Friday, November 15, 2013

Eveningsong

Some nights when we are lying in bed, bodies disintegrating into the sheets, sinking deep into the mattress, minds evaporating into the surrounding darkness, becoming night ourselves, embracing the sweet oblivion of the often-elusive rest, I will hear Lydia’s voice dancing down the hallway from her bedroom in a high-pitched song—clipping off the walls like a top or a ballerina. And sometimes I am tempted in my exhaustion-drunken state to rage and roar for her to shut her mouth for crying out loud, can’t she see we are trying desperately to snatch at a few moments of blasted sleep, is that too much to ask, is it, IS IT? And sometimes in those moments an awareness flutters like falling ash or snow, like a bright moth, alighting on my consciousness, whispering that this might be a sacred experience, this music being born of a child—a song that has never before existed in the history of the world and likely never will again because it is pure inspiration poured into her soul as she spins and grins in her mirror, standing on her bed and emanating joy. And I think of when she was very small, much smaller than the lanky second-grader she has become, sitting on my lap in a meeting with my mission president. She began to sing in the middle of the meeting. I was uncomfortable and tried to quiet her. From the pulpit, my president said, “Let her sing. She will not always be a child.” And in my bed I begin to weep at the memory of that and the truthfulness of it, and I am tempted to rush into her room and scoop her into my arms and tell her that I love her, I love her, and I always will. But then she would stop singing. So I just close my eyes and watch the song spiral around the room, joining the whir of the ceiling fan, weaving itself into darkness, into my dreams, into my happy old father’s heart.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Sunday, October 20, 2013

A Story of Jack and Norie

"Disheveled Saint," by Brian Kershisnik


Today is the national day on writing. So here are my thoughts about why writing matters: Story is the heart of writing, and stories are the food we live on from the time we are very young. They are the crumbs dropped from the beaks of our mothers into our open, eager mouths as we nestle into our pillows and words flow over us, creating strange images in our minds and mysterious stirrings in our souls. These stories become a part of us and create our worldview. Each life is a story composed of all the stories that have fed it. When I was young, I would ask my mother to tell me stories, and she would. When she was tired, she would say this: “I’ll tell you a story of Jack and Norie, and now my story’s begun. I’ll tell you another of Jack and his brother, and now my story is done.” And I would groan. “Please, mom.” And she would smile and kiss my forehead. Now I am a father, and when I am tired, I tell my children very short stories—one sentence stories about the births of butterflies or the flights of whales or the smells of gardens. And sometimes they groan. And sometimes they smile. A story does not have to be elaborate, but we are creatures that crave narrative.

One of my favorite writers suggests that perhaps God invented time so that there might be narrative: creation, fall, atonement. Incarnation, resurrection, return. Hope and miracle. These are all stories. And stories connect us. They are a form of communion. In a very real way, we share stories. While I took the sacrament today, my son held up to my attention a piece of bread roughly the shape of Chile. It was the longest, biggest piece in the tray, and I could tell it felt like victory to him. He smiled and said, “Dad, do you remember the story of the Last Supper? It was Jesus’s last night and He broke the bread and gave them water.” (We are Mormons, and so we remember the wine as water, you know?) “Yep.” “And then He died.” “Yep.” “And do you remember the story of the five loaves of bread and the two fishes? Jesus fed five thousand people.” “Yep.” These are stories we share, of the bright, gentle Son of God wandering around the plains of Judea, feeding people. We ate these stories together, my son and I, as we chewed small pieces of bread and sipped from small cups of water.

We share the story of the young curious farm boy who wandered into the woods and cracked open the heavens, who talked with God and spent the rest of his life telling people that God wanted to talk with them, too. Who gave his life for his witness that God is not so different from us, or we are not so different from Him. This story made a people. We are part of that people. It continues to make us, to teach us our value in the eyes of the Holy One of Israel.

I tell my children stories so they will know me. One recent Sunday night I asked them if they wanted a mission story. “Yeah!” shouted my two oldest. “I want a fight story,” Oliver said. “Do you want a mission fight story?” I asked. “Yeah!” they all three said. I told them the story of one of my mission companions who grew up in Mexico City and whose brothers were car thieves for a living. He told how he sometimes rode in the backseat of the stolen cars as a young boy and how he remembered them speeding across the border into the Distrito Federal, being pursued by police officers. This companion’s name was Elliott, and he had seen some things, let’s say. The companion he had before me had said something Elliott didn’t like, and Elliott punched him in the face. That’s how he and I became companions. That was the fight I had promised to tell my children about. But the story was really about how much this kid taught me about love. We would get on our bikes and ride past all the houses and out through the countryside and stop on bridges and watch turtles sunning themselves on rocks. Some of my favorite memories of Mexico are those bike rides with Elliott, sunning ourselves like turtles on rocks. But when we went far enough out, we found very small communities of outlying people. And one day we knocked at the fence of a small house with a big yard and lots of chickens, and we met Claudia. She was blind and she had two daughters, and they craved the stories we told about God’s love and God’s attentiveness to human cries. About pillars of light and the warm voice of God. They were baptized and each week made the long journey to the church in the city to hear more of these stories. I left that area shortly after this. I did not speak Spanish very well then, and I did not think this little family would remember me. Elliott was the one who taught them the stories, really. Elliott was the one who loved them so very much. But about two years later, I returned to Mexico with my parents, and we drove a car out to the little fence around Claudia’s house and banged on the fence. Claudia came feeling her way out of the house. “Hola, hermana!” I cried. “Taggart?” she said, a smile slowly creeping across her worn face. “How did you know?” I asked. “How could I forget the voice of the boy who taught me the stories of God?” As I told my children this story, I cried. Six-year-old Emerson began to cry as well. And then Lydia. Oliver looked at us, and said, “Stop crying!”


So we write to tell stories. Because stories matter. Stories matter more than we can put into words. So we tell stories. And we write so that the stories do not die with us. We write to connect, to commune. That is why we write.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Six Hours


"Thorn and Sparrows" by Brian Kershisnik
A boy who usually comes late and almost never says anything stood up at the front of the classroom and looked at the other students in the class and said, “I want to tell you a story.” The story was about his great uncle. “I wasn’t really close to him,” he said, “but I really loved him. He lived on this big field, this farm. He always laughed. He made everyone laugh. He was my grandfather’s brother. He was very old. He was out walking, and something happened to him and he fell down, he like collapsed. He could not stand, and his wife did not know where he was. He lay on the ground in his field for a very long time and it was cold and then his wife finally found him and took him to the hospital. My family went to sit with him at the hospital, and we were all, you know, crying and stuff, because the doctors said that he was going to die. He was very old.” The boy looked in the eyes of the other students and then looked away and continued his story. “He was telling jokes and we were laughing and crying. I mean, he was dying and he was making people laugh. He was such a nice person. And then he said, ‘Why are you all crying? Isn’t it time for General Conference? Somebody find a TV.’ So we found a TV and set it up in his bedroom. And he was dying and he just wanted to listen to the prophet, and he was so happy all the time, and I thought, ‘I maybe should want to watch Conference.’ So next time I am going to watch it more. And now I know he’s up there with God. And, well, that’s really all I wanted to say.” He sat down and no one said anything. But they didn’t really need to. He had pretty much said it all.

And then this big old football player boy said, “Well, I was going to play a song on the piano, but since my, you know, my concussion, I don’t remember some things too well. And I can’t really read music, but I have played since I was three just by ear, and I, well, I’ll just play what I can remember.” And he sat and played something that sounded like grace. Why does it always surprise me when boys like that have magical fingers?

And a girl said, “You know, the scriptures don’t really say what the angel did in the Garden of Gethsemane to comfort Christ, just that an angel came and comforted Him. And I kind of wish it said how he did it because I have a lot of friends and some in my family who struggle with depression, and I sometimes wonder what I can do. But I think I might know some of what the angel did. My dad has this sign by his bed that says, ‘Don’t just do something, stand there.’ And I think sometimes people just need us to stand there, by them. You know? They just need to know straight up that we are going to love them no matter what. And then we need to actually do it. To make good on our word.”

And a boy who grew up in Samoa and has more cousins than I have days on my calendar said, “When I was ten my mother died, and ten days later my best friend died. And it was in the tenth month. And so now people ask me why I always choose the number ten for my football jersey, and I tell them about my mom and my friend. And some people think that’s weird, but it’s like, I don’t want to forget them, and the number ten reminds me of them and makes me want to play better and to be better because, like, I know they are looking down on me, and, well, I want to, you know, make them proud and live to see them again. And I know I will. So ten is a hopeful number to me. I don’t know if you get it, but it is.”

And a big, strong, silent boy said more words than I’d ever heard, and I had never noticed that he sort of has a lisp, and it made me wonder if that’s why he’s so strong and so silent. And it made me wish I had known he had a lisp before today. Man, have I never heard him say enough words to know that? You know?

And another quiet boy—the younger brother of two boisterous, gregarious boys I have taught before, a boy who one day told me, “I am not my brothers”—this boy said, “Everybody gets sad. And if the great sorrow has not descended on you yet, you are not off the hook, because it might one day. You never know, you know? So you kind of have to be patient with people. And you have to know that God always loves you, you know?”

And a girl told about her friend who doesn’t believe in God and this girl in my class “sort of tricked her,” as she said, to come to her grandma’s house and listen to the apostles speak at Conference. And in the first talk this atheist girl heard, someone shared that scripture from Matthew 22: “Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.” And this girl in my class looked over and her friend was crying. “And she’s sort of a tough girl, and she never cries. And I asked her why she was crying. And she just said, ‘That scripture was the most beautiful thing I have ever heard.’” And that girl in my class sat down, and we all sat there thinking about that. The most beautiful thing she had ever heard. Love. Love was the most beautiful thing she had ever heard. And I sat there thinking that it was probably the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, too. You know?

Saturday, September 28, 2013

What it might be like to be God, part II

"This Splendid Inconvenience" by Brian Kershisnik


“Behold, he that keepeth Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep.” —Psalm 121:4

I lie in my bed between two sleeping children, reading a novel about a man whose only daughter died. I stand up and just watch my kids sleep for a minute. I carry my wispy, twig-limbed seven-year-old daughter to her bed and flop her in among books and magazines. She makes a small noise in her throat and pulls up the blankets around her chin. I go back to my bed. My three-year-old is sprawled on his back with his hands outstretched as if to catch the stars, his hip twisted and his one leg resting on the knee of the other. Next to him on the bed, in an almost-identical position, is an olive-green stuffed frog I gave Julie when we were dating and which we regifted to one of the children for one of their birthdays. I carry him to his bed.

Our nights lately have been vast dark oceans in which our bed is the shore toward which children like small skiffs and driftwood apparently aimlessly make their meandering way. By morning, our harbor is filled with small, scattered, lightly breathing ships--unless I walk on the water of the night, carrying in my arms the small pieces of driftwood the shapes and sizes of small children. Sometimes I sink into their small boats with them and rock back into the oblivion of the star-strewn sea. We don’t sleep deeply, but we sleep well, in our own way.

Or I am a volunteer fireman, waking in the cold hours, rushing to put out the small fires that explode from the tinder of nightmares, loneliness, restlessness into cries in the dark: “Dad?”

I told Emerson that I would pay him a nickel for every night he stays in his bed until the morning. His eyes shone like the small bright coins he would receive. He lasted three dark nights, gathering his shining, and then on the fourth told me he would rather sleep next to me than have five cents. My sleep suffers while my heart sends invitations to the celebration.

Or this: I sit on the ground, pulling out of the brush of the vacuum cleaner enough hair and string (and even a stray, slim copper wire) to make a small bird’s nest, curled and coiled into itself, which attracts the lilt-voiced flit of my one-year-old’s curiosity as she alights on my lap and touches my face, quiet and sacred as a bird.

This same small girl writhes in my arms one stormblown night to face the biting wind. I tell her to hold to me, put her face in my neck, to trust me. But she wants to see where she is going.

Before he knows I am there to pick him up from kindergarten, I watch my five-year-old, sky-eyed boy spring along the segmented body of a caterpillar painted on the sidewalk, singing his ABCs backward. He bounces and bounds. He is exuberance. The way his limbs limberly whirl and flap like the arms of a windmill, the wings of a sparrow.

I watch my firstborn, who inherited my gift for sinking in water, at a swimming lesson. The teacher ignores her and focuses on an athletic boy with a confident grin. Lydia bobs and splashes obliviously by herself. This teacher, I think, she does not know that one day you’ll swim through oceans of light, behind you a wake of rippling joy, faces shimmering. But I know. I know.

And Ellie dances. She stretches her arms and spins. Her eyes look purple sometimes. Oliver tells tales. His preschool teacher cannot see that his liveliness is exuberance, his heart is pure. He always wants to tell round robin stories that begin, “It was a dark and spooky night” and end with cougars in a tent. He tells me, “When I prayed inside my head, I prayed for blessings for our family.” He lisps this in a gravelly voice. Lydia puts her hands over her ears as I tuck her into bed, watching me sing “I am a Child of God.” She is pretending she is deaf, and I am her teacher who does not know sign language, so I teach her by encouraging her to read my lips. She tries to sing along, mumbling half of each word as she imagines a deaf person might. When I kiss her goodnight, she says the game is over and she can hear.


Is this what it is like to be God? 

Thursday, August 29, 2013

A little child shall lead them

"Madonna Child John" by Brian Kershisnik

I sat on the front porch contemplating the songlessness of entropy, the way the weeds creep and crush and encroach on my garden, my lawn, my flowerbed; the way the messes multiply and replenish. There’s a certain dark miracle there in the relentless march of chaos and mayhem. It sinks into the soul sometimes, too.

I looked up to see the stumbling, toddling, mad amble of my beautifully fat fourth-born making her way across the grass, barefoot as a discalced Carmelite, holding the hands of her two oldest siblings who gazed at her with reverent attentiveness. This small child has oceans in her blue eyes. There are constellations and congregations of solemn clouds swirling behind her piercing glance. She communicates much without words. There are worlds in her seeric eyes.

My third-born son followed behind the procession, bent toward the small prophetess. Ellie crouched at the edge of the green lawn to examine a rock. She made a wondering sound. Lydia, Emerson, and Oliver all joined her in her genuflection toward the stone. They each touched it in turn with gentle affection. Then Ellie shot up and pointed excitedly. The neighbor dog had come wandering into her consciousness. The children admired with her. She bent for a snail. They dropped to their knees. And I wanted to join them. Isaiah says that in the Millennium, when there is peace among all creatures, when the wolf and the lamb bound recklessly and joyously united down the grassy slopes and the lion and the ox share a communal feast of straw, that a little child shall lead them. I think it was Boyd K. Packer who said that every time a child is born the world is renewed in innocence.

This small baby comes angling toward me with her dimpled smile and her wry laugh and her knowing, ancient eyes, carrying something that looks like a bag full of translucent shards of colored light, and I think that this is what it will take for the world to be born again. We will have to trust to the eyes of a little child to walk into the new country of wonder and awe and magic that God has in His infinite generosity and imagination prepared for us. We will have to become such astonished, bright-eyed creatures ourselves. And I think I will like that world, too.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Wine to Water

"Unknown Allegory . . . " by Brian Kershisnik

Holiness is in the eye of the beholder. As I took the sacrament yesterday, I thought about how Jesus turned water to wine, and Joseph Smith turned it back into water. Both acts were, I think, gestures toward acknowledging the holiness of common things.

The thing is, Jesus turns water to wine every day. “I am the true vine,” He said. Wine is water which has passed through the vine. Jesus is the Creator. This is what He does. He breathes miracles. Everything He touches turns green and buds and blossoms and changes. He can change hearts and souls. Of course He can make the extravagant, impossible move of generating fifteen firkins of the finest, holiest wine from six regular barrels filled with liquid made of two parts hydrogen for each part oxygen. Of course.

But the theology of Joseph Smith is one which acknowledges that so can man. Harold Bloom, that old poetic-religious atheist, called Joseph a religious genius, and I think his genius lies in his vision of mankind as holy and of the universal availability of sacred experience. The revelation that changed wine back into water is found in the Doctrine and Covenants. The historical background for section 27 reads like this:

Revelation given to Joseph Smith the Prophet, at Harmony, Pennsylvania, August 1830. In preparation for a religious service at which the sacrament of bread and wine was to be administered, Joseph set out to procure wine. He was met by a heavenly messenger and received this revelation, a portion of which was written at the time and the remainder in the September following. Water is now used instead of wine in the sacramental services of the Church.

What the angel actually said, using the words of Jesus, was this: “I say unto you, that it mattereth not what ye shall eat or what ye shall drink when ye partake of the sacrament, if it so be that ye do it with an eye single to my glory—remembering unto the Father my body which was laid down for you, and my blood which was shed for the remission of your sins.” Eat donuts or tortillas, but think of me, and it is sacred. So yesterday I ate store-bought white bread and drank water from the tap, and I remembered Jesus. And it was a sanctifying sacred experience. Think of the implications: holiness is what you find in your pantry at home. It is what you water your lawn with. It struck me and stayed in my mind this week the way the water looked as it came out of the hose onto the sunbaked lawn and dirt. It was perfectly clear until it reflected back the high sun and became a resplendent glory, the rounded edges of water looking liquid and eternal before they sank into the earth and became just mud and wet yellow grass. Holy mud and holy yellow grass.


Wine is holy, yes, but there’s a holiness in water, too. Simpler and more ubiquitous, but perhaps no less exquisite. It is the stuff of rain and tears. Something to swallow the pills. Walk into the world and listen to the swallows spill their songs to the clouds, harbingers of holiness. And see the miracle. Taste the wine in the water.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Lacrimosa et risum

"Festival," by Brian Kershisnik

Ah, this world is so broken, and my heart is broken, and I don’t see how God’s heart is not broken, except that He is God and even when His heart is broken, He knows it will not always be broken, because He heals all things and wipes away all tears from off all eyes, personally and one by one, and yes, I believe that. There’s that heartbreakingly lovely passage in Gilead: “Augustine says the Lord loves each of us as an only child, and that has to be true. ‘He will wipe the tears from all faces.’ It takes nothing from the loveliness of the verse to say that is exactly what will be required.” The promise points to the reality of the need. To allow God to come to my face and wipe away tears requires a vulnerability and a humility seldom encountered in adults. But I think that is what it will take, to acknowledge him as Father. And sometimes perhaps our brokenness brings us to that point where we say, “Yes, now, please come and wipe them away. I have tried and tried, but my hands don’t work, and I need your gentle fingers to dry my face.” Perhaps that is the point. Children know they need someone to take away their tears.

I was reading this poem by Rilke called “Christ and the Children” (“And like the flowers that shoot up galore / on early days in spring, / the children flock to him, / while adults rarely mention his name. / For children have been friends with him for long / and they hurry to the gate of his embrace. / A pale one says, ‘You surely are the grace / for which my mother daily lifts her hands.’”) and then I looked up to see my children playing with the neighbor children in a sprinkler—their eyes were all bright and shining and good, and I saw Christ in the children. I saw, too, the other day while I was driving in my car a young girl—maybe ten years old—summer-sunbrowned and riding her bicycle, making wild gestures with her hands and sort of swinging her hair back and forth to make her friend behind her laugh on her bicycle. I wished her future husband could see that youthfulness, that exuberance. He will know her as a lovely young woman, but not as a girl. I feel privileged to know my daughter as a girl.


But here’s the thing, I was thinking the other day of this time a friend of mine called me to tell me that his daughter had been raped. I went over to his house, and he cried into my arms, and said he had a fifty cent solution, he had a fifty cent solution, and he shook in rage and grief, and I laid my hands on his head to give him a blessing. What do you say at such a time? Why do daughters get raped? Why do friends shake in my arms? How does such darkness exist in a world that has shown itself to me so often in so much splendor? How does one offer any real comfort, any real hope when you can’t fix it, can’t take it back, can’t change the world? Well, God pours out love, which is not always the same thing as healing. But it’s something, and it’s real.

My wife is downstairs right now, playing gently on the piano: Pachelbel’s Canon. A song she learned because I love it and she loves me. And I am reminded that one day the air will begin to shimmer and shake and hum with a music that is not of this world. And a light will come from the east, growing in intensity and brightness, causing the air to shake, to undulate and roll, to swell and to sing. Causing the grass to reach and to sing and the trees to shiver with music. And I will feel myself becoming lighter, sorrow and heaviness melting away like snow in spring, will feel the joy I have always known myself capable of, will look around to see others, to find ourselves soaring through the air. To meet the Lord in the clouds, the scripture says. A new song. We will come singing a new song. A song beyond words but created with human voices. And the voices of others, of angels and gods. I will know the words or the non-words, the motions of the mouth and the movement of lungs even though I have never heard it, yet I know I have heard it. I was born from this song, brought forth from this light. And the Lord will wipe away all tears from off all eyes. There will be no more sorrow and no more death. I will know as I am known. I will rise. The earth will become new. All things will be new. All things. All things.

Friday, May 31, 2013

The Tiptoe




So often the prelude to the rhapsody is the ticking of a clock. Like a toddler waiting to be lifted into the arms of God, we sometimes tire of looking up, hands outstretched, and content ourselves instead with the blocks and toys which surround us. But then the embrace comes and we are raised. And we remember what we were waiting for.

My theology stresses the reality of continued, continuing revelation: God speaks, not spake. It affirms that every person is worth communicating with, even if you’re God. No—especially if you’re God. But it is sometimes a real wrestle to know when He is speaking and what He wants. It takes attentiveness, and patience. Sometimes weeks pass without a whisper. “And he hath put a new song in my mouth,” soliloquizes the Psalmist. Ah, the taste of that song. But two verses earlier, he wrote, “I waited patiently for the Lord, and he inclined unto me and heard my cry.” The song only comes after the wait, after the cry. And it is always put or placed in my mouth. I cannot conjure it or command it. Every poet knows this. The mornings glisten once in a while. So much scent of sidewalk before the smell of honeysuckle. The music is a gift and one can only stalk the Spirit and wait. How many hours does a prophet spend under a juniper tree or inside a cave before the gentle rustle of leaves and the still, small voice?

It’s sort of like this: Was it last summer we were camping at the Henry Cowell Redwoods? When we pulled up to the forest, four-year-old Emerson said he knew we would see squirrels. But the squirrels in the camp proved very elusive, very timid. After a day of camping, I had seen brief glimpses of a couple of squirrels and chipmunks off in the trees and bushes, but not a single furry animal made its way into our camp. I asked my young son if he had seen any squirrels. He told me no. So we went on a squirrel hunt. As we walked I told him to listen very carefully, and if he heard a rustling, we would watch the bushes carefully. After a short distance, the bushes quaked a little. We stopped and strained our attention toward the spot. After watching for a while, we finally caught sight of a slight movement. But as we kept watching, we found only a small bird hopping around in the leaves. We went on. Emerson climbed a tree and we went down a little trail. No squirrels. I prayed, “Heavenly Father, Emerson knew he would see a squirrel, and it’s important to him. Can you help?” Just then I saw a squirrel at the foot of a camper in a nearby campsite. I tried to point it out to Emerson. He couldn’t see it. We went closer, slowly. The squirrel ran into the bushes. “Did you see it?” I asked. “I think so. I saw the bushes move.” But he wasn’t content with that. We surrounded the little rodent and listened as he crashed through the bushes. Now, I have more experience stalking squirrels than my son does, and I’ve got a bit of a height advantage so I saw the squirrel a couple of times as it darted back and forth. But Emerson never caught a clear view. We walked on. “Well, thanks for trying,” I said to God. I bet He laughed at that. “Trying?” Within a few feet, I saw another squirrel at the base of a tree. I tiptoed Emerson over and lifted him up. He saw it. He wanted to get closer, so he walked after it. It ran up the tree, chattering, and another squirrel joined it. Then it happened. Like a flood. Like an ocean wave. Like sunlight or like grace, God poured down what we had so cautiously been stalking. The squirrels ran around and up and down the tree, chasing each other. They ran two feet from our toes. One stopped on the tree, just above our heads and looked squarely at us. I almost thought he winked. He may have been an angel disguised as a squirrel, but my prayer had been answered. Emerson’s faith had been answered. The wait had been rewarded. We saw. Our attentiveness had paid off. Sometimes it does.

A day or so later we were out for a family walk through thick green woods. It was evening and the light was gray and mossy. It slid in sideways to illuminate the trail. We were walking through these curvy, moss-covered trees at twilight, and we saw an owl. First owl I’ve ever seen. It was hunched in the branches of a tree, and we stopped to tie a shoelace or something. And then it spread its enormous wings and lumbered through the air off to another perch. Grace unbidden.

Days go by, and months, and the reverie remains restrained. The mute muses shy by disguised as fellow pedestrians on the sidewalk we stroll. Life is just life. Mondays are mundane, and nothing extraordinary presents itself. And then the symphony awakens, stretching like a dance; the song is planted and shoots forth and ripens all at once. And we partake of the fruit of the tree of life.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

85:10


The Psalmist doesn’t say
whether they were in a tree or not
or whether it began with holding hands
or really anything about how these two
old friends ended up in passionate embrace

Just this: “Righteousness and Peace have kissed each other.”
Reported with the laconic stroke of a headline.
How does he even know something so personal?
Were there witnesses?
Was old David hiding in the bushes
stilling the strings of his old harp
as these two came ambling into the space
lighted by streetlamp, laughing together?

Were they walking home
from the house of a mutual friend
where their eyes just happened to collide
for the briefest, most enduring moment?

Did the singer see the brush of hands,
the lighting of eyes and the quickening
of pulses?
Did the two just decide by happenstance
to climb a sycamore tree
to watch the moon rise over the valley?

And was it Righteousness who made the first move
or Peace, with his gentle, shy, yet manly ways
who first leaned in with more than friendly intent?
Did he grab her by the arms like they do in the old movies,
or was it just a gentle peck on the cheek?

These are only questions, but one thing is certain:
Things have never been the same since the day
that Righteousness and Peace kissed each other,
and everything is charged with hope.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

What it might be like to be God

"Father and Son Dancing" by Brian Kershisnik


The other night as we were sitting around the dinner table, Julie asked the kids what they would do if they had an infinite amount of money. Lydia’s eyes got big and she smilingly asked, “What’s that country again where they still have queens and stuff?” “England?” Julie offered. “Yeah,” Lyd said, “I would go to England, and when they found out that I had so much money, they would make me queen!” Her eyes pirouetted and shone. “Why do you want to be a queen?” Julie asked. “It’s just a dream I have,” Lyd said simply. Emerson said, “You wouldn’t like what I’d do with it, mom.” “Why’s that?” “Because I would buy a whole lot of stuff with sugar.” We’ve been reading Charlie and the Chocolate Factory lately, and last night Em told me, “I wish this book was true and I was Charlie.” You could see the reality of the wish in his eyes. They have interpreted the term sweet tooth as sugar tooth, and Emerson has told me several times that all of his teeth are sugar teeth.

Julie’s own visions of infinite wealth were all pretty domestic and simple: a new washer and dryer, new carpet, and the big splurge: a bathroom in the basement. She wouldn’t move from our 1970’s funky old mansard-roofed house, just make it a little more comfortable. She said she’d keep working one night a week to keep her nursing credentials current. I love the contentedness of her soul. Did Andrew Carnegie really say, “Show me a man who is contented, and I will show you a failure”? Pardon me, but what an asinine remark from an otherwise rather large-hearted man. I think I buy in more to Paul’s school of thought: “I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content.” “I have all, and abound: I am full.” One evening I was sitting on my kitchen floor watching my children laugh and dance and spin. I was considering pursuing a doctorate degree at the time, and I thought, “This is what I would sacrifice. And what would I gain?” “But godliness with contentment is great gain. We brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out. And having food and raiment let us therewith be content.” “That we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty.” Well, I still haven’t started that PhD. Maybe someday, but for now I will sit contentedly on the kitchen floor, being a dad.

Childhood is a bird, a river, a song. Rushing toward me and away from me at the same time. So I want to cup the water and drink. To be present. To see, dip my feet, listen with face upturned. My father-in-law was busy as a young father establishing himself as a lawyer in a large firm. He feels like he missed much of the sacred smallness of his children. One day when his kids were grown he was given a dream in which he was driving and turned around to see his children in the back of the car, returned to the young ages they were when he was so consumed with other things. Julie was a small girl again, with the green tooth she had gotten falling down.  As I type this, Eleanor toddles over to me and points at the screen with her dimpled hand. “Doh da!” she says. She smiles. Pardon me while I hug her up and weep.

What would you do with infinite wealth? It was a fun conversation. The first thought that came to me was: end world hunger. But I wouldn’t want to sacrifice the gentle life I lead. So I would have to do it on the sly without awakening the attention of the world. I would travel the earth, disguised as myself, seeking those who do good, and I would empower them, anonymously, secretly. I would spend time talking to people to get to know their hearts and intentions. And then I would leave them with a load of money. I would visit churches and small villages where I could sit at kitchen tables with strangers engaged in blessing the world. I would put my wealth into the pockets of gentle or radical people intent on alleviating suffering and darkness and despair. I would listen to their stories, and then I would fund those who create beauty and joy and hope. As I imagined this, surrounded by my family at the dinner table, the thought fluttered into my mind: This might be what it would be like to be God. He is infinitely rich. He could feed the world and fill it with loveliness and light. But His quality of life and His purposes for mortals depend on His remaining invisible and allowing us to show forth His mercies and His riches. So He might well roam the earth as a wanderer and a gentle stranger, placing the shining coins of His grace into the hands and pockets of those who have shown themselves seekers of holiness. And then, “As every man hath received the gift, even so minister the same to another, as good stewards of the manifold grace of God.” I can imagine Him sitting down to share a cup of light with a good human in some small cafĂ© somewhere and then pressing into her hands a small purse. “Do good,” He whispers, “Live well.” And then He goes back home to play with His children, rolling in the deep carpet of the worn but comfortable front room of Heaven.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Falling Upward




A few weeks ago I stood on the brink of a thousand-foot cliff as it snowed gently and silently all around me. Big plumate flakes drifted easily downward past jagged outcroppings of rock. It was still and reverent and beautiful. Then a friend pointed my attention to a section of snow that was falling upward. An updraft from the canyon floor must have lifted them, and they floated steadily toward the sky. I watched for several minutes. It took my breath away. It was a wonderful thing to witness. I thought of the miracle of fallen and falling things rising again. “Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit.” Isn’t that the meaning of the word resurrection—to rise again? The resurrection is a daily occurrence, then. Not in the permanent sense that it will be during the Millennium, perhaps, but fallen things rise every day. Surely this is the miracle of Easter.

What was it Harold B. Lee said about that final, enduring arising? “Resurrection will one day be as common as birth.  The only reason we don’t have the same assurance about the resurrection as we have about birth is because we are not seeing that happen daily before our eyes as we see birth.  Nobody questions the reality of birth, which is just as much a mystery to our understanding as the resurrection of a body that is dead; but if we live in the morning of the resurrection, when the graves shall again be opened and when resurrection shall be almost a daily occurrence, those whose time it is to come forth will walk unto the city of their friends and will be seen of them.  We will speculate then, just as we do now about the coming of a baby when there is evidence that a new one is in prospect, and we will confidently look forward to continued resurrection of friends and loved ones.” What a delightful thought, waiting with gifts for the rebirth of loved ones. Laughing together and embracing. Bringing the foods they loved in life. Exuberant dance. I don’t know if my imagination of it fits the reality, but it’s pleasing enough.

Lilies are perennial flowers. They come to life in spring, thrive through summer, and begin to wilt and wane during autumn before their winter death. But then they return to life perennially. They are a symbol of life and hope and innocence and resurrection. According to an old story, probably not nearly so ancient as the Old Story, the first lilies arose from the dirt of the newly fallen earth after being watered by Eve’s tears. The first mother’s sorrow in the face of encroaching death and despair brought forth beauty and hope. Fallen things to rise. The lily has her three petals, easily associated with the Godhead, the source of all arisings.

In 1911, the Utah State Legislature chose the sego lily as the state flower. Fitting that a state founded on the backs of haggard, struggling pilgrims to the everlasting hills of holiness should choose this desert miracle—this ancient sacred symbol—as its official blossom. But there is more to the story. In the years 1848 to 1850 these hearty, hale Mormon pioneers, who possessed a rugged hope and fierce faith I sometimes envy and unabashedly admire, lived in a hungry world. The sego lily is a bulbous flower, and the pioneers would dig up the flower and consume the bulb which ranged from the size of a marble to the size of a walnut. They would boil them and eat them before they turned hard and ropey. This state flower manifests then both hope and hunger. It is beauty and practicality intertwined.

It perhaps reflects, too, the this-worldliness of Latter-day Saint theology. David O. McKay, that charismatic prophet whose wife said he “was dashing and charming when he danced and when he quoted poetry,” said that the principal reason that God drenched the world in the juice of gospel truth is “to make life sweet today, to give contentment to the heart today, to bring salvation today. . . . Some of us look forward to a time in the future—salvation and exaltation in the world to come—but today is part of eternity.” Well, he was one who loved life, this life, not holding his breath waiting for some future world when today he could inhale deeply the updrafts of this world so full of wonder and richness. He effused with extravagance of capitalization, “To all who believe in a living, personal God and His divine Truth, life can be so delightful and beautiful. As a matter of fact, it’s glorious just to be alive. Joy, even ecstasy, can be experienced in the consciousness of existence. There is supreme satisfaction in sensing one’s individual entity, and in realizing that that entity is part of God’s creative plan.” Oh, we know that we are strangers and pilgrims on the earth who see the promises afar off and declare plainly that we seek a country. We are persuaded by and embrace the assurances of a “better country, that is, an heavenly.” But the tokens of that country abound and surround us. It takes nothing away from the loveliness of that hope to embrace with affection this present world. There is this iridescent thought from the Doctrine and Covenants: “But learn that he who doeth the worlds of righteousness shall receive his reward, even peace in this world, and eternal life in the world to come.”

Here’s to the peace of now and to the life of eternity, then. To the daily risings and to the ultimate one. Easter means that through Jesus, nothing bad is permanent. The darkness melts away and leaves only a rising, shining light. Hallelujah.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Ablutions

"Gardening in the Rain" by Brian Kershisnik



I like the idea of lares, these small gods of hearth and home—open and ancient acknowledgments of the myriad shards of holiness which shoot through the most seemingly mundane aspects of existence. Isn’t this what all poetry celebrates—the holiness of the everyday?

I remember one cold Saturday giving the kids a bath. In winter they will often curl up under their hooded towels and sit hunched on the bathroom floor. It’s a visual image I love. Well, this day they were crouching on the bathmat when Lydie saw a bug. She exclaimed, and I went to witness. Lydie and Em had their hoods on and sat crouched and bent over the small bug, their heads inclined as if in reverent acknowledgment of the holiness of very small things. They looked like a couple of colorful monks, Lydia in bright pink and Emerson in orange surrounded by our bright blue bathroom. Blue shag-carpet grass. It made me smile.

Tuesday night at our house was a celebration of the human capacity for expulsion. My children spent much of the night vomiting and retching and moaning. At one point, I think it was about four a.m., after Julie and I had spent an hour cleaning vomit out of the carpet and had changed and rinsed four sets of sheets and four sets of pajamas, I was giving my lissome ballerina daughter a bath, spraying the half-digested food out of her hair. I had tried to hold it back in a pony tail while she puked, but her hair is unruly and indomitable and wanted to fall in her face. She was shivering, fragile and lovely as a butterfly as the water fell over her. I was tired, but the thought came to me that of all the humans who live or will live on this planet, I am one of only a very small handful who will ever have the honor of rinsing vomit out of the hair of this holy child. Suddenly the air was music and the light was gently bright. Exhaustion melted away, replaced by gratitude and mysterious tears. How many such ablutions have I performed without perceiving the beauty of washing another, washing for another? “If I wash thee not, thou hast no part with me.” “Unto him that loved us, and washed us . . . be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen.”

Julie spent the next two days washing clothing and sheets. When I was a small boy, I remember my mom saying once, “I have figured out what the Neverending Story is. The real Neverending Story is laundry.” I want my mother and my wife to know that the ground on which they stand is holy. “What are these which are arrayed in white robes? and whence came they? . . . These are they which came out of great tribulation, and have washed their robes, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” And, “He that overcometh, the same shall be clothed in white raiment.” A friend once told me the story of a woman who had lost her memory completely. She did not recognize her family or friends. They took her to the home where she had lived for many years, and none of the rooms brought reminiscences. And then they took her outside to the backyard where she had hung her family’s laundry. Her face was transfigured and shone with recognition and she began to speak with feeling of hanging her children’s clothing. The small wet pants and shirts—evidences of a life of performing sacred ablutions. These things remained with her even when nothing else had. These daily acts of holiness.

Night after night, I stand at the sink and rinse the dishes that carry the food which feeds my children. Warm rivers run through my house, cover my hands, bless our living. Surely, this too is a sacred act. Ablutions.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Because of the angels


Just this note to the late apostle Paul: Thank you for writing this verse to your old friends in Corinth, “For this cause ought the woman to have power on her head because of the angels.” It has made me smile for two days.

Turns out the old scholastic theologians, Aquinas and his cronies, should have been asking about the dancefloors sitting atop the shoulders and necks of their wives and daughters. Forget about the pinheads. Angels and angels sitting, pirouetting, leaping, reading, sipping, sighing, smiling on the tops of girl’s heads.

My favorite commentary on this verse is from Albert Barnes’ comprehensive notes on the Bible: “There is scarcely any passage in the Scriptures which has more exercised the ingenuity of commentators than this verse. . . . After all the explanations which have been given of it, I confess, I do not understand it.” Or maybe this briefer one from the 1557 Geneva Bible (Will Shakespeare’s Bible, you know?), annotations by Laurence Tomson, who was himself compiling generations of commentary: “What this means, I do not yet understand.”

Well, I understand it well enough. I sent my wife and daughter on a plane to Arizona today, and well, I miss them, angels, power, and all.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Burning the Couch

"Dancing Home" by Brian Kershisnik


Grace is not a word you hear very often spoken from the pulpit in my church. I don’t know why that is. We believe in grace. Desperately and gratefully. We live in it, breathe it, swim in it, laugh through it. It anchors and elevates us. It heals us and helps us. Every day. Every hour. Grace stands at the door and knocks, leans in the doorway and smiles, sits at the dinner table after the meal has been finished, pushes back the chair and roars with laughter. Grace makes the meal. Grace is the meal.

The Book of Mormon is about as heavy and ripe with references to grace as any of the writings of Paul:

“Yea, come unto Christ, and be perfected in him, and deny yourselves of all ungodliness; and if ye shall deny yourselves of all ungodliness, and love God with all your might, mind and strength, then is his grace sufficient for you, that by his grace ye may be perfect in Christ; and if by the grace of God ye are perfect in Christ, ye can in nowise deny the power of God.”

“Wherefore, redemption cometh in and through the Holy Messiah; for he is full of grace and truth.”

“Nevertheless, the Lord God showeth us our weakness that we may know that it is by his grace, and his great condescensions unto the children of men, that we have power to do these things.”

“And if men come unto me I will show unto them their weakness. I give unto men weakness that they may be humble; and my grace is sufficient for all men that humble themselves before me; for if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them.”

“And also my soul delighteth in the covenants of the Lord which he hath made to our fathers; yea, my soul delighteth in his grace, and in his justice, and power, and mercy in the great and eternal plan of deliverance from death.”

“For we labor diligently to write, to persuade our children, and also our brethren, to believe in Christ, and to be reconciled to God; for we know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do.”

That “after all we can do” might be read two ways: grace makes up the difference and fills in the gaps; but grace also is ultimately the only means of hope, notwithstanding all we may do, we cannot save ourselves. I have long loved the LDS Bible Dictionary entry on grace. It declares that the main idea of the word is “divine means of help or strength given through the bounteous mercy and love of Jesus Christ” and “It is likewise through the grace of the Lord that individuals, . . . receive strength and assistance to do good works that they otherwise would not be able to maintain if left to their own means. This grace is an enabling power . . . . Divine grace is needed by every soul.”

Yesterday a student brought me an article from a music magazine I used to read. I would pore over the shiny pages, admiring the rockers inside. He brought it to me because it had a piece about my friends, and they mentioned me by name. It was a strange thing to see, my name in that magazine. It was an erstwhile dream come true. This one musician friend and I were the same kid growing up. Same name. Same dreams. Same background. I may have imagined it, but I felt pain in my friend’s words in the magazine, a hollowness and a sorrow. I thought about all the sorrows and griefs that sit so heavy, like dark, brooding birds of prey, on the shoulders and backs and heads of so many people who grace this planet. And an image came into my mind of my two-year-old son the night before when I put his pajamas on him. He laughed out loud and did a spin-jump, landing in a crouch. He shouted, “My very favorite pajamas!” He was wearing a Mickey Mouse shirt and rocketship pants and giraffe slippers. It struck me again that my life is blessed with a radiance and a warmth which seem somewhat uncommon and perhaps unfair. And I know that there is no comparing of two lives and beauty wears a thousand dresses, but I wondered why grace has struck me so.

There’s a passage in the novel Gilead in which the prodigal son character, Jack, wonders about the apparent arbitrariness of grace. He feels outside of it, immune to it, as it were. He grew up with a pastor father but he could never really believe. He seems to wish he could. He tells of going to a revival meeting: “One night a man standing just beside me, as close to me as you are, went down as if he’d been shot. When he came up again, he threw his arms around me and said, ‘My burdens are gone from me! I have become as a little child!’ I thought, If I’d been standing two feet to the left, that might have been me. I’m joking, of course, more or less. But it’s a fact that if I could have traded places with him, my whole life would be different.”

Does it seem like some lives are more grace-riddled than others, some cups overflow more abundantly? It is snowing outside my window, and I am reminded that God’s goodness and graces rain on the just and the unjust alike, without respect for persons. And yet.

For Augustine, who thrived on a grace which struck him like unmerited, holy lightning, grace is essentially God’s prerogative to do whatever He likes, to act in a boundless, incomprehensible love which may baffle and confound humanity, for all God cares.

Mormons believe that although you cannot command or control grace, you can put yourself in the pathways of grace. And grace puts you in new pathways, as well. A grace-touched life is visibly changed and charged with brightness. Grace feeds the roots and the ripening fruit is a life of holiness.

But grace is not a wage. Grace is a gift. Grace comes regardless of merit. When I was a teenager, my friends and I found a lonely-looking couch on the side of the road. We asked my mom if we could borrow the minivan, and we drove the couch down toward the marshy land near the lake. Among yawning, stretching cottonwoods, we sliced that couch up using Bert’s mom’s knives. We jumped on it and howled and threw couch pieces into the air. Then we doused it in gasoline, lit a match and stepped back, laughing. JD filmed the thing. As I recall, we were making a music video. Dallin had brought a fire extinguisher from home. When the flames were twenty feet high and licking the trees with great relish, we rushed forward with the extinguisher. We pressed down the lever and expected a spray. We were disappointed. Someone had broken the seal, and it had no pressure. The couch crackled and blazed in the dry summer heat, and I began to fear the trees would catch. A school bus drove by on the road which was just visible through the trees. A few minutes later, it drove by again, this time more slowly. We began to scramble, looking for a way to put out the fire. We grabbed a towel from the van. We whipped at the flames, but it just served to fan them higher. We tripped over weedy plants ripe with burs, scooping up mud and flinging it at the couch. We doused the towel in water and tried to wring it out over the blaze. The fire grew hotter and angrier and higher. I began to feel despair. Then we heard the sirens. My heart sank, thinking of my parents faces on finding me brought home by the police. But it wasn’t a police car. It was a fire engine. A burly fireman came trampling through the trees with an enormous fire extinguisher. He sprayed and covered the couch until it was a black, smoldering frame. The air hung heavy with smoke. The fire fighter looked at me out of the corner of his eye and said, “So. What’s going on here?” “I, uh,” I stammered, “we were just being idiots.” He smiled and said, “Well, sometimes being an idiot catches up to you.” And then he walked away. He got in his truck and drove away. We kept waiting for the fist to fall, for the police sirens. But there were none. Sometimes being an idiot catches up to you. But here’s the thing, this time it didn’t. We didn’t deserve his kindness. But he showed us mercy. The boomerang doesn’t always come back to hit you in the back of the head. Surely, this is grace.

John Ames says, “Love is holy because it is like grace—the worthiness of its object is never really what matters.” Praise be to God. Grace is everywhere. God walks among us, gracing.

Even the sometimes austere and righteousness-minded apostle Bruce R. McConkie understood the ubiquity of grace. He wrote, “God’s grace consists in his love, mercy, and condescension toward his children. All things that exist are manifestations of the grace of God. The creation of the earth, life itself, the atonement of Christ, the plan of salvation, kingdoms of immortal glory here after, and the supreme gift of eternal life–all these things come by the grace of him whose we are.” Everything is grace. Every single thing. A child’s eyes staring back at you in the mostly-darkness of the morning. Leaves and leaflessness. Clouds and clear skies. Hope and light and joy and forgiveness and peace and strength. The air we breathe and the lungs that drink the air. The requirement for reception of grace is ultimately reception of grace. Acknowledgement of brokenness and need, hunger and thirst—these open the floodgates of grace. The requirement is open eyes and open heart. It is open arms and an embrace. Perhaps perception is the only key to grace. To see grace is to experience grace.

Ultimately grace is a mystery. What it looks and tastes and smells like. The sound and feel of grace. Why and when and where it comes. Sometimes the distribution of graces seems unfair. But every life is a vagueness, a cloudy holiness, and as the old hymn hopefully sings, “Grace shall be as your day.” Grace will shine. Grace will always come. Ready or not. God’s grace must be sufficient for every circumstance. Each life must be filled by sufficiency. Stuffed with grace. Infinite, incomprehensible grace has a thousand thousand faces, and all of them shine like Moses’s on the mount. 

Thursday, January 24, 2013

The Thaw


Between the rain this morning and the temple, my stale winter mind caught a whiff of the slow, distant advent of spring. The brief thaw brought forth these brief thoughts:

“Barefoot”
 
God’s shoes
were long ago flung
so far into the dark recesses
of the multiverse
that it will likely take
twelve legions of angels
their whole seraphic lifetimes
to locate them.

Not that the winged ones
mind much.
For they have each other,
and the boy angels are thinking
about the eyes and smiles of all those
girl angels who will be joining them,
the ones who packed a picnic
of sandwiches—eternal light spread heavy
between thick slices of
the bread of praise.
And the prospect of adventuring
into the bright, mysterious heart of nowhere—
lifting rocks and uncovering things the eternal mind
may have long forgotten—
seems just the thing to prove
their undying love.

Meanwhile God
stands barefoot and laughing,
fully cognizant that the ground
on which He stands is holy
precisely because of His transfiguring presence.
But He can’t help wriggling
His toes deep into the earth—
a sigh on His lips and a
song in His eyes—
because this particular patch of grass,
halfway between the mailbox
and the front door,
seems especially full of glory this morning.


“This fine”

I can’t help thinking this fine Thursday
that the God of Rilke has come to me—
this infant in my arms
with her laughing mouth open
to eat my nose.

Again God in the least of these
has done it unto me.

 

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Freely

"We're Just Doing This" by Brian Kershisnik


Winter is dark. Oh, there is beauty in winter. God still sings, but the song is sometimes muted. Silence can be a song, I know. When we packed up Christmas, I asked Julie if we could leave a lighted wreath on our front door, an affirmation that light still prevails. It will give warmth and light and hope. It will beat back the darkness. Someone will be encouraged by its light. It will be worth the couple of dollars it adds to our electric bill. Freely we have received. Freely we will give.

Oliver ate so much candy on Christmas morning he puked. And then he ate some more. On the day after Christmas, Lydia asked if she could take some of her stocking candy to her friends in the neighborhood. She piled various saccharine substances shaped like or by Santa into a plastic bag, put on her snow boots, and dragged Emerson out the door. (This is not uncommon. A few weeks ago she got to pick anything she wanted at the dollar store for some reward she had earned. She chose a bag of red vine licorice. When we got home she asked if she could distribute licorice to her friends. One neighbor told me that his son was given a half piece because the rest was all gone. This son is two years old, and he was ecstatic. Freely Lyd had received, freely she gave.) Fifteen minutes after the kids left, they came home shivering and Em refused to go back out into the dark and cold. Lydia asked Oliver if he wanted to go delivering candy. I was only half paying attention and didn’t notice what the two-year-old was wearing. Half an hour later I was putting on my boots to go find my vagrant children when the door blew open and Oliver came in wearing a red coat I had never seen. Someone had seen my waifs out in the bitterdark winter and had compassion. Freely we have received.

A couple of weeks ago the skies scattered maybe six inches of snow on our city. I took up my shovel and went out front. Before I had cleared a path down the driveway, gentle brother DeRosier from next door appeared shovel-in-hand and smiling. Silently he began to help me clear my driveway. I don’t know how old he is—old enough to seem wise and mild—but he has had a stroke and moves somewhat slowly. I love that man. I asked him about Christmas. He told me that the best part was lying down on the carpet after dinner and watching his grandchildren play. After he had watched for a while, he closed his eyes and just listened to them. He smiled as he told me about it. By the time we were finishing, a new neighbor from across the street was out shoveling his driveway. He has a north-facing house. We went to help shovel and to get to know him. His name is George. He is a computer programmer and has four daughters. They all play instruments except the youngest. She plays the ipod and has a keen appreciation for the poetry of rap music. We smiled at each other as we finished shoveling and went our ways. Freely we received. Freely gave.

The summer after I graduated high school, I was driving my parents’ minivan near my house. On the side of the road was an old three-speed cruiser bicycle with a sign on it that said, “Free. Take if you want.” I stopped the van and had my friend drive it home. I got on the bike. I rode everywhere for the next few weeks. As summer ripened into fall, crispautumn smells filled the air. Crispautumn possibility shimmered. I was in love that fall. I put flowers in the small basket at the front of the bike. I whistled to myself and sang as I rode along cracked, uneven sidewalks underneath yellowandorangeandbrownred trees. I wondered if the golden streets of heaven might have these charming irregularities. I thought about mystery and how, well, mysterious it can be. Love and life and all that. One day as I rode off a curb, I pulled up on the handlebars so as to soar. The handlebars came off in my hands as the bike fell away below me. I continued my trajectory, steering an invisible bicycle through the air. Surprised, I almost landed on my feet. I called my friend to come pick me up. I was miles from home. I left the bike in a heap on the sidewalk and tacked a note to it. It said, “Free. Take if you want.”

That bike was a blessing to me. It is now a fondness residing in my memory. I always imagined that somehow it would go on to bless someone else. Someone in love. Someone in need. Some romantic. Some tragic. I imagined the small delegation of angels launched forth from heaven, wheeling and reeling with their tools, circling the old bicycle and making it shine like the day I found it, good enough to ride. I don’t know why I would imagine that my broken offering was somehow sufficient. Like the loaves and the fishes, broken and blessed. Broken bread. A broken heart and a contrite spirit. But I think it might be true. God gives liberally and then gives the grace necessary to make what we give in return somehow meaningful. Freely we have received. Freely we give what little we have. We do our best with the world and with the people in it. Our broken offerings are rendered sufficient.

My kidneys don’t work very well. And it’s just as well, really, because I got to get an MRI. It was fun. Truly. I don’t often have an hour to lie still and think. As I lay in that cold room, listening to beeps, I thought about the fact that I will soon begin a new semester of teaching. I was lamenting, really, that I will need to learn one hundred and seventy new names. They will not think I’m funny at first, perhaps ever. They will be depressed and sullen because the cold is beginning to infect our bones. We are losing the optimism that comes from the life-warming sun. But a thought entered my head: “Robbie, the most sacred experiences in life are the opportunities we are given to know other people. There is nothing so holy.” I thought about how my life has been blessed by the humor and the pain and the depth and experience of the students I currently teach. And what a blessing it will be to rub spiritual shoulders with a new batch. One hundred and seventy new and sacred names. And I felt a keen sense of my responsibility to share light. There may be something I am to do that would otherwise remain undone. Something to awaken in a young person’s heart. Something to spark. A poem from Rainer Maria Rilke’s Book of Hours comes to mind:

I believe in all that has never yet been spoken.
I want to free what waits within me
so that what no one has dared to wish for
may for once spring clear
without my contriving.

If this is arrogant, God, forgive me,
but this is what I need to say.
May what I do flow from me like a river,
no forcing and no holding back,
the way it is with children.

Then in these swelling and ebbing currents,
these deepening tides moving out, returning,
I will sing you as no one ever has,
streaming through widening channels
into the open sea.

I hope it is not arrogance, but I realized that I am God’s song. I am the harmony that floats above the whistling ruach. I am the laughter of His lips. My life is to disperse joy and meaning. And to receive. One Sunday morning my young son lifted the sacrament bread to my lips. I ate from his hands. I was the recipient of the ministrations of this small, holy child. Sometimes we are ministered to, and sometimes we minister. Freely I have received. Freely I will give.