Ed Dobson ran the good race, with laughter

Image from Ed's Story.com

Image from Ed’s Story.com

This is how I think of Ed Dobson most often: laughing. I loved it when Ed cracked up. He had a delightful, goofy laugh, a hysterical intake of breath, in contrast to the serious attitude he adopted when it came to matters biblical. Ed made sure to laugh that laugh often by watching The Three Stooges, in the last years of his life.

Ed would have turned 66 today, Dec. 30, 2015, just four days after he passed from this world. His death the day after Christmas leaves me terribly saddened, yet grateful he has finally been released from the suffering of ALS. Ed lived with that wicked disease for 15 years, far outdistancing the usual prognosis of three to five. He cherished every moment of it, becoming greedier for life, as he once put it, the longer he lived. He wanted to spend as long as he could with his wife, Lorna, their children, Kent, Heather and Daniel, and their six grandchildren.

Ed lived and loved this life fully, even while ever keeping an eye on the next one. His faith in Jesus and belief in the Bible were rock solid. The first time we met, in his office at Calvary Church, he told me his congregation took the Bible literally. They believed Jonah really did spend three days and nights in the belly of a great fish. He said this as matter-of-factly as if they believed two times five equals 10. This struck me as pretty fundamentalist, but something in his quiet conviction made me respect his view.

Years later, I watched him break down the Hebrew meaning of a biblical text with Christian college students to whom he and Lorna had opened their Heritage Hill home. The expertise with which he dissected that passage made me realize just how deep his biblical foundation went, and I respected his views even more.

Image from MLive.com

Image from MLive.com

But then, when a guy spends a year letting his beard grow long, eating kosher and befriending strangers just to live as closely like Jesus as possible, you’ve gotta respect his commitment. Especially when he winds up on “Good Morning America” defending his decision to vote for Barack Obama in 2008 – and this from a former Jerry Falwell wingman. Talk about walking the walk.

But Ed did not so much walk as run through life. He was a talented soccer player growing up in Belfast, might have even gone pro had not God tugged stronger. He continued his soccer-playing, and regular long-distance running, while pastor of Calvary, one of Grand Rapids’ first megachurches. When he first told me of his ALS diagnosis, he said he wanted to keep running as long as possible. Clearly it was one of his life’s great joys.

I grew to know Ed and Lorna pretty well over the years, both through interviews for The Grand Rapids Press and informal meetings. I spent wonderful afternoons with Ed at The Sparrows coffeehouse, listening to him recount his childhood in Northern Ireland while clutching a cup of espresso. I treasured his brief hugs when our conversations ended, especially as his body became frailer. Still, his spirit was like an iron rod running up his backbone. His conviction never wavered: I will follow Jesus wherever he leads me. And his laugh was ever a delight.

Whenever someone would knock Christians for being narrow-minded and judgmental, I would point to Ed and say, “Not this guy.”

Yesterday I took a run at the YMCA. As I broke into my easy pace I thought, “This one’s for you, Ed.” I won’t speculate where that thought came from. I’ll just say it was real, and that I was blessed to dedicate that run to Ed. His race was long and strong, outdistancing expectations on every side. And always following Jesus setting the pace, which Ed maintained with every bit of his heart and his soul and his mind.


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the light and the dark, vying for the day

Peter Pan ornament

Andrea and I put up the tree Sunday night. The humble Fraser fir had sat naked for a day in my living room, after I’d carted it from the tree farmer’s lot off Lake Michigan Drive. We draped it with little star-like lights while Sarah McLachlan sang “noel, noel” and Vince Guaraldi made waterfall gossamer of “What Child is This?” I saved for last the bubble lights, the same kind that enchanted me as a child at my Nana’s house in Detroit.

We hung with care the old-fashioned ornaments: the gold baubles, the flying Peter Pan that my daughter Emily gave me long ago, the jumping jack only I am allowed to hang. We also trimmed my front window with lights, framing the tree for passersby on the sidewalk out front. Then we sat back and admired our handiwork, glowing softly and twinkling with memories already made. There it will stand for the duration of the season, filling my home with its sweet aroma.

I had considered not putting up a tree this year. Just didn’t feel like I had the energy for it. So much seemed to militate against Christmas cheer. The shortening days are made darker by the strife of this poor world. The daily onslaught of vitriol and violence wears me down; the demonizing of political foes, the routine slaughter of innocents and innocence.

The world seems darker. It’s a place I barely recognize anymore. I still love my country but I don’t much like it these days. Most people are good and decent. Many work to improve the lot of others. But their goodness and decency don’t matter to those out to divide and destroy us. How are we supposed to sing the carols of old, light the candles of Hanukkah and trim the tree in the midst of such meanness and mayhem?

Well, it seems this is a very old battle, this vying of darkness and light. Our Old World ancestors used to build bonfires against the coming of winter solstice. Today we drench our porches and yards with luminous reindeer and mangers. We put up a darn good fight for the light.

Richard Rohr reminded me of the ancient battle in his Advent reading this morning:
“(A)t a certain point, we have to surrender to the fact that the darkness has always been there, and the only real question is how to receive the light and spread the light.” He quotes John’s Gospel: “the light shines on inside of the darkness, and the darkness will not overcome it.”

Lately, the darkness wants to overcome me with negativity and despair. Some days it wins. But I push back against it. I rage and hope and refuse to submit. I look for the light, what Rohr calls “the narrow birth canal of God into the world.”

And so I return to my work, shining light on goodness and decency where I can, finding comfort and joy in friends and family. And I drape the tree with Andrea, letting her love and Nana’s bubble lights remind me of all that is sweet and precious in this poor old world.

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had to cry today, and also run

September sunrise

September sunrise

A few days after seeing the fleeting supergroup Blind Faith perform in 1969, I awoke in the middle of the night with a song banging through my head. It was “Had to Cry Today,” the opening track of both the concert and their only album. Its insistent, mesmerizing double-guitar riff had taken over my brain like a master preacher overtakes a church.
I had seen the concert at Detroit’s Olympia Stadium with my childhood soulmate Brad Read, who’s remained a lifelong friend. Back then we exchanged letters filled with his skilled psychedelic artwork and my Donovan-like poetry. Today we exchange emails filled with the latest bends on our parallel life journeys.
One morning this week my journey took me running out the door and down to the park. It is where I go when I need to work something off or soak something up. This week it was to air out a host of pressures and stresses that have been working on me. The rising sun and sweet air told me this was the way to do it.
I listened not to Blind Faith but to Wilco, a skilled and sturdy band, which I dialed up on my trusty iPod. As I emerged from the tunnel under the freeway and into the blessed, green expanse of John Ball Park, I let Wilco’s sonic magic work on my tangled emotions like Blind Faith did my adolescent yearnings some 45 years ago.
Striding past the pond where the ArtPrize serpent bathes, looking east where the sun rose over the domes of Sacred Heart Church, I felt it welling up behind my eyes. It had to come, for whatever reason. Sometimes there is nowhere else to put it all. I had to cry that day.
As I returned to the crazy-steep hill of Bridge Street leading back up to my home, I resolved to dial up the New Pornographers, who are always good for a happy energy burst. But no, the shuffle took me to Wilco’s “On and On,” which pretty much finished the flushing job with its lullaby melody and affecting lyrics:
This world of words and meanings makes you feel outside
something that you feel already deep inside
you’ve denied.
Go ahead and cry.
Sometimes there’s no other answer for what works on you outside and makes you feel inside. That’s a beautiful thing. For tears express joy as well as sadness, sanctifying both sunrises and sunsets.

September sunset

September sunset

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Keith Richards vs. the earworms: who will win?

photo from American Songwriter

photo from American Songwriter

There’s no telling when or why a song gets stuck in my head. One especially troubling instance happened in the summer of 1976, when I was a young man cavorting in England. Seemingly out of nowhere appeared a brief instrumental passage from a song by the Easybeats, the Australian band who performed the classic garage hit “Friday on My Mind.” This little riff set up shop in my head and stayed there for days, repeating over and over the same two-measure bass line until I was considering a lobotomy.
Like most earworms, this one moved on of its own accord, probably migrating to some poor sod next to me at the One Elm Inn in Stratford-upon-Avon. My torment was over but his had just begun.
I bring this up now because I’ve been struggling with earworms this week. Frankly, I hope some of you have, too, because then I could put my struggle down to a change in the weather, or September coming on, or something. I’m guessing mental fatigue, my brain’s natural immunity lowered by too much activity.
It began with, again, an instrumental passage, apparently my mind’s weak point of entry. This was from a song I will not be naming here, for fear of somehow re-activating it. More maddeningly, it is a song currently being performed by my band, the Honeytones, and the passage is my guitar solo in that song. Now I find it particularly perverse that I should inflict myself with an earworm bred by a riff from my very own guitar. For what am I being punished, oh Lord? Please tell me it’s the weather.
The Worm that Shall Remain Nameless first struck in the middle of the night when I couldn’t sleep, as a soundtrack to a steady stream of worries about daytime tasks (stories I’m writing, house painting, changing Internet providers etc.). This was bad enough, but then it started following me around during the day. Whatever I was doing – sweeping the walk, riding my bike – there it was, like a bad case of the hiccups. It just wouldn’t stop.
So I tried to combat the riff with a better riff. And what better riffer is there than Keith Richards, mastermind of such unforgettable riffs as the opening lines of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” “Brown Sugar” and “Start Me Up.” Surely Keith’s ultimate riffage would vanquish my paltry noodling.
For my anti-worm I chose Keef’s masterful work on “Sympathy for the Devil,” not the album cut but the incredible live version on “Get Your Ya Ya’s Out.” It opens with a female fan imploring, “Paint it Black, you devils!” They sure do. Keith’s chunga-chunga riff could melt a teenage boy or mesmerize a Peruvian shaman. I’m listening to it now, and it makes me want to bang my head like the car guys in “Wayne’s World.”
This counter-worming is one of several strategies I’ve found online for abolishing musical memes that won’t leave you alone. Others include working out, listening to the song all the way through or picturing an actual worm crawling out of your head and then stomping on it. This last seems repulsive, so I’ll stick with the musical methods.
It is somewhat comforting to know I’m so far from alone. To the rescue comes a TED-Ed talk, written by music researcher Elizabeth Hellmus Margulis, informing me that 90 percent of us get earworms at least once a week. Often burrowing in during mundane tasks, earworms are “one of the mind’s great mysteries,” Margulis says. She calls them an example of “mental imagery,” like imagining a baby crying, except these are involuntary and get stuck in a loop. High-tech sound sources may have made it worse, she speculates, but notes a Mark Twain story tells of a town taken over by a rhyming jingle.
In other words, we seem to always have been stuck with earworms. Whatever. It happens to me a lot, and playing guitar probably has a lot to do with it. I’m hoping other musicians will nod their heads here, and that I have not woken up a worm in your ear just by writing this.
Keith finally did vanquish the Worm that Shall Remain Nameless, by the way. Sadly, a new one popped into my head last night. I won’t name that one either. I’m counting on Keith to bail me out again.

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the Beatles still speak to us, though much has changed

One of my favorite Beatles pictures: jumping jubilantly above the chimney pots and hard scrabble of their early lives

One of my favorite Beatles pictures: jumping jubilantly above the chimney pots and hard scrabble of their early lives

Music lovers of all ages have been blessed to experience the era of the Beatles in real time. It’s sort of like, “Mozart? Oh yeah, I saw him when he was first playing gigs in Salzburg. Dude was incredible!”
I have found in this most organic of bands a bottomless source of inspiration and joy. So when David Crumm, editor of Read the Spirit, an online magazine of spirituality and culture, invited me to write a five-part series of blogs on Beatles songs, it took me about 35 seconds to say yes.
Having taught an adult-learners’ course called “Love is All, Love is You: The Spirituality of the Beatles,” I had heard many times how deeply their music continues to affect people across the age spectrum. It was a delight to dig back into just a few of their songs that continue to bring joy and meaning to so many.
Here are the pieces I wrote for David, to whom I am deeply grateful for the opportunity. They appear in the order in which they were published.
Feel free to dive in if Beatles music moves you. I can say with reasonable confidence that a splendid time is guaranteed for all!

“‘Sending out the joy’ for more than 50 years”
When I first saw the Beatles perform on the Ed Sullivan Show on Feb. 9, 1964, they were singing a language I didn’t get, at that point. But even at age 11, I sensed it had something to do with excitement, sexuality (still latent in my case) and unrestrained joy.
More than 50 years later, the Beatles’ music still speaks to me, in ever-fresh ways. The songs’ sonic ecstasy endures, but their meaning has deepened with new bends in my life’s journey.
See more at: http://www.readthespirit.com/ourvalues/the-beatles-sending-the-joy-out-for-more-than-50-years/#sthash.z5PwYgMH.dpuf

“Do you still long for yesterday?”
Paul McCartney maintained that the melody of Yesterday came to him in a dream. He went around for days asking people if they’d heard it before, convinced he had unwittingly downloaded somebody else’s song. Finally, he realized it had come from his own subconscious.
Maybe that’s why the song entered into our cultural consciousness so readily. Besides being a No. 1 single in 1965, it’s been recorded by other artists more than 2,500 times.
See more at: http://www.readthespirit.com/ourvalues/the-beatles-do-you-still-long-for-yesterday/#sthash.9BdI9gn9.dpuf

“Do we still believe love can change the world?”
George Harrison was the most overtly religious of the Beatles, with his sitar-inflected affinity for Eastern thought. But Paul McCartney and John Lennon, albeit agnostics, were secular evangelists for the revolutionary power of love.
They proclaimed it in The Word–Have you heard? The word is love–and the utopian All You Need is Love, which in a worldwide 1967 broadcast insisted “love is all you need” despite ample evidence to the contrary.
See more at: http://www.readthespirit.com/ourvalues/the-beatles-do-we-still-believe-love-can-change-the-world/#sthash.sSD3pxMB.dpuf

“There are places I’ll remember all my life”
I have never visited Penny Lane, although I fully plan on it. Yet even if fate says no, I can vividly see its blue suburban skies and the fireman with an hourglass.
That’s due to Paul McCartney’s brilliantly colored portrait of the Liverpool street where he used to catch a bus on the way to John Lennon’s house. If you Google street views of Penny Lane, it looks like a nice but unremarkable commercial district. Listen to Paul’s song, though, and it takes on the magical hues of a Maxfield Parrish painting.
See more at: http://www.readthespirit.com/ourvalues/the-beatles-there-are-places-i-remember-all-my-life/#sthash.CjmrWhrn.dpuf

“And in the end … Let it Be”
One of the deep bonds between Paul McCartney and John Lennon was that they both lost their mothers at an early age. Paul’s mother, Mary, died of cancer when he was 14, and John’s Julia was killed by a car when he was 17. …
While John worked out his feelings explicitly through songs such as Julia and Mother, Paul’s were more indirectly expressed and, characteristically, to uplifting effect. Let It Be finds Paul taking solace from his mum speaking from beyond the grave–and passes it along to us as a comfort for our own hardships.
See more at: http://www.readthespirit.com/ourvalues/the-beatles-and-in-the-end-let-it-be/#sthash.G3VMEvFF.dpuf

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a game ever green: memory, childhood and the abiding beauty of baseball

Comerica Park, home of the Detroit Tigers

Comerica Park, home of the Detroit Tigers

Besides being a wonderful game in itself, baseball has a way of connecting people across time, societal groups and generations. I recently presented a program about baseball’s beauty and community-creating qualities at the Catholic Information Center of the Grand Rapids Diocese. I showed video clips and gave readings from Roger Angell, Roger Kahn and my collection of essays, “Faith on First.” I also invited audience members to share special moments of enjoying baseball with loved ones. You can hear their touching stories and watch the program here. (Scroll down in the “Video on Demand” box and you’ll find it quickly.)

If you would like me to share this program with your faith community, civic organization or book group, feel free to contact me at honeycharlesm@gmail.com. I would love to hear your baseball stories as well!

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time dissolves, with a dog on the porch

Frankfort sunset, July 2015

I was sitting on the porch of our cottage outside of Beulah, reading a book about the saints, when up came a volunteer friend: a chocolate-colored lab, friendly as you please. He clicked across the porch, nuzzled up to me and put his head on my lap.
That’s the wonderful thing about dogs, isn’t it? They think you are the coolest thing in the world: “Hey there Mr. Man, you are so awesome! Would you mind petting me on the head for just a minute? That would be so great!”
So there we sat, Buster and me (he seemed like a Buster), him being petted, me petting him. I put down my book, as Buster was rather dominating my lap.
“Breakfast in 10 minutes!” Andrea called from the kitchen. Ah, 10 minutes. Such a nice long time. I closed my eyes, Buster under my hand, listening to the mid-morning countryside. Birds, the occasional faraway car, another dog barking, nothing. I immersed myself in the summer stillness. All motion seemed to have stopped. The very idea of 10 minutes seemed to lose meaning. It was just me and Buster, on the porch, while time took a break.
I have the idea you can slow time down if you make a point of it. Buddhist monks seemingly can bring it to a halt by slowing their heart rates in meditation. Buster was being my Buddhist monk here, inviting me to slow my mind down. Instead of racing ahead mentally to the next thing, I just sat there with this thing, this moment. The more I sat, the larger the moment became, swelling into the warming summer air. There was no next thing, except that invitation to breakfast, at some point.
There were other such moments in my long weekend with Andrea. Sitting on Frankfort beach, we huddled on a bench waiting for the sunset. It took a long time. Children ran by along the shore. Adults snapped memory photos. The waves whooshed in dreamily. Birds circled. Andrea and I sat there sleepily, as the golden sun sank ever so perceptibly toward the horizon, slowing all the world with its lazy splendor.
It would not stay so slow. Soon enough we were back in the rushing week, driving and working and taking care of the next thing and the thing after that. Things that needed doing by a certain time or else. Or else what, exactly? I guess we know. But what a life it would be if we could just let time dissolve into the still air, and let the deadlines wash away in the waves.

Frankfort dune grass

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