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July 2013

On Our Way Home: A Review of "The Little Way of Ruthie Leming," by Rod Dreher

Little WayWhile I rarely have the luxury of reading a book in one sitting, last Sunday afternoon was an exception. I settled myself in my wife's green "ladies' chair" and cracked open Rod Dreher's The Little Way of Ruthie Leming: A Southern Girl, a Small Town, and the Secret of a Good Life. Five hours and 268 pages later, I stood up, finished, and walked out the door to the far corner of a wooded back yard. I turned to face my home of 28 years, trying to see it as a stranger might, wondering about the life of the family inside, about what joys and trials they may have had, the dynamics of relationships.  Mostly, those are matters I keep close. But Rod Dreher did write about the inner life of his extended family, and we can all be glad he did.

The Little Way has as its heart the loving but conflicted relationship between Dreher and his younger sister Ruthie, all as set against the backdrop of the small-town community of Starhill, Louisiana. Ruthie stayed home, married, and had children, taught school, and embraced the small community in which she lived. Dreher, on the other hand, ached to escape its suffocating smallness, much of its bucolic charm lost on him. After college at LSU, he left both home and faith, working as a journalist in Washington, New York, Dallas, and Philadelphia - in short, anywhere unlike the town in which he was reared. "You were our dreamer," his mother said. "Ruthie wasn't. She was satisfied with what she had in front of her. You had your head in books all the time. She loved nature, and being outside."

Ruthie shot deer, skinning a buck herself. Dreher gagged, retreated to books and to worldly spinster aunts, and once having his intellectual interests piqued by the academic atmosphere of LSU, never turned back. All this was a mystery to Ruthie. Listening to a philosophical discussion between her brother and a friend once at LSU, where they were both in college, Ruthie, exasperated, said "What is wrong with ya'll? Listen to you. You sit her for hours talking about this crap, and it doesn't mean anything. You're just talking; you're not doing anything!" Over time, a wall grew between Ruthie and her brother. And yet Ruthie was one of the most loved people in Starhill and West Francisville Parish, never giving up on difficult kids, believing the best about all, and accepting her last illness without anger at God, at peace with God and man, except, perhaps, her brother who, inexplicably, left, while she stayed.

In writing this memoir, Dreher throws  open the door on life in his family, exposing the hearts and minds of many family members and friends who still live in the small town of Starhill, revealing his own struggles with his father, the smallness of his world compared to the "little way" of Ruthie. While the author found his way back to faith, albeit Catholicism and then Orthodoxy, he also quite surprisingly found his way back to Louisiana, recognizing the value of place, of home, when Ruthie contracted lung cancer just shy of her 40th birthday.  In watching her gracefully deal with that awful reality and seeing a community that rallied around her, he realized that there was much to gain from staying put or, failing that, from going home, from the ties that bind. In leaving, he was able, finally, to come home for the first time.

Dreher reflects on why we leave our communities, on why so many live an unrooted life: 

Contemporary culture encourages us to make islands of ourselves for the sake of self-fulfillment, of career advancement, of entertainment, of diversion, and all the demands of the sovereign self. When suffering and death come for you - and it will - you want to be in a place where you know, and are known. You want - no, you need - to be able to say, as Mike [Ruthie's husband] did, "We're leaning, but we're leaning on each other."

Dreher acknowledges that we can't all go home, that we can't (indeed, shouldn't) all stay, even that the places from which we come are, for all their goodness warped by sin. Even selfless Ruthie could not quite, in the end, forgive her brother for leaving. But the lesson, perhaps, is that we shouldn't be so quick to leave home or whatever place in which we find ourselves, that we should do the hard work of building relationships and binding ourselves to the streets and buildings and landcapes in which we providentially find ourselves. We should, in other words, go out for walk, make a mental map, build up a reservoir of sounds and sights, of a place and its people. Much as God did in the Incarnation, we should move into the neighborhood, living fully embodied lives in the places assigned to us, so that one day, we may say, with the Psalmist, "The lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; indeed, I have a beautiful inheritance" (Ps. 16:6, ESV).

If Dreher had not written this book, few of us would know Ruthie Leming. Her "little way" would be unknown, a story remembered by a few hundred people in Starhill, Louisiana. And yet, because he did tell it, we see now in that little story a much grander story, one universal in scope, a modern (true) myth of what it means to live unto God in a world that swirls around us. The message: Stay. Go home. Or make a home. But for God's sake, settle down.

Standing there in my backyard, looking at our home, I'm full of questions: Could it really have been 28 years? Can my children really be grown and off on their own? Looking down at the stones marking the graves of a beloved dog and cat, I shake my head, incredulous that they have been dead over 12 years. Is it really possible in a culture of shifting allegiances that I still work and worship and walk in the same places and am wed to the same one after all this time?

I'm very, very glad I stayed. I'm very glad to be home.  In this holy land, I see Home. 


When Jesus Comes

IMG_1727If you have wondered where Outwalking has been, it's absence has been due in part to the fact that I was in southwest Uganda from June 16-30, serving as part of a mission to churches in that area with Amazing Grace Adoptions and Orphan Care.  It wasn't that I didn't blog, because I did, writing here on the official mission blog.  I hope you'll visit the blog to see what we were up to there in the Kisoro District.  But just in case you don't, I'll share some excerpts here.

The Kisoro District of Uganda is far from the capital city of Kampala, about a 10-hour bus trip, and thus far from the minds of the government officials there.  As a result, government support of the community is lacking.  Poised as there are on the border with the Congo, a resource-rich if troubled country, and Rwanda, a comparatively better off and yet still troubled country, they have seen their share of refugees.  Add to that a drought that has affected them for nearly a month, and the material poverty is palpable.  And yet material poverty is the good soil of spiritual wealth

For eight days we followed Pastor George to eight of the 16 churches he has planted.  George and his wife Rubina have no salary, no bank account, and no other stable source of income.  Nevertheless, they have several children and have managed to take in orphans to raise as their own.  Like nearly all Ugandans in rural areas, they "dig," as they say, providing for themselves by planting and harvesting their own crops from small plots of land.

One day at breakfast, Pastor George says this: “When I walk to visit the churches, I sometimes don't know where I will sleep. Sometimes I sleep outdoors. Sometimes I sleep in a church with no windows or doors. When I lay down, I don't know if I am going to wake up. Then, I find myself moving, and I am up. I do not know how God will provide, but I know that He will.”  I do not even know how to think in this way.  Like most people from the West, I have multiple safety nets to fall back on should trouble come - savings, insurance, family, and government.  Most Ugandans have nothing --- nothing but God, that is.  How can God grow the kind of faith in me that I see in this man?

One day we drove to the end of a rutted dirt road, finally disembarking to walk the rest of the way to a church because the bridge was impassable.  It was like following the Apostle Paul.  The road teemed with people walking.  Women carrying baskets of fruit, beans, or rocks on their heads; men pushing bicycles laden with bamboo, mattresses, a bed frame, potatoes; and children staring and waving from doorways and dirt yards shared with goats and chickens. In the fields, women slung hoes, digging at the rich earth, babies strapped to their backs.  They flocked around us.  They all know Pastor George.  That night I recalled the words of Frederick Buechner from The Magnificent Defeat: “Jesus is apt to come, into the very midst of life at its most real and inescapable. Not in a blaze of unearthly light, not in the midst of a sermon, not in the throes of some kind of religious daydream, but… at supper time, or walking along a road.”

So, out walking He comes.  Walking along a road.

So what did we do?  Pastor George asked for nothing but one thing: that we come and encourage his people.  So, feeling our weakness, our inadequacy, we came.  We taught Bible study to men and women over half of whom lack a Bible but who are adept at listening, eagerly absorbing the Word.  We prayed for people.  We heard of their difficulties.  We sang. They sang.  We ate the lunch they prepared for us: beans, rice, Irish potatoes, cooked cabbage, and tough sinewy beef that proved too tough for most of us.  We loved on the children, played games, enacted parables, heard sad stories of sexual abuse and what seemed like demonic visitation.  Powerless, we called on the omnipotent One to help them, the Father to the many fatherless, to a people adopted and made co-heirs with Christ of spiritual riches unencumbered by material wealth.

 

Many times I thought surely there are people who can teach Bible study better than me, who know the Bible better than me.  And yet I was reminded that those people were not there, and I was.  So I just opened my mouth and prayed to God that He would fill it.  And something came out.  We began and ended our days in weakness. For a devotion after breakfast our first day, we read II Corinthians 12:1-10, and considered Christ's words to Paul, his answer to his plea to have some ailment of mind or body removed from him: "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness."  The words stood up on the page and walked with us for two weeks, taking life in the life we lived.

Standing outside a church one day, within sight of Congo, Pastor George told us how the grandmother of the pastor used to walk all the way to Kisoro to come to his church, nealy 25 miles. One day she offered to give him the land for the church. The church members then built the church, rock by rock. Each one gives. “If you can't give money, bring a rock to church,” George says.

Rock by rock. That's how it goes there. That's how they live out the gospel. That's how we have to live out the Gospel.  That's how the Kingdom gets built.

 


Fly

When I was young I had a dream that I suspect most kids had. In my dream, I discovered that I could fly if I waved my arms fast enough and ran fast enough. After all, I had PF Flyers, the latest and greatest athletic shoes (or whatever they called them then) --- that is, before I moved up to Converse.  In the television commercial for the shoes, I seem to recall a kid running, running, running, faster and faster, until he literally lifted off the ground.  It was the same captivating imagery that another generation was enraptured with when viewing ET for the first time: a bicycle that becomes airborne.

I never flew, of course.  After jumping from the second story of my house a few times, off playground slides,  and running and jumping as far and as I could, I always came down.  It's an apt metaphor for life, or what life can be if you let go of a dream.

I don't dream so much of flying anymore, but I do dream.  I try not to close my mind to the whispers of hope and possibility that are just beyond my grasp - for now, anyway.  I try to keep before the idea that life is pregnant with possibility. Like Robert Browning once said, "a man's reach should exceed his grasp," yet so often as time goes by and we grow older, we stop reaching, stop dreaming.

My son literally flies.  When I watch his video below, it gives me the sense that anything is possible.  I can rise above the valley of complacency and see  a larger landscape, green with new ideas, one which like flying a plane is disciplined by the techniques of flight and yet therein open to new terrain.  Watching him soar, I think I might just do something.

I might even write a book.  Move to Africa.  Run for public office.  Become a rock star (just kidding, gladly gave that dream up after being in the music business).  What about you?

Watch this and see what you think and how you feel.  Let me know you're a kindred spirit by liking his Facebook page here.  Keep dreaming. Fly.