My earliest years were spent on a ranch in Tennessee. My co-conspirator Wil lived next door, and we enjoyed an idyllic childhood. There were horses and ranch hands, thousands of acres stretching over hills and woods all the way up to Lookout Point. The vast land brimmed with stories of Indian lore, the sort that would make a young boy’s hair stand up, wild stories that would convince him, especially on deep summer nights, that he saw ghosts from the old tribes.
Wil owned a pony named Snowflake that grazed in a small pasture just behind his house. Snowflake was docile enough, but she possessed a minor mean streak that, for some inexplicable reason, flared up around me. I have this effect on certain creatures. One afternoon, we saddled the pony for Wil to take a ride, and when he returned, Wil handed me the reigns before he went inside. I hopped atop the miniature steed, eager for my opportunity to enact fantasies of Wyatt Earp or Kit Carson.
I couldn’t have been in the saddle more than two or three minutes when the pony turned stubborn. I insisted on at least a gallant trot; Snowflake insisted she meander. Meander? How could a law man ride into the blazing thick of a frontier range war with a horse who will only grunt and crunch on weeds? I was the boss here, and I’d have none of this insolence. I gripped the reigns and gave Snowflake a swift kick to the flank. The next few seconds were a blur. I remember an angry snort. I remember a lurching sensation, my stomach jumping to my throat. I remember being launched, like those times at the pool when my dad would catapult me from his shoulders high into the air.
I woke up flat on my back, the sun warming my face, a large horsefly buzzing near my head. I don’t know how long I had been out, but Snowflake stood lazily across the field, munching and content. I stood up, muscles throbbing. I wobbled several steps to pick up my Stetson cowboy hat. Gingerly, I walked to the pony and picked up the reigns dangling on the ground, leading her, humbly, back toward the house.
For the next week, I walked sore, battle scars of a man who’d been bucked from the back of a wild mare and lived to tell the tale. This was the summer of legend.
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.
Reading through James, I’m struck by how persistently he warns us of the abuse of words. “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak…” I wonder what would happen if we took this as our motto for one solid day? Would our facebook and twitter feeds come to a grinding halt?
The theology of the first section of James 3 (with its descriptor of the tongue as a fire connected with the flames of hell and the tongue as a restless evil full of deadly poison) might be summarized something like this: if you want to sin less, stop talking.
James provides treacherous ground for those of us who spend our lives wrangling with words, but perhaps James only says something every writer or preacher knows, even if we fail to practice it. Listening must come before speaking. Watching must come before writing. We must receive the gift of another before we have any gift to give. If we are full of only our own words and our own self-absorbed visions, our words will prove to be scraggly and brittle. There will be no life in them. When we are more consumed with pronouncing to another than actually receiving the other, we have lost our way. Our listening should be quick, and our speech should be slow.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, grief-stricken over the capitulation of the German Church to the Nazi program wrote, “Sometimes I think Christianity will only live after this time in a few people who have nothing to say.” When I hear our angry rhetoric and our speed to announce final words…When I watch how we dash past the actual stories that surround us… I wonder the same thing.
Raymund Kolbe was born in the Kingdom of Poland in 1894 and, with his brother Francis, joined the Franciscan Order in 1907. Kolbe was given the religious name Maximilian and after becoming a priest, he assisted the formation of a new Japanese monastery near Nagasaki. Sometime in 1936 or 1937, Church authorities asked Maximilian to return and oversee the friary near Warsaw. When the Nazis captured Poland, the world Kolbe had known ceased to exist. Though the SS initially arrested Father Kolbe and shuttered the friary, he was eventually allowed to return, with only four other brothers to maintain the property. Kolbe immediately organized a harrowing plan to hide refugees. Before their clandestine efforts were discovered, they sheltered nearly 2,000 Jews from persecution and hid another 1,000 Polish dissidents.
When Kolbe was arrested, the SS shipped him to Auschwitz, the notorious death camp. Father Kolbe was prisoner #16670. Though beaten, forced to labor long hours under excruciating conditions and given sparse food, Father Kolbe’s gentleness never waned. Prisoners recount how he would rarely rest and even in the night would walk bed to bed. “I am a priest. Is there anything I can do to help you?”
After one prisoner escaped camp, Auschwitz’s commandant instructed the guards to select ten prisoners who would be put in a bunker and starved to death as punishment for the escape and to dissuade any future attempts. When Franciszek Gajowniczek, imprisoned for aiding the Polish Resistance, was chosen, he sobbed. “My poor wife! My children! What will they do?”
Kolbe stepped forward and asked to go to the bunker in Gajowniczek’s place. The commandant agreed, and Gajowniczek recounts the moment:
I could only thank him with my eyes. I was stunned and could hardly grasp what was going on. The immensity of it: I, the condemned, am to live and someone else willingly and voluntarily offers his life for me – a stranger. Is this some dream?…I was put back into my place without having had time to say anything to Maximilian Kolbe. I was saved. And I owe to him the fact that I could tell you all this…
For a long time I felt remorse when I thought of Maximilian. By allowing myself to be saved, I had signed his death warrant. But now, on reflection, I understood that a man like him could not have done otherwise. Perhaps he thought that as a priest his place was beside the condemned men to help them keep hope. In fact he was with them to the last.
In the bunker, Kolbe prayed with the men, read Psalms, sang hymns. After two weeks, he was the only prisoner still alive. Wanting to empty the bunker, one of the guards gave Kolbe an injection of carbolic acid. Father Kolbe died on August 14, 1941.
One of Auschwitz’s survivors, Jerzy Bielecki, described Kolbe’s death as “a shock filled with hope, bringing new life and strength … It was like a powerful shaft of light in the darkness of the camp.”
Franciszek Gajowniczek lived. He returned to his wife, a reunion mixed with sorrow as the war had taken his sons. Gajowniczek lived to the happy age of 95, buried in March 1995. Every year, Gajowniczek returned to Auschwitz. Every day of his life, he remembered this powerful shaft of light.
One of the disadvantages of our over-broadcasted lives is that we encounter an ever-increasing temptation to live another person’s story. We humans have always been jealous creatures. With Cain and Abel, it only took one other person with which to compare and compete; yet that was plenty to instigate a fit of rage, one life lost and another life chained to restless wandering and sorrow.
Midrashic tradition asserts that Cain and Abel were not merely fighting over God’s pleasure with their sacrifice but also over which brother would marry the beautiful Aclima. Since history, for as far back as history goes, tells us that men have thumped their chests and sailed their fleets into bloody war in order to secure the beauty, this traditions seems at least plausible. The sad truth, however, is that we don’t need any deeper reason for the conflict or the tragedy that ensued. All we need, if we are to inflict violence upon another or upon ourselves, is fear.
Fear that we are nothing. Fear that our odd and marvelous peculiarity is not enough. Fear that when someone else knows great joy or splendid success, that this means there is less joy or success in the universe for us.
Of course, the opposite is true. The more we revel in another’s goodness, the more we find ourselves bumping into goodness too.
The tragedy of a small, fearful life is not only that we inevitably harm our friends (or someone who could be a friend, if our ego were not in the way), but also that we harm ourselves. When we waste our energy attempting to capture the glint from another person’s life, we completely abandon our life, the life that will tragically go unlived if we do not pull up our boots and get to it. As Rumi said: “Don’t be satisfied with stories, how things have gone with others. Unfold your own myth.”
Another person’s life may be swell, but by the time it reaches you, it’s old hat. We don’t need another recycled life. We need you to get busy showing us your life. Whatever uniqueness your life exudes, the world is smaller if you do not give it to us.
Don’t mimic another’s voice. Don’t give too much time to the fantasy of what might be if you had only been given their opportunity, their smashing looks, their resources, their golden touch. Bless that person, I promise they’re fearful too. Then blaze ahead with your one life. Please.
I don't know much about my genealogy. I wish our kin had one of those large cracked leather Bibles with a family tree printed in the front, the kind that goes back seven or eight generations. I know that on my mother's side, if you trace far enough, we'd find our way to a Cherokee Indian Chief. Our family name was Lightfoot. When I'm feeling low about my station in life, I remember I'm Cherokee royalty. On my dad's side, there's Scottish blood. I don't know how my ancestors arrived here – or why. But perhaps this explains my enduring love of the Scottish brogue, Sean Connery and kilts.
There's a fellow in the local outdoor gear shop who wears a red, black and green kilt to work. He has long, black hair tied in a man-tail. He's got the leather boots and the lean, muscular frame to go with it. I keep expecting to find him with an axe slung over his shoulder. It's quite an experience to see a fellow in a skirt and think he's the manliest thing you've seen in a long while. I've never owned a kilt or an axe, but I'm happy to say that those who do are my people.
The stories that have led us to this life, this land, are not merely biographical detail. They are the threads that have weaved us into being. We belong to a history. We didn't create it. We didn't choose it. Yet here we are, chosen and crafted by a story that was before us, a story that has invited us in.
This is what the church's creeds offer. The Apostles' Creed is a story. If we read the Creed first as a list of theological facts, we may get the gist, but we'll entirely miss the juice. The Creed is the story of God and God's action for us, toward us. The Creed narrates the drama, tugs us through love and ruin, through hell and back. And with each movement, the story reminds us of our history and reminds us of who we are, lest we forget. We are the ones loved by God, loved so much that God refuses to forget us. This story has chosen us. This story has made us. If it tells us anything at all, the Creed tells us we are part of a history and a people: God's history, God's people. We are not (and never have been) alone.
And the Creed is also a prayer; it ends with amen. Good stories are always a sort of prayer. They carry us through all the beauty and the rubble to the place of truth. When a good story has worked it's way in us, we have little to say except Amen. May it be so.
I've asked a few friends to stop by for a house-warming party in my new digs. Corban Addison has just released his first novel A Walk Across the Sun, set in India and following several characters intersection with the seedy world of human trafficking. The book's catching steam; it's been pushed by John Grisham and Oprah's O Magazine. In a flat world where we demand everything be efficient and have obvious (and immediate) utilitarian purpose, many of us insist that the work itself offers goodness to the world – writing need not be justified by accomplishing some other purpose or added agenda. However, sometimes we ride that mule too far, to the point that our writing becomes selfish and myopic. In Corban's debut novel, he has written something that takes the story seriously, on its own terms – but he also has a message he wants to give away. This is not easy to do.
This part of the party's going to be a conversation around the table.
Why writing, Corban? Why do you find yourself needing to tell stories?
Since I was fifteen years old and starting to spread my wings in an adult world, writing has been my outlet, the preferred channel for my thoughts. When I was a kid, I used to write essays and reflections on anything and everything, work on them tirelessly until I felt I had perfected every word, and then stuff them away in a file on my computer, never to be read by anyone. At the same time, I read voraciously and preferred fiction. Story was a form of travel for me. It peeled back the skin of the world and gave me a glimpse of humanity as it looks under the hood. I've always been conscious of truth, and I've always loved to learn. Long before I ever thought about the power of story, I responded to that power by devouring stories and allowing them to frame my vision of the world. At some point, these two currents (my impulse to write and to consume stories) merged into a singular dream: to write a story. As soon as I tried my hand at it, I fell in love with it. And away I went, down the Rabbit Hole. For years I wrote stories as I had written essays, spending countless hours refining them, only to learn that no one wanted to publish them. But the dream only grew stronger as the pile of rejections mounted. That was a training ground. I learned how to write by trying and failing and trying again. All along I believed I would find a story with wings. Ironically, when it happened, it was the story that found me. The idea for A Walk Across the Sun was my wife's before it was mine.
You've written a good story that also has something of an agenda – you want people to think long and hard at the issue of sex trafficking, hoping to contribute to another abolition of slavery. Did you think much about the interplay between letting the story be the driver and letting the issue be the driver?
When I set out to write A Walk Across the Sun, I knew it would never work unless it could stand alone as a compelling work of fiction. The story had to sing, or it would flop. That said, my objective in writing a novel about the global trade in human beings was to confront the reader with a reality that many people find hard to believe. I wanted to do more than describe the problem. I wanted to give readers a first-class trip through the trafficking pipeline. I wanted to reveal the many dimensions of the trade and to leave readers with the strong sense that all is not lost, that hope is real and that all of us can engage in the fight for justice. Bringing the two strands together was a labor of love and editing. There were times in early drafts of the manuscript where I fell into the didactic trap, overplaying my hand as an advocate. Eventually, however, with the help of some fine editors, I was able to submerge the facts about trafficking into the narrative, leaving the story to drive the book and allowing the issue to emerge organically in the consciousness of the reader through the experience of reading the story.
Colum McCann says, "I believe fiction can capture the moment when the thorn enters the skin." Where do those words take you?
Story has been around as long as communication itself. It transcends every barrier that divides us as human beings, and it compels us in a way that nothing else can. In a very real sense, story is the universal language. In my mind, the reason for this is simple. Story is the framework of our existence. All of us are living a story, so all of us are interested in stories. What makes fiction such a powerful medium is that it allows the writer to transport the reader to places within a particular story that would be missed in a purely factual account. There are moments in life that have profound significance, yet the clock doesn't slow down to allow us to dissect them, ponder them, suck the marrow from their bones, and live inside the transformation. In fiction, the clock can slow down or speed up. One scene, one moment, can occupy pages or a single sentence. A story can open a window on the world that does not exist in the four dimensions of space-time. There is great irony in this: Fiction offers perspectives on reality that reality itself cannot afford.
This year, I'm feeling tugged into new places of generosity, as a man, a dad and husband, a writer and pastor. I'm going to give you a prompt; just tell me whatever comes to your mind. Here goes: write with generosity
One of the saddest facts of modern art is the all-too-common divorce between the artist and the audience. So many artists these days pride themselves on creating art for themselves, not for the people who will view it, read it, and ponder it. To me, writing generously is writing with the audience in mind–not in a disembodied sense, but in a very real, very particular sense. When I was writing A Walk Across the Sun, I wanted to create a story that would reach the broadest possible audience, from the seventeen-year-old girl who spends her afternoons devouring books to the eighty-year-old grandmother who puts down her knitting and picks up a novel. In crafting the plot and the characters, I made very intentional choices about what I would include and what I would not include, how I would describe certain things, especially difficult things like sexual violence and the trafficking of children. I knew that my readers would be real people, and I wanted to meet them in the reality of their lives and give them a story they would love and a story that would open their eyes to the world around them in a new way.
I sat in a coffee shop last week, within listening distance of a chiseled man in a grey suit and perfect hair. He was interviewing another man for a job. This second fellow obviously brought his A game to the poker table: I’ll see your $800 suit and immaculate hair and raise you one power tie. After a firm shake and a “hello,” chisel man’s first words were to tell power-tie man how he’d been at the gym at 4:45 that morning. I’ll admit it, he said, I’m intense. He couched it as confession, but I’ve never seen a man so eager to step into the booth. They talked numbers and mergers and acquisitions. After another firm (and slightly awkward) handshake, they parted ways. With all that exchange, I’m not sure if they shared a single truly human word.
It’s easy for me to be smug. I’ve never owned an $800 suit, and hell will freeze over before you find me in the gym at 4:45. My mercury refuses to acknowledge – much less rise to – that intensity level. Yet I’ve had many a conversation where I neither asked for nor offered anything truly real or truly human. I can breeze in and out of a space with the best of them. But what do I miss with that shortsightedness? I hope I see chisel man again. I’d like to ask him what he finds so fascinating with pre-dawn sweat and how he keeps that beautiful jet-black mane in impeccable shape.
It was January and cold and the beginning of a new term. The class was Early Shakespeare. Early because we were reading the bard’s first works, early because the class summoned us at godawful 8:00 a.m.
A tall, muscular fellow walked in, easy. His navy flannel shirt opened to a grey thermal and fell over weathered denim. A scuffed leather bag hung from his shoulder, and he carried a coffee mug from O’Sullivans, the Irish pub on the other side of town. The females in the room watched his movement, furtively, with faint suggestion of their newfound interest in Taming of the Shrew. Several had an empty seat near and were glad for it. The women were, suddenly, wide awake. I noticed how the room’s energy perked. I noticed my sharp edge of envy. But what I noticed most was his grin, like he’d finished a fine meal and was ready to prop his feet up and enjoy a smoke. He didn’t arrange his smile at the door. He wasn’t selling anything, certainly not himself. He simply eased into a room the way he eased into life, with curiosity and a heart that harbored no guile. I know these things because I’ve come to know this man who walked in on Shakespeare. We became brothers. A package of brawn and genuine goodwill had just entered my world.
After college, we spent a spring and summer tramping West. We slept outdoors and ate canned beans warmed on a single butane burner. We spent two days in Vegas, which is more than enough. We spent a week in the backcountry of the Canyon, which is barely enough. Late July, funds grew sparse, and we stopped in on a family friend who owned a gas station a few miles outside of Jackson Hole. Sven Diedrich gave us the guest room in his house and odd jobs at the station. We ate well and padded our wallets and then hitched a ride into Idaho.
Wherever we arrived, folks watched Ben. The women, of course. Some would talk silly or act scatty. Some were downright bold and made him blush. But even the classy women noticed Ben. Men took notice too. Some sized him up. Shifty men grew louder or coarser in his presence; but good men welcomed him. Most every man who shared words with Ben quickly dropped his shoulders and began trading stories.
Don’t misunderstand. His name’s Ben, not Gabriel. He didn’t sprout wings or glow. Once, in a grimy alley, I pulled Ben off a whimpering 300 pound railroad worker. The blustering drunk, threatening and cursing, made the mistake of throwing the first punch. If he’d known Ben had buried his mom a week before, perhaps the whole evening would have happened differently. The beating was thorough, ugly. Once, Ben rang me from jail in Hattiesburg. There was a girl involved – and a dog, but the affair concluded with one phone call and a couple nights pissing in the corner commode of a cinder block cell. Every man has his vice, but few men have a friend who will carry you four miles into town, slung over his back while you’re puking, because your fever rages and he’s worried. On our summer trek, Ben did exactly that.
Together, Ben and I figured out what kind of men we wanted to be. Better, we helped each other get some of the way there. Ben would have to tell you what I offered him, that’s his story. But Ben gave me a vision for life generous, trusting. To live strong and wise, but not careful. To live with laughter. And a grin.
I appreciate those little white styrofoam cups you’ll happen upon near the cash register of small, out of the way diners. These cups have a few dirty coins clinging to the bottom and words something like this scratched in blue ink across the front: If you need a penny, take one. If you have a penny, leave one.
I’d like to hitch a ride with one of those pennies, to discover who was generous and who was in need, who was a little short and who had a little extra. I bet I’d meet a few people worth knowing and hear stories worth hearing. I’d find reasons to laugh and reasons to cry and plenty of reasons to scratch my head at the craziness of it all.
Everybody has a story. And, I’m convinced, everybody wants to hear a story – only some of us don’t know it yet. Or we know it, but we’ve forgotten.
I’m desperate for stories because I’m hungry for life. I’m looking for mercy. I’m scratching around for hope. I’m convinced that there’s something good in you and darn it! there’s something good in me too. I think we tell things in our stories that are difficult for us to say any other way – we discover truths we hadn’t landed on just yet.
Norman Maclean shares my leaning: “A storyteller, unlike a historian, must follow compassion wherever it leads him.” When I scrawl ink on paper or push my nose in a novel, I’m sniffing out beauty. And mercy. And joy. I’m dropping in a penny. Or taking one out, whichever the case may be.