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.

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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.

 

What We Talk About When We Talk About Social Justice

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photo by Alyssa Kibiloski via Unsplash

Any list of contested phrases in American Christianity today is going to include “social justice.”  It’s not just that talking about social justice makes folks uncomfortable.  The prophets were doing that all the way back to Amos and before, pointing out when Israel failed to hear the cry of the needy, failed to protect the vulnerable, and failed to offer legal protection to the powerless.  In such situations, Amos and Martin Luther King, Jr. and all other heirs to the tradition cried out, “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24, CEB).  No one sits easy on their ivory couches in their ivory palaces when the prophet is crying for justice.

But in the new vocabulary of the Great Divide which has been swallowing up our common language, ‘social justice’ has become something more than uncomfortable.  It has been weaponized for the culture wars and I’m not sure we know what we’re talking about when we talk about justice.  Or maybe it’s that we don’t know how we’re heard.

The big moment when “social justice” was invoked for the war came in 2010 when Glenn Beck, the TV political commentator, told Christians:

I beg you, look for the words “social justice” or “economic justice” on your church Web site. If you find it, run as fast as you can. Social justice and economic justice, they are code words.

For Beck they were code for a left-wing ideology of redistribution of wealth that was heavily influenced by Marxism.  He also offered a highly-selective reading of liberation theology, and particularly the theology of James Cone, an African-American theologian, that made it seem as if the aim of liberation theology was to divide the whole world into oppressor and oppressed and to insist on a material transfer of wealth from the former to the latter.

Even those who don’t fill out a brief against theologians every time they hear the phrase have come to suspect that they are being asked to sign on to a political agenda when they hear calls for social justice.  The tendency of every conversation to spiral down to a discussion of the current president does not help.  Are social justice advocates saying that I must adopt a particular stance towards the president in order to express my outrage at the hate spewed by white supremacists in Charlottesville?  It certainly seems that way sometimes.

Amos’ image of the plumb line (7:7-8) suggests that human efforts at justice are always measured against a divine standard.  If the wall isn’t plumb, it means the building project has gotten out of line with its intentions.

So let me attempt a definition:

social justice means attuning ourselves to God’s intentions and aligning our selves and our systems to what God is doing.

Doing this work involves prayer, deep dives into the biblical witness, confession, reconciliation, grief, anger, and humility.  It means recognizing that there is no place of purity from which to do justice.  The systems of injustice are mighty and pervade our every action.

249770397_44e015d0b8_mI worry when I hear calls to silence or eliminate those people we deem evil.  The puritanical spirit of the age tempts us with the illusion that everything would be alright if it weren’t for [name your favorite bogeymen here].  But social justice invites us to see the world through God’s eyes – the God who sorrows over the pains of the world, who rages against the darkness, who sees how that darkness is present in each of us, who “delivers us from slavery to sin and death,” and who forms us into a diverse, beloved, ragtag community to be the church.  That community’s plumb line is not defined by a party political platform.

Social justice is not a plot to take over the church.  It’s the call of God to be the church.

Freaks & Monsters – Being an Artist in the South – My interview with Nick Norwood concludes – Part 3 of 3

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Nick Norwood’s poetry at an installation at The Eagle & Pheonix cotton mills, now lofts

Nick Norwood, director of the Carson McCullers Center for Writers and Musicians at Columbus State University, is also a great poet.   Like McCullers, he writes about what he knows – the American South and its eccentricities.  In previous segments of this essay we talked about the universal themes in McCullers’ work and her sense of place.  In this segment we wind up with a discussion of race talk and talk about what it means to be an artist in the Deep South…

How do think Carson McCullers’ views on race relations hold up today?

One of the papers that was read at the [recent international] conference was about how she was a part of her culture, too.  You see that in her depictions of African-Americans.  Even though it’s clear that she is sympathetic, it’s almost unavoidable that she’s gonna say things that are patronizing or that show a blind spot here and there.  So the argument that Sarah Schulman makes is that we shouldn’t just consider where she makes a mistake.  It’s the attitude towards other people that we should try to emulate.  She really was sympathetic to other people and even if she might have had some blind spots that’s not the important thing.

The New Yorker critic Hilton Als is a gay African-American man.  He won the Pulitzer prize for criticism and he has long been a McCullers fan.  He wrote a really important piece on her back in the early 2000s and has written other pieces on her.  He points out things in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter that make him cringe.  He acknowledges what Richard Wright says and he says, “I’m not gainsaying what Richard Wright says.  He was right and yet still there are things I think that are embarrassing to all of us.”  For instance, in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, she wants to make a clear distinction between Dr Copeland and his children and she does it partly with her speech but I think she overdoes it a little bit.

There are things that she has especially Portia say.  She makes comments like walking in a black neighborhood “it had that negro smell” and that was one of the things that Hilton Als said.  She was a product of her time in that way.  So I think the main thing to try to emulate and to appreciate now is the attitude towards other people and especially the ‘other’, that I think is clear that she had, that’s the thing.

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Nick Norwood

So she talks a lot about, and has a lot of characters who are freaks and outsiders—like the circus freaks who come to town. I’m sure she felt that way growing up a lot. How is it for you being a poet in the Deep South?

You know the famous comment by Flannery O’Conner when she was asked, “Why do you Southerners have so many grotesques in your work?”  She said, “Well maybe it’s because we know one when we see one.”

My good friend Fred Fussell, who is a historian and musicologist and is married to Cathy Fussell, who was the second director of the McCullers Center—they are local historians interested in the art and culture of this place.  He explained it as “Every place has its eccentrics; we’re just exceptional.”

I think maybe that is sort of true of the South.  I feel like I am not exploiting that in the way that those famous, now we refer to them as Southern Renaissance, authors did because it would feel like an adaptation to me.  On the other hand, I’m writing about things that really happened to me in my life.  I know a lot of people see that.

When I make friends with people that are from outside the South and we start telling stories of our childhood and they look at me like “Wow!”  What can I tell you? That was just home.  So I don’t know if the South is exceptional in that way but it seems to be so.

I am like Carson.  Seriously, I came to Carson McCullers in my 20s and she was an influence on me as a writer.  I was only writing fiction at the time.  I later found out I was a poet but still I think that she’s an influence and one of the ways that she is that is, I think, to pay proper homage to a place, especially your own place, is to be absolutely honest about it and that includes writing about a lot of people that other people are going to see as freaks and monsters.

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Carson McCullers

So it might be easier to be a poet in the South because you’ve got a lot of material.

Yeah, fiction writers have gone to town. I was lucky to find models amongst the poets, many of whom became my friends, I don’t know if you know Andrew Hudgins for instance.  He is a poet from Montgomery, Alabama writing from a Christian perspective.  I met him when I was in graduate school in Texas.  He’s still a good friend of mine and he writes with blunt honesty about the South and it’s a shocking thing. His most shocking poems are the ones that are most about his Christian faith.  He likes bad jokes more than any otherwise intelligent person I think I’ve ever met and he would tell a joke sometimes in his poems.

Also this poet David Bottoms, who’s a Georgia poet, who’s just terrific.  He’s a great poet also become a friend and mentor.  His first book, which was chosen for the Walt Whitman Award, made his career—a book called Shooting Rats at the Bibb County Dump.  It is unrelenting in its focus on the violence and the brutality of Southern culture and yet it is unmistakably a book by a serious poet.

So I had these models to find a way to talk about my Southern childhood in poems but I think that for a long time it was difficult for Southern poets to do it.  It’s almost like poetry had to evolve to a point where you could write that kind of poem.  Previously it seemed that, if you were a fiction writer, the South was a good place to grow up because there was all this great material for fiction.  I’m just lucky that I came along a little later so there are a lot of prominent American poets who are from the South and writing about the South right now.

Nick Norwood is the author of The Soft Blare (2003), A Palace for the Heart (2004), and Gravel and Hawk (2012), winner of the Hollis Summers Prize.  

Five Things I Learned from a Cowboy (Church)

IMG_6710I love a horse trough baptism as much as the next guy, but I have to admit that I’m a traditionalist at heart.  I appreciate the time-worn beauty of prayers passed down through generations, the mystery and splendor of a good four-part choir, the movement and purposeful flow of a well-planned order of worship, and attention paid to, you know, words.  On the other hand, I’ve been known to lead a rousing chorus of “All God’s Critters Got a Place in the Choir” with the Bishop and Cabinet.  What I’m saying is, I’m flexible.

So, recently I went to Cowboy Church and here’s what I learned.

I was in the Big Bend country of West Texas, so it was a place with real cowboys, though this phenomenon has been spreading out to many far-flung places where ranch hands are more rare, including Virginia.  The American Fellowship of Cowboy Churches counts over 200 member congregations but that’s just one organizantion.  There are many more in the US, Canada, and even Australia.  But, of course, the epicenter and place where it all began is Texas.

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Pastor Wendal in the Pen

What did I find?  Well, the Big Bend Cowboy Church is an unassuming metal building with a Western-style wrap-around porch.  Walking in the front doors I was greeted by Pastor Wendal Elliott, who was dressed in a spotless white Western shirt, jeans, boots, and cowboy hat.  There was all the evidence that I was in a church narthex, just with a few more frayed rope and barbed wire decorations.  There was the prayer board, the doughnuts, the coffee, the styrofoam cups.  So far, it was all feeling very familiar.

It was only when I rounded the corner to head to the worship space that the ethos of the place became clear.  Behind another door was a big warehouse space on a concrete pad.  Metal roll-up doors were opened to the Glass Mountains beyond.  An old rail fence decorated with American flags, saddles, and wagon wheels framed a…chancel?  Corral?  Let’s call it the Preacher’s Pen. There was more barbed wire, including the crown on the large wooden cross on the wall.

A large group of people were milling about greeting one another.  Some in the rows of chairs near the front, others around the cafeteria tables set up in the back.  The vibe was friendly and  aggressively casual.

The service began without warning.  Pastor Wendal just leaped up into the Pen and we were off.  There were a few announcements.  “The Cowgirl Gathering is coming up next weekend.  Thanks to those who showed up to the rodeo yesterday.”  Then he invited up a man who leads a ministry to those in prison.  He shared a heartfelt testimony about his son’s incarceration and about the importance of reaching out to the children and families of those in prison.  I was moved.

IMG_6699Then it was time to sing…briefly.  A man with an impressively groomed mustache and a bright green flowered Western shirt got us to our feet to sing songs “which I’m sure you know.”  There was a songbook, but I don’t think these were included in it.  There was also a screen that we didn’t use.  “Life is Like a Mountain Railroad,” “I’ll Fly Away,” “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” “Do Lord,” back to “I’ll Fly Away,” one verse each, all to the accompaniment of a single guitar.  Then we sat down while Brother Mustache’s wife came up to join him a medley of country-western gospel tunes, some self-written.  Good folks with good voices, but I couldn’t help feeling shorted on the music front.  This constituted the whole of the music for the day.

I also wondered how and if this music would connect with the theme of the day, which turned out to be self-control.  Pastor Wendal quoted Proverbs 25:28, “Like a city whose walls are broken down is a person who lacks self-control.” Then, he shared his experience in the cutting competition at the rodeo the day before and how winning requires discipline, training, and preparation.  We looked at other Bible verses praising self-control as a fruit of the Spirit and an essential feature of the Christian life.

Pastor Wendal struck me as a perfect Cowboy Church pastor.  He was direct, humble, not flashy, and seemed to be thoroughly of a piece with the culture the church so clearly celebrated.  He had authentic twang and the dramatic hand gestures so common in rural Texas.  (Think Robert Duvall in Lonesome Dove.)  The message was the kind of life application preaching heard in so many non-denominational and Baptist churches these days.

fullsizeoutput_1877Then it was time to go to the stock tank.  Two teenaged worshippers came forward to be immersed by Brother Mustache, who apparently is a pastor himself.  He offered a straightforward believer’s baptism explanation of what was about to happen and then proceeded to the act.  The United Methodist in me longed for some…any…description of God’s act in the baptism, but the emphasis was definitely on personal witness.

Pastor Wendal followed it up with a low-key invitation to faith.  “Meet me in the back if you’d be interested in baptism yourself.”  And then, as suddenly as the service had begun, it was over.  Pastor Wendal jumped out of the Pen, without a benediction (or an offering!), and it was over.  People headed for the pick-up trucks and rode off into the sunset.

So what did I learn?

1) The emphasis falls heavy on the ‘cowboy’ and much less on the ‘church.’  This is by intention.  “Unchurched people view a traditional church as an organization that just wants their money and they also feel that the institutional church is too ‘righteous’ for them,” Frank Sanchez, a cowboy church planter told the Waxahachie Daily Light. “What we want to do in the cowboy church is to lower those barriers built up between the church and the unchurched, and make people feel comfortable – that they can come as they are.”

I heard the same thing from the police chief in Archer City when I talked to him about cowboy church over chicken-fried steak at Murn’s Cafe.  “I don’t have to dress up and I understand everything they say.”

Surely, it’s a good thing that people are working to lower the barriers and to help people who have been alienated from the institutional church, and institutions in general, to find their way into worship.  By so heavily emphasizing the Western heritage culture, however, is Cowboy Church failing to be church?  Is it so identified with the culture it promotes that it cannot stand against that culture when needed or initiate those who come in to the culture of the reign of God?  That’s a question for every church, by the way.

2) For a place with no dress code, there was a dress code.  Cowboy hats, boots, jeans, your best Western shirt, cowgirl chic for the women—you definitely had to be duded to the nines to feel at home in this place.  Even the children were outfitted appropriately.  I don’t think this was out of the norm for this community.  I saw this dress everywhere I went.   So, the police chief was probably right that people didn’t feel they were having to dress up by dressing this way.  But if you came dressed otherwise, you would have felt out of place.

3) Connection with the church of every time and place is not a priority.  Pastor Wendal was headed to a convention of cowboy churches and asked for travel prayers, but otherwise, the focus of the service was entirely on the individuals present.  It was not just the baptism that was individually-focused, everything was oriented to individual choice.  The multiple US flags seemed to be the most prominent nod to any kind of larger community.  It was the Sunday after the protests in Charlottesville and not a word was said.

4) Cowboy Church didn’t tell me how to be a disciple.  How does a church that is so focused on removing barriers to participation move those who attend to greater discipleship?  There was not even an offering, which made me wonder how people are challenged to think about the discipline of generous giving.  There were men’s and women’s groups meeting later in the week, but I did not feel that I was being told much about how to grow in the Christian life beyond advocating self-control.

fullsizeoutput_18765) I like cowboy duds.  I could get used to this get up.  And for bald guys, (check that—persons with baldness), a cowboy hat is a very practical piece of headwear in the Texas sun.  I did meet people who probably wouldn’t have been in church otherwise and there were a lot of them.  They felt comfortable.  But a cowboy church, like every church, has the challenge of being not only accessible, but faithful to the world-challenging message of the gospel.

John Wesley once accepted the call to field preaching with coal miners by saying, “I submitted to be more vile.”  I think he’d have donned a bolo and submitted to be more Western if the occasion had arisen.  But for what purpose?  I ask the same thing of Cowboy Church that I ask of all the churches I visit these days.  And we’re doing this why?

Carson’s Place – My Interview with Nick Norwood Continues – part 2 of 3

In the first part of my interview with Nick Norwood, director of the Carson McCullers Center for Writers and Musicians at Columbus State University, we talked about the universal themes of McCullers’ writing.  Today we talk about the strong sense of place in her work and the way Columbus, Georgia, her hometown, informs it.

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The Eagle and Phoenix Mill in Columbus, GA

So we think of Carson McCullers as a writer of the heart but she also has this strong sense of place. How do you see this having lived here a long time? How does Columbus fit into her work?

I once tried to write fiction when I was at the University of North Texas. I also loved poetry but one of the things I noticed about writing fiction is that I could not take myself seriously writing, creating characters who didn’t speak with a Southern accent. For better or worse my characters were gonna have to be Southerners because that was the only way that I could have them speak in what I considered to be an authentic way.  It occurs to me that that is partly where Carson is coming from, not just in terms of how characters speak but how they act, and what they eat and all the letters and all of those things — that was her foundation.

You can find all of these different writers who make this remark about your best stuff comes from your childhood. I believe that’s true, I really do. It’s been true in my life as a writer and I believe that it’s true and this is the place where she grew up so it’s the source for all her stuff. The other thing is that she saw firsthand the situation of the poor millworker.  So she had that firsthand experience of poverty and that sort of hard life and what it does for instance to race relations.  These people are on the lowest rung of the socio-economic ladder for white people and so they’ve got to have somebody that they feel is beneath them—that’s African-Americans.  So you can imagine what it’s like being an African-American.  So I think all of that stuff informs her work.

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Nick Norwood

You can also find other things in her work where you realize, once you know about her life, “Ah, that had to have been partly where she gained the insight.”  For instance, in her second book, [Reflections in a Golden Eye], we have this homosexual army officer and that was one of the things that really angered people [about the book] here in Columbus. One of her best friends was Edwin Peacock, who was a gay soldier here, and through him she met other gay soldiers.  This is this thing that people didn’t want to see, didn’t want to recognize, wanted to pretend it didn’t happen. It was dangerous for someone like Edwin Peacock to have someone know this about him but Carson knew it.

So you can find things in her work all the time that show you: “Oh, she had the real experience that she had in Georgia that helped give her the insight about this.” Carson was able to see in her own little town things that relate to the human condition in general.  It was like all great writers who end up being able to connect with other people: [through] experiences they have growing up, they’re able to see people beyond just the way that their neighbors try to see them.

They’re both insiders and outsiders. She grew up Lula Carson; that’s about as Southern as you can get and she loved Southern food.  if you’ve ever heard her voice—I have people from Columbus tell me, that’s not just a Georgia accent that’s a Columbus accent that you hear there.

So she’s an insider but on the other hand she was an outsider and was shunned by a lot of people because she was ‘weird.’  That’s the term that they always used to refer to her from the beginning.  She didn’t dress right; she was much more interested in the society of books than she was with society of her neighbors. She was just a young person who remained aloof and was mocked and didn’t care, which rural people do not like. So she was an outsider which allowed her to observe them more objectively than most people who are from a place are able to do.  That’s where Columbus shows up in her work.  She was able to see, in Columbus, so many different facets of the human experience in this one place.

Maybe that has something to do with the particular place because even though it’s a relatively small town, it was about 40,000 when she was growing up, it’s kind of interesting the number of people from different walks of life, to use that cliché, but also from different geographic regions that this place brings together.  Fort Benning is huge and when you start reading about the history of the army in the 20th century, all the major players came through this place.

Eisenhower was the commandant at one point. Rusty Calley was tried here [for the My Lai massacre in Vietnam] and then spent most of the rest of his life living in this town. My partner lives a few blocks from where Omar Bradley had lived around the corner from her house.  Still, as a teacher at Columbus State, I teach students who come from all over the country and even from different parts of the world because of Fort Benning.  Then there’s the Coca-cola connection and the cotton mills that drew in all of this industry. So it was, in a way, a good place to soak up humanity.

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Nick Norwood’s poetry in an installation at the Eagle and Pheonix Mill in Columbus

I read your piece about the millworkers for Library of America.  Even though she’s got those characters like Jake Blount and Dr. Copeland who are really engaged in thinking about political realities and economics, I’ve never really thought of her as having that side developed.  Of course, she was only 19 when she wrote it but you see that she had a real feel for it.

The other things that she wrote about are more widely discussed.  They’ve become part of this prominent national conversation that we’re having about, take for instance, sexual orientation.  At [a recent] international conference, there was a lot of talk about that.  In fact, they had an open call for proposals for papers and then, based on the proposals that they got, they came up with the sessions because there were so many people writing about like things.  They had to have two sessions for gender and sexuality cause there were so many people who wanted to write about that aspect of her work.  Not one paper on her writing about the working class, not one.

That’s partly because, McCullers tends to attract a certain type of scholar—people who are interested in certain kind of things.  People who are attracted to writing about the working class and so forth have more often gone to other writers.  But I think that’s a mistake that you overlook that aspect of her work because it is prominent and one of her major characters in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is Jake.  That’s what he’s all about.  If you read her author’s outline where she’s describing the town, clearly it was a big part of what she was thinking about and writing about.  Setting the story in a town like this with the mill culture and poor and how the mill workers all had that look of loneliness and sadness.  It’s a big part of her work that is currently being overlooked, but with the popularity of J.D. Vance’s book, [Hillbilly Elegy], because of this recent election, maybe more people will consider that aspect of it.

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Alex hanging out with Carson McCullers

She talks in one of her essays about homesickness being the American disease—we’re always looking for a home. 

“Loneliness: An American Malady” is the title of the piece.

How does that play out with Columbus because after she left she never really returned to live?

She’s sort of like James Joyce—left and never wanted to live there again but never wrote about anything else. It’s a cliché, again, this love-hate relationship, but, especially if you’re as sensitive a person as Carson McCullers was and you’re exposed to this place at that most impressionable time in your life, its going to be a big part of you.  At the time same time, as Thomas Wolfe says, you can never go home again.  It’s never going to be the same.

Even though I think she was grandstanding a little bit when she said, “I have to return home periodically to renew my sense of horror,” she really was horrified by what went on here—the poverty, the race relations, and all of those things.  You can’t get away from it and on the other hand you can’t return to it.

But what she says in that essay about the particular American version of loneliness, (and I’ve flown this by people from other countries to see if they would say “Well, that’s not true.  We have the same thing” and no one’s really called me on that), her argument is basically that we don’t have the class ties that the European countries have and that long history.  I was just in Italy and you study all of this Roman history and realize even that was built on earlier histories.  You have these traditions that have been going on for thousands of years.  We don’t have that here, so to be disconnected here is to really be disconnected.

One of the interesting things that she says is that writers and artists have often formed themselves into schools.  They branch out from the mainstream but they’re not doing it alone, They have other people similar.

She says more often what happens in America is that writers and artists branch out by themselves.  They launch themselves out into outer space alone. Maybe it’s that pioneering spirit in them.  Those are her arguments for why Americans maybe experience spiritual isolation, if not in fact, in a more intense way, at least in a unique way.

It is a strange thing in the case of somebody like Carson but one of the things to me that shows that she really did feel a sort of homesickness is when she talks about food and holidays and the trees.  You can tell that she misses those things intensely.

She was asked by Holiday magazine to write a piece on the South and they couldn’t publish it.  She could only be honest, so it was not just talking about good, happy things, which is what they wanted—the things that you love about Columbus.  She couldn’t do it without also talking about the things that are not good, about the natives’ racism and other things.  That’s one of the things that has estranged her from a lot of people in Columbus especially during her lifetime and among people who were still alive in the decades after her death.  She exposed the town’s dirty laundry and they think that’s unforgivable.

Nick Norwood is the author of The Soft Blare (2003), A Palace for the Heart (2004), and Gravel and Hawk (2012), winner of the Hollis Summers Prize.  

Segment 3 of this interview

In Which I Tumble Out of the Tumble In and Head to Terlingua – A West Texas Adventure

IMG_6683The bright lights and hubbub of the big city (Archer City, that is – population ~1800) were starting to get to me, so I decided to head even further out into West Texas.  Out to where the skies stretch out like God’s own Imax screen.  Out to where coyotes howl at the setting sun and the rising moon.  Where javelinas, those tough little pigs, take chunks out of prickly pears and diamondbacks thick as a tree trunk slither across the roadway in the heat.  Out to Big Bend country.

Who am I kidding?  All those things happen in Archer City, too, but you need to savor the differences.  Texas has more layers than a sweet Vidalia, though you wouldn’t know it from the coverage it gets, pro and con.  And if Jerry Jeff Walker found a piece of Texas essence in the Chisos Mountains, maybe I could, too.  Viva Terlingua, y’all!

IMG_6639I set up camp at the Tumble In RV Park just outside of Marfa where, I kid you not, a major poetry festival was going on.  I wandered over to the El Cosmico Campground  and we sat by the light of the setting sun among the yurts and teepees, listening to poets from exotic places like Tucson and New Jersey wax about border crossings, Wall Street, and childhood trauma.  We laughed.  We cried.  (On the inside.  We are poets after all.)  A band set up to play some desert folk.    It was like what Woodstock would have been if people had brought vegetables to grill and had really good footwear from REI.

I didn’t survive at the Poetry Festival past the first night.  Marfa, I realized, was not for me.  Every gas station has become an art gallery and every quonset hut an organic burrito joint.  I needed something that involved more existential wondering, more sense of place, and more sweat and misery.  Poetry can do that when its good, but not in fru-fru Marfa.  So after a hearty breakfast at Buns N’ Roses, (it’s a flower shop after breakfast, OK?), I headed for the Chihuahuan desert.

fullsizeoutput_184cRoadrunners darted across the road as I wound down the mountains south of Alpine.  A coyote slipped under a barbed wire fence and disappeared into the scrub.  The landscape turned from a fragile, vibrant green to yellow dirt and gravel.  Strange, volcanic mountains off in the distance and not a house in sight.  Eighty miles to Terlingua, and nothing in between.  And Terlingua was supposed to be a ghost town.

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Viva Terlingua!

Only it’s not.  The cinnabar mine from which the military extracted so much mercury to blow up things in the World Wars, has closed.  But the end of the mercury trade has not meant the end of the crazy in Terlingua.  Jerry Jeff put it on the map with his iconic 70s album, but competing international chili cook-offs and an earned reputation for offering refuge to misfits have made it a collection point for a wide variety of eccentrics.  I stopped at La Posada Milagro for a coffee.  “Espresso…y poco mas!” the sign said.  Very little mas as it turned out.  But, hey, I was not expecting coffee in the desert.

IMG_6669I sat on the patio and looked out towards the valley and the Chisos beyond.  A small cemetery filled with bleached wooden crosses marked the final resting place of former Terlingua residents who had braved this unforgiving terrain, coffee-less, in years past.  The heat made it feel as though everything beneath it was grilling – not just the vegetables back in Marfa.  I couldn’t imagine thinking clearly in such heat in the days before air conditioning, never mind that they were, you know, mining mercury!

Big Bend offers two spectacular parks, the national park—which fills with visitors during its peak season March-June to hike the Chisos basin, ride the rapids through Santa Elena Canyon, and perhaps to sit in the natural hot springs baths and watch the sun set over the Rio Grande, and the state park—which offers unrelenting desolation, no services, but the greatest drive in America.  That’s where I was headed.

IMG_6677I stopped in the visitor’s center in Lajitas to check in with the ranger about what I should know about hiking.  Turns out what I should know about hiking is that I really shouldn’t do much of it.  It was 100 degrees, you are absolutely exposed to the sun, and everything out there, plant and animal, wants to hurt you.  Or even if it doesn’t, it will do it incidentally.  That in mind, I headed to the Fresno Divide Trail, a pleasant little jaunt just south of El Solitario, the major geologic feature of the state park, which is a massive eroded volcanic cone.

Forty-five minutes into my hike, I had found what I came for – the splendid isolation of the desert, the remarkable flora and fauna perfectly adapted to their environment, the absence of pretentious poets.  To be in such a place was lonesome communion with the Creator and creatures.  My inner space expanding in this big space.

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The Rio Grande from the Greatest Drive in America

Then it thundered.  Black clouds began rolling up from the Mexican side of the river and to the north over El Solitario.  Two storms were coming and I knew, because I watched my fair share of Westerns, that a feller could drown in the desert if he got stuck in an arroyo in a rainstorm.  Not that I was in an arroyo, but I liked the word so much that I repeated it out loud on my jog back to the car, racing the clouds.  Arroyo.  Arroyo.  And to be fair, Fresno Canyon was just to my right.

IMG_6696The rains did come.  After driving a while along the Rio Grande, I found myself stranded between two improvised rivers on the road to Presidio (aka The Greatest Drive in America) and had to wait for the waters to go down.  I stood by one of those rivers with the surprisingly refreshing smell of the damp creosote bushes in the air.

The rest of the day was not so pleasant.  The rains returned when I got to the Tumble In and I had to retrieve the tent from a lake and pack it wet.  I ended up at the Bien Venido Motel in Alpine about which the less said the better.

But if I can’t recommend the accommodation, I can encourage you to take to the desert.  The Bible says that hope comes like streams in the desert and I’ve seen those streams.  They flow through ocotillo and lechuguilla down to the canyons of the Rio Grande.  I hope we never see a wall in such places.  The glory of God needs to flow.

Oh, but I gotta tell you about Cowboy Church!  Next time…

The Spiritual Isolation of Carson McCullers – An Interview with Nick Norwood – part 1 of 3

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Nick Norwood in front of a painting of Carson McCullers in Columbus, GA

So, I’ve got a thing for Carson McCullers.  Anybody who read this blog through the McCullers-palooza that was her 100th birthday celebration in February will know that this Southern writer speaks to me.  The characters that she introduced us to in such classics as The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Member of the Wedding, and The Ballad of Sad Cafe are indelible, all afflicted with the same malady – the longing for love and connection.  It’s the same theme that some of our greatest Christian writers (Augustine, Julian of Norwich) have dealt with.

Nick Norwood, who is, among other things, the director of the Carson McCullers Center for Writers and Musicians at Columbus State University, calls this theme ‘spiritual isolation.’

On my current renewal leave, I stopped by Columbus, Georgia at the childhood home of McCullers, who was born Lula Carson Smith.  Sitting in the kitchen of that house where a young Carson produced her earliest works using the pocket doors for a curtain and her siblings as actors, I got to spend a great hour with Nick, who is also an accomplished poet and Professor of Creative Writing at CSU.

In the three parts of this interview we talk McCuller’s sense of place in writing, her ongoing influence, and what it’s like being a Southern poet.

37380So if you had to say why people should still be interested in Carson McCullers what would you say?

Well, I think one of the things is that Carson McCullers developed universal themes.  To me that’s why she’s a writer with real staying power.  She took on, as a major theme, what she refers to as spiritual isolation.  People have used other terms for it. The term ‘loneliness’ has gotten attached to her, mostly I think because of the title of that first novel, [The Heart is a Lonely Hunter], but also because that’s the theme that she continued to return to in all her major works.

She’s one of those writers who’s going to speak to people no matter where they’re from or what age they live in. To me, here’s proof of that: Why would people in France, in Italy, in China, in Japan, all relate to her so strongly if it weren’t for the fact that she’s developing something universal.  Not only that but she’s doing it in a unique way, in a fresh way. To me, what she does with John Singer in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, that’s a piece of genius.  So to me that’s the main reason.

A lot has been said recently about how a lot of the social issues that she dealt with in her books are now at the forefront of some national conversations—things that have to deal with sexual orientation, gender, race, all those things.  Sarah Schulman, a novelist and lesbian rights activist, wrote a really interesting piece that was published in The New Yorker last year.  She makes the argument that now is the time for writers to be returning to Carson McCullers. And the specific reason she said was that there is now this ongoing debate about white writers writing about people who are not like themselves, people of color for instance.  It’s gotten kind of contentious and [Schulman] is very sensitive to that and doesn’t dismiss it at all but says,  “Still, I want to be able to write about the full human spectrum, so how do I do it?”

She notes that Carson McCullers does it and she quotes the famous review by Richard Wright of Carson’s first book: “She’s the first white writer to be able to write about black characters with as much understanding and sympathy as she does her white characters.”  So, there’s one reason why people should be reading her now.  But to me the main reason is that she wrote about universal things that are still as important as they were when she wrote them.

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The Smith-McCullers House in Columbus, GA

What makes it spiritual isolation? I like that term for it.

There is literally being physically, if you will, isolated but what’s more important to her is this idea that we all feel at times that we’re alone and nobody completely understands us. That’s why I think The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is so brilliant because we have this character, John Singer, who is an exemplary human being and really is sensitive to other people.  And because he doesn’t speak, it makes people think that, not only is he a good listener, but he understands them.  Then, of course, the big revelation is: no, he doesn’t.

My partner is also a colleague of mine.  She teaches art and she taught The Heart is a Lonely Hunter this past year too.  A lot of us did because of the [100th anniversary] celebration.  We argued about this character of Antonapoulos.  She thinks that John Singer’s devotion to Antonapoulos is ridiculous and unbelievable.  I said, “No, I think the reason that she had to do it that way is to show how strong is this desire to have somebody to connect to.”

Antonapoulos is the only person Singer knows for one thing.  There’s the practical issue that Antonapoulos understands sign language.   He’s also a mute so he can relate to Singer and it just helps her develop the theme.  So when she talks about spiritual isolation it’s this idea that we’re alone and nobody completely understands us.  That is pretty bleak but that is the situation of all humans.  Maybe it’s not always that way.  Maybe there’s some temporary relief from that situation but that is the basic situation.

So, you have Singer, the most exemplary lover, and even he has his own isolation. 

When she has him write the letter to Antonapoulos it is revealed to us that he doesn’t know these other characters who come to him with their problems. He’s not sure what they’re talking about.  I love it when he says, about Jake, “He thinks that we have a secret together but I do not know what it is.” But all of this is prefaced by the fact that he’s writing this letter to Antonapoulos whom he knows is not able to read.

 

Nick Norwood is the author of The Soft Blare (2003), A Palace for the Heart (2004), and Gravel and Hawk (2012), winner of the Hollis Summers Prize.  

Segment 2