Wednesday, October 31, 2007

God's Classroom

I Heard God Laughing:Poems of Hope and Joy
by Hafiz, translated by Daniel Ladinsky

A friend who loves poetry, and is himself a published poet, recently gave me I Heard God Laughing: Poems of Hope and Joy by Hafiz, translated by Daniel Ladinsky. Hafiz was an Iranian mystic and poet believed to have been born sometime between 1310 and 1337. He lived to the age of 69. Legend has it that Hafiz memorized the whole of the Koran, and over time "Hafiz" has become a noun used to describe someone who accomplishes this feat. Ralph Waldo Emerson translated Hafiz in the 19th century and called him "a poet for poets." Queen Victoria is said to have turned to Hafiz's poetry in times of stress and spiritual need.

Reportedly, Hafiz once said "I am a hole in the flute that the Christ's breath moves through-listen to this music." COOL! May we all be open passages for that breath, and not obstructions to its flow.

One of Hafiz's favorite metaphors for encountering the Divine is that wherever we are, we are in God's classroom, and that opportunities for learning Divine principles are constantly all around us. However, he also said that we cannot fully learn the ways of God through books or words or limited systems of human values. We know God fully only through love.

I came across this gem of a poem while reading this morning, and could not resist sharing it. I have tried, with limited success, to replicate the spacing in Ladinsky's translation.

For a While

We have all come to the right place.
We all sit in God's classroom.

The only thing left to us to do, my dear,

Is to stop.
Throwing spitballs for awhile.

Still learning,

Reverent Reader

Monday, October 29, 2007


Washington Post
Sunday, October 28
Sunday Source

This is too much fun to not discuss. Page 2 of yesterday's Sunday Source says "What's Your Halloween Candy Personality?" This could be it - the window into one another's soul that we've all been waiting for. Or not. But it's entertaining anyway.

Personally, being someone who likes sweets, I like most of the candy listed, with the exception of Good-n-Plentys. Licorice is totally disgusting. Here are a few of the Halloween top sellers listed:

Butterfinger: Evasive, slippery, not necessarily to be trusted. (WHAT? Here's my rewrite: For the discerning palate that enjoys two flavors and textures at once. Flexible, surprising and high energy!) Needless to say, I like Butterfinger!

Reese's Peanut Butter Cups: Generous souls, those who understand the salty in life, as well as the sweet.

Snickers: Just going with the crowd. The safe candy choice, guaranteed to please the masses. Not ambitious, but dependable.

Twizzlers: Sickos. Truly Demented. Plastic people living plastic lives.

Must confess, I occasionally get Twizzlers when I am craving a sweet and want to avoid the fat and calories of chocolate. Twizzlers always sound better than they turn out to be. And the newfangled multi-flavored packs (apple, tangerine, blueberry, etc) look appealing, but are absolutely awful.

Check out the article on if you are curious about other favorite Halloween treats. There also is a paragraph by Steve Almond from his book Candyfreak, which is about the enchanted world of candy. I've been meaning to read the book for several years, but have not gotten around to it yet.

We carved pumpkins in our household tonight, and are all in the Halloween spirit. I think your choice of jack-o-lantern says something about personality as well. In our household, E. always does the standard jack 'o lantern - triangle eyes, triangle nose, a mouth with three teeth. He thinks if you use a little pumpkin saw instead of a butcher knife there is no sport to the event whatsoever. I like to do something easy but just a little different. I usually use a pattern and make winking eyes or a round mouth or something. This year I did crossed eyes and a mouth that looks like it's singing.

For G., we still carve our traditional (for the last five years anyway) "baby" pumpkin - round eyes and oval nose and toothless mouth. E. put one tooth in this year. We probably have one or two years left with this one, then G. will demand something different. S. likes a "spooky" pumpkin. Last year he had me carve the word "creepy" into his pumpkin. This year he settled for a bat perched on top of a tiny jack 'o lantern. Definitely the most time consuming of the bunch.

What is YOUR favorite Halloween candy?
What kind of face do you like to carve?


Reverent Reader

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Big Bang

The Canon: A Whirligig Tour Through the Beautiful Basics of Science
by Natalie Angier

A Short History of Nearly Everything
by Bill Bryson

These two books are similar, yet with differences that make both of them worth the reader's time. I read the first a couple of months ago after seeing a review of it in the Washington Post Book World (that other Sunday Bible). Lately, I have been growing ever more aware of how woefully ignorant I am about matters of science - particularly the physical sciences of physics, chemistry and geology. Angier's book seemed like a good place to start learning - substantive without being overwhelming.

The Canon is a great read - Natalie Angier is a science writer who is obviously enchanted with her subject. Her chapter on calibration - the vastness of the universe on the one hand and the unimaginable tininess of the atom on the other - is fascinating. I knew absolutely nothing about geology, and found her description of the earth's crust, mantle, and core to be really well presented. There's one thing, though. Angier is funny, and funny is (nearly) always good. Anyone who can extract humor from subjects that beneath another pen would be really dry is doing well. However, sometimes her humor gets in the way of the information. There is a "Look at me, I can write about molecular biology and be witty at the same time!" affect to her writing that soon starts to grate on the reader's nerves. But, this is a small complaint compared to the way she presents amazingly complex information in a way that is accessible to a science neophyte.

A physicist friend recommended Bryson's book when I asked what he thought of The Canon. I had given it to E. for our anniversary a few years ago and remembered that he liked it a lot as well. So, a few days ago I plunged into it. Bryson is not by trade a science writer, and several years ago he found himself even more clueless about science than the average person (He writes "I did not know a proton from a protein . . ."). He devoted three years to extensive reading and conversations with some of the great science minds of our day, learning the basics and figuring out how to write about the discipline of science in a way that would open the mind of the sciencephobe.

I am really enjoying A Short History of Nearly Everything. Bill Bryson covers a lot of the same material as Natalie Angier, but they approach the task differently. Bryson takes kind of a historical/linear approach, tracing us through the major scientific developments and giving us some idea of how the old guys (mostly guys) figured this stuff out in the first place. He includes delightful little biographical vignettes about some of the most well-known figures of science, including Newton and Einstein, as well as lesser known stars. How is it that so many truly brilliant people are also utter weirdos? Is there a correlation? Hmmmmm.

Both of these books have something to offer. Bryson's writing is more lyrical, less forced, but I do think that Angier, once you strip away the furbelows, presents the actual scientific concepts more clearly for the untrained reader.

It's fun to have wandered into a whole new realm of books and concepts to explore. I read Silent Spring a few weeks ago and am getting jazzed to read the new Einstein biography by Walter Isaacson. I never have understood the antipathy that so many people of faith have toward science. They are two different ways of trying to understand the world and what happens within it, so I do not see why one would threaten the other. In seminary, I once briefly dated a microbiologist. He said that he had not been a believer until he began to study science intensively and concluded that Someone had to have been at work in creating and ordering all this, there is no other way that order could have come from so much potential chaos.

And no, I don't believe that the earth is only 6,000 years old.

Any other suggestions for good science reading?

Reverent Reader

Thursday, October 25, 2007

The Big 5-0

Eat Pray Love
by Elizabeth Gilbert

Just wanted to share this milestone - this week I recorded in my book journal book #50 for 2007. It is...(drum roll please) Eat Pray Love.

Frankly, I had put off reading this one because it has gotten so much press. As much as I love to read, when a book becomes faddish it turns me off, especially if it is about spirituality and seems to be the next big thing. Perversely, when there is a book about spirituality that everyone is telling me I should read that usually is a pretty good sign that I won't. Examples of pseudo-spiritual or ostensible faith-based books that I place in this category include The Purpose Driven Life, The Prayer of Jabez, The Secret, The Celestine Prophecy, and ANYTHING by Tim LaHaye. Okay, okay - I flipped through Left Behind one time, but that was because I was doing a sermon on Revelation and I was using the book as an example of bogus misinterpretation of the prophecies of Revelation, not to mention utter crap writing.

However, enough readers and faithful, spiritual people read and enjoyed and recommended Eat Pray Love that I finally decided I should read it. Almost in spite of myself, I enjoyed it. Elizabeth Gilbert is a likable, funny narrator. Her writing is more utilitarian than beautiful, but it serves her purpose of telling a good story. She has a conversational, self-deprecating style that pokes fun at her own neuroses (and all of ours, really) in a way that is not mean-spirited. She makes the whole narrative feel like she went on an amazing spiritual journey and invited her friends to come along. There are many thought-provoking insights and nuggets along the way. Early in the book, she writes "True wisdom gives the only possible answer at any given moment." I like that one - and that's just one example of some of her ideas that make practical yet holy sense. I learned a lot about meditation in her second section of the book where she visits the ashram in India for four months. Meditation does not come easily to me, given my personality type. Her experiences, however, made me see the value of it. Although the tone of Eat Pray Love is lighthearted, Elizabeth Gilbert has been through a lot, is devout, and clearly takes her spiritual life seriously.

A couple of things about the book did seem odd. One: the Italy portion of her journey was about pleasure and its pursuit. I definitely want to go to Italy someday. However, I got a little bored with what was her fairly narrow definition of pleasure. For her, it was about learning the language (which is beautiful) and eating. I like to eat as much as the much as the next person, and perhaps she did not give us a window into everything that she did while there. She did travel quite a bit within Italy, but that was mostly to find the best restaurants. Especially on a spiritual pilgrimage, I cannot imagine spending four months in Italy and missing all the spectacular art and churches to be seen there. Maybe that's the point, though. Someone who is in a healing process and working on self-discovery should not have to do anything that he/she does not want to do. One person's pleasure may be another's chore. I certainly would spend a significant amount of time eating good food and drinking good wine if I spent four months in Italy, but there would be a few other things that would make my list of pleasures.

Another thing that I would like to think more about is an assertion she makes in favor of "cherry-picking" in matters of faith - choosing the parts of different faith traditions that appeal and creating your own spirituality, and chucking the rest. To a degree, this makes sense. I certainly agree that various practices can cross over from one tradition to another. For example, the Dalai Lama makes clear that one does not have to be a Buddhist monk to draw strength and peace from the common Buddhist practice of chanting. The principles of yoga can be applied to any faith tradition. In the introduction to Eat Pray Love Elizabeth Gilbert shares an insightful bit of religious history - that strings of beads called japa malas have been used by Hindus and Buddhists for centuries to help them concentrate during meditation. The medieval Crusaders thought this was a great idea and took the idea back to Europe as the rosary. This just shows how we are all passing ideas and practices around in our differing searches for the truth. This kind of cherry picking seems natural and beneficial. To a certain degree, we all cherry-pick as far as doctrine goes. I do not know a single Christian who can honestly say they agree with every belief we have posited over the last 2,000 years. We find the same differing opinions and academic wrangling (and some non-academic wrangling) over questions of authority of scripture and the truth of various doctrines in all the religions of the world.

I am uncomfortable, though, with what seems to be a common way of doing faith these days - this idea that we can cherry-pick our way through life, adopting whatever practices and beliefs strike our fancy without ever committing to a community or tradition. Of course we are all on individual spiritual journeys, but we also were created to walk those journeys together, as communities. If we are not careful, we can begin to live a cafeteria style faith, which seems like the easy way out. When something gets too difficult, we can just move on. I am not saying this is what Elizabeth Gilbert is doing - I would not presume to judge someone else's experience. But, it's much easier to create our "own" little faith castles and think we can be a Christian or a Jew or a Hindi all by ourselves without being held to the responsibility and accountability that a faith community should call us to. I guess for me it comes down to "cherry-pick all you want insofar as it will help you on the journey to which you have committed," be it Jewish or Muslim or whatever. It may seem rigid to put it out there, but I still think the concepts of commitment and community are important, and seem to be getting lost in our increasingly individualistic society.

Is anyone else concerned about this? How can those of us who are embedded in communities help those who are not to understand how life-giving an extended family of faith can be, when we get it right?

Reverent Reader

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Catching Up

The Whole World Over
by Julia Glass

Just a few things to bring up to speed since returning from our trip. One - about the questions I posted a few days ago. I gave some thought to my answers, so here goes:

What is the ugliest thing you have witnessed in recent memory?

That prize would have to go to a tattooed-neck man in a restaurant where we ate recently being mean to his two beautiful children. They looked to be about 5 and 7, and as far as I could tell, they were very well-behaved. He kept talking about what "brats" they were who gave him nothing but "disappointment," and how they were really going to "get it" when they got home. The kids were crying (duh) and unable to eat, which just made him madder. Just being one booth away from him made my stomach hurt. Wanted to sock him in the nose, but thought that would not be good for any of the parties. What does one do in a situation like that?

What is the most beautiful thing you have ever seen?

There is a two-way tie for this one. One: the way my grandfather would bend down and kiss my grandmother's neck after complying when she asked him to unzip her dress for her. I watched him do this many times while growing up, the last time being after a family wedding in approximately 1996, and she was wearing a red dress and could not reach the zipper. By that time, they had been married well over 50 years, but his adoration of her was evident. 2) Olengurone, Kenya. August 9, 1999. Was there with a presbytery group on a mission trip and saw absolutely the brightest, most perfect rainbow imaginable. It was after a rainstorm and the whole arc was visible, just like in picture books. A beautiful sight that signified the presence of a loving God in an area that was just beginning to recover from tribal clashes.

It seems like since I became rather taken with this idea of beauty as a conduit to the divine, I have been stumbling onto quotes and other opinions about this same concept. For example, one of my favorite singer-songwriters, John McCutcheon, has a new CD out called This Fire: Politics, Love, and Other Small Miracles. In the liner notes he writes that he "continues to be astonished by the ability of ordinary people to do beautiful things in the face of the world's ugliness." It's a great CD, by the way. (I know this is a reading blog but here you get some music advice free of charge!)

Finished The Whole World Over on the trip. It is a wonderful read. LOVED this book. Not overtly spiritual, but emphasizes the things that are conducive to leading a spiritual, connected, fulfilling life. There is a saying repeated a couple of times in the book that "birds fly the whole world over, but eventually find their way home." At its heart, the book is about the longing that we all have deep within ourselves to find home, and that home is just as likely to be a person or being as a place. The characters are all likable - they make mistakes, some of them incredibly stupid ones, but they each decide in the end that there are some things worth making sacrifices for, worth fighting for. Here's my take on what some of the major characters decide is truly important.

Greenie: marriage, shared history, co-parenthood
Walter: companionship and connection
Alan: love and vocation
Saga: relationships with animals and (ultimately) with people
Joya: parenthood
George: creation

Did I mention that I loved this book?

Reverent Reader

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

A Booklover's Day in Paradise

The Peace Book
by Todd Parr
I Am Invited to a Party!
by Mo Willems

We had a great time on our trip to the Big Apple. Celebrated husband's birthday with family and friends at the Bronx Zoo, and then had birthday dinner at a yummilicious Italian place in Riverdale. The weather was perfect, the animals were stunning, the boys were angelic (almost), and the whole day was a gift.

Then, yesterday, a bonus day that seemed too good to be true. We spent the day in Manhattan, as the family we were visiting had to work. Parked the car at 15th street near Union Square on the West Side. Walked three blocks to "Books of Wonder," a fabulous children's bookstore that even has their own publishing label. They have an incredible selection. Great sections for every age, shelves of folklore and mythology books that are gorgeous, rare editions, with a friendly, qualified staff and a kid friendly environment with small tables where kids can sit and look at books. I could tell that the boys are getting the book bug when we entered the store and S. opened his arms wide and said "Oh, cool!" We happily passed an hour there, and could have stayed a lot longer. G. busied himself pulling board books off the low shelves and bringing them to me to read. I bought "The Peace Book" for visitors young and old to look at in my office. It communicates truth very simply. I fell in love with it.

After that we walked around Manhattan for awhile, spending some time in the playgrounds of Union Square, which was like stepping into The Nanny Diaries. I swear we were the only people on the playground related to the kids we were watching. The people watching in Union Square is priceless - could have stayed all afternoon. But we wandered north and stumbled onto Max Brenner's restaurant ("Chocolate by the Bald Man"). Had a completely hedonistic lunch there that included the richest chocolate (of course) milkshake I have ever had. S. got a plastic syringe the size of a turkey baster filled with warm chocolate and surrounded by gummy bears. You literally had to shoot the chocolate into his mouth. He was in heaven. Maybe that has something to do with why he did not fall asleep until 10:00 PM last night.

Anyway, back to the books. After lunch we went to "The Strand," an NYC institution with the slogan "18 Miles of Books." Again, an amazing place. New books, used books, current bestsellers, old out-of-print stuff, rare books, and again an immense children's section. This store also has bargain tables that are real bargains for things real people really do want to read. I scored a couple of Sarah Vowell books (someone new to me, recommended by family members) dirt cheap. YAY! We browsed for the longest time. There are stacks, like in a library, that you can literally get lost in. So many treasures in the used book shelves that could have found a new home here. This is the place I will work when I retire (unless it's "Books of Wonder"). E. was disciplined since we had just celebrated his birthday and he received several books as gifts. I had no such compunction. I walked out with a bulging sack and anticipation in the heart.

Nothing better than a beautiful fall day, strolling down the street with people you adore, and a sack of books under the arm. On the way back to the hotel, S. "read" one of his new books (an Elephant and Piggie book by Mo Willems - GREAT stuff for beginning readers. Engaging stories, adorable pictures, and few words) out loud over and over again, getting more confident every time. It was music to mother's ears. Every time we got in the car on this trip, G. would reach for his books. E. just rolled his eyes and said "Definitely his mother's son!"

This has to go down as one of the best days of all time. Also got lots of reading done in the car - will post some more in the next day or so about the latest. Missed all of you out there in the blogosphere. It's good to be back.

Reverent Reader

P.S. If you ever get to NYC, another great children's bookstore is "Bank Street Books" at 112th and Broadway. We've been there a couple of times and loved it.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Worse Than a Bad Hair Day

Sojourners Magazine
September-October 2007

"I guess my ugly just came out." This was how Mary Winkler, the pastor's wife who shot and killed her husband in March 2006, explained the horrific, tragic thing that she had done. I wrote a couple of days ago about the compelling argument that Diana Butler Bass makes for intentionally incorporating beauty into worship and life (see October 16 post). The October issue of Sojourners includes a short article by Catholic activist and poet Rose Marie Berger that reminds us that, while beauty is more than skin deep, ugly is as well.

Of course I am not referring to bad hair days, or being a few pounds overweight, or having an unfortunate facial breakout on the very day you have to face a crowd and want to look your best. The problem of ugliness is something that pervades all of creation. I have been working on a definition in my own mind. Physicality is the least of it, in spite of our culture's obsession with all beautiful things and people. Perhaps the best way to describe ugliness is "the problem of being unable to recognize the beauty in others." When we fail to see one another's humanity/beauty, we expect the worst from each other and that is what we get. We bring out the ugly in ourselves and call forth the ugly from people who could be beautiful. Without condoning what Mary Winkler did, I venture a guess that her ugly came out because she had been treated ugly at some point on her journey. At some point, she believed the worst about herself and acted on it.

Rose Marie Berger writes that "for those of us who are called to tend the wounds of those crushed under the weight of our personal and collective sin, beauty and truth can seem a luxury." Ouch. What a sad day it will be when we become so focused on brokenness and tragedy that we cannot see instances of grace and hope. However, Berger challenges us not to surrender to the forces of ugliness, not to believe that ugliness is all that is out there - or in there. She writes "Elaine Scarry writes that beautiful things always carry greetings from other worlds within them. If that is accurate, then beauty (and the truth that must reside in it to be truly beautiful) is a kind of angel: a bearer of good news." The beauty angel warns us not to be seduced by "the cult of the ugly," and that "the idols in this cult would have us sacrifice to them in a spirit of terror, insecurity, scarcity, close-mindedness, self-protection, and immediate gratification." Definitely. Worse than a bad hair day.

What is the ugliest thing you have witnessed in recent memory?
What is the most beautiful thing you have ever seen?

Gotta think on these things. Watch for my responses in the next couple of days.

"Ex Libris Fides" is going on vacation for a few days to celebrate cool husband's birthday. Will post from the road if a computer is available. If not, tune back in early next week.

Thanks to all of you who are reading and posting. This is lots of fun!

Reverent Reader

Teach Your Children Well ?

The Whole World Over
by Julia Glass

I really enjoyed Julia Glass's first novel, Three Junes, a couple of years ago. It won the National Book Award. Wonder how many writers get a wonderful gift like that their first time out. However, The Whole World Over is better. The story is deeper and her detail work is amazing. I find myself reading it really slowly - not because it is boring or the story doesn't move, but just to savor her prose.

I am not finished with The Whole World Over yet, so other things may come to mind that I want to think and/or write about. There are so many interesting things going on here relationally - there is rich dialogue that communicates so effectively the ways that we human beings hurt one another without meaning to, often with the best of intentions. The loose connections that continue to bind people together, even in a world that is increasingly fragmented, are also shown in subtle ways. Major and minor characters meet (collide?), separate, and then show up again later in configurations that the reader was not expecting.

There is also an adorable child character, a little boy named George, who seems to represent the innate spiritual awareness of children. George has an awareness of and compassion for animals and all of creation that are far beyond his years .Although being raised by secular parents, he brings God into conversations and asks questions about God as if it is a given that God exists and is intimately involved in the world. His mother is puzzled by this - Where does he get this? she asks herself.

I wonder if the more appropriate question would be When do we lose that? When do we begin to censor our spiritual impulses? When do we cease to assume that there is someone or something out there who is greater than all of us put together? Children amaze me with what they seem to absorb about the love of God and the world around them, seemingly without effort. I hope we can help them keep their sense of awe and wonder for as long as possible. Maybe children should teach the adults in church, instead of the other way around. Logistically, that would be tough, but we grown-ups would learn some amazing things.

Case in point: A few months ago I was putting my older son to bed one night. I usually encourage him to join me in a short prayer, thanking God for the good things about the day and praying for help and guidance with the things we are worried about. Sometimes my firstborn is cooperative and open during this time, other times not so much. This particular night he was being a pill. "I don't want to pray tonight," he said. "You go ahead." He then proceeded to play with his etch-a-sketch while I prayed. Mom was irritated, her teachable moment ruined.

However, after kissing him goodnight I was on my way out of the room when he stopped me. "Mommy?" "What?" I asked (somewhat impatiently, I am ashamed to admit. I thought this was a stalling tactic.) "You know," he said "There is only one God, but he's (sic) in everybody's heart." So much for Mommy's "teachable" moment!

Reverent Reader

P.S. For those interested, there is an article in the October 17 Washington Post Style Section about the Peace Concert at the National Cathedral (see previous post).

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Peace He Left With Us

Christianity for the Rest of Us
by Diana Butler Bass

I posted about Diana Butler Bass's Christianity for the Rest Us just a few days ago. I had an experience tonight, though, that brought to my mind some of what she had to say about beauty as a signpost of the healthy mainline churches. Bass writes on page 210:
"Perhaps unexpectedly in this highly technological age, young adults may well have found their way back to an untapped stream of American theological mysticism. Postmodern and ancient at the same time, new and old, innovative and traditional. Truth is moving beyond the categories of reason, beyond provable facts to a different realm. Christianity is changing-from being the Truth of rational speculation to being an exploration of the exquisite truthfulness of beauty."

Bass is writing here about the revival of the creative arts and music in the mainline church, and I agree with her that we are rediscovering that avenue to spirituality and communion with the Holy One. I want to take her one step further, though. I believe that music and the arts have the power to unite us across faith traditions, to help us sense the spark of the divine in one another. My guess is that an ability and a willingness to recognize and celebrate that spark will ultimately be part of the mainline revivial.

Stick with me here. Tonight I went with two church friends to the "Pray for Peace Concert and Prayer Ceremony" held at the National Cathedral. The event opened with a prayer service led by Tibetan monks. They were chanting in honor of the Dalai Lama receiving the Congressional Medal tomorrow. Anyway, initially I was NOT up for it. I am exhausted, as a beloved church saint is desperately ill. I had been rushing around dealing with work and trying to get the boys situated with a babysitter and meet up with my friends, etc. I felt like I had made a mistake in even coming to the concert.

Anyway, the first monk started chanting, and it was this unbelievably low, guttural sound. Kind of like a lawnmower. I thought "Jeez, that sounds awful. How long are we going to have to listen to this? Why do people think chanting is so great?" So . . . I figured there had to be something going on here that I was not tuning in to. Decided to make a conscious effort: for however long the monks chanted I would NOT:
a) fidget
b) look at my watch
c) anticipate or second guess ("Did I see they were selling fair trade chocolate out in the narthex? Wonder if Jackson Browne will sing 'The Rebel Jesus?'")

I closed my eyes and tried to block out all other stimuli (and not go to sleep). To my very pleasant surprise, the music DID draw me in. After awhile, with the lulling, hypnotic sound of the chanting came the gentle ringing of a bell. The combination was strangely beautiful. The bell sounded like the beckoning of the divine, inviting all of us to envision a better world. Afterwards, I felt unexpectedly refreshed. I am not a Buddhist and have no plans to become one, but I had a new appreciation for their customs as a spiritual discipline and pathway to something I cannot quite articulate.

The concert itself was great - Graham Nash, David Crosby, Keb'Mo, Emily Saliers, John Hall, Jackson Browne. But the best surprise of the concert was this guy named Krishna Das (Google him). He is a chanter who studied in India and now chants here in the US. Accompanied by drums and finger cymbals, he performed an absolutely breathtaking chant. He has a voice like an Appalachian folksinger, which seems incongruous in a Buddhist chanter, but it really worked. About 3/4 of the way through his chant, he switched over to "Amazing Grace," but to the tune of the chant. The whole place started spontaneously singing along. At that moment, I happened to look up from our seats in the transept and saw the ornate carving at the top of the arch of Christ on the cross, flanked by the two thieves. It was so clear in that moment: He was up there for all of us. The Christians in their clerical collars. The Muslims with their beards and headscarves. The Jews with their yarmulkes. The Buddhists with their mulberry and saffron colored robes. We are all the people of God. An appreciation of the beauty in one another's traditions can draw us together.

Two things I believe:

1) Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.
2)God loves us all.

Somehow it all works out in the end.

With humility and hope,

Reverent Reader

Monday, October 15, 2007

A Question of Bibliophilic Ethics

An Army at Dawn
by Rick Atkinson

This book made me want to shove bamboo under my fingernails. Or rearrange my sock drawer. Or awaken a sleeping baby, even a colicky one. Anything to alleviate the crushing boredom. It's a military history about the North Africa campaign when the USA first entered WW II. For some reason, I thought it could benefit me, because I know so little about that part of the war. I still know so little about that part of the war, because try as I might I just could not get interested in the story line ("They moved the tanks 25 feet . . .there was a dust storm . . .they had to clean the gunk out of the tanks . . .they moved the tanks another 10 feet.") In fairness to the author, it is well-researched, well-written and, if inch-by-inch descriptions of battles are your thing, this is the book for you. It did win a Pulitzer, so clearly someone liked it.

In spite of the fact that it was like walking through molasses with galoshes on, I slogged my way through all 541 pages. Why? Because I felt like I had to. I've always been this way - there must be a name for this disorder. Textbooks I could skim. Biblical commentaries I can read the relevant sections. Books that I start for my own pleasure or edification, I have to finish, no matter if I think it is the worst thing I have ever read. WHY? The person I am married to has no qualms about shelving a book if it does not grab him. Several times when I have complained about a book he has rather impatiently said "Sweetie, why don't you just dump that thing? Really - nothing bad will happen!"

What is your opinion on this? Is it OK to give up on a book? If so, how many pages should one read, hoping it will get better, before being ethically able to declare the book a dud and move on? Are people who insist on finishing just over the top?

Along these lines, here are some other questions to ponder:

Name a book that you quit because it was too boring or otherwise did not suit you: Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry. I still regret this, and intend to try it again someday. Too many readers whom I respect say it is wonderful. (SEE? By quitting I might be missing out on something that is terrific. You JUST NEVER KNOW!)

Name a book that made you laugh out loud: Raney by Clyde Edgerton.

Name a book that made you cry real tears: Black Mountain Breakdown by Lee Smith, The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini.

Name a book that inspired you to try to do some good in the world: There Is No Me Without You by Melissa Fay Greene.

Name a book you have given more than once as a gift: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith.

Reverent Reader

Sunday, October 14, 2007

After Three Whole Days - A New Name!

To all my readers out there (both of you!) -

I just changed my Username - as I understand it, that is the name that I use to sign my blog posts. I have never been sold on "Reading Rev," but it was the best I had come up with. However, just a slight change will communicate more effectively what I am trying to do with this blog. My hope is that these writings will help me express where I find the sacred in the written word. As I stated previously, I want to show the connections between the stories that pervade our lives and the ongoing story of God's grace as it is experienced (or not) by different people in varied circumstances.

Therefore, my new Username is Reverent Reader. Here's to flexibility in blogland!

Reverent Reader

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Troisième Endroits*

Loved the front page story (below the fold) in the Friday, October 12 Washington Post. It's about a weekly French class in Alexandria, VA that has been meeting for more than 30 years. The teacher is in her 60s now, and many of the students are in their 80s. The oldest is 95. These women have shared their lives as they have slogged through the hard work of learning a second language as adults. Some now use walkers to make their way to the classroom, or have to be driven to class as they can no longer drive themselves. They have been through divorces, problems with children, cancer, chemotherapy, and other bumps in the road of life. The classes are conducted entirely in French, so when one woman was diagnosed with leukemia nine years ago she had to learn the French words for "cancer," "bone marrow," and "transplant" so she could tell her classmates what was going on.

My favorite line from the story: "Although there is power in telling your story, there is even more power in being heard." Even after thirty years, they have to listen to one another carefully since they are not conversing in their native language. What a reminder that listening is about so much more than waiting for your turn to talk.

Michael Frost, in his book Exiles: Living Missionally in a Post-Christian Culture, discusses the concept of "third places." These are the places, after home and work, to which people gravitate. Third places are where people go because they want to be there, places where they can let their hair down, be who they are, learn, grow, and be accepted. For those 12 women from Alexandria, a French class became a third place.

For many people, a faith community is their third place. For oh-so-many more, it is not. What is your third place? How could churches/synagogues/mosques be more sustaining and nurturing for those who claim them as a third place? How can we be welcoming to people seeking a third place? Questions to ponder late on a Saturday night. DISCUSS.

Reading Rev

*Third places

Not Everyone Needs a Big Screen

Christianity for the Rest of Us: How the Neighborhood Church is Transforming the Faith
by Diana Butler Bass

For mainline Protestants out there, especially clergy, Christianity for the Rest of Us is a hopeful read. For most of my life, I've been hearing that the mainline is on the wane, that liberal theology is dead, and that we may as well fold our tents and slink away. Theoretically, the only Protestant churches that can grow are the evangelical megachurches that provide every convenience imaginable and eschew traditional worship in favor of theater-style seating, jumbotron screens, and contemporary music. They usually are also characterized by an exclusivist, "my way or the highway" orthodox theology that makes my skin crawl.

Diana Butler Bass debunks the myth that the mainline is hopelessly out of touch and will be as extinct as the dodo bird within our lifetimes. She points out that there is more to growth than numbers, and champions the ministry of the neighborhood church. She does not deny that the mainline congregations need to make changes, but she points out that many already are. For those who have not, she offers suggestions to point the way.

As the pastor of a neighborhood church comparable in size to many of those that Butler studied, I found the book energizing and affirming. She uses the term "emerging church, " which is becoming increasingly familiar in ecclesial circles. It seems to me that smaller or mid-sized neighborhood churches have a better shot at gradually moving into an emergent model because it is easier to form the relationships needed to become a genuine community. She includes chapters on 10 characteristics of a vibrant, dynamic neighborhood church. Just a few of those signposts include hospitality, discernment, diversity, and beauty. Most of these "new" practices are really about returning to the New Testament church - a community of strugglers marked by relationship, accountability, joy and love.

The church I serve and love is engaging quite well in some of the practices Bass suggests. There are other areas for potential growth. Her book makes me want to continue the journey, because she helps us see that the "decline" of the mainline is really an opportunity to do a better job of being the people of God. If I can have even a teeny tiny part of that, my time and energy in this vocation will have been well spent.

Reading Rev

Friday, October 12, 2007

Shock and Awful

Mother Jones
October 2007

The cover story of the October issue of Mother Jones is busting the disturb-o-meter. It's about a "school" in Massachusetts for special needs kids that opened in the 1970s called the Judge Rotenberg Center. Its Chief Executive is a psychologist named Matthew Israel who studied at Yale and was fascinated by the behaviorist theories and techniques of B. F. Skinner.

Over the years, several kids have died at this school, from things like being strapped face down to a board for hours at a time. Somehow the school has always managed to prevail in court and not get shut down. Around 20 years ago, the school started zapping students with electric shocks as part of their aversion therapy, because it was "quicker" and "more convenient" than their past aversion methods, like beating kids and tying them up.

Evidently, the shocks originally were used on only the most violent and self-abusive kids, to try to get them to quit doing things like repeatedly knocking their heads against the floor or pulling their own hair out. Most of the students at that time either had severe autism and/or profound mental handicaps. I do not want to be unsympathetic to desperate parents out there, but jeez, can't we find a better solution than treating the most vulnerable in our society like lab rats?

As if that were not hideous enough, now the school's population has grown to include kids with AD/HD, bipolar disorder, and other serious but not insurmountable problems. The techniques at the school are the same, no matter how high or low functioning the patient. The reporter who visited the school for several days saw kids shocked for run of the mill infractions like whining or swearing. I was a straight-arrow teen, but probably would have been shocked on a daily basis. The kids, some as young as nine or ten, describe the ordeal of having to lug around backpacks with the shocking mechanism in them, and have electrodes strapped to their body 24/7. Staff members carry remotes with each child's photo on them, so they do not mistakenly shock the wrong kid. Anyone out there outraged?

The article also references "boarding schools" for troubled kids that use beating, humiliation, and emotional/physical bullying to get kids to straighten up. Lots of these schools are supposedly "Christian" based. Gross. Not like any Jesus I have ever encountered, or a God I want any part of. For a compelling memoir about one of these places, Escuela Caribe, located in the Dominican Republic, read Jesus Land by Julia Scheeres. It'll wig you out.

On a happier note, YAY for Al Gore winning the Nobel Prize. Where's yours, Dubya?

Reading Rev

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Yummy Soul Food

Interesting article in the Food Section of the Washington Post on October 10 about "vegan soul" food. I would have thought that was an oxymoron, but the article was fairly convincing. There was also interesting stuff about the roots of the term and concept of soul food in the African American community. So . . . what do you think of as soul food? DISCUSS.

Spaghetti, homemade chicken and noodles, and chocolate chip cookies (homemade - NOT Chips Ahoy!) immediately come to mind (especially when the cookies are warm and served with milk).

AND . . .what is food for your soul? What restores and rejuvenates you and makes you excited to embark on the adventure of another day? Again . . .DISCUSS.

Awesome music, especially amazing songwriting (John McCutcheon, Mary Chapin Carpenter, and Carrie Newcomer come to mind) . . .roughhousing with my little boys . . .laughing long and hard . . .a group of friends gathered around a table for a good meal and lively conversation . . .late night or early morning talks with my beloved when the rest of the house is quiet (these are rare, but we can dream) . . .family outings like picnics and apple-picking . . .reading (DUH!).

Wishing anyone reading this a day filled with soul food and food for the soul.


Reading rev

Further Thoughts on Bizarre and Grace-Filled

When Madeline Was Young
by Jane Hamilton

This book packs a wallop. You are reading along, caught up in the story, and then there will be an image or phrase that takes your breath away. The characters also stick with the reader - some of them seem as familiar as family members. Hamilton has a way of showing people at their highest potential while at the same time acknowledging that we are all flawed and broken, that no motives or actions are entirely pure. Reminds me of Calvin's doctrine of total depravity, although not quite as harsh, because she acknowledges the potential for good in all people mixed in with the inevitability of bad.

For example, Aaron and Julia are truly selfless in their devotion to Madeline. How many second wives would take on a disabled first wife that is never going to mature? Julia is a great character - she is an articulate anti-Vietnam peacenik who fights for and against all kinds of causes over the years. Her love for Madeline seems genuine and unconditional. However, one part kind of creeps me out - the way they keep Madeline - a grown woman, albeit a handicapped one - a child. She plays with dolls, attends children's birthday parties in the neighborhood, wears her hair in pigtails, and sits in her "parents'" laps. She even sleeps in their bed with them (not in a sexual way, but still). The character that "calls" Aaron and Julia on the inappropriateness of this is Aaron's sister Fiona ("Figgy"). She says they keep Madeline in their home out of guilt - that without her accident they would never have had their own relationship or their own children. Somehow they "owe" her. Also, the way they infantilize her keeps her from any possible growth and keeps the three of them from having to deal with the reality of Madeline being supplanted by Julia and the complications that would bring to the relationships. Some of this strangeness gets redeemed at the end of the story.

There is a poignant scene near the end of the book when Mac is showing his "sister" Madeline (now about 80 years old) around a part of Italy that she visited as a young girl, before her accident. He is trying desperately to bring back an old memory of a special experience that she had there. Try as he might, that part of Madeline's mind is erased. Mac is patient and kind, but saddened that she cannot remember something that at one time gave her such joy. Made me think of the times when Jesus tried to help the disciples or the crowds "get" something important. Sometimes I picture him as exasperated and frustrated when I read those stories in the Bible. Mac and Madeline make me think that maybe when we do not get something that Jesus is trying to tell us (or help us remember) he is more sad than anything else.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

A Bizarre, Grace-Filled Family

When Madeline Was Young by Jane Hamilton

Perhaps you remember Jane Hamilton from some of her previous books. Her most famous to date is probably A Map of the World. She is an excellent storyteller whose characters make an imprint. When Madeline Was Young is compelling. Aaron and Madeline Maciver are married in their early twenties. After the first year of their marriage, Madeline is brain-damaged in a bicycle accident. She is left with the temperament and intellectual capacity of a first-grader.

Eventually, Aaron Maciver legally divorces Madeline and remarries Julia Beeson. Aaron and Julia care for Madeline for the rest of her life as if she were their own child. The story of approximately sixty years of the Maciver family history is narrated by Aaron and Julia's son Timothy (known as "Mac"). There are a couple of themes woven through the story. One is Madeline's disability and the effect it has on the whole group. There are wonderful instances of tenderness and care lavished upon Madeline, and also heartbreaking sadness as Madeline stays eternally young and group after group of friends/playmates leaves her behind. Another theme is war (the years of the narrative take us from Vietnam all the way to our current debacle in Iraq) and the conflicted opinions surrounding war, courage, and patriotism. I suspect that the effect these conflicts have on the large, extended Maciver family will feel familiar to many.

Jane Hamilton does an amazing job of voicing a male narrator and nailing some of his griefs and his instances of feeling like an observer of his own life. There are lots of interesting characters in this novel, and a few turns of phrase that will pierce the reader's heart. More on this tomorrow.
Don't want to go on too long.

That's all for now,

Reading Rev

Welcome to Ex Libris Fides

Hello - I hope the fact that you have wandered into this blog means that you love books and reading as much as I do. Starting a book blog seemed like a fun way to reconnect with some old friends and perhaps make some new ones along the way. At any given time, I have a couple of books going and several magazines, plus newspapers and internet articles. Magazines that I read regularly include Vanity Fair, Mother Jones, Sojourners, and (dare I admit it publicly?) People. Also scan Time and/or Newsweek pretty much every week and The Christian Century bi-weekly. Plus I occasionally treat myself to the New Yorker or Utne Reader. I read at least part of The Washington Post every day. However, books are my first love. I like novels, memoirs, history, sociology/anthropology, and have even been making some forays into science writing (reading it, I mean). My main thing is stories, the connections that they build between people, the reconciliations that they make possible, and the ways that stories point us to THE STORY of God's ongoing relationship with humanity and all of creation. On this blog, I will be regularly posting comments from various things that I read and invite you to respond. I also dearly love new book and magazine recommendations. Whenever and from wherever you are reading this, I wish you peace and the joy of reading. Bear with me - I am a new blogger, but hope to get the hang of it soon!

Leslie (aka "Reading Rev")