Writing at The Porches – An interview with Trudy Hale – part 2 of 3

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photo by Aaron Burden via Unsplash

In the first part of my interview with Trudy Hale, editor of Streetlight magazine and owner of The Porches writing retreat, we discussed the relationship she developed with a neglected farmhouse in the foothills of Virginia’s Blue Ridge mountains.  In this segment, we talk about the writing.  (And all the ways we contrive not to.)

The Porches is such a healing place.  How has living there changed your writing?

Oh, that’s a great question.  Well, first of all, I have written more descriptively, or taken more time with description.  You have different craft elements, and writing descriptions for me is the most–I hate to use the word tedious—but there are other parts of the craft that I like, like the dialogue.  Just to stop and linger descriptively about the physical aspect of where the characters are, I find that I’m able to slow down more as I’ve been writing here, and to linger more, and to flesh out the bones of the story.  I have a tendency to kind of speed along the story, keep the pace going.  I’ve been able to, once I’ve been writing here, to say, “I need to linger here,” and be more concrete and let all the senses play out; taste, touch, smell.

IMG_6054But one thing that’s happened to my writing, too, is, because I’m so involved with the retreat, I sometimes find it harder to take longer periods of time to write, and this is something I’ve got to work on.  I enjoy doing the retreat so much, but sometimes I’d rather make up a writer’s bed–and I hated housework when I was growing up.  I hated domestic stuff.

I never enjoyed doing any kind of housework before, but making up a writer’s bed brings me a certain amount of joy; turning the sheet down, and making the room up.  It’s almost like I’m making this room for someone who’s going to come here and create, dream dreams; and that’s an attitude that’s definitely changed in me.  But it also is something that I will–because I enjoy it–I’d rather do that sometimes than sit down and write.  You know how we do with writing–Resist it when it’s the very thing that sutures our soul back together.

Making up a writer’s bed brings me a certain amount of joy; turning the sheet down, and making the room up.  It’s almost like I’m making this room for someone who’s going to come here and create, dream dreams.

Yes.  You need a retreat other than yours.

I need a retreat from my retreat or better writing habits.  I have met so many wonderful writers and people.  It’s really enriched my life to have conversations about writing.  I used to socialize a lot more at the beginning of the retreat.  I’d have a glass of wine and hang out, but I realized, as time goes on, I have to focus on my writing.

Yes.  So, when you’re in your rhythm, what does that look like for you?  What does your writing process look like?

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Trudy Hale

I have to write in the morning.  I have to honor that time, and I’ve had to really fight, because there’s a part of me that wants to take care of the retreat first, or check all the emails.  And I have to become conscious–okay, you’re going to sit down and do the writing–because if you start checking the emails, you fall down the rabbit hole.  When I have that first cup of coffee, I say, “It’s not going to make any difference to whose ever email that you don’t get back to it ’til 11 o’clock instead of 9 o’clock.”

I have to have a very direct conversation with myself.  I go through runs.  I’ll establish a habit when it becomes easy because it’s a habit–like you get up, and exercise, and brush your teeth.  But then, I’ll have these times where I have taken a trip and it’s broken my rhythm, or I have some family crisis.  So, it’s a constant rededication to honoring that sitting down, and also not being judgmental, and keeping the faith, like, “Okay, maybe this morning I’m going to write a lot of stuff that’s not going to be used, or won’t be as good as I’d like it, and just put that aside and say ‘That’s okay.’”

So, a lot of it’s an inner dialogue with the self about the writing and the relationship with the writing, and it’s an ongoing relationship.  And there’s good days and there’s bad days.

But there’s nothing like it; that feeling when you’ve really gotten into it, and time…  I guess it’s like a musician or any artist.  It’s like there’s no time.  It’s like you go in what they call the zone.  You know when you’ve gone there.  That feeling—there’s nothing like it; and it nourishes, it restores, it centers.  It feels like I’m a stringed instrument and someone’s tuned me.

It’s like there’s no time.  It’s like you go in what they call the zone.  You know when you’ve gone there…It feels like I’m a stringed instrument and someone’s tuned me.

It’s great.  And if I go for too long a time without really honoring that writing time and writing, I get really kind of grumpy…just a little out of plumb.

In the third part of this interview we talk more writing and Trudy’s ongoing projects – Streetlight magazine and writing workshops.

 

What can the Rural Church Offer a Declining Community? Hope!

From the Faith & Leadership newsletter, an article by Allen T. Stanton:

“In a community of decline, hope becomes countercultural. While it would be wrong to foster a false sense of optimism or to promise that manufacturing and young adults will return, the church has a unique ability to stand in the hard realities and still preach hope.”

https://www.faithandleadership.com/allen-t-stanton-what-can-rural-church-offer-declining-community-hope?utm_source=FL_newsletter&utm_medium=content&utm_campaign=FL_feature

An Osage Mirror: A Review of Killers of the Flower Moon

 

Two-thirds of the way through this book [Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI] and I was fixing to get very disappointed.  Sure, David Grann had done what his title said that he was going to do.  He had thrown us into the strange wave of murders that plagued Osage County, Oklahoma in the early 1920s.  Native people, newly enriched from headright sales of mineral rights, were dying mysteriously, violently, in great numbers.  Some nefarious plot was brewing and people were poisoned, shot, bombed, and thrown from trains.

Enter Agent Tom White and the new Bureau of Investigation, soon to be the FBI.  The upstanding law men, using a mix of Western savvy and modern scientific methods, cracked the case, identified the culprits, and brought them in.  By the end of the second part, or “chronicle” as this book has it, the climactic courtroom scene has happened and we are well into the wrap-up stories of where the principals ended up.  J. Edgar Hoover’s reputation has been solidified and he goes on to be a Washington institution.  Tom White becomes the warden of Leavenworth and later writes a book.  Mollie Burkhart, an Osage woman at the center of the story, goes on to remarry.  “We’re clearly winding things up here,” I thought.

51Gk++yHGHL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_So we had the Osage murders and the birth of the FBI, as promised.  But, wait—did we really get that much about the Osage people and their culture?  And compelling as the storyline was, did it really end so cleanly?  What about all the loose ends?  The doctors who seemed not only incompetent but complicit?  The other deaths that seemed to have nothing to do with the man who was fingered?

It was then that I noticed that some 70 pages still remained and yet a third chronicle.  The story was about to get much better and much worse.

David Grann doesn’t linger over the big questions.  Like the Bureau men he clearly admires, Grann sticks to the facts.  Sometimes they are evocative facts, like the way the sun “floated above the rim of the earth—a perfect orange sphere that soon became half a sun, then a quarter, before dying off with a burst of dazzling light.”  But most of the time they are much more prosaic.

It keeps his story simple, which is a relief because there are a lot of characters to keep up with here.  The oil boom that made the Osage millionaires brought a lot of interests to Oklahoma.  The way that the Osage story fits into the larger narrative of how white America dealt with native peoples was complicated enough and full of prejudice and exploitation.  The system of guardianships that left mostly white men in charge of the wealth of the Osage (because the Osage were deemed incapable of managing it on their own) only compounded the problems.

So when the easily-grasped story of a corrupt and murderous villain busted by a virtuous and relentless lawman is undone in the third act, it is very effective.  Grann uses a Faulkner quote from Absalom! Absalom! to send us down into the abyss: “We see dimly people, the people in whose living blood and seed we ourselves lay dormant and waiting, in this shadowy attenuation of time possessing now heroic proportions, performing their acts of simple passion and simple violence, impervious to time and inexplicable.”

When the easily-grasped story of a corrupt and murderous villain busted by a virtuous and relentless lawman is undone in the third act, it is very effective.

Maybe it’s because Grann really does feel that the people whose lives he is exploring are inexplicable that he lets Faulkner carry all the weight of what this all means.  He can’t fathom the horrors of a story that is not about one bad actor but a whole society.  He can’t begin to get at the psychological scars such a history produces.  He doesn’t have answers for the desolation he sees out on the depopulated prairie where this story unfolded.

So he does the responsible thing and just points.  Look at this.  Behold.  See if you can keep your innocence in the face of this story.  And all those facts from early in the book that seemed distant and quaint and made you think of the hard-boiled detective fiction of the 1930s?  How distant and quaint do they seem now?  I helped you look at this.  You’ve got to look at us.

Grann does what he can and it is considerable.  This is historical journalism that resonates.

This Old House: The Love Story – an interview with Trudy Hale, part 1 of 3

PorchesSummer500pxThere’s a great love story going on up in the Virginia foothills rolling up to the Blue Ridge.  Actually, there’s a bunch of them.  Every writer that finds his or her way to Trudy Hale’s writing retreat in the little village of Norwood discovers something to love.

I’ve got my list: The big stony bluff over the James River with the eagle circling overhead.  The regular hum and ring of coal cars carting West Virginia down to Newport News one trainload at a time.  The silence of a long hike along the Tye River where you can feel free to work out your deepest thoughts by hollering at the top of your lungs.

But I haven’t even mentioned the house, The Porches, with its double deck of porches overlooking the James.  The Porches–with its creaking wood, laden with memory and books, adorned with Trudy’s treasures from a life in Hollywood, the South, and points far beyond.  The Porches–which welcomes writers to days of silence and the holy struggle of finding words.  Or not.

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Trudy Hale

The real love story here is between Trudy Hale and the house.  Something I discovered when I asked her for some time to talk.  Trudy is a writer, teacher, and editor of Streetlight magazine, who also happens to own and love The Porches.  Trudy, in addition to being a great and generous conversationalist, has inspired me to keep this writing life alive.  In this 3-part interview we explore the house, the craft of writing, and how a place can change you.

[This post is a little longer than normal, but settle in.  It’s a wonderful story…]

So, Trudy, what possessed you to buy a farmhouse in Virginia off the Internet [and leave behind a writing life in Hollywood]?

Well, it wasn’t me that bought it originally.  It was my former husband who bought it in a manic episode.  He shot a miniseries in Richmond, and we always liked Virginia, and we were both from the South.  He was from Georgia and I was from Memphis.  But because of his bipolar, slowly the scripts stopped arriving at the door.

So, we thought, well, we really like the South.  You can get a lot for your money.  And while we were thinking, (we were selling our house in Topanga Canyon), he had a manic episode, and a very severe one.  He found this house at 3 a.m on the Internet, and I knew right away that it was not right for us.

But he was convinced.  He was determined to buy it.  And so, my daughter and I said, “We’ll fly down to Richmond, and we’ll go see it.”  We were sure that he would come to his senses and see that it was just very dilapidated and way out in the country, and wasn’t in Richmond or Charlottesville.  I really love Charlottesville, and that’s where I was trying to push him — west to Charlottesville from Richmond.

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Where the Tye meets the James

We come out here and look at the house, and he’s still manic.  At one point, he went out on the upstairs porch, and my daughter was filming him.  He has a big Panama hat and his plaid pajama pants that he was wearing.  Behind him, there’s this post with these black holes of rot.  He’s coming towards her, and she says, “Hey, Dad, what do you think?”  These tears came in his eyes, and he said, “I’ve come home.”

So, my daughter and I sat out on the porch, and when I looked out across the river valley, all of a sudden I just felt this…where my whole spine relaxed.  And there were different depths of the view — you had the foreground with the trees and then you had the river bottom and the river bluff.

It was something about the land that just drew me out of myself and calmed me.  And I thought, “Well, it’s not a bad place to land ’til I figure out what I’m going to do with my life.”  Because I had decided I could not live–we’d been married 25 years, and by the way, we’re very good friends.  I couldn’t just continue to go through these episodes.

So, he bought the house and I told him that I would move him and all the furniture to the house, and then I was going to look for me a place in Charlottesville.  We packed the dogs up and we moved.

Then, we get here and he is now in a full-blown clinical depression; and he sees the house, and he sees the holes in the wall.  We had bought it from this French artist, and she had put all these armoires and art posters to cover the big holes in the plaster.

She was an artist.  She never fixed the porch and she never did any renovation or maintenance to the house.  It was falling down around her ears.  In fact, they wouldn’t let the people go out on the porch for fear it would collapse, because it was in such bad shape.

But she painted murals.  She wouldn’t fix the porch or anything, but she would go around and paint the knobs of things, like little bird nests on knobs and little sunflowers.

We arrive, and my husband totally freaks out when he sees what he’s bought; and his wife is leaving him…threatening to leave.  He puts his bed in the dining room with all his boxes, and I put my bed upstairs in this room with this crazy wallpaper.  I think, ferns and plumes and…  Did you ever read the short story ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’?

No.

Okay.  What’s her name?  Perkins.  That’s it.  [Charlotte] Perkins Gilman.

Anyway, I slept in that room, but as he was lying in his bed and not getting out, I began to walk around.  I was so conflicted, because I would look at things and say, “Oh, wouldn’t that be beautiful if that was just painted?”  And the porch, and the being out in the country, the birdsong, and the river, and I’d take walks.  The house began to speak and she said, “I used to be beautiful.” To me.

I was really conflicted for many months.  I looked at other places. I got a real estate agent.  But I would think, “Well, we just need to paint, and we just need to…”  The house began to really cast a spell on me and seduce me.

The bottom line was I couldn’t live with him anymore.  So, instead of me moving, I said, “Let’s find you an apartment.  I would like to stay here and fix the house up.”  At some point along this thing of me being seduced and falling in love with the house, I said, “I’d like to start an artist colony.”  Because I thought I really couldn’t justify living in such a big house by myself, or afford it, really, and all the repairs.  So, that’s the birth of The Porches.

Wow.

old barn_thru_windowSo, he moved to Charlottesville, and we saw friends and went out.  And after five years, he moved back to California to be closer to our kids.  So, Alex, what’s interesting is—it was a curse.  I thought, “Oh, my God.  My life is just falling apart.”  I couldn’t believe it.  I was walking around in this ruin, way out in the country, totally isolated, no friends out here, all my friends and my kids back in California, and I was a wreck for a long time.

I was in tremendous torment, and the house seemed like a curse.  And even when I’d walk up to the third floor and all the plaster was falling down, and I was cursing the fact that there was a third floor, because that meant more rooms that we had to fix up or block off…ultimately, it became the greatest gift, because I would have never had the courage, being in California, to think, “Oh, I’m going to go buy this antebellum house down on the James and start a writer’s’ retreat.”  What seemingly were the ruin of a marriage and a financial disaster just turned into the greatest gift for me.

What are you working on now?

I’m actually working on a memoir that focuses on how I ended up coming to this house.  But it’s really about living and loving a person who has bipolar and that relationship—how much it gives you and how hard it is.  All the pain, and all the joy, too.  And oftentimes, people who do have that illness are very creative people.

And the house does become a character, in a way.  I mean, it’s like as I began to love this house back to life, I was able to love myself and reinvent myself after this very difficult marriage.  And it’s like a house becomes this–I wouldn’t say an alter ego—but it’s like a friend or mentor to me.

And we were able to restore ourselves together.

Wow.

You see it’s like a pebble in a pond, because it starts to reverberate.  And first, you land in this place, it’s like you’ve landed on the moon.  And then, part of gaining my sanity was to reach out and see who was in the land, what was the community; make connections, because I felt so untethered.  When I began to write about that–now, this is the irony–it’s like I got too far away from the house in the writing.  And somehow–here come the villagers–and the energy kind of went–

You were diluting the love story between you and the house.

That’s great!   That’s what happened!  That is what happened.  I left the love story, and the love story of me and the house.

[Part 2 – Writing at the Porches]

 

Dismantle Confederate Memorials? Let’s Build Some Different Ones

16301481_BG1A Robert E. Lee monument is dismantled in New Orleans.  A torchlight rally in Charlottesville, Virginia to protect another one.  A lieutenant governor candidate in Virginia calls for removing all Confederate memorials and renaming all highways and buildings named for Confederate leaders.

William Faulkner had it right.  “The past is never dead.  It’s not even past.”

But the effort to erase the memorials to a shameful part of our history may not be as helpful as its supporters imagine.  A past submerged is not a past resolved.  What we need is more memory – not less.

New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu got a lot of deserved attention this week for his eloquent defense of the decision to remove four memorials.  He said:

These statues are not just stone and metal. They are not just innocent remembrances of a benign history. These monuments purposefully celebrate a fictional, sanitized Confederacy; ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement, and the terror that it actually stood for.

Landrieu lamented the prominent place that these memorials had in the city, the way they defined the city’s landscape and imposed a narrative about who was in control.

All of this is true.  My white ancestors, who no doubt were part of the masses who contributed to the erection of these memorials in courthouse lawns and city squares across the South, felt a need to honor the sacrifice of the dead and to give meaning to the senseless suffering of the Civil War.  But there was a lot left unsaid – ugly things about the senseless suffering of enslaved people and the continuing ideology of white supremacy.

And yet…have we really moved to a new level of discussion and engagement if we simply move the stones?  That’s the easy part and it is functionally destructive.  Where is the constructive counterpart?

Landrieu noted this:

Why there are no slave ship monuments, no prominent markers on public land to remember the lynchings or the slave blocks; nothing to remember this long chapter of our lives; the pain, the sacrifice, the shame… all of it happening on the soil of New Orleans.

I know the Lee monument in Charlottesville.  It stands in front of the downtown United Methodist Church and we used to gather around it for the Palm Sunday celebration – something that always seemed like a perversion of the message of the day.  Unless the waving palms were an act of defiance of death-dealing powers, a connection we never openly made.

I imagine a new act of art in such places.  What if, lining the looming boxwoods that surround that memorial, there were new statues turned toward the general on his horse in various stages of reaction?  White and black, 19th century and 21st century, stunned, appalled, weeping, wondering, saluting, casting stones?  What if we commissioned a flurry of such works that would transform these old works from hagiography to conversation?

Perhaps the work of Michael Mergen, a photographer reflecting on memory and place, should get more prominence.

These old monuments deserve our attention because they are offensive.  Some of them should go.  But I can’t help feeling there should be more.

The Weird & Beautiful Vision of George Saunders: A Review of Lincoln in the Bardo

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photo by Ashim D’Silva via Unsplash

 

You would not think that a full-scale recapitulation of Ecclesiastes would make a great bestseller.  Vanity, vanity, all is vanity!  This human thing is an exercise of unknowing.  I know that there is nothing better than that they should eat, drink, and experience pleasure in their hard work.  This is the philosophy of the Preacher.

But George Saunders is a fascinating variety of weird.  In Tenth of December, his 2013 short story collection, he found a hundred ways to trouble the surface of contemporary life and it was funny and edgy, drawing on spirituality and our anxieties about the technological age and what it’s doing to our sense of self.  Flannery O’Connor meets Gary Shteyngart is how I described it.

George Saunders is a fascinating variety of weird.

In Lincoln in the Bardo, Saunders’ first novel, he’s still working with an outrageous premise—that the ghostly residents of a certain DC cemetery are spying on President Lincoln as he visits the grave of his recently-dead son—and he’s still impossible to put down.  This is the work of an author using all of his gifts, most especially his prodigious curiosity, to wonder at the meaning of eternal things.

LincolnintheBardoThe historical nugget around which the story is built is a scant mention of Lincoln’s late-night visits in 1862 to the crypt where his young son, Willie, was interred.  Saunders uses a mountain of historical research and some added fictional accounts to paint a portrait of Lincoln that is full of contradictions.  At times the historical voices can’t even agree on Lincoln’s eye color, much less his political policies.  And the weight of these judgments by his contemporaries weighs on the president, whose own inner voice in this novel is full of the awareness, not only of the death in his own life, but of the many deaths he feels responsible for in the nascent war.

Lincoln is interesting, but the real characters in this story are the dead who are lingering in the graveyard.  The bardo is a concept borrowed from Buddhism in which disembodied souls are caught in an intermediate, waiting state following death.  The residents here can’t quite come to grips with where they are.  They refer to the cemetery as a “hospital-yard” and their coffins as “sick-boxes” and they chastise each other for believing that their earthly stories are at an end.  When “angels” invade to encourage their compatriots to “move on,” they see it as a threat, even though its clear that this is the way to peace.

The residents here can’t quite come to grips with where they are.  They refer to the cemetery as a “hospital-yard” and their coffins as “sick-boxes” and they chastise each other for believing that their earthly stories are at an end.

This is like nothing so much as C.S. Lewis’ vision of the after-life in The Great Divorce in which souls that could not discover God and peace in life are still struggling after death.  As in that book, the appearance of the dead is sometimes fantastically altered to reflect their inner struggles.  Those who can’t let go of their distorting preoccupations are condemned to continue suffering them.

There are some problems here.  Saunders handling of the black characters seems a little tacked on and the way he suggests that Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was the result of possession by one of them is too clever by half.  But the overall effect is…well, haunting.

When Lincoln finally moves to leave his boy, his parting words are not profound, but ring with all the pain and beauty of grief: “Love, love, I know what you are.”

This book is an affirmation of life and an honest admission that the world is greater than we can know.  Like Psalm 131, the perspective veers toward a studied contentment: “Lord, my heart isn’t proud; my eyes aren’t conceited.  I don’t get involved with things too great or wonderful for me.  No.  But I have calmed and quieted myself like a weaned child on its mother.”

Or as Roger Bevins, III, regretful about his suicide, puts it at the end (in not too much of a spoiler, I hope):

“None of it was real; nothing was real. Everything was real; inconceivably real, infinitely dear.  These and all things started as nothing, latent within a vast energy-broth, but then we named them, and loved them, and in this way, brought them forth.  And now we must lose them.

“I send this out to you, dear friends, before I go, in this instantaneous thought-burst, from a place where time slows and then stops and we may live forever in a single instant. Goodbye goodbye good-”

“A Grace Wholly Gratuitous”

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photo by Cristian Newman via Unsplash

‘Cruelty is a mystery, and the waste of pain.  But if we describe a world to encompass these things, a world that is a long, brute game, then we bump up against another mystery: the inrush of power and light, the canary that sings on the skull.  For unless all ages and races of men have been deluded by the same mass hypnotist (who?) there seems to be such a thing as beauty, a grace wholly gratuitous.’

–Annie Dillard, “On Foot in Virginia’s Roanoke Valley”

James Baldwin’s Moment and the Danger of Racial Innocence

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photo by Cristian Newman via Unsplash

James Baldwin is having a moment, 30 years after his death.  First, Ta-Nehasi Coates’ Between the World and Me, a book that drew its inspiration from Baldwin’s 1963 book The Fire Next Time, topped The New York Times’ bestsellers list.  Then, a documentary about Baldwin, I Am Not Your Negro, was nominated for an Academy Award.  It was time for me to see what the fuss was about.

51P9xUYx6DL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_The Fire Next Time is a brief, searing read.  In it, Baldwin tells his own life story as an African-American man growing up in mid-century Harlem within the larger narrative of race in America.  At times angry and disillusioned, it also works below the surface of racial tensions to come up with a surprising definition of love.  “Love is so desperately sought and so cunningly avoided,” Baldwin says.  “Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within.”  But until America, and particularly white America, comes to see itself as it really is and not as it imagines itself to be, love will be perverted into antipathy and fear.

“Love is so desperately sought and so cunningly avoided,” Baldwin says.  “Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within.”

Baldwin sees the danger of the myth of innocence.  In imagining that we are a color-blind society with a heroic narrative of advancing civilization, we fail to see how the ripples, the peoples!, who trouble that narrative would allow us to be more honest, more open to new frontiers.  “What it comes to is that if we, who can scarcely be considered a white nation, persist in thinking of ourselves as one, we condemn ourselves, with the truly white nations, to sterility and decay, whereas if we could accept ourselves as we are, we might being new life to the Western achievements, and transform them.”

I find this book as fresh and relevant as Coates’ book, even though it is more than a half-century old.  Perhaps because it seems so clear that we are just as incapable of grappling with race as we ever have been.  In fact, the lines between us have hardened between those who see race as a pretext for liberal policies and those who see it’s avoidance as evidence of white nationalism.

Racism, like air, isn’t something Americans have the luxury to avoid.  It just is.  And like every manifestation of Sin, it has its claws in us from the time we are born.  To spend vital energy denying its existence or continuing impact is to whistle in the wind.  One might as well deny the fact of death, which is what Baldwin says that white Americans do.

Racism, like air, isn’t something Americans have the luxury to avoid.  It just is.  And like every manifestation of Sin, it has its claws in us from the time we are born.

We are prone to simple narratives in these days.  Our summer blockbuster plot lines boil down to a cataclysmic confrontation with personified evil overcome by a hero, if not good, at least justified.  We are drawn to leaders with simple answers – walls, guns, and jails.

But the church, which Baldwin found so energizing and ultimately disappointing, is nonetheless the custodian of a language of faith that offers something deeper.  Within the story of God and ourselves in the Bible is a Love that refuses to credit any of the easy lies we tell ourselves.  In the light of the cross, we can have no illusions that there is an innocent history.

We are chained by forces that resist God’s work of mercy and redemption.  We are incapable of seeing how truly distorted our lives become.  It takes a God incarnate in the world and on a cross to “deliver us from slavery to sin and death,” as the United Methodist communion liturgy has it.

Baldwin’s writing is suffused with the language of the church.  It lends him an urgency for the time we face.  To wit, his closing line: “If we do not now dare everything, the fulfillment of that prophecy, re-created from the Bible in son by a slave, is upon us: God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the fire next time!

How to Preach a Bad Sermon

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photo by Jon Collier via Flickr

Yesterday, I preached a bad sermon.  I quoted and misquoted Mark Twain, King, and Ghandi without attribution.  I cruelly mocked my child by telling stories of his misdeeds.  I violated the privacy of a parishioner with health issues to highlight my prowess in pastoral care.  And I managed to talk far more about myself than I ever did about God.

It was hard work to be that bad.

Fortunately, it was a video exercise I was doing for the Ethics Committee of our Board of Ordained Ministry.  I was asked to do an intentionally bad sermon that illustrated some perpetual bugaboos in preaching – plagiarism, inappropriate use of family, and making the sermon entirely self-referential (the sermon title was “It’s not you.  It’s me.”).  Those tendencies may not be a bar to the presidency (O no, I didn’t), but they can be the marks of lazy preaching.

So what makes for good preaching?  Dick Murray, my professor of Christian Education at Perkins School of Theology and a creator of the Disciple Bible Study, used to say that every good sermon, like every good Bible lesson, ought to have a mixture of ‘about-ness’ and ‘so what-ness.’  You need to spend some time exploring what the Bible passage is about and you also need to answer the question, “OK, so what?”

IMG_6203If a sermon spends all its time mining the depths of Scripture, adorned with word study and historical context, and never makes the leap to lived experience, its going to be deadly.  Though to be truthful, I wish more preachers erred on this side since a lot of sermons I hear don’t seem to have been cooked sufficiently in the oven of the pastor’s study.

On the other hand, a sermon that sounds like it is simply a variation on “4 Ways to Boost Productivity and Happiness,” (and there are far more of these), usually fails to grapple with what the Bible really has to say about who God is and who we are.

Good preaching is visceral.  It gets beneath our surface concerns and the superficial fidgeting we do in response to the latest headlines.  It strives for encounter with the God who is revealed in Scripture and in our dreams, in those unguarded places where our vulnerable self casts about for a firm foundation.  It strips the veneer off of our lives and says, to quote Will Willimon, that most of us don’t have needs worth having.  Something bigger is at stake.

The writer Annie Dillard is relentless in pointing to this dynamic.  In her deep observations about nature she refuses to paper over the raw beauty and terror of encounter.  She sees angels in barren fields and transcendence in a shriveled up frog carcass.  In ‘A Writer in the World,” Dillard says:

“We still and always want waking.  We should amass half-dressed in long lines like tribesmen and shake gourds at one another, to wake up; instead we watch television and miss the show.”

Good preaching should have a little gourd-shaking.  That’s what I say.  It should find, in our holy text, not only an opportunity for intellectual exploration, but the sublime experience of awe in the face of the living God.  When we are ‘woke’ (O no, I didn’t), we are trembling on the edge, drawn out from our quiet desperation, and open to transformations – glorious and painful.

“Good preaching should have a little gourd-shaking.  That’s what I say.”

A good preacher has to go there herself.  He has to find an authenticity and honesty to offer himself to the task of being vulnerable before the text.  And if that preacher is thus alive, petty, heartwarming stories or overworn quotes will not be a temptation.

Come to think of it, it’s hard work to preach a good sermon, too.

Down the Line and on the Edge: Poetry Saturday

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photo by Antonie Schibler via Unsplash

There’s no mystery

to the ball hit to the gap in right centerfield.

So much room for error.  So many

ways it could have been a hit anyway and otherwise.

It’s the tailing ball

down the line that sprays up chalk

that makes a difference.

It could so easily have been

elsewise:

A forgotten foul ball.

Equally forgettable, a mundane double.

 

But to hit it down the line and play

on the edge.  Just barely in bounds.

To invest that edge with the consequence it deserves.

That’s the stuff.

–Alex Joyner