Unbidden Kindness

Joseph Barrientos

Do you, like me, have those moments that give you a soul-deep sigh, that lighten your heart, that keep you willing to bet your last dollar that the whole thing is for real and God is actually with us? These wisps of wonder aren’t nearly as often as I’d like, but often enough to return me to the center, to notice the light cracking through, to keep watching for the magic.

These flashes are rarely earth-bending, but ordinary graces. It’s spending most of the day reading letters and journals from a dear old soul who, in ordinary language and plain cadence, makes me know I’m not entirely insane, that mercy is abundant and most of the BS we know is BS actually is BS. It’s feeling that jolt of joy when our youngest walks through the door, me breaking out in applause, because he’s kicked middle school to the curb and I’m so proud of who he is. It’s hearing our oldest in his room, even in the late, late hours, belting out his tunes as he vigorously hits the licks on his guitar–realizing this is my favorite music and it won’t last forever. It’s watching Miska from the window as she tends to her garden, stunned yet again by the beauty, elegance and mystery of this woman who owns my heart. It’s a goofy gif text from a friend, or a note that says “wish you were here so we could throw steaks on the grill.” It’s a subtle pleasure, remembering every hour or so that tonight the family’s heading to Plaza Azteca to celebrate the end of the school year with tableside guac, fajitas and tacos. And laughter.

Don’t get me wrong: there’s plenty of sorrow, fear, trouble. But these graces, these plain, scattered mercies, are enough of a good word to lift the heavy heart and coax me on.

It’s something like Walker Percy’s lines: “It’s a question of being so pitiful that God takes pity on us, looks down and says, ‘He’s done for. Let’s give him a few good words.’”

These few good words prove enough to buoy us, to rouse us to our life. Though they are unexpected and unbidden — always out of our control — we live by these ordinary moments of divine kindness.

We Got This

Even though the heart of the Christian story centers on the fact that we humans, left to ourselves, make a real mess of things and are sunk without a rescue, we can’t quite make peace with such humbling news. We want to believe that given enough time and sweat, we can muscle or brainpower our way through just about anything. For most of us, it takes true loss — a child on the brink, the death of a dream, a doctor’s report we can’t ignore – before we come to terms with how powerless we really are.

In the Orthodox marriage rites, there’s a whole lot of praying. Less spousal promises. Less pastoral homily. But lots and lots of prayers. And lots of singing. Both bride and groom take their responsibility seriously, but they recognize that at the end of the day, without grace kicking in, they’re in a heap of trouble. So they ask for help, and then they let loose (as only the self-dispossessed can do), singing the joy. This seems about right to me.

It’s humorous (though also disturbingly familiar) to listen in on how often Jesus’ disciples brush Jesus off, the same way my boys do whenever I’m trying my darnedest to offer them fatherly wisdom (yeah, I know, I know, we got this…now watch what we can do…). We do like to pretend we’re accomplished, don’t we? We’re convinced we’ve got our life pretty much ready for overdrive if everybody would just get out of our way. Boy, we think we’re something.

The Collier version of one portion of the gospels reads thusly: Jesus looked at his stalwart disciples, that energetic band who could barely take a break from flexing their spiritual muscles, brilliant theology and heroic intentions, and said, “Well, la-dee-frickin’-da.”

Wrestling Under the Moon

Jacob’s name means supplanter or deceiver, and if a fellow ever earned his epithet, it was Jacob. Jacob hustled his brother Esau and then his father Isaac and then his wife’s father Laban. Jacob angled and schemed, and it mostly worked like a charm. This is the place where we’re supposed to explain how Jacob hit rock bottom or learned the folly of his ways. Quite the opposite, Jacob got most everything he wanted. Jacob was a man you’d be a fool to bet against.

However, perhaps Jacob had finally stretched his luck too far because this time Jacob had maneuvered himself into a real grade A jam. Jacob decided to return home, to the very place where he’d burned so many bridges, when a band of his breathless servants rushed back from a scouting trip: Esau and 400 warriors were on the warpath and charging their way in a great cloud of dust.

Instinct kicked in, and Jacob the Trickster got busy doing what he’d always done: working the plan, setting the traps, playing things on the sly. Jacob sent waves of emissaries to intercept Esau, with each group carrying lavish gifts that would hopefully overwhelm the aggrieved brother with outrageous generosity. Jacob maneuvered his family to a strategic position. Jacob gave instructions for an escape route if things went south. But then, with his bag of tricks empty, Jacob sat under the moon, wide-eyed and restless. He couldn’t do anything now but sit and wait. For the first time in his life perhaps, Jacob was out of moves, out of ideas. He’d played his very best hand, but he feared that finally, this time, his best was not going to be good enough.

Then, out of the shadows, a man jumps Jacob and the two go rolling in the dirt. They fight for hours, with neither able to finish off the other – and this is quite an admission because we soon discover that this “man” Jacob’s wrestling is God – or an angel, which for mortals like you and me is pretty much the same as wrestling God. Sweat and headlocks and jabs to the jugular  – and still, no victor. We get the sense that this mysterious midnight marauder has been holding something back, and we’re right. Finally, the “man” merely touches Jacob’s thigh, inflicting a wound so severe Jacob limps to his dying day.

Isn’t it interesting that when God wrestled Jacob under the moon, God brought only enough muscle to the fight to lock Jacob up in a draw? I imagine that mysterious Midnight Man taking a lick, wiping blood from his lips, and grinning. “Now Jacob, you sure can pack a wallop.” Jacob: man of tenacity and grit, a man who grabbed life by the throat and wouldn’t let go.

God seemed determined to show Jacob that his chutzpah wouldn’t be enough, that Jacob’s skill and cleverness and brute force would not, in the end, save him. However, God also seemed just as determined to not crush Jacob, to honor Jacob’s tenacity. I’ve had wrestling matches with my sons, where I had them in a vice grip they could never escape or pinned to the ground in a match they could never win – but they refused to cry uncle. Those boys made me proud.

Jacob hung on for dear life, insisting on a blessing. I think God was more than eager to oblige. Jacob may have been a trickster, but Jacob was also dogged, stubborn and tough as nails. Maybe we feel compelled to shame Jacob, to rebuke him for his misguided or arrogant ways. But God wanted to get down in the dirt with Jacob, wanted to wrestle him, wanted to feel Jacob’s strength up close. God knew that Jacob needed to lose, to surrender the illusion that his wit and braun would be enough. But God knew there was so much good there, so much to work with.

Those things we think are the worst parts of us – it’s likely there’s something deeper, something more true that has been covered up, something lost that needs to be found. Of course, we’ll likely have to lose at some point, we’ll have to relinquish our foolishness. But we only need to lose enough so that grace can take hold. God knows the strength and goodness that’s in us – God put it there.

The Whole Thing is Just Too Much

Heart and Wires

I remember, in college, reading a pastor who suggested an exercise. List everything we’d ever heard in a sermon and everything we’ve ever read in a Christian book or picked up from spiritual mentors and friends. Pile up everything we’d been told a good Christian would do better, every discipline we should take on, every sin we should confess, every motive we should question, every spiritual practice we should rework. Catalogue all the evils within us. Reassert all the doctrines we are to cling to with our very life. Line up all the “shoulds” and all the “ought-tos,” heap on top of this teetering mass every time we were told more steps to holiness or more methods to spiritual success, more reasons to feel guilty, more ways to please (or appease) God.

I had heard many, many sermons (thousands). I had read many, many books. My pile was massive, heavy. It was my rock of gibraltar. I was exhausted by the exercise. I was exhausted by my life.

Now, in my 40’s, I could add a second exercise. List every cause I’ve ever been told should be mine, every injustice I am personally to right, every issue I am to have a passionate word for (or against), every way I am to prove that I am thoughtful, intelligent, evolved. Mark every way I am to be certain not to provoke or offend (even though these ways, often, stand at odds), every social moment I am to make certain raises my ire (or does not raise my ire).  If I allow myself to continue this exercise, to follow this rushing tidal flow, I find that I am again exhausted by my life.

We have a penchant for laying burdens on one another (or maybe laying burdens on ourselves). We seem to miss that we are all to do what is given to us to do. We can not fix our own life, we can not fix the world. We do that one thing, maybe two things, that has been given to us as a unique responsibility, and then we live well. We seek to be faithful and true to what we see clearly, to what good light has made clear to us, and then we release the expectations and the demands. We love and trust that when we need that next bit of light, it will be ours.”You do not have to be good,” writes Mary Oliver,

You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting…

No, we merely need to see the truth and fulness of our life, to see what beloved beauty and responsibility God has placed within us. And then we live, with boldness and delight. And we trust that God is doing the same with everyone else and then, somehow, when the Great Story finishes, love has won the day.

The Good Shepherd

good-shepherd-2

Over the past year, Miska has given our bedroom a complete makeover. First, Miska pulled out the paintbrushes, and when she told me she covered our walls with a shade called Silver Fox, I smiled. I imagined the voice of Barry White: Silver Fox, Oh yeah… Next we said goodbye to heavy furniture, replaced with small, simple pieces. We cleaned out bags of clothes, magazines, books and the trinkets you collect over 18 years and find stashed in the corners of drawers awaiting such a day as this.

My favorite touch, however, was when Miska gave both of us a new bedside table. I only wanted three things on mine: a lamp for reading, prayer beads a friend made for me and a small icon of the Good Shepherd. Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd,” and the image shows Jesus carrying this weak creature with gentleness and strength. I’m drawn to the firmness in Jesus’ eyes, as if Jesus’ says, This is my sheep, just try to come and take ’em. Scripture tells us that the Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep, that the Shepherd knows all his sheep and will never forget them. The Shepherd, Scripture says, will even leave the 99 of his flock to roam into the wild night and find that one sheep that has lost her way.

Sometimes this world, though chock full of beauty and goodness, can be a disturbing, perplexing place. What will come of us? What should we do? Will we know the right decisions to make? Will the woman next to me and the two boys snoozing a few feet away be alright, and will they live well – can I protect them? What will come of us? Will we have years ahead to love and enjoy one another, or will it all crash down, as it does for so many? Will all those friends and strangers who face ruin and despair be okay? What are we to do with all of the uncertainty? What are we to do with this one life we’re given? Why does our life sometimes feel so tenuous?

Perhaps as evening ebbs, I feel the futility of trying to grip the hours, of trying to grip my life. Perhaps I feel more vulnerable here, embracing the loneliness appropriate to moons and midnights. Perhaps this is why I wanted the Good Shepherd close, watching over me and those I love in our sleep. I cannot stay awake, but the Shepherd does. I cannot hold the world on my shoulders, but the Shepherd does.

So each night now, before I put down the book and click off the light, I look into the eyes of the Good Shepherd, and I say Thank you.

Tell Me the Truth

I’m slow on edicts these days, but here’s one I’m willing to venture: a church should not teach people to lie.

But we do.

Whenever we sift through Scripture in search of ideals, all the while missing the humanity, the struggle and the long plod toward love, we abuse the story but we also abuse the soul. No matter the clarity of our moral perceptions, we are no friend of grace whenever our pronouncements weigh people down, whenever the burden of our expectations delivers the subtle message that we must ignore or squash the realities simmering just beneath the surface. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it: “Christ did not, like an ethicist, love a theory about the good; he loved real people.” And real people come with real desires, real foibles, real fears, real longings.

When Jesus passed blind Bartimaeus on the road to Jericho, Bartimaeus cried out, “Jesus, have mercy.” I love this prayer. There are plenty of days when it’s all the prayer I can muster. Jesus stopped, looked Bartimaeus’ way and asked the plainest question: “What do you want?” Jesus did not ask Bartimaeus to identify what he should want. Jesus did not ask Bartimaeus what desire Torah would suggest. Jesus did not ask Bartimaeus to conjure an obedient word on virtue, responsibility or human sinfulness. Jesus asked what the poor fellow longed for, and then Jesus waited for the answer.

Bartimaeus’ desire was obvious; he wanted to be able to see. For most of us, however, our want lies buried under so much neglect and rubble that it’s nearly impossible to locate. Few of us know what it is we actually want, what we crave, what would make us truly giddy if it happened our way.

If we ask someone Jesus’ question: what do you want?, many of us religious folk will offer a squeaky-clean reply, something straight out of a tame Sunday School lesson. The answers are fine, but they possess all the verve of a dead fish. I want the real stuff, what makes the heart race and the energy peak and the sorrow sit heavy as lead.

Often, it would be more truthful if we said: I really want my wife to enjoy sex with me again or I want to stop puking in the toilet or I want money so I can fly the family to Italy for the summer or I want the voices to stop. If it’s true that what we really want is to land on the Times bestseller list or to be kissed like mad, why don’t we say so?

Whenever we are able to locate that first layer of our wants and desires (no matter how healthy, noble or immature they might be), we’re scratching at the truth – and then we’ve got something to work with. If we follow that longing deeper and deeper, eventually we’ll find something more potent, something more profoundly true. I’m convinced we’ll find something very near to God.

Alcoholics and a Coffee Pot

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.

God is Amused

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.”

Lilies, Birds and Demons

Legion_DemonSt. Luke narrates a spooky tale, just perfect for the month of October. Jesus and his merry band travel into the hill country of the Gerasenes. This country is a badland of sorts, the roaming ground for a demon-possessed madman who tears through the woods naked and rips shackles and causes general mayhem, all under the power of a legion of foul spirits. This is a character M. Night Shyamalan would love. This is the sort of beast that would keep boys and girls clutching their mother’s hand whenever they roamed beyond the outskirts of the village.

However, this ravaged man was no beast. He was a woman’s son. He once had friends, knew love. Perhaps he had children who still clung to memories of when their father’s mind was right. Perhaps their bedtime prayers asked God to watch over their dad in the woods, alone and bare, afraid and completely lost.

When the Legion saw Jesus, they flung the madman to the ground and screamed for Jesus to let them be. Have mercy on us, they raged. Don’t send us back to the awful abyss. Send us into the heard of swine.

Have mercy, what a surprising request from loathsome creatures who know nothing of kindness or love, nothing of mercy.

If you will allow me a short excurses, it is at this point in the story that my mind leaps to Jesus’ sermon on the hillside and Jesus’ beautiful lines drawing our imagination to the birds soaring through the sky and the lilies gracing the meadow. The lilies and the birds do not fret. They don’t toss and turn through the night. They are carefree in God’s provision. Don’t you believe God will be even more kind to you? Jesus asks. God is quick with abundant compassion, even for birds and flowers.

And, it seems, even for demons.

Alright, Jesus says to the horde, I won’t cast you to the Dark. Off you go, pigs it is.

Why would Jesus grant the Legion their request? Why did he enact force over them, but only so much as was necessary to free the madman from their grip? Did Jesus recall these spirits, in their prior angelic brilliance and glory, when they were free and joyful in God’s service? Jesus’ kindness, it seems, truly has no limits.

God’s care and compassion abound to bluebonnets and ravens and yes, to demons. How much more then to you, God’s fairest creature, God’s child.

The Beach That Was Not

I was supposed to be at the beach today, feet buried in the cool sand and nose buried in the first of several good books. Wyatt and Seth riding the wild waves on their boogie boards and digging for hermit crabs. Miska breathing the air that has, for her entire life, provided balm to her soul. However…

Saturday morning, we loaded the car and began our 6 hour trek to the Atlantic Ocean. Though I’m more of a mountain man, I always look forward to the space and the beauty and the laughter — but the rest of the family, now they have a love affair with the beach. Miska actually has some mystical connection with the waves and sand. I’d attempt to explain it to you, but I don’t quite understand it myself. Her heart awakens, and her soul quiets. She hears things out on those sun-drenched shorelines. I’ll just have to leave it at that. All summer, we’ve been gearing for this week. You can imagine an 8 and 10 year old’s revved up energy, asking at regular intervals how much further?, how much further?, how much further?

We pulled into the driveway of the beach house and folded out of the vehicle, breathing our first salt air. We grabbed a load of gear and stepped into the house. To my horror, luggage and groceries filled the living room and kitchen. Everywhere, I saw all the things you’d expect to see from a family of happy vacationers just unloading into their beach house for the week, all the things we were just beginning to unload ourselves. No one was there. I suspect they were dipping their feet in the water and getting the lay of things.

We quickly exited and stood in front of our car, shell-shocked. I pulled out my phone and searched quickly for old emails. The short of it is that I made a dad-sized snafu. I had us down for the beach on July 28th. However, we are supposed to be there August 4th.

I don’t exactly remember, but Miska tells me I had to walk away from them for a minute in order to “gather my strength for enduring the weight of the family’s crushing disappointment.” If you know us Colliers, you know we never pass on a good existential crisis. If we see the ship sailing toward tragedy, heartache or impending drama, we don’t attempt to outmaneuver. We point straight ahead and raise the sails.

I walked back to the trio-in-mourning and told them I’d made a big, fat hairy mistake and that we were going to have to drive back to Charlottesville. Miska put on a brave face, but she was entirely deflated. Wyatt, true to form, had a barrage of frenzied questions, searching for some other resolution. Seth looked at me as though I’d just drowned his puppy.

We piled back in the car, and though I risk cliché, I can only describe my emotions this way: I wanted to cry. Of course, many have far greater difficulties than our luxury of having the option of a beach vacation to begin with, screwed up or not. But these days are important to my boys. They’re vital to my wife. We’d saved and skimped and held out through a weary season with the joy of this week in sight. Joy is an essential thing. And as we started re-tracing the road back home, there was little joy in our Honda.

Insult to injury is the $150 I blew for a trip that yielded nothing more than miles on the car and a story my boys will one day tell their own family on their own road trip. A royal, epic fail.

The sky grew dark. A rain storm moved in. Gloom settled around, and inside, our vehicle. The wipers fought against water, and my eyes did too. I felt shame over my forgetfulness. I felt foolish for dropping the ball. I have always hated disappointing people, and now I was knee-deep. I knew we would be okay. Life was not over. I don’t want to over-dramatize. But neither do I want to slough this blunder off for less than it was. We were sad, and I made us sad.

A little ways down the road, night now covering the lightning-illumined sky, Miska put her hand on mine. “Grace,” she said. She squeezed my hand, and I knew the words she had no need to speak: be kind to yourself. Some men have women who would use this occasion as arsenal for many a war to come. My wife is not one of those women. At the moment where she could easily castigate me (and with good cause), she squeezed my hand as we drove together through the dark rain.

The boys have learned Miska’s grace. Wyatt said, “Dad, it’s okay. This way, I get to stay up past midnight, and we get to eat out for dinner.” Seth, who needs to suck the marrow out of any tragedy, took a tad longer; but yesterday he walked up behind me to deliver a massive hug — and at various points throughout the day, he repeated: “Dad, thanks for everything you do for us.”

The good news is we’ve rearranged schedules so we will cue the trip again come Saturday. The better news is that grace came to me from the woman and the two boys who have long been, to my soul, God’s truest sacraments.