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Posts Tagged ‘faith’

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Starting with a Labor Day weekend jaunt to NYC, here’s what I have been reading:

The Accidental Beauty Queen, Teri Wilson
Anne put this one in her Summer Reading Guide and I flew through it on the train to NYC. Charlotte gets tapped to impersonate her identical twin, Ginny, in a beauty pageant, much to both their chagrin. I loved the nods to Harry Potter (Charlotte is a fan), the way both women had their preconceived notions tested, and the insights about family. So much fun.

Here if You Need Me, Kate Braestrup
When her husband died, Braestrup took up his dream of becoming a minister, and found herself serving as a chaplain for the Maine Warden Service. This thoughtful, often wry memoir is a glimpse into that world, and into her family life. Engaging, though I wanted more, somehow. Found recently at More Than Words.

We Walked the Sky, Lisa Fiedler
Calliope VanDrexel is following in her grandmother’s footsteps as a tightrope walker. But when her mother gets a new job at an animal sanctuary, Callie has to leave the circus and she’s not happy about it. This dual-narrative YA novel tells both Callie’s story and that of her grandmother, Victoria (in the 1960s). I enjoyed both narratives (though Callie drove me nuts), and the circus setting is so fun.

The Right Sort of Man, Allison Montclair
As London recovers from World War II, Gwen Bainbridge, widowed and bored, and Iris Sparks, a snarky former intelligence agent, join forces to launch the Right Sort Marriage Bureau. But when one of their clients is murdered, presumably by another one, the women jump into an investigation to clear his name (and theirs). I love plucky amateur sleuths, especially British ones, and this story was great fun, especially the witty dialogue. First in a new series; found at the Strand.

The Book of Lost Saints, Daniel José Older
Marisol disappeared during the Cuban Revolution, lost to her family and the world. Half a century later, her spirit visits her nephew, Ramon, a hospital worker by day/DJ by night in New Jersey. Haunted by dreams that are really Marisol’s memories, Ramon starts digging into his family’s messy history. I love Older’s Shadowshaper YA series. This novel (for adults) is a gritty, sometimes bleak, often wisecracking look at cubano family ties and the ways past actions reverberate down through the generations. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Nov. 5).

Bluebird, Bluebird, Attica Locke
Temporarily in limbo in both his job and his marriage, Texas Ranger Darren Mathews drives up to tiny Lark, Texas, to investigate two murders: a local white girl and a black man who was passing through. This well-crafted mystery explores the layers of race, love and conflicting loyalties in East Texas. (Darren is black, raised by two uncles: a Texas Ranger and a lawyer.) I loved the true-to-life portraits of locals and the exploration of exile and the pull of home.

Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, Ross Gay
I loved Gay’s essay collection, The Book of Delights, and my friend Kate sent me this book of his poetry. The poems are – as one of the blurbs says – “bold and wild and weird.” Family, love, racial politics, music, grief, and the orchard Gay works in and loves – they’re all here.

This Is My Body: A Memoir of Religious and Romantic Obsession, Cameron Dezen Hammon
After converting to Christianity as a young woman, Hammon moved to Houston with her then-boyfriend and became a worship minister. This memoir traces her struggle to reconcile the gender politics of evangelical churches with her own craving for love and past scars. Thoughtful, though a bit vague at times; some of her frustrations definitely reflected my own. We need more stories like these. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Oct. 22).

Death and Love Among the Cheetahs, Rhys Bowen
Lady Georgiana Rannoch is finally married, and she and her Irish husband, Darcy, head to Kenya for an extended honeymoon. But instead of paradise, they find complicated sexual politics, theft and murder. I love Georgie and her adventures, but I’d hoped for a slightly more peaceful honeymoon for her!

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

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what I know about Kelly

 

flowers lilies windowsill church tulips brookline easter

My friend Kelly passed away last week.

I hadn’t seen her for some months, since her health began to fail (she had battled cancer for two decades, but the last stretch has been particularly rough). She and her family are a part of the church here in Boston where, for eight years, I spent nearly every Sunday. I always loved catching up with them at common meal, or in the back of the sanctuary after service. Since my time at that church ended, abruptly and painfully, last fall, I had mostly heard updates about her health through the grapevine.

By some measures, I didn’t know Kelly very well. I know she came to Boston from Oklahoma, many years ago, and chose to make a life here with her husband, Joe. I know she fought hard to beat back the cancer long enough to watch her two daughters grow up. I know she makes a delicious cranberry relish, which she would sometimes bring to Turkeypalooza, and sometimes Amy would bring it, made from Kelly’s recipe. I know she listened well, and was honest about her pain while never letting it dominate a conversation. A few years ago, she and Joe hosted the church Christmas party, and we ate and laughed, and sang carols in their living room. I know she enjoyed having everyone there.

Most of all, this is what I know about Kelly: she is a person who loved, and was loved.

I ran into Kelly on the library steps a few months back, when she was on her way to meet friends for afternoon tea and I was heading to the farmers’ market. We hugged, caught up a bit, and there was sorrow and kindness in her gentle eyes. We miss you, she said. I know, I said. I miss you too. We chatted about her girls, and my then-new job at Berklee, and we parted with another hug. I can’t remember if we said I love you, but I know we both felt it that day.

Last year, on Easter Sunday, J and I stood in front of the congregation and sang an old hymn I have known all my life: There is a fountain filled with blood, drawn from Emmanuel’s veins. J played the guitar and we took turns singing, and I looked at Kelly sitting in one of the front pews, quietly singing along with us. It was her lips moving to those familiar words, and the joy on her face, that prompted me to invite everyone to join us on the last verse: Redeeming love has been my theme, and shall be till I die. 

Kelly lived by redeeming love, walking a hard road with faith and compassion for many years. She embodied the names she gave to her daughters: grace and hope. And she is – I hope with all my heart – at peace and at rest from her pain.

Rest well, good and faithful friend. I believe you are healed. We will miss you here, but I look forward to hugging you and singing with you again one day.

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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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book apple bench sunlight

And just like that, it’s June. I’m still catching up from a very full May – so here are the books I’ve been reading lately. It’s a short list, but a good one:

The Chelsea Girls, Fiona Davis
Hazel Ripley is expected to follow in her actor father’s footsteps, especially after her brother is killed in WWII. But a USO tour to Italy sparks her budding creativity as a playwright. Davis tells the story of Hazel, her fellow actress and friend Maxine, and the legendary Chelsea Hotel in NYC. A solid historical novel about female friendship, ambition and secrets. (I like Davis’ work.) To review for Shelf Awareness (out July 30).

Archaeology from Space: How the Future Shapes Our Past, Sarah Parcak
Space archaeology sounds like a cross between Indiana Jones and Star Wars – but it’s a real thing, and it’s changing the face of archaeology. Parcak shares stories from the field and explains how high-tech satellite imagery can make a real difference to the future of her field. Engaging, smart nonfiction. To review for Shelf Awareness (out July 9).

God Land: A Story of Faith, Loss, and Renewal in Middle America, Lyz Lenz
America is divided: we hear this all the time, and many of us are living some version of it. Lenz, a journalist who’s lived in the Midwest for years, saw her marriage and her church fall apart in the wake of the 2016 election. She’s spent time with many Christian pastors and congregants to try and understand what’s going on. The story, as you might imagine, is complicated. I’m a Texan living in New England and I have small-town Midwestern roots, so Lenz’s reporting and her personal experience resonated deeply with me. So insightful and honest. To review for Shelf Awareness (out August 1).

Sherwood, Meagan Spooner
Robin of Locksley is dead, and his people – including Maid Marian – are devastated. When Will Scarlet is thrown into prison, Marian impersonates Robin to help get him out. But her actions create a ripple effect, and while she loves her new role as Robin, she must keep it secret for various reasons. A clever YA take on the Robin Hood myth – though I didn’t love a couple of the plot elements. (I did love the Merry Men, especially Alan-a-Dale, and Marian’s maid, Elena.)

Unmarriageable, Soniah Kamal
Literature teacher Alys Binat, the second of five daughters, has sworn never to marry. But when she meets one Valentine Darsee, that may change. Kamal’s Pride and Prejudice retelling, set in early-2000s Pakistan, is funny and fresh. I especially loved Alys’ relationship with her best friend Sherry, and a few scenes between Alys and her father. Recommended by Anne.

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

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light leaves village nyc

I have what I call “the Liberty problem” when I really love a book: I want to do what Liberty Hardy sometimes does on All the Books! and gush, “It’s so good. It’s SO GOOD!” It’s challenging, though, when I have to review a book I love that much – and write about it (somewhat) intelligently.

That’s how I feel about The Dearly Beloved, Cara Wall’s debut novel about two ministers and their wives who live and work in Greenwich Village, starting in the 1960s. (Bonus: the church in the book is inspired by Wall’s childhood church, First Presbyterian in NYC – or at least located on the exact same spot. It’s in the part of the Village I love dearly, and I’ve walked by it many times; I even went to a Christmas fair there, back in December.)

I got to read an advance copy of The Dearly Beloved and interview Cara for Shelf Awareness. Below is part of my review, and some excerpts from our email conversation.

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The son of a respected classics professor at Harvard, Charles Barrett has always expected to follow in his father’s academic footsteps. During his undergraduate years as a history major, he is caught off guard by two seismic events. First, he realizes, suddenly and irrevocably, that he wants to be a minister, for reasons he can’t entirely explain. At nearly the same time, he meets Lily, a brilliant, reserved orphan studying at Radcliffe. She captivates Charles, though she tells him immediately that she can never believe in God. Over the next several years, Charles convinces Lily to build a life with him, despite knowing that she will always stand resolutely apart from his faith.

James MacNally, the youngest son of a drunken father and a worried mother, has hardly thought about God until a distant uncle offers him the chance to go to college, to escape his bleak Chicago neighborhood. Growing impatient with abstract philosophy and rhetoric, he moves toward the church as a way to confront the injustices he sees in the world. He meets Nan, a Southern minister’s daughter studying music, and they marry. When, in 1963, Charles and James are jointly called to pastor a Presbyterian church in Greenwich Village, these four lives become inextricably and permanently intertwined.

As the church–historically comfortable, white and middle-class–struggles to adapt to the turbulent 1960s, its two young ministers must adjust to their new jobs, their multifaceted joint responsibilities and to each other. Jane Atlas, the long-time, no-nonsense church secretary, guides them both with a steady hand. But they must learn to navigate the politics of ministry on their own, and work in tandem while respecting one another’s vastly different perspectives.

Wall uses the backdrop of professional ministry and the pressing questions of faith and vocation to expertly explore the layers of connection that exist within each marriage and between the two couples. Over the years, James, Charles and Nan each grow into a deep personal faith, but all of them wrestle mightily with doubts and fears, especially when one of Charles and Lily’s twin sons, Will, is diagnosed with autism. Charles, to his own shame, finds it particularly difficult to accept his son as he is, but all four adults ultimately respond to Will in ways that make them more compassionate, more human.

Wall probes the deep love that exists in each marriage, and the (non-religious) faith both pairs of spouses must place in one another. Through decades of heartbreak, happiness and many ordinary days, they build lives and families the best way they know how; with honesty, compassion and as much grace as they can give themselves and one another. At the end of the book, they have all become people “who had loved and hoped and worked and lost and failed and made amends.”

Quiet, sharply observed and stunning in its simple compassion, The Dearly Beloved is a powerful meditation on friendship, calling, marriage and what happens when faith meets truly hard times.

KNG: Tell us about your inspiration for The Dearly Beloved.

CW: I didn’t set out to write a story about ministers. I was reading Happy All the Time by Laurie Colwin, which is about two couples. I loved the way she wrote about marriage and explored what happens after the traditional “happily ever after” wedding moment.

I grew up in a church with two ministers. One was very tall and the other was fiery. They were both dignified, commanding and august. This book is inspired by my memories of them, which are full of reverence and the tiniest sprinkle of fear.

My family history is steeped in religion. My mother and father were raised as Nazarenes–my paternal grandmother converted when she had a vision of an angel on the other side of the washing line. It was a strict religion–no drinking, dancing or listening to music outside the church. But my grandparents’ churches were also warm and welcoming.

Lily tells Charles early in their relationship that she can never believe in God. But he loves her and builds a life with her anyway. Can you talk about this central disagreement in their marriage?

I see Charles and Lily as very much alike. They are both intellectuals, and both make deliberate decisions about the way they want to live their lives. They both grew up in loving families but felt isolated because they were more serious than everyone around them. Charles hadn’t experienced tragedy in the way Lily had, but he was familiar with her feeling of isolation. He and Lily respond to that loneliness in each other–they understand it intuitively. To me, the central issue in their marriage is not religion, per se–it is that Charles wants Lily to be happy, and Lily has accepted the fact that she will never be happy. She lives in pragmatism and he lives in hope.

Also, Charles didn’t discover God until just a few years before he met Lily. His faith is still forming as he courts her, and it grows around her in the same way trees will grow around boulders and fences. Her atheism causes him to constantly re-evaluate his life. He is never on autopilot, because he is always deciding what it means to be a minister whose wife does not believe in God. If he were married to a believer he might be less substantial, his faith lighter and easier. His relationship with Lily makes his faith–and his life–richer and more nuanced. More challenging, certainly, but a challenge that makes him stronger and better able to lead a church.

The book tells the story of Charles’s and James’s work, and how the church responds to them as ministers. That response is sometimes contentious.

The biggest misconception about churches is that everyone gets along. This is not true! A church is like a co-op building–it has a board and voting members. It’s a hierarchy, which causes power struggles. For every member, church is one of the most important places in their lives, which means they’re intensely invested in how it’s run.

Charles and James come into a divided church, in a divided time, in a divided society. They are caught between preserving the historical identity of a respected institution while steering it through the cultural changes of the 1960s in a way that makes it relevant to modern times. This is like turning a cruise ship: there is more than one propeller to redirect, and it takes a long time to head in a new direction. Charles and James make choose that new direction for their church. This is not, generally, the way Presbyterian churches make decisions, so they get in some trouble. But James’s inherent need to take action made it plausible that he would bypass tradition for what he thought was right.

Three of the four main characters are people of deep faith, but their faiths are quite different from one another. How did you approach writing about their varied struggles with belief and doubt?

I have every one of the struggles with belief and doubt that these characters have. I parcelled out my own, varied experiences with faith between them. Writing about four different religious lives was freeing for me–I often feel like I have to make up my mind about faith and religion, but while writing this book I was allowed to embrace my indecision. I had the chance to think deeply about the ways our faiths of origin affect the way we see the world and the way we live our lives. Some people follow their childhood faith without thinking, some tweak it, some completely disavow it. Whatever we do, it remains embedded in us.

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It was a pleasure to talk to Cara, and if you’re looking for an insightful novel about real people grappling with faith and love and calling, I highly recommend The Dearly Beloved. 

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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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