Monday, July 11, 2016

my work is gathered in air and earth...

One of my favorite joys in the realm of wandering involves discovering new
bookstores - and new books. Or, actually, old bookstores and well used books, too. While I enjoy the convenience of Amazon - and use it often when I need a text in a timely way - I prefer to lounge about in an independent bookstore sipping tea and seeing what strikes my fancy as the hours roll by. Whenever Di and I are away, that is precisely what we do for at least one day each week and often more. Sometimes this becomes the heart of our in-town sabbaths as well with open stack libraries coming in a close second to well-stocked indy bookshops.

My hunch is that the allure of bookstores captured my imagination during  my freshman year at Lakeland College in Sheboygan, WI. I stumbled upon the joy of listening to both stellar classical recordings without purchase as well as the Library of Congress folk music collection during high school. Every free study period while others snuck out for a smoke, I made my way to the record room and surrendered to forty-five minutes of sweet soul music and solitude thanks to the technology of KLH headphones. Bookstores eluded me, however, until college. Not only was my Humanities and Writing professor a voracious reader, but she often recommended books during office hours and I took serious notes. Rather than go for coffee and conversation after class, I dashed to the student bookstore and acquired the fine art of browsing. It has been a gift that keeps on giving even as I move towards retirement.

Both daughters also caught this bookstore "jones" and periodically join me in feeding our habit. Small wonder given that when they were small our regular afternoon walks in seminary would often wind up at one of three bookshops near Broadway and W 116th Street in NYC. Same became true in both Saginaw, MI and Cleveland, OH:  if we weren't sneaking off to take in an afternoon movie, we would use my day off to check out bookshops in either East Lansing or Ann Arbor. As Hank Williams, Jr. sings:  it became a family tradition. Today cooking and feasting, books and music as well as movies and creative TV are some of the things that we still hold in common. (They each have wildly different other interests and talents, too ranging from dance and fabric arts, to a love of the outdoors, photography and assorted visual arts.)

Which brings me to the five books I am currently wandering through during this phase of my vacation. As the lazy, hazy days of summer vacation part one come to a close tomorrow, I realize that I am nowhere near finished with these companions. In fact, it looks like they will be traveling with me until we head up to Montreal at the end of August.  So, for those curious about what's on my reading list thus, they include:   

+ The Cross in Our Context by Douglas John Hall. This is actually my third go at this book. The first read was a quick skim, the second was for selected quotes; and now this third pass is for content and serious reflection. It is not coincidence that as I am outlining a book in-progress re: my spirituality of tenderness that I am drawn back to Hall's wisdom. He is the neo-Orthodox Canadian theologian who has given much of his career to renewing interest in Luther's "theology of the Cross." 

At the core of his interpretation of this "thin tradition" Hall notes that most of Western Christianity has existed during a season of power and prestige. We have been in control of politics, economics, culture and commerce for 1700 years in one form or another. Consequently, we have come to insist that others live according to our rules. But this is not the way of Jesus. It is a theology of glory, the opposite of the cross. As Hall interprets Martin Luther, however, he makes the case that a theology of glory is a way of living, thinking and acting in the world as if there were only one right answer to each of life's questions and we Christians are in posses them all. It matters little that such arrogance hardly resembles anything Christ-like. Who cares that Jesus lived quietly and tenderly among the wounded. Why worry that Christ spoke of God's kingdom as a mystery revealed to children, the poor and those who have no one else to trust but God. If you hold the wealth and the weapons, the truth of Jesus doesn't matter.

"The impulse to control," Hall writes, "which is never stronger in us than when it comes to our religious beliefs, must give way (in a theology of the Cross) to a readiness to listen, to ponder the truth that may be represented in the other better than in oneself - to believe, in short, that this is not a situation in which one is oneself the authority, but one in which one knows oneself to be (in biblical language) under authority." So far I take in about five pages each night, make a few notes and let his dense but precise ideas seep into my heart and mind.  It is slow going, but always worth the effort.

+ The Cutting Room by Stewart Dudley.  This 2014 novel takes place over five days and tells the tale of two, late-middle age professional people facing the challenges of employment and emotional confusion. It is a story that suggests that even after failure and betrayal, love is still possible. A different type of love than that which grabs us in our twenties, to be sure, but real love nonetheless. The novel is an example of what the author calls "Can-Lit" - a growing collection of fiction by Canadian authors that many of us below the 49th parallel know too little about - who, like the visual artists in the Group of Seven, are committed to celebrating the humble, quiet and civilized culture of their country that celebrates its 150th birthday next summer. 

The set-up starts as a former Hollywood A-list performer debuts her first documentary about the motion picture industry's exploitation of women at a film festival in Ottawa. Her volunteer driver turns out to be an unemployed PR specialist who helps the artist come to grips with getting her film to market. Along the way they skewer one another's egos and shine a few lights on their respective shadows. I found the dialogue - and there's a lot of it refreshingly adult  That is, honest and poignant, not racy. The plot includes flashbacks into Ottawan history as well as a behind the scenes look at what small film festivals in small cities have to do to make it all work. But by the end of this novel, not only did I have a better sense of Ottawa's west side neighborhoods and culture, but I found myself caring enough about these two characters that I experienced something like hope in their maturing affection. It struck me as an real book about real people - and I loved it.

+ Eruption to Hope by Jean Vanier. In a series of reflections and speeches Vanier shared during the early days of the L'Arche Community, this slim volume attempts to lay out what it means to live into the spirituality of the Beatitudes in the 21st century. There are poems and sermons alongside vignettes of what Vanier has discovered caring for the marginalized. I found this 1971 book in a used bookstore in Ottawa. And while it isn't the author's best prose, it is an early snapshot of his passion and conviction. 

+ Becoming Wise by Krista Tippett.  On the ride up to Ottawa, Dianne and I listened to a podcast where Pico Iyer interviewed Ms. Tippett on her own radio program "On Being." If you aren't familiar with Tippett's weekly Saturday NPR show, you are missing something sacred and should check it out ASAP. Her thoughtful and kind answers to Iyer's provocative questions struck a chord in us both. Her commitment to an emerging spirituality that honors beauty and compassion beyond the confines of organized religion spoke to my own growing call. And her careful use of words made it clear that Tippett is a person sharing her better angels with the world in a way that is accessible and creative. I was so knocked-out by this interview that I decided on the spot to use this book as the core of a sermon series for summer worship. As she states in the opening chapter, the virtues of wisdom require practice. She suggests working with five:  words, flesh, faith, hope and love. I am only at the beginning so I can't tell you where we resonate and where we sing a different song. But I am taken with the fact that she crafts sentences and paragraphs with respect and care - and that is a most excellent start.

+ A Small Porch: Sabbath Poems 2014 and 2015 by Wendell Berry. My younger daughter turned me on to Wendell Berry nearly 20 years ago. Over the past ten years I have used his collection of sabbath poems as a source of grounding whenever I get too harried or fixated on my own anxieties. Berry knows the rhythms of creation well: he is a life-long farmer who has worked the earth of his Kentucky farm for over 50 years. Part of the way he cultivates the virtue of patience is to walk his land every Sunday and then write a poem. Both the walking and the writing keep him connected to the seasons and the presence of the holy in real matter. I think this book's second poem is perfectly illustrative: "To the National Security Agency"

I am away in a quiet valley,
am busy at my quiet work
in this comely small cup of country
exactly fitted to my mind,
my mind to it exactly fitted.
It is enclosed by slopes and trees,
filled full of light and air and wind,
fulfilled by time and wear and weather.
My work is gathered of air and earth,
the history of the local light.
I am not going to tell you whether
or when I'm coming back. Don't wait.
Don't try to call, I have no phone.
There's not much left I want to shoot,
but I would like to shoot a drone.

Tonight, as we sat down to dinner, our dog Lucie started to growl and fuss. Dianne went to the sun room window to look and there was a large deer. She has been coming to feed at the edge of our garden and the wetlands behind our house. We both watched her quietly for a few moments before returning to our meal. It was a good, quiet and satisfying day for us all.

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