All posts by Jon Swanson

About Jon Swanson

Social media chaplain. Author of "Lent For Non-Lent People" and "A Great Work: A Conversation With Nehemiah For People (Who Want To Be) Doing Great Works." Writer of I help people understand. Understand some of the Bible. Understand what Lent can be about. Understand what it means to follow.

Advent 11: Saint John and the manicure.

I might have mentioned that we start our mall walks by Red Robin. The parking is close to the door and closest to our house.

I understand the irony of worrying about parking when you are going to walk.

About half a mile away, at the far end of the mall, is a little manicure shop. I’ve never been inside, mind you, but when you walk past a place 3-4 times a day for seven winters, you start to notice.

0606091400.jpgAnd on this morning, that’s where Saint John was sitting. The gate wasn’t open, but John was sitting on the bench in front of the door, talking to one of the workers. I think she had arrived early and John just sat down next to her.

I was worried, a little. I mean if he was THE Saint John, it couldn’t be good for his reputation to be sitting in a dark hallway talking to a young woman. Especially someone who, judging by her accent, wasn’t born in this country.

Not that I was eavesdropping. Not that I was judging. I was just curious.

John saw us walking by. He waved us over.

“I want you to meet my friend,” he said. “We were just talking about Christmas. She was asking me whether it was better luck to have a real tree or an artificial tree. She wondered what my ancestors had done. I told her that I didn’t know how to answer that. What about you?”

“My ancestors lived on a farm by the wood,” I said. “They always had real trees. But I never thought about luck. But it did feel more Christmasy.”

Saint John smiled. “Can I tell you what Jesus said in a conversation like this? A woman said that her ancestors worshiped on one mountain and that Jesus’ ancestors worshiped on another one. And she wanted to know which was best.”

The woman looked at John intently. “What did this Jesus say?”

“He said that worshipers don’t have to worry about a place and an altar and offerings. He said that the Father God is looking for people who will worship in spirit and in truth.”

“Even people like me?” she asked. “People at the edges?”

“Especially,” John said. “Jesus loved those of us at the edges.”


From a story in John 4

Advent 10: John the saint and John the Baptist.

“I bet John the Baptist wasn’t a fan of Christmas,” I said to Saint John.

Nancy and John stopped and stared at me.

The three of us had been walking quietly through the mall. I’d been thinking about John’s conversation with the community leader. I remembered that John the Baptist was mentioned right after Nicodemus in one of the stories about Jesus. And I started thinking about John’s rustic approach to food and dress and social structures. It seemed completely at odds with everything we saw and smelled as we walked through the mall.

“John wasn’t a grinch you know,” John said. Which made Nancy and I stare at him.

“John was one of the most positive people I ever knew,” John said. “And one of the most humble. He couldn’t have been a fan of Christmas, since that wasn’t invented as a Holliday for centuries. But he was completely sold out to the advent, to the anticipation of the coming of the Messiah.”

“But he seems like an irrelevant wacko,” I said.  “The kind who stands in the parking lot and hollers at passing cars.”

John laughed at me. “You read all the time about the importance of focus. John’s life was built around getting everyone ready for the start of the festivities. Like one of your minimalists, he trained himself to eat the food available in the wild, honey and locusts. He contented himself with durable, obtainable clothing. And then he spent his time on preaching and baptizing.”

“So I’ll give you the focus,” I said. “But it still sounds like the shouting guy.”

“Don’t use your metaphors,” John said. “Use his. More than reacting to him, people responded to him and his message of a new life, a new hope, relief from the nagging burden of not measuring up to the human rules. And when his followers got jealous of the growing crowds around Jesus, John pointed them to a wedding.”

IMG_1518.JPGJohn stopped. I realized that we were in front of Louie’s Tux Shop. He pointed to the group of guys standing inside. Everyone was a little uncomfortable, facing one guy who had to be the groom.

Everyone but the guy in the torn jeans. He stood behind the groom, helping him try on jackets. When they found the right one, the jeans guy helped the rest of the guys find their suits, their accessories. When everyone was ready, it was hard to tell who had the biggest smile, the  groom, or his friend.

John turned to me. “John said that he was the friend. His job was to get everything ready for the groom. His success came when he could get out of the way, when the crowds all showed up for the wedding.”

We started walking again.

“I’m not sure whether he would have loved Christmas, but John loved Jesus.” John’s voice cracked a little. “And he was thrilled when he helped me put on a tux.”

Advent 9: Saint John and the important man.

Nancy and I learned awhile ago that there are mall walking regulars, people who show up at the same time every day. There’s a small sense of community when you wave at the same people every morning.

The other day, Nancy and I got to the mall early. It was going to be a busy day. As expected, we saw a different group of people walking. And we saw Saint John, sitting in a corner of the food court.

IMG_0548We could barely see him, actually. We were on the upper level, and he was on the lower. He looked deep in conversation with someone.

When we came around for our second lap, we took the stairs down, to get a little more exercise. Mostly, I was curious. And as we walked toward the food court, I recognized the well-dressed business leader walking away.

He has a good reputation in town, but I didn’t expect to see him this early, at the mall, talking to someone as scruffy as Saint John.

John was walking, too. When he saw us, he stopped.

“Early morning counseling session?” I said, smiling.

“Not quite,” John said. “More of a story-telling session. People ask me questions about stuff they hear on the news or things they wonder about. I listen, and then I say, ‘Can I tell you something I heard from Jesus?’”

“And they listen?” I said. I’ve tried telling people what Jesus said. It almost never works.

“Of course they listen,” John said. “They started the conversation. And I don’t tell people what Jesus said as if I’m scolding. As I just told you, I say, ‘Can I tell you something I heard from Jesus?’”

“You said that to him?” I said, looking toward the man who had left.

“Of course. He was thinking about the loneliness that comes from having to know all the answers. And about the deep fear he has about failing everyone and being shamed. It’s why we met in a corner away from everyone. And I said, ‘Can I tell you something I heard from Jesus? He was talking to a man almost like you and said, ‘God didn’t send his son to condemn the world, but so that the world could be rescued through him.’”

“What did he say,” I asked.

“He said, ‘If that’s true, I’d give up trying to measure up. I’d quit.’” John smiled. “I told him, ‘that’s exactly what I did.’”

Advent 8: Pushing through the crowd.

We went to the mall in the evening. It was a gamble. Some evenings the crowds are a little lighter, even during the Christmas season. Tonight wasn’t one of those nights. We sat for a bit in the food court.

IMG_0782.JPGThere were lines at Chick-fi-a, at the Thai food place, at the cheesesteak place. In front of each counter, sales people had sample trays offering toothpicked tastes, creating more congestion. And we watched mothers and kids trying to work across the lines on their way to the restrooms.

Nancy turned to me to say something about the lack of consideration the hungry people had for the desperate people. From the next table, we both heard, “Imagine someone knocking the trays out of their hands and then climbing over the counters.”

We started to laugh. Then we realized that it was Saint John.

He had a cup of water and a stack of Saltines. But he wasn’t eating. He was watching Burmese child pulling on mom’s hand, almost panicking.

And then John was in front of the little family, pushing through the crowd. We couldn’t see them, but we could see path they made.

After a bit John came back.

“Did anyone get hurt?” Nancy asked, smiling.

John shook his head. “I had no interest in hurting anyone. But I did have a strong interest in getting that child where he needed to go.”

“Did that have something to do with your comment about knocking the trays down?” I asked. “Because that sounded a little like Jesus pushing around the vendors in the temple.”

“People always think that was about the vendors extorting,” John said. “But it wasn’t. Most of them were doing an acceptable business helping people have what they needed for worship. It’s just that the place they were doing business was also the place where the women and former gentiles were trying to worship.”

I must have looked lost.

“According to the rules, gentiles could only go so far into the temple. So they stood in the lobby to pray, trying to focus. And the people who could go further treated this space as a place to do business with others, not God.”

John smiled.

“Jesus didn’t get angry often. But when people desperate for God couldn’t get to him…”

I finished his thought. “Jesus cleared the path no matter what it took or cost.”


John’s account of Jesus’ actions is in John 2:13-22.

Advent 7: Saint John and the Cubs.

Nancy and I walked past Arnie’s Jerseys and Stuff. It’s the local sports memorabilia store. We usually ignore it, not being fans of the teams, the old players, or the markups. This time I stopped, staring at the Ernie Banks Cubs uniform shirt. It was part of a display of Cubs items. After they won the World Series, everyone became a fan. But the price on the Banks jersey made me stop.

As I stared, I heard a voice behind us.

“Chicago fans are irrationally faithful. Just like my friend Nathanael.”

It was Saint John.

“What do you mean?” I said.

relationship“Year after year, Cubs fans kept watching for a winning season. They kept showing up to worship at Wrigley, even when there was no hope of a positive outcome to the season. People learned the names of people who would never wear rings, never hold pennants, never play baseball in November.”

I grinned. “Billy Williams, Don Kessinger, Ernie Banks, Glenn Beckert, Randy Hundley, Ron S…”

John held up his hand. “You learned those when you were 9 years old. How many more years after than before they won the World Series?”

“Forty-eight years.”

“Irrationally faithful,” he said. “Like Nathanael. We grew up together. He was looking for the Messiah, learning details, memorizing Torah, keeping faith. But like you and the Cubs, I’m pretty sure Nathanael thought Messiah would ever come.”

“What makes you think that?” I asked.

“Because when Philip told him that Jesus was the Messiah, Nathanael pushed back. ‘Can anything good come from Nazareth?’ was his first question. Can anything of value come from around here, from where we grew up.”

“But if Nathanael was such a doubter, why did Jesus accept him?” As I said it, I realized that we almost always talk about accepting Jesus, not the other way around.

John smiled.

“Jesus knew his heart, knew that Nathanael wanted to believe in someone. He just didn’t want to be disappointed again. And Jesus knew that wasn’t going to happen.”

I looked at him, uncertain.

“Jesus was the certainty for irrationally faithful people. Nathanael’s healthy skepticism about pretenders was grounded in a desire to be proven right.”

“Like the people who wept when the 2016 Cubs won,” I said.

John smiled. “Ah, but so much more.”


From John 1.