A Circle Unbroken

by the Night Writer
(Originally written, September, 2019.)

All my life, there has been music playing. And growing up, that meant country music, so I started watching the Ken Burns country music series on PBS, expecting to hear some familiar songs and stories. Turns out, the music isn’t the only thing familiar. I see the images, and hear the voices, and always the images and voices of my family are superimposed in my mind.

From the hard times of my grandparents’ hard-scrabble beginnings, through the challenging post-Depression and war years of my parents’ childhoods, to the records they brought home as adults and the radio stations they tuned to, country music was the quilt that patched it all together. My grandfather was born on a farm in rural Missouri (though almost all of Missouri was rural then), his large family scraping an existence and posterity out of the soil. When he was six, their house burned down and the family lived in the barn and outbuildings until his father could afford to rebuild. His annual clothing allotment as a boy was a pair of new overalls, two union suits, a shirt or two in good years, and cheap shoes that would be worn-out pieces of flapping cardboard by the spring, when it was time to go barefoot anyway. I saw the b/w images of the Carter Family, and the Maddox Brothers and Rose, but it was also the barefoot boy with the slingshot on the rocky farmstead that I was seeing.

The pictures and home movies of the young stars like Johnny Cash and others were a punch in the gut. The wavy hair, skinny arms in short-sleeve shirts, the wistful smiles, the hands holding a can of beer and a cigarette (when they weren’t holding a guitar) – that was my father and his brothers relaxing after their many labors as I was growing up in a succession of backyards in Texas, Arkansas, Missouri and Indiana. I see the pictures, and I know that even though they couldn’t see the future that I have seen, they believed in it.

And, of course, the series has to run now, in late September. Today is my father’s birthday, he would have been 84. He knew the roots and the rocks stretching back behind us, but never knew his great-grandchildren, yet the circle – as they say – is unbroken. And, as the song says, “I can’t stop loving you.”



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Whenever I come across this Norman Rockwell painting, I always think of the times in the 1960s when my grandfather would take me with him around the holidays to visit his work friends. He was a trouble-shooter for Shell’s Fuel Oil business, and I think he knew every Jobber (Distributor) in the upper Midwest. Their offices were little more than large garages with cement floors and a desk or counter and huge fuel oil stove (about as tall as me, back then) for warmth. He’d show up with a calendar, and a gift, usually a bottle of something. The Jobber’s wife or daughter would be at the desk handling the paperwork, and a steady stream of drivers and mechanics would stop for a gab with my grandfather as they passed through. He was a natural networker, before we called it “networking”.

These men would be wearing greasy khakis or fatigue pants, Eisenhower jackets, and caps like those in the painting, or sometimes, overalls or A2 jackets with fleece collars. They’d see us, and the caps would be pushed back, chairs drug around if they were handy, and they would talk the jovial arcania of man-talk that I barely understood, but tried to absorb. At some point, one of the men would say something like,

“Well, fellers, I better git. Got 200 gallons of No.2 for Ferguson out on Redbud, then some stops in Burlington. Y’all have a Merry Christmas.”

It was a heady mixture (or maybe it was just the persistent smell of petroleum). Whatever was said is nearly inaccessible in the depths of my brain now, but the smell of fuel oil, or a glimpse of this painting, brings a lot of it back.

Deaths of Despair, Part 3: Steps of Faith

Deaths of Despair: a 3-Part Series on Living a Life Not Barren and Unfruitful

In Part 1 I described the very real attacks of our enemy on everyone, but particularly on Christians. In Part 2 I outlined the foundation of a believer’s response as an individual under attack, or for someone struggling to know how to help a friend. I don’t intend, however, to stop at the equivalent of saying, “be warm, be fed.” I also don’t want, in my attempt to help, to inadvertently be heaping coals on those who are struggling.

Image result for steps of faithIn Part 3, then, let’s look at some actual  steps that can be taken to break the grip of depression. My list is not definitive, but these are things that I have found effective in my life and as I minister to others.

First, let’s understand the position of spiritual privilege we are in, especially if one feels condemned by the Law for the way they are feeling; as if it were “un-Christian” to be depressed. Bonhoeffer, in “The Cost of Discipleship”, states it relatively simply (for him):

“It is Jesus himself who comes between [the Law] and the disciples, not the [Law] which comes between Jesus and the disciples. [We] are faced not with a law which has never yet been fulfilled, but by one whose demands have already been satisfied.”

It is not some unfulfilled law, or some misunderstood doctrine, or some unrepented of violation, that explains or causes our feeling of separation from Christ. Everyone has failed in that attempt, but Christ. Christ, however, fulfilled every requirement of the law on our behalf; its demands have already been satisfied.

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Deaths of Despair, Part 2: Knowing God, the Meaning of Hope, and the Cold and Broken Hallelujah

Deaths of Despair: a 3-Part Series on Living a Life Not Barren and Unfruitful

Our enemy’s attempts to smother hope are insidious. If someone were to come up to you on the street or in your home and outright threaten or try to intimidate you, you would likely get angry. You might even seek help and call up some friends. That’s what we do with many spiritual attacks against our health or our relationships.

But what do we do when we get discouraged (when our courage is diminished)? Who do we call? Usually no one, because hopelessness makes us think there isn’t anything anyone can do, or we’re afraid our struggle might seem “Un-Christian”. And if someone calls you and asks how you are doing, what do you say? “Fine.”

Hope and Faith
Someone might try to encourage you (build your courage) by saying, “Have faith.” But what is faith? Hebrews 11:1 says “faith is the substance of things hoped for, and the evidence of things not seen.” So what is hope? According to the Webster’s 1828 dictionary, hope is:

  1. A desire of some good, accompanied with at least a slight expectation of obtaining it, or a belief that it is obtainable. Hope differs from wish and desire in this, that it implies some expectation of obtaining the good desired, or the possibility of possessing it. Hope therefore always gives pleasure or joy; whereas wish and desire may produce or be accompanied with pain and anxiety.
  2. Confidence in a future event; the highest degree of well-founded expectation of good; as a hope founded on God’s gracious promises; a scriptural sense. A well founded scriptural hope is, in our religion, the source of ineffable happiness.
  3. That which gives hope; he or that which furnishes ground of expectation, or promises desired good. The hope of Israel is the Messiah. The Lord will be the hope of his people. Joel 3.
    4. An opinion or belief not amounting to certainty, but grounded on substantial evidence. The Christian indulges a hope, that his sins are pardoned.

But if you are struggling with hopelessness, and “the blahs”, that may all sound like so much, “Blah, blah, blah.” Just because you don’t “feel” the promise, though, doesn’t mean it’s not there. It is a promise made to you, and not just a wish or desire that you try to conjure.

Image result for cold and broken hallelujahYou’ve heard the word, “Hallelujah”. It means, “God Be praised.” We may think praise is for happy times, but it is for bad situations, too. Especially in bad situations! You’ve probably also heard the Leonard Cohen song, “Hallelujah”, it’s been covered by dozens of artists and appeared in movies and TV shows and is known even outside of “spiritual” circles. One of the most overlooked (because it’s hard to understand) verses of the song goes, “It’s not a cry that you hear at night, it’s not somebody who’s seen the light, but it’s a cold and it’s a broken, ‘Hallelujah’.”

That’s not a happy sounding verse, but it has great power. “Hallelujah” is easy to say when things are good, and you’re happy. Despite all the wonderful things in my life, it was a cold, and broken, “Hallelujah!” that may have been the sweetest sound that God ever heard from me.

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Deaths of Despair, and the War on Hope, Part 1

by the Night Writer

Deaths of Despair: a 3-Part Series on Living a Life Not Barren and Unfruitful

War is an over-used metaphor, but in fact, there is a war going on. It is not a symbolic one, either – the enemy is very focused, and all the more effective because we barely acknowledge what is happening. Some are starting to notice, however. Nationally, there has been a spike in deaths from suicide and overdose among the young and middle-aged – so much so that demographers and insurance company actuaries are noticing that something strange is happening.

These suicides and deaths are like people being picked off by snipers, and the numbers are starting to attract attention. Someone has even coined a name for these: “Deaths of Despair”, to describe people who are deliberately – or inadvertently – killing themselves because of a lack of hope.

Christians are hope-bringers; this is the essence of our mission to spreading the good news that Christ’s sacrifice has made a way for us not just to know God, but be reconciled to Him. A war against hope presents a double-barreled challenge to Christians: first, to our understanding of, and response to the problem; and second, in our own faith walk and in resisting depression in our lives and in the lives of other believers.

From being involved in Christian men’s ministry for some 30 years, including 10 years in prison ministry, I have tried to become a “Christian Thinker.” That is, someone who tries to renew my mind to be open to, and absorb, a Christ-like perspective on all issues. I’ve come to see this as different from being a “Thinking Christian” who disregards any spiritual information that doesn’t line up what seems “reasonable” to me. How, then, might I look at what is happening in the world, and how might I adjust myself as well to this assault, as well as help – rather than inadvertently harm – other believers who struggle? This three-part series is an attempt to do just that.

Over the past 15 years in the U.S. the number of opioid-related deaths for 25-34 year-olds has increased from 1 in 25 to a staggering 1 in 5. “Pain-killers” are killers. Opioids are from opium, the same source as heroin and laudanum, the “dirty” drugs of earlier ages and older addictions – now legitimized by our pharmaceutical industry. It’s not just for the buzz, but the pain relief. And as they always have, these opioids require heavier and heavier doses to achieve the same amount of pain relief. Overdose – intended or accidental – is one end, as is being cut off by your doctor and becoming despondent and in increasing pain so that there only seems one way out.

Similarly, deaths by overdose and suicide in general are also surging in middle-aged people, especially in the mid-west and west. These people are often socially isolated, underemployed, and perhaps discouraged by the direction their life has taken. The trend has become so distinct that it is noticed in demographic circles, and by the life insurance industry.

But it’s not just happening to the unknown and unnoticed. Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain are among the most prominent names in a list of about a dozen “celebrities” that killed themselves last year.

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I make a conscious effort when blogging or in other public forums to be sure that my words are about sowing seeds to create the things I want, rather than pulling weeds to protest the things I don’t. Sometimes this is really, really hard to do. My dismay and native smart-assery can be a combustive concoction, and there’s always so much tinder lying around. Often (but not always) I bite my tongue and my nails so that I may be known by the things I am for, rather than by the things I am against, and try to guard my tongue and my typing. Some days I am more successful than on others.

I am encouraged when people decide to separate themselves, despite the hardships, from the rule of distant and unaccountable government and a system designed to transfer the benefits of productivity from the producers of goods to the producers of regulations. I am shocked when our own Supreme Court decides that the authorities can stop and search you without cause, and discouraged whenever our collective noses are rubbed in the reality that there are different laws for different persons. While pulling weeds may bring some instant (though ineffective) gratification,sowing seeds takes self-control and a long term perspective and vision, and I will try to live and be known for that vision: that some day my grandchildren may experience a world where they have the same liberty and freedom my grandparents had.

(Originally shared, July 6, 2016.)

Ready to serve

by the Night Writer

Something from the files I wanted to preserve here. Originally from March 14, 2013.

Our house was built in ’48 and when we moved in 16 years ago I wanted a retro feel in the paneled basement so I got some tin advertising signs for out of date products. One in particular featured a line of green John Deere A Series tractors, circa 1940s, with the motto, “Ready to Serve.” I liked this one a lot because it reminded me of my grandfather and his love for the farm. I kept it over my desk so I looked at it often.

Turns out there’s someone else who loves tractors: my grandson, Benjamin. When he visited this last week I brought him downstairs and took the picture off the wall. I told him a little about my “pawpaw” and gave him the sign to take home to his room. He was delighted. Now my wall is a little barer but my heart is a little fuller. A memory of a grandfather becomes a memory of another grandfather, and like the A Series, ready to serve.

Who’s Next

by the Night Writer

MaskWe were wrapping up the prison Bible study session and a guy asked me for my take on all the big names being exposed for sexual harassment. My immediate response was, “the Word says that that which is done in darkness will be brought to light.” Just because you think you’ve gotten away with something – and are therefore free to keep doing it – doesn’t mean that that you won’t ultimately be held accountable for it, and that the accounting might not come at a dear cost.

I also said that there is no point in taking any satisfaction out of the fact that the person spotlighted is Republican or Democrat, liberal or conservative, Catholic or Protestant, vanilla or pistachio. We all have things in our lives we’d prefer other people never find out about, and any judgment should begin with ourselves, first; not to condone or condemn, but to remind us – as I’d shared earlier in the evening – to “act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8).

Thinking more about it on the way home, I remembered something that I’d read very recently to the effect that, “Our shadows are like a sack of all the black stuff we’ve done in our lives that follows us around wherever we go.” (I’ve been trying to find the source for where I read that; if you know it, please tell me.) The picture that came to my mind, though, was that my shadow is different based on which direction I’m facing. If I’ve turned and put my focus on God, the light casts my shadow out well behind me. I know that I’ve been forgiven and covered by unmerited grace. If I’m facing the other direction, and turned my back on God, the light causes my shadow and all of the stuff that still has to be dealt with to lay out in front of me.

That’s not to say that the world might not still bring something out of my bag and confront me with it. While I have dealt with those things, and gone back to try and repair and restore relationships over the years when I’ve realized where my actions have harmed others, these could conceivably cost me in terms of things that the world holds dear. What I realized is that if my focus is truly on God, then I really should have no concern about what I might “lose”. While I might regret losing some things, they pale in comparison to what I have in Christ. It may also be that God himself is working to remove that thing I adore from my life because it is getting in the way of my relationship with Him. When my job, my status, my salary, my other relationships, or what other people think of me is more important than what God thinks of me, then that sack of shadows becomes very, very heavy. And certainly the guilty who are afraid of what they may lose are almost invariably harmed more by their attempts to cover things up than by the initial sin.

When I go back to the Bible study this week I will pick up on this again and in greater detail than my off-the-cuff (but God-inspired) initial remarks. I’ll note that the bit about things in darkness coming to light is in three of the gospels (Luke 8:17, Matt 10:26, Mark 4:22) and in the Old Testament (Ecc 12:14). I’ll also talk about how some very good things happen in the dark (1 Cor 4:5, Matt 6:4, Matt 10:27).

As for shadows, those aren’t necessarily bad either when the world comes calling:

Psalm 91:
Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty. I will say of the LORD, “He is my refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.” Surely he will save you from the fowler’s snare and from the deadly pestilence. He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart. You will not fear the terror of night, nor the arrow that flies by day, nor the pestilence that stalks in the darkness, nor the plague that destroys at midday. A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand, but it will not come near you. You will only observe with your eyes and see the punishment of the wicked. If you say, “The LORD is my refuge,” and you make the Most High your dwelling, no harm will overtake you, no disaster will come near your tent. For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways; they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone. You will tread on the lion and the cobra; you will trample the great lion and the serpent. “Because he loves me,” says the LORD, “I will rescue him; I will protect him, for he acknowledges my name. He will call on me, and I will answer him; I will be with him in trouble, I will deliver him and honor him. With long life I will satisfy him and show him my salvation.”

Connections and connections

by the Night Writer

It’s a rainy day, and unexpectedly cold for August. I’m reading an elegy by Patti Smith for her friend, Sam Shepard, and thinking about lines of acquaintance and connection.

Shepard lived for a time in Stillwater, MN; a friend of mine talked to him once in a store about Sorel boots. I saw Smith in concert one time, under duress, when another friend pleaded with me to drive him the 3 hours to Kansas City, and back again, for the show in exchange for a free ticket and the unfulfilled promise to help with the driving on the return trip because I was already operating on almost zero sleep. Miraculously, we survived, as young people so often do.

Shepard died last week of ALS; a disease with which I am also acquainted. Coincidentally, I learned yesterday that my life insurance company believes I still have ALS, turning down my nine-month-old request for supplemental coverage. In the resulting flurry of emails and phone calls between me, them and the Mayo, this article was sent to my attention by another friend.

And I am reminded again of how good it is to pay attention to your friends.



by the Night Writer

We looked at a potential rental property last night that had just been listed. A realtor’s note said the seller hadn’t lived in the house since 1965 – a surviving generation’s duty now being discharged.

There were still a lot of belongings in the home, but in boxes, stacked in bedrooms, awaiting the estate sale, or for the children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren to examine and claim.

Who knows how long since little children had lived there, but there were brightly colored tiles in the playroom and a stone castle wall in the backyard to attest that little ones had been a treasured part of the home. Gardens in the front and back yards featured blooming perennials, now all but choked by the grass and weeds that have only been waiting their chance for all these years.

The appliances were early 70’s museum pieces, and a beautiful spice rack – featuring some old-time spice packages – was still on one wall. I’ve walked through a few rooms like this in my life, seen the inanimate objects that now seemed even more inanimate somehow.

I can imagine the smiles when that piece of art was hung; the work clothes on the hook, sweaty from the garden; almost see the faces crowded into the breakfast booth. There are ghosts here, and not scary at all.