Friday, December 26, 2014

Favorite Books of 2014

“Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend.
Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read.”
            --Attributed to Groucho Marx

I spent no time during 2014 inside of a dog. Consequently, I was able to get in a lot of good reading. (I also spent accidental time doing some bad reading, but I won’t mention those books.) As usual, the books I list are among the best I read during the year, irregardless of the year they were published.
While I didn’t spend any time inside a dog this year, I spent many hours inside airplanes. And you definitely can read inside a plane. As I write this, we’ve already deplaned and are in La Paz, Bolivia.

Love & Treasure by Ayelet Waldman (2014): A holocaust novel, based on the true story of the Hungarian Gold Train during World War 2, this story weaves events and lives between 1913 and 2013, in Budapest, Israel, Salzburg and New York. Asks searching questions about the value of possessions in a time when human life is valueless.
The Ice-Cream Queen of Orchard Street by Susan Jane Gilman (2014). Fascinating story about Russian and Italian immigrants in New York and the development of an ice cream empire, a rags-to-riches tale that focuses on what happens to the people who are transformed through success.
Spider in a Tree by Susan Stinson (2013): Fascinating historical novel centered on the figure of Jonathan Edwards during the First Great Awakening in New England.
Wonder by R. J. Palacio (2012): A young adult novel about a horribly deformed boy finding his way in a public school culture that does not easily accept what is not “normal.”
Olivia, Mourning (2013) and The Way the World Is (2013) by Yael Politis: Two historical novels of a young woman growing up in Pennsylvania in the mid-nineteenth century, who defies convention and flees to a back woods area in Michigan to see if she can farm her uncle’s property and thus inherit it. I just ordered the third volume which carries the story over into our times.
Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier (2009): Based on the historical figure of Mary Anning, an uneducated woman who was fascinated with fossils. It’s also about her friendship with Elisabeth Philpot, a gentlewoman interested in Mary’s discoveries. On one level, the fossils are the remarkable creatures, but on another these two women and their friendship are the more remarkable ones. About being women at a time they were not valued as highly as men. About being human and relating with integrity and making a real contribution to the world.
A Hundred Flowers by Gail Tsukiyama (2012): About China under the communists and how a particular family is affected when the father is captured for “re-education.” The title is based on a proclamation by Chairman Mao: “Let a hundred flowers bloom; let a hundred schools of thought contend.” It falsely promised a new openness. The story centers on family, relationships, risk taking, love and forgiveness—all in a context of violence, deception and danger. 
Phantom (2012) and Police (2013) by Jo Nesbo: Two Harry Hole murder mysteries, both in the setting of the low-life drug world of Oslo. I like Harry Hole. He is such a humanly imperfect hero. I like the way Nesbo leads you to believe one thing is happening in the story, then turns you upside-down with a strange twist in the plot. It makes for exciting reading.
Cold Comfort Farm (1932) by Stella Gibbons. This old book was my favorite discovery of the year. Apparently the author is giving satirical comment on the gothic romantic rural novels of England in the 1920s and 30s. The heroine, Flora, recently orphaned, goes to live with unknown relatives on a dismal run-down farm in the country, and immediately decides to rescue the whole works. She makes a hilarious Messiah.

I Heard Their Cry: God’s Hope for the Chorti People of Guatemala by Ray and Virginia Canfield (2014): About the Canfields’ missionary life in Guatemala and specifically their project of re-locating a group of Chorti people from their ancestral mountain land, now barren, to the tropical lowlands. I was especially interested in this story since I know Ray and Virginia.
Sadhu Sundar Singh: A Personal Memoir by C. F. Andrews (n.d.): Andrews was a close friend of Sundar Singh and wrote this biography based on the relationship. The book barely escapes being hagiography, but Singh’s life is so exemplary and challenging, I found it worthwhile.
Santuary of the Soul: Journey into Meditative Prayer by Richard Foster (2011): Excellent, as usual. This both encourages me and instructs me in a practical way to keep journeying forward in prayer. I can fail (and I do) yet not feel guilty.
Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World (2013): Very moving and well written memoir about growing up conservative Mennonite. A critical and yet tender view of this young girl’s struggles to figure out who she is and who she will become.
Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus: A Devout Muslim Encounters Christianity by Nabeel Qureshi (2014): Engaging story, respectfully and compassionately told by one whose painful search led him, almost unwillingly, to Jesus. The insights into Islam are helpful.

Past Imperfect by Suzanne Buffam (2005)
As if Words  (2012) and Home Ground (2013) by Jeanne Lohmann 

I would love to learn about the books that especially moved you in 2014.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Frank Laubach’s Quaker Christmas, 1942

Frank Laubach

Frank Laubach, famed “Apostle to the Illiterates” and Protestant mystic, made his first tour of Latin America in 1942, to promote his literacy program. While in La Paz, he stayed in the home of Quaker missionaries Howard and Julia Pearson. Quakers had been using his “each-one-teach-one” method in their own adult education program, so there was a natural contact.
As I was recently reading through the personal letters of Julia Pearson in the George Fox University archives, I came across a hand-copied section of a journal that Laubach kept while in La Paz. Pearson had probably asked his permission. It gives a fascinating impression of Andean Quakers in 1942, some 16 years after the founding of that very meeting in La Paz. Although Laubach writes in the third sentence, “There was nothing Quaker about it,” I beg to differ. The “strangeness” is cultural; the heart of the worship is profoundly Quaker. Following are excerpts:

“December 21, 1942
“Tonight I had a spiritual experience which will echo thru the rest of my life. It was the Aymara prayer meeting in the Quaker church. There was nothing Quaker about it. After a long talk—which I did not understand—by the Aymara pastor, the congregation knelt to pray. Every one prayed aloud at the same time. It began with a murmur; then women’s plaintive wails began to be heard above the rest and presently they could be heard weeping. I heard the terrible cry of the ages rising to God from broken hearts; and behind them I heard the bitter cry of anguish of all the illiterates in the world. The oppressed, the blind, the hopeless and I began to say, ‘Lord, aren’t you going to do something about these tragic people?’  I heard in my heart the answer, ‘I have done something. I have sent you.’ As I write these words, I am weeping with gratitude and resolve and pity and I think I understand better after this night’s experience how Christ feels…3 nights before Christmas

“December 24, 11:00 p.m.
 “I am just home from the most fascinating Christmas program in my whole life. Over 300 Aymara Indians in this Quaker church gave a perfectly wonderful program. Their ordinarily poker faces were wreathed in smiles. I have never seen a more striking illustration of the power of the gospel to transform people than this evening’s revelation. One could almost tell how many months or years each person present had come under the influence of the gospel. Here were women with babes over their backs wobbling Indian squaw fashion yet shaking hands like dear sisters. I think the most unforgettable number was a song by about fifteen men and 8 or 10 women. One girl, daughter of a highly educated man, formerly pastor of the church, looked like a queen. Beside her stood young women, awkward, shuffling, embarrassed to the point of pain and yet beginning to enjoy Christian life.
“These Friends are working a modern miracle among the Indians of La Paz. The church is located in the center of the Indians. There are literally thousands swarming the streets so that an automobile has to creep along constantly sounding the horn. Perhaps because my heart is so much with these Indians, I feel that this Christmas Eve is the climax of my first visit to S.A.
“….This evangelical church of the Friends, wholly controlled by the Indians themselves, is far more strict than we are at home. They allow not even lipstick. Tonight as I write the Indians carousing in the street present a sharp contrast to these stern, puritanical Quakers!

“December 25
“Christmas morning. ‘Friend’ Pearson woke me at 6:30 to enjoy their Santa Claus. It was delightful to see little Donald open the packages and hear him shriek with delight at every new surprise. He got many presents: drawing sets, a ship and torpedo boat which blows it up, a rotary printing press, puzzles, but the thing he loved most was a repeater pistol! He is out trying it on chickens now! Even being a Quaker does not take war out of the boy of nine.

January 3, 1943
“This afternoon I attended the Sunday meeting in the Quaker church in front of the house where I am staying. The pastor seemed very slow, awkward & shy. He talked about Paul’s doctrine of salvation thru faith. Two men came forward and knelt at the altar. Then all knelt and prayed aloud at the same time. I did as well as the rest. I think if I ever again have a mission church I shall start that custom. One fairly fells the presence of the Holy Spirit. Some of the women cried as they prayed. Then they all stopped by common consent and the two men at the altar arose and testified. One had an eye nearly gone, trachoma I suppose. As he testified to the free gift of salvation, he broke down and shook while he held his handkerchief to his face. Then everybody began to testify. I told them in Spanish about these wonderful days in the Pearson house, and the power of the Holy Spirit was so great in that meeting that I had difficulty in restraining the tears. When I had finished, the pastor translated my poor Spanish into Aymara. Here was a church full of people who did not depend upon the minister but made the meeting their own by prayer and testimony. It was marvelous to see the Spirit working in these humble people—marvelous and wholesome, a humbling experience for me…. I saw afresh what these words mean: ‘My thoughts are not your thoughts…for as the heavens are higher than the earth so are my thoughts higher than your thoughts and my ways than your ways.’ I had to sink my college education and realize that in God’s sight these simple people, true to their convictions, were better than I have been, were more highly esteemed than I was. I wonder why Jesus had not said, ‘How hardly shall they that have a college education enter into the kingdom of heaven.’… It was delightful to realize, here this afternoon, that God prized these dear illiterate Indians exactly as highly as he did me.
“The marvelous change he has wrought upon them is brought in relief—stark and unmistakeable relief—by the drunken carousers across the fence, one of whom is making hideous shouts. I am not blaming those drunken Indians. They find their pleasure in liquor—until they become intoxicated with the Holy Spirit. It will be one or the other.”

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Bulletproof coffee, Derits and other sacred foods

I’ve recently taken on a new spiritual discipline, that of fasting from dinner through to lunch the next day, with a cup of bulletproof coffee in the place of breakfast. Bulletproof coffee is the discovery of my daughter-in-law, through research on the internet. I respect her research; she’s discovered other seemingly weird stuff which has proven to be valid and extremely healthy (moringa trees, for example). Plus, recently recovered from several years of adrenal fatigue herself, she claims by personal experience that bulletproof coffee lives up to its claims.
Here’s how you make it: take a cup of good organic coffee, add one tablespoon of coconut oil (or a product like MCT) and one tablespoon of unsalted butter whose contributing cow ate grass, not grain, blend it until it froths, and drink.
I’m actually trying it. I believe in my daughter-in-law and her research; I’ve read the pro and con articles; and, most important, I really really want to believe. It claims to increase my energy and overall health at the same time it teaches my body to consume its own fats, thus causing me to lose weight. What’s not to want? So once again the believer and the skeptic within me have joined, and I’ve making a experiment that may last for a month or two.
I’m finally beyond the initial nausea stage and actually beginning to like the stuff. At least, a little. OK, a very little. So, it’s more of a discipline than a joy, which probably makes bulletproof coffee a sacred drink.
The Bible is full of sacred foods. Think of the bread on the Old Testament altar, as well as the sacred meats only the priests could eat. Think of mana in the wilderness. Think of the bread and wine that most of the Christian church uses to celebrate Christ’s sacrifice. We Quakers interpret that celebration in a different way, but we still consider shared meals as part of the sacramental nature of life. In addition all cultures seem to have their own sacred foods. This is part of life.
Perhaps some foods only pretend to be sacred (like bulletproof coffee?). Hal remembers a time in his childhood when his father had become persuaded that a certain snake-oil-like product was the secret to his family’s health. So he purchased several large boxes of Derits. Derits came in the form of large tablets meant to be eaten along with a meal, and not as a substitute for real food. But those were days of economic hardship for the family, and Derits were not cheap. So those semi-chocolate-flavored tablets, along with whatever else was on the table, were required fare. Hal didn’t especially like them.
The name Derit is tired, spelled backwards, and the product claimed to turn your fatigue around and fill you with energy and overall good health. To my future father-in-law, it was like a gift from God, part of the holy will for his family. Sacred food. They ate through all the cartons, but never purchased them again.
Reflecting back on the experience, Hal says he’s now convinced that, “A person could starve on Derits.”
Seasons have their own sacred foods. It’s Christmas time and I’ve got eggnog in the refrigerator. I intend to enjoy any fruitcake or fudge that others offer me.
I’ve recently added another item to my list of sacred foods. It works for all seasons. Once every two or three weeks, I relax my discipline of bulletproof coffee, and Hal and I walk to the Newberg Bakery for breakfast. I order fresh coffee made from organic Nicaraguan beans (with absolutely no extra oil or butter added) and a large frosted marionberry cinnamon roll. That’s the sacred part.
It’s one of the holiest moments of the month.