For The Someday Book

Archive for October 2012

Fenway Fever by John H. Ritter, Philomel Books, 2012, 230 pp.

A church member who is a local school librarian, well acquainted with my passion for the Red Sox, told me I simply had to read this book. She even got it reserved for me at the local library before it went into circulation. She was right—this book was a charmer.

Fenway Fever tells the story of Alfredo (“Freddy” or “Stats”) Pagano, a young boy with a sick heart and a passion for baseball. His father runs a hot dog stand in Fenway Park, where Freddy and his brother Mark help out. The Paganos also own season tickets that have been in the family for two generations, but their father has not attended a game since his wife and the boys’ mother died a few years earlier. Through the hot dog stand, Stats (so known because he keeps score and runs numbers, since his weak heart keeps him from playing ball) has befriended Billee “Spacebird” Orbitt, a sophomore star pitcher with a reputation for being eccentric.

When the Red Sox begin to suffer from a disproportionate number of BLRs (bad luck runs, caused by flukes), Billee and Stats believe the curse has returned. With a combination of youthful earnestness, crazy-but-true belief in spiritual forces, and a magical midnight escapade into Fenway Park, Billee and Stats work to put Fenway back in balance and stop the slide into more disastrous games and seasons.

The story is charming whether or not you are a member of Red Sox Nation, although the references to famous Sox moments and miracles will give special joy to those who know them. Billee Orbitt is an updated, imaginative version of Bill “Spaceman” Lee. Stats Pagano and his family make you want to like them, and for everything to turn out alright—not just for the Sox, but for them. The ending made me smile through tears. What a delight!

I’m going to get it for Christmas for the biggest Red Sox fan in my life, my dad (who doesn’t read the blog, so I’m not revealing secrets here). You should too. You’ll find it in the Young Adults section.

Room by Emma Donoghue, Little, Brown and Company, 2010, 321 pp.

Go, get this book and read it. Right now. Seriously, it’s that good. I knew it would be good by the friend who so strongly recommended it, but I had no idea how beautiful, honest, powerful and hopeful it would be. I couldn’t put it down, and read the whole thing in less than 24 hours.

Room is Jack’s story, narrated by Jack himself in the weeks following his fifth birthday. Jack’s whole life has taken place in one small 11×11 room. He has known only two other people—Ma, his loving mother, and “Old Nick,” her captor for the last seven years since snatching her off the streets. This one small square, Room, is a whole world for Jack. He knows its every detail and delights like any child in its small wonders. Ma has kept Jack insulated from the horrible circumstances that surround their existence, so he dubs anything outside of Room as Outer Space, and any other creatures as only “in TV.”

From the first few pages, Jack stole my heart. Emma Donoghue had created something masterful in this young, naive character, and in his fierce and compassionate mother. I wrote to my friend who recommended the book and made her promise that Jack’s story would not break my heart forever. She reassured me that it would not, and she was right.  In fact, it gave me great hope and joy to have met them both.

Go. Get this book from the library or the bookstore or wherever. Read it. Now. Come back later and we can talk about it.

Tonight, just across town, on the campus where my husband teaches, Indiana Senatorial Candidate Richard Mourdock said the following:

Life is a gift from God, and even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen.

My friends, Republican or Democrat, this post is not about politics, even though everything is political and I think this should impact how you think about your vote. This post is not about abortion, even though I strongly support access to safe and legal abortion as a fundamental aspect of securing women’s health and safety. This is a post about theology, and it is written from my pastoral heart, with care and concern for people hurt by misguided, dangerous theology. (Although, as always, posts here reflect my own views and do not stand for the views of my wonderfully diverse congregation.)

Hear this loud and clear:


If you are a survivor, God did not send your rapist to hurt you or test you or teach you or punish you or improve you. God did not sacrifice your body and your safety and your security, even to bring the most wonderful child into the world. A human being acted out of violence, power, rage or some other sinful place to hurt you. God did not intend for you to be raped.

There can be no equivocation there. God does not afflict us. So where is God in suffering?

The heart of the Christian story deals with just this concern. The cross plays a central role in our faith, and it is a symbol of suffering caused by violence and power.  Jesus’ suffering and death on the cross showed us that God does not desire our pain to obtain salvation, that God does not require our blood sacrifice, that violence is not God’s way, and that God will pursue justice and peace even unto death.

Three days later, our faith proclaims that something miraculous happened—God took the tools of violence and destruction and transformed them into Easter resurrection and new life. To say that God made new life out of something horrible, whether a rape or a cross, is to proclaim that God can overcome anything. God can take the worst this world has to offer, and God can make hope and new life. God can take a murder on a cross and create resurrection. God can take a violent rape and create a beautiful child.

That does not mean that God intends murder and rape. God does not cause horrific things to happen to us in order to make miracles. That’s not sanctified, it’s sadistic.

That also does not mean that every pregnancy resulting from rape is a gift from God. Not even every non-violent conception is a gift from God. To declare that every pregnancy is intended by God conjures a cruel Master who shows only disdain for the suffering it inflicts.

  • Imagine a woman who becomes pregnant as a result of rape. Forced to carry an unwanted child to term, she is unable to begin her healing until the pregnancy is over. Even if she gives the baby up for adoption, she must live with the physical reminder of her violent trauma every day. Every kick, every contraction, every moment of labor causes her to relive the rape again in her mind. Instead of lasting for a night, her trauma lasts for nine months.
  • Imagine a woman who already has three children. Her fourth pregnancy puts her own life in danger. While her unborn child may or may not survive, she will not. Her older children will be left motherless. The children’s father will be unable to provide for them without her income, and they will likely be separated into foster care.
  • Imagine a woman trapped in a violent relationship. She has a plan to get out, but she discovers that the partner who abuses her has also conceived a child in her womb. She knows she cannot escape if she is pregnant, and that this violent man will have parental rights to the child even if she leaves him.

Some women would claim God’s new life in these pregnancies, no matter the circumstances. They will love and raise the child with joy and faithfulness. Others would claim God’s new life and possibility in the freedom to terminate a difficult pregnancy and claim the value of their own lives as God’s beloved. They will live their lives with purpose serving God in other ways. In neither case does God intend the suffering to get to the new life. In both circumstances, God can heal and redeem the suffering by bringing new life.

Deuteronomy 30:19-20 says:

“Today I have given you the choice between life and death, between blessings and curses. I call on heaven and earth to witness the choice you make. Oh, that you would choose life, that you and your descendants might live! “

I believe that sometimes the choice to end a pregnancy is a way of choosing life—life for the mother, life for other children, life free from abuse. God can make new life out of terrible things, but we cannot always equate God’s new life with an unborn child. We cannot know how God will work in a woman’s heart, nor can we know the path of life in every situation. I stand firmly against the use of speculation about God’s intentions to legislate forced pregnancy.

Above all, this is clear: God does not intend violence. Rape is not part of God’s grand plan. Neither is forced pregnancy part of God’s will. God comes to us in Christ so that we “might have life, and have it more abundantly.” (John 10:10) The prayerful discernment about what it means to choose to “have life, and have it more abundantly” belongs to each woman, her own womb and her own conversation with God—not our legislators.

Tutu: Voice of the Voiceless by Shirley Du Boulay, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1988, 286 pp.

I had seen this book on the shelves of dozens of friends and fellow clergy, and I picked it up somewhere at a used book store at least 10 years ago. It stayed on the “to be read” shelf, but never struck my fancy until now. That’s the justification for why I am reading a 25 year old biography—a book about the life and ministry of Desmond Tutu that concluded just after his election as Archbishop of Capetown, before the election of F.W. de Klerk; before Nelson Mandela had been released from jail; before the start of apartheid’s repeal; before the first non-racial election made Mandela president; before the famous work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. This was like “Desmond Tutu: The Early Years.”

That time warp actually added a layer of intrigue to the biography. At the time of its writing, the outcome was uncertain. While Tutu’s Nobel Peace Prize and his election as Archbishop of Capetown were historic events and signs of great progress, South Africa remained an apartheid state, rocked by violent protests and intransigent government. When Du Boulay wrote this biography, no one (including Du Boulay and Tutu himself) could have known that the efforts toward ending apartheid would have been so successful, so quickly. Du Boulay shares in the biography that Tutu proclaims with great faith that apartheid cannot stand forever, that God is on the side of justice and will prevail. However, Tutu must certainly have wondered at the time if such change would come in his lifetime.

This biography paints a picture of Tutu as a man with a destiny. His intellect sets him apart from an early age, and he began his career as a teacher. For the first time, I learned about his early life and pre-ministry career, as well as his wife and family. Du Boulay details his fast journey through a variety of ministerial posts, each one posing new challenges and calling forth even more from him as a leader.

One thing stands out more than anything else: Tutu is always a pastor, in the best sense of the word. He balances his prophetic witness to gospel justice with an abiding concern for the life, joy and suffering of the people he encounters. His staff, the priests under his care as bishop, the people in his parishes—he asks after them and their families, responds to them with messages of care and concern, and preaches the gospel in the way of hope. He uses humor to build rapport, and recognizes the importance of trust and transparency.

I met Archbishop Desmond Tutu very briefly when he gave a lecture at my former congregation. (I escorted him to the restroom, to be honest!) In the few minutes he took my arm, I sensed I was in the presence of a holy man. He was genuine in his appreciation and humor, kindness and interest, humility and faithfulness. Du Boulay’s portrait matches my brief encounter, and makes me think my experience was like that of thousands of others he has spoken to over the years. It may be 25 years old, but it was still worth reading.

Liberating Hope: Daring to Renew the Mainline Church, by Michael S. Piazza and Cameron B. Trimble, Pilgrim Press, 2011, 230 pp.

It has taken me months to finish reading this book, which is not like me at all. I have read and reread chapters, and noticed that sometimes they fly by without impact, and sometimes I immediately act on the content. I think this is a book that is like “just-in-time training.” You need to reach for it at the moment you are preparing to act and change and work on a particular topic. When I started it back during sabbatical, I just couldn’t connect to it when I was away from church leadership. When I tried to read it all the way through like a monograph, I just couldn’t get inspired. Now that I’m back in the groove of transformational church leadership, I was ready and eager to absorb the content and make use of the ideas and information.

Piazza and Trimble are the founders of the Center for Progressive Renewal, an inspiring non-profit organization dedicated to helping people start new churches and renew dying ones in the mainline and progressive traditions. Both have extensive experience and a proven track record in starting and renewing. This book is a compilation of their best practices, critical questions, strategies and insights. It is a treasure trove for pastors and church leaders doing the work of congregational growth and transformation.

Liberating Hope covers an enormous range of topics—leadership, small groups, stewardship, mission, worship, administration, social media, databases, and more. Unlike many other books, Piazza and Trimble do not offer a formula or program for your church to follow. Instead, they focus on the big questions and important things a growing, thriving church must be doing,  then leave the details of what that looks like to you in your own context.

For example, in the chapter on worship they emphasize that the experience must be transformational–it must bring people into a real encounter with God that will leave them changed. Worship that is transformational will be authentic, accessible to newcomers, of excellent quality, sensual, touching both head and heart, and it will demand a response. Any church, of any size or style, can aspire to offer that kind of worship. The authors do not offer steps to follow, but questions and measures to help a church improve its effectiveness and enhance its service to God.

This book is not new or radical information. What makes it different is the freshness of the material (in response to new media and technology) and the comprehensiveness of the content (every aspect of church life is included). It is a great starting place, foundational text and reference point for any pastor or congregation engaged in birth or renewal. It won’t tell you everything you need to know, but it will help you identify what you need to know, where to find resources, and how to figure things out in your own church. For exactly that reason, I recommend it highly.

Here since 1954.

I have driven by this church sign about once a month for the last four years. The words have remained unchanged in all that time: “Here since 1954.” Every time, it makes me wonder, “Does this church actually DO anything, or is it just here?”

“Here since 1954” makes me wonder if the church has ever moved or changed at all. Are they still doing things now like they did back then? The year 1954 evokes images of a Leave It To Beaver church, full of button-down boys and crinoline girls sitting neatly in a row. It is foreign to my broken life, to a living God, to a real community, to a world in need, to a message of hope and purpose.

“Here” is a noun, a place. Is this church’s greatest accomplishment simply existing, holding down their corner property on a prominent thoroughfare? Surely there must be some verbs alive and well since 1954. How much more interesting would it be if they replaced “here” with any number of action words? Serving, growing, learning, worshiping, inspiring, praying, witnessing, proclaiming, giving, living. Throw in a single bonus descriptor like “together” or “faithfully” or “this community” or even “God,” and the church becomes downright interesting.

I visited this church’s website, and they seem a lively enough place to worship. They had pictures of smiling people, vibrant altar colors, and sermon recordings online. The problem is: I drive by their building every week, and never knew any of that. How many of our churches suffer the same problem?

This church is not alone. I lift up this church’s example not to be snarky, but because their sign speaks to a deeper concern. Every time I drive, my heart hurts for the vitality of the gospel and the witness of the church. I know that there are people, especially those that live in the neighborhood, who are desperate for community, for good news, for hope and grace. I believe that this church, by the power of the Spirit, has all those things to offer. But the only message we see is the one that tells us they haven’t gone anywhere in more than 50 years.

My church’s sign with moveable text.

Every church struggles with this challenge. How do we let people know that this is the place to find life? Every word on our signs, every image we project, the weeds in our church yards and the condition of the paint on our buildings communicates a message to the world. Is it a message of life-giving vitality? Do we vibrate with the verbs? Or do we just tell people that we’re here, like we’ve always been here—whether for 50 years, 150 years, or 350 years.

Assuming our church is in fact a life-giving, active, changing, growing place (which is not always true), how do we communicate that to people who pass by? The rise of the “nones” (people with no religious affiliation) has been all the news this week. Many of those absent from our religious communities believe that the church and Christianity are out of touch and out of date. Yet they most also continue to believe in God, pray and understand themselves as spiritual beings. They just don’t think the church has anything relevant to offer on those matters.

Our old sign, which definitely did not communicate vitality.

For too many people, the church has become a noun, a place—unmoved and unmoving, fixed in space, here since 33 CE. In our signs, images and publicity, we must find our verbs again. More importantly, in our worship, our community and our ministry, we must be active and vital, so that the verbs take over. We are not just “here.” We are serving, loving, praying, caring, connecting, living, worshiping, uniting, working, building, growing, learning, deepening, stretching, discovering, listening, helping, changing and infinitely more, by the power of the Spirit. May all those who seek life see Christ alive in us.

This is a major improvement, but…

… this is even better. Even with the old sign.

Lit: A Memoir, by Mary Karr, HarperCollins, 2009, 386 pp.

I heard about the book on an NPR interview with the author, and picked it up on a whim when I saw it on the clearance rack at the bookstore for $2.50. It was not an easy read, because Lit tells the story of Karr’s descent into alcoholism and her long, slow journey to recovery. Karr is a poet, and her prose carries the density and rich vocabulary of her other literary craft.

The book tracks a downward spiral into a life controlled by the need to drink, beginning when Karr is 17 years old and living as a runaway in San Francisco and continuing through her college years, graduate school, marriage and motherhood. Thinking back, (I completed reading a few weeks ago), the first half of the book is hard to recall. It is blurry, muddled and full of memory-impressions that are vivid but do not unfold in a clear narrative. This parallels Karr’s descent into drink.

The memoir turns when she begins the road to sobriety, even though the journey is rife with setbacks. Her journey out of alcoholism reminds me of a maze. You know you’re headed somewhere, but you don’t know where it is or how to get there. Dead-ends are everywhere that make you double back and start again. You feel lost and alone. There are haunting images of her attempts to care for her son, and finding herself out of control again.

I was surprised to discover that this book was a journey into prayer and Christianity for Karr. Her struggle to find faith was the most compelling part of the book for me. Her sponsors and advisors in her recovery tell her again and again that she needs to find her higher power and learn to pray, but she resists because she can’t believe in God. A doctor who is also in recovery tells her:

Faith is not a feeling. It’s a set of actions. By taking the actions, you demonstrate more faith than somebody who actually experienced the rewards of prayer and so feels hope. Fake it till you make it. (217)

Karr is worried about money, so the doctor instructs her to pray for money:

Then pray for it. Just pray every day for ninety days and see if your life gets better. Call it a scientific experiment. You might not get the money, but you might find relief from anxiety about money. What do you have to lose? (219)

I found this so familiar to my own experience of prayer. Unlike Karr, I have had the feelings before, and still do from time to time. But prayer is far more about discipline, openness and relationship than it is about feeling something.

One more section of conversation about prayer:

Deb says, Mary’s reluctant to get down on her knees because she doesn’t believe in God.

I add, What kind of God wants me to get on my knees and supplicate myself like a coolie?

Janice busts out with a cackling laugh, You don’t do it for God! You do it for yourself. All this is for you… the prayer, the meditation, even the service work. I do it for myself, too. I’m not that benevolent.

How does getting on your knees do anything for you? I say.

Janice says, It makes you the right size.

Lit is powerful as an inside perspective on what it’s like to build a self around alcohol, only to discover you’re lost—then to recreate a new self in sobriety. Beautifully crafted, this is an interesting read for anyone who’s been down this road of addiction and recovery, or loved someone who is somewhere on it.

Karen Armstrong, Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, Anchor Books, 2010, 222 pp.

This book became a part of our Macedonian Ministries group that went to the Holy Land last winter. We continue to meet, and are charged to undertake a community project. We were all moved by our pilgrimage experience to promote understanding across lines of race, religion and culture, and we have begun to associate ourselves with the Compassionate Cities movement in our area.

The Charter for Compassion was the result of Karen Armstrong’s MacArther “Genius” grant a few years ago. She used the time, publicity and financial resources from that grant to launch a worldwide movement of compassion. Using an interactive website, she solicited input from thousands of people across the world along with a Council of Conscience composed of religious leaders from six major faith traditions. They created a brief Charter for Compassion  that states, clearly and concisely, that “we urgently need to make compassion a clear, luminous and dynamic force in our polarized world.” (8) The charter is the catalyst for a movement of people across the world to intentionally grow compassionate practices. At the website, you can sign on to the charter as an individual, a corporation, a city or a university. Our group is contemplating what it would mean to be “compassionate congregations” as part of this movement.

Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life is a longer reflection on the theme of compassion, with an emphasis on steps we all can take to practice compassion more deeply in our everyday interactions. This book is far different from Armstrong’s other books, like her broad history of religion or the west’s holiest city. While her intellect shines as always, this book is not a work of research, it is a work of spiritual discipline.

Armstrong lays out a program to follow to build compassion. The first step starts with learning about compassion, and moves through steps like empathy, mindfulness and action, culminating in the effort to love your enemies. Each chapter explores one step, and Armstrong mixes together perspectives from the various faith traditions with simple exercises that anyone can undertake in their daily lives. The book is not a spiritual masterpiece with the profundity of a guru, but it is a helpful tool to grow compassion in our lives. While I bristled a bit at the parallels to other twelve-step programs (“work this step until you are ready to move to the next chapter”), I found myself contemplating some of the questions and exercises long after I completed reading the book. The second chapter, “Looking at Your Own World,” asks us to begin practicing compassion at home—within our own families, neighborhoods and workplaces. I found this to be a powerful concept in my daily contemplation, and inspiration for a recent sermon.

In this rancorous political season, it’s hard to even ask for civility, much less for compassion. Yet compassion is not about party, race, religion or political persuasion. It is something that every Christian, certainly, can aspire to follow in our lives. This book has inspired me to be more attentive to the practice of compassion in my own life.

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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