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.