The power of a single word

July 31, 2015  

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Last night, my son and I alone in the truck, running an errand:



“You know about cards?”

“What cards?”

“You know, like birthday cards?”

“Sure,” I said.

I looked in the rearview mirror. He was seated directly behind me, his face turned out of the window and toward the mountains, where the setting sun cast his tanned face in a red glow. Sometimes I do that with my kids—just look at them. I’ll look at them now and I’ll try to remember them as they were and try to imagine them as they will be.

“What about them?” I asked. “The cards.”

He didn’t hear me. Or maybe he wasn’t going to say. Sometimes my kids (any kids) are like that. Their conversations begin and end in their own minds, and we are allowed only tiny windows into their thoughts.

“Do you like Target?” he asked.


“Don’t ever buy cards at Target, Dad.”

“Why’s that?”

“They’re inappropriate.”

Another look into the mirror. His face was still toward the mountains, still that summer red. But there was a look to him that said he was turning something large and heavy over in his head, thinking on things.

“Why are they inappropriate?”

“They’re bad,” he said. “On a lot of them, do you know what they have?”

“What’s that?”


“They have butts on the cards?”

“Yeah. Big ones.”

Silence. More driving. I thought that little talk is over. I kind of hoped it was. I didn’t know where it was all going. I was pretty sure that was a ride I didn’t want to go on.

Then, “Do you know what else they have besides big butts?”


“Bad words.”

“That a fact?”


He likes that word, my son. Surely. Uses it all the time. And upon such occasions I like to say, “Don’t call me Surely.” I did then, too. There was no effect. Still toward the mountains, still the red glow. Still turning things over. I tried turning the radio up, found a song he liked. Whistled. Anything to stop that encroaching train wreck of conversation.

“Really bad words,” he said.

“Bad words aren’t good.”


I had him then. Conversation settled.

Then, “A-s-s.”


“That’s what the cards have on them. A-s-s.”

“Don’t think I like that,” I said.

“Me, neither,” he said.

I looked in the mirror one more time. He still faced outside, out in the world, and in his tiny profile I saw the babe he was and the boy he is and the man he would be. Saw it all in that one moment, all of his possibilities and all of his faults, how high he would climb and how low he could fall.

He looked out, and in a voice meant only for himself and one I barely heard, he whispered,


And there was a smile then, faint but there, as the taste of that one vowel and two consonants fell over his lips. It was a taste both sweet and sour, one that lowered him and raised him, too.

I could have scolded him. Should have, maybe. But I didn’t. We rode on together, talking about anything but asses. Sometimes one lesson must be postponed in favor of another. And last night, right or wrong, I decided that more important than teaching my son what to say was letting him discover alone the awesome power of a single word.

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Useless information

July 28, 2015  

It’s somewhat alarming to think about how many things I forget during the course of a normal day. The exact number eludes me; I forget how many things I’ve forgotten.

There are little things like forgetting where I’ve put my keys and wallet, and also big things like where I’ve put my children. I’ve forgotten appointments, to eat, to set my alarm, and, I noticed today, the fact that the oil needs to be changed in my truck.

The reasons for this may be many or one, depending upon whom I ask. My wife says it’s because I’m too tired, my friends say I’m too busy. Standard excuses for everyone with a short attention span. My mother, however, offered her own reason in her typically loving way:

“Your head’s too full of useless stuff,” she said. “There’s no room for things that matter.”

I thought about that and had to agree that what she said was at least partly right. I wasn’t sure if it were possible to have so much in my head that nothing else could get in, but I did have a lot of seemingly useless stuff stuck in there.

Stuff like the fact that a dragonfly can eat its own weight in thirty minutes. Or that Hollywood was founded by a man who wanted to build a community based on his conservative religious principles. Couvade is a custom in which a father simulates the symptoms of childbirth. Einstein went his entire life without ever wearing a pair of socks. I could go on.

Where I’ve managed to scrape up such tidbits of uselessness is beyond me. So is the manner by which I can remember that John Milton went blind because he read too late at night but not the name of someone I see at work every day.

The fact that I may simply be absent-minded occurred to me. It’s a distinct possibility. I come from a long line of absent-minded people. But that seems like a poor excuse in itself, and I keep thinking about what my mother said to me.

There’s little doubt that we all fill our lives with things that don’t matter, thereby sacrificing some of the things that do. Worry robs our faith, doubt our hope, and discord our love. But is that true for knowledge? Can we know too much for our own good?

Some people think so. I have friends who believe that faith is all they need, that thinking has done nothing but bring the world a whole lot of trouble. Communism, moral relativism, and Keeping up with the Kardashians wouldn’t exist if someone hadn’t thought them up and ruined all of our lives. Sometimes I think that’s true, especially with Keeping up with the Kardashians.

Faith is pretty much the most important thing a person can have. I also think having as much knowledge as possible easily breaks the top three. Because despite what everyone says, ignorance is not bliss. It’s more like a prison cell with walls of our own making.

Of all the inborn traits God sees fit to give us, few are exercised less than our curiosity. Spending some time with the nearest child will convince you that we’re all born with a probing mind. But that somehow gets lost as we get older. We all are tempted to reach a point where we just don’t care to know anything else. We already know enough about the world to realize it’s all spiraling downward. Why pile it on?

I get that, I really do. There are plenty of things I would rather not know, things that would keep my life chugging along rather nicely if they weren’t stuck on one giant playback loop in my brain.

But then there’s this to consider—our world really is a wonderful place. Flawed, yes. And a bit ugly in some places. But it’s also amazing and inspiring and so utterly almost-perfect.

The truth? I want to know everything. Even the stupid stuff. After all these years, I’m still curious. I still want to know. Because I’ve found that the more I can know about God’s world and the people who inhabit it, the more I can know about God and me. If that keeps me from checking my mail every once in a while or not realizing the truck’s almost out of gas, then so be it.

I think we would all be a little better off if we cracked a book every once in a while. There’s too much ignorance in this world. Life, like music, must contain several parts equally. There must be melody and beat. And there must be heart and head. That’s how we dance through our days. And God is a musician at heart.

Just ask the common housefly. Whose wings, by the way, hum in the key of F.

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Knowing how to pray

July 24, 2015  

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A friend recently confessed that not only had he never prayed, he had never found an adequate opportunity to do so. Why bother, he asked, to resort to empty words to a God who is at best noncommittal and at worst uncaring?

I gave him an appreciative nod. There had been times in my life when I suspected God to be both, but in the end the opposite had always held to be true. But his words struck me. Prayer was much a part of my life even in my darkest days. Not praying, no matter how far the distance between myself and God, was never an option.

I’d always assumed there were many in the world who never lifted their voice to heaven. I’d just never known one.

I figured I prayed about seven times a day. Not bad, really, until I started thinking about some of the things I prayed both for and about. Asking for God to watch over my loved ones is a lot different than asking Him to let the Yanks win and the Sox lose. I asked for both over the weekend.

And while asking Him to make my headache go away is maybe an okay thing, asking Him to give the person who caused my headache sudden and uncontrollable diarrhea probably wasn’t.

It all got me thinking not only about how and when I pray, but how and when others do the same. Prayer is something many of us take for granted. I doubt we pause enough to consider the gravity of actually speaking to the Creator of the universe.

Prayer is serious stuff. Fascinating, too. Nothing says more about us than how we talk to God. So I decided to take last Sunday and observe both family and friends in a sort of super secret prayer survey. I wanted to know who got it just right, who didn’t quite, and why.

Church seemed like a logical starting point. Lots of people pray in church. I listened to the Sunday School teacher, the pastor, and an usher pray with both an eloquence and spirit that I could aspire to but never quite accomplish. Eloquence has never been my strong suit. Me often don’t talk like that pretty.

Lunch with my wife’s family, however, seemed more promising. There are a lot of things country folk can do better than others, and talking to God is among them. Country prayers are not as flowery as church prayers. There are plenty of ain’ts and gonnas. It’s not praying, it’s prayin’. Big difference.

So we prayed for the hands that cooked the food and the ground that grew it. For the rain that would make the corn grow and the closeness of family. That prayer was nice. Homey. But it still wasn’t quite…right. Something was missing.

Bedtime found my family gathered around my daughter’s bed, knees to floor. And though I normally assume the traditional pose of head bowed and hands folded, I cheated that night. I kept my eyes and ears open as my children prayed. Together.

“Thanks, Jesus,” my son said, “for all the cool stuff You showed me today.”

“And,” said my daughter, “for the green grass. It’s my favorite color.”

“Thanks for the macaroni, because I love macaroni,” added my son.

“I didn’t like the broccoli,” my daughter said. “Can you please do something about that?”

“You made pretty clouds tonight.”

“I love you, God.”

“I love you too, God.”

“We both love you.”

Then, together: “Amen.”

I walked outside a while later to make sure the stars were still there and say goodnight to God. I’ve always liked praying outside. For some strange reason, I’ve always thought my words could go through a ceiling of clouds much easier than a ceiling of plaster.

I’ll be honest. Prayer has always been a little confusing to me. Like the people at church, I’ve tried to be eloquent and flowery. Like the people I shared lunch with, I’ve tried to be folksy and homey. And like my children, I’ve tried to keep things simple.

It isn’t always easy to put thoughts and feelings to words, no matter to whom we’re talking.

I guess in the end it isn’t so much what we say to God as it is the heart with which it’s said. What we can’t explain, He knows. What we can’t say quite right He knows exactly.

And sometimes, many times, a prayer needs no words at all.

Which is why that night, there beneath the stars, I simply looked to heaven and smiled.

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Amish family reunion

July 20, 2015  

Two summers ago:

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I spent much of this past weekend at the Amish church along the edge of town, attending a family reunion that turned out to be larger than anything I could have imagined. Uncles and aunts, brothers and sisters, and more second cousins than I can remember. All descending upon that quiet little church with the softball field and the see-saw, and an ancient blooming oak that looked down upon us all.

My mother’s maiden name is Kanagy—a proper Amish name if you’ll ever hear one, right up there with the Yoders and Schrocks and Zooks. The family center is still in Lancaster County, though the years have flung the Kanagys to all corners of the country. It was a strange thing, hearing that. The Coffeys have always been in these mountains. We always will. I suppose it’s an unwritten rule that we should never roam far from our family’s bones. And yet Saturday we parked near vehicles from Kansas, Colorado, and Delaware. Sunday, it was mostly Ohio.

Many of them I’d never seen (though many remembered me as a child, one even commenting on numerous occasions that I smelled very good as a baby—a tidbit of information that never failed to make my son giggle). Others I’d seen only in passing and only years before. And yet all of them looked familiar in the way family always does, whether it was the way all of their faces had the same shape or the way everyone’s laugh seemed to lilt at the end. We all shared something important. We wandered and mingled and introduced ourselves, and we all felt that tugging of a thin cord wound around us all, placed there by some long-ago kin.

Not that things always went so smoothly. My mother’s Amish heritage gave way to the Mennonite faith when she was a child. The Mennonite in her fell away (at least in practice) not long after she married my father. I was raised more conservative country than conservative Mennonite, which was why my family showed up in jeans and capris rather than the accustomed plain blue pants and white shirts, or the plain blue dresses and white bonnets.

tattoo(Also this rather important point: If you should ever find yourself in the company of a hundred Amish and Mennonite people and you yourself are neither Amish nor Mennonite, take care to cover the ginormous tattoo running from your shoulder to your elbow. This, I found out the hard way.)

So yes, there was some getting used to things. But the vast majority of my distant relatives were more than happy to put our outward differences aside, eager to use the opportunity as a chance to see how the other half lives.

I was pleased to find many of them had kept up with my wife and children and had read my books. Just because you’re Amish doesn’t mean you’re dim. Indeed, the Kanagy’s are an intellectual lot; in my wanderings around the reunion, I met several preachers and one college professor. Reading is considered not only necessary, but pleasurable. The classics are most encouraged. Dickens is widely read.

(Which brings another rather important point: Amish people do not read Amish fiction. In fact, many of them had never heard of such a thing— its mere mention brought the very same shock and laughter my son offered when he heard I’d smelled excellent as a baby.)

I imagine much like most families, what truly brought us together was the food. Your typical Amish fare—bean soup, moon pies, barbequed chicken, fresh bread, and spearmint tea made to such perfection that I could not help but drink it and think of my own grandmother. We stood in that gathering hall to pray and we said our amens, and when we sat to eat we found that despite all of our differences, we were still all the same. Because that’s when the tales began.

One after another, each fired in succession. Tales of days gone by and times when the world seemed a better, fresher place. The hardships endured. The ones who have gone on. The ones who have come to take their place. And when we shared each of these things we shared not only our memory, we shared ourselves.

I won’t see many of them again until the next reunion. Though from what I hear, this one may be the last. Too many of my relatives have grown too old. The distance is too great between us for the traveling. Its wearying to the bones.

If that’s the case, I can rest knowing I spent my time wisely this past weekend. I learned much of my past. And I learned this as well: what binds a family together is a thing deeper than blood and body, it is story. And that is the story of us all.

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Go Set a Watchman

July 16, 2015  

Screen Shot 2015-07-16 at 4.58.15 PMI recently wrote a short article for Fox News Opinion concerning the news/controversy surrounding the release of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman.

Here’s a link to the story in case you missed it:

Why I See Nothing Wrong with a Flawed Atticus Finch.


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