Review: Devotions: The Selected Poems of Mary Oliver

Devotions: The Selected Poems of Mary Oliver, Mary Oliver. New York: Penguin Press, 2017.

Summary: A selection of the poetry of Mary Oliver written between 1963 to 2015.

I have only discovered the poetry of Mary Oliver since her death in 2019. Isn’t that how it often has been with great writers? One of the ironies of this was that I lived in Oliver’s birthplace of Maple Heights, Ohio for nine years. How did I miss knowing of her for so long? She was even teaching at nearby Case Western Reserve during some of the time I lived there and it was during this time that she won the Pulitzer prize in 1984 for her collection American Primitive. I am glad at last to have found her, a writer roughly of my generation.

This collection is a good introduction to her work, a selection of her poetry written between 1963 and 2015 and published in 2017, a couple years before her passing. The book features over 200 of her poems arranged in reverse chronological order, most recent first. One of the most striking things one notices is that most of the poems are of sights on her daily walks near her home in Provincetown in New England. She writes of snakes and swans, of the pond near her home, of blueberries and violets, sunrises and sparrows. Her poetry is suffused with wonder at the simplest things, her sense of the oneness of all things and her desire to be one with them.

The transcendent is never far, sometimes in the Romantic awareness of the Ultimate in all things, sometimes in echoes of Christianity, writing of “Gethsemane” and Psalm 145. Her poem “Praying” (from Thirst, 2006) might do as well as anything to encapsulate the prayers of the “spiritual but not religious”:

It doesn't have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch

a few words together and don't try
to make them elaborate, this isn't
a contest but the doorway

into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.

The reference “into thanks” reflects another theme running through her work, a profound thankfulness for life, even in its transience. In the concluding lines of “Why I Wake Early” (2004) she writes, “Watch, now, how I start the day/in happiness, in kindness.”

One of the striking things evident in the arrangement of the poems is that her later poems are much shorter, and to me carry more meaning in fewer words. Another morning poem, “I Wake Close to Morning” (Felicity, 2015) opens this selection:

Why do people keep asking to see
God's identity papers
when the darkness opening into morning
is more than enough?
Certainly any god might turn away in disgust.
Think of Sheba approaching
the kingdom of Solomon
Do you think she had to ask,
"Is this the place?"

Perhaps it is the “simplicity on the other side of complexity” or perhaps the waning of life’s energies that both slows her steps and leads her to choose her words as she writes in “The Gift” when she states: “So, be slow if you must, but let/the heart still play its true part.”

It would be wrong to give the impression that all here is sweetness and light. She writes of loneliness, and disappointment, and of death. One of the few poems of social comment is on the death of Tecumseh, one of the native leaders who fought displacement from the Ohio lands. Yet the dominant note is the wonder of the world around her that makes me wonder as to how much I miss on daily walks. We see, but do we pay attention? Oliver’s poems suggest she lived a life of paying attention

The Month in Reviews: March 2021

Some great novels and historical fiction. A celebration of the wonders of the world and a hard look at what it will take to keep it habitable. Some delightful mysteries. Institutions at their best and worst. Spirituality in the cell of an anchoress, and in the city. Helps in understanding scripture, global Christian history, and our modern concept of the self. Books addressing abuse in the church and discipleship in the workplace. Books addressing the trauma of the pandemic and the experience of racism. Yes, I read, and enjoy a wide variety of books. So hopefully there is something here you will like. Scroll down, and click the review link to see the full reviews.

The Rise and Triumph of the Modern SelfCarl R. Trueman. Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2020. Traces the intellectual history of what Charles Taylor calls expressive individualism and Philip Rieff calls the psychological man that the author argues explains the modern understanding of self contributing to a revolution in human sexuality. Review

Maigret and the Old PeopleGeorges Simenon. New York: Penguin Books, 2019 (originally published in 1960). Maigret investigates the shooting death of a retired diplomat, struggling to figure out who among all the old people in his circle would have the motive and opportunity to kill him. Review

Redeeming Power: Understanding Authority and Abuse in the ChurchDiane Langberg. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2020. A psychologist looks at the dynamics of power behind various forms of abuse and trauma in which church figures are either perpetrators or complicit. Review

God and the PandemicN. T. Wright. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing, 2020. Reflects both upon our quest to know “why the pandemic?” and how we should then live. Review

Institutional Intelligence: How to Build an Effective OrganizationGordon T. Smith. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2017. Believing that institutions are essential to human flourishing, unpacks the intelligence necessary to work effectively within organizations, and the different elements of organizational life that must be navigated wisely. Review

Bury Your Dead (Chief Inspector Gamache #6), Louise Penny. New York: Minotaur Books, 2010. Gamache and Beauvoir are on leave after an attempt to rescue an agent goes terribly wrong. As each faces their own traumas they get caught up in murder investigations in Quebec City and Three Pines. Review

Bad BloodJohn Carreyrou. New York: Vintage, 2020. The account of Elizabeth Holmes, the blood testing company Theranos, and the ambition that led to lies upon lies deceiving famous investors, pharmaceutical companies, and business publications until an investigative reporter on a tip discovered the house of cards on which it was all built. Review

How to Avoid a Climate Disaster, Bill Gates. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2021. An assessment of what it will take to get to “net zero” carbon emissions by 2050, and the technological breakthroughs we will need to achieve that. Review

Healing Racial TraumaSheila Wise Rowe (Foreword by Soong-Chan Rah). Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2020. A counseling psychologist describes the experience of racial trauma in story, drawing upon her own and other clinical experiences, and explores the resources for resilience to face continuing racial struggle. Review

Workplace Discipleship 101David W. Gill. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2020. A practical guide to living as a follower in one’s workplace focused on how we get ready for our work, impact our workplace, and beyond our workplace. Review

The Four WindsKristen Hannah. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2021. Set in the Dust Bowl depression era, Elsa Martinelli grows from a timid girl to a mother whose fight for her children fulfills her grandfather’s exhortation to “be brave.” Review

A Gentleman in MoscowAmor Towles. New York: Penguin, 2019. Count Rostov has been sentenced to house arrest in Moscow’s Hotel Metropol for life during Stalin’s regime and must find purpose for life within its confines. Review

Misreading Scripture with Individualist EyesE. Randolph Richards and Richard James. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2020. Shows how we may misread scripture if we do not reckon with the collectivist context in which it is written, and in which many cultures still live. Review

World of WondersAimee Nezhukumatathil. Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 2020. A combination of memoir and nature writing describing the variety of living creatures encountered by the author in the different places where she lived and her own lived experience in these places. Review

The City is My MonasteryRichard Carter. Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2020. A monk moves to the heart of London and forms a community sharing a rule of life and offers a reflective account organized around that rule. Review

A Survey of the History of Global Christianity, Second EditionMark Nickens. Nashville: B & H Academic, 2020. A study of Christianity from its beginnings to the present, tracing its global diffusion, and the resulting diversity within the big “tent” of Christianity. Review

The Burning Land (Saxon Chronicles #5), Bernard Cornwell. New York: Harper Collins, 2010. Uhtred, Alfred’s warrior is torn between his oaths to Alfred and his daughter, his longing to recover his stolen home of Bebbanburg, his Viking friend Ragnar, and the threat of a dangerous woman, a knife edge on which the fate of Alfred’s kingdom balances. Review

The Way of Julian Norwich: A Prayer Journey Through LentSheila Upjohn. London: SPCK, 2020. Six meditations on the writings of Julian of Norwich that redirect our focus from sin and judgement to the greatness of God’s love revealed in Christ’s incarnation and death. Review

Best Book of the Month. So many candidates for this one. It came down to A Gentleman in Moscow and The Four Winds. I’ll go with Kristin Hannah. The story covers similar ground to The Grapes of Wrath. I thought Elsa Martinelli holds her own against Tom Joad and Hannah captures the desperate conditions of the dust bowl and California migrations as profoundly as Steinbeck–apologies if that is a heresy to someone! Warning, though. Not an easy read.

Quote of the Month. I found The Way of Julian delightful for the chance to discover the vision of the love of God that captivated Julian’s life. This short quote on prayer turns prayer from duty to joy:

“Our prayer makes God glad and happy. He wants it and waits for it so that, by his grace, he can make us as like him in condition as we are by creation. This is his blessed will. . . He is avid for our prayers continually.”

What I’m Reading. I just finished Devotions: The Selected Poems of Mary Oliver, a compilation of her poetry throughout her writing career. How amazing the insights this woman captured within miles of her home. I’ve just began Alister McGrath’s new biography on the life and thought of J.I. Packer. Resurrecting Justice offers a study on the theme of justice in Romans. Both Breaking Bread with the Dead by Alan Jacobs and Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon challenge the trend in academia to shun what were once the standard texts of western literature. Yes, they have their problems, but both authors think they have abiding worth as well. At the suggestion of a blogging friend who pointed out one of the deficits in my reading, I’ve picked up Dean Koontz Prodigal Son, the first in his Frankenstein trilogy. Definitely a page-turner. And to get ready for an interview with Michael Kibbe for my work, I’m reading From Research to Teaching, a guide to teaching effectiveness. And we haven’t even gotten to the others on my TBR pile. We’ll see how many of those I get to beyond the above in the next month. Until then, happy reading!

Go to “The Month in Reviews” on my blog to skim all my reviews going back to 2014 or use the “Search” box to see if I’ve reviewed something you are interested in.

Review: The Way of Julian of Norwich

The Way of Julian Norwich: A Prayer Journey Through Lent, Sheila Upjohn. London: SPCK, 2020.

Summary: Six meditations on the writings of Julian of Norwich that redirect our focus from sin and judgement to the greatness of God’s love revealed in Christ’s incarnation and death.

Julian of Norwich chose a life of prayer and seclusion in a cell attached to St. Julian’s church in Norwich. At thirty, she nearly died, and during the time of her illness, experienced a series of “showings” of the Passion of Christ that were recorded in Revelations of Divine Love, the first book written in English by a woman.

Sheila Upjohn first read Revelations of Divine Love fifty years ago and is a founding member of Friends of Julian of Norwich. Out of her lifetime of reflecting on Julian, she offers this book consisting of an introduction to the life of Julian of Norwich and six meditations drawing upon the material from Revelations of Divine Love. This makes for an ideal guide to reflection during the six weeks of Lent for individuals or groups.

One of the themes running through these reflections is — surprise–Divine love. The first reflection is titled “Our Prayer Makes God Glad and Happy.” This drawn from Julian herself who wrote:

“Our prayer makes God glad and happy. He wants it and waits for it so that, by his grace, he can make us as like him in condition as we are by creation. This is his blessed will. . . He is avid for our prayers continually.”

Julian of Norwich, Chapter 41 as cited in Upjohn, p. 6.

In the second reflection on the “Huge, High Wholeness of God” Upjohn shows us Julian’s adoration of the Trinity and concept of God as both Father and Mother to us. Then in the third, and perhaps to me, most striking reflection, she explores the idea of sin as “behovely.” Using the example of the exposure of David’s sin by Nathan and his repentance and casting of himself upon the mercy of God, Julian argues that sin is behovely, or behooves us, in that “it cleanses us and makes us know ourselves and ask forgiveness.” For Julian, the fear of God’s anger is in us and drives us to God who we find is not angry but good.

In the fourth reflection, Julian explains how this all could be so. Not only in Adam did we all fall, she also explains how the Son fell with us, becoming a servant, bearing our sin that we might be blameless. Julian’s vision of divine love does not obliterate an understanding of evil and temptation, which Upjohn explores in the fifth reflection on the temptation of Christ. The sixth and final reflection brings us to Good Friday and the different ways we see the cross, either in horror tinged by our own guilt or the wonder that through the cross, we belong to God:

“Then our good Lord Jesus Christ said: ‘Are you well paid by the way I suffered for you? I said: ‘Yes, Lord, I thank you. Yes, good Lord, blessed be your name.’ Then said Jesus our kind Lord: ‘If you are well paid, I am well paid, too. It is a joy, a happiness, an endless delight that ever I suffered my Passion for your sake. If I could have suffered more, I would have suffered more.’ For the Father is fully pleased with all the deeds that Jesus has done to win our salvation. Through this we are his, not just because he bought us — but also by the gracious gift of the Father. We are his joy, his reward, his glory and his crown by the generous gift of his Father.”

Julian of Norwich, (Chapter 22) as cited in Upjohn, p. 78.

Upjohn not only introduces us to Julian, but to the God of divine love, moving our focus from ourselves, our fear, our guilt and our shame to the unfailing mercy of God, revealed in his son. The work is tastefully illustrated with artwork and photographs. Each reflection concludes with questions for discussion and directs the reader to stations of the cross and Julian’s reflections. The fourteen stations are included in the after matter as well as Margery Kempe’s account of her visit to Julian.

This is a wonderful compilation to familiarize one with Julian’s work that may be used at any time of the year as well as one in the ‘Prayer Journey Through Lent’ series published by SPCK. My suggestion would be to obtain a copy now to read and then use with several others during Lent next year. The combination of Julian’s writings and Upjohn’s thoughtful meditations offers rich material for reflection and prayer at Lent or throughout the year.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: The Burning Land

The Burning Land (Saxon Chronicles #5), Bernard Cornwell. New York: Harper Collins, 2010.

Summary: Uhtred, Alfred’s warrior is torn between his oaths to Alfred and his daughter, his longing to recover his stolen home of Bebbanburg, his Viking friend Ragnar, and the threat of a dangerous woman, a knife edge on which the fate of Alfred’s kingdom balances.

Uhtred, the Saxon raised by Vikings, is a warrior of unusual prowess in battle, a prowess of mind and strategy as well as the wielding of sword and shield and the leadership of men. He is sworn to Alfred, who claims to be “king of all Angelcynn” and has been key to sustaining that rule against the Danes. Once again he meets that challenge as Harald Bloodhair meets him at Fearnhamme. A charge down a hill combined with an attack from the rear decimates Harald’s army despite the curse of Harald’s woman, Skade, who is the most fearsome opponent Uhtred will face.

Yet Gisela, Uhtred’s beloved wife dies, and is subsequently insulted by a “seer” who Uhtred strikes down. This estranges him from Alfred, to whom he is oathbound and who wanted him bound as well to his son Edward, still unproven in battle. For a time, Uhtred even teams up with Skade who is drawn to power and conquest. Yet Uhtred’s ultimate aim is only to recover the castle home and kingdom of Bebbanburg from the uncle who stole it from him. Having neither the wealth nor the men to achieve this, he joins his old friend Ragnar and his old enemy Haesten to attack Alfred.

It is here that Skade will abandon him for Haesten, who has his sights set on Mercia, ruled by the husband of Alfred’s daughter Aethelflaed. Another oath, to Aethelflaed leads to the abandoning of his plans with Ragner and the his ultimate confrontation with Skade in what appears a lost cause.

Cornwell portrays a confrontation between Christianity and the old pagan gods of both Uhtred and the Danes, and an array of priests, some craven and some of great courage. We see a man torn by his only true ambition, the recovery of his home, and his oaths. We wonder why such a great warrior seems also unable to acquire the wealth and men to fulfill his ambitions, seemingly destined to fight others’ battles. We also have plenty of battles, and learn of the particular devastation of the sword that comes from beneath the shield. Throughout, we recognize why Uhtred is both hated and sought–his unique ability to see the way to victory, even against odds. But will it be enough against the wicked Skade?

Review: A Survey of the History of Global Christianity, Second Edition

A Survey of the History of Global Christianity, Second Edition. Mark Nickens. Nashville: B & H Academic, 2020.

Summary: A study of Christianity from its beginnings to the present, tracing its global diffusion, and the resulting diversity within the big “tent” of Christianity.

One of the dangers of our “presentism” and “individualism” is that Christian history often reduces to what is in the Bible and my personal story. Many of us don’t even know the story of our own church body. That being the case, we miss the sense of a vast, 2000 year story in which we are caught up, and one that touches every continent on earth. This text, which may be used for introductory college or seminary courses in global church history, or in an adult study group serves as a good place to start in filling that gap and enlarging our vision of Christianity beyond our own experience and “tribe.”

This survey is organized in five sections:

  1. The Early Church: 30-400
  2. Medieval Christianity: 400-1500 (in two parts from 400 to 1000, and 1000 to 1500)
  3. Pre-Reformers, the Protestant Reformation, and European Christianity (1500-1900)
  4. American Christianity: 1500 to the Present
  5. The Global South

There are several features that make this a readable and easy to follow resource. Each section offers an introduction to the whole and each chapter includes an outline of topics to be covered, helpful if you want to zoom in on a particular topic. Along the way, there are quotes and explanatory sidebars that helpfully illuminate the text. A link is provided for each section offering a supplemental timeline on the author’s website.

I thought the first section quite helpful in covering the rise of the church from a network of local bodies to the institution it became after Constantine. There is good discussion of the canon, doctrinal issues and the early councils and creeds The second section extends this with the seven ecumenical councils, the Latin Vulgate translation of the Bible, the challenge of Islam, the rise and decline of the papacy, the earlier breakaway of Oriental Orthodoxy, and the later schism between the eastern (Orthodox) and western (Catholic) churches. The section ends with key elements leading to the Reformation: early reformers, the printing press, and the rise of the universities.

The main subject of third section is an account of the different reformation movements and figures in Germany (Luther) and Switzerland (Calvin), the Anabaptists, Mennonites, and Amish, and the persecutions they faced, and the Church of England and other Protestant movements that arose, as well as the Catholic Counter Reformation. I perhaps should mention at this point that it is evident that the history reflects a Protestant point of view, but not tendentiously so, with fair descriptions of Catholic belief and practice.

In the section on American Christianity, I appreciated the focus on colonial and frontier religion, the rise of revival movements, a good amount of material on the black church, as well as the rise of Catholicism with southern and eastern European and Irish immigration and the rise of fundamentalism. The post World War 2 rise of evangelicalism is traced as well as coverage of the rise of pentecostalism, televangelism, and the Christian right, but there is no mention of Reinhold Niebuhr, or the later rise of more progressive forms of neo-evangelicalism. There is very little about the complicity of churches in slavery (apart from divisions in northern and southern denominations) and the only treatment of Native Peoples are the missionary efforts of David Brainerd and Jonathan Edwards

The last section was on the church in the Global South. The author provides a chart showing the number of Christians in each part of the world (leaving out Europe) showing the majority of Christians in the Global South. Yet the coverage of the history of these churches was only 25 percent of the text and confined to a single section. One strength is showing how mission movements transitioned to indigenously-led churches that often became mission movements themselves. A chapter is devoted to the history on each continent, with a fair amount of detail on movements in particular countries (for example, the churches in India tracing their roots to the Apostle Thomas). Good coverage is given to the rise of global Pentecostalism. Apart from some discussion of liberation theology, there is little on the church’s involvements in movements seeking justice. There is nothing on Samuel Escobar and Rene Padilla and other evangelicals who pressed the cause of social justice in Latin America, nor the role of religious leadership in ending apartheid (or the collapse of communism for that matter). Nor was there any coverage of the Lausanne movement, one increasingly shaped by concerns of the Global South, or of Pope Francis, the first Latin American pope.

What is not here suggests an avoidance of controversy and a conservative rendering of recent history. It also suggests a history still dominated by the West, in its focus on mission movements and their indigenous offshoots. There is no acknowledgement of nor engagement with the discussion of post-colonialism in the Global South. While a history cannot engage or critique such movements, their existence is also a part of the fabric of this history. This is regrettable, because the author renders historical accounts well, and a text like this could enjoy broader circulation if it told a broader story. It is especially useful for its concise but detailed history up through the Reformation but I would recommend supplementing it with other texts on American and Global South church history.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Pat Bilon

Did you know that when E. T. wanted to phone home, he wanted to call Youngstown? At least that was the case for the actor who played E.T.

He was able to play the part because he was 2 foot 10 inches tall and weighed 45 pounds. The E.T. suit, at 40 pounds weighed almost as much as he did. E.T. the Extraterrestrial (1982) was the second movie in which he appeared. The year before, in 1981, he had a part in Under the Rainbow, alongside Chevy Chase, Carrie Fisher, and Eve Arden.

Michael Patrick “Pat” Bilon was born August 29, 1947 and grew up on the West side of Youngstown. His parents were Michael and Esther Patrick Bilon and they lived on South Osborn, off of Mahoning Avenue. He graduated from Ursuline High School in 1965 and then studied speech and drama at Youngstown State, graduating in 1972.

Before his two movie roles, he worked a variety of jobs around Youngstown. He was a bouncer at Wedgewood Lanes Orange Room. He hosted a weekly Ukrainian Radio Hour music show on WKTL radio in Struthers and was the WKBN Kid in their radio and TV promotions. Then he got a job as a radio dispatcher for the Mahoning County Sheriff’s Department. He even participated in undercover operations. Captain Steve Terlecky once said of him, “I’d like to have a dozen more like him. He does a hell of a job for me.”

He was active at St. Anne’s Ukrainian Catholic Church in Austintown. He taught CCD and coached the basketball team for St. Anne’s school. He was also District 5 director for the Little People of America. It was at a national convention for the organization in 1979 that he was recruited for the part of “Little Pat” in the movie Under the Rainbow. That, in turn, led to the E.T. role.

Sadly, his fame was brief. In 1983 he contracted pneumonia. An infection followed and he was admitted to St. Elizabeth’s on the afternoon of January 26, 1983. He died the next morning at 1:08 am, at age 35. He was buried in Calvary Cemetery, mere blocks from his childhood home.

Although he was small in stature and short in lifespan, he was big not only on the silver screen but also around the city. He had to be impressive to succeed as a bouncer and in undercover operations. His faith, his church, and his ethnic community were important to him. He raised money for various local organizations. He never saw his size as a disability but showed how much Little People were capable of. Doesn’t he sound like a guy who grew up in Youngstown?

To read other posts in the Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown series, just click “On Youngstown.” Enjoy!

Review: The City is My Monastery

The City is My Monastery, Richard Carter. Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2020.

Summary: A monk moves to the heart of London and forms a community sharing a rule of life and offers a reflective account organized around that rule.

Richard Carter was a monk with the Melanesian Brotherhood in the Solomon Islands, a simple ordered life where he encountered God. Then he answered a call to serve a congregation in the heart of London, St. Martin-in-the-Fields. After a time, he lost a sense of the nearness of God amid the busyness of parish life. After a discernment retreat in Dorset, his conclusion was not to return to the monastic life but that God was saying “the city is your monastery.” So he returned to St. Martin’s with this conviction:

“I needed to discover the simple disciplines that can enable a community to grow: an obedience, a listening, a life-giving rule of life. I discerned that the way forward was to write down a ‘rule of life’ for a community living in the midst of the city. This was the community, at that stage yet to be formed, which now has become known as the Nazareth Community.”

Richard Carter, p. xxv.

This book is about the creation of that rule, the formation of that community, and the life that followed. Carter organizes the book around the rule which has these seven elements:

  1. With silence — to behold
  2. With service — to accept
  3. With sacrament — to gather
  4. With scripture — to ihspire
  5. With sharing — to enrich
  6. With sabbath — to restore
  7. Staying with — to live

The community began with forty-eight members with more to follow. Each is given a cross from made from timber from a wrecked boat on the island of Lampedusa, and becomes a part through a liturgy of commitment.

The book takes each of the elements of rule and devotes a chapter, not so much a description of “how to” as a narrative of the rule in life, written both in free verse and prose and black and white illustrations. We learn about the members of this community including the homeless who sleep on the church steps and the realities of sharing when an all-season sleeping bag bought for camping becomes the sleeping roll of a homeless man.

Here is an example of one of the poems, from the chapter on silence that I particularly liked:

Into the silent world

Into the space beyond the clutter
Into the depths of your heart
As though lowering a bucket to draw fresh water
Like the discovery of the well crystal-clear below the ground
Or becoming the wellspring.

Or like oxygen in the blood of your body
This life flowing through your limbs
Like walking into to a shower of light
The warmth replenishing you through the pores of your skin
Like being unwound
Like being healed
Like being loved
At the very centre of your existence.

Along the way, his own narrative intrudes as a hospitalization leads to a new appreciation of sabbath and prayer. He acknowledges his own need for community and direction, sharing about his twenty year relationship with Fr. Simon Holden, the last retreat they led together, and his last visit, two weeks before Fr. Holden’s death of leukemia. Among his last words, he expresses this longing, “I want to disappear into God’s love. I want the me to become us.”

This is a beautifully written book that makes the case that it is possible for a city, and a parish in the midst of the city, to be a monastery–a community ordered by a common rule and bound together by the love of Christ. If this is what it means for a city to be one’s monastery, I can’t help but finding myself hoping more people hear this call.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: World of Wonders

World of Wonders, Aimee Nezhukumatathil. Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 2020.

Summary: A combination of memoir and nature writing describing the variety of living creatures encountered by the author in the different places where she lived and her own lived experience in these places.

Great nature writing enables the reader to envision at least in the mind’s eye, the landscape the writer is describing with fresh and wondrous eyes. Such writing is very simply, great writing. There is also something of the writer in the narrative, whether we think of Aldo Leopold, Wendell Berry, or Henry David Thoreau. This work has all these elements. Little wonder it has won numerous awards including Barnes and Noble’s 2020 Book of the Year.

Aimee Nezhukumatathil has lived in a number of places growing up and in her adult life, from the grounds of a mental institution in Kansas where her mother worked to the lake effect winters of upstate New York to the lush landscape of northern Mississippi. She caught my attention from the opening words:

“A catalpa can give two brown girls in western Kansas a green umbrella from the sun. Don’t get too dark, too dark, our mother would remind us as we ambled out into the relentless mid-western light”

Aimee Nezhukumatathil, p.1

From these opening words, we discover that this book is both about the wonders of the natural world like a catalpa’s big leaves or long seed pods, but also the experience of growing up a brown-skinned Filipina in many white-skinned contexts. Yet this comes through with a strong sense of her own uniqueness, her own wonder amid the wonders she sees in the natural world.

She goes on to write of both common and uncommon creatures. She evoked my own memories of catching and releasing fireflies, which sadly, because of pesticides, seem to be declining.

“I know I will search for fireflies all the rest of my days, even though they dwindle a little bit more each. I can’t help it. They blink on and off, a lime glow to the summer night air, as if to say: I am still here, you are still here, I am still here, you are still here, I am, you are, over and over again. Perhaps I can will it to be true. Perhaps I can keep those summer nights with my family inside an empty jam jar, with holes poked in the lid, a twig, and a few strands of grass tucked inside. And for those nights in the future, when I know I’ll miss my mother the most, I will let that jar’s sweet glow serve as a night-light to cool and cut the air for me.”

Aimee Nezhukumatathil, pp. 13-14.

I am searching, at least in memory with her.

In subsequent chapters, she writes of peacocks, comb jellies, narwhals, the curious looking axolotl, the putrid smelling but impressive corpse flower, dragon fruit, flamingoes, doing a bird census with her children, and the Southern Cassowary, one of the only birds who can kill a human being with a swipe of its knife-like talon.

She describes being the new girl in high school in Beavercreek, Ohio, a toney suburb of Dayton. She wished she were like the vampire squid, who ejects a mucous luminescent cloud to evade pursuers. Thankfully, things got much better for her!

What is most surprising is that this woman teaches creative writing but spent one sabbatical studying whale sharks, allowing one to swim just beneath her stomach. She offers both biologically accurate descriptions of the various species of which she writes and her own sense of wonder in her encounters, and the life situations they recall.

All this made me want to pay closer attention to the things I see on my walks, whether bird calls, the bark of trees, the flow of sap in my maples, the skunks that occasionally visit my suburban neighborhood (but not too close), the squirrels racing up and down our lindens, and the fireflies that light up when we sit out on a summer evening. I think this would gladden the author, who laments that 17 of her 21 students had never seen a firefly, not because they are extinct, but because they were indoors on their videogames. She makes me wonder how we will care enough to act to preserve the creation when we do not attend to its wonders enough to not want to lose them.

Review: Misreading Scripture With Individualist Eyes

Misreading Scripture with Individualist Eyes, E. Randolph Richards and Richard James. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2020.

Summary: Shows how we may misread scripture if we do not reckon with the collectivist context in which it is written, and in which many cultures still live.

It was an eyeopener for me when I discovered that the “you” in many of the New Testament letters is often a plural you–“you all” or “y’all” if you are from the American South. It turns out that this was just the tip of the iceberg. So many of the narratives in scripture are understood very differently when understood in collectivist rather than individualist frameworks.

E. Randolph Richards and Richard James have lived in such cultures, and while each culture, including those of scripture, have their own nuances, the authors draw upon these experiences to help us read scripture through a new lens, a collectivist lens. They consider the social structures of kinship, patronage, and brokerage, and the social tools of honor, shame, and boundaries. Finally, they draw conclusions about why it matters, even in an individualist context.

In collective structures, our kinship group tells us who we are–and who we marry. Remember Jacob and Laban? He wants Rachel, but he is given Leah first. That’s the way it is done in family. Then there is patronage. When Paul speaks of being saved by grace through faith, he describes a good patronage situation. God extends grace through Christ, literally charis or gift, and we both trust and are loyal to our patron, God. Finally, there is brokerage, where a third party mediates between two others. What else is Jesus but a broker or mediator between God and humans?

Then there are the social tools that enforce values in collective cultures. One’s honor is one’s greatest asset. Many of the challenges to Jesus are challenges to his honor, and thus his authority to teach. David gained honor in the conflict with Saul, not merely for being a good shot, but for trusting God in the conflict. In the West we consider one who sins guilty. In other cultures, the issue is shame. We have come to think that shame is always bad, but in collectivist societies shame comes with a path to remove it. Confronting a person with whom you have a grievance minimizes shame–allowing the person to remove shame without others knowing about it. Then there are boundaries, ones that define groups, ones that define how men and women relate, or don’t. When we choose a group, we accept their boundaries.

The authors show how each of these collectivist elements function at their best and worst, and explore how they may be engaged redemptively. While there are important insights individualists see in scripture, there is much we learn when we read with collectivist eyes. More than that, we discover dimensions of our collective life in Christ. Our salvation isn’t just about me but we. We are part of a people, a family, with new boundaries and new values. Sometimes our individualist outlook not only leads us to misread the Bible, but also misleads us in our participation in Christian community. At very least, we misunderstand Christians in other cultures. At most, we miss out on dimensions of life in Christ and others miss out on what we bring to the family.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: A Gentleman in Moscow

A Gentleman in Moscow, Amor Towles. New York: Penguin, 2019.

Summary: Count Rostov has been sentenced to house arrest in Moscow’s Hotel Metropol for life during Stalin’s regime and must find purpose for life within its confines.

Count Alexander Rostov, born to nobility and refinement, has become the enemy in Stalinist Russia. On the pretense of a few lines in a poem, he is tried for his life in 1922, but spared death for a life of house arrest in the place he has made his home, the Hotel Metropol. Not entirely a bad fate. At least he has his luxury suite and all his books and the refinements of life. Not so, he learns, for this, too, has been appropriated by the State. He is confined to a top floor garret, little more than a closet. His life becomes forfeit the day he steps beyond the Metropol’s confines.

How will he face a life confined within the walls of this hotel, the tiny confines of a room? How far will the equanimity and cultured refinement take him when his life is a round of meals, conversations with hotel staff, and long hours in his room? Will he go crazy, or suicidal, or attempt escape? It matters little to Mother Russia, for whom he has become a non-person.

A Gentleman in Moscow traces the next 32 years of his life. We see him in the depths and at his most unpretentious, romping with nine year-old Nina of the yellow outfits, exploring the hidden corridors of the hotels, splitting out the seat of his pants to be repaired over and over by the seamstress, Marina. He becomes the trusted friend to whom she entrusts her daughter Sophia, supposedly for a few weeks which turn into forever. By then he has taken a position as waiter at the Boyarsky, rising to headwaiter, with Andrey the maitre d’ and Emile the chef, the triumvirate of the Boyarsky. He coaches a rising Russian party figure on the ins and outs of western culture, a man whose business is to know everything about people like Rostov. He encounters an American operative at the bar. He lives under the jealous eye of the Bishop (Leplevsky) who has it out for him.

He is the gentleman whose grace wins him the friendship of all, save the Bishop, and the love of his adoptive daughter Sophia, a budding piano prodigy. He discovers that his life is not merely the inner life of equanimity characterized in Montaigne’s words, “The greatest thing in the world is to know how to belong to oneself.” He also learns what it means to belong to his friends, who enrich and guard his life. He remains loyal to his writer friend Mishka, and experiences unexpected loyalty from Osip, the Russian party man, at a moment of extreme need. He lives a life in full in within the confines of his house arrest, exchanging the grand life in society for the pleasures of food well prepared and well served to guests well seated.

It seems that many have been drawn to this book in pandemic times, under the conditions of our own house arrests. We’ve struggled to live and found new ways of living under stay at home orders. Or we’ve chafed at them and put our lives at risk, as the Count would have in departing the Hotel Metropol. As we consider the ways the Count copes and thrives in his house arrest, we’re invited to consider how well we have coped, and how then will we live in the months that remain until our return to whatever new normal follows.