My soul is so full. I am coming down from the high after hanging out at the Southern Festival of Books for three days. No, not a vacation, not a retreat, but three days that were for me. Poet me, writer me, reader me. There is so much to reflect on, so I’ll have to break it up into two or three different posts.
Friday I went to the Nashville Public Library, only my favorite place in Nashville, to hear poet Mark Jarman read and speak. He’s a poet who teaches at Vanderbilt, and I’d read some of his poems before, but did not own any of his books. Turns out Mark Jarman and I have a lot in common. He was a PK just like me. He spoke the language of my childhood: pulpit, served the church, congregation. Like my parents, his took him halfway across the world. Mine took me to Thailand; his took him to Scotland. He talked about his father having to leave a church because he stood up against the Vietnam War and he tried to integrate. I wish I could’ve known that guy, I thought. The guy who stood up for good, and everybody else walked out.
When I was in elementary school, my father pastored a struggling Nazarene Church in Kansas City, Missouri while simultaneously attending seminary. Most years, I was the only person in my Sunday School class. Miss Dorothy, a retired lady, taught me. She was tall and thin, and she wore a long wool black overcoat as she sat across from me. Since there were only about 50 people who attended regularly, they let me sing in the choir, and I’d occasionally get called on to give a testimony. To me, it was a game I called Popcorn Testimony. One person would stand up and say his piece, and then he’d look around and call on somebody else to stand up. I’d try to sound as adult as possible, throwing out something like, “I’m thankful for God’s peace, joy, and love all the time.”
I think being the preacher’s kid made me grow up faster maybe, because I knew everyone was watching me, and I had to try and please them. At fourteen, I was borrowing my mom’s clothes and practicing poise when I talked to people. I should have been driving my parents crazy with attitude, angst, and loud music.
Mark Jarman ended up leaving the church, then later came to a moment of wanting to discover if, indeed, he still had faith. He wrote the collections Questions for Ecclesiastes and Unholy Sonnets. Here’s one of his sonnets, which aptly describes a church service from my childhood:
After the praying, after the hymn-singing,
After the sermon’s trenchant commentary
On the world’s ills, which make ours secondary,
After communion, after the hand-wringing,
And after peace descends upon us, bringing
Our eyes up to regard sanctuary
And how the light swords through it, and how, scary
In their sheer numbers, motes of dust ride, clinging-
There is, as doctors say about some pain,
Discomfort knowing that despite your prayers,
Your listening and rejoicing, your small part
In this communal stab at coming clean,
There is one stubborn remnant of your cares
Intact. There is still murder in your heart.
I love the honesty of the last line. Yes, we pray. Yes, we listen to the sermons. Yes, we rejoice. But no one’s perfect. It might not be murder, but it might be lust; it might not be lust, but it might be envy. And so on. My testimony is different now. Sometimes it’s “fear, doubt, and struggle” instead of “peace, love, and joy.” But I think God’s big enough to handle that.
Dear Mr. Jarman, Did you ever reclaim your faith? Did you ever find a rope to hold on to in the ocean of your doubt? I think I did, and I’ll share my rope with you.