(From a Christmas party in 2014 - I am on the far left.)
I remember talking a few months ago with my writing coach about this site. I had just published my first story. I told him that I hated writing and talking about myself.
"People have to get to know you," he said.
"Do they though?" I asked.
"Well, do you buy books from people who might be jerks?"
"I have a Master's in Theology. I'm buying books from jerks all the time."
"I mean, I see a theologian's Twitter and me and my friends ignore all the red flags and then we act surprised when we don't like the book. It's a thing we have."
"That's not something normal people do. You know that, right?"
I chuckled nervously, "Yeah, I know all about that. Normal things. Those are my favorite."
He has these moments with me every other week. I told him upfront that I don't hire cowards, so it's on him for sticking around this long.
So on that note, I recently watched the very first sermon I gave at the start of the pandemic. I had a mess of a curly hair and long beard. No stress wrinkles in the face yet, and I was way too dependent on the notes. But other than that, I am happy to say I wasn't embarrassed by what I preached. I'm not sure what I could've said differently given the time.
I had no idea how much life would dramatically change that year, or even this year.
This year was a wonderful and, at the same time, chaotic for me. If you told me last year that I would be writing about myself in a Chicagoland house while listening to the wind outside, I don't know if I would've fully believed you.
I had a friend named Steve who passed on unexpectedly this year. In February, I had one last good conversation with him. He was someone who I knew since I was a teenager, and we connected on a somewhat regular basis.
Steve asked me what happened to my plans to go to film school or write fiction.
"I got involved in religion," I said.
"Jesus doesn't like stories?" Steve asked. "Man, that's weird. Don't remember that one in the New Testament. I knew you when you were a kid, bud. You loved stories and movies. You blasted Bad Religion and Social Distortion all the time. You're so boring now."
We both laughed.
Me: "I do those things as a pastor though. I don't see how fiction fits into that."
Steve: "Ah, yes. You're too busy being God's mouthpiece. Something tells me chasing your childhood dreams would do you some good. Just go for it, man. Take it from a quasi-Buddhist: Jesus would want you to write stories. Stop being lame and grumpy and write already."
I didn't really listen to that advice until this year. It was one of the most terrifying and exciting things I did in a long time. He was alive long enough to see my first story published.
So, if you were to ask me what I learned the most this year, I would say that intentional friendships are vital. Surround yourself with people who want nothing but the best for you.
The gift of friendship is not something that's really celebrated enough, especially in church circles. This year, I learned how amazing my weird community is and how it continues to grow. Good friends push you to be the best version of yourself, whatever that looks like. God puts them there for a reason. Cherish them while you can, because nothing is ever guaranteed.
I will always be grateful for Steve's friendship, because he knew how to communicate in my religious language despite him not being a Christian. He saw the good faith did in my life, and didn't discourage it. He gave me, in some ways, a great model for how to communicate with people.
So as 2022 comes in, I am going to continue investing in deeper friendships and make connections with people I wouldn't make connections with. I wouldn't trade the people in my life who stayed the course for anything else. God used them to help lead me here, and for that I am deeply grateful.
With all of that being said, I bid farewell to 2021: what began as a rough year turned into one of the most memorable and formative years of my life. I'm going to celebrate it with intentionality and a forward-looking posture.
I don't know what lies in store for me in 2022.
As far as creativity is concerned, I still have two nonfiction book projects and a potential novel project in the files. I will be experimenting with poetry and standup comedy. I will continue writing short stories as they come to me.
Beyond that, I will be graduating in 2022 with a Graduate Certificate in Anabaptist Studies and then in 2023 I will be officially done with school forever when I get my Doctorate of Ministry.
But as for today, which is all I will know in this moment, I will choose to live into forgiveness, mercy, and hope.
And maybe today I won't pick up a book written by a jerk.
It's what Jesus and Steve would want me to do... and it'll cause me less stress wrinkles.
Isaac of Nineveh is one of my favorite early church mystics. His prayers and thoughts come across as pure poetry. Every Christmas, I take out his sermon and try to meditate on it. The Nativity for the early Christians was an invitation to a change in posture and heart in response to to the "Divine Gift." It turns Christmas from merely a celebration to an invitation to a more Christlike way of living.
"This Christmas night bestowed peace on the whole world;
So let no one threaten;
This is the night of the Most Gentle One –
Let no one be cruel;
This is the night of the Humble One –
Let no one be proud.
Now is the day of joy –
Let us not revenge;
Now is the day of Good Will –
Let us not be mean.
In this Day of Peace –
Let us not be conquered by anger.
Today the Bountiful impoverished Himself for our sake;
So, rich one, invite the poor to your table.
Today we receive a Gift for which we did not ask;
So let us give alms to those who implore and beg us.
This present Day cast open the heavenly doors to our prayers;
Let us open our door to those who ask our forgiveness.
Today the Divine Being took upon Himself the seal of our humanity,
In order for humanity to be decorated by the Seal of Divinity." (source)
I hope during this holiday season, you're seeing that Christmas invites us to live lives of rich compassion and conviction.
As my favorite pastor liked to remind me, Jesus is with us more than we'll ever know. Let us rejoice in that and be the example that Christ gave to us.
Image: Christ the Redeemer Statue at the Assyrian Genocide Memorial at Chicago’s Montrose Cemetery at 5400 N Pulaski Road. Photo taken by author.
Author's note: I wrote this in April, and then later on in July. I wanted to write something about grief and loss in the light of Christmas, and what we've lost in the world since COVID. I've also always been fascinated with how God might view and understand time, thus the slight sci-fi angle of the story. This is a story of God's faithfulness and goodness in spite of us and the things we do to each other. Admittedly, this is the most religious story I've written up to this point. I feel the best place for it is here. I hope your holiday season is full of blessings and time well spent. May your 2022 be full of laughter and joy.
(Sorry for the goofy formatting - blame Weebly.)
Fragile is the Dust
A Christmas Story
To Big Steve
For teaching me to think critically about my faith and politics thirteen years ago,
And encouraging me to hold on to the character and story of Jesus.
You are missed, and I hope I'm doing you proud.
I'll see you in the dust, friend.
"I am with you always."
Gary looked at his wife Natalie's eyes through the iPad screen. He never dreamed the last conversation with his wife would be through the internet. He felt COVID robbed him of a special moment he had every right to have. There he was, with everything about to change forever and she wasn't there with him to hold his hand.
Natalie told him differently, but he knew when he woke up in a few days she wouldn't be there either in person or virtually.
"I want to believe you'll be with me," he whispered.
"Then believe," she replied.
Gary brushed the snow off of his wife's tombstone.
"Hey, honey," he said. "It's the first Christmas Eve without you."
The cold wind blew around Gary. He sighed and dug his hands into his pockets.
"I've been going to mass every Sunday like I promised you. I don't believe a word of what they say, but I've been going. It reminds me of you and how you used to always nag on me about that stuff."
Gary's lower lip trembled.
"You know me. Feelings never made sense. 'You're too much of a scientist,' you would say. 'People aren't experiments.' But this hurts like hell."
A tear started to steak down Gary's cheek.
"It's been hard without you. The way you left was so brutal, and today is especially hard."
Gary took out a jewelry box and placed it on her tombstone.
"I bought this a week before you died. I don't know what to do with it. I figure it's as good as time as any to give it to you. I think you would've loved it."
"This world is a darker place without you in it."
Gary continued to stare at the tombstone stoically.
Gary lay awake and stared at his ceiling. All he had to do was make it just another hour or two before he could get dressed and see family. If he could make it an hour, he could make it a day.
He turned on his side and looked at the empty spot next to him. On his wife's nightstand was her Bible and coffee cup. He hadn't touched either of them since the day she died.
His cell phone rang, breaking the nostalgic silence.
He looked down and saw it was the lab. He sighed and answered it.
"Gary?" said a voice on the other end of the line.
"It's Christmas Eve," responded Gary. "Someone better be injured."
"The computer malfunctioned again."
"Can you get someone else to look at it? I know it's a computer at a quantum science lab and it's important, but maybe I'm not the best person for this at this moment?"
The voice on the other end of the line laughed, "I'll make it worth your time if you can come in and just check on it. Everyone else is out of town."
"Alright," Gary sighed.
"You don't think there's a divine plan in all of this?" asked Natalie as they sat on their couch.
They just purchased their first home. Gary accepted the job offer soon after college. Their futures looked positive.
Gary brushed a hair off her cheek, "No… not at all."
Natalie chuckled, "Good thing I have enough faith for the both of us then."
"I knew when I saw you that God put you in my life for something."
"I knew when I saw you I wanted to get you in bed."
Natalie burst out laughing, "Gary! You are terrible."
"I know," Gary smiled.
"But I wouldn't have it any other way."
Gary passed the security gate and sipped his coffee.
"Hey Gary," said the guard. "It's Christmas Eve, you grumpy old fart. Don't you have better things to do?"
"Apparently not," laughed Gary. "Anything weird happen?"
"Not that we've seen."
"I love being called down for flukes. I absolutely love it."
"Well, we love seeing you," the security guard blew Gary a kiss.
"Aw shucks," laughed Gary.
Gary waved his security card over the scanner. As the door unlocked, he stepped inside and heard the machine whirring softly.
He took off his coat and threw it on the table and rolled up his sleeves.
On the drive home from work, Gary and Natalie were silent. She worked late nights at the diner as he slaved for hours on end to finish a project.
"I can't do this any more," said Natalie.
"What do you mean?" asked Gary.
"The late nights at work you're doing, the fact that we haven't even had a serious conversation in months…"
"It won't be like this forever."
"You always say that."
"I know. But someday it will be better."
Silence grew between them.
"There's someone else," said Natalie.
Gary sighed, "I know."
"When will you be here?" asked Gary's brother on the other end of the line.
"In about thirty minutes," replied Gary. "Something happened at work."
"Have you been at work all day?"
"No. I went and saw Natalie this morning."
After a short pause, Gary's brother said: "I'm glad to hear you're visiting her, and I look forward to seeing you come over tonight."
"I'm looking forward to it too."
"Your nephews and nieces are excited to see you. Don't teach them anything explosive though?"
Gary chuckled, "Well, that's what uncles are for."
Gary's brother laughed, "I'll see you when you get here."
"Alright. Sounds good."
Gary ended the call and put his cell back in his pocket.
Gary slicked back his hair and knocked on the door.
"Gary?" asked Natalie. "What are you doing here?"
"I guess I was just in the neighborhood."
Natalie sighed, "I've been thinking a lot about that night…"
"Me too," Gary smiled.
"We used to be so in love."
"They were some great times."
"I want to give us a second chance," Natalie said. "But…"
Gary looked at her eyes, "Look, I don't know what needs to happen. All I know is that I miss my best friend. I will find a way to be happy with or without you, but I want you to know that I choose you if you choose me. And I guess we'll have to keep choosing each other until the day one of us dies or quits. But I'm not ready to call it quits."
"How do we know if we'll last?"
"We don't. I guess that's what's so insane about the whole thing. All we know is the time we have now."
"This goes against everything I thought marriage was going to be."
"Welcome to marriage, I guess," Gary chuckled. "This shit isn't Disney, but it can be great."
Natalie rolled her eyes and let out a soft laugh.
The smell of perfume suddenly filled the room. Gary turned around and saw dust dancing around in the sunlight near the table. His hands trembled as he remembered the smell of the perfume distinctly. It was the perfume Natalie wore at their wedding.
The dust suddenly made a familiar face appear and stared back at Gary.
He remembered the homilies about being made from dust, and he remembered how Natalie always preached to him about how humanity was created with intention. He didn't want to believe it, and he didn't want to believe what was in front of him. But if it was his chance to reach Natalie, even a remote chance, he knew he would always regret not seizing the opportunity.
"Honey?" he asked. "Is that you?"
The face stared back at him, looking at him with sorrow and love.
Gary grabbed a chair and sat across from the face.
"I don't really know what to say," his voice quivered. "I've been trying to move on, but it's so hard."
The face continued to stare at him, listening attentively.
"Am I alone in this world, Natalie? I guess that's all I need to know for now. Am I alone? Does any of this matter? Does my life, my pain…. matter? We had no kids, all your family is dead, and all that's left is my memories of you. Did any of it matter?"
Gary didn't know if he was trusting his senses or not looking at this face, but he needed to get it all off his chest before he left.
"I love you, Natalie. I always will."
The face smiled at him before dissipating into the air.
Gary walked over to where the dust was, and saw a tiny pile.
He crouched down and started tracing into it with his fingers.
A single tear streaked down his face.
Natalie and Gary danced slowly in the kitchen.
Three years passed since the affair, and they were doing better than ever.
"Hon?" asked Natalie.
"Yeah?" Gary cleared his throat.
"I know you don't agree with me," she said. "But I see so much of God's work in you."
"I'll try to take that as a compliment."
"Don't try," she said. "Just take it. Stop thinking so much."
Gary chuckled, "Yes, dear."
"God is with you more than you realize. You just have to pay attention and stop thinking so damn much."
As Gary drove into the driveway of his brother's house, he sighed.
For all of his education, he couldn't account for what he saw.
Was it just dust or something more?
What happened in that lab to make this happen?
Gary looked at the passenger seat next to him and felt his heart sink at the sight of the empty seat.
"She's gone," he said. "That's all you need to know."
He opened his door and stepped outside. He looked at the sky as the snow fell and then closed his eyes.
That's when that familiar scent surrounded him again.
Gary opened his eyes and turned around.
On the fogged windows was a handprint.
Gary touched it and felt a familiar warmth he hadn't felt in months. The print was smaller than his hand, yet it fit perfectly in a way that only he understood.
There was no explaining this away.
"Okay," Gary sniffled. "You win."
The next morning, Gary made himself coffee. He was still at his brother's house and the night before was too much to process for him. He dragged his feet to the kitchen table.
Gary looked across the table to see an empty chair. Memories of Natalie laughing and playing with his family flooded his mind. He remembered her telling them all about this carpenter that loved them so much that he'd rather die than be without them.
"All those monsters you're scared of and nightmares you have?" Natalie smiled. "Jesus defeated them with love and overcame death. He had the final say."
"What's He like?" his nephews would ask.
"He's like the warmest feeling you can ever feel, times a million. He's like a light at the end of a dark tunnel and you know once you see it that you don't need to be alone ever again."
But in all the years of their marriage, he never once entertained the possibility that God was somehow in all of the mess.
Gary didn't want to believe in any of that. He had words to say to God about the way Natalie was taken from him. He imagined himself approaching God and yelling at Him, telling Him exactly what his wrongs were. After last night, Gary realized that God maybe didn't need to be told what's what.
If Natalie was right, then God was there all along anyway.
Maybe He was crying too.
Gary listened attentively to the words the priest had to say.
It was the same story about that carpenter.
But it wasn't the words so much that moved Gary as the memory of Natalie's face in the dust.
As he sat in church, he reflected on multiverses and time travel. He reflected on what it meant to love. When he stared at the crucifix behind the priest, he realized that perhaps all he needed to know about the night before was that he caught a glimpse of things to come - a day where there would be no more sorrow and no more pain. Natalie's sympathetic eyes told Gary that life wasn't over, and that there was beauty and redemption to be found still.
The worst thing was not the last thing, and God was at work in the world. The empty tomb means that hope continues still. And in that negative, hollow space, God mysteriously overcame the brokenness of the world.
For him, that was enough.
"Can you believe we're all just bits of stardust floating around in the universe?" Gary asked.
It was their first date after the affair.
"This is a weird conversation," Natalie laughed.
"I know, but can you believe it?"
They laid out in an open field in the middle of the night. They felt like their lives were ahead of them for the first time in years.
She snuggled up next to him, "When I looked at the sky as a kid, I thought it was God's way of showing off. Like He took a handful of shining sand and just hit the sky with it. I don't know about stardust, but when I look at that sky I think to myself: 'I am so blessed and lucky to be here right now. Every moment of life is so fragile and sacred. Even the bad moments.'"
Gary looked at her and smiled, "You know what? I think that too when I look at the sky, but I'm thinking that even more as I'm looking at you. I don't understand love. But with you, I know I don't have to. I'm grateful for our bad moments just as much as our good ones because they led me here."
Natalie kissed his cheek as he pulled her in closer.
“God weeps with us so that we may one day laugh with him.”
- Jurgen Moltmann
I wrote a story about a standup comedian finding redemption. It is fairly straightforward. The idea ruminated with me for a few weeks. I thought the process of working on a standup set was fascinating. In fact, it made me want to explore standup comedy some day when I'm not in seminary.
I watched a Masterclass on standup sets and listened to a ton of comedy podcasts. I crafted my own mini-set and started writing the story.
One of my first rejections was from an editor who said: "The story is well told and it almost pays off, but I didn't find the standup scene funny. Sorry."
Later on, I wrote a stupid Tweet off the cuff that read: "Thinking of writing a sequel to Seabiscuit called Pondwaffle."
That same editor who followed me on the cursed Bird App replied: "Now THAT'S funny stuff."
Friends. You don't understand. Really.
The standup set I worked for hours on was rejected and the Tweet I came up with while binging Curb Your Enthusiasm at 1 AM was found to be hilarious by the same editor. If that doesn't sum up my experiences with the publishing market, I don't know what does.
Another story of mine was almost unpublishable because of how bleak it was. It is about a recovered drug addict trying to find God in his past by going home for Christmas. Knowing a few addicts personally, I knew that it would be a disservice if I held back what it was like for them from the tone of the stories they shared. Some of the journals I submitted it to required trigger warnings, and I knew instinctively that this wasn't the right piece for them.
I was told that it was too dark by editors who did detail why they didn't accept it.
Imagine my surprise when it suddenly got picked up in The Bangalore Review. I honestly didn't expect it to get picked up at all.
The thing is most of my stories have happy endings, at least the unpublished ones. I generally try to be a positive guy. I believe in redemption and forgiveness, both as spiritual and personal beliefs. There is that undertone of redemption in all of my work though.
Now the replies I get have the vibe of saying, "Your stories are too positive for our times. We're in the middle of a pandemic, my good sir, and there's no time for smiles. I chuckled while reading this. How dare you."
If there's anything to be learned from my 75 rejection letters so far, it's that the literary world is a strange and sensitive place. You don't know what's going to be picked up and the trends are unpredictable. All you can do is throw your work into the void and hope someone catches it.
Put yourself out there, friends, both in life and in your endeavors. Embrace the chaos. You'll find your weirdos and your place eventually.
What I Am Reading This Month:
The Good Life by Jay McInerney
A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
Zuckerman Unbound by Philip Roth
Theology and Ethics
Embracing Hopelessness by Miguel A. De La de Torre (an amazing Latino liberation theology response to Moltmann's Theology of Hope, future blog post)
A Community of Character by Stanley Hauerwas
Count It All Joy by John Perkins
I was looking at my Spotify Wrapped recently, like all you cool kids, and I realized I spent a lot of this year being intentionally positive. One of my favorite podcasts was For the Life of the World hosted by Miroslav Volf and the Yale Center for Faith and Culture, my favorite song was a cover of "I Won't Back Down" by Johnnyswim, and apparently I binge-listened to a catchy, not safe for work, upbeat song about a heroin addict a bunch of times without fully realizing it was about heroin addiction. Whoopsies.
When I look back about eighteen months or so, I see a slow progression in my own faith journey into hope. I picked up Jurgen Moltmann's Theology of Hope and The Crucified God and they both completely rocked my world. In my small corner of Christianity, language about Resurrection usually were restrained to a conversation about a single event. The way Moltmann framed the things that God was doing in the world and within us was amazing. As someone who worked in activist and peace spaces, Moltmann was an answer to my own prayer in understanding how to view my calling.
In 1 Corinthians 15: 9-11, Paul lists his own personal form of resurrection as proof that God was still in the world doing good. He writes, "I’m the least important of the apostles. I don’t deserve to be called an apostle, because I harassed God’s church. I am what I am by God’s grace, and God’s grace hasn’t been for nothing. In fact, I have worked harder than all the others—that is, it wasn’t me but the grace of God that is with me. " (CEB)
Being an Anabaptist at heart, I found a lot of commonality in Moltmann. It's not just about me - it's about what God's doing around the world now. Grace surrounds us. As we grow, that understanding becomes wider and wider. Jesus sits at the tables we would least expect Him to sit, and that is a radical invitation.
This upcoming year, I hope to continue to find God in unexpected places and to participate in resurrection in how I live my life. I pray to continue growing towards intentional hope.