With each compelling story in Water in the Wastelands, a new thread joins with others to form a solid, resilient cord of truth: through shared suffering, God’s children partake of a sacrament that binds people of faith together, parses out hope where there seemingly is none and offers strength in the midst of life’s most difficult moments.
“We have been empowered,” writes author William Blaine-Wallace, “by the tie that binds–our mutual woes–to liberate others and ourselves from the lowest regions of our lived experience.”
Indeed, his work is a call to liberation, speaking into the storms of bondage.
Blaine-Wallace wrote the book while on sabbatical from Emmanuel Church in Boston, taking leave for reflection and renewal. It is the culmination of decades of pastoral work and learning. His short, insightful chapters, interplays between scripture and experience, provide glimpses into his life’s work as counselor to the dying and bereaved, AIDS hospice worker and pastor to a diverse community.
Counselors, pastors, chaplains and other workers with the dying and bereaved will find a rich resource in Blaine-Wallace’s work. It provides much nourishment for preaching and pastoral work, touching on such topics as boundaries, evangelism, prayer, the place of holy anger and imaginative play in times of transition. The dignity of each human being and the primacy of community ring louder and louder with each story.
And he does tell stories. Some may have difficulty identifying with even the tamest of Blaine-Wallace’s stories. Even readers engaged in ministries outside the mainstream may struggle to understand Blaine-Wallace’s lessons against the backdrop of gay weddings, requests for assisted suicide, AIDS-related deaths and addiction. They explore places that few churchgoers wish to talk about, much less visit. Such is Blaine-Wallace’s purpose. He challenges the reader to ask over and over, “What is one to do with these stories?”
Readers must allow each story to speak for itself and suspend judgment on the “wasteland” long enough to taste the cool, if not bitter, “water” that may be found with each vignette.
Blaine-Wallace admits that he makes his home among such morbid work (“Only Bill appreciates this gloom and doom” a friend remarked), but he chides society’s tendency to deny life’s pain and suffering. He rightly claims “too much avoidance of the sediment of sadness underneath a surface engagement with existence doesn’t serve anybody well for long.”
Such stories serve as a reminder that Christ walked among those whom society rejected as valueless, giving them what they truly needed. Blaine-Wallace’s stories also speak a clear word about loving and caring for Christ by loving and caring for the afflicted and lost.
Those who take time to meditate on this short read will find it well worth their while. It offers those who would minister to the dying and bereaved the courage to look for signs of life and hope against the bleakest of life’s landscapes. Such suffering, according to Blaine-Wallace, is meant to be shared, and in the sharing can be found strength and liberation.
Brent McDougal is pastor of Corinth Heights Baptist Church in Haleyville, Ala., and author of River of the Soul: A Spirituality Guide for Christian Youth.
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Brent McDougal is senior pastor of First Baptist Church in Knoxville, Tennessee.