Lent: Mighty to Save

Well, Lent is here, for sure. Almost on cue, this past week, the hammer dropped. I’ve experienced spiritual dearth, oppressiveness, shame, fear, loneliness. In the words of my new friend Kade, “this kind of shit gets old fast.” Amen, brother.

If you want another perspective on the state of things in my house this past weekend, you can peek over at what my wife Miska had to say about it.

Please don’t get me wrong. I’m not at all suggesting that Lent = gloom, doom and the need for a large bottle of Prozac. I am, however, suggesting that Lent, if we are courageous enough to allow it, can be a season where we truly open up our heart and provide a wide space for God’s Spirit to do deep work in our soul. Over these weeks, we can allow God the place to do what he is always longing to do: to fill and heal and bind up and reshape – basically, to make us more of our true self, to wipe away the grime and the gray shades of sorrow that have covered our true glory. If we need hope, hope is what God will work to give us. If we need faith or joy or laughter, God’s Spirit, we can be sure, will be moving there.

Unfortunately, however, what I need is a size 13 shoe to the backside. I’ve listened to lies too long. In some places of my soul, I’ve waffled and wavered and basically pranced daintily around when I ought to be standing on two firm feet, staring evil down and telling it to go to Hell where it belongs.

I don’t want to be a wuss anymore. I want to be wide-alive. I want to be a reckless man, reckless for my wife, reckless for my boys, reckless for all the truths I believe in. However, I know this is beyond me. I need God. I want God. In the wreck I’ve made of things, in the dark places where evil and weakness and plain ol’ foolishness have cornered my heart, I need God. I need the God who is, as older generations liked to say, “mighty to save.”

We prayed this Lenten prayer on Sunday. I think I’ll pray it again:

Almighty God, whose blessed Son was led by the Spirit to be tempted by Satan: Come quickly to help us who are assaulted by many temptations; and, as you know the weaknesses of each of us, let each one find you mighty to save; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Lenten peace / Winn

Day of Ashes

Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. On this day, we embark on a journey toward redemption, a journey toward Easter.

Lent spreads over forty mornings and evenings, beginning today, the day of ashes, and concluding with that beautiful sunrise when we proclaim with loud and joyous voices, “Alleluia, Christ is Risen!” For these forty days (excluding the six Sundays we will encounter because each of these is a “mini-Easter”), we renounce evil (sin that binds us or distractions that pull at us or lies we have believed) by a physical act of repentance. We give something up (chocolate, sex, TV). Or we take on a discipline (praying the Hours, serving in a shelter). Essentially, we allow Jesus, physical God, to meet us in physical ways.

I grew up in a tradition that didn’t celebrate Ash Wednesday or Lent (or Good Friday or Advent or anything else that might align us with those “Christians with the smells and bells”). Like any good thing, these practices can of course be abused, tempting us to flex our spiritual muscle or to try to earn kudos from God. However, I’ve found that I need these physical reminders, these sacramental encounters, to guide my mind and my heart and my body deeper toward Jesus.

A friend of mine who is Anglican priest told me (in flabbergasted tone) how put off he was by a fellow pastor who complained that Ash Wednesday was too somber, too focused on sin. Out of 365, he wanted to know, can’t we have just one single day to repent?

These practices are certainly no end to themselves. They aren’t intended to focus on us: our rigor, our righteousness, our devotion. These sacramental practices intend to turn us toward Jesus, to stir our heart toward our desperate need for a long redemption.

This, then, is the question for us to ask these forty days that will follow: where do we need God’s redemption? Where do we need resurrection? Where is the broken place that – unless God heals us – we are truly without hope?

For me, I want to be released from myself, from my fear. I want to turn away from all the noise I allow to distract me from the work God wants to do in my heart. I want to truly believe that Jesus is life, my life. I want to embrace my full salvation in Jesus. To do this, I need the ashes, the reminders that I am marked by Jesus. I need these concrete actions: turning off both the computer and my appetite for food each night at 9 (the discipline Miska has chosen for me – each of us choose for the other). I need my community to journey with me these days. It’s too long to go alone.

I hope to continue this Lenten conversation with at least one post each week of the journey. I hope to share more of what God will be stirring in my heart. Join me these forty days of hoping and waiting and repenting, these days of believing in Jesus and moving toward resurrection.

We are not converted only once in our lives but many times, and this endless series of large and small conversions, inner revolutions, leads to our transformation in Christ. -Thomas Merton

Defiance

Today, my dcf pastor-partner Nathan Elmore and I went to see There Will Be Blood. I had quite a reaction to the film, and you can read about it here if you’re interested. However, for me, one of the best parts of the experience was seeing the trailer for Defiance, a movie releasing this Fall and chronicling a true story of a few brother’s heroic attempts to save the refugees of an entire Jewish village from the Nazis. This is one I can not wait for.

I’m very ready to be immersed in a story about true heroes.

peace / Winn

The Cougar and the DJ

My friend Brandon Loy has long been known as a slambang movie producer. In recent months, he has entered the cluttered world of podcasting to offer a truly distinct, beautiful gift. Every month or two, Brandon offers a feast of new music, taking 45 minutes or so to introduce us to a wide assortment of artists and tunes we might otherwise miss. True to Brandon’s euphonic tastes, his choices provide us with musical and lyrical artfulness. Even better, knowing how Brandon connects with music, his podcast gives us a little glimpse of his soul.

You can download his podcast here or, even better, search for “Brandon Loy” or “notmybrother” on the itunes podcast directory.

If you don’t understand the cougar reference or the “notmybrother” moniker, get to know him. You’ll be glad you did.

peace / Winn

Obama and Simple Christian Truthfulness

First, three rules for those who like to regularly forward mass emails offering sensational or conspiratorial or rumorish info to the rest of us:

1. Don’t.
2. If you must, please refer to rule #1
3. If you still must, please take 30 seconds and google. You’ll find that most of what you are about to send is a load of hooey.

*****

I received an email forward last week. My guess is a number of you did as well. Essentially, it was a fear-mongering piece drawing out (again) the familial connections between Obama and Islam. To begin with, many of the assertions were simply not true; and for every legitimate historical fact included, they added an interpretive layer on top that was nothing short of imaginative conjecture based on a whole boatload of prior assumptions.

It sent me over the moon. Really, it did.

And my reaction was not because I’m an Obama supporter. I like the guy. I appreciate much about his way and ethos, and I cozy up to some of his ideas. However, my political impulse and my convictions about the common good and social justice, etc., will most likely move me elsewhere. We’ll see… But that’s just not what this is about. This is about basic issues of Christian honesty and fairness, of integrity and baseline respect for our fellowman.

I was angered because of this: the subtle under-text of this vastly distributed email was that the patriots initiating it were somehow protecting our Christian nation from the infidels. One of the most egregious claims was that Obama had joined a Christian church for the sole purpose of political expediency. Please tell me how could one possibly know such a thing? Didn’t Jesus have something to say about subjective human judging – on the issue of one’s soul, nonetheless?

I read this email. And I grieve. I grieve that it seems we care about political maneuvering more than we care about the simple Christian discipline of truth-telling. I grieve that we sell out our subversive voice because of our infatuation with a cause (a cause other than God’s Kingdom, no less). I grieve because such things tell us where our loyalties truly lie. I grieve because it signals we want to win more than we want to live in the Jesus way, speaking what is true and honest and just.

Winning at any cost is not a Christian virtue, no matter the cause, no matter the spin.

peace / Winn

p.s. I must add this. One of the mistruths in the email was that Barack refused to be sworn in on the Bible but rather insisted on using the Koran. Regardless of what one thinks about such things in a pluralistic nation, the plain fact is that it is a lie. Barack was sworn in on the Bible, and the hilarious part is that there is a picture of Dick Cheney right beside him when it happened. Again: 30 seconds. Google.

Winter Joy

Around here, it happens only slightly more often than leap year: snow.

Last night when Miska told the boys there was the possibility of white weather, Wyatt informed us that when he grows up, he wants us all to “move to Florida where it snows all the time.” We tried to let him down gently and move his compass either further north or further west. The boys stayed up a little late and went out on the back deck trying to feel and catch the first flakes dropping from the sky.

This morning, we woke to a wide blanket of snow, the leaf-bare trees draped by white velvet. It was beautiful. Of course, Wyatt and Seth insisted on sprinting outside, needing (for the first time) their gortex winter ski gloves. Giddy with excitment, Wyatt blurted out, “This is the best winter ever.” Outside, Seth jumped in head first, the first to make a snow angel, the first to test our makeshift rubbermaid sled, the first to make a snowman.

Today, feeling snowflakes on my tongue and hearing Seth’s raucous laughter as he slid down the hill…Today, enjoying Wyatt’s wide eyes as he crafted the perfect snowball and concocted his best odds at launching it square between my eyes, my heart opened. I felt God alive in my boys. I watched and learned. Now, I repent of my callous heart that is often slow to be given to the moment, enraptured with the passion of where God is stirring life.

It takes me to a portion of Steinbeck’s The Winter of our Discontent Miska read to me last night:

I guess we’re all, or most of us, the wards of that nine-teenth-century science which denied existence to anything it could not measure or explain. The things we couldn’t explain went right on but surely not with our blessing. We did not see what we couldn’t explain, and meanwhile a great part of the world was abandoned to children, insane people, fools, and mystics, who were more interested in what is than why it is.

joy / winn

Undone

Yesterday, I was undone. It was Sunday. Resurrection Day. But Resurrection was a long way away. My heart was dark and shifty and felt like it was drowning, being held under swirling, grimy water by an unrelenting, evil hand.

But we sat among friends. I heard the Gospel reading from the lectionary for the day. Miska led us in a contemplative prayer, helping us to “image” our prayer rather than “word” our prayer. We sang this refrain: “Oh, how he loves us.” Tears came as I realized I don’t really believe that line. I believe it factually. I believe it theologically. I would pick that answer on a test. But I don’t believe it, not in my gut, not in the places that matter most. But the words kept coming, from the screen, from the voices all around me. And I cried.

And then we passed the peace. In our church, we hug or shake hands (usually hug) and say something like “Peace to you” or “Peace of Jesus to you.” One and then two and three and four and five people came to me – Miska first. Only Miska knew where my heart was, but each physically offered Jesus to me…in a touch…with their voice. And the tears came again.

Next, I was supposed to teach. From John 11. The story of Lazarus’ death and Mary and Martha’s deep agony and disillusionment because Jesus refused to come when they had pleaded with him to do so. This is a strange story of bewilderment and disappointment and a God who doesn’t do what we expect. A God who lets Lazarus die. Who allows Mary to weep. A God who grows angry and then weeps himself. And a God who, when all is said and done, truly was (as he said) “the resurrection and the life.”

I was a mess. My story is no story of spiritual victory. Just spiritual brokenness. The Gospel (through friends and text and music and touch and sacrament) broke through, spoke to me, breathed hope into me. But I was still undone, still wounded, still wondering. My choice was whether or not I would give from that place. Whether I would weep and tell the truth. Or whether I would lie.

Thankfully, God didn’t really give me a choice. I stood, and the tears came. It was pretty humbling, but if church truly is community…If God truly is center stage…Then what we bring to the moment should really just be ourselves, hoping for the Gospel, desperate for Jesus. God wasn’t going to let me wiggle free yesterday. When you’re standing in front of your church blubbering, it’s pretty hard to hide or pretend or tell a cutesy story and move on. Left to myself, I might have chosen a safer, more dishonest path. But God wasn’t going to have it.

Resurrection only comes in ways God chooses. For Lazarus. For us.

I don’t entirely like these words that follow. But I’m beginning to believe them. I’m beginning to hope God will give me the courage to let loose of myself (my reputation, my leadership, my image) and embrace them:

I am deeply convinced that the Christian leader of the future is called to be completely irrelevant and to stand in this world with nothing to offer but his or her own vulnerable self. Henri Nouwen

Jesus’ peace to you,
Winn

Transfiguration and the Lost Art of Listening

I’m tired of feeling the compulsion to always have something to say, to always have a response, an opinion, a wise word. I wonder how much of this comes from the fact that I’m a pastor (a vocation unfortunately far too suited for those of us who like to hear ourselves chatter) or that I’m a writer – I mean, I live by words for goodness’ sake.

Of all the compliments a pastor (a human, for that matter) could receive, this has to be one of the best: “You listen good.” I don’t hear it nearly enough.

Peter was given to bursts of words, particularly when he was caught off guard or was flustered or eager or unsure of what else to do. Of course, his most famous moment was his self-assured declaration that, no matter what, he would never deny Jesus. A little quiet humility would have served Peter well there. I have been drawn to another moment, however. In Mark 9, Jesus took his inner trio (Peter, James and John) up to the top of a mountain to witness an event they would have to see to believe. Jesus began to burn white, glowing brilliantly, as Moses and Elijah, long dead, appeared next to him.

Stunned, Peter did what Peter usually did in such circumstances: he blurted out the first words that popped into his head. “Rabbi, this is a great moment. Let’s build three memorials – one for you, one for Moses, one for Elijah.” (Mark 9.5-6, Message)

Peter just couldn’t help himself.

The miraculous had happened. God had revealed himself in Jesus — with white-fire and mythic-like witnesses to accent Jesus’ self-revelation. But Peter had to say something. Worse, Peter felt compelled to come up with something to do, something to create, something to build – a memorial would be just the thing.

We do this all the time. God is speaking. Jesus is burning hot-white among us. And we can’t sit still. We can’t wait and ponder. We have to strategize and market and draw up a flow-chart that flings everyone into action. We have to talk, to spin ourselves in circles with all our words.

Are we tired of hearing ourselves jabber? I am. Are we tired of having more confidence in what we can manage that in what God is busy doing? I hope I am.

I want to see God. I want to hear God. I want to believe that Jesus’ words are more vital to my world than my own words. I want to believe – truly believe – that God’s voice, that God’s shining presence, is truly the center of the action.

After Peter had offered his two cents, a thundering voice spoke from the cloud. “This is my Son…Listen to him.” (Mark 9.7) Listen to him.

Actually, Peter, the Father said, this is not the time for you to say or do anything. This is the time to listen.

There is a time to act, and there is a time to wait. There is a time to speak, and there is a time to listen. My prayer is that I will know the difference.

Listening (hopefully) / Winn

Brothers K

A couple friends suggested a novel for a read over the holidays, The Brothers K by David James Duncan. I’m enjoying it. The voice Duncan has created for his narrator, the wide-eyed (and wide-mouthed) boy Kincaid Chance, reminds me a bit of Leif Enger’s narrator in Peace Like a River, Reuben Land. Both are the youngest sons in their troubled family. Both have great admiration for their father. Both are quick-witted, brutally honest and – more importantly – are not yet competely spoiled by cynicism and blunted hopes.

brothers_k.gifBrothers K doesn’t have the same richness as Peace Like a River; it doesn’t have that magical quality in a book where you feel like something far bigger is happening in the story than you are able to articulate or even understand – but K is still good reading. I’ll share a spot or two.

In one poignant moment after Kincaid’s folks blew up in a fierce argument over one of his dad’s vices which were unacceptable to his strick Adventist mother, his mom stormed off to her parent’s house with all the other kids. As the evening went on, dad began to binge, eventually drinking a six pack or two or three too many. Scared and angry, Kade (as his friends call him) went to bed confused by a theological dilemma. He had prayed to ask Jesus to keep his father from getting drunk, but he wondered if perhaps his prayer had gone unheeded because his father had been praying at the same time, asking Jesus to allow him just one single night to drink peacefully in his own home. How do such quandaries get worked out in the Divine scheme? Kade concluded this: “Prayer is mysterious, and God is even worse. I don’t completely understand it yet.” Sounds about right.

Another powerful scene was when young Kade went toe-to-toe with his father, a man who had succumbed to the disillusions and disappointments we all face as we make our way in this world. His father’s heart had gone dull and lifeless. And Kade couldn’t bare it. He couldn’t bare to see his father, his hero, simply wilt to grey and fade away. After a fiery conversation and an act of surprising violence (I won’t give it away), Kade said brave words to his father, words most every man will need to hear some time or another: “All I want is for you to fight, Papa. To fight to stay alive inside. No matter what.”

That line did me in. I could imagine my own sons saying it to me – I hope they never have to. But when I need to hear the truth, I hope some man is strong enough to give it to me.

Fight. Stay alive inside. Keep your heart open and free. No matter what. No. Matter. What.

peace / Winn

Christmas Loot

On Christmas day growing up, as soon as the packages were all rifled through, I couldn’t wait to get on the phone and call my pals and tell them all about my stash. Not much has changed.

Truthfully, giving and receiving gifts is a beautiful thing. Giving reminds us that we are not the center, that moving against our natural selfishness opens our heart to fresh joys. Receiving reminds us how futile our posture of self-sufficiency really is. Receving forces us to open our arms wide to the people and the world around us, to be open to hope and to surprises and to simple pleasures.

In honor to and in gratitude for all this, I’d like to rekindle my childhood tradition and share with you my five favorite gifts I received this year:

p1010603.JPG#1 A new handcrafted pottery mug from my wife Miska. I’m a sucker for mugs in general – but handmade, artisan, full of originality – I’m getting goose bumps just describing it.

#2 An olive green canvas messenger bag (again from Miska). I’ve been hauling around this beefy mahogony-colored leather bag that is actually pretty exquisite – but it’s thrown my shoulder into spasms and makes me look like an ol’ geezer. Now, I have a slightly more hipster bag to carry all my messages in.

cropped-galimoto.jpg#3 A Galimoto from my five year old son Wyatt. We took Wyatt and Seth to Ten Thousand Villages (a fantastic fair-traded store with all kinds of handmade items from artists all over the world). They have a “Little Village” for kids where volunteers help them pick out and wrap presents themselves. This was what Wyatt picked out for me – a dynamite little African toy. Of course, the fact that it was from my son and that he was so excited to give it to me – that was the best part.

p1010610.JPG#4: A dear friend gave Miska and me a hand-sewn blanket from India. This is a remarkable gift, a remarkable story. Sari Bari is a new venture that imports blankets sewn by women rescued from the slave trade. This allows them to build a business and earn a living as they restore their dignity. The blankets are made from the Indian sari and each has the name of a woman who is making a new life for herself sewn into it – and “each purchase participates in her freedom.” If that were not enough, the blanket is absolutely stunning.

#5 (and an honorable mention) Miska gave the three Collier men Conn p1010614.JPGand Hal Iggulden’s Dangerous Book for Boys. This is definitely boys only – no girls allowed. This book explains how to tan an animal skin and make a battery and build a treehouse. It narrates the golden age of piracy and a brief history of artillery. It provides the seven poems as well as the seven latin phrases every boy should know. It explains how to play poker and even makes a stab at how to understand girls. This is going to be fun. [and you will see the honorable mention in the corner – who doesn’t love a new pair of Gap socks?]

And my very favorite gift I gave this year was a new title banner for my wife’s blog. Each year Miska and I make each other a gift – it’s what I most look forward to. It gives me an opportunity to tell my wife that I see her and that I believe in her and that I love her more than she could imagine.

I hope each of you gave well and received well this season. Both are Gospel acts.

peace / Winn