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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
About 18 months ago, we had to bring down a 100 year old Ash in our front yard, a truly sad weekend. But after the pros brought it low, we spent days splitting and stacking and hauling. Next, my friend Tom, the finest carpenter I know, loaded a couple large pieces of the Ash into his truck and carried them to his shop (an astounding place, by the way). A couple weeks later, Tom dropped off this beautiful bench. I’m finally getting to the staining, and we’re two coats down, looking like honey.
I’m thankful I had the chance to swing an axe in a crisp December with my sons, thankful for this big beautiful tree that has watched over this land for a century, thankful for the rest and conversation this tree will make possible for generations more.
On August 12th, 2018, churches of varying ethnicities worshiped together in Charlottesville, remembering the violence a year previous and lamenting the evil those days made painfully obvious. I participated in Prayers of Repentance. The prayers broke me, yet grace was on full display. I pray these prayers might be so, deep in our heart. And I pray that this reckoning might transform us to do, as John the Baptist preached, “works worthy of repentance.” By God’s mercy.
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Repentance is how those of us who follow Jesus respond when we become aware of wrong we’ve done, wrong done on our behalf or evil in our collective experience. To repent is to tell the truth and then to seek to change, by God’s mercy. Whenever we are awakened by the Holy Spirit to the depths of either our personal or our national sin, then we discover repentance as God’s gift to us. Repentance is how we cling to God’s grace as we renounce evil. When we repent, we courageously name the wrong, and we rely on divine mercy to make us faithful to change our ways and to enable us to participate with God in mending what is broken. We must repent because there is no healing without repentance. We cannot deal with a wound if we never acknowledge the wound exists. And friends, a wound exists. This weekend gives evidence of the wound. But this is an old wound; it has festered since our country’s founding.
Remember the words Jesus preached: Repent, for the Kingdom of God has come near. The Kingdom of God is a kingdom of justice and holiness and healing and restoration, the Kingdom of radical welcome – and when the Kingdom of God comes near, repentance is one necessary response. We believe that in Jesus the Kingdom of God has come near, and so we repent. We repent for the sin in our own hearts where that is appropriate. And today it is my place to specifically repent on behalf of the majority white church. We repent because of the sins of our history, our churches, our city and our nation.
Pray with me
“Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your unfailing love,
according to your great compassion
blot out my transgressions.
Wash away all my iniquity
and cleanse me from my sin.” Psalm 52:1-2 Forgive us, Lord, By your Mercy
Almighty God, we repent because we have failed in your most basic commandments: we have failed to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul and mind; and we have failed to love our neighbor as ourselves. * Forgive us, Lord, By your Mercy
We repent for the wealth secured on the backs of slave labor. We repent for land stolen from indigenous peoples. We repent for Jamestown, the first landing spot where our forefathers brought slaves to America. We repent of the forced slave labor used to build Monticello and the University and much of our city. We repent of lynchings and Jim Crow and the destruction of Vinegar Hill and mass incarceration and the ongoing evil of White Supremacy. We repent for how economic power, social power, educational power and legal power has often been used against our sisters and brothers of color. * Forgive us, Lord. By your Mercy
And Lord, with heavy hearts we repent for every time your church has been unfaithful to you, every time we have propagated these evils rather than pronounced your judgment over them, every time we have gone silent when we should have named injustice, every time we have failed to act in defense of the oppressed. We have sinned against you and against our sisters and brothers. * Forgive us, Lord. By your Mercy
We repent because we have bowed our knees to false gods and ideologies. We have abandoned the way of your Cross, where we are called to lay down our life for you and for the sake of love. Instead, we have coddled, and benefited from, systems of power that deny our brotherhood and sisterhood with all people you love and created, all people who bear the holiness and brilliance of your image. God, we have aligned ourselves with political powers that betray our witness as followers of Jesus. We have not stood beside our friends, beside communities of color, when evil pressed upon them. We have bowed to the false god of fear, the false god of power, the false god of superiority, the false god of safety and the false god of apathy. * Forgive us, Lord. By your Mercy
We repent for how the Church, we who profess Jesus as Lord and we who announce the arrival of the Kingdom of God, we who are called to live as witnesses to your Resurrection and New Creation – we have often denied our faith and denied our Lord by living no different from the false kingdoms of this world. We in the white church have often held the resources and maneuvered the power. We have acted as though our voice and our theological distinctives and our preferences are the final word. We have not listened with open ears and open hearts. We have dismissed our brothers and sisters of color when we should have asked them to lead us. And God help us, we have not believed our sisters and brothers when they have told us what is happening, when they have expressed their pain, when they have reached out their hands in friendship. We have failed your name, Jesus, and we have betrayed the Family of God. And we repent with sorrow and humility. * Forgive us, Lord. By your Mercy
This past weekend, Miska and I spent all day Saturday and a good bit of Sunday knee-deep in Crabgrass, Nutsedge, Chickweed and Creeping Charlie, ripping fistfuls from one of our front garden beds. This was our third venture into the jungle since Spring, with the weeds returning each time, as if they had something to prove. When we returned from vacation, it looked like we needed a tractor and bailer. It was demoralizing.
Early in the season, I bought a nifty pair of working gloves: HydraHydes, quick drying leather that slips like velvet over my rugged, yardman hands (Forgive me, I’m feeling self-conscious. Recently, after making a quip about being a working man, Miska patted my knuckles and chuckled. “Honey,” she said, “you have a writer’s hands.”). Anyways, I went to work with my fancy working-man gloves, piling load after load into the wheelbarrow.
After an hour, I pulled the sweaty gloves from my steaming body and began yanking weeds with bare hands. My fingers dug into damp clay. My hands turned a shade of burnt orange. Cool dirt brushed my skin. Mud jammed under my fingernails, as if I’d scraped bars of chocolate. I was in the dirt, no longer separated by buckskin. The sun sizzled, and I guzzled quarts of water. Yet, it was refreshing, healing, to be in the dirt with no artificial barrier, skin to soil.
It’s tempting to avoid digging into our life, maintaining protection from the real stuff, from the mess, from the mundane. Life isn’t primarily found in grand gestures or wild epiphanies or those rare, remarkable ecstasies (though I’m thankful for each and hope for more). Real life happens as we punch the clock for another day, as we text a friend to say we miss them, as we shut off the work and stream Key & Peele clips with our kids, as we admit to our spouse that we’re lonely. We truly live our life with bare hands in the dirt.
When I heard how a big shot Christian had bilked mission money in Venezuela to line his own pockets, I didn’t so much as blink. Years earlier during college, a summer mission landed me with him for a week. I’d only been in his room at the Hyatt a few minutes before I realized I wasn’t in Kansas anymore. He enjoyed expensive food and wore gold rings the size of silver dollars like small pets on his meaty fingers. He liked to treat himself to $10 manicures at his favorite Caracas nail parlor. I remember one afternoon him insisting we had to go see “a guy.” We walked into a jewelry shop, where he and the owner leaned on opposite sides of a glass case and whispered and argued and leaned in closer as they haggled over something that I think had to do with precious metals up in the mountains. It was all hush-hush. I had no idea what was going on, but it was shady x 100.
I’m not the smartest fellow, but I was pretty certain this wasn’t God’s work. Unfortunately I’ve seen shady over and again since then, and yes, often by the very people who quote their Scripture and say their prayers. You don’t have to be around long to find out that lots of Christians act like devils. Sometimes it’s embarrassing to be a Christian. Worse, being a Christian will inevitably leave you scarred. Joining this community of salvation means being thrown in the lot with the very hellions, like us, who actually need redemption.
Since I’m breathing and have two ears, I know the Church has created a wake of wounded people. I have wounds of my own. We only need to read the Bible a few pages to realize our Book doesn’t give us a sugar-coated story of people who, once deciding to follow the Holy, embark on a constant arc of righteousness. Our faithful kin murder and swindle and ravage. And we continue the story. We can be the meanest, the greediest, the most obnoxious. I know more than a few Christians who are generous and selfless and love with abandon, but we all know there’s a malignant side to our story too.
I offer no excuse for this vileness, only sorrow. Abusers must be named and wrongs brought to light and oppressive or destructive ideas dismantled. My knees knock when I hear Peter’s words that judgment must begin with the family of God. I believe evil done in God’s name is the worst form of wickedness.
And yet, despite all our hypocrisy and lunacy, I believe in the Church more than I ever have. The Church is not a place where good people get better but a place where awful people see the truth and find hope, if we’ll have it, to be new. The Church is a visible community offering tangible grace in the world not because the people who inhabit her are so winsome or moral but rather because God, in Jesus, takes ugly things and makes them beautiful. The story of Jesus is, if nothing else, the story of mercy to the very ones who least deserve it. So of course, the mercy starts with us. God knows we need it.
The Church is necessary, a scarred beauty, because Jesus inhabits this mess of a people. Jesus does not stay aloof from the ruin, but puts both feet smack in the mucky center. Jesus harrows even hell. And then God uses the smoldering, scattered pieces – think of it – as the fragments for restoration. Jesus makes a bunch of people I’d typically avoid to be his presence in the world. If you wanted grace to be the theme of your story, how else would you do it?
And so we do not navigate around the mess or try to remove ourselves from the trouble, the ambiguity. We don’t spin our mental wheels pining after some idyllic pure church. We suffer with it. Like Jesus.
Flannery O’Connor says it well:
I think the Church is the only thing that is going to make a terrible world we are coming to endurable; the only thing that makes the church endurable is that it is somehow the body of Christ and on this we are fed. It seems to be a fact that you have to suffer as much from the church as for it….