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Learning to Walk in the Dark by Barbara Brown Taylor, HarperOne,2014, 200 pp.

Learning to Walk in the DarkThis book was not what I expected. As always, because it is Barbara Brown Taylor, it was beautifully written, with deep observations and insights, God-tinged at every turn. However, I expected darkness in this book to be far more metaphorical. Taylor’s previous two books, Leaving Church and An Altar in the World, were about her journey into a new and unexpected future outside of traditional ministry and church. I expected this to be an exploration of that new and unknown reality. However, Taylor–ever ready to surprise–responds to her quest with an engagement in real, physical darkness. She literally walks in the dark, in a variety of ways, and then reflects on what she has learned.

One important note (which probably would be more fitting at the end of this review, but preoccupied me and might preoccupy you, so I’ll address it first): How does Taylor address the historic dualism between light and dark, which expands to divide white and black, male and female, good and evil, with one side of the duality always paired with good and the other evil? That equation of darkness with evil has deep implications in the systemic racism, fear and distrust of people of color throughout the world. To neglect addressing it would be to perpetuate it. Taylor does address it, and quickly. While I would have liked more depth in her examination of that painful history in metaphor and reality, she does not ignore it and handles it enough to make me continue reading without a feeling that something important was unacknowledged. More, though, the whole book itself turns out to be a reclaiming of the dark as a place of beauty, a place of God. The fundamental trajectory of the book is her insistence that God is not only light, God is also dark. God dwells in the darkness, not just to illuminate it, but because darkness is also of God and a path to God. So, in the end, her book contributes helpfully to overcoming that anti-darkness legacy, even though I still would have welcomed a more explicit unpacking of that particular part of history.

Taylor begins by identifying darkness as “anything that scares me,” which seems problematic given the issues I just raised, and, again, I do not thing she adequately addresses it. However, she goes on to name the problem almost immediately after, and then to offer her critique of “full solar spirituality:”

…a kind of spirituality that deals with darkness by denying its existence or at least depriving it of any meaningful attention. I call it “full solar spirituality,” since it focuses on staying in the light of God around the clock, both absorbing and reflecting the sunny side of faith. (7)

The danger of this “full solar spirituality” is that darkness or sorrow or trouble in your life becomes a symptom of weak faith. Taylor contrasts this with “lunar spirituality, in which the divine light available to me waxes and wanes with the seasons.” (9) This book then asks,

What would my life with God look like if I trusted this rhythm instead of opposing it? What was I afraid of, exactly, and how much was I missing by reaching reflexively for the lights? Did I have faith enough to explore the dark instead of using faith to bar all my doors? (9)

The first chapter invites the reader to consider his or her own personal history of the dark, hearkening back to childhood relationships and fears of the dark. It contains one of the most insightful lines of the book, quoted from James Bremmer:

Courage, which is no more than the management of fear, must be practiced. For this, children need a widespread, easily obtained, cheap, renewable source of something scary but not actually dangerous. (37)

Darkness is the perfect source.

The subsequent chapters look at the scriptures for important events that take place in the night (there are many–think of how much God speaks through dreams); at the ways we are “hampered by brilliance” and need the darkness of night to thrive; and the so-called “dark emotions.” She explores the work of psychiatrist Miriam Greenspan, who sorts out the differences between depression and “dark emotions.” The problem is not the emotions themselves; it is our inability to tolerate them.

When we cannot tolerate the dark, we try all kinds of artificial lights… There are no dark emotions, Greenspan says–just unskillful ways of coping with emotions we cannot bear. The emotions themselves are conduits of pure energy that want something from us: to wake us up, to tell us something we need to know, to break the ice around our hearts, to move us to act. (78)

Later in the chapter, she discussed the work of Ken Wilber, who talks about the different functions of religion as translation (helping people understand  and find hope in their hardships to strengthen their selves) and transformation (dismantling the self and dislocating comfort). In American culture, “translation is being marketed as transformation, which is why those who try to live on the spiritual equivalent of fast food have to keep going back for more and more.” (88) I have found this to be a key part of my own ministry. I am often the only person in situations of grief or tragedy that is comfortable sitting with the person in their sorrow, not attempting to fix anything or even hurrying them through or making things easier, better, comforting. As Christians who follow a God who died on a cross, I think we should be far more skilled at being present to discomfort and suffering than we are.

Taylor then moves into more physical experiences of darkness, such as a “blind restaurant” exhibit and a spelunking adventure, before turning to St. John of the Cross, the via negativa and the “dark night of the soul.” She discovers herself moving away from all she thought she grasped about God, toward a mysterious trust in the presence of God even when she feels only the absence of God.

When we can no longer see the path we are on, we can no longer read the maps we have brought with us or sense anything in the dark that might tell us where we are, then and only then are we vulnerable to God’s protection. (147)

Learning to Walk in the Dark is a book about loss, but it manages to avoid being heavy or weighty. Sometimes, I even longed for it to feel a little more hefty. Instead, loss becomes a companion, like darkness, that we need not fear or carry as a burden, but journey with along life’s way. This book is full of all the richness Taylor provides, but without much of the depth of scripture study we have seen in her “churchier” works. It would find an easy home among the “spiritual but not religious,” while also opening new spiritual paths for those of us who stay within traditional religious life. I found wisdom, insight and joy in its pages.

The Preaching Life by Barbara Brown Taylor, Cowley Publications, 1993, 180 pp.

Preaching LifeBarbara Brown Taylor’s writings and reflections are always rich and beautiful. The Preaching Life is no exception. The book talks about her own life and relationship with preaching, which is insightful for anyone engaged in preaching or listening to sermons.

The book is divide into two sections, “A Life of Faith” and “The Preaching of the Word.” The first is her reflection on her own call into ministry, the role of the church, and the task of preparing sermons.  The chapters follow a simple trajectory: A Church in Ruins, Call, Vocation, Imagination, Bible, Worship, and Preaching. The second section includes 13 sermons, mostly on the Gospels. I read the book more for the reflection than the sermons, so I will focus on that in my comments here. Taylor’s sermons are always thought-provoking, as she has a way of drawing us into the intersections between the life-world of the Bible and our own.

I especially appreciated her perspective on preparing sermons that attempt to join the timely pastoral concerns of the congregation and the timeless stories of scripture. Sermons reside in the space between pastor, congregation and God, and they always emerge from the preacher’s reflections on the relationships between all three.

Preaching becomes something the whole community participates in, not only through their response to a particular sermon but also through identifying with the preacher. As they listen week after week, they are invited to see the world the way the preacher does—as the realm of God’s activity—and to make connections between their Christian faith and their lives the same way they hear them made from the pulpit. (33)

Later, she likens the preparation of a sermon to being Cyrano de Bergerac, “passing messages between two would-be lovers who don’t know how.”

What is called for, instead, is a sermon that honors all of its participants, in which preachers speak in their own voices out of their own experience, addressing God on the congregation’s behalf and—with great care and humility–the congregation on God’s behalf… Down in the bushes with a congregation who have elected me to speak for them, I try to put their longing into words, addressing the holy vision that appears on the moonlit balcony above our heads. Then the vision replies, and it is my job to repeat what I have heard, bringing the message back to the bushes for a response. (83)

From the beginning, she speaks about call and vocation as they apply not simply to preachers and clergy, but to all of the baptized—we are all called to live our lives for God through our work and our service. Her approach to preaching echoes that theology throughout.

And finally, just an eloquent word on God and the life of faith:

Then I remember that God’s power is not a controlling but a redeeming power—the power to raise the dead, including those who are destroying themselves—and the red blood of belief begins to return to my veins. I have faith. I lose faith. I find faith again, or faith finds me, but throughout it all I am grasped by the possibility that it is all true: I am in good hands; love girds the universe; God will have the last word.

Amen.

 

Speaking of Sin: The Lost Language of Salvation by Barbara Brown Taylor, Cowley Publications, 2000, 73 pp.

Speaking of SinThis short volume, begun as a lecture series at the National Cathedral, is a powerful meditation on our Christian language of sin, repentance, and salvation. I read it on Ash Wednesday, sitting in a coffee shop for the day with a sign that read “Ashes for Everyone.” In between chapters on salvation, sin and redemption, I imposed ashes upon strangers and church folk alike. It was a powerful day, and Taylor’s book provided powerful words to accompany the journey.

Each chapter moves through a deeper level of meaning for the word “sin.” We mainline Christians often avoid the word these days, but that doesn’t make sin go away, she argues. Instead, we should claim the rich depth of Christian understanding about sin, about the condition of the world as a heart-breaking place, about our human inadequacy to heal it, and our continued sins of omission and commission that allow it to continue. She also explores the difference between sin as sickness (church as clinic) and as wrongdoing (church as courtroom), the various Hebrew words translated as “sin,” and the role of individual and corporate confession. She also addresses penance, righteousness and justice.

The book is rich and full of insight from beginning to end, including many explanations of loaded terms like sin and repentance that sing with Taylor’s gift for beautiful language:

In theological language, the choice to remain in wrecked relationship with God and other human beings is called sin. The choice to enter into the process of repair is called repentance, an often bitter medicine with the undisputed power to save lives. (41)

Of course, the conversation turns to grace as well, and Taylor offers one of the most  powerful descriptions of grace since Bonhoeffer’s famous distinction between cheap grace and costly grace.

God’s grace is not simply the infinite supply of divine forgiveness upon which hopeless sinners depend. Grace is also the mysterious strength God lends human beings who commit themselves to the work of transformation. To repent is both to act from that grace and to ask for more of it in order to follow Christ into the startling freedom of new life. (60)

This book will be my go-to resource every time I want to talk about sin, repentance, grace, redemption and salvation. Taylor’s insights are rich, and I am still thinking about them all the time as I write this review, three months after completing the book.

Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith, Harper Collins, 2009, 216 pp.

Barbara Brown Taylor never disappoints with the beauty of her language and the connections she makes about the movements of God in her spirit and her world. My book is full of notes and underlines to which I hope to return to borrow a gem for a future sermon. An Altar in the World describes her spiritual life outside of the church, since she left parish ministry several years ago.

Each chapter of the book describes a spiritual practice that can be done by anyone, in any place. They are deeply grounded Christian practices, although she moves beyond the classic list of prayer, study, Sabbath, service and more. Taylor carefully grounds each one in Christian tradition, even as she assigns them contemporary names free of all “churchiness.” Reverence becomes “the practice of paying attention.” Wilderness becomes “the practice of getting lost.” Prayer becomes “the practice of being present to God.” The prayer chapter was one of my favorites, because she talks about her life as a failure in prayer, if prayer is the art of constant conversation with God. She returns us to Brother Lawrence (whom I love), who models prayer as practicing God’s presence in every action and every moment, opening oneself to God at every turn.

While this book is certainly beautifully written, it did not grab me with the compelling power her previous works held over me. I wonder if it is because my own spirituality is so deeply connected to church, that church’s conspicuous absence made me feel absent too. It could also simply have been the wrong time in my life for this book—it just didn’t speak to my heart at this moment. I did not find anything in An Altar in the World that was new, as it seemed to rehearse similar territory to Dorothy Bass’ Practicing Our Faith and Diana Butler Bass’ Christianity for the Rest of Us, singing the same song in a different key. I love the two Bass books, and the whole movement around them to prioritize Christian faith practices. Taylor’s book belongs to that genre, so I appreciate it even if it was not my favorite among them. It would probably be a great book for someone on the edges of Christianity and church, but intrigued by a Christian way of life.

This whole movement speaks as a challenge and a call to renewal for the heady, wordy nature of mainline worship. Taylor points out that, in all the discussions of the decline of mainline churches, no one talks about the “intellectualization of the faith, which strikes me as a far greater danger than anything else on the list.” I have been thinking a lot about this lately in our own church. I want to move people to experience God, and I’m not sure our current worship service is the best means for doing so. We need ways to move beyond saying words, listening to words and singing wordy songs as our only corporate expressions of worship. Taylor continues:

In an age of information overload … the last thing any of us needs is more information about God. We need the practice of incarnation, by which God saves the lives of those whose intellectual assent has turned dry as dust, who have run frighteningly low on the bread of life, who are dying to know more God in their bodies. Not more about God. More God. (45)

How can we stop telling people about God and actually bring them into God’s presence? Vital worship that involves bodies and senses and motion. Spiritual practices that shape our bodies into God’s bodies serving the world. Engaged faith that inspires people to make altars everywhere in the world.

This Odd and Wondrous Calling: The Public and Private Lives of Two Ministers, by Lillian Daniel and Martin Copenhaver, Eerdmans, 2009, 235 pp.

This is one of the best books I have read in a long time, and one of the best books I have ever read about the pastoral life. In the preface, the authors promise “a current book that is honest about the challenges of this vocation but still reflects the joy that can be found in it… an encouraging yet realistic book about the ministry written by someone who is still doing it.” (xiv) The chapters that follow make good on that promise.

Each chapter takes a particular experience in pastoral life (singular or recurring) and holds it up to the light, examining the specks and imperfections while simultaneously seeing the experience as a prism that reflects and refracts the light of God. They dissect everything from shaking hands at the back of the sanctuary and visiting hospital rooms to church fellowship hour and committee meetings. Without exaggerating or idealizing, Daniel and Copenhaver articulate why each of these little things matter, and describe the ways they have witnessed God’s light break through in these ordinary moments.

Sometimes, it feels as though they have pulled back the curtain to expose that we wizards behind the magic of the pulpit and pastoral presence are just ordinary, wrinkled, anxious human beings. Copenhaver’s chapter about “The Twin Imposters” of praise and criticism in ministerial life discusses the lavish praise pastors can receive for just showing up, even if we do or offer very little. Daniel’s chapter entitled, “Can We Be Friends?” takes on the challenging tension between wanting friends outside the church and wanting people to join your church. I suspect some clergy might want to avoid these kinds of revelations, but to me they only increase my respect for the work of ministry and for these two particular clergy. I admit I am even a bit jealous of their confidence and honesty—not to mention their way with words.

From the beginning, I put this book in dialogue with another account of the pastoral life: Barbara Brown Taylor’s Leaving Church. Taylor also describes the beauty and challenge of the pastoral life, but she does it with an underlying sense of frustration and incarceration that eventually causes her to leave the pastoral life altogether. I loved her writing about ministry, but did not share her conclusions. This Odd and Wondrous Calling is the antithesis of Leaving Church—Daniel and Copenhaver acknowledge the mess and the stress and then loudly declare their love for it. Daniel gives us images upon images that move and inspire, like identifying the church as “one of the last remaining homes of the no-cut audition,” (116) or seeing  “people who have no china of their own get to own the china of the church.” (27) While the whole of the book is not a response to Taylor, Copenhaver’s final chapter does take direct aim. Entitled “Staying in Church,” Copenhaver talks about Taylor’s book and concludes that pastoral life is simply a calling: “it is a good life, if you are called to it.” (234)

I am with Copenhaver and Daniel all the way. They point out that the pastoral life presents the opportunity to be better than you are, to grow in wisdom every day, to stand and witness God at work in people’s lives, and occasionally even serve as midwife to holy experiences. This book captures that life in all its complexity, sacrifice and joy. I recommend it to those considering ministry, preparing for ministry, living the pastoral life or contemplating leaving the ministry.

The authors strike a balance between honesty and awe at the pastoral life. The daily tasks of ministry are sometimes tedious, difficult, stressful or even ridiculous, but those same daily tasks draw us into close proximity with the Holy One all the time. It is a gift, a work, and most profoundly a calling.


About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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