I was supposed to be at the beach today, feet buried in the cool sand and nose buried in the first of several good books. Wyatt and Seth riding the wild waves on their boogie boards and digging for hermit crabs. Miska breathing the air that has, for her entire life, provided balm to her soul. However…

Saturday morning, we loaded the car and began our 6 hour trek to the Atlantic Ocean. Though I’m more of a mountain man, I always look forward to the space and the beauty and the laughter — but the rest of the family, now they have a love affair with the beach. Miska actually has some mystical connection with the waves and sand. I’d attempt to explain it to you, but I don’t quite understand it myself. Her heart awakens, and her soul quiets. She hears things out on those sun-drenched shorelines. I’ll just have to leave it at that. All summer, we’ve been gearing for this week. You can imagine an 8 and 10 year old’s revved up energy, asking at regular intervals how much further?, how much further?, how much further?

We pulled into the driveway of the beach house and folded out of the vehicle, breathing our first salt air. We grabbed a load of gear and stepped into the house. To my horror, luggage and groceries filled the living room and kitchen. Everywhere, I saw all the things you’d expect to see from a family of happy vacationers just unloading into their beach house for the week, all the things we were just beginning to unload ourselves. No one was there. I suspect they were dipping their feet in the water and getting the lay of things.

We quickly exited and stood in front of our car, shell-shocked. I pulled out my phone and searched quickly for old emails. The short of it is that I made a dad-sized snafu. I had us down for the beach on July 28th. However, we are supposed to be there August 4th.

I don’t exactly remember, but Miska tells me I had to walk away from them for a minute in order to “gather my strength for enduring the weight of the family’s crushing disappointment.” If you know us Colliers, you know we never pass on a good existential crisis. If we see the ship sailing toward tragedy, heartache or impending drama, we don’t attempt to outmaneuver. We point straight ahead and raise the sails.

I walked back to the trio-in-mourning and told them I’d made a big, fat hairy mistake and that we were going to have to drive back to Charlottesville. Miska put on a brave face, but she was entirely deflated. Wyatt, true to form, had a barrage of frenzied questions, searching for some other resolution. Seth looked at me as though I’d just drowned his puppy.

We piled back in the car, and though I risk cliché, I can only describe my emotions this way: I wanted to cry. Of course, many have far greater difficulties than our luxury of having the option of a beach vacation to begin with, screwed up or not. But these days are important to my boys. They’re vital to my wife. We’d saved and skimped and held out through a weary season with the joy of this week in sight. Joy is an essential thing. And as we started re-tracing the road back home, there was little joy in our Honda.

Insult to injury is the $150 I blew for a trip that yielded nothing more than miles on the car and a story my boys will one day tell their own family on their own road trip. A royal, epic fail.

The sky grew dark. A rain storm moved in. Gloom settled around, and inside, our vehicle. The wipers fought against water, and my eyes did too. I felt shame over my forgetfulness. I felt foolish for dropping the ball. I have always hated disappointing people, and now I was knee-deep. I knew we would be okay. Life was not over. I don’t want to over-dramatize. But neither do I want to slough this blunder off for less than it was. We were sad, and I made us sad.

A little ways down the road, night now covering the lightning-illumined sky, Miska put her hand on mine. “Grace,” she said. She squeezed my hand, and I knew the words she had no need to speak: be kind to yourself. Some men have women who would use this occasion as arsenal for many a war to come. My wife is not one of those women. At the moment where she could easily castigate me (and with good cause), she squeezed my hand as we drove together through the dark rain.

The boys have learned Miska’s grace. Wyatt said, “Dad, it’s okay. This way, I get to stay up past midnight, and we get to eat out for dinner.” Seth, who needs to suck the marrow out of any tragedy, took a tad longer; but yesterday he walked up behind me to deliver a massive hug — and at various points throughout the day, he repeated: “Dad, thanks for everything you do for us.”

The good news is we’ve rearranged schedules so we will cue the trip again come Saturday. The better news is that grace came to me from the woman and the two boys who have long been, to my soul, God’s truest sacraments.

 

We dropped the boys off for summer camp, and I half wanted an invite to stay. Just after the entrance, we passed a paintball course and the archery range. Once we parked, I sighted a massive water slide and a 15 foot high platform from which you would jump, drop onto a wide rubber launch pad called “the blob” and then catapult into the water. Rock climbing wall, skate ramp, zip line. Mercy.

Before leaving, I noticed a small hut, painted funky blue, near the lake’s edge. Scribbled across the front, in psychedelic scrawl, was the shanty’s name: The Sugar Shack. I like the whole bohemian motif, but my boys first time away from any part of our family circle would be a week mixing it with young beauties at a place that has a spot, next to the lake no less, dubbed The Sugar Shack. Mercy.

Miska and I were undeterred, however. We were crossing our own threshold – that blessed (and for years now, entirely unfathomable) moment where we get a second taste of what life was like when there were two, not four, in the clan. The week would be all for pleasure: good books, vineyards, local culinary spots we’ve wanted to try, late mornings with premium coffee. I overheard Miska humorously describe our plans to a friend: “We’re going to pull down the shades and descend into hedonistic revelry.” Now those are words that would make any husband perk up. Our own sugar shack. Mercy.

Wyatt and Seth loved camp, everything about it. Yesterday, they regaled me with energetic tales of the Shack. It was amazing, profound, eye-opening. They had no idea what they’d been missing, and they were certain life would never be the same. I braced for the details: Apparently, The Sugar Shack serves snow cones with any variation of the available 50 flavors of syrup, all for 50¢.

Mercy.

Every summer – and every marriage – needs a place called The Sugar Shack.

Two stories jolted me this weekend. One from Aurora, Colorado and one from the dusty village of Bethany. The two, I believe, need to be heard together.

In the story of Lazarus, Jesus’ competing emotions give us pause. As Jesus arrived in Bethany and encountered two heartbroken sisters, both Jesus’ friends, John tells us that Jesus grew angry. Modern translations, perhaps uncomfortable with this seemingly ill-timed flash of temper, tone down the language. The NIV says Jesus “was deeply moved in spirit and troubled.” However, the text says Jesus was angry, and the Greek word used carries the imagery of a horse, with flaring nostrils, fighting against its bridle. The word fits well describing a bar room brawl, but how does it possibly fit the Son of Compassion who has arrived late to his friend’s bedside, the friend now entombed? How does anger fit a moment when Jesus greets a sister in convulsive tears?

But anger was only one emotion Jesus revealed. Mary asked Jesus to follow her to Lazarus’ burial spot. Jesus had arrived too late to intervene, but at least now he could pay his respects. After great tragedy, all we’re able to do is make peace with loss, gather the broken shards and make the best of whatever follows. A pastor from a church only minutes from the theater where the shooting occurred in Aurora this weekend gave a humbled, grieving response: “I don’t have any answers. I can only listen and hug.” Every pastor I know has echoed these words. I hate these words. They show my utter helplessness.

Sometimes, though, this is all that is left for us to do: bury the dead. To say goodbye. To pray against all odds that this won’t be that final dreaded straw, that our faith won’t finally fail, that hope will come again.

But anger, we’ve said, was only one emotion Jesus showed us. After Mary invited Jesus to Lazarus’ tomb, the Scripture simply says, “Jesus wept.” The floodgates opened, and the water poured. Jesus was not taken aback by the fact of his friend’s death. Earlier in the narrative, Jesus pointedly told his disciples that Lazarus had died. Rather, Jesus buckled under the weight of the sisters’ grief and the pain of a world so far from Eden. Jesus entered the sorrow of weeping Mary and burdened Martha and dead Lazarus. Jesus was angry at loss, so angry that he wept. And then so angry that he stared down death and told Lazarus to walk out of his tomb.

Anyone who says God takes pleasure in death and destruction (and I still shake my head when some say such idiotic things) needs to read their Bible better. God does not cause evil, but (to our frustration and bewilderment) neither does God always stop evil. God, in Jesus, does something far more scandalous, far more bewildering: God enters the very places overwhelmed with evil. A tomb, for instance. And a cross. In a theater where a madman unloads his firepower. In a hospital ward. In your heart, and mine. God grows angry. And God weeps.

And God promises to one day entirely overwhelm death. May it be so.

I do not believe in dour Christianity. Following Jesus surely means we are to surrender all we possess to the God who reigns Almighty. However, we’re dealing here with the one who, as St. Paul says, became poor so we might be made rich. The eternal tale of pauper to prince.

I do believe in a faith of raucous joy. I believe in the God who instructed Israel to an annual tithe solely for the purpose of funding a flamboyant party. I believe in a God who invites us, each week, to a feast of wine and bread. I believe in a God who laughs and who, every now and then, pokes us until we can no longer stay grim but instead succumb to the Holy Jester and let loose a ripping guffaw.

God is not sparse or frugal. God lavishes abundance. While we are right to resist rampant consumerism, let us not make the tragic mistake of replacing it with the faith of miserly prudes. While we are right to join the poor, let us always arrive singing of how our God owns the cattle on a thousand hills, which in our day must at least include a few city blocks housing fine restaurants that know how to lay a dandy spread and how to rearrange the tables so dancing and music can pour into the night.

Whatever our take on matters of economy and Christian discipline, let us never forget to laugh. And party.

I’ve lost my wedding band. Three times. The first mishap occurred during a volleyball game, my ring flying off my hand during a vigorous block. Friends dropped on all fours and scoured the ground, retrieving the ring from the grass within minutes.

A few years later, we were traveling I-40 and stopped in Jackson, Tennessee to clean up puke from two boys who were cycling through their second round of the virus from Hades. In a moment of exasperation, I flung my arm in the air. The ring sailed off my hand, hitting the asphalt with a metallic ding, bouncing and then rolling down the black top. Catching an incline, the ring gathered steam, and before I could catch up, it dropped over the edge of a drainage grate, down with the muck and out of reach. An hour or two later, several kind men from Jackson’s traffic department arrived, wrenched the grate from the concrete and fished out my tarnished band.

In 2007, my good luck ran out. I spent much of the day tending to our yard, and it wasn’t until showering that I recognized my ring missing. Our friend Michael arrived with his metal detector, revved to have a real live emergency requiring his machinery. Salvaging a man’s token of eternal love provides purpose more noble than unearthing bottle caps or buffalo nickels at the beach. Unfortunately, after a few disappointing hours, the ring was pronounced truly gone.

I planned to save for a replacement, but the following year Miska had an alternate idea. For her thirty-fifth birthday, Miska wanted a second tattoo. Only, for this occasion, she wanted me to join her, and she suggested an inked wedding band. Surely you’d know I’m not the tat type, but what man could say no to such a request? I’m a romantic, and if I’m ever to have permanent markings etched on my body, it would be for the purpose of permanently declaring my love for Miska my fidelity to the vow of marriage.

People often remark on my ring. Clerks at checkout lines point it out, and friends are curious if it hurt and how I found the design. A couple of years ago, at a hotel in Denver, the concierge ogled over the tattoo. He grew animated, peppering me with questions. When I told him it was my wedding band, his face contorted. He took a step back, with a look of disgust, like I’d just greeted him with a Heil, mein Führer! 

“Why would you ever do a thing like that?” A rebuke, not a question. “What will you do when you don’t want to be married to her anymore?”

It took me a moment to make sure I heard him correctly. Regaining my footing, I said, “You may be missing the point.” I took my room key and headed for the elevator.

There’s a reason why I searched like mad for that missing ring those three times, and it had to do with much more than dollars. There’s a reason why my hand felt bare, and my heart a little too, those stretch of months with no ring to call my own. Few would be foolish enough to say it doesn’t matter, it’s just a symbol. Wearing that ring is itself a way of being faithful, a way of renewing your vow every time you slip it on. When a man removes his ring before he steps into a bar, this act, with no further hanky panky required, carries the treachery of betrayal.

True symbols allow us to participate in whatever reality they symbolize. We are physical people in a physical world, and God has gifted us with physical encounters, mysterious symbols that welcome us to participate in tangible grace. Much of the church knows them as sacraments. When I am buried in water, grace covers me head to toe. When I drink wine and eat bread, Jesus feeds me and sustains me.

I couldn’t tell you precisely why or how this is so. But then neither could I tell you exactly why my inked ring renews my marriage covenant or why I wanted to tag that clerk on the jaw for playing loose with my promise.

Whatever difficult place your labor takes you this day, whatever energy you exert, whether you conclude with a toast or the end is merely the moment you lose your grip, may you receive these words in your bosom. Whether your great challenge is a child in need, a marriage in shambles, a job out of reach or a faith wearing thin, may these words lodge in your soul. Whether your day is arduous and vexing or simply another opportunity to gratefully recount God as your life and the giver of all good things, may this blessing find its home in you.

O God of peace, who has taught us that in returning and rest we will be saved, in quietness and in confidence will be our strength; By the might of your Spirit lift us, we pray, to your presence, where we may be still and know that you are God; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.*

 

*from the Book of Common Prayer, adapted from Isaiah 30:15

winn_collier_writer_fiction_dinerThe dingy bronze bell on the front door jingled, same as it did for each hungry soul who stepped into The Coffee Cup. It was 7 a.m. on Friday, which meant everyone knew the bell rang for Thomas McCann. Most weekdays, you’d find Thomas on his farm. Each Sunday morning, you’d find him behind the pulpit at Mt. Carmel Presbyterian. Every Friday at 7, the Coffee Cup was his parish. McCann walked effortlessly from one stretch of soil to another.

“Morning, Tom.” Eustace was always the first to greet. Eustace was something like the Cup’s mayor, the first to welcome each new dignitary that graced the doors, the first to ask about someone who’d been sick or about the new grand baby, the first to play the peacemaker when Fin and Paul’s political conversations overheated. After Eustace’s “morning,” echoes arrived from round the room.

This was one of Thomas’ cherished moments, partly why he hadn’t missed in seventeen years. Thomas loved the lingering stillness before a sermon, those seconds after he said, “Let’s pray.” He always allowed the quiet to go longer than most preferred. Thomas loved when he placed the bread in the hand of the one receiving the Eucharist. He’d close the communicant’s hand over the bread and hold it for a few seconds, taking care to catch her eye. Thomas loved each night in bed when his wife Ivy read poetry to him before sleep. And Thomas loved the familiar chorus saying hello every Friday.

McCann sat down, and Sharon, matron of the Cup, slid a coffee and two creams in front of him. Then the plate with fried eggs, biscuits and a side of oatmeal with brown sugar.

Like clockwork, Fin began. “Rev, whatcha been doing all week?”

McCann knew the script, played along. “Just tending to my gardens.”

“Must be nice,” Fin said, “getting paid for Sundays with the rest of the time off.”

Thomas smiled and chuckled. “Well, somebody’s got to have the gig. Might as well be me.”

Fin had three or four regular lines he liked to run at McCann. Another ended with the tag about why he never went to a party with Baptists or Presbyterians: Baptists were no fun because they didn’t drink, and Presbyterians were no fun because they didn’t laugh. McCann would smile and say, “Fin, you need to find yourself some new parties.”

Fin was cantankerous about most things, about politicians and weather, about big corporations and little league umpires. He was most cantankerous about religion.

Several years ago, Thomas asked Fin why he bothered going to church when it irritated him so. “You got me wrong, Rev. I let off steam with you because you’re the sort that can handle a little steam.”

Fin drained his black coffee, considering his next words. “I don’t like what lots of folks have done with the church, that’s for damn sure. But where else would I find someone to say peace to me when I enter the doors and someone to bless me before I leave? Who else would serve me that bread and wine? Who else would listen to my bitchin’ and know there’s something good underneath?”

Thomas had no words. He wiped his wet eyes. “Thank you, Fin. Thank you.”

 

On a recent return trip from Memphis, a flashing engine light, a front brake grinding to bare steel and a battery calling it quits at a rest area all combined to provide us one heck of a day. As the drive drug mercilessly on, Miska sensed her family's spiraling weariness and, in a truly selfless act, broke out in song. Channeling Tina, she sang, What's love got to do, got to do with it. Miska raised her arms and put her body into it. The confines of the front seat and the restraint of the seatbelt was all that kept her from completely getting her groove on. I loved it. I joined in. The car was rocking. 

Since then, when it seems the family needs a quick pulse of levity, Miska or I will hit the first note, and the other catches up. Neither of us would ever be mistaken for musically gifted, but we let it rip none the less. The boys, let me tell you, are thrilled. They roll their eyes and groan and cover their ears. A time or two, though, I've heard them sing the tune themselves. Protest all you want, a good song snags you whether you like it or not.

A couple days ago, we realized the boys had never heard the actual version. They'd never heard Tina Turner belt her way through this sad tale of second hand emotions. Miska cued the single, and after the closing note, Seth said, "Mom, it's way better when you sing it."

Seth's effusive words tell the truth: Love has everything to do with it.

 

My intent wasn't to save the world as much as to heal myself. Few doctors will admit this, certainly not young ones, but unsubconsciously, in entering the profession, we must believe that ministering to others will heal our woundedness. And it can. But it can also deepen the wound. {Abraham Verghese, Cutting for Stone}

winn_collier_writer_van_gogh_farmer_at_fireside

Yesterday, a friend asked why I became a pastor. My story's both as dull and as fascinating as every story you'd discover with such a question. My path (and my vocation) has all the holiness, but no more, as my friends who pound hammers, type code, or translate German. Tending to soil or tending to children is no different, other than minor particulars, from tending to souls or words. All of it will make you giddy. All of it will break your heart.

I took up the stole the same way I took up the pen and pretty much the same way (with a few more hairpin curves) I became a husband and then a father. I had a desire I couldn't shake accompanied by a fear I'd screw up and be a fool, two signals (especially when they arrive holding hands) that you're on to something important. I took the step in front of me, and I kept stepping. And here I am with a few scars, a few stories and much, much gratitude.

To me, the more interesting question is: why do I stay a pastor? There are plenty of reasons not to, none of which I'll bore you with here. However, this place, this community, this way I've found to tend to my little plot of earth, is where I've settled. Lest this somehow come across more noble than I intend (or more noble than the truth), let me clarify. I am not a pastor because of a mystical, irrevocable call or due to unrelenting faith. I do not pastor because I possess a driving vision for a new expression of the church of tomorrow. I do not pastor for the pay or the prestige, both of which are (how shall I put this?) … thin.

I am a pastor because this is what, for now, my heart has to give away. I am a pastor because I have found that somehow, as I labor for the mending of other broken and weary souls, I encounter my own mending, my own healing. My sermons do not provide my lectures for the congregation, but rather my questions searching for answers, my convictions born out of travail. I do not pray as one who, with iron-clenched certainty, stares down mysteries; I pray trembling. But I pray and I tremble with tenacious hope. 

Verghese tells us that to live such a way invites both healing and wounding. I believe this will be the experience of every true vocation, every place where, more than merely our skill or expertise, we choose to give away our life and to offer our work and ourselves as fellow humans doing the best we know to follow every scent of grace.

On my desk sits a picture of me conversing with two friends. We're situated on old pews at the front of an old stone chapel. Gold rays cascade through the row of four stained glass windows perched high, at the rear of the vestry. The light shoots a straight train from those lofty windows down to the tops of our heads, as if the sun wanted to pass a few final blessings before setting. 

Miska took my photograph and printed a line on it reminding me that "to love a person is to learn the song that is in their heart and to sing it to them when they have forgotten." She knows that these friends, along with a few others, do this for me. And I hope I do the same for them.

We all need people to remind us what is true about ourselves, pointing out with great delight our strength and beauty and splendidness. We need people who believe in, and trust, the deep good God Almighty has firmly planted within us. You can go anywhere and hear someone sing a song of rejection or regret, duty or obligation, judgment or dismissal. We need more songs of hope, more songs of everlasting friendship. We need more blessings before the sun sets.