Becoming: A Book Review

obama bookThis is one of the best books I’ve read in a long time . . .  and I read a LOT of books.

At first, it reads like a long chat with a girlfriend.  No weighty four-syllable words or policy discussions.  A friend curled up at the other end of the couch, pausing occasionally to sip from her glass of wine, and sharing stories of growing up in a close-knit family and vibrant but struggling neighborhood, academic and job successes and challenges, the well-trod paths of career discernment, job changes, marriage, miscarriage and infertility, mothering, daughtering, dreams and losses — all conveyed in a relaxed tone of voice, mostly optimistic about possibilities, and occasionally shaken by tough realities.

Eventually, of course, the path begins to take direction and the focus sharpens.  A husband with political ambitions, gifts, and speed.  One minute Michelle Obama is objecting to a run for the statehouse; the next, she’s negotiating with a Secret Service detail over concerns for her daughters’ safety not compromising their freedom and flexibility as young girls, at least not too much.  (She relates with great humor a hilarious scene in which she and high-school aged Malia make a determined dash for a locked door so that they can escape the confines of the White House and celebrate the Supreme Court marriage equality decision outside, enjoyed the rainbow-hued lights playing across the mansion’s façade in at least some proximity to the crowd gathered to celebrate.)

Of course, it doesn’t all happen in an instant and, as often occurs with such books, many more details emerge with respect to the Obamas’ earlier life in politics than regarding the later, presidential years.  The first years, from the statehouse to the Senate to Iowa, are marked by resistance, mistakes, naivete’, and a developing political eye on her part, helped along by the growth of a dedicated and brilliant support team. But the latter years are fascinating as well, as Mrs. Obama develops the projects that will mark her tenure as first lady, focusing on children’s eating habits and health, a direct response to challenges in her own family; on military families, as she comes to know a world previously hidden from her view; and on girls’ education, a commitment founded in her conviction that the South Side of Chicago as well as the rest of the country are packed with young people as intelligent and gifted as she and her brother, with young people who lack neither brains nor determination, but need the opportunities and support system that paved the path for a young Michelle.

Her thoughtfulness about her choices, and her light but deft touch as she notes the particular challenges she faced as the first black First Lady and as a mother of youngsters and then teens in a political fishbowl, are likely to illumine the way for anyone seeking to clarify her goals for the next stage of life, whatever it might be.  As a 65-year-old white woman trying to sort through what I hope my next ten-to-fifteen years might look like, I find a lot of wisdom in these pages.

And finally — as Michelle Obama reflects on her last day as First Lady and the changes in our country since — well, she brought tears to my eyes.  As the good-byes are said peaceful transition of power occurs, she observes that the joyful diversity that marked her husband’s to inaugural celebrations has been replaced by a stolid, white, male “optic,” (a word that’s often been noted by her team in connection with her own efforts), and gives up on trying to smile.  And as she looks back at the atmosphere which has enveloped our country, she experiences the heartbreak that many of us share.  (On a related note, today’s news includes a report that the Trump administration is rolling back regulations regarding school lunches — legislation on which Michelle Obama quietly worked hard, part of her legacy in promoting healthy lifestyle choices for children.)

I don’t RE-read that many books, but I’m going to start over on this one as soon as I can.  Energy, commitment, determination, humor, and grace.  I am impressed, moved, and inspired.

 

 

 

 

Women Praying Together: a book review

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The first thing I did when I received this book was to skim the Table of Contents; the immediate second was to deliver my extra copy as a gift to a colleague whom I was sure would enjoy it.

A compilation of prayers ~ some accompanied by Scripture, some by essays, some by quotations you might recognize ~ by seventy or so young (that means under 40!) United Methodist clergywomen, We Pray with Her: Encouragement for Women Who Lead is for all women in leadership roles, whether in families or classrooms or board rooms, or hospitals or offices or nonprofits or churches.  The book is a small paperback and would easily slip into a purse or briefcase; the prayers are short and easily fit into many of life’s dilemmas.  The titles are little windows into the lives of women, and remind me of the gifts women in ministry bring into our lives in the form of intimate familiarity with pregnancy, miscarriage, and childbirth; with the care of children and parents, with divorce and dismay and, as two of the section headings point out, with resistance and persistence.

Here is a woman praying for that “one day when [she] will shout with joy.”  Here is a woman praying with Hagar for the quenching of thirst and for the knowledge that she is seen by God, even if not by others.  Here is a woman quoting Brene’ Brown in the midst of her life as a single mom and pastor who sometimes feels a bit of judgment coming her way: “If you’re not in the arena also getting your ass kicked, I’m not interested in your feedback.”  Here is a woman  I am privileged to know as a colleague in real life, praying about the task of persisting in the face of one challenge after another.

Down to earth, intrepid, hopeful, and faithful nevertheless, the women who wrote these prayers make excellent companions in the life of the Spirit.

 


I received two review review copies of We Pray with Her from Abingdon Press, and made no commitment in exchange other than to review the book.

End of Life 3/3

breath air

Earlier this week, as a way of remembering Howard Gray immediately after his death, I flipped through a few of the emails I’ve received from him.  One of the first that popped up, written a couple of years ago, suggested that I read When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi, M.D.  It looks as if I didn’t respond to the email, but I think that I had already read the book at that point.

Lucy Kalanithi, M.D. was the other main speaker at the Dayton conference a  few weeks ago.  The book (which I am not going to review here) details her husband’s experience with lung cancer; Lucy finished it after he died.  Paul Kalanithi was a brilliant young neurosurgeon when his diagnosis disrupted his life, and forced him to shift from physician delivering bad news to patient on the receiving end of a devastating report.  It’s a must-read for anyone whose life has jolted from one of ordinary dailiness (not that Paul Kalanithi was ever ordinary in the sense of the word which most of us understand) to the high drama of end-stage cancer.

Lucy spoke about the challenges she and Paul faced after his diagnosis, including

  • facing one’s own mortality
  • questions of identity ~ who am I now?
  • facing death and uncertainty
  • and the tension between living and dying.

That last one I remember so well from my stepmother’s stage 4 lung cancer diagnosis.  How do you deal with in-your-face issues of serious illness and likely imminent death and simultaneously forge a life among your family and friends?

Lucy left us with two poignant reflections, the latter emerging from the Q-and-A period and much discussed at out table.

The first had to do with Paul’s statement of desire: “I want everyone else to take care of Lucy so that she can take care of me.”  What a powerful recognition of, on the one hand, the needs of the primary caregiver, and on the other, the need of the patient for someone who can focus her life entirely on his need for care and support, to which everyone else can contribute by providing for the caregiver.

The second had to do with their conscious decision to have a child whose father would probably not live to see her grow up, whose father might not live to see her at all.  For the Kalanithis, their daughter was, and is, a life-giving source of joy and, while some shuddered at the thought of the courage required of her mother, most at our table could appreciate the powerful desire for love to break forth in the form of the birth of a child, even, or perhaps especially, in the heart of a sojourn toward death.

Please read this important book.  It illuminates an all-too-common experience, and may be the trigger you need to start a much-needed conversation with a loved one.

 

End of Life 2/3

Steve Pantilat, M.D. was the keynote speaker for the conference entitled Soul Work on Living and Dying that friends and I attended a few weeks ago.  Dr. Pantilat is a renowned expert on palliative care — care which he describes as “focused on improving the quality of life for people with serious medical illness.”

I’m going to offer a few highlights of his presentation (any errors are mine, straight from my notes), and suggest that you read his book, Life After the Diagnosis.

life after cover

One: We tend to think that we must choose between quality and quantity of life: we must choose either every treatment offered us to prolong life, or refuse treatment and die. This is a false and damaging dichotomy, as much care is available to make life in the face of illness more palatable — and often longer.  Dr. Pantilat advocates for everyone receiving palliative care from a team of caregivers within six weeks of a diagnosis of metastatic cancer.

Two: A terrible question: “Would you like us to do everything possible?”  Of course; who is going to sat “no” to  question like that?  I have been with both parishoners and family when that question has been asked, and it has been very difficult to walk the conversation back with what is always my next question: “Could you please explain the likely consequences of a ‘yes’ answer?”

A good question: “How are you hoping we might help?”  People may have very specific goals related to pain management, surviving until a family event takes place, travel plans, where they want to be when they die — but an open-ended question is needed for those hopes to surface.  My own commentary: People are often too intimidated by the presence of a physician at a hospital beside, or too frightened by the death they have not discussed with anyone, to say, “I know I’m going to die soon, so I think I’ll skip the clinical trial, and go home to be with my family instead.”  We have to ask, not assume, what someone’s priorities are.

Three: People are fearful that talking about these issues will destroy hope.  In fact, talking about the questions increases hope.  Other good questions include, “What are you hoping for in your future?” “What worries you most about what lies ahead?”

Four: A most unfortunate statement: “There’s nothing more we can do.”  In fact, there is always something that we can do in terms of helping someone address their concerns, companioning them, and alleviating their feelings of abandonment.

Five: It’s a myth that the goal is to have a “good death.” I would take issue with his statement that “grief is not mitigated by age and a ‘good death,” but his overall point is a good one:  The goal is to live a good life.

Next post: Another of our speakers.

Church Ecology

Our adult Sunday School class at church is reading a book entitled Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus.  I made the choice, designed to help us explore possibilities for slowing down and re-imagining choices for community during a time of transition.

Today we embarked upon a section of three chapters called “Ecology.”  Why, I wondered all week, did the authors pull material on wholeness, work, and Sabbath together under such a  general heading?

I finally began to think about what the word ecology means: the study of a system and how its parts fit together and relate to one another, successfully or not.  And so we began with a discussion of the ecology of a field — the nutrients of its soil — nitrogen, sun, water) its products (grain, vegetables, fruits), and those who make heir living from what it produces (rodents, snakes, insects, birds, us).  All of those diverse parts are necessary for a healthy field ecology.

craggy gardens

I’m not sure that we quite made the transition to church ecology, but we did talk about our call to stewardship, of field and church, about the fragmentation and broken places in the church, and about what might be required to heal that fragmentation.

How might we become open to specific possibilities that we might be inclined to reject off the bat, but might be welcomed by others and might enlarge and deepen our community and practice of worship?  How might we imagine ourselves as a community with an ecology sustained by a healthy diversity and web of relationships rather than isolated preferences?

We weren’t quite so articulate as I’ve implied, but it was a start ~ and a fascinating way to consider church community.  Next week perhaps we’ll make it through the chapters on work and Sabbath, and make some progress on articulating our own ecology.

 

Photo: Lovely Daughter hiking in Craggy Gardens off the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina.

 

Raising White Kids ~ Book Review

raising white kids cover

It’s a terrific book!

Raising White Kids: Bringing Up Children in a Racially Unjust America (2017) by Jennifer Harvey address a challenging topic in a conversational, easy-to read manner that, despite its accessibility, delves deeply into issues that many of those of us who are white struggle to recognize, let alone explore and respond to in ways that are open, just, and productive.

Full disclosure: I’m white; everyone in my biological family of origin  is white; I grew up in a family that purported to be “color-blind”; I live in a racially and culturally diverse city in which, nevertheless, all of my good friends are white.  My children’s significant others and my future grandson are individuals of color, so the issues raised by this book are of more than passing or even committed-as-a-progressive interest to me.  Three of the four congregations I have served have been made up almost entirely of white people and located in white rural or suburban areas, so these issues are also important to me as someone charged with pastoring churches and proclaiming the gospel.

This book isn’t, of course, about me or my family or my churches, at least not entirely, but it addresses families and groups a lot like ours: not intentionally racist; well-meaning; hopeful; perturbed by racial injustice but not doing much, if anything, about it; and not even sure when we are offensive in casual conversation or actions we don’t think much about.

I’ll offer a couple of nuggets that I’ve found helpful:

After discussing the harm generated by “color-blind” parenting, the author presents a couple of scenarios in which a young white child comments, loudly and publicly, about the racial appearances of strangers.  How might parents react, other than with embarrassment and a quick move away from the scene?  The books offers practical suggestions along with clear explanations of the logic and sensibility behind them, ideas that can be put into practice immediately.

Another important section of the book discusses the development of white racial identity: how those of us who are white become aware of what that means in our culture, and how we resist the implications, struggle to come to terms with them, and finally, see ourselves and others more fully.  At a workshop a year ago in which participants were charged to identify which element of our identities and backgrounds has been most significant in our lives, I concluded that race has been the most significant in mine — moreso than gender, or age, or education, or income, or religion, because of all the things I haven’t had to think about because I’m white.  I plan to re-read this section of the book very carefully, several times over.

Each chapter of this highly readable book ends with a blocked-in list of Takeaways, helpful for personal or group reflection, and a section of Resources and the Endnotes provide additional material to aid in a  deeper exploration of this critical topic.

And I’m here to help!  Abingdon Press sent me two copies of this book for review purposes, with no commitment on my part to provide a positive review.  (And you all know, I don’t always do that!) Today I’m happy to do so, and to offer to send a free copy after a drawing of names from requests in the comments.

Glass Houses (Book Review Interlude)

[***Trigger Warnings: Suicide, Suicide by Jumping, Drug Addiction***]glass houses

I don’t recall when I started reading the Inspector Gamache mysteries ~ although Amazon says that I purchased the first one three years ago, and a month later had finished four.  Number 13 arrived last week-end, and a couple of days ago I re-read the last 100 pages, much more slowly and deliberately than I had a few nights earlier.  (Louise Penny is a master as describing intense encounters between criminals and their pursuers, and I had flown through the ending the first time around.)

At first, I didn’t care for this book. Louise Penny frequently makes use of sentence fragments in her writing, but in this novel she has reached a new extreme.  I was frequently distracted by the short, broken phrases, and wondered whether they reflected the sad and harsh reality of her own life.  Her beloved husband had died of Alzheimer’s during the writing, something she had discussed in her online newsletter and reflects upon at the end of the book.  But as I continued to read, the sentence structure seemed to become one with the broken world of the Surete’, the court system, and the drug trade whose stories coalesce into this one.

I don’t want to give anything away to either longtime Gamache fans or newbies, so I will make only two points.  First, the plot line does indeed center on the opiate trade, and thus address a contemporary crisis.  It does so in broad strokes, in the exploration of new characters, and in details of the lives of old favorites.  It is possible that, if you have had to deal with drug addiction in your own circles, this book might prove a difficult read.

Second, like nearly everyone else, I want to extol the character development at which Louise Penny is so brilliant.  I have started re-reading the first novel in anticipation of a book club discussion and, while I had forgotten many things, I knew that in Glass Houses I was reading about people who have grown and gained in strength and dignity over a period of several years.

As an aside, many of the books focus on the traumas and tragedies experienced by one or two characters other than Monsieur and Madame Gamache.  In this one, Ruth Zardo, perhaps my least favorite of the Three Pines residents, comes to the fore for a bit, and I fell in love with her.  As is so often the case, it’s the ones who most irritate us who turn out to be most like us in past trauma and lifetime response.  The woman prays for Satan ~ how wonderful is that?

Finally, it is an added pleasure to read these mysteries just after having spent time in Quebec.  (I re-read two others, out of any order, while we were traveling.)   Every time we came across a Surete’ du Quebec sign, I nearly jumper with joy, anticipating that I would encounter Chief Inspector Gamache at the next stop!

 

Barkskins: Book Review (La Gaspésie — 2)

barkskins

  • A generational saga ~ the four hundred years’ narrative of two families, one First Nations from what the area known today as Quebec and the Maritimes, and one European, specifically French, eventually reaching Chicago and western North America;
  • The story of the destruction of the North American forests, a devastating attack which takes entrepreneurs to China and spreads as far as New Zealand;
  • The harrowing details of the devastation which white settlers, trappers, missionaries, and purveyors of commerce visited upon those whose fished and hunted and understood as sacred the lands of North America, and the beginnings of the conservation movement, wholly inadequate to address the losses which will take a millennium from which to recover;
  • A female anti-heroine, oddly compelling in her single-minded pursuit of trees and money:

Barkskins is a riveting, albeit loooong novel.  At one point, unable to keep track of the multitude of characters and their relationships (unfortunately, the illuminating family trees are located in the back of the book, and I did not discover them until I was finished), I put it aside, but several days later found myself drawn back, and finished every page.

North America in the seventeenth and eighteenth century was a brutal place, one in which violence was common and in which people lived and worked in the midst of constant danger.  Annie Proulx does not mince details; pages and scenes in Barkskins require a strong stomach.

It was also a place of a seemingly endless supply of natural resources, and the greed carelessness with which the Europeans destroyed them ~ birds, mammals, waters, forests ~ is well known, but documented with  harrowing precision in this novel.  The term “barkskins” refers to the woodsmen who logged and transformed the forest into ships, houses, and furniture, swiftly and remorselessly.)

It’s a difficult read, made more so by the speed with which some of the characters are dismissed within a short space of having been introduced.  (And the ironic twist by which the families, unknown to themselves, become re-connected in the twentieth century, is rendered nearly invisible, and those back pages are required to clarify it.) But it’s also a fascinating read, in its attention to period detail and its sweep across human emotion and entanglement.

I did not choose this book with my upcoming trip to Gaspésie in mind; I chose it because I admire and enjoy Annie Proulx’s writing.  However, as I paused every few pages to google yet another reference ~ tribes, families, places, historical events ~ I discovered that much of it is set in eastern Quebec, the Maritime provinces, and Maine, and so it took on added meaning for me.  The friend with whom I am travelling and I had been focused on the Gaspésie coastline for our travels, but I am now trying to ensure that we at least dip into the interior of the peninsula, so that we can see something of the forests that once dominated this continent.

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“You do not understand the saying ‘tian ren he yi.’ It refers to a state of harmony between people and nature.  You do not feel this.  No European does.  I cannot explain it to you.  It is a kind of personal philosophy for each person, yet it is everything.” (Hong merchant Wiqua to French trader Charles Duquet in Barkskins.)

 

 

 

 

Bible Sisters ~ Book Review

bible sisters

It has been my privilege and delight to teach a number of Bible study classes over the years ~ as a member of Methodist and Presbyterian congregations, and as a pastor to Presbyterian and Lutheran congregations.  In addition, as a spiritual director to Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish individuals, I am often called upon to provide scriptural references to someone seeking to explore various dimensions of his or her spiritual life.

No matter the context, it’s often a challenge to conduct a discussion on women’s experiences in the Bible.  There are the Big Ten to Fifteen or so (I made those numbers up): Eve, Sarah, Esther, Ruth and Naomi, Bathsheba, Mary the Mother of Jesus, Mary Magdalene, Mary and Martha, the Woman at the Well, the Woman “Caught” in Adultery, the Syro-Phoenician Woman ~ many of whom, my experience tells me, are only dimly recognized by even our most faithful church participants.  And then there are the hundreds of women, often unnamed, referenced only in relation to a man or men or community or activity.

Bible Sisters, compiled by The Rev. Dr. Gennifer Benjamin Brooks and just published by Abingdon Press, makes a start on rectifying the lack of knowledge of women in the Bible which pervades many of our congregations.  It’s a devotional book, with 365 entries, numbered rather than dated (so that readers are not bound to a calendar).  Each entry suggests a short Bible passage, usually only a verse; a brief reflection; and a brief prayer.  I was not able to determine any rhyme or reason to the order in which the devotions are arranged, but there are indices in the back, alphabetically by name of character(s) and chronologically by book in the Bible,  which could be used to organize an individual or group prayer or study time.

This book is designed for ease and solace, rather than for deep study or challenge.  The most controversial events in the lives of women or teachings on the roles of women are either glossed over or avoided altogether.  Bathsheba’s rape is acknowledged, but the consequences are referred to as “the shame of her first pregnancy.” Yael (Jael) warrants two days, but the violence of her murderous action is not depicted.  Mary Magdalene’s discovery of the resurrected Jesus is depicted in a context of her sorrow and weeping rather than her joy and proclamation. Pauls’ admonishment to women not to exercise teaching authority over men makes no appearance at all.  And the brevity of the passages cited means that all context is omitted, so that answers to readers’ questions must be sought elsewhere.

Human lives are complex ~ and that includes the lives of Biblical women.  The layered depths of their lives are missing from this text, so that the reader or group seeking nuance or provocation must look elsewhere. However, with the names of so many Biblical women lost to time, and their frequent appearance as little more than faint shadows along the margins of history, it is a boon to prayer and study that obscure and overlooked women find a place in this book.  This devotional is a good beginning.


 

 

 

 

I received two copies of this book for review purposes, and was not compensated for this review.

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