Fearful, Yet the Light Shines

A couple or so Sundays ago, our excellent and beloved pastor preached up a storm. There were tears, and laughter. And over and over the message was The Light shines, no matter what. God the Light the Word the Mystery the Love the Justice the Peace is shining into us and lighting our way, maybe just one step ahead, but lighting the way, because the darkness cannot ever quench out the light.

And The Light did shine for me later that day, one step ahead. I have been accepted at a seminary and I am excited, but realistically did not think I could start before Fall 2020. But there is a class exploring science fiction and fantasy and salvation. If ever I had that push you get sometimes, meaning Child do this, I had it then. I got signed up today and presumably will figure out all the next steps.

Which doesn’t mean the darkness is gone, that we might be one minute away from radioactive dust or rising waters sweeping us away or actual fire or …… I cannot seem to stay away from the news and yet it gets worse and worse and more and more I find myself full of fear.

Quite different from a panic attack or the phobic fears I sometimes have about dogs, or animals, or heights, or small spaces, or bridges, or storms……

This fear isn’t just of dying. It is a fear that our world, in 2000 years, has not gotten better since a strange-talking messiah arose from the Judeans in ancient Israel. Maybe humankind, created in the Image of God or not, is not good at all. Maybe there is a literal Darkness that is winning. Maybe there is no justice, and love is just sentimental claptrap. This Fear is cold, not hot, it doesn’t make my heart pound, it doesn’t make me sweat. It just seems to shadow around, a deep glitch a fuzzy hole a plunge back to that void, that empty from where it all started.

And that’s why I go to church, to have this terrible Fear preached right out of me, at least for a while. To have prayers to offer and praise to say, and to do it together, and to do it for the sake of honor, and justice, and decency, and kindness, and patience, and life and the color green.

May you readers feel this Light and not the fear. May you all look at the color green and breath and hope. May you help me remember to do so.

Matthew 3:13-17

I’ll be the layreader next week for this passage (at least I think this passage). I have told this before and I think it is coming back, because it is not a hard one — it has a clear throughline. Jesus leaves Galilee to be baptized by John at the Jordan; who is shocked and protests; but Jesus says it is proper so John does it. When Jesus comes up out of the water, there is the Spirit of God, there are the amazing words of God, an actual voice: “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

In fact, I am so familiar that it caught me off guard entirely this morning that I started crying as I practiced it.

Imagine instead of a rich warm voice of a father, you hear the trembling, soft voice of a mother?

A mother who knows what is coming. This baptism is the start in Matthew’s gospel of Jesus’ public ministry. And God knows how it is going to end. And that it is going to hurt. Both little ways — no where for Jesus to have safe nest like even the birds. And big ways, like a death on a cross. Even harrowing hell might not have been a “paradise” experience, I would imagine.

And, add in, that before Jesus has done anything except be humble enough to ask John for the baptism of repentence — before anything starts — God assures him that he is “well pleased”.

Just as I am doing with my soon-to-be a college grad son. I see how he has become himself, and I see how much life may or may not throw at him over the years, but I see him. And he is my beloved and I am well pleased. But isn’t a call to arms. It is an encouragement that he is whole, and on the right path and that he is loved and a desperate hopeful prayer or plea for the future. I keep wanting to burst into tears, not out of any cause, but out of hope and love and fear.

Try it: in your mind picture Jesus just starting out or picture a child of your heart and say, soft and gentle and with a hint of tears: “You are my child, and loved, and I am well pleased with you.”

Maybe God would say that to each of us, just as he did with Jesus.

More book reviews

(some of the below duplicates/revisits past book reviews, sorry!)

So the last couple of months I’ve managed to read a few of the books by a few of the candidates. I highly recommend this! I thought it would be the most boring thing in the universe but it is/was fascinating. Since you might get amazon money for the holidays, I thought I would provide a few thoughts. 🙂

First off — Joe Biden’s “Promise Me, Dad”. I laughed and I cried and I am so deeply impressed by this man’s amazing spirit and heart and intelligence and focus. There is a scene with him and Mr. Putain and …. chills ran over my skin. It was like reading a thriller only real life. And then the heartbreak of Beau’s death — I just deeply felt that pain, it was so heart-rending. I also wish that Mr. Biden was my grandfather. After reading this, I realized that his wealth of experience could heal our country and maybe the world. Then I read Mayor Pete’s book. He is very intelligent and very full of energy but his experience truly is lacking. Nonetheless reading about South Bend and it’s transformation was truly interesting and hope-filled. Also, he just seems like a truly good person. I felt like his grandmother a little bit by the end of the book. Will he and his nice husband make it through the stress and strains of political life?

Amy Klobuchar’s book “The Senator Next Door” was next up. I have so many thoughts about this. First and most important, she has a ton of experience and knows a lot of people and knows how things work and knows how to get things done. I was deeply impressed by reading about how she reached across party lines and formed and found common ground. This is more important that I realized. This is as hard as I thought it would be. She has a fantastic proven record of this work. Now, in truth, this memoir is more a classic autobiography than the others and goes deeply into her forebears and family — to the point of boredom sometimes. There are pains. There are problems. We all have them. There is triumph and struggle. But it is a “normal” story and HOORAY for that. I love that. I love that this is a person who seems to have her stuff together. She is strong in who she is. In my family metaphor, she would be that high-achieving perfect older sister. And that’s exactly who you would want in charge of the country, yes?

I’ve only read a tiny bit of Elizabeth Warren’s book and I might read Andrew Yang’s….

One thing that is interesting, that Mayor Pete points out, is that in America you are not supposed to want to run for office. You are supposed to simply be responding to the will of the people who are demanding that you run for office, that your country needs you. This is part of our mythology. And it could be a problem. Because like any job there are qualifications and experience that will make the person and the job a good fit. We don’t seem to be rational about sorting this out.

Another thing is that after reading these books, the debates make more sense. Oh yes, Amy is saying that because of….Oh good point Mayor Peter. Yes, Joe Biden knows geopolitics and he is saying that because of…. It truly made the debates more full of depth.

Merry Christmas and Happy Everything

Yes, I love King and Country’s version of Little Drummer Boy… and I thought nothing in life or death could make me like that song. ha!

Let us all pray: God of the Universe, God of rocks and flowers and hearts and love, help us bring our best selves, our bright angels, to 2020 to partake in the healing of the world. There are so many things in need of healing; help us find where our great joy meets the world’s great sorrow and help us get cracking (adapting Frederick Buechner’s lovely words ). Help us to know that any act of kindness is healing. Help us to know that sometimes silence or gentleness is what is necessary. And likewise, sometimes, even if it isn’t “ladylike” or “nice”, sometimes injustice must be met with clear pure anger and a righteous determination to foster change and hope.

Holy God of the Universe, in the midst of all this, protect all those I love and all who love them and all who love those who love them and so on, forever.

Amen.

Matthew 1:18-25 and incarnation

This year I am completely amazed by the incarnation. The same God who created the universe – and filled the oceans with swarming things and the sky below the dome with fowls and had the land put forth vegetation and wild animals and cattle and creeping things. Everything. And humans, in the image of God, male and female. Everything was good and as a whole, very good. That same God out of love, hoping to heal the world from the brokenness it was in, put Himself inside the world. God could make new sons of Abraham out of the very stones, instead of bothering to heal this broken world, but instead He came to us. And not in a better-shape-up-Father’s-home kind of way. The Son came here to heal. To make the blind see and the lame walk and the deaf to hear. To try to lead people away from violence by submitting to it. God knew what he was getting into. Pretty sure. For a time God had hands and breathed the air and walked the ground and ate with us. And ate with sinners. Which is all of us.

To do that — some holy mystery there. Some limits to power accepted, some needs, such as water, accepted. Bodies are needy. Bodies can hurt. How can this even work? A mystery. And yet He came. He filled Mary, and then he filled a manager in Bethlehem and then he filled anyone who turned from their old life to the hope of something new: something healing and whole and peaceful and loving, oh how loving.

The Bible says an Angel came to Joseph in a dream: “Do not be afraid to take Mary as a your wife, for the child she carries was conceived by the Holy Spirit.”

Godself filling Mary with Godself.

Until Mary’s arms held a fragile infant, her body curving around her baby, protective and loving. Joseph, I like to envision, was kneeling next to Mary and the baby, murmuring “Jesus, his name is Jesus” over and over, the words like a prayer. He was readying to protect them both, shining love down on both of them. The mystery of the Universe born as fragile and dependent on Mary and Joseph as any newborn. And they rose to the challenge of love.

Even so, Lord, quickly come.

Interrupted by Books, the fiction list 2019

2019 Fiction list

This is from what I read in 2019, not necessarily what was published in 2019. I’m mostly science fiction and fantasy but some of the picks I think will surprise you!  I want to try to give a sense of why I liked each one, but without spending too much of my time or your time because Amazon, Goodreads, etc. will have descriptions too. I really enjoyed each of the books on this list and recommend them!

Exhalation by Ted Chiang (Knopf, 2019). The brilliant Ted Chiang’s beautiful clear precise writing matches the perfect plotting for these 9 short stories. These stories are entertaining and fun and elegant science fiction; they are clever. And each one seems to have a different voice. My favorite is “Omphalos”. But all of them are simply wonderful. 

The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai (Viking, 2018). Chicago, two time-frames, one present day, one back in the 1980s. AIDS, love, family, art, honesty, hope. The characters and sense of place are so well created; a good read. There will be tears. 

Gilgamesh: A Verse Narrative translated by Herbert Mason (Houghton Mifflin Company, 1970, new afterword 2003). If you are grieving, especially the loss of a best friend, you need to read Gilgamesh. I was in tears by Mason’s beautiful translation of this narrative about best friends Gilgamesh and Enkidu — hardly a spoiler alert since this is an ancient myth to say that great King Gilgamesh and wild man Enkidu fight and laugh and hunt and ultimately Enkidu dies. “All that is left to one who grieves/Is convalescence/…All the soul has been converted/To a thing that sees/How much it costs to lose a friend it loved.” Maybe the lines sound flat here, but they build up line after line encompassing the height and depth of grief. And then more stuff happens. Even without my deep dive into Genesis this year, I would have loved Gilgamesh, but how much they enrich each other.

Spinning Silver, Naomi Novik (Del Ray, 2018). A wonderful re-envisioning of Rumpelstiltskin set in sort of Russia and sort of in a world of winter and fantasy. Multiple storylines entangle. It is beautiful writing that wraps you up — you are going to up late reading this. 

Tiamat’s Wrath, James S.A. Corey (Orbit, 2019). Yep, all the Expanse books are just. So. good. Nuff said.

The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal (Tor Books, 2018). What if women had fought to be included in the astronaut program? What if a big doomsday asteroid hit the Earth? What if history was entirely different? Very inventive, an enjoyable read. 

All the Kitty Norville books by Carrie Vaughn (Grand Central Publishing, 2005). I just discovered Kitty Norville this year, and I ate them up. I read them all. Very very fun and the ending to the series was perfect. When do I get the TV Show? 

Unmarriageable by Soniah Kamal (Ballantine Books, 2019). Pride and Prejudice only in Pakistan and the modern-day. An excellent read. Not a zombie or a spaceship anywhere. 

Who Slays the Wicked by C.S. Harris (but start with #1, the whole series is wonderful) (Berkley, 2019). And this is the absolute wonderful mix of Regency romance and intricate mysteries and historical fiction. I read the whole series and I have no idea how come I didn’t know about these books before this year. Wonderful characters that just keep growing and surprising plots. Perhaps some of them are a little heavy on the murder; I mean really how many murders does one book need? But brushing that aside, the historical stuff alone makes these books very rewarding.

The City in the Middle of the Night by Charlie Jane Anders (Tor, 2019). Very original science fiction — a world that only has a thin sliver of livable area — the rest is either where the sun never rises (night) and it is too cold or where the sun never sets (day) and it is too hot. Why are humans here? Can the humans survive? What about the scary monsters? Because of course there are monsters. I actually don’t think this is my normal thing to like or recommend but it is so original, so well thought out, I had to add it to the list. I think Anders is writing better with each book.

Also Good: The Witch Elm by Tara French; On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong; the latest one by Louise Penny; the super fun books by Micheal J. Sullivan.

Interrupted by Books, 2019, the non-fiction list

As with my previous lists, these are not books published in 2019, just books I happened to read in 2019. And there were so many! But ultimately these are the ones I recommend.

Becoming by Michelle Obama (Crown Publishing Group, 2018). This is one of the best books ever. I could not put it down. It is about Michelle’s childhood and family and the hard work and grit that took her to Princeton and Harvard. It is about meeting Barak Obama and true love. It is about politics and life from the point of view of the President’s wife. Michelle’s life in some ways was and is deeply “ordinary” and in other ways, she left “ordinary” behind long before she met Barak.  She’s always been and always will be “extraordinary”! It is intimate and caring and just beautifully written. Read this book. She shares her life and thoughts in such beautiful conversational writing that at times it seemed that she was just talking to me, we were just hanging out together. I will read any other book she cares to write!

Promise Me Dad: A Year of Hope, Hardship, and Purpose by Joe Biden (Flatiron Books, 2017). I was beautifully surprised by this book and by Joe Biden. He writes so intimately and honestly of the terrible year of his son Beau’s cancer and family and interweaves the world events of Vice Presidency. It was like a thriller at times, like when Mr. Biden is dealing with Mr. Putin and the Ukraine and Russia — and yes I have a far better understanding of recent events than before, much better. This is a level of real life, of statesmanship, of geopolitics that I have never thought about. My respect for Mr. Biden is tremendously high. I could barely function at work when a parent was sick and my job does not have stakes like this! Mr. Biden has high standards for his personal honor and integrity, and the respect and love he shows his family is a rare and beautiful treasure.  And the sorrow of losing a son, and the detailed portrait of a family that loves and cares for each other and knits together in times of crisis — I was in tears several times. Yes, read this book.

(And by reading both Michelle’s book and Biden’s book I’m sort of “triangulating” Barak Obama. A great man indeed. I am very eager to read his upcoming book.)

Genesis for Normal People by Peter Enns and Jared Byas (1st ed. 2012, updated 2nd ed. 2019). A witty, wise, clear guide to the book of Genesis, the first book of the Hebrew Scriptures. Most people are familiar with Genesis in a jumbled way: God creating the world, the Garden, the snake, the flood, the tower, Abraham and Sarah and Hagar, Issac, Jacob, Joseph of the multi-colored coat. Bits and pieces and shocking violence and lots of death — what does this have to do with God? Enns and Byas are not trying to cover everything or to dig deep into everything, but they succeed beautifully in giving a precise, wise, and fun overview that while simple is not the least bit simplistic. This is a complex and important and foundational text, they treat it with respect and love. And they are funny and there are maps and family trees. The story must be looked at with ancient eyes, they write, and they open our eyes about how to do that. It isn’t about conflicting with science. It isn’t about blaming Eve. Genesis is a rich complex start to a story of a family that struggles with God, and God’s faithfulness to them. This book by Enns and Byas can be a rich start to falling in love with scripture.

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Won’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain (Broadway Books, 2013). The history and definition of the term and concept of “introverted” are fascinating; the deep and personal stories of people that are highlighted are compelling. Like fish don’t know water (or so we think), the ideal people in our world are those tireless people of gab and sparkle. But the world is richer for introverts and not just in a “sure we’ve all got gifts” way, but in true and actual historical ways. Then there is the science behind extrovert/introvert (or lack of science). There is a fascinating dive into cultural differences. I learned a tremendous amount, and I enjoyed this well-written and compelling book. 

Small Fry by Lisa Brennan-Jobs (Grove Press, 2018). I wish I’d taken more detailed notes after I finished reading this, but I remember liking this book very much — “beautiful poetic writing” I wrote “and heart-rending” and being very surprised.  Lisa Brennan-Jobs, the oldest daughter of Steve Jobs, writes with exquisite honesty and clarity about the realness of her flawed parents and her confusing childhood. In fact, I think it is deeply un-appreciated how important fathers are, in a fundamental way, the love of a father, and being able to trust a father. That trust will ground you. Or make the earth tremble for the lack. We all have stories and not one of God’s children has a simple story. And rich or poor, what you truly need is love. Brennan-Jobs is a wonderful writer. This was also a reminder of reading The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls and Educated by Tara Westover. In vastly different horrible childhoods, each of these women ultimately carved and created themselves and their lives. 

Oddly two books that I read this year and highly recommend involve the Vietnam war to some extent. And oddly both books end up in America with vastly different survivor/immigrant stories. I was a small child during the Vietnam war and have never, it turns out, actually studied it or really understood it. I still likely don’t. But both of the books are rivetting and informative and completely heart-rending. 

The first is “Straining Forward: Minh Phuong Towner’s story” by Michelle Layer Rahal (2018, Xulon Press). Rahal met Minh at church in Vienna, Virginia, and over time learned her story and insisted it needed to be written and shared. Eventually, the spirit moved Towner to work with Rahal and this book came out of their work. Rahal writes Minh’s story in the first person, from her viewpoint, with her approval; a choice I am still not quite sure about. But the story is heart-rending and harrowing and frustrating and a page-turner. From a well-off family in Saigon, even before the war bought horrors, Minh attempted suicide at age seven, following abuse from a servant and unable to deal with her mother’s constant icy harshness. When the war came to Saigon, things got worse: more abuse and death and escapes and jail and torture. In a long and winding path, eventually Minh and one of her brothers were “boat people” (a harrowing story all on its own) and found refuge — after a while — in France with more dour and impoverished relatives. Minh’s path eventually landed her in Australia and in nurse’s training. There are many more twists and turns before she ended up in the U.S., and seminary school! The horror of war and of corrupt officials and what you have to do to survive is brought vividly to life. Yet, Rahal also tells Minh’s story through the lens of spiritual growth. At times she felt God protecting her; at other times she felt far away from God. And you may well feel, as I did, very frustrated with some of Minh’s choices (however limited) or reactions. But suffering from PTSD and depression/trauma of such severity and having known very little love and even less safety — what does survival look like? Minh has a painful witness to share in her story of loss and hope. 


The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures,” by Anne Fadiman (1997, Farrar, Straus and Giroux), winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award is also about the Vietnam war and immigrants and culture shock and trauma. Epilepsy in the Hmong culture is a spiritual illness and the American doctors sadly and profoundly could not communicate to the parents of Lia Lee how and when and how much medicine to give her. The author, Anne Fadiman, gains the trust and friendship of everyone and describes the tragedy with profound understanding. I had no idea where Laos is or who the Hmong are or the role they played in the Vietnam war. Really books like this are rare and beautiful:  it is so readable and interweaves background and history while focusing on people’s stories and bringing them all to life. There are no simple stories of people — and there are no villains here. The devotion with which Lia Lee’s family took care of her — ultimately they cared for her in a vegetative state — is profound in its tireless love.

Matthew 1:18-25 again

I’ve written before (and other blogs, search them out) about Joseph accepting Mary’s claim about her holy baby and taking her to be his wife still. I am hoping the story will come back “by heart” again. And I’m hoping to find some surprise, something new. I remember studying this in November of 2016. I was shell-shocked by the election here in the U.S. I think I was simply in denial. Wouldn’t the burden and the reality of being President make someone act properly Presidential?

Apparently not.

If it is all about power, then “acting Presidential” is to be fearsome in power, to use power like a stick, to use people. To make it all about you. What sort of other power could there be? Smash, fight, let the strong man win. Is that really what Jesus wants? Is that what the Bible would suggest?

Joseph was “a good man” (CEV), a “righteous man” (NRSV) meaning someone who did the right thing. And so it seems that the right thing was not to use his power as he was within his “rights” to do — which other men might have — to have Mary stoned to death for apparent adultery. Joseph was kind. He was just going to call off the wedding, and not use his power. Joseph was called “righteous” for being the sort of person who would not harm someone just because he could.

Joseph must have been hurt, must have felt even a bit humiliated? Yet he decided on his course of action — to not use violence and power — before the Angel of the Lord came and explained things.

There were then and there are now good, kind, right-thinking and right-acting people.

In this season of thanks, in the season of Advent soon to start, we can be very thankful for all those who act rightly in the past, all yet to come, for all those unsung around us. And perhaps we can hold our government leaders up to these standards?

Thoughts about Birthdays

I had normal little birthday parties growing up; completely suburban normal and nothing out of budget or over-sized. In fact, for my family birthday I got my favorite meal, spaghetti and meat sauce, with German Chocolate cake with that wonderful nut-coconut frosting for my birthday cake. That was plenty of joy for me! And I’m the sort of person, if it was great once, then let’s do it again. I don’t want to do something different, just for the sake of different. I have very happy memories of these birthdays.

And gradually, becoming older, birthdays just wound down. For adults, the feeling from my family or the feeling I discovered, was just-move-on. It’s another day, no need to make a fuss about yourself. And it was always surprising to me how much fuss some folks — perfectly wonderful people — could make about their birthdays.

In fact, having those expectations — of parties with lots of people, of people preparing or buying food for you — well it was just setting up an expectation doomed to disappoint. If I wanted a little something special, then I got it. For my 50th birthday I did ask a few people I loved and trusted, a multi-generational array of family and friends, to come over and eat Chinese take out and play charades, which I loved.

It was a wonderful birthday.

What I have always really disliked are “office” birthdays. I don’t necessarily want to mix personal and professional together. I don’t want to spend time socializing when I’m supposed to be working. I certainly don’t want to spend my money on “office birthdays”. We’re all adults. What was the point?

What a delightful and shocking surprise I had this week, as a completely different way of thinking about birthdays was revealed. A woman who I like in the office, but don’t know very well because she’s new, popped into my office to say that the bosses (roll with that, it is too confusing to explain) were having birthdays next week and she was organizing cake and so on. I said, “Seriously? People have birthdays every year, do we have to get into the habit of “doing something” ?(unspoken: by which I mean wasting my time and that of my staff.) Why make such a big deal about something selfish like a birthday fuss?”

She didn’t give me the lecture I get so often, about “just being nice”. Which was a huge relief because, I’m tired of that lecture and I’m nice when it counts. If you are my friend, when the chips are down and you ask me for help, I’m going to be there for you. If you are sad and call me, I can make you laugh. I’m nice in quiet one on one moments not in showy let’s-have-cake types of ways. I can probably always recommend a book for you. Or say a prayer.

Instead “Mary” said, in her beautiful rich voice, “No, no, no, it’s about the blessing for that person of having had another year. It’s about appreciating that we’re alive, they are alive. It’s not guaranteed. We could any of us die, anytime.”

Celebrating a birthday to celebrate being alive still, to have had another year with that person.

That is an amazingly different framework, different lenses from any thought I have ever had about birthdays. It isn’t about selfishness. Or about some strange competition. Or it doesn’t have to be. It may be about — hey, you made it another year, go you! Go us! I’m glad you are around! It can simply be the joy of gathering together, in the face of knowing anything could happen, and just being joyful together.

I’m glad you are around, anyone and everyone reading this. Happy Birthday!

Interrupted by music and more thoughts on prayer

Here’s an amazing song by Lauren Daigle “Rescue“. Sort of that reassurance you need — I need — when God seems so far away and the world seems all too hard and awful.

Of course even if things never get better, “God is with us in the storm”.

As the holiday season starts to gear up, always good to remember that God isn’t Santa. We can’t help but ask God for health, love, hope, meaningful work, etc. etc., for ourselves and for others. And in fact I think intercessory prayer is good and it has been of great comfort to me.

How to pray beyond “Santa” prayers?

There’s “contemplative prayer” — trying to rest in God’s loving presence. Which is much harder than it sounds! Like mediation, you can focus on your breath, and try to let your thoughts float away and not loop. Unlike mediation you are also trying to be so still that you can listen.

I personally am struggling to find something in the middle. Some sort of intercessory and praise prayer, with thanksgiving, that swoops through the noise of mere words. Prayers that ask for us to change and have eyes to see and ears to hear. Prayers that go past need and into Shalom.

Here’s Sarah Bessey’s prayer for the broken-hearted at Christmas. She can pray!