With the boys on spring break, we returned late Saturday night from a whirlwind sprint to Arkansas and Tennessee to see family, including a new baby nephew Cooper who’s a chunk of burning love, let me tell you. Under the brilliant moon, we pulled our Subaru into the Lane and aware of how groggy and bleary-eyed we all were, I knew that in a few hours, when Sunday morning rose from the ashes, I would be the only one rousing. So I was off to church and returned home a couple hours later, Bodo’s bagels in tow.

Later in the afternoon, Wyatt, now reoriented to the land of the living, remembered what day it was. “Wait,” Wyatt said, “today’s Palm Sunday. I missed a big one.” He did, of course. But then isn’t that one of the themes of the story? Didn’t most everyone miss a big one? Didn’t most everyone miss the King of the World, the Love of the World, riding into their midst? Didn’t they miss the awful gravity of where he was heading? Didn’t they miss the treacherous path love asked him to take? Don’t we all seem to miss so much?

I miss God riding into my life on a daily basis. I live with a wonder of a woman, but half the time I’m clueless to all the grace she bears into the world. There’s two wild and brilliant and outrageous boys who live with us, and I feel true sorrow when I see how quickly the sands are pouring through the hourglass, a punch to the gut when I have a moment of clarity and reckon with the hundred ways I’m missing opportunities to chunk the tyrannical distractions and just be dad. If that weren’t enough: friendships missed; opportunities blown right past; that Japanese maple blooms with barely a glance; divine invitations unanswered.

But Jesus rode right on into their life. Jesus was not burning with wounded rage on Palm Sunday, and he (astoundingly) wasn’t bent toward fury on that Good, Dark Friday either. It is the way of humans to blunder along, to miss what’s right in front of us. And it’s the way of God to stand and wait, arms open wide, for us to recognize our foolishness and come home. And at the Cross, we find God’s waiting place, the true gathering place, where all who’ve been slow to clue in can finally say yes, can finally receive the welcome God’s been trying to give since forever.

It’s never too late to say yes to love. The opportunities we’ve missed will not ruin us; they will be overwhelmed by God’s embrace. God waits.

Last Wednesday, I sat in the North Oval Room of the University of Virginia’s Rotunda. It’s an auspicious place, one of Thomas Jefferson’s pinnacle achievements now marked as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Jefferson modeled the Rotunda after Rome’s Pantheon, explaining how it was to “represent the authority of nature and the power of reason.” One could never accuse Jefferson of underselling expectations.

I took my spot on one lonely end of a massive boardroom table that seemed to stretch all the way to DC. Around the table sat professors I admire and respect, teachers with serious academic pedigrees. In other words, nothing like me. I was there to defend my PhD dissertation. After course work and languages and a grueling year of comprehensive exams, I’ve spent two years writing about Wendell Berry’s marvelous fiction and how God’s grace shows up in the common, everyday fabric: in that rich Kentucky soil, in those rivers and hills, in those sturdy friendships, in their sorrows, in the life they make in that one unique place. My hope was to better understand Berry’s writing, but just as much, my hope was to better understand my own world and how God shows up in the unique places and people of my life.

There I was, sweating bullets, only to realize that right off the bat I’d made two unfortunate blunders. First, we set my defense date for March 15: the Ides of March. Ominous. Worse, just under the wire, I’d scratched out my heartfelt acknowledgments on the very first page of my dissertation and there, in an ill-advised flourish, I misused the word literally. I mean seriously? – literally? The abuse of this word is the bane of most every middle school grammar teacher in the English-speaking world. I didn’t have tons going for me in this context, but at least I’m supposed to be a writer. I’m supposed to understand elementary vocabulary. I felt like I was rolling into the Rotunda on my tricycle.

Thankfully, the defense went well, and I’m now done. It’s a marvelous feeling.

I’ve asked myself numerous times over the past 5 years why exactly I’ve done this. I’m not entirely sure, but at the most basic I did it because I wanted to and because Miska saw something important here as well. I remember the day when Miska, after years of batting around the crazy idea with me, said, “Winn, I think you have to do this.” That was the lynchpin.

Miska’s my best friend, my partner, the one I trust the most. Last Wednesday, on the other end of that long table, Miska sat there, observing, smiling. Every once in a while, I still hear people talk about the “self-made man.” That’s ridiculous.

 

Our house was built in 1937, and before we purchased our cottage last year, we knew the original cedar shake siding, now brittle and moldy-black, would need to be replaced. Along whole swaths, the siding is thin as onion skin and in scattered spots the woodpeckers have rap-a-tap-tapped right through, leaving a series of circles, like it’s half of a tic-tac-toe board waiting for the X’s. I soon learned that cedar siding was one of the most expensive and labor-intensive options, so I went in search of alternatives. We considered clapboard and board and batten — I even took a very short look at several cedar knockoffs (no thanks).

Knowing my dispositional inability to stroke a check without pressing for every conceivable way to cut the numbers, Miska allowed me my necessary time to roam and research. However, she just kept saying, “You know, Winn, cedar is part of this house’s character. It’s what belongs here.” I nodded politely as I showed her numerous Google images of lovely homes with all kinds of lovely siding. She appreciated each option, but repeatedly reminded me that homes, like all beautiful and sturdy things, have their own soul, a character. You have to pay attention to where you are. I heard her, even as I kept searching, kept finagling, kept downloading Google images for her to view.

As you must already know, we’re now replacing our weather-whipped siding with new cedar, culled by our neighbors to the North from their Canadian forest. Several friends who know what they are talking about encouraged us to stain the siding before installing, so Seth and I have set up in the back yard, dipping shingles in 5 gallon buckets of mocha colored oil, brushing and stacking. We haven’t done all the staining, and I won’t be doing any of the installing, but it’s felt good to participate in the restoration of this old place, to know we’re contributing to our home.

Frank, our carpenter extraordinaire, has finished one stretch. And it’s absolutely true. Cedar belongs here. It’s part of the soul of this place. It’s wonderful.

Every home, every person, every street and village, every borough, every family, every marriage and friendship and church, has a unique soul, a unique identity. And we must honor this marvelous particularity. We do great damage when we assume we can stuff everything into one basket, give it a common name, draw broad-stroke conclusions and assign some generic fix or plan for marching efficiently on. We do great damage when we compare one unique person to another unique person. There’s all kinds of beauty in the world; we want to honor each and every one.

Dear John,

Out running this morning, I sighted two big-breasted cardinals, blazing red. I wonder what it would be like to have to live up such a brazen coat of feathers? It’s not like you could ever hide or blend into the crowd. I imagine that sometimes it’s a burden, but also gives them their strut. I think all of us need a little strut.

It’s interesting you mentioned the Carver story – I just bought my first collection of Carver stories. I was surprised to find I had a hard time getting into it, but I’m sure I’ll give it another crack. I love that image of you and your crackly Baptist knees kneeling for the ashes, with Easter burning in your eyes. Whatever else happens to us, whatever sorrows we experience, whatever fears, whatever blow to our hopes or passions, that Easter burning — that hope of life breaking loose — is what keeps our heart thumping and our eyes watchful. Truth is though that every year, come January and February, that fire dwindles. I need to remember the story again. I need to be pulled out of myself. I need God. I guess that’s why we keep showing up, isn’t it? 

You know moments like Ash Wednesday get, for me, at the heart of what it is I think I’m supposed to be doing as a pastor. I stopped going to pastor’s conferences long ago and haven’t read many pastors books in quite a while. Most of the time, running into all that feels like trying to read Swahili. But standing in front of a line of friends, putting my finger on the forehead of a person I love, looking them in the eye, marking them with the cross, reminding us both of our mortality and our need for mercy and assuring us both that God’s love will carry us even through death — that calls something deep out of me. 

Ken’s dad died Saturday night, I’m not sure if you heard yet or not. I felt that one, returning to my own mother’s death. I hate death. I hate the separation. It makes me nervous sometimes when I think of the future we don’t exactly understand. I believe that our future is bound up in God’s love, and most days that’s enough for me. But I’m a man of dust and there are days when I crave more certainty about how this love I have for Miska, for Wyatt and Seth, for my friends, for this splendid world will continue. I want to have more clarity for exactly how none of it’s lost and how it goes on forever. But I find that God rarely considers that brand of certainty a high priority. I wish God would ask me my opinion on such things every once in a while.   

With you, I’m disappointed we haven’t found a home for publishing our letters yet, but I’m glad we keep writing. I’m glad it’s about friendship most of all. And sooner or later, when the time’s right, we’ll fling our stuff into the wide world, especially the other letters, the ones that otherwise won’t see the light of day. Until then we’ll work on getting Jubilee out there. I’m eager for March 22nd. I’m eager to get my hands on your finished volume. I need more Blase poetry in my life. 

 

Your Friend,
Winn

In the midst of vexing troubles, we encounter an invitation to nurture a persistent steadiness, an unflinching commitment to stick with a conviction or just cause that expands our life and calls us forward with joyful (while dogged) faithfulness and openness (a generosity toward those who are our friends as well as toward those who are not so much our friends). And in the midst of these same troubles, we encounter a temptation to feed an always-on-the-prowl fixation that, while wrapped in righteous rhetoric, camouflages a fearful heart, an angry or reactionary vengeance, a restless perfectionism, an inability to sit with ambiguities long enough to grapple with the long demands of love or the cost of our absolutist posture.

These two ways of being in the world need to be distinguished. The former is the fruit of a wide and hopeful vision. The second is an exhausting failure of our imagination, a signal we have not yet been undone by that unbounded provocateur: mercy.

As I reflect on the legacy of those who led our nation through the early decades of the civil rights struggle, I’m struck by their courage, their tenacity, their profound love, their unflinching conviction. However, I’m perhaps most amazed by their joy. I think of giants like Fannie Lou Hamer, the sharecropper who Chris Myers Ash (in his book The Senator and the Sharecropper) describes as the force “who rose to become the spiritual leader of the Mississippi Freedom Struggle.” I think of Dr. King’s bone-stirring oratory. I think of John Perkins and how his words, even now, resound with such weight and open new terrain inside me. I think of all the music those steadfast marchers sang, the haunting and hopeful melodies. Laced throughout all their appropriately sharp words, their calls to action, their naming of evil, you’ll find a swift current of joy. This was not giddy joy or easy-won joy. It was not a joy ignorant of the wrong that must be righted or the monumental work that needed to be done. But it was a real joy, a steely-eyed joy; and I believe this joy fueled their hope.

It’s normal, necessary even at times, for fear to prod us into action. When a rattler’s about to strike, a good jolt of fear gets the body moving pronto. However, we can’t (healthily) operate on fear long-term. Over time, fear leaks a poison into the soul. But joy – there’s a power large enough to fuel a life. Joy (our joy and the joy of others) opens up possibilities fear never will. Fear lures us into a shrinking circle, but joy moves us outward with boldness. Fear warps our sense of things and, like acid, eats away at our humanity and at our ability to honor the humanity of those we fear. More, fear draws absolute lines, with “the enemy” dominating our imagination. The trouble of course is that whatever or whoever we fixate on slowly shapes us. It’s one of those strange cruelties that we often become a mirror reflection of that thing or person we oppose. But joy – joy throws a massive wrench in fear’s runaway wheel. Joy helps us shed fear and move forward with abundant faith, tenacious hope and vigilant love.

No wonder our Scriptures tell us to pursue joy always.

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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