Archive for the ‘books’ Category

I think my previous post may have been unclear.  I was following my own train of thought about anger and acedia, based on just a few sentences in Norris’ book.  She takes a passage from Dante’s inferno, describing the fourth circle of hell, where “the angry are denied the mercy of forgetting” and stand naked in the mire striking at one another. Nearby, sunk in the bog and barely visible are the slothful who ignored beauty while they were alive.  “Inside us, we bore acedia’s dismal smoke…”

The juxtaposition of anger and acedia strikes Norris as meaningful, and so she explores it. “When unexpressed anger builds up inside, people perform even legitimate duties carelessly and resentfully, often focusing on others as the source of their troubles.”  Notice that Norris doesn’t specify that the anger is caused by someone else, or that one’s resentment is expressed necessarily against the person with whom you are angry.  I imagine this could as easily be a case of “kicking the dog”–taking out one’s frustration on an innocent third party.  The passage isn’t definitively about one or the other…her point is only that acedia is sometimes linked to anger.

It seems to me that the morose mood of acedia is more likely to be the cause of unjust anger than vice versa.  Perhaps it is a vicious cycle, where the numbness of uncaring provokes an irrational anger which results in more careless action or inaction…And this passage in her book is by no means implying that ALL anger is caring too much about the wrong things.  I think I may have made Dante seem to say that, and I apologize for the confusion.

On the other hand, “be angry and don’t sin” is a useful commandment here…even righteous anger can lead to careless words and acts, or a stewing silence in which the offense grows like cancer until it’s unrecognizable. When I choose to let the sun set on my unresolved anger, am I not choosing to embrace acedia?

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acedia-and-me3“Dante ties anger, which entails caring too much about the wrong things, to acedia, which is caring too little about the right ones.” Acedia and Me, page 202

This sentence from Kathleen Norris’ book made me pause and reflect: Does anger really mean that I care overmuch for unimportant things? Is my interrupted quiet time more important than my son’s need to talk? Is that broken cup worth spewing out words that I can’t take back? The questions may be rhetorical, but they can still sting.

Norris suggests that when we are angry–especially when the anger isn’t verbalized–it comes out in action: a duty is done with resentment, carelessly. And so acedia, non-care, rears its head.

When I sweep away my concern for the right things, the best things, and cease to focus my heart, mind and actions on them, that vacuum is easily filled with more trivial desires. My thwarted will, in the midst of an otherwise empty room, seems hugely important. Any real or imagined slight by my family festers there; perhaps the laundry piles up or a requested item on the grocery list is ‘forgotten’…

Jonah couldn’t bring himself to care about the Ninevites, even after he had preached repentance to them. His resentment of God’s mercy emerged when he became unreasonably angry over the withered gourd whose shade he had enjoyed. His energies were turned inward to his own gratification, and he resented what spoiled his comfort.

What Jonah needed to realize was that God was NOT asking him to minister out of his own superior strength and holiness. Norris points out in an earlier chapter that “we engender compassion not through our strengths but through our common weaknesses.” Jonah was supposed to offer the same mercy that he and all Israel had received.

Prayer (no surprise) is the antidote here. My devotional last week gave me a good quotation to round out this relating of anger and acedia:

“I can no longer condemn or hate a brother for whom I pray, no matter how much trouble he causes me…There is no dislike, no personal tension, no estrangement that cannot be overcome by intercession as far as our side of it is concerned…To make intercession means to grant our brother the same right that we have received, namely, to stand before Christ and share in His mercy”  (from Life Together by Dietrich Bonhoeffer).

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I would love to know whether anyone who reads this has heard of this word before…especially if you have not read the book by Kathleen Norris which includes acedia in the title.  Having read all her previous prose works, I happened upon Acedia & Me:  A marriage, monks and a writer’s life on the new book shelf of our branch library and took it home on the strength of the author’s name.  I didn’t really ask myself what the title was (or how to pronounce it) until a week or two later when I picked it up to begin reading. acedia-and-me

Norris’ books are all at least partially memoir, and this one is no different, focusing on her marriage to poet David Dwyer, who died in 2003. The author has been for many years an oblate of the Benedictine order, although she claims Presbyterian as her official denomination. The seeming contradiction in that will require the curious to read The Cloister Walk, an earlier book, because it would be too cumbersome to explain here.

Her reading of the early Church fathers led, many years ago now, to a desert monk named Evagrius (4th C.), whose writings introduced her to the concept of acedia…a slippery word which she spends the entire book defining.   Here’s a first stab at it from page 3:

At its Greek root, the word acedia means the absence of care.  The person afflicted refuses to care or is incapable of doing so.  When life becomes too challenging and engagement with others too demanding, acedia offers a kind of spiritual morphine:  you know the pain is there, yet can’t rouse yourself to give a damn.

Norris is very careful to distinguish the spiritual problem of acedia from the physiological and/or psychological one of depression.  A paraphrase of Thomas Aquinas from page 24 says:

For despair, participation in the divine nature through grace is perceived as appealing, but impossible; for acedia, the prospect is possible, but unappealing.

In case you’re still with me, and still curious, acedia is pronounced uh-SEE-dee-uh, and it is variously defined by sloth, apathy and indifference, especially to spiritual things.  Before there were seven deadly sins, the early writers identified “eight bad thoughts”–the motivating cause behind the sinful effect, I suppose.  What does this have to do with us, you ask?  Well…

The torpor of acedia can be felt every time you sit down to read your Bible but remember something else that you “need” to do first…

Every time you question whether there’s any point in praying for so-and-so any longer…

Every time you wonder if God is really interested in having a relationship with you and instead of asking Him you turn on the TV or pick up a magazine (because perhaps the answer would be painful or require action).

And if you can’t relate to any of those scenarios, brother or sister in Christ, then you have much indeed for which to be thankful.

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Some of us just want to read the directions ourselves. It’s the way we’re wired.

We speak with clenched teeth to the well-meaning:
“Don’t read me the the package insert, and please don’t show me how to do it …just (grunt, sound of ripping) give me the paper and let me read it myself.”  Sigh of relief; panic subsides. I can do this. Leave me alone.

disciplines-coverBut once in a while, almost in spite of myself, a prayer/groan rises and the Spirit hears it.  So after months of floundering around trying to revamp my devotional time, I stumbled on a book that saved me: Disciplines for the Inner Life, a week by week compilation of thematic Scripture and excerpts from a vast range of Christian writers. Bob Benson, Sr. and his son, Michael W. Benson prepared this book for Thomas Nelson.  My edition, discovered in Hyde Brothers where I wasn’t looking for it, was published in 1989.  I’d never heard of it, and have no idea whether it’s still in print.

Another groan, occasional and desultory, goes something like this:  “Once upon a time, You gave me a verse for the year, a theme to focus on.  Of course I generally forgot about it before December, and I can’t say I’ve made a lot of progress in those areas…Maybe that’s why You stopped?  Or is it because I stopped asking?”

On the last morning of the old year, I picked up Disciplines and read the passage for the day.  It resonated.  I walked away.  And then, by God’s grace,  as I sat on New Year’s Day pondering the year ahead, that Word came back to me as if engraved in gold on marble.  It’s been some years since I was blinded by the obvious that way, assaulted by a passage which proclaims to me that this is my directive for this time.

I’m sure I’ll be writing about that passage at some point, as I live with it from day to day.  It won’t mean to you what it does to me, but that’s all right.  My thankful heart today sits satisfied because God still answers the prayers we hesitate, forget or are ashamed to pray.  Asking for direction is difficult for some of us.  But not paying attention when directions are given is hazardous in a life which is already hard enough.

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Radically Inclusive

I’m often amazed at the way things that I’m reading, hearing and discussing clarify each other, as if each idea is a single candle but as I connect the ideas a 100 watt bulb switches on in my brain.  Yesterday morning I mused over the strange mental bedfellows which had just lit up my mind:  a postmodern theologian’s work, a bestselling novel I read ten years ago, an independent film I just saw–about an introvert and a sex doll, and a history of a cholera epidemic in London.   Just typing that list makes me giggle.

Here’s the book I’m reading…(and the fact that I figured out how to upload the image and put it in the right place may not impress you, but it impresses me!)  Brian McLaren has been quietly rocking my world for a couple of weeks now, and this book–which, trust me, has nothing to do with any gnostic gospel–is continuing to challenge me.  As usual, it’s not so much that the ideas are radically new but that they are expressed in fresh, provocative language which grabs me by the shoulders and compels my attention.

This book is worth getting and reading carefully, prayerfully, sifting the ways it makes intuitive sense to you and the ways in which it rings quite foreign to your own experience.  McLaren, a frontrunner in the emergent church movement, wants simply to let Jesus’ good news be what He said it was:  “The Kingdom of God is among you.”  He likens each believer to a secret agent infiltrating enemy territory to tell someone, anyone, the good news of reconciliation with the King, of liberation from the oppressor, here, now, through a vital interactive relationship with the King Himself.

“The secret message of Jesus is meant not just to be heard or read but to be seen in human lives, in radically inclusive reconciling communities, written not on pages in a book but in the lives and hearts of friends…”

A radically inclusive community. What might that look like?  That’s when I sensed the lightbulb humming, warming up.  Wait a minute…a community that loves one another…willing to take risks, to look foolish, to accept things as they are at the moment in order to express loyalty, faith, enduring affection.  You may laugh when I tell you the title of the film that I’ve just described, especially if you’ve heard of it but not seen it.

Lars and the Real Girl is one of the sweetest movies I’ve seen in a long time.  A deft screenplay which is neither maudlin nor raunchy, brilliant acting, and a powerful message which doesn’t try to bludgeon the audience make this a must-see for anyone interested in what a radically inclusive, loving, healing community looks like.  It deals intelligently, sensitively and humorously with mental illness–quite a feat!

Which reminded me–there is a lovely scene in Jan Karon’s second Mitford book, A Light in the Window, where Father Tim takes Cynthia with him when he visits Miss Patty, the dementia-plagued mother of one of his parishioners.  Miss Patty thinks it’s Thanksgiving and keeps passing imaginery food to her visitors.  While Father Tim is paralyzed by embarrassment, Cynthia quietly plays along.  Later Tim tells her, “I think that was one of the most gracious things I’ve ever seen, to eat the drumstick.”  I wonder how often we imagine that to make an impact on our sphere of influence will mean doing something heroic and drastically sacrificial, when in fact we may only be called to eat the drumstick, or dance with a doll.

Sometimes, of course, heroics are called for.

The Ghost Map by Stephen Johnson tells the story of two men in mid-nineteenth century London who traced the origins of a cholera epidemic, one with scientific research and the other by simply visiting every family in the community.  At a time when most people believed that a “miasma” (foul air) caused the disease, these men swam upstream, so to speak, against conventional wisdom to propose that cholera was somehow being contracted through the water supply.  A fearless doctor/research scientist and a local pastor joined forces to track and stop the fatal illness which raced through the Soho neighborhood.  Johnson’s account, which reads like a suspense novel, illustrates the power of knowing one’s neighbors, of being quite literally one’s brother’s keeper.  Without the work of two brave and compassionate men, unspoken prejudices against the destitute residents of the plagued community–the poor are less resilient or have inherently weak constitutions, the poor are depraved and are under judgment–would have meant an even more deadly outbreak. Discovery of cholera’s causation and cure  would have been delayed even longer.

“All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.”  This quote (attributed dubiously to Edmund Burke) has become familiar to the point of seeming trite.  But think of the impact of every good man, woman and child, every Christ-follower, every secret agent for His kingdom, doing something.  Not necessarily deeds of heroism which rate an AP news headline, not sacrifice of life and limb or a king’s ransom–but something. “Whatever your hand finds to do (for your neighbor), do it with all your might, as serving the Lord…”   Do those three words in parentheses make the command harder to obey?  Or easier?  Or simply more sensible? After all, there really are only two commandments.

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Ballast or dead weight?

I’m reading the latest book by one of my favorite authors right now, Mark Buchanan. Its title is Hidden in Plain Sight, and it is about virtue in the life of a Christ-follower. The key Scripture passage he refers to throughout the book is II Peter 1:3-8.  (I was going to quote it here, but it doesn’t relate to the rest of this post, so I’ll let you look it up yourself.)

At several points in the book, Buchanan has included a lovely piece of creative writing, a “sanctified imagination” kind of meditation on the life of the apostle Peter. The first one, written first person in the voice of the apostle James, describes one of the apostles’ earliest encounters with Jesus (see Luke 5:1-11).

It was the day Jesus co-opted Peter’s boat for a pulpit, and then suggested a deep sea fishing trip. The fishermen had just spent a long, unproductive night on the water and in fact had just finished cleaning their nets. But Peter reluctantly agrees to go out again anyway. He flings his net overboard with attitude. “He knew how to set that net down on water as quietly as pulling a blanket over a sleeping child, but that day he lashed the water with it, calculated to spook the fish.” (page 73)

Buchanan’s beautiful prose continues through the miraculous catch, Peter’s throwing himself at Jesus’ feet: “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.” Jesus tells him not to be afraid; from now on he will catch men. And then the writer pulls the rug out from under my feet, because he describes something I have never pictured, in all the years I’ve read this story:

“And as soon as He said it, we knew He meant right now. He meant for us to choose before we landed, no waiting, no talking. Just decide.

Peter stood up and started tossing fish in the lake. We watched for a moment, then joined him. They hit the water stiff as wood, but after a few seconds they shook their tails, and dove. Those fish sank down in blackness, like fistfuls of silver we had to jettison in a storm.

But afterward, we felt light. Peter stepped ashore and started running.” (page 74)

I had to go back to Luke, shaking my head in doubt, in order to make sense of this image. And there it was:

“So they pulled their boats up on shore, left everything and followed him.” (Luke 5:11) Would fishermen leave a boatful of perfectly good fish to rot? Of course not. So what did they do with that miracle catch? They threw it back.

Does this thought leave anyone but me gasping for breath and fumbling for a kleenex? What have I left behind in order to follow Jesus? What treasure dumped into the deep rather than carry excess baggage on my journey? Or am I still dragging a caravan-load of dead weight at my back, thinking, “Well, maybe I’ll need this some day”? Is anyone else convicted by this thought? What have you left behind in order to follow Him? What would you like to throw overboard?

“Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 3:13-14)

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Maybe the Medium Isn’t the Message?

[2/16  Since I was asked, I’ll share what I neglected, namely the book’s title:  Quaker Summer by Lisa Samson.]

A group of six women, 30 something to 60 something, sat around the table. The microphones were immaterial…we were there to talk. After seven years on this radio program (most of us) we tend to jump right in to the conversation. And we frequently disagree. But once in awhile I am really shocked by the degree of difference of opinion. Today for a change we were talking about a work of fiction. And now I know why we’ve been avoiding novels for so long. The host of the program has a problem with fiction. She hated the book we read, the same one I loved. In fact we were divided into three camps: one who loathed it, four who thought it was so-so, and me. It wasn’t even a matter of my being able to identify with the main character more than the rest of them could. I didn’t relate to her at all, in fact. But I believed her voice, and I wanted her to grow, to figure out how to hear God and follow Him out of the prison she’d gotten stuck in.

I enjoy a book that delves into character, that takes its time, lingering over a beautiful phrase, a deep conversation. There weren’t any over-simplified answers in this book. It did end well, with the heroine and her family making better choices and on a path to a richer, more Christ-centered life. My friend at the radio station doesn’t like fiction because it feels too “happily ever after” to her. I can see that being a problem, depending on the kind of books one tends to read. She’s also an impatient person, by her own admission. She likes fast-paced, sparely-written prose: John Grisham, not Charles Dickens. So it’s not a matter of “right or wrong”–it’s personality and individual preference. I should not take it personally or wonder what’s wrong with her…or what’s wrong with me.

[I’ve discovered something about myself, unfortunately: a beloved book is like a child, and I am wounded–involuntarily– when someone I respect doesn’t like my kid. I definitely need to get over that.]

It strikes me as odd that this same fiction-hating soul really loves film. So it’s not a matter of being unable to get caught up in story. It’s just the patience factor, I guess. She admitted she would have enjoyed this story as a movie. The medium makes a difference for her. I also appreciated the observation from another friend at the table that this story would have more validity were it biography…it’s impossible to argue with a real person’s real experience. But we can always accuse a novelist of manipulating us, making events come out the way she wants. Yet another reader observed that this novel was based on the author’s real-life experience and she did write a non-fiction account of it. But knowing that many of her fans don’t read non-fiction, and having a strong reputation as a novelist, she chose to fictionalize the story too. I consider that wise: sharing the same truths in as many forms as possible. Rather like the apostle Paul saying, “I have become all things to all people, so that by all means I might win some.”

Know your audience. Understand how to use your medium wisely. Use as many different ways to tell your story as possible. And don’t be surprised that different folks respond to different (pen) strokes.

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