Good Ol’ Words: Glory

I remember an elderly saint in the church of my youth. So moved by a sacred moment, her voice would tremble and she could only utter a few quiet words with holy reverence: Look there now. Glory.

In Scripture, few words evoke as much solemn mystery as the word glory. Glory speaks of brilliance, radiant beauty. Glory finds its way into the sentence whenever we’re struggling to describe the ineffable. When God’s presence filled Israel’s Tabernacle and when God’s voice thundered atop the Mount, glory escaped the trembling lips of both priests and children. These beautiful terrors evoked a wonder too large for language. Glory was the only thing one could think to say. Look there now. Glory.

St. Paul made bold use of the word. “When Christ, who is our life appears,” wrote the apostle, “then we will also appear with Christ in glory.” Did you catch that — Paul speaks not only of Christ’s appearance as glorious, but yours too. According to Paul, in that day, when our true life (our true self) trots out in plain view, then we will have truly appeared. And what a grand entrance it will be. In that moment, we’ll see not only Christ’s glory, but our glory, our radiance in God. In the good end, when all things return to their center, we will find God (with Eden echoes) naming us good, grinning wide and announcing us glorious. Now look there. Glory.

This is why Gregory of Nyssa spoke of the soul’s divine beauty as a blade darkened with the rust of sin (rusted, not ruined), a blade that must be (and would be) returned to shimmering splendor. This is why St. Irenaeus insisted that “the glory of God is a human fully alive.” This is why it is our great travesty if we only see our (or another’s) wretchedness or malfeasance, if we only notice all the fear or hatred, if we succumb to the lie that anyone (ourself included) is ruined. This is why it will never do to write someone off or give up on their return or think our shame concludes the tale.

You are meant for magnificence, not squalor. God marked you for his dance partner at the big finale, and God gets what God wants. Whatever dogs you, whatever whispers ruin in the cold night, whatever troubles your memory or your hope, remember this: glory is in you, and glory wins the day.

It’s the church’s job to help us see what’s coming, to help us see what’s true even now, particularly when what’s true lies buried underneath rubble and tears. Some of us are skilled at pointing out the sin, but our truest vocation is to point out the glory.

Look there now. Glory.

Good Ol’ Words: Preach


I grew up in a world where parishoners referred to their pastors as preachers. I understand why some folks these days dislike the word, evoking for many grainy images of fire-belching crazies sweating like hogs and literally scaring the hell out of people. You don’t have to read too many stories, like Dennis Covington’s wonderful Salvation on Sand Mountain (the true saga of the snake-handling preacher of the Church of Jesus Christ with Signs Following who tried to murder his wife with a crate of his rattlers), before you get the idea that preachers can be crazy coots.

This is too bad. In its truest sense, to preach means to announce (to declare) good news. To preach is not to blast wild, thoughtless words or to pretend to own a private hotline for divine truth. Rather, to preach is to refuse to stay silent when a soul is weary or a body undone.

A preacher believes we are starved for a good word, but the preacher will not surrender to the cynical belief that all the good words are gone. A preacher speaks up when the silence deafens, when we are desperate for a bit of light or hope. But a preacher also knows when to stop the talking, when to surrender the floor and let the quiet speak. A preacher tells the old story, and a true preacher simply lets this story stand, bearing its own weight, fully aware that the truth will both console and confound. The preacher does not use the Story or the Good Book (or words like gospeldisciplebiblical) as artillery or to build a following. A true preacher will not stand by when God’s grace or God’s mysteries suffer at the hands of boisterous, angry rhetoric or are desecrated by cliquish Christianity.

A preacher courageously opens her mouth when she sees how parched we are for words of life. A preacher weeps like Jeremiah when words will no longer do. A preacher sings a Psalm when darkness threatens to snuff out the hope. A preacher grieves when our foolish choices steer us toward death. A preacher gets riled when the poor are trampled or the powerful mock mercy. A preacher gets feisty whenever arrogant buffoons tarnish the stole.

To preach, in the old sense, is not a theatrical display or the opportunity for a polished speaker to wow the crowd. A preacher speaks to the very people surrounding him, the ones who need God’s voice in this one moment and amid these unique details. A preacher offers whatever he holds within his soul, whether born in travail or in joy, then gives that true thing fully, and humbly, to the people he loves. The preacher listens before she speaks, and afterwards too. Preaching is, as Marilynne Robinson says, one side of a passionate conversation.

If a preacher rarely laughs, or never cries, I do not trust him. Are we paying any attention at all to our world, to our God, to our own heart? Do we see the beauty, or the weariness, of those who receive our words? Do we have any inkling of the vast generosity and holy love of the One in whose name we speak? A preacher does not have a bully pulpit, but a meeting place from which to say again and again: God is here.

Karl Barth said that when he stood behind a pulpit, he assumed there would always be at least one person listening who, when hearing the story of scandalous grace, would surely be asking themselves: Could this possibly be true? “Then,” Barth said, “I preach to that person.”

Barth offers as good a description of preaching as I could muster. Preach to that single soul, to that one who’s desperate for a fresh possibility, a truly good word. This kind of preaching, this kind of life, will never grow old.

Good Ol’ Words: Pastor

There are many ideas out there of what a pastor should be, and most of them make little sense to me. For many, a pastor should be primarily concerned with managerial duties, with charisma and fundraising, with crisis management or motivation or chaplain care. As I understand it, a pastor is one who lives with God and with the people, one who knows their names and carries their hurts and reminds them that God has spoken love and goodness over them. A pastor does not throw out a ceremonious prayer before big events, like the mayor tossing the first pitch on Opening Day. A pastor sits bedside in the dark hours and begs God for mercy. A pastor walks into the ruins, fully aware of her own threadbare soul, and announces wholeness.

A pastor does not only tend to the big visions, the big ideas, the big people. A pastor knows his own lowliness and walks into the ordinary places and with the ordinary people. A pastor, with a voice steady and true, hallows the ground and the rain and the marriage and the purple blooms of Spring — because this one thing we know: God gives life, and this makes every inch of life beautiful and good.

Jim Casy, Steinbeck’s broken preacher in Grapes of Wrath, knows this terrain:

“I’m gonna work in the fiel’s, in the green fiel’s, an’ I’m gonna be near to folks…Gonna learn why the folks walks in the grass, gonna hear ’em talk, gonna hear ’em sing. Gonna listen to the kids eatin’ mush. Gonna hear husban’ an’ wife a-poundin’ the mattress in the night. Gonna eat with ’em an’ learn.” His eyes were wet and shining. “Gonna lay in the grass, open an’ honest with anybody that’ll have me. Gonna cuss an’ swear an’ hear the poetry of folks talkin’. All that’s holy, all that’s what I didn’ understan’.”

Michael Ramsay, former Archbishop of Canterbury, puts it together in a sentence. “The priesthood is to be with God, with the people on your heart.” We listen to God, and we listen to Mrs. Jenkins down the street. We pray to God, and we laugh with those who are struggling to ever say a prayer. We live love, and we live it with actual people who have actual names and who live in a specific place with very particular fears and hopes and longings. Some of it annoying. Much of it mundane. All of it the stuff of pastors.


more reading: (1) an intro to Good Ol’ Words (2) Good Ol’ Words: Blessing


image: Giotto

Good Ol’ Words: Blessing


We have friends who’ve been through the ringer the past few years, a series of mysterious health issues complicated by debilitating reactions to almost all building materials. It made their home, as well as most every home available on the market, unlivable. As a result, our friends and their kids have been gypsies, bumping from neighbor to friend to family, sometimes only for a few days at a time, trying to hold their life together as they figure out their future. They hired a builder who fitted the house with custom specs aimed at shutting out these immune system offenders. It was a grand day when the builder handed our friends the keys to their beautiful home tucked among lush trees and just above a lovely creek. We’re praying this will be a place they can, for the first time since this ordeal began, sigh deeply and lay down their bodies, lay down their lives.

Several of us gathered to bless their house. One friend brought honey from the wild bees they keep on their wooded acreage. Another friend arrived with a bouquet of wildflowers. We all brought our hopes and our prayers. We stood on the front lawn, straw strewn over the clay dirt to hold moisture for the grass that will one day cradle the dew and tickle bare feet.

I helped their two boys take a leafed twig from one of their trees in the front yard, and I pulled out a small bowl of water. “In the Bible,” I said, “water symbolizes things being cleansed, made new, and even more, water symbolizes God’s presence with us.” I told the boys to be ready to take turns, ready to dip their leaves in the water and sprinkle each room.

We read Jesus’ instructions to the disciples, how they were to speak peace over every house they entered. Then we went on a tour. Due to health concerns, our friends have to build most of their furniture, so the rooms were sparse. Sleeping bags and pillows covered the bedroom floor, and a couple boxes sat in a corner of the living room. The furnishings may have been meager, but love was full to the brim. In each room, we’d ask, So tell us about this space. Who will live here, and what will this room be used for? What do you love about it? Tell us about what you hope to happen between these walls? Answers came quick and were beautiful. Hopes of laughter and joy, of good rest, of sunshine, desire to watch the light through the large windows and listen to the sounds from their woods.

Then, in each room, one of us prayed. We blessed whoever who would sleep there or the work that would be done there. We prayed for light and love. We prayed that evil would not cross this threshold. We prayed that the windows would rattle with laughter and gladness. Perhaps my favorite moment was when Miska prayed over the laundry room. Miska’s tears took her by surprise as she blessed this place of such quotidian grace, this place where ordinary love floods in and where our grime washes away. After each blessing, one of us would say: The Lord is here. The rest of us would answer: God’s Spirit is with us.

We concluded in the large open living space, circled and holding hands. We read a blessing from John O’Donohue, a poet who knew how to bless a place, to bless a life. After finishing the work we had come to do, we lingered. There are some experiences so precious you are not prepared for them to be finished.

There are many things we’re told the church is supposed to do these days, many of which seem to actually tear at our calling to live well in our place and with our people. However, could anything be more important than moments like these, moments when we walk through family halls or down a hospital corridor or atop a mountain ridge or through a precarious transition, listening to hopes and grabbing hands and speaking a blessing. We’ve been given the sacred trust to bless the soil and the sky and the cul-de-sacs and the cancer wards and the celebrations and even, with few words and heavy souls, the places of sorrow.

As our parting gift for our friends with the new house, we left a tile with St. Francis of Assisi’s blessing, the same one we have in our home. Perhaps they will hang it near their door as Miska and I have done with ours. These words pray a prayer over all who come and all who go. Pax et bonum. Peace and goodness over all.

Good Old Words

Language matters. God came to us as the Word. Our holy book offers us the Living Christ amid words. Words are woven into our God-crafted humanness. It’s hard to imagine how we could know ourselves or encounter our world or even begin to give ourselves to love without sharing language and symbols, without words.

This is why the Church needs poets and storytellers. We need folks who plant a disruptive seed in our imagination, 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 like handcrafted dynamite. These happy subversives light the fuse and calmly set the short-wick sentence in our midst.

“That’s why we must be wordsmiths,” says Dallas Willard, “You use words to ravish people with the beauty of the kingdom.” Once words become a commodity, merely one of the tricks in our church-building bag, we wither. If words function only to help us hawk our wares, I promise you that sooner or later, no one will care. No one will ever be ravished with the beauty.

Writers are our friends here. Annie Dillard reflects how “writing is like working with wild horses…you have to go down and catch it again every morning.” To be a people of alive words is to be a people who believe that God has not gone silent, that God always has a fresh word for the beleaguered soul. In the church, our rhetoric may grow tired or cliché, but our God doesn’t.

I’m not suggesting a faddish chase for always newer, always more relevant, words – God help us, no. Rather, I’m asking if we could simply let these good, old words breathe again. Could we sit still and allow them their power? Could we sit with young king Josiah who dusted off the books of God’s Law, long forgotten? When Josiah heard the words, unfiltered, he ripped the clothes from his body. His heart thumped with fresh fire. We need the fire. We need the words.

The older I get, the more I become an advocate for church words, that peculiar language our foremothers and forefathers have passed to us. Some folks envision upgraded titles for their ecclesiastical functions (Sr. Vortex Visioneer or Missiological Brewmaster). I simply want to be known as a plain pastor – and then I want to enjoy the long, unpredictable path discovering what that word pastor might actually mean.

Many of these words sit patiently in the corner, unobtrusive, collecting dust. They are sturdy, rooted. These words know they’re not going anywhere, that sooner or later we will need them again, as we always do. Words like priest and glory, membership and doxology. Words with fire. Words that both singe and succor, if we’ll only let them burn. In the coming days, I may tinker with a handful of these good, old words, listen to them anew.

Tom Conlon, a friend and soulful songwriter, knows this terrain well. “People ask me how the music business is. I always say I have no idea. I’m not in the music business. There are older, better words – with much more of a history – for what I do. Troubadourminstrel, maybe. There are older, better words for most everything we do.”

Yes, there are.

And I have to tell you how after Tom said these words, he paused for a silence. Then added: “I hope we’ll be true to who we are.” This is what the good words do – they help us be true.

The Unproductive Church



I am a pastor, which means I am often in the company of weary, disillusioned people. On any given Sunday, fatigue, loneliness and a restless disappointment are easy to spot if we care to pause from our shimmering sermons, our missional initiatives or our attempts to “love the city” long enough to love that one person and ask a basic human question: Say, where’s your heart these days?

Rarely do we ask such questions, however. These queries require a gentle posture and a slow curiosity, two practices which have fallen out of favor. These simple, genuine conversations work to see, not manage, the person before us. No agendas, no angling for how we might hoist the run amok coaster back on track. No prodding that poor, lackluster soul. Oh-so-important church work be damned, we want to know where you’re finding joy, where you’re worn thin, when’s the last time you got misty-eyed.

If we ask such things, though, the machine will likely have to idle for a bit, perhaps even lurch to a full stop. Of course, machines cannot flex with the varying seasons of the soul. But a family can. So can a friendship. The church, if it is true to its name, will refuse the allure of mechanized production (even when it promises some strained version of “success”). Rather, we will seek to be neighbors and friends. We will give as much space to leisure as we do to leadership.

Years ago, I pastored a struggling church in Denver. We had moved west for my wife Miska to attend grad school, and I’d only been on the job a couple months before coffee meetings with parishioners began to repeat the same themes. Dear people would sit across from me, speaking with tenderness so as not to wound. I’m really sorry, Winn. I like what you’re doing with the church and I appreciate the sermons, but something’s just not right here. Our family’s withering. I think we need to leave.

Each time, I found myself having the same response. You know, I think you’re right, You and your family need to find another community. It sounds like we’re weighing you down. A rouse-the-troops speech if ever there was one. A pastor of a small church only has to have this conversation a few times before the handwriting glows on the wall. Nine months later, the leadership council spoke a blessing over the church’s many years and many good stories and laid the exhaustion to rest.

I hope I never again need to preside over a community’s farewell, but that time with those good people confirmed one thing: crushing a person’s soul to save the cause is always too high a price to pay.


Photo courtesy Lars Plougmann

Faith, Poetry and Funk


boy and his bass

Gregory of Nazianzus, a Church Father considered one of our finest theologians attempting to speak intelligibly of the Trinity, could only, in the end, turn to poetry in his attempts to say something (something short of heresy but something more than drivel) about this confounding mystery. Church folk and lovers (two words which should be bosom buddies) often make their way to poets and verse whenever the thing we have to say simply cannot be said in the language we’ve been given.

I wrote my wife Miska a poem one Christmas. It wasn’t high art, just tender scribbles on a page. Thank God for free verse, as my iambic pentameter goes every kind of caddywompus. Still, somehow in those simple lines I was free to say things I didn’t know how to say, free to discover truths in the writing that I didn’t yet know I knew. The form insisted that I not worry so much about explaining my love; but to simply love, to let the love seep from my heart onto the page. I don’t know how it happens. I only know it does.

Since music is poetry in motion, all of this fits (I think) with how one of my friends, Eastern Orthodox professor Vigen Guroian, talks about theology. “It has to be sung,” he says. “If you can’t sing it, it can’t be good theology.” There’s more (much more) to faith than airtight theological constructs. Good words about God, ones that catch your breath short or make your knees buckle or turn your heart and your mind to fire, have to be set free – they have to set you free. Faith needs to carry a melody, to set down a groove, to bring a little funk.

St. Pophyrios of Kavsokalyvia said, “Whoever wants to become a Christian must first become a poet.” Do not take St. Pophyrios too literally. He does not insist everyone must learn poetic craft. He’s reminding us that we must allow our soul to be moved into places deeper than bare fact. We must allow the Spirit to bring us embers, and then wait for the Spirit to blow on the embers until they sizzle and flare.

It is not sufficient to accumulate the facts. Someone’s got to sing us a song. Someone’s got to let the poetry loose. Someone’s got to bring the funk.

Lil’ Help from our Friends

bike community

Years ago, when our boys were little, we had a small community of friends that gathered in our home for several years. One evening, our oldest (three at the time) asked, in eager expectation, whether our friends were coming over. “Yes,” I answered. “Why do you like having them here?”

My son paused only a moment. “Because they love us. And they help us fight the dragons.”

In the years previous and the years since, I’m not sure I’ve heard a better definition of friendship than this one from my three-year-old. Friends (true friends) love the person we are, not the person they imagine we are or the person we pretend to be. Friends clasp arms with us as together we swing at the darkness.

I’ve often wondered what the future will reveal about how we’ve raised our sons, how we’ve done with our hopes to help them become good men who live good lives. I wonder if our meandering efforts will prove enough to help them take their good place in this topsy-turvy world. I will tell you this, though: the friends who have been in our life (thus, the friends who have been in their lives) will play a larger role in all this than most of us imagine.

When I think about how I hope to love my sons along the path toward becoming their true selves, my mind turns to the people they are blessed to encounter. There’s Tom, the master carpenter, who takes us into his shop with the massively cool racks of hand tools and takes us for walks in the woods surrounding his land, all of which exudes presence, attentiveness and respect for craft and place. There’s Corey and Juli, who’ve loved them since the day each of them came squealing into this world. There’s Debbie who asks tender, meaningful questions, provoking care and curiosity. There’s John, the poet, who sits at the kitchen table for games of Farkle and carries delight in how our boys are full-on boys, delighting too in how they are becoming men (but not yet, not yet). There’s Raul who gives them hugs and kisses on the cheek, as he does each of us each time he arrives, then pulls out his guitar for a jam session or pulls from his days as a coffee roaster and teaches my sons the art of the single pour. These friends are merely a sample – and on top of grandparents, uncle and aunts, so much love. We have so many good people in our lives, so many gifts. So many teachers.

John Lennon said he got by with a little help from his friends. We all do.

The Slowest Virtue


breadking bread in denmark

Grabbing the radio nob, I nudged up the volume. The man explained how he decided to craft a hand-hewn casket, the box they would use to place his 94-year-old mom in the ground. The task would take a little time, though, because he wanted to cut each board and plane each angle himself. “A machine makes things too perfect,” he said. “That’s not life.” The funeral home agreed to hold his mother’s body, and he went to work, each cut of the saw an act of love. The son did not dally, but he did not rush. He took care with his labor, but he expected the casket to bare its blemishes without shame. The son shared a line from his credo: “I do not strive for perfect,” he explained. “I strive for fulfilling.”

I heard this story the same weekend the reader at church gave us St. Peter’s words explaining how each of us would need to “grow into our salvation.” It seemed to me these two bits of wisdom scratched at a similar truth. Pine boxes, when they’re built for the sake of love, cannot be rushed. The dead are happy to wait. In the same way, salvation (our well-being, our return to our good life in God) works on a slow, slow schedule. God, it seems, is happy to wait.

I imagine Peter amused at our self-important bluster, our fervent and so very serious spiritual disciplines, our flashes of theological indignation, our cause de jour. “Well now…” Peter says, play in his voice, “you’re ready to strip a gear.” If it’s true that we grow into our salvation, then this means we’ve got a ways yet before we get to wherever it is we’re going. The idea of growth assumes perpetual imperfection. The tomatoes and the cilantro in our raised garden beds will likely flourish in time, but wringing my hands or hovering over them with vigilant scrutiny will do nothing other than ruin my joy and provide Miska with cause to wonder if I’ve finally gone the way of the loon. I’m not aiming for apathy, but I would like to suggest at least a dose of calm the heck down.

If there’s a triumphant sin of our age, it just might be impatience. Many of us believe we exist on the razor edge where our well-being, reputation or identity always teeters in immediate jeopardy. We’ve got no margin to spare, no grace to spare. With so much at stake, we brandish this same sharp threat toward everyone we encounter. We are quick to denounce, heavy with sarcastic critique, wicked swift to pounce on someone’s blunder or poor judgment. We have so little patience with one another.

In God’s economy, however, there’s plenty of time. Time for mistakes. Time for new possibilities. Time for those zany detours that later just make you scratch your head. There’s time to accept our own foolishness as well as the foolishness of others. We have miles to go, and if we’ll allow it, love will get us there. But love is patient. And because love is patient, love is also kind.

Teilhard de Chardin suggested that to nurture gentle patience (towards ourselves and toward others), we must “accept the anxiety of feeling incomplete.” We’re all beauty-in-process. We’re all finding our way. We’re all just growing up.


*The image above is from sometime around 1929, on a rugged farm in Western Jutland, Denmark. The woman is baking bread in an oven dug into the rise of the hill. The wooden pole keeps the door shut while she watches over the bread. Slow, patient work.

Bent and Tender

I always feel a heaviness in my gut when I imagine the terror of the woman in St. John’s story, the woman used as bait for trapping Jesus. Standing absolutely by herself in that violent circle and enclosed by angry, leering men, panic must have consumed her. Plotters snatched her from her lover’s bed, and now, half-dressed, she stood in the middle of the square with dust-caked streaks marking her face and shame marking her heart. Seared with a scarlet A, she stood alone amid a sea of hate.

I find it curious that when the Pharisees asked Jesus if he was ready to grab a rock, John notes Jesus’ precise movement. Jesus, the story says, “bent down.” He did not answer. He did not theologize. Jesus crouched low and doodled in the dirt.

Reams have been written on what Jesus scribbled on that street, but I’m more intrigued by the fact that Jesus bent low. This posture of humble tenderness was entirely at odds with the highly charged moment. This bending was a quiet, tender movement that, by its very action, refused to cooperate with the coercive question, with the agenda, with the fear. Jesus would not stand with the woman’s assailants. Jesus would not stand with the powerful. In fact, Jesus would not stand at all. Jesus bent down.

In a world where too many voices (from all sides) hurl accusation, sarcasm and dogma, I want to learn to bend down. I do not merely want to speak in kinder tones or hone effective listening skills. Nor am I indicating a desire to surrender all conviction or clear-eyed gumption. Rather, I mean something far more difficult, something that unwinds us from a much deeper core. I hope to be one identified by tears more than edicts, by hopes more than fears, by the kind of strength that bends down. I hope to become a man of tenacious tenderness.

“There are some men too gentle to live among the wolves,” says Kavanaugh. I believe there is something here we need to listen to, something I fear, at times, we might lose altogether. We need women and men who refuse the way of the wolves.

I have no idea what Jesus wrote that day, bending close to the dirt. It wouldn’t shock me, however, if he wrote something like this: Grace, too gentle for the wolves.