Every day this book brings surprises. Today it was the news that on the Borders website, my memoir is ranked #1 in the “Top 5 Baptist Churches Books” – in Australia. Thank you, dear Down Under faithful readers!
I am delighted by this news but I don’t know quite how to interpret it. Does this rating mean that I am again Top Ten on Prayer Lists? Or does it mean that Baptists are buying the book because they enjoy its humor and inquiry? With 16 million Southern Baptists in America – and a huge contingent of Baptist churches in Australia – I am simply grateful for the support.
Maybe it’s true as a woman in the audience said last night after my reading,
“Things are changing. All around the world, more of us moderates are speaking out.”
As I travel on this book tour I’m hearing from those moderates, both religious and political. They tell me that they are weary of extremes and polarities – of talking heads and the shock-jock talk radio shouting matches when no one listens. Only rants.
“Where is the civic discourse that so marks any democracy?” another reader asked at a reading. “Free speech doesn’t just mean a megaphone for your own beliefs. It means allowing others to speak their truths.”
Another audience member remarked, “For too long the Far Right has dominated the dialogue in matters of faith. How about being spiritual seekers of common ground?”
I know that there is much critical in my new book about the fundamentalist or far right wings of the Southern Baptist church. But I also write about some moderate Christians who inspired and instructed me, who embodied the New Testament beatitudes and loving kindness. Pastor Joe and his wife, Sue, Strother are profiled in Chapter Three of my new book. Here’s a glimpse:
Pastor Joe and Sue were more mystics than fundamentalists. They even allowed us teenagers to debate Biblical prophecy. We were encouraged to question. As I say in the book, “Sue’s sense of humor was darkly comic and irreverent, while Joe’s kindly scholarship translated into sermons full of real-life stories that navigated a complex moral compass.”"I still carry on a meditative inner dialogue with Pastor Joe and a real conversation with and Sue. Pastor Joe is one Christian who would have been called ‘green’ today. His sermons were about compassion more than conquest. During my adolescent years of doubt, it was Pastor Joe and Sue, an ex-parole officer, who taught me that my love of the earth was a devotion to the divine, and that Rapture was possible right here on earth."
I can still hear Joe’s calm and musical baritone as he explained his interpretation of a scripture and then asked for other points of view. His was the epitome of true dialogue. An open-hearted call-and-response that is the best of spiritual discourse. And I am fortunate enough to be able to simply call up Sue, an early heroine and mentor in my life, and hear her full-throated laughter.
“If Christians spent more time simply being here, instead of planning their one-way vacations in heaven,” Sue once told me, “we’d have a kinder world.”
Their daughter, Donna, whom I used to babysit, has grown into a lively and very successful entrepreneur. She wrote me a letter that I carry now in my reader’s copy of the new book as I travel:
“It’s rare that a book allows you to follow the evolution of belief,” she wrote. “You gently introduce the ability to hold more than one belief about God in a brain at the same time . . . something most religions don’t practice too often.”
She adds, “My father was a mystic. Mom was the earth to his heaven.”
In my life, the Strother family of compassionate Christians is another reason to be left behind.
And let’s hear it for the Aussies for boomeranging this book to the top of Baptist Churches; let’s hear the moderates among us who have been drowned out too long; let’s tune in to those who are softly and tenderly following their own “still, small voice.”
And Pastor Joe, I know you’re still listening.