Gaudí commenced construction on the Sagrada Familía, a Basillica in Barcelona, in 1882. They say it’s on target for its expected completion date: 2026. Gaudí died in a trolley accident in 1926 at the age of 73. Believing his work was for God, whenever someone chided him for the ridiculous time horizon, he’d answer: “My client is not in a hurry.”

I don’t know the answers to the many vexing concerns of our moment, but I think a good dose of Gaudí would at least be part of our way forward. We hear the wisdom encouraging us to be attentive to this one present moment (this conversation, this page of this book, this purple Climatis climbing our mailbox, this act of resistance) rather than frantically pressing and swerving toward whatever’s next–and this is absolutely true. However, to truly inhabit attentiveness to the beauty and responsibility of each single moment, we have to also trust the long view, trust the long story. I get the sense that Gaudí was able to enjoy each stone cut, each piece of marble laid, precisely because he knew the future was not his to control, that he was to do his part (and do it well, with real diligence, no shirking) but he envisioned a future that did not ultimately depend upon him. He would draw his blueprints and lay his portion of the edifice, but then other hands would take it from there.

The work before us is larger than us, larger than our lifetime. We have responsibility, but it is a responsibility born and worked out in mercy. We do not strain toward tomorrow. We do our good work today, and then we trust.

For lots of enlightened, sensible Christians, Pentecost is like the crazy uncle: he can tell some real barn-burner stories, but you sure as heck want him out of sight anytime company’s over. It’s easy to see why we’ve arrived here, with Acts’ wild images of the holy tempest blowing and the fire dancing on heads, not to mention the zany circus show you land on with late-night televangelists.

However, Pentecost tells us the story of how Jesus’ promise to bring heaven to earth is happening now, right in front of us. The Holy Spirit’s wind arrived “from heaven,” and it blew right past all the inhibitions, all the religious resistance. God decided it was time to send a shockwave of mercy, hope and renewal; and so the Spirit came. And life exploded. Grace erupted. In a matter of hours, those who’d been sworn enemies were locking arms, those who’d been rejected were welcomed like long lost family, those who didn’t have two pennies to their name were all of the sudden eating like kings. When Heaven arrives on earth, it can look lots of different ways, but it always looks at least something like this.

Dear John,

It’s Memorial Day. I wish you and the fam could all stroll over to the house this afternoon. We’d fire up the grill, play a little cornhole or maybe take rounds picking off targets with the new air rifle the boys and I bought. For Wyatt’s birthday on Saturday, we stuck his old cellphone up on a box in the yard and shot it to smithereens. The boys love stuff like that…yeah, it’s only the boys who love it, not me at all… Anyway, we’d eat and shoot stuff and sit on the porch and watch the sun go down as the fireflies lit up the yard. We’d give thanks for the life we’ve been given and for those who’ve given their life for this life we’ve been given. We’re going to have a few other friends with us this evening–you’d like them. Anyway, since you and Mer have all the kids home from the far reaches, I know you’ll have a good day over there on Snowwood Drive.

Memorial Day always sneaks up on me, a stealth holiday. But then something about that seems right. A day of memory, a day of gratitude. It seems right to me that it’s quiet. This morning on my run, I listened to a friend narrate via podcast the story of his wife’s Uncle Floyd who piloted a helicopter rescue squad in Vietnam. En route to another downed copter, enemy fire struck Floyd’s craft. They never found his body. Decades later, however, a group of Floyd’s military friends and family returned to the village near the crash site. Discovering the village had no modern medical care, they opened a little clinic in Floyd’s honor. The drama stretched taut, however, when Floyd’s sister met the two men who shot down Floyd’s helicopter. She describes how she experienced no anger, only compassion. The ravages of war had wounded them all. Compelled by her faith, Floyd’s sister felt her heart open wide. She wanted healing not only for herself, but healing also for those who were once named enemies.

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how we’re ratcheting up this enemy posture, how often now we’re divided along the simplistic storylines of us vs. them. That old storyline (and it’s at times freely wielded by some on the right as well as the left) makes it remarkably (and disturbingly) easy to castigate another beloved human made in God’s image with broad stroke assumptions, almost glibly easy to assault someone’s dignity or paint someone in a corner where they are silenced through a dehumanizing brand of shame.

I’ve participated in a number of civic actions recently. It’s important to stand alongside those who are being silenced or those whose lives bear the weight of unjust histories and unjust actions that are happening now. In some of these moments, however, I leave with the weight of an even greater sadness than I had before. I saw one teenager at a rally (a fellow not part of the mainstream opinion) surrounded by an angry circle, with a ferocious energy that felt like it would swallow the boy whole. I don’t agree with the boy’s point of view at all, but I wanted to go stand by him, to wait with him until the fever died down, to make sure he knew he wasn’t alone, to have a conversation and hear him tell me where’s he’s coming from, what makes him afraid, what gives him hope. I stood nearby until things died down, though I was never able to talk with him. That evening, we were there to speak up for those who are beloved by God. And also there was a boy in the midst of that seething circle who is beloved by God.

I am more convinced than ever that the powers of this world are simply unable to ultimately win these moments. The way of the crucified Jesus, offering sacrificial love with wide open arms toward the entire world (the ones who want this love and the ones who abuse this love) offers a profound critique to the easy inclinations of my own heart and to the simmering rage of the powers that be. There’s right and wrong, thank goodness. However, in the Kingdom of God, there is no us vs. them. There is only us, all of us, in need of mercy. 

Well, sorry if I got preachy there at the end. I wish you were here so we could talk about it in person. But until then, letters will have to do.

 

Your Friend,

Winn

For Christians, today is Ascension Day. It’s supposed to be a day of feasting and joy and hope, but the day’s now ignored in many traditions, perplexed as we are by what it means, what’s the deal? Is it the anticlimactic downer, after Easter’s wild rush of hope? Did Jesus just jet off, the first intergalactic space traveler, into some far away existence, leaving us to muddle along for some indefinite (and very long, we now see) time, hanging on by the skin of our teeth?

No wonder those first disciples stood gawking up at the clouds. With this kind of story, I’d stand there scratching my head too.

The Ascension is the promise that God-gone-human was not a passing whim but that God loves the body and all the joys and goodness of being human and Jesus now takes this true humanity and joins it to God the Father. And Jesus knows our pains and sorrows and hopes and longings and deep scars and crushing fears and carries them to the Father who gathers them into the very center of the Trinity, all with the promise that we too, in all our splendid humanity, will one day be renewed and find complete joy in God.

The Ascension does not mean God is far removed and we’re to just make out the best we can – exactly the opposite. We’d only say such a thing if we completely misunderstand what “heaven” means. The Ascension assures us that the God who is flesh in Jesus is also present with us everywhere, by the Spirit, loving us, calling us into life, beckoning our wayward hearts.

The Ascension assures us that Jesus Christ has ascended to the good and generous and powerful throne, to rule over, watch over, and provide diligent care over the whole of creation. This means all of us – and every spec of this world in need of healing. This means the universe is in good hands. This means the story ends well.

The Great Story really needs Ascension. I’m glad we have it.

There’s a fair bit of talk these days about being a prophet, about speaking truth to power. We need these bold, arresting voices. We always have. However, the true prophets are not chest-thumpers; they do not merely play one side against the other. True prophets are nearly impossible to label, at least once the labels become a brand, a marker, the way of expressing who’s in and who’s out. True prophets seem to upset everybody, even the ones who claim them as their own. True prophets insist on the dignity of everybody, even the ones least deserving of such protection. The true prophets I’ve encountered exhibit steely courage mixed with an unnerving gentleness. It’s a rare thing indeed.

The Methodist preacher Will Willimon remembers a Sunday evening sitting in his dorm room at Wofford College when a friend burst through his door. “Hey, give me a cigarette,” his friend said, breathless. “I’ve got to tell you about an unbelievable experience.” These two white boys had marched alongside one another during civil rights actions in South Carolina, and that weekend, this fellow in need of a smoke had flown to DC for a rally.

He recounted how when he boarded the plane for the flight back to Greenville, he buckled into his seat and looked across the aisle and his stomach turned a slight somersault when he realized he was seated next to Martin Luther King, Jr. King looked dog-tired, and while the young man tried to muster his courage and wrest some words out of his mouth, King fell asleep. But Willimon’s friend kept watching King, hoping he would wake so he could speak to him.

Finally, after the pilot indicated they’d be landing soon, King stirred. The fellow pounced, immediately leaned over and introduced himself. “Dr. King, what an honor it is to be on this plane with you, and I so admire your work. I’ve tried to be active in the Civil Right movement in South Carolina.” King thanked the man, but Willimon’s friend was not finished. He had a confession to make. “But Dr. King, my family in South Carolina is so racist and segregationist. I’ve tried to talk with them, tried to reason with them. My father and I are not even speaking. I didn’t even go home over Christmas because I didn’t want to have another angry encounter with my father. He is so backward, so racist…”

Dr. King didn’t let the fellow finish. He lunged over the aisle, grabbed his arm with a fierceness and looked him in the eye. “You gotta love your daddy,” King insisted. Then, King sunk back into his seat and closed his eyes until the wheels hit the tarmac.

Willimon’s friend finished the story, and the two of them sat quietly, a smoky haze hanging over them. Then one of them broke the silence: “You know, he really is a prophet.”

Being a pastor is often a joy, but like every vocation, it’s far from peaches and cream. Stanley Hauerwas once said that being a pastor is like being slowly nibbled to death by ducks. Thankfully, I’ve never been in a church like that, but there are days when it seems like I should have stayed a stockbroker or tried my hand as a backcountry guide or maybe become one of those pro Minecraft gamers on YouTube.

There are days when you watch someone you love walk away or you are riddled with questions just as it seems like an answer’s what everyone needs, days when your pastoral energy’s flat as a pancake, days when you feel like you had something really worthwhile to offer in a sermon – only to crater that baby with a class-A nosedive. There are days when you know that all you really can do – all you’ve really ever been able to do – is invite people to Jesus’ Table, to proclaim the good news of God’s love, to remind us of The Story, to hold your hands wide and break that bread and invite people to come on home. And though you know this is all you can do, you hope it is enough.

And then one day, a child gives you a picture they drew of you in that moment. And your heart swells with gratitude. And you whisper to yourself, “It’s enough. It really is enough.”

The exit out of The Abbey, up to our house

Miska and I recently took a rambling stroll outside our old cottage, these whimsical gardens Mr. Cloud first envisioned in the 30’s, the gardens lovingly tended and expanded by those who’ve called this home in the ensuring decades, the same ground we’re only beginning to know and love and tend to ourselves. We noted how the dogwoods and azaleas are receding, tipping their hat as if bidding adieu to the tulips who’ve exhausted their glory, shooting stars blazing out in a blast of Spring brilliance. On cue, the next players have stepped up to center stage, and one of our favorites for this act in the play is the peonies. Miska had checked the peonies’ tight pods only that morning, waiting for them to open their heart to the world. And there they were, mere hours later, offering their pink and white splendor.

These are the things we only see if we take that rambling stroll, or peer attentively out our back windows. If you want to feel their pleasure with us, you’ll have to park your car and walk through our rickety back gate (one of the reasons we bought this house), maybe even ring our rusty bell to let us know of your arrival. You can’t catch a glimpse of these wonders while motoring past at 35 mph. These beauties are not, as the realtors say, curb appeal. To get to this goodness, you must enter into the quiet and hidden place.

Our gardens are part of Mr. Cloud’s orginal 2 acres. Our next-door neighbors hold the deed to the bulk of the property, but we have the good fortune to be their friends as we continue to treat the property with its orginal spirit: no overbearing fence, no boundary markers. We all enjoy the whole marvelous expanse.

On Saturday, Ben (our next door neighbor) and Dan (our down the street neighbor) and I found ourselves in a hidden nook, tucked into the back corner of the property where an underground spring feeds into a creek maybe 1/3 mile away. However, for years, Joe Pye weed has choked out the water’s movement, turning the bubbling brook into a goopy marsh. Clearing enough of the runaway flora to let the water free, Ben and Dan began construction of a small bridge, then mapped out the contours needed to allow the reclaimed stream vital flow, then began to figure the rocks they’d need, the angles, the way forward. I manned the wheelbarrow, hauling weeds and debris to the compost pile. This is the sort of job suited for a fellow like me when you’re working on such a project with an architect and an engineer.

To find this little brook, you enter an alcove, a secret hideaway, secluded by a dense circle of azaleas and dogwoods and guarded by towering tulips and regal pines. I’ve come to think of this alcove and the adjacent brook as The Abbey. I don’t get to officially christen the spot, of course, as I’m not the one who’s paying the mortgage for this plot of dirt. But in my heart, it is The Abbey. And like the rest of these joys, you have to take time to find them. You have to go looking. I think that’s the way it is for most of the deep joys in our lives.

Our church has an Easter tradition. After affirming with zest (multiple times): Allelulia! Christ is Risen! and after our raucous music and after recounting how the angel appeared like lightning and scared the holy bejeezers out of the Roman guard and after hearing that preposterous, heart-swelling story where Jesus tossed the dead man’s clothes and strolled out of the tomb and after gathering around the table of Resurrected Jesus to feast on mercy — after all that, we eat donuts. Piping hot, organic apple cider donuts from the Carpe Donut man. We invite all the neighbors to join us, and we go hog-wild. We’ve done this every year since our church began. Is there any better way to say Jesus is Alive and the party’s just getting started than locking down on a hot apple cider donut?

Only this year, as I was making my way over to the donut truck, I received a text: The donut machine needs a resurrection. Jesus is alive, but apparently the devil is still alive and well too – because through some mishap, the donut fryer was deader than a doornail. Let me tell you how big a downer it is, after the Easter high, to go down the long line of folks, all bright-eyed and brimming with Easter joy, and tell them the promise of donuts has been rescinded. Of course, we all survived. Easter’s bigger than donuts. Way bigger.

Even after encountering again the Ultimate Story, we move back into the world-as-it-is, where donut fryers go caput, where marriages waver, where hopes flicker, where friendships go sour, where doctors deliver dreaded news, where Syrian children and Coptic children die awful deaths. Easter doesn’t tell us that our troubles are no more. Easter tells us that the God who raised Jesus from the dead will raise us out of all the deaths we know. So we keep walking, on Easter Monday just as we did on Easter Sunday. We keep walking into the love and the fury because we now know how this story ends.

With the boys on spring break, we returned late Saturday night from a whirlwind sprint to Arkansas and Tennessee to see family, including a new baby nephew Cooper who’s a chunk of burning love, let me tell you. Under the brilliant moon, we pulled our Subaru into the Lane and aware of how groggy and bleary-eyed we all were, I knew that in a few hours, when Sunday morning rose from the ashes, I would be the only one rousing. So I was off to church and returned home a couple hours later, Bodo’s bagels in tow.

Later in the afternoon, Wyatt, now reoriented to the land of the living, remembered what day it was. “Wait,” Wyatt said, “today’s Palm Sunday. I missed a big one.” He did, of course. But then isn’t that one of the themes of the story? Didn’t most everyone miss a big one? Didn’t most everyone miss the King of the World, the Love of the World, riding into their midst? Didn’t they miss the awful gravity of where he was heading? Didn’t they miss the treacherous path love asked him to take? Don’t we all seem to miss so much?

I miss God riding into my life on a daily basis. I live with a wonder of a woman, but half the time I’m clueless to all the grace she bears into the world. There’s two wild and brilliant and outrageous boys who live with us, and I feel true sorrow when I see how quickly the sands are pouring through the hourglass, a punch to the gut when I have a moment of clarity and reckon with the hundred ways I’m missing opportunities to chunk the tyrannical distractions and just be dad. If that weren’t enough: friendships missed; opportunities blown right past; that Japanese maple blooms with barely a glance; divine invitations unanswered.

But Jesus rode right on into their life. Jesus was not burning with wounded rage on Palm Sunday, and he (astoundingly) wasn’t bent toward fury on that Good, Dark Friday either. It is the way of humans to blunder along, to miss what’s right in front of us. And it’s the way of God to stand and wait, arms open wide, for us to recognize our foolishness and come home. And at the Cross, we find God’s waiting place, the true gathering place, where all who’ve been slow to clue in can finally say yes, can finally receive the welcome God’s been trying to give since forever.

It’s never too late to say yes to love. The opportunities we’ve missed will not ruin us; they will be overwhelmed by God’s embrace. God waits.

Last Wednesday, I sat in the North Oval Room of the University of Virginia’s Rotunda. It’s an auspicious place, one of Thomas Jefferson’s pinnacle achievements now marked as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Jefferson modeled the Rotunda after Rome’s Pantheon, explaining how it was to “represent the authority of nature and the power of reason.” One could never accuse Jefferson of underselling expectations.

I took my spot on one lonely end of a massive boardroom table that seemed to stretch all the way to DC. Around the table sat professors I admire and respect, teachers with serious academic pedigrees. In other words, nothing like me. I was there to defend my PhD dissertation. After course work and languages and a grueling year of comprehensive exams, I’ve spent two years writing about Wendell Berry’s marvelous fiction and how God’s grace shows up in the common, everyday fabric: in that rich Kentucky soil, in those rivers and hills, in those sturdy friendships, in their sorrows, in the life they make in that one unique place. My hope was to better understand Berry’s writing, but just as much, my hope was to better understand my own world and how God shows up in the unique places and people of my life.

There I was, sweating bullets, only to realize that right off the bat I’d made two unfortunate blunders. First, we set my defense date for March 15: the Ides of March. Ominous. Worse, just under the wire, I’d scratched out my heartfelt acknowledgments on the very first page of my dissertation and there, in an ill-advised flourish, I misused the word literally. I mean seriously? – literally? The abuse of this word is the bane of most every middle school grammar teacher in the English-speaking world. I didn’t have tons going for me in this context, but at least I’m supposed to be a writer. I’m supposed to understand elementary vocabulary. I felt like I was rolling into the Rotunda on my tricycle.

Thankfully, the defense went well, and I’m now done. It’s a marvelous feeling.

I’ve asked myself numerous times over the past 5 years why exactly I’ve done this. I’m not entirely sure, but at the most basic I did it because I wanted to and because Miska saw something important here as well. I remember the day when Miska, after years of batting around the crazy idea with me, said, “Winn, I think you have to do this.” That was the lynchpin.

Miska’s my best friend, my partner, the one I trust the most. Last Wednesday, on the other end of that long table, Miska sat there, observing, smiling. Every once in a while, I still hear people talk about the “self-made man.” That’s ridiculous.