Books

Book Review: A Gracious Heresy

I’ve heard the story from my Presbyterian colleagues about the Rev. David Bailey Sindt, who stood up at the 1974 General Assembly with a sign that read, “Is anybody else out there gay?” Other mainline denominations have their semi-famous gay icons, but what of the gay and lesbian people who took their own stands on less-remembered occasions? 

Connie L. Tuttle was one of them. The first out lesbian to graduate from Columbia Theological Seminary, Rev. Tuttle stood in protest during an Atlanta Presbytery meeting in the 1990s, compelling those in attendance to remember that they were discussing people, not merely policy, as they considered Amendment B. That event forms the spine of her memoir, A Gracious Heresy: The Queer Calling of an Unlikely Prophet(Resource Publications, 2018). She had no official standing to speak at the meeting, yet she stood, in a visible yet silent protest. 

Tuttle tells her at times tumultuous life story in frank prose. She does not spare herself and thereby gains the credibility that allows her to tell the truth, as any worthy prophet would, about the people whose preferences and prejudices affected her along the way. The narrative is grounded in the events of the world, giving the reader a sense of what it was like to be a young woman formed by the social and political climate of the late 1960s. Her childhood experiences as an Army brat exposed Tuttle to a non-denominational and accepting form of church, and that is what she hoped to find when, as a 20-something lesbian single mother, she began searching for a spiritual home and found it for a time in a Presbyterian congregation. In response to a strong sense of calling, she went to college in her 20s at Agnes Scott, with the goal of then going onto seminary. 

Call is not so much words as it is feeling. Not the imposition of feeling but the rise of relationship beyond words. (p. 23)

Tuttle’s writing voice communicates a sense of her energy and drive, whether she is remembering cooking for a community meal, taking a road trip, or learning how to be present to patients as a chaplain. Throughout she shares a vision of community in which people care for and nurture one another, despite the unkindness she faces from sexist and homophobic church and academic leaders. (For those who know anything about the Southern Presbyterian Church in the 1970s and 80s, many familiar names appear in the text.) She takes us into classrooms and meetings with faculty, including a story from her first day of classes, when the professor teaching “Formation of Ministry” informed the students they must guard against “zipper problems.”

Shocked, I looked around. Zipper problems? Two things bothered me about this statement. One: there were enough women in the room for him to have come up with a different euphemism. Or did this just refer to male clergy? And two: WHAT? You mean to tell me that the people who are supposed to model the highest standards of ethics are no more than clay-footed mongrels panting after any women in heat? (p. 143)

As I said above, her tone is frank, and that frankness was much-appreciated by this reader. Sexism and homophobia have not gone away in the decades since Tuttle graduated from Columbia, in the church or in the wider world. I take great encouragement from her determination to push back even then, and from the cause of that determination: she had a call to follow, and she was going to find a way to respond to what God put in her heart. 

When asked to describe her gifts for ministry during an assessment required for her seminary graduation, Tuttle explained that her wide experiences prepared her to speak for those who cannot speak for themselves, particularly those who had been hurt by the church.

I want my life to be prophetic and my actions to be pastoral. (p. 182)

What a worthy aspiration!

Connie Tuttle was never ordained in the Presbyterian Church (USA). She went on to found Circle of Grace, “a small, progressive, ecumenical, feminist, Christian house church” in Atlanta, Georgia. She is part of the RevGalBlogPals blogging community; you can find her writing at The Gracious Heretic. I recommend her book to all who love to read call stories, and especially to readers who wonder why LGBTQ+ people stick with the church. (Short version: God called us.) Rev. Tuttle may be a heretic; she is certainly a prophet; she is also a hero.

I received a copy of the book in exchange for my honest review. (Cross-posted at RevGalBlogPals.)

Books

Sparrow (book review)

Jennifer DurantA wife and mother of two teenagers, recently ordained in the Episcopal Church, receives the worst kind of bad news: she has ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis). The Rev. Jennifer Durant tells her own story in Sparrow: A Journey of Grace and Miracles While Battling ALS (Morehouse, 2016), a book published just a year after her death. It was her hope that telling this story would build on the increasing public recognition of ALS developed by the Ice Bucket Challenge, and she pushed through to finish the book using assistive devices.

Called as an Associate Rector, she shared her diagnosis with her new colleague, David M. Stoddart, the Rector of Church of the Saviour in Charlottesville, Virginia. When she offered to resign, he recommended keeping her condition quiet as long as possible, so the congregation could learn to love her. She writes:

He assured me my gifts — my God-given, Christ-blessed gifts — had not changed. That is a message for every person who feels they are less than whole. God sees us as whole and perfect. Our Got talents are not lost simply because our muscles don’t work like everyone else’s, or because we are bling. Or deaf. Or old. Or weak or broken. (p. 31)

Durant goes on to share the painful truth of her loss of ability and her faith that God was with her all along the way. She owns that the loss of her capacity to function as a mother and a wife hurt deeply. She names the things she will miss and the parenting role she has surrendered to her husband, Matt. She compares her children to baby sparrows, raised “in a nest of God’s love.”

And so my sparrow-darlings, though I can no longer speak, I can pray. (p. 85)

Readers may well weep at this point, as this reviewer did.

Sparrow_rgb (1)As a pastor, I am delighted to read a book in which the church does not fail a person who is suffering through challenges. Church of the Saviour made numerous accommodations for Durant, including buying a lighter-weight paten to use at the Eucharist, carpooling while Durant rode shotgun, and literally feeding her at church potlucks when she could no longer manage utensils herself. When a church member expressed concern that her deteriorating condition might upset the children, Father David supported her continuing presence. Parishioners read her sermons aloud. At the end of the book, Durant includes her final sermon, delivered ten days before her death.

It’s worth noting that Durant writes strictly from her own context, including the use of fairly traditional descriptions of men and women and their family roles.

Sparrow is a brave, honest book. Durant writes in simple terms about her faith and her life experiences. This is a book accessible to all readers. It could serve as an encouragement to those suffering terminal illness and as a helpful guide to their family, friends and caregivers. The book contains a Bible Study guide with readings to accompany each of the short chapters and could be used readily by a group.

*****

I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for my honest review, which originally appeared at RevGalBlogPals.

Books

Book Review: Wearing God by Lauren Winner

The pages I've marked.
The pages I’ve marked.

I read most of Lauren Winner’s new book while traveling by plane, when I didn’t have post-it notes or even a pen handy, so I unashamedly dog-eared the pages to be able to find sections I wanted to quote in this review. As you can see from the picture, there are many. I came to Winner’s work when she offered to share copies of her last book, Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis, with members of RevGalBlogPals. Through her generosity, literally hundreds of clergywomen received free copies of the book. I knew of her only by reputation – in other words, at that time, I knew she was a writer and somehow famous, but I didn’t know why or what her other books had been about except for having a vague sense that she might be evangelical or at least in some way affiliated with Christianity Today magazine. I’ve since learned more about her journey from Judaism to Christianity, her writings on celibacy and the period of reflection following her divorce.

Those biographical and literary facts are only a part of Winner’s story. She is a scholar, a teacher, a priest and a lover of scripture, all characteristics that inform her beautiful new book, Wearing God: Clothing, Laughter, Fire, and Other Overlooked Ways of Meeting God. Winner brings both a depth of research and an imaginative mind to her exploration of images we tend to forget in worship and devotions.

Clothing ~ Are we clothed in Christ? It’s an old idea, but a challenging one. It means a change in our inner appearance, a change in who we are. And what does it mean when she teaches a class to incarcerated women in green uniforms sitting alongside Duke students in sweater sets? Sometimes we forget what our outer garments say about whose we are.

Smell ~ I found the story of her friend Maisie (beginning on p. 81) particularly – well, what is the olfactory version of resonant? Aromatic? I found the story aromatic. Maisie wore the shirts of her late husband for many months because they held his smell. Having held onto the t-shirt of a long-distance love, I knew exactly what she meant. In scripture, God perceives sacrificial odors as good, and Jesus himself is a sweet smelling offering to God. I find the latter a strange challenge to my discomfort with atonement theology, but I’m fascinated by the ideas Winner collects.

Bread and Vine ~ Here’s where I began dog-earing in earnest. All these spoke to me: the image (p. 108) of an exhausted God “hand(ing) a can of SpaghettiOs to the saints,” the sacrament of box lunches packed for African-Americans traveling outside safe territory, Jesus himself as manna, as “journeying bread” (pp. 111-112), the writings of Mechthild (p. 116) as a reverse Communion image in which we place our difficulties like bread crumbs into God’s hand, the making of rosilio, an eccentric liqueur (well, eccentric to me) as a counterpoint to excess (p. 126), and the idea of being intoxicated by God, something that as a childhood Baptist is a stretch for me, and yet something I understand quite well in other ways.

There is so much more, sections on God as laboring woman and laughter  (Sarah is transformed by it! p. 186) and flame, and a beautiful if admittedly incomplete reflection on violent, even abusive, images of God as found in scripture. Winer intersperses both classical and contemporary quotes and prayers, many of them jewels, but I sometimes found their placement to be a distraction from her writing. I identified with Winner’s identification of her biases of interpretation and the challenge she offers the reader to see with different eyes, and frankly with her nerdy highbrow tendencies as well. While this is a book you could easily read one section at a time, I did not want to put it down.

I hope I’ve provided enough fragrant crumbs to make you yearn for a copy.

____

Full disclosure: I received a free copy of Wearing God from the publisher, but there was no requirement to offer a favorable review in return.