Winn Collier’s new book, Love Big, Be Well, is as profound as it is moving.
I have admired Winn’s writing since I stumbled upon his blog several years ago. Not only does he scratch out beauty with his words, but he has a way of helping you see the beauty of your ordinary life.
Winn’s new book shimmers with insight and simple delight.
He made me fall in love with the people of Granby Presbyterian Church. But the greater surprise in my reading was how he renewed my love for the ordinary people who inhabit my life.
I encourage you to read Winn Collier’s Love Big, Be Well. His is a book that I will return to often, for Winn is a convincing witness who reminds us that it’s all about the love.
Questions and Answers with Winn Collier
Here you will see through Winn’s gracious responses to my questions a pastor who loves the church, as well as an author who knows the beauty of a well-crafted sentence. I think you’ll see why I want you to pull up a chair and savor the wisdom and beauty that dance throughout Winn’s book.
Your book reveals a keen understanding of what the life of a congregation and a pastor is like. Were there certain congregations or pastors from your past (or present) that you kept in mind as you wrote?
It wasn’t something I consciously kept in front of me as I wrote, but I know that I carried with me all the people and churches I’ve been part of my entire life. And of course, All Souls Charlottesville, the people I serve now, is so interwoven with my life that they are always with me.
Your writing reminds me of some of my favorite writers – Wendell Berry, Frederick Buechner, Barbara Brown Taylor, Eugene Peterson, Rachel Held Evans, John O’Donohue – yet your voice is your own. Who are the authors who have shaped you as a writer or as a pastor?
Well, mercy, you’ve put me in fantastic company there. We’re reading many of the same people. Certainly, Wendell Berry, with his fictional town of Port William, has given me a wide sense of place and the beauty of ordinariness and the sacramental nature of our common lives. Eugene Peterson has influenced my understanding of ‘pastor’ and ‘church’ more than any other person. Barbara Brown Taylor and Fleming Rutledge are wonderful pastor-theologians who take words seriously. And Will Willimon – he makes my spine straighter whenever I hear him preach.
What made you decide to write a work of fiction?
Well, a dear friend of ours in Colorado asked if I had any advice for her church that was searching for a pastor. She was on the search team, and she sounded exhausted. I’ve been on both sides of that search – and it exhausted me just thinking about it. I remembered all the shenanigans that are so often tied up in this song and dance. So after sending her an email that I’m sure was mostly unhelpful, my mind and my pen went to writing a story. And Love Big, Be Well emerged. When I’ve told some folks about the book, they’ve assumed that I was using the medium of fiction as a tangential vehicle to only deliver a message (and I can understand the confusion). I think that would have been a disastrous way to have written this book, any fiction really. I don’t know that my story succeeded, but I do know that I’ve tried my best to give it a chance to stand up on its own.
Why did you decide to tell the story through letters? And how do you understand the power of a “real letter?”
Maybe it was partly because the whole thing started with a letter to me, but also because there’s something deeply human about a personal letter, the time it takes to write it, the care that’s given in thinking about the person(s) you’re writing to. I wrote another book called Let God that was reworking some of François Fénelon’s (a 17th century French Bishop) letters to spiritual friends in King Louis’ court. I think I’ve always been fascinated with letters.
I admire your character Pastor Jonas, especially his vulnerability. In one letter, he writes, “I know what it is to weep and wonder if you will ever be whole again. I know what it is to look in the mirror, to see emptiness staring back, to fear you may have lost your soul.” What were you hoping to say about faithfulness in the midst of such honesty?
I don’t know that I was trying to express any one thing; it’s just what I found Jonas saying. However, I think that Jonas knows deep pain, and he lives out of that place rather than trying to run away from it.
I loved the letter called “Blessing,” and the way Pastor Jonas suggests that “passing a blessing may be the pastor’s truest work.” But it’s clear that you see blessing as the congregation’s task as well. What does it look like for the church to be people who bless?
I think it’s quite a reorientation to simply view your life this way, that we are a people who carry in our words and acts and hopes and fears, in our loves, the blessing, peace-making, reconciling work of Jesus. No vocation is ever merely a 9 to 5 time-punching existence. No relationship is merely happenstance. We’re a blessing, new creation people.
In the letter called “Whiskey and Biscuits,” Pastor Jonas speaks a word to anyone who has ever grown weary of the church’s liturgy. The way Jonas understands liturgy is a gift: “What a relief it is to know we don’t carry this faith alone. Liturgy allows us to affirm truths we might not even believe just yet, or truths we’re simply too exhausted to hold up with our own weary prayers.” And he closes that letter with these words: “Showing up, doing the work, being together – that’s our liturgy. And it matters.” What do you hope or believe happens when the church takes this “showing up” seriously?
Our church sings a song that our worship leader wrote called “Our Salvation is Bound Up Together.” I think our communal existence, the fact that we require one another to live well and whole and that we are all bound up in the life of the Trinity, means that as we come together with our bodies and our voices and embody the love of God in our liturgy, grace happens. Sometimes we think that it’s disingenuous to enact things we don’t “feel” at the moment, things that aren’t existentially potent for us. However, I think that showing up (in our marriages and our friendships, as with our church) is exactly the sort of thing that makes up what we call faith. It’s doing what we can’t see (or feel) just yet. This is our work. And over the long story, the slow work of the gospel will create and remake and heal.
In this time when people are gathering in like-minded clusters, you suggest the need to read alongside people different from you, or to go to church alongside people you might not choose to be with. You write, “If I only encounter my own opinion or prejudice, I miss out on all kinds of truth and beauty. And without disruptive input from others, I’ll stay more dense than I have to be.” What gifts might come of this? And why is this so rare today?
I think it’s safer, requires less of us, to stay with those who affirm all of our own convictions or instincts. We talk a lot about community (it’s a real buzzword that we may have beaten the life out of), but we’re a very individualistic people. My individual ideas, desires and views are things I want to cling to. I don’t like the discomfort inherent in having these things challenged. I like the world nice and tidy, manageable. But of course, the Spirit is entirely disinterested in keeping our individual cocoon nice or tidy or manageable. If God’s going to make the world new, then there’s some massive disruption that has to happen between here and there. And that’s good news.
What is your biggest hope for your book?
I’d find real satisfaction if people put down Love Big, Be Well and felt a renewed hopefulness. There’s a lot of despair and sorrow overwhelming us these days – and for good cause. However, I believe that hope and goodness are the truer story. I think that friendship is truer than our sense of isolation and estrangement. I believe that God’s love is more powerful than all our hatred piled up together. I believe the church, for all our ills, really does (when we’re true to who God has made us to be) exist as a community of love, hospitality and healing. Love Big, Be Well is an honest yet hopeful story.
I share Winn’s hope for his book. I too believe that hope and goodness are the truer story. I think friendship is truer than our sense of isolation and estrangement. I believe God is more powerful than all our hatred piled up together. And I believe the church really does exist as a community of love, hospitality, and healing.
I am deeply grateful for the ways Winn Collier’s Love Big, Be Well confirms and deepens these affirmations.