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}

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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. 

Fear drains life from your soul, like a line tapped into a vein, spilling your blood on the brown dirt. 

Even if fear turns us boisterous, productive or angry, as it does for many, do not mistake this exertion for a good source of energy. This energy is lethal. We may drop a bomb because we fear our enemies. We may build a career because we fear others' dismissive opinions. We may marry because we fear being alone. We may hover over our children because we fear their harm. We may follow religious piety because we fear divine wrath. These fears will get the wheels turning and produce some result, but the final tally will be emptiness and sorrow.

Scripture tells us that the antidote to fear is not, as some might suspect, more courage or more tenacity. We do not conquer fear by conquering fear. The one thing that overwhelms fear (and all the obsession and anxiety it breeds) is love. Love welcomes us the way we are, even with all our idiosyncrasies and failed plans and blundering efforts. Fear says, "I best manage this because no one else will." Love says, "I've got you covered. Take a stroll."

This is another reason why these words are the best news of all: God loves you. Completely.

 

During my 20's and 30's, I had a couple job interviews at churches, and these interviews didn't sit right with me. In each, there was a moment where they asked me something like: "So, what do you plan to do to make our church grow?"

I looked at them blankly. I shuffled. I'm sure I blinked a few times. The question seemed preposterous. I lived in Texas and later, Colorado. These interviews were in … well, a long way from there. And those weekends were the first time I'd ever stepped across the threshold of their fair city. I stumbled about, and eventually gave an answer about needing to learn the people and the place before I could say anything that wouldn't be just me making stuff up. Of course, I never got the job.

I'm older now, a tad wiser. I don't suspect I'll ever find myself in such an interview with such a church again. However, there's plenty of places where pastors gather round the ecclesiastical water cooler and toss back and forth this same sort of drivel.

In the future, I think I'll simply quote Mark 4, shrug my shoulders and say, "Heck if I know."

Then Jesus said, "God's kingdom is like seed thrown on a field by a man who then goes to bed and forgets about it. The seed sprouts and grows—he has no idea how it happens. The earth does it all without his help: first a green stem of grass, then a bud, then the ripened grain. When the grain is fully formed, he reaps—harvest time!

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.

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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.