Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Favorite Books of 2015

Right now the suitcases are out, and piles of this-and-that cover the floor. Early tomorrow morning we board the plane for our flight to Bolivia and two months of field work on the history project. An important part of our preparation is making sure our Kindle is loaded up with enough good books to sustain us while we’re away.
Which reminds me, of course, of some of the great books I’ve read this year. I’ve had to pick and choose for this list. Again, it’s not a list of good books published in 2015, but a list of what I especially appreciated of the books I read during the year, whenever they were published.

--Sue Monk Kidd, The Invention of Wings (2014): Based on the history of the Grimk√© sisters, abolitionists and fighters for women’s rights in the early 1800s. Also part of Quaker history. The heart of the story is the relationship between Sarah Grimk√©, a slave-owner’s daughter, and Handful, her personal slave.
--Marilynn Robinson, Home (2013) and Lila (2014): These follow Gilead and each focuses on one of the characters who live in the small town of Gilead. Beautifully written. Themes are home and family, grace, sin, repentance, forgiveness, and the possibility of transformation.
--Jenna Blume, Those Who Save Us (2004): A holocaust novel about baring the burden of a hidden story and how the revelation brings forgiveness and grace between generations.
--Dorothy Sayers, Clouds of Witnesses and Whose Body?: I love Lord Peter Wimsey! Once again intelligence and intuition combine to solve the crime. A favorite quote from Clouds has Lord Peter reflecting on his mother: “Time and trouble will tame an advanced young woman, but an advanced old woman is uncontrollable by any earthly force.”
--William Kent Krueger, Ordinary Grace (2014): From the point of view of a 13 year-old boy reflecting on the tragedies in his family. Themes include war and violence, marginalization, and friendship, but once again grace and forgiveness have the final word.
--Ruchama King Feuerman, In the Countyard of the Kabbalist (2013): Fascinating story of the unlikely friendships between an intellectual New Yok Jew, a firey Jewish woman in Jerusalem, a Kabbalist, and a poor Muslim worker, all involved in the discovery of an ancient relics site near the Dome of the Rock and the question of who owns it. “If I tell you my story, you will listen for awhile and then you will fall asleep. But if, as I tell you my story, you begin to hear your story, you will wake up.”  “Nobody knows who he is until he tells his story to God….”
--Helen Simonson, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand (2011): Good romance about two older people who refuse to be limited by other peoples’ (including their own children) concepts about what’s good and proper at their age.
--Anne Tyler, Dinner at the Homesick RestaurantI (1996), Back When We Were Grown-ups (2001), and Digging to America (2007): I keep coming back to Anne Tyler’s novels.
--Darragh McKeon, All that Is Solid Melts into Air (2014): Fascinating story about different people affected by the Chernobyl disaster in 1986. Brings in the tragic and heart-breaking human factor.
--Jacqueline Winspear, Maisie Dobbs (2003), Birds of a Feather (2004), and Pardonable Lies (2005): Another woman detective with wit and humor, a British version of Botswana’s Mma Ramotswe (who is actually herself a British version of an African detective). This has been the year of British detective novels!

--Lamin Sanneh, Called from the Margin: Homecoming of an African (2012): More of an accounting of the development of his thought than of his life experiences. I loved the section on his Muslim childhood and conversion to Christianity without being “evangelized,” his rejection by Christians, his encounters with the West and his eventual conversion to Catholicism. He brings together the pieces of his life, staying African, yet finding his true home in Christianity.
--Dominika Drey, The Twelve Little Cakes (2006): Memoir of growing up in communist Prague, the child of dissidents. Chronicles the joys of childhood in spite of the oppressions surrounding the family. “The system was unfair but the human spirit triumphed on a daily basis….”
--Joahua Wolf Shenk, Lincoln’s Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness (2005): Excellent and well documented study of Lincoln’s depressions, set in the context of contemporary perceptions of mental health and its treatment. I was interested that two ways Lincoln coped with his predisposition to depression were humor and poetry.
--Leanne Payne, Heaven’s Calling: A Memoir of One Soul’s Steep Ascent (2008): Her awakening to a healing ministry, through experiences, relationships, experimentation.
--Katherine Patterson, Stories of My Life (2014): I love reading the memoirs of writers I love, and Patterson’s book did not disappoint. Her early experiences in China and Japan, daughter and then wife of missionaries, and the struggles with adaption to life in the West certainly enriched her spirit and, consequently, her writing.
--Phillip Yancey, Prayer: Does It Make Any Difference? (2006): This was a re-read of a book I need to re-read every year. Very insightful and motivating and I try to learn to pray in ways that might make a difference.
--Joy of Zentangle: Drawing Your Way to Increased Creativity, Focus, and Well-Being: Putting aside the hype of the title, zentangle is so much fun! The “Joy” part of the title is correct.

--William Jolliff, Twisted Shapes of Light (2015): Possibly my favorite book of the year, a collection written by a friend and Friend, bringing together memories of life on a farm, family, and growing up in a fundamentalist church. Bill should be more famous than he is.
--Billy Collins, Aimless Love—New and Selected Poems (2013): I love how Collins uses humor to do social criticism and explore reality and relationships.
--T.S. Elliot, Four Quartets (1943): I love this book, even though I can’t say I totally understand it. I love the language, and how Elliot plays with time and eternity. I’ve been reading it over and over, sort of rolling around in the words.

I would love to hear about the books that touched or challenged you in 2015.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Cat in the manger

by U.A. Fanthorpe

In the story, I'm not there.
Ox and ass, arranged at prayer:
But me? Nowhere.

Anti-cat evangelists
How on earth could you have missed
Such an obvious and able
Occupant of any stable?

Who excluded mouse and rat?
The harmless necessary cat.
Who snuggled in with the holy pair?
Me. And my purr.

Matthew, Mark and Luke and John
(Who got it wrong,
Who left out the cat)
Remember that,
Wherever He went in this great affair,
I was there.

My version of the cat in the manger

Chiri at worship

Friday, December 11, 2015

In belated gratitude to my right thumb

I am a frustrated writer. Two of my preferred tools are giving me fits. The first is my computer. The second is the thumb on my right hand.
We’re working through the computer problems, with help from some technicians. Today we’ll install the programs that might solve everything. Or not. Being without this tool for almost three weeks has slowed me down. At least I have a reason other than myself to blame for missed deadlines.
But I must confess that I’m even fonder of my right thumb than I am of my computer. And more miffed at its disloyalty.
Right now, swollen and sore, it reminds me of how much it usually does for me and how dependent I am on it to get through the day. I have to ask Hal to open cans and chop the onion for our evening meal. The car door is too demanding for me to manage, so we’re back to the days of courtship when he did the honors. In a way, that’s nice, but I actually prefer the independence of doing it for myself. All these little ordinary services my thumb has faithfully preformed for me all my life.
To say that having a fat throbbing thumb cramps my writing style is understatement.
So—sorry, thumb, for taking you for granted. Thank you for serving me so well in the past. Please, if you would, come back from this weird vacation and become, once again, my faithful servant.

Sincerely, the rest of your body

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

A lesson from Joseph

One character in the Christmas story is speaking to me today. It’s Joseph, one of the supporting cast members in this drama. He’s usually in the background, which is one reason I like him. Being a background person myself, I am comfortable around Joseph.
What strikes me today is the inner wrestling match he surely went through after finding out that his Mary was pregnant. The Scriptures say that Joseph, Mary’s soon-to-be husband, was faithful to the law, “and yet….” It’s the “and yet” part that tells me compassion was also part of his character. And now faithfulness to the law and compassion for others go head to head. The law tells him that Mary must be publically exposed and cast off, perhaps even stoned. Compassion reminds him that Mary is still a person worthy of love and respect. So Joseph compromises and chooses to move with gentleness. Out of faithfulness to the law he will end their relationship (and I sense undercurrents of sorrow), but out of compassion he will not expose her but do what he feels he must do quietly. It’s not the perfect solution. But it’s the best he can come up with.
Joseph acts with integrity, and perhaps that’s why he and God are still on speaking terms. God communicates with him by way of an angel in his dreams, tells him that he doesn’t have all the facts. Gives him a way forward that was completely off his radar.
And the story goes on from there.
As I ponder the dilemma facing Northwest Yearly Meeting, I sense the tension within us between faithfulness to the law on the one hand, and compassion for people on the other. Perhaps this is a simplistic view, as my husband would tell me, but I see us as holding these two ideals and wondering how to find our way through without giving up either one. Is it even possible?
And then the Joseph story reminds me that we don’t have all the facts yet (and perhaps never will), but that the same God who told Joseph to marry Mary can also tell us, “This is the way. Walk in it.” It may be a way we have not yet even imagined.

Yes. Come, Lord Jesus. Show us the way.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Taking courage from our differences

In the Bolivian Friends history project, I am currently researching the 1970s. As usual my work involves wading through a lot of tedious detail and occasionally finding hidden treasure.
This decade especially fascinates me because Hal and I enter the story. We first arrived in Bolivia in January 1972. I find my head sticking up out of the letters and minutes and minutia I’m wading through. In fact, I wrote many of those council minutes. My memory is adding spice to the task.
One such minuted item, a piece of hidden treasure, involved a rather tense discussion in a mission council meeting. I remember it well. The mission team at that time was made up of Ron and Carolyn Stansell, Gil and Louise George, and Hal and me. Our friendship and trust gave us the freedom to disagree, and sometimes we did just that.
The particular issue that day was important. We were wrestling through ways to relate to a national church that was experiencing growing pains; we were seeking a path that was holistic and healthy. Ron expressed the view that our theological and biblical work was key, that we needed to focus on the formation of leaders who “rightly handled the word of truth.” Ron had been instrumental in beginning the extension Bible school program and an interdenominational seminary for pastoral training.
Gil countered that the key was not education but simply warm pastoral care of our leaders. He found great value in our task of driving teams of leaders to the conferences and gatherings around the country. Being in the cab of the pickup with different people for hours on end seemed a wonderful opportunity to listen, encourage and pray with people. Gil and Louise were the newest members of our staff and the only ones with actual pastoral experience.
Then Hal piped in with another perspective. The key to our relationship, he said, is understanding the culture of our people—their values, ways of making decisions, family ties, and worldview. Hal came to the task equipped as an anthropologist, and he was deep into his investigations of the Aymara culture.
At one point in the meeting (and this is a point that comes from memory, not recorded in the minutes), one of the women (and I can’t recall who) observed that bringing together these three perspectives—the biblical, pastoral and cultural—made for a very holistic approach. While that seems obvious in retrospect, it was an aha! moment for me. Hope replaced the tension I had been feeling. And that hope continues to warm me.
I can’t say, of course, that from then on the way forward was clear. We continued to struggle and work through all sorts of issues. But God was with us and with the church, giving light, slowly bringing about maturity. The insight I gained in that council meeting made a difference to me.
And it encourages me now as I wrestle with the different points of view on issues Friends in the northwest—and all over the country—are facing, within ourselves and in our surrounding contexts. It encourages me to slow down, listen carefully, value the differing perspectives, and know that as we stay together God will lead us. And take care of the church.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

A Franciscan Benediction

May God bless you with discomfort
At easy answers, half-truths, and superficial relationships
So that you may live deep within your heart.
May God bless you with anger
At injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people,
So that you may work for justice, freedom and peace.
May God bless you with tears
To shed for those who suffer pain, rejection, hunger and war,
So that you may reach out your hand to comfort them and
To turn their pain into joy.
And may God bless you with enough foolishness
To believe that you can make a difference in the world,
So that you can do what others claim cannot be done—
To bring justice and kindness to all our children and the poor.

(Taken from Philip Yancey's book, "Prayer.")

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Ubiquitous kindness revisited

Last week I blogged on the widespread kindness I am finding in the world. I focused on specifically on the way the sports and school systems in Springfield, Oregon have gathered around my visually impaired grandson, allowing him to do things like successfully run on the cross-country track team. All of that is still true.
But I need to revisit the theme because Reilly ran in his second race this week, and it didn’t turn out so well. He ran into a pole.
Apparently the race began late and the coaches released more kids than usual onto the track at the same time. The first part of the trail followed a city sidewalk, until it veered off into a more rural path. It happened on this sidewalk, complete with telephone poles. The crowding of so many kids, the narrowness of the sidewalk—who knows why, but it all threw Reilly a little off. Even though he was looking straight ahead, and even though the accompanying runner was right there, he ran full force into the pole. He’s fast, and those around him watched with horror as he hit, bounced back and crumpled to the ground.
He rallied quickly, but felt dizzy and disoriented. He was taken to the hospital and then kept home the next day to watch for signs of concussion. He didn’t have one. Young bodies are resilient, and Reilly finished the week back in school. Next week he plans on racing again.
But this has served as another wake-up call. Reilly behaves so normally that we frequently forget the extent of his impairment. Even he forgets, which is good. But it can be dangerous, too.
It’s made me wonder if I might have been a bit glib in my last post about God’s grace and kindness permeating the world. I could even be tempted to blame God for letting this happen, or to blame myself for not praying enough. And of course I could blame the system—the very system that I saw last week as demonstrating the ubiquity of kindness—for letting Reilly down.
I could do all of that, but I’ve chosen not to. I will continue to affirm the power and pervasiveness of God’s grace. But I need to put it in the context of this imperfect world, where accidents happen, kids go blind, and millions of refugees wander Europe in desperation. I need to ask, with tears, “Where is God’s kindness in all of this?” I need to admit that I don’t know.
But I need to keep asking. Keep affirming. And keep praying, even offering my life as part of the answer.
So next week my prayers for God’s manifest kindness and grace will accompany Reilly around the curves of that cross-country trail. I will dare to prayer for the refugees across Europe. I will dare to ask how I can be involved.
And I will continue to affirm the ubiquitous kindness of an all-seeing, loving and powerful God.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

The ubiquity* of kindness

Some say that iniquity is ubiquitous, but I see it as just the opposite. I see kindness lurking around just about every corner, lying in wait for the right moment to jump out and offer you a lollipop or an organic pear, depending on your preferences.
I see it every time a car stops to let me cross the street, even where no marked crosswalk exists. I see it in my neighbors bringing the left-overs from their Indonesian meal, thinking we might like to sample their country’s cuisine. I see it in the number of old friends who kicked in on Facebook to wish me a happy birthday. I see it every time Hal fixes breakfast.
Yes, it’s kindness that wins the prize for ubiquity. It’s everywhere!
Most recently I saw it in the Willamalane Park and Recreation Department in Springfield, Oregon. My daughter Kristin lives there with Jon and their three school-age kids. The oldest, Reilly, has been visually impaired since birth with a rare combination of ocular albinism and optic nerve hypoplasia. (I’ll dispense with definitions; you can google them if you’re curious.) Simply put, he doesn’t see well. Corrective lenses bring his vision up to about 20/800 in each eye.
Other than that, he’s a normal, bright and out-going 13-year-old. He attends a public middle school (always gets a front row seat in class), plays several musical instruments and loves sports.
People and organizations go out of their way to make sure Reilly’s life is as normal—and as rich—as possible. From the school district, to the Lane Regional Program for kids with special needs, to the county park and rec department, and the state association for the blind, Reilly is provided with services that help him learn to navigate his challenges. These includes an iPad and computer with special apps, weird binocular glasses that let him watch movies, braille lessons, large print library books, a support group of other visually impaired kids and their parents, participation in a summer camp for the blind that includes horseback riding, and much more. These acts of “official kindness” are provided at no cost, as are so many services to kids with special needs.
Reilly is athletic and has actually been on a soccer team since the first grade. His keen sense of hearing helps him follow the action, and when he gets close enough to see the ball, he does what needs to be done to it. Most spectators don’t know he has a problem. And in the first grade, the kids are out there mostly to run around and have fun.
But now in middle school, it isn’t working out so well on the soccer field. So Reilly is changing sports and has joined the cross-country track team. However, it’s quickly become clear that vision matters in this sport, too. And here’s where that ubiquitous kindness pops up again.
The Willamalane Park and Rec, sponsors of the team, have developed a plan. It seems it matters to them that Reilly be a successful member of the team. So this last week, on the day before the first meet, a trainer took Reilly on a special tour of the trail, marking curves and potential problem spots with colored paint. And on the actual day of the meet, an adult runner accompanied Reilly the whole one-and-one-half miles. Other kids on the team had agreed to look out for Reilly, too.
He made it to the finish line, of course. When asked about his experience, he responded, “Awesome!” (that ubiquitous middle school phrase).
Even awesomer—the amount of kindness built into the systems that take care of our kids.
I recognize that Jon and Kristin live in a middle class school district and that their taxes help fund these services. I also know that in the Springfield/Eugene area the same services reach to all social and economic levels. Kristin has become a special-ed teacher for the visually impaired, and many of her young “clients” come from families that definitely could not afford these services otherwise.
On the other hand, I suspect that across our country as a whole, many children with special needs fall through the cracks. These types of services are probably not uniformly available to all. Freedom and justice—and kindness—for all remains more an ideal than a reality among some populations in our country.
At any rate, I rejoice in the specific kindnesses shown to my very specific grandson. And I trust that Reilly himself in turn will become a source of ubiquitous kindness.
And maybe even of justice for all.

*ubiquity: great word, meaning a state of being widespread, all around us if we only have eyes to see

                                    On your mark, get set, GO!


                                         Made it!