Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Comfort Reading

The Earth is the Lord's by Abraham Joshua Heschel

Fall has moved in with a cold fog, a warm quilt, a hot cuppa, a purring cat, a symphony playing on the radio....time for a good old favorite book. Often in such a mood I turn to Heschel for the beautiful simplicity with which he writes about life totally absorbed in God. I can read a bit and think a bit and read a bit more, enjoying the beauty of the spiritual universe contained in a nutshell of language. The subject of The Earth is the Lord's is the lost courtly world of Jewish Eastern Europe, described poignantly and lovingly by one of its royal princes for an audience of Americans who never were there and never can go. Every word, every one of the magnificent woodblock illustrations conveys love: love of the life of holiness, love of the holiness of life, as close to "on earth as it is in heaven" as you can get. I close my well worn copy gently with my soul purring.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Who My Neighbors Are

My Jesus Year, by Benyamin Cohen

Here is the son of a rabbi, the scion of generations of rabbis, who grows up in famously secular Atlanta and marries a recent convert from Christianity. He decides that if his wife could spend three years converting to Judaism, he can spend a year exploring the majority Christian culture. He begins at Stone Mountain, where he professes surprise that not all Christians are a monolith. His reportage is gentle. He's interested in and respectful of the people he meets wherever he goes.

Readers of this blog will be happy that he found the Episcopalians serious and reverent. In fact he found lots of Christians, most of whom after seeing this book in print will be pleased to call Cohen a friend. The friend he did not find among Christians, after a year of intense looking, is Jesus. Cohen doesn't seem to name that an indictment of Christian practice in Atlanta, but I do. Nobody from St. Bartholomew's to the New Birth Missionary Baptist megachurch managed to present Jesus to the body, mind and soul of someone earnestly seeking him.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Return to the Hundred Acre Woods

Readers have had to wait eighty years since Pooh and Piglet were last seen in the Hundred Acre Woods. And what joy there is in those woods as the news spreads from Owl to Rabbit to Kanga and Roo and finally over to Eeyore (who doubts it): Christopher Robin is back! So begins school holiday, with a Boy a little older and a Tale no less endearing and a Very Modern Problem as the water supply dries up in the Hundred Acre Woods, the bees migrate and it's left to a Bear of Little Brain to entice them back. With a copy of the four previous books remade into a sturdy and handsome new edition and the new chapter by David Benedictus and Mark Burgess to complete the quintet, it's been the happiest Sunday. And joy O joy, tomorrow's a bank holiday!

Friday, October 9, 2009

Acedia and Me

Acedia and Me: Marriage, Monks and a Writer's Life by Kathleen Norris

This is the latest offering from the author of Dakota, The Cloister Walk and Amazing Grace. Fans of Kathleen Norris will find that deep in the throes of her blue period, with her writer husband hospitalized for a depression more serious than hers, she delivers what amounts to another chapter of her running narrative journal. It's depressing both as a life and as a read. The contemporary monks are incidental. The ancient monks of the desert take their place as sources of wisdom and encouragement, as Norris turns to the desert fathers' term acedia to describe her state of spiritual emptiness, boredom and depression.

Buy this book, but not for its depressing narrative. Buy this book for its wonderful "chapbook" of wisdom on the subject of acedia and depression, quotations from spiritual writers through the ages who have written on that all too common experience. Have this on hand to be able to offer that wisdom when a parishioner or a colleague needs it, or to turn to when you recognize your own movement into a cycle of hopelessness and loss. There's nothing else quite like it available.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Tell It Slant

The title's misleading; this isn't a book about Emily Dickinson who penned the line "tell it slant". Rather it is a book of reflections by Eugene H. Peterson, who did the Bible paraphrase "The Message", imagining what it would be like to hear Jesus speaking in the first person his parables and prayers. Just released in advance of Year C preaching, the reflections are more sermon starters than commentary, covering the Gospel of Luke chapters 9-19 along with the Lord's Prayer, the Prayer in Gethsemane, the Seven Last Words, the High Priestly Prayer and a few other shorter prayer passages. Likely this book will be most useful in preparation for Lent and Holy Week in the C years; at other times it can take its place on the shelf of New Testament -- Luke for consultation as needed.

Monday, October 5, 2009

My Stroke of Insight

Jill Bolte Taylor was an up and coming neuroscientist at the age of 37 when one morning she had a stroke. It was a major stroke on the left side of the brain, causing temporary loss of her cognitive and motor abilities. Her recovery, to the point of now being able to teach and do public speaking, has taken eight years. This is her own story of losing herself and with the help of her mother finding herself again.

Aside from the compelling story, the crystal clear explanation of what happens in an ischemic stroke and the advice to caregivers "forty things I needed the most" make this book a worthwhile resource for those want to be a good help to neuroimpaired neighbors, as well as for families who need assistance demystifying what has happened to a loved one.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

An American Preacher

The Living of These Days, by Harry Emerson Fosdick

It would be hard to imagine any preacher today capturing the headlines of the New York Times as Harry Emerson Fosdick did in 1925: "Thousands crowd Fifth Avenue to hear Dr. Fosdick," the paper reported. An Order of Preachers should know something about a preacher like that. This week in the library book sale I found Fosdick's biography for a dollar and brought the book home.

I knew Dr. Fosdick had been the founding pastor at Riverside Church, since any concertgoer there is so informed. I did not know that John D. Rockefeller himself had recruited Fosdick, a Presbyterian, to take the Baptist pulpit, and that Fosdick agreed only on condition that any Christian from any background, immersed or sprinkled or not even baptized, could become a member. I knew that the construction of the church during the Depression years offered jobs and hope to many; I did not know that building began during the boom before the bust, so that the Citadel of Christ on the Hudson is just as much a product of the Roaring Twenties as it is of the desperate Thirties. I had no idea that Fosdick preached against Hitler as early as 1933 and less idea that the great liberal preacher of World War Two, whose own hero was the Quaker pacifist Rufus Jones, had been a War Hawk pushing for United States entry into World War One.

Fosdick's keywords for the church were nonsectarian, inclusive, and interracial. He commissioned statues of Darwin and Einstein for the church, and wanted 20th century reformers honored alongside Old Testament Prophets and Abraham Lincoln. He envisioned a high altar put into Riverside as a symbol of worship, and got the Baptists to agree to it, but as time went on he found the heart of his own worship in the practice of pastoral counseling.

He moved in the upper echelons of New York's elite. He had a staff to run the church and its myriad of social programs. His job was to proclaim to the city and from the city to the world, and to draw the people in. He did his best at what he could do the best, and retired content. His self-chosen epitaph, half a century before Tom Brokaw, was "What a Generation!"

Friday, October 2, 2009

The book before the book before the new book

I was about to begin on Audrey Niffenegger's new title Her Fearful Symmetry, hearing the soft song of "Tiger, Tiger" in the background, when I saw on the cover that the new book is a follow-on to The Time Traveller's Wife strongly recommended to be read first. On the way to The Time Traveller's Wife I realized I'd never read The Time Traveller, known to us now by its revised name The Time Machine. So tonight I picked up The Time Machine, expecting perhaps a less worthy version of Looking Backward. Was I surprised.

H. G. Wells brought out the first edition of The Time Machine in 1895. As expected he deals with the question of the political future: what would be the evolution of the Haves and the Have-Nots, and were the Communists right that theirs was the destiny of history? Not surprisingly he follows the racial philosophy of traditional Western Civilization: the Negro remains essentially tribal and based in Africa, the evil menace lies beneath us and the Fruitarians above who call themselves Eloi enjoy the inheritance of Classical Greece, empty temples and all. The lonely bachelor scientist finds love, or at least affection, in another dimension and finds it no trouble at all to choose bliss over progress.

But would we have expected the stunningly accurate picture of global warming that's here? The little people who are obviously literary forerunners of Hobbits and their menacing Morlocks whom Tolkien readers will instantly identify with ringwraiths? The first flight into the fourth dimension with its compressing chill already familiar to anyone who grew up on Madeleine L'Engle?

What totally astonished me is the date -- 1895. Wells writes, "There is no difference between time and any of the three dimensions of space." He's a quarter century ahead of Einstein, who began with the mechanics of time and space to show that there is no difference between matter and energy. Albert Einstein won all the big prizes for the theory of relativity published in 1920. It sure seems like H. G. Wells should get some of the credit.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

O to Be in England

Now that Autumn's here! The soup's on, the aroma of roasted vegetables and fresh hot bread maketh glad. In what must be Britain's ultimate progressive dinner, Sarah Edington guides us through the culinary offerings of twenty-one of the National Trust's Historic Houses. Sample menu: a country vegetable soup from Kedleston Hall served with Cliveden lentil and wine pate; Berrington homity pies with ossum salad from Buckland Abbey on the side. Finish up by tucking into an apple and stilton strudel while enjoying the view of the Claremont Landscape Garden. Robert Browning never had it so good. Please sir, I want some more.

The National Trust Vegetarian Recipes; revised from the earlier National Trust Book of Healthy Eating. More at