Tell Me the Truth

I’m slow on edicts these days, but here’s one I’m willing to venture: a church should not teach people to lie.

But we do.

Whenever we sift through Scripture in search of ideals, all the while missing the humanity, the struggle and the long plod toward love, we abuse the story but we also abuse the soul. No matter the clarity of our moral perceptions, we are no friend of grace whenever our pronouncements weigh people down, whenever the burden of our expectations delivers the subtle message that we must ignore or squash the realities simmering just beneath the surface. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it: “Christ did not, like an ethicist, love a theory about the good; he loved real people.” And real people come with real desires, real foibles, real fears, real longings.

When Jesus passed blind Bartimaeus on the road to Jericho, Bartimaeus cried out, “Jesus, have mercy.” I love this prayer. There are plenty of days when it’s all the prayer I can muster. Jesus stopped, looked Bartimaeus’ way and asked the plainest question: “What do you want?” Jesus did not ask Bartimaeus to identify what he should want. Jesus did not ask Bartimaeus what desire Torah would suggest. Jesus did not ask Bartimaeus to conjure an obedient word on virtue, responsibility or human sinfulness. Jesus asked what the poor fellow longed for, and then Jesus waited for the answer.

Bartimaeus’ desire was obvious; he wanted to be able to see. For most of us, however, our want lies buried under so much neglect and rubble that it’s nearly impossible to locate. Few of us know what it is we actually want, what we crave, what would make us truly giddy if it happened our way.

If we ask someone Jesus’ question: what do you want?, many of us religious folk will offer a squeaky-clean reply, something straight out of a tame Sunday School lesson. The answers are fine, but they possess all the verve of a dead fish. I want the real stuff, what makes the heart race and the energy peak and the sorrow sit heavy as lead.

Often, it would be more truthful if we said: I really want my wife to enjoy sex with me again or I want to stop puking in the toilet or I want money so I can fly the family to Italy for the summer or I want the voices to stop. If it’s true that what we really want is to land on the Times bestseller list or to be kissed like mad, why don’t we say so?

Whenever we are able to locate that first layer of our wants and desires (no matter how healthy, noble or immature they might be), we’re scratching at the truth – and then we’ve got something to work with. If we follow that longing deeper and deeper, eventually we’ll find something more potent, something more profoundly true. I’m convinced we’ll find something very near to God.

Alcoholics and a Coffee Pot

If you ever have the good fortune, as I have, to spend time at AA meetings, you will quickly learn that most of the pretense gets checked at the door. Sitting in the room on those grey metal folding chairs listening as each person speaks out their name and their struggle (without hesitation or excuse) levels a powerful jolt. In the circle sits high-octane surgeons, influential politicians, retirees on social security, wide-eyed college students, tenured professors, homeless men, stay-at-home moms, clergy. Desperation serves as the great equalizer.

In AA, you reckon with stark choices: lie and toss a match on your combustible life or tell it straight and move toward wholeness. There’s no secret sauce to AA’s impact, just a good dose of reality and a room of people courageous enough to face it head on. I once asked someone to explain to me the essentials for an AA meeting. “Just grab a couple alcoholics and your own coffee pot.”

I am not an alcoholic, but I love these spaces. Most of us spend so much of our energy trying to convince others of our power, success, skill or wit, it’s a beautiful and freeing thing to be in a room where the shared truth is how everyone believes that left to ourselves, the one thing we can count on is a fantastic train-wreck.

This conviction sits at the heart of Christian faith: we need help. Amazing then, isn’t it, how much effort we exert polishing our pristine image, how much anxiety we carry as we attempt to tamp down our distress or cover for the fact that we’re a bumbling mess. As St. Anne (Lamott) says, “My only hope and salvation is that I’m not left to my own devices, and to my own best thinking, and our collective best thinking…Botox is our best thinking, along with drones.” But we are not alone. God is with us, and help is near. We only need to be honest enough to admit we need it.

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.”

Lilies, Birds and Demons

Legion_DemonSt. Luke narrates a spooky tale, just perfect for the month of October. Jesus and his merry band travel into the hill country of the Gerasenes. This country is a badland of sorts, the roaming ground for a demon-possessed madman who tears through the woods naked and rips shackles and causes general mayhem, all under the power of a legion of foul spirits. This is a character M. Night Shyamalan would love. This is the sort of beast that would keep boys and girls clutching their mother’s hand whenever they roamed beyond the outskirts of the village.

However, this ravaged man was no beast. He was a woman’s son. He once had friends, knew love. Perhaps he had children who still clung to memories of when their father’s mind was right. Perhaps their bedtime prayers asked God to watch over their dad in the woods, alone and bare, afraid and completely lost.

When the Legion saw Jesus, they flung the madman to the ground and screamed for Jesus to let them be. Have mercy on us, they raged. Don’t send us back to the awful abyss. Send us into the heard of swine.

Have mercy, what a surprising request from loathsome creatures who know nothing of kindness or love, nothing of mercy.

If you will allow me a short excurses, it is at this point in the story that my mind leaps to Jesus’ sermon on the hillside and Jesus’ beautiful lines drawing our imagination to the birds soaring through the sky and the lilies gracing the meadow. The lilies and the birds do not fret. They don’t toss and turn through the night. They are carefree in God’s provision. Don’t you believe God will be even more kind to you? Jesus asks. God is quick with abundant compassion, even for birds and flowers.

And, it seems, even for demons.

Alright, Jesus says to the horde, I won’t cast you to the Dark. Off you go, pigs it is.

Why would Jesus grant the Legion their request? Why did he enact force over them, but only so much as was necessary to free the madman from their grip? Did Jesus recall these spirits, in their prior angelic brilliance and glory, when they were free and joyful in God’s service? Jesus’ kindness, it seems, truly has no limits.

God’s care and compassion abound to bluebonnets and ravens and yes, to demons. How much more then to you, God’s fairest creature, God’s child.

The Beach That Was Not

I was supposed to be at the beach today, feet buried in the cool sand and nose buried in the first of several good books. Wyatt and Seth riding the wild waves on their boogie boards and digging for hermit crabs. Miska breathing the air that has, for her entire life, provided balm to her soul. However…

Saturday morning, we loaded the car and began our 6 hour trek to the Atlantic Ocean. Though I’m more of a mountain man, I always look forward to the space and the beauty and the laughter — but the rest of the family has a love affair with the beach. Miska has some mystical connection with the waves and sand. I’d attempt to explain it to you, but I don’t  understand it myself. Her heart awakens; her soul quiets. She hears things out on those sun-drenched shorelines. I’ll have to leave it at that. All summer, we’ve been gearing for this week. You can imagine an 8 and 10 year old’s revved up energy, asking at regular intervals how much further?, how much further?, how much further?

We pulled into the driveway of the beach house and folded out of the vehicle, breathing our first salt air. We grabbed a load of gear and stepped into the house. To my horror, luggage and groceries filled the living room and kitchen. Everywhere, I saw all the things you’d expect to see from a family of happy vacationers just unloading into their beach house for the week, all the things we were just beginning to unload ourselves. No one was there. I suspect they were dipping their feet in the water and getting the lay of things.

We quickly exited and stood in front of our car, shell-shocked. I pulled out my phone and searched quickly for old emails. The short of it is that I made a dad-sized snafu. I had us down for the beach on July 28th. However, we are supposed to be there August 4th.

I don’t exactly remember, but Miska tells me I had to walk away from them for a minute in order to “gather my strength for enduring the weight of the family’s crushing disappointment.” If you know us Colliers, you know we never pass on a good existential crisis. If we see the ship sailing toward tragedy, heartache or impending drama, we don’t attempt to outmaneuver. We point straight ahead and raise the sails.

I walked back to the trio-in-mourning and told them I’d made a big, fat hairy mistake and that we were going to have to drive back to Charlottesville. Miska put on a brave face, but she was entirely deflated. Wyatt, true to form, had a barrage of frenzied questions, searching for some other resolution. Seth looked at me as though I’d just drowned his puppy.

We piled back in the car, and though I risk cliché, I can only describe my emotions this way: I wanted to cry. Of course, many have far greater difficulties than our luxury of having the option of a beach vacation to begin with, screwed up or not. But these days are important to my boys. They’re vital to my wife. We’d saved and skimped and held out through a weary season with the joy of this week in sight. Joy is an essential thing. And as we started re-tracing the road back home, there was little joy in our Honda.

Insult to injury is the $150 I blew for a trip that yielded nothing more than miles on the car and a story my boys will one day tell their own family on their own road trip. A royal, epic fail.

The sky grew dark. A rain storm moved in. Gloom settled around, and inside, our vehicle. The wipers fought against water, and my eyes did too. I felt shame over my forgetfulness. I felt foolish for dropping the ball. I have always hated disappointing people, and now I was knee-deep. I knew we would be okay. Life was not over. I don’t want to over-dramatize. But neither do I want to slough this blunder off for less than it was. We were sad, and I made us sad.

A little ways down the road, night now covering the lightning-illumined sky, Miska put her hand on mine. “Grace,” she said. She squeezed my hand, and I knew the words she had no need to speak: be kind to yourself. Some men have women who would use this occasion as arsenal for many a war to come. My wife is not one of those women. At the moment where she could easily castigate me (and with good cause), she squeezed my hand as we drove together through the dark rain.

The boys have learned Miska’s grace. Wyatt said, “Dad, it’s okay. This way, I get to stay up past midnight, and we get to eat out for dinner.” Seth, who needs to suck the marrow out of any tragedy, took a tad longer; but yesterday he walked up behind me to deliver a massive hug — and at various points throughout the day, he repeated: “Dad, thanks for everything you do for us.”

The good news is we’ve rearranged schedules so we will cue the trip again come Saturday. The better news is that grace came to me from the woman and the two boys who have long been, to my soul, God’s truest sacraments.


When we are overrun with all we’ve yet to do, and particularly with all that we realize we’ll never get to do,

When we recognize that what we’ve envisioned is not what has come to pass,

When we’re forced to face down (at last) the truth that we can not control our kids or our marriage or our job or our reputation or the economy, or – basically – anything at all,

When fear stalks us and gloom hounds us,

We need to hear the good blessing from St. Julian:

All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.


I’m a Consumer Christian

The danger is not lest the soul should doubt whether there is bread, but lest, by a lie, it should persuade itself it is not hungry. {Simone Weil}

Give us this day our daily bread. {Jesus}

Much ink has been spilt (with good cause) resisting the soul-numbing prevalence of hyper-individualism, where we view God – and then in turn people and neighborhoods and natural resources – merely as raw material for the pursuit of our isolated whims. The gospel tells me that my comfort and the satisfaction of my every impulse is not the goal of the universe. Bummer.

In the church, we have created a cottage industry around denouncing consumerism, and I understand the revulsion to this spirit of our age. I too am frustrated to no end when we belittle the mystery and beauty of Christian community by our penchant for using churchy experiences with all their gizmos and “energy” the same way we down a can of Red Bull: guzzle, toss, grab another when wanted. Yum. I recently read that at some churches, you can now get your pastor delivered via hologram. Truly, I am at a loss for words.

I’m concerned, however, that the way we talk about all this sends the message that there is something wrong with our cravings and the hope to fill our unmet longings, something unseemly about our hunger. I’ve seen shame attached to the notion of someone coming to the church community without arriving ready to give. Jesus invited the weary people to come, to come and eat, come and drink, come and rest. To hear some of us, we only want the people who are ready to come and work, come and plug right in “doing mission.”

I once heard a young pastor on the speaking circuit say, with a swagger: “We aren’t here to meet your Christian needs. If you’re a Christian, we aren’t really here for you – we’re here to be on mission for those who don’t know God.” It came across brash. He sounded revolutionary, a bad-ass pastor. He prompted a lot of laughter. I wanted to cry.

A while back, during our Denver years, Miska and I were exhausted. Serving God had worn us out. A church up in the hills welcomed us in. We attended on Saturday nights. It was a peaceful space. We heard the Scriptures and prayed some prayers (or didn’t). We sang along with a few songs and soaked in the gospel. We didn’t sign up for any ministries or serve on any teams. We dropped checks in the offering plate, and we (usually) showed up on time for church. Other than that, not much. Oh, we did attend a small group. Twice.

We were consumers, and it saved my soul.

Jesus’ first miracle was wine at a wedding in Cana, an extravagant act intended for no good reason other than the peoples’ consumption and joy. The Psalmist describes our want for God in visceral terms: hunger, thirst, cravings. Jesus gave us a table with wine and bread as the retelling of the Great Story. At Jesus’ Table, all we do is come and receive; we gorge on grace. We do not come to Jesus to work. We come to rest. We come to allow grace to work on us. The Christian’s work is what happens when resting people find the free life of the Spirit flowing among them. Work is what we do when the Kingdom has taken root and joyful obedience begins to sprout. But first, we rest. First, we consume.

The gospel never calls us to myopic self-centeredness. The kingdom of God moves and (re)creates and leads us to lay down our life and give ourselves away. But who can say exactly when – or how? The new creation I first encounter is God’s love that pours and pours and pours into my soul. And I must drink it in. I must consume it, a man desperate and starved with nothing much, for the moment, to give.