24 February 2006

Book Review: Gilead

The Presidents' Day weekend gave me an opportunity to finish a good book. Usually I have to read piecemeal: 10 to 20 pages a night before I go to sleep. That's the way I'm working through the unabridged Count of Monte Cristo, all 1,500 pages of it. This weekend, though, I found time for Marilynne Robinson's Gilead, and I'm glad I did.

Set in Iowa, it is a story told by a dying Congregationalist preacher, John Ames, to his seven-year-old son. It begins as a diary, strays into family history, and ends with a focus on Ames's namesake, Jack Boughton, a prodigal son who has returned home burdened by an unspoken past.

The diary style of the book is fascinating as it examines Ames's grandfather, a zealous abolitionist who had moved to Kansas in the 1850s and had justified the use of violence to eradicate slavery. Robinson has a sly way of enlightening the reader about Ames as well as the grandfather at this time.

Where the diary style completely fails is in the frank discussion of contemporary events. It's fascinating nonetheless, but hard to justify telling a son about.

What I liked about Gilead was Robinson's treatment of faith. Ames is a solid, grounded Believer who has been tempted and tried. His brother had become an athiest at university in Germany, and his father (also a minister) had even encouraged him to get out of Iowa. Ames had stayed, and I really enjoyed his voice--his faith.

I want to reflect upon a few quotes from the book that really were powerful.

"I feel sometimes as if I were a child who opens its eyes on the world once and
sees amazing things it will never know any names for and then has to close its
eyes again. I know this is all mere apparition compared to what awaits us,
but it is only lovelier for that, when we have all been changed and put on
incorruptibility, we will forget our fantastic condition of mortality and
impermanence, the great bright dream of procreating and perishing that meant the
whole world to us. In eternity this world will by Troy, I believe, and all
that has passed here will be the epic of the universe, the ballad they sing in
the streets. Because I don't imagine any reality putting this one in the
shade entirely, and I think piety forbids me to try." (57)

Now I'm a serious Homer-phile, but I like the treatment of earth's history as Troy--the most celebrated battle of all time.

Robinson also makes a sublime connection between the 10 Commandments and Creation.
"[The 10 Commandments] to me seem almost a retelling of Creation--First there is
the Lord, then the Word, then the Day, then the Man and Woman--and after that
Cain and Abel--Thou shalt not kill--and all the sins recorded in those
prohibitions, just as crimes are recorded in the laws against them. So
perhaps the tablets differ as addressing the eternal and the temporal." (139)

I just know I'm going to use the following quote many times in the future:
"How do you tell a scribe from a prophet...? The prophets love the people
they chastise, a thing this [scribe] does not appear to me to do" (142).

On the issue of doubt, there is more sage wisdom:
"Don't look for proofs. Don't bother with them at all. They are
never sufficient to the question, and they're always a little impertinent, I
think, because they claim for God a place within our conceptual grasp. And
they will likely sound wrong to you even if you convince someone else with
them. That is very unsettling over the long term. "Let your woks so
shine before men," etc. It was Coleridge who said Christianity is a life,
not a doctrine, words to that effect. I'm not saying never doubt or
question. The Lord gave you a mind so that you would make honest use of
it. I'm saying you must be sure that the doubts and questions are your
own, not, so to speak, the mustache and walking stick that happen to be the
fashion of any particular moment" (179).

Finally, I'll include Ames's ruminations on the issue of memory. They are beautiful, touching and heartbreaking:
"I wish I could give you the memory I have of your mother that day. I
wish I could leave you certain of the images in my mind, because they are so
beautiful that I hate to think they will be extinguished when I am. Well,
but again, this life has its own mortal loveliness. And memory is not
strictly mortal in its nature, either. It is a strange thing, after all,
to be able to return to a moment, when it can hardly be said to have any reality
at all, even in its passing. A moment is such a slight thing, I mean, that
its abiding is a most gracious reprieve" (162).

18 February 2006

Mardi Gras and More

We can expect much coverage this week of the Mardi Gras carnival in New Orleans. This city, devastated by Hurricane Katrina last August, has long been a target of media attention and Mardi Gras on February 28th will be a chance for many to reflect--as well as party.

Mardi Gras or Carnival has been celebrated since the Dark Ages. It's English name is Fat Tuesday, the day before Lent, the day people emptied the larders and consumed the last of the sweets before an extended period of fasting.

As much as I have always loved the city of New Orleans, I have never been there for Mardi Gras, and I doubt I ever will. My idea of reveling is, I'm sure, quite different from the spirit of Mardi Gras. It tends to be alcohol-free, for one.

One element that I have practiced for the last seven years has been Lent. Mine has been a learned practice, since I didn't grow up in a church that practiced 40 days of fasting prior to Easter. Back in 1998, as I was preparing to go to the mission field, I felt that Easter deserved to be a religious focal point--it was far more deserving than Christmas for that title. I also felt a great need to practice Lent. I didn't eat meat (which is what most Catholics fast from), so I determined to find something else to forego--a spiritual and physical challenge that could lead to development. I determined to focus on one personal "vice" or another as well as spiritual renewal.

What Worked. The first year, when I was still living in Arizona, I gave up TV during Lent (Sabbath is the day I take off from fasting). When the experience was over, I felt better. I had had more time for God, my Bride, and my baby daughter. Later I focused on my addiction to computer games. It was a time when my love for "Age of Empires" was really frustrating Jenny. I would start playing and be unable to stop unti 2 a.m. sometimes. Giving up the games for 40 days, gave me perspective, new habits, less addiction. Since my 2nd 40-day "fast" from computer games, I haven't been tempted by them since.

What Hasn't. There have been Lenten blunders, too. I have tried to fast by enforcing a certain behavior: worship and exercise have been two. I tried daily exercise the past two years, and each time it failed. I think it was a little too me-focused. Sorry, but I still can't bring myself to imagine that I'm glorifying God by exercising.

This Year. I'm planning to focus on diet. My appetite has gotten away from me since mid-January. I need to bring it under control and dedicate all of myself to God. I'll abstain from sugar or sugar substitutes over the month (except Sabbaths). Furthermore, I'll devote the six Fridays to fasting and prayer for choices Jenny and I are making about where and how we worship.

Why am I revealing this on a blog? I need to be help accountable, for one. I do this for myself by talking about my beliefs. Just seeing this written down gives me hope that Lent, this year, will begin a lifelong change--and continue a lifelong adoration of Jesus Christ.

14 February 2006

Poem: Empty Me of Me

I'm in the middle of teaching poetry at the moment: my freshmen are writing song lyrics for their latest writing project. It gave me an excuse to finish up a lyric I've had on the brain for a few years now.

"Empty Me of Me" deals with the Communion Service, a service which means more and more to me as my faith grows. I have taken to repeating the chorus while I am praying after taking the bread & the wine. Enjoy.

Empty me of me, Lord, fill me with You
Cover all that I've done with what You can do
Instead of all that I know, teach me the truth
Empty me of me, Lord, fill me with You

This morsel in my hand, this bread,
I take, I eat, I'm filled.
As deep within my soul it wakes
Like winter daffodils.
The bread--green shoots; my life--the snow,
The barren, frozen ground.
This morsel blooms within, a living
Body all its own.


And now a sip of wine, I drink
Though thirsty I remain.
The sweetness of the vien bemasks
A twinge of bitter pain.
The pain of sacrifice, a Man
So just and kind and good,
A Man whose death fills up this cup
With His redeeming blood.


A bite of bread, a sip of wine, a moment on my knees.
You said, "Take these things as a rememberance of me."