With a Lump in My Throat

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , on June 10, 2017 by thecrossingchicago

For the past few days, I was at Princeton Seminary for the Frederick Buechner Writer’s Workshop – something so worthwhile that I have made it into an annual pilgrimage.  Listening to geniuses such as Anne Lamott, Kathleen Norris, and the master himself through other greats speak of the craft is exhilarating.  It always serves as the catalyst that I need to get out of a slump and begin to write again with more passion.

Buechner has written volume after volume about religion and spirituality.  In speaking of the word itself, he says that

[r]eligion as a word points to that area of human experience where in one way or another man comes upon mystery as a summons to pilgrimage; where he senses meanings no less overwhelming because they can only be hinted at in myth and ritual; where he glimpses a destination that he can never know fully until he reaches it.

I often find myself allergic to the word “religion”.  When someone launches on a diatribe around religion, I feel my throat swelling, my arms begin to itch, and a sneeze tickle its way out.  Anaphylaxis sets in and my breathing becomes belabored.  The word “spirituality” seems to connote, for me, a more approachable reality that allows for the movement of the spirit and not a mere assent to intellectual understanding or belief.  Buechner provides for me an antihistamine with unfathomable efficacy.

For Buechner, writing  is and was a religious practice.  It is a ritual for the writer to express his or her encounter with the divine.  It is, although often inadequate, an attempt to reveal to the rest of the world what the mystic has perhaps accidentally stumbled upon.  Sitting down to convey such an experience is akin to chanting an ancient liturgy or presenting bread and wine in the hopes that those gathered at the altar can see it as body and blood as clearly as the one who is giving it.

In order to write, to create, to do religion, to actually see beyond the veil, one must acknowledge whatever it is he or she has come upon.  Unfortunately, few of us give ourselves enough credit to be able to see in such a way that our souls converse with the whispers and sighs that are beyond words.  Buechner says:

We are all of us more mystics than we believe or choose to believe—life is complicated enough as it is, after all. We have seen more than we let on, even to ourselves. Through some moment of beauty or pain, some sudden turning of our lives, we catch glimmers at least of what the saints are blinded by; only then, unlike the saints, we tend to go on as though nothing has happened. To go on as though something has happened, even though we are not sure what it was or just where we are supposed to go with it, is to enter the dimension of life that religion is a word for.

“To enter the dimension of life that religion is a word for.”  And there it is.  The redemption, for me, of the word “religion.”  That’s all it is.  Simply a word that struggles in its simplicity to describe a reality beyond description.  Sacred space, thin places, the setting where the Spirit can faintly be heard dancing over the face of the deep causing ripples that seem to hum something so beautiful that not even Barber could have conceived it.

Some do, however, dare to undertake the impossible.  Those who create art are those who listen for the voice of the muses and attempt to translate their message for the rest of us.  Buechner said that those creative souls who set about this work of holy interpretation are driven by a fire not unlike that of Jeremiah when he said that “the word is in my bones and if I do not speak it, it will consume me.”  The labor of imagination and awareness of an unseen place plants the seeds that allow for the birth of the sacred amidst the mundane.

Buechner shows us what this process looks like for the writer as he or she sits down to create as the experience they seek to record is recalled:

First the lump in the throat, the stranger’s face unfurling like a flower, and then the clatter of the keys, the ting-a-ling of the right-hand margin. One thinks of Pascal sewing into his jacket, where after his death a servant found it, his “since about half past ten in the evening until about half past midnight. Fire. Certitude. Certitude. Feeling. Joy. Peace,” stammering it out like a child because he had to. Fire, fire, and then the scratch of pen on paper. There are always some who have to set it down in black and white.

Sitting on the Orange Line train from Midway Airport, alone with my thoughts and having nothing better to do than reflect over the wisdom imparted while hoping that with me it didn’t fall futilely like seeds on barren land, something occurred to me.  Those brave souls like Buechner, Lamott, Taylor, Norris, O’Donohue, and many others who came before and after them make visible for us what is otherwise invisible.  Things like the flutter of angels’ wings behind an oak tree whose leaves are set ablaze by the sinking sun.

For us, these courageous ones who use urim and thummim to see beyond the substance of things unseen all the way through to the true essence of creation and being itself are creative mystics.  They use their tools – pen and paper, computer, typewriter, brush and easel, score paper – and open a door to the place where dreams are birthed from the tehom.

They are like the great scientists who challenge us to imagine that the impossible is possible and that hope is more than ephemeral.  Grabbing us gently by the shoulders and leading us over to peer down into life itself through their microscope or out through their telescope where the heavens expand and Browning’s reach exceeds his grasp, they show us.

“Do you see it?” they ask us.

“No.  What is it?” we say.

“There!  Look there.  You’re looking right at it, but not seeing it.”

And then suddenly we gasp as it becomes visible.  Our eyes wide open followed by a smile so vast that it almost hurts our face.  It comes into focus for the first time.  The sacred.  The mystery.  The burning bush that is engulfed in flames, but not consumed.  And silently we remove our shoes and weep.


* Quotes are from Listening to Your Life: Daily Meditations with Frederick Buechner



The Road

Posted in Uncategorized on May 26, 2017 by thecrossingchicago

I like to think of myself as being perceptive – both when it comes to people and my surroundings.  But, like anyone else, I inevitably miss the occasional cue here and there.  On life’s road, there are many things that I have missed only to become aware of them when they were in the rearview mirror.  Occasionally, this was because someone pointed them out to me and other times it was because I had a brief flash of insight.  It’s usually been the former.

Throughout my formative years I have been like what my mom would call “a fart in a frying pan.”  I would have a “great” idea to make money and then I would chase it down the rabbit hole until I was either burned out or just disinterested.  This led to numerous scholastic endeavors – psychology, law school, MBA, Masters in Geriatrics, Master of Divinity, Professional Coaching certification, blah, blah, blah.  Looking at it linearly from above, it looks like the Google Maps directions for someone heading for Nowhere.  Looking at it from the other side, though, it looks like the process of being formed for something that I couldn’t have anticipated.

In your own life, you will find yourself doing things that seem utterly meaningless.  You may be in that place of your own volition, or maybe because you just followed along with someone else’s hair-brained idea.  You will likely ask yourself many times, “What the heck am I doing here?”  But be careful not to count the experience as useless.

Yes, there are many things that we do that seem like a waste of time and often they are exactly that.  Wrong choices, lack of foresight, not paying attention – all things that can lead us to be someplace that we don’t need to be.  We end up spinning our wheels until we get burned out, rest a bit, and then hopefully get back on the right path.  Even in such places, however, we can glean wisdom about life and begin to see our own path unfold before us.

Today, as a pastor and Professional Coach, I see that every single experience in life has honed me for who and what I am today.  The failures, the victories, even the utter screw-ups that left me and others emotionally scraped and bruised prepared me for “a time such as this.”  The mindfulness and compassion that I hopefully developed along the way have made me a more empathic listener.  The education and experience have made it easier for me to walk in another’s moccasins.  Even experiences that I discounted as meaningless at the time, have come back and enabled me to share in and truly understand another who had a similar experience.  I never saw that coming when it was happening.

You will have many seemingly meaningless experiences.  Some will be painful, some will be apparently pointless, and others will be enriching.  Regardless of how the experience seems at the time or if you embark on a business or educational journey that is never carried to fruition, don’t discount it.  You will most likely need and use those experiences one day.

As you travel your own path of life and are deciding what to do next, look back in the rearview mirror and see where you have been.  It’s likely that something you did in the past can qualify you better than others for the future.  In this backward glance you will find learned skills that you didn’t even know you had which will give you insight into what you’re qualified to do.  Then, turn your glance forward, keep moving, and put those skills to work because only you can do it.


Posted in Uncategorized on May 10, 2017 by thecrossingchicago



a tendency to do nothing or to remain unchanged.

“the bureaucratic inertia of government”



a property of matter by which it continues in its existing state of rest or uniform motion in a straight line, unless that state is changed by an external force.

Thank God for Google.  You can find just about anything you need plus a whole lot that you don’t.  I wasn’t feeling particularly energetic today and the list of things that I need/want to get done was paralyzingly daunting.  Such a feeling tends to lead to complete inaction.

Today, though, I decided I’m going to do one very simple thing.  One of the projects that I wanted to get done was getting rid of the bed in the downstairs guest room and moving one of the couches in there to make it a sitting/reading room.  I figured if I strip the bedding and even leave it on the floor it will motivate me eventually to finish the job as the sheets and comforter collecting dust will drive me nuts.  Well, it worked.

The funny thing was that it worked faster than I imagined.  No sooner had the bedding hit the floor than I gathered it up and took it down to put in the washer.  By the time I made it back up from the basement I was feeling my energy increasing and my capacity for achievement growing in direct relation to it.  So, I grabbed the mattress, flipped it up and headed for the alley.  The box spring went right after it and then I vacuumed under where the bed had been, grabbed the sofa I wanted to move from the living room and man-handled it into the guest-room-turned-sitting-room.

And there it was.  All done.  Well, actually not.  I vacuumed under where that couch had been, rearranged the living room furniture, went to my upstairs office in the church and dusted, vacuumed, wrote a little, meditated, made some phone calls that I’d been putting off and then sat down to write this.

Now, if you’re feeling jealous right about now – it’s ok.  There’s a support group for that.  Just kidding.  I’m actually not writing all this to brag, but rather to share my realization: as I was getting things done, the word inertia came to mind.

I was thinking how inertia is the continuous motion of an object until an opposing force acts upon to make it slow down, stop, or change direction.  Interestingly, it wasn’t until I searched the definition on good ‘ol Google that the “other” definition caught my eye: “a tendency to do nothing or remain unchanged.”

Eureka!  While I was caught up in the great awareness that merely by doing one very simple thing, I could build momentum to complete much more, I failed to be cognizant of another truth: doing nothing is also inertia!  That is, unless I take action, everything will remain unchanged and my to-do list will only grow while tasks become more and more daunting.

So, one moral of this story is as our friend Phil Knight (or more accurately his marketers at Nike) encourages us: Just Do It!  If you have a list of things to do that would put the U.S. Tax Code to shame, it’s ok!  Just pick one very simple thing and do it.  By taking action, you will not only stop the inertia of stagnation, but will set into motion something much more worthwhile and fulfilling – most likely for you and those around.

This basic principle can be applied to just about any facet of life.  From cleaning your house to changing your neighborhood or even the world, all you have to do is start and the laws of physics, the universe, and the Creator of all that is will make the path before you unfold.

Blessings on the Journey,



Posted in Uncategorized on April 3, 2017 by thecrossingchicago

I wonder how long the pause was.  I can see Jesus gulping as he held his breath waiting to see what would happen.  From that moment when he said, “Lazarus!  Come out!” to the point when Lazarus appeared in the doorway of the dark tomb must have felt like an eternity.  I’d like to say that Jesus knew that Lazarus would come out, but I’m more convinced that he didn’t.

For Jesus, it was personal.  He loved Lazarus and his family and Mary and Martha both pointed out that had Jesus come right away when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he wouldn’t have died.

The text says that Jesus felt angry.  He must have been angry with himself for not coming sooner and for the stench that was coming out of the tomb.  So, with clenched fists he cried into the darkness, “Come out!”  It was a plea that he desperately needed answered.  Jesus could call out all he wanted, but it was Lazarus’s choice if he was going to comply.

I don’t think we really consider Lazarus much in this narrative.  What must it have been like for him?  Being at peace in the sweet embrace of death and hearing this voice coming to him through the ether.  Was he angry for being disturbed?  Did he ask himself what good it would do to rise up?  I can imagine how he may have dreaded the bright sun in his eyes and the discomfort that would follow.  It’s likely that he even wondered if he would regret his decision to leave his solace and go back to the mundane and sometimes painful reality of existence.  What he was thinking, though, we will never know because Lazarus remains silent throughout the ordeal.

Jesus wept.  For him it was personal.  I wept.  For me it was personal, too.  We pleaded and begged my grandma to come out of her tomb and allow herself to live.  No matter how much we told her that she was ruining her life and ours, she still chose the bottle over our version of stability.  A couple of forced shots at rehab didn’t do the trick.

I wept.  That Mother’s Day in 1996 when I was driving past her house, I had a strange feeling.  Something inside told me that I needed to stop in and say good bye.  I was leaving the next day to fly to Utah and see my dad for the first time in 12 years.  So, when I went in and bid her farewell, finding her on the floor next to the fireplace (she couldn’t barely move by then and I would have to carry her to the bathroom), she asked me where I was going and her sister replied that I was going to Utah to see my dad.

“Nope,” I thought to myself.  “That’s not what I mean at all.  I’m telling you good bye.”

That night when I came home I was surprised to find that the house was dark and nobody was home.  The red light from the answering machine intermittently lit up the shadowy living room and I pushed the play button.

“Brandyn, I’m sorry to hear about your grandma,” the voice said.  So was I.  We didn’t have cell phones back then, so I had no idea that my mother had gone to tell her mom Happy Mother’s Day and found her dead on the floor where I had left her.  I wept.  It was personal.

As we read stories from the Bible (especially the NT), we subconsciously insert ourselves into the story.  In the story of Lazarus and Jesus, I had cast myself in the role of Jesus calling my grandma out of her tomb and back into the light of day.  Little did I know, I was actually Lazarus.  It was me in the tomb and Jesus was calling me out.  I didn’t realize that I had allowed her addiction to put me in the throes of a feeble attempt at control as I lied on my pall and let the stone be rolled over the door.  Just like it was Lazarus’s choice to come out of the tomb or not, it was my grandma’s choice to seek help for her addiction and my choice to let go.  I could no more control her than I could anybody else and I had to give up on that futile endeavor, thereby allowing myself to live.

It seems blasphemous to say that Jesus didn’t know if Lazarus would appear in that doorway or not.  We naturally want to believe that Jesus can make anything happen.  But when we look at the story of Ezekiel in the Valley of the Dry Bones, God asks him, “Mortal, will these dry bones live?”  Ezekiel replies, “You know, Lord.”  But God didn’t know.  He was telling Ezekiel and Israel that it was their choice whether they live or remain lifeless as the blanket of complacency was pulled up over their head.

Maybe Jesus didn’t know what the outcome would be and for some that may play with their sense of hope.  I think the hope comes after the decision, though.  When Lazarus appeared in that doorway and stepped out into the daylight, it was then that Jesus told the bystanders to unwrap him.  He didn’t tell them to go in and drag him out.  He didn’t go in himself and pull him up.  He let the choice remain with Lazarus, but when Lazarus made his decision, Jesus was right there with the community to give him the strength he needed to make it the best life possible.

To Life and All Its Tragic Beauty

Posted in Uncategorized on December 13, 2016 by thecrossingchicago

o-eric-schmitt-matzen-570Last night, I read an article about Eric Schmitt-Matzen whose long white beard and large frame makes him a shoo-in for playing Santa.  Eric received a call from a nurse at the local hospital saying that a terminally ill five year-old boy was not doing well and had a last wish to see Santa.  So, he went to the hospital and granted the boy’s wish.  After a brief discussion about going to heaven, the boy died in his arms.  I couldn’t help but weep in hearing this story.


Having the boy die in his arms understandably made a wreck of Eric.  He had so many mixed emotions about holding this young child’s lifeless body in his arms that it wreaked havoc on him.  Even four years as an Army Ranger could not prepare him for this event.  I can certainly relate from holding the body of a three year-old in my arms after he drowned.


When I was working as a hospice chaplain, I would often kneel at the bedside of dying patients and hold their hands and pray with them.  Many times, the patient was not coherent because of the amounts of morphine they had to take to ease their pain and family would be gathered at the bedside keeping vigil.  I can recall one particular time especially when I was holding a patient’s hand and had my other hand on his chest as I gave him a blessing and said prayers with the family.  At some point I noticed that I wasn’t feeling the slow and belabored rise and fall of his chest and I opened one eye to look at him.  I noticed the rest of the family was looking at me and then back to the patient.


I was mortified.  I was sure this family would hate me for the rest of their lives and blame me for letting their dad, grandpa, husband die.  I was at a loss for words and trying to think of something to say quickly when his daughter said through silent tears: “That was beautiful.  I can’t think of a more peaceful way to go.  That’s exactly what he wanted.”  I let out a sigh of relief over the lump in my throat and quietly thanked God.  I would have six more similar experiences in my time in hospice and came not to see them as horrific experiences, but instead as things of beauty.


I hope that Eric can, and maybe he already has, come to see that young boy’s passing in his arms as the precious thing that it was.  Yes, it was terribly unfortunate that the little boy had to die so young and it was incredibly sad, but if he had to go, I’m sure he wouldn’t have wanted to go any other way.
Whether we have the heavy, yet great honor of shepherding someone through their transition from life to the arms of God, or observe any other event that could be seen as trying, it would serve us well to look for the beauty in it.  Life isn’t easy and neither is death, but there is always a mysterious element of grace that sits right within the border of tragedy and harmony –  if only we have eyes to see it.

Posted in Uncategorized on November 16, 2016 by thecrossingchicago

repdemI was recently reading an article in the Christian Century about Paul’s preaching methods and visit to Athens when he encountered an idol dedicated to an unknown god.  Paul was invited to go to the Areopagus and speak and had his hackles up about all of the idols he had seen when he decided to change his approach.  Instead of criticizing the Athenians for their idolatry, he commended them on being “religious people” and looked for the common thread that connected him and them.

The author of the article, Anna Carter Florence, had these astute words to say about this event and about ourselves when we are in a situation where we have assumptions and preconceived notions about those around us:

If Paul hadn’t been paying close attention, he would have sailed right past it; if he hadn’t been examining the idols with interest, he would have missed its significance. He would have gotten all caught up in the flashiness of machinery and technology, which are not, in the end, what display our humanity. If you want to know the pulse of a place, look at how it marks its own borders. Look for what it is yearning and searching for beyond those borders. Find its idols, and then find the one that is missing.

Don’t just take a second look; take a second look at the very things that make you want to look away. Take a second look at the idols: the ones that repulse you most, the ones you love to hate, the ones that go against everything you stand for. Examine them closely, because in them you will find the opening. In them you will find the entry point to dialogue and conversation about our common human ache. And just so you know: those idols, the ones you scrutinize so carefully, will actually put your own into sharp relief. Another culture’s statue to the unknown god will probably show you that you had one, too, all along.

In today’s America with a contentious political fog that is so thick that you could cut it with Trump’s barber’s scissors, it is easy to get caught up in what divides us.  We have mental “frames” that shape how we see and think of others.  Our language itself helps create the image that we have of them.  This advice by Florence is timely as it reminds us to look at our brothers and sisters whom we may not agree with in a new light.
As human beings, we all have common needs.  Although those on the other side of the aisle may present them in a way that seems repulsive, it is critical to consider the why of their reasoning.  One example is the belief that we are created in God’s image and every life has value.  For conservatives, this may manifest itself in policy against abortion and euthanasia.  For progressives, it may be apparent in positions that stand against the death penalty or those that provide teaching and training to reduce gang violence.  At the roots of our being, there lies a common thread.  However, depending on how and where we were raised (Athens, Topeka, Chicago), our stances may be in stark contrast even though the premise is the same.
It’s helpful to keep in mind that it’s not just them who invoke moral reason to justify policies that seem utterly senseless to us.  We do it, too.  Even with everyone looking at the same object, it can appear vastly different depending upon the vantage point.  So, perhaps we can find some common ground with those we are ideologically opposed to by looking at our own idols to find the common ache.  Because “those idols, the ones you scrutinize so carefully, will actually put your own into sharp relief.  Another culture’s statue to the unknown god will probably show you that you had one, too, all along.”  Well said, Anna.
Peace on the Journey,

Poetry is Worthless

Posted in Uncategorized on November 12, 2016 by thecrossingchicago

Poetry is worthless, I heard.

It supposedly does nothing for the world.

But it’s not without value, I agree.

Lest the sweet voice of a child or

The sound of a requiem played in the distance

Wafting through the trees to my expectant ear

Be deemed to be without reason.

A prayer whispered on the lips of a dying saint

Or a liturgy penned by a poet of old

For a people who could not find the words.

Worthless?  Perhaps.

Needed?  Absolutely.

– Brandyn Simmons