The Christmas Card

At Christmas we return, however partially, to an analog existence. Our minds wander to the days of yesteryear when life was simpler, distractions fewer, and the smiles of extended family were directed at us when we arrived at those annual pilgrimage sites. We forego our propensity to be captivated by the digital morass of our culture and, for a few weeks, we do things with our hands and with others. We gather, we laugh, we complain, we cry, we hug, we play board games. We look at Christmas lights, visit winter wonderlands, attend theatre and plays, and even the obligatory Church service. At Christmas, we re-member…life. We return to ourselves as we return to one another.

We travel to the shed, or the basement storage, and unpack all the decorations that have been lying dormant for 11 months. We recruit everyone in the family to help “bring up a tote.”  We put up Christmas trees and decorate them with our children. We play Christmas songs and the voice of Nat King Cole echoes throughout the hallways. Even our SiriusXM radios are tuned into the same songs our parents, grandparents, and great grandparents would have enjoyed. There is something transcendent when we see Bing Crosby and Danny Kay moving across the TV, just like they did in White Christmas.

In the kitchen we get out recipes, the old German ones that our great grandmothers passed down to our mothers and to us. We use the same cookie cutters we used back in 1950 and in 1965 and in 1995, holding these relics in our hands that were held by loved ones no longer here. We roll up sausage balls, make banana and fruit breads, and fill the cooking space with sublime smells. However fleeting, these acts make us feel like our entire family is with us, as if grandma and grandpa, mom and dad, are over on the couch, sipping hot cocoa while the world outside pauses in celebration of the season of Christmas.

At Christmas, we bring back simplicity. We bring back memories. We bring back our humanity. We return to one another. We become what we are, analog beings, the way most people always were.

Another forlorn act of analog Christmas is the Christmas card.

As a child, I remember the barrage of Christmas cards that would arrive at my parents mailbox in the month of December.  Back then Christmas cards were not afterthoughts; they were sincere exchanges, containing written remarks, letters, or even gifts in the form of $1 bills, dropped by another human, into a mailbox, just for us. This took work, effort, time. Nobody made anyone send Christmas Cards and nobody sent one accidentally. It was what people did, a way of saying, “You are in my thoughts this Holiday Season.” The inconvenience of buying physical cards, writing in them, addressing the envelopes, buying postage, and then mailing them, was an afterthought. We lived life with others and the fabric of human relationships was woven tightly between mailboxes in the Christmas’ of my childhood.

Many cards would arrive from casual acquaintances, folks you had collected along the journey of moves and new jobs. These cards would usually just say, “Merry Christmas,” and signed by the Lady of the House. You could tell by the handwriting. The thought was nice, and I can still hear my parents say, “oh, how nice, look who sent us a Christmas card,” followed by a brief memory about that person and maybe the last time we’d seen them. Perhaps a comment would be made, “I need to call them after the New Year.” My parents had the odd tradition of taping every card they received to the door mantle that led from the kitchen to the living room. As I recall, this was a tradition of my grandparents too.  I remember flipping up each one to see who it was from, the doorway lined with them by December 25.

The Christmas cards that meant the most where the ones from my grandparents. These were the best cards because they would have money, and when accompanied with a box, my grandma would mail us cookies and perhaps a pair of mittens for outdoors. I loved my grandmas’ cookies, even the broken ones that arrived in a million pieces. They didn’t taste the greatest, but they were pressed out, shaped, and baked by the only hands on earth that could do it quite like that. They were homemade and cut with sanctified cookie molds she had been using since right after World War II. Nothing in the world hit my tastebuds like grandmas cookies on Christmas or seeing a card addressed to me written in her handwriting. And she would always sign it “Love, Gramma and Grampa.”

As I recall the analog existence and holy significance of the Christmas card, I am still not sure what continues to hold my imagination: was it the physical card itself or the notion that somewhere, someone, used a writing utensil and wrote my name, took time to address me, and then directed something specifically to me? It was not a media post or a social announcement; it was an intimate form of communication, written from one person to another, from one family to another family. It was for me, not the world, and that made it special. Yes, I think this is it. In a world where our names are lost, and so few speak directly to us anymore, there is something heavenly about receiving a card that is directed to you…and then signed by one who remembered your name and your address.

As I grew older, and married, the weight of the Christmas Card fell into the new married life my wife and I began in 2001. How does one know where to send the Christmas Card? The address book, of course! A threshold object many newlyweds acquired back then was the “address book.” The address book is where you kept phone numbers, and literal addresses, in case you needed to get in touch with someone. In a way, it was a lifeline, a grown-up connection that one was ushered into at the threshold of marriage. I never had an address book as a teenager, or a college student, but now, as a married person, my wife and I needed the address book. It was meet and right that our house would keep in touch with other houses. My wife has more legible writing than myself, so she authored the holy writ of the address book and I remember getting many of our “new contacts” from my mother’s address book. This was the baseline of connection. My new family was an extension of my raising. Dutifully, we would update our address book when we moved, when others moved, when phone numbers changed. This analog codex was the thing of constant revision, but it was also the thing where temporary locations were etched in its stone pages. We still have ours; it feels odd even picking it up, but at one time it was the conduit of connection, the way we would speak with others. It held the key to doors separated by hundreds of miles.

This Christmas season we sent out a Christmas Letter to family and friends. Just an update and a hello to those who might care for a kindly message of both. It has been at least 4 years since our last one. After compiling a list of addressees by memory, I picked up the old address book just to be sure I left no stone unturned, and all people addressed that needed such addressing. Flipping through these pages after years of paying this antiquated book little heed, I saw in its pages more than addresses and phone numbers. I saw more than names and all our previous residences; I saw our life. I saw how big and rich my family had become because I married my wife, my parents married one another, and their parents married one another, and so forth.  I saw all those we used to live it with, some here, many gone. This old book no longer contained static data; it contained a history, my history, our history. There was a tinge of sadness as I passed over the names of our grandparents, my dad, extended family, and church folk whose names had been crossed out because their current address is only known by God. What I would have given to be able to send them a Christmas Letter in 2022. What I wouldn’t give to make a pilgrimage once again to 1405 Beachland or Damron Branch Road.

They all sent me Christmas Cards, they used to anyway. I got out their old Christmas Cards and read them. They were written to me once upon a time, just not this year. I can trace my finger over the pressed paper, hand carved, when they sent me this note all those years ago. This year my mailbox is much emptier, even though my heart is full of characters that once ushered me into the analog of life and the joy of Christmas connection. They addressed a card to me, and I to them; God addressed us all to one another.

As I early turned the page, I saw the names, “Maynard and Helen Cross,” and immediately my mind raced to that red plastic barn mailbox where Maynard Cross’ name strode atop its black gambrel roof. Thankfully, this is an address I can still use, even though only half of that equation is at the address. I recalled with fondness that Easter Sunday in 2003, in the nearly erased Appalachian town of Winfield, TN, atop the Cumberland Plateau, when for a final time we sat around the table with Maynard for what would be his last Easter Sunday in those rolling mountain hills. He was wrapped in a light brown robe, with red stripped design, a slight grin on his face, the usual cup of coffee in his right hand, and his balding head aglow from the table light that was used to brighten the small 10×7 kitchen. We sat with him and stared at the birds having breakfast outside the double glass doors of his dinette. Cardinals, sparrows, robins, they had all arrived in time to announce Spring. Their chirping hellos were filled with foreboding goodbyes.

That moment is lost to time, but is present in my memory, here, in this address book, as I address Helen and affix her name to the front of an envelope containing a Christmas letter. He was my wife’s grandfather, the only grandfather she ever knew, and we held captive that Easter Sunday morning with him and his precious wife in the kitchen built with his own hands. We talked, we remembered, we shared. We went analog. We did something for the first time, spending Easter morning with him. It was also something we did for the last time, knowing that when we backed out of the driveway and rolled past the house, that we’d likely not see him again. Spring had come to say hello. Before it was over, he would return its goodbye.

Who would have thought that sending out a Christmas Card or note could contain such powerful lived moments with others? Acts of analog humanity being kindled by an analog memory that didn’t happen on the internet, yet true. This ancient act of inscribing a name on an envelope now only lives on in our telling and living. The addressees are often no longer there; now they are much closer. We’ve given up on the ancient practice of writing; we’ve given up on the power and humanity of addressing and naming.

Christmas returns to give us back to ourselves, reminding us of our simple origins. Angels, Stars, and a holy family needing a place to rest, are interwoven with cookies, and songs, and giving gifts that only happen in the simplicity of being human. None of us think much of all those phony email Christmas well wishes anyhow. Christmas is, in a sense, God’s Christmas card to the world: a note to us, and for us, to once again remind us how to live with one another. It is the reminder that the meaning of life is found in the Incarnation, in doing life. It matters so immensely, that even God must come (Advent) and do life with us. The Christmas Card beckons us to the manger, and at the manger, we are with one another. We return to analog…we return to the beginning as our end.

Christmas brings us home…and the Christmas Card is the letter that always comes from, and arrives, at our home address.

As I finished pressing the last address into the front of the green envelopes that would carry our holiday letter, I thought to myself, “will all these letters reach their destination? Will they be read? Will they hear their name as I address them? What does it matter that I perform this ancient ritual of writing for and addressing to?”

Ah, my good friend nihilism once again attempting to sabotage the doing and the sending.

The power of the Christmas Card lies not in its arrival, but in its writing. I can no more ensure its physical arrival than I can ensure its literary or interpretive one. So, we do not send Christmas Cards for this reason. Rather, it is in the writing that we become the addressor and someone else becomes the addressee. In the writing, and addressing, is the naming, the acknowledging, the hoping. This simple act of inscription is the act of seeing another and embracing them. It is this act, one that sends Christmas Cards from out of antiquated address books, that gives us the greatest gift of all: the gift of being again. A return to our analog existence. A return to ourselves and one another.

Welcome home.


Echoes from the Holler: Family Memory

Left to right: Micheal “Mitch” Napier (father), French Napier (grandfather), Elias Napier (son), and me, circa 2009. Wayne, WV, Damron Branch Rd.

This past week has been a year in the making.

On July 23, 2022, my extended family would meet again for the first time since my late fathers passing in February of 2017. Like many large families, it seems funerals are about the only thing that still bring folks together. Even weddings aren’t quite as popular nowadays for kin folk.

The gathering would include my aunts, uncles, and several cousins. If all the family had shown up, we would have been over 50 strong, but, given the pull of life, we ended up with half attendance (25 in total). Not too bad for the first officially announced family reunion in over a decade.

July 23 is not a random date; it is the wedding anniversary of my grandparents, who wed 7/23/48, and whom shed their mortal coil in 2012 and 2014.

There are two miracles here.

The first, that 2 people, my late grandparents French and Elizabeth Napier, would be the genesis of so many. Once life is set in motion through love, charity, and a little youthful brashness, it is remarkable the world it can create. It should make us cringe at the weight of our decisions when realizing how the decision of two can create a world of many.

Make wise choices my friends.

From two, there came many: Ex Duobos Multis

Secondly, that even half the family would show up, was an achievement. For those who came, it was worth the drive and energy to share the table once again with those bound by blood, geography, and story.

If grandkids and Ceredo’s world-famous Austin’s ice cream can’t break the iceberg of conversation, then I am afraid even Jesus may tell you you’re out of luck.

Time may lapse, relational threads may be strained, but there is something in the unity of the parts, and the collective memory of the units, that overcome the chasm of time and silence.

As we prepared to drive to Huntington, WV, for the weekend, my 14-year-old son inquired of his mother, “so, why are we going to this again?” His enthralling weekend of staring at a screen was about to be derailed for the archaic practice of “family reunion” and he wanted to know why.

Of course, he didn’t ask me; it’s my family reunion, my side of the family. I only heard of his question via my wife.

The kid is wondering, what exactly is the point? Why go through the trouble?

But indeed, why should he care? He last saw most of these people when his grandfather died 5 years ago. What is the point of seeing persons with whom you do not share regular life, separated as it were by miles, vocations, faith persuasions, and years?

The world is full of arguments against the family, that forlorn and disparaged institution that has become a cultural millstone of antiquity hanging about our necks. So many take a stab at it, yet so few believe in it enough to live it out.

For many, the idea of family is broken, and dis-eased, becoming the seedbed of the unfortunate fortunes of many a psychologist, psychiatrist, or pharmaceutical company.

Yet, culture has protested too much, not due to the failure of the institution, but due to the failure of many to preserve the practices for which the institution was intended. The failure of embodied virtues has led to the degradation of what was once an august institution throughout our culture. Perhaps this is why families make it a point to attend funerals more than weddings; it seems only one of these last forever anymore.

I digress.

The big question he was asking was not “why hang out with these people?” even though that is how it sounded.

The question he was really asking was “why does family matter? Where are the ties that bind?”

He is growing up in a world with weak public and private institutions, cloaked by a culture of failed relationships and non-existent families, and promoting the authenticity of the self as the locus of all meaning, purpose, and authority. The humans of his world spend time losing time in virtual reality instead of making time and history with the time that has been given. It is a narcissistic world, bending toward self-gratification instead of one another.

In this world, why do we need those we do not see?

When the screen is brightly burning in our hands, is there still room for the imagination of oral history and the sounds of children running through the sprinklers and chasing crawdads in the creek?

Given our cultural context, thinking about the extended family seems a worthwhile goal.

There are three reasons this reunion was important for me and necessary to attend. I share these here with you, as I did with my son, the evening before we departed.

First, my father is no longer with us. He was the family conduit: the friend, brother, helper, listener, measured giver of advice. Several aunts and uncles have confessed how much they miss being able to call him, one even saying, “there are times I wake up, sit up out of bed, and say out loud, “man, I miss my brother!”

His is the sort of absence that is a presence. He’s not here and you know it, you feel it.  

He was not easily provoked nor judgmental. When his family had difficulty speaking to one another, they could always speak to him, and in a family so large (8 living brothers and sisters when he was alive) there is always sure to be misunderstanding and miscommunication. But my father was steady.

When his father was close to passing way, and still had his faculties, he had one request of my dad, “Mick, keep the family together.” My father rehearsed these lines in the eulogy he gave over his father lying in state.

My grandfather passed in 2014 and I know my dad took that injunction to heart.

Unfortunately, my father would pass away just 3 years after his own father at 65 years young. What he believed would be decades away, happened in a mere 30 months, and suddenly.

Now, I am the remainder of my father, his leftovers for the world.

As his son, when people that knew him see me, they also see him. I am no longer my own; I am what is left of him even as I am myself. If he were living, he would be in Huntington, WV, on July 23, 2022, and he would do so in anticipation and with thanksgiving. Because I am his son I was there. I am not my father, and surely no one would mistake us, but I am his son and that’s certainly not nothing. I will do my part to help keep together what time, space, and culture seek to sunder.

Secondly, I have lived with this group of people. I know them; they know me. We have a love for one another that goes deeper then acts of service or the typical commodification of relationships. We do not love one another because of what we get out of the family tree, but because we share the same roots. The love we have for one another is a gift; it is grace, preceding all of us and earned by none.

Time would fail me to write of all we have shared or the giant vin diagram that would be needed to illustrate how we overlap, and yet are distinct, within the same story.

If I told you where my grandparents lived, you’d never believe it.

In a quaint holler, down what was once an old dirt road, at the end of a mountain path with turns you can kiss yourself on, they lived in a flat between two mountains. As you pulled in the dirt driveway, you had to be careful to drive to one side of the road, as the wrong side had a rut that would reach up and grab your car if you let it. They used a wood burning stove and pumped their water from the limestone under their feet, which ironically had the smell of sulfur. When I was younger, this romantic scene seemed a little like an uncivilized hell. The only light outside in the evening was the light on the telephone pole and the stars at night. There was a working toilet, but I have been there when even that could not be taken for granted.

To this place, my family, these people, would gather and tell stories on the front porch, share holidays, hunting seasons, and even a few family fights. We would play cards, eat hamburgers grandma made us at 10pm after a long day of travel, and wake up to the sound of my grandfather stomping around the house at 6 am as if we all weren’t visiting company. The legend of grandma’s milk gravy and biscuits lives on in all of our lives. What I wouldn’t give for one more breakfast made by those hands.

We all shared the same big fish stories of the catfish in the pond on the hill, the buck that got away, the chiggers we brought home from the hill while picking fresh blackberries for grandmas pies, and grandpa’s tales of discipline that seemed like a perverse civilian version of Marine bootcamp.

We have laughed, cried, and doubted one another.

We have buried loved ones and married them off.

We have shared the tales of divorce, heartache, and prison sentences.

We have shared the joys of bocci ball, wiffle ball, four-wheeling, gardening, farming, and watching grandad skin a deer on the kitchen table without sanitizing anything.

And don’t even ask about grandpa’s famous “joggin juice”

What we share is so unbelievable most people would call us liars, but as one cousin said this weekend, “it’s all true.”

We come from Scottish stock that migrated to these mountains from the Chesapeake Bay and became Appalachian people, and we have the oral history to prove it (not to mention a lot of documentation as well). While we may not always get along, we share more than what pulls us apart, and sometimes that makes us angry, but it’s the truth; we can neither deny it, nor forget it. This is the essence of family.

And the thing is, I don’t share these stories with anyone but these people.

I can share them with you, but I can never make them yours. These are our stories. Not a person on the planet knows them, remembers them, or cares about them, as much as the people that gathered in Huntington, WV, this past weekend for our branch of a Napier family reunion.

I have a family of my own, a wife of two decades, and four children, but many of these stories pre-exist them. These are stories of life lived long ago, rehearsed around campfires, abandoned towns and creeks, front porches, kitchen tables, and creaky living room floors.

I went to West Virginia this past weekend to live once again with these people who re-member what I re-member; out of many stories, one family: E Pluribus Unum.

Lastly, this means that family matters because inside the auspices of family is shared collective memory. In a shattered world, devoid of purpose and identity, collective memory has never been more important.

The world is full of people who are disconnected from others, and for a myriad of reasons.

This post cannot diagnose the ills that plague society, or how they emerged, but a consequence of the integration of modernity and technology has been the deconstruction of loci of identity in persons and in communities. This has led to a rash of loneliness, despair, and lack of purpose. Many live in a world in which they are nameless, and therefore, homeless (literally and metaphorically).

The world needs persons that are connected to a local sense of belonging and shared life that fosters the virtues of empathy, charity, forbearance, patience, self-control, faithfulness, and good-hearted conversation.

People need a present, but also a past, that can tell them where they came from, who they are, and where they may be going.

Collective memory matters because it places us; as persons, we are defined by our positions: our places, our spaces, and those with whom we interact within them.

Apart from place-ment we are not sure where we are, and where we are often goes to the heart of who we are. And I don’t mean geographically.

Collective memory acts as a relational GPS, if you will, to provide a bearing on the seas of life and the ever-changing gust of emotions and cultural mood. We are not alone in framing it thusly, as even Jesus would position his life in relation to where he came from (See the Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, John).

This does not mean our identity is identical with our origins. But it does mean who we are cannot shirk what was. Past events work harmoniously with our present life to mold us. Even if we refuse the placement of the collective memory, its shared history, and values, we do so against it, not apart from it, and therefore, are reliant upon it for our independence.

The danger lies not in forsaking the collective memory of family, but in denying it.

It follows, then, that collective memory can guide us into the future because it is connected to a past. A future without a past is like a ship without a rudder; it will sail, but it may do so in circles.

My father would collectivize the memories of his father into general ethics that guided him: always tell the truth, don’t steal, work hard, look out for family, be a person of faith. The example my grandparents provided of being married for over 60 years is an inspiration to their children and grandchildren. The sacrifices my grandmother made raising 9 children is the stuff of mythology, enough for any one of us to aspire to be like her in love and self-sacrifice.

Of course, my grandparents weren’t perfect. Plenty of sin to go around. Yet shared life reminds us that even man’s best friend can have a few fleas.

A sense of where we come from, who we are, and whose we are, act as guides into an unknown future.

Sitting around picnic tables, gathering again this collective memory, identifies us and reminds us of our place in the story. Even when we feel nameless, we have a name, and these people call us by it.

Like all stories, characters exit and enter, plots thicken and wane, new details emerge, and others are forgotten, but the story continues to be written in its telling, hardening the memory to ensure its continuation and its efficacy. Like holy writ, its inspiration lies in the repetition of its telling and its continued application.

This sense of family is like Faith: the shared history/collective memory of resurrection community, and anticipated new creation, tells us where we come from, who we are, and where we are going. The family is the local embodiment of the heavenly order that spills into town, city, state, geography, and nation. As goes the institution of the family, nuclear and extended, so goes our various politics, ecclesiastical and secular.

As goes our collective memory, so goes our future. This starts, and is sustained, in the family.

A prologue without a past is a strange thing to behold.

I tell my son, we are going to this family reunion because we share a collective memory that identifies us, names us, adopts us, and guides us. We are in the world, but our being in the world is from out of this story.

So on July 23, 2022, we went to tell again what has been told before. We went to tell new things. We went to collect one another.

We are the story; the story is us.

We gathered in those hollers to gather up the collected memory, and we stared at the hills, from which their echoes roll. And even though we have left, we can still hear them rustling through the tops of those mountain oaks.

Extended Napier Family, Huntington, WV, Ritter Park, July 23, 2022

Our Motherly Father: God, Mom, and Prayer

It was the Spring of 2000.  There I was, a freshman at Trevecca Nazarene University, sitting in the class most feared by fledgling religion majors: Biblical Exegesis. Even the name makes a person want to duck for cover. It sounds like the sort of class you walk into wearing a hazmat suit and gloves before handling something potentially dangerous (which would be an apt description for the potential of the Bible causing harm when mishandled).

Biblical Exegesis was the sort of class where you learn to hear things you’ve never heard before:

The Bible is inerrant in all things pertaining to salvation, not all things.

The Bible contains the Word of God, and the Words of men. But they are not the same.

Moses didn’t write the Pentateuch.

Paul didn’t write all the letters that bear his name.

Paul used midrash, but no, you’re not allowed to in this class.

Revelation has more to do with worship than predicting the future.

The list could go on.

So when Dr. Dan Spross used the phrase “our motherly father, care for us” during his typical pre-lecture prayer, I was stunned. It was an odd thing to hear but par for Biblical Exegesis. I had never heard God the Father referred to as “mother.” I had never even considered God as a mother or having mothering characteristics. It wasn’t familiar language. I had never heard a prayer like that. I had never prayed that way.

I had just turned 19 (I am now 41), and for the first time in my life, I heard God referred to in the feminine.

Before you send me hate mail, keep in mind I was months away from my first exegetical paper and had maybe one word study under my belt, and by “word study,” I mean Dr. Spross requiring 6-8 pages on a single biblical word in Hebrew or Greek. I was green, naïve, but full of the zeal of the Lord. Like Saul, prior to becoming Paul, I was passionate but still needed to see. My subsequent education would remedy the anemic feminine focus of my childhood, thanks be to God.

Spross using that phrase in a prayer was as much a part of the learning process as any book or assignment. Still, it struck me as odd when it fell on my ears. As it sat with me, I was appalled that I had been so blind until someone had dared to pray something so different from anything I had ever heard.

Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi anyone?

How is it possible to get to that age and never even consider God as Mother? I am not sure. But it happened.

Dr. Spross could see that the new phrase he used fell on a few of us in unsettling ways. I recall he paused, and asked, “Do any of you have a problem with the way I just prayed?” He gazed upon us as if we dare not have a problem with it. Then he proceeded, “Have you not ever considered the way God is our Father and our Mother ?” He went on to share a few biblical texts that reinforced the notion that God mothers us as much as God fathers us, and that our conceptions of God should not be so limited as to be confined to a specific gender. God is Spirit and should be worshipped as such.

This was long before the gender debates that seem to be front and center in our culture wars. Dr. Spross was expanding our minds in prayer. Challenging us with prayer. Praying so that we might believe. Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi.

I wish I had recorded his improvisation. I left the class changed, open to seeing once again that God is much bigger than my ideas and my prayers.

“Our Motherly Father…care for us”

Today is Mother’s Day.

Mother’s Day is a big deal in the Christian Church.

Despite what you might believe, women have played a major role in the life of the Church, the very first witnesses of Jesus’s resurrection being women (and probably mothers given the context of the 1st century) for example. Jesus’ Mother being central in his story is another example.

One is reminded of Mary, the mother of Jesus, and the prayer prayed to her through the ages,

“Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us now and at the hour of our death.”

Mary is the feminine example of mothering par excellence in scripture.

Her superlatives are never ending: she is attentive, devout, and faithful. She is sacrificial, loving, prayerful, and iron willed. She was pious, ensuring her child, Jesus, was raised in the traditions of Israel. She dealt with a child that didn’t always listen. Jesus might have even had a smart mouth. Luke Chapter 2 says as much, recalling a story when 12-year-old Jesus doesn’t tell his parents he stayed behind in Jerusalem after they had left…and then, when they go back to find him, are subjected to questioning by Jesus when they try to interrogate him. Teenagers…

Mary is faithful to mother Jesus until the end. She is there in his miraculous birth, his escape from danger and exile in Egypt (that must have been a crucible), during his forays into the wilderness with John the Baptist prior to his ministry (90’s grunge rebel children anyone?), during his contentious ministry, and present at the foot of the cross when she beholds his life running down the cross.

Mary is the mother that is there in birth, life, and death.

There a million small things she did for Jesus the world will never know, tears no one will ever see, anguish only she will ever feel. If Jesus prayed so intensely that grief drops of blood spilled from his forehead (Luke 22.44), imagine his mother at the foot of the cross.

If Mary did not posses the mothering qualities of God, then mothering God she could not do. If Mothering was not an intimate part of what God is as God, then Mothering would be impossible for it is surely God-like to love as a Mother does.

Mother’s Day is a big deal in our house, too.

My wife has given me 4 children over 21 years of marriage. She plans her days around her children’s well-being. She is constantly thinking of how to help them, feed them, care for them, and prepare them for their future. She lies awake at night worrying about them. She has foregone a career for her family, to mother her children full time. It was not part of the plan; she just said “yes.”  She is more than capable of being anything she wanted.

She takes great care in planning activities for them: planning vacations, sporting events, and family outings to show them they are loved and included in a family that will always embrace them. She makes sure the cabinets are filled with food for each of them, since we’ve been blessed with children that don’t like the same foods. Holidays are the things of legend in our house as my wife changes decorations (that usually only her family will see with regularity), plans meals, finds the perfect gifts, and does her best to ensure that her children know these days are special…and they are special too.

Like Mary, there a million small things she has done for them the world will never know, tears no one will ever see, anguish no one but her will ever feel.

I am sure many of you can say the same for your Mother, for the Mother of your children, or for yourself as a Mother.

In many respects, the gifts that are required in mothering children are only possible if they have their origins in the realm of God. Mothering is hard work. Impossible work. I have no idea how mothers do it.

I have no idea how Mary said yes. How she became theotokos (God-bearer) and was not crushed under the weight, while disciples like Peter would later sink in the sea at the sign of danger and deny Jesus at the mere questioning of strangers.

Mothering is divine; when a mother says “yes” the world gets new life.

I have no idea how my wife does everything she does. How could she tolerate birth pangs and labor yet still want more children? How can she be hurt by what her children say and then still love them more than her own life? How can she care for them when exhaustion is wracking her body? How she can keep the world in her head and her head does not explode.

“Our Motherly Father, care for us…”

Women give birth to the world and nurture the world. Little wonder there is a strand of Wisdom tradition that places Lady Wisdom alongside God when engineering the cosmos. To mother is to actively participate in planning beginnings, instruction (see Proverbs 1-9), and hope for a better world than the one in which life first appears.

Reminds me of a conversation I had in the past year. A professional lactation consultant once told me, “It fills me with hope when I see so many women willing to bring children into the world. We all know things seem a bit unhinged right now, but women who choose to be mothers believe there is a better tomorrow. They have hope for the future and that hope is embodied in their children.”

To Mother is to believe. It is not hyperbole to suggest mothering could be called the original act of faith.

To have faith at all, is to mother something into existence, to sustain it, nurture it, and hope in it. There are few people who believe in us more than our mothers. I do not know how they do it, but my faith tells me their love springs from transcendent soil.

Today is Mother’s Day. It is a good day to love on your mother, consider her, appreciate her, and thank her. If you are a husband or a father, today is a good day to nurture the one that nurtures your family…and hopes in it when all seems lost.

It is also a good day to consider how our prayers, and our theology, shape our everyday lives. On Mother’s Day, let us consider not only how special our mothers are, but how the One who created us all may be a lot more like a Mother than we have ever cared to consider. And in doing so, may we then also reconsider the spectacular part of creation we call “mom.”

“As a mother comforts her child, So I will comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem.” (Isaiah 66.13)

“How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing.” (Matthew 23.37)

“Our Motherly Father, care for us…”


The Rail

The Rail, St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Cleveland, TN, where for over 150 years the people of God at this place have come to meet Christ.

Erect, weathered, silently stalwart, lies the “rail” : the boundary between apse and chancel. It is the wooden boundary between heaven and earth, the pinnacle that acts as the liminal furniture connecting the two.

Many of us miss it. We enter the church after making our way through the parking lot or courtyard, greet the ushers, pick up a bulletin, then look over the nave searching for the pew we will call home for a few moments of our day. We scurry down the aisle to our seat. Being piously inclined, many of us release the kneeler that is tucked under the pew in front of us and send off a few prayers to begin our worship.

We have come to this place, this space, because something happens here that cannot happen anywhere else. We have come to be. To rest. We have come to see what will happen.

Like the disciples of Christ that went out to the mountain, the lake, or the temple, to see and listen to Jesus, we too have come to the place where we hear that Jesus shows up from time to time. In this space, heaven and earth are conjoined; we anticipate a transfiguration.

And, like the disciples, we have trouble seeing Jesus due to the proverbial lakes and trees that are around us in the familiarity of our worship environs. It’s all familiar, even as it is compellingly different than anything outside these church walls.

 The narthex is the same. The faces are the same. The pews are the same. The liturgy is the same.

This sameness reminds me of words Jesus spoke to those familiar with his presence and teachings, “Have I been with you so long, yet you still do not know me?” (John 14.9)

Which takes me back to “the rail.” (notice the definite article)

It is quiet, discreet, and hardly anything beautiful to behold. It sits silent, unpolished, and still. Its stature would even suggest it’s lack of importance compared to the stained glass above the altar, the ornate ambry, the majestic organ pipes, or even the Italian Carrera marble baptismal font. Like King David, it is the least likely candidate to gain notoriety. Of all the liturgical furniture, it is the most beaten down and least decorative.

Its wood is hand-carved, but the details so benign that we lose its power in its simplicity. It is boring and flat, hard and without nuance. One should hardly notice it! When was the last time you even gaitve a second thought after resting your elbows upon its stolid frame? At this ruddy example of heavenly furniture, something metaphysical and holy happens that we are apt to miss if we see it for what it is, and not what it does.  

The rail is not only a rail, but a block of wood grown from unknown soil. Many years ago, it was a tree, whose branches reached to the heavens. Before that, it was a seed, an unassuming detail of the wilderness fighting for its life. Now, it is the plank that separates heaven and earth, while at the same time being the place where heaven and earth come together in our senses: our eyes, ears, touch, smell, and taste are all awakened as we lean on this wood.

Here, at this place, our elbows find a home with the elbows of those who have died, and also those yet to be born. We kneel where they knelt, prostrate ourselves among saints and sinners, behind us, and before us, and reach our hands out to grace.

At first, our eyes meet the action: We see the crowd coming to this dull plank, all gathering around this piece of wood. We see the messenger of Christ, the priest, and his servers, acting out for us what Jesus acted out on the night he was betrayed: the giving of elements that represent and become Jesus for us. We see others gathered around the table; we try to figure where we will have elbow room and decide where we will sit when it is our turn to receive. We kneel, extend our hands, and notice the bread of heaven is coming our way. It’s shockingly fitting that we serve such manna on this rail the apostles forgot to clean.

Our ears hear the shuffling of feet, the rumpling of pants, the bending of crackling knees, and the thud of arms pressed against hard wood. But our ears also hear sacramental prescriptions: the same sort of prescriptions Jesus spoke to his disciples thousands of years ago.

Take Eat, this is my body.

Take Drink, this is my blood.

The bread of heaven. The cup of salvation.

Our hands extended, we touch the hands of Christ as he extends his body to us. We hold him, and for a short moment, our hands join his around the table. We feel the moment and relive the event. It happens again, here, at this rail. Then, we merge his body with his blood, a holy concoction that we audaciously eat, hoping that just a little bit of this Jesus that has entered us will somehow enliven our dead members.

Taste, smell, see that the Lord is good.

Admittedly, unleavened wafers are not much for the senses, but they are enough. The wafers are firm, and dull, yet possess a quality that is their own. Like the body of Jesus that was broken on the cross, this form of food is unlike anything we eat elsewhere. It dissolves in our mouth, saturating our senses, with a flavor that is known only to it.

The cup is no different. As it passes by, one can smell the vineyard. The fruit of the vine is rich, decadent, and one can stare into the dark abyss of its color and imagine that the richness of this wine is somehow the perfect analogy for the density of God’s love for us. It is not cheap or thin. It is not transparent. The cup is dark and bottomless. It’s volume viscous. It has all the wine the world needs to satisfy its thirst. Wine this warmly inviting, even with stale bread, is the sort of wine you want to share with others; It contains antioxidants for the soul. If the love of God has a smell, it smells like this cup and its taste leaves a long finish on all those who come to this rail.

This past Sunday I had the great honor of serving at this rail, this unassuming piece of wood that is so essential to our worship yet often overlooked. With thankfulness, I took the chalice and set it before my fellow travelers on the way of Jesus, presented them with this cup of salvation, and observed as they ate with the King. My heart was filled with overflowing as I saw people from all walks of life come to the rail. Who am I to hold so precious a cup? To behold the sweet communion between God and people he has redeemed?

But I also noticed this rail. The rail and the people were one; this plank connects us to the story of Christ and the story of one another.

The rail, old and stained, has obviously had crumbs and wine spilled on it along the way. It is weathered and smooth, built to last and holding the stories of thousands of lives who have found forgiveness, healing, wholeness, and adoption on its surface. At St. Luke’s, the rail is what more than a hundred and fifty years of life together looks like. It is messy, unkempt, and essential. It is unattractive, yet it is inviting.

The Rail at St Luke’s. Stained after generations of meals. Credence Table and Ambry in the upper right hand corner.

It is just a piece of wood, but it is so much more than a piece of wood. It reminded me of the back-beam of the cross.

As I saw the rail again for the first time, I imagined the cross upon which Jesus hung was equally unattractive. It would have been long, flat, and sturdy, perhaps stained and certainly hand made. It was the place in which heaven and earth collided. Poets, hymn writers, priests, monks, and mystics, even atheist’s, have spent millennia trying to describe what happened on the plank of the cross, the rail that was plunged upright into the ground as it suspended Jesus between heaven and earth.

Upon the plain instrument of wood, the body of Christ was laid out for the world.

This is my body. Take. Eat. Do this in remembrance of me. All, on the rail.

Yet, it was around the cross that people gathered: the family of Jesus, his disciples, curious onlookers, and even outright haters. The cross was unsightly, stained, unpolished, just a piece of wood that had a tragically beautiful purpose: To gather people to it and connect them to God.

The Gospel of John, 12.32, says it like this, “And when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself.”

The rail. The most bland, dull, forgotten, and hardly mentioned piece of furniture in the church, but the only piece of furniture that was fashioned from a tree, shaped like a plank, and upon which the world gathers to meet and see Jesus.

Surely it is stained. Surely it shows decades of wear and many family meals. Surely it is unsightly and could use some polish. But there is something breathtakingly beautiful that happens here as we kneel together, with saint’s past, present, and future. With divine permission, we put our elbows on the table in anticipation of the food that will never leave us hungry.

The rail. I saw it this past Sunday. I saw and tasted Jesus. I know a lot of other people did too.

But there is always room for more. Come and see.

The Rail at St. Luke’s. The powerful full length image of the beam upon which Christ is made available to the world.

Ballad of a Dead Man

Doctoral Committee. Post Oral Defense, outside McAfee School of Theology

“Why are you here?” she asked me, as we sat in a doctoral seminar, Summer 2016.

Why am I here?

That is what she asked me. Right there in front of God and everyone. And what was I to say? I was not entirely sure why I was there either. Of course, there is an entire backstory of why I was there, but she wasn’t interested in why I was there, meaning how I got there, she was interested in why I was even in the room.

Clearly, of everyone present, I had the least reason to be there, in that room, for this degree. I was basically from Nazareth. Angry as it made me, she wasn’t wrong.

For a moment then, and several times after through the years, I have wondered why I had begun a program pursuing a Doctor of Ministry degree.

Her question was a literal one, and to my ears an existential one, even as I hated that she had asked it. At first, my anger was directed at her and her audacity. At second, however, the question has rung in the chambers of my mind over these last 6 years.

Why, why, why am I here? What am I doing?

Reflexively I often responded to this question as one influenced by John Wesley might: y’all can have your ministry positions but the world is my parish.

There is still a great measure of truth in that sentiment.

To be sure, I have not traveled the traditional pastoral or academic route, though that is not due to lack of effort.

I have the credentials and experience of one that has worked in the church for 20 years (because I have) but I have never been on a church payroll. When I entered the Doctor of Ministry program January 2016, I was an associate pastor on a staff, but I was not paid; I was bi-vocational and perfectly happy with that. From 2007-2015 my academic record of conferences, papers, publishing, and writing, wasn’t too shabby either, but I had not taught at the collegiate level since my MDiv days. My academic publishing had seemed to be in vain.

At every turn, save a wonderful associate role at Cleveland First Church of the Nazarene, and some way cool academic projects in journals, my efforts at full time ministry, in either the church or academia, hit walls from 2003 to 2015.

 There have been seasons when I just knew now was the time, yet it was not the time. I have mourned the loss of being a pastor and I have mourned the loss of being a professor.

But don’t feel sorry for me. I’m good now. This is just part of my story.

Though my vocation has not taken on the caricature of a typical pastor in Christendom, and I am making money differently than I thought I would 20 years ago, I can say confidently that I have been faithful to walk through every door that has presented itself to me. A few doors I have even tried to knock down, unsuccessfully.

One of the greatest lessons I have learned in 2 decades of listening to the voice of God is that God goes before us and makes our paths straight. Demanding to be where we think we ought to be (see Jonah for example) has quite a poor track record for those called into ministry. It is best to wait.

We do not like to wait, but it is often best to wait and see.

“Why are you here?” she asked me.

I began to pursue my doctoral degree in ministry because an invitation was extended to me by a representative of the program. A door was opened. I wasn’t even in the same neighborhood of this threshold, let alone thinking about a doctoral degree in ministry. I have got to be the least relevant pastor  on the planet. Yet, here is the door, being cracked, maybe opening for me.

This door was opened after several doors had been shut quite forcefully in my face. I listened to the invitation, and I walked through the door. I did not know what this degree would do for me, but I knew instantly that being here was the right place.

Sometimes life is about sensing the right space, even if utility seems banal.

Of course, I had some ideas of how I could use this degree, but nothing concrete. I suppose I am fine with not knowing the ending, or the reason, for what I do vocationally. At this point, that’s par for the course. I feel like Abraham, only I’ve not yet stopped traveling.

Everything was going well, and I was excited about my studies after year one. Then, an abrupt life altering event happened: my dad died.

He passed away on Feb. 27, 2017. He was 65, not ill, not anything. But now dead. Suddenly.

I saw his death face when he was carried out on a stretcher.

We never spoke after 5:30pm, Feb. 27.

The world completely stopped. I was in the middle of preparing for my second seminar that summer, but after that day I couldn’t prepare for anything. I could barely move, let alone write about theology or care about the church’s mission.

I couldn’t read, couldn’t pray. Nothing mattered. I lost 20 lbs the year he died.

To make matters worse, his job became mine, overnight. We worked together. He was administration, planning, and finance. I was operations, people, and tech. We grew our business together. We did not have a plan of secession in place. His job fell to me, literally, and I had no choice.

We buried him. He was dead. But his death had a life of its own.

I spoke at his funeral, as unbelievable as that was and is. I said, “his death will change the course of the history of our family,” and it did. The world changed. As I said that, I knew work was about to suck me in hardcore. And it did. I also knew this doctorate would become increasingly insignificant. And it did.

Then, the following Monday, I literally sat in his chair and became him. I didn’t get to bury my dad on a hill and then go to my home 2 states over. I buried him up the road and then had to swivel in his chair.

There is a darkness that is so dark it becomes you. I had work to do, and that didn’t include any doctoral work. I took an incomplete on the seminar for the summer, but somehow wrote the papers I needed and turned them in by December 2017 and passed the seminar prep.

In 2018 I did zero doctoral work. His death stole 2 years of doctoral work from me. But that is death. It steals. It paralyzes. It took me nearly 2 years before I could begin to read or write anything in the face of the sudden loss of my father. Winter never ended.

In 2019, I took up the mantle of doctoral work again and completed a seminar in spirituality. This was 28-29 months since his passing. I had gotten a handle on work, finally. My wife and I were confirmed in Episcopal Church that spring, transitioning out of the Nazarene Church, and my entire family was baptized on Refreshment Sunday in Lent 2019.

It seemed as if new creation was taking hold in my business and my family life. I was beginning to allow my life, and my vocation, to once again dovetail. My father’s death was becoming a doorway.

The summer seminar was a great time of personal growth and learning. In the fall I began to get involved as an acolyte at St. Lukes and learn the liturgical movements of worship order. I was beginning to breathe again.

Then, the Pandemic hit in March of 2020 and the mantle that had fallen upon my shoulders when my dad left his mortal coil strapped me to my business in ways I could not imagine.

In the early stages of the pandemic, business was slow. It was this way for everyone until States opened back up. During this slower springtime, I was completing my final doctoral seminar. Thankfully, I was able to dedicate the time and energy to this seminar. As soon as it ended, however, I was needed more physically in my business than ever before. The daily grind was never ending. As covid tore across the business landscape it was all hands-on-deck, including mine.

2020 was a business blur. I finished the seminar but got little else done, which is a problem when the goal of a doctoral program is to produce a thesis. Coming into 2021, I had 2 chapters completed, so I was short 3 chapters and that included the heavy lifting of theory and research yet to be done.

Unfortunately, 2021 didn’t start any better, and I wish I could report that work has been a bed of roses. It has not. If you have come into my place of business any this year, chances are you have seen me there.

These are, of course, first world problems. This is not a complaint. Just a description of fact. The additional fact is that 2021 did not want me to finish this degree but 2021 was the year in which it had to be done.

To make matters worse, I knew why I had to work in my business. I had no idea why I needed to finish this degree. To say I was angry at potentially not finishing, angry at being stuck having to carry so much weight of the company, angry that my dad died and hoisted this upon me, would be to speak the truth.

My father had been gone 4 years in February 2021. I was fine. I had dealt with it as best I could, but death still lingered in the background. The constant submission to the demands of the company were a stark reminder that death not only stole him but might also steal this door, sinking its grip deeper, and leaving scars that might not heal so well.

Regret is a special hell I did not want to visit, but I was staring at the abyss unsure I could win the game of chicken.

Why are you here?” she asked.

I am here because of a crisis.

Several months ago, I had a crisis moment over this degree. In that moment, my motivations becoming pure and my resolve strong, I decided this degree was going to happen and it was going to happen well. I developed a steely resolve and knew that not even the devil himself could stop me from doing what needed to be done.

It was going to happen, no matter the physical cost. I am taking this hill.

I was not sure where I found that deep sense of determination. I knew I wasn’t a quitter. I had determined to finish for finishing sake and to honor the investment my advisor had made in my life. There is nothing good that comes from quitting, except that your future self knows you quit.

This doctorate was unfinished business and largely so because of the loss I had experienced nearly 5 years ago.

The crucible was 40 days in the wilderness. No food. No water. Just me and Satan. Man shall not live by bread alone.

Last week, December 2, I was on my way to McAfee to defend my thesis.

I had done it. It was complete and it was good. It was the manifestation of intense blood, sweat, tears, and loss of sleep. It was the product of being faithful even when being faithful meant every ounce of energy I could muster. Being faithful can be exhausting but there is something special on the other side of that exhaustion.

There are mountains of joy and mountains of pain. We must climb both.

As I was driving to Atlanta, the ride was emotional. I had not anticipated that when I left at 6:30am. I hadn’t even considered it as a possibility when planning my week, but it hit me for most of the ride.

Where was this emotion coming from? What was wrong with me? Is there crying in theology?

I began to think about it. Process it. Try to find the origins of these emotions.

Then, it hit me: I was no longer angry. I didn’t feel any anger within me. I only felt relief and joy, happiness and excitement, thankfulness and solidarity.

Unfortunately, all the stress and pressure that I have carried these last 5 years have often left me feeling angry and depressed. I have hidden it well (maybe). I’m good at functioning, but I have not always been the nicest to my family or those close to me. Anger is the evil twin of grief, and it sticks around for a while. It’s an easy emotion to harness for survival when one is dealing with multiple forms of loss: both my dad and potentially my vocation…this threshold.

When my dad died, he left unfinished business. Of his work-related business, I finished it. I had somehow managed to not die after he did, navigate the darkness, have some strong business years, and build a good team. I had literally written myself through his grief (see past posts from 2017-2018 if interested), giving voice to whatever the hell grief does to us. I’ve never experienced anything like it for as long as it resided in my bones.

I thought I had dealt with death. But I was wrong. There was one more thing that death was trying to steal: this doctorate and the life on the other side of it.

I had let the weight of the world and my responsibilities in the wake of my dad’s death wrest me from this important work. I was on the precipice of letting life, and by consequence death, win. It almost won. The referee was at the count of 9.

But that day, Dec. 2, it was done.

Death didn’t steal my life. It didn’t steal my business. It didn’t steal my family with stress. It didn’t steal my friends. It didn’t steal my gifts though it pushed them underground for over two years. And now, it didn’t steal this door and the life that is on the other side of it.

Death no longer had a final word on my life.

I had finished. There was now nothing left undone from the time of my dad’s passing.

I don’t know why or how it happened on the ride to Atlanta last week, but I can tell you on that ride, in the car alone, God released me from death. For a moment I know what Jesus felt on resurrection morning, only his cave was not on wheels.

I had wept when I finished writing the last sentence of my thesis. I had wept when sending messages to my advisor as I completed chapters. I thought I was getting there…and I was, death was losing its grip through these steps, but this day, on that ride, I was released from the last grasp death had on me from my father’s grave.

I was a dead man walking; now, I am a guest at the Wedding of Cana drinking the good wine.

I have scars from death, but like Jacob, I have wrestled with gods and won.

As the day unfolded at McAfee, the oral defense complete, lunch eaten and celebrations had, hugs and congratulations exchanged, I walked off campus. So much good these 4 hours at Mercer. So. Much. Good.

I am thankful.

As I and my advisor walked out of the school of theology to finish what had been a day of victory, and turned left down the long, wide sidewalk, that leads from the school of theology to the parking lot, I noticed that the trunk of my car was popped open.  Like two colleagues traveling the road of Emmaus together, we were sharing stories when I was interrupted by my open trunk.

When I left home that morning, I had not realized I had brought a shovel with the last mound of earth dug from my father’s grave.

There was only one thing left to do.

I bent over, gripped the shovel tightly, and delicately balanced the dirt and the spade in my hands. I walked over to my father’s grave and spread the last mound of earth atop his tomb. The shovel began to lighten as the dirt fell to the earth. I leaned it against his headstone and felt it being released from each finger.

It was over.

Death where is your sting?

I was resurrected. And let me tell you, it feels good to be alive. I know this may seem hyperbolic, and perhaps hard to understand, but December 2, 2021, is resurrection day for me.

I was faithful. God was faithful. Those who loved me most were beside me being faithful. And death was defeated because of it.

“Why are you here?” she asked, looking at me quizzically.

I am here to bury my father. And now, I am here to live.

Dad, Dreams, and Death: An Anniversary Reflection

(Dad, caught having too much fun in the Dominican Republic, building a church with the Nazarene Work & Witness Program, circa 2016)

My dead father used to come to me in my dreams.

I had never been visited by the dead before, so naturally these visits caught me off guard. I desperately anticipated them, yet I recoiled all the same.

“Hello, hate to see you, but I’m glad you’re here.”  

Prior to my own living dead visits, I had only been told about these ancestral migrations by others or read about them in books. It is altogether different when the dead appear to us from the depth of our unconscious, visiting us when we least expect it and pressing into us when the only defense against their visit is the wakefulness of the mind at the expense of our body’s nightly hibernation.

These visitations are unlike anything I have ever experienced. They are the soul and mind trying to sew reality back together into a semblance of the fabric that kept my insides in place rather than feeling as if they were spilling out everywhere, all the time. The sky had fallen, and the mind was hurriedly patching its roof before that glorious blue consumed me whole.

Those early visits were an oasis in the desert of grief, full of hugs, affirmations and, of course, all the things I wish I had said to him before he was taken from me suddenly that fateful Monday evening, February 27. This was the tragic burden of sudden loss. In wishing for our loved ones a good, quick, silent death, we sometimes suffer the fate of unexpected loss and the goodbye that is never said.

If hell is an emotion, this is it.

Yes, we would all be so lucky as to die in the blink of an eye, without pain or too much thought. Yet, as luck would have it, we are unlucky to be the ones left to consider it. We can shake our heads attempting to clear the event and all we accomplish is a headache that throbs in the soul.

As with all visits, however, they end. Even when we go home for the holidays, our arrival is the harbinger of our departure. Every hello has an inherent goodbye.

“It is so good to see you, and in any case, I really must be going.”  

The dream visitations exacerbate the chasm between us and the dead. They are far away. They are in a “land” not of our making and in a place that does not take our calls. I would go to sleep hoping I would see him, perchance run into him as I was going about my day. Whenever I was looking, I would often see nothing. When I desired to sleep, he would knock on my mind’s door.

Not every interruption is a welcome one.

The notable commonality with all those visits, and the raw days of early grief, is that the dead feel far far away. They are with us, pleasantly tormenting our senses, hourly, daily. They occupy our minds even when we are engaging in such mundane activities as brushing our teeth or feeding the dog, the clanking of dog food against the aluminum bowl being the sound of hail on the tin roof of the soul.

“Yes! You are there! I see you!” But we know they are not.

The immediacy of the pain is excruciating because of the distance that we know exists between us and them. Greif is at its best not because we feel close to the dead but because we know they are so far away, even if our mind tricks us into otherwise. The very thing that happens to us (grief) because of their passing is the very thing that keeps them from us.

I will never forget the second to last final dream I had of/with my dead father. I wrote of the dream on May 26, 2017:

“The dream had the feeling of closure. Like he was about to cross over, like his spirit had been hovering with us, but now he was ready to go, he knew we’d be ok. I remember hugging him, telling him I loved him, missed him and was sorry. He told me he loved me too. Then he told me he had to go, that he was ready to go, and we released our embrace and I watched as he walked off…his back turned to me. I very much had the sense that he was leaving and would not be back.”

I did “see” him again, on June 28. Thereafter, dead silence.

After that, 18 months of demons having carnival in the dark caverns that comprise my bones.

Not only did my father feel far away, grief removing him indefinitely from me, but I was also removed from myself. It is one thing to lose a father; its another when you die with him. Three days in the belly of the whale turns into months and years that seem like eons.

C. S. Lewis observes this very thing in his book A Grief Observed, that grief divides the living and the dead. They feel close, but grief declares to us they are not. In reflecting on the pain of loss, and its accompanying grief, he observes:

We shall still ache. But we are not at all – if we understand ourselves – seeking the aches for their own sake. The less of them the better…and the more joy there can be in the marriage between dead and living, the better. For, as I have discovered, passionate grief does not link us with the dead but cuts us off from them. This become clearer and clearer. It is just at those moments when I feel least sorrow…that H. rushes upon my mind in her full reality. Not, as in my worst moments, all foreshortened and patheticized and solemnized by my miseries, but as she is in her own right. This is good and tonic. (54-55)

Today is the four-year anniversary of my father’s sudden passing. It is still hard to believe that I write a sentence in which my father is the possessive object of passing, yet it is also hard to imagine it otherwise. Standing at this precipice, however, I am acutely aware of what Lewis describes.

Immediate grief, which succumbs to no time limit, is paralyzing precisely because the great love that connected us to the deceased gives way to a deep grief that pushes them even further into their grave. Indeed, in grief the dead die over and over again. It cannot be otherwise. The deeper the realization of death (permanent rupture), the starker the pain, the more intense the grief.

They enter our dreams, and then they leave, forever, backs turned, walking into the great night.

This is to not say we should not grieve. I have spilled many words trying to describe my own. There is a season for mourning, and I encourage any of those in this season to mourn well and mourn deeply. The deep bellowing of the soul is from a place only death can retrieve.

Yet, Lewis notes what slowly happens when sorrow and grief mistakenly leaves a gap for the light to get in. The gloomy season of a rainy winter being surprised by the sunrise. The pottery of our mind may be cracked, but all the better, we are ruined vessels.

I hear antiques are worth more anyhow.

As visitations of the dead are unbidden, so too are the slow reliefs of the soul, that find us making breakfast muffins for our children and happily noting that we are no longer separated in our grief but joined in our story, doing the very things the dead did when they were living. I reach for the mixing bowl and notice his hands in the cupboard.  

The dead are once again given back their bodies. In a word, they have ceased being a corpse.

Staring at a dead body, touching a lifeless corpse, begets grief. It divides the living and the dead. Yet, Lewis describes what happens in mundane activities, such as when he pours his bath, his minds defenses lowered. There, the deceased can surprise us, coming to us as they are, rather than objects of our mourning. The trick is letting the dead be what they were, and not what they have become in death. Only then will we see them again, at least with what we know as our “mind’s eye.”

As with Lewis’ reflections on losing his wife, many of our dead loved ones would perhaps be appalled at what they have become for us, especially if it is not remotely close to what they were to us in their living. Were they meant to by idols of depression or landmarks of joy?

When I go about my day, and embrace my children, my father comes back to me in all that he fully was: a man that loved his family, a father that gave hugs, an emotional man that would weep when the springs of love burst from his eyes.  He was a man that loved God, and marked up many a holy book, including his Bible, that remain as traces for me of a life lived. Lest I be too romantic, he was also a sinner saved by Grace. I recall many of his sins. I recall my own.

Dead humans are meant to be more than sadistic memories that hold our minds hostage, indulging our own death drive. They are meant to help us live because they taught us to hurt. I have hated all the lessons I learned from his death. I have hated them because I would have rather applied them to him. There is great irony, however: only his death could have taught me so well. The curse is also the gift.

I have now entered the phase of loss that allows me to see him, his imperfections, and his glories. He is no longer dead. He is himself, as is everyone else, in my memory. He is gone, but his name is not death. He is my dad, but you might have called him Mitch.

I can see his smile. I can hear his voice.

Grief has given way to Epiphany.

Last Fall Festival (2016) my Dad would celebrate, with my son and not quite 2 year old daughter

In Memoriam: A Tribute To Bo Bandy

Bo Bandy, Nathan Napier, Michael Byler, Joey Mayfield, Jeremy Mayfield, Work & Witness Trip, Dominican Republic, February/March 2018.

I came around the door, re-entering my office to gather a few things before departing for the day, and then she looked up at me, eyes confused, hands shaking, “Bo Bandy passed away.” She sat down, tears rolling down her cheeks, mascara smudging. Death had re-entered the building.

My mom just dropped a bombshell. A life had come to an end, but not just any life, one that was intimately linked to my dead fathers; in a way, another piece of my dad passed away with the words, “Bo Bandy passed away” making it doubly painful. Of course, my father’s own body has been dead going on 4 years now, but Bo was another body, once here, now gone, that shared space with my father while he was living. To lose him, was to also lose more of my dad. It was to close further the chapters of my father’s story. They were landmarks that pointed to one another. They were best friends, partners in crime, churchmen of an era slowly ending.

To say Bo Bandy was a good man, would be to say too little. To describe men like Bo with hyperbole is a difficult thing to accomplish.

When my family and I moved to Cleveland, TN in 1989, it was Bo, and his wife Janet, that became my parents first real friends. For Yankee transplants in need of southern hospitality, the Bandy’s provided it. My parents and the Bandy’s became close friends, sharing meals, golf outings, regular Sunday worship, and even becoming the godparents of my sister and I. Fortunately for the Bandy’s, they were never stuck with the unpleasant task of having to raise us. But fortunately for our family, the intimate connection fostered in the early 1990’s with the Bandy’s proved to be an untold blessing for us all.

As the years moved on, Bo would become my junior high Sunday School teacher, church softball coach, district golf organizer, and fellow Work and Witness partner. He and his family would share in the joys of college graduations and in the births of all the babies my wife and I brought into the world.

He was never liberal with his words of praise, as those who know him could testify, but he was always quick to offer an encouraging word of affirmation when I was a young preacher, learning to sharpen my otherwise dull skills. He was quite picky, so if Bo said it was good, he meant it. Eventually he would become my student, sitting in my Sunday School class. He was always engaged, asking good questions and on occasion finding me in the parking lot asking a question that would send me quickly toward an Anchor Bible Dictionary in search of answers. For years, we sat behind he and his wife at church, and he would always ask about our boys and give them a “hard time” as only Bo could. Of course, the children were never as amused as Bo was, but that was his way of loving them, and loving us.

One of the more poignant memories I have of Bo is as a child growing up in church. For those that did not know him well, his sarcasm or humor might not be warmly accepted. He could give the appearance of a rough exterior, but it was merely an appearance because underneath lay a man that was sensitive to others and sensitive to God. Bo was a man that invested his life where it mattered: into his church, his family, and others, and felt it all deeply.

After learning of his passing, I got out my dad’s journal from the Ecuador Mission trip we took together in 1994. I was 13 at the time. My dad recalls a time at lunch, when we were all eating chips and sandwiches, and tossing our crumbs to a population of stray dogs wandering about the streets. There, my father noticed a lady, a beggar, that had difficulty with her mobility. She was clearly impoverished and visibly frustrated at the scene.

Upon pointing this out Bo, he went and made a plate of food and gave it to her. It is clear from the journal entry that my dad wasn’t attempting passive aggressive persuasion upon Bo; it was merely a matter of fact being noted. Yet, Bo moved in a simple act of kindness. Considering this scene my father wrote, “I was impressed with Beau and I only wish I had done it first, for how much more value does a human have in the eyes of God than dogs running around on the streets.” Time would fail me to list the many thankless, and unheard of, acts of kindness Bo Bandy has done through the years.

I trust Jesus was speaking literally when he said, “God will reward those that do in secret.” He and my father shared this in common; they would often do for others in secret and never seek outward gain or praise.

Conjoined with his works (public and private) was his verbal testimony, one that made a strong impression on a young boy named Nathan sitting in a church pew.

I grew up in the Nazarene Church, the largest remnant of the 19th century holiness revivals that once swept this nation. One of the hallmarks of the tradition was the ability for congregants to freely express, and respond, to whatever they felt God leading them to express/do/say. It was not a Quakerish sort of setting. There was certainly an order to worship, but it did have a hint of Pentecostal expressionism in regard to congregational response to a movement of the Holy Spirit.

During worship it was not uncommon for people to get “blessed,” stand up, and testify about what God was doing in their lives. Usually this would happen after a song, or before the sermon, or after altar calls; ostensibly it could happen at any point in the service. I have been in many services that were filled with testimonials and times of prayer at the expense of any sermonizing.

On such occasions, it was not uncommon to see Bo Bandy stand up, beside his wife, and in the presence of us all bear witness to how good God had been to him. He would talk about how God had brought him through struggles, how God had protected and provided for his family, how God had given him peace, and allowed him to live a life far above what he deserved…and his testimony would often be accompanied with weeping. Life wasn’t always perfect for Bo, but it was joyful in Christ. Here was this strong, firm, pillar of our church, also being vulnerable in front of all of us and expressing his love and thankfulness for God. I have heard Bo testify many times; it was testimonies like his that made it easier for young men like myself to be open and receptive to the subtle workings of the Holy Spirit.

Though I do not know what happens when we die, a journey we will all take alone, I do know the one who holds death. To God, I give thanks for the life of Bo Bandy, who was obedient and loved God with his time, his words, his work, his means, and his devotion to his family.

When I recall the famous Great Cloud of Witnesses in Hebrews 11, Beau Bandy will now be among the throng.

Naturally, having heard the news of his passing fall upon my hearing, I was speechless. What is there to say? Words fall powerless in the face of death. It is better to be silent than to speak foolishly. All I could do was watch as my mom went through the motions of the phone call with Janet, Bo’s wife, and shake her head trying to grasp the then, and not now, that had just taken place.

Death is a difficult thing to comprehend, to let roll over you and under you, and then attempt to remain standing. The mind cannot keep up with the sudden shift in the world: the was, but not now, that has just taken place. It takes the mind, and heart, a while to catch up to reality.

After the phone call, gravity silently pressing us into our seats, we went over to the family’s home. As we pulled in the driveway, multiple cars lined the asphalt surface; death was near, and people had shown up as witnesses. I stepped out of my vehicle, let out a blast of air from deep within my lungs, a large sigh, and exhale, and watched as the mist quickly formed before my sight, then vanishing.

Here we are; It is February. Winter is not yet over.

My mother exits her vehicle and walks to the top of the semi-circle drive. I meet her and look at the front door. It is open, with the clear glass door being all that separates us from the shadowy figures of humans on the inside. I turn back around to discover my mother no longer standing. Grief was bludgeoning her. There, she was squatting near the earth, weeping. This is real. Death happened. Invisible pain cripples even the strongest human. Bo is dead, and with him, my father continues his death as well. We make our way through the door and hug those inside, a confirmation the world is not the same place.

I entered the home speechless. Am I really doing this again? In February? I hug his grandchildren, children, and wife. I embrace BJ. What a familiar embrace with this one, this friend with whom I have bellowed the ache of loss and walked the valley of the shadow of death. His arms are too familiar, though they are still comforting.

I embrace Selina. She weeps. The love of a daughter makes the loss of her father a terrible thing to live. She tells me what happened, how a seemingly normal, albeit rough evening and day, turned into a rupture of her world that a few hours ago was seamlessly intact. She speaks to make sense of it all, even as she knows the more she speaks the less sense it makes. There is no use in second guessing our actions. Death was near; it would not be denied. Even as we pick our loved ones off the floor its shadow is cast over the story of our life.

I embrace Janet. What can you say? She has always given the best hugs, even now, when she has suffered the loss of a husband that is hours fresh. Even now I think I am hugging her, but she is hugging me. She is the salt of the earth. What courage! What strength! The world does not produce many women like Janet Bandy anymore.

I tell her I love her; for the first time I beat her to that punch line. She has been like a mother to me throughout my life, speaking life into me even when I didn’t deserve it and believing in me when I didn’t believe in myself. And now she stands staring into the abyss, peering into the darkness of what lies on the other side of Bo’s absence. Death leads us into dark forests, with steel canopies, air tight pathways through which our feet grope for footing. I am reassured, however, that the forest may be no match for Janet; perhaps the canopies will part as Moses parted the Sea, allowing light to shine onto an otherwise darkened floor. I trust it is so.

But now the countdown has begun. If you have not incarnated death, perhaps you do not know what I mean. If you do, I am sorry you suffer this tragic time keeping.

From the moment Bo passed, until the moment “healing” happens (if ever), tragedy is the keeper of time. As I embraced the family, and spoke with Selina and Janet, I was reminded of what it is they will face tonight, and tomorrow, the day of the funeral, and the weeks/months after.

There is no night like the first night one has experienced death.

I do not mean merely heard of death or been told of death.

I mean there is no night like the one when your bones have been filled with it, soaked with death so that whether we sleep, or lie awake, or move, death is with us. It stains our pillow, is found in our footprints, its residue left on our coffee cups. There is no sleep once death saturates us; it keeps us up at night, the child pulling at our covers until we sit up and take notice. For me, not only was it me, with me, in me, beside me, but it brought a certain chill over my body that kept me cold for over a year, the coolness of the grave finding expression in my body.

If this were not enough, time is no longer linear; it is event oriented. The calendar no longer matters. What matters is 4 hours, 5 hours, 24 hours, 2 days, 3 days, 1 week, 1 month, 4 months, 1 year, etc., since he has died.

We mark time like this because it simultaneously keeps us CLOSE to the event, close to a time when they were here, but also teaches us that we are moving further and further from the moment when that moment existed. We cannot help it. We do not want to be consumed with this record keeping, this death clock, but once it starts it cannot stop until we are dead. Like Captain Hook, we may arrive at a place where the “tick tock” is less salient, but there is always already a death clock that slowly moves toward our own once we have lived death.

February, the wintriest of months, has tightened its grip, extending toward us a winter of the soul.

It is easy to look around, and see the barren limbs, the dry grass, the muddied waters of rivers saturated with winter rain and snowmelt. It is easy to become lost in winter.

I remember clearly that cold March afternoon, after my father’s own February death, standing alongside the hole carved out of the earth’s crust, the gusts of wind swirling about the hillside and making the ribbons on my father’s casket come to life in betrayal of what was just under the lid. Gathering on a hill, digging a hole, and along with the creation that went into hibernation months ago, we cast another loved one into the earths crust, a seed we hope will find life again one day. I know the trees will one day bloom, but will my loved one not remain dead?

The 21-gun salute. It is over. The doves fly away. The wind of winter, not yet finished, casts us off the hill.

There, in winter, we stood on the precipice with death. Today, we stand again on that same precipice. When will winter end?

The story is over…

Yet, it is not over. We will step outside after Bo’s funeral today and we will see the clouds moving, we will feel the warm sun beating upon our foreheads, and we will hear the birds sing. It will all continue to live. The earth will continue its march around the sun and seasons will change. There is a season for everything, says the writer of Ecclesiastes. We will feel the hard asphalt beneath our feet and we will feel the warm embrace of others. Everything is not dead; death does not have the final say.

All endings are opportunities for beginnings.

Of course, like a good book, the kind that sticks to our hands like tree sap when we were kids, we hate for the story to end. It comes to its conclusion, we sit there in silence, not wanting to close it. “Is that really the end,” we say to ourselves, not wanting the finality of closing the book, sealing those pages. “Such a good book,” we say. It truly sucks that its over.

That’s because the story isn’t just in those pages; the story becomes us. We hate that it ended, but oh man, we loved that story. It was so good! And now we want others to read it too!

We are the story. People like Bo represent the best stories of our lives, the ones that we were reading, and we thought would never end. The story is filled with love, joy, laughter, victories, losses, and pain. This story shapes us. The story provides us with the images that tell us who we are, where we are, and where we are going. We not only read the story with others, but we are the story, and the story is us. Their story is our story. But like every good story it is only a completed story once its bittersweet ending has been written.

I must confess I hate when a good book ends; It feels like winter.

Today, the story that was written with Bo will be closed. The part of the story that he and my father shared will grow fainter once the casket is closed for the final time. Today is going to feel like February; Winter is not yet over. There is no comfort in closing a good book knowing you can never read it again for the first time.

Yet, I know what I will be looking for when I leave the church.

I will pay my respects. I will weep tears of sadness for this one who has known me since I was 8 years old. I will weep with his family that has to suffer the long sleepless nights and live the drudgery of footsteps gripped by death. I will thank God for his life and for my small part in it. I will offer my ears and my hands to his family if they can be of any use in the weeks and months ahead.

Then…I will leave.

I will step out of the same church doors through which Bo and my father stepped many times. Only this time, I will be looking with the eyes of my grandmother, who though now deceased many years, knew that when she saw Robins, spring was near.

Where might a few Robins be? I think I hear their song.

Bo Bandy at our Work Site in the Dominican, doing what he does best, working for others

We Become What We Pray: Final Thoughts On Confession

In this concluding post discussing gleanings through the practice of daily confession, I will note four areas of focus:

  1. We become what we pray
  2. Prayer sanctifies us
  3. The epiphany of grace that happens within confession
  4. Confession creates awareness that leads to proper witness.

Firstly, the practice of daily Confession gives fresh meaning to the ancient phrase lex orandi, lex credenda: the rule of prayer leads to the rule of faith/belief.  In other words, we become our prayers. We become what we pray and our prayers shape our orientation to the world.

When I was a child, around the age of 9-17, there was a well-known traveling evangelist that had a profound impact on my life. His revival was one my local church routinely scheduled. During one of his sermons, he said something that has stuck with me all these years. Back then, it had a much different impact on me than it does today, but the words continue to resonate. He proclaimed with divine authority, “to live right, you have to believe right,” words that were followed with a string of loud “amens” back then.

As I repeat that statement, I cringe with all that is wrong with it, not to mention its deep sense of pride. While that statement can be parsed multiple ways, the crux of the matter is that he presumed that right belief produced a rightly formed life. That conception is really, and quite profoundly, a very modern way to construe Christian faith. The irony is it’s quite a liberal theology to ground faith in our right belief, epistemology preceding all else (liberalism is something he would have adamantly denied). So much for revelation. I digress.

Notably, he left out one crucial thing that leads to right living: prayer. In order to live right, one must not simply believe right, since the category of “right belief” is largely subjective. Rather, to believe right one must first pray right. Right prayer leads to right belief, which then leads to right action. Prayer precedes all else in the life of the church because the church prays its theology well before the church commends its doctrines. Long before there was Christian theology, there was prayer. Prayer informed theology and, in turn, theology would then shape prayer. Quite simply, prayer shapes belief.

When we use prayers given to us by the church, the church and its prayers shape us. When our intellect, convictions, or even personal concerns are all that shape our prayers (because they will shape our prayers to an extent), it is not the church that shapes us but our “right belief” and our faith surprisingly looks a lot like us. No wonder so many people live narcissistic or stunted lives of faith.

If you want to know what a church values, listen to its prayers. If you want to know what a church believes, pray its prayers. And unless you personally want to be changed, then never ever pray the prayers of the church. It’s dangerous to your current state of being and threatens to turn you into something you could never make yourself.

In other words, lex orandi, lex credendi: we become what we pray, the rule of prayer leads to the rule of faith. It is a dialectic held in perfect tension within the practices of the church. The daily Confession of Sin teaches us to live into a life of repentance and penance. For the first time in my life, in all my sordid interactions and decisions, the prayer of Confession comes to mind throughout my day, reminding me of the confession and the One to whom my actions testify. My daily journey is thus constantly integrated with a biblical one.

Secondly, in addition to direct prayers of Confession, the Daily Office itself saturates my comings and goings as I am constantly reminded that my life is one sanctified through daily prayer and confessions, which are made perpetually present in my interactions because they are made perpetual in my sayings.

In a way never comprehended, I have begun to understand the importance of praying the hours in the ancient church or what the Apostle Paul may have meant by “praying without ceasing”: when we keep holy time through constant prayer we are constantly acknowledging that time is holy and our lives are sanctified by God. Indeed, we are bought with a price and we are not our own.

I am here reminded of a quote by the 4th century hymnist and saint, Ephraim of Syria, who wrote on prayer, “Virtues are formed by prayer. Prayer preserves temperance. Prayer suppresses anger. Prayer prevents emotions of pride and envy. Prayer draws into the soul the Holy Spirit, and raises man to Heaven.”

In other words, confessional prayer sanctifies us, ridding us of vices, and creating a new heart within us shaped by the church and the resurrected Christ.

Thirdly, while bringing to the fore my own ineptitude and incapacity for anything good, Confession also reminds me of the gracious act of God that is meritoriously extended to me without my having earned any of it. I would that I was a good person. Alas, I am not. I am here reminded of the words of Isaiah the prophet, “We have all become like the one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away” (64.6).

Because Confession makes me mindful of my daily shortcomings, my past indiscretions, and my future failings, I am more concertedly aware that God’s grace is far deeper and greater than anything I can imagine. The boundlessness of God’s love and concern for me, for you, for creation, is unfathomable. I stand at the altar completely speechless in my attempts to understand a grace so deep and wide. I stare at the portraiture of Christ, in stained glass, above the altar, in absolute awe of a love that evades every word, every symbol, every definition.

We come to the moment in the Great Thanksgiving that reminds us He “delivered us from evil, and made us worthy to stand before you. In him, you have brought us out of error into truth, out of sin into righteousness, out of death into life.” (Book of Common Prayer, 368). This love and unmerited grace bends down in the incarnation of God, Jesus Christ, and forgives us because he has always already forgiven us on Calvary. Hence, what the Daily Confession of Sin allows is a deep awareness, and rest, in God’s grace.

In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus is remembered to have said, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me; I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11.28-29). In daily confessing our sins, we do not stand as people condemned and burdened with guilt; rather, we kneel as ones who are honest and resting fully in the necessity of God’s grace to be whatever we are only through the grace extended to us in Jesus Christ. I confess my sins, how I have missed the mark, not in an attempt to avoid hell, but as an awareness that I need Christ even more, the Christ who desires that no one will be lost but that all will be saved (II Peter 3. 8-10).

Finally, the concluding prayer of the Daily Office is rehearsed with the full awareness that we have confessed ours sins and stand as people enshrouded by the robe of God’s grace.  This final prayer gives thanks to God for his mercies and gifts. One line especially stands out to me that directs us back to the Confession of Sin, “And, we pray, gives us such an awareness of your mercies, that with truly thankful hearts we may show forth your praise.” BCP, 101.

This phrase is a concluding portion of a final office prayer called “The General Thanksgiving.” It is preceded by reference to God’s creation, redemption, and preservation. It’s tone and tenor are one of thanksgiving for all the things God has done. However, during the giving of thanks, the above phrase in this final prayer is one more reminder of our dependence on the meritorious grace of God. The verb in the phrase is passive in tense, “give us such an awareness of your mercies.” Only God can make us fully aware of the mercies, chances, opportunities, and gifts we have received. It is our default setting to forget those things throughout the busyness of life. Unless God shake from out of us the narcissism of our culture and ego-centricity of our worldviews, there is no other means whereby we can be made aware of gifts given to us.

One of the reasons we can, possibly, possess a fully repentant heart yet be stuck between the dialectical tension of what we should and should not do, is because we neglect this portion of prayer.

Our voices and lives must echo repentance because in so doing that vehicle of confession is the vehicle whereby God can continually “make us aware” of those said mercies.

In fact, perhaps more so than moving God to forgive anything in particular, our confessions of sins committed, or omitted, actually serve to bring those mercies top of mind so that we might attain thankful hearts and show forth the praise of God in our lives. We need not always imagine that we confess our sins out of some fear that anything left unconfessed make the trek to heaven harder. Just as we are fallible humans in our doing, we are also fallible in our memory or recollection. The act of confession, rather, binds us to the action of forgiveness given and brings those mercies front and center, God’s very means of providing the awareness we need when we encounter the others that could benefit from pulling up a chair to the table of Christ.

For when we are aware, we a less likely to judge and more likely to empathize. We are less like to be filled with fear, and more likely to be filled with hope. When we are aware, we are less likely to consider our own holy walk with God and more likely to consider the eternally present act of God in Christ that makes even walking itself possible. Just as the Daily Office early on directs us toward our contrite hearts, it redirects us back to that reception of mercy prior to sending us into the world, thereby bookending our beginning and endings of holy time with Confession.

Only as we first realize we are the ones who are forgiven, are we humble enough to go into the world and be symbols of forgiveness to others, ambassadors of reconciliation. Thus, Daily Confession of Sin precedes our ability to be faithful ministers of Christ, for only those who have taken up their own Cross, and spoken their sins into its wood, can heed the call to go into the world, follow Him, and make disciples.

The Daily Confession of Sin, Part 2: Being Mindful

When I mention engaging in a Daily Confession of Sin, I do not mean repeating daily the popularized version of the “sinners prayer,” in which one confesses they are a sinner before God in need of forgiveness, and then “accepts Jesus into their heart.” I am assuming that Daily Confession of Sin precludes that one is already Christian, i.e., baptized and one’s “sins” submerged into the watery grave with Christ and resurrected into newness of life. Confession is a daily part of Christian piety, not strictly something one does one time in order to begin to follow Jesus and then never revisited. Thus, I am not speaking about re-initiating a new walk with God daily. It is assumed that the one praying daily prayers of confession are doing so precisely because Jesus is already “in their heart” and directing their life.

That little bit being cleared up, I’d like to begin this second post by reciting the Confession from Morning Prayer, Rite II, Book of Common Prayer, 79.

“Most Merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart. We have not loved our neighbor as ourselves. We are truly sorry and we humbly repent. For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and forgive us; that we may delight in your will and walk in your way, to the glory of your Name. Amen.”

This is not the only Confession found in The Book of Common Prayer. There are several forms of confessional prayer in the BCP itself, as well as in extant Episcopalian and broader catholic tradition.

While I was initially concerned about the efficacy of saying a Confession of Sin daily, what I found in the experience was quite different. Herein lies my first of two takeaways that provide the content for Part 2 of this brief series.

Far from being empty prayers reciting written words, the practice of confession is life giving because it is life minding.

A regular confession of sin brought forth a mindfulness about life that I had heretofore never experienced. It pulled me into a state of attentiveness. It brought a new awareness of my human actions, even seemingly insignificant ones. Any previous premonition that such regular praying was for folks that wanted to indulge in cheap grace was completely abolished. The last thing folks in search of cheap grace want to do is spend 20-30 minutes praying the Daily Office or utilizing prayer beads or any other means/context within which confessional prayer takes place. Confession is part of a larger story, not an isolated event. More on that in a bit.

Contrary to my bias, I discovered that the experience of daily confession would most likely not be the daily confession of those seeking cheap grace. Assumptions of cheap grace are likely to be followed by a cheapening of prayer life as well. In fact, I discovered that daily confession of sin led to a more profound understanding of grace, a deeper appreciation of the act of God’s forgiveness (because it is engaged/acknowledged more frequently), and my requisite need of it. These were not prayers said in the shadow of deliberative sin, their utterance being a holy check mark, a spiritual firewall against an untimely mortal demise. Instead, they were prayers I said even as I sought to be as faithful as possible, yet still being more keenly aware of my shortcomings. Confessional prayers helped me bring my life to mind, and thereby, to more regularly life mending.

For example, considering my former self, so long as I did not break a “known” law of God, I would keep it moving. No need for an apology or admission of my own shortcomings. I fully acknowledge that maybe I was a bad Nazarene and not in tune with a proper sense of spirituality. It’s totally possible. My story is my own and I cannot project this on the entirety of the tradition. Yet, as I began to trust the catholic Church, and trust it’s prayers, the Book of Common Prayer became a part of my life. I began to be mindful of all my interactions throughout the day. The literal confession of “known and unknown, done and left undone” made me mindful of my actions in a way I had never imagined possible. Suddenly, the ordinary interactions of my day became animated with a confessional prayer seeking God’s grace, and not only my need of it, but of its necessity for daily sustainability in a life that tempts us to forget our state as forgiven and loved people.

I recalled daily communications with my kids, my wife, my employees, and my reactions to folks in public. I recall impure thoughts or times I was filled with anger or pride, or when I expressed values that did not always value what Christ valued. Confessing my sin daily, my known (commission) and unknown sin (omission), made me deeply aware of how much I really do need God’s grace because I am not nearly as sinless as I once thought, which was a bummer by the way.

To be human is to miss the mark, to commit the sort of missing the mark sin described in the New Testament. There is so much I am leaving undone and so much I do that I wish I could undo, or do better, daily. And if such were not the case, I believe I would need forgiveness for the spiritual pride that would accompany such a holy life that knew how sanctified it really was. There is something of a holy humility that characterizes those that bathe themselves in the prayers of the church long enough.

Pelagianism is good in theory, but when I search my heart, mind, and soul, I find I am far from what Christ wants me to be even as my daily prayers make me mindful of the Christ that is within me. Confession allows us to resonate with Paul’s use of Psalms 14 in Romans chapter 3, when he writes that everyone is under the power of sin and there is “no one who does good, no not one.” Yet, before you accuse me of a spiritual masochism, recall that even Jesus said, “why do you call me good? There is no one Good but God.” (Luke 18.19 & Mark 10.18)

It is ironic that my home tradition relies so much on John Wesley for its understanding of sin, yet John Wesley is recalled as an Anglican Divine that prayed these prayers daily even as he spoke of a sanctification that takes place through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, an indwelling that is the presence of the bond of love between the Father and the Son.

For the record, Wesley never confessed to be a sinless human.

Secondly, within the context of the Daily Office, I found that my confessional prayer life was a theological testimony to God’s saving actions in history, in Christ. To pray confessionally is to rehearse the story of God with Israel and of Christ with us, daily. Prayer gives way to theology as we become counterparts with the many biblical characters that also sought forgiveness not infrequently. The prayer of Confession is an admission of one’s need for forgiveness as a part of the larger story of God. Thus, a prayer of confession is a prayer of witness, first to self, and then in order to be a witness to others.

It’s not that we were forgiven once. Rather, God acted definitively in Christ in the past. Then, we were forgiven, and that forgiving action extends into the present. We are forgiven and are being forgiven. Forgiveness is present perfect in tense, being an action that happened in the past with implications upon the present.

Therefore, this Confession of Sin does not have to be accompanied with a profound sadness or guilt. Perhaps traditions with a narrower sense of sin also have a narrower sense of sorrow that must accompany prayers. Often, our knowledge of missing the mark is simply that, knowledge, and such knowledge can precede new actions apart from a daily crisis experience with God. These daily confessions are not accompanied by tears of oblation as if my trust in God, and God’s trust in me, had been broken and mangled irreparably by evil. It is more that the prayer of confession seeks to acknowledge to God that I am not God, I am not always doing what I should, and that the task before me is larger than my humanity can reasonably perform. The confession places me within the biblical story. I become Israel, one chosen yet also lapsed, and my adoption by God makes me more aware of the mercies extended to me. The confession, thusly, becomes an entrance into active witness and re-enactment of God’s story with us, rather than a means whereby we enter a morally pristine state prepared for heaven, as if Aristotle’s Ethics were the entire goal of the death of Jesus.

Such an acknowledgement is predicated on God’s always already present forgiveness; God’s forgiving all people everywhere, all the time, in the very being of God as God acted to forgive definitively on the Cross.

In Confession, we desire to accept that already given forgiveness, not wrench it from God’s hands if only we are sorry enough. Daily Confession of sin is not a spiritually present means of begging a vengeful God to forgive me. It doesn’t beget some daily spiritual PTSD that hits me as soon as I awake and send me into panic until I have appeased God’s sorrow police (I have suffered spiritual PTSD as a teen and have felt what it is like to be Jonathan Edwards’ sinner in the hands of an angry God).

Instead, Confession is a daily act of acknowledging my incompleteness and then giving thanks for God’s eternally forgiving completed act, given to us, from the Father, through the Son, and manifesting itself in the Spirit.

Jesus said, “Come to me, all you who are weary and heavy burdened, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11.28)

Confessional prayers are the literal resting of our hearts, souls, body, and mind in the embrace of Jesus, who carried the heaviest burden of all so that we wouldn’t have to. The Risen Christ knows what we need prior to asking, yet it is in the asking, confessing, and rehearsing that we become one with Christ, and he becomes one with us.

The Daily Confession of Sin, Part I: A very Brief Introduction

It may be news to some that not all Christian traditions embrace a daily routine of confessing sin. Though Forgiveness is part and parcel of Christian teachings, for many, regular prayers of repentance would imply that one is indeed not Christian, or to use an old school nomenclature, that one has “back slid” or “fallen from grace.” Indeed, a quick google search will take you down some serious rabbit holes on this issue. If I had a nickel for every time I back slid as a kid, I would literally have hundreds of nickels, maybe thousands.

This doesn’t mean that these traditions believe people are immune to sin (though some parts of my home tradition would go as far to say that the depraved nature of humans could be “eradicated” by the work of the Holy Spirit. In case you’re wondering, that theology hasn’t aged so well). It is more the case that these traditions are so optimistic about humans (they might even say God’s grace to enable humans) that have been filled with the Holy Spirit that they believe Christians can, and should, live without sin through the power of God. Hence, regular prayers of repentance are eschewed because such would be an indication of a truly non-repentant heart. If one needs to pray for forgiveness daily, then one has a serious spiritual issue. This does not mean there is no room for “growth in grace,” but it does mean that some traditions believe Christians do not have to, and must not, sin daily or even frequently.

Of course, what is often at work in these sorts of distinctions are definitions. Not everyone in the household of Christian faith is working with the same definition of “sin.” For example, some hold to a strict definition of sin, sin proper being confined only to those activities that “violate a known law of God.” These are called sins of commission. While others view sin as a more expansive and systemic human reality that is not as narrow in orientation. Under this category are sins of omission and the tangled web of human depravity around the globe.

The former definition of sin is bequeathed to us from a truncated reading of John Wesley, and the biblical Book of James, if you’re keeping score. Of course, other biblical resources are marshaled as well, but these are notable. Hence, sin under this paradigm would be an outright rebellion, a deliberate act to discontinue following God. Anything not under that paradigm of action would be considered a mistake, a misstep, an opportunity to grow in grace but it would not be a sin because you didn’t know you were sinning. Humans are not perfect, but they don’t have to violate a “known law of God.” Sin, then, is something known and committed. If you do not know it, and did not do it on purpose, then you are living a life without sin.

The traditions that follow this line of reasoning are usually Wesleyan, American Holiness, or even Pentecostal in heritage. Perhaps there are also some non-denominational churches that follow suit. Furthermore, if we go way back into Christian history, say 4th and 5th century, we can even find this sort of sentiment in the teachings of one Pelagius who placed emphasis on human efforts regarding salvation. His contemporary, an early Church Father named Augustine, had some serious problems with his premodern humanism.

Regarding the latter definition, Latin Western Christian tradition has held that sin is more expansive and determinative of the human condition. Sin certainly includes violating a known law of God, but it also includes, to use the New Testament Greek word for sin (hamartia), any area in which we “miss the mark” in our service to God. Suddenly, the ante on sin has been upped. Humans will miss “the mark” daily, both as individuals and as communal wholes. As the Daily Confession of Sin suggests, sin is that which we have done, OR left undone, known and unknown, and includes any intimation or embodiment of not loving God with our whole heart or not loving our neighbor as ourselves. Well, if this is sin, seems we have a little more at stake than muting our resident Jimminy Crickets.

When sin is limited to simply not telling a lie or murdering someone, those boxes are easy to check. Many Christians can fill those requirements, as well as the Pauline lists of heavenly stipulations (though these Pauline Lists seem to leave few of us guiltless). However, when sin is looked at from a more expansive view of “missing the mark,” I would dare say there are precious few among us that would say they hit every target, every day, or even the known targets if we’re honest. Acknowledging this isn’t a bad thing, it’s a humbling thing, and it reminds us of the origin of our salvation as elsewhere than our participation as a day trader in spiritual equities with the God.

I have now been a practicing Episcopalian for a year. As an outsider to Anglican Tradition, and The Book of Common Prayer, this native Nazarene initially read and looked at these Daily Confessions of sin with not a little apprehension. Questions had always been present, such as the following:

What is true repentance if one must repent each day? Does this prayer mean anything if it must be repeated on the regular? Does this prayer drown itself in mundanity because it becomes familiar and spiritually boring, another thing we say because we are Christian but nothing that effectively changes us? Is the prayer written a heartfelt, efficacious one? The word repentance means to turn away from, to be sorrowful for, and then walk differently. If we in fact do that, then why seek forgiveness as a part of the Daily Office?

These were my questions. My premonitions, at first. (I will answer these rhetorical questions in Parts II and III of this series in a more theologically reflective style than I am rehearsing here).

Asking for forgiveness was not a good thing in my theological book, or anyone’s theological book that I knew, unless of course one was asking the forgiveness of another person that had been wronged by hurtful words, wrongful conduct, or some other form of moral lack unbecoming a follower of Jesus. Those “mistakes” deserved an apology, but they certainly did not amount to needing God’s saving and forgiving involvement all over again. Mature Christians knew how to seek the forgiveness of others, but mature Christians certainly shouldn’t seek God’s forgiveness on the daily. After-all, we’re only human and are born to make mistakes (by the way, the 1980’s called and The Human League wants its theology back.)

Then, I started praying them, these daily prayers of repentance. This happened as I integrated the Daily Office into my prayer practices. There is nothing like personal experience to expunge bias and provide understanding.

At first, the prayers were odd, tough to say, as the new words of old prayers had to be pressed from my lips. It’s hard to pray a theology that rubs against the humanism of a former theological sense of self. The only thing I knew to do, even with my years of study, a couple degrees, and pastoral experience of two decades in another tradition, was to trust the prayers of the Church and pray them. There is nothing like doing that changes our being. When we are unsure of our own faith, or what to do, it is not bad advice to lean into the faith of the Church for help. Sometimes we need others to pray and believe for us. If these daily utterances contained a truth that shaped saints of ages past, they are powerful enough to change us. As my grandmother was not wont to tell me as a child “Don’t knock it till you’ve tried it.” Touche grandma, touche.

Thus, I began to pray the prescribed prayers and internalize the language. I memorized them, much as I had memorized scripture as a child. The prayers became me, and I became my prayers. In praying them, I have learned a few things that I would like to share. So I welcome you back in the days ahead as I share my experience of seeking forgiveness again for the first time on the daily. Please see the schedule below.

*Part II of this series will be published Wednesday, February 19, and Part III will be published Sunday, February 23. Thank you for joining me in these reflections and following*

From The Pew

A Layman's Look At The Gospel

Flora Fiction

Creative Space + Literary Magazine

The Bibliofile

Book Reviews, Books, Bestsellers, Literary Fiction


Because we’re all recovering from something.


"Books are humanity in print." Barbara Tuchman


A few impossible things before breakfast are always on the menu.


Sharing the life changing Gospel message found in Jesus Christ

Beautiful Life with Cancer

Discovering the Gift

Almost Chosen People

A blog about American History, and the development of a great Nation

Victoria Elizabeth Ann

Leader. Writer. Employee Development Specialist.


Media, Space, Technology

Lynette Noni

Embrace The Wonder

Malcolm Guite

Blog for poet and singer-songwriter Malcolm Guite



The Charnel-House

From Bauhaus to Beinhaus

Damyanti Biswas

For lovers of reading, crime writing, crime fiction

Surviving A Loss

Losing a son to suicide

Christianity in the 21st Century

The Search for Truth and Meaning as a 21st century Christian

%d bloggers like this: