Ruben et Moi

A few days ago, Chris and I went for a walk with Marie-jeanne and her grandson Ruben, nearly 5. Well, in fact we all went for a walk with Ruben. That is not Ruben in the above portrait; rather it’s his portrayal of me. Not bad, eh? It hangs on our fridge, as I promised him it would, after he drew me a few months ago.

For a lad of nearly five, Ruben is rather small—although you’d never know it from his voice or energy. His hands are tiny, yet dexterous, which he proved as we hunted bugs, toads, worms and one particular grasshopper. Ruben had decided that I was okay on the day he drew my portrait. In fact, he offered me juice and a biscuit whilst completely ignoring his grandparents, his mother and Chris…truly an honour. And he took me to see his room, replete with pirate ship bed, a toy pirate ship and many other fun things. Nous sommes copains.

Our walk was along la voie verte, a disused railway line that is used for walking, cycling and exploration. La voie verte is actually comprised of thousands of kilometres of former railways. We managed about four kilometres that day because we were overwhelmed by discoveries. For example, as Ruben put it,  « Il y a beaucoup d’arbres! » Certainly, the forest is composed of many trees—a lot of them. This can escape the notice of busy adults. And then came THE grasshopper, which Ruben caught and then gingerly carried between his thumb and forefinger. In fact, we all had the opportunity to guard the treasured grasshopper—who, in fact, survived all of us and even managed to escape just before our expedition was finished.

Oh, Ruben gave me a stick, which is indispensable on an expedition such as ours. We used our sticks to push aside tall grass, dig holes, etc. Ruben’s little hand was engulfed in mine as we slid down the river bank to search for stuff…and things. I also hauled him back up the slippery bank (and he still had the grasshopper in his left hand!). Although he yowled two or three times when a bug bit him, he was never put off from finding the next critter. My townie grandkids would have abandoned the hunt long before the third bite. But Ruben lives on a farm, where things bite and peck and butt. And despite living on a farm, he still finds interest in EVERYTHING. When we three adults walked too far ahead of Ruben, we heard a VERY loud  « ATTENDEZ! » And so we stopped. We knew it would be important. When I saw two ladies approaching us with a pram, I informed Ruben they were probably pirates. He gave me that knowing look which said all: «Pirates? Really? They are only found on the high seas. » I suppose he was right, for just as we greeted the supposed pirates, the grasshopper escaped and one of the ’pirates’ caught it and returned it to Ruben. Real pirates would have kept such treasure—as Ruben well knew. So I went back to looking for bugs, which by this time were safely carried in his cap.

If this story has bored you, then it is clear that you need a Ruben in your life, to (re)introduce you to this fascinating planet on which we live. There is so much to discover!

If we live long enough, we eventually come to retirement. This author has, over the years, discovered that no two retirement experiences are exactly alike. For too many people, retirement is simply a long ending. But not so for the characters in my latest novel, The Woods. Here’s the blurb from the back cover:

Carolina Woods— “Where You Live Your Dreams.” After years of work and routine, isn’t this what retirement is all about? And Carolina Woods seems to have it all: situated alongside a thriving university town where one can find culture, leisure activities, intelligent companionship and more. “And more,” aye, there’s the rub; for Carolina Woods is no run-of-the-mill retirement community—it is enchanted. Something not mentioned in the brochures or by the staff. The Woods, as it is known by staff and residents, has a way of revealing everyone’s underlying nature. Be it the inner, playful child, the political fascist, or sex machine, The Woods will peel back the protective layers until all is revealed, to the joy, bafflement, fear or delight of all—and especially for you, the reader. Come take a walk in The Woods. 
Available from 1 October 2021 on Amazon or from Wings ePress.

I’ve known Jack Lawson for forty years. To spend  time with him is to watch his towering intellect, his soulful altruism and his wicked-dark sense of humor spar endlessly with each other. Sometimes it’s inspiring. Sometimes it’s challenging. And sometimes it’s just twisted fun. Welcome to his novel The Woods.—Jim Borgman, Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist and co-creator of the comic strip Zits

Calloused Hands

I have been noticing hands more and more since moving to rural France. We live in Lower Normandy, where nearly everyone–female or male–works with his/her hands in some fashion. We are surrounded by farmers, mechanics and engineers. The mayor of our commune is an engineer for Eaux de Normandie. And just try to find a household which does not have a substantial amount of vegetables and fruit growing–and then come the animals!

Thus, it naturally follows that many people have calloused hands–including myself for the second time in my life. When I was young–beginning at about the age of eleven–I managed about ten lawns/gardens for neighbours. I cut their grass, raked their leaves, shoveled their snow, chopped wood for fireplaces, etc. When I went to college, I worked on construction sites. I also was an avid tennis and racquetball player for decades. Even during seminary I managed the woodland (60 acres), lawn and flowerbeds for a wealthy couple. Thus I had calloused hands…until I finished seminary.

Once ordained, my work was more from the head and heart, and much less from my hands. After my doctorate it only got worse! Preaching, teaching, doing research and writing gave my hands the pallor of a privileged white guy. To some degree I forgot about the simple joy of manual labour. Now lest you think I am going to write a paean to the ‘working class hero’, let me be clear: manual work is hard; and not to be entered upon lightly. It is no less noble and no more noble than any other work–however, there is something different about ‘sweat equity’ and its rewards. Having grown and harvested your own food, having built something with your own hands–or having simply put in hours pulling weeds in a flower garden–all of this yields a tangible sense of accomplishment that pure mental/desk work can never provide. Never. And the only way to prove it is by doing it!

And so, after 40+ years, I’ve come full circle in my life (and not for the first time!). I live once more in a house heated by wood, work on fences, tend goats and chickens, pick fruit and more. And I have calloused hands. But it’s really not come as a surprise…about 50 years ago I took a mind-altering substance while sleeping in the open loft in one of our barns with a college companion. I liked the fact that I could look out at the night sky while listening to the background music made by a mountain stream which gurgled nearby. At some point during that ‘trip’ I looked at my hands, only to see that they had become gnarled, arthritic and wrinkled–just like the ones typing this blog today. The experience wasn’t ‘freaky’ but fascinating–and it was a foretaste…a very accurate foretaste. My point? I’m not exactly sure! But start studying the hands of other people and then you can draw your own conclusions.

The ‘Least’ in Society

I was recently asked by a friend to share a reflection on “the least of these” from Matthew 25:31-46. It was for an upcoming retreat. That passage has been foundational throughout my ministry: from my beginning as a prison chaplain to parishes wherein I founded charities which worked with substance misuse, homeless/hunger and community mediation–and all-too-often with resistance from ‘good church folk!’

It’s interesting to note that the early Christians in Jerusalem were referred to as ‘Ebionites’, coming from the Hebrew אביון (,ebyon, meaning ‘poor’, ‘needy’ or ‘least’). Isn’t it fascinating that Jesus identifies the least as his brethren—those close to his heart? Sadly, the identification of Christianity with the ‘least’ is now only true in places like Africa, the Middle East or Asia. In the West, and particularly in America, the ‘gospel of prosperity’ has become the dominant force within the church. Too many Christians (read ‘evangelicals’) would not want to be associated with the ‘least’ of society–and certainly not with ‘losers’, as a certain ex-president so often called them. We don’t mind giving money for faraway missions or even missions closer to home, as long as it is we who are giving the helping hand. One hand gives, while, all-too-often, the other hand keeps the least (homeless, addicted, jobless, prisoners, hungry) at a safe distance; because, at some deep level, we feel their condition is their fault–and it might be contagious! But happily, Jesus stills comes to change all of that!

It is only as we discover our poverty of spirit that God can fill our empty spaces and bring light to our dark places. Ultimately, we are all the poor in spirit and in need of God’s grace. The good news is that we are all called to receive the nourishment that God offers us when we choose to follow Jesus’s example and share God’s grace with others–particularly the ‘least.’

A God (Hot)Spot?

I spent most of today at St. Martin Hospital in Caen, where my wife was having an outpatient procedure–for which all went well. I had hours on my hands; but only the busy lobby or the hospital café offered space to sit. Outside offered the Normand rain. Despite its noise and rush of people, I chose the lobby. All through the morning, in addition to driving my wife to hospital and getting checked in, I had been thinking about, praying for and corresponding with a dear friend in England who was in a quandary about accepting a priest-in-charge post in the Church of England. Her messages were not sounding like someone keen to embrace a new ministry. As the decision had to be made today, I offered to listen and, if desired, offer feedback. I received a ZOOM link with the next message.

Ah, ZOOM…love it or hate it, it has saved jobs by making remote working possible during the Covid pandemic, has kept friends and family connected, and has provided not a little amusement! Electronic communications aren’t all bad. And in this particular instance, it transformed a noisy spot, next to the escalator, in the middle of a large hospital lobby, into a God-spot. As ambulance drivers asked ambulatory patients sitting near me if they were awaiting transportation home, people entering the hospital behind me checked their temperatures, cleaning staff came along to tidy up after messy humanity, my hard chair became a sacred space of love and concern, tears and questions, frustration and mental wrangling. It was nothing if not an act of divine grace that I was able to tune out all of the potential distractions!–not least my proclivity for people-watching!

But there were were, in God’s hotspot–she in England and me in France (and my wife in the operating theatre!). What had promised to be a backside-numbing four-hour wait was transformed into a holy time of mutuality–in the least likely of spaces. And so I proclaim with Jacob, after his night of holy wrangling: “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God and the gate of heaven!”

Random Grace?

I have been working outside between showers lately. Yesterday I stopped to take note of pansies growing through the gravel on our drive. (I now park our car in another spot.) They are beautiful in their random appearance. That got me thinking about randomness in life, the universe and everything. Our news media tend to focus on the random acts of violence or natural disasters in the world. I recently read a statistic which said that Americans have a 1 in 315 chance of being shot during their lifetimes, while chances of winning the lottery are something like 1 in 14 million. It’s a stark difference in odds or randomness.

Since the early 20th century, those of us who actually believe scientists make a positive contribution to human existence and knowledge, have learned about randomness in our universe via quantum theory. However, it seems to me that for most of us non-physicists, we see randomness as a threat to carefully planned lives. Thus the adage: ‘shit happens.’ But where would we be in a world without (literal) shit? A lot more bloated, for one! Not enough fertiliser, for another. Thank goodness for those who advocate random acts of kindness or pay it forward as an antidote to negativity!

So back to the pansies and their random beauty that I had nothing to do with, any more than the air that I breathe, the rain that falls, the people in shops who help me with my imperfect French or that 15 year old bottle of Bordeaux that a neighbour brought by for my birthday. (We now tutoyer😉!) For those of us who have a faith in God, the Great Spirit, יהוה, the I AM or Being Itself, and also see scientific endeavours as an integral part of the search for Truth that many of us revere, God’s randomness might just as well be called ‘grace’—a gratuitous free gift that we can’t earn, buy or demand. All we can do is open our hearts, minds, eyes, hands and accept it. Providence is the now out-of-fashion word for it: God’s provision or provide(nce) of all the things we need in life but which we have had no hand in bringing into existence—including beauty. (As a novelist, I can honestly say I do not plan what I write or what my characters say. The words are given to me.)

I am not the first, nor will I be the last, writer to posit that maybe, just maybe, grace/love/beauty are in fact the hidden glue that holds everything together in our world. Yes, the very things that we either take for granted or ignore in our mad dash between complaints and rants about the shit that happens in life, while ignoring that God has provided more than enough toilet paper! Take a slow, deep breath and think about it.

Reflections from a Hot Bath

My wife and I live in a nearly two-century-old farmhouse in Basse-Normandie. We have a stable, hangar and henhouse, as well as another old building that is badly in need of repair. I am not without rural experience, for my early years were spent in the countryside and my family had a farm in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains. So it’s one of those life-come-full-circle experiences…except that I am considerably older and yes, weaker, than I was 40-50 years ago. But hard work, digging the soil, building something with one’s own hands, is honest, satisfying work.

As I worked around our property today—thus my need for a hot bath!—I mused about my 40+ years of ministry. Much of it was not ‘honest, satisfying work’—and it seemed at a remove from reality. Here’s what I mean: The biggest mistake I made going I to parish ministry as a profession, was that I thought that my parishioners/congregations would be seekers after the truth—i.e. ready for the honest, hard, but satisfying, work of faith. Seeking the truth about themselves, society, their relationships, etc. Was I ever wrong! The institutional church is where you go for the imitation of seeking truth and serving God. Or, as a Catholic colleague put it: “Pray, pay and (perhaps) obey”!

Now I hasten to add that I spent my first seven years of ministry as a prison chaplain. It was, in fact, honest, satisfying work. It was real. Facades and platitudes were chewed up and spat out by inmates. Hell, they had nothing to do but study human behaviour day after day. They could spot phoney a mile away. You only dared come as who you were. In that regard it was refreshing! And there’s the rub with parish ministry. People dress in their ‘Sunday best’ precisely because they want to look good—better than they actually are 7 days minus an hour or so each week. Most do not attend services to do the hard work of looking in faith’s mirror, to grow and change, to reflect about the gap between appearance and reality or even to confess their failings—because the “Good News” really is about love and forgiveness. Churches—for the most part—are not hospitals for sinners, but rather retirements homes for phoney saints. And I am truly sorry and repent for the years in which I helped prop up that institution. But I thank God that I have had the time to reflect and change over the last 20 years; to focus my energy and gifts on issues and places in society which really matter. And I thank God that Chris and I are in this wonderful place in France, surrounded by farmers, mechanics and artisans, who produce food, repair tractors, refurbish houses (like ours!) and who accept me as ‘Jack’—purely and simply, for that is who God made me to be. And that is my gift to the world.

White (Privilege) Flight?

The world awaits the outcome of the Derek Chauvin trial. It is a trial in which American justice itself is in the dock. But since George Floyd’s death at the knee of Derek Chauvin, there have been numerous other killings of African-Americans at the hands of police. And then there are the mass shootings–the new ‘American way’. Can’t get a date? Kill people. Unhappy at work? Kill people. Can’t hold a job? Kill people. And for heaven’s sake, don’t use a simple handgun–use an assault rifle! More deaths per magazine! The trouble with leaving the US is that the news follows you. And it continues to be bad news, which is not surprising, but it is depressing. (Another mass shooting just popped up on the screen while writing this!)

My wife and I returned to Europe after just 3.5 years in the US (this time!). And we have no intention of returning. To add some context, I grew up in the American South before leaving to live most of my adult life in England. Back in the 1960s ‘white flight’ referred to whites leaving the cities when blacks, Asians, Latinos and others began moving into older, established city neighbourhoods. Churches, commerce and education followed suit and moved to the suburbs. Urban decay set in. Not because of ‘peoples of colour’ moving in, but precisely because faith groups, schools and businesses moved OUT. African-Americans and other minorities were not well-enough enfranchised economically to succeed in the relative monoculture left behind. And they, of course, were blamed for the urban poverty.

So here I sit in rural France wondering whether I have enacted another form of ‘white flight’? Here’s what I mean. The two times I moved (unsuccessfully) back to the US, white privilege became apparent to me as it had never done so before. Being white means one does not have to ask for privilege: it is simply a given. The difference between racism in America now and in the 1960s is NOT that it is being filmed, as Will Smith has reputedly said. Racism was filmed in Little Rock, the Montgomery bus boycott, at the Edmund Pettus Bridge and scores of other places fifty and sixty years ago. Under Jim Crow, whites were assumed to be in agreement unless they broke ranks and became ‘n—-r lovers’. Jim Crow was the water in which we all swam. What has changed is that nowadays whites have to use their own version of ‘signifying’ in order to communicate their racism and to see where other white people stand. I am almost embarrassed to write some of the things that white people said to me and/or my wife to see if we were ‘on side’. Here are a few: “We have bright days ahead. We won’t have to apologise for being white much longer.” “Have you ever noticed how all black people smell funny?” Frankly, that’s enough. It gets worse–much worse.

We left America simply because of white people. Ironic, ain’t it? We left because of white hatred, white racism, white supremacy, white fear, white recruitment into violent hate groups/militias and white people with guns. Our values as human beings and Christ-followers were almost in daily conflict with the culture around us. We felt under assault. Now lest you think we have moved into a monoculture here in France–far from it. There is a very large Turkish community in our town, two large Gypsy/Traveller communities, there are Africans from all of the former French colonies and overseas departments and more. Europe is far more multicultural than the US.

In sum, we were not about to join the “In Guns We Trust” brigade, nor could we change our skin colour. So we changed our country of residence. We have no regrets.

Life Is so Peculiar

I was recently blocked from the Far Side (Gary Larson) FB page, dedicated to the great cartoonist’s wit, as well as other like-minded cartoonists. I had made what I thought was an apposite comment about a cartoon. The cartoon in question was of a black swan (not an “ugly duckling“) looking into a pond and seeing itself as a white swan. I simply commented that “in these days of Black Lives Matter (and they do), this cartoon might not be found very amusing/endearing.” Boom! I was shut out and told, in a private email, not to post political statements and “Don’t be a dick.” Since when is racial sensitivity itself a political statement? Oh I know, race has been politicized for years–but sensitivity? I guess it’s okay to be abusive in a private email…kinda surprised I wasn’t called a ‘N-lover’! I would sincerely like to hear from any readers of this blog as to what you think about this (minor) situation. Is it just another example of unconscious racism/white privilege?

By the way, I remain a big Gary Larson fan. I love his off-beat sense of humour and I love the way he parodies human creatures vs. four-legged and other creatures. Would he post such a cartoon today? I honestly don’t think so. A lot of us white folk have had to re-evaluate our positions of privilege and the many expressions and assumptions we have taken for granted, e.g. black sheep of the family, black mark against someone, Devil’s food cake (dark) vs. Angel food cake (white), etc, etc. In any case, being closed out of a Facebook page is no great problem for me, given the world’s problems, and I would certainly make the comment again. Let me hear what you think.

The Way of All Flesh

My fourth novel is now ready for publication and is totally unlike the previous three. This book is a farce set in an enchanted retirement community, called Carolina Woods. I have described the community as a blend of Dante’s Inferno and Greek mythology’s Hades, as people fully become what they were all along, but generally hid from public view. Their fully realized personae are both mirthful and tragic. Writing the book was both a way of coping with the second Covid lockdown as well as dealing with my own aging. I am writing this in the wake of my youngest first-cousin’s death–he leaves a wife and two teenaged children. He also leaves a positive legacy as a man, husband and father. He was far too young to die, but then death nearly always comes as an inconvenience.

The trick to dealing with death is first, to accept that we all I have to die–yes, you too! And second, to live one’s life well and fully in the face of one’s mortality. There, that’s my summary of 69 years’ existence and 40+ years as an ordained minister. A third strategy–if you need one–is to befriend each stage of life. I have a progressive-degenerative disease which has reduced my life considerably, but this is my reality. There are no brakes; and kicking and screaming will not help one iota.

As an early 30-something pastor, I remember an old codger who used to stop by the church office about every 2-3 weeks. As soon as he was spotted, the secretaries would literally run and hide in the loos. He was an unhappy man and gladly shared his misery with all and sundry. I remember remarking to a church volunteer one day that I hoped never to become such a miserable old fart as he. I have never forgotten her reply: “Jack, you don’t suddenly become like that at a certain age; it takes a lifetime of practice. You have nothing to fear.”

As a writer I would be remiss not to urge you to buy and read The Woods when it appears later this year. I hope it makes you laugh out loud, but I also hope it gives you pause to consider who you are and how/if you are becoming the person you want to be. After all, we are all in the process of becoming forever what we are freely choosing and loving most right now.