Dear John,

I can picture you there at Pepperdine, as you imagined Sarah walking that campus, only without you next time — and knowing that it’s right for her, feeling the joy and heart-tug of such a moment. This weekend we found old pictures of the boys, pictures we haven’t seen for a long time. The boys were wee tikes, on their first soccer team. Soccer – hah! It was a full-on miracle if we could just keep them running in the right general direction. Seth was 3 and wore a headband, looked like a very short Björn Borg. Wyatt ran around mostly in circles, trying to position himself in the general vicinity of the ball but without ever actually having to kick it – but he made all these maneuvers very fiercely. Miska and I stood there staring at those pictures, doing what parents do whenever we find again proof of where we’ve been, of the love that flows so deep. It will be only a few snaps of the fingers and we’ll be packing our boys off to some university somewhere. My wallet’s already whimpering at the thought of it. I think I’ve told you I’m not feeling like a great dad these days, just feeling off, not generous and present as I want to be. I’m not beating myself up too much about it, but I do want to remember what I most want with my sons, who I want to be with them.

Have you seen Henry Ossawa Tanner’s painting “Banjo Lesson”? I’ll include the picture below. Tanner was such a fine artist, and with this piece it’s believed Tanner painted a grandfather teaching his grandson the art, but it says a lot about what I hope to be with my boys: close, tender, attentive, passing along something of my life, something of my work, something of myself.

Anyway, we found those pictures of the boys this weekend because we were going through our storage closet, tossing things we should have tossed years ago but only get around to when you’re ready to pack up and move. Why is it that we give the house extra shine and complete those projects that have nagged us forever just as we’re about to say farewell? Isn’t that ass-backwards? Still, we’ve lived well here. I think we’ve played hard and loved hard and (as we like to say in Texas) we shot our full wad. When we haul out our last box and lock our purple front door, I imagine these old walls exhaling, maybe flopping on the floor exhausted, panting for breath but with a big grin and then saying, with a long sigh: “Those Colliers knew how to live.”

Yes, it seems time to pull our letter-writing back a tad from the blog-o-sphere. I’m glad we’ve done this, and will do it again here and there when the urge strikes. Friendship is one of my truest joys in this life. Thank you for being a big part of that joy.

 

Your Friend,
Winn

 

Henry Oshawa Tanner's "The Banjo Lesson"

Henry Ossawa Tanner’s “The Banjo Lesson”

Recent stories reveal Facebook’s hand-wringing over the current “content collapse,” where users are sharing less personal material and more secondhand posts (just passing along news articles, videos of cats playing the piano in a tutu, stuff like that). One prevailing theory for said collapse suggests that as folk’s networks have expanded to include God-knows-who, people have grown more reticent to hand off their privacy to the vague crowd. I’m sure there’s merit to this, but I can imagine other reasons why we might be seeing more memes of Trump and Bernie and less stories about our wild weekend escapade or words from that novel that made us weep.

Further, I think this conversation has resonance with what many of us experience in the fuller experience of our life, even if we’ve never once clicked into that alternate universe known as Facebook. Why are many of us becoming more careful about what we broadcast within our circle of friends (real ones)? Why do so many of us find ourselves withdrawing a little more, growing a little more quiet, sharing a little less?

One reason may simply be that we’re growing tired of ourselves. The exhibitionism of our narcissistic age has flat exhausted us. We’re tapped out. We’ve discovered that though we have good things to say (we really do) and though our voice matters (it truly does), it’s exhausting to try to be as clever or profound or unique as is required to maintain the high that comes from that first hit of recognition. It’s marvelous to be seen as the smart one, the accomplished one, but pursuing such a thing will likely crush us.

It’s one thing to offer what we have, with courage and without apology. It’s another thing to be unable to have a sense of ourselves apart from a steady stream of affirmation. Maybe some of us realize we’ve been promoting a life for too long; we want to get on with living it.

whirl-of-a-night

In those chaotic hours on the morning of Jesus’ resurrection, two friends (Peter and John) raced, schoolyard-stye, to the tomb. After arriving breathless and after taking in all there was (and wasn’t) to see, they stood dumbfounded, mouth agape, like two boys who’d just seen a rabbit pulled out of a hat or a glamorous assistant disappear inside a small box. And though we’re told that John “believed,” we don’t know exactly what he believed because the Scriptures indicate that the whole brood of disciples were still very much out of sorts, baffled as they’d ever been (which is saying something). Luke tells us that Peter walked home in a stupor, thunderstruck by every remarkable thing he could not understand.

It’s striking, then, how Easter often becomes the day when we haul out our heftiest apologetic guns, overwhelming folks with our rapid-fire arsenal of logical rationale for the veracity of Jesus’ resurrection. Look, I believe it, the whole kit-and-kaboodle. I think Jesus, once a corpse, walked out of that tomb better than new. And I believe Jesus’ resurrection cuts to the heart of everything God intends to do in this world, the very heart of the Good News. I think resurrection matters not only because one man rose from the dead but because of the promise that, through Jesus’ triumph, the whole of creation will one day shake of its grave clothes to shine brilliant and new.

Yet resurrection, with all the hope and possibility it summons, ignites awe and wonder – not a mad dash for sharp pencils and calculators or a whiteboard where we can sketch vast theorems. If we have the fact of the resurrection, but we have none of the bewilderment or the astonishment, none of the unbridled joy at the sheer fantastic lunacy of the whole thing – I wonder if we’ve really got the resurrection at all.

This is not only about the event of resurrection, of course, but about our entire faith. “It is not the task of Christianity,” says Kallistos Ware, “to provide easy answers to every question, but to make us progressively aware of a mystery. God is not so much the object of our knowledge as the cause of our wonder.” If there is nothing in our faith that drops the jaw, that moves us to inexplicable laughter, that unravels our sense of things…If our vision of God never hurls us to our knees or gooses us in sheer pleasure — we should return to the old stories and hear them again.

Dear John,

Well, we made it. Easter’s here. I’ve always appreciated the fact that while Lent’s 40 days, Easter’s 50. I like how we’re supposed to party even longer than it took to prepare for the party. In the Kingdom of God, the feasting alway trumps the fasting. I don’t know why some sourpusses want to live in Lentville all year round. Good grief. I cut back a few things during Lent, and it felt right, good even. But I’ll do as I’m told and happily snag a few extra joys this Easter. I’ve been saving Mary Karr’s 2nd and 3rd memoirs (Cherry and Lit) – looking forward to them. If my ankle holds out, I’m gonna give a go at my first half-marathon on Saturday, been prepping for a long while now. Maybe that one’s not exactly a joy, but the sense of accomplishment if I can pull it off will be a thrill, for sure.

My heart was heavy for you this weekend, as soon as I heard that your friend Jim Harrison died. A punch in the gut. I was just writing to you about Jim this time last week. Lots of writers fancy themselves unique, but then there’s a few rare bodies like Jim who just go out and flat live, rub life raw, down to the bone. I know you’ll give us some sort of eulogy at some point, and I look forward to it. I thank you for introducing me to Jim. It’s not lost on me that he died right before Easter Sunday, especially since I read him say in a couple places how Resurrection was the spiritual belief he found most credible. I’m sure you’ve seen how he amused himself with this bit, lines evidencing how much he loved this world and all its creatures:

In the forty days in the wilderness Jesus
took along a stray dog from town. When
they got back home Jesus told the dog he
had to go off to Jerusalem to get crucified.
Jesus stored the dog in his tomb and after
he himself was brought there they
ascended into heaven together.

In honor of Harrison, it seems a good time to mention something I’ve been seeing a lot of lately, and it’s bugging me. I’ve noticed this idea circulating yet again (seems to go viral every couple years), insisting how essential it is for a communicator (writer, preacher, teacher, etc.) to summarize all you’re trying to say in your sermon or your book in a single concise sentence. Can you believe such a thing? I can’t even summarize this letter in a sentence – nor would I want to. I couldn’t capture our friendship with a sentence, most certainly couldn’t capture my life with Miska within a short quip. It would take more than a string of syllables to touch the wonder I felt watching the full moon cast its glow over Carter’s Mountain last week or the depth of what I want to tell my sons regarding all the hopes I hold for them. Can you imagine asking Updike or Mother Theresa to boil it down to a sentence? I’d LOVE to hear the blue streak Harrison would have unleashed if a publisher had the gall to suggest such a thing. If all we need’s a sentence, what’s the point with the rest of it? 

I’m all for being clear as we’re able, all for slashing the fluff. But sometimes I think we may just edit every ounce of wonder right out of this lovely world of ours. All that to say, our life’s bigger than every attempt to button it up with a single anything. The work you’re offering (me too) is far bigger than this. Let’s keep at it.

 

Your Friend,
Winn

 

P.S. I loved hearing about the friends you used to pastor who gave their son the middle name “Blase.” That’s a gift indeed, makes up for a lot of crappy days, doesn’t it? I would tell you about some friends I used to pastor who a few years ago gave their son the first name “Collier,” but then that might come across as one-upping and that wouldn’t be very Christian of me. These moments make a man’s heart, glad, though, yes they do. 

Dear John,

So Easter’s coming Sunday. You probably remember enough from your pastor-years to recall how this is a pretty big day. I love seeing all the joy and laughter, some folks stepping it up a little with their Sunday clothes and all the kids wired for the candy they’ve had or the candy they know’s coming their way. The sun’s typically bright, the dogwoods and the daffodils showing off. The music has extra oomph. It’s a grand day.

But I also know it’s an important day because this story we’ll be telling, this moment where we remember that Jesus rose from the dead and kicked evil to the curb – this day is pretty much the whole ball of wax, isn’t it? St. Paul seemed to know a thing or two, and he said that if Jesus didn’t raise up from the dead, then we’re all in a major heap of doo-doo. I tend to think everything in Jesus’ life pointed to this climactic moment when he sloughed off those grave clothes and walked back into this world he loves, this world he’d literally gone to hell to salvage. Some folks think that Jesus got a resurrection because he had to have a cross, but I think Jesus got a cross because he had to have a resurrection. What do you think about that? I don’t know, maybe that’s parsing truths that don’t need parsing. I know this though – what I most need, what most everyone I know needs, is a resurrection. I think most of us live fully aware of the death rattle; we’re just wondering if the story’s really true. We’re wondering if Life and Love really do win in the end.

But here’s my problem, John – I’ve been pondering my sermon for a mess of days now, and I’ve got nothing. Nada. At the moment, my heart feels flat as a pancake. Dry. Dull. Dead. Maybe that’s right, for now. My pastoral workweek calendar says I’m supposed to have a sermon prepared by 5 p.m., but my soul knows that first comes an evening where Jesus shares what must have been a very lonely meal with his disciples, clueless as they were to how he was pointing toward death. First comes a Friday we’ve named Good, though it’s the strangest good I know. Today, I’m leaning toward resurrection, but my soul knows there’s the valley of the shadow of death to walk through between here and there. Why can’t the story of God’s salvation of the cosmos fit into my nicely arranged to-do list?

I’ll tell you this: I do hope some worthwhile words present themselves to me before Sunday. The folks with whom I’ll gather to announce Resurrection are kind and generous, and most will put up with me and my bumbling ways. But still, I would like to have something helpful to share. Every hope I have is bound up in this Jesus who put death in a chokehold and refused to let go. I’d like to do it justice, if I’m able. 

So all that to say – light another candle for me. And if you get some flash of inspiration and want to write a sermon to pass my way, I’m all ears. 

 

Your Friend,
Winn

Dear John, 

I do hope you plugged in your lights; I love how you’re that guy on your block. And as I read your story about the man who looked like your father hitching a ride to Wyoming, I kept wishing things would have arranged themselves differently so that you could have pulled over and let him toss his bag in the back and then pointed north, maybe gotten him to Cheyenne and swapped your stories on the way. 

I have big news to share. You know that cozy craftsmen farmhouse we’ve had our eye on? It looks like the Colliers may load up our books and move on in. It’s old and needs some TLC, but it’s got good bones. There’ll be some elbow room there, space for Miska to do her gardening and room for the boys to roam a little. Good neighbors sprinkled around us. One of the things I like best is that it’s the kind of house deserving a name. Miska and I have always wanted to own a place with a name. Not too long ago, I looked at a house on a small parcel of acres boasting lines of gnarled oaks. The house was in disastrous shape, but there was a small slate sign on a post near the front driveway: Oak Grove – I almost turned a blind eye to the money pit and bought it because of that dinky little sign. I don’t know what all this is about, but I think it’s something about being responsible for a place with a history and a future, about belonging there, about being caretakers for something that is more than just the square feet where you place your pillow. Anyway, it’s not a done deal, and we don’t have a clue yet what we’d name it. Miska says we’ll have to feel the spirit of the place a bit before we’ll know her name. That sounds like Miska, doesn’t it? 

Did you notice how Wendell Berry and Jim Harrison were back to back on the NY Times By the Book section? There was some kind of literary voodoo going on there, to have two fellas you and I read and discuss so much tag-team in the Times. In the interview, Wendell was as contrarian as ever – those poor interviewers just trying to do their job. When they asked Wendell who he hoped would write his life story, he was appalled at even the thought. “Nobody,” he said. “As the only person who ever has lived my life, I know that most of it can never be documented, is beyond writing and beyond words.” In spite of his protests, I actually do hope someone will give us a good biography in the years ahead; but I honor how Wendell knows a life can never be captured in a book. It has to be lived, and this living of this marvelous life is a beautiful and profound mystery. And each of has to live this life for ourselves. Too many of us are constantly looking over our shoulder, watching for everyone else’s cues to tell us how we’re doing, to signal that we’re thinking properly or have the acceptable opinion or are doing something valuable. I’m sad to think of all the uniqueness and goodness that gets squelched this way.

I’m actually thinking about this particularly today because of you, my friend. Tomorrow is your birthday. If I’ve done my math right, this is 49. I wanted to write today and beat the crowd of well-wishers. I want to tell you that you are living your life well. You bump along, as all of us do, but you’re a solid man. I admire how you seek to be true to the people in your life, true to the things you believe. You live with the kind of sturdiness that all good men share, but you also live with a twinkle in your eye. You know some truths, and you keep searching for more – but you also know the mystery. Because of your friendship, I find that I am more myself. I find that I am less lonely. After God created John Blase, I just know he leaned back and chuckled and said, “Now that’s good. John’s gonna ruffle some feathers, isn’t he? Ha! That’s good.”

 

Your Friend,
Winn

 

P.S. Your comment about a nest in your beard reminded me of this picture. Remember ol’ Beardcat? He was a strange, crusty fella, wasn’t he? You don’t get the sense he was living looking over his shoulder. 

beardcat

Dear John,

Being with you in Charleston was a real joy. It’s almost as if those long walks on that stretch of beach are becoming something of a tradition. I like tradition, not the stuffy can’t-alter-a-thing kind, but the living, breathing kind — the sort that grows up around you and reminds you that you belong to this world and that she belongs to you, the kind of tradition that, over the years, becomes the music score playing behind the beautiful story that becomes your life.

Seth may love tradition even more than me. You know how every year for his birthday I take him to a Clemson football game. It’s a great road trip, and Seth wants tradition from the time I pick him up early from school on Friday to the time we pull back into our garage around 4 a.m. Sunday. Seth wants to stop at the same spot for dinner (Zaxby’s). He wants lunch at the same spot on game day (Moe’s, the same Moe’s we ate lunch at after church most Sundays when we lived in Clemson) and then he likes to walk over, every time, to Judge Kellers and the Tiger Sports Shop to check out the latest Clemson gear. Seth wants the same chicken-and-biscuits after we leave the stadium (Bojangles), and during the wee hours of Sunday morning, somewhere in North Carolina, he wants to chow tacos from the 24 hour Taco Bell (why, I can not say). The whole thing’s an awful cholesterol binge, to be sure, but he gets such a kick out of it that I can’t say no. I’m a pushover.

Sometimes I’m around folks, usually Christians, who are eager to toss tradition, like getting rid of garbage. They want to scrub out the old words and seem apologetic about most everything from older generations, most everything that’s slow or out of fashion. It always makes me sad. I’m all for fresh eyes and new energy (and God knows we need to correct places where we’ve veered off course), but if we find ourselves abandoning all the people who have made us who we are, we are foolish and will sooner or later recognize how unmoored we’ve become, how lonely we are.

I too like the Charlotte airport (at least, as much as I could possibly ‘like’ any such space). If I’m ever forced to have a layover, I always hope it’s in Charlotte. I love all those white rocking chairs they have scattered about. If there was ever a place that needed a few hundred rocking chairs, a constant reminder to settle down and chill out, it’s an airport.

Your story about Abbey snagged me when you first mentioned it, and again when you reminded me in your letter. These sons and daughters of ours pluck at our most tender string, don’t they? Our boys have been driving us nuts lately, fighting like a mongoose and a cobra. But then I’ve noticed, here and there, both of them trying hard in their own way. One of them hugs us at most every turn, which of course is about as good as it gets. And the other one, whose a little more stubborn and sullen right now, told me the other day, “I’m trying to pay more attention to what I’m saying and not argue as much.” It doesn’t take much to melt a dad’s heart, does it? Just a crumb.

I look forward to the day when I can join you on that porch, or you on mine.

 

Your Friend,
Winn

two-trees

My oldest son (13) is now a solid two inches taller than me, the same two inches I spent most of high school begging God to grant me. Three or four times a week, he asks Miska to come and be the official eyes while we stand side-by-side so he can mark his progress. I was traveling four days last week, and nearly the first thing he said after I walked through the door was “Dad, I think I’ve grown taller.” He insisted we stand nose to nose so he could check. Whenever he looks down at me now, he’s beaming wide.

Wyatt’s also begun to walk into the kitchen and wrap his arms in a bear hug around Miska, catching her off guard as he lifts her into the air and swings her around like a doll. The other day he wanted to do leg squats while somehow strapping his younger brother Seth on to serve as his weights. I shut that one down, but he kept insisting how much sense it made and how easy it would be to use his brother as a dumbell.

Some days, the constant comparison grates on me (could we possibly compare how much he towers over me once a week??), but I know he’s testing his mettle. He’s seeing how he stacks up. My son is growing in awareness of his strength and his body, his manhood. And it’s so very good.

My son wants to know that he has strength in him, that he can do hard things and wonderful things. He wants to know for sure that there’s something marvelous about him – and he wants us to recognize this goodness too. He wants to stand beside us and imagine his place there and move toward it. Don’t we all want something like this?

Dear John,

Yes, Christ-haunted, I feel this as well. When Wyatt was still in a stroller, Miska and I spent a few days in Savannah, Georgia, Flannery’s childhood home. The whole city seems haunted. The Spanish moss drapes over the streets, hemming you in and filtering the light with an eerie glow. The ancient, knobby cobblestone down by the waterway, passing centuries-old warehouses and shops, feels like the sort of place where ghosts roam under moonlight. And the Bonaventure Cemetery – holy moly, that magnificent place gives you a hush and keeps you looking over your shoulder. I don’t think a book (Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil) and a city have ever been more perfectly matched. By the way, did you know they had to move the Bird Girl sculpture from the cemetery to the Tel Fair Museum of Art in 2014 because so many folks were messing with it? That’s sad to me, to think of her cooped up in a museum when her rightful place is under the trees keeping watch over so many loved ones. 

At any rate, Flannery hails from Savannah, there’s no doubt. Like you hail from the South, no doubt.

But you got me thinking of Ms. O’Connor. Have you read her essay “The Church and the Fiction Writer”? I wish more writers would take a listen, especially writers who share O’Connor’s faith. Flannery insists that fiction can never be used to uphold “the interests of abstract truth” but rather must see the world as it is and help the rest of us to see the world in all of its particularity, all of its beauty and all of its (to borrow from Flannery) grotesqueness. The job of any writer (and certainly any writer who wants to be faithful to the name ‘Christian’) should be to tell the truth, to reveal our desires and our failures, to unmask our pretense, to gives us this beautiful world and to make us stare at the ways we muck it up. And we should work hard to do this well, with real skill.

Anyway, Flannery says that writers who want to reveal mysteries will have to do it by describing truthfully what we see from where we sit. I think that’s what we’re doing, best we know.

Well, tomorrow’s Super Tuesday. I guess this whole thing’s heating up. Last week, I heard Marilynne Robinson say, “We have major work to do. The vocabulary of public life has become ridiculous.” So keep putting those poems to the page over there, keep telling us the truth about the world from where you sit. God knows we need it.

I’ll be seeing you soon. It feels so very good to write those words.

 

Your friend,
Winn

Dear John,

I’m glad you got your fence repaired. I’m glad you and your neighbor had the opportunity to move along the fence line shoulder to shoulder and feel the gratification of shared work. Some days I crave these tasks that require something specific of you (line up the posts, set the panels), work with an explicit goal and a clear conclusion. So much of my life feels elusive or at least never-concluding. Though some folks opt for a vision of the pastor as something like an ecclesial project manager (set budget goals and growth metrics, chart the course, and then track your progress to completion), I can’t comprehend such a thing. To walk with people in grief and joy and boredom, to point toward God amid our confusions and our shenanigans, to try to help us all be faithful to one another and to what is true – there’s no clear end point to this. But then again, I’m a middling pastor so what do I know?

A few years ago, we were finishing our basement and needed to install insulation in the walls and ceiling. A friend came over to help. We wore our long-sleeve shirts and our goggles, loaded up our staple guns. That itchy stuff was no joke, but we experienced a kind of pleasure to work down the rows, firing away, and then to look back when we were done and see what we’d accomplished. I’m sure some of my friends and neighbors will read this and I’ll be getting calls pronto to come over and help with projects. I can hear it now: “Well, Rev, I hear your struggles. I got just the thing…” 

You mentioned the Stegner Fellowship at Stanford and those two decades of amazing classmates. One of my favorite things Stegner wrote was a letter he penned to Berry, some 30 years after Berry had been his student. I love the letter for many reasons, but one reason is because of the unabashed affection Stegner showed, though Stegner admitted how “it embarrasses my post-Protestant sensibilities to tell a man to his face that I admire him.” Stegner told Berry that “from the first time when you first appeared as a Fellow in the writing program in 1958, I recognized you as one who knew where he was from and who he was.” Stegner went on to recount how he’d tried to talk Berry away from his Kentucky farm and back to Stanford, though Berry was disinterested and how Berry was offered some opportunity that Stegner insisted most writers would sell their soul to have – again, disinterested. Stegner reminded Berry of the dire warnings so many laid on him: “that you were burying yourself,” Stegner wrote, “that you couldn’t come into the literary world with manure on your barn boots and expect to be welcomed…”

But Berry paid the small minds no mind. And I am so glad. I too, in my own way, want to be a writer who gets manure on his boots. Maybe that’s part of what pastoring does for me these days (there’s a metaphor that could go wrong easily). I know you understand what I mean, letting our words emerge from the real things of this life like putting up fences and getting braces on the kids and spending time out in the woods, things like loving and dying, like laughing and grieving, praying with someone who’s got the world on their shoulders. 

I’d like to think that’s some of what you and I are doing, keeping our boots dirty. I think we are.

 

Your friend,
Winn