Lila by Marilynne Robinson, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014, 261 pp.
Oh, Marilynne Robinson, how you move me! I think she (and especially her character Rev. John Ames) has become one of my favorite theologians in recent years. I have treasured the first two volumes of this trilogy, Gilead and Home, and waited longingly for Lila to finally be available.
Lila completes the trilogy with the story of Lila Dahl, the late-in-life wife of Rev. John Ames, a wanderer with an unknown past. In the previous two stories, she is a mystery. Finally we hear her own voice, and Robinson reveals–in her careful, slow way–Lila’s complicated past. Like Ames and Boughton, hers is a story of loneliness and isolation. Unlike the men, who also had to cope with disappointment, Lila never had any expectations for her life, so her struggle is not so much with disappointment as with emptiness. Her loss is not of an imagined future, but of any comfort and companionship at all.
Everything that happens here between Lila and Rev. John Ames is familiar to readers of Gilead and Home. She comes to church and he baptizes her. They meet and talk in their stilted way. They are married, and soon she is pregnant with his child. What we learn in this book is Lila’s perspective on their relationship, and the intricate back story that leads Lila to Gilead and breaks her heart open to love. Her story begins in poverty and abandonment, grows into love and wandering and being an outlier with Doll, the woman who raised her. When she loses Doll, she loses herself and falls into the realm of violence and abuse. Yet she escapes, she finds redemption, and together with Ames finds a frail happiness she can hardly believe is real.
As always, Robinson offers a deep sense of poetry and theology, even though our main character is not a preacher. Below are a few gems I want to remember.
She saw him standing in the parlor with his beautiful old head bowed down on his beautiful old chest. She thought, He sure better be praying. And then she thought, Praying looks just like grief. Like shame. Like regret. (93-94)
The next four passages are words spoken by Rev. John Ames, and they sum up much of my own theology.
I really don’t think preachers ought to lie. Especially about religion. (99)
Thinking about hell doesn’t help me live the way I should. I believe this is true for most people. And thinking that other people might go to hell just feels evil to me, like a very grave sin. So I don’t want to encourage anyone else to think that way. Even if you don’t assume that you can know in individual cases, it’s still a problem to think about people in general as if they might go to hell. You can’t see the world the way you ought to if you let yourself do that. Any judgment of the kind is a great presumption. And presumption is a very grave sin. I believe this is sound theology, in its way. (101)
“If the Lord is more gracious than any of us can begin to imagine, and I’m sure He is, then your Doll and a whole lot of people are safe, and warm, and very happy. And probably a little bit surprised. If there is no Lord, then things are just the way they look to us. Which is really much harder to accept. I mean, it doesn’t feel right. There has to be more to it all, I believe.”
“Well, but that’s what you want to believe, ain’t it?” (Lila)
“That doesn’t mean it isn’t true.” (143-143)
‘Of course misfortunes have opened the way to blessings you would never have thought to hope for, that you would not have been ready to understand as blessings if they had come to you in your youth, when you were uninjured, innocent. The future always finds us changed.’ So then it is part of the providence of God, as I see it, that the blessing or happiness can have very different meanings from one time to another. ‘This is not to say that joy is a compensation for loss, but that each of them, joy and loss, exists in its own right and must be recognized for what it is. Sorrow is very real, and loss feels very final to us. Life on earth is difficult and grave, and marvelous. Our experience is fragmentary. Its parts don’t add up. They don’t even belong in the same calculation. Sometimes it is hard to believe they are all parts of one thing. Nothing makes sense until we understand that experience does not accumulate like money, or memory, or like years and frailties. Instead, it is presented to us by a God who is not under any obligation to the past except in His eternal, freely given constancy.’ (223)
I mean, just, wow. That’s how I feel the whole time I am reading these books. The aching beauty, the grim loneliness, the frail joy, the probing faith, the way she captures the contour of the soul moves me every time. If you haven’t yet read Robinson’s trilogy, get to the library now and get started. These books will stand among the great works of 21st century literature, I’m certain.
Reading for Preaching: The Preacher in Conversation with Storytellers, Biographers, Poets, and Journalists by Cornelius Plantinga, Jr. William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2013, 133 pp.
My credentials as an avid reader are well established by the very substance of this blog. I love to read. I read a lot. I love to talk about books, to invest in them and dissect them and commit them to memory. Professionally, I am a preacher. When I read the title Reading for Preaching, I placed my book order without delay. I thought this book was written for me.
While I enjoyed Plantinga’s book, I quickly discovered it was not written for me. Plantinga makes a compelling case for why a preacher should endeavor to regularly read, especially novels, biographies, poetry and journalistic narratives. I am clearly already sold, and a quick skim through the long lists of reviews posted here will show that I most frequently turn to those precise genres (except poetry, which I should read more often). For example, Plantinga thinks it unrealistic for a preacher to read as many as six “classic novels” each year, and offers hope that preachers will read just one.(41-42) While all my fiction reading is not “classic novels,” I definitely read a lot more than that already.
However, Plantinga does offer great perspective and insight about why reading matters–for me and for other preachers. He begins with the obvious: reading is a source of illustrations for sermons. There is nothing worse to me than a tired, canned sermon illustration, and Plantinga urges preachers to “dig up your own stuff.” (22) He points out the ways that reading can make preachers more attentive not only to the possible illustrations in texts, but events in everyday life that might illuminate the gospel. Reading also serves to “attune the preacher’s ear,” to help a preacher register how best to speak to a given audience. Plantinga identifies a variety of dictions a preacher might use–from tuxedo formal to tank-top casual to upscale colloquial or business casual (49). Each one pitches the message to a particular setting, designed to speak appropriately and engagingly to the audience at hand. Reading a variety of dictions helps the preacher recognize and develop the right tone for his or her own congregation and message. He recommends children’s literature as an especially good tool.
The second half of Plantinga’s book talks about the importance of reading as a source of wisdom for the preacher. While scripture remains the preeminent source of wisdom, other literature also provides a great deal of wise insight into the human condition. He highlights the way literature can open us to a variety of worlds and life experiences beyond our own:
The preacher wants his program of reading to complicate some of his fixed ideas, to impress him with some of the mysteries of life, with its variousness, with its surprises, with the pushes and pulls within it. (95)
Plantinga also points to the ways that literature and journalism can help us explore good and evil, sin and grace with a more complex, nuanced understanding.
The whole book is rich with appreciation and encouragement for the life of preaching, and the importance of sermons in the life of Christian worship. For example, he remarks:
The unpredictability of the preaching event gives no one license to wing it. Faithful preachers work hard on their sermons, understanding that although a fruitful result may be God’s gift, hard work is the preacher’s calling. After all, it is audacious to speak for God. (43)
It is a bold and humble task we do as preachers, and I cannot imagine undertaking it without an army of words behind me from other authors. Plantinga’s argument for the importance of reading did not move me because I am already convinced, but this book did encourage me to see my indulgence in good fiction not as a rest from quality reading, but a different kind of endeavor at building my theological and emotional vocabulary for preaching.
I finished this book and felt much better about setting aside the latest book from a consultant on church leadership, returning instead to the public library, where I checked out nearly a dozen new books, a mixture of quality fiction, history and biography. Now, to read them all!
A meditation delivered at the Downtown Jeffersonville Lenten Services, hosted by Wall Street United Methodist Church, based on Joel 2:12-17.
I was out of college, working two jobs just to rent a crummy little apartment at the beach with a roommate, and hanging out with a bunch of her old friends from high school. He was her friend and became mine, and then we fell for each other, pretty fast and pretty hard. I would go to work at 7:30 every morning and return home at 10:30 every night, and still find time to spend hours talking on the phone or hanging out in the late-night diner, just to be together. I couldn’t stand the idea of being apart, and even hanging up the phone felt like torture. I wanted to share every moment together, every little detail of our days. If you’ve ever fallen in love, you know just what I mean.
They don’t call it heartache for nothing.
I remember one particular day. We were hanging out at the crummy apartment, doing nothing special, and I saw him sitting across the room when the thought ran through my mind: “you’re gonna break my heart someday.” I wasn’t accusing him or anticipating anything in particular—but I realized in that moment that someday, some way, by death or by life, something would tear us apart, and I would never be the same. When it came to breaking my heart, he already had. Not because he had mistreated me or stopped loving me or ended the relationship—but because the love I felt for him had broken open my heart, and it would never be the same.
We’ve been married almost 18 years now, and the guy still breaks my heart, more so than ever, because that’s what it means to love—to have someone break into your heart and break it open, to plant themselves in your heart such that losing them, or being apart from them risks shattering your heart altogether, leaving a big, bleeding, broken-hearted hole right in the middle of your chest. It’s not romantic, it’s not a statement about the status of our marriage (which is not especially blissful), it’s just the truth—love breaks your heart, whether that love lasts forever or only for awhile, whether by life or by death, love breaks your heart.
We have a child now. I still remember the first time I left him at home alone with his father, my first love. He was maybe 3-4 weeks old. I just ran up to the grocery store for a few minutes. I trusted my husband completely to care for him, and I knew in my mind that everything would be fine. Still, I cried the whole way there and back. My heart just ached for his little self. He hadn’t done a thing except make my body hurt and kept me up at night and created lots of laundry, but the kid had broken my heart, and I couldn’t bear to be apart from him. That’s what it means to love, to let someone break into your heart and break it wide open.
Hear again these words from Joel: “Even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your hearts. Rend your hearts and not your clothing.”
“Rend” is an old fashioned word. We don’t use it much anymore. “Tear” doesn’t quite capture its meaning—when you rend something you tear it violently, you rip it apart and shred it into bits. Rend your hearts, God says. God is asking us for broken hearts.
We sometimes think that broken hearts are a side-effect of sin, that they are a sign of life’s brutality and our estrangement from God and from one another. But that’s not quite right. In the Bible, it’s clear that sin doesn’t make our hearts broken, it makes them bitter. From Pharoah to Philistines to Pharisees, God’s enemies are described as hard of heart. These hard-hearted ones are those who freeze out kindness and calcify against compassion. The real danger to our hearts is not that they will break, but that they will be unbreakable, that they will be hard as stone, so that they cannot be rendered unto God.
“Rend your hearts,” God says. Break your heart open for me, so that love can come in.
Some people would argue that God is the one that does the breaking—that God afflicts us with loss or separation, death or destruction in order to break us open, teach us a lesson, or somehow improve us. That’s not true either. God doesn’t kill the ones we love or send plagues upon our houses or blow fierce winds of devastation upon us in order to make us more faithful. God cannot compel our love any more than a spurned lover can. God’s love remains unrequited until we return it. The words in Joel are not proclamation of what God will do, they are plea for what we should do.
“Rend your hearts,” God says. Break your heart open for me, so that love can come in.
In her book about her brother dying from AIDS, Susan Wiltshire compares a broken heart like a broken biscuit. “When it’s torn in half, there is twice as much surface on which to spread the butter and honey.” (Dan Moseley, Lose, Love, Live, 18) Picturing the broken biscuits dripping with warm butter and sweet honey at the breakfast table takes me to another table–the Lord’s Table, set for holy communion. We take that whole, perfect loaf and break it, rip it apart, shred it into tiny pieces, so that everyone who comes forward can receive the taste of Christ in broken bread.
The broken bread stands in for the broken body of Christ on the cross. That word “rend” appears again at the cross in Matthew’s Gospel. It’s what happens to the temple curtain at the moment of Christ’s death—the curtain is rent in two, from top to bottom, as the earth quakes and the rocks split open, because the very heart of God has been broken open with love for you and me.
“Rend your hearts,” God says. Break your heart open for me, so that love can come in. “Return to the Lord your God, for God is merciful and compassionate, very patient, full of faithful love, and ready to forgive.” Break your heart open for God, because God’s heart is already broken open for you.
The Fault in Our Stars by John Green, Dutton Books, New York, 2012, 318 pp.
I admit I just wanted to see what all the buzz was about with John Green. I started with Looking for Alaska, not willing to even begin a book about kids with cancer if it was just going to be some sappy tear-fest. When I met the voice of John Green in Looking for Alaska, I couldn’t wait to read the next thing–even if it risked making me cry for days. The good news is: it didn’t. Yes, I cried, but mostly I smiled, and I think I even smiled while I was crying.
The narrator of the story is Hazel Grace Lancaster, a 16-year-old girl with terminal cancer. The story opens with her attending a support group for teens with cancer, where she meets the gorgeous and charming survivor Augustus Waters. What follows is a simple, youthful love story between the two star-crossed lovers, with their love binding them together through (and in spite of) the reality of their cancers. They bond over Hazel’s favorite book, An Imperial Affliction, with an unanswered cliffhanger, and they journey all the way to Amsterdam to meet the author. Hazel and Augustus are charming as individuals and as a couple, and their story is beautiful and engrossing.
What is most impressive is the way John Green creates a world for these two–a world dominated by their cancer, but not limited to it, and he finds space for them to exist as human beings beyond their diagnoses. His humor (and therefore the characters’) is irreverent and occasionally biting, with no tolerance for saccharine sentimentality or easy answers. Green and his characters demand depth and authenticity, and they provide it in return.
The novel is packed with beautiful observations about life and death, pain and suffering. Here are some examples I want to remember. First, in response to a plaque in the Waters’ house that says, “Without pain, how could we know joy?”
This is an old argument in the field of Thinking About Suffering, and its stupidity and lack of sophistication could be plumbed for centuries, but suffice it to say that the existence of broccoli does not in any way affect the taste of chocolate. (35)
When their friend Isaac loses his girlfriend and his sight, he goes into a destructive rampage of tears. Augustus observes: “That’s the thing about pain. It demands to be felt.” (63)
Hazel describes herself as a grenade to those who love her. Because she knows that she will die and cause them so much pain, she wants to protect others (and herself) from loving her. (99) If only Hazel’s experience was unique! How many people in this world refuse to let themselves be loved (or to love others) because they fear that the danger inside them will explode and harm someone?
Then there is this exchange:
“You’re a hard person to comfort,” Augustus said.
“Easy comfort isn’t comforting,” I said. “You were a rare and fragile flower once. You remember.” (145)
As teens who know death is near, they spend a lot of time contemplating its reality and meaning. Augustus has even researched the numbers. There are seven billion living people, and 98 billion dead people, which means that there are fourteen dead people for every living one. Augustus contemplates a plan for each living person to remember 14 dead ones, so that everyone can be remembered.(151) It made me think about the cloud of witnesses, hovering around us and cheering for us.
The Fault in Our Stars is packed with wisdom and insight, with honesty and wit. I loved every page, even the sad ones, and there were many more pages overwhelming with joy than with sorrow, which is pretty much the book’s message–we love even though we may suffer for it, because the goodness of love far outweighs the sorrow of loss.
Looking for Alaska by John Green, Dutton Books, New York, 2005, 221 pp.
I have been wanting to see what all the hype is about with John Green. Many of the young people I know have been deeply touched by his books, and adults who have read them have also appreciated them. Now I know why. Looking for Alaska was a great read.
The narrator is Miles Halter, an intellectual high school student who loves to read biographies and memorize the last words of famous people. He convinces his caring parents to let him attend Culver Creek Academy, the same boarding school in Alabama that his father attended. There, he meets his roommate Chip, a scholarship student who goes by “The Colonel,” a Japanese student named Takumi, and, most importantly, Alaska Young, whom he describes as the sexiest girl he’s ever seen. Her room is filled with books, and she is the perfect combination of beauty, rebelliousness, and intellect, with a measure of crazy thrown in. He is christened as “Pudge,” an ironic moniker given his slender frame.
The foursome become fast friends, standing together against the rich, preppy “Weekday Warriors” and breaking all the rules. They experiment with sex, alcohol, cigarettes and defiance. They execute pranks, meet (and break up with) their first girlfriends and boyfriends, and study for classes. They are a charming bunch of misfits, and I loved them immediately, just like Pudge falls for Alaska.
However, tragedy disrupts this joyous journey through adolescence. A member of the group dies, and the rest of them blame themselves in various ways. The second half of the book deals with this guilt, with the sense of responsibility and the burden of grief.
One of the aspects of the book I most appreciated was the presentation of adults in the story. Much like adults in the Peanuts universe, adults in Looking for Alaska are a benign presence, but generally absent from the lives of the young characters. Miles’ parents are caring and kind, the wise headmaster and professor provide structure and rules without harshness or ego. Otherwise, the young people are left on their own to navigate their world. This is a refreshing approach.
What won me over most of all, though, was John Green’s clever and compassionate writing. There was humor and honesty, insight and reflection, all told in an approachable style. The characters spoke an openness that immediately endeared them to me, and I just wanted to keep hanging out with the gang and enjoying Green’s writing. I look forward to reading more.
The Fly in the Ointment: Why Denominations Aren’t Helping Their Congregations… And How They Can by J. Russell Crabtree, Church Publishing Incorporated, New York, 2008, 178 pp.
This book was chosen by our clergy reading group at the suggestion of our regional staff member. I enjoy this group and our conversations, but I must admit that at first I found this a boring choice. Crabtree’s writing was a bit dry, and it doesn’t help that I’m not especially called to (or excited about) ministry at the judicatory level. However, boring is not unhelpful. While the book was a bit dull for my interests, it was well worth reading and offered a wealth of insight into the future of regional ministries at the denominational level. The second half was much better than the first. It also prompted an excellent conversation in my clergy group, which does not include any conference or association staff.
The Fly in the Ointment is based on Crabtree’s many years of consulting work, not just in churches and judicatories, but in other non-profit and public sector organizations. He draws on massive reservoirs of data from surveys, and from his own experience working with these organizations. While I trust his experiences in the generalized way he shares them (“church leaders want…”), I would have preferred to read more actual stories and examples of the things he describes and how they would work, rather than just speaking in generalizations.
We all recognize that denominational funding is shrinking, along with capacity, staff and ministry. Crabtree argues that regional associations should shift their focus to developing and strengthening local churches to be vital and thriving in their communities. However, he recognizes that judicatory ministers may not have the knowledge, calling or desire for that task. Many want to engage parish-like ministries in a new setting, which is not what is needed. Others do not have any experience or expertise to offer.
When an entire organization is depleted of knowledge and insight, brainstorming is ineffective. As one consultant put it, brainstorming in a church where people are admittedly lost as to what to do merely results in a pooling of ignorance. (32)
I think Crabtree is right-on with this point, and I would welcome it if our regional association was to prioritize coaching for clergy and churches in its ministries.
The second half of the book got far more interesting, as Crabtree began to grow more insistent that the regional associations exist to serve the churches, not the other way around. He was critical of the ways regional bodies expect churches to continue their giving to the denomination as though there were no competition for funds, and re-orients the relationship so that church leaders and clergy are the customers of the regional body, who provides them a meaningful service that they are willing to pay (or give) to receive.
One of the most interesting ideas he offered, that is useful at the local church level as well as the regional one, is analyzing what an organization rewards and punishes as a path toward understanding its culture. He asks,
What behaviors does this organization regularly recognize/notice; affirm/praise; celebrate; resource with money, power, prestige; promote; devote time to; routinize/ritualize; bestow titles upon; photograph/paint; publish; measure? In this culture, what behaviors cause persons to regularly move physically toward the person; want to get to know someone; disclose information about themselves?
What behaviors does the organization regularly confront; criticize; stigmatize; vote against; withhold resources from? What behaviors cause persons in the organization to regularly withdraw; avoid; engage in sarcasm? (117-118)
I began to ponder immediately this question for my own church, and identified some interesting new dimensions of what binds us together.
Another helpful insight is the analysis he offers of the roles regional associations can play. They can be regulatory role, making sure that policies are followed and leaders are vetted properly. They can play a consultant role, offering expertise to support the work of local churches, and they can organize collective action, bringing churches together to do things they could not do alone. Crabtree argues that the regulatory function is a must, and should be handled with the utmost effectiveness and efficiency. Collective action and consultant services should be “on competitive footing with other providers,”(151) so that churches can choose to opt in or out, with a fee-for-service model. That would push regional associations to offer quality consultation and collective action, or cease to do it at all. I found this a compelling way to go. Right now, it seems like our regional bodies are trying to engage in collective action most of all, and they are not as good at it as other local associations to which we belong. We need them to excel at regulatory activities, and I would welcome their assistance in consulting jobs, but that seems the least likely possibility anytime soon.
I recommend this book to judicatory staff and boards engaged in the work of reimagining the role of denominational staff and programs. Crabtree offers a great deal of insight, but it may be controversial and even threatening to existing programs, staff and commitments. It’s time to step back from preserving what we have and start imagining and building what we need for the future. I think Crabtree points in the right direction.
The Peach Keeper, by Sarah Addison Allen, Bantam Books, 2011, 273 pp.
This book was like candy. So sweet, so nice, so delicious, that you just keep having one more bite after another. It’s not deep or nutritious, it’s not going to make you healthier or better in any way, but it tastes wonderful and it brings great pleasure.
The Peach Keeper tells the story of Willa Jackson, who grew up in a hard-working family, and Paxton Osgood, a wealthy socialite. They are now in their early 20s, and both have returned to their small town in the mountains of North Carolina. Paxton is the leader of the society crowd, while Willa runs a store selling organic outdoor equipment in the tourist part of town. Paxton and Willa went to high school together, but their social status kept them far apart. However, their grandmothers share a history full of mutual secrets.
The story brings Willa and Paxton together because Paxton is restoring the Blue Ridge Madam, an old home owned by Willa’s family before they lost their fortune. Paxton wants Willa to attend the opening with the society crowd, but she naturally resists. The plot is a mixture of feel-good twists and turns that include women helping women, the development of a friendship across class lines, the discovery of old secrets and mysteries, the grandmothers revealing all, and the young women’s journey into independence and full adulthood. There’s sweet romance too–Willa with Paxton’s brother Colin, and Paxton with her longtime friend Sebastian.
This is candy, but it’s the good stuff. Well-written, smart, funny, upbeat, interesting, exciting, with the added bonus of being a story about women’s friendships and support for one another. Take it to the beach or on an airplane, consume the whole thing in one sitting without the guilt. Enjoy.