Selling Salvation

I’m often frustrated by the way conservative evangelical Christianity dominates the media. From mid-April to mid-May, Franklin Graham kept appearing on my TV during the national news hour. His primetime ads promised salvation in the midst of COVID hell. So I wrote a response and published it on Medium. You can read my essay on “Selling Salvation during a Pandemic” here.

 

 

The Overstory: A Brief Book Review

I just finished reading The Overstory by Richard Powers. Let me tell you about it. Let me tell you how it helped.

I’d been reading a lot of non-fiction for a larger writing project; bell hooks on teaching and community building; Gloria Ansaldúa’s Borderlands; Martin Luther King’s Where Do We Go from Here?; Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider. You get the drift. I was plowing through books—great books—learning and growing.

But when COVID-19 arrived on the scene, sending my college students home and shutting down my state, I got distracted. I couldn’t focus. All I could do watch the news and worry—about my family, about our college, about the men I have come to know at our local prison.  I tried to keep reading, but I couldn’t keep my mind on the page. I decided I needed to lose myself in fiction.

The Overstory is a big book—500 pages big. And sometimes I struggle to make it through big books. But this one captured me right away. While perusing many great options, I decided to read this book because it had won a Pulitzer and because I it was about trees. I love trees.

The story follows a handful of people whose lives intersect as each gets involved in saving trees (and the planet) from destructive human greed and overconsumption. The way Richard Powers introduces each character and then follows them through their story reminded me of the structure of one of my all-time favorite books, Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible. The trees themselves are characters in The Overstory; planted on a newly settled farm in Iowa, a chestnut tree’s growth is recorded with a monthly photograph by generations of family farmers; Mimas, a giant redwood, serves as a host to activists who climb and take shifts living in its branches for months to save it from loggers. The trees, we learn in The Overstory, communicate with each other and with us. They care for and protect and continue in the face of threats. But humans are the trees greatest threat—and, as the story goes, the greatest threat to ourselves as well.

Reading this book in the midst of a global pandemic turned me towards the world, especially the natural world, with fresh eyes. When toilet paper and Clorox bleach and my kids favorite fizzy juice drinks can’t be found in the stores, I’m learning to make do with less and appreciating what I have more. I’ve been taking long walks and spending time in my own backyard. Our trees are beautiful. I’m learning their names: birch, pear, silver maple. I’m regaining my focus—not so much on what threatens us, but on what can save us. The answers to our problems are all around us. I hear them especially at night when I walk outside and listen to the prairie wind stir the crowns of the trees.

 

 

 

Traveling

” A thing can travel everywhere, just by holding still.”

These are the words of a tree in Richard Powers’ beautiful novel, The Overstory.  The story reveals how trees communicate with us and create community, supporting each other wherever they are planted. It’s a story that is giving me hope in these days of COVID-19 social isolation.

It gives me hope as I worry about the incarcerated men who have participated in our book clubs. I imagine them in their cells, living for a month now in lockdown, traveling in the freedom of their minds wherever their imagination can take them. I pray their imagination takes them to beautiful green spaces, full of trees that call them by name and seek to commune with them and support them.

It gives me hope as I reflect on the ways I am currently seeking and valuing community now more than ever. I could do without the grief and anxiety of a global pandemic, but I am grateful for the lessons I am learning: lessons about how to better conserve food and household resources, lessons about what work matters most and what can be let go, lessons about our interdependence as humanity, lessons about how our care for creatures and creation profoundly affects our human lives.

We are all holding physically still in this moment. And yet we can travel everywhere in hope and prayer and imagination. I pray for us to imagine beauty and supportive community. I pray we live into what we imagine for the sake of God’s creation.

[Photo Credit: Gordon Wrigley]

Called to Joy: A Christmas Sermon


Based on Luke 2: 1-14


I might complain (just a little bit) to my pastor friends who serve churches that Christmas, at Monmouth College, comes on December 7th—which means I have to start listening to Christmas music mid-November to prepare myself and my message. There is no Advent in academia, no expectant season of waiting and spiritual preparation.

This year, though, I’m not complaining. Christmas couldn’t come soon enough.

In my message last year, I prayed to God to save us from the darkness which I described as a nation entrenched in deep, unyielding differences; children separated from their parents at the border; hateful, destructive rhetoric; endless mass shootings; wildfires raging; our environment degrading. Obviously, I’m still praying that prayer.

This year, though, the angels have turned me to joy.

In Luke chapter 2, when the angels proclaim Jesus’ birth as “good news of great joy for all the people”, they do not do so in a time when joy is easy to be found, or to a people whose lives naturally spark joy. The shepherds, whom the angels address, are the poor day laborers, the Unseen, the field workers like those bringing in the harvest here in rural Illinois no matter the weather. As I drive by these field workers in rain, sleet and Halloween snowstorms, with my car heater blaring I think, my blood is not thick enough for that kind of cold; my character’s not strong enough for that kind of work. These workers, I imagine, do not rejoice in the labor, as much as what the labor provides—food, shelter, a livelihood for the family they love.

It is to these—these head-down, hard-working, don’t-stop-to-think-about-your-life-or-your-life-will-overwhelm-you— that the angels call to joy—great joy, in fact; life changing, necessary joy.

The poet Christian Wiman writes that “joy is the only inoculation against the despair to which any sane person is prone, the only antidote to the nihilism that wafts through our intellectual atmosphere like sarin gas.”[1]

I often counsel people who are going through difficult times to intentionally seek joy as they observe the day’s sunset, or listen to their children’s laughter, or receive their spouse’s embrace, or witness a stranger’s random act of kindness.  Seek joy, I advise them, not to demean or downplay their darkness but to help them find their way through it. Joy can serve as a buoy when life’s storms overwhelm; moments of joy are stepping-stones through the darkness and despair.

Perhaps you have come here tonight, to Christmas at Monmouth, seeking such an inoculation of joy—a decision the angels would approve of. Because here among the music, and the beauty, and the love and pride we feel for our students who have worked so hard to pull all this off, the world’s problems do not feel so heavy, or so insurmountable.

We need this. We need the good news of a baby born to turn an oppressive human empire on its head; we need the good news that there is a power greater than human greed and immorality; we need the good news that the arc of the universe bends towards justice; we need to hear Luke’s angels proclaim that this Christmas there is good news of great joy for all the people.

We need this joy not only as an inoculation against the darkness and despair but also as a way to resist it.

The poet Jack Gilbert writes:

“We must have the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world. To make injustice the only
measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.”

Joy resists injustice; joy resists despair and hopelessness; joy resists evil by refusing to acquiesce or accept that darkness is the more powerful reality. The angels call a poor, oppressed people to joy so that they can resist the ruthlessness of their world.

Recently, I was introduced to the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam. Mandelstam felt a moral responsibility to write poetry for his people during the Russian Revolution of the 1900’s. When the government demanded poets write patriotic poems to inspire obedience among the working class, Mandelstam resisted. He resisted by writing poetry that evoked a violent, upending kind of joy; the kind of joy that can save you when life is insufferable. Mandelstam also wrote a poem mocking Stalin, which got him arrested, exiled and eventually killed.

In this Russian context, Mandelstam’s poems weren’t written down—they were too momentous, too truthful. He composed in his head while walking the streets of St. Petersburg, reciting his memorized poems to his wife, who memorized them herself and only decades later, after Mandelstam’s death, wrote them down.

Even after he was arrested and exiled to a Russian corrective-labor camp, Mandelstam continued to compose poetry. His health declined. He was starving. The last time he was seen alive he was scavenging for food out of a garbage dump. Mandelstam knew full well that he was about to die. Yet, still he resisted the darkness. The last poem he wrote before his death was this, called “And I Was Alive.”[2]

And I was alive in the blizzard of the blossoming pear,
Myself I stood in the storm of the bird cherry tree.
It was all leaflife and starshower, unerring, self-shattering
power,
And it was all aimed at me.

What is this dire delight flowering fleeing always earth?
What is being? What is truth?

Blossoms rupture and rapture the air,
All hover and hammer,
Time intensified and time intolerable, sweetness raveling rot.
It is now. It is not.

“Do not be afraid,” the angel declares, “I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people.”

Embrace the joy the angels proclaim. Rejoice in the hope God provides.

 

 

 

[1] Joy: 100 Poems, edited by Christian Wiman, Yale University Press, 2017

[2] Read more about Osip Mandelstam in Ilya Kaminsky’s introduction to “Stolen Air: Selected Poems of Osip Mandelstam” and Christian Wiman’s interview here: https://onbeing.org/poetry/and-i-was-alive/

[Feature Image: Drew Selby]

A Case for Generosity in a Selfish Time

This August I spent four days in Nashville, Tennessee taking a class through the Lilly School of Philanthropy where I was introduced to a new study out of Notre Dame called the Science of Generosity Initiative and the book written from the research called “The Paradox of Generosity: Giving We Receive, Grasping We Lose.” The data from this national study, led by social scientists Christian Smith and Hilary Davidson, reveals that the more generous Americans are, the more happiness, health, and purpose in life they enjoy.

Many Americans enjoy living very generous lives. But, according to the data, even more do not.

So why are Americans so selfish? One reason offered by the Science of Generosity Initiative is the fear of scarcity—a fear on the rise in America today.  We are worried about our personal resources, our national resources, our global resources. The fear of running out of money, basic necessities, and basic comforts leads us to a mentality best described by my friend Paul from Tennessee, “You need to get all you can. Can all you get. And guard that can.”

Certainly, there are people for whom scarcity of resources is a real problem. But for others of us, we would be well served to ask, Do we have a scarcity problem, or do we have a distribution problem?

We recently led a program for our college students on Adulting 101.  During the program we encouraged students to create a personal budget for themselves. How much money do you take in in income? How much are your expenses? Then—the all-important question—what is a want and what is a need? Do you need all those mocha frappe’s at Starbucks? Or do you need books for your classes?

Actually, a little bit of financial planning can go a long way when it comes to living a generous life. I will confess that money and economics are not my favorite topics. When my husband, Dan, and I meet with our financial advisor, I fight to keep my eyes from rolling back in my head from boredom. But after reading Smith and Davidson’s book, I realized that my loosey-goosey, unstructured way of giving (put a little in the plate here, contribute to that charity there) made very little impact on both me personally and the social causes I seek to support.  So I forced myself to sit down with Dan; we calculated our income, our expenses, tracked what we currently give to church and charities, discussed where we wanted to be on the scale of our giving (between 4% – 10% of our income) and made some decisions that felt faithful to both of us. Will we have to cut back on some of our favorite indulgences? Yes. (Mainly, I’m told, I’ll have to buy fewer clothes.) But we will benefit more from this planned giving and our causes will benefit more from our structured, monthly contributions.

The fear of scarcity is on the rise, but I imagine most of us could sit down, do a little financial planning and discover we have more to contribute than we realize.

Another reason Americans are less than generous, according to the Science of Generosity study, is a cultural value of autonomy, individualism, and exceptionalism. To put it more crudely; if it doesn’t directly affect me or my family or my people, it’s not my problem.

Greta Thunburg, the young environmental activist from Sweden, has her work cut out for her when she encounters such ungenerous people. When asked about the problem of global warming and climate change, Doug (who was surveyed for the Generosity Study) responded by saying this:

“I don’t pay attention a lot to that. But in the big picture of, “is the ice all gonna’ melt in Antarctica?” Yeah sure it probably is. Am I going to be here? Probably not. Are my kids gonna’ be here? Probably not.”

I feel like I could end this blog post here by just saying: “This is Doug. Don’t be Doug.” But Doug’s awful. And you’re not. So what can we less awful, more generous people do to help a self-centered, self-serving society that is afraid of losing….resources, freedoms, privileges, and power?

First, I think we need to be less shy about talking about money. The bible doesn’t shut up about money and all religions encourage generosity, so it shouldn’t be a topic people of faith avoid. Do our children and our youth know the happiness, health, and purpose in life we enjoy when we give generously?

Also, I think we could all benefit from examining our lives and considering where we could be more generous. For instance, when we vote, do we just vote along party lines, or do we listen to each candidate’s platform? Do we vote for candidates’ who promise to improve only our lives and our economic situation, or the candidates who will benefit the lives of the poor, the disenfranchised, the stranger? Do we invest in relationships beyond our small circle of family and like-minded friends? Do we take any great risks, or sacrifice resources we will really miss to benefit those whose need is greater than ours?

Generosity begets more generosity. I pray we can all enjoy the health, happiness and purpose in life our generosity inspires and encourage our society towards the same.

 

[Feature Image: yarenlen]

 

How I more than doubled the books I read as a busy, working mom

I love to read, always have. But after I became Mom to my two beautiful kids, I mourned the loss of my reading time. I’ve tried to convince my husband to read with me at night, side by side on the couch after the kids have gone to bed (so romantic!) But he reads during the day to prep for teaching his college classes and just wants to watch TV or movies at night. I want to spend time with him, so we typically watch TV or part of a movie, then I head to our bedroom upstairs for about thirty minutes of reading time before I fall asleep. With this scant amount of time dedicated to reading, I’d be lucky to finish eighteen books a year. It took me almost a year and half to finish Anna Karenina. (That book is like a trophy on my shelf now.)

I tried audio books, but found myself getting distracted, then losing the storyline, then quitting in frustration. This past December, though, I started something new.

I’m not sure how I started reading with both an audio book and a hard copy. I think I needed to read a book quickly for work and decided to buy it on Audible even though I already had a copy. But it worked. I’d listen to the audio book while driving, getting ready in the morning, exercising, folding laundry, doing the dishes. If I found myself getting lost, I’d return to the hard copy to re-read what I needed to get myself back on track with the story. Then I’d continue with the audio book.

Having to re-read the hard copy of a book may sound like it would take me twice as long to read a book. But now that I have found a way to make audio books work for me, I am reading books all the time—instead of just 30 minutes at night. I’ve even found that I’m learning how to focus on audio books better now.  Before I started this new reading method, I couldn’t listen to an audio book and exercise at the same time. Now I can.

Since I started reading books like this, using both audio books and a hard copy to turn to when I get lost, or reading both at the same time, I have read thirty books in 6 months. The key to this approach, though, is to avoid BUYING two versions of the same book. That would break the bank! So I’ve learned to rely on my local libraries for the hard copies of my books, shop the sales on Audible for credits, and use apps like Libby for older audio books to rent.

Happy reading!!

[Photo Credit: Magda K]

Prison Book Club

Fifteen minutes into our discussion of Townie: A Memoir by Andre Dubus III, Harold raises his hand. We were in the cleanest, air conditioned classroom of the prison’s vocational building, but the fan was blowing directly above Harold’s head. “Would anybody mind if we shut this fan off?” Shutting the fan off would definitely warm the classroom.  But all twenty of us–seventeen inmates, two faculty and me (the college chaplain)–understood that Harold just wanted to hear the conversation better.  We agreed to shut off the fan.

This is par for the course in our book club discussions at the men’s prison 15 miles from our college’s campus. As our faculty lead discussions on books such as Plato’s Republic, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, The Martian, and the Epic of Gilgamesh, the men lean forward in their seats, not wanting to miss a word. They are thoughtful, intelligent men who are hungry for opportunities to learn.  Our faculty love teaching in the prison. The men who attend our book club have renewed our vocation as educators.  Every time we are with these men we witness the liberating power of education. After class, each man expresses his gratitude for us coming to read books with them and oftentimes they write us heartfelt thank you notes.  Here are some quotes from the men about our book club:

“I felt like a free man for those two hours. The time went by so quickly.”

“We, as prisoners, are rarely the recipients of altruistic acts performed by strangers; therefore, in the rare occurrence when we are, not only do those acts connect us, albeit loosely, to society, but also they affirm our humanity.”

“Having the opportunity to read material that I normally wouldn’t is a breath of life infused into my soul…The collaborative open dialogue of the book club allows me to grasp on to the very thing which my closed prison environment was built to strip away, little-by-little, year after year…my humanity.”

“This book club has given a forum for those intellectuals among our population to gather and fellowship, as well as, challenge ourselves and each other. Perhaps the group’s greatest virtue is that the club is diverse and welcoming of people from different walks of life. In a profound way, your contributions have brought together men whom under normal circumstances may not associate, and so you’ve provided us all with the opportunity to grow beyond just the knowledge provided by the books we’ve read. Knowledge we glean from each other.”

Currently, there are many disturbing cases where books are being banned from prisons, in spite of evidence that reading builds empathy, emotional intelligence, critical thinking skills and reduces recidivism. We feel fortunate that our local state prison continues to let us run this book club.

Would you like to support the program? If you would like to purchase a book for an incarcerated man in our book club, please follow this link to review our wish list of upcoming books we have been approved to read.  If all the books are purchased, you can also support these men by buying a gift card that will be used to buy books we are approved to read in the future. All our books need to be paperbacks and go through an approval process at the prison.