Sunday, July 31, 2022

Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry: A Review

G.C. Meyers From a Distance
Reading Hannah Coulter, by Wendell Berry, is like coming back to the home place where you once lived.

Berry's writing is filled with clarity, nostalgia, wisdom, and longing.

His novel continues the saga of Port William, the mythical Kentucky of his youth, where he has lived his entire life.

Modern-day attempts to paint the picture of a time past often fail, because they are fueled by sarcasm or over-sentimentality, or ignorance, Berry's version is crystal clear and rings true.

Here is his description of Christmas dinner:

"There were sixteen of us around the long table in the dining room. The table was so beautiful when we came in that it seemed almost a shame not to just stand and look at it. Mrs. Feltner had put on her best tablecloth and her good dishes and silverware that she never used except for company. And on the table at last, after our long preparations, were our ham, our turkey and dressing, and our scalloped oysters under their brown crust. There was a cut glass bowl of cranberry sauce. There were mashed potatoes and gravy, green beans and butter beans, corn pudding, and hot rolls. On the sideboard were our lovely cakes on cake stands and a big pitcher of custard that would be served with whipped cream."

Early on in Hannah Coulter, Hannah loses her husband, Virgil, to World War I. Hannah finds herself comparing her loss of a husband to Mr. and Mrs. Feltner's loss of a son (Virgil): "The difference between me and Mr. and Mrs. Feltner, as I had to see and feel even in my own grief, was that they were old and I was young. I was filled with life, with my life and Virgil's life, with the life of our baby, and with other lives that might, in time, come to me. But the Feltner's had begun to be old. Life had quit coming to them, and was going away. I was young enough for life to be generous with me. The husband I lost in the war, as it turned out, was not to be my only husband."

Hannah's other husband was to be Nathan Coulter. 

It is at this point that Berry reveals the theme of Hannah Coulter, and goes on to write some f the most beautiful words I've ever come across.

"I began to know my story then," Hannah tells us. "Like everybody's, it was going to be the story of living in the absence of the dead. What is the thread that holds it all together? Grief, I thought for a while. And grief is there sure enough, just about all the way through. From the time I was a girl I have never been far from it. But grief is not a force and has no power to hold. You only bear it. Love is what carries you, for it is always there, even in the dark, but shining out at times like gold stitches in a piece of embroidery. 

G.C. Myers 
"Sometimes too I could see that love is a great room with a lot of doors, where we are invited to knock and come in. Though it contains all the world, the sun, moon, and stars, it is so small as to be also in our hearts. It is in the hearts of those who choose to come in. Some do not come in. Some may stay out forever. Some come in together and leave separately. Some come in and stay, until they die, and after. I was in it a long time with Nathan. I am still in it with him."

There is a beauty to the melancholy that Berry weaves.

"Sometimes I imagine another young couple, strong and full of desire, coming quietly into this old house that will be empty again of all that is of any use, and will be stale and silent and dingy with dust, and they will see it shining before them as Nathan and I saw it fifty-two years ago. And I say, 'Welcome! Love each other. Love this place and use it well. Bless your hearts.'"

Berry is saddened by our obsession with progress for progress' sake. Hannah describes Nathan's decision, after seeing other worlds during WWII. "Most people are looking for 'a better place,' which means that a lot of them will end up in a worse one. I think this is what Nathan learned from his time in the army and the war. He saw a lot of places, and he came home. I think he gave up the idea that there is a better place somewhere else. There is no 'better place' than this, not in this world. And it is by the place we've got, and our love for it and our keeping of it, that this world is joined to Heaven."

Berry writes of the land from a deeply spiritual connectedness. Of the difference between being 'employed' and being a farmer, rooted in your home place. "One of the attractions of moving away into the life of employment, I think, is being disconnected and free, unbothered by membership. It is a life of beginnings without memories, but it is a life too that ends without being remembered. The life of membership [among neighbors] with all its cumbers is traded away for the life of employment that makes itself free by forgetting you clean as a whistle when you are not of any more use."

G.C. Myers
And as a consequence, the land suffers. 

Hannah laments "...the people who rent houses in Port William now are commuters who come here to live because they can't find 'a better place.' They usually don't intend to stay long, and usually they don't. And so the house suffers not only the wear of use, but also the wear of indifference."

Whatever happened to the concept of being a good steward?

Maybe I need to remember one of the lessons life taught Hannah Coulter. "Living without expectations is hard, but, when you can do it, good. Living without hope is harder, and that is bad. You have got to hope, and you mustn't shirk it. Love, after all, 'hopeth all things.' But maybe you must learn, and it is a hard learning, not to hope out loud, especially for other people. You must not let your hope turn into expectation."

Berry writes with eloquence about a former way of rural, small-town life, that has all but disappeared. "There was a time when Port William drew its members into itself every Saturday night to shop, talk, trade, court, play, argue, loaf, or whatever else they had to be together in order to do. Now Port William, or what is left of it, is most likely to assemble, not in Port William at all, but in the Tacker Funeral Home in Hargrave... We feel the old fabric torn, pulling apart, and we know how much we have loved each other."

Despite the changes in Port William and in the world around them, Hannah Coulter and Berry remain profoundly rooted and grounded. And it is this strength that lies at the heart of Hannah Coulter.

Saturday, July 23, 2022

Thoughts on Turning 70

Artist Credit: Red by Linda Harrison
Normally, I'm not one to think a lot about aging, but recently I turned 70.

Yikes, right?

In our Western (American) culture, that could be seen as something negative. Old age. Senior Citizen. Golden Years. Fill-in-the-blank.

What follows are some thoughts, for what they may (or may not) be worth.

Life is fleeting. Where did the time go? Does life equal time, chronologically speaking? So many years have gone by, with so many memories. People and events stick out but much of what's in-between is a blur. The point I'm trying to make is that being fully present, is very, very important. Being fully present, in the moment, is the mortar that holds us all together. Speaking of which...

We're all connected. To a lot of people, it may seem obvious. It took me a long time to wake up to this reality. A big help has been Richard Rohr's Center on Action & Contemplation. Rohr is a Franciscan priest who helped establish the Center decades ago. One of his main themes is that God is everywhere and in every part of creation. 

We have more in common than we have differences. We humans share about 99 percent of our DNA. But yet, there are astounding differences among us. The challenge is that we tend to focus on those differences. Be it political, the color of our skin, our country of residence, or religion. And differences can lead to prejudicial thinking. Speaking of which...

Religious prejudice is particularly harmful. I first became aware of religious prejudice, on a cultural level, when making trips to Northern Ireland, having the privilege of working with a husband-and-wife team focused on healing the divide between Catholics and Protestants. It was eye-opening. Growing up during the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, I saw prejudice based on skin color. But viewing prejudice through the lens of religion was an eye-opener.

Artist Credit: From A Distance by GC Myers
Back twenty or more years ago, border towns (between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland) often had one of two flags affixed to poles along the main roads into town. The Union Jack or the tricolor Flag of Ireland. In effect, those flags signaled, very obviously, if you were entering a "Catholic," or a "Protestant" town. And The Troubles had been fairly recent. Even now there is cultural fallout from this historical reality.

Maybe a reference point for those living in the US might be the tension between evangelical (mostly white), traditional Protestants and those who are more progressive in their interpretation of the Bible. Which brings up the point...

Insisting that a particular interpretation of organized religion is the only true version is mostly useless. I know it's a little ironic to make this statement, but I'm not trying to push a theological agenda or convince you. It's a position I hold, due to life experience, that's all.  We can disagree until the cows come home - about God, or theology - but when disagreement crosses into prejudice, that's breeding ground for hatred and ignorance.

Artist Credit: GC Myers Pittura.Scultura.Poesia.Musica
For me, the bottom line in regards to organized religion, is that organized religion should help us love each other and grow in our understanding of God. If it doesn't, then what's the point? Didn't Jesus once say that the two most important things in life were to love God and love each other - i.e. treat each other with kindness? I think Jesus knew what he was talking about.

Faith isn't the lack of doubt. It took me a long while to come to this conclusion, and it really isn't original to me.  But I've reached the point in life where I've come to understand that admitting that I don't know something opens up a wonderful opportunity to continually learn. Doubt that isn't addressed can be a breeding ground for fear and prejudice. To be clear, I'm not saying we can never form or hold opinions; I'm only saying I'm very aware that opinion is just that - it isn't universal truth. 

Monday, June 20, 2022

An Interview With Justin Fast: Samara Church, Faith, and Sustainability

Justin Fast/Courtesy of Justin Fast
Justin Fast is a network leader working at the intersections of sustainable food systems, public health, policy, and social enterprise to realize a world where all who hunger and thirst are satisfied with good things. He is also an ordained pastor in the Free Methodist Church and is the lead pastor of Samara Church.
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You’re the lead pastor of Samara Church in Lansing, MI. which has a form of gathering based upon a shared meal called ‘dinner church.’ Could you explain the concept?

The dinner church concept is a modern take on ancient communal meals known as Symposia that were the norm throughout the Mediterranean world and served as Christians’ primary gathering for at least the first two centuries of the fledgling faith. Symposia featured multi-course dining, unstructured social interaction, oration or teaching, structured dialogue, songs and prayers, all of which, together, constituted worship. Importantly, communion (the Eucharist) and care for the poor were crucial parts of each meal. Participants broke class, gender, racial, and political barriers together, as well as bread, and raised a glass in remembrance of – and in allegiance to – Jesus (instead of the Roman Emperor, as would have been the norm). Churches also used the Symposia to practice reciprocity within (and outside of) the community by sharing food and other belongings as needs arose.

What’s old is new again. Dinner church is simply the church gathered around the dinner table instead of in the pews (often, but not always, in members’ homes) - in much the same ways as our Symposia nearly 2,000 years ago. Jesus, the stories, the saints, and the sacraments, are all the same – but today, as then, much else changes within and across each gathering to meet the needs and reflect the unique contributions of specific locations and participants.

It does seem, at its root, the ‘dinner church’ idea harkens back to the beginnings of what followers of Jesus did shortly after he left the earth. I’ve often wondered what it would have been like to be an early follower, and why the church (at least according to the Gospels) spread so quickly. What caught your attention about the ‘dinner church’ concept?

Jesus, in his wisdom, repurposed a ritual meal as his central act of commemoration and instructed his followers to do the same. So gathering around a meal is faithful to the example of Jesus’ own life, ministry, and teaching. Dinner church is also relatively simple, inexpensive, and multifunctional compared to other forms of corporate worship or church programming – meeting many spiritual, physical, and communal needs at once. As a bivocational pastor who has worked for the emergency food bank network, in nutrition education programming, and as a sustainable food systems consultant, it connected all the dots – it just made sense. Our community could see that dinner churches had thrived in the past and were growing and replicating elsewhere in the present. All these factors caught our attention.

We had been planning and praying for three years or so before friends plainly asked us to regularly “have dinner together and share stories about Jesus with the kids.” Needless to say, that felt like answered prayer. We said “ok!”

What it must have been like to follow Jesus in person or after his death and resurrection really is a captivating thought! But it’s not purely a thought experiment.  Christian sacred writings and secular historians have much to say on the subject, including how Christians ate together.

Theologian and professor Dr. Hal Taussig stresses that Christian meal gatherings have long been living laboratories for social experimentation:

“The ritual meal … reproduced in a safe environment and in coded manner intimidating social issues so that they could be thought about (reflected), made better in the meal setting than in the society at large (perfected), or addressed obliquely in the society itself (deployed). By and large, the meals’ ritual component provided perspective and social intelligence for the longer-term address of an intractable social issue.”

 

Symposia were a primary context for practicing radical hospitality among the poor and powerless, from whom Christianity naturally drew many of its members. Christians had been feeding the hungry through our Symposia long before the first formal church building was erected in 231 A.D. and nearly two thousand years before the development of the modern charitable food bank network. By 250 A.D., Christians in Rome were feeding nearly 1,500 struggling residents each day. This focus on tangible love for the poor (love is often translated caritas in Latin, or charity in old English) is so central to Jesus’s teachings that the Apostle Paul reprimanded wealthy Corinthian Christians who began their meal gatherings before the poor arrived (1 Cor. 11:17–22).

 

On a more mundane level, preparation for, and participation in, the Symposia also oriented the life and service of the church, displaying the church’s values to the broader community, and welcoming “outsiders” into the fold. In essence, the meals functioned as “third spaces” for diverse and countercultural worship, organizing, resource allocation, and service – as both a context and a method to equip an unlikely family into a growing social movement (Christianity) that spread rapidly and grew dramatically as a result.

 

Christian scripture adds one all-important and encouraging credit statement to this, saying “the Lord [my emphasis] added to their number daily those who were being saved.” Secular research confirms that the Church spread and grew from an estimated 25,000 people by A.D. 100 to many millions of people by A.D. 300. We credit the work of the Holy Spirit for this transformation in communities worldwide.

 

Fast Family/Courtesy Justin Fast
In one of your sermons, you mentioned that one-in-five churchgoers isn’t sure where their next meal is coming from. Why is this important to you?

Most simply, it’s important to us that anyone is going hungry (churchgoers or not) because it’s important to God, who satisfies those who hunger with good things, both spiritual and material. Jesus inaugurated his earthly ministry by stating that he had come to proclaim good news to the poor. He initiated and embodied the Jubilee – a right-setting of systems and structures that oppressed the poor in Jewish society.

It should come as no surprise, then, that Jesus also said we would always have the poor among us. Many spin this verse in order to dismiss programs and initiatives intended to benefit low-income families. Yet at Samara, we see Jesus’ statement as a matter-of-fact – an identity statement.  If we are living as Jesus did and taught, and as the Holy Spirit empowers us to do today, we will be in community with the poor, the orphan, the outcast, and the widow – with those who hunger. There will always be hungry people in our midst. But in Christian community, we witness time and again that God satisfies their hungers.

This is a given. The rest is not. So answering the “Who, what, how, where, and when?” questions about our meal gatherings are always new and exciting.

On that last point, Samara Church’s website says dinner church includes: sustainability-sourced meals, no cost to participants (who are encouraged to contribute to the meal), communion (optional), and a scripture reading which is facilitated and discussed. Also, kids are welcome. Would you like to comment on any or all of these ingredients?

I love your reference to “ingredients” here. Most Christians are comfortable with the scriptural image of the Church as a body with many parts – none more or less important than another and all inseparably contributing to the life of the whole body. Nonetheless, we’ve separated the parts or “ingredients” of our gatherings in ways that do not always reflect this belief. The image of the Church’s gatherings as a multi-course meal with many ingredients is a really helpful one in this context. The sum (the dish) is more than the parts (the ingredients). The ingredients are crucial to the resulting dish, but the two are not one and the same.

Communion, charity, and daily meals were seminally related in the early Church’s communal meal gatherings. But like many other social movements, as Christians (the Church) and the Christian social movement (Christianity) institutionalized, we also began to specialize, separating into component parts what had once been holistic gatherings that met multiple ends (both sacred and mundane).

 

·         The Symposia’s commemoration of Jesus’ sacrificial death became the highly stylized communion or eucharistic ritual administered by ordained clergy.

 

·         Routine provision of food to the hungry eventually shifted out of church members’ homes (or even away from the Church) to institutionalized emergency food relief, distributed periodically by lay volunteers.

 

·         And the everyday meals of most Christians lost their religious function entirely, except for a prayer of thanksgiving that typically precedes them.

 

Over time we lost the synergy – the combined social, economic, ecological, and spiritual benefits of shared Christian table fellowship over specific place-based cuisines. 

 

Dinner church puts these “ingredients” back together in the form of Christian commensality that meets both spiritual and physical needs, establishes community bonds, embodies alternative practices that heal harmful cultural norms, and spreads the surface area of the Christian social movement once more.

 

Our local dinner church is fond of saying that we are ordinary people sharing extraordinary conversations at dinner tables throughout Greater Lansing.  Samara Church provides a place at the table unlike any other most of us have experienced – a network of families bringing faith to life through cooperative living and Christian discipleship over delicious, sustainably-sourced meals made with indigenous Mid-Michigan ingredients (or takeout, on days like that). All meals are free to participants, who are encouraged to contribute to the meal in some way. We share communion (optional) during or after the meal, followed by a scripture reading and facilitated discussion to apply the reading to daily life. Jesus said “Let the children come to me. Don’t stop them! For the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to those who are like these children.” We plan our gatherings with them in mind. No childcare required - they dine and worship with us.

 

Justin Fast & Son/Courtesy Justin Fast

We sometimes call ourselves spaghetti church – not just because we eat it, but because it feels like we have had to throw it at the wall and see what sticks! From the start, we committed to discipling each other in the way of Jesus as our primary end – and not confusing this end with the means. The end stays the same. The means can change. In relatively small dinner church gatherings, there is a genuine incentive for the Church to focus on lived discipleship – learning by doing – and applying Jesus’s teachings together. It’s a helpful context for experimenting and adapting. These gatherings unleash an enormous amount of creativity, goodwill, honest questions, and respectful dialogue in a context that’s just downright enjoyable – even and especially when we’re being real with each other about tough issues we all care (and often disagree) about deeply. Who doesn’t love a family picnic, a neighborhood block party, or a royal feast? As the Church, we just need to keep welcoming new family members, answering the question “who’s my neighbor?” in both very literal and ever-broadening ways (like Jesus did), and sending out those VIP invitations.  Evangelism (sharing Good News) takes on a whole new meaning when you’re seeing and celebrating its full extent regularly – and especially if there’s an “extra” (empty) chair at the table when after communion we ask “have all been served?”

 I don’t want to downplay the importance of commitment and follow-through in any way – God demonstrates that covenant relationship, belonging, and obedience are crucial to the life of faith in Jesus Christ. But pastoring a church plant like this has given me a new perspective of what these ideas mean and why they are important.  The more we gather in this way and the more we ask and answer “Who is our neighbor?” – the harder it becomes for us to answer “Who are our members?”  That’s okay. As Shane Claiborne puts it, “When someone asks us if we are Christians, I think the best answer is to tell them to ask the poor, the incarcerated, the immigrants and refugees, the widows and the orphans, the least of these. They will tell you who the Christians are.”  My prayer for Samara Church is nothing less than that.

  

It's interesting that you’ve chosen Samara Church as the name of your church. On your website, you explain that samara is the name for “the tiny winged seeds of sugar maple trees, that took root and spread throughout mid-Michigan after the last Ice Age… Even great forests have small beginnings, after all.”

Yes! The samara is an odd symbol for a church. And it’s worth noting that most Christian symbols are. We’ve long coopted the cross as our primary symbol – a Roman form of capital punishment and a gruesome symbol of imperial power – but we’ve also identified ourselves by numerous others, including a dove, fish (icthus), anchor, lamb (living or slain), and shepherds’ crook.

We feel the samara is similarly symbolic of our Christian faith, conveying a sense of place, promise, and purpose in at least four ways:

First, the samara is a nod to Jesus, who was fond of telling relatable stories with everyday metaphors to teach his listeners deeper truths.  He often used seed imagery in this way – e.g., “the Kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed” or “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” or “The Kingdom of Heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field” and so forth. As a seed, the samara is an apt metaphor for many elements of Christian life, not least new life and growth from death-to-self.

Second, the samara is a symbol of Mid-Michigan, the specific place we are called to steward as followers of a God who created and sustains all things and that – in spite of its current brokenness and decay – God has promised to restore; presently (and imperfectly!) through the Church and directly, in the future, when Jesus returns.

The Genesis creation story shared by Christians and Jews alike takes place in a forested garden where two trees (not just two people) play central roles. For Christians, that story (history) culminates in Heaven come to earth – a beautiful riparian garden descending from the throne of God, in which vast numbers of trees grow for the healing of the nations. The Old Testament prophet Isaiah captured this image beautifully, saying “the trees of the field will clap their hands” (a standing ovation of sorts) in praise of their Creator. Theologian Howard Snyder states it even more plainly: “salvation means creation healed.”

Against this backdrop, it’s easy to be captivated by the thought of hundreds of thousands of acres of lush beech-maple forest rustling in the wind, right here in mid-Michigan, whose sap the Anishinaabeg (Native Americans) used as food and medicine for centuries prior to white settlement. White settlers (many of them self-professed Christians) forcibly removed or murdered these Anishinaabe neighbors outright, slashing and burning the forests to plant annual row-crops. While this stark and contradictory past is often obscured or invisible to today’s residents of settler descent, the sugar maple trees are not.  They remain easily recognizable markers of our bioregion and – for anyone who knows the biblical story or the history of colonialism in this place – a poignant reminder that many wounds have yet to be healed here.

Moreover, much like in Anishinaabe practices and the biblical vision of Heaven just shared, the trees play a key role in the healing. Highly biodiverse mixed agroforestry systems are tremendous triple-bottom-line investments. And robust scientific evidence suggests they contribute significantly to human and planetary health, as well as their stewards’ profits. At Samara Church, we source much of what we consume at our dinners from this type of agricultural system, for exactly these reasons. The meal itself becomes a means of healing creation. It not only “does no harm,” but does good – contributing to reconciliation between people, God, and the rest of creation – through its sourcing and preparation.

It's simpler and more tangible than it sounds.  For example, one beautiful day we gathered on the back deck for public reading of scripture that proclaimed these truths.  Then the kids of Samara Church planted a pawpaw grove (originally brought here and curated by the Anishinaabe) that will one day nourish the Church and our broader community.

Third, the samara captures our desire to see the church replicate and spread as similar churches spring to life throughout Mid-Michigan. Once you see a samara, you will see literally millions of them, everywhere you look, come spring. The seed itself is small, unassuming, and very mobile – easily overlooked.  But the results – the great swaths of pristine beech-maple forest that took a receding glacier’s place throughout Mid-Michigan – are hard to deny. In our area, the sugar maple is part of a climax forest community that, once established, provides stability and habitat, moderates the climate, and purifies the air, among other “ecosystem services.”  We believe that the life of faith – living in allegiance to Jesus – is similar in many ways. Once you begin to see God at work in the community, including in and through the church – you will begin seeing him everywhere.  He will be hard to miss. This is true both of those departing our gatherings to live out Jesus’ teachings and of our church replicating and “spinning-off” daughter churches in other neighborhoods nearby. The Holy Spirit moves, the Church spreads, and healing follows.

Fourth and finally, samaras are a little goofy. We like that – So are we. And so is the life of faith.  Many of us have fond memories of playing with these “helicopters” or “whirligigs” as kids – throwing them in the air and watching them twirl back to the ground. Jesus said that to be a part of his Kingdom was to have childlike faith – and he never let the grownups tell the children to go away, but welcomed them as individuals for whom he cared deeply; students who asked good questions; and role models for the adults who had forgotten how to live in both the freedom and the obedience of a child whose father loves and looks out for them. We worship with our children – and with our children in mind. We do goofy things to help teach our kids about faith and hope and love and justice and mercy – and we have a lot of fun in the process. It’s weird. It’s tough. It’s often messy and imperfect (like we are).  But our community is better for it.

 

I’m really curious and eager to know how Samara Church is doing! Can you offer us an update?

We have always tried to practice everyday discipleship and radical Christian hospitality in faithfulness to Jesus’ example and teachings.  Jesus said “go,” not “grow,” so we have focused on spiritual growth and community development for the last three years, trusting that numeric growth is a natural byproduct of living in the type of community people crave and long to belong to. This has proven true time and time again. We began samara church with five people (our immediate family and one guest) and no marketing, entering more than two years of COVID-19 and related social and economic upheaval less than two years after our fledgling church began meeting. Because of this (not in spite of it), we have become more like an extended family, supporting one another as each member matures in faith and deeds by the power of the Holy Spirit. We’ve also grown fourfold, with over twenty people now joining us for dinner at our home as public health guidelines allow. It’s now time to seed new churches in the Samara network because, much like healthy maple trees, that’s what healthy churches do and have always done.

We are a racially diverse church (Black, White, and Arab) and are both challenged and sustained by this diversity. Much like our individual and collective weaknesses provide opportunities to exemplify God’s strengths, our community’s diversity brings multiple strengths, perspectives, joys, and burdens to the community that any one of us individually would likely never hear or see or feel. Together we bear each other’s burdens, support each other’s growth (including loving correction when needed), and celebrate each other’s successes. Together, we’ve thanked God for his love, his promises, and for each other as we processed George Floyd’s murder and ensuing protests; the COVID-19 pandemic; violence in Ukraine and in our schools, and findings unearthed in the U.S. Interior Department’s Boarding School Initiative report. And we’ve strategized and acted to respond accordingly to each.

Together we are also doing the difficult work of learning and reflecting on many of our own families’ contributions to colonization and indigenous genocide in Mid-Michigan. As Christians, we believe that we are “ministers of reconciliation” between people, between God, and the rest of creation and that “the truth sets us free.”  So as a local church, a body of Christians whose broader membership spans time and place, we must also wrestle with the notion that corporate sin requires corporate confession and that repentance does not have a statute of limitations.  Indigenous peoples and African Americans, in particular – whom God made in his own image and deeply loves – are still suffering as a result of the ever-present history we have shaped. Neither love nor justice can turn a blind eye to this fact. So Samara Church is working to understand what love demands of us in response and to build the interpersonal relationships necessary to pursue justice and healing.

The meal remains an important, multifunctional, and challenging practice for our community. Church members produce much of the food we eat, with a focus on wild and cultivated food crops indigenous to mid-Michigan.  What the church does not consume in our gatherings, we give to those struggling to make ends meet, both inside and outside of the church. As an act of repentance and a good-faith step toward truth and reconciliation with our Anishinaabe neighbors, we are growing out numerous culturally-important indigenous fruits and vegetables and repatriating the seeds with members of the Odawa (Ottawa), Ojibwe (Chippewa), and Bodéwadmi (Potawatomi) tribes, to whom these seeds (and the land in which they are grown) rightfully belong.

As our community grows, so too do our meals and our menu.  In Spring 2022 we received a land donation to expand current stewardship efforts into a network of small-to-midsized farms (everything from edible landscaping in the suburbs to rural farm acreage) that will supply our growing community’s meals, charity, and rematriation work. The agroecological practices we employ, while highly productive, are also ecologically sustainable, providing our neighborhoods tangible opportunities to participate in the healing of creation.

Lastly, our goal is always to equip and encourage each other to be disciples and disciple others every day – not simply to passively learn something from a church service once a week, but to apply whatever we do understand daily. Many in our church have young children, which provides a natural context for this discipleship.  Because literacy (including biblical literacy) begins with storytime, and because we could not gather together as a church during COVID lockdowns, we began curating and sharing a growing collection of books that contain, contextualize, or reinforce biblical teachings to help parents disciple their children on a daily basis. Books are categorized according to the Christian liturgical calendar, including major holidays; focus on applying scripture stories or teaching (e.g., the story of Jonah, Jesus’ teachings on prayer and enemy love, planting a tree, or sharing your food with someone who is hungry); and feature strong African American, Native American, and other representation (e.g., people with disabilities). We are currently exploring how best to make this collection available to other local churches and the broader public.

We are excited to be entering a season of celebrations, with new babies, multiple baptisms and dedications, and a wedding. Our playlists and grills are ready. Our homes are open. And the parties are about to begin.  There’s room at the table for you and you are always welcome to join us for the feasting!

Would you have any words of wisdom for anyone who might be interested in being part of the ‘dinner church’ movement?

It’s simpler than we sometimes make it. You don’t need to replicate the elements of a brick-and-mortar “church service” to be the church in your neighborhood.

Jesus told us to make disciples (invite others to join us as we put his teachings into practice in our daily lives), baptizing them and teaching them to obey what Jesus himself taught. He promises us that wherever two or more people are gathered in his name, he is with us, and he told us to remember him as often as we gather. To do this, he gave us a holy meal and an invitation – not just to join the feast (although he did that too), but to give our lives for our neighbors – just like he did.

You are his Church – so don’t be afraid to act like it. Take one step and invite someone to dinner.

I challenge you to join us in a little thought experiment that has changed our community’s culture from within. Whenever you see a “church,” call it a “church building.” Over time, you will begin to internalize the reality that “Church” is a particular and peculiar community of people, not the building in which we gather.

We have been practicing this with each other, and especially with our children, for several years now. It’s remarkable to see how acculturated we are at a very early age to view the Church primarily as an institution, and not as a community. Our speech signifies and reinforces this belief.  By changing our speech, we have come to change our reality.  We often visit our church, but we never “go to church.”  We’re far more likely to invite the church over for dinner; tell our church a story, or ask our church to pray for us. See the difference? #PeopleNotSteeples #ChurchIsNotABuilding #ChurchHasLeftTheBuilding

Those wishing to learn more or participate in the dinner church movement are welcome to join us to experience it firsthand (https://www.samara.church/rsvp) .  Also check out the following resources:

·         https://dinnerchurch.com/

·         https://www.facebook.com/Dinner.Church/

·        We Will Feast: Rethinking Dinner, Worship, and the Community of God by Kendall Vanderslice

·         From Symposium to Eucharist: The Banquet in the Early Christian World by Dennis Smith

·         In the Beginning Was the Meal: Social Experimentation & Early Christian Identity by Hal Taussig

Saturday, June 18, 2022

Pulling Out Stitches by Faith

Cath0lic Worker Joseph House/Mercedes Gallese
George asked me to pull the stitches out of his head.

He had slipped on some ice and fell. 

We were living at Joseph House, a Catholic Worker house of hospitality on First Street in New York City.

George had an appointment to get the stitches removed, but he wasn't going back to the emergency room where he had been treated. 

So there he sat, in the guys' dorm. I stood next to him with a pair of scissors.

He was perfectly comfortable letting me take them out. I wasn't.

I mentioned to George that I had worked in a few hospitals in two different emergency rooms when trauma medicine was the next new thing.

I had been an admitting clerk. The person who asked a bunch of questions before you were seen by a triage nurse. I had seen a few things up close, but there was a huge chasm between what I saw and what I knew.

George had been a reporter for the Detroit Free Press before he came to New York. He had seen a lot of life and it had gotten to him. He was a quiet guy, but on the cynical side. His life experience had resulted in choosing me over the medical establishment to remove the stitches.

"George, I've never done anything like this," I started to explain. 

"That's ok. Use the scissors to cut the stitches and pull them out. It's not that complicated."

So I reluctantly started to cut the first stitch. And kept at it. 

My medical knowledge increased by a thousand percent that day.

What seemed to be complicated turned out to be pretty simple.

Religion is supposed to be simple too. Theology, if it's based on any sort of religious principle ought to be as well.

For 30 years I taught a religion class for kids. During that time there was a lot of scripture spoken, and much discussion in an effort to help first-to-fourth-graders gain a deeper appreciation of God.

Teaching the kids was a lot of fun. It was one of the most joyful experiences I've ever had.

Starry Night Over the Rhone/Vincent van Gogh
But looking back on it, if there were one final lesson I'd like to share it would be this one:

Take a small sheet of paper.

Cut it to about an inch square and keep it in front of you.

The one-inch square represents what the entire human race, since the beginning of time knows about God.

Now, take a pencil and draw a pinpoint dot in the middle of that square.

That dot represents what any one person understands about God.

Everything else that exists outside of the square inch of paper represents who God truly is. 

Wow! If that doesn't inspire some humility, I don't know what could.

I knew nothing about taking out stitches until George asked me to pull some out of his head.

I learned something, but realized there is a whole lot more about medicine I don't know, even though I had worked in a few hospitals.

George was so grateful for my help that he gave me a poster of Starry Night Over the Rhone by Van Gogh. It's one of my favorites. That poster now hangs above the fireplace in my home to remind me of George, and what I learned, and what I have yet to know.

Sunday, June 5, 2022

In the Shelter: Finding a home in the world by Padraig O'Tuama - A Review

Padraig O'Tuama
I already had deep respect for Padriag O’Tuama because of his poetry and involvement with the
On Being podcast.

So, on one level, reading In the Shelter: Finding a home in the World, his spiritual autobiography, was like continuing a conversation with a friend.

O’Tuama is inviting, witty, and extraordinarily intelligent (in all of its myriad forms), but most of all he makes himself accessible. Which, considering that theology is one of his life’s passions, is very helpful.

He offers a few of his poems throughout the book, and this one, towards the beginning, seems to set the tone:


And I said to him:
Are there answers to all of this?

And he said:
The answer is in a story
and the story is being told.

And I said:
But there is so much pain
And she answered, plainly:
Pain will happen.

Then I said:
Will I ever find meaning?
And they said:
You will find meaning

Where you give meaning.

The answer is in a story
and the story isn’t finished.

O’Tuama describes his prayer life, which at one point, was in serious need of a jumpstart. He remembered reading a story in National Geographic about a photojournalist who returned to Papua New Guinea where she had lived as a child. “She recalled the language of her youth, a language she had learned from her friends. There was no word for ‘hello’ in this local language… Instead, upon seeing someone, one simply said ‘You are here.’ The answer, as I recall it, was equally straightforward: ‘Yes, I am.’

Whether by fact or fiction, it remains that for decades I have thought of the words ‘You are here’ and “Yes I am’ as good places to begin something that might be called prayer.”

O’Tuama is a lover of words, and so it’s fitting that In the Shelter contains some wonderful discussion about their meaning. For instance: “The word repentance has become known as strong language. It has been used as a bludgeon or a burden on so many for so long that its original richness may be in danger of being lost – if it hasn’t already. The Greek word translated into English as repentance is metanoia. The prefix meta means ‘beyond,’… The word noia means ‘thought’ or ‘mind.’

“Technically, then, this should mean that the Christian faith is a faith that is adapted to change, a faith that is not undone by realizing that its precepts or propositions are incorrect. It should mean that the joy of repentance is evidenced – over and over and over and over – by those who practice the Christian faith.”

Which causes me to wonder, why do Christians associate repentance with a negative connotation?

O’Tuama continues, writing about another word commonly used by Christians. “A Greek word for ‘sin’ is hamartia, which means ‘to miss the mark.’ So when we discover that we are missing the mark, we re-orient our direction.”

Which causes me to wonder, why do Christians associate sin primarily with evil, instead of an opportunity to change?

Taking the idea of repentance and sin together, O’Tuama makes the point that “Repentance acts as an antidote to childishness. It asks for action and is not satisfied with sorrow. You can be sorry all you like, but change is the fruit of responsibility.”

Those who are familiar with O’Tuama know that he is gay. And he has a grand time writing about a few instances where well-meaning clergy, and others, try to reach out in ways that are probably self-serving.

“I needed to tell him [a priest] that his presence was less welcome at the table of the excluded than he’d hope, because some people feared his firing power, and others feared his preaching tongue, and others feared his descriptions of our intrinsic moral disorders from the pulpit… What we need to see, I told him, was less his kind words round the privacy of a table, and more his public words in the halls of the powerful.”

And O’Tuama writes about the power of naming, of tagging a group or a group member with your own definition. “By giving another group a new name we land on a power over them, especially, especially, especially, if we can get the group to replace their name for them with our name for them.”

He explains that the Liechty and Clegg scale of sectarianism has “three elements that deal with the power of naming. The first of these three indicates that ‘you are a less adequate version of what we are.’ The next says ‘You are not what you say you are’ and the final in this sequence declares: ‘We are in fact what you say you are.’”

O’Tuama goes on to say that “The Gospel stories are the antidote to what Liechty and Clegg note. When we say ‘You are a less adequate version of what we are’ we are often willfully ignorant of our own perpetrations even while those who are the victims of our words are demonstrating courage, virtue and graciousness.”

And he sums up this portion of In the Shelter like this: “Then, as now, the easiest way to silence those who wish to tell other stories is to shut them up, and not only to shut them up, but to disgrace their name before you shut them up. A spirituality that cannot bear witness to itself in the face of power is not a spirituality that I am interested in.”

Towards the end of In the Shelter O’Tuama offers insight as to the power of storytelling.

“What is clear from our human storytelling is that over and over the most powerful stories emerge from those who have survived the most powerful abdication of responsibility.”

And he is quick to add: “Just because this is true doesn’t mean we should depend upon it. Hello to the need to learn.”

Finally, there is O’Tuama’s understanding of Jesus’ response to the woman who anointed his feet with expensive perfume and dried his feet with her hair, during a dinner at Simon’s home.

O’Tuama notes that Simon and most of the others around the table don’t see her.

But, “Jesus speaks about her, and honors her… He proclaims forgiveness to her – but as a response to, not as a precursor for, her love. It seems that the story of the economy of love and forgiveness told by Jesus has, too, been moved by being turned towards her. She is not worthy of mere inclusion. She is the site of learning and change. Do you see this woman? If not, then what do you see between you and whoever it is you don’t see?”

Using this example, O’Tuama identifies an important pattern of how Jesus related to others.

“It seems that Jesus responded most generously to people who were aware of their own need. To those who came knowing what they wanted and not playing games, Jesus’ answers were at least straight-forward, if not satisfactory. To those who came with agendas and traps, the engagement seems to be oriented towards the jugular of power…”

“Jesus of Nazareth was not a powerless man. I don’t believe that for a second. I don’t even believe he played games of powerlessness, because those games are a luxury afforded to those whose agency is often unquestioned… I believe Jesus knew exactly what he was doing, and he just used a different kind of power.”

The beauty of In the Shelter: Finding a home in the world is that O’Tuama offers his own life experience as he folds it into the context of the life of Jesus. And he does this with wit, wisdom and grace.


Tuesday, May 31, 2022

An Interview with Author Susie Finkbeiner, Christy Award Nominee

  

Susie Finkbeiner
You received a Christy Award Nomination for All Manner of Things in 2020 and the book was a Michigan Notable Book winner. What did these awards mean to you? How have they influenced your career?

Honestly, awards are nice confirmation that someone noticed the hard work an author puts into their writing. They’re also good for giving courage to keep on writing. That said, I try my best not to think too much of them. When the awards come in, it’s easy for me to rest on my laurels and think I deserve the accolades. You know, the old ego can get pretty noisy sometimes.

The Christy Award Nomination (I didn’t quite win that one, but I was a finalist) was recognition by my peers in the Christian fiction industry. The Michigan Notable Book award was recognition by the Library of Michigan which has consistently given so much to me and my family by way of our local library and literary heritage in the State I love.

The Michigan Notable Book win was particularly helpful in exposing new readers to my writing, readers who might not have otherwise read my books. That’s the best result I can imagine from winning a book award.

 

All Manner of Things deals with a family’s experience with the Vietnam War. You recently published The Nature of Small Birds (July, 2021), which focuses on the same topic. Can you talk about why you decided to tackle this subject?

I grew up in the 1980s with a father who is a veteran of the Vietnam War. I heard stories about his year “in country” and what it was like to come back home. I listened to the music in the car with my parents and coveted my mom’s groovy bellbottoms. It seemed natural for me to spend time writing a few novels set in that era. I’m glad I did.  

In an interview linked to All Manner of Things being selected as a Michigan Notable Book winner, you mention that you come from a family of storytellers. How has this influenced your writing?

Writers have to surround themselves with stories in order to grow in their craft. For those of us fortunate enough to have been raised in a house with plenty of books, access to good public libraries, and families who share stories around the table — well — we might have an unfair advantage. I feel that my upbringing gave me a bit of a head start. I’m not complaining!

In addition to that, my family has supported me without exception. They cheer me on with every writing success and commiserates whenever I biff. They understand the importance of story. They’re such wonderful people.

 

In the same interview, you said that one motivation you have for writing is that it has a cathartic effect on you. Could you go a bit deeper?

I think that everyone has had to develop some coping mechanisms over the past few years. We’ve found ourselves in need of a way to process the realities of our circumstances and a way to stay sane. My husband goes out for a run. A friend of mine cleans her house (I wish she’d clean mine while she’s at it). My way of coping, of understanding the world around me, of staying emotionally and mentally healthy is writing. Even if what I’m writing has absolutely nothing to do with what I’m experiencing, it still is capable of triggering my brain to relax, assess, and find hope no matter what the situation.

You also mentioned that you are an avid reader, and that reading has helped you become a better writer. You listed John Steinbeck and Wendell Berry, among others, as writers that you admire. Could you mention a few more, and why you hold them in esteem?

Oh, man. I could list a thousand names. Daniel Nayeri, Patricia Raybon, Maggie O’Farrell, Nguyen Phan Que Mai, Katie Powner, Gary D. Schmidt, Rachel Joyce, Jason Reynolds, Jocelyn Green, Leif Enger, Tobias Wolff, Jasmine Warga…I could do this all day long.

What I most admire about these authors (and the thousand more I adore) is they write with emotional honesty. They don’t hold back, but they also don’t sensationalize. These authors cause me to feel when I read their books. They show me pieces of the world I might not          otherwise experience. They write beauty and hope onto every single page.

 

You’ve stated that hope is a big theme in your writing. These days, where do you find hope?

I’m writing this answer just a handful of days after an 18-year-old with an assault rifle entered an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas and took the life of 19 children and 2 teachers. We’re still learning details of the attack, hearing stories about the families who lost loved ones, and we’re all remembering the history of school shootings that have happened over the past twenty or years.

If I’m honest, hope is hard to come by this week. I have to work a little harder for it than I
usually do.

Even so, I do have hope and I’m holding onto it for dear life.

Last week (before the shooting) I attended my local orchestra’s performance of Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony. The evening was dedicated to the people of Ukraine. Rightfully so.

If you haven’t listened to that particular symphony, I highly recommend it. And I encourage you to look up the translation of the German lyrics. Not only does Mahler acknowledge pain, suffering, and death, he points to courage, triumph, and renewed life. I’ve been contemplating that work much this week.

It fuels my hope.

 

Susie Finkbeiner/Jocelyn Green
You said that “right now, we’re seeing a lot of echoes [for example, the civil rights movement and the sexual revolution of the 1960s] in history.” And that now is a time when we need to listen to each other. Could you say a little more about that?

History is more of a cycle than a line. At least that’s how I see it. While what we’re experiencing now isn’t a repetition of history, it’s akin to it. Pandemic, political strife, cultural upheaval (for both good and bad), extreme violence, etc. Even fashion joins in on the cycle.

Recent events follow that spinning cycle of years.

And we need to talk about it. We need to listen with the goal of understanding — not just people we happen to agree with. We need to listen to people who we think are dead wrong. Because, whether we like it or not, we share this history with each other. This moment isn’t just for us and the people we agree with.

That’s not to say that we enable hate or violence or backward thinking. But how do we have any hope of encouraging someone to change their mind if we write them off before giving them a little time.

Wouldn’t it be something if, a hundred years down the road, historians looked back and the story wasn’t about strife, but about how people worked together to actually fix a problem?

 

Can you talk a bit about the importance of empathy, and writing ‘with a light hand’?

Empathy is a key tool in understanding others. Not only that, it’s what motivates us to want good things for each other and to want to eliminate and prevent suffering. Empathy is part and parcel of what makes us human. If we don’t possess empathy for others, we’re missing out. On top of that, a lack of empathy hurts society as a whole. I often wonder if that is one contributing factor to the struggles we have in our world (historically and currently).

As I see it, empathy in the writer informs a certain kind of gentleness that extends to the reader. That’s not to say that I avoid difficult subject matter or deep emotions. It just means that      I write in such a way as not to preach at my reader, to be careful with them emotionally and spiritually.

 

You’ve said that Julian of Norwich influenced the title of All Manner of Things. You used a well-known quote of hers: “All shall be well, all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well. Can you expand on that?

I think that it’s common to slip into tunnel vision when encountering difficult times (such as the characters from that particular novel face). In those situations it’s easy to think that all is lost, that goodness is gone forever, that nothing will be okay. But it’s in those moments that we need to remember that dawn always comes, that darkness doesn’t last forever. It’s essential to think back to times when we and others have overcome, endured, survived, and found joy on the other side.

 

You’ve said that “Michigan is so much of who I am. I just love our state so much!” As one Michigander to another, what do you most love about Michigan?

I’ve only ever lived in Michigan and I’m happy about that. Michigan not only has the BEST shape on the map (I mean, the Lower Peninsula is a mitten and the U.P. looks like a rabbit, fox hybrid. Could we be any cooler?), but we have the best inland seas (if you’ve ever seen them rage, you know they aren’t cutesy little lakes). We’ve got wild places galore and cities with all sorts of great things to do and see. We’ve got wild seasons and wild critters and some wild people too. We possess a distinct culture, accent, and the best ginger ale in the world (we all know Vernor’s will fix what ails ya!). On top of all that, we have a strong and talented literary community.

I’ve loved this State my whole life. Michigan, my Michigan.

 

How has your writing evolved over the years?

I think there’s a certain measure of evolution that every writer goes through over the course of their writing life. If they don’t grow and change, I worry that they suffer stagnation, which is not good for the creative soul.

My writing has evolved in many ways. I no longer write in clipped sentences and I have stopped trying for the shock factor. I pay much more attention to character development now than I used to and I spend a lot more time researching.

Honestly, the writing is harder now than it used to be. There’s lots more pressure. But I still (usually) love it as much as ever.


Is there anything else you’d like to mention?

Thank you for having me in this space. I appreciate your thoughtful questions!

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