God is Amused

Most nights, I go to each boy’s bedside and tell them goodnight. I make a slight sign of the cross on their forehead, bless them, say a short prayer for love and rest, tussle their hair and kiss them on the cheek. There are nights when I do this with fatherly joy. There are also nights when, because they are 10 and 11 and have mastered the children’s equivalent of digging their bony elbow into my rawest nerve, I do this in faith, trusting the love I know is there.

One might hope that one’s sons, over the many years enacting this ritual, would sense a little of the gravity and maybe even begin to cherish these moments. I’m not asking my two sons to pit themselves against one another, like Esau and Jacob, scheming or pleading for my better blessing. I’d simply like them to put down Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix or my collector’s edition of Calvin and Hobbes which they took without asking and actually notice that their father loves them, blast it.

Several weeks ago, I was in the room of my youngest. Sign of the cross, prayer, kiss on the cheek. “Good night, bud,” I said, hand on his head. Seth looked up, as if my voiced pulled him out of a fascinating dream sequence. Seth began to chuckle. “What?” I asked.

“Uhmmm…” Seth’s smile broke wide, more laughter. “I wasn’t really paying attention.”

Of course, this is where I jerked my hand away, leveled my most shaming look and slowly backed out of his room in disgust. Such a disappointment, this distracted, childish son of mine.

Ridiculous. I actually chuckled too, gave Seth another pat on the head. I probably asked him what girl was tiptoeing through his mind. I told Seth I loved him and left him to his sweet fantasies until the next night when we’d cue the whole spiel again. Obviously there was nothing heroic here, just how most any dad would respond to his goofball son being a goofball son.

Yet some of us think God a worse father than this. Somehow, many of us have learned to live in shame (or terror) of the ways we believe we disappoint the One who loves us. We live on the razor edge, vigilant over our every action, every motive, every belief. We’re so fearful that we’ll forget to pay attention, and heaven knows we can’t let that happen.

I believe God would love to chuckle with us in these moments. Keeping a close watch, getting things correct – these are not the center. Love is the center. “But still,” says Hafiz, “God is delighted and amused you once tried to be a saint.”

God Thinks Like That

There is a dog I sometimes take for a walk
and turn loose in a
field,

when I can’t give her the freedom
I feel in debt.

I hope God thinks like that and

is keeping track of all
the bliss He
owes
me.

                                       {Rabia of Basra}

I wonder when exactly my boys will figure out how easily they could take advantage of me. I challenge their mettle and help them stretch their courage and their strength and their patience, all the things necessary for becoming a good man, a good person. But what I really love best is to give them good things, to be extravagant, to delight them, to watch their faces break wide open with some unexpected pleasure. Thanks to a gift from friends, we’ll have a late Friday night taking the boys to the Parachute concert. In a couple weeks, I’ll be taking one boy to a Clemson game while the other boy will get party weekend with mom. When we were at St. George Island, I walked them to the surf shop so they could each pick out new boogie boards, and we spent hours and hours immersed in sand and water. These things are by far the better part of parenting, way better than the necessary duties – making the kids do their chores and monitoring video game consumption.

God knows exactly what I’m talking about. James tells us that God gives generously to all, without begrudging the gift. In fact the word translated generous includes the meaning of something done ‘in simplicity’ or ‘without reserve.’ In other words, God has a laser focus. God’s face is set like flint, fully intent on showering us with divine-sized largesse. It must be hard work for God when God must provide other kinds of grace, those things necessary if we are to be whole — but nothing so good as simple, lavish kindness.

So, the 7th century mystic-poet Rabia of Basra can rest easy. Apparently God does think at least something like that.

 

 

Relax a Little

A conflation of events conspired this year to keep our boys from summer camp, and this weekend they were reminiscing over memories from last year’s adventure. Seth reminded us, as he does each time the topic of summer camp comes up, that he missed us terribly. “I almost cried every night,” Seth lamented, his nine-year-old voice full of pathos. “I almost cried every night because I missed you so bad.”

Wyatt, our blunt realist, chimed in. “I did miss you guys at camp…” and Wyatt paused for only a millisecond. “But mainly I was glad I could go to the Snack Shack and buy Cheetos.”

Our children need us. They need our love, our care. We’re parents, and we’re necessary dagnabbit. It’s also good to remember, though, that our children probably don’t need us as much as we think. This kid-raising gig isn’t quite as precarious as our hand-wringing suggests. We could relax a little. Sometimes the kid just needs a bag of Cheetos.

 

Family Name

My dad taught me that our name was an honor we were to guard, something gifted to us – but something we must hold in safekeeping both as a debt to those before us and as the richest inheritance I would pass to my own children. My mom gave me a plaque when I was in the third or fourth grade, lettering on a bronze plate fixed to dark chestnut. It hung by my bed. I don’t remember the exact text, but it had “Collier” in bold letters across the top followed by a poem about a father giving a son his only treasure, his good name. The poem was cheeky, but the point stuck. Your name matters. Where you come from matters. Being a Collier means something.

Our name, I believe, is one of our pearls of great price. A good name cannot be bought, but – and here is the power – it can most certainly be given.

I remember my grandpa R.J. Collier’s lean frame perched on the top step of his porch, working those cigarettes, his cap tilted askew and his overalls hanging off his thin body, his green 1953 Chevy pickup parked next to the house. My grandma Collier died before I was born, and so visits to my grandpa lacked the gregarious matriarchal energy I’m told I would have experienced if my dad’s mother had still been alive. Grandpa Collier gave all the grandkids $5 in McDonald’s gift certificates every Christmas, and we in turn supplied him with a case of bottled Coca-Colas (R.J. insisted on the glass bottles).

When my dad, fresh out of high school, went to the bank to arrange a loan for his first used car, he met a roadblock because he was under-21 and possessed no credit history. The banker looked over his file and said, “So, you’re R.J. Collier’s son?”

“Yes,” my dad answered.

“Well, I know R.J., and that means I know something about you.” The banker picked up his pen and signed off on the loan, with nothing other than “Collier” as collateral.

When I have serious talks with Wyatt or Seth about their character or integrity, about how they are to treat others or how they are to make choices in this world, I’ll usually say something like, “You’re a Collier man, and this is how Colliers live.” My father and mother, like their fathers and mothers (this story could be written for my mom’s family – and for Miska’s family too), has handed us an identity. Being a Collier means something. I only hope to live up to the truth of it.

A friend told me recently that in English history, a Collier (a coal-er) was one who delivered coal to his neighbors. A Collier was one who went house to house carrying the light and carrying the heat. I like that. I like that very much.

An Inadequate Grace

I’m in the middle of PhD studies at the University of Virginia, a “public ivy” that trades off with UC Berkeley most years for the spot of top-ranked public university. What this means is that there are multiple times a week when I’m the dumbest person in the room. I console myself with how I’ve got life experience, often by nearly two decades, on most of my cohorts; but this additional fact only means that on top of being slow, I’m also old. I’m 41. Welcome to college.

Being in a situation where your limits and inadequacies are laid bare provides a true gift. Since I’m a writer and a father and a pastor, this position is nothing new to me. Regularly, I’m reminded of how many better writers there are, how much better their books sell. Several times, I’ve found a copy of one of my books bargain-priced in the used book store, never read. I know this because I looked. Closely. Once, I found a copy at a bookshop across the street from the church I pastored. So I’ve pieced this together – one of my own parishioners thumbed through the book, shrugged and said, “Eh, toss.” That book sat on that lonely shelf for over a year. I know this because I looked. Regularly. I was only released from that gloomy wake because we moved four hundred miles away.

Further, I’m a dad, and most weeks I find the last few drops of my fatherly know-how circling the drain. I love those boys, but I will tell you that most of the time, I am absolutely winging it. When it comes to my pastoral life, it’s no different. There are many, many pastors who seem to have the right word and the right shine. We all like to play the part of the humble pastor, but God knows, some of us hit it on cue simply because we’re flailing about no matter when you look our way.

This isn’t to say I don’t have my stellar moments. From time to time, I’ll land a zinger of a sermon, and most days, I like the words I scratch together. While I flub regularly and have to say “I’m sorry” an awful lot, on the whole, I’m a pretty kick ass dad. I’m even learning to muck my way through a PhD.

But here’s the thing: the more we try to compensate for our weak places, the more we try to edit the “us” others encounter, the more we attempt to hide the fact that we really aren’t nearly as smart or agile or profound or intriguing as we suspect others judge us to be (or as we desire for others to judge us to be), the less we become our true selves, the less beauty we’re able to give away. Worse, as we maneuver and manipulate in all these places, we will find ourselves exhausted by our self-absorption. One of the graces Lent has brought me is this relaxing revelation: I am so tired of myself.

The world does not need perfection. It doesn’t need the best ‘you’ that you can dream up. The world needs you. The actual you. Foibles and giggles and goofiness and all. Would you be brave enough to give it to us?

One Final Day

Wyatt, our ten-year-old, has pneumonia. Fever, coughing fits and bouts of exhaustion have turned him pitiful. Surprisingly, after a week of antibiotics, his fever returned; and so I took him for a second trip to the doctor. The pediatrician poked and prodded and asked serious-sounding questions. “Does your cough feel like a knife? Have you noticed headaches? Any joint pain?” Wyatt took this all in, thinking hard, asking clarifying questions and attempting to make sure he got the answers right.

When the doctor left the room to grab some contraption she assured Wyatt wouldn’t hurt but was necessary to measure the oxygen in his blood, Wyatt thought this turn of events sounded most grave. Of course, words don’t have to work hard to carry an ominous tone when they’re uttered in a fluorescent-lit space spreading yellowish illumination over the stainless steel sink and the large plastic container of hand sanitizer and the hard, green reclining chair draped in thin white paper.

Wyatt considered the doctor’s words and asked, “Dad, do you think I have cancer?”

I assured him he didn’t, but the cat was out of the bag, the idea had been let loose. “What if I only had one day to live, dad?”

“Well,” I said with a shrug, “I guess we’d want to make sure your last few hours were great.”

Wyatt liked this direction, the possibilities. He had energy for this conversation. “Dad, if I only had one day to live, I’d need to do three things. I’d have to get you to buy me a phone. I’d have to smoke a pipe with you. And I’d have to read Les Miserables in a single day.” He paused, reflecting satisfaction with his choices and plotting strategies for this 24 hour feat. “Yup, that would be hard to do…”

What a way to go – filled with assorted joys, so much that I’d have to stretch to my very last breath to get it done.

Boy oh Boy

wyatt_and_sethThe two boys fight like brothers which, I suppose, is exactly as it should be. Yesterday, the younger (9) was yet again sticking his grubby paws into the elder’s (10) bowl of munchies (this young one had the nickname ‘juice bandit’ by 18 months old). When the melee concluded, we had a raging red welt, brief concerns for a bruised appendix and one boy laid out on his bedroom floor.

The other night, Seth (younger) asked, “Dad, what does mischievous mean?” This is like Donald Trump digging for the definition of ‘money.’ Seth, though he’s known as the juice bandit, could just as well go by Dennis the Menace. The boy’s heart is pure as gold, but my, he can concoct some outrageous schemes. I explained mischievous while a knowing grin broke across his face. Do you remember a time when you were first handed a word that told you more about who you are?

Of course, Wyatt would not play second fiddle to little brother, cataloguing his own rascally ways. If Seth is Dennis the Menace, then Wyatt is Marcus Elliot, the scarily sharp-witted 10-year-old in BBC’s Spy. When Wyatt calls out from his loft bed at night, asking for a hug, it rarely actually means he wants a hug. The truer translation runs roughly something like, Dad, could you fill up my water bottle? or Dad, would you snag that book over on my desk? or Dad, I’ve been contemplating global economic theory and I’d like to hash it out a bit.

Yesterday, someone placed a response card in the offering plate at church. People fill out the cards if they have something they want us to pray for in weekday morning prayers or if they have a spiritual issue they want to discuss. This card simply had an X beside the ‘talk to pastor’ line but the rest of the card was blank, save this:

David Collins
6th Street #207

No phone number. No email address. Brendan (one of our other pastors at All Souls) and I talked about how to find this fellow and the oddity that he left no other contact info. We decided to handle it on Monday, gathered our families and headed out the door.

On the way to the car, Seth walked up beside me and asked calmly. “Dad, do you know anyone named David Collins?”

Seth wrote the card. Seth would send us on a wild goose chase.

These two boys, they fight and they scheme and they keep us in stitches. And I love every little spec of them.

A Boy’s Heart

This weekend, Wendell Berry reminded me that health, wholeness, and holy all come from the same Indo-European root. We moderns have lost our sense of things because we’ve become fragmented, disconnected from our sensuous and enduring connection to land and people, to good work and good rest, to what it means to be human beings truly awake.

I see this temptation in my posture as a dad, in the ways I’m trying to pull together all these conflicting images and expectations of what a father’s to be, to do. If you pay attention to all the noise, there’s a lot of pressure out there. We have a fifth-grader and a third-grader, yet the talk’s already begun about college admissions and all the attending angst. There’s a steady stream of statistics touting proper nutrition, appropriate screen time, how much exercise, and which educational theory you should adamantly commit to (or violently denounce).

To make it more complex, I’m a Christian father. This means there is a particular set of values and hopes that I desire to pass to my sons, ways I want them to be formed as good men in this world. There are few things truer to my deep desires than the ways I want to nurture life and wonder and virtue in my boys. Yet if I see this primarily in terms of getting proper behavior from my sons, I am bound to fail. Appropriate behavior, by itself, may keep them out of jail, but it won’t tend to their soul.

I’m taking it as my fatherly joy to seriously tend to St. Paul’s word (tucked into his letter to the Colossians) for parents to watch their children attentively, lest their children lose heart. I want to do everything within my meager powers to help my boys not lose heart, to keep their imagination aroused, to help them believe in hope and possibility. To keep pointing them toward the God of kindness who dreamed them into existence and, I believe, must be giddy with each and every one of their accomplishments as well as their boyish mishaps. I want to silence the naysayers and the doom-givers, the ones who want to tell them they must shoot for the Ivy League or amass fortunes or even cure cancer, admirable as that would be.

Once I had to pay Wyatt $1 to get in trouble in school. He’d gone the whole year without a single reprimand. That couldn’t possibly be good for the soul. We’ve got to make mistakes if we’re ever to know that it’s simply alright. We lose heart because we grow weary and burdened – with expectations, with musts, with the tight cocoons we weave for ourselves with the self-absorption inherent with trying to get life right.

I want my boys to be healthy and whole. I want them to be truly holy. This means that this dad, with eyes afire, will be watching out for their hearts. Every day. For the rest of my life.

Sons of Thunder

I'm slow to admit it, but I'll soon cross the line where I can no longer take Wyatt and Seth simultaneously in our Collier Men wrestling scuffles. Up to now, I could easily apportion one arm to each, grip them in a head lock and sing a tune until they cried uncle. 

In addition to growing stronger and larger, they're also smarter. They have learned the power of the alliance. Wyatt likes to stay low to the ground, so he causes a diversion, grappling with me on the floor. I can still manage him, but (especially if I don't want to lose a tooth to one of his roundabout kicks) I have to pay attention. While Wyatt gets me entwined, Seth climbs atop the highest part of the couch and (with a cry lifted from Nacho Libre) hurls himself through the air in a spread-eagle tomahawk dive. A dive that ends with a bony, 8 year old knee slamming into my ribs. 

These boys are relentless. Together, they're downright scary. If I want to postpone my inevitable demise as Wrestling King, then sooner or later, I'll have to go devious and sabotage their federation. I will have to sow discord among the brethren. 

But that won't work for long. Eventually, they'll lock arms again and charge me straight-on. I'll go down in a cloud of sweat and fury. And pinned to the ground, gasping for air, I'll wear the largest grin you've ever seen.

***

Speaking of fathers and sons, I have a piece, a letter to dads, over at the Washington Post.