Lean if You Need to

Merry 3rd day of Christmas. Perhaps, like the star atop our tree, you’re knocked sideways, holding tight but barely.

I love our tree, the little fire stove pumping heat next to it, looking out over the quiet carpet of white stretching under the pines behind our house. But this tree’s a quirkster. We cut it because it was the right height and velvety soft, a Michigan fir. But we’ve turned it and twisted it, screwed and re-screwed the base bolts so many times. It leaned to the right. When we fixed that, it leaned left. We straightened it again, and it dipped forward.

Miska finally said, “Well, I think that’s what we have this year.” We chalked it up to 2020 and embraced our little holiday tower of Pisa. And our tilting star. It’s cute, but the Magnolia folks aren’t heading our way for a photo shoot.

Thankfully, all the tree and the star need to do is stand here and evoke wonder. Every night, I unplug the lights, and for a moment, I take in the glow, the warmth, the grace. From this old limpy tree.

It’s genius that Christmastide is 12 days, not one. We couldn’t sustain the emotional high, the expectations, the push. But we can just stand here and lean. We can take in the warmth and wonder of our limpy, marvelous lives. We have 10 more days of joy and grace. Lean or limp, but make certain to laugh. Tilt as needed. Receive what comes. Be curious. Play, waste time. Make merry.

Happy Christmas.

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,


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.

Love Big. Be Well.

Roughly 4 1/2 years ago, a friend wrote to me, reflecting on the weary season she was in with their church, looking for a pastor. She asked what I’d be looking for in a pastor if I were part of a search team. I wrote her a reply that, I’m sure, was mostly unhelpful.

However, the question sent me down a rabbit hole, and I began to ponder how, over the previous decade or so, my convictions concerning what it means to be a pastor have solidified. I believe to be a pastor is at its heart to embrace a simple vocation, noble and sacred work – but I also believe the word pastor has been sullied. Big egos and power grabs and celebrities and climbing the ecclesial ladder have left us with a vocation that often feels impersonal and frankly has very little to with actually pastoring or worse, much of anything to do with God. More, I think the idea of church has hit on hard times too – what was once a place of friendship and belonging, a place of joy and grief and hope enacted together has become…well, something else.

Considering all this, I did what I normally do when trying to make sense of things – I began to scratch words on paper. However, these words grew into a story. I discovered a pastor named Jonas McAnn and a little church (Granby Presbyterian) in a little town (Granby, Virginia). The story began open-ended, with a lot of curiosity, as every good story should. I had no desire to deliver “a message” but rather to enter the lives of this beautiful, rough-around-the-edges community and see what I’d find.

I’m really pleased with the stories I discovered, the joys, the sorrows, the friendships. It feels like life.

This is an epistolary novel, told through letters Jonas writes to his congregation. I think you’ll grow to love these people just as I have.

The novel is set to release October 27, and I’ll have more to say as time draws near. But I’ll  put this out there now: I really need your help. If you’re reading this, this means you’re one of my loyal circle of readers. I’m counting on you for this one.

Here’s what you can do now:

Pre-order the book on Amazon

My publisher (Eerdmans) has made available 10 Advance Reader Copies. If you’d like to be considered for one (which would mean you agree to post a review on Amazon and Goodreads and say a good word on social media in some way in October), please email me with your name and physical address. I’ll collect all the names and have a drawing on Wednesday.

Begin to spread word among your circle of friends. Word of mouth is the only way Love Big. Be Well. will grab any traction.


The Good News of Ascension

For Christians, today is Ascension Day. It’s supposed to be a day of feasting and joy and hope, but the day’s now ignored in many traditions, perplexed as we are by what it means, what’s the deal? Is it the anticlimactic downer, after Easter’s wild rush of hope? Did Jesus just jet off, the first intergalactic space traveler, into some far away existence, leaving us to muddle along for some indefinite (and very long, we now see) time, hanging on by the skin of our teeth?

No wonder those first disciples stood gawking up at the clouds. With this kind of story, I’d stand there scratching my head too.

The Ascension is the promise that God-gone-human was not a passing whim but that God loves the body and all the joys and goodness of being human and Jesus now takes this true humanity and joins it to God the Father. And Jesus knows our pains and sorrows and hopes and longings and deep scars and crushing fears and carries them to the Father who gathers them into the very center of the Trinity, all with the promise that we too, in all our splendid humanity, will one day be renewed and find complete joy in God.

The Ascension does not mean God is far removed and we’re to just make out the best we can – exactly the opposite. We’d only say such a thing if we completely misunderstand what “heaven” means. The Ascension assures us that the God who is flesh in Jesus is also present with us everywhere, by the Spirit, loving us, calling us into life, beckoning our wayward hearts.

The Ascension assures us that Jesus Christ has ascended to the good and generous and powerful throne, to rule over, watch over, and provide diligent care over the whole of creation. This means all of us – and every spec of this world in need of healing. This means the universe is in good hands. This means the story ends well.

The Great Story really needs Ascension. I’m glad we have it.

The Gentleness of Advent

snow light

On the third Sunday of Advent, we heard St. Paul’s words: Let your gentleness be known to everyone. I can’t imagine a more timely word for our day. Do we not yearn to encounter gentle souls — people who listen with generosity (not accusation), friends who welcome without applying a litmus test, kind strangers who give the benefit of the doubt? Don’t we want to be this kind of person — to expect the best of another, to be tender with others’ mistakes or ignorance, to refuse the impulse to embarrass or mock (even one who deserves it), to watch for opportunities to lavish kindness?

Of course, the realists, fear-peddlers and doctrinaires will assure us (passionately) that such a posture is not possible in this scary, evil-ridden world. These rigid ones insist we must exude strength (so-called); we must take on whatever hardness necessary to maintain vigilance. Worse, those eager to resist these lies may imbibe the same energy, growing just as hard, just as mean or caviling, just as small and unimaginative, just as harsh.

And into this violence and phobia, a baby comes, the peace of the world. God, in the ultimate act of gentleness, bends toward us, enters a woman’s womb and lives among us, full of humility and noble strength. This tenacious king, with the backbone love requires, allowed himself to be taken advantage of, to be thought the fool. This One from God knows who he is, knows who we might become, knows that nothing will be won by force or shame or ridicule.

God comes to us with a preposterous gentleness that will always be a scandal in this rough-and-tumble world. And God invites us to join the scandalous subterfuge. Advent, these watchful days, asks us see the world anew, to watch for alternative possibilities. Advent invites us to become gentle people again.

Suffering Toward Joy

canopy road

It is remarkable the vast energies we exert in our attempt to avoid suffering. Painful relationships, painful memories, difficult conversations — it’s so easy, so tempting, to ignore those things that will cost us dearly if we stay with them. How many hopes abandoned, possibilities squelched, friendships withered – all because we did not surrender ourselves to the suffering they would require?

The apostle Paul believed that one of the many signs of a genuine love was the tenacity to be patient in the midst of suffering. We cannot truly love another if we are committed to not suffering. We cannot be present with others in their suffering if we are not willing to suffer along with them. We may not know how to silence the voices of shame or how to circumvent the reality confirmed by the oncology report or how to mend a shattered dream. We, of course, cannot return a boy to his mother or cleanse the mind of foul memories. We can, however, mourn with those who mourn. We can weep. We can bear with the pain and not turn away.

The way of love will always require some manner of suffering, the willingness to lay down one’s own well-being for the good of another. Perhaps this is why marriage provides us with one of our ultimate human enactments of love. Vigen Guroian says that marriage is an act of martyrdom, and he is right. If I want to truly love Miska (and I do), it will in some measure be the death of me.

But it will also be my life. Oh the joy. We suffer, not because we’re sadists but because we are committed to the truest and highest good, for ourselves and for others. We suffer for the joy that is set before us.

Sleeping Laughter

Several nights ago, a dream crossed those dim boundaries between the sleeping and the waking. I don’t know what cracked escapade my dream played for me, but something certainly struck my funny bone. I clutched my gut, laughter of the sort that pins a stitch in your side. Such a deep laughter I woke myself. My wee hour outburst startled Miska, jolting her upright, “Are you okay?” she asked groggily, patting her hand around the bed in search of me. The next morning, she told me how she hadn’t known whether I was laughing or crying.

I was laughing, most definitely laughing.

Some dreams we claw after, grasping for the fantasy or the happiness, those illusory shimmers. Some night terrors we’re desperate to forget. With this dream, I am merely grateful for whatever zaniness prodded such mirth. “Laughter is carbonated holiness,” says Anne Lamott. I may agree with Woody Allen even more: “I am thankful for laughter, except when milk comes out of my nose.”

Perhaps this is why Jesus told so many odd stories with offbeat turns and witty puns – and with so many curmudgeonly, half-witted characters. Perhaps Jesus just wanted us to break a smile or, if he could manage it, get us to belch a straight up guffaw. God, it seems, wants us to laugh. And if he must tickle us in the night to make it happen, so be it.

Church Words

I’ve pitched in with a few other writers over at Deeper Church, a place to think about the rich joys and deep mysteries we discover via life in God’s Church. I’ll join in once a month or so.

Today, I began to think about our church words, about our need for poets and storytellers. We need women who plant a disruptive seed in our imagination. We need men who flip us topsy-turvy with their playfulness and their unguarded revelations. We need poets and preachers who brush past the cynicism, refuse fatigued dichotomies and fashion words as though they are handcrafted dynamite. These happy subversives light the fuse and calmly set the short-wicked sentence in our midst.

If you want to read on, you certainly may

Why the Mourning?

If you pray the Psalms long enough, you find they force you to put language to the nagging questions, the brooding anger and the unseemly exuberance that often goes unspoken.

Several of the Psalms ask God: “Why must I go about mourning?” Is it really necessary, God? Why all the gloom? And I’m not even talking about the behemoth philosophical conundrum: the existence of evil – I haven’t worked my way to that yet. I’m just asking why lovers hurt and bills pile up, why so many, near the end, look back with such regret? Why is friendship so hard to come by? Why does raising kids inevitably take me on this insane trip from joy to fury to boredom to anxiety back to joy, all before breakfast? Why do I get caught on this loop of anxiety or shame or addiction?

There’s goodness everywhere too, I know this; but at the moment, I’m wondering why are things so often so hard? Why all the mourning? Some might say it’s a fruit of our age, our self-absorbed, therapeutic idiosyncrasies trapping us in a small, obsessive circle. However, I’m reading the Psalms, not Psychology Today. Our foremothers asked these same questions. This is a human dilemma, not a modern dilemma.

When we seek to follow the kind God offered to us in the Bible and when we long to live a life awake to our own selves and to the world God has given us, at some point we find ourselves asking: God, why all the mourning?

And, perhaps annoyingly, the Psalmist doesn’t do much to answer the question. The Psalmist doesn’t break into a metaphysical soliloquy or chide the query. So far as I’ve found, there is no tight, logical response to the repeated request for clarification. The Psalmist simply, with songs and prayers, says: “Put your hope in God.”