Go Gently

And we think that we can’t write that for which we do not have words […]

And we think that we can’t write that for which we do not have words but actually sometimes you can if you go gently between the words. Brian Doyle

The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light. Isaiah 9:2

It is a week before Christmas and I tell my oldest son: “It is a big responsibility to be a big brother.” This three year old stares at me blankly from across the room, then continues playing with the nativity scene strewn across the floor in a mishmash of sheep and shepherds and Magi because—sweet baby Jesus!—who has the time to set up and organize and keep organized when you have two young boys?

I have collapsed into the old armchair I have owned since seminary. My youngest son, only a month and a couple of weeks in change, lies on a blanket at my feet gumming a wooden figurine of that awed and bewildered father in Bethlehem long ago. The older points at the floor and asks, “Is that safe?” His brother babbles in tongues.


I think all brothers speak languages of mind and might. Some of these are fists and tears and broken bones; others are bike chains and baseball gloves and bear hugs completed with two thumps on the back. A mentor told me those two back pats stand for Love You. Full-throated screams and soft sighs are likewise too deep for words.


My brother John is twenty-five months younger. When he first learned to walk, I would knock him down so often that he began to point his finger at me even when he fell on his own. He would wail: “An-new!”

A few years later John stole a piece of a puzzle from his kindergarten classroom on a dare from a friend. My poor kid brother clutched the guilt to his heart over most of Christmas vacation until he tearfully confessed at the dinner table. With a heavy sigh, I lamented: “I’m just afraid this will lead to a life of crime.”

He and I came to blows more times than I care to remember.


Yeshua ben Yosef (that sweet baby boy) had brothers; or, half-brothers according to our Christology. Still, the earliest Gospel had no qualms about identifying James and Joses and Judas and Simon as adelphoi. Don’t you think He was tender and kind when they were young? Don’t you think He kept them from committing even more mischief and don’t you just know He made them laugh?

When they came to Him as adults, He said that His brothers are those who do the will of God, the Father in heaven, and He would not leave the house to see them. Perhaps this left them speechless. Maybe their reactions were not appropriate to print, you know, with all the little kids coming around and hindered not.


My only fistfight with someone other than John occurred during Christmas vacation in seventh grade on the blacktop of our old elementary school. A kid from out of town—visiting his sweet grandmother for goodness sake!—threw a basketball off my head and I swung at him. He came back with an expert right and a well-placed left and would have impacted more damage save for my little brother throwing his kid body between us.

Now my grown up brother teaches math in a public high school. Shortly after my first son was born, I flew from my home in Virginia to New York City and tagged along to my brother’s work. I wore a Visitor badge and sat in the front row. Dry erase marker in hand, my younger brother whirled from the whiteboard to call the name of a student in the far back corner who had been whispering to a friend. John gave him a knowing smile.

Back at his tiny apartment, I presented him with an early Christmas gift: a small decorative bowl woven by a local artist out of lacquered magazine strips. I instructed him to keep the bowl by his door and empty his pockets there as soon as he came home, explaining that he would save precious time every morning if he didn’t have to move heaven and earth to find his keys and stuff. I could tell he almost rolled his eyes. But we exchanged a hug. Two back pats.


Our adult leaders held lock-ins for middle school youth in our father’s church. My first crush was on this girl who brought cigarettes. She showed me the tip of the pack peeking out of the back pocket of her jeans. Pizza and the first movie were followed by Bible study and the second movie. Finally, she and I snuck away and lit up on the front steps of the sanctuary—the same place Dad greeted parishioners after pronouncing the benediction. We did not smoke as much as cough and gag. But we kept at it, cool as we were.

Eventually we stumbled inside, high on nicotine and the forbidden. John was the only one still awake.

“Whew! Buddy, you stink!”

He blew into the opening of a Styrofoam cup of hot chocolate. I asked why he had called me “Buddy” because he had never done that before.

“You just don’t seem like An-drew right now.”


During my search and rescue mission for Christmas decorations from the dungeon we know as the manse basement—among all the dusty spider webs, snake skins, exiled children’s toys (most of which play music) and God-only-knows what else—I happened upon my old skateboard. A painted Snoopy still smiled underneath his glasses. I flipped the gift over onto its grimy wheels and coasted only a few feet. But I was transported to the heady time of seminary more than ten years ago. Admitting to myself that I had read the same circuitous paragraph four times, I would leave the library through the double glass doors and hit the fresh air. I would then coast around the flat rectangle of the quad’s dormant winter grass.

I never had a skateboard as a youth. I did not hang out with those kids, preferring to have both feet on the ground and legs free of baggy jeans. But I made an offhand comment to my brother about how the seminary’s grass was collared by brick walkways. I have kept the skateboard because the real gift was having something to talk about with him: How was my riding? Was I learning any tricks?


The hope of Advent is for a time when words will no longer be necessary, for then we shall know fully even as we are fully known. In the meantime we preach and, following the lectionary, we always encounter crazed John the Baptizer out there in the wilderness. I picture him in the full light of day, knee-deep in the piddling Jordan with a honey-matted beard and a forgotten cricket leg dangling from the corner of his mouth. He points his finger at the one to blame—he who knowingly partakes of the forbidden under the cover of darkness.

My favorite text is when the same John leaps in the womb at the presence of the Lord, who was likewise in utero. Those two men were cousins by birth and brothers by seeking the will of the Father in heaven. They both grew up to preach; also to suffer and die. But there must have been unspeakable joy between them. And hugs, don’t you think?


I suffer from reoccurring nightmares of the violent deaths of my sons. Sometimes one is hit by a car, other times by a train. One or both may fall from a bridge into icy waters or be dashed to bits on the pavement. An armed intruder may gun them down before my very eyes. In the dark night I know that no one is promised tomorrow. Yeshua and all the other gurus and sages are right. The blessing is to be; the gift is to be present. But my most fervent prayer is that I may bear witness to the long, slow growth of my sons into who they were meant to become.

After the elder’s first day of preschool, the ten month old crawled to where his big brother lay happily exhausted on the floor, pulled the matching orange pillow off the love seat, and stretched out beside him. And they both sighed. In unison.

Let me know them as men. Please.


Am I my brother’s keeper?

There is a picture our father snapped of just the two of us on the beach when we were about six and four. I am marching across the sand, my eyes forward; John follows gazing down so he can step into my footprints. My younger brother had this photo framed for my college graduation though he was across that Atlantic Ocean studying abroad in Paris. I keep his gift on my desk where I write.

But now it is Christmas Eve’s Eve (Christmas Adam as someone at church has taught my oldest son to say) and I am visiting a parishioner in the hospital. Walking out of the room, I see two boys, maybe six and four years old, zooming shiny toy airplanes through the florescent lit air by the nurse station. The taller one wears his black hair shaved close to his head. He has dark freckles splayed in constellations across his brown cheeks. Save for the gap-toothed grin, the younger boy is a shorter clone. I follow as their basketball shoes screech into the lobby. Suddenly the older one slams on his breaks before a fountain. The trailing kid smacks into him, drawing his glare. As water trickles down plastic rocks, the elder digs into his pocket. Wordlessly, those two watch the tossed coin arc into the wishing well. They both seem so small. And they are off again on spindly legs, racing toward the double doors, leaving me to pray alone by the fountain.

I decide to call him on the drive home. I confirm that his gifts for his nephews have arrived in the mail and are under our tree. I park in the gravel driveway and kill the engine. The stars shine overhead. My sons are in bed. My brother breathes. We talk about work and, you know, the same old stuff.