Some Fine Books on Marriage — a Book(s) Review

Three of them, to be exact — each one unique, each one valuable for different reasons. One is a daily devotional guide that provides thoughtful and humorous reflections on the realities of married life, one is a memoir about a difficult marriage, one that ultimately did not hold together, and one is a lovely apology for marriage and fidelity in an age when neither is of high value to the larger culture.

First up, “Love at First Fight,” by Dena and Carey Dyer. A disclaimer here — Dena is a dearly loved friend of mine and member of an ongoing Facebook small group that has prayed faithfully for one another for over four years, so I am a tad prejudiced. She and her husband are both talented singers, entertainers and writers and their book displays that talent beautifully (except for the singing – though a search of YouTube yields golden examples of that, as well!). Designed to be read by couples, this is a thoughtful and well-written daily guide to the ins and outs of living side-by-side with another human person, one to whom you’ve spoken words of commitment in a public setting and who then proceeds to drive you absolutely crazy on a regular basis. Humor is sprinkled heavily throughout this little book along with some pretty solid advice. They gently tackle topics like family of origin differences, personal quirks, differing energy levels, disagreements about everything from raising kids to who does what when. Both Dena and Carey are honest, sincere, funny and ultimately, kind to the core. And that is a rare gift in this crazy world of ours.

The second book was a best seller before it was released, “Love Warrior,” by Glennon Melton. I am grateful for Glennon’s presence on the web, impressed by her good works and huge readership, a group of thousands which has become a generous sister warrior community. She is outspoken, intelligent, and a clear voice for those who are marginalized and suffering. She is also a recovering alcoholic, someone who has known her share of personal sorrow and struggle. This book takes an honest look at a marriage that was troubled from the beginning and walks the reader through her husband’s infidelity and how they made their way back to some kind of wholeness in the aftermath. Just before the book’s release, however, she announced that they are now living separately (on the same street) and will soon be divorced. The writing is raw, and sometimes hard to read, but most of those who are fans will undoubtedly love every bit of it. I did not. That is a highly personal response and does not mean much, to tell you the truth. Oprah loved it, however, so what do I know??

The third book is a gem. “Very Married: Field Notes on Love & Fidelity,” by Katherine Willis Pershey is rich with personal story-telling, a case study or two, and some lovely thinking about why marriage matters and what covenant keeping looks like. Katherine is a fellow former writer for Deeper Story, a website which I miss to this day, so we have had some internet connection over the years. I also loved her first memoir, “Any Day A Beautiful Change” — a favorite read several years ago. This second book does not disappoint.

No less a figure than Eugene Peterson — my absolute favorite pastor-who-also-writes (also — Barbara Brown Taylor, so maybe not absolutely absolute!) — has this to say about the book: “. . . without question, the very best book on marriage I have ever read — and I have read many.” He also writes the forward for this book — that alone is reason enough to purchase and read it, at least in my opinion.

I need to tell you that I received a free copy of this book in exchange for my review, but I would happily buy it — and I will. It will be a pleasure to give it as a gift for anyone I know who is either planning on getting married or struggling to decide if their marriage is worth salvaging. There is a winsomeness to Katherine’s writing — she is honest, admits their areas of struggle, is strongly in favor of good marital counseling, and doesn’t shy away from the hard parts of the marriage journey. But throughout every page of this book is a strong, almost palpable sense of joy and gratitude, a thread that pulls the reader along on a gentle wave of gladness. That is a gift, one that I appreciate and celebrate. I am ‘very married’ myself — for 51 years on the 18th of December this  year, and I found myself nodding with recognition all along the way. For a long list of reasons, this sweet book comes with a high personal recommendation — it is definitely worth reading.

Putting That Horse BEFORE the Cart . . .

When I began to seriously explore the internet in the months leading up to and following my retirement from parish ministry at the end of 2010, I was stunned to discover an enormous array of opinions, viewpoints, personalities, and stories — oh, my, the stories! They ran the gamut from ultra-conservative to out-there-liberal (to use outdated terminology . . . maybe fundamentalist to progressive is more current?).

One of the voices that most intrigued me was that of a young, Methodist pastor in the south named Morgan Guyton. Morgan addressed ‘big’ issues, wondering aloud about theological positions that have been espoused by wide swaths of the Christian community for the last few hundred years. He engaged serious conversations about atonement theory, environmental and justice issues, always asking insightful questions and encouraging honest feedback.

Now, he has a book! I am working my way through this little gem, one chapter at a time, digesting, noting questions in the margins, nodding my head, or scratching it, ALL of which I love when I do serious reading and thinking.

Today, I am joining a blog tour for this book, looking especially at chapter four — “Empty, Not Clean: How We Gain Pure Hearts.” This is the fourth of 12 provocative contrasts that form the spine of this volume, which is called: How Jesus Saves the World from Us: 12 Antidotes to Toxic Christianity. I highly recommend  this book to you and encourage you to engage with it and see where you land on each issue in turn. It’s a very good thing for the church to re-examine what we say we believe and why. Morgan Guyton invites us to do exactly that.

IMG_8002

“The problem is that the modern American church often makes Christianity into a completely rational, purposeful, experience instead of a spiritual, intuitive encounter. We seek to know about God rather than to know God, and we worship our knowledge of God instead of God himself.”

Can I get a LOUD amen? I cannot even begin to verbalize how exhausted I feel by argument, by theological nitpicking, by endless and circular conversations about fine points of dogma. Even Jesus himself told us that words are far less important than deeds (see John 10:25), that ‘right belief’ is revealed only in right relationship, that abiding is what is needed. Being with, listening, stilling the noise, living in love . . . these are the things that make for pure hearts, that help us become who we were meant to be.

The line of distinction that Morgan draws in this chapter is the one between trying to stay clean and trying to get empty. That last phrase is one that would have made me more than a little bit nervous about a dozen years ago. Empty? Whaddya mean, empty? Sounds new-agey to me. 

I have since come to appreciate the fine difference between empty and open . . . so I might have chosen the latter word here. But what he means by ’empty’ is pretty much what I mean by ‘open,’ so I’m pretty sure we’re on the same page!

For far too long, religious folk (I’m talking almost all religions here, not just the Christian one) have chosen a bifurcated view of the world, making it (and the flesh, which Morgan discusses in a later chapter) the enemy of our souls. The result is too often a growing list of do’s and don’t’s and a shrinking view of all that is good and beautiful in what God has designed and given. Others of Morgan’s generation have written moving memoirs noting this phenomenon – Addie Zierman, Rachel Held Evans, among many others – sometimes describing the debilitating after-effects of a steady diet of fear-based restrictiveness. The entire purity sub-culture is an extreme example of this ill-fated attempt to ‘keep our young people pure.’

It does not work. Anything based on fear is doomed to failure. Anything. And fear is what lies behind so much of the ‘staying clean’ mentality. What is desperately needed is an invitational mentality — we need to invite our children (and ourselves) into the wideness of God’s mercy, the enormity of God’s creative genius, and the beauty of unending, unquenchable, ever-widening Love. 

There is a gem of a paragraph on page 39 that I am finding to be deeply true in my own spiritual journey just now:

“Before the rational modern era in which we live, Christian prayer looked very different. In the rational, modern approach to life, which tends to be all mind and no heart, the purpose of prayer is simply to make requests of God, and say appropriate things about God. But for most of Christian history, prayer has involved repeating the same words over and over again every day, according to a fixed schedule in a sacred language that isn’t your mother tongue, not in order to tell God what he already knows or ask him for what he already knows you need, but to “order {your} steps in {his} word.” (Ps. 119:133)

Courtesy of a blogpost by Sarah Bessey early in Lent this year, I have been using some lovely prayer beads, assembled and sent to me by Episcopalian nuns in the midwest somewhere. With the beads, came four different suggested prayer rotations to use while fingering them. I chose the Celtic version and have been using both beads and words every day since. Now this language is English, but the vocabulary is definitely not my own and I am hear to tell you that using these aids has changed my prayer experience in ways that are only positive. There is a movement from the left side of my brain to the right as I softly whisper the words that are now my own, cemented in my memory by frequency, something which a dear spiritual director earnestly desired for me to experience several years ago! (He sent me to the ocean for long episodes of staring and waiting, which is also a wonderful aid to this process.)

As the beads slip past my fingers, and the words enter the atmosphere around me (through sighs and yawns!), I find the presence of a Loving God to be real and near in ways that using my own chosen words too often do not. Yes, I still offer names and faces to the Throne, I still say thank you with almost every  breath of my day, I still offer, “Help,” and “Glory!” regularly. But the openness that comes with ritual has stunned and moved me.

Mike McHargue (“The Science Guy” for those who listen to The Liturgists podcasts) reminded us recently that we are creatures who possess a human brain that is wrapped around a simian brain that is wrapped around a lizard brain, etc. And it is the noise from those parts of ourselves that we so often need to silence. And what is the single most helpful aid for silencing them? Repetition, liturgy, learned prayer. YES! For Morgan, this is a critical step on the road to ’empty.’ For me, it’s part of becoming increasingly more ‘open’ to the presence of God.

He finishes this chapter with some reflection on a topic I have addressed, both here on the blog and in the ebook that is available to my newsletter subscribers. And we come to different conclusions, he and I. I take issue with the “more of Jesus, less of me” mentality, preferring instead to say, “more of Jesus, MORE of me.” I say this because I deeply believe that God does not desire us to so much become Jesus but to resemble him, in our own unique and irreplaceable selfhood. We are, after all, invited into a partnership with God in the building of the Kingdom in this place. God chooses to use very frail human vessels to do God’s work in the world. Jesus is our guide, our template, our savior and our friend. And we are invited into relationship with the Triune God through the selfless giving of this dear Incarnate Friend.

Hopefully, as we release the lists, as we say good-bye to the do’s and don’ts and the ‘stay clean’ entanglements, we will, indeed, ever more closely resemble our crucified, risen Lord. But . . . we will still be ourselves. Because WE are the reason Jesus came, we are the reason he lived and walked among us, telling those stories, teaching those lessons, dying on that cross and rising from that tomb. God loved who we are enough to join us, to celebrate us, to welcome us, to change us.

And that is the wonder of it all, is it not?

I’ll keep working through this book and hopefully, engage other chapters here on the blog in coming weeks. In the meantime, why don’t you get yourself a copy and let’s dialog about it, okay??

 

“Speak: How Your Story Can Change the World” – a reflection

speak3_final

From the very first words I ever put out on this blog, this has been my theme and my call:

“Tell stories, Diana. Tell your stories.”

When I first began to write in this space, I didn’t have a strong rationale for that stance, I just knew in my spirit that this was to be a place of story-telling. Not argument, not academic theological wrestling, not diatribe.

A sermon or two? Well, yes – those always included stories.

Some prayers once in a while? Those, too, are part of my own story, my journey as a disciple and as a pastor.

An occasional book review? Yup, those, too. Because reading is a vital part of writing, especially helpful in the writing of personal stories. 

And there have always been a lot of photographs, too. Because, well — you guessed it! Pictures tell stories, sometimes better than words do.

Over these last four years of more regular blogging, the theme of story has come front and center for me, and time after time, my choice to be a story-teller has been confirmed and validated.

Being invited to write at A Deeper Story was a great and miraculous gift, one that allowed me to tell some of my stories to a larger audience, in a place that welcomed whatever it is I have to bring to the story-telling table.

So now, the Editor-in-Chief of ADS has written a book. A fine book, an easy-to-read book. And guess what it’s about? Well, of course it is — it’s about telling YOUR story, because YOUR story is important.

And it’s about telling your story because that is a much better, gentler, more effective way to interact with one another in this online space and in everyday life. On the back cover of this delicious new book, Nish Weiseth asks this critical question:

“How would your life be different if you shared your stories rather than your opinions?

Can I get an ‘amen’ to that??

How many times a day do you find yourself in a situation where you feel frustrated, ignored, misunderstood, even rejected by the words and/or actions of someone else? Maybe a someone you don’t know all that much about. And what if knowing that someone’s back-story might help you understand why he/she acts the way they do?

Because knowing someone’s story makes a huge difference in how we see them, how we approach them, what we say to them and how we say it. Stories are powerful and effective ways for us to see one another as whole people. People who have been wounded, who have survived, who have made mistakes, who have learned from some of those mistakes and repeated too many of them. When we know someone’s story, we are able to hear them differently, to hold their words and actions with a greater sense of equanimity and compassion.

Stories can change the world. Surely, Jesus thought so — he used all kinds of them during his ministry years. This faith that we hold dear is built on THE story, the one about grace and love and finding and seeking and life and death and resurrection. I stake my life on that story.

Woven throughout Nish’s wonderful book are eight examples of story-telling from the pages of A Deeper Story, a lovely addition to the overarching theme, each one a stellar example of how vulnerable, searching story-telling touches hearts and changes lives.

What if instead of arguing with one another, we told each other our stories? What if we committed ourselves to learning about one another before offering judgment? What if we stopped the frantic searching for how-to, if we took a break from finding a-new-and-better-program? What if we began asking, “Who are you?” “Why are you here?” Rather than, “How can I make you stay and look like everybody else here at this church?”

What if we trusted that God is going before us in each person who comes through our doors, that God has been at work long before we ever came along, that the newcomer or the millennial or the senior or the one who doesn’t look like the rest of us is already on the way into the kingdom?

What if our role is simply to tell our story and then listen to the other’s? Could it be that straight-ahead, that personal, that simple?

Oh, I think Nish is onto something. Really, I do.

You can find Nish’s new book at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, LifeWay, or Christianbook.com

I received an advance copy and am absolutely delighted to write about and recommend this book. I took it down to the beach and read it in 2.5 hours, front to back. And marked it up a lot, too. 

It’s Not That Easy Being Weird — A Guest Post

One of the best books I’ve read this year is Michelle DeRusha’s beautiful, funny, and profound memoir called “Spiritual Misfit.” I’m honored to be guest-posting for her today, in her ongoing series about being a misfit. Here are the opening paragraphs of that essay . . .

19

All my life, I’ve been the one who didn’t quite fit. No matter where I’ve landed in my own spiritual journey, I’ve managed to be the one who is different — quirky, opinionated, on the edge.

I was the kid who had the most memory work badges and sang alto in the kids’ choir at our first church. But I was also the kid who hid out in the caretaker’s apartment, playing with his baby and talking to his wife instead of socializing around the punch bowl with the rest of the 5th graders.

We moved to a new town and a new church when I was 12. The youth group was huge and I went to every thing that was offered.  I landed in the hard-working-leadership-tier, but never in the popular-kids-who-also-have-skills elite. And that was okay by me. I was tall and rangy and not terribly graceful. I was also physically fearful and lurking underneath my loud voice, an insecure, uncertain teenager.

I married young. It was a great decision for us, one that took us halfway around the world to live and work for two years. And I was really a misfit there. A southern California conservative looks nothing like a Pennsylvania holiness conservative and I found that out the hard way. Yet, somehow, we survived and even thrived in that beautiful place.

We had our kids early, and our grandkids even earlier. So for the last 40 years, we’ve been ahead of the curve by a long shot. And guess where that puts us now? Smack dab in the middle of just about everything. We find ourselves sandwiched between ailing parents, home-buying adult children, college-aged and pre-school grandkids.

We’ve found ourselves sandwiched between generations theologically, too — 

Please come on over to Michelle’s beautiful space to read the rest of this weirdness. . .

What a Woman Is Worth — Launch Day!!

The Big Day is finally here! A wonderful collection of essays, edited and organized by Tamara Lunardo, is releasing today on Amazon! I am honored to be included — in fact, to contribute the final piece in the collection — with a remarkable group of women writers, speaking to the truth that women matter. No matter how life has treated us, we matter to God and we matter to one another.

Here’s the beautiful cover of our book and at the end of this post is a shot of the back cover, too. As those of you who read here with any regularity will know, this essay was written quite a while ago! Almost exactly two years ago, to be exact. Lilly is now 4 years and 2 months old; in this piece she is not yet two. But the truth of who she is is always the same. Here is the first section of the final essay in this fine collection:
Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000035_00015]

Lilly is 22 months old, and a real pistol. Funny, charming, inquisitive, secure in herself and in the love of her family. She plays with us two days each week – one of the perks of grandparenting and retirement. And every time she’s here, I celebrate who she is becoming.

Last week, she climbed up onto my bed (where all good computer work is done in this house) and begged to see ‘pichures, pichures!’ So I opened iPhoto and went directly to her favorite event: her older sister’s 6th birthday party. Each time we look at this set, we scroll through all 90 photos, identifying as many people as we can, usually lingering longest at the pictures of the ‘happy cake-cake.’

Lilly has not quite grasped the truth that these ‘pichures’ she loves so much are only 2-dimensional representations and not actually tiny versions of the people she sees every day. Sometimes she will cup her hands next to the screen and say, “I pick her up! I pick her up!” puzzled that she can’t quite make that happen.

But one day last week, she surprised me with words that marked my heart in a powerful way. She surprised me with what she did understand. She saw a close-up of her own face. And she patted the screen gently, saying, “Oooh, that’s Rirry [still working on those L’s]. She so cute. I love her.”

“She so cute…I love her.” I wrapped my arms around her small body and kissed her on the back of the neck and said, “Oh, YES, Lilly. You are so cute and I love you, too. I hope and I pray that you will always be able to look at yourself in exactly this way. Always.”

What is it that happens to us between early childhood and adulthood? Why is it so easy for us to lose that clear, common-sense, of-course-I’m-loveable-it’s-just-so-obvious-I’m sure-you-can-see-this-too sense of our value, our worth, our intrinsic ‘rightness?’ And what, as parents, aunts and uncles, siblings, cousins, grandparents of girls – what can we do to foster an atmosphere in which little girls will always see themselves this way? When we look in the mirror at age 16 or 21 or 35 or 50 or 75 or 90, why shouldn’t we be able to see ourselves through eyes of love?

Is this not the message of the Gospel? Is this not the Truth that Jesus saw and taught and modeled and lived? That fundamentally, to be a human person is a good, good thing. So good that God chose to be clothed with our flesh, to walk through the steps of our life, to eat and sleep and laugh and cry, to connect with others and to spend time alone, to hang out with all different kinds of people and see each of them as interesting and important and valuable? Yes, I think so. . . 

To read the rest, you’ll just have to buy the book!

Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000035_00015]