Easter God

Here’s a recent piece I wrote for Everyday Woman, Easter God.

Holy Thursday,
Winn

Lent: Into Holy Week

I have a friend who describes himself as a “planner.” Me, not so much. We both had to create similar strategic documents mapping out future plans and projections. His was 64 pages plus a bibliography. I stretched mine to 5 (and it might not have made it past two if I hadn’t cut and pasted info I already had from other places).

If I could banish one word from the English language, it would be systematic. Too much emphasis on calendars or protocol or uniformity often makes me feel stifled, trapped, locked-in. Last time Miska was away, I let the boys wear the same clothes (maybe even underwear – I don’t really remember) multiple days. I mean, why change out clothes just because of a little stink? If Seth loves his batman t-shirt, then what’s an extra day or two or three going to hurt?

Usually, if you tell me something has to be done a certain way, I’m almost certain to immediately consider that a challenge to be swiftly contradicted. In arguments with Miska (hypothetical, of course), I at times find myself in emotionally and intellectually untenable positions simply because I’ve played the devil’s advocate to the point of absurdity. But, really, who says that Spring has to follow Winter, hmmm? Who? Often, it isn’t until I find myself alone in the room with no one to argue with because Miska simply gave me that wow-you-just-did-it-again-and- in-a-half-hour-or-so-you-are-going-to-feel-really-stupid-when-you- apologize-for-this-one look and walked out.

As I’ve said, I don’t like having much of anything laid on me. Not that this is good (in fact, it often isn’t) – it’s just the truth.

However, I have grown to appreciate the imposition of the Christian calendar. Every year, in almost monotonous cycles, we move from Advent to Christmas to Epiphany to Lent to Easter to Pentecost, all the way back to Advent again. Every year. Like clockwork, literally. We don’t make it up. We don’t push it forward. The seasons come when they come. We just wait and receive them, live them (or don’t), and then watch them pass.

We can make much of the seasons, or we can make little. We can celebrate them, or we can ignore them. No matter, they come. And they go. The question for us is simply whether or not we will allow them to waken our heart, to pull us into The Grand and Mysterious Story.

Yesterday, Palm Sunday, we embarked on the journey through Holy Week. This week, we walk (if we choose to) with Jesus through his week of Passion. This week is happening, all around us. Grace and mercy and hope and repentance are happening, all around us. We may not feel it. We may barely remember amid projects or diapers or broken down cars or broken down hearts. Our sin or our confusion or our fear may gobble up every ounce of mental energy.

But all you have to do is sit down. Sit your body down. Sit your mind down. And look around you. Look with your ears. Listen with your heart.

Holy Week is happening. Jesus is marching toward his cross. The Resurrection is only days away. It is coming whether we pay attention or not. This imposition is a grace. It isn’t up to you. Or me. We have little say in the matter.

Jesus moves. Redemption comes. Whether we notice or not – that is the only piece left to us.

Hoping to notice,
Winn

Lent: Where This Time is Taking Me

We are nearing the homestretch of Lent. This has been a significant journey. Forty days – it isn’t exactly eternal, but in our instant society, forty days of anything tests our will and discipline. Really, for me, I think Lent simply tests our attention. Can I pay attention to God’s ongoing work for a stretch of days? Must I always be moving on to the next thing, the next truth, the rush, the next idea? Can I just sit and wait and hope and listen and receive?

And this is not all sour stuff. As I read this morning, one writer pointed out how the Taize Book of Common Prayer refers to Lent’s forty days as “a celebration of the joy of God’s forgiveness.” I like that.

Hear are a few things this stretch of Lent is telling me (reminds me, really):

+I am too tied to technology, particularly email. I want to shut it down more often.

+Food is intended for joy and pleasure (as well as nourishment, of course), but it can also be a way of hiding. In my youth, food (and lots of it) was one of our few acceptable vices. Now, I often run to food when I’m bored or anxious or angry or afraid. I’d rather run to God.

+God wants to heal my broken places; he really does.

+I love my wife and boys … (in the words of Dick Cheney) big time.

+Something’s up. God is stirring. God is moving. Risk and joy and life ahead.

Has Lent reminded you of any truths?

peace / Winn

Lent: Lenten Zerberts

To look at the last great self-portraits of Rembrandt or to read Pascal or hear Bach’s B-minor Mass is to know beyond the need for further evidence that if God is anywhere, he is with them, as he is also with the man behind the meat counter, the woman who scrubs floors at Roosevelt Memorial, and the high school math teacher who explains fractions to the bewildered child. Frederick Buechner

My spiritual experience goes two ways: full of mystery and complexity and utter confusion but also (and often at the same time) the most concrete, plain-as-day reality. Some days, the whole thing feels like the tangled, cuss-inducing mess of wires that hides behind the amoir housing our stereo and speakers and tv and vcr and cd player and xbox and gamecube (for the boys, of course) – just an unworkable mess that I will never make sense of. What is happening? What am I to do? What is God saying? Why is this all so dang complicated?

Other days, though, there is no mystery, no confusion. It’s simple, really. Pray a prayer. Take a walk. Kiss my wife. Call a friend. Give my son a zerbert . God is in the zerbert as much as he is in my fasting or my wrestling with a text or in my self-reflection about the state of my soul. Buechner insists we not forget: God is with the man at the meat counter too.

This week, Lent has appeared to me in simpler, plainer ways. Lent is an old word and can invoke (often, properly) a sense of introspection and mediation and somber repentance. Sometimes, though, repentance takes shape in earthier, plainer acts. Like these of the past five or six days:

+Monday morning, I got up and did Turbo Jam with my wife. If you are unfamiliar, Turbo Jam is what you would get if you took Tae Bo to a techno dance club on ladies’ night. I don’t know what the morning exercise did for my man-o-meter, but somehow, being with her that morning just felt like the thing to do.

+yesterday, I stopped working for a few minutes to play checkers with Seth. My generosity ended with my time – I did beat him. I have to get wins in now; it won’t last long.

+Miska and I went to this fabulous restaurant (O – yup, that’s the name, just O. Chic, huh?) in downtown Greenville this weekend, and I bought Miska a spring dress from Sundance. All splurges, but I just wanted to throw caution to the wind and be reckless in my love for this amazing woman.

+a time or two, when fear or shame slammed against my heart, I just shrugged my shoulders and kept strolling (perhaps channeling the spirit of Miska’s new shame-ignoring word, whatev…)

+I ordered Italian sausage pizza. I never order red meat pizza anymore (and for good reason). I won’t do this often, but this one time when the moment hit, I just looked at cholesterol and said – (that’s right) – whatev

For me, these moments were all in the spirit of Lent, surrendering to God’s reality and truth. Stepping out of my own story and into the story of the Gospel.

Lenten joy / Winn

Lent: And the Frogs Will Sing Again

There are two nights in farm life that matter the most every year: the night the frogs begin to croak and the night when the fireflies begin to mate, lighting the whole of our fields with thousands of frantically blinking lights bent on attracting one another into a reproductive orgy. The fireflies dance, usually in early May, and signal with their fervor that summer has officially begun, as far as Mother Nature is concerned. When the frogs cry, Spring has begun. Phyllis Tickle

God is doing something. I feel it in my soul, in my bones.

I recently looked – really looked – at our oldest son, Wyatt. He’s only five (five and a half, he’ll tell you), but I see in his eyes and his expression, hear in the tone of his words, the young man he is becoming. We spent Friday night at the house of friends, and one of our friends asked Wyatt what sports he was playing. Wyatt’s answer was simple, nondescript. “Soccer,” he said. But there was something in the word, the way it came out of his mouth, the way his tall body straddled the bench where he sat, that gave me a premonition, an early glance of the man he will be growing into. It was all so slight, but there are some things only a father sees.

And oh how I want to see. I want to see my son’s passion and fear and energy – and I want to call him to his courage, to his boldness, to his place in this world. And Seth, our youngest, ever bit as much. I want to see his wild dance and his mad, artistic creativity and his easily bruised heart – and I want to call him to his voice, to his dangerous tenderness, to his place in this world.

I want to see my boys. I want to call these truths out of them. And I will. By God’s mercy, I will. But it will take time. It will take patience. I will have to wade through their sin and their fear and their shame and their hesitation and their questions and their rebellion. That’s just what dads who want to give themselves to their sons do.

I also am a son. I also have sin and fear and hesitation and questions and rebellion. And my good Father, bold and generous, sees my passion and panic, my shame as well as my wild dancing, my moments of gritty courage right along with the moments I surrender my true identity and cower in the corner. And my strong Father calls me forth, calls me into newness, calls me to my true self in Jesus. But it will take time. It will take patience. That is what a Father who wants to give himself to his sons and his daughters does.

This is the beauty of Lent – it is a time for time. A long season, not a fleeting day. Over these forty days, we can see God’s slow, steady work. Often, it will not be dramatic or immediate. It will be awakening, morning after morning, to another day of sensing God birthing both fresh and old truths in our heart. It will be a steady (almost plodding at times) re-ordering ourselves, one day after the other, to how truly desperate we are for God.

As we sit in this season of repentant hope, we are purposefully reminding ourselves each day that time is necessary for God to make us into the person he intends for us to be. Lent is a season to wait, to listen, to hope for the Easter that is not yet here. This is why, in many Christian traditions, the “Alleluia” is not prayed during daily prayers. This is not yet the season for Alleluia – that is coming. Indeed, our every hope bends toward that Resurrection moment. But we are not there yet. Not yet. Now, we wait. And we let God do God’s work.

And blessedly, in these weeks when “Alleluia” is denied to me, the frogs are driven to assert it. Out of the slime and wet of our winter pond, they raise their resurrection cry: We will be again.
Phyllis Tickle

waiting peace / Winn

+Phyllis Tickle has a Lenten blog going. It’s beautiful.

Lent: An Awakened Imagination

The brain is the organ of truth; imagination the organ of reality.
{Clyde Kilby}

Many Christian disciplines – and Lent is no different – suffer from a debilitating reputation: that they are activities encouraging us to withdraw from the reality around us, ways of hiding out from the physical, lived-in world. For many of us, prayer is what we do only after we are finished doing everything we can muster. Meditation, we suppose, is for monks who cloister themselves away and who literally have nothing better to do with their time. Even communal worship takes a bit of a rap for being a way the church creates and sustains its cultural bubble.

If ever we use our spiritual practices as a way of disengagement, however, we have entirely missed the point. A constant posture of dependence on God and recognition of Jesus’ sustaining presence (which is simply another way of saying prayer) is not an afterthought, but rather the very oxygen we need to survive, to “breathe and move and have our being.” Gathering with God’s people to retell the Gospel story and to remember that Jesus is with us, redeeming and healing, offers an invitation to more deeply engage God’s work in our world, not a way of distancing ourselves from it.

This is why it is most insidious that the word imagination has become synonymous with detaching from the “real world.” Imagination suffers under the unfair indictment that it is the realm for children who have not yet grown up. However, the constant witness of our best spiritual teachers, from St. Ignatius to C.S. Lewis to Eugene Peterson, insists that the redeemed imagination is actually one of the ways we ground ourselves in real, solid, spiritual truth. Our redeemed, Christ-immersed imagination allows us to see with spiritual eyes and to hear with spiritual ears what is real, what is true, what we might miss if all we relied on was our analytical brain or our five senses. So, in Christian theology, the imagination is neither divorced from or subservient to our physical, rational realities. Rather, they all work in harmony, our whole person engaging all God has for us.

This is why, for me, Lent is a season where God uses my physical experiences to connect my heart and soul to spiritual truth. And, let me tell you, if ever I needed my heart and soul to envision and hear and obey spiritual truth, it is now.

I need to be caught up in a fuller, truer, more alive story than the one I have been living in. My mind has grown dull with shame and fear and the tyranny of a mind locked-in on all that is small and stifling, all that is in opposition to God. I need to be re-awakened. I need prodding. I am a physical being, and I need something tangible, a physical jolt, to blow a little oxygen on the embers of my soul’s imagination.

Today, I do not need a doctrine or a principal or a theological idea (all good). Today, I need the hand of God, the whisper of the Spirit. I need my brother Jesus to walk beside me. Today, I need a fresh vision of what God is doing in my heart, in my family, among my friends and my church. Today, I need to hear God tell me what he truly thinks of me. Today, I need the Spirit to allow me to see another story, a story quite different from the one the Deceiver has been peddling.

Today, this second week of Lent, I need a physical reminder that God is with me, that Jesus is all around me, that the Spirit of the Living God is the one truth-teller. I need the Word of God to again “become flesh.”

So, today, as I pray the Hours, I hear these words: Be strong and let your heart take courage, all you who wait for the Lord. And hope fills my heart. My imagination turns from my small self and hears another truth, another reality. I fast over a meal, and my physical hunger turns my attention toward my deeper craving for God’s redemption. I turn off the computer earlier than normal, and my mind (rather than being distracted by virtual realities or the constant possibility of more information) engages the very present fact that I am a father, a husband, a son of God. Here. Now. In this space. In this moment.

I want all God has for me, all God is for me in Jesus. I want my mind and my heart and my soul and my body to be fully alive, awake to my world. I pray that this Lenten season would offer me another opportunity to see Jesus do a fresh work, a fresh awakening.

It takes imagination to live in God’s world. {N.T. Wright}

hope / Winn

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

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

Creative Destruction

A while back, we got a new bedtime book at our house, 1,000 Things to Know About Animals. Giraffes and monkeys and cute little webbed feet penguins, our sons enjoy them all. However, the boys prefer the frightening creatures. Crocodiles with powerful jaws. Vampire bats with eerie eyes. Copperheads. Tarantulas. The more poisonous, the more hideous, the better.

The pictures and the fascination with all things gory prompted Seth, three at the time, to pose a troublesome question. “Why did God make scary stuff?” A conversation on the origin of evil…with a preschooler.

Growing older, however, doesn’t silence the question. A bridge collapses inMinnesota. A crisis escalates in Darfur. A region in the Middle East seems (again) like it might spiral into chaos. God, why all the “scary stuff”?

Scripture provides some clarity. God did not intend or create evil. A mutinous angel rebelled, choosing humanity and the earth as the fulcrum of his insurgency. Forced into the fray, we routinely choose the mutiny, against God. We often invite evil.

The result, however, was that evil did not remain merely in the isolated sphere of individual choices (either of angels or humans). Like a dirty needle pumping heroine into the bloodstream, this rebellion straight-lined evil into the created order. Our planet is now riddled with the foul stench. Disease. Greed. Ruin. Can anyone truthfully look at the human race and the mess we’ve made of our planet and believe our problem is merely cosmetic?

Evil is certainly not all we see in our world. Grace and beauty and kindness abound. However, everywhere we look, we see evil’s imprint. Loneliness. Deception. Abandoned children. Shattered marriages. Hungry nations. How can our sickness be healed? How can evil’s dark stain be removed?

Strangely, the Apostle Peter offers hope via a blistering, apocalyptic picture. The heavens will vaporize with an ear-splitting roar. Falling to the earth, fire will scorch the sky. The earth’s raw chemical elements will liquefy like wax dripping from a candle. “God is going to destroy everything like this…” says Peter.(II Peter 3:11)

But destruction is not the point. With God, destruction never holds center stage. God always moves toward redemption. The devastation will work to clear the brush, to remove all the malignant infection evil has cultivated. Destruction will offer a severe mercy. With power and fire and swift, final authority, God will reach into the bowels of the earth and wrench evil’s grip free, once and for all.

This cataclysmic work is not a final destruction, the earth done and finished. Far from it. The destruction breeds new life. It will be a (do we even have language for such a thing?) creative destruction. From the devastation, God will create again, refashioning the earth once considered ruined into the kind of world He wanted in the beginning. We will enjoy the wonder of “a new heaven and a new earth.”(II Peter 3:13)

On this new earth, there will be no disease, no sorrow. No one hungry. No one lonely. The lion will lay down with the lamb. Not a single hint of “scary stuff.”

peace / Winn