Archives: May 2009

Sensual Orthodoxy

I just looked over the history of the books section of this blog and find it fairly representative that most of the entries date from 2005, around the time I was in library school and my first child was a baby. Since that time I’ve become busy as a parent and breadwinner and have found my time for book-reading greatly diminished. Or perhaps my appetite for reading and writing here is diminished.

Instead, I’ve become an avid New Yorker reader, thanks to the gift from my wife of a multi-year subscription. As my friend Russell said to me yesterday, it’s amazing that they can publish an issue every week, with such depth and breadth of quality writing. I laugh, cry, ponder and hmmmm my way through each issue and am grateful for its regularity.

But I am returning to books, and I’ll be ruminating and reviewing here a bit as I stretch out into a summer of reading.

My friend Debbie is a writer and pastor. She published her first book of sermons about five years ago, and though I’ve had my signed copy on the shelf in my office since then, I’ve been slow to pick it up. That’s no reflection on the quality of the writing or thinking in the book; it’s more a reflection of the fact that I had already heard many of the sermons delivered from the pulpit and around the time the book came out, I was ready to take a break from church and theology and religion. (Why I was ready to take a break would fill many pages, but I’m not inclined to write it down.)

But the last six months or so I have felt more hopeful, despite the woe in the world, and revisiting Debbie’s excellent sermons seemed timely. I am glad I did. I’m about four pieces in so far, and already have heard things I don’t remember hearing the first time. Good writing is like that.

Of course, I approached the book with obvious biases. I knew I was going to like the sermons, since I like Debbie. I can hear her voice very clearly in my head as I read. The cadence, the tempo, the flurry of images. Very Debbie. Sort of a jazz aesthetic in her prose, the furious little runs of notes that culminate in an opening unto something new. Like poetry, sermons are written to be spoken aloud. I’m glad I have Debbie’s voice in my head so I can hear them as they were meant to be heard.

One of the things I’ve been enjoying is looking at the dates of each sermon and trying to remember who and where I was at the time. Take the one I just read, “A Potentially Gruesome Metaphor,” from February, 2001. I was out of town that winter, so I hadn’t heard this one before. I know the story well (Luke 5:1-11) where Jesus gets on Simon’s boat to preach, then tells him to throw over his nets into the deep and the size of the catch nearly capsizes the boat. The passage ends with Jesus saying that he will make the fishermen fishers of men. Like I said, I know the story well, but I found I didn’t know the text well. A good sermon opens up the cracks in the text. Debbie riffs for awhile on the fishing theme, on the monotone evangelical hijacking of the fishers of men image, and then she goes somewhere I didn’t expect. Which I like. “Put out into the deep and put down your nets for a catch,” says Jesus. And then when the fish come in in overwhelming abundance, Simon’s reaction seems, even for Simon, way overboard. “Go away from me, for I am a sinful man.” Like Dostoyevsky’s opening in Notes from Underground: “I am a sick man…I am an angry man. I am an unattractive man.” I am a sinful man.

Debbie then connects the deep with the unconscious in a nod to postmodern psychoanalysis and sheds some light on Simon’s reaction, then offers her listener the chance to empathize:

Jesus in the same boat as you, next to you, sitting on your fish: what’s been hauled up from the absolute darkest scariest place anyone ever imagined, knee deep in sardines, catfish on his lap, traces of the depths (your depths), the smell of fish on his hands. You’re both on the verge of being buried by this unbelievably large catch….But Jesus says, “Don’t be afraid.”

Debbie prayed at my wedding. The other officiant at my wedding was Doug Frank. Doug said to me once, there are only two things in life: fear and trust. Everything comes back to which of those two things you are living out of.

I think about what Doug told me just about every day. Now I have Debbie’s wonderful image of fish-laden Jesus as well. Trust. Do not be afraid. Sure, the present circumstances stink, but do not be afraid.