I'm slow to admit it, but I'll soon cross the line where I can no longer take Wyatt and Seth simultaneously in our Collier Men wrestling scuffles. Up to now, I could easily apportion one arm to each, grip them in a head lock and sing a tune until they cried uncle. 

In addition to growing stronger and larger, they're also smarter. They have learned the power of the alliance. Wyatt likes to stay low to the ground, so he causes a diversion, grappling with me on the floor. I can still manage him, but (especially if I don't want to lose a tooth to one of his roundabout kicks) I have to pay attention. While Wyatt gets me entwined, Seth climbs atop the highest part of the couch and (with a cry lifted from Nacho Libre) hurls himself through the air in a spread-eagle tomahawk dive. A dive that ends with a bony, 8 year old knee slamming into my ribs. 

These boys are relentless. Together, they're downright scary. If I want to postpone my inevitable demise as Wrestling King, then sooner or later, I'll have to go devious and sabotage their federation. I will have to sow discord among the brethren. 

But that won't work for long. Eventually, they'll lock arms again and charge me straight-on. I'll go down in a cloud of sweat and fury. And pinned to the ground, gasping for air, I'll wear the largest grin you've ever seen.

***

Speaking of fathers and sons, I have a piece, a letter to dads, over at the Washington Post.

Men of tender courage, strong hopes and firm presence: When you see your world – and move into it – you model our God who refused to be aloof and insisted on bold, visible love. With your daily labor, you carve life from the soil of this world. Like God, you bring order from the wild chaos. You name the truth, and your love has the power to touch the deep places of our soul. You are a poet, a craftsman, a priest. You are necessary.

For the ways you take on the weight of this world – and shield others from it,

For the many times you surrender your desires for the good of family,

For your faithfulness to your marriage, in a world that knows less and less about fidelity and loyalty, less about love,

For the times when all you want to do is fling your weary bones on a couch but instead you wrestle or sit down for a tea party or toss a football,

For the moments you’ve fought to the bitter end for what you believe is true and right, even if you lost,

For those of you who bear the scars from your own father,

For those of you who have become father for another,

For sticking around,

For keeping your word,

For laughing – and for being able to laugh at yourself,

For teaching us how to tell the truth, how to say “I’m sorry” and how to cry,

We bless you.

May the God who filled Father Adam with life and who filled King David with wisdom, boldness and tenderness and who brought our Redeemer into the world to enact and demonstrate selfless love, fill you with all grace and joy today. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

My wife Miska met a friend for coffee this week. They sat at a cafe table outside while a man in a white fedora passed them, back and forth, multiple times. He would go into the barber shop next door, only to exit a few minutes later and cruise near the ladies, giving them a smile or word. The fedora man would then repeat. He was working it.

On a final pass, he paused to slide Miska a note on a yellow post-it, a note addressed to "Foxy Lady."

I'd like to punch the guy in the face. I'd also like to shake his hand.

While I suggest he raise his fedora enough to clear his vision for a good look at things such as wedding rings, I appreciate his brazen courage. I of all men understand the beauty he encountered. The poor fellow didn't stand a chance.

winn_collier_writer_charlottesville_tomato

We've thrown three more tomato plants, all heirlooms, into the planter box. In separate pots, we've added both hot and sweet peppers. I'm not sure how many years we've attempted to grow something edible, but we've yet to taste a bite. Mainly, we've tried tomatoes, but over the summers we've been plagued by fungi, blight, operator error and a two-year old Seth who (we discovered after much bafflement over our uncooperative plants) plucked every newly forming red bud and tossed them.

We have garden visions, with either raised beds cut into our backyard slope or a custom tiered planter attached to our deck. What we've managed is humbler: a small redwood box from Lowe's, two buckets, a bag of soil and much hope. I watch the growth each day, looking for signs of disease or for the groundhog who drops by every so often, sniffing and lurking. I keep the soil moist, and I've sprayed an organic solution a time or two. But let's be honest, I'm at the mercy of forces I neither master nor understand.

We've planted another garden on this same plot of dirt. Miska and I've thrown two boys into the middle of our life. We try to be generous with the love we apply, and we do have our visions of how this family, this future, plays out. But mostly, we're winging it. And watching out the back window, warding off pests best we can. But mainly praying and hoping and watching.

Sam walks our neighborhood patiently. A retired photographer, he always catches the frame and the glint, but it's only sometimes with a lens.

This morning, Sam strolled with his chocolate lab Dexter. I found myself in a conversation. When Sam's making his rounds, it's inevitable that you will share words. I asked Sam what he likes about this path, this place. I've found different ways to ask him this same question a hundred times. I ask regularly because on each occasion I receive an answer suited to that one hour. 

"What do you love about our neighborhood, Sam?"

"Today," and he paused, grin breaking. "Today, I love the mulberry trees that line the road and feed me as I walk my dog."

I like a man who eats wild berries. I like a man so filled with life's fresh, daily wonder that he can only think of the most recently plucked fruit.

Why does the journey to the calm, peaceful terrain of our soul often require the most violent encounters? When we desire authentic living and a heart of integrity, when we commit to our true self rather than the many fictitous personas, hold on. We're about to run through a buzzsaw.

We expend extravagant amounts of energy attempting to tightly manage risk, working to craft an impeccable identity and concocting safety by charting the future with us securely at the wheel. Eventually, we recognize the futility, and we take a good look at what our commitments to these illusions have cost us. We're only a shadow of our true person. And we are never at rest.

Now we have a choice. If we choose to be free, which is what it means to be true, we must be courageous. What follows will be a death of old ways and old lies. We may wail and curse and attempt to turn back, but, having tasted something more, we keep going. We want to live. And once we step into the truth and abandon the lies we've crafted, we are graced, here and there, with suprising shots of contented joy. We learn, with practice, not to grasp for this grace. But we do receive it, and we are thankful.

When Jesus said that the seed first had to die before it could live, he wasn't blowing smoke.

winn_collier_writer_bird_image

"Let the bird fly free," the old Mohawk proverb says. "If it returns, it is yours. If not, it never was." Wise words, repeated in ballads and poems and somewhere amid every junior high breakup that has ever existed. We tend to cling to this axiom when we're absolutely desparate, when we've tried every other trick in the bag and we hope that this pinnacle act of tough love will finally bring our child or career or lover or friend or blasted book we've been mud-wrestling with home.

Yesterday, as we drove through the rain, Seth pressed his nose to his window and watched. After a few minutes, he said, "Dad, you know what would be sad? If a bird flew into the storm and got pounded to the ground by the rain. Or fried by lightning."

"Yes, Seth. That would be sad."

That's the thing about those birds. Sometimes the birds we set free get chopped up in a squall or run into a line of buckshot or hook up with a revved, wide-eyed flock of party birds flying south to Cancun. And those birds aren't looking back.

If we release something, while clutching a demand for it to return, we haven't released it at all. If releasing a thing really only marks our attempt to trick someone back or to game the system, then we're merely continuing our role as the universe's control freak. To let the bird fly free means we truly let it loose. We send it with a prayer or a blessing. Our heart may stay with it. We may hope against hope that it returns. But we have said farewell. If anything changes, then that will be the first page of a new story.

For the past month, I've had bristling energy for a new book. After four years of book wasteland, I thought I was on to something. I sat back this weekend for the cold hard look. I see flashes here and there, but it's groping too much. It's flat. The words aren't true enough yet. I have to take my hands off the keyboard and let the pages fly into the waste basket and the filing cabinet. And the releasing can not be a mental maneuver to trick the creative gods into getting the juices flowing. I have to say a blessing and bit it adieux.

My fear is that the pages or ideas will never come back. I fear because I carry the misguided belief that there are a limited number of words, only a finite portion of opportunities. I'm greedy with my words, clasping them like a toddler grips his one tootsie roll. This greediness gives the surest sign that I must let it go.

* * * * 

Last month (interestingly, just about the time I hit high gear on my book), a couple birds and I were pitched in a skirmish for control of our balcony. After several vigilant days, I was the victor. However, last week I traveled out of town, and when I returned, Miska pointed out the nest as well as the bird atop looking rather coy.

The bottom line is that whether the birds are coming or going, we have precious little to say about it. We might as well stop fighting against our life. We'd do better to make peace with the birds and the people and the loss and the joy. And get on with the living. There's lots of that to do.

 

My wife the poet put beauty to paper with her recent verse. This past weekend, I asked her to recite it for me, twice. I read the piece to a few friends last night, and one friend, Raul, said, "That comes from the heart of an empowered woman." Indeed.

Amid the many lines begging to be savored, she speaks of the invitation to "hear the sound of your own laughter." To listen for someone else's laughter is to delight in them, to take pleasure in their joy and their happiness. I have a friend named Tom whose deep belly guffaw is unmistakable, and it is one of the many things I love about him. When I haven't heard Tom's raucous joy in a while, I miss it.

However, to listen for my own laughter is to take delight in my joy and happiness, to know that anyone who doesn't revel in her own joy can't truly revel in another's.  Watching for my own laughter is to refuse sour spirituality and the false religion of self-flagellation and to believe that God is kind and generous, leaning forward, ready to grin and join the fun — God eager to hear me the way I'm eager to hear Tom.

I've offered a homily to a tough crowd or two, but nothing like the stone faces Ezekiel met.

In a scene only God and Tim Burton could have dreamed up, God gives Ezekiel a vision of a wide valley knee deep in bones. Brittle corpses picked clean by the vultures and bleached white by the sun. Deader than dead. God queries Ezekiel. "Mortal," God says (and don't you love how God likes to make certain it's clear who's who), "what do you think – could these bones live again?" Ezekiel, who must have been having quite the day, gave the only sane answer. "How could I possibly say? Only you know answers like that."

So God tells Ezekiel to go preach to the dead, dry bones. I could make a too-easy wisecrack about the dry bones sitting in the pew most Sundays, but we all know there are just as many dry bones standing at the pulpit. And too many sermons that have scraped away all the mystery and imagination, leaving nothing but a carcass text and a skeleton congregation, all begging to be put out of their misery. We're all, one way or another, dry bones; and we all need the sermon Ezekiel preached. "This is what the Lord God says to you bones," Ezekiel pronounced. "Live."

Suddenly, there was a noise, "a rattling," says Ezekiel. And those bones shook off death's dust and began to knock together. Awkwardly at first, rickety. Then the toe bones connected to the foot bones. And the foot bones connected to the ankle bones. All the way up to the head bone – they all heard the word of the Lord. What a sight. A preacher could spend his whole life running on the fumes from an altar call like that.

"I will put my Spirit within you," God said. "And you shall live." Wherever we're tired to the bone or worn to the bone, whenever our heart feels like it's got nothing left but cold bones, then we listen to old Ezekiel preach the sermon that really wasn't his sermon at all. And that sermon repeats one word: Live.

If we want to hear what's on another's heart, we'll have to shut up every now and then. If we are to receive, there has to be some empty space within us that is able to receive. Miska has been studying the Enneagram, an ancient way of describing our unique gifts and seductions. Miska tells me one of my perennial temptations is to be consumed with my inner thoughts, to be so stuffed with my ideas, with myself, that there is no space for others. It is true of my narcissistic self as it is true for all of us: something has to be lost in order for something to be found.

Last week, we walked through Jesus' ascension, that odd moment where Jesus returned to the Father. The way we imagine this story, either with an abracadabra and vanishing poof or with Jesus shooting into the Galilean sky like a Tomahawk missile, it's hard to be anything other than perplexed or embarrassed about the whole event. Jesus' ascension doesn't get much play because for the life of us we can't imagine why it happened. Whatever else, we think it must have been a sad day. Jesus was here, and then he wasn't. A cruel joke to rise from the dead only to disappear again. Of course, this wasn't the disciples reaction at all. After Jesus ascended to the Father, the Scriptures tell us that the disciples returned to town filled with joy, overwhelmed with hope and possibility. 

Jesus told the disciples that it would be good for them if he departed because when he did, the Spirit would come. And the Spirit would be everywhere, in every corner, in every heart. Jesus would have to be absent in one way in order for Jesus to be present in a pervasive and powerful new way. So the disciples gathered to await Pentecost, to await this powerful gift of God's Spirit. They felt the absence, but they eagerly anticipated the new reality God would soon create. 

With the disciples, we know the absence, even as we anticipate new creation. In the Christian year, Pentecost arrives Sunday. But Pentecost also arrives every moment. The invitation of Pentecost is to allow for the absence, for the undoing, for the emptying. And then, receiving the life God brings into that void, cooperate with God by unleashing our energy toward creative life.

Absence then creation is God's tandem maneuver. Creator-God moved into the earth's formless void and, with words that drop life like seeds, spoke our very existence into being. God moved into the dark empty that was Israel's Egypt and, from that barren sand, created a home, a place of belonging. Jesus surrendered to – and then erupted out of – the vast void of death. In other words, if you are in a wasteland, do not despair. Rather, hold on to your hat and your seat because these are exactly the places where God sends the Spirit. And where the Spirit goes, life and creation erupt.

God is, if anything, a creator, sculpting new beauty out of old and discarded fragments. This is why artists have so much to teach us. This is also why all of us are, in some form, artists. 

When you give your people your Spirit, life is created,
and you renew the face of the earth.
{Psalm 104.31}