Archives For A Family Man

I’m in the middle of PhD studies at the University of Virginia, a “public ivy” that trades off with UC Berkeley most years for the spot of top-ranked public university. What this means is that there are multiple times a week when I’m the dumbest person in the room. I console myself with how I’ve got life experience, often by nearly two decades, on most of my cohorts; but this additional fact only means that on top of being slow, I’m also old. I’m 41. Welcome to college.

Being in a situation where your limits and inadequacies are laid bare provides a true gift. Since I’m a writer and a father and a pastor, this position is nothing new to me. Regularly, I’m reminded of how many better writers there are, how much better their books sell. Several times, I’ve found a copy of one of my books bargain-priced in the used book store, never read. I know this because I looked. Closely. Once, I found a copy at a bookshop across the street from the church I pastored. So I’ve pieced this together – one of my own parishioners thumbed through the book, shrugged and said, “Eh, toss.” That book sat on that lonely shelf for over a year. I know this because I looked. Regularly. I was only released from that gloomy wake because we moved four hundred miles away.

Further, I’m a dad, and most weeks I find the last few drops of my fatherly know-how circling the drain. I love those boys, but I will tell you that most of the time, I am absolutely winging it. When it comes to my pastoral life, it’s no different. There are many, many pastors who seem to have the right word and the right shine. We all like to play the part of the humble pastor, but God knows, some of us hit it on cue simply because we’re flailing about no matter when you look our way.

This isn’t to say I don’t have my stellar moments. From time to time, I’ll land a zinger of a sermon, and most days, I like the words I scratch together. While I flub regularly and have to say “I’m sorry” an awful lot, on the whole, I’m a pretty kick ass dad. I’m even learning to muck my way through a PhD.

But here’s the thing: the more we try to compensate for our weak places, the more we try to edit the “us” others encounter, the more we attempt to hide the fact that we really aren’t nearly as smart or agile or profound or intriguing as we suspect others judge us to be (or as we desire for others to judge us to be), the less we become our true selves, the less beauty we’re able to give away. Worse, as we maneuver and manipulate in all these places, we will find ourselves exhausted by our self-absorption. One of the graces Lent has brought me is this relaxing revelation: I am so tired of myself.

The world does not need perfection. It doesn’t need the best ‘you’ that you can dream up. The world needs you. The actual you. Foibles and giggles and goofiness and all. Would you be brave enough to give it to us?

When I shared Holy Work, the poem Miska commissioned poet John Blase to write for me as a Christmas gift, I said there was more to the story. I’ll give you one of the bits now. Christmas morning was a real kick because I had also secretly commissioned John to write a poem – but as a gift for Miska. Miska and I had plotted and schemed in order to surprise each other with the exact same gift.

Here’s the second from the series, the photo and the poem.

winn and miska.laughter

I’ll surely forget many
things, many days, but
I choose to remember a
moment when everything
was so black and white,
was so very clear to me.
I kept your hands to my
shoulder and flashed my
grin, the grin you said
yes
to so many days ago now.
You then spilled your laugh,
the laugh that you and only
you possess. I know the ax
can fall at any moment but
for the space of one frame
there was no one else on
the face of God’s earth but
you and your laugh and me
and my grin, two unveiled
faces wide and alive with
smiles of great sweetness
captured in the click of an
eye. In that stark moment
everything, yes everything
was so very clear to me.

Fridays are Miska’s and my Sabbath. This usually includes at least an hour or two of one of our more rigorous spiritual disciplines: lying in bed watching Hulu, preferably with a small bag from Albemarle Baking Company in the bed with us. One commercial Hulu runs, over and again, stresses my sabbath experience. In this commercial, a certain cellular provider floods the screen with rapid images and text, highlighting the myriad ways their latest gadget can capture every solitary moment and detail of our lives. The experience overloads the senses.

Amid all the zooming and the pulsing data comes the narrator’s central thesis: “I must upload all of myself.”

Of course, this is ad copy, which means two things: (1) they don’t expect us to take them seriously and (2) what they are saying is sheer nonsense. The compulsion to broadcast our every opinion, our every whim, our every ham-and-cheese-on-rye for crying out loud – we call this narcissism. Of course, withholding yourself because of the meticulous way we are coiffing our public persona is narcissism too. It’s impossibly difficult to get loose of our self-absorption.

This is no theoretical question for me. I must wrangle with how much of my writing comes from a desire to feed the ego and how much comes as an expression of my vocation. In a business where publishers insist you have to build your platform, it’s a messy deal. The publishers have a point of course. A plumber’s gotta find folks who will pay him to fix their sinks, and any plumber who refuses to advertise because of his unsullied commitment to his craft will likely starve. Yet there’s something perverse about a writer or a plumber or a pastor or a real estate agent who are always trying to sell you something, especially when that something is them.

So what’s a person to do? I really couldn’t say, but this is what I’m thinking: the central question isn’t how much to share or not share. The focus isn’t the whens or wheres or hows. The truer question is how will I live well and true?

And this is not at all just about social media. How much of our energy do we give to the people and places we love? How do we interact with other’s expectations (a spouse, a parent, a boss, a pastor)? How do we give ourselves generously – but give in a way that’s truthful so that we’re actually giving ourselves rather than giving some false version of ourselves?

The ad ended with the punchline: “I deserve to be unlimited.” Not only is this false; it is also impossible. We are, thank goodness, all limited. This gracious limitation can set us free from the tyrannies that fight against our longing to live well and true. We are free to say ‘no.’

 

I raised my drooping head, my soul dripping shame, in order to ask forgiveness. There was barely space to get the words free because she had already begun to pull me into her bosom and to bury her cheek in my chest. “I forgive you,” she said, without hesitation. Without demand. Without holding any part of herself back as penalty for my foolishness.

In marriage, you find yourself replaying the story of the Prodigal time and again. Sometimes you’re the one watching for the other to come home. Sometimes you’re the one needing to come to your senses and make your way back. Either way, love must be the central player if our marriage is to truly be a marriage.

Though calendars collide for no good reason, I find it timely that yesterday we were marked with ashes and today we celebrate love. Surely there’s a rhythm there. Dropping our pretense, lowering our guard and welcoming mercy makes all the rest of it possible.

Wyatt, our ten-year-old, has pneumonia. Fever, coughing fits and bouts of exhaustion have turned him pitiful. Surprisingly, after a week of antibiotics, his fever returned; and so I took him for a second trip to the doctor. The pediatrician poked and prodded and asked serious-sounding questions. “Does your cough feel like a knife? Have you noticed headaches? Any joint pain?” Wyatt took this all in, thinking hard, asking clarifying questions and attempting to make sure he got the answers right.

When the doctor left the room to grab some contraption she assured Wyatt wouldn’t hurt but was necessary to measure the oxygen in his blood, Wyatt thought this turn of events sounded most grave. Of course, words don’t have to work hard to carry an ominous tone when they’re uttered in a fluorescent-lit space spreading yellowish illumination over the stainless steel sink and the large plastic container of hand sanitizer and the hard, green reclining chair draped in thin white paper.

Wyatt considered the doctor’s words and asked, “Dad, do you think I have cancer?”

I assured him he didn’t, but the cat was out of the bag, the idea had been let loose. “What if I only had one day to live, dad?”

“Well,” I said with a shrug, “I guess we’d want to make sure your last few hours were great.”

Wyatt liked this direction, the possibilities. He had energy for this conversation. “Dad, if I only had one day to live, I’d need to do three things. I’d have to get you to buy me a phone. I’d have to smoke a pipe with you. And I’d have to read Les Miserables in a single day.” He paused, reflecting satisfaction with his choices and plotting strategies for this 24 hour feat. “Yup, that would be hard to do…”

What a way to go – filled with assorted joys, so much that I’d have to stretch to my very last breath to get it done.

Speaking of love affairs, last year Miska commissioned my friend John Blase to write a poem for me, his poetic reaction to a picture the two of us hold dear. I love the poem, as I love all John’s work. I love the picture. I love the ‘us’ that makes this holy work.

There’s more to this story, perhaps I’ll share it sometime.

WinnMiska

Holy Work

We’ve sat close together in
this strange and beautiful
providence long enough now
to know the secret to love is
more skin to skin than eye to eye.
I have felt your grief and joy
as you have felt my anger and doubt.
And we have both felt the urge
to sacrifice. to make sacred.
Some would call this mere empathy
but I find their lack of imagination
deplorable. No, our love affair stands
in this world of contradictions
with the fundamental texture
of one fiercely earned: it is palpable,
or as the Italians would say:
L’ho provato sulla mia pelle-
I have experienced that on my own skin.
This alone is love’s holy work.
an even loyalty, steady and clear.

This morning as the family cleared the breakfast table, Miska put her arms around me and pulled herself in close. Seth, mouth still stuffed with bagel and cream cheese, made an observation. “Puppy love.”

“No,” Miska answered (and here you’ll have to imagine the sultry Spanish accent she carried), “No, this is a long love affair.” Then, to my delight, she leaned even closer and left a sweet gift with her lips. Seth, as any 9 year old boy should, groaned and buried his face in his hands. I sat there grinning and perky, taken off guard but hoping against hope that this breakfast banter wasn’t the end of things.

There was a stretch in our marriage when a morning simply couldn’t have gone like this. There was too much ice, too many questions, too much loneliness. The first four years of our marriage had been spectacular in almost every conceivable way, but life grows and love changes – and if you don’t go along for the ride, you’ll find yourself lying in bed with a stranger.

Through a multi-year traverse, a story maybe we’ll sit down and tell fully someday, we clawed our way back to a truly shared space. Back to the long love affair. Now, we’re in the days when we make our boys squirm because of our flirtatious amore. We’re in the days when even breakfast gets exciting every now and then.

 

Gravette Arkansas

On a Sunday in January 1983, I dangled my legs from an orange-padded pew and listened as my dad preached ‘in view of a call’ at Parkview Baptist Church. That afternoon, I dangled my legs from the paisley-and-polyester quilted bed at the Best Western, sucking back sobs as my dad told us we would be selling our fifth-wheel trailer, stepping off the road and settling down in Waco, Texas. I didn’t know these people, and I didn’t want our life to change.

My feet now reach the floor, but this past Sunday I sat with that same church (now meeting in a different location and without the orange pews) as they honored my dad for faithfully serving as their pastor for three decades (and still counting). Even more, we celebrated fifty years since my dad took up his call to ministry. In these years, it’s impossible to say how many he’s married, how many he’s buried. How many withered hands has he held? How many prayers has he spoken, for a son to return or a daughter to miraculously recover, a bill to be paid or a family to be made whole? How many stories of tragedy and abuse has he carried? How many injustices has he sought to make right? How many times has he laid his weary bones on the bed, asking God for mercy for one of his people and maybe, if God willed it, a little mercy for himself too?

The good folks at Parkview lovingly refer to my dad as ‘Preacher,’ and anyone who’s enjoyed his ministry in these years would give him good marks. However, if I can be frank, I’ve known a number of high octane preachers — and a fair number of them were (are) scoundrels I wouldn’t trust with a $5 bill. The truth is that a father’s preaching skill, impressionable though it may be, does little for a boy waiting for his dad to come home and toss a baseball in the front yard before supper.

I will tell you, however, what matters to a son. It matters that my dad was the same man at the dinner table as he was behind the pulpit. He doesn’t own a halo and he made his fair share of mash-ups – but he wasn’t fake. Not for a minute. I don’t believe I’d be a Christian today if my dad had played the church game. It matters that my dad loved his family and stayed true to my mom – and that he was generous and loyal and kept his word. It matters that my dad said he loved me – and that I’ve never doubted that these words are true. It matters that my dad has given himself to what he believes, even when it cost him. It matters that my dad has, with his life, practiced love.

This past weekend, it struck me how much my dad’s life is intertwined with this dear place and these dear people. He knows their histories and their kids, their financial woes, their joys and terrors. Whenever he’s with us in Virginia, it annoys me how I can’t get my dad to turn off his blasted cell phone. While I still wish he would pop that piece of machinery in the suitcase for an afternoon, I understand that at least part of the reason why it’s so hard for him to step away is because he can never turn off being their pastor. He’s given so much of himself, and you can’t simply shut that down.

Thirty years ago, I didn’t want to move to Waco because I didn’t know the people, the place. But my father does. He’s spent thirty years making their stories his life’s work. And that – from a son to a father – matters.

Last Fall, the elderly woman who lived alone in the house on the corner of our street died. In December, the family (I assume) planted two “for sale by owner” signs in the yard. They painted the front door red and tied red bows on evergreen wreaths, hanging one wreath on each of the five windows facing the street. Overnight, a weary 1400 square foot rancher transformed into a cozy Christmas bungalow. They screen printed a five-foot wide banner in holiday colors, built a frame of PVC pipe and placed the sprawling sign right next to the sidewalk. Come Home for the Holidays it read. I was impressed with the ingenuity of these do-it-yourself realtors.

Today, as I jogged passed the unsold house, the red-bowed wreathes hung tired, limp and waiting to be packed away. The Home for the Holidays sign has come untied and half of it droops to the ground. Their scrappy push to move the house during the yuletide season did not pay off. I never noticed even a single potential buyer taking a tour.

I wonder if they regret the effort, if their plans now seem foolish. I wonder if anyone has rolled their eyes and muttered, “I told you so.” I surely hope not.

Miska has taken up a new craft this past month. She does this at least once a year, often in the fall or winter. I love this about her, the way an idea will grab her and not let her loose until she’s spent herself — the way she’ll get this wild energy, the kind a poet knows when the words are flying and most other pursuits, for a while, are lost to them. It is good to be so awake that you notice when something asks for your full attention – and it is good in those precious moments to just go with it, to say yes.

Sometimes, though, others will think you foolish. You will be told you ought be more practical or less engrossed. Sometimes you’ll even have a husband who, in a moment of absolute stupidity, will say something like this: just remember the interest will pass.

Hopefully, your husband (or wife or friend) will also (like me) receive a kick in the arse and get right-minded enough to return, hat in hand. Sorry, baby. Don’t listen to me. I’m an idiot. You go as crazy as you want with your art and your loves. You show us the way.

“From Jesus’ fulness,” says St. John, “we have all received, grace upon grace.” The truth of our world is abundance and plenty. Lies produce scarcity, miserliness and greed.

On December 26th, we set out on our Northern trek to visit my sister and her family in Michigan. As we backed out the driveway, flurries hit the windshield, and it occurred to me (with Miska’s help) that I had failed to check the weather. It turns out we were driving directly into an East Coast blizzard – meteorologists had christened the storm with a name for crying out loud. 7 hours yielded 113 miles, and we gave up in Pittsburgh with plans to regroup for a second go the next morning.

Somewhere during these travels (or was it during our 2 hour dead stop on I-70 while 4 tractor trailers were hauled off the guardrail and out of the ditch), our two boys entered a protracted dispute carrying financial implications. Miska halted the melee, insisted on their attention and said, “Guys, the only question you need to ask is this: right now, this moment, do I have enough?

Do I have enough? Enough love for the hour? Enough dollars for the day? Enough hope for the next stretch?

When we believe we are okay, that our life is in God’s hands and that truly, in the end, all will be well – then we are able to unclinch our fists and live God’s generosity toward others.

This past year, my hope has been to grow more profuse with my energy and money and time, more large-hearted. I’ve been given multiple opportunities to stretch into this way of living. On several occasions, I’ve blown it magnanimously; but I’ve also shined in a few places too. Even these reviews of glories and blunders teach us, for generosity always includes being generous with yourself.