For The Someday Book

Archive for February 2013

Practicing FamiliesI want to invite everyone to check out a new blog project that I am a part of called Practicing Families. It’s a resource for families of all shapes and sizes who are seeking to engage spiritual practices and nurture faith in Christ at home. You’ll find ideas for weekly liturgies you can do at home, reflections on parenting and thoughts on experiencing God in the midst of family life, mess and all. I hope you’ll go and check it out!

The homepage is here, and you can follow us on Facebook. My first contribution is called “Family of Faith–and No Faith,” about our family life with a Christian pastor and atheist philosopher.

Come on over and check it out!

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Making a Home for Faith: Nurturing the Spiritual Life of Your Children by Elizabeth F. Cardwell, Pilgrim Press, 2000, 118 pp.

Making a homeI bought this book years ago, when it was new, but never got around to reading it. I finally tuned in not simply as a parent seeking advice on how to nurture faith in my child, but as a new contributor to this blog project called Practicing Families. (To be featured in a full introduction in a day or two.)

I was seeking a practical guide with strategies for integrating faith into our home in age-appropriate ways. While this book did contain that information, it was buried in a surprisingly dense, academic style. Caldwell spends a good portion of each chapter providing a literature review, surveying everything from developmental theory to models of faith formation. This is far better suited to religious professionals or academics than parents wondering how to teach their toddler to pray. I like theory, I like academic texts–it’s just not what I was expecting here.

However, if you’re willing to look for it, there is much insight within the book for parents imagining how to pass on their faith to their children. One of the most insightful things she offers are two “top-ten” lists. The first is a list of what every child needs from faithful parents. It includes things like parents who are comfortable living their faith, participation in a faith community, faithful adults outside the family, and help making connections between faith and life. The second is a list of what parents need to know or do in order to pass along faith to their children. This list would make an excellent starting point for parents and church leaders seeking to equip them to be their children’s primary religious educator. It includes things like reading or telling a Bible story, praying, asking and answering questions, maintaining their own spiritual practices, and explaining the sacraments and liturgical year.

Although each chapter comes with questions for reflection and discussion, I would not recommend giving this book to a group of parents for a small group discussion. The tilt toward scholarly sources and away from simple stories would not work in most settings. However, this book would be an excellent starting point and resource for Christian education teams or pastors or religious educators trying to develop strategies to help parents teach faith to their children. The ideas and information it contains could easily be translated into a series of workshops or classes for parents.

I did a guest review for the Center for Faith and Giving this month on Clifford Jones’ Star Bookbook for Judson Press, The Star Book of Stewardship. It is part of their Star Book series which includes handbooks on worship, occasional services and more.

The Center for Faith and Giving is run by the Disciples of Christ, and is a great resource for all things stewardship in the life of the church. Follow the link and check them out!

You can find the review here, or just go directly to the Center’s home page.

6:00 a.m. — Groan in response to alarm. Curse  decision to offer ashes at local coffee shop at 7:00 a.m. Check Facebook from phone in bed.

6:05 a.m. — Six year old comes to snuggle. Grumble again at early morning coffee shop idea. Leave warm bed and stumble to shower.

6:45 a.m. — Arrive at church. Gather ashes, prayer cards, bible. Try to read Joel 2 to center myself for the day. Apply ashes to my own forehead, mumbling under my breath about dust. Check mirror to make sure my ashes look right. Make handmade sign that says “Free Ashes.” Throw it away. Make a new sign that says “Ashes to Go.” I still don’t like it, but can’t think of anything better.

7:00 a.m. — Arrive at coffee shop. Introduce myself to barrista, who is expecting me. Order caffeine. More grumbling. Regret the decision to do this public ashing. Feel foolish. Convinced no one will come. Certain I will sit alone and awkward with a smudgy forehead all morning. Take a picture and post to Facebook reminding people to come.

Posted to Facebook: "Here at the coffee shop with ashes and prayers. Stop by, won't you?"

Posted to Facebook: “Here at the coffee shop with ashes and prayers. Stop by, won’t you?”

7:10 a.m. — Two people arrive separately, seeking ashes. They have awakened early and left home in the dark to make this time for holiness. When I offer them the prayer card and mark the ashy cross on their foreheads, we all well with tears. I decide that even if no one else comes, this was worth it.

8:00 a.m. — Wonder if those two folks will be the only ones I see all day. Regret and grumbling and foolish feelings creep back in. Decide ashes-to-go is a dumb fad I will never do again. Justify my doubts with Jesus’ instructions about fasting in private. Feel self-righteous thinking that sacramental moments belong in the context of worship, not in five-minute coffee shop encounters. Read Barbara Brown Taylor’s Speaking of Sin for my Lenten preparation.

8:30 a.m. — Two older men occupy the table next to me. One tries to start a conversation, and mishears me, thinking I said, “answers” instead of “ashes.” He tells me he doesn’t have any questions. I clarify, and he reminisces about receiving ashes as a Catholic school boy. I offer him the opportunity again, but he declines. Still, it restores my sense of purpose.

8:45 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. — Eight more people come, in ones and twos, seeking prayer and ashes. Some are from my church or our Disciples partner, some people I know from the community. All are nervous, just like me, but I act cool. Every time, our eyes fill with tears as I impose the ashes on their forehead with these words: “Remember you are dust and to dust you will return. Return to God with all your heart, for God is merciful and compassionate, full of forgiveness.” When the moment ends, they seem overwhelmed by the experience, and scurry away quickly. I conclude that the ashes are so powerful they do not need a full hour of worship to support them. A few moments in the coffee shop does just fine.

9:30 a.m. — My Disciples clergy colleague arrives to start her shift. I am disappointed that she is 30 minutes early, because I do not want to share, much less leave. I offer her ashes as well, and we visit awhile. We change the sign to “Ashes for Anyone.”

10:15 a.m. — Play Transformers on the coffee shop floor with a four-year-old, while his mother claims a moment of silent prayer with my colleague.

10:20 a.m. — Prepare to leave, when a couple arrives that I am due to marry on Saturday. At our final premarital conversation the night before, I urged them to find ways to pray together. I stay to place the ashes on their foreheads, thinking of the promises they will make, to love one another until they are dust.

10:30 a.m. — Return to the office.  The Altar Guild is busily transforming from Epiphany white to Lenten purple. Set up for the evening service–copying liturgy, writing a welcome, digging out bowls for ashes, setting out communion ware.

Setting up for evening worship.

Setting up for evening worship.

11:30 a.m. — Do work unrelated to Ash Wednesday. Feel like I’m missing out. Grateful for texts from the coffee shop reporting on visitors.

12:30 p.m. — Return to the coffee shop, 30 minutes early, for lunch. Enjoy a relaxed, unhurried, joyful conversation about church and ministry with two colleagues. No one else comes seeking ashes, but we linger for over an hour.

2:12 p.m. — Return to the office again. Check Facebook and return a few calls. Notice that my ashes look as fresh as they did this morning. Make a lame attempt to accomplish things on my to-do list. Decide to finish Barbara Brown Taylor instead.

4:15 p.m. — Go to three stores to find a loaf of bread for evening communion. A sketchy guy is selling Blow Pops to raise money for “the kids at church.” He sees my forehead and calls out, “You may have given up sweets for Lent, but you didn’t give up giving, did you?” Contemplate what wearing my faith on my forehead demands as a response–not just to him, but to everyone who sees me today.

4:55 p.m. — Pick up my son at after school care, and find out he needs to bring Valentine cookies for a party tomorrow. Go home and fix him PB&J for dinner.

5:05 p.m. — My best friend since childhood, also a pastor, calls to share a holy moment from her Ash Wednesday visits in the hospital. We exchange stories about the power of the ashes, and lose our chance for dinner before evening services. No regrets.

6:03 p.m. —  Arrive back at church. Manage the hustle and bustle of a joint worship service with merged choirs, unfamiliar rituals, sound checks, elder questions and all the other quirky details. Wonder, as always, if we will manage to pull things off smoothly.

6:59 p.m. — Realize we have no ushers. Grab a church member and ask them to organize some people to collect the offering.

7:00 p.m. — Service begins,  on time. It’s a miracle.

7:18 p.m. — As the people come to receive the ashes, the exhaustion catches up to me, and I am overcome with emotion.  I can barely contain the tears as I make the blackened crosses on their foreheads. I choke on “to dust you shall return,” for the older woman who might not be here next year, the soldier about to be deployed, the three-month-old sister of my Transformer playmate. I can barely get out the words of repentance and mercy to the man in a world full of trouble, the rebellious teen, the saint of the church.

7:46 p.m. — Look out over the congregation and choir during the sermon, and think how ridiculous we look with our heads smeared with ashes. Reminds me of some crazy underground cult. Is this really the face to show the world in the local coffeehouse? Apparently it is.

7:56 p.m. — Worry the service is going too long. Realize there is nothing I can do.

8:03 p.m. — Break the bread at the table. Taste the sweetness, and no longer feel hungry.

8:21 p.m. — Recruit sound guy/elder to count offering money.

8:34 p.m. — Sound guy/elder/money counter realizes he never got his ashes because he was in the back room. Fetch the bowl from my office, the same bowl I poured before sunrise. We stand alone in the office. I mark the ashes upon his forehead, and my eyes fill with tears. So do his.

8:36 p.m. — Everyone is ready to go, but the guest preacher’s keys are missing. Search commences.

9:01 p.m. –Lost keys finally found, we all depart. Nearby grocery is now closed, but I still need Valentine’s cookies for my son’s party.

The quest for something like this.

The quest for something like this.

9:07 p.m. — Stop at Walgreens for cookies. Store is packed with people shopping for last-minute Valentine gifts. There are no Valentine’s cookies. Grumble. Settle for Oreos. Decide it’s lame, but I’m too tired to drive across town to Kroger.

9:28 p.m. — Realize Dollar General is open and on the way, and decide to try again. There are Valentine’s cookies just inside the door. Waiting in line to pay, the clerk asks, “What’s with the smudgy cross? I’ve been seeing people with it all day.” I tell her it’s Ash Wednesday, and she knows what that means. The other clerk asks, “Do you have to go to church to get those?” I respond by telling him that I was giving them out at the coffeehouse this morning, for people just like them who had to work. I regret that I do not have ashes in my car to offer them.

9:34 p.m. — Arrive home. Kick off shoes, change clothes. Head to the bathroom to wash my face. Stare in the mirror at the ashes one more time, and repeat to myself, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Return to the Lord with all your heart, for the Lord is merciful and compassionate, full of forgiveness.” Wash my face in warm water, cleaning off the ashes, the day’s grime, layers of makeup. Remember the cleansing waters of baptism, and make an invisible cross with water on my forehead, where the ashes used to be. Smile, and watch my eyes fill with tears again.

9:53 p.m. — Fix dinner, eat, watch TV.  Exhausted, but unwilling to let go of the day.

10:59 p.m. —  Decide to write this diary. I want to remind myself why it’s worth it to wake up before sunrise again next year. I want to tell myself to go sit in the coffee shop again. I want to remember to carry ashes in my car all day, to offer to sketchy guys selling Blow Pops and late night store clerks. I want to remember I am foolish dust, and God loves me.

outliersOutliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell, Little, Brown and Company, 2008, 309 pp.

Like Gladwell’s other books, Blink and The Tipping Point, Outliers is a phenomenological analysis of a particular human experience. In The Tipping Point, it was the phenomena of sudden shifts in public opinion, popularity, and perception. In Blink, it was human ability to make accurate, instant decisions. Outliers looks at the phenomena of genius and success. What makes some individuals excel so far beyond the rest of their communities? What is unique about their individual selves or their communities that allows them such great success?

Outliers, again like Gladwell’s other books, has been wildly successful, and the ideas it contains well-circulated in the few years since the book was published.  It has gained a wide audience among anxious and ambitious parents in the upper-middle class. Parents at my son’s preschool discussed the advantage of being born in January, and whether they should wait to start their children in elementary school to give them an advantage—all based on Gladwell’s chapter on the Matthew effect, looking at the impact of birth month on Canadian hockey players. A mom started her child’s violin lessons at age 3, based on Gladwell’s chapter on the 10,000 hour rule, in which expertise requires 10,000 hours of practice. The sooner you reach those hours, the more ready you are to seize an opportunity for your expertise to shine. Gladwell’s analysis of Christopher Langan has been seen as a cautionary tale for parents of young gifted children about the importance of parents in pushing them into success. Langan has an enormous IQ and little to show for it, compared to stars with lesser IQ. Gladwell argues that his lack of social and familial support have made it difficult for him to make use of the gift of his intellect.

What I had not heard other people discuss are the later chapters, which explore the complex confluence of luck, cultural wisdom (or cultural blindness), natural ability, practice and grit that combine to make someone an outlier. His chapters on airline pilots’ communication styles, the cultivation of rice paddies and math skills, the success of Jewish lawyers and violence in Harlan, Kentucky point to things that are beyond our control—wider webs of social, linguistic and cultural patterns that shape us to be successful in some ways and not in others. These are the things that we cannot control, or at least not easily. These are the things that over-anxious, over-ambitious parents do not like to discuss.

Gladwell’s book shows that success in this life has no single cause. It is a coming together of luck, preparation, hard work, grit, social and cultural wisdom, and timing. Are there things we can do to be more successful or help our children be more successful? Of course. Can we create stunningly successful outliers? No–unless we happen to be at the right place at the right time.

I find Gladwell interesting, insightful and entertaining, and I recommend him to you in that spirit. If you are looking for self-help, parenting advice or secrets of the universe, look elsewhere.

The Unvanquished by William Faulkner, Vintage Books, Vintage Books, 1934 (Vintage International Edition 1991), 262 pp.

unvanquishedWilliam Faulkner is one of those authors to whom I return over and over again. Every few years, I just want to go back to Yoknapatawpha County and crazy, ugly, beautiful people Faulkner has created there. The Unvanquished delivered, as Faulkner always does.

The Unvanquished centers on the Sartoris family. The main trajectory of the story is the intertwining transformation of the South from the heart of the Civil War into Reconstruction, and the growing up of Bayard Sartoris and Ringo. These two young boys, one white and free, one black and enslaved, possibly also half-brothers, grow from boys into men. To do so, they must learn to navigate the changing rules of Southern manhood, race, revenge and violence together. Bayard is our narrator, and his perspective grows wiser as the novel progresses.

He starts with a boy’s awe for his father, Colonel John Sartoris, commander of a Confederate brigade. After the war, when he is older, he begins to see his father’s flaws, and even shows subtle resentment and anger. Then, as he matures, he reconciles his father’s life, taking account of all his strengths and weaknesses, mistakes made and moments of triumph. His relationship with Ringo changes throughout the story too–they begin as peers, with Ringo being slightly more clever than Bayard. As they age, their friendship strains and Bayard begins to take command–not unkindly, but with the privilege, status and force of his race. As the title implies, the story unfolds a long pattern of vengeance and retribution, with Faulkner’s typical insightful critique.

The Unvanquished contains two of my favorite characters in Yoknapatawpha County–Granny Sartoris and Drusilla. Granny conforms to gender role prescriptions for Southern women, with her prim demeanor and parasol, but proves to be a fierce businesswoman, entrepreneur, swindler and radical philanthropist. Drusilla resists the life of Southern womanhood with every fiber of her being, preferring to live a soldier’s life. Yet the gender norms defeat her in the end. I love both of these characters—their fierceness, their stubbornness, their struggle.

Next up, I’m reading the Snopes trilogy. Ab Snopes makes his first appearance in The Unvanquished, and I’m ready for more. I’ve read The Hamlet before, but haven’t read the other two previously.

If you’ve never read William Faulkner, you’re missing out on a wonderful world. Join me in Yoknapatawphna County.

communion-table1He was one of the great saints of the church, and he was dying.

I had been visiting him and his wife in their home for several years, because his health had been too poor to come to church. Every time, they prepared an elaborate meal, setting out the best silver and china, special candles and napkins for Holy Communion at the dining room table. I told them over and over that they did not need to go to such trouble, but they insisted. Because of the fancy meal, my visits would often last four hours or more, yet still he protested that we didn’t have enough time.

I could tell that the elaborate preparations had become a burden. As he grew weaker, I urged him to put aside the extravagant meal and just let me pay a pastoral call. He refused to let me come unless he could meet his own high standards of hospitality. If he was unable to cook, he would not let me visit. We talked on the phone, but I did not see him for several months.

When he called me from the doctor’s office, it was late Epiphany, February-cold. He never used a cell phone, so I was startled to hear his voice. There were no more treatments left. He would be starting hospice care. They were preparing to tell their children. A man of deep faith, he was not afraid of dying, but he was shocked that his life, even after nearly 90 years, was coming to an end. He protested that he just didn’t have enough time.

The next day, I reached his wife on the phone. She immediately acquiesced to my request to visit, with only the holy bread and cup for our meal. When I arrived, we embraced, but he grew agitated that he was not able to provide his regular hospitality. “I just wish we could sit down at the table. I don’t have anything set. This is not how it should be.” I tried to reassure him that I was there to minister to him, as he had ministered to so many others before. My words seemed a formality, but his distress was real, as if an admission of his deteriorating condition.

Then his wife spoke: “After Easter,” she said. “After Easter. We’ll talk about it after Easter.”

It wasn’t even Ash Wednesday. We doubted he would live through Lent, much less regain enough strength to host a meal again. Yet her words comforted him, and me. After Easter. He calmed, and we spoke at length of life and death, of love and faith. The reminder of resurrection freed us to face the reality of his condition. Easter was more than a date on the calendar, it was the promise of eternity.

I returned every week after, twice a week towards the end. At every visit, he would speak of the meal we would share. “After Easter,” his wife and I replied. “After Easter,” he echoed.

He died a month later, kneeling beside his hospital bed in a posture of prayer. We buried him on the fourth Sunday of Lent.

I always miss him this time of year. We never did have enough time. Whenever I miss him, his hospitality, his faithful example, the meals we shared, I think to myself, “After Easter.” We shall sit together at the resurrection table, where Christ himself is host, with all the time in eternity to share. After Easter.


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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