Friends, you’ll find 3.5 years of sweat, joy, self-doubt, tears, befuddlement, worry, delight, and prayer on these pages. Most every day, I was in way over my head. The closing sentences felt like an amen.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.