Birthday Card from Prison

Once a year in November people begin asking me the silly question, “What do you want…?” The question is not silly because they only ask me once a year. The question is silly – no, more appropriately put, ironic – for the following: What I want more than anything on my birthday is some ‘space to think’. A space away from the ubiquitous cheers, stammers and cries to recede long enough that I can remember, perhaps even curate a bit, this old soul behind the birthday suit. In less congenial terms this could be set forth as: “to be left well enough alone”. Alone. The word inspires horror in many of the circles I roll about in. The general remedy for ‘loneliness’ seems to be the stacking of several souls beside one another, assumption on the label being, that the thing will just work itself out. But, irony of ironies, loneliness does not just ‘work itself out’ in the company of others. No, it is far more complicated an internal arithmetic than that. Many does not always equal more. We are an alien-nation – estranged not only from one another – but, principally, from ourselves … from that which constitutes us, or should.

It is not at all that I spurn the fellowship of others – far from it. I prize it above all else. But, it must retain it’s power, it’s capacity to catch me off guard, to bring light to my eyes. And I, to be truly myself, cannot always be in public. In order for the ‘thing to rise’ – the oven must be prepped & the ingredients mixed – then the yeast can work it’s magic in the heat. If I am estranged from myself and my God — I am of no benefit whatsoever to any of you. If I have not looked into that celestial pool from which I am but a meager cups full brought forth by grace — how can I ever be poured out upon the parched? It is true that I myself am the parched party at countless junctures. In that moment, I am infinitely grateful that you were drawn up from the cool stream and poured upon me.

I cannot assume that in every such case you (or I for that matter) have retired from the company of others, regained strength and balance – perspective and spiritual power. That would be to assume too much about the workings of the creator and to limit Him. Yet, the conviction that our assumptions at present can be likened to a man who gathers hot boulders together under the sun to make an oasis, is not easily shirked.

What I do ‘get’ on my birthday is another matter entirely. Herein lies the lesson. I can count on two cards arriving most years. The first from my nana – who though I am in my mid-thirties still dotes on me as if I were six and sprawled upon her couch in Lombard, my fat feet in her loving paws while she coos, “my little porkchop!” The second card is of greater interest. It is from a brother currently residing in the state prison at Corcoran. He and I have very little correspondence throughout the year. I, shamed, admit that in the last year I haven’t written him at all. Yet, here it was: a beautiful handmade card with calligraphic letters and balloons in colored pencil against sky blue with a heartfelt note of gratitude and prayer inside.

My wife asked me a dozen times over the course of the last week, “What do you want for your birthday?” … “What do you want to do for your birthday?” I was honest with her, which is always difficult. “Some time alone in the morning to write”. A real charmer I am. Yet, I exploit my birthday for moments like these. They are few and must be grasped at, lunged for and clung to! And my wife understands me, for which I am ever grateful.

What I truly want for my birthday is to tell you about my birthday card from Shane Vicars (Given the man’s faithfulness I would not doubt his clerical ancestry). His hand crafted birthday cards from prison always get me to thinking:

I think of Shane looking down the wrong end of a 27 year sentence. I think about the friends that have turned their back on him and how that must make him feel. I think about the toenails he’s had pulled out in prison. About the cockroaches. About the insane inmates he’s had as cell mates. I think about the years he spent not being able to touch his newly married wife. I think of the distance she drives to see him now. I think about how she’s never given up on him…and I wonder how many women have the fibre, the gut, the resistance, the winsomeness to weather that storm without withering. I think of the groups of men that Shane has worked with, studied with, preached to, encouraged in some of the darkest corners of California.

Then I think about this birthday card from prison.

I think about the choices Shane has to make on the daily. To succumb to bitterness, to drown in depression? To be completely absorbed in himself and his own plight, or to, somehow, still live life. To be defined by this prison – or to break free from it? You say what you like, a card like this…is Shane breaking free.

And me? I can hardly remember my closest family member’s birthdays, let alone my friends’. In part, here’s why:

People ask me what I want on my birthday. I begin thinking about all the possibilities. Where would I like to go? How best to amuse myself? What sort of food would I like to eat? I stretch to get there (winking to all of you now): Who might I like to be surrounded by? Endless opportunity costs causing anxieties to stack! Too many possibilities. I console myself with the previously stated knowledge of my own introversion – read a book for several hours late into the night – and wake up a few hours later to some unidentified moron calling me at 7am (I don’t care who you are – be ashamed of yourself!). I sit down to a champion’s breakfast that my wife has made for me – replete with her homemade crumb-topped banana muffins – my back licked by the suns beams. I open the card from my nana…then slowly pull out the card from Shane.

It dawns on me: who’s really in the cell here? Surely Shane is surrounded by what must be the only too real and depressing state prison walls. I imagine it cramps in on him, suffocates the life out of him, that he feels he is in a coffin for the living dead. I don’t mean to minimize the man or lose him in the metaphor. I am ever grateful for the jolting sobriety of his candy-colored balloon card. I grope for their strings and am pulled up and out of my own state…my own prison.

Each day I am urged to throw up another block in the cell of my own self-centrism. Perhaps I have been lured into using mirrors – when I love my own reflection. Perhaps I hate it and use screens to build. It matters not: Self-centeredness is the kind of cell that can’t divide. Yet, it’s confines being unlimited in a geo-physical sense, it’s power to obfuscate all that does not join in it, goes almost completely unnoticed.

Shane sent those balloons off within his cell from Corcoran and they have broken mine here in Sacramento.

What a choice we have every day, no rather, what a multitude of choices we have! Yet, we squander our freedoms – or count them up at end of day, stacking them neatly in the corner, perhaps even praising God for these blessings. But these are for our brothers – our sisters! In this Martin Luther was right – our freedom, our works as it were, these are for our neighbor.

I am ever so grateful. Though I realize it has the air of a hallmark card, I mean it:

Gratitude is the gift that keeps on giving.

Given a birthday card from prison – and the distance – I see it:

I’ve laid hold of the strings and let fly. From my vantage point – there you all are. The wonder of my family, friends, community. So many rich givers. So many humble hearts. So many laughing teachers.

What do I want for my birthday?

Friends, I’ve already got it.

From time to time I just need a lift – to see the forest for the trees.


My Life as a Barbarian (or, Rolling for the Resurrection)

Over the last month my wife and I have become infatuated with an iphone game called “Max Axe”. One’s avatar in the game is a small, red-headed barbarian who walks in a straight line (the game genre is entitled “infinite runner”) as an onslaught of fiends attack from every which angle. Your only weapon, you guessed it, is an endless supply of battle axes that you hurl at enemies to hack them as well as food sources to sustain yourself and treasures to “level up”. 


Things have been busy. Incredibly busy. Marci and I are both working 50+ hours a week. Since we both work at church, our weekends are not exactly “weekends”. This requires for more planning & foresight in order to co-ordinate even our “down time”. The result is general exhaustion. There have been times when, we both careen in from various trajectories and slump down on the couch or bed, only to find ourselves playing our phone-based video game. 


This morning, responding lovingly to the higher-than-normal levels of anxiety and sadness I’ve been feeling as of late, Marci asked me, “How’s your heart?” My response surprised me. Here’s what I told her…


“I feel like Max in our video game. I’m walking in a straight line. I cannot deviate from this path. Concurrently, I am constantly beset on all sides by myriad characters and tasks. 50 yards out a haunted tree pops up and spits a fireball at me (an unplanned for meeting that I must be at). Suddenly at my side is a slug-looking enemy to suck my blood (those files I forgot to upload for my students). All the while I need to keep hucking axes at gems and gold coins (keep working, paying bills and loans, and and and). Meanwhile I’d best look as far ahead as possible because you just never know what’s coming! 

Periodically, and precisely at those moments where I feel I’ve “just gotten ahead”, I’ve done quite well, the application will increase the speed of Max’s pace. This always seems to fall directly before his encountering newer, even more lethal foes. Inevitably, it becomes increasingly difficult to keep everything in plain view, accounted for, and axes meted out to slay everything. Inevitably, the hope of swiping three precious gems in a row distracts my attention from the green lizard’s fireball or the red deadly slime blob. Max falls dead in the onslaught. 

That’s how I feel. Like that moment before Max falls. Hurling axes at everything in sight. Knowing that I have neither the stamina, perhaps not even the will, to hit everything coming at me. That frenzied pace akin to paralysis. That’s how my heart is.” 


Ironically enough, one of the most climactic moments in this infinite runner – is, after being cut down by an enemy, the possibility of randomly being resurrected by rolling dice and receiving two hearts. Perhaps, I’m more like that. Already cut down and madly hoping to roll “two hearts” for a resurrection. I’ve actually stopped playing Max Axe, having realized that it was a game based version of my real life. A slightly different narrative – but the mechanics are all the same. 


Today is Saturday. I’m fighting with all my might to rest on Saturdays. It seems odd that “ceasing” would take so much effort. At times I hear people talk about a leader, a powerful CEO. They use words like, “he/she’s a real driver!” Indeed, we are a driven people. We are a people on the highway, driving. Separate and speeding. We are infinitely running


Henri Nouwen once wrote, “Rich people have money. Poor people have time.” Perhaps this has always been at the root of my aversion to riches. At present I make more money than I’ve ever made before (granted, I’ve lived quite a number of years below the US poverty line). I also work more hours, see my wife, family and friends less than ever, and feel, generally, anxious and somewhat alienated. I crave time. Time to be. Time to sit. Time to muse. Time to pray. Time to sing. Time to spend laughing. Time not to drive. Time. 


We exalt those who can systematically, skillfully, hurl those axes at the ever-thickening horde. Meeting – chop. Business deal – chop. Networking connections made – chop. Lecture planned and executed – chop. Calls made, lunch meeting rescheduled, funds transferred – chop, chop CHOP. Paychecks collected, funds diversified, stocks soaring. CHOP CHOP CHOP!!!


I look to my savior. Yes, he met with many. Yes, he was beset by enemies on all sides. Yet, what was his end. He was a man chopped down. He was made vulnerable in the will of His Father. He was cut low by the failings of his ailing people. 


I’ve put the game down, you see. I’m searching for a new way to be. What troubles me now is how frequently I avoid that pain. How all my instincts are towards self-preservation and aggrandizing. 


Here is the lesson of the savior: “The “game is the glitch. Stop this infinite running. Come to my side and watch how I die. Watch the axes that cut me low and breath in the life that I bestow.” 


Such a knowledge relieves the delusional burden that I am this game’s protagonist. It takes the axes from my hands – let’s them fall. For it is not my skill or my endeavors than garners the blessed relief from all that besets me. It is the life from my savior’s wounded side. It is the resurrection life rolled out from the immensely broken heart of God most high. 

2 Years with Marci & All the Richer(d)

Things I’ve learned in these last two years of marriage:
1) It is not difficult at all to live with Marci. It is difficult to live with myself in Marci’s presence. I wish someone would have warned me about this. Marriage is a mirror…especially when you are married to someone as gracious, loving, and beautiful-soul’d as my Marci.
2) I enjoy spending time with my wife more now than ever. This is, honestly, a strange thing to me. Not that I supposed I would tire of our daily life…it’s like this: I once thought things had to be novel or new to be cool or keep my interest. And maybe they did. But, I was an idiot. The things that anchor my soul and endear my wife inestimably to me are grounded in what I refer to as the liturgies of life. Those things that she does every day without necessarily being cognizant of, or not understanding why they make me laugh so much. We long to be known and loved…marriage is a sacrament because it allows for the sacredness of time & space to allow for this yearned-for duo.
3) My wife looks good…real good…in all circumstances. Hot mess or hot dress…she just plain hot.
4) Compatibility matters. It really matters. Not a day goes by that we don’t praise God for compatibility in one area or another. Our outlook on $ – spending, giving, etc.. Our views of roles within marriage (“are we egalitarians?”…yes). Our opinions and practice of hospitality – or – how to use/be home. Values – family, pursuit of God, the role of education, etc. We don’t agree on everything – that’d be boring. But, we are blessed to have had incredible counsel and direction before we were married. Our advice to couples – and please take it: Seek out an older couple you respect and be counseled/mentored by them BEFORE you get engaged! Yes…before. I would suggest at least 6 months of this type of intense mentoring/counseling. Why? Because we are largely duplicitous, lie to ourselves, lie to others, have blinders on, live with baggage, need help in defining and refining our expectations – reeling them in, we need accountability, we need help communicating…we just plain need a lot of help.
5) I do not do well when my wife is away. Recently Marci went on a roadtrip & I thought to myself…”I will get so much done”. Remember in #2, above, when I said I was an idiot. Well, I was an idiot. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Heart and home grew stale without her in it. I think it is hard for husbands to admit that we are dependent on our wives. We are. In the words of the main character in an Israeli movie (Ushpizin): “Husband: What am I without you? Wife: (stares at him expectantly) Husband:….Nothing.”
6) Fighting the urge to ‘hide’ does not become any easier. Vulnerability is as difficult for me today as it was 3-4 years ago. I think I just know to a far greater degree how much it matters and why it is worth it to fight for honesty.
7) Pursuit & love for my creator … and pursuit and love for my wife are inexorably intermingled.
8) The best way to encourage my wife in her relationship with God – is to concern myself with my own relationship with God.
9) My wife is a woman of valor…through and through. She may not always see it…but, her works will praise her. She is a blessing. She is heavenly blessed.
10) One real enemy of marriage seems to be losing the art of appreciation. Taking for granted. Once my internal attitude becomes one of comfy “well, that’s a given”…I need a good slap upside the head with the truth that “this is all GIVEN…and it can all go away.”
Incredibly thankful for these two years: the real is better than the imaginary. Marci, thank you for your sustained love, patience, for growing with me, for sacrificing for me, and for not putting up with me when I am less than what you deserve. You make me desire to always be your equal…and that is a terrifically high bar. I appreciate all the boosts along the way. 😉

Professors are People

Marek Cichanski. Marek was my Geology instructor at De Anza College over 12 years ago. Over 6 feet tall. White and exceptionally nerdy. Yet, when Marek taught Geology the class felt earthquakes. We came in sedimentary. We left metamorphic.

What was so different about Marek? Honesty, love, and a lot of hard work.

I remember being so moved by his teaching style that I went to his office on one occasion.

Me: “…how do you do it? How are you so natural up there? I mean, geology is ridiculously boring, if you were to just read it from a textbook. You make it come alive. How?”

Marek: “Have you ever seen a duck floating on the surface of the water?”

Me: “yes, of course”

Marek: “The instructor is like a duck on water. Above the surface everything seems cool, graceful. But underneath the surface, I’m paddling like mad.”

Not only was this yet another lesson in life about how things are not at all how they appear (watch out for appearances kids…see, Indiana Jones III, climax of the film for a good example of this), but it was a window into a very important, yet often overlooked, fact: Professors are People.

Marek’s transparency concerning the craft of teaching has sprouted wings over time and carried me across some very difficult waters of my own in the classroom. More than that, it reminds me, that my job is to not lose touch with my fallibility and weaknesses. Perhaps what made Marek so great, was that he was not a natural. A lot of love and hard work and the realization that he must never stop paddling. That’s pretty humble. That’s pretty human.

Often, what I’ve learned from professors and instructors outside of academia is not so much “What to think” but “How to be”.

In a society characterized by a worldview of secular humanism it is natural that professors, in some sense, serve as high priests and priestesses of culture. We must ask ourselves then, in what ways do we mediate? What is our message and what is our medium?

Lest you think this is an exercise in self-aggrandizement (yes, I’m a professor)…let me be clear: I am write now this very moment procrastinating from my own work. That’s my point, see. We’re people. We cringe at having to make tests as much, or, I dare say even more, than the students do at having to take them. We agonize over students who just aren’t “getting it”. We internalize both successes and failures. We are never good enough. We are always failing our students. We care more than students may ever know. We want desperately to change the world, one student at a time. We are ridiculously idealistic and all too often arrogant. Many of us are neurotic. Some of us are painfully introverted. We can be hopelessly didactic. We live to learn and learn to teach (yes, I mean that in every way possible). Like pastors, we are stage actors that denounce hypocrisy. So, yes, we often live a lie. And, of course, being idealists, this troubles us deeply.

I guess I’m writing this, if for nothing else, to remind myself that I don’t have to have all the answers. Even if I tried, I’d never have them. What I need is honesty, humility and a lot of love and hard work. To my colleagues…always remember, they are watching your ways far more than they are internalizing your information (however you may be gilding it).

Okay, I’ve procrastinated long enough…time to get back in the water.

Stay Soft

Scene I: Recently I watched the movies “Avengers” as well as “007: Skyfall” for the first time. In movies like these the heroes are so often depicted as strong, confident, agile, decisive, quick-witted…always in command of themselves and their surroundings.  I like these characters. I like this particular portrayal of a hero. I like this myth. I like to project myself into their situations and think, vicariously, that I could be so swift and so sexy.

I am neither swift, nor sexy. I am neither rugged, nor do I have a mind like a steel-trap. I’m not strapping. My combat skills are far from honed. I think the last “fight” I was in, a small Japanese friend named “Shinji” wrapped me into a Judo sandwich and laid me out in roughly thirteen seconds flat.

Scene II: Today in church I walked up behind a group of friends. A husband and wife with two of their daughters and another close mutual friend were all standing in a circle. That mutual friend recently lost several of her best friends. One took her own life. I watched as this husband and wife comforted our dear friend. I looked at the eyes of the husband. They were soft. Gentle. Loving. He held our friend’s hand and spoke tender, simple words to her. I know this man’s wife is absolutely mad about him. For good reason. Few men are strong like this.

On the way back to my car I pondered the reasons why my wife might love me. The first thing that came to mind was that, in a world of men trying so desperately to be tough, I am equally committed to staying soft.

There is a fighter in all men. I would not deny it. There is something strong in us. However, unto what end goal do we latch onto? What are we disciplining ourselves to become? I think, the world has seen no greater strength than the one who allowed himself to be made most vulnerable. Who was so in control of himself that he uttered no curse or threat when they came for him at night by stealth and by force. Who was neither swift nor sexy in making his escape. Who walked straight into the steel trap of the enemy and broke the hinge of injustice. This same one wept openly over Jerusalem’s sins and blindness. This same one was malleable to the father’s heart and will. This one stayed soft, even in his incomprehensible strength.

On the desk of one of my college professor’s always sat a card that read, “There is nothing as strong as true gentleness; nothing as gentle as true strength.”

Stay soft gentlemen.