Advent Calendar

Rowan Williamsnight

He will come like last leaf’s fall.
One night when the November wind
has flayed the trees to the bone, and earth
wakes choking on the mould,
the soft shroud’s folding.

He will come like frost.
One morning when the shrinking earth
opens on mist, to find itself
arrested in the net
of alien, sword-set beauty.

He will come like dark.
One evening when the bursting red
December sun draws up the sheet
and penny-masks its eye to yield
the star-snowed fields of sky.

He will come, will come,
will come like crying in the night,
like blood, like breaking,
as the earth writhes to toss him free.
He will come like child.

 

 

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Remembering that it happened once

Wendell Berrybarn

Remembering that it happened once,

We cannot turn away the thought,

As we go out, cold, to our barns

Toward the long night’s end, that we

Ourselves are living in the world

It happened in when it first happened,

That we ourselves, opening a stall

(A latch thrown open countless times

Before), might find them breathing there,

Foreknown: the Child bedded in straw,

The mother kneeling over Him,

The husband standing in belief

He scarcely can believe, in light

That lights them from no source we see,

An April morning’s light, the air

Around them joyful as a choir.

We stand with one hand on the door,

Looking into another world

That is this world, the pale daylight

Coming just as before, our chores

To do, the cattle all awake,

Our own frozen breath hanging

In front of us; and we are here

As we have never been before,

Sighted as not before, our place

Holy, although we knew it not.

 

[photo: Leif Enger, another of my favorite writers]

How to vote

how-to-vote

A few words before you vote tomorrow…or, if you’ve already voted, before you plant yourself in front of the teevee and pray to the God you do or don’t believe in…or, if you don’t plan to vote, before you climb into your storm shelter until sometime next week:

Do only what your spirit – your conscience – tells you is right.

Dozens of people have come to me in lament or confusion or anger or bewilderment or excitement (yes, a few) about what they’ll do tomorrow. And I do have opinions about the candidates and the situation, some of which I’ve shared rather openly.

But my only advice now is this: go to bed Tuesday night with a clear conscience.

Whatever you do, whatever you don’t do, resist the pressure to do what they tell you you must do. And they are those who you trust least and those who you trust most who hasten to tell you that what they will do is what you must do.

I don’t mean don’t listen to others. One of my clearest conclusions in the wake of this season is that we are terrible, terrible listeners.

So listen. Listen to be challenged, to be changed, and to be a more gracious and empathetic human.

And then do what you believe is right, no matter how obvious or unfamiliar it seems … no matter what you fear anyone else might think about what you do. Don’t do it defiantly. Do it humbly. Do it eager to continue learning about what you’ve done, about who we are, and about where we’re headed. Do it hoping for a better way for all of us.

I understand many aren’t sure what is right. That’s ok. Do your best, and DON’T do something that sits sideways in your soul. You owe no duty to any man or government that would compel you to say “yes” to anyone or anything you can’t in good conscience say “yes” to – and I include in that statement the possibility that some will be unable in good conscience to say “yes” to anyone.

In a conversation with a government official, Saint Paul the apostle said these words: “For that reason I make it my settled aim to always have a clear conscience before God and all people.”

You might get it wrong tomorrow. Lots of people will. It’s ok to get it wrong. Just don’t get it wrong because you’re afraid or because anyone’s opinion – mine included – cajoled, shamed, or bullied you toward doing anything that does not seem right to you.

Shut off the noise. Defy the fear. And make it your settled aim to go to bed tomorrow with a clear conscience before God and all people.


I still have a pile of thoughts about what I’ve seen and learned – and what I still haven’t figured out – during this strange act of the American story. At one time I thought I would complete a final passage before everyone votes, but it no longer seems helpful to add more noise to the crescendo of election-eve opinion. Someday soon, I’ll share some of that as a post-script of sorts.

A pre-election Sabbath meditation – for the believer and the skeptic

In just under three days’ time, the citizens of the United States will finish electing a new president. If my capacity to read public sentiment is even average, then most Americans are less excited than we have ever been about what was once the pinnacle expression of our collective identity. I recall being seventeen-and-a-half and wishing with all my little patriotic heart that I could cast a vote on November 3, 1992.

Today I join many in my generation – and in generations above and below mine – who grew up believing in America but who are struggling to muster even the slightest positive feeling or thought about exercising this treasured freedom. We once used the term “civic duty” with reverence; now it describes an obligation that seems stripped of the sacred.

So as an American and a man and a pastor, I offer to believers and skeptics alike this pre-election Sabbath mediation – not from above the fray, but from the midst of it:

This is not the end.

Whether you believe with all your heart in the USA or you’ve had your heart and faith so broken by chaos and corrupt character that you haven’t an ounce of faith left in your body, a better day than 8 November 2016 is coming.

Whether it’s still a grand ol’ flag to you or you’ve ceased to see the valor in the stars and stripes, the final chapter is not to be written this week.

Whether you place your hand proudly over your beating heart to emphatically answer “Yes!” to the question, “Oh say can you see…?” or you solemnly sympathize with those who drop to a knee to spill the secret that, “no, some of us cannot see…,” the innate human hunger for freedom that inspires both will not be extinguished by Hillary Clinton, by Donald Trump, by the anthem-singers, or by the kneeling protestors.

Whether you are convinced that voting for an R- or D- is an objective good even if the name next to it ain’t so good this time around or you find absolutely no comfort in party platforms if the name after the hyphen is so tarnished that you can no longer make any sense of the letter before it, good parties will not save us and bad names will not damn us.

Whether you are a fervent believer – a patriot to the core – or a bewildered skeptic – unsure that nationalistic faith can ever deliver – take heart!

This is not the end.

I offer such hope as a professing skeptic, unpersuaded of the virtue of a vote for either candidate this week, and all but void of belief that either party can make America great again. But I am not afraid. I hope because our ability to live a rich and meaningful life does not rest on the greatness of America.

No matter how much you believe in America – past, present, or future – she will let you down. She will break your heart. She will do bad things and elect bad leaders and empower bad judges. She will try to ensure freedom and fail; she will decide to restrict freedom and succeed. America also will do all kinds of incomparable good, yes, but she will never prove a reliable anchor for anyone’s soul.

So rest. On this Sabbath before the 2016 election, rest, and do not be afraid.

This week we will work – work to offer what we can to make America better…or to keep it from getting as bad as we think it could…or to to shield ourselves from the whole blasted mess.

But today we rest. We rest, assured that imperfect America can’t give us liberty and lasting joy, but she can’t take it either. Whether led by the noblest or most deplorable among us, America is our geography and our history and our collective labor, but America is not our source or our end. We are created with care, made for wholeness, and freely offered a grace of redemption and life that no man, woman, or nation can take.

 
Gracious is the Lord, and righteous;
  our God is merciful.
The Lord protects the simple;
  when I was brought low, he saved me.
Return, O my soul, to your rest,
  for the Lord has dealt bountifully with you.

sunset

“Character counts,” they said

I really, really wish the people who for my entire life have insisted character matters, even and especially among our leaders, would stop sharing their rationalizations for the utterly repugnant behavior of the candidate they’re supporting or planning to support. I sincerely don’t begrudge or look down on anyone voting for whomever they choose, but this is not about my opinion on who people are voting for. It’s about the minimization and defense of the kind of stuff you’d discipline your kids for or fire an employee for or oust a teacher or principal for. There’s a difference between soberly voting as you decide you should vote and joining a public apologetic for unrepentant ugliness. Be released – you don’t have to defend that garbage. Just vote.

But please stop telling us we aren’t electing a preacher in chief. I’m aware. (I’m a preacher, and I’d be less likely than most to vote for one.) But we weren’t electing a preacher in any of the previous elections or administrations when you (and sometimes I) lamented and lambasted the immoral attitudes and activities of candidates you (and I) opposed. We said then that integrity mattered, politics be damned, remember?

Please stop telling us that no one is perfect, as if that applies to your candidate but not the other. As if none of us have the intelligence or discernment to know the difference between imperfection and belligerent contempt for decency.

If you’re done with all of that – if power and money and whatever else are the measures that actually count now instead of character and respectability – just say so. Cash it in. But be clear about it. Don’t play the game and minimize the childish nonsense, irresponsibility, and disregard for “lesser” people, and then circle back to preaching about character when it seems convenient again. It will be a resounding gong, a clanging cymbal. And our ears are already bleeding.

On Trump reportedly getting saved

Last week, James Dobson let us know that Donald Trump recently professed a newfound faith in Jesus. I’m not sure what Dobson’s intention was in making this public, but I’d like to suggest something to Christians who are inclined to immediately react in one direction or the other – to either scoff at this as a certain political ploy or to see it as some sort of new evidence that a vote for Trump might be a good idea for Christians after all. My suggestion: whatever you think of Trump or Dobson, it is ok to be measured, compassionate, nuanced, and discerning in your response.

At a personal level, we can set aside cynicism, assume the best, and embrace the man who professes faith. Really. We can. I’ve seen many people come to faith who I was prone to suspect as insincere, and that suspicion was at least as much about me as about them. This is no different. I mean, this is the goal, right? To see women and men have their lives changed by the good news – even and especially the ones who we think least likely? Time will demonstrate whether or not someone has truly given his life away; our cynicism and sarcasm simply aren’t necessary to speed that process along (a truth I forget or ignore far too often).

At a political level, I think it is wise to ask what meaning we are supposed to attach to Dobson’s announcement. First, this reveals that Trump’s prior claim to being “a great Christian” was either insincere or mistaken; it seems reasonable for Mr. Trump to clarify now by telling us which. (I know…it was kind of funny either way, but it apparently wasn’t true.) Second, this means he is a brand new believer, and Christians almost unanimously agree that a new faith would not qualify one for leadership in a context where credibility or authority is somehow derived from or enhanced by that faith. So we will be suspicious if professing Christians who long have held that position begin offering some sort of enhanced political endorsement of Trump based on this newfound faith, and I think that suspicion is based on discernment, not cynicism. And finally, we are 7.5 years into the tenure of a president whose long-standing and clear profession of faith in Jesus has meant nothing to most folks on the right in terms of his qualification to lead. It isn’t necessary to get into one’s opinion about Obama or his faith; it is sufficient to note that we have from certain quarters an established precedent that a professed faith alone is not a reason for Christians to rally behind a candidate. If we now get a different message from those quarters, something is amiss. And it’s ok to say so.

Wise as serpents. Innocent as doves. A man’s declaration of faith is no time to ridicule him personally. A candidate whose life and words are dramatically and defiantly askew of the model of Jesus suddenly claiming the faith of much of his desired constituency (and a scurry of surrogates suggesting this is a game-changer for that constituency) is certainly a time for questions and discernment.

Both are possible.

Best thing I saw today: June 1, 2016

From the unreasonably talented and kind Cindy Morgan: Beloved Nashville songwriter, producer & co-writer of the Broadway Hit Musical “Something Rotten” joins me on the porch to perform his Grammy Award Winning Song of the Year (performed by Eric Clapton) Change the World. Enjoy this episode of On the Porch with Wayne Kirkpatrick! (Something Rotten on Broadway / Wayne Kirkpatrick – The Junk Bunk)

In praise of Wendell Berry’s world


I have a confession: after years of publicly describing my affection for the writing of Wendell Berry, yesterday I finished Jayber Crow for the first time. I cried as discreetly as possible over the heartbreakingly beautiful final pages as I sat alongside this serene creek that feeds into the Cumberland River and among the less serene noises of my family and our friends playing in the creek. 

I’m convinced that Jayber may be Berry’s most important work, and I started reading it quite a long time ago. At times I couldn’t quit reading it; other times I was so afraid of coming to the end of it that I read very slowly or put it down for weeks. And then sometime last year, I found myself two chapters from the end, and I set it aside for many months. It never left my mind for more than a day or two, but I left the book unopened until yesterday. I’m not quite sure why yesterday. 

While I own dozens of half-read books, those remain unfinished because the author bored me or because I’m too easily bored. This was something else. This was an actual fear of leaving Jayber Crow’s world – or, more precisely, leaving the world as Jayber Crow experienced it.

Jayber’s world is Berry’s partly fictional community of Port William, Kentucky, and Berry has written enough novels and stories about that world to allow me to stay there for some years yet. If given that oft-fantasized choice to live in any real or imagined time and place I’ve known in my almost 41 years, I’m almost certain I would choose to live in Port William, Kentucky in the first half or so of the 20th century. 

That impulse isn’t escapism, exactly. Berry’s fiction is so powerful because it is so real. Port William is no utopia, but I see the world more clearly as it was meant to be in the simplicity, beauty, and brokenness of this tiny farming community along the river. I think I want to return there again and again (and would go there given the choice) not because it is free of darkness or hardship, but because I see a way back to innocence and forward to redemption in the light of Port William’s sun, in the shadows of its trees, and in the drifts of its snows. 

But Berry’s real gift to me (and to you if you know what’s good for you) is not that he creates a fantasy into which I can escape, but that he allows me to believe that the world once envisioned and created with care and beauty can be reimagined and recreated to its intended purpose. Today I might choose Port William, but the more time I spend in that world, the more hope I have for its beauty in my own. And that hope gives me the courage to choose and to love the world I’ve been given. 

Frederick Buechner on loving God

I can’t read this enough.

Nobody ever claimed the journey was going to be an easy one. It is not easy to love God with all your heart and soul and mind when much of the time you have all but forgotten his name. But to love God is not a goal we have to struggle toward on our own, because what at its heart the gospel is all about is that God himself moves us toward it even when we believe he has forsaken us.

The final secret, I think, is this: that the words “You shall love the Lord your God” become in the end less a command than a promise. And the promise is that, yes, on the weary feet of faith and the fragile wings of hope, we will come to love him at last as from the first he has loved us — loved us even in the wilderness, especially in the wilderness, because he has been in the wilderness with us. He has been in the wilderness for us. He has been acquainted with our grief. And, loving him, we will come at last to love each other too so that, in the end, the name taped on every door will be the name of the one we love.

“And these words which I command you this day shall be upon your heart, and you shall teach them diligently to your children, and you shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you rise.”

And rise we shall, out of the wilderness, every last one of us, even as out of the wilderness Christ rose before us. That is the promise, and the greatest of all promises.

A Christian Defense of my Retraction of A Christian Defense of Matt Walsh (which wasn’t actually a defense)

Tonight I shared and then deleted a link to a blog post (someone else’s, not mine) entitled “A Christian Defense of Matt Walsh.” When you click on the link, it takes you to a blank page. I thought it was funny. Honestly, I still do. I justified sharing it by noting that the edge in the post was fair given Walsh’s regular schtick: abrasive criticism of anyone who doesn’t see the world as he does. I ultimately took it down for three reasons: 

  1. Most importantly, I think it has become too easy and too common to fire generalized shots at people we don’t like, and though I kind of liked this one, it was still that.
  2. I don’t have time or energy or headspace to rent to Matt Walsh and any scrum that might pop up about him (there was no scrum yet, but scrums tend to follow that guy around). Just being honest.
  3. I realized the post is kind of a trap. If someone defending Walsh balked at its harshness, they would kind of have to pick whether they wanted to defend Walsh or oppose harshness, because it’s tough to do both. Even though that may be a fair point to make, I’m not interested in trapping my friends, even the ones who like Matt Walsh’s stuff. 

I do think humor and criticism can be good and fair, even in the church. And maybe this kind of thing is fine. But I’m more sensitive about these things than I used to be because they are happening in a broader culture that is rapidly losing the capacity for grace and is often just too darn lazy to really listen and enter into productive dialogue in disagreement. So the little barbs like this one don’t seem so little to me anymore, even if I think they are true…or true with appropriate context. 

But that context matters. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to make a case that there is no truly Christian defense for much of what Walsh writes and how he writes it. I just think we’re all better off when that case is made with a little care and nuance. I’m not terribly familiar with the guy who authored the title of this blank post, but I suspect he has done some of that in other posts. Regular readers of his blog may have lots of context. But we are now all publishers in a viral/meme culture, so our provocative words are often and easily divorced from the context. 

Is this one a big deal? Probably not, and I don’t mean to attach artificial drama to it. It’s more fun to call someone a troll or be clever about their sin or silliness. It was more fun to just share the post and giggle each time someone liked it, imagining the look on each of their faces as they clicked on the link wondering whether they were going to have to defriend me, then waited for the text of the post to load, then got it. That was more fun. But then I was reminded that for all of my strong feelings about us learning to communicate with charity and grace, it’s still easy for my own bias to blind me to sins in myself that I immediately call BS on in others. And there is no Christian defense for that.