Friday, November 16, 2018

Port William novel series by Wendell Berry

I love a book with a map and family tree, don’t you? Anyone who knows me knows I am severely directionally dyslexic and maps do me no good in finding my way (GPS changed my life -- I need words telling me left, right, and straight), but I love maps like the one in this book, Nathan Coulter, the first (I think) book in the Port William novels by Wendell Berry. I have a set of hardcover versions of The Lord of the Rings series, and it has maps like this. They’re a treasure.

I read Nathan Coulter last night. My night was one of those (many) nights where I wake up in the wee hours of the morning feeling quite awake. The novel is short, so I finished the whole thing. I started on another in the series, Remembering. I had ordered two to see if I like them. Now I’ve ordered them all. So much for not gaining more books and spending less on them. I did buy several used, so that kind of counts.

According to the internet, the order of the series is:

Publication Order of Port William Books

Nathan Coulter (1960)
The Wild Birds (1986)
Remembering (1988)
A World Lost (1996)
Two More Stories of the Port William Membership (1997)
Jayber Crow (2000)
That Distant Land (2002)
Hannah Coulter (2004)
Andy Catlett (2006)
A Place in Time (2012)

Publication Order of Port William Membership Books

A Place on Earth (1967)
The Memory of Old Jack (1974)

I don’t know what the deal is with “Port William Books” vs. “Port William Membership Books.” I’ll have to see if Google can tell me.

Nathan Coulter is written in first person, with the person being Nathan Coulter. It starts with him as a young boy, living with his brother, father, and mother on a farm near Port William. On the map you can see the “Coulter Home Place” below the “Coulter Branch” of “The River.” I like the way the “branches” of the river are called that, and named after the family or home it branches off to. It reminds me of the road in Lynden, WA, that bears my maiden name, Kok Road. I was told a woman with the last name of Kok lived at the end of it.

Nathan’s grandfather and grandmother live nearby and are important characters in the book, as well as his Uncle Burley, whose “camp house” is labeled near the top of the map showing the house going through several owners. They own, live, and work on their tobacco farms. Wendell Berry is a tobacco farmer in Kentucky (as well as a novel writer, essayist, poet, and activist for agriculture). As I read the descriptions of the setting, I often imagined it looking like Tennessee, where we visited a few months ago. When Berry described the still air and the heat, I could feel it.

Berry’s writing is phenomenal. Simple but amazing. Spare but rich. I often start books thinking, I am going to read every single word, no skimming, even descriptions, and I start that way but find myself skimming, especially descriptions, in my eagerness to keep reading the story. Remembering, which I have not yet finished, is full of descriptions and inner thoughts that I did not skip and had no desire to. I started underlining beautiful sentences and dog-earing pages but I had to stop because I’d ruin the book. I have to write about a few of them.

Andy Catlett, the main character of Remembering (at least so far) is walking down a hotel hallway in the middle of the night,
going silently past the shut doors of rooms where people are sleeping or absent, who would know which? There is an almost palpable unwaking around him as he goes past the blank doors, intent upon his own silence, as though, his presence known to nobody, he is not there himself.
“an almost palpable unwaking” -- doesn’t that just glow on the page like a gem? Can’t you just imagine it? Doesn’t the whole sentence embody truly being alone? Blows me away.

And in another scene, Andy is walking from the hotel, in San Francisco (where he’s staying for a conference), and comes to a pier.
There, with the whole continent at his back, nothing between him and Asia but water, he stands again, leaning on the parapet, looking westward into the wind.
I pictured the way it feels when I’m standing on the pier in Capitola, when no one else is around. It strikes me with awe every time it happens, and wonder that I can be in this busy, big city and yet all alone on the edge of land that way. I never could have come up with the words to describe it so well as Berry does. “...with the whole continent at his back.” I suppose I could say, nothing between me and Moss Landing but water. Or me and Monterey. Not quite the same ring. If I zoom out far enough in Google Maps, I see I could say, nothing between me and Antartica. That’s a little better.

Berry’s description of Andy walking through San Francisco before dawn, out to the pier, is stunning. I want to say it’s “scrummy,” like Mary Berry on “The Great British Baking Show.”

Later, Andy does some remembering. He imagines scenes of his forefathers and their neighbors. In one part, he imagines two men who will be neighbors meeting for the first time. One says,
“I’ve got two grandboys. Wheeler’s. They’ll be over to bother you, I expect, now that the weather’s changing. You won’t offend me if you make ‘em mind.”
“They’ll be over to bother you…” “You won’t offend me if you make ‘em mind.”

I’ll stop now. I highly recommend these books!

Friday, October 26, 2018

Soul Survivor: How Thirteen Unlikely Mentors Helped My Faith Survive the Church by Philip Yancey

I am still reading this book but wanted to write about one particular passage right now. I might come back to write more when I finish the book.

On page 106 of my version, Yancey writes about "an impromptu sermon Martin Luther King, Jr., gave one day." He was responding to the tiredness of the students and volunteers in the movement. "King sensed the students' temptation to become bitter, and then to turn on opponents in the same spirit of hostility they had been receiving--to become the enemy, in other words." He said:
A big danger for us is the temptation to follow the people we are opposing. They call us names, so we call them names. Our names may not be "redneck" or "cracker"; they may be names that have a sociological or psychological veneer to them, a gloss; but they are names, nonetheless--"ignorant," or "brainwashed," or "duped" or "hysterical" or "poor-white" or "consumed by hate." I know you will all give me plenty of evidence in support of those categories, and I remind you that in many people, in many people called segregationists, there are other things going on in their lives; this person or that person, standing here or there may also be other things--kind to neighbors and family, helpful and good spirited at work.
You all know, I think, what I'm trying to say--that we must try not to end up with stereotypes  of those we oppose, even as they slip all of us into their stereotypes. And who are we? Let us not do to ourselves as others (as our opponents) do to us: try to put ourselves into one all-inclusive category--the virtuous ones as against the evil ones, or the decent ones as against the malicious, prejudiced ones, or the well-educated as against the ignorant. You can see that I can go on and on--and there is the danger: the "us" or "them" mentality takes hold, and we do, actually, begin to run the risk of joining ranks with the very people we are opposing. I worry about this a lot these days.
(From The Call of Service

Yes, I, too, worry about this a lot these days.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Terrapin...And Other Poems by Wendell Berry

I have a couple other books I want to write about, but right now I am on a vacation in Tennessee and bought a beautiful little book of poems by Wendell Berry, Terrapin...And Other Poems. I got it at an independent bookstore we discovered in a pamphlet about a nearby town. My husband knows how much I love bookstores -- and he likes them, too -- so we went to that town, Franklin, TN.

I love the illustrations in this book. The illustrator is Tom Pohrt. The pictures are realistic but somehow dreamlike, and they literally depict whatever the poem on the preceding or next page is about. You could look at it and think it was a children's book, and I suppose it could be. It's a book of beautiful poems with lovely pictures that illustrate them.

I recently read some words by Nicole Gulotta, who wrote another book I want to tell you about here, Eat This Poem. She said, "food and poetry are calls to linger, appreciate small details, and meditate on the richness of our days." Today, as I picked up this book of poems I thought of that and how good it was that being on vacation offered me the freedom to stop and linger. I took the book outside on my sister-in-law's porch, sat in the porch swing, and read the poems aloud to myself. Several of them made me laugh out loud. All of them were touching. They gladdened my heart, as the Psalmist might say.

Here is one that made me laugh. Take a couple moments to linger and notice the small details.
A Squirrel 
Here's a fellow who leaves his hole
On Sunday to loaf and invite his soul.
He looks into a hollow beech tree
To see what he can or can't see.
The day is bright. He's in no haste,
Although there was one time at least
He should have hurried more than he did.
He should have run to his hole and hid;
Some hairs were missing from his tail
Where a hawk just barely missed a meal.
This squirrel just barely kept ahead
Of what he'd be if he was dead.
He's the proven perfect master
Of his last meeting with disaster,
And now he has that bare pretext
Not to worry about the next.

I especially love the lines
This squirrel just barely kept ahead
Of what he'd be if he was dead.
He's the proven perfect master
Of his last meeting with disaster
I was smiling before these lines, and laughed when I got to them. That word "dead" was so unexpected: "of what he'd be if he was..........dead." I suppose you could get all deep and say how that's true of all of us, just barely ahead of what we'd be if we were dead, but it still just makes me laugh. And master of disaster. That reminded me of when once my dad came in from outside soaking wet, and as he took off his raincoat and hat I said, "Oh, it's raining outside." "Master of the obvious," he said to me. 

There are many other beautiful poems and illustrations. I highly recommend this book.

Friday, June 29, 2018

Inspired by Rachel Held Evans

In Inspired, Rachel Held Evans talks about the Bible containing “some of the most powerful stories ever told.” This book is all about the story!! Evans takes story after story from the Bible, tells them, reflects on them, discusses the questions they raise, and delights in them. It’s like the subtitle says, “Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again.”

My dad read stories from various children’s Bible storybooks to us after dinner each night for years. One version of the book had 3 simple questions after each story. I remember being embarrassed that so often I did not know the answers. I frequently tuned out during the reading, but somehow that was not constant. Those Bible stories are familiar to me, and the older I get, the more I delight in them. (It’s also handy when watching Jeopardy. Contestants’ shoulders seem to sag when they see the category of Bible stories, but in my family we’re happy to see it – finally a column where we’ll know the answers!)

The chapter titles show the focus on stories:
  1. Origin Stories
  2. Deliverance Stories
  3. War Stories
  4. Wisdom Stories
  5. Resistance Stories
  6. Gospel Stories
  7. Fish Stories
  8. Church Stories

Isn’t it funny that one is “Fish Stories”? The rest sound quite lofty – Origin, Deliverance, Wisdom --, but then, “Fish Stories.”

Evans wrote that she wanted to find a religion where she didn’t have to check in her brain at the door. I could relate to that. I feel that tension she writes about when reflecting on the Biblical stories of killings, massacres, human sacrifice, and genocide.

It was as though I lived suspended in the tension of two apparently competing convictions: that every human being is of infinite worth and value, and that the Bible is the infallible Word of God. (p.65*)

I feel that way often. As Evans says, you often hear Christians saying that’s just how it is, you have to have faith and accept it, times were different back then, and so on. She quotes Eugene Peterson:

“We don’t become more spiritual by becoming less human,” Eugene Peterson said. How could I love God with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength while disengaging those very facilities every time I read the Bible? (p. 69*)

She ends with, “So I brought my whole self into the wilderness with God—no faking, no halfway. And there we wrestled.” I appreciated this view of asking questions about Scripture. It’s not me being a bleeding heart, namby-pamby person not liking the rawness of what I read. It’s me bringing my whole self into the act of studying Scripture.

Evans does wrestle. And no one “wins.” She writes about living with the questions, living with not knowing exactly what everything means, living with the very tension she talked about. One way she describes this relationship with Scripture is by talking about the Jewish tradition of Midrash.

Midrash, which initially struck me as something of a cross between biblical commentary and fan fiction, introduced me to a whole new posture toward Scripture, a sort of delighted reverence for the text unencumbered by the expectation that it must behave itself to be true. For Jewish readers, the tensions and questions produced by Scripture aren’t obstacles to be avoided, but rather opportunities for engagement, invitations to join in the Great Conversation between God and God’s people that has been going on for centuries and to which everyone is invited. (p. 23*)

I love that. “Great Conversation.” That’s worship, right? Worship is a dialog between God and his people. Approaching the Bible as a conversation between me and God fits right into the definition of worship.

Before discussing midrash, Evans tells the story of how, when she and her sister were little, her father brought home a flannelgraph board with sandpaper-backed paper cutouts of biblical characters. (Remember flannelgraph?) She and her sister played for hours with those characters, re-enacting Bible stories and also imagining more.

We invented conversations between Abraham and Isaac as they descended Mount Moriah. We embellished the details of Ruth’s courtship with Boaz. We imagined what happened to Zacchaeus after the “wee little man” from our Sunday School song climbed out of his sycamore to follow Jesus.

That use of their imagination reminded me of the Jesuit practice of contemplative meditation. That’s what you do in that practice – imagine yourself in the Bible story. And Evans saw how it resonated with the age-old Jewish tradition of midrash.

Evans talked, too, of the Bible not being clear, although, often enough, you certainly hear that it is. (We’ve heard how it’s clear on the issue of women in church, homosexuality, slavery, and on and on.) Evans wrote, “The truth is, you can bend Scripture to say just about anything you want it to say. You can bend it until it breaks,” and goes on to give examples of how we can find verses to support anything, including directly opposing views. Then:

“This is why there are times when the most instructive question to bring to the text is not, What does this say? but, What am I looking for?

If you want to do violence in this world, you will always find the weapons. If you want to heal, you will always find the balm. With Scripture, we’ve been entrusted with some of the most powerful stories ever told. How we harness that power, whether for good or evil, oppression or liberation, changes everything. (pp 56-57)

(Side note: I’ve fallen in love with the word “balm.” I think I’ll make that my “word for the year” – now that the year’s half over. Maybe one of my words for my life. God is a balm for healing. Jesus is a balm for healing. The Bible is a balm for healing. May I be a balm for healing.)

Evans intersperses her writing about the Bible with personal writings – poetry, stories, even plays – inspired by Scripture. You can see her delight in the Scripture through these chapters. One of my favorites was the screenplay about Job, and his friends “Eli, Bill, and Father Z” (Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite). Eli gives Job a sympathy card and says.

Eli: We got this for you, man. It’s not much, I know, but under the circumstances, we just…we wanted to do something.

Job wakes from his stupor, takes the card, and opens it.

Job (reading the card, deadpan): Remember, God will never give you more than you can handle.

He puts the card on the table and falls back into a daze. Eli seems satisfied, but Bill makes a face.

Eli (to Bill): What? What’s wrong with the card?

Bill: It’s a tad cliché, don’t you think? “God will never give you more than you can handle”? What’s that even mean?

Eli: It’s just a card, Bill. It’s not a theological statement.

Bill: Everything’s a theological statement. You of all people should know that.

And it goes on.

I could write a lot more about Inspired. It’s a delightful book. Full of serious insights, humor, and love for the Bible.

* All quotes from the paperback version, copyright 2018, published by Thomas Nelson.

Friday, June 15, 2018

The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time by Judith Shulevitz

I heard of this book quite a while back and had it on my list of books I want to read. We hear lots of talk about the way technology becomes addicting, and our need to take breaks from it. I heard Judith Shulevitz speak at some point and it sounded as if this book would be about how she did that -- created a "sabbath" from technology. It did speak to that, but it was actually much more about the Sabbath, its history and the understanding of it.

I came away feeling there is good reason for humanity to have Sabbath, far beyond it being a break from technology. It was also interesting to learn about how the Sabbath has been perceived, practiced, and formed over the years, and in different groups of people.

Sometimes we hear people extolling the Sabbath as a break, a time to renew and refresh in preparation for the week ahead. It has that element, but I've read, and this book talks about, too, the way the Sabbath is not just about giving us a break. I heard or read someone who talked about the Sabbath being for God, not us, and of course Jesus himself said, "The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath." (Mark 2:27) There's a lot to that remark.
If I were forced to single out one thing that is truly exceptional about the Sabbath, it would have to be its efficacy. The Sabbath does something, and what it does is remarkable. People who study the ways in which cultures evolve might say that the Sabbath gives societies a competitive advantage. It promotes social solidarity.
If a strong and powerfully interconnected communal life was high on your priority list, you’d quickly realize that you had stumbled on a very good way to achieve it, because the Sabbath can easily be reconfigured as a four-step program for forging community spirit.
The four steps Shulevitz outlines are: (1) laws to limit work time, making room for other time such as rest time, family time, etc.; (2) designate one particular day as everyone's day off so everyone would be able to be together for the other kinds of time; (3) have that day off once a week, not just once in a while, so it becomes a habit; and (4) make the day festive, a treat people look forward to rather than a burden.

This is an intriguing theory. I had not thought before of how important it could be to have a Sabbath in order to allow for other times.  Shulevitz expands on this, explaining how we generally feel that "time is money" and that we have to look for the most efficient way of using our time. Having an agreed-upon Sabbath day makes that time as valuable as the other, what might be considered more efficient ways to use our time.

I had not thought, either, of the importance of the Sabbath for social cohesion. The Supreme Court, in 1961, ruled that blue laws were not against the First Amendment because the "Protestant Sunday had evolved into a secular day of recuperation, a public good that promoted the health of the American people and the orderliness of its society."

As you probably do, I wanted to know how to apply the Sabbath personally. The history, the reasoning, the evolution -- those are all interesting, but what does it mean I should do? Shulevitz writes about that at length. She talks about two options for bringing back the Sabbath: "We could bring it back individually or we could bring it back collectively."

The individual approach is appealing because "it is voluntary. There is no talk of legislating morality." Shulevitz does not propose bringing back the blue laws. "The emphasis on commerce seems misplaced anyway. The Fourth Commandment doesn't explicitly forbid us to shop. It tells us not to work, and not to force others to work."

Shulevitz talks about how the American work force has changed in ways that make Sabbath more difficult. There are few rest breaks, vacations are determined by the corporations, and even the need for dual incomes -- women in the workforce -- has an effect on our schedules, making our non-work times the only time for the many responsibilities of caring for ourselves and our families. She writes about the possibilities of collective Sabbath.
What might neo-Sabbatarian laws—laws that protect coordinated, rhythmic social time—look like? We have dedicated so few brain cells to the problem during the past half century that it’s hard to envision the exact dimensions of a solution. Who knows what a team of crack labor-policy wonks might come up with? But if we do make the collective decision that this kind of time is worth protecting, two things should become apparent: one, that the market is unlikely to protect it for us, and two, that we have more tools at our disposal than simple legal proscriptions. We could start by tackling overwork. We could adopt European Union vacation policies (a minimum of four weeks), shorter workweeks (thirty-five hours, say), paid parental leave, and limits on overtime. We could emulate Germany and the Netherlands and give workers the right to reduce their hours and their pay, unless companies can prove that this would constitute a hardship.
But Shulevitz is realistic.
...we should concede that a full day of rest in the global era is probably a fantasy. But Henry Ward Beecher was right: The idea does have uplift. Who thinks in terms of preserving public culture anymore? Everybody talks about popular culture, but pop culture is a creature of segmented markets, not common ones. Sunday once gave Americans an experience that was national in scope, personal in character, and religiously neutral. As soon as religion was disestablished, no one had to go to church—or anywhere else, for that matter.
At the end, Shulevitz talks about what she herself (and her family) do to practice the Sabbath. She and her husband "work hard at the celebratory aspects of the Sabbath," planning large meals, inviting friends over, sometimes dressing up, then lighting the candles and blessing the children and food. "As for the negative proscriptions -- the "do nots" -- we observe those largely by keeping electronic devices off, including cell phones," and they "put our wallets away, with the same resolution about money, which is not to be handled on Sunday."

She admits, though, that it is difficult to keep to these practices. Not only is there pressure from the things going on in the world, what her children want to do, and the restlessness sometimes engendered by these "do nots", Shulevitz writes she also struggles with indecision. "Why follow this rule and not that one? Where to begin? But also, I think, it's because my religious commitments remain too abstract to overcome the iconvenience of making them. Probably the only way for me to trick myself into being shomer Shabbat would be to restrict myself to circles where such behavior is the norm, not subject to constant question."

Shulevitz ends with this:
So why remember the Sabbath? Because the Sabbath comes to us out of the past—out of the bodies of our mothers and fathers, out of the churches on our streets, out of our own dreams—to train us to pay attention to it. And why do we need to be trained? Consider the mystery surrounding God’s first Sabbath. Why did God stop, anyway? In the eighteenth century, Rabbi Elijah of Vilna (the Vilna Gaon) ventured this explanation: God stopped to show us that what we create becomes meaningful only once we stop creating it and start remembering why it was worth creating in the first place. Or—if this is the thought to which our critical impulses lead us—why it wasn’t worth creating, why it isn’t up to snuff and should be created anew. After all, God, contemplating his first Creation, decided to destroy it in a flood. We could let the world wind us up and set us to working, like dolls that go until they fall over because they have no way of stopping. But that would make us less than human. We have to remember to stop because we have to stop to remember.
That's good, isn't it? "We have to remember to stop because we have to stop to remember."

Personally, I don't celebrate the Sabbath in the way it deserves. I do have some practices, though, that I try to do in order to elevate the Sabbath, and make it different from the rest of the week. A small thing I did as our kids were growing up was to have a special breakfast on Sundays: boiled eggs and blueberry muffins. I also kept the TV off in the morning (once I'd watched "Sunday Morning") and put on classical music while we had breakfast together (Pachelbel Canon in D is a favorite). We also went to church pretty much every Sunday, even twice on Sundays while that was the practice in our church. I TRIED to plan ahead in order not to have to do things like grocery shopping and laundry on Sundays, and we were successful in not working on Sundays.

What about you? Do you celebrate the Sabbath? Why or why not? How do you practice Sabbath?

Thursday, June 14, 2018

On Living by Kerry Egan

The other day my daughter told me a friend of hers is a cousin to an author named Kerry Egan. She said she told her friend that I probably knew this author. Turns out I had heard of Kerry Egan and I looked it up -- Kerry Egan was at the Faith & Writing Festival this year. I remember wanting to go to her session but there were so many good ones at the same time, I did not make it to her talk.

The book is called On Living and it is stories of people who are dying. Egan is a hospice chaplain. There are many stories she cannot tell because they are the private stories of the people Egan served. but there were also many people who asked Egan to share their stories in the hopes it would help others.

I think being a hospice chaplain is a beautiful vocation. While my brother was dying, the hospice chapter he was in had a chaplain. It was wonderful to pray with her and to know she was there. We had our own chaplain  in the family (my dad), but the chaplain still was an important part of our experience during Dan's dying days. My niece is becoming a hospital chaplain and will, I'm sure, soon have many stories, too, of people dying or going through some of the most trying moments of their lives.

I finished this book several days ago, and one thing I remember the most is that Egan said she was a loving presence to the people she served. In some cases, she would even imagine love emanating from her and enveloping the person. Isn't that beautiful? It's a way to serve -- and to love -- even when the person may be totally unaware of you.

Egan seems somewhat ambivalent about her own faith. She did not openly profess to be a Christian, but there is no doubt she is called to this work, and that she believes in "things beyond our ken," to borrow from a "Sound of Music" song. She gave several examples of that. And she does talk about her belief in God, so there is faith in her life.

The first story quotes a woman she is visiting who says, "I always wished I could meet a writer, and tell him my stories, so other people could hear them and not make the same mistakes I made." She laments that she never did meet a writer. Egan at first did not say anything because, even though she had written a book years before, "I wasn't here as a writer now." She listened as Gloria, her client, repeated several times how she had "prayed and prayed and prayed" for a writer to tell her stories. Finally, Egan writes, "It was getting ridiculous. I hesitated for one more silent minute, then said, 'Gloria, did I ever tell you I was a writer?'" Gloria was overjoyed and absolutely certain that "the Holy Spirit sent [Egan} to [her]."

Egan said that Gloria's request was what inspired her to write this book. She wrote, "Almost always, their stories were about shame or grief or trauma: My child died in my arms...My wife left me for another man while I was a soldier...I killed someone...My husband beat my children and I did nothing to stop it because I was afraid..." and on. Egan said she didn't know if she was wiser from hearing the stories, but she "[does] know that it can heal your soul."

She also wrote, "When I started working in hospice, I didn't yet understand that everyone -- everyone-- is broken and crooked." Isn't that sad? Reading this has contributed, I think, to the empathy I feel toward others, even when I don't like them for whatever reason. Of course, I fail to be kind and show empathy over and over, but I do believe I have gotten better at it, and knowing that everyone is "broken and crooked" is a part of the reason I've grown.

Egan is very vulnerable in her writing. She doesn't just tell the touching, amazing stories, she also tells of times when she failed to respond in the way that was best for the client, or when she failed to show up, out of fear or uncertainty.

Egan wrote about the shame and embarrassment she felt when someone mocked her for her answer to what chaplains do: "Mostly we talk about their families," and mostly she listens. But, Egan says, "What I didn't understand [then] that people talk to the chaplain about their families because that is how we talk about God. That is how we talk about the meaning of our lives. That is how we talk about the big spiritual questions of human existence."

I was struck by this:
The meaning of our lives cannot be found in books or lecture halls or even churches or synagogues. It's discovered through these acts of love. If God is love, and I believe that to be true, then we learn about God when we learn about love. The first, and usually the last, classroom of love is the family.
And: "The spiritual work of being human is learning how to love and how to forgive."

I don't want to write the stories Egan heard and tells. She does a much better job of telling those stories than I could. She also writes about the many things she learned as she took those stories to heart. One was secrets. It has struck me, too, as it did Egan, that there are elaborate, big secrets in families that, amazingly, are kept secret for years and years. Egan wrote that when people told her their secrets, it wasn't really a confession, like you would give to a priest, but it was an unburdening. I remember a friend who confessed a secret and said, "The truth really does set you free." Until then, I had never thought of that meaning of the saying.

Egan also wrote of regret being a harbinger of hope -- another thing I had never thought of. "Hope is the belief that better things are possible. Regret shows us what those better things we hope for are...It's an unasked-for imagine what else could be."

Egan wrote about "living in the gray," and how being kind sometimes -- often -- makes you see that most things are not black and white. She relates a story of a client's husband who finds out what hospital worker is stealing medication, but he knows she does it to sell it in order to care for her family. She writes, too, of her own gray story, when a woman in a store condemns her as a bad mother, not knowing that Egan was suffering from postpartum psychosis.Then Egan herself says condemning words to that woman, causing the woman to cry, and Egan realizes now that she herself was making a judgement about that woman, as if it were black and white.

Egan told a story of a woman who asked for a medicine man--a shaman--to help with her healing as she died. When they found a shaman, she came to the client's room and told Egan to stand in a corner and "be strong." As the shaman commands the evil spirit in the client to leave, Egan feels a powerful evil presence coming near to herself, and understands why she was told to be strong. Then, later, they find out the client's story was a sham, yet Egan knows something happened in that room. It is true there are mysterious, un-understandable things that we hear of and experience. They are not only unable to be understood because they defy laws of physics or natural rules we all know, but also because they don't seem to follow any logic in who experiences them. Why should one person feel comfort as they die, seemingly from the presence of a loved one who has passed away, while others do not? Why should we hear, see, or feel supernatural things in one instance, and not in another? It truly does not make sense.

Egan concludes by saying:
It doesn't have to be that life is beautiful but it must end. It can be that life is beautiful...and still, as much as we may not want it to be so, it ends. It can be both beautiful and, by the very truth that it ends, full of loss and tragedy and trauma. The two can coincide. They do coincide.
It reminds me of what I hear Krista Tippet often talk about, living "yes, and," living in "the space between" black and white, as Egan calls it. "I've learned that it's far more interesting and ultimately peaceful to live in the space between."

Sunday, June 03, 2018

Everything Happens for a Reason...And Other Lies I've Loved by Kate Bowler

I was happy to see that Kate Bowler would be at the Faith & Writing Festival this year because, not only had I read her book, Everything Happens for a Reason...And Other Lies I've Loved, but I also listened to her podcast, "Everything Happens." Both were excellent!

Kate wrote a book -- I think it was her doctorate -- on the prosperity gospel. I had not heard that term before, although I was certainly familiar with the concept. The person I associate with the prosperity gospel is Joel Osteen -- believing that if you believe in God the right way, and say and do the right things, then you will prosper. On the flip side, if bad things happen, something you did must be wrong, and God is sending those bad things because of it.

Kate met with many leaders of the prosperity gospel as part of her research. She also grew up in a church and family within the prosperity gospel community.

The book tells the story of how Kate was at a wonderful time in her life, at the age of 35, when everything seemed right -- she had married her childhood sweetheart, she just got the perfect job (a professor of Divinity at Duke), and she and her husband had a newborn son that they had waited and prayed for. Then she was diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer.

One of the most vulnerable, and memorable, things she said was that she had not thought that she herself believed in the prosperity gospel, but she realized when this devastating thing happened to her that she did have a form of a prosperity gospel. It had to do with fairness. Kate wondered if there was something American about it -- that we American's feel the world should be fair, that we should get what we deserve. When she was given the horrible news that she would likely die soon, it seemed so unfair!
Wherever I have been in North America, I have been sold a story about an unlimited horizon and the personal characteristics that are required to waltz toward it. It is the language of entitlements. It is the careful math of deserving, meted out as painstakingly as my sister and I used to inventory and trade our Halloween candy. In this world, I deserve what I get. I earn my keep and I keep my share. In a world of fair, nothing clung to can ever slip away. 
I remember my brother Dan talking about how he felt when his son was born with birth defects. First he was angry with God and he asked, "Why me?" He certainly had not done anything to deserve having anything but good happen to him, and, of course, neither had his wife. Dan said, though, that after a while he started thinking, "Why not me?" Why would it make sense for this to have happened to someone else? That's something that I've thought back to many times. It's so true, isn't it?

And look at the quote above, "It is the language of entitlements." We hear that about millennials, don't we? They are so entitled. Yet it's true, isn't it? It is our tendency to think life should be fair, and that means we are entitled, too.

Kate's dark humor made the book a joy to read in spite of its heavy subject.
I became certain that when I died some beautiful moron would tell my husband that "God needed an angel," because God is sadistic like that.
Why? God, are you here? What does this suffering mean?
At first those questions had enormous weight and urgency. I could hear Him. I could almost make out an answer. But then it was drowned out by what I've now heard a thousand times, "Everything happens for a reason" or "God is writing a better story." Apparently God is also busy going around closing doors and opening windows. He can't get enough of that.
Isn't the word "apparently" funny sometimes?

As you can tell by the fact that Kate Bowler came to the Faith & Writing Festival at Calvin in April, she has not died from colon cancer. She participated in a clinical trial of a drug and it seems to have been effective. She still has Stage IV cancer but this drug now makes it a chronic condition rather than a death sentence. She lives 3 months at a time -- getting tested every 3 months. It's hard for me to imagine.

I highly, highly recommend this book. It's a pretty quick read. It ends with a list of things not to say, and things to say when you are talking to people in situations like hers. It's practical and funny and deep and sacred and joy-giving and loving all at once.

Monday, May 21, 2018

The House of Unexpected Sisters by Alexander McCall Smith

I am doing a little light reading and came across this gem. Mma Ramotswe is talking to a friend who is planning to wear a conspicuous hat while observing a suspect. Mma Ramotswe persuades him to change his mind about the hat.
She was relieved, and as she drove away, leaving him to his task, she thought of how important it was to go halfway in a disagreement—to see the other person's point of view and to find the positive side of it; this little discussion with Mr. Polopetsi had been yet further proof of that. If you did that, if you expressed their viewpoint rather than your own, then you found that they often came round to seeing things as you saw them.
If only everybody would do this, she thought; if only the leaders of countries, politicians and people like that, would adopt the same approach, then how much more peaceful and harmonious would be our world. Rather than threatening one another with this, that and the next thing, they would say  to one another, 'What good ideas you have! And how well you put them.'" And this would draw the response, "Well, your ideas are very good, too, and you are so right about just about everything!"
Or if they simply said to one another, "I like you." That was all that was required. "I like you." (Page 98)

Sunday, March 18, 2018

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle

Since the movie has come out, I decided to re-read A Wrinkle in Time. It's been so many years since I read it, I honestly did not remember the details.

Did you remember (or know) that the first sentence is "It was a dark and stormy night."? I did not, and, of course, it reminded me of Snoopy.

According to Wikipedia, "L'Engle biographer Leonard Marcus notes that 'With a wink to the reader, she chose for the opening line of A Wrinkle in Time, her most audaciously original work of fiction, that hoariest of cliches ... L'Engle herself was certainly aware of old warhorse's literary provenance as ... Edward Bulwer-Lytton's much maligned much parodied repository of Victorian purple prose, Paul Clifford. While discussing the importance of establishing the tone of voice at the beginning of fiction, Judy Morris notes that L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time opens with 'Snoopy's signature phrase.'"

Good beginning. And, unlike Snoopy, L'Engle did have a good second sentence -- and all the sentences thereafter. I like it that she started her book with a "wink" to Snoopy.

When the children tesseract to the planet (I assume it's a planet) Camazotz, as they walk through the town, it reminds of "Stepford Wives" -- people doing all the same thing at the same time, mindlessly controlled by one mind.

I like the characters and the story. When they find Meg and Charles' father, what a fateful sentence it is when it says, "She had found her father, and he had not made everything all right." That is a blow -- when we realize that grown-ups don't have all the answers, that they can't always keep you safe.

I found the discussion of freedom within rules interesting. Mrs. Whatsit talks about the sonnet, 14 lines in iambic pentameter, but within that form, "the poet has complete freedom to say whatever he wants." I've heard this before. I'm still not sure what to think of it. What is the "strict form" of our lives? Being born, living, and dying? Or is it all the things that happen to us over which we have no control? Maybe it's like my Dad used to emphasize - you can only control what you do. I guess that's how we "say" what we want -- by how we respond to what happens to us.

And love wins.