Category Archives: Must Reads

My All Time Favorite Books

It really is interesting the books one rereads and to ask oneself, why this one? Why theses.  I have many I want to re-read, but these I have re-read at least six times.  So what is it that draws me.

My first read of trilogy, The Hawk and the Dove, by Penelope Wilcock, began during lent of 2002, my second reading 2005, then 2008 till I have read it 6-7 times.   Till my last read in 2019 when I discovered an additional six books.  These books are fiction and for me a story for Lent. 

Maybe the series call to some deep desire to hear the deeper story, or to be told a story not just for the history, but for the wisdom that can be accessed from another’s experience.  But, the first two books are of a mother telling her teenage daughter stories of the monastic life that is a part of their history.  Frequently these are told on the walk home from Compline or Evening Prayer, sometimes they take place in the candle lit room as the mother is calming the younger children into sleep.  Always a time that seems to be a very peaceful time.  But, each story, each chapter, holds a lesson about loving the other, understanding others, having compassion for others, and the ordinary daily exchange that happens when living in close proximity with others that few of us can escape.  There are profound lessons in confession and forgiveness,  suffering and gentleness, community and loneliness.  These are the stories of transformation and hope.

I love that the setting for the books is centuries old, takes place in a monastery, that there is a rhythm to their lives and seem to have nothing in common with most of my life.  I am safe…it’s not about me.  I can enter this story unafraid and with abandon.  I will not have to be vulnerable.  I will not have to try to figure out some puzzle or deeper meaning.   But, as my heart opens to the characters, I find myself hiding in them, being seen by others.  I’m as needy as the newest novice,  and at times without mercy like the strict and exacting novice master.  I find that I am broken and frequently limp along, but that I have the capacity to listen like the abbot, and also to tend like the brother who tends those who are infirm. I’m very like the brother who is in charge of the kitchen…grumpy and bossy. And I am really no different from the brother who finds the courage to do the hard things.

The author has what I consider a trustworthy understanding of the sacred and of humanity.  She tells these stories with authenticity…maybe from experience.  I want to absorb the wisdom of these collective stories about a compassionate community.   The stories caught me while I was escaping into a fictional world.  They made me want to turn around and return to enter them in a deeper way and explore the truths that are so loving and compassionate.  These stories allow me to look at myself more lovingly and with a longer view.  Maybe I need to read them again.

“Now, just try to blend in.”

Isn’t it interesting when you have a thought then a dear friend expresses that similar thought a day later? My thought: “What is it about Sister Act that keeps bringing me back over and over again?” My mother’s thought: “What is one book, poem, or movie that you find yourself returning to again and again?” She wrote her thoughts on a book series by Penelope Wilcock, “The Hawk and the Dove,” read her thoughts here, while I find myself returning to a favorite movie.

Have you ever visited some work of art— be it written, spoken, sung, drawn, or acted— and find yourself returning to it when you find you need that little bit of something extra? This movie is one of mine. At first it called to my soul through music. (I am a theater junky. Get with it or get over it.) Then it became an unspoken tradition to watch it with my grandparents. Now, after having seen it easily a hundred times— and that is a conservative estimate, I have realized that there are parts of who I am because of this film.

I can still hear my Grandfather and Grandmother chuckle when Sister Mary Lazarus raps the table with her knuckle while talking about her convent with no running water in Canada and says, “It was hell on earth. I loved it!” Here is the truth, life here on earth is hell. There is pain, there is suffering, there is hunger, there is loss. John Milton, in Paradise Lost, wrote, “The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.” And this film portrays that very trial gently.

Sister Act is a call to remind ourselves about the hard stuff. It is uncomfortable. It is awkward. It is dysfunctional. A black, Las Vegas show woman sees a murder and is hidden in a white washed, sequestered convent from her mob boss ex-boyfriend. And it is hilarious.

It is a poignant reflection of the church. One that has been sitting here for almost three decades now. One that we joke about understanding, but clearly do not. Make church more accessible— put in the coffee shop, brighten up the music, I don’t need to go on as you have heard it all before. But we miss the point!!!! When was the last time you saw a non- Christian speak from the pulpit of a church? When was the last time you saw a non-Christian have value outside of needing to be “saved” inside the church? When was the last time you went out into the community, just to serve the community? Btw, doing this in hopes of increasing your church numbers doesn’t count.

In many ways, it reminds me of the final song in Encanto where Abuela apologizes for holding on to tight. She sings, “The miracle is not, some magic that you’ve got, the miracle is you. The miracle is you, not some gift, just you. The miracle is you. All of you, all of you.”

This seems counter to what church teaching has been for thousands of years. But why not welcome everyone? Towards the end of the film, the nuns have taken down the chain link fences, started a soup line, created a kids playground, and at the very end, the choir performed for the Pope. The people that they served in the community showed up in all of their jewelry, leathers, and raucous applause. Quit worrying about whether they change or not… maybe they aren’t the ones that need to. After all isn’t it God’s job to separate the goats from the sheep, the weeds from the grain?

Ps: I am a huge fan girl to both Whoopi Goldberg and Maggie Smith. ❤️❤️❤️ okay. I’m done. 😬😁

The Wisdom of Wilderness…a review

Last year I read over sixty books and of all those books, my favorite was read near the end of February.  Of course, I then read several others by the same author and enjoyed each of them.   In January of this year, I finished reading what will probably be my best read of 2019: The Wisdom of Wilderness, and I now have another book by the same author, Will and Spirit, on my “currently reading” pile.

Having read a couple of other books by Gerald May, I wanted to test the waters again, and again found a deep well of refreshing water.  The Wisdom of Wilderness: Experiencing the Healing Power of Nature, is the last book he wrote before his death in 2004.  In this compilation of his journals and synopsis of his encounters with nature, this gifted writer, invites you to join him on his journey as he explores nature and the nature of his inner world.  It isn’t just what he sees while he is spending some time outdoors…it is a courageous sharing of the depth of his fears, his grief, and his delight in the experiences he has as he is with/in nature.

He is a master story teller and shares his thoughts with humor and honesty, and from the perspective that he would soon die.  I highly recommend the book and the author.

Embrace the Mess

I have been a Christian, follower of Christ, for going on many years and the faith of my youth is very different from that of my current state. I appreciate the world I grew up in, but it was very much a bubble. A conservative, rosy bubble that hasn’t been popped from the reality of the outside coming in, but from my own finger poking the boundaries of my traditional teachings. Questions, so many questions have been asked by my brain when I see so many inconsistencies which has led to so much searching and quiet frustration, but it is that frustration and through that searching that I find the Christ that draws my spirit to his.

I found hope… help in a spiritual memoir that I just finished called, Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint, by Nadia Bolz-Webber. At first I read it as a way to check off one of my quarterly bucket list items, but then I realized that at the heart of this book is what I have believed for several years now: faith is messy and rarely lived honestly. That means me.

One of the things I wrestle with most, is the idea of God sitting on his holy throne waiting to forgive me for the sin I am obviously going to commit. It always feels like he is waiting for me to sin. Which, hello, human here! I do. But Nadia paints a picture that is not of a God far away on his throne, but of one that is right here redefining my identity.

“I need to clarify something, however. God’s grace is not defined as God being forgiving to us even though we sin. Grace is when God is a source of wholeness, which makes up for my failings. My failings hurt me and others and even the planet, and God’s grace to me is that my brokenness is not the final word. My selfishness is not the end-all… instead, it’s that God makes beautiful things out of even my own shit. Grace isn’t about God creating humans as flawed beings and then acting all hurt when we inevitably fail and then stepping in like the hero to grant us grace– like saying “Oh, it’s OK, I’ll be a good guy and forgive you.” It’s God saying, “I love the world too much to let your sin define you and be the final word. I am a God who makes all things new.” pg. 50

Life is hard. Life is messy. But I don’t think life is about staying clean– not spiritually speaking. I feel like I have been taught over and over again to stay clean, resist sin, don’t associate with the unclean unless you are going to save their eternally damned souls (not in those words per se, but you know…), and a step more, I have said/taught those things (but you know, not with those words per se). But that is so Us Vs. Them. Right vs. Wrong. You Vs. Me. But it does nothing for the soul. No transformation, no change takes place when we seperate ourselves from whoever “They” are. Because, I am them! We are they! It isn’t about you or them, my faith deals with Jesus, my poop, and my belief in ressurection.

“Ressurection never feels like being made clean and nice and pious in those Easter pictures. I would have never agreed to work for God if I had believed God was interested in trying to make me nice or even good. Instead, what I subconsiously knew, even back then, was that God was never about making me spiffy; God was about making me new.” pg. 174

Maybe faith is like sex, you know it is good if it is messy and honest.

Now, on to my next book, If You Ask Me (And of Course You Won’t), by Betty White.

Henri Nouwen and The Prodigal

About a year ago, my friend Mary Newkirk and I went through Henri Nouwen’s book, The Return of the Prodigal Son, A Story of Homecoming, together.  It is one of those books that I think is an essential read for everyone, whether you consider yourself a person of faith or not.  As a result of some of our discussion together, I wrote a poem (Forgiveness) and she wrote this review.  She is such a good writer, check out her blog: http://becominggodsbestme.blogspot.com/

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Ahhh, I have done it again. I have forgotten how to be “the father” in my relationships; I have forgotten how to “step over” the landmines of silly offenses that come my way…daily, it seems. Will I ever really become like the father in the familiar story that has grabbed my heart and attention anew? The millennia-old story that Jesus told of the prodigal son, the lost son…or sons, as Henri Nouwen determines, and we may overlook.  The story is in Luke, chapter 15. But for Henri Nouwen this parable came alive through the masterpiece of Rembrandt, named “The Return of the Prodigal Son”. And he wrote a book about how studying the painting and the artist impacted his life.

My friend Mary recommended this book, The Return of the Prodigal Son, A Story of Homecoming, a few years ago. (It seems much of what I read is a result of Mary’s recommendations, I’m so grateful!) This book seems to be one that, much like the Bible, whenever you read it, you find different “gems” that fit the circumstance of your life at that moment. I’ve read it at least three times, and each time I must underline different sections. I guess that’s how you know when you’ve found a valuable work.

On my most recent journey into this book, I was particularly impacted by the idea of the compassionate love of the father and what Nouwen thinks are the three components of this fatherly love: Grief, Forgiveness and Generosity. 

Grief in that it asks us to shed tears over the sins of the world, that they pierce our hearts as we realize the waywardness of God’s children. Nouwen says much of our praying is really grieving, over the sins of the world, but even more-so because of our innate recognition of the boundless divine love of our Father.

Forgiveness is the second characteristic of the compassionate love of the Father, the second quality we must strive for in becoming the father in our own story. It is the father in the parable of the lost son who shows us how to not only say we forgive, but to actually “step over” the offenses that come our way. The offenses especially hurt when they are lobbed at us by our closest loved ones. They are bound to hurt the worst, to linger the longest, to burn into our hearts and memories. I wonder if I will ever become the father in this respect? That “stepping over” is so difficult…because after all, it is all about me! How could they? Why would they? Why does no one appreciate me and treat me with the care and attention I deserve? Becoming the father in my relationships necessitates that I step over, climb over, those walls of offenses that potentially kill a compassionate heart, that call my loved ones home with unconditional love. Yes, this is the most difficult for me, to climb over and not keep looking back.

Generosity is the third component of the compassionate heart. It calls for giving without reserve…giving energy, time, money, attention…all of the things that really cost me something. It is giving as they go out, and giving as they come back “home”. I wonder if I will ever consistently, authentically be “the father”?

For Henri Nouwen, it was about a painting. For me it is about his book by the same name. For you it may be something else entirely. But I recommend this book as you journey through the stages, as we all do, of being the younger son, the elder son and hopefully on to the true calling of being the father of your story. We are all of these at different stages in our life and each time you pick up this book, you will recognize yourself, I guarantee it!

Mary Newkirk

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Thank you, Mary!