Archive for September 2013
The Hour I First Believed by Wally Lamb, HarperCollins, 2008, 740 pp.
Oh, Wally Lamb! He knows how to plumb the depths of brokenness and healing, sin and forgiveness, estrangement and relationship. I have read both She’s Come Undone and I Know This Much is True, so I knew what to expect from his latest tome–a deep, searing, introspective novel with haunting sadness but always hope.
The Hour I First Believed maps the personal and psychological devastation of Caelum and Maureen Quirk, who were both teachers at Columbine High School in the 1999 mass shooting. While Caelum was away tending to his aunt after a stroke, Maureen experienced a trauma that broke her apart. Both of them unraveled, in their own ways, because of the shooting and its aftermath. They return to his aunt’s farm to recover, and Caelum gains access to his family’s long history and discovers information that discloses secrets that cause him to question his own identity. (I thought the long excursions into the past did not add much to the quality of the novel, and even detracted from its power. They could have been much shorter, or omitted altogether and the book would have felt stronger to me.)
I can’t say that I enjoy Wally Lamb’s work. I usually find it difficult and painful to read. However, that’s what makes it so valuable. Lamb’s characters are never perfect and they do not conform to expectations or neat categories. They do not behave like we want them to, and they frustrate and confuse. That’s what makes them so rich. What keeps me returning to Lamb’s work, even as agonizing as it can be, is that Lamb wrestles these complicated, broken characters into a place of hope and grace. It’s never easy, it’s never fully wrought or resolved, but he points the way to faith, every time.
Below are a few gems from the story, keys to unlocking the hope at the end of such sorrow.
Words from a pastor at a community meeting organized by local churches after the Columbine massacre:
We need to stare back, without blinking, at the depravity of these boys’ actions and realize that our love is more powerful than their hatred.” (203)
I said something very similar when facing the murder of a young girl in my congregation, with the shorthand “love wins.”
A little process theology tucked in, too, as Caelum quotes a chaos theorist he met on an airplane:
He said maybe God wasn’t Allah or Jesus Christ or any of the other deities that people are always using as an excuse to go to war over. That maybe all ‘God’ was was mutuation. Mutability. The thing that happens when the DNA we’re ‘carrying forward’ from our ancestors suddenly jumps the track. Gets altered in some unpredictable way, and, for better or worse, sets the first domino falling in a different direction. (451)
Caelum gets words about faith and doubt from an unlikely source, a retired chauffeur for a beer company.
Well, let me give you a piece of advice, Mr. I Have My Doubts. Next time you’re in a bad way and you’re asking this god you have your doubts about to help you, just remember that the question you gotta ask isn’t Why? or If? The question is How? You got that? Not why. Not if. How. (519)
When Caelum teaches a class on “The Quest in Literature” at the local community college, they explore the role and importance of myth in healing. The closing assignment is to examine Picasso’s Minotauromachia and discuss what they see in the picture and what it says about modern life. One student responds thus:
“This picture shows us what all the myths we studied told us,” he concluded. “Life is messy, violent, confusing and hopeful.” (685)
That is what any good story will do–an ancient myth, a biblical text, and a good novel. Wally Lamb’s The Hour I First Believed is just such a story. It’s messy, violent, confusing and hopeful, and I recommend it to you.
Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger. Atria Books, 2013, 307 pp.
The title drew me in from the “new books” section of the library. I’d never heard of William Kent Krueger before, but he is apparently best known as a mystery writer. Ordinary Grace is a bit of a mystery, but it is mostly a coming-of-age story about a young boy, son of a Methodist minister, as the reality of death touches his small community and his family. It is not the best book I’ve ever read, but it was a good story well told. I couldn’t put it down, and it made me weep more than once. It spoke to my heart in a powerful way in this season of my life, as the pastor parent of a young boy.
The story belongs to Frank Drum, who is thirteen in the summer of 1961 and the novel’s narrator. Frank and his younger brother Jake have the run of their Minnesota small town, while their older sister Ariel is busy preparing to attend Julliard in the fall. Their daily explorations unpack the town’s characters: the minister father who carries invisible scars from his bleak past at war; the mother who gave up her own musical dreams; the piano teacher Emil Brandt, blind from war wounds and resigned from a life of fame; his sister Lise, living with mental illness; their father’s war buddy Gus, who lives in the church’s basement. There are savory and unsavory characters, from their young friends to a Native American with a past to the rowdy teenagers to the town police officers. The story unfolds a series of tragic deaths that occur over the course of the summer. As Frank is exposed to these deaths, and to the events that led to them, he enters an adult world of violence, betrayal, adultery, prejudice and more.
What drew me in was the plainspoken style that Krueger gave to many of the adult characters, especially Rev. Drum, as they explained to the boys and to one another the realities of loss, hope and especially grace. I put nearly a dozen flags in the book, and copied out countless quotations to keep for later. Here are just a few.
These are Rev. Drum’s remarks at the funeral of a transient man whose identity is unknown. I would hope to speak so simply and truthfully.
We believe too often that on the roads we walk we walk alone. Which is never true. Even this man who is unknown to us was known to God and God was his constant companion. God never promised us an easy life. He never promised that we wouldn’t suffer, that we wouldn’t feel despair and loneliness and confusion and desperation. What he did promise was that in our suffering we would never be alone. And though we may sometimes make ourselves blind and deaf to his presence he is beside us and around us and within us always. We are never separated from his love. And he promised us something else, the most important promise of all. That there would be surcease. That there would be an end to our pain and our suffering and our loneliness, that we would be with him and know him, and this would be heaven. This man, who in life may have felt utterly alone, feels alone no more. This man, whose life may have been days and nights of endless waiting, is waiting no more. He is where God always knew he would be, in a place prepared. And for this we rejoice.” (71)
When the Drum family suffers a terrible loss, Rev. Drum questions whether his own sins in war might be to blame. His war buddy Gus responds with words that cut to my heart as a pastor who has known times of doubt.
Gus said, “You think God operates that way, Captain? Hell, that sure ain’t what you’ve been telling me all these years. And as for those sins of yours, I’m guessing you mean the war, and haven’t you always told me that you and me and the others we could be forgiven? You told me you believed it as surely as you believed the sun would rise every morning. And I’ve got to tell you, Captain, you seemed so certain that you got me believing too. … I can’t see any way that the God you’ve talked yourself blue to me and everyone else about would be responsible for what happened.Seems to me you’re reeling here, Captain. Like from a punch in the face. When you come around you’ll see that you’ve been right all along. I know I give you a hard time about your religion, but damned if I’m not grateful at heart that you believe it. Somebody’s got to. For all the rest of us, Captain, somebody’s got to.” (191-192)
I know what it feels like to carry the weight of faith because other people need you to believe it, even when you have your doubts. Krueger’s ability to name this subtle experience of ministry so plainly moved me.
I also learned from the Prologue a quotation from Aeschylus that I had not heard before.
He who learns must suffer. And even in our sleep pain, which cannot forget, falls drop by drop upon the heart, until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.
In the end, it was the grace of Ordinary Grace that moved me–the way the characters in this small town extended grace and forgiveness to one another across terrible circumstances.
World Enough and Time: On Creativity and Slowing Down by Christian McEwen, Baughan Publishing (Peterborough, NH), 2011, 367 pp.
I recognized the title line immediately, from Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress,” and loved the way the author had plucked it from its context of sexual seduction to entice us into a contemplation of slowness. McEwen’s World Enough and Time is a series of carefully considered essays on slowing down, and the necessary relationship between slowness and creativity. I see myself as a creative artist with both my preaching and my writing, and I know that neither one is possible without making a life that is spacious and slow. I struggle to preach on Sunday if I don’t have a quiet day off on Friday. The slow time matters, even if I am not working on the sermon itself. With that in mind, I was eager and receptive to read this book, which was given as an assignment by my Macedonian Ministries group.
McEwen begins with a basic case for slowness and a compelling indictment of modern American life, which she diagnoses with “hurry sickness.” Hurry sickness is a feeling of time poverty, so that life is lived in constant motion without the chance to linger, reflect, absorb or tarry. I have read many books on this theme, with corresponding statistical or theological or sociological analysis. McEwen offers none of those. She simply points out, with a poet’s care and sharpness, what we all know: a life full to the brim with activity is often empty of meaning, depth and relationship.
For the remainder of the book, she devotes a chapter each to a varied list of slow activities, slow gifts and slow ways of being. In each chapter, McEwen looks at the lives of artists and practitioners in those areas, combing their lives and art for quotations and insights about the process of creativity and slowness. She examines the gift of a long conversation with a friend, childhood experiences in nature, walking, reading, writing (especially reading and writing poetry), silence, sabbath, storytelling and meditation. Two of my favorite chapters were the ones on dreaming and on looking.
In “The Art of Looking,” McEwen talks about the cultivation of the eye in artists. A great work of art does not come from the technique of the hand, but from the eye of the artist that is able to see and illuminate something that the rest of us cannot. Such art requires enormous time spent observing the world with great care and attention, time that might appear idle and fruitless to others. I am not a visual artist, but I connected with this passage as a preacher. My sermons require a lot of time spent staring out the window, looking off into space, or letting my mind wander. It’s the only way I can “see” what I am supposed to say each week. McEwen quotes from several others who speak to the path to seeing something new:
“To learn something new,” said the naturalist John Burroughs, “take the path today that you took yesterday.” All professions have need of such devoted practitioners, willing to push past their own boredom, their own comfortable familiarity, in order to arrive at something new. As Proust once said, “The true voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having fresh eyes.” (121)
Every week, my journey with the Gospel is a quest to see it with new eyes. The stories are familiar and many are well-worn. Yet, when they are seen with fresh eyes, they give us new life.
In “Across the Bridge of Dreams,” she catalogs the relationship between creativity and dreams. I don’t usually share this, but this book has given me courage. Dreaming is a critically important part of my sermon writing process. I concentrate and work at the computer to research and think and analyze, but the mystical presence of the Gospel good news only comes to me when I sleep. I lay down in prayer with the sermon in my mind, and in that hazy place between dreaming and waking, the Spirit does its work to bind it all together for me. Sometimes, I will awake in the night to make notes. Other times, I dream it over and over again so that by morning it is all clear and ready to transcribe. According to McEwen, I am not alone. She shared that Samuel Coleridge, Jorge Luis Borges, Isabelle Allende, William Styron, and Robert Louis Stevenson all described writing in through their dreams, and included dreams in their process much the same way that I do. (245-249) It’s not simply paying attention or gaining insight or journaling about my dreams–the dreaming is an essential part of the writing process for me. I have to work it out in the dream. The same was true for them.
World Enough and Time was a rich experience from beginning to end. The book demands slowness in the experience of reading, so that you might contemplate and ruminate on all the things McEwen brings together. It also invites a re-reading, as a whole or just a chapter that piques your interest for a time. It is a book that invites you to dive in and surface again, to splash around here and there rather than simply consuming it from one end to the other. If you ever needed a compelling case for slowing down and creating space in your life, especially if you are an artist in any way, McEwen’s World Enough and Time is just what you need.
The Heretic’s Daughter by Kathleen Kent, Little, Brown and Company, 2008, 332 pp.
The Heretic’s Daughter is a novel about the Salem Witch Trials, inspired by the author’s genealogical discovery of a distant relation with one of the women tried and hanged as a witch at Salem. I was nervous about the book’s content on both of those counts: I didn’t anything to do with a book that made it seem that the Salem Witch Trials had anything really to do with witches, nor was I interested in a personal genealogical fantasy. The jacket convinced me to give it a try, and I was not disappointed.
The Heretic’s Daughter is told from the perspective of Sarah Carrier, the daughter of Martha Carrier, who was hanged as a witch at Salem and is kin to the author. It is as much a story about growing up in the tough conditions in the colonies, where religious and social climate is as harsh and dangerous as the Massachusetts winter. Sarah and her siblings must navigate this dangerous life of small pox, lawlessness, attacks by Native Americans, and crop failures that can trigger starvation. Sarah’s parents initially appear to match the cruel disdain of the landscape, but as the novel unpacks their story to her and to us, we come to treasure their fortitude and love for each other and for their children.
The novel was a beautifully written story from beginning to end. It is faithful to the history of the Salem trauma, focusing on the political and personal causes at work against those who were accused and convicted, even drawing on some of the feminist history written in the last several decades. The book does not try to make a case for its own historicity, but the author uses her imagination in conjunction with her research to give us a story that is beautiful, compelling and fascinating to read. History buffs especially will appreciate some of the creative back-story she creates. An enjoyable read for anyone who likes historical fiction.
Talking About Evangelism: A Congregational Resource by D. Mark Davis (part of the Holy Conversations series), Pilgrim Press, 2007, 111 pp.
D. Mark Davis’ book is designed as study for church groups to use as they consider and reconsider the role and importance of evangelism. Davis begins by acknowledging the tension around the meaning of evangelism. While evangelism is supposed to be simply about sharing the joyous good news of Christ, it has often devolved into a coercive act of persuasion, convincing others that your truth is better than their truth. How can we engage in evangelism that is open-hearted and open-minded, not confrontational and judgmental? Davis reassesses the entire practice and meaning in this short study.
Davis himself grew up in a conservative tradition that practiced aggressive evangelical tactics aimed at convincing other people of their need to “accept Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior.” He shares memorable personal stories throughout the book of his own experiences, both positive and negative, and his changes in perspective along the way.
One keen observation I appreciated was his understanding that good evangelism does not presume that others have no experience of or relationship with God. Instead, we might ask where God has been in their lives up to this point, and invite them to know God’s presence in a new way. It’s the opposite of the traditional conservative approach that takes our human sinfulness as the starting point. Instead, we start with our status as God’s beloved children, always. That one turn changes the entire perspective of evangelism, and the rest of Davis’ book is built upon it. He continues:
What would the practice of evangelism look like if we addressed people, not as fallen sinners, but primarily as children of God, however estranged? … Everyone’s story has real and meaningful significance; it is not just a jumping off point for our monologue. … Everyone’s story is a “faith journey,” in some way, no matter how angry, confused or destructive that journey might be. (41, 43)
Davis’ study is rooted in scripture, with several deep studies of biblical texts about sharing our faith. He also includes a detailed and helpful discussion guide that is an easily executed lesson plan for any church group reading the study. I think this book would be ideal for churches who think of evangelism and faith sharing as something “those people” do, or cannot conceive of a way of sharing faith that is not coercive or judgmental. It is long on explanation and justification, shorter on implementation. It is not a “how-to” book in a concrete, easily applicable way, but it is an important first step for congregations and individuals who are resistant or at a loss for how to begin any kind of conversation about faith-sharing.