I’m thinking of Eugene and Frederick, the two of them sitting at the same time in the pews at Madison Ave Presbyterian in Manhattan’s Upper East Side, young and open to the world and wild, not knowing each other but both having their profound encounter with grace via the lyric and power of George Buttrick’s preaching. Who could have known how the words would flow, how they’d evoke such wonder in us, such hope, such yearning for a life faithful and beautiful and good.
I hope they are sharing quite a view and a bourbon together now, if it works that way. And I hope that Eugene and Frederick know how much they’ve meant to us, how many of us felt the dark fall back a little when we encountered something so marvelous and simple as a sentence, a string of hearty words put to true use. Can you really open a whole world or put salve to a deep, ancient wound with only one clear, heart-wrenching line? I hope they know how many of us felt less alone and more emboldened and more alive in God because of how they helped us to see and hear and stand in awe.
Frederick, you told us that beautiful and terrible things would happen — but you also told us, “Don’t be afraid.” We’re trying. We really are.
Our family is in County Claire, Ireland, walking the Burren Way. On one stretch, we walked 13 miles to the little village by the sea, Fanore, only to discover this is the burial place of one of Miska’s favorite modern poets, John O’Donohue. He left us too soon, in 2008. The cemetery is a small plot tucked into a stark, bare hillside, with an expansive view of the wild Atlantic. John often said that if we’re to endure times of bleakness, it is essential to always keep the image of something beautiful in your soul. His resting place does just this.
I met a young woman who was visiting the grave of a loved one. She was friends with John and shared stories of how he’d light up every room he entered, and how in the lashing rain, she’d take her dog to the beach — and John would be the only other person out reveling in the tempest along with her. John would ask how she was, and she’d reply with a quick brush-off response.
“No,” he’d say (and you have to hear this in the strong Irish lilt this woman and John shared). “How are you really?”
So, I hope you are keeping your heart’s eye on something beautiful. And I hope you have someone near you who every once in a while says, “No, how are you really.”
There are many travails to being a fellow with as much handyman sense as a medium-sized brick. Winter simply brings new opportunities to reveal my inadequacies.
One morning a couple days ago, I woke to another majestic quilt of white. We received only a few inches, which means I could easily clear the driveway by hand with my snow pusher (not to be confused with a snow shovel or snow scooper or snow scraper—these are the intricate details one learns with a year under their belt in the Northern tundra). However, since winter has so far merely tipped its hat and winked, it seemed time to fire up the Orange Beast and make sure all was well.
My friends, all was not well.
After reviewing the starting instructions (go easy, I only have 1 season of experience), I meticulously clipped through the regimen: open the fuel line, turn on the choke, insert the ignition key, flip the start switch, pump the primer bulb. Each in precise order, a NASA engineer prepping for launch. Then, moment of truth: I pulled the start rope, expecting that mighty roar, that blast of horsepower, that potent rumble validating my masculinity.
Instead, I only strained my shoulder, pull after clattering pull. This is a new blower, mind you. I’ve used it 6-7 times. I haven’t even bothered to remove the tags. It still gleams. Yet there I was in my garage, eyeing my machine intently, lifting wires, rubbing the top of the engine like it was a bottle holding a genie, doing all the sorts of things one does whenever you’re trying to be useful but have no idea what you’re doing or what you’re even looking for.
Two manuals. Multiple YouTube videos. Scrolling the manufacturer’s website FAQ’s. More YouTube.
After hours of this infuriating madness, the only thing I’d discovered that I hadn’t yet tried was replacing the spark plug. It’s possible that—due to someone who shall not be named maybe over-priming the gas—the plug may have fouled. But true to form for me, one fixit possibility opens 3 new problems. One needs a spark plug wrench (what size?). One apparently needs a spark plug gap gauge. One needs to know how to gap the spark plug and how to replace it.
“This is so simple,” you say. Well, for you, yes, I understand. That’s the point of this sad tale. This is how the shame piles on for guys like me. These are the travails.
I’m happy to report that after a bit more YouTube, visits to two automotive stores, and one wrestling match with a socket set, I did in fact get my spark plug replaced. And I did (cue Handel’s Messiah) hear the Orange Beast roar. I let it purr for 2-3 minutes to clear the lines—but mainly to revel in my triumph. “Who’s King of the garage now?”
But then, rolling my blower away, I saw a large stainless steel nut and washer lying on the ground, exactly where my blower had just been. I’ve combed over every inch of this blasted machine, thumbed through schematics (twice). I have no idea from whence it came, no idea whether it’s an unessential add-on or whether, on some freezing January morning, my blower will wheeze and jolt and crumble.
I keep looking at my blower intently, curiously, lifting wires, as if I have some clue. I do not. And that metal nut and washer lie there. “Rookie,” they say, shaking their head.
On Christmas Eve, I always need to take at least an hour and get out into the holiday energy. It began as a boy when my dad, who commenced his Christmas shopping around 2:00 on the 24th, would take me with him to Cox’s department store and load up gifts for mom. Every year, the bedraggled but somehow still standing folks in the the gift wrapping department knew they could pack up their silver paper and red bows for the season as soon as they finished with my dad and his boxes .
I’ve carried on a version of this tradition, venturing out for a few final stocking stuffers and a couple items we don’t need from the grocery. Some years I cave and buy eggnog that I’ll drink alone. Really, I’m heading out to see the smiles and feel the joy. These gifts are too rare these days. There’s so little we share, so little that feels neighborly, so little that makes me believe maybe we still remember that we belong to one another.
This year on Christmas Eve, I found myself at Aldi where a scruffy, white-bearded man in jeans and a black and grey flannel checked out in front of me. Among his items was a dozen roses. After paying, he pulled out one rose and handed it to the cashier. She blushed, said thank you. On his way out, he handed a rose to every cashier in the row. One fellow leaned against his cart, waiting for a woman swiping her card through the machine. The white bearded florist tapped the fellow on the shoulder. “Give this to her,” he said, pointing to the woman.
The gift-giver rolled his cart out the sliding doors, leaving a trail of red roses and warm hearts.
Growing up, my mom was always hot, which is a difficulty if you live in Waco, Texas, where it doesn’t feel like proper summer until you can fry eggs sunny side up on the sidewalk. We kept the AC cranking full throttle (with dad marveling at the electric bill, though no big complaint because he liked it as cold as she did). When we were dating and Miska visited, she’d bring winter gear, even in July, to bundle up when indoors. She referred to our house as “the meat locker.”
Despite the arctic frost pouring out our AC vents, mom would mop her forehead and bemoan the heat wave. Miska would be wrapped in a blanket on the couch, a little Arkansas icicle—and mom would be walking through the house, pained, like it was the Sahara Desert under noon’s scorching rays.
Vonda and I really got a laugh, though, when mom would go room to room turning off all the lights. “The lights are radiating heat,” she said, flipping switches as if she were shutting down a nuclear reactor. We’d pass knowing grins and chuckle and just let mom do her thing.
Now we live in Michigan where the summer can roast, but in Texas, we would have called this season Fall. For the past month, our AC was on the fritz, though I’m hesitant to complain due to fear of having my Texan Card revoked. Nevertheless, it was weeks of open windows and refraining from using the oven. It was a struggle. On days when I ran, I took cold showers which helped only a little. Sweat pouring, I’d stand in front of our big floor fan (one worthy of sitting in a mechanic’s bay), begging the heat gods to relinquish me from their furnace.
I found myself going room to room turning off those darn lights, those little incinerators pumping sulfur and fire. I’m sorry I doubted you, mom.
There are places where you sink into the vastness, where you stand silent under the broadest sky, a world you had not recognized until it threatened to swallow you whole. You hear the stillness, a terrible mercy, a gracious reckoning of all you carried into these rugged vistas.
This stunning, wondrous, brutal land does not need me. It asks me for nothing save my reverence. This is God’s country. And I am free.
Many of us live with one, or both, of these millstones around our neck. On the one hand, many of us live with the nagging, often complexly disguised, fear that we’ll be rejected, that we don’t belong, that we’ll do something or say something or be something that will deliver us to the relational guillotine. On the other hand, many of us live with a smoldering, often nobly disguised, anger – the need to have an unambiguous enemy in order to vent our rage and feel secure or meaningful or validated.
I see this in almost every social structure and most ideologies, only the window dressing is different. I see this in myself.
When these two people are in the same room or same conversation and if our compulsions are left unchecked, all kinds of destruction happens. No wonder we’re at war with one another.
I wonder if, when Jesus encouraged us to grow up, he had in mind, among other things, us laying down our fear of rejection and us laying down our demand for an enemy.
I want to be a friend where those close to me feel no fear to share shameful things or express potentially combustible disagreements. I want to be the kind of friend with whom others are at ease, where they sense no need to choose their words cautiously, or be on guard, or be “right.”
I want to be a friend who can receive with openness and curiosity another’s half-baked ideas and uncomfortable questions and untamed grief and raucous laughter–maybe all in the same afternoon, throwing all my own convolutions into the mix. I want to be a friend who adds (rather than depletes) energy, a friend where conversation never really ends, navigating silence as easily as words. I want to be the friend that others call, whether they’ve lost themselves in the bottle or hit the mother lode, with no concern that they’ll meet judgment or envy.
I want to be this kind of friend, and I’m grateful to have a few friends like this as well.
Merry 3rd day of Christmas. Perhaps, like the star atop our tree, you’re knocked sideways, holding tight but barely.
I love our tree, the little fire stove pumping heat next to it, looking out over the quiet carpet of white stretching under the pines behind our house. But this tree’s a quirkster. We cut it because it was the right height and velvety soft, a Michigan fir. But we’ve turned it and twisted it, screwed and re-screwed the base bolts so many times. It leaned to the right. When we fixed that, it leaned left. We straightened it again, and it dipped forward.
Miska finally said, “Well, I think that’s what we have this year.” We chalked it up to 2020 and embraced our little holiday tower of Pisa. And our tilting star. It’s cute, but the Magnolia folks aren’t heading our way for a photo shoot.
Thankfully, all the tree and the star need to do is stand here and evoke wonder. Every night, I unplug the lights, and for a moment, I take in the glow, the warmth, the grace. From this old limpy tree.
It’s genius that Christmastide is 12 days, not one. We couldn’t sustain the emotional high, the expectations, the push. But we can just stand here and lean. We can take in the warmth and wonder of our limpy, marvelous lives. We have 10 more days of joy and grace. Lean or limp, but make certain to laugh. Tilt as needed. Receive what comes. Be curious. Play, waste time. Make merry.
“Grace evokes gratitude like the voice of an echo,” Barth said. So much grace surrounds me. There are so many echoes.
I’m grateful for the wool Pendleton blanket that lays over my lap as I write. I’m grateful for our window-filled sun room at the back of our house, with the black-iron stove in the corner offering flame and heat. I’m thankful for Miska leading us through yoga this morning, for the strong mountain pose as we greeted the rising sun, for our dog Gus lying beside my mat and snuggling close any time I sat for more than a moment. I’m grateful to have Wyatt home, the sound of his guitar filling the house. I’m thankful for Seth, his strong, broad shoulders and the unbidden hug he gave me this morning.
I’m grateful for how, if you get going on your morning run early enough, you can smell Bowerman’s baking their blueberry donuts all the way down James Street, the aroma so thick and potent you want to lick the air. I’m grateful for so many memories of watching the Macy’s Day Parade with my grandmother. I’m grateful for Chris Stapleton’s astounding album Starting Over. I’m grateful for the plants in my study (the Snake Plant, the Chinese Money Plant, the Succulent, and especially the Lemon Cypress that suffered at my novice hands, going brown and crisp). I’m grateful for crunchy peanut butter. I’m grateful for a few friends who make me feel less crazy.
I’m grateful that the Love that Holds the World holds me, holds you, holds all of us together. I’m grateful that this love remains the deep truth even when we fight against it with insane fury.