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.

The one in front of you.

A friend sent me a note the other day about catching up on reading some posts from September. Here’s the response I started to write:


Thanks for your note.

It’s a reminder to both of us that our invitation is to be responsible for the momentary responses to God and to allow God to put the bigger picture together in meaningful ways.

I went back and read the posts from September. I’d forgotten about them, forgotten about the course that I was teaching at the time, forgotten about Harvey. And I struggle from day to day with when to be original, when to use reruns, when to repurpose other teaching.

In other words, I lack capacity to remember well what has happened and I struggle to make sense of what could be happening moving forward.

I’m guessing that I’m not alone.

At this time of year, there is value in review. I’m spending some time trying to remember the year, the moments, the milestones, the endurances. Some need celebration, some need healing, some need rejoicing, some need repair.

There is value in resolve. I’m spending some time making plans, making preparations.

But there is more value, I think, in presence.

WritingI was talking with another friend yesterday about a hospital he visited recently, in a place where the demands are immense. He said he’d learned that they “care for the patient in front of you.” There are many other patients, many other problems, many other opportunities and threats. But at this moment, this patient, this human, this possible Jesus, is the one to focus on.

I’m not sure what that looks like for you. Here are some possibilities:

Write the post in front of you. Love the one you are with. Fix this meal. Treasure this conversation. Do your best with this client conversation. Treat this person with respect and dignity. Treat this interrupter as a human; perhaps she’s been allowed into your time and space by God to receive the care he’s entrusted to you.

Be at peace.


Pick one

Implement one thing. That’s what my friend Becky wrote about. Pick one book, one process, one tool and implement it.

We read lists all the time, 5 things, 6 ways, 10 best. We read a study and another study and another study. We go to a workshop. We make a new commitment.

And then we change.

I understand. I do it all the time myself. As I review the past year, I see many starts and stops, good ideas and inconsistent implementation.

And so I’m curious about Becky’s idea.

IMG_2149.JPGWhat could happen if we picked one short book of the Bible, like James or Galatians or even Philemon and read it until we began to understand it? We read about the culture. We read about the setting. We read about the characters. We read the letter at least once a week, in different translations, perhaps.

What would happen if we conversed with it the way that I do sometimes? If we asked God what he was thinking. If we imagined a conversation with Paul or James. And then, as we had questions about our understanding, we talked to someone else. We talked to commentaries.

We began to think from the inside of the letter.

And every time we thought about jumping to the next 5 best, or the worst thing in the news, we went back to the letter and asked it for a response.

It would be really hard, I think, to sustain our attention. At first. But then we would learn. We would get further in. We would find it easier to read off paper, for example, and find it harder to walk away.

But that sustained conversation with a book is what took me through Nehemiah a few years ago. It’s what helped me with Saint John of the Mall.

I know it’s hard to choose, at least for some of us. But while we are weighing all the options, we are missing what could happen if we simply picked one, and got started.


A moment of peace.

He tends his flock like a shepherd:
    He gathers the lambs in his arms
and carries them close to his heart;
    he gently leads those that have young. Isaiah 40.

A few months ago, I met a family in ER. The family had been in an accident that could have been tragic, but wasn’t. However, mom was in one room being checked on, dad was in another, a sister was in another, and the three-year-old boy was scared. Mom was still wearing a collar, so he couldn’t be in her room. His attempts to cling would have been potentially dangerous. So he was with dad, who needed to be examined.

momAnd so this chaplain took the boy from a nurse.  I stood and started the swaying rocking that parents learn with infants and never forget. I started the almost tuneless humming that creates a quiet contrast to sobs.

There was no place for reasoning, there was no place for calm discussion. There was simply the need to hold him.

It took a long time. But he quieted enough to fall asleep. I kept holding him until family reinforcements arrived.

That’s the image at the end of the reading for the Second Sunday of Advent, the portion of Isaiah 40 above. The image of a shepherd caring for sheep,  holding bleating lambs  to his heart. When we distill down the weeks of Advent to single words, the word for this week is PEACE.

And as we think about the story of me holding the little boy, and of the shepherd holding the lamb, I want to point to this truth:

Sometimes God’s peace comes in moments of panic when we are simply embraced by him.

For a 3-year-old, being on a vacation trip, being in an accident, being unable to cling to his parents, being in an ER a panicking time! For an adult, being in the ER while losing his Father can be a panicking time, too. And a breath at a time, with an embrace coming inexplicably inside, or from a person standing near, we often find an unreasonable peace.

Not that removes the cause of the pain, but that sustains us, a breath at a time.

What simple thing can you do?

Mark tells a story about a dinner late in the life of Jesus. It’s in Bethany, at the house of someone known as Simon the Leper.

I would guess that Jesus had healed Simon. People identified as carriers of a contagious skin disease didn’t have dinner parties. If they did, no one came.

The room full of people is eating. A woman walks in carrying a white perfume jar. She opens it and pours it on Jesus’ head.

There is an uproar. She’s scolded for wasting good perfume on Jesus.

Which is an interesting idea. If it had been cheap perfume, would that have been better? Although they said that the perfume could have been sold and the money given to the poor, I don’t think they cared about the poor. I’m guessing that the combination of the woman in the room, the unusual anointing, and the extreme expense combined to cause a ruckus.

it's @hope_swanson. baker.Jesus stops the attack. He accepts her action as appropriate for him, regardless of whether anyone else thought it appropriate. Although he doesn’t minimize caring for the poor in other settings, here he accepts the gift directly for him. And he says, “She did what she could.”

It makes me ask us, you and me, “what can we do?” What’s an extravagance we can waste on God?

Time is at a premium. We could squander some time with God. Attention is in short supply. We could pour out some attention on what God attends to. Personal space, the top of the to-do list, the last word. In this season when we are working hard to meet expectations, I’d love to be standing in a room, watching someone being scolded by people, and hear “Stop. He did what he could.”

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.”


The story is based in John 1. The post is day 7 from Saint John of the Mall.