I am seldom without reading material—the Economist is my staple for doctors’ waiting rooms—but lately I find it more difficult to concentrate on reading that requires sustained attention, like poetry. I have to work at making time and a quiet heart.
My formal theological training began and ended with a course on the
scriptures in eighth grade, leaving me with all the faults of the
autodidact and a paper on what, with an adolescent's callow complacency,
I termed the "affair" of David and Bathsheba. The foundations of my
faith, nurtured by early exposure to the Bible and hymns, lie in song
What book would you recommend to someone eager to learn more about Christianity, someone who is just coming alive to the faith and to the power of the community of faith—the church—and who is full of questions about these matters?
Dennis Lehane, author of Mystic River, has given us an important novel about America, one I am grateful to have at a time when many truths about our racial and social history are routinely obscured by crass politicking, wishful thinking and blatant lies.
Our hearts may sing as we hear the glorious prophecy of Isaiah, as repeated in Matthew’s Gospel: “The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light.” But as we listen to the epistle a nagging voice suggests that the Corinthians have been remarkably busy in their attempts to put that light out.
I am often at a loss for words when people ask me what I think. To me, thinking—making clear and linear progress through my mental swamp—is drudgery that I perform only when it is necessary. But if someone says, “Tell me a story,” I am in my element.
Several years ago I was invited to preach on this gospel passage from Matthew at the National Cathedral on the Sunday designated to honor the state of Hawaii. I struggled with the subject of Jesus’ baptism, partly because baptism is not an easy concept to explain, and this story seemed strange indeed.
My favorite Christmas book is The Donkey’s Dream, which is about the journey Mary and Joseph made to Bethlehem. Meant for young children, Barbara Helen Berger’s story is a brilliant and subtle work of theology. Or perhaps antitheology, as it allows simple images to tell us more than words can convey about what the incarnation signifies.
I had told another visitor to the monastery that the monks had begun 1 Corinthians, in case she wanted an opportunity to hear the letter read aloud. She had written a doctoral thesis and a book on the passage—a process that had engaged her for more than ten years. She knew Paul’s words in Greek, in German and in many English translations. But as she listened in the abbey church, something caught her attention that she had never noticed before. It was a revelation that left her gasping for breath.
"Mercy” is the one expletive my grandmother Norris allowed herself, the all-purpose exclamation for times when she was too awestruck, befuddled or exasperated to say anything else. During the '60s, I considered her “Mercy” to be amusing and even charming, but also embarrassingly anachronistic. Now that I am older, however, "Mercy" seems a fine word for moments when other words fail.
It is hard to believe what we hear, that we are a blessed people, standing in God’s favor. Hard to believe that God will bring righteousness to our world, as mysteriously and yet naturally as a seed sprouts and grows out of the earth. We know it is foolish to put stock in such promises, when we have devastated God’s creation with war and willful misuse.
The most prophetic thing that Thomas Merton ever did was to say to a drugstore clerk who asked him which brand of toothpaste he preferred, “I don’t care.” Intrigued by the clerk’s response, Merton wrote, “He almost dropped dead. I was supposed to feel strongly about Colgate or Pepsodent or Crest. . . . And they all have a secret ingredient.” He concluded that “the worst thing you can do now is not care about these things.”
As we approach the season of Advent, we find Ezekiel being outrageous in true prophetic style. If we pride ourselves on being spiritual seekers, Ezekiel insists that it is God who seeks us out and not the other way around. Can’t we prize the maturity of knowing who we are and of finding communities where we feel at home? Ezekiel informs us that we are in fact so lost that God must take the trouble to find and rescue us.
A mere two years after publishing an absorbing study of anger, Garret Keizer has produced a probing work on an even thornier subject. Is help, as Keizer asserts, the original human dilemma? Was Eve only trying to help Adam when she offered him that piece of fruit?
Barbara Brown Taylor's concise, pithy and challenging prose is evidence that she is practicing what she preaches: that Christian pastors take more care with the words they use and treat language with economy, courtesy and reverence.
I will never forget the first time I heard Denise Levertov read her poetry. In the late 1960s, when I was a fledgling writer in New York, I was thrilled to hear a poet I had found on my own in high school. As was the custom, Levertov was paired with a younger poet, one whose first book had garnered some attention in the literary world.