As a dad who’s tried to raise two sons amid all kinds of treacheries in this seductive age, as a pastor who’s sat with countless wounded, angry souls walking away from their faith (or wondering if it’s ever possible to walk back again), I will tell you this: no atheistic argument has ever dismantled a person’s faith with such swift carnage as seeing someone enact persistent evil in God’s name, someone refusing to call a lie a lie, someone winking at violence or injustice while cloaking themselves in Christian garb.
This past week, as a violent mob stormed our Capitol, beat a police officer to death, and contributed to the death of four others, we saw “Jesus saves” flags and other religious rhetoric and paraphernalia ensconced as part of the seamless accoutrements of this unhinged mayhem. Then, as smoke cleared and Congress climbed out of hiding, numerous professing Christians went to great lengths to downplay our President’s role where, all to save his ego, he stoked this madness with deliberate, systemic lies.
And this coddling has gone on for years. Look, I get competing political philosophies and genuine matters of ethical conviction and quandaries on profoundly important matters. But no tax policy, no abortion law, no judge, no defense of religious freedom justifies a political alliance where the faith that we are supposedly upholding contributes to such in-your-face, acute evil. David Brooks said that we are a “flawed and humiliated nation.” We are also a flawed and humiliated church.
As one who believes with all my heart in Jesus’ story of righteousness, justice, goodness and peace for the whole world, as one who clings to the world-bending story of Jesus’ cruciform love (choosing to die rather than clinging to power or using power in an unholy way), the power-grabs, the rampant narcissism, the persistent dishonesty–and our inability to clearly name it–have inflicted incalculable harm. God, forgive us.
A friend asked me why I thought so many of the younger generation are abandoning the Church. There are numerous reasons I’m still pondering—but these days it’s rarely because our teaching is too zany, never because our music lacks enough thump. It’s not typically because we believe in “One God, the Father Almighty…” One reason they’re leaving in droves is because they don’t think we actually believe the stuff we say. And I’m in tears as I write because we have given them so many more reasons to think that really we don’t.
There is much evil we could name, plenty to go around. But this moment, this bit of words, is for those of us who name Jesus as Lord. I am heartbroken. God, forgive us.
When I was a kid, my mom turned mundane or challenging realities into memories, into moments of joy. Once we had little money for Christmas, and mom scrounged the house pulling out odds and ends (an old camera, a beat-up typewriter, various knick-knacks). She wrapped them and put them under the tree. We thought they were treasures. Once we had only dry cereal for breakfast, no milk–but there was a single can of concentrated orange juice in the freezer. Somehow, she convinced my sister Vonda and me that cereal drowned in orange juice was all the rage, so much better than plain ol’ milk. When she was done selling it, we felt sorry for those poor folks who never know the delights of corn flakes floating in watered, orange-ish beverage.
Every so often–and I don’t know whether it was because mom was frugal and refused to trash leftovers or because money was tight and the fridge bare–she would handwrite “menus” from a fabulous bistro she dubbed “Momma’s Kitchen.” The spread offered nothing more than remnants from the previous 2 weeks, but somehow, transformed by her renaming of the dishes and set to table linens and candlelight, it was like we’d landed a table at some 5 Star NY City establishment.
I’ve wondered the past week what my mom would think–what she would do–if she were still alive in the middle of this pandemic. And last Sunday night, without really thinking about why, I found myself typing up a menu, offering omelettes and muffins and breakfast meats and blackberries. I spent an hour or two in the kitchen. I cut onions and pressed garlic and cracked eggs. I listened to The Avett Brothers. And I felt so very thankful for my mom who always saw possibility, who believed every moment revealed a little bit of magic, a mom who loved us with whatever she had in front of her.
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.
I want to tell you something about yoga, a gimpy knee, Karl Barth and a darn amazing yoga instructor.
For over a year, I’ve had recurring knee issues that have interrupted my running. A dozen or so years ago, I had trouble with my right knee, and for some reason that I can only attribute to middle age, the whole flame-up went for a full-blown 2nd round. My physical therapist has me doing knee stabilization exercises out the wazzoo. You should see me balancing and squatting on the Bosu Ball. I started as a wobbler, looked like a one-man demon-possessed seesaw; but now I can mostly keep it steady. Not graceful, mind you, but steady. I’ve got a nifty velcro-it-on icepack I use 2-3 times a day. I’ve got turmeric pills for inflammation and an organic blue-hot cream to ease the pain. I even hook up a stretchy strap to the kitchen table for a whole other round of therapy. It’s something else.
The thing I have working in my favor, though, far above the exercises and ice and all the homeopathic remedies is a yoga instructor named Miska Collier. She’s truly fantastic. Is there anything about me that says “Yoga”? Nope. And though Miska swears by it, I still say that the hot stuff where they heat the room to within a few degrees of Hades is absolutely insane…but she and I will just have to let our marital vows hold us and agree to disagree.
However, among the other forms of yoga she teaches, Miska teaches Yin Yoga. It’s a slow yoga that, as I’m told, helps your connective tissue and your joints, not to mention flexibility. Well, you know what I need help with? Bingo – connective tissue, joints and flexibility (as well as a writing shed, but I don’t think yoga has an answer for me there). Yin also has a contemplative, restful vibe. In other words, it helps people like me whose mind revs at breakneck RPMs to chill the heck out.
On our sabbaths, then (Fridays), Miska’s been doing Yin Yoga with me. And for newbies like me (people who are not easily given to twisting their body into the shape of a pretzel), you need blocks so you can rest your arms and ease into the posture. We didn’t have blocks at the house, so you know what she grabbed? My five volumes of Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics. There I was, literally resting on Barth as I was doing my yoga. In case you haven’t read Barth, the most distinguished Protestant theologian of the last century, I’ll just say that I’m certain his bushy eyebrows would have gone haywire as he uttered a string of “Neins!!” Perhaps you don’t get the humor here. That’s fine. I think it’s a hoot.
What I’m learning is that my body has definitely run headlong into the rickety mid-range of life. I’ve also learned how to balance like a champ on the Bosu Ball. And I’ve learned that yoga, even for guys like me, can be remarkably restorative for body, soul and mind. The knees are getting stronger. I’ll be out on the trail again before you know it.
About 18 months ago, we had to bring down a 100 year old Ash in our front yard, a truly sad weekend. But after the pros brought it low, we spent days splitting and stacking and hauling. Next, my friend Tom, the finest carpenter I know, loaded a couple large pieces of the Ash into his truck and carried them to his shop (an astounding place, by the way). A couple weeks later, Tom dropped off this beautiful bench. I’m finally getting to the staining, and we’re two coats down, looking like honey.
I’m thankful I had the chance to swing an axe in a crisp December with my sons, thankful for this big beautiful tree that has watched over this land for a century, thankful for the rest and conversation this tree will make possible for generations more.
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.
On Monday, I had every intention of getting a letter of to you, but you beat me to it. What kept me from writing my dear ol’ friend in Colorado? The City of Charlottesville, that’s what. We got a letter in the mail from one of our street inspectors giving us 10 days to trim back a long row of runaway Rose of Sharons that have been spreading themselves too generously out over our little lane. They were running wild, I’ll admit. And they were causing a problem on our narrow lane, skinny as it is. Even without the forest intruding onto the asphalt, two go karts would have to suck in their tummies to squeeze past each other without scraping paint. Did you know that in England, lots of the little avenues are referred to as a “close”? Like instead of Mulberry St., it’s Mulberry Close? Those Brits say what they mean; everything on those streets is in close, for sure.
Anyway, I had planned to trim the Rose of Sharons in a month or so when legitimate Fall weather hits, as I’m told that then I can prune away without fear of butchering them into oblivion. However, the inspector man said they had to go, butcher or no butcher. He obviously has little concern for our horticultural dilemma. I’d planned for the job to take an hour. Six hours later, I dragged my weary self into the house and called it a day.
You know, though, how Charlottesville has been syphoning off so much of my energy in so many other ways lately. Our dear, broken town has been splayed across the news, and it’s not going away–last night CNN had a link to a livestream of our town’s City Council meeting–can you believe that? In the middle of Hurricanes and DACA breakdown and North Korea shooting nuclear missiles, there sits our town council with a lead-in from Wolf Blitzer. John, I tell you, on August 12th, I experienced the most vile and vicious ways we degrade ourselves and others. I know racism and antisemitism is still very much with us, but I’ve never seen it bare its fangs– so brazen, without any twinge of conscience. And then, later, I stood between two groups of people spewing the most evil, dehumanizing words at one another. I will never forget that. Never. And though I would never want three people to die to be able to get to this point, I am grateful that now our wounds, festering so long, are in the open, that we simply cannot ignore them. I hope that now we can embrace serious national repentance. I hope that we can truly become brothers and sisters, that we can make communities where everyone truly belongs.
You talked about the In-Between. I feel that all the time. I feel it, for instance, in trying to navigate how to live well in a time where we cycle from one crisis to the next, rarely without any moment to catch our breath or think deeply, certainly no time to think clearly. One downside (of many) to the 24-hour news cycle and firehose-style social media is that we are tempted to believe we can have (or should have) our finger and our mind on every issue, every crisis, every worthy concern. But we can’t. Only God can do that. If we think that we have no responsibility to engage the sorrows and injustices of our world, we need God to expand our heart. However, if we think that we are responsible to confront every sorrow and injustice of our world, we need God to chasten our bloated (and destructive) delusions.
Of course, for many of us, our overblown sense of responsibility comes from the shame blasted out from those who like to sound like God, only with a heap of self-righteousness poured on top. A long time ago, I gave up giving someone else that level of authority in my life. I’ve got my hands full trying to follow Jesus’ voice; I can’t tune in to the million-voice siren call on Facebook too.
All this reminds me of Ignatius who often signed off his letters with this inspiring jolt: Go set the world aflame! That’ll get the blood flowing, won’t it? We do need more people striking their match. However, Ignatius also regularly insisted on our need to foster a Holy Indifference. This Holy Indifference was Ignatius’ way of describing an abiding trust in God that keeps us from getting swept away in the emotions and demands of those things (and often good things) that simply take over more energy than they should. It’s not a call to apathy, not by any means. However, it is, as one writer put it,”peaceful acceptance, realistic expectations, and careful consideration.” If we have indifference but no flame, we’ll waste our life. And if we have the flame but no indifference, we’ll just burn, burn til there’s nothing playful or hopeful or curious left in us at all.
I know saying goodbye to the kids was hard. I wish Miska and I could have walked over to check in on you and Mer after the farewells. I see those days coming toward us over the horizon. I’m going to be a blubbering dad when it’s our turn. But before then, Miska and I are celebrating our 20th. And we’re doing it in style. We’re heading to Ireland on Sunday to do a walking tour of the Kerry Way, just the bags over our shoulder, the mist on our heads, the green clover under our feet. We’ll walk from village to village. I can’t wait. I plan to practice a little Holy Indifference on the trail.
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.
This may seem like a story about football, but it’s really a story about love.
In 2001, Miska and I moved to Clemson, South Carolina, where a little town and a little circle of friends welcomed us and, over the years, became part of the intimate fabric of our lives. I’ve been passionate for college football since I was a boy, but I was unprepared for Clemson. When we arrived, the Tigers’ football program was mediocre, flashes of brilliance overwhelmed by moments of disaster. However, the Clemson faithful captured me. They were generous to the fans of opposing teams, unflinchingly supportive of their school and all sports, had the most massive tailgate parties, were rabid in their enthusiasm (I mean, orange overalls…) and there was something sturdy mixed in with all this that went far deeper than only winning or losing. As Dabo Swinney, Clemson’s coach, says, “It’s all about love.” That says it right. These Clemson people loved their school, their history, the Blue Ridge mountains that surrounded them. And they loved one another. It’s cliche, I know, but the place really is like a big family – and it gets in your bones. So many of our dearest friends were Clemson students or alums, and they exuded a vibrancy, a joy, that was radiant. Like a bee to honey, I couldn’t resist.
I went to a small private college and never had this kind of loyalty or esprit de corps around a university. Once I realized what had happened to me and how, without intending to, I had thrown in my lot with Clemson, I’ve always wished I had attended the school or been a fan since childhood. However, both our boys have this. They were born in Clemson, and when they were only wee tikes I’d carry them atop my shoulders into Death Valley. Seth was all-in orange and purple from the beginning, and after we moved to Charlottesville, Virginia, every year for Seth’s birthday, we road trip to a Clemson home game (sometimes Wyatt joins for a second game or the Spring game). Seth’s a man of tradition, and every year, he wants the same routine: pick him up at noon from school with Bodo’s packed for lunch, stop at Zaxby’s in SC for dinner, pre-game lunch at Moe’s on game day, a stop in at Judge Keller’s or the Tiger Sports Shop to look at gear, scream like mad for 3.5 hours inside Memorial Stadium, dinner at Bojangles on the ride home. Obviously, good nutrition is not a priority. Those weekends are about a day on the gridiron, but they’re so much more. It’s a father and a son, sharing a passion, putting miles on the road together. It’s me enacting, year after year, how much I adore this son of mine. I hope he’ll remember, come every fall and even when he’s old, how much he was loved.
So when Clemson stamped their ticket for a trip to the 2016 College Football National Championship, there was pandemonium in our house. I looked at tickets early, but they were astronomical. However, on Saturday night before the game, I saw how ticket prices had plummetted and how redeye flights to Vegas were dirt cheap. So, I woke the boys Sunday morning and told them to pack their bags because we were heading to Phoenix. Their eyes went wide, they jumped out of bed, and the next three days were a joyful, chaotic flurry. I never imagined being able to actually sit in the stands at a National Championship game, especially cheering on your team. And to surprise my boys with this trip and then sit between them, one of them hanging their arm around my shoulder the entire fourth quarter – that was pure magic.
After arriving home from Phoenix and hoping that Clemson-lightning would strike twice, I reserved a hotel on the outskirts of Tampa, the sight for the game more than a year away. I snagged a good price, and I knew that come January 2017, rooms would be scarce and prices outrageous. I did this in hopes for one more opportunity to take the boys to see Clemson play for all the marbles, maybe even a chance at redemption since they came up short in the desert. The boys knew we’d try our best to go again; however, this year, ticket prices never came down and as of Saturday night this time, they were hovering around $1200 a piece. I told the boys the chances of finding tickets we could afford were next to nil and that it probably made sense to admit we’d done our best but to call it quits. Seth, ever the faithful one, said, “But dad, we’ve got to at least try. And anyway, I just want the trip and the experience with you.” After clearing the lump in my throat, I loaded up the car.
We left Sunday morning at 6 a.m. and drove through North Carolina where, for more than 2 hours on I-95, we creeped and skidded across sheets of ice. The temperature gauge said 1˚. Every time I thought of turning the car around, I’d look over at Wyatt and Seth, eager, hopeful. We kept pointing South. On Monday, we pulled into the HCC parking lot at Raymond James Stadium and over the next 3.5 hours worked the parking lots and sidewalks in search of tickets. The entire time, we saw only 2 genuine tickets (along with a number of scalpers hawking counterfeits), and they were $2,000 each. The boys were troopers, but I’ll be honest, I was struggling. I wanted so badly to at least get those boys in, at least get Seth in.
About an hour before kickoff, when things were looking grim, we made our way over to the one merchandise tent we could find because Seth had decided that if he couldn’t get inside, he at least wanted to get one of the Clemson National Championship scarves. Of course, the scarves were all sold out. Are you freaking kidding me? Maybe this is the place where I’m supposed to say that the trip was epic and we made memories and getting tickets wasn’t really the point. But getting tickets was at least part of the point. The trip was indeed epic, and I’m so glad we gave it a go. But it still smarts, that we were right there, so close, and I couldn’t get them inside.
Finally, as the bands and the announcer warmed up the crowd for the tip off and after it became obvious there were no tickets to be had, we dashed to our car, dialed up the radio and gunned it toward the hotel. We rushed into the Flying J Truck Stop, loading up on pizza, wings, Dr. Pepper, “fruit” snacks and blueberry muffins. We raced to our room and for the next 4 hours raised holy ruckus on the third floor of the Country Inn & Suites. When Deshaun Watson threw that final TD to Hunter Renfrow, we screamed and pounded and ran in circles. Wyatt jumped up and down on the bed like it was a trampoline. My eyes may have been wet.
That night, Wyatt came over to me and laid his hunk of a frame over me, placed his arms around my neck and buried his head into my chest. “Dad, it’s okay that we didn’t get into the game. I just wanted to watch it with you.” So yeah, it’s all about love. It truly is.
I planned for the Christmas of 1988 for at least 7 months. It was my senior year in high school, and I knew everything in my world would be changing. Soon, I’d leave home for college and I’d move into new orbits and of course, I’d be scraping pennies for the foreseeable future. So beginning in May, I revved up the lawnmower and went to work, cutting yards all summer and squirreling away almost every dollar. In December, I reached deep into the top drawer where, for months, I’d stashed my loot and pulled out fistfuls of greenbacks. I spread the treasure onto the floor, mouth agape. There I was, like Scrooge McDuck, rollicking in all the wealth. I counted $1250.
For the next two weeks, I went on a buying spree, intending to surprise my family (including my grandparents and Great Grandma Sparks) with the most lavish gifts on Christmas morning. I don’t remember a thing I bought, save one. At Service Merchandise, I found a combo tape player/radio deck that mounted under the kitchen cabinet, above the counter. My mom, a musical soul if ever there was one, could listen to Perry Como or the London Philharmonic while whipping up her chicken, broccoli and rice casserole or her parmesan chicken bites.
While I don’t remember most of the gifts, I remember the feeling. I remember wrapping those boxes and slipping them under the tree, so eager for everyone to catch first sight of them and wonder what in blue Christmas blazes was going on. I remember my joy at watching them unwrap their presents, the joy at doing something that felt, to a 17 year old, outrageous.
Some of us poo-poo gift-giving this time of year, and I acknowledge we’ve run amuck with our lust for more. I can only say I’m so glad I spent a summer sweating and saving, that I blew every dime I had, saying “I love you” in one grand, extravagant gesture that, for me, felt like tossing a match onto a pile of cash. And I think my mom was grateful too; she kept that tape player in the kitchen long after cassette tapes were overwhelming landfills the world over. It stayed right there until the day mom and dad said goodbye to that old house. I like to think that some days, after I was off in Colorado or South Carolina with a family of my own, that she would stop and look at that worthless pile of metal and plastic and smile and maybe put her hand to her breast and remember.