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.

Don’t Lose Heart


Whenever Jesus wanted to encourage his friends to keep praying and to not lose heart, he told them a story. It was a strange story, I’ll grant you: a tenacious widow who badgered a louse of a judge until the scoundrel relented and handed her a legal verdict, though only to get her off his back. Nonetheless, the odd story did the necessary work. We need stories to help us remember that all is not lost, that what we see in this dire moment is not all there is to see, that God is not nearly so far away as it may appear.

People of faith have always told one another stories in order to keep the fire burning. When I was young, we called these stories testimonies. We knew we needed to bear witness to the faithful love that carries us even through the howling night. We needed to receive one another’s faith in those weary stretches where our faith was weak and faltering. God knows, it’s the easiest thing in the world to lose heart. It’s the easiest thing in the world to sink into despair or cynicism.

And so Jesus told a story and said, Keep praying. Don’t lose heart. I think this is one good way to describe prayer: the refusal to lose heart, the refusal to relenquish our hope in God.

So hear these words today: Do not lose heart. I know our world is in the thick of it, ripping at the seams – but do not lose heart. I know your family may be buckling under the crush – but do not lose heart. I know you may feel you are alone without any true friend who knows the deepest parts of you – but do not lose heart. I know you may be tired of holding on, tired of playing your fiddle while the boat sinks – but do not lose heart. I know the questions and the fears claw at your soul – but do not lose heart.

I’ll keep telling my stories, and you keep telling yours. When one of us lags or buckles, we’ll pick each other up, knock off the dust, keep walking toward the dawn. Together, we’ll stand up bold, even if a bit wobbly, and we’ll refuse to relinquish our faith or our hope or our love. Somehow, we’ll make it through.


Smith Lake Trail, MT
Cairn on Swift Creek Trail up toward Smith Lake | Whitefish, MT

After meandering several hours through Swift Creek Trail’s old growth (Hemlocks, Larches and Ponderosa Pines) while walking to the rhythm of the woodpecker’s rat-a-tat-tat, I climbed through a cool, dense section and spied a cairn atop the knoll. Cairns have become one of my favorite encounters on any tramp through the woods. I like to stop and add a pebble atop the mound, to mark that I too have passed this way, to offer quiet thanks for the land and the sky and the trees.

Cairns are far more than ornamental. On more than one occasion, they have rescued this directionally-challenged fellow from a cold, dark night stranded only God-knows-where. On our walk through the Scottish Highlands a couple years ago, cairns dotted the way, granite fingers pointing us through eerie, moss-covered forest. Last summer hiking down Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park, the route cut across vast slabs of slick rock with no trail markers other than cairns, like lighthouses, guiding the way.

Cairns tell us that we are not alone, that others have walked this lonesome path and that if we’ll just keep putting one foot in front of the other, we’ll make it – do not fear, we’ll make it. Cairns appear along the trail only enough to keep us from getting entirely lost; they are scattered, keeping us watchful, curious, a little uncertain, always scanning for signs of hope. Cairns don’t remove the struggle or the adventure; they certainly don’t map out the miles ahead. But they do tell us to keep on trudging. They gives us signs from those who’ve gone before us, and they invite us to leave signs for still others who will follow. Cairns tell us the night will not devour us. Cairns lead us home.

At our old house, we have a small cairn beside both our front door and our back door, our beacons of hope. One more step, friends. One more tiny bit, sons we love. One more act of courage, weary souls. You can make it. You’re almost home.

A Snow Storm and a Dust Pan

our neighborhood, while the storm was just getting started
seth and I taking a stroll in our neighborhood, when the storm was just getting started

A crushing snow storm, where the wild forces level our hubris and render all plans futile, offers a good reminder. We see again the raw beauty of this world, a beauty we did not create and could never pretend to control. And we see neighbors, large scoop shovels slung over their shoulders, walking down the middle of the snow-packed street, laughing, saying hello, grinning like a kid playing hooky. Is it possible we had forgotten that we are members, not makers, of this world? Is it possible we had forgotten that we belong to one another?

Last evening (after showering and returning to the comfort of my flannel pjs), I stood at our front balcony and peered with satisfaction over the work my father-in-law and I accomplished: digging a car out of the snow drift, clearing the sidewalks, scraping the driveway. Down the street, I saw a young couple new to our area and unprepared for a whiteout, chipping away at the colossal mound of white burying their red Mitsubishi. He had only a small garden spade, and she was doing the best she could, attacking the crusty pile with her plastic dust pan.

I called down, “Would you like a shovel?” She looked up and grinned. “If you have an extra, that would be great.” They took their pick of what I had to offer and dispensed of their mountain in no time. I was glad to assist, but I was also glad that I saw that woman whittling away at that impossible pile of snow. I enjoyed the strange and amusing sight of such fierce determination accompanied with such inadequate tools. More, though, I loved how this woman knew there was a job to be done, and that the snow was not going to sprout legs and move itself. All she had was a dust pan, and so that flimsy bit of plastic would have to do.

We really are a marvelous people living in a stunning and marvelous world.

Good Ol’ Words: Member

I was making myself at home. In the dark way of the world I had come to know what would be my life’s place, though I could not yet know the life I would live in it…I had come unknowing into what Burley would have called the ‘membership’ of my life. I was becoming a member of Port William. {Wendell Berry, Hannah Coulter}

More than a few years ago, ecclesiastical authorities pulled me from my seminary womb, spanked me on the butt and scribbled my name on an ordination certificate. They sent me into the world, green and ignorant but effusive with zeal. One of my enterprising ideals was to de-bunk the ossified notion of church membership. I tinkered with the possiblity that the whole affair was a formality offering little more umph than signing up for the YMCA. We wanted ‘organic community.’ We wanted to ‘authentically live life together.’ We didn’t want structures but wanted to do ‘life on life.’ Apparently, we also wanted to prop up a few clichés.

While it is true that the deepest forms of community do not require an official roll or imposed framework, there is also something about the commitment and responsibility inherent in the old ways that I too easily dismissed. The older you get, the more you realize that relationships and communities rarely happen – and are never sustained – naturally. Friendships require effort. Families require us to make difficult decisions about priorities, budgets and lifestyle. Neighborhood gardens need a plan for when folks plant seeds and pull weeds. This fact shouldn’t surprise us because it’s woven into the way of the universe. Those who are supposed to know tell me that the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics insists that most every substance left to itself degrades over time, naturally.

My life with Miska is the most natural, hand-in-the-glove, reality I know. We certainly have made a practice of life-on-life. You could even call us organic lovers if you like. But I’ll tell you – this marriage gig is work, and it requires a kind of radical commitment best represented by solemn vows spoken before God and pastor and every witness who hears us say I do.

St. Paul spoke of life in Christ’s Church as one where we are all members of one body. We’re fixed to one another. We share space and blood and history. We don’t get to walk away from one another. To do so would require a violent severing; and after, we’d only shrivel and die. This is one of the beauties of family: you don’t get to choose who your family is — and we all have to learn how to be ourselves and how to let others be themselves even when those selves are very different. Love has to take priority.

While the wise apostle helped to reform my wayward views, Wendell Berry probably helped even more. In his novels, we’re given a picture of a community bound by history and heritage and land to a particular place and story. This bond makes them who they are. The neighbors who settled in his fictitious landscape are known as “the membership of Port William.”

I wonder what would happen if rather than viewing our towns or neighborhoods merely as habitats where we plop down and pay taxes, we entered with the understanding that our mere presence means we are joining a membership, a living order intertwined with one another’s past and future. I wonder what would happen if rather than viewing our churches merely as institutions where we plop down and pay taxes, we entered with the understanding that our mere presence means we are joining a membership, a living order where bad sermons and good pot-lucks, wise pastors and grumpy pew-mates (or grumpy pastors and wise pew-mates), dry seasons and fits of joy all contribute to the long story, the long membership. This membership is not a means to some other vision; this membership is itself the good work, the beautiful narrative enacted by the gracious fusion of misfit souls. As Wendell says, “Members of Port William aren’t trying to ‘get someplace.’ They think they are someplace.”

When Hannah Coulter found herself gathered into the membership, without judgment or resistance due to her status as a late-comer, she described the grace she received. “They let me belong to them and to their place, and I needed to belong somewhere.” We all do.


image: canjosh

Lil’ Help from our Friends

bike community

Years ago, when our boys were little, we had a small community of friends that gathered in our home for several years. One evening, our oldest (three at the time) asked, in eager expectation, whether our friends were coming over. “Yes,” I answered. “Why do you like having them here?”

My son paused only a moment. “Because they love us. And they help us fight the dragons.”

In the years previous and the years since, I’m not sure I’ve heard a better definition of friendship than this one from my three-year-old. Friends (true friends) love the person we are, not the person they imagine we are or the person we pretend to be. Friends clasp arms with us as together we swing at the darkness.

I’ve often wondered what the future will reveal about how we’ve raised our sons, how we’ve done with our hopes to help them become good men who live good lives. I wonder if our meandering efforts will prove enough to help them take their good place in this topsy-turvy world. I will tell you this, though: the friends who have been in our life (thus, the friends who have been in their lives) will play a larger role in all this than most of us imagine.

When I think about how I hope to love my sons along the path toward becoming their true selves, my mind turns to the people they are blessed to encounter. There’s Tom, the master carpenter, who takes us into his shop with the massively cool racks of hand tools and takes us for walks in the woods surrounding his land, all of which exudes presence, attentiveness and respect for craft and place. There’s Corey and Juli, who’ve loved them since the day each of them came squealing into this world. There’s Debbie who asks tender, meaningful questions, provoking care and curiosity. There’s John, the poet, who sits at the kitchen table for games of Farkle and carries delight in how our boys are full-on boys, delighting too in how they are becoming men (but not yet, not yet). There’s Raul who gives them hugs and kisses on the cheek, as he does each of us each time he arrives, then pulls out his guitar for a jam session or pulls from his days as a coffee roaster and teaches my sons the art of the single pour. These friends are merely a sample – and on top of grandparents, uncle and aunts, so much love. We have so many good people in our lives, so many gifts. So many teachers.

John Lennon said he got by with a little help from his friends. We all do.

A Seat Just for You

For a variety of reasons, during our years in the city school system, neither of our sons have ridden the bus. This year, however, they both start new schools, and they both will be passengers on the big yellows. Today was the launch, and the last 48 hours they’ve been a bundle of nerves. Do you think there will be a seat on the bus for me? Do you think I’ll know anyone on the bus? I hope I have a friend on the route.

This morning, before putting on his brave face and his over-stuffed pack, Seth told me, “Right now, I’m 12-14% nervous.”

Downtown, there’s a breakfast crew that meets every weekday morning at Cafe Cubano. For over 25 years, this cadre of friends has sloshed coffee, passed the news and (as they’ve told me) come to be family for one another. On my morning run, I noticed a new couple had joined the circle, a man and woman in their mid-sixties. Two more seats were pulled up to the table. The conversation was lively as always, only now new voices joining the fray.

I ran past, smiling and wondering what it must have felt like to be invited into that tightly knit group, one with such a history and story, how grand it must have been to have someone point to a chair and say, “Hey, this is for you.”

Decades separate the hearts in these two events today, but the moments are not so different. Children grow up, but we all still wonder if there will be a seat saved for us.

We Need More Barbershops

barbershop1I’ve always wanted the experience of Calvin, Eddie, and JD in Barbershop – or those ragamuffin friends who shared gossip and Mayberry’s political intrigue under the lather of Floyd the barber. If I ever found an Eddie, I’d go in at least twice a week for a trim, but mainly to get the wisdom and to leave with a belly aching from waves of deep-gut laughter.

Instead, my last twenty years have been spent jumping from shop to shop, mostly vanilla corporate enterprises with all the zest and character of a microwave waffle. The models plastered on all the posters look like they stepped out of Abercrombie & Fitch, heads overflowing with perfect hair and eyes offering that ‘come hither’ smoky gaze. The fellas in the pictures surely have the six-pack abs to match, six more reasons I know I don’t belong. Usually, the stylist takes quick inventory of me, cueing up her pitch for product sales. My ever-widening bald spot is the easy target. Typically, I can’t count to 50 before I hear: “So, have you ever thought of trying our hair growth system?” or “I wonder if you’d be interested in our hair-thickening shampoo?” Eddie wouldn’t be caught dead in a joint like this.

I think Eddie wouldn’t be caught dead in a lot of the places we create. For all our talk about building communities (can you even actually build a community?), I wonder if what we’re frantically and fastidiously replicating is really only a bland and hollow shop where we hawk our wares and put our best face forward, where we can get things done as efficiently as possible.

I tell you, I want something jagged and real, even if it’s abrasive and unpredictable. I want the kind of friendships, the kind of church, where it’s plain as day that, from beginning to end, the only thing holding that tattered lot together is grace and good old fashioned forgiveness. I want to belong to a place where you know that if you pull that one scraggly string, the whole kit and caboodle would unravel to the ground. But nobody pulls that string because the love that binds you is too strong. So you simply let the string hang, and it reminds you to never get carried away by the illusions that you’ve got everything squared.

Several weeks ago, I went into one of these style shops and was surprised to discover I had stepped into a jolt of real life. There was an older woman seated behind me, her hair up in foil. Several other women were gathered round her, and they were emphatically extolling the virtues of the TV drama Dallas. One of the friends explained how she planned to catch up on the latest episode from her DVR that evening. “Oh, you are in for a treat tonight,” the foiled woman answered, with a twinge of gleeful revenge. “The Ewings are going to get their due.” Several other women slapped their legs and cackled their agreement.

“Now isn’t JR dead?” asked one woman who was not yet part of the Dallas obsession.

“Oh, JR is dead,” answered the foiled woman. “Dead dead. He died for real, so they had to kill him off right.”

“Yeah, he’s dead,” a third woman added. “He’s dead, and he’s not coming back.”

The whole bunch of ladies fell into laughter. The Ewings were going to get their due, and that was mighty fine with them.

I think Eddie would have stayed in this shop a while, me too.

Of Waffles and Belonging

Last Thursday morning, the day Miska and I celebrated fifteen years of gritty love, I sang Seth a tune while he pulled on his sneakers for school: Dad’s taking mom to breakfast to celebrate / Dad’s taking mom to breakfast to celebrate / Oh yeah, Dad’s taking mom to breakfast to celebrate (it’s best if you snap along).

Seth exhaled an agonizing groan. “Nooooo fair, Dad. You get to go to Waffle House!”

Of course, Waffle House hadn’t crossed our mind. We did consider The Pigeon Hole, a little house in the University district where, if you like, you can sit in the cobblestoned courtyard underneath a massive oak tree and order red-eye gravy laced with Shenandoah Joe’s coffee grounds. We did consider Blue Moon on Main Street where your first move upon arrival is to look up at the blackboard in the corner by the fireplace to see which gourmet thick-sliced bacon they’re offering (the Moon is where you’re likely to see a person order, all at once, an apple omelete, griddle cakes and a shot of jack daniels). The Nook downtown was an option, where you can enjoy French Toast while watching the town walk by. Of course, we could always pick the Bluegrass Grill, where you endure their kitsch garage sale mugs in order to lock your lips on the most astounding home fries. We did not think Waffle House.

Every month or two, however, we’ll pass by the House of the Waffle, and Wyatt will say, “Dad, you’ve really got to take us there again.”

“Yeah,” I say. “We’ll do that…Sometime.”

My boys like the waitresses who call you “honey” and the short order cooks with the yellow hats who yell out orders like a minor league umpire. They like the hash browns, the pancakes, the sticky syrup at the table. However, I believe they like Waffle House mainly because several years ago, in Clemson, I took them for a guy’s Saturday morning. We sat at the bar next to a guy from New England wearing his Boston College jersey and in town for the game with the Tigers. The atmosphere was crowded and rowdy. We chatted game day and drank coffee — and the boys were included in the ritual.

I also believe Wyatt and Seth like Waffle House because two years ago, when my dad was visiting, he wanted to take all the guys to breakfast. We had three generations lined up at those counter seats. The boys filled their bellies and joked with Pa and were inaugurated, amid maple syrup and OJ, to a family of men.

Every place in this world of ours, every place, can be a space of holy memory, of love, of belonging.

God’s Body {why the church.4}

The church is not an ideal to be striven for; she exists and they’re within her. 
{Georges Bernanos, Diary of a Country Priest}

In retrospect, I can say that I joined the church out of basic need; I was becoming a Christian, and as the religion can’t be practiced alone, I needed to try to align myself with a community of faith. {Kathleen Norris}

Church is the core element in the strategy of the Holy Spirit for providing human witness and physical presence to the Jesus-inaugurated kingdom of God in this world. It is not the kingdom complete, but it is a witness to that kingdom.
{Eugene Peterson}

We are tempted to think of the church primarily as a human affair, our human arrangement to try to get religious stuff done. We believe God wants us to follow certain principles and directives, that God wants us to make our world better – but it’s up to us to figure out how exactly to go about it. Church, in this paradigm, is the way we organize our religious activity for the greatest efficiency and broadest impact. God gives us the goal (sometimes articulated as getting to heaven or raising healthy families or transforming society), but the energy, the strategy, the humph — well, that’s all us. It makes sense then that when the church isn’t “working,” when it doesn’t seem efficient (and it rarely is) or productive, we should take our leave. We cancel our membership in the club and go look for another, more productive stratagem. Or we just give up, dog-tired and disillusioned.

However, the church is not what we are making of the world. The church is something God is making in the world. The church is God’s creation, not ours. The church is first an expression of what God is doing (and has been doing since In the beginning…). The church exists as this physical mystery crafted from the raw material, the timber and stone, of God’s people — those people whom God is “fitting in brick by brick, stone by stone, with Christ Jesus as the cornerstone that holds all the parts together.”(Eph 2:21)

And this imagery of God as a master craftsmen fashioning a strong, sturdy abode is pitch-perfect for how Scripture describes what God is up to in and among us. God does not meddle primarily in theories or abstractions. God’s core impulse is incarnation. God always goes physical. Christian faith is not ideals and principles and morals separated from the mortar and sinew of physicality and relationships. Christian faith is always embodied. This is why Paul would say, “we see [God’s people, the church] taking shape day after day—a holy temple built by God, all of us built into it, a temple in which God is quite at home.” (Eph 2:22)

We see it. We touch it. We live in it, with others. We experience it. We love (and are loved) within it. We are frustrated by it. We hope for it to be more. We are surprised by the grace it offers. We find it clunky. We find it strange. And we know deep down that we are missing something true whenever we are distanced from it…And, in those distant spaces, we often sense a yearning within us to return home.

It almost sounds like, well, a family.

Family is about right. Paul uses precisely this picture to help us grasp a sense of the church’s essence (Eph 2:19). Scripture gives us multiple other images as well (one theologian counted ninety-six), all unique and varied, multi-faceted. However, what we will notice with almost every image is its physicality. It is something of substance, something tangible, something you can get your hands on, something you can live in or with. Something you see. The church is a city (Rev 21:2), a tribe/people (I Pet 2:9), fishermen (Mark 1:17), salt (Matt 5:13), branches on the tree (John 15:5), God’s farm (I Cor 3:9), God’s building (I Cor 3:9) and a letter (2 Cor 3:2-3), to name a few. The church is not a philosophy,  an ethical system, a warm, gooey sentimental feeling. The church is flesh and bones.

It’s popular to say we like Jesus but we don’t like the church. I understand; I’ve said it myself. However, Jesus and the church are inseparable. The church is Jesus’ body (I Cor 12:27). The church is how Jesus embodies himself in the world. The church is how God goes physical. To say we want Jesus but not the church is like saying we want love but not marriage. Or friendship without the tangible commitment of time and presence, desiring some vague notion attached to the concept of friendship without the hard work of actually being a friend.

My hunch is this: many of us give up on the church because we expect both too much and too little. We expect too much because we have been sold big jugs of grade C moonshine. It never tastes as good as promised. We’ve bought an ideal, what the church is supposed to be, a place where no one is lonely and everyone gets their God-fix and we are always fulfilled (or quickly moving that direction) — and we are certain to see tangible, immediate results of how our life is better, our kids are clean and keen, and our world is being transformed before our very eyes. But we aren’t an ideal. We are a family. And families have weird uncles and feuds and kids who get carted off to jail. Families have lots of love and rich stories, but there’s always pain and disappointment and seasons where it’s just plain vanilla, unexciting. Families need to forgive and to repent. And keep becoming more and more who God has in mind for them to be. However, there is something of profound beauty and value embodied in a family, even amid all its lunacy and disfunction.

At the same time, we expect too little of church. We miss the mysterious and everyday ways God takes on flesh and bone. We need eyes to see how we are being formed into a new kind of person, amid a new kind of community. These long stretches of commonness — living with others, hearing each other’s stories, discovering our vocations, working through the irritation of friendship with people who see the world differently than we do, raising our kids, loving (and being annoyed by) our neighbors, working through the joys and pains of our marriage (or singleness) — are the necessary, mundane ways God has chosen to take up residence it this world.

Every bit of this is physical, every bit necessary. There is no other way.

[further why the church? posts:part one,  twothreefive]