Saturday, March 28, 2009

When Hope Trembles Naked

The late Kenneth G. Phifer, when he was pastor of the St. Charles Avenue Presbyterian Church in New Orleans, authored A Book of Uncommon Prayer. I treasure it both for Dr. Phifer's spiritual perception and his poetic style. My wife and I often read the book together in the late evening hour before we go to bed.

A few nights ago, reading a prayer labeled "I Am Impatient" (and aren't we all?), I was struck by these lines. I've gone back to them several times for a rereading:

There is a time . . .
to wait until the night has gone,
and the dawn has come once more,
and hope trembles naked in the chill of morning.

Words written nearly thirty years ago, but how expessive of the time we're living in, when we wait so impatiently for justice and compassion to overrule greed and repression, for wars to cease and our economy to recover, and for raw political ambition to give way to a desire to serve the common good.

I struggle for faith and patience in every dark night, and shiver in naked hope whenever a new day appears to be dawning.

~ Bert Johnston, Author of Parson Campbell's Breakthrough

Monday, March 23, 2009

An Invitation I Can’t Refuse

In response to my post of March 13 (Address Unknown—And Off the Map), Mo commented, “A small blurb about the plot of your book would be good.” Thank you, Mo. I thought you’d never ask. This is the story of Parson Campbell’s Breakthrough:

In 1953, on his first Sunday as a pastor, newly-minted minister Eddie Campbell discovers his leading elder’s racial bigotry and realizes that the transformation of Mr. Melon will be his major challenge at Pear Valley. Eddie’s more liberal views put him at serious odds with his elder, but over time he achieves a tenuous truce. In 1961, when a long-lost Navy buddy shows up at Easter with his wife, the trust dissolves and the whole congregation is affronted. The story climaxes with the Christmas Day torching of a nearby black church, and ends with a major act of generosity and an unexpected gesture of reconciliation.

Along the way, Eddie strives to be independent of his indulgent mother and his wealthy Blue Grass in-laws. He discovers that, though his wife Myra’s ethical culture is sometimes at odds with his own, she will steer him straight when his own commitments falter.

There it is, in brief, Mo. I hope you’ll be one of the first 100,000 people to read it.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Mainline and Emergent

The view of the Church-with-a-Capital-C is not always encouraging as I see it from the distance of my back pew.
I see it from a better vantage point in our local Spanish Fort Presbyterian Church, where pastors Julian Walthall and Monnie Anderson labor creatively and successfully to lift our eyes to the world around us and to bring many helping hands to the church’s outreach ministries to our community.
But in my retirement I am mostly a spectator, except for my cheering them on and the prayers I raise up from the distance of my back pew.
Though I see evidence of creative ministry across my denomination, it is a reality of this age that the mainline churches, which seemed so vital in the heady days of growth in the 1950’s and 1960’s, are shedding membership with every annual report.
These seem to be the glory days for fundamentalists and Pentecostals, to the extent that we who are still called “mainline” appear to be on the sidelines.
Which brings to mind what George Buttrick, New York pastor and author, said fifty years or so ago, after our more conservative southern Presbyterians succeeded in banning him from the podium of a major engagement at the Montreat Conference Center in North Carolina. During a speaking engagement at Union Seminary in Virginia a student asked him how he felt about such shunning. He said, “What the fundamentalists don’t understand is that I, too, am a fundamentalist, for I know what is fundamental.
From my back pew I am beginning to notice the emergent church movement in our mainline denominations, Presbyterian, Episcopal and Lutheran among others. Let’s cheer them on as they try to uncover what is truly fundamental to the mission and ministry of the Church in this century. If they succeed, they will bestow new meaning to the word “mainline,” and since it's about obedience more than status, they may not even pause from their labors to notice.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Address Unknown—and Off the Map

My first attempt at a novel lies buried in a computer file, sort of like the way the house in which I was born is now buried deep under an Interstate slope in Pennsylvania. Working at a more moderate pace following a National Novel Writing Month marathon, in a few months I had a manuscript of 95,000 words making up what I thought was a complete story. I tweaked it through three or four drafts, then printed it out and gave copies to two friends who agreed to critique it.

Two or three weeks later Helen Wood and Celeste Neuffer, both of whom were capable editors, sat down with me and began by saying, “This is not a novel.” Some words of a more encouraging nature followed, but the gist of their assessment was: too many plots, too many characters, too many settings. An epic, maybe, but not a novel.

I’m a tolerably good listener. I learned a lot from Helen and Celeste that night and in the months that followed. I also took a course at the University of South Alabama, bought and read eight or ten books on writing, and started my second novel—actually my first, if Address Unknown is counted out.

Twenty months and many drafts later, my volunteer editors judged Parson Campbell’s Breakthrough worthy of consideration by a publisher. Publication is easier desired than achieved, of course, but the novel now seems destined for publication as a paperback by a division of What it still lacks is a satisfactory cover design. If you have a p.c. or a Kindle you need not wait. You can download from Payloadz or Kindle Books today.

Now I’m writing Megachurch, and I hope to have a publishable manuscript by the end of this year.

If there are any other late-blooming novelists within the reach of this blog, I would enjoy hearing from you. Indeed, I’d be happy to hear from any reader.

~ Bert Johnston, author of Parson Campbell’s Breakthrough

Monday, March 9, 2009

The Son Who Begat His Father

Last week my long-awaited website made its debut at I have my son Mike and granddaughter Katie to thank for the website. They brainstormed it during our Christmas holidays in December, and now it’s a reality. I’m pleased with it, and hope readers of this blog will check it out and offer your comments on what you find.

It was Mike who launched me into my present life as a writer of fiction. On the night of October 27, two and a half years ago, he called me on the phone from Indiana and challenged me to write a novel.

Ever since his years as a student at Maryville College, Mike has shown promise as a writer, but he sensibly decided to earn his living in the regular-paycheck world of industry. He called that night to say that at last he was going to write the novel that had been ricocheting around in his head for some years. November, he said, was National Novel Writing Month and he was about to join the thousands of NaNoWriMo folks who would try to write at least 50,000 words of a new novel in those thirty days.

“Join me,” Mike said. “You just need to write first draft stuff. Get the words out and worry about style later.”

“Mike,” I said, “I have no idea for a plot and no characters to write about. Besides, I’ve just started re-reading War and Peace. That project is enough for November.” After a sleepless night I phoned him back and said, “Okay, Mike, you’re on. I’ve got some characters and an idea for a plot.”

November went by in a blur of nearly sleepless nights and killer days. I could never survive such a month again, but as December 1st rolled in I had written 60,000 words, and I was hooked. War and Peace is still sitting neglected on the shelf. So are those 60,000 words, for that matter, but that was just a trial run. I’ve written better since, and I'm still writing.

Now I'm waiting for Mike's novel. Of course I have an advantage over him when it comes to writing. I have the leisure of sitting in unhurried retirement in my back pew.

~ Bert Johnston, author of Parson Campbell’s Breakthrough

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Meet Eugene Walter

Until I moved to South Alabama I didn't know the late Eugene Walter, whom I mentioned in my “Cat Person” blog (February 16). Walter, a one-time Mobile celebrity, was one of those unrestrained cat people who loved Mardi Gras, but never needed a special season to throw a party.

I first met Eugene in the pages of Katherine Clark’s Milking the Moon, an oral biography (now out of print but available) in which Eugene talks and Katherine sorts it out and records it. I’m not often a repeat reader, but I’ve read Milking the Moon three times in the last five years.

Eugene grew up in the 1920’s and 1930’s in his grandparents’ home in the days when Mobile was an easy-going Catholic town. During World War Two he spent three years at the Arctic Circle as an Army cryptographer, and then went to New York to make his mark in the world. Still in his early twenties, he moved on to Paris, where he became associated with George Plimpton in the editing and publishing of the Paris Review. He met almost every celebrity who passed through Paris, and was a favorite party planner for those who wanted to entertain them.

By his mid-thirties Walter was in Rome, working for Princess Caetani in the publishing of Botteghe Oscure. Because she seldom thought to pay him and he was too much of a gentleman to ask, he moonlighted as a translator, wrote a column for the Rome Daily American and became involved in the early stages of the Italian movie industry. He was versatile. He translated scripts, designed sets, dyed cloth and made costumes, wrote songs, and acted in dozens of films. His best role was as a supporting actor in Fellini’s 8 ½. Fellini became his favorite director and a good friend.

Except on occasional long days devoted to shooting films, Eugene’s workday ended no later than sunset and evenings were devoted to parties—the ones he became known for hosting and the ones he attended as a sought-after guest. Eugene knew how to give meaning to the word “party,” even when he was so poor he served peanut butter and fresh bakery bread.

Near the end of his life, Eugene returned to Mobile, but it wasn’t the town he had known as a boy. During the second World War the Baptists had moved in as riveters and ship fitters, and life in Mobile was just not the same. But, he was home again, and he still could plan a good party and enjoy his unplanned, spontaneous life. He died at the age of 76.

~ Bert Johnston, author of Parson Campbell’s Breakthrough