Tinder Mercies – Poetry


photo by Peter John Maridable via Unsplash

‘But everywhere I look I see fire; that which isn’t flint is tinder and the whole world sparks and flames.’

—Annie Dillard, ‘On foot in Virginia’s Roanoke Valley’

‘I have found the dominant of my range and state—

Love, O my God, to call thee Love and Love’

—Gerard Manley Hopkins, ‘Let Me Be to Thee’

It is hearth glow now,

fire for the long eve

flaring occasionally with the spark.

It still has light to give.

It may yet spawn raging blazes

But it pops in hidden crevices of wood

it bides the time

it endures

is not consumed or exhausted.

It wants only tending

this tinder

this tender

this tent and testament.

O what monstrous act was this of yours

to set me loose with a container of fire?

Alex Joyner

Why We Can’t Live Without Horseshoe Crabs

640px-Horseshoe_Crab_(4035546156)So let me tell you how I think with animals.  I see an animal…say, the harbor seal I encountered once while running down a deserted barrier island…I stop dead in my tracks.  Pull out my phone to take a picture…(natch)…and then time slows down.  I’m aware of the wind, the sun’s position in the sky, the sound the creature makes as it moves.  And I marvel that we share this space and yet perceive it so differently…me through the clunky apparatus of language, theory, and anthropomorphizing assumptions…the creature through its own instinctual drives and fears.

Then it’s gone.  The seal labors to the surf and disappears beneath the waves.  The deer bounds into the forest, her tail becoming a bouncing white feather before I lose sight of her.  The prairie dog chirps and scuttles into its hole.  But they’re still with me and I’m apt to be haunted by them for years.  They show up in poems and sermons, like some patronus of wisdom.

Of course other creatures don’t get such attention.  The black flies I smack into a bloody smear on my legs on those same barrier island trips get no love.  And the jellyfish that show up in the waters around here mid-summer are similarly unwelcome.  They become what Lisa Jean Moore calls “trash animals,” nuisances that we can exterminate or disregard because of their much lower status.

51lqYt1mKGL._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_Horseshoe crabs often occupy this rung of the chain of being.  But I’ve been fascinated by them since moving to Virginia’s Eastern Shore, just as Moore has been.  That’s why a friend gave me Moore’s book to read, Catch and Release: The Enduring yet Vulnerable Horseshoe Crab.

It’s not what I expected.  But then again I have never read a feminist intraspecies ethnography before.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Moore shares my wonder at horseshoe crabs.  They’re ancient, having existed on the planet since the Cambrian Age a half-billion years ago.  They have blue blood, which has distinctive qualities for detecting endotoxin contamination and is used for testing the safety of all “human and animal parenteral drugs, biological products, and medical devices.” (109)  They’re not really crabs and share more in common with scorpions and spiders.

Most intriguingly, they have a mating process that becomes a spectacle.  For years I have, (erroneously), believed that at high tide on the full moon closest to the summer solstice, horseshoe crabs will gather in the surf of certain beaches in the mid-Atlantic and, by the light of the moon, will begin to march ashore.  A female, the larger of the genders, will usually have a male crab amplexed to her ophisthosoma (yes, that’s what the kids ARE calling it these days) as she emerges from the water and will be accompanied by several other satellite males.  She will will lay hundreds of thousands of eggs in the sand which are then fertilized by the males.  Only about three larvae per 100,000 eggs will make it to juvenile status. (77)  Shorebirds, who adjust their migratory patterns to be present for the occasion, feast on the vulnerable crabs.

All of this is true except for the fact that the mating period is not limited to the one night near the summer solstice.  The season stretches from the end of April through June. (79)  The “one magic night” myth has appealed to the romantic in me, however, (much as Linus longed to see the Great Pumpkin on Halloween), and I have several stories of aborted kayaking trips on that night to Metompkin Island when fog and weather kept me from the beach.


Lisa Jean Moore

Moore’s book is less romantic and less scientific than I had hoped for.  She approaches her work through a laudable effort to see horseshoe crabs in their relationship with their environment and other species, especially humans.  She talks about how our stories are intertwined, especially in the biomedical field as we have become dependent on bleeding horseshoe crabs for the safety of our injections.  But there are also stories to tell about our shared lives in the face of overfishing and global warming.  Moore also explores the language we use to talk about crabs that is overlaid with our own gender assumptions and anthropomorphizing tendencies.  She talks about our “enmeshment with horseshoe crabs—material, discursive, psychological—and our becoming and being with them.” (93)

There’s a lot to think about when you look at crabs this way.  I confess to being lost in all the theory at times reading Moore’s book.  “Just get to the crabs,” I kept grumbling as Moore talked about her own experiences donating blood and her moral quandaries with her diesel car.  But I’m no less prone to use the crabs as jumping off points for thinking about my life and the world.

They’re survivors, these crabs.  They have their own primitive beauty.  They respond to time and place in ways that are hard to fathom.  Like those monarch butterflies who know, four generations after their ancestors left Mexico, how to get back home.

I’ll get out to see the spectacle some day.  I’ve got the kayak ready.  And I’ll take a picture to share.  Natch.

Adapting Worship without Climbing Trees


photo by Heidi Sandstrom via Unsplash

After this many years in worship and as a worship leader, I’ve seen just about everything.  Sung prayers in a cathedral choir?  Check.  Pentecostal healing service in a South Carolina swamp?  Check.  Taizé?  Check.  Cowboy Church?  Check.  Blue jeans and guitars?  Check.  Radio show a la Prairie Home Companion?  Check.  In a tree?  Check.

I know this sounds like a Dr. Seuss book…(Would you, could you in a boat?  Would you, could you with a goat?)…but it’s true.  I grew up in a generation that adapted worship in every conceivable way in an effort to be…get ready for it…relevant.

But maybe we got it wrong.

These days I visit a lot of churches where the worship forms have been set for a long time.  The hymnals are well-worn.  The kneeling pads are, too.  You’d think folks might be wanting a little more pizzazz.  What I suspect is that we’d all like something more than that—connection.

41yErQDxaLL._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_As I have been working my way through Jacob Armstrong’s book, The New Adapters: Shaping Ideas to Fit Your Congregation [Abingdon Press, 2015], I have been noting the ways his ideas might intersect with rural church ministry.  In his chapter on Adaptive Worship, Armstrong makes the point that reaching new people may not be a matter of moving out the pews and rolling in an electric keyboard.  In fact, “new ways of worship look old,” he says. (43)  The key is knowing why we do what do.

Actually, the first recommendation that Armstrong makes is that we “continually make worship accessible to those new to the church.” (40)  “But everybody knows how we do things around here,” you might respond.

Not the people who may visit or whom you invite.  It’s hard to underestimate how confusing and even intimidating it is to walk into an environment where it seems that everybody knows what to do but you.  And even for the folks who have been there awhile, knowing ‘how’ to do things doesn’t mean we know ‘why’ we do them.

Armstrong argues for intentionality in preparing worship: Thinking through all the parts of worship with “the eyes of the newcomer.” (41)  Unpacking or translating “churchy language into the common vernacular.” (43)  Staying in touch with our ancient traditions and being open about what they mean.  “Authenticity and honesty are more important than worship style,” Armstrong says. (44)


Jacob Armstrong

Every size church can do these things and it doesn’t take a big budget to do them.  A worship service that feels like someone planned it carefully and with the expectation of welcoming new folks is a breath of fresh air in any environment.  And worship that holds on to its purpose as praising God in union with the church of every time and place is going to be faithful and powerful.

I felt like we were onto something with worship in a tree.  But possibilities abound in the sanctuary, too.  And maybe the tree wasn’t all that relevant.  Instead, let everything that has breath praise the Lord!

Waltzing (and Futzing) Across Texas: A review of Texas Blood

IMG_6669If you pick up this book you won’t know where you’re headed.  Texas, sure.  After all the title of Roger D. Hodge’s book is Texas Blood: Seven Generations Among the Outlaws, Ranchers, Indians, Missionaries, Soldiers, and Smugglers of the Borderlands.  And there are maps in the first chapter that will whet your appetite for West Texas adventures.  But this meandering book only occasionally stops long enough to soak in Texas.  You’re as likely to send time in Missouri or Arizona along the way.

41xqNH42f3L._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_Roger Hodge has his literary bona fides as an editor of Oxford American and Harper’s and he certainly can tell a tale.  But he’s not a crowd-pleaser.  He starts out this book sharing his dissatisfaction with the typical Texas history with its “generalizations and hoary meditations on Texas ‘character.’” Such grandiose pretensions are “self-congratulatory nationalistic rubbish” in Hodge’s view and need a perspective that is more diverse and tragic, recognizing the many crossing trails of Europeans, Native Americans, Mexicans, and Anglos who met each other here.  And he promises a personal story based on his own multi-generational family history in the state.

He finds some interesting stories, landscapes, and peoples.  What he never finds is a through line that can pull it all together.

Much of this is forgivable because the terrain is under-appreciated and richer in history than is usually acknowledged.  Out there in the canyons and deserts there are pictographs of the ancient Trans-Pecos peoples, abandoned cinnabar mines in the Big Bend, and artist colonies like the ones I discovered in Marfa and Terlingua last summer.  Hodge recreates western migrations along the southern route from San Antonio to San Diego complete with thousands of thirsty cattle, Apache raids, and roadside graves of those who didn’t make it.


Roger D. Hodge

His own family appears frequently to remind us of Hodge’s connections to the state, as does Hodge himself who uses the narrative form to explore border issues like drugs, immigration, and walls.  You can’t help but feel that, as the line on the map hardens into actual structures that something precious is being lost.  Hodge’s memories of casual crossings from his home town of Del Rio into Acuña, Mexico highlight what used to be and is no more.

There’s an unhurried air to life in the borderlands.  People move slowly and always keep an eye on the horizon.  Hodge does the same as he wanders around this book.  He’s a fan of Cormac McCarthy and he has imbibed McCarthy’s sense of the mythical journeys you can take on the border.  Unlike, McCarthy, however, Hodge is cool and bloodless.  You get the sense he’s more interested than committed to the subject of his book.  Given the outsized role of Texas in our national story and politics these days, it seems more should be at stake here.

Praying with Fire: A Review of Jamie Quatro’s Fire Sermon


photo by Aaron Thomas via Unsplash

“Dear God: Can you forgive someone for an act they cannot repent of?” (26)  So goes Maggie’s prayer journal in the aftermath of an affair in Jamie Quatro’s new novel, Fire Sermon.  Maggie has committed to move on.  Has cut off communication with the poet she spent one night with in Chicago.  In one light, she sees the ways the relationship has led her away from God, her husband, her children.  But she’s captivated by what it has meant and isn’t ready to let go of it.

That’s the interesting thing about sin: Major disrupting force in the universe.  The thing God says ‘no’ to.  The chasm that separates us from God and the wholeness God intends.  The power which estranges us from our essential self and enslaves us.  And yet what an illuminating light it shines!  “I do not think you should get rid of your sin until you have learned what it has to teach you,” Richard Rohr says in his book Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life.

41k+KOofr-L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Of course, some will say that Maggie is luxuriating in it.  She soon leaves off talking to God and begins to write to James, the lost lover, in entries she never sends to him.  She converses with a voice that sounds like a therapist (but who actually may be God) who tries to help her put the experience in a larger frame but she resists any effort to diminish the memory of the affair.

She narrates the difficult relationship with Thomas, her husband of twenty-five years and father of her two beautiful children.  “Thomas is, in fact, a good husband,” she says. (20)  But her ambivalence shows through in describing his awkward and demanding sexual approaches to her, both before and during their marriage.  He has only a grudging interest in her faith, despite the fact that her life with God is the fire that burns through everything.  He will sit in the pew with her on occasion.  He will nurture her and the children.  But she will still long for theology and poetry and someone with whom to share it.

Whether you, dear reader, will see this longing as holy discontent or ludicrous self-justification is an open question.  I suspect readers will be divided.  My own appreciation for the yearnings of mystics and the revelatory power of misguided desires made me a fan from the first page.  Julian of Norwich is etched into Maggie’s plight (and quoted).  The English priest and poet John Donne haunts Maggie’s confessions: “Wilt thou forgive that sin which I did shun/A year or two, but wallow’d in, a score?”


Jamie Quatro

Maggie takes a scandalous interest in her own pleasures and pains.  She is raw and honest, naked on the page.  The book’s narration fragments in time without ever losing sight of the struggle of her soul.  We bounce between prayers and poems, memories and text messages—the scattered evidence of this signal season in Maggie’s life.

It ends with Maggie’s ultimate revelation of the affair to Thomas, something she had never hidden very well from him anyway it seems.  The narrative rattles off the possible futures for the couple, but not before Maggie rouses herself to a summation—a “fire sermon” that she calls “a litany, a confession, a proposal.” (184)

She does it on a dare from the inner therapist voice to articulate her thoughts, to preach them to herself.  “It would sound like blasphemy,” Maggie protests.

I would say possibly heretical things about the nature of erotic desire.  I might not believe the things I say.  I would say them anyhow.  To see what I say, in order to know what I think, in order to observe.  Maybe even detach.

So say them.

I’m afraid I’ll leave a giant ink stain on the history of Christendom if I do.

How do you know unless you try? (183)

So she says them.  And you might roll your eyes.  You might call her a heretic.  But you may hear a strange and wonderful affirmation of the marriage covenant and the virtue of acknowledging and renouncing the ways our hearts are “prone to wander, Lord, I feel it!” You may find “intimations of immortality…reminders of the glory whence we came.” (190-1)

If it’s the affirmation you hear, you read the book that I did—a glowing furnace of a novel.  The testimony of an ecstatic soul.  The cry of the blissful, tortured pilgrim this side of eternity.  An appeal to God to “let me burn.” (191)

Doing Construction Poorly (A Memoir of Campus Ministry)


photo by Erik Lucatero via Unsplash

It’s Spring Break time for a lot of college students in the next few weeks and around this time of year my thoughts turn to doing construction work poorly.  That’s how I spent my Spring Breaks for seven years as a campus minister—taking my willing hands and severely limited construction know-how to diverse places in the company of bright and energetic young people.  Sometimes we got more into my skill set as when we sorted food in a Philadelphia food bank or when I sang “I Will Survive” at a karaoke night with people served by a St. Louis program for mental illness.

But a lot of times it was construction—on roofs in the Rio Grande Valley and Mexico, at a Native American church in Yuma, Arizona and on a trailer in eastern Kentucky.  I learned a lot, but it was the cultural stretching that mattered—for the students and for me.  We met God on those trips.

Not only do those times stick with me, but they also lead me to believe that campus ministry is one of the most under-appreciated areas of the church’s life.  It’s not too much to say that those trips and the many other seemingly more mundane interactions of campus ministry changed lives.  I still remember driving down a South Texas road and looking over at a student who had been very affected by the realities of life on the border that week.  She looked out the open window of the van and mumbled, almost to herself, “I could see myself working here.”  It was a moment of calling and it led her to ordained ministry and eventually back to the border.

In a recent podcast of Crackers and Grape Juice, the Rev. Christy Thomas, a long-time commentator on the United Methodist Church, said something to the effect that if the church really cared about its future it would invest heavily in campus ministry since that is where it is most likely to touch and be transformed by young people.  Back in the early 60s, the church made such an investment and many of our Wesley Foundations on college campuses have their roots in that period.  Generations of new church leaders came from those Wesley Foundations.


The Wesley Foundation at UVA

Things happened in the relationship between our campus ministries and the denomination.  As campus ministries addressed the social movements of the day and welcomed vibrant discussions on issues like race, sexuality, and peace with justice, it unsettled older generations.  Over time, the buildings, that were innovative and useful in the 60s, got old and tired.  Financial support from the connection waned and campus ministers began to spend more and more time in fundraising.  In the face of tight budgets, campus ministry didn’t fare well on a cost-benefit analysis if the benefit was seen strictly in numbers.

And yet, some of the most vital things that are happening in our church are still happening on the campuses of colleges and universities.  New worship communities are being formed.  New clergy are finding their call.  Strong lay leaders are emerging.  The potential is there to re-form a church that worries it is too old to survive.  And yes, a lot of inexperienced carpenters are still heading out to learn a little bit more about construction as they encounter God in the people they meet.

What can churches do to support campus ministry?  Connect young people with their campus ministries when they head off to college.  Support the apportionment giving that helps fund these ministries and the United Methodist Student Day offering.  Invite campus ministers, chaplains, and college students to share the stories of what’s happening in their lives and ministries.  And get on to the campus yourself, even if your local campus is a community college.

There is an unsubtle bias that I sometimes heard as a campus minister—a belief that what happens in campus ministry is somehow less engaging or important than what happens in more traditional forms of church.  I sometimes heard it starkly put, as when a colleague would say, “When are you coming back to real ministry?”  I knew then and I know now that it was the most real ministry I was ever a part of.  Even if I never did learn how to fix a roof.