Toni Morrison, Theologian

Toni Morrison’s name at birth was Chloe Ardelia Wofford. “Toni” became her name when she joined the Catholic Church at age 12 and took her baptismal saint’s name from Anthony of Padua. (Morrison was her married name, the one she tried too late to avoid using on her first novel. That fact and many others below are from this interview with Terry Gross.)

St. Anthony is that popular guy whom people ask to intercede for them to find lost things. Far more importantly, in his life he was known for powerful preaching of the Gospel, and for his devotion (as a Franciscan, no surprise) to the sick and the poor. In 1946 he was declared a Doctor of the Church. How appropriate a saint for this author who continually wrote of lost things (and people) found, the sick, the poor, the despised, the abandoned, the crushed, the excluded, all brought into the light of a Love bright enough to expose every hidden thing.

For all that, however, it was maddening when Morrison died and several Catholic authors and bloggers claimed her as Catholic. Yes, she was formed by the Roman Catholic Church, but for Catholics (especially male and white Catholics) to claim her in that way was so wrong, not just for plenty of normal reasons that religions and ideologies shouldn’t claim people who don’t claim them. (Specifically, in the case of Morrison and others, sharing publicly that you like some things Pope Francis has said does not mean you embrace the Roman Catholic Church.) This was even more deeply wrong because it so went against her own voluminous work and its deepest themes.

And now, having lambasted others for claiming Morrison for their church, I will argue that she is a deeply theological writer. I do not just mean “spiritual” in some nebulous way, nor “religious.” She is indeed a writer of works both spiritual and religious, but more specifically she is a theological writer. She writes about God, about how God relates to people, about how people relate to people, she does it well, and she does it in ways that have the power to form other people’s lives and understanding of God and humankind. That’s a theologian.

After Morrison’s death I began reading one of her novels I had missed: Paradise, published in 1997. The following is just one passage which theologians, professional and amateur, would do well to reckon with. The characters Misner and Pulliam are two pastors, representing two factions threatening to split what was once a seemingly idyllic town. The setting is the beginning of a wedding, with bride and groom standing there at the front of the congregation as this scene unfolds:

Suitable language came to mind but, not trusting himself to deliver it without revealing his deep personal hurt, Misner walked away from the pulpit, to the rear wall of the church. There he stretched, reaching up until he was able to unhook the cross that hung there. He carried it then, past the empty choir stall, past the organ where Kate sat, the chair where Pulliam was, on to the podium and held it before him for all to see–if only they would. See what was certainly the first sign any human anywhere had made: the vertical line; the horizontal one. Even as children, they drew it with their fingers in snow, sand or mud; they laid it down as sticks in dirt; arranged it from bones on frozen tundra and broad savannas; as pebbles on riverbanks; scratched it on cave walls and outcroppings from Nome to South Africa. Algonquin and Laplanders, Zulu and Druids–all had a finger memory of this original mark. The circle was not first, nor was the parallel or the triangle. It was this mark, this, that lay underneath every other. This mark, rendered in the placement of facial features. This mark of a standing human figure poised to embrace. Remove it, as Pulliam had done, and Christianity was like any and every religion in the world: a population of supplicants begging respite from begrudging authority; harried believers ducking fate or dodging evil; the weak negotiating a doomed trek through the wilderness; the sighted ripped of light and thrown into the perpetual dark of choicelessness. Without this sign, the believer’s life was confined to praising God and taking the hits. The praise was credit; the hits were interest due on a debt that could never be paid. Or, as Pulliam put it, no one knew when he had “graduated.” But with it, in the religion in which this sign was paramount and foundational, well, life was a whole other matter.

See? The execution of this one solitary black man propped up on these two intersecting lines to which he was attached in a parody of human embrace, fasted to two big sticks that were so convenient, so recognizable, so embedded in consciousness as consciousness, being both ordinary and sublime. See? His woolly head alternately rising on his neck and falling toward his chest, the glow of his midnight skin dimmed by dust, streaked by gall, fouled by spit and urine, gone pewter in the hot, dry wind and, finally, as the sun dimmed in shame, as his flesh matched the odd lessening of afternoon light as though it were evening, always sudden in that climate, swallowing him and the other death row felons, and the silhouette of this original sign merged with a false night sky. See how this official murder out of hundreds marked the difference; moved the relationship between God and man from CEO to supplicant to one on one? The cross he held was abstract; the absent body was real, but both combined to pull humans from backstage to the spotlight, from muttering in the wings to the principal role in the story of their lives. This execution made it possible–freely, not in fear–one’s self and one another. Which what love was: unmotivated respect. All of which testified not to a peevish Lord who was His own love but to one who enabled human love. Not for His own glory–never. God loved the way humans loved one another; loved the way humans loved themselves; loved the genius of the cross who managed to do both and die knowing it.

But Richard Misner could not speak calmly of these things. So he stood there and let the minutes tick by as he held the crossed oak in his hands, urging it to say what he could not: that not only is God interested in you; He is you.

Would they see? Would they?

It’s impossible to name all the talents that made Morrison one of the best, but to me her greatest talent is the way that when she creates a character, she enters that character and sees through their vision, their perspective. Lesser writers warp their characters when they get inside their skin, stretching them out to match the author’s own shape. With Morrison, for all that readers have been taught that writers’ perspectives and their characters’ perspectives are not the same thing, her skill baits the trap for us to think that we now understand what Morrison herself believed, in this case, about the cross. We don’t.

Hopefully, however, we have been forced to question and possibly re-form once again what we ourselves do know. This is what the best theologians have the power to do.

Bonus: My pet (i.e., unsubstantiated) theory is that as Morrison wrote the above passage, she couldn’t resist a dig at a particularly virulent bestseller then topping the charts: Laurie Beth Jones’ Jesus, CEO.

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Engle Institute for Preaching: First Unpacking

Last week I didn’t write here because I was attending the Engle Institute for Preaching at Princeton Theological Seminary. Through this year, the continuing ed event was always aimed at preachers in their first 2-10 years of preaching ministry. That ten year mark has always been squishy (with preachers still made welcome at 11 or 13 years too), but next year they are having a second track for people in their 11th through 25th years of ministry. I don’t know what that will look like, and I don’t think they do yet either.

In any case, if you preach and want to be a better preacher, they’ve got that Princeton money, so it was only $175 for a week, including room and board. You should definitely apply. The best way to get in is to apply early, and the best way to know registration is open is to subscribe to PTS’ Continuing Education E-Newsletter.

On a personal note, it was certainly the most fully “mainline” Protestant space I’ve been in since seminary, and it was the first time I had been around so much Reformed theology in my life. (A new Episcopalian friend and some Lutherans there agreed.)

In the course of the week, all 65 of us Engle Fellows attended a five-day plenary session (audio available here; video available here). This year the Engle Institute brought in Roger Nam, Professor of Biblical Studies and Dean of Portland Seminary, who challenged us to preach Ezra/Nehemiah in our churches. His own lens (which I will now not be able to read Ezra/Nehemiah without) as a second-generation Korean-American who learned Korean as an adult in order to live and minister in South Korea, is that of repatriation. How do those returning to Jerusalem relate to this place that is a home to which they’ve never been? How do those who stayed in the land relate to the returned people? And what in the world are we supposed to do with the “holy” (or is it most unholy?) breakup of marriages and families we find in Nehemiah 13? (Less practical but incredibly interesting: Did you know there was a Jewish settlement, complete with its own Temple, on an island in the Nile in the 5th c. BCE?)

After the plenary session, on Monday through Thursday I attended Preaching and the Theopoetics of Public Discourse, taught by Dawn Ottoni-Wilhelm. (Yes, I’ve been trying to tell you I’m a preaching nerd.) This was the description for the course:

From ‘A City upon a Hill’ to ‘The Drum Major Instinct,’ American preachers have given voice to poetry and prose that have stirred our imaginations and empowered the church’s ministries of compassion and justice. This workshop will immerse participants in the theopoetics of preaching: the creative process of engaging metaphors, sounds, and the rhythms of Scripture and poetry to inspire our souls and empower sermon listeners.

(Click here to see all the other course offerings.)

We read favorite poems to one another, we watched some fabulous sermons and questioned some less fabulous ones, and we came away not totally knowing what “theopoetics” means, but still informed by it. One practical nugget (a Yale thang?): writing a sermon in sense lines as verse, rather than as blocks of prose, in order to free up creativity and communication of meaning.

Some links: Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “The Drum Major Instinct,” Robert F. Kennedy on the night MLK was assassinated; Mitch Landrieu (warning of the possibility of violence months before Charlottesville) on the removal of Confederate monuments; Otis Moss III and Otis Moss, Jr. share a Father’s Day sermon on “Prophetic Grief” right after the Mother Emanuel shooting.

If you’re wondering if politics came up in our conversations: yes. I came away so thankful that my congregations are far from politically homogeneous.

Monday and Tuesday afternoon, I went to Carolyn B. Helsel‘s Stories of Recognition:

Preachers include stories in nearly every sermon, knowing the power of stories to expand listeners’ understanding of faith and ability to empathize with others. In today’s society, when many people remain in their own echo chambers of news media that affirm their own views of the world, how can preachers employ stories to help us see the humanity in our brothers and sisters across the aisle? This two-day afternoon workshop will engage practices of storytelling that help listeners recognize the commonalities between themselves and persons they view as very different from themselves, as well as to see how our experiences may be more different from one another than we might imagine due to identity markers such as race, gender, age, and physical ability. Resources for such stories will be available, and preachers will practice storytelling.

We literally told stories to one another, talked about how the stories we tell about ourselves shape us, and then talked about how the stories we tell about ourselves are not the only stories we could be telling of the same lives. That is, telling different stories about ourselves can be transformational. (For the Big Instance, if the Gospel is true, then we are part of God’s story. What difference might that make?) Practically, we also shared our favorite TV shows, movies, and book recommendations for stories we enjoy.

My final workshop pick was for Wednesday and Thursday afternoons, How to Turn the Ear into an Eye: Preaching as an Oral-Aural Event with Jared Alcántara:

This workshop empowers participants to “preach for the ear” instead of “preach for the eye” through helping them to conceive of the sermon as an oral-aural event rather than a written artifact. It teaches the rules of orality in preaching, discusses practices to avoid when preparing sermons, and invites participants to learn from one another through the practice of preaching for the ear.

Unfortunately, while we did get to watch some great preaching, and we actually learned and used some tools, I wanted something deeper about how communication works, how people hear and learn and respond and are transformed by hearing spoken words. (I only realize now while I seem to negatively review the class: those techniques and tools are ones that I will be using for a looong time after I might have forgotten some theory shared across four hours of class time.)

Princeton was great (although the beds were uncomfortable to sleep in and the wealth of the downtown area was uncomfortable to walk through), the workshops were great, the worship was great, but the people I got to meet were definitely the best part. If I had to boil down what I received from the week as a whole, it was the encouragement to just be absolutely who I am, whoever that might be. There is plenty of learning to do, plenty of technique to sharpen, but the core of who I am as preacher is actually something God made.

Yes, believe it or not, God made me to preach ridiculously long lectio continua sermon series in imitation of how the Church Fathers (and the Reformers in imitation of the Fathers) did it, to read poetry and theology devotionally, to listen to novels alongside leadership books on the way to pastoral care visits, and…to blog while I’m on the clock.

Bartimaeus

I am not Bartimaeus.
I am not the son of Timaeus.

When Jesus summons I do not leap up,
I do not leave everything behind,
I do not fly straight to Jesus,
Forgetting that I am blind.

I sit, I consider, I weigh the call,
Weigh it again,
Ponder my options,
Measure my abilities,
Guess my future.

When I stand, I creak, I groan,
Pins, needles, fire,
Spine having forgotten vertical.

I leave nothing behind.
I pack and repack:
Clothes and extra clothes, food, money, keys,
toothbrush, guitar, dishwasher, HOA dues,
401(k), Netflix subscription.

And now my toes stretch, grab earth, pull me
Forward into the dark,
Utmost concern to never stub,
Never stumble, never bruise,
Arms waving high and low,
Scanning for obstacles.
I take stops to rest,
I reverse, then move ahead again,
It takes years.

When I arrive I find
the Son of David has not moved on.
He’s still stopped in the road,
blocking traffic, waiting for me.

He asks me:
“What do you want me to do for you?”

Heavy: An American Memoir by Kiese Laymon

These extended excerpts are a way to share Kiese Laymon’s beyond powerful and beyond devastating book, Heavy: An American Memoir. It is at least formally addressed to his mother (the “you” in the first quotation).

I understood that day why you and Grandmama were so hungry for black wins, regardless of how tiny those wins were. For Grandmama, those wins were always personal. For you, the wins were always political. Both of y’all knew, and showed me, how we didn’t even have to win for white folk to punish us. All we had to do was not lose the way they wanted us to.

p. 53

===================================================

I looked at Grandmama and told her I felt like a nigger, and feeling like a nigger made my heart, lungs, kidneys, and brain feel like they were melting and dripping / out of the ends / of my toenails.

“It ain’t about making white folk feel what you feel,” she said. “It’s about not feeling what they want you to feel. Do you hear me? You better know from whence you came and forget about those folk.”

p. 56

===================================================

Before both of us went to sleep, I asked Grandmama if 218 pounds was too fat for twelve years old. “What you weighing yourself for anyway?” she asked me. “Two hundred eighteen pounds is just right, Kie. It’s just heavy enough.”

“Heavy enough for what?”

“Heavy enough for everything you need to be heavy enough for.”

I loved sleeping with Grandmama because that was the only place in the world I slept all the way through the night. But tonight was different.

“Can I ask you one more question before we go to bed?”

“Yes, baby,” Grandmama said, and faced me for the first time since I gave her the notebook.

“What do you think about counting to ten in case of emergencies?”

“Ain’t no emergency God can’t help you forget,” Grandmama told me. “Evil is real, Kie.”

“But what about the emergencies made by folk who say they love you?”

“You forget it all,” she said. “Especially that kind of emergency. Or you go stone crazy. My whole life, it seem like something crazy always happens on Sunday nights in the summer.”

p. 60

===================================================

I’d heard Grandmama whimper over the loss of her best friend and her sisters. I’d heard Grandmama yell at Uncle Jimmy for daring to disrespect her in her house. I’d never heard Grandmama scream while begging the Lord to have mercy on her until that night in the hospital…
With one hand in the pockets of my mesh shorts, and one hand holding hers, I told Grandmama it was going to be okay. Grandmama said she had faith in the white doctor who was taking care of her. She kept calling him “the white-man doctor,” though he was really a short, light-complexioned black man with a dry, red Afro.

“The white-man doctor got my best interest at heart,” she said. “Grandmama will be fine directly.”

The black doctor with the dry red Afro asked me to leave the room because they had to do a small procedure. He said the infection was deeper than he thought. It started in the middle of her head and went down the back of her neck. “We’re gonna help her with this pain,” he told me. “The infection is seeping into her bloodstream.”

I walked out of the room but he didn’t close the door behind me. “Lord Jesus,” Grandmama kept saying before she screamed. “Please have mercy. Please have mercy.” I knew, but didn’t want to admit, why Grandmama was screaming, why the black doctor with the dry red Afro didn’t give her enough anesthetic, why he thought cutting a full inch and a half deep into the back of her scalp was for her own good.

Folk always assumed black women would recover but never really cared if black women recovered. I knew Grandmama would act like she recovered before thanking Jesus for keeping her alive. She would never publicly reckon with damage done to her insides and outsides at the hands of people who claimed to have her best interest at heart. She would just thank Jesus for getting through the other side of suffering. Thanking Jesus for getting us through situations we should have never been in was one of our family’s superpowers.

I spent the night in the room sitting in a chair next to Grandmama’s bed and holding her hand. Grandmama didn’t say a word. She just looked out the window of the room, with her cheek pressed into the thin mattress until the sun came up.

pp. 169-170

As you can see, Heavy is a difficult read, likely even re-traumatizing for some readers. That’s part of what the title means. My initial difficulty when finishing the book and attempting to review it was that I worried for its author. I had a similar experience reading Tara Westover’s Educated: A Memoir last year. A few years before that, it was something by Augusten Burroughs (although this makes me more hopeful). In each of these authors’ works, his or her story has many ups and downs, then things close on an up. In each case, I am left wondering whether this was an editor’s suggestion, whether it was for the purposes of narrative, or whether things really are getting better in some more or less permanent way.

Laymon, who shares his life to the bone and writes like a poet, also reminds me of the confessional poets. This article on that movement names some of its most important figures: John Berryman, Robert Lowell, Silvia Plath, Ann Sexton, W.D. Snodgrass. Of those Berryman, Plath, and Sexton all took their own lives. Lowell (my first favorite poet) was hospitalized multiple times for bipolar disorder. Snodgrass, meanwhile, wrote his first collection out of the experience of being separated from his daughter after his first divorce, and then was married three more times before he died of cancer in 2009. All this frightens me for artists who seem to sweat blood on every page.

It took me two or three days to realize the other piece that unsettles me in Heavy. It’s the same reality I opened with: Is Laymon writing about the 1920s and 1930s or the 1970s and 1980s? Does progress ever come for racial and economic justice? Heavy is not at all a hopeless book, but it makes clear–again back to the meaning of the title–that even to feel hope placed on your shoulders is to bear a heavy load, one which you did not choose, and one which Laymon does not feel free to un-choose.

Read this book, and be disquieted.

Bonus: While you are waiting 38 weeks for your local library hold to bring the book to you, check out this interview with Laymon (beginning at 26:19 with a reading from Heavy) from the always excellent NY Times Book Review Podcast.

Not a Psalm of Asaph

Psalm LXXXII
And there was December and there was January,
A new year.

And in this new year, I will
I will, I will, I will, I will, I will
I will–

But what will I be?

I will be more beautiful
Than the angels,
Although with regard to me
The answer is zero
Can dance on the head of a pin.

But what shall I be
And what shall be and
What shall be
And what shall I be?

God has said, “You are gods,”
And God meant it.

Visual Aids Using Canva.com

This Productive Pastor episode 19 pointed me to Michael Lucaszewski, who produced this ebook of his favorite apps, among which was Canva.com.

If you already can handle slick-looking visuals (or are on a staff which can), you don’t need this tool. For the rest of us, it’s pretty cool. Easy, free (with paid options), and you can create useful things or make up truthy quotes from famous authors.

Here are my first attempts. (The background on the final one is a photograph of Merton’s hermitage at Gethsemani.)

Samwise Gamgee--Is everything sad going to come untrue

Daniel Berrigan quote

Merton Hermitage

I Gave Up Manuscript Preaching for Lent

On Monday mornings, I review my sermon video from the day before. (The churches I serve are 40 and 20 in regular weekly attendance, and I use the Zoom Q2HD in the first service, which is at the larger church. This is not some high-budget televised or even live-streamed thing, so don’t use the excuse that your preaching assignment is too small to be worth recording and reviewing. Regarding expense, the Zoom plus memory card was sub-$200, and I use a free video editor, a free audio editor, a free podcasting service which iTunes picks up and lists for free, and then post the audio on a free Facebook page, so even the smallest church can be sold on this investment in good preaching.)

My notes range from: “good emotions in announcements” to “energy ebbs at…” to “the sermon is too long because…” to “shave your face before next week.” For almost the entire time that I have been doing this (July of last year), I have been annoying myself with lack of eye contact, and months ago I realized that using a manuscript was keeping me from actually learning how to preach.

Transitioning off of manuscripts is a cold turkey process. Knowing that, I kept putting it off until some utopian week when I would have extra time to prepare and then make the jump. (N.B.: Those weeks don’t exist, and somewhere in my heart of hearts, I’ve known that the whole time.)

Finally, I picked up Preaching on Your Feet: Connecting God and the Audience in the Preachable Moment by Fred Lybrand because it was really cheap on Kindle one day. It’s not a great book, but it is a great kick in the pants. And so I decided to give up manuscript preaching for Lent.

The thought of this scared me so much that I started a few weeks early, and I did it not just without manuscript but without notes at all. I hated the results the first week, and it was hard to believe it would improve, but I was committed. Consider how in Mario Kart everyone who is good uses the Manual Mode, but if you start out on Automatic, you will experience a dip in your abilities when you make the switch to Manual. I definitely experienced a dip going from manuscript to no notes. But…no one in my churches noticed (or if they did, it wasn’t any worse than any other dips I’ve had for other reasons).

This week, however, I think I may have preached better than I have ever preached in these two churches. Yes, I went long. (Quick! Can I modify Communion without messing up something important? No. Quick! Which verses of the closing hymn should we cut? The middle ones, for no good reason.) I also was so much more present to the congregation, and I can see it on the video. It was so encouraging, even as I already know enough about preaching that it is never going to be just up-and-up-and-up.

It’s Monday again. Better start sermonizing.