Sharon Garlough Brown "Writing Truth in Fiction" | Episode Transcript
Karen Pascal: Hello, I’m Karen Pascal. I’m the executive director of the Henri Nouwen Society. Welcome to a new episode of Henri Nouwen, Now and Then. Our goal at the Henri Nouwen Society is to extend the rich, spiritual legacy of Henri to audiences around the world. Each week, we endeavor to bring you an interview with someone who has much to share from their own spiritual life and work, and who has been deeply influenced by the writings of Henri Nouwen. We invite you to share the daily meditations and these podcasts with your friends and family. Through them, we can continue to introduce new audiences to the writings and teachings of Henri Nouwen, and remind each listener that they are a beloved child of God.
Now, let me introduce my guest today. I am honored to be joined in conversation by Sharon Garlough Brown. Sharon’s a spiritual director, speaker and founder of the Abiding Way Ministries. She’s also the author of the best-selling Sensible Shoes series, which includes these four novels: Sensible Shoes; Two Steps Forward; Barefoot; and An Extra Mile. A graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary, Sharon has served on the pastoral staffs of congregations in Scotland, Oklahoma, England, and most recently in West Michigan, where she has co-pastored with her husband, Jack.
Sharon, welcome to Henri Nouwen, Now and Then. I’m eager to talk with you about your books, about your wisdom and about the way Henri Nouwen has been a spiritual resource for you. Welcome, Sharon.
Sharon Garlough Brown: Thank you, Karen. It is an honor and a privilege to speak with you.
Karen Pascal: Well, I have loved your books. I was so grateful someone introduced me to them. What a unique thing you have done, because you take people on a spiritual journey, but it’s within a novel, and I haven’t seen anybody else do that. How did you discover this unique approach? I mean, obviously you’re a spiritual director, so you kind of know what you’re doing, but how is it that it worked itself into a novel?
Sharon Garlough Brown: Well, it began in prayer. Back in 2008, I was co-pastoring with my husband, Jack and began leading a group of women in what I called a spiritual formation group. We met weekly on Monday mornings to practice ways of prayer together, ways of being attentive to the Spirit of God. And the women came hungry for authentic community. They wanted a place where it was safe to come out from hiding and lay down their masks and be honest with God and with each other.
And over those weeks and months, Karen, we watched such beautiful, breathtaking transformation as the Holy Spirit healed old hurts and set captives free and opened blind eyes to see things more clearly.
And after a couple months of leading the group, I just sensed the Lord say, “That dream you’ve had for a long time, to write – it’s time, it’s time.”
And I then began praying, “Lord, do you want me to write fiction or non-fiction?” And I was led toward fiction, which was just a genius move by the Spirit, because I didn’t know how to write fiction.
And the gift of that was that I didn’t know what the rules were and I didn’t know that I was breaking rules. So, people will sometimes say, “Oh, you invented a new genre of fiction.”
I laugh and say, “Well, not intentionally. I was just trying to be faithful to how the Lord led me in the writing of the story.”
So, on the day when I had one of the characters, the retreat leader, teaching a spiritual discipline, I just sensed the Lord say, “Rather than have her just speaking the whole thing, put a handout in the book.”
So, the four characters meet at a retreat center for a six-session retreat to learn different ways of prayer, and a reader can decide to just read it as a novel and track the lives of the characters, or say “yes” to taking a retreat with the characters, because the handout notes from the retreat leader are interspersed in the book.
Karen Pascal: I found that such a fascinating approach, I must admit. And you gave me understanding to those methods. I know a little bit about Lectio Divina. I know a little bit about the Examen, but I found there was a clarity in how you presented them. And it was very inviting. I felt free to try alongside, because I remember something from my early university days, in philosophy. It was: “To get the right answer, you have to ask the right question.”
And somehow, I think that’s one of the things that makes this book so effective: Eventually, people come to the right question, not necessarily automatically, but they kind of find their way into a question that opens up issues and areas of their life that have been closed. And I found that so helpful.
Sharon Garlough Brown: Well, Jesus is a master at asking questions, right, that get to the heart of the matter. So, the characters in many ways are responding to the Lord’s questions in scriptures. So, things like from John 1: What are you looking for? Or from Genesis 3: Where are you? Or from Hagar’s story in the wilderness: Where have you come from? Where are you going?
And these are the questions that the Spirit is asking the characters and, I pray, by extension the readers as well.
To really ponder what are the honest answers, not the answers we think we should give in terms of what we desire and what we’re looking for and where we’ve come from and how we’ve been shaped and the ways that we’re hiding from God and each other, but really to spend some time letting the Lord ask the penetrating questions and letting the true, honest answers emerge from there.
Karen Pascal: One of the things that is incredibly effective within the book is your characters’ jump from childhood to their teenage years or to some moment of trauma in their life and into the present. And what I found very moving was the reality that so often, those are the places that we’ve in a sense been wounded, or we’ve been limited, and we carry it forward. And somehow in undoing it, you have to sort of see what are the sources of my questions? What are the sources of my self-image? And, is it a correct self-image? And is it how God sees me?
Sharon Garlough Brown: Exactly. And that is the journey that they’re on: to discover themselves as the beloved of God. And that’s the journey for each of us – to find our rest in the love of God.
Karen Pascal: It’s funny, when you use the expression that “they’re going to find their belovedness.” I found woven throughout this book, the first one, Sensible Shoes, I see Henri Nouwen woven within it, because in a sense, that’s your goal, isn’t it? You want each one of them to really feel they are beloved. Tell me a little bit about how Henri Nouwen has influenced you.
Sharon Garlough Brown: Oh, Karen, where do you start with that? In many ways, it’s what people say about him. It’s his intimacy, it’s his vulnerability. It’s the authenticity. It’s my resonance with his journey of being delivered out of that false self of achievement and striving and exhaustion. And for me, it was always trying to be good enough. Living in fear that I would somehow let down God Almighty, that I would disappoint God. And it was such bondage. And it was really through Henri’s work that I began to hear more prominent echoes of the Spirit’s work in my life, to invite me into that posture of relaxing into the grace of God and being at rest in his love for me.
I think I lived for years with the image of wanting to be a conduit: “Lord, I just want to be faithful, so flow through me to bless everyone else. And if I get a little bit of the residue after everything flows through, that’s fine.”
And instead, being converted to that image of abundance, where the Lord said, “Sharon, let go of the conduit image and let’s embrace a reservoir.”
What does it mean to be continually fed by these subterranean springs of living water of life, to drink deeply from the well of the love of God, so that out of the abundance of what we’ve received, we’re able to offer that to others? And I think that’s what Henri does so beautifully. It’s coming to really trust that we are who God says we are; we are the ones Jesus loves. And then the process of becoming that, through the power of the Holy Spirit, through the grace of God, so that we are converted to joy out of the striving. We’re converted to grace out of the trying to earn and be good enough. And so, he certainly has been a companion, a trustworthy companion to me and I know to many, many around the world for many years.
Karen Pascal: You know, it’s interesting, because one of the things I enjoyed about your book is it kind of unwraps Christian platitudes. It doesn’t give easy answers and it doesn’t give pat answers. And I’m very grateful for that. And I think that’s probably the Henri, too – Henri, in a sense, in his honesty and his vulnerability, wasn’t about to say, “All that’s tidy up in my life. This is what I feel.”
And I actually today, I really want to encourage people to get this Sensible Shoes series. And I’m looking forward to the other two books I have here in front of me. I’m really looking forward to them, because what I met was such honesty, a kind of disarming honesty.
And I guess it’s that whole business that, when you go into a retreat or something of that nature, it can be impacting you very deeply. And you might even be encouraged to share something and others might share something, but you really don’t know what’s going on in that inner language. You don’t know the inner dialogue. And that’s the power of your books, is that you go into the inner dialogue, the secret of what we’re thinking of ourselves, of our uncertainty, of what we’re weighing and trying to comprehend and trying to receive. And I found that was just so nurturing and encouraging and life-giving for me in reading. And I want to encourage others.
Now, I will say something. I think these books are for women. I really do, because your four characters are women. Although, you have some wonderful male characters in your book. I’m curious: How do men read these books? Or do they?
Sharon Garlough Brown: Such a great question! Men are certainly not my target audience, and yet some of the most meaningful and delightful emails and notes that I’ve gotten are from men. And let me just share two: One man in his eighties came to read the book because women at the retirement community where he lived were studying it in community. And he was watching them come to life in ways that made him curious. And so, he read the book and then emailed me to say that he longed to have a relationship with Jesus like what the characters were growing into, and did I think it was too late for someone like him, which was just this beautiful response.
And the other one that was really memorable, Karen: A man who had been recently widowed, and Sensible Shoes had meant something special to his wife. And she had underlined and highlighted and dog-eared her copy. And after she died, he found the copy and decided that he wanted to hear his wife’s heart, to see what had resonated with her. And so, he said in the email, “I gave myself permission not to persevere with it, if it was too much of chick-lit.” He then said he spent a whole weekend, and that at the end of the book, not only did he have more insight into his wife’s journey with Jesus, but he had made his own highlights and marks along the way.
So, what we share is our humanity, right? I mean, we speak with different accents. We nuance things differently with women and men. But we’re all struggling with fears, with captivities, with desires, with a longing to be known. I think what Henri modeled so beautifully for us, among other things, was that he was willing to reveal his wounds, and in intimately revealing his wounds, he invites us to come out from hiding and name where we’ve been hurt, too. And as you’ve said, Karen, and I’m really honored that it resonated with you, the characters are beginning to unveil their wounds as well – to God, so that they can be healed, and to one another, so that they can be healed.
Karen Pascal: I’ve marked earmarked my book thoroughly, by the way. But it’s funny. I was thinking I’d love to give people just a little sample. I should probably be asking you to read this, but you have Katherine, who is the leader in the group, talking about:
“Getting rid of fears is never the goal,” she said. “If we fix our eyes on that, then we won’t be looking at Jesus. Draw close to the Lord. God is always our first desire, so we must focus on a perfect love and the faithfulness of God, instead of the depth of our fear. We meditate on how big God is, how trustworthy God is, how loving and gracious God is. And slowly, slowly, we discover our trust growing, our fears shrinking – all by God’s gift and power, always by God’s gift and power, not by our own efforts.”
That’s just a little sample of how, in a sense, you weave this character who’s leading us in, but she’s, she’s very subtly there. She’s just kind of, every so often, some word comes from her, but it’s never judgmental. It’s always, to me, it always kind of opens something to go forward. I want to ask you about spiritual practices. You’re a spiritual director. Why are spiritual practices useful? Why do you give them to others?
Sharon Garlough Brown: Well, I think what we want to do, what I’d like to do first, is try to recast spiritual practices or spiritual disciplines out of the realm of drudgery or striving or guilt or duty and obligation, and into this life of freedom and joy and peace, so that a spiritual practice is something that we intentionally practice. This is the right word. To practice receiving the love of God and to practice abiding and resting and remaining in the love of God. And then, to practice ways of responding to the love of God.
And I think, Karen, we often get the rhythm backwards, where we’ll start with the responding part: What does it mean for me to be faithful? Rather than really to spend the time daily, weekly, monthly, over years, practicing receiving the abundance of the love of God, so that we’re offering not from a place of depletion and scarcity, but out of a place of abundance.
And so, these ancient ways that come out of our Christian heritage in the early church – and we see many of the practices modeled in the life of Jesus in his community that he’s forming – these are invitations. These are generous invitations from God to help us keep company with him, to help us become more attentive to the whispers of his Spirit in our lives. And so, it is a life of joy. And gradually, we develop habits that become more and more natural and quick, if you will. But this is the invitation.
Karen Pascal: It’s kind of woven throughout the book, but you talk about the first love and that’s where I went, “Oh, that’s pure Henri.” Tell us a little bit about that first love and what you want that to be for the characters that you have created, and for those people that you speak to, you speak into their lives.
Sharon Garlough Brown: Well, and again, I think sometimes we can cast first love and that realm of guilt of, “Oh, the Lord is supposed to be my first love above all things.”
And then we can try really, really hard to make it happen, rather than recasting and recasting it as our love is always derivative to our first love: the one who first loved us. And so again, with the characters and their journey, I’ll give just an example. One of the characters is a pastor who’s been given an unwanted sabbatical. And you really have to suspend your disbelief, because who would resist a church saying, “We see that you’re tired. We’d like to give you a nine-month, all-expenses-paid [sabbatical],” right?
So, casting a vision for a very generous church and she doesn’t want it, because she doesn’t know who she is when she isn’t serving God. And she’s scared of finding out who she is when her office is removed, when people aren’t calling, when the hospital visits and requests aren’t coming. Who is she when she isn’t being needed in the kingdom? And so, her invitation is, it’s a pruning. It’s a hard prune that comes because of the great love of God for her, who says, “I love you too much to let you continue to define yourself by what you do for me. I will show you what it means to be at rest in my love.”
And so, she is renewed in what it means, that God has first loved her. And she is enlarged to love and respond to that first love in ways that she hadn’t glimpsed before.
Karen Pascal: You know, I find something, I identify actually with each one of the characters, but I know that addiction to busyness, to proving your worth. Some really touched my heart. And I found, as I read the book, I kept going, “Stop and let God love you, and understand you’re beloved.” I can use the phrase, but to receive it, to really receive it, to really rest in it – that’s a difficult thing sometimes. We think it’s all about performing. We’re not even aware of how much we perform. It’s crazy.
I know that there’s four books in this series and I’m eager to get into the next and the next, because I like the fact it’s not simply solved. It’s not a … you’ve entered into a friendship with people and there you find some of yourself. I mean, truly, you find aspects of their personalities or their problems or their issues or their successes. You see bits of yourself, but I want to see where do they go and how do they become free, really free to know themselves? Really free to hear God in their lives? And I think I’m looking forward to going on with it. I’ll be honest; I was curious if you’d been approached to have this made into a series, because the part of me, the filmmaker part of me goes, “Oh, this would make a terrific series!”
And then I stepped back and I went, “Yeah, but then I would be missing all this wonderful inner dialogue, which a novel gives you that you don’t get if you’re watching a 10-part series or a four-part series. But I think there are some things that are coming out of this, I can imagine. And tell me a little bit about what you have seen as the fruit of what you’ve made.
Sharon Garlough Brown: Yeah. Thank you, Karen. You know, I’m with you. I’ve had lots of people ask about film or TV series, but it’s such an inner book and the only plot of Sensible Shoes – if there is a plot – is that whether the characters say “yes” or “no” to the invitations of God, whether they turn towards the Spirit or resist the Spirit. That’s the plot of Sensible Shoes. And so, it is a story about that trajectory of the second book in the series, Two Steps Forward. And the subtext of that is, you know, spiritual growth isn’t linear, it’s two steps forward and three steps back, and three steps forward and five steps back, right? So, I don’t know how it would translate well into a series. Although we, in recent years, we’ve had some movies that have done a fine job with the inner life and how to portray it on the screen.
One of the interesting things that has emerged in the last couple years is that a very gifted woman from New Zealand has written 12 songs as a Sensible Shoes musical. And she has beautifully captured the interior life of the characters. And not long before the pandemic shut everything down, my husband and I were over in New Zealand. I was leading events and we were able to watch a performance of the music from this musical. And I sat there, stunned, watching my characters come to life in front of me. And they were singing their interior. Like when the characters first meet at the retreat center and the reader gets access to all the things they’re thinking about one another, as they’re making judgements about appearances, but not saying out loud. But they’re singing these things. So, we get to hear what they’re saying.
And then she also, because she wanted the musical to be an experience of retreat, she wrote a song where it’s a spiritual direction conversation. She wrote a song of lament. She wrote a song where they’re walking the labyrinth. She wrote a song about Lectio Divina and meditating on the word, a five-part chant. I mean, it’s just glorious. And we had hoped to move forward with putting it into some, just amateur production here in West Michigan, and then COVID hit. And so, I don’t know what the Lord has in mind, but oh, I would love to see someday a full script for it, because the music is worthy of a good script.
Karen Pascal: Well, I think that’s such a brilliant idea, such an incredible beginning, and I trust doors are going to open. Speaking of doors opening, you are just days before you’re taking off for a brand-new assignment. Tell us a little bit about where you’re heading. What’s this about?
Sharon Garlough Brown: Yes. So, my husband actually is already in Dundee, Scotland, and I leave in four days to follow. We had the opportunity right after we married and graduated from seminary to serve a church in Glasgow, Scotland. And we also had the opportunity to serve a church in Southampton, England, and our hearts have always been in the U.K., and we had just kind of laid that dream before the Lord, whether there would ever be an opportunity to return. And after almost 20 years here in West Michigan, and really a rich and fruitful life here in West Michigan with no dissatisfaction in terms of where we were, we really kind of surrendered the dream, and thought, well, at this stage in our lives, as we’re in our fifties now, it probably is okay to say we had five years there and they were good years, and it’s for someone else to return.
And then the Lord took us by surprise, by beginning to quicken our attention, to pursue threads of opportunities over there. And one of them opened in a really miraculous way. So, my husband has been called to serve a church in Dundee, Scotland, and I will join him next week and continue retreat ministry and spiritual direction ministry, which of course had shifted online anyway. So, it doesn’t matter if I’m in West Michigan or the U.K., it’s just a time change that makes a difference. And we’ll continue, Lord willing, writing more books. And so, I’m looking forward to this new chapter the Lord has opened, and really, I’m disbelieving for joy at this point, I think is, is where we both are with this.
Karen Pascal: Isn’t that lovely? Well, I’m a great fan of Scotland. I just will be delighted to hear from you in that place. And I have friends that I obviously want to introduce you to who are part of that part of the world, but I want to hear about two other books and I haven’t yet read them, but I’d just love a little, tiny description from you about Feathers of Hope, and then about another book.
Let’s talk about Feathers of Hope. What is that about and who is that for?
Sharon Garlough Brown: Well, Feathers of Hope – I have two series of books and I really thank you Karen, for being so generous and kind about the Sensible Shoes series, which is my first series. And then the second series, which is Shades of Light and then a Lenten novella, Remember Me, and then Feathers of Hope, which is third in the series, addresses the same fundamental issues about the love of God, but from a different angle. Shades of Light confronts the affliction of mental illness and explores that in depth with one of the main characters, who is a Christian and suffers from major depressive disorder and generalized anxiety, and has also suffered under the weight of stigma of well-meaning Christians who have said things to her, like “if you just trusted Jesus,” “if you just prayed harder,” “if you just memorized more scripture, you should be well.”
And so, I wrote the Shades of Light series to try to compassionately name the particular woundedness of chronic affliction. None of the characters in Sensible Shoes are dealing with disability or chronic illness. They’re all experiencing transformation and freedom in varying ways, but what does it mean to take a compassionate look, especially at those who suffer with mental health issues? And so, the Shades of Light series really focuses on the suffering Christ, the man of sorrows, who is acquainted with our grief. The God who, if he does not remove the cup of suffering from us, keeps us company while we drink. And so, each of the books is an invitation to meditate on the depth of the love of God expressed through the suffering of Christ. So, there’s Shades of Light, the Lenten novella, which includes full-color art by my fictional character. I found an artist who was willing to paint as a fictional character.
And so, it’s a stations-of-the-cross experience at the back of the book, with scripture and meditation and art to pray with. And then this final – well, the latest, anyway, it’s just released – Feathers of Hope is an ongoing exploration of the scenes. And one of the main characters in the Shades of Light series is the retreat director from Sensible Shoes, Katherine Rhodes. So, you’ll get to know her very well. In the Sensible Shoes series, you don’t get her inner life, you just receive her wisdom. But in the Shades of Light series, you get to see how she has been profoundly shaped by traumatic loss and suffering, and how she has been enlarged with compassion and wisdom for others as she’s alongside. And so, it’s a very intimate look as she rolls up her sleeves and reveals her wounds. And I’m hoping that this latest book, even if people haven’t read the previous two, that you’ll be able to enter in, and Feathers of Hope is a book about seasons of upheaval and loss and change.
It takes place in 2018, but my son and I worked on it together in 2020. So, it very much embraces some of the upheaval that we began experiencing in 2020 and continue to experience in many ways. So, how is God with us in seasons of change, when we are molting? That’s kind of the central image of the book: a cardinal who appears bald and perhaps looks sickly – on the verge of death. But in fact, he’s just lost his feathers and is in that perhaps unattractive season of waiting for the new feathers to emerge. And what does it mean to invite God into those places, those prickly places of disequilibrium and loss in our lives?
And it’s a resiliently hopeful book, not with – I don’t write “tidy;” thank you for naming that, Karen, because life isn’t tidy, but I do point unflinchingly to the God who was with us in the midst of all of the upheaval, change, mess – hovering over chaos and bringing forth life.
Karen Pascal: I think it’s what I have loved most. What’s given me a sense of sheer enthusiasm about your writing is you don’t write tidy. People don’t all have to have perfect answers. And it just, to me, reflects so much more honestly how we grow and who we are and how we bring our pasts with us. And sometimes letting go of those pasts takes an awful lot of trust. You know, you don’t get there fast, but you get there eventually, if you keep pressing in. You get to that place where, you know, God is saying, “You don’t have to bring that with you, I’ve dealt with that. I’ve dealt with that.”
I really look forward to reading these two books, and I know I’m going to be knocking on your door and saying, “Can we do this again?” Because I love the way you write. And I love the way you unwrap reality and keep it very real. You know, it’s one thing to talk the faith talk, and I see these books just are laced with rich, spiritual wisdom. But for me, they hit such a deep place because they’re not afraid to be so – you’re not afraid to be so honest. So honest with what people bring. We bring all our baggage, we bring who we are and, you know, finding the way to be free from that baggage, finding the way to go on, finding the way to somehow hear in it, God’s great love for us. That’s really something.
I don’t know where you get all the energy, you know, to be a pastor, to write books, to be a retreat leader. How do you put this all together in your life? How do you do it? Are you a compulsive writer? Are you somebody that wakes in the middle of the night and writes? What’s your style?
Sharon Garlough Brown: Yeah. You know, the only way I can say is I am a responsive writer. So, I listen deeply and prayerfully for the movement of the Spirit, for the characters to be revealed. I don’t create characters – I discover them. I have a sense of God just kind of inspiring and me getting to know them. And I don’t write, you know, there are many writers who are very disciplined about writing every day. I don’t have that discipline. I journal – some – nearly every day, but in terms of the creative writing, I have seasons. And so, when I’m pregnant with a book, when I’m writing a book, then typically it is kind of a six-day-a-week. And I try … It’s hard to let those characters go on a Sabbath break, because it’s such joy for me. But I am currently just in a season of waiting, of listening, of kind of lying fallow and letting the Lord replenish and restore and plant seeds, but I’m not done with these characters. They continue to talk and they wait their turns for the writing process to start again. So, it’s an adventure, and there is such joy in it for me, because it’s a process of prayer and a process of listening and a process of discovery. And that’s the joy for me in this.
Karen Pascal: You’ve got a sweet intimacy with God in this, I can hear it. We can hear it. We will listen attentively. It’s interesting, because I hear you being willing to be plowed under for a time, and that’s the only way you get a new crop. You know, there’s a great intimacy to being plowed under, but if you’ve been productive and you’re an artist, sometimes you need to be plowed under for the new crop to come. So, in this season …
Sharon Garlough Brown: What a good word.
Karen Pascal: … may you be well fertilized with lots of love and lots of kindness and challenges, whatever season, whatever the fertilizer may be. Sometimes it might not be our choosing, but nevertheless. And I wish you well in Dundee, Scotland. Aren’t they lucky? But you know, we’re lucky, too, because now that things are online, if you’ve enjoyed this and you would like to maybe get involved in a retreat that’s led by Sharon, certainly I am going to encourage you to get the books. They’re good. They’re worth reading. Yes. Get them and savor them. You’ll be delighted, that I can say.
Thank you so much, Sharon, for your time.
Sharon Garlough Brown: Oh, you are so delightful. Karen. Thank you for the time. And you asked such wonderful questions. You’re just so generous in your kind words. Thank you.
Karen Pascal: Well, it comes from a very genuine place. I have been fed, so it’s easy to give back and say, “Well done. Well done.” Thank you for being with us today, Sharon. I appreciate you.
Sharon Garlough Brown: God bless you. Be well. Bye-bye.
Karen Pascal: Bye-bye.
Thank you for listening to today’s podcast. What an honor for me to spend time with one of my new favorite authors, Sharon Garlough Brown. For more resources related to this program, click on the links on the podcast page of our website. You’ll find links to anything mentioned today, as well as book suggestions.
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Thanks for listening. Until next time.
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