The Diner

When I was a kid, my mom turned mundane or challenging realities into memories, into moments of joy. Once we had little money for Christmas, and mom scrounged the house pulling out odds and ends (an old camera, a beat-up typewriter, various knick-knacks). She wrapped them and put them under the tree. We thought they were treasures. Once we had only dry cereal for breakfast, no milk–but there was a single can of concentrated orange juice in the freezer. Somehow, she convinced my sister Vonda and me that cereal drowned in orange juice was all the rage, so much better than plain ol’ milk. When she was done selling it, we felt sorry for those poor folks who never know the delights of corn flakes floating in watered, orange-ish beverage.


Every so often–and I don’t know whether it was because mom was frugal and refused to trash leftovers or because money was tight and the fridge bare–she would handwrite “menus” from a fabulous bistro she dubbed “Momma’s Kitchen.” The spread offered nothing more than remnants from the previous 2 weeks, but somehow, transformed by her renaming of the dishes and set to table linens and candlelight, it was like we’d landed a table at some 5 Star NY City establishment.


I’ve wondered the past week what my mom would think–what she would do–if she were still alive in the middle of this pandemic. And last Sunday night, without really thinking about why, I found myself typing up a menu, offering omelettes and muffins and breakfast meats and blackberries. I spent an hour or two in the kitchen. I cut onions and pressed garlic and cracked eggs. I listened to The Avett Brothers. And I felt so very thankful for my mom who always saw possibility, who believed every moment revealed a little bit of magic, a mom who loved us with whatever she had in front of her.

Dear John ~ April 11, 2020 ~ God is Always There

Dear John,

On Monday, over video, I enjoyed a lunch-time break with kids from church. It was absolute bedlam. It was magnificent. A couple kids were going bonkers, yelling at the screen, gobs of kids all jabbering at once. One kid stared intently, straight into the camera, picking his nose–and with real earnestness. They began a parade of stuffed animals, with kids pulling out their favorite friend and providing proper introductions. It was great. Halfway through, somehow we corralled them enough for a few minutes of Q & A, and one of the girls, with piercing eyes, asked: If God wants nothing but good for us, why is there coronavirus?

Whew. I wish you’d been there. I’d have passed you the mic real quick.

Christian Wiman says “silence is the language of faith.” I think there’s a lot of wisdom there, especially in the face of questions like this. But there she was, looking straight into my Zoom-pixeled face, waiting for me to say something. I honestly don’t remember what words tumbled out of my mouth, but I do remember that after we logged off, I thought, Man, wish I had a do-over.

I have one friend, a woman with a long history of scary health issues. She’s been through the ringer. Twice. And then again. When the Coronavirus showed its fangs, I thought of my friend, with a little tremble in my heart. A week and a half ago, I told God: she can’t get it. Of all the people I know, God, she can not get this. Well, right now, she’s quarantined in her house, her body racked with Covid-19 pain. And her husband’s got the virus. And two of their kids. And then, two nights ago, their gargantuan Maple tree crashed. Their front yard looked like a small Kansas town after a tornado ripped through.

The takeaway seems to be that if you’ve got a precarious need and Winn’s the one praying for you, you best take cover. All that said, I don’t have a satisfactory answer for my young friend on Zoom–or a satisfactory answer for my own bewilderment.

This is familiar territory for me. If I had a nickel for every perplexing question I carry, I could take you and Mer and Miska and me on that two-week walking tour of Tuscany. You could have whole barrels of cabernet and bowls of your beloved carbonara every night. There were long seasons of my life where these suffocating question almost buried me. The questions loomed so large. They snuffed out all joy and laughter, all hope.

And I got angry at God because he went mute. Maybe God agreed with Wiman and was just practicing his faith (Ha!). I kept digging into the Good Book, sifting through philosophy, and peering into the dark night–looking for answers. I needed the answers. Where was God? Why was God so far? Why was God so deathly silent? Why was my heart turning so icy cold? Why did I feel so brittle and empty and far, far away?

I suppose this is the point where most letters would wrap things up tidy with a pearl of wisdom or a rousing epiphany that puts all the awkward pieces into place. But who am I kidding? This is Winn writing. And I’m writing to John.

Still, it’s not lost on me that I’m scratching out these sentences on the evening of that Holy, Dark Saturday where, as the old Creed says, God was literally hell-bent on love. Nothing–not death, not abandonment, not all the violence of all the empires, not human arrogance or ignorance or fear, not Hades itself–could stop the love. What’s a global pandemic or a crumbling economy or a shattered heart got to say to that?

I’ve always loved these words from Teresa of Ávila:

God is always there, if you feel wounded. He kneels
over this earth like
a divine medic

I love this picture of the divine medic, kneeling over this virus-riddled earth, a divine medic healing us. God is always there. Love is always there. Always.

I wish I’d said something like that on Monday, to my young friend with the piercing eyes.

Hug Mer and Sarah and Abbey for me. And next time you have Will on the phone, tell him hello.

Your Friend,

Winn

Dear John ~ We Must Not Break

Dear John,

I know we’re not keeping score, and this free-flowing open-handiness, this total lack of keeping tally, is one of the signals of genuine friendship. Still, as your good and faithful words have landed in my digital mailbox three times now, I’ve been trying to write this letter to you. I just haven’t had the words. I’ve been scrambling to care for the congregation and complete a few projects and figure out Zoom (I’ve already learned to hate the word “Zoom”), and, with Miska, create some semblance of rhythm for our family — but mainly, I simply haven’t had the words.

The past couple weeks, it’s as if someone just flipped the whole Monopoly board. All the pieces are scattered. We don’t know which way is up. Everything is uncertain. I hear (and agree with) the call that we must not panic–we have to stick together, breathe deep, watch out for one another, trust the people who’ve trained their whole life for this moment, and trust The Mercy to hold us. And yet, the fear is real. We’re swimming through dark waters. It’s the voice of fools who say we have nothing to fear. Only, I believe that faith and hope and love are more powerful than fear—way more powerful.

We humans are quite a magnificent and resilient lot. There are plenty of reasons and times to point out the countless ways we’ve made a wreck of things. But right now, I’m drawn to the wonder of those police officers in Mallorca, Spain, making the rounds down barren avenues, folks locked in their houses — and pausing every few streets to get out of their patrol cars and serenade the block. I’m in awe of so many who are organizing grocery runs for their elderly neighbors, collecting toilet paper for those who don’t’ have any, and delivering food to school kids who’re missing their prime source of food. I marvel at the parents carving out a new reality, tending to their children and families with little guidance or sense of when this ends. And wow — isn’t it something to see folks committing the government checks they don’t really need to those who really do?

And then I’m stunned by the skill and courage of the researchers, burning all their energy and every ounce of their knowledge, to find an answer to this menace. I’m so grateful for doctors like my brother-in-law in Jonesboro, Arkansas, serving the vulnerable amid crisis–and then, exhausted, rushing back into the hospital to care for the tornado victims. I’m inspired by Dr. Craig Smith at Columbia University Medical Center in New York outlining their dire reality in a note to his colleagues. His sober description lands with an alarming jolt–but then he concluded with these spine-straightening words: “A forest of bamboo bends to the ground in a typhoon but rarely breaks. We are that forest and we must not break. By the people, for the people.”

That line is the one I want to hold up today. Each of us, in our own way and own place — with our own circle of people — We must not break. And by God’s mercy, we will not.

Your friend,

Winn

p.s. on top of it all, yesterday was the 1 year anniversary of our dog Daisy’s death. There were new tears in our house.

A Political Hope

Andreea Popa

One of my deep alarms as a Christian (and a pastor) in our current political moment is how often we–both right and left–surrender our unique story and conviction and identity. Rather than speaking a prophetic word, revealed and made possible in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, we are virtually indistinguishable from whatever our party line happens to be. The other side is evil. We are righteous. With predictable knee-jerk reaction, we imbibe the talking points of our new gods, and we worship at the altar of our enraged moral certainty and superiority.

I’m drawn to those strange creatures whose political life mirrors both the action and the posture of Jesus, who seek righteousness and justice alongside humility and love. I’m watching out for those rare persons who do not allow their Christian faith to be subsumed by either a conservative or a progressive vision–but who, because Jesus is always a perplexing and disruptive reality, confound the labels and assumptions all of us have accepted as the bare, incontrovertible facts. Strange, isn’t it, that the one thing we agree on–the labels we must use and the binaries we must live within–is the very lie that devours us.

I’m desperate for people who do not flinch from speaking and enacting the hard and necessary truth, even as they cling to mercy and redemption, bewildering us with their open seat for those we’re supposed to despise. I’m desperate for people whose passionate devotion (precisely because of their Christian conviction) for the full spectrum of life, for the well-being of every human, for honesty and integrity and fairness and humanness and robust, full-orbed justice, makes them simultaneously a dear and bedeviling friend.

I’m hopeful for an awakening of Christians whose burning desire and commitment is to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul and mind—and then to love our neighbors (all of our neighbors) as ourselves.

A Joy Born of Desperation

Jonatan Pie

A couple friends and I have an ongoing text chain, sometimes emails too, that goes back years. It’s mostly stream-of-consciousness: bits of poetry, prayers for work and marriage and children, cunning and astute observations, theological squabbles, recipes and beautiful pictures, rounds of witty repartee that we’ll keep to ourselves, and rants on whatever nonsense various numbskulls have inflicted upon social media that day. In the past week, each one of us has offered our own version of the same conviction: we’re in desperate need of joy.

Joy’s hard won these days. At least if you’re breathing and paying half attention. It can appear naive or brittle or uncaring to pursue (and even more to publicly profess) joy whenever it seems like Rome’s burning. And yet joy —true joy– is not denial of the pain or treachery. Joy does not sing syrupy lullabies in place of the funeral dirge. Rather, joy walks through the valley of shadows, all the while refusing to crumble or relent. Joy endures. Joy gathers the tears and the wounds and the crushing disappointment, all the while brazenly resisting the devastating lie that these tears and wounds, these evils and disappointments, are the truest story. Joy clings to faith with a dogged grip. Indeed, Joy is hard won.

Anyone can pump out pollyannaish clichés. Conversely, anyone can wallow in gloom and cynicism. But to live in the reality of things and yet be adamant in the pursuit of joy–that requires a stout, courageous soul. “We must have,” as Jack Gilbert insisted, “the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless furnace of the world.” This is one of the many places where we must have the hard-won wisdom of those who’ve suffered at the margins, those who’ve sat on the razor edge. Listen to the songs of the oppressed. Hear their poetry and their stories. Sit around their tables. They teach us how to name injustice, yes. But what strikes me most is how they teach us to be fierce, unrelenting and obstinate, with our joy.

Jonathan Hiskes described the late Brian Doyle’s work as “a mystical project born both of joy and desperation.” That touches the core. A joy born of desperation. A joy we cling to because we know in our bones that to live without joy, without the hope and faith and love that makes joy possible, is to abandon life itself.

The Scent of Advent

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

We have a pup in our house, a floppy-eared, mop-haired, black and white bundle of 1/2 Tasmanian Devil, 1/2 vivacious joy. Though Miska is the dog-whisperer in our family, on Fridays I’m responsible for Gus’ early morning walk. Two weeks ago, Gus and I strolled an empty, leaf-strewn street in our neighborhood, silence and the slow dawn our only companions. With sudden insistence, Gus yanked back on his leash, sat his rump firmly on the cold sidewalk and sniffed the air with resolute focus.

We sat for a moment. Then two. Gus sniffed, turning his head slightly to the right, then slightly to the left. I called him, but he wouldn’t budge. I tugged his leash, but he held fast. If I’d thrown a fresh ribeye next to his mammoth paws, he wouldn’t have given it so much as a nod. Gus was on to something.

I looked across the street, in the direction his big, black nose pointed, but all I saw was a red brick house with black shutters, a row of old, caved-in pumpkins lining the steps to the front porch, an empty white truck parked in front. Not a soul. Not a creature. Not a sound. Not a smell. I couldn’t see a thing, but Gus had caught the scent.

Advent encourages me to take a Gus-like posture. Advent provides a stretch of days where we catch the divine scent. Advent’s promise is not that we see God, in this precise moment, exactly as we wish. Rather, in Advent we hear that ancient-yet-always-new promise of God’s sure action, God’s cosmic healing. And then with the eyes (and maybe the nose) of faith and wonder, we brush against that awakening scent of hope and generosity and righteousness.

Advent reminds us that we’re waiting for God. The holy ache in our soul is for God. Our broken heart, our forlorn future, our fears and anxieties and shattered stories and those cannibalistic lies that play in our head day after weary day–these are all signals of how desperate we are for the Adventing One to come and save us. Even our Advent practices, our good attempts at attentiveness (and they are–mostly–good), are not the point. God is the point. After all, my true cry is not for a religious regimen but for the Voice of Love. My fierce need is not for a spiritual discipline but for God.

And in Advent, by sheer mercy, we catch the scent of the One in whom our hope and salvation lies.

A Certain Fellow and His Horn

Once upon a time, a certain fellow laid on a horn a tad longer than he should have because the driver of a black Jeep completely ignored a 4-way stop. It’s been a stressful few days and the horn felt so good for a flash of a moment–and truth told, narcissist drivers who punch it at 4-ways, totally ignoring the rules of engagement and just basic decency, are one of this fellow’s great annoyances. Nevertheless, this same justice-enraged fellow also desires mercy and gentleness and forbearance and such things, and all these noble ideals were swiftly forgotten, all for the fleeting joy of giving that Jeep a blast of whatfor. 

Yet, a mere three minutes after venting frustrations via that horn from hell, this same fellow heard the guy in front of him order a Frappuccino, and in what a psychologist or priest would surely say was a subconscious act of penance, he told the Starbucks barista, “Hey, I’ll get that,” and handed the barista his card. Only then, this penitent fellow realized that the guy in front of him had not ordered merely a Frappuccino but rather drinks and snacks, and apparently take out dinner, for his entire lawn maintenance crew. But he couldn’t back out because the gesture was so grand and the barista so effusive with praise and the guy who made the order was confused, but smiling wide. 

So the remorseful horn blower, now drained of coffee funds until the new millennium, has many new things to ponder in his heart.

Stand Your Ground

Tobin Yates

In Florida recently, our family stopped into the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Places like this are a mixed bag for me. However, stepping through the brick wall into Diagon Alley, you find yourself wading through a wide-eyed, slack-jawed throng. We all want to belong. We all want to be part of an epic story.

Standing in the shadow of Hogwarts, I watched children line up (and more than a few adults too) in front of shop windows and atop cleverly marked spots in the cobblestone streets, pulling out their interactive wands. Don’t ask me how the logistics work, but if you stand just right and wave your wand in just the right motion at each prescribed location, you cast the magic spell. A flower blooms. A measuring tape moves up and down a wizard’s robe. A cauldron of water tips. A box top lifts to reveal a croaking chocolate frog.

A seven-year-old boy, cloaked in his black Gryffindor cape, stood in front of a bookshop window where a large hardcopy of Tales of Beedle the Bard perched. The boy raised his holly and phoenix feather wand, waved it with a loop and flourish. But the book sat still as a stone. The boy grimaced; then worked his wand again. Nothing. A third time. And a fourth. The boy’s father, with the line extending and growing restless, patted his son on the shoulder, told him it was okay and maybe they should move on. The boy nodded vigorously, shook it off and focused, made a dramatic M, punctuating the spell with a bold, final stab. But the book was dead, dead, dead.

The father leaned over, consoling. The crowd shifted, a few coughed. The boy gave another shrug, planted his feet solid on the cobblestones. He looked down to make sure his toes lined up, a batter in the box preparing for heat. He took a deep breath. He pointed his wand directly at Tales, like Moses lifting his staff toward the churning sea. And he nailed it. That book flew open, and the boy went berzerk. You’d have thought he torched the winning goal in the World Cup. He danced and ran in circles. I stood up too. I was so proud of him. I looked around for someone to high-five.

I hope each of us have moments like this, where we hold the grit to stick in there even when it seems hopeless, even when the wisest thing (and maybe the polite thing) would be to just move on. Plant your feet. Stand your ground. Give it your best shot.

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.