The Scent of Advent

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

We have a pup in our house, a floppy-eared, mop-haired, black and white bundle of 1/2 Tasmanian Devil, 1/2 vivacious joy. Though Miska is the dog-whisperer in our family, on Fridays I’m responsible for Gus’ early morning walk. Two weeks ago, Gus and I strolled an empty, leaf-strewn street in our neighborhood, silence and the slow dawn our only companions. With sudden insistence, Gus yanked back on his leash, sat his rump firmly on the cold sidewalk and sniffed the air with resolute focus.

We sat for a moment. Then two. Gus sniffed, turning his head slightly to the right, then slightly to the left. I called him, but he wouldn’t budge. I tugged his leash, but he held fast. If I’d thrown a fresh ribeye next to his mammoth paws, he wouldn’t have given it so much as a nod. Gus was on to something.

I looked across the street, in the direction his big, black nose pointed, but all I saw was a red brick house with black shutters, a row of old, caved-in pumpkins lining the steps to the front porch, an empty white truck parked in front. Not a soul. Not a creature. Not a sound. Not a smell. I couldn’t see a thing, but Gus had caught the scent.

Advent encourages me to take a Gus-like posture. Advent provides a stretch of days where we catch the divine scent. Advent’s promise is not that we see God, in this precise moment, exactly as we wish. Rather, in Advent we hear that ancient-yet-always-new promise of God’s sure action, God’s cosmic healing. And then with the eyes (and maybe the nose) of faith and wonder, we brush against that awakening scent of hope and generosity and righteousness.

Advent reminds us that we’re waiting for God. The holy ache in our soul is for God. Our broken heart, our forlorn future, our fears and anxieties and shattered stories and those cannibalistic lies that play in our head day after weary day–these are all signals of how desperate we are for the Adventing One to come and save us. Even our Advent practices, our good attempts at attentiveness (and they are–mostly–good), are not the point. God is the point. After all, my true cry is not for a religious regimen but for the Voice of Love. My fierce need is not for a spiritual discipline but for God.

And in Advent, by sheer mercy, we catch the scent of the One in whom our hope and salvation lies.

A Certain Fellow and His Horn

Once upon a time, a certain fellow laid on a horn a tad longer than he should have because the driver of a black Jeep completely ignored a 4-way stop. It’s been a stressful few days and the horn felt so good for a flash of a moment–and truth told, narcissist drivers who punch it at 4-ways, totally ignoring the rules of engagement and just basic decency, are one of this fellow’s great annoyances. Nevertheless, this same justice-enraged fellow also desires mercy and gentleness and forbearance and such things, and all these noble ideals were swiftly forgotten, all for the fleeting joy of giving that Jeep a blast of whatfor. 

Yet, a mere three minutes after venting frustrations via that horn from hell, this same fellow heard the guy in front of him order a Frappuccino, and in what a psychologist or priest would surely say was a subconscious act of penance, he told the Starbucks barista, “Hey, I’ll get that,” and handed the barista his card. Only then, this penitent fellow realized that the guy in front of him had not ordered merely a Frappuccino but rather drinks and snacks, and apparently take out dinner, for his entire lawn maintenance crew. But he couldn’t back out because the gesture was so grand and the barista so effusive with praise and the guy who made the order was confused, but smiling wide. 

So the remorseful horn blower, now drained of coffee funds until the new millennium, has many new things to ponder in his heart.

Stand Your Ground

Tobin Yates

In Florida recently, our family stopped into the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Places like this are a mixed bag for me. However, stepping through the brick wall into Diagon Alley, you find yourself wading through a wide-eyed, slack-jawed throng. We all want to belong. We all want to be part of an epic story.

Standing in the shadow of Hogwarts, I watched children line up (and more than a few adults too) in front of shop windows and atop cleverly marked spots in the cobblestone streets, pulling out their interactive wands. Don’t ask me how the logistics work, but if you stand just right and wave your wand in just the right motion at each prescribed location, you cast the magic spell. A flower blooms. A measuring tape moves up and down a wizard’s robe. A cauldron of water tips. A box top lifts to reveal a croaking chocolate frog.

A seven-year-old boy, cloaked in his black Gryffindor cape, stood in front of a bookshop window where a large hardcopy of Tales of Beedle the Bard perched. The boy raised his holly and phoenix feather wand, waved it with a loop and flourish. But the book sat still as a stone. The boy grimaced; then worked his wand again. Nothing. A third time. And a fourth. The boy’s father, with the line extending and growing restless, patted his son on the shoulder, told him it was okay and maybe they should move on. The boy nodded vigorously, shook it off and focused, made a dramatic M, punctuating the spell with a bold, final stab. But the book was dead, dead, dead.

The father leaned over, consoling. The crowd shifted, a few coughed. The boy gave another shrug, planted his feet solid on the cobblestones. He looked down to make sure his toes lined up, a batter in the box preparing for heat. He took a deep breath. He pointed his wand directly at Tales, like Moses lifting his staff toward the churning sea. And he nailed it. That book flew open, and the boy went berzerk. You’d have thought he torched the winning goal in the World Cup. He danced and ran in circles. I stood up too. I was so proud of him. I looked around for someone to high-five.

I hope each of us have moments like this, where we hold the grit to stick in there even when it seems hopeless, even when the wisest thing (and maybe the polite thing) would be to just move on. Plant your feet. Stand your ground. Give it your best shot.

Life’s River

Wyatt and the trout in an undisclosed location

Since the boys were tikes, I’ve taken each of them on a solo road trip for their birthday. It’s one of my very favorite dad-things. I always hope for a flash of memorable conversation, where a dad and a son share a moment with gravity. Sometimes it happens, sometimes it doesn’t. You can’t force these things. You just have to be open, and let it come when it will.

Since Seth’s birthday lands in October, we always nose down 29 to Clemson to see the Tigers feast on the poor lackeys who drew the short straw and have to spend a Saturday in Death Valley. But with Wyatt’s birthday in May, it’s been a potpourri of adventures. Watching his Yankees play at Camden Yards. A day zip lining. A weekend in DC, another in Texas hunting feral hogs.

Fishing has become one of Wyatt’s passions, but he’d never caught a trout. After hearing mythical tales, the sort whispered reverently from one fisherman to another, he was desperate for his own baptism in one of Virginia’s legendary wild trout streams. I apologize that I cannot be more specific with the name or location. I’m not a fisherman myself, but I’ve lived with one long enough to know that a man divulges his honey spot only when they pry it from his cold, dead fingers.

Our first evening on the water, Wyatt didn’t catch a thing. I take that back–he caught three branches, lost three pricey lures. While Wyatt worked his new St. Croix rod, a light model that needs to be caressed just so, I sat on a large rock at creek’s edge, under an oak’s shade. I watched the dead water, flat and lifeless. There was as much chance of a pig floating down that stream as a fish. But the closer I watched, the more I yielded to the stillness–I had it all wrong. Life teemed everywhere. Swarms of water bugs zooming across the surface. Microscopic tadpoles darting in and out as if they were engaged in serious business. Bits of leaves twirling in a small eddy, a miniature tornado. There was a riotous circus three feet from my nose, but I’d never known if I hadn’t gone quiet and waited for the gift to appear.

With my sons, with my friends, with Miska, with all the astonishing mysteries and joys outside my study window–this life is wondrous and abundant. I don’t want to miss any more of it than I have to. Sitting on that rock watching Wyatt cast, I gave thanks. I give thanks now.

And boy, did Wyatt catch a beauty of a brown. The next morning, we walked the stream. Wyatt cast and cast. The patience of Methuselah. He told me wisdom hard-won for any fisherman: sometimes it happens, sometimes it doesn’t. You can’t force these things. You just have to be open, and let it come when it will.

Jan Peterson: Memory Eternal

One of my truest joys over the past few years was to be invited into deeper friendship with Janice and Eugene Peterson. Sitting with them for hours and days, fumbling through pictures, driving the streets of Kalispell as they pointed out the places that made up a lifetime, sitting on their back deck basking in the blue expanse of the Flathead and the rugged line of the Swan and Mission Range. And there were so many hugs. To be welcomed into their home was truly to be welcomed into grace.

In the morning, I’d often come downstairs, finding Jan at the stove making oatmeal, Eugene opening the milk and pouring berries and nuts into bowls as toppings. Eugene told me that what he loved most about these latter years, the years where he was no longer traveling and his writing faded to the background, was how he was finally able to show Jan, in new ways, the depths of his love and devotion. And there he was, following Jan’s instructions about whether this was a day for blueberries or raspberries.

During a couple of my visits, their dishwasher was on the blitz. Jan protested (at least the first 4 or 5 times), but I snagged my job, washing and drying the dishes after each meal. I did have a chance to cook a meal or two for them (including my famous Texas chili), but my assigned duty was to grab dirty plates and silverware off the table, throw the towel over my shoulder and get busy. It felt appropriate, immersed in a holy space saturated with God and rhythms of prayer and hospitality, that I would do monk’s work. It’s the kind of work Jan and Eugene did every day.

We love you, Jan. Memory eternal.

Gentle and Faithful: Jean Vanier

Arlington Catholic-Herald

Jean Vanier–guileless, sincere, unobtrusive–showed me that it is possible, even in our toxic, flame-an-hour world, to live on an entirely different frequency. A prophet can be gentle. Faithfulness will in fact confound the wise. Vanier’s heart and his plain-spoken way (no big words, no attempts to impress) sink to deep places in my soul. In 2015, on the occasion of winning the 1.7 million dollar Templeton Prize for his work with the L’Arche communities, Vanier sat down for an interview. At the pinnacle of a life well lived, his peculiar wisdom carried gravity, warning, hope. I scribbled down three things then, what I took away from his words. I return to them now, reflecting on Jean’s life and death.

[1] Jean, at perhaps the unlikeliest moment (named Laureate for the Templeton), warned us of the dangers inherent in the “religion of success.” Have we ever needed a stern caution more than this?

[2] When Jean was asked ‘what is love?’ (and what a doozy of a question), he gave us a profound answer. “Love is to reveal to someone: ‘you are beautiful and you have value.’ That is the secret of love. It’s not primarily to do things for people, because then we find our glory in doing things. The secret of love is to reveal to someone that ‘you are precious,’ that ‘you are beautiful.’”

[3] When asked why he gave up teaching philosophy at a prestigious university so he could live with those often seen as outcasts, Jean said: “I thought Jesus wanted me to.” (refer to earlier comment about his plain speaking).

Jean Vanier, for a lifetime, attempted to be faithful to the ways and teachings of Jesus. To the way of Love. Thank you, Jean. Thank you for the light you left for us to follow.

Lent: A Red Door in the Desert

Jared Verdi

The forty days of Lent welcome us into Jesus’ experience on the long journey in the dry desert. Desolation that seems to go on and on and on. And on. These days ask us to sit and watch and trust the Good Story. Lent’s not so different from the rest of our life, is it?

In our neighborhood, there’s a yellow house with a blazing red door. I recently saw my neighbor’s black lab, a platter-sized frisbee in his mouth, sitting on the porch. The lab waited alone, ears pointed, eyes alert, waiting with anticipation and longing. This Lent, I’m taking my cue from the black lab clutching that frisbee, waiting for hope to walk out that red door.

With Jesus, there’s a red door in every desert.

Find Your Circle

Lysander Yuen
Lysander Yuen

It was a brisk February eve, and I had planned to walk to a neighbor’s house to meet up with a circle of friends. The three other Colliers who live under this roof with me were feverish and coughing, puffy and red-eyed. They sounded like they’d gargled Drano. After tending to supper and making sure everyone was comfy and settled, I strapped on my headlamp and went tramping through the dark neighborhood. It’s an eery, beautiful, calming thing to walk in the night, after everyone’s pulled in and closed shop. On these winter eves, no one’s out on their porch, no one’s walking the streets. The place is still, even as you know you are surrounded by homes filled with laughter, bountiful tables, more than a few heartaches, folks glued to CNN or Bird Box or Homeland.

On King Mt Road, I passed a two-story house with a row of large, wide windows stretched across the ground floor. Even if there hadn’t been so much illumination radiating out of those windows into the black night, I still would have peered in. I’m nosy like that. There was a wide circle, a couple couches with old Windsor chairs interspersed between. There were 5 or 6 people in that circle, a forty-something fellow, I’d guess, with several grey-headed women and men. They sat in the warmth and the light, having what looked like fine conversation. Of course, I have no idea what they were actually doing. They could have been having a family fisticuffs for all I know. But from the looks on their faces, they were doing something good. They were doing something together.

With my headlamp on full blast, I eventually made it to the house where I was supposed to be, where there awaited another circle of friends, another circle of couches and chairs in a room filled with light and warmth. We shared coffee and slices of some kind of spectaculous apple spice caramel cake that must surely be illegal. We talked about where we are, where we hope to be. We talked about what worries us, what we pray for God to help us be and do. We were doing something good. We were doing something together.

There are lots of things that I’m sure are necessary as we walk through these tumultuous times and navigate the night that presses upon us. But I’m convinced that these kinds of circles, this being-and-doing together as friends, in the warmth of light and laughter and joy, are absolutely essential. This has always been true, I believe; and will continue to be true. Find your circle. Find your people. And whatever else you do, stick with them.

A Decade of All Souls

Ten years ago, fourteen of us gathered round a table and spread into the living room of our townhouse on Brookwood Drive. We filled our plates and shared the first of many potlucks. Stuffed, we pulled our chairs into a circle, passed out the sheets for evening prayers and flowed into the simplest rhythm: week after week, we prayed, we heard the gospel, we shared our stories. The highlight for me was how one person per evening would narrate whatever piece of their life they were able to offer. We received sadness and joy, confusion and hope. Our chafed leather couch (the one friends over the years dubbed ‘the crying couch’) sat against the window, welcoming new tears, more laughter. We practiced what one writer called ‘verbal hospitality.’ And for a decade now, we’ve been doing our darnedest to stay true to that circle, that table, those prayers, those stories.

It’s baffling how that meager gathering could plant the seed for the beauty and goodness All Souls has become. Markus Barth said the church is the “theater of God’s works.” At this decade mark, I’m filled to the brim with gratitude for how God has displayed such immense kindness, such generosity, to a community of friends who wanted to learn how to both drink in and pour out God’s love.

They say one of our best prayers is the simplest: thank you. So, from a deep place of bewilderment and delight: God, thank you.

Advent: Aching for Peace

Yesterday at church, mid-sermon, great flakes of snow fell from the sky, as though God were dropping a fresh supply of winter manna. The school auditorium where we meet boasts three grand, 8-foot high windows, always opening to us a vision of oaks and leaves and neighbors. Those windows are, for me, the very best part about our space. They remind us that, as we worship, God’s world ‘out there’ is wholly connected to God’s world ‘in here.’ Our kind, patient folks put up with my dawdling sermon, doing their darnedest to listen while white beauty swirled around us. A wiser pastor would have just stopped and had us all take a gaze at this first storm of the season and then offered an Amen

However, this was the Sunday of peace, and lighting the candle, we prayed that God’s disruptive, healing peace might come to us again. Peace – it seems such a pipe dream these days, and it’s a word (like so many good words) that we now feel compelled to clarify and apologize for, to properly signal what we’re saying and what we’re not saying. But here’s where I am: I’m aching for peace.

To be sure, I’m not angling for anything easy or contrived or oblivious – that’s not peace; that’s avoidance. But I do want an end to relational hostility. I do want the hungry fed and the oppressed to be free. I do want enemies to become friends, or at least not to hate one another.  I do want that inner quiet that marks the way of wisdom: the capacity to live in tensions, the courage to refuse the rage of the moment, the open-heartedness that allows us to be surprised, the tenacity to never lose hope.    

So after a cozy winter’s nap, enveloped by the heat pouring out of our clicking, humming radiators, Seth and I returned to what has become our ritual. We pulled on our snow pants and gloves and toboggan caps and went for a walk into the dark, frigid night. We tell Wyatt and Miska that we must brave the cold because we’re on the hunt for grub. However, walking these lonely streets as the world sits enchanted by stillness, and with only the sound of snow crunching under our boots and the conversation passing between us, I think we’re actually out in the silent night searching for peace.