Around ten years ago, I participated in a week-long writing workshop at Washington DC’s National Cathedral with three powerful authors. Each had influenced me.
Nora Gallagher, Lauren Winner, and Barbara Brown Taylor are insightful writers. Their essays, sermons, memoirs, and novels have dived deeply into the Christian faith. And yet, I also private dubbed them my . . . “Bond women!” Am I suggesting they could star—scantily clad and cleverly devious—in a film where the iconic British spy might seduce them?
As with every story, sermon, or parable, it’s the context that matters. But, before I contextualize, let me tease. Near the conclusion of this wild caper, one of my “Bond women” and I will eventually rendezvous with a Pakistani-American. In a taxi. On the way to an international airport. (Cue the menacing soundtrack.)
Context . . . James Bond.
I was twelve or so. Dr. No, the first Bond movie with Sean Connery, was released. From Russia With Love and Goldfinger followed. Their box office, as they once said in Hollywood, was boffo. The films spawned a cottage industry of toys and gadgets. One of those “toys” was the elaborate James Bond Road Racing Set offered in the Sears Roebuck catalog. I saw it hyped on TV. Miniature sports cars zoomed through tunnels and over a mountain pass. Thrills! Chills!
Oh, how I wanted it for Christmas . . .
I begged and pleaded!
I got it!
Sadly, within a few days, 007’s faulty vehicles were returned to Sears. The silly little cars didn’t work as advertised. The plastic “mountain” was a joke ready to fall apart. The whole set-up was cheap. I had such high expectations. And yet, like any evil spy plotting to thwart Bond, the expectations crashed and burned.
So too with Nora, Lauren, and Barbara. My, er, Bond women.
Context . . . a week at the National Cathedral.
I was selected with other writers to join with those authors for a workshop at the impressive National Cathedral. What could I learn from these three muses? Or from my fellow participants? And—here’s my evil, selfish side—what could I “get” from Lauren or Nora or Barbara? Maybe they would eagerly agree to write a blurb for a proposed book of mine? Something like:
“Patten’s writing expands the soul and heals the heart. I was a better person before I even finished reading his opening paragraph. Buy this book. It will change your life.”
Lauren Winner, author of Girl Meets God
Or . . .
“What Patten has done is what most only dream about: write a book that reveals the hard truths about faith and faithful living. I say, let’s make room for a fifth Gospel.”
Barbara Brown Taylor, author of Leaving Church
Me? High expectations?
I approached each author. I asked (most politely in my recollections) if she might read my work and give feedback. But each in her own way claimed to be busy. Personal publishing deadlines were crushing them. The workshop schedule was tight and they wanted to be fair to everyone.
All three were my own personal “Dr. No.”
My expectations plummeted . . . but wait! Like in a good (or bad) Bond movie, there was always another last-gasp scene where the resourceful secret agent would save the day.
As the workshop neared its end, participants were encouraged to share taxi rides to the airport. Lists were made. I spied that Nora Gallagher was returning to California on a flight leaving close to my departure time. I signed my name under hers. Alleluia! I had one last shot at offering her the opportunity to comment on my brilliant words.
Or at least to make her feel guilty.
Then another participant joined our taxi ride. No Nora alone. My scheme was wrecked. I slumped in the front passenger seat, preparing to sulk all the way to Dulles International. This wasn’t Hollywood. This was my miserable life.
What a lousy week. I didn’t care—as dedicated pouters and whiners don’t—that I’d met other writers and was humbled by their good work and words. I didn’t care that I was able to tell Barbara Brown Taylor how helpful her Leaving Church was when I decided to depart full-time ministry. I didn’t care that I shared beer and burritos with Nora Gallagher in a local DC eatery while swapping tales of similar Yosemite adventures. I didn’t care about the gracious encouragement Lauren Winner had conveyed to me, and others, in our small group sessions.
I wanted to sulk. I’d earned my whine. I was the prince of pouts.
But then the driver—a Pakistani-American—started asking me questions and giving highlights about his life. While zigzagging through traffic in the nation’s capital, I learned about his five daughters.
“They are all blessings, just as the Koran says.”
A Muslim, he revealed how he longed for all faiths to enjoy and honor God. With passion he declared, “Americans don’t appreciate how wonderful this country is. You take your freedoms for granted.”
He mentioned talking with his mother, still in Pakistan, every day. Waving pre-paid calling cards that he kept in his taxi, he said, “How much I love and miss my mother.”
As we neared Dulles International Airport, the cabbie started singing Islamic prayers. Nora and Judy (the other rider in the back seat) ceased chatting. They, like me, were obviously enthralled. Sulking withered. Whining faded. I can hear his sung prayers yet.
I never got what I thought I wanted. My “Bond women” disappointed.
Or did they? Then or now, I wouldn’t change the week for anything.