So Nervous, Old, and Hairy

He said, "You'd best know I am unreliable, that I am a poor friend."
"A poor friend is better than none," I replied...
"I have not always obeyed the law," Glendon stated.
"Nor I my conscience."
He considered me. "I have seen the inside of more than one jail cell. It is nothing I am proud of nor would mention except you have a fine family. Also, I take a drink of whiskey now and again."
I said, "I am a fraud and impostor and for at least two years have lied regularly to many people, including my wife. Very soon now I will be found out and lose what small reputation I have managed to acquire."

- a conversation between Glendon Hale and Monte Becket in Leif Enger's So Brave, Young, and Handsome

Before the grand adventure in Enger's new novel even begins, an honest conversation occurs between these two men. Oh, there's still some cards they're playing close to the vest, but they go this far at least. That's farther than most men go in conversations, maybe even most women.

I tried to imagine this exchange taking place in churches I've known. And hard as I tried, I couldn't conjure up the image. The only time I recall ever hearing anything even remotely close to words like these were from the parched lips of the drug addict or the shifty voice of the high stakes gambler who'd found the Lord, turned from their wicked ways, and set about on the straight and narrow. And even in those examples, there were never two voices heard, but one: the sinner's monologue.

Before you start out on any adventure, be it grand or not-so, it seems wise to go this far at least. There'll be much more that emerges along the way with time and trust. But you've got to put a few cards on the table at the outset; 'fess up to unreliability or a drink of whiskey now and again.

Most of us, at the beginning of adventures such as a job, marriage, friendship, or the school year put out best foot forward. We look our best, shine our shoes, comb our hair, brush our teeth, and mind our manners. First impressions are important, right? But we set ourselves up for a fall, sometimes a great fall. Why? Because we're all poor friends, we've all disobeyed our conscience, we've all lied at one time or another, we're all unreliable, and we're all frauds and impostors.

Everybody wants to be so brave, young, and handsome. I know I do. But I know I'm not.

Playing With Fire

The real question becomes the meter, the dispensation, the burning of one's days, and - always the trickiest part - the balancing of passion and intellect, logic and intuition, emotion and strategy. No wonder so few, if any, ever make it all the way to the top.
- Rick Bass, Why I Came West

Night's burn ban is lifted and
the wick is lit in the East once more.
So begins the flame.

The real question becomes
the burning of one's days.
Playing with fire.

It will rage without me,
but a woodman's tricks can make it brighter, hotter.
Dry wood. Room to breathe. Patience.

A roaring will occur mid-day,
and then the gradual douse.
Ember-stars are his promise in the sky.

You will burn again.


I think we all sense that a compression, a strange diminishment, of both time and place is in full gallop now...The world will never and should never become all one thing. There will always be some differences, enough differences, between which and in which artists will be able to continue to make art. But the more similar our world and our culture becomes, the more we need wilderness. The more we become different from the wilderness, the more we need the wilderness...because I believe too that "the more civilized man becomes, the more he needs and craves a vast background of which he may return, a contrite prodigal from the tasks of an artificial life."
- Rick Bass, Why I Came West

I was in New Orleans this weekend, just a quick overnight trip. Still, I had to get through security, get on an airplane, get off an airplane, take a shuttle, check in a hotel, check out of a hotel, and then shuttle in reverse back home. I'm usually very aware of differences when I travel. I listen and look much. There were differences on this trip. I think of my seat-mate who, due to size, spilled over into my seat as well. His left hand had only a thumb and pinkie finger; pointer, tall-man, ring-man, they were all gone. He had to use his right hand and his teeth to open the pretzels. Think about it.

I also think of my shuttle driver, a black man. I use the word "black" for this man was black, it was his color. There is no disrespect in that, only observation, looking, paying attention. He talked of his rovings but, for some reason, always found himself back in New Orleans. It was his home, his people.

There were other differences, distinctions that I noticed. There were. But what I saw most was "same."

As we sat in the plane awaiting take-off, I could not find a person not talking on a cell phone or checking the screen of a cell phone. I'm aware of my tendency to exaggerate, but honest to God, everyone around me was doing this. And as soon as we landed? These hand-held devices sprang to life and hand and ear and eye. Gotta be "on." We are an anxious people, no?

As I stood in front of a window on the 35th floor, I looked out over the river and saw traffic and hotels and sky being scraped and the endless chain of headlights and Saks Fifth Avenue and the casino that looks like a library. And I thought "I've seen this before." I'm sure there are differences there, people, stories. I fully believe there are. However, there was a vast backdrop of sameness. I could have been standing on the 35th floor in Vancouver or Dallas or Philadelphia. Even Colorado Springs, if they allowed 35 floors.

I kept thinking this is, to use Mr. Bass's phrase, "an artificial life." Life is about colors, like black and distinctions, such as left hands with only a thumb and pinkie.

Some say the greatest threat to America is nuclear weapons and the hands they are in. It could be that the greatest threat is this compression, this diminishment in full gallop now.

I'm craving wilderness.

O Lord, Let Something Remain

Everything must change? Everything? That's the message we're hearing from those who know (I guess). From the skinny guy quite possibly our country's next leader, to the emerging theologians, to the earth-is-flat theorists: Everything must change. Everything? Really? Have we not heard this before? Historical amnesia, we have. The more information there is, the less attention we can pay. We'll run right through stop signs.

Our neighbors are on vacation and asked my son to take care of their chickens, all ten of them: I'll pay you and you can have the eggs each morning. I went with him Monday evening to make sure they were in the "house" and they weren't and we ended up chasing and catching, one by one, all ten of them as the sun slowly said goodbye over the Front Range. They have to be in the "house" at night because of coyotes, canis latrans. I don't think my heart rate went down until sometime in the wee, small hours of the morning. God it was fun.

Folks aren't buying health club memberships or designer coffee or summers on the Sound; they're buying gas and groceries. And possibly buying those with plastic. Layoffs and downsizing abound but the networks are filling us full of Miley Cyrus and anticipation over who'll be the new cast of Dancing With The Stars. Folks also continue to lose their homes in this mortgage crisis. The loss of a home, that clod piece of the American Dream. If a clod be washed away by the sea, how can that not have some impact on the continent, the main, me? The bell tolls as Hannah sings.

My daughter and I drove to the library to return books overdue, always overdue, and a lady in a bronze Cadillac in the middle of our small town drove hell-bent through a four-way stop and realized it about a block away. I saw her brake lights gleam as her head swung around in shock. The other three of us at the four-way stop signs sat in disbelief and judgment. Our books weren't overdue after all, but The Half Blood Prince was checked out. I did find a book of Dickey's poetry for a quarter at the Friends of the Library book sale. Death is always a stop sign away.

School starts back up in a few weeks. Supply lists are as full as ever. Everybody needs new shoes and backpacks. School lunches will be more expensive this year, the first price jump in about five years. The Olympics begin on the 8th. I've yet to see Ledger's performance on screen. Somebody once told me I look like Christian Bale.

We've eaten dinner together every night this week and realized we always eat dinner together. I fear we're in the minority. Hands are held, grace is said; the Beagle waits for crumbs from the master. A front blew in last night and scared the heat away. The air smelled like autumn. John Donne believed it's always autumn in heaven. Seven of the chickens were in the coop last night; we only had to catch three. There are now five brown eggs in the refrigerator. We slept with the windows open, such was the cool. I heard trains all night. And coyotes. Some things don't change, senator.

A little satisfaction and a lotta magic

After visiting my parents, we spent a few days at my mother-in-law's home up in eastern Arkansas. It's a land of rice fields and ducks unlimited decals and food like this -

I hadn't had fried okra and fried squash and fried green tomatoes in a month of Sundays. But the dear lady who birthed my wife slaved over a hot stove to provide this gift for me and mine. Yes, the Lord is good and his mercies endure forever.

Each morning I brewed a pot of coffee. Now I brought along my own brand and I realize that indicates a refusal to fully enter the experience of my people, but such are my flaws. I did not, however, bring along my own coffee mug. I borrowed one that looked like this -

If you look closely, you'll see that this was none other than the Miracle of the Resurrection coffee mug. As the mug sits empty, you see a rock-hewn wall with people milling around and a big, black blob in the middle. But, drum roll please, when you add hot coffee to this marvel, the big, black blob suddenly disappears to reveal someone standing on top of the rocks with outstretched arms, an oxyclean white robe, and a smile. Yep, you guessed it. It's Jesus. It was like magic or something. My kids said wow, that's cool; a phrase I'm sure those first witnesses used as well.

As you drink your coffee and the mug gradually cools, Jesus goes away. The way to get Jesus back? Filleth thy mug yet again.

The first morning, I thought the Miracle of the Resurrection mug to be a little silly. But as the days rolled by, I thought it a little less silly and a lot more sound. [Here's comes a homily/sermon deal, so if you want to check the status of your stuff on eBay or download the latest from that cute Carrie Underwood, then go in peace.] Each morning, as I drank my own brand of coffee in that mug, Jesus rose again in a strange, white pottery kind of way. It reminded me of what my friend Brennan Manning refers to as the "present risen-ness" of Christ. The miracle of the resurrection is not just some past event that we can celebrate once a year and then move on; no, it's a present reality, something that is true each new day. I'm afraid most of us don't think about that enough, this "present risen-ness" of Christ. We'd be well served to have some icon in our lives to remind us of that truth, maybe something like the Miracle of the Resurrection mug. It just might help believers to utter those three all-important words a little more often: wow, that's cool.

Leader of the Band

and we become, at last, our fathers. And do not know ourselves and therefore no longer know each other.
B.H. Fairchild, Early Occult Memory Systems of the Lower Midwest

This picture was taken just moments before we left the place my parents have called home for over twenty years now. There were hugs and kisses all around with plenty of I wish ya'll could stay longer. After my girlfriend snapped this picture, I embraced my dad and held the man from whence I came for a long time. And he held me. As my face was buried in his silvering hair, I whispered I love you. And he said I love you too. It was about all I could do to let go. But I did.

He's probably walking down the driveway about now to pick up the Gazette that's thrown each morning. He'll come back inside and sit at a round kitchen table and drink coffee and read and eat something with a little peanut butter on it. When he's finished, he might check and see if his son's written anything new on that blog of his. A little later, he'll don his supersuit: pressed shirt, black slacks, possibly a tie, black cowboy boots. He'll go over the agenda for the day with her and kiss her before he leaves. A double-check to make sure the cell phone is on his hip and then he'll slide into his shiny black car and then the dark knight will drive the length of the driveway and turn right into the rest of his day.

I've always loved Fogelberg's song. But the words have taken on a deeper significance the older I've gotten, the older we've gotten. I guess it's why I hug the man so tight and whisper those three words through his silvering hair and hang on tight until it's time to go. I wish I could've stayed longer.

His gentle means of sculpting souls
Took me years to understand...
I thank you for the music
And your stories of the road
I thank you for the freedom
When it came my time to go --
I thank you for the kindness
And the times when you got tough
And, pap, I don't think I
Said I love you near enough --

The leader of the band is tired
And his eyes are growing old
But his blood runs through
My instrument
And his song is in my soul --
My life has been a poor attempt
To imitate the man
I'm just a living legacy
To the leader of the band

Somebody's Prayin'

A week ago today I sat in the church my dad has pastored for over twenty years now. It's a southern baptist church just slightly removed from the buckle of the bible belt just a tad to the east. I stepped away from southern baptist life about six years ago. I find myself these days with a motley anglican crew, observing weekly communion with real wine and candles and liturgy and such. I believe it is the path God has me on, but my roots are southern baptist; it's where it all began.

One of the aspects of the liturgy of my dad's southern baptist church (and EVERYBODY has a liturgy) is mentioning the weekly prayer list. The photo above shows the list for the week, printed in the bulletin I was handed as I entered the sanctuary. There are times when I balk at the old ways of my youth, dazed by the bright lights of whatever is emerging. And then there are times, such as a week ago today, when the old ways strike my flint just right, and as the old song says "it only takes a spark."

I listened and watched as those seated around me followed their pastor's voice in adding a few last minute names to the list; grey-haired southern saints took out fine tip pens and wrote down the names of those "to be remembered." In the whole of the service, this was the holiest of moments for me. You could hear the crickets in the corners, such was the silent rapt attention paid to these names. A couple of tragic accidents were mentioned and heads gracefully shook left and right with "dear Lord" and "my, my." I was filled with a surety that these people, these children of God who prefer Magnolias to mountains, would take their list home and pray those names during breakfast or before going to bed in the evening. I believed these people took this matter of prayer seriously, as if their voices just might move the hand of the Almighty and He'd get Jesus to intervene and save a marriage on the rocks or heal a man broken in a motorcycle wreck or protect the men and women so long in harm's way.

After a minute of seeing this picture, I found it hard to focus; it's something that happens when you eyes are filled with tears. Why was I crying? Shucks, I don't know. Maybe it was seeing a man I dearly love doing what he dearly loves to do. Maybe it was the whiff of nostalgia in my big old nose, remembering the way it used to be; a gnawing sadness for what I didn't appreciate until it was gone. And maybe, just maybe, it was a hope that one of these saints with big hair and matching handbags or Wranglers and ropers would notice me in the crowd (only male with a ponytail) and unprompted would write down my name on that prayer list printed on the back of a bulletin. And then they'd faithfully remember "John David" over fried eggs and toast and the morning paper or whisper "God bless John David" just before they take off their socks and slip their feet under the cotton sheets at night because the box fan gets kinda cool by morning.

And maybe it was also a remembrance of something I believe with a deep-boned conviction: that the fine tip pens in the hands of simple, faithful men and women who write down the names people go by and that God knows them by, that their prayers availeth much in the kingdom of heaven. In fact on some days, it may be a list of names, spoken with a rote attitude and a monotone voice that us progressives think is the epitome of hollow religion, that stays the fury of the Lord or causes His mercy to sing like the crickets.

A week ago today I sat in the church my dad has pastored for over twenty years now and found myself strangely warmed and wet.

In Jesus' name,
Well, after about 17 hours of minivannin' fun, we arrived in Arkansas. The trip was smooth overall, with the exception of a stop in Oklahoma. We swung into a Braums Ice Cream Store for a quick hamburger and fries, with the emphasis on quick. I should have known something was up, because there was a distinct smell outside the place as I entered the sliding glass doors; it was the smell of stupid.

As we walked in, two youngsters greeted us from behind the counter. Big ole' Oklahoma smiles, one accentuated by a set of glistening braces. Hey ya'll, welcome to Braums. This welcome was followed by giggles, another tip-off that my nose was right - stupid was in the air.

Braums-Girl #1 took our order and tallied everything up on the handy-dandy register and printed out a receipt for me and handed it over with a giggle. As I did a quick scan to make sure Hannah Braumtana had gotten everything correct, I noticed three charges that seemed, well, wrong. I took the receipt back up to the counter and said, "Look, I'm not trying to be contrary here, but you charged me for three milkshakes that were supposed to be a part of the Braums-Cares-For-Kids meals." I pointed the charges out to her so as to provide adult-like evidence. It was at this point that Braumney Spears slinked herself almost flat down on the counter, so as to get a good look at the receipt (I guess/I hope). I kinda thought we might be filming one of those music videos and I didn't know about it, such was her slithering. I stepped back, being a holy man and all.

She looked at each charge and then looked up (since I had not slithered down there with her) and giggled I don't know why that does that. I then counted to 5-Mississippi, all the while waiting for the rest of a sentence that never came. "Well, miss, is there anything we can do about it?" I asked. It was then that the cast of High School Musical Oklahoma Style huddled up around little miss moonshine and they all intently studied my receipt. From the middle of the pack emerged a 50something guy who declared It's been doing that for quite a while now. I don't know why that does that. I guess you'll have to go get Debbie's keys. The implication seemed to be that folks had been getting the register #1 shake-shaft for months and the staff was powerless before the Hal 9000.

Anyway, everybody looked over in the corner to a booth inhabited by Debbie the Manager, who was giving mouth to mouth to a large strawberry shake. Did I mention I thought I smelled stupid when I walked in? Debbie raises up one of the two she was sitting on and pulls out a ring of keys fit for the warden of a maximum security prison. It was at this point that the good Lord whispered in my ear, "Let it go, bub. Some things in this life not worth $1.29." I had never heard the Lord use the word "bub" or give exact dollars and cents, so I decided to trust and obey. I waved off Debbie wriggling that keyring out of Mr. Jordache and said, "You know what? It's o.k. Forget about it." And so we did.

There were maybe five people in this Braums but when order #413 was ready, Braummela Sue Anderson stepped up to a P.A. system and shouted Order #413's ready with the vigor I imagine Gabriel will bring to that trumpet blast. Once we stopped the bleeding in our ears, I headed back up to the headwaters of shame to get our trays. Upon arriving back at our booth, we discovered that three french fry packs were missing. I said something about a smell, right? By this point, I had developed a relationship with the hired help; we were almost on a first name basis.

I was now engaging teen #2 of the original wonder twins who greeted us at the door. "Miss, you still owe us three packs of french fries." Kung Fu Bruamda looked at my receipt and then looked at me and then glanced once more at the receipt and said I don't know why that does that. Ah, another whiff of stupid. She walked back into a mass of teenagers, displayed my receipt, and then demanded three fries, hurry!

After a few minutes that felt like eternity times two, some kid wearing a radioactive glove slung the grease free from a hopper of fries and Braummily Duff placed three packs of french fries on my tray and leaned over to whisper in my ear: Be careful, these are like 800 degrees and giggled. Oddly enough, I began to giggle as well, while at the same time having a feeling like I was in a POW camp, while at the same time beginning to shake uncontrollably, and at the same time noticing that Debbie was over in the corner eyeing me like man candy.

I walked back to our booth, handed the fries to kids #2 and #3 and said, "These are like 799 degrees; be careful." We ate quickly and wondered why in God's good name we chose this Braums. The front doors slid open and a single woman walked in to the same greeting we received. We wanted to yell, "Run. Run away. Now. Quickly. Go!" But we ate those fries too fast and burned all the flesh off the inside of our esophaguses; all we could do was pray the prayer of the heart.

We grabbed our things and left the Braumdy Bunch as we found them. As I walked past that no-good register #1, I was sure a patron was pointing out something to Braummerella only to hear this in return: I don't know why that does that.

Two For the Wall and One For the Road

THE DREAMERS ARE the saviours of the world…. Humanity cannot forget its dreamers; it cannot let their ideals fade and die; it lives in them; it knows them as the realities which it shall one day see and know…. Composer, sculptor, painter, poet, prophet, sage; these are the makers of the after-world, the architects of heaven. The world is beautiful because they have lived….
— James Allen

A friend sent me this quote yesterday. He indicated it was for me and my wall. But he also said it was for all of us. So feel free to put it on your wall. Or hide it in your heart.


This conversation also deserves your time. I believe it too speaks of the dreamers...
Ordinary Spirituality
Interview with Eugene Peterson

An excerpt of an interview with Peterson by Christianity Today managing editor Mark Galli, published in March 2005:

CT: Many people assume that spirituality is about becoming emotionally intimate with God.

PETERSON: That's a naive view of spirituality. What we're talking about is the Christian life. It's following Jesus. Spirituality is no different from what we've been doing for two thousand years just by going to church and receiving the sacraments, being baptized, learning to pray, and reading Scriptures rightly. It's just ordinary stuff.

This promise of intimacy is both right and wrong. There is an intimacy with God, but it's like any other intimacy; it's part of the fabric of your life. In marriage you don't feel intimate most of the time. Nor with a friend. Intimacy isn't primarily a mystical emotion. It's a way of life, a life of openness, honesty, a certain transparency.


My posts may be few for awhile. We're loading up the truck to travel back to Arkansas to see our people. We've sold a bunch of plasma to generate gas money. The kids look a little pale, but that nurse said they'll pink back up. We're hoping to indulge in some fried catfish, hushpuppies, sweet tea, playing with cousins, sitting on the back porch, swimming in the lake - you know, ordinary summer spirituality stuff. We'll see folks we haven't seen in quite some time. They'll say things like lord, how the kids have grown and my, my, John David. That's quite a ponytail you have there. We'll say things like lord, yes, these kids are pinking up quick and yes, ma'am. You know us dreamers.

Gentle On My Mind

I preached yesterday. We've been in the midst of a Fruit of the Spirit series (Galatians) and yesterday's pickin' was gentleness. I had alot I wanted to communicate, but I don't feel it came out very well; one of those Sundays when the words were angels you had to wrestle. Maybe I can be a little clearer via the keyboard.

These are words from Wendell Berry's The Unsettling of America:
We are divided between exploitation and nurture…a division not only between persons but also within persons…The standard of the exploiter is efficiency; the standard of the nurturer is care. The exploiter’s goal is money, profit; the nurturer’s is health – his land’s health, his own, his family’s, his community’s, his country’s. Whereas the exploiter asks of a piece of land only how much and how quickly it can be made to produce, the nurturer asks a question that is much more complex and difficult: What is its carrying capacity? That is: How much can be taken from it without diminishing it?

When it comes to gentleness, I believe Berry's words to be excellent guidance for us. I would equate the "deeds of the flesh" with exploitation and the "fruit of the Spirit" with nurture. Words like "envy" and "jealousy" and "immorality" all have to do with efficiency, whereas words like "love" and "peace" and "faithfulness" all have to do with care. When I'm living a life apart from God's Spirit, then I'm treating myself and others from an exploitive stance. There's a bottom line and it looks like this - "how much can I/you produce and how quickly can you/I get it done?" That can obviously happen in the workplace, where deadlines and revenues rule. It can not so obviously, but just as deadly, occur in my home and also within myself.

Berry poses a question that is "much more complex and difficult" - the kind of question that comes when you're dealing with a living being as opposed to a mechanism. What is its carrying capacity? And with that question, as complex and difficult as it may be, I believe we get glimpses of what it means to have a spirit of gentleness. It's a question we are to ask of the people we're in relationship with and it's also a question we are to ask of ourselves. In other words, there's a gentleness with others as there is a gentleness with ourselves.

What is my wife's carrying capacity? Do I know the answer to that question? Do I have a hunch? Am I living with her in such a way that I have a feel for what she's able to handle/carry in a given situation? If I ask more of her than she can carry, then I'm not being gentle with her; I've replaced nurture with exploitation, care with efficiency. And, per Berry's last sentence, she ends up being diminished or belittled. She knows it and I know it. You can usually tell when someone has been diminished by looking in their eyes, the windows of the soul.

I can do that same thing with my kids, my friends, my parents, my work associates. And yes, even myself. Am I aware of my carrying capacity? Do I have a sense of what can be taken or given with diminishing myself? Remember, these are complex and difficult questions; you cannot answer them quickly or efficiently. Please don't hear me advocating some "be easy on yourself and take the path of less resistance/work" - that's not what I'm trying to communicate. There may be times when I'm asking too little of myself and diminishing myself in a negative way; I have much to offer, yet I'm hiding this little light of mine under a bushel. In that case, a spirit of gentleness would have an encouraging spur to it and it might come from a faithful friend, someone who truly cared about me.

There's much to this. That's probably why I couldn't express it all in a sermon or even a blog post. The world we live in operates out of a spirit of exploitation of people, places and things. But you and I are called to live by a different spirit, one that seeks to blow a nurturing breath in us and through us. It's a narrow way filled with complex and difficult questions. It is not efficient. Let me repeat - it is not efficient.

The Cowboy Way

"He simply did what had to be done...It would be easy, he told himself, to throw everything overboard and disclaim any responsibility. All he had to do was saddle up and ride out of the country. It sounded easy, but it was not that easy, even if a man could leave behind his sense of guilt at having deserted a cause. To be a man was to be responsible. It was as simple as that. To be a man was to build something, to try to make the world about him a bit easier to live in for himself and those who followed. You could sneer at that, you could scoff, you could refuse to acknowledge it, but when it came right down to it, [Conagher] decided it was the man who planted a tree, dug a well, or graded a road that mattered."
- Louis L'Amour, Conagher

Growing Together for 18 Years

And so it goes. And so it goes.
The great tree blossoms, leafs, & grows.
Come sun, come moon, come storms, come snows.
So turn our years. And so it goes.

Man meets a woman. And so it goes.
And time runs on, and love's fruit grows.
Through smooth & rough, through highs & lows,
The great tree blossoms, leafs, & grows.

And as time ripens, love likewise grows.
The smiles brighten, the flushed heart glows.
And yes each vows above life's blows.
And the roots grow deeper. And so it goes.

-Paul Mariani, Wedding Song