Tara Westover and the Quality of Mercy

The quality of mercy is not strain’d
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven . . . Merchant of Venice

I never seem to get book recommendations right. Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead and Lila, Leif Enger’s Peace Like a River, Chaim Potok’s The Chosen – there are good, thoughtful people who don’t love these books, Idaho gal among them; it baffles me. Of course, this bafflement goes both ways. I told a friend recently that the Harry Potter series never really grabbed me. “Oh, I’m not sure we can be friends,” she replied. So, I’m generally tentative about suggesting a “must read.” But, well, onward into the breach and all that: Educated by Tara Westover is one of those books that all good human beings will like; please give it a whirl.

Here’s the story and a bit of a spoiler, that isn’t really a spoiler because, of course, she wrote a best-selling memoir: Tara is raised by fundamentalist, survivalist parents and Educated traces her journey from barely home-schooled to a PhD from Oxford. The prose is spare and the story told gently, even as she remembers horrific events. She remembers a cruelly abusive brother, a father who kept the family spinning wildly inward, always smaller and defensive, against imagined conspiracies. She tells of a mother who showed moments of strength and courage, but who finally succumbs to the world of her father’s creation – a dark, fearful existence, carved out of the hills and scrapyards of Idaho’s high desert hills.

Continue reading “Tara Westover and the Quality of Mercy”

Holy Saturday and The Long Defeat

Two scenes come to mind on this slow, quiet Holy Saturday. 

The first is from Mountains Beyond Mountains, a book by Tracy Kidder that traces Dr. Paul Farmer and his extraordinary work to address public health inequities in Haiti. Farmer and Kidder are on a long hike through the mountains of Haiti to visit a sick child. Kidder is trying to decide how to ask a delicate question about a recent decision. Farmer’s non-profit, Partners in Health (PIH), had flown John, a very ill Haitian boy, back to Boston at considerable expense and with slim hope of healing. John wasn’t healed, and Kidder wondered aloud to Farmer how he could justify the extravagant expense, given all the other needs competing for PIH’s limited resources. 

Kidder writes: What about the twenty thousand dollars that PIH had spent on the Medivac flight to get him out of Haiti? Not long after John died, a PIH-er, a relatively new one, said to me that she couldn’t help thinking of all the things they could have done with the twenty thousand dollars.

Farmer’s response is long and thoughtful and in the end he says simply:

Continue reading “Holy Saturday and The Long Defeat”

Memoirs and Prayer

For the ordinary worshipper, the rewards of a lifetime of faithful praying comes at unpredictable times, scattered through the years, when all at once the liturgy glows with fire.   Herman Wouk, This is My God

There are many reasons I would never write a memoir, good or otherwise, not the least of which is that nobody wants to hear about a skinny sixteen year old driving to a 7-11 in a Phoenix strip mall to buy a Slurpee; it’s uniquely devoid of a dramatic arc.  And many of the best memoirs seem to grow from lives of horrible dysfunction. Two recent reads – Mary Karr’s, The Liars’ Club and Tobias Wolff’s, This Boy’s Life –  follow the young authors as they navigate, barely, the wreckage of profoundly broken families. And yet Karr and Wolff survive, and as a result they are deeply observant, soft to moments of grace and beauty. Maybe that’s what Buechner meant when he preached that, “grace breaks through the fissures of our life.”  Topic for another post, someday.

For now, consider this image from Tobias Wolff. He was, at best, a troubled, wild young boy, flailing about for an anchor. One day, on a whim, he writes to an uncle who lives in France, telling of an abusive stepfather and a dark life in a small town. In response, and to everyone’s surprise, young Tobias is invited to live in France on the following condition: he must allow his uncle to adopt him and, as part of the adoption, Tobias must change his name. In response, he writes this:

But this time I had no need of thought, because the answer was already there. I was my mother’s son. I could not be anyone else’s. When I was younger, and having trouble learning to write, she sat me down at the kitchen table and covered my hand with hers and moved it through the alphabet for several nights running, and then through words and sentences until the motions assumed a life of their own, partly hers and partly mine. I could not, cannot, put pen to paper without having her with me.  Continue reading “Memoirs and Prayer”


” . . .  let us run the race.” Hebrews

Every now and then I can run again. Not often. But when the sun sneaks out after long absence and the pacific northwest sky is uncommonly blue, I’ll risk aggravating my slightly bulging L5 S1 disc and head into the forest near my home. Years of pounding on road and trail have worn down my spry, so I start slow, all plod and ache, until stiff joints remember younger days and I can escape – all my worries, all my thoughts, lost in a rhythm of wind and trail and breath and legs, and I recall why I started running.

It would be too dramatic to say that running saved me, but there’s truth in it nonetheless. I started in the 5th grade because I was really a bit lumpy and lost. Family life was chaotic and uncertain; I needed something to grab, a piece of flotsam in the storm. Also, I had started noticing girls. One day, during art hour, the teacher asked us to sketch the person across the table. I was sitting across from from a cute, green eyed classmate, on whom I had the vaguest stirring of crush, and this young crush informed me that I was too ugly and fat to draw. I knew immediately it must be true, and I suddenly realized I cared, a lot, and comments like that could hurt in ways I couldn’t yet define. Continue reading “Running”

Thoughts after attending church in Scotland

St. Andrews Episcopal Church in Callander Scotland was made of grey stone and had an old green, wood door with cast iron hinges that creaked loudly when Amy and I tried to sneak in for a Eucharist service. In response,  every head in the church – all 12 – swiveled in our direction and an eager usher hopped up to hand us a worn photocopy of the Scottish Episcopal liturgy of 1982. The sanctuary was dark and only a few shafts of light fell across the hard wood pews, most of which were empty. Music was piped in through an ipod connected to a few haphazard speakers that broadcast a “click, click, click” as the priest searched for the instrumentals to lead us in mumbled hymns. It was lovely and sad, intimate and therefore inviting, and I was taken back to Church of the Ascension in Sierra Madre, California.

I wandered into that small sanctuary over twenty years ago and was struck first by the almost too realistic wooden crucifix hanging over the chancel, a carved Christ broken on the cross. It dominated the sanctuary. Everything – ceiling, walls, pews – was yellowing wood. And it was perfect for that moment in my life, this warm cloistered, serious space. I was gutted by my recent divorce and needed a small, quiet church in which I could be a ghost. So I slipped into a back pew with my two children, ages 5 and 7, and for a long, long time simply let the words wash over me; it was all the faith that I could muster: Continue reading “Thoughts after attending church in Scotland”

Movie Review: The Darkest Hour

Never give in, never give in, never, never, never, never – in nothing, great or small, large or petty – never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.   Winston Churchill, 1941

downloadI’m going to be a bit of an outlier here, perhaps even a curmudgeon: I was underwhelmed by the newest Churchill movie, The Darkest Hour. It was, I’ll agree, entertaining. Gary Oldman was only vaguely recognizable as Gary Oldman, his physiognomy a remarkable facsimile of Churchill, if a bit mumbly at times. Beautiful and evocative, yes, in many ways. But the central conceit of the movie leaned heavily on the sort of thin sentimentalism found in an Up With People performance – all popcorn, very little meat.

The heart of the plot goes something like this: (Spoiler) Churchill agonized over whether to begin a negotiated surrender with Hitler and was crippled by the weight of the decision. Only a sturdy conversation in the subway with “the common people” quickened his resolve to stand firm, to fight, to never surrender. Newly strengthened, he addresses Parliament – “We shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills.” – and just before he speaks, he looks to his secretary who mouths the words from the galley, implying that she (an avatar of the common person) is giving him voice. Continue reading “Movie Review: The Darkest Hour”

Reading Freud on a Beach

If we are to consider the heavens, how much more are we to consider the magnificent energies of consciousness that make whomever we pass on the street a far grander marvel than our galaxy?  Marilynne Robinson

965537_10151427724136361_427207441_oIt’s summer and I’m sitting on a flat white beach on the northern Oregon coast. We (Amy, her brother and sister-in-law and all our various children) are celebrating my in-laws wedding anniversary. The weekend – and 50 years of fidelity to vows –  are a gift to us all. Amy is building a sandcastle with Robby who is 7 years old and he does everything with great intensity, all his considerable focus bent on the task at hand. And for this moment he is simply an extraordinarily beautiful boy, all long lanky energy, sun-bleached hair and knobby-knees, his body still fluid and careless.  He is unworried and unhurried and he yells, “Daddy, come look at the castle.”

So I go to look, thankfully putting down Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents, no light beach reading to be sure, but an assignment for my last class at Fuller Seminary. Freud is a hard, jarring read. In his analysis, we are instinctively driven to maximize pleasure in the face of the inexorable lessening of pleasure’s possibility. Fate (the blind and meaningless passage of time) simply deals this harsh hand to us all, and our efforts to avoid suffering are futile. Worse than futile, the insatiable drive to avoid suffering reflects a defect in human maturity, an infantile clinging to a projection (God, goodness eternal) for which we hope most – that justice will be known, forgiveness too, and every tear will be wiped away. Instead, Freud gives us a cold world, devoid of hope or awe, except awe at the roiling, unknown forces that drive us all and of which we are at best only vaguely aware. His vision is bracing, at best. Continue reading “Reading Freud on a Beach”


I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it.”

Says Shug Avery in The Color Purple. It comes toward the end of the movie, like a benediction on scene after scene of abuse, neglect, debasement and depravity. No mere afterthought – note its placement in the title – Shug’s comment marks one piece of a hazy but real redemption for those bruised by life’s hard, dark edges. Notice. Stop and look. The video of a cat singing Barry Manilow will wait. Smell the darn roses. Be amazed at the sun or the rain and feel them on your skin as gift. See the small, kind gesture from your spouse. Say thanks for that. Snuffle your child’s hair as they sleep; breathe deeply. Pause. Consider the lilies, we are told, they are beautiful, yes, and yet they too flourish like a flower of the field and are gone. Notice the momentary purple. Gratitude starts here. Perhaps healing too. Notice as a child does, for theirs is the kingdom. Doing so reminds us that every moment, color, breath, laugh, fall day, smile, touch, long meal with good friends and morning cup of coffee is a grace. Look closely and pause at day’s end to say, slowly, “Thank you. For this day. It’s a gift. All of it.”

A Luminous Hint

Holy wisdom is not clear and thin like water, but thick and dark like blood.  C. S. Lewis, Till We Have Faces

My sophomore year of college Kristin Donaldson and I walked into Dr. Tom Schmidt’s office (bottom floor of Porter Hall, terrible blue carpet and wall to wall books) with a burning question. “How,” I asked Dr. Schmidt, a New Testament scholar, “does the atonement work?” (Verbatim.) At the time, and I recall this with crystalline clarity, I wanted a functional answer, some explanation that linked sin and redemption in an equation. What’s the mechanism here for Jesus actually saving me by dying on the cross?  I thought Dr. Schmidt could map it out for me, almost like providing a recipe for muffins. Instead, he dutifully, and appropriately, offered a brief overview of the New Testament images – substitutionary atonement, ransom, blood sacrificeand my response was to push him, again, to tell me how it functioned: “Yea, but how does it work?” He gave me the same general response. I left dispirited and unsatisfied. Continue reading “A Luminous Hint”

Tell me a Good Story

The best use of literature bends not toward the narrow and the absolute, but to the extravagant and possible – Mary Oliver

It’s a rough read, so I am stunned that Shusaku Endo’s novel Silence is now a three hour film directed by Martin Scorsese. Here’s the plot: Father Ferreira, a 17th century Portuguese priest is sent to Japan to care for the young church. Well received at first, he and all priests soon face widespread, systematic and effective persecution. Ferreira ceases communication with his superiors; troubling rumors of apostasy (renunciation of his faith) trickle home.

img_0497Father Rodrigues, the protagonist of the story and a former Ferreira student, is sent to find him. Landing in Japan he finds pockets of “secret Christians;” he ministers to them, is soon betrayed and, in captivity, is given an impossible choice: he can apostatize – step on fumie, an icon of Jesus – and deny his faith or listen to the moans of Japanese Christians who have been hung upside down over a pit, bleeding to death by a small cut behind their ears. Keeping his faith means the death of the faithful in his care. Personal fidelity or life for others. Truth or Grace. And through it all, the priest (the author, the reader) is aware of God’s silence. It is the dark ocean in Endo’s story, the quiet, still waters that move without purpose or meaning, forever covering all, pushing forward and retreating, signifying nothing. Continue reading “Tell me a Good Story”