Friday, December 17, 2004


My kids ask me what I did today. I always tell them the same thing:
"I woke up, I went to work, I came home, I ate dinner, I'm going to bed." Pretty ordinary existence. It doesn't sound like an environment where I can "be all I can be"....

What makes life "extraordinary"? What circumstances do I have to manufacture to attain my
"all I can be-ness"? What will lift me out of the mundane and dullness of my routine existence?

Maybe being all you can be is accomplished simply by paying attention. Maybe it is just noticing what you see when you open your eyes. Maybe its as simple as paying attention to what you say to those you work with and for, who you choose to pay attention to or ignore throughout the day, how you regard your labor, and whether or not you give thanks for your meal and your roof and bed. Ordinary is dull. But the dullness is within us: dull of hearing, dull of seeing, dull of passion for life's gifts and unimaginable complexity.

If we but live conciously we lift up our eyes to the infinite horizons of the creation and all of its magnificence and wonder. And if we open our hearts we will know the most extraordinary
experience of human existence: to fall on our knees and give thanks to the Creator of it all.

Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Sleeping with Sewage

hmmm....Freud might have a field day with my blog's obsession with sewage. But somehow my life seems to attract a lot of it. Maybe I'm one of those "vessels of dishonor" (read: toilet) that St. Paul talks about. Who am I to say to The Potter "Why do I keep collecting crap???" Maybe its because I can.

Well, anyway....I'm sitting here while the thinset dries in my father in law's bathroom.
He overflowed his toilet for the third time a couple days ago. If it weren't for gravity and the fact that our bedroom is in our basement, and our bed is right underneath his bathroom, that wouldn't be such a bad thing. Physics, unlike some other logical principles, works in our house, so the water and all that it carries with it falls on our bed.

The first time he did it we were gone. He was still well enough we could leave him alone for a couple hours at a time. I came home and heard something like a tub filling. I found Gil in his bathroom standing in about two inches of water flushing the toilet over and over. I went downstairs and my ceiling had a belly like a whale and there was water flowing down the walls and about an inch of water on the floor. We pulled up the carpet and well.... other stuff.

The second time the sump pump went out in our basement. The sump pump pumps the waste from the toilet upstairs into the sewer lines. If it doesn't pump, it overflows. It flooded my office floor with about 5 gallons of sewage. It was late in the day so I had to replace it. Fishing an old sump pump out of a twenty gallon tank in the floor that services your toilet in the basement is not for the weak. Now I know why contractors call plumbers "turd herders". About 10:00pm I finished the installation and was getting ready to go to bed. I walked in my bedroom and there was a stream of water falling onto my bed through a hole in the ceiling. I ran upstairs and there was Gil. He was doing the same thing but we caught him before the whole bathroom was full and it only soaked our bed.

This time, I decided that to rely on Gil's ability to reason, I should rely on my ability to build things to keep it from happening again. So I ripped up his floor, put in new plywood and cement backer board, sloped the floor and put in a floor drain, a new commercial grade toilet and waterproof tile on the floor.

Gil sits in his chair in his bedroom while I'm working in his bathroom. I walk by him and he says, "I'm so sorry you have to do this."

I think, "Yeah, so am I." But not because I resent him, but because the world is fallen and people shouldn't get degenerative neurological diseases that eat at their brains and nervous systems and organs. I'm sorry I have to do this because it isn't fair that he feels like a burden on us, even though he is, but not in the way he thinks. And yeah, I'm sorry I have to do this because I HAVE to do it because my life is so narcissistic and self centered that I need God to dish out crap to me to make me serve someone else, be compassionate, not resent the inconveniences of other people's needs, and serve the lost, the helpless, the ones who cannot return a favor except by saying "I'm sorry you have to do this......"

I remember over 3 decades ago praying to God "Thou art the Potter, I am the clay... break me and make me into a vessel for your purposes." Little did I know God would decide I needed to be a toilet. Glory to God.

Sunday, November 21, 2004

Dropping Stuff in A Toilet

Sunday morning getting ready for Church. Its always when you are running late you accidentally drop something in the toilet. It occurred to me that no matter how fast you put something into water and yank it out, it gets wet. Well, duh.

Perhaps holiness is the same way. If I come into contact with someone or something that is holy perhaps I cannot avoid "getting wet". If I am holy in an unholy situation perhaps those around me cannot help "getting wet" whether they like it or not. Sure they can dry off if they choose, but the fact is they experienced the unavoidable consequence of encountering the Spirit. I'm not usually a drinking fountain in the desert, or a buck twenty nine bottle of water, or a tidal wave or a jacuzzi, mostly I'm just a toilet, a vessel of dishonorable use that people accidentally drop their stuff into. It is sobering to know that however they encounter Christ in me, they get wet.

Friday, November 19, 2004

Subway Evangelist

I visited my son in Boston last week, never been back East. Back East you do this crazy thing... You go underground and ride a train to get places because you don't dare try to drive. I could live underground...There's Dunkin Donuts and magazine vendors down there.

There's also the tall skinny man with 1970's gold rimmed semi-rectangular aviator glasses that look like goggles on his face. He stands like a wooden Indian with his hands outstretched with a stack of white note card sized tracts. Around his neck is a cardboard sandwich sign about the size of a 19" TV that hangs on his chest and back. It has scriptures on it, all the scriptures that no one wants to go public with... you know, the judgment ones, hellfire and damnation. And some opinions about what the scriptures mean. On the straps holding the sign are some 3x5 cards that read "Repent or Burn!" "Christ or Hell" or something like that. A crowd comes down the stairs and part like the Red Sea when they get within 10 feet of him then re-converge on the other side of where he stands. He stares straight ahead, never making eye contact with anyone.

I walked up to him, stood in front of him, took a tract from his hand and said, "God bless you for living out your faith." He looked at me. Something in his face changed for a heartbeat....
"Thank you" he said and looked away into space again.

He may never "convert" a single person in his life, but I prayed God has mercy upon him and knows he was putting his whole being on the line for the sake of keeping people out of hell. He may look like a fool, but I've been a greater fool for far less noble causes. I fear I'm the one in the greater need for mercy.

Friday, November 05, 2004


I was shopping for CD’s at the office supply store when I noticed him. Nearly everyone in the store was in business attire, suits, sport coats, designer casual, mid-calf dresses. It was easy to notice him because he wore a tattered T-shirt worn thin in places, a message across the back, thrift store polyester bell bottoms and a wide belt. His chopped hair looked like it had been cut with a pocket knife and stood up, because of nature, not mousse. I noticed a few of the patrons smile condescendingly as he passed by them, a few pretended they just didn't see him. When I got close to him, I got embarrassed.

The back of his T-shirt, in big block letters said, "ASK ME ABOUT JESUS". His belt was one of those embossed cowboy belts, but instead of his name across the back it said, "JESUS IS LORD". His belt buckle was the size of a hub cap engraved with "PRAISE THE LORD". My first thought was, "Oh. no. these are the kinds of goofy people who turn people off to Christianity. There is not a person in here who would ask this guy about directions to Circle K much less about Jesus. And I know I certainly wouldn't send one of these people to him if they were seeking authoritative answers about Jesus."

Then I caught myself.

"So, just who do you have in mind as an authority on Jesus, Steve?" I asked myself, "someone more like yourself I'll bet. Someone with a degree in Jesus-ology, someone sharp, witty, articulate, judgmental, rejecting, condescending, and more impressed with the outward trappings of the culture than the inner spirit of the person?" (I talk to myself like this.)

He, I .... whoever was talking to myself. . . was right. So he looked more like a geek than a Greek scholar. But who better to ask about Jesus than someone who NEEDS him. Jesus probably IS his best friend because he didn't look like a person who had many friends (I know, I know….even that is judgmental). And again, I was confronted with the scandal of the gospel, the kingdom of "fools for Christ's sake". I thought about all the people who know Jesus far better than I ever will because they have no one else to go to, nothing else to hope in no illusions to hold on to, no pretenses to keep up. They are the foremost authorities on what it means to have Jesus as a friend and not only does the world reject them, we do too.

Mark my words, we seek out the flamboyant, the clever, the ones who can tell a marvelous, hilarious, moving story of how God intervened powerfully and miraculously in their lives to give them Christian smiley faces and victorious faith and deep spirituality. You will never see any "goofy looking", inarticulate people on the lecture circuits telling their stories. No, you will never hear them give a testimonial, read a book by them nor hear a tape of a class they have taught. Heck, even the Christian talk radio people cut them off early in the conversations. But if you get to the end of this and feel like you want to talk to one of them you don't have to go far to find them, they are right in your church. They have been there all along, you just have not opened your eyes to see them. Look around next Sunday. You will see them in the same pew, week after week, quietly living out their private desperations in the company of their best friend. Jesus. Their lives are really the essence of spirituality.

For the most part they give no thought to all the fine theological distinctions between faith and endurance, spirituality and perseverance, overcoming and holding on, victory and sticking it out. Theirs is a death grip on life simply because to let go would mean utter ruin. If we understood their pain we would know they have greater strength in their weakness than ten of us who feel like we have found a convenient handle on God and life. Talk to them, see if it is not so.

They are the ones who take no thought for tomorrow, it is enough to survive one more day, sometimes one more hour. The burden of even three tomorrows would crush them should they consider it seriously. They are the ones who "let go and let God", not because they necessarily gave control of their lives to God because some spiritual guru recommended it as a path to greater awareness, but because life was wrenched from their grasp by forces they could neither comprehend nor control. They have no inner strength left to hang on, no well devised plans and clever techniques left to arrange and order even a tiny corner of their universe. They do not read the latest Christian self help books on grief, depression, fear and anxiety so they can identify which stage they are in and work out a plan to get on to the next and eventually get on with a normal existence. They have no normal existence, they are perpetually out of control, careening in a fearful, wild roller coaster they are unable to stop, their screams of desperation drowned out by the screams of joy of the happy Christians around them.

You see, these are the true heroes of the Hillside Sermon. They are the poor in spirit, the ones who mourn. They are the ones in need of mercy, the ones starving for righteousness, the helpless, the hopeless, the castaways. But these are the guests of honor at the Feast of All Feasts. These are the lame, the weak, the spiritual bag-ladies and winos constrained by the Gospel from the gutters and cardboard shelters of life to come enjoy the banquet given to those who can only come and eat but could never bring pot-luck or return the favor. They are the ones with no pretenses of being there because they knew the host, hobnobbed with the right pastors or parish council members or were members of some moving shaking Church organization. They know they are being fed, not helping themselves. These should be our teachers. They, not we, are the sign of the kingdom come; not the articulate, the Who's Who in Whatever, the easy to look at, the shoppers-through-catalogues, the cutting-edge people. "The lame walk, the blind see, the Gospel is preached to the poor" St. John was told when he asked if the kingdom that Jesus preached was for real. The shepherdless sheep are sought after and gathered into the fold. The outcasts, the ones we refuse to see, the ones who didn't make the cut, the ones whose names are "Who?", the lepers, the untouchables, the social disgraces, the lowliest of the low, the sinfulest of the sinners, the lostest of the lost, these are all present at the king's banquet table. They are the sign of the kingdom among you.

We should look up to them because they have been lifted from the last place to the first. They would never presume, dare, even think, of claiming the first seat. Even now when they hear the Master's voice saying, "Come up here, sit by me", they look behind them thinking His call is to someone else, someone like you or me who write blogs and post to lists and teach classes and tell stories and divulge wisdom. But it is for them. The last in line are called out and given eternal "cuts".

So, the next time I see him I hope I have the guts to set aside my arrogance and condescending spirit and ask him about Jesus. I hope he will take the time to talk to me even though I wouldn't have taken the time to talk to him.

Saturday, October 23, 2004

Rolling in Raw Sewage

The rain in San Diego had washed 180 days' worth of sewage, sludge, grime and muck into the beach waters. I was on vacation from Arizona and hadn't seen the beach for ages, so I went anyway in spite of the warnings on the news and the intermittent drizzle of rain. Three bright yellow signs at the entrance to the beach said "DANGER: RAW SEWAGE. DO NOT ENTER THE WATER! HEALTH HAZARD!"... and some other ominous words about horrific diseases to that effect. Swimming in my toilet never appealed to me, so I didn't enter the water, I walked along it. I scurried up the sand whenever the waves rushed up to bite my ankles.

I was looking down at the sand for beach glass and sea shells for my daughter. I glanced up and saw three people. There were two men with big cameras and lenses the size of a roll of 40 gallon black trash bags. And a woman. She was wearing... well.... not wearing is more the truth.... something akin to dental floss, except a foot of floss has more fibres to it, I think. She was sprawled on the beach, rolling in the waves of raw sewage in poses that would make Gumby greener with envy than he already is.

I wondered what the purpose of the photo session was and where her pictures would end up.
I wondered who would be rolling in the sewage of an 8x10 glossy of her, what disease of the mind and heart would eat at the soul of the ones who gazed on her image. I wondered if she disregarded the warning signs in her heart the first time she posed like she disregarded the warnings of the big yellow posters on the beach.

A life guard came along and told her to get out of the water. She put on her pants and sweater, and she and her companions left the beach laughing and talking. I guess if I had offered her my coat and told her to get out of the water and get out of the business because it was unhealthy for her soul, she probably would have left with two things to laugh about.

In sorrow I watched them walk past the warning signs and up the steps to their car. As they drove away, I prayed to the Virgin Mary to try to touch her heart, that she will heed the warning signs some day.

Saturday, October 16, 2004


Woke up at 2:30am to finish a job at a doctor's office before they opened for patients at 7:00am.
Went to another job and painted a living room while the client watched every brush-stroke until 5:30pm. I got home about 6 and my daughter says "I'm going to ride my bike with Kaya before dinner." Fifteen minutes later I get a call from Kaya's cell phone. "You better come, Kenzie fell off her bike and I think her arm is broken." We spend the next 3 and a half hours at urgent care. Good friends brought us dinner at the care center. I get home and finish business, answer email and get ready for the next day's work. I think I know why God invented time. If everything happened to us all at once, we couldn't bear it. Then it all becomes yesterday. Smart, God is.

Saturday, October 09, 2004

Dinner with God

Life is tough lately. Do you ever get the feeling God is telling you "EAT WHAT'S ON YOUR PLATE, IT'S GOOD FOR YOU!" ? Pass the salt, please.....

Friday, October 08, 2004

What I Learned at Vacation Bible School III

On the last night of the Living Vacation Bible School all the cast and characters and kids gathered for a big helium balloon release on the front lawn. All the cast came in costume. There was John the Baptist with locusts on his hairy coat. There was Peter, and Abdul the rappin’ money changer. There was Blind Bart and Mary Magdelene. And Satan.

Being adults and therefore thinking like rational grown up adults, we were kind of slow on the uptake when we decided to have all the cast come in costume. Because, you see, if we had thought about it, it would have dawned on us that if some of the kids thought I was Jesus they would think Dan was Satan. And they did. I looked up and saw one of the staff coming toward me with a small child in tow. He toddled along a half step behind her, a death grip on the young lady’s hand, and looking back over his shoulder every few steps. They stopped in front of me and she picked him up. “Joshua’s afraid.” she said, “and he wanted to see you.” I reached out and took him from her arms, his head was turning like a balloon in a windstorm. He was obviously looking for someone. “What’s the matter, Joshua?” I asked him.
“The devil is back. He’s here. I saw him,” he said pointing into the crowd.
“I tried telling him it’s not really the devil, that it’s just a man in a costume, but he’s still scared,” the young girl said, shrugging her shoulders.

“Joshua . . ..”I said. Then I didn’t know what to say. The first thing that came to my mind, truly, was “Don’t worry, the devil won’t hurt you.” No. I thought, that just doesn’t sound right. (Not only didn’t it sound right but I fear now it really betrays our adult thinking about Satan: you know the truth comes out under pressure like that.) Then I thought: I’ll take him to Dan and show him that it is just a disguise, that Dan is really a nice guy and he and I are friends. But that didn’t seem right either. Jesus and Satan buddies? Satan is really a nice guy underneath his disguises? Nah… Strike two. Another bad idea.

Then it dawned on me. “Joshua!” I said with an air of authority, “you remember what happened Monday night when I chased the devil away?” He nodded, his little forehead still furrowed with fear. “O.K. This is all you have to do if the devil comes near you. You just look him straight in the eye and you say, ‘You devil, in the name of Jesus, get lost!’” Joshua looked at me, his eyes widened and his face broke into a big grin. He wiggled to get down and I set him on the ground. He looked up at me, still grinning, and said with glee, “Yeah!” and ran off shouting, “In the name of Jesus, get lost you devil!”

By the end of the evening Dan had been rebuked several times by children with faith that Jesus’ name alone would protect them from the evil one.

I wonder how many times a day Satan gets rebuked by grown-ups with faith like a child’s? Probably not many. We are too sophisticated to believe in a “real devil”, we are too philosophical, psychological and theological for such a simplistic answer to the problem of temptation to do evil. But in all of our sophistication we are still too weak to resist temptation. Armed with all of our therapies, philosophies and theologies we still walk out with the stuff the cashier missed, lie about the traffic, make the lunch date with the co-worker, call in sick, conveniently “forget”, and speak our minds. Maybe all we really have to do is what Jesus did and say, “Begone, Satan. I’m with God.” Maybe what James said is true, “Resist the devil and he will flee from you.” Maybe it really is just that simple.

Oh, for the heart of a child again.

Tuesday, October 05, 2004

The Greatest Commandment

And one of them, a lawyer, asked Him a question, testing Him, “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” And He said to him, “ ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind’ This is the greatest and foremost commandment. And the second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.” Matt. 22:35-40

I remember laying our Fr. Wiley’s garments for the Mass. I handled them as though they were the garments of Christ Himself. I remember the first Mass I served, my soprano second grade voice mumbling and stumbling through the Latin. I still feel a shiver of awe that I had at the altar, being so close to the sacrament.

I remember I decided to become a priest in that same year. I never fulfilled that desire within the sacraments of the Roman Catholic Church. Along my way I exchanged the majestic ritual and awe of the Latin high Mass for the simplicity and literalness of a protestant “Bible Church” tradition. I have since returned to the majesty of the liturgy in the Eastern Orthodox Church, but I am not here to defend or condemn any of these, but to merely bear witness to the love of God.

The common thread in my change of beliefs and traditions was my desire to obey the command of Christ. Along the way from Catholicism to Protestantism, somewhere, some how, the commandments themselves became gods, wooden exactness became the criteria for my salvation. There was no mystery, all was knowledge, reverence became fear, and humility became spiritual arrogance. In all of this there was a gnawing hollowness. While I was convinced in my mind I was accomplishing something good, there was something of great importance missing.

Somewhere, somehow, I discovered mystery and awe again. I found in my life things of inexplicable grace and power. I became a child again, I ceased to figure out how the rabbit got into the hat and reveled in the joy of the magic. I ceased to try to understand how we can conjure up love from hearts battered and hurt by life, and just loved people. It was then that I understood God. It was then that I discovered peace.

Jesus said there are really only two commandments. All the other commandments are corollary or commentary. The two greatest commandments: fall in love…joyfully, passionately, head over heels, wonderfully in love with the Lord your God, and have compassion and mercy, forgiveness and grace for your neighbor.

I hear the simplicity of the commandment and my heart fails within me. How can it be?

How can I be commanded to love? How can I bring forth on command the joyful, consuming passion of love? I know I can act as though I love someone. There have been times moral expediency or guilt or fear or lust have commanded me to act as though I was in love. Sometimes the act fooled those for whom I was acting, sometimes not. In the acting though, there was no consuming passion, no tears of joyful wonder, no sacrifice of my life beyond the expectation of something of equal or greater value in return, nothing to surprise myself at the depth of love and desire I had for my beloved.

And how can I be commanded to look at someone suffering and feel my stomach wrench in compassion for him? I know I can be coerced by guilt or the desire for praise into giving or acting like I am moved by suffering. Despite the act, my heart can still remain cold, unmoved and selfishly motivated.

In the simplicity of the commandment is the root of my distress. I know I cannot be commanded to do the very thing I am commanded to do. The love I know I ought to have for God and my neighbor I cannot bring forth on demand. Even if the demand is from God Himself.

I intuitively understand in other aspects of life I cannot be commanded even to appreciate something, much less to love someone. I cannot be told to appreciate Picasso, Debussey, T.S. Elliot, heavy metal hair bands, French food or jazz. I cannot be told to worship the ground someone walks on. I cannot be commanded to adore someone. I know these things about myself and yet I have blindly accepted the notion that God thinks He can command me to appreciate Him, love Him unconditionally and passionately and care deeply and sacrificially about His creations.

The problem with accepting the notion that God has actually commanded or even issued a strong suggestion that we had better love Him and our neighbor (whether the suggestion is for our own good or not is irrelevant here) is that other notions come with the package, much like fleas on a dog. The flea on this dog is that I am supposed to be capable of loving on command. I know full well I cannot. Even if it is for my own good. And so I struggle with the command and I struggle with my inability to obey fully and love as deeply as God tells me I ought.

But here are some things I have come to understand. These things have opened to me the mystery of the command:

There are things of wonder and beauty that move me deeply and incomprehensibly to feelings that I cannot control. I am commanded, in a sense, and I am powerless to disobey. I understand these things: To see my best friend for the first time in many years is a command to smile and be glad. To say goodbye to one I love, to embrace for the last time in this life is a command to look deeply and wordlessly at one another and feel a deep emptiness fill with tears. To hear “You are forgiven” after grievously hurting someone I love is a command to be humbled and grateful and at peace within. To see a child hollow eyed and reduced to skin over bones by hunger is a command to feel compassion. When I hear a certain piece of music it is a command to remember that friend, that love, that time when….., and to feel just as I did all those years ago. The smell of roses, a “greasy spoon” on a certain street corner, a photograph, a name alone is a command to rejoice, to be misty eyed, to smile, to feel melancholy or to laugh. These things command me, not with words, but with wonder and majesty and beauty that reaches into the depths of my most secret needs and desires and my most sacred memories and deepest hungers.

Perhaps then, it is not that God commands me or tells me that I MUST fall in love with Him, as in “YOU WILL EAT THOSE PEAS, YOUNG MAN!!”, but it is that he simply places Himself before me in all of His loveliness, beauty, awesome majesty and gracious mercy. Perhaps He commands me, He draws from my heart and soul all the love and devotion and adoration I harbor within me by His very presence. He does not seek to coerce love from me by directive, but He goes to any length to compel me to adoration and to elicit my love from me. For God to reveal Himself to me is in itself the command to love Him with all my heart, soul, mind and strength. To be forgiven by Him is the command to have peace. To know His mercy is the command to walk humbly with Him in gratitude. To see His heart’s desire for my heart is the command to rejoice. To find His love unending and infinite is the command to worship and adore.

Thus the greatest commandment is not so much a dictate but more the deepest desire of God’s heart being expressed to me. “Fall in love with me” is the command of His presence, the compelling message of the Cross.

The second greatest commandment is like the first- to love your neighbor as yourself. It is like the first because it is impossible to fulfill by sheer will. It is like the first because it is an overflowing of the first, a command that is rooted in the passion we have for our Beloved God. This I have come to understand too.

Being in love commands me to see the world through new eyes. Where there was once nothing of interest now there is delirious beauty. I now see irises and strawberries in a way I have never seen them before. Love commands me to hear music and the wind in the trees like I’ve never heard it before. I feel the temperature of the morning air like I’ve never felt it before. My love commands me to be touched by certain words, by thunder, artichokes, concrete park benches, hot dogs and blue in ways that I have never known because they are now shared with my beloved.

So, you see, I have fallen in love with God. I now see the world as through new eyes. Being in love with God is the command to see my neighbor in a new way. To see someone in need, or hurting or sorrowful or doubting or in pain, this is the command to my heart to be compassionate, forgiving, kind, gracious and merciful. It is simply what happens because of my heart’s deepest love and longing for its Beloved, God. I cannot help it, it all happens inexplicably and overwhelmingly. The presence of the world before me is itself a command to love it and serve it because of the love I have for its Creator.

Jesus said, “If I be lifted up upon the cross, I will draw all men unto myself.” From His cross He draws from within me all that I am and all that I have. All is new, I am my Beloved’s and He is mine. In His consuming passion He has done what all the finest and best lovers in stories and in history have always done. He gave His life to possess me, to win my eternal devotion and love.

Yes, the Cross is like the old song, the smell of a summer’s new mown grass, the distant rumble of a freight train in the humid night, the sound of an old familiar voice, a friend walking through the door unannounced, that draws from somewhere deep within me a remembrance of what once was, and rekindles the fierce desire to know Him, a passion for His presence, my love, peace, and sometimes a tear of grief and yes, even a weeping for joy.

Saturday, October 02, 2004

What a Wimp

So, I just finished soldering a new hose bib on my house. It has only been hanging there with a set of rusted channel locks for a handle for ohhhhh... six or seven years now......

Yeah, I've fantacized about martyrdom before. Sure, I'd suffer for Christ. Go ahead, torture me, I'll endure and not deny Him.

As I sit here with an ice pack on my burned fingers that I put in the path of the blue flame of a blow torch for less time than the interim between first and second place in the 50 meter dash in the Olympics, I wonder....

Man, pain hurts. Name the price to make this go away, I'd probably pay it......

Sunday, September 26, 2004

What I Learned at Vacation Bible School Part 2

“And now ladies and gentlemen, let me introduce someone you all know very well, Jesus’ greatest enemy, the prince of darkness, Belzeebub, the devil himself… SATAN!!!” The spotlight swings stage left.

About a hundred kids jump and shriek when Satan, dressed in a black leather jacket, red cape, horns and pointy ears springs from a red, back-lit, fog shrouded rock. But they are soon entranced, Satan is a very smooth talking character. Satan tells how he tried to tempt Jesus into changing stones into free Happy Meals for himself and all the kids. He tells how he tried to get him to fly like Superman off the top of the church building to REALLY make VBS cool, but all to no avail. Then Satan takes out a handful of candy, red cinnamon “fire balls”, and starts tossing it around to all the kids in the audience. They all grab and catch and scramble on the floor to pick it up. “Have some candy kids! You’ll be my friends won’t you? See, they love me!!”

Satan sneers at the kids, “I may not be able to get Jesus to do what I want but I bet I can get YOU to! If you do what I say I’ll give you candy and sodas and you can stay up as late as you want… and then YOU’LL be my friends…. AHHH..HAHAHAHAHA!!!”

Jesus jumps up from his seat nearby and shouts, “Satan, you leave God’s children alone!" Jesus strides over to Satan and gets right in his face and pokes a finger in his chest.

"You mess with them, you answer to ME! You got that??” The kids go silent. Jesus and Satan are standing inches from each other, toe to toe, nose to nose, eyeball to eyeball. There is not a breath. Satan slowly backs down, cowering, and slinks back to his cave. “I’ll be back!” he shouts. The kids go wild. “Yaaaayyyyy Jesus!” And it’s off to the learning centers for more Bible times experiences.

One of the children is crying. Daniel. He’s almost four. Maybe Satan scared him. I look at his mouth and it is all red, he is drooling red slime. Maybe he bumped his mouth on a song book rack and cut his lip ….again.

I stoop down and hold his tiny face. “Daniel, are you hurt sweetheart?” Tears roll, he shakes his head side to side. His mouth is working overtime, puckering, drooling, sucking, biting his lips. It is not blood. I hear clicking inside his mouth.

“What’s in your mouth, Daniel… here, let me see.”

“It’s candy from the devil,” he says, drooling and sniffling.

“Well, what’s the matter Daniel? Why are you crying?”

“Cuz it’s ho-oooo-oot!” he says in a quivering voice.

“Well, Daniel, if it’s hot, why don’t you spit it out?”

“Cuz it’s caa-aaandy!” he wails.

Oh child, you said a mouthful. At three and a half you stated more clearly than any theologian the warfare within us.

Oh child, at three and a half the warfare already rages within you.

And what candy from the devil are you holding onto, O "grown up" child of God?

A lifestyle? Dinner parties or beer parties, Mercedes or pickups, Georgio Armani or Levis, mansions or cheap motels, or somewhere in between?

An image? Footloose and free, competent and invulnerable, sharing and caring, rich and powerful, martyred and self sacrificing, spiritual and righteous, angry and rebellious, non-conformist or on the edge, in the know and on the inside track of everything?

A relationship? Illicit, destructive, hopeless, imaginary, ego gratifying, degrading or questionable?

And what is it costing you O child, what is it hurting?

Your peace, your wife, your sincerity, your children, your honesty, your ideals, your self respect, your dreams, your hopes, your reputation, your ability to feel true joy, to see the world with a clear eye, to delight in the world with a pure heart, to look in the mirror with a clear conscience?

And, child, if you hurt so much, why don’t you let it go?

Because it’s candy.

Yes little children, we like the look, we love the feeling, we love the pleasure, we revel in the admiration and ego boost. So we eat the apple and then try to fix or drown out the bitter consequence. Sometimes we fast and pray, seek spiritual counsel and we still have a stash of candy hidden in the closet. When every word on overcoming sin has been spoken, when every encouragement has been uttered and every step of every program has been applied and you lose the battle, you still fall, you still hurt, you know you are dying, there is still yet one last word. It is the only word that really matters in the end to the wretched dying losers of the battle with temptation.

“No condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”

O, the sweet love of God. Taste and see that the Lord is Good. Rejoice O child of God, and eat the Body and Blood of your Savior. Taste the heavenly gift, laugh and be exceedingly glad you sinners, His Body is True Food and His Blood, True Drink. Rejoice you who have tasted the bitterness of sin, Jesus is the Snickers of God.

Thursday, September 23, 2004

What I Learned at Vacation Bible School

In the summer of '89 I was Jesus for nine hours.

It was our congregation’s first attempt at a “Living Vacation Bible School”, three nights, three hours a night of full dress re-enactments of Bible times and gospel stories. Allan and I were asked to write the scripts for several of the stage plays. I was invited to play the part of Jesus. I was flattered and not just a bit proud. Allan and I had great fun writing the plays then seeing them come to life in rehearsals.

But as we worked on the scripts and the day approached there was something that began to weigh heavily within me. The gravity of what we were trying to say and what I was trying to show about Jesus became more and more a solemn, sacred consideration to me. I had set out to instruct and convict an audience, but as usual I ended up not teaching as much as being taught and not convicting as much as being convicted myself.

As I struggled with how to portray Jesus it finally became clear to me that the big question was not really, “What am I going to teach these people about Jesus?” It all came down to one thing really: I, who had professed to know Jesus, had to put it on the line… Do I know Him well enough to be like Him? Can I be an imitator or Christ or just an impersonator who happens to look like the stereotype of the way people think He looked? (See the picture taken at the VBS….) Will anyone be convinced? I knew deep inside of me that no matter how good we were at putting words in actors mouths, the words would still betray Jesuss if I didn’t know Him. And even if Allan and I were able to write a good script I knew it could not be played convincingly by someone with no heart for the character. So I went back to the Gospels again to see who Jesus is.

Something happens when you sit down and read the Gospels, not for doctrinal ammunition or to string verses together to make Paul and Jesus say the same thing, but to try to know Jesus, to answer the question “Who must I be to convince someone I am Jesus? What of ME has to go, what of Jesus is missing in me?”

So I was Jesus for nine hours. They were probably the most profound nine hours of my life. I came away humbled at how far short of being in His image I am. I came away humbled at the power there is in even the slightest, cheapest imitation of Him. I came away more in love with Him than ever. I knew something of me had died and by His mercy I was what I needed to be for those few hours, and by His mercy I could be what He wanted me to be for the rest of my life.

Here now are some lessons I learned at Vacation Bible School.

I was part of the auditorium plays. Everyone gathered there first. After the plays the children divided up and went to the learning centers in small groups. I stayed in my Jesus costume after the play was done and wandered around the buildings between class sessions. The kids would see me and yell, “Hey, Jesus!!” and waye. Some of them would give me a “high five” as they walked by. Some came up and held up their arms to be picked up and hugged. I played tag, picked up toddlers and turned them upside down and they shrieked with laughter “Do it again!” I let kids walk on the tops of my feet and walked to classes holding tiny hands.

I was sitting by one of the refreshment tables talking to some of the other cast when a line of children passed by. A small girl, maybe three years old, broke ranks and ran to me. She reached up and threw her arms around my neck and whispered “I love you Jesus.” Just as quickly, she ran back to her line and looking back at me, waved goodbye as they went in the building. Then it dawned on me. In their little minds I was Jesus. REALLY Jesus. This isn’t Steve Robinson they think they are playing with because most of them didn’t even know me. Besides, Steve doesn’t do this kind of things with kids. It hit me like a millstone: How I treat them and how they see me may influence how they see Jesus for the rest of their lives. I had to go sit alone for a few minutes.

I thought about what the kids were seeing that night. I thought about our “adult Sunday school Jesus” and how our grown up teaching about Jesus must impress our kids. I thought about how our “imitation of Christ” must make kids think about Jesus. I imagined it must be like Jesus and His disciples when they walked into town with Christ. The official apostolic motorcade rolling into town, sirens blaring, lights flashing, security all around. Clear the way for the Messiah, VIP coming through, no time for autographs and baby kissing.

And here come the kids. “HEY EVERYBODY ITS JESUS!!!”
Suddenly the disciples’ doctrine powered, dead serious messianic motorcade is surrounded by runny nosed rug rats and reduced to Romper Room. They are scandalized. Jesus, on the other hand is having a ball. The disciples stand back and try to look like they have serious matters to attend to. They stand off to the side, crossed arms wrapped tightly around their chests. They impatiently tap their sandals in the dirt, raising little puffs of dust. After all, someone has to give an air of dignity to this movement. If we look serious and perturbed enough maybe these parents and kids will get the message that we need to be moving along here, we have a mission to accomplish, we have Pharisees to debate at the synagogue in half an hour.
Finally one of them gets frustrated and begins shooing the kids away. “OK people, let’s go…Enough already… Jesus has some important things to do today…move along now…..”

Jesus is sitting in the dirt playing pat-a-cake and looks up at the disciples. He looks down at the ground and slowly shakes His head. He gets up slowly and shakes the dust from the back of His robe. He picks up a child and says, “Peter, James, John, Andrew…Come here you guys. Yeah, you… and the rest of you too.”

Jesus says, “You see this child? This is what the kingdom is all about. We are having a ball. You think this kid is worried about who is greatest, who’s best, who’s first, doctrinal debates, establishing kingdoms or whether or not you think they are qualified to play with me or not? Nope. All he knows is if he comes running to play with me there is no way I’m going to exclude him from the game. They know I’m the Life of the party. And you know what guys? If you ever say or do anything to change that in these little kids it will be better for you to have a millstone hung around your neck and be cast into the sea. And I’m dead serious……”

Jesus looks at Peter who looks like a whipped puppy now. He is looking at the ground digging small furrows in the dirt with his big toe. The others are rocking back and forth on their heels, trying to look nonchalant because all the parents are staring at them now. Jesus’ face grows somber with compassion and He reaches out and puts His hand on Peter’s broad, slumped shoulder. “Peter,” He says, “the Kingdom is so simple even kids can get it….. and Peter…..”

“Yes, Lord?” Peter slowly looks up at Jesus.

Jesus grins. “TAG! YOU’RE IT!!!” and runs away laughing, leading a pack of screeching kids.

That night I carried, hugged, tagged and high-fived to exhaustion.

Because that is how I think Jesus would have done it.

Thursday, September 16, 2004

The Thief

I knew Mark was a heroin addict when I hired him. He eventually went the way of most of the addicts that worked for me, he just disappeared one day with some of my tools and an advance. I hadn’t heard from him in months. The next time he called he was dying of AIDS. “I need to talk to you,” he said, his voice a hoarse whisper.

Mark lay in his bed, too weak to sit up. He was a child in the body of a twenty one year old man that looked eighty. His quest for self destruction was nearly complete. It hadn’t taken him nearly as long as some others I knew.

He talked. He told me about his family, the beatings by his father, the conspiracy of silence, the times he sought protection and comfort from his mother only to be pushed away. He told of his early years, how he started drinking and using drugs in the eighth grade. He told about robbing pharmacies, he would just walk in, jump over the counter and grab bottles and run. He told about robbing appliance stores. He would throw a garbage can through a display window and grab TV’s or stereos and run before the police could arrive. He told about all the people he ripped off, the friends he used, the checks he forged, the drugs he stole from other addicts, the beatings he gave and took, the shoplifting and breaking and entering. He never got caught.

He told about how, when he needed a fix and needles were not available, he would buy the needles used to inflate basketballs and file them down to a point on the concrete. He eventually got AIDS sharing his needles.

I listened. He got quiet. There was a long silence while he stared at the ceiling. I was about to break the growing uncomfortable pause when he said, “There’s something else.” I sat and waited. I waited a long time.

He finally sighed and began. “I was drunk one night. Real drunk. And I was driving home. I don’t even remember where I was or when it happened. But I hit him. I hit this dude walking across the street.
All of a sudden he was just there in front of me and “WHAM”. And I got scared. Real scared. And I drove off. I remember going to a fifty cent car wash and washing blood and vomit off the front of my car and off the windshield. I got sick and puked. I went home and stayed inside and drunk for a week. They never caught me. It was after that that I started using heroin.” He looked at me.

“I killed a guy. I killed him.” He looked back at the ceiling, breathing hard.

I waited again. Mark finally looked back at me. “Can I go to heaven, Steve?”

“You believe Jesus can forgive you, don’t you Mark?”

“I guess I don’t have much of a choice at this point, do I?” he halfway grinned.

“I guess not.” I half grinned back.

“So, will I go?”

“I don’t see why not.”

He closed his eyes and his whole body went slack, like a stretched rubber band that was released.

“Thanks,” he said.

“Don’t thank me,” I said.

“I wasn’t,” he said.

On the way home I thought of a thief who hung next to a man beaten beyond recognition and yet recognized something in Him that was a hope beyond his wildest dreams. He had nothing to lose by asking, given the situation, he didn’t have many options left, really. He took the chance of his life.

“You the Son of God?” he asks.

“You bet your life I am.”

“Wow! Today’s my lucky day. When you get there, put in a good word for me, OK?”

“You got it.”

“Thanks, man.”

“Don’t mention it.”

Sure the thief staked his life on it, but it was not much of a life at that point. He was pretty well used up, beaten up and dumped on the trash heap of humanity. Human trash hanging on a cross outside the city,
worthless to anyone for anything. Except God. So he offered up his last and only gift, his last ditch hope against hope that this other hopeless case next to him was who He claimed to be and His word was good.
And He was, and His word was.

I’ve always wished I could hear Mark after he died. I imagine him grabbing the first person he saw in heaven.

“Hey, you wouldn’t believe what just happened to me of all people…..”

“Yeah, I would. You see, I was a thief and one day…..”

Friday, September 10, 2004

Letter to an Empty Vessel

Dear Beloved Sister,
Yes, I was surprised when you, of all people, came to me seeking my counsel and prayers. You, looked to by so many of us as strong and wise, confessing your confusion about how to overcome your spiritual weaknesses. You, so friendly and compassionate, confessing your loneliness while surrounded by familiar faces and names. You, so full of the Spirit, how hard it must have been to come and confess your love for God and your distress over the emptiness you feel and your desire to feel close to God once again. Thank you for trusting me to give you consolation and counsel. You ask me how it is that you can come to church, into the presence of God to worship, commune with the family of God, your family, and yet leave feeling so abandoned, distant from God and the people you love and who love you; how you can sing praise one moment and the next moment stand in the parking lot nearly weeping at the despair within you. You ask where you are lacking in spirituality. You ask what you must do to overcome this weakness in you. You ask what is wrong with you and your relationship with God. Perhaps it is, my Sister, that everything is right.

I know why you ask what is wrong. You have been told it is wrong to feel empty, abandoned, lonely, and sorrowful. You have been told that if you do not "get something out of worship and fellowship it is because you did not put anything into it." Perhaps you are not getting what you THINK you should. Maybe you are not receiving what you have been told you SHOULD want. But maybe God is giving you by His grace, through His Spirit, what you need. Have you really considered what it is you assume you are "supposed" to "get" out of your relationship with God? God is a God of mercy, He is the “Lover of mankind”. God’s grace is a true free lunch. He knows what spiritual food we need not just to survive but to grow strong and stay healthy. Part of taking Him up on the free lunch of grace is not deciding ahead of time what the menu will be. St. Paul tells us in Romans chapter nine that Jacob got surf and turf and champagne while Esau got a side order of toast and water. But both were somehow grace and mercy in ways we cannot fathom. We are His children and do not know what we ought to be eating, left to ourselves we’ll go for the Twinkies and cotton candy. But God is our Father who puts the vegetables and liver on our plates. We just need to be obedient children and eat what is put in front of us.

You are asking yourself what does this have to do with your feelings of emptiness and wrestlings with your spirituality? Simply this: The Spirit is at work within you. Be still. Stop trying to guess what things you need to come up with to GET God's things, let God give His things freely to you for a change. Stop trying to get, simply allow Him to give to you through his Spirit out of His vast store of gifts. And do not be quick to reject His gifts because they are not what you expected. These strange, disquieting feelings are from Him, I believe, because the fruit of His Spirit is growing, taking hold within you, locking its roots deep inside you.

Galatians 5:19ff says that Love is the very essence, the seed of the fruit of the Spirit, containing within it all that makes up the fruit, all that is God Himself who is Love. Love becomes ever more mysterious and insane to me as I learn to live in its power. I do not know much about it, not nearly as much as I once believed I did, but I do know to love God is not all happiness and contentment (as opposed to joy and peace), it is not all smiles and laughter (as opposed to poverty of spirit and mourning). This one thing I have learned about Love, and it pertains to your spiritual sorrows and your desperation to sense God's presence, it is the very source of your distress. Very simply put it is this: to the degree I love someone deeply and passionately, that is the degree to which my heart aches at the smallest distance between us. We dwell in a fog of abandonment and sorrow without the presence of our lover. In every great love there is great pain because the desire to be completely and finally consumed by and to be fully bound together with one another can never be fulfilled in the limitations of this world and our flesh. I think that is why the final and complete expression of love, the most touching and romantic of all love story endings, is not when lovers finally make love but it is when two lovers die in one another's arms. It is the gospel according to Romeo and Juliet. All that kept them apart, all adversaries, all limitations of the flesh and heart, at that moment, are powerless: love alone is triumphant, sovereign, their unity is consummated finally and completely, never to be severed from or lost to one another again.

Thus love, when it moves beyond the will and the intellect ("I know this is how love would behave, so I
will behave like I love") and into the heart, where passion reigns unfettered and burns white hot, furiously,
it brings forth both the desire to be united, completely, wholly and finally with the One we love so desperately and feel such sorrow at the vast distance between us. Only those who love God with unbridled passion in all its irrationality can weep over not being able to be with Him at every moment; only they can cry out to be consumed by His presence. Only they can know the divine romance of the desire to die in the arms of their Beloved, God. It is only they who can say like the apostle Paul, "For to me, to live is Christ, but to die is gain," (Phil. 1:21). or "You have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is our life is revealed, then you will also be revealed with Him in glory." (Col.3:3.4)

I think there are many people struggling with the same feelings but are afraid to admit them because they feel they are signs of spiritual weakness. They have forgotten that love is both a bright hope and a dark despair, that these feelings are part of the experience of what it is to be in love. Listen to the Lover's Song of Songs:
"On my bed night after night I sought him, Whom my soul lovest.
I must arise now and go search the city.
I must seek him whom my soul loves.
I sought him but did not find him.
I opened to my beloved
But my beloved had turned away and gone I
My heart went out to him as he spoke.
I searched for him but did not find him;
I called to him but he did not answer me."
Song of Solomon 3:2, 5-6

Somehow we think it embarrassing, or even blasphemous to speak of love for God in the same breath as the greatest passions we feel for another human, and yet these passions are created in us, they are in His image and are glorious, and truly our human passions are but a dim shadow of what it means to be in love with God. Just as in all true loves there is joy, peace, and fulfillment, there is also longing, sorrow, and an emptiness when we cannot see our beloved's face, feel his touch, here, now, and forever. These feelings, if they are toward God, are not "unspiritual feelings". Our love for God is like our human love and there are times that the joys we feel in the presence of our beloved bears witness to the depths of our love, but the pit of desperation deep in the night at the absence of our beloved bears a greater witness to the strength of our love. The truth of love is that human lovers and lovers of God do at times feel sad, lonely, and empty because of the absence of their beloved. There is a deep, hollow, and holy place within us that can only be filled with the very presence of my beloved one and just the remembrance or the thought of the beloved will not do. To be ravaged by despair at the absence of God is the greatest witness to our love for God. It is not lack of faith that brings this despair, but it is the depth of our passion. It is not that we are wanting in faith, but it is that we truly want HIM. Faith may be the knowledge or hope that He is still out there but is silent, but love is the pit in our stomach as we stare into the void where He once stood and we don't know when He will return to us. Spiritual despair is the truest witness to love for God, the hardest to bear surely, but to have a great love is to suffer greatly for it.

I hope you can see that you are not alone in these feelings, you do not weep over the empty places in your heart, dear sister, because you lack love, but because you are growing in love. God is winning your heart, mind, soul and strength. And all lovers have a room within their hearts reserved for sorrow over their desire for the one they love and what they know they cannot fulfill in this earthly life. Do not deny your feelings, dear Sister. Cherish them, live in them. Know they are from your Beloved, God.
I am my Beloved’s and He is mine,

Tuesday, September 07, 2004

The Man in the Mall

When you give a party, invite the poor, the lame, the crippled, the blind…Luke 14:13

I just happened to be on that side of town. I was waiting for a contractor to cut checks and needed to kill some time, so I went to the mall for lunch. This particular mall was my old stomping grounds during high school. Dave and I almost wore a path in the terrazzo floor during our senior year of high school. We had driver’s licenses and wheels. We went there nearly every evening and mostly we watched people. Mostly girls, actually. But people in general too.

I got a sandwich at the deli and sat down in the mall to watch the people. I saw him again. He was sitting on the edge of one of the red brick planters, like always. He had one arm crossed, resting his useless hand in his lap, the hand that swung on his bony arm like a knot at the end of a rope at his side when he walked. With his index finger of his other hand he traced “figure eights” in the dirt of the planter, like always.
I would swear he wore the same black rimmed glasses with dirty lenses as thick as Fig Newtons. He still wore light blue denim bell bottoms, even though they had been “out” for years, and tennis shoes prematurely worn on one side from his shuffle-walk. His back had become even more hunched on the side of his good arm. When he looked up to watch the passers-by (he always had to tilt his head way back to look up because his body was hunched forward and his glasses had slid down his nose) his head would list to one side and rest on his hump, and his mouth would hang open. I watched him watch people walk by, just as I had seen him do every time I had been to that mall, just as I had seen him do for the first time nearly twenty years before.

Twenty years. I imagined him for twenty years (maybe more, that is only the time I knew of) going to the mall every day for eight or ten hours, shuffling, sitting, then shuffle some more, then sit a while longer.
I wondered what he thought about while shuffling, sitting, staring for all those years. I wondered what he was capable of thinking about.

I wondered if he was ever jealous of the “whole” people. I wondered if he was ever angered at his ugliness, or if he perceived that he was “ugly”, that he didn’t fit in with our culture’s love affair with beauty.

I wondered if he ever wanted children to buy toys for, or a wife to watch try on a new dress, or if he had a wife and children maybe before some calamity struck him and them down.

I wondered if he ever stifled the urge to risk saying hello (I’d never heard him speak) to one of the shoppers, a pretty woman, a toddling child who would wander over to him and stare at him like a strange mannequin, a blue haired widow, a man in a wheelchair. Did he ever want to speak just to hear someone speak back to him, even if to insult him.

I wondered if he ever left the mall feeling lonlier than when he arrived, and if so, how much more loneliness upon loneliness could a human being bear after twenty years.

I wondered if God, in His mercy, had short circuited whatever part of his heart and mind that would allow him to know he was different and so alone.

I wondered too about all the people that passed him every day, if they even see him, if they consider who he might be, or what it is that is going on inside him. I wondered if any of them thank God, their stars, their karma or even blind luck for not being like him.

I wondered what would happen if God in His mercy made each person who passed him to be like him for one day, letting them live in the twisted wreck of flesh he occupied, letting them feel his accumulated feelings. I wondered how life in the mall would change, how life beyond the mall would change.

I wondered how many people who have passed him in twenty years were Christians. I wondered how many of them have seen him, maybe many times like I had. I wondered how many of them had made any attempt to see if he was hurting, to find out if his heart was broken or if he lived in desperation or in anger at our God. I wondered how many of them know what Jesus said about compassion, the last being first, the outcast being welcomed in, the gospel being preached to the poor in pocket and spirit. I wondered why, if some seventy five percent of our nation claims to be Christian and even more to be “spiritual”, not one of the hundred or more people that passed him by during that hour ever stopped to talk to him, somehow acknowledge his existence, much less even make eye contact with him.

I finished my ruminations. I finished my sandwich. And as I left to go pick up my check, I wondered why I too did not.

Thursday, September 02, 2004

Meeting God

When I remember God I am troubled.
When I sigh, my spirit grows weak.
Thou hast held my eyelids watching,
I am so troubled I cannot speak. Psalm 77:3-4

I have always wanted to meet God, to see Him, to have a vision, to hear a whisper in the night, to see the uncreated light, to feel an overwhelming presence, or to even wrestle with Him like Jacob. But I never have, not in those ways. Yet I know I have. And so have you.

You see, not all encounters with God are catastrophic, supernatural, crippling or easily recognized. Some come quietly and unannounced. There are no "seven warning signs". You may be driving and you find yourself miles along from the last intersection you conciously remember. You realize at odd times that you have been staring through someone, maybe the bank teller or even your spouse at the dinner table. You may be washing your hands and look up into the mirror and see someone else, perhaps a total stranger to yourself.
You may be holding a half ripe tomato at the produce counter and somehow, somewhere deep inside you go empty, empty as a beggar's plate. There comes a disquieting want within you. It leaves you hollow for a moment, then it is gone. You make the turn, cash the check, dry your hands and you shake off the feeling like a cat-nap and go on, distracted by the next thing you see or hear.

This feeling, like all inexplicable feelings, weaves itself into the fabric of your days. It may be a brief sigh, a momentary sadness, sometimes a deep weariness. It is not quite darkness. It is not truly light. It is not quite despair, it is not hope. It is not quite fear, it is not peace. It is a vague notion that you once possessed something precious and it is now missing. Or perhaps that you were once possessed by Someone Precious and it is you that is missing. It is a twinge of homesickness, a feeling that you belong somewhere but are not there; or that you belong to someone but have lost touch. This fleeting melancholy is easily dismissed in the frenzy of the day because it does not paralyze you or cause you to break out in uncontrollable weeping. It can be evaded by turning up the radio, finding a conversation, making a phone call or even searching for a perfect tomato.

But in the night, when there are no distractions, no tasks, when there is no one but yourself and all that is in you and all that is missing within you, it is then that the feeling is no longer a vague notion but a troubling and persistent void. It is then that, even if you claim to know no God, you have within you an empty and hungering place that you fear to name because to name it would be to know to Whom it belongs and for Whom it hungers. You know with fearful certainty that someone precious is missing. You almost know for Whom it is you are longing. It is a Lover whose face you would know if you saw it, whose name you would recognize if only someone would speak it, whose heart you know is longing for you. It is our Beloved who longs for us in the still of His nights, to whom we know, somehow, somewhere, deep within our own hearts, that we belong.

The next time you find yourself sighing, shrouded in a mist of melancholy, let yourself be troubled. Be still.
Close your eyes. Do not speak. Listen. In the hollow chambers of your empty heart a soft and almost recognizable voice echoes there. It is His voice in a whisper calling out for you. To be silent and to listen, to be troubled at the calling and not knowing how to answer it or even what it would mean to answer is enough if we enter the emptiness, because the troubled heart is the one He has touched and it is there that He awaits.

Sunday, August 29, 2004

The Mitt

You did not choose Me, but I chose you….John 15:16

It was twenty-eight years ago. These are the things I remember about fourth grade. There was the red dirt playground of Saint Williams, my first baseball mitt, Little League, and my father’s transfer to Taiwan, all that year. Each has finally wrought its conviction; each is just now finishing its work of grace.

Though it has been nearly thirty years I still remember some of my friends’ names. Thomas, who had seven brothers and sisters; Vincent, a light brown boy whose origin was an enigma to us all; Sammy, who was held back in first grade; Jack, who sneezed into his hand one day, snot ran from between his fingers and no one had a Kleenex. And Raymond. Raymond was ‘retarded’ as we were allowed to say back in the fifties.

Recess and P.E. were death for me in elementary school. I was the smallest kid in my classes. If not the smallest I was certainly the least feared. I had to participate in grade school sports during the Dark Ages before the discovery of the fragile self-image, before the light of child psychology was shed on playground dynamics. In those days the biggest, most popular and most powerful kids were usually appointed as team captains and the rest of us were alternately chosen by these gods of the playground to make up their teams. I was not endowed with athletic ability like most of my classmates. I remember standing in the red dust with the group between the team captains, listening to the cheers as one side or the other got a coveted talented, aggressive player, watching the teams fill and the center group dwindle down to the small, the fat, the goony, the bucktoothed and bespectacled misfits until only Raymond and I were left.

I usually stared at the ground too embarrassed to look up because they might see my fear of being the very last in the center; or sometimes I tried to act like I was not particularly concerned about the matter by grinning stupidly while the team captains argued over who HAD to take one or both of us this time. If either of us was ever actually chosen, I, at least, realized it was purely out of some nine-year-old’s version of pity (though I didn’t know that word then). Raymond, I still hope and pray, was oblivious to it all and just went where he was told to go.

It was that same year that my father bought me my first baseball glove and signed me up for Little League. We went to the Ben Franklin Five and Dime to shop for a mitt. I knew little about baseball. Though I’d never played it I knew I was not good at it. I had never even seen a real game. One thing I did know was that to have an autographed mitt meant a great increase in my likelihood of getting picked sooner by the gods of the game at P.E. If for no other reason, one of the cool guys who was already chosen would always want to borrow it from me and would use his influence to get me picked. Thus I never really used my mitt at recess. It would always end up on someone else’s hand in the infield and I would be assigned to the far outfield where few fourth graders could hit the ball. It was not a critical nor prestigious position to play but it beat getting picked last.

I am right-handed. It made sense to me therefore that I should have a right-handed glove, meaning one that fit on my right hand. My father tried to explain to me that a right-hander catches with his left hand so he can throw with his right, but I would have none of it. I knew the purpose of having a mitt is to catch a baseball. I knew that if I could not catch a baseball with it I would be laughed at. And I just knew I could not catch with my left hand. I would rather have been eternally, mittlessly, but safely, consigned to the outfield than to be humiliated by my ineptness with my new mitt. I never revealed my reasonings to my father, but I was so adamant he bought me the right-handed mitt I wanted. I soon found out he was right and after school, in the seclusion of our back yard, my father chased wild throws all over the yard as I struggled to learn to throw left-handed.

God only knows why I signed up for Little League that year. I went to tryouts with my right-handed mitt and a sense of impending doom. One of the coaches noticed immediately that I alternated between my right and left hands and asked me if I could pitch with both hands. To avoid the embarrassment of explaining my stupidity in picking out my glove I said yes, knowing full well I could not even throw well enough with my right hand to hit the dugout, much less get the ball over the plate with my left. I remember his face lighting up. “A switch pitcher!” he exclaimed to his assistant. I didn’t know what a “switch” anything was. All I remember is the fleeting elation of having someone impressed by me, of being considered for THE prize position on the team, and the terrible sinking feeling of knowing I would ultimately be found out. That week my father got orders and we were transferred to Taiwan. Though it meant leaving my friends it also meant I got to quit Little League, mercifully before my dark secret was discovered and I was completely humiliated before the team and my friends at school when the word got around.

So, here I am twenty-eight years later, reading the parables of Jesus Christ and realizing that, just as my pain about the playground and my mitt speaks to all of us and our own most secret pain, so the gospel holds our hope for us all.

I read in the parables how God goes out into the streets and alleys and calls out the last, the least, the lost, the helpless, the hopeless and the worthless to play on his team, which wins because of him and is not hindered by the lack of talent in those he chooses (Luke 14:15-24). I read how God chooses the last ones left and makes them the first string of the All Star team (Luke 14: 7-11). I read how he takes the rejects, the skinny ones with thick glasses, the oblivious and the ones standing idly on the sidelines, their shirt-tails out, with lunch on their fronts, and inducts them into the Hall of Fame for just standing in the outfield for the last inning (Matthew 20:1-16, all my paraphrases).

I read the gospels and I saw Jesus with the sinners. As much as it hurt to finally admit it, I understood that I really was, I really am, the last, the worthless, the least. I realized that to deny that painful reality is to deny his grace. I finally understood that my only hope is in the truth of the gospel, that the only ones chosen are those who know they are not worthy of being chosen. I stood off in the distance, I fell on my face before him saying, “God, please choose me; be merciful to me, the sinner.”

Twenty-eight years later I understand the gospel and realize too that the Little League and my mitt speak of the killing flaw in my humanity, truly all humanity: It is to seek acceptance through lies and illusions of competence and trumped up abilities. This is woven into the very fabric of our beings. How often I have put on pretenses, overstated my qualifications, my experience, my credentials, inflated a resume, covered up a failure, or tried to make an impression on someone only to lie awake with a knot of dread in the pit of my stomach at being found out.

And we must think about what illusions we might be holding up before God. Do we stand before him and declare, “I am not like the sinners, God. I pray, I fast, I tithe”? Do we come to the Father and say, “I am not like your prodigal sons. I work hard in your house, I do not waste your blessings on worldly pleasures”? What value, what worth, what talent, what competence, what knowledge do we hold up before him as if to make ourselves acceptable to him? We often come to God as if we are trying to qualify somehow for his love and choice of us, like it is a position on his team. (The proper doctrinal mitt or moral bat will get you chosen – this is what it comes down to for most religion.) But at the moments we are able to be honest with ourselves, we tremble at being found out for what we really are: a goony, lonely kid fearful of rejection, with no talent and a wrong-handed mitt.

But we have been found out. God knows. And Jesus calls out our names anyway. You see, he too stood one day, with just two of them left, and the crowd chose the other, Barabbas, not him. There was no one to stick up for him. He was tossed back and forth between Pilate and Herod, the team captains, who argued over who had to take him. He was finally left dead least, hanging between heaven and earth, rejected by both, and he died in the outfield with two other slobbering, rejected misfits.

But by the authority of His resurrection He’s the team captain.

He looks into the downcast, awkwardly grinning faces of the skinny, hopeless, worthless misfits who have no autographed mitts, who are hoping against hope to be picked and not left standing rejected, finally and completely alone, and he knows how they feel. I tell you the truth: as long as he is the one choosing up sides he will never let Raymond, or me, or you, ever be picked last again.

Saturday, August 14, 2004

The Will of God

I loved her to distraction.

That evening held us in its loom, weaving our histories together, now and forever a tapestry irrevocably bound by one look, one touch. From that moment, so pregnant with magnificent consequence, that very moment I knew I would have her. She would be my beloved, I would be hers. And so her heart’s desire became my obsession.

Oh yes, I could name her imperfections for you. I could tell you of her weaknesses. I could reveal the hidden things of her heart, her fears, the places so dark they frightened even her. I could disclose to you the secrets in her past that still she speaks about it guarded whispers. But I will not. I loved her, I love her, and those things are of no consequence to me. My desire for her was never diminished by the discovery of her weakness and flaws. My wish to work magic in her life never changed, but grew more intense as she revealed her struggles. As I came to know her pain, my desire for her healing deepened.

I wished joy for her; unending, incredible joy that would release her from her past, her demons, her fears. I wanted her to lay her heart’s burdens on me, to find solace within my arms, shelter in my love for her. I desired above all else that she seek me out as one who could bring joy into her life and was willing to take her sorrows and comfort her. I wanted her to know that my life, all I was and had, was hers. I longed for her to find me loving her beyond her wildest imaginings, caring for her heart and soul sometimes more than she cared for them herself. I was willing to sacrifice all I had for her, joyfully, and never look back if that would bring a smile into her wearied life.

It was my desire for her to be at peace. It was my will, my heart’s deepest longing that I could see her face without the lines of sorrow and distress. Her healing became my greatest need, her rest became my burden. I would forgive anything, I would accept her in all of her guilt. I wept for the secrets she kept from even me and for her unspeakable pain. I would give her my gifts hoping she would know they were from my heart, a shadow of the offering of my life for hers. I died a thousand times for her, wishing I knew what I could do that she would know she was wondrous and loved beyond telling.

I wanted above all else that she find her deepest longings fulfilled in me, in my love for her, in my life given for her. I was jealous, outraged when she would seek healing and comfort in another. But even in my jealousy I loved her. I sometimes waited for her, sometimes pursued her. I could not reject her, I could not give up pouring out my heart to her even when she was not there to accept it. I was wounded many times and yet I bore the scars like precious jewels of outrageous cost.

I was hopelessly lost in her. I was powerless to give up my pursuit of her heart. I was joyously, wonderfully, passionately in love with her. I could only give, forgive, accept, forbear, and comfort. My desire was for her alone, my longings were for her peace and joy. My will was that she be one with me and me alone, and find within me all that she was seeking. There was no cost too high, no price too great to pay for the possession of her devotion and love.

I could not command her to love me, only pursue her. I could not direct her except by enticing her. I could not hold over her my gifts, my love or my sacrifices, only lay them before her. My will was my desire for her good. I held no power over her except as she yielded herself to the power of my love for her. I could only tell her of my dreams for her, for us. I could not coerce her to dream my dreams; I could not force her to fulfill my desires. But if she did fall in love with me I knew it would be with all of her heart, soul, mind and strength. It would then be her will, her desire, not mine. My dreams would then be her dreams. She would love me with the depth and passion that no command could force, no word from me could create.

And this is the desire of God: that all men be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth, the truth of His eternal pursuit of our love. This is the desire of God, this is His passion, His deepest longing. In the compelling power of my love I have seen only a passing shadow of the love of my God for me. My desire is but a dying distant star beside the flame of His desire. My shallow longings for my beloved are drowned in the depth of His longings for my heart and soul. I see only dimly His love in the mirror of my heart’s wildest desires.

He wills that I have joy, He wills my peace. He would be my shelter, the One who would take my burdens and dry my tears. He would heal my broken heart. He lays His gifts before me, His life for mine, His heart for mine, His sorrow for my joy, His scars for my healing. He is powerless to relent in His pursuit of my love. No cost was too high to consider, no cost too great to pay to win my devotion.

My God, how You love me. I have come to know You love me beyond my wildest imaginings. I know beyond reason that I am loved beyond telling. Your desire is now mine, my Beloved. You have pursued me, enticed me, and You have finally won me. My heart is Yours. I touch the scars You so beautifully bore for me and all that is within me cries out, “He is my Beloved and I am His.”

Thursday, August 12, 2004

The Fallen World is Real

A mundane occurence with theological ramifications: Nothing reminds you better that the world is fallen and how much you are willing to pay to avoid pain than a broken tooth with the nerve exposed. I have a dentist's appointment on Monday.

A Prayer

Merciful Spirit of God,

Move Thou across the chaos of this, the deep and dark waters of my life.

Cast the shadow of the wings of Thy presence over the chaos of my heart:

Over my raging at the unseen and fearful powers I feel tearing me asunder, powers I cannot name, powers I have begged Thee to rebuke, yet they surround me still;

over the evil I find myself doing, the evil I hear my own voice speaking; the desperate things I do to bring this despair to an end in my own ways, in my own time;

over the places within me shattered by my despondency at Thy "No" to my cries and longing for Thy help;

over the places broken because Thy hand did not stay the brutal and unspeakable evil that assailed me;

over the sadness that has crushed my fragile hope,

over my faith that has been ground to desert dust.

I fear for life itself. The night is so vast, the darkness swells and rolls within me. I am helpless against it.

O Lord, hear my frail voice before it goes still, before I cannot find the faith to beg Thee any longer for Thy hand to heal my wounded and broken heart.

I lay this, my chaos before Thee.

O Unbegotten Genesis, O Spirit of God, pass over the face of these my dark waters and let there be Light once more. Divide the waters of my tears, dry my eyes with Thy gentle hand. Create in me all manners of wild and glorious things, constellations of joy, seasons of work and rest, places of lofty things, places of deep mystery, places of firm footing. Let Thy Spirit work its Holy terror within me, let it gather up what has been broken and shattered and create something wonderous of Your sacred imagining. Then will I know certainly Thou art indeed the Creator, the bringer of order within me, O Savior of my body and soul. Amen.

Tuesday, August 10, 2004

The Election

William Chen. He was my friend and I hated him. It was because William was my friend that I hated him.

Seventh grade. We were stationed in Taiwan. I attended the parochial school because the strict discipline and tough academics were notorious there.

The Beach Boys (their first time around) were cool. Straight blond hair was in. Beatle boots and pegged pants were still in. I.D. bracelets and initials for names were in. T.J. was a guy who had it all – blond hair, bracelet, black pointed-toed boots with zippers on the sides. T.J. got to bring his lunch in a brown bag instead of a cartoon lunch box. T.J. was so cool he went steady. He actually walked with his arm draped over his girl’s shoulder at school right in front of the nuns. The coolest thing of all was when he cried when he heard one of the Beach Boys lost his voice. Real tears he cried, blubbering sobs, and no one, but no one made fun of him. T.J. had it all. K.C. was almost as cool. He had dark hair but his parents let him wear it like the Beatles and he had his blue Parochial School uniform pants pegged.

It was not a very easy thing to be cool at Saint Vincent’s. The uniform was white shirt, dark blue pants purchased from an approved tailor, white socks and black shoes. The Dominican nuns were not given to admiring coolness. The cool guys always seemed to get away with being cool while the rest of us lived in fear of being told to get our hair cut or to go to the office to change into a set of ragged, one-size-fits-all clothes they kept in there to humiliate dress code violators.

William Chen was not a cool guy. Neither was I, for that matter. But William was goofy. He laughed like a chicken. He walked like a half-sprung pogo stick. He stood too close when he talked to people, maybe because he couldn’t see despite the slab of glasses that hung precariously on the end of his nose. His shirt tail hung out on one side, and you could always tell what he had for lunch from the front of his shirt. One sock was always at half mast. William was the Black Plague on whomever’s social life he invaded; you were a dead man if you were infected with his presence. William was so goofy he wasn’t even pitied. William was not cool. William was my friend.

It was not that I solicited his friendship, you understand. I guess I looked vulnerable and he simply fell in step with me one day on the way to recess and I never seemed to be able to ditch him. Perhaps I could have tried harder but I didn’t have the nerve that the cool guys had when it came to William. So it was William and I, with our own table at lunch, last ones picked at P.E., science and bus ride home partners. I didn’t particularly hate him then. But I didn’t enjoy him, either. Not him specifically; I got used to his chicken cackles and quirkiness. I didn’t enjoy what his presence implied about me. You know, birds of a feather. Maybe it was that I was goofy, too. Maybe I was just one rung up on the ladder from him and had gotten social pity that I had always mistaken for acceptance. It was beyond terror to think maybe William was my only true friend.

It came the season for class officer elections at Saint Vincent’s. Before I tell you about the meaning of the election, I must spend a moment explaining the sociology of and the procedure governing the elections.

First the sociology. Everyone knew class officer elections had both everything and nothing to do with the cool guys. It was just innately understood that the cool guys were too cool to be class officers. Thus they never got nominated and got no votes. But they voted. And so did everyone else. If nominated one need not win but just get a respectable show of votes. Votes meant affirmation, votes were a pronouncement of status, and votes were a witness to one’s place in a pitiless society.

Now the procedure. We nominated to candidates, Sister Mary Ellen put the names on the board. We voted by raising our hands. The candidates put their heads down as the vote for their office was counted, thus they would not see how many votes they got. The Sister would write the numbers next to the names and before the candidates were allowed to raise their heads to view the results, the losing candidates’ names and votes were erased so none would know how many votes they got. Of course there was nothing keeping the losers from asking their friends how many votes they got, except maybe embarrassment.

Class officer elections meant nothing more to me than a half of a morning without academics. But this morning they meant everything to me. William Chen nominated me for class president.

I was a realist. I could face the fact that I would not win against the likes of Mike Esmark or Pat Grady. Mike had been class president since fifth grade. His re-election in
subsequent years was insured when he offered to take six swats from Swingin’ Sister Jude so the whole class would not have to do extra homework for a week for being rowdy in the lunchroom. She gave him the swats, we did no homework and Mike was president for three years running. I had no such platform on which to run, so I knew I would not win.

I truly had no desire to win except the crazy “wouldn’t it be great if” that you feel when you have no hopes. I did have a delirious desire to know the vote, an exhilarating fear and dread of knowing where I stood, William Chen notwithstanding, what my true place was, to have my existence acknowledged and affirmed by my peers, yea, even the cool guys, or at least a couple of them.

And it came our turn to put our heads down, foreheads on the forearm, while our names were called and votes were counted for president of the class.

Mike Esmark. A rustle of sleeves, a rumble of shifting postures, a long pause, chalk scuffing and tapping on the board. Double digits.

Steve Robinson. I listened, my ears acute with fear and hope, and nothing save a distant choked laugh from the back of the room. I could not help it; insane with dread, I opened my eyes and peeked over the top of my forearm. Though I could only see two-thirds of the class I knew what the remaining one third looked like. There, grinning like porpoise, sat William Chen. A solitary hand raised high and proud for his best friend. And I hated him.

I don’t recall Pat Grady’s name even being called, so consumed with hate I was, and with the single scratch of the chalk on the board roaring in my ears.

Oh, William Chen, how I hated you that day. Had you not called my name I could have lived gladly, perhaps with suspicions and dread, but blissfully, even willfully ignorant of what I truly was. Had you not called my name I would not be the object of giggling lunchroom derision and the butt of merciless playground hilarity. I would not be numbered with the lowest and least and fools. William, with your hand held high that day, solitary in your acceptance of me, you killed me, and I hated you. You were my only friend and I hated you.

But now, William, I love you I know now you were truly a Christ to me. You were the gospel incarnate, a living word making straight the way of the Lord within me. You see, years later another came to me, one who also despised and rejected of men. He said he came to be the friend of the last and lowest, the sinners and outcasts. Like you, William, he called my name. Mine. He called my name and I could no longer avoid knowing the dreadful truth about myself that I feared. Through him I knew what I truly was. I knew by his call that I, too, was numbered with the lowly and the fools, the rejects and the sinners. He was not cool, nor was I, but this time it mattered not to me because I did not hate him.

This One was Jesus Christ, William. His call is a call of grace. His gospel is the story of a friend like you. It is of God who took on legs of flesh and fell in step with and, yes, fell in love with the outcasts. It is of one who was rejected by all but will not reject any. It is of one who seeks and finds and will not be ditched by those he chooses to befriend. It is of one whose presence means our death in this world but who turns out to be the only life there is. It is of a friend who will endure our hatred of him until we learn to love.

This is of my friend who, even knowing what I truly am, called my name one day. And on that day he raised his hands, nailed high and proud, in solitary acceptance of me.

William, meet Jesus, my other friend. And I love him.

Thursday, July 22, 2004

The Choice

The Governor asked, “Which of the two do you want me to release for you?” And they cried out, “Barabbas!”  Matt. 27:21

I don’t know about you, but give me the choice and I will usually choose:

The largest cookie in the batch (but without the burnt bottom),

Two slices of bread from the middle of the loaf instead of the first and slightly stale ones,

To give advice rather than ask for it,

The easy job,

The seat by the window,

To teach, rather than to be taught,

The glass of Coke from the new bottle rather than the one sitting open all night,

The slice of pizza with the most pepperoni on it,

The larger piece of cheesecake, and if there are only two left I might even slice a little off the other one,

To be thanked for giving rather than be given to,

The nicest cherry tomatoes for my salad,

The second slice of baloney rather than the slightly slimy one on top,

The white meat,

An evening with someone I enjoy being with rather than with someone who needs to enjoy an evening with somebody,

To be recognized and praised rather than have my good deeds go unnoticed.

The movie I want to see,

To speak rather than listen,

The banana with the fewest brown spots.

Given my track record for choices and what they say about me, I think I can safely predict who I would have shouted for when Barabbas and Jesus were put up for grabs.  Which has all to do with why I need a Savior. 

Given Jesus’ track record He would have chosen Barabbas too.  Or me.  Which has everything to do with why He is the Savior.

Monday, July 19, 2004

The Betrayal of Jackie

"I also maintain that those who are punished in Gehenna, are scourged by the scourge of love.  Nay, what is so bitter and vehement as the torment of love?...It would be improper for a man to think that sinners in  Gehenna are deprived of the love of God...The power of love works in two ways: it torments sinners...Thus I say that this is the torment of Gehenna: bitter regret."  (St. Isaac of Syria, Ascetical Homilies 28, Page 141)
“Do not hide Thy face from me, Do not turn Thy servant away in anger… Do not abandon me or forsake me, O God of my salvation.”  Ps. 27:8
There was only one movie theater in town. It cost a dime to see the matinee on Saturday afternoon.  That dime would get you a couple hour’s entertainment; more importantly, it would give you a wealth of vital information that could save your life in sixth grade.  Every Saturday the kids from school were there. This was the place where you found out who was going with whom that week if you weren’t in with the crowd that was privy to that kind of information.  The cool people sat with their boyfriends and girlfriends. The rest of us sat in groups of the same sex and observed each other’s groups trying to pretend they were not observing the other.
This particular Saturday was a light turnout.  “Old Yeller” was showing for two weeks.  Most everyone had seen it already, but I missed it.  Kit and Donna showed up anyway, just to make out in the back row in the dark; rumor had it that they had “gone all the way”.  Looking back, I think our concept of distance was slightly off, nevertheless they had done something that had put them beyond the boundaries of movie house hand holding and kissing on the lips.  Bob and Barbara showed up, and Paul was now with Janie, Kit’s old girl.
I hung around the candy counter trying to look like I was making up my mind what I wanted while I kept an eye on the door to see if another “single person” might show up.  There were few things worse than seeing a good, sad movie by yourself unless you wanted to be by yourself.  I didn’t, not particularly. 

Then I saw her.  Jackie Burger.  She was paying her dime and tip toeing, looking through the smudged glass ticket booth to see who was hanging out in the lobby.  She waved. I waved back.
Jackie Burger.  Jackie was plain as Holsum white bread.  Not ugly by grade school standards, just ordinary. Like most of us were.  “Jackie Booger” we called her.  Boogers for short.  I think the name originated one day at lunch when she was seen picking her nose.  She suffered greatly at recess that day for her public offense and the name stuck ever since.  She bore it with a blue steel gaze, never lashing out, never crying to the teacher, never running to the recess monitor.  I’d seen many others crumble- I’d crumbled – under far less persecution.
Jackie was by herself.  I was by myself. So we sat together, more by default than agreement since neither of us had the nerve to come to such an agreement.  We sat toward the front because we were there to see the movie.  The others sat in the back because they were there for other, more brave activities.
“Old Yeller” did to Jackie what it does to most everyone who sees it. Steely and tough as she was, Boogers started to cry. I wasn’t exactly dry eyed myself. Somehow our arms ended up on the same armrest and neither of us flinched nor madean effort to move.  And so we sat, both afraid of looking at each other and both knowing what the other was feeling.  Two worlds, parallel, touching, but both afraid of entering the other.  We left the theater having shared something about one another that would not allow us to see each other as “Robinson” and “Boogers” again.
Monday morning at school we did not acknowledge one another publicly.  We had a wordless agreement that there would be no visible signs of our moment to the casual observer.  I did catch her eye, often, and there was a softer, less steely look in it for me that I liked.
At lunch I sat closer to her, but not WITH her.  Unfortunately, I sat close enough for Patrick Grady to notice I’d closed some distance between me and Jackie.
“HEY ROBINSON!!! Who was that you were sitting with at “Old Yeller” Saturday, huh?” Patrick shouted across the lunch room.  “Wasn’t  that you with Boogers?”
I was nailed.  “I don’t know what you’re talking about!” I half shouted, with a quiver of fear in my voice at my impending social doom.
“Yeah you do!  Robinson and Boogers were holding hands at the movies… I SAW you Robinson!” Patrick announced to the whole lunchroom with a sing song lilt of ridicule in his voice.  “Robinson li-ikes Boo-gers… Robinson li-ikes Booo—gers!” he sang.  Laughter filled the room.
I exploded from my seat, livid.  I screamed, “I DO NOT! I DO NOT! I HATE HER! SHE sat by ME…” I choked and gasped, stumbling for something more convincing. I looked around at the mocking faces, the  gaping mouths filled with obscene laughter. 
Then I saw Jackie.  She sat, still… staring at me. Her steel blue eyes were full of tears.
I bolted from the lunchroom.  Tears flowed down my cheeks, tears of helpless anger, but mostly tears of something I did not understand… tears that had more to do with the way Jackie looked at me than with my anger at Patrick’s orchestration of mockery.  In my attempt to save myself I knew I had destroyed something precious somehow.  I had violated some law within.  I had desecrated a holy place I did not know existed until that moment.
I have desecrated several holy places in my life over the years.  I have desecrated precious relationships with people who loved me.  The holiness of relationships is wrought by entrusting our most private and secret places to another.  The unspoken law of relationships says “You will keep my holy things as your own, and you will guard them with your life, lay it down for them if need be.”  But we do not.  We will deny our lovers, betray our friends to save our own skins. We will throw what is holy to the dogs in an unthinking heartbeat if it will preserve our selves.
I first denied Jackie to save my sixth grade respectability, my status, my pride.  I’ve betrayed others for far less.  Put the screws to me and I know I would have, I have, betrayed even Christ.  I have like Judas and Peter denied the Son of God, my friend, my Lover above all loves.
Though it is not told, I imagine Jesus looking at Judas as he approached Him in the garden to betray Him.  As Judas drew back from his kiss, he opened his eyes to look one last time into the face of Christ.  I see Judas and Jesus suspended in a timeless moment, the sounds of rattling armor and the shouting all fading to silence.  There was, for that solitary moment, that look.  And Judas was swallowed by a darkness deep as death.
When Peter had denied Jesus for the third time, St. Luke says, “And the Lord turned and looked at Peter”.  Jesus was taken away.  Peter went out and wept bitterly.  Judas went out and died of remorse by his own hand.
Yes Peter, yes Judas, I understand.  I have seen the look of Jesus.  And I too went out and wept bitterly because in my weakness I denied everything that was precious to me.  I have felt hopelessly lost because I desecrated a holy trust. I have died within because I betrayed my innocent beloved to save myself.
I know the look. It was not “I told you so”…
It was not “You REALLY blew it this time…”
It was not “You jerk… look how bad you hurt me….”
It was not “I hate you….”
Those are devastating looks.  I’ve seen them all.  And they hurt because they are true, and we know we deserve them fully.
The look Peter saw, and Judas probably saw too, was the same look I saw in the lunchroom of St. Williams Elementary that day.  It was the hardest look of all looks to take, the most devastating because we know we don’t deserve it.  It leaves us with no way to redeem ourselves and no illusions about ourselves and where we stand with the one we betrayed.  It will kill us, and if we humble ourselves and accept its truth, it will raise us from the dead.  It is a fire that will consume us, or it is a flame that will warm us if we open our hearts to its truth.
It was the Gospel in Jackie’s tears and in the eyes of Christ. 
It was a look of grace, a wounded Lover, eyes filled with tears, still in love with the one who knows now beyond a doubt how undeserving of that love he really is.