Friday, July 5, 2013

My Most Unexpected Friend.

“…and may we love our neighbours as ourselves
by drawing them all with our whole strength to Your love
by rejoicing in the good fortunes of others…
and by sympathizing with the misfortunes of others…”
-Francis, The Prayer Inspired by the Our Father

The first time I saw him, he was passed out in the grass, sprawled across the ground like a great, fallen oak.

Chris and I were handing out sandwiches in the park.  It was my first summer in Modesto, and we were still finding our way in “ministry to the homeless”.  

“I’ll take one for ‘im,” one of his buddies said, “I’ll give it to him later.”

We left him with a little lunch bag and a bottled water.

The next time I saw him, he was sitting at a picnic table, drunk and pathetic.  We were handing out day-old bread from our ambulance.  Every Thursday, we came down to the park with a load of bread and pastries we received from the local gospel mission.  We packed stacks and stacks of boxes into our ministry vehicle: an old, gutted ambulance someone had donated to us.  We affectionately called her Big Whitey.

I stood outside Big Whitey, as volunteers and friends helped to direct the large crowd of people toward their bread and desserts.  I noticed him sitting at the picnic table looking rather forlorn.  I went and sat down across from him.

“Hey, man,” I said.  “You doin’ okay?  Can I get you something?”

He looked up at me with the biggest, saddest, grey-blue eyes I’d ever seen.  “Can I have a pie?”

“Sure,” I smiled.  “I can get you a pie.  Hold on a sec.”  And I went to the van to recover an apple pie for the man.  I set it down on the picnic table.

“Thank-you!” he blubbered.

“Are you okay, man?  What’s troubling you?” I asked.

He began to weep, and as he spoke, the big man’s voice took on the squeak of a crying little boy.  “I lost my keys!” he said.  “I’m stayin’ in my sister’s back yard and I got drunk and I lost my keys!”

“I’m sorry,” I replied.

“She’ll be so mad at me.  I’m in a camper in her yard and I lost my keys cuz I got drunk!”

“It’s okay, man.  It’ll be okay.  Would you like me to get you a pie for your sister?  Would that help?”

He blubbered and whimpered.  “Yeah!”

A moment later I came back with another apple pie, and he wept out another, “Thank-you!”

“My name’s Aaron, by the way,” and I offered him my hand.

“Aaron?” he sniffed, “I’m Arley.”  He pointed at his left hand.  There, on the back of his hand, tattooed in blue, was written in childlike script, “A - r -L - i - E”.  

“I did that when I was fourteen,” he sniffed. “I spelled it wrong.”

“But it’s a good way to remember who you are,” I said. “It’s always right there.”

Arley hrumphed.

“You want a cigarette?” I asked.


I had begun carrying a pack of cigarettes with me.  Personally, I mostly stuck to my trusty pipe, but I found that having a cigarette handy was a great way of starting a conversation with a homeless person.  I pulled out two cigarettes and placed them on the picnic table.  Before he even touched the cigarettes, Arley scooped up my hands into his big, calloused mitts, and broke down weeping.

“Thank-you, man!  Oh, thank-you!” he cried.

“That’s okay, Arley,” I replied.  “That’s okay.”

The next time I saw Arley, he was sober.  I think it was the first time I’d actually seen him standing up.  He was in the park, and he walked with the gait of a grizzly bear on two legs.  

“I’m doin’ a lot better today,” he said.  “I ain’t been drunk seen the last time you saw me.”

As he spoke, I heard a calm southern drawl come out, one that I hadn’t heard in the slurred speech of the drunk I’d first met.  Arley told me he was from Arkansas.  Though he’d been born here in California at a migrant workers camp straight out of The Grapes of Wrath, his family had moved back to Arkansas when he was still very little.  He was the last of twelve kids.  His life had taken him everywhere from oil rigs to Folsom Prison, and even though he’d been in Modesto for a long time now, he called himself a hobo.  As I saw him more and more at the park, sometimes drunk and sometimes sober, I learned more and more of his story.  Sometimes I had cigarettes to give him, and sometimes I rolled his rollies for him, because he was too drunk to roll them himself.  When he was sober, he was relatively at peace, but when he was drunk, he was the same weeping mess I’d first met. 

It was on one of his drunk days, with tears streaming down his face, that he would ask me the most important question of our friendship.

“Can you get me a Bible?”

“Of course, Arley.  I’d be happy to.”

A week later, I presented him with a good translation I’d found with big, readable letters.  He was sober, but he thanked me and thanked me and thanked me with the earnestness of a drunk.

Over the next few weeks, I’d see him from time to time. We’d sit down at the picnic table. I’d give him a couple of cigs, and we’d talk. 

“Man, those Psalms,” he’d say, shaking his head slightly and looking off to the sky over my left shoulder, “Those are powerful.  Powerful.”

When I first got to know Arley, he was drunk, bad drunk, just about every other time I saw him.  But something was changing, and soon I began to see “sober Arley” much more often than “drunk Arley”.

One day, when I was off on one of my adventures, sober Arley was talking with Jimmy about those Psalms.  He stared off into the sky above Jimmy’s left shoulder.  When his eyes came back to meet Jimmy’s, there was a tear in one of them.   “He bought me that Bible with his own money,” he said.

Arley loved to read it, and every time I’d see him, he’d speak in that gentle drawl of his, like a cowboy addressing his horse.  “That’s quite a book,” he’d say. “Powerful, powerful stuff.”

I wondered if that book, like the tattoo on his hand, was beginning to remind him of who he really was.

Months later, I sat next to Arley at a barbecue the church was putting on for the homeless community.  Chris was singing with his blues band, a band that came together for events such as this.  He was belting out a song about heaven, and as the song came to its crescendo, Arley turned and looked me straight in the eye and offered his hand.

“Hi,” he said, “My name is Arley Preston Robinson, child of God and True Believer in the Lord Jesus Christ!”

“Hi, Arley,” I said.  “Nice to meet you.”

It was just a few years later that Arley Preston Robinson was with us while we visited Ninth Street, a horrible and holy place we’d begun visiting some time before.  Arley had truly become one of the team, a real friend, and he loved coming with us to be with people who were, as he once had been, desperately lonely.  We pulled our relatively new van (a significant upgrade from Big Whitey, God rest her soul) into the Arrow Inn one Friday morning, and began distributing some bread and donated clothing we happened to have that week.

Jessica came to pick out some clothes.  Jessica was about thirty years old, with feathered hair, earrings, short shorts and a tight tank top.  Jessica’s make-up was a bit garish, but had obviously been applied carefully.  Jessica was also a man.  He perused the table and picked out a frilly top, and began rummaging through a box of shoes.  Arley stood by the table, and I wondered what he might be thinking as he watched this young man.

Very few things that come out of Arley’s mouth can ever be predicted, and true to form, he surprised me.

“I like yer nail polish!” he chuckled.

“Thank-you,” said Jessica.  He did not speak with any affected tone, which somehow made his appearance all the more strange.

“What’s yer name?” asked Arley.


“Jessica, I’m Arley,” he said, offering his hand.  Jessica received it as Arley said, “Yeah, that’s a good colour for you.”

“Thank-you,” said Jessica, and flashed a quick smile.  “I’m looking for pumps,” he said, quite serious.  “Do you have any in my size?”

“Well I don’t know,” said Arley.  “What size are ya?”


Arley and Jessica had no luck finding pumps in Jessica’s size, but Arley did manage to find him a nice apple pie.  Somehow, to my amazement, this unlikely pair, the hobo and the cross-dresser, had made a connection.  A few minutes later, they were sitting on the steps of Jessica’s motel room.  I watched the two of them as I distributed bread.  Arley put his arm around Jessica’s shoulder.  

Later, as our little group pulled away in the van, I asked him what he and Jessica talked about.

“Oh we just chatted,” he said.  “I asked him, ‘Now what’s yer true name?’  He said it was Claude.  I told ‘im I’d try to find him some nice shoes this week.”

The following Friday, Arley hopped into the van to visit Ninth Street with us.  In a little black grocery bag, he carried a pair of large women’s pumps.  But we didn’t see Claude that week, nor the next.  We didn’t know if we’d ever see him again.  

A few years later, we were on Ninth Street again, handing out hot drinks, donuts and bread at a nice, open spot by the bus stop.  A man approached to get some coffee.  In front of him was a thin-framed black woman, who was quite demonstrative, scattered, and somewhat out of her head.  She bumped him, and the man snapped.  A tirade of epithets and threats came out of his mouth.  

The man was obviously profoundly mentally disturbed.  Our friend Josiah intervened and tried to diffuse the situation and create some distance between the woman and her aggressor.  Soon Jimmy stepped in and began talking to the man.  Jimmy did his best to calm him down, but as Jimmy spoke with him, he kept looking over Jimmy’s shoulder at Arley.

“Who is that guy?” the man scowled.

“That’s our friend Arley,” Jimmy told him.

The man scowled a moment longer, his eyes set hard on Arley.  “I want to talk to him.”

A few moments later, Arley approached the man, his eyes determined and kind.  

“You want a cigarette?” Arley asked.

The man nodded.

The two of them sat down on the curb and began to talk.  I watched from where I was seated.  I didn’t recognize the man, but the scene seemed familiar.  Arley put his arm around the man’s shoulders.  The two of them bowed their heads.  Arley was praying for him.  Eventually the two of them stood, and Arley held the man like a father holding his son.   In that moment, I couldn’t help but remember the fallen oak and the weeping wino I’d first met just a few years before, and I choked back a sudden onrush of tears.  

As the two let go of their embrace, Arley said something to the man, as if in benediction, and the man walked on in peace.

As we piled into the van to leave, I asked Arley who that man was.

“You remember Claude?” he asked.

“Oh my gosh,” I said.  “That was Claude?”

“That was Claude,” Arley said.  “He remembered me.”  Arley gazed out the window into the sky above the city.  “We had a good talk.”

I had spent the morning writing the first part of this story.  That afternoon, I received a call from Chris.  Arley had passed away.  I’d been able to see him just a week before he died, over about two days.  Years ago he had moved out of the camper that had been permanently parked in his sister’s back yard, and had instead created a little dwelling place for himself back there.  He called it the Hobo Shack.  

He was always working on the Hobo Shack.  Tweaking a little something here, adjusting a cardboard and plywood wall there, and over the years he collected a few comforts.  We had an old couch at the church that we gave him.  It fit perfectly, and became his bed.  He found a discarded TV in an alleyway.  He made a space for that.  He found an old rooftop TV antenna.  He mounted that on the fence and hooked it up.  We had an old washing machine that needed a new home.  He took that, and christened it with a black marker:  “HOBO WASH”.  Eventually, he even got himself a refrigerator.  As the Hobo Shack became more refined, he began to call it the Hobo Hilton.

That last week before he died, I came to the Hobo Hilton to see him.

“Come on in,” he said.  And there he was, the fallen oak, reclining on the couch that also served as his bed, in the tiny but homey hovel he called his house.  I knew he had been ill over the last few months, but I was a bit alarmed to see how little energy he had.  It had really taken its toll.  But underneath it he was still himself, the irascible curmudgeon and S.O.B. who truly loved the God who had saved him.  

He always liked people to think he was still mean, but his kindness knew depths unmatched by many, and he loved to give gifts whenever he could.  Perhaps it would be something he found in an alleyway, or a toy from the dollar store for my friends’ kids, or some other thoughtful thing he thought somebody needed.  On my birthday, that last year before I left Modesto, he even let me beat him at a game of dominos at the Ninth Street CafĂ©. 

“I want to give you somethin’ for your birthday,” he said as he puffed his cigarette.  “You wasn’t here but I want to give you somethin’.”

He pulled out a small package, wrapped in paper towel and electrical tape.  I tore it open to find his gift.  A pack of Marlboros and a pink Bic lighter.  For years now, his running joke had been to give me “Pinky” whenever he bought a pack of lighters.

I laughed.  “Pinky!  Thanks, man!”

We spent the afternoon together.  He and his sister had recently come into a little money when a relative had passed away, and it was becoming a very hot summer.  The Hobo Hilton would have one final addition, and the two of us trekked off to Wal-Mart to find it.  An air conditioner.  We brought the small unit back to the shack, and eventually had it hooked up to the Hilton.  He cut a square through the curtain / wall at the foot of the couch, and we set the unit on a little end table there.  Soon the AC was purring like a kitten, and cooling down the Hobo Hilton.

Before I left, we had to enjoy his birthday gift together.  My first gifts to him were pie and cigarettes.  His last gifts to me were Pinky and a pack of Marlboros.  The Marlboros are gone, having been forgotten and washed in a pair of cargo shorts (which was probably for the best), but Pinky is right here in my pocket, and I thank him for it whenever I light my pipe.

Thank-you, Arley, for helping me to learn what love is.  Thank-you for being a true and loyal friend.  

Welcome to that Heaven Chris was singing about.  

Arley Preston Robinson, child of God and True Believer in the Lord Jesus Christ, welcome to the Heaven you were made for.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

The Happiest Kiss


To say she drifted like an angel along the bustling streets of Rome might sound clichĂ©, but that’s exactly what she did. I first saw her as I began the walk from Saint Peter’s Basilica to the nearest subway station, and I confess I found reasons to pause here and there to catch a glimpse of her. I couldn’t take my eyes off her. She was, perhaps, the most beautiful woman in Rome, and frankly, that’s saying a lot.

She was dressed in white, delicately trimmed in a holy shade of blue, and when she stopped to talk with the homeless man at the market, the deep afternoon sun shining behind her, her face aglow with gold, my heart melted within me. I couldn’t hear their conversation. I didn’t know if she had ever spoken with the old man before, but they smiled like they were old friends. I sat a short distance away just to watch them. She lovingly, casually, placed a hand on his shoulder as they spoke. They laughed together, then waved kind good-byes, and she walked on. I confess again that, in the most benign way possible, I stalked her. At least, let’s say, I followed her.

The street was bustling with people: tourists at shop windows, business men in finely tailored suits on their way to important cappuccinos, sophisticated ladies in oversized sunglasses on their way to wherever it is sophisticated ladies go. At the feet of these people however, every fifty metres or so, there were the forgotten ones. 

A man with withered legs sat on a ragged piece of cardboard holding a dirty styrofoam cup in his hands. The business men and the elegant women passed him by, not sparing even a glance. But the angel in white and blue, God bless her, she stopped, and greeted him with that shining smile, bending low to meet his eyes. Here too they spoke like old friends. Though again I couldn’t hear her words, nor would I likely have understood them if I could, I could see these words were warm with love.

The scene repeated itself several times along the route from Saint Peter’s to the subway. She did not walk past a single mendicant hand without stopping to hold it. At each encounter, there emanated from her a shining joy, flowing from her smile like a song. She was a woman in love.

The girl had first heard him preach one Sunday in Lent. He stood before the faithful in a badly worn, and badly patched, peasant’s robe, the same robe worn by some of the people gathered at the back of the church. He spoke of simplicity, of poverty and joy and trust. He spoke of the lilies of the field and a Father’s tenderness. And when he spoke of the sacred flame of charity, it sparked in her heart like a flint to kindling. Her heart was pounding in her ears as she left church that day. She was 18 years old, and she had just fallen in love.

She knew she must keep it secret for now. She was young and her parents dreamt loudly of the husband she would marry and the grandchildren she would provide for them. She was, after all, the daughter of a Count, and her father lined up worthy men for her choosing like bolts of cloth for a wedding dress. But to her father’s consternation, she denied each one in favour of the hidden love she treasured in her heart. Each day this love grew in the deep ground of her soul, and each time she saw the man in the pauper’s robe, it was like water to the secret seed.

She began to meet with him secretly, and they quietly planned her escape. Soon she would have her chance. She would leave at last her former life, the life her father had planned for her. She would at last know true freedom, and her love would be hidden no more.

It was Palm Sunday. The congregants quietly filed away after mass in the cathedral. She lingered in her seat until the church was empty, praying for courage. Her heart fluttered with anticipation as she walked home. She ate a Sunday meal with her family. It would be the last family meal of its kind. Evening came, and she slipped quietly out the door. The sky was pink, and the green trees of the hillside were frosted with the grey of twilight. She flew as quickly and as quietly as her feet could carry her, down past Assisi’s walls, down to the woods and into the clearing.

There stood the small church where this night she would be wed. She caught her breath. The humble doors creaked open beneath her delicate hand. There were a few scattered friars seated around the tiny room. Francis was waiting for her, praying at the altar. He stood to greet her. Next to him, a statue of the Blessed Virgin gazed upon her, and Clare trembled with a joyous fear.

“Are you ready?” he asked.

“Yes,” she replied.

 She stepped forward to the altar. Francis stood beside her.

The ceremony was simple, and she answered a simple “Yes” to each vow. She marvelled at how brief and shining such a life-changing moment can be. Finally, she was ready to accept the strange symbol of her wedding vows. In Francis’s hand were a pair of scissors. He lifted them to Clare’s hair. His eyes met hers and seemed to ask a silent question. She closed her eyes and bowed her head in silent ascent.

In her youth her hair had been her glory, bright as her smile and beautiful as the yellow flowers of the hills of Assisi. Now it fell to the church floor, catching the dim light of the room as it descended in tumbling locks. Her tresses were gone. Francis placed a veil upon her head, and held before her a simple tunic of pauperous brown. She took it, and kissed it. Her tears splashed down upon it like holy water. It was her happiest kiss.

“Dear Clare,” said Francis, “from this day forward, you are the spouse of Christ.”

“Behold,” said Clare, “the handmaiden of the Lord.”

In the days to come, word of her wedding would spread. Her father would come for her and attempt to dissuade her from her vows. When that didn’t work, he would try to take her away by force. But her fate was set and her mettle was as sure as the veil upon her head. She was the bride of the Most High King of the Heavens, and she would not be moved.

San Damiano became her home; others would soon join her. Her sister, her aunt, eventually even her widowed mother, and many more. They saw in Clare the radiance of her Beloved. What else could they do but forsake the shadows for the glorious light?

“What a great laudable exchange,” wrote Clare, “to leave the things of time for those of eternity, to choose the things of heaven for the goods of earth….”

 Like their brothers the Franciscans, the Poor Clares (as they came to be called in years to come), embraced a life of radical poverty and profound simplicity. But unlike their brothers, they would mainly stay rooted in the humble confines of San Damiano. Francis would change the world by going out into it. Clare would change the world by being rooted in a particular place. Francis would preach, and his adventures would take him from Mount Subasio to the war tents of a Sultan and back. Clare would remain here. If Francis was to be the hands and feet of Christ, Clare was to be the heart, the beating heart in the centre of the once falling church which Francis had rebuilt. If Francis was as Brother Sun running ablaze across the sky, Clare was Sister Moon, steady and shining in the dark. She was the clear, bright star of Assisi, and Francis was drawn to her light as a seafaring captain to the light of Polaris.

Each day, in the simplicity of communion, in the humility of community, she found new delights in the arms of her Husband, and her life of prayer was less like that of a somber nun than that of an amorous wife. Her love for her Beloved Spouse, born in the heart of a teenage girl, grew into the abiding love of a wise and passionate woman. Her father had meant her to marry into nobility. She was married instead to a King.

Eventually, the angel descended to the subway. She just happened to be headed in the same direction as me. Honest. Her white robes swayed with the woosh of the train’s door as she took hold of the hand grip above her. Her habit was that of the Sisters of Charity, but she was dressed in the robes of humility, dressed like the lilies of the field. She was a beauty unrivalled. She was a woman in love.

Draw me after You!
We will run in the fragrance of Your perfumes,
O heavenly Spouse!
I will run and not tire,
until You bring me into the wine-cellar,
until Your left hand is under my head
and Your right hand will embrace me happily
and You will kiss me with the happiest kiss of Your mouth.

-Saint Clare of Assisi,1253

Thursday, April 25, 2013


Grizzo lay close to the fire.  It was warm and inviting on a cool night, and like every campfire, it bore an invitation to mystery, and to communion.  Giovanni, as most other 12 year old boys at a campfire tend to do, practiced his fire twirling skills with the biggest stick he could find, much to his mother’s concern.  I must confess, it was I who had gotten him started.  I’d taken a twig and gotten its end glowing in the fire, and began to write my name and make golden glowing circles in the dark.  Of course, the boy had to take it to the next level, and soon he held the biggest stick he could manage, both ends glowing in ember and spinning through his hands like a Samoan fire dancer.

Mariella prepared the water she had fetched and set the small metal pot next to the fire to boil.  Some time in the next hour or so it would be bubbling.  Armando gathered more wood from among the trees lining the hill on which we sat.  Their camp rested in the field on a gentle slope, just off the path to the chapel of San Damiano, and their tent stood a few metres away.  A clothesline stretched between the nearby row of trees, and a few shirts bounced in the breeze and glowed gold in the fire’s light.  As Armando returned with another armful of wood, Grizzo pricked up his ears.  I scratched those ears and petted his neck.  I was glad, very glad, that I had said yes to this invitation.

Giovanni took a break from his stick twirling, and hunkered down to poke at the fire. The plastic rosary around his neck caught the firelight, the cross swaying thoughtfully and glowing faintly.  The sky was quiet, the moon was hidden somewhere among the trees, and every now and then a fruit bat swooped past the edges of the firelight.  To my left, and in the back of my mind, Francis sat with his closest friends, their faces smiling and lit with the same holy glow our own fire bestowed.  No electric lights lit the plains at the foot of their hill, but the same small city rested above the both of us, and the same small church sat at our feet.

Armando stretched out a small blanket that would eventually serve both as Mariella’s kitchen and our dinner table, and she began preparing tomatoes and other garnishes I couldn’t quite see in the dim light.  At long last, the small pot of water had come to a boil, and Mariella began mixing it with cornmeal.  Armando offered me wine.  I gratefully accepted, and he poured it into a small plastic cup, offering me a disposable chalice of deep, red joy.

“This wine is, ah, ‘Barberesco’,” he said.

“Ah,” I said.  I recalled the photo we’d taken together earlier in the evening, of our little group of bearded tramps.  If I could milk a joke a little further, especially one in a foreign language, I had to.  “You mean ‘Barbosco’,”  I mused, stroking my chin and recalling the term for a beard and a vagrant.

To my delight, Armando laughed loudly.  “Barbosco!” And he repeated the bad pun for Mariella. “Italian-italian-italian, ‘Barbosco’!” he said, and laughed again.  Clearly, I’d struck gold with this one.  I glanced over at the other campfire.  Francis and the brothers were laughing, too.

Eventually Mariella’s meal was ready, and we bowed our heads and joined hands for a simple prayer of thanks, and four hands made the sign of the cross over four hearts, in common reverence.  “Amen,” we said.  (It works in every language.)

I tasted the cornmeal and tomato concoction.  It was perhaps the best thing I’d tasted since I’d come to Italy.  “This is very good,” I said, my taste buds enraptured.  “Um… Delizioso!  What is this called?”

Armando translated my question for his wife.  “Polenta,” she replied.

“Very old, Northern Italian meal,” Armando added.

“Polenta,” I repeated.  “So good!”

Armando refilled my small cup of wine, and Mariella’s and his own, and a little for Giovanni, too.  Sparks rose to the stars, and we all stared into the fire as we ate Mariella’s meal.

Our plates were soon cleared, and we sat back, satisfied, and drank deeply of the night air.  Armando rose quickly, as if inspiration had struck, and said, “One moment!”  He disappeared into their tent.  He returned, and in his hands was an old guitar, and an even older songbook.  It was in English, printed some time in the early 70s, and it was full of almost-forgotten folk songs.  He opened the book, and found his glasses, and began to strum the chords to ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’.  We stumbled through the words, his thick accent flavouring the lyrics like oregano.  We laughed and clapped at our song’s conclusion.

Armando offered me the guitar.  “You play?” he asked.  I smiled as I reached for the guitar, and clumsily strummed through the one song I know: Johnny Cash’s ‘I Still Miss Someone’.  After some gracious applause, I returned the guitar to Armando.  He strained his eyes at the songbook and his mouth at the English words as I held the book for him, and we sang ‘Kumbayah’ (yes, ‘Kumbayah’) and ‘Down by the Riverside’ and the fragments of half a dozen other old tunes.

As this small group of poverelli sang into the night under the Umbrian stars, I glanced again to my left at my unseen companions.  Francis and the brothers were singing, too, and all of our faces were aglow with the gentle, holy flame of joy.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Easter & Ecuador

Another guest post from my Dad...

Twenty years this October, my son Andre entered into heaven and all its glory, with Christ forever.  Finally he gets to meet grandpa Alford, Grandad and Grandmother and Oma as well as so many other friends and relatives (Matt 8:11). But it’s because of what Christ did on the cross, which we celebrate as Easter.  Christ gave his life for mankind that Andre and all our family have the Hope (confident anticipation) of being together for eternity.

At Easter a few years ago I was very struck by how young men Andre’s age looked up to their fathers as Andre did to me.  I wish all sons and dads had the hope (confident anticipation) from God’s word of being together forever.  It’s one thing to know about Christ, but to actually have Christ indwelling is the answer. 

There are many people I admire and thank for what they have meant to me over the years.  My grandfather, who never learned to read or write, once said to me, “You know Gary that tree,” the old willow in front of Gramma and Grampa’s house,  “it sure didn’t just make itself.”  He would talk about the cows and the beauty of the farm. I don’t think Grampa ever got farther than Owen Sound, about 400 miles from home, but he was impressed by Gods handiwork and he gave credit to God for all he had.  He was Anglican, and used to say he could not understand why people always read the same prayers each week from the prayer book.  Gramps was a talker and he thought we should pray like we talk.  “Just say to God what ya have t’say.”  And he did.  I used to be impressed just to see him on his knees in prayer every night. I guess that’s why I think keeping the gospel simple is important and also why I know that education alone is not an answer.  “Education without salvation is damnation to creation.”

I also admire my brother, who argued, talked, discussed and finally proved to me the truth and the trustworthiness of the Bible, and what it said I needed to do to be saved.  Did accepting Christ make me perfect? No, not in man’s eyes or in my eyes, but yes, in Gods eyes, perfect to be “able to be used for the purpose intended”.  Perfect that I might glorify God . Even the angels rejoice when one person becomes born again.   (Luke 15:7-10).

Andre made that decision too, and because of that (and the fact that Aaron and Josie have also made that decision) we are promised from God’s word to spend eternity together in heaven.  This is a promise from God and His own written word. Not a church leader, not just a wish we have, not because we gave money, and not just a feeling . I know I don’t deserve it but Christ paid my price on the cross (Romans 5:18).  Adam caused us to be separated from God by the one sin (since I and all mankind was created in Adam). Likewise, one Man, the Man Christ Jesus, paid for my salvation by willingly taking my place on the cross (Romans 5:12)

In the garden it was ‘God with man’ and sin caused him to separate from us.  But when we now accept Christ for salvation it is no longer just God with us, or alongside of us, it is actually Christ in us, the hope (confident anticipation) of glory (Colossians 1:27).  We gain more in our salvation than we even lost in the garden.

Christ not only died for mankind but also for all of creation.  Even if life was to be found on other planets it is covered by the blood of Christ. Christ the great redeemer.  Don’t sell him short.  There is none better or more powerful than Christ.

As years go by I’m more and more interested in seeing others come to a knowledge of salvation.  It’s been 20 years since Andre went home to be with the Lord, and I can honestly say that barely a day has passed in all those years that he hasn’t crossed my mind.  Andre loved cars as I do, and when I wanted a way to do something in memory of Andre one of the first things I decided was to do a car in memory of Andre . 

I’ve enjoyed showing the Mustang (“NVR DRTY”) at shows.  Because of the display board with Andre’s car and the Mustang on it and the words there, I get a chance to brag not only about my car, but about a good son.  I’m able to let others know that they can look forward to eternal life with loved ones if they choose too follow God’s Word.

Recently I have had the opportunity and been blessed to spend time with Aaron on two mission trips; one to Thailand and most recently with I-TEC in Ecuador.  I should mention that Josie was planning to go on both trips, but when we had booked the Thailand trip Oma was ill, and when we booked Ecuador another dear friend was ill, so Josie chose to stay home to be available if any need arose.  (Josie is a whole other story: a gift from God that I can’t live without.)

Like showing the Mustang and then telling about Andre, when I show pictures of our mission trips I get to brag about Aaron.  (As well as tell people how much he is like his dad. Talented, edukated, smart, good-looking, etc., etc., etc.)  As I have experienced Aaron working with the homeless or street kids, I see that people all over the world need to know what Christ has done for them and how Christ can make the difference in their life too.  Aaron could be making a lot of money in the secular world as he has many talents whether singing, acting, writing or many other areas, but I know (and he knows) God’s will for him is to be with the homeless and the down-but-not-out.  Josie and I have met people who are the results of Christ working in the lives of people, people who have been touched by God’s gift in Aaron. 

On this last trip, Aaron and I helped and fitted 15 people with new glasses– older folks and kids as well– through I-TEC’s “I-SEE” program.  Others on the same team pulled 12-14 teeth (“I-DENT”), some repaired equipment (“I-FIX”), and even more gave medical attention to those in need (“I-MED”).  All this was done to help people see the hand of God at work.  I hope I am able to continue to promote what I-TEC,  Aaron, and others are doing.  I’m not begging for money but if anyone is interested, I’m very impressed with I-TEC as a mission, and would encourage you to give to them either with your time or your finances.

I’ve got to say how impressed I was with the group we were with on our trip, too. The young people were so dedicated to the Lord’s work.  Respect was present at all times. I’d be so proud too have any of these guys or gals as a son or daughter.  I’d love to be able to write a few pages about each person I met on the trip . Each was special in their own way.

Josie and I plan to go together on another mission trip next year.  I would like to purchase an I-SEE kit as well as an I-DENT kit and be able to leave them with a group we would visit so they can be used by the people in their own village.

If I can be remembered for anything in my life, I hope I’ll be remembered as a “rope holder” for at least one person.  In the story in the book of Acts, when Paul was let down over the wall, we never found out who was holding his ropes.  But if that person had not done their job, Paul may not have been able to do his job either.

                                                                LOVE IN CHRIST
                                                                          Gary Alford

Distracted. Some Thoughts About Compassion & Suicide

A guest post from my Dad, Gary Alford:

Any time I read a story or see something about a father and son, it lingers with me, always causing me to put myself into the situation.  When I recently read about Matthew Warren’s suicide, son of Pastor Rick Warren, I again put myself in that situation. I was happy that Matthew was now comforted by the Lord, and home with his Lord Jesus Christ.  But I was very saddened to think of what his family was suffering in their loss.

What can one person of insignificance offer? Maybe I could say the right thing, but in the wrong way.  If so I ask anyone to understand that my words may come out wrong, but I feel pushed to say something and I hope it is helpful in some way.

Years ago, my wife and I were in the monument business.  We always called them “monuments”, not tombstones.  I always said that monuments are erected because there was a life, tombstones are put up because there was a death.  The cross was the greatest monument ever.  I see it as a monument because it is more than just something showing the death of Christ, it also signifies the resurrection and the life.

On one particular day I was heading to see a family about a monument for their son.  He had committed suicide and it was really bothering me as I drove.  How do I talk to them?  What are they going through?  Why did this happen, Lord, Why?  Is there a reason?  As I was driving, I looked down at a small piece of paper on which I had written directions.  All of a sudden I looked up and, YIKES!, I was on the wrong side of the road!  I could have killed someone coming the other way.  I could have killed myself!

While in the monument business I enjoyed on a few occasions giving grade 5 classes a talk about monuments and their history.  But the best part was the opportunity to teach respect.  After my experience on the road, I made sure I always included this story in my presentation.  I used to ask this question:

“If I’m driving down the road and I’m looking at a piece of paper and trying to read what is on it and I go over the yellow line and hit another car, what caused the accident?”

The answer was, “You did, Mr. Alford.”

Then the question was “Why?”

Answer, “You went over the line.”

Then there was always that little guy or gal who would have the answer I was looking for:  “Mr. Alford you weren’t paying attention to your driving.  You were being distracted.  Your attention was diverted just long enough to cause an accident.”

Isn’t it somewhat the same when it comes to suicide?  My attention being on the wrong thing, a piece of paper, could have resulted in my death.

Usually suicide happens because someone has simply put their attention on the wrong thing in their life.  It is so easy to be distracted.  People’s attention gets fixed on their problems or circumstances and it may result  in their death.

I always tried to leave the kids with the idea that there is another way.  Remember to re-focus.  Think about those who love you, and about how others feel if you’re not there for them.  I would paraphrase Phil 4:8, which says “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”  Then I would ask them to tell me about good thoughts.  That was fun.  I got to hear about dogs, cats, uncles, aunts, and fun adventures.

Most times, the kids would offer to help someone they felt was in need of a friend.

How many times do we stop to think about others more than ourselves?  How can I help someone to see life differently?  How can I help them to see what is good?  Christ did not heal by proxy.  He did more than send a message to Mary and Martha.  He travelled to Bethany, stood by the grave and wept.  (John 11:34, 35)

Romans 12:15 says, “Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.”  If I can’t do anything else, I sure can weep for or with any Dad or Mom who has experienced a son or daughter’s death.  But I also want to rejoice with them for their reunion that is yet to come.

Rick Warren has experienced the thrill of meeting large crowds of people, but nothing will match that reunion with his son when they finally meet again in eternity.  Praise the Lord.

Do we believe or understand how much we as Christians have, not only in this life but also in the life to come?  We have the Creator of all we see in this earth and in the heavens.  We have the very God of Heaven.  We have the hope of eternal salvation.  We have the full knowledge of God’s promise of a family reunion.

Let’s not look down on suicide any differently than any other cause of death.

Does God cause or allow one kind of death but not another?  I think not.  Circumstances of a sin-cursed earth result in death.  If the tree hadn’t been there, if the car had perfect brakes…  If the brick had not fallen from the building…  If... If... If…  A brick falls because a building is getting old.  The heart fails because our body is getting old.  When Andre died, I often heard the phrase “God took him.”  But to me it’s not weather or not God took him, but that God has him.

When a person dies from cancer, heart failure, dementia, or so many other reasons, we say the body breaks down.  Well, so does the brain; it’s just another part of the Fall.  A brain that’s not able to function properly may cause mental illness, or in some cases it may cause suicide.  Why?

As the hymn that I hope will be sung at my funeral says, “We’ll talk it over.”

We’ll talk it over in the bye and bye
We’ll talk it over, my Lord and I
I’ll ask the questions, He’ll tell me why
When we talk it over in the bye and bye

Often the sins we are committing or involved in go on without anyone knowing.  People don’t even know we have a problem.  It’s just that suicide is so final.  I think in so many situations in life, if we were given a chance to rethink our problems, or to see the effects of what we are about to do, we would change our thoughts immediately.

Proverbs 23:7 says, “As a man thinketh, so is he.”  It all starts with our thinking.  We can’t blame anyone or anything other than the thoughts that draw us further and further down a certain path. Why do we so quickly condemn those who have committed suicide, when in many or most cases it is the result of a sickness or disease?

Can you imagine how much better off we would be if we did for ourselves what we have given over to the government to do?  The reason I mention this is that I hear a lot of talk about what people feel the government should be doing for the mentally ill, yet we fail in so many ways to be honest with ourselves and see us-- me and you-- as being both the problem and the problem solver.  The Lord says that a man who fails to provide for his own is worse than an unbeliever. (1 Timothy 5:8)

I saw a small glimpse of Matthew Warren’s compassionate heart in one of the articles.  It was an encouragement to me.  His dad Rick Warren told how Matthew reached out to others who were hurting, and that he seemed to know when someone else was hurting or in pain.  Matthew’s life has a reason.  Let’s remember what he gave in his time on earth, but also that he is still giving.  He is more alive now than ever.  I’m changed by his touch of encouragement.  He who suffered was able to help and see the need in others.  He has now passed that touch to others.

Yes, Andre’s death has caused me to see things differently and to understand more what others are going through.  In Andre’s case it was an accident, a momentary mistake on his part, but I feel some of the same pain as the one who has had a son or daughter involved in a suicide.

And just as Andre’s death has changed me, so also has Aaron’s life.  Aaron is what I wish I could be every day.  So gifted in so many ways.  (Aaron, don’t change my words when you correct this!  Remember, “Children obey your parents.”)  I am so glad to have gone to Thailand and Ecuador with him, meeting street kids and other children in need, and having my heart broken by their precious smiles.

Both of our sons have been a blessing from the Lord, but God has also added other parents like us, and along with parents have come brothers and sisters.  I’m trying to say that I would love to have a huge family gathering some day.  You’re all invited.

With all this in mind, I encourage you to get out on the street.  Get out of that comfortable pew.  Get down to the street where the rubber meets the road and live among us.  Rejoice with those who rejoice, mourn with those who mourn.  We all need each other.

In Christ,

Gary Alford

“Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”
- Matthew 11:28

Friday, April 12, 2013

Building Something Beautiful

They were silent now in the dark, but the flurry of questions and the litany of complaints brooded in the air around them like the smoke and the sparks of their campfire.  Everyone was ready to get on with the revolution, with the coming of the Kingdom here and now, and he didn’t seem the least bit interested. He let the silence stay for a moment longer until at last he spoke.

“My Dad was a carpenter.  I remember being in his workshop when I was a boy.  I wanted to make a box for my mother.  Something to keep her jewelry in.  I was very little, and it was years before I realized she’d never even worn any jewelry, but in my mind she sparkled, so I suppose it made sense to me.  In any case, I was very determined.  

"So I asked my Dad if he would help me make one.  I was so eager to get it made.  The second he’d finished squaring off the corner on a little piece of wood, I’d slap it in place and ask for a nail.  But he would slow me down at every step.  And every time I thought we were finished with each part, he would show me another little detail to take care of.  I remember him saying, ‘Slow down, son.  We’re not in a hurry.’  He took my fingers and ran them gently across the flat of the wood, and I saw that it needed a little more sanding.  So he took my hand and showed me how to sand more finely.  Then he’d help me see that a corner wasn’t quite true.  He’d crouch down next to me, with his breath on my cheek, and help me line it up just so.  Eventually, I stopped just trying to finish the thing, and I started to enjoy the rhythm of creating it.  And that’s what it was. Creation.  You’d never guess the amount of work that goes into creating something so simple as a wooden box.  But I began to notice these little things for myself, and I began to take pleasure in refining them.  I remember my Dad so well, saying it in that low old voice of his,  ‘Slow and sure, son.  Take your time.  Steady, slow and sure.  We’re building something beautiful here.’ ”

The sound of twelve men in silence is a rare thing, but here it was.  The fire popped an ascending spark into the dark sky. 

“I’m in no hurry to build this Kingdom, my friends.  Time is fleeting, but it’s only time.  My Dad in heaven gives it to us as water from a stream, and we receive it so, to refresh us.  And we build his Kingdom the way my earthly father helped me build that little box.  Slowly.  Sure, but slowly.  We take care of the details.  We love one another.  We’re building something beautiful here.”

Thomas spoke up quietly.  “Did she like it?  The box?”

Jesus smiled.  “It’s still sitting on her mantle.  Empty, as far as I know, but still sitting on her mantle.”

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Brother Fire, Boisterous & Strong

Be praised, my Lord, for Brother Fire,
through whom you light up the night for us;
and he is beautiful and jolly,
boisterous and strong.

The men on fire danced, and the flames rose high and exuberant into the night air.  Crowds of people watched and clapped and snapped digital pictures from an unsafe distance.  Burning embers fell from the giant flames, scattering across the ground at our feet.

I had walked here to the Basilica di Santa Maria degli Angeli from the church of the Rivotorto.  The words of Francis lingered from my time at the chapel by the river, and they were sinking slowly into my soul. “The Lord has given me brothers.”  As I arrived, the sun was still bright on the gathering crowds, but falling low and taking on a distinctly golden hue.

Angels hovered above, as children on floats, with sturdy rigging and seraphic costumes, levitated gracefully in the air.  Next to the little cherubs, men dressed in trilby hats and expansive cloaks carried on their shoulders what looked like giant sets of brooms, bound together and splayed in rows of four.  Along with the angel children, it was one of the strangest things I’d yet seen, and I wondered what in the world these contraptions would be used for.

I wandered into the cathedral amid the crowds of people, who were milling about and settling in.  They lined the pews, and stood against the pillars, and sat on the floor.  The Porziuncola, the tiny church of the Little Portion, stood in the midst of it, silently testifying to the life of the saint we had all come to honour.  Tonight was the anniversary of the Transitus: the night that Father Francis was at last welcomed into the embrace of the Saviour; the night that the saint at last was caught up into the ultimate fire of Divine Love.  It was right here, 785 short years ago, close by to his beloved Little Portion and in the company of his closest friends, that Francis had died. 

As the service began, a great stream of brown robes of every shade came flowing in through the great doors as Franciscans of every variety processed into the cathedral.  The service itself was simple, and mostly unintelligible to my North American ears, but I made friends with an undercover Capuchin at the back of the church.  He was dressed in his civvies, and had a kind, round Brazilian face.  He spoke almost no english, but between my broken amounts of Spanish and Italian, his broken amounts of English and Italian and an iPhone translation app, we became quick friends.  I told him of my life in California, my love for Francis, and my small, strange, and wonderful community of brothers and sisters.  I told him of my desire to live out the vows of Francis in poverty, chastity, and obedience.  He was fascinated, and it felt good to tell my story to someone. In Portuguese, Italian, English and Spanish, we figured out a way to meet again.

After the service, we shook hands and parted ways.  I felt the glow of friendship in my chest, and smiled at the strange way in which two people who could not speak each other’s language could share such a heartfelt conversation.  The darkness of night was now creeping in, and I followed my nose toward the savoury scents of street food.  

My budget was tight, but when I saw a sign on a small food cart which read, “Crepes alla Nutella”, I knew it was meant to be.  I held my finger up and said, “Uno!”  The Crepe Lady deftly swatted the pancake-like dough on the portable griddle, generously applied the chocolatey, hazelnutty goodness, and folded it all up in a triangle of sweet loveliness.  I took a bite, crepe crumbs and Nutella spread baptizing my beard.  It was good.  It was very good.

I turned to admire the basilica, now lit up against a darkening sky with floodlights and filaments, and I noticed a large crowd in front of the church.  I heard music and clapping, and saw what seemed to be several gigantic fires rising into the sky, but the fires were not stationary bonfires.  They seemed to be moving and twirling.

What in the…?

I approached the crowd, winding my way slowly through the mass of smiling, picture-taking people.  There in the open area of the square were several men, the men with the cloaks and the trilby hats I’d seen earlier, now dancing around and engulfed flames.  I saw now the purpose of the giant brooms.  They were worn on the necks of these men (who were clearly quite insane), and set ablaze.  Music played and the men danced, red-hot embers falling all about the square, as they began to make their way through the piazza.  The crowd followed, clapping and walking circumspectly through the multitude of still-burning coals.  Kids ran freely through the scattered coals, as grown-ups, less mindful than the children, singed their leather soles.  I tried to imagine an event anything like this ever happening in North America, and instead imagined an insurance agent having an aneurism. 

I had no idea how such a thing ever came to be associated with the foolish little saint, but it was reckless and beautiful, dangerous and jolly.  A perfect fit for a man like Francis, for what is holier than fire, and what is more foolish than dancing?  And what a dangerous thing it is to burn.

Fire is a strange thing: utterly destructive and completely fascinating.  Perhaps a key to understanding Francis is in understanding Francis as “Brother Fire” himself.  That flame that so engulfed his life, and set him dancing across the Umbrian countryside like a ball of lightning, was fed by something.  Francis became fire because he let himself be consumed.  This was no disembodied, metaphysical flame of mere enlightenment, or some kind of self-perpetuating (and self-extinguishing) fire of youthful exuberance.  This was nothing less than the burning love of a Holy God.

After centuries of stories and religious art, we may see pictures of Francis tending to the poor and the lame in some merely symbolic or vaguely spiritual sense.  But the truth is that love is never merely symbolic, and never vaguely spiritual, for real spiritual love is manifested in the flesh.  Francis did not serve lepers because it was a spiritual thing to do.  He served lepers because he loved them.  He knew their names.  And Francis’s real hands washed real feet.  And as he did this, the fire burned and the fire grew, and his heart felt the sweet, almost physical pain of selfless love.  The kind of love that, at the thought of the beloved in any kind of pain, at the thought of the one you love living in loneliness, constricts the muscles in your chest and gives birth to the purest of prayers:  “Oh, Lord… Have mercy!”

This was the fire that consumed Francis.  And with it, everything unworthy of such a pure and blazing love was torn away from his heart, from his mind, from his flesh.  Here, in the face of such holiness, Francis was made aware of the limits of his humanity.  There are stories of Francis abusing himself verbally, even physically, but it’s important to kneel down and inspect closely the source of these actions before we shake our heads and dismiss them.  These were not just a commendable but ultimately misdirected bits of self-deprecation, nor were they some kind of severe case of “Catholic Guilt”.  These words and actions came from a profound knowledge of the human condition, an unveiling of the heart that happens when we attempt great acts of love.  When we strive to come close to the holy heart of Jesus, the paper-thin covering that hides the darkness of our heart goes up in a flash of smoking embers, and our truest, most selfish selves, are revealed.  And it’s here that God can truly begin to heal us.

Finally, in this healing, in this release of the self, in this letting go of pride, of protection, in this embrace of holiness, there is joy.  Deep, tears-to-your-eyes joy, and perfect freedom.  Unfortunately for us, these things don’t happen in stages, like the ascent of a mountain.  God is not so easily captured as Everest.  If we set ourselves upon his love, if we commit ourselves to the burning, it happens all at once in an ever-swirling, roiling fire of tears and laughter, of longing and crying and singing with joy, and it goes on and on for the rest of our lives.  We spin, we twirl, we dance, we burn.  We light up the night with the light of God.  And we are beautiful, and jolly, and boisterous and strong.  

Friday, March 1, 2013

Brother Sun


Praise be to Thee my Lord, with all thy creatures.
Especially for Master Brother Sun, 
who brings the day; and you give light through him,
and Thee, Most High, he manifests. 
And he is beautiful and radiant in all his splendour!
Of you, Most High, he bears the likeness.

He opened his eyes.  The sun stood straight above him.  He was outstretched on the ground, face to the sky, and raised his hand to shade himself from the brilliant sun.  He began to smile.  A low chuckle made its merry way up from his belly to the back of his throat, until he found himself laughing with the deepest joy.  He lifted himself onto his elbows, and winced as a shock of pain came from his side.  

Ouch.  That would be where they were kicking me.  

He laughed again, which sent another stream of pain, and which, in turn, made him laugh all the more.  He found the strength to stand, and inspected his wounds.  His hands were badly scraped from the fall when they had thrown him into the ditch.  He lifted his tunic and inspected his side.  Bruises were forming where they had kicked him, and he winced as he touched them tenderly.  The pain went deep, but to him it seemed these bruises were stained with a purple worthy of a prince, and he couldn’t help but smile.

I give up everything to follow you,  strip naked before the bishop and my father, renounce all my worldly possessions, and this is how you reward me.  Thank-you, King Jesus.  I’m honoured.  It’s perfect.

If the men who had tried to rob him had known whom they had chosen to rob, if they’d seen what had just taken place in the town square, they wouldn’t have bothered.  They would have known just how much nothing he had.  But they hadn’t seen what had happened, and they didn’t know the poor soul in the brown robe from Adam.  He had simply been walking along the wrong road at the wrong time.  They accosted him, demanded his possessions, and, when they realized he was penniless, they were sorely disappointed.  Now Francis was simply sore.  They had beaten him badly and thrown him in the gutter. 

Francis rose slowly from the roadside, and stared into the distance of the path before him.  It ascended and wound and fell and rose again through the hills of Umbria until it fell out of sight.  He had nowhere in particular he had to go, but it was a good road, and the sun was shining, so he walked and limped and surveyed the world around him.  All of it was new, and all of it seemed to know him.  He lifted his face to the sun, and it seemed to come to him as a new friend, an elder brother.  He felt the sharp gaze of a squirrel in her tree as if it were the look of a big sister, inspecting her new sibling.  The trees rustled in the wind a gentle applause of welcome.  Even the ground beneath his feet seemed alive with maternal affection.

He recalled the prison cells and secret places that had been like a womb to his soul, the darkness in which he had been formed.  The night was over.  The day had come.  Light, in all its colours, shone brilliantly now upon his head, his heart, his soul.  He lifted his hands, his palms scraped and scratched and tender, and he began to sing.  In his newborn ears, he heard every chirrup and birdsong sing with him.  He was, to his utter contentment, one voice in the choir as his prayer poured forth:

“My God, and my All!”