gratitude.rockwellThere are few things more subversive in this world than someone who sees grace in every corner, who chuckles easy and loves easy and has both whimsy and mirth mixed in with even their honest assessments of the way things truly are. These glad-hearted people have discovered that thankfulness is not merely a discipline but the only sane way to live in a world offering so much gritty beauty, so much possibility for love, so many joys.

These unlikely provocateurs have not caved to rose-tinted glasses or withdrawn from bitter reality. They simply know that sorrow does not finally own the day. They do not ignore the pain. Quite the opposite, their heart has grown so large that the life they know possesses the courage to see all that is wrong and yet has strength enough to gather the afflictions into itself, allowing love to tend to the wounds. They know that joy, not misery, holds the ace. And they are so very, very thankful.

“Grace and gratitude belong together like heaven and earth,” say Barth. “Grace evokes gratitude like the voice of an echo. Gratitude follows grace as thunder follows lightning.”

Like me, one of Miska’s true joys is to speak a blessing over others. I think I must have learned this from her. Recently, Miska wrote a blessing for women in our little All Souls community. Receive these good words as your own – and they work just as well for those of us who go by the name ‘sons.’

Blessed are you, beloved daughters of God.
Lift up your hands, your eyes, your hearts
to the Living God.
Get into that soul posture of receiving.
May you continually re-orient your Being
to what is Real;
May you have the courage and grace
to receive Life from God in whatever
astonishing and unexpected ways He sends it.
Enter into the mystery!
May you hear Jesus calling your name–
calling your name–
inviting you to rise up, come forth into life
and be unbound.
Be blessed–may it be well with your soul–
for the Lord is your God,
and He is making all the sad and broken things come untrue
and He is making all things new.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Spirit,
may it be so.

This weekend, Wendell Berry reminded me that health, wholeness, and holy all come from the same Indo-European root. We moderns have lost our sense of things because we’ve become fragmented, disconnected from our sensuous and enduring connection to land and people, to good work and good rest, to what it means to be human beings truly awake.

I see this temptation in my posture as a dad, in the ways I’m trying to pull together all these conflicting images and expectations of what a father’s to be, to do. If you pay attention to all the noise, there’s a lot of pressure out there. We have a fifth-grader and a third-grader, yet the talk’s already begun about college admissions and all the attending angst. There’s a steady stream of statistics touting proper nutrition, appropriate screen time, how much exercise, and which educational theory you should adamantly commit to (or violently denounce).

To make it more complex, I’m a Christian father. This means there is a particular set of values and hopes that I desire to pass to my sons, ways I want them to be formed as good men in this world. There are few things truer to my deep desires than the ways I want to nurture life and wonder and virtue in my boys. Yet if I see this primarily in terms of getting proper behavior from my sons, I am bound to fail. Appropriate behavior, by itself, may keep them out of jail, but it won’t tend to their soul.

I’m taking it as my fatherly joy to seriously tend to St. Paul’s word (tucked into his letter to the Colossians) for parents to watch their children attentively, lest their children lose heart. I want to do everything within my meager powers to help my boys not lose heart, to keep their imagination aroused, to help them believe in hope and possibility. To keep pointing them toward the God of kindness who dreamed them into existence and, I believe, must be giddy with each and every one of their accomplishments as well as their boyish mishaps. I want to silence the naysayers and the doom-givers, the ones who want to tell them they must shoot for the Ivy League or amass fortunes or even cure cancer, admirable as that would be.

Once I had to pay Wyatt $1 to get in trouble in school. He’d gone the whole year without a single reprimand. That couldn’t possibly be good for the soul. We’ve got to make mistakes if we’re ever to know that it’s simply alright. We lose heart because we grow weary and burdened – with expectations, with musts, with the tight cocoons we weave for ourselves with the self-absorption inherent with trying to get life right.

I want my boys to be healthy and whole. I want them to be truly holy. This means that this dad, with eyes afire, will be watching out for their hearts. Every day. For the rest of my life.

Last Wednesday, I was at Para Coffee when this text arrived: “Winn, call me. Someone hit your car.” An undergrad student was illegally parked and attempted a quick getaway, backing straight into my car and leaving a nice impression on my driver’s side door. The scoundrel immediately peeled out of the lot, but a red light blocked his escape. My friend Evan watched the episode from a second story window, and he dashed out of his office, banged on the back of the car and forced the flustered driver back to the scene. If you know Evan, you know he was created for a moment such as this. With interrogation skills that would make the FBI beam, Evan retrieved pictures and a signed confession. Evan’s assured me there was no waterboarding.

Then last Sunday evening, we decided to make caramel apples with the boys. I hopped in our second vehicle for the short drive (less than a mile) to the grocery market. We live in an urban area, near downtown – not typically the place you’d expect to encounter wild beasts. Yet a large deer jumped out of the dark, a head-on collision. A gruesome crunch, the impact catapulted 200 pounds into the roadside trees, a brown mass whirling through the air. From the backseat, Seth screamed angrily and at a piercing decibel: “Dad, why did you kill a deer? Why did you kill a deer?”

When we pulled over, Seth picked deer hair off the smashed grill and shook his head. Then he paced the sidewalk muttering, “I’ve never been in a crisis like this before.”

We’re two cars down. But we’ve been reminded that Seth truly loves the creatures of this world. And we’ve learned that Colliers can do alright in a crisis.

hubris_winn_collier_writerThe current cultural moment – if you scratch the ol’ noggin for 10 seconds I bet you’ll locate it – has made me think about hubris. And compromise. But mainly hubris.

We humans really do cling to the idea that we can ramp up the brainpower and the muscle and the research and eventually, with enough grit and grind, conquer all. The deluge of campaign ads piped into my living room has piled a mile-high heap of promises at my feet. Promises that we know will not, could not, be kept.

And how these politco types keep a straight face while they talk about themselves with such grand gestures and adjectives, I’ll never comprehend. I imagine myself in one of those interviews or filming a commercial – and I imagine Miska standing to the side, eyebrows raised, hands on her hips and giving me that Seriously? look. One glance from her, and I’d break into laughter, toss the mic and say, “Yeah, just kidding.” One state politician, one I’m likely to vote for, has a commercial so self-congratulatory, you’d think he was the reincarnation of both Mother Theresa and Winston Churchill wrapped into one sublime human being.

What have we done to ourselves?

And with this hubris goes the notion that we are all right, and they are all wrong (whoever we and they happen to be). We no longer listen, that most crucial human posture. We score points. We push others into a corner. We say things we couldn’t possibly actually mean, if heads were cool.

If only the wider culture could pay more attention to the Church, where we model such an alternative way…

(awkward pause, as we let the sarcasm linger)

My grandfather, who had firm convictions and at times owned the label fundamentalist, told me several times, “Winn, always remember – compromise is not a bad word. There’s always extremes, and usually if you pay attention, you’ll find the truth somewhere in the middle.” Of course, this posture requires patience and thoughtfulness and a commitment to honor other people – and to discover the best version of their stories and their beliefs. This posture requires humility and eschews hubris.

John Climacus, a medieval mystic, said: “Where there is no humility, all things rot.” I’m sad to say that a stench too often fills the air. I contribute to it, I know; and I want to stop.

Several nights ago, a dream crossed those dim boundaries between the sleeping and the waking. I don’t know what cracked escapade my dream played for me, but something certainly struck my funny bone. I clutched my gut, laughter of the sort that pins a stitch in your side. Such a deep laughter I woke myself. My wee hour outburst startled Miska, jolting her upright, “Are you okay?” she asked groggily, patting her hand around the bed in search of me. The next morning, she told me how she hadn’t known whether I was laughing or crying.

I was laughing, most definitely laughing.

Some dreams we claw after, grasping for the fantasy or the happiness, those illusory shimmers. Some night terrors we’re desperate to forget. With this dream, I am merely grateful for whatever zaniness prodded such mirth. “Laughter is carbonated holiness,” says Anne Lamott. I may agree with Woody Allen even more: “I am thankful for laughter, except when milk comes out of my nose.”

Perhaps this is why Jesus told so many odd stories with offbeat turns and witty puns – and with so many curmudgeonly, half-witted characters. Perhaps Jesus just wanted us to break a smile or, if he could manage it, get us to belch a straight up guffaw. God, it seems, wants us to laugh. And if he must tickle us in the night to make it happen, so be it.

Today, I pulled into the Kroger lot, parking near a green Toyota Tacoma pickup. As I walked toward the store, an elderly nun, with white coif and black habit, hopped into the front seat. Seated beside her was a second, more elderly, sister. They sat in that front cab so naturally that I could see them shifting into four-wheel drive and dirtying up the mud flaps with true abandon. I imagined them heading back toward the convent, with Toby Keith or Sugarland – or even better, Cash and the Avett Brothers – thumping.

My guess is that these sisters are from Our Lady of the Angels monastery, our local Trappist community tucked into the Blue Ridge foothills. Our Lady of the Angels is known for two things: prayer and gouda. Their Dutch-styled gouda is the absolute finest I’ve ever tasted, and you typically have to order it months in advance. Several Christmases ago, friends brought us a nice chunk off the 2lb gouda wheel they had purchased. I watched that wheel the rest of the evening, hoping that somehow God would be merciful and allow some small sliver to remain when the evening was done. Marvelous as the gouda is, however, the sisters want everyone to know that cheese is more their hobby than their passion. On their old order forms, they gave a reminder something like this: “Thank you for your order. We’ll get to it when we can. Our first work is prayer.”

Not that they are creating a strict dichotomy between the two. Rather, the sisters weave a rhythmic life and insist on a pace that allows even cheese-crafting to be patient and prayerful, not stressful and harried. One of the beauties of cloistered life is that (at its best) those who give themselves to it seek to carve space for holistic living where peeling potatoes and tending to the animals and compline prayers all blend into one life of joy and faithfulness, one life where even tedium is welcomed for whatever gifts it brings. They do not so much seek complete removal from the world but rather a way of creating boundaries so they can live in the world more fully, remembering the joy found in the oft-forgotten details, in the subtleties that most of us rarely notice.

Vigen Guroian, an Eastern Orthodox theologian and friend, likes to say, “I think gardening is nearer to godliness than theology.” In the garden, we dig our fingers into the grit of this world. We find ourselves immersed in the life to which we are called. Good gardening requires patience and slow attentiveness – and probably a little luck, all of which explains why I’m so awful at it. “True gardeners,” Vigen says, “are both iconographers and theologians insofar as these activities are the fruit of prayer without ceasing.”

There’s something shared between the sisters in their cheese shop and Vigen in his garden. This is something we can all share, in our labor or our craft, amid the mundane as well as the exhilarating moments. We can all seek God in the work of our hands, in the immediate space around us. We can, in “whatever we do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father.”

I imagine two Sisters winding through the country roads the twenty miles or so back to their monastery, tapping the dashboard in harmony with the Soggy Bottom Boys. Every mile and every note a prayer.

 

I’ve pitched in with a few other writers over at Deeper Church, a place to think about the rich joys and deep mysteries we discover via life in God’s Church. I’ll join in once a month or so.

Today, I began to think about our church words, about our need for poets and storytellers. We need women who plant a disruptive seed in our imagination. We need men who flip us topsy-turvy with their playfulness and their unguarded revelations. We need poets and preachers who brush past the cynicism, refuse fatigued dichotomies and fashion words as though they are handcrafted dynamite. These happy subversives light the fuse and calmly set the short-wicked sentence in our midst.

If you want to read on, you certainly may

Main stSince I take the same route for my pre-breakfast jog five or six days a week, I encounter many of the same characters. We’ve woven in and out of each other’s routines enough to recognize one another, though I suspect I’m easier to remember because half the time I have a small fuzzy bear loping behind me. Allow me a few introductions.

The first is a sixty-something fellow who strolls up the sidewalk on 5th street. He has a strong, purposeful stride and wears a black Ivy cap and, usually, a charcoal grey sweater. I say morning as I pass, and he replies in a no-nonsense tone, with the faintest smile. “Good morning. How are you?” My goodness, I love that man’s voice. It’s a ringer for Charlie Utter, Sheriff Bullock’s deputy in Deadwood. I feel better knowing this man walks our neighborhood.

Another sidewalk encounter offers a bit of drama. This is a younger chap, early thirties maybe. He wears a beanie, pulled tight over his head. Today the beanie was one of those with tassels hanging to the shoulders – too cute for a fellow I know as Grumpy Guy. Each time we pass, I say morning. Each time we pass, he stares dead ahead. Either stoned or ferociously angry at the world – I can’t tell, but it’s my mission to win him over, to get a hello from him. After today’s failure, I played out a fantasy. We somehow land at the same party. The music’s loud, and we both retreat to the back deck for quiet. It’s cold, and he’s pulled out the beanie with the tassels. We know each other, but awkwardly talk about the bad music instead. Turns out, the guy’s not grumpy at all. Or stoned. He’s actually a softie. He lives with his invalid grandmother, and he plays the tuba. We laugh when I admit I was always a wee concerned that one of these days he would answer my greeting with a punch to the face. He chuckles and says he wears ear buds tucked under the beanie, and he’s blasting Nirvana, paying little attention to the rest of the world. We laugh more. A good fantasy.

My favorite character this morning was a woman in a grey PT Cruiser. Stopped at a light, she laid on her horn for a good blast. I jerked her direction, and I found her smiling at me, thumb up and extended my way. She held her thumb high, making sure I saw. Way to go, she said. You got this.

Four of us met this morning. We’re not friends, we’re not exactly strangers. I can imagine, though, how we might all need one another. Grumpy Guy needs an old leathery deputy-type who’s gruff, but deep-hearted, to yank his chain (or his tassel, what have you) and call his bluff. And every good man needs a lost soul to salvage, an opportunity to pull another man from his slumber. Of course, we all need someone to cheer us on, to give us her uninhibited joy.

I’m sure each of them offer me something. I hope I have eyes to see and a heart to receive.

 

Last Saturday night, we sat on our back deck, breathing brisk October air. I loaded the wood into the chiminea and set it ablaze, announcing time for s’mores. On the grocery run that morning, Campfire marshmallows (the ones the size of two fists) somehow hopped into my basket. The boys had sighted these a few times and, wide-eyed, asked if we could try them. When Miska noticed these white gooey behemoths stuffed in one of the grocery bags, she rolled her eyes. “That’s the Texan coming out in you.”

Miska arranged our goods on the deck near the fire. She noticed the marshmallows, the Hershey bars, the hangers for roasting. She looked around, then asked a question providing one beautiful slip-of-the-tongue. “Did anyone grab the graham crappers?”

We laughed and laughed.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

I read Robert Farrar Capon yesterday, and he told me that even God’s divine justice – such an ominous and grave reality – is rigged in my favor, rigged because of God’s bold act of decisive love. Later, Anestis Keselopoulos countered the small, miserly stories we often repeat, reminding me of the good news: “The Church forms the potentiality for the entire world to be gathered together.”

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

This morning before school, Seth said, “Dad, you’re my football buddy and my coffee buddy and my steak buddy – oh, and beef jerky buddy.” He took a breath and continued, “Mom, you’re my artist buddy and book buddy and cake buddy.”

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Joy’s always waiting to tap you on the shoulder. Joy comes in a millions ways.