Speaking of love affairs, last year Miska commissioned my friend John Blase to write a poem for me, his poetic reaction to a picture the two of us hold dear. I love the poem, as I love all John’s work. I love the picture. I love the ‘us’ that makes this holy work.

There’s more to this story, perhaps I’ll share it sometime.

WinnMiska

Holy Work

We’ve sat close together in
this strange and beautiful
providence long enough now
to know the secret to love is
more skin to skin than eye to eye.
I have felt your grief and joy
as you have felt my anger and doubt.
And we have both felt the urge
to sacrifice. to make sacred.
Some would call this mere empathy
but I find their lack of imagination
deplorable. No, our love affair stands
in this world of contradictions
with the fundamental texture
of one fiercely earned: it is palpable,
or as the Italians would say:
L’ho provato sulla mia pelle
I have experienced that on my own skin.
This alone is love’s holy work.
an even loyalty, steady and clear.

Almighty and everlasting God, you govern all things both in heaven and on earth: Mercifully hear the supplications of your people, and in our time grant us your peace

In Sunday’s collect, the Church asked me (and a number of you as well) to pray these words, this request for peace in our time. This is an urgent appeal. We are not making a dreamy, docile petition for the distant reclamation we believe will come at the end of things, when the lion lays down with the lamb and heaven and earth are finally joined as one fabulous new creation. No, we are asking for God to act now. This moment. In our time. Would God act in such a way that we’d stop killing one another in Syria and Afghanistan? Would God protect the daughters we were unable to protect last night? Would God salvage our family teetering on the brink?

The deepest scandal of Christian belief is not that we affirm the impossible truths that God has acted in Jesus Christ by fulfilling Israel’s vocation, dying on a cross, rising from the dead and forming his new, visible Body on earth via the Spirit. Rather, our outrageous scandal manifests whenever we announce that God is acting now.

Of course, this is scandal even for those of us silly enough to make such a claim. We utter these words, if we have any sense at all, with fear and trembling. We cannot pretend to presume where God will act or when God will act or if God’s actions will correlate in any way at all with what we had in mind when we suggested the whole idea. Annie Dillard was right to recommend we all wear crash helmets when we pray.

Requesting God to act in our time, on our street, in our soul, is the most ridiculous, lunatic invitation we could ever conjure. It is also the only sane hope in a world that’s proven absolutely impotent at turning itself right-side up.

This morning as the family cleared the breakfast table, Miska put her arms around me and pulled herself in close. Seth, mouth still stuffed with bagel and cream cheese, made an observation. “Puppy love.”

“No,” Miska answered (and here you’ll have to imagine the sultry Spanish accent she carried), “No, this is a long love affair.” Then, to my delight, she leaned even closer and left a sweet gift with her lips. Seth, as any 9 year old boy should, groaned and buried his face in his hands. I sat there grinning and perky, taken off guard but hoping against hope that this breakfast banter wasn’t the end of things.

There was a stretch in our marriage when a morning simply couldn’t have gone like this. There was too much ice, too many questions, too much loneliness. The first four years of our marriage had been spectacular in almost every conceivable way, but life grows and love changes – and if you don’t go along for the ride, you’ll find yourself lying in bed with a stranger.

Through a multi-year traverse, a story maybe we’ll sit down and tell fully someday, we clawed our way back to a truly shared space. Back to the long love affair. Now, we’re in the days when we make our boys squirm because of our flirtatious amore. We’re in the days when even breakfast gets exciting every now and then.

 

Jesus lost his cool a time or two, like that iconic episode tossing tables in the Temple – and there were a few terse conversations with his disciples when Jesus’ words arrived with a wallop. But for the most part, Jesus seemed to have a very long fuse. You have to have a good sense of humor to be Jesus in this crazy world.

It’s funny how often Jesus would put the brakes on a moment, interjecting an odd request or unveiling a disruptive truth, only to evoke little more than blank expressions and a few emotionless blinks of the eye. The gospels tell of several times when Jesus explicitly asked the people not to spread any stories about him, but we all know that a man holding a wild tale will bust a seam if he doesn’t get to share. St. Mark must have chuckled when he scratched this line: “but the people told all the more.”

It was his own mother for crying out loud who, at a wedding party, dismissed Jesus’ theological objections with a mere wave of her hand. The festivities were full tilt, but the hosts faced an impending embarrassment: the kegs were nearly dry. Mary came to her son, expecting a remedy, but Jesus was disinterested. “My time has not yet come,” he said, leveling a nuanced announcement of eschatological priority and salvific intent. This single line has sent theologians down a thousand trails.

Mary, however, wanted wine. She paused for perhaps a nanosecond, as a courtesy, then turned to the servants and said, “So, about the ale – Jesus will take care of it, do what he tells you.”

And Jesus didn’t seem to mind. He filled the casks to the brim — and for all those other cases, I don’t recall any time where he chastised a follower for blurting out something that was supposed to stay quiet. Jesus knows what every father and mother discovers. You do your best, and then you roll with it.

snow light over barn

The earth, O Lord, is full of your love.

The Psalmist prays this singular line fixing our attention on the center truth of the universe. Interspersed among other words describing acute distress, affliction, lies, entangling wickedness, rage and derision, this single-line prayer, in the most literal sense, grounded him.

These sparse words grounded him in God’s kind faithfulness by grounding him in the very dirt on which he knelt. The earth, goes the prayer, is full of God’s love. Not the temple. Not his friendships. Not the fulfillment of miraculous provision. Not even, in this case, Holy Scripture. But the dirt – the boulders and the pebbles and the shrubs and the miles-deep stratum of soil, rock and shale – course with the relentless love of God.

And this love of which the Psalmist speaks is defined by compassion, tenderness, a heart-rich kindness that will not let loose. The Latin word is misericordia, a tenacious love pursuing those whose hearts know too well the miseries of this world.

The ground on which we walk and live, struggle and weep, dance and make love, pulses with God’s active, tender mercy. In the truest sense, we are held up, every moment of our life, by love.

Gravette Arkansas

On a Sunday in January 1983, I dangled my legs from an orange-padded pew and listened as my dad preached ‘in view of a call’ at Parkview Baptist Church. That afternoon, I dangled my legs from the paisley-and-polyester quilted bed at the Best Western, sucking back sobs as my dad told us we would be selling our fifth-wheel trailer, stepping off the road and settling down in Waco, Texas. I didn’t know these people, and I didn’t want our life to change.

My feet now reach the floor, but this past Sunday I sat with that same church (now meeting in a different location and without the orange pews) as they honored my dad for faithfully serving as their pastor for three decades (and still counting). Even more, we celebrated fifty years since my dad took up his call to ministry. In these years, it’s impossible to say how many he’s married, how many he’s buried. How many withered hands has he held? How many prayers has he spoken, for a son to return or a daughter to miraculously recover, a bill to be paid or a family to be made whole? How many stories of tragedy and abuse has he carried? How many injustices has he sought to make right? How many times has he laid his weary bones on the bed, asking God for mercy for one of his people and maybe, if God willed it, a little mercy for himself too?

The good folks at Parkview lovingly refer to my dad as ‘Preacher,’ and anyone who’s enjoyed his ministry in these years would give him good marks. However, if I can be frank, I’ve known a number of high octane preachers — and a fair number of them were (are) scoundrels I wouldn’t trust with a $5 bill. The truth is that a father’s preaching skill, impressionable though it may be, does little for a boy waiting for his dad to come home and toss a baseball in the front yard before supper.

I will tell you, however, what matters to a son. It matters that my dad was the same man at the dinner table as he was behind the pulpit. He doesn’t own a halo and he made his fair share of mash-ups – but he wasn’t fake. Not for a minute. I don’t believe I’d be a Christian today if my dad had played the church game. It matters that my dad loved his family and stayed true to my mom – and that he was generous and loyal and kept his word. It matters that my dad said he loved me – and that I’ve never doubted that these words are true. It matters that my dad has given himself to what he believes, even when it cost him. It matters that my dad has, with his life, practiced love.

This past weekend, it struck me how much my dad’s life is intertwined with this dear place and these dear people. He knows their histories and their kids, their financial woes, their joys and terrors. Whenever he’s with us in Virginia, it annoys me how I can’t get my dad to turn off his blasted cell phone. While I still wish he would pop that piece of machinery in the suitcase for an afternoon, I understand that at least part of the reason why it’s so hard for him to step away is because he can never turn off being their pastor. He’s given so much of himself, and you can’t simply shut that down.

Thirty years ago, I didn’t want to move to Waco because I didn’t know the people, the place. But my father does. He’s spent thirty years making their stories his life’s work. And that – from a son to a father – matters.

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 insisted the whole affair was a formality offering no 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 craft our own clichés.

Years have, I believe, brought a humble measure of wisdom. Reading Wendell Berry and my Bible have added a bit more. I’ve reflected on all this with a piece for Deeper Church, if you’d care to tussle with these ideas further.

Twice in the past month, back pain has brought me low. Both times, the trigger was an extended board game with the boys, lying on the floor in an awkward position. I only refer to it as the ‘trigger’ because I refuse to believe I’ve arrived at the age where Monopoly and Settlers of Catan classify as a contact sport. With each painful onset, Miska has been kind enough to guide me through a series of yoga stretches (sun salutation, downward dog, cobra, baby cobra, camel, etc.), an exercise which brings some relief to my back but brings a whole new assault on my self-image. Miska’s too kind to laugh at a man in pain, but I know it’s all she can do to keep a straight face as I contort and grimace and massacre all the free-flowing easiness yoga seeks to create.

One minuscule suggestion, however, has stuck. “You need to protect your back,” Miska said. “Rotate your pelvis.” I’m slow on these sorts of things, so I asked clarifying questions and then made awkward attempts to implement her instructions. Miska patiently coached me through varying iterations: stiff as a board; sucking air, like Houdini bracing for a punch; finally landing on some oddly robotic waddle. “I don’t get it,” I exclaimed. “How do I rotate my pelvis?”

“Winn,” Miska said, “tighten your butt.” Amazing. That small tilt really does work wonders. We’re not going for a clinched bum, but, as Miska says, a subtle movement.

I’ve learned two things from this. The first is that being a tight ass is not, in every way, a bad thing. The second is that often it’s the slightest of movements, the smallest of gestures, the plain words and simple postures, that often bring the greatest relief and offer the most help. This is true in matters of the body but surely just as so in matters of the soul. The world may not be made new today, but a new kind of word spoken in a new kind of way can transform a moment. And if lots of moments in various spaces give birth to bursts of life, then who knows what kind of wonderful madness might happen.

Last Fall, the elderly woman who lived alone in the house on the corner of our street died. In December, the family (I assume) planted two “for sale by owner” signs in the yard. They painted the front door red and tied red bows on evergreen wreaths, hanging one wreath on each of the five windows facing the street. Overnight, a weary 1400 square foot rancher transformed into a cozy Christmas bungalow. They screen printed a five-foot wide banner in holiday colors, built a frame of PVC pipe and placed the sprawling sign right next to the sidewalk. Come Home for the Holidays it read. I was impressed with the ingenuity of these do-it-yourself realtors.

Today, as I jogged passed the unsold house, the red-bowed wreathes hung tired, limp and waiting to be packed away. The Home for the Holidays sign has come untied and half of it droops to the ground. Their scrappy push to move the house during the yuletide season did not pay off. I never noticed even a single potential buyer taking a tour.

I wonder if they regret the effort, if their plans now seem foolish. I wonder if anyone has rolled their eyes and muttered, “I told you so.” I surely hope not.

Miska has taken up a new craft this past month. She does this at least once a year, often in the fall or winter. I love this about her, the way an idea will grab her and not let her loose until she’s spent herself — the way she’ll get this wild energy, the kind a poet knows when the words are flying and most other pursuits, for a while, are lost to them. It is good to be so awake that you notice when something asks for your full attention – and it is good in those precious moments to just go with it, to say yes.

Sometimes, though, others will think you foolish. You will be told you ought be more practical or less engrossed. Sometimes you’ll even have a husband who, in a moment of absolute stupidity, will say something like this: just remember the interest will pass.

Hopefully, your husband (or wife or friend) will also (like me) receive a kick in the arse and get right-minded enough to return, hat in hand. Sorry, baby. Don’t listen to me. I’m an idiot. You go as crazy as you want with your art and your loves. You show us the way.

“From Jesus’ fulness,” says St. John, “we have all received, grace upon grace.” The truth of our world is abundance and plenty. Lies produce scarcity, miserliness and greed.

On December 26th, we set out on our Northern trek to visit my sister and her family in Michigan. As we backed out the driveway, flurries hit the windshield, and it occurred to me (with Miska’s help) that I had failed to check the weather. It turns out we were driving directly into an East Coast blizzard – meteorologists had christened the storm with a name for crying out loud. 7 hours yielded 113 miles, and we gave up in Pittsburgh with plans to regroup for a second go the next morning.

Somewhere during these travels (or was it during our 2 hour dead stop on I-70 while 4 tractor trailers were hauled off the guardrail and out of the ditch), our two boys entered a protracted dispute carrying financial implications. Miska halted the melee, insisted on their attention and said, “Guys, the only question you need to ask is this: right now, this moment, do I have enough?

Do I have enough? Enough love for the hour? Enough dollars for the day? Enough hope for the next stretch?

When we believe we are okay, that our life is in God’s hands and that truly, in the end, all will be well – then we are able to unclinch our fists and live God’s generosity toward others.

This past year, my hope has been to grow more profuse with my energy and money and time, more large-hearted. I’ve been given multiple opportunities to stretch into this way of living. On several occasions, I’ve blown it magnanimously; but I’ve also shined in a few places too. Even these reviews of glories and blunders teach us, for generosity always includes being generous with yourself.