Category Archives: Mostly the arts

The wonder of being saved: A collection of ways

I’ve been improving my EMDR skills and enjoying the process of helping people install “safe places” to which they can return when the trauma they are processing feels overwhelming. We also imagine nurturing, wise, or protective people who can be called upon to help in the lonely process of bringing up dreadful past experiences —  trauma stuck in the deep parts of the brain and then inexplicably triggered and replayed as if they were happening in the present.  Feeling safe is strangely uncommon, it seems. Welcoming new feelings of being nurtured, helped or protected, or imagining those feelings if they are hard to recall, can be very useful for healing.

The wonder of being saved

It is not easy to be healed. Many people have despaired for a long time of ever being saved from what troubles them. When we watched The Whale the other day, Brendan Fraser’s character really did not want to be saved. And his long lost daughter did not want to be saved by him. The rain-drenched missionary who came in with salvation was soundly berated. Even after the unexpected forgiveness of his parents came through, he was still vilified. The movie is like Captain Ahab pursuing the whale of personal meaning and Moby Dick tangling him up in his own futility.

The lessons of the movie made me wonder what people are learning these days. If The Whale is indicative, they can’t be saved and they can’t save. But they don’t have the resources to save themselves. All they can do is avoid the pain hard, even when they thirst for meaning. Trauma therapists all over the world are working overtime to get some tools into their hands. Quite often their collaboration saves them. Just don’t tell the philosophers of the day such a thing is happening.

As the movie ended, I had to stop and thank God for saving me. For some reason, from an early age, I never thought it was reasonable to think I could save myself. The numbers just did not add up – what was required overwhelmed that with which I was equipped. Just before I typed that sentence a person texted me and reminded me of a lunch we had 20 years ago, which I completely do not remember — don’t even have a face. But they buzzed in to connect because of a piece of advice I gave them when they were in college. They never forgot that, given the way they work, they would never have faith if they just approached it intellectually. They needed the grace of God in Jesus.

I had to stop and thank God for saving me. I was reminded that the skills I am teaching people to help unravel the trauma that ties them up are skills I was taught by God and his people long before I knew about EMDR, or psychotherapy for that matter. As I remembered all the ways God has provided me safety and security, I came up with something of a memoir of the riches of faith I’ve received. I keep seeing how they not only work in conjunction with psychotherapy, they work much deeper. So often they have been blessing me long before I become aware of them.

The ways of being saved

I thank God for the healing presence of compassionate psychotherapists.  I am grateful even when they act like they discover things God-fearing people have always known, then codify them like they belong to science, and then sell them. They encourage me to see what I have been given in new ways as they repackage old truths that are new to their clients. I’ve learned so many of their lists of “tools” I decided to make one of my own. These some of are the ways I have been saved and I am being saved.

Breathing – Deliberate breathing/mindfulness is central to reducing anxiety and becoming attentive to our capacity to develop. It may have been Father Keating who opened up this practice to me. Now, every day, I spend some time centering and opening my heart by first  attending to my breathing. At this point, I am usually sensing my place in God’s presence as soon as I intentionally inhale.

Imagining – I love how EMDR practices require people to use their renewed imagination as a tool for overcoming their trouble.  That was a central element of my prayer in my thirties when I needed to be healed and encouraged to grow.

Recalling people, places, experiences – People overcoming trauma search their souls for anything that can be a resource. Sometimes they have drops of water in the desert and it has to be enough for now. When I look back on my life of faith there are hundreds of people to call on, living and dead, who have made my way sure, I am even confident about the future! I have countless experiences of faith, hope and love to call on. It is all an amazing collection of riches.

Wildly good ways

I decided to list ways of being saved because even some of my spiritual direction clients do not know about them. And really, why would they? The atmosphere in which we live gives birth to movies like The Whale in which people are stuck, stuck, stuck and defending their right to be hopeless and self-destructive. But even now, there are wildly good ways to exprerience the life beyond our ways.

My place: Tomorrow I will sit down in the chair in which I pray, study and meditate and enjoy God’s presence. Maybe I will decide to taken my kneeling bench out and kneel before my icon wall where significant art and symbols come around me like nurturing, wise friends and teachers.

Beads: At some point I may take up my new Anglican prayer beads and pray through my own “rosary,” remembering family, friends and clients.

Journal: At some point I will take out my journal, note my thanks, note the signs of God in the past day as well as acknowledge my sins and then ponder the events and challenges of the new day with God. I might sing.

Direction: Last week I visited my spiritual director and had the benefit of a kind mirror questioning my story and pulling me toward the guidance he could see. I also enjoyed the company of men in my new spiritual direction group as they inspired me with their sincerity and vulnerability.

Retreat: This week I hope to take a retreat. These experiences are central disciplines that have marked my life in the Spirit for decades. Dedicated time alone with God gives me space to hear and rest and hope in new directions. Part of what I will do is remember what has happened during the last quarter and see how I have been accompanied.

Church meetings: Being part of the church meetings and enjoying group worship used to be my central weekly discipline as well as a way to appreciate the historic Christian calendar. I am in between congregations at the moment. But slowly, much larger ways to be the church as well as much smaller ways are proving satisfying.

My brief listing of the riches of my life in the Spirit is hardly about all my accomplishments. I made the effort to show up, of course, but mostly I responded to the whispers and wooing of God’s grace. Beyond the traumas of the world and my own injured sense of self, there was God providing security and reinforcing love. When I meet up with people who have not experienced these riches yet, I can’t judge them. My journey can’t be explained and theirs doesn’t need to be either. I wonder at my blessings and can feel how deep the darkness would be if I lived without the ways of salvation.

The blessings lurking in elementary school and behind the screen

As I recall it, the closest my grandson’s winter concert got to noting the meaning of Christmas was singing the song “Count Your Blessings.” The school managed to accurately describe Hannukah and Kwanzaa, but missed the incarnation of Jesus — unless “Jingle Bells” (by the much-loved and enthusiastic kindergarten) is enough of a hint for you. (Honestly, I probably could have discerned the presence of Spirit in anything those 5-year-olds sang. I shouted for an encore.)

I was counting my blessings when I left the school, despite the sting of witnessing Jesus being despised. Pointedly ignoring Jesus makes Christian supremacy that much more obvious, it seems to me. Nevertheless, I have not stopped singing “Count Your Blessings” in my head, which is not a bad thing. I even recorded it for my sister so she could enjoy remembering our mother singing it.

Micky and Minnie nostalgic for their more authentic past — Kinkade Studio

The lyrics matter

When you think about most popular American songs very long, they tend to fall apart. But think about them we must, or they might help us fall apart. So here we go.

The chorus of this little song is what got it into the elementary holiday concert of 2022. The kids’ great grandparents heard it first in 1954.

When I’m worried and cannot sleep
I count my blessings instead of sheep
And I fall asleep counting my blessings.

Sweet and comforting, isn’t it? The country had experienced some hard years. And those lyrics have some practical value don’t they? They are somewhat psychologically and spiritually sound.

The idea of “counting sheep” to get to sleep was purportedly donated to European culture by shepherds who had to keep a count of their sheep entering the pen. It was boring enough to put you to sleep – or so became the popular thought. A brave sheep will jump a fence under about four feet, and then the followers will jump, one by one, which is also mesmerizing. In the 1800’s, the image worked its way into plays and such, and became a cliché. It is probably better to imagine something like waves on the beach or a soothing symphony orchestra. But counting blessings might do the trick. It is surely better than piling up worries! So many of us sleep so poorly, we could use some tricks.

Counting stuff might not help you sleep

The American song problems arise when we get to the other part of the chorus and the verse.

When my bankroll is getting small
I think of when I had none at all
And I fall asleep counting my blessings

I think about a nursery
And I picture curly heads
And one by one I count them
As they slumber in their beds.

I am not sure the teacher should have resurrected this old chestnut. But that’s undoubtedly because I follow Jesus and don’t like how his holiday has turned into a shopping spree all over the world. When the kids got further in this song, they found out the “blessings” are all about money and stuff. And it kind of looks like children are among the “possessions.” This seems in line with the American sense of well-being: “I think about when I was poor, but now I have stuff; about when I was childless but now I’m not.”

I’m not sure how the poor, unmarried and childless Jesus fits into all of that! Not to mention the third graders! So stick with the first stanza up there! Otherwise, going to sleep kind of depends on having enough stuff, which very few of us are good at having, even when we’re as rich as Carrie Fisher.

[BTW, Carrie Fisher (AKA Princess Leia) is the daughter of Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher. Fisher had the most-selling rendition of “Count Your Blessings” in 1954 right after Irving Berlin published it].

 

There is meaning behind the idealization

Irving Berlin, the Russian secular Jew, was married to an Irish Catholic heiress for 63 years. He wrote “Count Your Blessings” for the movie White Christmas (named after the #1 best selling single ever), a redux of Holiday Inn, which both fenced off the idea of a godless winter holiday. White Christmas was nominated for an academy award in 1955.

The parents of Berlin’s wife were opposed to their interfaith marriage and wouldn’t speak to the couple for years until they lost their second child a month after he was born, on Christmas Day. So you can see the lyric came out of his own rags-to-riches and terrible pain. Berlin said the song came from his doctor telling him to stop belly-aching and count his blessings.

The movie stars who sang it to each other in the movie were Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney (George Clooney’s aunt and Debbie Boone’s mother-in-law). Their stories kind of undermine the sentiment with which Berlin probably wrote the song, because they didn’t or couldn’t perform it authentically. But they could perform the idea of it. Their lives demonstrate just how committed we Americans can be to presenting an image packed with idealized meaning (like “the holidays”), even down to being our own brand, becoming an ideal, public “self.”

Bing Crosby was an amazing showman but was probably an even better entrepreneur and visionary. His unique voice catapulted him to fame from nowhere and he took it from there. He pioneered sound equipment (and was instrumental in stealing advanced devices from Germany after WW2) which made him sound even better. He might be the first person to perfect a personal “brand.” His “Bingness” made him even richer and more famous when it was translated into big movies like White Christmas and Going My Way. In his “on the road” movies with Bob Hope he was the smooth, calm, connective , all-American guy to Hope’s goofier and more accident-prone guy. It sold. His kids said they wished some of that “Bingness” would have come home with him, where he was a distant, driven loner. It was mostly acting.

Rosemary Clooney also recorded the song and it was well received. But her own story belied its gentle confidence even more than Bing’s. She was a traumatized child who escaped to Hollywood. She married Jose Ferrer and birthed five children in five years. She divorced him over his affairs and married him again, then divorced him over his affairs again. She then waited thirty years before marrying again, all the while dependent on tranquilizers and sleeping pills. After Bobby Kennedy was killed, she had a nervous breakdown onstage and entered psychoanalysis for eight years. Always a heavy smoker, she died of lung cancer. She presented herself as a fulfilled mother, and she did love mothering. But the “Rosemaryness” on screen masked the trauma of her childhood and the ongoing instability of her life.

I think the stories of these people are fascinating. So is your story. But theirs has quite a lesson for me. In the U.S. especially, the screen lures us into what is ideal. I don’t mean fake, since it has truth and love in it, but it is never true to what is. The song “Count Your Blessings” ends up with sweetness rather than actually being sweet. It is strange, isn’t it? It is a song about vulnerability sung by people who can’t seem to manage their own vulnerability, at least in real life. So in that sense it becomes an anti-vulnerability song we are supposed to swallow even if we don’t have the blessings. We use it to salve the vulnerability we can’t face when the lights are on.

We may have a little “Aww. That’s sweet” feeling (and then immediately mock it) but we don’t have the real sense of resting in real comfort. Accepting that idealized sweetness as real seems to actually blunt our receptors for truly being blessed. Maybe it is comfort porn. The love we get  in real life is not as ideal as what characters are having on screen (or Instagram).

“Count Your Blessings” is only 2:42 minutes long! In that brief time we get a little taste of blessingness performed with Bingness and Rosemaryness, which I kind of like. Like I said, it is a pleasant earworm. But I would hate to live off it! By this time, the postmoderns have effectively deconstructed all that and exposed every dark underbelly available, anyway, so we probably get only a minute’s worth of the sweetness. What is left?

Maybe people will go with a relationship with God through Jesus, or though whatever preliminary means they discern. The real stuff is better. And it’s left when all the idealizations have been exposed as such.

A psalm for St. Stephen’s Day

Stoning of Saint Stephen, altarpiece of San Giorgio Maggiore, Venice, by Jacopo & Domenico Tintoretto

Oh, Stephen. You would not shut up.
People skip your chapter in Acts
because it is too long.
They can tell you don’t care;
you just don’t care if you get killed,
get killed like Jesus, your mentor,
sure you will see heaven open up if you die
just like he rose before you.

Oh, we want you people to shut up.
We already have your death day in a dead week,
overshadowed by new fat and football games.
We can’t even remember who all those Steves
are named after and haven’t read Acts in ages,
or we would see all the believers who said nothing
while you were getting heated up then stoned cold.

Oh, they wanted you to shut up.
They dreaded what anyone with half a brain
could see coming, saw rocks on their heads.
They knew you were sealing eternity for thousands,
messing up car payments and frightening Mom.
They regretted not having things in order:
a go bag, a will, a trust for the kids,
A DNR at Jerusalem General.
Soon Philip would be transporting
and talking to the Queen of Sheba’s eunuch.
The whole world would be turning upside down
right when the kids were enjoying their new toys.

Cassidy Hutchinson would have looked at you
and suddenly her tongue would loosen.
The women who took down Weinstein
would have looked at each other and agreed,
“The risk is worth it, to infinity and beyond.”
The actor Zelenskyy would go to Bakhmut
and get a flag for Pelosi, who stood up for gays
when it could still cost a career.

Just when you think martyrs are in species collapse
a Chinese phone mechanic decides enough is enough
or Salvadoran women end a war.
Most recent weeks, our faith ecosystem
feels flattened by a bomb cyclone of unbelief,
a blizzard of Blizzards, a terror of inflation or Elon Musk,
an Amazon full of cattle delivering a heatwave overnight.
We avoid it all hard; it’s our last superpower.

Then some Stephen stands up, won’t shut up.
John Lewis gets his head bashed in
and we reflexively hold our own again.
But his courage, her courage, that courage of whoever you are
ripples across the stony, stoned landscape,
and I find myself ready to visit a jail,
talking to strangers I can barely understand,
looking for a way to fuel lost causes, transported,
writing new chapters that might not be read,
risking being dismissed as archaic,
irrelevant, unprofitable, out of order.
Oh Stephen, you will get us all killed,
or you’ll get the world recreated.

A bus full of dogs — Part 4

Every year I write a Christmas story to share with the family. This year I decided to “go Dickens” and publish it in installments. So here is part four of four parts for the fourth Sunday of Advent. I hope you enjoy it. 

Part One – Joseph wanted to sit in his big new room and toss shoes, but mom and dad were dragging him into Christmas because the grandparents were coming – and expecting a story.
Part Two – The Bible and his Canterbury story open him up to respond positively to Gabe’s invitation. Then the dog eats his story and his sister completes hers.
Part Three — Joseph has a terrible day but goes to the party anyway where he meets a nice girl. Then mom and dad show up.

Joseph had a long ride home and an even longer night. His mother was beside herself when he could not be found. And when she got into the safety of her own home, Dad could no longer restrain her out-of-body experience. Joseph had very little to say. He was caught red-handed and was fully humiliated. His parents picked him up at the party, which someone was sure to have seen. So much for Mary Jo and so much for ever being invited somewhere again. At the moment, his mother’s distress meant very little, since nothing bad had really happened. He was fine, sober, and back in custody.

He slept like a rock. But he woke up with a start before anyone screamed or nudged him. He looked around his room by the light of the neighbor’s floodlight and could not immediately remember where he was. It all seemed a bit new. He got up and took a shower, which he never did in the morning because he never had time. He got dressed and penitentially opened up another box to unload.

Soon Dad came in and Joseph looked at him with a with an almost-smile, like a tentative dog. His story-eating dog had followed him up the stairs and was much less tentative. He scratched her ears while Dad said, “I’m taking the day off and so are you. You are in English class all day. Finish your story and bring it to me before dinner.”

He could not remember much about his previous, dog-eaten story. At this point it seemed pretty dumb anyway. But anything he came up with today was bound to be dumb because he was dumb and everyone was stupid and his whole life was stupid. Nevertheless, he knew his father was going to make this work for his mother, who was apparently forbidden to talk to him just now, which was good. So he decided since nothing was going to work out anyway, he might as well just do whatever. By 3:30 he had two pages to give to Dad. He fell asleep. It was already dark when Dad came in. “JoJo wake up,” he gently whispered and nudged him.

He rolled over and told him, “It’s on the desk.”

So Dad went to the desk, sat down and started to read. “I am not sure I can see the pencil that clearly” — which meant he couldn’t read his handwriting or figure out what was written over the eraser smudges. “So I am going to read it out loud so you can correct me.” It was awkward not to get yelled at.

Joseph said, “OK,” took a breath, and sat on the edge of his bed. Dad read with as much expression as he could.

A Bus Full of Dogs

It was the second-to-last day before Christmas break and the bus was loading up for the rowdy ride to school. When the driver opened the door, dogs burst through in their school uniforms. The uniform fit German Shepherds well. Bull Dogs looked like bulldogs in it. And nothing fit Chihuahuas. Pomeranians refused to wear it at all and just came in naked fur, thinking they looked marvelous, which always got them in trouble, but you try to tell them what to do.

One dog got on the bus last, as usual. Nobody knew what kind of dog he was and neither did he. He was one of those dogs. He had giant paws from some ancestor and a skinny hindquarter from another. His uniform fit him OK, but nobody cared because they never really looked at him anyway.

Jesus shut the door behind him. Jesus was driving the bus because it was Christmas and he wanted the ride to be special.

The last dog had to sit by the drooling St. Bernard no one else would sit by because she was too big and could not resist licking. She did not resist this day either.

The dogs were very excited for the second-to-last day. Several had bits of Christmas paper stuck on their mouths where they had already been gnawing on presents. Others had cinnamon on their breath from stealing cookies off cooling racks.

Who knows how these things happen? But at one point a Pit Bull leaped from his seat in the back of the bus and latched on to a Poodle’s ear. She shrieked with such terror that everyone started barking and other dogs started biting. A Rottweiler pulled out a sword and stabbed a Russian Wolfhound. A Bloodhound and a Huskie began to howl together.

The bus began to swerve as Jesus tried to see what was going on in his big rearview mirror. He slammed on the brakes and all the dogs tumbled somewhere and looked up at him, dazed. He stood at the front of the bus facing them with his arms raised. “Peace. Be still.”

Every dog who saw him had eyes that swirled around like the teacups in Fantasyland. There was no more barking. It was like they got a shot of something before an operation.

The only dog that didn’t see him was the last dog. He was laying under a seat, half-conscious. The giant St. Bernard had immediately pounced on him when the fight started. He thought she might have broken his ribs. He tried to get somewhere, but someone grabbed on to his tail. Just as he jerked it out of their jaws, he head-butted a Pug who was flying overhead. He fell to the floor, dazed, and crawled under a seat.

That’s where he was when the bus stopped and Jesus said, “You can get off. Merry Christmas.” As the dogs filed off obediently, tails between their legs, Jesus kept saying, “Father forgive them because they don’t know they’re barking up the wrong tree,”  which their own fathers had already warned them not to do.

The last dog was too afraid and too dizzy to get off the bus. He was afraid of Jesus too. So he just stayed under the seat. When Jesus took the bus back to the bus lot, he was still there when he locked the door. He got up and peaked around the little barrier by the steps to look at him walking away like Gandalf, talking to the sky and going wherever Jesus goes. He went back under his seat because he didn’t know what else to do. He went to sleep.

The next day it was still dark when he heard the bus door open. He got startled and hit his head on the bottom of the seat. Jesus heard it ding and said, “Who’s there?” The last dog said nothing. “I can hear you breathing,” Jesus said. “I basically know everything, you know.” The last dog stayed hidden. “I can smell you. I know exactly how you smell.” The last dog looked at his paws and shivered. Jesus got down on all fours and went sniffing along the bus floor until he got to his row. He slowly turned his head and looked him right in the eyes. “At last, I have found you, Wonderdog,” he said.

For some reason, the Last Dog stopped shivering and his head stopped hurting.

 “You must be hungry,” Jesus said. “I made cinnamon rolls for 5000 dogs one time. You probably heard about that.”   

 The End

Dad sat for a minute and breathed kind of funny. It felt like a long time. He rubbed his eye. Joseph thought he might have to write the story over.

He finally looked up and said, “I hope this is the first of many stories you tell, JoJo. You are quite a wonder dog, son.”

 

WANT TO HEAR ME READ THE WHOLE THING?

 

 

The third week of Advent: The joy of being named free

In a Covid haze, I watched the Jan Zizka movie on Prime (titled Medieval in the U.S. and apparently titled Warrior of God somewhere else). It is based on the early life of the Czech national hero, Jan Zizka (1360-1424) who was finally taken down by plague but never lost a battle. It is the most expensive Czech movie ever made. The film is dedicated to “everyone who fights for freedom.” [It is interesting to see the trailer in Czech and you will not miss an ounce of meaning].

I’ve studied Medieval European history for decades and still found the politics of the movie incomprehensible. Nevertheless, despite the gore, I enjoyed a view of the time when Jan Hus stirred up what became the Protestant Reformation of the church in Europe. Zizka starts out as a mercenary faithful to God and his king and ends up the populist leader of an innovative peasant army who says, “Kings may be chosen by God, but they still make the mistakes of men.”

Such revolutionary thoughts unleash 200 years of death and destruction as kings defend their rights and peasants get some rights. I don’t know if the U.S. founders would claim Zizka as an ancestor, but his spirit of “fighting for freedom” is a sacred thought in America. Unfortunately, the “survival of the fittest” built into that fighting (and into Medieval fighting) has left the country dominated by petty kings and warlords like Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, the wannabe Trump, and that guy at L&I who think their best interests equals the common good. We are still taught that sacrificing lives for the “freedom” to fight for freedom is a holy act.

A better way

Maybe Zizka would have kept maturing if he would have lived a lot longer until the Anabaptists came along to free themselves from the bondage of competing for the state’s approval to be alive. They are the logical ancestors of what he was fighting for.

In the Schleitheim Confession of 1527, my spiritual ancestors, the Anabaptists say,

From all these things we shall be separated and have no part with them for they are nothing but an abomination, and they are the cause of our being hated before our Christ Jesus, who has set us free from the slavery of the flesh and fitted us for the service of God through the Spirit whom he has given us.

Therefore there will also unquestionably fall from us the unchristian, devilish weapons of force — such as sword, armor and the like, and all their use (either) for friends or against one’s enemies — by virtue of the Word of Christ. “Resist not (him that is) evil.”

The Anabaptists take Jesus at his word and example and excuse themselves from the constant fighting. As a result, both sides attack and persecute them. But they do manage to keep hope alive for the freedom given to those whom “the Son has set free.”

The Angel Appearing to the Shepherds — Thomas Cole (1833-4)

Americans are still divided as to what the word freedom actually means. When John Lewis called on us to “let freedom ring” he was calling for emancipation and equality. Alongside that call there has always been a cry for “liberty” which consists of the private enjoyment of one’s life and goods. The latter fear the emancipated who might elect majorities which might make them share their property. I think those two approaches to freedom can be balanced, but then what would we have to fight about?

I began thinking thoughts of freedom because of several Advent experiences came my way last week which demonstrrated the Lord’s better way.

The first had to do with the song O Holy Night. I was going to record it on Smule and scrolled through various karaoke renditions. I did not realize that many recent versions truncate the second verse, which is all about emancipation. They just use the second line:

Chains shall he break for the slave is our brother
and in his name all oppression will cease.

They cut out the first line:

Truly he taught us to love one another
his law if love and is gospel in peace.

They could just be shortening an overlong song (they skip the third verse completely), while retaining one of the most dramatic lines. But I think they might also have erased that pesky love and peace in honor of freedom fighting. People don’t love Jesus but they certainly love their rights.

A second experience was hearing about my friend totally immobilized by sciatica. He could not even get out of bed without severe pain. Yet he wrote me a note to tell me he had experienced the most profound sense of God’s presence and joy he had ever known while confined to his bed. He felt freed from all sorts of burdens he had been carrying. The experience completely confounded him since he was so bound physically and so freed spiritually. But he completely welcomed it. He was overjoyed to be free of the past.

Freedom is the experience of life in the Spirit. It is not the result of fighting everyone else to dominate them or to be free of them. The endless fight for justice is real but it will never be conclusive, as our Anabaptist forebears discerned. I would like to take on their attitude as they sought to take on Christ’s

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,

who, though he existed in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be grasped,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
assuming human likeness. (Phil. 2)

The Bible does not condone slavery. But does say the enslaved are free in Christ and the masters are mastered. Even if you are laid out with Covid or some other ailment, the joy of Christ can transcend your pain. Freedom is not something doled out by the powerful or something to be stolen from them. It is the gift of God.

The baby in the manger in Bethlehem is God emptied of her rights, taking on our bondage, and showing the way of transcendence.  “So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” How you define freedom may end up encapsulating how much of it you experience. One of the things I am learning this Advent, again, is freedom names me. In chains, in bed, diseased, despised, disempowered or empowered, Jesus sets me free and that’s enough. He calls me free and I respond when I am called. It is joy.

A Bus Full of Dogs — Part 3

Every year I write a Christmas story to share with the family. This year I decided to “go Dickens” and publish it in installments. So here is part three of four parts for the third Sunday of Advent. I hope you enjoy it. 

Pin on Cute

Part One – Joseph wanted to sit in his big new room and toss shoes, but mom and dad were dragging him into Christmas because the grandparents were coming – and expecting a story.
Part two – The Bible and his Canterbury story open him up to respond positively to Gabe’s invitation. Then the dog eats his story and his sister completes hers.

“Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god,” Joseph fumed in his overheated brain as he put on his coat and realized the sleeves were inside out from when he ripped it off the day before. His brother pointed this out gently because he knew the look.

With several “Ughs!” he fixed the coat and groaned out the door without saying good-bye. He hoped to get ahead of his brother and sister and be alone for the trudge to the bus stop. A big problem with their out-of-town house was riding the bus, which his parents found sensible since they already paid taxes for it and the world did not need an extra car trip due to global warming and, “Be sure to watch out for you sister,” etc. “Mph!” Their particular bus made stops at all the schools, from elementary to high school, since there were less people as far out as they lived. So they had to get up early and he had to have his elementary sister on his bus. And this sister intended to sit with you.

His brother and sister caught up as he stomped along the road. “What’s wrong with you?” Johanna asked.

“Ugh!” he answered.

“Was it the dog? You ran out!” his brother, Mark, offered.

“Stop talking” he grunted.

“Maybe this is about your coat,“ mused Johanna. “That happened to me once at school and Cecily Barnstable snickered in a mean way. She dropped her pencil case the other day and I said nothing. Then that cute new boy from New York picked it up and she turned all red.” Joseph let out a long groan. Fortunately, the bus came around the corner a few blocks down and they needed to run.

They got on the bus in birth order. The seats in their usual row were empty. Mark thoughtfully sat on the other side of the aisle. But Johanna decided to sit with Joseph. “Seriously? Sit with Mark.”

“I’m not supposed to get up when the bus is moving,“ she said righteously.

Two stops away, Gabe got on looking a bit frightening and strangely handsome. Very few kids looked at him directly, but very few missed him stopping by Joseph’s seat and giving him a folded up piece of notebook paper. “See you later,” he said. Then he went to the back of the bus.

Joseph did not open the note to find Gabe’s address until second period. At the awkward moment he got the paper he just thought, “You make invitations?”

Right now, he had to deal with his sister. JoJo asked, “You know Gabe? I know his sister. She’s going out of town.” Joseph put up a hand. She halted with a huff.

It was a terrible day. He wandered around like he was in the dark, periodically blinded by the light, like when he saw Miriam Parker outside General Humanities. But that was brief. All day he wondered why he was fated to be himself. “Did the dog eat my story because I let her roam? Was it punishment for being a jerk to mom? Is it because I hate JoJo? Do I have something wrong with me? Is everyone going to hate me? Am I going to end up like Gabe if I go to this party? If there is a hell, will I go to it for lying to my parents?” There was a lot going on.

By the time he got to the afternoon, he didn’t really want to go to the party. But he was embarrassed when he thought about what he would say if he didn’t go. So after school he walked fast, trying to stay off the main road all the way, a long way from school, trying to keep his mind blank. But he was also half-excited to be doing something new and wrong. The door to Gabe’s house was cracked open, so he went in.

He half-knew most of the people like he recognized most people in town. Gabe handed him a beer with a conspiratorial look that silently included, “Don’t be afraid.” So he had his first beer in his hand. He sat in a not-too-central place and started working on the nasty fist-full. About a quarter way through the can, a girl who looked quite a bit less nerdy than he felt, sat next to him with an unopened beer. Joseph was feeling unlike himself enough for an unusual word to pop into his mind: maidservant.

“My name is Mary Jo,” she said. “I’m kind of new in town. I don’t think I’ve met you yet.”

“That’s weird,” he said.  “My dad calls me JoJo and my mother’s name is Mary” And he thought, “Why did I tell her that?”

She said, “That is weird. So what’s your name?”

“Oh yeah,” he said with a slight blush. “I’m Joseph.” From then on, the party got much better. She even got him to play darts with her in the basement. He even laughed. There was a moment he even looked her in the eyes.

Right after they locked eyes, his phone started vibrating in his pocket. He got it out just in time to see the last image of his father flicker off the screen. He thought of not calling him back, since he was bussing tables and all. But his father almost never called him, so something terrible might have happened and he would miss it because he’d been drinking beer at an illegal party. He called him back just in case.

“What’s up dad?” He tried to sound busy.

“We’re outside Joseph. You need to come out.”

“You’re outside? Where?” he asked.

“Outside Gabe’s.”

“Uh. OK.” Then he prayed his second prayer in so many days, “Oh my god. Oh my god. Oh my god.”

He opened the front door barely wide enough to get through so no one inside would see them. And there they were at the end of what turned out to be a very, very long front walk. When he got to them, his fury-faced mom took a deep breath. Without a word, Dad took her hand and she deflated. “I got off a little early, so I went by the café for a cup of coffee,” he said. “Johanna thought you might be here. Their address is actually searchable. So we found you.“

That girl could really read between the lines. He got in the backseat.

A Bus Full of Dogs — Part Two

Every year I write a Christmas story to share with the family. This year I decided to “go Dickens” and publish it in installments. So here is part two of four parts for the second Sunday of Advent. I hope you enjoy it. 

In  Part One – Joseph wanted to sit in his big new room and toss shoes, but mom and dad were dragging him into Christmas because the grandparents were coming – and expecting a story.

The next morning, Joseph vaguely heard mom screaming. But he managed to block the sound out with his pillow. Dad startled him when he lightly touched his shoulder and whispered, “JoJo, get up.”

He had a love/hate relationship with the nickname JoJo. Dad could not part with it, but he felt obligated to act like he ought to. Besides, his much younger sister was named Johanna and now that little usurper was called JoJo. As with everything, she wore the name proudly.

“OK. I’m coming.” It was still dark. He was still basically asleep. He had stayed up in his new room where someone could stay up until who knows when. And since his alarm clock was still in a box, he did not know when.

The main reason he decided to stay up was to get the story out of the way. He took a while to find the Bible he had been gifted one Christmas, probably by Grandmother. He looked up the story in the index, which was nice to have, since he had no idea where to look. He got to Matthew and there were no angels in the sky as expected. So he Googled Christmas and got to  Wikipedia.

It took a while to get through article, since it had a bunch of blah blah about the solstice and such. A lot of it he had never heard of. But he did see why he needed Luke and not Matthew if he wanted shepherds and angels.

He sort of skimmed most of it. But one section on-down-a-ways (as Dad might say) caught his eye when he saw the word “riots.” He did not quite know who Puritans were — apparently stick-up-the-you-know-where-Christians, who took over England and banned Christmas in 1647.  Their opponents occupied a city called Canterbury and had a big in-your-face party full of banned traditions like roasting apples on a fire (oh yeah, that needed banning), card playing, and some dance with “plowboys” and “maidservants” that sounded kind of pornographic. All sorts of people were singing the old Christmas songs in secret all over the country. This made Christmas carols seem much more attractive.

So he decided to write his story about 1647 in Canterbury. He made a rather elaborate outline, so he would not forget any of his ideas. It was about a Puritan boy who is kidnapped and taken to Canterbury (he did not have a clear motive for this crime in mind, but it still seemed like a good plot point). Once there, he escapes and tries to tell people Christmas has been banned and other kids beat him up. He gets threatened by a sword (since they surely had swords) and eats a roast apple for the first time, too (his tongue might get burned since that often happened to him in similar situations). He had yet to get Jesus in there much, but he had time to think about it. The whole outline was about a page long which made him proud.

The story was, actually, the second reason he was up late. The first reason he was even awake was a text from Gabe at around 11:30. Gabe was his secret friend because there was no way Mom and Dad would ever approve of him after one look. Even Joseph was concerned the first time he sat by him on the bus. He was a bit from the dark side — usually black clothes, out of the norm hair, odd accessories, a piercing. To his surprise, in the dark of night, the unusual Gabe appeared on the rather usual Joseph’s phone to invite him to an after school party. It was not OK to go to such a party, but he said he would go. It was in Gabe’s empty house, which was also very not OK, but he said OK. He thought of Joseph in Matthew having something come upon him in the night and telling him not to be afraid. So he decided to see what it was all about and not be afraid.

Then next morning, when he went down to avoid eating breakfast and get on his way, he told his parents he got called in to work at his random after school job bussing tables. Someone was already out for the holidays. They said, “Fine.” They’d save him a plate.

Just then, one of the dogs came into the kitchen with a quarter of his story outline in her mouth. He ran upstairs but never found the other pieces. Mom screamed. “Joseph, it is time.”

Right when he got back to the kitchen, his sister came in and presented mom with her finished story. “Look, I made some pictures too,” she purred.

“That’s wonderful, JoJo,” Mom said.  JoJo looked at him and smiled.

Continued next Sunday…

A Bus Full of Dogs — Part One

Every year I write a Christmas story to share with the family. This year I decided to “go Dickens” and publish it in installments. So here is part one of four parts for the first Sunday of Advent. I hope you enjoy it. 

Joseph had a new bedroom and it was very large. Finally, he did not have his brother cleaning things up all the time and he could get some rest. He could take his shoes off and not get yelled at because his feet were (admittedly) stinky.

Right now, he had his shoes off and he was sitting on his desk chair holding a shoelace, swinging a big sneaker three (and only three) times and then lofting it clear across his huge room into an empty box. The box had been full of clothes until his mother forced him to put them away. He told her, “You packed it so well, why can’t I just use the box?”

She said, “You can put them away just as neatly.”

He said, “Why did you pack them to move up one flight of stairs?’

She left with “You’ll see you father shortly.”

He called after her, “No need. I’m moving.” He eventually moved.

His only movement now was reluctantly getting up every two shots because he had yet to miss the box with either shoe. This finesse was unexpected. It was nice. But it did require he get off the chair and retrieve his shoes. His arm was actually getting a bit tired. Size 14 ½ shoes are surprisingly heavy. But he could not stop until he missed. And not missing had the added benefit of effectively avoiding his latest assignment.

Joseph was supposed to write a Christmas story, which seemed a little ironic, him being named Joseph and all. What’s more, his mother’s name was Mary, which was also a little ironic, if not awkward. Dad’s name was Mitch. It was not surprising that Dad’s parents were not the grandparents showing up for Christmas this year, for like the second time since he was in second grade. He could hardly even remember the last time. They always went to see his mom’s parents at their spectacular house in Maine during the summer. But they usually stayed in Florida during the winter. At least he thought it was Florida.

Joseph was not well-known for paying attention. So Grandma and Papa (accent on the end) could be anywhere at any given time. But they were scheduled for Christmas. Mom was a little anxious about the whole visit. Thus, his clothes needed to be stowed. Her parents wrote books for a living. Since they were successful at it, they needed no present s for Christmas and made that very clear. The only gift they wanted was a Christmas story from each kid. They thought that “would be very charming,” is how Mom put it. He felt a bit of pressure, being the oldest. So instead of feeling pressure, he was throwing a giant shoe into a box in his smelly room.

Dad came up to check on progress, huffing and puffing a bit after three floors. He was not as thin as he used to be. “Can you believe what’s happening in Ukraine?” he asked.

“What?” A shoe dangled from his finger.

“You have to know about Ukraine,” he said.

“I haven’t been following it that much.” He knew everything about Ukraine, but he did not feel like chatting with Dad about it.

“Your mom says you are avoiding your story.”

“Not really.” But how did she know these things? He hardly knew that himself!

“Look. I know this is a hassle. But your mom is going through some personal stuff right now and a lot of it has to do with her mom. I won’t bore you with the details. But it would be nice if you showed up a bit. The story doesn’t have to be a masterpiece, but it would be good if it had some religion in it. They are very Christian, and it is a Christmas story. You want some help with some ideas or something?”

He had to admit it. Dad could be very helpful. “No. I’m good.”

“OK. I’ll leave you to it. You do know it is Christmas Eve in three days, right? And you have to go to school for two of them?”

“Yes. I know.” He knew slightly. But now he had Christ all over everything and it was kind of freaking him out. “Jesus!” he did not say out loud.

Continued next Sunday…

For light where the darkness is deep

Oct 29 moon

Don’t give up, stars!
Shine through the night,
through the CO2,
around the airplanes,
over the missiles and drones.

Don’t give up moon!
Rise over the divided nation,
over the atomized children
fingering their elusive controls,
taking a drug to save or salve
their isolated souls,
afraid to look into the endless sky,
averse to wonder oversold, overun.

Don’t give up on us light!
Surround my children with hope.
Sneak into dark rooms and dark thoughts.
Surprise people when the beauty
they visited comes home with them.

I light my candle defiantly,
like Galadriel fighting orcs,
like MLK loving racists,
like Francis bleeding
at the mouth of his cave —
Elijah listening, Ignatius surrendering,
Neanderthals painting in the flicker.

I light it for everyone stuck in their bunker today,
for all the once-were, could-be saints
suffering in their self-imposed shadow,
walled in by trauma, spite, cynicism, despair,
who gave up on the stars,
who never love the moon anymore.

Touch them, touch me, touch us all
with your mysterious presence,
Light of the World!
It is dark enough,
drought has cleared the sky enough
for stars to make us dizzy
from looking up for once,
looking beyond for twice,
and seeing right into the Third Day.

I believe in you: I’m rarely talking about me

It is still hard to fathom how I could have attended my 50th high school reunion last week! Some of my classmates had to take a good look at the yearbook picture on my name tag to figure out who I was. I hardly remember who I was myself. If you did not know me then, you probably can’t spot me above in the El Chasqui (yearbook)!

Just like in high school, Jo Glidewell (cheerleader, choreographer, enthusiast) and Kim Tomlinson (childhood buddy, artist, hambone) got me to do a song at the reunion. I reluctantly complied, just like I always did, and pulled out my big hit of 1971: “I Believe in You” from How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying. Here is Robert Morse, who originated the role of J. Pierpont Finch, singing it and acting kind of cringy. (You can also hear Ferris Bueller and Harry Potter give it a go on YouTube).

My reunion performance was not a triumph. My wife tried to save me some embarrassment by complaining that it was just a bad song. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the experience.

I liked some of the interjections with which I decided to annotate the song. So I thought I would replay them for you. They speak of love and acceptance. It might encourage you to know that believing and community still exist. I found them in many places among the Chino High School Class of 1972.

A surprisingly meaningful song

When I played the part of Finch in our very own high school musical, I sang “I Believe in You” while staring straight into a spotlight which was supposed to represent a mirror. When my father saw that spotlight flash on my face, I imagine him thinking, “You still have time to get off that stage. Run before this song begins!” Meanwhile, I imagine my mother thinking, “ Finally, my years of living vicariously through this child are coming to fruit!” I found out later that sophomore girls were enjoying my star turn, as well, which was an unexpected bonus. BTW – The character I was playing was conceited, too.

FINCH:
Now there you are.
Yes, there’s that face.

I still remember how terrified I was to sing that line. But it was exhilarating too – like an acrophobe skydiving.

Now there you are.
Yes, there’s that face.
That face that somehow I trust.

All my acting skill was applied to looking smooth, since, for sure, I had absolutely no trust in that young man crooning to himself in the pretend mirror.

Now there you are.
Yes, there’s that face.
That face that somehow I trust.
It may embarrass you too hear me say it.

Even though I was performing an embarrassing and badly organized reunion skit in poor circumstances (like Whoopi in Vegas), I was not really embarrassed, which says something about singing to a community which pretty much unconditionally accepts everyone at this point. The old people at the 50th loved their small town and were no longer divided up by clique and race so much. They would have applauded any and all in the clan and not felt hypocritical at all (and clap they did).

It may embarrass you too hear me say it.
But say it I must,
Say it I must

Kim was sitting up front as I did my thing holding her guitar (“I Believe in You” is not a guitar song) and chiming in on her kazoo a bit. In sixth grade we also sang a song at our commencement. It feels very warm to be doing something silly with an old friend for the umpteenth time. I think we all felt we could use more of that kind of thing. You probably do, too.

You have the cool clear
Eyes of a seeker of wisdom and truth,
Yet, there’s that up turned chin
And the grin of impetuous youth.

At this point in the performance, I was already realizing that although there was plenty of song left, I was not going to sing it. But I told them how these lines ended up being surprisingly accurate. Maybe I was type cast: Seeker, yes. Impetuous, yes.

The following summer I would be an exchange student in Indonesia. Once there. my seeking fueled a major turn in my life’s direction. In my senior year, I became fully depressed and a full-on adult Christian. By the time I “came out” as a Jesus follower in college, I was well on my way to becoming a pastor and church planter. That seems impetuous even now.

Oh, I believe in you,
I believe in you.

I did not believe in me. But I certainly came to know who I could believe in, and still do.

I grabbed Kim’s hand as a symbol of what these final lines meant to me.

And when my faith in my fellow man
Oh but falls apart,
I’ve but to feel your hand grasping mine
And I take heart,
I take heart.

I have mostly lived in cities my whole life. But scrappy, relatively poor, small-town Chino, before it was gobbled up by the mega L.A., did me a lot of long-lasting good. They are my fellow people. And my people were at this reunion. Some had gone on to become very successful and wealthy. Most of us were glad we kept a job. Many of my people had deepened their faith, like me, which made the community even sweeter. I told them folks all over the country had heard stories about them and envied my sweet upbringing. I think our time together was the classic, “We don’t have much, but we have each other” kind of experience we did not know we were having when we first lived it.

In the fractious, perilous world my generation has given humanity, it is good to know that people can still love each other and focus on the community which binds them together rather than the powermongering that tears them apart. It might be a good idea to look around in your past too, and see all the good that might be hidden under the debris of all your worry and troubles. It was good for me. The goodness I found is a nice place to come from.