Thursday, May 29, 2008


Where the Red Fern Grows
by Wilson Rawls

This is a more personal post than usual. Our household is very sad today because we lost our beloved dog, Zeke, this morning. Zeke was 13 years old and had been my dog since early 1995. He went through all kinds of things with me - the most amazing being his instant love for both of our kids, from the moment we brought them home from the hospital. He appointed himself the boys' guardian and would look at me reproachfully if he thought I was lollygagging in meeting one of their needs. Zeke had been in declining health, but over the past few days he had a rapid deterioration. We had gone away on a short trip for Memorial Day, and something drastic happened while we were gone - on Tuesday morning he suddenly could not stand at all, and usually could not even sit up. Our vet suspects that Zeke had a stroke of some kind or maybe even a brain tumor. We could have spent thousands of dollars on diagnostic tests, but it seemed clear that Zeke was suffering and even with a firm diagnosis there was little we could do.

We brought Zeke home last night, hoping that being in his familiar surroundings might perk him up. We tried many times to get him to stand, to no avail. E. and I had to carry him in a towel (like a sling) to take him outside. He was clearly in a lot of pain and whimpered and yelped a lot. At about 5:00 AM this morning, E. and I decided to put an end to it. It just seemed like no way for a funny, zany dog like Zeke to live. We took Zeke back to the hospital at around 8:30 and the vet euthanized him while E. and I petted him and told him we love him and what a good dog he is. Zeke slipped away peacefully, I felt his heartbeat stop before all the anesthetic was even administered.

I've been thinking a lot today about Where the Red Fern Grows, a classic book by Oklahoma writer Wilson Rawls about a young boy who loses his two dogs. I remember it was the first book (AND the first movie) that ever made me cry. It was a story that expressed the painful loss we feel when one of our faithful four-legged friends dies. As an adult and a "dog person," I find the human relationship with animals even more amazing than I did as a child. In my adult life I have now had two dogs who have shown me what unconditional love is and who have embodied grace in my life. Maybe sometime I will be lucky enough to have another, but not for awhile, probably several years. This loss is so painful that we will just have to live with it for a time.

People have often asked me if I believe that we find our pets waiting for us in heaven or eternity or whatever we call the afterlife. I do. I cannot mentally picture a place or a state of being that does not include these creatures who love us in such a gloriously uncomplicated way. I do not claim to know how it all works, but I take comfort today in the vision of sometime having Zeke snoozing at my feet again.

Reverent Reader

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Got Justice?

Justice In the Burbs: Being the Hands of Jesus Wherever You Live
by Will and Lisa Samson

I picked this up off a table at Barnes and Noble because it looked interesting, given that both my nuclear family and church family are located in the suburbs. It's not a bad read. It includes lots of good tips for being intentional about our choices, living simply, and discerning our call to serve the world. It's fairly basic, though. It seems like it would have been an ideal book for me to read in my early 20s, when I was just becoming aware of the call to people of faith to participate in creating the world that God envisions. I frankly do not remember hearing much about justice in the church where I grew up, but I am perfectly willing to acknowledge the possibility (maybe even probability) that I was just not paying attention. This book makes the theological case for justice and social action and points people toward organizations that they can become involved with to become more engaged in society. They also outline some of the potential pitfalls of justice work - relationships changing, not getting the response you desire from the recipients of your work, etc.

Maybe I am just too immersed in my own context. Our congregation has been concerned about social issues since its founding in 1961, and this engagement is a part of our heritage that our people are very committed to. Even acknowledging that our community may be somewhat unique in this way, it seemed like the Samsons were stating the obvious much of the time. Even though most of what they said is stuff I agree with wholeheartedly, I found myself asking "Are people really this clueless?" If they are, this book is a good place to start when wanting to embark on the uphill journey of creating an equitable and sustainable world.

The Samsons are interesting people - they both have worked in churches before, Will is currently a Ph.D student in sociology, and Lisa is a novelist. They have three children, ages 10 to 17. Justice in the Burbs is punctuated by vignettes about a middle-class family awakening to the need around them and becoming more involved in urban ministries and the lives of the clients that they meet. The fictional story line enlivens the rather didactic tone of the rest of the book, but it is not terribly well written. The characters seem pretty contrived and predictable. I thought if the husband called his wife "babe" one more time I would puke.

I also had trouble with the assumption that all suburbanites are blind to issues of social concern and have to be awakened (although I liked the conclusion of the book that acknowledges that the suburbs are where some people are genuinely called to live, and that the important thing is to get involved wherever you are). There also was an "either/or" tone to the book regarding being active in a church congregation and participating in justice work. I think congregations, when we get it right, can be a major part of awakening people to our call to justice as people of faith. We can also affirm people's gifts and help them find ways to use those talents for the common good. If we affirm that the person who has the skills to be a successful lobbyist on behalf of the poor is likely not going to have time to be a youth advisor or session member (and vice versa), but nevertheless bless and encourage that person in his or her ministry, then I see that person's work as an extension of our congregation's ministry. So the implication that the church and the society have to be in competition for the talents and energy of our people was troubling to me.

Still, as I say the book has some good information and is no doubt a helpful resource for people searching for the theological affirmation to extend themselves to people outside their own immediate sphere and comfort zone. This book will energize them, and it reminds all of us that to do so is to participate in God's activity in our world.

Reverent Reader

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

You Go Girl

The Life of Elizabeth I
by Alison Weir

Sorry, blog friends, that I have been a long time without posting. The kids are not sick this time (knock on wood), I just got immersed in this big bio of Queen Elizabeth I and it took awhile to get through it. This is a terrific book. As always, Alison Weir has done her homework, and this book has the detailed scholarship of all her others while at the same time bringing the characters and the culture of 16th century England to life. By the time I finished with it, I honestly felt like I knew Elizabeth, and could easily understand why she inspired such love from her people. She lived in a time when even civilized people could still be pretty barbaric, and her own record was not without blemish. However, for the standards and culture of her time, she was remarkably humane. She had a strong belief in the privilege of royal blood but nevertheless cared about all of her subjects and wore herself out trying to improve the lives of even the lowliest peasants.

I would not call Elizabeth an early feminist. She ruled England for 45 years because she was the best option for England at the time of her older sister Mary's death (she took on this responsibility in spite of the fact that her own father, the lovely King Henry VIII, had had her own mother Ann Boleyn executed in 1536 and had their daughter Elizabeth declared a bastard). In spite of her own keen intellect and strong will, Elizabeth made remarks throughout her reign that indicated that she thought of women as the weaker sex and that in most cases they should defer to men. I think, though, that this was her way of maintaining her own power without posing too much of a threat to her male advisers and council members.

Elizabeth I is still revered in England as the famed "Virgin Queen," for she never married. For the first 25 years of her reign, though, she dangled the possibility of marriage before any number of European princes and even a couple of her English subjects. She would spin out negotiations for years before finally cutting the guy off for good. This was her way of building alliances with other countries and keeping threats to England at bay. As I read this whole saga of Elizabeth's life, I thought often of Queen Esther in the Old Testament. Both of these women were willing to use their feminine charms and wiles if it would increase the safety of their people. They both were also shrewd and able to "play" men who fancied that they had the upper hand. Both had their moments of ruthlessness. Elizabeth doubtless had more power than Esther did, but both of them did what they had to at the time to survive and even flourish.

Reading this book really helped me appreciate the religious tensions of the time. If you know British history, you will remember that Elizabeth's father Henry VIII broke away from the Catholic church and established the Anglican church because the Pope would not grant him a divorce from his first wife, Katherine of Aragon. During Elizabeth's reign, many Catholics still hoped to have a Catholic monarch restored to the throne, and there were many plots and intrigues across Europe that tried to overthrow her and restore England to Catholicism. Elizabeth was a Protestant, but she established a policy of religious tolerance that remains in England to this
day. It was only when she felt threatened by Catholics that she outlawed the mass and banned other Catholic practices. In the wake of some of the plots against her, there were occasional executions of Catholics, but these instances always weighed heavily on Elizabeth's conscience. Even with the perilous nature of her power, Elizabeth authorized the execution of fewer Catholics in her 45 year reign than the number of Protestants executed during her Catholic half-sister Mary's five year reign. While I abhor executions and torture now, I did have to remember that it was a different time. Compared to other monarchs, she was quite merciful.

It is clear from this biography that Elizabeth I was vain and mercurial. She was also humble and devout. My sense was that she was very lonely in spite of the adulation and attendance given to a Queen. She was complicated, like most of us. She did the best she could. A fascinating portrait of an amazing historical figure. Alison Weir is an acclaimed historian, but in the past couple of years has started writing historical novels as well. Her novel Innocent Traitor, about Lady Jane Grey, is very good. She has recently come out with a new novel about Elizabeth's childhood called The Lady Elizabeth. I look forward to reading it sometime soon.

Reverent Reader

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Ladies, Get Your Mammograms

The Victoria's Secret Catalog Never Stops Coming
and Other Lessons I Learned from Breast Cancer
by Jennie Nash

This is a quick read and surprisingly entertaining, given its sober and scary subject matter. Jennie Nash is an anomaly - she was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 35, well before the age 40 threshold where physicians recommend annual mammograms. Some doctors say annual checks are not necessary until a woman hits 50. Statistically that may be true, but Jennie Nash would not have survived had she not followed her instincts and visited the radiologist.

Nash shares her experience very candidly, telling about her moments of courage and grace as well as her tantrums and moments of utter despair. She has a quirky sense of humor that comes through her narrative. As a writer, she believes that telling one's story is part of the healing process and she encourages other women to share their experiences as well. Jennie Nash's "lessons" range from wryly funny (perusing the "perfect" bodies in the Victoria's Secret catalog and instead of envying what she never had, mourning what she was about to lose) to devastatingly sad - in her chapter titled "Sometimes the Good Die Young" she shares the story of her friend Lisa who died of lung cancer at age 36. Not everyone survives.

This is a helpful book to read if you (or someone you know) are struggling with the decisions related to breast cancer and the body image issues that can result. It is also a word of hope for women who live in dread of the diagnosis. It is reminder to trust our own instincts about our bodies. Finally, it should prod those of us who procrastinate to schedule our mammograms and actually go to them. I scheduled an appointment this morning. Seriously.

Reverent Reader

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Paint Away

Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith
by Rob Bell

This is a writer and pastor to pay attention to. Very similar to Brian McClaren, he is articulating things that people of faith have been experiencing for a long time, but that very few have had the courage to give voice to. He is able to unapologetically identify himself as a follower of Christ, yet also acknowledge and embrace the truth to be found in other traditions. Like a true adherent of the Reformed faith, he says that we as Christians have to constantly be in a process of examining our faith and doctrine and discerning what parts of it still have meaning and what needs to be re-thought in light of cultural shifts and new understandings of one another.

Here are a few of my favorite quotes from the book:

"For thousands of years followers of Jesus, like artists, have understood that we have to keep going, exploring what it means to live in harmony with God and each other. The Christian faith tradition is filled with change and growth and transformation. Jesus took part in this process by calling people to rethink faith and the Bible and hope and love and everything else, and by inviting them into the endless process of working out how God created us to live (pgs. 10-11)."

"The Christian faith is alive only when it is listening, morphing, innovating, letting go of whatever has gotten in the way of Jesus and embracing whatever will help us be more and more the people God wants us to be (p. 11)."

"To be a Christian is to claim truth wherever you find it (p. 81)."

"Missions is less about the transportation of God from one place to another and more about the identification of a God who is already there. It is almost as if being a good missionary means having really good eyesight. Or maybe it means teaching people to use their eyes to see things that have always been there; they just didn't realize it. You see God where others don't. And then you point God out...So the issue isn't so much taking Jesus to people who don't have him, but going to a place and pointing out to the people there the creative, life-giving God who is already present in their midst (pgs.87-88)."

"For Jesus, eternal life wasn't a state of being for the future that we would enter into somewhere else; it is a quality of life that starts now. Eternal life then is a certain kind of life I am living more and more now and will go on forever. I am living more and more in connection with God, and I will live connected with God forever...For Jesus the question wasn't 'how do I get into heaven?' but 'how do I bring heaven here?'(pgs. 143 and 147)."

I think Rob Bell has his finger on an energizing shift that is taking taking place within the faith - less emphasis on guilt and fence-building, less encouragement for us to decide who is "in" and who is "out" and more emphasis on seeking truth and creating the kingdom of God in the here and now. It's not so much that he has invented this evolution as that he has noticed it and is bringing it out into the light of day. Change is less scary when it is named and expressed.

I would love to drink a Coke with this guy and pick his brain. Since he lives in Michigan, I don't see that happening any time soon. He is someone whose ideas could (and should) have a major impact on the church of the 21st century. Since I cannot dialogue with him personally, I will continue to read his stuff and wrestle with it. He challenges us all, but in a hopeful, exhilarating way.

Reverent Reader

Thursday, May 8, 2008

*Too Wyrd

The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories
by Susanna Clarke

I just do not get it. I love the Harry Potter books, and I can think of other books that verge on fantasy that I have enjoyed (most notably The Sparrow and Children of God, both by Mary Doria Russell). But if a book gets too out there, too fantastic, too much "did that really happen or is this a hallucination?", too much difference between the world the author creates and the one we live in, it is difficult for me to get into it.

E. really liked Clarke's novel Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, so he got me this collection of short stories for my birthday a few months ago. Part of the problem may be the short story genre. This is a collection of eight pretty much unrelated stories, except they all deal with the faerie world in England. The time periods and characters jump around. If it were a novel and the reader could become immersed in one set of characters and one realm of fantasy, it might work better. As it is, I finish each one going "HUH?" Maybe I'm just a little dense. Having said that, I will admit to my own preference for novels over short stories, so my bias could be affecting how I experience the book.

At some point, I may give Clarke's novel a try - the longer stories of this collection prove more satisfying. I also would sometime like to do some reading about the folklore and culture of the faeries. I felt like I was missing something in this book, because I do not know the powers or pecking order of the faeries. In many cases, they sounded like witches or magicians, and I'm not sure what all the differences are. Oh well, we can't know everything. Gotta prioritize.

Reverent Reader

*I remember from reading Macbeth a thousand years ago that "wyrd" is how "weird" is spelled in Old English. Given that one story in this collection is written in Old English, and several of them throw in the odd phrase or two, it seemed appropriate to title this post in Old English.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Blood, Guts, Infection - WOW!

Complications: A Surgeon's Notes on an Imperfect Science
by Atul Gawande

I've always been fascinated with the gross. I watch ER and Grey's Anatomy for the trauma and surgery scenes as much as the juicy story lines. When my friends had cuts or stitches when I was a kid, I always asked to see them. I certainly don't wish illness or injury on anyone, but must confess to a morbid curiosity about all things medical. This is a book that E. read several years ago and really liked. I had been intending to read it for a long time, and finally picked it up a few days ago.

Atul Gawande is a general surgeon, a staff writer for The New Yorker, a husband, and the father of three children. He must not need much sleep. Complications is about the uncertainty of medicine, how even the best doctors often have to rely on intuition rather than hard facts because even with all the advances in science and diagnostic technology, there is still so much that we do not know. He also acknowledges that doctors make mistakes, and goes into great detail about the efforts made to prevent and minimize error. Gawande is honest about his own mistakes, but his passion for the skill of surgery and his compassion for his patients is evident.

Gawande has several interesting chapters about various medical phenomena that are common but about which we still are woefully ignorant. He discusses the physiology of blushing at length, and how for a very small percentage of people, uncontrollable blushing can be a debilitating condition. His chapter on the causes of nausea and vomiting, and their relationship to one another, is enough to make you run for an emesis basin. Except for when the vomiter is one of my own kids, the sight or sound of someone vomiting has always been enough to get me started. Complications says that studies show that "sympathetic vomiting" is a real deal, and there are physiological causes for it! I always thought I was just a wimp.

Gawande's chapter on necrotizing fasciitis, a horrible lethal infection, is enough to scare anybody. I won't even go into it, or you'll be frightened to death with the slightest break of skin, even a paper cut. Let's just say that Gawande's way with words is so adept that just visualizing fasciitis is enough to generate some of the aforementioned sympathetic vomiting. Ugh.

This is a compelling read, and you will finish it with a greater appreciation for the work of physicians and a heightened sense of awe at the beautiful complexity of the human body.

Reverent Reader

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

A Cool 'hood

Morningside Heights
by Cheryl Mendelson

This is a wonderful story with believable characters, but my favorite part about it was the location. Morningside Heights is a Manhattan neighborhood near Columbia University where some dear friends of ours, J. and J., own an apartment. When they do not have the apartment rented out, they let friends use it for vacations and short-term getaways. We have spent some great times in their place and have many fond memories of it. Morningside Heights makes reference to restaurants where we have eaten (Tom's diner of Seinfeld fame, Le Monde, V & T's), bookstores we have browsed in (Labyrinth Books, Bank Street Books), and the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, which is around the corner from the apartment we love so much. Reading the book therefore felt like going home for a visit. So much fun. I understand that Mendelson intends this book to be the first of a trilogy, all about this same area of NYC. Definitely I will have to follow up and see what happens to these people, since in some way they feel like neighbors. Mendelson herself lives in Morningside Heights, and it is clear she loves her home.

Some of the characters are a bit spoiled and entitled, and a couple others are WAAAYY over analytical and self-involved, but essentially they are like many of us. They want an intellectually and culturally rich lifestyle over one that is lavish with material goods. They long for meaningful relationships but sometimes botch their social interactions. They struggle to remain in Manhattan as the price of real estate threatens to make their lifelong neighborhood economically beyond their reach. With all of the extreme poverty in the world, it is hard to feel sorry for people who are facing a move to the suburbs because the city is too expensive, but we also can sympathize with the bewilderment of hardworking people who have been accustomed to a lifestyle that is rapidly slipping through their fingers.

On the macro level, Morningside Heights is about the gentrification of certain sections of New York City, and people who have lived in those places all their lives getting forced out. At the micro level, it is about how one family and their group of friends cope with that stress. The heart of the novel is the Braithwaite family - husband and wife Charles and Anne and their four children. Mendelson very deftly expresses the inevitable tensions and passive-aggressive manipulations that develop between Anne and Charles as they face financial stress and the chaos of a young and growing family. However, she also shows us an underlying core of strength to their relationship, a persistent "we-ness" that we sense will prevail regardless of other circumstances. The moment when the air clears between them is moving and feels real. This commitment to one another, even when things are not easy, is a core value of marriage that Mendelson is able to demonstrate with her writing without being preachy.

The family life of the Braithwaites is punctuated by the input of close friends and extended family - it is this network of people that the Braithwaites hate to leave as they prepare to move to Putnam County. I have always thought of NYC as huge and impersonal, but Mendelson's story shows us that while location may be an important factor, how we live in a place makes a huge difference in whether or not it feels like home to us.

Reverent Reader

Friday, May 2, 2008

One Just For Fun

One For The Money
by Janet Evanovich

Sometimes you just have to lighten things up a little bit. This book is not going to set the intellectual or social commentary world on fire, but it's great for a beach, airport, or metro read. This is the first of a long series of Stephanie Plum detective novels that Evanovich has written. Lots of people in my congregation enjoy Janet Evanovich, so I figured it was time to give her a try. I was not disappointed.

Stephanie Plum is a scrappy Jersey girl who works as a bounty hunter for her cousin who is a bail bondsman. The book is narrated in first person, and Plum has a self-deprecating, Carol Burnett-ish way about her that makes the book a scream. The story is full of sleazoid characters, most of whom Evanovich manages to make likable. Evanovich subtly reminds readers that many people who get into less than ideal (and often less than legal) jobs - such as prostitution, drug running, or bounty hunting did not have aspirations to get there. People will do almost anything when they are desperate to survive. The character of Lula in One For The Money teaches us that.

This is a fun read, and you can knock it off on a rainy afternoon. I would compare Evanovich with Lindsey Davis or Carl Hiaasen, although I do not think she is quite as original as Davis or as clever as Hiaasen. Nevertheless, sometimes you just want to kick back and eat a bag of M &Ms. This is the literary equivalent of doing that. ENJOY!

Reverent Reader

P.S. More bad news - S. now has strep throat also. We have had to postpone our trip to NYC to see T. and S. Bummer. Pray for us that we can get everyone healthy and keep them that way.