Tell them...

Tell them the things that you have seen and heard.
That the blind can see and the lame can walk;
that the deaf can hear and the lepers are cleansed;
and the poor have heard the good news;
that the dead have come back to life


I have a good friend who couldn't quite see what the future held; blind, if you will. But this week a job offer came in and he's taking it and excited about it. It will mean moving somewhere closer to home. He sees the Lord's hand in this.

Another friend has been trying to get custody of his boys for a long time. He's been lame without them, hobbled, couldn't walk the true walk of a father. Something happened last week and he's now got custody for a pre-determined time and most folks are telling him, "If you've got 'em for that long, you've got 'em." He's walking tall, casting a close shadow on his sons.

Yet another has been trying desperately to listen for the Spirit in relation to job/work issues. Just yesterday he heard boatloads of affirmation from his peers and their sincere desires to make sure he stays around. His time and effort and loyalty to the company have not been in vain. It's as if the scales fell from his ears.

Still another has been working with metaphorical lepers lately, people on the outside due to their "conditions." He's been involved in the cleansing process. It's an ongoing thing, but there has been some clean-up. It's still a long journey for them, but he's wants to see them clean. Slowly, the sores are going away.

And I know some people who felt like their efforts lately have led to nothing but death. Maybe not flat-line death, but definitely close. But a couple of days in the sunshine last week and their hearts have been renewed and they've partnered with an up and coming voice who brings life to people with his message. There's a good pulse there now.

And me? the poor have heard the good news.

Tell them the things that you have seen and heard.

O.k., Lord. I did.

Now go,
Go in peace.
Go and let your light shine


Namaste - "The part of the living God that lives and breathes in me bows down in reverence before the part of the living God that lives and breathes in you" - Namaste

I have a friend who signs all his letters with this word - namaste. One of our favorite tv shows, LOST, has a very minor character who always signs off, "Namaste." I can remember being arrested by this word the first time I heard it, such was its beauty. It's pronounced NAHM-AH-STAY. It has that eastern religious sound to it, a word wrapped in the saffron robes of monks, punctuated by the sound of a bell. Namaste.

But words mean things, right? And this one means something significant. If I were to namaste you, I would clasp my hands in front of me, much like a child's prayer posture, and then gently bow to you. I would not attempt to keep eye contact; I would "bow down." And in the bowing, the Holy in me would be reverencing or honoring the Holy in you. It's a gesture that is full of humility. And I like that.

We were watching a television show last night with the kids where one of the actors turned up their noses. The kids, sponges that they are, caught it and mimicked it for us. Essentially, they did the snoot. The snoot says that there is apparently nothing in you of value, at least for the moment, and obviously there is much of value in me, so the best thing I can do is distance myself from you and I'll start by raising my eyes to the skies while closing them and showing you the expanse of my nostrils. I snoot you. There's a harshness when you pronounce the word, as if it's wrapped in the fashion of ego, punctuated by the weight of an attitude. There's no humility in that word. I hate it.

And while I'd love to tell you that namaste is my middle name, it's not. It is something I pray for, but it is usually not who I am. I am snoot. And unless I'm really off here, we are snoot. Now this is much more than all of us joining hands and singing, "We are the world" or something. This is much more than "agreeing to disagree" - whatever that means. This is an act of the will; I decide to greet and goodbye you with humility. In a way that can be seen, I will bow to the image of our Creator that resides in you. I don't see alot of that, do you? I see a lot of exasperated snoots and the always popular swollen middle finger, but not much bowing.

I read somewhere that our best guess for the cave where Jesus was born has an entrance that requires namaste. It's so small you have to get down, almost on your knees, to enter. The sermonic application point is obvious: as we approach the birthplace of the King, we do so humbly, on our kness, bringing our gifts, pa-rum-pa-pa-pum. We don't have any problem doing that, it makes sense. Or does it? Jesus does not reside in a hollowed out cave somewhere in the middle east. He dwells in the human hearts walking toward us, working around us, driving behind us, and sleeping beside us.

Father, forgive me my snoots as I forgive those who have snooted against me. Make me namaste. Amen.
Dedicated to Brother Murray

This and That

"There is such terrible darkness within me, as if everything were dead. It has been like this more or less from the time I started the work." - Mother Teresa, 1953

Rev. Brian Kolodiejchuk is the director of the Mother Teresa Center and the driving force behind the efforts to canonize her. He's also publishing a collection of her letters that reveal a different Teresa than we've known. At times she refers to Jesus as "the Absent One" and her own smile "a mask." The good reverend argues that the depth of her spiritual sufferings increases her saintliness.

My dad told me about this over the weekend and Sunday's paper had a second page article on it. Dad had read my post on "The Way Things Are" and basically said, "John, you're not alone. Check out Mother Teresa."

"If there be God - please forgive me. When I try to raise my thoughts to Heaven, there is such convincing emptiness that those very thoughts return like sharp knives and hurt my very soul...How painful this unknown pain - I have no faith."

Evidently, her dying wish was that these letters be destroyed, a wish that was not granted. Revelations like these throw a confusing light on the people we hold in high esteem. We thought they were this, but we find out they were that. The truth seems to be that we can be this and that, a "bundle of paradoxes," as Brennan Manning would say.

I believe "this" and "that" scares us though. We still hold up consistency as a paragon of the virtues. So-and-so always acts this way or candidate X always votes that way. Emerson said that a vain consistency is the hobgobblin of little minds. And maybe that's what our culture is - a bunch of little minds, always trying to be either this or that, when we all know, deep inside ourselves or deep within our private journals, that we're both. And maybe that's a good definition of a saint; someone who's a little of this and a little of that.

A Post With No Name

"I told him that I was not of any particular religion. So tired of churches I could roar, is what I wanted to say." -
Rick Bass, Winter

So I’m driving back from lunch and the urge for a little AM hits me. I love AM radio. Especially the easy listening stations. The one here in town plays everything from Peter, Paul and Mary to Glen Campbell. But at this particular moment, they were playing the old Abbot and Costello “Who’s On First” routine. You’ve heard that one, right? Classic comedy. I found myself laughing right along with the crowd.

The more I listened, the more the broadcast began to resonate with a conversation I had over lunch. A true friend and I were discussing church, preaching, community; you know, all that stuff. He had mentioned a congregation that had taken intentional steps to become a missional church. However, full-on into the shift, the lead pastor scrapped the whole thing. “Forget this missional thing. It’s as much of a program as the one were trying to escape from.” Smart guy.

Missional. Purpose-driven. Authentic. Organic. Multi-site. Ancient-future.

Who’s the real church? Missional. But what’s the real church? Organic. I thought organic referred to cereal. Nope, it’s the church. So where’s the real church? Oh, multi-site, definitely. Is it missional? Maybe. Well, when’s the real church? Ancient-future. Organically? No, that’s what the church is. And why’s the real church? Authentic, man. Authentic. In a multi-site kind of way? Heavens no, that’s where the church is. Well then, how’s the real church? Purpose-driven. Are you sure? Authentically. (Cue the laughter from the new monastics)

I may be alone in this, but I don’t give a flying fig newton anymore about those designations. I’m so tired of them. We keep grasping after the straws of the next thing, which we frame as the “real thing” in order to not be labeled as consumers or something, and we end up sounding like the Abbot and Costello routine. We just keep going round and round and round. We’re biblically convinced we know who’s on first, but we don’t. And the audience out there (if they’re even still listening) is bent over laughing. At us, not with us.

We’ve got folks hell-bent on justice and mercy endeavors, quilting the globe with relief projects and mission trips. We’ve got people filling the Joel-dome every Sunday to find out about their best life. Now. Some meet in houses and try and live out the Acts 5 model. And many discover, to their chagrin, that the Acts 6 model always soon follows. Are the red letters of Jesus the real stuff? Or, as Rich Mullins said, will we be surprised to one day find that the red and the black should have been underlined?

I'm pretty sure my friend and I had CHURCH the other day over the lunch hour. The two of us, sitting in a booth at a wonderful mexican place, sharing our lives over incredible chips and salsa. We started the meal with a prayer. Affirmed a few things. Questioned a few more things. Confessed a little. And capped it off by extending the peace of the Lord to one another.

Was the salsa organic? Nope. Was it authentic? Yes, yes it was.

The Way Things Are

I’d been thinking about an exercise a good friend told me about. He encouraged me to draw a picture of “the way things are” – an attempt to render what my life really feels like right now. Not what I think I want it to feel like or what others may think it's like; no, the way things are. I got my picture yesterday a.m.

I went for a run about 5:30 out on the trail. I immediately noticed the wind at my back. Nice. Establish a good pace and let the wind carry you on. I usually run to a turn around point and then, obviously, turn around. Not nice. As I turned, it was like suddenly being harnessed to a covered wagon full of women and children and supplies and a dog with a bum leg. And then it hit me. The way things are.

That’s what I’ve been feeling most of the summer and even today; running into a headwind. I have a strong desire to finish, but my legs and lungs and heart are screaming for me to stop. Yesterday, I tried everything I could think of to try and finish. I tried to zen-run and focus on my breathing, tried singing some songs (put one foot in front of the other and soon you'll be walking out the door), even tried whipping up some anger to boost me the last leg (thought about televangelists and such). Try, try, try. About half a mile from the house, I had to stop and walk, I couldn’t finish running. It was just too much. I hate that, feels like failure. I had even prayed, about 100 yards prior to that stopping moment, asking for some assistance. Jesus, please help me. But it didn’t work. I wasn't praying for a personal best or anything, just the strength to finish.

On the commute in to work, I put in an Ennio Morricone disc. One of those wise people that everybody quotes says that only pain and beauty can transform us. I was hoping that some of his haunting music would crack me open; I had noticed a hardening ever since the run. Actually, for days. I listened to the music from the films The Mission and Once Upon a Time in the West. And the rock cracked. And water gushed forth. I began to weep.

Weeping for how damn hard it is some days or weeks or months and how heavy the weight feels and how much it hurts and how sincerely I want to finish. Weeping for how hard I try and put on a happy face and steel myself against the way things are and answer, "Fine. How are you?" when people greet me. Weeping for words like Jesus and please and help and how empty they sometimes feel.

I’m not sure anymore about the prayers of a righteous man availing much. I know, I know - the Word says, but those words are losing all their letters by the time they reach my heart and lungs and legs. It seems all I've got right now are the tears of a marginally righteous man. I don't write this for your pity - ohmygod, John's losing heart or man, you're depressed - you should see somebody. I write this to say this is the way things are, for me, for now. I'm walking. I've cracked a little. I'm weeping. Maybe that avails for something. Not much, but something.

Who's In Your Six?

A writer is careful what they read, because what they read is what they will know, and what they know is what they will write. - Annie Dillard

We are not what we eat, we are what we read. - Robert Benson

I've done something randomly that I am now going to pursue more carefully. I'm going to try and read everything a particular author has written. If there's a chance we are what we read, then this is what I want to be. My goal right now is to read through the works of six writers.

Robert Benson - Robert writes books that are small, but intensely deep. He knows and lives the rhythms of prayer.
Rick Bass - Bass first wooed me with his book Winter; he is a man who truly loves the land and all the creatures that walk upon it. And he grew up in Texas.
Robert Capon - An Episcopal priest who consistently knocks me over with words regarding the grace of God. He espouses a sacramental theology. And so do I.
Kent Haruf - His novels Plainsong and Eventide are two of my most prized books. He writes about small towns and trouble and redemption.
Annie Dillard - I first read Pilgrim at Tinker Creek over fifteen years ago. I realize she's the only female in the list, but if you're going to invite a lady, for pete's sake invite Annie.
Wallace Stegner - Someone called him a "secular saint." I call him probably the best writer I know. Angle of Repose sat on a shelf in my parent's home as a decorative, lightblue hardback, alongside other lightblue hardbacks. One day it said, "Take, eat." And I did. Lord, what a meal. I never gave it back to my mom and if she wants it, she'll have to pry my cold, dead fingers from it.

There they are, my six. They have already nourished me in many and varied ways, but I now want to be intentional about my diet. How about you?

Getting to know me

We're back from a weekend of tent camping with friends. Friday afternoon found us driving toward The Crags, an area on the backside of Pikes Peak that is one of the most popular hikes in CO. There's a fairly primitive campground surrounding the trailhead and we secured two fairly primitive campsites there. Our friends have four girls, we've got two girls and a boy-morphing-quickly-into-something-larger, so that makes four adults and seven kids. The oldest was me (40) and the youngest was our friends' little one (3).

I've read these spiritual gurus who say that the best way to really get to know someone (build community) is to go camping with them for the weekend. Here are a couple of things our friends learned about me and my family.

When it comes to building a fire, I ain't no purist. Now if the sun is shining and blue birds are whistling dixie on the branches, then yep, I'll gather little twigs and dried grasses and squat down and basically give mouth to mouth to those first few embers, coaxing them into a roaring dance of heat. But, if it's been raining all afternoon and all I had for lunch was a couple of packs of those round peanut butter-n-cracker combos and it's way after 5pm (eating time) and I'm needing to start a fire? Well, if your grandma's favorite apron has one of those flammable tags on it, I'll fight her for it. I'll use whatever is available to get the fire going. There are times when doing it right gives way to getting it done; not always, but sometimes. Our friends now know this about me. And they seemed to be o.k. with it.

The other thing they learned about us is our taste in fine lit-tra-ture. They discovered this after dinner the first night, when my youngest daughter said, "Daddy, let's read the Stephen King book." I've been reading King's memoir on the craft of writing, On Writing, and I took a few after-dinner-moments last week to share several edited excerpts with the kids. I thought they were utterly hilarious and my kids (and girlfriend) agreed. Stuff about babysitters and farting and eating way too many eggs and yarking all over the floor; you know, highbrow reading like that. Later that evening, the other dad and I were walking down the hill to track a moose or check our email or something, and he said, "John, I don't know that I've ever heard a kid ask to have Stephen King read to them after dinner." "Well man, that's us."

We really had a great time and when we got ready to leave, the consensus was, "Let's do this again soon." So I guess we passed the community-building test. I do wonder, though, if in the stillness of their tent Saturday night, an exchange like this didn't take place between our friends: "You know, I bet Stephen King would use anything, ANYTHING, to get a fire started. Doesn't that make you a little nervous?" "Yeah. Let's be real nice to John. I'll be glad to get home."

Leap Day

Just four weeks ago, they were knee-deep in summer. Today, they start back to school.

Big kids, that's what I've got. No longer do they drink from sippy-cups or sit in a car seat or watch Clifford. Well, sometimes they still watch the big red dog. Now they listen to Hannah Montana and play gamecube and laugh at adult humor. Whew! Too fast, too soon. I think they're ready for this day, but I'm not. But I'm partly to blame.

The doctor let me cut the umbilical cord on all our kids. I released them into this world. Blake has some words that always went through my head as I was handed the scissors: My mother groaned, my father wept. Into the dangerous world I leapt. I wouldn't trade that experience for anything and I always encourage expectant fathers to do the same.

I'm going in to work a little late this morning; my cutting skills are needed again. They needed to be released from the warm womb of summer, set free into the rhythm of the school year. Their mother will groan. It's hard this year as well, because our youngest starts kindergarten. And she's the last one. Their father will weep. I'm not sure if it'll hit me there on the playground or not. If it does, I'm just gonna cry, masculine etiquette be damned. They will be leaping into the dangerous world yet again and I want to be there when they jump. You see, I'm partly to blame.

Is it a dangerous world? Yeah, it is. We still sit in the floor and play Uno, but there are registered sex offenders in our area. We still kiss and hug everybody before bed, do the tickle monster some nights too. But there are also men and women dying daily in Iraq and Old Navy blue jean commericals that have nothing to do with blue jeans. They'll spend recess on the swings many days, but they'll have friends who think they're too big to swing and want to do other things during recess.

God of backpacks and lockers and new tennis shoes and first days of school, please watch over my children this day. They are leaping into it once again. I believe You go before them in all things, from language skills to lunch. It is a dangerous world you've created, Lord. No doubt. But it's also a beautiful world. Maybe You felt this way when Adam and Eve leapt into the land east of Eden; Your kids, going off to school. As You stood there, hands blood wet from cutting them loose, I wonder if You wept? I wonder if You felt partly to blame?

No Path

Guide our feet into the paths of peace, that having done Your will this day, we may, when night comes, rejoice and give You thanks....

Oh, be careful little feet where you go....

Are there "paths of peace" or are there paths and we are to walk them peacefully? Are there specific places where little feet should or shouldn't go or are little feet to go where they go with care? And what if you wear a size 12?

These prayers, these songs, can be approached in different ways. If you'll really look, the normal approach seems to hold a thread of fatalism in it. If I miss the path of peace or get off of it, for some reason, and go somewhere that little feet should not go, then when night comes, I will not be able to rejoice and give thanks. If I take a wrong turn, then I'm really screwed. And if, for some reason, I don't quickly realign myself to "the" path, I could spend the rest of the day compounding my folly, and the Father up above, Who is looking down in love, would be quite frustrated with me and I would lay me down to sleep both joyless and thankless.

"A path is something that can be followed, it takes you somewhere. 'Linear.' What should a path stand against? 'No path.' Off the path, off the trail. So what's off the path? In a sense, everything else is off the path. The relentless complexity of the world is off to the side of the trail. For hunters and herders trails weren't always so useful. For a forager, the path is not where you walk for long. Wild herbs, camas bulbs, quail, dye plants, are away from the path." - Gary Snyder, The Practice of the Wild

As these size 12s go out into this day, O Lord, keep me aware that my feet and their steps proceed from my heart, as do my thoughts and words and hopes and dreams. Grant me courage of heart, so that my feet may follow the flight of Your Spirit, the Wild Goose, who often veers off the prescribed paths. Remind me that my life was not fashioned to be prosaic (getting somewhere in a straight line), but poetic (circuitous, off the path, off the trail). I want to experience the "relentless complexity of the world" this day, so that when night comes, I will lay me down to sleep breathlessly wide-eyed, pockets full of herbs and bulbs, my size 12s mudcaked by the back door, rejoicing and giving thanks to You, O Lord, not so much a Father-up-above, as a Father-just-a-little-ahead, urging me deeper and deeper into Your wilds.

Who We Are

"I know Christians. They are the people who swallow God."
- a Hindu man to Ed Farrell (Living Prayer by Robert Benson)

The most important aspect of worship for me these days is communion. I could probably skip the music portion and be o.k. And sermons? Well, that's another post. But communion? The Lord's Table? The Great Thanksgiving? These days, that's what keeps me coming back.

I had a difficult time "getting into" worship yesterday. True, I was tired and distracted, but it was tough nonetheless. In fact, when I got up to make my way to the front of the church for communion, I felt heavy, solid, rock-like. But the second I cupped my hands together and extended them to receive the body of Christ, broken for me, I felt light, permeable, fluid. And as I stepped to the left and approached the chalice server and she said, "John, this is the blood of Christ, shed for you," I remembered why I woke up, got myself and the family ready, and drove twenty minutes downtown to attend church. Communion. It always leaves me undone. As it should.

As I returned to my seat, I looked at the long line of people, standing, waiting to swallow God. A beautiful mother with her newborn, a family with seven kids, a couple in their fifties, college students wearing what college students wear, a white haired lady shuffling her feet. Maybe they're like me. Music? Take it or leave it. Sermons? Sometimes. But communion? That's why they keep coming back. And they're willing to patiently stand and wait in line for their piece of God.

I read a lot of people who constantly criticize our consumerist society and the consumerist church, in particular. "Well, people just come to church these days for what they can get out of it, what they can consume." Some of that's fair. But some of it's too easy - cheap shots. We've always been consumers and we always will be consumers. The question is, "What are we consuming?" I firmly believe that life begets life. And I desire life. So do I come as a consumer on a Sunday morning? You bet your sweet cheeks. I want to consume that which truly satisfies, that which melts my frozen heart, that which leaves me undone. And I believe that's why we all keep coming back. Too often, we live the week nibbling on the world's crackers and we're hungry, starving. Sunday morning, we show up as meat and blood consumers. We want life. That's who we are. Christians. The people who swallow God.

Have a catch?

I remember that scene at the conclusion of the movie Field of Dreams where Ray and his dad finally get to go out and "have a catch." The impression of that scene is that mounds of healing will take place as a ball is thrown from son to dad and back again. With each connection of rawhide to glove, sins are forgiven, amends made, the past healed one throw at a time.

My son had a hard moment yesterday when something didn't go the way he wanted. I could describe it, but it's really his story and one day I feel he will make of himself a writer far beyond my skills, so I'll leave those details for him. But I can tell you mine.

After the incident, I couldn't find him. I went outside and he was milling around the garage, not quite sure what to do with his frustration, disappointment, even anger. Dear God, how many times have I not known what to do with those emotions; in fact, sometimes I still don't. He walked over to his baseball glove and said, "Dad, would you play catch with me?" Most questions in my life these days, I do not have answers for. That one, however, got a quick response. "Sure. Let's go."

We didn't wander out in a corn field and throw while the sun baked the side of a rustic barn and our golden hair swooshed in the wind and Randy Newman music filled the spaces between oak branches. No, we just walked out in the street and threw a ball back and forth while the sun slowly submitted to the majesty of the Front Range and our hair stuck out of caps we both had on and the soundtrack for our time was the voices of neighborhood children. "Here comes a fly ball." "O.k." "Now, a grounder." "Got it." "Keep your eyes on the target. When you look away, that's where your throw will go." "I'll try." "Great throw!" "Yeah, I think I'm getting better."

This metronomic grace of pitching and catching between a father and his son went on until dinner was ready. We went in and joined the rhythm of a domestic Saturday night. Later that evening, as I prayed over my son and kissed him goodnight, he said, "Dad?" "Yeah, bud?" "Thanks for playing catch with me. It helped me work out my stress. It's still there, but that helped alot." "You bet, man." Most days, I feel like I constantly miss the ball of fathering. But sometimes, I make a decent catch.

You know, we didn't talk about his disappointment as we threw the ball to each other. We didn't verbally process the incident, sit in a circle, hold hands or any of those things usually sought out as steps to working out your stuff. I started to tell him that it's not good for the sun to go down on your anger, but I didn't. Maybe it's not good for the sun to go down without fathers and sons "having a catch." For in this somewhat ancient and simple act, wounds are healed. Sins are forgiven, both of omission and commission. And our stress, whatever that looks or feels like, is worked out, if just a little. And we're able to return to home and family a little better, a little easier, a little more like the boys and men we hope to be. Maybe playing catch is an act of framing and building something, a structure for healing. And if we build it, grace will come.

I'm sure there's still some frustration residue from that incident which will find it's way into our day today. But the gloves are nearby...and the sun's just rising.

For my son

stay together
learn the flowers
go light

-Gary Snyder

I came home yesterday to find my son and a friend standing around their bicycles, talking and passing something between their hands. They saw me and hopped on their bikes (stay together) and rode down to the end of our street, a cul-de-sac, then off their bikes and up a lonely pine that grows there. I could see their feet scrambling up the low, squatty brances until they found a roosting spot (learn the flowers). There they sat and talked.

I went inside and my girlfriend and I prepared dinner. "Why don't you go call the boys in?" "O.k.," I said. I walked to the edge of the driveway and gave my best dad-to-son-call: "Will, come home." The boys heard me, scrambled down the tree, mounted their bikes, and rode home. As they dismounted, I noticed pocket knives in their hands (go light).

He told me later (stay together) that they were talking, looking at their knives, hanging out in the three. They also found a bottle of vodka with a little left in the bottom. "You guys didn't drink that stuff?" "No, dad. We threw the bottle down the hill." (learn the flowers)

Thanks, Lord, for my son and friends and bikes and pine trees with low branches and pocket knives. And vodka bottles that were thrown away, for now (go light). Amen.

Desert Spirituality

A good friend just gave me a copy of Carlos Carretto's Letters from the Desert. It's one of these spiritual classics that, unfortunately, I'd never heard of. Carlos was a prominent Catholic activist, who at age 44 was summoned by a voice that said,"Leave everything, come with me into the desert. I don't want your action any longer. I want your prayer, your love." This from the intro:

The heart of the Gospel, he believed, is to make of ourselves an oasis of love in whatever desert we might find ourselves.

Wish I had a dollar for every time I've found myself seeking an oasis of love instead making of myself an oasis of love. Don't get bogged down in some semantic gnat-straining; Caretto and I both agree that it's God that makes us whatever we are. The emphasis here is on being something rather than seeking something. Being love rather than always seeking love.

Adopt that shift in perspective, what Caretto calls "the heart of the Gospel," and a job that feels like a desert is not to be resigned from, but rather watered by the love of Christ flowing through me. A marriage that resembles miles and miles of burning sands is not to be run away from, but given over to a greater love, that of Christ in me or you, the hope of glory. A church experience where you're not getting anything from the sermons or music is not a reason to seek out another local expression of worship, but...

Wow. I'm not sure I even believe all that. Or maybe I do and it scares me. Maybe I feel, deep within my 40-year-old bones, that another forty-something guy found a truth in the desert of North Africa that speaks to the core of what difference the life of a thirty-something god/man, who came to a desert world and made of his life an oasis of love, really makes in my life.

I may wear my sandals today...the forecast calls for hot, desert-like temps.

The World Needs a Man's Heart

Gretel Ehrlich once described ranchers as “midwives, hunters, nurturers, providers, and conservationists all at once. What we’ve interpreted as toughness...only masks a tenderness inside.” I thought about this yesterday as I was reading yet another "man-book" proposal; what it means to be a man, etc. We usually think of ranchers or cowboys as toughness incarnate, but Ehrlich suggests a tenderness that we've seen many times, but may have been hesitant to point out.

I've followed what has been called the men's movement for quite some time now, in both the christian and secular realms. I've read the required reading texts in both. I truly believe, as one writer says, "that the world needs a man's heart." But trying to pigeon hole that heart as tough, always and forever, troubles me. The proposal I was reading was advocating a toughness that can always take the punches, anything life throws at you. Now to be fair, this "toughness" is based on a faith in God and the requisite humility before Him - but it still had the be-tough approach in perspective. And I'm afraid that's all some folks hear. And even more afraid that it's all some men hear.

The men who have influenced my life the most have been tough and tender. I just remembered that's the name of a cleaning solution my wife uses on our counter-tops to kill off germs and such. Anyway, these men have been tough as nails. I've walked with two men out of the Grand Canyon, from the river to the rim in one day, and we were all dehydrated and hallucinating (the Virgin Mary and Pat Sajack kept appearing in the rocks), but these men kept putting one foot in front of the other. And we eventually walked over the edge of the rim back to our pickup as the Virgin and Pat waved goodbye. Toughness.

One man I know would spend every summer camping in the same place on the same lake. One summer, a few years ago, someone tried to get his lake view. It came to blows. I kid you not. He called forth his inner-pugilist and boxed the other guy's nose. His opponent did get a swing in that left a black eye on him for weeks, but he didn't get his camping spot. Black and blue badge of courage. Tough. Crazy, but tough.

But these men, all of them, have a tenderness that's just as accessible and obvious as their toughness. They don't hide it or try to work it out in counseling or anything. It's part of who they are - men. Men who can put you in your place one moment and cry at a Hallmark commerical the next. Men who can get up and go to work everyday and come home and still find the strength to play Barbies in the floor with little girls. Men who can stalk an elk for hours and then, as they stand over the kill, pause and thank God and the spirit of the elk for giving himself over so that a family can have meat in the freezer for a year. Men who are quite content using a car key for a q-tip and are just as content opening the door for ladies, not in some let-me-take-the-power-position-from-you way, but in a God-made-ladies-and-I'm-thankful-as-hell-He-did-so-I-respectfully-let-you-go-first kinda way. Men who can literally scream at the way folks drive on the I-25 and men who literally cry when the pastor says, "Who gives this woman?" and he peers into his little girl's eyes and says, "Her mom and I." Then he peers into the grooms eyes with toughness. Men who can't take everything life throws at them, so they have to ask for help or depend on other people or God or both. Men like John Walton, from that beautiful tv production by Earl Hamner. Or ole' Gus, from the Lonesome Dove scriptures. Or Wendell Berry or Sam Keen or Rick Bass or William Stafford or Father Rohr. Men like Mark and Mo and Bo and Joel and Don and Tommy and Thomas and Coyle and Richard and Huey and Randy and Ron and Rob and Cory and Xan and Steve and Sam and Todd and Shawn and Robert and John and Winn and Robert and Brennan and Fil and my dad. And Jesus. And on my better days, a man like me.

We're men of our convictions, call us wrong, call us right. But we bring our better angels to everything. You may not like where we're going, but you know where we stand. Hate us if you want to, love us if you can. With thanks to T. Keith for those lyrics.


Two weeks ago now, my brother and his family made the pilgrimage out of CO to visit. We spent a few days around town and then headed for the mountains - Grand Lake, to be specific. It was a great week with a lot of memories made. Memory. Now that's a word, eh?

I heard a Jewish rabbi last week speak on memory. He stressed the point that anger keeps memory at arms length. If I'm angry, I can't remember, and if I can't remember, then I'm not grateful; a kind of cycle that works against remembrance. Based on personal experience and some reading I've done, I firmly believe that most anger in men is really sadness. One of the poets (I cannot remember his name, but I'm really not angry about it) said "you think him cold, when he is really sad" or something very close to that.

Not much to be sad about when you're in Grand Lake, CO for the week with your family and your brother and his; therefore, not alot to be angry about; therefore, lost in the dance of memory. I remember all of us squeezing into one vehicle just before dusk and heading out to see if we could spot a moose. We didn't. But on the way back into town, somebody got carsick and did what kids do when they get carsick. I had happened to throw my ultra-cool Patagonia running top in the car before we left. It was the closest thing to my wife when our youngest got sick, so in order to save the car's interior, she grabbed my shirt. It would have been a long car-ride back to TX for my brother and co. if the interior of their car had been bathed in kidthrowup. I spent the rest of the evening running my ultra-cool running top through the washing machine. Everybody laughed about it. Even me. My brother and I laughed about it quite a bit. I'll gladly trade running a little less ultra-cool for the memory of my brother and I laughing on a porch as night crept over a grand lake and aspens quaked nearby.

Maybe when our kids are older, they'll decide to get together for the summer with their cousins. And they'll sit on a porch somewhere, maybe in the mountains. And they'll say, "Hey, do you remember uncle John's pretty-boy running shirt getting hosed that night in Grand Lake?" And my youngest will say, "Yeah, I did it!" And they'll all laugh and possibly even cry a little and say, "Man, that's a great memory. Didn't we have a good time?" And they'll all say, "Yes."

By that time, I may be in assisted living quarters or something, possibly sitting in a wheelchair out on a screened-in-porch with photographs of mountains on the wall. Maybe my mind will be all but gone. But at the exact moment when those beautiful, grown children on a porch in the mountains say, "Yes," there will be a quaking of the aspen tree planted in my heart. And memory will be stirred across the miles and the old man in the wheelchair that I may be will stand and face the western skies and cry out in a most lucid voice, "Yes. I was there. I remember too." And some silly twenty-year-old assisting nurse will walk by and say, "Mr. Blase, sit back down now. Everything's o.k." And I'll defiantly refuse and keep standing, if just for a little while. Standing for me. Standing for my brother. Standing for our wives. Standing for our children. Standing for a running shirt's early demise. Standing for the absence of anger and sadness. Standing because I remember. The little nurse will walk up to me and take my hand and say, "Your wife has had her bath. She's waiting for you back in your room." And I'll sit in the chair and she'll push me back to my room. I could have rolled myself, but I don't remember the way...

The beginning of loss...

For sin had made its entrance long before the serpent spoke, long before the woman and the man had set their teeth to the pale, stringy flesh, which was, it turns out, also quite without flavor. Rather, sin had come in the midst of an evening stroll, when the woman had reached to take the man's hand and he withheld it...
Scott Cairns, "The Entrance of Sin"

I heard this poet give a reading last week. He did a fabulous job. This poem, in particular, seemed to catch my attention as he read. Yes, there was this fruity moment of transgression where the man and woman disobeyed the express intent of God. However, WHAT IF ("what if" - a very important aspect of midrash - the Jewish reading of the scriptures) "sin" was there before the apple, or whatever type of fruit it was? What if sin first slithered across the world with dew still on it in a stolen moment, when "the woman had reached out to take the man's hand and he withheld it"? That would make the apple moment just the next logical progression in a pattern of turning your back on beauty, allowing yourself to be separated from another and The Other.

As I think about the sin in my life, this seems to ring true. There are specific actions or words that one could classify as "sin-full," but they are usually a result of some prior turning away, either from God, someone, or even myself. Withholding. And a taste of withholding leaves you wanting more, and a little more, and so on and so on. And eventually, I find myself in a position to speak harsh words or entertain violent thoughts or indulge in self-hatred; these are but the fruits of a tree called death.

The poem concludes with these lines:
The beginning of loss was this: every time some manner of beauty was offered and declined,
the subsequent isolation each conceived was irresistible.

Dear God, how many times is beauty offered to me and I decline? How many opportunities are there in a day when someone makes eye contact with me, searching for someone just to notice them? How many moments when those I love most reach out to me and I pull away, not having time or the desire or both? How many seconds tick away when my children say, "Dad, play with us" and I withhhold myself from them because of work or weariness? How many fractions of moments of facets of seconds when my wife seeks to share her heart with me and I go quiet, declining her beauty and the possibility of communion? Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned. I have withheld my love, my affections, my touch, my attention, my forgiveness, my smile, my affirmation...myself.

We keep focusing on the fruit, when the problem is with the root. So, my two or three gathered at the Shame, when beauty is offered to you this week, don't decline. Don't withhold. Don't turn away. Resist the irresistible seed of isolation. For once the seed is planted and watered, sin comes forth. And death and hell follows. We have focused so much on saying "no" to the things of this world, that we've declined to say "yes" to the beauty of this world. Repent and turn while there's still time.

Like a country song...

I just returned from a week in Santa Fe, NM, where I attended the Glen Workshop. It's an artists conf. put on by Image magazine - big faith and arts shindig at St. John's College. I submitted a fiction piece and had it workshopped by other fiction writers and our teacher for the week, a fiction writing prof from LSU. They liked my work and my prof said it read like a country song. Dang.

Thursday afternoon, I headed out to Christ in the Desert monastery to tour the place and hopefully, to sit with the monks in one of their services. My compadre, Rich, had been there for a week not long ago, so he was the perfect tour guide. We arrived a little early and so we had time to enter the chapel before service time. The crucifix (shown above) was on the stark wall and I spent a good deal of time reflecting on it. The monks came in a little later (Sext) and each bowed before the cross and took their seats. Some did so very respectfully, while others seemed annoyed to have to stop what they were doing to "come to church." I liked that. If they'd all come in there with angelic smiles on their faces and took their sweet monkish time bowing before the Lord, I would have felt less than, like these were otherworldly creatures, they in their monk's habits and I in my cowboy boots. But no, they are men, as I am; men full of charity and humility and impatience and greed and lust, as I am. We stopped in the middle of that day and focused on this man of sorrows and what he means to our lives, whether in the desert or in the suburbs. We paused and cried out to him for strength and courage in the face of noontide demons. We took a few moments from the normal rhythm of work and fiction writing and aligned ourselves with saints all over the world and even over time (I believe) and added our voices to the chorus of others saying the psalms of King David.

A young nervous moving monk rose and rapidly rang the bell, ending the service. He seemed particularly eager to get back to whatever or wherever. At first, I thought he might have been in his cell, translating scripture, pouring over Romans or something, but then I thought, maybe he had to pee. Maybe he sat through Sext, focusing on the Lord and saying the prayers, but beneath those routine movements lay his real prayer: "God of heaven and earth, the earth is full of your glory and my bladder is full as well. Forgive me for I am about to be on ringing that bell like ducks on a junebug. But Lord, I gotta go." I liked that thought. It kinda sounded like a country song.