Jesus and the Junkie in My Car

Woman anoints Jesus' feetYou learn a lot about your neighborhood when you drive a junkie from the laundromat to the homeless shelter in the next town over. You learn, for instance, that the red house on the corner across from the pizza joint is owned by a man who has a serious crack habit and (though you must take this next part of the story with a large grain of salt) owes the junkie in your car a good deal of money.

You learn there are people who linger behind the abandoned mini-market after the sun goes down. You learn what they’ve been doing there. You learn about the people who’ve recently been arrested in your town and why they have been arrested.

You learn some of the backstories about the three men who were tied up, shot in the head, and dumped into the river a few weeks ago. You hear crazy stories about fights and betrayals and big plans. You hear wild claims and self-justifications that spiral off into so many tangents that, suddenly, you’ve entered a Thomas Pynchon novel.

And then a thought creeps into the back of your mind, the thought that God loves this man. God loves all men equally, of course. It is a big love. But, God loves this man especially. Or perhaps a better way to put it is that God has a special interest in men like this, the junkie, whom we ought to call David, since that is his name. [Read more...]

Dodging Bullets

They arrived as strangers—freshmen at Seattle Pacific University who’d come to take a course in college writing: A tall girl with a flowered backpack and blond hair fishtailed to one side. A brawny boy with a knitted cap and a ready, brilliant smile. An elfin girl in a madras skirt whose black bangs fluttered with her lashes. A lanky boy in soccer shorts whose green eyes lit his freckled face.

Within days I learned some names and habits: Peter* always strode in early and grabbed a seat by the window in the back. Kaitlin routinely said “Good morning!” and sipped a caramel latte during class. Pilar daily sat before the lectern and lined up sharpened pencils on her desk. Abdul was almost always late and bowed when he slipped into the room.

Within weeks I came to know much more—their sufferings, blessings, worries, hopes, weaknesses, and strengths:

Lindsey had mangled her arm when her boogie board was thrown on Maui sea stacks. She hoped to become a doctor, strove to be on dean’s list, and wrote meticulous papers that were somewhat tedious to read.

Yoel had fled his native Eritrea by perambulating deserts through the night. English was his second language, which he spoke with a lovely lilt. His dream was to become a Christian rock star. Writing essays made him anxious, but he loved crafting spoken-word poems. [Read more...]

Pennies from Heaven

I’ve never really been into crosses.  Like fire hydrants or Starbucks, there are so many, I don’t even see them. Sermons or songs that ask me to meditate on the cross might as well ask me to meditate on the church snack table because that’s where my mind wanders as I wait for the cross, cross, cross (say the word enough, and it deflates to a hiss) to go back on its Precious Moments shelf.

When we traveled to southern Illinois with our three children over spring break, we discovered that just five minutes in a popup camper leads to violent fights over Pringles. And those bad boys can draw blood. So we hiked the kids to exhaustion, and when we didn’t know what else to do, threw them in the van and drove toward a 111-foot structure towering over the Shawnee National Forest: the Bald Knob Cross of Peace.

As a veteran road-tripper, I’ve visited a lot of kitschy sites, from the largest thermometer in Baker, California, to Cadillac Ranch, Amarillo. I’ve exited a barren stretch of highway to pose in front of the sign for Buford, Wyoming, Population 1. This cross, I was sure, would promise another quick photo op and nothing more.

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My Valentine

Only after I hung up the first time we spoke on the phone did it hit me. I had called her the day before and left a message, but in keeping with pride or protocol Tracy waited the conventional twenty-four hours before calling me back.

Soon enough I would realize the timing was more in keeping with a happy combination of providence and happenstance.

Technically speaking, we had spoken on the phone for the first time six months before, when mutual friends put me in touch with her before my departure for travels in China. Tracy had lived there for three years as a teacher, naturally leading Robin and Declan to think she would have some good advice and helpful tips for me.

She most definitely did not. Her advice on China amounted to the recommendation of a book about Tibet, and her distracted air made me wonder if she was more involved in an email on the other end. Later I would learn about the family drama she was steeped in at the time; but suffice it to say that I hardly hung up thinking will you marry me? A book about Tibet? That was helpful was more like it.  

But when I walked into Robin and Declan’s birthday party back in New York several months later, and picked her out in the crowd even before we were introduced, it didn’t take long to forgive her subpar travel advice. That’s Tracy? I thought. Whoa!

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A Feast of Love

It’s nineteen degrees today, the lakes are frozen solid, and the snowdrifts are twice my height, but the sun is shining, and last night, it streamed through the kitchen window as I cooked dinner. My friends in Virginia say the daffodils are coming up. Meanwhile I’m positively giddy to have made it almost halfway through my first winter up north.

We moved to Northern Michigan in time for the worst winter in twenty years, the natives tell me. I don’t know any better, so I figured subzero temperatures and snow that hasn’t stopped falling since November—about one hundred inches so far—was just our lot. Everyone asks how I’m holding up. I’m okay. Nobody is more surprised by that than I am.

By Christmas break I was ready to flee. I had the car packed before Dave walked home from teaching his last class. I was worn out from two months of rib-wrecking bronchitis, early frigid cold, and terrible, wrenching homesickness. I couldn’t wait to see my family. For the first time since childhood, we’d all be together on Christmas Eve.

The ice and snow chased us all the way to Kansas. Our soft Thule car topper was frozen hard when we pulled into my sister’s driveway in Wichita, a day later than planned. We’d gotten stuck in Missouri overnight, and later ran out of gas less than twenty minutes from her house. We were exhausted and our car looked like Doc’s DeLorean after a round of time travel.

I had no intention of going to Christmas Mass. When our family of Catholic and Episcopalian children and ex-Catholic, fundamentalist evangelical protestant parents comes together, the Reformation happens all over again, and at this point in my life I will do anything I can to avoid the drama—including skipping a holy day of obligation. Besides, the weather was terrible.

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