Four Weeks Book Excerpt: Scent

Below is an excerpt from my new Advent ebook, Four Weeks: Reflections for Advent.

When I began seminary, I bought a pine forest-scented candle for my apartment. That summer I had discovered how watching a burning flame had the power to quiet my soul and help center my attention on my own thoughts. Candles have aided thousands of people over the centuries in doing this, and with my studies just beginning I wanted to remind myself of what I was pursuing; that it wasn’t just a degree but something deeper.

I often lit this candle late at night, during what I intended to be a time of renewal at the end of the day. Yet that first semester featured a much more difficult adjustment than I expected, so those evening sessions usually came with questions of identity and feelings of longing that often pushed me past a reasonable bedtime. The flame was my life raft in a sea of self-doubt, the scent an added bonus that I didn’t intend.

This candle has made every move with me since. The wick has been burned far too low and drowned too often in wax for it ever to be lit again, but I can’t bring myself to throw it out. I’ve always found a place for it on a bookshelf or desk or side table, and thankfully nobody yet has questioned its placement or thought disposing of it would be doing me a favor.

Even though I can’t light it anymore, there’s a power to this candle that largely goes unseen by the casual observer. Every so often I’ll pick it up, put my nose right into the melted center, inhale, and be transported right back to my basement seminary apartment where it provided the flame by which I wrestled with God every night. A single whiff of this candle’s particular aroma (no other “pine forest” scent has recreated it…believe me, I’ve investigated) brings it all rushing back, and I remember the One who held me in check and urged me forward in the dead of my own spirit’s night.

Many people love this season because it means that you get to do certain things you don’t do the rest of the year. It means baking snowman cookies with Grandma or singing carols in worship or going to that party that so-and-so always organizes. These events and activities make this time of year what it is.

But as much as Christmas can mean what you get to do, it can also symbolize the things you don’t do any more. Maybe age or mortality has declared that we can’t gather in Grandma’s kitchen for baking any more. Maybe now “Silent Night” brings thoughts rushing back of someone no longer able to join in the chorus of voices. There’s no party this year, because the host took a new job in another state and you don’t talk as often as you used to.

It could be years since you stopped, but the right smell or song can bring the memories right back in a moment, and you remember what you used to do, and you’ve been wondering what this season is without them.

I smell my candle, and the difficulty of that time isn’t really what overtakes me so much as how far I’ve come since. I needed those days of doubt and growth more than I knew as they happened. If this week is about peace, maybe thoughts of days gone by can bring it by reminding us of where we’ve been and who we’ve been with, but also who we’ve become by being there.

This peace becomes more complex as we get older. But beneath the smells and the sounds, it still wafts and flickers, calling us into quiet assurance.

Four Weeks: Reflections for Advent is available on Smashwords, Barnes and Noble, and Apple Books.

No Perfect Time Book Excerpt: Darren

The following is an excerpt from No Perfect Time: Brief Essays on Life and Faith. Today marks 20 years since the events described in this essay, and I wanted to mark this important day by sharing it.

While I was in college, I joined a fraternity. A lot of people who have never been in a fraternity or sorority wonder what possibly could have possessed me to do such a thing. To be honest, I surprised myself the day I decided to do it. The choice was organic: I lived across the hall from two members my freshman year, I got to know a few others through my involvement with the Athletic Band, and still a few others through campus ministries. Due to these pre-established relationships, going through the process became a real possibility after a while.

I pledged with three other guys. Ian was my best friend in college, with a flamboyant personality and often a Hawaiian shirt to match. Mike was a Cadillac enthusiast with a slight Southern twang. And there was Darren.

I remember the first time I met him at a pre-pledging mixer. He was a stocky guy, still sporting his high school letter jacket and a pocked complexion beneath large-framed glasses. It was easy for this band geek to spot a kindred spirit: I ascertained that he’d earned his letter by playing a horn rather than a sport. 

I forget what we talked about that night, but I remember that he was in a jovial mood, which was something that defined who he was. The entire time that I knew him, he’d give a mock punch to the shoulder here, a quick joke there, and always said with a toothy smile and a coy deference afterwards.

That smile, man. There was nothing coy about that smile. It was out there. It sprang from somewhere deep inside him. I saw from the get-go that Darren wanted to be your friend. There wouldn’t be anything fake about this friendship, either. He was friendly to give, not friendly to get. Know what I mean?

We all pledged together. Fraternity pledging activities don’t enjoy a sterling reputation, but it brought these four odd-fitting weirdos together; four autonomous individuals learning to work as one. Ian and I had known each other pretty well already and had decided in advance to watch each others’ backs. But we both slowly came to bond with the others and by the end of two weeks’ worth of memorization, calisthenics, rituals, fatigue, and even some tears, we became Aps. We were certainly proud of our accomplishment, but we were more proud of how close we’d become.

For the rest of our college careers, Ian, Darren, and I in particular always celebrated this closeness. We’d crash in one guy’s room to watch a movie or head out for the night together. We supported Darren after his diagnosis of diabetes. I prayed with him one night for another brother dealing with a critical injury in the hospital. We took our bonds seriously, the relationships we’d forged before and during pledging only strengthening over time.

Near the tail end of my senior year, the frat organized a retreat to an area campground. Ian couldn’t make it, and at first Darren wasn’t going to go until I talked him into it. I offered to drive us out to the meeting spot. During the car ride, I noticed that whenever we’d pass a cemetery, he’d make the traditional Catholic gesture of crossing himself.

I could tell that he wasn’t meaning to draw attention to this, but after the first few times he’d piqued my curiosity and I asked about it.

“Oh, a while back my uncle died. We were pretty close, so I like to remember him by saying a prayer whenever I pass a cemetery.”

That was it. He didn’t embellish that much and I didn’t push. And for the rest of the trip—both there and back—it never failed. See a cemetery, silent prayer. There’s something about ritual that helps us mark relationships: we designate times and genuflect in the appropriate moments and ways to remember what and whom we care about the most. I learned something new about Darren’s family and his faith that day. One simple, even routine, motion had become for him an important act of memoriam.

Darren was a groomsman at my wedding. By this time, he’d taken great steps to control his diabetes and had demonstrated a robust commitment to keeping it in check through diet and exercise. Of course, it didn’t stop him from the occasional indulgence: I clearly remember him chowing down on McDonald’s the morning of the ceremony. For some reason, no one thought hard or long enough about it to chastise or rib him about it. It was a warm sunny weekend during which he’d helped mastermind the generous amount of silly string covering my car.

Fall came, and the leaves turned their glorious array of reds, yellows, and browns. One November evening, Ian called, a somber tone to his voice.

“Are you sitting down?”

“Um…yeah.”

At this point, I thought it would be an account of his latest spat with his girlfriend. The two had been on quite a rollercoaster the past few months, so I waited for the “he said, she said” to hit. I probably readied some kind of relationship advice in anticipation.

“Okay. There were a series of tornados that passed through northwest Ohio today. They’ve been assessing damage and casualties and there was only one death in Seneca County.

“It was Darren.”

I sat on the steps of the apartment building, trying not to drop the phone. We spoke for a few more minutes, but I couldn’t tell you anything that we talked about. I once read something about how, when the brain feels threatened or wants to mask pain, it releases endorphins as a defense mechanism. Whether it was this or the near-blinding amount of confusion and disbelief that began churning within me, the rest of that conversation is lost to the ages.

Andrea reacted much more suddenly, beginning to sob as the news touched her ears. Part of me felt jealousy about this, wishing that I’d reacted like that in order to feel something, but there was nothing for me but more endorphins, more churning, more disbelief. Only a few months ago had he stood up in a tuxedo in support, after wolfing down a couple cheeseburgers and before hosing down my car in silly-string. Him and his leaner, healthier frame thanks to his new diet. He who grinned out of someplace in the center of his being. There was no way that a guy like that was gone already.

The priest for his funeral was obnoxious. He loudly cracked jokes with family members during the entire calling hours on a couch right next to the receiving line. Only a year prior during my seminary studies had I learned about pastoral care, and this guy had obviously skipped the whole “ministry of presence” thing, let alone any personal sense of discretion. I greeted Darren’s parents, who had remembered me from something or other, and then I approached the casket, wondering how or if I’d react.

Seeing him was the worst part. I don’t know what your opinion is about open caskets and how necessary they are to the grief process, but in this instance it didn’t do him any favors. They’d been extra generous with the base, turning him almost white in the process; a ghost of who he’d been, with a hint of rouge and lipstick in an ironic attempt to make him look like himself. I could spot places where they’d had no choice but to pack it on, and looking back I wonder whether it would have been worse to see him like that or not see him at all.

Either way, finally seeing him caused the numbness to evaporate and I completely let go. It was a little embarrassing. But after days of wondering why I hadn’t yet felt the way I wanted to feel, my delayed emotions caught up to me and I wasn’t about to stop them. At 23 years old, he my groomsman and I his pallbearer. Nothing about this—his age, the oblivious priest, the horrible makeup—was fair. I knew that God knew it, too.

There was a mist in the air at the cemetery. A half-acre of college friends huddled close in the late autumn cold, listening to more words from the priest, now in his serious mock-pious mode. He said his benediction and we were allowed to disperse, though nobody did. We craved the company in this place visited far too soon. Finally, as if on instinct, a group of his metaphysical brothers stood shoulder to shoulder, looking each other in the eyes as we said words that had become second-nature to us:

Let us drink, Aptonaltons, this toast
May it ever be our creed of fraternity.
That we live out our lives with the fullness and zest
That can come to us only by giving our best.
To our country, our school, and to all whom we meet,
Laughing with strength in the face of defeat.
Let us strive to be always leaders of men
Champions of right and of good to the end.
Let us love with a love neither false nor yet blind
With every respect for all womankind.
And last, as we drink let us ‘ere keep in mind
To be friend and brother to all mankind.
Returning the wrongs that were done us with good
Furthering always man’s brotherhood.
This be our toast, and by it let us live
That to God and to man our best we may give.

There was no moment when the meaning of those words had been rendered any clearer for that circle of young men, their arms wrapped around one another in grief. 

The toast seemed to be what people were really waiting for, as it was only at that point that we began making plans for the rest of the day. Some opted for an early meal and a drowning of sorrows in a local pub. Others had to get back to jobs, families, schools, or other responsibilities. Again, I can’t remember what I did, but it involved a quick goodbye to Ian, so we were probably on the road pretty soon after.

Nowadays when I pass a cemetery, I think back to my trip with Darren to the retreat and his explanation of his prayer. I don’t make any movement of my own as I pass, but I do often think about him. I think about the gesture that he would have made, and the faith and character behind it all. Somehow, I think that’s enough.

No Perfect Time: Brief Essays on Life and Faith is available on Smashwords, Barnes and Noble, and Apple Books.

Four Weeks Book Excerpt: Lights

Below is an excerpt from my new Advent ebook, Four Weeks: Reflections for Advent.

In my elementary school years, we lived in a parsonage out in the country, surrounded by corn and tarred gravel roads. Our nearest neighbors lived a half mile away, and other than the church there wasn’t a whole lot of reason for the occasional car to stop or even slow down. We lived on the way to somewhere else.

Every December, we decorated like most other families. The tree was the main event, and we had a few other small items we’d hang or place in noticeable areas. Other than our artificial evergreen, my brother and I were probably most excited by the strands of colored lights that we used to outline the windows of the living room and our bedrooms. We had to take turns switching on the living room ones, but we were given complete autonomy with those in our rooms. We’d wait until it was just dark enough, and then either leave them on all night or unplug them again just before bed.

From the road, I can’t imagine that these were much to look at. These smaller bulbs were perhaps barely visible from more than a hundred yards away. In addition, they constituted the extent of our outside decorations: we didn’t put lights in trees or bushes or on the porch; we had no garland wrapped around banisters or railings. And nobody had yet produced the gaudy inflatable Peanuts characters that are now so popular. No, all we had were modest window lights, unimpressive to most, especially relative to the way some canvas their yard with all manner of holiday cheer.

But those lights excited us. And we didn’t much care about the rest.

While driving after dark, I notice houses that are decorated like my childhood home. All they can muster are a few egg-sized bulbs around a window or a plastic Santa by the door. Maybe there’s little more than a wreath at the entrance or a star on the chimney. They’ll be passed unnoticed in favor of displays bigger and brighter; that people consider much more festive. People pass by what they see as half-hearted attempts on the way to somewhere else.

We’ll never know the reasons why such houses do what seems like the bare minimum. Maybe that single strand is all they could afford, or they’re too busy or fraught with anxiety to trouble themselves with much more. Maybe the season brings too many reminders of grief and loss, and even that plastic Santa is more than they wanted to do. Maybe that star on the chimney doesn’t seem like much, but it’s everything to the person who hung it, because they fought themselves to put it there at all.

This time of year, the smallest light is the best some can show.

Four Weeks: Reflections for Advent is available on Smashwords, Barnes and Noble, and Apple Books.