Thursday, September 30, 2010

IAM Reader's Guild review: Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

My blog reviews of the IAM Reader's Guild gatherings in 2010.  (see previous Readers Guild posts here)

September 2010: Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
Endicott, NY chapter of the IAM Readers Guild

“You reached up and put your fingers on my lips and gave me that look I never in my life saw on any other face besides your mother’s. It’s a kind of furious pride, very passionate and stern. I’m always a little surprised to find my eyebrows unsigned after I’ve suffered one of those looks. I will miss them.
It seems ridiculous to suppose the dead miss anything…”

Who wouldn’t want to keep reading after opening paragraphs including these sentences?  Someone with a small child is about to die?  Someone about to die with clear mind enough to notice the fine nuances of his child’s facial expressions? And then to write about them?  What kind of story have we walked into?

The Endicott gathering  of the Reader’s Guild kept asking that question many ways “what kind of story is this?”  The narrative structure Marilynne Robinson uses was unfamiliar to most of us, making us struggle through some parts and get wrapped up in others.  

Ultimately, we decided that reading John Ames’ private letter to his son felt something like getting caught in a conversation with a wizened, older relative over coffee and pie in the living room, while the rest of the family is cleaning up dinner dishes in the kitchen.  Sometimes rambly and trailing, but worth listening for the nuggets of beauty, wisdom, history. 

In that spirit, we’ve selected some of our favorite excerpts to remember.  These are the statements John Ames made that, were he our old uncle, we’d pass along at family gatherings in his memory.
            “…any father, particularly an old father, must finally give his child up to the wilderness and trust to the providence of God. It seems almost a cruelty for one generation to beget another when parents can secure so little for their children, so little safety, even in the best circumstances. Great faith is required to give the child up, trusting God to honor the parents’ love for him by assuring that there will indeed be angels in that wilderness.” 
“So my advice is this – don’t look for proofs. Don’t bother with them at all. They are never sufficient to the question, and they’re always a little impertinent, I think, because they claim for God a place within our conceptual grasp. And they will likely sound wrong to you even if you convince someone else with them…The Lord gave you a mind so that you would make honest use of it. I’m saying you must be sure that the doubts and questions are your own, not, so to speak, the mustache and the walking stick that happen to be the fashion of any particular moment.” 
And, lastly, this excerpt describing the moment John Ames blesses his namesake.  After all, don’t our hearts burn within us while we linger among the old?  We hover hoping that among all their minds think to say, words of blessing will be the gift of all our half-hearted listening?

“Then I said, ‘The thing I would like, actually, is to bless you.’ 
He shrugged. ‘What would that involve?’ 
‘Well, as I envisage it, it would involve my placing my hand on your brow and asking the protection of God for you. But if it would be embarrassing…’ There were a few people on the street. 
‘No, no,’ he said. ‘That doesn’t matter.’ And he took his hat off and set it on his knee and closed his eyes and lowered his head, almost rested it against my hand, and I did bless him to the limit of my powers, whatever they are, repeating the benediction from Numbers, of course— ‘The Lord make His face to shine upon thee and be gracious unto thee: The Lord lift up His countenance upon thee, and give thee peace.’ Nothing could be more beautiful that that, or more expressive of my feelings, certainly, or more sufficient, for that matter. Then, when he didn’t open his eyes or lift up his head, I said, ‘Lord, bless John Ames Boughton, this beloved son and brother and husband and father.’ The he sat back and looked at me as if he were waking out of a dream.”

May the words of John Ames bless us all.

imperfect prose: Suffering In Silence

I'm re-posting today.  It seemed fitting while Brian and I are navigating the lonely trail of waiting on God. Sometimes suffering His silence.  Sometimes celebrating His speaks.  Always wondering what He has in mind for us.  This post was written while working my way through meditations in Disciplines for the Inner Life.  The week on Silence took me about a month.  

May God hear your prayers and send rescue for your longings.

p.s., since writing the original post, I have read Endo's book. If you'd like, you can read about all it stirred up at the IAM Reader's Guild blog.

Consider Job, Moses in the desert with the sheep, Sarah waiting for the child, Hannah pleading for a child, Hosea chasing after his whore-wife, Israel waiting for a Messiah, Joseph thinking he might have a whore-wife, Mary and Martha standing by their brother's grave. Listen to the darkness before Jesus words: My God, My God. Listen to the shivering disciples in the upper room on Saturday. Silent Saturday.

The passage I was instructed to meditate during the week was none of these, but it was as familiar: I Kings 19. The characters in the Old Testament narrative are an evil queen, a wussy king, 450 massacred prophets of Baal, and one bone-weary prophet of Yahweh.

I imagine you also are familiar with this OT heroic tale. Elijah meets the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel with nothing but his gift of hearing God. He calls down fire from heaven that burns the entire ox carcass, stone altar, even the dirt and water surrounding the altar. The people respond by worshipping the one true God and killing off the frenzied, gesticulating, self-maiming prophets of Baal. God responds by sending rain after three years drought. It's a happy ending, right?

Wrong. Evil queen does not care about rain or the feelings of the people. She vows to kill Elijah anyway. Understandably, Elijah runs for dear life. The man who hears God can't take it any more.
God, like a knowing mama, sends a Samwise Gamgee sort of angel with a knapsack of food to chase Elijah across the desert to make sure he gets food, water and sleep. It must have been some kind of good food, too, since Elijah eats it and then walks for forty days and nights to a cave deep inside of Mt. Horeb. Maybe it's the silence of that walk, maybe its the nourishment of the food that brings clarity, but once God finally speaks again to Elijah the prophet has changed his tune from bleary despair (I can't do this anymore; I just want to curl up in a ball and die!) to a crystal-clear grievance with the King of the Universe.

God: Elijah, what are you doing here? (I sort of picture God sitting behind a mammoth desk, looking over a pair of spectacles at this man who opens the door of His office without knocking.)

Elijah: I've been working my heart out for You, the God-of-the-Angel-Armies. The people of Israel have abandoned your covenant, destroyed the places of worship, and murdered your prophets. I'm the only one left, and now they're trying to kill me. (Here Elijah, after delivering his legitimate appeal for help, drops down into the wing-back chair across from the desk, places a hand on each knee and watches God's face for an answer that makes sense. Instead God motions to his aide standing at the doorway and goes back to signing papers on His desk.)

God's Secretary: Go, stand on the mountain at attention before God. God will pass by. (The secretary opens the giant panelled oak door as he speaks and waves Elijah out of the room. Elijah looks at the aide, back at God who is bent over His desk seeming to have already forgotten Elijah's presence in the room, and back at the aide again. He slaps the arms of the chair, lets out an exasperated sigh, stands and walks out of the room, out of the building and onto a mountain ledge.)

A hurricane wind ripped through the mountains and shattered the rocks before God, but God wasn't to be found in the wind; after the wind an earthquake, but God wasn't in the earthquake; and after the earthquake fire, but God wasn't in the fire; and after the fire a gentle and quiet whisper.

When Elijah heard the quiet voice, he muffled his face with his great cloak, went to the mouth of the cave, and stood there.

God: So Elijah, now tell me, what are you doing here? (He says this in that quiet voice.)

ElijahI've been working my heart out for God, the God-of-the-Angel-Armies, because the people of Israel have abandoned your covenant, destroyed your places of worship, and murdered your prophets. I'm the only one left, and now they're trying to kill me. (I picture him taking a deep breath before he speaks. Not out of exasperation but out of determination. The text says "Elijah said it again..."; his grievance has not changed at all. No amount of hunger, exhaustion, travel, knee-knocking wind or quake, blistery heat of flame or God-forsaken silence has changed his original complaint. This is one determined man.)

GodGo back the way you came through the desert to Damascus. When you get there anoint Hazael; make him king over Aram. Then anoint Jehu son of Nimshi; make him king over Israel. Finally, anoint Elisha son of Shaphat from Abel Meholah to succeed you as prophet. Anyone who escapes death by Hazael will be killed by Jehu; and anyone who escapes death by Jehu will be killed by Elisha. Meanwhile, I'm preserving for myself seven thousand souls: the knees that haven't bowed to the god Baal, the mouths that haven't kissed his image.

God breaks His silence. And He does it in a small, quiet voice.

It will probably take a life-time of learning the truth found in this story. God's silence sometimes has to do with a kind of testing of my determination, focus, desire. If I'm telling God I have a desire I think He sometimes wants to know if I'm going to change my mind about it before lunch.

I have plenty of those short-attention-span kind of desires, believe me. When I look back in my old journals they are the ones I've written in scribbly all-caps across an entire page. The very ink on the page quivers with excitement and shortened breath. And often they are never mentioned again. I read them now and think: Really? I was that fired up about opening a bed and breakfast, having 10 children, earning a six-figure income, [fill in the blank with a desire of the month].

The thing is when I read back through those journals I also find other desires. Ones that are still at the front of my mind; that still keep me up at night. The verbiage may have changed as time brings clarity and helps me hone in on the core of the request. But that is exactly the point. As I walk through my own journey of exhaustion, sleep, hunger, food, thirst and water the determination to hear God's voice on the matter is sharpened, increased, developed. That determination - as it matures - become able to discern the true voice of God. To withstand all the whirlwind and storm and fires around and within me in order to wait for the powerful and tender voice of the Almighty.

Am I able to reconcile the truth that God is sometimes testing me with His silence? Am I willing to bear up under the hardship, and even suffering, that accompanies this testing? Or will I be side-tracked by my own irritability?

When I first read -- and I mean really read -- this account with Elijah I misunderstood his focused determination as petulance with the King of the Universe. I thought: How dare he be so bold to not cower and self-deprecate before the presence of God? Why doesn't he add some qualifiers to that complaint?

Something like this instead: God, I'm sure You've got this all worked out and I'm just not hearing it, but [cough, clear throat] is there any chance I could get some more help around here?

The truly hard part of the test is staying focused on the true character of God. He is not cruel. He is not capricious. He is not too busy to care. He is not like a little boy holding a magnifying glass over a tiny bug just to watch it squirm. He is clear enough about His good motives to risk me misunderstanding His silence.

It only makes sense that He would desire that same kind of clarity from me. And, in most cases, there hardly seems a better method than to let me sit with my request for awhile. And not just sit, but walk, sleep, drink, eat, suffer, struggle and lug around the desire waiting for the opportunity to hand it off to God. What a shame to allow all the inner noise of anger, peevishness, bitterness, busyness to drown out any chance of hearing the small, quiet voice of the Almighty. Even worse would be to not carry the burden at all. To look for cheap and quick ways to trade it off, say for a pot of stew or a plate of fries or something. Yes, this is a sure-fire way to dull the suffering of silence. Also the joy of desire.
A ... positive, meaning of silence is that it protects the inner fire. Silence guards the inner heat of religious emotions. This inner heat is the life of the Holy Spirit within us. Thus, silence is the discipline by which the inner fire of God is tended and kept alive.
Diadochus of Photiki offers us a very concrete image: When the door of the steam bath is continually left open, the heat inside rapidly escapes through it; likewise the soul, in its desire to say many things, dissipates its remembrance of God through the door of speech, even though everything it says may be good. Thereafter the intellect, though lacking appropriate ideas, pours out a welter of confused thoughts to anyone it meets, as it no longer has the Holy Spirit to keep its understanding free from fantasy. Ideas of value always shun verbosity, being foreign to confusion and fantasy. Timely silence, then, is precious, for it is nothing less than the mother of the wisest thoughts.
--From The Way of the Heart by Henri J. Nouwen

Oh mighty truth. When I follow God's silence, I too will develop the strength of silence.

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Wednesday, September 29, 2010

pondering words and pictures on a Wednesday morning

going back to school - September 2010

"As soon as Bion, our baby, was in nursery school, I dropped out of the group of mothers who occasionally gathered together to drink coffee and gossip. This was writing time. Nobody else needed writing time. And I felt that I was looked at askance because I spent so much time at the typewriter and yet couldn't sell what I wrote. I certainly wasn't pulling my weight financially. In my journal I wrote: 'There is a gap in understanding between me and our friends and acquaintances. I can't quite understand a life without books and study and music and pictures and a driving passion. And they, on the other hand can't understand why I have to write, why I am a writer. When, for instance, I say to someone that I have to get home to work, the assumption is that I mean housecleaning or ironing, not writing a book. I'm very kindly permitted to be a writer but not to take time in pursuing my trade. Nor can they understand the importance of music or why an hour with a Mozart sonata at the piano is not wasted time but time spent on a real value. Or really listening, without talking, to music. Or going for a walk simply to see the beauty around one, or the real importance of a view from a window."  
     -- from my hero, Madeleine L'Engle in Two-Part Invention: The Story of a Marriage

 My smarty-pants daughter snaps an early morning shot of 
Dad's first day back teaching school.
  I am saying, "Everyone outta the house.  I'm gonna write, goshdarnit!!!"

Linking up: 

Lovely Photo - Wordless or Not-So-Wordless Wednesday at Aspire

Monday, September 27, 2010

Monday Mix Tape: [the September-ish edition]

i chose a theme, found variations on the theme from the world of everyday art, literature, music, film, television, internet, travel, and mashed them together into one post, like separate tracks on a mixtape, see?

 track 1: the teaser

" 'I guess I'm just feeling Septemberish,' sighed Chester. 'It's getting towards Autumn now. And it's so pretty up in Connecticut. All the trees change color. The days get very clear - with a little smoke on the horizon from burning leaves. Pumpkins begin to come out.' "
The Cricket in Times Square)

Sometime during my elementary school year, a teacher read this book out loud to my class.  I have loved it every since.  (a few Septembers ago, it sparked a ridiculous bunch of posts and comments here and here!) 

track 2: notes on a theme 
(from this post, September 2007)

"Out of the 365 annual possibilities I have to be astonished that God gave me four children, perhaps the singular most shocking day of the year is The First Day of School. I've discovered that it is not while I am in the middle of the swarm that is my family that I remember to be amazed. But when, each September, they sever the ties of summer and walk away from me -- into the authority of other adult people, into buildings I know nothing about, surrounded by people I've never met -- that solitary moment is when I most feel like a mother."

I have a love/hate feeling about the month of September.  If it knew better what it wanted to be, we'd get along much better.  Seriously, September: do you want to be cold or hot?  shorts or turtlenecks?  homework or late-summer campfires in the evening? college football or Yankees barely  making it to the playoffs?  Get your act together, and I might consider being your friend.

track 3:  a poem and a few links

"September" by John Updike

The breezes taste
Of apple peel.
The air is full 
Of smells to feel-
Ripe fruit, old footballs,
Burning brush,
New books, erasers,
Chalk, and such.
The bee, his hive,
Well-honeyed hum,
and Mother cuts
Like plates washed clean
With suds, the days
Are polished with
A morning haze.

*HT:  The Poetics of Late Summer at the Search

  • Did you see the post I shared the recipe for our traditional first-day-of-school pumpkin-chip cookies?

  • How my friend, Sarah, dealt with the pumpkin shortage (ingenious!)

track 4: Friday Night Lights

What could be more Septemberish than highschool stories of love, despair, friendship, bad behavior and football on the weekend?  I actually didn't attend a highschool with a football team, but we played soccer in the autumn and we loved every minute of it.  I'm guessing Friday night football would feel the same with the added benefit of stadium bleachers and cheerleaders. 

Gorgeous camera work, creative variations on the age-old story of the underdog team making good, and the unique-to-Hollywood themes of fidelity, mutual deference and reality-marriage-romance between husband and wife characters, Coach and Tami, earns this show a big, ol' "art in the everyday" thumbs-up status from me!

track 5: Explosions in the Sky

I heard about this group before I knew about Friday Night Lights, but the fact that they provide the musical score makes everything even better!  Here's my favorite tune.  Enjoy!

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