I don’t understand prayer. I mean, not really. I don’t know how it works, or if it works, and I have noticed that when I pray for something to change, the thing that changes the most is usually me.

Maybe that is how it works, after all.

I once was pastor to a woman named Karen. Her partner – let’s call him Tony – was routinely physically abusive to her and trafficked her to support his drug habit. I knew she needed to leave him, she knew she needed to leave him. But she didn’t have the strength to leave. She, like many in her situation, was afraid.

Those of us who loved her tried to be supportive of her, and we all pretty much despised him. During our weekly chapel service, we would all pray for her safety. She and I would talk regularly, and she would tell me that she was praying something would happen to him so he wouldn’t hurt her anymore.

Several men in our small community volunteered to whoop his ass, but she asked them not to. It was a combination of her fear of him and that none of them could afford to catch a charge for assault.

But Tony was his own worst enemy. One day, he smarted off to the wrong person in a drug deal gone bad, and 6 guys beat the ever-loving shit out of him. I mean, they broke his legs, broke his jaw, broke his skull, broke his ribs, broke things inside of him. He was inside the hospital for more than a month and when he finally did leave, he left in a wheelchair.

While he was in the hospital, we bought her a bus ticket to go live with a friend of hers in another state. She was free. He would never hurt her again.

The following week, in our chapel service, we lifted her name up during prayer time and thanked God for her safety. One lady asked if it would be wrong to thank God for Tony’s being in the hospital. Or wrong for them to be glad he would never walk again.

I told them that they got to feel what they felt. I told them that there is no one prescribed response to trauma, and no one way to feel after trauma was over. And I told them that Jesus said he was in favor of tying rocks to people and chucking them in the sea if they harmed vulnerable folks. David, a man we are told is a man after God’s own heart, wanted to smash the heads of his enemies’ babies against the rocks.

I told them it was complicated, sometimes, this desire to protect the vulnerable while also wanting to model a better world.

But I also told them that Karen had been in danger, and now she was not. Because this happened, she was now safe. And I reminded them that this was caused 100% by his own actions. In other words, Tony got his ass beat because he was the sort of person he was. This was entirely the consequence of his own actions.

As I’ve said before, I don’t think there is a plan. I think God, or the Universe, or whatever metaphor you want to use for whatever is larger than we are, is just frugal and, since the universe wastes nothing, the tragedies that befall all of us are not debris left over from disasters, but building materials from which we build our lives.

So I don’t know if our prayer is the reason Tony will never walk again or the reason Karen is still alive. But I do know that those prayers changed me.

Guardian Angels

A thing I do, when overwhelmed by the pain of the world, is to look through the memory box I carry around in my head and try hard to remember everything I can about a particular thing.

Last night, processing the shootings and the huge loss of life, I closed my eyes and went back through time to Strickland Road, in Desoto County, MS, and I was maybe 8 years old and in my Aunt Louise‘s house – a house I have not set foot in for more than 38 years.

The house, which had been her husband’s house before his death, and his parent’s house before it had been his, was a converted dogtrot house. A dogtrot is a style of farmhouse popular that existed in the hot and humid south before air conditioning, where the building was a rectangle, with a room on either end, and the center was a covered porch. For the most part, the real living was done under the covered porch, where you could take advantage of the dominant breezes, but the bedroom and sitting rooms were capable of being secured.

When AC came along, many dogtrot houses had the center room boxed in, so now you had three rooms, and not two. Which was what had happened to this one. The house had a long covered screened-in front porch that had been added later, and when you walked across the front porch and through the front door, the room you came into – the former porch of the dogtrot – had no windows, so it was always dark.

In my mind’s eye, I can see it still – the beadboard paneling, the high ceilings, the hard, uncomfortable couch with the scratchy upholstery on the far right, along the wall, and on the left wall a couple of chairs and a table with a record player on it. We virtually never sat in this room.

Except when there was a storm. Because there were no windows and it was in the center of the house, if there was a bad thunderstorm, she and I would sit in the living room on that scratchy couch, and I would curl up next to her, and she would shut the doors to the other rooms so we wouldn’t see the flashes of lightning and the thunder was muffled and we and the dogs would sit in that room and wait the storm out, and I always asked her to tell me the story about the kids in the picture.

I don’t know how she came about it – it was a dollar store print with a heavy gilt frame – 18 inches by 24, including the frame – that hung on the wall opposite the front door of her house, the first thing you saw when you came in. And when we were in the living room – which we only were when there was a storm and I was scared and most likely the power had gone out and we were sitting in candlelight- she would tell me stories about the people in the picture.

It showed two small children on a bridge – a sketchy bridge, at that – and in the background was an angel, watching over the children, ready to swoop in lest they be in danger. It was a popular print in Appalachian America during the first half of the last century, and somehow, she had ended up with a copy on her wall.

The stories she told me varied. Sometimes the little boy had gotten lost, and his sister had found him and was bringing him to safety. Sometimes the sister was scared and he was walking over the bridge with her so she would feel safe. Sometimes, the kids were late getting home, so they took the sketchy bridge to save time. But always, the guardian angel was watching out for them.

My aunt was agnostic, but her theology of angels was strongly an interventionist one. I was evangelized to believe, in that paneled living room, sitting on a scratchy sofa, while looking at a dollar store print in candlelight, that we were cared for and watched over by guardian angels, who cared for us and protected us. And if I ever came to doubt, she would tell me that the guardian angels were watching over us right now, and soon the storm would end and the sun would come out and the power would come back on and we would be safe once again.

And then it would happen, just like she said it would. I mean, how can you argue with that?

When she died suddenly when I was 12, I got that print – it hung on my wall over my bed all through my high school years. I then got put in a closet in my parent’s house, and last year, when they were cleaning out a room there, Mom found it and called me to ask what she should do with it.

It hangs now on my wall in my bedroom. I look at it every night before I go to bed – not because I believe in literal angels out there, watching over me, ready to catch me when I fall off a sketchy bridge, but because I absolutely believe in the power of story to make us feel safe and loved when the world is conspiring to make us feel neither.

Hey there

Hey there.

Yes, you.

How’s it going? I mean, for real?

Yeah. Me too.

It’s exhausting. All of it. Like, so many good things are happening, and new possibilities are opening up, and also the world is a damned dumpster fire, and the rights we have fought for are being rolled back and democracy seems so fragile and COVID numbers are rising again and people I love keep dying and … it all seems too much.

I feel constantly behind right now. Like, there are so many things I need to be doing and I have no energy for any of them because I am just watching the world collapse around me and I told someone the other day it was like the collapse of Rome, but with Wi-Fi and Netflix.

I’m not sleeping well. I mean, I fall asleep OK, but I wake up at 4 AM and about half the time can’t go back to sleep. I just lay there and think about all the ways I am behind and the despair of it all and finally, I just get up and make breakfast because at least that is something I can focus on and accomplish.

The world is opening back up, but that doesn’t mean it’s wise to do it – people like my wife who don’t have functioning immune systems and kids under 5 who aren’t vaccinated, and oh, by the way, lots of folks still aren’t vaccinated and I guess they’ve just decided to hell with those vulnerable people.

So yeah. I get it.

What’s keeping you going these days?

For me, it’s nature. Every morning I make my coffee and go outside and walk around my yard. I look at what’s blooming and take pictures and watch the birds play at the feeder and I make gardens in my head. Later I will probably go for a walk – I like doing that more than swimming, now that it’s warm again. I love strolling through the neighborhood, checking in on my favorite trees and flowers, getting harassed by a tiny, but very vocal dog at the end of my street, and waving at people I do not know in their cars who wave at me first. It all makes me feel connected to the world, a part of something bigger than myself.

Oh yeah – I’m building a pond. Can you believe that? I mean, it’s a small pond, 6×10, but it is shallow – more of a huge birdbath, really, The birds love moving water – hell, so do I, when it comes to that. I am looking forward to watching the water splash on the rocks in the evening, after supper, when the sun is going down and the birds are singing. It won’t be long now.

Anyway. That’s what gets me through. Birds. Water features. Building gardens in my mind.

It’s my birthday in a few weeks – June 5th. I’ll be 50. That doesn’t make sense to me at all. But that’s probably a whole other letter.

But basically, I just wanted to check-in. To let you know that I know it’s hard right now. I see you, doing the best you can. I see you, hanging on.

I wish I knew something pastoral to say when it feels like the world is crumbling around you, but I don’t. At least not anything I haven’t said before.

Stay hydrated. Get plenty of sleep. No, more sleep than that. Eat good food, and preferably with people you care about.

Don’t let them steal your humanity – look for opportunities to help others, even if on the smallest of scales. Find humor where you can, and laugh as much as you can.

In the midst of powerlessness, search for things you can still control, and do that.

And remember that love always wins in the end. Always.

And if it seems like love didn’t win, it’s only because it isn’t yet the end.

Don’t give up, and don’t give in. And love really, really hard.


The Bad News

It was perhaps six years ago that I found myself at the hospital. It was, to be fair, a nice hospital, as hospitals go. I didn’t have clergy credentials at this one – my people almost always ended up at the much less nice county hospital. But still, here I was – well, me and my buddy Shelden. He was good as gold, Sheldon was, but his missing teeth and unkempt afro garnered some stares from folks in the lobby.

Shelden had come to me earlier that day and told me that his brother was in the hospital with lung cancer. And then he asked if I would go with him to see his brother.

I said that of course I would, but that I didn’t even know he had a brother. Sheldon said something about his own brother had acted like he didn’t have a brother. I didn’t push it. When you don’t have a home, sometimes family dynamics get complicated.

The first clue that something was wrong was at the front desk when Shelden asked for his brother’s room number. The receptionist looked at the computer and then picked up the phone. A cryptic exchange happened, then she hung up and said, “You need to go to the nurse’s station on the fourth floor, they will tell you where to go.”

So we go off in search of the elevator. We get lost and wind up on the wrong elevator, and at the wrong nurse’s station. We ask for his brother’s room.

The nurse looks up the name, makes a bit of a face, and then picks up the phone. And that was when I knew this is not going to end well.

She sends us to the other end of the fourth floor, to the correct nurse’s station. Shelden starts that way, while I linger.

“He has passed, hasn’t he?” I ask the nurse.

She looks at me with sadness and nods, probably violating eight different privacy laws.

I take a huge breath and then hustle down the hallway to catch up with Shelden, who is shuffling along, head down. There are no rules in such a situation, other than to take care of your people. Actually, that is really just a good rule any time. Figuring that it’s better for him to hear this from me than a nurse, I stop him in the hallway and, for probably the 10th time in my life, I told someone who mattered to me that someone who mattered to them is dead.

The hospital staff had been watching us, and when Shelden broke down in the hallway, they were right there with a chair and a wet rag. They assured him his brother had gone easily in his sleep that morning. One, in such a scene that only happens in the South, told him his brother was “with the Lord now.”

Fifteen minutes or so pass, and we’re handed more wet rags and ginger ale and boxes of tissues and Shelden gets hugs from a few nurses. Then he looks at me and says, “Can we get out of this hallway?”

We go to the chapel to sit for a while. That’s the nice thing about hospital chapels – they are almost always empty.

Again – no rules. We sit. He cries, and at his request, I read “some stuff from the Bible.”

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. – Romans 8:37-39

He asked me what I thought that meant. I told him that it meant that there wasn’t a damn thing that could keep God from loving us. He nods.

We sit and time passes. A few more tears. Then he is ready to go. It’s almost dark as we walk to the car. I ask him where I should take him. He asks to be dropped downtown, where he can hang out until he finds out if he has a bed for the night at the shelter.

We stop at the big park downtown – the one that had the statue of an acorn in it – and we get out, the wind whipping at our cheeks. It’s not bitter cold yet, but it’s down in the fall and the wind makes it a little uncomfortable. I hugged him and told him I loved him, and that I want him to come by my office tomorrow and we will see what needs to be done about the arrangements.

And then he headed toward the bus station, hands in pockets, head hung low, and I got back in my car and drove home to get ready to meet friends for dinner.

The Storm

Her name was Betty, and how exactly we were kin is a long story that involves marriages, divorces, widows, and time, but it’s far easier to just tell you she was my cousin’s wife which, while true, downplays her role in my life.

She had always been beautiful – I remember being six or seven and going to the bank where she worked as a loan officer and seeing her at her desk, in the lobby, thinking she must be the most beautiful woman in the world.

Her husband was my cousin but was also 30 years older than I was, and 10 years older than Dad. He was the oldest of his generation and served as sort of the patriarch of our extended family (see, I told you it was complicated). He died 24 years ago, but since then, Betty had stepped into the role. And for the last 15 or so years, she put together a potluck dinner on Easter Sunday.

For most of that time, I lived far away. In 2019, I was on staff at a church, and it was my first Easter there, so I felt like I needed to be there. We left right after but got there just as everyone was leaving. In 2020 they canceled because of COVID. In October of 2020, Dad died.

In 2021, it was back on, and it was fabulous. Renee and I had been locked down for more than a year at that point, our vaccinations were current, and so we made the trip north, our first real trip in ages. We took the Natchez Trace north, spent the night in Tupelo, spent an afternoon in Oxford, and then on to home, turning a three-hour trip into a 24-hour one, but feeling a little bit alive again.

Betty was 79 at that point, and all during the pandemic had been in the most severe of lockdowns because of her health. But now there were vaccines, and she was fully vaccinated, and this was the first time she was in the presence of people who were not carefully screened or her doctors. After a full year of virtual isolation, she was there, grinning like a cat in the cream, so happy to just see people.

She would come up to folks and say, “I’m fully vaccinated. Can I hug you?”. I bet she hugged everyone at least twice. We all had so much hope that the nightmare was over then, in the spring of 2021 after the vaccines came out.

Betty talked to me last year about how it just seemed wrong without Dad there. Dad was always the man with the camera at any gathering. And 2021 was the first year he wasn’t. We all felt his absence.

In August, Betty would suddenly die from an unrelated illness.

So this year was very solemn indeed. A whole generation was gone. And while it was so good to see everyone, it was far from festive.

On the way home after the potluck yesterday, we got caught in a rainstorm. I hate driving in the rain under the best of times, and this was more than 2 hours of brutal rain and thunder and lightning, and being buffeted all around the road. It was exhausting.

Driving back home from being in my hometown is always a time of introspection for me, as I reflect on the ways things turned out, on roads not taken, promises unkept. None of that is easier when you are doing it in a thunderstorm.

We stopped at the rest area to get some relief from the storm, to stretch, and catch our breath. And standing under the pavilion, watching the rain pour around us, we read the text message from a dear friend telling us that her husband – who has been fighting COVID for months – is most likely going into hospice later this week and that, baring a literal miracle, he won’t be recovering.

Well, shit.

I stare at the rain some more before getting back in the car to continue toward home.

So much loss in the last few years. Every time I’m convinced I cannot take more, more happens anyway.

We were some 30 minutes away from home when the sun came out. It was still raining, but it had slowed dramatically, and the sun was shining fiercely and, off to the east, I saw a large double rainbow arching up from the horizon.

I know the old story about how, after destroying the world with a flood, God promised Noah that would never happen again, and the sign of that promise was a rainbow. And if I’m honest, I always wondered why a rainbow would be taken seriously as such a sign.

But yesterday – on Easter Sunday, no less, when I had come through that storm and was carrying so much death and despair with me, when I saw those bows in the East I knew that we would get through. That we could keep going. That we had to persist, to carry on, and build a better world.

So I kept driving.