Gregory Funderburk is a pastoral care minister, lawyer, and writer. He’s the author of The Mourning Wave, a novel about the GalvestonStorm of 1900, which was named one of the Best Books of 2020 by Kirkus Reviews. He lives in Houston with his wife, Kelly. They have two sons, Hank and Charlie.
What motivated/inspired you to write Let It Be Said We’ve Borne It Well at the beginning of the pandemic?
When everything shut down in mid-March 2020, our church staff felt compelled to find ways to remain connected to the congregation. Online worship and Zoom meetings followed, but we also thought a weekly more pastoral ‘touch’ might deliver something crucial given the uncertainty and anxiety we were all experiencing. I started writing these essays on social media each Monday morning using the prompt, “Need a Word of Encouragement?” This guided me toward finding a voice that was hopeful and proximate to what was happening each week. Upon assembling them into a collection, they maintained an organic feel reflecting the trials we’ve been through together and it’s my hope they’ll remain responsive to other challenges ahead, as well.
In your book, you use personal and cultural anecdotes to better relate and connect with your audience. Why do you think anecdotes do this and how can they teach us about our faith, especially during such an unprecedented time?
There are scientific studies in which researchers hook people up to functional MRI systems and measure our brain activity as a story begins. The needles start to jump as dormant parts of the brain light up. We begin to envision images and emotionally connect to reference points from our own experience. When we’re listening to a speech, a sermon, or enter into conversation over the dinner table or at a party, we intuitively lean in when a story kicks off in search for helpful information. Good stories cut through the whirlwind. Jesus modeled that for us. He’d tell a story then ask a question. When I practiced law, the best attorneys would lead the jury right up to the precipice of a conclusion, then let them take that last step on their own so it would be theirs to own. Stories let us do that.
Can you talk a little about the structure of your book? Which came first, the stories or the structure?
The stories came first. The structure came together later when I began to see some themes emerge. As I continued to write, I started asking a question that springs from Stoic philosophy: What ought I be doing and thinking about now, such that in a few months or even a few years, I’ll be able to say, I handled this difficult season well, seeking and following God as best I could. A lot of it flowed from that perspective—the perspective of rising above the urgencies and myopia of ‘now’, spotting the grace in our lives, naming it, then from that higher elevation, consider what responsibilities then flow from the blessings evident from that perspective.
How did you come to choose the divisions of “self-awareness,” “self-care,” and “self-giving?” What do they offer the everyday person?
That philosophic question from Stoicism I mentioned requires some introspection—it encourages you to ask just where you are spiritually and psychologically, and to then identify what resources are needed to answer that big question– how do I want to look back on this time of trial. It kind of all cascaded from that thought exercise. The section entitled Self-Awareness asks where am I—am I aware of the terrain I’m crossing and what’s my mindset. The section called Self-Care provides some advice on what will be required to traverse it, and the section on Self-Giving suggests that figuring out how to give of one’s self in the crossing is ultimately what allows you to look back and say I did the best I could. I think these three notions identify a lot what you need to flourish in the context of the Christian life.
What part of the writing process surprised you? How is this different than your previous writings?
My favorite authors seem to produce beauty and emotional resonance effortlessly, but then I hear a great writer like Ann Lamott say good writing is mostly about keeping your seat in the chair. She seems to be saying it’s mainly a matter of persistence; that any alchemy that may arise primarily stems from holding what you want to say in your head and patiently working it out on the page, rewriting and editing and working toward clarity. I guess that shouldn’t be surprising, but when you see that it’s reliably true, it delivers a real pleasure.
The difference between writing these essays and crafting a novel is that to establish setting, develop a theme, and enrich and develop a cast of characters requires a lot of layering and fitting the puzzle pieces together. With most of the essays, I imposed on myself a word limit of 800 words. As such, it was not about layering and reinforcing, but more about uncovering what I was trying to get across and paring the rest away. I’d keep asking—what is it you’re really trying to say and are you delivering imaginative evidence of your point to the reader with economy.
What is the central lesson you can offer to people of faith trying to survive the grief of this pandemic and also, to move forward?
I’m not really into video games, but I’m struck with one of the features that’s pretty common in many of them. One’s avatar might have a ground level perspective, but with a deft flick of a button, one can rise above to get a bird’s eye view of the terrain and the forces arrayed against your character. Even if we can’t do this physically, God’s given us remarkable minds to do this in our heads. With just a reframing in our thinking, we can consider where we are, not with the perspective of the darkness of any present moment, but pull back with a wider lens. We can rather miraculously shift our thinking backward to a moment of joy from which we extract strength, or forward in time to a future in which we can plausibly believe that we’ve overcome our current challenges. We shouldn’t leave this remarkable gift of a highly agile mind and the ability we have to train it in conjunction with our faith to find hope no matter what our present circumstance.