In previous segments of this interview with Winn Collier we talked small towns, small churches, and his use of letters to tell the story of Granby Presbyterian Church, the fictional congregation at the heart of Collier’s new book. Love Big. Be Well.:Letters to a Small-Town Church is a big-hearted, hopeful book that celebrates what Christian community can be. My review of the book is accessible through the title link above.
In this segment we talk about the book, the recent Texas church shooting, and the rhythm of writing:
I was reminded of [Marilynne Robinson’s] Gilead as I read your book. When your preacher, Jonas, starts talking of the virtues of blessing, it reminded me of the story in Gilead of trying to baptize the cats and just the importance of blessing. They’re both very human stories and a very human vision of what life in a community of faith is all about.
How do you connect that to how God works in the world? I’m thinking about Karl Barth who said, “You can’t speak about God by talking about man in a loud voice,” but in a sense, you are kind of pointing that direction through human relationships.
Again I go back to Incarnation. In the world I grew up in there was a grand separation between God and the rest of the world. The culture and the creation and all these things really, they were just functional they had nothing to do with God’s revelation to us. I was overwhelmed and saved by sacramental theology and so I reject that. But I am aware that it’s possible, if you never name God, then our human mind really can forget God.
Jonas, in Love Big. Be Well., talks about how his job as a pastor is to stand within the community Sunday after Sunday and point to God and to speak the words of God and to speak the word love and speak ‘God, love, God, love’ into the world. And that’s how I see it. I think that’s fundamentally my job.
I think that’s what a small church, or every church, should do—to stand in the middle of this community, to be enmeshed within it, just as Jesus was, not separate from it, not trying to draw these huge dividing lines, but to say, “We are here. We are immersed. It is messy. It’s wheat and tares. We’re going to be here. We’re going to claim the love and presence of God in the world.”
That’s a destabilizing factor because I think God is a disruptive reality. If the church forgets its mission to be the presence of God and not just a vague idea of God as we define it but the God revealed to us in Jesus Christ…If we don’t speak that presence into the world then we are abandoning our identity and our calling and ultimately, we are abandoning the possibility for the depth of healing and redemption that God is inviting us to bring into the world.
So it definitely is not just, in a loud voice, saying all our ideas. But it’s also not divorced in any way. It is manifest through or built through friendships and dinners and work and all the things that make up human existence because that’s how God has chosen to reveal himself.
We’re talking in the week after the shooting in Texas in a small church. I was doing some writing this morning to the churches here on the Shore about church security and struggling with what that means and trying to come to terms with what it means to be vulnerable, which is part of our call as a community. Do you have any reflections in light of that event about what small churches mean?
I’ll tell you one thing I love: I love the way the community of Sutherland Springs, even ones who were not part of that church on a Sunday rhythm, seemed to see that church as very much part of who they were and their identity together. I think that’s potent.
My hunch is that in Granby (the fictional town of the book), Jonas would have had a couple people who really wanted to make sure the next Sunday they had their fire arms to use. I think Jonas would have resisted that with everything within him simply because we are peculiar people who are here to proclaim God. And to proclaim God means to lay down your life and it’s very hard to simultaneously say you’re going to lay down your life and at the first trouble pick up a weapon.
“To proclaim God means to lay down your life and it’s very hard to simultaneously say you’re going to lay down your life and at the first trouble pick up a weapon.”
At the same time, I think Jonas is kind of befuddled about some of these things. He’s not a consistent pacifist but in his heart he is. So, I think he would struggle with that like all of us are in knowing where is wisdom and where is the prophetic voice. But at the same time, I think he would just keep bringing it back to Jesus and what does it mean to be a people of Jesus and trust it in the long work.
That’s well put because I think the struggle I’ve had this week is allowing the gunman and the incident to determine the field on which we play and the kind of things we talk about and it’s so easy to do because it seems like an easy fix to just say, “Well, if we just had a good guy with a gun at the door, it wouldn’t happen.”
Yeah, and this is for every Christian and every church, but if we can hold on to the fact that we are resurrection people and that death is our enemy but is not our final enemy, then there actually are things worse than dying. If we can release that stranglehold on our heart then it opens up a lot of possibilities. As long as our self-protection is the ultimate god to us and God will never be God then we are ultimately going to make grave errors.
Well how are you finding ways to keep writing a part of your life these days? This is me being curious about how you fit it all in.
I have a weekly rhythm and Monday is set aside as my creative day so anything like writing, sometimes other things, but that’s my day. Most of this book I actually wrote on sabbatical two and a half years ago. I wasn’t planning to finish it but I just knew I wanted to write every day and have that as one of my main practices and it ended up happening.
I’m actually working on a biography now and I’m finding it much more difficult because the kind of research that has to happen is of a different level. I am actually in this precise moment feeling more anxiety about that because that’s basically the time I have. The rest of my time is given to church and family. So, every once in a while, if there’s a week here or there where I don’t have to preach or other things are less pressing I’ll slip in some extra time but I am definitely wondering how this is going to work.
I know that struggle when you’re trying to be precise about some things, like you’d have to do with a research-oriented book, coming back to it after you’ve gone away from it for a while. It’s so much uploading of information again just to get to the point where you can write again.
Yeah that’s right!
photo by Peter Feghali via Unsplash
Anything else about the book that you would particularly like folks to know?
I would be really pleased if people read this book and felt more hopeful. Because I feel like we’re in a time that’s devoid of hope.
Winn Collier is the pastor of All Souls Church in Charlottesville. You can access his blog at winncollier.com.