculously recover, a bill to be paid or a family to be made whole? How many stories of tragedy and abuse has he carried? How many injustices has he sought to make right? How many times has he laid his weary bones on the bed, asking God for mercy for one of his people and maybe, if God willed it, a little mercy for himself too?

The good folks at Parkview lovingly refer to my dad as ‘Preacher,’ and anyone who’s enjoyed his ministry in these years would give him good marks. However, if I can be frank, I’ve known a number of high octane preachers — and a fair number of them were (are) scoundrels I wouldn’t trust with a $5 bill. The truth is that a father’s preaching skill, impressionable though it may be, does little for a boy waiting for his dad to come home and toss a baseball in the front yard before supper.

I will tell you, however, what matters to a son. It matters that my dad was the same man at the dinner table as he was behind the pulpit. He doesn’t own a halo and he made his fair share of mash-ups – but he wasn’t fake. Not for a minute. I don’t believe I’d be a Christian today if my dad had played the church game. It matters that my dad loved his family and stayed true to my mom – and that he was generous and loyal and kept his word. It matters that my dad said he loved me – and that I’ve never doubted that these words are true. It matters that my dad has given himself to what he believes, even when it cost him. It matters that my dad has, with his life, practiced love.

This past weekend, it struck me how much my dad’s life is intertwined with this dear place and these dear people. He knows their histories and their kids, their financial woes, their joys and terrors. Whenever he’s with us in Virginia, it annoys me how I can’t get my dad to turn off his blasted cell phone. While I still wish he would pop that piece of machinery in the suitcase for an afternoon, I understand that at least part of the reason why it’s so hard for him to step away is because he can never turn off being their pastor. He’s given so much of himself, and you can’t simply shut that down.

Thirty years ago, I didn’t want to move to Waco because I didn’t know the people, the place. But my father does. He’s spent thirty years making their stories his life’s work. And that – from a son to a father – matters.