Saturday, March 30, 2013

One Week

One week in my new house.
One week to learn how home feels under new trees, with new birds at the window, new angles of light across the floor.
One week to find homes for this book, the loom, the icon, and the iron skillet.
One week to ponder the tension between housekeeping and Holy Week.
One week for friends who come to carry furniture, share cookies, put handles on cabinet doors, dream of pets, invite me to Easter egg hunts.
One week to listen to the sounds of clocks ticking, children playing, trains running down their tracks.
One week to receive letters from Mama, from Lauren, from Dave, from Amanda.
One week to sit on the porch and wonder how this home will look to friends I have not yet met.
One week to give thanks. One week to pray for all that is to come.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

In praise of letters

Handwritten letters are one of my favorite things. Like hot tea and pearl earrings, they lend a tangible grace to an ordinary day. One of my first posts on this blog was a letter-writing challenge, and I have also ruminated on the importance of Christmas letters, or habits for enjoying a letter from a friend. However, I'm not sure I have spoken well enough or deeply enough about why letters can serve a friendship.

Yesterday and today have brought letters from three dear friends and faithful correspondents. Their letters were as different as one could imagine: Amanda used a fountain pen on her creamy textured stationery; Josh compacted a small dissertation onto six pages of notebook paper; and Kt's envelope contained both a Muppets notecard and several pages of vintage floral notepaper. Their words and news were just as varied, but each one made me sit up, catch my breath, cry, laugh.

Different as they are, why have they renewed my love for my friends in the midst of such a strange and hectic day?

Perhaps because letters imply trust. Some call words cheap, but as a writing teacher, I know that writing always costs us something. Students would not feel so self-conscious about writing if they did not sense that by writing, even on a mundane classroom exercise, they reveal themselves--their intelligence, or their values, or their uncertain voice. I only write letters to someone I am willing to trust with the intimate, evening-sun sort of questions that rise when I step away from my computer.

Certainly a letter can show care. Even the conventional epistolary courtesies  ("Dear friend....) are more intimate than our everyday, spoken greetings. Letters sustain a sort of distance--it is a piece of paper, after all, and not a face or hand--but that distance can give us the courage to speak with love.

Letters also let us hear the hidden voices of our friends: not necessarily the tones they take in a crowd, or face to face, or in class, or in whatever other context you may know them. For some, the relative privacy of a letter makes them more candid. For others, the commitment of putting words on a page makes them more circumspect and thoughtful. Letters can deepen and even challenge our knowledge of who a person is.

And of course, letters remind us why we loved our friends first, and renew our vision of them. This week, I have caught my breath to see how in everything--everything--Amanda's eyes and heart remain fixed on Christ. I have been delighted and impressed to see how Josh manages to pick a postage stamp, featuring American jazz musicians, that ties perfectly to his insightful comments on medieval exegesis. And I have remembered that Kt's whimsy springs from the same source as her deep, humbling compassion, so that when she writes "There are teeny, tiny sprouts in the garden that may eventually be lettuce," I burst into tears and then find myself laughing with hope all at once.

Friends should write one another letters. Even friends who live in the same city or the same house or the same room. Because you can know a person, you can have class with them or cook with them or even pray with them, but when they commit themselves to words and pen and paper, it is possible that some hidden grace of soul will emerge, and they will become more than you could have known or imagined.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Clarence Jordan

Heritage is the ground upon which many families build their homes. Although modern life glorifies mobility, many people still define "home" in terms of where they came from.

This definition-by-heritage works as powerfully in our spiritual ideas about home as it does in our reckonings of blood kin.

My religious heritage is resoundingly Baptist: born to two seminary students; raised in the middle of Baptist ministry to college students; enthusiastic Mission Friend, GA, and Acteen; student of two Baptist universities and now faculty member at a third. Ridgecrest houses my earliest memories, and I spent my teens rambling through Glorieta.

Like any open-eyed child, I recognize that my heritage is both a blessing and a burden, and like any religious tradition, Baptist history is a cause for both gratitude and sorrow. I am not always proud of what my fellow Baptists have said or done. However, these are family quarrels, and I'm not writing this blog to voice my opinion on contentious issues.

I am writing to share the story of one of my Baptist heroes, Clarence Jordan. The life and writings of Dr. Jordan have encouraged me since I was a child, and recently I have developed an even deeper gratitude for his place in Baptist history.

Photo from Koinonia Partners

Jordan, a Georgia native, earned a bachelor's degree in agriculture, then headed north to the Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, where he graduated with a PhD in Greek in 1936. Rather than take a prominent position as the pastor of a large church, Jordan felt called to put the Sermon on the Mount into practice. To this end, he and his friend Martin England, who had been a missionary to Burma, founded Koinonia Farm in the early 1940s.

From its birth, Koinonia was a place where the Jordans, the Englands, and their community could submit their lives to Christ. Their dedication to racial equality and pacifism provoked violent hostilities from their neighbors. For the first twenty years of their existence, the community endured bombings, shootings, harassment, boycotts, and even judicial inquiry into their supposedly "un-American" activities.

Jordan also wrote and preached extensively. He used his expertise in biblical languages to write the remarkable Cotton Patch Gospels. In these works, Jordan imagines how the Gospels and Epistles might have been written if the events of the New Testament had taken place in the American South, instead of the ancient near-east. The Pharisees become white church people; Samaria is a black ghetto; Jesus is lynched.

I first learned about Jordan through a stage adaptation of The Cotton Patch Gospel. In turns hilarious and heart-wrenching, the stage production stays true to the spirit of Jordan's own work. I watch it every Christmas and Easter, and it still has the power to move and challenge me. 

Jordan himself died in 1969, but Koinonia Farm has continued to thrive in the years since. Millard Fuller, founder of Habitat for Humanity, lived on the farm and was inspired by Jordan's ideas for making good housing a community responsibility. President Jimmy Carter and Mrs. Rosalyn Carter were honorary chairs of  the 2012 Clarence Jordan Symposium, celebrating Koinonia Farm's 70th Anniversary. Many writers in the "New Monasticism" movement, such as Shane Claiborne and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, have listed Jordan among their inspirations.

If you'd like to learn more, you should visit the webpage of Koinonia Farm. They offer resources, information, and opportunities to participate. 

The biographical sketch I offered above comes from Joyce Hollyday's introduction to Clarence Jordan: Essential Writings. This book was my spring-break treat, and it made me proud to be Baptist, calling me to consider whether I am willing to claim Christ in truly radical ways. I will leave you with some of Jordan's own words. Thanks to his legacy, home will always mean a place where people root their faith to the strong words of the gospel and rise to challenge the world's understanding of property, wealth, race, and community. 

The following passages from Clarence Jordan: Essential Writings (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2003). 

In response to suggestions that Koinonia should relocate to a less hostile part of the nation, Jordan said, "If there is any balm in Gilead; if there is any healing in God's wings; if there is any hope-- shall we go off and leave people without hope? We have too many enemies to leave them. The redemptive love of God must somehow break through. If it costs us our lives, if we must be hung on a cross to redeem our brothers and sisters in the flesh, so let it be. It will be well worth it. To move away would be to deny the redemptive processes of God" (26). 

A Northern pastor, giving Jordan a tour of his new church building, boasted that the church's cross had cost $10, 000. "Brother," Jordan said, "you got gypped. The time was you could get them for nothing" (32). 

"It just burns me up that we Christians with the word of God in our hearts have to be forced to sit around Woolworth's table and that we still segregate Christ's table. The sit-ins would never have been necessary if the Christians had been sitting down together in church and at Christ's table these many years."  (153)

"I don't think we have a right to bear witness to that which we do not experience. The incarnation, then, is the announcement of the Good News as fact." (142)

"God's plan of making peace is not merely to bring about an outward settlement between evil people, but to create people of goodwill" (117).

"Faith is not belief in spite of the evidence but a life in scorn of the consequences" (143). 

Monday, March 4, 2013

Dwelling in Solitude

My large third-floor windows overlook the central greenspace of my apartment complex, giving me a broad view of the sky. Our central Texas skies were often brilliant at sunset, but we might go months without any clouds to interrupt the daytime blue. Here on the coast, tempests and bay-winds roil all year, and the sky changes often. In the last ten minutes, I have watched a dapple-grey mass of clouds, gold-edged in the setting sun, grow dark and heavy with rain. If I crane my neck beyond the sill, I can see just a hint of blue sky from behind the thinnest clouds, but at the tree line, all is dark. I tried to take a picture, but my good little camera couldn't keep pace with the colors, and less with the feelings those colors and changes produced in me.

I've been thinking lately about solitude, and what it means to live by oneself. I'm not sure that living alone is inherently lonelier than living in the same apartment or house with others; it is a truism that the middle of a crowd can be much lonelier than honest solitude. At the same time, like any daughter of Eve, I often feel lonely, especially as I bear (and will always bear) homesickness for my far-away friends and family members.

For me, however, the greatest danger of living alone is that I will make my home into a selfish hideaway, rather than an open haven. I love people, but I am really and truly an introvert, and it takes enormous energy for me to spend time with people, especially people who are still relatively new friends. When I first moved to Texas, it took about two years before I was really able to rest in the company of my friends there. Consequently, when faced with the choice between curling up in my solitary rooms or going out to spend time with someone, it is very easy (and very tempting) for me to make up an excuse not to go: I have papers to grade, I have books to read, I have drains to clean.

Friends who know me well have invented various weapons against the walls of my overweening solitude: Mary and Martin used to call, invite me out, and then say, "Don't answer now because you will say 'no.' We'll call back in 10 minutes and you'd better day yes!" Mark, less patiently, once carried me bodily from the library when I said I would study alone instead of going to dinner with our friends.

I have been thankful for these friends, but I cannot expect others to accommodate me forever. I must train myself to recognize when my desire for solitude is wise and wholesome (for I do need quiet hours to read, listen, plan, and pray), and when it is selfishness or fear. However, even at my age, I'm not very good as distinguishing between the two. Plans give me courage and accountability, so I try to plan time with new and growing friends in advance. Inviting friends to spend time at my place mitigates the extra weariness that can come from going out. Making rules for myself during holidays (e.g. 'I must leave the house at least once a day') reminds me how beautiful it is to go out and see. Perhaps most importantly, allowing others to have some authority over my hours helps. If I say that my friends are entitled to my time, attention, and energy, if I say that I want to be ready to help or keep company, then I am less likely to sulk when something interrupts my solitude.

And tonight, the sky spreading outside my window helps. It is quite dark now, as clouds and night have descended together. This sky rumbles that I should stay in, that now is a time for solitary projects and quiet hours. But in saying that, I confess that tomorrow's sky might call me out, and that it is a virtue merely to step outside on a high-blue-bright-yellow spring morning.  I need the sky to temper my introspection, I need the Spirit to challenge my selfishness, I need friends to quicken my solitude. If I have learned anything about living well in solitude, it is that one cannot do it alone.

Have you ever lived alone? What are some of the dangers/challenges of living by yourself? How have you answered these challenges?