Today, I hammered to pieces a tile countertop. It was messy and loud. The hardest hammer blow was the first. To strike the gleaming white, uncracked tile seemed wrong, but it was a “Wham!” toward better. 

I’ve done this before, destroyed a kitchen, but it’s been awhile so I Googled how.  Seconds later, there it was, my exact white, tile counter on the screen and a guy knocking and prying it into oblivion.

Perfect! 

Got it! 

You whack off the outside edge first — with a bucket below to catch the debris — then you shove a power bar underneath the supporting plywood, and you the pry it up  — plywood, mortar, tile, grout and all.  

What did we do before Youtube?

The mind is constantly seeking knowledge, the “how-to,” the “Why?” “ and the very best buy. We want to know the conveniency, the piquancy, the frequency and the decency.  Sometimes we need answer for, “What the heck?” 

A friend of mine just got diagnosed with acute leukemia. Tough! It’s rough! “Heck!”

Why does she have cancer,  and not me? “Hmmm,” even just thinking of this question, I detect a smidgeon of survivor’s guilt in me  — and some survivor’s gratitude.

I can figure out how to do some things — break stuff — but not how to fix some stuff, and not why some things happen to us, especially the things that cave  us in. Google has some answers. They don’t always satisfy.

Chance, choice, DNA, fate, karma, acts of God, poor diet, chemicals, providence, rats, flees, volcanoes — we all want explanations, something we can grab on to, something we can live with. But we don’t always get them. We can Google “countertop demolition” and we can Google “leukemia” and we can Google “housing market, “ but we still might not know why life comes to our door the way it does — or does not. 

We know; we don’t. We keep trying 

Maybe we shouldn’t. Some things don’t have  satisfactory answers. A child drowns. No explanation will do. Often a combination of answers come to mind, sometimes only anger comes to mind, sometimes all we have is blinding, numbing loss.

We are shattered tile. 

But what if having an answer doesn’t always matter. Not knowing where the hammer came from, admitting that we don’t really know — it’s at least honest. We don’t know every how or why or what, so what if we don’t pretend to. 

Why disrespect great suffering with goofy platitudes? Every demolition doesn’t make things better.

 Why demean complex problems with simplistic euphemisms?

 The brave often go on, move on, live on without answers. We don’t have to explain everything in order to live with it.  Perhaps this is the meaning of Proverbs 3:5-6.

Hammered, we may yet live well within a cracked and courageous quietness.

“You can’t fix me,” an older person told me recently, then proceeded to hangup.

I hadn’t said much. I had simply shared a picture of a possibility for dealing with his negative feelings toward himself. I had said, “When the baby cries, we hold the baby, so when our soul cries, we might  …”

He wouldn’t have it, the self-care in it, the personal gentleness with the crying child within.

Of course, the “you can’t fix me,” has some truth to it. I can’t. We can’t. But such a defiant declaration, in this case, felt like a shield, a barrier thrown up, a protective rationalization to avoid changing, to avoid any solutions, to avoid taking responsibility for feelings — a decision to avoid self-care.  This may, indeed, be one of the great temptations of old age, living with a ubiquitous “I’m too old to change” mantra. This can problematize, pathologize and negativize a life.

One person loves their inner person, another hates the self inside, and other doesn’t think of self much at all. We live in the world we create in our minds.

But can change that world, the story, our biography, using insights, using new thoughts,  perhaps using information given us from others. It is possible to re-see our lives and re-story the past. Possible is a post-mythic stage of life, a post-stuck stage, a post-hurt or post-wounded stage of life in which we embrace reality, listen to new voices, seek the corrective perspectives of other family member’s stories, see things and people differently, even accept and experience redemption.

I was always a bit jealous that my older brother was sent away to a prestigious prep school when he was thirteen. It seemed to me, in this, that my parents were more invested in him than me. Recently, he told me that the experience caused him to experience an acute homesickness. Being separated from his family — it was full of pain.

Story-listening, I realized I would have felt the same. I would not have wanted to be away from home, family, hearth, pets, privacy, the safe harbor of mom and dad and brothers either. So, I can drop the envy. It was misplaced. I have; I do. I am now glad I wasn’t sent away to school.

It’s narrative psychology. We live in the world we create in our minds; we can change that world. We can, with other family member’s help, even perhaps co-author a new world, a different story, a more positive narrative.

We can. 

Perhaps — if we are open to grace, and healing.

“Nature is, above all, profligate. Don’t believe them when they tell you how economical and thrifty nature is, whose leaves return to the soil. Wouldn’t it be cheaper to leave them on the tree in the first place? This deciduous business alone is a radical scheme, the brainchild of a manic-depressive with limitless capital.

Extravagance! Nature will try anything once. This is what the sign of the insects says. No form is too gruesome, no behavior too grotesque. If you’re dealing with organic compounds, then let them combine. If it works, if it quickens, set it clacking on the grass; there’s always room for one more; you ain’t so handsome yourself. This is a spendthrift economy; thought nothing is lost, all is spent.”

Annie Dillard

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

My brother Steve is making friends with randomness — kind of.

This morning he mentioned to me that during his hospitalization for his stem cell transplant — four years ago — a butterfly came to the window of his hospital room everyday.

It was a snatch of beauty, experienced in a tough season, and it helped carry him through. The bright, fluttering wings —  it was mobile brightness and beauty much needed in a shadowy moment.

Was it providential?

Was it random?

He and I both think the fly flies somewhere in the cracks of the flyway.

God isn’t up there — or somewhere — pulling the puppet stings for every small event in the universe, sending out insects, calling in winds, pronouncing sneezes.  Surely God isn’t sending butterflies to sick people, but not all of them. Not everyone gets one.

I am sure God can do what he wants, intervene when he wants, intrude if he wills — and he does —  but I really can’t imagine God as a universal micromanager. He couldn’t possibly be that bored, that controlling or that tyrannical. He may know every sparrow that drops, but he doesn’t map all their paths, fly them into windows — which they are prone to do — or continuously fly them past all invalids, and the valids too, in need of a sign.

First off, and perhaps last too, God already has sent stuff our way simply by making us and making so freakin’ much of it —  of stuff.  God is Annie’s “manic-depressive with limitless capital.” He made extra, he has gone overboard. He’s a virtual sybarite! He’s a holy, unrestrained debauchee. That much is fairly obvious. Look for yourself.

God made millions or even billions of everything — grass blades, flies, bacteria, spores, mushrooms, rabbits, ideas, daisies. They multiply and die like crazy, the flora, the fauna, butterflies, Madonnas.

Why? Why so much of everything? Well, in this way we an keep running into stuff, randomly, or not, the natural wonder at the right moment, the white tailed deer along the road, the fish jumping in the lake as the sun sets over the shy lovers.

God made enough of everything for the coincidental, for the happenstancial, for the random, for the vigorous and voracious vagaries to just keep showing up. He made so much it just keeps flooding the stage.

God planned plenty for us, from the beginning —  but the plan included not controlling everything. Don’t we have a will? Hasn’t he given us freedom? Is there no instinct? Can’t we make horrible choices? Don’t some things happen by chance? Can’t we reject him?

God seems to be into letting stuff choose, letting something choose, free will, instinct, volition, agency, even chance  — especially once the show was launched. I’m sure of this because anything less on his part would lack confidence, skill, humor, power and foresight.

“Nature is profligate” because God is profligate. God was, is and always will be recklessly extravagant.  It comes from being so resourced.

It means stuff happens.

When it does, is it for you?

Of course it is.

When I was growing up, I loved going out into the woods in the spring, looking down.

I was hunting morels, those delicious wild mushrooms that grow around old logs, in moist, rotten places that smell like damp soil, like mother earth, like tasty life.

They are the mycorrhiza, and they have a narrative.

The morel, the mycorrhizae, is a fungus that grows in association with the roots of a plant in a symbiotic or mildly pathogenic relationship.

Sounds like family.

Sounds like my family.

I well remember the warm, damp soil in which my parent and I and my brothers and I wove our roots together. It was good, symbiotic, mutually beneficial. I remember happily playing baseball with my brothers, quietly reading with my mom, going water skiing with my dad and brothers.

It was good!

It was also not always good.

Sometime it was competitive, combative, mildly pathogenic. I remember competing for the baseball win with my brothers, fighting down on the ground with them, arguing in the evening with my mom, being — in my mind — wrongfully and shamefully disciplined by my dad.

So looking back, which was it, my family?

Was it symbiotic and mutualistic or was it pathogenic and mildly harmful?

It was both.

It always is.

At an earlier and more naive stage of life, I thought relationships were one thing only, and stayed the same. I thought love was love.

It isn’t and they don’t —  the relationships —  remain the same. Relationships morph. Competition and jealousy and hurt sometime carry the day. We change. Over time we realize we are different. We bring some harm and some distance to each other. We unwittingly compete for the big thing — for love.

I love my family — they are some good people — but some of the relationships have slightly rotten edges.  They still exist as good, and as tasty, but also as mildly pathogenic.

Life — it’s not one thing. It’s a bit of a fungal narrative.

We love stories, The Epic of Gilgamesh, The Lord of the Ring, the Cat in the Hat, but what is the greatest story of all? 

That story is the story of God. That is the story that absorbs and explains all other stories.

Charles Williams, the third member of the Christian literary group the Inklings — which included C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien — was fascinated by how God’s story involves a comprehensive connection to all of life.

To get at this, Williams coined the term co-inherence. Coinherence, describes how things exist in an essential and innate relationship with other things.

This is Christian. All humans exist within God’s existence. In Acts 17:28, Paul gives clear expression of coinherence when he writes: For in him [God] we live and move and have our being. 

In God we co-inhere, we symbiotically enmesh. In God we get sticky, and stick together. 

We don’t live The Epic of Gilgamesh, the story of one great hero. We live the Epic of Togetherness.  Ecc. 4:9-12, “Two are better than one,”  writes the wise one.

Ever eat a sticky bun? You start from the outside and work your way in to the last bite, which is the most sugary and buttery of all. Imagine it, the cinnamon, the sugar, it sticks on your fingers, you finish by licking them.

Welcome to sticky bun theology! Life is a sticky bun, and God is the sugary goo that holds us all together.  It’s true. We live within a sticky, inter-connected spiritual eco-system, held together by the Godhead. 

God in his three persons — Father, Son and Spirit — are equal, and they work as one; they honor and serve each other and they stick together. And this sticky-trinity of goodness is the model and source of all human stickiness, all love and all co-operation.

The greatest story ever told is the story of God’s gummy, adhesive, connectedness to us. 

Do you want in on this? Want coinherence, want connectedness? The how to get this is clearly stated in Galatians 2:20 where Paul writes, I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

By accepting Christ’s death on the cross for ourselves, we come to participate in that death — we die to the old sinful self — and we enter into God’s interconnected, mutualistic, resurrected life. 

It is God’s sacrifice, his humility, his support, that brings all life into harmony. And here is the deal: God’s story  — a story of harmony through sacrifice — has huge ramification for our understanding of the family.

Good families adhere, come together, work well when they act like the God acts, like Jesus acts, and like the Holy Spirit acts. When families humbly serve each other, sacrifice for each other and empower each other just like the Trinity does, then they thrive!

Last week I put in some landscape irrigation pipe. To do so I had to water drill under two sidewalks. It was a muddy mess. I was up to my elbows in mud, to grow something.

Same with God. He got down in the mud for us. And when we do the same, when we get low, when we get down in the mud with him and with our family, we please God.

Paul commands this attitude in  Philippians 2:5-7.

Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant.

Note Jesus’s example here. 

He didn’t hold on to power, but in the great kenosis, the emptying of Christ, God in Christ gave power up to bring us into close relationship with himself.

Therefore, to create unified families, we must follow Christ’s model and help and empower each other, not control and dominate each other.  

This is why Paul tells husbands to sacrifice for wives, just as Christ sacrificed for the church. God does not command males to dominate, as they have been so sinfully and addictively prone to do. He commands them to sacrifice. And Paul tells wives to respect their husbands too. The truth is that everybody is to sacrifice and to show respect to everybody in the family. Paul is telling us, in the family, act like the members of the Trinity act! Be mutually supportive.   

To be super clear, Paul instructs both husbands and wives, Ephesians 5:21, “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.”

This is sticky-bun theology. This makes for a sticky family. We are brought into harmony by mutually submitting.

This undermines any idea that families should be based on the old Roman code of fixed dominant and submissive roles. When family members insist on dominant roles, when one person dominates and controls, and when the family members compete for power and control, then those families depart from the epic, people-uniting story of God. 

The Trinity that makes up God, shows us the way to connectedness. Harmony in the family is through sacrifice — not dominance. Authoritarianism in the family isn’t Biblical; it is worldly!

This is particularly shown by authoritarianism’s dark side    psychological abuse, spousal abuse, domestic violence, sexual abuse, child abuse and elder abuse. These behaviors ruin families. They don’t align with God’s story. 

To any of us who over-control in the family, who lord it over others. I would remind of Luke 18:14, “Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted” 

To find the good model of the good family we must remember the grand, epic story of the Bible.  God’s intent from the beginning was for things to exist in an essential, innate, nurturing, supportive and loving relationship all other things.

Think of traffic. Traffic is competition, right? The goal is to get there first. Not. 

We leave the house in the morning around the same time as our neighbors. We mix together on the streets. We travel in one big connected, jockeying, competing mess. We are connected, hopefully, not too much — or bam!

But actually, to make traffic work, we must not compete; we must defer to each other and wait for each other.

Driving side-by-side, we stay in our lanes, we signal when we turn, we stop at lights — well some of us stop.

The only ticket I ever got was for a California stop — a rolling stop —  an I’m-in-this-for-me stop. But traffic —  at it’s best  — is stopping for each other; it is watching out for each other, not using hand-gestures when people make mistakes. Good traffic is team work. The goal is for everyone to get there safely!

Welcome to a picture of the good family, the theologically sticky family, the co-inhered family, the collaborative family. In the collaborative families, we travel safely to the destination together. 

Each family member signals when they want to turn, waits for others to go first, stops when another says stop, obeys the concept that we do what is best for the team.  

In good families children obey. So do husbands. So do the cats. What about the need for good leaders in the family? Good families are made up of good leaders, and leaders are best when they are servants and helpers. They take turns leading. 

Good families: 

Allow for conflict and dialogue.

Make decisions through agreements. 

Empower all the members.  

Cooperate for the common good. 

Leave no one behind. 

My wife and I have recently been trying to pick out some new hardwood flooring for our house. 

I got really sold on one color of wood.  My wife pointed out that that wasn’t the color we originally agreed would fit best. But I was stuck on what I wanted. So I went to Lowes and ordered it. No, I didn’t. 

I had to pause myself. I had to think. My wife and I have decided never to make decisions of consequence without agreeing. We believe in treating each other as equals, showing mutual respect.

So I said, “Okay, I’ll drop that color idea. You’re right, we should choose something we both agree on.” 

And so we have!

We are traveling together, within the safety of mutual submission. 

The story of God — which is the best story in the Bible —  should inform and dictate our everyday behavior.

 It is the gummy and adhesive story of co-inherence.

Therefore, we do best to model our families after the systemic, sticky, collaborative example that flows to us out of the Trinity, a model of mutual respect, sacrifice, servanthood and love. 

Sticky bun theology — it makes for good, sticky families. 

I was on the phone with my dad recently. We chatted about books. I had previously recommended Endurance to him, Alfred Lansing’s riveting telling of the Ernest Shackleton story  He told me my brother Steve had picked up a copy for him.  It’s a great read, good for dad I think at this point in his life.

My dad is 90; he just lost my mom, he needs endurance, and really, he has it. He’s healthy, smart, active and provided for in a retirement community where he works as a furniture mover.

A furniture mover, at 90? Yup! I asked him if he had help. He told me he had a moving  team. I asked him if there were any young guys. He said he had an 85 year old. Then he told me with no hint of humor. “My strongest guy is 91!

Okay then, all set.

Toward the end of the conversation he came out with something I didn’t expect. He said to me, “You have an innate wisdom.”

I was a bit knocked over. I can’t remember my dad ever saying anything so affirming to me although he has often complimented and encouraged me. Actually, it rather gently stunned me — with pleasure. It warmed the space between us and flowed back into the past like a spring rain in my psyche.  It didn’t blow up my ego: it just gently affirmed the original grace in my life, something that has blessed my work, my marriage and my relationship with my daughters.

Affirmation — genuine and unmotivated any desire to manipulate or control — it adds to our ability to endurer.

Affirmation — it is sweet soul rain.

A person is a space heater; a group is a bonfire, an event is a conflagration

Recently, I had a friend over. He grew up in Zimbabwe, worked for some time in London, then in Montana, and now lives here in San Diego. He’s been around. I like that.

We watched a rugby match together and warmed ourselves with discussions of scrums, rucks and mauls. He is a big New Zealand rugby fan and so we viewed a match between New Zealand and Australia on Youtube that began with a fearsome haka. The quivering hands and intense war cries of the Maori people were awesome.

My new friend schooled me in the fine art of the rough art. As he was out the door I invited him back another weekend to watch some Cricket. We are socia-sportifying, internationalizing, warming up the place.

Every person close to every person is the potential for a cozy hearth fire. Every race, tribe, nation and people breaching, teaching and reaching every other people is the good within the transcendent social good. We were meant to warm each other up, made for congeniality, created for affability, programmed for closeness.

The problems seem to arise when we team up against each other. when we stereotype each other, label each other and hatefully oppose each other. The solutions come when we sit down together, focus on the same thing, explain stuff to each other, do something fun tougher, play together, laugh together.

My current thoughts, find someone from somewhere else, treat them as your personal space heater, fire them up with your own curiosity, ask questions, learn from each other and  warm up the place.

A couple of friends and I were chatting yesterday. One, an artist, said it simply, something like, “We are alone. We only know our selves by ourselves.”

She had a point, and until a person realizes that, perhaps they don’t know who they are. Only you are you, only me, me. We aren’t an appendage; we are an entity.

This is particularly important in the formulation of a healthy personal identity. To star, we can’t fix our wagon to another person’s star. To differentiate, to autonomize, to individuate we must separate.

When I write I do that. I please myself and so I experience freedom, autonomy. So does my artist friend. When she paints she becomes a self-sustaining farm; she nourishes herself.

But in pleasing myself — and in her pleasing herself — we please a few others too. They find in our experience their experience too.

And therein lies the rub regarding individuation.

No one is merely an isolated spec, a disconnected bit, a complete island. We all are dependent, interdependent, connected. We are each one an army of other people  — we come from parents, share life with siblings, we are sustained by farmers, clothiers, doctors and employers. Each one of us is indeed a community; each person is actually a horde. Our DNA was borrowed, our personalities influenced, our behaviors conditioned, our lives sustained  —  by others.

Recently my artist friend taught an art class. She found it extremely fulfilling. She was who she was, the artist, but she was alive and filled with meaning and identity as she shared what she knew about art with others.

Who are you?

Yes, you are a particular, a specific, a distinct, a discreet. But you are more than that.

And you are also a colony, a neighborhood, an association, a world.

We only know ourselves alone.

We only know ourselves together.

Both are true.

I answered, “Love death!”

She laughed.

We do, we will, we want to.

The whole thing began when my wife broached the topic of a new name for the cat.

“Yep, we need a new name,” I said. The cat has had a good six or eight names in it’s life already so why not switch again. In the beginning we called her “Babies,” because she was the runt of the litter, the most baby of the baby kittens.

Here at the end, “Death” also fits nicely – – because she is almost there.

As an old-old cat “Babies” or “Nina” or “Nay-Nay” or whatever she has been called, now perfectly symbolizes the final stage, so much so that recently I told my daughter that she looked like the specter of death.

Mishearing that, she started calling her the “spectrum of death.”

Bingo!

This cat is somewhere on the spectrum of death, somewhere close to the far right end.

Silhouetted against the front room window — black, matted and poky fur sticking at at odd, ungroomed angles — she looks like Halloween. When she moves her rail thin, humped old frame goes slowly. She can’t actually jump on to the bed anymore.

“Ah, poor kitty!”

She is indeed, death incarnate.

So, here at the end, we are loving “Death.” She just wants to be held, so we hold her. She just wants to be on someone, so she is on us.

This makes for the hilarious, the ridiculous, for laughter in the presence of the ultimate unwanted.

We live with Death and the Spectrum of Death lives in our house.

And so we hold Death.

We wash Death.

We feed Death.

We comfort Death.

And we will love Death to the end!

Poor Death!

Vivas to those who have fail’d!
And to those whose war-vessels sank in the sea!
And to those themselves who sank in the sea!
And to all generals that lost engagements, and all overcome heroes!
And the numberless unknown heroes equal to the greatest heroes known!

Walt Whitman

In the United States we have some fairly standard ways of defining success and failure. Success is a good position. Success is a good salary. Success is power. Success is being the boss, the big fish.

Success in America is also often defined by vibrancy. It is being healthy — on the youngish side — strong, beautiful.

Success is also things. It is stuff — good clothing, a good house, a good neighborhood, a luxury car, expensive jewelry, a brag-worthy vacation.

And success in the U.S. is people, families, spouses, marriages, children. It includes “our people,” as if we could still own them  — housekeepers, maids, lawyers, shoppers, perhaps a trailing retinue of admiring and secretly jealous friends, perhaps some fleshly conquests.

Failure — it is not having these things.

By such definitions many of the people that I know are not successes.

Not to vilify the middle class or the wealthy — there are numerous super excellent people with stuff  and fluff and family enough — but many of the smartest, bravest, hardiest, kindest, funniest people I know are unemployed, or formerly employed. They are not wealthy. They are old. They are moms, grandmas, widows, divorced, sick, perhaps lonely. They live in rooms in small houses. They live in small apartments, in other people’s houses — in less than desirable neighborhoods —  some are in and out of hospitals. They have little, they know relatively few people in the grand scheme of things, they run nothing. People they pay do not prop them up.

And yet, and yet, just yet — how lovely they are.

Bill Holm has put it eloquently. The sunk, lost, unimportant, Whitman’s “numberless” — they play a kind of beautiful music. They play the gorgeous, melodic, halting and yet lovely “music of failure.” Perhaps they are failures as defined by our pre-paid, power-laid, beauty-bade, family-weighed American dream. But when these lesser lights are judged by their resilience, their good humor, their kindness, their godliness, their grit and their gumption — they play gorgeous music.

Bill has written that the “music of failure“ sounds “like Bach” to him, played by a so-called “failed” family friend.  Then he asks, “What does it sound like to you?”

To me it sounds like the voices of some of my most brave, fun, resilient friends.