"Our birthdays are feathers in the broad wing of time."
Jean Paul Richter, Titan, 1803.
This was on a birthday post card I received from St. Augustine's House.
"Our birthdays are feathers in the broad wing of time."
Jean Paul Richter, Titan, 1803.
MacLaughlin, N. (2015). Hammer head: the making of a carpenter. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.
How do we decide what is right for our lives? This is the question that pervades the book. MacLaughlin went to school to become a writer and was one of the lucky ones to land a job as a journalist right out of school. After a decade her job had changed. She not only became an editor for the website content, but economic forces changed the focus of the paper. More than ever it became about providing content so that advertisers will continue to provide a revenue stream. She was not proud of all the work that she was doing. She began to long for something else; something more tangible than words.
In the downturn of the economy after 2008, common sense said that she should just be grateful for a job. But, it wasn’t enough. On Craigslist she found an add for a carpenter’s assistant. Women were strongly encouraged to apply. She applied confessing that she knew nothing about carpentry but wanted to learn.
She landed the job. The carpenter she worked for was a patient teacher. MacLaughlin began a brand new education. She learned new skills and a new language. And, she learned that she enjoyed being tired at night with sore muscles and being able to see a finished product.
The book is organized according to different tools of the carpentry trade: Tape Measure, Hammer, Screwdriver, Clamp, Saw, and Level. MacLaughlin artfully describes her jobs, provides history lessons on carpentry tools and words, and provides snapshots of her personal life.
How do we decide what is right for our lives? MacLaughlin does not provide a direct answer. From the content of the book we learn that what matters to her is personal satisfaction at the end of the day. Balance is important too: A balance of physical labor and writing.
Farrington, T. (2008). The monk upstairs: a novel. New York: HarperOne.
This story stands by itself but it begins where The Monk Downstairs leaves off. Mike, the former monk of twenty years who was the renter downstairs in the mother-in-law apartment is now living upstairs with Rebecca. Rebecca’s mother Phoebe is now downstairs. The recovery from her stroke leaves her independent but needing a watchful eye and helping hand. Rebecca wants her close.
The story begins at Mike’s old monastery. Rebecca finally consented to marriage with Mike. The guests are seated in the nave. The abbot waits patiently to preside at the wedding liturgy. The bride waits nervously for the start of the service, but there is no groom. Where is he? A preliminary search by others does not find him. Rebecca finally finds him in his old prayer chapel deep in the woods lost in meditation. Rebecca brings Mike back to regular time and the service commences.
As we follow Mike and Rebecca through their honeymoon and then back into their regular lives we see Mike and Rebecca grow and mature. Rebecca’s ex and father of Mary Martha begins to exhibit behavior of a responsible father and husband. Phoebe fades into her eternal rest.
As in the Monk Downstairs we are treated to thoughtful human dialogue, examination of relationships, and theological reflection through the interaction with Holy Scripture and the writings of St. John of the Cross.
I wished the book were longer.
Martin, M. (Ed.). (2017). Scratch: writers, money, and the art of making a living. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
Thirty-four writers contributed to this volume. Eight of the chapters are edited conversations that the editor, Manjula Martin. Some of the authors are financially successful and are recognized names such as Jennifer Weiner and Jonathan Franzen. Others are making a living. Others are trying to break in. Most are doing other jobs so that they can afford to live while they write.
Frank and Honest are two words that best describe the content of the book. The myth and mystery of “the writer” is replaced with the real life of the writer that is fraught with challenge and frustration and low pay. There is no uniform payment scale. Not everyone who does good work is rewarded equally.
If a person said wistfully to me, “I want to be a writer,” I would say “carry on, but read this book first!”
2017 - A - Epiphany 2
Isaiah 49:1-7; Psalm 40:1-11; 1 Corinthians 1:1-9; John 1:29-42
Every now and then I find myself out in a park somewhere following a path. I enjoy the gift of the outdoor and the freedom of movement and the sights and smells and sounds of wild places.
I particularly enjoy when I am following a path that is not familiar to me. I turn a corner and then there is this beautiful view that wasn’t there before. The lake reflecting the autumn trees; the splendor of the valley below; the waterfall that cascades over and around the rocks; rainbow flashes in the light. Such moments cause us to pause. We find ourselves moving from looking and seeing to beholding and filling with gratitude for the unexpected gift of beauty.
Certainly, when people were following the path to the Jordan River to see the Holy Man John the Baptizer, they went to see and hear and to be baptized by him. No one expected to encounter the Lamb of God along the way.
As their footsteps led them to the water – John directed their attention to the man Jesus. A very human looking Jesus of about 30 years who bore the signs of hard work upon his person was before them. John directed the people to not only look, but to behold him. Behold! Jesus is the Son of God. This is the Lamb of God!
When John baptized Jesus, it was a baptism unlike any other. He saw the Holy Spirit descend upon Jesus and stay. He heard the voice of the Father, “This is my beloved Son.”
When they heard John’s testimony, they were astounded. God is in their midst. They could not take their eyes off of Jesus. In fact, some left John to follow Jesus.
In calling Jesus the Lamb of God, John leads our biblically informed imagination to see the man who is the Son of God in a particular way. Jesus is a sacrifice. Just as the lambs were sacrificed on the altar in the Temple for the sins of the people, so Jesus will one day offer his own life for the sake of the world. Only the altar will be a cross.
The beauty of Jesus as Lamb of God is arresting. The God-Man offers himself so that we may have the forgiveness of God. The Lamb of God is going to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. We cannot make ourselves sufficiently presentable to the Lord. We cannot atone for our sins adequately. We cannot do justice to the way in which we offend God. So, Jesus comes to offer himself. As Martin Luther puts it in his explanation of the Small Catechism, Jesus
“has redeemed me, a lost and condemned human being. He has purchased and freed me from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil, not with gold or silver, but with his holy, precious blood and innocent suffering and death.” (Second Article of the Apostles Creed)
The love that Jesus embodies is divine. He offers us forgiveness, life everlasting, the truth and heart and love of God. Jesus can do all this because he is the Son of God, and he is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Through his cross and resurrection, we will know peace.
The beauty of God’s love in Jesus is a sight to behold. He leads us to change the direction of our lives and to walk after Him.
We don’t know what awaits us around the bend, but we are assured that the Lord is every before us. In Him, our future is secure. All God’s people say…Amen.
Farrington, T. (2002). The monk downstairs. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco.
An improbable love story told from Rebecca’s point of view.
Rebecca views herself as damaged goods. She is divorced from Rory with whom she has a 10-year-old daughter, Mary Martha, and is 38. She doesn’t like her job. At the end of the day after Mary Martha goes to sleep, she sits outside smoking a cigarette feeling grateful she made it through another day.
Rebecca has a “mother-in-law” apartment that she recently painted in order to rent out. The first inquirer is Mike. He appears kind, but is disheveled and hungry. After 20 years, he left the monastery. The modern world is disorienting. She feels sorry for him and rents him the rooms.
He keeps to himself. Mary Martha is drawn to him and they chat amiably while he works in the yard. Eventually, Rebecca and Mike discover a mutual attraction and choose to act upon it.
Love is not easy in this novel. Love is complicated. Mike has his “issues.” Rebecca wants to be careful she doesn’t repeat old mistakes or create new ones.
In three ways, this novel is an extended parable on Jesus’ encounter with Mary and Martha in the Gospel of Luke, chapter 10. First, Mike and his abbot at the monastery were locked in a tussle between the best expression of spirituality: active vs. contemplative. Second, Rebecca was the Martha in her first marriage. She does not want a repeat of the first. Third, Mike and Rebecca each have their own ways of being.
The story beautifully intertwines these three conflicts and Farrington masterfully resolves the conflicts at the conclusion of the book.
Farrington makes creative and poetic use of St. John of the Cross.
Babbitt, Natalie. Tuck everlasting. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1975.
I saw in a New York Times article that listed the famous who had died in 2016 that the author Natalie Babbitt had died. She wrote Tuck Everlasting amongst many other books. She also was a book illustrator. I had not read any of her work so I found a copy of her most famous book (it won awards) in the St. Joseph County Public Library.
What a delightful tale. A ten year old girl stumbles upon a family that decades ago accidently drank from the spring of eternal life. The Tuck family – Mom, Dad, two teenage sons, and their horse – have lived more than 80 years without aging.
The little girl wants to drink from the well too, but the family won’t let her. They try to explain in the kindest way possible how difficult their life is. They have to move every couple of decades because everyone else grows older and the Tucks are viewed as either odd or bewitched. The two boys had married, but their spouses and children continued to age. The boys had to leave the families at some point because it was too strange. They could only see their wives and children’s ongoing development from a distance.
The family accepted their lot in life. They floated through the years. They worked when and how they could. They enjoyed their own company and the company of others when they were able. But, they remained reserved emotionally and communally because they were never in sync with the people around them. The Tucks had a certain envy for those who could go through the seasons of life from birth to death.
There is a mysterious man in a yellow suit that appears in the story. He asks questions. As a boy he heard stories of a family that did not grow old. While others dismissed the stories, he believed them. He wanted to own the wood that contained the eternal spring. His design was to sell the water at a high cost.
The Tucks recognized in this man a malicious intent. He wanted to manipulate the gift of eternal life for his own devious plans.
If you haven’t read the book or seen the movies that it has inspired, I don’t want to spoil what happens next. However, the central question of eternal life in the midst of a world that changes constantly and that has a natural cycle of birth and death and continuity through offspring is an interesting one to think about.
I suspect that hordes of people in our world today do think about an everlasting existence. And, they want it badly. The money poured into ongoing research into extending youthful appearances and life illustrate a profound desire to avoid aging, pain, and death. Why? I suspect there are lots of reasons. Fear is probably one of the underlying reasons. People are simply afraid of having a finite existence.
I don’t think I want the Tuck’s problem. I prefer to experience the everlasting after I am dead.
One of the promises we receive from Jesus Christ is that we when we confess him as Lord we will have eternal life. But, eternal life with God in heaven will not lead to the same conundrum that the Tuck family faced. The reason for this is that in the new heaven and earth, we will have a uniform existence. The ramification of sin will be no more. Among other manifestations, illness and death will not be a concern. The separation between humans and God will also not be present either. We won’t have the sharp contrast of life/death in heaven that we suffer with in our current earthly existence.
2017 Baptism of Our Lord
Isaiah 42:1-9; Psalm 29; Acts 10:34-43; Matthew 3:13-17
The lesson from Isaiah is the first of four Servant Songs. The servant songs are poetic descriptions of Christ who is coming as a servant to establish a new covenant with his people. The servant will suffer greatly in behalf of the people of the world. He suffers so that God's light and hope and new life may find it's way into the depths of the terrible darknesses we create for ourselves. Christ comes into our midst because we cannot free ourselves.
Pr. Nack, Trinity Lutheran in Auburn, IN. Knows a man named Tyler who got caught up in darkness and made a series of mistakes that landed him in prison. In prison Christ came to him. Tyler received God's Word. Even though he must finish out his prison sentence, he has become free from the spiritual prison that he was trapped in that led him into such a mess.
Tyler writes about what it means to be trapped in a spiritual prison and then to have Christ free him.
"Every day waking up in prison is a nightmare. Not that it's particularly scary or a place I fear. It's the aspect of having no options. I am told by those in authority what to do and when to do it. When it's time to eat, they tell me. I have not choice when or what to eat. Rec time is the same way: outside my control. It's all outside my control.
Spiritual imprisonment to sin is, in many ways, the same. When you're spiritually imprisoned to sin, your flesh is calling all the shots. You are not in control. Your sin is in control, and you are a slave to it. Whether it's drugs, stealing, or sexual immorality, or all of the above.
I have found time and time again that, when left to my own devices, I am always snared by sin. I have found that the only way out of this prison is Jesus Christ. He gives me the strength to resist the paths of sin, which lead only to death. How is that possible? Because Christ died for the sins of the world and rose again on the third day, triumphing over sin and death so that I can be set free from my bondage." (Concordia Pulpit Resources, Volume 27, Part 1, Series A, page 33)
We don't have to be in prison to have be a spiritual prisoner. We don't have to be in prison to know what it means to be trapped and to feel like something else is controlling our minds and our actions. We don't have to be in prison to think that we have no future, no hope, no choice, no joy in life.
Isaiah prophecies that when Christ comes, he will set the prisoner free. He will be the light in the darkness. How do we connect with that promise?
Two ways. First, we receive God's Word in faith. We trust that this Word that has spoken to generations of people is now God speaking to us. Second, we are brought into the promises of God through Holy Baptism.
Today, we observe the Baptism of Our Lord. Jesus did not get baptized for himself. He didn't need it. Jesus got baptized for us. He was serving us. When he was baptized, the truth of Christ was revealed to us. Our Heavenly Father calls Jesus the beloved Son. Jesus goes forth in the power of the Holy Spirit.
He received Baptism from John because this is the beginning of his ministry. Christ will serve the world through teaching, healing, and suffering. He will suffer with the poor. He will suffer with those who are in prison. He will suffer in Jerusalem when he is betrayed and placed on a cross. All aspects of his ministry amongst us is so that he, the Christ, may enter into our spiritual prisons, our spiritual darknesses, and bring light, and forgiveness, and love, and real hope, and real transformation. He does this so that we can be free.
We receive Holy Baptism and we receive His Word so that we can be set free too. Christ is our strength. Christ is our hope. All God's people say...Amen.
Green, John. Looking for Alaska. New York: Dutton Books, 2005.
I read somewhere that Green’s book was the most censured book in school districts in 2016. What are people reacting against?
Alaska is high school student in a preparatory school in Alabama who dies in a car accident in the wee hours of the morning. She slams into a parked police cruiser with its lights flashing. She was drunk. The survivors, particularly her peers at the school, are deep in grief. Why did this happen?
A newcomer to the school narrates the story. Although Alaska is committed to Jake the college student who lives away from campus, the narrator falls head over heels in love with Alaska. Alaska has ghosts in her past and she is a complicated personality. We learn about some of those ghosts.
Why would parents request that schools remove Looking for Alaska from their school library shelves? Well, a lot of reasons if one expects to find on school library shelves books about perfect teenagers who don’t cuss up a storm, break school rules, smoke and drink alcohol to excess, engage in pre-marital sex and are searching for a spiritual foundation from an array of religious traditions such as Buddhism, Islam, and Christianity.
I enjoyed John Green’s story telling style. He builds up to the fatal moment and takes us through the grieving process by counting the days before and after. Green “gets” and describes adolescent angst, thinking, priorities, and impulsiveness well.
I don’t agree with all of Green’s answers, but I think adults and adolescents should read this book together. Adults can explain why healthy stewardship of the body, mind, and language is important. And, they can explain why they are people of faith, or not, so that adolescents can hear these kinds of things directly from people that love them rather than from voices who have no vested interest in the outcome of a child’s life.
Birzer, Bradley J. Russell Kirk: American Conservative. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 2015.
Birzer provides an engaging, in-depth, critical biography of a significant figure in the American Conservative movement. Readers are introduced to all aspects of Kirk’s life from cradle to grave.
Kirk came to national prominence when he published his re-worked Ph.D. dissertation from St. Andrew’s University. The Conservative Mind published in 1953, garnered critical applause of both friend and foe of the conservative movement because of Kirk’s erudition. Kirk was widely read in newspapers through his column To the Point. He published From the Academy, a regular column in the National Review. Kirk worked behind the scenes in providing speeches and advice for the early part of the Barry Goldwater Presidential campaign. Ronald Reagan read Kirk’s work with appreciation and encouraged an ongoing friendship between the two men. Kirk wrote numerous books, articles, reviews, and gave lectures.
The multiple strengths of this biography are: First, Birzer explores in detail the influences upon Kirk. In particular he focuses on Irving Babbitt, Paul Elmer More, and T.S. Eliot. Eliot gets his own chapter. Second, Birzer helps us understand the American social and intellectual climate in which Kirk worked. Third, Birzer explains how Kirk distinguished himself from the neo-conservatives that grew to prominence in politics and entertainment outlets. Fourth, we are introduced to Kirk the fiction writer who was a best selling horror writer. Fifth, we are introduced to a man who is a complex personality. Birzer’s considerable writing skills make Kirk come alive to the reader.
In generations to come, research on Kirk’s life and influence will begin with this biography.