Ahead, a car flinches as its brake lights slam red.
From nowhere, a hawk comes gliding across the country highway.
First, the two northbound lanes.
Then, the median of dead grass.
Then, the southbound lanes.
And finally, over to the bare tree branches at the edge of the wood.
The branches bend under its weight as it flutters its wings closed and finds its perch.
In a moment, the ruckus is over and the traffic immediately resumes its rush.
I drive on, my mind still in the tree branches and open air with the hawk,
looking down on the strange flow of machines.
Unbridled by laws, by lanes, by time.
Wild and free from the rest of us animals.
On the drive down to Wichita:
The last dead days of February beginning to blossom.
Rolling prairie and mounded hills ready to green.
The surviving winter birds and the first of spring circle over bare trees.
Road going on and on, the entire countryside fenced into fine squares.
So many times I’m drawn to pull over and walk into it all.
Sun-covered hills and not a soul in sight.
Just passing cars and diesels and trucks, going and going to someplace.
I think about Ginsberg and his poetry reading in Wichita.
Pass the home of William Allen White.
The prairie is full of great poets.
The words are riding on the clouds and thick in dusty wind gusts.
I roll down my window and let them glide through my fingers.
No one wants to read anything real anymore.
No one wants to read truth.
In comes the arm and up goes the window.
I have caught enough words.
The last poet on the plains.
Not too much, the Lord says. Not too much. Moderation. Pace. Your time will come when I say so. He keeps me this way. Tempered. Living life. Developing my faith. Careful not to give it all to me, because he knows what l’ll do with it. I’d spoil it. On women. On riotous living. You know, a real prodigal son wasting his inheritance. And so I keep my heart open and put the words down. What he teaches me goes deep into my soul and comes out through my fingertips. I walk the streets an unknown. In perfect seclusion. A poet of our Lord, writing the words he gives to me to share. Never given an ego to trip over. Never trying to swallow too much success. Life with him is moderation. Balance. So I take the ills with every step forward. I owe everything I am to him, which is not too much, and never too little.
My dad’s motto in life was that he never wanted to visit anywhere he’d never been before. If that sounds incredibly twisted and perplexing, then you have a feeling now for what his personality was like. His philosophy meant, for me, a childhood of vacations to the places his parents took him as a kid and very few adventures outside a 20-mile radius of our home. His greatest decision as a father was the day he decided to agree to a divorce and go his own way. He knew he wasn’t a good dad—it was a talent that just passed him by— and that it was better for us to be raised by mom. I grew up a nervous and shy kid, at least while he was in the house. There was always the threat of violence (seldom actually happened) and he was out and out mean. I was the type of kid who was 1,000 times more likely to make a mistake once he warned me not to, and many times in my nervousness I made my dad’s worst nightmares come to fruition right before his very eyes. But I knew the entire time growing up that I wanted to have kids of my own someday and be a good dad to them. I like to think my dad set an example for me—maybe not the best, but certainly an outline for exactly how NOT to do things. Last year, a few months before he passed away, he fell a few times and eventually ended up in the hospital with a broken leg. It was clear he wasn’t going to be around much longer, so I talked to him about what his wishes were for his funeral. In the most hateful snarl you can imagine, he said, “I don’t want anything religious. None of that Jesus shit. Just dump me in a hole.” I wonder sometimes, now, how a man could be that consumed by hate. Hate for this world. Hate for hope. Hate for anything outside himself or bigger than him. I also wonder how much of my own faith and the strength I find in it comes from wanting to live a life opposite of his. I don’t know. He’s in my prayers, daily. And as strange as it might seem, I feel he is somehow being redeemed in the love I give my son and my two daughters. Whatever examples life presents you and however it manages to take you down, there is a source of redemption. And he teaches us how to forgive—how to blot out dark with light. It’s a lesson I hope my kids will learn. Love you, dad
The boy didn’t seem to notice that his mother looked lifeless. She sat rigid at the table in the coffee shop, unblinking and lost in a deep stare. If I’d seen her on the streets and not sitting in this Starbucks just a few minutes after its doors opened, I would have thought her dead. But she was alive—just entranced by her depression. Or maybe reliving the horrific realities that brought her and her son to this moment.
I was traveling on business that day in Emeryville, Calif., and stopped for coffee with some business contacts as we walked toward the office. The place was already full of customers and every table was occupied, including a few with the obviously destitute.
One homeless man sat alone with a drink of his own. His face was lit by the sharp, orange glow of the new day angling through the windows. Once he caught my attention, I began filling in his backstory on my own. He likely slept all night out on the bay, where the temperatures dipped into the upper 40s, and he was finding his first real warmth in several hours from his steaming coffee.
This man was also oblivious to the business around him, but he was clearly with it and alive. His eyes blinked. He moved his hands around his coffee cup and he occasionally looked down at it and lifted it to his mouth to take a drink. I carried my coffee past him and waited at the end of the bar for my friends to pick their orders, and that’s when I saw the woman and her boy.
She wore a beige trench coat that showed the dirt from sleeping out on the streets. Her skin was deep-dark brown and her hair was pulled back and tucked into a pink hat that resembled a towel-wrap she’d spun halfheartedly around her head after bathing. I couldn’t guess her age, but I thought her to be much younger than she appeared.
Her son sat to her left, leaning over a drawing book. He was maybe 10 years old. He balanced himself with his left arm and made long, elaborate pencil movements with his free hand. I was glad he was occupied and that his attention was diverted from his mom. Her eyes were lifeless and dull like unpolished marbles, and her facial expression was locked into a combination of physical agony and a sick hypnosis. And she never moved, not even a slight lean, for the several minutes I observed her.
The boy continued moving his body with his pencil strokes, shifting to one side or the other and pursing his lips in concentration, but that did nothing to break up her stare. I was instantly haunted by her. If this had been my own city where I’ve done work with the homeless before, I might have felt less helpless. When I worked downtown, I carried packaged food, bottled water and Bibles to hand out. I almost never gave money and it didn’t occur to me to buy them another coffee so they could prolong their stay. I did nothing but look at them and wonder what would come next. Where would they go? Would they stay together? Did she have enough life left to care for the boy? I just didn’t know.
After a few minutes, my friends and I had our coffees and we stepped out into the new morning to get on with our purpose there. This moment I just described occurred about three weeks ago, and I still wonder about those two, mother and son. I read a headline today that said California is home to about half of the United State’s homeless population. I believe it. They are everywhere in San Francisco Bay area, lining sidewalks and pushing shopping carts. The warmer temperatures and relax law enforcement have to be the draws.
In scripture, there is place in 2 Samuel when David begins to feel uneasy that he is living in a palace and the Lord’s Ark of the Covenant, which he has just re-acquired in battle, is resting outside in a tent. When he determines to build a temple for the Ark, the Lord tells David, “I have never lived in a house …” I read this passage in 2 Samuel 7:6 last night and it reminded me of what I saw on the streets of my hometown when I would hand out food, water, and occasionally Bibles. The Lord has his hand on the homeless. He protects them and rescues them on the coldest nights when they couldn’t possibly survive on their own. Many of the people I met on the streets were Christ followers and more than once I stood silently while one of them preached their own street sermon to me. God puts his own roof over their heads—a veil of protection that deepens my belief in him.
All this time later, a thousand miles separating me from that coffee shop, and my thoughts still tell me to worry about that woman and her son. My faith, though … my faith, tells me something different.
He crosses every barrier for us—his lost sheep wandering off alone.
Raging waters and dry deserts—he settles and endures.
Mountainsides and deep valleys—he prays and baptizes.
Across the thresholds of his followers’ houses and the dens of reviled sinners—he teaches and turns hearts.
In temples, standing among those who hate him—he preaches and speaks truths.
Fireside, on shorelines and under tree cover—he reveals and rebukes.
Jesus Christ’s eternal embrace—he runs to his prodigal sons and daughters who spoil their inheritance of glory and welcomes them back into arms that never let go.
My necklace fell heavy against my chest as I scaled the rocks. Moving between footholds, I felt the metal cross swing out like a door-knocker, rhythmically pounding a reminder into me: “I want more space in your heart. I want to be right there.”
The last-remaining snow was frozen to the shadowy places on the hillside. I kept my arms and legs as balanced as I could before taking the next step so I wouldn’t slip off to the bottom. But even in my carefulness, I found my thoughts distracted by this knocking on the door to my soul.
I am doing my best to give Jesus a place in my heart—lately, I’ve been on a personal mission to make his heart mine. To exchange my heart for his. I’m afraid I’m failing miserably.
Earlier on my hike, I lamented to myself that I needed to do a better job of setting an example of a Christian man, for my friends who are followers and also for those who are non-believers. I even went as far as to nod my head in agreement with my own thought while walking through a lonely spot in the woods. Oddly enough, the very next word out of mouth (further up the trail, when my camera wouldn’t cooperate) was profanity. Another failure to add to the list although I didn’t miss the humor in that quickly broken promise.
I’ve been reading the book of John in various translations for the last month hoping to find some insights into Jesus’ … essence, I suppose. Just before heading into the woods, I was reading from Chapter 4 in the Passion translation, and the “earthly perspective” of the woman at the well suddenly came as clear to me as if I saw that moment myself.
When Jesus tells the woman he can give her living water, the kind that will quench her thirst forever, she thinks immediately in human terms. She responds in part by saying she wants a drink so she “won’t get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water.” I smiled at that. She is completely clueless to Jesus’ deeper meaning. He is speaking of eternal life while her mind is focused on removing the labor of this errand from her day.
Jesus’ followers were often so focused on the world, they missed what he was teaching them about the spirit realm. How could they have fathomed it even if they did understand? How can we begin to imagine a place where we’ve never been, let alone think like a God who lived there and walked there, who knew us for thousands of years before our birth? My suggestion for setting our sights on Heavenly things is to draw nearer to our Lord and Savior and do our best to share in his unfailing love and grace.
A few months ago I would have scoffed at that notion and said it was impossible. Now I will tell you through the Holy Spirit we can come close to our God in the places he resides. We have to be open and undergo a genuine heart change. We have to listen. Then the door opens. He spoke to me by using this symbol of his sacrifice that I wear around my neck. Despite all my imperfections, I didn’t miss that.
Finally, this afternoon, when the house was still—the snow trucks had passed and even the appliances were silent—I went up to my prayer room and spent some time in scripture. I’ve been reading the book of John this week and it’s mesmerizing how Jesus comes alive in the text. You can feel his joys, his sorrows and his anger. You can even feel him breathe. Nowhere does he seem more genuine or vulnerable than in John 13. This is the “last supper” that has been immortalized in paintings. These are his final few hours with his closest followers. He knows he’s going to be betrayed later that night and the cross awaits him the next day. In those last moments together he speaks plainly—practically pleads for his disciples to understand he is the way to Heaven. He reminds them who it is that rules this world (not him or his father). He tells them about the Holy Spirit and says they won’t be alone, even when…they are. And he issues a commandment, the heart of which is to simply love. There is so much of Jesus that is fascinating in scripture, so much to learn and sort through, and things we can’t fathom, including the descriptions of him bringing the dead back to life. But it’s this moment with these men and the love and care he embodies for them that make me a believer.
My heart wants to become his heart. And yet everyday I find myself making a mess of things. Leave the stones on the ground: that should be my mantra. Learn to love like Him (it’s so hard when people are involved.) Jesus set an impossible example we can never live up to. What we can do is love the best we can, give grace, and see something of ourselves and how we want to be treated in others.
Only prayer could call down a snowfall this beautiful. Someone must have knelt in solitude, morning after morning, asking for the world to be blanketed white. God obliged and now millions of answered prayers drift down from the Heavens by the hour, unnoticed as such by those of us whose hearts and minds are full with the world.
Imagine seeing life this way—as if everything and every person in it were God-sent, placed here for a purpose and with a right to love. How that would change things.
We view this world in reverse with our human eyes. The darkness and the cold seem inevitable—waiting patiently to overwhelm the light. But the opposite is true. Darkness will someday be extinguished. It is the light that is eternal, and it is embodied in the one who loves us (for all eternity) and always meets us with bottomless grace.
Whomever prayed for the snow … I love you. God loves you. But you already know this, don’t you? You must have a gorgeous heart, and I can see that you use it.