Our church has a prayer we pray over one another every other Sunday. We pray this prayer just before the closing blessing, just before we walk out into God’s bright world to be God’s bright people. I’m not sure we know the power of what we’re praying, the hope in what we’re asking. But then, I think that’s the truth for most good prayers.

God, make your kingdom come in us, for the sake of your world. May we love you with our whole heart and love our neighbors as ourselves. May your cross carry us to die to selfish pursuits, and may your resurrection raise us to new life and radical love. Send us into your world in the name of the Father who created us, the Son who loves us and the Spirit who guides us. Amen.

When I shared Holy Work, the poem Miska commissioned poet John Blase to write for me as a Christmas gift, I said there was more to the story. I’ll give you one of the bits now. Christmas morning was a real kick because I had also secretly commissioned John to write a poem – but as a gift for Miska. Miska and I had plotted and schemed in order to surprise each other with the exact same gift.

Here’s the second from the series, the photo and the poem.

winn and miska.laughter

I’ll surely forget many
things, many days, but
I choose to remember a
moment when everything
was so black and white,
was so very clear to me.
I kept your hands to my
shoulder and flashed my
grin, the grin you said
yes
to so many days ago now.
You then spilled your laugh,
the laugh that you and only
you possess. I know the ax
can fall at any moment but
for the space of one frame
there was no one else on
the face of God’s earth but
you and your laugh and me
and my grin, two unveiled
faces wide and alive with
smiles of great sweetness
captured in the click of an
eye. In that stark moment
everything, yes everything
was so very clear to me.

Misty rain settled over downtown as I strolled Main Street, the bricked blocks where foodies, mom-and-pop town folk, book lovers, artists, baristas and students create the melting pot. We have a guild of street musicians, both locals and traveling troubadours, but my favorite will always be Harmonica Dave, sitting on his five gallon bucket and breaking it down with his jaw harp.

On this dreary, wet afternoon, Harmonica Dave had called it a day; but a couple blocks down, I passed a young musician busking for his day’s wage. Undeterred by the weather, his banjo hung off his shoulder while his black felt hat sat upside down near his feet, two lone dollars to his name. The scene provided nothing out of the ordinary, except this: the fellow held intense focus, tilting left then right. The man was standing in the rain balancing a purple flower in a pot on his head.

I only had a moment to consider this fact before an older gentleman passed this bard with the banjo on his shoulder and the flower on his head. The banjo player asked for a donation — but with a twist. “A donation to ward off the curse,” he said. I have no idea of the backstory. I have no idea who was leveling curses or what the curse entailed. I have no idea if the curse had something to do with the fact that there was a potted flower atop the man’s noggin.

The elder man brushed past. “I don’t believe in curses,” he answered briskly over his shoulder.

The banjo player stood undaunted, calling after him. “Maybe not, but don’t risk it. It’s not just you but all your descendants.”

This event was maybe a month ago, but I’ve thought about it several times since. I’ve wondered if that flower ever toppled off that fellow’s head. I’ve wondered if the elder man has any cause for concern for his progeny.

Since I’m a pastor, I find myself having more than your average number of conversations (though I have no idea who keeps these stats) on subjects of temptation and desire, shame and hope. These terrains of the soul are universal, common to all; but it’s remarkable how agonizingly difficult it can be to own these spaces.

These conversations, not to mention my own story, has led me to a simple conclusion: The Church should not teach people to lie. Unfortunately, though, too often we do. I say more about this on a piece for the good folks at A Deeper Church.

Fridays are Miska’s and my Sabbath. This usually includes at least an hour or two of one of our more rigorous spiritual disciplines: lying in bed watching Hulu, preferably with a small bag from Albemarle Baking Company in the bed with us. One commercial Hulu runs, over and again, stresses my sabbath experience. In this commercial, a certain cellular provider floods the screen with rapid images and text, highlighting the myriad ways their latest gadget can capture every solitary moment and detail of our lives. The experience overloads the senses.

Amid all the zooming and the pulsing data comes the narrator’s central thesis: “I must upload all of myself.”

Of course, this is ad copy, which means two things: (1) they don’t expect us to take them seriously and (2) what they are saying is sheer nonsense. The compulsion to broadcast our every opinion, our every whim, our every ham-and-cheese-on-rye for crying out loud – we call this narcissism. Of course, withholding yourself because of the meticulous way we are coiffing our public persona is narcissism too. It’s impossibly difficult to get loose of our self-absorption.

This is no theoretical question for me. I must wrangle with how much of my writing comes from a desire to feed the ego and how much comes as an expression of my vocation. In a business where publishers insist you have to build your platform, it’s a messy deal. The publishers have a point of course. A plumber’s gotta find folks who will pay him to fix their sinks, and any plumber who refuses to advertise because of his unsullied commitment to his craft will likely starve. Yet there’s something perverse about a writer or a plumber or a pastor or a real estate agent who are always trying to sell you something, especially when that something is them.

So what’s a person to do? I really couldn’t say, but this is what I’m thinking: the central question isn’t how much to share or not share. The focus isn’t the whens or wheres or hows. The truer question is how will I live well and true?

And this is not at all just about social media. How much of our energy do we give to the people and places we love? How do we interact with other’s expectations (a spouse, a parent, a boss, a pastor)? How do we give ourselves generously – but give in a way that’s truthful so that we’re actually giving ourselves rather than giving some false version of ourselves?

The ad ended with the punchline: “I deserve to be unlimited.” Not only is this false; it is also impossible. We are, thank goodness, all limited. This gracious limitation can set us free from the tyrannies that fight against our longing to live well and true. We are free to say ‘no.’

 

I raised my drooping head, my soul dripping shame, in order to ask forgiveness. There was barely space to get the words free because she had already begun to pull me into her bosom and to bury her cheek in my chest. “I forgive you,” she said, without hesitation. Without demand. Without holding any part of herself back as penalty for my foolishness.

In marriage, you find yourself replaying the story of the Prodigal time and again. Sometimes you’re the one watching for the other to come home. Sometimes you’re the one needing to come to your senses and make your way back. Either way, love must be the central player if our marriage is to truly be a marriage.

Though calendars collide for no good reason, I find it timely that yesterday we were marked with ashes and today we celebrate love. Surely there’s a rhythm there. Dropping our pretense, lowering our guard and welcoming mercy makes all the rest of it possible.

Wyatt, our ten-year-old, has pneumonia. Fever, coughing fits and bouts of exhaustion have turned him pitiful. Surprisingly, after a week of antibiotics, his fever returned; and so I took him for a second trip to the doctor. The pediatrician poked and prodded and asked serious-sounding questions. “Does your cough feel like a knife? Have you noticed headaches? Any joint pain?” Wyatt took this all in, thinking hard, asking clarifying questions and attempting to make sure he got the answers right.

When the doctor left the room to grab some contraption she assured Wyatt wouldn’t hurt but was necessary to measure the oxygen in his blood, Wyatt thought this turn of events sounded most grave. Of course, words don’t have to work hard to carry an ominous tone when they’re uttered in a fluorescent-lit space spreading yellowish illumination over the stainless steel sink and the large plastic container of hand sanitizer and the hard, green reclining chair draped in thin white paper.

Wyatt considered the doctor’s words and asked, “Dad, do you think I have cancer?”

I assured him he didn’t, but the cat was out of the bag, the idea had been let loose. “What if I only had one day to live, dad?”

“Well,” I said with a shrug, “I guess we’d want to make sure your last few hours were great.”

Wyatt liked this direction, the possibilities. He had energy for this conversation. “Dad, if I only had one day to live, I’d need to do three things. I’d have to get you to buy me a phone. I’d have to smoke a pipe with you. And I’d have to read Les Miserables in a single day.” He paused, reflecting satisfaction with his choices and plotting strategies for this 24 hour feat. “Yup, that would be hard to do…”

What a way to go – filled with assorted joys, so much that I’d have to stretch to my very last breath to get it done.

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.