I always feel a heaviness in my gut when I imagine the terror of the woman in St. John’s story, the woman used as bait for trapping Jesus. Standing absolutely by herself in that violent circle and enclosed by angry, leering men, panic must have consumed her. Plotters snatched her from her lover’s bed, and now, half-dressed, she stood in the middle of the square with dust-caked streaks marking her face and shame marking her heart. Seared with a scarlet A, she stood alone amid a sea of hate.

I find it curious that when the Pharisees asked Jesus if he was ready to grab a rock, John notes Jesus’ precise movement. Jesus, the story says, “bent down.” He did not answer. He did not theologize. Jesus crouched low and doodled in the dirt.

Reams have been written on what Jesus scribbled on that street, but I’m more intrigued by the fact that Jesus bent low. This posture of humble tenderness was entirely at odds with the highly charged moment. This bending was a quiet, tender movement that, by its very action, refused to cooperate with the coercive question, with the agenda, with the fear. Jesus would not stand with the woman’s assailants. Jesus would not stand with the powerful. In fact, Jesus would not stand at all. Jesus bent down.

In a world where too many voices (from all sides) hurl accusation, sarcasm and dogma, I want to learn to bend down. I do not merely want to speak in kinder tones or hone effective listening skills. Nor am I indicating a desire to surrender all conviction or clear-eyed gumption. Rather, I mean something far more difficult, something that unwinds us from a much deeper core. I hope to be one identified by tears more than edicts, by hopes more than fears, by the kind of strength that bends down. I hope to become a man of tenacious tenderness.

“There are some men too gentle to live among the wolves,” says Kavanaugh. I believe there is something here we need to listen to, something I fear, at times, we might lose altogether. We need women and men who refuse the way of the wolves.

I have no idea what Jesus wrote that day, bending close to the dirt. It wouldn’t shock me, however, if he wrote something like this: Grace, too gentle for the wolves.

There are childhood moments that will not let you loose. One of mine comes from 7th grade when I spent several days ravaged by an infernal fever. I remember the concern because the heat hovered near 104°. I remember delirium, the spinning room, fuzzy newsmen from 60 Minutes on the TV. I felt like I was trapped in a kaleidoscope. Mostly, though, I remember that long Sunday evening where my mom held my head in her lap on the living room couch. For hours, she stroked my sweaty hair.

My mother was not merely caring for me. She was fighting for me. Because I have children of my own now, I know that my mother felt a pain in her bones that my little body could not yet know. My mom guided me down the hall and helped to lower my steaming body into our old porcelain tub. She filled the bath with water and ice. I remember the shock shimmying up my spine, me gasping for air. I quivered and ached while my mom poured all her love and energy and fierceness into that fight. And my mom won. The fever cried uncle.

For graduate school, I returned to living at home, driving 97 miles north two times a week for classes. On those pre-dawn mornings when I would travel, my mom would pack my lunch. Some would say it’s goofy for a grown man to have his mom packing his lunch. Maybe, but the fact is that those days I was hacking my way through a dark space, and my mom wanted a tangible way to say, You’re not alone. You don’t have to do this by yourself. I don’t remember much about those lunches, but I do remember one note she dropped in the brown bag. I won’t share what the note said, it still feels like a secret between a mother and a son. But the love was strong. It sits, even now, in my drawer, a mere scrap of paper that emanates potent mysteries and the kind of presence that perhaps only a mother can give.

My mom waged a long, fierce battle with cancer, and we buried her in January. In her last months, the effects of radiation and multiple rounds of chemotherapy did a cruel work, degrading her cognitive skills. Often she would be mid-sentence and lose the words she wanted to say or forget conversations from a few moments previous. Names, dates and details were often elusive. I flew to Texas last July to visit her, just me and her. It was difficult to see her in pain, though I was so proud of her fight and her spunk. She was determined for us to get out to the courtyard, by the soothing water, before our visit ended. On my last night, we made it. It took my mom hours to work her way up to it, to get dressed and manage all the simple things that require herculean effort when your body has an enemy coursing through its veins.

One evening, we sat in her room alone. She looked over at me from her bed with great intention: “Winn, even if someday I forget your name, I will never forget you.”

My eyes turned wet. My voice cracked. “I know, mom. I know.”

St. Paul said that love holds fast even when knowledge fails, even when our memory or our grip on reality fails. Paul was right; I testify to this truth.

I can read you Scriptures explaining how God is like a mother hen who gathers up her chicks and Scriptures insisting God will never forsake or abandon us. Or I can tell you stories about my mom who spent her life fighting fevers and enacting hope and assuring me she would never, ever forget.

Two amazing things happened today. First, our family began our sabbatical. All Souls knows the importance of tending to body and spirit (something far too rare in churches these days) and after every six years of pastoral service, our community provides three-months for renewal, creativity, rest and joy. There will be lots of playing, reading, writing, loafing, eating, hiking – lots of laughter and tomfoolery. I won’t be completely absent here, but I also will not feel beholden to my normal weekly schedule. Let’s be whimsical.

Second, today I heard how a fella named Chris Anderson dresses up in 5-inch polkadot heels and a blue apron, dons the persona of crass Southern bell Dixie Longate and charges $40 for tickets to her Tupperware parties. People pay $40 to go to a Tupperware party. Anything’s possible, folks. Anything’s possible.


Until I was seven years old, Miska and I both lived in Middle Tennessee, with only 75 miles separating us. Our worlds never intersected, but we watched fireflies under the same summer sky. I’ve often wondered what it would have been like if we had met then. On Saturdays, my dad would often take his motorcycle out on the serpentine country roads. On a few occasions, dad loaded me on the seat behind him, and we’d roll through the hills. We always stuck to the backroads, and I wonder if it’s possible we might have rumbled past Tolleson Road. Is it possible I caught a glimpse of Miska running barefoot through the grass or lying under the big elm with her best friends, her dogs? Could I have happened by just as Miska rode the tractor with her pappy or right when she made one of her courageous jumps out their barn’s hayloft?

I don’t know, but I’ll thank God every day that fifteen years later, I found my way back to her. Strange that we’d meet in Florida of all places.

I was thinking of all this, our shared geography and the way of fate, this morning. As kids, we both remember loving the first scent of our Tennessee honeysuckle, and in our backyard now, the Virginia honeysuckle has made its first appearance. It’s a marvelous scent of life and lush bounty. And it’s a reminder of where we’ve been and the grace that has carried us to this place. Life is a wonder.


Frank McCourt described how the community of his beloved Limerick, Ireland would gather for the wake of a dead friend or relative. The body would lie in one room, and you would go there first to say a prayer and have a few somber moments. Then, you would enter the next room to console the widow and speak kind words of the one now gone from you. You would raise a pint in the deceased’s memory and reiterate how sad you were for all the troubles. Soon, someone would offer a funny story about your dead friend, followed by several more, then eventually someone would call out the name of his favorite song and everyone would belt out the tune. The music would grow, and the spirited melodies would carry them into the night. The younger folk would dance through the wee hours. “The idea,” Frank said, “was that the entertainment was so good, the stories were so good, the dancing was so good, the singing was so good – that if the dead could stay dead through this, they’re really dead.”

“That,” Frank added “is why we call it a wake.”

And even if the dead refused to rise, those singing and dancing found their souls reinvigorated, awake. Their hearts were heavy with grief but sturdier toward the life that stretched before them. There is a joy only those acquainted with true sorrows know, a joy hard won. A joy of protest. A joy of belligerent hope.

If our response to the the world’s anguish (whether anger or retreat, despondency or especially a righteous-sounding battlecry) has forgotten to listen to the music, to tap the toe, to rib a friend at the hilariousness or absurdity of it all, then I will not join that monotone chorus. I can not. The pains we must endure in this world exact too high a price to be wasted on such small-sighted visions. I want to sing the songs that make the people dance, even in the house of sorrows. I want to tell the stories that rouse the dead.

I probably have until July before Wyatt, our oldest, stands taller than me. That looming event feels like the crossing of some kind of fatherly Rubicon. His shoes are already 2.5 sizes larger than mine, and last week when I needed to borrow a pair of running socks, he answered, “Sure, dad – but they’re too big for you.” Wyatt said this without jest or boast, simply matter of fact. As of last Sunday, I can still take him one-on-one in basketball, but only by sheer intimidation. Dads have a special knack for rattling their kid’s psyche, it’s a gift. For some ridiculous reason, Wyatt believes I can still beat him in a 40 yard dash. In a few weeks, Wyatt turns thirteen, so my days are numbered. In so many ways, my days are numbered.

When he was a tike, Wyatt endured acute sensory issues. At night, he didn’t want any blanket on his body, and many kinds of clothes were problems for him. He was a porcupine whenever we tried to hold him close. Affection was hard won, but we persisted. I want to be the dad who can always kiss his sons, even when my sons have sons or daughters of their own. So I regularly tousle the boys’ hair and kiss their forehead. I hug them and squeeze their shoulders and tell them, each morning before they leave for school and each night before they go to be bed, that I love them. Our youngest, Seth, soaks up the affection, and for years I’ve hoped we’d eventually win Wyatt over.

Last week, Wyatt, Seth and I walked into Whole Foods to buy Ben and Jerry’s ice cream. I walked between the two, my left arm draped over Wyatt’s shoulder and my right arm draped over Seth’s. In turn, both boys spread an arm over me. We walked in step, like the Rockettes. I realized how I was no longer surprised with Wyatt being the first to come in close, the one to lean heaviest into me. As we entered the store, I believe I sensed Wyatt slow to pull away, as if he wanted our walk to linger a few moments longer. I know I did. I want so many of these moments to linger longer.

Lent lasts 40 days, but Easter stretches 50. In the Kingdom of God, the party always outlasts the sorrow. These are the days for fresh light, for new possibilities, the days to return to the joy we’ve feared might be lost forever. If you want to know the real juice for the Christian, well we’ve landed on it right here.

There is a kind of foolishness to these days, a devil-may-care abandonment to the hope of a new world, a new marriage, a new friendship. We have known long, grueling (and necessary) days of lament. We have reckoned with all the death. But today, we pull out the bagpipes and pop the champagne. Today, we dance on the graves.




If we are to live wholehearted, there is another word which matters a great deal, a word that has fallen out of favor in our über- independent, you-should-do-anything-you-can-dream self-talk: responsibility. There are many things I am not responsible for (and it’s important to get those things clear, or we’ll suffocate for sure). As Walker Percy said, “Lucky is the man who does not secretly believe that every possibility is open to him” However, there are some things I alone am responsible for – and it is my great task to see to them. There are few things (though perhaps only a few) worthy of the weight of our life.

There are two boys in my house who have only one fella to call dad, and that’s me. Miska has only one man to whom she has pledged her love and fidelity, and she has received this pledge from only one man in return. These responsibilities have been handed to me, and I gladly received them (though I was so young and mostly ignorant when I said ‘yes’). These responsibilities are mine. They are a trust, a bond, a calling. Whatever jolt of inspiration I might receive, whatever great stirring of wanderlust or new possibilities – if they pull me from these responsibilities, then they are lies.

There are a few words I must write, a few people I must pastor, a circle of friends who I will walk beside, come hell or high water. There is ground I must tend to, a horizon I must walk toward. To abandon any of these would be a wound to me and to those around me.

To insist we must be attentive to the unique contour of our life is not to throw fuel on the narcissism of our age, where we flit from one whim to the next with little regard for the world or our responsibility to it. Here, we have no silly suggestion that our entire life should be one long, uninterrupted string of thrills and chills. Just the opposite, attentiveness to our life helps us to know where we must lay down our life, if our life is what’s called for. Not everything will be worthy of this sacrifice, but some things are. Some things absolutely are.

As we embrace a kind of holy indifference for those things which are not our responsibility (at least not for now), we discover new energy for those peculiar spaces we are meant to inhabit, those conversations that perhaps we alone can pursue, that obscure work that few notice and might go entirely ignored unless we stray from the pack and get to it. So long as we expend our energy churning to keep up with everyone else’s burning emergency, we have no energy for the one life we must live. Inevitably, we find ourselves bone-weary, guilt-laden or perhaps worst of all – a cynic unable to live open, generous and free.

Last week, a good friend reminded me of David Whyte’s words I’ve long appreciated: “the antidote to exhaustion is not rest but wholeheartedness.” To be sure, rest and leisure, kicking up the feet and laying low for a spell, is more than necessary. Yet, our deep weariness comes whenever our skill, energy or hopes do not burn from that deep truth God has tattooed on our soul. To live wholehearted, we must say no to many worthwhile things, and we must say yes to a few absolutely essential things.

I’ve happened upon a few signals (and I’m sure there are more) for how to know where my yes should be. I pay attention to the tears, particularly those moments where my heart takes a prick and I don’t know exactly why – this is a path I should follow. I pay attention to the joy, those jolts of delight or pleasure that always make me more alive, more gentle, more bold. And I pay attention to the quiet, those occasions where I sense a conviction of something I must do – but I don’t want to talk about it just now. It’s a smoldering fire; there’s heat but also a reticence to draw too much attention.

A life overwhelmed by lethargy will prove to be no life at all, mere rust and rot and a dim smallness. If there is nothing that stirs us to action, nothing that cues tears or brings sweat or stirs great fantasies, then we really do need to step into our one crack at this beautiful thing called life. Listen to me, please: there is essential work you must do, friendships you must pursue, beauty you must make, stories you must tell. Do it.

Yet, it is also a fact that we are finite (finite energy, finite vision, finite capacity) and cannot possibly carry the burden (at least not in any deep, meaningful way) of everything. We’ve all heard the warning that to care about everything means to care about nothing, and I believe this is mostly true. I’ve come to acknowledge a kind of holy indifference, a settled sense that not every worthy cause is our cause, not every good road is the road we must take, not every burning question requires our opinion. It’s important to live with T.S. Eliot’s tension: “Teach us to care and not to care.” We must welcome both sides as we become the unique person we are uniquely able to be.

Eliot’s next line asks God to “Teach us to sit still.” Perhaps this is the crucial place, to sit still and listen. To listen for that clarity and simplicity that arises from the silence, reminding us of who we truly are, convincing us again of what we are most responsible to say and to do. To do our truest work, we allow other work to go fallow. We enact faith that whatever must be done in this world, will be done – and much of it, not by us. Some sow, some water, some reap. Some plod, some fizzle, some take the big stage. We do what we can do, what we must do. And then we sit still. Maybe we even take a nap.