“Beauty was all the answer they had”–When Theologians Soar

IMG_5989Sometimes, and all too rarely, a theologian can soar in writing.  I have been working my way, very slowly, through Katherine Sonderegger’s Systematic Theology: Volume I, The Doctrine of God, and savoring passages like this one:

This is what we mean by compatibilism in theology. The One Light that enlightens all creatures is truly here, truly shining in the night, truly hovering over the chaos, over the manger and its little, hidden King; truly illumining the search for truth in all sciences, living up all struggles for compassion and mercy, shining down each dark corridor, in prisons and workhouses and death camps, pouring gracious Light on every death, every restless search for rest. God is there; before us, [God] is there.

41G1+De1i8L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_What faith sees in this Christian compatibilism is the Relatio: the tie between creature and Creator that just is the dependence of all things on God.  Augustine says this best: “I spoke to all the things that are about me, all that can be admitted by the door of the senses, and I said, ‘Since you are not my God, tell me about him.  Tell me something of my God.’ Clear and loud they answered, ‘God is he who made us.’ I asked these questions simply by gazing at these things, and their beauty was all the answer they have.”

God is communicated, as Life, as Power, to creatures, and that Communication is spiritual Light. The faithful see this world bathed in light–our opened eyes take in an illuminated world–and in that earthly light, we see Light. The Uncreated Light veils itself within our creaturely light, and by faith, we believers affirm its lovely Presence.  (428)

This is the stuff and root of poetry.  This is what happens of a morning when I look at the frost on the field out my window.  This is why, when I’m tempted to despair, I realize I am yet a captive to the God of Israel and of Jesus Christ, lost in wonder, love, and praise.  Thanks, Katherine.

A Tear for Bois Sauvage: A Review of Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

fullsizeoutput_17f7It’s not often that the ending of a book makes me moist-eyed.  And I can’t ever recall when the acknowledgements did that.  But there it was in the final sentences on page 289 of Sing, Unburied, Sing, the 2017 National Book Award-winning novel by Jesmyn Ward:  “In closing, I’d like to thank everyone in my community in DeLisle, Mississippi, who inspired my stories and gave me a sense of belonging.  I am ever grateful for every one of you.  I love you all.”

I’m man enough to say it was raining on my face in that moment.

Part of that was just because I so admire books that can evoke a place and Jesmyn Ward does that, even if DeLisle becomes Bois Sauvage in her fiction.  (She also used it as the setting of her Hurricane Katrina book, Salvage the Bones, which won the National Book Award in 2011.)

51ipyal4R-L._UY250_But the main reason was that she had so earned the sentiment in this book.  Every one of the troubled characters in the book is treated with respect and even love, from drug-addled Leonie, trying so hard to be a daughter and a mom and failing so miserably most of the time, to Jojo, her 13-year-old son who is growing into manhood with an ocean of wounds.

At the center of the book is a road trip that Leonie takes to Parchman Farm, the state penitentiary, with her addict friend Misty and her two children, Jojo & Kayla, to pick up her abusive husband, Michael, on his release.  Only the trip is just the tip of a much larger iceberg.  There are ghosts along the way.  Leonie is haunted by her brother, Given, who was murdered by Michael’s family in a “hunting accident” years before.  Jojo is visited by Richie, a teenaged boy who died at Parchman while Jojo’s grandfather was serving time there.  The circumstances of his death become the occasion for Jojo’s coming of age and coming to terms with his grandfather.

The best window on how to read this book is actually offered before the first page where Ward includes this quote from fellow Mississippian Eudora Welty:

“The memory is a living thing—it too is in transit.  But during its moment, all that is remembered joins, and lives—the old and the young, the past and the present, the living and the dead.”

Ward knows there’s more than humidity close in the air in Mississippi.  There’s the past that never dies, the hope that persists through tragedy, and the deep movement of song.


Jesmyn Ward

It’s not that it’s all mystery and lyricism.  Ward takes us into the swamps of racial interactions.  Leonie is black, Michael is white and their families have trouble with their relationship because of it.  There’s a terrifying scene when the family is pulled over and brutalized by a police officer on the way back to Bois Sauvage.  There are also bald-faced racists spouting vile things.  But somehow Ward moves us to care for the monsters and to recognize that bigger forces, like the system of historical racism, are at play.

On display at every moment is the humanity of these characters—the way they sabotage themselves and wound each other but also the way they meet each other with tenderness and remorse.  The book is full of bodies in close connection—fathers and sons rolling on the floor fighting, little girls clinging to the neck of an older brother, an addict coming back from an overdose with her head in the lap of her husband.  Even in the violence there is intimacy.  And even at the end there is the possibility of transcendence.

This is a beautifully-written book that gives dignity to people who don’t usually receive it.  When she received her recent National Book Award, Ward noted:

“Throughout my career, when I have been rejected, there was sometimes subtext, and it was this: People will not read your work because these are not universal stories. I don’t know whether some doorkeepers felt this way because I wrote about poor people or because I wrote about black people or because I wrote about Southerners.”

But like Faulkner and Welty, whom she claims as literary kin, Ward does know that the whole universe is in every particular, and every place is in her place, and those who have died yet live.  It’s worth shedding a tear over such a place because, like her, I came to love them all.

Security in An Age of Gun Violence


photo by Kathy Hillacre via Unsplash

The recent shooting in Sutherland Springs, Texas got our attention because of its grisly violence and its location – a church in the midst of Sunday worship.  It was a church like many of ours on the Eastern Shore.  A video of the church’s service the week before the shooting made the rounds on the Internet and it shows a praise band, not entirely in sync and singing a bit off-key, but nonetheless joyfully.  Children fidget in the pews.  The passing of the peace goes on a little too long, but there is genuine affection among the congregants as they wander the room and hug.

Police say the same camera that records the services was running last Sunday, too, when the gunman came to First Baptist Church.  I don’t need to see its horrors.  They’ve been repeated too many times in too many places – in country music concerts, nightclubs, elementary schools, movie theaters, and other churches.

Following the shootings at Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, we had a meeting of our Eastern Shore clergy to discuss church security with two law enforcement officers.  We discussed practical ways to improve security during our worship services.  Rev. Rebekah Simon-Peter offers some very useful pointers in a recent article that appeared on Ministry Matters, and I commend it to you for review.

There are things we can do to be wise and we should.  But we should never be under the illusion that we will eliminate our vulnerability.  It’s part of what being a follower of Jesus means, coming together with the armor of God, which is very different than the armor of the world.  In fact, United Methodist churches are officially “weapons-free zones” by action of the General Conference.

What churches do, in their vulnerability which is their strength, is to bring light to situations where death and darkness seem to reign.  Rev. Stephen A. Curry is the pastor at La Vernia UMC in the same county with First Baptist Church.  In a recent New York Times editorial, he talked about the things churches have done since Sunday:

“Immediately after the shooting the churches started receiving and making offers of help. They rushed meals to those grieving and to the emergency workers. They were called on to help fund funerals and host a blood drive. Lutheran, Catholic, Methodist, Baptist, nondenominational — it didn’t matter.”

The larger conversations about reducing gun violence need to happen, too, but we ought not to overlook the strength Christians can show to others in times like these.  Advocacy for new laws and casseroles to grieving families are what “thoughts and prayers” look like.

Ultimately, Curry says, we are at our best, not when we become armed fortresses, but when we are church:

“A church in Wilson County [where La Vernia and Sutherland Springs are located] is a community center where good people strive to do good for fellow human beings. A church in Wilson County is a home for extended family to share their lives. A church in Wilson County is a place where we come to mourn losses, grieve the death of a friend or relative, celebrate the joys of life and love. A church in Wilson County is a place where we connect with the God who loves us, watches over us, and, in the end, welcomes us home.”

The Consolations of the Curveball – A Review of Off Speed


photo by Keith Johnston via Unsplash

The season is over.  The World Series is receding to a mischievous gleam in Jose Altuve’s eyes.   Carlos Correa proposed to his girlfriend on the field as the confetti was still falling.  Verlander married Kate Upton.  It’s time to wish them well and sit by the hot stove and set baseball aside until pitchers and catchers report in February.

But I can’t let it go.

Winter is the season when baseball becomes poetry, when the season is distilled to its sparkling essence and entered into the rich vocabulary of memory.  Now the players, no matter the record of their team, become characters in our inner story.  Sure, we shuffle them between teams and positions in our minds, but they also populate our most basic narratives about ourselves like personified virtues in a medieval morality play.  Ichiro is Persistence. Big Papi is Power.  Felix Hernandez is Craftiness.  We need them all.

41N0cFbg3jL._SX334_BO1,204,203,200_Terry McDermott gets it.  In his book, Off Speed: Baseball, Pitching, and the Art of Deception, he serves up King Felix’s 2012 perfect game over the Tampa Bay Rays with delicious detail.  Each chapter analyzes a pitch and an inning of the game so that you not only get the skinny on sliders, sinkers, curves, and knuckleballs.  You also get the drama of that rare thing – a day when a pitcher is truly unhittable and a stadium full of fans rises up to give witness to transcendence in our midst.

There’s a little too much of Terry’s reminiscing in these pages, but you forgive him the indulgences.  After all, there’s not a lot of glory in Seattle Mariners history to pad out this highest of high moments for the franchise.  What he gives you is enough information to understand what’s going on and enough poetry to remind you why baseball will always be America’s Pastime long after the violent, chaotic NFL sideshow packs up and rolls on.

McDermott offers some really interesting history of the game.  For instance, it was originally intended that pitchers would throw the ball so that it could be hit – underhanded and as slow as possible.  Speed changed the game, first through the development of the fast ball and then through a grab bag of off speed pitches designed to fool the hitter.  The history of deception is fascinating.

Just as interesting is how McDermott’s choice to focus on the off speed pitching of Hernandez foreshadowed the Year of the Changeup we have just seen.  The heater fever, which values melting the radar gun, seems to be breaking and the more successful pitchers are finding ways to get more strikes with less speed.


Alex Claudio

Speed differential is the name of the game.  It’s why my own Texas Rangers found some moderate success with a closer, Alex Claudio, whose arm speed tops out at 86 miles per hour — well below average.  In a league where hitters expect a blazing fastball, he kept them frustrated with off speed pitches in the 70s, only occasionally throwing his slow-lane heat.

So for a preview of what pitching will look like next year, I recommend Off Speed for your winter reading.  You’ll know what to look for when Opening Day comes around on March 29 (Maundy Thursday on the liturgical calendar).  And McDermott will give you some philosophy along the way, as he does in his closing reverie:

We deceive ourselves when we think leaving things behind has no cost. It took me years to realize what I had given up in exchange. Belief, belonging, humility, and family were among the things I lost; I have yet to recover any of them completely. Yet baseball remains and provides a faint trail back to that past while my life tumbles on. Baseball offers an invitation, of a sort, to return. (173)

My prediction for World Series champs in 2018 — the Texas Rangers winning with an Alex Claudio changeup in Game 7.  But then again, that’s how I thought 2017 would end.

Congratulations, Astros.  See you March 29th.

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Learned to Love the Reformation(s)

640px-Luther95thesesFor many years, I taught Reformation history as part of the Course of Study School at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas.  I didn’t want the course.  My interests were medieval and contemporary, not the stodgy theological arguments of Luther and Calvin.  But there was a year when the regular faculty member couldn’t teach it.  I took it over for a summer and ended up staying with it for over a decade.  Me in the ultimate dead white guys course.

I tried to stir things up by being a contrarian.  I started the first session each year with three “radical suggestions”:

  1. Reforms in the Church started a long time before Martin Luther (supposedly) tacked up his 95 Theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg on Oct. 31, 1517,
  2. Medieval Catholicism was the source of great spiritual comfort and dynamic theological thought, even into the 16th century, and
  3. The Reformation was so diverse and its characters so distinct that it is more appropriate to talk about a plural “Reformations.”

I think there are interesting things to explore with each of those statements, and so I did each summer with willing and interesting groups of local pastors from across the south central region.  We had debates in character over disputed theological points from the period and they are among my favorite memories from teaching.  If I do say so myself, we brought the Reformation to life, redeeming it from its musty reputation.

So this week, as we observe the 500th anniversary of Luther’s most iconic act, I am appreciating what I learned in teaching.  I see the period that produced modern Protestantism as a mixture of promise and failure, like most human eras.  The downsides were dramatic: the further fragmentation of the Christian Church, a wave of religious violence and persecution that produced large-scale suffering and death, and a Protestant-Catholic split that is only just beginning to heal.


“Grudgingly I acknowledge that Tickle’s optimism about that process comes in part from something I never used to believe the Reformation had—dynamism.”

But the Reformations also unleashed and uncovered latent capacities within the human spirit and the Christian Church.  In both Protestant and Catholic circles, learning and literacy flourished and new universities were formed.  Reformers reclaimed the centrality of Scripture as a source of continuing vitality and inspiration for the Church.  Dramatically new forms of Christian community and mission emerged, and though some went off the rails in their novelty, others were both faithful to the tradition and necessary for the times.  Our own Methodist movement, though it came along 200 years later, was part of that explosion of organizational creativity.

517bFEQdmkL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_Phyllis Tickle gets the credit for popularizing the saying, but she quotes Anglican bishop Mark Dyer when she notes that “about every five hundred years the Church feels compelled to hold a giant rummage sale.”  In her book, The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why, Tickle stated her belief that we are in the midst of the latest shake-up in the Church, sorting through what needs to stay and what needs to go.

Grudgingly I acknowledge that Tickle’s optimism about that process comes in part from something I never used to believe the Reformation had—dynamism.  Luther, Calvin, Menno Simons, Wesley, and all the unnamed women and men who made the Reformations what they were may have descended into the history books and receded into our minds as dusty caricatures, but they believed there was something vital in the Christian movement that could still be accessed when we tutor ourselves in the Living Word.  Having lived with them in the classroom and with my great students through the years, I believe that, too.