Sand in the Gears

Scientific passions

May 29th, 2014 Posted in Curmudgeonry | Comments Off on Scientific passions

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, Fatherhood | 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 on Children and pornography

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 Fatherhood | 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 Fatherhood, 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 Fatherhood, 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.

The Cave of the Heart

December 24th, 2013 Posted in The Sermons | Comments Off on The Cave of the Heart

Here’s an excerpt from my Christmas Eve post over at Good Letters:

When I read about the boy hiding under his bed, first inviting the world he knew to watch him die, then hiding from it in that darkened place, I thought about the cave where a savior was born. I thought as well about the cave within my own heart, the cave crafted to be filled just as surely as a bucket or a cup or an upturned palm awaits what may fill it.

We all bear this waiting space, and it will be filled, it will be filled. The emptied and darkened places of creation are invitations, and who knows what may enter them, what crawls or slithers into them in the nighttime of the soul, from depth to depth, from dark to dark?

Who knows as well what this boy carried in his heart, what weighted it down, what made his life a dreadful burden to be sloughed off? Absence can be the weightiest of all the heart’s burdens. The cave is in us but we are also in it, as anyone who has ever suffered from deep despair can attest. The hole within threatens to swallow you up.

You can read the rest here. And may the light find you this Christmas as well.

The professor in the home

December 17th, 2013 Posted in The Art of Parenting | 48 Comments »

Every month, money flies from my checking account to the education savings accounts of my children, because I don’t want them to become hobos. This is one way I allay my fear the world will eat them up. It’s a mark of a good parent to worry over where—and whether—his child will go to college, isn’t it?

I need to confess a profoundly un-American heresy: I question what my children will get for the money. I don’t question the value of education (though we make it a panacea for deeper ills of the soul); I doubt the capacity of most educational institutions to impart much beyond what one could obtain with, as the protagonist in Good Will Hunting notes, “a dollar-fifty in late charges at the public library.”

I know there are teachers who can help a student get far more out of Dracula, say, than he might acquire on his own. They can cultivate in him a healthy awareness of the various psycho-sexual literary analytical clubs with which the text has been bludgeoned for decades, for example, or even help him challenge dominant beliefs about what Dracula, and monster literature more broadly, means to us culturally. There are teachers like that; I’ve seen them in action, and they are a heartening, humbling species to behold.

The practical reality, however, is that most educational institutions have no interest in rewarding excellent teachers, or even understanding which of their teachers are truly excellent. They are in the business of slinging feed to cattle. As a consequence, their faculties share no intelligible common convictions, no canon, no sense of responsibility to raise humane citizens. The surest way to get sideways with many of them, in fact, is to posit definitions of “canon,” “humane,” or “citizen.” Heck, just try to define “man” and “woman,” and watch what happens.

Many higher education professionals have nothing coherent to say about what we are, and so the notion that whatever we are might be called to something greater and higher than ourselves, that denying our appetites might be essential to this thing called “virtue,” that there is even such a thing as virtue, rather than a patriarchal phallocentric Western capitalist construct designed for purposes of oppression, and that this virtue is worthy of pursuit and discipleship and discomfort—well, talk like that will get you disinvited from the faculty mixer.

I’m saving money for my children’s “higher education,” and the truth is that it seems shot through with holes. It is an interesting collection of answers to the wrong questions. It is not what I hope for my children, which is cultivation of wisdom, virtue, a spirit of open inquiry, and intellectual rigor.

Lately it’s occurred to me, however, that I’ve been thinking about this wrongly. I’m tempted—many of us are tempted—to think of higher education as something that happens out there, conducted by other people, when our children are older. The reality is, however, that the most important part of it is happening right now, with we parents, every day.

Here’s the thing: I’ve met humble, brilliant kids with Ivy League degrees, and I’ve met clever, insufferable fools with Ivy League degrees. I’ve met thoroughgoing dunces passing time as college students, and in the same classroom, thoughtful world-changers. I know autodidacts who make their livings with their hands, who have no need of college degrees, but whose minds are more unfettered and insightful than that of many a philosophy professor. And of course I know plenty of people who make their livings with their hands and who have no interest in thinking at all.

The chief determinant of a young person’s educational success, in other words, is not the credentialing of the professoriate. It’s the discernment and self-discipline he possesses when he reaches them. Good teachers matter, to be sure. We should find them, and reward them, and send our children to them. But our children must have hearts that seek wisdom. Fools tend to draw fools; the wise tend to draw the discerning. My kids will gravitate to the teachers I have prepared them to learn from.

Which puts me in a pretty spot, now that I think about it—striving to incline their hearts toward wisdom, yet feeling every day like a fool not up to the task. It would be so much easier to keep socking away money every month, and trust someone else to figure it out. But that’s not an option, is it?

The obscured man

December 12th, 2013 Posted in The Sermons, Theology | 31 Comments »

This is not a comment about the reasoning of a Slate essayist, who wrote recently that the white Santa is outdated. This is not a comment about the Fox News talking head who took umbrage, asserting that not only Santa, but also Jesus, is white. This is not a comment about the predictable crowds who predictably gathered to hurl predictable barbs, nor even a comment about the lack of grace they afford one another during this season of grace.

This is a comment about who we see when we consider the Christ. When Mary called Magdalene came to his tomb and found it empty, she wept. She wept because, she said, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid Him.”

It would be a fitting reaction, don’t you think, to weep at the thought of people dragging about the body of your savior, that he might suit whatever purposes they have for him? Thank goodness that doesn’t happen today. Thank goodness none of us is guilty of that.

She wept and she turned and she saw him standing near, the God-man who had drawn from her seven demons. She saw him and he asked her why she wept, but she did not recognize his face. How could she have followed him so far, known him so closely, and not recognize him? She did not know who he was until he said her name. He told her who she was, and in doing so, he revealed the truth of himself to her.

Peter and several other disciples had the same experience, near the shore of the Galilean Sea. They did not recognize this man who called to them in their boat. Not until he directed them where to cast their nets, causing them to be filled, revealing himself through a miracle. In their obedience to his direction, they came to know him again.

Christian tradition teaches that we are to understand these failures to recognize Christ as an indication of how profoundly he was changed in resurrection. Having descended into hell, having arisen glorified and uncorrupted, he had become a forerunner of what we are promised. He became what we are to become, but from whom we live, most of us, at such a great and tragic distance.

So you see, it doesn’t matter what Jesus looked like before his work at Golgotha. Anyone who wants to place some ethnic or racial claim on him, to subtly draw him toward their favored group, or tug him away from some disfavored group, is missing the whole point. We are none of us like him.

Not a one is like him, and yet we are called to be like him, to pick up our crosses and labor up that hill, labor past earthly gain and glory, past respectability, past career success and collegial esteem, past praise from the clever. We are called to go to death ourselves, to lay down these mean-spirited and self-seeking lives, that we might be cloaked in the selves we were meant to be from the beginning.

The question is not: Who did Jesus look more like? The question is: Why don’t I look more like Jesus?

And the place to look for an answer is the heart. We do not look like him because our hearts are not inclined toward him. Which is why so often we don’t recognize him, even when we look him full in the face, even when we cradle his words in our hands, even when we bow our head toward an empty cross and whisper how great is our love for him.

Christ icon


December 9th, 2013 Posted in Fatherhood, The Art of Parenting | 49 Comments »

My mother died while I was at the beach and so while my children spent their days on the shore, I spoke by phone with the many professionals who position themselves between the living and the dead.

My thirteen year-old wanted to build a sandcastle. He has so many preoccupations these days, perhaps chief among them sleep, but this is what we do at the beach, what we have done since he was a baby and could only pat pat pat the sand while I did all the building.

He waited for me one afternoon, waited by the door as I dealt with each call that I promised was the last call, waited with his eyes alternating between me and the ocean outside our windows. He waited until I realized that whatever I might do for my mother in her death would not be, in her estimation, worth making her oldest grandson wait one more minute to build our sandcastle.

So we went down to the sand, and we organized his younger brothers, and we began to build. We are an experienced crew, and everyone knows his part. We build the drainage trenches, the retaining wall, the secondary walls. We build a raised platform in the center, upon which we array the battlements, the buildings, the inner fortress. We build as it might have been had labor not been transmogrified into toil, scooping pliant earth and fashioning with our hands as we have been fashioned.

An old man walks past. He shakes his head. “You’re building below the high-tide line.” He shakes his head and continues down the beach.

We know we are building below the high-tide line and we know the waves are coming. We build here because this is where the castle can be built. The sand is no good above the high-tide line. We build our trenches and our retaining wall. We race against waves that threaten to sweep over our work before it is done.

“Don’t decide to do something based on whether it’s possible,” I tell my nine year-old. “Do it because it’s worth doing.”

I often say things like this to my sons. I know they don’t hear most of it, but I say it anyway, because I want to believe that one day they will remember some of it.

We build the walls higher, we dig the trenches deeper as they are overwhelmed and filled with watery sand. When the waves are especially full we lay down in front of our creation to protect it. We get so busy protecting this thing that will be washed away regardless of our best efforts, that we almost forget the important parts—the buildings, the inner fortress, the church. We build them and I fashion a cross for our church with grass and driftwood.

These days we tell children they can do anything. We tell them this because it makes us feel good, I suppose. We lie to them even as we make their education a practicum in practicality. Every book, every class, every grade has but one aim, which is to secure a good job with good pay and good benefits.

You can do anything you put your mind to—now put your mind to the very practical and possible.

I suppose I am teaching my sons the opposite. You discover the path for which you have been crafted not by calculating what is practical, but by divining what lights up the truest place within your heart. Sometimes that means doing what cannot be done. You have to do it because no one else will, and because some things are worth doing not only badly but hopelessly. Faithfully and hopelessly and with confidence that the hopeless cause is sometimes the most important cause.

Our castle was gone by morning. I imagine the sand grains that comprised it are scattered along the eastern seaboard, on the shore and in the depths, some of it in shoe treads and in the corners of houses. The castle is gone and there is nothing left of the castle, of any of the dozens of castles I have made with my children. The castles are scattered grit—as one day I will be too—and there is nothing left of them to contribute to the nation’s Gross Domestic Product or to the academic resumes of my children. They cannot be dwelt in nor sold; the modern ways of assessing merit can take no accounting of them.

We built them below the high-tide line knowing it was hopeless. We built them below the high-tide line because this was the only place to build them. We built them because this is what we were crafted to do.

Buket and spade on Killahoey Strand - - 1426946

It doesn’t come with a parking spot, but it’s still pretty darn nice

December 5th, 2013 Posted in The Artful Life | 3 Comments »

The good people at Image Journal have named me their artist of the month. I like being reminded that writers are artists, and I’m honored to be included among the many fine artists—of all stripes—who have been similarly recognized by Image in the past. Here’s an excerpt from the kind things they say about me:

As editors we sometimes encourage writers who seem too closed to “open a vein” and bleed on the page a little. Tony has never needed to hear that advice, but he also writes with a tough-mindedness, an earthiness, and a serious theological underpinning that save his work from feeling like unformed confessional soup. He’s too frank for the reader to feel sorry for him. He’s capable of provoking a much deeper kind of empathy, and of getting us to look at things we might rather turn away from.

They’re being overly kind—I can remember on at least one occasion an editor emailing to ask, in his gentle, roundabout way: “Dude, are you okay?”

And the answer is yes. More yes than in a long, long time.

If you want to read the rest, which isn’t just flattering stuff they say about me, but an update on some of my writing projects, and an excerpt from one of my short stories, you can click here.


November 28th, 2013 Posted in Faith and Life, Fatherhood | 4 Comments »

We read somewhere that the Pilgrims survived on a few kernels of corn and were thankful, so we settled on an exquisite Thanksgiving torture wherein we set bowls of steaming, buttered, gravy-addled food in front of our children who have been begging to be fed for hours, and make them name their blessings before they can eat. One blessing for each kernel surreptitiously placed on your plate while you were hovering about the stove threatening to die if you didn’t get a spoonful of mashed potatoes right now.

We go round the table, blessing after blessing, until the kernels are gone. My oldest is thankful for his “mad beatbox skills.” I was not aware of these skills, and for this I am quietly thankful. His little brother is thankful for the stuffed lamb with whose paw he sometimes strokes his cheek when he is heartsick. Another gives thanks for his mother, which prompts the next to give thanks for me.

The youngest exclaims that everybody took all the good stuff. His brother tells him to be thankful for clean water. He grumbles thanks for water.

Around we go, naming the sky, the candles, the turkey. My children have no sense of proportion; they cast blessings great and small into the circle as if they are equal. They remind me that grace lingers in the smallest things — an apple’s sweetness, a restless child’s squirming, candlelight reflected off windowpanes that restrain the gathering darkness.

When I hold the last kernel, though many blessings have been named, I am only beginning. I am only beginning, for I need to name their squabbles and their expectant upturned faces, their groaning at vegetables, and their falling out of chairs. These blessings rain down and I have not breath to name them all, which is why our deepest prayers are wordless.

On scientism

November 20th, 2013 Posted in Curmudgeonry | 4 Comments »

Those of you who read what I scribble here and elsewhere know I nurse a few curious theories about science, like that it ought to remain distinct from scientism, and that the scientific process taught in schools is hokum, and that reductionism is just as nonsensical when it comes to dominate the physical sciences as it is in the realms of literature or theology.

Therefore, you can sort out for yourselves whether you anticipate with dread or delight my latest essay at the Image “Good Letters” blog. Here’s an excerpt:

I get the feeling, however, that the scientific method, rather than being one avenue by which we may come to know something, has become the only respectable avenue. I suppose it’s helpful for scientists to confirm that most people prefer mates who are sexually attractive, or that exercise is good for you, or that bullies pick on unpopular kids—each being a finding reported in science journals in recent years—but was our knowledge of these facts less valid before scientists undertook to measure them?

. . . Nobody is saying we should run an abuse victim through an MRI, give her a calibrated pharmaceutical cocktail, and call her cured. At least not yet. But the danger with privileging scientific findings is that it tempts us to think what we can know most concretely is therefore what’s most important to know. It reduces people to a single dimension, rendering them nothing more than amusing sacks of chemical combinations. Scan the brains of enough abuse victims, perhaps include their spines, maybe for good measure, the electromagnetic impulses cast off by their entire central nervous system working in concert, and pretty soon you forget that they have souls, and likely distorted notions of God and self.

You can read the rest here.

Eulogy for Mama

October 11th, 2013 Posted in Faith and Life, The Sermons | 13 Comments »

My mother was born on April Fool’s Day, and I know there were times when she felt like the world was playing a joke on her.

A more selfish woman might have considered me such a joke. My mother was drawn to performance art—dancing, theater, music. As you can see from the front of your program, she was a beautiful woman. My brothers and I are proof that good looks often skip a generation.

I came along when my mother had other plans for her life, but she chose to set her plans aside so that I might have life. She became a nurse, and began a career of caring for others. She had sick people to care for at work, and soon she had three boys to care for at home.

When I frustrated her, my mother would wish a curse on me: “I hope you have three redheaded daughters and I hope they’re all just like you.”
Llana Woodlief
I don’t know why she wished daughters on me; it seemed to me that three boys were curse enough. I remember that poor woman dragging us along to the grocery store. She’d threaten all kinds of damnation if we didn’t behave this time, and we’d all nod and promise to behave, and then as soon as we got inside and she turned her head we were off to the races. Running up and down the aisles, knocking things over, tackling each other. Eventually a manager would get hold of us and demand to know where our mother was. God bless her, my mother always claimed us.

It seems like right and wrong are confusing ideas to people these days, but Mama had an understanding of justice in her bones. I remember once when I was little I fell asleep in her bed, and I woke to the sound of her crying. She was watching the local news, and it showed men standing in the parking lot of our local library. Some of them wore white sheets, and others wore Nazi uniforms, and they were shouting.

She wrote a letter to the newspaper about these men, and the newspaper published it. Not long after, angry people started calling our house. One time I got to the phone before my mother, and a woman asked me: “What’s your mama’s problem with the Klan?”

Mama took the phone from me. I don’t know who that woman was, but I can tell you that she should be thankful my mother couldn’t yank her through the phone line.

Years later I wrote something that ended up making a bunch of neo-Nazis angry. They got hold of pictures of me and my children and posted them on their Nazi website. Mama fussed at me that I was going to write something that would get me shot. But she sounded proud when she said it. My mother always found things to be proud of us for.

One thing not a lot of people know is that she wrote a song. It was a country song, and some local musicians started playing it, and for a while it was popular in some local bars. I remember thinking that maybe my mother would become like Barry Manilow and we’d all get rich off the songs she’d write. I asked her if she was going to write more songs, and she said: “I don’t know if I have another song in me.”

I think my mother had a great many songs in her. I think maybe I just didn’t do a very good job of listening to them.

St. Paul wrote in his last letter, as he waited for execution: “For I am already being poured out like a drink offering.” That verse always makes me think of my mother. She poured herself out for us, for her patients. She didn’t choose the easy rotations; she chose to work with the dying. She ruined her back caring for them. She endured decades of great pain because she chose to pour herself out. We have the wrong heroes these days. The real heroes are too busy to primp for television cameras.

Mama never took care of herself as well as she took care of everyone else. The most selfish thing I can remember her doing is hiding from me and my brothers in the bathroom so she could eat a candy bar. I don’t know how such an unselfish woman ended up with such a selfish son. Maybe that was one of life’s April Fool’s jokes. Or maybe God foresaw how selfish I would be, and knew I would need her example to overcome it.

She didn’t take care of herself very well, but God gave her people, especially in the last years of her life, who took care of her. Her grandson Isaac wrote a letter, years ago, saying he was praying she would quit smoking. She read that letter and put away her cigarettes for good.

And then there was Sam. Some of my friends think my mother was some kind of wild woman, moving all the way across the country to Santa Monica to live with an Englishman. It wasn’t a wild decision at all. Sam made her smile, and he promised to take care of her. That’s a simple promise to make, but a hard one to live up to.

Sam lived up to it, and I believe that despite all the pain she lived with, these past nine years were some of the happiest in her life. Thank you for giving her that gift, Sam.

She was a far better mother than I was a son, and in the past year I didn’t stay in touch well. The thing is, you always think you’ll have more time. You’d think I would have learned my lesson with my daughter’s passing, but I still haven’t learned it. You always think you have more time, and then you learn that time doesn’t belong to you, it’s something on loan to you, and it is a precious thing, and once you’ve squandered it you can never, ever get it back.

There are things I wish I could ask my mother. Things that will have to wait. I want to ask her if she ever wrote any more songs. I used to think that what they play on the radio must be the best there is, but now I suspect our best songs are the ones people write and tuck away in the back of a book, or the bottom of a drawer.

I want to ask her if she ever picked any more fights with Nazis, and if this is why she liked the Indiana Jones movies so much.

I want to ask her the words to a song she used to sing when she would give me a bath. I can remember the sound of her voice singing it, but I can’t remember the words.

I want to ask her if she knows, in spite of all my mistakes, that I love her.

But there’s one thing I don’t have to ask my mother. One thing none of us need ask, because she showed it a thousand ways, when she was happy and when she was mad and when she was quiet. The one thing we never have to ask is whether she loved us.

This world didn’t give my mother what she deserved. Sometimes it played pranks on her. Even now, I’m fighting with half the bureaucrats in the state of California about retrieving her remains. She’s probably chuckling at the fact that she’s missing her own funeral. “It figures,” she’d probably say.

This world didn’t give my mother all she deserved, but she gave it, and hundreds of people in it, far more than we deserved. She gave more than she took. Her life has been weighed in the balance, and now it is taken from us, and it is we who are found wanting. It is I who am found wanting.

This world didn’t give her all she deserved, but in the world to come, all those wrongs are set right. The book of Revelation promises:

“And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away.”

That promise was for Llana Harley Woodlief, and on September 30th of this year she laid hold of it. In the words of St. Paul, she fought the good fight, she finished the race, she kept the faith.

And now she looks on with that great cloud of witnesses, and she probably thinks I should stop blubbering. But I’m sure she’s also encouraging each of us to finish the race as well. We could do worse than to follow her example.

Imagination destruction

September 23rd, 2013 Posted in The Art of Parenting | Comments Off on Imagination destruction

The latest Conversations on Philanthropy is hot off the presses, and if you subscribe you’ll soon have a copy in the mail. If not, however, and you’re just dying to read my review of Anthony Esolen’s Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child, then you can click here.

If you’re not sure about clicking, here’s an excerpt:

The imagination of young people, it would seem, is in no danger of going away; if anything, one might be forgiven for thinking it could stand a good backhand. Many adolescents, in fact, live in a world of fantasy that encourages stupid choices and, eventually, crushed expectations.

Anthony Esolen’s Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child, then, seems a welcome tonic. It appears we need to do some imagination destroying, and to replace what we level with common sense.

But wait—Esolen offers his book Screwtape-style, with an authorial voice that encourages readers to truncate the dangerous imaginations of their young charges, lest they grow up to be independent adults. What emerges from Esolen’s ironic treatment is a clarification that the baseless dreaming of the sort one often encounters among young people, as it turns out, is not imagination run amok, but a narcissistic self-absorption that crowds out genuine imagination, which Esolen might define as man’s inherent tendency to understand his place in creation, to grapple for truth, and to craft beauty within the context of being himself a created being.

Good guy or bad guy?

September 20th, 2013 Posted in Fatherhood, The Art of Parenting, The Sermons | 15 Comments »

One of my sons asked about an historical figure, or maybe it was some living politician whom history will soon forget. My son wanted to know whether this man was a good guy, or a bad guy.

This is our most fundamental typology for strangers. For all others, it is blood and love. Are you in my family? Are you steadfast in our little platoon? Will you come when I call? Do you love me?

We’ll tolerate many evils from the ones who answer yes. Some of us tolerate evils long after that inward, knowing part of the heart realizes they are lying, that they are no more steadfast for our little platoon than the politician whose television ads claim he dwells in our communities, considers us family, loves us.

There are the people who share our blood, and there are the people we hope love us, and then there are the rest of them. And something in us or about us leads our children to ask: “Dad, is he a good guy, or a bad guy?”

And what do you say?

It was easier when I believed God had sorted all this out in advance. I may not have been able to discern who was chosen or damned (though I had my suspicions), but I could rest in the assurance that people were becoming, in the (sometimes misapplied) words of C.S. Lewis, “immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.”

My answer, then, might have been: “We’ll know in heaven,” by which I would have meant that we would find out the truth of each person’s nature. Good people can do bad things, to be sure, just as bad people sometimes do good. But in each case, I believed, they are acting against their natures. There’s charity and hardheartedness in that view, in equal measure.

But that was just a peculiarity of a particular theological sect. It gave me reasons to embrace the inclination I think most of us harbor, which is to separate people by dark and light. A great many of us find ourselves asking: “Is he a good guy, or a bad guy?” Often I find my thoughts drawn to these words of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, in The Gulag Archipelago:

“If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

My answer to my son, then, is borne not so much from psychology or history or even theology as it is from confession. Is that man good or evil? Like the rest of us, child, he’s both.

My son nodded, considering this. I think he’s still considering it. I want to believe he’ll consider it all his days, while working out his own salvation with fear and trembling, which amounts to nothing more than pushing that line stretched taut across his heart steadfastly into the darkness, enlarging the space where sacrificial love resides, diminishing the malevolence that strains with all its might to make the whole human heart its cancerous domain. And which sometimes succeeds, which is why we believe in monsters.

Is that man good, or evil? Which am I? I am both.

And so are you.

But today we will try our best to live in the light.

How we talk about good and evil

August 28th, 2013 Posted in Faith and Life | Comments Off on How we talk about good and evil

Those of you who caught my first essay, in which I argued that the layman no longer has adequate language to discuss good and evil, and who did not subsequently spit out your coffee while sputtering with outrage, might appreciate the second essay, in which I suggest how we might return to a language of good and evil, by returning first to a language of love. Here’s an excerpt:

Science can certainly give us the means to illuminate many corners of a darkened world, just as it can give us the means to sterilize a boy whose brain is not suitable to yield the happiness Richard Feynman equated with knowledge, and to ration organs so that only the mentally fit receive them. But can it tell us what to think of such acts?

You can read the rest here.

Words for Good and Evil

August 22nd, 2013 Posted in Faith and Life | 3 Comments »

The thing is, I’d rather write screenplays. Actually, I’d like to write novels that become screenplays. Or short stories that get spun into TV series. (Did you know that “Justified” is based on an Elmore Leonard story?)

The other thing—one of the other things—is that sometimes I’ll read or hear something that sticks in my brain like someone stabbed me with a bicycle-wheel spoke, and I’ll walk around trying to mind my own business, but I’ll keep brushing up against things with that spoke poking out of my head, and the more I try to forget it, the more things that are the regular traffic around my ears—news stories and my children telling me important things about their bottle-cap collections and voicemails from work and the sound of the air conditioning kicking on—well, all of it keeps slapping into that bloody spoke until I root it out by setting down some words.

This is why, often against my better judgment, I’ll write something about why our churches are a mess, or the lunacy of fashionable views on sexuality, or the precise trajectory of Western civilization’s descent into therapeutic suicide. It’s not that I think all of you don’t KNOW these things, after all. It’s just that I need to organize the thoughts collecting around the business end of that spoke, and give them some direction on a page, if only so I can extract it from my brain and be about the business of loving my children and earning a living and writing short stories that don’t have enough angsty 20-something post-abortion lesbian art-student protagonists to ever have hope of being published in fancy journals, but which someone, somewhere, might still appreciate reading.

All of this is to say that maybe some of you will appreciate my essay on a problem that perhaps you have noticed too, which is that when great tragedy strikes, or great evil is undertaken by people who pretend it is good, the average man doesn’t know, any more, how to talk about it. I think this is a bad thing. Do you?

Here’s an excerpt from the essay, which is at Good Letters:

We chatter about the psychological and sociological and political origins of school shootings and soldier suicides and the sexual deviancy of congressmen, our words neglecting a quiet truth that has no place in the conversation of the twenty-first-century West—because it is not a fact that can be measured like the weight of a carbon molecule or the earnings of Ford Motor Company—namely, that we are sick in our very souls, were sickened soon after we began, and will only grow sicker so long as we entertain the fantasy that we are each of us no more than watches that must be occasionally adjusted.

“The traditions,” wrote Viktor Frankl in 1962, “which buttressed [man’s] behavior are now rapidly diminishing.” We are falling, Frankl contended, into an “existential vacuum.” Absent traditions to guide behavior, man “either wishes to do what other people do or he does what other people wish him to do.” Man loses, in this vacuum, his sense of worthwhileness. Little wonder that he loses his sense of others’ worth as well.

It’s the first of two essays, and you can read the rest of it here.