And yet…: Good Friday poetry

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photo by IV Horton via Unsplash

Yes, there’s a day for suffering,

for marking love’s dark mien.

Contorted faces bearing the cost of contingency and time.

There’s no reason to the grief,

there’s no cause for any tear.

Even the call to Private Ryan–Earn this!–

can’t elevate the squalor of our deaths.

We all end

in ridiculous deformations

of our former selves.

Whatever potency we pretend to

is buried with us in the grave.

So nail it up there for us to see.

Splay us on a tree with righteous indignity.

Reveal us for what we are–

rank imposters after glory.

And yet…

–Alex Joyner

Who’s Fighting For Democracy These Days?

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photo by Isai Ramos via Unsplash.com

Let’s talk politics.  I don’t do this much on the blog, because it’s a toxic substance and has to be handled with care.  But there’s no doubt that Heartlands had its origin in concerns about the political direction of the country.  And there is no way to talk about these strange days of rural America without dealing with the role they are playing in the current Great Divide.

My own taste in political thinkers runs to thoughtful iconoclasts who don’t lean with the prevailing winds.  I like people who search for the larger contours of our present moment and different frames for viewing the scene.

41dqZWxy60L._SX330_BO1,204,203,200_Edward Luce is such a person and I have just gotten around to his 2017 book, The Retreat of Western Liberalism.  I highly recommend it.  Luce is a British-born, American-based columnist for the Financial Times.  He also served as a speechwriter for the Treasury Secretary in the Obama White House.  But don’t expect hopey-changey from this guy.

Luce is horrified by a political landscape which allows unprincipled populist blowhards to rule the day, but he isn’t surprised.  For Luce, liberal democracies have been on the retreat for awhile now, and Trump is the symptom, not the disease.  The comfortable, urban, wealthy elites of the West have been divorcing themselves from the anxious, rural, working class for some time now.  And the the divide is only getting worse.

In four brief sections of a 200-page book, Luce offers a breathless ride through his thesis.  In the first section, “Fusion,” he takes on globalism—how it has enriched so many in developing nations but also how it has forced down wages on the Western middle classes.  Urban centers have flourished even as they have begun to grow more and more disconnected from the nations around them.  London is not responsible for Brexit any more than Chicago is responsible for Trump, but they share so much in common with each other and so little with the hinterlands for which they used to be magnets.  “To the West’s economic losers,” Luce says, “cities like London and Chicago are not so much magnets as death stars.” (48)

Buckle your seat belt.  It gets worse.

The second section, “Reaction,” charts “the degeneration of Western politics” in which the optimism that accompanied economic growth curdles into the angry, divisive movements that seek a scapegoat and a nostalgic return to a more secure past.  When progressives saw this movement and slapped easy labels like ‘racist,’ ‘regressive,’ and ‘whitelash’ on it, it only fed the divide.  Something that became all to clear in the aftermath of Charlottesville, when MAGA Americans, who were otherwise sympathetic to the outrage over the overt racism, felt they were being asked to sign on to an agenda that equated their support of Trump with the same overt racism.  “To write off all those who voted for [Trump] as bigoted will only make his job easier,” Luce notes. (97)

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Edward Luce

The third part, “Fallout,” looks at the foreign policy implications of the United States’ declining power in the world.  The chaotic world that takes the place of Pax Americana is a frightening one to consider as Luce tells it.

Finally, in the fourth part, “Half Life,” Luce sketches, all too briefly, an ambitious plan to combat the decline of the democracies—one which would require a recognition by both right and left that we can’t keep ‘playing to the base’ no matter how righteous it makes us feel.  Some new common narrative must take the place of the Great Divide.

There have been a lot of books out there that try to explain what’s going on in the Heartlands.  I’ve highlighted a few in this blog, such as Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, and Monica Hesse’s American Fire: Love and Arson in a Vanishing LandAdd J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy to that list as well.

But Luce’s book pulls back the lens so that we can see that the change is not just out here, but everywhere.  And a shaming moralism is no way to point the way to a brighter future for those who feel left behind.  “If politics is persuasion, these are dangerous tactics,” Luce says.  “There is a thin line between convincing people of the merits of a case and suggesting they are moral outcasts if they fail to see it.” (188)

There’s a theological argument to make here as well, which is not in Luce’s bailiwick.  It’s no more complex than the Golden Rule.  In seeing the world through the eyes of the other, we recognize a humanity that transcends our political assumptions.  Reading, and shuddering along with, Edward Luce, I wonder if we still have eyes to see.

The Tale the Blowflies Tell: A Review of The Dry by Jane Harper

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photo by Dominik Martin via Unsplash

It begins with the blowflies, as good a symbol as any for what happens to rural areas when the weather turns stagnant, hot, and deadly.  They know the smell of death and where to find it.  So it’s an ominous sign when these end-time harbingers descend upon a small farm in the Australian bush outside the town of Kiewarra and find three bodies.  The town is in trouble.

Jane Harper’s debut thriller, The Dry, is not in my usual reading wheelhouse.  I generally don’t like books where I can feel the mechanics of the plot whirring beneath the page heading for an inevitable tidy resolution.  And sure enough, The Dry heads inexorably toward such a conclusion in which red herrings are exposed and surprise twists revealed.  It’s all very cinematic, (Reese Witherspoon has the production rights), and I was suitably caught off guard by the way it all wound up.

But then again, I never guess these things.

51MFa84Sb9L._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_What attracts me in literature is the untidy and unfinished.  The ways we find ourselves in the grip of unseen forces like history, race, and desire.  The ways the land speaks in our stories and shapes our souls.  The ways we find ourselves stripped of pretension, bared to the bone, and utterly dependent on an elusive, assured God.

I could see enough of that in The Dry to pick it up.  As readers of Heartlands will know, tales of rural places always catch my eye, and Harper does a wonderful job of bringing the Australian backcountry to life.

Kiewarra suffers from many of the same ailments as many an American small town.  Empty stores line the town street.  The schools are underfunded and dependent on charitable foundations that might release a few thousands.  The police force is a skeleton crew.

Aaron Falk, who returns to Kiewarra from Melbourne when a childhood friend and two members of his family turn up dead, also knows how things can curdle when the town turns against you.  In Melbourne, at least, “he wasn’t watched by curious eyes that knew every last thing about him.  His neighbors didn’t judge him, or harass him and spread rumors about his family….They left him alone.” (144).

Falk left as a teenager, run out of town with his father after Ellie, one of his classmates, drowned in the river (now a dried-up bed because of the drought).  The name ‘Falk’ was on a note in her pocket and the town began to believe that maybe the drowning wasn’t accidental and that either of the male Falks might be the culprit.

His dad died and Falk eventually became an agent of the Australian finance intelligence unit.  Now he is back in a town that didn’t want him, paying respects to his friend, Luke, who seemingly had taken a shotgun to his wife and 6-year-old son and then turned it on himself.  Of course, there’s more to that story, as there is to the mystery of what happened to Ellie twenty years before.  Falk gets drawn into the investigation and sticks around until both mysteries are solved.

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Jane Harper

Harper uses an unusual technique of doling out another omniscient narrator’s voice as the mystery unspools.  The other voice narrates what happened in the past with rich detail.  I think it works.

What really makes the book, however, is the setting and the determination to present characters that become real people.  And the blowflies, who hover over everything.  There’s a tale of whodunit to be told, but there are much larger stories, too.  Where do you find life when everything around you becomes tinder for an inevitable fire?  Where’s the river to quench the dry?

Spring and A Way Forward

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photo by Ethan Robertson via Unsplash

You’ve heard it before in a thousand different forms: change is hard.  In churches it can often come as a variant of the old stock phrase: We’ve never done it that way before.  Even when we take the first steps of a journey toward something new, it’s easy to give up when the going gets tough.  For the Israelites in the Bible, recently freed from slavery by God’s miraculous deliverance, it only took the first hardship in the desert to start the mumbling about how good the fleshpots in Egypt were.  Even when your destination is the Promised Land, change is hard.

Our own denomination, The United Methodist Church, is headed for a time of change.  In the next few months the Commission on A Way Forward will be handing over its work to the Council of Bishops and the bishops will produce a proposal for what the church could look like as we navigate a time of great divisions over issues like human sexuality.  A special General Conference in February 2019 will consider the proposal (and probably others that will be introduced).

I’ve talked before about my fantasy of a time, following February 2019, when everything would go back to “normal.”  It is a fantasy and I know in my heart of hearts that what would really cause me despair is not the stress of where we are but the idea that things wouldn’t change.  My soul knows that it longs for the possibilities that come with old things breaking open (and apart) rather than everything remaining the same.

The skeptics of our day look at the church and the world and see only what’s not working.  We inhabit structures, (bureaucratic, financial, and physical), that were built for a day that has passed.  The energy we have for doing what we used to do is flagging.

But seen through God’s eyes, within those structures there are people waiting to be unleashed upon the earth to be engaged in some new great movement.  John Wesley was one of those people in the 18th century who came out of the old at the compulsion of the Spirit.  Today, new leaders and new energy are poised for the launch of God’s next new thing.  Whatever the outcome of the next General Conference, I want to see that.

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photo by Anisur Rahman via Unsplash

Which means we should be ready.  When Spring is in the air, there is a natural impulse to plant seeds, clean the house, prepare the lawn, and get in shape for all the activity that will come with the new warmth of the season.  There will be challenges in getting our churches and our souls ready because, you know, change is hard.  But Spring IS in the air.  I believe it.

Tinder Mercies – Poetry

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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.

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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

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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)

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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.

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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.