Over the past year, Miska has given our bedroom a complete makeover. First, Miska pulled out the paintbrushes, and when she told me she covered our walls with a shade called Silver Fox, I smiled. I imagined the voice of Barry White: Silver Fox, Oh yeah… Next we said goodbye to heavy furniture, replaced with small, simple pieces. We cleaned out bags of clothes, magazines, books and the trinkets you collect over 18 years and find stashed in the corners of drawers awaiting such a day as this.

My favorite touch, however, was when Miska gave both of us a new bedside table. I only wanted three things on mine: a lamp for reading, prayer beads a friend made for me and a small icon of the Good Shepherd. Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd,” and the image shows Jesus carrying this weak creature with gentleness and strength. I’m drawn to the firmness in Jesus’ eyes, as if Jesus’ says, This is my sheep, just try to come and take ’em. Scripture tells us that the Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep, that the Shepherd knows all his sheep and will never forget them. The Shepherd, Scripture says, will even leave the 99 of his flock to roam into the wild night and find that one sheep that has lost her way.

Sometimes this world, though chock full of beauty and goodness, can be a disturbing, perplexing place. What will come of us? What should we do? Will we know the right decisions to make? Will the woman next to me and the two boys snoozing a few feet away be alright, and will they live well – can I protect them? What will come of us? Will we have years ahead to love and enjoy one another, or will it all crash down, as it does for so many? Will all those friends and strangers who face ruin and despair be okay? What are we to do with all of the uncertainty? What are we to do with this one life we’re given? Why does our life sometimes feel so tenuous?

Perhaps as evening ebbs, I feel the futility of trying to grip the hours, of trying to grip my life. Perhaps I feel more vulnerable here, embracing the loneliness appropriate to moons and midnights. Perhaps this is why I wanted the Good Shepherd close, watching over me and those I love in our sleep. I cannot stay awake, but the Shepherd does. I cannot hold the world on my shoulders, but the Shepherd does.

So each night now, before I put down the book and click off the light, I look into the eyes of the Good Shepherd, and I say Thank you.

I was making myself at home. In the dark way of the world I had come to know what would be my life’s place, though I could not yet know the life I would live in it…I had come unknowing into what Burley would have called the ‘membership’ of my life. I was becoming a member of Port William. {Wendell Berry, Hannah Coulter}

More than a few years ago, ecclesiastical authorities pulled me from my seminary womb, spanked me on the butt and scribbled my name on an ordination certificate. They sent me into the world, green and ignorant but effusive with zeal. One of my enterprising ideals was to de-bunk the ossified notion of church membership. I tinkered with the possiblity that the whole affair was a formality offering little more umph than signing up for the YMCA. We wanted ‘organic community.’ We wanted to ‘authentically live life together.’ We didn’t want structures but wanted to do ‘life on life.’ Apparently, we also wanted to prop up a few clichés.

While it is true that the deepest forms of community do not require an official roll or imposed framework, there is also something about the commitment and responsibility inherent in the old ways that I too easily dismissed. The older you get, the more you realize that relationships and communities rarely happen – and are never sustained – naturally. Friendships require effort. Families require us to make difficult decisions about priorities, budgets and lifestyle. Neighborhood gardens need a plan for when folks plant seeds and pull weeds. This fact shouldn’t surprise us because it’s woven into the way of the universe. Those who are supposed to know tell me that the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics insists that most every substance left to itself degrades over time, naturally.

My life with Miska is the most natural, hand-in-the-glove, reality I know. We certainly have made a practice of life-on-life. You could even call us organic lovers if you like. But I’ll tell you – this marriage gig is work, and it requires a kind of radical commitment best represented by solemn vows spoken before God and pastor and every witness who hears us say I do.

St. Paul spoke of life in Christ’s Church as one where we are all members of one body. We’re fixed to one another. We share space and blood and history. We don’t get to walk away from one another. To do so would require a violent severing; and after, we’d only shrivel and die. This is one of the beauties of family: you don’t get to choose who your family is — and we all have to learn how to be ourselves and how to let others be themselves even when those selves are very different. Love has to take priority.

While the wise apostle helped to reform my wayward views, Wendell Berry probably helped even more. In his novels, we’re given a picture of a community bound by history and heritage and land to a particular place and story. This bond makes them who they are. The neighbors who settled in his fictitious landscape are known as “the membership of Port William.”

I wonder what would happen if rather than viewing our towns or neighborhoods merely as habitats where we plop down and pay taxes, we entered with the understanding that our mere presence means we are joining a membership, a living order intertwined with one another’s past and future. I wonder what would happen if rather than viewing our churches merely as institutions where we plop down and pay taxes, we entered with the understanding that our mere presence means we are joining a membership, a living order where bad sermons and good pot-lucks, wise pastors and grumpy pew-mates (or grumpy pastors and wise pew-mates), dry seasons and fits of joy all contribute to the long story, the long membership. This membership is not a means to some other vision; this membership is itself the good work, the beautiful narrative enacted by the gracious fusion of misfit souls. As Wendell says, “Members of Port William aren’t trying to ‘get someplace.’ They think they are someplace.”

When Hannah Coulter found herself gathered into the membership, without judgment or resistance due to her status as a late-comer, she described the grace she received. “They let me belong to them and to their place, and I needed to belong somewhere.” We all do.


image: canjosh

There are many ideas out there of what a pastor should be, and most of them make little sense to me. For many, a pastor should be primarily concerned with managerial duties, with charisma and fundraising, with crisis management or motivation or chaplain care. As I understand it, a pastor is one who lives with God and with the people, one who knows their names and carries their hurts and reminds them that God has spoken love and goodness over them. A pastor does not throw out a ceremonious prayer before big events, like the mayor tossing the first pitch on Opening Day. A pastor sits bedside in the dark hours and begs God for mercy. A pastor walks into the ruins, fully aware of her own threadbare soul, and announces wholeness.

A pastor does not only tend to the big visions, the big ideas, the big people. A pastor knows his own lowliness and walks into the ordinary places and with the ordinary people. A pastor, with a voice steady and true, hallows the ground and the rain and the marriage and the purple blooms of Spring — because this one thing we know: God gives life, and this makes every inch of life beautiful and good.

Jim Casy, Steinbeck’s broken preacher in Grapes of Wrath, knows this terrain:

“I’m gonna work in the fiel’s, in the green fiel’s, an’ I’m gonna be near to folks…Gonna learn why the folks walks in the grass, gonna hear ’em talk, gonna hear ’em sing. Gonna listen to the kids eatin’ mush. Gonna hear husban’ an’ wife a-poundin’ the mattress in the night. Gonna eat with ’em an’ learn.” His eyes were wet and shining. “Gonna lay in the grass, open an’ honest with anybody that’ll have me. Gonna cuss an’ swear an’ hear the poetry of folks talkin’. All that’s holy, all that’s what I didn’ understan’.”

Michael Ramsay, former Archbishop of Canterbury, puts it together in a sentence. “The priesthood is to be with God, with the people on your heart.” We listen to God, and we listen to Mrs. Jenkins down the street. We pray to God, and we laugh with those who are struggling to ever say a prayer. We live love, and we live it with actual people who have actual names and who live in a specific place with very particular fears and hopes and longings. Some of it annoying. Much of it mundane. All of it the stuff of pastors.


more reading: (1) an intro to Good Ol’ Words (2) Good Ol’ Words: Blessing


image: Giotto


We have friends who’ve been through the ringer the past few years, a series of mysterious health issues complicated by debilitating reactions to almost all building materials. It made their home, as well as most every home available on the market, unlivable. As a result, our friends and their kids have been gypsies, bumping from neighbor to friend to family, sometimes only for a few days at a time, trying to hold their life together as they figure out their future. They hired a builder who fitted the house with custom specs aimed at shutting out these immune system offenders. It was a grand day when the builder handed our friends the keys to their beautiful home tucked among lush trees and just above a lovely creek. We’re praying this will be a place they can, for the first time since this ordeal began, sigh deeply and lay down their bodies, lay down their lives.

Several of us gathered to bless their house. One friend brought honey from the wild bees they keep on their wooded acreage. Another friend arrived with a bouquet of wildflowers. We all brought our hopes and our prayers. We stood on the front lawn, straw strewn over the clay dirt to hold moisture for the grass that will one day cradle the dew and tickle bare feet.

I helped their two boys take a leafed twig from one of their trees in the front yard, and I pulled out a small bowl of water. “In the Bible,” I said, “water symbolizes things being cleansed, made new, and even more, water symbolizes God’s presence with us.” I told the boys to be ready to take turns, ready to dip their leaves in the water and sprinkle each room.

We read Jesus’ instructions to the disciples, how they were to speak peace over every house they entered. Then we went on a tour. Due to health concerns, our friends have to build most of their furniture, so the rooms were sparse. Sleeping bags and pillows covered the bedroom floor, and a couple boxes sat in a corner of the living room. The furnishings may have been meager, but love was full to the brim. In each room, we’d ask, So tell us about this space. Who will live here, and what will this room be used for? What do you love about it? Tell us about what you hope to happen between these walls? Answers came quick and were beautiful. Hopes of laughter and joy, of good rest, of sunshine, desire to watch the light through the large windows and listen to the sounds from their woods.

Then, in each room, one of us prayed. We blessed whoever who would sleep there or the work that would be done there. We prayed for light and love. We prayed that evil would not cross this threshold. We prayed that the windows would rattle with laughter and gladness. Perhaps my favorite moment was when Miska prayed over the laundry room. Miska’s tears took her by surprise as she blessed this place of such quotidian grace, this place where ordinary love floods in and where our grime washes away. After each blessing, one of us would say: The Lord is here. The rest of us would answer: God’s Spirit is with us.

We concluded in the large open living space, circled and holding hands. We read a blessing from John O’Donohue, a poet who knew how to bless a place, to bless a life. After finishing the work we had come to do, we lingered. There are some experiences so precious you are not prepared for them to be finished.

There are many things we’re told the church is supposed to do these days, many of which seem to actually tear at our calling to live well in our place and with our people. However, could anything be more important than moments like these, moments when we walk through family halls or down a hospital corridor or atop a mountain ridge or through a precarious transition, listening to hopes and grabbing hands and speaking a blessing. We’ve been given the sacred trust to bless the soil and the sky and the cul-de-sacs and the cancer wards and the celebrations and even, with few words and heavy souls, the places of sorrow.

As our parting gift for our friends with the new house, we left a tile with St. Francis of Assisi’s blessing, the same one we have in our home. Perhaps they will hang it near their door as Miska and I have done with ours. These words pray a prayer over all who come and all who go. Pax et bonum. Peace and goodness over all.

Language matters. God came to us as the Word. Our holy book offers us the Living Christ amid words. Words are woven into our God-crafted humanness. It’s hard to imagine how we could know ourselves or encounter our world or even begin to give ourselves to love without sharing language and symbols, without words.

This is why the Church needs poets and storytellers. We need folks who plant a disruptive seed in our imagination, who flip us topsy-turvy with their playfulness and their unguarded revelations. We need poets and preachers who brush past the cynicism, refuse fatigued dichotomies and fashion words like handcrafted dynamite. These happy subversives light the fuse and calmly set the short-wick sentence in our midst.

“That’s why we must be wordsmiths,” says Dallas Willard, “You use words to ravish people with the beauty of the kingdom.” Once words become a commodity, merely one of the tricks in our church-building bag, we wither. If words function only to help us hawk our wares, I promise you that sooner or later, no one will care. No one will ever be ravished with the beauty.

Writers are our friends here. Annie Dillard reflects how “writing is like working with wild horses…you have to go down and catch it again every morning.” To be a people of alive words is to be a people who believe that God has not gone silent, that God always has a fresh word for the beleaguered soul. In the church, our rhetoric may grow tired or cliché, but our God doesn’t.

I’m not suggesting a faddish chase for always newer, always more relevant, words – God help us, no. Rather, I’m asking if we could simply let these good, old words breathe again. Could we sit still and allow them their power? Could we sit with young king Josiah who dusted off the books of God’s Law, long forgotten? When Josiah heard the words, unfiltered, he ripped the clothes from his body. His heart thumped with fresh fire. We need the fire. We need the words.

The older I get, the more I become an advocate for church words, that peculiar language our foremothers and forefathers have passed to us. Some folks envision upgraded titles for their ecclesiastical functions (Sr. Vortex Visioneer or Missiological Brewmaster). I simply want to be known as a plain pastor – and then I want to enjoy the long, unpredictable path discovering what that word pastor might actually mean.

Many of these words sit patiently in the corner, unobtrusive, collecting dust. They are sturdy, rooted. These words know they’re not going anywhere, that sooner or later we will need them again, as we always do. Words like priest and glory, membership and doxology. Words with fire. Words that both singe and succor, if we’ll only let them burn. In the coming days, I may tinker with a handful of these good, old words, listen to them anew.

Tom Conlon, a friend and soulful songwriter, knows this terrain well. “People ask me how the music business is. I always say I have no idea. I’m not in the music business. There are older, better words – with much more of a history – for what I do. Troubadourminstrel, maybe. There are older, better words for most everything we do.”

Yes, there are.

And I have to tell you how after Tom said these words, he paused for a silence. Then added: “I hope we’ll be true to who we are.” This is what the good words do – they help us be true.



I am a pastor, which means I am often in the company of weary, disillusioned people. On any given Sunday, fatigue, loneliness and a restless disappointment are easy to spot if we care to pause from our shimmering sermons, our missional initiatives or our attempts to “love the city” long enough to love that one person and ask a basic human question: Say, where’s your heart these days?

Rarely do we ask such questions, however. These queries require a gentle posture and a slow curiosity, two practices which have fallen out of favor. These simple, genuine conversations work to see, not manage, the person before us. No agendas, no angling for how we might hoist the run amok coaster back on track. No prodding that poor, lackluster soul. Oh-so-important church work be damned, we want to know where you’re finding joy, where you’re worn thin, when’s the last time you got misty-eyed.

If we ask such things, though, the machine will likely have to idle for a bit, perhaps even lurch to a full stop. Of course, machines cannot flex with the varying seasons of the soul. But a family can. So can a friendship. The church, if it is true to its name, will refuse the allure of mechanized production (even when it promises some strained version of “success”). Rather, we will seek to be neighbors and friends. We will give as much space to leisure as we do to leadership.

Years ago, I pastored a struggling church in Denver. We had moved west for my wife Miska to attend grad school, and I’d only been on the job a couple months before coffee meetings with parishioners began to repeat the same themes. Dear people would sit across from me, speaking with tenderness so as not to wound. I’m really sorry, Winn. I like what you’re doing with the church and I appreciate the sermons, but something’s just not right here. Our family’s withering. I think we need to leave.

Each time, I found myself having the same response. You know, I think you’re right, You and your family need to find another community. It sounds like we’re weighing you down. A rouse-the-troops speech if ever there was one. A pastor of a small church only has to have this conversation a few times before the handwriting glows on the wall. Nine months later, the leadership council spoke a blessing over the church’s many years and many good stories and laid the exhaustion to rest.

I hope I never again need to preside over a community’s farewell, but that time with those good people confirmed one thing: crushing a person’s soul to save the cause is always too high a price to pay.


Photo courtesy Lars Plougmann


boy and his bass

Gregory of Nazianzus, a Church Father considered one of our finest theologians attempting to speak intelligibly of the Trinity, could only, in the end, turn to poetry in his attempts to say something (something short of heresy but something more than drivel) about this confounding mystery. Church folk and lovers (two words which should be bosom buddies) often make their way to poets and verse whenever the thing we have to say simply cannot be said in the language we’ve been given.

I wrote my wife Miska a poem one Christmas. It wasn’t high art, just tender scribbles on a page. Thank God for free verse, as my iambic pentameter goes every kind of caddywompus. Still, somehow in those simple lines I was free to say things I didn’t know how to say, free to discover truths in the writing that I didn’t yet know I knew. The form insisted that I not worry so much about explaining my love; but to simply love, to let the love seep from my heart onto the page. I don’t know how it happens. I only know it does.

Since music is poetry in motion, all of this fits (I think) with how one of my friends, Eastern Orthodox professor Vigen Guroian, talks about theology. “It has to be sung,” he says. “If you can’t sing it, it can’t be good theology.” There’s more (much more) to faith than airtight theological constructs. Good words about God, ones that catch your breath short or make your knees buckle or turn your heart and your mind to fire, have to be set free – they have to set you free. Faith needs to carry a melody, to set down a groove, to bring a little funk.

St. Pophyrios of Kavsokalyvia said, “Whoever wants to become a Christian must first become a poet.” Do not take St. Pophyrios too literally. He does not insist everyone must learn poetic craft. He’s reminding us that we must allow our soul to be moved into places deeper than bare fact. We must allow the Spirit to bring us embers, and then wait for the Spirit to blow on the embers until they sizzle and flare.

It is not sufficient to accumulate the facts. Someone’s got to sing us a song. Someone’s got to let the poetry loose. Someone’s got to bring the funk.

I’m slow on edicts these days, but here’s one I’m willing to venture: a church should not teach people to lie.

But we do.

Whenever we sift through Scripture in search of ideals, all the while missing the humanity, the struggle and the long plod toward love, we abuse the story but we also abuse the soul. No matter the clarity of our moral perceptions, we are no friend of grace whenever our pronouncements weigh people down, whenever the burden of our expectations delivers the subtle message that we must ignore or squash the realities simmering just beneath the surface. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it: “Christ did not, like an ethicist, love a theory about the good; he loved real people.” And real people come with real desires, real foibles, real fears, real longings.

When Jesus passed blind Bartimaeus on the road to Jericho, Bartimaeus cried out, “Jesus, have mercy.” I love this prayer. There are plenty of days when it’s all the prayer I can muster. Jesus stopped, looked Bartimaeus’ way and asked the plainest question: “What do you want?” Jesus did not ask Bartimaeus to identify what he should want. Jesus did not ask Bartimaeus what desire Torah would suggest. Jesus did not ask Bartimaeus to conjure an obedient word on virtue, responsibility or human sinfulness. Jesus asked what the poor fellow longed for, and then Jesus waited for the answer.

Bartimaeus’ desire was obvious; he wanted to be able to see. For most of us, however, our want lies buried under so much neglect and rubble that it’s nearly impossible to locate. Few of us know what it is we actually want, what we crave, what would make us truly giddy if it happened our way.

If we ask someone Jesus’ question: what do you want?, many of us religious folk will offer a squeaky-clean reply, something straight out of a tame Sunday School lesson. The answers are fine, but they possess all the verve of a dead fish. I want the real stuff, what makes the heart race and the energy peak and the sorrow sit heavy as lead.

Often, it would be more truthful if we said: I really want my wife to enjoy sex with me again or I want to stop puking in the toilet or I want money so I can fly the family to Italy for the summer or I want the voices to stop. If it’s true that what we really want is to land on the Times bestseller list or to be kissed like mad, why don’t we say so?

Whenever we are able to locate that first layer of our wants and desires (no matter how healthy, noble or immature they might be), we’re scratching at the truth – and then we’ve got something to work with. If we follow that longing deeper and deeper, eventually we’ll find something more potent, something more profoundly true. I’m convinced we’ll find something very near to God.

bike community

Years ago, when our boys were little, we had a small community of friends that gathered in our home for several years. One evening, our oldest (three at the time) asked, in eager expectation, whether our friends were coming over. “Yes,” I answered. “Why do you like having them here?”

My son paused only a moment. “Because they love us. And they help us fight the dragons.”

In the years previous and the years since, I’m not sure I’ve heard a better definition of friendship than this one from my three-year-old. Friends (true friends) love the person we are, not the person they imagine we are or the person we pretend to be. Friends clasp arms with us as together we swing at the darkness.

I’ve often wondered what the future will reveal about how we’ve raised our sons, how we’ve done with our hopes to help them become good men who live good lives. I wonder if our meandering efforts will prove enough to help them take their good place in this topsy-turvy world. I will tell you this, though: the friends who have been in our life (thus, the friends who have been in their lives) will play a larger role in all this than most of us imagine.

When I think about how I hope to love my sons along the path toward becoming their true selves, my mind turns to the people they are blessed to encounter. There’s Tom, the master carpenter, who takes us into his shop with the massively cool racks of hand tools and takes us for walks in the woods surrounding his land, all of which exudes presence, attentiveness and respect for craft and place. There’s Corey and Juli, who’ve loved them since the day each of them came squealing into this world. There’s Debbie who asks tender, meaningful questions, provoking care and curiosity. There’s John, the poet, who sits at the kitchen table for games of Farkle and carries delight in how our boys are full-on boys, delighting too in how they are becoming men (but not yet, not yet). There’s Raul who gives them hugs and kisses on the cheek, as he does each of us each time he arrives, then pulls out his guitar for a jam session or pulls from his days as a coffee roaster and teaches my sons the art of the single pour. These friends are merely a sample – and on top of grandparents, uncle and aunts, so much love. We have so many good people in our lives, so many gifts. So many teachers.

John Lennon said he got by with a little help from his friends. We all do.


breadking bread in denmark

Grabbing the radio nob, I nudged up the volume. The man explained how he decided to craft a hand-hewn casket, the box they would use to place his 94-year-old mom in the ground. The task would take a little time, though, because he wanted to cut each board and plane each angle himself. “A machine makes things too perfect,” he said. “That’s not life.” The funeral home agreed to hold his mother’s body, and he went to work, each cut of the saw an act of love. The son did not dally, but he did not rush. He took care with his labor, but he expected the casket to bare its blemishes without shame. The son shared a line from his credo: “I do not strive for perfect,” he explained. “I strive for fulfilling.”

I heard this story the same weekend the reader at church gave us St. Peter’s words explaining how each of us would need to “grow into our salvation.” It seemed to me these two bits of wisdom scratched at a similar truth. Pine boxes, when they’re built for the sake of love, cannot be rushed. The dead are happy to wait. In the same way, salvation (our well-being, our return to our good life in God) works on a slow, slow schedule. God, it seems, is happy to wait.

I imagine Peter amused at our self-important bluster, our fervent and so very serious spiritual disciplines, our flashes of theological indignation, our cause de jour. “Well now…” Peter says, play in his voice, “you’re ready to strip a gear.” If it’s true that we grow into our salvation, then this means we’ve got a ways yet before we get to wherever it is we’re going. The idea of growth assumes perpetual imperfection. The tomatoes and the cilantro in our raised garden beds will likely flourish in time, but wringing my hands or hovering over them with vigilant scrutiny will do nothing other than ruin my joy and provide Miska with cause to wonder if I’ve finally gone the way of the loon. I’m not aiming for apathy, but I would like to suggest at least a dose of calm the heck down.

If there’s a triumphant sin of our age, it just might be impatience. Many of us believe we exist on the razor edge where our well-being, reputation or identity always teeters in immediate jeopardy. We’ve got no margin to spare, no grace to spare. With so much at stake, we brandish this same sharp threat toward everyone we encounter. We are quick to denounce, heavy with sarcastic critique, wicked swift to pounce on someone’s blunder or poor judgment. We have so little patience with one another.

In God’s economy, however, there’s plenty of time. Time for mistakes. Time for new possibilities. Time for those zany detours that later just make you scratch your head. There’s time to accept our own foolishness as well as the foolishness of others. We have miles to go, and if we’ll allow it, love will get us there. But love is patient. And because love is patient, love is also kind.

Teilhard de Chardin suggested that to nurture gentle patience (towards ourselves and toward others), we must “accept the anxiety of feeling incomplete.” We’re all beauty-in-process. We’re all finding our way. We’re all just growing up.


*The image above is from sometime around 1929, on a rugged farm in Western Jutland, Denmark. The woman is baking bread in an oven dug into the rise of the hill. The wooden pole keeps the door shut while she watches over the bread. Slow, patient work.