Sunday, January 09, 2022

Cutting Through Family Secrets

 



While I was reading this tragedy that is soaked in love, my wife and I watched a three part documentary about Ernest Hemingway. Intertwined with photographs, home movies, and news clips were insights from writers and journalists whose craft and style had been influenced by Hemingway. Among them was Abraham Verghese, the author of Cutting for Stone. Seeing him explain Hemingway and his own debt to the famous writer shed new light on the action and themes within this novel. Death but also, sometimes violent as well as unrequited, yet costly even when realized, love wind through the book. The complex relationship between two twins born as their mother died and their father flees shapes the narrative. Both parents and later both sons are medical doctors. The last name of the father, and the sons, is Stone, and the father and one son are surgeons, hence one aspect of cutting for Stone. Literary allusions and historical events instill elegance and points of reference. The final seventy pages were the most powerful; they moved me to tears.

Families sometimes conceal secrets that make lives much more difficult for subsequent generations.  Fear of social acceptability or of responsibility rend relationships before they have a chance to form. Family secrets maim communication, they stunt the possibility of knowing fully.  In my own family, in one line, secrets tied apparently to social acceptance coupled with a courthouse fire have made it difficult to trace the genealogy beyond a certain person and her partner. Were they married? What ethnicity (ethnicities) were they? We don't know, although there has been speculation.  In the novel, feelings about the father who had fled influence the development of the sons and of course of the narrative.  As in the story, often in real families there are narratives, habits, and tendencies that appear again and again. Knowing the story of one's own family may not always bring joy, but can produce understanding and the potential for forgiveness. Verghese's story of the Stone family is complex and sometimes tragic, but also demonstrates how desire to help others and innate skills can help overcome obstacles, even while emotions and fear create new hurdles to clear. My prayer is that we can navigate the complexity of our backgrounds to learn how to love one another and to forgive those who have hurt us, or through their decisions, handicapped us. Ask questions about events or relationships you do not understand.  Realize that what embarrasses me or you may be helpful information for future generations. Speak truth to each other, but do so with love and compassion.


Sunday, January 02, 2022

Living the Good Life in 2022

 



Happy New Year! After a year away from writing this blog, I'm returning with this recommendation of a book about learning to live wisely. In his book A Life that Is Good, Glenn Pemberton has put together an excellent thematic study of Proverbs. In it, he demonstrates how the cultivation and practice of wisdom helps to attain "a life that is good." I recommend the book highly for use by small groups or adult Bible classes. Each chapter ends with thoughtfully worded scenarios and questions for discussion. The book also addresses the importance of recognizing genre in studying the Bible and how we should integrate contemporary wisdom, scientific findings, and cultural custom with that study. While you may not always agree with his conclusions, Glenn Pemberton raises significant questions that often are ignored or dismissed in Christian circles in America, but that should be investigated if we want our children and our society to know "a life that is good."

In America and indeed the rest of the world right now, we face ethical choices daily that challenge us to overcome biases and prejudices to make healthy and wise decisions. As the new year dawns, I encourage you to think wisely and to react to challenges in love rather than with fear, violence, and hatred. 

Sunday, December 06, 2020

How I've Adapted to the Pandemic



The coronavirus pandemic has exacted a grim toll on the world in general, and on the United States specifically.  Over 250,000 have died from this virus during this year in our country.  Businesses have struggled; some have closed their doors, perhaps never to open again.  Millions unexpectedly have found themselves unemployed or underemployed, while others found their jobs suddenly described as essential, and as a consequence, worked harder in a more highly stress charged environment than before.  Doctors and nurses literally have risked their lives trying to save others.  This crisis has been compounded by the subtraction of some normal means of coping and encouraging one another.  Schools have met virtually; churches have done the same.  Funeral assemblies have been restricted to immediate families in many places, removing the comforting care of a community of friends and extended family. 

I love meeting together with fellow Christians to sing praises to God, to share communion, to pray, to hear the word of God read and discussed. My monthly activities included preachers meetings and American Legion activities.  These have morphed into Zoom or YouTube experiences.  Hugs and handshakes have disappeared. Both my surviving adult children live more than four hours away and extended family members live even farther away. Modified coping experiences were required.

First, my wife and I have sung together at home more.  She and I have watched more documentaries and Hallmark movies.  Zoom meetings for me and Zoom graduate school classes for her have provided some give and take with the outside world.  I put my job search on hold until she graduates in May.  I've learned how to bake communion bread. We have worn masks when out in public in crowds. We have practiced social distancing. We have worshiped online, which is sadly not sufficient, but still somewhat helpful.

Second,  I blew past my goal of reading sixty books this year.  I've read a mixture of scholarly theology and history tomes, best selling and classic novels, poetry, books on sports, homiletics, and political science, and all the big books of the Outlander series.  I have reviewed some of these books on this site. I've also finished reading the New International Version 2011 edition of the Bible for the first time and am reading it again (I have read through nine or so other translations over the past fifty years since I first read through the King James Version at age 12).  I've read books on civil rights and racism.  I've read biographies.  Some books have encouraged me. Others have depressed me.  Most have made me think and evaluate others' perspectives on life.

Third, I've served an American Legion post as its chaplain remotely, praying on Zoom and making telephone calls to members.  I spoke about lessons learned from a book I had reading, Preaching in the Shadow of Hitler, to a group of Kansas City preachers in November.

Fourth, I have continued to write, although it has been a struggle at times.  Writing my blog on prayer (https://callforfireseminar.wordpress.com) have deepened my faith and understanding of prayer. Expanding the scope of this blog has given me the opportunity to explore more means of encouraging one another.

Fifth, and most consistently, perhaps most unexpectedly, I have exercised.  Pandemic related regulations in my area have allowed exercise outdoors with precaution and I have taken advantage of that permission. I expanded from just walking several times a week to walking, running, and bicycling (with elliptical on bad weather days) during the pandemic. I had not run for more than three years (despite doing so regularly for the previous twenty-four). Prayer remained constant. 

How has your religious practice changed during 2020? How has that effected the depth of your faith? Has your mental or emotional health been challenged this year? What difficulties have you confronted in maintaining ties with family and friends? How has your fitness regimen changed during this time of  quarantines, isolation, and restricted assembly?  Have you adapted your routines because of the crisis or have you ignored warnings and pressed on with your usual activities?  What has given you great joy during a year that has witnessed a varied of unusual happenings?  What will you miss most after 2020?

The words of Isaiah 40 have continued to anchor me during this strange year.  I still remember that "those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint" (Isaiah 40:31 NIV2011).


Monday, November 02, 2020

 


During the last weeks of hurricane season, I inadvertently read this engaging novel, Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward,  about a family of teenagers in Louisiana in 2005 who themselves are in the path of what will become Hurricane Katrina. The primary spokesperson for the family, to the reader at least, is the only girl in the family, Esch, a 14- or 15-year-old, who along with her siblings struggles with ethical and moral decisions ranging from dog fighting to stealing to learning that she's pregnant to dealing with an alcohol-impaired widowed father to keeping afloat in school to figuring out whom to trust and love.  The title of the book has more to do with surviving than dog fighting. Her brothers individually deal with trying to keep an opportunity for an athletic scholarship alive, breeding and fighting and cherishing dogs, and themselves navigating emotional relationship boundaries with friends and siblings. I suspected when I began that this might be a quickly read YA novel, but then the narrative quickly lurched into serious adult, survival related themes that teens without adequate adult supervision confront in a life-threatening environment (gangs, drugs, imminent Category 5 hurricane environment) in a decrepit house as they battle for survival, values formation, and identity.  The pace of the narrative began at a too leisurely pace, but picked up and the last section, for me at least, was riveting.  The characters speak in a dialect that sometimes was a little hard to follow and use language that sometimes is course and profane. I've had considerable training and some experience in hurricane preparation and response strategies; the challenges for the family and their community struck me as quite realistic, as did their responses to those challenges. Religion is less of an influential factor for this family than peer pressure, economic status, and family traditions.  Friends and compassionate strangers can form community that makes survival possible during harrowing experiences. At times while reading the book, I wanted to throw up my hands and shout, "Can't you see that you're hurting yourself (or your father or your brother or your daughter or your sister) with that choice of action or words?" In the end, potential light at the end of the tunnel flickers for the reader, who is unsure whether the characters will see that light or not. 

  Life can be very hard.  Having trustworthy friends and mentors can help us navigate treacherous situations.  Having a community who loves and respects each of us makes it possible to survive in more healthy ways.  This book doesn't deal directly with it, but a church should be that kind of community, especially when it seeks to follow a Lord who urged that loving God and loving your neighbor are the two greatest command.

Monday, September 28, 2020

Keeping Focused on Christ When Our World Falls Apart

 

Unworthy Republic was written by Claudio Saunt, a professor of American History at the University of Georgia. It is about the government Indian Removal of 1820s through 1840s. Saunt addresses Georgia and that state's advocacy and execution of the policy, but also discusses in depth Indian 


Removal in Ohio, Alabama, Mississippi and Florida, as well as the arduous journeys experienced by the various tribes as they moved (or more often were moved) to new lands in Oklahoma and Kansas. Saunt introduces key characters on both sides of the issue and reveals the impact of the policy on each of their lives. Among the main characters, I enjoyed learning more about John Ross of the Cherokee, since I once lived on John Ross Road near Chattanooga, Tennessee. It's an account of broken treaties and includes how and why a state government decided to ignore a Supreme Court verdict. Indian leaders like Osceola and Black Hawk reacted to the policy with aggressive, militant resistance; John Ross used the American legal system to argue the Cherokees' and other tribes' cases. These leaders agreed in resisting orders to abandon properties and possessions to move to another part of the continent. They each encountered opposition within their own tribes from other leaders who believed that the most beneficial course would be to comply.  Dr. Saunt recounts the experiences of those who left their homes as well as those who resisted. The atrocities that Saunt recounts may cause you to reconsider the concept of Manifest Destiny and perhaps reevaluate your list of our nation's best Presidents. 

What do the The Trail of Tears and the U. S.- Seminole War have to do with comforting people? This book is not about Christian discipleship or leadership, but I discerned principles from the accounts recorded in it. First, the Indians who responded to a confusing and terrifying change in American government policy towards them often listened to spiritual leaders as they searched for answers.  Many had converted to Christianity. Their preachers spoke to the crisis. In their letters to the President and other government leaders, Indians appealed to biblical principles, and also to key American historical values derived from the Bible's teaching and set forth in the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. Second, they responded as a community. Leaders like John Ross led by consensus.  They were not loners; they helped one another (although there were Indians who took advantage of others misfortune).  Although some committed suicide, others survived because friends and family reached out to help them.  Bible uses metaphors like family and body to describe followers of Christ as a collective group. Third, this book reminds us that institutions that we support and hold dear may disappoint or even horrify us at times.  When they do, the human toll can break our hearts and challenge us to rethink our worldview, the principles by which we live our lives. Unworthy Republic introduces flawed heroes and principled villains.  Cherokee Chief John Ross was a slaveowner.  The politicians and bureaucrats who led the Indian Removal included people who kept meticulous records and worried about the welfare of the uprooted Indian families, even if they did not contest the policy itself. Soldiers questioned their commanders when ordered to commit inhumane actions. Even when everyone around us chooses to do evil, each of us can choose to do right.  Even our world falls apart, we can survive.  

I love to study history.  I did not enjoy at all some of what I learned from this book. People for whom cities, counties, corporations, and universities are named are revealed at their worst.  Other leaders disappoint, but then seem to have awakened to the horror of what they had backed.  As I read the book, I noticed disturbing parallels in attitudes between the 1830s and 2020. If we seek to follow Christ, we must govern our actions and attitudes with a disciplined love that keeps promises and seeks the best for others. Life is not easy. Each of us confront moments of ethical challenge in our lives. May we keep focus on Christ and what it means to follow him in such moments.  

Monday, September 21, 2020

When Worlds Fall Apart: Cloud Atlas and 2020


  Justice may seem impossible to achieve.  Friends, employers, or even family members may betray us. The world may seem (and in 2020, it does, doesn't it?)  as if it is imploding because of violence, hurricanes, pandemics, and murder hornets.

Reading the book Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell reminded me that everything I read doesn't have to leave me with a warm and fuzzy feeling or even be consistent with my world view to benefit me. When I had finished about half of Cloud Atlas, I was disturbed deeply but aware that I dare not cease reading. Mitchell weaves together six narratives in this novel that spans several millennia (the movie based on the book apparently squeezes it into five hundred years but given the religious evolution, I think the book requires more time to elapse between two of the narratives) linking primary characters in unexpected ways. Observations on what it means to be human and civilized emerge, as well reflection on the probable transience of what we think permanent. Some characters are disgusting, others tragic, and from both sets emerge heroes and antiheroes. I wondered, based on artifacts discovered in the earliest story and treasured family records in the latest, if there might be a circular time twist, but no one else whose review I read seems to have noticed such, so that probably is not so. 

I'm better for having read this book, not because I believe in transmigration of souls or reincarnation (I don't), but because subtle undertones in each narrative suggest resilience of humans against greed and bullying (even at the macro national level).  Concern for the vulnerable and the oppressed emerges in several threads.  The indigenous native, the ethnic minority, the elderly, economic slaves, and religious faithful find advocates when they are threatened or abused.  Abuse of natural resources, violation of cultural artifacts and intellectual property rights are addressed in ways that stress a concern for others who share our environment. Religious leaders and executives of large corporations are among the villains. But despite the fact that powerful evil people lurk in each narrative, hope persists (with one notable exception and even that has a caveat) and someone finds a way to do the right thing, make provision for success, or improbably just survives. The importance of seeking to help others is revealed by a statement near the end of the book, "In an individual, selfishness uglifies the soul; for the human species, selfishness is extinction" (p 508). 

 Groups of people express bigotry towards other groups or individuals and seek to kill them in several threads of this book. Such hatred has existed in history, and endures today. In American history, the relocation of settled, land-owning Native Americans in the 1830s, the treatment of African Americans during and since slavery, and the imprisonment in concentration camps of innocent Japanese-American citizens during WWII are among the horrors that people in power imposed upon more vulnerable populations. Conversations regarding the value of black and immigrant lives, attacks on Sikh, Jewish, and Christian places of worship in America, and harassment of women and physically/mentally challenged people remind us that we still have a ways to go in maturing as people and a society. Injustice does not exist solely in the realm of fiction.

 As I reflected on this book, I thought about the prophet Habakkuk.  His world was falling apart. He called to God for rescue.  God told him that he (God) had set the process in motion to bring about justice and a return to righteousness.  Habakkuk realizes his people's desperate straits, but also his God's power. And he concludes,

"I heard and my heart pounded; my lips quivered at the sound; decay crept into my bones, and my legs trembled. Yet I will wait patiently for the day of calamity to come on the nation invading us. Thought the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD, I will be joyful in God my Savior" (Habakkuk 3:16-18 NIV 2011).

  Injustice and evil abound.  But God is, and because he is, good abounds as well.  Let us remember to choose to do good, and to love others as we love ourselves. Then, whatever befall, we will know that however bad it may be, good may still conquer, even though all may seem lost. Let's choose to keep living, and to help others do the same.



Thursday, September 17, 2020

The Way of the Cross for Families

 


Russell Moore writes in his book The Storm Tossed Family: How the Cross Reshapes the Home with humble self-disclosure from experience in ministry and as a member of family, both physical and spiritual. He mixes both bittersweet and humorous anecdotes with serious reflections on the meaning of life and scripture. Family carries varying shadows and supports for each of us. Moore reveals how burdens of family responsibility may bring blessing and how tragedy may bear the seeds for hope. He has an aversion to baptism that he never really explains, but otherwise I found this book moving and helpful. I recommend it to you.

The theme of the cross reshaping the storm-tossed family struck a chord with me.  The pressures that culture, peers, and extended family exert upon our choices threaten the influence of religious beliefs in our decision-making processes.  The letter of 1 Peter in the New Testament discusses at length how Christians are to follow the example of Jesus, specifically in suffering. Most of us would prefer to avoid suffering, I suspect, but achieving success in furthering significant causes may demand it.  Serving as a soldier exposes one to potential maiming or loss of life.  Military service and sports participation often require placing personal preferences second to what is best for the team.  This too is true for the Christian as member of a family whether that family is his spouse and children or the church.  We submit our desires to the needs of other family members.  Love sometimes requires difficult, seemingly impossible decisions.  When repeated abuse and habitual, unrepentant betrayal mar the home atmosphere, the Christian's choice will be one that benefits the family as a whole. Separation or divorce may be necessary to protect not only personal safety, but to ensure the welfare of children, and to motivate the offender toward reform or seeking healing of what causes the violence or addictive behavior. Patience, commitment (keeping promises), and love prompt the Christian to seek what will be best.  That may not always be easy to discern. One of my children had health problems that other family members sometimes dismissed as minor or even attention-seeking devices.  That child died in his twenties; his health problem had caused lethal damage despite our attempts to seek treatment that would heal him.  

Seek the salvation of your family, but seek to improve their physical and emotional health as well. Pursue a lifestyle that improves health and affirms the value of life. Keep your eyes fixed on Jesus. He is the author and perfecter of our faith, and his way is the path to salvation for you and those whom you love. If your family is rocked by conflict, betrayal, or harmful impact from personal choices,  seek help from strong, trustworthy advisors who will affirm your faith in Christ while protecting your safety.  The way of the cross is not easy, but is the way to love.