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Posts Tagged ‘doubt’

tidelands book mug bowl breakfast table

I’m surfacing from a sea of boxes in my new apartment, many of which (not surprisingly) contain books. Here are the ones I’ve been reading, when I can find them:

The Guest Book, Sarah Blake
For three generations, the Miltons have spent summers on their island off the coast of Maine. As Evie Milton – granddaughter, history professor – and her cousins face the reality of keeping or selling the island, long-held family secrets start to emerge. I loved Blake’s previous novel, The Postmistress. This one started slowly, but once I met Joan (Evie’s mother) and the two men (one black, one Jewish) who would upset her carefully ordered world, it took off. Gorgeous and thought-provoking.

Tidelands, Philippa Gregory
I’ve heard about Gregory’s historical novels for years, but never picked one up before. This one (first in a new series) follows Alinor, a wise woman living on England’s south coast during the English Civil War. When a priest who is also a royalist spy shows up at her cottage one night, she agrees to hide him, setting in motion a chain of events she could never have foreseen. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Aug. 20).

The Key to Happily Ever After, Tif Marcelo
This was an impulse grab at the library, and the perfect lighthearted book for the pre-move craziness. Three Filipina-American sisters take ownership of their parents’ D.C. wedding planning business, Rings & Roses. Personality clashes ensue, as well as outside challenges for all three sisters, and maybe a little romance. Fresh and fun.

The Frame-Up, Meghan Scott Molin
Another impulse library grab (God bless the BPL). MG is a comic-book geek and writer (the only female in an office full of male nerds). When a local criminal starts imitating one of her favorite comic characters, a non-geeky (but irritatingly handsome) detective asks her to consult. Cue car chases, double agents and so many references to various fandoms. A well-plotted mystery and a smart-mouthed, badass main character. Loved it.

Kopp Sisters on the March, Amy Stewart
Constance Kopp is depressed after being fired from her job as deputy sheriff. She and her two sisters head to a National Service School, which purports to train American women for war work as things heat up in Europe. Not surprisingly, Constance finds herself acting as camp matron, while Norma shows off her trained pigeons and Fleurette tries to organize camp theatricals. Less of a mystery plot than Stewart’s previous novels, but highly enjoyable. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Sept. 17).

Unfollow: A Memoir of Loving and Leaving the Westboro Baptist Church, Megan Phelps-Roper
Megan Phelps-Roper grew up as a cherished daughter of Topeka’s notorious Westboro Baptist Church – she joined her first picket line at age 5. But as a twentysomething, she began to question her family’s increasingly hate-filled actions and the church’s need for absolute control of its members. This memoir is a powerful, thoughtful account of her journey toward a different understanding of the world. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Oct. 8).

On the Come Up, Angie Thomas
I loved (and was heartbroken by) Thomas’ debut, The Hate U Give, so had been waiting for this one. Bri is an aspiring teen rapper who’s struggling with family problems and her own insecurities, plus confusion over boys. I found her frustrating, especially at first, but really liked the second half of the book. As in The Hate U Give, I loved the supportive (and struggling) adults in Bri’s life – we don’t get that in so many YA novels.

Most links (not affiliate links) are to my favorite local bookstore, Brookline Booksmith.

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Rachel held Evans headshot

Like many people I know, online and off, I’ve spent the past week beginning to mourn Rachel Held Evans‘ death.

Rachel came across my radar nearly a decade ago, just before she released her first book, Evolving in Monkey Town. She was already writing online about faith in a way I’d rarely seen before: asking hard questions, wrestling with the tenets of the Christianity she’d grown up with and the layers of (often frustrating) evangelical messages attached to it.

After a warm email exchange, Rachel sent me an advance copy of Monkey Town. I read it avidly and found myself nodding at almost every page. Our experiences, as women raised in southern evangelical churches around the same time, were strikingly similar, and she rendered hers so well.

I kept reading Rachel’s blog, sometimes tweeting about her work or to/with her, for years afterward. I watched her grow bolder and more powerful in calling out the abuses of power (and abuse of many other kinds) perpetrated by churches and church leaders. She had the energy for the kind of online engagement I often shrink from, but I was (am) in awe of her voice and the way she used it. She wrote three other books, all of which I read and found well worth reading. She was no plaster saint: I watched her speak in impatience and anger sometimes, and I watched her listen and apologize and try to do better.

Rachel believed, fiercely, in the kind of Love that makes room for resurrection and redemption for all people. She championed the voices of women and LGBT people in the church. She made space for so many of us to grieve and doubt and ask questions – especially those who are refugees from a certain kind of evangelicalism, but who have not been able to stop wrestling with this story. She admitted, always, that she did not have all the answers.

We were all hoping and praying Rachel would get better after she went into the hospital with an infection a few weeks ago. My heart aches for her husband and two small children, her parents, and all those who knew and loved her. (Like Rachel, I am one of two sisters who are very different but love one another deeply, and I especially hurt for her sister Amanda.)

I’ve been amazed, in the last week, by how many people in different parts of my life have spoken about Rachel and what she meant to them. We miss her deeply, already. She was smart and fierce and thoughtful, kind and funny and faithful and brave. I never got to meet her in person, but she was my friend. May she rest in deep peace and love.

(Image from Rachel’s site)

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memorial church window light candles

The Lord bless you and keep you. Go in peace to love and serve the Lord. Go and be the church this week. Or even simply: Amen. 

I’ve fallen in love again lately with the words at the end of church services.

The ministers I know tend to take special care with their closing words. They are sending us out, after a brief space of time or a whole morning together: back into the world, where we live our lives and do our jobs and try our best to be kind.

They know, I think, that most of us need something to carry with us on our way. So they offer up a few words or a phrase to hold onto. And many of the ministers I know have a signature benediction that reflects their theology, their hopes, or simply what they love.

When Alanna gets up to close out Morning Prayers at Mem Church, she looks around the congregation, lifts her hands, and says, “As we go into this day: may the Lord bless you and keep you.” It goes on from there: the familiar words from Numbers that many of us know so well.

When Wes stands in the pulpit, he too lifts his hands, and says, “May the Lord keep you from evil, and may the Lord preserve your going out and your coming in.” When it’s KMarie’s turn, she says, “May the Lord grant you the desires of your heart, and bring you peace, joy, forgiveness and love.” (Sometimes she adds “grace,” “hope,” or any number of other good things.)

When Aric gets up there, he says, “May God’s peace rest, rule and abide in each of your lives, and mine, until we meet again.” And Lara repeats one I haven’t quite memorized yet, but it begins, “May we live this day…” and always ends with “…generous in love.”

When my husband and I were ministers, one of us – most often him, but occasionally I – would usually speak the benediction. It varied from week to week, but we invariably ended with “Go and be the church.” A reminder: when you leave these four walls, you carry the church with you, because we are the church, the people of God in this world.

My friend Randy, back in Abilene, has my favorite of all: those same words from Numbers (“May the Lord bless you and keep you”) followed by a few lines from Jude (“Now to him who is able to keep you from falling…”). He, too, lifts his hands and looks around the room, at the people he loves and serves alongside, and speaks those ancient words as though they’re fresh and new.

No matter where I’m heading afterward, I carry these words in my heart: words of blessing, love, hope. In this Holy Week – and always – we need more of all of the above.

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There once was a man who thought love was war
Stop me if you’ve heard this story before…

I think of this song every year around this time, though I usually hear it in my friend Jenni’s voice instead of Tom Russell’s. Jenni is part of the folk trio JamisonPriest, and I heard her sing it long ago, at a few of their gigs in Abilene.

There once was a woman, a pretty young thing
She sold her soul for a diamond ring…

I love contemporary songs that somehow feel old: Russell released this one in the early 2000s, but his rough-edged voice and the plainspoken lyrics make it seem like a world-weary folk classic. It is not, perhaps, traditional Ash Wednesday music, neither a somber hymn nor a choral setting of a religious text. But it comes back to lodge in my heart every year, when we remember that we are dust.

They’re all lovesick, they’re love tired
They stood a little close to the edge of the fire…

I did not make it to an Ash Wednesday service this year. But on my way to the train after work, I walked by the Old South Church, where two clergy were standing outside in the cold, offering ashes to willing passersby. One of them, a woman I know slightly from our mutual connections to Harvard, greeted me and then marked my forehead with ashes. “Remember that you are dust,” she said, “and to dust you shall return. But today, you have life as a child of God.” My eyes filled with tears.

They’ve got holes in their pockets, holes in their minds
They’re holy people in an unholy time…

Like most folk songs, and like faith, those words and this song tell a story or two and then leave you with a few words and images you can’t quite explain. I don’t understand Russell’s lyrics in the strictly logical sense, but they resonate with me at a deep level. And there’s a reason we refer to “the holy mysteries”: I can’t fully grasp the story I have lived with all my life, but it still draws me in.

Headin’ for the church at the end of the line
Ash Wednesday…

We are right where we always seem to be, when Lent begins: still in the middle of winter, snow-edged sidewalks and bold blue skies, bare branches and biting winds. The green spears of daffodils and crocuses are poking through the earth, but there’s danger of frostbite a while yet. It’s almost Easter, a friend joked the other day, and I said, Oh, no. We’ve barely begun.

We’re all lovesick, and love tired, as Russell has it, or (to quote my singer-songwriter friend Rachel) “proud and aching and sore.” But we are also – I will keep saying it all my life – wholly, deeply, unbelievably loved.

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On Sunday morning, I put on a striped dress, brewed a travel mug full of spicy black tea, and got in my car to drive to church.

This is not so different from what I’ve done for the past eight (or 35) years, except that my destination is different, and varied, these days.

I have been a part of several church communities in my adult life, and mostly, once I found them, I have plunged in, swift and sure. I visited Highland as a college student, and several months of Wednesday night meals in the fellowship hall, a cappella singing and welcoming faces convinced me that it was where I belonged. I stayed there for six years, singing on the praise team and joining a small group, walking through more than half my twenties with people who are still family to me.

On my first Sunday in Oxford, 15 years ago last month, jet-lagged and overwhelmed and excited, I walked into St Aldates. I fell in love at once and forever with the joyful music, the ancient liturgy read with fresh eyes, the vibrant international community and the way they welcomed me: a stranger, an American, a young woman just learning to question so many things.

Nearly nine years ago, my husband and I walked into Brookline three days after we arrived in Boston, exhausted and grubby from a cross-country move. We found welcome there too, and music, and later, a place to serve. (Eventually I found another quiet, anchoring community on weekday mornings at Mem Church, where I still show up as often as possible.)

Last September, for reasons that I won’t go into here, we lost our footing at Brookline, at least for now. And I have felt, perhaps not surprisingly, unmoored.

I grew up in church, almost literally. My parents and sister and I spent countless Sunday mornings sitting in the pews of a handful of Baptist churches scattered across Texas. When I go back for Christmas or a long weekend, I join my parents in the same sanctuary they’ve frequented since I was eight years old. There are unnumbered Sunday nights and Wednesday nights in there too, hot meals eaten around folding tables off plastic trays, mornings studying the Bible and evenings singing with the youth group, learning so many songs and Bible verses I still know by heart.

Even when I am mad at the church, I crave church. I need to be among the people of God, to hear the words I have heard my entire life: words of grace and love and redemption, the hope (however slight) that God is working, making all things new. Like most people, I picked up a few messages from my childhood religious experience that I don’t want to carry around any more. Like a lot of us, I have spent time raging at church people who have gotten church wrong. More recently, I have hurt and been hurt in ways I’m still struggling with. I believe we are called, ultimately, toward reconciliation, and I also understand that it is not instant, and not guaranteed.

Since last fall, I have spent Sunday mornings all over the place: eating brunch in a friend’s spacious dining room, or watching another friend’s little boy run around the soccer field. Sometimes I’ve slept late and headed right for the river trail, or walked with my husband to a restaurant in our neighborhood. Some weekends, I’ve traveled or entertained guests, taking a break from a place and a rhythm that had come to cause me pain.

But on some Sundays, still, I go to church.

I go because I need to hear the words: The Lord be with you. Christ is risen. The body of Christ, broken for you. I go because I need to say the words out loud: And also with you. Christ is risen indeed. Forgive us our trespasses. For thine is the kingdom. I go because I need to sing, not only alone but as part of a community: Be Thou my vision. Holy, holy, holy. Alleluia. 

I wrestle and question. I doubt and grieve. Sometimes I stay silent, and sometimes I cry. I have come to believe I need all of that, and that church is a place where that can happen. I am not sure yet when or if I’ll find a new community to call mine. I am not ready, yet, to decide one way or another.

I have been grateful, in this city, to find welcome in every church I have visited so far: with screens and folding chairs in a community center, or the box pews and crimson-covered hymnals at Memorial Church. My heart tugs at the mixture of old hymns and more recent praise music at a church I’ve visited in the Fenway, and my soul relaxes into the rhythm of the Lord’s Prayer in almost every place.

While I believe God is present throughout the world, I also know that, for me, one place to find God is church. So I keep going, keep seeking, keep wiping away tears. I keep doing my best to show up, when I can. I keep listening to the words I know so well, and saying the words I am given to say: Good morning. Peace be with you. Help us, Lord. Thank you. Amen. 

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waves neponset summer

I keep hearing that phrase in my grandfather’s voice, these days.

To be clear, I am hearing it inside my head: Papaw died when I was 16, before I’d ever faced problems bigger than a difficult history exam or a temperamental band director.

He was my dad’s dad, a quiet man from Mississippi who spent his adult life in small-town Missouri. He was mostly deaf in one ear as a result of his time serving in Korea, and he wore plaid shirts that snapped up the front, and black-framed glasses, and baseball caps when he went golfing.

When my sister and I were young, we would try to arm-wrestle him, and though I’d push with both hands and throw all my weight against his big hand, I never managed to move it an inch. This made him throw back his head and laugh, a raspy, joyous sound that I loved to hear.

I don’t ever remember hearing Papaw say “It’ll all work out” when he was alive. My mom told me, not long ago, that he used to say it, and immediately I heard it in his voice, infused with the simple, rock-solid faith that I associate with him and my Mimi. They didn’t say much about their faith, but they helped out their neighbors and served their church and raised their three sons to love God and love others.

This summer, I am searching for a new job: combing job boards and sending out applications and trying my absolute best not to panic. I don’t know what is next, and I don’t like that at all. I am a person who likes to have a plan.

There’s no magic formula to quiet my soul when the fear sets in, though I am using all the good, healthy tricks I know, like yoga and running and lots of tea. But sometimes, Papaw’s voice floats through my head, saying this one simple phrase that I never heard him say in life. And it settles me, in a way I can’t quite explain: to know that if he were alive, he would say it to me, believing that I’ll find my next right step.

I don’t know if Papaw ever had doubts or dark nights of the soul. I’m not sure how I could explain to him the work I do, how I worry, what I’m hoping to find. I don’t quite believe he’s speaking to me from beyond, not that way.

But sometimes I hear him say these four words. And it helps me believe they are true.

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Such as I pray

trail sunset summer sky

So, how do you pray? he’d asked her once.

She’d thought about it a long moment. She always listened, always took his questions seriously. Say what you believe, she said. Say what you’re thankful for. Say what you love.

—Julia Spencer-Fleming, I Shall Not Want

I don’t find myself doing a lot of praying these days.

For a person raised, as I was, in the Southern Baptist church, where we toss around phrases like a little talk with Jesus and you can ask God anything and prayer is a conversation, this is (nearly) tantamount to heresy.

I don’t know when it began to slow down, exactly: maybe somewhere between the heart-cracking headlines (which are still getting worse all the time) and the many smaller, quieter griefs of the last few years. I’d never really understood about prayer, anyway, never quite been sure what it did, what it was supposed to do. I was tired of asking and pleading, hearing only silence.

So I slowed down, until I almost stopped altogether.

It’s not that I have stopped believing, exactly. I can’t quite seem to quit God, even when I think life might be easier or at least make a little more sense if I could.

I have, however, stopped believing in many of the platitudes I used to hear about prayer, because who really knows how it works, anyway? Like most conversations, it does not have a guaranteed outcome. Like most things we do, it is not formulaic. Like most of our attempts to be honest and faithful, it does not always make a lot of sense.

I have (mostly) stopped saying I’m praying for you to people, because sometimes it is a lie anyway, and I also (see above) have lots of questions about what that means. I have (mostly) stopped asking my friends and family to pray for me, though I know and appreciate that some of them do. I have more faith in their prayers, sometimes, than my own.

The irony here is that I still, most Sundays, lead the public prayer at our tiny church, taking requests from the handful of souls in the pews and offering them up to God or whoever is listening. I am perhaps not the best person to do this, at the moment, but it is my job and I love this community, so I get up, pen and bulletin in hand, and stand in front of these faces, familiar and unknown.

I usually begin with a line borrowed from my friend Amy, who can often be found in the front pew with her husband and twelve-year-old twins: we are so grateful for all that we have been given. I continue with a paraphrase of an old song I sang as a child: we know that you see and love the whole world.

And then, usually when my voice starts to crack under the strain of it all, I invite everyone to join me in the Lord’s Prayer. I don’t have to think of the words for this part, and the community’s voices often help carry mine. Depending on the week, certain lines can make me break into tears: on earth as it is in heaven. Forgive us our trespasses. For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory.

Such as I pray, then, it can look like that: coming together with my community to follow Clare Fergusson’s advice in the Spencer-Fleming quote above. We say what we believe, what we’re thankful for, what we love. And I suspect I have not stopped believing in prayer altogether, or those lines – from the Lord’s Prayer and elsewhere – would not move me the way they sometimes do.

Such as I pray outside of church, though, it looks different.

It can look like texting a friend who lost a loved one recently, or checking in on another friend who’s going through a lot. It can look like sharing joys with loved ones, via text or in person, because prayer isn’t only sadness and asking; it is praise, too, or at least it can be.

It can look like the tasks I do around the house that ground me: folding piles of laundry, standing at the kitchen sink washing stacks of dishes. Sometimes, as I stand there scrubbing and rinsing, I end up humming one of the hymns that have lived in my bones since I was a little girl.

Sometimes I pray one of Anne Lamott’s few essential prayers: help or thanks or simply wow. Often I run right out of words altogether. I don’t know when they will come back. But then I remember Clare’s simple, solid advice, and I think: I can usually find something I love.

I don’t know if prayer moves the world, or even tilts it forward. I don’t know much about it at all, these days. But maybe it, too, is a form of love.

Maybe that’s all it needs to be.

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