God, Forgive Us

Photo by Dave Hoefler

As a dad who’s tried to raise two sons amid all kinds of treacheries in this seductive age, as a pastor who’s sat with countless wounded, angry souls walking away from their faith (or wondering if it’s ever possible to walk back again), I will tell you this: no atheistic argument has ever dismantled a person’s faith with such swift carnage as seeing someone enact persistent evil in God’s name, someone refusing to call a lie a lie, someone winking at violence or injustice while cloaking themselves in Christian garb.

This past week, as a violent mob stormed our Capitol, beat a police officer to death, and contributed to the death of four others, we saw “Jesus saves” flags and other religious rhetoric and paraphernalia ensconced as part of the seamless accoutrements of this unhinged mayhem. Then, as smoke cleared and Congress climbed out of hiding, numerous professing Christians went to great lengths to downplay our President’s role where, all to save his ego, he stoked this madness with deliberate, systemic lies.

And this coddling has gone on for years. Look, I get competing political philosophies and genuine matters of ethical conviction and quandaries on profoundly important matters. But no tax policy, no abortion law, no judge, no defense of religious freedom justifies a political alliance where the faith that we are supposedly upholding contributes to such in-your-face, acute evil. David Brooks said that we are a “flawed and humiliated nation.” We are also a flawed and humiliated church.

As one who believes with all my heart in Jesus’ story of righteousness, justice, goodness and peace for the whole world, as one who clings to the world-bending story of Jesus’ cruciform love (choosing to die rather than clinging to power or using power in an unholy way), the power-grabs, the rampant narcissism, the persistent dishonesty–and our inability to clearly name it–have inflicted incalculable harm. God, forgive us.

A friend asked me why I thought so many of the younger generation are abandoning the Church. There are numerous reasons I’m still pondering—but these days it’s rarely because our teaching is too zany, never because our music lacks enough thump. It’s not typically because we believe in “One God, the Father Almighty…” One reason they’re leaving in droves is because they don’t think we actually believe the stuff we say. And I’m in tears as I write because we have given them so many more reasons to think that really we don’t.

There is much evil we could name, plenty to go around. But this moment, this bit of words, is for those of us who name Jesus as Lord. I am heartbroken. God, forgive us.

Our Epiphany

Christmas’ twelfth night concluded, we arrive with those pilgrim kings at the Feast of Epiphany. Who among us does not need a revealing, a bolt of clarity that cuts through the dark night, a burning love that ravages our heart? Who among us, like those three wandering souls, have not pinned our hope on a promise, a radiant star offering only enough illumination to carry us a few more midnight miles through treacherous country, through bitter cold and toward uncertain horizons?

Perhaps it’s impossible to imagine, on a day when those poisoned with ego and deceit grasp for power, that the transformation of the entire world happens through absolute humility and helplessness, through a baby who cries in the night and can’t even wipe his own backside.

Perhaps like the magi, we’ve walked a road with no clear end, pointing our nose in the direction of hope with little to show for it. And now we feel like a fool.

Perhaps we’ve entered uncharted territory with no map and bare provisions–and with no friend or lover to walk this hazy mile with us. We can’t see where this leads, but we know we must keep trusting the mercy. And we hope with all we’ve got that the mercy holds.

This story of three hope-filled wanderers and a humble babe is our beginning and our ending. All the truth we need is here. All the hope. All the faith. It doesn’t tell us everything, but it tells us what we need for now. This is our epiphany.

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.

The Problem with Advent

Lake of Carezza, Carezza, Nova Levante, Italy by Alessandro Viaro on Unsplash

The problem with Advent is that it comes around every single year. Again. And again. And then yet again. As best we can tell, Christians have kept some version of preparation for Christ’s appearing among us–days of repentance and longing and holy stillness–since the late 400’s. Generation after generation, names and stories mostly forgotten, have fasted and prayed and lit candles and set their hope on One coming who would make the world right, who would tend to every tear, snuff out every injustice, and lift every weary heart.

But of course there hasn’t been a single Advent in all these centuries when evil men did not stalk the innocent, when disease did not steal the young, when our heartaches over our broken relationships, broken dreams, and broken promises did not crush and maim. This Advent is no different. Sadly, by all accounts, next Advent will be the same.

And yet we press into these days with steady hands and a faith that seems almost belligerent in its audacity. We touch flame to wick, and we hum those haunting hymns. We bend in prayer, and we steel ourselves for our night-watches. We return again to this story, enacting once more the long, hope-filled narrative–not because we have certainty that this Advent (or any hour before we breathe our last) will finally make all the promises come true. We do not embrace Advent as a kind of elaborate denial, a way to play-act that the harshness or sorrow are not so bad as we’ve feared.

Just the opposite. We return to Advent again because of exactly this problem, an inescapable predicament as old as humanity. No matter how hard we try, no matter how ingenious our leaders, no matter our advancements, no matter our triumphs, no matter our very best intentions–we cannot ever, ever undo all the harm we repeatedly do to one another, all the pain we have set loose in our world.

In a dinner conversation recently with someone I love, we shared our heaviness and disappointment. There was fear of the future, regret over the past. After we finished our bowls of soup, we sat quietly, realizing that words failed. There were only tears. Tears over what we could not fix. Tears over the helplessness we must own, and tears for the grace we must cling to as our salvation.

This is the problem of Advent, and this is why we again light the candles and sing songs of hope in the long, long night. We do not need to “feel” Advent–that is not the point. Rather, we allow ourselves to be embraced by Advent’s true story. We trust the One who promises to be God with us, even amid our many searing pains. We relinquish our life into the hands of the One who promises to hold us near–and to one day undo every sorrow, mend every wound, and make the whole earth aflame with love’s fire.

An Echo of Thanks

“Grace evokes gratitude like the voice of an echo,” Barth said. So much grace surrounds me. There are so many echoes.

I’m grateful for the wool Pendleton blanket that lays over my lap as I write. I’m grateful for our window-filled sun room at the back of our house, with the black-iron stove in the corner offering flame and heat. I’m thankful for Miska leading us through yoga this morning, for the strong mountain pose as we greeted the rising sun, for our dog Gus lying beside my mat and snuggling close any time I sat for more than a moment. I’m grateful to have Wyatt home, the sound of his guitar filling the house. I’m thankful for Seth, his strong, broad shoulders and the unbidden hug he gave me this morning.

I’m grateful for how, if you get going on your morning run early enough, you can smell Bowerman’s baking their blueberry donuts all the way down James Street, the aroma so thick and potent you want to lick the air. I’m grateful for so many memories of watching the Macy’s Day Parade with my grandmother. I’m grateful for Chris Stapleton’s astounding album Starting Over. I’m grateful for the plants in my study (the Snake Plant, the Chinese Money Plant, the Succulent, and especially the Lemon Cypress that suffered at my novice hands, going brown and crisp). I’m grateful for crunchy peanut butter. I’m grateful for a few friends who make me feel less crazy.

I’m grateful that the Love that Holds the World holds me, holds you, holds all of us together. I’m grateful that this love remains the deep truth even when we fight against it with insane fury.

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 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.

The Diner

When I was a kid, my mom turned mundane or challenging realities into memories, into moments of joy. Once we had little money for Christmas, and mom scrounged the house pulling out odds and ends (an old camera, a beat-up typewriter, various knick-knacks). She wrapped them and put them under the tree. We thought they were treasures. Once we had only dry cereal for breakfast, no milk–but there was a single can of concentrated orange juice in the freezer. Somehow, she convinced my sister Vonda and me that cereal drowned in orange juice was all the rage, so much better than plain ol’ milk. When she was done selling it, we felt sorry for those poor folks who never know the delights of corn flakes floating in watered, orange-ish beverage.


Every so often–and I don’t know whether it was because mom was frugal and refused to trash leftovers or because money was tight and the fridge bare–she would handwrite “menus” from a fabulous bistro she dubbed “Momma’s Kitchen.” The spread offered nothing more than remnants from the previous 2 weeks, but somehow, transformed by her renaming of the dishes and set to table linens and candlelight, it was like we’d landed a table at some 5 Star NY City establishment.


I’ve wondered the past week what my mom would think–what she would do–if she were still alive in the middle of this pandemic. And last Sunday night, without really thinking about why, I found myself typing up a menu, offering omelettes and muffins and breakfast meats and blackberries. I spent an hour or two in the kitchen. I cut onions and pressed garlic and cracked eggs. I listened to The Avett Brothers. And I felt so very thankful for my mom who always saw possibility, who believed every moment revealed a little bit of magic, a mom who loved us with whatever she had in front of her.

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,

Winn