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.

 

Our house was built in 1937, and before we purchased our cottage last year, we knew the original cedar shake siding, now brittle and moldy-black, would need to be replaced. Along whole swaths, the siding is thin as onion skin and in scattered spots the woodpeckers have rap-a-tap-tapped right through, leaving a series of circles, like it’s half of a tic-tac-toe board waiting for the X’s. I soon learned that cedar siding was one of the most expensive and labor-intensive options, so I went in search of alternatives. We considered clapboard and board and batten — I even took a very short look at several cedar knockoffs (no thanks).

Knowing my dispositional inability to stroke a check without pressing for every conceivable way to cut the numbers, Miska allowed me my necessary time to roam and research. However, she just kept saying, “You know, Winn, cedar is part of this house’s character. It’s what belongs here.” I nodded politely as I showed her numerous Google images of lovely homes with all kinds of lovely siding. She appreciated each option, but repeatedly reminded me that homes, like all beautiful and sturdy things, have their own soul, a character. You have to pay attention to where you are. I heard her, even as I kept searching, kept finagling, kept downloading Google images for her to view.

As you must already know, we’re now replacing our weather-whipped siding with new cedar, culled by our neighbors to the North from their Canadian forest. Several friends who know what they are talking about encouraged us to stain the siding before installing, so Seth and I have set up in the back yard, dipping shingles in 5 gallon buckets of mocha colored oil, brushing and stacking. We haven’t done all the staining, and I won’t be doing any of the installing, but it’s felt good to participate in the restoration of this old place, to know we’re contributing to our home.

Frank, our carpenter extraordinaire, has finished one stretch. And it’s absolutely true. Cedar belongs here. It’s part of the soul of this place. It’s wonderful.

Every home, every person, every street and village, every borough, every family, every marriage and friendship and church, has a unique soul, a unique identity. And we must honor this marvelous particularity. We do great damage when we assume we can stuff everything into one basket, give it a common name, draw broad-stroke conclusions and assign some generic fix or plan for marching efficiently on. We do great damage when we compare one unique person to another unique person. There’s all kinds of beauty in the world; we want to honor each and every one.

Dear John,

Out running this morning, I sighted two big-breasted cardinals, blazing red. I wonder what it would be like to have to live up such a brazen coat of feathers? It’s not like you could ever hide or blend into the crowd. I imagine that sometimes it’s a burden, but also gives them their strut. I think all of us need a little strut.

It’s interesting you mentioned the Carver story – I just bought my first collection of Carver stories. I was surprised to find I had a hard time getting into it, but I’m sure I’ll give it another crack. I love that image of you and your crackly Baptist knees kneeling for the ashes, with Easter burning in your eyes. Whatever else happens to us, whatever sorrows we experience, whatever fears, whatever blow to our hopes or passions, that Easter burning — that hope of life breaking loose — is what keeps our heart thumping and our eyes watchful. Truth is though that every year, come January and February, that fire dwindles. I need to remember the story again. I need to be pulled out of myself. I need God. I guess that’s why we keep showing up, isn’t it? 

You know moments like Ash Wednesday get, for me, at the heart of what it is I think I’m supposed to be doing as a pastor. I stopped going to pastor’s conferences long ago and haven’t read many pastors books in quite a while. Most of the time, running into all that feels like trying to read Swahili. But standing in front of a line of friends, putting my finger on the forehead of a person I love, looking them in the eye, marking them with the cross, reminding us both of our mortality and our need for mercy and assuring us both that God’s love will carry us even through death — that calls something deep out of me. 

Ken’s dad died Saturday night, I’m not sure if you heard yet or not. I felt that one, returning to my own mother’s death. I hate death. I hate the separation. It makes me nervous sometimes when I think of the future we don’t exactly understand. I believe that our future is bound up in God’s love, and most days that’s enough for me. But I’m a man of dust and there are days when I crave more certainty about how this love I have for Miska, for Wyatt and Seth, for my friends, for this splendid world will continue. I want to have more clarity for exactly how none of it’s lost and how it goes on forever. But I find that God rarely considers that brand of certainty a high priority. I wish God would ask me my opinion on such things every once in a while.   

With you, I’m disappointed we haven’t found a home for publishing our letters yet, but I’m glad we keep writing. I’m glad it’s about friendship most of all. And sooner or later, when the time’s right, we’ll fling our stuff into the wide world, especially the other letters, the ones that otherwise won’t see the light of day. Until then we’ll work on getting Jubilee out there. I’m eager for March 22nd. I’m eager to get my hands on your finished volume. I need more Blase poetry in my life. 

 

Your Friend,
Winn

In the midst of vexing troubles, we encounter an invitation to nurture a persistent steadiness, an unflinching commitment to stick with a conviction or just cause that expands our life and calls us forward with joyful (while dogged) faithfulness and openness (a generosity toward those who are our friends as well as toward those who are not so much our friends). And in the midst of these same troubles, we encounter a temptation to feed an always-on-the-prowl fixation that, while wrapped in righteous rhetoric, camouflages a fearful heart, an angry or reactionary vengeance, a restless perfectionism, an inability to sit with ambiguities long enough to grapple with the long demands of love or the cost of our absolutist posture.

These two ways of being in the world need to be distinguished. The former is the fruit of a wide and hopeful vision. The second is an exhausting failure of our imagination, a signal we have not yet been undone by that unbounded provocateur: mercy.

As I reflect on the legacy of those who led our nation through the early decades of the civil rights struggle, I’m struck by their courage, their tenacity, their profound love, their unflinching conviction. However, I’m perhaps most amazed by their joy. I think of giants like Fannie Lou Hamer, the sharecropper who Chris Myers Ash (in his book The Senator and the Sharecropper) describes as the force “who rose to become the spiritual leader of the Mississippi Freedom Struggle.” I think of Dr. King’s bone-stirring oratory. I think of John Perkins and how his words, even now, resound with such weight and open new terrain inside me. I think of all the music those steadfast marchers sang, the haunting and hopeful melodies. Laced throughout all their appropriately sharp words, their calls to action, their naming of evil, you’ll find a swift current of joy. This was not giddy joy or easy-won joy. It was not a joy ignorant of the wrong that must be righted or the monumental work that needed to be done. But it was a real joy, a steely-eyed joy; and I believe this joy fueled their hope.

It’s normal, necessary even at times, for fear to prod us into action. When a rattler’s about to strike, a good jolt of fear gets the body moving pronto. However, we can’t (healthily) operate on fear long-term. Over time, fear leaks a poison into the soul. But joy – there’s a power large enough to fuel a life. Joy (our joy and the joy of others) opens up possibilities fear never will. Fear lures us into a shrinking circle, but joy moves us outward with boldness. Fear warps our sense of things and, like acid, eats away at our humanity and at our ability to honor the humanity of those we fear. More, fear draws absolute lines, with “the enemy” dominating our imagination. The trouble of course is that whatever or whoever we fixate on slowly shapes us. It’s one of those strange cruelties that we often become a mirror reflection of that thing or person we oppose. But joy – joy throws a massive wrench in fear’s runaway wheel. Joy helps us shed fear and move forward with abundant faith, tenacious hope and vigilant love.

No wonder our Scriptures tell us to pursue joy always.