Archive for July 2013
The Light Between Oceans, M. L. Stedman, Scribner, 2012, 345 pp.
What a beautiful novel! Oh, just a treat from beginning to end. Graceful prose, captivating characters, page-turning story–a delight in every way.
The Light Between Oceans tells the story of Tom and Isabel Sherbourne. Tom is a veteran of the First World War who becomes a lighthouse keeper because the order and isolation kept his soul secure from the reminders of war. He is assigned to the Janus Rock, a small, otherwise uninhabited island miles from the shore on the southwestern edge of Australia. The boat comes bearing supplies only four times a year, and the lighthouse keeper may only take leave from the island every three years. He meets Isabel on his first shore leave, and they correspond before being married. Isabel loves the isolated Janus, but despairs after a series of miscarriages. When a boat washes up on shore bearing a dead man and a live infant, it seems like a miracle. Tom and Isabel begin to treat the child as their own. Once Isabel loves the child, there is no turning back–even though the lie threatens to destroy everything. It’s a powerful story about grief, marriage, secrets and a mother’s love.
Just a few passages to cherish:
About life in the Partaguese, the small shore town closest to Janus:
The town draws a veil over certain events. This is a small community, where everyone knows that sometimes the contract to forget is as important as any promise to remember. Children can grow up having no knowledge of the indiscretion of their father in his youth, or of the illegitimate sibling who lives fifty miles away and bears another man’s name. History is that which is agreed upon by mutual consent. That’s how life goes on–protected by the silence that anesthetizes shame. (155)
From Ralph, who owns the supply boat that visits Janus every season:
Right and wrong can be like bloody snakes: so tangled up that you can’t tell which is which until you’ve shot ’em both, and then it’s too late. (180)
From Frank, the child’s deceased father, on forgiveness:
It is so much less exhausting. You only have to forgive once. To resent, you have to do it all day, day. You have to keep remembering all the bad things. … I would have to make a list, a very, very long list and make sure I hated the people on it the right amount. That I did a very proper job of hating, too: very Teutonic! No… we always have a choice. All of us. (323)
The Light Between Oceans is a wonderful story, and recommended reading for all.
Any Day a Beautiful Change: A Story of Faith and Family by Katherine Willis Pershey. Chalice Press, 2012, 118 pp.
I don’t know Katherine Willis Pershey in real life, but we are both active in the UCC 2030 Clergy Network. We are friends on Facebook and interact that way, and we corresponded last year when St. Luke’s used a children’s Christmas pageant she authored. I felt like I knew her already before I began reading her book. By the end of the introduction, I felt like she knew me too. By the end of the book, I felt like we were BFFs.
Pershey’s book tells the story of her life and mine, which are shaped by the intersection of motherhood, marriage and ministry. The one of those identities that takes priority depends on the day. The topics she covers are the same ones I talk about with my closest friends over lunch, and Pershey’s personal sharing is equally intimate. The difference is that she writes her story–which I want to claim as our story, though the particulars are her own–with such depth, insight and beauty.
Each chapter is an essay that can stand on its own. One is about getting married, others are about getting pregnant, nursing, family conflict and the stress between work and family life. Each one has its own beauty and its own theological insights, and the craft of her prose is just tight. For example, she talks about being pregnant and preaching during the season of Advent, when the whole church anticipates the birth of Mary’s child and her own.
Incarnation. God becomes flesh. God becomes a baby. The very fundamentals of my religious tradition, the stuff I’d grown up with and studied and (for heaven’s sake!) preached was suddenly extraordinarily real to me. The longing I had for my theoretical fetus to be transformed into a tangible baby was the same as my desire for my theoretical divinity to become the incarnate Christ. (16)
In a later chapter, she reflects on nursing and communion:
Long after I first wrestled with those doctrines in classrooms and chapels, I’ve finally learned that there’s no way for bread to be broken and wine to be spilled without somebody’s body and blood taking a hit. It isn’t that the pain is redemptive. The pain is redeemed. Take and eat, my daughter. This deluge of milk is called forth by you, and given for you. (29)
Together, the chapters create an intimate picture of a life lived at this intersection of ministry, marriage and motherhood, which is simultaneously broken, beautiful, agonizing, breathtaking, and redeemed. I almost hesitate to recommend it to members of my church or family, lest they come to know my life too intimately. This book is vulnerable and brave.
Many friends have been raving about how good her book is. They were right, and now it’s my turn to say the same thing. If you are a young clergy woman, especially if you are a mother, why have you not read this book yet? You must. Order it today. Read it–to support a colleague who is telling so much truth and doing such good theology about our lives and our ministries.
If you are know or love someone living at the intersection of ministry, motherhood and marriage–this is a good book to read to learn about their lives. Most importantly, though, this is just good theology, beautifully written, and anyone who reads it will be blessed to encounter the Holy in the author’s life and likely in their own, whether you yourself are minister, mother, married, or none of the above.
Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain, Crown, 2012, EPUB file (368 pages in paperback).
I did much better in my second choice for an e-book. I had been curious to read Quiet since it was published and I had heard multiple good reports about it from friends and from NPR. As an introvert myself, I was intrigued by the popularity of this book. I have read plenty of things about the differences between being an introvert and an extrovert, so I wasn’t that interested in discovering more about what it’s like to be me.
What is unique about Cain’s book are the new studies from neuroscientists about the brain patterns of introverts, and her analysis of the privileging of extroverted behavior in our culture. Cain begins with identifying what she calls the “Extrovert Ideal,” which she traces to the beginning of the 20th century. The Culture of Character (which valued seriousness, hard work, discipline and honor) became replaced by a Culture of Personality.
When they embraced the Culture of Personality, Americans started to focus on how others perceived them. They became captivated by people who are bold and entertaining. “The social role demanded of all in the new Culture of Personality was that of a performer,” (Warren) Susman famously wrote. “Every American was to become a performing self.” (21)
Leadership and social capital now comes from likability and gregariousness. Cain uses the self-help culture influenced by Dale Carnegie and the culture at Harvard Business School as primary examples of how we privilege extroversion and extroverted behavior. She then proceeds to make the case for the values introverts bring to the table–especially a capacity for new and innovative ideas.
New research shows that groups working together are not nearly as creative as individuals left to work alone. Open workplaces, group brainstorming and team retreats are not effective at producing innovative ideas, because a person (introvert or extrovert) needs space to think alone before thinking with the group. She also examines the way Asian culture still values more introverted traits, and what the experience of Asians in America is around those concerns. Introverts process dopamine differently than extroverts, which means they feel less “buzz” in response to stimuli. That means they tend to be “cool” and guided by inner rewards rather than external ones. This means they can bring perspective, patience and measured reactions to an organization.
The style of Quiet reminded me a lot of Malcolm Gladwell’s work, with its quick and compelling prose and vast approach to the subject, ranging from neuroscience to popular culture to business to personal interviews. It was an enjoyable and entertaining read, with some ideas I may be able to take with me.
The Devil in Pew Number Seven, by Rebecca Nichols Alonzo. Tyndale Momentum, 2010, EPUB file. (288 pages in paperback form)
This was my first ever experience with reading an e-book. I purchased an iPad the night before a major trip, and one of the things I most wanted was the chance to check out books from the library for e-reading. This was my first. In general, I enjoyed the experience of reading on the iPad, for fiction and light reading (I still need pen and paper for more intense texts). However, I learned quite a few things by checking out a book without having first been able to handle it, flip through it, and examine it carefully.
Sometimes, there are books that you are embarrassed to admit that you have read. Other times, there are books that you are sorry you wasted your time reading. Occasionally, there is a book that is both. For me, this book is one of those. Had I looked at it more carefully (in person, or as a more experienced e-book selector), I never would have checked it out, because I would have known by looking that it was not for me. However, there I was on the plane with only this option, and I read the whole thing and now must write up a review in keeping with my self-discipline.
I confess I chose the book because of the salacious nature of the story. A preacher’s daughter tells the true story of her growing up in a country church where one of the members was using all manner of violent threats and intimidation to try to get her father to leave the church. Her family endured bombings, stalking, random gunfire, and finally a murderous shootout that took the life of her mother and almost her own. The book tells that story, along with the story of how her life has unfolded since.
I thought the story would be exciting and dramatic. I thought she might offer an indictment of her father’s refusal to protect them, or the church’s mishandling of the offending member, or the real sickness of a community. I thought she might offer insight about how this kind of violence starts with a tolerance for smaller misbehavior, and strategies for churches to avoid it. I thought she might offer a witness for how God could be present in the midst of such terrible followers. I was wrong.
This book falls in the genre of Christian personal memoir, the “how I overcame by the power of God,” that you can find in Christian bookstores everywhere. The early parts are highly romanticized and poorly written accounts of her childhood, followed by a good story told in mediocre style, followed by life lessons she learned (and you can too!) about how God works in the worst of circumstances. The tale is horrifying, with devastating costs to the author and her entire family. Yet the ending and the outcome is syrupy sweet and nice. The book tells the details of the crime, but does not probe into the depths of cause or cost. It is a shallow telling, and left me feeling sticky rather than saved. It conveys a version of Christianity that does not speak to me, and I’m sorry to have wasted a good flight on it.
Faith Formation 2020: Designing the Future of Faith Formation by John Roberto, LifeLong Faith Associates, 2010, 218 pp.
Faith formation is one of my passions in ministry. How do we help people come to know the Christian life? How do we teach the stories of the Bible and the patterns of Christian living? The ways of faith formation are changing dramatically now that we live in a post-Christendom world, where young people can grow up having never heard even the basics of the Christian story. I was eager to read Faith Formation 2020 for insights about how to respond to this new reality and strategies for successful faith formation in the church. John Roberto is widely regarded as an expert in this field, and has successfully helped many churches adapt their programs and grow their ministries.
The book begins with a social-scientific approach dissecting and classifying the data of the current situation of the church. Roberto employs a strategy called “scenario thinking” to categorize and analyze the various types of people, life situations, programs and spiritual needs across the entire population. The approach felt almost overwhelming to me at times. He begins with “eight significant influences driving faith formation,” which include things like the increase in people identified as “spiritual but not religious,” changing patterns of marriage and family life, decreased church participation and the impact of digital technologies. (12-15) He then adds “two critical uncertainties for faith formation 2020.”
Will people be more or less receptive to Christianity and involved in churches in the next decade?
Will people’s hunger and openness (for God and the spiritual life) increase or decrease over the same decade? (17)
These uncertainties work together in a matrix to create four scenarios:
- Vibrant faith and active engagement: “people of all ages and generations are actively engaged in a Christian church, are spiritually committed, and growing in their faith.”
- Spiritual but not religious: “people are spiritually hungry and searching for God and the spiritual life, but most likely are not affiliated with organized religion and an established Christian tradition.”
- Unaffiliated and uninterested: “people experience little need for God and the spiritual life and are not affiliated with organized religion and established Christian churches.”
- Participating but uncommitted: “people attend church activities, but are not actively engaged in their church community or spiritually committed.” (19)
The remainder of the book is dedicated to sixteen strategies to address the various scenarios. The strategies include things like attending to milestones in people’s lives, engaging in service and mission as a path toward faith formation, organizing faith formation by generation, teaching discipleship by mentoring relationships and using digital media and technology. Within each strategy, Roberto identifies how it works with people within each of the four scenarios, how their particular needs will be different, and how the strategy can be adapted for them. There are many, many practical ideas, well-tested programs and useful techniques.
It took me an absurdly long time to read this book (a month), and even longer to get around to writing this review (another month). I think that’s because the whole thing left me feeling quite overwhelmed. It took me awhile to grasp the way that the factors, uncertainties, scenarios and strategies all related to one another and to me. I love big picture thinking and categories, but even so this was a lot to comprehend. However, the overwhelmed feeling did not subside once I understood the concepts.
Roberto’s approach breaks down just how different the faith formation needs are for different groups of people, especially across the four scenarios. I see each of them at work in my congregation and community, and I feel moved to respond to people across the four quadrants. However, unlike Roberto, who works predominately in Catholic parishes starting with 1,000 families, I am looking at a congregation of around 200 people, about 80 in worship on Sunday. It seems an impossible feat to organize faith formation unique to each scenario and life stage when you are only dealing with two to four people in each category. Reading the book made me feel a burden of scarcity–in resources, time and energy–about faithfully meeting the needs of such a wide range of people.
At the end, I am still left with that uncertainty about how faith formation can take place in a smaller congregation. Yet I know that I cannot let my feelings of scarcity rule–our God is the God of abundance. I leave the book appreciative for the depth of understanding it offered about the various spiritual needs and concerns of people in the different scenarios. I will be attentive to that in my ministry. I will adapt some of the strategies in our work together, and think about how they work for people in different places in life. I still leave a bit overwhelmed with it all, which is perhaps the only proper response to the rapidly changing times in which we live and do ministry.
I recommend this book as food for thought to people in all settings and sizes of ministry, because Roberto’s analysis of the landscape is unparalleled. But I caution the reader: you may find yourself overwhelmed by the vast work that lies ahead. Thankfully, our God is bigger than we are.
Let me start with a disclaimer: I have not watched the play-by-play of the George Zimmerman trial in the last few weeks. This post is not about what happened at trial or why the women of the jury decided what they did based on the evidence they were presented. While I do think that the prosecution clearly failed, I am not about to dissect the legalities of the case. This is instead a commentary on the wider context of this trial, and what it says about the nation in which we live.
Tonight, George Zimmerman is a free man. The basic story is not in dispute: Zimmerman saw Trayvon Martin walking in the neighborhood, and decided that a young black man in a hoodie posed a threat to his safety. He openly admitted to following Martin in a van, calling 911, and hearing the 911 operator tell him to back off and not get out of his vehicle. Yet he did get out, a scuffle ensued, and then Zimmerman shot Martin, an unarmed 17-year-old boy, because he was afraid of him. The jury concluded that this was not a crime, and Zimmerman is not guilty.
In other words, it’s legal to shoot an unarmed black teenager if you are afraid of him.
When you put it like that, it seems crazy. How is this outcome even possible?
This case is only understandable when viewed through the intersection of so many cultural narratives in our nation. I want to spend a few paragraphs naming and explaining those narratives, because they help explain how we got here, and why there is so much tension around this case.
1. Our culture loves guns, and the freedom to use them. We tolerate an absurd number of gun deaths, accidental and intentional, because we associate personal freedom with the ability to arm ourselves. No one questioned Zimmerman’s right to carry a gun, or to shoot someone who threatened him, even if that person was unarmed. If Martin had also been armed, we would have understood and tolerated a shootout on the street of a quiet neighborhood.
The best argument that the gun lobby has is that every American has the right to defend his or her life, liberty and property by carrying a weapon. But in this case, Zimmerman’s right to carry a gun overtook Martin’s basic right to life. Neither Zimmerman’s liberty nor his property were at risk, and if his life was at risk it was only because he provoked a confrontation. Their rights collided–and the verdict declared that Zimmerman’s right to defend himself with his gun was deemed more important than Martin’s right to life. Something is terribly wrong with that.
2. This case unmasks the living legacy of racism, especially the historic fear of young black men. If you doubt this case has anything to do with race, imagine if the man carrying the gun had been black and the dead boy had been white. Would the outcome have been the same? I doubt it. But it’s far more complicated than that. The U.S. has a long history of murdering young black men out of fear and prejudice and a perceived threat. Emmett Till comes first to mind. Or the fictional version in To Kill a Mockingbird, which shows that the story was common enough to be recognized immediately as a cultural reality–a young black man who was perceived as a threat, taken down by mob justice and never given fair hearing in a court of law.
We like to imagine that things have gotten better, that we are beyond the days of lynch mobs, that the Civil Rights Movement ended the fear of violence against African-Americans–but this case brings back all those bad memories and shows us that racism today is as violent and ugly as the black-and-white images of bygone eras. Trayvon Martin’s story is not new–it is very old. Many had hoped (and some had convinced themselves) it could not happen again, but it did. Those who recognize racism’s persistence were not surprised by Martin’s death, nor shocked that the jury refused to convict the man who confessed to killing him. It’s a familiar story–like all of these familiar narratives–even if Zimmerman was Latino and not a traditional white man.
3. This case makes us question our adoration of vigilante heroes and those who take the law into their own hands. As a culture, we worship lone rangers and nonconformists. Think of pretty much every summer disaster flick in the last two decades (or almost anything starring Bruce Willis or Will Smith)–it’s one guy (or a small band of folks) saving the world, because they refuse to play by the rules and follow orders. Whether it’s aliens or asteroids or giant bugs, we love to watch heroes who break the law in order to get justice. We don’t trust the system to take care of problems. We have to do it ourselves.
Except this time it didn’t go quite so well. Zimmerman followed his gut and took the law into his own hands, but he was wrong and he killed an unarmed boy. We turned to the justice system to make it right, but the system failed–just like Zimmerman expected. Just like the movies. Now there are predictions of mob justice for Zimmerman, or retribution by riots. Nearly all will publicly shake their heads at this vigilantism, but we all understand it, and many secretly support it. But do we recognize that it’s the same behavior that started this whole thing in the first place? Do we admit that this problem’s roots in American culture with our worship of individualism?
4. This case amplifies the confusion between the workings of the legal system and the idea of justice. We may refer to it as the “criminal justice system,” but the conviction and punishment of people for committing crimes is not synonymous with justice. Justice is much more than simply punishing people who do bad things. In common parlance, justice is a sense of fairness and equality before the law. In the Bible, it includes a broader picture that incorporates grace, forgiveness, abundance over scarcity, economic security, mercy and peace.
Our criminal justice system, with its “presumed innocence” and “beyond a reasonable doubt,” is designed to punish the guilty and exonerate the innocent, and has nothing to do with fairness or equality, much less the broader conceptions of justice. Even more, it is obvious to anyone who participates in the system that it generally does a bad job even by its own standards, regularly imprisoning the innocent and exonerating the guilty. Prejudice, racism, money, poor lawyers, good lawyers, aggressive police work, lazy police work–all these things can change the outcome of a trial, and none of them have anything to do with justice. Justice is not the same thing as legality. (If you doubt this, compare the Zimmerman verdict with this one.)
We may have been hoping for #JusticeforTrayvon, but only the most paltry conception of justice can be found in the legal system, and even that is a rare find.
These four narratives intersect in this case, just as they do in our culture. I found it helpful to pull apart the web and look at each one individually, as well as looking at the ways they influence and pull on one another in this case. They help me understand how a jury in 2013 can reach the conclusion it did tonight: that it’s legal to shoot an unarmed black teenager if you are afraid of him.
My brain can analyze and dissect and trace threads to make sense of it all, but my heart cannot. There is no excuse, no defense, no reason for the death of Trayvon Martin. The verdict feels like betrayal. I feel angry, sad, frustrated, indignant, powerless, heartbroken. I cannot imagine the grief of the Martin family, the first inflicted by Zimmerman’s gun, the second inflicted by a verdict that seems to say their son’s death was not worthy of consequences. The whole situation makes me want to weep at the sin and brokenness of the world, and beg for God’s “justice to roll down like waters, and righteousness like a flowing stream.” (Amos 3)
I look at my own son. He will be 17 someday, and walk with that adolescent swagger, talk with that constant tone of insubordination. He may get into trouble, but his blonde hair and blue eyes will offer him a level of protection and privilege that his dark-skinned friends will not share. My heart aches for their mothers tonight, recognizing that this is not a new fear in their lives.
I pray for the safety of your sons, even as I pray for my own. I pray that they will do a better job than we have of negotiating the tensions around guns, race, heroes and justice. I pray that even though the legal system failed to act, Trayvon Martin’s death will have consequences, both for George Zimmerman and for our nation. I pray that a greater justice will indeed come to our land, that one day racism will be no more, that freedom will no longer be measured in our ability to carry weapons but in our ability to live together in peace. I pray for righteous anger that will spill over into righteous action rather than endless violence. I pray for ways to tell different stories than the ones we’ve always known, to free ourselves to truly build a nation of justice and peace, with liberty and justice for all.