Dear John ~ 31 October 2016

Dear John, 

I saw the photo of the three college amigos sitting on your couch, and they all looked happy. I know you and Mer were happy to have them there, though I suspect you gulped a few times when you saw the cashier ringing up the piles of food on each trip you made to King Soopers. We have that gulping experience often now with these young turks filling our house with testosterone and appetites. I, like you, am so glad to plop down the cash for groceries and sneakers and braces and burritos and jeans and deodorant (lots) and more groceries and then more sneakers followed by more groceries, Still, I am looking forward to the day when Wyatt and Seth are grown and footing the bill themselves and look back on these days and say, “I had no idea…” I’ve been looking back at my mom and dad a lot recently and thinking “I had no idea…”

Well, today’s the day the Big Tree’s coming down. It’s an ash, more than 100 years old, a real massive, regal tree. I’m sad to see it go. We never named this great tree, probably because we knew we wouldn’t have it for long and didn’t want to grow too attached. He has a twin who’s still strong and healthy, and I’ve christened the twin Stogie. Miska doesn’t like the name at all, doesn’t seem noble enough or earthy enough or something. I think we’re going to plant a Weeping Willow back near this spot, but I’ll clear the name with Miska this time. I’ve learned my lesson. Anyway, the tree crew arrived early this morning, and they are having a time out there. The guy up top, maybe 30 feet high, is cutting and whooping, and the boss man’s giving fist bumps to his compadre as they’re feeding limbs into the chipper. That chipper’s something, like Jaws just chomping and cracking those burly limbs like they’re nothing more than toothpicks. It’s good to see folks good at their work and taking such pleasure in it. 

A few hours ago, my friend Tom the master carpenter stopped by. He’s going to take a large hunk of the tree and build us a bench. This tree has been part of this property, providing joy and comfort, for more than a century, and it’s going to continue to do the same for decades more. Tom and I talked trees and carpentry, but then, as we typically do, we began to talk about life, about what we see in the world. We both see, as you mentioned, a lot of passions and a lot of fire (a lot of anger). What saddens me most about our current state of affairs is that we are losing our ability to truly hear the other. We are dividing and taking sides and building motes around our enclaves in ways that are ripping apart our common life (and I use common life in both senses: our shared life and our ordinary life – we’re destroying both). It’s like we’re all being tossed into that chipper and crushed to smithereens. I know that, at least on paper, somebody wins (elections, culture wars, theological arguments); but I don’t believe that the way we’re going about all this, anybody wins at all. We’re throwing one another, and ourselves, into these steel jaws of death grinding us down until there’s nothing left except, I guess, a mess of good mulch for starting over and growing something new. And maybe that’s the hope here, that somehow after we’ve razed things to the ground, we’ll see our folly and start to build something new, something that is really of course very, very old. I sure wish we could wake up first and not torch the whole thing. I do.    

In the meantime, though, we do things like say goodbye to good trees and make benches for sitting in the shade and thinking and welcoming friends. We give out candy to the neighborhood ghouls and minions. We wait for our children to make the journey home and we make trips to King Soopers with fat wallets that will quickly grow skinny. We write friends letters to remind one another we’re not crazy, that we believe in goodness — that we believe in this goodness very much.  

 

Your Friend,

Winn

Dear John ~ 12 September 2016

Dear John,

You know, we’re right behind you; we’ve just enjoyed the initial nip of Autumn over here in Virginia as well. For the first time this morning on my run, the air carried that crispness that makes me almost giggly inside. Mercy, I love this time of year. I love all kinds of times of the year, but this is hands down top shelf for me. Our Japanese Maples will start blushing soon, then commence their strip tease while our massive Tulip Poplar (his name is Ol’ Beard) will get all excited and puff out his chest and go fiery yellow and orange. I imagine Ol’ Beard winking at the Maples and saying, How you like that, ladies? We’ve already had two trips up the mountain for apples – and planning a third this week because the good folks at Carter’s Orchard promised me the Candy Crisps would be ready. Have you ever enjoyed the rapturous pleasure of locking your jaws on a Candy Crisp? They’re similar to Honey Crisp, only crisper and sweeter. It’s like plucking an apple pie straight off the tree. 

The chilled air and bright sunshine gave me, at least to the third mile, a new spring in my stride this morning – which is saying something because sleep was less than abundant this weekend. On top of writing work I needed to get done and final touches on a sermon, I decided to force a final last stand with those snakes you and I have talked about. I won’t go into the gritty details, but the picture you saw pretty much sums it up. With goggles, caulk gun and hoe, I went to war. I’m happy to report that it appears I am the victor. However, Miska and I also tackled another DIY project, installing a new light fixture in Seth’s room. It was a simple affair, should have taken no more than 30 minutes. Three hours later, after installing and uninstalling the light 3 times and after checking and re-checking the wiring (I mean, black to black and white to white, how freaking difficult can this be, Sherlock?) and after traipsing up and down from the cellar to our breaker box God knows how many times where I scratched my head while flipping the power on and off, I was forlorn and despondent. “Wait,” I asked Miska, “do we have the light switch on?” Yup, the whole time I thought the fixture wasn’t working, we’d failed to turn the dang thing on. 

I hear you on the whole iPhone headphone jack kerfuffle. Do you think that since we’ve learned we should be always poised and ready to pounce on some outrage that maybe we’ve lost all bearings on reality and now must have our daily outrage fix or we get jittery? If I’m honest, though, I didn’t much like the Apple gods doing away with the little hole — but only because I’m cheap. Those cute Minnie Mouse earbuds never work in my ears, and I’ve got a pile of old fashioned corded earphones that work just fine thank you. I don’t like them forcing me to purchase yet another pair just because they want to go all sleek and shiny. Of course, this assumes I’ll actually lay my cold cash down for another iPhone, which is not a safe assumption since they now cost as much as a used car.

I’m glad you read Kalanithi’s story. I read it last summer when we were in Denver (remember those days? man, that was a blast). The book was difficult to read, so soon after my mom died of cancer, but I was thankful for his courage. Wasn’t it remarkable how his whole life, even long before sickness hit him, scratched after answering this question: “What makes life meaningful enough to go on living?” He posed that question multiple times, and I think you’re absolutely right – this is another way of asking “What are the things you love, and how will you live in fidelity to those things you love?” I love Candy Crisp apples with thin slices of pepper jack cheese or a dollop of Trader Joe’s crunchy peanut butter. I love watching those Maples and Ol’ Beard set the yard aflame and laughing my arse off with Miska after we realize we never flipped on the dang switch and listening to that gravely Johnny Cash who, even though he was a rebel, often sang with a tear in his voice. I love two boys who consume an entire large Pizza Hut pizza each for dinner, and I love friends who write letters that remind me of how good this world is, and how good it is to have a friend to share it with. 

You know, we could do something with this idea of sharing the things we love. We could even sit down and chat about it and record it and put it out there just for kicks. I hear folks are doing stuff like that these days.

Well, in a few days Miska and I fly off to the Big Easy to celebrate 19 years of wedded bliss. Friends generously hooked us up with a little apartment down in the French Quarter. They say the locals don’t wait in line at Cafe Du Monde but just slip right into a table, so we’ll do that. I hope they’re shooting us straight and we don’t get the stink eye. They also say the apartment’s balcony offers a fine perch for people watching, so maybe I’ll have something good to tell you about when we get back. 

 

Your Friend,

Winn

 

Dear John ~ 22 August 2016

Dear John,

I’ve been thinking about you and Mer a lot this weekend. Will to one side of the world, Sarah to another. I remember the day my dad dropped me off for my first semester at college. There was only one small item left in our van parked in front of the dormitory. It was one of those portable ironing boards, couldn’t have weighed more than 4 pounds, but my dad insisted he needed to carry it back up to the 3rd floor for me. I didn’t understand why until after climbing those few flights of stairs and dropping the board in my room, when my dad had no more excuses and finally had to say goodbye. Tears. I remember the tears. I had tears too after he drove off. Man, the love was deep.

I know you well enough to know there’ll be some red eyes over this stretch of days. That’s one of the things I love about you.

When you put all this together with Abbey starting high school, it’s overload. I know, we’re right behind you. Wyatt starts high school tomorrow, Seth’s full throttle in Jr. High. You know what’s the kicker? They both decided to play football this year. You know how I love the sport, and it was the best part of high school for me, but I never wanted to pressure them in any way to play. Not only is it a jerk thing to try to maneuver your boys’ passions, but also, as you know, we have lots more information on the perils of head injuries now. We’ve done a good bit of due diligence. I even sat in on a conversation with two experts: a pediatric neurologist and the guy who teaches the course called “Concussion” at UVA. Anyway, Wyatt and Seth wanted to play, and so they are. Thankfully, squads are teaching lots of new techniques. Did you know some teams are teaching rugby style tackling? My ol’ Texas coaches would sure be scratching their heads.

I will tell you, though, I love these days. As our sons’ bodies and minds and hearts are growing, I love seeing my boys step into new territory. I love seeing their wonder and their nervousness and their eagerness. I love how they are being challenged and are rising to the moment. I love how these rites of passage are stoking a new (old, really) fire in their young, strong bones. 

Given that high school and football are now both part of our family life, Miska and I decided it was time to introduce them to Coach Taylor and those Friday Night Lights. Boy, it was good. Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose. The boys were hooked, but then I knew they would be. I wish every kid could have a Coach Taylor.

Well, I know you’re somewhere in the air heading to Pepperdine right now. It’s brave of you to battle the airlines again after that hellacious weekend you endured. I hope the next two days are good. You’re a good dad, and I’m thankful for that. We need good dads.

 

Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose,

Winn

Dear John ~ 13 June 2016

Dear John,

You are so right. On days like these, we need a friend. So, here I am, writing you back right away. Last evening, I heard stories of the police investigators making their way through the pile of carnage and how they kept having to force themselves to tune out all the telephones ringing from all the bodies. Friends desperately hoping someone on the other end would pick up. Family members refusing to believe the worst. Such loneliness and crushing sorrow. They weren’t able to talk to those they loved. I wish I could do something.

Friday, you know, will be the 1 year anniversary of the shooting at Mother Emanuel in Charleston. You remember how it felt when you and I stood on Calhoun St. in front of the memorial at the church, the deep sadness, wondering if we’ve all just gone mad? And now, a year later here we are again. One group gunned down because of hate. Another group gunned down because of hate. Have we? Have we just gone mad?

I appreciate very much Annie’s challenge to write words that will not enrage by their triviality. Yesterday, a friend dropped by to see our house, and her phone alarm went off at 6:00 p.m. It was a reminder about the moment of silence for the victims in Orlando. We all sat there, still. Those 60 seconds were the truest response I had all day. I wish we could have sat there quiet together.

 

Your Friend,
Winn

Dear John ~ 25 April 2016

Dear John,

I can picture you there at Pepperdine, as you imagined Sarah walking that campus, only without you next time — and knowing that it’s right for her, feeling the joy and heart-tug of such a moment. This weekend we found old pictures of the boys, pictures we haven’t seen for a long time. The boys were wee tikes, on their first soccer team. Soccer – hah! It was a full-on miracle if we could just keep them running in the right general direction. Seth was 3 and wore a headband, looked like a very short Björn Borg. Wyatt ran around mostly in circles, trying to position himself in the general vicinity of the ball but without ever actually having to kick it – but he made all these maneuvers very fiercely. Miska and I stood there staring at those pictures, doing what parents do whenever we find again proof of where we’ve been, of the love that flows so deep. It will be only a few snaps of the fingers and we’ll be packing our boys off to some university somewhere. My wallet’s already whimpering at the thought of it. I think I’ve told you I’m not feeling like a great dad these days, just feeling off, not generous and present as I want to be. I’m not beating myself up too much about it, but I do want to remember what I most want with my sons, who I want to be with them.

Have you seen Henry Ossawa Tanner’s painting “Banjo Lesson”? I’ll include the picture below. Tanner was such a fine artist, and with this piece it’s believed Tanner painted a grandfather teaching his grandson the art, but it says a lot about what I hope to be with my boys: close, tender, attentive, passing along something of my life, something of my work, something of myself.

Anyway, we found those pictures of the boys this weekend because we were going through our storage closet, tossing things we should have tossed years ago but only get around to when you’re ready to pack up and move. Why is it that we give the house extra shine and complete those projects that have nagged us forever just as we’re about to say farewell? Isn’t that ass-backwards? Still, we’ve lived well here. I think we’ve played hard and loved hard and (as we like to say in Texas) we shot our full wad. When we haul out our last box and lock our purple front door, I imagine these old walls exhaling, maybe flopping on the floor exhausted, panting for breath but with a big grin and then saying, with a long sigh: “Those Colliers knew how to live.”

Yes, it seems time to pull our letter-writing back a tad from the blog-o-sphere. I’m glad we’ve done this, and will do it again here and there when the urge strikes. Friendship is one of my truest joys in this life. Thank you for being a big part of that joy.

 

Your Friend,
Winn

 

Henry Oshawa Tanner's "The Banjo Lesson"
Henry Ossawa Tanner’s “The Banjo Lesson”

Dear John ~ 24 March 2016

Dear John,

So Easter’s coming Sunday. You probably remember enough from your pastor-years to recall how this is a pretty big day. I love seeing all the joy and laughter, some folks stepping it up a little with their Sunday clothes and all the kids wired for the candy they’ve had or the candy they know’s coming their way. The sun’s typically bright, the dogwoods and the daffodils showing off. The music has extra oomph. It’s a grand day.

But I also know it’s an important day because this story we’ll be telling, this moment where we remember that Jesus rose from the dead and kicked evil to the curb – this day is pretty much the whole ball of wax, isn’t it? St. Paul seemed to know a thing or two, and he said that if Jesus didn’t raise up from the dead, then we’re all in a major heap of doo-doo. I tend to think everything in Jesus’ life pointed to this climactic moment when he sloughed off those grave clothes and walked back into this world he loves, this world he’d literally gone to hell to salvage. Some folks think that Jesus got a resurrection because he had to have a cross, but I think Jesus got a cross because he had to have a resurrection. What do you think about that? I don’t know, maybe that’s parsing truths that don’t need parsing. I know this though – what I most need, what most everyone I know needs, is a resurrection. I think most of us live fully aware of the death rattle; we’re just wondering if the story’s really true. We’re wondering if Life and Love really do win in the end.

But here’s my problem, John – I’ve been pondering my sermon for a mess of days now, and I’ve got nothing. Nada. At the moment, my heart feels flat as a pancake. Dry. Dull. Dead. Maybe that’s right, for now. My pastoral workweek calendar says I’m supposed to have a sermon prepared by 5 p.m., but my soul knows that first comes an evening where Jesus shares what must have been a very lonely meal with his disciples, clueless as they were to how he was pointing toward death. First comes a Friday we’ve named Good, though it’s the strangest good I know. Today, I’m leaning toward resurrection, but my soul knows there’s the valley of the shadow of death to walk through between here and there. Why can’t the story of God’s salvation of the cosmos fit into my nicely arranged to-do list?

I’ll tell you this: I do hope some worthwhile words present themselves to me before Sunday. The folks with whom I’ll gather to announce Resurrection are kind and generous, and most will put up with me and my bumbling ways. But still, I would like to have something helpful to share. Every hope I have is bound up in this Jesus who put death in a chokehold and refused to let go. I’d like to do it justice, if I’m able. 

So all that to say – light another candle for me. And if you get some flash of inspiration and want to write a sermon to pass my way, I’m all ears. 

 

Your Friend,
Winn

Dear John ~ 14 March 2016

Dear John,

Being with you in Charleston was a real joy. It’s almost as if those long walks on that stretch of beach are becoming something of a tradition. I like tradition, not the stuffy can’t-alter-a-thing kind, but the living, breathing kind — the sort that grows up around you and reminds you that you belong to this world and that she belongs to you, the kind of tradition that, over the years, becomes the music score playing behind the beautiful story that becomes your life.

Seth may love tradition even more than me. You know how every year for his birthday I take him to a Clemson football game. It’s a great road trip, and Seth wants tradition from the time I pick him up early from school on Friday to the time we pull back into our garage around 4 a.m. Sunday. Seth wants to stop at the same spot for dinner (Zaxby’s). He wants lunch at the same spot on game day (Moe’s, the same Moe’s we ate lunch at after church most Sundays when we lived in Clemson) and then he likes to walk over, every time, to Judge Kellers and the Tiger Sports Shop to check out the latest Clemson gear. Seth wants the same chicken-and-biscuits after we leave the stadium (Bojangles), and during the wee hours of Sunday morning, somewhere in North Carolina, he wants to chow tacos from the 24 hour Taco Bell (why, I can not say). The whole thing’s an awful cholesterol binge, to be sure, but he gets such a kick out of it that I can’t say no. I’m a pushover.

Sometimes I’m around folks, usually Christians, who are eager to toss tradition, like getting rid of garbage. They want to scrub out the old words and seem apologetic about most everything from older generations, most everything that’s slow or out of fashion. It always makes me sad. I’m all for fresh eyes and new energy (and God knows we need to correct places where we’ve veered off course), but if we find ourselves abandoning all the people who have made us who we are, we are foolish and will sooner or later recognize how unmoored we’ve become, how lonely we are.

I too like the Charlotte airport (at least, as much as I could possibly ‘like’ any such space). If I’m ever forced to have a layover, I always hope it’s in Charlotte. I love all those white rocking chairs they have scattered about. If there was ever a place that needed a few hundred rocking chairs, a constant reminder to settle down and chill out, it’s an airport.

Your story about Abbey snagged me when you first mentioned it, and again when you reminded me in your letter. These sons and daughters of ours pluck at our most tender string, don’t they? Our boys have been driving us nuts lately, fighting like a mongoose and a cobra. But then I’ve noticed, here and there, both of them trying hard in their own way. One of them hugs us at most every turn, which of course is about as good as it gets. And the other one, whose a little more stubborn and sullen right now, told me the other day, “I’m trying to pay more attention to what I’m saying and not argue as much.” It doesn’t take much to melt a dad’s heart, does it? Just a crumb.

I look forward to the day when I can join you on that porch, or you on mine.

 

Your Friend,
Winn

Dear John – 29 February 2016

Dear John,

Yes, Christ-haunted, I feel this as well. When Wyatt was still in a stroller, Miska and I spent a few days in Savannah, Georgia, Flannery’s childhood home. The whole city seems haunted. The Spanish moss drapes over the streets, hemming you in and filtering the light with an eerie glow. The ancient, knobby cobblestone down by the waterway, passing centuries-old warehouses and shops, feels like the sort of place where ghosts roam under moonlight. And the Bonaventure Cemetery – holy moly, that magnificent place gives you a hush and keeps you looking over your shoulder. I don’t think a book (Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil) and a city have ever been more perfectly matched. By the way, did you know they had to move the Bird Girl sculpture from the cemetery to the Tel Fair Museum of Art in 2014 because so many folks were messing with it? That’s sad to me, to think of her cooped up in a museum when her rightful place is under the trees keeping watch over so many loved ones. 

At any rate, Flannery hails from Savannah, there’s no doubt. Like you hail from the South, no doubt.

But you got me thinking of Ms. O’Connor. Have you read her essay “The Church and the Fiction Writer”? I wish more writers would take a listen, especially writers who share O’Connor’s faith. Flannery insists that fiction can never be used to uphold “the interests of abstract truth” but rather must see the world as it is and help the rest of us to see the world in all of its particularity, all of its beauty and all of its (to borrow from Flannery) grotesqueness. The job of any writer (and certainly any writer who wants to be faithful to the name ‘Christian’) should be to tell the truth, to reveal our desires and our failures, to unmask our pretense, to gives us this beautiful world and to make us stare at the ways we muck it up. And we should work hard to do this well, with real skill.

Anyway, Flannery says that writers who want to reveal mysteries will have to do it by describing truthfully what we see from where we sit. I think that’s what we’re doing, best we know.

Well, tomorrow’s Super Tuesday. I guess this whole thing’s heating up. Last week, I heard Marilynne Robinson say, “We have major work to do. The vocabulary of public life has become ridiculous.” So keep putting those poems to the page over there, keep telling us the truth about the world from where you sit. God knows we need it.

I’ll be seeing you soon. It feels so very good to write those words.

 

Your friend,
Winn

Dear John – 21 February 2016

Dear John,

I’m glad you got your fence repaired. I’m glad you and your neighbor had the opportunity to move along the fence line shoulder to shoulder and feel the gratification of shared work. Some days I crave these tasks that require something specific of you (line up the posts, set the panels), work with an explicit goal and a clear conclusion. So much of my life feels elusive or at least never-concluding. Though some folks opt for a vision of the pastor as something like an ecclesial project manager (set budget goals and growth metrics, chart the course, and then track your progress to completion), I can’t comprehend such a thing. To walk with people in grief and joy and boredom, to point toward God amid our confusions and our shenanigans, to try to help us all be faithful to one another and to what is true – there’s no clear end point to this. But then again, I’m a middling pastor so what do I know?

A few years ago, we were finishing our basement and needed to install insulation in the walls and ceiling. A friend came over to help. We wore our long-sleeve shirts and our goggles, loaded up our staple guns. That itchy stuff was no joke, but we experienced a kind of pleasure to work down the rows, firing away, and then to look back when we were done and see what we’d accomplished. I’m sure some of my friends and neighbors will read this and I’ll be getting calls pronto to come over and help with projects. I can hear it now: “Well, Rev, I hear your struggles. I got just the thing…” 

You mentioned the Stegner Fellowship at Stanford and those two decades of amazing classmates. One of my favorite things Stegner wrote was a letter he penned to Berry, some 30 years after Berry had been his student. I love the letter for many reasons, but one reason is because of the unabashed affection Stegner showed, though Stegner admitted how “it embarrasses my post-Protestant sensibilities to tell a man to his face that I admire him.” Stegner told Berry that “from the first time when you first appeared as a Fellow in the writing program in 1958, I recognized you as one who knew where he was from and who he was.” Stegner went on to recount how he’d tried to talk Berry away from his Kentucky farm and back to Stanford, though Berry was disinterested and how Berry was offered some opportunity that Stegner insisted most writers would sell their soul to have – again, disinterested. Stegner reminded Berry of the dire warnings so many laid on him: “that you were burying yourself,” Stegner wrote, “that you couldn’t come into the literary world with manure on your barn boots and expect to be welcomed…”

But Berry paid the small minds no mind. And I am so glad. I too, in my own way, want to be a writer who gets manure on his boots. Maybe that’s part of what pastoring does for me these days (there’s a metaphor that could go wrong easily). I know you understand what I mean, letting our words emerge from the real things of this life like putting up fences and getting braces on the kids and spending time out in the woods, things like loving and dying, like laughing and grieving, praying with someone who’s got the world on their shoulders. 

I’d like to think that’s some of what you and I are doing, keeping our boots dirty. I think we are.

 

Your friend,
Winn