“Living for Shalom” launched remotely!

You can purchase the book at https://wipfandstock.com/9781666715385/living-for-shalom/

We had two attempts to launch “Living for Shalom: the Story of Ross Langmead”: one by Zoom and one in-person event. Both were cancelled in these uncertain times, and the event probably won’t be recovered. Although book launches are a good way to sell books, the greater loss was the gathering of friends and family to celebrate the subject of the biography: my brother, Ross.

The book was to be launched by the Rev Dr Jason Goroncy, Senior Lecturer in Systematic Theology at Whitley College, University of Divinity. Jason was a colleague and friend of Ross, an author in his own right and a member of Westgate Baptist Community. His speech was not given, but he has shared it for us on his blog. You can read it here: https://jasongoroncy.com/2022/01/14/on-living-for-shalom-the-story-of-ross-langmead/

I had also drafted my speech before we cancelled, and have been asked to share it:

The author’s speech for the launch of “Living for Shalom”

We thought this day would not happen! (And it didn’t…) A book launch is rather like a christening, or dedication of a baby. This baby was born in September, 2021, but a launch is finally the day when we give thanks and celebrate together.

For a sister to embark on writing the story of her brother is always going to be a delicate exercise. I used to say, ‘Someone should write Ross’s story.’ It was my encouraging husband who said, ‘Why don’t you do it?’ I listed all the reasons why I would not be the best person, starting with, ‘It needs to be someone who knew him better as an adult, as well as when he was a child,’ and finishing with, ‘It would need other people’s perspectives’.

The thought, however, rolled around in my mind and incubated. I had finished writing my first published book and with my newly honed research skills, wondered what to write next. I knew it would be a commitment, and that not many people are in a position to give several years to a project. Apart from our family origin, I also shared many aspects of life with Ross – my faith, being an educator and studying theology. On what would have been Ross’s seventieth birthday, I wrote to Ross’s wife, Alison, and made a tentative offer. And here we are! It was two years from that offer to publication, and the book took seven intensive months of writing.

Choosing one’s stance in non-fiction writing is the first challenge, and as I began the early chapters, it would have been more natural to say ‘we’ about the family memories. But the discipline of writing in the third person was valuable and I found myself adjusting my point of view and objective distance as I read, researched and then wrote about the remarkable person who happened to be the next sibling after me in a large, unusual and multi-talented family.

We siblings used to joke wryly that we were often known as someone related to Ross: ‘Oh, you are Ross Langmead’s sister?’ was said to me once on a beach in Bali! With some satisfaction, I can now say, ‘I wrote a book about Ross, my brother.’

Ross’s own words, in prose, poetry and song, became an integral part of this narrative. I enjoyed discovering why his songs were written and the journey he undertook in composing them. The songs were rarely written quickly, although I do remember him writing the round ‘God is Love’ for an event and asking us to try it out while doing the dishes that night.

Ross was incredibly gifted, in fact, a polymath (a lovely word used by Tim Costello in his response to the manuscript), and apart from being good at maths, was able to think philosophically, to compose music, and to explain complexities very clearly. He could also write very well. I was particularly struck by his thirst for knowledge, which he had to balance out with the constraints of finite time in one life span.

…the double-edged feeling of smallness, incompleteness, wanting so many things to come true that are unlikely, wishing I could read the history of the world and understand it so well that I could explain to everyone what we should have learnt by now… wishing I knew enough about cliffs and geology and evolution to be able to discuss intelligently with physicists and creationists whether the earth has been here 6000 years or billions of years, wishing I could learn to sail on those waves and get out where you can’t see land…

I say ‘double-edged’ because it is both positive and negative. Positive because it is my recognition of finitude, common when I commune with nature alone. Positive because I came through to accepting that I will probably never know much about the growth of Communism in China or what life was like in medieval Europe, and that relatively speaking, I have probably had more than my fair share of study, and what I get from now on will necessarily be on the run, wedged between a people-filled life, rather than a book-based life. Positive because I found out that I really do believe in life hereafter; I really do expect to find these things out one day…I just know that the sense of completion I find in Christ is yet to occur, and it is a matter of faith that I expect it somehow. (Journal entry by Ross)

I won’t continue with the negatives!

The particular challenge of writing about a real life is that most of it is ordinary. Ross’s meticulously kept diaries and notebooks note every appointment and meeting, from dentists to dean’s meetings – yet they would not make a gripping nor readable story on their own. Finding the themes and seasons in the life of a theologian was my task as a biographer. In doing that, the focus moves in each chapter, yet needs to include the ordinariness and ongoing nature of life to be authentic. In writing fiction, it is an author’s task to create climaxes, drama and resolution; in biography, however, we search for the ebb and flow in what has already transpired and can’t be changed. I accept that whoever else wrote such a book as this would make a different and unique set of decisions and choices.

Those of us who knew Ross will all agree that he was one of the most purposeful people we know, and I found myself caught up in the trajectory of his academic career, writing, ministry directions, involvement with family and friends. The forward movement was not so obvious in real time to those of us who knew him in life, and I dare say, to Ross himself. Seeing it unfold as I read hundreds of thousands of words was a revelatory and privileged process.

Just about everyone who contributed, however, agreed that his music is his lasting legacy, and so it became a thread through the whole book. It is why we listened again today to Alison’s chosen favourites and will sing together before we finish. (If the launch had happened…) It was, indeed, his soul language.

Alison and I agreed in our early discussions that Ross would not want to be written about just for the sake of recounting his life, although that is a good thing in itself. In fact, he would be embarrassed. We wanted this book to be an inspiration to those who read it – whether those readers are young or old, friends or strangers, academics or those who don’t read much, people of whatever faith or none. I think that is happening and hope it will continue to do so. I think Ross would like that.

I need to acknowledge the many contributions that came from the family and Ross’s friends and colleagues. There were so many wonderful insights and stories that I couldn’t possibly use them all directly; everything, however, became part of the elaborate patchwork quilt that I was putting together. So thank you. I know there are some who wished they had contributed or felt they could not capture their memories in words, and that was fine. Too many more would have probably tipped me over the edge! There were many times when I felt close to that. The word-by-word negotiations with Alison, along with the forensic editing process with Jason, helped me to keep perspective and to sift through to find the essence of the man we celebrate today. And that was before the publisher’s editing process began! And in the process, my relationship with my special sister-in-law has deepened as we have shared.

Because today is just that: we are celebrating not only the publication of a book, which is a high moment for any author, but the subject of the book himself, as we gather in gratitude. We thank God for Ross’s life and influence, and I hope that those of us who read his story will also be grateful for what we can learn from him and be re-energised in our love for God and others.

While I was writing, I often played recordings of Ross’s and Daddy’s Friends’ music. Some of the songs became ear worms, but in a good way, and I would find myself humming them through the day. I listened more carefully to the words and as they became part of the narrative, they took on new meaning for me. I hope you too will rediscover the music – you may want to buy a digital collection put together by my dear husband, as one part of his huge support in this project.

I cannot thank you enough for gathering here today, (if we had indeed met) and I hope you are renewing old friendships and meeting new people. Community was one of Ross’s high values, and it took exactly that to bring this book to fruition.

Let me, with difficulty, choose one of Ross’s songs as a conclusion. This catches up many of his themes, and became the title of his 1987 cassette, ‘On the Road’:

On the road, on the road, oh we’re together on the way

We’re finding love, finding love, show us how to walk, we pray,

Because in you we see this love, and we long to live it too,

You can lead us, lead us forward.

Oh, growing in love, oh helping each other to grow,

Oh, learning to share, learning to give,

Growing in care, growing in God, growing in love.

Stepping out, stepping out, though it’s a risky thing to do,

When others fail, we’ll forgive, and remember we fail too.

And when we’re down, we’ll forgive, we’ll turn to you, and we’ll bear each other’s load,

You forgive us, make us stronger.

Jeanette Woods

January 2022

Written for the launch that did not eventuate.

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