One More Blessing for All Souls

For twelve years (almost to the day), it has been my joy to be the pastor of All Souls Charlottesville, this vibrant, joyful, quirky, serious (sometimes too serious), playful, artful, generous, Jesus-loving church. When folks who should have known better asked Miska and me to move to Charlottesville to help form a new church with a small group of friends, I had no idea. No idea.

No idea the tears I would shed here. No idea the ways my understanding of God and the church and friendship and gospel would be challenged, shaped, stretched. Together, we’ve had bone-wearying seasons, months when I felt lost in a wilderness, times when grief overwhelmed. This Church has practiced lament. And repentance. And confession. And we’ve come to the Table again and again and again, clinging to the promise that we’d be filled with the life of Jesus and the Spirit’s deep, deep waters.

And oh the joy–so much joy, so much delight, so much hope. This Church knows how to throw a party, how to laugh, how to make beauty, how to love. Together, we’ve grown up into something mature and rooted, an oddly-arranged circle always clinging to The Mercy, refusing to let the Good Story go brittle and dusty, insisting that if we’re dealing with God, then we should always expect a hefty dose of both wonder and bewilderment.

For twelve years, one of my favorite moments has been the closing blessing. I look out over those beautiful faces. I catch as many eyes as possible. I linger in silence as long as I think they’ll let me. Then, with all the hope and faith and love in my heart, I speak God’s good words over them.

Soon, our family heads north where I will join the wonderful faculty of Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan. I’ll be teaching and helping to launch/direct The Eugene Peterson Center for Christian Imagination. But I will carry this place, these dear people, in my heart. They have helped to make me the pastor I am. All Souls, you have accepted my shortcomings and allowed me to be myself (at least as much as I’ve known how to be). Thank you. Our hearts will always be intertwined. And we are forever joined in the mystery of bread and wine.

This Sunday, I’ll raise my hands one more time over these good, good people. I’ll take in the beautiful sight. I’ll surely feel the edge of tears. I will give thanks. And I will open that final pastoral blessing with the same words that I’ve opened most every benediction blessing for over a decade: You, dear friends, are God’s beloved…

Lauds

Max Saeling

3:27 a.m.

I’m awake in the wee hours of the night. The house is dark. I walk gently so that the creak of these old floors won’t rouse those I love. I step onto our back porch and gaze at the starlit sky, breathing clean air. For weeks, this weeping world has writhed and groaned with the wounds of violent history and raging pandemic and a thousand shades of anguish. 

But the world’s quiet now, for this one moment, with only the sound of crickets and frogs and the distant rumble of a train. I stand on the porch, wanting to know that this beautiful, aching world holds fast, that she’s still here, that we have not finally destroyed her—and each other with her. I need to know that she remains held by the mercy that has watched over us all from the beginning, cradled by the love that has carried us through so many toils and snares. I need to know that we are still nurtured by the kindness that—in spite of our persistent ignorance and foolishness and wickedness—refuses to let us go. Relentless mercy and love and kindness…in spite of us. It’s a wonder, isn’t it? 

And here I sit, and I see that the hour is Lauds—that ancient, before-dawn office of prayer. Maybe all this has been a prayer. A groaning prayer too deep for words. But I’m searching for words now.

Help us, God. Some of us are unable—or unwilling—to see the evil we’ve done. Some of us despair, no longer believing the evil can be undone. Some of us turn cold toward those who weep. Some of us can’t stop the tears. Some of us have abandoned justice and righteousness. Some of us have abandoned mercy and hope. Some of us fear what repentance might ask of us. Some of us fear what love might require.  

But all of us—all of us—are in desperate need for the mercy. God, hold us and renew us and show us our foolishness, the destructive ways we do not want to acknowledge, the clear-eyed freedom we’d know if we’d just relinquish whatever we hold with our iron grip. Teach us that we need not fear. Show us how to live whole and free and joyful. We’ve proven absolutely incapable of doing any of this on our own. I’m going to try to sleep now, again. I trust that the world will keep breathing, the stars keep twinkling, the crickets keep chirping, that the three I love in this house remain under your care, that this world I love, and all my sisters and brothers, rests under your care.

Amen. Goodnight.

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 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.

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.

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.

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.