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.

Legion_DemonSt. Luke narrates a spooky tale, just perfect for the month of October. Jesus and his merry band travel into the hill country of the Gerasenes. This country is a badland of sorts, the roaming ground for a demon-possessed madman who tears through the woods naked and rips shackles and causes general mayhem, all under the power of a legion of foul spirits. This is a character M. Night Shyamalan would love. This is the sort of beast that would keep boys and girls clutching their mother’s hand whenever they roamed beyond the outskirts of the village.

However, this ravaged man was no beast. He was a woman’s son. He once had friends, knew love. Perhaps he had children who still clung to memories of when their father’s mind was right. Perhaps their bedtime prayers asked God to watch over their dad in the woods, alone and bare, afraid and completely lost.

When the Legion saw Jesus, they flung the madman to the ground and screamed for Jesus to let them be. Have mercy on us, they raged. Don’t send us back to the awful abyss. Send us into the heard of swine.

Have mercy, what a surprising request from loathsome creatures who know nothing of kindness or love, nothing of mercy.

If you will allow me a short excurses, it is at this point in the story that my mind leaps to Jesus’ sermon on the hillside and Jesus’ beautiful lines drawing our imagination to the birds soaring through the sky and the lilies gracing the meadow. The lilies and the birds do not fret. They don’t toss and turn through the night. They are carefree in God’s provision. Don’t you believe God will be even more kind to you? Jesus asks. God is quick with abundant compassion, even for birds and flowers.

And, it seems, even for demons.

Alright, Jesus says to the horde, I won’t cast you to the Dark. Off you go, pigs it is.

Why would Jesus grant the Legion their request? Why did he enact force over them, but only so much as was necessary to free the madman from their grip? Did Jesus recall these spirits, in their prior angelic brilliance and glory, when they were free and joyful in God’s service? Jesus’ kindness, it seems, truly has no limits.

God’s care and compassion abound to bluebonnets and ravens and yes, to demons. How much more then to you, God’s fairest creature, God’s child.

Perhaps you are in a lonely place today. Perhaps your heart is heavy or burdened. Perhaps God seems only a faint hope. Perhaps a sorrowful memory or a mirky future press your soul. Perhaps you’ve begun to believe that no one truly sees, that this is the final word.

For you, dear friends, St. John of Kronstadt has a vital word:

When you are praying alone, and your spirit is dejected…remember then that God the Trinity looks upon you with eyes brighter than the sun.

Eyes brighter than the sun. Eyes of attentive love. Eyes on you.

ashestoashesSome of us have, for the moment at least, sufficiently made our point. We can not abide a robotic faith where difficult questions or deep anxieties are met with silence, rebuke or prayer-circle interventions. We have been worn to the existential bone with the hypocrisy we believe others demand of us when we are expected to apply our happy face and chirp a few cliches, often set to peppy tunes. We will not play the game. We will be (as we repeatedly remind ourselves and others) authentic.

The difficulty is that, in our move toward being real (whatever that means), we’ve often merely traded one false self for another false self. In our previous world, we felt there was no space for our humanness, our individuality, our emotions and inner life. To whatever degree this was the reality hoisted upon us, we are right to resist. We are whole beings, and our whole self matters. In the new world where we’ve shed these shackles, however, we are often ruled by what we feel, by whether our prayers feel vibrant or our worship feels truthful. We sit immobilized when we hear the Psalmist’s invitation to “praise the Lord all [our] life.” Praise is not an emotion; it is a declaration.

There are many days when I don’t feel the electricity of love for Miska (or she for me), but I announce my love to her, live my love toward her, nonetheless. And I’m not being inauthentic. Quite the opposite, I’m demonstrating that my love runs far deeper than my whims or confusions. I have promised fidelity. This is the ground of truth. When I don’t feel love’s energy, I should pay attention in order to keep a check on the state of my heart toward her, but this poverty doesn’t define what is true. Some days, my feelings are simply going to have to figure out how to keep up.

Our feelings, all the complexities of our story and our interior selves, are affirmed in the Psalms, honored in the prayers of the prophets and apostles, and blessed in the Incarnation where Divinity became fully human. However, our feelings are not God. Only God is God. As Barth said, “Let us set aside our investigation of God. God searches us. Our mind is never right.” To give no heed to what we feel or think or the many ways we struggle and plod along is to dishonor the God who created us. However, to give ultimate authority to these realities is to bow at the feet of another god.

Feelings are important in judging the condition of our heart or how we are engaging God and others. However, they don’t always tell us the truth about ourselves, God or others. Attentiveness to our feelings is essential to tell us where our heart is, but they are not always trustworthy to tell us where God is. Only God can do that.

This is why we pray with the Church. This is why we surrender to the stories of our God’s actions across history and geography. This is why we break bread with friends and laugh and dance under the moon and become peacemakers and feast with the poor. This is why we hope for good and commit ourselves to joy and why we have plenty of space for our tears. We do all this because God has come to us in Jesus Christ, and Jesus has taught us that this life is the life God has for us. Whether we feel it or not.

I have another bit I could have shared, adding another mercy to my story about the balls we juggle and the balls we drop. This snippet’s too good to miss.

Several weeks ago, a couple days after my conversation with Ken, I received an email from another friend. Only this fellow’s also in my parish. I’m (as he likes to say) his reverend. This means that he’s one of those we pastor-types imagine we are spinning and juggling and dashing about to impress, the ones who’ll rush off in a huff if we blow up any of our ecclesiastical chores. This fellow, thank God, lives outside that circle. “I’ve had you in mind lately,” he wrote, “and hoping that you’re managing to hold everything together these days. You certainly won’t hear anything from us if you miss a few things, intentionally or not.”

Intentional. Or not. If a goof or mishap is what’s needed, blunder away, he said.

A few days later, the two of us took a walk in the rain. More like a monsoon, we were drenched down to our skivvies. I don’t know where such a thing lands on the productive management grid. But it surely felt good to be human, a very wet human.

My friend, in the email assuring me it was mighty fine to roll a gutter ball, concluded with Garrison Keillor’s sign off: Be well, do good work, and stay in touch. I pass those words to you, as they were passed to me. 


My friend Ken asked me how I was doing, and I answered with the worn-out juggling metaphor. The last few weeks, I’ve been tossing so many balls I’m teetering, breathless. One miscue, and we’re sure to have a jangled collision. This works against my desire for simplicity, and I feel like a class-A hypocrite. Of course, that guilt becomes simply another ball I toss into the furious loop.

I explained to Ken my fear that I would drop one of my whirling balls and that those I love or those I’m responsible for would suffer. My family would not receive all they need from me. My church would endure a lackluster pastor. Maybe my coursework would pay the price. Or my writing would be dull and empty. So much at stake. So many possibilities for ruin. I must keep the blurring circle flawlessly spinning.

The phone sat silent for a moment. Then Ken, with a carefree voice, asked “Why don’t you just let a ball drop every now and then?”

Why don’t I just drop a ball? It’s easy when someone else says it. Why do I believe I’m so crucial to the universe that my misstep carries such drastic consequences? I do the best I can, which means I bumble my way most of the time. I have trouble keeping track of my keys most days, much less all the whizzing parts of my world. Juggling belongs in a circus anyway, where there’s laughter and popcorn and everyone expects someone to get a pie in the face and to be left with a big mess after the fat lady sings.

Last night, All Souls had a Healing Eucharist. When Miska prayed for me, she placed her hand on my heart and prayed that I’d know there is nothing to fear, that I’d know that – truly – nothing is at stake. Her prayer said, drop a ball if you need to, grace will pick it up.

eliotI once had a professor offer a course consisting of nothing but a semester of Wednesdays reading Eliot and Dostoevsky. A strange pairing perhaps, but this professor noticed wonder and delight in all sorts of strange places. He described the course as an indulgence, and that one word slashed the overblown tires of scholastic rigor. I was invited to revel and play, to laugh and ponder. I need not critique from afar, with appropriate analytical distance. The invite was to stick my face in the cake and come up only when I needed air or needed to wipe icing from my nose.

Of course – how else would one read poetry, how else would one read a fine story?

The sad portion is that, due to financial and administrative issues, I had to drop the class. However, I stuck around long enough to read T.S. Eliot’s Rhapsody on a Windy Night where he gave me the indelible picture of “a madman shaking a dead geranium.” I couldn’t tell you exactly what that line taught me, exactly how it proved profitable in future studies or vocation. However, it gave me pause. I saw anew the madness in my world and my heart. I’m still watching for those limp, lifeless geraniums.

Thomas Stearns Eliot celebrates his birthday today. I toast him, this man of good words. This man of indulgence.

Last Thursday morning, the day Miska and I celebrated fifteen years of gritty love, I sang Seth a tune while he pulled on his sneakers for school: Dad’s taking mom to breakfast to celebrate / Dad’s taking mom to breakfast to celebrate / Oh yeah, Dad’s taking mom to breakfast to celebrate (it’s best if you snap along).

Seth exhaled an agonizing groan. “Nooooo fair, Dad. You get to go to Waffle House!”

Of course, Waffle House hadn’t crossed our mind. We did consider The Pigeon Hole, a little house in the University district where, if you like, you can sit in the cobblestoned courtyard underneath a massive oak tree and order red-eye gravy laced with Shenandoah Joe’s coffee grounds. We did consider Blue Moon on Main Street where your first move upon arrival is to look up at the blackboard in the corner by the fireplace to see which gourmet thick-sliced bacon they’re offering (the Moon is where you’re likely to see a person order, all at once, an apple omelete, griddle cakes and a shot of jack daniels). The Nook downtown was an option, where you can enjoy French Toast while watching the town walk by. Of course, we could always pick the Bluegrass Grill, where you endure their kitsch garage sale mugs in order to lock your lips on the most astounding home fries. We did not think Waffle House.

Every month or two, however, we’ll pass by the House of the Waffle, and Wyatt will say, “Dad, you’ve really got to take us there again.”

“Yeah,” I say. “We’ll do that…Sometime.”

My boys like the waitresses who call you “honey” and the short order cooks with the yellow hats who yell out orders like a minor league umpire. They like the hash browns, the pancakes, the sticky syrup at the table. However, I believe they like Waffle House mainly because several years ago, in Clemson, I took them for a guy’s Saturday morning. We sat at the bar next to a guy from New England wearing his Boston College jersey and in town for the game with the Tigers. The atmosphere was crowded and rowdy. We chatted game day and drank coffee — and the boys were included in the ritual.

I also believe Wyatt and Seth like Waffle House because two years ago, when my dad was visiting, he wanted to take all the guys to breakfast. We had three generations lined up at those counter seats. The boys filled their bellies and joked with Pa and were inaugurated, amid maple syrup and OJ, to a family of men.

Every place in this world of ours, every place, can be a space of holy memory, of love, of belonging.

You learn much about a woman over fifteen years. You learn even more if you add another four on top, the stretch of time it took me to buckle up my courage and stop acting the fool. When the time was right though, the courage rushed with a fury. I’ve been grabbing straight shots of 80-proof love ever since.

In those fifteen years, you learn that a woman needs you to clean up your pancake disarray as you go along, not after dinner’s done. You learn that when we’re in bed reading and she asks if I’m hungry, what she really means is: would you take your cute little self downstairs and make me some of your stovetop popcorn? You learn that asking her what she thinks of Schleiermacher’s pneumatology or Barth’s “strange world” after 9 p.m. is likely to get you nothing but a big ol’ roll of the eyes.

But you also learn that you’re welcome to quote poetry at any hour. You learn that tears cost her much but have a mighty power to heal those who receive them. You learn that true artists simply make beauty everywhere and half the time don’t even know they’re doing it. You learn that whenever she pulls out that orange-striped apron, watch out. She may start with paint and canvas, but when she’s done, all you’ll be able to say is my, my

In fifteen years, you learn what it is to give yourself to a woman, to know that she is your truest joy and truest pleasure. You also know, as much as you know a thing in this world, that you’ve only begun to scratch at her mystery, her allure.


winn and miska