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Monday, June 10, 2013

Book Review: The Midwife

Hello folks!  I had to take a couple months off from the blog as I had a temporary job with a lot of overtime.  But I'm back now, and happy to share this book with you!

The Midwife, by Jennifer Worth, is the first of a trilogy about her days as a midwife in the dock areas of London in the fifties while living in a convent.  It's recently been made into a popular BBC TV series, which is how I heard about the books.  I enjoyed the first episode of the series, and decided I wanted to try the books.

I've noticed over the years that when birth is portrayed in movies or on television, the overwhelming emphasis is on the pain involved.  The whole process is perceived as alien (indeed, very similar to *that* scene in Alien) and bizarre.  The TV series Call the Midwife didn't do that, the emphasis was on the mother and the family situation.  The midwives are a calming presence in the room and connect with the family in a way not shown in modern medical dramas, and I found that fascinating.

But there's another thread going on in the book that is much more applicable to this blog- the setting of the story is in a convent, which comes as a surprise to the main character, who calls herself Methodist at the beginning but doesn't claim to believe in much.  As the book continues and she gets to know the nuns at the convent (also midwives) and hears their stories, she sees faith in a new light.  She comes to understand more about what Christianity can really mean through watching the midwives' ministry in the area and talking to them about why they're doing the work.  And unwittingly, she enters a faith journey of her own along the way.  It's a well-done, subtle subplot- but since this book is autobiographical, it's also the true story of a person's journey to faith.

I recommend this book enthusiastically to anyone with an interest in history, in autobiographies, or in real-life medical practice, and I think it would make a fascinating choice for a church women's group.  There are occasional graphic descriptions, but nothing worse than you'd find in any normal paperback this days.  This is nothing less than a true-to-life description of what life was like in urban poverty in the days when the Pill didn't exist, feminism was still in the first wave, and women didn't have a lot of options.  It may disturb you, but it will move you.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Book Review: The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work

Dr. John Gottman has been studying the interactions of married couples for about two decades in his lab in Washington state.  In this book, he compiles his best advice for what skills and habits are most useful to make a marriage work.  He points out that most books on marriage will point out what not to do, and unlearning bad habits, which are certainly helpful, but without good habits to replace them with, progress can be difficult.  He also states that communication, while valuable to any married couple, is not a magical talisman that will remove all problems from the marriage. 

Some of his advice is a little more gendered than I'd like, and he certainly has quite an ego.  Also, this books is written for heterosexual couples, but most of the advice is certainly applicable to any relationship.  In fact, I know a few families who could use this book outside of marital relationships all together.

This book is also not a magical talisman for fixing any marriage, but I did find the exercises in it to be realistic and potentially helpful.  He addresses a wide range of possible issues, their causes, and even accepts different levels of success.  He also acknowledges that not all problems are solvable, but that marriages can survive unsolvable problems in many cases.

I will probably be keeping a copy of this book around, to plan premarital counseling sessions with and to loan out.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Book Review: A Year of Biblical Womanhood

Rachel Held Evans is a popular Christian blogger, and I've mentioned her blog here before.  She grew up in a conservative evangelical environment, and, for example, she expected to have a "complementarian" marriage when she got married, but she and her husband were somewhat surprised to fall into egalitarianism almost by accident.  She hosts careful, intelligent discussions of controversial topics on her blog on a regular basis.  So I knew going in that this book was going to be well written.

The impetus for the book was her experience with the woman of Proverbs 31, a short poem that describes something like the biblical ideal of a wife.  She'd found that poem turned into a "to-do" list by one too many people over the years- especially publishers of Christian women's self-help books- and wanted to look at what the real ideals of "Biblical womanhood" were.  So she took a year to examine a dozen virtues that the Bible associates with femininity, and to look deeper into a variety of ways that people have and do understand "biblical womanhood".  Included in the book are experiences and conversations she had with the Amish, the Quakers, an Orthodox Jewish woman in Israel, and a retreat to a Catholic monastery.

It is a very readable book, lots of variety in what she addresses. She looks at so many items that she doesn't get very in depth about many of them (but I acknowledge my definition of in-depth, having a master's in the subject and all, may not be normal) but what she does cover is generally thoughtful and carefully written. There's a good dose of humor throughout the book, but it's never directed at the Bible, and it's almost always directed at herself.

She did receive a bit of push back for writing the book, and she wrote a lovely response to one of her more popular critiques here.  I think it outlines her intentions and her faith beautifully.


Great book for a woman's Bible study group, actually. I'll have to start suggesting it.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Blog Review: Slacktivist's Bonfire/Quilt/Mosaic

In the world of Facebook and news sites and RSS feeds, it's becoming easier and easier to surround ourselves with people and information we find comfortable and familiar.  But as far as I'm concerned, getting to know people who are different from me is a matter of faith- I feel called as a Christian to truly get to know people from all walks of life and to recognize their status as a beloved child of God, equally worthy of God's love as I am.

And in this world of mass communication on a scale never seen before, the Internet is a great place to do that.  Blogs in particular offer a chance to get to know the authors rather well.  But the Christian blogosphere can start to feel a little stuffy after awhile, and there's a lot of feedback.  And it overwhelmingly feels dominated by straight white men.

Which is why, a little while ago, Fred Clark of Slacktivist put together three lists.  The Bonfire is a list of Christian blogs written by women.  The Mosaic is a list of blogs written by Christians who aren't white.  And the Quiltblogs are written by Christians who aren't straight.

I know I got really tired of reading the horrible things a lot of powerful dead men had to say about women long before I finished seminary.  So seeking out living Christians to counter those dusty voices has been an ongoing process.  Because the Holy Spirit is active in the world, God is with us, and is speaking through people we'd never expect (as God always has).

I'm proud that this blog is listed on the Bonfire.  It's no mark of distinction- all I had to do was to tell Fred I'm a Christian woman writing a blog, and he added the link- but seeing this place listed with all those other Christian women is a strong reminder of the community I'm a part of- of all the Christian women who have gone before and who will come after me.  Thanks be to God!

Friday, March 22, 2013

Lutheran Look: Suggestions?

I have plenty of ideas for these posts, but due to not currently being in a ministry position, I don't get asked questions like these as often as I used to. So, since I want to post on topics that interest people, do you have any suggestions?  Questions you've always wanted to ask?  Offbeat topics you'd like to see addressed more often?

Ask away!  I'll try to link to this post every so often to keep the suggestions coming.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Lectionary Post: 3/24/2013- Palm Sunday (C)

Prayer of the Day
Sovereign God, you have established your rule in the human heart through the servanthood of Jesus Christ. By your Spirit, keep us in the joyful procession of those who with their tongues confess Jesus as Lord and with their lives praise him as Savior, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

On Palm Sunday we are surrounded by joy and triumph, but we know what's coming.  We've known since the beginning of our Lenten journey where we are going, On this Sunday, we turn the corner from Lent into Holy WeekThis Sunday, the story is about to change.

Procession with Palms - John 12:12-16
The next day the great crowd that had come to the festival heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord— the King of Israel!” Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it; as it is written: “Do not be afraid, daughter of Zion. Look, your king is coming, sitting on a donkey’s colt!” His disciples did not understand these things at first; but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written of him and had been done to him.

Comments:
Jesus enters Jerusalem, triumphant!  And yet humble, riding on a simple donkey rather than a warhorse or a more noble steed.  He's surrounded by adoring crowds, shouting "Hosanna!" and calling him King.  Though this is not the Messiah they were expecting- the Old Testament is full of talk about the Messiah, and most of it involves expectations of war and conquering and probably a certain amount of riches.  Jesus has avoided conflict, gathered no armies, and lives simply.  For that matter, Jesus doesn't really sound like the kind of savior we'd expect today, in our culture that worships wealth and popularity.

If this were a movie, we might expect this part to be the ending- Jesus was born, grew up, started his ministry, wandered around Judea for a few years healing people and performing miracles, gathered some followers, got a lot of death threats.  And finally arrives triumphant in Jerusalem, surrounded by cheering crowds!  But we who know the story, we who have been here before, know otherwise.  The story is about to turn.

Isaiah 50:4–9a
The Lord God has given me the tongue of a teacher,
that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word.
Morning by morning he wakens— wakens my ear
   to listen as those who are taught.
The Lord God has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious,
   I did not turn backwards.
I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard;
I did not hide my face from insult and spitting.

The Lord God helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced;
therefore I have set my face like flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame;
   he who vindicates me is near.
Who will contend with me? Let us stand up together.
Who are my adversaries? Let them confront me.
It is the Lord God who helps me; who will declare me guilty?


Comments:
As Christians, we often see this passage as a direct reference to Jesus.  After all, we have a teacher whose words bring comfort and who speaks with God.  We have a person who does not rebel against God and who practices nonviolence- the parallels to "turn the other cheek" are obvious here.

So the next few lines are rather surprising- if it's Jesus we're talking about, he was not disgraced?  He was not shamed?  We aren't to the crucifixion yet, but we know it's coming, and it was the most disgraceful and shameful way a person could die in that time- so much so that full citizens of the powerful Roman Empire could not be put to death that way.  It tells us something about Jesus' death, and his path to it, that there is no disgrace or shame involved, no matter the intentions of the other people involved.  And what an appropriate ending line- who will declare Jesus guilty, indeed?

Psalm 31:9–16
Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am in distress; my eye wastes away from grief,
   my soul and body also.
For my life is spent with sorrow, and my years with sighing;
my strength fails because of my misery, and my bones waste away.

I am the scorn of all my adversaries, a horror to my neighbors,
an object of dread to my acquaintances; those who see me in the street flee from me.
I have passed out of mind like one who is dead; I have become like a broken vessel.
For I hear the whispering of many— terror all around!—
as they scheme together against me, as they plot to take my life.

But I trust in you, O Lord; I say, ‘You are my God.’
My times are in your hand; deliver me from the hand of my enemies and persecutors.
Let your face shine upon your servant; save me in your steadfast love.


Comments:
Here we have a Psalm about persecution, one which reminds us of what kind of situation Jesus really is in.  Because while he was welcomed just a few minutes ago (in the service) into Jerusalem to the shouts of crowds, in a festival atmosphere, in less than a week the crowds will turn on him.  We are on our way to Good Friday, and this is a Psalm written by someone who understood what it meant to not be able to trust the people around you.  Soon people will flee from Jesus in the street, the whispers all around will come.

And yet, in the end, we will find parallels between the Psalmist's reaction, and Jesus'.  But that's next week.

Philippians 2:5–11
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God
   as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave,
   being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form, he humbled himself
   and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name
   that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend,
   in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
   to the glory of God the Father.


Comments:
This text is commonly known as the Christ Hymn. As I mentioned earlier, during the processional text, Jesus did not fulfill all of the expectations of the Messiah who would save the Jewish people.  He was humble where sovereignty was expected, he was peaceful where war was expected, and his parables never quite meant what the disciples first expected.

Here we also have a bit of the "first shall be last and the last shall be first" theology that we're going to hear about much more in the Easter and post-Pentecost Sundays. But Palm Sunday, a day of reversal, is a very appropriate time for it.

(Luke 23:1-49)
This text, when I was a kid, was strictly understood as optional on Palm Sunday, because this was before the whole Passion Sunday idea became a... thing.  It's become more encouraged to do this text as well (or an even more extended version!) in addition to the processional text as the years have gone by.  But I won't do it.  No.  I refuse.  See, if you look this text up in the Bible (which, by all means, I encourage!) you'll notice it's the Passion story.  It's the crucifixion.  And the idea that's been getting more popular these days is that lots of people won't come to the Three Days services (Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Vigil/Holy Saturday) so you may as well tell the story on this Sunday too.

And that's the kind of thing that gets right up my left nostril, frankly.  I don't think I could keep it up for the entirety of Holy Week, but I would rather hold a Good Friday service every two hours until past dinner on Good Friday, than to tell the Passion story on Palm Sunday.  Because it messes with the narrative, and it messes with the Lenten journey, and that's not something I'm willing to do.  We've spent weeks upon weeks getting up to this point- I'm sure there were a few Christmas sermons that mentioned this, so months of time, getting to now- and I will not ruin the journey we've been on this whole time right at the end.  If a movie messed with pacing like this at the very end, after a complicated and riveting plot, you'd leave disgusted, wouldn't you?  I won't do it.

So, read this text, certainly, please do.  Study it, pray with it.  But I'm keeping Palm Sunday about the procession, here- there's plenty of sermon there, lots of both Law and Gospel, it's a necessary part of the journey.  I will not skip it.  We will get to Calvary at the proper time.

Go in peace, remember the poor.  Thanks be to God.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Book Review: Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief

I've always made a point of getting to know people who think and believe differently than I do, and reading about a variety of people and belief systems.  The reading in particular was always mainly the cheaper option to international travel, but now that I'm entering the clergy, I'm taking it more seriously as a part of my call to the ministry, because more and more I find that reading and learning about things I disagree with helps me clarify my own beliefs and understandings.

Which was why I wanted to read this book as soon as I saw Lawrence Wright (the author) interviewed on the Colbert Report a few weeks back.  I'd heard a few things about Scientology over the years, but nothing really concrete.  I wanted to learn more about it, but what little I did know led me to take the things the "church" said with a large grain of salt.

So, having read it: I think this book was very carefully researched and written- everything is cited, every piece of information the author gives you, he tells you where and from whom he got it.  Every item that has been denied by the people or groups involved, he tells you that, too.  There are a lot of footnotes (though most of them are very short).  I found this book very readable- the chapter that's essentially the biography of L. Ron Hubbard drags a bit in the middle, but the rest is all vivid and suspenseful.

It paints a picture of an incredibly disturbing cult- one that involves child abuse, indentured lifetime service that essentially turns into slavery, forced divorces and abortions, physical, emotional and spiritual abuse, and an incredible amount of in-group-out-group pressure.  It painted such a disturbing picture, in fact, that afterward I did a little digging on the Internet to do a bit of my own fact checking.  Scientology has its own website, which I won't link to, but you can find if you're interested.  Those of you who have some experience with psychology, sociology, or just weird group dynamics will probably find it fascinating in a bad way.  I also found a website called exscientologykids.com which has a lot of information as well, from another point of view.

And if you're looking for just one fact to check up on- Scientology has had one leader since L. Ron Hubbard died.  That leader has been married to the same woman since before LRH died.  She has not been seen in public since her father's funeral in 2007.  Missing persons reports have been filed to no avail, and her husband won't talk about it.  Does that sound healthy to you?

So, certainly a fascinating read and a well-researched piece of journalism.  Thanks to reading this book, I'm going to be adding a few things to my list of ideas for future posts- including how to recognize a group or a leader as just bad news.  And add a few things to my readings list.

Which reminds me: seminary friends, I remember there was a book on cults and how to recognize them that was very popular in seminary, and I think came out either while we were there or just a few years before.  I had a chance to browse it in school, but never actually read it, and always wanted to.  But I can't remember enough of the title to find it now.  It had five or six primary characteristics that each had a chapter focused on it.  Can anybody help me out?  Thank you!