James Howell has been a good friend of mine for decades. We are both clergy ordained in the western N.C. conference of the UMC and he has been my family’s pastor at Myers Park UMC for many years. Now, as he reaches the zenith of his ministerial career, he has taken time to reflect about life and ministry in Struck from Behind. My Memories of God (Cascade, 2012). 1)
First of all I loved this personal memoir, and it is well written, often eloquent. How much writing and rewriting was required of you to make it sing?
In most ways, it was the easiest of my books to write. Nothing emerged from scratch, and many of these stories I’ve told out loud – to my children, in sermons, to friends. Since it’s about what I know best, the words came naturally. The daunting challenge in this book was what Annie Dillard said is the hard part: structure. How to group the stories? What are sensible chapter divisions? In what order do they most sensibly occur? So I wrote segments, then did endless rounds of cutting and pasting. I’m still not sure the order/structure is optimal.
2) Talking about oneself, with some measure of objectivity is difficult. And this is nothing if not a very personal memoir. What prompted you to write it in the first place?
I scoffed at the notion when someone suggested this to me five years ago. I’m not a reader of memoirs. But I thought that most of the most compelling things I know about God have emerged out of my own experience. And I’ve wanted to try my hand at a different genre, and knew I would struggle with poetry or fiction.
3) One of the major themes of this book is about what Wesley called ‘the singular providence of God’. By this I mean that you are mostly talking about the silent and invisible way God weaves things together or brings people together or the like, which are not just blind coincidences. And by the way, that quote about God and the tapestry you were looking for is from John Muir, and it’s on the pathway to Linville Falls if you go to the plunge basin overlook. In paraphrase it reads “We look at life from the back side of the tapestry and see loose threads, tangled knots. But occasionally the light shines through the tapestry and we get a glimpse of the way the darks and lights are woven together to support a larger beautiful design.” The metaphor of struck from behind, or being like Jacob and realizing after the fact ‘God was in this place’ is the way you seem to get at this. Talk some more about your view of God’s providence or seeing his hand in the ordinary things of life.
I’m on the low end of the spectrum when it comes to thinking of divine causation. I don’t construe my life so much as God threading things together so much as just being present, making God’s heart known – if only in retrospect. So it’s more about my realizing God’s presence – immanence if you will – than claiming God made this or that happen.
4) On page 50 you say “Those who think God manipulates everything are clearly misguided; and even those who think God wants a weak-kneed obsequious dependence on God might be missing something too. God makes us for freedom, not to go do as we wish, but to stand on our feet, with some dignity, exercising the capabilities God wired us with to go and be out there.” I want you to say some more about this, and I agree with you about this. Indeed, I would say since love cannot be compelled, and we are commanded to love God, and neighbor, and even our enemies, that freedom is the essential pre-requisite to being able to love God and others, and to be like God.
Well, we have made a muddle of our freedom, as if we freely climb into a straitjacket of sin and bondage to what is not of God. But even bound people who have squandered their freedom can love… and might even come to follow direction on how to let the liberator get them out of the contraption.
5) You and I share quite a few things in common— a love of music, a love of Father Murphy and his wisdom, a love of books. Talk about how music and books and professors have enriched your preaching in particular and your ministry in general.
For me it’s laughably roundabout. I never read a novel and then copy something from it into a sermon, or hear Beethoven’s 6th and type up some insight that has dawned. The music and books make my soul richer, and keep me attuned to higher, nobler, more interesting vistas – and as such a person, I may be able then to preach or write.
6) I love the quote (p. 130) from Mark Twain “travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts.. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” I entirely agree with this which is why I love to take people including students to the Lands of the Bible and watch cultural vertigo set in. Talk about why you think it is that trips turn into pilgrimages rather than tours, and why people who are displaced from their comfort zone seem often more open to God?
When a trip becomes a pilgrimage, I’m always surprised. I mean, I plan for it, I program it – but the magical moments always startle me: it’s never where or when I thought the hearts would turn from sightseeing to the God who made it all so intriguing. I believe God relishes the opportunity to honor us for going to God’s special places by gracing us with the sense of the sacred.
7) James your memoir is very honest, sometimes painfully so. What prompted you to write this now, when your ministry is far from over?
Who knows how much time we’ve got left? And it’s not a linear march through my years. The topical arrangement is such that we could expand any chapter at any time. I should guess that if I have grandchildren I’ll want to write an appendix to my chapter on children – and hopefully future travel, or loves lost, will provide more material, perhaps for a sequel? Struck From Behind Again? Still Struck From Behind After All These Years?