25 December 2019

Advent: Arrival
















The newborn king, heralded by angel armies,
Lay without pomp or ceremony
In a feedbox, surrounded by scents
Of hay and dust and manure,
Cattle and afterbirth and blood.

Israel’s Great Shepherd was greeted
Not by her high and holy ones,
But by a band of literal shepherds,
Smelly and earthy and common,
Full of faith and wonder and praise.

The king’s virginal mother sat nearby,
Grateful to be far from Nazareth
And the vicious whispers of neighbors.
She smiled at the shepherds’ amazement;
She, too, had known angel-awe.

Her husband, discreet and righteous,
Quietly rearranged her bed,
Working to provide more comfort
For the wife who was his
And the child who wasn’t.

Thus the Maker came to live
Among creatures He had formed,
And He shared their form:
Tiny, helpless, humble, poor, weakness born
To shame the things the World prized most.

Cross-Posted at the Mustard Seed Conspiracy

Photo Credit

20 December 2019

Advent: Reclamation






















His smile was grim as he looked over the land:
Thickets of plum and honey locust twined with poison ivy,
Clearings all but choked with thistles, weeds, and vines.

He was old enough to remember when this was a vineyard,
Renowned around the world for its fine wines, subtle yet robust,
And now a family of raccoons resided under the ruined winepress.

The cistern had cracked. The spring that used to feed it
Burbled down the hill now, giving life to other, less ungrateful, lands.
The soil, once rich and fertile, was now drought-dry.

The grapevines had gone the way that wild grapevines go:
In every direction they could. They were prodigiously leafy
And all but fruitless. The few grapes they did have were tiny and bitter.

In short, it was a mess. But, like just about anything,
It could be salvaged, given enough time, tears, sweat, and blood.
He had loved this vineyard once, and it was in his heart to remake it.

He noticed a full-grown timber rattler sunning itself atop a fallen log
And made a mental note to have his son come down
And deal with it. Snakes would have no place in this vineyard.

It was a huge job, but he was unfazed. He had an abundance
Of time and strength and zeal. No matter the cost, he would accomplish this.
He turned to the nearest tree, unshouldered his ax, and started chopping.

Photo Credit

19 December 2019

Advent: Vigil


It’s hard to keep watching for dawn
When all you can remember is darkness --
Deep, starless, enclouded darkness --
And Night itself has come for you,
A ravenous, slavering wolf,
Overpowering your last defenses,
Dragging you back to its lair,
Dismembering your best intentions,
Devouring your fondest dreams,
Your love, your joy, your peace,
Bite by soul-shredding bite.

It would take a miracle, you think,
For light to blaze up out of nowhere
And exorcise this darkness
From horizon to sun-kissed horizon,
To rescue you from this wolf’s den,
To restore your ravaged heart,
To resurrect your deadened hope.
But miracles don’t happen, you’re about to say
When an impossible light blazes forth,
Blinding and sudden,
Proving you gloriously wrong.

Cross-posted on The Mustard Seed Conspiracy's Advent devotional

Image Credit

03 December 2019

"Christmas Shoes": A (Pretty) Close Reading

Ah, faithful reader! Here we stand upon the doorstep of another Advent season. It is time once more to contemplate the incarnation of our Lord, who shone His incomparable light into the deep darkness of our sin-shattered world.

Which is actually a perfect segue1 to my topic: That most objectionable of Christmas songs, "Christmas Shoes."

Everyone hates "Christmas Shoes."2 But why do we hate it, dear reader? What are the logical, critical, and aesthetic underpinnings of this well-founded visceral response?

"Nay, Micah," you say, "I know only that I hate this sentimental seasonal song with the fiery hatred of ten thousand flaming Feuerzangenbowles. Can we not let that suffice, and move on from this sad scene?"

Alas, my sibilant reader, we cannot. Why not? Because I have two English degrees, that's why not.3 Close reading is basically my only skill.

First, notice the narrative frame of the song, told from the perspective of a person sorely lacking in The Christmas Spirit™:
It was almost Christmas time, there I stood in another line
Tryin' to buy that last gift or two, not really in the Christmas mood
Oh no! How can the narrator be put into the Christmas mood? All the Christmas Lines have stolen his joy away from him! Never fear, a convenient whipping boy is near:
Standing right in front of me was a little boy waiting anxiously
Pacing 'round like little boys do
And in his hands he held a pair of shoes
His clothes were worn and old, he was dirty from head to toe
And when it came his time to pay
I couldn't believe what I heard him say
Nothing awakens Christmas Spirit™ like seeing someone less fortunate than we are. How convenient that he happens to be right here in the presence of a jaded shopper who is so lacking in Christmas Spirit™.

So far so good. But wait... here it comes... that catchy earworm of a chorus!
Sir, I want to buy these shoes for my mama, please
It's Christmas Eve and these shoes are just her size
Could you hurry, sir, daddy says there's not much time
You see she's been sick for quite a while
And I know these shoes would make her smile
And I want her to look beautiful if mama meets Jesus tonight
The chorus has everything: Mama, Christmas Eve, a fatal illness, the urgency of death, "sir" from a filthy little boy, and his childlike faith that his small gift will ease his mama's impending meeting with Jesus. And it makes me cry. Every. Single. Time. I hear it.

This part, right here, is why it is good and right and proper to hate "Christmas Shoes." It is the musical-emotional equivalent of a bag of Cheetos™. The chorus is engineered to elicit tears in the same way that a Cheeto™ is designed to make you grab just one more and pop it in your mouth and taste the greasy cheesy crunch of it as it turns to corn oil inside your mouth and you lick the cheeselike dust off your fingers and mildly wonder why you did that, you don't even like them that much, as you look for a napkin and settle for your shirttail and then grab another Cheeto™.

Another good analogy is pornography: Like this song, it is designed to trigger a strong, quick  response with a minimum of personal investment. "Christmas Shoes," pornography, and Cheetos™ all offer the illusion of something good and satisfying without any actual substance.

Make no mistake: This is not real emotion we are feeling, dear reader! It is a rank simulacrum, a cheap imitation. It does not describe the world God made or the people who live here in any meaningful way. It's more akin to the rant of a stoner: "Hey, man, wouldn't it be super sad if..."

And so we come to verse two, where our logical faculties should start to kick in, if we have any left after being brought to our knees by the chorus.
He counted pennies for what seemed like years
Then the cashier said, "son, there's not enough here"
He searched his pockets frantically
Then he turned and he looked at me
He said mama made Christmas good at our house
Though most years she just did without
Tell me Sir, what am I going to do,
Somehow I've got to buy her these Christmas shoes
OK, let's just do a quick red flag inventory:
  1. If a child is capable of finding a store by himself, would he not also understand the concepts of currency and price tags? 
  2. Do you know a single child who fully recognizes his parents' material sacrifices for him? How likely is it that this child would have even a clue that his mama "just did without"?
  3. Asking a complete stranger for direction and help. Has the songwriter ever met a little boy? Or a child of any kind?
There is, of course, an obvious explanation: The songwriter is trying too hard. It's taking a lot of strain to keep our disbelief suspended at this point. He's fighting to keep us engaged. If he can just hold on for a few more lines, then he'll be able to jump back down into the safety of the tear-inducing earworm chorus.

But what if the true explanation is more subtle? What if there's a twist we haven't detected yet? What if this kid is actually a con artist?

He goes around to stores at Christmas time, dressed like a slob, spouting some story about his sick mom, whose only real problem is that she's run low on meth.

"Oh no! I don't have enough for the shoes!" He looks back in line at the well-heeled stranger who himself is jonesing for some Christmas Spirit™. "How ever shall I overcome this overwhelming difficulty, good sir?" The child bats his tragic eyelashes heartbreakingly.

Think about it. The clues have been there all along, if only our tear-clouded eyes hadn't kept us from seeing them. The narrator even foreshadows it in verse one: "I couldn't believe what I heard him say..."

The narrator is, of course, an easy mark, as we learn in short order:
So I laid the money down, I just had to help him out
And I'll never forget the look on his face when he said
Mama's gonna look so great...
...I knew I'd caught a glimpse of heaven's love
As he thanked me and ran out
I knew that God had sent that little boy
To remind me just what Christmas is all about
One sign of a successful con is that the mark feels good about it afterwards. He's convinced that he's gotten a good deal, or helped someone, or done something smart. He feels so good about it that later on, when he realizes he's been had, he becomes cripplingly embarrassed. How could he have fallen for it? How could he have believed it? Often, his shame is so strong that he doesn't even report it to the authorities.

One way or another, I think that's what's going on here. Maybe it's a secretly cynical song about a pintsized conman. Or perhaps it's just a songwriter's obviously cynical con on all of us.

Either way, don't be a sucker. Stick with Sufjan.

Footnotes:

1. Did you know "segue" is pronounced "segway"? I did not until I googled "segueway," which is not actually a word. My life makes so much more sense now.

2. Except for those tragic few with a rare genetic mutation that causes them to love it. To these poor lost souls, I can offer nothing but my deepest pity and to let them borrow my Sufjan Stevens records if they want.

3. It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a nerd in possession of two English degrees, must be in want of an audience upon which to inflict his analysis. You, dear reader, are that audience. (Or you were until you stopped reading this just now.)

Image Credit

09 November 2019

A Liturgy For Dadurday

We were reading out of Every Moment Holy this morning and the kids wanted to write one of our own. So here it is!

A Liturgy For Dadurday

Dad
Divine Father of all, You who have set us in families and sanctified the seventh day for rest, bless this day to our use.

Kids
Thank You for this day, and thank You that Dad is home to enjoy it with us.

Mom
O Christ, who prepared breakfast for Your beloved disciples after being raised from the dead, thank You for the smell of pancake syrup and the taste of cheesy eggs that remind us of Your perfect provision.

Dad
I confess I tend to take these days for granted or turn them into never-ending to-do lists. Deliver me, O all-sufficient One, from my consuming desires for control and productivity. I give you my plans, my agenda, and my whiteboard. I fully submit to Your will for this day.

Kids
Be present in our activities and in our relaxation today.

Mom
May the Holy Spirit inhabit everything we do, whether it be donuts at the top of Burnett’s Mound, raking leaves, sweeping out the garage, or listening to Dad read aloud as we drive down a country road.

Dad
As we snuggle in bed watching the sunrise or sit on the porch in our pajamas to hear the midmorning birdsong, let us remember that You, O burden-bearing Christ, are the true source of our rest.

Kids
Grant us good health and good attitudes as we enjoy this day together, and may we be a blessing to all we meet today.

Mom
Whether we’re running around the block or reading comics on the living room floor, fill us with thanksgiving for Your many good gifts and help us to rely more and more on You.

Dad
May we listen to Your leading, O Holy Spirit. Let us find rest and refreshment in these sweet moments together.

Kids
As we lie on Dad’s back while he reads, teach us to trust and rely on You even more than we do on him.

Mom
Bless this good Dadurday and use it as You desire, to make us more like our Savior Jesus.

All
Amen

08 November 2019

daaaaad

sometimes i am a referee
trying to get small children
or arcane, byzantine tech stacks
to play together
nicely

29 October 2019

breakme

On those all-too-short,
All-too-infrequent afternoons
When I find myself
Surfing waves of insight,
Drenched in sweet splashes
Of clean, steadily flowing code,
When I encounter distractions,
I drop this breadcrumb
Reminding myself to handle
A mundane or difficult detail
At some later point:

breakme

It has neither decorator nor punctuation,
No class, no ancestors, no descendants,
Nor, indeed,
any
syntactic
validity
whatsoever.

It is a placeholder chosen
For the express purpose
Of forcing my poor compiler to its knees.

It is the rusty length of rebar
Thrown into the gears
Of my carefully maintained machine,
The mandatory full stop
Designed to keep me
from forgetting.

22 October 2019

Plowing

You harrowed my heart
like a baked-clay field
hardened by sun and weather
furrowed by unyielding blades
turned over in search
of the good fertile soil
the soil You knew
was there all along
softened and prepared
for spring planting
and--
unimaginably--
a bountiful harvest

21 October 2019

Plans and Providence: Reflections on Turning 38

Editor's Note: These are some thoughts I published on the Facebook while miserably sick on my birthday. 

It has been a delight to see so many kind birthday wishes rolling in from people all over the country today. Thank you all for making my day even sweeter!

A few folks have expressed hopes that I would receive my desires or enjoy a meaningful celebration today.

I can assure you I am having perhaps the most memorable birthday of my life today, through no planning of my own. And since I find myself with some downtime to fill, I shall share it with you, Dear Reader!

Here is how I expected today to go:

0430 - Rise for a workout with the incomparable Keith Fine at Fitrition.
0600 - Home for a refreshing shower, coffee, breakfast, and abundant affection from my sweet family.
0800 - A day of pleasant, productive, stimulating work at Kalos, Inc., writing code and spending time with people I deeply like and admire.
1630 - Leave for Lawrence with my splendiferous wife Magen to enjoy the world’s best nachos at Taco Zone and a Drew Holcomb concert with my dear friends and sibs, Joe and Jessie Hawkinson.
2300 or so (?) - Collapse into my bed, exhausted but sated with good things. Sleep with the windows open, hearing autumn noises, feeling the chilly breeze, and nestling gratefully under my down comforter.

Great plan, huh? Here’s what happened instead:

0230: Awake for no apparent reason.
0235: Intense intestinal discomfort.
0236: Disgusting Symptoms. Oh well, at least it’s not the Really Disgusting Symptoms.
0255: The Really Disgusting Symptoms.
0300 - Fitful rest and standup comedians on YouTube. Enjoy the repetition of the Symptoms many times.
0430, maybe? - Start calling in so trainer and job are aware.
0500 - Sleep! Praise Jesus!
0540 - Awake, Really Disgusting Symptom, sleep.
0730 - Awake, say goodbye to saintly wife who is removing all the children from our home.

“Sorry your birthday is ruined,” she says.

“It’s ok,” I say. “Not really into birthdays anyway. Just another day closer to my inevitable death.”

“You’re a mess,” she says. “But I guess being sick actually makes it easier to see your own mortality, so... it’s kind of a perfect gift for you.”

I laugh so hard that I soon find myself lunging toward the bathroom in order to prevent a Disgusting Symptom from getting all over my sheets.

0800 - Lie in bed watching Netflix, contemplating my mortality, and occasionally getting up to do various Symptoms.

And that is where I am even now, O ye persistent witness to my Symptom-redolent woes!

I normally try to avoid excessive pontification, but as the Bard says, “It’s my party and I’ll pontificate if I want to... you would pontificate too if it happened to you.”

Seriously, though, just a few thoughts before I go back to a fun-filled afternoon of vegetating and doing Symptoms:
  1. I don’t often get a chance to sit around doing nothing all day. It’s kind of fun every once in a while.
  2. I was struck by how much my birthday plan resembles a normal day. What delight and beauty and joy and health I often overlook!
  3. My death truly is approaching. I dwell in a mortal body, and this makes me want to live life to the fullest. It also makes me look forward to the New Creation and the redemption of my body. Come, Lord Jesus.
  4. At Hutchmoot, a feast that I had the privilege of attending last week, someone reminded me, “God always gives what we need when we need it.” That, more than anything else, has been the theme of this year for me. I both believe it and truly thank the Lord for this disgustingly providential opportunity to believe it better.
So, the short answer, and one without any hint of irony: It’s been a great birthday so far, and my deepest longings are being fulfilled.

13 October 2019

III. Stars in the Universe

For Wes and Bailey
Here in Nashville, city lights dim the stars,
Edison’s electrical artifice
Obscuring the breathtaking grandeur
Of promises made a long time ago,
Sealed by galaxies far, far away.

Nonetheless, an unfathomable host 
Of unflinchingly faithful stars
Still testifies in silence,
If you know where to look
And how to see.

Try an Ozark hillside
On a clear winter night
When the moon has waned away
To nearly nothing
And inside a warm delivery room,
Strong and gentle hands
Comfort, uphold, protect, 
And tenderly birth into the world
A bloody, squirming, squealing miracle.

Or try the red-dust high desert
Of Navajo country, 
Where a man runs alone
From mesa to mesa, contemplating
His next idea for bending, shaping
Lifeless wood into a living, singing
Thing of beauty, 
Another weapon in the war he wages 
Against damnable darkness.

And if you still can’t see the stars
Go to an inviting space
Amid a crowd of strangers
Who feel like ancient kin
And listen to the songs of a man
Playing on a 12-string guitar
Songs of life and loveliness 
Wrested from the very maw of death.
(And be sure to have a piece 
Of sweet, tart, mouth-melting apple pie
If you can bring yourself to cut into
Its intricately adorned crust.)

Watch the stars carefully while you can,
For they all inevitably fade into obscurity...
But not forever.
Some glad morning, we'll see their glory
Born anew, as the elder stars foretold
When first they flooded light and life
Into our crooked, hurting world.

II. Per Aspera

From the moment he first drew breath
Through bluish infant lips
And let out a mighty wail 
Protesting the crushing pain
Of his journey into the world,
The cold cruelty of the open air 
After the enveloping embrace 
Of his mother’s womb,
I have loved him more than life.

I marveled at his first step,
Delighted myself in his baby laughter,
Wept for his broken bones, his broken heart,
Thanked the Maker for his strong body
And his clever mind.

And now that same Maker demands his life,
So I lay him on the rough stone altar --
My beloved, trusting, obedient son --
And pray in desperation 
That somehow death might be rendered harmless,
Fully eclipsed,
Swallowed up by life.

This is the price I paid for the stars
In all their galactic glory,
The swirling Milky Way,
The strong and silent Hunter, 
The Big and Little Bears:
I laid my dearest dream out to die
And wielded the knife myself.

11 October 2019

I. First Light

In the beginning, they were flung
Into a million million galaxies,
Not haphazardly, but myriad points
Adorning an endless tapestry
Of time and space and matter,
A grandeur so complex, so vast 
That we often see it only
As sublime impersonal chaos.

The stellar dance of matter and mass,
Of fission and fusion,
Of flares and plasma
And perpetual nuclear explosions,
Hydrogen transforming into helium,
Burning through tons of matter
In a matter of moments,
Profligate as a prodigal
Whose father’s corpse has not yet cooled.

Herein lie deep secrets of creation.
Was this the power that intoxicated
The son of the morning
When he rose up to wage
His revolutionary war?
Did he begrudge the wastefulness
Of these universe-shaping forces
Harnessed for the viewing pleasure
Of tiny creatures
On a tiny planet
Far from the Center of things?

10 October 2019

Death by Prairie

They fear and scorn our prairies:
“Kansas?” they say. 
“Watch out for Toto in a tornado!”
The Wizard of Oz jokes mask their fear and loathing,
A prairie-angst that dreads
Monotonous fields of corn and wheat, 
Soybeans and milo and wind turbines,
That is unsettled by the thought
Of a ravenous funnel-monster
Descending from the clouds,
Devouring all in its path.

I smile because I know
The prairie does want to kill us all.
But our Grim Reaper
Is likelier a deer than a twister.

Yesterday on the interstate,
I saw the deer-corpse first:
Bloody, shredded, fresh,
Tongue out and intestines splattered
Across the dotted white line;
I swerved around it.

Half a mile down the road, 
Ambulance lights flashed.
A trooper took a report
Near an SUV with out of state plates,
Its hood, bumper, windshield 
Caved in as if by some
Unseen malevolent monstrosity.

I breathed a silent prayer —
Christ, have mercy —
And continued along the highway 
Into the glorious orange-purple flames
Of the prairie sunset.

(Alternate title: Oh, Deer.)

03 October 2019

Swimming

My love is a placid lake
Nestled deep in a mysterious forest.
I love to explore those woods,
To seek solace and delight
On sweaty July afternoons
In the cool refreshment
Of her fathomless depths.

02 October 2019

The Magic Kingdom

Three decades later, his voice echoes in my heart:
Weary after a week of 14-hour days teaching algebra
But kind -- always so kind -- talking on the phone
With someone at the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Florida.

"Good evening!" he says. Somehow the smile
On his sleep-deprived face spills over into his voice.
"Yes, I hope you can help me. I have a son with a dream,"
He continues, and squeezes my hand across the kitchen table.

He clicks his four-color pen to green and says,
"I need to know your rock-bottom admission price."
He writes numbers. His eyes grow wearier.
"I see. And do you offer any kind of family discount?"

The conversation goes on a few more minutes.
His smile remains, though diminished somehow,
And my heart begins to wonder if perhaps
My Mr. Fix-It may not come through this time.

"Well, thank you very much for your time,"
My father says. "You've certainly given me
A lot to think about." He stands with a muffled groan
(Sore from a day on his feet) and gently hangs up.

I am nine and have not known much disappointment,
But I'm also not stupid. My stomach tightens
Against my deepest fear: We can't go.
I ask anyway: "What did they say, Dad?"

My father sits beside me and shows me the neat column of figures.
Travel costs in blue, admission costs in green,
Food and lodging in black, and the grand total in red, underlined twice.
"Wow," I say. "That's a lot of money."

He puts an arm around my shoulder.
"Yes, it is. It would be as much money
As two cars like the one we're driving right now,
Or about two thousand gallons of milk."

He looks down, toward the paper, but stares past it,
As if his careful calculations weren't even there.
"I'm sorry, son. I think it just won't work out this time."
He looks more tired than I can ever remember seeing him.

In that moment, I glimpse the immensity
Of what this man has given me, how deeply he feels
The weight of my wishes and needs.
"It's OK, Dad," I say. "We can have a pretty good time right here."

Photo Credit

16 August 2019

Wait. Rest. Trust.

August 2019 was a season of deep grief for me. During this time, the Lord repeatedly brought to my mind these words: Wait. Rest. Trust. This is one of my many wrasslin's with those instructions.

Like a chick
Nestled beneath
Its mother's warm wing,
I hide in Your shadow.

---

"Wait. Rest. Trust."
Such simple commands,
So straightforward --
And so my unrest
Frustrates me.
Christ, have mercy.

11 August 2019

Fellowship

He found you like He found me:
Empty and hopeless,
At the end of ourselves,
Lost coins hiding in forgotten corners,
Penniless prodigals stealing slop from hogs.

And He breathed life into our dead lungs,
And overwhelmed our darkness with light,
And built us into a body, a temple,
A kingdom where everyone
Is a priest of the Almighty.

05 August 2019

Shoulder Day

"Shoulders," I assured Troy,
"Are the secret to marital bliss."

I am kidding
And also
Not kidding.

Another strict dumbbell press:
Tighten,
Flex,
Push up,
Controlled descent.

"I've got the receipts, bro."

I breathe through the reps,
Finish my set,
And hit the elliptical
For active recovery.

5 August 2019

04 August 2019

My Priorities

This summer, I was challenged to write a statement of my personal priorities. Here's what I came up with. Sticking it here so I'll remember where I left it. :-D
  1. Put Christ first in all things.
  2. Provide (spiritually, emotionally, materially) for my wife and kids.
  3. Follow God's callings for my life:
    1. Use my gifts to minister to His people.
    2. Work hard so I can provide for my family and give generously.
    3. Create beautiful things to bring light into a dark world.
  4. Maintain good spiritual, emotional, mental, and physical health. These are vital tools in accomplishing the things listed above.

Swimming With a Shadow

I tried to outswim my pain today,
And by accident succeeded.
I thought that my salvation lay
In strong arms, capacious lungs,
Propelling a body hard and fast,
Cutting fiercely through
The frigid blue.

Lap followed lap as I strove,
Sweat melting unseen
Into chlorinated depths,
Glimpses of harsh noonday sun
Alternating with eyefuls
Of cool pool water.

Arms and lungs began to burn,
And still the pain remained
Inside, well beyond the barrier
Between blood and brain.

An abrupt delight:
Dark shadow imposed on the white
Of the pool floor far below,
Nearing me as I neared
The shallow end.

It glided along, muscles rippling,
Shadow-bubbles blowing,
As it swam amid pure light.
It entranced me, spurred me on
To greater effort, greater satisfaction
As I watched its effortless progress,
Took joy in the beauty
Of its silent strength.

I pulled myself out at last,
Muscling up at pool's edge,
And despite my puffing and panting,
I found the joy of the shadow-race
Had left me lighter than light itself.

04 June 2019

Remembering-Stones


Six months into my wife's fourth pregnancy, we found out she was missing the right half of her brain.

She'd been feeling occasional numbness in her fingers and toes. We were afraid it might be neurological, but there was no slurring of speech, and her physical coordination seemed fine. "Still," our doctor said, "We could sure do a brain scan, just to be safe."

We scheduled the brain scan. It wasn't a big deal, so I didn't even take the afternoon off of work. And then I got the phone call.

"They say I need to get ready for surgery," my wife's voice said.

"What?"

"Surgery. They think my brain's under a lot of pressure. The scan makes it look like the fluid is crushing half of the brain. The radiologist seemed really concerned; he never saw anything like this before."

"I'm on my way."

I don't remember telling my boss I had to leave. I don't even remember driving to the hospital, though I do recall that it was hard to see the road through my tears. I also remember being extremely frustrated that I couldn't find a parking spot.

Then, after all the buildup, we waited at the hospital for a few hours -- and nothing happened. They sent us home. The neurosurgeon's office said he didn't have any immediate openings but made an appointment for two weeks later.

In the meantime, we met with an obstetrician to see what the consequences of neurosurgery might be for our unborn baby. He was comforting but vague. "It really depends on the neurosurgeon," he said.

So we waited to meet with the neurosurgeon. The two weeks were excruciating. I don't remember being so fearful about anything in my life.

When the day finally came, we found that the neurosurgeon wasn't even a little bit concerned. "Well," he said, "You are missing a large portion of brain tissue. But from what I can see, your brain has looked like this since birth."

"You're saying that my brain has been working fine even though half of it's missing?" my wife asked.

"Oh, yes. The brain is very good at adapting to anomalies." The neurosurgeon gestured dismissively toward the radiologist's report. "Your neurological functions are perfectly normal. You say you've gotten a college degree, raised three small boys, and run a non-profit organization. That seems pretty high-functioning to me."

"So... are there any next steps?" I asked.

"You're welcome to get a second opinion, just to be certain. And we can do a followup in six months if you really want to," he said. "But, really, the best thing you could possibly do is to forget that this ever happened."

---

The human mind is miraculous. It can parse complex sentences without a second thought and come up with grammatical responses in a matter of milliseconds. It can create concertos and comic books. It can solve brain-busting equations. It can recognize thousands of unique faces and tell with alarming accuracy whether those faces have anything to hide.

Even more wondrous is our neuroplasticity -- our brain's ability to change over time based on our environments, needs, and choices. And it's not just the functions that change; it's the physical configuration of our brains themselves. They're constantly rewiring themselves to form efficient new pathways and repair old, damaged ones.

My wife's brain is an amazing example of this -- it adapted perfectly to some unknown fetal trauma. If it hadn't been for her occasional numbness, we never would have even known half of it was missing. (We're still not quite sure what caused the numbness, but we think it was a vitamin deficiency.)

For all of its wonders, though, there are some things the human brain does not do well. For example, we aren't good at holding multiple complex or conflicting ideas in our minds at the same time. This is where heresies come from -- we glimpse one facet of God's complex nature, and we immediately lose sight of other truths that exist in tension with the one we see. So when I see God's mercy, I may begin to doubt His justice. When I see the vastness and complexity of the universe He created, I might wonder how He could ever care about me as an individual.

Failure to remember is a constant struggle for us. It is how the children of Israel, after being miraculously fed on divine bread and water gushing forth from a rock, questioned God's provision and demanded meat. (They got their meat in the form of disease-bearing, death-dealing flocks of quail. I suspect that the human taste for irony is one aspect of the imago dei imprinted on us.)

Failure to remember is how I, a resident of the freest nation on earth, with the gifts of eternal salvation, a good-paying job I love, a sweet wife, and a comfortable home full of delightful children, can feel worthless and dissatisfied.

This is why monuments are so useful to us forgetful humans. When God parted the waters of the Jordan so His people might cross over and take possession of their Promised Land, He instructed them to take twelve rocks -- one for each tribe of Israel -- from the riverbed, right near where the priests were standing with the ark of the covenant. This, not incidentally, was the center of the power that had held back the riverwaters. And so they took the twelve stones and formed them into a monument that stood for years where the Israelites camped that night.

Was it possible for the people of Israel to forget how God had made a way for them to cross into the land He would give them? Probably not that day. Maybe not the next day, either. But a year along, when the battle was raging and friends were falling to the swords of the land's inhabitants and they were filled with doubt over whether God was truly with them? You'd better believe it.

But then, they could return to that old campsite. They could consider the river-rocks stacked in an undeniable heap. And they could remember the inexplicable goodness that had led them here. And the truth would come flooding back to them like the waters of the river after the priests carried the ark out of its dry bed.

The river itself, raging along within its banks, stood as a testament to God's faithfulness in delivering His people. He made a way for them to arrive here, and He would continue providing deliverance until the work was done and the land at last was won.

---

So think of this post as a little heap of remembering-stones. Whenever I (or you) look at it, I want it to be a reminder of truth:

  1. My wife -- and you, and me, for that matter -- is made fearfully and wonderfully in the image of almighty God.
  2. My wife is missing half of her brain.
  3. Somehow, she is not only "normal anyway," but one of the sweetest, smartest, funniest people I know.
  4. At the time when the danger of her missing brain tissue was most real -- in utero, and in the few months thereafter -- God preserved her health, even though no one else had any idea that anything was wrong.
  5. God is perennially good, and His goodness does not depend on favorable outcomes. Even if my wife had died of a brain hemorrhage four years ago, and if our Maddie had died with her, God would be no less good, and I would be no less blessed by His hand, than I am today.
  6. Every moment, every scare, every relief, and every true tragedy is a gift from the Giver of all good things, who uses them to draw His own inexorably toward Himself. May we have the eyes to see them as such.

05 May 2019

A Prayer for Life and Direction

Gentle Spirit, hovering
Just above the surface
Of my soul's dark places,
Breathe new life
Into these dry bones.
Let me feel that life
Fluttering in my chest.
Show me those good works,
Prepared long before
The first sunrise,
The first gentle breeze,
My proper path,
The one I'm equipped to follow.
Enlighten that path for me
That I might walk in Christ's way,
Full of His true being,
Redeemed by His good sacrifice.

01 May 2019

My Sweet Sheet Thief

my beloved steals the sheets
because she likes the windows open
on thunderous April nights
when it gets cold enough
to thoroughly chill a master bedroom
no matter how warm two bodies were
only hours earlier
no matter how the sweat began to bead
on their foreheads
no matter how it mingled together
in their embrace
no matter how they lay panting later,
sated with sweet love.
and so I let her steal the sheets.

30 April 2019

The Resurrection and the Life

She prayed for miraculous healing
As her pale, thin, cough-racked body
Slid slowly deathward.
Thank Jesus for restoring my body,
She said, and her pulmonary function 
Slipped a little more, and then
Pneumonia came:
Thick ropes of mucous, 
Unending breath-battles,
More medication, 
The few, futile, final,
Heartbreakingly hopeful breaths.
Pray for my resurrection, 
She told her father before 
Passing beyond the rails
Of her last hospital bed,
Beyond her lifelong breathing treatments,
Beyond years of prayers and pain 
That ended, after all,
As all mortal flesh does.

I miss my friend, of course. 
And yet I believe that she has received 
The outrageous miraculous healing 
Her deathbed faith foresaw.
Tribulation-born hope 
Has not disappointed her; 
She is breathing easy at last
In the arms of her great Lover.
And so I do pray for her resurrection 
As I pray for my own,
And that of the whole world:
May this seed planted in sorrow
Rest in perfect peace 
Until the time comes
To yield its joyful living crop
On the day of glorious harvest.

21 April 2019

Shepherd

A reflection on Easter Sunday

He knows His own
And speaks to us -- comprehensibly --
And gives us life abundant,
Free from predation,
From starvation,
From despair, disdain, disgrace.

His beauty is mine in truth;
Mine because I see it,
Mine because I own it
And wear it
And swim in it
And do not drown in it
Only because divine breath
Abides within my lungs,
On my forehead
And in my soul.

07 April 2019

Another Scary Prayer

Here's another one that a prudent person ought to think twice before praying. I'm not necessarily very prudent, but I did think twice about it. Then I prayed it anyway.

We don't know what we need
Until we don't have it --
And sometimes not even then.

O Lord, smite me with my need.
Level me with it,
Lay me low
Before the blast of Your refining furnace.

Make my need
Loud and ugly and vile,
Easy to hate,
Easy to leave behind
As I dive into
The bottomless refreshing blue
Of Your all-sufficient
Grace.

Be Careful How You Pray...

Editor's Note: Knowing what I do now about how my summer went, I remember the wry old adage, "Be careful what you pray for." I prayed to share in the suffering of Christ, and I certainly experienced that in July - September 2019. And I wouldn't do a thing differently. Thanks be to God for His constant care and the growth He gives His children!

O heavenly Man,
Remake me in Your image.
Let me share in Your life,
Your death, Your suffering,
But most of all
Your obedience.
Kill my flesh
And bring me deeper, truer life:
Not inspired or powered by me,
But always, only You.

I want to share with you:
Your holiness
Your love,
Your service,
Your suffering.

01 April 2019

My Introduction to Walker Percy

I didn't know much about Walker Percy until I read The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage, Paul Elie's excellent literary biography of Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Percy, and Flannery O'Connor. I picked it up because I've been on an O'Connor kick for the past couple of years and I'd heard good things about Elie's handling of her work.

After reading Elie's book, I find myself eager to see more from Day, Merton, and Percy... but especially Percy. I found a sort of kinship with him, and I suspect that his work will help me understand myself better. For instance, this excerpt from p. 78 of Elie sounds exactly like something I'd do:


So I have Day and Merton on my mental backburner, but Percy has elbowed his way toward the front. I'll start with The Moviegoer (which I fortuitously found at a book sale last week), and then toward The Thanatos Syndrome and perhaps The Second Coming.

It's always fun to discover a kindred spirit, even one who died when I was nine. :-D

01 February 2019

Programmer Hands

My wife's hands have callouses on callouses.
I, on the other hand (both hands, in fact) do not.
When the children are in bed and the lights are out
And we lie in tangled sheets
Our limbs and fingers and hearts intertwined,
Breathing deep, satisfied breaths,
She teases me about the softness of my skin.
"I have programmer hands," I say, and find
Some other pleasant occupation for my hands.
(She does not complain of their softness then.)

Nonetheless, it is true: I have the hands of a programmer.
They don't get much exposure to the elements.
They don't carry heavy things all that often.
They don't change many diapers these days.
They are hesitant in the morning, tapping
Like a woodpecker who knows bugs are in this tree,
Somewhere or another -- they just need to be found.
My fingers tread forward, then back, then retrace their steps again,
Feeling for the trail like blind cross-country runners.
By the end of the day, they're slow but steady,
A tortoise who has finally hit his stride,
Coating the napping hare in sedately trodden dust.

All day long, my hands reflect my mind.
They are sluggish when it is slow,
Inspired when it is brilliant, and they make
Predictable dumb mistakes every so often,
Like the comforting ticking of a clock.
(I'd hate to stop making these mistakes,
Since then I'd feel utterly out of place.)

My hands work to embody my thoughts
In symbols on the screen. Through occult magic,
These symbols will compile into electromagnetic artifacts
That will help a balding pharmacist to fill prescriptions
In a warehouse a thousand miles away.
Like the miller's daughter, I weave the straw of thought-stuff
Into the pure gold of my boss's bottom line.
My fingers are the spinning wheel,
And my Rumpelstiltskin's true name is C++.

28 January 2019

Winter Workout

I had to try the steep entrance twice,
Battling snow-covered ice
With my front-wheel drive Corolla.
Nevertheless, I arrived five minutes early
So I played Hearts with obliging robots
While outside, flurries softened 
The sharp, icy edges of the world
And the full moon's light 
(A light not even its own)
Overwhelmed the harshbright fluorescent bulbs 
Humming patiently above the empty parking lot.

Fifteen minutes later, sweat dripped off the tip of my nose
As I army-crawled my mass across artificial turf,
Feet on plastic sliders and elbows protected by a foam mat.

Thirty minutes after that, my lungs were aflame,
My heartmuscle flexed frantically
As my artificial rower 
Skimmed the surface of a digital pond
And I fought to focus my mind
On maintaining my average watts.

Finally, after one last stretch
Of warm, fibertorn muscles, I stumbled
Once more unto the icy breach,
Pausing in the parking lot
To enjoy the Arctic blast
That had I had hurried through
Only an hour before.

Bodyheat and sweatvapor drifted from me
In visible foggy waves,
Carrying my thermal energy beyond,
Dissipating my warmth
Into the insatiable cold of the wintry morning.

Five more minutes in that wind,
And I would begin to shiver.
Five more hours in it, dressed as I was,
And I would surely die.

But this cold is warm
To most of the universe.
Even in the dead of winter,
Even if I were to freeze solid
In this lovely snow-coated parking lot,
I'd still be a toasty 273 degrees Kelvin.

All the heat in my body -- all the heat 
From all the suns in existence --
Would hardly make a dent
In Absolute Zero.

As I pondered all this, 
A quarter of a million miles off,
The moon continued her task:
Reflecting the radiance 
Of distant nuclear explosions
Onto the pristine snow
That I had to disrupt, defile
To get to my Corolla.

08 January 2019

Social Justice in Amos 5

About a year ago, the leadership of our church wanted to join a coalition of churches that work toward social justice  in our city. The results were not pretty. When the decision was announced, some folks left the church. Others essentially threatened to. The most vocal opponents refused to even hear from the organization -- they heard "social justice" and went into full-on rage mode. In the end, the elders decided to value peace within the church over their desire to make a practical, Christlike difference in the community.

This isn’t to say the elders’ plan was flawless. The national organization affiliated with this local justice coalition sometimes treats the Bible as a political football rather than the inspired word of God. Other churches within the coalition  have been pressured to place members in same-sex relationships into positions of leadership, which is something our church has convictions against. Our elders should have asked the congregation what they thought before moving forward so quickly.

Nonetheless, there is much to be said for pursuing a fair, equitable society through political action. In Amos 5, economic injustice is one of God’s chief complaints against his people:
7 There are those who turn justice into bitterness
   and cast righteousness to the ground.
8 He who made the Pleiades and Orion,
    who turns midnight into dawn
    and darkens day into night,
who calls for the waters of the sea
    and pours them out over the face of the land—
    the Lord is his name.
9 With a blinding flash he destroys the stronghold
    and brings the fortified city to ruin.
10 There are those who hate the one who upholds justice in court
    and detest the one who tells the truth...
14 Seek good, not evil,
    that you may live.
Then the Lord God Almighty will be with you,
    just as you say he is.
15 Hate evil, love good;
    maintain justice in the courts.
Perhaps the Lord God Almighty will have mercy
    on the remnant of Joseph.
God cares about how we treat those who cannot defend themselves. He cares when humans made in His image are victimized and taken advantage of. And his wrath in this case falls on both individuals and the nation as a whole. This should cause American Christians to sober and consider what our society is doing to care for the needy, disadvantaged, and helpless in our midst and at our borders.

Unfortunately, I think the Republican party (the political party that "my" people have long affiliated themselves with) has a history of treating the nation like a piggy bank to be raided for the profit of those who are already wealthy. I fear they -- we -- will soon have a great deal of justified regret over these actions. May God have mercy on us all -- and may we repent soon.