Doodles from Brazos Fellows Class

Editor: at the end of our year, enjoy this from Brazos Fellow Natalie Widdows.

Yesterday was the last day of Brazos Fellows class. Instead of a wordy reflection of how meaningful our classes have been for me, I offer a different glimpse into our classes together. Here are some doodles that Tiffany and I have drawn during our classes this year (and yes, we were paying attention during class.…. most of the time, at least)!

I sometimes reflected on our readings by sketching something related to the topic. I often did this by drawing the images on the front covers of our books. My sketch of Mary and the Christ-child is a personal favorite. 

And here are some of Tiffany’s lovely contributions: 

Finally, enjoy these random doodles of Chris and Paul:

Our last day of class was bittersweet, but my sadness over its end is but an indication of my gratitude for the good that it has been this year.

Christ’s-Side-Piercing Spear: Contemplative Thoughts on Disruptive Fiction

Editor’s note: We welcome Brazos Fellow Chris Norton to the blog for this reflection on the questions he’s been pursuing this year. Enjoy.


This Is All Going Somewhere, I Promise

I first visited Waco with a three-month-old puppy and far too many books to read in one weekend. A potential host family had invited me to come for a visit, and I had fun meeting them and playing with the five dogs they were already keeping. 

But I had a secret mission. I’d been accepted as an incoming Brazos Fellow, but my faith was in shambles. I’m a fairly ambitious fiction writer, and several years of art-for-art’s-sake had left me shaken. My writing turned out to be something I had to repent of. I didn’t see God in it, and it seemed to divide me from myself.

Prayer had already become a way of seeking wholeness. Never mind that I found it nearly impossible to believe I was actually praying to anyone. I growled out the Creed every day precisely because I couldn’t believe it. I knew I had to establish my life on a spiritual tradition that possessed integrity, and I hoped that Brazos Fellows would help me do that. But first, I had to see how Paul and Paige would react if I told them what was actually going on. 

So when we pulled up chairs in the Gutackers’ back yard that weekend, I laid it all out for them: I was staking my whole life on the 3% chance that anything Christians believed was true. They didn’t condemn me when they heard I was trying my damnedest to believe and couldn’t. And so I decided that Brazos Fellows was the right place for me to spend a year trying to understand how to make my whole life an expression of prayer. 

I kept running into one particular snag. The stuff I’m able to bring to life in fiction usually doesn’t feel prayerful—by which I suppose I mean that it doesn’t feel reverent. It’s odd, often playful, and usually dark. To me, fiction is a kind of laboratory, a way of trying to understand. I push back on my own beliefs about God and other people. It’s a way of poking Jesus to see if he’s alive. It’s strange and disruptive.

Was this kind of storytelling inherently toxic? If so, I would probably have to leave fiction writing behind entirely, and I couldn’t imagine that kind of life. If not, how could it become prayer?

I suspect that every good story has disruptive elements. But some stories are more disorienting than others. I kept finding that the fiction that was important to me didn’t fit into the theologies of the arts that I kept hearing. Many Christians seemed to think that the challenges of modern and postmodern fiction were just ways of asserting that life didn’t mean anything. I kept being told that the job of a believing artist was to show the world the beauty of God.

And I don’t think that’s wrong, exactly. I experience this beauty in prayer. But I don’t think that writing, for me, will necessarily feel like serene contemplation, and I don’t think my finished product will, either. How does the relationship between prayer and writing allow for dissonance? 

It seems that if my fiction can become an expression of prayer, it will be the kind of prayer that George Herbert describes in one of his poems:

                        Engine against the Almighty, sinners’ tower, 

                        Reversed thunder, Christ’s-side-piercing spear. 

To many of us, that doesn’t sound like faithfulness, but perhaps it can be.

I decided that, in my Brazos Fellows tutorial, I wanted to study the intersection of fiction writing and prayer. What could be said about our human encounters with holiness? What did it really mean to know God? And how then should I write?

My own experience with God was a clue that I could follow. If I could trace it back to some kind of bedrock, then I’d be able to build on it.

Fr. Jonathan Kanary agreed to help me think through these questions. We decided first to study the bizarre Near Eastern tour de force known as the book of Job. 

Continue reading “Christ’s-Side-Piercing Spear: Contemplative Thoughts on Disruptive Fiction”

Creation Song

Editor’s note: Brazos Fellows alum Emily Verdoorn (2019-2020) returns to the blog in this wonderful reflection for Eastertide. Be sure to check out Emily’s online studio to see more of her original artwork.

Yesterday afternoon, a beautiful storm rolled in here in Des Moines.  Grey green billowing clouds threatened that unsettling and mysterious kind of beauty, smell, and electric atmosphere which only a thunderstorm can bring.  The morning had been a kind of anxious blue with clouds scudding across the sky.  As distant thunder began, the stillness preceding the storm came almost as a relief to the wind.  I had been outside working on the back patio table, so I hurried to pack up my things.  In only a few minutes rain came down in torrents.  Small bits of hail seemed to jump up from the ground and bounced off the grass in the front yard.  Inside, we turned on lamps against the sudden dimness.  It didn’t last long and soon settled into an even, steady spring rain.  As the evening turned to night, the regular “plunk-plunk” of large drops of rain gave a sense of comfort in shelter and a promise of rich green growth.

I love the turning of the seasons.  As I consider this spring, I also remember this Eastertide last year.  It was a significant time.  This Easter in Des Moines, Iowa, I was thinking back to Holy Saturday, our Easter vigil in the Gutackers’ home, Easter Sunday, and the season following.  Sometimes it is difficult to remember what happened this time last week, and I sort of surprised myself with the clarity I was able to remember even small things from this time last year.  I remember the scraping and hiss of the match lighting our first candle in the Gutackers’ dark dining room on Holy Saturday night.  I remember Paul bringing out his guitar as he and Paige sang songs they played together in their college days while we feasted on homemade bread and pie.  I remember holding tiny Marianne as she fell asleep at Gail’s house Easter Sunday morning.  Because of the need to quarantine at the time, it was certainly not the Easter we expected when Lent began.  But the unexpected pivot to celebrating Easter in a home gave our celebrations a particularity and atmosphere which I still treasure.  

Original art by Emily Verdoorn
Continue reading “Creation Song”

When Life Doesn’t Give You Lemons

In our backyard there’s a small lemon tree. We planted it last March, and right up to the Great Freeze of 2021 things looked promising. It was covered in leaves and fruit had started forming. Now, it looks dead. Local horticulturalists preach patience: it might come back, they advise; give it time.

Thankfully, the little lemon tree is the exception in our yard. Its bare branches contrast with the blossoming pecans and cottonwoods that will shade us all summer. 

It seems fitting that spring, at least in the northern hemisphere, coincides with Easter. Wildflowers, songbirds, bright green grass and blue sky—everything witnesses to new life. But as beautiful as this is, the coincidence can mislead. The spring-ification of Easter tempts us toward sentimentality.

Recently, the Brazos Fellows read Frederick Schleiermacher. We studied this Romanticist and German theologian as one example of the church’s response to the questions posed by modernity. Schleiermacher wanted to rescue Christianity for his very smart friends. They were sophisticated: they knew that the resurrection, like all miracles, was just a myth, and knowing this felt no need to continue with religious forms. 

Ok, that’s understandable, Schleiermacher replied, but real religion doesn’t have anything to do with doctrine or history. It’s a matter of feeling. It’s sensing the infinite; it’s experiencing one’s utter dependence; it’s that feeling “as fleeting and transparent as the first scent with which the dew gently caresses the waking flowers.”

That’s a lovely sentiment, as far as it goes. And thus liberal Protestant theology was born. In Schleiermacher’s version of Christianity, what matters is interior, subjective. For this, dew-covered blossoms do just as well as Word and Sacrament. And the Resurrection? Well, it’s a wonderful metaphor, isn’t it?

Continue reading “When Life Doesn’t Give You Lemons”