Portraits ++ The Baptist. An Unlikely Man

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“The preacher told me that, ‘Looking for Lydia is like looking for God, and you’re doing both. We are all looking for Lydia. We are all looking for that something we may or may not find, but the search for which defines our lives. In the course of that search we find frustration, disappointment, loss, and grief, but we also find much that we didn’t expect—work and love and relationships and joy.’

And so, the ladies at the Roper Home and I are looking for God and Lydia and possibly ourselves. We have sometimes been frustrated, sometimes afraid; we have found good work, we have found each other. We are discovering God in some new ways.

For me, it’s a bargain.”

The final chapter of Looking for Lydia; Looking for God ends with this passage.  I do not intend this portrait to be an advertisement for my book, but my relationship with the young man I call ‘the preacher’ is, in many ways, tied to the writing of that book.

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This blog is not a forum for political debate, and I will try not to make it that today.

On November 8, I walked, in the still and dark of the hour just before dawn, through the streets of my beautiful old neighborhood, to a large elementary school where I found a line of people who had also arrived early to vote for the next president of the United States.  I stood in line for nearly an hour, chatting with strangers, running into people I knew–one couple, my neighbors and close friends, pushing a stroller with their eight-month-old son who was content and warm in his pajamas and a bright fleece jacket with a hood.

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He is a happy baby. His name is Sawyer and, like my 18-month-old grandson, he will grow up in a world where all the things I have spent a lifetime fighting for have been devalued.

As the sun came up in Norfolk, Virginia, I cast my vote, with enthusiasm and confidence, with no reservations, for Hillary Rodham Clinton.

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In the first tentative days of our friendship, but far enough along that Aaron had come to my home for a visit, I asked him to read what would become the Prologue and Chapter One of Looking for Lydia; Looking for God.  It was all I had written at that point and I didn’t really think of it as a book.  Aaron read carefully, looked up at me with the impish grin that was still new to me, and said, “Let’s talk about casting the movie. You need an agent. I’m available.”  He suggested that the title should be “Looking for Lydia.” This seemed at the time an absurd idea since my interest in Lydia Roper was in its early stages and decidedly lukewarm.  But he went on, as I recorded in that last section of the book and, as often is the case with Aaron, he was right.

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At 10:00 on the morning of November 9, I met with Aaron and a small group of people for a book club that is still thriving after nearly four years.  We are an unusual group, representing every flavor of both political and theological opinion, and we have managed to read serious books and discuss controversial issues without much rancor over the years.  On November 9 no one mentioned the election.fullsizeoutput_1fe7

Later in the day, Aaron sent an email to a few of his fellow ministers and selected friends outside the clergy. It was a raw wail of despair.

“I was wrong.  I’ve been saying it for a year—Hillary wins.  And I was wrong.  I really believed she would win, right up until the last minute.  Not just because I wanted to, but because everyone said it would happen.  Even as crazy as this year was, he couldn’t possibly win.  But he did.”

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I first met Aaron when he was one of two leaders of the book group that met once a week at his church.  I was in the grip of a crippling depression and, although just getting out of the house probably saved my life, I’m not sure I especially noticed Aaron Brittain. Later I was unable to attend for almost a year.  When I returned, his co-leader had moved away and it had become Aaron’s group. I don’t know at what point we began to cautiously explore a friendship. I do remember asking him one day as we were walking out if he’d like to get lunch somewhere. When I suggested taking the whole group, he said, “Just us.” I was surprised and pleased.

 We continued with that insufferable attitude as we established a book club of two, which meets at my 1928 co-op about once a month.  Aaron’s only request was that we not read “any more books about Jesus.”  We did briefly consider inviting a few other people to join us, but we decided against it. We guard our small territory ferociously.

Our usual routine is that he picks up burgers and fries and we eat and talk about a section of whatever book we’ve chosen: George Eliot’s Middlemarch; Faulkner’s The Unvanquished; Annie Dillard’s For the Time Being; Ishiguro’s Buried Giant; Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose; Dostoevsky’s The Idiot.

Aaron, who is a bit of a picky eater, never fails to clean his plate. The many faces of Aaron Brittain, at least in my neck of the woods, always include a meal from Rally’s.

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I smile as I contemplate his reaction to this gallery of photographs.

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During the course of the day on Wednesday the 9th of November the thread of emails that Aaron started grew as all of us responded, offering reassurances, recommending prayer–for the country, for the planet, for the new president-elect.

“This does not mean our values are lost, just less desired in this moment.  It means we lift our values higher and brighter, we are faithful to the gospel we hold.  We pray that Spirit works in darkness, which the Spirit has a history of doing.  We try to be loving, sympathetic to all people’s helplessness, frustration and brokenness, while still holding and lifting up a gospel of grace, hospitality, a God who wants our heart, minds and soul.”

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“I choose to focus on Jesus’ agenda of love God/ love others/ love self.  At least this morning, this is my mantra and my focus moving forward.  In my imperfect way, I will try to live by love, teach others love, and mobilize people according to love.”

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“Thank you for kind, thoughtful responses.  I think most of you must be much nicer than me because I’m not feeling very conciliatory.  I agree that loving and serving as best we can is probably the way to go.  But I’m not sure what that looks like when the institutional church is so wedded to these political anti-love and anti-compassion philosophies, at least in this current cultural moment.   My question remains–How much are we a part of the problem?”

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“We are all culpable.  I remember Edmund Burke’s famous statement that evil prospers when good men do nothing.  Or, more recently, Pogo’s declaration in a 1971 cartoon, ‘We have met the enemy and he is us.'”

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In the limitless time-out-of-time that the preacher and I seem to have found between that first lunch and today, I have watched this friendship grow. I am mindful of the intricate grace of a relationship as it develops, one small step at a time, into something very much like love, and love that is richer because it could only possibly exist between a thirty-seven year old Baptist preacher and a seventy-year-old cradle Episcopalian.

Aaron Brittain, it turns out, grew up on the same patch of North Georgia hill country that I did.  We both return fairly often because we have family there and because our roots are there, dug deep into the red dirt of the hills and the black soil along the creek-banks. We have both experienced that foolish moment, on every trip, when we entertain the fantasy that we could move back, that we could–against all evidence to the contrary–go home again.  It passes quickly.

Aaron Brittain is an unlikely man and an unlikely friend and yet in all the ways that could possibly matter the most likely person to have walked into my door for the first time when, if I recall, I greeted him with, “I think you are the first Baptist I’ve ever had in my home.”

And so we go on from here.

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“This is not just about despairing but I’m not sure it’s time to give up our anger and outrage just yet.  At least not for me.  Try to be loving.  Lift up our values.  Take the high road.  Invest in those around us.  Serve.  Yes, yes, yes.  Of course.  But yell and scream and cry that this is something new and terribly different.  This is not okay and who we are and what we do as the people of God will be influenced by this for the rest of our lifetimes.  Passive acceptance of the status quo at a time like this is just as dangerous, if not moreso, than the passive acceptance of that which preceded it.  I was guilty of the former.  I will not be guilty of the latter.”  AB

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8 Responses to "Portraits ++ The Baptist. An Unlikely Man"
  1. Thank you. The day after the day after the election, I met with a writers’ group to go over our monthly submissions. (The day after, I was pretty much curled up into a ball).
    I live in South Carolina, so I had little hope that my vote would carry the day in this state, but I voted anyway. Maybe it influenced a few down-ballot races. Still, I felt devastated by the national results.
    When I walked into the writers group, the second-last to arrive, they were all in a state of mourning. I was amazed. When can you get a random group of South Carolinians together who would all have voted for a Democratic presidential candidate?
    When I expressed my amazement at that, one of the group responded, “Well, writers are thinkers.”

  2. Audra Jean says:

    Thank you for touching on the feelings of devastation. Yet moving forward in love. And of course, an unexpected and beautiful friendship.

  3. Mitzy says:

    You are Blessed and a Blessing ! We make it!!! Take it from someone who was briefly devastated with disbelief 8 years ago , that you go with gratitude over and over every morning, every hour, water from a tap. The moon is wonderful tonight and the best on Monday. Savor ! Pretend that tomorrow you only have what you thanked GOD for today. You must have said that !😉

  4. COLLEEN BATES LANCE says:

    Well, Audra Jean said pretty much what I was thinking, so I’ll just second that comment. And once again tell you how much I love the way you write..

  5. Jane Riley says:

    Friendship that transcends age and church. Wonderful.

  6. Ellen Lee Bunton says:

    I agree we are ” all looking for something we may or may not find “. Good friendships can make the journey much more rewarding. As far as the sickening result of our ” election ” ( or should I say the United States of Ohio and Florida ) I am comforted by the fact that we can never truly go back, backwards sometime, but never back, change comes – check your history books for details.

  7. Kat Varn says:

    Glad you have a special bond with your friend. I have to say my personal conviction is to focus on fulfilling the stewardship and gifts that God deposited in me in whatever station I find myself. Thank you for crossing paths with me, Dean.

  8. Dinah Saunders says:

    I thank God for bringing both Dean and Aaron into my life. I pray for my country. I pray for the man and his compatriots who blaspheme humanity.

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