luigi’s smile

It’s strange to be here among the monks. St. John’s is a university and abby both, so streets and walkways and hallways are full of teenagers dressed in the shorts and t-shirts you’d expect to see at a college campus on a hot summer day. What you don’t expect to see are these guys in their long, starched, dark, hooded robes, bodies covered from forehead to toe tip, their only concession to the heat the hoods drawn back on their shoulders. There are a handful here from another order wearing belted white tunics over their robes, either Cistercians or Trappists, I think, who roll up their sleeves a bit below the elbow. But the Benedictines don’t truck with that sort of casual attire; according to The Rule of St. Benedict, they even sleep clothed and girded with belts or cords, though they are supposed to remove their knives “lest they accidentally cut themselves in their sleep.” Tough bunch.

Yet they are incredibly, unbelievably hospitable. This setting, the Butler Center, the cottages overlooking the lake, these expansive grounds, the unifying architecture of the place – all of this is soothing, calming, welcoming. Last night I watched Dieter stare down a deer as he walked back to his cottage after supper; in the dictionary I believe there is a small photo of the Collegeville Institute adjacent the word idyllic. Even all the lawn furniture matches – and it is all for our use for a week. They joke about the food, its abundance, the presence of tater tots at every meal, our choice of meal sites (cold breakfast and lunch at the center, hot meals at the refectory). A cooler full of wine and microbrews anticipates our arrival wherever we happen to land for supper, with a college senior in tow to hold our hand and set the table and a standing invitation to raid the refrigerators any time of day or night “because we want you to feel at home.” Then there is the reason we are here, the reason they have brought us here. Every day, an entire morning free to write; every afternoon, ninety minutes set aside for a bracing critique of our work, led by a gifted writer who claims to be both an introvert and hard of hearing, yet somehow never misses an opportunity to silence our excuses, distractions and digressions. Last night I tried to share my astonishment at their generosity with the Institute’s assistant director. She smiled, then said simply, “According to the Rule of St. Benedict, guests are to be welcomed as Christ. The Rule is very much alive among the monks.”

Those are the real stars, the monks. Like loving Darth Vaders they linger in the background, setting the tone, ancient yet intense. We’ve been invited to dinner in the Great Hall with three of their shining stars: Father Killian, the Institute’s founder; Father Luigi, a member of the board; Father Wilfred, a retired professor who had lived at the Institute itself for 30 years. Our table drew Luigi, who charms us with stories about growing up in Venice and twice falling into the canals, the second time into water so cold he leapt out so fast his underwear was still dry. His accent is painfully thick, the conversation ponderous and paced, yet this gentle man would know our names, where we’re from, what we do, and I find myself wanting desperately to please him. So for the second time I try to express my astonishment and gratitude for such outrageous hospitality, and Luigi becomes silent, deep brown eyes widening and searching, and I think I have offended him. For the briefest moment he looks shyly down and away, then looks back up at me and smiles. It is the most stunning thing, his smile, and to say it lights up his whole face is to understate its brilliance. It is the smile of a child who has found something wonderful on the seashore, the smile of an old woman as she holds her first grandchild, the smile of that girl ahead of you in the checkout line when she’d run out of change and you passed all of yours to the cashier. Father Luigi smiles, just smiles, and then he says, “The Rule of St. Benedict tells us that guests are to be welcomed as Christ.”

I have never seen anyone express such joy in serving another, the simple joy of offering a meal, a bed, a prayer, a breath. This old man has squandered his life to offer strangers like me a moment of peace, and I have met the living word in his smile.

leaving church

So now it’s official: I am leaving, I am going to retire.

The letters went out to my congregation almost exactly a month ago: 137 mail-merged letters, individually addressed to the members of each household. I hand-signed each one, in blue ink, so they’d be certain it was a personal signature and not a photocopy, double checking the address label on the envelope to make sure it matched the letter I’d just signed. Each one, each family I could picture, each signature on each letter a goodbye. Took me about an hour, I think. The group emails the next day went faster. Like seconds.

And that’s how you box up a life and a career and the relationships that accompany them: you write a letter. Words put stuff in motion, and when you put those words down on paper they have a permanence and power that make them unbendable. There’s no going back now, it’s official: I’m leaving church.

It’s crazy, really: I don’t feel older; inside my head I don’t feel like “retirement age.” I do have a keen awareness of my own mortality, a deepening sense that I’ve a lot more time behind me than I do ahead of me, at least on this side of the river, and I like this side of the river. So the question becomes, what do I want to do with the time I have left, here?

I love this church: the way we sing our prayers, the way we welcome strangers, the way we grace the lost, the way we heal the broken. We have shared such wondrous joys and nearly unbearable sorrows over the last fifteen year. I’ve married them and burried them, baptized almost every one of their kids and even some of their parents. And right now I’m working with the strongest, youngest, brightest leaders I’ve ever known, and I’m delighted with the growth of deep, caring relationships among them. I’m excited about the things we’re planning, and saddened when I realize I won’t be here to complete those plans with people who have become and are becoming so dear to me.

That was yesterday. Today is Maundy Thursday. I woke up with another head cold, a service tonight plus two tomorrow on Good Friday, an Easter Egg Hunt Saturday, a Sunrise Service Sunday morning plus an Easter Breakfast and the regular service at 10:00 am, and the brother of a friend I need to visit in the ICU on the way in to the office, all tubed up and comatose and almost surely dying. Today I am certain it is time to retire.

My favorite times with Sandy are the conversations we begin over breakfast, conversations my work constantly interrupts, conversations I’d like to finish. I’d like to put a little more time into spoiling my grandson and start gearing up to spoil the other little brother or sister I’ve just learned is on the way. And I want to make stuff with my hands. I’ve been remodeling our cottage for years, and it’s making me a little nuts. But I tell you what: if I drive a nail into a board at that cottage, that board does not hold me accountable for a report next week or attempt to discuss the relative merits of case hardened nails over against drywall screws; it just accepts that nail. And if I drive that nail into that board Saturday morning just before I leave, I can be almost absolutely certain that nail will still be there in that board when I return next Thursday. On the other hand, if I drive a nail into a board at church, I might come back the next day to find it’s become an artichoke or an aardvark, or maybe it actually is a nail in a board but the board itself has been thrown into the dumpster and is now soaking up the leftover tomato sauce from the spaghetti dinner we held to raise money for the summer mission trip. So it’s time to be leaving church.
I’ll lead Sunday worship for the last time at Good Shepherd on May 5, and close it with a service of farewell and Godspeed. It sounds like we’ll wrap the day up with a dinner, which will inconvenience a ton of people to pull it together and trash the place by the time we all leave. And this time I will leave with them, I will be one of those people who will simply walk out the door without a key, and if I do come back I will not be their pastor, I will be a visitor, I will be a guest. And I will need a name tag like everyone else.

memories and mangers

My mother kept the manger scene in her bedroom closet, I believe. The figures were cast in plaster, old, brittle, chipped, worn; originally they were glued to the base of the stable, but as it aged they all detached from their moorings, which is probably how they all came to be chipped, floating around inside a tiny cramped little stable and bumping into each other when you carried it to put it away. Once there was straw inside it, but now only a few stray bits of hay were still glued to the floor. It was mostly cardboard, so it’s a miracle it never caught fire from the single huge Christmas tree light that took the place of the star the magi followed there. For some reason I replaced the roof with wood slats from the sides of a strawberry container, the only thing I could find thin enough to match the rest of it; and I replaced the little posts that held up the roof, too.  It folded up like a little carrying case, the floor of the corral folding perfectly into the face of the stable.

And that’s what we did with it every year, the day after Christmas: we folded it up and put it away. We’d  unplug the light; pack up Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus, the wise men and the little boy, the shepherd and sheep, the cow and the donkey, and lay them all inside the stable; fold the floor of the corral into the face of the barn; and put into into my mom’s closet, down by the shoes. That’s what we always try to do with Jesus: sort of lock him into  a place and time a long time ago, and just take him out when we need him, or when we want to feel nostalgic. We want him a little bit motionless, the way we remember him, glued to the floor and quiet, undemanding and still. He is so much safer than way. Or at least we are.

But that’s not how the story goes. In the Bible passage for tomorrow, his mother has come to visit her cousin. Both women are pregnant: Mary with Jesus, out of wedlock; her cousin, Elizabeth, much older and once thought barren, pregnant with John. As Mary enters Elizabeth’s room John suddenly kicks, as though to salute him – and both women laugh and Mary breaks into song, like only old friends and pregnant women can laugh and sing. Because in that baby’s kick there is hope, in their swollen bellies and aching backs, in their sleepless nights and morning sickness, there is hope. They are mothers who know far too well what it is for babies and their mothers to die in childbirth, broken people who know far too well what it is to be mocked, in an occupied nation that knows far too well what it is to be a prisoner in your own home. They are like every woman before or since, and their story rings so true they must be real. They are made of flesh and bone, not plaster, and their hopes and dreams are so big and unwieldy they simply cannot be folded up inside themselves and stored in a closet. These two women are living, breathing people, and so are the children they each carry, and they will give birth to hope.

That is the difference between the manger of my childhood and the one we gather to celebrate Christmas Eve. As sweet and warm and fuzzy as my memories of my childhood’s manger are, they offer no hope – and truth be told, I couldn’t find you that manger now if my life depended on it. But the manger in which that young mother will place her child, the manger those two women walk us toward, that manger can’t be contained, that manger is laden with surprise, that manger offers life. In a world that makes no room for love, these two women say love is all there is, and whether or not the world makes room for love, love will make room for you.

telling the truth

Our hearts are breaking for them.

Pam has fought cancer for twelve years, and appears now to be about to lose that battle. While counting the offering last Sunday, her husband, Larry, told us they have decided to request hospice care. It is thyroid cancer, the most treatable of all cancers, I am told, except for one kind, and that is the kind that Pam carries. By my count she has undergone three surgeries, the last resulting in a coma that stole six months of her life. We thought she had beaten cancer, we almost thought she would live forever, if only because we cannot imagine life without her.

Autumn was born about the same year that Pam began her battle with cancer; a long time to fight a disease, far too soon to cut short a childhood. Sunday, while Autumn was in church, her best friend died. Shelby’s death was absolutely unexpected; an autopsy reveled a weakness in the wall of her small intestine, and she died almost immediately when it ruptured. Shelby was Autumn’s next door neighbor, and her mother’s hysterical phone call is now embedded in the memory of Autumn’s father. Ed has been asked to speak at Shelby’s funeral, and of course he has agreed to do so; but this quiet, gentle man wonders what he could possibly say about this next door neighbor who had become like a daughter, and even if he could find the words, how he will speak them through his own tears, much less those of his daughter.

That’s what keeps us from visiting those who suffer, I believe: we don’t know what to say. We’re afraid we’ll say something trivial, or trite, or hurtful. We’re afraid we will make things worse, we will abrade their wounded hearts, afraid we will say something that opens a floodgate of tears we cannot still, because that is our own response to their dark Sunday. Or we are afraid we will have nothing to say at all. We are afraid.

Yet we know Jesus expects us to intervene. We love them, these two women and their families, we love them, and we know Jesus expects us to step outside the comfort of our own homes and lives and the comfort even or our own tears, to step outside even of our fears, and reach out to them, to offer Christ, to offer the healing power of the Holy Spirit. What are we to say?

My suggestion is that you tell the truth. That you listen hard for it, and when you hear it, when you sort it out from the beating of your own heart and the distractions of your own needs and fears, that you tell the truth in love. Because it’s the truth we all yearn to hear, what we’re all waiting for, especially when we suffer or when we’re afraid. Hearing the truth empowers us: when you tell me the truth It helps me feel as though I’m strong enough to hear it, to bear it; if you shield me from the truth, if you lie to me or try to distract me, it’s as though you’re saying the truth is bigger than me, overpowering, more fearsome and terrible than I can withstand.

To get at the truth, you need to remember that there are always three guests present in any room, each with their own truth: you, the one you came to visit, and your God. So you must focus hard and listen closely, for the different truth each of you offers.

I believe the place to begin is with your truth. Like most truths it is layered; getting to it is like peeling an onion. The truth closest to the surface for you may be something like sadness or anguish or anxiety, and your first reaction may be to hide it. Usually it will go away as you talk, usually you will find that it ebbs away if you simply take a deep breath and listen to the other, to the one you’ve come to visit. But sometimes it doesn’t go away, and it becomes like a wall, a barrier to discussion, like a monster hiding in the room, a dark secret. Sometimes the only way to dispel it is to own your feelings aloud, to say simply, “I’m afraid” or “I feel so sad I could cry” or “I’m afraid I’ll say the wrong thing.” The deep truth is that we do not want children to suffer and dear friends to die, and we are so afraid of those prospects we’ll change the subject or deny the feelings of the one who suffers. You need to listen to your own feelings, to the things that make your hands sweat or make you want to change the subject – because those are the very things you probably should most discuss, those places shrouded in secrets.

To hear their truth, you must decide who you came to serve: did you come to meet your own needs, or the needs of the other, the needs of the one who suffers? If you came to serve the one who suffers, you need to focus on just that person, listen to her, hear her out. That’s how they know they are present, how they know they are real to you, how they know you care about their person. That’s what’s so degrading about illness and trauma: the way it is so impersonal, the way it wants to steal your autonomy, your will, your freedom, your independence, your control of time and mobility and self, the way it tries to steal your life. Sometimes in those dark journeys our feelings are all we have left; don’t strip them away too. If the one you visit says he feels lousy or feels like dying, don’t say he shouldn’t feel like that, don’t try to talk him out of his feelings or change the subject. Say something like “it sounds like you feel terrible,” perhaps ask him to describe it, tell you what it’s like, tell you the truth. If an ill person says she must look terrible, don’t lie to her, don’t tell her she looks fine. She has a mirror in her bathroom, she knows what she looks like and she’s not a fool. The truth the sick are telling is not about their looks, it’s about the fear of what their appearance will do to you, to your friendship, to their worth, to another visit. Am I still recognizable, they’re asking; can you still see me? If they say they feel like they’re going to throw up you need to look for something to contain it, then stay and clean up. They are sharing the truth of their body, and giving you the chance to tell them the truth about your love for them apart from their body. If you leave, you’re saying they are detestable, they cannot be faced; if you can stay, your presence says you love who they are, regardless of what illness is doing to their body.

When people suffer, especially when they’re dying, they can begin to lose the social veneer we are all taught to wear, and often they see through us or at least through what we say. They can tell when you’re lying and won’t believe you. If they don’t believe you about the mundane, about their looks or their health, about your feelings or theirs, they won’t believe you when you talk about God’s truth, about the depth and breadth of God’s love, about our inability to escape the reach of God’s arms or the bounds of God’s heart, about the sure and certain hope of the resurrection, about God’s promise to wipe away every tear from our eyes. But you can’t start there, you can’t begin with God’s truth. You have to earn the privilege to share God’s Good News – and you earn it by being present, by engaging their suffering, by meeting them where they are, by living their truth. You don’t have to preach a sermon. It can be enough to end your visit with a prayer, especially your first visit; but even then you must seek their permission to pray. Cancer is trying to steal Pam’s life; the death of a friend is trying to steal Autumn’s faith. Don’t bustle in with your good intentions and try to steal their dignity, too.

In their suffering is Christ. That’s all the truth you need.

Speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knitted together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love. Ephesians 4:16

cross walking

One of my favorite memories is a childhood memory of the stations of the cross on Good Friday. Tall, gangly, gentle Father Clem, in sandals and a long, dark, hooded robe, would lead a parade of children from station to station along the outer perimeter of the sanctuary, pausing at each plaque on the wall to read another brief chapter in the story of Jesus’ walk to his death on the cross, lead us in a short litany, then move to the next plaque. Westerns like Gunfight at the OK Coral had taught me how crowds can turn on their leaders and abandon them, so deep down I always knew how this sad story would end. I remember waiting for Peter to deny Jesus three times before the cock crowed, hoping this year this time he would have to courage to acknowledge their friendship, certain he would not. I remember thinking how strange it would feel to be in the shoes of Simon of Cyrene, a friend of a friend of a friend, yanked out of whatever he’d been doing to help this dying young man carry that heavy, awkward wood cross to his death, how it was that a stranger came to Jesus’ aid when his closest friends would not. And I remember feeling the shame of bullies stripping off your clothes and then tossing dice in a back alley to see who’d win them. I remember my mother at my side throughout the service, as surely as Jesus’ mother had been at her son’s side, and I think now as a parent and grandparent how horrific it would be to have watched a crowd of priests and civil servants and neighbors and friends walk your own son to his death. I think all of that every year on Good Friday, I remember all of those images and all of those sad feelings, and yet all of that I remember with fondness and warmth. I knew the story, and I knew there was a place for me in that story, and a place for Jesus in my story. Even though I almost always came to church alone, I knew there was a place for me in that church, there was a place for me in that long, sad walk with Father Clem, there was a place for me in the life of Christ.

That is why we do church. That is why we drag our kids and ourselves out of homework and housework and into the sanctuary, to read the same story from the same book year year after year after year. We do it to embed that story in our hearts, so that our hearts can be embedded in Jesus. We do it so that when it comes time for each of us to carry our cross, when it comes that our friends betray us or deny us or abandon us and only strangers come to help us and even then against their better judgment, when bullies strip us naked and then laugh at what they see – we do it so that when we make those dark crossings we will know and our children will know with absolute certainty that we are not alone, we are not unloved, there is a place for us, there is a life for us.

We become what we do. So we practice doing that story, so that when we stumble our way into our own private Golgotha’s we will remember that the cross we are given to carry does not lead us to death – it leads us through death, into Easter.

They compelled a passer-by, who was coming in from the country, to carry his cross; it was Simon of Cyrene, the father of Alexander and Rufus. Then they brought Jesus to the place called Golgotha (which means the place of a skull). And they offered him wine mixed with myrrh; but he did not take it. And they crucified him, and divided his clothes among them, casting lots to decide what each should take. Mark 15:21-24

sally’s eggs

We didn’t quite know how to deal with her eggs.

She brought them into the church every Tuesday morning, usually in the middle of my Bible study, almost always interrupting my attempt to make an important point. She never said a word, almost cringing when I said hi, nodding back, then quickly walk between us and the kitchen counter, exchanging the empty egg cartons stacked next to the refrigerator with the half dozen full cartons she’d place inside. She’d make sure the little hand-written note that read “free eggs” was upright, then she’d leave without a word or even a look in my direction, just a nod to our secretary on her way out.

Sally and Don have been married for nearly 40 years, living all that time in the home where Don was born, on a small farm near Borculo, which is near nowhere. Don had decided last summer to raise chickens for the income from the sale of their eggs. Sally had just retired from her job as a waitress in a Chinese restaurant, which I later learned didn’t mean she’d quit working there, she’d just work a few hours less. Her frustration with Don’s frugality and need for “earthly wealth” was no secret. She thought he’d be better served to “store his treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consume and thieves cannot steal,” and over the years had tried her best to help him do that by spending her waitressing money on mission trips to third world countries and the Bibles she’d leave behind. But Don could not be convinced, and for Sally this new chicken business was a bridge too far – so she began to bring a half dozen cartons of eggs to church every week, just to give away. I don’t know if she did it out of spite or to teach her husband a lesson in faith, but  I do know that up till Christmas we gave away a ton of eggs.

It turns out free stuff is a hard to take. At first we couldn’t believe the eggs were free, and then we couldn’t believe it was alright to take them. Then folks wanted to know who they were from; and when they learned it was Sally, wanted to pay her for them. I tried my best to stay out of the middle of that last discussion, suggested they ask Sally directly if she wanted anything in return. I had visions of our Welcome Center counter filled with quart jars of cash for Sally’s Eggs and Amyway and Mary Kay cosmetics, afraid the church would morph into a kind of small business incubator. I’m pretty sure I’ve got  a lecture coming from Jesus on the other side of the river; but he was so ticked off about the money changers in the Temple, I’d hate for it to be about that.

It was a lesson in grace for all of us, I guess. Here in Holland more than anywhere else, we are imbedded in the Protestant Work Ethic, embedded in a culture that teaches you have to earn your worth and even your love, that you get what you pay for, and if it’s free it can’t be worth much. If you do accept a gift you might begin to feel indebted to the giver, acquire a kind of dependency or vulnerability, maybe even the possibility of a relationship, and find yourself expected to return the favor when the time or the favor might be inconvenient. I think that’s what’s so bothersome about God’s love in Christ Jesus, about the moment when we are finally confronted with the undeniably saving, outrageously unconditional, ridiculously abundant, transformative grace of God that so seeks to justify our lives and redeem our very souls. We want to pay for it – because if we pay for it, we can keep it at a distance. We can believe we own it. We can make a thing of it. We can avoid a relationship with it. We can stay the way we are. It’s too good to be true.

I have a friend who used to say, “You know, God didn’t invent the Protestant Work Ethic. Protestants invented the Protestant Work Ethic.” And if you were to ask Sally, she’d say it was invented by the Dutch.

I’d told Sally I’d like to see the place where all those eggs came from. After I failed to follow up on my own invitation, she made it easy on me one day and invited me over for coffee. It was not the sort of house that would lead you to expect a world of abundance. On the outside, each addition had been more or less completed with a different type of siding; on the inside were boxes stacked atop boxes in every nook and cranny, and the kitchen chairs had long ago cut trails into the faded linoleum floor. Sally sat at that table, quietly piecing a puzzle together as we talked. When I decided it was time to leave I thanked her for the free eggs she’d been bringing every week to church, and Sally said, “That’s right, I have to write a thank you note for the church.” That surprised me; I couldn’t see why she’d thank us for the gift of all those eggs. Then Don said, “Oh my yes, it was so wonderful, so… touching, the way so many people thanked us, the sorts of things they said to us,” placing his hand on his heart as he struggled for words.

Pastors are mostly talkers, but I think sometimes learning happens more by doing. What Don and Sally taught me with an invitation for coffee and what they taught us with those free eggs and what we taught them by taking their eggs is something I never could have taught in a sermon. It was a deep and true lesson about life and death and resurrection and grace, and I’m not sure I have words for it even yet. But I know I’m changed because of it, I know I’m closer to Christ because of it, and I know you are, too.

You become what you practice, and what we do at church is practice doing Jesus, practice giving ourselves away. What we do, what we are for, is to practice a simple promise: the promise that there is always more, the promise that that you can have a life if you dare to give it away.

Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. Matthew 10:39

old men and tools

Paul is giving away his tools.

When I first met Sandy’s father he seemed indomitable: tall and quiet, strong and competent, there was nothing he could not do. He’d been a mechanic, had run a service station – not a gas station but a service station – delivered oil, installed furnaces, remodeled two homes and built a third, added a wing that double the size of their church. If you were ever stranded on a desert island, Paul would be the guy you’d want stranded with you: partly because he can fix anything; and partly for his demeanor, for that air of calm that surrounds him while he figures out how to fix the stuff you broke. He simply does not quit, and he is shameless. If he doesn’t know how to fix it, he asks around till he finds someone who does. That’s why Paul knows so many people: in 87 years he’s had a lot of stuff to fix. Although he’d deny it, he is an artist as well, at least with machinery. He rebuilt the hot water heating system in our first home not because it didn’t work, but because he didn’t like the way it looked. I remember watching him holding the copper valves in huge, gentle hands, turning them over and over, caressing them, then soldering them back in place, hands like a dancer’s, almost independent of his body, so loosely attached to his long, gangly arms.

You know a man by his tools. The tools of my vocation are the tools of a pastor’s trade: books and paper and pens, my cell phone and landline, this laptop. Paul’s tools are those of a mechanic and metal worker: calipers and pipe wrenches, taps and dies, bits for drilling out bolts rusted in place, for  crimping sheet metal or soldering copper pipe. They are tools for a man whose hands work hard, tools that give your hands voice.

But his hands have lost their voice. When I first met Paul his hands were like vice grips, so strong he’d tighten the jaws of his drill around a drill bit with his bare hands, in the days before keyless chucks. Now he can no longer swing his hammer. His knuckles are swollen by arthritis, and surgery to repair a torn rotator cuff has cost his right arm a full range of motion. I was talking with our oldest son about the cleanliness and order of his grandfather’s workshop, at least compared to mine, and Ben said, “The difference is, Dad, you use your workshop.” That’s when I realized what was happening to his hands, and when I began to steal Paul’s tools.

In truth, Paul let me borrow them: a ramset, to drive nails into concrete; and a handheld metal bender, for sheet metal and ductwork. But it’s not exactly borrowing when you do not intend to return what you’ve been loaned. Thinking I could buy time till Paul forgot I had them (forgetting Paul never forgot where he put a tool), I asked if he needed them back right away. Looking first at me and then at his tool box, Paul said “You might as well keep them. I haven’t used them in years. You want anything else?”

I think what I was trying to take was not so much the tools themselves but pieces of Paul’s own self, something of his strength to keep, something of his ability to make things work, of his own certainty that he could make a thing work, something of his kindness and his faith. It took me years to nerve up to use his first name to his face, finally learning the echo the gentle way he’d say “This is Paul” when he answered the phone. And it was at family dinners where Paul taught me how to pray. That same calm demeanor as he’d fix things would welcome you to his table, thank you for coming, wrap your small hand within his vice grips, and pray to God in gratitude and hope so casually you’d think God was his next door neighbor, because I guess for Paul God is his next door neighbor. Two years ago, Sandy’s sister, JoAnn, had suffered a traumatic brain injury following a motorcycle accident. Though placed on life support, her physicians had led the family to be “cautiously optimistic.” Late into our youngest son’s wedding reception, her brother phoned me from JoAnn’s bedside, asking me to share that she’d been removed from life support that morning, and had just died. I have never heard a man make a sound like Paul made when I gave him that dreadful word. “JoAnny” was all he said, “Oh, JoAnny.” Then he sighed, such a deep, terrible sigh, it was as though he had exhaled all the air in the room, all the air in the world. He wrapped his wife and Sandy in his gangly arms and held them with his vice grip hands and he sobbed. I had never before seen Paul cry, and I remember thinking we are not built to outlive our children; surely now he will die.

“How does it feel to give away your tools, then?” I asked him two years later, in the workshop in his pole barn, holding the ramset I’d intended to steal. “It feels like hell,” he said, the second time in thirty seven years I’ve heard him swear, “but you have to move on.” That’s what Paul is doing now, he is moving on. He is giving away his tools because he and his wife have sold their home and are moving into an apartment, the home and pole barn he had built and the sprawling lawn he had seeded and groomed now too much work for an 87 year old to maintain. As he moves on Paul is giving away his tools, not abandoning them but giving them away, to a son-in-law who would steal them. The one who taught me to read people by their tools and believe in my own hands, who taught me to steal his tools and finally how to pray, he begins to teach me that we do not give up on life – this old man whose hands are now voiceless, he will show me how to live the resurrection. Because even leaving for an apartment, not even a condo but an apartment, he takes this light, red plastic toolbox and places inside it a small assortment of hand tools, looks at me and says, “You know, just in case.”