Sunday, August 28, 2011

Honolulu, Whores, and a Hollowed Moment

Sociologist, author, speaker, and Christian activist Tony Campolo shares this from his book, Let Me Tell You a Story:

If you live on the East Coast and travel to Hawaii, you know that there is a time difference that makes three o’clock in the morning feel like 9:00 AM. With that in mind, you will understand that whenever I go out to our fiftieth state I find myself wide awake long before dawn. Not only do I find myself up and ready to go while everybody else is still asleep, but I find that I want breakfast when almost everything on the island is still closed—which is why I was wandering up and down the streets of Honolulu at 3:30 in the morning, looking for a place to get something to eat.

Up a side street I found a little place that was still open. I went in, took a seat on one of those stools at the counter, and waited to be served. This was one of those sleazy places that deserves the name “greasy spoon.” I mean, I did not even touch the menu. I was afraid that if I opened the thing something gruesome would crawl out. But it was the only place I could find.

The fat guy behind the counter came over and asked me, What d’ya want?”

I told him, “A cup of coffee and a donut.”

He poured a cup of joe, wiped his grimy hand on his smudged apron, then grabbed a pastry off the shelf behind him. Now, I’m a realist… I know that in the back room of that restaurant, donuts are probably dropped on the floor and kicked around. But when everything is out front where I can see it, I really would have appreciated it if he had used a pair of tongs and placed the donut on some wax paper.

As I sat there munching on my dry sinker and sipping my lukewarm brew about three hours before sunrise, the door of the diner swung open, and to my discomfort, in marched eight or nine provocative and boisterous prostitutes.

It was a small place and they sat on either side of me. Their talk was loud and crude. I felt completely out of place and was just about to make my getaway when I overheard the woman sitting beside me say, “Tomorrow’s my birthday. I’m going to be thirty-nine.”

One of her friends responded in a nasty tone, “So what do you want from me? A birthday party? What do you want? Ya want me to get a cake and sing ‘Happy Birthday’?”

“Come on!” said the woman next to me. “Why do you have to be so mean? I was just telling you, that’s all. Why do you have to put me down? I was just telling you it’s my birthday. I don’t want anything from you. I mean, why should you give me a birthday party? I’ve never had a birthday party in my whole life. I should I have one now?”

When I heard that, I made a decision. I sat and waited until the women left. Then I called the fat guy behind the counter and I asked him, “Do they come in here every night?”

“Yeah,” he answered.

“The one who was right next to me, does she come here every night?”

“Yeah,” he said. “That’s Agnes. Yeah, she comes in here every night. Why d’ya wanna know?”

“Because I heard her say that tomorrow is her birthday,” I told him. “What do you think about us throwing a birthday party for her—right here—tomorrow night?”

A smile slowly crossed his chubby face and he answered with measured delight. “That’s great….I like it….that’s a great idea!” Calling to his wife, who did the cooking in the back room, he shouted, “Hey, come out here! This guy’s got a great idea. Tomorrow is Agnes’s birthday. This guy wants to go in with him and throw a birthday party for her—right here—tomorrow night!”

His wife comes out of the kitchen all bright and smiley. She said, “That’s wonderful! You know Agnes is one of those people who is really nice and kind, and nobody ever does anything nice and kind for her.”

“Look,” I told them, “if it’s OK with you, I’ll get back here tomorrow morning about 2:30 and decorate the place. I’ll even get a birthday cake!”

“No way,” said Harry (that was his name). “The birthday cake’s my thing. I’ll make the cake.”

At 2:30 the next morning I was back at the diner. I had picked up some crepe paper and other decorations at a store, got some balloons, and had made a sign out of big pieces of cardboard that read “Happy Birthday Agnes!” I decorated that diner from one end to the other. I had that joint looking good.

The woman who did the cooking, Jan, must have gotten the word out on the street, because by 3:15 every prostitute in Honolulu was in the place. It was wall-to-wall call girls…and me!

At 3:30 on the dot, the door of the diner swung open and in came Agnes and her friend. I had everyone ready (after all, I was kind of MC of the affair) and when they came in we all screamed “Happy Birthday!!”

Never have I seen a person so flabbergasted…so stunned…so shaken. Her mouth fell open. Her legs seemed to buckle a bit. Her friend grabbed her arm to steady her. As she was led to one of the stools along the counter we sang “Happy Birthday” to her. When we came to the end of our singing, “happy birthday, dear Agnes, happy birthday to you,” her eyes moistened. Then, when the birthday cake with all the candles on it was carried out, she lost it and just openly cried.

Harry gruffly mumbled, “Blow out the candles, Agnes! Come one! Blow out the candles!” She just kept staring at the cake. “If you don’t blow out the candles, I’m gonna have to blow them out.” And, after another long delay, he finally grew impatient and did blow them out. Then he handed her the knife and told her, “Cut the cake, Agnes. Yo, Agnes….we all want some cake.”

Agnes stared down at the cake. There was another pregnant pause. Then, without taking her eyes off it, she slowly and softly said, “Look, Harry, is it alright with you if I…I mean is it OK if I kind of…what I want to ask you is…is it OK if I keep the cake a little while? I mean is it alright if we don’t eat it right away?”

Harry shrugged and answered, “Sure…it’s OK. If ya want to keep the cake, then keep the cake. Take it home if ya want to.”

“Can I?” she responded. Then looking at me she said, “I live just down the street a couple of doors. I want to take the cake home and show it to my mother, okay? I’ll be right back…honest!”

She got off the stool, picked up the cake, and carrying it like it was the Holy Grail, walked slowly out the door. As we all stood there motionless, she left.

When the door closed there was a stunned silence in the packed diner. Not knowing what else to do, I broke the awkward quiet by saying “What do you say we pray for Agnes?”

Looking back on it now it seems more than strange for a sociologist to be leading a prayer meeting with a bunch of prostitutes in a greasy spoon in Honolulu at 3:30 in the morning. But it just felt like the right thing to do. I prayed for Agnes. I prayed for her salvation. I prayed that her life would be changed and that God would be good to her.

When I finished, Harry leaned over the counter and said “Hey…you never told me you were a preacher. What kind of church do you belong to?”

In one of those moments when just the right words came, I answered, “I belong to a church that throws birthday parties for whores at 3:30 in the morning.”

Harry waited a moment, then he answered, “No you don’t…there’s no church like that. If there was, I’d join it. I would sure as Hell join a church like that!”

Wouldn’t we all? Wouldn’t we all love to join a church that throws birthday parties for whores at 3:30 in the morning? Well, that’s the kind of church Jesus came to create. I don’t know where we got the other one that’s so prim and proper. But anybody who reads the New Testament will discover a Jesus who loved to party with whores and with all kinds of left-out people…the publicans and the “sinners” loved Him because he partied with them. The lepers of society found in Him someone who would eat and drink with them. And while the solemnly pious could not relate to what He was about, those lonely people who usually didn’t get invited to parties took to Him with excitement.

Our Jesus was and is the Lord of the party. That’s what we as His followers should make blatantly clear. We should highlight an often-forgotten dimension of what Christianity is all about: The Kingdom of God is a party!

My next installment will tell the rest of the story—about what happened with Agnes.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Prayer Events Could Be MoreThan Political Rallies

One of my favorite columnists, Ray Waddle, gives a well-thought summary once again...

What difference will it make?

This month “The Response,” in Texas, rallied Christians to pray for a nation in crisis. Will it cause a breakthrough?

Does it offer anything more than last year’s “Restoring Honor” rally in Washington, D.C., which similarly yearned for spiritual awakening to avert national disaster?

Both high-profile faith events remind me of one thing: the void left by the absence of evangelist Billy Graham. Now 92, Graham no longer leads his remarkable crusades across the land. But for five decades, his preaching roused self-examination and conversion, often stirring a surge of good will in the cities he draped in prayer.

No winsome, transcultural minister emerges any longer on the pluralistic horizon. The Response was led by a Texas governor. Restoring Honor was orchestrated by a TV showman.

It is easy to share the grief of supporters of such events — the erosion of national prestige, the eclipse of reverence and courtesy, the financial pain and fear, the need for repentance. Society is awash in falsehoods and weapons. “God” and “Jesus” are curse words.

But some public pleas to God sound fatalistic and passive, as if we have no idea how our troubles happened or how to face the specifics.

“There are threats emerging within our nation and beyond our borders beyond our power to solve,” The Response website declares.

Yet the nation got here by a million daily decisions in the name of liberty, Wall Street, cheap oil, wishful thinking, the tax code or foreign policy. A 10-year war, securitized mortgages, epidemics of personal debt, the election of ideologues — these did not fall from the sky. Our fingerprints are all over them, choices made at the intersection of conscience, prejudice and haste.

Yet the prayer to heaven now seems to be: “God: Just fix it.”

Rallies like The Response revere biblical standards. What would that mean? The book of Proverbs says a decent life depends on self-restraint, simplicity, consideration of others. Avoid things that insult God — haughtiness, a lying tongue, false witness, wicked schemes, the sowing of family discord, the shedding of innocent blood. It’s not a long list.

Writing about American religion for nearly 30 years now, I find I have to write more about politics too. To more and more people, political identity matters more than religious belief. Political passion — hatred of the opposing party, indifference to details — overwhelms the old power of religious teaching to seek a transformed outlook.

Maybe the critics are right and such rallies are just reunions of the old-fashioned religious right. But they could be more. Prayer can be a revolutionary act, forcing us petitioners to face facts, face one another, or even face ourselves.


Saturday, August 20, 2011

More Five Star Reviews on Embracing the Gray

The kind and insightful reviews of my book, Embracing the Gray: A Wing, A Prayer, and a Doubter’s Resolve (Wheatmark Press), continue to come in via To this point, of the seventy reviews that have come in, 97% of the reviews have been “Five Stars” (with the other 3% being” Four Stars”). Here are four more recent entries:

So, here's the thing...the little I've come to know...

1. Life persistently offers up more questions than answers.
2. Along this rutted and circuitous course, we laugh, cry, praise, curse, believe, doubt, rise and fall. Through it all, it's best to have some good music playing.
3. Critical lessons DO present themselves, on occasion. Often from the least expected places.
4. At times, the ground is so parched that just one more crack might make it appear smooth, and no amount of fancy dancing seems able to inveigle the rain. Other times...well, when it rains, it pours.
5. Who is your brother? Everyone. Who is your sister? See the previous answer. Who is your mother? ('You see where I'm going with this?)
6. We have stories. It's worth it to tell them. They're of even greater value when told well.

Mark Hollingsworth gets all of the above. And more. YOU'D be well advised to get this book. Embracing the Gray: A Wing, a Prayer, and a Doubter's Resolve is an inspiring thing of beauty. -P.M.

A scenic tour of a remarkable life. Well, first of all, don't be confused by the title. This isn't about a man who loves the South or the Confederacy. Nor is it about West Point. This is a series of vignettes of Mark Hollingsworth's life that are sometimes humorous, sometimes touching, and sometimes tragic. Although written from a Christian perspective, the book is not preachy nor does it attempt to convert anyone. Rather, each chapter gives insight into his own physical and spiritual journey. Mark is a masterful storyteller. You will want to pick up this book for your summer vacation trips. -C.S.

Embracing the Gray may be the most honest and open book I have encountered, which made it difficult to put down, even on my vacation. I loved the short, chronological, but powerful vignettes that show an ordinary guy with ordinary struggles-who holds on to an extraordinary God (even when it gets hard). Mark has also done some very cool things, which also makes this a fun read, but He shares those stories in a way that doesn't sound like a know-it-all braggart. If you have it all together, you will like this book. If you don't (like me), you will love the adventure of Embracing the Gray!!! -J.B.

Embracing the Gray captures that same bittersweet sense that we are all made for a world better than the one in which we currently find ourselves. Mark's stories and reflections inspire us to not look at people as if they are only flesh and bone, to not consider anyone or any circumstance beyond redemption, and to constantly look for those transcendent moments of eternity that we glimpse in a well-crafted lyric, a lover's kiss, or the passing of a parent. I read Embracing the Gray through in a day, but parts of Mark's story stuck with me for months. I commend this honest, poignant, joyful book to you. -V.W

I continue to be humbled by these thoughtful words. And equally excited that the book is connecting with so many others. If you would like to read more reviews, or write one of your own, or order a copy (now available in Kindle format as well) go to:



Contact me directly if you would like to purchase a signed copy. : )

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Wasp Attack!

In August a few years back I returned to my Nashville home after one of my regular visits to see my folks in Pittsburgh. I’m one of those guys that—especially when driving alone—likes to get the trip over with. No dawdling for this trooper. Wolf down some food, fill ‘er up, take a tinkle, and keep rollin’.

So when I pulled up in front of my place in the historic 12 South District at around 5 in the afternoon after 600 miles in nine hours, I was more than ready for a relaxing evening. Ever notice how when you get out of car at the end of a long journey that there is literally some sort of decompression that happens to your head? Must have something to do with listening to King’s X at concert volume, and pumped AC. All I know is that when I popped my passenger door, the thick Cumberland Valley air and ninety degree temperature fogged my glasses, not to mention my other sensory perceptions. I think a pressure headache formed behind my eye sockets in about 6.7 seconds.

I nodded “hello” to my neighbors as I shuffled up the walkway and front steps with two suitcases, a briefcase, and some hangered clothes draped over my shoulder. I fumbled for my keys and began fidgeting with the dead bolt lock on my front door.

That rather minute vibration set off a chain reaction of events that are humorous in retrospect, but were painful in the moment.

I had been gone for a week from my artist management company that was based out of the second floor of my home. My Director of Operations, Rann, should’ve given me some warning about what I was walking into…but somehow it just slipped his mind. You see, a wasp’s nest had formed in the archway above my front porch. He and the other employees had all been frightened of them for several days and began using the back entrance. A little note on the front door could’ve saved me opening that tallboy of whupass that I was about to drink in.

Quicker than you could say “Sweet Agnes Sixbutts,” I was swarmed upon by a dozens of perturbed wasps that had set up shop above my doorway. I got stung six times in a matter of less than three seconds. I dropped all my belongings and nearly flew down those eight steps, twisting, waving arms around my skull, and spasmodically screaming like the Tasmanian Devil. I don’t think the chic singer from The Cranberries could’ve sounded any worse. I’m confident my neighbors thought I had utterly flipped-out---after all, those insects weren’t visible from a hundred feet away. My reactions, however, were quite the spectacle as I careened around my lawn a couple of times leaping, dipping, and dodging as I tried to evade the remaining few hornets that were in attack mode.

This is not the sort of “howdy-do” I was expecting at the completion of my long pilgrimage.
Within half a minute, the furious squadron returned to home base. My adrenaline had kicked into hyper drive. With heart pounding, and nerves near the skin pulsating in pain from the wicked bites on my cheek, neck and arms, I became a man possessed. They picked the wrong night to piddle in MY Post Toasties.

Leaving all my belongings akimbo on the front porch, with keys still dangling out of the lock, I marched around to the back to retrieve my safety key from its hidden location. Because my muscles were still a bit atrophied from the long drive, as well as the rage that was coursing through my veins, I tripped on the edge of the deck, falling heavily forward onto my chin, cutting my leg and spraining my wrist. Once again, my neighbors who saw the entire fiasco must've thought I was applying as an extra for the Soupy Sails Show.

I’m not sure how it is with you, but when I am angry and hurt, it becomes a powerful combination. My resolve at that moment to do something about those winged assassins was about five digits beyond meltdown on the ol’ “look out he’s pissed” meter.

With glasses now freshly hazing over again—this time from the AC inside the house, I gathered-up all the insect spray I could find, some work gloves, a jacket, and a chair. I believe I came up with several hitherto untried combinations of epithets and play-by-play commentary on variations of some not-so-wholesome bodily functions as I was yelling at no one in particular. Kind of like Nicholas Cage when he goes berserk in a film.

Circling back around to the front, I surveyed the porch—seems the wasps were back in construction mode. So I stealthily crept up the steps and grabbed my belongings, taking great care not to vibrate the foundation with any of my movements.

Then I unwound my garden hose, and while positioned about twenty feet away in the front yard, opened the spigot to full, and let fly on the nest. Hundreds of those black hellions scattered. And while they were fiesty there was no way they could match my seething temper. “Die, you flesh eating scabbards!” I muttered under my breath. After unleashing innumerable gallons on them, I sensed that a goodly portion had either drowned or flown the coop.

Like Patton chasing Rommel, I hurtled back up those stairs, mounted my chair, and sprayed copious amounts of flying insect killer all over that entrance way. Some of them were still buzzing and flailing in their moistened state, and I took great delight in mashing any that I could with my fists. I know I got stung a few more times, but the rush of battle was over-riding the immediate pain.

Rest assured, those bugs are no longer with us. They had been dispensed to the nether regions by one very determined and angry road-weary sojourner. I didn't care if I got hit a dozen more times, they were about to travel to that Great Arachnid in the Sky for their reward. “They shant be stinging anyone again in THIS life,” I decreed.

Once the insectide eradication was finished, I entered my home, sat down for a cold drink, and let the adrenaline subside. Much of the rest of the night was spent tending to my stings, abrasions, bruised chin, and the sprained wrist, rather than stretching out in my lazy boy. I should’ve bought stock in Advil for all I ingested that muggy late summer’s eve. Sleep did not come easy, I can guarantee you that.

Now, every spring and throughout the warm months, I regularly embark on search and destroy missions with even the slightest hint of a wasp nest. No more surprise attacks for this weary traveler if I can avoid it! I am one W.A.S.P. who has no kinship with his winged brethren.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

"I write to discover what I know," and more Flannery O'Connor quotes (Part 2)

This is the second in a two part series on quotes from American novelist, short-story writer, and essayist Flannery O'Connor (March 25, 1925 – August 3, 1964). An important voice in American literature, O'Connor wrote two novels and 32 short stories, as well as a number of reviews and commentaries. She was a Southern writer who often wrote in a Southern Gothic style and relied heavily on regional settings and grotesque characters. O'Connor's writing also reflected her Catholic faith, and frequently examined questions of morality and ethics.

Here are some more of my favorite quotes from her (there were others in my previous post). Let me know which ones resonate with you.

Your beliefs will be the light by which you see, but they will not be what you see and they will not be a substitute for seeing.

Free will does not mean one will, but many wills conflicting in one man. Freedom cannot be conceived simply.

I don't think literature would be possible in a determined world. We might go through the motions but the heart would be out of it. Nobody could then 'smile darkly and ignore the howls.' Even if there were no Church to teach me this, writing two novels would do it. I think the more you write, the less inclined you will be to rely on theories like determinism. Mystery isn't something that is gradually evaporating. It grows along with knowledge.

It's easier to bleed than sweat, Mr. Motes.

Whenever I’m asked why Southern writers particularly have a penchant for writing about freaks, I say it is because we are still able to recognize one.

I have got, over the years, a sense of the immense sweep of creation, of the evolutionary process in everything, of how incomprehensible God must necessarily be to be the God of heaven and earth. You can’t fit the Almighty into your intellectual categories…. What kept me a skeptic [of secularism] in college was precisely my Christian faith. It always said: wait, don’t bite on this, get a wider picture, continue to read. If you want your faith, you have to work for it…. Even in the life of a Christian, faith rises and falls like the tides of an invisible sea. It’s there, even when he can’t see it or feel it, if he wants it to be there. You realize, I think, that it is more valuable, more mysterious, altogether more immense than anything you can learn or decide in college. Learn what you can, but cultivate Christian skepticism.

I write because I don't know what I think until I read what I say.

The way to despair is to refuse to have any kind of experience.

What people don't realize is how much religion costs. They think faith is a big electric blanket, when of course it is the cross. It is much harder to believe than not to believe. If you fell you can't believe, you must at least do this: keep an open mind. Keep it open toward faith, keep wanting it, keep asking for it, and leave the rest to God.

Grace changes us and change is painful.

A story is a way to say something that can’t be said any other way, and it takes every word in the story to say what the meaning is.

No art is sunk in the self, but rather, in art the self becomes self-forgetful in order to meet the demands of the thing seen and the thing being made.

The black sky was underpinned with long silver streaks that looked like scaffolding and depth on depth behind it were thousands of stars that all seemed to be moving very slowly as if they were about some vast construction work that involved the whole universe and would take all time to complete. No one was paying attention to the sky.

I don't deserve any credit for turning the other cheek as my tongue is always in it.

We are now living in an age which doubts both fact and value. It is the life of this age that we wish to see and judge.

The Catholic novelist in the South will see many distorted images of Christ, but he will certainly feel that a distorted image of Christ is better than no image at all. I think he will feel a good deal more kinship with backwoods prophets and shouting fundamentalists than he will with those politer elements for whom the supernatural is an embarrassment and for whom religion has become a department of sociology or culture or personality development.

Accepting oneself does not preclude an attempt to become better.

Sickness is more instructive than a long trip to Europe.

The writer operates at a peculiar crossroads where time and place and eternity somehow meet. His problem is to find that location.

Those who have no absolute values cannot let the relative remain merely relative; they are always raising it to the level of the absolute.

The only thing that makes the Church endurable is that it is somehow the body of Christ and that on this we are fed. It seems to be a fact that you have to suffer as much from the Church as for it but if you believe in the divinity of Christ, you have to cherish the world at the same time that you struggle to endure it.

It is better to be young in your failures than old in your successes.

I am tired of reading reviews that call A Good Man brutal and sarcastic. The stories are hard but they are hard because there is nothing harder or less sentimental than Christian realism.

The writer should never be ashamed of staring. There is nothing that does not require his attention.

When a book leaves your hands, it belongs to God. He may use it to save a few souls or to try a few others, but I think that for the writer to worry is to take over God's business.

My subject in fiction is the action of grace in territory largely held by the devil.

Satisfy your demand for reason but always remember that charity is beyond reason, and God can be known through charity.

I love a lot of people, understand none of them.

The fiction of Ayn Rand is as low as you can get re fiction. I hope you picked it up off the floor of the subway and threw it in the nearest garbage pail. She makes Mickey Spillane look like Dostoevsky.

There is something in us, as storytellers and as listeners to stories, that demands the redemptive act, that demands that what falls at least be offered the chance to be restored. The reader of today looks for this motion, and rightly so, but what he has forgotten is the cost of it. His sense of evil is diluted or lacking altogether, and so he has forgotten the price of restoration. When he reads a novel, he wants either his sense tormented or his spirits raised. He wants to be transported, instantly, either to mock damnation or a mock innocence.

I see from the standpoint of Christian orthodoxy. This means that for me the meaning of life is centered in our Redemption by Christ and that what I see in the world I see in relation to that.

Not sentimental love but true Charity is what is hard and endures.

As was usual with him, he began with the least important thing and worked around and in toward the center where the meaning was.

I write to discover what I know.