Two weeks ago, I stood under room #306 at the Lorraine Motel, where Dr. King breathed his last. I heard the sound of his booming, prophetic voice, that poetic cadence that won’t let you loose. His voice holds me still. This past summer, as our city was engulfed in evil, it was Dr. King’s words, from his next to last book Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? that challenged me, sustained me, emboldened me. He spoke into our time, into my uncertainties.
Such conviction – the man knew his core, and he would not move. Not when the economic and political arsenal of white America turned against him. Not when some of his own friends and supporters turned against him.
Of course, Dr. King stands in a long line of women and men, courageous souls, who serve as our conscience, who love boldly, who refuse the ways we degrade ourselves and one another with our greed and selfishness and violence. These prophets of creative love do not leave destruction in their path. They dismantle evil, but their hands recreate rather than destroy. They envision what we will be, even as they call out what must be undone. They believe that goodness is not for the few but the many. They believe that wherever we must go, we must all arrive there together. They know that all will one day rise and enter free.
Rise up, my soul and let us go Up to the gospel feast; Gird on the garment white as snow To join and be a guest.
Dost thou not hear the trumpet call For thee, my soul, for thee? Not only thee, my soul, but all, May rise and enter free.
This poem was penned by George Mason Horton, enslaved poet and author of the first published book by a black man in the South, The Hope of Liberty, in 1829.
I had a meeting in New York City last week, and Miska joined me. When we were boarding the train in Penn Station for the trip home, several solo travelers in front of us asked the agent to direct them to the Quiet Car. It’s a nice idea, this “Quiet Car.” One imagines a cabin enveloped in hush calm, a meditative space, perhaps with the soothing scent of Spiced Orange and Huckleberry (it’s the holidays), maybe a few candles, the tranquility only interrupted by the rare announcements of upcoming stops offered from the hushed voice of James Earl Jones. Maybe in the far back compartment you’d find a silent yoga class.
However, I’ve been in the aforementioned “Quiet Car,” and it bears no resemblance to this nirvana solitude one hopes to discover. In my limited experience, half the people want to close their shades and pull their eye mask down and forget the world for a few hours; then half the people don’t give a flying fig about signage indicating quiet – they missed the day in preschool where they learned about the “inside voice” and demonstrate with their boisterous (and very long) cell calls, with their karaoke as the music blares from their headphones, their raucous games with friends to pass the time. Once I watched with growing unease as these two factions, over a heated and tense hour, nearly began WWIII right there in poor Amtrak’s “Quiet Car.”
So Miska and I never even considered that danger-laden zone and instead plopped ourselves right in amongst the rest of our fellow travelers, all of us willing to tamp down our expectations and just enjoy the ride.
And wouldn’t you know a fellow, a sixty-something New Yorker who I’m guessing worked in building maintenance, dialed up his daughter who was picking him up in Philly. He sat 4 feet from me and chatted the entire ride. He told his daughter how he shoveled snow the previous night and then skipped evening TV and went straight to a hot shower and bed, his muscles raging from a day on the job topped off by clearing the driveway and sidewalks at home. He asked how his grandkids were doing, worried as he was about their new school and whether they liked it and whether they had to buy new uniforms and if so if money was a problem. He asked where his daughter’s new school was and if she had to travel any extra distance to get there. He asked again about the grandkids, worried again that they might be unhappy or in need of anything. He asked about his daughter’s back pain and how her massage therapy was going and asked her if the massage therapist “put a towel over her butt” because the whole massage thing seemed like Martian-talk to him. Then (after asking about the grandkids one more time) the conductor announced the Philly stop, and he said, “Well, I guess I need to get off the phone. I’ll see you in probably ten minutes, and if I don’t hang up now, I won’t have anything to talk to you about when I get there.”
I’m certain that either way he’d have plenty of good questions to ask, plenty of love to give. See what we’d have missed if we packed into the Quiet Car? Grace comes to us in all kinds of places, unexpected places, boisterous and cluttered places. It’s a lot like Advent.
A voice cries out:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” Isaiah
There’s a reason we must have Advent before Christmas. We must reckon with the dark if we are ever to be truly embraced by the Light. We have to know we’re in trouble before we have the good sense to cry out for help. We have to feel our aloneness in order to open up to the wide arms of grace. We have to know we’re lost in bad country before we gain the good sense to follow the God who leads us home.
Isaiah reminds us that God takes us through the wilderness, not around it. This is good news since life will, sooner or later, carry all of us into the rugged, isolated, despairing badlands. Eventually, all of us will have to walk through the valley of the shadow of death.
So here we are, waiting. Some of us are waiting alongside a grim diagnosis. Some of us are waiting while our family teeters on the brink. Some of us live in persistent anxiety, a low-grade fever of fear and tension. Some of us think where we are is all we’ll ever know. Some of us have surrendered hope. Some of us have forgotten the God who makes a way through the wilderness.
But God has come to us once in Jesus, and God will come to us in Jesus again. God has led the people through the wilderness once, and God will lead the people through the wilderness again. And again.
In a cynic’s age where suspicion and aloofness and religious detachment suffocate us, it’s an electric shock to the system when, on the first week of Advent each year, we read those wild-eyed prophets bellowing words so fiery they’d wake a corpse. Yesterday, Isaiah prayed a dangerous prayer: God, rip apart the heavens and come down, so that even the mountains would tremble at your presence. The prophets believe that either God acts on our behalf, or we’re ruined. The prophets believe that we need God or we’ll die. The prophets, these Advent prophets, dismantle our cynical, sophisticated attempts to manage God.
It seems we need these wild voices to announce Advent to us. Otherwise, we’d only yawn and roll over and continue our delusions that we’ve got things mostly in control. But we don’t. Anyone with half an eyeball knows we’re in trouble. All of us are in trouble. This whole big thing we call the world is spinning off kilter.
And when we’re in trouble, when we’ve played our last card and we’ve got absolutely nothing left up our sleeve, then (maybe then) we come to our senses enough to turn to God and pray that beautiful, beautiful prayer: help. And in Jesus we find that God loves nothing more than to answer this honest ask.
But most of us keep working the angles, always imagining a new dream hand. The game’s done, and the dealer’s eyeing the door. But we’re crunching the numbers, refusing to see what’s plain as day to everyone else at the table. We haven’t really owned the fact that we’re finished; our best efforts have played out. We don’t see how desperate we are for mercy.
Advent, if we’ll have it, moves us back into reality. Advent tells us that without God we’re wrecked. But thankfully, Advent also tells us that God holds the cards. Advent assures us that God is always the God-who-is-Coming. Advent leads us into an abundance of mercy.
Some of us have surrendered to irreparable despair, a vortex of exhausted gloom that’s drained us of everything good, leaving only hopelessness and resignation as we withdraw into isolation. Some of us have succumbed to a swift-burning rage, an incinerating force that’s consumed our perspective on our common life and fueled an inferno charring every vestige of our joy, faith and goodwill. God knows there’s justification for either. These are troubled times. More senseless killing. More entrenchment. And the saddest thing: I could write this on almost any Monday; little would need to be altered.
Both of these responses, different as they are, seem to be the wounded responses of those of us who are overcome by futility. Are we so lost we will never be found? Are we, as a people, so collectively infested and diseased that we will never be healed? Perhaps we have crossed our Rubicon. Perhaps it is indeed the time to throw up our hands and retreat into our cultural silos and just finish out best we can. Or perhaps it’s time for the final, desperate measure: maybe we should light the torches and burn the whole thing down. Perhaps.
But surely you know me well enough to know I don’t believe that at all. I may flirt with capitulation and despair for a day or a week, but I’m a man of faith. I’m a man of hope. As Wendell Berry says, “The word ‘inevitable’ is for cowards.”
This is the hour when we need poets and storytellers and seers and wisdom-seekers, women and men of fresh imagination and steely courage, to walk out in front of us and show us another way. When we are locked into an intractable spiral of death, God inevitably sends us (and often from the margins) people who see a possibility we could not imagine, who envision a future that seems ridiculous. Their words pierce like a hot iron. Their life disrupts our certainties, reveals our foolish vision or commitments. Of course, we do not always listen or follow. Sometimes we refuse to see the new future as anything but a threat. Sometimes the One Who Shows Us The Way gets crucified.
Fifteen years ago (I thought it was ten, but Miska had me do the math and bam! it’s 5 more than thought), I began my blog. For the past decade and half, most every Monday, I’ve scribbled a few words and posted them. This work has been my delight, and though some weeks the words may be lithe or fiery, other weeks they’re dinky and plain. It’s like our lives, isn’t it? Sometimes it revs; sometimes it putters. But the way forward is simply to keep moving, keep working, keep loving. Over these years I’ve slowly connected with you. Some of you are friends in the flesh. Some of you have become friends from a distance, with your emails or comments or Facebook connections. Some of you are quiet souls, but you’re there, reading. And I’m grateful.
I’ve always thought of my blog as one way that I can offer a small, simple gift to the world: a few words that I hope somehow contributes to the world’s beauty (rather than its desecration). I don’t know how well I’ve succeeded, but I’ve worked out of my desire to contribute something toward your own hope and joy. I pray that, here and there, you’ve found light and goodness in this space.
However, today is the day when I bluntly ask you to do something for me in return. Though it’s been 9 years since I’ve published a book, these longer works sit at the heart of what I have to offer as a writer. And yet, my books have received less than lackluster attention. The fine folks at Eerdmans have taken another gamble that they won’t lose their shirt on me, and they’ve published my first fiction: Love Big, Be Well: Letters to a Small-Town Church. And cue the fireworks: It’s released today. Amazon, big boys on the block as they are, actually started shipping books early, but the book is finally available nationwide today. It’s a party!
And I will not mince words: I need your help. Publishers talk about how important a writer’s “platform” is, and while there’s obvious truth to this notion, I’ve never much liked the word or the energy that surrounds it. The reality is that according to the Powers that Be, you are my platform. You are the people who (I hope) believe in my writing, find meaning in it and believe it’s worthy of being read. However, we are small in number. And I need your help especially today and then over the coming few weeks. I really don’t have any backup team; you’re it. If you think that my books should continue, then I need you to throw a little weight my way.
Here’s what you can do:
Buy the book. A straight up ask. I give away most of my words for free, but these words I need you to purchase. You can find Love Big, Be Well at Amazon, Hearts and Minds Books or your favorite local bookstore. And if possible, it helps to buy books today, as we launch it into the wide, wide world.
Consider purchasing the book as a gift for your pastor, friend, sibling, aunt (heck, your deranged neighbor who stares in your windows at night – at least it will keep him occupied for a couple evenings). It’s like $13 at Amazon (and Hearts and Minds is offering a 20% discount), and if you buy a couple copies, you get free shipping. I mean, you might as well spend the money on this Christmas gift rather than a new toe-ring for Grandma or a new fidget spinner for the cousins.
Send an email to a few of your friends who you think might be interested and tell them about the book. Lots of people are looking for new books as we move into the holidays, and most of us snag the books that people recommend to us. If you want someone else’s recommendation to pass along, you can use either of these images I’ve shared or you can tell them that some reviewers have compared it to Wendell Berry’s fiction or to Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead. Or better than all that, you can just tell them that a guy you know named Winn has written a book you think they might enjoy.
Review on Amazon, Goodreads and Barnes and Noble. Especially Amazon. The more reviews, the more people see the book; I don’t know how this magic works.
Thank you for reading, and thank you for your help.
Trekking through the airport las week, I saw grey-headed couples walking slowly, carefully, maneuvering those treacherous moving walker ramps and navigating hordes of oncoming crowds but holding hands tight, as they’ve apparently done for many decades. I saw multiple women with swollen bellies, patting their bump as they walked and chatted, a subconscious gesture of hope and blessing. I saw a dad holding his tiny, sleeping daughter in his arms, cradling her with her head buried in his chest, her blue pacifier in place; it seemed this young daughter of his was his only care in the world. I saw a woman wearing a hijab preparing to roll a wheelchair for someone who would never, ever wear a hijab.
Best of all, on my flight, I saw a middle-aged man (of one color) stand his ground firmly, yet kindly, with an airline stewardess until the young woman (of another color) seated near him, the woman who was terrified of flying, got the window seat she needed in order to feel a little safer. Then I saw this same young woman, at each lurch or shake from turbulence, look behind her, desperate for assurance, to the man who had become her fierce guardian. And I saw him learn forward, gently pat her shoulder and say, “It’s a little rough now, but you’re gonna be okay.”
We’re struggling friends, and all that’s wrong may seem to overwhelm what’s good. But that’s not the deep story. As my new friend said: It’s a little rough now, but we’re gonna be okay.
Last week on my run, I cut across the high school parking lot as I always do. The glint of copper and silver caught my eye, and there on the blacktop I beheld a quarter, a dime, a couple nickels and pennies. It wasn’t enough to make a poor man stop being poor, but it was real money, just lying there and waiting for someone to notice. Because I am the son of John W. Collier, there was no question what my next move would be. From the time I was barely big enough to waddle alongside my dad, anytime he would see any coin – any coin, a single penny – abandoned anywhere, he would always stop and pick it up, drop it in his pocket and say, “God says if you are faithful with the little things, he’ll trust you with bigger things.” I can’t tell you how many times I saw my dad walk out of his way to pick up a dirty ol’ penny, how many times he enacted his version of being faithful to the little things. If I had a penny for every time he picked up a penny, then I’d have a dump truck load of pennies.
So of course, I stopped, crawled down on the sticky asphalt and fingered the tiny scattering of coins. I tossed the grimy metal in my pocket, and I thought of what my dad would say right about then. I smiled, and I went back to pounding the pavement.
On my first run this week, I passed exactly that same way. I’m pretty darn certain it was even the exact same parking spot. And gosh almighty if there wasn’t another pile of coins, larger than the first one, just lying out in the open sun, like it was waiting for me. This time there were two quarters and several dimes and maybe 5 nickels and more pennies. It still wasn’t enough to buy 1/2 a latte at the coffee shop, but I doubled my take in one swoop. I’m no mathematician, but I have seen a calculator–and I know that crazy rule of compound interest. If this trend were to continue, I’d get to be faithful over bigger things indeed. So, grinning ear to ear and imagining my dad grinning ear to ear, I dashed off with a real jingle in my pocket.
Now I don’t know if Michael the Archangel gets a kick out of these distractions and dropped those coins, all the while chuckling and ribbing a few of his celestial buddies (watch this…). Or maybe some poor tenth-grader has an as-of-yet undiscovered hole in his North Face backpack and leaves coins strewn from here to kingdom come. But either way, I’m picking ’em up. That’s what my dad taught me. I’m raking it in.
Lord, we woke this morning to another wave of sorrow. More of us are dead. We had to tell our children, once again, of the evil we’ve done. We have to face another grieving day, added on top of all the other grieving days. We have tears. We have anger. We are hellbent on destroying one another. You’re going to have to help us see the truth. You’re going to have to give us courage to be something different. You’re going to have to help us. Amen.
In these heavy days, sometimes I find myself tempted by despair, wondering if maybe we’ve finally experienced our culture’s Andreas Fault. Maybe the cracks really are too deep and the destruction too crushing. Maybe the whole thing will break apart and we’ll just have to watch everything crumble and then pick through the rubble. How will we find our way back to one another? How will we mend all that is broken?
But I tell you the truth, when all the despair and the disintegration have played their oppressive hand, I inevitably find my way back to hope. I’m a goner; I do believe that goodness gets the final say, I do. I’m a man of faith. It’s the easiest thing in the world to wear the cynic’s hat, to finally give myself to suspicion of my neighbors (especially the ones I most dislike). It seems foolish to stand amid the raging furnace, insisting on kindness and gentleness, the courage to push against the evil even while maintaining an open heart to all of this world’s complex beauty, to each and every of this world’s beloved creatures. It does indeed seem foolish. But then, call me a fool. Like I said, I’m a man of faith. And being a man of faith and playing the fool are, at least in my experience, often close to the same thing.