Barbara Brown Taylor

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Public Truth, Private Truth: Making the Move from Sermon to Memoir

April 17, 2006


Grace and peace to you, in the name of God’s Beloved. I am grateful to all of you for choosing to be here tonight, and to my Cathedral hosts for inviting me to be with you. That this great church should welcome someone who has written a book called Leaving Church is all you really need to know about the forgiving nature of the Episcopal Church, which remains my home sweet church home. So thanks to Dean MacDonald and Howard Anderson for inviting me to be here tonight.

Because both the title and the cover of my new book are provocative, I want to begin by telling you what they mean to me. The white bird on the front is the Holy Spirit, not me, and the door of the beautiful birdcage is wide open. The bird is not escaping from the prison of the church. The bird has just been getting fat on store bought birdseed and started hankering for a face to face with a real live worm. The bird comes and goes as it wills. Sometimes we see it. More often, we feel the wind of its wings on our faces, but we know not where it comes from nor where it is going, for so it is with all who are born of the Spirit (see John 3 for more details).

The church of the title is Grace-Calvary Episcopal Church in the foothills of Clarkesville, Georgia, where I spent five and a half years in full time parish ministry before leaving to teach college in 1997. Because I worked so hard to find it, leaving that church so soon was the last thing on my list of things to do.

It was such a surprise, in fact, that after five years of living with my abrupt exit like a dirty secret, I decided to write a book about it in order to try and understand what had happened to me, and especially during the three months that I was between jobs. Three years later, I had a book called Leaving Church: A Love Story, which I was happy to place with HarperSanFrancisco, even though they nixed my subtitle because they said it sounded like a Catholic priest-falls-in-love-with-nun story.

If my other books have been whole milk books, this is my single malt scotch book, which is the main thing I want to speak with you about tonight. After twenty years of telling the public truth—the truth I believed was both true for all and good for all, or at least all within the sound of my voice—my first attempt at telling the private truth—the truth that may only be true or good for me—well, that was quite a stretch. Clergy spend a lot of time talking about what is right, in case you hadn’t noticed. For once, I thought I would concentrate on what was true,--just for me, from my limited point of view on planet Earth—in hopes that might be helpful to someone else trying to do the same thing.

Making the move from sermon to memoir has been one of the more strenuous passages in my life, and it also makes the reviews a whole lot scarier to read. A couple of weeks ago I received one via e-mail with “Review of You” in the subject line. Just for the record, my mother confirms that everything in the book is true.

Although I have been in the word business for a very long time, I have not been in it as a writer, whose chief interest in words is their life on the page. Except for a batch of tortured short stories that I wrote in my twenties and some professional journal articles that I have written since then, I have never written to be read. I have never, in fact, sat down to write a book, although several exist with my name on them.

Instead, I have been in the word business as a preacher and teacher, whose chief interest in words is their life in the air. While I am very pleased to have books with my name on them, they contain pieces that I arranged for the ear, and not the eye. Even those masquerading as essays came into the world as sermons, lectures, or addresses much like this one—all of them written to be heard, not read, by groups of people much like you—people who bothered to change their clothes, get into their cars, and travel some distance in hopes of being stirred by the spoken word—who spent an hour or two of their valuable time in this way instead of some other way in hopes of hearing something true, or at least interesting, that might make a difference in their lives—or persuade them that they were on the right track, anyhow, and not half as crazy or alone as they sometimes felt.

I have let plenty of people down over the years, but I have also found kindred souls, who listened to me in ways that made them full participants in what I was doing. Although I was the one who got to choose the words, that alone was far from enough to make anything worthwhile happen. In order for something worthwhile to happen, the words needed generous hearers—people who would consent to stop guarding their hearts for a moment or two—just long enough to let a little of their lives rise up to meet the words in the air. I had to love the words enough to say them, but the whole thing stopped right there if no one was willing to love them enough to hear them.

It was a little like a relay, I guess, except that the goal was not to keep a firm grip on the words but to let them go. When everyone involved managed to give up possession of them, then we increased the possibility that they might become a third thing in the room with us, a presence that knit us together in the same way that music or communion bread could.

When I speak of public truth, then, this is what I mean: not the proclamation of some indisputable fact about God or the Bible but the saying-out-loud of something true about human life on earth, in the presence of living people who can either nod their heads knowingly or cross their arms over their chests and sit back in their seats. As my teacher Fred Craddock once said in my hearing, people don’t come to church to hear you tell them what they do not know; they come to hear you say what they want to say but don’t know how. This is the public truth of the sermon, or at least of the sermons that have inspired me.

There are limitations, of course. Because the art of the sermon tends to be practiced in church, both the subject and the language need to be “G” or at least “PG.” As much as I admire the salty writing of Anne Lamott, for instance, I cannot quote her best passages in church, anymore than I can rise to her use of language. The “f” word figures prominently in her conversion story, but to retell it substituting “the f word” takes all the starch out of it.

If I have watched my own language in church, it is because there are often children present. This is a good reason to be careful about what I say. A bad reason is because many people of faith seem to believe that God also needs to be protected from the earthier preoccupations of the human heart. Or maybe we are just protecting one another, by declining to confess in one another’s presence what really keeps us awake at night. A preacher who wants to keep his or her job would do well to avoid trying to say anything true about sex, money, politics, war, or existential despair in church. It is also not a good idea to question established readings of scripture or tradition.

Of course there are churches where such discussions are both expected and welcome—but on the whole I have suffered from what I think of as the “full sun” syndrome in church, where there are not only taboo subjects and modes of expression but also taboo modes of being—all of which place limits on how much public truth may be spoken.

May I read a passage from my book?

In my role, I could act out of my best nature for hours at a time. I could produce kindness when all I feel is fatigue. I could present patience when circumstances warrant irritation. I could shine like the sun until long after dark when I need to, but my soul did not operate on a solar calendar.

My soul operated on a lunar calendar, coming up at a different time every night and never looking the same two nights in a row. Where my role called for a steady circle of bright light, my soul waxed and waned. There were days when I was as full as a harvest moon and others when not so much as a sliver appeared in the sky. My soul’s health depended on the regular cycle of these phases. I needed the dark nights that gave the stars their full brilliance as much as I needed the nights when the moon shone so brightly that I could make shadow puppets with my hands. The problem with the collar was that it did not allow for such variations. It advertised the steady circle of light, not the cycles, so that it sometimes scorched my neck.

I do not think that I was the only one who suffered from too much sun in church. One thing that had always troubled me was the way people disappeared from church when their lives were breaking down. Separation and divorce were the most common explanations for long absences, but so were depression, alcoholism, job loss, and mortal illness. One new widow told me that she could not come to church because she started crying the moment she sat down in a pew. A young man freshly diagnosed with AIDS said that he stayed away because he was too frightened to answer questions and too angry to sing hymns. I understood their reasoning, but I was sorry that church did not strike these eclipsed souls as a place they could bring the dark fruits of their equally dark nights.

Some of them returned when their moons had filled out a little and others did not, but even people in no apparent crisis seemed to suffer from the full-sun effect. As enjoyable as if could be to spend a couple of hours on Sunday morning with people who were at their best, it was also possible to see the strain in some of the smiles, the effort it took to present the most positive, most faithful version of the self. Sometimes I could almost read the truth written out above people’s heads. “Please don’t believe me. This is only a shard of who I really am.” The cost of the pretense was the loss of the real human texture underneath, but since we all thought that was what was expected of us, that was what we delivered.

One of my favorite mornings at my last church was the one when Andy showed up to read scripture at the early service with a front tooth missing. His cap had fallen off during the night, he explained, when I asked him what had happened. Air whistled through his remaining teeth when he spoke. As hard as I worked to keep my eyes away from the hole, they kept straying back. Anyone else would have called in sick or arranged a substitute, but Andy could have cared less.

He was the guy who showed up to shovel the sidewalks on Sunday mornings after a heavy snow, staying for the service even if there were only the two of us and no heat. He was the guy who climbed three ladders to knock the wasp’s nest out of the bell tower, while his German shepherd watched from the cab of his truck below. He was also the guy who could get into a shouting match with me over how the church was spending his pledge, but Andy’s real human texture was always on display. When he stood up to read scripture that morning with a lisp as pronounced as his devotion, I loved him entirely.

I knew clergy like him too, who never let their collars cut off their air, but they seemed to possess some force of character that I do not possess. I had set out to wear a collar in the first place because I thought it would mark me as someone committed to going all the way with God. Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself? My initial answer had been yes, I would. I would give myself completely to that ministry. I wore my collar the way I wore my wedding ring, as a symbol of my vows. But, as I suspected when I first opened the box from Wippell’s, what the collar symbolized to other people was not under my control. In the same way that a prisoner’s stripes identified someone with a criminal record, a collar identified someone with divine aspirations, which does not always bode well for the person who wore it.

While I knew plenty of clergy willing to complain about the high expectations and long hours, few of us spoke openly about the toxic effects of being identified as the holiest person in a congregation. Whether this honor was conferred by those who recognized our gifts for ministry or was simply extended by them as a professional courtesy, it was equally hard on the honorees. Those of us who believed our own press developed larger-than-life swaggers and embarrassing patterns of speech, while those who did not suffered lower back pain and frequent bouts of sleeplessness. Either way, we were deformed.

We were not God, but we spent so much tending the God-place in people’s lives that it was easy to understand why someone might get us confused.
(pages 147-150)

Never does this feel so true as when I stand in the pulpit on Sundays. Part of the problem, of course, is that I get to stand up in special clothes and talk while everyone else is supposed to sit quietly and listen—like now. Because we live in an age of dialog, not monolog, this outdated form of speech is a stretch for plenty of people. Once, a man in my church who routinely sent me clippings from the Christian Science Monitor included an essay of his own on a topic close to his heart. “We know a lot about what matters to you,” he wrote, not unkindly. “I thought you might like to know about something that matters to me.”

Because clergy rarely sit quietly in pews listening to someone else talk, we are largely unaware of what a colossal act of trust that is—to stop guarding our hearts for a moment or two, as I said earlier—to open ourselves up to someone who has already decided what we will sing, and say, and pray out loud, when we come to worship God--who has already decided what public truth needs telling this morning, and perhaps even what we should do about it. Maybe that is the deeper reason why there are so many limits on what preachers may or may not talk about in church—because preachers do not know enough about what it is like to sit in a pew trying to decide whether to open your door to the person up front or to keep the security chain on, just in case.

As parish preachers go, I played it pretty safe. The truth I aimed for was the truth about human being, since the truth about God’s being seemed too high for me. When I had something bold to say, I said it slant, so that the people who wanted to hear it could hear it and those who didn’t could keep the chain on. When some of them asked for copies afterward, I never knew whether to register that as a good thing or a bad thing. Who needs to read the lyrics of a song if the song did what it was supposed to do? Mostly I took the request for a transcript as a signal that what I had said was too dense, but since I loved the words enough to want them to have the longest life they could, I did commit some of the sermons to print. And that is how I ended up with books that I never set out to write.

Then in 1997, after fifteen years of full time parish ministry, I left my little church in the north Georgia foothills of the Appalachians to become a college teacher. My soul was sunburned, for one thing. I thought there was a chance I had lost my vocation, for another, although I continued to preach and to teach preaching in between my undergraduate classes on everything from the religions of the world to the life and letters of Paul.

The teaching was and is wonderful. I get to work with nineteen and twenty year olds—an age group I saw very little of in church. I get to ask the questions instead of providing the answers, which is a great freedom and relief. I also get to give grades, which clergy only do in their secret fantasies. (I am sorry, Mr. Smith, but your efforts have been so minimal that I am afraid you have flunked Lent.) I am still a Master of Divinity—isn’t that an interesting name for a theological degree?—but more importantly to me now, I am a member of the Department of Humanities, whose truth-telling has taken a decidedly private turn.

My last book came out six years ago—a long time, for a wordy person. When people asked me what the hold up was, I told them I had lost my long time editor at Cowley Publications, which was true, but I had also lost my voice—or my voice was changing, anyway, and I did not yet trust it enough to put anything in print. I was no longer a parish priest. Many of my old certainties about life and faith had slipped from my hands. After a dozen years with religious publishers, writing in and for the church, I was not sure I could speak to anyone else—people who had resigned from church, for instance, or who had never had any interest in joining. I did not know who my audience was, any more than I knew if I could speak about things that mattered without using the religious language that had served me so well for so long.

Casting about for a new direction, I signed on with a literary agent who was willing to act more like a coach. “Send me some book ideas,” he said, so I did. I cannot even remember what they were now, except for the fourth one. “I am not ready to write this one yet,” I told him, “but another idea is to write a memoir about leaving church.”

I was not ready because the pain of leaving was still too fresh.

I was not ready because I still lived in the community where the church was.

I was not ready because the truth was still too private.

I was not ready.

And of course that was the only book idea that interested my agent. Thus I began a new experiment with telling the truth—not public this time, but private, though destined for public view.

If there are other memoir writers sitting here this evening, then you can take a little nap now, because you already know how it goes. The book you meant to write is not the book you write. You turn out to be even more narcissistic, melodramatic, and self-pitiful than you had reasonably feared. People who love you are willing to tell you this, which makes you even more narcissistic, melodramatic and et cetera. Finally, after you have written the book three times, ruthlessly wringing the necks of chapters you raised from baby chicks, you find that the writing heals itself as it heals you. The language runs clear at last. The flaws you can still see are not the ones in the writing but the ones in the mirror. You can look at yourself now with something closer to forgiveness than shame, so that a mere five weeks after you have sworn on everything holy that you will never, ever put yourself or your family through anything like this again, you are already thinking about the next book. Am I right?

In her book on personal narrative, The Situation and the Story, Vivian Gornick says that it is everyone’s inclination “to make of his own disability a universal truth,” but that is only one of the risks of life writing. With the time I have left, I would like to speak of three more that have become apparent to me. Unless I am mistaken, they are not only about writing for publication. Anyone who has made the move from public to private truth will likely recognize the territory.

The first risk, of course, is telling your own story without also telling the stories of people who do not wish to be in your book. As first-person writers such as Lauren Winner and Nora Gallagher have pointed out, this is not entirely possible. Because truth tends to be relational, most of us need other people to discover it. To include the truth they have shown us without including them is like including the recipe without the soup. In the first draft of my book, the editor said I did such a good job of protecting everyone else’s privacy that I appeared to have been the minister of a church with no members.

Different authors will make different choices, but my choice was to include the stories that reflected well on the people I once served. When I had critical things to say, I flung them broadly, so that anyone who read them could think they were written about someone else. Well, look at that. She said there were “needy, angry, manipulative” people in this community. I guess she meant Tom. It sure sounds like Tom. When I had appreciative things to say, I made them so particular that anyone who wanted to could guess whom they were about. They did not have to guess, in fact, since I used people’s real first names in the book.

While this may not have been the whole truth, it was the kind of truth that caused me to hunt for goodness instead of villainy. And once I gave up the hunt for villains, I had little recourse but to take responsibility for my own choices—both to enter parish ministry in the first place and to leave in the end. Needless to say, this is far less satisfying than nailing villains. It also turned out to be more healing in the end, at least for me.

The second risk is related to the first. To turn from the public truth to the private is to risk losing your role as the hero of your own story. I was much more interested in writing my memoir when I thought it was going to be about my valiant struggle for authenticity—you know, woman minister sees what it will take to succeed and decides to teach school instead. That was my first draft. By the second, it was as if the film I had been working on for more than a year had gotten stuck in the projector.

As I watched, the frame in front of me melted and burned, opening up a hole through which I saw things I had managed not to see before. Beyond the very real millstones of parish ministry, I saw my own part in making them as heavy as they were. I saw my tiresome perfectionism, my resentment of those who did not work as hard as I did, my huge appetite for approval. I saw how I begged people to need me and then blamed them when they did. This was not the truth I was hunting for, but it was the truth I found. So the second draft had lots of self-flagellation in it, which was about as attractive as it sounds.

After that purge, a third way opened up in the third draft. I was neither as valiant as I had hoped nor as big a fraud as I had feared. I was human, was all, with a story to tell that did not serve to distinguish me from anyone else on earth as much as it underscored how much I had in common with most other earthlings. My guess is that this is why most of us read memoirs—not to be wowed by the singular adventures of someone riding a camel alone across the outback, as good a story as that may make—but to find someone who suffers, loves or wonders the same things we do, so that we can rest for a while in the company of someone whose life is like our own.

The third risk inherent in writing a memoir is that when it is finished, you have to let it go. Well, maybe you don’t have to, but it’s hard to hang onto, once you have found the right words to tell the private truth. “For what is story,” wrote the poet Mona Van Duyn, “if not relief from the pain of the inconclusive, from the dread of the meaningless?”

Back when I was a parish priest, I used to hear confessions on the Saturday before Easter. People would make appointments to meet me in the church, where I would sit beside them in the front pew and we would both face the small wooden altar. Then I would listen, as carefully as I could, while they belched up whatever had been sitting so sour on their stomachs. Sometimes it was things they had done and sometimes it was things other people had done to them, but telling the story seemed to be at least as helpful to them as having me there to listen to it.

After a little practice, I learned that the end of the story was rarely the end.

“Wait a minute, I almost forgot…”

“Oh God, that reminds me of something else…”

“You know, now that I think about it, I’m not sure whether I said that or thought it…”

By the third draft, most of them could call it finished. Then I would tell them what I had heard them say. I would ask them what they thought they might do to help repair the damage they had just described. Finally, I would rest my hand on their heads and pronounce the words of absolution.

“Now there is rejoicing in heaven; for you were lost, and are found; you were dead, and are now alive in Christ Jesus our Lord. Go in peace. The Lord has put away all your sins.”

One thing I discovered over the years was that the people who put themselves at risk like that—telling their story out loud, taking responsibility for their lives, making their private truth public—they were the ones who seemed best able to move on, while those who concealed their damage carried it around with them like an IV drip.

I do not know whether what I have written is right or not. All I know is that it is true, and that I offer it to you with loud gratitude for all the different ways there are to chase the Holy Spirit through this world of wonders—both in and beyond the boundaries of beautiful coops like this one. Though the white bird keeps a nest here, she cannot be caught. She can only be loved, when she spreads her wings to cover those who are willing to be loved in return.

©Barbara Brown Taylor
June 7, 2006








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