Yesterday, with barely a pause between finishing my second of two books by Barbara Brown Taylor, I picked up my first of three Ernest Hemingway novels — and read my way through a third of its pages.
But now it’s Sunday. And since it’s another Sunday in a string of Sundays where I’ve felt no desire to attend church — I feel an unexplainable urge to put aside words of Ernest (for today) to spend more time with Barbara’s — in part, because she was once a practicing priest — in part, because she is, at present, a professor of world religion at some small liberal arts school in Georgia, and in largest part, because the titles of her books — Leaving Church and An Altar in the World — happen to mesh so well with the flavor of my Sundays at the moment.
Having just finished these books one after another, it’s hard to decide what to offer up. I know I can’t write a review, per se, since the experience these books provide is not from a reading of words as much as from a reading of the reader. These are living works — that is, while we could easily read the same words, different readers will notice different phrases as being meaningful, and the same reader might pick up on different meaningful phrases with each new reading. What felt important to me this time, may not be for you and may not for me — next time. (And I hope there will be a next time.) And yet, even if I were to jot down every word from these books that caught my eye and tugged at my heart (this time)– to do so would serve neither them nor us, as all that cutting and pasting would only chop the books to shreds.
So, after a careful re-reading of my many underlined words, I’ve decided the best I can do is leave two Sunday offerings — by taking a single leaf from each to share as a sacred souvenir of my January wanderings with Barbara:
“…The good news of God in Christ is, “You have everything you need to be human.” There is nothing outside of you that you still need — no approval from the authorities, no attendance at temple, no key truth hidden in the tenth chapter of some sacred book. In your life right now, God has given you everything that you need to be human.’” — from Leaving Church [page 219]
“Popular religion focuses so hard on spiritual success that most of us do not know the first thing about the spiritual fruits of failure. When we fall ill, lose our jobs, wreck our marriages, or alienate our children, most of us are left alone to pick up the pieces. Even those of us who are ministered to by brave friends can find it hard to shake the shame of getting lost in our lives. And yet if someone asked us to pinpoint the times in our lives that changed us for the better, a lot of those times would be wilderness times.” — from An Altar in the World [page 78]
These words spoke to me and speak to me still. They beg certain questions, questions like — What does it mean to be human? — And what does the wilderness teach me about being human? Why even the way I’ve framed these questions shows I believe the offerings may not be two but one — and if not one, that at least somehow connected. Even if only flip sides of the same coin.
Hope no one feels cheated.
Cheated? Hardly. You could have stopped with the photo of that gorgeous tree and it would have been fine. (Sycamore?) Still, I’m glad to know about Barbara – I’ve never heard of her. I assume she’s Episcopalian (or was – maybe still is) since you used the word “priest”.
Your third paragraph is a pretty good explication of Luther’s doctrine of living word. His language was a little different, being 16th century and all, but the concept is the same. It gets proven all over the place – I laugh now and then when I look at comments on a blog post, and discover every single one is picking up on something different.
What I like most of all, here, is “you have all you need to be human”. Unfortunately, there are a lot of folks out there selling the story that we need to be more than human, or that we need to escape our humanity.
If being human weren’t enough, it might be worth asking why God went to all the trouble of incarnation and redemption. 😉
Of course you’re right. The photo of that winter Sycamore is art beyond words. The white of its bark. It’s open branching, naked of leaves. It’s form. It’s seed pods hanging on for dear life, not knowing they must drop to the ground, bury themselves in dirt in order to live and make more art. Can this, too, be part of what it means to be human?
To your question, Barbara is an Episcopal priest — still ordained, but no longer associated with a church. She writes of faith without drawing boundaries and I like that about her. Her church of worship has become, more often than not, the great outdoors — and of course, I like that about her too. Her pair of books is heavily underlined — as I said — and though I ‘finished’ the second book last week, I’m not yet ready to let it go to the library shelves. A seedpod perhaps?
You know, I’ve never read anything of Luther, but of course, somewhere in the Bible, there is a teaching about the word of God being alive — and I had this in mind as I wrote about Barbara’s books. It just came to be — Hebrews 4 is the home of that passage. Yes, I’ve just found the words — verses 12 and 13 — and see how perfect they close out my response? — as it points to creation and art like that Sycamore, “uncovered and laid bare.”
“12 For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. 13 Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.”
Nope, it doesn’t surprise me that the core of ‘my’ thoughts on ‘living words’ weren’t original.”