Book Review: How to Lead Like Francis

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Pope Francis has set the world spinning around the Catholic Church in a way that hasn’t happened for a long time. Like all great leaders, he has also inspired criticism from some quarters, most of it, ironically, from devout Catholics who fear change.

I understand these discomfited change-fearers. When it comes to the Church, I’m a bit of a change-fearer myself. I draw comfort from the liturgy and the teachings. What some people see as intransigence on the part of the Church, I see as stability and strength; something I can count on in this crazy world.

However, the Church is a living organism, the great Body of Christ in the world. As a living organism, change, however slowly it happens, is part of its essential nature. The key to successful change is the guidance of the Holy Spirit, primarily, but not entirely, through the leadership of the Pope.

Everywhere I look, everyone I read, is chattering about the Catholic Church these days. The reason? Pope Francis’ straightforward leadership style of going to people and meeting them where they are.

It is a simple fact that you can’t be a leader if nobody follows you. In our power-hungry world where so-called leaders insulate themselves from everyone except other leaders of their same rank and place, true leadership, as opposed to simply holding a position with a leadership title, is rare.

Witness our latest Congressional debacle. Was there any leadership in it? None that I saw, not from either side. It was a pie-throwing contest in which the pie throwers absolutely did not care if anybody followed their so-called leadership.

In truth, no one can be more alienated from their “followers” that those who occupy positions of “leadership” in commerce, industry, politics, and yes, religion, in America today.

That, more than anything else, is why the whole world is responding to Pope Francis. He is reaching out to them, and they are responding by reaching back.

Pope Francis: Why He Leads The Way He Leads, analyzes Pope Francis’ leadership through the author’s knowledge of Jesuit formation and the Holy Father’s own biography. As such, it is a fascinating read for anyone who wants to learn more about our pope. It is also just plain good advice for those who want to lead other human beings.

I have a master’s degree in management, and I’ve spend 18 years of my life holding a leadership position in the public sphere. I have never seen a better book on how a true leader gets people to follow him or her.

It’s simple actually. Leadership is service. Leadership is about the people you want to lead, not you. True leadership begins with a foundation of personal character and segues into a focus on serving others.

What that means is building products, providing services, writing books, making movies, enacting laws, preaching sermons, repairing plumbing and planting crops that enrich and elevate the people who use your wares. In commerce, it means that if you build a better mousetrap, it will sell. In child-rearing, it means that if you spend time with your kids, they will flourish. In politics, it means that if you put the people first, the country will thrive. In faith, it means that if you reach out to people in love, as Pope Francis is doing, they will reach back.

The author makes a strong case that Pope Francis’ leadership style is heavily influenced by his Jesuit training. But I believe it is even more heavily influenced by that other hands-on leader — Jesus of Nazareth.

He, like the Pope, did not refuse to dine with sinners, to speak complex truths simply, to reach out to sinful people in ways that the more persnickety of the religious of His day found scandalizing.

Pope Francis: Why He Leads the Way He Leads is an excellent analysis of our Holy Father’s leadership style. It provides insight into the origins of this pope’s thinking in a format that connects all this to our own leadership challenges in our workaday lives.

Pope Francis is more than just a rule-meister who issues guidelines like thunderbolts. He is a leader who gets down in the pits with the rest of us and leads by example and by inclusion.

This book makes that explicable. I highly recommend it.

Book Review: What Are You Afraid Of?

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What Are You Afraid Of? by Dr David Jeremiah seeks to provide a workable life theology for believers who are facing the inevitable rough spots in life.

It is a fact of existence that some people skate through life without experiencing overwhelming tragedy. It is also a fact that other people suffer one tragic even after another. Another unwelcome fact is that the course of a person’s life can change from sunshine to tragedy in a moment.

You never know.

It is this not knowing that creates much of the fear we have to live with as we traverse our days. It engenders all sorts of fear in people. Dr Jeremiah focuses his book on some of the most common fears, beginning with one I’ve had some recent acquaintance with: Natural disasters.

Dr Jeremiah not only focuses on natural disasters, he uses a description of the May 20 tornado that flattened a large part of South Oklahoma City (where I live) just a few months ago. People I know are still rebuilding their homes, grieving their dead and trying to put themselves back together from this tornado.

So, why does one person skate through a disaster like this without so much as smudging their mascara and another come out of it permanently paralyzed, or facing the loss of home and loved ones? Is there a balance in the cosmos that makes this right?

I’ve read about people who respond to these things by turning their back on God. But I’ve only known one person who did this in my whole life, and he found his way back to God later. In truth, it’s the people who aren’t suffering who use the tragedies of life to make jibes at God. The ones who are in the throes of the pain are far too busy clinging to God with all they’ve got to find energy or time to denounce Him.

Dr Jeremiah retells the story of the Tower of Siloam, which fell on a group of people in Jesus’ time, killing several of them. Jesus tells his disciples that this didn’t happen to the people who were killed because they were sinful. “God makes his rain to fall on the just and unjust,” he said, which I suppose, was Jesus’ way of saying that stuff happens.

Does that mean that God is uninvolved in what happens to us?

Anyone who has ever walked with the Lord knows this is not true.

That leaves all of us with unsatisfactory answers to these things. I think this is primarily because our perspective is temporal. God sees things from outside time.

What Are You Afraid Of? is an interesting book that seeks to answer one of the deepest questions of humankind: How do we balance the innate, existential fears that are encoded into us with the certainty of God’s promises and eternal life?

Book Review: Coming Home to Wholeness

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Life is hard. 

Life for Americans is not only hard, it is usually frantic. 

We are frantic, almost driven, people. I did not realize this until I went to a country where people live by a different internal clock. The contrast was stunning. 

Americans are certainly not the only people who race from deadline to goal to commitment to task. And we have a sense of self about how we do it that is our special grace among the driven places on this earth. But living here is a tough boogie.

Life is hard and it is fractured and in some ways desperate. Our nation is divided between the drop outs who just sit, and the doers who never sit at all. In both cases there is a kind of desperation and overwhelmed thing going on. In the case of the drop outs, overwhelmed is where they live and what they do. But for the doers, overwhelmed is the demon they fight every day. 

Judy Valente, the author of Atchison Blue, is an overwhelmed fighter. She is an astonishingly high achiever who has managed to carve out a flourishing career for herself in two competitive worlds: free lance writing and human interest broadcast reporting. 

Her private demons are a nagging dread of death and the great bugaboo of everyone; family problems. The major betrayal of her life was being laid off from her job at the Wall Street Journal the year after she was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Based on what she writes in this book, losing this job was an earthquake for Ms Valente, a wake-up call about trusting career to be the all-in-all of life. 

Her solution for her human woes is to seek the thing we lack in our American society: Wholeness. 

It is a simple fact that the abundant life that Christ offers us is based on a spiritual and emotional wholeness that the larger society (any larger society) can never provide. Anyone who wants to be whole must find a way to retreat at intervals from the squabbling bitterness of our workaday lives. Without these retreats, we slide into a kind of fractured insanity without being aware of it. I see this insanity quite often in the exceedingly fractured world of politics. In fact, there was a time, back before Jesus rescued me, when I was pretty sick with it myself. 

There is no permanent cure for this fractured-ness. It’s causes are so thoroughly woven into this fallen world and the way it treats people that no one anywhere can completely escape its pull. However, for overworked, over-stimulated Americans, it is particularly ubiquitous. We are a driven people. The fact that we in large part drive ourselves does not change this. 

Without retreats, stopping places, we become so fractured that the insanity of life becomes our own insanity. 

My retreat is simply going home. When I walk into my house and shut the door behind me, I leave the frantic outside world. Nobody inside those walls is going to attack me or betray me or go on the internet posting lies and accusations about me. Inside these walls, I am free of that. 

Ms Valente sought something akin to this when she went to the Benedictine monastery, Mount Scholastica, in Atchison Kansas.

I’m beginning to think that monasticism is a particularly good fit for writers. After all, writers are already contemplatives by nature and avocation long before the monastery bug bites them. 

For someone like Ms Valente, who is a poet and human observer writer, walking into the monastery must have been something akin to what I feel when I walk into my house. She must have known at some level that this was home. 

Atchison Blue is a lovely book written by a journalist-poet whose writerly skills enable her to tell the story without letting the poetry overwhelm it and still keep the romance of the contemplative life in the midst of the story. It’s a delicate balance; the kind of writing that probably comes naturally to a journalist-poet. 

Reading this book makes me want to pack my bags and head off to Atchison myself. I imagine it will do the same thing for many of its readers. 

Love stories are like that. They make you want a love of our own. 

In the final analysis, that’s what Atchison Blue is; the love story between one woman and monasticism. It is the tale of her homecoming to wholeness in the contemplative life at a Benedictine monastery. 

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The oblates of Mount Scholastica, Benedictine Monastery. Ms Valente is the one on the bottom right. 

Book Review: American Militarism vs the Kingdom of God

Fight To join the discussion about Fight A Christian Case for Nonviolence, or to order a copy, go here

Fight is an ironic name for a book that is a polemic on the Christian call to nonviolence.

The book’s author, Preston Sprinkle, wrote the book in response to and as a conversation with America’s militaristic evangelical community. Even though I have a few problems with some of his interpretations of specific scriptures, I think he’s got a point. In fact, I think he’s dead-on accurate in many of his conclusions.

I remember seeing a video of one of our preachers here in Oklahoma City. This preacher was speaking (I can not regard his speech as a sermon of any sort) to a thoroughly roused-up and enormous congregation. Since the speech was going out over the airwaves, his actual audience was much larger.

This preacher was charging up and down the stage, mike in hand, using all the theatrics at his disposal. He would bend over and lower his voice to make a bottom dropping point at one place, and then straighten up and shout out his next point. It wasn’t a sermon. It was a performance.

And it wasn’t even vaguely Christian.

This man was taking verses out of the Bible to weave a totally fallacious case that somehow or other Jesus supported invading Iraq.

He had his audience in the palm of his hand. After all, most of them came to this particular church because they liked performances for their sermons and because they wanted “christian teaching” that would get them going emotionally while making them feel great about whatever they wanted to do in the first place.

The audience cheered and yelled like they were at a football game.

I haven’t seen many things that disgusted me more than this performance sermon and its clearly heretical mis-use of Holy Scripture to support a war.

I knew, even then, that the whole Iraq invasion was a sham. This was an unnecessary war that we were going into for reasons that had nothing to do with what we were being told. I have never understood why anyone would have had trouble seeing through the excuses for this war.

I also saw that if America’s Christian community did not stop using Christ to justify war, it would eventually destroy itself. People will follow the theological heresy of militarism so long as if feels good. But, as Europe has shown us, bombed out buildings and gas ovens do tend to dim the luster of it.

War is an almost preposterous evil. The Civil War general, William Tecumseh Sherman, the same General Sherman who burned Atlanta and waged war on the civilian population in his infamous march to the sea, said that war is hell.

He was right.

A friend of my husband’s went to view the federal building after the bombing here in Oklahoma City. “That is nothing,” she said as she gazed at the ruins. “Nothing.”

She had lived through war waged on a large scale. She had, in her youth, seen whole cities razed to bombed out hulks, human beings burnt to ash as they hid in their bomb shelters.

We are so soft when horror comes to us. We can not bear our losses, cannot abide our pain. But we treat war itself, which is savagery writ unimaginable, as if it was a computer game. Maybe we do that because we can switch our wars off in the same way that we switch off computer games.

There is very little reportage of what is happening on the perpetual warfront that America has embarked on. We bomb and slay without the rest of us here at home knowing about it. Our best hint of what is happening is when we see our own soldiers, returning to us with shattered bodies and — often — shattered minds.

Something ugly is out there on the other side of the endless rambles of the talking heads debating their endless gaffe reporting about what some politician said to a friend in an elevator or mumbled under his or her breath when he or she thought the mike was off. Something really ugly is out there, but we can’t see it, don’t know about it.

Our only real intimation is that we hear constantly about our national debt. We are told that the cause of this debt is us. It’s Social Security and Medicare. It’s the public schools. The whole debt and economic malaise of this country is the fault of those who pay the bills: The American people. No one mentions, no one even whispers, that we are funding a war colossus that asks for more, more, more ever single year and has been doing so since World War II.

We never talk about that 800 lb gorilla sitting in the middle of the room eating all the bananas. Such talk would be unpatriotic. It would mean that we don’t want to “defend ourselves” against all those people out there “who want to kill us.”

Militarism is a false idol. It is also, according to the author of Fight, anti-Scriptural and anti-Christian.

Fight takes the reader on a survey of the Scriptures from the viewpoint of looking at God’s teachings about war and militarism. Notice that militarism is a category that is distinct from war. One is an action of government-sponsored violence. The other is an outlook, a belief in war itself. It is an idol.

A large part of what Mr Sprinkle writes about the Old Testament necessarily focuses on discerning what God meant, rather than what He said. This is important to all Christians because the Old Testament seems in many ways to challenge the New Testament. Western Civilization is at its best when it is responding to the clear teachings of the New Testament, and at its worst when it looks for excuses for its murderous impulses in the Old Testament.

How are Christians meant to understand the seeming contradictions in attitude between the two covenants?

Mr Sprinkle does a fine job of presenting his answer to this, at least so far as it concerns war and war making. Fight is a well-written, well-researched presentation of his viewpoint concerning violence, war and the call of all Christians to follow Christ, even to the cross.

I don’t honestly know what I think about some of the points he makes. I need to think them through first before I can say. But I do think the book is a good read that opens a debate American Christians need to have.

I do not want to see Christians in this country fall into the trap that Christians fell into in Nazi Germany of supporting militarism right down to the pit of hell.

I am not and never have been a pacifist. I believe in self defense. That would seem to put me outside the ideal Mr Sprinkle is advocating. However, I cannot deny that his presentation is compelling.

My main interest in his book is that it starts a needful conversation. I remember that preacher charging around the stage, preaching what was clearly the heresy of militarism to a cheering crowd. I see this country edging ever closer to economic ruin while we feed our resources into the maw of a war machine. And I know that we must change or die.

 

 

Book Review: Keeping the Main Thing the Main Thing

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Free, by Mark and Lisa Scandrette, is a self-improvement book for Christians who’ve lost sight of the main thing in their lives.

Americans are distracted and over-stimulated. We’re all hoarders of one sort or another, whether it’s experiences or cash. It seems that whatever we do, we take it past our benefit to our harm.

Free is designed to lead its readers into a structured self-analysis which, hopefully, will show them ways to let go of the things that they are holding onto so tightly. It tries to encourage readers to back away from the greed for experience, money, stuff that is frazzling and entrapping them.

I suppose whether or not this works depends mostly on the person who is reading the book. If you’re the sort of person who takes tests in magazines and on internet web sites to determine what kind of lover you are or how long you may live, then Free is your kind of book.

The first chapter of Free asks you to stop for a moment and consider one thing: What matters most to you.

Of course, the long answer to that can and does change as people travel through life. Passing your driver’s license test may rank pretty high on your list when you’re 16, while having enough money to send your kids to college might be more important in your 40s or 50s. Keeping your health becomes a major goal as you age, and my 88 year old mother can tell you that just hanging on to your memory is a big goal later on.

These transitory goals and concerns are not unimportant because they are transitory. They matter. The reason they matter is that they are the stuff of life. We don’t live our lives in mountaintop experiences where the only reality is some transcendent notion of eternal good. We live our lives down here in the daily pits where getting a driver’s license or sending your kids to school make a difference in the quality and scope of the time we have.

The trick is how to separate the flotsam from the things that make a difference. Watching tv 24/7 is a waste of life. Oddly enough, so is spending you precious time as a career-obsessed money slave chasing after gold for its own sake. Everybody has to make a living, but making money is only useful to us when it supplies the goods that make life livable. When chasing after a buck becomes the purpose of life, then that endless chase after the carrot that’s always a bit too far ahead becomes just as much a waste of life as vegging on the sofa watching tv.

The truth is, life itself, by itself, never has meaning that can transcend the dailiness of what it is. Getting and spending are empty. Even living and loving has an emptiness at its core.

This is because we are hybrid creatures. We are bound by our physical selves to a physical existence ruled by the temporal realities of time and inevitable death. Seen this way, everything we do is, as Solomon put it, “vanity.”

Only God can give meaning to our lives because only God transcends our living,. As I said, we are hybrid creatures. While we live out our days in this life within the limitations of our physical existence, there is in each of us a longing for transcendence. We ache for the immortality we cannot see but know is there. Meaning in this life is found in the reality of the transcendence of God.

When we look at our span of years and the things we do with them in the light of that transcendence and our unrealized part in it, then even the most daily of endeavors takes on dimensions of meaning that give them deep dignity. There is satisfaction is living life within the scope of a transcendent God. What we do matters. Everything we do matters. And we matter, too.

The trick is keeping the main thing the main thing. Even while we are caught up in the dailiness of our lives, we can know and understand that we are also part of the great web of eternity, that our smallest actions are writ large in the overall scheme of things in ways that we cannot know now.

We are children of the living God.

And that is the main thing.

Book Review: Deriving the Personality of God from His Actions in Scripture

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To join the discussion about Finding God in the Bible, or to order a copy, go here

I gave this review a title that more or less describes what I see as the function of the book, Finding God in the Bible, by Darren Wilson.

Mr Wilson has an interesting story of his own. He was, by his own description, a ho-hum Christian, doing an ez-pz light-weight Christian walk through life when God butted in and called him to go make movies.

He doesn’t go into detail (which I would love to read, btw) about this call, but it sounds as if God did one is his, “stand over there” deals with no explanation and expected Darren Wilson to step out in faith and do as he was told. God has never hit me with something like “go make movies” with vague directions to head off to foreign lands with a camera and see what happened. But I’ve definitely gotten more than one of those “stand over there” type instructions.

I don’t know about Mr Wilson, but I felt like an idiot the first time I did it. I mean, the version of “stand over there” I got made absolutely no sense. In fact, it placed me where I didn’t particularly want to be and where I was also (to my understanding) wasting my time. It felt at the time as if God was putting me on the bench to sit out the game. Then, out of nowhere, He pitched me the metaphorical ball, which I could never have caught if I hadn’t been standing “over there” as He’d told me.

It is true that faith grows with these experiences. It never gets easy, but you do learn that God has a plan and you can at least trust that He knows what He’s doing, even if you don’t. I am confident that there are times when God tells us to do things and we do not see the reason until we get to heaven.

Mr Wilson covers a bit of this in his book when he talks about Abraham. God told Abraham to get up, take his wife and leave a nice cushy life in the most forward-looking metropolis of his time and head out into the wilderness. This was the ultimate “stand over there.” Years later, God promised Abraham a lot of things about the great nation of people who would come from him, but Abraham never saw any of this come to pass in his lifetime. He died in that wilderness and was laid to rest in the cave near Mamre with nothing but his trust in God that all these promises would be realized in time.

The Bible says that despite the fact that he would never see them in this life, Abraham believed God when God promised him these things and God reckoned that to him as righteousness.

So maybe following a “stand over there” command gives each of us a small bit of righteousness. It would be nice to think so.

Darren Wilson did what Abraham did and what so many people do not do. He got up and headed out the door and did this utterly impractical thing that God had asked him to do. The interesting thing is that every time you do that, God counters with a bigger request the next time. Before you know it, you’re living your life built around Him.

That’s the lesson of Abraham and Darren Wilson.

It’s a lesson that reverberates throughout the interpretive re-telling of Bible stories that this book contains. One after the other, God interrupts the lives of people in the Scriptures with requests that they do what they’re really rather not do. And one after the other, they  do it. Some of them do it gracelessly and after a good bit of whining and argument, but in the final analysis, they almost all follow through.

The one big exception in the stories Mr Wilson chose for this book is King Saul. Saul’s failed reign finds its failure precisely in his lack of faith. Saul didn’t wait on the Lord. Unfortunately for us type triple As, waiting on the Lord is as much a lesson of faith as doing for the Lord.

God always seems to make you wait. And then when you’ve decided nothing’s going to happen, here comes that metaphorical ball that He’s tossed you. At that moment, you understand a bit of what you were standing around waiting for in the first place.

Waiting is a lesson in faith. Just like “stand over there” is. Sadly for him, Saul failed this test.

I didn’t agree with every single nuance of every single interpretation of scripture that Darren Wilson wrote in this book. But there’s no reason why my understanding is any better than his. The point for me is the fact that he engaged me to the point that I wanted to sit down and talk to him about it.

I liked this book, and I also found myself liking its author. I plan to look up the movies he’s made and watch them.

I think, after reading Finding God in the Bible that I can see why God gave that particular assignment to this particular man in the first place.

Book Review: Social Media Ministry and Community Building in Today’s Church

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Clergy talk a lot. Clergy usually also write, read and socialize a lot.

By a lot, I mean a lot. The average priest, preacher, deacon, rabbi, imam, probably has moments every week when he or she would like to drop their cell phone in the nearest toilet and flush. 

These people are intelligent and greatly gifted in verbal skills. 

You’d think they’d be naturals for thinking up ways to use the social media to promote their beliefs and extend their faith community past the church doors and into the world. 

For some of them, this is true. We have outstanding clergy bloggers here at Patheos. SQPN was founded by the podcasting priest, Father Roderick Vonhogen. But for most clergy, especially Catholic priests, not so much. 

Why do I say “especially” Catholic priests? Because it’s just a fact, at least concerning the priests that I know, that the good ones are somewhat reluctant to use the new media to preach, teach, organize and build community. Also, we’ve had some appalling falls from grace by “star” priests who either were corrupted by the attention, or were ripping off the priesthood as a vehicle to fame in the first place. 

It is important for us to tread carefully in the business of making “stars” out of people who may not have the anointing for the work. But social media does not have to make rock stars of clerics. It can be, and it should be, just another form of communication to a world that is dying for lack of social and spiritual nourishment.

The lack of community is an emotional poverty in many people’s lives. Social media can be a way of reaching out to these people with a Christian hand. It can bring them the Gospel they will never find inside a church because they won’t go inside a church in the first place.

It can also build community within existing church congregations. Too many people go to church kind of like they go to a movie. They go, sit through the service, then leave and never talk to anyone from the parish until they go back again the next Sunday.

Social media can allow parishioners to develop contact between one another, learn more about their faith and become engaged in a more intimate and companionable relationship with their parishes. 

But how is a religious leader to start the process of developing a social media presence for his or her church?

The Social Media Gospel, by Meredith Gould, seeks to answer that question. 

The book makes many important points. It is critical for church leadership to spend time planning and learning before beginning the social media adventure. The author says that it’s important to decide what you want to accomplish with social media and how you’ll know if you are accomplishing it. 

Also, church leaders need to build their social media activities around the beliefs that are the reason why their church exists in the first place. 

The book gives useful guidelines for the thinking it through part of developing a social media ministry. It does not provide technical information about the how-to phase of setting up this ministry. It is a worthwhile read for someone who is thinking about setting up a social media ministry for their church. It is especially useful if you are trying to decide whether or not your parish or church should engage in social media ministry.

I think the answer is an emphatic yes, churches should engage in social media ministry. I think the rewards of community building among existing parishioners alone will be astounding. 

For a parish to ignore social media in today’s world is a little bit like ignoring the need for sound systems. These things are tools, and those who bring Christ to the world should use every tool they can find to do this effectively. 

These two videos, Don’t Be That Church I & II, were created by Meredith Gould, the author of The Social Media Gospel.

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Book Review: Resurrection Year

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Infertility treatment grinds you down, both physically and emotionally. It involves taking large doses of hormones that make you feel lousy. Your blood must be monitored on a daily basis to make sure the hormone levels in your body are not getting dangerous, and you have to go through daily ultrasounds to check your ovaries.

There’s a lot more to it than what I just said; the pain of all those procedures and needle sticks, the emotional roller coaster and the repeated monthly disappointments. It not only costs a great deal of money, it makes it harder for the woman to work, tethered as she is to the fertility clinic and her over-charged body chemistry.

Infertility treatment is more than just medical treatment. It is an all-consuming way of life that can destroy a woman emotionally and spiritually, as well as damage her physically. It is stressful for the marriage and for relationships with extended family and friends.

I know about this because I’ve been through it myself.

Resurrection Year is the story of how popular Australian radio show host Sheridan Voysey and his wife Merryn dealt with the aftereffects of years of failed infertility treatment. This devout Christian couple was left devastated by the combined trauma of years of aggressive medical treatments and the loss of their dream to have a child.

It is striking that Merryn appears to never have reproached her husband, even though the infertility problem came from his low sperm count. The person she reproached was God. In her own words, the experience left her wondering if “God is a meanie.”

When Merryn told her husband that she wanted to move away from Australia and “have an adventure” by moving to a new country, he agreed to do it, even though it meant leaving behind his thriving career and literally starting over. Merryn had lost her first dream of motherhood, and he wanted to give her this new dream. They moved to England where Merryn found meaningful work at Oxford University, but Sheridan floundered professionally, unable to get started again in this new country that didn’t know him.

The first year they spent in England was their Resurrection Year. It was a year in which Merryn healed from her traumas and losses to be able to go forward in acceptance. It was the time she needed to get to know God on a deeper level and not only regain, but advance in her love of Him and spiritual growth.

Sheridan, too, ended up growing and advancing in his life in Christ. But his growth came from the pain of loss that he felt for having given up a career he loved to start over in the same field as a nobody once again.

What the book is really about is the give and take of marriage.

Merryn and Sheridan exhibited the kind of love that makes a marriage work. She, as I said, never rebuked him for the pain she suffered because she couldn’t have children. For his part, he not only gave up his career to help her dream a new dream, he did it without begrudging her the happiness she found in moving to England and without becoming bitter or angry toward her over the pain he experienced while re-starting his career.

I think the reason they were able to do this lies in their Christ-centered lives and their deep love for one another. Even when Merryn “lost” God in the depths of her pain, she didn’t turn her back on Him. She just honestly asked the question that everyone asks when life beats them up unjustly: Why?

She asked this question within the framework of the Gospels, the love of other Christians and her own best friend in this life — her husband. The answers she found in the Resurrection Year were the same ones that Christians have always arrived at when the pain is too much, and that is simply that we may not understand why in this life, but we do know that He is there with us in that pain.

Sheridan had to walk his way with less support from other people. Most of us don’t realize that loss of career is a loss every bit as real and painful as any other. It drives to the heart of our self identity and feelings of worth. It changes the way other people treat us and what we think of ourselves.

Sheridan suffered through this in the same way Merryn faced her grief; by walking with Christ and reaching out to other people.

Resurrection Year is a gentle book that doesn’t slam you over the head with conclusions and bullet-pointed lists of things you should do. Even though it talks specifically about recovery from infertility treatment and childlessness, its lessons could apply to any of life’s trials.

Perhaps its most important message is what it says about Christian marriage. The role of helpmate shifts from one spouse to the next, depending on the circumstance, throughout every good marriage. We have to love the people we marry, and we have to accept the limitations they bring with them to the marriage without reproaching and blaming them.

Resurrection Year is a good book to read on a Sunday afternoon. It is short and easy to get through. Its life lessons on how to love your husband or your wife are something we all need to learn and re-learn each day of our married life.

Book Review: StrangeGods and the Idolatry of Me

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To join the discussion about StrangeGods, Unmasking the Idols in Everyday Life, or to order a copy, go here. 

I’m going to suggest that my book club read StrangeGods, Unmasking the Idols in Everyday Life for its July discussion.

The reason is simple. Author Elizabeth Scalia has written a book that is so thought-provoking it makes me want to sit down with her and talk about it. I think my book club members will feel the same way.

StrangeGods unmasks both the meaning of our personal idolatries and the way we spiral deep and deeper into worshipping them until all perspective and thought are lost to them.

Idols and idolatry violate the First and greatest Commandment. When we put anything in our lives as the center of our thinking and make that the touchstone of our values and the object of our desires, we have created an idol. The extent that we allow this idol to become the center of who and what we are reflects directly the depth of our idolatry.

Jesus told us, “You can not serve two masters.” You cannot serve two gods. You can not follow the real God and also an idol of your own devising at the same time.

That, at root is what is wrong with idols and idolatry. They are placebo gods for the real God, and like all placebos, they only appear to have power in the imaginations of our minds.

Elizabeth understands that we can have big idols and little idols. We can and do make an idol of almost anything. I would say that in an odd fashion, I make a idol of food because I reach for it to find comfort. I sooth myself with food like a monkey, rocking in place with its tail wrapped around it, is soothed by the motion of rocking back and forth.

In that sense, food, for me, is an idol of sorts. It’s not the intellectual idol that politics or commitment to a cause can become. But it is something I use to deal with my troubles instead of turning to God with them.

That’s the core of idolatry. It is a substitute for God, the real God. 

StrangeGods makes the point that many of our idols are, like my use of food, strange indeed. Our obsessions quickly become our idols, as do our compulsions. All these little idols, each of which begins with our self-referencing self-absorption and moves outward to an unhealthy focus on things, actions and ideas, are an expression of isolation. Me first is ultimately and always me only.

Whether you waste time, money and health on unneeded food, or you isolate in front of a computer or make some idea or plan or ambition the center of who you are, you are always at root isolating yourself on an island of me first. The seminal idol is always ourselves. All the rest flows from that.

StrangeGods leads us from a discussion of the many ways and many things we substitute for God in our lives to the really egregious mental addictions of what Elizabeth call “Super Idols.” Super Idols are the overarching idols that become ideologies, philosophies and ultimately, world views.

We see them and their damage all about us. As our society has moved more and more from a God-centered world view to a me-centered world view it has shattered and divided along the fault lines of our selfish desires. We dress these things up and call them “rights” or “causes.” We label ourselves along the divisions we create to separate ourselves from our brothers and sisters, but in reality these things are all lies. They are just idolatry spread large and become organized into the false religions of political and social movements.

I know something about this. I’ve practiced this form of idolatry and I deal with its practitioners on a daily basis. There is no person so indifferent to the consequences of their actions to their country, other people, or even themselves as someone who is in the grip of a super idolatrous false social religion. 

These people have checked both their brains and their hearts at the altar of their super idol and they are fueled by the twin evils of unthinking rage and self-righteousness that super idols pump into them. They’re dangerous. They’re destructive. And they are mean and cold-hearted to a level that their saner selves would find abhorrent.

As you can see, StrangeGods is a thought-provoking book that leads you to find yourself on most of its pages. It is a convicting and inspiring read in that it convicts you of the idolatries in your own life and it also inspires you to repent of these sins of false idol worship and turn back to the real God.

In the end, we turn to false idols because they are comforting reflections of us. They don’t appear to ask the difficult things of us that relationships with an other always does. Idols seem easy and comprehensible because at root they are ourselves.

But you cannot serve two masters. You cannot follow false gods and the real God simultaneously. You have to chose, and given our proclivity for self-referencing you have to make this choice many times in a single day. Banish the little gods and you will spare yourself the true evil of the super idols that take your mind and your goodness away from you. 

I heartily recommend StrangeGods, Unmasking the Idols in Everyday Life. It is that rare thing: A book that can make you want to be and do better.

Book Review: Blessed, Beautiful and Bodacious. Celebrating the Gift of Catholic Womanhood

To join the discussion about Blessed, Beautiful and Bodacious, Celebrating the Gift of Catholic Womanhood or to order a copy, go here

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Blessed, Beautiful and Bodacious, Celebrating the Gift of Catholic Womanhood, by Pat Gohn is a hymn to woman’s essential femaleness.

Femaleness, or true femininity that is based on the reality of who we are as women, has been dissed and put down since time immemorial. Ms Gohn’s book incorporates the teachings of the Popes, especially John Paul II, and the saints, in particular St Edith Stein, to illustrate the beauty of the unique gifts of womanhood.

Reading Blessed, Beautiful and Bodacious was like opening a series of chocolates, all wrapped in shiny paper, and finding that the treat inside was prettier than the wrapping. Ms Gohn is unafraid to acknowledge the maternal instinct that is part of every woman. We may deny it or ugly it up by twisting it into shapes it was never meant to take, but the desire to hold your own child in your arms is real and powerful.

Pat takes the reader by the hand and leads her (the book is clearly written for the “hers” of the world) through the many reasons why God made us blessed, beautiful and bodacious. She encourages women to joy in their feminine maternal natures instead of thwarting and denying them.

At the same time, the book is informed on every page by her deep faith in Christ. As a breast cancer survivor who had young children at the time she was diagnosed, Pat is able to communicate what it means to trust God in the extremities of life. Her description of the prayer discussion she had with God about what would happen to her children if she died from the cancer is itself blessed, beautiful and bodacious, as well as profoundly moving.

Every mother has walked a good bit of this road in one way or the other. We’ve all been through the ailments of pregnancy and the all nighters caring for a sick child. I agree with Pat completely that these times bring women close to God in a profound and absolute way.

My own faith grew deep in those years I was a mother of small children. Bringing new life into the world and then raising those babies to be healthy and productive adults is the greatest challenge and gift any human being can know.

Women are, as Pat says, blessed, beautiful and bodacious. God made us that way.


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