Because I’m married to Miska, I’ve become modestly conversant in the Enneagram (really only conversant enough to keep asking Miska questions like: so what is that number that does xxxx??” or this is probably my distintegrating 5-ness, huh?). I’ve gone so far as getting the daily Enneathought emailed to me, something I send directly to the trash folder on days I can’t stand another moment of introspection. And yet there are days when something will hit me square in the solar plexus, like I’ve got a big bullseye painted on my chest. Several times, the opening line will be: “Today, try to do the opposite of your personality pattern.” Well gee, thanks. 

But it’s a good word, sometimes we need to intentionally do the opposite of whatever has become too easy for us, too “natural” – only it isn’t really natural at all. It’s just the way we’ve learned to withdraw from our life, to live by inertia. It’s just too, too easy. I’m not talking about working something up or resolut-ing ourselves to death (Good God, no). I’m simply saying that our life is too marvelous to waste by collapsing into a bored sluggishness.

So New Years lands past the halfway point of Christmastide, a time when these two different accountings of time are telling us similar things: to enter our life, to pay attention, to give ourselves to these days and these people that surround us. Maybe this would be a good day, or a good week, to do something that is the opposite of what, left to our boredom or disappointment or compulsions or lethargy, we’d do. If sadness comes easy, poke at a little happiness. If we always stay on the surface to avoid the pain, ponder something a little deeper. If you always withdraw into your internal cave, ask a friend (or someone you’d like to be your friend) over for dinner. If you have a really hard time being alone, take a walk in the woods or curl up for an afternoon by the fire with a fine book. There’s joy to be had, but sometimes we have to intentionally seek it.

christmas wrapping

I planned for the Christmas of 1988 for at least 7 months. It was my senior year in high school, and I knew everything in my world would be changing. Soon, I’d leave home for college and I’d move into new orbits and of course, I’d be scraping pennies for the foreseeable future. So beginning in May, I revved up the lawnmower and went to work, cutting yards all summer and squirreling away almost every dollar. In December, I reached deep into the top drawer where, for months, I’d stashed my loot and pulled out fistfuls of greenbacks. I spread the treasure onto the floor, mouth agape. There I was, like Scrooge McDuck, rollicking in all the wealth. I counted $1250.

For the next two weeks, I went on a buying spree, intending to surprise my family (including my grandparents and Great Grandma Sparks) with the most lavish gifts on Christmas morning. I don’t remember a thing I bought, save one. At Service Merchandise, I found a combo tape player/radio deck that mounted under the kitchen cabinet, above the counter. My mom, a musical soul if ever there was one, could listen to Perry Como or the London Philharmonic while whipping up her chicken, broccoli and rice casserole or her parmesan chicken bites.

While I don’t remember most of the gifts, I remember the feeling. I remember wrapping those boxes and slipping them under the tree, so eager for everyone to catch first sight of them and wonder what in blue Christmas blazes was going on. I remember my joy at watching them unwrap their presents, the joy at doing something that felt, to a 17 year old, outrageous.

Some of us poo-poo gift-giving this time of year, and I acknowledge we’ve run amuck with our lust for more. I can only say I’m so glad I spent a summer sweating and saving, that I blew every dime I had, saying “I love you” in one grand, extravagant gesture that, for me, felt like tossing a match onto a pile of cash. And I think my mom was grateful too; she kept that tape player in the kitchen long after cassette tapes were overwhelming landfills the world over. It stayed right there until the day mom and dad said goodbye to that old house. I like to think that some days, after I was off in Colorado or South Carolina with a family of my own, that she would stop and look at that worthless pile of metal and plastic and smile and maybe put her hand to her breast and remember.

Dear John,

I told you that we had to bring down the big, old Ash in our front yard. Years ago some mortal wound pierced its mammoth trunk, and over the years since, the rot and the carpenter ants have done their business. It was a sad day when I watched the crew bring that great tree to her knees. However, yesterday was the day of joy. We were out early, Wyatt and Seth and me along with a handful of friends and neighbors. We were all wearing flannel and heaving axes and gunning a hydraulic splitter. It was grand. There’s something about having work to do, work you are responsible for, work that has defined parameters and objectives: cut the logs, split the stumps, stack the firewood. This was a mother bear of a tree, so the work’s not yet complete – but I see clearly what needs to be done and I know how, if the weather and my back holds, I’m supposed to do it. So little of my life feels this straightforward, this immediate, this grounded. I know something now I did not know when I was younger: I have to stay grounded. I have to be among the trees. I have to be under the night sky.

That’s what connects us both to folks like Kent Haruf or Wendell Berry or Mary Oliver. They are people who ground us to life, to the hard and marvelous wonder of it all. I enjoyed your letter, as always, but this one was especially educational because I learned a new word, had to look it up: hypethral (“wholly or partly open up to the sky”). Now that’s good, John. You said Mary had a “hypethral theology,” and I can imagine Ms. Mary reading that and chuckling to herself and saying, “Well, I guess so…” And like you, it was this single line from the first essay in Upstream that made me sit up straight: Attention is the beginning of devotion. If there was ever a line suited to Advent, that’s one right there.

Advent holds much allure for me because these are days that give us permission (and perhaps it would be more helpful if we heard it as a command) to stop. I’m not sure that in this helter-skelter world where most of us live so fearful of falling behind or not catching up or somehow getting steamrolled that we think we can actually just stop. In the Church especially–those of us who are supposed to really get this Advent thing–I don’t think we do a very good job of helping people stop. I wonder how many times, as a pastor, I’ve loaded stuff up on people’s weary souls rather than helping them shed the back-cracking weight. Even this idea of waiting and watching can have such a heavy, drag-yourself-through-the-finish-line posture. And on the other hand, our idea of being watchful (or waiting, or hoping) can also carry a hollow ring, evoking a limp passivity. But when Mary says that attention is the beginning of devotion, there’s teeth there. It’s a belligerent hope, but a hope-at-rest. Attention does not happen when I’m up to my eyeballs trying to furiously hack my way through life, but neither does attention happen when I’m just folding all my cards and calling it a day.

You know when attention happens? For me it happens every time I say no to the things that are not mine to do. Attention happens when I feel (as Miska says) that my “carrying capacity” has been met (and right now, I realize it is met, full tilt, time to start cooling down the engines). Attention happens on days like last Saturday, when there were two moments — one each for Wyatt and Seth when I stood back and watched them, for the very first time, take those herculean swings with an axe, determined to make splinters of that stump in front of them. I’d given them a few pointers (after I’d received instructions myself), but then there was nothing for me to do but watch. And I tell you, it was a sight to behold, those two boys of mine becoming men, unleashing their strength.

Those hours with the boys splitting wood and drinking cider were not attached to an Advent devotional, but they were Advent top to bottom. It was me being attentive to this very good life God has given me, these boys, this house, these trees. I watched and said thank you.

 

Your Friend,
Winn

Today, as we feel so unsafe, so unsure, so torn asunder, it can be difficult to imagine a different day, a different world. And yet this is precisely what the prophets do for us. The prophets do not flinch from any grim reality. Rather they point to the evil and name the ruin and insist we take our own hard look. The prophets agitate us so often and with such persistence that we find it nearly impossible to stick our fingers in our ears and hum a nursery rhyme while the world burns. And yet the prophets do more: they stand in the middle of the flames and bellow an audacious song of hope. It can be the easiest thing in the world to ignore calamity or injustice or our own sick soul. However, it may be even easier to believe that this same calamity or injustice or sick soul owns the end of the story. We need the prophets to save us from both.

So on the second week of Advent, after Isaiah has described in brutal detail Israel’s national corruption and personal ruin, we find ourselves in a vulnerable place where we see our own world, our own heart, teetering on the edge of a deep abyss. Bana Alabed, the 7 year old “Twitter girl” from Aleppo, has gone silent, her final characters sharing her fear with the troops approaching. Our marriage, enduring for years now, threatens to finally collapse under the pressure. Our job has gone south, a friendship closed off. Our national life–and the many global perils–offers so much gloom on the horizon.

And yet, as the prophets always do, Isaiah tells us we must imagine a different day, a different world. In the world Isaiah sees, the wolf becomes friendly neighbors with the lamb; the leopard stretches out (comfy as a cat being lazy in the afternoon sun) right alongside the goat; the cow munches on dinner right next to the bear (rather than being dinner for the bear); the little toddler sucking on her thumb plays at the cobra’s hole and a rosy-cheeked boy sticks his hand into the very middle of the viper’s nest. In the world Isaiah sees, there’s nothing to fear. There’s no trouble, no conflict. Everyone belongs. Everyone is welcome. Joy is everywhere.

Advent is a time when we see the world for what it is. Advent’s also a time when we begin to see the world for what it can be.

 

image: Evan Rummel

night-light-2

Well, here we are again, God. I’m supposed to feel advent-y. Instead I feel weary, a little sadness, grumpy. I’m also hungry, but of course that’s because I haven’t had breakfast yet – so I won’t load that one up on you. The nutritionist told me to make sure I eat something small first thing (maybe a little 90 calorie Yoplait or a slice of cheese), right after I get up and before I go for my run. So there’s another thing I’m supposed to be doing. Yoplait first thing and feel Advent-y. Welp, two strikes.

But here we are again, starting the story for another go round. I’m glad the story moves on whether I’m in the groove or not. I’m glad all I really have to do is get in the vicinity, just ease on to the slow moving train and hold on for the ride until (hopefully) some of the magic sets in. Oh, I know it will. Something unexpected always yanks at my heart – maybe it will be those haunting notes from the Russian State Symphony, maybe some Instagram photograph, like a quiet Nebraska cornfield dusted in white, maybe one of those moments with Miska when she says something wickedly witty and I go rolling, maybe a text from a friend with a line or two that collapses the miles between us. So really, nothing for me to do but open my eyes and move into these Advent days. And wait.

Of course, that’s the point – to wait. To open our groggy eyes (or wake up from our slumber, as St. Paul told us on Sunday) and turn our groaning bodies out toward the dark night so we can watch for the light that, soon enough, will burn away the midnight, burn into our world, into my soul. I guess I’ve actually never heard you say anywhere that I’m supposed to feel Advent – I guess that’s the kind of expectation we put on ourselves (why do we do that?). Instead, you just tell me to wake up and move closer in. I think I can handle that. I can turn up the Bulgarian National Choir. I can read a bit of old Isaiah, a bit of Merton. I can ask for you to help me today, to watch over our boys, to watch over this weary world of ours. I can invite neighbors over to split wood for all the fires that will warm us and enchant us through winter. I can try to put a few more words on the page. I can dance a little with Miska in the kitchen.

I’ll do the waiting and the watching, God, and you do the Adventing. I assume you’ll do it on your own schedule, that seems to be the way it works.

 

Dear John,

Well, you should have all the far-flung children home now, and I know you’re taking the week off. I bet you guys will see a pile of movies and eat more than a pile of food. I think one of the signs of mature friendship is taking genuine joy in your friend’s joy. I’m grinning ear to ear thinking of the swell in your chest when you woke this morning (at 4:30 or so, I imagine?) and remembered what these next few days bring. I bet even ol’ Jack had an extra spring in his step when he trotted out into the frosty cold this morning to do his business.

I always love this turn. Thanksgiving: the week of thanks. Last night, I met with a few folks who do dinner and swap stories on Sunday evenings. We usually open with the evening hours, but this week we took a cue from one of the refrains from the Psalms (“God’s steadfast love endures forever”) and prayed our own words of gratitude. Sometimes, you try this sort of thing and it feels forced. Sometimes you try it, and there’s a little there but it dies out quickly, which is fine. Last night, however, the gratitude kept coming and kept coming. I actually didn’t have much to say myself, but I soaked up all the thanks around me.

Gratitude releases something in us, I believe. It’s an important discipline. When our heart is fearful or cold or stodgy, when we feel resistant toward others or suspicious or envious, gratitude somehow shakes some of this loose – or starts to shake some of this loose. Today, I’m thankful for the Mocha Irish Cream Cake with Irish Cream frosting Miska made for my birthday. I’m thankful for two boys who kept checking in with me about my birthday, wanting to make sure I was enjoying myself and that I knew they loved me. I’m thankful for this perennial with blazing red-orange leaves that sits right outside the window where I write; yesterday the wind was whipping these fiery leaves back and forth and for a split moment, I was alarmed because I thought there were flames in front of our house. I’m thankful for Rick Bass’ Winter that I’ll be diving into soon. I’m thankful for this massive pile of wood from our downed Ash in the front yard and for how I’m going to feel like a gen-u-ine Lumberjack splitting these logs. I’m thankful I have you for a friend. I’m thankful for a handful of other friends, men and women who are dear to me and who help me stay eyes-open in this world. I’m thankful to God who gives all these good gifts and so many more.

And you know, today, I want to say how thankful I am to the folks who read our words. It’s strange sometimes putting these letters out here in the open. We write these letters to one another, but we also offer them in this place because we hope others might find them helpful or encouraging. All of us who write need folks who actually read what we offer and think it’s worth something. We need folks to buy the books and share us with their friends, folks who give us a thumbs up every now and then and tell us to keep at it. I’m thankful for those folks, and I know you are too.

So we’ll watch some of the Macy’s Parade Thursday morning, and I’ll remember my Grandma Oden and how I’d watch it with her and then when I lived far away, how I’d call her to make sure she had it on. Then we’ll suit up for the famous Collier Turkey Bowl football game, with neighbors. Then we’ll gorge ourselves on ham and stuffing and honey apple cake (no turkey for us) and say our thanks. We’ll watch a little more football, eat a little more food, say a little more thanks. It’ll be grand.

 

Your Friend,
Winn

field

Whether we find ourselves in places of crisis and despair or elation and confidence, whether we know rage or desperation or triumph or sadness or joy or debilitating fear – wherever we find ourselves, the one thing we must do, the one thing we must pursue, the one thing we must cling to is what Jesus insisted was the great, essential commandment: love. We are to love God and love our neighbor. Love upends us all, corrects us all, makes space for us all, holds out hope for us all. Love, as St. Paul says, always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

Love is not merely a means to some other end, some trite sentimental ideal that can be discarded when the stakes are high or the path impenetrable. “Love is the upmost,” Rilke wrote, “the ultimate trial and test, the work for which all other work is just preparation.” Another wise one told us that even if we gave our life defending the poor and even if we enacted monumental works of faith or courage or justice – even if we gave ourself into the martyr’s flames – if we don’t have love, we have lost the truest thing.

Of course, love, stripped of its tenacity to enact goodness and neutered of its fierceness, its staunch rejection of evil and defense of the vulnerable, isn’t really love at all. Likewise, love, separated from its open, hopeful posture for the person in front of you (even the person you staunchly dislike or disagree with or believe to be disastrously wrong) or love overwhelmed by disgust that closes the possibility for relationship or the ability to see complexity and beauty in another isn’t really love at all. Love, we’re finding out, is immensely difficult work.

Hans Urs Von Balthasar, the great Swiss theologian of the past century, wrote (and, interestingly, in the preface to one of his heady theological tomes): Lovers are the ones who know most about God; the theologian must listen to them. And I think we could also say the pastor must listen to them; the writer must listen to them, the mother, the father, the activist, the friend, the politician, the anti-politician.

We need lovers, people grounded in the gritty work of love, now – right now. We need people who refuse to buy into the lie that some moments are so dark or are careening out of control so fast that love is no longer practical. Love has never been practical. However love, modeled by the strength and tenderness of Jesus, has always been our only hope. Love never fails.

 

image: Lorenzo Scheda

ambrogio_lorenzetti_-_effects_of_good_government_on_the_city_life_detail_-_wga13488

Well, here we are. Election Eve. Many of us will limp into the polls tomorrow, perhaps some of us will cast our vote by staying home. A number of us will cast our ballot with clarity and conviction; a number of us will pull the lever with mixed feelings and a case of indigestion. I’ve been reflecting on how to think about politics as a Christian, and two moments in Scripture seem helpful to me. There were no democracies in the Bible, but there were places where God’s people received instruction in how to engage tense political environments.

The first comes from the prophet Jeremiah when he tells Israel’s exiles, those taken captive by the Babylonian Empire, that they are to “seek the peace (the shalom, the well-being) of the city.” God’s people were to use their political power, insignificant as it was, by exerting their energy and their hope and their ingenuity and their industriousness toward the flourishing of the city…of Babylon (i.e. the enemy, the folks who didn’t share their view of the world or God or much of anything; they were even the oppressors). God did not direct Israel to conquer Babylon or overwhelm Babylon but rather to seek Babylon’s good, to participate in making Babylon a thriving place, brimming with joy and fruitfulness and all kinds of very human goodness, very ordinary goodness (i.e. specific instructions were to build good houses, raise their children well, plant gardens, tend to the land, pray for Babylon’s prosperity). The Biblical vision is that whenever the saints go marching in, it’s not merely a victory for some religious tribe but good for all the people, there’s joy and welcome for everybody. Does our political posture gain its steam by dividing us, or does it genuinely seek the well-being of all our neighbors, whether we agree with them or not? Do we see enemies everywhere, or do we see fellow image bearers of God, folks we hope and pray will flourish?

The second comes from the apostle Peter where, in an even more explicitly political context (instructing Christians on how we are to “submit for the Lord’s sake to every authority instituted among men: whether to the king… [or] governors…”), Peter insists we must “honor all people.” We are to honor, to show respect for, all people. This means we refuse contempt. We refuse the temptation to degrade another person’s dignity. We remember that the core identity of each person, no matter how much we disagree with them or how destructive we believe their convictions to be, is this: beloved image bearer of God. We will resist evil where we see it. We will speak our convictions clearly and passionately. We will seek to encourage others toward the good we understand. But we will not ravage another person. We will listen and seek to understand and find ways to build bridges. Wherever bridges are, for the moment, impossible, we will bear this sadness and will let this sorrow and estrangement remind us of how broken we are, how we hope for so much more.

It strikes me how both of these postures (seeking good for everyone and honoring all people) are congruent with our call to be people of faith, hope and love. Let’s do that. On November 8th. And then every day that follows.

 

image: Ambrogio Lornzetti, “The Effects of Good Government on the City Life”

Dear John, 

I saw the photo of the three college amigos sitting on your couch, and they all looked happy. I know you and Mer were happy to have them there, though I suspect you gulped a few times when you saw the cashier ringing up the piles of food on each trip you made to King Soopers. We have that gulping experience often now with these young turks filling our house with testosterone and appetites. I, like you, am so glad to plop down the cash for groceries and sneakers and braces and burritos and jeans and deodorant (lots) and more groceries and then more sneakers followed by more groceries, Still, I am looking forward to the day when Wyatt and Seth are grown and footing the bill themselves and look back on these days and say, “I had no idea…” I’ve been looking back at my mom and dad a lot recently and thinking “I had no idea…”

Well, today’s the day the Big Tree’s coming down. It’s an ash, more than 100 years old, a real massive, regal tree. I’m sad to see it go. We never named this great tree, probably because we knew we wouldn’t have it for long and didn’t want to grow too attached. He has a twin who’s still strong and healthy, and I’ve christened the twin Stogie. Miska doesn’t like the name at all, doesn’t seem noble enough or earthy enough or something. I think we’re going to plant a Weeping Willow back near this spot, but I’ll clear the name with Miska this time. I’ve learned my lesson. Anyway, the tree crew arrived early this morning, and they are having a time out there. The guy up top, maybe 30 feet high, is cutting and whooping, and the boss man’s giving fist bumps to his compadre as they’re feeding limbs into the chipper. That chipper’s something, like Jaws just chomping and cracking those burly limbs like they’re nothing more than toothpicks. It’s good to see folks good at their work and taking such pleasure in it. 

A few hours ago, my friend Tom the master carpenter stopped by. He’s going to take a large hunk of the tree and build us a bench. This tree has been part of this property, providing joy and comfort, for more than a century, and it’s going to continue to do the same for decades more. Tom and I talked trees and carpentry, but then, as we typically do, we began to talk about life, about what we see in the world. We both see, as you mentioned, a lot of passions and a lot of fire (a lot of anger). What saddens me most about our current state of affairs is that we are losing our ability to truly hear the other. We are dividing and taking sides and building motes around our enclaves in ways that are ripping apart our common life (and I use common life in both senses: our shared life and our ordinary life – we’re destroying both). It’s like we’re all being tossed into that chipper and crushed to smithereens. I know that, at least on paper, somebody wins (elections, culture wars, theological arguments); but I don’t believe that the way we’re going about all this, anybody wins at all. We’re throwing one another, and ourselves, into these steel jaws of death grinding us down until there’s nothing left except, I guess, a mess of good mulch for starting over and growing something new. And maybe that’s the hope here, that somehow after we’ve razed things to the ground, we’ll see our folly and start to build something new, something that is really of course very, very old. I sure wish we could wake up first and not torch the whole thing. I do.    

In the meantime, though, we do things like say goodbye to good trees and make benches for sitting in the shade and thinking and welcoming friends. We give out candy to the neighborhood ghouls and minions. We wait for our children to make the journey home and we make trips to King Soopers with fat wallets that will quickly grow skinny. We write friends letters to remind one another we’re not crazy, that we believe in goodness — that we believe in this goodness very much.  

 

Your Friend,

Winn

Polling stationThe Pharisees of the New Testament have come too easily to be synonymous with “hypocrite,” which is more than a little unfair. The Pharisees were the ones who, amid an imploding world, kept the faith. And in the story Jesus told in Luke 18, the Pharisee was an upstanding fellow. He didn’t gouge his customers for profit, didn’t sneak around on his wife, didn’t do underhanded deals. His word was his bond; he was the sort of fellow you wanted as your neighbor, your business partner – heck, your pastor. The other fellow in the story, however, was a real scoundrel, a shady tax collector. He was, in the words of Robert Capon: “the worst kind of crook: a legal one, a big operator, a mafia-style enforcer…living for years on the cream he’s skimmed off other people’s milk money.” He was “a fat cat who drives a stretch limo, drinks nothing but Chivas Regal, and never shows up at a party without at least two $500-a-night call girls in tow.”

So the Pharisee was a good fellow, but as the story goes, he was so very full of himself, so very self-righteous, that he didn’t think he had any need for grace. The tax collector, however, was a wreck. He’d hit bottom and knew he was in a bad way. The Pharisee, because he was so drunk on his own goodness, spurned the grace he needed. The tax collector, because he could not keep up the charade of his own goodness, opened himself wide to let the grace pour in.

Of course, perhaps this is all humdrum and some of us are getting restless because I’ve hinted that this story might have something to say about a certain electoral engagement soon approaching. Well, there’s a word in this story that has not received appropriate attention: contempt. Jesus tells us that this Pharisee felt contempt for the tax-collector. To feel contempt is to disdain another, to regard them as nothing. To pour contempt on another is to dehumanize them, to reject their value and beauty as an image bearer of God. In Jesus’ eyes, contempt was the Pharisee’s severe brand of self-righteousness. But here’s the thing about self-righteousness: it makes us feel so good, so smart, so quick with the cutting wit; it make us feel superior, part of the right crowd, part of the righteous crowd. And yet it leads us into a dark hole. When we feed our contempt for another human, we drink deep from a bitter cup. We gulp in the soul’s poison.

There are, to be sure, many serious matters to be weighed with this election. There are issues of grave concern threatening severe consequences. We ought to think hard and promote ideas that are true and just and healing. But whatever comes on election day, if we’ve surrendered our shared humanity, we have surrender far too much. If we are people of faith and yet our political opinion evidences contempt for other women and men God dearly loves (in spite of who they’re voting for), then our faith, in this instance, has gone dead. It’s one thing to disagree with Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton or those who support them – but contempt is something entirely different. Our contempt might feel so good in the moment. It may gain us some of those coveted thumbs up on FB or knowing chuckles at the office – but contempt will destroy our souls.

We can not say we are fighting a righteous cause or a just cause if we lie about another human, if we slander another human, if we degrade another human’s dignity. The truth as we see it may be pointed, it may even sting – but if we become contemptuous, we really need to pause and look deep in our soul.