Tag Archives: love!

To War and Back Again

Oh, my heart just aches sometimes.

Josiah and I went to war tonight.

“Please leave the door open.” Slam.

“Don’t touch that.” Poke.

“Sit down and finish eating.” Wail.

“Hold still please.” Kick.

Finally, barely fed and crammed into jammies, we slowed down just enough to read Christmas stories by candlelight, because my wife does many things well, but none better than planning perfect moments for the joy of others. So, we lit candles, spread a blanket on the floor, and read about a little girl whose father was off to war, so her mother cut apart her wedding dress to make a Christmas dress and doll for the girl, and then the two of them went into the woods at night to chop down a tree for the church pageant. Yeah, I cried a little.

And then I scooped up my boy, took him into his room, and shut off the light, forgetting to turn on his nightlight first. The room fell pitch black.

And in the perfect darkness, the rain dripping from the roof, he laid his head down on my shoulder, sighed deeply, and without words he declared his unconditional surrender.

I sang his lullaby to him in the darkness:

Lay down your head, Josiah
Lay down your head, though night is falling
The Lord protects his children through darkness
The Lord will guide your steps in the light

Long ago lived a boy named Josiah
He heard the voice of God in the night
Long ago the boy named Josiah
Led God’s children back into the light

So raise up your head, Josiah
Raise up your head, though night is falling
Hear the voice of God in the darkness
And lead his children back into the light

When I wrote it, Gretchen’s first comment was, “Wow, a little word of prophecy there, huh?” Maybe so.

I don’t know what’s ahead for Josiah and I, how many more times we’ll go to war and declare peace, or how much higher the stakes will get. I’m sure that there are nights coming when peace will cost significantly more than a song in the darkness. I don’t know how many moments in life we get like tonight, when you lift your son up, and he lays his head on your shoulder, and you try your best to weep softly so that you don’t break the magic of the moment.

He has both strength and tenderness, and I pray to God that both of them survive my parenting. I pray for wisdom and patience, to know when to be just and when to be merciful. I pray for strength that lasts through the day until I get home at night, so that he doesn’t always have to make his feast with the sparse remainder of my daily bread.

I pray that as he grows, he will look more and more like Jesus, and you can keep your damn bumper sticker. I mean that in all of the gritty ways. I pray that he learns when to braid a whip, that he has the strength to stand guard over an outcast woman and stare down an angry mob, that he speaks with fire and truth, that he spreads out a banquet for the friendless and unlovely. Most of those things, he’ll have to figure out on his own, because I don’t know how to do them.

I pray that he becomes a better man than I am.

God, you have blessed me through him. I hope that you bless him through me.

May we find peace at the end of every battle, and love, always love, no matter what.


Clergy love.

Disclaimer: My thoughts on the following topic are not my most articulate.  Please do not throw tomoatoes.

On New Year’s Day, a white BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) police officer fatally shot a black man after a fight had broken out.  On Wednesday night, riots in Oakland destroyed the businesses of, ironically, black people.

The officer who shot the bullet resigned his position just before he was otherwise required to issue a statement.  One of many theories is that he thought he was reaching for his gun-shaped tazer.

My heart breaks for everyone.  The victims and the shooter.  When I read that dozens of clergy were willing to meet with the officer, I thought, That is a step in the right direction.  That guy needs some love.

Then I read that the clergy were outraged with him, “demanding answers”.  At that point, they were no longer “clergy” to me.  I could not distinguish them from “everybody else”.

One of my earthly heroes is Sister Helen Prejean.  She came to speak at St. Mary’s College when I was a student there, and she revolutionized the way I think about our justice system.  One idea she has shared is:  “The only way I know what I really believe is by keeping watch over what I do.”  She is beautifully and artfully able to entwine herself in complicated and tragic situations, loving the victims and the accused.  In my heart, she has earned the title “clergy”.  Clergy love.

Advent Reminder

Every year, I have to ask Doug to remind me what the weeks in advent stand for. Since I don’t have a handy notebook near, I’m posting this here to remind me throughout the season, and so that I can find it with a snappy little blog search next year.

Advent is four weeks long. The four weeks are:

  1. Hope – the Prophet
  2. Love – the Holy Family
  3. Joy – the Shepherds
  4. Peace – the Magi

On week 5, we celebrate the traditional “80-Proof Christmas” candle, wherein all music pastors pass out from exhaustion and slip into the numb embrace of Bookers.

Gathering Eden

Kyrie Yeshua,

We have no memory of happier times
except the mimeographed black and white
irrelevant and unlived kind

No touchstone of bliss to serve as reference
For reconstruction and renovation

Instead we forage through the present pieces of ordinary lives
gathering Eden from the disparate strands presumed to be
echos of the first thing, the better thing, the joyful thing

And perhaps the joy itself is provenance enough
to prove that such things were present there
And have floated down the Tigris to us here.

Prayer, Suffering, and the Nature of God

So how’s your week? Oh yeah? Cool.

Mine included the two devastating, soul-crushing defeats of the Most Excellent Angels at the hands of the Boston Evil Sox of Boston. Which, of course, led me to contemplate the purpose of suffering, and prayer, and the nature of God. No, I don’t think I’m overreacting, why?

(WARNING: This post contains philosophy. Do not read while driving, or while operating heavy machinery. Some content may not be suitable for children or undergrads. The views of the author are not necessarily those of a rational person. Proceed with caution.)

Suffering poses a philosophical problem for those who believe God exists. If God is both omnipotent and loving, then why does suffering exist? Is he capable of alleviating suffering, but chooses not to, in which case how is he loving? Is he willing to alleviate suffering, but incapable, in which case how can we consider him omnipotent?

There is a classic solution to this problem. It argues that in God’s economy, it is the greatest good that counts, and therefore only as much suffering exists as is necessary to produce God’s best possible outcome, the most loving outcome for the most people. We’ll call those two concepts “necessary suffering” and “greatest good”. Like a doctor who causes pain in order to perform a life-saving surgery, some suffering is necessary in order to produce the greater good. A child may suffer with an abusive alcoholic father in order to produce a certain kind of character in that child, which will lead to great benefit for those influenced by the child when he grows up.

The greatest good requires the existence of free-will creatures, since so many of the great virtues (love, courage, integrity, justice, charity) are impossible apart from free-will. If we had been created as automatons, we would be incapable of any of those virtues.

There can be no world in which free-will exists, in which suffering does not also exist. God chose to decree a world with free-will, and allows only as much suffering as is absolutely required to produce the best possible outcome (either in overall human happiness, or flourishing, or if my undyed Evangelical roots are showing, numerical count of souls saved). So, God is constrained by these limitations, imposed by his own nature: the existence of free-willed creatures, the entailed existence of suffering, and the need to limit that suffering as much as is possible while producing the most loving outcome for the most people.

Each individual act of suffering can only be justified if it is necessary to produce the greatest good. If we hold that God is both loving and omnipotent, then we must hold that every actual instance of suffering is therefore “necessary suffering”.

We might rebut that some acts of suffering don’t seem connected to any redemptive good outcome, but we should acknowledge how limited our perspective on the matter is. We see a few things, for a few brief years, with limited understanding. God sees all things, and their eternal outcomes, with full understanding. On the basis of his character alone, we might yield him the benefit of the doubt and allow that all acts of suffering are necessary to produce some good that outweighs the bad.

Let’s lay out the classic resolution in nice tidy philosophy math!

  1. An omnipotent God can control all circumstances and outcomes for all given situations.
  2. A loving God would act to cause outcomes which produce the greatest possible good, and the least possible suffering.
  3. In a world where a loving and omnipotent God exists, every individual instance of suffering occurs only because it is necessary for producing, in the final balance, the greatest possible good.

If we accept this solution, the dilemma seems to resolve. I don’t think it does, though. I think it just shifts to the problem of prayer.

Does prayer influence God’s actions?

The knee-jerk response is “Yes, of course!” We are commanded to pray, and examples are held up to us of how to pray, those examples include petitions for actions general and specific, we are told that God moves in response to prayers, Jesus even gives us a handy parable that shows how important persistence is in having our prayers answered.

Let’s take a specific case of human suffering, a child with a painful and terminal cancer. Suppose that child is surrounded by loving people of faith, who pray fervently and earnestly for the child to be healed. I realize that in a reading audience of this size, there are undoubtedly people who have faced just such a case as this, and please, I mean no disrespect or insensitivity. I apologize for treating a freighted emotional circumstance as a math problem. Allow me though, if you will, to pose this case in a detached way in order to explore this dilemma.

There are 3 possible outcomes in this situation.

  1. God did not intend to heal the child, does not alter his intent based on the prayers, and the child dies.
  2. God did intend to heal the child, and intended so prior to any prayer, and actually does heal the child.
  3. God did not intend to heal the child, the prayers altered his intent, and so he heals the child.

The first two cases fit neatly into our previous perspective on necessary suffering. If the child does die, their suffering was necessary to bring about some greater ultimate good, even though we cannot possibly understand how or why. If the child is healed, then God was able to bring about the greater good without that particular instance of suffering.

It’s the third case that causes me to have mental hiccups. There are two states to God’s intent in the third case. Let’s call them (A) intends not to heal, which is the state prior to prayer, and (B) intends to heal, which is the state after prayer. In the classical resolution of the problem of suffering, only one of those two outcomes leads to the greatest possible good. If (A) leads to the greatest good, then (B) cannot. If, on the other hand, (B) leads to the greatest good, then (A) cannot.

This leaves us in a very difficult situation. If we allow that (B) does, in fact, lead to the greatest possible good, on the basis that it is the course God actually chooses to take, then we must also say that, prior to (B), in the case of (A), God intended to follow a course of action that included unnecessary suffering. We must choose between two equally distasteful horns:

The Unloving God

  1. A perfectly loving and omnipotent God only allows suffering that is necessary to produce the greatest good.
  2. If prayer alters God’s intentions, then there are some cases in which God’s intention prior to prayer includes greater immediate suffering, and intention after prayer includes less immediate suffering.
  3. Either God’s final intention leads to the greatest good, in which case God’s original intention does not, and includes unnecessary immediate suffering, or
  4. God’s original intention leads to the greatest good, in which case God’s final intention does not, and therefore produces less than best final outcomes, and unnecessary final suffering.
  5. A God who intends unnecessary suffering cannot be perfectly loving.

The Unhearing God

The alternative to the unloving God is to accept an unhearing God; we may strike point 2 from the argument above, and say that prayer does not alter God’s intent. Whatever he does, he always intended to do, and the earnest and persistent pleas of people of faith do not, in any way, alter God’s intentions.

I know there are some very smart, and very philosophically oriented people who hang out here, so if anyone can help me pick this lock, I would very much appreciate it. I don’t have a solution here, just the question. It seem like, in the end, we have three impossible choices: a God who is unloving, a God who is unhearing, or a God who is unable.

Nothing Says “I Love You” Like Wolf Urine

Amazon.com has released their list of “Bad Valentines Day Gifts” – comprised of things sold through the online-mega-mall. It’s freakin’ hilarious.

Some of my personal faves…

32 oz Bottle of Wolf Urine, A Whole Fresh Rabbit and 2 Cases of Praying Mantis Eggs

Hey honey! Are you reading this? Get ready for romance tomorrow!

Love like Gravity

You breathe in, you breathe out, and that quickly, everything you know about love changes.

We were driving home today from Phoenix, where the whole family had gathered to celebrate my Grandmother’s 90th birthday. People flew in from all over to be together, to share memories, to hold her hand and talk softly. She’s not doing very well – she had to be wheeled to the birthday party in a hospice chair, with an attendant nearby most of the time – and the unspoken thought of the weekend was that we might not have another chance to talk with her before she’s gone from us. She fell, early last week, and had surgery to pin her hip together. There’s no such thing as a minor fall or a simple surgery when you’re 90, and you can see some of the strength ebbing from her eyes when you talk to her.

She met Sophia for the first time, and Sophia reached out for her, and her Great-Grandma kissed her, as old women and young girls have always kissed, and they shared that secret joy called family, even though one is too young to know what it means, and one is so old she sometimes forgets, and even though they share none of the same blood, and have only just met – love sometimes works that way.

There is a lullaby that my wife and I sing to our daughter, and as this weekend unfolded, I kept singing the words over and over in my head.

Sophia, my beauty, I love you,
But you don’t know yet what that means

Love always works that way – it is given to those who are ignorant of its full value, in a thousand private acts of sacrifice. My daughter doesn’t know that we love her – she has no knowledge of its absence, and so, to her, it is just life. It is just what Mama and Dadda are to her. May it never be otherwise!

This is the great mystery of love – that my Grandmother and my daughter can be caught up in its grasp, even though they had never met, and may never meet again. It is a force of nature, like gravity, and even though it might never be played out between them in those thousand acts of patience, of compassion, of sacrifice, it still binds them together.

My daughter doesn’t know this yet, but it is also true – I don’t know what love means either.

We all love in ignorance. Truly. We give in ignorance, and we receive in ignorance, and by these commissions we practice the art of love, knowing nothing of the force that compels it. It is the strongest force in the world.

There are deep rivers
beneath these still waters
and this love is more than it seems
this love is more than it seems

On the 210 freeway, driving home from Phoenix, at 80 mph, our left rear tire separated. The tread peeled off from the tire, and in an instant the steering wheel jerked loose from Gretchen’s hands, and we started to skid across 4 lanes of busy Sunday afternoon traffic.

As Gretchen fought for control, she grabbed the wheel, struggling to straighten out the van. We swerved sharply in the opposite direction, and as we did, I felt the van start to break loose – I saw the mountains sink below the window, and the pavement rise up on the other side, and felt my stomach turn upside down. The van started to tip over.

Your mother and I both had tutors
In heaven, and down here below

Sometimes Sophia decides she wants to do something, and nothing can dissuade her. If I push the matter, I can see her eyes flare up, and I see a glimpse of how strong her personality will be.

My dear daughter, you have no idea.

As the days of your life unfold, your mother and I will sit with you, and tell you the stories that you are a part of. My girl, there is fire in your veins – you are a daughter to strong women, women who love fiercely, and live deeply. You are the daughter of women who boarded ships to sail to strange lands, who forged homes in dark and inhospitable corners of the earth, who built businesses and fortunes in times when women were not allowed in boardrooms, who worked 12 hours a night to pay for their children’s medical care and schooling, who sent husbands and sons off to war and prayed for their safe return, women who never finished high school but whose daughters hold master’s degrees – my dear little girl, you are the daughter of strong, beautiful women.

And the strong and beautiful women who are your heritage have always taught their sons and daughters how to practice the art of love. They love like breathing in and out, like gravity, and it is a force that compels the world to turn.

Whatever we know of love, we learned at their feet.

You weren’t old enough to understand the words that Grandma said as she held you, but I will repeat them to you until you are.

“Love them.” She was looking at you, and at your mother, but she was talking to me. “Love them – you know that’s your most important job, don’t you? They are God’s blessing to you. Love them.”

They taught us the meaning
of love without ending
and, baby girl, that’s how we know
baby girl, that’s how we know

Gretchen was driving, my brother was in the front seat, and I was in the back seat next to Sophia, who was strapped into her car seat. We had all of our luggage in the back of the van, along with a big TV that my dad had sent with us to drop off for him at home.

As my stomach turned upside down, and the van tilted further and further, as the tires screamed and horns around us blared, I threw myself across Sophia, grabbing the far side of her seat with both hands, crushing her little body beneath my chest.

All I could think about was the massive TV spinning forward from the back of the van, crashing into us.

Sophia, my beauty, I love you,
But you don’t know yet what that means

You can’t possibly understand this yet, but I have never loved you more than when I was crushing your face into my chest, and you were screaming and beating me with your fists.

I can’t make you understand this yet, but everyone in that car would have done the same thing. And so would Papa, and Grammy Weiss, and Grandma Lee, and Grandpa, and your mother’s sisters, and their husbands, and your Uncle David, and Auntie Kim, and your dad’s aunts and uncles, and his cousins.

And even though she can’t move her legs, and even though she has to have help feeding herself, and getting dressed, and even though she sometimes gets confused and can’t remember where she is, even though her body no longer obeys the commands of her heart and mind; in her heart, and in her mind, your father’s father’s mother would do the same.

And behind her, a hundred generations whose bodies gave out before they could demonstrate their love for you.

There are deep rivers
beneath these still waters

My grandmother’s love was almost always the peaceful sort – the still waters. It was gentle, and compassionate, and it usually was accompanied by simple cards, and gifts, and thoughtful words.

And it was poured into my dad over 60 years of simple recurring acts of love.

Which was how he taught it to me.

And I will teach it to you in that same way – by simple repetition of silent sacrifices.

What I cannot explain to you, the deep mystery of love, is this: the still waters of simple repetition and silent sacrifice are the ripples on the surface of a raging torrent.

I will swing you in my arms just to hear you laugh, and to share in your joy.

I will also raise my arms to shield you against any onslaught, and will spend my last breath so that you can draw one more.

And though I cannot explain to you how, it is the same thing. Both acts are drawn from the same well. It is love.

At the last moment, when the van pulled itself upright once more, and as your mother guided it across 4 lanes of traffic to a safe stop on the side of the freeway, the first thing she did was reach back to touch you. You quieted instantly, and reached out and took her hand.

this love is more than it seems,
this love is more than it seems

In a few days, or weeks, or God willing, a few months more, Irene Lee will breathe her last breath, and someone beautiful will have gone out of the world.

I’m glad you got the chance to meet her, and I’m glad that you reached out to her, and that she kissed you.

When you grow, and you begin to imitate your mother, and she shows you how to live in that secret strength that the women in both of our families have always carried, and you begin to practice the art of love, it will not be something new that you do – it will be something very old. It will be something handed down from generation to generation, lived out in a thousand acts of patience, of compassion, of sacrifice.

Love is learned by imitation, and taught by repetition, and as my Grandmother leaves this earth, I pray you will take her place in this dance.


Sophia’s Lullaby
by Michael Lee