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.

He Descended into Hell: a book review

Suicide is a hard thing for us to talk about. Someone has died, the circumstance seems unnatural and we don’t know what to say. We feel the stigma and the sting. Personally, I haven’t been really close with anyone who died by suicide but I’ve seen from a distance, the way a suicide can wreck those left behind. I’ve seen people shoulder the grief, shame and anger of suicide after they lost a child, a friend, a pastor. It is hard to sit with them in their pain. Harder still to know what to say. Our pronounced platitudes, which really bring no comfort to grieving people anyway, come off as cruel and tone-deaf after someone has taken their own life.

bruised-and-woundedRonald Rolheiser has written a helpful little booklet, Bruised & Wounded: Struggling to Understand a SuicideRolheiser is a priest, renowned speaker and author of books on Christian spirituality. Here, he approaches the topic of suicide with grace and pastoral sensitivity. I generally would not advocate throwing a book at hurting people, but this is one that I think would be appropriate, welcome and helpful for those in the wake of losing someone they love to suicide.

There several features of this book which commend it. First, it is brief. It is a small book that fits in the palm of your hand and it is just 77 pages long (including table of contents and front matter). People grieving a suicide do not need a complicated theological treatise and this is not that. Second, Rolheiser is careful throughout this book to avoid victim blaming.  Often people react with anger and judgment on the suicidal for their selfishness in taking their own life. But Rolheiser observes:

Just as with physical cancer, the person dying of suicide is taken out of this life against his or her will. Death by suicide is the emotional equivalent of cancer, a stroke or a heart attack. Thus, its patterns are the same as those of cancer, strokes, and  heart attacks. Death can happen suddenly, or it can be the end product of a long struggle that slowly wears a person down. Either way it is involuntary. As human beings, we are neither pure angels nor pure animals, but we are always both body and soul, one psychosomatic whole. And either part can break down (10-11).

Later, he writes:

Many of us have known victims of suicide, and we know too, that in almost every case that person was not full of pride, haughtiness and the desire to hurt anyone. Generally, it’s the opposite. The victim has cancerous problems precisely because he or she is wounded, raw, and too bruised to have the resiliency needed to deal with life. Those who have lost loved ones to suicide know that  the problem is not one of strength but of weakness—the person is too bruised to be touched (20).

and again:

Suicide in most cases, is a disease, not something freely willed. The person dies in this way dies against his or her will, akin to those who jumped to their deaths from the Twin Towers after terrorist planes had set those buildings on fire on September 11, 2001. They were jumping to certain death,  but only because they were already burned to death where they were standing (28-29).

By framing suicide as emotional cancer destroying the person instead of as a self-centered volitional act to ends one’s life, Rolheiser doesn’t minimize the tragedy of suicide, but he does give the victim back to us. Their struggle can be honored and life celebrated.

Third, he doesn’t describe suicide, per se,  as ‘sin.’ So where the Catechism of the Catholic Church  says “‘suicide contradicts the natural inclination of the human being to preserve and perpetuate his life’ and is thus ‘gravely contrary to the just love of self'” (38), Rolheiser draws a distinction between the ordinary suicide —where a sensitive soul is “overpowered by the chaos of life”and the killing of oneself. by the “pathological narcissist acting in strength” to freely end their life (39). It is  the latter, that Rolheiser sees as condemned by the Church, though he notes that the victims of suicide he has known have been ‘the very antithesis of the egoist, the narcissist, or the strong, overproud person who congenitally refuses to take his or her place in the humble, broken structure of things” (39-40).

Fourth, Rolheiser emphasizes throughout the grace of God and the way Jesus comes to meet us in our alienation and brokenness. Reflecting on the line of the creed, He descended into hell, Rolheiser writes:

To say that Christ descended into hell is to, first and foremost say something about God’s love for us and how that love will go to any length, descend to any depth, and go through any barrier in order to embrace a wounded, huddled, frightened and bruised soul. By dying as he did, Jesus showed that he loves us in such a way that his love can penetrate even our private hells, going right through the barriers of hurt, anger, fear and hopelessness (14).

Rolheiser also gives the example of Jesus in John’s gospel, penetrating walls and locked doors to meet the grieving disciples (15). Speaking of one victim of suicide, Rolheiser writes:

I am sure that when the young woman . . .awoke on the other side, Jesus stood inside of her huddled fear and spoke to her, softly and gently, those same words he spoke to his disciples on that first Easter day when he went through the locked doors which they were huddled and said: “Peace be with you! Again, I say it, Peace be with you!” (16).

The book concludes with reflections on God’s prodigal, forgiving nature, his power to raise the dead, his understanding and trustworthiness (76-77).

Finally, this book is endorsed by Kay Warren and Marjorie Antus, both of whom lost a child to suicide and find comfort in Rolheiser’s prose. Rolheiser never diminishes the difficulty, anger, and grief of those left behind, but he does offer words of consolation and hope.

I’ve read other books on suicide and pastoral care for the suicidal (notably Albert Hsu’s Grieving a Suicide and Karen Mason’s Preventing a Suicide, both from IVP). This is the book I would recommend for those picking up the pieces at ground zero in the aftermath of a suicide. This is hopeful and gracious. I give this five stars –

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

 

Embodying Hope for Those in Pain: a ★★★★★ book review

There are a number of recent treatments on the problem of suffering. Christian writers and theologians have reflected on losing loved ones, trying circumstances, diagnoses of debilitating, chronic, and terminal diseases, and natural disasters. Many of these theologians seek to trace the place that suffering has within the purposes of God.  In Embodied Hope, Kelly Kapic offers his theological and pastoral meditation on pain, prompted by watching his wife battle chronic pain and fatigue for several years. He doesn’t guess at the ‘why’ behind suffering but describes the reality of pain, and the resources available to those of us who suffer.

5179Kapic is professor of theological studies at Covenant College (Lookout Mountain, Georgia) and an author of several books. He stands firmly in the Reformed tradition, but unlike some of his Calvinist friends, you won’t find him tweeting about ‘God’s greater purpose’ in the wake of profound tragedy. Embodied Hope doesn’t attempt a theodicy—a defense of God in the face of evil’s existence. His first chapter opens, “This book will make no attempt to defend God. I will not try to justify God or explain away the physical suffering in the world. Instead, I wrestle with nagging questions about our lives, our purpose, and our struggles. How should we live in the midst of this pain-soaked world? How do we relate to the God whose world this is?” (7-8).

In the pages that follow, Kapic examines the reality of pain, wrestling honestly with the experience (part 1), before examining the resources we have in the midst of suffering: Jesus (part two) and Christian community (part 3).

In part 1, Kapic takes an honest look at the problem of pain, describing its debilitating effect on our spirituality. In chapter one Kapic notes how the problem of pain causes us to ‘think hard things about God.’ In chapter two, he discusses the need for Christians to develop both pastoral sensitivity and theological instincts (24), by not attempting to untangle the ‘why’ behind suffering but instead seeking to love others well, even in our theologizing (26). In chapter three, Kapic advocates the place of lament and grief in Christian spirituality. He notes:

We will only discover hope when we are ruthlessly honest about what lies between us and that hope. At least such truth telling is required if we are ever to know the true hope of the ancient Christian confession. The church denies the power of the gospel when it trivializes grief and belittles physical pain, overspiritualizing our existence in such a way as to make a mockery of the Creator Lord. Faithfulness to the gospel requires the Christian community to deal with the messiness of human grief. Biblical faith is not meant to provide an escape from physical pain or to belittle the darkness of depression and death but rather invite us to discover hope amid our struggle (41).

Chapters five and six invite us to a spirituality that embraces our physical embodiment and the ‘questions that come with pain.

In part 2, Kapic describes the resources available in Christ Jesus for Christians suffering and in pain. Chapter six discusses how Jesus’ incarnation involved God’s self-identification with us in our embodiment. In chapter seven, Kapic explains how Christ on the cross, entered fully with us, into the experience of pain and death. In chapter eight, Kapic explores how we enter into Christ’s resurrection and the hope of redemption beyond our pain and death. Kapic writes, “Christian affirmation of resurrection is not chiefly about escaping this world but righting it. Resurrection is not about denying this world but rather enabling believers to have an honest assessment of their experience and yet to have a real hope for restoration beyond it. Pain is real, but it is not the only reality” (115).

Part 3 describes the resources available for sufferers within Christian community. In chapter nine, Kapic discusses, through the lens of Soren Kierkegaard and Martin Luther, the ways fellow Christians enliven our faith when we are in a weakened state, proclaim hope to us when we are unable to proclaim hope for ourselves, and demonstrates to us the matrix of divine love by walking alongside us in our pain and suffering. Chapter ten reflects (with Dietrich Bonhoeffer) on the resources of confession for those who suffer (e.g. forgiveness, cleansing, healing, restoration, release from shame and condemnation and false images of God that compound psychological suffering, and mediating Christ’s presence). Chapter eleven describes faithfulness in the midst of suffering.

Kapic offers these reflections as a gift to the church. Pastors, pastoral counselors and all who walk along side Christians in pain, will find Kapic’s counsel to be both wise and sensitive. He avoids clichés and offers an embodied hope to those suffering. I appreciate the way he wrestles with the reality of pain and takes an honest look at it. He honors those who are suffering by describing with sensitivity the difficulties they face, but also acknowledges how destructive pain may be for their spiritual lives:

Christians struggling with physical pain often develop defense mechanisms that are destructive in the long run. Denial, for example, can take many forms, like the cultivation of detachment from pain. By deadening their affections and repressing their frustrations, some seek to carve out an inhabitable and safe place. Not only is this strategy partly successful, but the colors of life soon dissolve into the blandness of grays and whites. . . .Although the one who closes off the pain this way may not literally lie in the grave, those who know them whisper concerns about how ‘dead’ they have become (58).

It is only after describing the dangers and realities implicit in pain, and encouraging sufferers to examine themselves honestly, that he describes the embodied hope we have in the midst of pain: the Jesus who took on flesh, suffered, died, rose and ascended and the body of Christ which mediates His presence today.

This book will be a helpful aid for pastors, sufferers of chronic illness and for their supportive community. I recommend this book highly. Five stars: ★★★★★

Notice of material connection: I received this book from IVP Academic in exchange for my honest review

Open Heart Surgery to Open Heart Life: a book review

Struck is Russ Ramsey’s story of his brush with death. He was struck with a bacterial infection which destroyed his mitral valve, the heart valve which prevents backflow in the left ventricle of the heart. He required open-heart surgery and gained a new perspective through his struggle with sickness, depression, chemical addiction to painkillers, a brush with death and his recovery.  As a father of four, pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church in Nashville and author he reflects on how his brush with mortality affected his family and his faith.

4494Ramsey’s story unfolds in four acts. Part one describes the affliction, his diagnosis, operation and first month of treatment. Part two, Recovery, explores month 2-5, the early days of recovery, depression, and rehabilitation. Part three, Lament (months 6-22) describes Ramsey’s movement back into the ministry of soul care, with fresh insights and empathy from his own struggle. Part 4, Doxology,  shows death and suffering swallowed up in hope and praise, as Ramsey looks ahead to life and resurrection. An afterward, written by Lisa Ramsey, Russ Ramsey’s wife, tells of her journey as she stood by her husband in sickness, diagnosis, surgery, and recovery. There are ways in which her afterward is my favorite part of the book because she refuses to make a ‘life lesson’ out of her husband’s infirmity. She marks the time as significant and is grateful for the ways God sustained them. It is enough.

I love memoirs because they open up the reality of another’s experience. I appreciate Ramsey’s sometimes raw honesty and the way his diagnosis enabled him to forge deep friendships with and offer hope to co-strugglers (like Barbara, a woman he and his wife knew dying of cancer). There is no sentimentality here. There is pain, grief, depression, loss and sadness. There is also an enduring faith. Ramsey opens up about the depths of his experience. He underwent open heart surgery and learned to live open-heartedly.  I give this book four stars.

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

Can We Get More Resurrection?

Yesterday we celebrated Easter, the day the resurrected Jesus broke forth from the tomb and broke the power of sin and death. If the Lenten season was about walking with Jesus the road to Calvary, the Christian life is about coming out the other end. We proclaim with the Apostle Paul, “Death has been swallowed up in victory. Where, O death, is your victory?  Where, O death, is your sting?” (1 Cor 15:54-55).  And yet . . .

And yet death still stings.  We feel it as we age, time decays and slows our pace. We feel it in the face of a troubling diagnosis or when we have to have our cat put down on Good-Friday morning. We feel its sting when we grieve the loss of a family member or close friend. Where O death is your sting? You don’t have to tell us. We feel it.

And yet death still looks pretty victorious. It still claims us all. We don’t need to look beyond last week’s news cycle to see the threat of death that looms over our heads. The Cleveland broadcast killer, Palm Sunday Massacres, Bombs dropped, another youth gunned down by police in Fresno, executions lined up for this week in Arkansas, and 45’s threat and show of strength against North Korea. Where O death, is your victory? Ubiquitous and persistent, we see death everywhere.

I know everything changed Easter morning. Death died and when love stronger than death broke its hold on our souls. We have hope because of Jesus’ resurrection and we await our own. Still, can we get a little more resurrection? We could really use it.

Z is for Zarathustra (an alphabet for penitents)

When Zarathustra was alone, however, he said to his heart: “Could it be possible! This old saint in the forest hath not yet heard of it, that GOD IS DEAD!” (Thus Spake Zarathustra, 3)
“DEAD ARE ALL THE GODS: NOW DO WE DESIRE THE SUPERMAN TO LIVE.”—Let this be our final will at the great noontide!— Thus spake Zarathustra.
Z. We’ve reached the end.  A journey that began with ash, a reminder of our mortality, ends in the death of God. When Jesus had died, about the middle of the afternoon, they took his limp body off the cross and laid his body in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea (Matthew 27:57–61).
The gospel writers are silent about the events of Holy Saturday and the emotional state of the disciples. Certainly, they were raw with grief and carried shame for deserting and denying their Master—the man they had invested three years of their life following. They likely didn’t visit the Temple on that Sabbath. It is difficult enough to pray and share space with other worshippers while in the midst of grief (who wants to sing happy-clappy songs of God’s deliverance when you are hurting?). It is all the harder when we consider that they believed Jesus would be God’s deliverer and they mulled over his strange sayings about how he embodied the Father (John 14:9-10). Now Jesus was dead.  My guess is that they holed up in the same room we find them on Sunday morning.
Zarathustra was the ancient, Iranian founder of Zoroastrianism. A man by the same name is Fredrick Nietzche’s mouthpiece in Thus Spake Zarathustra. 19th-century philosophers, like 19th-century novelists, could seldom write anything without preaching at their readers.  Zarathustra is Nietzche’s  preacher and the populizer of the phrase, “God is dead” (along with the madman in Nietzche’s The Gay Science). He preaches a new way of being in the world, freed from the confines of religious belief in a god. Kathleen Higgins suggests that:
“Nietzche’s basic goal in Zarathustra is to explore the question of the meaning of individual life. . . .The perspective that renders life meaningful is the tragic perspective, Nietzche contends. The tragic perspective does not denigrate individual life by urging the individual to associate meaning with notions of survival or perfect contentment. Instead it finds individual life to be meaningful in the way that art is meaningful—meaning emerges from the artist’s arrangement of limited material (“Reading Zarathustra” in Reading Nietzche, OUP, 1988, p146).
Nietzche has his fans, especially among athiests, philosophers and the children of Christian fundamentalists in teenage rebellion. Christian apologists love to quote Nietzche and use him as a foil for theism. But if truth is contextual, then today of all days we say with Nietzche and Zarathustra, “Gott ist tot.” God is dead.
Can we inhabit this space? The disciples are hiding out, wrecked with grief. Their religious illusions, beliefs about God, and hopes for a Messiah were dashed on the previous day. We may not, with Zarathustra, do away with God and put our faith in our own human potential. But the prophet and the madman understood the death of God has far reaching consequences. How now shall we live?