Monday, December 31, 2012

Best books in 2012

C.S. Lewis said, “We read to know we’re not alone.” That’s one reason, a good one. I made many friends in 2012. My list contains the books that most impacted me during the year. None of   them were published in 2012. (Maybe I’ll read the 2012 books next year.)

Caleb’s Crossing by Geraldine Brooks (2011): I enjoy most of Brooks’ historical fiction. This one takes place in the context of Martha’s Vineyard in colonial America and deals with the Native American encounter with Christianity. It’s roughly based on the true story of the first indigenous graduate of Harvard University.
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak (2005): Although classified as a “children’s book,” I found this holocaust story fascinating. Death itself narrates the tale of a book-stealing little girl and her strange friends in Germany during the 1930s and 40s.
The Language of Flowers by Vanesa Diffenbaugh (2011): The heroine of this story is a surviving but damaged product of the foster care system. As an adult she has trouble relating to people, except when it comes to using her gift for knowing which flowers will connect to which person. She draws on the medieval sense that different flowers have meanings that they actually communicate (asters mean patience, honeysuckles mean devotion, etc.). Aside from the fascinating “flower language,” this is a story about redemption and transformation.
Mrs. Harris Goes to Moscow by Paul Gallico (1974): I love whimsical detectives, and Mrs. Harris, a London charlady, is one I will now add to my collection. In other books (which I hope to read this next year) she solves mysteries in Paris, New York, and London.
Still Alice by Lisa Genova (2009): This novel tells the story of a noted psychologist and university professor who discovers she has early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. The author sensitively chronicles Alice’s gradual realization that something’s wrong, her emotional struggles, the slow (but too fast) changes, and the responses of her husband, grown children, and colleagues. The reminder that with all that is happening, she’s “still Alice,” was timely as we affirm that about someone in our family.

Blackbird: A Childhood Lost and Found by Jennifer Lauck (2000): This moving memoir is from the point of view of the author as a child, up to the age of 9. The author shows what can happen when children in dysfunctional families fall through the cracks in the social systems set up to protect them. It ends on a note of hope as the grandparents step in. I also read Lauck’s follow-up memoirs: Still Waters, Show Me the Way, and Found, all good, but the first, Blackbird, was the strongest. Lauck lives in Portland, Oregon.
Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas (2010): This inspiring and informative biography of a man whose example of Christian integrity in violent times seems more relevant now than ever.
Jesus, My Father, the CIA, and Me: A Memoir of Sorts by Ian Morgan Cron (2011): This well-written memoir chronicles the experience of a person whose father was not only a violent alcoholic but a secret (from his family) spy. It’s the surprising grace note (the Jesus part of the title) that gives this book its power. This was one of my two favorite books of the year.
Soul Survivor: How My Faith Survived the Church by Philip Yancey (2001): This collection of biographical essays deepened my acquaintance with people I had already met and loved (G.K. Chesterton, Leo Tolstoy, Annie Dillard and Henri Nouwen, among others). These role models give Yancey reason to hope and to stick with the church. We all need those.
A Syllable of Water: Twenty Writers of Faith Reflect on Their Art, Emilie Griffin, Ed. (2008): I’ve read so many books about writing, I almost don’t expect anything new. But this one surprised me. The fact that the essays were written by some of my favorite writers (such as Luci Shaw, Virginia Stem Owens, Richard Foster and Eugene Peterson) helped.
An Unquenchable Thirst: Following Mother Teresa in Search of Love, Service, and an Authentic Life (2011): This was my other “favorite book of the year.” This memoir of a former nun of the Sisters of Charity is hard to read because of its content and I don’t recommend it to many. But it’s one of the most valuable books I read this year, revealing the humanity that challenges convent life. (It doesn’t “destroy” Mother Teresa. She’s still someone I admire tremendously, but from a more realistic perspective.)

Why I Wake Early by Mary Oliver (2004): I love just about anything by Mary Oliver.
Yevtushenko: Selected Poems by Yevgeny Yevtushenko (1962): Prior to a trip to Russia in May, I decided to revisit Yevtushenko after many years. I prefer his shorter poems; “Colours” and “Talk” move me as much now as they ever did. It was fun reading through my Kindle version of the book on the bullet train between Moscow and St. Petersberg.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

A few of the 1000 graces

The title of this blog, “Mil gracias,” plays with its two senses. The first is the common Spanish meaning, “Thank you, a lot!” (at least a thousand times over). But literally, the phrase says, “A thousand graces,” and reflects Saint Paul’s exuberant teachings on “the riches of God’s glorious grace that he lavished on us” and continues to freely give.
I’ve identified my poetic vocation as that of “seeing and saying the grace of God hidden in the ordinariness of life.” I’m a God-spy. And right now I’m sensing the tug to do my job.
Piercing through the celebrations of this Christmas season, the Shady Hook shootings remind us of the surrounding darkness. Yet the light of the Christ child shines brighter. It seems important this Christmas to see and name the grace of God all around me. So here’s a simple list of grace-sightings this last week.
--The first snow fall of the year here in Newberg, although modest in comparison to other places, was beautiful. This day, whenever it comes, should be considered a holiday in the best sense of that word. A holy day.
--We went to the holiday Christmas concert with “Wendy Goodwin and friends.” Not just the excellence of the musicians, but the passion and creativity they poured into it made it more than a performance. It was worship.
--We had a friend over for dinner; then we went to see “The Hobbit.” I love Tolkien, but the best part of the evening was being with Lynn, sharing our struggles and joys, affirming how the light is slowly overcoming the darkness in our current experience.
--Our home was in chaos for most of the week as we are finally taking out those ugly old base-board heating units, then repairing the wall and floor. It’s not done yet, but I see order emerging from the chaos. I see grace especially in Hal’s diligence and gentleness. Several times he reassured me, “You’re going to be really glad we’ve done this, Nancy.” I already am.
--I negotiated the tickets for our trip next year to Rwanda to be with our kids and grandkids. We’ve saved our frequent-flier-miles for four years to make this possible. Normally I do tickets online but this one was complicated, with several stops along the way, so I needed the help of an agent. My heart sank when I heard her voice over the phone, asking “Whatta ya want?”  She was obviously not having a good day. And for the next hour the crabby agent and I worked together to find out, first of all, if this trip was even possible. “It can’t be done,” she informed me. I had done enough research ahead of time to know that it was possible, so I gently suggested a way, and she actually tried it on her computer and found I was right. But it took a lot of searching and experimenting to finally find a path to the final ticket. The grace note in this encounter was that the Spirit helped my spirit to keep gentle, kind and patient the whole time, with our trip to see the grandkids at stake. At the end of the hour, the agent was no longer crabby. We were actually laughing together and wishing each other a merry Christmas. I sensed that her spirit was lighter, maybe ever merrier, for the encounter. That was all grace.
--I finally followed through on my inner urge to volunteer at the local library. I don’t have a lot of free time, but I’ve wanted to do something for and in the community, and I love the library. I’m going to give one afternoon a week, and Wednesday, my first day, I learned how to plasticize new paperbacks. The best part was sitting at the table in the workroom with two other volunteers and our overseer, getting acquainted with them while working with my hands. I learned that the library receives about 400 hours of volunteer labor a month, and that this is part of what enables it to offer its services free to the community. Sometimes God’s grace flows through local government services. I’m glad to make my minuscule contribution. (And I pray now for grace to manifest through the national government. Miracles do happen. Christmas teaches us this.)
--Grace comes through Scripture, and a few days ago my friend Judy sent a Christmas email letter with a message from the Psalms that spoke to my condition (as we Quakers say): “With you is the fountain of life, and in your light we see light” (Ps. 36:9). Those words have been swimming through my spirit ever since, and I sense new hope for several situations. This is a good word for a God-spy.
--Last week began with the North Valley Friends annual children’s Christmas program. Without much time to rehearse, the drama was delightfully klutzy, with lots of laughter. What I noticed is how people are cherishing the children in their lives. It’s one of the lights that contrasts to the darkness around us.
Today after lunch we travel to Springfield to be with our daughter and her family, including three rascally urchins we will be delighted to cherish. Christmas has a different feel this year. The lights and laughter stand out against the darkness in sharper contrast. How good to affirm that in the coming of the Christ-child, “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot put it out” (Jn. 1:5).
Grace, all grace.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

On being distinguished

Earlier this week I received an email from a student addressed to “Distinguida y apreciada Dra. Nancy.” I appreciate knowing that Roberto appreciates me, but finding myself addressed as “distinguished” gives me pause. I picture a rather staid elderly man with a mustache, smoking a pipe, standing in a library. Quite distinguished.
My mind immediately went into overdrive, exploring possible roots and meanings. Assuming that “dis” was a negative prefix, I asked what “tinguised” might mean and if it was related to “extinguished.” Even at this preliminary stage of research, I decided I would rather be distinguished than extinguished.
With my friends Merriam-Webster and the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) to the rescue, I began to dig. (Please understand that this sort of “research” is to me the serious business of play. I relish it.) I discovered that the prefix of “distinguished” is not the negative “dis” but “di,” a Greek/French prefix meaning “twice.”  The original meaning of “stinguere” (Greek/Latin/French) is “to stick or prick.” The root sense of “distinguish,” then, is “to separate in two by pricking.” The image that comes to mind is cutting an apple in two with a sharp knife. Thus I distinguish the apple before sharing it with you.
Of course we don’t use the word that way today. Among the shades of contemporary meaning, the one that comes the closest to Roberto’s salutation is “possessing distinction; marked by conspicuous excellence or eminence; remarkable, eminent; famous, renowned, celebrated; of high standing.” Can you see why I hesitate to claim this adjective for myself?
I realize that Roberto is acting appropriately according to his culture. This is how a Latin American of a certain generation addresses professors and other worthies. He is being polite and perhaps a little kind, to boot.
While I’m still in the dictionary, let me bring to your attention two related words, the first being “extinguished.” The prefix “ex” intensifies the root word, “stinguere,” but here the OED traces it back to a Latin root meaning “quench.” I’m not sure what happened to “stick or prick.” The first definition intrigues me: to extinguish is to put out anything that shines (like fire or light). It can also refer to silencing a voice or someone’s hopes and dreams. The final grim meaning reminds me of why I’d rather be distinguished: “to put to a total end, to do away with completely, to blot out of existence.” The image that comes to mind here, bringing back the “prick,” is stabbing someone to death.
The other related word is “instigate.” Here the OED goes back to the Greek root, “stig,” which is definitively “prick;” the prefix “in” gives it a forward motion. Today the word means “to spur or urge on; stir up, stimulate, incite, goad,” mostly referring to something evil. The image is one of a farmer with a stick, goading his cattle down the road, not an evil image unless the farmer is using too much force.
I sincerely hope that jealousy over my distinguished state doesn’t instigate someone to extinguish me.
On a serious note, I want to say something about Roberto who, to my mind, is a truly distinguished person. A Guatemalan, he has served his denomination, the Church of God, for many years as regional and international superintendent, overseeing some 3000 congregations in Central America and Mexico. While no longer in this position, he still teaches in several seminaries and pastors a local congregation.
Six years ago Roberto, with his wife and children, planted a new church in one of Guatemala City’s more violent barrios. The church today has some 110 members, a modest size, but people in the congregation have planted five other congregations. Roberto meets once a week with the leaders of all six churches to pray, plan and encourage one another. This year alone he has baptized over 80 new Christians.
All of this, however, isn’t what distinguishes Roberto. Roberto has become distinguished through suffering. And by the attitude he shows in the face of his suffering.
When Roberto first became a part of our doctoral program in 2008, he was in remission from cancer, but the illness has continued. There were times when he showed up to our bi-annual seminars fighting with the chemotherapy, but not wanting to miss the encounter with his colleagues. Then in 2010, he was involved in an auto accident that still affects him physically and economically.
But it isn’t all the suffering or even his impressive history of ministry that come to mind when I think of Roberto. It’s his joy. It’s his spirit of service and his words of encouragement to other students and even faculty. It’s the times I listened to him pray over other people for physical healing, even as he battled cancer in his own body. (Roberto is Pentecostal and exercises the gift of healing, reminding me of Henri Nouwen’s phrase, “the wounded healer.”)
He is doing his doctoral research on the topic of the influence of the local congregation toward social transformation in places of urban violence. But in his last letter he told me that he will be moving forward on this project somewhat slowly. The cancer is back and he is currently under treatment. He claims that having the research project helps him focus on something other than pain. He asked for prayer.
I am humbled before my brother, friend and student, humbled before one who is distinguished in ways that go beyond any dictionary definition. I pray God’s mercy on his life, even as I express my gratitude for one who has given me a new image of what it means to be distinguished.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

A return to the disciplines

Back in August I blogged about “Custom-tailoring the disciplines” and promised follow-up blogs on the disciplines I find most helpful to me. I obviously have not kept that promise. Not yet anyway. And since one point that I made in the article was the importance of not being too hard on myself when I “fail” (nasty word), I need to follow my advice now and not wallow in guilt.
I wrote that the five disciplines that I attempt follow in some form everyday are engagement with Scripture, prayer, writing, memorization and gratitude. I still like this list.
But the funniest thing happened (I write without laughter). Since writing that blog, I have experienced a devotional black hole. Nothing works. Scripture is consummately boring to me. I get distracted at any attempt to pray, and too easily give up. I am not showing up to the page and I again question whether I can call myself a writer. I’ve forgotten about memorization, which is ironic. And gratitude? I sense myself whining even as I write this.
I do have some underlying reasons why this might be happening. The month long trip to Bolivia challenged my health and energy to the max. Since coming home, the physical problems have been hanging on, and I’m currently on the fifth round of medications to beat the urinary tract infection. Of course this affects every other area of my life.
The challenges in our ministry’s leadership structure continue. I still don’t know how to be part of a virtual team, and I grope to discover my role. The strong sensation that I should be doing more drains me of energy to put into what I know to do.
While prayer should be part of the answer to all of this, I simply don’t care to pray. My restless spirit would have me up and pacing instead.
Am I exaggerating? Perhaps. Even in the middle of this black hole I strongly sense God’s love. And having been through it before, I know that “this too shall pass.” Hope lets some light through.
As I write I’m reminded why I chose to name writing as a spiritual discipline. Through these words God is reminding me of my commitments, gently showing me the way back, actually smiling. I don’t sense any anger. Gratitude begins to bubble up. I feel myself saying again, “Yes, Lord.”
Maybe in a few weeks I can begin those follow-up blogs.