Life’s River

Wyatt and the trout in an undisclosed location

Since the boys were tikes, I’ve taken each of them on a solo road trip for their birthday. It’s one of my very favorite dad-things. I always hope for a flash of memorable conversation, where a dad and a son share a moment with gravity. Sometimes it happens, sometimes it doesn’t. You can’t force these things. You just have to be open, and let it come when it will.

Since Seth’s birthday lands in October, we always nose down 29 to Clemson to see the Tigers feast on the poor lackeys who drew the short straw and have to spend a Saturday in Death Valley. But with Wyatt’s birthday in May, it’s been a potpourri of adventures. Watching his Yankees play at Camden Yards. A day zip lining. A weekend in DC, another in Texas hunting feral hogs.

Fishing has become one of Wyatt’s passions, but he’d never caught a trout. After hearing mythical tales, the sort whispered reverently from one fisherman to another, he was desperate for his own baptism in one of Virginia’s legendary wild trout streams. I apologize that I cannot be more specific with the name or location. I’m not a fisherman myself, but I’ve lived with one long enough to know that a man divulges his honey spot only when they pry it from his cold, dead fingers.

Our first evening on the water, Wyatt didn’t catch a thing. I take that back–he caught three branches, lost three pricey lures. While Wyatt worked his new St. Croix rod, a light model that needs to be caressed just so, I sat on a large rock at creek’s edge, under an oak’s shade. I watched the dead water, flat and lifeless. There was as much chance of a pig floating down that stream as a fish. But the closer I watched, the more I yielded to the stillness–I had it all wrong. Life teemed everywhere. Swarms of water bugs zooming across the surface. Microscopic tadpoles darting in and out as if they were engaged in serious business. Bits of leaves twirling in a small eddy, a miniature tornado. There was a riotous circus three feet from my nose, but I’d never known if I hadn’t gone quiet and waited for the gift to appear.

With my sons, with my friends, with Miska, with all the astonishing mysteries and joys outside my study window–this life is wondrous and abundant. I don’t want to miss any more of it than I have to. Sitting on that rock watching Wyatt cast, I gave thanks. I give thanks now.

And boy, did Wyatt catch a beauty of a brown. The next morning, we walked the stream. Wyatt cast and cast. The patience of Methuselah. He told me wisdom hard-won for any fisherman: sometimes it happens, sometimes it doesn’t. You can’t force these things. You just have to be open, and let it come when it will.

Jan Peterson: Memory Eternal

One of my truest joys over the past few years was to be invited into deeper friendship with Janice and Eugene Peterson. Sitting with them for hours and days, fumbling through pictures, driving the streets of Kalispell as they pointed out the places that made up a lifetime, sitting on their back deck basking in the blue expanse of the Flathead and the rugged line of the Swan and Mission Range. And there were so many hugs. To be welcomed into their home was truly to be welcomed into grace.

In the morning, I’d often come downstairs, finding Jan at the stove making oatmeal, Eugene opening the milk and pouring berries and nuts into bowls as toppings. Eugene told me that what he loved most about these latter years, the years where he was no longer traveling and his writing faded to the background, was how he was finally able to show Jan, in new ways, the depths of his love and devotion. And there he was, following Jan’s instructions about whether this was a day for blueberries or raspberries.

During a couple of my visits, their dishwasher was on the blitz. Jan protested (at least the first 4 or 5 times), but I snagged my job, washing and drying the dishes after each meal. I did have a chance to cook a meal or two for them (including my famous Texas chili), but my assigned duty was to grab dirty plates and silverware off the table, throw the towel over my shoulder and get busy. It felt appropriate, immersed in a holy space saturated with God and rhythms of prayer and hospitality, that I would do monk’s work. It’s the kind of work Jan and Eugene did every day.

We love you, Jan. Memory eternal.

Gentle and Faithful: Jean Vanier

Arlington Catholic-Herald

Jean Vanier–guileless, sincere, unobtrusive–showed me that it is possible, even in our toxic, flame-an-hour world, to live on an entirely different frequency. A prophet can be gentle. Faithfulness will in fact confound the wise. Vanier’s heart and his plain-spoken way (no big words, no attempts to impress) sink to deep places in my soul. In 2015, on the occasion of winning the 1.7 million dollar Templeton Prize for his work with the L’Arche communities, Vanier sat down for an interview. At the pinnacle of a life well lived, his peculiar wisdom carried gravity, warning, hope. I scribbled down three things then, what I took away from his words. I return to them now, reflecting on Jean’s life and death.

[1] Jean, at perhaps the unlikeliest moment (named Laureate for the Templeton), warned us of the dangers inherent in the “religion of success.” Have we ever needed a stern caution more than this?

[2] When Jean was asked ‘what is love?’ (and what a doozy of a question), he gave us a profound answer. “Love is to reveal to someone: ‘you are beautiful and you have value.’ That is the secret of love. It’s not primarily to do things for people, because then we find our glory in doing things. The secret of love is to reveal to someone that ‘you are precious,’ that ‘you are beautiful.’”

[3] When asked why he gave up teaching philosophy at a prestigious university so he could live with those often seen as outcasts, Jean said: “I thought Jesus wanted me to.” (refer to earlier comment about his plain speaking).

Jean Vanier, for a lifetime, attempted to be faithful to the ways and teachings of Jesus. To the way of Love. Thank you, Jean. Thank you for the light you left for us to follow.

Lent: A Red Door in the Desert

Jared Verdi

The forty days of Lent welcome us into Jesus’ experience on the long journey in the dry desert. Desolation that seems to go on and on and on. And on. These days ask us to sit and watch and trust the Good Story. Lent’s not so different from the rest of our life, is it?

In our neighborhood, there’s a yellow house with a blazing red door. I recently saw my neighbor’s black lab, a platter-sized frisbee in his mouth, sitting on the porch. The lab waited alone, ears pointed, eyes alert, waiting with anticipation and longing. This Lent, I’m taking my cue from the black lab clutching that frisbee, waiting for hope to walk out that red door.

With Jesus, there’s a red door in every desert.

Find Your Circle

Lysander Yuen
Lysander Yuen

It was a brisk February eve, and I had planned to walk to a neighbor’s house to meet up with a circle of friends. The three other Colliers who live under this roof with me were feverish and coughing, puffy and red-eyed. They sounded like they’d gargled Drano. After tending to supper and making sure everyone was comfy and settled, I strapped on my headlamp and went tramping through the dark neighborhood. It’s an eery, beautiful, calming thing to walk in the night, after everyone’s pulled in and closed shop. On these winter eves, no one’s out on their porch, no one’s walking the streets. The place is still, even as you know you are surrounded by homes filled with laughter, bountiful tables, more than a few heartaches, folks glued to CNN or Bird Box or Homeland.

On King Mt Road, I passed a two-story house with a row of large, wide windows stretched across the ground floor. Even if there hadn’t been so much illumination radiating out of those windows into the black night, I still would have peered in. I’m nosy like that. There was a wide circle, a couple couches with old Windsor chairs interspersed between. There were 5 or 6 people in that circle, a forty-something fellow, I’d guess, with several grey-headed women and men. They sat in the warmth and the light, having what looked like fine conversation. Of course, I have no idea what they were actually doing. They could have been having a family fisticuffs for all I know. But from the looks on their faces, they were doing something good. They were doing something together.

With my headlamp on full blast, I eventually made it to the house where I was supposed to be, where there awaited another circle of friends, another circle of couches and chairs in a room filled with light and warmth. We shared coffee and slices of some kind of spectaculous apple spice caramel cake that must surely be illegal. We talked about where we are, where we hope to be. We talked about what worries us, what we pray for God to help us be and do. We were doing something good. We were doing something together.

There are lots of things that I’m sure are necessary as we walk through these tumultuous times and navigate the night that presses upon us. But I’m convinced that these kinds of circles, this being-and-doing together as friends, in the warmth of light and laughter and joy, are absolutely essential. This has always been true, I believe; and will continue to be true. Find your circle. Find your people. And whatever else you do, stick with them.

A Decade of All Souls

Ten years ago, fourteen of us gathered round a table and spread into the living room of our townhouse on Brookwood Drive. We filled our plates and shared the first of many potlucks. Stuffed, we pulled our chairs into a circle, passed out the sheets for evening prayers and flowed into the simplest rhythm: week after week, we prayed, we heard the gospel, we shared our stories. The highlight for me was how one person per evening would narrate whatever piece of their life they were able to offer. We received sadness and joy, confusion and hope. Our chafed leather couch (the one friends over the years dubbed ‘the crying couch’) sat against the window, welcoming new tears, more laughter. We practiced what one writer called ‘verbal hospitality.’ And for a decade now, we’ve been doing our darnedest to stay true to that circle, that table, those prayers, those stories.

It’s baffling how that meager gathering could plant the seed for the beauty and goodness All Souls has become. Markus Barth said the church is the “theater of God’s works.” At this decade mark, I’m filled to the brim with gratitude for how God has displayed such immense kindness, such generosity, to a community of friends who wanted to learn how to both drink in and pour out God’s love.

They say one of our best prayers is the simplest: thank you. So, from a deep place of bewilderment and delight: God, thank you.

Advent: Aching for Peace

Yesterday at church, mid-sermon, great flakes of snow fell from the sky, as though God were dropping a fresh supply of winter manna. The school auditorium where we meet boasts three grand, 8-foot high windows, always opening to us a vision of oaks and leaves and neighbors. Those windows are, for me, the very best part about our space. They remind us that, as we worship, God’s world ‘out there’ is wholly connected to God’s world ‘in here.’ Our kind, patient folks put up with my dawdling sermon, doing their darnedest to listen while white beauty swirled around us. A wiser pastor would have just stopped and had us all take a gaze at this first storm of the season and then offered an Amen

However, this was the Sunday of peace, and lighting the candle, we prayed that God’s disruptive, healing peace might come to us again. Peace – it seems such a pipe dream these days, and it’s a word (like so many good words) that we now feel compelled to clarify and apologize for, to properly signal what we’re saying and what we’re not saying. But here’s where I am: I’m aching for peace.

To be sure, I’m not angling for anything easy or contrived or oblivious – that’s not peace; that’s avoidance. But I do want an end to relational hostility. I do want the hungry fed and the oppressed to be free. I do want enemies to become friends, or at least not to hate one another.  I do want that inner quiet that marks the way of wisdom: the capacity to live in tensions, the courage to refuse the rage of the moment, the open-heartedness that allows us to be surprised, the tenacity to never lose hope.    

So after a cozy winter’s nap, enveloped by the heat pouring out of our clicking, humming radiators, Seth and I returned to what has become our ritual. We pulled on our snow pants and gloves and toboggan caps and went for a walk into the dark, frigid night. We tell Wyatt and Miska that we must brave the cold because we’re on the hunt for grub. However, walking these lonely streets as the world sits enchanted by stillness, and with only the sound of snow crunching under our boots and the conversation passing between us, I think we’re actually out in the silent night searching for peace. 

Advent: Rousing the Bones

Alessandro Viaro

Here we are again, back to the beginning, starting the story for a bujillionth time. Advent. Can we rouse the bones once more? 

Advent surges with hope — that beautiful, beleaguered word. Some of us have lost so much in our world, and the tally of what we’ve lost grows by the day.  We’ve lost compassion and goodness. We’ve lost our shared humanity, our faith in mercy’s long unfolding. We’ve lost respect. We’ve lost neighborliness. We’ve lost, if we ever had it to begin with, our sense of responsibility for one another.

But the grief that keeps me awake in the night, the sorrow I carry in my soul, is my fear that we’re losing the one thing we must never lose: hope.  Some of us have lost heart.

And so here Advent arrives, belligerent and unyielding. She stands amid the rubble of our history, our heartache. She stands unflinching in the face of our cynicism. She receives our wounds, our fears. And she clears her throat, invites us near and begins to recount again the story of Jesus: a crucified man who bore the weight of evil alone before an empire, a religious machine, a circle of friends who abandoned him when everything was on the line. Jesus, though fully acquainted with grief, would never surrender hope, could never surrender hope. Jesus knew that God wins in the end.

If you want to know why I’m a Christian, it’s this: Hope. Advent tells me the story over and over. Advent insists that God is acting in the world and that goodness gets the final say. Have hope. Light the candles. Sing the songs. Push against the darkness. Rouse those weary bones once more. Advent on.

Telling Eugene’s Story

Eugene led me down the stone steps past their kayaks and into the crawl space under their home on Flathead Lake. The cool cave carved out of the earth holds boxes of books and a collection of water air-up toys and several rat traps scattered along the floor. The traps were only mildly successful, as I’d later discover shelves loaded with leather-bound editions of The Message and rows of new hardbacks (like Eat this Book) nibbled through, these Montana rats literally taking Eugene’s advice. Stooping through the low entrance, Eugene flipped the switch and the bare 100 watt bulb flickered and sizzled. Eugene pointed to twin black metal cabinets stuffed full of letters, manuscripts, sermons, calendars, clippings from high school, college and decades at Christ Our King Presbyterian. It feels conservative to say that somewhere close to a bajillion people, every sort of person you can imagine, wrote Eugene letters. And Eugene responded to as many as he possibly could, stapling the original and his reply together and sliding them into a manilla folder. There’s a lifetime of love and craft and criticism and hope and struggle stored in that dank grotto.

I’ve spent hours in that space, rummaging through so much texture and so many stories. Over numerous trips, I’ve checked bag after bag at the airport, praying to God that these treasures wouldn’t be accidentally tossed on the wrong conveyer belt and land in some lost baggage claim office in Lithuania. I’ve even destroyed two of the Peterson’s bags trying to haul too much material home to Virginia (sorry, Jan). Whenever I’d come back up to the house, Eugene would ask, “Well, Winn, did you find anything worthwhile?” I’d smile big. Boy, did I. He always asks questions like this with genuine bewilderment. “I don’t know why anyone would be interested in any of this,” he’s said to me multiple times. “Everything has just been a gift.”

Eugene Peterson has had an immense impact on my life, and I’ve been privileged, as have so many others (nearly a bajillion), to correspond with him in letters, to spend time with him on several occasions. But when I said what I assumed would be a final goodbye to him and Jan in their living room in October 2016, I had no idea that by February I would be given the joy and responsibility of being Eugene’s biographer. For the past 18 months or so, I’ve been up to my kneecaps in research: diaries and letters and old slide reels, chatting with Eric and Leif and Karen, with the kaleidoscope of people they call friends. And now I’m turning to the actual task of writing, trying to narrate Eugene’s story, the many good years he and Jan have spent doing what the Petersons do: trying to pay attention to the holiness and the wonder of this life they’ve been given.

It seems right for me to let you know that this is the writing work I’ve been up to, and will be up to for a good while longer. This story deserves every bit of literary gumption I can muster — and then some. I hope to do Eugene justice.

Yoga and Barth

I want to tell you something about yoga, a gimpy knee, Karl Barth and a darn amazing yoga instructor.
 
For over a year, I’ve had recurring knee issues that have interrupted my running. A dozen or so years ago, I had trouble with my right knee, and for some reason that I can only attribute to middle age, the whole flame-up went for a full-blown 2nd round. My physical therapist has me doing knee stabilization exercises out the wazzoo. You should see me balancing and squatting on the Bosu Ball. I started as a wobbler, looked like a one-man demon-possessed seesaw; but now I can mostly keep it steady. Not graceful, mind you, but steady. I’ve got a nifty velcro-it-on icepack I use 2-3 times a day. I’ve got turmeric pills for inflammation and an organic blue-hot cream to ease the pain. I even hook up a stretchy strap to the kitchen table for a whole other round of therapy. It’s something else.
 
The thing I have working in my favor, though, far above the exercises and ice and all the homeopathic remedies is a yoga instructor named Miska Collier. She’s truly fantastic. Is there anything about me that says “Yoga”? Nope. And though Miska swears by it, I still say that the hot stuff where they heat the room to within a few degrees of Hades is absolutely insane…but she and I will just have to let our marital vows hold us and agree to disagree.
 
However, among the other forms of yoga she teaches, Miska teaches Yin Yoga. It’s a slow yoga that, as I’m told, helps your connective tissue and your joints, not to mention flexibility. Well, you know what I need help with? Bingo – connective tissue, joints and flexibility (as well as a writing shed, but I don’t think yoga has an answer for me there). Yin also has a contemplative, restful vibe. In other words, it helps people like me whose mind revs at breakneck RPMs to chill the heck out.
 
On our sabbaths, then (Fridays), Miska’s been doing Yin Yoga with me. And for newbies like me (people who are not easily given to twisting their body into the shape of a pretzel), you need blocks so you can rest your arms and ease into the posture. We didn’t have blocks at the house, so you know what she grabbed? My five volumes of Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics. There I was, literally resting on Barth as I was doing my yoga. In case you haven’t read Barth, the most distinguished Protestant theologian of the last century, I’ll just say that I’m certain his bushy eyebrows would have gone haywire as he uttered a string of “Neins!!” Perhaps you don’t get the humor here. That’s fine. I think it’s a hoot.
 
What I’m learning is that my body has definitely run headlong into the rickety mid-range of life. I’ve also learned how to balance like a champ on the Bosu Ball. And I’ve learned that yoga, even for guys like me, can be remarkably restorative for body, soul and mind. The knees are getting stronger. I’ll be out on the trail again before you know it.