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Dec 28 17

Walking in the light

by davesandel

Walking in the light

On The fourth day of Christmas, Thursday, December 28, 2017

If we walk in the light as he is in the light, then we have fellowship with one another … if we say “we are without sin,” we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. But if we acknowledge our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive and cleanse us. – from 1 John 1

In Latin, Valparaiso University calls out to all  the world, In luce tua videmus lucem, “In Thy Light, We See Light” (Psalm 36:9). My alma mater, when I attended there, required chapel attendance. But after chapel, I found my way to places in the dark. Just 17, I was ready for anything. So I thought.

I ended up in a shoplifting nightmare, tempted further and further until a maternal clerk told me to stop but allowed me to avoid consequences. I stopped.

I learned to drink too much 156 proof rum. I smoked what there was to smoke. In my own precocious, curious way, I sinned and sinned and sinned.

What I mean is that I turned away from God. Not so much in what I did, but in what I thought. I am so grateful for God’s patience, thankful that I had time to learn more about him than I could ever have learned without all those turning-aways. All those sins.

At first I worshipped the thrills. I fell down on my knees before the pseudo-freedoms of the night. Then in reaction I spun the pendulum and struggled back toward physical or emotional or mental health without thinking twice about the spiritual health they all were founded on. I worshipped a little yoga, a little hot air ballooning, a great deal of sex. Breathing hard replaced breathing deeply.

Looking back in my journals, I recall many moments of illumination. Once I knew what to call them, epiphanies came often. Finally, in a wild marching California dance in August 1976, I sang along with everyone, “We are climbing Jacob’s ladder.” At least for the moment, my idolatries fell to pieces. Heaven came down, and glory filled my soul. I turned back toward God.

In all the years since, I’ve turned away and turned back, turned away and turned back, been desolated and consoled, listened for God in all the wrong places, until without fail and every time, he whispers exactly what I need to hear.

Last night Aki and Andi took us to a conveyor-belt sushi restaurant, and then to Anna Court in Cedar  Park, where Christmas lights poured over us like a waterfall. The best was at the last, a two-story adobe mansion adorned only in white, lit by a star, embracing a beautiful front yard manger scene.  An angel sings her  praises.

The cattle are lowing, the poor baby wakes. What’s it all for, after all?

Solomon nailed it in Ecclesiastes: “Fear God and keep his commandments. This is the whole duty of man.”

And so I do, Lord. Strive to keep from sinning. Keep your commandments. And when I do not, your forgiveness is there to fall on me like rain. Wash me clean, run down my wayward cheeks, restore to me the joy of my salvation. I am yours, you are mine. You are what you are. And always you remind me in every way that You are good.

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Dec 27 17

The nature of spiritual writing

by davesandel

The nature of spiritual writing

The third day of Christmas, Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. We are writing this so that our joy may be complete. – from 1 John 1

Most mornings I break open an 8-pill-pack of Vitalive, a very comprehensive vitamin package that generally makes me feel better. They are sitting on the table in front of me, along with a smoothie made from grapes, carrots, yogurt, a tangerine and pineapple juice with ice. The sky outside in Austin is foggy and gray, but it’s 52 degrees. And in Chicago on Christmas, it was two. Degrees!

Healthy! At least I am trying to recover from Christmas’s garbage in, garbage out candy day. Enough said.

I remember what Russ Hudson, in Understanding the Enneagram, wrote for me to remember last week: “In this week before Christmas, reflect on your spiritual gifts of enthusiasm, resilience, gratitude, practicality, joyousness, and productivity.” Six geese a-laying for the Enneagram Seven.

Mr. Hudson continued, “Share your gifts with others, not by talking about them, but through your example.” But when I read this text of John, perhaps written from a cave on Patmos or a prison cell somewhere, I think John was happy to have words to share, and a chance to share them. Like all good spiritual writing, his words reflect enthusiasm (en-theus, in-God), resilence, gratitude, practicality, joy, and productivity.

Since seventh grade (I was 11 years old) I’ve been writing stories, usually about me, in the first person. Back then, in the deep daily despairs of puberty, I mostly died at the end. Sometimes my pen just trailed a line off the page, “I’m g … o … n … e …” Fade to black.

And now, hundreds of years later, I still notice how much I’m thinking about myself, although with less drama and less fear. For me, the gift I receive from my own spiritual writing is the chance to sift through those thoughts for something to share with you, something that reflects “resilience, gratitude, practicality and joy.” Words that reflect the Light Enthusiastic. A story or even just a sentence that we can sing to God together.

My lazy side resists. Like any good Ambivalent, I get up on both sides of the bed almost every day, and it’s what happens next that sets the tone. So I cherish some quiet, slow-takes-time activity like centering prayer or just walking slowly to the bathroom. Here in Austin, with young man Miles, I can sit with his 13-month old self while we watch each other.

He still talks mostly with his eyes.

I think John had lots of quiet time later in his life. With much to remember, much to cherish, and much to offer us, he chose words that call us to deeds of mercy, grace, love and power. John knows that we are all God’s kids. If he can help it, we will never forget that.

Jesus, on this foggy, blue, post-Christmas day, bring me out of anticipation into reflection and peace. Your birth buoys me up and burns the clouds away. Your name is like honey on my lips, and your spirit is like water to my soul.

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Dec 26 17

Where is that big stick when I need it?

by davesandel

Where is that big stick when I need it?

The second day of Christmas, Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Filled with the Holy Spirit, Stephen looked up intently to heaven and saw the glory of God. And those debating him could not withstand the wisdom and the spirit with which he spoke. – from Acts 7-6

Regardless, they picked up stones, the ancient weapon of choice for thoughtless mobs, and threw them up at Stephen. Killed him. He neither spoke softly nor carried a big stick. But the “price” he paid was to see heaven in the flesh before any of his enemies.

The sun shone bright in Austin yesterday. Blue skies shining at me. But regardless, several of our friends are suffering on this morning after Christmas. They pray and we pray, we all pray for the coming of Jesus, for the return of glory, for our health and the welfare of all.

And regardless of all the shadows in the corners of the room, we played a game with brand new full-size boxes of Kleenex, a competition to see who could empty a box first. Now that was fun. And these snow-white tissues had not been used!

I’m hoping somebody posts some of our slo-mo videos on Facebook. Snow … glorious snow. Or perhaps it’s even better in your imagination. Snow clouds flutter soft to earth. We piled them into a white garbage bag. Maybe I’ll keep the bag in a corner of my counseling office, and I’ll be set for life.

No rocks today. But we did throw marshmallows through a hula hoop into an apple basket, while the rest of us threw cotton balls to intercept the marshmallows before they got there. So much safer than rocks. Or nuts.

When I was about 11, on a Boy Scout camping trip, some of the other scouts were throwing acorns at each other in the dark. As I remember it, I was being a good boy. But regardless, I got smacked next to my eye. Right next to my eye. In the dark. I could have gone blind!

But I didn’t. And the next day I anchored a swimming relay team for our troop. I had great form, but I didn’t realize that I had to go fast. And everybody was kind of mad at me. This afternoon we each put a candy cane in our mouth and used them to lift more candy canes into the basket. In a minute, Aki had twelve, and I had three. But I had great form, and this time nobody got mad.

Later we put the candy canes on the doorknobs of neighbors, and a Merry Christmas bank envelope on a car down the street. I thought of the story of Stephen, his testimony and his reward. In my own way, I looked up intently to heaven and saw the glory of God. And I began to think that 2018 might not be so bad after all.

Jesus, here we are. And you’re here too, and we are full of joy to be with you. Little baby boy growing up too soon, surrounded by angels, kept safe in the cleft of his Father’s arms, ready to show us how to live, all my life I am learning to love you, by learning how much you love me. In your refining fire the mountains melt like wax, while I melt safely into your embrace.

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Dec 25 17

Even the rocks cry out

by davesandel

Even the rocks cry out

The first day of Christmas, Monday, December 25, 2017

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us, and we saw his glory, full of grace and truth. – from John 1

Maybe the rocks are able to celebrate better than we can, because they have no other agenda. Just being rocks is what God made them for. Just being his kids is what God made us for.

Unlike rocks, we need a lot of reminders, and today is the best reminder of all. “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.”

So let’s celebrate.

This is a day for poetry, which strives to fly over the uncross-able divide between our thoughts and God’s thoughts.

First from Denise Levertov. Her father was a Russian Hassidic Jew who came to America. Denise, an American, often wrote about her father’s homeland. And she wrote about Jesus and his mother Mary. In Annunciation,”

We are told of meek obedience. No one mentions courage.

The engendering Spirit did not enter her without consent. God waited.

She did not submit with gritted teeth, raging, coerced.

Bravest of all humans, consent illumined her.

The room filled with its light, the lily glowed in it, and the iridescent wings.

Consent, courage unparalleled, opened her utterly … first

To bear in her womb Infinite weight and lightness; to carry in hidden, finite inwardness, nine months of Eternity, to contain in slender vase of being, the sum of power – in narrow flesh, the sum of light.

And then … bring to birth, push out into air, a Man-child needing, like any other, milk and love – but who was God.

And second, from Langston Hughes, an African-American man who spent his junior high years in my home town, Lincoln, Illinois. He settled happily in Harlem, and wrote poetry all his life for children and other less jaded souls. Here’s a simple sweet poem in which he claims the color of his skin, Carol of the Brown King”:

 Of the three Wise Men

Who came to the King,

One was a brown man,

So they sing.


Of the three Wise Men

Who followed the Star,

One was a brown king

From afar.


They brought fine gifts

Of spices and gold

In jeweled boxes

Of beauty untold.


Unto His humble

Manger they came

And bowed their heads

In Jesus’ name.


Three Wise Men,

One dark like me –

Part of his



Lord, when a baby is born we might say, “Welcome to our world. Now it becomes yours, too.” But Jesus, we must not say that to you, because this is your Father’s world. And you are here to remind us with no little sweetness, patience, compassion and subtle intelligence, that your Father is our Father too. Welcome! Let your Wordness fill our hearts and souls and minds. Thank you for this day!

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Dec 24 17

Fertile solitude

by davesandel

Fertile solitude

Fourth Sunday of Advent, December 24, 2017

The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.” – from Luke 1

We are on the road today.

Driving a thousand miles.

In every town Margaret and I drive through, churches are full. But in many living rooms, dens and kitchens there are quietly lonely folks waiting through another holiday alone. Often depressed, they feel unsure about how to spend their time when everything is closed and everyone else is with their loved ones.

I’ve been there, in 1972, driving the streets of Charlotte, North Carolina, alone on Christmas for the very first time. The lights were garish, not bright. Honking cars, not jingling bells, hurt my ears. And I wept.

That was 45 years ago, and these days, I think I “know a thing or two because I’ve seen a thing or two.” (I love those Farmers Insurance ads.) Christmas Eve’s quiet night settles me. Often I watch the Vatican’s Christmas Mass, wishing the translator would let me listen to the sounds of so many languages without sharing as many of his thoughts.

In Austin tonight, I hope to pay a midnight visit to St. Thomas More Catholic Church. I’ll take a little flashlight, and maybe walk the labyrinth after the service. I like to do this kind of thing alone. Extravert that I am, this solitude blesses me.

In her wonderful weekly column “Brain Pickings,” Maria Popova remembers what Adam Phillips asked about “replenishing privacy: In states of solitude what does the adult depend upon? To what does she risk entrusting herself?”

What it comes down to, I think she thinks that he thinks, is that fertile solitude is not so much an absence of company as a presence of … what? “Our own available ghosts?” God, our perpetual witness? In any case, this kind of risk-taking solitude can be creative rather than cut-off, allowing me a quality of attention “in which what could never have been anticipated appears.”

Sometimes this is called “flow,” the experience of suddenly gathering up into some creative expression what Tchaikovsky called “the thousand shifting moments in the mood of a soul.” A beautiful prospect for Christmas Eve, or any other eve.

Like so much of the rest of life, the way to walk a labyrinth is step by step by step.

On this day before Jesus’ birth, on this night of Jesus’ birth, all my words are shut up and carried into the sounds of angels singing, bells ringing, choirs keeping watch over us by night. How still we see thee lie. Let me be a lamb, Lord, and curl up with you and sleep when it’s time to sleep. While the silent stars go by.

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Dec 23 17

Who can stand when he appears?

by davesandel

Who can stand when he appears?

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Suddenly there will come to the temple the Lord whom you seek and the messenger of the covenant whom you desire. Yes, he is coming! … Turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers. – from Malachi 3

These next two days are busy at the mall. No matter how much online shopping I’ve done, it’s too late to get the last things any other way. So along with a bunch of other folks, I’m looking for a parking place at Marketplace Mall.

Actually, I am done shopping, but I might head over there anyway. To sit quietly in the eye of a hurricane is very relaxing. When I have nothing to do but watch people with lots to do, my adrenalin quiets to a normal level and I feel happy.

I don’t know how “fair” that is. But it’s measurably healthy for my usually sped-up, sleep-deprived, angst-ridden body. Nerves, muscles, circulation and brain functions matter. All of them get a break.

There are kids here, riding the carousel with grandparents. I think about sons with their dads, daughters with their moms. And vice-versa of course. When I grew up, sons went fishing with their dads and daughters made cookies with their moms. Grandpa carved and whittled with his sharpened knife, which I coveted. Grandma wore an apron over her Christmas dress and woman-handled the turkey mostly by herself.

We have unsharpened all those roles, made them more complicated and confusing, but also more fair and true-to-life. Diversity flourishes and we can all look each other in the eye.

It only remains for God to show us again how to “turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers.” Jesus is coming, with his refining fire and with his gentle touch.

I remember the moment I felt nine years old and imagined Jesus leaning against the village well, a visitor well attended. But I squirmed through the crowd and found myself sitting in the dust with my back against the bricks of that well, feeling the sun. Jesus’ legs were beside me, and I put my arm around them and leaned against him.

I didn’t see his eyes, but I felt the strength of his warm hand settling on my head.

There is no place I’d rather be.

If your children are small, their eyes are probably sparkling with excitement. I want my eyes to sparkle too. We’re spending part of Christmas with Jack and Aly. Last night they got to open one gift from us. Their energy and joy were contagious.

All those pills I take every day? I probably don’t need them as much this morning.

Jesus is alive. Put your arms around him, and feel the sun.

O Jesus, the heat of your love burns up the crud in me and I feel pure inside. This is the Pure you made in me, made for me to know and be. Your Pure passed on to each of us – what a gift. With your eyes wide open you might know how bad I am at receiving this. Thank you for not letting that stop you. Don’t let it stop me either.

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Dec 22 17

Makes the nations prove

by davesandel

Makes the nations prove

Friday, December 22, 2017

“My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord; my spirit rejoices in God my savior, for he has looked upon his lowly servant … He has cast down the mighty from their thrones and has lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty. – From Luke 1

I keep hearing statistics that scare me. Today it was that half the world’s population cannot access basic health care at all, and many of those who can are being driven into poverty by the costs they incur.

Yesterday I heard a new slogan, “Make Our Planet Great Again.” That one came from France’s president Emmanuel Macron, who announced research grant winners working with climate issues. I immediately realized that one of the winners could have been my niece Kelsey, who studies water problems in France and around the world.

National and world politics in 2017 have been fascinating, to say the least. Each week’s news seems to be trumped by the next. 24-hour news networks have never had it so good. That’s not so true for the rest of us. Perhaps I am only speaking for myself, but I’m exhausted by hearing things I can’t really trust, and that I can do nothing about.

So I am VERY grateful to sing the last verses of Isaac Watts’ song, “Joy to the World.” They aren’t sung as often as the early verses, because they are political statements. They are as true today as they were in 1719. They remind me that even though God gives us work to do, the results of that work remain in his hands.

“He comes to make His blessings flow far as the curse is found, far as the curse is found …”

Sometimes I think I’m getting away with something. I manipulate a situation for my benefit. I take advantage. I get a little extra time or money or power … that is a form of penny-wise but pound-foolish entitlement that I continue to confess and sometimes feel some freedom from.

Nations manipulate shamelessly all the time. Spin doctors are highly paid instruments of every state. And because the opposition is equally shameless, leaders must keep silent about the downsides of things. Otherwise, confession brings out a flock of buzzards and vultures to feast on what they hope is dead meat.

We do this to each other!

Isaac Watts could not study at Oxford because his family left the Anglican community to be “non-comformists.” But the textbook he wrote on logic became the standard text at Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard and Yale Universities for the next hundred years.

And from the words Watts wrote in his own lived-in world, I take comfort and turn back to God, because “He rules the world with truth and grace, and makes the nations PROVE the glories of his righteousness and wonders of his love, wonders of his love.”

We aren’t getting away with anything. And we don’t need to. God’s economy is abundant and bursts with eternal blessings for us all.

So Lord, I turn out my pockets and put it all back in the hands that gave it to me in the first place. Your generosity with me has known no bounds. I am yours, and I love you.

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Dec 21 17

Stand still sun

by davesandel

Stand still sun

Thursday, December 21, 2017

“Arise, my beloved, my dove, my beautiful one, and come! For see, the winter is past and the song of the dove is heard in our land.” – from Song of Solomon 2

For weeks, Advent stretches toward this solstice day and tomorrow, finally relaxes toward Christmas.

Tomorrow we will have three seconds more daylight than we have today.

It has been good to spend time in the darkness, awaiting the light. Last week we took wrapped gifts to Jack and Aly’s house, giving our grandkids a few days to finger paper, shake the boxes, imagine the best. Bright wrapped gifts under a beautiful tree bring such great joy to us.

We left gifts there for their parents as well, but I don’t really expect them to spend much time shaking the boxes. As I’ve gotten older, I realize that sometimes the wrapped gift might be underwear. But sometimes … sometimes … there might just be the most magical imagined world right there waiting for me.

Remember Opie in The Music Man? Ron Howard reprises his role in this wonderful YouTube video with Conan O’Brien (go to about the 2 minute mark). “Yes it could be, something special, just for me!”

We call this coming season winter, but really, the days now begin to lengthen. Each afternoon the sun rises higher in the sky. Yes we need our winter sleep, but we waken every day to stretch our sleepy arms out toward spring. “The song of the dove is heard in our land!”

Neither personal pains of any kind nor any sort of politics hold this back. Life goes right on, and the song breathes itself all around us. So across the earth, in every corner, we mark and celebrate this day of solstice. Praise the Lord!

For the umpteenth year, tonight at Jubilee Farm in Springfield, Illinois there will be a winter solstice feast. The Dominican sisters who live there and spark so many celebrations throughout the year can’t wait. Their chickens will be sleeping, their organic vegetable gardens will be resting, their pottery barn will be quiet, as they share the bounty of their farm with all comers. What a beautiful place! And anyone who has a flashlight can walk their labyrinth.

Come away, and let us listen together to the music of the spheres. Can you hear it? The little drummer boy pounds on his drum. Get ready!

Jesus is almost here.

I am a poor boy too, pa rum pum pum pum. I have no fit gift to bring, so can I just pick up my sticks and pound my drum? Lord, let me sing your praise and fall before you on my knees, and shout for joy that you live in me. I can’t wait to share your laughter and your song. Papa rum, papa rum, pum pum pum on my drum.

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Dec 20 17

May it be done unto me

by davesandel

May it be done unto me

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it! – from Psalm 24

As our pastor Jeff Augustine often says, “I looked up everything in the Greek, and it means everything!

So be it. In the joy of my salvation I do not claim for my own what belongs to God. Still, I forget what’s mine, who made what, and where I belong in the nature of things. Without reflection, I stop remembering where I came from. Then Advent’s quiet days and long nights remind me that all those gifts that surround us … do not belong to me.

When I was a little bitty baby my mama would rock me in the cradle … I could cry, but otherwise obedience and gratitude was primal, unconsidered, child-like. That changed quickly and stayed changed. Now that same obedience requires decision. I weigh my options and I usually choose, without quite admitting it, what will be best for me.

Ron Rolheiser writes books with titles like Holy Longing and Sacred Fire. Personally and philosophically he has discovered the passion within him and all of us – put there by God, often abused thereafter. That fire is there for us to recover, be warmed by, and pass on.

Rolheiser knows how difficult it is to return to what he calls the Bethlehem of the soul:

To be an adult is precisely to be experienced, complex, wounded. To be an adult is to have lost one’s innocence. None of us, unless we die very young, carries the dignity of our person and of our baptism unstained through life.

We fall, we compromise, we sin, we get hurt, we hurt others, and mostly we grow ever more pathologically complex, layer after layer separating us from the little child who once waited for Christmas in innocence and joyful anticipation.

It’s at this point that a good teacher says something like Allan Bloom told his University of Chicago freshmen: ““You come here with a lot of experience, already having tasted life, having been to a lot of places, and seen a lot of things, so I’m going to try to teach you how to believe in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny again – then maybe you’ll have a chance to be happy!”

Rolheiser liked that. And I do too. Call it a second naivete. “I am waiting,” wrote Lawrence Ferlinghetti, for a “rebirth of wonder.” Lose the sarcasm, lose the pretense, lose the anger, lose the fear. Let Santa come down your chimney. Open the gifts of God. They are there for you and for the taking.

If it’s too good to be true, it must be from you, Lord. And yes, it is too good to be true in any world except the one you made. Open my heart and turn my eyes to the east, where every day I can see the sun rise. You are here.

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Dec 19 17

Sweet little babies

by davesandel

Sweet little babies

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

An angel of the Lord appeared and said to the wife of Manoah, “You will conceive and bear a son. It is he who will begin the deliverance of Israel from the power of the Philistines. The woman bore a son and named him Samson. The boy grew up, and the Spirit of the Lord stirred him.” – from Judges 13

The lectionary readings today are about babies: Samson, John and in the background, Jesus, given to previously barren mothers as gifts of the Holy Spirit for the people of God.

Samson and John were both consecrated to God as Nazarites. They dressed and ate and lived in a constant state of spiritual and physical fasting. From birth they learned to sacrifice physical comfort to pray without ceasing for the coming of the Lord.

Although both were eventually killed, they were the strongest men in the land: Samson with his muscles and John with his words. They cared more than anything about God, and the people’s relationship with God. Today we would certainly call them fanatics. They were scary.

Here’s a verse of a VBS kids’ song about Samson:

Tied up tight, his eyes plucked out, Samson!

“Bring him here!” the people shout, Samson!

He prayed to God, “Please give me strength.”

He killed them all. Now what d’ya think?

Yes, Samson’s a mighty man of God.

And then there was John, who wore camel’s hair clothes and ate locusts with wild honey. Like Samson, he never cut his hair. He was a raggedy raggedy raggedy man.

John didn’t seek out the multitudes, but they sought him. “He lived in the wilderness until he appeared publicly to Israel.” And then his message was stark, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!”

Here’s a not-VBS adults’ song about John:

Stand back, baby, I’m a lightning rod

Oh John John John, lookin’ for Jesus …

All you angel-headed hipsters with the Ginsberg Howl,

All you crooked lip con men on the prowl,

Why don’t you stop your lyin’ and listen to me,

There’s a holy man sittin’ in the black gum tree.

He said I’m lookin’ for somebody who’s hard to find

A kind-hearted man with a one-track mind

Oh John John John, waitin’ for Jesus

The sweet boy babies grew up strong and scary. We admire them, from a safe distance, because they got things done. They were “patriarchs.” Now as then, we are tempted to stand behind their strength, their weapons, their protection.

But Jesus turned our hero-worship of the manly-man on its head. His beatitudes proclaimed the joy of choosing what Richard Rohr calls downward mobility: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are those who mourn, blessed are the meek, blessed are the merciful.”

Hush little baby, don’t say a word. Papa … For Jesus there was never any hurry to win, or be right, or get the upper hand. Instead, he watched to see what his Father was doing, and then he did it too.

Our love comes either out of my need to BE loved, or out of abundance, Lord. And when I take the time to absorb your love for me, it is always abundance. Take the time. Take the time. Like the raggedy man in Riley’s poem, just take the time. You have given me all the time I need in my own lived-in world.

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