For The Someday Book

Blessed are the Crazy: Breaking the Silence about Mental Illness, Family and Church by Sarah Griffith Lund, Chalice Press, 2014, 116 pp.

Blessed are the CrazyThis book is brave. Sarah Lund commits from the very beginning to testify–to bear witness to the heartache and struggle of her own life and where God has (and hasn’t) been present and active in it. Then she follows through, confessing to her own pain, the pain of her family, and stories of brokenness and hope. Her vulnerability as a writer, pastor and person left me humbled and challenged to pursue that kind of testifying in my own life and ministry.

Before the book even begins, there is a definition offered for “crazy in the blood,” referring to the genetic predisposition to brain disease and “why some families are more dysfunctional than others.” This is Lund’s family and her story. She begins in her own voice as a five-year-old child, recalling a story of violence from her father after church. Her testimony unfolds through her teen and young adult years, as her father’s violence and mental illness unravel his life. Even as a local church helps her to know that “not everything in my life was ruined,” (7) Lund feels as though a God of love cannot reside in a home filled with such hate, and that faith and hope are set out to sea. She finds faith renewed in her college years, along with the perspective to understand her father’s violence as an illness.

After her years as a child and youth, her testimony turns to a faithful wrestling with how to love members of her family whose mental illness risks destroying their lives, and hers along with them. It is not just about her father. Her eldest brother is diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and she comes to care for a cousin on death row for a murder likely triggered by untreated mental illness and family abuse. It is painful to read, but her truth-telling is healing and liberating.

While my own testimony is not shaped by “crazy in the blood,” I found myself relating to her journey in many ways. This is what makes it testimony–that it was not just a story about her life, but about God at work, which means I could come to see God at work in my life through it. She describes her father, brother and cousins as her greatest spiritual teachers, and they became my spiritual teachers too. For example, her brother Scott describes his relationship with God:

When he is mentally stable he believes in God; when he is feeling manic he believes he is God; and when he is feeling depressed he believes there is no God. (44)

While I am not subject to the pain of Scott’s illness, I can recognize my own relationship with God in his description. I too find myself thinking that I am god-like when I feel strong and capable, just as I doubt God’s existence when I falter and fail.

Healing is a word that Lund uses carefully and sparingly. Mental illness has no cure. Though it can be managed throughout life, it will again and again flare up to cause damage and distress. She uses the powerful metaphor of bearing the cross.

By bearing the cross of mental illness and carrying it, we can move it–not rid ourselves of it or deny it–to a place of transformation like Golgotha. … Instead of only being the instrument that killed Jesus, the cross became a symbol of the power of God to overcome the sins of the world. In the resurrection, God shows us that what is broken by this world can be made whole again. … I believe that by telling our stories of mental illness, by giving our own testimonies for mental health, we can carry our crosses to more healing places, even places of transformation. (51-52)

Subsequent chapters challenge social notions (and Christian ones) about people with mental illness. She talks about the execution of her cousin and crushing power of state-sanctioned murder. She asks, “if God was with Paul and in Paul, what happened to the God-part of Paul when he was executed? Did part of God get executed too?” (68) Her answer–that “part of me and part of God died the night of Paul’s execution”–indicts our whole system of “justice.” A similar indictment follows as she talks about a kind of Christian faith that believes faith and prayer are sufficient alone to combat the brain diseases that her family has suffered, or that they suffer due to insufficient faith in God.

Instead, Lund offers a better, more compassionate way for churches and Christians to journey with people with mental illness and their families. She evokes a theology of suffering, where mental illness is neither a blessing nor a curse, but a situation in which God enters to accompany humans in their suffering. As people of faith, we should join God in that faithful, compassionate work of accompaniment. The book concludes with practical suggestions for churches about how to begin those kinds of ministries.

At first,  what stands out most about Blessed are the Crazy are the personal stories, whose vivid drama draw attention and stick in the reader’s memory. But the book matters not just for its storytelling, but for the theology of suffering and God’s persistent love in the midst of it, and for the challenge to people of faith to live out that love by walking together with those who are suffering from “crazy in the blood.” This book is a gift to all clergy, to families seeking hope in mental illness, and to church communities seeking to respond.

Creating Congregations of Generous People by Michael Durall, Alban Institute, 1999, 104 pp.

Creating Generous PeopleI’ve been reading a lot of book about stewardship lately, as my congregation is struggling to learn and grow in this area. Michael Durall’s book was cited by several others as an important resource. It is no longer in print, but I found a copy easily at half.com for less than a dollar.

I was surprised by the tone of this book, from the beginning. Most stewardship experts write in a way that is frank, but relentlessly encouraging. They seem to say, “You’re doing it wrong, but if you do these things, you’ll be rich!” Durall has all the frankness, but a much less cheery outlook–while maintaining that congregations can create generous people and provide ample resources for their ministry.

First, Durall acknowledges that most people give the same amount, year after year, without significant increase. He argues that traditional pledge drive methods (especially those that emphasize the annual budget) actually encourage and reinforce low-level and same-level giving patterns. Durall names the 80/20 rule–that 20% of the people carry 80% of the load of work and giving. What makes his work different, though, is that he argues that increasing stewardship is not about going after the 80%, but increasing the 20%. He says that most people in the bottom 80% do not know why they give the way they do, resist changing it, and that “attempts to increase the giving level of the bottom 80% of the congregation may be futile.”

Durall backs this up with experience and research. He counters the dictum that “money follows mission,” common in so much of the literature, including the popular J. Clif Christopher books.

Increased programming (expanding the mission) will not motivate 80% of the members of most congregations. … Parishioners who give the least are motivated by maintaining the building and the congregation. More generous parishioners believe they are also helping people who are less fortunate, and strengthening their relationship to God. (26-27)

He names the deep intransigence of a church’s giving culture, and the sustained effort required to transform it. While he does agree that people should be encouraged to give to God and not to church, that we need to be emphasizing mission, he does not think this is enough to overcome longstanding patterns of same-level and low-level giving.

Durall instead invites us to nurture the trait and spiritual discipline of generosity throughout our churches.

Charitable giving should make some difference in how we as religious people experience life from day to day. If giving to your congregation is similar to writing a check at the end of the month to pay the phone bill or the electric bill,  and then forgetting about it until the end of next month, you are not giving enough. Similarly, if you take spare change or a dollar or two from your pocket or purse for the weekly collection and never notice the difference, your giving has too little meaning either for you or for your church. (38)

The remaining chapters offer some practical advice and exercises, some of which are familiar (like not encouraging giving to the budget) and some of which were new to me. I found his advice to ministers especially helpful. While he agrees with J. Clif Christopher that ministers should know what people give, Durall assumes they probably will not, and that makes his guidance most helpful. He says that the minister should “introduce the importance of stewardship to the congregation at the earliest opportunity,” which is best accomplished by making a leadership gift and sharing that intent with the church, even before a call is issued. (49) I love this idea. He adds to the minister’s list: stressing the importance of giving to new members, encouraging a mentality of abundance over scarcity, setting vision and clarifying roles, and including stewardship in worship regularly–especially by finding ways to thank people.

Durall’s concrete advice about stewardship builds upon his realistic assessment of congregational giving culture, his claim that we are to be building generous people, and a commitment to year-round stewardship. Though it is older, Durall’s book offered new ideas and perspectives that I have already shared with my Stewardship Team and we are finding ways to use in our congregation. Some might find his less-than-optimistic read on giving cultures depressing, but I found it honest and helpful. I think this is a worthwhile addition to every pastor’s stewardship library.

Lose, Love, Live: The Spiritual Gifts of Loss and Change by Dan Moseley, Upper Room Books, 2010, 140 pp.

Lose Love LiveI am using this book to start a Grief & Loss Support Group at my church, and this resource came highly recommended by a friend for that purpose. It was a challenge for me, in some ways, to be reading a book about grief at a time in my life when I am (blessedly) not walking a grief-filled path. I feel inadequate to judge how helpful the book is for those in the midst of a grief journey, because my point of view is somewhat removed.

What I most appreciate about Dan Moseley’s approach to the journey of grief is his simultaneous ability to name that grief is not something that you “get over,” especially not in some predictable time frame, and his wisdom that new life and unexpected joy is still available after a life changed by grief. He handles the agony of pain, anger and loss without glossing over it, yet points to the promise and possibility available only through grief, the “spiritual gifts of loss and change.” It’s not simply a positive outlook or word of encouragement, it’s a deeper sense of hope in the resurrection. Moseley’s mantra is, “To live is to love. To love is to lose. To lose is to live.”

The book itself follows the journey of grief in its many twists and turns. There are chapters that attend to naming the loss, feeling pain, anger, remembering, guilt, forgiving, gratitude, play, practice and becoming new. Each chapter describes what it is like to journey through that particular aspect of grief, and includes stories of diverse people facing different kinds of losses. One of the best features of the book is the “Good Companions” section at the end of each chapter, which describes the kinds of friends and relationships that can best help you when you are experiencing each part of the journey. This book therefore makes an excellent resource for those wishing to offer support and care to loved ones who grieve.

One of the insights that spoke the most to me was about losing faith in the midst of grief. Moseley writes,

The guarantee that we will lose holds true for our faith as well. Faith is a human construct. We create an understanding of our lives in relationship to God. We use symbols and language to create that understanding. These symbols, while shaped by divine power and history, are constructs of the human mind. … Therefore, when we are faced with a crisis that results in losing whatever we have come to count on, the way we imagine God can also change and we may lose our faith. … Since we constructed it, we can lose it. (25)

While God does not change, our relationships and perceptions of God are nearly guaranteed to fall apart when we grieve. I take strange comfort in that truth-telling.

Another section I found especially insightful were his chapters on playing and practicing. Grief doesn’t just strip us of the one we loved, but of our identity in that relationship, forcing us to change who we are.

We play our way into new ways of being and living. … To grow spiritually involves imagining ourselves as different kinds of people, playing with different ways of being in the world. (94)

After we have explored a variety of options for living again, somewhere along the way we will discover that some of those options represent who we are more than others. When we come to that awareness, we begin practicing those options more than others. (103)

Moseley encourages the deep, transformative work of grief that invites a new way of living and being in response to the loss we experience in our lives. I have found the group discussions so far to be helpful and productive. This could be an excellent resource for a church group or therapy group, since the context is not specifically Christian, although Moseley himself served as a pastor for many years.

The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion by Fannie Flagg, Random House, 2013, 347 pp.

FlaggThis book was such a disappointment. If I hadn’t been stranded on a trip with nothing else, I don’t know if I would have finished it. While it wasn’t boring, it was also not particularly interesting. All the richness, novelty and questionable behavior of the characters in Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe has been replaced by two-dimensional characters and predictable plot developments and outcomes. Even more, the book’s perspective on identity felt dated and even tinged with a level of prejudice and stereotype that made me uncomfortable.

The central character is Sookie Poole, a Southern housewife rapidly approaching age 60 and experiencing an empty nest. Her life is dominated by her mother Lenore Simmons, who has delusions of grandeur about her family heritage, personal talents and Sookie’s potential. While Flagg writes with a lightness and humor, the decision to name Sookie’s children  Dee-Dee, CeCe and LeLe was just too much sugar. Their characters were about as mature and developed as their names, and Sookie is about as deep as hers.

One day, Sookie gets an elusive message that she is “not who she thinks she is,” and discovers she is adopted. The domineering Lenore and her Simmons legacy are not actually hers by blood. For me, Sookie’s reaction made her ridiculous and unlikeable. She believed she was a fraud who owed apologies and resignations to all her Southern organizations. She goes through major contortions to hide her visits to a therapist, as though such a thing would cause her whole community to crumble. Her birth mother’s Polish last name inspires her to indulge in stereotypes about Polish people to see which ones might apply to her. Seriously, Fannie Flagg–do you think someone would be that genteelly horrified to discover they are Polish? If they are, they are not a character I would want to get to know. Sookie felt both unbelievable and unlikable.

The book’s one redeeming element was the unfolding back story of Sookie’s birth family, a group of immigrants raising four girls and a boy by running a Phillips 66 Filling Station. When World War II breaks out, the son leaves for the war, the father grows ill, and the young women take over the business. Eventually, several of them become pilots and join the WASPs. The lead sister is Fritzi Jurdabralinski, an independent, strong-willed woman who eventually becomes a stunt pilot and wing walker, opening the door for the rest of the family to learn how to fly. Her story of life and love in the war is interesting, but she didn’t have a great force of personal character and dynamism. She and all the other family members never emerged from their flat stereotypes. I had the feeling that, though the setting was compelling, I’d met them all in sitcoms already.

I felt no drama or tension or suspense for any of the characters. All the plot twists were predictable. Fritzi and Sookie lacked all the complexity and novelty of Idgie and Evelyn, and Sookie’s transformation has no “towanda” excitement anywhere. Reading the novel all at once, I felt like I’d eaten way too much sugar and candy and now I was queasy. While I’m sure Flagg was trying to open us to the complexity of women’s lives in World War II and make Sookie and Lenore interesting and complicated women, this effort falls flat. It feels like something from another era, when identity was far more rooted in blood relationships, adoption was somehow scandalous, Polish immigrants exotic, and women in men’s jobs unconventional. I couldn’t believe it was written in 2013. What a disappointment.

First Comes Love? The Ever-Changing Face of Marriage by John C. Morris, Pilgrim Press, 2007, 128 pp.

FirstComesLove.chosenMy denomination, the United Church of Christ, has been in the forefront of marriage equality for many decades, and I have been honored to officiate at many same-sex weddings myself. However, our congregational polity allows for each congregation to make its own decision, and my church is currently having conversations about whether to host weddings for same-sex couples. (As a pastor, I have authority to officiate weddings in outside venues for same sex couples.)

I picked up this book as a resource for that ongoing conversation. Since Pilgrim Press is part of the UCC, I expected it to address the topic directly. Imagine my surprise when Morris did not include anything about the subject of same-sex marriage until the epilogue, and then only a short explanation of the viewpoint of marriage equality he developed in response to the research for this book. While I remain disappointed that same-sex marriage did not get at least an equal treatment and recognition with the 21 other forms of marriage that he explores, the book otherwise accomplished exactly what I hoped it would: deconstructing the idea of “traditional marriage” altogether as a convenient fiction rather than a fixed notion in history.

Morris begins with biblical notions of marriage in the Hebrew Bible, starting in Genesis. After a short comparison of creation stories between Genesis and Olympus, he moves on to the first biblical couples actually described as married. He cites Isaac and Rebekah for the importance of marrying within one’s tribe; Jacob, his wives and concubines as a witness to polygamy; Levirate marriage, where widows marry their brother-in-law; and arranged marriages. He does compare these ancient texts to modern conversations about arranged marriage and miscegenation, although his choice to use the fictional Fiddler on the Roof as an example of Jewish life is questionable. Morris then adds marriage for political purposes and marriage for procreation to the list of Old Testament forms of marriage.

Early Christianity, Morris points out, actually offered revolutionary developments in understanding marriage. Christians opened the way for slaves and citizens to marry by proclaiming all equal in the eyes of God. They also declared that men and women were equal partners in marriage, and that the marital covenant should be a lifelong commitment, as Jesus himself spoke against divorce. Finally, early Christians argued for celibacy, even within marriage, as the ideal way to focus on God over the things of this world. (I’m doubtful that most people would still support that one as part of “traditional marriage!”)

Having looked over these various forms of marriage, Morris ventures into questions of what makes a marriage valid and how it is recognized in society, again overturning any notion that marriage has been an unchanging institution. He points to mutual consent, consummation and validation by an outside authority as the typical ingredients to validate a marriage. The fact that we can all quickly think of examples that contradict that construction (like a forced marriage, an unconsummated marriage or a common law marriage) only add to Morris’ argument that marriage has never been a fixed idea. Exploring marriage as sacred covenant and secular contract opens the conversation about the role of clergy in the United States today, in the uncomfortable position of acting as spiritual guardian and agent of the state.

After an exploration of the meaning and evolution of betrothal, Morris adds modern developments in the form of marriage: marrying for love, marrying for happiness, marrying for companionship, marrying as equal partners, marriage detached from property or procreation, and easy divorce. In the end, Morris makes a claim that all couples should be allowed to marry, both in civil and religious ceremonies–but that the two should be separate from one another in form, content and occasion.

This book was a very helpful, readable summary of the evolution of marriage throughout the bible and history, and it would make an excellent resource for congregational study. It does not have the depth of primary source research, historical analysis or scholarly precision that some might desire, but such a book would take nearly 1,000 pages, not a mere 128. I recommend this resource to any group struggling with conversations about the meaning of marriage, as this will ground your conversation in shared history, simply told.

The Good Luck Girls of Shipwreck Lane by Kelly Harms, Thomas Dunne Books, 2013, 290 pp.

Good Luck GirlsTime for book number three in the “light summer reading” category. I’ve been doing some traveling lately, and grabbing these for quick 24-hour reads. This was another one that I flew through when I had some free time on my hands. Again, nothing rich or profound, a story that was fairly predictable in its outcome (although with some nice twists along the way), but entertaining throughout.

The premise of the story is that there are two Janine Browns in Cedar Falls, Iowa. One, Janey, is obsessed with cooking. Every night, she comes home alone and prepares enormous, elaborate recipes, because it is the only thing that gives her joy. She has an elderly aunt, Midge, who urges her to leave her apartment and go out in the world, but she refuses. The other, Nean, is a scrappy former foster kid with nothing, homeless apart from a no-good boyfriend.

A television program is giving away a beautiful, enormous home on the Maine seacoast. Nean enters and then has a dream that the house is hers. She is certain she will win. Aunt Midge enters Janey’s name along with her own, in an attempt to secure a new future for them both. When the winner is announced as “Janine Brown of Cedar Falls, Iowa,” all three women travel to Maine preparing to start a new life.

As you can predict, what begins in hostility eventually becomes solidarity and even family. There is love to be found along the way for all, and some fun adventures as the story unfolds. The Good Luck Girls of Shipwreck Lane would make a great vacation book, beach book or airplane book. I got an extra kick out of it because I actually know a Janine Brown. Do you know one too? Enjoy the book either way.

American Creation: Triumphs and Tragedies at the Founding of the Republic by Joseph J. Ellis, Vintage Books, 2007, 283 pp.

American CreationI know that Joseph Ellis can be a controversial figure, respected by some academics and disdained by others, criticized for his histories of “great men” without much attention to the concerns of women or non-white individuals. I do not know enough about the history to judge the quality of his research, but I thoroughly enjoy the stories he tells and the ways he explores the intersections of the founders of the Revolutionary generation. This is the fourth Ellis book I’ve read, and each one has taught me another layer of the Revolutionary era history while engaging interesting questions and inviting me into a fascinating story.

American Creation focuses in on several key events that were turning points in the choices the Revolutionary generation made, both bold and compromising. In response to questions and critics, Ellis ponders how and why the founders managed to set a new way of government based on soaring rhetoric of liberty, even while failing to address the glaring gap between their principles and the harsh realities of slavery and Native American relocation.

As is typical of his other books, Ellis argues that key circumstances and personalities joined together at critical moments to change history. He begins by looking at the year between the Battle of Lexington and Concord in spring 1775 and the Declaration of Independence in 1776, arguing the necessity of an “evolutionary revolution” to give an opportunity for reconciliation with Britain to fail and therefore unite the colonies behind the idea of independence.

The second chapter looks at the fateful winter at Valley Forge. Ellis argues that the experience of disorganization and deprivation endured by troops at Valley Forge sowed the seeds of federalism (especially for Washington and Hamilton), because the later federalists came to see the impossibility of relying on competing states to fulfill their obligations voluntarily. Valley Forge also altered the military strategy to focus on managing the countryside, not just fighting key battles.

Subsequent chapters address the argument for a new constitutional convention to replace the Articles of Confederation and Madison’s developing sense of the new Constitution; the failure of treaties with the Native Americans to stop further settlements of European Americans on the frontier, and the recognition that the newly formed government did not have sufficient power or will to enact justice; the development of a two-party political system after the Federalist Papers and the corresponding change in position by James Madison; and the way Jefferson’s handling of the Louisiana Purchase sealed presidential power even while he claimed to abhor it.

Ellis has another work of readable, engaging history here in American Creation. If you are a history buff or, like me, always fascinated by the Revolutionary generation, you will find plenty of interest here, and a fun book to read.

About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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