There’s still time to sign up for this great weekend workshop…
There’s still time to sign up for this great weekend workshop…
“In the quiet, secret night she was by herself again. It was not late–yellow squares of light showed in the windows of the houses along the streets. She walked slow, with her hands in her pockets and her head to one side. For a long time she walked without noticing the direction.
“Then the houses were far apart from each other and there were yards with big trees in them and black shrubbery. She looked around and saw she was near this house where she had gone so many times in the summer. Her feet had just taken her here without knowing…
“The radio was on as usual. For a second she stood by the window and watched the people inside. The bald-headed man and the gray-haired lady were playing cards at a table. Mick sat on the ground. This was a very fine and secret place. Close around were thick cedars so that she was completely hidden by herself.”
—Carson McCullers, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter
What’s your fine and secret place? Come write about it at the Porches. Just a few spaces left.
“For all my love of rivers, ‘our nation’s rivers’ have not moved me once. The rivers that move me are those I’ve fished, canoed, slept beside, lived on, nearly drowned in, dreamed about, sipped tea and wine by, taught my kids to swim in, pulled a thousand fish from, fought and fought to defend. I’ve come to suspect, for this reason, that is only the personal geography–the one experienced in daily depth–that can in fact be in-habited, and only the personal geography that has that Yeatsian ability to connect us, root to root, to people or places we’ve never met…
“The personal geographies conveyed via the arts converge in our interiors, create resonance, expand knowing through mysterious soul-to-soul empathy. Whereas ‘the national water situation,’ I have come to suspect, will never create anything more artful than bureaucrats.”
—David James Duncan, My Story as Told by Water, p. 72-73.
If that stirred your soul…consider joining Alex for a writing retreat where the Tye meets the James…
On visiting Hunterdale with kin long after Grandma died:
It was pathetic to look at–
Grandma’s glorious garden overgrown with grass.
Her long back yard littered
with automotive and boat wrecks.
The scuppernong vines half
the size they were back when.
Still, amidst the mess, I could make out the spot
where I first knew my Uncle Bill as the person he was.
I could hear him talking with my dad over the neighbor’s arbor.
The rich, languid pace of Bill’s voice.
The more clipped but equally spacious tones of my father.
The rhythm so familiar.
The timbre soothing
in the deep way of Grandma’s stillness.
And there I was,
looking at the spot where a great tree once stood
and beneath which I watched
Uncle Bill work on his journal.
It was a rag tag Woolworth’s notebook of a thing
filled with random quotes and stray reflections,
clippings from newspaper cartoons and articles.
I was transfixed.
In the summer of ’77, I would have been 13 years old and full of life.
Maybe it was ’78.
When I got back home
I bought a big, spiral-bound thing with a purple cover–
and started my own.
I didn’t know what to do with it.
It was enormous all empty like that.
I filled it with Mark Trail comics
and paeans to Uncle Bill
and lost and found loves.
In such lost groves and abandoned arbors,
beneath trees that only root in memory now,
in books with uninked pages,
in the company of blood so strange and yet familiar,
the writing life–
it came for me.
Do you like where Heartlands goes–exploring the places that make the world rich and miraculous? Would you like to develop that sense of place in your own writing?
Then why not come to the first Heartlands writing weekend? Located at The Porches Writing Retreat, in beautiful, secluded Norwood, Virginia–a site featured in a 2017 Heartlands interview. Spaces are limited! Email: email@example.com
Kwame Alexander, Newberry Award-winning author of The Crossover, looked out across the sea of 2,000 introverts and defied every tenet of writerly reserve. “Say ‘yes,’” he said. Say ‘yes’ to the opportunity, the challenge, even to the indignities of selling your work. There is power in your words.
Kwame has a bus now with a living room and seven flat-screen TVs. His name is scrawled across the side. He got his break taking a hay bale and 100 copies of his book to a farmer’s market in Reston, Virginia. Now he’s traveling the country on a 30-day tour.
His confidence and energy was enough to make even the most reluctant writer stand up and cheer, which we did. Speaking as the opening keynote of the 2018 Festival of Faith and Writing, Alexander said, “I have faith in my writing.”
I needed that.
This is my sixth visit to the FFW. The biennial gathering of authors, publishers, readers, and others never fails to inspire. Even before Kwame took the stage at the Van Noord Arena at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, I was primed.
I was recalling the 2008 session when I first heard Mary Karr talk about the spiritual advisor who asked her, “What would you write if you weren’t afraid?” I walked out of the session, sat under a nearby tree, asked myself the same question, and God spoke. It was the Renaissance of my writing life.
I remembered Gene Luen Yang in 2010 who turned me on to graphic novels like his American Born Chinese, and briefly made me believe I could draw. The poets Mary Szybist and Kimberly Johnson whose shared session in 2014 made me a daily reader of poetry. Franz Wright, Marilynne Robinson, Scott Cairns, Krista Tippett—I met them all here.
So yesterday, I soaked in the vibe, ready to hear God again in these varied artists. I attended a session on editing and learned that the double space after periods is dead. I got to talk with The Atlantic’s Emma Green about reporting from the Holy Land. Jonathan Merritt taught me how to be a blogger, (reminding me of how much he influenced the form of Heartlands). And I cringed at the world of publicity that a panel of writers and publicists opened up.
I also sat under the tree again—the Michigan Tree as I call it. A scrubby spruce in front of Calvin Seminary. I remembered what I had heard God say, so clearly, before—Be free, tell the truth, don’t do it alone, seek the peace of Szybist. And transgressing propriety, I asked for something more.
The tree is a reliable means of grace and did not disappoint yesterday either. “Travel light,” I heard. “Be less than you think you have to be,” I heard. “Embrace,” I heard.
There is power in words. And beauty. And life.
2017 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?
Heartlands 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?
8. 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.
4. 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.
1. 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!
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!
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.
In the first part of my interview with Winn Collier, pastor of All Souls Charlottesville and author of Love Big. Be Well.: Letters to a Small-Town Church, we talked about his decision to set his novel in a small town. We also talked about the use of letters as a way to tell the story of a pastor and his congregation. In this segment we dig deeper into why small congregations should treasure a particular kind of inefficiency. Click on the title link for my review of the book.
I know you lived in Waco, Texas. Did you grow up there?
From sixth grade on, yes.
Before Chip and Joanna Gaines turned it into what it is today right?
Exactly. Now it is the Magnolia Mecca.
Yes, and with the new Baylor football stadium.
Oh, it’s massive. Yeah, it’s changed drastically since when I was there.
So, when you were there it was probably more of a small city. You’re living in a small city now. How much is Charlottesville or the places you’ve lived before in the place you imagine in the new book?
[The fictional town of Granby is] definitely smaller than any place I’ve lived so in that sense its feels very different but it feels like a lot of places that I’ve maybe visited. It’s probably more like places that I drive through and maybe towns that I’ve visited when we lived in Colorado. One of my favorite authors is Kent Haruf and all of his stories are set in one fictional town in Colorado, and there’s just something I think that I love about that. So it’s just where I go.
Where I live now on the Eastern Shore is very rural and I’m working with a whole lot of churches that feel like the kind of church you’re imagining in the book. Confronting a narrative of despair and decline is a huge challenge. Do you see new opportunities even in places like that?
Absolutely! I absolutely do. In fact I think in some ways these small, rural churches are actually on the front lines of what’s happening because it’s a place where we are grappling with the most human realities that we are struggling with. Sometimes in massive churches with massive resources, that are run in many ways like a Fortune 500 corporation, they are actually more disconnected from some of the harsher struggles that our communities are facing.
I’m not trying to paint one as bad and the other one as good. I think these large churches also are able to amass energy and resources towards large questions and they are able to ignite some kind of movement and responses to things. Sometimes it’s really helpful and sometimes it’s very short-sighted.
In some of our larger expressions of faith it’s just very difficult to keep the human at the center and if the incarnation tells us anything is that this joining of humanity with God is at the very heart of what God’s doing in the world. To be large and efficient you have to, in some ways, reduce the inefficiency of what comes from human relationships.
In the smaller churches that’s not even a question. Everything is inefficient. And that’s seen typically as a real negative and I want to say: Let’s flip that story because it’s not. It has its own struggles. It has its own questions about sustainability and we have to be creative about those sorts of things, but there are things a small church is attuned to and can respond to and be for people that a large church absolutely never can.
“To be large and efficient you have to, in some ways, reduce the inefficiency of what comes from human relationships. In the smaller churches that’s not even a question. Everything is inefficient. And that’s seen typically as a real negative and I want to say: Let’s flip that story because it’s not.”
In some ways, lots of small churches spread all over the vastness of our country is actually our hope way more than a growing handful of massive churches. So I think that there’s actually a lot of hope there and in lots of churches where people are.
What I find most encouraging and interesting and hopeful is those small churches that really are reflections of their community. They really are a part of the fabric of the life of that community. They’re living out a parish model that most of the rest of us are doing our best to try to fabricate and so were left at the end of the day doing the best we can. We do have to do the best we can but doing the best we can is trying to fabricate something. That’s why we have things such as small group ministry. It’s important because where else are you going to get connected? But we have to be honest and say were having to do this because we are so uprooted and because our lives are no longer bound together.
We’re no longer working in a couple square blocks or neighboring our neighbors farm, and were no longer going to one another’s place when it’s time to harvest, pulling up tobacco or corn or what have you. We’re no longer showing up at the same diner at noon for lunch as three or four of our other friends and we’re going to see them two or three times a week because there’s only one or two places to eat in town. We have three churches to choose from and it’s one of the three and five times a year those churches are going to get together and do pancake suppers.
That kind of life that was so common fifty years ago, for many of us, because we’ve moved to urban centers, has been obliterated and so now we’re trying to find ways to get people in proximity. That’s always, to some degree, going to feel orchestrated because it is. In small churches all they have is each other and the storyline they’re being told is that’s the problem, and I think it’s a gift.
The final segment of this interview, ‘God, love, God, love,’ can be found here.
When Amy Quitman writes a letter to the unknown pastor that the Pastoral Search Committee hopes to call to their Presbyterian church in the small town of Granby, she includes an invitation that would set the hearts of potential candidates like me aflutter:
We want theology, but we want the kind that will pierce our soul or prompt tears or leave us sitting in a calm silence, the kind that will put us smack-dab in the middle of the story, the kind that will work well with a bit of Billy Collins or Mary Karr now and then. Oh, and we like a good guffaw. I’ll be up-front with you: we don’t trust a pastor who never laughs. (5)
Jonas McAnn, unhappily stationed in a cubicle as an insurance company employee, answers the invite, as you might expect he would. After all, his folder of potential church profiles and questionnaires is sitting beneath a stack of books that includes the likes of John Irving and Karl Barth. Burned by his previous pastorates, Jonas is tired of plans, programs, and church growth strategies. A lover of beauty, he is looking for an opportunity to be a pastor:
“Lots of churches don’t actually want a pastor,” he writes back to Granby Presbyterian. “They want a leadership coach or a fundraising executive or a consultant to mastermind a strategic takeover (often performed under the moniker of evangelism or missional engagement)…Too much pastoral leadership literature recirculates anxious efforts to make the church significant or influential or up-to-date, as if they need to harangue the church into becoming something. I think my job is to remind the church that she already is something. Can we settle down and be who we are, where we are?” (12-13)
The epistolary match-making works and soon Jonas is moving his family to the mountains of Virginia.
Winn Collier’s Love Big. Be Well.: Letters to a Small-Town Church [William B. Eerdman’s, 2017] is a gentle, human love story that begins with these two letters and continues with many more. It is a novel that has big things to say yet finds its transcendence by staying close to home. For instance, when the church plans for a new eucharistic table, two members suggest using trees from the church property and Jonas reports:
Now, every Sunday, we receive grace around a table intricately woven into our story, our place. It’s true that a church in Seattle could feast at this table, but it’s also true that it wouldn’t mean nearly as much to them. Particulars matter. Stories matter. Places matter. (130)
There’s more than a little Wendell Berry in Collier’s small town characters. They value the small, the local, the sustainable. And they celebrate the elemental gifts of long-lived community.
Pastor Jonas is continually directing his congregation’s focus to interactions that could be easily overlooked, such as the significance of a BBQ dinner with friends or breakfast at Stu’s with the Order of the Roasted Bean. “Showing up, doing the work, being together–that’s our liturgy,” Jonas writes to his congregation. “And it matters.” (99)
As a denominational official in The United Methodist Church who works with many pastors and programs, I appreciate Collier’s empathetic portrayal of a small church and its clergy leader. Explicitly and implicitly, those who labor in small churches are often told that they don’t measure up–that they need to be more than they are. Jonas pushes back:
When religious experts suggest an identity update, the whole proposal amounts, in my book, to nothing more than a grand slogan and a fresh coat of paint. We could try to re-envision ourselves as a community center or a social advocacy firm if we want to wrench ourselves trying to fit into someone else’s clothes. But look, we are the church. We’re incompetent at most endeavors, but the Spirit has gifted us with divine energy to live into a simple and straightforward vocation. Gathered at Jesus’s table, we feast on true life and then disperse into our run-of-the-mill lives as witnesses to the Kingdom of this Jesus who loves the whole world. The world needs more of who we are, not less. (26)
Rural churches and pastors are having a hard time of it these days. The letters that Jonas writes to his parishioners are a tonic for weary souls seeking to be faithful with what always seems like less. Shining through Jonas’s words are those of the author, who shares his art and wisdom as the pastor of All Souls Church in Charlottesville, Virginia. (Winn also writes regularly on his self-titled blog.)
Without calling attention to itself, Collier’s writing delves deeply into questions of prayer, baptism, and the nature and mission of the Church–all sprinkled with humor, quotes from literary and theological greats, and a lot of love.
Jonas McAnn is the kind of pastor I want to have and strive to be. Winn Collier is the kind of writer we all need for such a time as this.
Check out my interview with Winn Collier.