Interrupted by the books of 2017

I cannot resist joining in the list making. I kept a list of books I read in 2017. I read 101 books. Here’s the best of the bunch! But not in any order.

*Today will be Different by Maria Semple. I just loved this book. I liked the surprise that while there were memory scenes it basically took place in the course of a day. I liked that the narrator deliberately starts off being obnoxious, so you know if you don’t like me and don’t want to read me, fine don’t then. Who hasn’t done exactly that? I loved the surprise twist at the end. It isn’t just another spoiled rich white woman story with crumples in her rose petal life — or maybe it is — but for me was so much more. And it was so full of laughter and hope. Today was different!

*The Painted Drum by Louise Erditch. This is beautiful writing, rich in details and atmosphere and nuance and absolutely luminous. These people truly seem completely real. And the story was engrossing.

*The Hanging Tree by Ben Aaronovitch. This is top-notch urban fantasy — this is not the first book in the series so start with the first book, but the series is getting stronger I think. Peter is our smart, funny, plucky hero, his boss is the dapper and mysterious Nightingale and they are the chaps who have to solve London’s supernatural problems. It’s excellently written, the world-building is perfect, the characters are great (special shout-out to Peter’s mum). And it is a fantasy with a POC front and center.

*Ordinary Grace by William Kent Kreuger. Again beautifully written. Another boy-coming-of-age novel on the surface but the mystery, the delicious writing, the evocation of a summer in 1962, Frank the boy — everything comes together to make it a lovely beautiful read. And an appreciation of the daily joys of living is always welcome, lest we forget.

*Company Town by Madeline Ashby. A good solid science fiction book, with a well-built world, great characters, interesting plot. I truly enjoyed it.

*The Last Policeman, all three books, by Ben Winters. Just the best to discover a trilogy after all the parts are published so you can read it in one big gulp. Well-written, with an untrustworthy narrator who I truly liked. I wanted to find him and bake him cookies and take care of the poor clueless guy. Here’s the plot: what would happen if the astronomers suddenly realized that the killer asteroid was coming for us, the Earth was going to be destroyed beyond the dinosaurs. There is not a shred of hope. Do you keep doing what you are doing? Do you start on your bucket list? Do you stock up on water and guns? Do you reach out as a community and embrace the end in joy with your best angel self ascendant? The last policeman just wants to solve the last murder, just wants to do his job. From simple things much trouble and unforgettable characters evolve.

*The Trespasser by Tana French. I love the Dublin murder squad! I love French’s wonderful writing and somehow with her books I just fall into them, I just forget the real world, like being inside a movie. This is one of her best.

*Coming Clean by Kimberly Rae Miller. This is a memoir — surprise! This was absolutely heartbreaking and very funny and filled with love and anguish. Miller’s parents are/were hoarders and her childhood was hell. Yet her love, anger, compassion for her parents just shines and inspires. And my house is definitely cleaner.

*The Tree of Myth by Michael Sullivan — I love all his books, every single one. He has humor, adventure, love, magic, swords — do I need to keep going? Just start reading. Well-written, well-crafted, wonderful plots and twists. Fantasy done right. Fantasy done with so much thought that at times I wondered if it was really science fiction….

I read a lot of mysteries this past year, for example the Sigrid Harald police series by Margaret Maron which was especially historically interesting, especially in light of #metoo — the world has come a long long good way from the 1960s. Thank God. Some Travis McGee, always fun in a don’t look at the gross stuff too late sort of way. MacDonald was far ahead of his time in terms of environmental concerns and the trap of consumerism. A lot of  mysteries many of which were just terrible but justice is always served. A lot of old favorites too, from the Liaden books by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller to Anne of Green Gables.

 

 

 

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My Story, 2

But a nice Unitarian Universalist girl doesn’t just — get zapped by God and join the church — no there was a good two years or a bit more space between the two events. It was sort of like how you want to be sure your true love is a keeper, so you have to wait for the love beams to settle a bit, about two years, and then think: is this someone who is dependable? funny? kind? loving? wise? Do you love your person anyway, even when you don’t understand?

One thing I did was to reach out to our pastor, Carol. Carol married us, but I didn’t want the emotions and the “high” of the wedding cloud my decision about joining the church, cloud my becoming (or not) an official follower of Jesus.

And so finally, as a nice Unitarian Universalist girl, I had to pull the trigger on what seemed to me then the biggest stumbling block, the absolute barrier to Christianity. (Your mileage may vary.)

We were meeting  in her book-filled office, and it was late afternoon, and there was that lovely smell of books and dust and a bit of perfume. I leaned forward.

Carol came alert and open and welcoming in her posture.

“Carol,” I said. “The thing is. What about the trinity?”

“The trinity?” she echoed.

“You know, I’ve always been told and believed, at most one God. Now three?”

“Oh,” she said. “The trinity. Well.”

I was expecting her to dust off some books and hand me a stack of reading. Or to lean back and provide some memorized answer. Or perhaps even a joke. My mind was blank, truly, because my whole future rested on her answer. If the trinity thing was too stupid, then I just could not be a Christian. And maybe that would be easier? I was leaning forward and tense.

“It’s a mystery,” she said.

“A mystery?” I echoed. I felt myself smile.

“A mystery,” she said firmly.

I exhaled and breathed in a wonderful new deep breath. I can live with mystery. I can swim in mystery. I sat back.

I can love mystery.

Of course twenty-plus years later I have read books and essays and so on about the trinity, and I have come to love and embrace the dance of God’s love. And I still love mystery.

You start where you start. 

 

Telling my Story, 1

The start of a new year, and I hope to be more consistent with this blog. I still am learning scripture by heart and will continue to blog about that process and the “discoveries” I make about scripture; and I will be interrupted by other stuff. But I want to start a new project: telling my story. Randomly, and in bits, and perhaps funny, or perhaps not. 

 

I made the decision to be baptized in the Presbyterian (USA) church about 24 years ago, which was about three years after God zapped me with Her amazing love. And on the Saturday before, my husband and I went to a party by an old friend of mine. We’d met through the Unitarian Universalist church and so, Marigold, eager to introduce me to one of her friends that I didn’t know, after my name said, “we met at the UU church, but she’s left it now.”

“Yes,” I said.

“Oh,” said the tall, beautiful thin young lady. “What are you now?”

“I’m Presbyterian now,” I said. I felt a bit of a thrill because that was the first time I had said it. “I’m going to be baptized tomorrow.” Deep in my heart, I felt a click of “rightness”. For me this was a good decision, a good direction. It is nice to be aligned with your core!

“Oh?” Her eyebrows raised. “I thought perhaps you left for something cool like, Buddhism.”

And she walked away.

Clearly, God wasn’t going to let me agree to be baptized without a warning!

It isn’t likely news that many if not all the polls say that church attendance is declining. This leads me to think (hope) that because God loves us, and He loves us too much to leave us this way, that She is going to call a lot of people home to church — to a church that I hope is far more concerned with service and wholeness and grateful worship and scripture than with politics and sex. And those people to come might be rather like I was — stunned, shocked, at how much God loves us, with as little frame of reference and a lot to learn. Being zapped by God’s amazing love isn’t the ticket to heaven or to a trouble free life or to a club of instant friends. Maybe bits of my story will help someone.

Christmas — Luke 2:1-20

Here’s the odd thing about Luke’s Christmas story, Luke 2:1-20. It starts as a story about taxes. How timely is that, huh? And it takes “taxes” and turns it all around, I think. See what you think:

First of all think of “counting”. We can count the money in our wallets, the coins in our piggy banks, the cans of food in our cupboard — we can count anything, pretty much, until we throw up our hands and just say it is like counting grains of sand.

Or we can “count on” each other. We can count on our family. We can count on our friends. We can count on the sun coming up tomorrow. We can count on the seasons turning. We can count on — if we are blessed and lucky — being loved for who we are, as we are.

“Counting” can lead to comparing — who’s got more? Who has better?

“Counting on” can or ought to lead to community and love and joy.

Emperor Augustus, as ruler of Rome, was the highest, the top of the heap, the point of the pyramid. So his decides to get more taxes from “everyone” and sends his degree to “all the world. In this tale is something so ordinary that let’s poke at it a bit to see how extraordinary it was. Was Rome the ruler of a large part of “everyone”? Yes. But not the “whole world”. And to decide to obtain more taxes — something rulers do all the time, whether straight-forwardly raising them  or by taking more from the poor. Joseph returns home to be “enrolled” and to pay the tax from his home town. Augustus does not know him. Augustus does not care. Augustus does not see Joseph or care about him or know that he is a now a new father. Augustus merely counts Joseph.

God sends Angels to the poorest and least — the shepherds watching the flock at night — to tell them of good news “for all the world”. A baby has been born. In point of fact, likely more than one baby was born that night in all the world. But God deals with specifics. God is in relationship. God is connecting the shepherds to a specific baby and a specific town with specific parents. God is “counting on” the shepherds to go and see and they do! And they relate what was told to them. Not only that, but Joseph and Mary were taken in by family (“inn” is really “guest room” — it is the same word as the word used for the room where the last supper was/will be held). Family had some cramped quarters but they made do — Joseph and Mary could “count on” family.

Do we want the world where we are just “counted”? Or do we want a world where we are “counted on” and “counted in” and “counted for”? A world where “all the world” knows are degrees that count us and count our worth denying who we are? Or a world where we know each other, where the “whole world” has “good news of great joy” and can count on it and each other?

I’m actually for fair taxes, and actually think in our world govenments need to care for the people who they are the servants of. I’m actually hoping govenments that are fair, and not merely counters and takers like the rulers of Rome, can be counted on. Some world where the idea of “family” is so big and so encompassing that we are all together in this, counting on letting no one slip through the cracks and not even have room in a warm stable.

Especially on a night we celebrate as when Godself — rather the ultimate in”big” — made Godself a fragile newborn and entered the world, knowing he would be taken cared of. He could count on it. He could count on Mary and Joseph, and shepherds, and angels and the family of David, and the town even. The whole world indeed!

Merry Christmas!

Parable of the Talents

There’s the long sequence in Matthew where Jesus is trying to give the disciples metaphors and information that they will need later, after Jesus has been killed. The parable of the Talents, Matthew 25:14-30, is pretty confusing. My pastor preached that one way to look at it, is the master that goes away is Jesus/God and he is good, despite the harsh words to the slave with 1 talent. Or another way is to say that the master that goes away is the world/a bad boss, and the slave with 1 talent is being brave and bold and speaking truth to power — and getting killed for it. Who is who here?

I wrote him my thoughts — I spent a month nearly day working this parable. I think there’s a third way. He was quite liked it. So here goes:

In living with this parable, I came to think that Jesus was trying to prepare the disciples for when he would be gone; and one of the big things, one of the things that the disciples could not seem to be learning, was that Jesus wasn’t offering a political, worldly, warrior-type revolution. He was trying to teach a completely new thing, I think, and among other messages “God is not “you” writ large.” No one is evil in their own sight. Every villain in fiction (and real life I suspect) is doing it for a reason, however misguided it clearly is to audience. So we can take what are merely our motivations and turn that into God’s will.

So to “enter into the joy of the master” — to have God’s will truly on Earth as it is in Heaven — is what we should seek: community, fellowship, but even more so. Christ in us. And this is only possible by understanding that God has already given us this gift (represented by the gift of the talents), each in our own way (“according to their abilities”) (through Grace and the cross).

So the slave with 1 talent buried it in the ground — he did nothing because he was afraid of harsh judgment. Yet the master he sees is himself — himself writ large. The master is “harsh”, judgmental (says this slave); yet the slave is being harsh and judgmental himself. The master doesn’t grow his own profit. The slave buried a coin in the ground — a coin does not grow into a tree or a crop.  The slave, too, had nothing to reap or to gather. The slave was blinded to the possibility of “entering into the joy” of the master because he had created a self-fulfilling belief of what the world was like.

(Note the slave  “went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid…” and describes it nearly exactly that way to the master “I went and hid your talent in the ground”. The slave describes the master as both reaping what he did not sow and as gathering what he did not plant. These doubles must be an emphasis, I think, a pointer to look carefully. And both doubles are from the slave with 1 talent, who cannot break free of who he is long enough to see clearly the Master and the possibility of a new story entirely — a world with abundance and joy and communion.)

In fact, a God that is God (not “me”): the awe of that is amazing and terrifying and hope. Jesus lets us get a glimpse of that while giving us the hand of a human person to hold. And the Holy Spirit was there was first of all, giving us gifts to treasure before we even knew we needed them.

In fact, I think the weeping and gnashing of teeth is actually God’s broken heart that someone is “cast into the outer darkness” and there is no way seemingly to break into that darkness and free that person…..? This may be a bit too far (after all the story says “As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness…but what point of view are we in at that point? It may still be the master talking but is it the view point of the slave who is listening?).

In terms of my life, it is lovely and a blessing to slowly slowly, maybe, be entering a phase of life where things don’t feel quite so delicately balanced, not yet enough to test the weight, but enough to hope for a future where “fear not” makes sense….and to wonder if perhaps at least some of ones fears have been merely a prison of one’s own making? Since my life has presently given me a glimmer of hope and blessings, am I indeed merely interpreting the parable of the 10 talents from “me-ness” and not from “God”?

Perhaps the parable works in many ways, and that is all good too?

whew! Your thoughts welcome!

Interrupted by ancient Greeks

I recently read in Smithsonian magazine about Bryan Doerries’, “Theater of War productions” bare-bones readings of ancient Greek tragedies that have helped vets and their families come to terms with the multiple and ongoing tragedies of war. His production of Antigone in Ferguson, Mo., helped connect black and white, police and non-police. The power of ancient tragedies still works.

Googling, there was a similar story about a year ago in The New Yorker that I missed.

There is so much similar — that I never had words for before — about my experience of “telling” the Bible versus just reading or studying it.

*The connection with history. We are not isolated in time from humanity before us, there is a connection to make and feel.

*Understanding the historical context of these Greek tragedy plays — an era of war, an era of huge bloodshed, and the context that the plays were written, performed, by and for and to soldiers. What is the comfort in tragedy?

*Truth telling builds trust and connection. Storytelling connects people, and perhaps heals people.

In the Smithsonian article, writer Jeff MacGregor says “What did Sophocles know that we don’t? That drama, live theater, can be a machine for creating empathy and community.”  Further, he writes “…there is something profoundly lonely in modernity, something isolating and dislocation. Maybe sitting in the same room with other humans who suffer and speak is comfort enough. Maybe enough to save us.”

And that is what I seek in church. That is what my soul longs for, to connect, and for church to be that conduit. And Scripture to be the narrative text and context for that connection and that meaning — and the healing.

From the website of Theater of War, it says “Each reading has been followed by a town-hall style audience discussion, which has been facilitated with the help of military community members. These have been arresting, emotionally charged events, in which service members have spoken openly about their experiences in combat and at home. To date, over 80,000 service members, veterans, and their families have attended and participated in Theater of War performances and discussions.”

Church, yes? “For while we were sinners, Christ died for us.”

Let’s pray for peace.

Back to Matthew 20:1-16

So back to Matthew 20:1-16 — time to look at what comes before and after. And time to confess that I am a little bored with this passage. What is up with that? I’m also “stuck”. I have it pretty much by heart, which is good because I tell it on the 24th. So I have time to keep polishing and to find some guinea pigs to let me practice. Yet, I’m feeling a little stuck, as if there is some vitality to this parable that I am not getting. May be that’s what the feeling of boredom is about as well. This parable isn’t zinging with me.

So what comes just before it, in 19:27-30 is Peter saying, “hey we’ve given up everything for you, what are we going to get?” And Jesus gets mysterious yet again. “Peter, you and the other 12 are going to get thrones! At the renewal of all things — the end? the beginning? — you will be a judge! And everyone who has left their home and their people to follow me, will receive hundredfold — and eternal life. But maybe not everyone, maybe some of the first will actually be last.”

This sort of seems very concrete, but also very — “do x and you get y” — which almost sounds like a bribe or a payment. I reject any notion that God is a vending machine in the sky or Santa Claus. So this passage makes me feel uncomfortable. I myself do not love Jesus in order to gain something after this life. In fact, loving Jesus and worshiping God and studying the bible enrich my life right now, can bring me feelings of joy and gratefulness. So far, even in the storms of life or when I’m angry at God for the suffering I see around me, so far anyway, I can feel deep down that certainty of being held in his hands. Of being beloved. I don’t need to be promised more in the after; certainly not a throne.

I mean actually — a throne!? Judging? I wonder if this is really a reward for Peter and the others! Maybe it is a warning. “Stick with me, and eventually you will have a lot of work to do.” Yikes!

What has prompted Peter to even ask about what’s in it for him? (And don’t you love the honesty and human-ness of Peter to be recorded saying this!) It is story of the Rich Young Man, and Jesus saying about camels and eyes of needles and the rich. Since back then, being rich was (as I am told), considered a sign that God favored you, the disciples were astonished. If the rich — those favored and blessed by God already — would not be able to enter the kingdom of heaven, then who could?

“For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible,” said Jesus.

I hear an echo of Sarah here, a hint of laughter in the air. I like the idea of the disciples not asking these questions out of greed or whining or fear but maybe out of confusion, out of a need for hope maybe. I like the idea that this conversation is taking place with Jesus with laughter in the air — maybe laughter of like “thrones, ha, he’s going to put us on thrones” or maybe laughter like “I’m so embarrassed to be in this conversation” or maybe laughter like “what crazy thing can we get Jesus to say now.”

And besides laughter, perhaps we and the disciples are also hearing more than a hint of the power and glory and grace of God. Not our will or our doings, but God’s grace and mercy.

Well good news, I’m not bored with this anymore. I am feeling some zing! I love finding something unexpected in the Bible.

FTGOG

 

 

 

Interrupting with thoughts of the Reformation

So the Reformation is about 500 years old; dating from when Luther nailed his 95 thesis on the church door. It has been written by, I think, Phylis Tickle that every 500 years the church has a rummage sale. Takes things out of the attic and up from the basement and sorts things out, cleans things up, sometimes tosses bad ideas right on the bonfire. And so, us, today — churches in turmoil and people sleeping in on Sunday morning. How do we “save” church?

What if that is too narrow a focus? What if “society” cleans things up about every 500 years? Or messes things up, depending. Without the Renaissance would the Reformation have happened? What ideas need to go — forever — to keep a civil world, a world alive and not just riot and anarchy?

The world and the church are entwined. Yet none of this is anything planned; it will be an organic process and after we are but dust the people will shake their heads and say, goodness that was a lot of turmoil for changes that were so obvious and needed and proper. We won’t know and cannot prophesy what that world and church will be.

In fact, is the great popularity (me too!) of “superheros” a longing for the power of good and order? Or is it some lazy desire or “fall back” to wanting someone else to fix our mess? Perhaps “the” factor in shaping tomorrow is that today the rich get richer and the middle class is shrinking — will that be what the future sees as the perfectly obviously factor? Perhaps the end of work is the big coming change — when there are so few jobs because machines and androids do all the work — so what will people do? How might they create meaning? The “economy” would mean something entirely different to those of that future. Would they shake their heads in disbelief that I didn’t get to spend all day writing? Or will they be tremendously jealous that I got to work each day, and know I was needed, at the sense of worth that creates and how it pushes me to keep learning stuff I don’t think I can learn. Perhaps climate change will so reshape the world in ways we can’t imagine at all.

I hope however, I hope, I hope the future of the world and the future of the church has room for all, and reknits us together, in beauty and in quiet, in storm and justice, in greeness and sweetness and sorrow and sharing. In loud music and in soft, in gentle nights and in storm preparations. Pockets perhaps of “being alike” and pockets of wild and fascinating diversity and joy in both, sharing in both. Dear God, knit us together, in the hope and renewal of the cross, in the love, in the deep down rich mysterious aliveness of being alive.

Reading Matthew 20:1-16

Trying to write and study Matthew 20:1-16 today, with an ear-ache and a head-ache, and not getting far. But the last are on my mind. Today with an ear-ache, squinting if the light is too bright, and just feeling not very good, today I might be one of the last hired in the marketplace. I’d be found leaning on a wall, or slumped down on the ground. I might not be noticed earlier in the day, if I had even managed to get there earlier. “The last” were that day’s unfortunate. Maybe there were a lot of them. Maybe some were always the last and not just having a bad day. Maybe some were never hired, creeping out at the end of the day hoping for some charity from one of the first, so that they might eat. At the end of the day the marketplace might be nearly empty of goods to sell, might be quiet. Were the last a community? Did they ask after each other? Or were their pain and suffering from whatever their situation was that made them “the last” then keep them separate and alone? Did shame keep them alone? Today I can well imagine that physical pain alone would keep them isolated from each other. Did they smell? Where they thin and worried? Did they send glances around at the bread stalls, longing for even the stale bread? Was water available for them, or were their tongues swollen with need?

In biblical times it is unlikely (to me anyway) that “race” separated them into first and last; I suspect it was more able-bodied versus disabled, or class or gender. In our world today, the world has institutionalized the wrongs of race. Perhaps not as bad as the past. Perhaps just as bad. That something as false as race could separate and isolate us from each other…. That there seems little one person can do? Today with pain — everything is colored in very little hope, just a pale shade of yellow with a muddle of blue here and there.

How amazed might the last have been going into the vineyard, feeling welcome and useful? Perhaps they picked up sticks, helped to clean the tools, or brought water to the first still working in the hot sun? In the vineyard, unlike the marketplace, perhaps all people were used and cherished and given a sense of worth.

Let me pray to look at my daily walking around life for a chance be a vineyard owner of welcome, instead of a marketplace economy of firsts and lasts.

 

FTGOG

 

Luke 2:21-40 — and sadness

At the recent wonderful Network of Biblical Storytellers yearly Festival Gathering — worship and lectures and workshops and stories, stories, stories for 4 days! — one of the featured stories was Luke 2:21-40. This is the one about Simeon, a righteous man, and Anna, a prophetess and how they greeted the baby Jesus as the savior. Reading the story, Simeon did not resonate with me. I just thought it was a story…. at the gathering, well, it brought me to tears.

One piece of why I reacted that way may be, when Simeon (who is holding baby Jesus), says to God, “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people, Israel.”

Simeon was told he would die until he had seen the Lord’s Messiah.

Now he can die and, moreover, he can die happy and full of hope and trust.

How beautiful that seems to me. What a blessing!

The news headlines today, and personal sorrows in family and friends, swirl about me: everything looks dark and hope flickers at best. Yet the thing is, we do not know the “end of the story”.

And that is what Simeon thinks he has, “the end of the story” — God through this baby’s life is going to bring salvation, light, glory to Israel and to the Gentiles. It’s all going to be good.

What, I wonder did Simeon think the next day? And the next week? Did he live another year or more? Did he keep track of the baby since (as we learn in the next story) his parents came every year to Jerusalem for Passover? Did his peace stay with him?

See in your mind’s eye the picture of Simeon holding baby Jesus (imagine holding baby Jesus!) and feeling — knowing in his bones — that this was the one, this was the Messiah. That picture just rips my heart in two with some strange combination of love and hope and pain. May we all feel “dismissed in peace” and not the bitterness and regret of old age.

FTGOG