The Cowardly Lion from The Wizard of Oz (1939)
I have a secret desire to be a great writer one day, or at least a very good one. I doubt I will be either. Not because I lack the intellect or talent, which may be true, but because I lack courage. At its best, writing – even fiction writing – is a form of truth telling. Camus famously remarked, “Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth.” That’s why novels and fictionalized autobiographies can be more true to life than their non-fiction counterparts. (The Painted Bird by Jerzy Kosinski and Elie Wiesel’s Night come to mind.) Telling the truth requires courage. I’m a coward by nature, at least when it comes to going on the record.
My two favorite clergy autobiographies are St. Augustine’s Confessions and Will Campbell’s Brother to a Dragonfly. I count their authors among my heroes, not only because of what they did for God and humanity but also for their courage to expose their ugly, sinful sides. They were brave men who didn’t hide behind their words. Paul Tillich said, “The courage to be is the courage to accept oneself, in spite of being unacceptable.” If Tillich was right, then self-knowledge and self-acceptance are keys to developing the courage I need to be a better writer.
Even when the topic isn’t autobiographical, good writing requires brutal honesty about the world around us. Honesty forces authors to take up themes and discuss topics that aren’t always welcome in polite society, even less in church circles. The gritty details of life make stories more believable, more real. We don’t live in a G-rated world. When authors write as if we did, the result is an artificial, watered-down version of the real thing, like the difference between fresh-squeezed orange juice and the stuff from a can.
Having something to say is more important than saying it well. That’s why there’s always work for ghost writers. For me the problem isn’t lacking something to say but lacking the courage to say it. The kind of transparency and openness that’s prerequisite for good writing makes my palms sweat and my stomach churn.
I’m not ready to bare my soul on paper, but I am willing to take the first step and begin as anyone in recovery begins, by admitting I have a problem:
Hi, my name is Travis, and I’m a coward.
The image of compassion: a mother running along the bank of a rapid river, keeping up with her drowning child, running along the bank because she had no arms.—Lindsay Hill, Sea of Hooks, citing Patrul Rinpoche
An older man in my congregation called me last week because he forgot his wife’s cell phone number. The doctor’s office had called and he needed to relay an important message about a cancelation. I told him I didn’t have her number but I would try to find it and call him back. I called a couple of people who didn’t have it, and then I remembered that the wife sings in our choir. I got the choir director on the phone and she said yes she had the lady’s number but it was saved in her own cell, the one she was talking on. She’d have to hang up and call me back. She did, and I wrote down the number. Triumphant, I called the man back but as I went to read him the number I realized I had written it down wrong. There were only nine digits, not ten. I apologized and told him I’d have to call him back again. I tried and tried but couldn’t get the choir director on the phone. No one else I could think of had the number. An invisible vise squeezed my chest. I hated that I couldn’t assist someone who reached out to me. It’s lonely at the intersection of compassion and helplessness. I’ve been there many times.
The first death I dealt with as a pastor was tragic. The wife of my chairman of deacons took her own life violently on a Sunday morning with her husband and seventeen-year-old daughter at home. A neighbor of the family called me and said I needed to get over there right away. I did. A lone deputy sheriff was there, retrieving something from his squad car. He saw me walking up the drive and asked if I was the coroner, I guess because I was dressed for church, wearing a dark suit and tie. I said no, but wished I were. I thought it would have been easier dealing with the dead body than the live, grief-stricken people. I went in and saw the husband looking shell shocked and the daughter with swollen eyes. There was no Bible verse, no counseling trick, nothing in my pastoral toolkit that would make this situation better. I sat next the husband, put my hand on his shoulder, and said nothing. We sat in silence together for a long time.
What do you do when you desperately want to help but you’re powerless?
You must learn to say to yourself that you have no arms; that there is nothing in the world you can fix.
I grew up in Florida but I’ve never tasted an orange. At least not a real one. I thought I had until I recently read a portion of John McPhee’s book Oranges. It describes Indian River citrus – grown in the coastal areas of East Florida near Cape Canaveral – and tells why it’s better than fruit grown elsewhere, including the interior of Florida, an area citrus growers call “the Ridge.” McPhee explains that “Indian River oranges have about twenty-five per cent more sugar in them than oranges grown on the Ridge, and they contain more juice as well.” That’s because unlike the sandy soil in most of the Sunshine State, the soil on the coast “holds nutrients and moisture better, and it grows a better tree.” As a child growing up on the Ridge, I saw Indian River Fruit advertised on billboards at the ubiquitous roadside stands and tourist shops along the main north-south highways that claw their way down the peninsula like a rake. I thought it was a bunch of hooey. Just an advertising gimmick used to pick the pockets of unsuspecting Yankees. I figured the citrus grown around my hometown of Ocala was as good as the over-priced Indian River fruit shipped all over the country by the truckload. Now I suspect that I was wrong and have been missing out all these years.
I experienced something similar with avocados. As a boy I never liked them. My cigar-chewing grandpa grew avocados in his backyard and after each family visit we’d be obliged to take home with us a paper grocery bag full of the dark green fruit. They looked like someone stretched alligator skin over a fat pear. I found their flesh hard, slimy, and flavorless. But after I moved to California as an adult and sampled a native avocado – Shazam! – it was love at first bite. Unlike the east coast fruit, the west coast variety is creamy and delicious. It was as if I had never tasted an avocado before.
I had another where-has-this-been-all-my-life experience with Christianity. I grew up in a Christian home, was baptized and confirmed in a Christian church, attended Vacation Bible School every year and Sunday School every week, could sing the hymns, and thought I was a Christian. Then I met Jesus. There was no bright light or voice booming from heaven, but I tasted something I had never tasted before. The Bible says, “Taste and see that the LORD is good” (Psalm 34:8). I was fourteen when I realized that I had just experienced real Christianity for the first time.
I suspect there are other people who are a lot like I was: good, church-going people who experience a flavorless Christianity that makes little difference in their lives. They think they know Jesus and what it means to be his disciple, but they’ve never met the real Jesus. There’s been no Aha! moment. No new birth. No conversion. Therefore it’s no wonder many have drifted away from church over the years. My first goal during the coming year is to tell them that there’s something better, something sweeter, something that makes it worth giving church another try. My other goal is to eat a real orange from the Indian River.
A copy of the Bay Psalter, a historic Bible and the first book published in what is now the United States, sold this week for a record breaking $14.2 million. It was purchased by businessman David Rubenstein who plans to loan it out to libraries across the country. The sale says something important about our American society today, only I’m not sure what exactly. Our love of firsts? Our obsession with big-ticket items? Our generous philanthropy? Maybe the answer is (d) – all of the above. But I don’t think it means that we value the Word of God highly. I can pick up as many copies as I want from Goodwill for fifty cents each.
The sale of the Bay Psalter got me thinking about my own values. With my enthusiastic approval, the church I serve recently paid a hefty sum to have our 1840s Bible restored while Boston’s Old South Church sold their pricey 1640 Book of Psalms to finance their ministries to the homeless and people with AIDS. Maybe they wouldn’t have gotten rid of one copy if they hadn’t owned two. Perhaps the church saw no other way to fund its programs because it’s fallen on hard financial times. I don’t know. Still, whatever the circumstances, it took courage and compassion to give up a precious relic to care for those who are often considered to have little worth. With this decision, the people of Boston’s OSC showed that their values are different from the world’s. The world says, “Use people and value things.” But our faith teaches us to use things and value people.
Where did the Christians in Boston get such a radical idea? Maybe they read the Bay Psalter where it says, “See ye do defend the poor, also the fatherless: unto the needy justice do, and [to them] that are in distress. The wasted poor and those that are needy deliver ye; and them redeem out of the of the hand of such as wicked be” (Psalm 82:3-4).
What are you grateful for on this Thanksgiving Day? Family? Health? Faith? How about … fleas?
In The Hiding Place, author Corrie ten Boom tells the story of her survival in a Nazi concentration camp with her sister Betsie after they were caught hiding Jews. They lived in miserable, overcrowded, flea-infested barracks. A Bible smuggled into the prison encouraged the two Christian sisters to be thankful for everything, even their enemies, so they thanked God for their captors. But when Betsie thanked God for the fleas, her sister Corrie objected, “Betsie, there’s no way even God can make me grateful for a flea.”
Despite tight security, the sisters began holding worship services. Corrie later recalled, “They were services like no others, these times in Barracks 28.” A growing circle of women gathered at the back of the dormitory as one of the ten Booms read from the Bible illuminated by a tiny light bulb. They were amazed that the vigilant guards never broke up their meetings or ever entered the room. Later they learned why. “It was the fleas!” Betsie declared to her sister in triumph. The fleas were guardian angels who kept the guards away.
This Thanksgiving give thanks for both the good things God sends your way and the bad, because even a flea can be a blessing in disguise.
“In everything give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you” (1 Thessalonians 5:18).
I’ll admit it: I’m a blog slacker. How did I fall off the wagon? It’s a little thing called a book publishing deadline. Here’s one of my favorite quotes on the topic: “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by” (Douglas Adams). Like a batter caught staring at a fastball, I watched helplessly as my first deadline flew past. But I managed to make my final book submission on time, barely. I felt like an undergrad who submits his term paper at a minute before midnight on the day it’s due.
I’m nearing the end of a long and cathartic process. (I blogged about the completion of my doctoral dissertation here.) What was born as a thesis has grown into an academic but readable history book, coming out in March 2014. The work is truly international: researched in Germany, written in the US, and published in Britain. And like many imported goods it’s pricey: £60 or $99 per copy. If you want to read it but don’t want to shell out a hundred clams, you can always take advantage of interlibrary loan at your local public library.
According to ancient wisdom, every man should father a son, write a book, and plant a tree. Two down, one to go!
Filed under books, personal
On November 2, 1965, Norman Morrison, 31-year-old devout Quaker, husband, and father of three, stood outside the Pentagon, poured kerosene over his body, and struck a match. He immolated himself to express his deep concern over the escalating war in Vietnam. Before taking his life in a spectacular way, he mailed his wife a farewell letter of explanation, which included a newspaper clipping about an eyewitness account of the bombing of a Vietnamese village by U.S. warplanes and the resulting deaths of innocent civilians. Norman Morrison’s story is told by his widow Anne Morrison Welsh in her 2008 memoir Held in the Light: Norman Morrison’s Sacrifice for Peace and His Family’s Journey of Healing. Like the act that inspired it, this book is both awful and awesome, haunting and inspiring.
What kind of a death was Morrison’s? Was it a senseless act of a deranged man? A beautiful and noble expression of sacrificial love? There’s a fine line between heroism and suicide. If a man jumps into a raging river to save a child and drowns, he is a hero. But what if he jumps in a river to save a dog? Or a rat? What if he jumps in the river to protest water pollution? Is he still a hero?
Self immolation is incomprehensible to us Westerners, but not to Easterners. The book quotes a letter to Martin Luther King, Jr. written by the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hahn and published a few months before Morrison’s death: “The self-burning of Vietnamese Buddhist Monks in 1963 is somehow difficult for the Western Christian conscience to understand. The press often spoke of suicide, but in essence, it is not. What the monks said in the letters they left before burning themselves aimed only at alarming, at moving the heart of the oppressors, and at calling the attention of the world to the suffering endured then by the Vietnamese. To burn oneself by fire is to prove that what one is saying is of the utmost importance” (58). In another passage the book explains, “For the Vietnamese people, Norman had metaphorically put on the saffron robe of the Buddhist monk and spoken their language. They saw his sacrifice for peace as a great act of love for them. He became a folk hero of sorts, his name rendered in Vietnamese as Mo Ri Xon” (108). A North Vietnamese postage stamp bears his image, and a Hanoi street is named after him.
Years after Morrison’s death, many Vietnamese still recall where they were when the heard the news of Morrison’s death. One man had been a buffalo boy in a small, rural village where no one had access to a newspaper and only the headmaster of the school had a radio. The man recounted how “one day, the headmaster called us all together and told us about Morrison. Tears were streaming down his face. Of course, we all cried. I could not believe someone in another country would die for us” (131). It amazes me that an American so well known and beloved in another land can be so little known in his own.
I cannot condone what Morrison did, but neither can I condemn him. And I do not pretend to understand. I stand in awe and horror of a man who, as poet David Ferguson said, “spoke in a tongue of flame.”
Filed under books, issues