Dear Winn – 8 December 2016

Dear Winn:
Its a little before 6am here, and its 3°. Most of my younger life I dreamed of, as that line from Harry Nilsson’s song so pointedly put it, “going where the weather suits my clothes.” Now, here in my forty-ninth year, I realize that dream has come true. My weather app tells me that by 7am it will be 0° and from there the newly risen sun will be burdened with warming us up a bit, today’s high of 12°. I share such weather statistics with my parents when I call and they ask if its cold here. There is always a minuscule pause on their end, and in that stillness I think they still wonder where on earth their son has gone to live.
I was glad when you too said you had decided to use Mary Oliver’s new book – Upstream – as your Advent reading material. I have learned over the years that for me, reading a book of some sort helps give shape to this season. Without a book my soul gets unwieldy, and that’s no good. This book doesn’t have to be distinctly Christian. In fact, I prefer that it not be. I love worldly, earthy books that my Christian imagination can get all mixed up in and roll around in the sheets, sorta like the Incarnation.
And I have also learned that if I’ll just be patient around the end of November, the right book will usually present itself. Not always, but usually. Winn, as soon as I read this line near the start – Attention is the beginning of devotion – I knew the right book had found me, one more time. I just adore Mary’s hypethral theology. She is so rooted in the world. And that’s what I believe this season to be so much about – God rooting himself in this world. I don’t agree with everything Mary writes, but I find myself agreeing with more than I disagree. It seems to me in that tipping of the scales lies kinship.
I was reading “Emerson: An Introduction” and this line arrested me: Soon after Ellen Tucker’s death he left the pulpit. I know you know a little of the story of my leaving the pulpit. It wasn’t due to the death of someone I loved but rather someone I’d been. And as hard and as painful as it is, and God knows it is, the only way for new things to be born is for old things to die. That’s kinda where my head’s been these early days of Advent, Winn – on the old things that had to die in order for something or someone else to take their place. The adolescent stance is to see those old things as bad or less-than, but that’s just silly. Those old things were the seeds, seeds which remain in the soft grip of memory, seeds of which I will be forever grateful.
Winn, I believe just about anything’s possible, but chances are good that if I hadn’t left the pulpit I would never have met you. I would have never met Brennan Manning (lord, he was an absolute piece of work, and I miss him dearly). I would never have started writing poetry, or at least started writing it in the frame of mind in which I did. I would never have grown a ponytail. I cannot recall a single Southern Baptist pastor I knew who had a beard much less a ponytail, ever. I would never have met star-brilliant writers like Kent Haruf and Pam Houston, and James Smith. I would never have met and then grieved a lady named Kara Tippetts. I would never have stumbled upon an AM radio station in Denver that spun my kind of music, and befriended its good dj Rick Crandall. If I hadn’t left the pulpit I would have possibly never finally found myself where the weather suits my clothes.             
That’s kinda where my head’s been, seeing myself standing in a room full of people much like that final scene in It’s A Wonderful Life, looking around at the eyes gathered, with a goofy George Bailey look on my face thinking “How on earth did I get here?” And then that old familiar pain: I remember that something has to die in order for something to be born.
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And All For What?

The inglorious angels speak of
Incarnation as The Great Betrayal –
the breaking of every existent code
and convention of divinity, an
infidelity if there ever was one.
In touching the young Jewish girl
God’s reputable chastity fell scarlet.
The contact with Mary’s waiting flesh
sowed the seed for God’s new electric skin.
He then grew alive to every breeze,
sensitive to the appearances of the moon,
bent to give and to offer but just as
temptable to taking, and the longing.
And all that loss of position for what?
The oldest excuse in the world: Love.
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Dear Winn – 18 November 2016

Dear Winn:
Happy Birthday, pard! I never had the pleasure of meeting your Mom, but I bet she was tickled pink when the doctor handed you to her. Yes, I betcha she held you close and breathed you in, all howevermany justborn pounds of ya. The gift of a son. My, my. Who knows, maybe she whispered something prophetic like, “One of these days you shall have a friend named John.” Ha!
But back to that phrase Happy Birthday. I do hope you’re happy, Winn, or at least inching every day closer to that feeling. I sense that in you, what with being lucky-duck married to the lovely Miska, and having your sweet sons growing tall right before your eyeballs, then there’s that old cantankerous farmhouse you’re all shacking up in these days, plus you’re almost a Pee-H-Dee so that soon and very soon I call address you as Doc Collier. There are always shitter days now and then, lord we both know that full well, but it really is a wonderful life when you stop and take stock. So yes, from your old pal John George Bailey Blase – Happy Birthday!
It is not lost on me that your birthday is mucho close to Thanksgiving. Just know that when I count my many blessings later next week, which will include having my college kids home (I got teary just typing that, god I miss ’em), one of the earthly blessings I will count is you. The gift of your friendship surprised me, at least the way its grown to what it is today. I liked you from the first time we met, but I didn’t know that I would grow to love you. And I do, my good one-year-older friend. I do.
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America’s Tomorrow

Were I a bit younger and not
kindly cut I would approach my
wife in whispers and plead my
case for another child.
Her eyes would no doubt double
and she would say But we have three
and they are radiant in the sun.
I would say yes, yes.
But, I would press on, we could
stir the dust and with God’s help
welcome another, and name
the child America.
Her eyes would no doubt triple
and she would say America?
I would say yes, yes.
But, she would insist, a child
so named now would be
shouldered with symbol –
the cross of justice for all –
plus sadly we won’t live always
and who would defend this child?
I would say yes, yes,
but the older three learned well
the lessons necessary to tutor
a sibling into such a name…I
believe our current children
could ensure America’s tomorrow.
It is possible my wife’s eyes might soften,
possible she might say yes.
*(Lesser Ury, Couple Walking in the Woods)
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Dear Winn – 12 November 2016

Dear Winn:
I’ll be brief. I’ve started this letter a couple of times, then petered out. Maybe this third time will be charmed, although I must say the word “charm” seems alien in light of this week, a quaint noun we’ve no use for anymore. But it may be that we need that word, or words very much like it, more than ever right now. At least I believe it oughta be on the language-list we’re creating of best words to use as we learn how to speak to one another again. I would be more than fine if someday, hopefully far into the future, a friend stands at my graveside and says, “That John was a charmer.”
I find myself in the utterly exhausted middle, my friend. The cannons to the left and right of me firing off round after round of certitude. Then there are those who attach God’s name to what’s going on, and even God’s will to what’s going on. I believe anyone with one eye and horse sense who has actually read the Bible has to admit we don’t have a clue as to what God is or isn’t up to. If nothing else the season on our near horizon – Advent – should remind us of God’s foolish, foolish ways. And our proven track record of missing them.
Although I’m not sure my prayers amount to a hill of beans, I will be praying for you tomorrow as you stand before the people and use the words of faith, hope, and love. There will be people in your congregation, as there will be in ours, who are feeling fearful for their very lives right now. And while I hope that fear is addressed with words, I’ve a hunch the greater Sunday message may be communicated through the charm of communion. As we drink from the common cup and break from the common loaf, our hopes and fears of the fragile now can mingle with one another and can somehow, someway be mixed with the magical mercies of our God, and then taken into our very selves. Drink deeply, pal. I plan to.
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Dear Winn -29 October 2016

Dear Winn:
Its mild here along the Front Range for these final days of October. A few days this week its been downright hot. Since my last letter to you we’ve seen Sarah and Will. We flew out to Pepperdine for Waves Weekend. The school mascot there is a wave, which makes perfect sense, but is a little weird too. There were three days of organized events, all which a parent had to pay for. My response was, “I’m already paying tuition here, so thanks but I’ll just hang out with my daughter.” It was Abbey’s first time to see the campus and L.A. and the Hollywood sign and this shopping mecca called The Grove. Abbey came home and said, “I don’t know if I could see myself out there or not. I like Colorado.” Magic to my ears, amigo. Then last weekend Will and three friends drove the via dolorosa from Arkansas to Colorado to visit. We really enjoyed meeting those boys. One of them said “yessir” and “yesmam” consistently, something you don’t hear much these days, at least not out here along the mild Front Range. 
Sarah and Will are both having the usual college challenges with classes and friendships but overall they seem to be doing well. That feels really good to see, Winn, to see them flourishing. Sure, it could all come off the rails next week, but for today, its good, and we’re very thankful. Meredith is doing physical therapy twice a week now, plus she’s started walking on the trail again in the early mornings with the neighbor ladies. She’s like Batman in the Dark Knight Rises, getting her strength back in the pit, making attempts to climb that prison wall. She’ll make it, she’ll rise. Abbey got contacts, she’s been eyeing them for a long time. Without her glasses she suddenly looks so grown up. When I see her I hear Neil singing “Girl, You’ll Be A Woman Soon.”
I keep hearing people say, “I’ll sure be glad when this election’s over,” and I think, “Oh, it won’t be over.” We the People are in the far country, prodigals. Some would say we’ve been there for a long, long time, and maybe they’re right. Seems to me we’ve got to have a “come to our senses” moment, or possibly a string of moments where we realize how far we strayed from home. Home as in not some kind of America that used to be, but more the kind of Americans we want to be.
The news this week in the Christian publishing world was Jen Hatmaker’s interview. I’ve never met Jen or read any of her books. I did meet her husband once, and I liked him, and he likes her, so I’d probably like her too. I’ve been a bit curious as to the timing of that interview. Was it just next in the queue? Or was it intentionally aired here just days before the election? I don’t know. I do believe that much in life has to do with timing, we all hope to “make good time” so to speak. I read some of the backlash, some of comments from both sides, then I had to bow out. People say things online they’d never say to someone’s face. According to my code, that’s the mark of a coward. 
I told Meredith last night that we’re living in a very impassioned time when people feel deeply about things, the Jen Hatmaker interview just being one example. Passion is good, it shows people care, or are at least beginning to care. Passion also brings to mind the word “fiery” and where there’s fire, there’s smoke. And smoke can make it difficult to see clearly, to see the whole picture. But then again, what do I know?
I’ll have the porch light on Monday night, passing out the good stuff to who or whatever walks up our steps. Who knows, maybe I’ll tell some kid, “Be careful out there!” And she’ll look back and say, “Yessir.” Who knows.
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Then You Begin

I’ll never forget that rainy day
I wore my Scout uniform to school
not knowing our meeting was cancelled.
Those were halcyon days before
group text messages and reverse 911s.
So there I sat in the cafeteria, the one lone
webelo in my pressed shirt with
kerchief round my neck, ashamed.
How did everyone else know but me?
Kids can be killingly cruel. They were.
I earned the invisible badge of longsuffering
that day that took its own sweet time.
I later learned that to be a fruit of the Spirit,
a virtue that makes us like God.
But in grade school you want nothing
more than to be like everyone else.
And you can, until someone forgets you.
Then you begin to become someone else.




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