Morning Nonfiction

His watch alarm chimes 4:45am. The movement to silence its cry knocks his glasses off the nightstand. Dang. He listens as they fall. Sounds like they hit my travelbag; no harm done.

He can ignore the watch alarm, but the pressure in his bladder cannot be silenced. A pause at the bed's edge to simmer; something he read in a Sam Keen book. Don't jump out of bed. Simmer for a minute. Some simmers are longer than others. God bless Sam Keen, but he's got to pee.

As he makes his way to the bathroom, he smiles at a thought: a playful moment with his wife. She had issued some command and he replied, "Yessa, Ms Daisy." She smiled back and then he said something about having to "go make water." It was another moment of dialogue from the movie, but she didn't remember it and so he had to explain it and then it wasn't funny anymore. He "makes water."

The background music for the morning is the wind, the heater (always running), and a snoring dog. He makes his way to the kitchen by walking a short hallway with a rug running its length. The texture of this hall runner is known to his socked-feet. At the end of the rug, he feels the hardwood of the entry way and then quickly back to the carpet that fills most of the house. If his eyes ever fail, he thinks he'd be o.k. He can hear the landing of a pair of glasses and reads the texture of the flooring in his home with his feet and he has his father's nose. There is a superhero named Daredevil who sees with the all the senses but the eyes. I could be Daredevil.

The morning challenge: Can he plug in the coffee maker without turning on the light to see the outlet? He tries to be Daredevil and "sense" the wall, but after too many tries he gives up. I'm not a superhero. The morning cheat: he opens the refrigerator door and the utility bulb gives just enough light to see the outlet's eyes. A "click" and the orange glow of the switch tells him that for at least one more morning, there'll be coffee.

Back across the linoleum floor to the carpeted-den to retrieve the morning read - The Book of Common Prayer. As he reaches to pull the book down, he knocks over a bottle of fingernail something. Dang. Dear God, don't let this be a metaphor for my day; knocking stuff off or over.

He reads by the light of an open laptop. It's not Abe Lincoln reading by a candle, but its in the ballpark of humility. He's very thankful he heard where his glasses fell.

Thirtieth Day: Morning Prayer.
"Oh LORD, what are we that you should care for us?
mere mortals that you should think of us?
We are like a puff of wind;
our days are like a passing shadow."

Well, that confirms it. I'm not a superhero.

The sound of the shower. Ms Daisy is up. The dog will awake shortly and the sound of his tail wagging against the cage will rouse his son. Maybe the girls will sleep until 7am.

6:04am. The morning already feels like a passing shadow, a puff of wind. Mere mortals rising to greet a day that's already in progress.

"The LORD upholds all those who fall;
he lifts up those who are bowed down."

He thinks of falling glasses and falling fingernail somethings. It is a metaphor for his day. His days. He is a mere mortal and mere mortals fall or knock stuff over.

He's got to make water again.

An Unfinished Life

Your eyes beheld my limbs, yet unfinished in the womb;
all of them were written in your book;
they were fashioned day by day,
when as yet there was none of them.

Psalm 139.15

We often think about our "names" being written in the Book of Life and there's scriptural merit for that. Here the psalmist indicates that God also has a sketch book with our limbs drawn on the page. Maybe it's the same big Book. Your name is at the top of the page and then below are sketches of all of your limbs and inmost parts. Your smile, the curvature of your shoulders, your spleen and lungs. Maybe even your soul. Fearfully and wonderfully drawn by the hand of God.

Can't you just imagine a huge artist's studio with sketch pads and canvas everywhere and as you look through the window you see the wild-haired LORD even wilder-eyed with pencil or brush, sketching on every white space in the room, knocking over cans of paint and furiously, lovingly, drawing us into life? An angel knocks on the window with some kind of urgent matter and the voice of The Mighty One roars: Not now! Can't you see I'm working! Figure it out yourselves! Send Clarence; he needs his wings.

Well, I can envision that.

Maybe your artist-God is a kindly old woman beside a stream outside Santa Fe, wearing a Tilley hat (only the best for God, right?), meticulously applying water colors to a canvas perched on a wooden easel as an afternoon storm builds. And as you walk by and steal a glance at her work, she turns and smiles and her hair blows across her face and she tucks it behind her ears and you feel all warm and Santa Fe-ish and blessed.


When I look at the psalmist's words though, I see an ongoing creative process. What if (those scary, gloriously beautiful words) our lives here on this dark and bloody planet are the womb? And we live as unfinished lives, day by day being fashioned and sketched by the Mighty One until one day we stand, fully sketched with details and colors and shading and perspective and He says: Well done!? So its not so much what we've done over the course of our lives as it is what we've become over the course of our lives. Or maybe its all the same.

I don't know. Maybe.


The LORD does whatever pleases him, in heaven and on earth,
in the seas and all the deeps...
and brings the winds out of his storehouse.

Psalm 135.6-7

I guess the LORD is in one of those whatever-pleases-him moods. The winds are blowing here at 40-50 mph; they have been all night. I was certain that I'd see Dorothy and a Kansas farmhouse in our backyard when I looked out the window this morning.

The wind. My dad used to have an 8-track tape with a collection of showtunes on it; one of them from Paint Your Wagon - "They call the wind Mariah."

They call the wind Mariah

Before I knew Mariah’s name
And heard her wail and whinin’
I had a girl and she had me
And the sun was always shinin’

But then one day I left my girl
I left her far behind me
And now I’m lost, so gone and lost
Not even God can find me

They call the wind Mariah

Out here they got a name for rain
For wind and fire only
But when you’re lost and all alone
There ain’t no word but lonely

And I’m a lost and lonely man
Without a star to guide me
Mariah blow my love to me
I need my girl beside me

You know, it could be that the LORD is not really just blowing the wind around to blow the wind around. Maybe, just maybe, the LORD summoned Mariah, the wind, to come and blow down the Front Range of Colorado because of the loneliness here. Maybe the LORD is having Mariah blow love to some lost and lonely men, women, and children who believe they're so gone and lost that not even God can find them.

I know alot of people who lived in days when the sun was always shinin', but it doesn't shine anymore. For one reason or two, they left their love far behind them or it left them or some combination of the two, and now they're all lost and alone, without a star to guide them. Shucks, I feel that way somedays myself. Lost and alone.

I've mentioned feelings like that before here at the Dirty Shame. All seven people who read this blog get nervous when I do. Some immediately go theological: Is John saying he's lost? Goodhellamighty, folks, nothing can separate me from the LORD's love, nothing. But there are still days I feel lost. If you've never felt that way, then either you've far surpassed me on the road or you're lying.

I read a review of the stage play Plainsong yesterday. It's showing in Denver and my girlfriend and I would love to see it. Anyway, the author of the book upon which the play is based, Kent Haruf, waxed poetic: "You have to know how to look at this country. You have to slow down. It isn't pretty...but it's beautiful."

And such is life. You have to know that the LORD does whatever pleases him. Some days, that's sending Mariah, his wind, to wail and whine. But you also have to know that Mariah doesn't just blow to blow; no, she's blowing love around, reminding folks that there's no place they can go that God can't find them. Even if it's in that horrible place called "lonely."

We all feel lost and lonely from time to time. And then Mariah comes in the still of the night and blows your grill, trash can, and flagpole down. And the tune plays in your head from your dad's 8-track tape and you read Psalm 135 and suddenly you're reminded of the ways of the LORD. They aren't pretty...but they're beautiful.


A writing instructor once told me to always listen to the conversations around me, for they are where a lot of great fiction dialogue would come. I took a trip this week up to visit an author and work on a manuscript. On the plane flights up and back, I listened. Here is what I heard, all mashed together:

"You put her in the cage? Why?"

"Well, we rented a car in Key West. We're adventurous like that."

"Dude, you know he's probably pocketing the sales tax."

"Lemon bars? Do you use real lemons or lemon juice? Actually, you know what I'm really hungry for? A sirloin steak."

"No, my virus protection doesn't do anything. It's dumb."

"So, just hire a landscaper and then get some bids. I do it all the time."

"Ohmygod! My wallet! It must've fallen out of my pocket. Can we go back to the terminal?"

"Hey. Whatcha' doing?" Nothing. Sitting in a shuttle. We're making good time though."

"The lady living with you is carrying your baby. I'm not carrying your baby."

"It's the best restaurant, but it'll set you back about $100 a plate. Can you do that or does it need to be cheaper?"

"The people back there have to stop singing. It's 10pm. Make them stop now!"

"Headsetssssssss? Headsetssssssss? Headsetssssssss?"

I wrote those sentences down when I heard them. People are a very interesting lot. But you have to listen.

I also read Jim Harrison's latest (Returning To Earth) on the flight. Here's a few I heard while reading:

"There are no damaged goods when everyone is damaged goods."

"Everyone is 'one.' An accident report might say that nine died, four of them in their teens, but each death was 'one.' Each of six million Jews was 'one.' With death it is a series of 'ones.'"

"I saw this evangelist on television and it embarrassed me that this man could talk about God as if he was a buddy next door. Before my mother was taken away to the Newberry State Hospital she told me it was best to talk to God in whispers or in your silent interior speech."

Fiction is very interesting. Full of conversations possibly overheard on airline flights and strung together by people who enjoy listening.

How Much More So

If you were exchanged in the cradle and
your real mother died
without ever telling the story
then no one knows your name,
and somewhere in the world
your father is lost and needs you
but you are far away...

They miss the whisper that runs
any day in your mind,
"Who are you really, wanderer?" -
and the answer you have to give
no matter how dark and cold
the world around you is:
"Maybe I'm a king."

- William Stafford, "A Story That Could Be True"

How would you live today if you were a king? Or a queen? Or prince or princess or knight or anything even remotely close to royalty? How would it change your posture, your speech, your decisions, your visage?

How would you live today if you were loved?


One of my favorite songs Judy Collins sings tells the story of how her father always promised them that they would live in France/they'd go boating on the Seine/and she would learn to dance/but they lived in Ohio then/he worked in the mines...

That song always makes me cry, for I too have dreams for my children I cannot make come true. At least not right now. I would love for my girls to study under the greatest dance instructor, for my son to be able to attend that top-drawer football camp in the summer, for them to all have their own room, for there to be frequent trips to the mountains to ski or board or just sit in a lodge by a fire while someone else brings them hot cocoa.

But if Judy Collins's father and I have regal dreams for our sons and daughters, how much more so does our Father who art in heaven have dreams for us, His children? And where Judy's dad and I work in our respective mines and are limited by such things as age, money, education, or the economy, what of the Father who is not limited by any of those things? What of the One who owns all the cattle on a whole lotta hills, Who spoke and worlds opened their eyes, Who created all that is and knows every time a sparrow falls or an angel gets his wings?

And if Judy's dad and I are working desperately to realize those dreams for our children, how much more so is our Father who is always near working to realize the dreams He has for us? Those dreams He has placed in our hearts and minds and souls and strength?

I'm sorry, but there's not a snowball's chance that I believe God's dreams for us are that we all arrive at some uniform place of existence where everyone is nice and never asks questions and hymns or choruses are playing all the time. God doesn't want anyone to go to hell.

His dreams for us are as varied as our faces. Some dream of boating on the Seine, or writing screenplays, or playing professional baseball, or going to cooking school, or teaching children to read, or standing in a river hoping a trout will rise, or publishing a book of poetry, or preaching sermons about God's dreams, or climbing Pikes Peak, or getting the GED, or paying the heating bill, or staying married, or having their own room, or having someone to tuck them in and kiss them goodnight, or that his children would be more than he is.

How would you live today if you believed God wanted your dreams to come true? If Judy's dad and I, being earthly fathers, desire good things for our children, how much more so does the heavenly Father desire and work toward and pursue the dreams He has woven into the very fabric of our lives?

If that were a story that was true, would you keep trying today? Would you give love another chance? Would you do one more rewrite? Would you dust off the "whatever" and refuse the let the thief steal the dream? Would you work a little harder or work a little less? Would you hold your head up? Would you smile?

Would you, no matter how cold and dark the world around you is, answer: "I'm a child of the King."?

Tiny Bubbles

I was trying to find a traffic report yesterday morning on the radio, so I paused at each station where someone was talking instead of singing. One of my "stops" held an interview with some lady who was touting a christian diet plan. Don't ask me the difference between a christian diet plan and a non-christian diet plan. Anyway, she made the remark that since she's been dieting like a christian, now she feels better, thinks more clearly, and her skin has an elasticity not seen since her youth. And she's more peppy.

She said, "I believe people see me and want what I have." (I couldn't; this was radio). The interviewer agreed with her: "Oh, I know! Since I've been doing it, I'm almost an annoyance to my co-workers, I'm so bubbly." (I bet her co-workers would love a chance at the mike). They had a little bubbly christian pep rally for a moment and then proclaimed (in unison) that too many christians are not-bubbly and their witness suffers for it. If the world that's going to hell on the light rail could just see more thin, bubbly christians, then they would turn from their wicked ways.

I read just a moment ago this phrase from the psalmist, chapter 88: I have become like one who has no sight has failed me because of trouble...ever since my youth, I have been wretched and at the point of death...and darkness is my only companion. If King David would have just had a christian diet plan, he wouldn't have had to write all those psalms, our bibles would be considerably thinner, trees would be saved, and...

Some folks are very bothered with Christopher Hitchen's "militant atheism." Yesterday, in the midst of an icy morning commute, I was very bothered with "thin, bubbly christians." Not bothered to the point of calling-in via cell phone and ranting on the radio or beating the steering wheel and shouting non-bubbly words in the privacy of my car; no, just quietly bothered in soul, like one who has no strength. I don't want to burst anyone's bubble.

J, O, and Y

Who is the other,
this secret sharer
who directs the hand
that twists the heart,
the voice calling out to me
between feather and stone
the hour before dawn?


A few years back, my girlfriend bought three large wooden letters - J, O, and Y - painted them and used them in a few photo ops, the most memorable being a Christmas pic with our three fleshly kids holding the three wooden letters and trying to emit facial expressions that were at least in the ballpark of their lap-lettered word. They did o.k. It's hard to just whip up some joy. You can screw up your courage just fine, but joy's a toughie.

I hadn't seen the letters for some time, but my girlfriend pulled them out of retirement this year and placed them in our kitchen windowsill as the reason for the season, or something like that. All the other seasonal decorations have since gone back to bed, but J, O, and Y are still up, refusing to go to sleep.

I sit at our kitchen table each morning to pray and read and type and drink and those three wise letters are in my direct line of sight. Anytime I look up from Our Father and my books and the keyboard and the coffee, I see them. What I've noticed lately is their stance. Initially, they were each on their own, so to speak. J was balanced back against the window, O followed suit a two-fingers distance away, and Y was able to stand on its own due to the font choice of the initial woodcarver. But that was then.

I'm not sure what factors have led to this - could be an uneven windowsill, the weather, the daily raising of the blinds above them, or a combination of all of the above - but the once fiercely independent letters are now huddled together, like three kids in a Christmas photo op. It appears that J and O leaned over until they could touch the stable Y. There is no fingers distance between them; they're touching one another, like they like each other.

I grew up hearing J, O, and Y fleshed out as Jesus, Others, and You. That was the prescribed pathway to JOY, a vertical hierarchy of priorities: you must put Jesus first in your life, then Others are to be tended to, and You come in last. The voices of well-meaning adults told me that if you ever got the letters out of order, then you might have Y, J, and O or O, J and Y, but you could kiss any hopes of having J, O, and Y goodbye. Well-meaning adults don't really say, "kiss any hopes goodbye," but you know what I well-mean.

But that was then.

The three wooden letters in our kitchen windowsill have shown me that there is no vertical hierarchy to J, O, and Y, but rather a huddled horizontal. J, O, and Y read best, spell best, and work best when they're touching one another on the same plane. To keep them in vertical categories of importance, or even at a fingers distance horizontally, is to kill the word - to be a kill-JOY. Where does Jesus stop and Others begin? Where do Others stop and I begin? Is not the love I show for the least of these, which many times includes myself, showing love for Jesus? And if we all bleed into one another at times, then the only way to keep J, O, and Y separate is to cut them apart somehow or tell them to keep their hands to themselves - a.k.a, breaking up the family or making them behave.

Sure, we gotta keep boundaries and if we bleed completely into one another then there's no word at all and there is a God and he's not us, BLAH-BLAH-BLAH. We much prefer spelling to living, eh?

Old pop Peterson translates apostolic John's pregnant words as Jesus "moved into the neighborhood." Well-meaning young buck Blase translates them as Jesus "huddled up beside us on the windowsill." The Word made flesh, who leans among us, you and I.

J, O, and Y.

Morning Prayer

Well, Lord,

You've chosen to keep this ball turnin' and so I say "yes" to another day. I was up on time and did my daily reading: But as for me, I am poor and needy. Your word, O Lord, has a tendency to rub it in. Come to me speedily, O God.

The coffee maker still works, a fact for which I am thankful. I have grown accustomed to a daily infusion of two cups of black blood. Man does not live by bread alone. I think you said that once, right?

I clicked on "new post" at 5:15am yet here it is 5:54am and nothing much is happening. I picked up my new Jim Harrison book and decided to open it to a random page and let that be the springboard for a blog entry, kinda like those folks who want a word from you, O Lord, and open the bible to a page and read a verse and make a life-altering decision based on it. I landed on the page where Harrison's Swede mother asked him in regard to his novels, "Why can't your characters have normal sex?" Didn't quite know what to do with that one, O God.

I hear the Beagle hacking up something. I've prayed for years for a farm setting and a rooster to start my day, yet you've given me suburbia and a yarking Beagle. Truly your ways are not my ways.

I do pray for my girlfriend and our three kids, one of whom decided to get in our bed at 2:30am this morning. Please keep them heart, mind, soul, and strength this day.

Oh, and please lead people to randomly open their bibles and find a verse that they misinterpret to mean that they should speedily buy the stuff we put on EBay last night. And help them to have normal sex as well.


Aft of Center

"I call this memoir Off to the Side because that is the designated and comfortable position for a writer. In situations where you are inevitably the center of attention there is a feeling of restless discomfort, maybe even inappropriate behavior...This is not a plea for sympathy but a statement of the obvious, at least for those in the trade. Except with friends you make people a little nervous."
- Jim Harrison, Off to the Side

There are moments when the words of another are as your own. Such is one of the gifts of books and reading. Harrison's quote did just that for me the other day. You're reading along, being thoroughly entranced by a guy who hangs out with names such as Jack Nicholson, Tom McGuane, and Charles Bowden; a writer with the likes of Legends of the Fall and Dalva on his resume; a poet, gourmet chef, and seasoned outdoorsman and you're thinking, "Well, that'll never be me" and then he drops words like that on you and you're like that guy in scripture - "a man undone." Although a moment like that is somewhat unsettling, it is always extremely comforting because you know within your bones that someone else understands.

I live "off to the side." I have for years. Maybe forever. Yes, there are days when I find myself the center of attention; even some days when I desire that. But in those moments, I always feel like young David in Saul's armor - it just doesn't fit. There's always that "restless discomfort." Now some might immediately tell me I've got poor social skills, that's all. I'm willing to admit that. Still others might respond that I'm a strange bird and getting even stranger. I'll accept that one too. There might even be the "life'd be easier if you'd cut your hair and buy some khakis." But for those of you "in the trade" you know it's much deeper than that.

A writer's designated place is just aft of center, off to the side, in the margins, standing by the wall, and leanin' on the fence. There are things you can see and then say when you live in your designated place. You can't see them from the center, much less say them. Well, I guess you can say them but no one really hears you; they're listening for center-pieces, not side-thoughts. I remember hearing Wendell Berry say that almost all the biblical prophets came from the margins, never the Temple.

Now before you romanticize those thoughts, please recall the wardrobe of prophets (animal skins or laying naked in the middle of town), their diet (locust and wild honey or tears), and their final act (most killed; one in particular being beheaded at the request of a dancing girl). And if you want to expand your vision beyond the leather covers of the bible, which by the way is always a good thing, then you have a veritable legion of writers and poets with quirks and eccentricities ranging from living exclusively in a view with a room to the "iconography of booze" to the very non-self-pitying picture of what it looks like when someone cuts off their own ear.

And except with friends, you make people a little nervous; sometimes, even with friends. And family.

You know, the spider in Charlotte's Web is described as being a good friend and a good writer. I'd love to have that as an epitaph. But she's still a spider, just off to the side, spinning her word-webs in the shadows of the barn door, always making the centerpieces of the barn (cows, geese, horses, sheep) just a little nervous...

Night Walk

"If you are bored, strained, lacerated, enervated by the way we live now, I suggest a night walk as far as you can get from a trace of civilization. This form of walking is a dance, and the ghost that follows you, your moon-cast shadow, is your true, androgynous parent, bearing within its distinct outline the child who has always directed your every move."
- Jim Harrison, Just Before Dark

I'm somewhat of a night walker these days. Our recent acquisition of a Beagle has precipitated this newfound facet of my nature. About 7:30 or so, I'll say, "Jack, wanna go for a walk?" Those six simple words kick off a metronomic joy in the tail-end of our dog that I'm quite sure the angels revel in. Just last night, while standing in front of our glass front door looking out at the night, Jack the Beagle reaches down and grabs his leash and begins walking it toward me. I swear I heard him say, "John, wanna go for a walk?" I felt a strange sensation in my tail.

We see much, this dog and I and our moon-cast shadows, on our night walks. The other night we passed a house with the den curtains pulled back like it was middle of the day. I'm sorry, but if you've got your curtains pulled back, I'm looking in. There on a couch sat three adults and two children, all in a row in descending order of size so that they strangely resembled those cell phone commercials. Their faces were illuminated by the hypnotic glow of the tv. They looked like mindless zombies, waiting for their master to issue a command. It was a little unsettling.

As we round the northern arc of our walk, we always see the livid nose-light of the incoming train. The train is always on time. If you're not too busy looking in your neighbor's den, you can hear the track's breath, readying itself for the approaching weight, almost exhaling, preparing to hold until the iron horse passes. There's something extremely satisfying about standing in the night air with your Beagle while a train passes. Hard to know just exactly why that is, but some things you just know in your tail.

Jack easily marks ten to fifteen spots on our walks. I'm not sure where this little dog is storing his stuff, but mine is not to reason why, mine is but to walk...Each of these breaks allow me the opportunity to mark a spot as well. Not literally, mind you; it's too cold in Colorado at night for that. Just last night I heard geese as Jack yellowed the snow. I never saw them; we are in the fingernail stage of old Luna, but I did hear them. The reassuring honk of things unseen, the essence of things hoped for...

My coat pocket always contains a poop bag; don't leave home without it. Jack'll sniff out the appropriate coordinates and hunch his back into a "C" and go #2. And just like a good owner, I say, "Nice job, son" and then I stoop to bag the goods. I then complete the walk with a leashed Beagle in one hand and a small bag of poop in the other. Neighbors sitting on the couch watching The Office may glance outside, see me, and be quite unsettled at the sight, taking me for some child getting ready to run away. That's fine by me. The poop-stoop reminds me that a part of being a father, or a human for that matter, is cleaning up the messes of the day and making sure they're properly disposed of. If you don't want to do that, please don't father a child. You'll screw up generations to come by refusing to humbly bow.

Dancing in Place (cont.)

Gretel Ehrlich describes the Sun Dance of the Plains tribes:
Sun Dance is the holiest religious ceremony of the Plains tribes, having spread from the Cheyenne to the Sioux, Blackfoot, Gros Ventre, Assiniboine, Arapaho, Bannock, and Shoshone sometime after the year 1750. It’s not “sun worship” but an inculcation of regenerative power that restores health, vitality, and harmony to the land and all tribes…The ceremonies begin before dawn and often last until two or three in the morning. They must stay in the Lodge for the duration…and it’s considered a great disgrace to drop out of the dance before it is over...Alongside the dancers, who stood in a circle facing east, a group of older men filed in. These were the “grandfathers” (ceremonially related, not by blood) who would help the younger dancers through their four-day ordeal.
- The Solace of Open Spaces

The Sun Dance is the most holy of religious ceremonies in their tradition and one that represents health and vitality for the land and the people - in other words, LIFE. Ehrlich continues to describe this dance, not as a dance of steps “but a dance of containment, a dance in place.”

For most of us, the idea of dancing brings with it the picture of movement from one place to another. But Ehrlich reminds us of at least one holy dance that must be contained, in place. If it is danced well, the people and the land are blessed with health. And this includes the dancer. It’s not something entered into unadvisedly or lightly, but reverently and deliberately (sounds like the prelude to a marriage ceremony) and they must “stay in the Lodge for the duration.” To leave prematurely is a fall from grace.


I began this post with an illustration from our days in Stephens, Arkansas. The first time I read Ehrlich’s Sun Dance story, I put an asterisk at the bottom of the page and wrote “Stephens” beside it. We spent five beautiful years in that small town and learned about dancing in place. We learned it from the natives there, those who had been born, raised, and would die in that old, oil boom town - people Ehrlich describes as the “grandfathers.”

Barry Lopez wrote that to understand a specific American geography, you need time and a “kind of local expertise.” This understanding “can be sought out and borrowed. It resides with men and women more or less sworn to a place, who abide there, who have a feel for the soil and history, for the turn of leaves and night sounds. Often they are glad to take the outlander in tow.”

These grandfathers and grandmothers took my girlfriend and me, the outlanders, the younger dancers, in tow and showed us much about the holy dance of God’s love. However, it would not have happened had we not stayed just a bit. There would come a day to leave, but not before it was time.

Many of the dance steps we learned dealt with marriage. Couples married for fifty and sixty years showed us that a long and vibrant marriage does not come from anything associated with some secret, as in the “secret to a healthy marriage,” but from honesty, openness, and care.

One couple even celebrated seventy-two years of marriage while we were there. I can still remember visiting them in their home, he in his overalls with a cheek full of Beech-Nut and she in her frayed housecoat, right beside him. You get to celebrate seventy-two years of marriage by not bailing on your spouse after eight. By staying put. Was it all fun and games? Absolutely not. They would describe their “dance in place” as a serious and painful undertaking. As God loved us through them, we learned that staying in a marriage doesn’t necessarily always lead to happiness, but it definitely leads to a certain holiness. Did some of these couples have “unresolved issues” in their marriages? Heaven's yes. Did they have sex at least three times a week? Gimme a break. Did they relish every moment of their childrens’ lives as they passed by? No way. But these saints persevered for the duration; they developed “stick-to-it-ness.”

But what happens when we live God’s way? He brings gifts into our lives, much the same way that fruit appears in an orchard - things like affection for others, exuberance about life, serenity. We develop a willingness to stick with things, a sense of compassion in the heart, and a conviction that a basic holiness permeates things and people. We find ourselves involved in loyal communities, not needing to force our way in life...
Galatians 5.22-23 (italics mine)

I’ll mention one dance step we observed from the grandfathers, something called “sitting ‘til bedtime.” This was a practice among several sworn to that place, where every evening following supper, an individual or a couple would go to a neighbor’s home and sit and visit until bedtime. They weren’t addicted to the barrage of nightly sitcoms on TV, or surfing the web for hours at a time. They would get together and talk, remember, sing, laugh, drink coffee, nibble on pie, and bask in the setting of an uncommon sun: real friendship. And to have that and continue to honor it, you have to sit for a bit, maybe just until bedtime, but that’s longer that most of our attention spans.

You know what? I remember my friends there as being some of most happy, loyal and contented people I’ve ever met. Don’t get me wrong – they had their problems and there is a dark underbelly to small towns where everybody knows your name. But I never sensed them “needing to force their way in life.” I know, I know - it sounds like Garrison Keillor type-talk. The truth is, it is. Keillor evokes in us a longing for home, family, love, friendship, health; things that are real. And Keillor’s books don’t take place among the vagabond winds do they? No, they occur in a place, a specific locale, a town known as Lake Wobegon.

What might it look like if a generation of young Americans decided to become a people sworn to a place? That certainly not all, but many, or some, or maybe just a few, would commit their lives to a particular geographical region, which implies committing to the particular people of that region and the specific patterns of life in that place; to learning how to dance in place. It would also mean that a generation of grandfathers and grandmothers would have to be willing to help the younger dancers through their ordeal.

If My people, called by My Name, will turn from their vagabond ways, then I will restore health and vitality, healing, to their land. If that were to happen, we might learn to recognize the voice on the other end of the line without having to rely on caller I.D. We might even recognize God’s voice when He called. But for many of us, even God has to leave a message; we’re not in, in our place. We've left the dance early. And it’s a disgrace.

Dancing in Place

“Be still, and know that I am God.” (Psalm 46.10 KJV)

After my girlfriend and I finished up our formal education (we thought), we were invited to be the pastor and pastor’s wife of a little church in southwest Arkansas. We had been living in the Dallas/Ft. Worth area, a land of cloverleafs and megamalls. In that vast metroplex, we learned the art of navigating six lanes of traffic: put on your blinker, pray, and merge. And whenever we needed a Blockbuster or a Barnes & Noble or a Coldstone, all we had to do was turn around.

Then God prompted us to do an inverse Beverly Hillbillies thing; we packed up the truck and moved to Stephens, Arkansas - population 1000. There was one flashing red light in the center of town, one supermarket that closed each evening at 7pm, and if your wife was taking an abnormally long time to pick out a video (VHS) in the town’s one rental shop, you could walk about three feet to the back of the same store and lay on the tanning bed while she made up her mind. No Dorothy, we weren’t in Kansas anymore.

The strange people of this little pocket of timberland gave us a grand welcome. In the first week, we experienced something that would become all-to-real to us; well, it became that over time. One morning while we were unpacking boxes, the phone rang and the conversation went something like this:

ME: Hello.
THEM: Well heeeyyyy! How ya’ll doin? You got everything you need?
ME: Well, ahem...heeeyyy to you too. We’re doing fine. No, I can’t think of anything we need.
THEM: Well, we just wanted to welcome ya’ll and tell ya’ to be sure and call if ya’ll need anything. And we mean anything!
ME: Thanks so much. We’ll be sure to do that.
THEM: We’re soooo glad to have a new preacher. Bye!
ME: Thanks again. Good-bye.

I put the receiver back on the base and turned around to face my naturally curious First Baptist pastor’s wife.

“John, who was that on the phone?”
“I have no earthly idea.”
“Whaddaya mean? You don’t know who it was? Didn’t they identify themselves?”
“No, honey. I really think they assumed I knew who it was. They said to call if we needed anything.”
“So what’s their phone number?”
“They didn’t say.”

At this point I realized that I was not sounding like the newly hired, competent preacher of the First Baptist church but rather a recently discovered Cro-Magnon man who would be showcased on weekends at the local fair. But in about an hour, the same “Heeyyy, how ‘ya doin’?” happened to her. And when she hung up the phone, she had a very Cro-Magnon woman look on her face.

I just smiled, grunted and said, “Me go outside make fire.”

We decided to stick around and see what happened. Fortunately, due to the infinitely tender hand of God, in the weeks, months and years to follow, we learned the dance. We began to eat the greens from their gardens and the cornbread from their kitchens. We would spend half hours talking with them at the post office each morning. We wept and held their hands as we buried their mothers and fathers. We sat and prayed with them as pacemakers and bypasses were installed; we counseled their sons and daughters for marriage; we picked up their kids for Vacation Bible School; we slowed down for their dogs and cats in the middle of the road; we rejoiced in their newborns regardless of parentage; and we sat on their porches and drank coal black coffee and walked away with bags of shelled pecans and windowsill-ripened tomatoes. We shopped at the supermarket until 7pm with them, we rented videos alongside them, and broke down one summer and even got tan with them.

And then one day the phone rang and the voice on the other end said, “Heeyyy, how ya’ doin’?”

And I said, “Hey, Thomas, I’m great. How are you?”

And soon after that the phone rang and the voice said, “Heeyyy, how ya’ doin’?”

My girlfriend said, “Hey, Shelda. We’re fine. How’s your mom feeling? She didn’t look so good this morning at the post office.”

And we realized that we’d been given a gift, the art of dancing in place. God wants to love us. And He’s probably going to do that in and through a particular place and people. And for that to happen, you’ve got to hang around for just a bit.

We live in a wireless society. No one needs to be tied down or stay put. Being mobile, on the move, and on the run seem to be an unholy trinity we now worship. And we wonder why we don’t feel more love, more fulfillment, more significance, feel more...and you feel in the blank. Maybe, just maybe, it’s because we don’t stay put long enough to be loved by someone, filled by something, and significant to some place. And although it surely crosses cultures, it feels specific to America.

My nation’s history does not encourage me, or anyone, to belong somewhere with a full heart. A vagabond wind has been blowing here for a long while, and it grows stronger by the hour. I feel the force of it, and brace my legs to keep from staggering. My father left his native Mississippi at age twenty and spent the rest of his years on the move, following the grain of marriage and money and jobs. He kept tasting the dirt in each new place because, after childhood, he never again had a settled home, never lived anywhere with the intention of staying.
-Scott Russell Sanders, Staying Put

To belong somewhere with a full heart. What a redolent phrase. It almost sounds biblical. I looked up the word “stay” in my friendly neighborhood concordance. Other words in the same family include - remain, abide, endure, live, dwell, and belong. I was surprised to find quite a few references (italics mine):

GOD appeared to him and said, “Don’t go down to Egypt; stay where I tell you. Stay here in this land and I’ll be with you and bless you.” Genesis 26.2-3.

Ten days later GOD’s Message came to Jeremiah. He called together Johanan son of Kareah and all the army officers with him, including all the people, regardless of how much clout they had. He then spoke: “This is the Message from GOD, the God of Israel, to whom you sent me to present your prayer. He says, ‘If you are ready to stick it out in this land, I will build you up and not drag you down, I will plant you and not pull you up like a weed...” Jer. 42.7-10.

Then Jesus went with them to a garden called Gethsemane and told his disciples, “Stay here while I go over there and pray.” Taking along Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, he plunged into agonizing sorrow. Then he said, “This sorrow is crushing my life out. Stay here and keep vigil with me.” Matthew 26.36-38.

As they met and ate meals together, he told them that they were on no account to leave Jerusalem but “must wait for what the Father promised: the promise you heard from me. John baptized in water; you will be baptized in the Holy Spirit. And soon.” Acts 1.4-5.

Good things come to those who wait, not forever necessarily, but “for a bit.” And did you hear that the staying had specificity to it? in this land; the garden of Gethsemane; with me. For many of us blown so long by the vagabond winds, this could mean the ground beneath our feet, if we’d just open our eyes.

My Father's Son

"After six decades I've only recently understood the degree to which I'm my father's son."
- Jim Harrison, Off To The Side

I was headed out to shovel snow this morning. Grabbed my jacket and gloves, side-stepped the Beagle, and headed for the backdoor. Just before opening the door, I stuck my hand in one of the black gloves. Suddenly I was a little boy, putting the black gloves of my father on my hands, feeling the soft interior just like his used to feel. And I began to weep.

He is probably unaware of the times I pulled open the drawer that kept his things: t-shirts, cuff links, old watches. One of those items was a pair of gloves, probably refreshed by new pairs over the years, but they always seemed to be black. One pair in particular had a luxurious inner lining. I loved putting them on.

I miss my dad being close-by today. Not sure completely what that's all about, but I do. I'm feeling rather boyish this Tuesday, overwhelmed, as the psalmist would say, by "matters too great for me." Maybe I'm longing for that strength my dad always brought to our house. I can only remember fear on the days or nights when he was away. And that wasn't very often.

We sons are probably too harsh on our fathers; I know I was back in my early thirties. Sons probably have to go through some of that in order to get to the other side. And the other side is: After four decades I'm only recently beginning to understand the degree to which I am my father's son. My dad gave me gifts over the years that had nothing to do with verbal affirmation or hugs, although those were there as well. I'm just beginning to see that.

Maybe he was aware of the times I got into his things. Maybe he made sure that cuff links were there to be found and handled. And luxurious black gloves were there to be tried. Maybe.

My neighbor probably looked out the window this morning and said, "Honey, come'mere. John is shoveling snow and weeping. Should I go help him or something?" And she probably said, "No. He does that from time to time. He'll be o.k."

Would it surprise you to know I'm typing this post with my gloves on?

A forty year old man sticks a hand in a glove and is suddenly ten years old trying out his father's things. Amazing, isn't it, the simple items that become relics of the sacred when memory is involved? Ah, two or three gathered at the Shame, the things of this earth are holy. We are called to a life of genuflection.

For Mom

I behaved like one who mourns for his mother,
bowed down and grieving.

Psalm 35.14

There is a black and white photograph that sits in my parents' kitchen. My dad pointed it out again to me at Thanksgiving, saying, "That's my favorite picture of your mom and me."

It was taken on the steps of the building where my parents were married. It basically shows a couple of kids in love. Skinny, smiling, arms around the other's waist, and wide-eyed. The promise of things to come is before them, the vast sea of possibilities. After that photo was taken, they walked down those steps into the rest of their lives.

Today is my mom's birthday. I don't anticipate mourning for my mother anytime soon, at least I pray not. However, when that dark day does come, I will be like the psalmist, bowed down and grieving; such is my love for my mother. I wonder sometimes if she believes that. Her firstborn has traveled far from her nest, in more ways than one. Much of the courage I've needed to travel comes from her wide-eyed love I knew growing up.

That picture in the kitchen is one of those archetypal photos; it shows an enduring essence of my mother. Today, she is still standing beside my dad. In recent pictures of the two of them, standing beside each other, there is the same feel: two lost shoes that found each other, a complete pair, so close that no sunlight is seen between them.

And she's still smiling. Somedays physical pain dares her to smile. And somedays the smile is blurred with tears as her firstborn and his family drive off after a visit always too short. But still she smiles. And that same wide-eyed-ness is there in my mother, after all these years. The promise of grandchildren before her, seeing them grow and graduate and marry and possibly even holding a great-grand-child is reason enough to get up and do it again. The other day my dad said if he died now he'd be fine, content with a life lived. My mother was quick to say, "Not me. I'm hanging around awhile longer."

Mom always ends a conversation with, "I love you." She has always done that. Maybe that was a vow she made on those black and white steps many years ago: "I will love this life and all that it brings me." Some might say that's a rote sentiment possibly devoid of meaning. To those people I say, "Maybe."

Happy birthday, mother of mine. I love you too.

Gone But Not Forgotten

I've been thinking about Matthew Murray. Do you remember that name? With all the HuckBama whoopie that's been going on lately, his story has quickly been forgotten. At least by some.

Matthew Murray shot and killed four people and wounded five others in Colorado last month. The shootings took place in two religious centers: a YWAM facility up near Denver and New Life Church in Colorado Springs.

I've thought about some aspects of this nightmare. First, the religious response, and second, something about Murray.

Two of those shot at New Life Church were sisters, sixteen and eighteen. In the immediate interviews by the media wolves hungry for bloodnews, one of the sisters' friends said they were "in a better place." Her interview was backdropped by swaying teens singing praise choruses. I wonder if that little friend still feels that way a month later and if those teens are still swaying. Will there come a day, maybe when they're 35, when they'll say, "Why did we say those things and sing those songs? Why didn't we just cry?" Then there were numerous press conferences where the pastor of the church said the killings wouldn't stop them from worshipping; they were going to "get up and keep moving." I try and pray for that pastor when I think about it. New kid on the block after the Haggard debacle and something like that happens on your watch. Where does he take his grief? Has he slept one full night since that day?

Jim Harrison once said, "Death leaves you speechless, or at least verbless." Or at least it should.

But nope, not us. We get wordy and active, we turn away from the death angel and try to praise the pain away or keep moving. Whatever happened to donning black, drawing the curtains, and mourning, not saying much at all and doing even less, spending some "ashen-time" as Robert Bly would say? If the resurrection means a blessed thing, and I believe it does, then we've got to look death straight in the eyes. Don't close 'em and sing a song, but feel the sting of death, the reality that must occur if a resurrection is going to take place. For some reason, we feel like maintaining a 24/7 faith stance is attractive in the eyes of the word, that somehow it indicates just how faith-ful we are. I'm afraid the world looks at our response in times like those and says, "Are you guys for real?"

I realize these words say as much about me as they do a religious response. That's fine. I won't hesitate to point at a rampant gnosticism I see these days in the religious community: body is nothing to shake a stick at, but spirit is where it's really at; this world is not my home, I'm justa passing through. If the incarnation means a blessed thing, and I believe it does, then you and I making sure we fully incarnate ourselves in this world is paramount before we even start thinking about the one to come. It's an issue of stewardship, being good stewards of what we've been given. And I'm not talking about money.

The other thought concerns Matthew Murray. He was obviously a very sick young man, there's no denying that. But I saved some newspaper clippings that recorded some of his presumed internet postings. We might do well to read those, as upsetting as they are. We just might learn something.

Two quotes in particular struck me:
"The fact is, in YWAM, and christianity, it's all about the Beautiful People."
"All I found in christianity was hate, abuse (sexual, physical, psychological, and emotional), hypocrisy, and lies...I just want to be one of the somebodies."

Is there anything in this young man's words which find us wanting? Anything? If not, then we should get up and keep moving. But if there is, then maybe we should stop and look and listen. The great gift the OT prophets were trying to give us was the ability to be self-reflective; to be able to see the evil out there, but also in here. But most of the OT prophets were killed off, they never achieved stardom or enjoyed popularity, and few were those with ears that heard. Maybe the small group curriculum for the spring should be the online journals of Matthew Murray.

Is christianity all about the Beautiful People? Look at our book covers, our jewel cases, our speaking circuits and conferences. Just look. Folks worship Beth and John and Joel and Max to the same degree that teenagers worship Zac and Hannah.

And is it possible that some people experience a christianity full of hate, abuse, hypocrisy, and lies? Is it possible? I'm not talking about Christ, but christianity. I would say "yes" because I'm a part of christianity and there have been moments when hate ruled my thoughts, abuse occurred under the guise of "leadership," hypocrisy came as easy as breathing, and lies were told while passing the lie-detector test. Put at least one other person like me in a church and the possibility that someone, like a teenager, would indirectly or directly experience a less-than-Christlike christianity grows exponentially.

I'm sorry, families of the slain, that we got up and moved on. Chances are you're still stuck in that moment. Some believe your loved ones are in a better place. I wonder if you wish they were still in this place, better or not?

And I'm sorry, Matthew, that we continue to give the best seats to the good-looking people and sway to praise choruses while the weird kids get left out. There is no excuse for what you did, none at all. You had no right. But there's no excuse for what we did either. We can be so wrong.

Wednesday Night

There are moments when everything seems right.

I came home last night to a warm house, in more ways than one. We held hands and voiced a prayer before beginning our meal. We didn't ask for anything, just said "thank You." We all sat at our table for five and ate ham and cheese sandwiches accompanied by cracked salt-n-pepper Boulder chips. Everyone ate what was in front of them. It was almost in the realm of the miraculous. Our youngest said, "Mom, this is a recipie you have to give us when we have our own families." Ham and cheese sandwiches. It is the little things, huh?

We talked about stuff, what the kids had done that day, they asked me about my stuff, we finished off the bag of chips. We talked about some dreams and it was fun dreaming. Somebody said they were going to live in Paris (figures), somebody else is going to live in Indiana since he'll be a professional football player (says they make good money). And the littlest piggie said she was going to live close to mom and dad, visiting quite often, her and her husband and kids and their dog. Maybe she'll bring ham and cheese sandwiches. I hope our dreams come true.

Dinner was ended when the dog threw-up four times. Somebody mightaswell pulled the pin on a grenade. Nothing like a yarking Beagle to hasten the phrase, "You're excused." We got everything cleaned up; actually, "I" cleaned it up. Bravery is called forth in interesting ways in the burbs.

We received Yahtzee for Christmas and so we decided to play a round. Everyone can play, even our five year old. Rolling dice and shouting phrases like "full house" and "large straight" was intoxicating. It made us feel like riverboat gamblers. We played until the scores were to be tallied. I was "off" last night, coming in fourth out of five. My girlfriend said, "That's o.k., baby. I still love you." Words and phrases like that make a man clean up Beagle barf without hesitation.

We listened to some Christmas music while Yahtzee-ing. Somebody asked, "Why are we listening to this?" Somebody else said, "Cause Dad wants to." It was quiet, piano solos, not exactly riverboat music, but it seemed the perfect musical backdrop for our table-round. Interspersed between "three of a kind" and "what's that smell?" were the strains of Silent Night and What Child Is This?

The two logicians in our group tallied their scores and kept playing a personal dice-off of some kind. The remaining three non-logicians, myself included in that number, looked around for some cookies.

We eventually all got up from the gambling table and went to do other things. Putting dishes in the dishwasher, sliding down the stairs in an old sleeping bag; you know, normal riverboat doings. The piano winterlude music ended and that place deep within myself wished it would not. Dear God, can't the music last a little longer? Please? But it did not. The dice were put away and the dancing girls went to bed. One dancing boy too. And a dancing, fully recovered Beagle.

And my girlfriend in her kerchief and I in my cap settled down to read a little. A night like that may not happen again for weeks or months. I pray it doesn't take that long, but I know it might. Such is the life of riverboat gamblers and daughters who want to live in Paris and weak-stomached dogs and non-logicians like me. And the little girl who is going to live close to mom and dad.

There are moments when everything seems right. Carpe momentum. Yahtzee.


"Television presents the questionable presumption that talking is thinking, that unpremeditated logorrhea offers something of value to the public..."
- Jim Harrison, Off To The Side

Unpremeditated logorrhea?? Lord, what a phrase.

Over the Christmas holy-days, my son and I read The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman. He had wanted to see the movie, but we had received numerous emails warning us of this movie and book. Every single one of them smelled of Harrison's searing phrase - "unpremeditated logorrhea." So, I got the book and said, "let's read this together and then we'll go see the movie." I started reading before Will did but he quickly passed me, lapped me in fact. A father has a few more responsibilities over holy-days than his son, as it should be.

We planned to go see the movie the afternoon of New Year's Eve. I finally finished the book that morning. We both loved the book; the movie, however, disappointed us. As the final scene faded to black, my ten-year-old said, "What a rip!" As movies do, much was edited out, details were compressed dramatically, time sequences were rearranged, and an ending different than the book finished it off. Ah, my son, you are being introduced to our culture's scalpel...

Those emails had warned us of daemons and witches and an overall suspicion of the Church; I'd rather they'd warned us of a shoddy cinematic production. They couldn't do that becasue 9/10 of them hadn't seen the movie or read the book. No, they'd heard some authority drop the gavel on the book and decided that forwarding emails is the same as thinking and offers something of value to the public. Let one "name" grunt a few words and we'll quickly stand in line as ambassadors of unpremeditated logorrhea; the questionable presumption that listening to the "experts" is thinking...