Thursday, November 29, 2007

Who ARE These People? Redux

A Hoax Turned Fatal
Draws Anger but No Charges
The New York Times
Wednesday, November 28, 2007

A couple of days ago I wrote a post about fictional characters who seemed too horrible to be real. Guess what? The truth is stranger than fiction. Perhaps you have seen stories in the newspaper or on the internet about this bizarre and tragic incident. WHO ARE THESE PEOPLE?

To summarize: In October 2006 13-year-old Megan Meier committed suicide because a "boyfriend" named Josh with whom she had been flirting online started saying mean things to her in cyberspace. Other kids joined in the fray, sending obscene messages to a young girl who had already struggled with depression and self-esteem issues. The day that Megan killed herself Josh had written "The world would be a better place without you." That would be awful enough if it were the whole story.

It's not. Josh did not really exist. He was a made-up MySpace profile designed by an adult woman - a MOTHER, a neighbor of the Meier family whose daughter had once been friends with Megan. The woman, named Lori Drew, bragged about the prank to other kids in the neighborhood, saying she wanted to "mess with" Megan because Megan had had a falling out with her daughter. Her husband knew about the hoax, but did nothing to stop it. In my mind, that is just about as bad. There is something about this whole scenario that really has gotten to me. Incredibly, Lori Drew will not be charged with any crime. According to a spokesman for the Darden County, MO Sheriff's Department, what Lori Drew did "might've been rude, it might've been immature, but it wasn't illegal." We wonder why children bully each other and say cruel things and in extreme cases take firearms to school and use them. Yet the Lori Drews of the world are setting this kind of an example for how we are supposed to cope with disagreements, misunderstandings, and relationships. I know every parent makes mistakes along the way, but this is so far over the top I can't even articulate it. I fear we are a people who have lost our way. Lori Drew may herself be an extreme case, but clearly we have lost some standard for decency and civility in our society.

Here's what really blew my top: Before Megan's suicide, the Drews had asked the Meiers to store a foosball table that they had bought their kids for Christmas. When the Meiers learned that Lori Drew had been behind the cyber-bullying that triggered their daughter's death, they chopped up the foosball table with an ax and threw the pieces onto the Drew's driveway. OK, not the healthiest or most appropriate way to cope with strong feelings, but one can understand. Unless you are Mr. and Ms. Drew. They filed a complaint with the local police department about the foosball table. Words fail me.

I have no idea if any of these people are part of any faith tradition or spiritual community. Nor do I have any idea how I would minister to the Drews if I was their pastor. The church (or other house of worship) can often be a solace to people like the Meiers - we can share in sorrow, be present with people in their pain, and listen as they struggle for hope and meaning in the midst of unimaginable grief. But oh my gosh what would I say to a Lori Drew, especially since she by all accounts I have read is unrepentant? How could I even be in the same room with her, let alone be a bearer of grace? But when we get it right, people living in community hold one another accountable and over time develop some sense of what is appropriate and what is not. We meet people at their best and at their worst and remind each one that they are a child of God, forgiven and redeemed. What is going on that there are adult people who would anonymously bully a child just for the thrill of it? I am disgusted and deeply saddened by this. In my heart of hearts I believe that God loves Lori Drew (even when we ordinary mortals cannot). Maybe if someone along the way had given her that message she would not be so messed up today.

Everyone out there hug your kids extra tight tonight and pray for a saner, kinder, gentler world.

Reverent Reader

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Bag of Doritos

The Partly Cloudy Patriot
by Sarah Vowell

Some family members told me about Sarah Vowell, and I'm so glad. She is hi-larious, even though her genre is hard to pin down. She is a history buff who travels to battlefields and other famous sites to celebrate birthdays and other special occasions. She is also an astute observer of our culture and a patriot who believes in dissent and disagreement (hence the title of her book). Interesting facts about Sarah Vowell: 1) She is originally from Oklahoma, although she now lives in New York City, 2) She is a twin (fraternal, unlike my sis and me, but still, lots in common), and 3) she was the voice of Violet in the animated movie The Incredibles.

This is a quick and fun read. It's a collection of essays about American history, political figures (current and past), and riffs on some of our most interesting cultural quirks. She is a die-hard Democrat, but makes fun of everybody (although in a way that is somehow not mean spirited, probably because she makes fun of herself most of all). Sarah Vowell is like the atheist Anne Lamott - funny, self-deprecating, occasionally thought-provoking, and with the periodic stunningly beautiful sentence.

Having said that, reading this book is like scarfing a bag of Doritos. It is tasty and goes down really fast, but in the end, nutritionally speaking, you don't have a whole lot to show for it. But, ya know, once in awhile a bag of Doritos hits the spot. Vowell has written a couple of other books, and am sure that I will read them eventually. Interspersed with a healthy dose of vegetables, of course.

Reverent Reader

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Who ARE These People?

The Emperor's Children
by Claire Messud

Truthfully, I can't decide if I liked this book or not. It's certainly an entertaining enough read, and Messud is able to draw vivid characters who keep the story moving in ways that hold the reader's attention. Having said that, though, when I finished the book I had this feeling like I wanted to take a bath. These characters are some of the most spiritually and morally bankrupt people (fiction OR non-fiction) that I have encountered to date. The story loses something because there is no one to root for, no one to empathize with. The reader experiences disbelief that "adults" can be so vapid and narcissistic and behave like such fools. You want to sell them a ticket on the clue bus.

The book is mostly about a small group of thirtyish Manhattanite friends who are struggling to figure out what they want to do with their lives. Most of them come from privileged backgrounds and are well educated, and they want to have "important" jobs that "make an impact." But - they do not want to have to learn a profession or do grunt work to get a foot in the door of any specific field. They seem to want to make their splash out of some sort of vacuum, and it is most important to be known, recognized, and remembered. How they make their mark is less significant than making it in the first place. When things do not go as planned, the characters resort to old fall backs like drugs, materialism, sexual promiscuity, adultery, and deception for the dual purposes of comforting themselves and feeding the illusion that they are hip "It" people.

There also is another major character (the father of one of the above twenty somethings) whose behavior is nauseating. He claims to want to escape his working class background by demanding "more of life, always more," thereby justifying having an adulterous affair with his daughter's best friend as well as other less egregious misdeeds. The character (named Murray) is a well-respected journalist, and the journalistic establishment stokes the fires of Murray's ego by placing him on a pedestal and making him feel invincible.

I am no prude, but found much of these characters' behaviors offensive. They want to glean every possible experience from life, but seem to be missing character traits that (in my opinion) enrich life to its highest potential, like loyalty, honesty, integrity, and commitment. They do not nurture even their (supposedly) closest relationships, yet wonder why they feel bereft and aimless (get a grip, people). They fancy themselves to be super-intellectuals, and are proud of believing in no God. It's as if they find faith and the spiritual life quaint, something for people who do not know any better.

Of course there are shallow people in this world, but I am not sure that I buy it that people exist who are this devoid of sincerity, a sense of the world outside their small circle, or work ethic. It could be that Claire Messud is drawing a caricature, encapsulating the worst characteristics of a certain privileged class of young adults in a few uber-sickening characters. If they do exist in the real world, I feel sorry for them. They are missing out on the parts of life that give us meaning, fulfillment, and purpose. In short, they are mistaking existence for life. Very sad.

The book ends a couple of months after 9/11. The horror of that event does cause a couple of the characters to reevaluate their lives and make some changes. Even their repentance, though, has a hollow feel to it. We wonder if they are really changed or just shell-shocked. Hopefully the former. Maybe Messud will write a sequel sometime. Not sure if I would read it or not.

Reverent Reader

Monday, November 26, 2007

The Ultimate Double Life

A Time to Kill, And a Time to Heal
by Laura Blumenfeld
Washington Post
Sunday, November 25, 2007

A church friend wrote to make sure that I saw this article, and I was so glad that I did not miss it. Blumenfeld writes candidly about the life of an Israeli man known only as "Yuval." Yuval is a pediatrician who also flies a helicopter at night for the Israeli air force - combat missions over Gaza. Yuval recounts harmonious, even friendly, relationships with Palestinians that he had as a child. Those days are long gone.

In the hospital, Yuval treats both Israeli and Palestinian children. The Palestinian parents are unbearably grateful for what he does to save their children, and they have no clue that he is also a fighter pilot. One mother says disingenuously that if she ever met an Israeli pilot she "would faint and die from fear." Yuval describes the strange feelings that he has when he aims missiles toward suspected Palestinian terrorists. He wonders if any of them are people he knew as a child, or parents of children he has treated. The soldier Yuval is not without ethics - he considers one mission that he describes a "failure" because he only hit two of four alleged terrorists. However, the reason he did not fire on the remaining two was that they changed their location and he thought the risk of civilian casualties was too high. The physician Yuval is kind, skilled, and compassionate, but not without prejudices. He says he estimates that over 90% of the Palestinians children he treats will grow up to be terrorists. It is hard to imagine being objective with your patient when you make that assumption about them.

Yuval also says, though, that he does his best to treat the child and not consider "the situation" as he is practicing medicine. He recounts one powerful scenario when he was treating a four-month-old baby girl in cardiac arrest. Yuval says that as he worked he thought "It didn't matter that she was from Gaza. All that mattered is that she was blue and she must be pink."

In the heat of the moment, that really is all that matters. The contrast between Yuval working frantically to save this little blue baby and the descriptions of him placing dark, indistinct dots in his crosshairs to fire on them made my heart ache. Certainly all the factors that go into a soldier's instinct to kill someone are complicated, but it surely must also be true that we can learn from the direct simplicity of Yuval's instinct to save the life of his patient, regardless of her geographic background or ethnic origin. It must be so difficult for him to separate those instincts.

I have a feeling that when we are directly confronted with the suffering of another human being, especially a child, it is much harder to demonize them. Clearly, Yuval believes he is doing the right thing in both his vocations. Without wading into the morass of Middle Eastern politics, I wish his healing impulses (and those of so many unnamed others) would carry over into some type of reconciliation between the Israelis and Palestinians. For the sake of all children of God, I pray that the day comes when Yuval can give up his night job.

Reverent Reader

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

What Really Matters on Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving at the Tappletons'
by Eileen Spinelli

When I was about nine years old, there was a Thanksgiving morning that I remember very vividly. My grandmother, Mimi, a tremendous cook who was also phenomenally organized, had made the dressing several days in advance and put it in the freezer. She froze it in a huge glass pyrex-type dish. Early morning on Thanksgiving, Mimi pulled the dressing out to thaw and CRASH! the bottom of the pan broke and dressing spilled all over the floor. "Oh, no!" Mimi cried dramatically. "What will we do? We can't have Thanksgiving without dressing!"

Our ever calm Boppa raced to the store for the necessary ingredients and somehow together Mimi, Boppa, and my Mom pulled it off. We had a delicious, fragrant pan of dressing for dinner and to this day we are careful about what type of dish we put in the freezer. Years later, I found this book and sent Mimi a copy, because it reminded me of that Thanksgiving that Mimi was so sure would be a disaster. This book helped me see that with or without the dressing we would have been OK.

The Tappletons have a series of hilarious mishaps that lead them to not have any of the traditional Thanksgiving foods available. They wind up eating liverwurst and cheese sandwiches and pickles, with applesauce for dessert. They come to realize, though, that the real heart of Thanksgiving is being with people who matter to you. The food is secondary. This is the prayer that the Grandmother says at the end of the book:

Turkeys come and turkeys go
And trimmings can be lost, we know.
But we're together, that's what matters-
Not what's served upon the platters.

I hope everyone is with people they love tomorrow, and that we all remember to be thankful for family, friends, health, and happiness. We have done lots of cooking this evening, so far without major catastrophes. Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

Reverent Reader

Tuesday, November 20, 2007


Canned Compassion
Outlook Section, Washington Post
November 18, 2007
by Mark Winne

Mark Winne's article is generating a lot of discussion in our congregation. I had it on my desk this morning, and by noon two different people had brought me copies of it, wondering if I had read it and what I thought. I came home from church on Sunday very pumped. We held our annual Thanksgiving luncheon and it was a joyful time, with well over 100 people attending. We always do a canned food drive as part of the Thanksgiving luncheon, and we all felt justifiably good about the fact that we had collected 689 cans and other non-perishables. When I opened the Outlook Section of the Washington Post Sunday afternoon I had to at least ask myself if the time, energy, and money spent collecting, counting, sorting, and delivering all that food was the best use of the aforementioned resources.

Winne's article is right on target in my opinion, but short on offering real solutions, perhaps because those are hard to come by. He hypothetically discusses taking all the hundreds of thousands of employees and volunteers who keep food banks and pantries open across the nation and bringing them all to Washington D. C. to pressure Congress for living wages, affordable health care, and other measures that would go much farther than food handouts to eradicate the root cause of hunger, which of course is poverty. Maybe what Winne suggests would do some good, but how long could we sustain that kind of pressure on our elected officials before people had to return to some semblance of a normal life?

I think this is a dilemma with which most people of faith wrestle. We believe that we have a responsibility to care for the poor and feed the hungry. That should include both charitable contributions (like food and money) as well as the harder, less immediately rewarding work of social advocacy and work for systemic change. As important as providing direct assistance is, there is no doubt in my mind that the direct assistance projects funnel volunteer time and energy away from advocacy and agitation for social justice. But I would never (at least in the foreseeable future) say we should stop the charitable contributions. It does not seem right to deny someone a Band-Aid just because they also need surgery. Likewise, when someone is hungry or food insecure in the moment it would not feel right to alleviate that hunger if we have the power and means to do so.

It makes me proud that our congregation is also engaged in ministries that make more of a difference in the long term. We have an English for Speakers of Other Languages program and several volunteers who mentor children at a local elementary school. Many of our members are well-informed about social issues and write to elected leaders in an effort to get legislation passed that gives poor people a chance to improve their circumstances. I also am proud of the direct assistance that our congregation provides from our own food pantry and the contributions we make to other local assistance organizations. However, Winne's article has raised this old tension between the two.

I do not foresee a quick or easy end to this dilemma. But 9.5% of the population of Maryland is hungry or what is termed "food insecure." Different people will attack the problem different ways. Political beliefs, theology, and culture are all factors in our choosing the approach that we do. I think we all agree, though, that people of faith should be concerned about the issues of hunger and poverty. Maybe if many people with different ideas and perspectives put their heads together, we can come up with some solutions that have a real impact. Let it be so.

Reverent Reader

Monday, November 19, 2007

Another Place, Certainly Another Time

Queen Victoria
by Lytton Strachey

This book was a favorite of my late mother-in-law's. I loved her dearly, but did not get to know her very well, as illness began to take her from us by inches around the time I came into the family. I do remember a couple of cozy conversations that we had in her home, discussing books and music. When I learned from E. that this was one she had enjoyed, I resolved to read it, thinking it would give me a window into her reading life. E. also has said that for years this book reigned as an epitome of biographical literature. Even though it is available online, I made sort of a quest out of obtaining this book, inquiring in used bookstores whenever I was browsing. Everyone knows of it, but would say that it sells out quickly, so for years I could not find it. Happily, a copy turned up in a local used bookstore, and E. found it one day when we were dropping off some things to trade in.

Sadly, the quest was more rewarding than the book. It is not terrible, but with a 1921 copyright it is terribly dated. I can deal with an archaic writing style - after all, much of classic literature is not written in the vernacular that we use on a daily basis. What bothered me was that Lytton Strachey tells most of Queen Victoria's story through the sequence of her relationships with various men. First and foremost is her husband Albert, but also the various Prime Ministers and other political leaders who served during her 60+ year reign. He makes patronizing statements about her - she was "diligent and conscientious" but "of limited imagination" and "incapable of grasping the finer points of the British Constitution." He acts like England would have crumbled into the sea without the men behind the scenes, steering the ship. At the same time he praises her devotion to domestic life. It was a different era, and no doubt she did rely on men who could wield their power in more aggressive ways. However, I have to think she was a more interesting woman in her own right than Strachey portrays her. I wanted to know more about Queen Victoria, a woman whose influence still reverberates in our world today. I feel like Strachey gives us a carboard cutout wrought by the culture of the time that she lived in (and maybe some of the time that HE lived in) and expects us to believe that that is the real person.

A little bit of internet searching shows that there are some more recent books about Victoria and her descendants that look to be worth pursuing. Someday soon, perhaps. I was moved by her dedication to her work, and her sense of duty that trumped everything else in her life. I wonder if any of us have that devotion to anything anymore. If anyone out there has read any of the more current literature on Queen Victoria, I would love to know what is worth reading.

Reverent Reader

Saturday, November 17, 2007

So Much in Common

The Rescuer
by Howard Parnell
Washington Post Magazine
November 18, 2007

Howard Parnell wrote this article about a touching relationship that developed in the late 1970s between his grandmother, Ruth Jones, and Edward King, a man sentenced to 20 years in prison for assault and robbery. Ruth Jones was a well-educated social worker from Richmond who began a written correspondence with Edward King in 1978. He was an inmate at the Powhatan Correctional Center.

By the time he went to prison at age 21, Edward was already a father, had been in and out of trouble since he was around 15, and had served time in several juvenile detention facilities. His education was so spotty that he could barely print his name, but by the time Ruth Jones began taking an interest in him he had been taking classes in prison and could read and write on a third grade level.

What I noticed about the history of their relationship is that Ruth Jones did not come on like gangbusters, getting in his face and telling him how to "improve" himself. She started out by just recognizing him as a human being, writing him letters about gardening and kite-flying and other safe topics that might remind him that there was a world on the outside to be enjoyed. Later, she began to encourage him to think about life after he was free, telling him to keep hoping and never give up. As Ruth's grandson, Howard Parnell, read through the collection of letters many years later, he noticed that Edward got more responsive and articulate as the friendship continued. He wrote once that he kept Ruth's picture in his Bible and looked at it every day.

Eventually, Ruth and Edward met face to face, which solidified their friendship. Edward became eligible for parole in 1980, and Ruth helped him find a job. He spent time at the home of Ruth Jones and her pediatrician husband. However, Ruth and her husband were already well into their 80s by this time, and eventually they lost touch with Edward when he moved out of the area. After Ruth's death in 1991, her grandson took custody of the box of letters between the two and a memoir about the relationship that Ruth and her daughter had written.

The years went by, and Howard made periodic attempts to find Edward, to no avail. Eventually, though, thanks to internet search engines and a couple of lucky breaks he found Edward, living in southeast D.C. The years since 1980 have not always been smooth for Edward, but he has never returned to prison. He spends a great deal of time now talking to kids on the streets, telling them to stay out of trouble and find alternatives to crime as a way to spend time and make a living. His troubled past has been redeemed by sincere effort to live an honorable life in the present.

Edward King gives Ruth Jones a lot of the credit for the fact that he has been able to stay away from crime and live a productive life. The last line of the article, he says "Me and Ruth thought the same about pretty much everything. We just had so much in common." It seems unlikely on the surface that Ruth and Edward would have anything in common, but when we look below that surface, perhaps we all have more in common than we initially realize.

It's inspiring to think what a difference any one of us can make with just a little bit of effort. In this week of Thanksgiving, let's all give thanks for the people who helped us along the way, and prayerfully consider how we can return the favor for someone else.

Reverent Reader

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Songs in G(RACE)minor

Sound Theology: On Meaning in Music
by Jeremy Begbie
The Christian Century, November 13, 2007

Thought-provoking cover story in the current issue of The Christian Century about the parallels between music and theology. The article is an excerpt from Begbie's recently published Resounding Truth: Christian Wisdom in the World of Music, which I may have to put on my list of things to read soon. There are many hymns with stirring words, and many tunes that move the listener, but Begbie expresses in a very compelling way the largely unconscious psychological and theological forces at work when we hear a piece of music. He lists the following three ways that music enacts some of the dynamics of the gospel: 1) It cannot be rushed, 2)It invites us to live on many levels, and 3) It makes us wait.

The article touches on many facets of music, including the use of meter and the power of silence in a piece, but I will leave those for the reader who wants to explore the article himself or herself. What stuck with me about Begbie's article was his argument that the equilibrium-tension-resolution pattern that is so common in music is also one of the "most basic psychological patterns governing our lives." He compares it to Walter Brueggemann's orientation-disorientation-reorientation scheme for interpreting the Psalms, which makes a good deal of sense. Begbie compares the bleakness and struggles of Holy Week to a tumultuous piece of music, saying that the resolution is far more meaningful because of having experienced the tensions. He writes "Music is remarkably instructive because, more than any other art form, it teaches us not to rush over tension, how to find joy and fulfillment through a temporal movement that includes struggles, clashes, and fractures. The temptation is to pass over what needs to be passed through."

Hmmm . . . when I was in seminary I worked with a pastor who absolutely refused to choose any hymns that were written in a minor key because they were too much of a "downer." He even would chew out the organist/choir director for choosing pieces that were minor. It seems to me, though (and I would agree), that Begbie is saying that we have to embrace the "minor" times of life if we are to fully grasp the MAJOR grace that the gospel offers us. Some of my favorite music is hauntingly sad, and now I wonder if at some deeper level I have understood that the minor key music in its own way leads us to a fuller understanding of God and God's presence in our world.

So . . .what is some of YOUR favorite music? (can be listed by genre, artist, style, or whatever)
Songs that tell stories (a la Nanci Griffith, John McCutcheon, and Carrie Newcomer), some classical ("Pictures at an Exhibition" by Mussorgsky, Pachelbel's Canon in D, and Vivaldi's "Four Seasons" come to mind), old and new folk, classic rock, and well-done, non-cheesy sacred music.

What is a favorite hymn of yours (especially a "minor key downer" one)?
Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence and O Sacred Head Now Wounded

Do you have a favorite "sad" singer or other musical artist? If so, who?
Cowboy Junkies, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Lucy Kaplansky, John Gorka, Dar Williams, Norah Jones, Josh Ritter, Joshua Bell, Yo-Yo Ma, Lyle Lovett

Who is your favorite "happy" musician?
Jimmy Buffett, Eddie from Ohio

Am sure I will think of a million more as soon as I end this post. I recognize that some of these artists cross the borders between introspective and more upbeat music frequently, but that's pretty much how life is.

Send me your favorite music ideas!

Reverent Reader

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

East Meets West Meets South

White Teeth
by Zadie Smith

I could see this book being made into a movie - something along the lines of the one that got a lot of critical acclaim a few years ago called East is East, or that awesome girl-power flick Bend It Like Beckham. Zadie Smith has won a bunch of awards over the last few years and several people have recommended her work, so thought it was time to see what she is all about.

White Teeth is really funny and wrenchingly sad at the same time. There are two World War II veterans who are friends, one British (Archie) and one from Bangladesh (Samad), living in London. The Bangladeshi has strong feelings about British colonialism in India and Bangladesh and fights hard to maintain his cultural identity amid his people's former oppressors. Both men marry much younger women - Archie a Jamaican and Samad an Indian. As they have families of their own, the succeeding generations deal with typical adolescent angst as well as trying to fit into a culture that does not affirm them or their heritage.

No one escapes Zadie Smith's observant wit. Jamaicans, Jehovah's Witnesses, Indians, Black Muslims, Indian Muslims, biracial teenagers, bikers, school administrators, and animal rights activists all get poked fun at in a sly yet good-humored way. The reader gets the feeling that Smith is not trying to wound so much as observe (that old saying about not laughing at but laughing with). A family of well-intentioned but clueless white middle class British intellectuals gets especially skewered. There are spots where her detail is so dead-on that the reader cannot help but laugh.

In the midst of all the satire, however, there is an undercurrent of sadness. In the midst of a rather absurd plot every now and then a sentence pops up that speaks to the longing of every heart to belong and feel accepted. Take this paragraph that describes Millat, an Indian teenager raised in Britain who is desperately trying to find his place in the world: "He had to please all of the people all of the time. To the Cockney wideboys in the white jeans and the colored shirts he was the joker, the risk-taker, respected lady-killer. To the black kids, he was fellow weed-smoker and valued customer. To the Asian kids, hero and spokesman. Social chameleon. And underneath it all, there remained an ever-present anger and hurt, the feeling of belonging nowhere that comes to people who belong everywhere (White Teeth, p. 225)."

As our world grows ever smaller, more and more people leave countries of origin and start new lives in other countries. The county where I live is home (at least for now) to many immigrants from South America, Africa, and various parts of Asia. The tensions between first and second-generation immigrants that Smith depicts ring true to what I have observed in some of my neighbors here in the United States. I would imagine that the desire to maintain traditions and cultures from far away but at the same time fit in here must get very stressful.

By the time I finished White Teeth I wanted to cut everyone some slack. People do strange things that we do not understand. I'm sure I do strange things that others do not understand. At the end of the day, though, most of us want the same thing. We need to be loved. We need to be forgiven. We need to be accepted for who we are, even if who we are is a mixed bag of ethnicity, culture, and faith.

Reverent Reader

Monday, November 12, 2007

Fun New Kid's Book

by Adam Rex

Saw a quick blurb in the Book World about this and thought it looked like fun. Went to popular local kids' store today to see if they had it. YAY! There was a copy just waiting for me to pick it up and look.

This is an adorable book for boys or girls aged approximately 4-6. If a kid you know likes to go to the zoo, check it out. A little girl visits the zoo and all the animals start pssting to get her attention. They all want her to go and get something at the store for them that they need. The illustrations are detailed and clever, and the humor is dryly hilarious.

Needless to say, picked this up for a Christmas present for S. (aged 4). So sure am I that he will love it that I wish Christmas were today so I could give it to him right now. Oh well, anticipation is half the fun.

Reverent Reader

Sunday, November 11, 2007

The Unthinkable

Losing Leslie by Liza Mundy
Washington Post Magazine
November 11, 2007

The poignant cover story of today's Post Magazine gave me pause. It was about the different approaches that parents and other family members of those who died in the Virginia Tech shooting take to coping with their loss, and how they all in their own ways are trying to move forward. There is a tension between wanting to honor the memory of their child or loved one and celebrate his/her life, but not wanting anger and hatred to become the focus of their lives. Some people are trying to use their pain to work for a positive change, such as stricter gun laws or increased security on college campuses.

Liza Mundy's article brings out the searching that all victims' family members must be doing to some degree, but she paints the picture by getting to know one family closely and learning about the different opinions within its members. Some of the Virginia Tech parents have directed a lot of anger toward the university and/or the Blacksburg police force. There are questions about why Seung Hui Cho was not spotted as a potentially dangerous person, and why the campus was not locked down after the first two early morning shootings. A review panel that was formed to evaluate that horrific morning and determine what could have been done better admitted that locking the campus down might have made the death toll smaller. However, they also said that those responsible acted in good faith and made the best decisions at the time with the information that they had.

Understandably, some family members are not satisfied with the review panel's report. Some are even considering a lawsuit, wanting to see that someone is held accountable for their loved one's premature death. Others are turned off by the idea of receiving any monetary compensation, believing (rightly, I think) that no amount of money could ever ease the pain of losing a child. Mundy's article focuses on the Adams-Sherman family from Springfield, VA. Holly Adams and Tony Sherman lost their daughter Leslie, and they disagree on how to live in a world without her. Ms. Adams is considering participating in some kind of lawsuit, but she is clear that she is not motivated by money. She believes she owes it to her daughter to do everything she can to find out the truth of what happened that day. By contrast, her husband thinks that such a process would only delay healing and keep their family from moving forward in healthy ways.

Liza Mundy portrayed the Adams-Sherman family with a great deal of sensitivity and a lack of judgement. After reading her article, I feel like I know these bereaved parents, like they live down the street from me. I want to take them a casserole and hug them and sit with them and pray with and for them until there is the tiniest pinhole of light in their darkness.

The article was not clear as to whether this the Adams-Sherman family members are people of faith. Out of 32 victims, though, I am guessing that there were Christian families, Jewish families, Muslim families, possibly people of other faiths and almost certainly some non-believers - all of whom experienced the tragedy of that awful day. Each must find ways to cope. I have no doubt of God's love for me and for my children, but no one knows how they would face such a loss until they go through it. I hope that so many people who are still grappling with this senseless tragedy find strength and comfort from some kind of belief in a God of love and mercy.

This week, we will pass the seven month anniversary of the Virginia Tech shooting. We are approaching the first cycle of holidays for so many people who are missing sons, daughters, sisters, brothers, fathers, mothers, friends, and significant others. So many people will have a hard time feeling thankful, or celebrating the festival of lights, or believing in an unlikely savior. My heart goes out to them tonight and in the days ahead. May God grant them some small measure of peace.

Reverent Reader

Thursday, November 8, 2007

What's Your Story?

Stories as Spiritual Practice
Sojourners Magazine
November 2007

Since the only thing I love more than telling a good story is hearing one, imagine my delight when I received the current issue of Sojourners and saw that it is a special issue dedicated to books and theater. It contains great children's book suggestions for kids of all ages. I have long been intrigued by the use of stories to communicate the faith to our children, and also their critical role in the development of relationships between human beings. Some of you may remember that I wrote a paper for my D.Min. degree several years ago on the use of narrative to build empathy - the topic and the practice continue to fascinate me. Hearing one another's stories - across barriers of culture, nation, race, and any other divider we can think of - may be our best hope as God's children to learn to live together with our differences. As I mentioned a couple of days ago, one cannot read a Khaled Hosseini novel and continue to demonize all Afghan people. That is the power of a good story. Fiction or not, a story does not have to be literally true to communicate some of the most profound truths that exist.

Associate Editor of Sojourners Molly Marsh challenges us to open our minds to the power of story in her editorial column. She writes the following:

"The simple settings and characters of Jesus' stories helped direct listeners to the truth that lay underneath. The alternate world Jesus came to reveal was so radical, so unlike what his listeners-then and now-understood to be real, that his stories, with their unexpected plot twists, surprising language, and elements of mystery, helped uncover what had previously been hidden. Whether they are collected in books or enacted in front of us, many stories still perform that function. Through language, setting, and characters, authors and playwrights entertain and educate us, puncture our illusions, and surprise us with new perspectives. They can help us see more clearly both the world we inhabit and the world Jesus calls us to help create."

Molly Marsh also encourages us to nurture our imaginations, saying that "Minds and spirits that are open to imagining the world Jesus came to bring-and our place in it-also get us one step closer to realizing it."

Walter Brueggemann once wrote "Faithful imagination is more important than dominant technique." Those words have stuck with me. We all have an opportunity to create better stories than the ones the world is telling right now. We can model alternative stories to the ones we hear on the news of wars, killings, and wacko celebrity moms. So . . . post a good story of kindness or reconciliation or faithfulness or truth telling on this blog and spread the word!

Reverent Reader

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

367 Splendid Pages

A Thousand Splendid Suns
by Khaled Hosseini

I still remember standing in the parking lot at my former church, the Sunday morning that we learned that U.S. troops had invaded Afghanistan in the first retaliation for 9/11 and the opening salvos of the war on terror. I was standing with my friend M., who, when we heard the news, immediately burst into tears and said "There are no more miserable people anywhere in the world than the Afghans. Why do we have to heap more on them?" Her question was somewhat rhetorical, as at the time the search for Bin Laden made going into Afghanistan seem like a logical step. I think she was making the point, though, that it is tragic when a war on terror ruins or ends the lives of so many people who have never even thought of committing terrorist acts.

Khaled Hosseini, in both The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns humanizes the Afghan people and articulates their suffering better than any story on CNN that I have seen to date. I did not think he could top his first book, but he may have with this one. When I think of Afghanistan, I think of dust and rubble and starving people, a country characterized by the Islamic extremism that has turned it into a cultural wasteland. There are legitimate reasons for those images in our mind with the present Afghanistan, but Hosseini's books show us that it has not always been that way, and it does not have to remain that way.

Hosseini weaves personal stories with the history of Afghanistan, so that the reader picks up the history of the country while also idenitfying with and coming to care about the people who lived through it. Both of his novels deal with suffering and redemption and grace that pervades (and prevails) against all odds. We see that there are many Muslims who are a lot like us - who want to raise their children, worship God, and live peaceful lives. Circumstances prevent them from doing that all too often, yet they manage to create pockets of tranquility, find the odd moment of humor, and develop relationships that help them to endure.

One of the main characters of A Thousand Splendid Suns, named Mariam, is truly downtrodden. Through the whole book, we just wait for her to get one tiny break, one ray of hope, and (with the exception of her relationship with Laila and Laila's children) it just never happens. It was Mariam who brought M.'s long ago words in the WPC parking lot to my mind. In the end, though, Mariam sacrifices herself, literally giving her own life, so that the three people she cares most about can have a chance for a better future. Mariam's resolve as she walks to her execution reminded me of Christ facing the jeering mob and giving himself up for all of us. Laila finds a way to keep Mariam's memory alive, by caring for the orphaned children of Kabul.

At one point in the story, Mariam is teaching the child Aziza the daily Islamic prayers that she (Mariam) has used for so many years to anchor and order her life in the midst of constant humiliation and a lifetime of being treated like she is less than nothing. Mariam says to Laila: "These prayers are all I have to give her because they are really the only things that have ever been mine." Mariam has learned the hard way what can sustain the human spirit through unimaginable brutality and hopelessness.

This is a must read. I will not forget it, and I hope the U.S. does not forget the people of Afghanistan again.

Reverent Reader

Monday, November 5, 2007

I'm Cryin' Already!

Watch 'Em and Weep
Washington Post
Style and Arts Section
Sunday, November 4, 2007

My title line is what we sometimes say in our family when we are considering going to a movie that we know is going to be a tear jerker. It's what I said when I found out that The Kite Runner was being made into a movie. The Post article explores the psychological reasons why we cry at movies, and what triggers those tears. It also recreates the conversations that we have about those movies in a really funny and true to life way.

Interesting fact in the article: there are three kinds of tears that we all have and/or shed: 1)basal - these keep our eyes moist and allow us to blink without pain. 2) reflex - the kind that we get when cutting onions or get a finger poked in our eye. 3) emotional - and these are the only kind of tears that release toxins from our bodies. So, a big ole bawl is a good thing once in awhile.

Also - until puberty, boys and girls cry in pretty much equal amounts. As they mature, the guys load up on testosterone, and the women on estrogen. You know the rest. Statistics show that women cry four times as much as men, and most often between the hours of 7and 10 PM.

The article also explores the question of WHY certain movies make us cry. I actually thought it over analyzed the question a bit, because there is no ONE reason. A lot has to do with how we are feeling when we go to the movie in the first place. Some days I can sit through Old Yeller unfazed and another day Ferris Bueller's Day Off can get me going ("I want a day off! I want to be that free and uninhibited. My youth is over! WAAAAHHH!"). For me, though, the movies that get to me the most usually have something to do with situations that cause people pain OR great joy with which we all can identify - loss, grief, moral injustice, sacrifice, spiritual struggles, etc. If the movie handles the issues well, pass the Kleenex. If it's overdone or poorly done, the trip can turn into a hoot fest.

So - what are your all time weepy movies? Some of the ones that people sent into the Post were obvious ones - Terms of Endearment, the aforementioned Old Yeller. There were also some surprises, like The Incredibles and Terminator 2 (okay, I haven't seen that one but - HUH?). Here are my boo hoo flicks, in the approximate order in which I saw them:

Where the Red Fern Grows (the book by Wilson Rawls will also get you)
The Champ (Jon Voight and Ricky Schroeder, the boxer dad gets killed in his final fight)
Kramer vs. Kramer (when Billy thinks it is his last morning with his dad)
Terms of Endearment (hospital room scenes, especially mom saying good-bye to her boys)
Dark Victory (when the Bette Davis character says bye to her husband, knowing she will be dead before he returns)
It's a Wonderful Life (the last scene)
Driving Miss Daisy (when Miss Daisy starts to lose her mind and when cops are racist and abusive to Hoke)
Sling Blade (the scene where Karl says good-bye to Frankie)
Schindler's List (too many places to enumerate)
Young Frankenstein (ok, I'm kidding about that one. I was getting too sad thinking about all these sad movies and had to lighten things up a bit.)

Am sure I will think of more later. Send me yours - it will be cathartic!

Reverent Reader

Sunday, November 4, 2007

A, C, G, T . . .

The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief
by Francis Collins

In all honesty, I found this book to be kind of a bust. Pretty much by accident, I started reading it right around the same time that I started Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything, which I thoroughly enjoyed (see October 28th post for more on that one). Had I known that Bryson and Collins would cover a lot of the same material, although Bryson does it much better, I probably would not have bothered with Collins' book. Ironically, this scientist presents the scientific concepts in a much more opaque way than either Bill Bryson or Natalie Angiers.

Francis Collins was the Director of the Human Genome Project, which you may remember got a huge amount of press a few years ago (deservedly so) for mapping the 3-billion+ sequence of the human genome. Even after reading this book and a fair amount of other science stuff lately, I still have only the vaguest idea of the potential genetic and medical significance for this task, but clearly it is a huge deal that took a lot of time and many millions of dollars to do.

Francis Collins is also a committed Christian, and the premise of his book is to present evidence, from the viewpoint of a scientist, for belief in a Creator. To his credit, he acknowledges that at some point, belief will always require a leap of faith. God's existence and presence in the world cannot be proven by science. He traces the prehistory of the world but compresses it down into kind of a Cliff's Notes version. His main point is to say that none of the scientific advances made thus far in the world, including the always controversial theory of evolution, disprove God's existence. Duh. Someone call the newspapers.

Collins does include a section that compares society's competing views regarding the earth's and life's origins that provides helpful information, especially the differences between the people who believe (despite all evidence to the contrary) that the earth is only about 6,000 years old (evidently there is a name for this group - they are the Young Earth Creationists) and those who believe in the slightly more palatable school of thought that has been around for about 15 years and is known as Intelligent Design). This section is helpful, because it describes the varied nuances in the thinking of each group. What I found truly astonishing is that 45% of Americans polled called themselves Young Earth Creationists. Yikes. Francis Collins describes himself (and many other scientists who are also people of faith) as a "theistic evolutionist" - he believes in the principles of evolution, but believes that some sort of Creator (for him it is God) got this all going and in some way is still involved. Makes sense to me. As I've said before, with regard to the tension between faith and science, I just really do not see what all the fuss is about.

That's all for now. G. wants me to read Elmo's ABC Book. The Washington Post Book World is also calling my name.

Reverent Reader

Friday, November 2, 2007

When It Rains . . .

Year of Wonders
by Geraldine Brooks

Our house was like this book last night. If you have read it, you understand what I mean. E. has been fighting a cough for several days and was not feeling so hot. The boys were asleep, so I went to bed at 9:00 PM with chills and aches. Thought it was going to be a long night's sleep. Bwa - hahahaha!

S. developed a horrible cough yesterday evening. Had done the Vicks and humidifier routine, but about 9:30 PM he coughed to the point that his gag reflex kicked in and the vomiting started. Let your imagination be your guide as to what the clean-up from that was like, after his sumptuous dessert of Halloween candy just a couple of hours before.

E. started the laundry from that whole adventure, then I went back to bed. About 10:30 G. started crying. E. checked on him to find that he had vomited. He only has a very mild cough - his seemed to be a stomach bug of some sort. Between 10:30 PM and 2:00 AM he went through four sets of sheets, three pairs of pajamas, and I can't begin to guess how many towels and paper towels. We finally ended up in the recliner chair, me just holding him between bouts, towel at the ready.

We both finally slept around 3:30 AM. G. was up at 7:00, screaming for water. It's off to the doc today for both my little men. Please send prayers and positive energy our way.

Not sure if there are varieties of the same plague blazing through our household, or if there are a couple of different ones. We will pull through, unlike most of the characters in Brooks's book. Which seriously is a great one, by the way. This is the same person who wrote the Pulitzer-prize winning March in 2005. Thought of Year of Wonders in the middle of last night's siege, because it is so awful when the whole household (in the book it is a whole village) goes down, and you have no idea what will transpire next.

The good news is that G. has tolerated ice chips and a few sips of water this AM. There is probably a light at the end of the tunnel. Must say, though, that it is a moment of grace when your child reaches for you, puts his head on your shoulder, sighs, and goes to sleep. Even when he smells like puke.

Reverent Reader