A Good Thing

Whoever gets a wife gets a good thing, and has the approval of the Lord.

Proverbs 18:22

It’s easy to take the person you love for granted. Sometimes all the things they do go unnoticed, or, at least, unacknowledged. Sometimes we get downright hostile to the people who care for us the most. That’s usually because we know we’re not living up to the love they’ve invested in us.

Continue reading

‘A whole lot of God’

“We didn’t have a whole lot of things, but we had a whole lot of God.”

Those words still ring in the memory of Maryville man Macel Ely II. It was a favorite quote, used often by his great-uncle Brother Claude Ely when describing the faith that sustained him as a young man growing up in the Appalachian Mountains.

Continue reading

Thomas the Believer

Jesus was dead. Anyone who said otherwise was either crazy or lying. Thomas had no desire to waste time entertaining the tales of hysterical women or deluded men. Jesus was dead and all the wishful thinking in the world wasn’t changing that. Ridiculous chatter about visions in gardens and visits from the master only made him miss his friend and teacher all the more.

So he’d skipped last week’s gathering. If Jesus’ other followers wanted to pick at grief’s open wound, that was their business. He’d just as soon try to put the whole thing behind him. Better to meditate on the Rabbi’s teaching than try to conjure the man’s ghost.

Continue reading

Oh, Momma!

This past Sunday was Mother’s Day. I know, I know. Old news. At least I hope it’s old news. You didn’t forget, did you? Anyway. The Mother’s Day holiday put me in mind of some of my favorite literary mothers. And I thought I’d share a few with you.

Continue reading

Love, Change and Being Made Whole

Meredith Wilson tops my list of great American songwriters. In my mind, there’s a cage match raging between Meredith Wilson and Irving Berlin, but the Gershwin brothers are probably going to jump whoever wins in the parking lot.

Anyway, Meredith Wilson is one of my favorite purveyors of one of my favorite musical styles. Beyond Jazz, Rock, Bluegrass or Gospel (all great art forms which I love), the popular song stands as a definitive American craft. From Tin Pan Alley to Broadway to the Billboard Hot 100, pop music is unique in its ability to create mood, tell a story and lift the spirit.
Continue reading

Comedy and Prophecy

One of the most vibrant art forms of today is also one of the most overlooked. Comedy, as a performance art, a writing style and a genre, is undergoing a renaissance of sorts. Or, perhaps a better way to put it, comedy has returned to its roots.

Renowned young adult novelist Richard Peck once said, “Humor is anger that was sent to finishing school.” Indeed much of the best comedy is rooted in a sort of righteous outrage against the status quo.

Mark Twain, reviled in some circles today for his use of provocative language, was writing “Huckleberry Finn” as an accusation. He used humor as a weapon against the ignorance and hypocrisy he saw in the world around him.

I sometimes think of comedians kind of like Old Testament prophets.

Comedians like Bill Hicks, Richard Pryor and Sam Kinisin channeled anger into their work. Sometimes the anger was personal and visceral, like Kinisin’s trademark scream. Often the anger came from observing a world where common people find themselves nameless and faceless before powerful and unfeeling corporations and governments.

More recently, television programs like “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report” have engaged current events —  especially politics and it’s attendant television news coverage — with as much pointedness and scathing wit as you might find in Twain’s work.

I sometimes think of comedians kind of like Old Testament prophets. Seems like prophets show up when a society needs a kick in the pants. In the Old Testament stories, the prophets would call for a return to truth and justice. The word of the Lord would, more often than not, be a reminder that society has a responsibility to the “least of these.”

More intimately, there’s been a spate of movies in the last few years from the stable of director/producer Judd Apatow that deal with family and relationship issues. The films are gentle, but provocative. They are often vulgar and at times profane (they certainly aren’t made for children), but they get to the heart of human relationships.

A film like “40 Year Old Virgin” may seem like a screwball, vulgar comedy on its surface. But as you watch the story unfold, and you meet the central characters, you begin to understand that, fundamentally, this is a movie about family. It’s a movie that offers a hope that even unconventional people and broken families can find peace and acceptance in the arms of love.

Even more to that point, “Knocked Up” tells two stories. One is the story of a new relationship, born (if you’ll pardon the pun) of an unplanned pregnancy; the other is a decade-long marriage, sliding into decay.

The movie traces the problems both couples face, and deftly intertwines the stories until we see that the fix for both relationships is one and the same. All these people need love and forgiveness.

These comedies, above all else, tell the truth. And that’s what comedy is best at. In medieval times, the court jester could say things about the king that would win anyone else a one-way ticket to the chopping block. Modern day comedy does the same thing for us. Comedy can tell us things about ourselves that we’d never hear if we weren’t tricked into listening through our laughter.

Art is a looking glass that shows us our world both as it is and as it ought to be.

Comedy is art because, like all great art, it teaches us how to be human.

I believe that John Keats was right when he wrote, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.” Comedy tells the truth, and that’s why it’s so beautiful.

A version of this essay originally appeared in The Daily Times Weekend, Maryville, Tennessee.

Between Two Worlds

I preached once again this past Sunday. The text was Jesus’ parable of the persistent widow. That parable got me thinking, “What is prayer?” You can read the verses I allude to here.

What is prayer?

Is it a wish list? A sort of Amazon.com for God? Is it a meditation exercise? Good for lowering stress and rejuvenating the mental state? Is prayer poetry — pretty words and pleasing rhythm?

Does prayer, to put it another way, mean anything?

Continue reading

Surrender

I recently gave my first sermon in the United Methodist Church. This is the full text of my message.

It was about ten minutes to midnight, and I was more alone than I’d ever been in my life. Oh, to be sure, I was surrounded by people — hundreds of people, in fact. But I was utterly alone, and so scared I was crying like a child.

You see, I was lost. More lost than I’d ever thought possible. I was lost and I had no idea how to change my situation. I was standing in the middle of Milan station, in the heart of downtown Milan, Italy. And I’d missed the last train home.

Continue reading

Absolved, not pardoned

It seems silly to say out loud, but I have a fear of the present.

Everything in my life is centered on what’s going to happen. I’m putting everything off. What am I waiting on? I don’t know. Every idea I have, every hope and dream is simply something else that’s waiting.

For.

What?

There’s no guarantee any of the things I’m planning will ever come to pass. And, for the most part, I have no control over whether or not they do.

What I can control is me. Myself. My reaction to this very moment. And what am I doing? Predominantly nothing.
Because nothing is happening yet. So I’m absolved from acting. But this absolution doesn’t pardon me.

I should suffer no self-delusion, nor abide any excuse for the utter waste of time my life is becoming. Free-will, squandered in the meaningless pursuit of entertainment, is a far worse fate than predestination. To squander opportunity is to murder your dreams.

Even in the moments between the moments that change our lives, there’s a germ of opportunity waiting to be exploited; time remains at its post, waiting to see if I’ll use every second I’m granted to inch that much closer to a destiny, a calling, a dream.

So what am I doing right now? Am I waiting for life to happen, or am I actively becoming the person I was meant to be?