Dolly Sods

All beauty in the world is either a memory of Paradise or a prophecy of the transfigured world.

{Nicholas Berdyaev}

Dolly Sods, Joseph Rossbach

Last weekend, several friends and I took a backpacking trip into Dolly Sods Wilderness, a rugged section of West Virginia’s Monongohela National Forest. The mercury peaked at 104° as we motored West. I’d be lying if I denied having second thoughts about the whole affair. I do love the mountains and the streams, the wood-quiet which is so very different from the city-quiet. I love discovering new territory. I do not, however, love to sizzle. On principle, I stand opposed to camping in the South, in the scorched God-forsaken month of July. However, this was the only date that (after great machination) worked, and our friend guiding the trip promised the mountains would grant us a cool gift. I doubted, but I swallowed my principle and my wariness and followed.

I wanted to fill my lungs and stretch my legs, tromping into the oaks and finding that odd joy that comes from carrying all the goods you’ll live by on your now-weary shoulders. There is a leisure that I know only in the wild. When I enter these hallowed spaces, I remember what I’ve missed. I welcome an old friend, and I wonder again what has kept me away so long.

On Saturday, I spent a stretch of four hours alone, under the canopy of green trees, in a hammock rocked by a cool (God, thank you) breeze. For these gentle, shaded hours, I read Vigen Guroian’s Fragrance of God, this Orthodox-theologian-gardener’s meditations on finding God amid both the human and the humus. There are those moments when text and space collide. This was such a moment.

It’s as good as it is rare for the soul whenever we move completely off the grid. Not so long ago, it was normal to disconnect from the every-way that the rest of the world can, with merely a click, track me down. Traditionally, I am a late adopter. I was a holdout until the last possible moment on cell phones. I remember the way it used to be when Miska or I travelled – we needed a calling card if we wanted to check in with anybody back home. I miss those days. It has been far too long since I was truly inaccessible.

But there I was, reading Guroian amid a world of stillness.

Listen to the Words

Last evening, bedtimes were late. The boys were hungry. Miska was (rightfully) stressing about oral surgery she would have today (all is well, thanks for asking). I sprawled on the couch, surrendering for just a few clicks to a deep weariness. This fatigue has lurked around our house for a while; though Miska has carried it further, we’ve traded it back and forth.

I waved Seth over, and he crawled onto the couch with me. I stroked his hair and squeezed him tight, this boy adding sinew and muscle and inches by the day. Since it was bedtime and, truth told, I didn’t feel like walking up the stairs to his room, I said we would commence our nightly ritual right there, prayer and blessing as the two of us lay like twin-pops across our leather sofa.

Seth buried his head in my shoulder, and I began:

God, thank you for my son Seth. Thank you for his strength and his courage and his good heart. Thank you for the joy he brings me. Help him know you are real. Help him know you love him – and that I love him. Amen. Without a pause, I raised my thumb to his forehead, made the sign of the cross. Bless you, my son.

Seth looked up, beaming. “I want that on my ipod.”

Don’t we all? Aren’t we all craving for someone to see us, to notice what is good and true in us? Aren’t we taken aback on those far too rare occasions when someone speaks a word that zings right past the trivial and pierces our hidden question, our smothered neurosis, our muted desperation?

And we need to hear these true words like an echo, an echo stuck on “repeat.” For some sad reason, we cling to the violent, wicked and demeaning words. Yet the words that bring life, the words that prompt tears, the words that catch our breath or make us nervous or hint that a rich vein has been struck — those words we let loose. We don’t receive them. We know a million reasons to cast them askance: perhaps the one speaking is biased or doesn’t know us well or is simply playing nice. Perhaps. Perhaps. Perhaps. Perhaps is a joy-killer. Beauty can’t sprout where it isn’t welcome.

We need to hear these true words. We need to speak these true words. Listen for them. These words are life.

I’m a Consumer Christian

The danger is not lest the soul should doubt whether there is bread, but lest, by a lie, it should persuade itself it is not hungry. {Simone Weil}

Give us this day our daily bread. {Jesus}

Much ink has been spilt (with good cause) resisting the soul-numbing prevalence of hyper-individualism, where we view God – and then in turn people and neighborhoods and natural resources – merely as raw material for the pursuit of our isolated whims. The gospel tells me that my comfort and the satisfaction of my every impulse is not the goal of the universe. Bummer.

In the church, we have created a cottage industry around denouncing consumerism, and I understand the revulsion to this spirit of our age. I too am frustrated to no end when we belittle the mystery and beauty of Christian community by our penchant for using churchy experiences with all their gizmos and “energy” the same way we down a can of Red Bull: guzzle, toss, grab another when wanted. Yum. I recently read that at some churches, you can now get your pastor delivered via hologram. Truly, I am at a loss for words.

I’m concerned, however, that the way we talk about all this sends the message that there is something wrong with our cravings and the hope to fill our unmet longings, something unseemly about our hunger. I’ve seen shame attached to the notion of someone coming to the church community without arriving ready to give. Jesus invited the weary people to come, to come and eat, come and drink, come and rest. To hear some of us, we only want the people who are ready to come and work, come and plug right in “doing mission.”

I once heard a young pastor on the speaking circuit say, with a swagger: “We aren’t here to meet your Christian needs. If you’re a Christian, we aren’t really here for you – we’re here to be on mission for those who don’t know God.” It came across brash. He sounded revolutionary, a bad-ass pastor. He prompted a lot of laughter. I wanted to cry.

A while back, during our Denver years, Miska and I were exhausted. Serving God had worn us out. A church up in the hills welcomed us in. We attended on Saturday nights. It was a peaceful space. We heard the Scriptures and prayed some prayers (or didn’t). We sang along with a few songs and soaked in the gospel. We didn’t sign up for any ministries or serve on any teams. We dropped checks in the offering plate, and we (usually) showed up on time for church. Other than that, not much. Oh, we did attend a small group. Twice.

We were consumers, and it saved my soul.

Jesus’ first miracle was wine at a wedding in Cana, an extravagant act intended for no good reason other than the peoples’ consumption and joy. The Psalmist describes our want for God in visceral terms: hunger, thirst, cravings. Jesus gave us a table with wine and bread as the retelling of the Great Story. At Jesus’ Table, all we do is come and receive; we gorge on grace. We do not come to Jesus to work. We come to rest. We come to allow grace to work on us. The Christian’s work is what happens when resting people find the free life of the Spirit flowing among them. Work is what we do when the Kingdom has taken root and joyful obedience begins to sprout. But first, we rest. First, we consume.

The gospel never calls us to myopic self-centeredness. The kingdom of God moves and (re)creates and leads us to lay down our life and give ourselves away. But who can say exactly when – or how? The new creation I first encounter is God’s love that pours and pours and pours into my soul. And I must drink it in. I must consume it, a man desperate and starved with nothing much, for the moment, to give.

To Live {why the church.5}

He felt…another kind of awake. {Colum McCann, Let the Great World Spin}

Jesus is our shalom…creating within his body a new humanity, a new way of being human. {St. Paul}

In these bodies, we will love / In these bodies, we will die / And where you invest your love, you invest your life. {Mumford and Sons}

Perhaps the plainest way to say it is this: the church exists because Jesus rose from the dead.

Easter happened, and Easter is the prototype for all God’s intentions for the world. God did not raise Jesus into the spiritualized psyches of his followers. God did not raise Jesus by enshrining Jesus-ideals into an ethical philosophy for cultures to emulate. God raised Jesus’ rotting, blood-crusted flesh from a dark, musty cave. Dead Jesus lay in the tomb, but alive Jesus walked out.

So now, whenever we hear the prophets and the apostles speak of God’s cosmic project of New Creation, we know what they are talking about. Dead things coming back to life. Old things restored, new. Not ideals, but a reality. Physical. Present. Body, God’s Body.

The church is what happens when resurrection gets to work. Humans are communal creatures. I feel a bit silly pausing to make this obvious point, but… Without friendships, we are lonely. Without a love or a child or an intimate relationship, we are not whole. When we call someone a hermit, we aren’t passing a complement. We are hardwired for committed, intentional, sustained, I’m-with-you-even-when-I-don’t-like-you relationships. Against this, though, we all have horror stories and vast mounds of disappointment. Maybe we’ve given up. Maybe we’ve settled for something shallow or cheap, imitations. Maybe we’ve grown cynical – perhaps the most damaging turn of all.

But resurrection happened, and now we’re discovering what it means to be alive. In other words, we’re learning anew what it means to be truly human. And to be human means, at least in part, to live a physical, particular, embodied life within God’s physical, particular, embodied community, the church. If God were only trying to elevate disembodied souls into distant heaven, perhaps the church wouldn’t matter much (other than to organize, strategize and get this work done efficiently – but I think I’ve sufficiently run that horse into the ground). However, if God is reconstituting (resurrecting) the whole of his good and beautiful creation, well then, the church (the physical, embodied people of God) becomes ground zero.

Knowing this, we could never act as though the community of God is merely a means to something God is doing. Rather, the community of God rests at the heart of what God is doing. And God is doing a heck of a lot. God’s mission is to rescue and love and remake and welcome and forgive and embrace and basically overrun this whole sorry mess with the wonder of resurrection. The old Hebrew word works best: shalom. Wholeness. Well-being. Utter, comprehensive goodness.

This is God’s mission. Not ours. God is doing resurrection. And God will resurrect in a God-way, a Trinitarian way – forming a people who begin to live in Trinitarian love and begin to embody resurrection in the tangible spaces, the streets and dining room tables and nursing homes. It’s slow. It’s messy. Most days, it looks like an absolute disaster. But if relationship and communities, if each and every individual story, matters – then this is the only way.

Here’s the crux of why I need church. I need church because I’m selfish and cynical and proud and a shadow of my true self. I’ve lived among death for too long, and I want to live. I want to be a human alive, a human resurrected. And true humanity is physical, relational, with others, over the long haul. I need the church because Jesus rose from the dead, and I want to rise up from among the dead too. I want to learn “another kind of awake.”


So, I’m not sure when I’ll return to this series. Might be done. However, I would love to interact to any questions this raises for you – especially if you are struggling with finding your life and place within a physical community, a church. Why do you struggle with this? What questions do you have? Why do you think that maybe it isn’t important? Email me (winn [at] or post here. If it’s the sort of question I could interact with on the blog, I will. If it is more appropriate just for email dialogue, fine too.

[further why the church? posts:part one, twothreefour]

Mumford and Sons

Every once in a while, I stumble across a musician (or group) that captures me. It has happened again – I’m enraptured with Mumford and Sons. Four Londoners with an innovative yet old-time take on folk and bluegrass (and with just the right bit of British accent), these fellas were born to sing (or sang). With names like Marcus Mumford, Country Winston, Ben Lovett and Ted Dwane, what other profession could they take on, really? I guess they could have been Texas sheriffs or oil rig hands… I’m glad they chose music. Any band of friends that describes themselves as “misty-eyed men” is more than alright in my book.

They recently played at Bonnaroo, and you can listen to the concert below. Or you can purchase their album Sigh No More for $7.99.

A Few of the People…

I bet you if I had met him and had a chat with him, I would have found him a very interesting and human fellow, for I never yet met a man that I didn’t like. {Will Rogers}

Here are a few of the interesting people I’ve encountered today:

A courier standing in line with me at the bank. As we talked about his job, I asked him if he had ever transported something really weird. “A body chopped up into parts,” he said.

A friend at breakfast. I discovered he likes peanut butter omelets.

A guy waiting, as I was, for the bus. He calls himself “turtle man” because, as he told me, he moves slow – but always forward.

Everywhere we turn, we encounter people with stories and hopes and fears and interesting names. We discover people who will help us see our world with more richness and texture. We find people like us, people different from us. We find strangers who may turn into friends.

Tell me, brother, how do you see the sun standing from where you are today. {Michael Houser}


sirens wail
mother sobs
iron clinks

stomach gnawing
nightmare haunting
refugee slumping

tires squeal
dad disappears
again, again

moonless night
sunless soul
forever alone




Make the World Beautiful: Autumn Film

For the next installment of our make the world beautiful collection, here’s another recommendation (introduced to me by Rob Johnson): The Autumn Film. I’ve just begun listening to them, but there is a rich texture to their music that makes me want to listen longer, more intently. Something there reminds me of one of my favorite bands, Over the Rhine, with perhaps a little Snow Patrol or Coldplay thrown in.

Best of all, they are giving away 3 separate EPs right now, 11 songs in total – and the video for “Joy,” well, you’ll just have to give it a watch. I’m not sure if I’ve ever heard something so haunting and original done to an old Sunday School tune. In fact, the only reinterpretations I’ve heard that compare to this are from my friend Tom Conlon.

Enjoy the beauty.

Make the World Beautiful: Josh Garrels

Art matters. Beauty matters. As image bearers of our Creator, we have been handed the mad joy of joining God’s work in making the world beautiful. To that end, I’m going to offer posts here and there contributing to the conversation, whenever the moment seems right, whenever I have something to say or an artist to share.

To start us off:

words: I couldn’t agree more with this guy

music: If you haven’t heard Josh Garrels, now is the time. One (1) of my beefs with Christian music (as with much “Christian art” – and perhaps my reason for quotation marks will be a topic for another day) is that it often merely mimics. Little fresh energy. Almost nothing unexpected. Far too little that is truly creative. Not Josh Garrels, Honestly I don’t even know if Garrels fits in the “Christian” genre, but his lyrics are richly theological, with piercing depth and nuanced texture. And his music – wow! his music. It’s alive. It’s haunting and vivid. It makes me want to listen better, to pay attention. When I hear a Garrels tune, I’m wondering where it will take me. And in the pop world of “heard 1, heard 1,000,” that’s saying something.

Garrels song “Zion and Babylon” is one of my favorites. But, there are a number. Listen here. And then buy an album.

Get a playlist! Standalone player Get Ringtones

p.s. Due to a recommendation from one Justin Scott, this Wendesday night @ 11, I’ll be catching the Modern Skirts @ The Twisted Branch Tea Bazaar. We’ll see what kind of creative goodness they have to offer.