Book Review: This Ramshackle Tabernacle

This Ramshackle Tabernacle     By Samuel Thomas Martin

(published in Christian Courier, November 8, 2010)

Here’s a word of advice. Don’t read this book while on vacation in Cape Cod, scenic cottage country of the rich and famous. These linked stories by Samuel Thomas Martin kept forcing me to look elsewhere – at the ragged lives of the sexually abused, the drug-addicted, and the throwaways. They haunted me as I cruised Hyannis Harbour and viewed the Kennedy compound through binoculars.

Martin’s characters also come from cottage country, northern Ontario, but they are not rich or famous. Some are Christian, some are not. And some are the outcast, neighbours you see only if you steel yourself not to turn your face away, scabby lepers living banished lives among us.

Doug, a failed camp counsellor, wears his rage openly, but tucks his shame away. Drug addict Harold commits murder. Ben leBou stabs his abusive father. Upon his release from prison, he gets mauled by a grizzly, survives, sort of, and finally, calling out to God, tries to shoot himself in an agony of multiplied pain.

After you blink to reduce the intensity of this magnified focus on the sordid and horrific, you begin to discern that a heart of glory glimmers in the midst of all this darkness. God dwells here. Just as he did in the Old Testament, lodged in a portable temple among a stiff-necked and stubborn people, God has pitched his tent with these tainted characters from the Muskokas. His holiness is a tarp hanging over Doug and Harold and Ben whether they know it or not.

This camouflaged God, “shrouding himself in the tent of darkness, veiling his approach with dark rain clouds,” (Ps. 18:11) has not abandoned his creatures. He is a hunter, tracking and claiming his own. In the guise of perky lifeguard, Krysta, he offers Doug a redemptive gift of hope. God is also cloaked in the matronly neighbour who grandly welcomes a misfit kid with a black eye into her home as “Mr. Harold Witaker.” Years later, no one cares to know his name. On the street he is “guy,” “dude” and “princess.” Moments before he bashes in the head of the only other person who addresses him by his real name, Harold sees a great blue “God’s Eye” stained glass window. Its sad gaze pierces him, but he is finally seen and known once more. The baptism of tenderness he experienced as a child splashing around in the lake with a woman named Vicky has been confirmed.   

The organic wholeness of these stories is shaped by this deft crafting of relationships and imagery. Ben does not suffer alone. God is in the devotionals that he uses to roll smokes. God is in the room: “The unfinished walls warped and sagging like the damp nylon walls of a tent in the rain.” Divine immanence tabernacles with him even in his despair. Such dovetailed details lend a patient hand-rubbed lustre to the book. It is decidedly not, as I heard Angela Antle say in a CBC interview with Martin, “sort of a lazy man’s novel.”  

In Shekinah, the defiant Ziggy, who crosses himself and gives God the finger in the same gesture, mutters, “Show yourself then.” In The Killing Tree, his nephew Bill had also asked for a sign. They are granted their wish. Ziggy and Bill are visited with a bewildering glimpse of resurrection glory in the powerful prayer of their friend Dan, “the old prophet who dwells in the wrinkled tabernacle of his eighty-five-year old body.”  What’s left is whether they will believe this “lacerating certainty of a miracle.”

Sam Martin’s stories are not for everyone. Although the first and last story bookend the whole with hope, not every reader will recognize the salvific embrace of the structure. The violent conflicts and raw language are intended to be disturbing. The edginess of a story like Becoming Maria, for example, where a sexually confused teen meets Jesus as her lover in a dream, is a risky business that will hinder the acceptance of this book in some Christian circles.

 I, too, tend to prefer a safe, inoffensive neighbourhood, my own sanctified Cape Cod, where no one confronts me with abuse, sexual aberration, stark raving loneliness, or naked human need. But God’s heart is bigger. He resides with the fallen. He summons me out into the streets and into the wilderness, to believe with Dan “that not one bird is shot from the sky that God doesn’t know about.” These stories invite me look my neighbour in the eye, and see God looking back at me.

Click here to see the CC page with a photo of the book jacket and the author:

Ramshackle_Tabernacle_review

Sunday…encouraged.

The last couple of weeks have been quietly refreshing for me at church. Big things and little things are evidence of God’s faithfulness to our little congregation. Our new powerpoint/sound system has been installed. That in itself speaks of investment in the church. People gave. People put up scaffolding. People did electrical work. People did organizing, calling, and clean-up. The screens are pleasingly symmetrical and the new sound is great. Word on the street is that the seniors are happy. They can hear better. Yesterday I went to church to run off the bulletin and the Avolution guys were doing some final music sound checks. I could attend to my mundane tasks uplifted by the regal and triumphant Hallelujah Chorus and other favourites from the Messiah. It was like the New York Philharmonic Orchestra was in the sanctuary! It was a celestial sound, anticipating the joy of Christmas.

For the last few weeks, we have viewed a number of powerpoint presentations by various arms of the church. We saw one on the Micah Challenge that was very moving. We also watched “Re: frame Media -Seeing God’s Story in Your Life” and had Rev. Stephen Koster as a guest pastor. These well-done video presentations with catchy and meaningful music add so much to the worship service. I love how attentive people are as they look up at the screen. I love how the work of the church is portrayed as colourful and exciting to our children and youth.
 
I painted two murals to decorate the Lion’s Hall for our Mission Trip Dinner. That was fun to do. I’d rather paint than cook any day, as you know. We decided to put them up in the church. One is a bulletin board backdrop on which I put photos of those who attended the dinner. I was so blessed in doing that simple task, looking at the smiling faces of these people I love, these teens I taught, these friends who want to do a good deed in a hurting country. The other mural has become a graph, displaying our fundraising progress. On Saturday, we will be having a Pancake Breakfast. I will be on clean-up duty. I’d rather clean up than cook any day, as you know. 🙂 It will be great to have friends and neighbours bustle in for fun and food. Though they might talk about the weather and the crops and the hockey game, they are really saying, “We support you. We care about you and your project. We’re in this together.”

                                          
 

This past Sunday, our church participated in the Peter Fish campaign for the first time in decades. It was touching to see the little ones run up to the front and proudly present their clinking fish to the pastor. The fish sat at the front throughout the service, a school of Nemos proclaiming “Let the little children come to me.” For me they also said, We belong to the CRC. We are finding the courage and humility to re-connect. After decades of movement away from the denomination I love, we are coming home. 
 
In January we host classis. Peter Borgdorff will speak about the Belhar Confession. Right now, I don’t really even care what he says about it. I just want to take a moment and rejoice. We are coming home. Like a plant accidentally half-ripped from the ground, our church has been tended by the Master Gardener, and our roots are re-establishing. Praise the Lord.

My friends and I change the world

                                                                  

Audrey and Heather

(Published in Christian Courier, October 25, 2010) 

Country singer Johnny Reid has a new song called “Today I’m Gonna Try and Change the World.” The lyrics are appealing: “I’m gonna say hello to my neighbour/Shake the hand of a stranger/Today I’m gonna try and change the world.”

But I’ve got Johnny beat. My friends and I didn’t just try to change the world. We did!

Heather and Audrey participated in the Ride for Refuge in London on October 2nd. They are busy moms. Audrey runs a day care in her home. Heather is a reporter for Sarnia This Week. The time and energy it took to be involved in the ride was definitely sacrificial. So, of course, I volunteered to sponsor them.

Both women rode on behalf of the CRWRC.  Heather organized a pasta supper at her church. Audrey unabashedly canvassed every person she knew. They biked in a torrential downpour. Together they raised over $300o, among the highest fundraisers of the 162 riders.

Grace and Gertie are  members of our church’s HANDS Team, a group signed up with Worldwide Christian Schools to work in the  Dominican Republic next February. The team held a dinner on October 15, raising a substantial sum towards construction materials and accommodations.  Excitement is building as our church rallies behind them to reach out beyond our walls in the name of Christ. I attended the dinner and, of course, wrote a cheque.

            Grace and Emma and Gertie

Theresa is part of a committee that organizes an annual Golf Tournament in October to benefit our local Christian school.  She’s my neighbour, a fellow gardener and church member.  Mark and I usually play in the tournament, but we couldn’t this year, so we sponsored a hole instead.

Maggie is our church custodian. She’s on the Enfolding/Evangelism Committee.  October is Clergy Appreciation Month, so Maggie and the committee collected funds to deliver a surprise basket of goodies to our pastor and his family. I love that.  It’s important to encourage and sustain pastors. You guessed it… I handed over a few bucks.

Harry headed up a committee to install a new audio-visual system in our church. He spent months scoping out ideas to upgrade the technological aspects of our worship. The goal is to maximize both the sound and visual delivery systems for the benefit of our seniors. On October 4th, Harry and a bunch of other volunteers roughed in the new system. My pledge came due!

The one, the many

I’m honoured to call these individuals my friends. They are doers. They don’t wait for someone else to volunteer. But each one would be quick to point out the network of community support for their endeavours. And I believe my encouragement, prayer and practical monetary contributions are part of that group dynamic. Keeping it real here, my wallet is lighter by $960. That’s sacrificial, too.  

Mother Teresa said, “We can do no great things, only small things with great love.” My friends and I have done some small things with great love. But are we really any different than Johnny Reid? Like him, aren’t we just “trying” to make the world a better place? Stacked up against the weight of global poverty and injustice and the mounting cost of local ministries, our efforts may seem feather-light.

 But we find our hope in Jesus Christ. His was the great thing done with great love – bearing a world of sin in his own body, enduring hell itself, so the world could be changed. Any unselfish deed we try, whether it’s “saying hello to a neighbour,” or biking in a marathon, going on a  mission trip, organizing a golf tournament, sending a gift basket, or making a donation, if it’s grounded in the victory of our Saviour’s resurrection, it’s already added to the coming of the kingdom in this world and bears the stamp of eternal value for the next. Jesus, the firstfruits of the dead, changed the world. He changed the world so miraculously that our “small things” are engrafted into his “great thing.” He said so himself: “I have called you friends – I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit – fruit that will last.” (John 15: 15, 16)

I’d like to tell Johnny Reid this: if we try to change the world, we will be defeated. But, in Christ, every smile, every cup of cold water, and every penny counts.

   Putting tape on one of the murals I painted. The other one is already on the wall.