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.