Prodigal Questions and Answers

To realize one's destiny is a person's only real obligation.
- Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist

What is the question you will be asked as you one day stand before the pearly gates, or St. Peter, or God himself? I realize that assumes you hold to a pearly-gated-St.Peter-as-sentinel-before-God-himself scenario, but most people believe there will be some kind of moment of accounting for life once we die. There are a few who believe we'll just become food for the worms. But even then, maybe the worms will ask us a question before they eat us...if so, what will that question be?

I was taught that God would ask: Why should I let you into my heaven? I was also taught the answer God wanted to hear: Because I put my faith in Jesus Christ who died for me. As I think about this now, here in my forties, I don't have any misgivings about the answer, but the question bothers me. It presents the picture of a god with arms crossed, chest puffed, barring the way to Elysium, booming out that question so all creation would pause for your answer. And unless you give the right answer, you're out, escorted to the food-for-worms line.

There's a beautiful picture in the rest of the Story of a father hiking up his manskirt and running in a rather undignified manner when he sees his prodigal son limping toward home. This father doesn't give a rat's ass what other people may think; his son, who was away in the far country, has come to his senses. When this father reaches his son, he embraces him and showers him with kisses, and holds his son's face in his hands and says Oh, just let me look at you. How I've missed you. My son! Not once, in this story, does the father stand back, cross him arms, puff his chest and boom: Why should I let you come home? Not once.

An old Catholic chaplain used to play with my lower-middle-class-pasty-white-bread-evangelical-mind by asking me: What do you think God's going to ask you when you one day stand before him? At the time of my friendship with him, I was fresh out of divinity school, ready to save the planet, questions and answers in hand. I would answer my friend with the answer I'd been taught. And then being polite, another thing I'd learned in divinity school, I'd ask him: Paul, what do you think God's going to ask us? He would pause, lean back, rub his prodigious belly and beard, and then lean in and whisper: Did you find out who you were? He would then smile and go about his Catholic chaplain duties. I would smile back, politely, and think to myself: Silly Catholic-rabbit, tricks are for kids. I know better.

Here in my forties, I can imagine the father and his prodigal son walking back toward the Ponderosa. The father's arm is around his son's neck and from time to time they pause and the father buries his son's head in his chest as tears of joy salt his cheeks. There isn't a lot of talking. There is a moment, however, in one of those pause-hugs, when the father looks the son square in his whored-out eyes and says Did you find out who you were? The son slowly replies through pig-slop crusted lips: I'm your son. The father gently pats his son's beggard-cheeks and resumes walking: Let's go home. And the rocks along the way begin to sing, while all the worms smile.

Wii, Whee, We, All The Way Home

She said, "Glory, you take things too much to heart." That was what they always said about her. Hope was serene. Luke was generous. Teddy was brilliant. Jack was Jack. Grace was musical, and Glory took everything to heart. She wished they had told her how to do otherwise, what else she should have done.
- Marilynne Robinson, Home

My son received a Wii gaming system for his birthday back in February. Great gift, huh? Well, great kid. One of the aspects of the Wii that makes Nintendo people slap-happy but fathers and mothers not-so-slappy is the fact that most, if not all, of the games you purchase for this system are $35-50. Whee!

He has his eyes on a particular game right now. He's played it at a friend's house and absolutely loves it. It's a decent game; I approve of it. Anyway, he approached me with a proposition, as is his custom: Dad, if I read some books this summer that you choose, will you buy me that game? I took his question to heart, as is my custom. Sure, my first-born-son. Let me think it over and I'll choose a couple of books. You'll have to give me an oral report after reading them though, o.k.? His smile assured me the deal was sealed.

It's been a challenge to select some books for him because he's already read so many; all the Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Brian Jacques, Will Hobbs, Mike Lupica, and all the "Battle" books on his school's reading list. I did an online search for reading lists appropriate to middle school (he starts in the fall) which was encouraging/disappointing. He's read all those books already. That makes me very proud, but it turned what I thought would be an easy book pick into something harder, deeper, on the level of a quest. I don't want to give him too much of a book to read, content-wise, and at the same time, I know how horrible it is to read a book that constantly insults your intelligence.

If I could encourage my son, my first-born-son who often takes too much to heart, to read one book this summer, what would it be?

I selected Harper Lee's classic To Kill A Mockingbird. I handed him my copy and gave a brief character overview to get him started. I told him this was a book everyone needs to read but not everyone does. He said o.k. and immediately stepped into the story of Scout and Jem and Atticus and Dill and Boo. I also told him that after he finishes, we'll watch the movie together one evening, bathe ourselves in black and white and popcorn. We'll watch Atticus shoot that rabid dog in the street and see Scout's inherent scrap and hold our breath while that man spits in the face of Mr. Finch and feel sorry for Jem when he breaks his arm and be strangely drawn to a simple man named Boo Radley who stands in the shadows of a child's bedroom after saving the day.

Are my son's motives mixed in this endeavor? Sure. I don't care. I believe we're all about 7/10 bull anyway; we lived mixed lives. If somebody's always banging the drum as to how pure their motives are, I'd suggest not spending a lot of time with them. But as my son puts his hand to Lee's plow with his sights set on harvesting a video game, my prayer is that he will be swept away into the lives of those characters and take them too much to heart. His father experienced such a sweeping away many years ago. I do that, get swept away by things and take them too much to heart. As does my son.

He greeted me yesterday upon my return from the land of cubicles and copiers with a Hey, Dad, I like that book. Whee!

THE Bucket List

I don't believe any novelist...has too many thematic concerns; I have many interests, but only a few that are deep enough to power novels. These deep interests...include how difficult it close Pandora's box once it's open...the question of why, if there is a God, such terrible things happen...the thin line between reality and fantasy...and most of all, the terrible attraction violence sometimes has for fundamentally good people...I've also written again and again about the fundamental difference between children and adults, and about the healing power of the human imagination.
- Stephen King, On Writing

My girlfriend and I finally watched The Bucket List the other evening. We enjoyed it. Good storyline and two top-drawer actors to carry it: Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson set out to do the things they've always wanted to do before they kick the bucket. Simple enough.

I read Mr. King's words a couple of days later and thought well, scary Stephen is talking about a bucket list too. And while I can daydream about Freeman & Nicholson's, I live with Mr. King's. THE Bucket List - that list at the bottom of the bucket that holds your deep interests, the dregs you live and would die for, those things deep enough to power novels or worldviews, the listing of things that matter.

F & N's bucket list makes for great movies and can inspire you to live out your dreams. K's bucket list, if you take the time to consider it, holds the power to help you see who you are, why you do the things you do, and why you may be here in the first place. I'm inclined to believe that unless you've got a King-bucket, any Freeman-Nicholson-bucket you pick up will be full of holes. You could walk the Taj Mahal and motor along China's Great Wall and still wind up empty. It'd be a damn shame to die that way.

Telling the Truth

My mother, God rest her, didn't approve of profanity or any such talk; she called it "the language of the ignorant." This did not, however, keep her from yelling "Oh shit!" if she burned the roast or nailed her thumb a good one while hammering a picture-hook in the wall. Nor does it preclude most people, Christian as well as heathen, from saying something similar (or even stronger) when the dog barfs on the shag carpet or the car slips off the jack...If you substitue "Oh sugar!" for "Oh shit!" because you're thinking about the Legion of Decency, you are breaking the unspoken contract that exists between writer and reader - your promise to express the truth of how people act and talk through the medium of a made-up story.
- Stephen King, On Writing

I used to be a pastor. I'm not anymore. Oh, I do preach every once in a while and I always appreciate the invitation because I do enjoy it. But just every once in a while. Of the many things I've realized since leaving the pastorate to become a rather obscure, never-published writer is that people talk a certain way in religious contexts and another way in what we refer to as life. There was a language spoken on the church grounds or in the church building and then there was another tongue altogether that was voiced on the golf course or canoeing down the river. It was always a saddening thing to me when, for example, a man would try and talk with me about his marriage but due to the Legion of Decency and you-don't-talk-that-way-around-the-minister, he would struggle like Sissyphus to share what was really on his heart. Barbara Brown Taylor writes about this phenomenon in her wonderful memoir Leaving Church. She's not a pastor anymore either.

Of course, you might reply Well, people shouldn't talk that way. And I would reply, Well, but they do. I'm in no way talking about the let's-see-how-many-times-I-can-use-the-F-word. That's a jr. high mentality which, unfortunately, often extends beyond the jr. high years. No, I'm talking about the truth of how people act and talk. That's the point of this little Monday morning type-o-rama; truthfully representing people in fiction writing. And as old pop Stegner said: "We write fiction to tell the truth."

My mother has never, to my knowledge, used profanity and for me, as a writer, to write about her and include salty language in her dialogue would be to falsely represent her. In other words, I'd be lying. Not to mention the fact that I would be quickly written out of the will. I may be hanging on by a thread as it is. However, an old mentor of mine named Edna was just as much a christian lady as my mother, but she did, from time to time, use colorful language. My favorite expression of her's was goodhellamighty. I'd never heard it used before and I've never heard it used since. But when I write about a character like Edna, whether I'm literally talking about her or not, I'm at liberty to use that word. I'm telling the truth. To not do so breaks that contract Mr. King talks about between writer and reader.

Since not being a pastor anymore, I've come to believe there's an unspoken contract between people, whether they're fiction writers or casual readers or ministers or mothers. It's the contract of truth. And people know when it's broken, due to the Legion of Decency or any other Legion. People know when other people are telling the truth. Not always, but most of the time. I've heard some sermons, over the years, from other pastors and thought damn! he's not telling the truth. I read some blogs, from time to time, and think goodhellamighty! she's not telling the truth. And I hear the words that fall out of my mouth, every once in a while, and realize oh sugar! I didn't tell the truth.

Dew and Residue

Ah, a new day glistening with the fresh dew of God's mercy. Only problem is, I don't feel that.

Little incident took place last night in mi familia that touched the place in me, as a man, that struggles with being enough - enough of a provider, protector, bringer home of the bacon, mr. fix-it, and all the rest of those supposed biblical and cultural hats men are to wear. All it took was a touch, a nick, and I bled all over the place the rest of the evening. I went into what is commonly referred to as a "funk" or "blue mood." I ended up barking at my kids multiple times and keeping my wife at arms length until we finally went to bed with that big space between our bodies over which there was no bridge. I had burned it. Damn. I hate it when stuff like that happens. I was having a pretty good day and then a word or phrase or look lands in just the right spot and I'm reduced to someone I don't like very much. And no one else does either.

In those moments last night, I didn't know what to do. And even that sentence touches the "incompetent" place. I didn't know how to fix the things that needed fixing. Oh, John, it's not about fixing things. Sorry, but for a man, it sure feels like it sometimes, most times. I felt pinned in a corner and so I came out fighting. Maybe you should have prayed, John. I thought about, I really did, and then I remembered those times I've prayed before about feelings like this and asked for help and nothing happens and so I decided to keep God at arms length too. Well, John, God has you right where he wants you; you need to lean deeper into your relationship with Him. You know, I believe that, it's just that sometimes I don't have the foggiest idea what that means.

I write this because a couple of posts back, I'm describing myself as a good father, attentive to the needs of his kids and wife, blah, blah, blah, and you might want to nominate me for man of the year or something. Please don't. I'm a man full of fits and furies and greed and lust and have to sit down to take a crap just like the rest of the planet. And in moments of not feeling enough, I turn in on myself. This isn't "poor me" stuff; it's "me" stuff.

I've got to apologize to everyone once they wake up, try to rebuild some bridges, fix some stuff. We'll see.

Dalva - A Very Good Read

Last night, I finished Jim Harrison's Dalva. The last line of the book is We went down to join them. What looks like six simple words is actually the finishing stroke to a brilliantly crafted work of art. In other words, the last sentence fits, it's appropriate to the rest of the story, it has integrity.

Throughout the novel are "letters" from a missionary named Northridge who spent time with the Plains Indians as their culture was being phased out; truly a twilight of the gods. I'm copying a portion of one here due to it's truth. The "I" is Northridge:

I listened attentively to Reverend Gates who was also the President of Amherst College, who said something of the following, "The Savior's teaching is full of illustrations of the right use of property. There is an immense moral training that comes from the use of property and the Indian has all of that to learn. We have, to begin with, the absolute need of awakening in the savage Indian broader desires and ampler wants. In his dull savagery he must be touched by the wings of the angel of discontent. The desire for property of his own may become an intense educating force. Discontent with the 'teepee' and the starving rations of the Indian camp in winter is needed to get the Indian out of the blanket and into trousers - and trousers with a pocket in them, and with a pocket that aches to be filled with dollars!..."

If there's not something for you in those emboldened words, then I'm sorry. Go back to watching golf or something. As for me, I finished the book with a profound sense of gratitude for an artist true to his craft and also a gnawing sense of sadness at the supposed progress we've made since the days when the prairie grasses were tall enough to brush a horse's bridle and the wings of the angel of discontent had not yet covered the land. I fear the hell that haunts us is of our own creation.

That's Life

My girlfriend had to run an errand to The Dollar Store yesterday. The kids were with her, so as you might guess, they just had to purchase something. Come on, Mom, stuff's a dollar. Hell, we ain't rich, but we do have a few dollars. So all three of our three offspring walked out of that fine establishment with something cheap.

Our youngest chose two plastic dolls: Strawberry Shortcake and Crepes Suzette. No, I'm not kidding; those are their real names. When I got home she was playing with them, she took them with her into the bathtub, and only stopped the play later that evening when a Disney video distracted her. In the few moments of taking her eyes and hands off of those two little smiling food girls, the Beagle decided to go cosmopolitan and try some Crepes Suzette. We heard him chewing over the sound of Disney characters dealing with friendship vs. popularity and when I pulled her free from the canines of our canine, well, let's just say now she is Crepes Su. The cute little beret? Gone, gone. Those dainty little feet in espadrilles? Vanished.

Our youngest cried and screamed I hate that dog! The Beagle's tail was lowered and his eyes spoke these words: I'm so sorry. I was bored because you were watching a goofy Disney video instead of playing with me and I wanted to get your attention. I quickly asked if there were any more Crepes at The Dollar Store and yes, there are gave me enough gumption to promise to pick up another one today to replace her current hatless, feetless doll. I do have to find a dollar though. I did consider suggesting that it was actually a good thing because now Strawberry's commitment to friendship would be tested: Could she still be friends with Crepes Suzette w/out a cool hat and feet or would she turn her back on the now less-than character and prefer Orange Blossom or Angel Cake? The friendship vs. popularity teachable moment was interrupted by the Beagle hacking up a plastic beret.

Life's like that some days. You finally convince your mom to pony up with a George and you come home with two new gloriously cheap toys and spend hours in Strawberryville and turn your back for one minute and BAM! you're wrenched back to the reality of dogs who get bored and like to chew stuff and a Crepes Suzette who can't stand on her own two feet anymore because, well, she ain't got no more feet. But maybe, just maybe there's a good father in place who sees the tears of little girls and knows the nature of Beagles and loves both in equal measure and promises to do what he can to brood over the waters of chaos and whip in The Dollar Store and say Let there be Crepes! and bring form and order to the recently chewed void. Maybe.

Please pray there's another Crepes Suzette on the rack. And that I can find a dollar.

The Way Things Are

Reading at meals is considered rude in polite society, but if you expect to succeed as a writer, rudeness should be the second-to-least of your concerns. The least of all should be polite society and what it expects. If you intend to write as truthfully as you can, your days as a member of polite society are numbered, anyway.
- Stephen King, On Writing

If I hear one more person whine about how the Church failed them in some way or how there's no difference between Church folks and non-Church folks in lifestyle, I may shit a literal brick. I have no desire to diminish the wounds by the hands of those of the cloth, such as pedophile priests. That's not what I'm talking about.

What I am talking about is being disappointed or let-down or betrayed or frustrated by God's people. I always wonder, well, what did you expect? And I'm certain the response would be well, something more. The Church, regardless of your denomination or geographical location, always has been and always will be full of people. Some are redeemed and some just haven't realized it yet. But they're all people, flesh and blood. And as such, they and I will disappoint you, let you down, betray you, and no doubt frustrate you to no end. When that happens, and it will, those are the opportunities to practice what is so often preached: forgiveness, patience, long-suffering, peace, kindness, compassion, gentleness, mercy, etc. If you're looking for something different than that, then don't go looking for a Church. Join The Justice League or Dixie's Midnight Runners or something, but don't walk into a Church. Because the Church is full of crap.
Or at least it oughta be.

A Cliff Notes skip thru the New Testament shows that clearly. After that glorious day in Acts where everybody lived on love, things went south pretty fast. Widows were overlooked, there was crazy sex stuff, folks got all mixed up about grace and law, the sun went down on someone's anger, circumcision kept showing up so to speak, and disciples sat with the popular kids instead of the nerds. But there were also days of peace and love and forgiving as Christ forgave us and steering clear of idols and older women teaching the younger women and flames of faith being fanned and friends being reconciled and whole households being baptized. In other words, Church, the Ecclesia, the called-out-ones, is a mixed bag. It's full of faith, hope and love and at the same time is full of guys watching porn and mismanaged funds and kids who listen to Duffy. And you know who's sitting right in the middle of it? The Good Lord himself.

Would I love if it Church was full of people who understood me? Heavens yes. Would I stew in the juices of contentment if Church musicians sang the songs the move me? Yes. Would it be splendid if everybody got their house in order before coming to the Lord's house, so we could get on with whatever it is we're dreaming about? Everybody say Amen. I'm not sure people are looking for a new kind of christian or a new kind of church so much as they're looking for a new kind of person, somebody different than the weight of human history reveals. We've got historical amnesia and we're putting all our money on the future. And the wonderful selling point of the future is that nobody's been there yet; in other words, you can pretty much sell anything.

Then again, maybe I'm full of crap.

Writing Isn't About

Writing isn't about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid, or making friends. In the end, it's about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well. It's about getting up, getting well, and getting over. Getting happy, okay? Getting happy.
- Stephen King, On Writing

You know what? I love to write. I really do. There are days when I feel I'm pretty good at it and days when I'm quite convinced I stink at the craft. And then, every once in a while, there are days when the words audition for me and I say, "yes, you've got the part" and something special happens on the page or the screen. I've got an agent working on my behalf these days; we're hoping to catch the eye of some publisher and stake a claim on the shelves of bookstores everywhere.

As for those words from Mr. King, I do truly hope to enrich the lives of people who read my words. I wouldn't mind making some money, as there are a few things I'd like to do for my girlfriend and our three kids. They deserve so much more than I've been able to provide. I wouldn't do very well at being famous; I have a tendency to blush quite easily. Getting dates and getting laid? Oh, I'm tempted like any other man who's honest, but mercy, there's no need to spit on my life. I'd really like to be able to draw my last breath having been faithful to the wife of my youth. As to making friends, I've got a handful now that are like fine wine. If I started having too many friends, they'd probably start asking me for money or wonder why I blush so easily or they'd want to take me on a date and lay me. I don't do well in crowds anyway.

No, I hope your life is enriched, somehow, by visiting this blog from time to time. I hope you're encouraged, reminded, and challenged. I do hope you laugh a little and cry a little. I hope the words here help you get up and get well and get over. Shucks, maybe even get happy. I know they're having that effect on me.

On second thought, I might be willing to try being famous. I do like those red shoes the Pope wears. They'd go well with my blush.

The thing is to do what you love, right? Follow your bliss? I love to write. I really do.

A Good Weekend

When Augustus came out on the porch the blue pigs were eating a rattlesnake - not a very big one.

That's the first line to possibly one of the best books ever written - Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry. This past Friday evening, my girlfriend asked if I wanted one of my Father's Day gifts early. Never look a giftgirl in the mouth, 'specially if she's offering something early. She pulled a DVD from a hiding place - Lonesome Dove. "Now this," I said to myself, " is a thoughtful woman."

The television mini-series came out back in my college days. My brother and I watched it the first go'round with my dad. So, as things sometimes do, even hearing the first few bars of the soundtrack conjures up images of my dad. I believe my girlfriend knows this; it was one of the reasons behind her gift. I watched it several other times in the following years, as we had recorded it via something known as VHS. Then early in our marriage, my girlfriend and I took a weekend and watched all six or so hours; it was her introduction to phrases and images she'd heard the Blase men refer to for years. And in that weekend, she too was smitten.

If you don't like stories about cowboys and Indians and horses and rough language and saloon girls and whiskey boats, then you won't like this at all. But if you like stories about dreams and love and courage and tenderness and friendship and redemption and mercy and justice, then I highly recommend it; the book or the film. The cast of characters includes Robert Duvall, Tommy Lee Jones, Rick Schroeder, Robert Urich, Angelica Huston, Danny Glover, and Diane Lane. I didn't quite finish watching it this weekend, but I came real close. I laughed at the banter between Gus and Call and was reminded of the beauty of male friendship that has nothing to do with brokeback mountains. I cried when they pulled out of Lonesome Dove for Montana (a cattleman's paradise) and was reassured that life's a journey. I flinched at the water moccasin scene where the young Irishman drowns and grieved when Jake Spoon spurred his horse and hung himself; danger and death are ever present. I grew restless at the sight of ole' Blue Duck, that half-breed and wished there didn't have to be a bad guy. But there does. I grinned at the sight of Lorena (Lori darlin') and witnessed the power and fragile nature of that known as "woman." I wished young Newt could find out who is true father is and felt the longing, always the longing for the father's words. I cheered when Call came to Newt's rescue as a good father does and realized actions do speak at least as loud as words. I was moved when Gus and Claire embraced after years apart and was reminded that regardless of the outcome, it's worth it to take risks, hope on dreams, try one more time, take the herd north.

Call walked over and stood where the saloon had been. There was nothing left but pale ashes and a few charred boards. "When she left, Wanz couldn't stand it," Dillard said. "He sat in her room a month and then he burnt it." "Who?" Call asked, looking at the ashes. "The woman," Dillard whispered. "The woman. They say he missed that whore."

For Dad

"It finally doesn't matter that fathers are misunderstood."
- Jim Harrison, Dalva

I didn't understand my father during my formative years. I'm not sure any sons do. Chances are, he didn't understand his father. And my grandfather didn't understand his. There comes a time however, if you're lucky, when you realize you don't have to understand fully to love fully.

" can love completely without complete understanding. That have I known and preached," my father said.
- Norman Maclean, A River Runs Through It

After the elementary school bell rang, my dad would drive me out in the country to Mrs. Davis's house. She taught me to play the piano. I cannot remember how often I went. Was it once a week, twice? Well, doesn't matter. He took me, faithfully. I would climb the steps to her house and sit under her instruction for the thirty to forty-five minute lesson. And if memory serves me, my dad would wait for me. Waiting. It is one of the facets of fathering.

I wonder now what he did while he waited. It seems he would sit in the car, a silver Renault wagon the car dealer/friend said "had crossed the Alps." We named the car "Betsy." So, I would sit with Mrs. Davis and play the scales and assigned pieces from the week before. And dad would sit with Betsy and well, I don't know what he did. There were no cell phones or wireless laptops. Maybe he ran some errands, although the Davis house was somewhat off the path. Possibly he contemplated his upcoming sermon or pulled out the latest copy of Western Horseman magazine and rehearsed his secret life.

Then again, maybe he sat with Betsy and hoped and prayed and dreamed. Maybe that silver Renault wagon was like a monk's cell or a businessman's cabin in the woods. In all of the sturm and drang of husbandry, fatherhood, and being the preacher of the First Baptist Church, moments of golden quiet were no doubt rare. It's possible that as I struggled to remember sharps and flats on the keyboard, my father re-membered himself beneath the shade of a scyamore tree; it was his time to be still and know that he was him.

I would awkwardly descend the steps of the Davis house and re-enter my father's world. The door was always open. We'd take the back way home and I'd sit in his lap and daddy'd let me drive Betsy. Hot, east Texas wind full of bird sounds and crickets blew in the windows rolled down. Afternoons of tickling the ivories and navigating the ebony one-lane roads back home. And being with my dad.

Did my dad take me to piano lessons ten times, thirty times, seventy-five times? I don't know. It doesn't matter. Sometimes, a father doing something once is enough to become a memory that will stay with the child until breath no longer fills his breast.

There's a quote in the front of my bible copied from Rod McKuen's Alone: "I know only the dying heart needs the nourishment of memory to live beyond too many winters." On days of snow and wind and biting cold, days when my heart tends to despair, memories of my father come to me. They nourish me. And I go on.

Matthew 5.33-37

And while we’re on the subject of one-eyed, one-handed men, I say I also prefer a man of few words. It’s gotten to the point where people believe talking is thinking and somehow the more words you use, the more honest you are. The words yes and no are as brilliant as the stars. Can any of you make a star brighter? The answer is simply no.

Matthew 5.17-32

Meat On The Bones

“You've got to understand that the Law and the Prophets were the bones, the skeleton of God’s design. I’ve come to put meat on the bones, bring flesh and blood to God’s grand dream. But the bones are necessary. I wouldn’t be me without them.

“So don’t think you’re something if you move beyond God’s Law. You’ll end up very, very surprised. That’s the opposite but equal mistake the religious hypocrites make, thinking it’s all one thing. No, it’s both. God’s Law and me. I'm warning you. Miss the two and you can kiss any Kingdom dreams goodbye. Trust me.



“The bones of old went like this: Do not murder. But I’m going to flesh that out by saying that being angry with anyone can be the same as plunging the knife in. Did you hear that? It can be the same. Just like letting the contempt in your heart find its way to your mouth so that you call a man worthless or tell a woman you’ll-never-amount-to-anything. That rhyme from childhood - sticks and stones? It's true. But words do hurt; in fact, they cut to the very heart of the matter. Trust me.

“So here’s the deal, this is how serious I am about this. Let's say you're the minister of a church. Some Sunday morning you're preaching away and God brings to mind a friend who’s at odds with you. I want you to close your Bible, forget what somebody might think, and walk out of the building. Go, right then, to that friend and do all you can to right the wrong. It's possible that this kind of response-able living can keep you out of court or even jail. If you’re not willing to do something that radical, then all the praise choruses or donations to the poor don’t mean squat. Trust me.


“Another old bone goes like this: Do not commit adultery. Until now, that meant sleeping with someone else's wife or husband. I say that fantasizing about another man’s wife or another wife's man in your head is the same thing as having sex with her or him in your bed. You’re committing adultery of the heart. The act between the sheets all begins in the space between your ears. It may sound crazy, but I’m saying it’s the same thing.

“Lust begins with a look. So if living pure of heart means poking your eye out, I say do it. I’d rather you be one-eyed and pure than two-eyed and perverted. And the same thing goes for your hand. If its always getting you into trouble, then I say cut it off. I’m serious; don't think I'm being overly metaphorical here. God can do wonders with one-handed men. Trust me.

“The Law bones also said: If you’ll fill out the proper paperwork, you can get rid of your wife and move on to the next woman. Listen closely. I say unless she’s sleeping around, don’t even think about divorcing her. If you divorce her and she remarries, you’re causing her to commit adultery. Yes, I said you. You’re also making the one she remarries an adulterer. Yes, I said you. And if you should marry a divorced woman, then you’re an adulterer. Sounds completely crazy, doesn't it? For too long, marriage has been treated as merely a legal matter, vows spoken before someone official. It’s not. It’s sewing two souls together before the eyes of God. Trust me.

Matthew 5.13-16

A good friend asked about a word choice in the last post. The word in question? Lucky. Here's the story behind my selection.

When Eugene Peterson was writing The Message years ago, he preached through what he wrote. As he was preaching through Matthew, there was one lady who would leave each Sunday's service by shaking his hand and saying I can't believe how lucky I am; I'm just so lucky. She had only recently become a part of the church; she'd lived for years apart from grace. But she would sit and listen to him paraphrase scripture and drink it in like a panting deer. Her totally secular, rode-hard-put-up-wet, no-church-background-at-all, amazingly refreshing response to God's grace was I can't believe how lucky I am.

Peterson lobbied hard to use that word, but his editor said "no way" - too close to "luck"/"gambling"/"chance" - he even said the etymology of the word traced back to "lucifer" in some way (I'm still not sure about that). The editor felt evangelicals, in particular, would go nuts over a word choice like that. So, it didn't make it in the published work. But as Eugene Peterson told that story, he cast a wishful glance and said I sure wish I would've fought harder to use the word lucky.

So now you know.

Here's the next few verses:
The Point Of Living Here At All

“You’re here to spice things up. You’re God’s salt. Your life can help others taste glory here on earth, right now. But there’s a difference between being salty and being godly. Be careful there. Ungodly salt ruins everything.

“You’re also here to shed light on the subject, the subject of living. Without you, the world’s completely in the dark. There’s no secret society or code word. It’s you - God wants you to brighten the days. So don’t play it small or humble-bumble; that doesn’t help anyone at all. Live big, dramatic lives, full of the Father’s goodness. Live so people can see.

Matthew 5.1-12


The crowd was so large that Jesus decided to climb a hill. His friends followed him. He found a spot that looked right and got comfortable and started teaching. Here’s what he said:

“The lucky ones are those who bet it all on God’s kingdom. The payoff is a sure thing.

“The lucky ones are those who learn how to cry. As each tear falls, God whispers Courage, my child.

“The lucky ones are those who live gently on the earth. They realize everything’s a gift. Everything.

“The lucky ones are those who agree there’s more to life than food and drink and even being right. They fill-up on something entirely different – God’s goodness.

“The lucky ones are always praying Lord, have mercy. They know that without it, we’re all lost.

“The lucky ones look with the eyes of the heart. That’s the only way to really see God.

“The lucky ones stop trying to get ahead or tell a better story. God’s sons and daughters live lives of peace, at rest.

“The lucky ones have been and will be wounded for heaven’s sake. But God declares their scars beautiful.

“The lucky ones are usually the butt of someone’s joke or get blamed for all sorts of things that aren’t true. As odd as it sounds, those are occasions to be happy. God sees and hears and says Good job! God’s friends have been bullied since the world started turning. It’s nothing new; you could say it’s a family tradition.

Lines worth remembering

I'm reading Jim Harrison's Dalva. I do not know anyone else who reads Harrison, but I wish I did. These are just a few examples from this writer someone described as having "immortality" in him. I fully agree.

While his bathwater thundered I poured myself a drink and speculated about his secret life, his concealed ideas about himself...The secret life can be based in the childhood mythology of cowboys and Indians, the outlaw, and rambling gambler, or more recently, in the popular culture of detectives, rock music, sports, gurus, religious and political leaders. The roots seem always connected to sex and power, and how free they felt as children to enact feelings that ran counter to the behavior they were taught. It is usually deeply comic but also poignant...

A poet, I can't remember who, said there is a point beyond which the exposed heart cannot recover.

...the "emotional burnout," as it is rather glibly called, was actually a vital emptiness, a time when life was so poignant, and full of what is understood as suffering but is really only life herself making us unavoidably unique.

~~ each of us must live with a full measure of loneliness that is inescapable, and we must not destroy ourselves with our passion to escape this aloneness.

In the elevator it occurred to me that every man, woman, and dog in America was tethered on too short a lead or chain...

What we are, what we have done, what we have made, weighs as heavily and usually as unnoticeably as gravity weighs upon us. It is the historian's job to study this unseeable gravity, to take core samples from the past and bring them to the quasi-light of the present.

Horses always know the way home.

The Wild, Climate Controlled, Peanut-Allergy Sensitive God

Come, children, and listen to me;
I will teach you the fear of the LORD.
- Psalm 34.11

"In speaking with children...I have sensed that an extrapolation from a single fragment of the whole is the most invigorating experience I can share with them...The brightest children, it has often struck me, are fascinated by metaphor...
- Barry Lopez, Crossing Open Ground

My daughters have been involved this week in a Vacation Bible School field test. One of the aspects of the company I work for is the production of such curriculum. Essentially, the theme has been "the wild God" - the God who is unpredictable, untameable, uncontainable, and a few other words that begin with "un." The mantra that has been spoken each day has been, essentially, "He's not safe, but he's good" - the phrase C.S. Lewis put in the mouth of little Lucy as she described the mighty Aslan.

Snow White was the first of many Disney films to have its premiere engagement at New York City's Radio City Music Hall. At the end of the film's initial engagement there, all the velvet seat upholstery had to be replaced. It seems that young children were so frightened by the sequence of Snow White lost in the forest that they wet their pants.

There is a part of me that wishes my company would now have to replace huge tracts of carpet in the building because kids wet their pants all week as stories were told of Elijah and Daniel and Gideon and their interactions with this "wild God." I did notice one little kid the other day who grabbed his whacker and said, "I gotta pee" but I think it was because he drank too much blue juice at snack time. I'm afraid if frightened kids wet their pants all week, there would be major editing of the curriculum before it went to press; we would view that result as an indication that something was "wrong."

It was raining as we gathered yesterday morning, so everyone signed in their kids "inside." The usual arrangement is to gather outside with your age appropriate group, but yesterday it was too wet, too cold, too dangerous (lightning, you know).

I wonder if the children can sense our hypocrisy? Our fear? That we, the adults, lead them in songs about an uncontainable God, yet we, the adults, hold fast to the moorings of "God will not act inconsistent with scripture." That we, the adults, craft chants that speak of the unpredictable nature of God, while we, the adults, pause and wonder what's "wrong" when God is not blessing our jobs, families, or our nation. That we, the adults, announce through smiles and spiritual aerobics that God is untameable, while we, the adults, unamimously prefer a good God who is safe; an Aslan with Liam Neeson's sonorous voice.

Today's the last day of the field test. We'll wrap it up with a big ice cream party. Pure wildness, huh? I guess there's always the chance that some of the ice cream will sit out too long and some kid'll eat it and it'll do a number on his or her stomach and they'll crap their pants. I won't predict that happening, but if it did, someone would no doubt exclaim, "Oh, my goodness!" which is really a tame way to say, "Oh, my God!" But don't worry. If that does happen, we'll rush him inside and clean up the metaphor.

A Little More

He was surprised how quickly his mind flooded with thoughts of his father. It was almost like they had been waiting in the wings for some stage time and now, at last, they might get the chance to say their lines. He pulled four moleskin journals from his bag and made his way to the writing desk. A good friend had said Write down what you hear while you’re there. Be very intentional about it, or it will be stolen away. His decision was to use each of the journals to record words/thoughts/images related to what he considered his losses over the lasts five years: dad, work, marriage, prayer.

A quick pull and the lamp illuminated the desktop, complete with a beer stein turned penholder. He grabbed a pen and quickly tried to rewrite the thoughts he’d already had this morning concerning his father. It seemed right to begin his entry with the Harrison quote rather concluding with it. Each of us must live with a full measure of loneliness...

Beep. Beep. Beep. The coffee pot was now ready to share its bounty, willingly. The two mugs on the small tree hung in perfect balance. There had been a season of trying green tea, but after his best efforts, his evaluation was that green tea was just weak, green water.

We’ll give you a day to acclimate. Lil Gillian’s words surfaced as he stirred brown sugar into the mug. Previous trips had taught him that the first twenty-four hours were always needed just to leave the world behind. After about a day, your body settled into a different rhythm, but not until then. Trying to rush that process had always been, in his experience, an exercise in futility. Maybe Lil had known that and had extended a grace to him during the drive from the airstrip; he hadn’t said more than two sentences to her.

Between sips of coffee, he wondered what is the best way to acclimate myself to this place? He then framed the question this way: how can I be a good steward of the day I’ve been given? Those thoughts made him laugh. Who talks like that? The reflection in the window showed a forty-five year old in boxer-shorts and cowboy boots. It humbled him and he realized the truest question was what do I want to do today? And from that moment, until at least 9am, he determined to do absolutely nothing.


The morning of doing absolutely nothing turned into a day of the same. The Adirondack chairs coupled with the slight breeze off the water proved to be quite conducive to lengthy naps. The sound of squirrels in pursuit of each other along the stone wall stirred him awake. His watch read two o'clock. Two o’clock? He could not remember the last time he’d taken a three-hour nap. Maybe that was why he needed one.

He had called Kristin on his arrival to reassure her was safe. She was to be involved in an all-day school event the next day, so she said settle in and call me day after tomorrow. By the way, did she smell of buttermilk?

Well, not exactly; I’ll tell you about it later.

Alright. We love you. The kids’ll want to talk next time. Bye.



The voice on the answering machine was Steve Gillian’s. He must have missed the phone ringing, somehow. Come over about four o’clock for Lil’s stuffed mushrooms. Follow the path down by the shore. It looks like it’s going nowhere, but that’s by design. We’ll plan to eat about six. Be comfortable.

Godalmighty, why couldn't it have been a mustached-milkmaid that picked me up at the airstrip? Really, why? This time away was supposed to be focused, but the fresh memory of cinnamon scented Lil Gillian threw everything inside him helter skelter. He remembered reading about the desert father who claimed to have never struggled with lust while he lived with women in plain view, but the moment he moved to the desert his mind was constantly occupied with lustful thoughts. He tried to envision the emaciated desert father clearly offering his wisdom from that experience, but the desert father ended up looking like Audrey Hepburn holding a tray of stuffed mushrooms.

The Story Continues

He slept well. The down bedding had created a womblike feel he was hesitant to be birthed from. The coffee pot had clicked on and begun to brew, drip by drip filling the room with strength for the day. He looked around, reorienting himself. It was hard to believe he was really here, here on an island miles from his family, a time zone removed from work and bills and neighbors. But he was.

His discipline for years had been to rise early, before everyone else, and write. It was something he had witnessed in his father over the years, except his father would read. A man needs to read more than he speaks or writes. Remembering those oft-heard words caused a heel to press against his side, a pain strong enough to prod him out of his cocoon. Dad. God how he missed him.

They were two weeks away, two weeks, from a well-planned road trip back through his dad’s stomping grounds when his mother’s voice cried two words into the phone: He’s gone. And just like that, he was. No warning, no sickness, no nothing. Just gone. It was the first of his losses and felt to be the greatest. The year before he died, it seemed as if they had finally achieved a rhythm, an ease around each other they had both desired for years. The love had always been there, always, but this was something beyond that, possibly a mutual respect. He had worked through the sins of his father, both of commission and omission. His father had made peace with the disappointments, the things he thought his son would do or say or become, but did not. This work had led them to a place of being able to let the other be who and what they really were. He remembered the afternoon they walked and laughed and cried and swore and seemed to bask in the light of an uncommon sun in the lives of men: friendship with their fathers. And then his new friend was gone and he felt totally and completely alone.

One month after his dad died, he decided to adjust his morning discipline of writing with equal parts reading. His father had been reading Harrison's Dalva before he died; his mother had pointed it out on the nightstand during the days surrounding the funeral. He didn't ask her, he just took it and vowed to finish what his father had begun. On that day, one month later, as he sat to begin the book, it fell open to a bookmark, evidently the last page of words his father had read. Two lines of text were underlined in his father's trademark blue Bic ink: each of us must live with a full measure of loneliness that is inescapable, and we must not destroy ourselves with our passion to escape this aloneness.