Coming Off Leave(s)

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photo by Scott Webb via Unsplash

Leaves don’t so much change color in the fall as they become what they’ve always been.  The chlorophyll that gives all deciduous trees their summer uniform of green begins to break down in the cooling days of autumn.  The carotenoids in the leaves remain, lending trees their brilliant yellows and oranges.  Those colors have always been there, they are just revealed in the retreat  of the chlorophyll.

I believe I have experienced a little of the wisdom of trees in my own leave, which comes to an end with October’s arrival.  Over this time, I have allowed the identity of my role as a clergy person to draw back and underneath I discovered colors I hadn’t seen in a long time.  Of course, that clergy role is not like a coat that is shed.  In fact, it’s more like a brand burned in by an iron.  But it’s not all that I am.

Who I discovered on this journey is a little of the boy who used to follow his instincts with a nagging sense that they made him somewhat strange and unfit for normal society.  Lo, these many years since, I found that boy charming and needlessly burdened.  He was on to something that I still need.

fullsizeoutput_18a2So, on this renewal leave, I wrote like that boy, who would come home each day and tap fantastical stories at his father’s Selectric typewriter.  I wandered the small town of Archer City, Texas like that boy wandered his own home town, fascinated by the people whom he met and wanting to get the mystery and wonder of the place somehow into words.

I sang along to Tennessee Ernie Ford gospel songs with a 70-something cowgirl late into the night in her West Texas garden festooned with strings of light and a bright pink rifle.  I ate dinners with friends who, amazingly, are still good friends years after leaving Dallas.  I took a road trip with Suzanne back through the heart of the country staying ahead of a hurricane.  I explored the desert and the prairie.  I stayed with a cousin who told me family history I had never heard.  I heard more from my father as we shared a few nights in his hospital room.  I worshipped in a Latino church, a cowboy church, and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.  I talked with shop owners in East Jerusalem, walked miles through Bethlehem, and floated in the Dead Sea.

The boy loved such adventures and moments as these.

But about that wisdom of trees…

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photo by Matthew Payne via Unsplash

Once I had a revelation under a tree.  I was at the Festival of Faith and Writing in Grand Rapids, Michigan and I had just attended a session with the great poet and memoirist Mary Karr.  She told about a spiritual director who got her out of a stuck place by asking the question, “What would you write about if you weren’t afraid?”

I left the session and went out to sit under a spruce in the April sun.  I opened my journal and asked the same question.  As clearly as I have ever heard God speak in my life I heard three things: “Be free.  Tell the truth.  Don’t do it alone.”

I strive for these things, but I tasted them more fully in the leave.  I glimpsed the colors that had been muted by the drive to produce and the wholly worthy work of turning energy into sustenance, which is the work of chlorophyll.

In his book, Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life, Richard Rohr talks about the journey into the second half of life as a kind of search for authenticity.  He sees our stumbling forward to understand life as “a gnawing desire for ‘ourselves,’ for something more, or what I will call ‘homesickness.’”  I understand that desire and it is a kind of rediscovery with acceptance—a knowing that the people we have been in the past are the people God has made us to be, but we have never fully received that gift.  I trust, as I return, that the colors will remain and that the boy will flourish yet.

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The Destabilizing Doors of Exit West: A Review

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photo by David Zawila via Unsplash

Reading Mohsin Hamid’s acclaimed new novel, Exit West, as a window on the current global migration crisis is a mistake.  The world imagined by the Pakistani-born Hamid is not one facing a migration issue – migration is the environment in which all its characters swim.  It’s not a problem to be addressed; it is in the nature of being human.

You can draw your parallels to contemporary events.  Syria seems the most likely candidate for the unnamed Muslim country undergoing a civil war where Nadia and Saeed begin their relationship and their journey.  But the lens Hamid offers us is gauzy enough to allow the details of the place to move to the edges.  His is a land of universals and lasting truths.

51Ma6eymR0L._SX330_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgThe couple is intriguing, mostly because they never entirely connect with each other.  They meet in an evening class on “corporate identity and product branding” (3), a topic that comes to seem as relevant as advanced semiotics as the country deteriorates into conflict.  Saeed lives with his parents and is faithful in his prayers, though not militant in his beliefs.  Nadia dresses the part of a conservative Muslim girl, but she is much more independent, living on her own, willing to break with the norms she has been given.  He wants to marry her and eventually does bring her to live in his family home.  She is wary and hesitant about committing to him.

Nonetheless, they depend on one another and when mysterious doors begin to appear that transport people instantly across the world, they determine to leave together.  Their doorway leads them to the Greek island of Mykonos where they find a camp that acts as a way station before migrants leave for other places.  Eventually, Nadia makes a new friend who leads them to another door that opens the way to London, where many thousands of displaced people are beginning to collect.

The magical realism introduced into the novel by the doors adds to the disorientation of the story.  Even when we are in named places, like Mykonos and London, (and later Marin, California), the presence of the doors destabilizes what we think we know.  Hard boundaries disappear and a general anxiety grows.

In London it takes the form of a nativist backlash against the migrants.  The military and paramilitary groups push the migrants into ghettos and disconnect services.  There is violence and the threat of genocide.

Saeed and Nadia sit on a bed in the darkness and discuss “the end of the world” and whether their story will end here.

“I can understand it,” [Nadia] said.  “Imagine if you lived here.  And millions of people from all over the world suddenly arrived.”

“Millions arrived in our country,” Saeed replied.  “When there were wars nearby.”

“That was different.  Our country was poor.  We didn’t feel we had as much to lose.”  (164)

That’s about as deep as the overt reflection on migration issues gets.  Of course, you feel the resonance with nativist movements everywhere, including the US.  But this is not a book that moves you to visceral reaction.  There is an ocean of understanding here for all sorts of peoples.

Understanding, yes, but never real connection.  In this world of doors, which allows people to slip away from each other so easily, the characters are always seeking something other than what they have.  Vignettes tell of parents struggling to understand children who come and go through doors, of two old men who find an unlikely common bond because of a doorway between Amsterdam and Brazil, and of an old woman in Palo Alto who sees all the changes and understands that “she too had migrated, that everyone migrates, even if we stay in the same houses our whole lives, because we can’t help it.  Everyone migrates through time.” (209)

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Mohsin Hamid

There’s a prevailing sense in the book that technology is partly to blame for the disorientation.  Drones fill the sky and we’re never sure to what purpose – benign or ill.  And people disappear figuratively into their screens as easily as they move through the doors, something that is not magical realism at all, as we all know.  Nadia and Saeed have several moments when they occupy the same space, but are miles apart because of their separate wanderings on their smartphones.

In the end there is a veil of melancholy and uncertainty over this book that matches the present mood in which so many people feel that their circumstances are limited and the old ways have failed.  Hamid offers for encouragement only the reduced dreams of Marin, the coastal California town where Nadia and Saeed end up.

Marin was overwhelmingly poor, all the more so in comparison to the sparkling affluence of San Francisco.  But there was nonetheless a spirit of at least intermittent optimism that refused entirely to die in Marin, perhaps because Marin was less violent than most of the places its residents fled, or because of the view, its position on the edge of a continent, overlooking the world’s widest ocean, or because of the mix of its people, or its proximity to that realm of giddy technology that stretched down the bay like a bent thumb, ever poised to meet the curved finger of Marin in a slightly squashed gesture that all would be okay.  (195)

Here on the tail end of the Delmarva peninsula, I live on the other curved finger of American geography where the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay prevents the closed circle gesture to signify that things are okay.  Hamid exits west to the place American dreamers have always gone.  We look east here – to where our old stories emerged and to where new suns rise each day.  The longing is the same.  To know our place beneath the stars.

Fake Candles at the Tomb: A Holy Land Reflection

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Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem

We’d all like a Holy Land made in our own image.  I’ve just spent two weeks in Israel and Palestine and there are a few things I’d change.  Yes, ending the occupation and a two-state solution are on the list.  (More on that to come.)  But, less grandly, how about the simplicity of a church with an open tomb without stalls selling ‘Guns & Moses’ T-shirts just outside the door?

Early on a Sunday morning, I walked the Via Dolorosa past Crusader churches, Byzantine arches, Mamluk stonework, and mass production-era kitsch.  I ended up at the Edicule of the Tomb, the recently-restored shrine in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre marking the spot where Jesus’ body was taken following the crucifixion.

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Candle outside the Edicule of the Tomb

Waiting with the polyglot pilgrims of a hundred points of origin, I felt the power of the place, but I couldn’t help being distracted by the huge candles at the entrance of the tomb.  Highly ornamented, twice my height…and topped by lightbulbs.  It looked like something your Aunt Lulu would construct from a kit she got down at the Hobby Lobby.  (Though it should be noted that the bulbs were of the high-efficiency LED variety.)

I touched the rock slab of the tomb—the impact of which was not diminished by the muffled cursing of the man ahead of me when he bumped his head on the low entrance.  Then I headed to a beautiful prayer chapel where I found the silence I craved.

In the chapel, you could hear the shuffling and muted conversation of tour groups, the chanting of monks, the rhythm of a familiar prayer.  Incense filled the air, an olfactory reminder of the beauty of God’s sacrificial act in Christ.  A riot of iron sculptures depicting the stations of the cross lined the wall.  Behind the eucharistic table, a blue mosaic of tile formed a fitting backdrop for a globe—the world summoned and surrounded by God’s grace.

We didn’t deserve this place, this church, this peace.  Just days before I met with an Israeli police spokesperson who had been at the scene of 48 suicide bombings during the Second Intifada, the memory of which is not cast away like the shoes he had to discard after each one.  One day earlier I met with a Palestinian woman of East Jerusalem who doesn’t know how to describe her nationality.  Israel, which annexed her neighborhood but sometimes treats her like a foreigner or a potential terrorist?  Palestine, which only exists as a profession of nationhood?  Jordan, the country on her papers, but which hasn’t ruled here since before she was born?

IMG_0800We pray for the peace of Jerusalem, as the Psalms prescribe, but any peace we can glimpse is tawdry, contingent, messy, rude, conditional—like the uneasy truce between the seven Christian groups that stake a claim to this church.  Ethiopian monks squat on the roof to preserve their foothold.  Fights break out from time to time between others.  And all the while the masses come and take their photos, genuflect at the sites, kneel beneath the table to touch the rock of Calvary, wonder what trinket to take back home.  Perhaps an olive wood Jesus?  Some Dallas Cowboys gear in Hebrew?

I tried to settle my mind.  My life is no less distracted than the street.  My attention wanders.  My enemies plague me even here.  “The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are still not saved.” [Jeremiah 8:20]

Jesus meet me here.  This holy land teems with the violent, frivolous, stupid things we do.  And yet children play in the streets, couples smile at one another, pilgrims stare wide-eyed in wonder as the guide ahead waves a flag to keep them from losing their way, spices fragrance the air, a neglected cat finds food left on a stone wall by an unknown hand.

FullSizeRenderThere is light in this chaos.  Brilliant light like the burning sun of the Judean desert.  True, sometimes it’s mounted to a fake candle and needs to be replaced every 5-7 years.  But light.  Light which burns through and burns on to reconcile all things.

Rural Soul: Evolution of a Liberal, Guest Blogger – Sara Keeling

I’m traveling back from Israel & Palestine Monday, but not before the Rev. Sara Porter Keeling continues her guest hosting with a post on anthropology, theology, and the continuing journey of discerning the Word.  Many thanks to Sara for bringing her rural soul to Heartlands while I’ve been away…

Sara Porter Keeling

Does loving our neighbors look like being politically correct and choosing our language for each other carefully? Does wanting access to health care and child care and equal pay and education make me a snowflake?  
 

It goes without saying that we have trouble hearing one another and talking to each other. But it seems to be helpful to try to understand why we may think and feel the way that we do: particularly about social and political issues.  

I used to be concerned that The UMC might allow for the full inclusion of LGBT persons. Now I’m much more deeply concerned that we never will.  

 It doesn’t feel right that people who are gifted for ministry, called by God, should not be ordained because of who they are attracted to and who they commit their lives to.  

 It doesn’t feel right that that is the number one issue, life choice, character trait, even as we allow for outright, named, unquestionable sins to exist amongst our clergy. We pick and choose what we want out of the Bible. We pick and choose what we want out of the Book of Discipline. Are we all so blameless and striving for perfection? We don’t mind sinful clergy so long as they are not gay. And there’s nothing else to say except that we are fascinated and grossed out and consumed by sex.

I managed to leave the town of Orange, Virginia as a moderate conservative. I confess that I voted for a Republican my first election.  Shortly thereafter, my liberal arts education lived up to its name. That’s what happens to all small town girls right? We go off to college, cut our hair short, and become raging feminists. That was true for me.

I majored in Anthropology and English at UVA. And yes, since you asked, my first paying job—post diploma—was making coffee.  

Brooks Hall at UVA

My intro-level anthropology classes started with an apology tour of the oppression the discipline had caused. I barely understood what anthropology was in those days.  (It’s the study of human culture—“anthro” referring to human beings, “ology” to the study thereof.)  But before we could fully understand cultural criticism or current archaeological methods, we had to take a look at the history of the discipline.  

It turns out that the study of human culture was a very euro-centric, very 19th-century way of documenting and cataloging other cultures–the non-European, therefore non-civilized, generally inferior and primitive cultures. This way of study was often to prove such inferiority and primitiveness in the first place. To document cultural aspects as they “vanished” in the march of progress, civilization, colonization, slavery. Often proving along the way exactly why these cultures and groups of people were so “easily” destroyed and obliterated or assimilated or enslaved.  

In general, keeping bones, and other sacred objects that were acquired through “discovery.” Despicable things such as keeping skulls in museums to measure was also a practice. Which is why many indigenous peoples are dubious, even unwelcoming, to an anthropologist in their midst—to an outsider attempting to tell their story or stealing their ancestral heirlooms.

Now done differently, of course, anthropology is a way of actually understanding how very different and unique and valuable each culture is—how so many things that we consider natural and normal are really our cultural ways of understanding.

To uncover the lost stories and different perspectives that were lost to the written history books. To challenge our assumptions about race, class, gender, sexuality, and on and on.

I took all of this and thought what does God have to say about this? About indigenous cultures, minorities, colonists and the colonized?  Aren’t we all God’s children no matter the winners and losers of history?

I had taken a bit of a break from church at that point, but I returned and picked up at the Wesley Foundation. Where Alex was serving as director. (It all comes back to Alex, like it’s his blog or something.) I discovered that the language of Wesley and our Social Principles aligned quite nicely with my social conscience. My academic language and the native language of my religious upbringing were not at all at odds.  

As a minister, I bring cultural understanding to the scriptures. Realizing that our stories as the people of God are so highly tribal and interwoven with all of the stories of God. From other times and places and cultures and understandings. Sometimes the people of Israel were the oppressed and downtrodden. And sometimes they were the mighty victor and the oppressor. Both slaves and slave holders throughout history. Sometimes with God on their side and sometimes not. Words that were not written for us in 21st Century America, and yet words that still speak to us and guide us.  

Rural Soul: Confession – Guest Blogger Sara Keeling

The Rev. Sara Porter Keeling continues as guest host this week, while I am in Israel & Palestine.  Today: a confessional look at the journey of call.

I started a blog in 2003.

Blogging—was THE social media platform of its time—we were a few years away from facebook, twitter was still confusing, and instagram yet to be imagined. The form of sharing our souls on the internet was not through selfies and humble brags, but longish journal style entries logging the ordinary excitement of our days.  

So when Alex (and others) recently jumped back into blogging, I thought oh how 2003. We’ve done this before.  

My blog was all about me: To document my life and the call to ministry. Without irony, I called it The Bold Journey. Because it so reflected how I felt. Called and crazy, selfish and selfless. I hoped to make sense of this change and call, and find others along the way or explain myself to others.

My call to ministry, felt fiery and intense, a demanding God finally laying hold of me, like falling in love, which I also did at exactly the same time, intensity of emotion for another human being and for God intertwining, playing off of one another, creativity and dreaming and desire all tangled up together, flesh and spirit, hopes and visions . . . The Bold Journey indeed. As terrifying and real and new as any major life changes we make in our early 20s.  

The affair of my calling ended. Crashed and burned, we might say. Leaving behind a friendship with its own lines and contours. Which is just as well. Because it made way for a marriage and family and a future that otherwise would not have been. Any connection can initially feel intense and bold, but the truth of marriage, as anyone who’s been married for 10 minutes can tell you, is it’s mundane and ordinary.  

Sara Porter Keeling

The bold journey gives way to everyday life. It rarely lives up to the hype. The work of marriage is talking and listening, loving and caring, grinning and bearing, orchestrating schedules and tending to children, and figuring out what to do for the weekend and retirement someday. It’s figuring out what to eat and earning and living and staying entertained and happy. It’s life.

Likewise, most days, my call to ministry has not lived up to the hype. It didn’t crash and burn, but ignited and stayed alive, though its more like smoldering embers. The essence still alive, but the intensity faded.  

Because the truth of ministry is that it’s mundane and ordinary. It rarely lives up to the hype. The work of ministry is talking and listening, loving and caring, grinning and bearing, orchestrating schedules and tending to children, and figuring out what to do for the next Sunday and all of the ones after that. It turns out, every week has a Sunday. It’s life.  

Rural ministry, I suspect, is among the most of the mundane and ordinary. As is rural life. Even in its richness, its legacy, its complexity and simplicity. Most of the recent drama has come to us through our television screens and social media. Nazis have yet to march through my county. We haven’t quite decided if we’re going to do something about the Confederate monument in front of the courthouse. We did enthusiastically watch the eclipse and will send donations to help in Texas. The Nashville Statement didn’t hit the radars of any in my congregation.  

I wanted to make a difference. I wanted to change the world. A decade a half later, I wonder, was this such a bold journey?  Perhaps the Mundane Journey. Which sounds awful and boring and yet . . .

Mundane also means common. Day-to-day. Ordinary. Practical. Of, relating to, or characteristic of the world. Earthly.

We spend most of our Christian year in Ordinary time. We spend most of our lives in the common and the practical.

Even the second person of the Trinity, Jesus, God incarnate, is also mundane: ordinary, earthly. Made of dirt, like the rest of us. And yet, even in our dust, we are made of the same stuff as stars, in the image of God. Our lives, our work, our marriages, our ministry are ordinary, practical, earthly, and therefore, necessarily: mundane.  

Saving the world looks like praying words over a funeral. Changing the world looks like naming racism and sin from the pulpit. It can also look like staring at words on your screen and wondering why your coffee cup isn’t fuller. Or why there isn’t enough time or never seems to be nearly enough grace and compassion in our world . . . Ministry is slow, peacemaking work. One meal, one conversation, one hug at a time.

Because what is a mundane life, but a true gift of God? When there are no bombs overhead. No flood waters threatening. There’s a lady in my congregation who prays every Sunday for “ordinary days,” because she knows all too well the days of health scares and school shootings and all of the other terrible things that can go wrong and throw us into chaos.

Which is all that that was about anyway . . . an ordinary life that is lived boldly . . . a never-ending journey of boldness.

Rural Soul: Origins in Orange.  Guest blogger Sara Keeling returns

Sara Keeling, pastor of the Rappahannock Charge of the United Methodist Church, has a rural soul.  Or so she told us in a previous guest outing on Heartlands.  While I’m in Israel and Palestine, she agreed to share again.  I really didn’t ask for all the kind words.  They just came free!  But read on for a glimpse of the grace required for authentic ministry…


There’s a very short list of folks who grew into faith in Trinity United Methodist Church in Orange, Va, graduated from the University of Virginia, and now serve as ordained clergy in the Virginia Annual Conference. As far as I’m aware, there are two of us.

 Because, you see, my life trajectory is somewhat similar to Alex’s: same hometown and church, same university, same profession. My dad was Alex’s family pastor for 23 years. Alex was my campus minister and mentor. I’ve known Alex since 1984. That same year, when I was three, I spent one terrified evening in his parents’ home when my dad broke his leg roller skating and I thought his leg was no longer attached to his body and no matter how hard they tried, I would not cheer up and play games with his younger sisters. For me, Alex was the cool rookie preacher who would return home to preach and hold my attention in a way the familiarity of my father rarely did. As a college student, he was the thoughtful, inspiring leader who imbued importance on all of our futures. As a colleague, he is still the gold standard to admire for curiosity and creativity.  

I read Alex’s award winning essay: Spirit Duplicator, with a keen eye, peeping into a story of my own hometown with some of the same cast of characters.  

Ms. Moore was also my beloved 3rd grade teacher. Likewise, I remember walking by the tree at the Episcopal church where Lee tied his horse. Mostly because my mother is an avid historian and horse enthusiast, she was always quick to tell me that the confederacy was the wrong side of history, but Lee’s horse Traveller could be revered for being a loyal companion and clearly not knowing anything about the war he was fighting.

Like many small towns in Virginia, Orange is full of historical markers, battle fields, statues, even the home of James Madison.

It’s interesting—the history a hometown will leave with you—it’s given me the credentials to live an authentic rural life. I now come home to Rappahannock county—where I’ll introduce myself to locals and tell them I grew up in Orange—so they know I’m one of them. But if I meet a come-here from closer to the beltway, I’m quick to mention my three years in Alexandria—so they’ll know I’m one of them too.

 People close to the beltway tend to think Rappahannock is gorgeous—a great place to escape or retire too or take a weekend trip to the vineyards or the Inn at Little Washington—but they wouldn’t want to live here or be from here. To someone from Rappahannock, the greater DC area is just one big traffic jam, and the people too busy. I’ve lived and loved both regions of the Commonwealth. We are technically in Northern Virginia, and yet we are a world away from the grid lock of I-495.  

When first told I was moving out here 7 years ago, congregants in my Alexandria church asked if I couldn’t just combine those three churches into bigger one.

That’s almost as fruitful a question as can you just combine your three children into one? I have three churches and three children and the answer is the same in both of those scenarios.  

We generally talk of urban areas as liberal and the rural as conservative. And while it’s true that one tends to vote blue and the other red, they are, of course, not monolithic. My urban church had some rabid conservatives. My rural churches have some flaming liberals.  

Along with the Word of God, my own socio-political worldview influences the words I say on a Sunday morning.

The Rev. Sara Porter Keeling

One of my churches is named after a Confederate chaplain. His story is one of sacrificial love as he literally gave his life for a fellow soldier, to be executed in his place. A Christlike act for sure, but he still wore a grey uniform.

 I preach a sermon on race and Black Lives matter and get impassioned pleas about colored blindness or the lives of police officers.

I preach about sexuality: reminding everyone that we all have different opinions in the room, that some of us here are gay, or have gay children whom we love and support, or have a gay sibling that we don’t understand, or think it’s downright sinful . . . and people with tears in their eyes either thank me or ask how can we could possibly be welcoming to people like that?

We pull together for a shared meal or lunch after a funeral and I worry more about the ways we are shortening our lives with the number of calories in the fried chicken we all just ate than how many of us are reading scripture everyday.  

I lean back on grace. I say we should listen and try to understand with empathy and not judgment. I remind everyone that we are all children of God.  

 It’s hard to believe some days that we are all on the same team. All just trying to love Jesus and be the people God would have us to be.

Dreaming Something Real: A Review of Music of the Swamp by Lewis Nordan

IMG_6592“Probably the real self is in fact the invented self fully accepted.”  That’s Lewis Nordan’s justification for declaring that his outrageous, out-sized fiction is actually memoir.  He created himself through imagining a different past, different circumstances, and a different father than the disappointing realities he knew as a child growing up in Itta Bena, Mississippi.  And because he so fully entered the fiction he wrote, he found in it a lasting reality.

I discovered Lewis Nordan earlier this year when I read Wolf Whistle, his wild (and creepily humorous) take on the Emmett Till murder which happened not far away from his Mississippi home.  What I loved about Nordan was his ear for dialogue, his willingness to risk difficult perspectives (e.g. narrators that included violent racists and Till’s dislocated eye), and his freedom.  All with a strong sense of place.

51ETxQY6ioL._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_I knocked around Nordan’s Mississippi this summer.  Nordan himself died in 2012, but I brought with me Music of the Swamp, his loosely-constructed narrative about a boy named Sugar Mecklin with a childhood much like his own.  It’s not as exuberant as Wolf Whistle.  There’s a lot of his personal despair spilling into this story.  The book opens with the discovery of a body and includes the father’s judgment on the whole sorry scene, “The Delta is filled up with death.”

Despite that, Sugar emerges as a dreamer, seeing the world as he wants to see it.  Creating a bond with a father who is incapable of returning his affection.  Imagining a more magical world.

One of the key scenes takes place at a Mississippi beach following a hurricane.  Attracted by low hotel rates in the aftermath of the storm, Sugar’s dad tries to woo his mother into a second honeymoon and only reluctantly agrees to take Sugar along.  Amidst the wreckage and obvious ugliness, the family struggles to make the vacation work.  And even though it doesn’t, you can’t help but admire the effort.

My edition of the book has an essay at the end entitled “The Invention of Sugar: An Essay about Life in Fiction—and Vice Versa.”  I was very glad to have this glimpse into Nordan’s process.  It’s here that he shares his life-long struggle to fully accept his invented self.  And it’s here he finds some healing.

“Always my stepfather will have been a housepainter and always, for one frightening moment in the Snack Shop on North State Street in Jackson, Mississippi, he will have a doctorate in chemistry from the University of Michigan, and always my stepfather will have been a man who had a stepson who became a literary person and tried to give order to chaos, first by stretching history’s boundaries to include what never happened, and then by shrinking them to acknowledge the lie, and then to say, with a conflicted heart, that since the non historical was for a while historical then it too, in some way, must be included within history’s elastic frame.” (209)

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Lewis Nordan

Fiction finds a way to include the end to our restless longings within the structure of time and in that way becomes our reality.  This is how I view the Christian narrative of the Bible.  Within the despair and suffering of the world, there is another reality made clear by a human life emerging from a long narrative of a wild and unruly people and exposing the ultimate victory of love.  The end of our desire appearing in the middle of the story, as it were, challenging us to see the world as it really is.  Like the beauty of the swamps of Mississippi, it is so easily disregarded.  And yet for sharp-eyed dreamers it is the heartbeat of something enduring and inevitable.

I’m going back to Nordan’s Mississippi, if only in his fiction.  Perhaps Sugar Among the Freaks is next.

Music of the Swamp

by Lewis Nordan

Algonquin Books, 1992

209 pages

Can We Talk About Sexuality?

41BB69XhR3L._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_“In every family there are subjects that seem to bring out the worst in us when we discuss them.  For United Methodists, that topic is currently homosexuality.” (9)  So says Jill Johnson, one of my co-authors of the new book, Living Faithfully: Human Sexuality and The United Methodist Church, just out from Abingdon Press.  But this book may help us to bring our best selves to the discussion.

Living Faithfully is designed to help participants “understand and grapple with various views about the ministry and teaching of The United Methodist Church around human sexuality.”  I’m happy to have been a contributor to this new four-week small group study.  (I got chapter 4.)  A Leader Guide is included with lesson plans for facilitating the study.

The book includes biblical and theological reflections along with information on United Methodist structure and diverse perspectives.  You’ll learn about the Commission on a Way Forward and where the denominational discernment is moving in the next few years.

“In every family there are subjects that seem to bring out the worst in us when we discuss them.  For United Methodists, that topic is currently homosexuality.”

I come to a close in my chapter with the following thought: “Full inclusion of LGBTQ persons and diversity of biblical interpretation are important to explore.  But we may not be able to go far in the conversation unless we first have spirits formed by Christian community and the disciplines of that community.  Without that soil to grow in, our debates will look suspiciously like those that dominate our divided nation.” (82)

I pray this book helps to understand an important issue, but more so, I hope it brings people together for deep and fruitful growth as beloved community.

Available now from Abingdon Press, Amazon, and other fine purveyors of United Methodist resources.