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.

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Holy Saturday and The Long Defeat

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

The first appears in Mountains Beyond Mountains, a book by Tracy Kidder that traces Dr. Paul Farmer and his extraordinary work to address public health inequities in Haiti. As Farmer and Kidder embark on a long hike through the mountains of Haiti to visit a sick child, Kidder considers  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 justified  the extravagant expense, given all the other needs competing for PIH’s limited resources

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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. Continue reading

Running

” . . .  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. Continue reading

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.

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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

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.” Continue reading

Thanksgiving

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

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