Saturday, February 27, 2010

Mixed Metaphors

I want the rescuing to be done. After all these years, I still get wrapped up in results. This isn't the work of a lifeguard at a public pool. It's the steady consistency of Love, and sometimes... most times... all the time... it takes a little time.

When healing comes at a snail's pace, I have to choose to believe that it's coming at all. Then I look at the snail on my walkway, strolling in the cold night air. If not for the trail he leaves behind, I might not believe he's moving at all. But there it is, plainly seen in the light of my front porch, and I know that something good is happening.  Have patience.

Love is not an action movie.  It's a Russian novel.

Friday, February 26, 2010

My Patron Saints, Part One

Everyone in heaven is a saint, and sometimes the Church draws particular attention to one of these saints by bestowing upon them the formal title of “Saint”. Usually this is because this person showed himself or herself to have been an extraordinary person in some way, even if that way was quite common. Whoever they were, they showed that they loved God, and that their lives were touched by him in some remarkable way. Granting a title of Saint to someone is meant to draw attention, not to the greatness of the person, but to the unique outpouring of God's grace and love upon their lives.

Often these Saints are made 'patrons' of people or situations with which they could personally relate. Personally, I can pray for anybody, but I have a special connection to someone who's lost a sibling. I can pray with the insight I've drawn from my own experiences, and my heart is connected to the person I'm praying for in a distinctive way. People in heaven, saints and Saints alike, have this same connection.

Over the years, I've collected my own batch of patron saints. This started years before I actually became Catholic, and I'll write more about that another time. There are certain people that my heart has been drawn to over the years, and sometimes I offer up a few words to them. I ask them, as I would ask any good friend, to say a prayer for me. I'd like to share a bit about what makes these people special to me, and why I esteem their prayers and fellowship in the sacred communion of saints.

Saint John R. Cash.

One day in 1996, my friend Dave Skene told me about a new Johnny Cash album, on which he covered songs by artists such as Beck, Soundgarden, and Tom Petty. I picked up a copy of Unchained from the library, expecting not much more than some interesting novelty songs. As I listened, however, I heard something much greater. I found truth in that voice. He seemed to inhabit these songs in such a way that made them his own, and it was hard to imagine anyone else singing them.

I spread the gospel of Johnny Cash wherever I went. I bought the book, Cash: An Autobiography and as I read I felt like I was sitting on Johnny's porch in Tennessee, listening to him tell stories about his life. These stories helped to inform the songs he sang, and as I listened to his music, it took on even more gravity. He was deeply aware of his failings, both in what he had done and in what he was capable of doing. He had embraced a life of deep and abiding grace, and seemed to exude a wisdom that has come from making a lot of mistakes.
Johnny's spirituality was deep and rugged. His holiness did not come from outward piety, but was displayed in who it was he chose to be with. This was most famously exemplified in his two most popular albums, which had been recorded at Folsom Prison and San Quentin respectively. The energy recorded on these two records is palpable. The inmates saw him as a man who was truly with them. Although he had never served time in prison, they could recognize an outlaw when they saw one.

The fact that he was comfortable following up 'A Boy Named Sue', with the famously bleeped line, “I'm the sonofabitch that named you Sue!” with 'Peace in the Valley' said a lot about his spirituality. He showed me that a saint and a badass could be one and the same. In fact, both of these qualities were most on display simply in his being himself. He was an outlaw that knew grace and beauty and tenderness.

In his book, he wrote openly about the loss of his older brother as a little boy. He wrote of the connection he continued to feel with his brother, despite the distance that comes from death. Although our circumstances were very different, I knew what he was talking about. And I could feel what he was singing about when he sang of death, of hope, and of heaven.

Today, I work in Modesto, California with broken men not unlike the people Johnny sang about, and sang to. As I become more intimately acquainted with their stories of loss and regret, I feel many of Johnny's songs all the more deeply. These songs of brokenness and brutal honesty become prayers of hope and healing for these men and for myself.

Despite his success, Johnny Cash seemed to embody honesty, devotion, and even simplicity. He wasn't perfect, and like any saint, he would set anyone straight who would see him that way. After all, what is a saint but a penitent sinner?  What he was, like every other saint, was himself. He didn't just stand up for the forgotten and the broken, but, like Jesus, he stood with them.

He life continues to inspire me, and his music continues to renew me. I'm not saying I'm the badass that Johnny Cash was, but if I have my moments, a great part of me has Johnny to thank.

Saint John, pray for us.

I have been ungrateful,
I've been unwise.
Restless from the cradle,
Now I realize,
It's so hard to see the rainbow,
Through glasses dark as these.
Maybe I'll be able,
From now on, on my knees.

Oh, I am weak.
Oh, I know I am vain.
Take this weight from me,
Let my spirit be unchained.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010


This morning as I read about repentance, a bird started singing.

Sometimes the call to repent is nothing more than a song outside your window.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Our Father.

Bob. Rudy. Alexa. Julie. Brett. Arley. Chris. Amie. Josh. Sam. Stella. Jimmy. Kelly. Mila. Zion. Gabriel. Mary. Ken. the other Ken. the other Mary. the other other Ken. Mike. Marge. Jessica. Luanne. Deena. Jim. Lisa. Helen. Danny. John. Mom. Dad. Andre. Don. Francis. Johnny. Rich. Gilbert. Thomas. Robert. Norman. Gilad. Keith. Saja. Nesaw. Elias. Ali. Nokia. Jamila. Chaida. Acha. Sia. Rachel. Allan. Laura. Lori. Dan. Mark. Tina. Rick. Sarah. Chelsea. Jacob. Britney. Manuel. Nicolas. Nico. Jessie. Danny. Helen. Gary. Patti. Fred. Judy. Mike. Tim. Beth. Sharon. Chris. Jess. Leah. Josiah. Josiah. Judah. Ben. Meredith. Sam. Linda. Sandra. Zack. Andrea. Jeffy. David. Jaycee. Bob. Nick. James. Lisa. Christianne. Milk. Terry. Brian. Anthony. James. Jon. Brian. Marion. Mary. Peter. John. Mary. David. Monique. Anastasia. Anthony. Jesse. Lisa. Junior. John. Rhiannon. Laura. David. Ben. Jacob. Britney. Laurel. Trista. Keith. Brad. Betty. Jeremy. Theresa. Jenny. Cor. Teresa. Teresa. Tom. Steve. Dan. Rachel. Paul. Paul. James. Ally. Tim. Dave. Liz. Suzanne. Susan. Mike. James. Laura. Jess. Amber. Dawn. Chad. Steph. Bruce. Sandy. Bruce. Edie. Cesar. Juan. Judy. Joanna. Joel. John. Leah. Ai Kawn. Amanda. Andrew. Mike. Carole. Ben. Gretchen. Josh. Erica. Dave. Simon. Jengish. Grant. Jason. Shayn. Ruth. Sean. Nate. Sunitria. Angela. Mark. Carol-Ann. Dan. Elaine. Rita. Roberto. Dean. Linda. Arlene. James. Arrow. Aaron. Matthew. Aaron. Jesus.   

Monday, February 22, 2010

Quoting Deuteronomy to the Devil

It was his fortieth day without food.

He was alone. After the first few days, the hunger pangs had left him, but now, as he began the long walk home, the thought of food was beginning to make his stomach rumble. He stopped and sat upon a rock, resting for a moment in the morning sun. He clenched his hands together, raising his eyes to the rugged horizon of the mountains. The sun rested a good distance above them.

He had been meditating for forty days now on the fifth book of the Law, on the sermons of Moses.


His stomach rumbled, and the thought of food overtook his prayers. He closed his eyes again.

“Remember how for forty years the Lord, your God...”

He winced at another painful rumbling.

“...has directed all your journeying in the desert...”

The rumbling opened his eyes in exasperation. He took a calming, slow breath, and continued.

“ as to test you by affliction, and find out if you would keep his commandments.”

The pangs kept coming. He tried to collect his thoughts as his eyes scanned the stony ground. His gaze came to rest on a stone, and a thought seemed to come out of nowhere.


The world seemed suddenly silent. It was fleeting, barely whispered, but that single word seemed to drown out everything, even his prayers. He stared at the stone.

“No.” He said. “He let you be afflicted with hunger... ”

bread. make this bread.

He looked upon the stone again.

“No,” he said again, and carried on. “He afflicted you with hunger, and then fed you with manna.”

Pain and weakness shot through him from his belly to his fingertips.

forget manna. you're god. make this bread.

He spoke forcefully, slowly. “Remember. He fed you with manna, to show you that Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of the Lord.”

He closed his eyes. He opened them. The stone remained a stone.

He took a deep breath.

The pangs remained, and so did his resolve, as he stood and began to walk.

“The Lord, your God, disciplines you,” he said, “even as a man disciplines his son.”

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Friends Are Friends Forever, Once They've Had Tacos Vallarta Together.

I'm extremely thankful for the life I lead.

My vocation is to be a friend. I know I fall short of that a lot of the time, but it's an honour nonetheless. Today this vocation included eating some free beans and rice in the park with friends from all over the place. Canada, Ninth Street, the Airport Neighbourhood.

This vocation also included playing a serious game of soccer in the kids' cement front yard, with a basketball. One of the goals was an overturned futon frame that had been serving as a bicycle rack. (My team won.)

We stopped at the Shiva, where I spent a few minutes talking to my friend Deena, while my other friends gave a little gift to my old friend (their new friend), Mary. Deena is not often very clear in her mind, and sometimes it feels like talking to a little girl. Today I helped her tie a seashell to a cord and around her neck. She thought it was pretty. She has a nice smile. Sometimes, in a certain way she turns her head or gives a look, I catch a glimpse of the lady that might have been had her life played out differently. She's lonely much of the time.

Friendship brought us to another park, to look for some guys the team met earlier this week. We didn't find them, but we met a new friend, Chris, who told us a lot about his life. He's 42, and has been drug-free for 14 months. He has 8 year old twins, a boy and a girl, and he's working to be the father they need him to be.

And of course, we had to take our Canadian friends to the best tacos in the world, at Tacos Vallarta. Extra red sauce, please. I'm not exaggerating. Something could be their equal, but none could surpass them. I'm glad our friends got to have them. It may have changed their lives.

Friendship changes lives, too. There's just no higher calling.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Gentleman Jim

He's about five foot-nothing, and shaves his white whiskers a couple of times a month. His voice sounds like a Harley-Davidson when he inevitably tells you, “I ran with the Hell's Angels for forty years.” Usually he has a beer in his hand, or he'll let you know that he's on his way to get one. “At least I'm honest, right, buddy?” and then laughs with the sound of a Gatling gun. “ You got any pies?”

If the world were full of beers and free pies, Jim would be a happy man. A terrible, terrible, happy man.

Jim's been married to Lisa for nine years. Usually one of them ends up in jail for a week or two from time to time. Last time Jim went to jail because, as he said, “they tried to tell me I hit her. I didn't hit her, she hit me!” It's equally possible that was a big fat lie, or the absolute truth. Either one is as likely as the other.

Jim and Lisa's relationship is dysfunctional to say the least, but that doesn't mean there isn't a real and true love underneath it all. The last time Lisa went to jail, it was for several weeks, and Jim was a mess without her. I know, he's also a mess with her, but he cried more.

It's been a slow process getting to know Jim. I suppose that's because he's such a crusty character, and it can be easy to think of him as just that, a character. A one-dimensional personality that adds a bit of flavour to our life in ministry. But no one is just a character. I've come to realize that more and more over the last several months.

There was a day a few months ago when I stopped by to say Hello, for no particular reason. I just had the time. He asked if I could give him a ride up to the store so he could get a couple of groceries. He hadn't been drinking that day, and as I drove with him to the store, we had a nice, normal conversation. I was reminded that there was more to him than just the crusty old biker. As he walked down the aisle at the grocery store, he said things like “Pardon me, young lady” to a retiree and “Excuse me, sir” to someone else. He even brought a smile and some laughs to the check-out clerk as she rang up his items.

There's a regular guy in there. Sometimes even a nice guy.

A few weeks ago, I dropped off a friend at the motel after church. As I was pulling out of the parking lot, Jim came walking by. He stopped and came over to the van. “You guys goin' past the Arrow? Can I get a ride?”

“Sure,” I said, “Hop in. I haven't seen you in a while. Where you been?”

This was when he told me that he'd been in jail for hitting Lisa, and there's always more to the story than what's at the surface. Just as he was getting out, he told me that his daughter had died on Christmas day. She was murdered. I almost had no response. “Jim, I'm so sorry...”

Jim had a daughter in her thirties. She lived in Texas and managed a Walgreens. She had three children, all under the age of six. On Christmas Eve day, her ex-boyfriend, the father of her children, broke into her home, started a fire, and attacked her with a tire iron. She died in hospital almost a day later.

Later, I found Jim in his motel room, and told him again that I was sorry about his daughter.

“Thanks, buddy,” he said. He whimpered as he embraced me. “I'm okay.” And some more tears escaped.

“We love you, Jim.”

“I know.”

I was able to find a couple of nice pictures of her from news reports on the internet. I had them printed and gave them to him the next time he came down to the Ninth Street Cafe for some bread. As I handed them to him he started crying again, and gave me a hug.

“Thank-you” he said.

A few minutes later I saw him showing off his photos to his friends, and soon they were posted on his motel room window for all to see.

Jim really is quite a character. He's funny and practically defines the term, “crusty”. He's also a character with deep wounds and a longing for real love. I've seen him with his other daughter, who is mentally and emotionally handicapped. Gentleman Jim can sometimes be a gentle man. He has love in his heart, and no one is beyond hope who has a friend.

I'm glad that he's my friend.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Lessons Learned

Lesson learned, by 9am:

If you're frustrated with someone, there's probably something you're not seeing. Mercy, grace, and communication solve just about everything.

Lesson learned, 10:07pm

Friendship, whether two days or two decades old, is a precious thing. It makes lunch over a turkey sandwich a life-changing event, and lines over the internet meaningful.  It makes that mercy and grace stuff possible.

I can see why Jesus thought that death itself was worth it, if it meant that we could call him Friend.

Ash Wednesday

Today was an Ash Wednesday that contained a lot of laughing.

I began the day at a simple mass, with Father Juan imposing the ashes upon my forehead with the phrase, “Repent, and believe in the gospel.”

When I came forward again to receive the body and blood, he glanced at the inaccurate name tag stitched on my jacket and said in a voice akin to Nacho Libré, “The Body of Christ, Bob.” I smiled.

Later, on Ninth Street, when we were getting our barbecue started, Arley came cruising toward us on his bike, Mr. Kent, ready to serve. I smiled.

Later, Arley had a Fritter Burger, which was created by taking Gilad's joke to heart and using an apple fritter for the bun around a burger. I smiled then, too.

We met Norman at the barbecue, and dropped him at the entrance ramp to the highway. He started out in Portland, and he was hitching his way to Vegas to see his 22 year old daughter. I blessed him as we parted ways and wished him safe travels. We pulled away, and I smiled.

And we laughed a lot today. Perhaps one of the funnest Ash Wednesdays I've had. Who knew you could get so much mileage out of a one-line Jodie Foster impersonation?

I tend to think of Lent as a season of seriousness and sadness, and of course those elements are involved, but it can also be a time of joy. As I repent from my sin, from my selfishness, I can truly experience repentance.  This opens wide the doors of the gospel, the joyful Good News.  God is with us, and he is changing us, turning us from darkness to light, from pretension to joy.

That's reason to smile.

Friday, February 12, 2010

An Angel.

Ninth Street has an angel. She showed up a year or two ago. She goes by “Arrow,” since she lives mostly down at the Arrow Motel. It seems like everyone around here has a nickname. She comes down to the Ninth Street Cafe sometimes, and she's always really glad to see us.

“Hey, Arrow! Good to see you!” I say.

She just smiles and gives me a kiss.

If you have something to give her she'll gladly take it, but that's not why she comes. Actually, she very rarely takes anything from our bread table. She just comes for the company. She shows up when she will, and she never, ever fails to bring a smile to just about everyone around her. Everyone watches out for her, and I've never seen her without a friend nearby.

She is kind and extremely gentle. She loves attention, but not in an obnoxious way. Perhaps it's not so much that she likes getting attention, but that she likes giving you attention. She simply walks up to you with those kind eyes, and as long as you're returning that kindness, she'll stay right there with you. She soaks up every bit of love you give, and returns it to you tenfold.

Chris and I often talk about how she might be an angel in disguise, and we're not kidding. Everyone on Ninth Street loves her, and no one has ever spoken ill of her. She radiates kindness and compassion, grace and love. She finds beauty in everything.

She's never told me her story, and I still don't know where she came from. I suppose I never will. Her dark eyes and black hair somehow brighten up the whole street. She doesn't mind being there, and honestly, she's the one personality on Ninth Street that I hope never leaves.

“I'm glad you're here, Arrow,” I tell her.

She just closes her eyes and turns her head, as if to say, “I know. Me too.”

She's a sweetheart with a soul made of pure gold. She's the Angel of Ninth Street.

She's the best dog I've ever known.