Some words about writing and faith
2007-10-09 by Nora Gallagher

I am now in the second day of writing this sermon, and I am reminded of words I have used when teaching writing. I am trying to find the language from my own life that speaks to this gospel, or vice versa. How this gospel speaks to my own life. To give you some background:

 When I set out to write my first memoir, Things Seen and Unseen, I did not actually set out to write a book. I had been keeping a journal over several years at the request of my spiritual director. At the same time, as a journalist, I had been trying to sell a book proposal about families in Eastern Europe. I think nearly every publisher in New York turned it down.  Then my agent at the time fired me.

When I came to my director with this sad story, she suggested I take a look at my “spiritual” journal to see what was there.  We are talking scraps of paper, different journals (I have a penchant for collecting nice looking journals and then abandoning them halfway through the year), even scribbles on napkins. But I was surprised to see that in this collection of stuff there was raw material that might be worth developing.  There were some interesting stories, some half-baked ideas, a few insights that might be enlarged. I sat down and started to grapple. What I found was that I began to understand what had happened to me, that is, I began to understand what faith was for me in the act of trying to write about it. 

But I was often waylaid by trying to fit my words into “religious” writing. I found myself wavering between writing down what felt like the honest truth and writing that was too earnest, virtuous, or idealistic. If I did not know exactly how I felt about an experience I’d had in the soup kitchen where I worked or at the altar where I received, I veered towards resolving my confusion too early by settling for a hackneyed religious term: I experienced “grace” in the kitchen; I was “blessed” at the table. 

When I tried to describe what it was like for me to hear God speaking, for example, I, at first, afraid to fully investigate what this meant for me, used words that had been used by others: God’s voice was “soft,” “a whisper.” But that wasn’t right; neither word conveyed my experience.

Then I was reminded of a few hours I had spent in a Jewish museum in Prague. In this museum were children’s drawings from Terezin, the village on the northern Czech border that the Nazis turned into a transport camp for Jews. Some of the drawings were of children threatened by thunderbolts or dark monsters, but many of them were the kinds of things–butterflies, a tree with grass–that contemporary parents might attach to a refrigerator with a magnet for a few weeks or toss in a drawer, ephemeral, not particularly valued because there would be more of them. But these drawings were encased in glass and kept safe because there would be no more, the children were dead.

As I walked among them, I noticed that the other visitors in the museum with me were silent, but alert, as if they were listening.  We were listening because it was as if the children were speaking. I knew they were speaking and it seemed to me that the others around me knew, too, and if we all listened hard enough we could make out the words.

That was how it was for me when I heard God speaking, that level of intense listening, in a company of people, with that level of tenderness and dread, grief and compassion, and that level of knowing that the voice that was speaking knew something invaluable. I wrote out that story, and concluded,, “Sometimes I think faith is only about increasing peripheral vision, peripheral hearing.”

Each step of the way in writing that memoir, I had to fight off the tendency to use generic words and, instead, find my own. I had to avoid the cheery optimism that creeps into so much religious writing– in self-improving tracts, daily meditations, and sermons. An optimism that is rarely earned. (Nor is it related to the message of the gospels, which are the opposite of optimistic.) I began to wonder if cheery optimism is actually the enemy of faith; it is certainly the enemy of faith writing. The same was true of hope. Too much church writing ends on a hopeful note, I realized. Hope, if it does arise, must come up out of the situation; it cannot be tacked onto the story.

No, none of this would work if I were to write a book that felt real to me and actually conveyed my experience. I had to find the metaphor, the turn of phrase, the description that was mine.  And (we know this from every kind of writing) once I found that unique way of describing my experience, it had a chance of connecting to the reader. 

  The great “faith” memoirs, like Thomas Merton’s Seven Storey Mountain, or Dorothy Day’s The Long Loneliness, are not successful because they set out  to persuade the reader to become a Christian, but because the words are alive on the page and the writer is on a voyage of discovery. 

But they also signify more than that: One of the talismanic pieces of writing I kept near me as I wrote was an essay  about van Gogh by John Berger. In this essay, “The Production of the World,” Berger describes going to a gathering of socialists in Amsterdam, an annual meeting he had attended for many years. But something was wrong. He felt separated from himself, depressed. “The connection between words and what they signified had been broken. It seemed to me that I was lost; the first human power–the power to name–was failing.” Nothing seemed to work: joking, lying down, drinking coffee, not drinking coffee. Finally he decided to go the van Gogh museum to see a friend who worked there, not to see the paintings. He needed van Gogh, he writes, “like a hole in the head.” But as he walked past “The Potato Eaters” and then “The Cornfield with a Lark”, he could not help but glance at them.  Then he stopped and looked. Within two minutes, he was reassured, calmed, restored.

Berger thinks about this encounter with the paintings. He is careful not to generalize too much from his experience, but he says some wise things about the nature of great paintings, about van Gogh in particular and the nature of making art. He says that events in life are always at hand. But the coherence of events is not.  He calls that coherence “reality.” And reality, normally, “ lies behind a screen of clichés. Every culture produces such a screen, partly to facilitate is own practices (to establish habits) and party to consolidate its own power. Reality is inimical to those with power.” 

He concludes : “For an animal its natural environment and habitat are a given. For a man [sic]…reality is not a given: it has to be continually sought out, held–I am tempted to say–salvaged.”   

This is as wonderful a description of what artists and writers try to do as I ever found. Our work is to salvage reality from behind the screen of clichés.  Both Day and Merton do that in their memoirs; van Gogh does that in his paintings. With this in mind, the need to break through clichés when writing about faith or anything else, is even more important. At risk is the very coherence of reality. The struggle to find the right word is often hard and painful and I certainly want to give it up but when I break through that screen, I can sense a living reality there, what a friend calls the Really Real, as close a description of God as I need. 

Have not, as yet, broken through this week but it's worth the effort.

Nora Gallagher, Healing, This Week's Readings, Nobel Prize
2007-10-09 by David von Schlichten

Healing is prominent in this week's Gospel from Luke 17. Healing is also prominent in 2 Kings 5, the story of the healing of Naaman, which some have as the first lesson for Sunday.

Others have as the first lesson Jeremiah 29, which speaks of the people in exile needing to have patience. Deliverance will eventually come, but, for now, the people are to make themselves at home in Babylon. Perhaps, in this case, the healing comes through the people adopting the mindset of patience.

It is exciting to hear from Nora Gallagher, our guest blogger this week. Scroll down to read her first entry, which has some stimulating thoughts about healing. Many of us in the Church would benefit from a broader, richer understanding of healing, and Nora Gallagher's first blog entry helps us in that direction. 

Gallagher has listed as her first lesson Ruth 1, which tells of Naomi's misfortune and Ruth's poignant commitment to her, another form of healing. By the way, 2 Kings 5, Luke 17, and Ruth 1 all feature a foreigner receiving healing or behaving in a manner worthy of emulation. 

We look forward to more from our guest blogger. Nora Gallagher has received much critical acclaim as an intelligent, poetic, spiritually edifying writer. She is the author of the non-fiction books Things Seen and Unseen: A Year Lived in Faith and Practicing Resurrection, as well as a new novel, Changing Light. One of her sermons appears in the collection Sermons that Work. She is the preacher-in-residence at Trinity Episcopal Church in Santa Barbara, preaches widely as a guest, and is on the board of advisors of Yale Divinity School. You'll be able to hear her speak at the 2008 Festival of Homiletics in Minneapolis.

Thanks be to God for the healing we have received so far from all our guest bloggers.

Soon I will post my weekly highlights of the articles for this week from Lectionary Homiletics.

One final note: today it was announced that a German and French physicist will share the Nobel Prize in Physics for their work in magnetics that has helped to make computer hard drives much more efficient and powerful. Without the contribution of these two people (another form of healing?), I imagine blogging would be a tad more difficult.

Yours in Christ,

David von Schlichten, poedifier

2007-10-09 by David von Schlichten

The Essence of Healing
2007-10-08 by Nora Gallagher

Ruth 1:(1-7) 8-19a; 2 Timothy 2:(3-7) 8-15; Luke 17:11-19; Psalm 113

I am currently immersed in the historical Jesus which is taking my faith down a new channel, and so one of the first things I do these days is check to see if a passage I will preach on is thought to be Jesus’ actual words. This passage in Luke is not. I haven’t solved exactly how to preach on Jesus (not) without forcing the congregation through more than they wanted to know about biblical scholarship, although I may tackle some of that problem this week. 

According to The Five Gospels, (Funk, Hoover and the Jesus Seminar), this story isn’t Jesus talking, it’s the author of Luke and only appears in Luke. He probably got the general idea from the author of Mark (from passage 1:40-45). Possible reason for including it in his gospel?  Luke had a special interest in foreigners. Fun detail: it doesn’t make geographical sense to “pass between” Galilee and Samaria as Samaria separates Galilee from Judea (and Jerusalem) on the west bank of the Jordan. We may conclude that the author had only a general knowledge, says The Five Gospels, of the region.

Nevertheless, the story is compelling to me and what I’ve been thinking about since reading it a while back is: What is healing? What is the essence of healing?   To begin an answer: the essence of healing may be to write a new story or to have the capacity to write a new story.

When I started analysis, I discovered I had a set of unconscious rules: I enacted and reenacted old, painful patterns. (“Her cooking’s lousy, her hands are clammy,” sings Tom Lehrer, “ but what the hell, it’s home.” )  I preserved the past this way, embalmed the dead. During the first year of analysis, I thought, this is easy, I’ll change. To my surprise, it was nearly impossible. It was as if I were a thermostat with a set temperature. I had formed a complete (or incomplete) self around these simple rules: I won’t get what I need. I have to solve everyone’s problems. It’s better to build up resentment, provoke a fight and then lick my wounds in private.

In the work of therapy, as the old rules and their origins surfaced, I began to see possibility. James Hillman, the Jungian analyst, writes about how the patient and the analyst work together to “rewrite the case history into a new story.”  Hillman continues, “Some of the healing that goes on, maybe even the essence of it is this collaborative ‘fiction,’ this putting all the chaotic and traumatic events of a life into a new story.” [from “A Note on Story,” in Loose Ends (Dallas: Spring Publications, 1975), 2.]

This, of course, leads us straight to resurrection and the idea of writing a story in general, a favorite theme of this writer. One of the thoughts I have about this gospel is that it may be a way to talk about finding one’s own language for one’s own experiences of God, rather than the “pre-fab” language taught to us by institutionalized religion.

More soon.

A favorite communion quote
2007-10-06 by Jim Somerville

I love this quote about communion from Dom Gregory Dix’s The Shape of the Liturgy.  In speaking of Jesus’ command to “Do this in remembrance of me” he asks,

Was ever another command so obeyed?  For century after century . . . men have found no better thing than this to do for kings at their crowning and for criminals going to the scaffold; for armies in triumph or for a bride and bridegroom in a little country church; for the proclamation of a dogma or for a good crop of wheat; for the wisdom of the Parliament of a mighty nation or for a sick old woman afraid to die; for a schoolboy sitting an examination or for Columbus setting out to discover America (p. 742).

In all these circumstances, through all these centuries, whatever else they may or may not have done, Christian men and women have done this.

Let’s do it again tomorrow.


Jim Somerville is pastor of the First Baptist Church of the City of Washington, DC; adjunct professor of preaching at the John Leland Center for Theological Studies; and one-time host of the Festival of Homiletics.

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