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A nation of shut-ins

Best-selling author Barbara Brown Taylor discusses ‘attentiveness from the farm’ on Leading Theologically podcast

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

The Rev. Dr. Barbara Brown Taylor (Photo by Melissa Golden)

LOUISVILLE — Until the pandemic, the Rev. Dr. Barbara Brown Taylor spent a lot of her time meeting deadlines, paying careful attention to a full calendar and making sure to get to the airport two hours before her flight departed. In those days she flew a lot.

Now that she’s retired from teaching, one of the nation’s foremost preachers and theologians works with her husband, Ed, to keep up their farm in the Appalachian foothills. “I need to be grounded in different things,” Taylor told the Rev. Dr. Lee Hinson-Hasty of the Presbyterian Foundation during a Leading Theologically podcast that can be heard here. Those things include family, the “domestic arts,” and “doing things no one is impressed with,” such as remembering birthdays, going to funerals, driving sick friends to the doctor and delivering a meal — “all the things people do but I haven’t done much because I was going to airports and keeping my website updated.”

“I think I’m sinking into my humanity,” said Taylor, whose most recent book, “Always a Guest: Speaking of Faith Far From Home” was published by Westminster John Knox Press in 2020.

While the pandemic may be seen as a gift in some way, “it is something you’re still unwrapping to understand what it means,” Hinson-Hasty told her.

“I liken this long slowdown to an extended sabbath, which I have often thought of the retirement period in one’s life as being,” Taylor said. In recent correspondence with Hinson-Hasty, “I also talked about how we all became shut-ins over the past two years.” That has meant she had something in common with people in their 20s, 30s, 50s and 50s — as well as children being homeschooled.

“There isn’t one of us who didn’t think about mortality a little bit more,” she said of pandemic-era thinking. “Even if all our muscles and bones worked, we were curtailed, leashed, hobbled in some way.”

“I know a lot of people who got new mattresses in the last two years, or hung new curtains,” she said. “People who’ve said, ‘the church is the people and not a place’ started longing for their church places. What is home? What is church? Is it a people, or is it a sacred space?”

Taylor said she feels “incredible gratitude” at “just the luxury of living at the end of a two-mile road. I can walk four miles a day.” In her neck of the woods, “social isolation is built in. You’re not all over your neighbors out here.”

But it’s not all romantic, she said.

“During these same two years the electricity has gone off for days at a time. That means the well shuts down and my two broken-down horses can’t drink. I have to haul water for them,” a duty her husband generally performs.

“If I watch the clouds too long,” she told Hinson-Hasty, “I’m going to be looking out over empty food bowls and animals who have lost weight while I’ve been doing my dreamy thing. My investment is required here if everyone is going to stay alive.”

The Rev. Dr. Lee Hinson-Hasty

We’re not alone, Hinson-Hasty replied, even though we may be shut in. He told Taylor he remembers praying early on in the pandemic for grocery clerks, garbage crews and other public-facing people “risking their lives to make sure we’re safe. I am so shaped by those around me.”

“I know you’ve written a lot about darkness and doubt,” he told Taylor. “Are you thinking of those things differently now?”

Taylor paused a moment, then said, “on the radio, you’re not supposed to let this much dead space go by, right?” She then let on that she’s recently purchased some watercolors and is learning to use them.

“It sounds horrible for a minister to say that. When did Jesus watercolor?” she said. “Even when he tried to go off by himself, nobody would let him. I’m as much in love with darkness as I ever was.”

When you paint with watercolors, your friends will fall into two categories, she said. “One’s going to want to watercolor with you, and one is going to say, ‘You need to stay active or you’re going to get old.’” They ask questions like, “What is your encore career?”

“I am weary of those questions. It seems disrespectful of my gray hair to be worried about my encore career,” Taylor said. It’s likely a question for people of all ages, “and I think a bunch of young people are asking it right now. Do I really want to go back to the job I left? Is it time to go buy a crummy sailboat and fix it up and live on it? What now? I’m not the only one.”

Hinson-Hasty said he’s had several conversations with pastors “who are stepping away and not necessarily stepping into anything. They’re worn out and they aren’t sure where God is present to them. I know a bunch of pastors right now posting their artwork. Something may be happening there in a good way to keep folks engaged.”

He said his avocation is umpiring field hockey games. “That’s not nearly as reflective as doing artwork, but it allows me not to think about these bigger questions, to not think about one thing for one hour in a particular space. That’s sabbath.”

“You’re saving young lives and you’re modeling athletic civility,” Taylor replied. “You’re up to big stuff here.”

That got Taylor to remember a clergy group she once belonged to. Each pastor had at least one side gig. One taught Italian, and another was a first responder. A third was a professional clown. A fourth member soon realized, “Oh my gosh! I don’t have a second thing I do. I only pastor my church.” That pastor left the group “with a commitment to find an avocation.”

Then Hinson-Hasty wanted to know, “Where do you see God showing up?” Some pastors have been telling him lately that “it’s an expectation they will be able to conjure the Spirit for others. But I hear them saying, ‘I’m not sure where the Holy Spirit is right now in my own life.’ They are disciplined in their practices, but there’s a wall or a veil that’s there, maybe because the world is shifting underneath us. In the midst of Lent, is this a good time to really notice what the Holy Spirit, what the divine, is up to?”

“In my vocabulary, you are talking about the places of direct experience, not the books I am reading or the sermons I hear,” said Taylor, an Episcopal priest. “How many times have you heard people say how close they feel to God in nature? Nature is a predictable place of divine encounter.” Illness is as well, she said.

The Rev. Dr. Barbara Brown Taylor is a best-selling author and one of the nation’s foremost preachers. (Photo by E. Lane Gresham)

“Sometimes the cloud of unknowing is my place of direct experience,” Taylor said. If the early church fathers — in those days almost all were men, she said — taught us anything, it’s “the less you can see, the closer you are to God, because God is vested in an opaque splendor.”

“It’s not comforting, but it is sacred,” she said. “It’s liminal. It’s a threshold.”

We all need at least two things, Hinson-Hasty said: to be seen, and to see others. “Even if we can’t see the way forward,” he said, “we have each other in the midst of all this.”

Taylor agreed to offer listeners a blessing, one she said she borrowed: “What we choose changes us. Who we love transforms us. How we create remakes us. Where we live reshapes us. So in all our choosing, God, make us wise. In all our loving, Christ, make us bold. In all our creating, Spirit, give us courage. In all our living, may we become whole. And the blessing of God Almighty — Creator, Redeemer, and Holy Spirit — be upon all of you who listen and those you love, and for those for whom you pray this day and forever more.  Amen.”

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