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.

It’s not even Valentine’s Day for crying out loud, and yet the daffodils scattered across our front yard are punching their way out of the cold, hard dirt, reaching up toward the sunshine. This resurrection is an even more rigorous task than usual for these flimsy green shoots because the mammoth Ash we had to bring low refused to go quietly and left in its wake piles of split logs, mulch ground from the small branches and a towering pile of shavings from the mother of all stumps we had to grind out of the earth if we ever wanted to have another tree make its home here again. Yesterday, a fellow moved a truckload of wood, and underneath crouched those defiant, dainty daffodils, bits of green hanging on for dear life, nearly flattened to the ground, but pushing forward slivers of yellow and white. What’s a couple tons of wood to a tough ol’ daffodil?

They’ve got spunk, these early-bird jonquils. After all this effort, they’re out there basking in the warm rays, all the while daring Old Man Winter to bring his worst. Surely somewhere in the flora’s biological memory, it knows the warmth is a ruse, that we’re not done with the serious cold snaps. Yet there they are, risk-takers with a flair. If these daffodils could make their way to Vegas, there’d be a crowd around their blackjack table for sure. They might lose every dime to their name, but they’d go down in a blaze of fury and glory.

Such beauty and tenderness, such courage and tenacity. I hope they make it through the coming weeks. But if they don’t, I will be grateful for their burn-in-the-wind life.

 

Last week, I confessed to Miska how much resistance I feel in several areas of my life, a lethargy I can’t shake. Genuinely curious and without any judgment, Miska asked: “I wonder if you’re trying to avoid pain?” I’ve been pondering this in the days since.

I don’t know that avoiding pain is the only factor at play, but I’m newly aware of how easy it can be for me, when I’m not operating in my truest self, to attempt to arrange my life so that I don’t have to enter the complications of vexing conversations or strained relationships. At times, I can put more mental energy than I care to admit circumventing other’s judgments or disapproval. I can often grow disillusioned or angry when I face troubles that seem unrelenting or even more so, when I see how others face severe sorrows while God seems so very absent. Is not pain our great enemy? Is not suffering the sign that God has gone on vacation?

Into this place, I read again Paul’s word reminding us that as God’s beloved, we are drawn into the fullness of Jesus’ experience. We share in his life, but we also share in his sufferings. I’m not suggesting for a moment that my recent malaise is anything so noble as this, but I am reminded that avoiding pain, natural as the impulse may be, is not exactly the goal. God is immensely kind and desires to nurture and heal us, but apparently, as was true with Jesus himself, sometimes suffering (on our own behalf or for the sake of others) is part of our vocation.

We encounter suffering that bellows from the evil we humans do to one another; we must name this and resist it – and I’m in no way suggesting that anyone should endure injustice out of some vague spiritualized ideal. We also encounter suffering with no apparent cause other than tumultous weather patterns or bad luck, or suffering bound to the fact that we are mortals in bodies that decay and grey and wither, bodies that sometimes do the opposite of what they are supposed to do. With our Israelite forebears, ones who knew suffering perhaps more than any people ever have, we cry to the heavens with those gut-wrenching Psalms, prayers of both agony and relentless faith.

And somehow, in this mix, we also add this strange witness: some pain is an invitation into Jesus’ own love, arms spread wide for the love of the world.

I wonder if, in all our bluster and saber-rattling and amid all our work to make ourselves safe, we’ve forgotten one of those most essential things: to be human, to honor this wonder of our shared life, how we are joined to one another. I wonder if the world we have made safe will be a world worth being safe in at all? I wonder if the ones we harm (or maybe worse: never even acknowledge) all the while fortifiying this mythical cocoon will ever haunt us when we are old and still breathing and still clinging to our shrinking life? There are far worse things than putting our home and life at risk. Didn’t our revolutionary patriots tell us as much? There are far worse things than laying our life down for another. Didn’t Jesus instruct us along these lines?

And I also have to ask if, in the ways we wield our incredulity or rage or our principled opposition, if we need to take particular care not to forget one of the most essential things: to be human, to honor the marvelously distressing fact of our shared life, how we are joined to one another. I wonder if the world we win, if we do so by dehumanizing another, will be a world worth having once we’ve won? Will it be a world we’re proud to hand our children, a world worthy of the hopes and ideals we vigorously defend?

I spent a good portion of my Saturday splitting wood. My friend Tom let me use his beefy, old hydraulic splitter which is a good thing because I’m working with massive sections of trunk from this mammoth ash, and these pieces are big ol’ mothers. Of course, once they get to manageable size, the fun starts because there’s nothing like the thrill of splitting a log with one great swing of the axe. Seth and I decided to name our axe Big Bertha or maybe The Grim Reaper.

However, as I was rolling those gargantuan slices of trunk and heaving them onto the splitter, I remembered the advice from my high school football coach during weightlifting: “Lift with your legs, not your back.” It does make all the difference. Saturday, with my back, I was exerting all kinds of energy and making grotesque facial expressions and grunting noises but was about to snap something I’d rather not snap or blow something out I’d rather keep intact. When I used my legs, there was a sturdiness, an ease even – and also there was a better gauge of my limitations. It’s good to know when to push harder; it’s also good to know when to stop.

This all got me wondering how many things in my life, or in the world around me, I’m trying to lift with my back (my straining, my chaotic energy, my fear, my not-quite-righteous indignation) instead of my legs (my steadiness, my muck-along faith, my reliance on the grace, mercy and love that unnerves most every power or idealogy in this world). I’m not sure, but something tells me that in these days before us, we’re going to be tempted to lift with our back, but we’re really going to need to lift with our legs.

This may seem like a story about football, but it’s really a story about love.

In 2001, Miska and I moved to Clemson, South Carolina, where a little town and a little circle of friends welcomed us and, over the years, became part of the intimate fabric of our lives. I’ve been passionate for college football since I was a boy, but I was unprepared for Clemson. When we arrived, the Tigers’ football program was mediocre, flashes of brilliance overwhelmed by moments of disaster. However, the Clemson faithful captured me. They were generous to the fans of opposing teams, unflinchingly supportive of their school and all sports, had the most massive tailgate parties, were rabid in their enthusiasm (I mean, orange overalls…) and there was something sturdy mixed in with all this that went far deeper than only winning or losing. As Dabo Swinney, Clemson’s coach, says, “It’s all about love.” That says it right. These Clemson people loved their school, their history, the Blue Ridge mountains that surrounded them. And they loved one another. It’s cliche, I know, but the place really is like a big family – and it gets in your bones. So many of our dearest friends were Clemson students or alums, and they exuded a vibrancy, a joy, that was radiant. Like a bee to honey, I couldn’t resist.

I went to a small private college and never had this kind of loyalty or esprit de corps around a university. Once I realized what had happened to me and how, without intending to, I had thrown in my lot with Clemson, I’ve always wished I had attended the school or been a fan since childhood. However, both our boys have this. They were born in Clemson, and when they were only wee tikes I’d carry them atop my shoulders into Death Valley. Seth was all-in orange and purple from the beginning, and after we moved to Charlottesville, Virginia, every year for Seth’s birthday, we road trip to a Clemson home game (sometimes Wyatt joins for a second game or the Spring game). Seth’s a man of tradition, and every year, he wants the same routine: pick him up at noon from school with Bodo’s packed for lunch, stop at Zaxby’s in SC for dinner, pre-game lunch at Moe’s on game day, a stop in at Judge Keller’s or the Tiger Sports Shop to look at gear, scream like mad for 3.5 hours inside Memorial Stadium, dinner at Bojangles on the ride home. Obviously, good nutrition is not a priority. Those weekends are about a day on the gridiron, but they’re so much more. It’s a father and a son, sharing a passion, putting miles on the road together. It’s me enacting, year after year, how much I adore this son of mine. I hope he’ll remember, come every fall and even when he’s old, how much he was loved.

So when Clemson stamped their ticket for a trip to the 2016 College Football National Championship, there was pandemonium in our house. I looked at tickets early, but they were astronomical. However, on Saturday night before the game, I saw how ticket prices had plummetted and how redeye flights to Vegas were dirt cheap. So, I woke the boys Sunday morning and told them to pack their bags because we were heading to Phoenix. Their eyes went wide, they jumped out of bed, and the next three days were a joyful, chaotic flurry.  I never imagined being able to actually sit in the stands at a National Championship game, especially cheering on your team. And to surprise my boys with this trip and then sit between them, one of them hanging their arm around my shoulder the entire fourth quarter – that was pure magic. 

After arriving home from Phoenix and hoping that Clemson-lightning would strike twice, I reserved a hotel on the outskirts of Tampa, the sight for the game more than a year away. I snagged a good price, and I knew that come January 2017, rooms would be scarce and prices outrageous. I did this in hopes for one more opportunity to take the boys to see Clemson play for all the marbles, maybe even a chance at redemption since they came up short in the desert. The boys knew we’d try our best to go again; however, this year, ticket prices never came down and as of Saturday night this time, they were hovering around $1200 a piece. I told the boys the chances of finding tickets we could afford were next to nil and that it probably made sense to admit we’d done our best but to call it quits. Seth, ever the faithful one, said, “But dad, we’ve got to at least try. And anyway, I just want the trip and the experience with you.” After clearing the lump in my throat, I loaded up the car.

We left Sunday morning at 6 a.m. and drove through North Carolina where, for more than 2 hours on I-95, we creeped and skidded across sheets of ice. The temperature gauge said 1˚. Every time I thought of turning the car around, I’d look over at Wyatt and Seth, eager, hopeful. We kept pointing South. On Monday, we pulled into the HCC parking lot at Raymond James Stadium and over the next 3.5 hours worked the parking lots and sidewalks in search of tickets. The entire time, we saw only 2 genuine tickets (along with a number of scalpers hawking counterfeits), and they were $2,000 each. The boys were troopers, but I’ll be honest, I was struggling. I wanted so badly to at least get those boys in, at least get Seth in.

About an hour before kickoff, when things were looking grim, we made our way over to the one merchandise tent we could find because Seth had decided that if he couldn’t get inside, he at least wanted to get one of the Clemson National Championship scarves. Of course, the scarves were all sold out. Are you freaking kidding me? Maybe this is the place where I’m supposed to say that the trip was epic and we made memories and getting tickets wasn’t really the point. But getting tickets was at least part of the point. The trip was indeed epic, and I’m so glad we gave it a go. But it still smarts, that we were right there, so close, and I couldn’t get them inside.

Finally, as the bands and the announcer warmed up the crowd for the tip off and after it became obvious there were no tickets to be had, we dashed to our car, dialed up the radio and gunned it toward the hotel. We rushed into the Flying J Truck Stop, loading up on pizza, wings, Dr. Pepper, “fruit” snacks and blueberry muffins. We raced to our room and for the next 4 hours raised holy ruckus on the third floor of the Country Inn & Suites. When Deshaun Watson threw that final TD to Hunter Renfrow, we screamed and pounded and ran in circles. Wyatt jumped up and down on the bed like it was a trampoline. My eyes may have been wet.

That night, Wyatt came over to me and laid his hunk of a frame over me, placed his arms around my neck and buried his head into my chest. “Dad, it’s okay that we didn’t get into the game. I just wanted to watch it with you.” So yeah, it’s all about love. It truly is.

Because I’m married to Miska, I’ve become modestly conversant in the Enneagram (really only conversant enough to keep asking Miska questions like: so what is that number that does xxxx??” or this is probably my distintegrating 5-ness, huh?). I’ve gone so far as getting the daily Enneathought emailed to me, something I send directly to the trash folder on days I can’t stand another moment of introspection. And yet there are days when something will hit me square in the solar plexus, like I’ve got a big bullseye painted on my chest. Several times, the opening line will be: “Today, try to do the opposite of your personality pattern.” Well gee, thanks. 

But it’s a good word, sometimes we need to intentionally do the opposite of whatever has become too easy for us, too “natural” – only it isn’t really natural at all. It’s just the way we’ve learned to withdraw from our life, to live by inertia. It’s just too, too easy. I’m not talking about working something up or resolut-ing ourselves to death (Good God, no). I’m simply saying that our life is too marvelous to waste by collapsing into a bored sluggishness.

So New Years lands past the halfway point of Christmastide, a time when these two different accountings of time are telling us similar things: to enter our life, to pay attention, to give ourselves to these days and these people that surround us. Maybe this would be a good day, or a good week, to do something that is the opposite of what, left to our boredom or disappointment or compulsions or lethargy, we’d do. If sadness comes easy, poke at a little happiness. If we always stay on the surface to avoid the pain, ponder something a little deeper. If you always withdraw into your internal cave, ask a friend (or someone you’d like to be your friend) over for dinner. If you have a really hard time being alone, take a walk in the woods or curl up for an afternoon by the fire with a fine book. There’s joy to be had, but sometimes we have to intentionally seek it.

christmas wrapping

I planned for the Christmas of 1988 for at least 7 months. It was my senior year in high school, and I knew everything in my world would be changing. Soon, I’d leave home for college and I’d move into new orbits and of course, I’d be scraping pennies for the foreseeable future. So beginning in May, I revved up the lawnmower and went to work, cutting yards all summer and squirreling away almost every dollar. In December, I reached deep into the top drawer where, for months, I’d stashed my loot and pulled out fistfuls of greenbacks. I spread the treasure onto the floor, mouth agape. There I was, like Scrooge McDuck, rollicking in all the wealth. I counted $1250.

For the next two weeks, I went on a buying spree, intending to surprise my family (including my grandparents and Great Grandma Sparks) with the most lavish gifts on Christmas morning. I don’t remember a thing I bought, save one. At Service Merchandise, I found a combo tape player/radio deck that mounted under the kitchen cabinet, above the counter. My mom, a musical soul if ever there was one, could listen to Perry Como or the London Philharmonic while whipping up her chicken, broccoli and rice casserole or her parmesan chicken bites.

While I don’t remember most of the gifts, I remember the feeling. I remember wrapping those boxes and slipping them under the tree, so eager for everyone to catch first sight of them and wonder what in blue Christmas blazes was going on. I remember my joy at watching them unwrap their presents, the joy at doing something that felt, to a 17 year old, outrageous.

Some of us poo-poo gift-giving this time of year, and I acknowledge we’ve run amuck with our lust for more. I can only say I’m so glad I spent a summer sweating and saving, that I blew every dime I had, saying “I love you” in one grand, extravagant gesture that, for me, felt like tossing a match onto a pile of cash. And I think my mom was grateful too; she kept that tape player in the kitchen long after cassette tapes were overwhelming landfills the world over. It stayed right there until the day mom and dad said goodbye to that old house. I like to think that some days, after I was off in Colorado or South Carolina with a family of my own, that she would stop and look at that worthless pile of metal and plastic and smile and maybe put her hand to her breast and remember.

Dear John,

I told you that we had to bring down the big, old Ash in our front yard. Years ago some mortal wound pierced its mammoth trunk, and over the years since, the rot and the carpenter ants have done their business. It was a sad day when I watched the crew bring that great tree to her knees. However, yesterday was the day of joy. We were out early, Wyatt and Seth and me along with a handful of friends and neighbors. We were all wearing flannel and heaving axes and gunning a hydraulic splitter. It was grand. There’s something about having work to do, work you are responsible for, work that has defined parameters and objectives: cut the logs, split the stumps, stack the firewood. This was a mother bear of a tree, so the work’s not yet complete – but I see clearly what needs to be done and I know how, if the weather and my back holds, I’m supposed to do it. So little of my life feels this straightforward, this immediate, this grounded. I know something now I did not know when I was younger: I have to stay grounded. I have to be among the trees. I have to be under the night sky.

That’s what connects us both to folks like Kent Haruf or Wendell Berry or Mary Oliver. They are people who ground us to life, to the hard and marvelous wonder of it all. I enjoyed your letter, as always, but this one was especially educational because I learned a new word, had to look it up: hypethral (“wholly or partly open up to the sky”). Now that’s good, John. You said Mary had a “hypethral theology,” and I can imagine Ms. Mary reading that and chuckling to herself and saying, “Well, I guess so…” And like you, it was this single line from the first essay in Upstream that made me sit up straight: Attention is the beginning of devotion. If there was ever a line suited to Advent, that’s one right there.

Advent holds much allure for me because these are days that give us permission (and perhaps it would be more helpful if we heard it as a command) to stop. I’m not sure that in this helter-skelter world where most of us live so fearful of falling behind or not catching up or somehow getting steamrolled that we think we can actually just stop. In the Church especially–those of us who are supposed to really get this Advent thing–I don’t think we do a very good job of helping people stop. I wonder how many times, as a pastor, I’ve loaded stuff up on people’s weary souls rather than helping them shed the back-cracking weight. Even this idea of waiting and watching can have such a heavy, drag-yourself-through-the-finish-line posture. And on the other hand, our idea of being watchful (or waiting, or hoping) can also carry a hollow ring, evoking a limp passivity. But when Mary says that attention is the beginning of devotion, there’s teeth there. It’s a belligerent hope, but a hope-at-rest. Attention does not happen when I’m up to my eyeballs trying to furiously hack my way through life, but neither does attention happen when I’m just folding all my cards and calling it a day.

You know when attention happens? For me it happens every time I say no to the things that are not mine to do. Attention happens when I feel (as Miska says) that my “carrying capacity” has been met (and right now, I realize it is met, full tilt, time to start cooling down the engines). Attention happens on days like last Saturday, when there were two moments — one each for Wyatt and Seth when I stood back and watched them, for the very first time, take those herculean swings with an axe, determined to make splinters of that stump in front of them. I’d given them a few pointers (after I’d received instructions myself), but then there was nothing for me to do but watch. And I tell you, it was a sight to behold, those two boys of mine becoming men, unleashing their strength.

Those hours with the boys splitting wood and drinking cider were not attached to an Advent devotional, but they were Advent top to bottom. It was me being attentive to this very good life God has given me, these boys, this house, these trees. I watched and said thank you.

 

Your Friend,
Winn

Today, as we feel so unsafe, so unsure, so torn asunder, it can be difficult to imagine a different day, a different world. And yet this is precisely what the prophets do for us. The prophets do not flinch from any grim reality. Rather they point to the evil and name the ruin and insist we take our own hard look. The prophets agitate us so often and with such persistence that we find it nearly impossible to stick our fingers in our ears and hum a nursery rhyme while the world burns. And yet the prophets do more: they stand in the middle of the flames and bellow an audacious song of hope. It can be the easiest thing in the world to ignore calamity or injustice or our own sick soul. However, it may be even easier to believe that this same calamity or injustice or sick soul owns the end of the story. We need the prophets to save us from both.

So on the second week of Advent, after Isaiah has described in brutal detail Israel’s national corruption and personal ruin, we find ourselves in a vulnerable place where we see our own world, our own heart, teetering on the edge of a deep abyss. Bana Alabed, the 7 year old “Twitter girl” from Aleppo, has gone silent, her final characters sharing her fear with the troops approaching. Our marriage, enduring for years now, threatens to finally collapse under the pressure. Our job has gone south, a friendship closed off. Our national life–and the many global perils–offers so much gloom on the horizon.

And yet, as the prophets always do, Isaiah tells us we must imagine a different day, a different world. In the world Isaiah sees, the wolf becomes friendly neighbors with the lamb; the leopard stretches out (comfy as a cat being lazy in the afternoon sun) right alongside the goat; the cow munches on dinner right next to the bear (rather than being dinner for the bear); the little toddler sucking on her thumb plays at the cobra’s hole and a rosy-cheeked boy sticks his hand into the very middle of the viper’s nest. In the world Isaiah sees, there’s nothing to fear. There’s no trouble, no conflict. Everyone belongs. Everyone is welcome. Joy is everywhere.

Advent is a time when we see the world for what it is. Advent’s also a time when we begin to see the world for what it can be.

 

image: Evan Rummel