I’m happy to have as my guest today pastor/author Winn Collier, whose writing I love. His latest project is an epistolary novel—that is, a story told through the medium of letters written by one or more of the characters. It’s titled Love Big, Be Well: Letters to a Small-Town Church.
SG: Did you have in mind any specific congregations as you wrote?
Winn: I carried 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.
SG: Charlottesville has been at the epicenter of America’s culture wars in recent months. How has your church continued to be a voice of hope in the midst of such toxic events?
Winn: The Klan rally in July, then the Alt-right rally in August, were horrific. I’ve never encountered such evil so in my face. And the aftermath is far from over. Although many of the agitators were from outside Charlottesville, the evil messages tore into racial wounds and sins in our town that we’ve never dealt with properly. My prayer is for genuine repentance and restitution. Through all this, though, my conviction about the unique and subversive way of Jesus and the Kingdom has been radically renewed. The way of Jesus is in some way contrary to (or a corrective of) every other power structure, politic and ideal. To stand with the oppressed while loving the enemy—that’s a strange thing. Justice really does need Jesus, and our church is trying to learn how to be people faithful to the strange way of Jesus.
SG: In the letter called “Whiskey and Biscuits,” your Pastor Jonas character speaks a word to anyone who has ever grown weary of the church’s liturgy. Jonas views liturgy as 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.” What did you have in mind when you wrote that?
Winn: 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. But 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.
SG: I’ve appreciated your non-fiction. What made you decide to write a work of fiction this time around?
Winn: 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 be 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.
SG: Why did you decide to tell the story through letters?
Winn: 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.
SG: What authors have shaped you as a writer or as a pastor?
Winn: 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.
SG: What is your biggest hope for your book?
Winn: 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. Yet I believe that hope and goodness are the truer story. I think 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.