For The Someday Book

Archive for July 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Still Life with Bread Crumbs by Anna Quindlen, Random House, 2014, 252 pp.

Still Life with Bread CrumbsThis qualifies as book #2 in the “light summer reading.” As far as I know, I’ve never read an Anna Quindlen novel before. They always struck me as too sappy, with women characters who were too predictable to be interesting. This one was a basic story of a woman finding herself and finding love, in an unexpected place and in spite of obstacles. I read it in an afternoon on vacation.

Rebecca Winter is famous for a series of photographs called “Still Life with Breadcrumbs,” which have given her money and artistic respect, and made her a feminist icon. However, her work has not continued to thrive, and her divorce, care for her son and parents have left her nearly broke. She moves outside New York City to a small-town cabin, where she breaks with her Manhattan snobbery habits for the first time in her life. She meets Jim Bates, who fixes her roof and becomes her friend. Rebecca takes long walks in the woods, and joins Jim in looking for wildlife. Along the path, she discovers mysterious memorial crosses and begins to photograph them.

You can predict the outcome from here, can’t you? Rebecca and Jim find love in one another. Her photographs in the woods bring her back to artistic promise and financial security. Of course, there are interesting twists and turns along the way, some star-crossed lover moments with the two of them, and some interesting secondary plots with Rebecca’s parents. Don’t be mad and accuse me of spoilers. You will know from the first chapter, just like I did, that Rebecca and Jim are destined for each other. In the end, though, it’s a story we read not to find out what will happen, but exactly how and when it will happen. There’s nothing wrong with that, and it made for a fun vacation afternoon.

Still Life with Breadcrumbs is a simple story of a woman finding herself, getting her groove back, and finding love. Rebecca Winter is not an especially well-developed character with a rich internal life, but consequently we can read ourselves into her story. She gives us the opportunity to become her for an afternoon, and perhaps discover that we too can find ourselves, get our groove back, and even find love old or new. Enjoy your summer reading!

One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America by Kevin M. Kruse, Basic Books, 2015, 352 pp.

One Nation Under GodI read this book as part of a clergy book group that meets monthly. The most surprising part of the whole experience–both of reading the book and discussing it–was how shocked my colleagues were by it. One Nation Under God tells of a cynical collusion and political manipulation of American religiosity that I always believed to be true. My colleagues seemed to never imagine it was actually so bad. Perhaps it is a generational thing. They are Baby Boomers or older. I am part of cynical Generation X, who always expects that political and religious leaders are up to no good.

Kevin Kruse’s historical research in One Nation Under God examines the way forces of business and capitalist interests manipulated religious leaders to support their political causes, particularly conservative religious leaders between the years 1940 and 1970. The initiatives launched by these business leaders result in a changed American religious landscape far beyond their imagination–and their desires.

The story begins with the National Association of Manufacturers and Congregationalist minister Rev. James Fifield, who shared a hatred of the policies of the New Deal. They joined forces to decry the New Deal as a threat to freedom and a challenge to personal morality, with the manufacturers funding Fifield’s religious propaganda for an organization called Spiritual Mobilization. Together, they began to use the phrase “freedom under God” to implant the idea that the United States government and citizens shared a common faith in God that rebuked anything resembling socialism.

Kruse then moves on to examine the rise of Billy Graham and his crusades in the 1950s, the invention of political prayer breakfasts by Abraham Vereide, and the unique way Eisenhower co-opted a shallow, civic faith language to unite the nation behind a conservative agenda.

[These movements] encouraged the spread of public prayer as a political development whose means and motives were distinct from the drama of the Cold War. Working in lockstep to advance Christian libertarianism, these three movements effectively harnessed Cold War anxieties for an already established campaign against the New Deal. (36)

Kruse paraphrases theologian William Lee Miller about religion in the 1950s: “The American people, like Eisenhower, had become very fervent believers in a very vague religion.” (68) Eisenhower, though, used the ideas of Christian libertarianism not “to tear down the central state but instead to prop it up. Piety and patriotism became one and the same, love of God and love of country conflated to the core.” (72)

Kruse traces that conflation through Eisenhower’s own religiosity, the development of the National Prayer Breakfast, the idea of America as a “Christian nation” governed under God’s authority, the introduction of the phrase “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance and “In God we trust” on currency, the Advertising Council’s “Religion In American Life” public service campaign, and even Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments and resulting efforts to place plaques of the ten commandments in public places. What developed was a kind of “ceremonial deism,” a term coined in 1962 by Yale Law School Dean Eugene Rostow.

These invocations were ceremonial in the sense that they were merely ornamental. They had no meaningful substance, and as a result, courts routinely held that those who objected to their use had no standing to challenge them. (99)

Even as this shared religiosity was coming together, it was already coming apart. With the introduction of prayer and bible study in the schools in the 1950s, court challenges began over which religious traditions and theological positions would or would not be represented. Kruse carefully documents the court cases ending prayer in schools, followed by efforts to pass a constitutional amendment to overturn those decisions. One of the most interesting aspects of the book, for me, documented the division between clergy and lay leaders over those proposed constitutional amendments. Clergy and religious leaders, including the National Council of Churches, spoke out strongly against prayer in schools.

“It seems that to many of the proponents ‘prayer is prayer,” marveled Reverend Kelley. “They seem unable to realize that some devoutly religious citizens, at least, care what the content of prayer is, and do not wish to engage in prayer whose content is so vague or innocuous as to be ‘non-sectarian.'” (218)

Laity, however, favored the idea of prayer in school (as many still do), which put them at odds with their clergy leadership and raised questions about who actually spoke for the religious communities.

The final chapter examines the partnership between Richard Nixon and Billy Graham during Nixon’s presidency. Nixon strategically used religious language and religious claims to woo voters, and Billy Graham was a huge part of that endeavor. Graham enjoyed the fame and political access he gained, but discovered Nixon was not at all sincere in his own faith or commitments–it was all a pretense to obtain votes. Kruse details all those efforts, before moving into an Epilogue that gives a cursory look at the ongoing developments in “ceremonial deism” in the decades that followed to the present day.

Kruse tells a fascinating history here, one not recounted anywhere else that I know. It was compelling to read and well documented throughout. However, I longed for some perspective from the underside. It seemed an especially glaring absence to me, after finishing The Cross and the Lynching Tree, to read this book about American religious life that ignores the religious motivations and theology of the Civil Rights movement. While it may have been beyond the scope of Kruse’s book to analyze this counter-movement in depth, I longed for him to at least acknowledge its presence and its strength. Martin Luther King Jr., surely a religious leader whose greatness rivals Graham’s, gets only one mention throughout, and that is only as a way to place Graham in the same spot where King spoke in the March on Washington.  The Civil Rights Movement also appealed to Americans’ religious sensibilities in the same era, and Kruse was remiss to ignore it altogether.

Nevertheless, One Nation Under God is a fascinating read and tells a compelling story about the changing nature of religious participation, public prayer, and church membership from the 1940’s to the 1970’s, with repercussions we still feel to the present day. If you have any notions that our ideas about being “one nation under God” stem from some religious or patriotic principle, this book will quickly dissuade you of that mythology.

The Cross and the Lynching Tree by James H. Cone, Orbis Books, 2011, 202 pp.

Cross and Lynching TreeAlthough it was published in 2011 and represents many of the theological arguments Dr. James Cone has been making for more than 40 years, The Cross and the Lynching Tree feels like it was a direct response to the #BlackLivesMatter movement that has arisen in the last year. As usual, though, James Cone was just a step ahead, leading the way with new ways of thinking theologically about the experience of black people in the United States.

The Cross and the Lynching Tree is exactly what its title implies: a theological analysis and comparison of the cross and the lynching tree. As always, Cone draws deeply from both traditional (white European) theological training and African-American theology and faith practice, including music. The cross, he asserts, offers black people courage to stand up to injustice and hope in the face of death. His case is summarized in the first chapter.

Just as Jesus did not deserve to suffer, they (black people) knew they did not deserve it; yet faith was the one thing white people could not control or take away. … Because of their experience of arbitrary violence, the cross was and is a redeeming and comforting image for many black Christians. If the God of Jesus’ cross is found among the least, the crucified people of the world, then God is also found among those lynched in American history. … The final word about black life is not death on a lynching tree but redemption in the cross–a miraculously transformed life found in the God of the gallows. (22-23)

The cross places God in the midst of crucified people, in the midst of people who are hung, shot, burned and tortured. (26)

Cone demonstrates that power of the cross in the theology and faith of black people is precisely because it demonstrates that God is allied with them in their struggles and suffering at the hands of white oppressors.

Both the cross and the lynching tree were symbols of terror, instruments of torture and execution, reserved primarily for slaves, criminals and insurrectionists–the lowest of the low in society. Both Jesus and blacks were publicly humiliated, subjected to the utmost indignity and cruelty. … In both cases, the purpose was to strike terror in the subject community. It was to let people know that the same thing would happen to them if they did not stay in their place. (31)

The second chapter is a thorough indictment of Reinhold Niebuhr for his failure to address the issue of lynching in his own day. Niebuhr was among the leading theologians advocating for social and economic justice in the mid-twentieth century, yet he never addressed lynching and rarely spoke about racial issues. At first, I wondered at a book dedicating so much time and space to attacking the weaknesses and failures of a theologian who has been dead for 40 years. Then, as the arguments in the chapter unfolded, I began to be convicted by them myself. Niebuhr’s work on love and justice inspired Cone’s own theology, but Niebuhr himself seemed blind to the death and suffering of black people, as if he just did not see. As Cone combs through all Niebuhr’s work searching for evidence of some recognition of black suffering in the context of the cross, I was left to wonder if anyone would find such evidence anywhere in my preaching and writing. Sideways, in the critique of a long-dead theologian, my white silence was equally indicted.

Cone’s third chapter looks at the theological legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. He analyzes King’s speeches and writings for his own theology of the cross and the lynching tree, drawing especially on the impact of the death of Emmett Till. Cone is critical of King’s view of redemptive suffering, but acknowledges that King fought to end suffering, not legitimize it. Cone writes, “We are not what we used to be and not what we will be. The cross and the lynching tree can help us to know from where we have come and where we must go.” (92)

The fourth chapter examines the cross and the lynching tree in African-American literature, especially poetry. He draws upon the works of Claude McKay, Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes and others to demonstrate the myriad ways in which they drew parallels between murdered black bodies and the crucified body of Christ.

The fifth chapter focuses on black women’s particular pain and suffering, and the responses held by the black church. He tells the stories of Ida B. Wells, Fannie Lou Hamer, and Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit,” analyzing the way they respond to suffering with protest and courage. He writes,

Black faith emerged out of black people’s wrestling with suffering, the struggle to make sense out of their senseless situation, as they related their own predicament to similar stories in the Bible. On the one hand, faith spoke to their suffering, making it bearable, while, on the other hand, suffering contradicted their faith, making it unbearable. (124)

The particular challenge, and power, of these black women’s responses not just to survive, but “to survive with one’s dignity intact.” (139)

Cone’s conclusion points to the necessity of connecting the cross to the lynching tree.

Every time a white mob lynched a black person, they lynched Jesus. The lynching tree is the cross in America. (158)

The lynching tree frees the cross from the false pieties of well-meaning Christians. When we see the crucifixion as a first-century lynching, we are confronted by the reenactment of Christ’s suffering in the blood-soaked history of African Americans. Thus, the lynching tree reveals the true meaning of the cross for American Christians today. The cross needs the lynching tree to remind Americans of the reality of suffering–to keep the cross from becoming a symbol of abstract, sentimental piety. (161)

We must see body of Christ in the bodies of Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Tanisha Anderson, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, and (in today’s news) Sandra Bland, contemporary victims of lynching. If you want to understand the theological reasons why Christians should be involved in #BlackLivesMatter marches, read this book. It is profound, thorough, convincing and convicting.

What She Left Behind by Ellen Marie Wiseman, Kensington Books, 2014, 328 pp.

What She Left BehindI am a little behind (alright, a LOT behind) in writing reviews of books I’ve read. Consequently, I can share that this is the first of three books that fall into the category of light summer reading. All were hand-me-downs, all were read in under 24 hours, all were “chick lit” in every stereotypical way, none were exceptionally good, all were just what I needed for escape.

What She Left Behind is a novel inspired by the Willard Suitcase Project, a collection of patient suitcases from the Willard Asylum for the Insane in New York, which operated from the mid-nineteenth century until 1995. When the asylum closed, an attic room was discovered full of suitcases with personal items patients brought with them. They have been preserved in a museum, and photographer Jon Crispin has been assembling an exhibit of photographs of their contents. I had seen articles about the project, and recognized the story line immediately.

Wiseman’s fictionalized account interweaves the story of Isabelle “Izzy” Stone, a teen in foster care whose mother was committed for murdering her father, and Clara Cartwright, a woman committed to Willard at the age of 18 in 1929. Izzy becomes involved with the suitcase project and discovers Clara’s belongings. She reads Clara’s journal and discovers that she appears to be as normal as Izzy herself. lntrigued, Izzy tries to discover what happened to Clara at Willard. Izzy’s research into Clara’s story helps her come to terms with her own. Meanwhile, in interspersed chapters, we hear Clara’s story as it unfolds. It is a tale of horror and injustice, with details about the history of cruelty in our historic mistreatment of those labeled mentally ill. However, I found Clara’s character so clearly fictional and two-dimensional, that I was able to read through more easily that I perhaps should have.

Clara, Izzy and the other characters in the story are not especially complex or deep. They act in expected ways without much beyond stereotypes. The story has some good twists and turns, but it is not unpredictable or packed with breathtaking turns of phrase. It’s just a good story, entertaining and emotional and interesting. The setting at Willard adds an interesting dimension. This book won’t change your life, but you’ll enjoy the time you spend with it. That’s just what good summer reading is all about.

Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving and Finding the Church by Rachel Held Evans, Nelson Books, 2015, 269 pp.

Searching for SundayI am enormously grateful for the voice of Rachel Held Evans and the contribution she makes to the contemporary conversation about what it means to be a Christian, to be a church, to love God and live as God intends. For me, she is added to a growing list of authors whose work gives a fresh eloquence to ancient questions, people like Rob Bell and Nadia Bolz-Weber. When I read their books, I never feel like I am reading anything monumental as a new idea or paradigm-shattering concept, but instead I find a new generation voicing the ancient-yet-always-new vision and theology at the core of our Christian faith. I know that for some people, these authors rock the boat and rock their world. That’s not the case for me, though it doesn’t make me any less of a fan. It’s as if someone gives eloquent voice to what I’ve been thinking for 20 years already. I’m indebted and grateful to these authors for giving me a way to share this with others, whether those whose boats need rocking, those who’ve already sprung a leak, and those feeling about to drown.

Searching for Sunday offers a refreshingly life-affirming take on the traditional seven sacraments of the church: baptism, confession, holy orders, communion, confirmation, anointing of the sick and marriage. Evans made the journey out of fundamentalism and found a new home in the Episcopal church. This book traces that evolution by placing her personal stories in sacramental context, tying these holy acts to the ordinary elements of our lives. I loved the way she makes these holy mysteries accessible and interwoven with the water, bread, hands, sins of our lives.

Mostly, I love her prose. It’s not the major, overarching insights of the book that draw me–it’s the minute crystals of light that she captures, phrases and ideas I want to remember and revisit for preaching and teaching the future. Here are a few of my favorites.

This book is entitled Searching for Sunday, but it’s less about searching for a Sunday church and more about searching for Sunday resurrection. It’s about all the strange ways God brings dead things back to life again. (xviii)

I hadn’t yet learned that you tend to come out of the big moments–the wedding, the book deal, the trip, the death, the birth–as the exact same person who went in, and that perhaps the strangest surprise of life is it keeps on happening to the same old you. (14)

Most days I don’t know which is harder for me to believe: that God reanimated the brain function of a man three days dead, or that God can bring back to life all the beautiful things we have killed. Both seem pretty unlikely to me. … What the church needs most is to recover some of its weird. … We are people who stand totally exposed before evil and death and declare them powerless against love. There’s nothing normal about that. (21-22)

I often wonder if the role of the clergy in this age is not to dispense information or guard the prestige of their authority, but rather to go first, to volunteer the truth about their sins, their dreams, their failures, and their fears in order to free others to do the same. … There is a difference, after all, between preaching success and preaching resurrection. (112)

I could only proclaim the great mystery of faith–that Christ has died, Christ has risen and Christ will come again, and that somehow, some way, this is enough. This body and this blood is enough. At Eagle Eyrie I learned why it’s so important for pastors to serve communion. It’s important because it steals the show. It’s important because it shoves you and your ego and your expectations out of the way so Jesus can do his thing. It reminds you that grace is as abundant as tears and faith as simple as food. (140)

If you are looking for words to describe how God is alive in the church, ancient and new, Rachel Held Evans points the way. She reclaims the historic witness of the church and places it squarely in the middle of our 21st century mess, and sees where God is alive and moving among us. Her words give me words to claim faith anew.


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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