Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Contemplating Gratitude

Sleeping with Bread: Holding What Gives You Life
by Dennis Linn, Sheila Fabricant Linn, and Matthew Linn

This is a simple, easy to read book that will put you right in the mood for thanksgiving - and not just the fourth Thursday of November, but all the time. Sleeping with Bread is a look at an old spiritual practice known as the examen. The examen is a discipline wherein people share with each other in an intentional way the things for which they are most thankful, as well as the things for which they are NOT thankful. The idea of the examen is to help us keep track of the parts of life that are enriching and renewing and strengthening, and also the parts that are draining and wearying. If we can identify what it is that truly gives us life (and what does not), ideally we can focus more on those parts and not allow the draining parts to take over our day. The examen can help us set priorities and make choices.

Sleeping with Bread is yet another one of the books that I read in preparation for my Israel trip, and I practiced it on the trip by writing my gratitudes (and sometimes my ingratitudes) into my journal. I have continued to practice it in writing since my return. At some point I would like to practice it orally with my family, or perhaps some other small group. Journaling is a good spiritual discipline, but something tells me that the examen works best when articulated out loud. Our family (without knowing it) has often done an informal version of the examen at the dinner table, when we all check in and share highs and lows from our day. As our children get older, though, I would like for them to get into the habit of daily spiritual practice. I did not have much of a contemplative life growing up, something that is not really anyone's fault (certainly not my family or church), I just did not know how rich the interior life could be. I would like to model a life of prayer and reverence and gratitude for my kids, while at the same time leaving them room to develop their own ways of relating to God. Probably a dilemma faced by countless parents!

Sleeping with Bread is a simple but profound discussion of a simple but profound practice. I can see it being used in small group ministries in congregations, or as a family devotional practice. Its focus on thankfulness and expressing gratitude make it a worthwhile book to read to prepare for the secular holiday of Thanksgiving or the upcoming church season of Advent.

Happy Thanksgiving, reading friends! I am thankful for each and every one of you.

Reverent Reader

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Chickens Come Home to Roost

The House at Sugar Beach
by Helene Cooper

Given that several Liberians are members of my congregation, and that the former Liberian ambassador to the United States was a member of E.'s congregation (she passed away a couple of weeks ago after a battle with cancer), I was interested in this memoir as soon as it came out. The more I learn about the strife in Liberia during the last decades, the more I realize that the violence and hatred coulld have been prevented. The seeds were planted in the country's founding. Given that the free blacks and former slaves sent to (the place that became) Liberia were practically given permission by the American Colonization Society (ACS) to displace the indigenous Liberian people and to think of themselves as entitled elites, the country was set up to undergo civil war and ethnic tension for generations.

Helene Cooper is a member of the class of Liberians known as "Congo people" - she is a descendant of the American blacks who were sent there by the ACS to become the ruling class. She had a privileged childhood, and her family was very comfortable materially. The House at Sugar Beach tells the story of her childhood and early adolescence in Liberia, and her emergency move to the United States and separation from her mother that occurred when she was barely a teenager. Although Cooper is now a journalist and makes her home permanently in the US, she has never lost her ties to Liberia. She still grieves about the atrocities that took place during the nightmare years of Samuel Doe and Charles Taylor, the two military dictators who claimed that they were restoring power to the ethnic Liberians, but actually were corrupt monsters who would resort to awful violence to win and keep power for themselves.

What struck me about Cooper's memoir is her 20/20 hindsight about her own naivete as a child. She writes about how it never occurred to her that there was inherent injustice in the fact that her family lived in a beautiful home on the beach, and her parents owned property and had easy access to government jobs, while native Liberians were barely scratching out a living. The schools did not teach the privileged children about how many of their ancestors had moved in a century before and begun treating the native people with the same contempt that white Americans had heaped upon black Americans. When the class and racial tensions finally erupted in the 1980s, many of the "Congo people" had no clue what it was all about.
They too paid a price for an unfair system - some lost their lives, and many lost their homes and ties to their family and country.

I really don't blame Cooper for her cluelessness, and I admire her honesty in acknowledging it. We all have parts of our lives and our collective past that we would rather not think about. Society enables the privileged in our denial of history's tragedies (and our own complicity in those tragedies). Books like The House at Sugar Beach call us to examine our own lives and ask ourselves some hard questions. Upon whose back do we build our comfortable lives? What injustices are lying beneath the surface? Are there things we should see that we make an effort (conscious or unconscious) not to?

This is an engaging read that reminds us of the tragedy that befell Liberia, but also reminds us that we all had a hand in that terrible situation - Liberians did not just wake up one day and decide to start slaughtering each other. There is hope in the book, too - hope that the world can learn from what happened in Liberia take steps to prevent such a thing from happening again. There is a new day dawning there - most Liberians are excited about the democratic election of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf as their president. I hope US policymakers will support her efforts to restore Liberia to peace and economic viability.

Reverent Reader

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Details, Major Details

The Source
by James Michener

This was yet another of the books that I read in preparation for my Israel trip (yes, I am aware that I am hideously behind on my blogging). The Source is a bit of a slog, but I ended up being really glad to have read it. It is the story of an archaeological tell, but so much more than that. Michener introduces us to the present day characters (well, sort of present day - the book was published in 1964), and a few artifacts that they find on a dig in Israel a short distance north of Jerusalem. Then, he takes us to the bottom of the tell and works us up through the 15 strata that the team has uncovered. He tells the story about the fictional town (Makor) at the time of each layer, and helps us see the way things developed in the cultural, religious, and intellectual evolution of the town and its inhabitants.

Michener must have employed a small army of researchers, because his historical novels are rich with minute detail. I randomly fact-checked a few things on the Internet, just to see how much the historical research could be trusted, and was pleased to find that he is amazingly accurate. The Source is not only a good read for the history to be found there, but also a reminder that there have been times in history when Jews, Muslims, and Christians lived together peacefully, and there is reason to hope that it could happen again. Likewise, all three groups have been capable of outrageous brutality to one another at some point in history, and have no room to be self righteous when dealing with the other. Humanity's treatment of those who are different, as well as their horrific creativity in finding ways to hurt and kill each other, never fail to astound and sadden.

The Source is based on the real tell of Megiddo, which we visited on our pilgrimage. Michener is very explicit about the conception and engineering of an elaborate water system that enabled the residents of Makor to have access to water from a well outside the city walls even when the city was under siege. At Megiddo, we got to see the real thing, and even walk to the bottom of the water tunnel. That was an amazing experience, and as I walked those steps I silently thanked James Michener and his team for bringing the site to life before I ever set foot in Israel.

Reverent Reader

Friday, November 13, 2009

Amazing Man

Blood Brothers
by Elias Chacour

I had read this book about six years ago, but reread it just before my trip to Israel, when I found out that our pilgrimage group was going to get to meet Elias Chacour. Chacour's story is a real tribute to the power of faith to keep us from hating, and a source of hope for eventual reconciliation between Israeli Jews and Arabs. Chacour's family are Palestinian Christians who had lived in a Galilean village called Biram for several generations. In 1948, they were among the thousands of Palestinians who were thrown off their land when the state of Israel was formed. Chacour followed the beliefs and advice of his father, a simple Christian man who stuck wholeheartedly to his faith in the power of love and forgiveness. His father always said that Jews and Arabs were "blood brothers," because of their mutual ancestor Abraham. He (and now his son) maintain that they are called to love each other and live together in peace. Chacour has suffered at the hands of the Zionist movement, but nevertheless also recognizes the suffering of the Jewish people and wants for the two groups to find a way to live together in peace. He sees the humanity of his Jewish brothers and sisters, and is able to recall a time when they lived together in peace with their Palestinian neighbors. Against all odds, he sincerely believes this could happen again.

Blood Brothers is the story of Chacour's personal journey from refugee to peacemaker. He was fortunate enough to escape the refugee camps and be sent to an orphanage to study. He later went to Paris to prepare for the priesthood. It is a narrative of hope as well as realism. The original version of the book was published in 1984, but an updated version came out earlier in this decade (around 2003, I think). In light of some of the horrific events that have happened in the past 10 years, the book is worth reading again even if you read its original version. In the middle of all the demonizing of "the other" we must heed the voices of those who recognize the humanity of all people and who sincerely want all cultures and faiths to thrive. Dr. Chacour is one of these people.

A little over a week ago, our pilgrimage group met with Dr. Chacour at his school, the Mar Elias Educational Institute, in Ibillin. He founded the school to bring together Christian, Jewish, and Muslim children in hopes that they will grow up knowing and understanding one another and help bring an end to the tragic cycle of violence that has characterized Jewish/Muslim relations for so long. In addition, Chacour is an incredibly brilliant man - he speaks 11 languages fluently! In 1995, he was named Archbishop of Israel. He has become an internationally recognized voice for peace and justice. The two hours that he spent with us were among the most inspiring and hopeful of my adult life.

In spite of his accomplishments and renown, Dr. Chacour is a quiet and gracious man with a gentle sense of humor. With tremendous humility, he acted like he had all the time in the world to sit and talk with our group, when there are endless demands on his time. He is one of those persons who, when you are in his presence, you feel as if you are in the presence of grace itself. There were two things he said that especially stuck with me. One, when a member of his group asked him how he keeps "the fire" for peace going in his own heart, especially in the face of so much opposition and discouragement, he responded "I do not possess the fire. The fire possesses me." In other words, he cannot NOT continue to work, pray, and agitate for non-violence. Secondly, as he closed his remarks to us, he looked each of us in the eye and said "I believe in every one of you. I spend this time with you because I HAVE to believe that each one of you can make a difference in this world."

Wow. I hope he is right. I've thought a lot about that and will continue to pray that I find my own way to make the world a better place. We need more like this man.

Reverent Reader