Marilynne Robinson

Tonight, I enjoyed an evening listening to Marilynne Robinson speak on The Human Spirit and the Good Society. Robinson won the Pulitzer for Gilead, a read that finds the unique tension of being both peaceful and energetic. I enjoyed Gilead immensely. In addition to her several works of fiction, she is also an essayist and a potent theological voice.

Here are a few of the lines I jotted down this evening:

We have an impulse to conform reality to theory.

We are both terrible and wonderful.

There is no strictly secular language which can translate religious awe.

We are not reproducing a traditional America but rather arming ourselves with an imagination of hostility toward our neighbors.

If you create a symphony, you have done a great thing, but if you are able to sit through a symphony and be moved by it, you have also done a great thing.

If you’d like to read more about Robinson as a writer, Powells has a nice interview, and if you would like to further explore her theological bent, Christianity Today did a recent piece on Marilynne as a “narrative Calvinist” and the Religion and Ethics News Weekly recently interviewed her.

Cafes and Public Spaces

It is almost as if every great civilization in the world had taken a brief time-out from trying to kill one another to brainstorm what a perfect public space should look like. {Michael Idov}

A friend, Andrew Albers, passed along this Wall Street Journal story this morning. It hit a few chords for me.

I should offer this caveat: I take major issue with Idov’s jab at caramel frappuccinos (my favorite is actually java chip light), and slight issue with his side-swiping of laptoppers (I get his point, but there are virtues in working in public space, I think – though I wouldn’t want my coffee-haunts to become consumed with the solitary and the utilitarian).

Getting beyond those squabbles, I’m enchanted by Idov’s hopeful recasting of coffeehouses back to their original place as open, civic spaces where ideas and friendships and the latest news (along with a revolution or two) were on the daily menu. I mean, I’d love for one of my regular shops (here or here) to be a place like the one Idov mentioned, “where a sword fight once erupted over the correct pronunciation of a Greek word.” In fact, I think next week I may just sneak in a blade or musket and see if I can’t get one of the other regulars riled up (and I have just the word – only an hour or so ago Miska corrected my pronunciation of repartee. It’s French, not Greek, but it will do).

I love to write in cafes. My first book Restless Faith was written almost entirely in the Pendleton Cafe and Coffee Company. Chunks of my last two books, numerous articles and more than a few sermons have found their voice between sips of an Americano (hot shots, little room for cream). Some writers head to the secluded cabin to write. Usually, I head to the coffee shop on Main. The coffee shop is where I have meetings, where I meet new people, where I run into friends and where I learn new bits about what is happening in our town.

Still, I read Idov’s description – and I think he is on to something. I think our coffee house cultures often lack the same level of engagement as the older spaces, the expectation that you will meet and know others, the idea of the cafe as a civic space of ideas and shared communal practices. He says, “We’ve also used [the cafe] to balkanize ourselves…cafés here tend to draw specific crowds: a hipster café, a mom café, a student café…we use our coffeehouses to separate ourselves into tribes.” Whenever that is the case, it’s a shame.

Someday, I would love to help form (or participate in) a public space of the older sort, a place where I would read the paper, talk about the issues, write, expect to see old friends, welcome in new friends, share a sense of civic identity – and maybe even start a revolution or two. I have a measure of this now, but I want more.

I also wonder if it might be possible for the church to foster this sort of place (a guy can dream, can’t he?). We should be the first ones to carve out this kind of public space, but unfortunately, if anyone has balkanized itself…but I digress…

What might space like this look like for you? Do you have it now?

On Preaching

Write as if you were dying. At the same time assume you write for an audience consisting solely of terminal patients…What would you be writing if you knew you would die soon? What could you say to a dying person that would not enrage by its triviality? {annie dillard}

Words matter to me, very much. Ideas matter. Images matter. This trio of convictions probably explains a bit of why my vocation dances around two acts that have much to do with words, ideas and images: writing and preaching. I usually chat about writing here. Lately, I’ve been thinking about preaching.

I don’t think of myself as “a preacher,” at least not in the Huck Finn South sort of way. But I do gladly embrace the old and honorable pastoral practice of immersing myself in the Biblical text in hopes of glimpsing God – and then offering what I see (or what I think I see) to my community of faith. I believe – bet all my marbles on it, in fact – that God’s story is the narrative that is trustworthy and that gives meaning and dignity to my story, yours too.

For me, then, preaching is not about giving a lecture or merely passing along religious information. Nor is it an attempt to whip people up into some devoted fervor. A sermon is far more personal, more engaged, more treacherous and alive and messy than that.

A sermon, a good one anyways, tends first to God – and to us second. We get a whiff of what God has in mind, what kindness or justice or grace God intends – and then we ask ourselves if we have the courage (the faith, you might say) to believe, to obey, to spurn fear or control and dive into the mercy. I continually return to Karl Barth’s reflection on what happened whenever he stood behind the pulpit: “When I look out at the congregation, I realize they are here with one question: Is it true? Can it be true that there is a God who is loving and wise and powerful? Answer that question.”

Here’s a way to discern if we’ve told God’s story well: does it simply sound too good to be true? does it touch a hope so deep that it causes us to tremble at the possibility? do we wonder if it could possibly be true – and is there a certain sense of fear – of doubt – that it might not be? If we encounter that kind of fear and trembling, chances are we’ve gotten somewhere close to the God of the Bible.

Soon, I’ll post a list of other questions I bring to the text, in hopes that my sermons will not “enrage by [their] triviality.”


sirens wail
mother sobs
iron clinks

stomach gnawing
nightmare haunting
refugee slumping

tires squeal
dad disappears
again, again

moonless night
sunless soul
forever alone




Writing with the Body

If I did not resist with my life, I should be unable to write…The Christian idea has got to be served; that the word is made Flesh. One must write with one’s body. {Antoine de Saint-Exupery}

Antoine de Saint-Exupery was an acclaimed author (primarily for his children’s book The Little Prince) and also an aviator who volunteered as a fighter pilot during the French Resistance in WWII. Older than most combat pilots, Saint-Exupery refused to surrender his commission. He believed that to write honestly required that he live honestly; and, in the historic moment in which he lived, Saint-Exupery believed that honest living demanded he offer his full self, even his life, for the just cause of resisting the Nazis. In the end, his choice did demand his life – Saint-Exupery went missing in July 1944 during a reconnaissance flight over the Mediterranean, shortly before France’s liberation.

For Saint-Exupery, writing was not merely something he did, but integral to who he was. His writing both flowed from and fed into the whole of who he was as a man. If he lived dishonestly or without courage and integrity, then his writing would suffer the poison. He could not ignore the great cause of his day (perhaps his life) without his cowardice and selfishness corroding his soul.

He believed then that a writer “must write with one’s body.” In other words, a writer writes with their whole self – or we don’t write truly at all. We write with our actions, with our friendships, with our laughter and our tears. We write with our hopes and our commitments and our generosity ever bit as much as we write with our words.

With Saint-Exupery, these notions of life and writing emerged from his faith. The central notion of Christian faith is the Incarnation, the belief that God went physical in Jesus. God is not an idea, but a person. Christianity is not primarily a moral code or set of theories and principles. Christianity, rightly observed, is the story of how God is making (and re-making) the world (and the people who make up this world) to be splendidly overrun with beauty, truth and goodness. Energized by this, then, how could a writer not write with intense passion, conviction and truthfulness. (And, the same is true for a painter, a baker, a builder, a grocery clerk.)

As a writer, I’m pondering Saint-Exupery’s words – and asking myself the question: what do I need to write with my body before I write with my sentences? As a writer who is also a Christian, I’m pondering Saint-Exupery’s words – and asking myself the question: where does my writing need to imbibe the way of Incarnation, to go physical and move toward beauty, truth and goodness?

The Echo Within: Robert Benson

A writer ought to offer something worth saying as well as something worth hearing. Some authors have a thing or two to tell me, but frankly, after a few pages, I don’t care to hear it. I’ve come to believe that truth without beauty … well, isn’t truth. I reveal my bias here, but writing is a sacred calling (just as is photography and carpentry and mothering and leading a parish); and I don’t understand “writers” who don’t seem to give a rat’s ass about the actual craft of writing. And it’s no better with religious books (maybe worse). Slapping the name Jesus on bad art still leaves bad art. My hunch is that Jesus doesn’t much appreciate the association.

Thank God, however, there are writers like Robert Benson.

If you’ve hung around Miska or me very long, you’ve probably heard Robert’s name tossed about. Miska has recommended (or given away) Benson’s Living Prayer more than a few times. And a few summers back, the small community that met in our home read A Good Life, Benson’s exploration into St. Benedict’s Rule.

Robert’s latest book, The Echo Within, offers his ruminations on embracing one’s calling and vocation. It’s a fabulous read. I loved the numerous (and conflicting) ways I encountered his wise mind and artful pen. On one page, I’d find myself saying, ah, yes, that’s what I’ve been trying to say. And on the other pages, hmmm, I’ve never seen it that way before. One moment, I’d laugh out loud; other moments I’d sense a deep piercing where a word or image had landed well. I think collisions like these signal how we are on to something good.

Our exploration for what we are called to be and do, for what deep gift is uniquely ours to inhabit and then give away, is one of our most central, most human, questions. By virtue of both living so many years in a university context (among young friends beginning to chart their way) and by simply having the kinds of conversations pastors tend to have, I’ve long lost count of how many times I’ve heard this question: how do I know what I’m supposed to do with my life? We’re all asking this when we’re twenty-three. Many of us are still asking when we’re fifty-three.

I wish I’d had The Echo Within to recommend in all these conversations. Now I do. When I pass it along, however, I will also pass along a warning. Some will find Benson frustrating. When we ask these questions of our life’s direction, we often are looking for someone to tell us what to do – or at least to give us some fool-proof system that will tell us what to do. Exactly. Prescisely. Clearly. And quickly. Even if you didn’t know Benson and were unaware that such things will always be the opposite of what Benson provides, you’d know soon enough by skimming a few of his chapter titles: Listening (ch 1). Hearing (ch 3). Waiting (ch 6). Dreaming (ch 10). And there’s more where that came from. Lots more.

Benson reminds us that finding our vocation is about finding our truest selves. Or, to put it another way, it is about finding the “echo of the Voice that spoke us into being [which] is the sound of our own true voice.” To find ourselves, we must listen to what God has spoken uniquely to us, in us.

This is the heart of the matter. Finding our vocation, our call, our life’s work, is not first or foremost about what our business card says about us or how we find the way to pay our mortgage and put food on the table. Your life’s call is about embracing the beauty God had in mind when he took joy and delight in making you. And then, your taking joy and delight in singing the song you (and only you) were intended to sing.

“Your vocation” says Benson, “is not only about the work you do with your hands and your heart and your mind; it is about what shapes the work, the person you become in and around that work as well.”