democrats-republicans1I have no energy these days for defining myself as a republican or democrat (or libertarian or green). The kind of energy and ideological certainty required for that has been wrung out of me long ago. I have friends whose disposition or vocation lead them down the path of intense partisan engagement — it’s their way of making the world more just, and I bless them. I simply don’t get revved up for the party (pun alert).

I am genetically incapable of seeing the world in such stark, all-or-nothing categories. Perhaps it’s a weakness. Truth is I have an inkling we need more poetry and less platform, more friendship and less name-calling, better stories and better neighbors – none of which are encouraged in the current political brouhahas.

I’m certainly not saying none of this matters. The gospel is inherently political (i.e. public, social), but the gospel is not equated with any one player in our political system. So, our civic convictions matter, but they probably matter less than we think. And my hunch is we’re losing sight of other truths that most certainly do matter while we’re giving so much blood, sweat and tears to all these things that likely matter less than our high blood pressure suggests. How’s that for a convoluted sentence? See what talking politics will do to a fella.

While I don’t care about being an elephant or a donkey, I do care about being a Christian. And the apostle James has instructions for how I’m to live in this world if my first allegiance is to a Kingdom come. James’ words seem timely for the hour:

Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.

We who call ourselves Christian are ones who, because of our loyalty to the way of Jesus, have a commitment to truly listen, to hear the other (their hopes and fears, their history and convictions). We are the ones charged with getting another’s story right (in contrast to looking for ammo to use against those we’ve named as enemies). If our words formed slowly but our love flowed free and if our rhetoric lost its angry venom, vitriol and combative suspiciousness, then I imagine the American political machine (for a moment at least) would grind to a halt, if for no reason other than gawking, jaw dropped, at the ones they’ve labeled as haters living like lovers. I don’t actually know if our obedience to James’ words would make much difference in November, but it would mean that as God’s people we would be asserting our belief that God’s Kingdom is above every other kingdom.

I’ll be pulling the lever in November, as I attempt to make wise judgements about the important issues at hand. However, I’m unclear what exactly God thinks about various economic theories or if he has in mind an appropriate tax rate or a straight answer on the best way to make health care accessible to those shut out of (or unable to keep pace with) the current system. Given that, I’ll not attach God’s name to imperfect solutions, but I will try to use my noggin and give it the best go I’m able. I’ll grapple with a Christian vision for a state’s use of violent force. I’ll ponder over the best ways to cherish and honor life when both sides have their blind spots. I’ll wrangle with how (and where) individual responsibility, justice and compassion intermingle. I don’t have final answers to all these questions. I do know, however, that I’m to listen much, speak little and refuse anger.

Anger usually comes when we feel we’re being thwarted or threatened, when we’re defending things like our version of the American Dream. I love America, but America isn’t my dream. My hope rests in a God whose dream for the world is far bigger than that.

There is a group of Charlottesville friends who have met for breakfast, somewhere between 7:00 and 7:15, every morning for over 25 years. I think these are the coolest people in town. They’ve outlasted multiple dives, moving from one to another after old haunts call it quits. The group began when several strangers found themselves, again and again, at the same coffee shop at the same hour. They figured they should make it official and formed “the breakfast club.” They’ve welcomed spouses to the circle, embraced retirements and job changes and danced the night away as they’ve married off their kids. I told one of the ladies I wanted to come and sit with them a few mornings so I could write a profile article on them. I’d sell the piece, but mainly it’s a ruse. I just want an excuse to pull up a chair at that table and pretend I belong.

When I think of my retiring years, I have several images. One of them is a group of old geezers, of which I am proudly one, at the same cafe every morning with the same group of scruffy cohorts. The fellas around the table are friends I have now, only in the future I’ve got us all pegged for living in the same neighborhood. We sit at the same outdoor table drinking from a french press. We laugh and tell stories and quote a little poetry. We talk about how insane and foolish and marvelously beautiful the world is. We talk, as we do even now, about the women we love and who have been kind (and crazy) enough to love us for so many years.

At that table, we experience a grace too many never know: we belong, and we like who we are – and we rest in the goodness of knowing others like who we are every bit as much. Helen Simonson describes it right: “They are a motley and ragged bunch … but they are what is left when all the shallow pretense is burned away.”

The younger guys and gals, zipping in for a latte to go and frantically fiddling with their phones (or some bedeviled futuristic contraption) while they shift anxiously in line, eventually begin to notice us. Each morning, they rush in, and each morning, we’re just passing the time, watching the world race by. Soon enough, as they strap themselves back into their Audis for their dash to the office, they fantasize about receiving an invite to what they have now secretly christened The Table.

 

The way Miska and I split up duties during the school year, in the mornings, I’m the chief cook, bottlewasher and part-time priest. I bag lunches, whip up eggs with toast and, most mornings, read a small bit of Scripture and speak a prayer as we step into the day.

We’re slowly reading Luke, and today we landed on Jesus’ genealogy. The way The Message lays it out, one “the son of…” per line, it goes on for pages, giving Jorim, Peleg and Arphaxad their brief moment in the limelight. I considered skipping it, but I thought better. The simple speaking of a person’s name may be the holiest thing tucked in those many pages. “Hang on, boys,” I said. “We’ve got a big ol’ list coming up.”

And I began. The son of Heli, the son of Matthat, the son of Levi, the son of Melki

I noticed Seth dead still, complete focus on me. He paid his oatmeal and his toast no attention, but he was hanging onto the words. The long drum continued. The son of Naggai, the son of Maah, the son of Mattathias

Seth sat absorbed. This is the boy who doesn’t know the meaning of stillness. When he isn’t running, he’s skipping. When he isn’t skipping, he’s twirling. When he isn’t twirling, he’s rocking. If he has to stay in place, then his foot taps a hundred beats a minute. If every other possibility is refused him, Seth will sit and twitch. Tigger has nothing on this boy.

Yet he did not move. The son of Cosam, the son of Elmadam, the son of Er

Finally, while continuing the litany, I tapped on his bowl. He dug up a spoon of oatmeal, but his attention stayed fixed on the names. The son of Obed, the son of Boaz, the son of Salmon

We rounded the corner and drew near the end. The son of Kenan, the son of Enosh, the son of Seth

“There! I was waiting for it!” Seth shouted, flinging his hands in the air. “I knew I was in there!”

That boy, at eight years old, knows something about reading the Bible that seminary and years of Greek and Hebrew failed to teach me. We find ourselves amid those pages. It’s God story, but it’s our story too. If all we get from the Bible is facts and edicts, if we never find ourselves (and our loves and passions and life) amid the words, then maybe we should spend more time reading with the children. Any of the stories will do, even a genealogy.

My dad is the most generous man I know. When I was living at home, there were several stretches when my dad didn’t take his salary because the church was having trouble paying the bills. A time or two, this went on for months, but I only found out afterwards (and by accident) what the family had endured. We had food on the table, and I never saw any letters from the bank stamped in red. Being a dad now, I can look back and see some of the strain my dad carried. But he never let on. Our house didn’t traffic in glum. Whenever I’d ask dad about money problems, he’d say, “God will take care of us, Winn.” That was it, God will take care of us.

Hearing this refrain, my sister Vonda decided she wanted to give an extravagant gift to God, something that would cost her dearly and require great faith. My sis was four, and she didn’t give a hoot about money. Bubble gum, however, was her gold bullion. So one Sunday, with firm resolve, she carried her treasured pack of Bubble Yum to church. When the deacon brought the collection to our row, Vonda set her face like flint and solemnly pulled the pack from her pocket and placed it in the plate. Even the widow with the mite would have stood hushed.

Months later (which is like decades to the four-year-old memory), our family was in St. Augustine, Florida touring the grounds of the Mission of Nombre de Dios, built in 1565 as one of the first Spanish missions in the new world. Near the old ivy-covered stone chapel stood a shrine of the Virgin Mary cradling baby Jesus. My dad walked with Vonda, hand-in-hand, when she stopped abruptly. Vonda stepped closer to the statue and, with arms resting on her hips, spoke directly to the babe: “Jesus, what did you do with that bubble gum? You eat it?” We give, but we do not forget.

One more thing you should know from this story: back on the afternoon of that Sunday when Vonda made her momentous gift, a women dropped by our house. She knocked on the door, and when my mom answered, the woman handed mom a bag. “I was at the grocery story,” she said, “and remembered how much Vonda likes gum. I thought Vonda should have this.” In the Kroger bag was a family pack of bubble gum, totaling forty or fifty sticks of awe and pleasure for my sister.

You can say coincidence if you want. Maybe. And certainly God is no bubble gum machine. But I imagine God bent over, with great jowls of laughter, as Vonda buried her hands in piles of gum knowing, in ways only a four-year-old can, that God will take care of us.

Brueggemann says abundance is the truth; scarcity is the lie. With God, there is always enough. I want to believe that. I need to believe that. God, help my unbelief.

 

Dear Shiny-faced Kids,

We sent our two boys off to school today (as well as our nephew Micah, who’s part of our family for his senior year). But I saw a number of you, piling into cars and waiting at bus stops. Let me say: all of you looked grand.

I saw your not-yet scuffed shoes and your slicked-out hair (to the young fellow with the gelled spiky thing going on, with the Vans and the sweater vest – very nice). All the new backpacks are splendid, if not a tad over-stuffed (24 pencils? really? do they eat them?). Superhero themed packs are popular, as always, though I’m not seeing Superman much. That’s a travesty. What are they teaching you kids in school these days? It does seem that Ninjas are big this year. That’s nice. Better than Sponge Bob, may he one day rest in peace.

I noticed your bright eyes, your eagerness. I saw a little nervousness too. Those butterflies might make you queasy, but they’re a sign of new days and uncharted adventure. I love the butterflies.

Mainly, I just wanted to say, Go get ’em. You got this. And don’t forget to stir up at least a little mischief.

 

Rooting for you,

Winn

 

calvin-miller-websiteSeveral years ago, the publisher of Holy Curiosity invited me to a dinner. It was a large gala held at the Georgia Aquarium. The location was stunning, with a twenty-foot high glass wall separating us from the massive tank where sharks circled ominously, an appropriate image for some of us trying to find our way through the world of books and booksellers and marketing plans and dismal sales numbers.

I knew almost no one and had no entourage. I was low on the totem pole. I wandered alone around the hall, not in the mood to push my way into any conversations. Then I spotted Calvin Miller standing near the sharks. White hair, three-piece blue and white seersucker suit. He was classically distinguished, the old-world gentleman with a colored hanky in his jacket’s front pocket. Calvin was an elder Atticus Finch.

I’d never met Calvin, but I recognized him immediately. I’ve always loved that Calvin and Eugene Peterson look like brothers. They are, in many ways, cut from the same cloth. Calvin is a pastor in the old, true sense. Calvin writes with imagination. Calvin creates space for others. Calvin speaks of God in ways that make you want to sit down quietly over in the corner and listen.

I walked over to the shark tank and introduced myself. Calvin greeted me as though I were an old family member he hadn’t seen in ages. We chatted for a while, and Calvin was never rushed. He wasn’t hurried, glancing off to the next person he should gladhand. Calvin’s easy way said, I’ve got nowhere to be. Want to grab an RC Cola? This legendary author could have spoken to anyone in the room, but he spoke to me.

Calvin died on Sunday. I will miss him.

boys on tubes at Carolina Beach
Watching our boys from the shore, as they gathered their courage for the ride into the wall of waves, these words came. For my boys, for me, for my friend John. For all of us who must brave a life unknown.

 

Two boys atop rubber tubes
Point into wild waves —
Eager, and a little afraid.
Not much changes over thirty,
Or seventy, years.

You know your marriage has weathered well when love brings you to the place where you bear the other’s sharp word or dark mood, knowing as you do that these raw places cover a weary or wounded soul and require tenderness, not scorn or assault. Forgiveness is given, easily, before it’s ever asked, the scuffle brushed away, no more bother than a stray piece of lint.

How many times have I come to Miska, heart in hands and a bit embarrassed, only to find the woman who said yes to me eager to say yes again? I barely form the words, and she greets me with, “Yes, of course, yes.”

An essential to good marriage, good friendship – to good life in human communities – is the commitment to discovering the truth in another and then believing that truth with them and for them – and sometimes in spite of them. However, in our gotcha culture, we look for opportunities to score points and exploit wounds and pounce on others’ failings. If you have any doubt, stay tuned for the political commercials or facebook postings soon coming to a screen near you.

I once viewed God this way: scrupulously judging my every move and every belief, eager to send a jolt my way when I missed a step. With this misguided vision of God, too many of us defend “truth” in ways that are at odds with the One whose self-giving love defines Truth. However, what if God sees our true self and our best efforts and, rather than growing angry over our missteps, chuckles and smiles and says, “Yes, of course, yes.”

C.S. Lewis welcomes me with these words: “This is the courtesy of Deep Heaven: that when you mean well, He always takes you to have meant better than you knew.”

Most Sundays, I write a blessing to speak over our church. I speak the words before we depart, hoping that God’s Spirit will take plain words and lodge them in places I could never reach. It is a great joy, to speak a blessing over friends. My preference is to write the blessing myself, but there are words in Scripture that just blow any blessing I’d write to smithereens. This is one of them, from St. Paul. Breathe in these words. Open your hands and receive them.

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirt. And may it be so. Amen.

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The introductory offer of Let God: Spiritual Conversations with François Fénelon @ $2.99 for Kindle (and Kindle apps on other devices) ends this weekend.

 

I asked Miska to marry me (the first time) on a snow swept mountaintop, under the stars. I think she saw the proposal coming, but the mind and the heart do their own thing in moments like this, and Miska’s instinctive response was to ask, repeatedly: Are you sure? Are you sure? She clutched the ring and echoed the question: are you sure? Seven times, if I remember correctly.

She couldn’t have known, as I didn’t even know myself, but those three words sliced into a hidden, wounded place. Those three words put language to one of my deepest fears: that I might be wrong, that I might be foolish, that I’ll miss some of the facts or hold a wrong belief or opinion and will, in the end, be uncovered as a fool.

The quick story is that she said yes, but her question unnerved me. I freaked out. Three days later, she gave me back the ring. A month after that, I got my crap together, and Miska was kind enough to roll the dice on me one more time. However, the themes in that story have grown to be annoyingly familiar.

I have friends who seem to have never known a doubt, never second-guessed a conviction or belief. I have no idea what that would be like.

For folks like me, however, it’s a mistake to think that because our mind wavers and absolute certainty remains eternally illusive, this means we must forever waffle, never stand firm. We may have to endure a perpetual, nagging “what if?” playing in the background, but this only means our beliefs require more courage. The ground on which we stand may be harder won and our ground will most likely be a smaller territory than others triumphantly claim – and surely, we’ll move our flag from time to time (a virtue, if you ask me). But if we’ll learn to trust the things we know even if we don’t know we know them (we might need to chew on that for a moment) and if we’ll allow ourselves to live more playfully and more whimsical, we will find our steady ground. And we’ll discover than being foolish ain’t all that bad.

As St. O’Conner said in the Second Gospel of Wise Blood: “Faith is what someone knows to be true, whether they believe it or not.”

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As a gesture to my Fénelon book being Kindle-available (and on sale for $2.99 for a few more days), I leave you with a pertinent line from one of the letters in Let God: “True faith never delivers the sort of human certainty we constantly look for. True faith won’t let us grab hold to safety or latch on to dry formulas…God is God, you know.”