Sulfur and Fire

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.

A Vast and Rugged Grace

The Rio Grande. 2021

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.

Sunset at Big Bend, 2021

Two of Our Troubles

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.

Friend

Photo by Derek Sutton

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.

Lean if You Need to

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.

Happy Christmas.

An Echo of Thanks

“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.

A Political Hope

Andreea Popa

One of my deep alarms as a Christian (and a pastor) in our current political moment is how often we–both right and left–surrender our unique story and conviction and identity. Rather than speaking a prophetic word, revealed and made possible in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, we are virtually indistinguishable from whatever our party line happens to be. The other side is evil. We are righteous. With predictable knee-jerk reaction, we imbibe the talking points of our new gods, and we worship at the altar of our enraged moral certainty and superiority.

I’m drawn to those strange creatures whose political life mirrors both the action and the posture of Jesus, who seek righteousness and justice alongside humility and love. I’m watching out for those rare persons who do not allow their Christian faith to be subsumed by either a conservative or a progressive vision–but who, because Jesus is always a perplexing and disruptive reality, confound the labels and assumptions all of us have accepted as the bare, incontrovertible facts. Strange, isn’t it, that the one thing we agree on–the labels we must use and the binaries we must live within–is the very lie that devours us.

I’m desperate for people who do not flinch from speaking and enacting the hard and necessary truth, even as they cling to mercy and redemption, bewildering us with their open seat for those we’re supposed to despise. I’m desperate for people whose passionate devotion (precisely because of their Christian conviction) for the full spectrum of life, for the well-being of every human, for honesty and integrity and fairness and humanness and robust, full-orbed justice, makes them simultaneously a dear and bedeviling friend.

I’m hopeful for an awakening of Christians whose burning desire and commitment is to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul and mind—and then to love our neighbors (all of our neighbors) as ourselves.

A Joy Born of Desperation

Jonatan Pie

A couple friends and I have an ongoing text chain, sometimes emails too, that goes back years. It’s mostly stream-of-consciousness: bits of poetry, prayers for work and marriage and children, cunning and astute observations, theological squabbles, recipes and beautiful pictures, rounds of witty repartee that we’ll keep to ourselves, and rants on whatever nonsense various numbskulls have inflicted upon social media that day. In the past week, each one of us has offered our own version of the same conviction: we’re in desperate need of joy.

Joy’s hard won these days. At least if you’re breathing and paying half attention. It can appear naive or brittle or uncaring to pursue (and even more to publicly profess) joy whenever it seems like Rome’s burning. And yet joy —true joy– is not denial of the pain or treachery. Joy does not sing syrupy lullabies in place of the funeral dirge. Rather, joy walks through the valley of shadows, all the while refusing to crumble or relent. Joy endures. Joy gathers the tears and the wounds and the crushing disappointment, all the while brazenly resisting the devastating lie that these tears and wounds, these evils and disappointments, are the truest story. Joy clings to faith with a dogged grip. Indeed, Joy is hard won.

Anyone can pump out pollyannaish clichés. Conversely, anyone can wallow in gloom and cynicism. But to live in the reality of things and yet be adamant in the pursuit of joy–that requires a stout, courageous soul. “We must have,” as Jack Gilbert insisted, “the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless furnace of the world.” This is one of the many places where we must have the hard-won wisdom of those who’ve suffered at the margins, those who’ve sat on the razor edge. Listen to the songs of the oppressed. Hear their poetry and their stories. Sit around their tables. They teach us how to name injustice, yes. But what strikes me most is how they teach us to be fierce, unrelenting and obstinate, with our joy.

Jonathan Hiskes described the late Brian Doyle’s work as “a mystical project born both of joy and desperation.” That touches the core. A joy born of desperation. A joy we cling to because we know in our bones that to live without joy, without the hope and faith and love that makes joy possible, is to abandon life itself.

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.