She Convinced Us She Would Live Forever


When the first flowers finally
dry into brittle reminders, and the nurses
know the names of the family members who spend
every night sleeping on the tile floor, you know
the vigil being kept has entered its second
week. Somehow she convinced us
she would live forever. The realization struck us
like a firework going off: she was just like us. She was

She would soon die.

In shaky script she wrote to me three days before
she died. Breathlessly she asked for a pen,
a paper, and we scrambled to fulfill her command
like priests in the temple appeasing a god. I stood
beside her bed and watched her do it. She wrote
that she wanted me to
come back next week to work with her
on her obituary.

I said I would.

She put her hands on Maile’s stomach and smiled. We asked
if she thought it was a boy
or a girl? “Another boy,” she whispered, shaking her head
in mock sadness. I leaned in before I left
and whispered, “You were always my favorite.”
I cried when I said those words. But
she laughed through her short breath, as if
even then, she was only planning to stay
in the hospital for a short time. “What?” everyone asked. “What did
you tell her?” I refused to say.

That was
three days before the end. Three days before

nurses mute the machines. No more
beeping, no more buzzing, no more
chirping. The room is quieter
than it should be with so many people. Ten
of us? Twelve? Fifteen maybe? I tick off the seconds
between, each breath a tiny struggle, a refusal
to leave. Three seconds. Four. Not yet.

Anything said is said in a whisper. To leave the room
is to undertake a silent pilgrimage, holding the latch
so it doesn’t snap, guiding the door to its rest.

Maile sits beside me. She reaches through the silence
for my hand and holds it against
her stomach. The baby moves. Kicks. Rolls in
its own little universe. Does it know what we
are waiting for? How must that feel to be Maile,
a mother, holding life? How must that feel to be
my grandmother, sitting quietly beside the bed of one
who once twisted and turned inside of her, now

Through the eighth floor window the sun splashes us
with pink and red and a deep sense that everything is
being fulfilled. But how? Could this be the end of the world, the last
night? We are a prehistoric people basking in the glow
of the apocalypse, worshiping a God who does not answer
the way we want.

Her last breath is like the thousand
that came before it, diminished. The candle is out. She is finished
waiting. There is a silence between her last breath and the first
cries of our anguish. Generations are born and die
in that space of time. Everything else in the world
stops. The clouds bow down in their
sunset. The red lights in the city synchronize – everyone
pauses. It is a silence you can fall into
if you’re not careful.

The moment she dies, just after 9pm on July the 3rd, fireworks
go off all over the city. We watch them from the eighth
floor. We hold each other. Words are completely
powerless. I feel that I never want to speak again.

Later that same night, I am home. I am writing an obituary
a week early, years early, decades too early (she was
only 48). My daughter waits for me
to climb the long stairs to the third floor
of our darkened house. There, most nights for the last
two years, we said a prayer for that beauty
who had just died, fled
this earth, dodging fireworks. For two years we prayed
for a miracle. I think I need a break from
prayer. I think I need to stop asking,
at least for a little while.

By the time I pry myself from my office and lean
my way up each sorry step, wondering how I will ever
be able to say the words, my daughter
is already asleep. Her light still on. I pull up the covers
under her chin, turn out the light,
and look through her window, towards the north. Towards
the night.

This is how I pray now: I climb the steps each night. I walk
the short hall. I hold my daughter’s hand as she says
the words. Sometimes, I think we need others to do
the praying for us. Sometimes prayer is as simple as waking
each morning and standing up out of bed, or clearing away
the brittle bouquets and bringing in fresh flowers.

Defining Christianity in a Single Word (My Sermon at Saint James)


O Lord, help us to behold, to hear and to receive you in Word and Sacrament
That our mouths may proclaim your praise. Amen.

It was the fall of 2009, and my wife Maile and I were financially ruined. The housing bubble burst, and it left us reeling. Our house had halved in value, my business debts had climbed to over $50,000, and the winter loomed – for a residential painter, it is the slowest time of the year.

We made the hardest decision of our married life: we would leave Leesburg, VA, the town we loved, and move our family of six into my parents’ basement 150 miles away. We cut our losses where we could, we put a reasonable payment plan in place to address the debts we had accrued, we gave up our home, and we hired the largest moving truck we could find. We stuffed it to the ceiling with what felt like our life. And we drove north.

I felt like a complete and utter failure.

On one particularly dark night, just before we made the move, my wife found herself face down on our bedroom floor. Like David, or Esther, or one of the prophets of old, she cried out to God. Her tears soaked into the carpet. “How can you do this to us?” she asked God. “We tithe. We serve the poor at the women’s shelter. We’re heavily involved at our church. We are trying our best to live the life you want us to live, and then you … do … this.”

“How can you do this to us?”

There, on the floor in our home in Leesburg, just before we moved away, Maile heard something. She sensed something. God spoke to her, perhaps not in an audible voice, but as close to that as she’d ever experienced. God told her:

“This is a gift.”

This is a gift. That was it. No explanation. No further encouragement. Only that phrase. This is a gift.

“Well,” she said, “it’s a pretty crappy gift.” (The word crappy there is a paraphrase.) She stood up. She got back in bed. And she went to sleep.

* * * * *

In the reading from Luke today, Jesus enters a city that has a serious problem. A man living in the tombs is filled with many, many demons. He could not be contained. He injured himself and, I imagine, others. So Jesus did what Jesus will do when he is present in a situation: he turned the tables. He cast the demons into a herd of pigs, and the pigs rushed over a steep bank, into a lake, and drowned.

We don’t hear too much about the swineherds, who presumably had just lost their livelihood. We do know that they “ran off and told it in the city and in the country,” what Jesus had done. People came out to see what had happened, and they found the previously violent, possessed man sitting at the feet of Jesus. The man was in his right mind. He was no longer naked, but clothed. And the people ________.

The people did what?

The people…rejoiced?

The people…thanked Jesus for ridding their town of the demons?

The people…rushed to bring him the rest of their sick so they, too, could be healed?

No. The people were afraid. And they asked Jesus to leave. So he did.

* * * * *

Isaiah tells us in today’s reading, rather unexpectedly, that God comes even to those who do not seek him. Think about that for a moment. God is showing up in our lives all the time, even when we are not actively looking for him. Even in situations that are uncomfortable or unexpected or at first appear to be detrimental to the life we have planned out for ourselves.

One of the main questions of our existence is, How do we respond to the active, radical presence of God working in our lives? Do we accept that a life in Christ will not always be predictable, will not always look like the lives of those around us? Do we draw closer to God when presented with unexpected turns in the road, things that look like trials or hardships?

Or, like the people from the Gerasenes, do we allow our fear to overcome us? Do we ask Jesus to leave the situation by trying to take care of this relationship or that career situation ourselves? Do we we ask Jesus to leave by facing our discouragements, disappointments, and devastations on our own?

In his book Ruthless Trust, Brennan Manning writes,

Unwavering trust is a rare and precious thing because it often demands a degree of courage that borders on the heroic. When the shadow of Jesus’ cross falls across our lives in the form of failure, rejection, abandonment, betrayal, unemployment, loneliness, depression, the loss of a loved one; when we are deaf to everything but the shriek of our own pain; when the world around us suddenly seems a hostile, menacing place – at those times we may cry out in anguish, “How could a loving God permit this to happen?” At such moments the seeds of distrust are sown. It requires heroic courage to trust in the love of God no matter what happens to us.

Manning goes on to talk about his friend named Gus, a man who lives as a hermit for six months out of the year while spending the other six months preaching the Gospel and feeding the hungry and homeless. He asked Gus if he could define the Christian life in a single sentence. “Brennan,” Gus said, “I can define it in a single word: trust.”

* * * * *

Trust. It sounds nice, doesn’t it? But what can something as ethereal as trust do in the face of a senseless tragedy like Orlando? What can trust do in the face of hate and prejudice when it’s wielded against some of the most marginalized in our society? 49 of our brothers and sisters are gone.

“A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.”

What can trust do when confronted with this, our fractured world?

The simplicity and child-like quality of trust is itself redemptive. When we choose to trust, even in overwhelming circumstances, when we choose to trust even when our calling doesn’t make sense, when we choose to trust even when our present and future is obscured by pain or violence, fear or loss, we are choosing life and hope.

Trusting God looks like helping in ways we didn’t think were possible, much in the way police officers helped people out of the Pulse Night Club or the way people lined up around the block to give blood.

Trusting God looks like saying “yes” when we are called to minister or befriend or support our brothers and sisters who have been forced to the outside of our communities.

Trusting God always ends up looking a lot like love.

* * * * *


This is the lesson Maile and I learned in 2009 and the ensuing years as God presented us with the gift of poverty, the gift of solitude, the gift of unpredictability, and the gift of a pilgrimage away from our closest friends. We learned that the best gift we can receive from God is never the actual thing God gives us, but rather the loving and patient way God uses the giving of the gift to increase our trust in Him.

I am now a full-time writer, something that had always been a dream of mine. I have been to Istanbul and to Sri Lanka writing for wonderful organizations. I’ve had the honor and privilege of helping people write out their life stories. Maile is a stay-at-home mom with our five, soon to be six, children. She volunteers at Atlas and here at Saint James.

Seven years after God told Maile, “This is a gift,” we are only beginning to see the innumerable ways that this is true. When we dropped the door of the moving truck seven years ago, we had trouble seeing the gift for what it was, but this is a life better than anything we could have imagined.

Please hear me when I say that I do not personally believe that God orchestrates events like Orlando. I don’t believe that all devastation and death is a gift from above. That’s a theological debate for another day – perhaps Reverend Lauren would be willing to chat with you about that. But no matter your circumstances, I think the question all of us face is, “Can I trust God? Even now?”

This week, as we go about our ordinary lives, can we open our eyes to the unexpected movement of God? The surprising encounters? The fateful decisions? The circumstantial happenings? Instead of allowing these unexpected changes or crosses that we bear to fill us with fear, can we somehow allow them to increase our trust in God?

You may be in a situation where you are lifting your pain and disappointment up to God, crying out, “How could you do this to me? How could you let this happen?”

As Frederick Buechner says, “Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Do not be afraid.”

So I say, do not be afraid. Do not turn away from Christ. Instead, wait with patience and trust. May you, along with the psalmist, cry out:

“Be not far away, O Lord;
you are my strength; hasten to help me.”

Under My Hand, the Softest Splinter (or, Hope, Even Now)


Maile exhales in her sleep. The window that looks out
onto James Street is open, the summer air still against
the screen. Maile stirs
in bed, pulls a pillow in
under her belly, under our baby yet to be
born. It is 4am, and I am awake

A car slips by, its radials humming. What new evil
will flare in the world
tonight? I wonder. What new out-
pouring of hate blood violence
on a knife’s edge driven home by an after-
math of anger and suspicion?

I move up against Maile and wrap my arm
around her, my hand on her nearly-ripe stomach.
Then, my hand is
nudged by a human not-yet-here,
a human not-yet-born. Its presence sudden,
real. What have we
done? I wonder. Why invite anyone
into this hate blood violence victims contempt,
into this swirling world of rage and

pop-pop-pop go the guns. Rat-tat-tat. I can feel
the air moving around me as the bullets
fly. I hear them absorbed by flesh and bone and walls.
My thoughts are the sound of
shattering glass. Someone, somewhere, lets loose
a primal cry. Then

under my hand, the softest
splinter. Is that a foot? An elbow? Is that
the soft nudge of hope, the insistence
of something beautiful yet to come?

There were, after all, people waiting
to give blood. Their blood for blood, their life for
life. There were 200 Muslims bowing
in prayer for victims, candlelight glowing in place
of gun fire flashes. We are them and they are us and
all around are gentle nudges reminding us of something
beautiful yet to come. Will we bring it
into being? The labor is never easy.

There will be blood. Yes, there will be
blood. But there will also be a rushing
of waters
the crowning of a head
the first glimpse of powder on a new face
never seen before. There will be
the slipping into the world.
There will be screaming. Yes, there will be
screaming. But there will also be hopeful
tears smiles and bulbs blooming
the cutting of that which joined us
a rapid latching on
a sense of awe that even when evil rises in the middle
of the night, a new birth is coming.

I leave my hand there on her belly. I fall
asleep, the undulating waves of –
what is it, hope? –
living, breathing future
pressing on my finger prints. An elbow, I’m sure
of it. Or perhaps a heel, born
to crush the very head
of this persistent evil, perhaps a gentle hand, born
to usher in a fresh peace.

The Stories One Family Told Me


As soon as I walked into the house, I could tell everyone was nervous. Polite, but nervous. And maybe a little skeptical. I shook hands with each of the ten people sitting in the dining room and then took a seat at the head of the table. I thanked them for agreeing to meet with me. I thanked them for their bravery.

I spent the next three hours listening to that family: there were two parents, four of their children, and their children’s spouses. They told stories, really difficult stories. Painful stuff. The father, the man sitting right there among them, had been horribly abusive, physically and verbally. He had treated his children, his boys especially, the way no boys should be treated by their father.

But that’s exactly how his own father had treated him, and he knew no different.

They shared their stories, the beatings and the put-downs, the sadness and the hard days. There were good times, too, vacations and Christmases, games and treats. There were the cold winter evenings they sat with their mother in the tiny bathroom (that’s where the heater was), memorizing Bible verses.

There were hard questions.

There was forgiveness sought after desperately, and given freely.

There were a lot of tears.

There was a lot of courage.

I don’t think I’ve ever experienced anything like it, a family free to talk about such a painful past, a family that brave to pull back their sleeves and say, “See! These are the scars!” A family so desperate to tell their story, only so that others might hear it and heal, or hope for healing.

The father said something during our time together that I’ll never forget. He said, “Often, a father will see some weakness in his son, a weakness he had when he was a boy, and it’s unbearable to him. He can’t stand to see his own son with the same weakness.”

And I felt that. I see that in myself, the way I interact with my own boys. The moments when I am too hard on them. The times I come down on them. It’s something I won’t soon forget.

Can we share our stories, even our painful ones, in a way that brings hope?

The Most Important Word


Last week I had the honor of stepping into Seth Haines’ recovery room to talk about my vocation and all the little voices constantly jabbering in my head.

The real struggle for me has been more practical–how does one navigate a life when your income fluctuates so severely from one year to the next, one month to the next? During good years I make more money than I ever thought I would make, but during difficult years we have occasionally (twice) gone 6 – 8 months without making anything. My wife and I have five children (almost six). Not making money for that long can be scary and annoying and stressful. It can quickly lead to voices of self-doubt and judgment.

Nothing has influenced my relationship with God more than my current vocation, precisely because of the ups and downs. One word makes itself known to me during those difficult patches: Trust.

You can read the entire post HERE.

My Friend Died Last Week

Photo by Marleen Trommelen via Unsplash
Photo by Marleen Trommelen via Unsplash

My friend died last week. He was a good man, in every sense. I found out about his passing on Facebook, and when I first saw his name, I kept repeating it over and over again to myself because surely my brain must be short-circuiting. He can’t be dead. I must be confusing that name with someone else. There must be someone else with that same name, or a name like it.

But it was him. Later I found out his passing was sudden. He was 67.

I know we tend to say these things about the deceased, but he really was a remarkable man. You see, he grew up in a conservative Mennonite community, but later in life he was the personal assistant to Jerry Falwell in the early days of Liberty University, and he watched as the Religious Right was born. From there he worked for Chuck Colson. As our ever-twisting journeys would have it, he ended his life as an Episcopalian, happy to wrangle theology with anyone who had the time. But not only for the fun of it – though he was always kind and inquisitive – no, he was in it for the Truth. He was a seeker. He referred to himself as an Evangelical on the Canterbury Trail, and I guess that just about says it all.

I had spent some time recently helping him put together a book proposal about his life, a book that now, sadly, most likely will not be written. But even in that process he was measured, deliberate, and above all, kind in how he spoke of everyone, even those who in his life he had eventually come to disagree with. Those very same people sent his family flowers at the news of his passing.

Where have all these men and women gone, the ones who can disagree, even vehemently, yet retain the respect of those sitting on the other side of the table? Can friends still disagree on important topics?

His memorial service was on Monday, and this is where it gets interesting. You see, I have a book currently being shopped around to publishers, a young adult novel I wrote about death and life and living forever. Ironic, I know. I had received an email that a particular publishing house would be considering my book on Monday, the very same day as my friend’s memorial.

During the service, I listened to what all of these wonderful people had to say about my friend, and I kept thinking about what it means to live a good life, and all of these thoughts were swirling around with this sort-of-anxiety I was feeling about whether or not I’ll get a publisher for my book.

What does it mean? How important can a book deal possibly be in the face of our mortality? What is a good life?

* * * * *

Though I have been busy, perhaps overbusy, all my life, it seems to me now that I have accomplished little that matters, that the books have never come up to what was in my head, and that the rewards…have been tinsel, not what a grown man should be content with.

Wallace Stegner, Crossing to Safety

* * * * *

My friend Seth is always reminding me that the book deal is never going to do for me what I want the book deal to do for me. The problems I have now will still be there on the other side of the book deal. The relationship issues. The personal shortcomings. The anxieties. Nothing will magically erase them.

Seth is a good guy, but sometimes, when he says this, I want to stick my finger in his face and say “Shhh!” really loud. Because the truth of the matter is, we all have those things we aspire to. Or most of us do. And we have those things precisely because we are frightened about what we would have to confront if we faced our lives exactly as they are, here and now. We’d rather focus on a goal, and we nudge ourselves into believing that that goal, accomplished, will change everything.

But it will not.

The book will not do for you what you want it to do.

The relationship will not do for you what you want it to do for you.

The successful business will not do for you what you want it to do for you.

The promotion will not do for you what you want it to do for you.

This is not to say we should not pursue these things. It is only to say that we should pursue them with our eyes open.

* * * * *

My friend did not seem to live according to this popular method of grasping. He was motivated, and he had things he wanted to accomplish, but from my perspective, he was one of these rare individuals who listened when I talked, who sat with me in the moment. He was present.

I thought of this as I took communion at his service, as we followed the cross out to the church yard and said the Lord’s Prayer, as we turned and silently walked away from the broken ground now housing only the evacuated chrysalis of a great man.

I think this is something that those who are gone will teach us, if we will listen, if we will step out of our hectic lives long enough to let their message sink in. This is our one and only life, and so few things are truly important. So few.

Can we sift them from the rubble, these crucial things?