Sand in the Gears

A Darkness That May Be Felt

March 9th, 2015 Posted in The Sermons | No Comments »

Some of you may like my latest essay at Image, about the 21 young men murdered by ISIS in Libya. Here’s an excerpt:

These stories are now fantasy to us, or nearly so. Abraham holds the knife to Isaac’s throat, Jacob wrestles a holy messenger, David fells Goliath—the action rises and falls in an old familiar tale of sin and blood and redemption, of endless genealogies, of a recalcitrant flock, of a bitter vine, and we grafted onto that vine thanks to Jesus, sweet Jesus, Jesus teaching, healing, then climbing his cross, and after that dread day, the empty tomb and the upper-room church, then the letters from Paul and a few others, then something about the end times, hallelujah, and now a Bible in every house and praise choruses on our tongues, and after these our Sunday dinners and perhaps the shake of our heads at the bad news coming from those ancient territories, those darkened world’s corners so very far from the God-blessed U.S.A.

God’s people traveled into Egypt for food, even as their remnant now travels from it seeking work, as thirteen young men traveled from their Nile village of El-Aour, along with eight from other locales, these twenty-one joining scores that departed villages and towns, hoping to feed their families just as Joseph’s brothers once did. They were sojourners there.

And we are here. Sometimes we forget here isn’t home, just as we forget the people sojourning there are our brothers and sisters. They shuffle the same windswept and sandy roads our adoptive forefathers traveled, darkening the sand with their blood, with their tears and with blood.

You can read the rest here.

The beast without

February 20th, 2015 Posted in The Art of Parenting | 14 Comments »

“Isaac’s being a jerk,” my seven year-old, Isaiah, says about his older brother. They have been sledding over new-fallen snow.

“Why do you say that?”

“Because he keeps knocking me off my sled.”

“Why do you think he did that?” I ask. I’ve been trying to help my children consider how sometimes they incite one another.

“Because he’s evil.”

Well, then.

“My sisters pregnant I can’t wait to find out if im gonna be an aunt or uncle,” is what the girl tweeted. By the time I saw a screenshot of her words, they had traveled pretty widely. What an idiot, people said. Glad I’m not that stupid. I thought the same things.

Witch burning gummy bears

Some weren’t content just to mock her to one another, they went to her Twitter timeline and told her she was stupid. Because the mark of intelligence is marking stupidity of others, I guess.

I went too, because I had begun to wonder: is anyone that dumb? I scrolled through her tweets, and watched time reverse itself: from the latest, where she asked why this harassment was happening to her, and told these strangers to leave her alone, to hours earlier, before she was beaten down, when she gave back as good as she got, to days before that, before someone decided she made a nice target. She’s a girl who doesn’t always attend to her grammar and likes the things that girls like and has an okay sense of humor. She’s just a girl. She isn’t an idiot. The tweet about being an aunt or uncle was a joke.

And as it turns out, lots of people have said the same joke. Not everyone has had strangers pop out of the woodwork to belittle them for doing so, but some have. I suppose they got off easy—even this girl so widely mocked that she shut down her Twitter account­—in comparison to Justine Sacco, who tweeted a joke about AIDS before boarding a flight to Africa in 2013, only to land and discover it had traveled the globe, and that she had been portrayed as a monster.

I saw there’s a movie coming out, a retelling of the mangled-beyond-recognition Dracula story, in which he is a hero who takes on vampiric powers to save his family. As I’ve written elsewhere, this is a trend in movies, to rehabilitate monsters. It’s a curious thing that we are humanizing monsters, yet are so quick to beastialize humans.

Because he’s evil.

It was funny when my son said it, but a little chilling. You know how I worry. What if Isaiah is going to become one of those dreadful puritanical hate-preachers on low-budget cable TV? We should never have given him an Old Testament name. What if he sees with a child’s prescience that his brother really is evil? I’m failing as a parent. Failing failing failing.

So in the spirit of practicing what I preach about considering how our actions incite others, I think on the conversations they’ve overheard, in which I question someone’s motives, in which I denounce some political figure or corporate charlatan, in which I rail against the people tearing down Western civilization.

Yes, that happens a lot at our dinner table. I like to imagine one of them will write a colorful biography about their father one day.

There’s my muttering about this church or that company, about a neighbor who lets her kids run up and down the street all night. And let’s not even consider the things I say while driving.

I don’t know why we want to think the worst of people, except maybe because it allows us, in a false and perverse way, to think better of ourselves. “Thank God I’m not like that tax collector,” said the Pharisee on his holy road to hell. Isn’t that each of us, in our own hearts, every day? No matter what we’ve done, we can always find someone worse. Thank God.

We think the worst of people, and we say it, and it’s a cleverly disguised way of saying we are good people, or maybe just that if God is in the business of paying people back, there’s a long list of folks he should scorch before he turns his awful eyes to us. It’s a small and mean kind of prison-camp thinking when you ponder it, but here we are.

And here I am, and here are these children, doing as I do instead of as I say, yet again, and the hard truth is all my saying doesn’t matter one tiny damn unless I change my doing. I want them to be better than me. How I want them to be better than me. But the thing is: I can’t send them down that road alone, can I?

When He is Silent

January 30th, 2015 Posted in Faith and Life | 27 Comments »

A reader whose younger sister recently died wrote me to ask how I endured, during the time of my daughter’s sickness and death, the silence of God. It’s something I’ve written about here and here, and in my book. I’ve talked about “saudade,” a Portuguese word meaning “the presence of absence,” which is how you feel, every day for the rest of your life, when you have lost someone you love. Their absence is a weight, it is a presence. You carry it with you everywhere. As I’ve written before, October—the month she died—still lays me low, so that I can barely function at times.

This weighty nothing is also what you feel when you cannot discern God’s response to your cries. It’s what you feel when you beg, when you bargain, and still death does not pass over your home, but comes inside, presses the breath from the lungs of the one you love, and then stays, a great shadow, a great nothing presence.

It feels like a betrayal, when God is silent. But what would I have him say? You are special, Tony. I’ll divert all the world’s suffering from your shoulders, because I love you more than the rest.

Yes, that’s exactly what I want him to say.

In truth it’s not the silence that crushed me, that enraged me, it was his refusal to give me what I wanted, which was to see my little girl grow up, to hear her voice like music in our house, to watch her married and to cradle her children, to go before her.


To go long before her.

He wouldn’t even give me what I begged for at the end, which was an easy death for her. Let the pain pass into me, sweet Christ, just ease her suffering.

Some of you know how I came unraveled in the years after, and what it cost the people around me. I told myself God was silent, and perhaps he was, though there were times, I realized later, when he spoke through small graces: a nap when she needed it most, the sweetness of an apple, her finger pointed to whatever she saw dancing about the ceiling, be it light or angels.

But maybe other times he really was silent, and maybe the reason is because I could not bear the answer.

Sometimes, after all, the answer is No. And when we ask why, the answer is little better: It is not for you to know. “May God give you grace…” said Israel to his sons as they took his youngest child into Egypt. “If I am bereaved, I am bereaved.” And Job, after hearing that all his children have died: “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away. As it seemed good to the Lord, so also it came to pass. Blessed be the name of the Lord.” Holy men looking heavenward to declare: Whatever I have was not mine, and so who am I to charge God with wrongdoing when he allows it to be taken?

This is a hard thing to hear, especially as you watch your beloved suffer. As you hear her try to draw breath, for in this she too is asking God, only to receive silence, and to join that silence with her own. The Lord gave her, yes, but how could he take her away?

How could you? I wept this at him. I spat it at him. How could you?

It is not for you to know. This is the truth behind much suffering. Far better people than me have written about what to make of this, and how to bear up under the burdens of this broken world, and I have no wisdom to add to theirs. I can only tell you what I think I have learned about the silence of God, which is, first, that I have often mistaken what I did not want—small mercies when a miracle is in order—for silence, and second, that sometimes silence is all we receive because we cannot yet bear the truth, which is that none of us is any more special than the other. We all of us labor in a sundered world and in it we are allotted our joys and our sufferings. Our deliverance often comes not, as Oswald Chambers noted, from these sufferings, but within them.

If nothing else, suffering lifts our eyes from this shattered plane to the world that is coming, that already dwells within our hearts, at least sometimes, and which will be written out in new flesh, in a new heaven and a new earth. We are sojourners through suffering and through mercies, not always in equal measure. But we are sojourners, which means this is not our home, yes, but which means also that we have a home to which we are going. We are stumbling homeward and we are battered but he carries us, make no mistake, even when he is quiet. Perhaps especially then.

Temple of bones

January 19th, 2015 Posted in The Sermons | 10 Comments »

Every baptism in the Orthodox Church entails an exorcism, as I learned last Easter when I was baptized into the Church. It was nothing desperate and dramatic like some of us remember from The Exorcist; in truth the devil and his minions flee from Christ and the Cross, having been sundered by both.

There was no desperation in the exorcism, but there was within me. I renounced the evil one with quaking voice, and tried to conjure from dry throat the saliva to spit outward across the threshold where I stood, to spit on the devil and thereby all my past involvement with him and all future temptation to heed him again.

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I could not read my part well for tears, then there was the tub of water and I beneath the water, crouched low and tight as a baby in the womb, lest some part of me remain dry and vulnerable like Achilles’ heel. Then there was air and light and the circled parishioners singing, and I delivered from the tomb.

Delivered, yet enframed by these diseased bones. “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling,” urged the saint who surely knew that working grace into the bones means drawing out its opposite as one might a poison. This is a holy surgery, a divine displacement, and it is by no means easy.

My oldest tells me he is working on cultivating kindness within himself, and he is, we all see it. When he slips he’s discouraged, and so I tell him a hard thing about salvation: It is not only a working out of poison but a workout, which is why St. Paul likened it to a marathon.

I used to pray for humility, I tell my son, believing God would simply hand it over to me. But that’s not so, I explain. He gives me humility by humbling me. He teaches me gratitude by allowing loss. He teaches me to love by letting me be wounded.

So expect to stumble, I tell my son. It’s a sign you’re making progress up the hill. What I don’t tell him, because I think he has to learn this on his own, is how warranted is this fear and trembling. Be careful what you pray for, child. Have a care. There is no grace worth having that comes cheap. These bones are a temple being swept clean and some of them will be scourged.

Have a care for the salvation you seek, I might tell him, for to ask is to receive. It is an indwelling and so an exorcism; it is entering the tomb and springing from your grave and neither will be what you expect.

It is a kind of death, boy. It is dying that you may have life, but it is a dying, and dying is never easy.

I imagine he’ll learn this in his own time. For now his are the labors of a boy, struggling up the hill that is at once the Mount of Olives and Golgotha. There’s time enough, God willing, for him to witness for himself what waits atop each.


January 15th, 2015 Posted in Faith and Life, The Sermons | 17 Comments »

I’ve been working on contentment, which mostly means I’ve been praying for God to help me be content in whatever circumstances I find myself, then griping at him when I face trials that might help me learn contentment. But I’m trying, I swear. Those of you who know me know that my life thus far hasn’t been what I’d planned. Maybe no one’s is, and maybe that’s for the best, for most of us, given what a mess we tend to make of things.

The point is, I’ve been sick for a couple of weeks now, flu followed by “walking pneumonia,” which is a funny saying because I haven’t really felt like walking anywhere. Some of you who know me well know that I am a worst-case scenario thinker, which will work out swimmingly in the event of apocalypse, but otherwise leads to gloomy thinking. So as I was mired in this illness that has been reluctant to leave my bones, I imagined dying.
St Roch Cemetery Merci
I mean, it’s going to happen, you know. To most of you as well. So I ponder it. In lingering illnesses past, my death thoughts have been to hope it’s not upon me yet, because I have important things to do. There’s an underlying sense that I have within me some greatness yet to be manifested. God would be cheating me and the world, in other words, if he were to yank me from this mortal coil too soon.

But as I lay not dying but contemplating dying, I took stock with perhaps a more measured eye. My children need me, this woman who married me despite all my failings and brokenness needs me, but am I indispensable? There’s nothing I will give them that God can’t give them a thousandfold. I have no great wisdom, no holy practices, certainly no worldly wealth to offer. But I love them. How I love them. Yet God can replace even that, because he, of course, loves them more, and he governs all things, whereas I’ve been doing well these past couple of years just to govern myself.

What of my work? Does my company need me? I like to think I’m valuable, but certainly I’m replaceable. With some difficulty, mind you, especially if the you reading this happens to be my boss. But still.

Yes, but my art. Surely there is some great book I will write? I have written a couple that I hope have some beauty in them, but greatness? I don’t even know what that means any more. Whatever greatness is, I doubt it resides in my head or heart.

But here’s the thing: This is good. It’s better than good. See, because God doesn’t need me for anything he wants to get done in this world, not even the things most important to me, like taking care of my babies and my wife, like penning a sentence that makes someone sigh, like speaking a little of the kind of truth that makes people hiss. I am essential to none of this. I am unnecessary to creation.

Better still, I deserve nothing. Lying, cheating, grumbling lump of self-obsessed narcissistic preening egotistical futility that I have been, I dare not claim one more second of breath, one more dollar of income, one more child’s hug.

And yet, here I am. It’s all a gift, do you see? Every hour from this one forward is an absolute mercy. And if that doesn’t bring a man to believe in the unquenchable love of God, well, I don’t know what will.

In his novel, Peace Like a River, Leif Enger’s narrator, Reuben Land, reflects on what he’s wanted, what he’s lost, what might yet be coming in his life. “Fair is,” he concludes, “whatever God wants to do.”

I didn’t always think so, but now I say: Amen.

Light in Darkness

December 27th, 2014 Posted in Faith and Life, Theology | Comments Off

It feels almost unseemly, hurling another post at you so soon after the last, given my long absence before. Think of me as the gregarious but wayward uncle, come to inhabit your kitchen for the Christmas season. He’ll likely take up his bag and be gone one morning without so much as a goodbye, but then again you never know—maybe this will be the year he finally accepts your invitation to live over your garage.

And then he’ll be at your table every morning, telling you stories that are different than the ones he’s told before, yet the same, and you’ll be stuck with him because, well, you did ask.

So, another Christmas meditation of sorts. Here’s an excerpt:

The world soon obscures that childlike vision. Many of us learned to see Christmas as a time of plunder. For some, it became a season of annoyance, even bitterness. For nearly all it became a gaudy carousel operated by madmen, and we all grabbing hold and clinging, because how can you let go? How can you disappoint those who await presents? How can you not hang the decorations you’ve accumulated in the attic?

How can you avoid the parties, the gatherings of fractured and factious family, the recitals and plays, the renderings of Tchaikovsky or Handel (because this year our kids are going to get some culture if it kills us!), the homeless-shelter outing (see, kids, howgood you’ve got it!), the never ending trips to the grocery store?

You can read the rest here. Enjoy your Christmas, and remember, no matter what the stores and radio stations and neo-Puritanical anti-liturgical sourpuss culture mavens may claim: IT LASTS TWELVE DAYS.

Madonna and Child

December 24th, 2014 Posted in Faith and Life | Comments Off

This past year, most of my scarce scraps of writing time have gone into revising a novel, which is currently in the hands of a small number of potential agents and even a potential publisher, though I’m sure I’ve jinxed myself by saying so. I have been writing a few other things, which I usually try to update here and on my Facebook page, and I’ve largely abandoned my guilt about not writing more here, because that guilt is a self-generated thing, insofar as you’re probably getting along fine without so many original missives in this space, and my blog doesn’t really care, so long as I keep feeding coins into the hosting-fee meter so it doesn’t disappear into nothingness. Which means the only one who feels bad about not being that once-or-twice-a-week-essayist we all used to know and love is me, and it’s not guilt so much as the ongoing consternation about what my brand should be and my platform and other words that suck the soul from a writer as soon as he casts his thoughts in their direction.

The point is, I’ve written something perhaps you might like, and though it begins with the escapades of a particularly famous mononymous star, it wanders its way toward, in that fashion of mine that some of you like and all of you not reading perhaps don’t like, this season in which we find ourselves. Here’s an excerpt:

If hell is absence of the heavenly then we’re wallowing in it. Percy labeled it a disease that “eats to the marrow,” and surely that is us: marrow-rotted and common as dirt, leaning Godward when it suits us or when we have no practical alternative, but always with the intention of making him relevant, as if what pleases us is what’s divine, as if we got here first and he is the one who ought accommodate himself to us, as if we are owed.

You can read the rest here, if you like. And even if you don’t like, I hope you have a wonderful Christmas, or a passable Christmas, or if nothing else, an abatement to whatever burdens happen to be weighing you down these days.

Politics, porn, and football

October 14th, 2014 Posted in Curmudgeonry | Comments Off

Some of you may like my attempt, though it probably deserves more thought, to articulate why we pay little attention to big-money sports in my home. Here’s an excerpt:

Now, let’s not quibble over semantics; I know the Canadians spent millions on a national curling center, that parents of gymnasts fork over thousands for training, and so on. By “big-money,” I mean the sports swamped by wealth, and by its concomitant power over our hearts.

A power that induces fans to overlook thuggery, that induces college officials to cover up child molestation rather than jeopardize their football franchise, that encourages millions of boys to waste years perfecting the throwing and bouncing of balls at the expense of basic math and grammar skills.

I wrote much of it while listening to men down the street bark at their children during a Pee Wee football game. Not that I hold an unbending principle against barking at children, but what struck me was how that hour, other than perhaps (perhaps!) whatever time they spend in church, might be for many boys the most emotionally intense in their week. The time they feel most attuned to the true hearts of their fathers. And there’s something wrong with that, a kind of metastasis of the trivial. It’s not the inherent fault of the sport, of course, but ours for letting it get that way, or maybe for letting everything else become so drab in comparison.

If all that isn’t enough to provoke you to read it, consider how I equate big-money sports to pornography and politics. And as a side-thought, imagine a community invaded by none of those. Oh, and here’s the link.

The turned back

August 27th, 2014 Posted in Curmudgeonry, The Sermons | 79 Comments »

I will tell you something about courage and cowardice. I will speak primarily about men, because I am a man, and because the evil that grieves me was glimpsed by men, and these men turned away their eyes.

News accounts from England reveal that over 1,400 children in the borough of Rotherham were systematically brutalized over the past decade. The authors of this damning report indicate that the actual number is likely much higher. The report also details gang rapes of 11 year-olds. Children doused in gasoline and threatened with matches. A “grooming” process that entails addicting children to drugs. Children murdered, others missing.

Lidice Memorial - Memorial to Child Victims of War - By Marie Uchytilova - Near Prague - Czech Republic - 03

Local police have known about this for over ten years. So have all manner of child welfare authorities and local government officials. They convened conferences to discuss it. They combatted it with guidelines and policies. They bravely met for many hours, and boldly authored internal memos.

Perhaps we should expect no more when community preservation is outsourced to bureaucracies, but the unavoidable reality is that on many occasions, Rotherham police came upon children being sexually exploited—in some cases, in the very instance of being raped—and arrested no one. The perpetrators are Pakistani; they might call us racists. The children seemed to consent. These gangs are violent.

All of which amount to an admission by those police officers that they are cowards, and something less than men. I’m reminded of the janitors who discovered Penn State coach Jerry Sandusky’s rape of children, and who said nothing, for fear of losing their jobs. They were cowards too, and deserve to be remembered as such.

We have lost the willingness to call evil by its rightful name, and the courage to stand in the face of it and say: “No. Not here. Not on my street. Not in my city.” There is no limit to the hells men devise when no one opposes them. “What’s the point?” a Rotherham victim asked investigators. “I might as well be dead.”

The men and women who failed her might ask themselves the same question. We might all ask it. What is the point, really, in preserving our comforts—our lives, even—if to do so we must become so small, so dark-hearted, that we turn our backs on the most vulnerable among us?

I suppose none of us knows whether he will be a coward until the moment demands courage. “Be prepared in season and out of season,” the apostle Paul wrote to Timothy. As far as we are concerned, perhaps this entails recognizing that the season is upon us—an evil season, a season when children worldwide are treated like so much trash, when questions once governed by common sense are now fodder for intellectual word-play, when an army gathering under a black flag is both a reality and a metaphor, for war rages in the hearts of men, and it is coming, is here already, in our neighborhoods and our homes and our own hearts, we good and decent people who are perhaps only better than these cowards because the hour has not yet come when evil stands on our doorstep and demands entrance.

And what then will we say? Will we tell ourselves it’s not as bad as it seems? Will we pretend steadfastness is someone else’s job? Will we promise that this is only a small compromise, that when the situation really demands it, we’ll be brave?

Cowardice has a thousand justifications. But to the wounded, it always looks the same: averted eyes, a turned back, something resembling a man or a woman walking away.

On just saying no

July 18th, 2014 Posted in Curmudgeonry | 1 Comment »

Related to my previous post, I have an essay at Good Letters digging into the hypocrisy of evangelicals, as represented by the American Family Association, who simultaneously support the Drug War while demanding that we reject child refugees from that war. Here’s an excerpt:

We sponsor both sides of this war; we constitute the primary North American demand for illegal narcotics, and we supply the gunships, automatic weapons (sometimes to drug dealers themselves, lest anyone forget Obama’s Fast and Furious scandal), and tactical support. We arm both sides, and we turn our backs on the carnage.

Only now the carnage is at our doorstep. They come shell-shocked, disease-ridden, hungry. And sadly, self-professing Christians are some of their loudest detractors. Never mind that Americans have five churches for every immigrant child. Never mind that these same churches spend millions sending their privileged children on brief junkets we call “mission trips,” presumably to reach the very kinds of people who now huddle at our border, begging for help.

The essay ends with some Biblical exegesis to complement that offered by an American Family Association official in support of keeping the refugees out. Seems he didn’t read far enough in the Bible story on which he hangs his hat. Shocking.

Thy kingdom come

July 3rd, 2014 Posted in The Sermons | 50 Comments »

I don’t think they love their children any less than I love my own, which tells me something about what their lives must be like, to send their babies away. Their children stream northward in droves—as many as 60,000 this year—and we don’t want them. We don’t want their skin lesions and their hungry bellies, we don’t want their parents and aunts and uncles likely to follow, we don’t want them taking our jobs and clogging our classrooms and driving without insurance on our roads. We have no place for them in our country and certainly not in our hearts.

I understand there are political and economic realities that don’t go away just because I feel pity. One political party sees in immigrants a chance to build its permanent dominance; the other fears destruction. The accountants, meanwhile, see fiscal disaster. We’re already trillions in debt, with unfunded liabilities that will bankrupt many unsuspecting communities in the coming decade. Worse still, a lower portion of Americans have jobs than at any time in recent memory. People are scared, and they are angry.

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So some of them do all they know to do, when they see busloads of hungry immigrant children barreling into their communities. They form barricades, and they tell them to go home. They’re shouting at the accompanying phalanx of federal bureaucrats as well, but I don’t suppose that nuance is understood by the children looking fearfully at them through the bus windows. “We don’t want you here!” a man shouts. I suppose he speaks for a good many of us.

The U.S. government estimates 60,000 immigrant children this year. There are over 300,000 churches in America, most of them hewing to a mission of spreading some kind of good news. What good news? Salvation. The coming kingdom. A God whose will, we pray, be done on earth as it is in heaven.

And what is his will? That’s not for me to say, but it is for me to ask, and for you to ask. It’s for us to ask, and then to listen. Are we listening, we who spend millions to travel overseas carrying the Gospel to the lost, now that God is sending tens of thousands of them our way?

I know there are geopolitical practicalities that transcend the priorities of my stupid bleeding heart, but 300,000 churches and 60,000 children.

What if, instead of greeting the federal agents with protest signs, we greeted them with petitions? Give us these children. We will feed them, we will clothe them, we will give them shelter. We will teach them and we will pray over them. Their parents, God help them, sent them away, and now here we stand to make good on the faith or hope or desperation in which those mothers and fathers sent them forth. Give us these children, and we will find a way. We will show mercy, because while we can scarcely agree between ourselves on anything else, we agree that the kingdom of heaven includes a hand stretched out in love.

It’s utterly impractical, I know. But how have we done so far, Christians, with practicality? For Christ’s sake, let’s not be known for our practicality.

Cantering to the gas chamber

June 18th, 2014 Posted in Curmudgeonry | 11 Comments »

A society doesn’t capsize all at once; it leans by degrees. It tilts, and the opinion mavens who are its deckhands rush about reassuring everyone that it’s the horizon that is at fault. We are finally leveling things, they say, now clip your belt to the rail so you don’t go overboard. The enlightened canter society, they level it to their horizon-scorning vision, and then, once a sufficient pitch is reached, gravity takes care of the rest.

I can’t calculate the current slope of the Great American Degradation, but when I read about doctors shamelessly subjecting infants to experimental risks while concealing those risks from the parents, I feel my ankles pop. Researchers at the University of Alabama-Birmingham medical center experimented with oxygen given to dramatically underweight infants, in an effort to fine-tune common treatment practices. The result was greater incidence of blindness for one group of babies, and more deaths among another group. Here’s an excerpt from my recent essay at Good Letters:

A review by the Office of Human Research Protections (OHRP) in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services concludes that risk-disclosures to parents were inadequate, because they listed potential benefits, but mentioned no dangers beyond possible skin irritation from the oxygen monitors. The researchers defend themselves by noting that none of the babies received oxygen outside the range deemed acceptable in standard medical practice. Therefore, they explain, they told the truth when they told parents that “there is no predictable increase in risk for your baby.”

But of course they were predicting risks, at least amongst themselves and their funders. This suspicion was the entire purpose, after all, of the study—to test whether premature infants are subjected to unnecessarily high risks of blindness by current practices. But because no such study has conclusively shown this, there is no scientific proof of the danger. Thus the researchers felt justified in not disclosing their hypotheses to the parents. There was no math, after all.

Well, there is now.

This isn’t just a story about researchers making bad decisions. This is a direct consequence of our modern perversion of science, which leads us to assert that the only things which can be known are the things about which we have data.

That’s not an indictment of science, mind you—of experimentation and measurement and testing falsifiable hypotheses. It is an indictment of the materialism and utilitarianism that have crept into scientific fields as we’ve abandoned their philosophical underpinnings. If you reject the human elements of science—the intuition, the tacit knowing, the sense of beauty and truth and rightness that has always guided scientific inquiry—then you dehumanize scientific efforts. You divorce morality from expediency. You make weaker, voiceless human beings—in this case, 1300 mostly poor and minority babies and their families—means to the ends of the stronger.

And your denuded reasoning allows you to get away with it. “There was no predictable increase in risk,” the doctors say. They still believe it. Some of their comrades believe they shouldn’t have been required to get permission in the first place.

History tells us where this leads. I write that not with a fear of sounding alarmist, but with a desire to sound the alarm. This does not end, believe me, with scientists quietly obscuring risks to their poor black subjects in Alabama. It ends, as it always has, in fanaticism—fanaticism which pretends it is something else because it cloaks itself in the language of cool rationality, of scientific progress, of unblinking commitment to the greatest material good for the greatest fit number. It ends, for those deemed weak or useless or dangerous,  in the gulag and the gas chamber.

Do you feel the weight shifting? Best clip yourself to the rail.

Scientific passions

May 29th, 2014 Posted in Curmudgeonry | Comments Off

Forty days have passed quickly and the feasting is over, so I suppose I should start putting together words again. When it’s not on this novel I’m revising, my writing mind has been on science—on the art that is genuine science, and the bullying that is scientism, and our persistent modern confusion of the two. I recently wrote an essay over on the Image Good Letters channel, in response to science popular Neil deGrasse Tyson’s claim that philosophy is irrelevant. Here’s an excerpt:

When you delve into the history of science, you don’t find a phalanx of impassive researchers asking questions, gathering data, and methodically testing hypotheses. You find visionaries—the scientists who make history, anyway—gripped by insights that precede their scientific tests. “Eureka,” Archimedes is said to have shouted, as he leaped from the bathtub where he first intuited a means of precisely measuring the volume of irregular objects. Eureka: I have found. His belief about reality preceded the proof.

Likewise did a PhD student named Louis de Broglie argue—with insufficient empirical data—that electron particles have physical waves. Albert Einstein, when Broglie’s skeptical thesis advisors wrote asking his opinion about the student’s theory, urged them to pass him, based on the elegance of his work. His theoryfelt right. A few years later the data emerged, and a couple of years after that, Broglie received the Nobel Prize in Physics.

“Only a tiny fraction of all knowable facts are of interest to scientists,” wrote scientist and philosopher Michael Polanyi. A scientist’s decision about what to explore—what drives him to the doorstep of the Scientific Method we were taught as children—is something altogether ignored by that method, but critical nonetheless to discovery: what Polanyi called “a sense of intellectual beauty.” Scientific discovery is, Polanyi believed, an emotional response to glimpses of an undiscovered reality. A scientist is very much like an artist in that regard.

Somehow we’ve gotten the notion into our heads that discovery stems from breaking down things into parts, and those parts into parts, and we’ve concocted a myth that scientific truth is simply a matter of applying impartial measures to these micro-parts, when discovery has always entailed human judgment, and a sense of rightness, and of elegance, and other concepts that resist micro-splitting, all of which are dependent on culture, and philosophy, and other messy packages.

There’s so much to be unpacked there, from how we approach global warming and evolution theory, to how we teach our children. And I confess 90 percent of the reason I care is because of the pervasive smugness of people like Tyson, and Stephen Pinker, and Richard Dawkins, and their refusal to understand how rooted they are in their own biases and philosophies. It just makes for, well, bad science. So in that, I like to think I’m actually pro-science in my anti-scientism. Anyway, here’s a link to the Good Letters essay if you’re interested.



April 17th, 2014 Posted in Faith and Life, The Sermons | 26 Comments »

When we tucked what remained of that little girl into the earth, I was relieved it was over. I was filled with something that felt like transcendence. We had weathered the storm, we had kept the faith, we had given her back to God, and now we would await patiently the life of the world to come. How peaceful and triumphant and emptied of worldly concern I thought myself to be.

There is something essential and beautiful in lamentation. It is a witness against death, and we should bear witness, because death is an abomination and an obscenity. A great perversion of the Christian faith is the transformation of funerals into celebrations. Death is a destroyer, and this is why we sing, as we celebrate the triumph of a Messiah: “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death.” Death is an abomination and death is being trampled down and we who would live eternally shall bear witness against it.

Russian - Altar Cloth - Walters 83275

Death is woven into our flesh, and so is lamentation, though we avoid it with our culture that whistles past the graveyard. Even pagans would believe in a victory over death, but if that victory matters, surely then all the blood of the ages gone stilled and black has been a tragedy—a tragedy stretching from the garden sin to brother killing brother to our own dark-hearted acts, yours and mine. To deny the tragedy is to deny our deep yearning for liberation. To refrain from lamentation is to deny, then, what is in our own hearts.

When the Ewe that bare him

Saw them slaying her Lamb,

Tossed by swelling waves of pain she wailed forth her woe,

And moved all the flock to join her bitter cries.


Gone the Light the world knew!

Gone the Light that was mine!

O my Jesus, that art all of my heart’s desire:

So the Virgin spake lamenting at thy grave.


Who will give me water

For the tears I must weep,

So the maiden wed to God cried with loud lament,

That for my sweet Jesus I may rightly mourn?


Who will give me water for the tears I must weep? I learned, in the years after that graveside parting, what comes of the incomplete lament. Our hearts will be broken. They can only be healed after breaking. I have unlearned much of what I thought I knew, and likely still imagine I know more than I really do, but here is one thing I believe I have learned, which I share with you as we walk with Christ toward Golgotha: Let your heart be broken.

Let your heart be broken, and remember the fullness of the Paschal refrain we will sing come Sunday, come judgment day, come the day of our liberation: “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life!”

Today hath Hades sighed, crying: “My power hath been swallowed up; for the Shepherd, crucified, hath raised Adam; and those whom I possessed I lost. Those whom I had swallowed by my might, I have given up completely; for the Crucified hath emptied the graves and the might of death hath vanished.”

The presence and the devil

April 9th, 2014 Posted in Faith and Life | 1 Comment »

Some of you may appreciate my latest “Good Letters” essay, which is about redemption and communion and other heavy things. I know, a marked change for light-hearted Tony. Here’s an excerpt:

“I lingered at the edges of another church in the following months, and then not at all. The shape of a newly divorced and even harder drinking man is not well-suited—at least it can seem to him, in his vanity and stupor—to pews. I drifted, and far.

My memory of that long descent’s end is the memory of a voice, nightly, over the phone. That voice spoke truths I’d forgotten apply to me: truths about forgiveness, about purpose. It was not the voice of an angel, but close enough, and to this day the sound of it conjures for me salvation.

I still hear it every morning, because it is the voice of a woman who chose to become my wife, long after I stopped believing I deserve such a thing. She took my hand despite my past, took it though her cancer left us unsure if she would live long past a honeymoon. We had no money, no home. Each of us bore a sickness. Today we are mending, and we have a house in a little town, and my children love her more than I imagined possible.”

You can read the rest here.

Which will falter

April 3rd, 2014 Posted in Faith and Life, The Sermons | 16 Comments »

In the gathered dark freezing rain scaled the limbs, the leaves, and every outstretched thing. We woke to the thrum of a power line fallen, its light so savage we had to shield our eyes. Electric fire inhabited a tree despite the battering sleet. Its branches burned amidst a world gone to ice and it was an awful, holy thing.

Power spilled from the severed line until someone threw a switch. What sound remained was the sleet like a campfire skillet. It sapphired the dawning landscape, and trees bowed beneath it.

The first thunder came an hour later, only it was not thunder, it was the crack of a limb tearing loose, a long and remorseless crepitation that was followed by silence, then a thump. Some minutes later was another crack, another thump. All day long the sky fell.

Three trees

There is no predicting which trees will break, nor how they will falter. Some shed limbs as a rebirthing, others lose not a one. Some are sundered to their roots, as if a rotten core had crept up through the center of them, or had been birthed within them, had been inside them from the beginning, only to be revealed in the testing hour.

A pin oak behind my house cast down a dozen widow-makers, a proud magnolia fell into itself grotesquely. A pear tree shed half itself across my driveway. Branches speared the earth, some of them a foot deep, because when you stretch to heaven you have much further to fall, and your breaking is perilous to all around you.

There is no telling which will crack and which can bear the weight, and this is true of you, and me, and perhaps even some we hold invincible.

Sometimes the ones we thought strong topple, while the stoop-shouldered endure. They endure because they bend beneath the weight, they shoulder it as beasts of burden and within them is something like faith that it will pass.

And it does pass, and we give thanks for the maiming, for the shedding of our weakness that could not bear the weight, the proud or sickened parts of ourselves that might have spread to the roots if not for the awful and merciful storm.

Civilizing the civilizers

March 31st, 2014 Posted in Curmudgeonry | 1 Comment »

What happens when you gather thinkers in thrall to scientism, and ask them to list the most important books for civilization? A compendium that includes books on robot sex and immortality, but nothing on plumbing, or farming, or the God recognized by a third of the world’s population. As you might imagine, I take issue with that, as you can see in my most recent Good Letters essay. Here’s an excerpt:

I learned about The Long Now Foundation via Brain Pickings, a website that describes itself as a “cross-disciplinary LEGO treasure chest.” Aptly, this captures both the breadth of Brain Pickings offerings, and the constriction of its worldview. Both evidence a breathlessness over science and man which is captured by lopping off the disquieting portions in the opening to A Tale of Two Cities: we live in the best of times, an age of wisdom, a season of light…

The Long Now Foundation was established by futurists “to provide a counterpoint to today’s accelerating culture and help make long-term thinking more common.” One of the Foundation’s mitigations is the Manual for Civilization, envisioned as a 3000-volume collection spanning four categories: “cultural canon” (note the careful ellipsis of article), “mechanics of civilization,” “rigorous science fiction,” and “long-term thinking, futurism, and relevant history.” This last is defined as “Books on how to think about the future that may include surveys of the past.”

The past may be useful in service to the future, in other words, but what we need is not a remembrance of the past so much as a continual march into the coming centuries, our superior sensibilities as metal-halide lanterns piercing the darkness. A gimlet eye might perceive here the very shortened attention span its creators despise. Can anyone possess enduring wisdom who is besotted with his own age?

You can read the rest here.

The worldly vision

March 28th, 2014 Posted in Curmudgeonry, The Sermons | 22 Comments »

(Note: An expanded version of this essay—which attempts to address some of the objections leveled in the comments below as well as at The American Conservative—is over at On Faith.)


I am angry, and so I hope you will forgive me for whatever I write that offends, unless you need offending, in which case I hope you receive it in love.

I am angry at the people who, having sponsored children through World Vision, having developed relationships with these little ones who now depend on them, would so easily threaten to walk away. I am angry, as well, at self-professing Christians who imagine, with neither humility nor understanding, that their novel interpretation of the Bible is grounds for forcing the rest of Christendom to come along with them on their journey into apostasy.

“Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”


Those of you who were outraged by World Vision’s state-pressured recognition of same-sex marriages, would you turn your backs on the little girl in danger of being sold into sex slavery in Thailand, the little boy in Haiti whose mother cannot feed him, for a point of dogmatic purity in an organization which is not the Church?

Do you demand the same purity of the sports teams you root for, of the stores where you buy your comfortable clothes, of the grocery stores where you buy your steaks?

Do you think the Church so weak that it needs affirmation from the Human Resources department of World Vision to maintain what was instituted by God?

The world heads deeper into sickness, and sometimes people who call themselves Christians are leading the way. For them we pray, not because the Church is endangered, not because marriage is endangered, but because their souls are endangered. Cutting off funds to poor and defenseless children will not save one soul. So on what grounds will you justify it, when your own day of judgment comes?

And to those of you who bathe yourselves in righteous indignation at World Vision’s reversal, who believe that your personal revelations outweigh centuries of Church tradition and teaching, who haven’t the slightest charity towards your brothers and sisters, casting our refusal to embrace your beliefs as evidence of hatred in our hearts—and thereby, conveniently and cheaply, a superior love within your own—shame on you.

“Therefore let us not judge one another anymore,” writes the apostle Paul, “but rather resolve this, not to put a stumbling block or a cause to fall in our brother’s way.”

You lay down stumbling blocks at every turn. You do it despite believing that any building with a cross and a preacher is a church, which means that you have the freedom to start whatever churches you like, and establish whatever ceremonies you choose, and call these marriages, and declare that God smiles on them. Your beliefs give you the freedom to worship God however you see fit, but this does not content you, because you need the rest of Christendom to agree with you. You would make your brother choke down the idol’s food, and call him unchristian if he does not. You derive your righteousness from pointing out the mote in his eye.

Some would defund poor children to make a dogmatic point; you would risk that funding to make your own. You decry the actions of your brethren when you are no better.

The Church has withstood apostates from the beginning. It has withstood politics, Muslim invasions, totalitarian oppression, even the malaise and indifference of Western modernism. It will endure, long after the current heretics have been replaced by more outrageous heretics. It will endure even as a thousand counterfeits spring up, ten thousand false teachings, a hundred thousand false prophets, a million impersonators of Christ. The Church does not veer into apostasy, apostates veer away from the Church.

And for them we should pray. We should pray for them, and perhaps they can pray for us, and maybe we can even talk about our differences—with each other, rather than to outsiders who look on our strife with pleasure. Maybe, even, we can speak truth to one another in love.

“By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

Tell me, are any of us doing this very well? I’m certainly not. I could spend the remainder of my life trying to get this right. How about you?

The sickness

March 20th, 2014 Posted in The Sermons | 33 Comments »

I write this on the day Fred Phelps, pretender to ministry, hater of gays, vitriolic picketer of soldiers’ funerals, has gone forth into the Judgement he welcomed for others. In the days leading up to his demise there was talk among some, who hate him deeply for his hatred, of picketing his funeral. Of holding signs and repaying his corpse. Someone in his church replied that they don’t have funerals, because this is to worship the dead. I suppose in another generation they’ll be banning crosses as idols, and in the generation after that they’ll be drinking Kool-Aid and waiting for the spaceships, because hatred is a kind of madness.

Hatred is madness, and it is sickness, and it spreads with contact. So does one man’s hateful act jeopardize the soul of his victim, and thus did Fred Phelps do his best to fill up hell. I wonder if he ever thought he was really saving anyone from anything, or if all his public testimony was really just a perverse celebration.


It’s easy to hate a man like Fred Phelps, and just as easy to say that we should have hearts filled with pity for him, for the sheep who followed him. It’s easy for me, anyway, because that was never one of my sons in a box, body flayed by a roadside bomb, his memory dishonored by shouting, sign-bearing heretics. I can’t imagine that horror without also tempting myself to hate him even now, to hope he burns as he ached to see others burn. Me, who was never wronged by him.

In truth, people like me need someone like Fred Phelps. He made me feel better about myself. I am as the Pharisee who gave thanks he was not the tax collector—a comparison to which some might object, on the grounds that in that story, the tax collector was a humbled man, aware of his sins and begging mercy.

But none of us knows what transpires in the heart’s final beating. We can never know until it is we who lay waiting for judgment, our hearts softened or hardened or indifferent. Perhaps Fred Phelps saw, in his final seconds, the cost of his life, the dreadful bloody stink of it, rising up to heaven. Perhaps he saw and he begged forgiveness. And perhaps—how scandalous to think it—he was forgiven.

And while the state of his heart is now a settled and secreted thing, perhaps mine turns, as well as yours, on whether we are willing to pray that it was so, that the likes of Fred Phelps could be saved from the sickness that consumed him. Perhaps such a merciful heart is, in the end, all that saves any of us from his sickness.


(The photo above, according to Wikimedia Commons, is of Fred Phelps, aged 3, hugging his sister Martha-Jean, aged 2, as they stand in the shadow of their father, Fred Wade Phelps. Of the elder Mr. Phelps and his eventual rift with Fred Phelps, the latter’s son, Mark Phelps, once told a reporter: “I remember my grandfather crying. I remember my grandfather telling him to get back in the Methodist Church and stop all this nonsense.” Mark Phelps said that when his grandfather died, his father was broken up, and attended the funeral—showing, perhaps, that love can, at least sometimes, overcome the lies we tell ourselves about God.)

Easing the burden

March 14th, 2014 Posted in Faith and Life | 18 Comments »

“I’m sorry I shot you in the face with my Nerf gun. Do you forgive me?”

My son knows he is supposed to ask for forgiveness, just as his brother knows that sooner or later he will be expected to say yes.

He knows to say it because he knows he is supposed to forgive. What is on the lips and in the heart can be day and night, and so one challenge a parent faces is to encourage right action without engendering falsity. Like when the offending brother’s apology is as the litany of a foreign tongue: I’msorrydoyouforgiveme.

There is work to do in their hearts, in mine. And so my children ask and grant forgiveness. Sometimes they even mean it.

Broad chain closeup

I find myself coming repeatedly to a hard reality, for myself, for them. If God is to be believed in and therefore believed, then forgiveness is conditional. We are forgiven as we forgive. It is jarring, when I stare it in the face, especially when I consider the grudges I am prone to harbor in the darkened places of my heart.

Perhaps even more jarring is the implication of this condition, which is that our every trespass against another jeopardizes his soul. We heap burdens on others. How many of us heap the greatest burdens on those we claim to love the most?

I try to explain this to my sons, not because I believe they are steering one another toward the abyss with their occasional trespasses, but because I want them to comprehend the awful power they will carry with them all their days.

I once heard someone say that if we Christians really believe in salvation and damnation, then more people ought to approach hell with our hands gripping their ankles. I used to think that meant offering them clever words about God. More and more I think it means the much harder and more radical work of actually living out what we say we believe. All that business about loving our neighbors, and giving alms to those in need, and humbling ourselves.

I think about this especially during this season of Lent. To repent is to turn away, to desire to undo the wrong. But how to take back that boulder on my brother’s shoulder, the boulder I placed there when I lied to him, cut him with my words, gave him the passive scorn of my neglect?

There is no path, is there, but to beg for forgiveness? I’m still learning how. Still working to graft the humility it requires onto a hardened heart. And working, at the same time to help humility take root in the hearts of my children.

My hope is that their heart’s ground becomes more fertile as they realize that we are not, each of us, working out his personal salvation alone. The Scottish pastor John Watson put it this way:

“This man beside us also has a hard fight with an unfavouring world, with strong temptations, with doubts and fears, with wounds of the past which have skinned over, but which smart when they are touched. It is a fact, however surprising. And when this occurs to us we are moved to deal kindly with him, to bid him be of good cheer, to let him understand that we are also fighting a battle; we are bound not to irritate him, nor press hardly upon him nor help his lower self.”

Do not add to the weight under which your brother labors, Watson was saying, for you know what a load it is to bear. I hope my children learn to forgive, and to beg it. Our lives are intertwined. My struggle affects yours, for better or worse. Do you forgive me?

Children and pornography

February 24th, 2014 Posted in Curmudgeonry, The Art of Parenting | Comments Off

Some of you might appreciate my latest essay for Good Letters. Others of you may not like it at all. Maybe it’s proof that I’m no less angry today than I was ten years ago, when some of you first started reading my little missives. I’d like to think I’m angry about more important things now, at least. In any event, here’s an excerpt (warning: I deal with graphic material in this essay, so some of you may just prefer to skip it):

No, our brave new world depends on the hardwired hard-on. Boys want what boys want, and mostly they want to see women’s breasts, though sometimes they want boys and sometimes they want to dress up like a cat and be degraded by older men. Whatever they want, we should take care not to shame them for it, or deceive ourselves that they can be deterred, and in fact should ourselves be ashamed if our impulse is to deter them.

And if what they see is not what they want, we should learn to have a good laugh with them when they stumble across those images, because, well, they’re bound to see it sooner or later, so why traumatize them by making a fuss?

This is very convenient for the modern pornographer, be he the aggregator of shot-in-a-basement amateur porn, or the violence-besotted Quentin Tarantino, or an overseer of last year’s Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade, who found unobjectionable a dance number featuring transvestites in hooker boots. Why should anyone feel responsibility for what he spews out into the world, if children are bound to see it anyway?

You can read the rest here.

The prodigal and I

February 19th, 2014 Posted in Faith and Life | 26 Comments »

I passed through Wichita today, which was no small thing for me, because on every corner is loss. That is the place we took our children to see a game not long before we divorced. There is the building where I used to gather with men who were my friends. Here is the hospital where I first bathed two of my sons. Here is the house where I cleaned my daughter’s body the night she died.

This is the city where so much was given to me. This is the city where I pissed it all away.

More than once I catch myself whispering, “I am so sorry.” I am saying it to my children who are not with me. My children who once had twenty acres on which to play and one house in which to live.

I know it could be worse. What’s more, there were things in that earlier time that I would rather be shot than go back to. Yet I grieve.

Rembrandt - The Return of the Prodigal Son - WGA19133

We have to find a balance—all we sinners and screw-ups, at least—between mourning and thankfulness. Between repentance and renewal. How I mourn what has passed. How I beg for mercy. And yet, how I give thanks for what remains, and for new blessings taking root. Alongside every “Forgive me” belongs, at least in my life, thanksgiving—because if God is anything he is the father rushing to embrace his pig-stinking prodigal son, to give him more and still more, before the boy even draws breath to beg.

If I could extend the story, I would give the son a limp, because forsaking home leaves scars—on us, on those who love us. I would have him hobble sometimes to where his father’s livestock are kept, and crouch with some effort beside the muck, and breathe it in. I would have him choke down a dried husk. I would have him remember where he has been, and I would imbue the joy of his remaining days with sorrow.

I would do all this that he might not find himself lying once again with pigs, longing for the freedom of a slave. We need to let our minds return to hell on occasion, the prodigal and I.

I’ll pass back through soon, and see as many old friends as can make time for me. I’ll recall the goodness that was there, and it will hurt, as it should, as I need it to. A great many of us can look back on carnage. But we can look forward to grace, find it where we stand, find it even, God forgive us, back there, where we thought he did not see, did not care. I know I can. I can see the sty behind and my father’s house ahead and though my pace is slow for limping there is grace, there is grace, even for one such as me there is grace.

The world we show them

February 13th, 2014 Posted in Faith and Life | 13 Comments »

“Which world do you want to live in?”

My oldest son, just days from his 14th birthday, glares back at me. Behind him in the car sit his brothers. Their hands are pressed to their faces. One of them is crying.

Caleb begins to explain why he smacked them. Eli was needling him about something. Isaac, five years younger and half his size, had come over the seat at him with a vengeance when he hit Eli.

Caravaggio - Sette opere di Misericordia
“Which world, Caleb?”


I tell him he is headed into a world where wrongs are repaid with violence. I ask if he wants what comes next, in this world. If I should yank him from the car and smack him.

I don’t tell him what I recalled, as I came to the car where they all waited, as I saw him lean across his seat in rage. It was a moment when he was only two, when he and I sat in a car, waiting on his mother. He had been crying because he wanted something he couldn’t have. He kept crying and crying, working himself into a frenzy.

When he cried that way, it reminded me of his sister during the last days of her brain tumor, crying without end, wailing sometimes until she passed out.

I cannot bear that sound.

See how I make an excuse, even now? An excuse for coming over my seat in a rage, and shouting “Shut up!” in his face, shouting so loud my voice was hoarse later.

We think our sins are our own, but every day, we teach the ones who follow us. Every sin. Every day.

And now here I am, filled with fury at his fury that he learned from me, hearing his little brother cry, wanting nothing more than for him to test me, to try and use his size against the old man and get what he has coming.

How must it be for God, to see we strong strike down the weak, even as we offer up to heaven our justifications? How filled with anger and grief he must be, to see his children prey on one another.

“Which world, son?”

Caleb turns his hardened face to me, and I see in it my own. I ask if he really wants justice poured out on every head, including his.

“No,” he says, if only because he knows it’s the answer I want.

I tell him he can choose a world where every wrong is repaid with violence, or he can choose a world of grace. I don’t know if this penetrates. Words are so very cheap. Perhaps all he will learn from me is what I gave to him a dozen years ago.

I bring his brother’s face close, so he can see the wound, and the hurt behind the wound. He apologizes, because it is what he is supposed to do. His brothers forgive him, because they love him.

Which world will you choose, son? I would choose it for him. I fear sometimes I have. All that is left to me now is to live grace, that he might choose grace. Perhaps because of me. In spite of me.

Which world will they choose, our children? The answer only ever has been this: they will choose the world we show them.

Past where legs can carry

February 6th, 2014 Posted in Faith and Life | 21 Comments »

The day after an amazingly talented actor pushed heroin into his vein and died, I saw yet another study purporting to show that we live in the best of times.

It’s hard to disagree. Infant mortality and poverty are plummeting. Our lifespans are being extended. More people worldwide are literate, and more of them can vote than ever before. Most of us have to exert only a fraction of the toil required of our great-grandfathers. It is the best of times, by so many measures.

It is the best of times, yet sometimes we can scarcely bear the news. Maybe this is why more American adults will die today from drug overdoses than car accidents. We’ve made our cars safer, but who can crash-proof the human heart?

That’s a question every parent asks, if only in the wordless pleading prayer that sometimes lodges in our throats when we look at our children in their play or in their sleep or in their struggles. It is a prayer that they will come out of this okay, that they will not destroy themselves or be destroyed by others, that they will be loved and be safe and someday reach heaven. It is a wordless prayer and sometimes it is a tumble of words. Sometimes it is a single word, and this word is please.

Yet what is there to fear, in this world of growing abundance? Travel is so easy that we eat one of five meals in our cars. Entertainment is so plentiful that we can bathe the cerebral cortex in sounds and images every waking moment. Medicine is so cheap that one-quarter of our children have prescriptions to treat their anxiety, their diabetes, their depression.

Old Man Grieving - Vincent van Gogh

Maybe the problem is that not everyone knows the world is getting better. Maybe we should tell the growing ranks of schoolchildren smoking marijuana that there’s no need to check out, because things are great. Maybe suicide wouldn’t be the third-highest cause of death in American teens and early twenty-somethings if only someone told them how much progress the human race has made.

Things have never been better in the realm of the measurable. But the human soul has no gauge. It has no quantity and so no self-respecting scholar will come near it. This world is better than it has ever been, so long as we forget that we have souls, and hearts that beat despite being broken.

This is not a brief against progress. I have the luxury of this lament because I do not have to spend all my hours scratching out subsistence. I am only trying to say that something has gone missing. We aren’t measuring wrong things, it’s just that we’ve forgotten what is immeasurable. And if we cannot remember this part of humanity, we will turn every good thing against ourselves. Man is, in the end, a creature who flees pain.

And where may he run, to be free from a life that is, by every scientific measure, less painful than ever, yet somehow more inviting of despair?

I have run many places and never found refuge. At best I’ve achieved brief forgetfulness, the price of which is recalling, when you come back to yourself, what you did to forget. I do not know the shape of hell, but I think it is a spiral.

Where may we run, in our despair? The night my daughter died, as her body struggled to take in air and her eyes strained to see, I told her to run to Jesus. I prayed she would see him and run to him, that there would be breath where he was.

As for me, I did not know where he was.

Perhaps I still don’t. Yet it is what I whisper, in many ways, to my children who still live. It is in a bedtime prayer and the morning kiss, it is a steady plea in my heart. Run to him where he may be found. Run, because nothing else in this world can save you.

I suppose it’s all I know to tell anyone, and maybe it’s just an old worn-out phrase by now, useless as snake oil. Maybe it’s no more use in the crucible of this age’s suffering than better hair-care products or a rising gross national product.

But it seems we are running out of other things to try. We are delivering humanity from need, but who will deliver us from ourselves?

Then again, maybe all this God-in-the-midst-of-suffering business is only for dying children, and we who no longer have legs nor hearts to run. The thing is, there are more of us every day.

The Casserole Dish Manifesto

January 31st, 2014 Posted in Faith and Life | 2 Comments »

Well, I’d intended for any manifestos I write to be published well after my death, if not to spare my children the embarrassment, then to avert desecration of my grave. In grad school I learned, by way of a miserable course of study in econometrics, the word “orthogonal.” In two-dimensional space, it refers to lines at right angles. In statistics, we use it to refer to sets of values that do not overlap. It’s a word I like to trot out in business meetings sometimes, when I’m feeling especially resentful or arrogant, because it’s fancier than saying: “these things have nothing in common.”

“I believe the items we’re covering in our slide presentations are orthogonal, Bob.” See how fancy that sounds?

The point is, I want to acknowledge what you probably intuited long ago, which is that my views on faith, God, politics, and the proper way to drink bourbon are at odds with Popular Opinion. My views, you might say, are orthogonal to those of the Opinion Makers and Fashion Mavens and Thought Leaders.

I think, however, there may be some common ground, if not shared by they and I, then perhaps by you and I. Thus, my Casserole Dish Manifesto. It’s not a full-on manifesto; it’s more of a manifesto preface. At most it’s a manifestella. Here’s an excerpt:

This is not a brief against any particular ideology, mind you. I’m talking about the whole damned lot of them. Communal property and pure democracy? Extol their virtues when the final few occupants of the family cookie jar are all that stands between you and a full-on Jack Nicholson redrum here’s Johnny meltdown. Or when every one of your kids believes he should have a vote regarding supper. Sometimes Mel Brooks is right: “It’s good to be the king.”

Self-reliance and every man for himself? I don’t think so. These kids are breaking me financially, mentally, and physically. They’re going to owe me when I’m old, which, at the current rate of disintegration, should be any day now.

I suspect that for every neatly posited maxim about The Way Things Ought To Be, there is an equal and opposite force lurking in one of life’s ambushes. Once you set yourself to the hard labor of civilizing some humans, or caring for the wounded and broken, or battling for your own life against a disease that clamps onto you like a hungry animal, you find that an ideology—while it may be true and historically determinative and profoundly insightful about the destiny of mankind—just isn’t relevant to your life in this moment—which is all your life is and will ever be: this moment and what you do within it.

You can read the rest here.

The ministering parent

January 23rd, 2014 Posted in The Art of Parenting | 16 Comments »

Do you ever look on your children, and wish they had better than you?

Back when we were shopping my embarrassingly confessional first book, my agent at the time told me I needed a ministry to accompany it. She said this as a realist, not an enthusiast. You need a platform to sell your wares. If you were selling beachfront properties, you would call this marketing. But because you are selling words to soothe souls, this is ministry.

My marriage was dying and I felt like a fraud, and I found myself identifying with Doc Holliday in Tombstone: “My hypocrisy only goes so far.” It’s good for we of rotting innards to know our boundaries.

But I am not yet lying on my death cot, casting about for my boots. I am no minister, but I am a parent, and those callings have a similarity, don’t they? Day after day these ensouled vessels look to you for sustenance, and no matter how emptied and unqualified you may feel, their little frames must be fed.

Praying with Caroline

Sometimes I wonder if I will fail them, as a false prophet leads his people to destruction, or a faithless preacher his flock into despair or indifference.

I’ve always thought of ministries like church buildings. Some are gaudy, some utilitarian; some are brashly self-promoting, some quietly holy. They become as the men who oversee them, and so what does that entail for the ministry I offer my children?

God save me from ministry. God save my children from me.

The early Christians had few church buildings; ministry was women and men traveling home to home with prayers for the heart-sick, bread for the hungry, washcloths for the plague-stricken. Their ministry to mankind was service, their ministry to God was liturgy. Ministry, in that age, was every God-beckoned person responding to the call with one small, faith-filled act after another.

Little wonder that the book describing the spread of the Church is titled: “The Acts of the Apostles,” not “The Lectures of the Holy,” or “The Church-Planter’s Manifesto.”

I don’t know how to build a ministry, especially in an iFaith age. But I still have enough conscience yet unscorched to discern the small faithful acts that are every parent’s ministry. The prayers for and alongside these little ones. The daily struggle to offer sacrificial rather than conditional love. The memorized psalm and a turned cheek and earnest repentance.

“Dad,” my younger ones sometimes say, “you are the best dad in the whole world.”

I think sometimes they even mean it. But I’m always quick to correct them: “I’m the best you’ve got.”

And that’s the truth of things, isn’t it? We’re the best they’ve got, and the best we can do is the daily liturgy which is one small, intentional act of love after another. This is the ministry within every parent’s grasp. Even mine. Even yours.

On the virtue of not being special

January 16th, 2014 Posted in Faith and Life | 47 Comments »

“I have a sense,” I once told a counselor, “that I’m supposed to do something great.”

He sat back in his chair and smiled. “Oh yeah. Everyone has that feeling about himself. Especially in this country.”

I was deflated for weeks. My sense of destiny was just a psychological quirk born of Western narcissism. Maybe I was only destined for mediocrity and anonymity. Living a great life, I believed then (though I would not have admitted this) is synonymous with fame. I suppose that error still creeps into my heart.

Everyone has that feeling about himself. My counselor’s point was that I’m no one special. It was that I should get off my high horse and realize the laws of creation and death apply to me just like everyone else, which meant I’d damn well better start being a more faithful father and husband and employee. He was right, and dear God, how I wish I’d listened sooner.

I am no one special, and neither are you.

This is not, however, because we are destined for inconsequential lives. Many of us just have to recalibrate our understanding of what it means to live well. To craft beauty, to care for those who need us, to live honorably—surely these are the elements of a great life, though television viewers don’t care to see a sturdy grandfather or an orphanage director profiled on the E! Channel.

Ferdinand Leeke Auf der Parkbank

Everyone feels destined for greatness, but clearly, we don’t all live it out. Many of us are drowning in purposelessness. You know what a drowning person does? He grabs hold of anything close. Toss a cinderblock in the water where he flails, and he’s liable to wrap his arms around it.

You want to know if you’re drowning? Consider what you’ve laid hold of. When I read the parable of the talents, I imagine accounting on Judgement Day for every hour wasted in front of the television, every bottle drunk to wash back regret and fear, every meaningless sexual encounter, every minute frittered away avoiding the hard work that is living well. At least the faithless servant hid his talent under a rock. Where did I spend mine?

We are called to great purpose, but many of us aren’t answering. When we are younger, this may be because we imagine success will wash over us. I feel destined for greatness. My destiny will just hurl itself my way once I step out my front door. When we are older, we struggle to answer because we are weighted down. Greatness? I’m just trying to make it to Friday.

I’ve lived both illusions. Greatness will not bite you on the ass, and part of what’s weighing you down is that millstone you’re holding as you tread water. But don’t be deceived; you are indeed called to a purpose. You can know this is true if only because sometimes you fear what that purpose may be.

We are called, but we grow deaf to the direction from which it comes. The only way to hear again is to still ourselves. Turn off the distractions, and listen. I don’t mean entreat God with all manner of requests. I mean listen. Listen in the stillness of your heart. Listen, as Fred Buechner writes, for what fills you with deep gladness. A real, look-in-the-eyes-and-be-honest talk with your child? Do that more. Ladling soup at the shelter? Do that more. Taking a walk as the sun rises, and naming every blessing? Put on your walking shoes and thank God.

Everyone feels called to something great. That’s because each of us is crafted to give something of ourselves to a world crying out for redemption. The great tragedy of life—and for God’s sake, don’t let it be the tragedy of your life—is how few of us take the time to listen, and to answer.

The Cost of Calling: The Answer

January 9th, 2014 Posted in The Art of Parenting, The Sermons | 18 Comments »

I come now to the question in my heart when I began: what can my sons say to a deceived and soul-sickened world?

You might remember the story of a girl murdered that awful day in Columbine. As this story goes, one of the demoniac boys asked if she believed in God, and when she answered yes, he shotgunned her face. This inspired a song and a book, and was disputed by some who didn’t hear her say what others say they heard. The facts are disputed, but even the energy poured into disputing them points to the power of a word.

What words shall our children carry into this world? I ask because, whether they are called to be plumbers or priests, we want our children to be true. That doesn’t mean they need voice every truth, for if we’ve learned anything from the failures of modern Christianity, it is that talk is not only cheap, it cheapens. Be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only. Ever notice that the more someone does, the less time he has to tell others what to do, and the more power his scarce words carry? That. God knows, we need more of that.

Freedom of Speech

Yet words are sometimes needed. What shall they be? Shall they be what the world wants to hear? God forbid. The world is poisoned by its sweet-talkers. It despises its candymen, yet it fears the emptiness should it send them away.

Then shall the words be what the world hates? Bile seems but a different kind of venom than sugar, and just as self-seeking. To deliberately seek the world’s love or its hate is to make it a mirror for the purposes of admiring oneself.

Then what should they say? Of course we should no more determine what words our children will voice, when they come into their own, than we should determine for them where on the plumber-priest continuum they settle. But if we are training and leading and praying them toward trueness, toward being the people I tried to describe in my first missive, then surely we are preparing them to speak when others are silent.

But when? But what?

God only knows, and I suppose that is the fear and the comfort. Perhaps neither your children nor mine will be called to speak against the evils we are increasingly expected to call good. To live against them, yes, which is an altogether different matter, but generally a safer one. Maybe they will be spared, however, the cost that comes due when one calls a cherished evil by its rightful name.

The danger in being called is that you must answer. You must answer with your life, as Viktor Frankl wrote, and sometimes, as Isaiah reminds us, with your voice. The alternative is to sit quietly on your couch and turn up the volume of your television until you can no longer hear the calling. I don’t know if hell is flames or if hell is ice but I’ll wager its sting feels something like those moments when we glimpse what might have been, had we been braver, had we been truer, had we answered a calling. Preparing our children for calling is, in a very real sense, preparing them to sidestep hell.

And what shall they say, when they answer? What shall they say with their lives and with their mouths? Perhaps the voice that calls them will be the voice that tells them, God-willing, what their answer should be.

These sons of mine are growing so fast toward manhood that I can scarcely keep ahead in my desperate effort to reach it before them. I can’t tell them what to say, but I can tell them that this is a broken and heart-sick world, which means it is a world craving redemption. What may be said, to help hasten that redemption? Find those words, child, and say them with your voice and with your heart and with your hands.

No matter the cost.

The Cost of Calling: Compromises

January 2nd, 2014 Posted in The Art of Parenting, The Sermons | 16 Comments »

What is the cost of a calling? You can be called to be a parent; you can be called to be a plumber. But having a child, or picking up a pipe wrench, is not—in and of itself—to pursue a calling. The world is filled with parents and plumbers, after all, who don’t do their jobs worth a damn. That’s not to say their jobs are easy, that any one of us could step into the living history of their wounds, poor upbringing, and self-deceptions and do better. But it is to say that a calling entails not only what we do, but how we do it. We are called to be diligent and loving parents, honest and competent plumbers.

It’s hard to see how being a good parent or plumber might entail some sort of existential/spiritual conflict with the world. Our platitudes indicate the opposite, in fact. We love good parents. We celebrate diligent workers.

But it’s the quiet compromises the world expects from us that undo the soul. You know what they are.

The extra hours you have to spend away from your kids because you want that promotion, that retirement villa, or maybe just to afford obscene college tuition bills.

Your church that places few demands on you.

Grinding away your family’s time with sports, because all your kids’ friends are doing sports, because most people don’t ask your son what book he has read recently, or even what he likes to do for fun, but instead what shape the ball is that he likes to throw about while parents scream at referees and someone marks down the score.

Your family uprooted every few years for the sake of your career, which is a word that now connotes grave importance, though once it meant “an uncontrolled rush,” and which is furthered at the expense of community, which is a word that once connoted grave importance, but now refers to personalized digital networks we assemble as we career our way through life.

Your job that you can never quite explain to your relatives because you aren’t quite sure what it is yourself, except that it has deadlines and stress, and people higher up who want you to push your paper faster and in greater quantities and with fewer errors, only you haven’t even the physical pleasure of pushing paper, because instead you stare at a glowing screen all day and though you can’t remember your last real conversation, each day ends with your head feeling swollen from so much talk, endless meeting and strategizing and problem-solving and scheduling and button-pushing, all of it producing something that may or may not have weight in someone’s pocket, but certainly not in yours, because whatever they pay you for talking and button-pushing has already been consumed by your car that is never quite new enough, your panoply of digitalia that make everyone in your home quiet slaves, your oversized mortgage for your house that feels too small only because you have so many things, and this because somewhere you came to believe with the rest of us that families need separate rooms for dining and living and playing, that no one should wait to use the bathroom, that every child deserves his own room and your rare guests their rooms as well.
Your nod, when someone says something that is stupid or wrong or astoundingly frivolous, because if you don’t nod he may think you believe him stupid, or wrong, or frivolous, and the only thing people want less than to be stupid, wrong, and frivolous is to be confronted with the facts so that they might become less so.

Your silence in a world that hates, above all things, a voice that does not tickle ears.

It’s the last that troubles me most. We can avoid many soul-corroding compromises. To be sure, many of us have no choice but to work long hours, or to leave our communities for better work. But at the very least, we can reign in—and thereby teach our children to reign in—the impulse for acquisition, the pursuit of vain trophies, the squandering of love and friendship and the scarce time we are afforded to set our little corners of the world aright.

But what of the expected silence, and increasingly, acquiescence to a world that is dreadfully sick, and seething with anger at anyone who will say so? What do I teach my children about the silence, and their place in it?

I’ll try to tackle that in my next post.

The Cost of Calling

December 26th, 2013 Posted in The Art of Parenting | 12 Comments »

Many parents carry within our hearts—sometimes in a cramped and even despairing corner—a vision of what we hope our children will become. This vision lives deeper than our wish that they be doctors or NFL quarterbacks, deeper even than our desire for their happiness. Our heart-dwelling hope is that they will be good and true, that they will be courageous, that they will love others more than themselves. We want them to join that rare tribe whose members any of us recognizes when he meets them, because they exude the love and strength of spirit we wish we carried more fully within ourselves.

Do you ever worry that by encouraging your children to live truly, you are sending them into great hardship? I’m not talking about martyrdom, mind you (for who among us, if he’s being truthful, wants his child to come to such an end?). I don’t even think I’m talking about living some kind of separated, saintly life.

I’m simply (and here it would be a mistake to conflate simple with easy) talking about the meaningful lives many of us want for our children—lives in which “vocation” is restored to the meaning it harbored before it was sundered by the sacred/secular wedge, broken to the plow of utilitarian industrialism, and neutered in this age of social fragmentation. A vocation which is a calling, meaning it is more than just laboring for coin, or to fulfill obligation, or—perhaps worst of all—to earn someone’s approval.

It is doing, in other words, that which you were crafted to do, which always is a form of creation or redemption, of remaking or restoring or healing, because the best part of you still shines with the image and likeness of God. You were crafted to do it, and so you feel great joy when you are in the midst of it. “The place God calls you to,” writes Frederick Buechner, “is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

Preparing our children for calling, then, is teaching them to recognize the difference between joy and titillation, between mindfulness and distraction. Because the world is fallen, it is teaching them how to forestall pleasure and endure labor long enough to realize the sublime sense of rightness, of co-creation, that comes with pouring oneself into good and worthwhile work. It is teaching them to recognize the “deep gladness” that resides within their Creator and, as a consequence, within themselves.
Anker Pfahlbauerin
This differs so very much from the preoccupation shared by many of we parents and teachers, which is preparing our children to contribute to the Gross Domestic Product and the tax base, to be good citizens who obey their superiors and—if they are clever and lucky—become superiors themselves. We’ve even perverted the word; “vocation” now means that which earns wages. All else is a negation, an “avocation.” It is what remains after the real work is done.

Surely we are crafted to be parents, caregivers, lovers, and defenders just as we carry within us propensities to be competent plumbers, teachers, chefs, and taxi drivers. If vocation is calling, then a calling may or may not draw a paycheck. It may or may not pay the bills.

We want our children to be called into good and true lives, and we hope they can pay the bills that merit paying, and avoid the ones that needn’t be incurred when one is living a life of deep gladness. We want this for them because we love them, and because many of us feel as if we have let it slip from our own fingers.

But what is the cost of a calling, especially in an age when everyone is talking, and nobody seems inclined to listen?

I set out to write just a few words about this, and I am failing at the task. I have words but you have responsibilities, and so the best thing is for me to sort out these thoughts a few sentences at a time. All of which means I’ll say a bit more about this in coming posts.