Category Archives: Mostly the arts

Pentecost season

You are so kind Lord!
When I wondered who I am,
You said, “Call me Abba”
and the calling made me. Makes me!
I call your name and you call mine.
I name you mine and you name me back.
You are so kind, Lord!

In a day of meaningless words,
who will you send into the streets? Who?
In a day of CGI-fantasy fire,
who will marvel at the tongues? Who?
In an ocean of one-bedroom apartments,
who will join your fire-born community? Who?
In your broken-down church,
wearing its terrible reputation,
where will you show your face to the world? You!

You are so kind Lord!
I shied away from saying, “Let it be me!”
and you still said, “I’ll let it be you.
It has always been you and me.
Always. Before you were born, I knew you.
I loved you and waited for you to grow.
Waited. When you first saw me, I was looking at you.
When you were a twentysomething,
I knew what could happen and laughed.
I laughed at you thinking you were too old
to burn with fire and energize grace.
Old! If you are too old, what am I?”
You are so kind Lord!

In this season of celebration —
wearing red, singing confident songs —
this season of unimagined beginnings,
help me. Help me to be looking for you
as you seek me out again and name me.
Seek me! Lick me with the presence of the future.

Wrangling about law when “nothing is written”

One of my favorite scenes in the masterpiece, Lawrence of Arabia, shows what happens after Lawrence returns from his journey across the Nefud desert. He has just accomplished the impossible by taking the Ottoman port of Aqaba from the desert side.  Having returned across the deadly, scorching expanse, he is told one of his companions, Gasim, fell off his camel and was left behind. He is advised any attempt to save him is futile — Gasim’s death is “written.”

Lawrence goes into the desert to find Gasim.  I give you the long version of the scene of his return just to celebrate the cinematography and score. It is worth your four minutes just to watch David Lean humanize the abstraction of sand and sky.

Later on that night, after Lawrence has rehydrated and awakened in time for dinner, Sherrif Ali, in all humility, says, “Truly, for some men nothing is written unless they write it.”

I think it is safe to say Lawrence was teaching Ali to think, “Everyone decides their own fate. No one’s destiny is predetermined.” And “I’ll be damned if I let that man die.” I hesitate to disagree with Hollywood, but Lawrence is wrong even if he is brave. I don’t think it is “me, or us, against the world.” If nothing is “written” it is not because men rule  the world, but because  the world is alive with the Spirit of its Creator and is growing in grace (or in spite of it). We should be beyond arguing about what is merely written by now. But we wrangle.

Daily Mail captures Johnson at the courthouse

The fight for what is written

Last week the spectacle of Trump in court continued, with Mike Johnson, himself, attending in order to subvert the gag order (possibly in the name of Jesus), with Matt Gaetz tweeting in the ex-president’s honor, “Standing back and standing by, Mr. President.” For those guys “nothing is written until they write it,” for sure, as far as I can see.

For the prosecutors who dare to bring Trump to trial, “It is written, in the law. And no one is above it.” The law is god in a pluralisitc democracy and the prosecutors want it known the assaulters are crashing up against the stone of the legal code.

We’re having a national crisis about the law. But all those Christians involved in this battle should remember that law is just a tutor (disciplinarian, guardian, etc.) to teach us how to exercise our freedom to live in grace. Isn’t that the clear New Testament teaching? Subvert the law or apply it, it can’t kill you or save you, at least not forever.

The temptation to fight for or against what is written is everywhere, it seems.

  • Right now, many people are so afraid, they are reverting to certainty and order. Jesus Collective devolved into a teaching platform instead the catalyst for a movement. They may have fallen off their camel in the desert.
  • My former denomination has vainly tried to quash a book people have written about their experiences of being LGBTQ in their branch of the Church, cast out, and abused by what someone said was “written.” This contrary book was written by people who refused to leave someone in the desert, refused to be confined to principles imposed in the 1600’s.
  • My HOA leaders keep trying to shore up what went wrong with the past management of our old building instead of starting here and now and working together for the future. Like I said last time, someone threatened a lawsuit because of some words thrown their way! There are many lawyers scheming away.
  • My church splendidly presents ancient humans with lovely words each week and performs classic chants with great voices and instruments. They are heirs of someone else’s invention instead of inventing like the heirs we are. I think we may love being ruled by the liturgical rules.

You have your own examples, I’m sure. I think I am effectively tired, again, of everyone who teaches, “It is written.” I’m a Jesus follower, so I am mainly talking about church leaders, pulpiteers and dueling factions splitting up the Methodist Church, etc., who are wrangling over words, litigating righteousness constantly, sometimes like Trump, sometimes like the  prosecutors, but rarely in grace.

Don’t we resist bad teachers intuitively?

That is a wishful question, of course, since we follow tracks that are bad for us all the time. We believe the voices in our head defending us against what we thought might kill us as a child! We all have our own laws we follow. But don’t most of us also have an operable b.s. detector?

If we connect with Jesus at all, the Holy Spirit will be helping us detect what might really kill us.  The main way God does that is to bear witness in our own hearts, souls, minds and strengths that we are God’s adopted children in Jesus.

We tend to settle for much less than that wondrous place in the world. Nevertheless, I think we all know about it at some level. I think I felt the following truth before I read it in the Bible when I was seventeen for the first time, as a relatively aware adult:

For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you received a spirit of adoption [into the full legal standing as an heir]. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs: heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, if we in fact suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him. — Romans 8:14-17 (NRSVUE)

I’ABBA, FATHER! – The Place of Praiseve always resisted the heresy of power-hungry men saying they love the Bible and then undermining the fundamental truth Paul taught. Nothing in the New Testament was written about how we should live  which was not first written by the Spirit witnessing to us, just like God taught Paul. Our organic relationship with our loving-parent-of-a-God is the central example Jesus wants to demonstrate. We’re not an application of principle, nothing is merely “written;” the Spirit is writing. We’re not unforgiveable, merely the sum of what we can make of ourselves, we’re all imminent miracles.

I have to admit, I’ve got that power-hunger in me, too. I also often feel I, alone, must solve the problems I face. We were talking in a meeting of psychotherapists not long ago about clients who struggle so hard with their view of themselves, views that have a repeating narrative, something “written,” making ruts in their brains.   They come up against certain situations and a voice comes from nowhere, it seems. It could insist, “We never cause conflict. It is deadly.” Or worse, “You are unlovable. Don’t bother.” You probably have stories that repeat in you, too.

Yet In the surprisingly psychologically-sound Romans 8 (only surprising to people who think humanity has progressed until they and their pleasant splendor is possible), we are reminded, or promised, what every one who shares Christ’s death and resurrection knows. Nothing is “written,” at least not in stone. Everything is a new creation in Jesus. We’re changing and growing in grace. The Spirit of God is creating us right now and we’re creating right alongside.

Guilt: How it starves our true selves

To begin this meditation on guilt, I want to confess one of my guilty pleasures. I was (OK, still am) a John Denver fan. No, I did not think he was cool, and yes, he can still make me cringe at times. But his clear, sharp tenor often often gave melody to the best of the idealistic 1970’s and 80’s. Those were years when I also expessed some of my loftiest ideals (often in song!). Like Denver, I hoped to be accepted but sometimes I was scorned.

A hunger guiltfest

I was looking through old pictures from that era as I prepared them for digitizing and ran across one from an event for the youth group we called “The Planned Famine.” Our intentional community was devoted to living simply and sharing our resources so others could live. Many of us led the youth group so we spread our convictions into the church, as well. For instance, as part of our Famine, we charged the parents and other adults  for a “Third World Dinner,” which did not go over well with some of them who got nothing and “starved.” Even today I would remind them that getting aced out of food isn’t pleasing to the 783 million hungry people in the world right now, either.  (Here are some Mormons doing the same idea we had 25 years later).

Our theme song for the 30-hour, overnite “famine” was John Denver’s “I Want to Live.” He wrote it as a potential theme song for President Carter’s Commission on world Hunger. Here he is singing it.

A lot of the dinner and the overniter was, unfortunately, about our guilt. Not the good guilt of admitting a sin against God and our true selves, but guilt before what we should have been or guilt about what others think and say about us (or might), or guilt  about our lack of laudable courage and deficit of shining character (at least compared to others). When John Denver sang, we felt ashamed of ourselves and the earth for letting people starve. Some of us became hunger warriors. Most of us just became better educated about more things to avoid.

Life under criticism and contempt

There is some room for the shame we felt, but not in the way we often feel it. When  criticism leads to guilt and contempt leads to shame, we often defend against those awful feelings with only the tools psychology offers us. They aren’t bad tools, they just aren’t up to the full task we need to complete.  Paul Tournier says,

Freud reveals to us all that remains infantile and regressive in us, our fear of life and of responsibilities, our longing for a refuge in maternal consolation. We are all children, and we feel guilty at being so lacking in courage, in virility, in adulthood. C.G. Jung widens these notions by talking of integration and by depicting [humanity’s] destiny as the acceptance of all that is within [each of us]. — (Guilt and Grace p. 54)

We cannot blame our lingering unease with ourselves on psychology alone because Christianity has specialized in guilt. It has often been better at crushing people than fulfilling its promise to set them free. Instead of surpassing Freud’s “becoming adult” and Jung’s “integration,” Christians often  criticize one another’s behavior and pour contempt on people who threaten or offend them. Maybe you don’t do that, but the church of the last decade in the U.S. has become even more famous for it.

We pour guilt on ourselves, too, even if other don’t induce it. Instead of glorying in our weakness, as the Apostle Paul insists we should, so God’s power for transformation can break into us and break out, we feel guilty that our weakness makes us powerless. We can’t do what we are meant to do. Our fear of failing at our responsibilities has made us ineffective rulers of ever-diminishing zones of personal control. We have shriveled under the comparison with others, using the whole internet to demonstrate how incapable we are of measuring up. And we may also protect others from having their own struggle with guilt by suggesting they should not be so proud as to think their desires to live are relevant or warranted, just like ours aren’t.

Baby humpback finding her wings off Maui

Leaping from the dark

When we played John Denver’s song during the Planned Famine, we had a slide show to go with it. We needed to turn up the volume of the song enough to overcome the distracting squeal and click of slides moving around their carousel. The faces of child after child came on the screen from around the world, some happy, many starving, some dying. John sang for them,

I want to live I want to grow
I want to see I want to know
I want to share what I can give
I want to be I want to live

And then he changed to the hopeful imagery of animals marine ecologists were just coming to understand.

Have you gazed out on the ocean,
Seen the breaching of a whale?

We put up a beautiful slide of a whale leaping out of the depths. I vividly remember the small, involuntary gasp it aroused in me, “I want to do that.”

I want to do it because Freud is right. We are all children singing, “I want to live.” I want to leap because Jung is right. From the depths of the great ocean of the unconscious self, even the collective unconscious, if you like, our true selves are coming up to the surface for air. If we get out of the way, they might leap into the sky with joy.

It takes some courage to leap, to suck in clear air. It takes some effort to be real, to swim free in the ocean of grace in which we live. If we dive in and leap out, we know our previous methods of self-preservation will need to die. We know we will have to admit we cannot effectively avoid all the things that cause us to condemn ourselves: our lack of genuine relationships with mates and friends, our resistance to admitting our faults, our willingness to avoid responsibility, our lack of forgiveness, lack of solidarity with our struggling acquaintances and loved ones, our unfaithfulness to God and others. We will have to see how we flee, fight, and freeze because fear rules us.

Tournier, again says

To be faithful to oneself would mean to always be like oneself in all circumstances, in the presence of any interlocutor. We remain silent in turn about either our deepest convictions or the doubts which inevitably arise concerning them. We hide our feelings, or else we show them to be more ardent than they really are. To be faithful to oneself would mean to be natural, spontaneous, fearless of the opinions of others. (p. 57)

I think we all feel a calling to be faithful to our truest selves, perhaps from our first cry after leaving the womb. We want to live. I think we can at least imagine how God called us into being and can hear at least a faint voice encouraging us to live, full and free, embodying everything we’ve been given to be and do. I wish for you a moment of joy today when you dare to breach the surface. May your unique, childlike, fully-welcomed desires and fully-honored genius be well-fed and lively.

Thirty-three and thirty-three again

Today, the sun rises again
and the Son again rises with it.
You may want to sleep through it again,
the pillow over your head in dread again.
It may burn your eyelids as it invades your bed,
make you queasy with its sky turning red,
make your dizzy brain reel in the face of new day.
You may resist it all and hit the snooze,
pick up the phone and zero out, or lay
and feel the uneasy knowledge of staying still.

On your road to your Emmaus
you may not spy the bloom among us
right there at the edge of your blinders.
You may not recognize the warming,
the gentle, but binding, binding heat
of burning light in the deep, in the dark,
in the places you are sure no one sees,
in the old pains you feel will never heal,
in the memories you cannot forget,
in the aches you never could forgive.

But there He is again. You
turn your head and catch his eye again.
You take the bread from his hand again
and the moment is an eternity before
he’s gone missing, gone in some fog —
working and loving, God in God,
until he rises from the good earth again,
descends through a thin place again,
connects through a tender touch again,
surprises with that distant voice again.

My new friends call it Eastertide. It
ebbs and flows unstoppable, again and again; its
waves of life, sweet and swelling, wake us up to live again.

Would you like to hear me read it? Here is a link.

Today is John Leonhard Dober Day! He is the first missionary the Moravian Brethren chose to send out from Herrnhut in 1727. He has a remarkable story of faith and courage. Get to know him at The Transhistorical Body. 

Grief: Make room to grieve in every way you need

I wonder if what has been making us mean in the last few years is unprocessed grief. Maybe we have not grieved at all, or haven’t considered all the ways our souls are working through the losses and sadness we carry.

Do people in the United States have good ways to grieve anymore? Were you taught anything by your family system that helps you?

I am connected to many people who are not conversant in grief at all. If I suggest we talk about their loss and the grief they feel about it, they almost immediately deflect. They can talk about trauma, anxiety and depression, which are words the therapeutic language we use allows.  But the deeper, soulful grief they are passing through and which they will continue to bear is hard to admit. For many men, especially, grieving seems weak, shameful, irrelevant, or just annoying.

You can see grief behind the meanness

It is possible, isn’t it, that not making room for grief is contributing to how mean we are getting. Many people have noticed our agression and disrespect growing, especially if they drive a car, and even more viscerally if they have been to the U.S. southern border. Americans are meaner. David Brooks wrote a great (long!) article about becoming meaner in The Atlantic last fall. But he did not highlight grieving.

Even though we went through a pandemic and even though the death and fear of it is not really over, Americans generally seem to brush off their need to grieve. Our president, at the outset of the health emergency, minimized the disaster and his followers loudly distrusted the vaccines which undoubtedly saved the lives of millions of the 111 million Americans who have been infected, so far — (yes, a full third of the country! and it may be more). Even with the vaccines, 1.2 million people have died from Covid so far in the U.S. — that’s over 1/7 of the estimated deaths worldwide. Donald Trump is famous for appearing on the porch of the White House, fresh from the hospital, still having trouble breathing, pointedly denying anything significant was happening.

I know many of us did not take his lead, but I think the country, by and large, buried its grief. The persistent irritation of unrecognized, denied, or avoided grief could make us mean and even sicker than we might normally be.

Maybe Trump takes his cues from the screen, since he is famous for having a lot of TV time. The screens contribute to our inability to grieve. We often learn how to live from them. And the screens are sketchy about what they teach about grief.

If you see grieving on the screen, it often moves through in a few moments. Some movies are enlightening stories of grief, of course — but even those films tidy things up, generally, after about two hours. Learning grief from film or TV shows may stunt us. They may desensitize us to our personal process because our catharsis happens while watching someone else, and someone who is not real, at that. It is not the same as having our own experience.

Our experiences rarely match  the screen. Most screens show grief in stereotypic ways. A Reddit ranter says:

I’m home alone watching Kingsman (I know) and the main character loses the son he spent his whole life protecting and after 3 mins of air time grieving, he’s smacked into reality and goes back to work…. Like, is this annoying to anyone else but me? A close friend can give you a pet [sic] talk to physically hit you and now you’re okay again?!!?!

The boatload of heroic spy and superhero movies we’ve had in the last decade usually include this message about grief: there is no time for it. Besides, we’re too tough to give into it. Heroes tend to say, “I’ll honor your moment of silence for the latest victims, even acknowledge your single tear squeezing out. But then it is back to the work of revenge or raining overwhelming force on our enemies.” For instance, here is Thor dealing with his grief in Guardians of the Galaxy:

He gets slapped. Then he “gets it together” in record time. Grief meets meanness on the screen.

Maybe we need grieving room

Leanne FriesenLast week a book my acquaintance wrote about grieving showed up in my Kindle. I forgot I pre-ordered it. I admit, I was hesitant to open it because I really admire this woman and I did not want to not like her book. But as soon as I read a few pages, I could not put it down. It is a charming, honest, helpful book about grief: Grieving Room: Making Space for All the Hard Things after Death and Loss. In a world that wants to rush toward closure and healing, Leanne Friesen gives us reasons, and maybe more important, gives us permission to let loss linger. She teaches us to give ourselves and others grieving room when the very worst happens.

I wrote a bit about grief last week, too, because I need to give it room, just like anyone else. I was not prepared for loss. I think the most I heard about grief in my family growing up was when my mom shouted “Good grief!” — which isn’t quite the same as demonstrating healthy living or having a serious discussion!

Reading Friesen’s book creates much-needed time to meditate on old, unfinished griefs and space to accept more recent, raw ones. She is mainly reflecting on her own life-changing experience of losing her relatively-young sister to cancer. But I think what she says easily applies to losing several years to a pandemic, to vicariously losing mass-shooting victims or Palestinian children, to being fired from your job, to losing your child to estrangement, or to many of the other losses we don’t think to make room for.

She also focuses on her own emotions, which she can readily access; there is lots of crying, angry outbursts, and tenderness. That does not mean you can’t use her book to help you grieve the way you do. Men who have rarely cried as an adult can read it, traumatized people whose losses are terrifying can enter in at their present level, even Christians who think the Holy Spirit bears all their griefs so they don’t have to can benefit.

The Bubble

One of the most helpful images in Grieving Room comes in the chapter “Room to Never Get Over It: Always Missing the One You Lost.” In that chapter Friesen faces the hard thing we all face when someone asks, “Are you over it yet?” — or when we fear someone might ask that because we should be over it, or when we ask ourselves that question because we want to be over it. She says:

There is a season when you live right inside that big cloud of grief. In the grief bubble, it feels like you live surrounded by grief all the time. This is a normal part of grieving. It is also true that at some point, we transition to a time where we live beside the bubble, instead of inside it. Moving to this season can take a long time. Even when the big cloud shifts, your grief never really leaves. It is still part of us, forever.

It could take years for us to get out of our grief bubble. If we don’t make room for that reality, we’ll probably get mean to ourselves or others — and who knows what else might happen?

This award winning short film reduces the process of grieivng to ten minutes, but it seems more accurate to me than many depictions. You might see the bubble in it.

Jesus in the dust with us

Even though Friesen is a protestant church leader, she realized she might not make room for resurrection. In the chapter right next to the one I just mentioned is “Room for Resurrection: Starting to Find New Life Again.” She writes:

One of my favorite quotations, from Frederick Buechner, says, “The resurrection means the worst thing is never the last thing.” [The Final Beast (1965)]…Had the idea of all of us rising together ever meant something to me before? It had a little but even more now. Until I lived through my very own worst thing, I didn’t know the truth of the idea that the resurrection means the worst thing isn’t the last thing. It took a lot of death for me to start to see resurrection. I had never really needed  resurrection until [my sister] died.

Unlike Friesen, many of us are tragically alone in our grief! To hear her tell it, her life is full of family, good friends and caring churches. I think it’s possible she could make room for the many hard things of grief because room had been made for her and her emotions in her family and community. She can look forward to rising from the dead with her family and friends!

That may not be where you are at right now. For one thing, the pandemic killed a lot of churches and the ones left are still recovering. Nothing will ever be the same. So if you had that togetherness it might be hard to find now. On top of that, you may have ended up too alone, locked down, to dare grieving. You’re more like Thor: hyper responsible for everything (but without a hammer) getting slapped. With morality gone, like David Brooks claims, and Christianity taking a nose-dive, you might basically be without God, too.  So many of us suffer a deep sense of being completely on our own.

Being alone, or feeling alone, might make it that much harder to to get out of that overwhelming bubble of grief. Grief might become a chronic experience. Resurrection, the other side of the deaths we experience and the losses we carry, might seem like a fantasy.

The New Testament is honest about how slowly resurrection dawns on the grieving disciples.  The Lord’s #1 woman, Mary Magdalene, thinks Jesus is the groundskeeper outside his tomb. At one point the risen Jesus finds his irritated disciples gone back to fishing.

The resurrected Jesus can be hard to recognize. He has a different look on the other side of death. We do too. Things look and we look different on the other side of our losses. I think the whole world looks different after the millions of deaths during the pandemic.

Before death comes to us or on us, resurrection can be an easy thing to keep on the outside of us, maybe more like a nice thought or an inspiring principle. Even Peter rebuked Jesus for wanting to go to Jersualem — no death, no need for resurrection, let’s keep things controllable. When death gets inside our defenses, into our heart,  resurrection becomes crucial. When grief can no longer be denied or prevented, we have nowhere to go except to the one who holds the words of eternal life.

I think this very short video does a nice job of bringing us to rest in the hope of Jesus being with us, not only in the bubble, but in the challenge of facing death, inside and out, every day. I’ll leave you with it. When you say with the psalmist in Psalm 22,

“My mouth is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth; you lay me in the dust of death,”

may you experience how God lays down with you in your dust.

The screens vs. the real intimacy of the soul

A.I. Irish forest
A.I. Irish forest

When John O’Donohue published Anam Cara: A Celtic Book of Wisdom in 1997, Bill Clinton and Tony Blair presided over the politics of the West. At that time, here in Philadelphia, we were a few years into planting a church. It had a great run until my successors hit the pandemic wall. The 90’s seem like a very long time ago.

Everyone Needs an Anam Cara—or Soul Friend—to Feel Understood and Loved: A Celebration ofBut in many ways, O’Donohue is even more relevant now than he was in the 90’s. Then, he was just wading in the rivulets of what is now drowning us. When the publishers released the 25th anniversary edition of O’Donohue’s classic, new readers saw how prophetic his thinking was.

His main intent was to preserve vestiges of the sacred worldview of his Celtic ancestors; he was like Cary Fowler lobbying at the time for the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. Only O’Donohue’s seeds were spiritual and the fields from which he gathered them were quickly disappearing from Gaelic islands like the Amazon forests from Brazil.

Even more, he was like the prophet Isaiah, who intended to make an old truth present as he spoke for God to to his chosen people. In Anam Cara O’Donohue interprets the past, establishes God in the present, and offers a surprising, prophetic message for us twenty-seven years later.

Let’s listen to just one paragraph that speaks about the sacredness of intimacy. It will give us a chance to examine how we feel and think about relationships these days and how the threat to them O’Donohue prophesied is as real as he feared. The restoration of the kind of intimacy the Celtic church experienced with God, with one other and with Creation is the way to freedom through the shadows that dominate us.

In our culture, there is an excessive concentration on the notion of relationship. People talk incessantly about relationships. It is a constant theme on television, film and the media. Technology and media are not uniting the world. They pretend to provide a world that is internetted, but in reality, all they deliver is a simulated world of shadows. Accordingly, they make our human world more anonymous and lonely. In a world where the computer replaces human encounter and psychology replaces religion, it is no wonder that there is an obsession with relationship. Unfortunately, however, “relationship” has become an empty center around which our lonely hunger forages for warmth and belonging. Much of the public language of intimacy is hollow, and its incessant repetition only betrays the complete absence of intimacy. Real intimacy is a sacred experience. It never exposes its secret trust and belonging to the voyeuristic eye of a neon culture. Real intimacy is of the soul and the soul is reserved. (pg. 15)

Let’s cut his word into three parts and better see what he is saying to us. I hope he will help us hang on to our souls in this troubled time.

Now people live in the shadows

In our culture, there is an excessive concentration on the notion of relationship. People talk incessantly about relationships. It is a constant theme on television, film and the media. Technology and media are not uniting the world. They pretend to provide a world that is internetted, but in reality, all they deliver is a simulated world of shadows.

In 1997 the misanthropic Seinfeld was nearing its last season of nine at #1 in the ratings. We laughed at terrible people unable to connect. Jerry Seinfeld mocked our increasingly shadowy existence and normalized the despair that now dominates our cultural self-image. Here he is on the Tonight Show when Jimmy Fallon was getting started deriding our relationships and the Post Office in his much-imitated way [link].

Meanwhile, in 1997 Friends was spending the third year of its ten-year run at #4. That charming group might be even more insidious. They, in some sense, suggested the world could be united as friends, just like they formed their unlikely, alternative family in the media ether. When Chandler Bing (Matthew Perry) died last October from “the acute effects of ketamine” there was a worldwide cry of anguish on the internet — as if they had lost a friend. But technology and media have not united the world, have they?

The prophecy is: It is all shadows. Increasingly, people live in these shadows. The explosive use of artificial intelligence tools has led to the fear of “shadow AI” (that is, AI used outside system protocol) destroying order and normal relationships in a business. Creations like the A.I. Irish forest above are more real to people than actual ones. The colonization of souls by technology causes people to despair of relating and to become acclimated to living in shadow.

Now loneliness is an epidemic

Accordingly, they make our human world more anonymous and lonely. In a world where the computer replaces human encounter and psychology replaces religion, it is no wonder that there is an obsession with relationship. Unfortunately, however, “relationship” has become an empty center around which our lonely hunger forages for warmth and belonging.

Psychology has named loneliness a mental health crisis but generally has little to offer as a solution apart from trusting in individual education to cause individual change. People need something deeper and they are looking for it. One of the newly-popular, albeit usually illegal, paths they are taking is psilocybin/mushrooms; some think their use is outpacing the research.

Regardless of how you search, many of us are feeling and acting desperate. I don’t think we know what the pandemic did to the world yet. But our desperation is evidence something went wrong. An easy-to-see example of the upheaval is how the increasing loneliness of the West has become its own epidemic. Many of us are still not completely out of our lockdown. Not only are we dealing with health issues and death, our social institutions, like the church, took a hit. Many churches have also died in the last few years alongside millions of virus victims. The leaders burned out. The systems proved untrustworthy. One of the results of all this is we’re lonely because we’ve been left alone to fend for ourselves.

But we are obsessed with relationships, constantly foraging around the “empty center” for warmth and belonging. We scroll for intimacy. My heart is warmed for a second by fleeting images of pets cuddling and babies laughing which are fed to me by the algorithms. People who are serious about connecting download an app. According to a Forbes poll in late 2023 “Nearly 70% of individuals who met someone on a dating app said it led to a romantic, exclusive relationship, while 28% said it did not.” Pew’s 2023 survey says “One-in-ten partnered adults – meaning those who are married, living with a partner or in a committed romantic relationship – met their current significant other through a dating site or app.” As usual, any tool can be used to a good end, but the technology often makes the user in its image.

When the new Surgeon General put out his report on loneliness, the media started talking about it. He reported: “In a U.S.-based study, participants who reported using social media for more than two hours a day had about double the odds of reporting increased perceptions of social isolation compared to those who used social media for less than 30 minutes per day.” 75% of social media users reported they would find it difficult to give up their internet foraging.

The prophecy is: We will not find the intimacy we crave by going to an imaginary watering hole for a drink. True intimacy requires a soul language the media can only represent, if it even cares to; it takes humans and God to share it in reality.

Now intimacy is fully hollow

Much of the public language of intimacy is hollow, and its incessant repetition only betrays the complete absence of intimacy. Real intimacy is a sacred experience. It never exposes its secret trust and belonging to the voyeuristic eye of a neon culture. Real intimacy is of the soul and the soul is reserved.

Watch Taraji P. Henson 'Push Da Button' in The Color Purple | Playbill

As soon as I re-read those lines above, I felt my reaction to The Color Purple (the new film of the musical) all over again.  It is so hollow! It has great performances, especially by Fantasia, but the music feels redundant, like it was formulaically feeding on Alice Walker’s masterpiece (1982). Even more so, it feels like Oprah and Spielberg (the producers) are feeding off the movie they made of the book (1985) — in which Oprah was tremendous. The musical opened on Broadway in 2005, and by the time the movie of it was made, the horrific story of broken intimacy had been fully bathed in “neon.” The only interesting song among a series of derivative, banal tunes is the cringeworthy “Push da Button,” the antithesis of O’Donohue’s sense of intimacy.

Likewise, pundits noted how this year’s Grammys were dominated by women whose songs all tell intimate, often excruciating stories — Sza and Taylor Swift exposed to stadiums full of people, and the brilliant Billie Eielish (with her Gaelic name meaning “pledged to God”) singing about Barbie’s search for meaning and connection as a stand-in for countless people who can relate to her yearning. The performers hollow out intimacy, which “never exposes its secret trust and belonging to the voyeuristic eye.” The under-exposed Tracy Chapman’s reserve at last week’s award ceremony made her seem like a goddess.

The prophetic word is: real intimacy is sacred. It rises from an environment where God is present and honored. There is a secrecy, a mystery to it. We don’t own it, produce it, or control it. We share it. We receive it. We appreciate it. The “voyeuristic eye of a neon culture” is like Sauron’s eye searching Middle Earth for the final ring of power and we dare not placate the eye or wear the ring.

It is as dire and hopeful as Isaiah says it is

In the short run, Isaiah prophesies, the Jewish Kingdom of Judah will be overrun by Babylon, which is deserves to be. But in the long run:

Violence shall no more be heard in your land,
devastation or destruction within your borders;
you shall call your walls Salvation
and your gates Praise.

The sun shall no longer be
your light by day,
nor for brightness shall the moon
give light to you by night,
but the Lord will be your everlasting light,
and your God will be your glory. — Isaiah 60

O’Donohue has a similar prophecy. The outlook for the West is grim, but he has a lived message of intimacy with God and of security grounded in Creation. In the shadows “the Lord will be your everlasting light.” A seed of hope has taken root in him. He has seen God in the world and can’t unsee Jesus. The Holy Spirit has enlivened his soul, she has undammed the yearning that flows between heaven and earth and unleashed the joy inherent in that longing.

**********************

Today is Fanny J. Crosby Day! Visit this spiritual ancestor at The Transhistorical Body and subscribe for reminders of future posts.

Did the devil write The Sound of Music?

“What?!” the Evangelicals say, “The only movie my parents would allow me to watch is being subjected to the latest litmus test?”

Well, if that is how you want to see it, yes. Call it deconstructing, if you like. But the population was fed a lot of hogwash. That’s especially true when it comes to the sweet, romantic, almost iconic scene I want to briefly discuss.

There is some ambivalence about this earworm

I have the misfortune/blessing of having a song in my head most of the day. My mind seems to trap them. The other day this one from The Sound of Music popped up. I was upset, because it had been banished for while due to its terrible theology. But it is a hard earworm to resist.

Before I ask you to give it another look, you might want to give it another look. If you choose to do that, you can hit this link to the YouTube (less than 2 minutes long). I’m going to give it some disrespect. But before I do,  it is fine with me if you look beyond its terrible lyrics.

While you are watching it, go ahead and vicariously enjoy being a grieving, angry man who  has been re-awakened by the governess who initially irritated him. Or vicariously relish the wonder of being a woman poorly assigned as a nun who has found her place as a wife and mother, loved and accepted as she is. I hope someone has met you in the gazebo! If not, I hope they will. Be glad that love can unexpectedly happen – even when the Nazis are at the door! Good grief! Stop being too cynical for this lovely story!

Feel free to get a little tear in your eye for a second before we cast off the terrible, supposedly Christian, logic that led to this scene in this strangely religious musical.

Here’s the problem with this lyric

It is evangelism for a gospel that is not THE Gospel and believing it lands people in misery.

Richard Rogers (who wrote the music) was reportedly an atheist. Oscar Hammerstein (who wrote the words) said this about his faith is a 1958 interview with Mike Wallace. He was telling a story about an exchange he had with a fan. The fan asked,

“Do you mind if I ask you a question?” and I said “No.” “He said are you religious?” and I said, “Well I don’t belong to any church,” and then he patted me on the back and he said, “Ah, you’re religious alright.”

And I went on feeling as if I’d been caught, and feeling that I was religious. He had discovered from the words of my songs that I had faith, faith in mankind, faith that there was something more powerful than mankind behind it all. And faith that in the long run good triumphs over evil. If that’s religion — I’m religious, and it is my definition of religion.

In The Sound of Music Hammerstein is trying to picture what he thinks Catholics would probably be thinking if they were getting into this wonderful love relationship – a bit like he looks into Polynesian culture in South Pacific or Oklahomans in Oklahoma. He’s painting in stereotypes (and often undermining them).

Unfortunately, he got it right when it comes to the mess people make of Christianity, which is why I hate it when this messy song pops up. It has such a lovely feeling and such terrible thoughts!

Let’s go through this once and for all

Perhaps I had a wicked childhood
Perhaps I had a miserable youth
But somewhere in my wicked, miserable past
There must have been a moment of truth

To be clear, he’s teaching usto beleive: “there must have been a moment of truth” because otherwise I could not deserve this moment. I must have done something right because me doing the right thing is how I get good things and, what’s more, it is how I get into heaven.

I have atonement explanations in the side column over there if you want to revisit what Jesus Christ is all about. He is certainly not about noting our “moment of truth” so he can reward it later by fulfilling our deepest desires. My Christian clients are often tormented by the thought of how unworthy they are of being loved by God or anyone. They may accept that God is good enough to love them but they don’t accept that they are good enough to be loved. Hammerstein captured their dilemma in a song:

For here you are, standing there, loving me
Whether or not you should
So somewhere in my youth or childhood
I must have done something good

Yes, you were wicked and miserable (and many times still are), but you were not and will never be responsible enough to be good enough to balance it all out. You will not be able to perform well enough to solve the problem, even if you can sing like Julie Andrews! You did not merit the blessings God delivered out of love in Jesus. And if someone professes their love for you, you should probably just take it instead of evaluating it according to your self-loathing.

I think many people believe the theory of God’s grace. But we still feel it is unlikely, if not impossible, for God or anyone to love the real us. Many of us feel if we were just better everything would be better — that’s the truth we live by and deeply suffer as a result. We never get good enough. Whatever nasty thing you say to yourself when you look in the mirror (or suppress saying,  it is so terrible), it is probably spawned by “truth” that pops up like this lyric I’m decrying. We vainly try to control the conditions that led to our lack of love. We’re always sorting things out, “I’m wicked. I’m good.” But inconclusive sorting ends up being the habit of our heart and closes us off to what we need.

A lot of the problem stems from this terrible line of logic I wish I did not remember:

Nothing comes from nothing
Nothing ever could
So somewhere in my youth or childhood
I must have done something good

If you are a Jesus follower and you believe this nonsense, dash back to your Bible and go directly to:

1 Cor 1:26-30: God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to abolish things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God.

Colossians 1:15-23: [Jesus] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation, for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.

Romans 4:16-23: [We] share the faith of Abraham (who is the father of all of us, as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations”), in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.

Everything comes from nothing by God’s grace.

It is the presence of God that matters, not how well you present or whether what you  present is good enough.

So did the devil write it?

I don’t know and neither do you. But so what if he did? If he didn’t write it, any one of us might be saying a similar thought in our head right now: “Maybe I did the wrong thing and that is why no one loves me” etc. The fact we are awash in such thoughts is why we need a Savior. When my clients triumph over the wicked, miserable thoughts in their heads, it is still not enough. Ultimately, we are all seeking to live in the presence of God, “who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist,” who out of great love chooses “what is low and despised.” People also call and choose like that in various gazebos — it is a wonder.

Maria von Trapp died in 2014

I hate to spoil the lovely scene. But we all know that after the kiss it will only be a decade until the Captain is dead and the von Trapp family is making a living in Vermont as struggling immigrants. Maria von Trapp was not thrilled with The Sound of Music. She thought the stage and screen stars, Mary Martin and Julie Andrews, “Were too gentle – like girls out of Bryn Mawr” (times change, eh?). Her life was tough. You might not be thrilled with how your life story looks on film, either (or how it is torn apart like in Anatomy of a Fall). Our lives are messy.

The Sound of Music certainly got that right. What a mess! Love in 2024 is a miracle, too, and yet it happens all the time. It happens even when a false line in a sweet song threatens to corrupt the whole thing. When the temptation to control the world pops into our minds, we hang on to the faith — of millions living and hundreds of millions dead, in the presence of God in Jesus,  “who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. “

There is a lot of bloom left in you, too.

When we first moved into our high-rise condo overlooking the park and the Philadelphia skyline, we were, along with all our neighbors, shut into our units by the pandemic. Not good. What’s more, our wrap-around balconies had been condemned by License and Inspection and needed to undergo a complete, expensive and LONG rehabilitation. Also not good. If situations like that, and worse, kind of resemble your life in the last few years, shut in and in need of rehab, you are not alone my friend.

Thank God things change! The pandemic was just recently declared over – although my son and my dear friends are fighting off Covid as I write, so I guess they missed the announcement. But things are generally better when it comes to the virus. What’s also exciting: our balconies were reopened last Spring, just in time for me to experiment with a new little farm I planted on them. I had plenty of new territory to plow. My daughter-in-law remarked at our New Year’s party, “These balconies are like extra rooms!” That’s really nice.

Hawaii State Flower Yellow Hawaiian Hibiscus
On the Big Island

Miracle hibiscus

I have a stories that go with each of the dear plants I have been nurturing, but in the interest of time I will just mention four that seem rather miraculous, especially the two hibiscus.

It started getting cold, so I thought I’d bring the plants inside and see if I could keep them alive until spring. They looked kind of “peak-ed” (FYI – in farm territory that means you’ve wasted away with illness until your cheek bones are pointy like mountain peaks). The hibiscus were already losing leaves, like they do when they aren’t in Hawaii.

To my surprise, when I brought them into the house to nurse them over the winter, they all got a second wind! The geranium budded. The dipladenia sent out six shoots looking for a trellis. And the hibiscus leafed out and began to bloom! My wife wondered how she was going to get rid of these plants that invaded the living room. But I was giddy with delight over late-fall blooms.

You are glad you read far enough to hear this good news, right?

Lessons from bloom to bloom

I confess, I visit these plants like they are much-loved children and attend to their buds and shoots with tender interest. So they have been central icons for my meditation. I am writing to share my revelations with you.

First, I did not know my 21st floor balconies are, in fact, more like Tibetan steppes than a Narberth backyard. I thought it was a perfect place for a farm. But if you saw my tomatoes you’d know something was very wrong. The plants baked in sun amplified by window reflection. They were rocked by unobstructed wind. Storms blasted them. They got dried out faster than I watered them (and then I went to Spain). It was very stressful for them!

It dawned on me my friends and family look like they have been on the balcony for a couple of years. Like I thought of my balconies, the world kind of looked like it should be a hospitable place. But there was virus, economic upheaval, riots, new wars, all sorts of tyrants — big and small, and unpredictable weather. A lot of us have very small tomatoes, spiritually speaking, and our leaves are about gone. My plants got small and tried to survive, so did many of my loved ones.

Opal Red Vining Dipladenia - Container
Diplandenia

Second, I did not know that moving the plants a few feet into my condo terrarium would create an environment conducive to a miracle. Those hibiscus did not need much of an excuse to let loose with some flowers; Lord, they wanted to bloom! And I thought the trellis I made for the stunted dipladenia looked silly it was so big. But now the tendrils are reaching up into the nothing above it. I think the farm still needs more experimentation. But I can see how resilient the plants are if they are given a chance.

My friends are like that too. I am thinking about three people, in particular, who had a classically terrible pandemic: lost jobs, went off the wagon, or went broke. But they are budding these days. One of them is starting on something that looks more like him than the other career ever did. They ended up in unexpected territory and started noticing unexpected growth. There is absolutely hope. I’m a bit shocked about how good I feel right now myself!

Rest in God’s presence

My recent guide, John O’Donohue, keeps reopening my mind to the reality that instead of frittering away my sleepless nights worrying about my friends and family, my frayed connections and threatening circumstances, I need to remain at rest in LOVE. The creation is friendly; look at it. Slow down. Let things develop. Suffer. Recover. Explore. Fail. Die well. Be resurrected.

The other night when I was lapsing into being a Christian and my spiritual cheeks began to plump up, I remembered a song we sang at my best friend’s funeral after he died in a plane crash when he was in his early thirties. My part in the funeral was to lead the singing for this very large crowd from the very large Assemblies of God church where we had worked together. I had never led such a big group, so I was terrified of looking foolish. I had said I’d do it because I’d do anything for Rick, not realizing what it would be like to lead in someone’s funeral I deeply loved (and still miss!). But the moment turned out to be a wonder, one of those thin places you remember when you need to find another one.

The other night, I needed that favorite song of his  and the experience of the moment we sang it at his funeral. When we sang it then, I remember the shocking feeling of God’s presence orienting me (and surely everyone else) right into the center of the Lord’s great love. I felt, “Rick is OK. We are OK even though we feel all the things we are feeling.” It was the first hint I got that goodness and grief are not mutually exclusive.

It is a simple, might be less-than-true, sort-of-sentimental song — and that made no difference. It was Rick’s song, our song, that moment’s song and the singing of it was truer than any words could convey:

Surely the presence of the Lord is in the place.
I can feel His mighty power and His grace.
I can feel the brush of angels’ wings; I see glory on each face.
Surely the presence of the Lord is in this place. [People still sing it.]

It was as if I’d been moved just a few feet into God’s living room. I felt the bloom coming, in spite of grief, fear and everything else swirling around in that room and in my soul.

In our DNA, spiritual and physical, love is waiting to bloom. There are not too many places or moments in which that blooming is unlikely to happen. The Spirit of the Lord is in us and around us. We are suffused with Love, even when we are sick, unhappy, stupid, or somebody put us on the balcony in the burning sun, or forgot to water us.

I may need to learn that again tomorrow, when I am surprised by tiny tomatoes. But I keep getting better at learning reality — and I at least expect another opportunity for learning to arise, just like all the other opportunities have sprung out of strange songs and unlikely situations. There are always a lot more thin places than I know about before I really need to find one. Then I stumble into one and realize again: there is absolutely hope. You’ve got some bloom in you.

Top Ten Posts of 2023

2023

Group communication “sad?” Try on some Virginia Satir.
My new group reminded me of two things Virginia Satir taught me: 1) Tell your own story, 2) Be aware of your communication style.

Slander divides: Six ways to overcome it
Trump has unleashed a slanderfest. If it threatenes to swallow you, what are some things you can do? I’ve needed to try a few myself!

The Upside-down Apocalypse: Power fantasies be damned
My acquaintance, Jeremy Duncan, wrote an intriguing commentary on Revelation that makes so much sense I wanted to add my review to advertise it.

A call to prayer: Frodo and Sza on Mt. Doom
The dialogue Frodo has with Sam and Gollum on Mt. Doom is just like what is happening in us (and Sza).

The Spirit of God is Praying for You
Forget cetrainty. Prayer is all about discerning the presence of God who is constantly praying for us, who desires to be with us and hopes to see us flourish.

The Sad History of Christians Co-opted by the Powerful
The good things Jesus creates and recreates in the world are always threatened by some power that wants to co-opt them or just eliminate their alternativity.

The Common Emotion Wheels Need Unpacking
The emotion wheel charts imply emotions just happen in us, they are built in, “it is what it is.” I not only think we make meaning of our thoughts and feelings, I think we make choices that create them and heal them.

Beyond Trauma and Resilience Is Love
Psalm 139 has always been a good reminder, a symbolic representation, of what we all know in our deepest hearts beyond our brokenness. We were created in love.

I am Disconnected: Why? Can I change?
A perfect storm of troubles has atomized the country and wicked people are capitalizing on our disconnection to seize power and keep us divided, as they historically do in such circumstances.  What should we do?

The Wonder of Being Saved: A collection of Ways
Nobody in The Whale wanted to be saved. If you do, there are many ways to get there and stay there.

2022

FFF #17 — Brendon Grimshaw and his Seychelles wonder
I loved being in solidarity with the Fridays for the Future climate strikers.

The church in the rearview mirror
While on retreat I get some vision for my future that might help you move on, too.

I believe in you: I’m rarely talking about me
My 50th reunion gives me a lot to love about the community I have.

Jesus gives 5 ways to endure the shame: Kansans lead the way 
The first followers of Jesus would applaud the declarations of independence from corrupt Christianity some people are proclaiming.

Should I forgive them if they never offer an apology? 
Forgiveness is hard under all circumstances. When reconciliation is unlikely, it is even harder.

“How I Got Over:” Mahalia Jackson helps us do 2022
I have been singing with Mahalia all year. She did, indeed, help me get over.

The new movement of the Spirit takes lament, commitment, action
Time with the Jesus Collective inspires me to move with the Spirit now.

Overwhelm: The feeling and what we can do about it
The word of the year might be “overwhelm.”  Better to name it than just wear it.

Three reasons the Trump effect is not over yet
The elements of the Trump effect are not going away too soon. The wickedness has a “trickle down” impact.

In this uncertain now: Who are you Lord and who am I?
I have had a tough couple of years in a few ways. How about you? Who are you and who is God now?

Top ten posts from the past — many of them read more than 2023’s

The Pregnable Fortress    

We invite each other to write a Christmas story every year. Here is mine from 2016.

John did not like his new home very much. He thought he should like his aunt and uncle, but he didn’t. And he was quite sure his mother’s sister and her husband did not like him very much either. And it was almost Christmas. And mom used to like Christmas before she disappeared after Dad apparently died.

He still did not quite understand what happened. There was talk about bad heroin and angry phone calls about being a terrible mother. He stood in his aunt’s kitchen one time and listened while she walked up and down the hall yelling. She stopped and looked at him blankly when she came around the corner. He walked silently out the back door.

That cold afternoon, he began to build his fortress of solitude.

He had seen one in an old Superman movie and wanted to fly into the ice and hide there. He was already someplace in the wilderness, still not used to the noiseless nights in the mountains after growing up with sirens and voices in the dark.

They had not told him there was a property line, so he assumed the forest spreading out behind him was a safe playground for a ten-year-old. He stepped around prickly bushes and over fallen trees until he came to a gully and a log that was just right to sit on. Without too much thinking, he began to make a fortress out of fallen branches right there.

After a couple of hours he had a roof and space enough to feel like he had a little house. He discovered he was not out of earshot when his aunt finally called him to find his way back to the house in the dusk.

Everyone in the house was always mad or crying — and irritated with his silence. They called it sulking. He called it nothing, as he sat at dinner eating little and closing in further — like his fortress in the woods.

Soon it had walls through which he could barely see. He took some trash bags from the closet and made it so rain did not get in so much. He put more branches over them so it looked to him like a big bush and he was a bushman, far off in the desert where no one could find him.

But someone did find him.

He went into his fortress one afternoon and turned on his flashlight to decide where to put a piece of foam he had found in the neighbor’s trash. On one of the flat rocks he had brought in for a table there was a cookie and a note. “You better wear orange or you are going to get shot.”

He panicked. Someone knew about his hideout! Someone had been in his fortress. Someone was going to shoot him. There were other people in this forest and one of them could fit through his doorway.

Maybe someone was spying on him right now! He carefully drew back the towel he found in the rag box that served as his door, peeked his head over the edge of the gully and looked around. He wasn’t sure who to be afraid of more: whoever was going to shoot him or whoever was watching him – maybe they were the same person.

He saw no one in the quickly-darkening December light. The forest was smoky and wet, and suddenly he felt very cold and alone. He went into his hut and wondered whether to tear it all down and give up. He ate the cookie.

The next day school was even more annoying than ever. He had been in his class just a short time. Being the new kid was bad enough. But the teacher would not leave him alone. The fact that she felt sorry for him made him feel things and he did not want to feel.

Then his classmates became emboldened and started questioning him. When he answered with one word or angrily told them to go away, one boy mocked him with a loud voice. “Oh, so we have a baby in our class. It’s the fourth grade, baby.” He was glad it was the last day before the break.

That day, when he went to his fortress, he did not know what to expect. He wore an orange vest that was too big for him that he found in the shed with the fishing poles. He drew back his towel and shined his flashlight around the shelter, finding his rock table. Nothing. He lay down on his foam bed and went cold. The darkness seemed to wrap around him like some damp, new skin. He closed his eyes and let it take him.

The next day he did not wear his vest. He did not care if he got shot. When he got to his fortress, he almost kicked it. He wanted to take a big rock and throw it through the roof. He wanted to hurt something or someone. But he didn’t. He just crawled in with a grunt of irritation and slumped down on his foam and looked at the dim light seeping through the spaces between his branches, filtering under the trash bags.

Before long, his eyes were acclimated enough to see the contours of his wooden cave. On his rock table was a sparkle. He turned his flashlight on it and saw a small angel ornament made of thin gold metal. There was another note on top of the first one: same paper, same writing. “This place needs a little Christmas. Hang me up.”

He was not sure whether to be terrified or elated. Someone was waiting for him to leave before they invaded his space. They knew about him but he did not know about them. They liked him.

That night he ate a piece of chicken. His aunt cried. She suddenly got up and left the table with her napkin on her nose. He silently looked at his uncle. His uncle gave him another piece.

It was almost Christmas and dad was still dead and mom was still gone somewhere no one would say. At his new house no one played Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer over and over. No one ever came home and acted silly and danced with him until they fell on the couch laughing and then sleeping. No one came home with little presents that never got wrapped saying, “I could not wait until Christmas when I saw this in the store.”

Instead, there was a very neat Christmas tree with white lights and ornaments that were all red. The packages were all wrapped with the same paper. He avoided that room and usually went to bed after dinner unless they made him watch TV in the den.

Mostly he went to his fortress of solitude.

There were no further angels, just the one hanging at the very top of the ceiling from a twig. He would shine his flashlight on it and watch the reflections. He knew very little about real angels or even if there were real angels. But he began to believe in this one. He even talked to it sometimes. One time he whispered, “I hate everyone and they hate me.” The angel was silent. He shouted it, “I hate them and it doesn’t even matter!” The angel did not reply. But he did not get the feeling it did not care.

The next day was Christmas Eve, mom’s favorite day of the year. People were coming to his uncle’s house. He had to take a bath and wear special clothes his aunt bought. He had to be introduced to a bunch of people he did not know, to whom he did not speak or even smile. His uncle told him he had to do it before they got there and he was too afraid to resist. But inside he wanted to scream, “Do not touch me!”

Before long they drank enough wine to be loud and unaware, so he quietly slipped out the back door and headed into the deep dark of the forest. He took a blanket and wrapped himself against the cold.

His flashlight made a beam that caught the eyes of a deer off in the distance. He did not care if an animal got him. Just as he arrived at his fortress he heard a crack nearby. He froze with fear. Then the sound of hooves and running — he wildly threw his light toward the noise. He thought he saw a flash of orange, but he could not be sure. By then the sound was far away.

He climbed into his dark, dark house and shut the door. He lay on his foam and shivered under his blanket. Dad. Mom. Mom. Mom. Alone. Alone. Cold. Crying.

He had not cried at his father’s graveside memorial. It was chaotic and felt embarrassing. And people kept shuffling him from here to there. He could barely remember what happened. The tears leaked out of the corners of his eyes. He could feel the cold streambeds on his cheeks. No sobbing. No release, just an overflow of sadness in his isolated hut, surrounded by fearsome, unknown things.

He lay there a long time listening to his breathing settle down until he could feel himself exhale warm clouds that were already cold by the time they settled on his nose.

He wondered if he had really seen orange in the woods and looked at his stone table. There was a piece of candy. At least he thought it was candy. He had never seen anything like it. A third note was on top of the others, “Jesus will be born tonight. God sees us. Have a sweet.”

He lay back down and set the sweet on his chest. He wanted to eat it but he didn’t. He felt like he would spoil his appetite for anger if he ate that candy. He felt like he would betray his dead father and his lost mother if he sat in his solitude, free of them, eating sweets. And he knew they would like to share his sweet. So he fell asleep that way.

He awoke with a start and sat up, disoriented. People were shouting his name. He could see light beams crossing his walls. He realized he had fallen asleep in his fortress, which was about to be discovered. He lunged for the door, ready to meet them before they got too close.

Before he could leave he remembered the candy. It had been on his chest. He frantically shined his flashlight on the floor, threw the blanket on the table, stirred leaves. He was desperate.

Finally, he spotted it, just a little brown thing that looked much like the other brown things in his fortress of solitude. He sat on his heals for a few seconds, kneeling in the dirt, breathing hard, candy cupped in his hands, head bowed.

He stuffed it in his mouth and bolted through his towel.