Blog Posts

The Old Woman Waits: Advent Week 1

Paula Gunn Allen’s poem C’Koy’u Old, Woman describes waiting:

old woman there in the earth/ outside you we wait/ do you dream of birth, bring/ what is outside, inside? old/ woman inside/ old/ woman outside/old woman there in the sky/ we are waiting inside you/ dreaming your dream of birthing/ get what is inside/outside” (Skins and Bones: Poems 1979-87, West  End Press, 1988). 

Allen had in mind the sacred feminine, which underpinned her Native American, and feminist spirituality. Highly critical of colonial Christendom much of Allen’s work was aimed at recovering the place of the feminine in Native American Traditions, believing that western beliefs in patriarchy blinded them to significance of women in Native religion and culture. But the waiting and longing in her words bring me to Advent. I am reminded of Elizabeth, the old woman who had given up dreaming of birth, finding herself pregnant in her old age. She would give birth to John, the forerunner who would prepare the way for the coming of the promised Messiah

And I am reminded of Paul’s words in Romans:

For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen?” (Romans 8:19–24, NRSV)

Advent is the season of waiting, not just for a boy wrapped in swaddling clothes who was laid in a manger, but for this Old Woman Creation who groans and longs for the Kingdom of God to come to fruition in our midst, who longs to be free from bondage and decay but fulfill her divine purposes.

  Jesus’ advent is not just a backwards glance at a historic event  but a cosmic hope that all that is wrong with the world will one day be put right.

The Gospel reading for today  (Advent 1C) hints at this cosmic scope:

There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

(Luke 22:25-29).

Today begins a season of hope, of  longing, and of waiting. Waiting not just for us, but for this old woman who dreams of birth and longs for the day: New Creation. 

Brother John: a book review

A few years ago, I read one of those genre-busting books by this guy I never heard of. It was called Business Secrets of the Trappist Monks by August Turak. Turak took the wisdom of the monks of Mepkin Abbey in Raliegh, North Carolina and applied their insights to business. I enjoyed the book, and I even reviewed it here. The book was unique enough that it stayed with me, though I have to admit, I forgot the author’s name.  

Brother John

Imagine my surprise when I discovered that my latest genre-busting read about monks, was actually by the same guy and set in the same monastery. This time it wasn’t a business book, it was a picture book, called Brother John. It was written for adults but nothing suggestive( not that kind of picture book). In it, Turak describes his time on a Christmas retreat at the Mepkin Abbey, and how the particular witness of a monk-saint called Brother John stoked Turak’s spiritual hunger and helped reveal to Turak his life’s purpose. 

This book is two decades in the making. The events described in the text happened over twenty years ago (1996). In 2004, wrote of his experience at the monastery for an essay contest on “the purpose of life” from the John Templeton Foundation. The essay won him the coveted Templeton Prize. Turak was able to turn this same essay into a picture book by enlisting award-winning artist, Glenn Harrington to illustrate it. Harrington provides over twenty full-color paintings of the Monks and Mepkin Abbey.  

The book describes Turak’s encounter with a holy life, revealed to him, first by a selfless act, Brother John walking him back to his cottage in the rain. But this small act opened up space for Turak to examine the condition of his own heart and his hunger for the holy.  

This is a quick read (it’s a picture book) but thoughtful and evocative. The art is stunning. I love the way the book communicates a sense of the sacred. It is set in a monastery, and the monks are located in the Christian tradition, though Turak writes broadly and inclusively enough that all spiritual seekers could find themselves in these words. I give this four stars. 

Notice of material connection: I received this book from the author or publisher via SpeakEasy for my honest review. 

Watch a Trailer for the book. 

Interview with David Bannon, author of Wounded in Spirit

I posted a (p)review and giveaway of Wounded In Spirit: Advent Art and Meditations early this week, and congratulations to the three winners:

  1. L. Jackson
  2. Melanie Turner
  3. Diane Roth

I hope you find reading this book meaningful and receive a measure of comfort in the coming season!

David Bannon was gracious enough to answer a few questions about his new book via email. Here are his responses:

The season of Advent is both a season of hope and joy and one which touches our pains and longings. How do you think Advent makes space for those of us who are hurting and grieving?

We live in a society that has a tragic “get on with it, get over it” attitude toward grief.  Yet Advent teaches us a different lesson: the importance of accepting our sorrow exactly as it is each moment; the validity of our yearning and pain; the communion of placing our grief in a God who mourns with us; the unexpected consolation of light coming into darkness despite all reason. For those who know loss, our joy is tinged with sorrow. I think of Anna in the Gospel of Luke. A widow of many years, Anna surely felt the weight of loneliness and heartbreak: her gratitude at the sight of Jesus in the temple was hard-earned. In the same book, Simeon concluded his celebratory hymn with a realistic word for Mary: “And a sword will pierce your own soul too.”  In our grief during Advent, we seek rare moments of peace, an assurance that our hope is not ill-founded, and to know that we are not alone.

Bartolome Estaban Murillo, Holy Family with a Bird, c. 1650
Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

You lost your only child. In what ways do you find this season hard? What brings you joy in the midst of sorrow?

We all find ways to make peace with our loss.  I  pray for one happy memory each day. Another bereaved parent wrote that she made it a daily goal to find one thing for which to be thankful.  This is not a glib “positive attitude” antidote. Rather, it may well be a prescription for survival.  I am reminded of William-Adolphe Bouguereau.  He lost his wife and four of his five children yet the majority of his work is deeply joyful.  We sense in his paintings an assurance of peace.  His religious pieces, however, are steeped in profound sorrow.  Modern research tells us that Bouguereau’s persistent grief was normal; that the continuing bond he felt with his loved ones is healthy and to be expected.  He did not deny his mourning, he expressed it, just as he expressed the moments of joy he found in each day.  This is typical of bereaved parents.  We experience life as we live it, rejoicing in each happy memory, pausing over the simplest pleasures with gratitude.  Sorrow will return unbidden, it is inevitable. We are changed. Our souls have taken harm. It is in this harm that I experience the silence of God; it is in His silence that I find true peace.

William-Adolphe Bouguereau, The First Mourning, 1888
Image source:  Wikimedia Commons

The art chosen for your book is beautiful and I love hearing snippets of the artist’s stories. You speak of these artists as providing for you a ‘communion of grief.’ Are there pieces that particularly resonate with you?

William-Adolphe Bouguereau, Jeanne, 1888
Image source:  Wikimedia Commons

William-Adolphe Bouguereau waited some twenty years after his daughter’s death to paint her portrait, Jeanne.  In it, we sense his longing, tears, joy, memory, and hope. Bartolomé Esteban Murillo and Karl Thylmann have vastly different stories: Murillo was orphaned and found peace in creating a family of his own; Thylmann was color blind yet found a way to give us stark, incisive religious imagery that lives on today. The self-portraits of one of the great masters, Jean-Siméon Chardin, reflect brutal honesty.  Before his son took his own life, Chardin’sportraits were robust, energetic, intriguing. After his son’s death, Chardin described his inconsolable grief and regret in Self-portrait Wearing Glasses. Today the work holds pride of place in the Louvre.  We who have experienced loss recognize that look in Chardin’s eyes: ineffable yet wholly and completely known to those who mourn. 

Jean-Baptiste Simeon Chardin, Self Portrait Wearing Glasses, 1775
Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

The artists you chose name the darkness, but some also experienced peace and light. Others were haunted by hard circumstance and accepted no easy answers. There is a quite a variety. How did you decide which artists to include in this devotional?

In their religious work, great artists expressed the truth of their wounds. I am reminded of French historian Marc Bloch’s injunction: “When all is said and done, a single word, ‘understanding,’ is the beacon light of our studies. . . . ‘Understanding,’in all honesty, is a word pregnant with difficulties, but also with hope. Moreover, it is a friendly word.” I selected artists whose lives speak to me, that gives me pause, that resonates with recognition and communion. In the end, I chose those artists for whom I felt a surprising friendliness.  

How has writing this book affected you? How have you experienced God’s healing in the midst of this project?

Bereaved parents who have contracted cancer, or lost a limb, report that losing a child was far more difficult. The loss defies comparison. We rarely tell an amputee that he lacks faith: that if he only believes his leg will grow back.  To say such a thing would be thoughtless and unrealistic.  The death of a child is permanent. Our wounds will be healed the moment we hold our children in our arms again.  In the here and now, our healing is to make peace with that.  I believe that God hears us in our grief.  In communion, we may find meaning and reasons to go on.

What is your hope for those who readWounded in Spirit?

Our wounds are our own. No one can understand our individual grief yet surely many of us travel the same dark paths, stumbling and crawling through the same shadowed valley.  Somewhere in this book, there may be a hurt, an artist, a painting or a bit of grief research that resonates with us, that makes us think: “Oh yeah, I know how that feels.”  These artists were broken and wounded, as many of us are, yet they found ways to speak to us across the centuries, to assure us that we are not alone. 

__________

Marc Bloch, The Historian’s Craft, trans. Peter Putnam (Manchester University Press, 1954): 118.

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You can order Wounded in Spirit from:

Wounded In Spirit: an Advent Devotional (p)review and GIVEAWAY!!!

The secular and liturgical calendars nearly converge this year, so whether you mark the start of Advent with those calendars of chalky, cheap chocolate from your local supermarket, or through participation in Sunday worship, the season begins this weekend. During Advent I always look for a devotional to read through, as I attempt to wait well. Friends at Paraclete Press were nice enough to share with me Wounded in Spirit: Advent Art and Meditations, a new devotional by David Bannon. Bannon combines reflections on grief, hope, wounds and waiting with beautiful works of art. It is an exquisite book!

9781640601451But Advent is the season of waiting. To wait is to note that things are not yet as they should be. And so, this is a difficult season for a lot of us. For all the promise of holiday cheer, these are long dark nights, often touched by heartache, loneliness, estrangement, deep wounds, and mourning. Bannon is no stranger to grief and heartache. In 2006 he was convicted for criminal impersonation. In 2015 his daughter died of a heroin overdose (introduction, XVI).  He know what it means to be broken and bereaved, to long for wholeness, healing and the coming of God’s shalom. He doesn’t speak explicitly about his own story in these meditations. He focuses instead on the stories of the artists—their stories, wounds and the works they produced.

The art in this book is varied in style, though exclusively Western European,ranging from the Renaissance era to about mid 20th Century. There are works by celebrated artists like Gauguin, Tissot, Caravaggio, Tanner, Delacroix, Van Gogh and Dürer, as well as notable pieces from artists with less household name recognition. Bannon describes the artist’s life, and the ways their wounds bleed onto the canvas. He invites us to stop and pay attention, to really see the artist and their work, to experience healing and perchance commune. Each daily meditation includes quotations for reflection from notable artists, writers, philosophers or theologians.

Art is something that has been healing for me on my own spiritual journey so I am looking forward to sitting with these artists and their work. I have not read the whole book yet, just introduction and several entries, though Bannon appears to be a good guide.

Waiting is painful. Things are not yet as they should be. But waiting doesn’t have to be dull and dreary, it can be a sensory experience, a time of entering more fully into Life. A time to grieve, yes, but joy comes in the morning.

Paraclete Press, has graciously allowed me to run a giveaway on my blog of 3 copies of the book? Yeah, James, but how can I win? 

There are 2 ways to enter:

  1. Comment below and tell me what do you find most difficult about this time of year.
  2. Share this giveaway on Social Media by hitting the share button below, Be sure to comment and share the link in the comment section, so I see your entry!

Winners will be chosen Thursday, 11/29 at 9pm Pacific Time.

Becoming a Friend: A ★★★★★ Book Review

The Catholic Church doesn’t start the canonization process until after a person dies, but if there were applications for living saints, Jean Vanier would be top of the list. He is the founder of L’Arche, a network of intentional communities providing hospitality and care for those with developmental disabilities. He resides in the original L’Arche community in Trosly-Breuil, France, where he has lived with people with disabilities for the past fifty-three years, regarded them as his teacher. The author of more than 30 books, Vanier’s gift to the church (and to me) is in imparting a vision of ministry that is inclusive of those margins, without being paternalistic. L’Arche is not a charity in the sense that they ‘do for the disabled’ but a community of welcome where those with disabilities, and those who are able, find themselves bound together in friendship and community.

9781640600966We Need Each Other: Responding to God’s Call to Live Together is vintage Vanier. The text of this book is drawn from talks Vanier gave at a retreat he led in 2008 for the community of Saint Martin in Nyahururu, Kenya (a community especially devoted to responding to Kenya’s HIV crisis). Vanier brings together scriptural reflections—especially on the life of Jesus— personal remembrances, and hard-won-wisdom on what it means to follow Jesus in being a friend to the poor and marginalized, facing our own fears and disabilities, and becoming more open toward the other.

The book is short but not what I’d call a quick read. It is only 138 pages and not overly complicated, but  I found myself reading and re-reading, reading slowly,  mulling over words and phrases, and underlining whole paragraphs. I will resist my urge to quote the whole book here, but here a few passages I found meaningful. The first passage discusses what it means to become friends with the poor, instead of just serving them from a place of privilege:

I can be generous:  I can volunteer to help someone living in an institution, or I can go into a slum area and listen to the people, or give them money. However, when I am generous, I hold the power. In my generosity, I give good things when I want. The initiative is mine. When I extend my generosity to you, I become superior. The equation changes, however when I become your friend. The generosity becomes a meeting point for the two of us, and the journey of friendship begins, When I become your friend, I become vulnerable with you. I listen to your story; I hear how much you have suffered: and you listen to my story. In some mysterious way, friendship is the beginning of a covenant whereby we are all tied to each other. You have to know that once you become a friend of someone with disabilities, much of your life begins to change (54-55).

On Spiritual growth:

If you read any books on the saints, you will discover that as one grows in spirituality, one feels less and less perfect. So, if you are feeling less and less perfect, it means you are getting closer to God! Those in religious life, when they entered the novitiate, had wings. After that, the wings were clipped and they began living in community, a life they found painful (65).

On the preferential option for the poor:

Those who are the most rejected must be respected. It is not a question of a preferential option for the poor. It is the fact that the Church is constitutioned by the presence of the poor. The poor are indispensable to the Church, because in their cry for recognition, in their cry for relationships, they are awakening the hearts of those who are seemingly rich in knowledge, wealth, or security (72).

On vocation and calling:

Sometimes I am a bit concerned when we talk of vocations, making reference only to the priesthood or religious life for sisters. I believe in the priesthood and I believe in religious life, but I also believe in the vocations of people with disabilities. I believe in the vocation of hearts filled with love of people like Maimanu and Dorothy and many others. We each have a vocation. We are all called by God to grow in love and be a sign of tenderness to the world. Our vulnerable Jesus is calling us to grow in love (118).

Sometimes people speak romanticly about ‘the poor, the widowed, the orphaned, the disabled.’ Vanier has dedicated a lifetime to sharing life with the disabled in L’Arche and knows how difficult the journey can be. But he also knows the gift of love when we are open enough to share our lives with others. When he describes those with disabilities whom he calls friends, he describes what they have revealed about his own poverty of spirit and disability and ways they have spurred him on to greater love and humility. I highly recommend this book. I give it five stars – ★★★★★

Notice of material connection: Paraclete Press provided me with a copy of this book. I was not asked to write a positive review.

Getting Your Finances in Order: a book review.

I wish I was better at managing my finances better than I am. I have too many months living month-to-month. So I was excited to review Emily Stroud’s Faithful Finance: 10 Secrets to Move from Fearful Insecurity to Confident Control. The book delivers in giving “10 secrets” to living into greater financial security, though many of these are pretty 9780310349785common sense. Her 10 secrets are each based on biblical principles, and insight from role as a financial advisor:

1. The faithful seek out wise counsel (seek advice from those who manage money well).

2. Create a budget and build up a cash reserve.

3. The faithful give generously and prayerfully.

 4. The faithful manage debt carefully.

5. The faithful make a savings plan.

6. The faithful insure themselves against disaster.

7. The faithful invest wisely in real-estate.

8. The faithful invest for retirement.

9. The faithful save for college.

10. The faithful create an estate plan.

There is a lot to commend on this, and as someone with more month than Monday, much of the year, I would be wise to budget better, live with in my means, build up a reserve and save for stuff that matters. I also appreciate that she puts a strong emphasis on giving generously and sacrificially (I don’t think enough Christian books about managing money emphasize this). Furthermore, she does believe that some debt is good (e.g. a mortgage which gives you equity and student loans which enables you to go to school and increase your earning potential). There are some very good things here.

However this book is a little self-help guru-ish for my tastes. Stroud’s face is across the front cover. When a living author (or publisher) feels the need to do this, you know that a big part of what they are doing is selling you themselves. They want you to know that they are the expert, and someone worth listening to. Think Dave Ramsey and Dr. Phil. Who else actually does this? Brian Tracy? Tony Robbins? People with there own cooking shows. I know, don’t judge a book by it’s cover, and all that. But it feels a little like we’re being asked to.

But as I said, the advice is not bad, more principles for living better with money, with a budget plan, financial advice and checklists of good ideas. Perhaps more helpful if you are starting from zero than if you are starting from a negative balance. On the whole , pretty good. I give it 3 stars. ★★

Notice of material connection: I received a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

 

 

 

Give Yourself the Gift(s) of Self-Care: a book review

 

“In an emergency situation, putting on your own oxygen mask first allows you to breathe and think clearly enough to help someone else” (April Yamasaki, Four GiftsHerald Press, 2018, 30).

Far from being ‘selfish,’ appropriate self-care is necessary if we are to become people who flourish and can ably care for those around us. Still, with the demands of life, work, family, ministry, etc., we don’t always take care of ourselves. Furthermore, we wonder what self-care looks like for followers of Jesus called to deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow Him. April Yamasaki describes a holistic approach to self-care in Four GiftsUtilizing the terms, “heart,” “soul,” “mind” and “strength”—words we most often associate with the love of God in Jesus’s version of the Shema (Mark 12:30). She describes what it means for us to care for total well-being, our spiritual well-being, our mental well-being, and our physical well-being.

9781513803340-330x495April Yamasaki is an Asian-Canadian Mennonite Pastor, speaker, and author. She is a fellow alumnus of Regent College, in Vancouver, Canada, though our time there did not overlap. I first became aware of her through her blog (www.aprilyamasaki.com) and occasional interactions on my blog and on social media. She is also a member and contributor of the Redbud Writers Guild (a collective of women faith writers online), whose previous book, Everbloom(Paraclete Press, 2017).  I reviewed, which Yamasaki contributed to. I’ve known her to be a wise and gracious presence online, and she has encouraged me on my own faith journey.

Heart, Soul, Mind, and Strength are the organizational motif and so the book divides naturally into these four sections. In the “Heart” section, Yamasaki describes our care for our total well-being. She instructs us to review our core commitments, establish appropriate boundaries, cultivate a community which will sustain us, and invest in relationships. In the “Soul” section she explores what it means to care for our spirits, through devotional practices, Sabbath, lament, and self-discipline. In the “Mind” section she details how to mind our focus, our digital worlds, our mental health, and what it means to renew our mind. In the “Strength” section she surveys ways to care for our physical well-being (e.g. exercise, healthy sleep habits, and good food choices).

This is the sort of book that straddles the line between being a book about spiritual disciplines and being a “self-help” book. My standing critique of both genres is how individualistic their advice often is. However, Yamasaki tempers her personal advice by highlighting the context of community, as part of appropriate self-care.  In chapter 3, she uses the story of Jethro’s counsel to Moses and the Early Church’s appointment of deacons to properly care for widows(Exodus 18, Acts 6) to illustrate both our need  for other people’s support if we are to thrive, and to illustrate how appropriate self-care means we sometimes need to challenge systems and structures that are destructive of our personhood:

As in the time of Moses and in the early church, we need social and structural change. We may not have the power of Moses to singlehandedly change the system, or the collective power of the twelve apostles to restructure a community. But we need the practical wisdom of Jethro and the openness of Moses to listen. We need the nondefensive posture and the willingness to act that was shown by the early leaders of the church. We need good questions, sustained engagement, ongoing action, and vigorous prayer (54-55).

By including the notion of systemic change in her notion of community, Yamasaki makes self-care as being so much more than self-indulgence but instead sees it as a step toward the work of social change.

Dismantling racism and sexism, ending poverty, and addressing other social ills requires ongoing work, determination, prayer, and yes, self-care. We need self-care that genuinely cares for ourselves and our deepest needs without isolating us from the needs of others. We need self-care that refreshes and validates us for our work in the world without it becoming our permanent destination. We need self-care that can both comfort us when the way is hard and empower us to live with compassion and perseverance (55).

Also, her including space for lament in self-care lends itself to the work of justice in the world beyond ourselves. By attending to the areas of hurt, grief, and brokenness in u,s we can move forward and channel our lament into seeking change.  We are motivated to “cry out for justice. Challenge the status quo. Find allies, and consult with professional advisers as needed” (102). This is a refreshing movement in a book about self-care!

But one of the things that I really liked about Yamasaki’s book was the overall graciousness of her tone. A ‘self-help’ book would tell you what you are supposed to do. A self-care book like this one doesn’t prescribe so much as cultivate our awareness of what we need to attend to, to best care for our well-being. Yamasaki offers no hard-and-fast rules. She describes self-care in her introduction:

For me, self-care has been a deep breath and sacred pause, a meandering walk along the waterfront, the New York Times crossword on a Sunday afternoon, a dish of stir-fried rice with greens and almonds after too many days of dairy products have made me feel tired and weighed down.

Self-care means taking all my vacation days even through 43 percent of my fellow working Canadians don’t take all of theirs. It means keeping an off-and-on journal, with page after page of random thoughts, poems, and prayers when the mood strikes—and page after page of blanks when it doesn’t. Self-care as journaling and not-journaling means I’m free to write or doodle or ignore the empty pages at any time. (16).

Yamasaki’s understanding of self-care as being gracious with herself is what hooked me from the start. And she allows space for each of us to appropriate whatever we may need in her discussion of self-care. For example, her chapter on relationships ends with this encouragement, “If working at relationships sounds too busy to be self-care, give yourself permission to take a sacred pause. Rest in the knowledge that God is with you” (67). She also notes that little indulgences (e.g. a Netflix binge, within limits, a night of fast food, comfort food, etc) may be exactly what constitutes self-care. This is not The Seven Habits of the Anal Retentive Soul. This is a book designed to help us care for ourselves in the midst of the demands of life.

And Yamasaki’s life is in these pages. She describes medical and vocational worries in her family life and how she learned to care for herself. I heartedly recommend this book -★★★★★

Notice of material connection: I received a copy of this book from the author and publisher as part of the book launch team, in exchange for my honest review.