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!

Love and Arson on the Eastern Shore: A Review of American Fire

51xyeLUVvCL._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_It’s in the nature of small towns and isolated places to believe they’re special.  Recently I drove through Ayden, North Carolina and found a historical marker revealing that President Washington had spent the night in 1791…10 miles east.  It was something.

So when the Eastern Shore of Virginia showed up in the New York Times Book Review this summer, a lot of us ran out to get the book that put us there: American Fire: Love, Arson, and Life in a Vanishing Land by Monica Hesse.

It’s a gaudy title that stretches ambitiously.  Those of us who lived through it knew that the spree of 60-something fires that were set during a period from November 2012 through April 2013 constituted a major local story.  But Hesse believed that there was a larger story to be told.  The arson attacks were not just our tale; they were an American one.

“America: the way it’s disappointing sometimes, the way it’s never what it used to be,” Hesse says in the preface.  “But it also involved love.”  And on those two grand themes, the book is built.

Of course, we locals will get hung up on the small things.  We capitalize the Shore when we write about it; American Fire doesn’t.  It’s Pungoteague, not Puncoteague.  Northampton has one ‘h’ in the middle.  There, I got it out of my system.  Those little things won’t bother the general reader.

What those readers will see is a well-researched book with propulsive writing in the vein of Michael Lewis (Moneyball) and Laura Hillenbrand (Unbroken).  Hesse has a knack for structuring her story for maximum effect, doling out details selectively in a way that builds suspense and makes you want to know more.  She doesn’t sink into speculation or make a case for sympathy, but keeps the reader at the level of the action.

Though there are elements that make this a true crime genre book, the question here is never ‘whodunit.’  Charlie Smith and Tonya Bundick done it and we know that from almost the very beginning.  What Hesse wants to explore is their relationship, what the fires did to the county, what they revealed about the particular national moment.

“Big-name crimes have a way of becoming big name not only because of the crimes themselves but because of the story they tell about the country at the moment,” Hesse reports.  “And now here were the arsons, happening in the type of rural environment that had been figuratively burning down for several decades, whether in the midwestern Rust Belt or the southern Bible Belt, or the hills of Appalachia.” (60-61)


Monica Hesse

Hesse takes the long view of things.  She spent time with Miles Barnes and the late Kirk Mariner, our local fonts of historical perspective.  She accurately describes the effect of the arrival of the railroads here in the 1880s, the turn-of-the-century boom and the end-of-the-century bust that moved the counties of the Shore into the wealthiest of rural locales and then reduced them to among the poorest.

She is struck, as are the law officers who come from “across the Bay” to help out with the investigation, by the emptiness of the landscape and the remoteness of the buildings that are burned.  Hesse describes the assumption of the police that someone would eventually see something that would help break the case.  Ron Tunkel, one of the criminal profilers, eventually realizes,“There’s nobody out here at night…Suddenly, it seemed completely plausible to him that someone could light seventy or eighty fires without anyone else seeing.” (129)

Living here, the emptiness becomes less defining over time.  We may live in a sparsely populated area, but we know the population and it becomes our community.  But the struggles that Hesse describes – the poverty, substance abuse, economic decline, etc. – are easily seen, too.

The joy of Hesse’s book is that the characters are vividly portrayed.  We not only get a rich portrait of Charlie and Tonya, but also the police officers, lawyers, and fire fighters who play big roles in the story.  She clearly enjoyed getting to know them, especially the Tasley fire crew with whom she played pool and ate pizza, and she gives them life.

IMG_1899She puts great symbolic weight on the now-defunct establishment known as Shuckers – the Onancock bar where Charlie and Tonya met and dreamed of getting married.  She chronicles its troubles, its demise, and the revival of the site as the Salty Dog and then The Fair Grounds.  She calls it “a palimpsest of Eastern Shore history, on a slab of a parking lot with weeds sprouting through fractures in the concrete.” (230)  Like a palimpsest, it is written over with new stories as the old stories remain beneath.

That’s her closing hope for places like Accomack County.  “Maybe rural America isn’t dying so much as it’s Shucker-ing: adjusting, adapting, becoming something new, getting a new outdoor sign and adding jalapeño hush puppies to the menu.  I’d like to think that.” (232)

I’ve got bigger hopes for the Shore than jalapeño hush puppies.  I tend to think that rural America gets seen as the place that got left behind when America, the concept, moved on.  But places like this may just be lying fallow until the next chapter of their lives will be written.  And they may be places of innovation and renewal as they have been in the past.

Silicon Valley and the urban outposts of the Information Age economy are doing well and have no need to question the engine that powers them.  Places like the Shore are doing deep soul-searching around the basic questions of who we are and what we ought to be.  They are prone to slip into despair or burst into occasional flame, but they are also being pushed to the essence of what we are here for.  And as in a burned-over field, new sprouts will emerge.

As for the book – it’s terrific.  Go read it and check out my interview with Monica Hesse.

Nunc Dimittis: Words for a Church Closing


Berea Church, New Church, VA

What’s the import of a church closing?  We struggled with that question last Sunday at Berea United Methodist Church as we held its final worship service.  I offered some words for this country church that has been at the center of a small Virginia town, New Church, for 132 years…


When I was young, I used to love to go on short trips with my dad.  Sometimes, he’d take me bowling and that was great.  Very occasionally he’d take me fishing at the lake, but he wasn’t much good at that and neither was I.  Our best trips, however, were when we went to cemeteries.

Now, I get it that you might find that strange.  After all, cemeteries have a reputation for being creepy places, especially for kids, and while we’re grateful they are there, there are usually not places where people hang out.  They’re definitely not on the list of top places fathers take their sons.

But I am so grateful that my dad did.  My dad’s passion during the years when I was growing up was genealogy.  I’m not sure what fed that passion for him.  Maybe it was the fact that his own father had died when he was only 8 years old and he was trying to piece together a family life he never had.  Maybe it was the fact that he grew up in Southampton County, Virginia, a place where history haunts every corner and peanut field.

simeon-muller-3505Whatever it was, my dad was always looking for lost relatives.  And a lot of the lost kin folk were in overgrown cemeteries, sometimes hidden in groves of trees or tall grass.  Sometimes with stones that were so weathered that you’d have to rub them with paper and a crayon to decipher the names.  Sometimes there were only small rocks with a set of initials painted on.

Something important was happening as I tramped around these places with my dad.  He was teaching me the importance of connection to what had gone before.  He was telling me who my family was even as he was learning himself.  He wasn’t just recording the dead, he was putting us, the living, within a tradition that was still moving ahead.  I learned how to love my dad and how to tell stories about life in those cemeteries.

I’m not going to make an easy jump from that story to Berea church and what we’re about here today.  Sure, you could tell a similar story about how, as we come here to remember all the ancestors who have preceded us in this place through the years, we are becoming connected to what has gone before and how we learned to become who we are through what happened here.  All of that is true.

But when the people of God remember, it should also be in anticipation of what God is doing next.  Because it’s all bound up in a story that began a long time before we got here and that story includes a remarkable promise that all of history takes place within God’s intentions and it’s not over until it’s over.  We say this whenever we get to that part in the Eucharist that we call the mystery of faith – Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.  This is what it’s all about.

The Isaiah passage this morning is one we have been using within the Annual Conference as a theme verse this year.  It sounds a little scandalous to bring into this service when we’re doing so much remembering.  Maybe it’s in bad taste even.  “Don’t remember the prior things,” Isaiah 43:18 says.  “Don’t ponder ancient history.  Look!  I’m doing a new thing; now it sprouts up; don’t you recognize it?”

Well, no, God.  It’s kind of hard to see a new thing right now.  As we read Kirk Mariner’s history of Berea Church, we feel a great sense of loss.  Our 1880s ancestors carved a place out of the wilderness—the hardwood trees that lined the road between the old post office and the new railroad.

They were the ones who saw the new thing that was happening in old New Church.

They were the ones who placed this building here that represented confidence in God’s presence at the center of the community.

IMG_6517They were the ones who held camp meetings on the back lawn and expanded the building and placed this stained glass in the windows.  John & Esther Brittingham, Hester Covington, Rev. G.H. Stockdale—they saw the community and the church grow.  They saw the new thing.

We?  We wonder, in our darker moments, if God still has a place in the old town.  We see our children, our grandchildren, leaving town or not leaving town, but certainly leaving church.  We know the church doesn’t have the central place it once did in the community.  People pass it by without a thought.  Going out, going home – living lives that are too often defined by what they lack – not enough work, not enough income, not enough time, not enough confidence, not enough skills, not enough education, not enough self-control, not enough love…not enough.

We wonder the same about the church.  Were we…not enough?  Could we have have done more?  Could we have held on longer?  Could we have tried some new program?  Could we have believed harder?  Could we have worked harder?  Could we have loved better?  Could the District Superintendent have sent us the right pastor?  Could we have been…more?  Could we have been…enough?

Kirk Mariner’s history is helpful here.  You know he had a kind of maudlin mood at times and it shows up in his history of Berea that he wrote in 1974.  He outlines the traditional measures of successful churches – a quaint, lovely structure, endurance through many years, crowded Bible classes and giving to missions.  “By any of these yardsticks,” he says, “Berea Church has never been much.”  He wouldn’t even credit the fact that it had nurtured him in childhood as a sign of great success.

But Kirk found some comfort in the way the church accompanied the town in its history.  “Nothing will redound quite so much to its credit as our being able to say, ‘Berea and New Church lived every moment of their lives together.’”

I can’t read that without thinking that, with Kirk’s death just a few short weeks ago, he wasn’t just talking about this town which he identified with so much, but himself.  Berea and Kirk lived every moment of their lives together.  My last conversation with Kirk took place just a week before his death and we were talking about this service.  He was planning to take part in it, but he wasn’t happy about it.  He spent the whole conversation with me rearranging the coasters on the coffee table between us, trying not to think about this day.

But he knew the virtue of what this church, what this congregation, what you have done.  You accompanied this town into its future and held out a promise.  The word was proclaimed from this pulpit.  Lives were touched by your ministry.  You were all any of us can be—open to God’s using what we have.  In that sense, you were…you are…enough.

The reason Isaiah tells the exiled people of God, “Don’t remember,” is not because there is no virtue in looking back, but because God is not through with them yet and God will do even more in what’s to come.  The parting of the Red Sea—-that’s going to be nothing compared to what God will yet do.

fullsizeoutput_2dI’ve been reading a book of poems about old churches.  It’s called Building Jerusalem: Elegies on Parish Churches.  Every morning I read a poem and every morning I get mad.  Because most of the poems are by people who have no idea what they’re looking at.  Most of the poets are people who have become disconnected from the church or who are longing for a connection to God and haven’t found it yet.

I don’t fault them for that.  But when they come to these old churches and the cemeteries that surround them, most of them only see stories that have ended.  One poet walks through a ruined abbey and he says:

“And now the wind rushes through grassy aisles,

And over the massy columns the sky arches.”

Well, sure, the wind rushes through old buildings and grass grows in ruined aisles.  That’s what happens to human artifacts.  They all suffer the effects of time and the elements.  We can look around New Church, around the Eastern Shore, and see what time will do.  We know what it does to us, too.

What I long for in the poems is some recognition that the stories begun in old places are not over.  We carry them in us.  They are embodied in us.  What happened in this sanctuary as we shared a hymnal with a spouse,

and a child got restless,

and Luther snoozed during the sermon,

and Mary wept quietly during the prayers,

and the piano got out of tune and we wondered when we’d get the tuner in,

and the preacher told a tale and we felt it strike a nerve,

and she placed a hand in the font to bring water to a grandchild’s head,

and he broke the bread and stumbled over the words of the Great Thanksgiving…again,

and the bread tasted like yeast and grace,

and the light streamed through the window and we marveled at the color,

and the wind howled against the roof and we wondered if it would survive one more storm,

and in all those things…even in those things…the living God was present and in these small human ways we felt something huge, something transcendent, something impossible bigger than us.

We knew somehow in those moments…in this place…that even when we didn’t feel like we were enough, God was enough.  That God was at work.  That God was not falling apart at the seams.  That God was able.  That God was holding things together.  That God was doing a new thing.

It would be enough if we could just point to that.  If we could just say, “God is here.  You ask me how I know he lives?  He lives within my heart.”

God has a habit of taking people who thought that were at the end of their journeys and giving them one more surprise.  It happened for Abraham and Sarah, who in old age, had one more great trip in them.

It happened for old Eli, whose life as a failed priest in a land where the voice of the Lord was rare, was surprised by the boy Samuel who could hear God whispering in his ear.

It happened for Simeon and Anna, two old prophets who hung out at temple in Jerusalem…waiting.  Waiting.  Fasting.  Praying.  So long.  So long.

Then a couple brought a child for the traditional presentation in the temple, as couples did every day.  It was an ordinary moment.  But Simeon went to the young couple and asked to hold the child.  So long.  But he believed that he would not die until he had seen the Messiah.

He holds the child and looks at him.  He looks to God and says, “Now, let your servant depart in peace.  Because my eyes have seen your salvation.  I can go now because I know that You are trustworthy and You keep your promises.”

Anna is right down the way and she’s been waiting too.  So long.  So long.  And she joins in the praise and she says, “I have seen what God can do.  I know what God will do.”

IMG_6519You have seen what God can do.   You know what God will do.  You have brought your deepest hopes and deepest sorrows to this place.  You have brought your children and your spouses.  You have brought those places and those situations that seemed beyond any power to redeem.  And God has met you here.

Now, let your servants depart in peace.  Because our eyes have seen your salvation.  We know that You are trustworthy and that You keep your promises.

When you pass this building in the weeks and months and years to come.  Pray a prayer that it will continue to be a place of blessing.  The District Board of Missions has met and will continue to meet with the District Board of Church Location to discuss how this property can continue to bless ministry on the Eastern Shore.  So pray as we release this building to God’s future.

But pray a prayer of thanksgiving for the ways this place has blessed you and told you who you are and reminded you of God’s continuing grace.  You are now the legacy of Berea Church for the world.


The thing is, that I never thought I could hang with my dad.  He seemed beyond me when I was young.  But when I came back from those trips trudging through cemeteries for family history, I knew I didn’t have to be anything other than I was to have a place.  I was in.  I was part of that story.  And wherever I am, what happened on those trips goes with me.

You are in.  You can tell the tale.  God is enough – yesterday, today, and tomorrow.  Thanks be to God.

The Empty Bench at The Book Bin – Remembering Kirk Mariner

3d11324a8832ade1a45c28b039485cf2The sofa bench in the back of The Book Bin was empty the other day.  The regulars by the coffee window are hesitant to sit there.  A sign on the door indicates that the staff knows that our local independent book store will be a place of mourning and memory for awhile.  The bench was Kirk Mariner’s, a place for reading the paper and sharing in the community that he was so much a part of and that he helped to build.  As the sign says, he was “a true cornerstone of the Shore.”

IMG_6376When the Rev. Dr. Kirk Mariner died, suddenly in the end, it caught us all up short.  The author, historian, preacher, and musician was woven firmly into the texture of this place.  Wines are supposed to reflect the terroir, the environment in which they are produced, and Kirk’s terroir was unmistakably Eastern Shore.  It is there in books that were so particular that they became universal.  If he had not been so identified as a local historian, a book like Slave and Free on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, would be justly recognized as one of the great studies of race and class in pre-Civil War America.

So what’s the best tribute to the man?  A well-done worship such as he fussed over.  An historical record that doesn’t overstate the case but is sure to include some telling anecdote and smiles.  A measured skepticism of schemes.  A lament over communities lost—ecclesial and geographical.  A glimmering-eyed ballad tweaking too-dearly-held nostalgias.  A warm love of the nurturing matrix of congregational song and the long line of Methodists who sang them before.

IMG_6377What will I remember?  The eye and ear for beauty.  The wind blowing through his impressive hair as he headed out to Tangier on the Joyce Marie II ferry.  The insatiable curiosity.  The generous spirit that wanted to see a young preacher do well.  The judicious ‘no’ to push said preacher on to initiative.  The contrarian’s slightly-jaundiced eye.  The off-hand remark that only later lands as the compliment it was.

The fullness of place embodied in a soul.  The trust in a story that began before he arrived and which claimed him as he told and retold it.  A lover in the arms of his Beloved, sung homeward by the Church he needled and cherished.  A sheep of God’s own fold.  A lamb of God’s own flock.  A sinner of God’s own redeeming.  A Methodist.

I give thanks to God for that wonder that is Kirk Mariner.

Obituary from Williams Funeral Homes.