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The Day I Ask for Your Help

Fifteen years ago (I thought it was ten, but Miska had me do the math and bam! it’s 5 more than thought), I began my blog. For the past decade and half, most every Monday, I’ve scribbled a few words and posted them. This work has been my delight, and though some weeks the words may be lithe or fiery, other weeks they’re dinky and plain. It’s like our lives, isn’t it? Sometimes it revs; sometimes it putters. But the way forward is simply to keep moving, keep working, keep loving. Over these years I’ve slowly connected with you. Some of you are friends in the flesh. Some of you have become friends from a distance, with your emails or comments or Facebook connections. Some of you are quiet souls, but you’re there, reading. And I’m grateful.

I’ve always thought of my blog as one way that I can offer a small, simple gift to the world: a few words that I hope somehow contributes to the world’s beauty (rather than its desecration). I don’t know how well I’ve succeeded, but I’ve worked out of my desire to contribute something toward your own hope and joy. I pray that, here and there, you’ve found light and goodness in this space.

However, today is the day when I bluntly ask you to do something for me in return. Though it’s been 9 years since I’ve published a book, these longer works sit at the heart of what I have to offer as a writer. And yet, my books have received less than lackluster attention. The fine folks at Eerdmans have taken another gamble that they won’t lose their shirt on me, and they’ve published my first fiction: Love Big, Be Well: Letters to a Small-Town Church. And cue the fireworks: It’s released today. Amazon, big boys on the block as they are, actually started shipping books early, but the book is finally available nationwide today. It’s a party!

And I will not mince words: I need your help. Publishers talk about how important a writer’s “platform” is, and while there’s obvious truth to this notion, I’ve never much liked the word or the energy that surrounds it. The reality is that according to the Powers that Be, you are my platform. You are the people who (I hope) believe in my writing, find meaning in it and believe it’s worthy of being read. However, we are small in number. And I need your help especially today and then over the coming few weeks. I really don’t have any backup team; you’re it. If you think that my books should continue, then I need you to throw a little weight my way.

Here’s what you can do:

Buy the book. A straight up ask. I give away most of my words for free, but these words I need you to purchase. You can find Love Big, Be Well at Amazon, Hearts and Minds Books or your favorite local bookstore. And if possible, it helps to buy books today, as we launch it into the wide, wide world.

Consider purchasing the book as a gift for your pastor, friend, sibling, aunt (heck, your deranged neighbor who stares in your windows at night – at least it will keep him occupied for a couple evenings). It’s like $13 at Amazon (and Hearts and Minds is offering a 20% discount), and if you buy a couple copies, you get free shipping. I mean, you might as well spend the money on this Christmas gift rather than a new toe-ring for Grandma or a new fidget spinner for the cousins.

Send an email to a few of your friends who you think might be interested and tell them about the book. Lots of people are looking for new books as we move into the holidays, and most of us snag the books that people recommend to us. If you want someone else’s recommendation to pass along, you can use either of these images I’ve shared or you can tell them that some reviewers have compared it to Wendell Berry’s fiction or to Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead. Or better than all that, you can just tell them that a guy you know named Winn has written a book you think they might enjoy.

Review on Amazon, Goodreads and Barnes and Noble. Especially Amazon. The more reviews, the more people see the book; I don’t know how this magic works.

Thank you for reading, and thank you for your help.

 

 

 

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Bounty

Levi, now in his eighties, held his words with wonder and frugality, the same way he took care with those rare shiny nickels when he was a boy. There were never more than a few in his pocket, and he surrendered them only with great care. And since Levi prayed the same as he lived, Levi’s prayers were short and direct, never more than three or four sentences. Levi might express bewilderment “at the meanness of things” or ask God to grant kindness to Margie or Duke or the Simpson family as they faced their troubles; but whatever sentence or two might populate the meat of his daily petition, Levi always concluded with exactly the same affirmation: And God, we thank you for the bounty. Amen.

Bounty was a word out of favor, but Levi clung to it. It was not that Levi viewed the world through a rosy tint. God knows he’d lived through more than one man’s share of sorrows. Rather, Levi believed grace was abundant, that grace would surprise you with its persistence. Levi could not agree with modern sentiments grounded in fear, scarcity and exclusion. There was always enough faith, enough hope, enough love – even if some folks misappropriated God’s name and muddled these truths.

Levi assumed that his one-line prayer would do little to alter the stampede of popular opinion, that his prayer was likely only a protest in vain. Levi figured all this was not his concern, that God was more than salty enough to handle his own affairs. So Levi simply kept on. Levi considered this his duty, to speak this one word every day of his life: Bounty.

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Speaking to Dead Bones

Thomas noted Ezekiel’s question with peculiar attention, as he did with so many of the good book’s odd words, whenever the reading landed in the lectionary. The line’s literary quality and the apocalyptic images it evoked made the prophet’s flourish a bewildering favorite. What preacher or Hollywood producer worth their salt wouldn’t lean forward with such a prompt: Can these dead bones live? 

This time, however, there was no theological curiosity. Thomas had no energy to paint the scene in imaginative detail. He could summon no voice to scratch around the narrative with poetic spaciousness. Ever since the letter arrived in November, Thomas had descended into numbness. Only questions. No one would accuse Thomas of being one of the the chipper clergy who answered every perplexity with tidy conclusions and a flurry of rhetoric. Still, a resilience persisted in Thomas, mere stubbornness perhaps. Though he freely acknowledged that the evidence often tempted otherwise, Thomas consistently refused a surrender to the grim path. Thomas comforted others in their grief and their fear. He encouraged his parishioners and friends to borrow his faith, or their neighbor’s faith, to carry them for the next spell when their own hope flagged. But now the question settled into him with an ache. Can dead bones live?

For days, he fumbled over the text, but on Sunday only blank emptiness poured over his heart and his notes. Thomas considered calling in sick. At least once a month after the church service, Don Barber would exit the church, stopping to pump Thomas’ hand while cuing a very tired joke. “Well, Rev, I guess you’re done working for the week. That’s quite a setup if a fella can get it.” At this point, Don would pause long enough to break into a Cheshire grin before delivering the weary punchline. “I have my own fiery sermon worked up. I just might make a run at your cushy gig one of these days.”

Thomas felt a hint of pleasure at the prospect of Don receiving the call and Don hearing how today would be his moment to give it a whirl. But then Thomas knew there was no way in hades he would miss a perch on the front pew whenever Don’s decades-old harassment fizzled amid nervous laughter, awkward pauses and great beads of sweat.

What did it say about Thomas when the one bit of lightness he’d known in weeks required the image of him pumping Don’s hand at the church door, him handing Don the line he’d fantasized hundreds of times. Don’t beat yourself up, Don. I wouldn’t have the first clue what to do with one of your backhoes if I ever landed in the driver’s seat. I’m certain I’d look the fool too.

But Thomas did not make the call. He put one foot in front of the other, carrying himself and his empty notes up to the lectern. Thomas did not show up out of duty or because of an overblown sense of indispensability. He had no idea what he would say in regard to Ezekiel and the dusty bones. Thomas simply knew he needed to speak the same opening words he spoke each Sunday. Even more, Thomas knew he needed to hear the words offered to him in return.

Thomas stood behind the wooden pulpit, taking longer than usual to gaze over the half-full pews. Thomas caught the faces of friends and a couple strangers. Scattered among these rows were the ones who knew his story, as he knew theirs. In this space they blessed their dead and baptized their young. Of course, there were one or two among the number who provided steady annoyance and agitation, even as there were many who brought regular delight and laughter. This was the blessed community, wobbly as it was. This was the community that bore the one distinction that matters in times like this: Thomas could call these people his own.

Thomas watched over the worshipers until their nervous fidgeting told him he best release them from their discomfort. The Lord be with you, he said. And also with you, they answered.

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Love is a Burning Thing

Carter’s slate grey Jeep idled on the street across from the historic red brick Palmetto Plantation House. The Women’s Ivy Auxiliary beautifully restored The Palmetto, a wrap-around porch with swings and wicker ceiling fans and rockers and green ferns accenting the khaki trim. Windows, six feet high, lined the front, allowing Carter full view of candles flickering, dancing, clinking of glasses. Palmetto House was booked year round for weddings and executive shindigs, a birthday party every once in while when a spouse felt the need to impress.

But this was a wedding. The wedding Carter had imagined so many times, only he had always been the one in the tuxedo, the one saying I do, the one leaning over to whisper in Sylva’s ear, Hey, let’s bust this party. I need you all to myself. And Sylva squeezed his leg and gave him the look that let him know she was eager. At least that’s the way it always went in his head.

Carter was not wearing a tuxedo or even filling the role of guest. He was in his Jeep with Johnny Cash playing on the radio. John freakin’ Cash, he thought. Cliché. Carter thought it cruel of Sylva to invite him to the wedding. But this meant she really had gotten over him, really did believe he had moved past her too. Did she not hear him, those few years ago, when he told her he would never stop loving her? Carter hadn’t pulled himself together to make the ceremony, and now he sat glued to his seat, watching the festivities through the big windows, tears and anger and regret his only company.

But then Carter heard Johnny say that “Love is a burning thing,” and Carter found himself walking up the steps and into the great hall. The swing band paused between songs, and Carter picked up a champagne glass and a knife, ringing the two together more loudly than the traditional tap. Carter cleared his dry throat. “Hello, everybody.” He loosened his tie and coughed again. The room went silent, everyone turned Carter’s way. Sylva’s hand fell to her side. “Hey, thanks,” Carter said to the crowd, “I’d like to toast.”

“Sylva and I have been friends for a long time, since third grade. We spent most of our summers out at the quarry. I even tried to teach Sylva to fish, but it was no good. She couldn’t catch a fish if I handed it to her in a Kroger bag.”

Laughter filtered through the room. People love nostalgia and humor at moments like this.

“I didn’t care if we caught anything though. Didn’t matter. I was never really angling for a fish, but always for a kiss.” This revelation created a short, tense moment, but then the imposter in the tuxedo chuckled so everyone else chuckled too.

“I’m telling you this because I was thinking about the quarry just a bit ago. The quarry was where Sylva and I went after my dad’s funeral. I was seventeen, and I’ve never felt so lost. Sylva sat with me, for several hours, tossing rocks over the edge. We would just watch them fall, and we’d cry. Sylva’s that kind of person, a good person.”

Carter tilted his glass toward the man wearing Carter’s tuxedo. “You’ve got the real deal here. You take care of her, I mean it.” Carter lingered with those lines, like he wanted to be sure the fellow knew he meant business. Then Carter returned to his story. “Sylva said something to me that day when my heart was ripped up. ‘The love never stops,’ Sylva said, ‘The story just changes.’”

Carter raised his glass. “So I toast love that never stops, even when the story changes.” A few folks dinged their glasses and most everyone took long sips. Carter caught Sylva’s eye, the way he had so many times. He gave her the wink that was so familiar. Sylva’s smile was warm.

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Busy Living

Easter Sunday was Simon’s favorite day of the year. This was new because for most of his life, it had been Thanksgiving.

When the family was young, Thanksgiving meant laughter and stuffed bellies and football at the city park. Once the kids flew the coop, Thanksgiving provided the one time of year when everyone found their way back home. They rendezvoused at their Appalachian cabin and blew the weekend gorging on country ham and Mary’s famous yeast rolls. They sat by the fire, on the porch swings and on the lakeside dock, reading novels they’d swapped or catching up on the months they’d been apart. They picked up their decade-long Spades tournament, keeping a long-running tally on a legal pad sitting atop the fridge. No one knew what score they were playing to, nobody cared. They took meandering walks among the Hickories and the White Pines. On Saturday night, they went into town for Uncle Carter’s famous BBQ and then to The Rusty Nail for local mountain music. Thanksgiving carved out a haven of joy and simplicity.

Since Mary died, however, things were not so simple.

One might think that Simon gravitated to Easter because of the story of resurrection, the possibility that Simon might one day hold Mary again. The fact is Simon was not drawn to Easter so much because of what it said about the dead but because of what it said about the living.

The first Easter after Mary died, Simon sat in a pew toward the back corner. Mary had only been dead three weeks, and it was late Easter morning before Simon decided to actually show up for the service at St. Thomas. He didn’t want anybody telling him to say Allelulia. He didn’t want to make a joyful noise. He didn’t want to endure a boisterous homily. Jesus may have walked out of the grave, but Mary lay underneath six feet of cold dirt.

When the Reader read the Gospel text, however, Simon noticed how all the characters were running everywhere, frantic, and it amused him. Mary Magdalene running to the two disciples, then Peter sprinting off to the tomb, only to be overtaken by another disciple whose jet speed forever ensconced Peter as the brunt of Easter-sermon humor. All the running struck Simon as funny, and he chuckled, louder than he wished. Folks on nearby rows raised their heads and looked his way. The Reader seemed startled for a moment before she regained composure.

Patrick, Simon and Mary’s oldest son, had always been in a hurry, always forgetting something. At least twice a month, Patrick would leave his lunch or homework or tennis racket he needed for practice. He’d dial his mom or dad, asking them to make an emergency trip to school. Twice, when Patrick went backpacking with friends, he called Simon from the trailhead two hours away, once needing his sleeping bag and once his hiking boots. The last phone call caught Simon on a stressful weekend as a publisher’s deadline loomed. After a terse conversation, Simon slammed the phone. “What’s wrong with this kid? He busts around without a care in the world, expecting someone else to pick up his life. The boy needs to slow down, I swear…”

Mary stood at the kitchen counter, holding her tea. She watched Simon and smiled. Simon knew that look. He knew wisdom, ever so irritating in moments like this, was coming. “You know, Simon,” and Mary paused. She liked to pause when she knew she had Simon’s attention. “Patrick forgets because his life is so full, he can’t keep track of all the good things. I hope he keeps forgetting a few details as long as he possibly can. The chaos means he’s living.”

Simon did not know why the resurrection reading carried him to this memory. It must have been the chaos, the frantic running. Simon laughed, interrupting the reverent worship, receiving confused stares. Maybe Mary Magdalene and the disciples scurried about because, on that shocking morning, their life just took off without them, insisting they catch up. Maybe their circuits overloaded with all the previously unthinkable possibilities. Maybe they were invigorated with the brilliance of how much life mattered, how much their life mattered. In the first Easter story, Jesus’ grave split open, and this meant everybody needed to get moving, get busy living.

That afternoon, Simon dialed up Patrick, just to say hello and that he’d been thinking about him. Then Simon poured a dark cup of coffee, sat on his back porch as the sun warmed his face and wrote the first page of a new novel.

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Otis and the River Boys

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“Well, are you going to kiss me or leave me hurting?” Mary was close, intimately close – but moved no closer. She was not a tease, and this was not a game. This was an honest question. Mary’s fingers intertwined with Simon’s, rubbing the back of his hand with her thumb.

For a good hour, they sat under moonlight, scrunched close as the music worked its groove. Otis and the River Boys would strip a guitar clean and then, without missing a lick, slide into a soulful melody so slow and aching you knew you were in love – even if you weren’t. There was electricity between the couple, their thighs pressed tight. The surging music provided good excuse for them to lean near and whisper in the others’ ear. Are you chilly? Simon asked. Do you want another glass of wine? Can you believe what Otis just did with those chops of his? As the evening progressed, the questions came more often, his lips lingering near Mary’s ear a little longer. The music drove a hard rhythm, but it gave only a tinny dink compared to the thump in Simon’s chest.

The past three years tested their vows. They promised to stay together, to honor one another. There were days when they believed they stayed true only because of the kids, but they both knew there was really something more. They had tasted something, they had known something together. This memory, still alive, gave them enough to live on until fresh light came.

But for a long while now, all had been dark. The bankruptcy and Claire’s death pulled them asunder in ways that shocked them, ways they could not understand. They hadn’t slept together in fourteen months. Conversation was often curt, so much pain between them, so much longing, so much sadness. There are few things more lonely than a soulish intimacy that has gone cold, a desire you know like your own self – but can no longer set free.

Otis belted a tune of love and hot, long Louisiana nights. Mary watched Simon’s eyes. Simon knew this was going to be a magnificent summer.

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Mary’s Window

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Simon pushed back his flannel sheets, sat upright and gingerly tested the cold pinewood floor. His wife Mary would never have forgotten to return the rugs after a wash, particularly in these frigid months. But Mary was gone now, and Simon forgot all kinds of things.

Try as he did to grasp every lingering memory, the fruit of forty-one years, it disturbed him how easily these pieces of himself slipped away. The scent of orange, cardamom and cinnamon in the kitchen each December. The way Mary would kiss his chest in the wee hours of the night. And Simon’s truest vision – Mary in her studio, grooving to Marvin Gaye and the Commodores while she coaxed canvas to life. How Simon loved to watch her working the tunes and working the oils and brushes.

When Simon built Mary’s studio in the grove behind their two story craftsman, he designed the double french windows in the precise spot allowing him to see her from his own nook in the corner of the house where he wrote. He explained to Mary how the windows needed to go just there to catch the afternoon light, and he never confessed his ulterior motive for the architectural feature. Simon was as true a man as ever there was, but he also believed every romance needed a few fiery secrets. So for decades he watched her and he loved her.

Their marriage was indeed a romance, born of toil and tears and common love: a steamy courtship, a grey decade, children that tested their mettle, years where they feared the entire dream would crumble, and then, catching them both by surprise, a second courtship steamier than the first. The entire story was grit and passion and, to be sure, harsh days they planned to one day forget. But they were wrong. There wasn’t a single day of their life, not one – not even the darkest, to which Simon did not cling.

But now Simon was cold. And now, five days after Christmas, the house was barren again as the children and the grandchildren had returned to New Hampshire and Seattle.

Simon dressed, his standard denim shirt and Mountain Khakis. He set the coffee to brew and stoked the kindling in the fireplace. He fried two eggs and toasted an English muffin. He read a bit of Merton and a few chapters from A Place on Earth. Then Simon stood up and dampened the embers.

Steaming mug in hand, Simon walked across his backyard. The bright sun warmed his face, and the snow crunched beneath his boots. He unlocked the studio, turned up Marvin Gaye. For the next hour, Simon studied canvas after canvas. Content, Simon settled into Mary’s leather chair and peered out the french windows. It was only a moment before he began to chuckle, shaking his head. Simon had a straight line across their yard to the desk where he made his living wrangling words, a full view of his swivel chair and his shelves of books, his framed map of Yellowstone National Park. “Well, I’ll be,” Simon whispered. “I’ll be…”

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Amy’s Letter

A day or two ago, I got caught up in a flash of inspiration. These don’t come often, and when they do, you’ve got to grab that dragon and ride, ride, ride.

What started to be one thing ended up another, and lo and behold a (very) short story came to life. It shaped up as a tale about a three-ring circus, a brave letter and a woman who calls it like she sees it. The story starts like this:

Fred and Amy were neighbors on Rural Route 28. Their mailboxes shared a weathered post at the end of the gravel lane. This seemed fitting since their families also shared a weathered pew at Zion Presbyterian Church. Fred and Amy, along with Stan the tire salesman and Robert the county’s public defender, made up Zion’s Pastoral Search Committee. Though a thankless job, their assignment did mean that every Thursday night, they’d sit in the church’s empty manse, drink Folgers and have a few minutes to shoot the shit. Then they’d return to the pile of resumes that supposedly represented the last hope for their beleaguered flock. (read on)

I wrote this for a friend, but I’ve discovered it was even more for me. This story gets at some of my deepest frustrations with the predicament we find ourselves in – but also it gets at my grandest hopes for I what I mean when I use the word pastor. I’d be pleased to share it with you.

Oh – and may I add: if you have a pastor, go easy on ’em, chances are they’re getting their teeth kicked in at least a couple times a month. And if you have a good pastor, tell ’em so. They may not act like your gratitude matters, but I absolutely promise you that it does.

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Grace from Strange Cups

winn_collier_writer_fiction_dinerThe dingy bronze bell on the front door jingled, same as when each hungry soul stepped into The Coffee Cup. It was 7 a.m. on Friday, which meant everyone knew the bell rang for Thomas McCann. Most weekdays, you’d find Thomas on his farm. Each Sunday morning, you’d find him behind the pulpit at Mt. Carmel Presbyterian. Every Friday at 7, the Coffee Cup was his parish. McCann walked effortlessly from one stretch of soil to another.

“Morning, Tom.” Eustace was always the first to greet. Eustace was something like the Cup’s mayor, the first to welcome each new dignitary that graced the doors, the first to ask about someone who’d been sick or about the new grand baby, the first to play the peacemaker when Fin and Paul’s political conversations overheated. After Eustace’s “morning,” echoes arrived from round the room.

This was one of Thomas’ cherished moments, partly why he hadn’t missed in seventeen years. Thomas loved the lingering stillness before a sermon, those seconds after he said, “Let’s pray.” He always allowed the quiet to go longer than most preferred. Thomas loved when he placed the bread in the hand of the one receiving the Eucharist. He’d close the communicant’s hand over the bread and hold it for a few seconds, taking care to catch her eye. Thomas loved each night in bed when his wife Ivy read poetry to him before sleep. And Thomas loved this familiar chorus saying hello every Friday.

McCann sat down, and Sharon, matron of the Cup, slid a coffee and two creams in front of him. Then the plate with fried eggs, biscuits and a side of oatmeal and brown sugar.

Like clockwork, Fin began. “Rev, whatcha been doing all week?”

McCann knew the script, played along. “Just tending to my gardens.”

“Must be nice,” Fin said, “getting paid for Sundays with the rest of the time off.”

Thomas smiled and chuckled. “Well, somebody’s got to have the gig. Might as well be me.”

Fin had three or four regular lines he liked to run at McCann. Another ended with the tag about why he never went to a party with Baptists or Presbyterians: Baptists were no fun because they didn’t drink, and Presbyterians were no fun because they didn’t laugh. McCann would smile and say, “Fin, you need to find yourself some new parties.”

Fin was cantankerous about most things, about politicians and weather, about big corporations and little league umpires. He was most cantankerous about religion.

Several years ago, Thomas asked Fin why he bothered going to church when it irritated him so. “You got me wrong, Rev. I let off steam with you because I figure you can handle a little steam.”

Fin drained his black coffee, considering his next words. “I don’t like what lots of folks have done with the church, that’s for damn sure. But where else would I find someone to say peace to me when I enter the doors and someone to bless me before I leave? Who else would serve me that bread and wine? Who else would listen to my bitchin’ and know there’s something good underneath?”

Thomas had no words. He wiped his wet eyes. “Thank you, Fin. Thank you.”

 

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Mulberry Trees

Sam walks our neighborhood patiently. A retired photographer, he always catches the frame and the glint, but only sometimes with a lens.

This morning, Sam strolled with his chocolate lab Dexter. I found myself in a conversation. When Sam’s making his rounds, it’s inevitable that you will share words. I asked Sam what he likes about this path, this place. I’ve found different ways to ask him this same question a hundred times. I ask regularly because on each occasion I receive an answer suited to that one hour.

“What do you love about our neighborhood, Sam?”

“Today,” and he paused, grin breaking. “Today, I love the mulberry trees that line the road and feed me as I walk my dog.”

I like a man who eats wild berries. I like a man so filled with life’s fresh, daily wonder that he can only think of the most recently plucked fruit.