Smoke in the Shape of Open Arms

Thursday, August 1st, 4:43 – 5:13 a.m.:  prayer propped up in bed next to sleeping Kathy. While I did my usual Zen-Christian thing—trying to let the thought-monkeys swing around my mind-tree without paying attention to them—rain breathed against the boulevard leaves as thunder made its ironically comforting groan somewhere miles away. Ah, the wind through the open windows on my chest and knees. George Harrison sat on a branch and sang “My Sweet Lord” until I surrendered and let his mantra take over. “Really want to know you, Lord. Really want to see you.”


Okay, not technically a monkey, but a mandril. This is what my mind monkeys look like–striking, sometimes menacing. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Don’t go online and read what people say about this trippy oldie. Such moronic fuss! I’m fine with the blending of hallelujah and Hare Krishna and accept Harrison’s explanation that the two mean “quite the same thing.” For that matter, people should wear ponytails and dance if that’s what centers them. Who am I to criticize? Anyway, by the time Harrison goes off on his Gurur Brahmā, gurur Viṣṇur deal, I’m on my own, wanting to know my sweet Lord. Eventually, words are immaterial.

After a couple decades of practicing silence, I’ve arrived at a liberating heresy, at least where Christianity is concerned: I don’t care what others believe. I’ll rephrase that: I couldn’t care less what others believe. As a spiritual person, I’m more than I can manage. I’m in no position to insist that you come at the Great Mystery the same way I do. Two caveats: I vote against worshipping evil whatever and carving insignias on human flesh and get keyed up when folks who call themselves Christian pretend it’s okay to smack children around, belittle their spouses, or let poor innocents go hungry in this country of unconscionable plenty. Beyond such glaring sludge, I’m flexible.


This work for you? I say, “Have a go.” (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Some would say too flexible—but I’m not finished yet. I’ve listened to plenty of atheists who embrace George Harrison’s mantra in their own way. Most of them reject any God language or imagery and say, “I don’t believe in anything. No creator. No conscious force. Nothing!” As they’ve spoken, I’ve tried to be completely present to them, letting go of any personal agenda. And you know what? Most atheists I know are beautiful, authentic and brave in their search for what’s real. They wouldn’t sing, “Really want to know you, Lord,” but they might sing, “Really want to know what’s real” or “My sweet truth, hmm my truth.” I know, these don’t have the same lilt; they’re genuine anyway.


No, this isn’t Jesus. (Credit: Wikipedia)

My point: as long as “really want to know you, (state your name)” is the prayer or song or mantra, I embrace it as sacred. Well, a caveat again: I’m not down with the name being Beelzebub or Nosferatu.


Max Schreck as Nosferatu. (Credit: Wikipedia)

Why am I dangerously loosey-goosey? A couple of reasons:

  • My son Micah is an atheist. At least I think he is. Today. He’s my only begotten son, and he’s put himself through a lot in twenty-one years. For the first time in his life I can say, “He’s doing well.” He is beloved of all that is, worthy of grace and mercy. If I’m wrong, if the punishment paradigm reigns, then I pick the eternal snuff-me-out option. (No, of course I’m not referring to suicide.)

Micah, my favorite heathen.

  • My beliefs and behaviors slam into each other so often that I’ve no worthy, autonomous ground to stand on. All I have is the conviction that my God understands that this life is damned difficult—my twist on M. Scott Peck’s simple observation—and that reckless love is the cosmic modus operandi. And, no, I can’t defend this belief . . . at all . . . and certainly not scripturally.
  • I recently held the hand of a person who had to decide whether to die sooner rather than later, never mind the details. When to jump? This person looked straight ahead as if trying to see open arms on the horizon. If the arms of eternity won’t welcome us or at least let us sleep in peace, then I simply can’t reconcile myself to this life. This is a selfish, fearful belief, but it’s honest.
  • I’m going to be bummed if Stephen Crane is right. He wrote a poem called “A Man Said to the Universe,” which I take to be his existential confession. I’m not in favor of the following: “A man said to the universe, / ‘Sir, I exist!’ / ‘However,’ the universe replied, / ‘The fact has not created in me / A sense of obligation.'”

Stephen Crane, author of The Red Badge of Courage–the face of man who believed the universe is a Gloomy Gus. (Credit: Wikipedia)

  • Often when I pray, I’m given laughter. There’s no other way to say it. I’ll be praying my own business, sitting still and breathing, and a laugh rises from inside. The skin beside my eyes wrinkles. When I’m in public, I have to shush myself or be identified as the weirdo I really am. I receive these prayer-laughs as communion with God, as God-Buddha belly-joy laughs at the Great Mystery’s outrageous love for everything from people to Irish wolfhounds (I want one someday) to the Coleman family’s compost pile. (Yes, I realize this phenomenon might be physiological, like a twitch in my bowels. I’m hopeful, not stupid.)

My Buddha belly too if the present trend continues. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

If you crushed everything I’ve said here into incense, it would burn with longing—my sweet Lord! It would smell like the 4:43-in-the-morning breeze that touches my chest. It would sound like a gentle old song, accompanied by rain against leaves. And the smoke would rise and take the shape of open arms.


10 thoughts on “Smoke in the Shape of Open Arms

  1. John,
    I like what you write. Monkeys in the mind? Yep. Buddha bellies? Yep. Your approach to prayer? Yep. Scarily familiar 🙂
    Peace brother.

  2. Reblogged this on Robfysh's Blog and commented:
    Honest raw and authentic spirituality, written better than I can do. . . . No false piety . . . No puffed up self righteousness. In a lot of ways this Nappers Companion post resonated within me. My faith is a huge leap and my trust is in the loving sovereign God. What is, is what is. When all is said and done (as my grandfather used to say) I can’t control very much. I find myself increasingly in the position of needing to rely on the provenance of my God.
    John, some of your mental processes are scarily familiar to mine. 😉
    Peace, brother.

    • Hi, Rob. Thanks for reblogging and for your comment. “What is, is what is”: that about says it all, huh? Peace to you too, brother. John

  3. Kathy shared this blog with me. Really pretty cool. It held my interest, I love the pictures to go along with the words — kind of puts it into perspective. I really loved being reminded about being nonjudgmental… being true to yourself…. keeping the prayer line open and the “my sweet Lord, I really want to know you” makes me feel as if He’s right there, truly listening, arms open. Now I need to do my part and listen to His will, trust His path for me. Thanks, John

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