Jog the Memory

"From now on, when I form a cloud over the Earth and the rainbow appears in the cloud, I'll remember my covenant between me and you and every living thing, that never again will floodwaters destroy all life. When the rainbow appears in the cloud, I'll see it and remember..." Genesis 9.15-16

It's cold today. As I creptout of the driveway this morning, my '97 Dodge Stratus groaned under the weight of the chill. Take me back to the garage, she said. Sorry, girl - gotta go in today. Snowflakes began to fall; not the big, fluffy jobbers, but tiny flecks of shimmering, light-catching silver like salt from a shaker. I'm paying attention to these flakes when I look up and see...a rainbow. I kid you not. It's probably 12 degrees, fleckled snow is falling, and there's a rainbow in the sky. Hopefully, someone caught it on camera phone and they'll explain tonight on the weather broadcast.

Those verses from Genesis are a little startling because the feel is that God will see the rainbow in the sky and go, Oh yeah. I remember...I promised not to let the floodwaters destroy everything. Now, I'm not calling into question the divine memory, but that is the feel the verses have.

I don't know about you, but my life has been flooded lately; the floodwaters have continued to rise daily and I sent a dove out on a look-see and she came back waterlogged. And it seems like the people around me have had a very floody feel about them as well. I was so thankful to see that rainbow this morning and I'm thankful that God saw it too so he could remember that eternal promise. Remember me, O Lord, by all means when you come into your Kingdom...but also in this kingdom today, here in the riptide of people and the swells of responsibilities and the waves of desire. We'll perish, Lord, without your mercy.

The Church of the Woeful Countenance

I've had people ask me, from time to time, about starting or planting a church. There's always been a sense of excitement about that conversation for me; however, the flash has always fizzed for one reason or another. Some of it due to my fears, some of due to the particulars of the situation I found myself in, and some of it due to the belief that it just wasn't the right thing to do at the time.

But if I were to start or plant a church, here's a little of that if. These are things I SEE; just one thought today and more will follow. First of all, the name - The Church of the Woeful Countenance. Boy, that'd really bring the folks in, huh? One of my favorite literary characters is Don Quixote. And he is known as the knight of the woeful countenance. There is adventure and danger and folly and romance and insanity and beauty throughout his story; however, there is a woefulness that is always seen on his face. It is not a resigned face, nor a timid face, but a wise face, a face that knows that this life is hard and that courage is needed to dream the impossible dreams. If I were to start a church, I see a group of people with woeful countenances, their faces etched and weathered, eerie and peculiar to most observers. But our visages would be woeful because we're searchers and seekers. I hear some pastors describe their churches as seeker-oriented; the implication being that those churches are somehow not the mature and faithful, but the beginners or something. Hell, we're all seekers are we not? Asking and knocking and seeking and sweeping and searching and turning the blessed room upside down and hopefully finding coins and pearls and beauty along the way, continually searching for the peace on the other side of hope. To say that we're not searchers betrays even the slightest experience with the Text, in which Paul talks about not having arrived, not having it all together, but pressing on toward the mark. And the faces of people like that are woeful; it is a countenance which is not tempted by the siren songs the world sings. Many churches I've pastored or visited (now that I'm out to pasture) have been full of faces plastered with painted on smiles or courage that has been screwed up from the bootstraps. We worship a Savior who was a man of sorrows, well acquainted with grief; yet we long to avoid that like the plague. I'm not talking about starting a church where everyone's face is sad; no, I'm talking about starting a church where everyone's face is eroded with joy. There would still be smiles, but they wouldn't be from ear to ear; no, they'd be from eye to eye, the natural borders of a true smile. There would be weeping-Jeremiahs all over the place, but we wouldn't rush in to wipe away one another's tears; no, we'd let them fall as witnesses to the not-yet reality of our lives, as we await that day when HE will wipe away all tears. And there would be a set-like-flintness to our faces that we learned from our Father, who art in heaven and also decided to walk this earth, that reveals our cries of kyrie elison - Lord, have mercy! for we're riding into hell for heavenly causes, we Don-Quixotes, we knights and princesses of the woeful countenance who have been adopted as sons and daughters, children of the King, and therefore we will not give our hearts to less-wild-lovers (thanks, Eldredge and Curtis). It would begin with a name - The Church of the Woeful Countenance.

In the wee, small hours of the morning

Dada, do you like clowns? They were her first words that morning. I was standing in the closet, getting dressed in the early half-light and she was in our bed, again. I was thinking of things - things to be done for the day, things left undone from the previous day, things that might happen in the future. But her words stopped the thing-ing. I bent down beside the bed to greet her eyes. FYI - Abbey has trouble with "th" sometimes and it comes out as "f."

Dada, do you like clowns?

Well, hi. Clowns? Yeah, I like 'em o.k.

I don't. They're scary. That red smile scares me.

Babe, were you dreaming about clowns just now?

I fink so. I don't like clowns.

The questions of my day were along the lines of Can I hit those editorial dates? Is there enough money in the bank? Did I send all my freelance work in this week? I wake with a whole family of questions, what the Bible refers to as legion. She wakes with one. I wake with questions that all have to do with the strategic mind - figuring stuff out, hoping to not forget something, and anxious in case I do. She wakes with simple concerns; not simplistic, mind you, but simple. And simple is good.

She awoke with a question that arose from her ability to dream. And still being a rather small person, she wanted to know what someone larger and trustworthy (Dada) thought about something she'd seen during the night hours.

I love this little girl. She teaches me so much. God, I long to dream. To dream in color, vibrant clown-smile colors. And God I long to awake with questions out of those dreams; better yet, just one question. And Lord, I pray that I'll immediately look to you, someone larger and trustworthy, for guidance. I'm still a rather small person and some of the things that don't scare other people, scare me.

God, do you like clowns?

Well, hi. Yeah, I think so. Do you trust me, John?

I fink so. But sometimes you scare me.

That's o.k.


Ludlow lay under the comforter looking at the scrapbooks of his life, his mind enlivened by a mild fever. He had reached the age where his habitually romantic frame of mind had turned to the ironies...
-Legends of the Fall by Jim Harrison

Ah, the ironies. The life you planned on living, the things you dreamed would happen, the times you just knew you'd have. And things turned out differently. The poet David Whyte considers these Ludlow-moments as quite possibly the beginning of our true lives. Up until that moment or time, we're going through life with essentially a naive, childish approach to living. And then things begin to get ironic, twisted somewhat, out of sorts...and they continue on that way. It's at that point, according to Whyte, that we are presented with the opportunity to move into an adult-adult relationship with life. We lose our sense of immunity to the things that all humanity has and will face in existence. We're initiated into the circle of humanity and we can accept the ironies or retreat back into some regretful, childish place of if only.

How would you complete that phrase - if only ? The reality is that whatever the only was didn't happen; something else did. Those biblical sisters, Mary and Martha, experienced that irony when their brother died. They sent word to Jesus that Lazarus was sick unto death and Jesus took his divinely-sweet time getting there. And by that time, their brother had died. The sisters greet the Lord with if only you'd come sooner, Lord. Little did they know that they were on the verge of the beauty of irony. They were about to say, When I was a girl, I believed like a girl, but when Lazarus died and Jesus didn't come and then Lazaurs was alive and Jesus stopped weeping; then I became a woman.

The Story

Maybe nothing is more important than that we keep track, you and I, of these stories of who we are and where we have come from and the people we have met along the way because it is precisely through these stories…that God makes himself known to each of us most powerfully and personally. –F. Buechner

The impasse of wills. Two people convinced of their truth; however, these truths will not make you free. These lower-case truths keep you imprisoned in the icy land of self. She called truce. He agreed. The energy to keep at the conversation had slowly been sucked from them. Now, lifeless shells, they sat in silence for the duration of a show about international terrorists wreaking havoc in the states. Little did they realize the terrorism that had already taken place in their home. Or maybe they did. He was colder than he'd been in weeks.

They followed one another to bed. Lights were offed and children retucked. In bed, she faced the center while he turned out. Goodnights were exchanged as the last light gave way to the dark. He could hear the pipes in the house creak and groan under the weight of the furnace's will to warm. The sounds resembled the sounds within himself as he peered into the night; creaks and groans in his heart. She touched the small of his back with grace and said the word - love. His truth was such that it responded to grace but couldn't face it; love's gaze was too much. He preferred darkness to the light and struggled to stay warm as ice encased him for the night.

To say we can accept God's grace and forgiveness and not accept it from another is complete and utter foolishness. To claim we can bask in the warmth of God's gaze, but prefer the cold dark to the gaze of a willing other is the height of hypocrisy. To say we love God and then hate our brother or sister or husband or wife or friend or child is to be a liar.

Man of Confidence

There are days when you rely on another's words; this is such a day. The poem is by James Kavanaugh:

How can I tell you that the man of smiles and confidence is frightened now, trembling from the core,
Uprooted and still pursued by childhood fears that refuse to go away?
I want the world to be my friend and all its people, even as the puppy that first licked and loved me
Like no one else ever has, and the friendly echo that lovingly answered, like no one else ever did.

I want you to know that I am not the man I seem, perhaps I never was, and cannot be.
I wake at night afraid, rise up in the morning, filled with some unassailable dread, wondering where I have gone.
Not daring to ask anyone to relieve me of my distress, lest they know that a man does not know what to do,
Or even how to live.

In the distance, I hear the joy of little children laughing, laughing, laughing, forever laughing,
And I wonder what has happened to me, and if ever I was truly a child.

The Cost of Discipleshit

Amazing the difference one letter can make, isn't it? I read Bonhoeffer's classic treatment on discipleship in seminary and later again in my early pastoral days. If you haven't read it, you should; not as a burdensome thing, but some books just deserve to be read in this life and that's one of them.

I'm pretty much convinced that if you and I have any intention of being a Christ-follower in this life, then we're going to have to get used to discipleshit. What exactly is that, you ask? One of F. Buechner's books describes Christ as the dung-eater . I can remember reading that and thinking, Yeah, that's pretty much what it is...continually eating the crap of the world and being able to come back for more; all the pain, hurt, agony, abuse, and the list goes on.

Discipleshit is the stuff that you and I encounter daily that stinks, reeks, smells, hurts, burns our eyes and our hearts, kidney-punches us, and just plain makes us want to give up. Call it what it is - shit, dung, crap; all those words which describe the waste of our lives. And the thought that you and I might move beyond that stuff this side of the blessed Jordan river? Well, that's a load of crap or dung or shit. As long as we are here, in-carnated Christ-followers, men and women who are earthbound and not left-behind series bunkered up somewhere - we'll keep stepping and sliding in, being taken aback by, and getting IT thrown at us. The crazy thing is you'll get about as much of that from church-folk as you will raging pagans out there. And you'll probably produce a decent amount yourself. Commit yourself to a local church for any amount of time and guess what'll pop up? Yep, shit. Shucks, commit yourself to anything in this life: wife, husband, kids, relatives, job, pets...sooner or later, something will start smelling.

I don't expect for this phrase to take off in christian publishing or anything; we like it clean and flowery smelling. Any hint of offal and we're scrambling for cleany-wipes and floral sachet fragrance spray. Don't get me wrong here - I hate shit as much as you do. But to be a disciple, a follower of Jesus Christ, means having to deal with it. I remember reading somewhere that the student shouldn't expect more than the teacher...I just can't remember where?

If You Are

Wednesday night is family devotion night for us. Last night's passage to read and discuss was Luke 4: The Temptation of Jesus. Our two oldest read verses of equal length, while our youngest tried to be quiet. It was good - the passage lent itself to talking about things like fasting and temptation; however, most of our time was spent talking about the devil. I realize that sounds strange, but it's true.

One question that was asked was: How did Jesus know it was the devil? The question here arising out of identification (red suit, horns, pitchfork, etc.). Our reponse was, Well, I think Jesus knew; he's pretty smart, ya'know. That seemed to satisfy. We then asked the kids if they knew any other names that the devil is known by? They said, Satan and then couldn't think of anything else. Theologically astute father that I am, I added the descriptor of "deceiver" to the list. We discussed deception and what that means and again, it seemed to satisfy.

But my mind looped back to the original question of identification. How do we know the enemy when he/she/it comes? If the devil is all about deception, then I'm going to have to be a tip-toe to catch this, right?

Our "temptation" discussion with the kids had them giving examples of "watching t.v. shows you guys don't like" to "not cleaning up my room." As I thought about what I would add to that discussion, it became a little more difficult. How am I being tempted on a daily, if not hourly, basis? If the devil has even a smidgen of the power that we say he/she/it does, then the deception thrown at me is not going to be straight down the middle? Or is it? Or will it be different every time? Or is there a theme, if I look at my life, that seems to play out temptation-wise? There are a number of books out there on satan and his/her/its schemes; I'm not convinced those authors really know what they're talking about. Oh, some of it is solid; however, to say we've got the skinny on the deceiver sounds a little like we've been...well, deceived.

The one takeaway for me last night was that all of the deceiver's questions/ploys had to do with the conditional if you are. That's probably a good place to start looking and listening; anything that causes me to if my identity, who I am in Jesus. So...maybe the wisdom in not being deceived lies in being dang sure who Jesus says you are. And that can come via horns and a fork or blue eyes and blue jeans...

One man's death diminishes...

"Now is the day of joy - let us not revenge; now is the day of good will, let us not be mean-spirited. In this day of peace let us not be conquered by anger..." St. Isaac of Nineveh

A seventh-century Nestorian monk from Beth Abhe on the Persian Gulf, Isaac was bishop of Nineveh for only five months before withdrawing to the mountains to live in solitude. He reportedly lost his sight from studying the Scriptures voraciously.

I like this little factiod about the Nestorian monk. He stepped away from a bishop's position in Nineveh to get lost in the mountains; folks probably said he was crazy. That's got the makings of a good John Denver song. And in those mountains, he studied Scripture "voraciously" (great word) - he gorges himself of the words of God to the extent that his physical faculties of sight just peter out. The optic nerves said, "Enough. We can take no more. If you want to see from now on, you'll have to use something else." I wonder if Isaac lost his sight before he wrote those words or after; I'm going to bet on after. I bet that way because it seems that in order to see, really see, we have to lose our original eyes. We have to look with something different than those little white balls stuck in the indentions in our faces. We have to use our hearts.

I believe we can still use those eyeballs, however, in seeing with our hearts. Many have "seen" the hanging of Saddam via the cell phone camera's pictures that made their way to the internet. News agencies have reported the debacle and the White House is apparently reeling again over something that looked like a necessary thing, but now looks like what is was...revenge. I wanted that bastard to die for all those crimes to humanity, all those children lying in the street, gassed by this man's inherent evil...but when I saw him dangling from that rope, something, maybe my real eyes, said, "That's wrong. I've been conquered by anger, I've been mean-spirited, I've been revengeful."

Should Saddam have paid for those crimes in some way, been held accountable for the injustice? Absolutely. But to have paid with his literal life? I just can't see it. I haven't lost my sight from studying the Scriptures voraciously, but I have read 'em. And those Scriptures, those holy words, those utterances from the voice box of God speak of mercy always overcoming justice. That's not very American, I know, but America sometimes doesn't listen or see or ask or seek or knock. I don't know how Saddam should have been punished; I'm not sure what mercy would have looked like. But if Isaac were still alive, still bloodied from falling down mountain passes due to his blindness, still walking around muttering God's words which had become his words due to his voracious appetite - I'm going to bet that Isaac would have cried, "Mercy...'Today the Bountiful impoverished Himself for our sake; so, rich one, invite the poor to your table. Today we received a gift for which we did not ask; so let us give alms to those who implore us and beg. This present day cast open the heavenly door to our prayers; let us open our doors to those who ask our forgiveness.'"

John: But, St. Isaac, I didn't see Saddam ask for forgiveness.
St. Isaac: Really? What did you look with? Those round things in your head? Oh, my son, your blindness is worse than mine.

Sex, Lies, and Christmas Photos

We sent out over 200 Christmas letters this year, complete with a photo. You may have received one. We were thrilled to receive about 140 letters or cards or photos in return; that’s a pretty good return-ratio. We loved going to the mailbox each day with our golden key, opening the tiny door, and allowing the box to give birth to good words and memory. The majority of cards we received this year were of the photo variety. We have them taped around the outline of our fireplace; it looks pretty cool. As I sit and drink coffee or type on this laptop or finish my dinner, I dwell on these pictures, these snapshots of friends old and new. Most all of the photos are imposed on a winter-laden background, with a holiday greeting of some sort across the bottom of the card. We’ve got friends above the holy manger, next to wise men, in the direct line of falling snowflakes, and hemmed in by candy canes. I’ve noticed that each of the photographs presents an individual, a group of kids, or a complete family looking as if everything is right with the world. Everybody has their hair combed, many families are color coordinated, and the children are beaming out a smile; even the “forced” ones are beaming. In all of these photos, the message is clear: We’ve had a great year, our kids are stellar students in school, my wife and I are having phenomenal tantric sex, our stock portfolio is banging on the ceiling, and we’re totally committed to our church or faith group. But that’s not the truth.

The photo of the young lady with her dog is basically the same one we’ve received now for several years. I know for a fact that she would gladly let the dog go chase some squirrels if there were a man, a husband, in the picture. Behind the smile and candy canes lies a heart that beats with desire but as of yet, beats unrealized. She grows older with each Christmas card and more alone. And then there’s the minister’s family, out on a hillside, surrounded by autumn colors at their peak. And as the trees have lost their leaves, so has the minister lost his hair and his youthful figure. The weight of ministry shows in his face and eyes and arms and neck; a heavy burden when God said it would be light. And with three kids literally between he and his wife, the figurative implications of that distance speak volumes. And the church? The question of what it is and why he’s still stumping for it hounds him day and night. The thrill is definitely gone. Now, lest you think me judgmental, just take a look at our photo. It shows a blue/black color coordinated family of five in the snowy mountains of Evergreen, CO, looking fresh and winsome and fully alive. Wanna know the truth? Truth is my wife and I had one of the biggest fights we’ve had in a long time just moments before the shutter fell on that one. Her trust in me was totally in question and my competence as a man completely up for grabs. We had both yelled at the kids for various things and tears had been shed over happy meals. Good God. But when the camera came out and we knew “the Christmas photo” was being taken, we wiped the tears, ratcheted up some affection, pulled out some smiles, shined up our halos and let the Colorado snow cover our multitude of sins. What a bunch of posers, we Blases. But I guess if you had received our photo and our kids were all down on the ground crying, my wife had her back to the camera, and I was giving the lens the swollen middle finger, you’ve have thought…what would you have thought? Would you have been offended? “Well, the nerve; after all, it’s Christmas and there’s enough bad in the world as it is!” Would you have been puzzled? “Is this a joke or what? Oh, I get it - the real card will come tomorrow.” Or would you have been silently relieved? “Look, honey. The Blases had a year just like us. It’s sure good to know we’re not alone.” We spent almost $200 on cards, envelopes, and postage to make sure you think well of us. Sure hope you did. And sorta hope you still do...

Our Dilemma

I received Rick Bass' new collection of short stories for Christmas...its entitled "The Lives of Rocks." In one of the stories, he tells of a great king who ruled a land justly and with compassion. One day, while walking beside the river, he heard the screams of children who had been swept away in the current. The good king immediately jumped in to save the children; he was able to get them to the bank safely, but he could not save himself. The king went over the falls and his body was torn into pieces. In the days and weeks and months that followed, people of the land would find the king's body parts in different places along the river - an arm here, a leg there, fingers swirling in an eddy. The people reverently carried these parts back to the king's son and daughter to be properly mourned and honored. This presented a great dilemma for the heirs; the kingdom in which they lived contained magic strong enough to put the pieces of the king back together and restore him completely to reign again with justice and compassion. However, they could bury the pieces of the great king and begin to reign themselves justly and with compassion, as the new regents of the land, something they were born to do.

As we step into a new year, something that means so many different things for so many different people, I believe that Bass' story holds great meaning for all of us. We can honor the past so much that we forfeit our own destinies. We can continually be working to put the pieces of something back together, hoping it will come to life again and give us safety or security or happiness or whatever. However, in doing so, we fearfully stay in a place of dependency and never lean into the present, much less the future. The past is to be honored and it holds many pieces that must be mourned, grieved, honored, wrestled with, and learned from. But a slavish attachment to the past, as good as it may have been, keeps us son and daughters, princes and princesses, but not kings and queens. I pray for each of you, as I pray for myself, the courage to reverently honor the past, but at some point to bury those things that would keep us from becoming the ones we were created to be. This is not denial or stuffing down emotions or anything like that; this is letting the past be the past and letting today be today and leaning into tomorrow. It is being alive. And that's what the world needs - people who are alive. Amen.