The Restless Heart

God: Good morning.
Me: Hi.
God: I saw your Facebook status – restless.
Me: You follow Facebook?  C’mon.
God: It interests me to read what people write.  I wish they’d update me that often…that’s praying, sorta.
Me: But you already know everything we’re going to say, right?
God: Sorta.  Sometimes your theologians have me playing offense and defense, plus being in the pressbox; it’s really not a good analogy.  You’ll just have to trust me.
Me: I’m trying.
God: But restless?
Me: Yes.  Meredith asked me last night for a word to describe 2009 – maybe that’s it.  Restless. 
God: Well (pause)…I saw the kids put Nacho Libre in your stocking (pause)…funny movie…(begins to softly sing) “I am, I am/a real religious man.”  (pause) Hmm, o.k…I’m beginning to see.
Me: (smiles)… yeah, “a little taste of the glory.”
God: You’ve always been restless.  People think all is calm, but all is not.
Me: You sound like you know me.
God: John, when I did that knitting together in your mother’s womb? – I knit in restless.  And that was that.
Me: Thanks a lot.
God: You’re pretty good with letters, words, phrases.  When you see your word – restless – what do you see?
Me: Well, you know I’ve never been fond of double ss’s, so I tend to edit them out immediately…and although I hear the “r” at the beginning, I see the silent/shy “w” wanting to join the party.
God: Good.  And?  C’mon, “summon your eagle powers.” 
Me: …I see wrestle.
God: “Beneath the clothes we find a man…and beneath the man, we find his…nucleus.”
Me: Me?  A luchador?  My lord.
God:  Yes, I am.  And yes, you are.  Enjoy the gift of this day. 
Me: You won’t ever leave me, right?
God: “No, Chanco, I would never leave you.  I just need to borrow some sweats.”
Me: (begins to softly sing) “I am, I am/a real religious man.”

Christmas Grace

I write at a kitchen table…

Moments from now a mother and her three children, children who for at least one more Christmas are still filled to the brim with I can’t wait, they will gather in this same kitchen built for one person, at the most two.  But that reality will force them into one another’s personal space, crossing boundaries and borders, bumping into each other, spilling flour on the floor the beagle will promptly lick clean.  This mother and her children will make sugar cookies for the old Saint. 

The radio in the corner is tuned to their father’s favorite AM station, a station playing the crackly spectrum of Christmas carols, songs that sound old, songs pregnant with words and phrases like noel and Christ the Lord, songs sung by old people named Conniff and Mathis and Como.  And that precious Karen Carpenter.

A candle burns on the stove.  The label says balsam.  The aroma whispers love. 

A tree is lit in the room next to the kitchen, the room this family calls the den.  It is a room built for two, maybe three, but not five and a beagle.  But that reality compresses people into a couch, like last night, huddled and scrunched, shoulder to shoulder, you put your feet that way I’ll put mine this as they watched a classic like Holiday Inn and agreed with all they are that Fred Astaire’s feet, as they danced upon this earth, were a gift on the order of gold, frankincense or myrrh.

There are presents beneath the lit tree in the den, presents that will be stacked later today according to name, an equal number for each of these wide-eyed children, or so was planned.  These children are still in their pajamas, pajamas that will be abandoned, grudgingly, later this evening for dresses and khakis as this family of five trudges across the highway to the Lutheran church with the green roof.  There this father and mother and their valuable children will still themselves amidst lights and holly and hymns and candles to repeat words and phrases like hark and God and sinners reconciled.

As I write from this kitchen table, both witness and character in this story, my mind, heart, soul and strength cannot help but think of those families separated this Christmas by war and rumors of war.  I don’t always speak literally, but in this moment I am.  I think of those families who are minus one this Christmas for he or she, the one, sits in a land that does not know of words and phrases like snow or peace on earth.  And I voice a prayer from my kitchen table for those dads and moms and brothers and sisters and uncles and aunts and friends so dear wrapped in camo and sand and I plead please Christ the Lord, bring them home safely and soon to kitchens and candles and beagles.  I know they are fighting for goodwill toward men but the fight oft seems strong and long and far too many of them will never again watch Astaire’s gifted feet or hear Karen’s glorious voice.  These things should not be so.  Please keep Terry and Nathan safe from the way of harm.  And give their wives and children grace, extra grace, Christmas grace.  Amen.  

The Wren's Song

The mind often wanders, like sheep.  Early years I tried to raze and focus, but to no avail.  Now I let it run.  That night I thought about new wine, so much so it edged my teeth.  And then soft places, like the line of a woman’s neck.  The flock?  For the most part they were quiet.  I heard my own breathing.  Even the breeze. 

Then suddenly the excited churr of a winter wren.  The song became a single blur running the hill between lamb and rock, back and forth, wild.  My only thought was predator.  My fingers gripped the staff as I stepped into its path.  Before I could call out it swallowed me.  I was prey, inside the blur, close, so close I fought for breath.

The blur took shape, grew wings.  Huge, incessant beating that became words: Don’t be afraid.  I heard with my entire body, the voice piercingly familiar, echoing even in my knees.  Then another voice, I guess a shepherd’s wits: Breathe.  And I did.  The voice kept winging don’t be afraid and with each flap I inhaled, the message air, breath, life.  I began to think I would not die.

I was suddenly spit out, released to not believe my eyes.  The face before me was the face of  hope, the handful of men I’ve trusted in my years.  A gathering of my father’s eyes, my uncle’s nose, my grandfather’s brow, my son’s smile, my brother’s ears.  I was no longer afraid.  Then their voices as one:
This is the good day!  The Savior, Christ the Lord, has just been born in Bethlehem.  Go now and look for a baby in a manger.  You’ll know.  Trust me.  Tell everyone.

Then suddenly the wings began to beat once more, rhythmic pulses chasing dirt and air through crag and valley.  But now there must have been thousands of them, an army of wings that once more ran the hill between rock and lamb, swift and direct, but wild.  Their faces?  I can only tell you what I saw.  A shepherd often dreams a woman’s face on cold watches.  Their faces were the fears of those dreams, sheer beauty, a haunting that became voice, words, then song, like the ascending trill of the winter wren:
Glory to God!
Peace on Earth!

We were fools to leave, but we did.  Like fisherman in future days would leave nets and follow, so did we.  The hopes and fears of all our years met that night and herded us toward Bethlehem, toward wonder.     

Advent's Fourth Sunday Ruckus...

and he shall be the one of peace...
- Micah 5.5

There is usually hope in our kitchen window but this month there's peace.  Let me explain.

We have a Christmas ornament that stays up year round - a silver star with the word hope etched across it. The small beacon hangs in our kitchen window, directly in my line of vision from the table where I write.  Some people have a crucifix above their bed.  Some people have the serenity prayer hanging in the hall.  We keep the star of hope suctioned above the kitchen sink.  But its not there right now.  It has been temporarily replaced with an ornament my mom sent us, a fist-sized red jingle bell with some holly atop and the word peace emblazoned across it.  I guess my wife made the switch when I wasn't looking/writing.

One of my masculine rituals before retiring each evening is to draw the blinds.  Draw the blinds - isn't that a glorious phrase?  I realize that sounds like we're British or something but we're not; we're southern.  Anyway, last night, peace got in the way.  The bottom of the blinds caught on the holly atop the bell, threatening to knock it off the window.  If this were to happen the bell could possibly fall in the sink causing a late-night ruckus loud enough to wake the Beagle.  In the south, we let sleeping dogs sleep.  This was not the first time this December that this scenario threatened to play, but it was the first time I stopped to pay attention.

Now this doesn't happen with hope; the blinds are drawn down effortlessly over the streamlined star, I can do it with one hand. But not so with peace.  I had to reach with my non-drawing hand and pull the blinds away from the window a little, making room for the bell and its accoutrement.  Alright, alright, I know - get to the point John and stop using french sounding words.

Peace seems to be a two-handed affair.  I only have two hands, I'm betting you do too, so we could say peace takes all we've got.  And why?  Peace is awkward, kinda large, not so, well, peaceful.  If hope is easy like Sunday morning, then peace is difficult like Mondays. God's whirl of peace on earth/goodwill to men reached dervish on that two-handed affair known as the cross.

And peace always brings with it the risk of ruckus.  If I were God I might be tempted to let sleeping dogs lie; you know - silent night and all is bright.  But I'm not God.  You might say but I'm not sure how much commotion was caused on that blessed night; I mean, he was a baby after all.  I'm gonna roll the dice here and say there was quite a hootenanny in the birth canal of round yon virgin as she rocked on tweener knees, laboring under mother Eve's curse, until the one of peace spilled out on blood-stained hay.  I imagine an exhausted Mary handing her newborn over to Joseph: Here, take him.  And God's man-mid-wife had to use both hands to manage the swaddled boy.  The silver star of hope shone easy over Bethlehem's cave that night, as the blinds were drawn.  But inside, God's new lungs took in their first draughts of Word-brewed-air...and out came the cries of peace.            


Harry and Merry

I don't write about this lady enough, not nearly enough.  Oh, I do some, a little, calling her my girlfriend or the mother of my children, something slant like that so as to sound like a writer. Writers.  Rick Bass spoke true: "Writers.  Half-assed at everything, it seems, except, occasionally, their writing."

Her name is Meredith.  Come June of 2010, we'll have been married twenty years.  Twenty years.  Almost half my life.  We moved to Colorado about six years ago to do something that turned out to be merely the backdoor to something else.  Ever had that experience?  I asked her leave the azaleas for the mountains and she agreed.  Meredith loves the mountains...but I know she misses back there.

That backdoor to something else?  It turned out to be writing or at least trying to write.  We went from being a pastor and pastor's wife with regular income and a corner lot to well, trying to be a writer and staying married.  The last six years have been hard...a lot of shame has come our way, her way...the shame, usually, of not having enough, be it money or whatever...we've usually had about half.  Writers.  But Meredith has weathered it, building herself into a fixture in this small town, well-known everywhere from school to church and neighborhood.  Just about everybody knows Meredith and loves her...and knows she lives with a writer.

I don't type last six years to indicate the tide has turned and we've secured some dee-lux apartment in the sky.  I wish I could indicate that, but I can't.  Writers have to tell the truth.  But whatever the Blases have done and wherever we find ourselves has been, in no small measure, due to my girlfriend and the mother of my children.  Her name is Meredith.  As the old Gambler sings: she believes in me...I'll never know just what she sees in me.

I came home yesterday evening and she said oh come see my coat!  My wife has worn a hand-me-down-down-parka for the last six years.  But, due to her savvy frugality and couponishness, built out of necessity over these Colorado years, she found a coat yesterday like the one she's wanted ever since, well, I brought her to the mountains.  Dear two or three readers of mine, my wife/my girlfriend/the mother of our children twirled in that coat for me like a princess would spin in her gown at the ball.  Gone was the vague, black, just-keep-me-warm thing she's happily worn and in its place now something fitted and mocha and quilted, with a belt even and a hood with that furry hair stuff around the edges.  It is simply beautiful.  As is she.

I like the photo above.  Look at the contrast a minute - fantasy and reality.  Meredith looks a little tired (she admits this) and her face is real, no makeup or lipstick.  Again, beautiful.  Me, on the other hand, with a Harry Potter hat and scarf on, trying to wave the wand/pen and say the words that make the magic happen:
A Patronus is a kind of positive force, and for the wizard who can conjure one, it works something like a shield, with the Dementor feeding on it, rather than him. In order for it to work, you need to think of a memory. Not just any memory, a very happy memory, a very powerful memory… Allow it to fill you up... lose yourself in it... then speak the incantation "Expecto Patronum."

I have a memory now, not just any memory, but a very happy memory, a very powerful memory.  It fills me.  I can get lost in it. It is the memory of Meredith twirling before a mirror in a new coat. Her beautifully tired face is radiant, smiling.  She speaks two words - I'm happy.

"Expecto patronum" is Latin for "I await a protector."  Meredith deserves a protector.  What she got is a writer.  Life and love and magic are funny that way, aren't they?  She's wrapping up her coat to open on Christmas morning.  I'll be there when she does, hat and scarf and half-ass and all.               

Advent's Third Sunday Burns...

*What might Luke 3.7-18 sound/look like today?

The video has gone crazy viral, like Susan Boyle viral.  It has passed a million views in only a few days.  It is known online only as John.  The rough footage captures a man on a dusky hillside with the muted lights of a city in the background.  He looks like Viggo Mortensen's character from that new movie The Road.  And he is screaming.

You arrogant bastards!  You think this economic downturn is bad?  Hell and death are coming to eat your children while you're perched on the Tweet deck.  You're a fatherless generation that's constantly seeking the hard edges of a sign.  Well here's your sign.

The dusk is cut with a point of light as John raises a lit cigarette lighter above his head.

You don't give a damn but I'm gonna tell you anyway.

John stops screaming and the camera comes close.  It is now only a whisper.

Be good to one another.  You have to carry the fire.  He is coming.

And then the moment that no doubt slacks the voyeur's thirst. John lowers the cigarette lighter and sets his feet ablaze.  He must have soaked himself prior in some kind of accelerant; the man becomes a literal ball of fire in the span of a breath.  Finally, mercifully, his face is engulfed; his visage is transfigured, now an angel of flame.  John cries one final time.

He is coming.         

Christmas Presence

December 12th - pretty much's a little of what my ear hath heard and my eye hath seen...I hope it makes some sense.

The ears have heard this quite a bit during these Advent days - rescue me, Jesus or Jesus, come to our rescue - or some variation on that theme.  It's fair, it's one of the core facets of the waiting. The eyes have seen words from the pen of one Robert Farrar Capon and his book The Romance of the Word.  I bet you think I've been reading my own book during this season but I'm kinda tired of myself.  Capon has long captivated me with his renegade priest thoughts and especially so as they pertain to the incarnation.

When we speak those words - rescue me, Jesus or Jesus, come to our rescue - I wonder what we're hoping in terms of rescue?  My gut tells me we usually think about that word in a mechanistic manner, i.e., if our car stalls in the snowbank then Jesus a)magically starts the engine after seven tries or b)compels mr. goodwrench to take a drive right by the snowbank we're stalled in and mr. gw has just the tools to help us.  Is that fair?  Well, those are exactly the kind of rescue thoughts that were rolling around in the heads, hearts, minds, and souls of the people who walked in great darkness a long time ago in that galaxy far, far away known as bibleland.  We keep wanting the good Lord to show up in our name and for some cockeyed reason he insists in showing up in his.

*Capon: "Might not Incarnation be his response not to the incidental irregularity of sin but to the unhelpable presence of badness in creation?...Perhaps in a world where...victimization is the reverse of the coin of being, he help consists in his continuous presence in all victims...He doesn't start your stalled car for you; he comes and dies with you in the snowbank.  You can object that he should have made a world in which cars don't stall; but you can't complain he doesn't stick by his customers."  

Capon's soup can get a little thick sometimes, so try this.  Let's say Reggie's wife died a year ago and over the last twelve months I've been intentional about checking on him and today he would say "I couldn't have made it without John's help" maybe even "John came to my rescue" - what is Reggie saying?  Is he talking about how I helped him with some checkbook balancing or watching his dog while he did some clear-my-head traveling...well, maybe so. But probably-more-than-likely-if-I-had-to-bet, Reggie is talking about my presence in his life over the last twelve months.  It's not so much what I did, as I was there.

*Capon: "Answers to prayers for help are a problem only when you look on God as a divine vending machine programmed to dispense Cokes, Camels, lost keys, and freedom from gall-bladder trouble to anyone who has the right coins...given the kind of free world he has chosen to make - he will do the best he can by you.  It isn't that he has a principle about not starting cars - or about starting them.  What he has a principle about it you...he chief concern is to be himself for you...And since he is God, that is no small item."

Yes, Cokes and Camels date Capon slightly, but his words ring on. I was praying the other day Jesus, rescue me when the mechanic told me it would cost $4k to fix my transmission.  God's answer to my prayer is Emmanuel - God with us - the baby born on that blessed night so long ago and his grownup hands that still bear the scars undying presence to this day and beyond.  If $4k shows up in my mailbox this afternoon, then g-r-e-a-t!  I'll do my best whiteboy dance steps.  But that's not what all this Advent/Christmas stuff is about.  It's about his answer to my pretty-much-always-the-same-rescue-me-Jesus-prayers: I AM.

Scandalous, huh?


Tender Mercies or a Western reflection on the Second Sunday of Advent

Because of God's tender mercy,
the morning light from heaven is about to break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
and to guide us to the path of peace.
- Luke 1.78-79 (NLT)

My dad raised me on the Bible and western movies.  That tends to explain a lot.

I see Old Doc Luke sitting in the corner of the saloon, slow-nursing a drink, turning a pocket watch over and over in his left hand. Piano music is circus-like but soft to the side.  The place is full, people are talking, drinking, carrying on.  A coupla young cowboys are getting loud; unfortunately they're boys and just getting started.  A center-piece table holds the card game for the evening.

The years of practice have passed for the old physician.  He's taken to writing as there are some things he feels compelled to record. He's seen a great deal.

She descends the stairs with unspoken authority.  Everyone knows her word is the last word.  She pauses for a moment beside Doc's table, standing close enough he can feel her presence.  She raises her hands to adjust her hair as she speaks.

Looks bright tonight, doesn't it Doc?  

Looks are deceiving, May.

Yes, plenty of shadows to go 'round in here.  Sometimes I think the merciful thing would be for the earth to open up and choke us all down.

Me too.  But the mercy is tender, May.  Tender.

Tender.  Its a word she hears Doc use often these days, a word rare in this hardscrabble town so it stands out.  She's gonna have to rein in those cowboys a little, get her bluff in early.  But before walking away, she places a hand on Doc's shoulder with a gentle squeeze.  For a split second she sees the dream she has on occasion, the one about a different life, one of tending a home and baking bread in the mornings as dawn spills over the hills and greeting Doc every evening on his return.  She chokes down the vision and steps into the light-filled shadows of a busy night.

Doc sees young Tim Sanders through the window, motioning for him to come outside.  It must be his little sister, Ann; her fever's been high two days now.  Doc pockets the watch and rises to his life's call.  A tender mercy's work is never done.           



Lagniappe (lan-yap) - an unexpected benefit, something given gratuitously.

I like this word.  It is normally used in the context of a merchant giving a customer something extra, a little gift, at the time of purchase.  Merchants don't do much of that these days.  Oh they'll offer you 10% off your next purchase of Old Spice or the opportunity to buy the dancing Santa for $5 or something like that...but rarely do you see the pure lagniappe.

But I like this word.  I believe its a Christmas word.

We're putting up the tree at the Dirty Shame today, no doubt stringing some colored lights around the windows, and our traditional wreath will find its way to the front door.  And on the sandwich board which usually describes the soup de jour, I'm writing that word I like, that Christmas word, lagniappe.

I hope you'll put some change in the red buckets which swing to the rhythm of the Salvation Army bells.  If you don't have any in your pocket, I hope you'll run back to the car and search the cushions like some breathless widow sweeping the house for her lost coin.  I hope you'll consider sponsoring a child from Compassion - or supporting the work among orphans through organizations like Children's HopeChest - .  I hope you'll take the time to read/ponder the subversive beauty of the Advent Conspiracy - and Christmas Change -

I also hope you'll remember, from time to time, the soup de jour or de month at the Dirty Shame - lagniappe.  And as you move in and out of the lives of flesh and blood, be it family or strangers or friends or enemies or co-workers or bosses or folks beside you in traffic or children, especially children, I hope you'll give a small gift, an unexpected benefit to these darkened days.  What are these small gifts, John?

Drumroll please?  Courtesies.  There you have it friends.  Common courtesies which are not so common anymore, so when you see them or hear them or feel them, you pause to catch your breath or wonder why?  In the words of Father Robert Capon - "We come at each other as casually as we approach watermelons.  We hold each other in careless, calloused hands."  I know courting is usually associated with romantic love, but there is a courting dance we do with one another, courtly gestures that have the ability to raise someone's spirit or brighten their day or encourage them to keep going a little further or remind them of their worth in the eyes of the God who is big but made himself small so as to dwell among us. Have you ever thought about God being courteous toward mankind?

The lagniappe of courtesy.  That phase won't make for a very hip website, but it might make the difference in someone's day or life...  


If you were a prehistoric Aleut and your wife or husband died, your people braced your joints for grief. That is, they lashed hide bindings around your knees, ankles, elbows, shoulders, and hips…Otherwise, the Aleuts said, in your grief you would go to pieces…

- Annie Dillard, The Maytrees


When thirtysomethings Tim and Jenni Day joined Harvest Church three months ago, they were lashed to the Marshall’s home group.  Lashed – that was a favorite word of Mrs. Marshall.  "You two are now lashed to us by the love of Christ." That was three months ago now.

Due to blizzard conditions on I-70, Tim and Jenni couldn't get to St. Louis for Thanksgiving.  The Marshalls were adamant: You must join us for dinner.  The young couple found themselves sandwiched at the table between ten-year-old Jill Marshall and her twin brother Randy.  Tim and Jenni expected Mr. Marshall to bless o' Lord the gifts they were about to receive.  But instead, the twins grabbed their hands and sang: 
We thank You for our food, Lord/And all the things You do, Lord.
We thank You for our food, Lord/And all our family.  Doo-doo-doo-doo (snap, snap)

An Addams Family Thanksgiving Prayer?  Really?  Jenni got tickled and started cry-laughing.  Tim was speechless.  Mr. Marshall just grinned: “Isn’t that a fun one?  Randy was watching an episode the other night on Cartoon Network and just came up with it.  Sing it one more time kids.”  And so they did.

As the encore snap-snapped, the doorbell rang.  Mrs. Marshall's response was pavlovian: "Yikes!  The crescent rolls are still in the oven!  Baby, you'll have to get the door."  Baby - another favorite word of Mrs. Marshall's; she always used it when speaking to her husband.  After their parents left the dining room, Jill leaned over and whispered to Jenni: I sure wish you were my mother.

Little did any of the Marshalls know that Jenni had miscarried two weeks ago.  The Days might share this anguish with their home group in time, but not yet.  The story was still too tender. This year, Thanksgiving hurt.  But a little girl’s words seemed to lash Jenni for the day, brace her, keep her from falling apart.


There Are No Unsacred Places...

Alright, the 12 Weeks of Christmas Book-And is coming to a close. I realize we only made it to week 6, but after some book publicity travel and Thanksgiving, I'm turning around and wham! it's December and I so want to be intentional about these days leading up to Christmas.  Writing a book about savoring the slow-born-wonder of Christmas and then not practicing what you preach...well, I'd just hate to do that...most days I'm a card-carrying hypocrite; there's no need to dig a deeper hole.

Besides, the Dirty Shame has been feeling like some show giveaways and promotional verbiage and razamataz. Maybe it hasn't felt that way to you, but it sure has to me.  The Dirty Shame is a place where folks can come and warm themselves by the fire of words and phrases stoked just so.  I want to try and get back to that...I'm sorry if things got off track.  Please don't hear that as some pious claptrap; the world has more than enough of that...more than enough.


We spent Thanksgiving in St. Louis.  My wife's cousin was married on Saturday afternoon in a gorgeous little Episcopal church in Webster Groves.  Later that evening, we all converged on a banquet hall for a dinner/reception.  The atmosphere was celebratory, people were laughing and carrying on...but then it happened...someone got up to "give thanks" before we ate.  Now I don't know who this person was, probably some friend of the bride's family that is considered religious.  I'm sure her heart was in the right place, but her words were not.  She constantly invoked the great God and used the word community at least twice.  I seriously thought I might start crying.

I pray with my eyes open; it's just how I do things these days.  As I looked around the room whilst the great God was being intoned, it looked like that room in the White Witch's castle in Narnia, the one where everybody is frozen and blue and almost dead.  Not a minute before people were full of mirth, but in two shakes of a "let us pray" the life of the party ran and hid.  Fortunately, after the pray-er said amen, one of my wife's aunts (a rabid Razorback fan) said Go Hogs!  And with that the spell was broken, the winter was past, and the green of spring returned as we ate and drank and were merry and abandoned all thoughts of community.

My lord.  Why do we do that?  I use the collective we because I've been there before many times and on more than one occasion I've been the one asked to "give thanks" and about all I did was chill things for a few seconds.  Now some of you might say but John, there needs to be a distinction between the sacred and the profane, the earthly and the heavenly...a margin between the common and the divine.

"...there are no unsacred places/there are only sacred places/and desecrated places..." - Wendell Berry

Once upon a time, there was a wedding in the town of Cana.  Jesus was there.  The atmosphere was celebratory.  A need arose in the margins of that party.  Jesus stepped in, bridged it with a miracle, and the only pause that occurred was the one where the host said hey, this is even better than before, this is like, well, home.

Something to ponder.
Go Hogs!


Something About Mary...

Halle, halleluja...

The tail-end of Brother Love's Traveling Salvation Show involved two television interviews.  I'm thankful for the exposure those shows brought to my book, I really am.  I could tell you a lot about those experiences, about the makeup and the lights and sets.  But I'd rather tell you about Mary.

On Wednesday morning a hotel shuttle took me to the Harvest Show station, picked me up and brought me back to the hotel, and an hour later took me to the airport.  I had the same shuttle driver each time...her name was Mary.  I was the only passenger each time, so, well, Mary and I talked.

She grew up in Mexico.  Marriage, nineteen years ago, brought her to South Bend, Indiana.  She asked early on if I had kids.  I said oh yeah.  I volleyed the question back to the driver's seat.  She said oh my.  You see, Mary has a sixteen year old son who is also a sixteen year old father.  He was the best boy, good grades, but he found a girlfriend and things changed.  I sent him to Mexico for the summer to try and get her out of his system.  I didn't know that before he left, he got into her system. (I laughed)  When he came back home, she told him she was pregnant.  I tell you, that was the hardest thing of my life, I tell you...the very hardest thing...

The deal is I was on my way to talk to this perky tv host about Mary the mother of God, among others, and all of a sudden I was slack-jawed with thoughts about another mother, a lady scripturally silent, who dealt with an unplanned pregnancy.  Now sure, in the fullness of time Christ was born, but let's stay tethered to the good earth uno momento, por favor.  From down here, for one mother's heart, that first Christmas may just have been the very hardest thing.

As Mary the shuttle driver told me her story, the shame was thick.  There were small nervous laughs, but shame is hard to hide...remember Eden?

What of the shame in that first Christmas?  We often talk, and rightly so, of Mary's difficulty...but what of her mother?  A mother who no doubt had hopes and dreams for her little girl?  A madre who probably walked with her daughter hand-in-hand while little Mary would sing the Jewish equivalent of Que Sera, Sera and her mother peered into her innocent eyes and replied with the Jewish equivalent of whatever will be/will be/the future's not ours to see but neither mother nor daughter nor any created thing had the foggiest idea just how pregnant that lyric can become in the hands of a God whose ways are not as ours.

The title of my book is Touching Wonder.  If I hawked that title in those television interviews once, I said it twenty times.  Yes, there was a rousing, thrilling, hope-filled wonder to those days filled with angels jamming the airwaves with Glory to God in the highest.  Yet there was also dark wonder still classifies as wonder, but it is not as we would choose, not as we had hoped.  It is the wonder that descends upon the young and old wombs of our lives and plants a seed we did not anticipate.  And it often grows in those early days thickly watered with shame...

Mary the shuttle driver dropped me off at the airport.  Little did she know that moments later I would basically have to undress for the security boys because it was a slow day in the South Bend airport and the uniformed nincompoops saw a guy with a ponytail coming while visions of dueling banjos danced in their heads and...well, that's a story for another day.  But before she drove away, Mary shot me a grin - not a full-blown smile, but a gentle curve of lips, a sliver of hope.  Again, I am beyond grateful for the tv interviews, makeup and all, but I am also thankful to the point of tears for having spent more than a few moments with another mother named Mary, one who has been through the very hardest time, but who made it through, and now occasionally drives to tell about it.

Halle, halleluja...    

Pack Up The Babies, Fill A Shoebox, and Visit The Lonely...

Halle, halleluja...

Brother Love's Traveling Salvation Show hit the LifeWay store in Texarkana, TX on Sat. afternoon and the First Baptist Church of Nashville, AR on Sunday afternoon.  Yes, I knew the people in both places and yes, they were smaller venues, but I signed/sold around seventy-five books.  Those aren't Palin or Huckabee numbers, but you've got to start somewhere, right?

Speaking of numbers, I attended church Sunday morning with my parents.  This Baptist church prayed over 3000 Operation Christmas Child boxes.  A friend of mine once visited a family in Rwanda.  As he looked around, the walls in the home were bare save for one item held to the wall by some tape.  It was a My Little Pony doll, still in the plastic packaging, never opened.  The story goes that the little girl received that in an Operation Christmas Child box and it was the thing she cherished most.  Stories like that birthed from shoeboxes packed by the hands and fingers of unsung saints make book signing/selling/promoting feel like the kinda stuff Jesus turned the tables on outside the temple that day.

Monday held a drive to Dallas, TX for a television interview.  But before that came to pass, we stopped at a retirement center to visit my dad's uncle Sam Patterson.  He is known as S.C. - he and my dad's mom, Nora, are the last of their siblings still living.  S.C. drove a bus in downtown Dallas for thirty years; a treasure vault of stories.  He lost his wife, Vaughn, in September.  She was his best friend.  He now spends his days sitting in a wheelchair listening to country music and being a crank to the nursing staff.  The hair on his head has all gone white while the bruises on his arm were fresh blue; a fall days earlier left him "bunged up."  Patsy Cline had a hit song - The Last Word in Lonesome is I looked around that cafeteria, that's what I saw...a whole lotta lonesome.  It wasn't lost on me that one day you're young and alive and signing books and the next you're a widower wearing diapers wishing she was still around.

Halle, halleluja...  


Pack Up The Babies, Kiss The Old Lady...

Halle, halleluja...

Day 2 of the Brother Love's Traveling Salvation Show took me to Arkadelphia, AR in general, and the Covenant Bookstore in particular.  I was to sign books from 10-noon.  It's helpful to know that Arkadelphia is the town where my wife and I went to college, and then years later, we moved back there and I assumed the duties of pastor for Second Baptist Church.  So, as you might guess, lotta memories in that town, a smattering of ghosts, and a skeleton or two.

But when the clock struck ten, the people came.  I'm guessing most days in the Covenant Bookstore aren't that busy.  Arkadelphia's a slow moving town, no need to rush much; that's one of the reasons I like it.  But that morning, things were hopping.  Even with the opening of deer season, thus taking out most of the men, and a Razorback football game that afternoon, business was brisk for the Covenant.

I got to see old friends: young couples we knew who now have kids; college students we be-friended who now have spouses and soon will have babies; men who passed offering plates on Sundays while the organist played; ladies who faithfully prayed for me when pastoring grew heavy; and one family who attended our church only a few months before we moved to Colorado - they stood there and cried and said "we miss you."

There was one old lady who happened to be in town that weekend and she made a point to stop by.  I say "old lady" with the utmost respect.  Her name is Jo and she was a member of our church and I was her pastor.  Jo was married to Elmer...he died a few years ago at 90 years young.  As a pastor, you're never really sure who loves you and who doesn't.  That's fine.  Life's like that some days, I guess.  But I never doubted Jo's love for me and my family...never.

Jo came in the bookstore that morning and bee-lined for me.  We hugged and she placed a shaky palm on my cheek and said "boy, you're pretty."  I still don't doubt Jo's love for me.  She then proceeded to speak so that all in the small store could hear:  "You know what I remember most about you, brother John?  You visited me in the hospital, when I had that heart surgery, and before you left, you kissed me on the forehead.  I'll never forget that."

Now you need to know that I didn't make a habit of kissing women in the hospital; it's just not the way I roll.  But I'll gladly confess that I did kiss Jo that day years ago, that day when she was scared and Elmer was scared and I was scared.  It was one of those thin days, when the distance between this life and the next felt close.  The kiss probably wasn't something I thought out carefully; I just did it.  Some of the best pastoral work happens that way - spontaneous, unguarded expressions of love for those in your care.  Jesus said when you visit those in the hospital, you're visiting him.  I'm gonna roll the dice here and say that when I kissed Jo's forehead, I kissed the forehead of Christ.  I believe that.  If you don't, well, I still do.

The Covenant sold out of my books that morning.  I'm grateful.  But those moments were much more than transactions.  They were remembrances, stirred memories of a time that's now gone, but a time that was rich and wide and deep and fun and horrible and smooth and rough and sorrowful and beautiful all in the same breath...days of sheep and the Good Shepherd and a young fool named John who got to waltz into the lives of glorious people for a season and marry their kids and bury their husbands and dedicate their babies and at least on one occasion, kiss the forehead of a scared, little old lady named Jo...

Halle, halleluja...     


Pack Up The Babies, Grab The Old Ladies...

I just finished a mini-book-publicity-gig, from hereon known as Brother Love's Traveling Salvation Show.  I first traveled back to the motherland, Arkansas, for three book signings, then wrapped up the Show with two television interviews, one on Tuesday in Dallas (DayStar) and the final one yesterday in South Bend (The Harvest Show).  As you know, and may be tired of hearing, I've written a Christmas book and the selling window on such a thing is rather short so I'm trying to make hay while the hay is still called to-hay.  I don't know how some of these folks do 16 or 20 city book tours...I really don't.

For the next couple of days, I'm going to give you a superfast overview of the BLTSS.  It really did go well.  I am completely humbled.

Friday, Nov. 13th - Took a shuttle to the airport, my driver said "just call me Animal."  I complied, I his only passenger.  Animal had a beard that could've doubled as an eagle's nest and hands the size of bear paws.  He had driven a cab in Co Springs for twenty years, so yes, he had some stories to tell, and yes, he told them. Upon arriving in Little Rock, AR, I was greeted by cherished friends who allowed me the use of their pickup over the weekend, gallavanting all over the Natural State that I was.  Earlier that morning, they waved goodbye to husband/dad as he left for another Army tour, this time eight months, over there in harm's way.  Terry, Charlotte, Clinton, and Lauren, God bless you.  And Terry, may God keep your precious life safe.

I headed down a familiar stretch of interstate known as I-30 towards Malvern, AR.  The use of a pickup allowed me a little freedom to see some old friends, one being Justin.  Back when I was a pastor, Justin was our associate pastor, but we (somehow) got his title changed to Pastor of Spiritual Formation.  It makes me chuckle now to ponder it.  Friends, this was way back before all the "spiritual formation" buzz; I'm convinced most of the people didn't know what in heaven's name that title meant, and Justin and I were really just figuring it out ourselves.  I can guarantee you he was the very first Pastor of Spiritual Formation in Arkansas.

I met Justin in Malvern at the Waffle House, that fine southern eatery with the distinctive yellow sign.  We sat a booth next to the jukebox; he had water, I ordered the cheese-eggs and coffee.  And for about forty-five minutes, two now older friends got to talk, laugh, and remember, accompanied by the all-the-rage sounds of Taylor Swift and a waitress who seemed to enjoy nothing better than waiting on two old boys.  Thanks, Lord, for the good times.

From the Waffle House, I headed toward Nashville, AR, home of the people I call Dad and Mom.  If you've read anything here before, you know that I love dusk like some folks love Taylor Swift. Well, the drive to Nashville was wrapped in dusk and an easy listening station that spun tunes from Boz Scaggs and some vintage Sting.  The landscape still had some autumn leaves hanging on by a thread, but the bright oranges that evening were the caps and vests of deer hunters; the next morning was opening day.  It made me grin.  While most men in the state would be shouldering rifles and scoping down bucks, Brother Love would be wielding a pen signing books for their wives and the babies and the little old ladies.  

Halle, halleluja...      


This Week's Winner

Congratulations to Tim, winner of the beautiful sheep sketch and a signed copy of the book.  Tim's Christmas smemory (smell + memory) is "the sweet aroma of boiled custard that my grandmother always made.  If you've never had boiled custard, its kind of a sweet, thick milky/eggy substance, similar to egg nog, but not quite as spicy...I think my grandmother always added a little Jack Daniels to hers while we weren't looking..."

My, my...the things our grandmothers did while we weren't looking.  My Christmas smemory is the aroma of peppermint, as in candy canes.  We had an ornament that was basically a long piece of felt with 24 "ties" on it and a bell at the bottom.  Each "tie" held two candy canes and we'd remove them each day leading up to Christmas.  An-ti-ci-pay-aay-shun, you're making me wait.  If I try, I can smell the felt and kidding.

Tim, send me a note at and the sketch and book are yours.  Again, congrats!

Conversation With God

God: Sleep well?
Me: Good enough, I guess.
God: Your mind hasn't slowed in months...a lot going on?
Me: know.  Meredith's dad died this summer, then some great writing opportunities opened up, but it seems I'm never caught up at work, then the book released, and the kids were baptized, I'm not sure what happened to October, now I'm getting ready to leave to do some book promotion but I really don't have time to do that but I need to do that, and Christmas is coming up and I so want to savor those days...
God: That's a lot.
Me: But I know everyone around me is just as tired and so much of what's going on these days is blessed and I feel guilty...
God: I'm not sure guilt is going to help you any.
Me: Hard habit to break.
God: Chicago was a great group.
Me: (smiles)
God: You don't want to mess up, do you, John?
Me: No, Lord. (tears)  I so don't want to mess up.
God: (silence)
Me: (silence)
God: Teach me to care and not to care.
Me: T.S. Eliot?
God: Yes, great writer.  Those were inspired lines.
Me: I love those lines, but that's a hard prayer to pray.
God: It's a grown-up prayer.
Me: (silence)
Me: These are grown-up days, aren't they?
God: Yes, John...pull down that Fairchild book and read those words you've underlined.
Me: ...and it is so bright now, you can hardly bear it as it fills the door, this immense glacier of light coming on, and still you do not know who you are, but here it is, try to remember, it is all beginning.
God: Try to remember, John.  By the way, I like your book.
Me: (smiles)
God: You better get moving...there are a lot of people who need you today.
Me: I know.        

Always More

Dance by Margaret Atwood
It was my father taught my mother
how to dance.
I never knew that.
I thought it was the other way.
Ballroom was their style,
a graceful twirling,
curved arms and fancy footwork,
a green-eyed radio.

There is always more than you know.
There are always boxes
put away in the cellar,
worn shoes and cherished pictures,
notes you find later,
sheet music you can't play.

A woman came on Wednesdays
with tapes of waltzes.
She tried to make him shuffle
around the floor with her.
She said it would be good for him.
He didn't want to.

"Dancing" by Margaret Atwood, from Morning in the Burned House. Houghton Mifflin, 1995.

I don't know what you want today, but here's a line you and me, we, might need -   
"There is always more than you know." 

The Bishop's Doody

Once upon this week there was a list brought to my attention, writing guidelines for one publishing imprint.  If you write books for them, you must avoid words or phrases like these:
Arousal, Bastard, Bet/betting, Bishop, Bra, Breast (except for breast cancer if necessary),
Buttocks or butt (alternatively, you can say derriere or backside), Crap, Damn (try "blast" instead),
Darn, Dern/durn, Devil (except in the religious sense, but the circumstances would be rare),
Dang or Dagnabbit, Doody, Father (when used to describe a religious official), Fiend,
For heaven's sake (can use "for goodness' sake" instead), For the love of Mike...

And avoid situations like these:
Kissing below the neck
Visible signs or discussions of arousal or sexual attraction or being out of control
Double entendre
Nudity - people changing clothes "on screen" or any character clad only in a towel
Hero and heroine sleeping in the same house without a third party, even if they're not sleeping together or in the same room
Also, Christian characters should not smoke, drink, gamble, play cards or dance (except in historical novels they may dance but please limit to square dances and balls, no “sexy” dancing like waltzing cheek to cheek), and terms associated with these activities should only be used in connection with bad guys or disapproving of them or such.
Bodily functions, like going to the bathroom, should be mentioned as little as possible and some euphemism may be necessary but we don't want to sound quaint or absurd.

Now you might say "For heaven's sake, John, you fiend, that's a funny list, but people of faith are beyond that these days, they really are."  And I would momentarily stop dancing and reply "but dagnabbit, publishing houses don't do things that aren't profitable, they don't, so this list indicates a significant number of people are buying books that do not contain words and phrases and situations like these.  In other words, a significant number of people are buying and reading doody-free books."

The last time I checked, this was still a relatively free country, so that pub house can publish escapist romance, no problem by me. But I read a list like that in light of the carnage at Ft. Hood and I'm rankled because those guidelines have the word christian attached to them...and a faith of avoidance continues its drumbeat.  When I first heard about the shooting, my response was not blast or dang; it was Damn, not again.  The christian characters in those novels could not say that, even if they wanted to.

There are days when I believe we are what we read.  For the love of Christ, my friends, read well...         

A Brief Q&A with the artist known as Amanda Jolman

As promised, here are a few questions and answers from Amanda Jolman. She did the artwork for my book and I wanted you to meet her.  Don't forget that you can enter to win one of her sketches; do so via the last post (Of Mice and Men and Sheep).

1.       Do you have a sketch that resonated with you?

On some level each sketch is like a child, a co-creation with God.  As much as my pencil marks are contained within a drawing, it lives with a life of it’s own. And in this way, it’s difficult to pick a favorite; each drawing has its own unique resonance with me, its own personality.  Again, like children, I view each with specific memories of it’s development and I also see how it has now outgrown me and stands apart from me.  If I had to pick one in particular, I would probably say that Mary’s feet had the most personal connection.  The process Mary underwent—encountering an angel, being called to carry and birth and mother the Son of God, and her willingness—roused my soul to longing for similar faith and courage.

      Talk a little about how you approached these—as in your process….

John’s writing struck me as so intimate and human; most images came to my imagination as close-ups or as a zoomed in lens .  I created a number of gestural sketches, value-indicating sketches, and just let the ideas brew for a while.  I began thinking logistically about what would be possible with lighting and who I would desire for models. Because I prefer drawing from live models to capture the spontaneity and life of the form, I made a number of calls to friends to seek out help.  Once all the pre-production was complete, the actual act of drawing was a very focused and exhilarating time.  I began with the gesture, which captures the spontaneity and movement of the form.  From there I built up the drawings working from general to specific--, checking proportions, comparing shape relations, indicating lights and darks.  I always hold my drawings loosely and ended up making several copies of some of them.  I revisited them, making slight alterations, until I could stand back and say, “well done”.

     Could you point to one thing God impressed on you as you walked through these stories?

I mentioned in the first question, how I was inspired by Mary’s faith.  Such a young girl, with such a great faith.  Her ability to say, “May it be unto me as you have said” haunts me.  May it be unto me as you have said about my call as an artist. The Holy Spirit often reminds me of those words when I am faced with a new opportunity or challenge in my craft.

4.       What’s going on in your artistic journey these days?

The journey has led me to a master artist.  She has been drawing, painting and studying for nearly 40 years and is now imparting her knowledge to me. Specifically, she is training me in 17th century, primarily Dutch, methods, materials, and techniques for oil painting.  Under her tutelage, I am copying a Rembrandt painting, Bathsheba at Bath.  Enthralled may be a mild word for how I feel about the special effects possible with a variety of mediums used with oils. The beauty of a single brushstroke can leave me speechless. 

Of Mice and Men and Sheep (this week's giveaway)

Old Robert Burns said the best-laid schemes o' mice an' men gang aft a-gley...whew, I'm with Bobby this week.  My plans to post on Monday with the next giveaway got all aft a-gley.  And I know some of you were probably saying An' lea'e us nought but grief an' pain, for promis'd joy!  Well, more than likely none of you said those exact words, but maybe you were feeling them...a pox upon me, I am sorry, mea culpa.

Last week's sketch-giveaway was Two-Footed Mary.  This week's better-late-than-never giveaway is something I fondly refer to as Self-Portrait.  Amanda and I had talked about having an animal sketch in the book, everybody just loves animals you know.  I turned around and next thing you know, mr. sheep was born. I've liked it since the moment I set eyes on it.  If you have the book, you know this sheep was right there on that blessed night.  If you don't have the book, well, maybe we can remedy that.

Since I'm all aft a-gley this week, let's run this giveaway until next Friday.  Here's the entry deal.  When you think about Christmas, what do you smell?  Cinnamon?  Fresh cut pine?  Yankee candles? Chex Mix?  Pumpkin pie?  Peppermint?  Sheep?  Camels? Frankincense?  Uncle Ben's aftershave?  Give it a whirl and see what memory whiffs your way.

I'm still working on the Q&A with Amanda Jolman, artist extraordinaire.  I'll post it as soon as it's ready.  In the meantime, sniff hard and leave me a comment.  And if your week has also been just a tad aft a-gley, well, know you're not're right there with the mice and this man.  Hang in there.

This Week's Winner and Some Enlightenment

Congratulations, Lane!  You're the winner of Amanda's beautiful sketch of Two-Footed Mary, plus a copy of the little Christmas book that's trying.  I know you're somewhere close, as the crow flies, so I'll get this to you as soon as possible.

Remember friends, there'll be another of Amanda's sketches given away next week, plus a Q&A with her, so stop by on Monday for a few minutes and enter to win.  And thank you all so much for helping me spread the word about Touching Wonder via your blogs and FB pages and Tweet decks...really, thank you.


Prior to this week, my last airline experience was in August; I was flying back from Phoenix.  As I boarded the big old jet airliner, I found my row and seat, and chuckled.  I had been placed, strangely enough, beside two striking young ladies.  As I struggled to fit my one carry-on into the overhead, their thumbs smoothly navigated the screens of iPhones, and designer handbags rested on their long-skirted thighs.  Accomplishing my task, I sat down and said hello; my immediate seatmate returned the greeting.

I chuckled again.  We were quite a row, I tell you.  A forty-something jake in Levis and a ponytail beside two teenagers in white bonnets and prairie skirts adorned by unMaybellined-faces. After the plane leveled-off at howevermanythousandfeet, my curiosity prevailed.

Hi, I'm John.

Hi, I'm Missy.

May I ask you about your faith?  

Oh, yes, we're Mennonite.  We get asked a lot.

Do you know how some folks just put you at ease?  Missy had the gift.  We talked a little about our points of origin and destination. Missy told me she and her sister were headed to visit family.  I told Missy I was a writer from Colorado.  She tried to look impressed; I told her there was no need.

Missy, what is your favorite thing about being a Mennonite? Yikes, that's a horrible question, isn't it? (She laughed at me, putting me further at ease).  I mean, what feels special to you about how you're growing up?  (She paused a moment and scratched her bonnet).

I can do the things that make Jesus happy.  The Bible tells me what I should do and when I do those things, I know He's happy.  

Now folks, there's a chance that Missy the Mennonite could have been pulling the wool over my ponytail, that as soon as she and sister reached their destination, they were gonna ditch the floor-length skirts for minis and fishnet and they had told Jacob the Elder he could kiss off 'cause they were headed to LA to live, really live.  But I didn't get that feeling...I really didn't.  What I did feel was the presence of a goodness and innocence like I'd not experienced in a long time.  I was lucky enough to travel, if only for a few hours, beside two girls making Jesus happy.  And it made me happy.  It also made me sad as I looked at their faces, places where the scars would be...

I boarded another plane this week, heading from Chicago back home.  As I found my aisle seat, guess what two people were sitting beside me?  No, not Missy and sissy; this ain't the Paul Harvey show.  I found myself sitting beside two Buddhist monks, shaved heads, saffron robes and all.  I'm not making this up.  Again, we were quite a row to behold.  I wondered if we might get into a riveting conversation about faith, and people two and three rows away would hush and listen to our wrestlings and it would all conclude with a symbolic exchange of the leather bracelet I wear for some ancient Buddhist amulet and we would bow and say namaste to one another backdropped by a snowy Denver.  But that didn't happen.

I did notice, however, their robes were embroidered with the words BODH GAYA and a colorful rendering of a temple.  "Bodh Gaya is the place where Gautama Buddha attained unsurpassed, supreme Enlightenment. It is a place which should be visited or seen by a person of devotion and which would cause awareness and apprehension of the nature of impermanence."  

As the two young monks sat and talked to each other and read their books printed in a language of curlycued letters, I sat and read Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout and took my own little bodh gaya pilgrimage.  I was quite supremely enlightened by this book, and I believe the fictional town of Crosby, Maine should be visited by persons of devotion, folks like you, for these stories cause awareness and apprehension of the nature of impermanence, otherwise known to us non-saffrons as the difficult splendor of being alive.  It is a book about the places where the scars are...  

Here's an an amulet I exchange with you from the book.  These sentences describe Olive on the day of Christopher and Suzanne's wedding.  Christopher is Olive's only son: 
Weeping would not have come close to what she felt.  She felt fear, sitting out there on her folding chair. Fear that her heart would squeeze shut again, would stop, the way it did once before, a fist punched through her back.  And she felt it, too, at the way the bride was smiling up at Christopher, as though she actually knew him.  Because did she know what he looked like in first grade when he had a nosebleed in Miss Lampley's class? Did she see him when he was a pale, slightly pudgy child, his skin broken out in hives because he was afraid to take a spelling test?  No, what Suzanne was mistaking for knowing someone was knowing sex with that person for a couple of weeks.  You never could have told her that, though...