Book Review ‘Traveling mercies’ by Anne Lamott

My monthly review of a wonderful book for those of us navigating the space between faith and doubt.

Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Two culture wars rage in the US. One is the familiar, Republican/Democrat, pro-abortion/pro-life, skyscraper America/suburban America that splits the US into two politically stale halves. The other is waged by certain Christians against the Republican agenda, which smells to them of state religion. Anne Lamott is a feisty, funny, eloquent campaigner in this second war.

She is the real thing as a Christian, but in the book also shares her struggles with abortion, alcoholism, bulemia and single motherhood. In her hands, all that is a lot funnier than it sounds.

She writes beautifully and with insight and I really enjoyed the book. My caveats were:

1. It’s really a girly book (and I’m not a girl). A whole chapter on her hairstyle, yeah…
2. At times she writes a little bit like a child being deliberately naughty so as to get someone’s attention. This is an endearing but occasionally irritating habit,
3. Why oh why does one who writes so beautifully, who can drop a carefully-crafted thought into your head like a bird alighting on a twig, whose writing sometimes takes your breath away, why does she feel the need to litter her prose with the f-word and other obscenities? So unnecessary.

But a lovely writer, in mid-season form, prophetic at her best, touching the mind and heart.

When the door is shut to truth, try a story

A Closed Door‘Once upon a time, Truth went about the streets as naked as the day he was born. As a result, no-one would let him into their homes. Whenever people caught sight of him, they turned away and fled. One day when Truth was sadly wandering about, he came upon Parable. Now, Parable was dressed in splendid clothes of beautiful colors. And Parable, seeing Truth, said, “Tell me, neighbor, what makes you look so sad?” Truth replied bitterly, “Ah, brother, things are bad. Very bad. I’m old, very old, and no-one wants to acknowledge me. No-one wants anything to do with me.”

Hearing that, Parable said, “People don’t run away from you because you’re old. I too am old. Very old. But the older I get, the better people like me. I’ll tell you a secret: Everyone likes things disguised and prettied up a bit. Let me lend you some splendid clothes like mine, and you’ll see that the very people who pushed you aside will invite you into their homes and be glad of your company.”

Truth took Parable’s advice and put on the borrowed clothes. And from that time on, Truth and Parable have gone hand in hand together and everyone loves them. They make a happy pair.’

(Yiddish Folktales, Pantheon Books, New York, edited by Beatrice Silverinan Weinreich, ISBN: 080521090)

As we read the four gospels, we see that Jesus never used scripture as a starting point except in the synagogue. He always used stories about everyday things. Perhaps surprisingly, it is never recorded that He even used a short narrative story from what we now call the Old Testament.

Jesus was not a theologian; he was God who told stories (Madeleine L’Engle)

Both quotes from: http://www.InternetEvangelismDay.com/parable.php#ixzz1NM1YaFCO
at Internet Evangelism Day
Under Creative Commons License: Attribution

Vocation: what to do when you have no time or are in a job you hate

UphillVocation is about ‘where your deep joy and the world’s deep hunger meet.’1

It can seem like a luxury if you don’t have a minute to spare in the day. If you’re tired all the time. Or if you’re holding down job(s) just to pay the bills.

Vocation isn’t a luxury.

Especially if you’re tired, stressed, or overworked, it’s an essential. It’s daily bread for  your soul.

What is vocation for you? What satisfies your heart? Painting? Hospitality? Intercessory prayer? Helping others? Seeing kids grow? Reading? Dance?

Find some time just for this. It might be only half an hour an month. It might mean going to bed late or setting the alarm early. You can manage that once a month.

I am in the happy position of having nearly died (three times). I have had my heart restarted after it stopped. I have spent a month in a coma. I’ve actually forgotten how many times I’ve been carried in an ambulance with the blue lights flashing.

One thing I learnt was this. Don’t die with your music still inside you. Do something about it, however small.

If you’re coming at this article from the background of a Christian faith, understand that your vocation is the best thing you can do for the Kingdom of God. It’s the best way of serving God and neighbour. Vocation, in these terms, has an audience of just One: the lover of your soul. Do it for him.

If that isn’t your background, pursue your deepest love anyway. Do it this month. Start somewhere. You will find you are not so stressed, not so overworked in the rest of your time. And you know that seasons change, kids grow up, the mortgage gets paid, space opens. Don’t miss the moments you can  prise out, like diamonds, from a barren-feeling life.

How to bury a non-churchgoer (part 3)

goodbye
I asked my former church leader Canon Stephen Leeke this question:

Because I am a Christian and am occasionally found doing ‘religious stuff’, I have twice been asked to do funeral services for family members. These family members did not want a Christian funeral. I want to help the best way I can. What should I do?

In previous posts Stephen suggested four guidelines:

  • All human life is precious and God loves us all.
  • I am not the judge and he knows all the thoughts of our hearts.
  • I am a minister of the gospel and a servant of Jesus Christ.
  • A funeral is primarily for the benefit of the living.

Here are his final three:

  • The deceased’s opinions should be respected but not be paramount.
  • Funerals don’t have to be funerals!
  • Jesus said, ‘Let the dead bury the dead’.

    The deceased’s opinions should be respected but not be paramount

Only a couple of days before writing this I was in conversation with someone who had asked me to do his funeral. He gave me details of the Bible reading and hymns he wanted and I carefully filed them away. But he now informed me that he has since talked to two other ministers, asking them to do his service, and choosing different hymns! Unless the details are specified in a will (and sometimes that is not read until after the funeral) they should not be too influential.

It is more important to consider those who are present. So he may have been a determined atheist, for example, but his wife and children may be devout Christians. Their wishes should be taken seriously. Even practicalities like travelling difficulties are important.

He may have wanted his ashes to be scattered in their back garden, but his widow may be planning to move and wants somewhere to lay flowers.

By the way, make sure they decide what is to be done with the ashes. Too many ashes sit around on the shelves of Funeral Directors or in the cupboards of relatives or are fought over or (heaven forfend) even split up and shared out. Urge them to make a proper decision.

Funerals don’t have to be funerals!

I recently presided at a memorial service for a popular man in a packed village church. His ashes were present, and buried afterwards, but the funeral had taken place the day before at the crematorium with only the undertaker present! A memorial service can start with a blank sheet and can be held at any time after the death.

Jesus said, ‘Let the dead bury the dead’

Jesus’ quotation does give one the opportunity to turn down an invitation to preside at other-than-Christian funerals. Our calling from Christ is clearly not to bury the dead but to minister to the living, indeed to preach the good news, in season and out of season, to the living.

It would be entirely appropriate to say, ‘If I am leading it will be a Christian service, if you don’t want a ‘religious service’ I won’t do it’. I will happily lead a funeral for someone who is not a Christian, but it will be a Christian funeral.

‘That’s my advice, Glenn.’

… and many thanks.

Vocation: how to know if you’ve got it

Regreso / ReturnLiving  your vocation is a mark of a slowmission lifestyle. If we all spent our days doing what we love and are good at, the world would be a better place.  How do you recognize vocation? What are the marks of it?

(I’m grateful to my friend Simon Goddard who gave a talk about this stuff and whose material I have adopted(/copied).)

  1. It’s your passion. This is what gets you going, what you look forward to, what you feel deeply about and what you want to spend your life doing.
  2. You’re not bad at it. You don’t have to be the World No.1. But you’re not terrible at this. Other people appreciate it. I am a writer. I have yet to win prizes in other spheres of life, such as ballet dancing or rocket-designing. But I do win writing prizes. I feel writing is the only beautiful thing I do, and then only sometimes. But at least I do that one thing.
  3. The world needs it. OK, that’s a little grandiose. The fate of the entire planet or the destiny of nations doesn’t have to absolutely hang on you coming up with the goods. But what you do does good, eases loads, makes things better, slakes a thirst. Your joyful endeavour meets a deep need somewhere: wonderful.
  4. The money works. Ideally, you get paid for it. Or maybe someone else gets paid enough in their vocation for you to work for free. Or sometimes you have to do a bit of tweaking to make the money work. For example, people who love the visual arts can get paid as designers. Journalism–being paid to write things for other people–worked for me for a long time. And so on. This can be a happy compromise between creativity and practicality. But also, careers evolve and hopefully you settle into a vocation more and more.

 

But some questions

This does raise a couple of questions, though.

  1. What about when it’s spoilt by difficult colleagues, bad managers, financial cuts?
  2. What if you haven’t the luxury of choosing your job(s) — you just have to put bread on the table?

That’s next week’s blog.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How to bury a non-churchgoer (part 2)

I asked my former church leader Canon Stephen Leeke this question:

Because I am a Christian and am occasionally found doing ‘religious stuff’, I have twice been asked to do funeral services for family members. These family members did not want a Christian funeral. I want to help the best way I can. What should I do?

In a previous post, Stephen pointed out: 

  • All human life is precious and God loves us all.
  • I am not the judge and he knows all the thoughts of our hearts.

This second post adds two more principles:

  • I am a minister of the gospel and a servant of Jesus Christ.
  • A funeral is primarily for the benefit of the living.

I am a minister of the gospel and a servant of Jesus Christ

    The assumptions I bring to any funeral are Christian ones. I can’t help it. They knew that when they asked me. And the words I use will be scriptural ones. I won’t assume they agree with me, but I will speak about the hope that is in me. The CofE service is again helpful here, giving prayers which are full of meaning and express the thoughts that many have but in a Christian language.

It also helps by separating the ‘Words of Tribute’ from ‘The Sermon’. The tribute comes at the very beginning of the service and is about  the life and achievements, character and qualities of the deceased. The sermon comes after the Bible reading (a requirement). It is best done as a short explanation of the chosen reading and the good news of Jesus.

The service can take the congregation from mourning their loss of an individual to a realisation of what faith in Jesus has to offer them. It ends with a powerful prayer commending him or her to God our merciful creator and redeemer, because it is God who will judge.

A funeral is primarily for the living

   The minister’s job is to minister to the congregation there. The service should help them. I usually say at the beginning:

       We have come here today to remember before God our brother/sister N;
  and to give thanks for his/her life;

    To pay our respects to someone who was important to us [and to our community];

       To pray for those who mourn and to comfort one another in our grief;

       To consider our own lives in the light of death and to prepare ourselves to meet our maker;
       To commend him/her to God our merciful redeemer and judge;
  and to commit his/her body to be buried/cremated.

I think this gives a right balance.

There is usually an enormous sense of relief and completion after a good funeral and often a desire to do better. I have known people coming to faith through the words they have heard.

One congregation for a funeral I did included a man who had unwittingly caused a young girl to commit suicide, and the girl’s father, who had vowed to kill him. I spoke strongly and prayed about forgiveness and was overjoyed to witness the two embracing after the service. A good funeral can bring about real healing.

A slight problem with science

What science is good at. And what science isn’t good at. According to @rabbisacks

“Science, technology, the free market and the liberal democratic state have enabled us to reach unprecedented achievements in knowledge, freedom, life expectancy and affluence. They are among the greatest achievements of human civilization….But they do not and cannot answer the three questions every(one) should ask at some time in his or her life: “Who am I? Why am I here? How then should I live?”.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks Not in God’s Name.

 

(Actually this is not a problem with science; just a necessary limitation worth recognizing)

Three annoying habits of Christians (and how to cultivate them)

annoyedThe Christian faith triggers a number of  reactions among which are:

‘Not really sure’

‘Not for me’

‘Not today’

Or

‘I’d rather put my head in a food mixer.’

Some of this might be blamed, rightly or wrongly, on genuinely irritating habits of Christians such as:

  • Reactionary politics
  • Believing conspiracy theories
  • The Crusades, The Spanish Inquisition and the Salem Witch Trials
  • Over-prolonged eye-contact
  • Invading my personal space
  • Excessive empathy
  • Puppyish enthusiasm

and

  • Always wanting me to go on courses

I do believe, however, that some irritating habits I see in some of my fellow Christians are worth nurturing. Here are three. If only I could:

Grace. Refusing to speak ill of people. Introducing a positive note in the office just when morale is at its most deliciously dismal. Not bearing grudges or engaging in satisfying acts of minor malice or revenge. Doing the coffee cups. Not assassinating people behind their backs. Buying the biscuits.

Certainty. ‘I have become one of those annoying people who is sure God loves him. Goodness and mercy will follow me all my days. God will not stop doing good to me. My death will see my longings fulfilled, my tears wiped away and possibly my nose blown. I know I deserve none of this and I agree you are as good a person as me. Sorry if you find that irritating in some way.’

A light touch. Aw, I wish I had this. And I wish the millions of people banging away on keyboards in their bedrooms had this. God save us from point-by-point refutations.

Satire should, like a polished razor keen

Wound with a touch that’s scarcely felt or seen

(Mary Wortley Montague, quoted in Stephen Pinker p 766.)

How to bury a non-churchgoer (part 1)

Overgrown graveyard 3

I asked my former church leader, Canon Stephen Leeke, this question:

‘I have twice been asked to do funeral services for family members. These family members did not want a Christian funeral. I want to help the best way I can. What should I do?’

Stephen kindly responded.

As an Anglican minister I have conducted many funerals and since I retired I seem to be doing more! Many of them were for people who were not committed Christians. The Church of England funeral service is a great asset and has been carefully worded with some very useful features.

My principles:

  • All human life is precious and God loves us all.
  • I am not the judge and he knows all the thoughts of our hearts.
  • I am a minister of the gospel and a servant of Jesus Christ.
  • A funeral is primarily for the benefit of the living.
  • The deceased and his or her opinions should be respected but not be paramount.
  • Funerals don’t have to be funerals!
  • Jesus said, ‘Let the dead bury the dead’.

All human life is precious and God loves us all

This is one of the things a funeral service is saying implicitly. And it needs to be said. If I refuse to officiate because the deceased was not a ‘Christian’ (by my reckoning), what am I saying about God? He only loves the faithful? – He doesn’t. I am only interested in those who have joined up? – I ain’t! 

I was asked to preside at the funeral for one of my school teachers whom I hated. In preparing for the event I found that his children had a similar emotion! They said to me, ‘We don’t know what you are going to say.’ I said that I would not lie and nor would anyone know my opinion of him. I spoke about his good points and his achievements, balanced by the fact that not everyone liked him and he was far from perfect. The congregation thanked me afterwards for painting a true picture of the man they knew and mourned even though he was problematic. I was acutely aware that I am far from perfect too and that I am not the one who has to judge.

I am not the judge and God knows the thoughts of our hearts

It is given for man once to live and then comes judgement. Some people wouldn’t mention that word at a funeral but I am grateful that the CofE service does.

So suppose everyone says he was an atheist, but was he? And was he at the time of his death? I have known people come to a living faith in Christ hours before their death. And others who have said ‘Amen’ to prayers they heard when in a coma. So who is to tell what the dead person believed (or even what they wanted?) I just don’t know, so I rarely ask the family what the deceased believed or whether he was a churchgoer (does that guarantee a ticket?). But I have discovered that the Funeral Director often asks whether they want a ‘religious’ funeral or a non religious one! Relatives can demur at asking for ‘religious one’. It sounds a bit off-putting. But if they nevertheless still ‘want the vicar to do it,’ fine. Where there is faith there is hope.