Wanting to Write about the Martyrs of Charleston

Dear Napper’s Companions,

Toward the end of May, kind and thoughtful Mary sent me an email that has stayed with me. I had posted a newspaper column I wrote over a decade ago about the prospect of the United States bombing Iraq. Here’s most of Mary’s response:

I came home from my job . . . here in Asheville where you and I briefly met and realized that I have not read A Napper’s Companion in a while. It was a treat to read your posts all at once in the silence of my living room while my husband flipped through The Mountain Express and my Pug snored contentedly.

I enjoyed all of them except the political one, but it got me thinking. I think the political system is broken, because we are. I think we should all step back and let go of our identifying with political parties so strongly and begin to really, actually listen to each other. Perhaps more healing could take place. Hmm. More for me to think about and try to do.

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The first words of Benedict’s Rule for monastic life: “Listen to the ear of your heart.” (Credit: Wikipedia)

First, Mary’s setting for reading is enchanting. Would that we all could relax in living rooms with a spouse honoring the silence and a dog snoring to provide the necessary punctuation.

But “I enjoyed all of them except . . .” made me pull up short. A baseball player who bats .300 has reason to celebrate. Thin-skinned writers, on the other hand, get moody over a .900 average. A single clunker can make us sulk and whine, “Aw, to bloody hell with the whole writing thing!”

In fact, I don’t bruise so easily. My stay at the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars thirty years ago gave me callouses, as did the fat file of rejection letters I’ve received from hundreds of magazines and book publishers. Mary’s except stung for an instant—a flu shot, a plucked eyebrow. The pinch was immediately followed by gratitude.

I wrote back, “I couldn’t agree with you more. I’m really grateful for your note because you’ve taught me something important.” Her lesson takes some explaining.

A week ago I savored the free Wi-Fi at a Panera Bread in Lyndora, Pennsylvania, and started a report about my week with kids and pastors at church camp. (You’ll get to read that soon enough if you want to.) Unfortunately, the joys of hanging out with fresh-faced teenagers and clergy friends intersected with receiving news of the nine martyrs of Charleston, South Carolina.

As I sipped mango iced tea and sighed, my intended report buckled under Dylann Roof’s scowl. Rather than staying in the woods of Camp Lutherlyn, I followed the thruway to Emanuel A.M.E. Church. Soon I was dissecting the latest installment in our national shame, and the kiddos and Martin Luther’s Small Catechism were hundreds of miles behind me.

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I should have stayed at camp, where a butterfly rested on my sneaker.

I had a morning after experience when reviewing what I had written: “What did I do?” Even as I was droning on about a racist, terrorist attack, Mary’s except cautioned me. I should have known. Sampling around 1500 words, I felt like a cook who had spent hours on a dish that turned out bland. Eh!

The fact is, writers need to be open to learning their gifts and limitations. At fifty-three I would have hoped to be confident in my wheelhouse, but since most days I squeeze in at most an hour at the writing table, awareness has been delayed.

Ah well, as Sherlock Holmes said, “It is better to learn wisdom late than never to learn it at all.” Did you know that both William Shatner and Sebastian Cabot covered Bob Dylan? “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “It Ain’t Me, Babe” respectively, and others, too. The results, spoken rather than sung, were embarrassing and have been justly consigned to, well, camp. Captain Kirk seems to have embraced his inner pink flamingo. I don’t know about Mr. French.

There’s nothing much sadder than writers and artists who are under the impression that their stuff screams when, in fact, it’s eh or worse, ridiculous. (Lack of self-awareness is hardly sadness at all, of course, compared to getting murdered in a Bible study.)

I’ve written a fair amount about societal cancers and governmental rancor and absurdity because of the effort’s therapeutic purging. But in sharing such work, I may sound like a baritone trying to tackle “Nessun Dorma.” Some measures work, but the entirety doesn’t sing.

The point: Mary’s except, so gently rendered, invited me to recognize my voice, which has more to do with singing about my wife, children, grandson, and dog–close to the end, I’m afraid–than with spelling out what we humans can do to keep our species from imploding. More to do with celebration and lamentation than explanation. I enjoy having my say, but folks don’t stop by A Napper’s Companion to pick up ways to save the world.

I imagine if you’ve hung around here for long, you’re like Mary from Asheville, reclined in a quiet room with a sleeping Pug. You’re looking for a few minutes of hope, a port of joy or comfort in all kinds of weather, or a love letter.

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Like you, friend, I don’t have much other than questions? (Credit: Wikipedia)

Or maybe a song and a prayer, which are good places to end. As I hold our family members who welcomed in a young man concealing bullets and rage, I’ve got no answers, no fix. But I do have a song, not from church camp, but verses from an old hymn:

From ev’ry ailment flesh endures

our bodies clamor to be freed;

yet in our hearts we would confess

that wholeness is our deepest need.

In conflicts that destroy our health

we recognize the world’s disease;

our common life declares our ills.

Is there no cure, O Christ, for these?

And I have a prayer:

Let there be a cure, Eternal Love,

and lead us to it.

A song and a prayer aren’t much, I know, but they’re all I’ve got.

Peace and love,

John

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13 thoughts on “Wanting to Write about the Martyrs of Charleston

  1. This post had within it a gentleness, humility and wisdom that resonated with me and at the same time accused me John. You have inspired me to explore and grow, and maybe even write something of my own in reply.
    Rob

  2. Maybe, John. I’ve stopped looking anywhere for “explanations” or answers. The only answer is love, and you write about that beautifully.
    However – in the lamentation category – it is good to find company in the suffering and hear others echoing the same unanswerable questions. I don’t know just what you drafted, but I think that sharing the journey with others is helpful not only as therapy for you, but as company for us. My two cents.
    Speaking of love, is that Mary’s pug or your pug? Precious!

    • Thanks for those pennies, Melanie! That helps much in the ongoing discernment. The pug, sad to say, is yanked from the Internet. Peace, John

  3. Reblogged this on Robfysh's Blog and commented:
    I hope you do not mind my reposting this John. Your words are so full of gentleness and humility. I spend so much time and energy raging within myself about the ugliness and stupidity of politics. I have felt myself beginning to drift into hopelessness when, quite frequently lately, I realise no one much sees the world as I do, or cares what I think anyway. Sometime in the next few hours I will post some thoughts in response to what you have written. I thought it a good idea so that readers would know to what it is I am responding. Peace to you. Rob

  4. John, I loved this posting. It gave me food for thought, and at the same time, brought me comfort. Like another of your followers posted, I struggle with the broken politics of our country and the horrors taking place in the world. I think perhaps the best I can do is continue to attempt to love my neighbor and be the hands and face of Christ in my small corner of creation. And that, my friend, is a difficult undertaking. Your blog is a source of encouragement.

    I bid you peace.
    Mary
    PS. That is not Bucky, my Pug, but they do look a lot alike. He is now snoring in his little bed under the table, because, after all, being an Earthly example of unconditional love all day can be tiresome.

    • Hey, Mary! “Be the hands and face of Christ in my small corner.” That’s the whole deal, isn’t it. Thanks. And unconditional love being tiresome: cracked me up. Peace, John

  5. Oh my. Another post that made me cry. As I sit here in the South remembering the Charleston martyrs and see the Confederate flags flying nearby from pickup trucks and in front of businesses and hear on the news of another church burning, I am tempted to despair. I am old enough to have lived during the Jim Crow era. The first words I ever learned to read were, “We want public schools” because my brave father put a bumper sticker on his car and on our garage to pronounce to the State of Georgia (which was threatening to close down all public schools) that he WOULD send his white children to integrated schools. I would love to write a blog post about my thoughts and feelings, and maybe I will. But right now I draw comfort from my photos of sunsets and flowers. Cheers, Deb

    • Wow, what a great guy your dad must have been! Sounds like a tribute piece on him would be moving, but I completely understand needing to write something like that when the time is right. The sunsets and flowers should give lots of good energy for the journey. Peace (for all of us!), John

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