I remember an elderly saint in the church of my youth. So moved by a sacred moment, her voice would tremble and she could only utter a few quiet words with holy reverence: Look there now. Glory.

In Scripture, few words evoke as much solemn mystery as the word glory. Glory speaks of brilliance, radiant beauty. Glory finds its way into the sentence whenever we’re struggling to describe the ineffable. When God’s presence filled Israel’s Tabernacle and when God’s voice thundered atop the Mount, glory escaped the trembling lips of both priests and children. These beautiful terrors evoked a wonder too large for language. Glory was the only thing one could think to say. Look there now. Glory.

St. Paul made bold use of the word. “When Christ, who is our life appears,” wrote the apostle, “then we will also appear with Christ in glory.” Did you catch that — Paul speaks not only of Christ’s appearance as glorious, but yours too. According to Paul, in that day, when our true life (our true self) trots out in plain view, then we will have truly appeared. And what a grand entrance it will be. In that moment, we’ll see not only Christ’s glory, but our glory, our radiance in God. In the good end, when all things return to their center, we will find God (with Eden echoes) naming us good, grinning wide and announcing us glorious. Now look there. Glory.

This is why Gregory of Nyssa spoke of the soul’s divine beauty as a blade darkened with the rust of sin (rusted, not ruined), a blade that must be (and would be) returned to shimmering splendor. This is why St. Irenaeus insisted that “the glory of God is a human fully alive.” This is why it is our great travesty if we only see our (or another’s) wretchedness or malfeasance, if we only notice all the fear or hatred, if we succumb to the lie that anyone (ourself included) is ruined. This is why it will never do to write someone off or give up on their return or think our shame concludes the tale.

You are meant for magnificence, not squalor. God marked you for his dance partner at the big finale, and God gets what God wants. Whatever dogs you, whatever whispers ruin in the cold night, whatever troubles your memory or your hope, remember this: glory is in you, and glory wins the day.

It’s the church’s job to help us see what’s coming, to help us see what’s true even now, particularly when what’s true lies buried underneath rubble and tears. Some of us are skilled at pointing out the sin, but our truest vocation is to point out the glory.

Look there now. Glory.

The desperate father brought his pallid son to Jesus’ disciples, begging for their help to cast out the evil spirit tormenting his boy. The disciples tried their best, but their best was not enough. They gave the pitiful boy back to his heartbroken father, apologetic but unable to do anything more. It must have been embarrassing and infuriating then, when the disciples came across an exorcist who was not even a follower of Jesus casting out demons left and right (and using Jesus’ name to boot).

Indignant, the disciples rebuked the freelancer and as soon as they returned home, John, adrenaline still pulsing, sidled next to Jesus. Teacher, John said, you’re not going to believe this but we saw someone who’s not part of our group casting out demons in your name – but don’t worry, we put a stop to it. Unbelievable, huh?

But Jesus looked at John and shocked the room with his response. Nah, leave them alone. If they’re not our enemy, we’re going to count them as friends. Then Jesus goes a step further. What’s more, all someone needs to do is merely be willing to offer a cup of cold water in my name – and for that simple gesture, they secure an eternal reward. I imagine the disciples looking at one another, scratching their heads, thinking “come again?” Look, Jesus says, the bar’s pretty low here. We’re just looking for bare minimums: don’t work against us and pass us a cup of water. We need all the friends we can get. More power to ’em.

Boy do we need Jesus’ words today. I’m grieved at my own swiftness to judge, to reject, to make myself feel superior or more secure by dismissing those who follow Jesus differently than I do.

Too often, those with a traditional understanding of faith lose their minds over those squishy progressives and enact a scorched earth policy against all the looney compromisers. Likewise, too often, those with a progressive understanding of faith go ape-shit crazy at those neanderthal conservatives, using ridicule and mockery to embarrass the fundamentalist wackos. And we just had Pope Francis visit, so I don’t even know where to begin with the Catholic / Protestant divide. Friends, anger is not the way of Jesus. Rejection is not the way of Jesus. Snark is not the way of Jesus.

If you’re not against me, Jesus says… If you’re just wiling to pass a cup of water, Jesus says…

Sometimes we work very hard to not be labeled as one of “those kinds of Christians” – I get it. Distinctions matter. Stating what we understand, and trying to be more and more faithful to the way of Jesus is good, necessary. But I think we know when we’re really just protecting our ego, working out of fear or anger – or trying so very hard to not look foolish.

Jesus exhibited massive patience, going overboard with his eagerness to welcome, his relentless desire to see the very best possibility in another. What if we practiced more gentleness and generosity toward each other – even toward those who represent the very things that ignite our ire? What if we decided to be Christian before everything else?


I grew up in a world where parishoners referred to their pastors as preachers. I understand why some folks these days dislike the word, evoking for many grainy images of fire-belching crazies sweating like hogs and literally scaring the hell out of people. You don’t have to read too many stories, like Dennis Covington’s wonderful Salvation on Sand Mountain (the true saga of the snake-handling preacher of the Church of Jesus Christ with Signs Following who tried to murder his wife with a crate of his rattlers), before you get the idea that preachers can be crazy coots.

This is too bad. In its truest sense, to preach means to announce (to declare) good news. To preach is not to blast wild, thoughtless words or to pretend to own a private hotline for divine truth. Rather, to preach is to refuse to stay silent when a soul is weary or a body undone.

A preacher believes we are starved for a good word, but the preacher will not surrender to the cynical belief that all the good words are gone. A preacher speaks up when the silence deafens, when we are desperate for a bit of light or hope. But a preacher also knows when to stop the talking, when to surrender the floor and let the quiet speak. A preacher tells the old story, and a true preacher simply lets this story stand, bearing its own weight, fully aware that the truth will both console and confound. The preacher does not use the Story or the Good Book (or words like gospeldisciplebiblical) as artillery or to build a following. A true preacher will not stand by when God’s grace or God’s mysteries suffer at the hands of boisterous, angry rhetoric or are desecrated by cliquish Christianity.

A preacher courageously opens her mouth when she sees how parched we are for words of life. A preacher weeps like Jeremiah when words will no longer do. A preacher sings a Psalm when darkness threatens to snuff out the hope. A preacher grieves when our foolish choices steer us toward death. A preacher gets riled when the poor are trampled or the powerful mock mercy. A preacher gets feisty whenever arrogant buffoons tarnish the stole.

To preach, in the old sense, is not a theatrical display or the opportunity for a polished speaker to wow the crowd. A preacher speaks to the very people surrounding him, the ones who need God’s voice in this one moment and amid these unique details. A preacher offers whatever he holds within his soul, whether born in travail or in joy, then gives that true thing fully, and humbly, to the people he loves. The preacher listens before she speaks, and afterwards too. Preaching is, as Marilynne Robinson says, one side of a passionate conversation.

If a preacher rarely laughs, or never cries, I do not trust him. Are we paying any attention at all to our world, to our God, to our own heart? Do we see the beauty, or the weariness, of those who receive our words? Do we have any inkling of the vast generosity and holy love of the One in whose name we speak? A preacher does not have a bully pulpit, but a meeting place from which to say again and again: God is here.

Karl Barth said that when he stood behind a pulpit, he assumed there would always be at least one person listening who, when hearing the story of scandalous grace, would surely be asking themselves: Could this possibly be true? “Then,” Barth said, “I preach to that person.”

Barth offers as good a description of preaching as I could muster. Preach to that single soul, to that one who’s desperate for a fresh possibility, a truly good word. This kind of preaching, this kind of life, will never grow old.


Over the past year, Miska has given our bedroom a complete makeover. First, Miska pulled out the paintbrushes, and when she told me she covered our walls with a shade called Silver Fox, I smiled. I imagined the voice of Barry White: Silver Fox, Oh yeah… Next we said goodbye to heavy furniture, replaced with small, simple pieces. We cleaned out bags of clothes, magazines, books and the trinkets you collect over 18 years and find stashed in the corners of drawers awaiting such a day as this.

My favorite touch, however, was when Miska gave both of us a new bedside table. I only wanted three things on mine: a lamp for reading, prayer beads a friend made for me and a small icon of the Good Shepherd. Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd,” and the image shows Jesus carrying this weak creature with gentleness and strength. I’m drawn to the firmness in Jesus’ eyes, as if Jesus’ says, This is my sheep, just try to come and take ’em. Scripture tells us that the Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep, that the Shepherd knows all his sheep and will never forget them. The Shepherd, Scripture says, will even leave the 99 of his flock to roam into the wild night and find that one sheep that has lost her way.

Sometimes this world, though chock full of beauty and goodness, can be a disturbing, perplexing place. What will come of us? What should we do? Will we know the right decisions to make? Will the woman next to me and the two boys snoozing a few feet away be alright, and will they live well – can I protect them? What will come of us? Will we have years ahead to love and enjoy one another, or will it all crash down, as it does for so many? Will all those friends and strangers who face ruin and despair be okay? What are we to do with all of the uncertainty? What are we to do with this one life we’re given? Why does our life sometimes feel so tenuous?

Perhaps as evening ebbs, I feel the futility of trying to grip the hours, of trying to grip my life. Perhaps I feel more vulnerable here, embracing the loneliness appropriate to moons and midnights. Perhaps this is why I wanted the Good Shepherd close, watching over me and those I love in our sleep. I cannot stay awake, but the Shepherd does. I cannot hold the world on my shoulders, but the Shepherd does.

So each night now, before I put down the book and click off the light, I look into the eyes of the Good Shepherd, and I say Thank you.


I was making myself at home. In the dark way of the world I had come to know what would be my life’s place, though I could not yet know the life I would live in it…I had come unknowing into what Burley would have called the ‘membership’ of my life. I was becoming a member of Port William. {Wendell Berry, Hannah Coulter}

More than a few years ago, ecclesiastical authorities pulled me from my seminary womb, spanked me on the butt and scribbled my name on an ordination certificate. They sent me into the world, green and ignorant but effusive with zeal. One of my enterprising ideals was to de-bunk the ossified notion of church membership. I tinkered with the possiblity that the whole affair was a formality offering little more umph than signing up for the YMCA. We wanted ‘organic community.’ We wanted to ‘authentically live life together.’ We didn’t want structures but wanted to do ‘life on life.’ Apparently, we also wanted to prop up a few clichés.

While it is true that the deepest forms of community do not require an official roll or imposed framework, there is also something about the commitment and responsibility inherent in the old ways that I too easily dismissed. The older you get, the more you realize that relationships and communities rarely happen – and are never sustained – naturally. Friendships require effort. Families require us to make difficult decisions about priorities, budgets and lifestyle. Neighborhood gardens need a plan for when folks plant seeds and pull weeds. This fact shouldn’t surprise us because it’s woven into the way of the universe. Those who are supposed to know tell me that the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics insists that most every substance left to itself degrades over time, naturally.

My life with Miska is the most natural, hand-in-the-glove, reality I know. We certainly have made a practice of life-on-life. You could even call us organic lovers if you like. But I’ll tell you – this marriage gig is work, and it requires a kind of radical commitment best represented by solemn vows spoken before God and pastor and every witness who hears us say I do.

St. Paul spoke of life in Christ’s Church as one where we are all members of one body. We’re fixed to one another. We share space and blood and history. We don’t get to walk away from one another. To do so would require a violent severing; and after, we’d only shrivel and die. This is one of the beauties of family: you don’t get to choose who your family is — and we all have to learn how to be ourselves and how to let others be themselves even when those selves are very different. Love has to take priority.

While the wise apostle helped to reform my wayward views, Wendell Berry probably helped even more. In his novels, we’re given a picture of a community bound by history and heritage and land to a particular place and story. This bond makes them who they are. The neighbors who settled in his fictitious landscape are known as “the membership of Port William.”

I wonder what would happen if rather than viewing our towns or neighborhoods merely as habitats where we plop down and pay taxes, we entered with the understanding that our mere presence means we are joining a membership, a living order intertwined with one another’s past and future. I wonder what would happen if rather than viewing our churches merely as institutions where we plop down and pay taxes, we entered with the understanding that our mere presence means we are joining a membership, a living order where bad sermons and good pot-lucks, wise pastors and grumpy pew-mates (or grumpy pastors and wise pew-mates), dry seasons and fits of joy all contribute to the long story, the long membership. This membership is not a means to some other vision; this membership is itself the good work, the beautiful narrative enacted by the gracious fusion of misfit souls. As Wendell says, “Members of Port William aren’t trying to ‘get someplace.’ They think they are someplace.”

When Hannah Coulter found herself gathered into the membership, without judgment or resistance due to her status as a late-comer, she described the grace she received. “They let me belong to them and to their place, and I needed to belong somewhere.” We all do.


image: canjosh


There are many ideas out there of what a pastor should be, and most of them make little sense to me. For many, a pastor should be primarily concerned with managerial duties, with charisma and fundraising, with crisis management or motivation or chaplain care. As I understand it, a pastor is one who lives with God and with the people, one who knows their names and carries their hurts and reminds them that God has spoken love and goodness over them. A pastor does not throw out a ceremonious prayer before big events, like the mayor tossing the first pitch on Opening Day. A pastor sits bedside in the dark hours and begs God for mercy. A pastor walks into the ruins, fully aware of her own threadbare soul, and announces wholeness.

A pastor does not only tend to the big visions, the big ideas, the big people. A pastor knows his own lowliness and walks into the ordinary places and with the ordinary people. A pastor, with a voice steady and true, hallows the ground and the rain and the marriage and the purple blooms of Spring — because this one thing we know: God gives life, and this makes every inch of life beautiful and good.

Jim Casy, Steinbeck’s broken preacher in Grapes of Wrath, knows this terrain:

“I’m gonna work in the fiel’s, in the green fiel’s, an’ I’m gonna be near to folks…Gonna learn why the folks walks in the grass, gonna hear ’em talk, gonna hear ’em sing. Gonna listen to the kids eatin’ mush. Gonna hear husban’ an’ wife a-poundin’ the mattress in the night. Gonna eat with ’em an’ learn.” His eyes were wet and shining. “Gonna lay in the grass, open an’ honest with anybody that’ll have me. Gonna cuss an’ swear an’ hear the poetry of folks talkin’. All that’s holy, all that’s what I didn’ understan’.”

Michael Ramsay, former Archbishop of Canterbury, puts it together in a sentence. “The priesthood is to be with God, with the people on your heart.” We listen to God, and we listen to Mrs. Jenkins down the street. We pray to God, and we laugh with those who are struggling to ever say a prayer. We live love, and we live it with actual people who have actual names and who live in a specific place with very particular fears and hopes and longings. Some of it annoying. Much of it mundane. All of it the stuff of pastors.


more reading: (1) an intro to Good Ol’ Words (2) Good Ol’ Words: Blessing


image: Giotto



We have friends who’ve been through the ringer the past few years, a series of mysterious health issues complicated by debilitating reactions to almost all building materials. It made their home, as well as most every home available on the market, unlivable. As a result, our friends and their kids have been gypsies, bumping from neighbor to friend to family, sometimes only for a few days at a time, trying to hold their life together as they figure out their future. They hired a builder who fitted the house with custom specs aimed at shutting out these immune system offenders. It was a grand day when the builder handed our friends the keys to their beautiful home tucked among lush trees and just above a lovely creek. We’re praying this will be a place they can, for the first time since this ordeal began, sigh deeply and lay down their bodies, lay down their lives.

Several of us gathered to bless their house. One friend brought honey from the wild bees they keep on their wooded acreage. Another friend arrived with a bouquet of wildflowers. We all brought our hopes and our prayers. We stood on the front lawn, straw strewn over the clay dirt to hold moisture for the grass that will one day cradle the dew and tickle bare feet.

I helped their two boys take a leafed twig from one of their trees in the front yard, and I pulled out a small bowl of water. “In the Bible,” I said, “water symbolizes things being cleansed, made new, and even more, water symbolizes God’s presence with us.” I told the boys to be ready to take turns, ready to dip their leaves in the water and sprinkle each room.

We read Jesus’ instructions to the disciples, how they were to speak peace over every house they entered. Then we went on a tour. Due to health concerns, our friends have to build most of their furniture, so the rooms were sparse. Sleeping bags and pillows covered the bedroom floor, and a couple boxes sat in a corner of the living room. The furnishings may have been meager, but love was full to the brim. In each room, we’d ask, So tell us about this space. Who will live here, and what will this room be used for? What do you love about it? Tell us about what you hope to happen between these walls? Answers came quick and were beautiful. Hopes of laughter and joy, of good rest, of sunshine, desire to watch the light through the large windows and listen to the sounds from their woods.

Then, in each room, one of us prayed. We blessed whoever who would sleep there or the work that would be done there. We prayed for light and love. We prayed that evil would not cross this threshold. We prayed that the windows would rattle with laughter and gladness. Perhaps my favorite moment was when Miska prayed over the laundry room. Miska’s tears took her by surprise as she blessed this place of such quotidian grace, this place where ordinary love floods in and where our grime washes away. After each blessing, one of us would say: The Lord is here. The rest of us would answer: God’s Spirit is with us.

We concluded in the large open living space, circled and holding hands. We read a blessing from John O’Donohue, a poet who knew how to bless a place, to bless a life. After finishing the work we had come to do, we lingered. There are some experiences so precious you are not prepared for them to be finished.

There are many things we’re told the church is supposed to do these days, many of which seem to actually tear at our calling to live well in our place and with our people. However, could anything be more important than moments like these, moments when we walk through family halls or down a hospital corridor or atop a mountain ridge or through a precarious transition, listening to hopes and grabbing hands and speaking a blessing. We’ve been given the sacred trust to bless the soil and the sky and the cul-de-sacs and the cancer wards and the celebrations and even, with few words and heavy souls, the places of sorrow.

As our parting gift for our friends with the new house, we left a tile with St. Francis of Assisi’s blessing, the same one we have in our home. Perhaps they will hang it near their door as Miska and I have done with ours. These words pray a prayer over all who come and all who go. Pax et bonum. Peace and goodness over all.

Language matters. God came to us as the Word. Our holy book offers us the Living Christ amid words. Words are woven into our God-crafted humanness. It’s hard to imagine how we could know ourselves or encounter our world or even begin to give ourselves to love without sharing language and symbols, without words.

This is why the Church needs poets and storytellers. We need folks who plant a disruptive seed in our imagination, who flip us topsy-turvy with their playfulness and their unguarded revelations. We need poets and preachers who brush past the cynicism, refuse fatigued dichotomies and fashion words like handcrafted dynamite. These happy subversives light the fuse and calmly set the short-wick sentence in our midst.

“That’s why we must be wordsmiths,” says Dallas Willard, “You use words to ravish people with the beauty of the kingdom.” Once words become a commodity, merely one of the tricks in our church-building bag, we wither. If words function only to help us hawk our wares, I promise you that sooner or later, no one will care. No one will ever be ravished with the beauty.

Writers are our friends here. Annie Dillard reflects how “writing is like working with wild horses…you have to go down and catch it again every morning.” To be a people of alive words is to be a people who believe that God has not gone silent, that God always has a fresh word for the beleaguered soul. In the church, our rhetoric may grow tired or cliché, but our God doesn’t.

I’m not suggesting a faddish chase for always newer, always more relevant, words – God help us, no. Rather, I’m asking if we could simply let these good, old words breathe again. Could we sit still and allow them their power? Could we sit with young king Josiah who dusted off the books of God’s Law, long forgotten? When Josiah heard the words, unfiltered, he ripped the clothes from his body. His heart thumped with fresh fire. We need the fire. We need the words.

The older I get, the more I become an advocate for church words, that peculiar language our foremothers and forefathers have passed to us. Some folks envision upgraded titles for their ecclesiastical functions (Sr. Vortex Visioneer or Missiological Brewmaster). I simply want to be known as a plain pastor – and then I want to enjoy the long, unpredictable path discovering what that word pastor might actually mean.

Many of these words sit patiently in the corner, unobtrusive, collecting dust. They are sturdy, rooted. These words know they’re not going anywhere, that sooner or later we will need them again, as we always do. Words like priest and glory, membership and doxology. Words with fire. Words that both singe and succor, if we’ll only let them burn. In the coming days, I may tinker with a handful of these good, old words, listen to them anew.

Tom Conlon, a friend and soulful songwriter, knows this terrain well. “People ask me how the music business is. I always say I have no idea. I’m not in the music business. There are older, better words – with much more of a history – for what I do. Troubadourminstrel, maybe. There are older, better words for most everything we do.”

Yes, there are.

And I have to tell you how after Tom said these words, he paused for a silence. Then added: “I hope we’ll be true to who we are.” This is what the good words do – they help us be true.



I am a pastor, which means I am often in the company of weary, disillusioned people. On any given Sunday, fatigue, loneliness and a restless disappointment are easy to spot if we care to pause from our shimmering sermons, our missional initiatives or our attempts to “love the city” long enough to love that one person and ask a basic human question: Say, where’s your heart these days?

Rarely do we ask such questions, however. These queries require a gentle posture and a slow curiosity, two practices which have fallen out of favor. These simple, genuine conversations work to see, not manage, the person before us. No agendas, no angling for how we might hoist the run amok coaster back on track. No prodding that poor, lackluster soul. Oh-so-important church work be damned, we want to know where you’re finding joy, where you’re worn thin, when’s the last time you got misty-eyed.

If we ask such things, though, the machine will likely have to idle for a bit, perhaps even lurch to a full stop. Of course, machines cannot flex with the varying seasons of the soul. But a family can. So can a friendship. The church, if it is true to its name, will refuse the allure of mechanized production (even when it promises some strained version of “success”). Rather, we will seek to be neighbors and friends. We will give as much space to leisure as we do to leadership.

Years ago, I pastored a struggling church in Denver. We had moved west for my wife Miska to attend grad school, and I’d only been on the job a couple months before coffee meetings with parishioners began to repeat the same themes. Dear people would sit across from me, speaking with tenderness so as not to wound. I’m really sorry, Winn. I like what you’re doing with the church and I appreciate the sermons, but something’s just not right here. Our family’s withering. I think we need to leave.

Each time, I found myself having the same response. You know, I think you’re right, You and your family need to find another community. It sounds like we’re weighing you down. A rouse-the-troops speech if ever there was one. A pastor of a small church only has to have this conversation a few times before the handwriting glows on the wall. Nine months later, the leadership council spoke a blessing over the church’s many years and many good stories and laid the exhaustion to rest.

I hope I never again need to preside over a community’s farewell, but that time with those good people confirmed one thing: crushing a person’s soul to save the cause is always too high a price to pay.


Photo courtesy Lars Plougmann


boy and his bass

Gregory of Nazianzus, a Church Father considered one of our finest theologians attempting to speak intelligibly of the Trinity, could only, in the end, turn to poetry in his attempts to say something (something short of heresy but something more than drivel) about this confounding mystery. Church folk and lovers (two words which should be bosom buddies) often make their way to poets and verse whenever the thing we have to say simply cannot be said in the language we’ve been given.

I wrote my wife Miska a poem one Christmas. It wasn’t high art, just tender scribbles on a page. Thank God for free verse, as my iambic pentameter goes every kind of caddywompus. Still, somehow in those simple lines I was free to say things I didn’t know how to say, free to discover truths in the writing that I didn’t yet know I knew. The form insisted that I not worry so much about explaining my love; but to simply love, to let the love seep from my heart onto the page. I don’t know how it happens. I only know it does.

Since music is poetry in motion, all of this fits (I think) with how one of my friends, Eastern Orthodox professor Vigen Guroian, talks about theology. “It has to be sung,” he says. “If you can’t sing it, it can’t be good theology.” There’s more (much more) to faith than airtight theological constructs. Good words about God, ones that catch your breath short or make your knees buckle or turn your heart and your mind to fire, have to be set free – they have to set you free. Faith needs to carry a melody, to set down a groove, to bring a little funk.

St. Pophyrios of Kavsokalyvia said, “Whoever wants to become a Christian must first become a poet.” Do not take St. Pophyrios too literally. He does not insist everyone must learn poetic craft. He’s reminding us that we must allow our soul to be moved into places deeper than bare fact. We must allow the Spirit to bring us embers, and then wait for the Spirit to blow on the embers until they sizzle and flare.

It is not sufficient to accumulate the facts. Someone’s got to sing us a song. Someone’s got to let the poetry loose. Someone’s got to bring the funk.