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

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photo by Aaron Thomas via Unsplash

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

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

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

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

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

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Jamie Quatro

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

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

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

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

So say them.

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

How do you know unless you try? (183)

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

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

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Considering Our Hearts (& the Future of the UMC): A Review of The Anatomy of Peace

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photo by Gerome Viavant via Unsplash

Let’s get this out of the way first: If Dan Brown wrote a book about conflict resolution it would come out looking something like The Anatomy of Peace: Resolving the Heart of Conflict.  If that sounds like an endorsement to you, you’ll love this book.  If, like me, you threw The DaVinci Code across the room sometimes out of sheer frustration with its cardboard characters, forced allusions, wooden writing style, and overall smugness, well, you’re not going to have a good time getting through this book.  The author is listed as the faceless Arbinger Institute but I suspect a member of the Institute is, in fact, Dan Brown.

Whew.  That said: I came to the book at the recommendation of the Rev. Tom Berlin, one of the most gifted (and un-Dan Brown-like) communicators in our United Methodist connection. Berlin, pastor of Floris UMC in northern Virginia, is a member of the Commission on A Way Forward, the 32-member group appointed by the Council of Bishops to craft proposals for maintaining the unity of the denomination in the face of divisions around questions of human sexuality.  The Anatomy of Peace is being used by the Commission to help them grow closer to one another as they confront their own differences.

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Tom Berlin

Berlin has led the Virginia clergy delegation at the most recent sessions of the General Conference, the global gathering of United Methodism held every four years to rewrite The Book of Discipline, the denominational rule book.  In that role he has seen the sad way that such gatherings devolve into the same rancor that plagues our national political dialogue.  “When these topics [e.g. ordination of LGBTQ clergy] are discussed,” he told the Virginia Annual Conference last summer, “the hearts of many delegates are at war rather than at peace.”

Berlin chose that phrasing purposefully.  It comes right out of The Anatomy of Peace and its unusual choice to use the Era of the Crusaders as an analogy for developing a ‘heart of peace.’  The conquest of Jerusalem by Christian crusaders in the Middle Ages was bloody, a character tells a group of parents who have been united by a desire to help their troubled teenaged children.  He goes on to describe how the Crusaders plundered and murdered in the wake of their victory, seeing their foes merely as objects to be eliminated.

By contrast, the Muslim sultan Saladin’s reconquest of the city was marked by acts of mercy towards the defeated Christians.  “The secret of Saladin’s success in war,” one of the leaders of the parent group says, “was that his heart was at peace.” (28)  Thus, he concludes, “there are two ways to take Jerusalem: from people or from objects.” (33)

If you can accept your history flat and unambiguous, this analogy might work for you.  Similarly, if you can accept the repeated interpretations of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as offered by the pair of leaders (one of each nationality) at face value, you may be able to see through to the point of the book more easily than I could.  I found these attempts to use one of the most complex international situations of our day as a simplifying and clarifying tool misguided at best.  I’ll chalk that up to Mr. Brown again.  But I digress.

41XwiBMyjRL._SX302_BO1,204,203,200_The point of the book is very simple.  The heart of conflict is seeing people either as people or objects.  When we see our opponents as people we can have hearts at peace.  When we see them as obstacles or objects, our hearts are at war.

The book goes on to show how that plays out in any number of situations, from dealing with family conflict to business relationships to international relations.  The journey towards peace, as in most journeys with a spiritual dimension, is first an internal one.  When we address our own “way of being” it begins to have an impact on those around us.  “As important as behavior is…most problems at home, at work, and in the world are not failures of strategy but failures of way of being.” (39)

There are some good psychological insights here.  The book addresses how we collude with those we oppose in producing the very things we say we’re fighting against.  There is a long section on self-justification and how our own preferred methods for doing it serve to perpetuate conflicts.  And there is a pyramid of actions that emphasizes personal work and building relationships before attempting anything like correction.

There is no doubt that our relationships and institutions would be better if we approached one another with hearts of peace.  Given our tendency toward anxiety and the belief that we can only lose in conflict, we need some practice in the art of engaging with those we regard as enemies.  That’s just what Rev. Berlin suggested to the Virginia Annual Conference last summer.  Noting his own congregation’s attempt to start some conversations on human sexuality, Tom said, “The church hasn’t fallen in.”

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photo by Ian Schneider via Unsplash

I’m grateful for Tom’s encouragement to keep trying.  We all know the deadly taste of cynicism and despair in our mouths.  We are thirsting for something more.

Whether this book, beyond its flaws, holds out hope for United Methodists is an open question.  I know that others are reading it as well and earnestly seeking a new day.  The hope Berlin talked about as a result of reading it seemed to be that we Methodists, by “walking together loosely” instead of seeking to come to conformity or agreement, might be able to concentrate on the mission objectives of the church rather than its divisions.  In the year to come, as we see the Commission’s work come to the form of proposals, we’ll all have a chance to sound our hearts to see what’s there.  I’m praying we find hearts of peace.

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.