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

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The Most-Read of 2017: A Heartlands Retrospective

freestocks-org-4875612017 began with a quaint and quixotic belief that one more blog might be helpful in addressing the Great Divide.  Post-election I was casting about for a way to explore this strange, new world we all seemed to be living in.  Were we really as divided as we seemed?  Had we forgotten how to talk to each other?  What new languages might we have for new conversations?  And how could the church reclaim its own language for this new day?

img_5321Heartlands is about the way these questions play out in rural America.  Over the year, it has developed a particular interest in how place and story can ground us.  Hence, book reviews, travelogues, and interviews with authors and artists.  But you have helped shape what this blog looks like.  And it’s time to count down the most read posts of 2017.  So here they are:

10. How to Preach a Bad Sermon – reflections by one who has delivered and heard more than my fair share.  Includes obligatory Annie Dillard reference.

9. Why don’t country people just get out? – What happens when we give up on country life?

19366224_10154952950103533_8737175430623632393_n8. In Which I High-Five a Bishop – The new bishop of the Virginia Conference, got me (and the whole conference) fired up at our annual gathering last June.  Here’s where I tell why.

7. We’ve Got an Open Door Problem – revisiting the deceptive slogan of the United Methodist Church.

6. Why the Duke Divinity School Controversy Matters – not sure, but I think a few Duke alums might have helped goose this post up the list.  But the controversy did matter in helping us define the stakes of 21st century theology.

5. The Last Thing I Want to Talk About – Bishop Oliveto and the United Methodist Church – The legal wrangling over the status of the denomination’s first openly lesbian bishop got me thinking about what I really wanted to be talking about.

14_working4. When Robert E. Lee was in the Walgreen’s Parking Lot – An interview with Photographer Michael Mergen – Passing through Farmville, Virginia one day, I took a break at the Longwood Center for the Visual Arts and discovered the work of a great photographer of place and memory.  Man, I’m glad I did.

3. This Old House: The Love Story – an interview with Trudy Hale – One of my favorite people who lives in one of my favorite places – The Porches writing retreat.

2. The Empty Bench at the Book Bin – Remembering Kirk Mariner – the Eastern Shore and the UMC lost a giant in 2017.

images1. What Goes Without Saying – Some Thoughts on Charlottesville – a fitting #1 considering how much time we spent discussing that awful day in August in a city I love.  Race, faith, and the Great Divide in one terrible package.

But the true #1 is you, dear reader.  Thanks for giving these posts some life and breath and for moving toward something like a community – a far less quaint and quixotic concept.  Thanks as well to Christopher Smith and Sara Porter Keeling who contributed guest blogs this year and all the authors and artists who gave me their time.  Happy New Year!

Taking Hospitality Out of the House (& Keeping Worship Weird)

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Photo by Julio Casado via Unsplash

Preachers are fond of quoting Annie Dillard’s devastating critique of worship as she experienced it in a traditional church:

On the whole, I do not find Christians outside of the catacombs sufficiently sensible of conditions.  Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke?  Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it?  The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning.  It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets.  Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews.  For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense or the waking god may draw us out to whence we can never return.  —“An Expedition to the Pole” in Teaching a Stone to Talk (1982)

To me the better line is her under-the-breath horror as a make-shift folk band comes to the front to lead the Sanctus:

“I would rather, I think, undergo the famous dark night of the soul than encounter in church the dread hootenanny.”

But no matter.  Either quote will do and Dillard’s withering words are good medicine, even 35 years hence.  Though Dillard herself recognizes that, even if we had more appropriate worship wear and the most excellent of music, we would still be unprepared to meet the living God.

21w56ZraclL._BO1,204,203,200_I’ve been thinking about Dillard as I consider what it is that we are asking people to do in worship.  At best practice churches, we hand visitors coffee and feed them doughnuts.  We put friendly faces at the door and make sure that they are greeted by at least five different people.  We make our bulletins visitor-friendly and we are sure to highlight entry points to the congregational life in our announcements.  We don’t assume they know what the acronyms mean and we print the Lord’s Prayer in case it is unfamiliar.  We have good lighting and clean sanctuaries, free of dustbunnies and spiderwebs.

The truth of the matter is that most churches, as much as they try, will never match the expectations of hospitality that have been set by the commercial spaces we inhabit.  We’re not going to out-hip the coffee shop or exceed the bright, cleanliness of Whole Foods.  And the sanctuary is not going to mimic the comforts of home.

I’m not making an argument for abandoning the practices of radical hospitality.  The habit of welcoming is essential to a body that believes that it may be thereby “entertaining angels unawares” as Hebrews says.

But the culture that surrounds the church has diverged so sharply from the culture of the church, that a more effective hospitality is embodied in going into those other, non-church spaces to be a real human person there.  To be a real-live Christian in the wild.  It’s an old saw now, but the days of setting a shingle out in front of the church and saying, ‘Y’all come,’ are long gone.  It’s more about going out and saying, “I’m here.”

Which means that worship is freed from its anxious superficiality to be an encounter with the fire that tells who we are.  Why pretend that the worship space is as non-threatening as an aisle of Wal-mart when it summons us into the presence of a fierce and holy God?  We are immersed in the idolatrous identities offered to us by our screens and other inputs.  Where can we practice being something different and where can we learn what it means to be splayed out before an all-consuming Presence?

41G1+De1i8L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_In her magisterial book, Systematic Theology, Vol. 1, The Doctrine of God [Fortress, 2015], the theologian Katherine Sonderegger ponders Moses’s burning bush encounter with God and highlights its earth-shattering implications:

“It is a wonder that Scripture does not end here, at this blinding fire.  It is a wonder that Moses is not annihilated—consumed—by the Name uttered to him in the wilderness.  For all the other apocalypses in Holy Scripture can only pale before this Naming, the annihilating Speech of God as Subject.  This is the end, the finality of all creatures, of all reality.” (222)

I don’t want to seduce the world to church by promising that we are all a few tweaks and life hacks away from perfection.  I want to be in a place that reminds me of the “end” Sonderegger talks about.  A place where I am told that the distance between what is and what should be is a chasm that can’t be crossed short of total surrender.  And yet that salvation is closer to me than I am to myself.

I want to keep worship weird.

“A Grace Wholly Gratuitous”

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photo by Cristian Newman via Unsplash

‘Cruelty is a mystery, and the waste of pain.  But if we describe a world to encompass these things, a world that is a long, brute game, then we bump up against another mystery: the inrush of power and light, the canary that sings on the skull.  For unless all ages and races of men have been deluded by the same mass hypnotist (who?) there seems to be such a thing as beauty, a grace wholly gratuitous.’

–Annie Dillard, “On Foot in Virginia’s Roanoke Valley”

How to Preach a Bad Sermon

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photo by Jon Collier via Flickr

Yesterday, I preached a bad sermon.  I quoted and misquoted Mark Twain, King, and Ghandi without attribution.  I cruelly mocked my child by telling stories of his misdeeds.  I violated the privacy of a parishioner with health issues to highlight my prowess in pastoral care.  And I managed to talk far more about myself than I ever did about God.

It was hard work to be that bad.

Fortunately, it was a video exercise I was doing for the Ethics Committee of our Board of Ordained Ministry.  I was asked to do an intentionally bad sermon that illustrated some perpetual bugaboos in preaching – plagiarism, inappropriate use of family, and making the sermon entirely self-referential (the sermon title was “It’s not you.  It’s me.”).  Those tendencies may not be a bar to the presidency (O no, I didn’t), but they can be the marks of lazy preaching.

So what makes for good preaching?  Dick Murray, my professor of Christian Education at Perkins School of Theology and a creator of the Disciple Bible Study, used to say that every good sermon, like every good Bible lesson, ought to have a mixture of ‘about-ness’ and ‘so what-ness.’  You need to spend some time exploring what the Bible passage is about and you also need to answer the question, “OK, so what?”

IMG_6203If a sermon spends all its time mining the depths of Scripture, adorned with word study and historical context, and never makes the leap to lived experience, its going to be deadly.  Though to be truthful, I wish more preachers erred on this side since a lot of sermons I hear don’t seem to have been cooked sufficiently in the oven of the pastor’s study.

On the other hand, a sermon that sounds like it is simply a variation on “4 Ways to Boost Productivity and Happiness,” (and there are far more of these), usually fails to grapple with what the Bible really has to say about who God is and who we are.

Good preaching is visceral.  It gets beneath our surface concerns and the superficial fidgeting we do in response to the latest headlines.  It strives for encounter with the God who is revealed in Scripture and in our dreams, in those unguarded places where our vulnerable self casts about for a firm foundation.  It strips the veneer off of our lives and says, to quote Will Willimon, that most of us don’t have needs worth having.  Something bigger is at stake.

The writer Annie Dillard is relentless in pointing to this dynamic.  In her deep observations about nature she refuses to paper over the raw beauty and terror of encounter.  She sees angels in barren fields and transcendence in a shriveled up frog carcass.  In ‘A Writer in the World,” Dillard says:

“We still and always want waking.  We should amass half-dressed in long lines like tribesmen and shake gourds at one another, to wake up; instead we watch television and miss the show.”

Good preaching should have a little gourd-shaking.  That’s what I say.  It should find, in our holy text, not only an opportunity for intellectual exploration, but the sublime experience of awe in the face of the living God.  When we are ‘woke’ (O no, I didn’t), we are trembling on the edge, drawn out from our quiet desperation, and open to transformations – glorious and painful.

“Good preaching should have a little gourd-shaking.  That’s what I say.”

A good preacher has to go there herself.  He has to find an authenticity and honesty to offer himself to the task of being vulnerable before the text.  And if that preacher is thus alive, petty, heartwarming stories or overworn quotes will not be a temptation.

Come to think of it, it’s hard work to preach a good sermon, too.