Review: Unforgettable

Unforgettable, Gregory Floyd. Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2022.

Summary: Through remembering his life of faith, the author remembers the working of God in all of life’s seasons, giving hope for the future.

This book surprised me in its capacity to evoke memories of my own life. Perhaps it is because the author and I are the same age, lived through the same times, although with different experiences, but on the same journey of faith.

The book began in the author’s experience of caring for his mother during her decline with Alzheimer’s disease and the question of “who are we without our memories?” He started recording his own memories, not ones he searched for but those who came to him. This book is the product of that remembering time.

Perhaps the most defining came in his eighteenth year:

“…in my senior year of high school, I heard his voice. Not audibly, but an impression on my heart, a word pressed into it: Jump. I woke in the middle of the night to a voice that said: ‘Jump, and trust that I will catch you.’ Somehow, I knew this was God speaking, and I decided to jump. If I was correct, I would find myself in the arms of God”

Gregory Floyd, p. 30.

And this is where he found himself. Floyd describes the experience of brokenness and forgiveness, the beauty that finds its focus in Christ. He describes the beginnings of his marriage and the decisions to put God first, even above their love, realizing this is what would bind them most deeply together, as they received God’s gift. He describes creating a family–a large one of nine children, one who died.

One of the quite wonderful passages is the one on the Word, and how scripture speaks to him of the abiding love of God and how one might live in that. He opens his own life of prayer, learning to pray as he can and not as he can’t, taught by the Spirit and shaped by the prayers of scripture. He remembers both the prayers and the silences. He vulnerably shares his journey of wrestling with the loss of a son in an auto accident in front of their home–a parent’s worst nightmare. He is honest about the grief, even after 25 years, as well as the hope of seeing him again and sharing a ‘10,000 year glance.”

His memories move from his own life to the wonders of God in salvation and the splendor of His glory, of which he writes as clearly and reverently as anyone I’ve encountered. He concludes with his growing hope as he grows older and the showing of Julian of Norwich that “all shall be well.” What Floyd discovers in this reflection upon memories is that “God inhabits our memories,” sustaining us with his mercy and grace and taking our past experiences to foster hope for the future.

Why did this book speak so powerfully to me? I found myself walking through the different seasons of life with the author, and remembering the goodness of God, the riches of the scriptures, of prayer, of family, of Christian community down the years. As I approach the end of my seventh decade with the author, I do wonder what lies ahead. One thing is certain. We will die. While we never know when this is, the deaths of classmates, of those five, ten, fifteen or twenty years older reminds me that this is inevitably more imminent than I once thought it was. And what of those intervening years? The reminders of my own memories of the presence of God into whose arms I’ve jumped gives me hope that he will carry my wife and me safe through. The saints who influenced my life who I believe are cheering me on in glory are closer than ever. And every beauty, every gift of each day reminds me of what shall be, the emerald greens of this spring, the pleasures of weeding and planting, of savoring a good book, a symphony, a sunset. Floyd’s book reminds me of the God of grace and providence who has inhabited all my memories, all my days, and promises that “all shall be well.”

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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: Almost Everything

Almost Everything: Notes on Hope, Anne Lamott. New York: Riverhead, 2018.

Summary: A series of “notes” or essays on hope, especially amid disturbing times.

“I am stockpiling antibiotics for the apocalypse, even as I await the blossoming of paperwhites on the windowsill in the kitchen.”

Anne Lamott

That’s how this collection of essays in which Lamott sums up why she lives with hope in apocalyptic times. She wrote this before COVID, George Floyd, the 2020 elections and their aftermath, and the invasion of Ukraine and a world staring at the possibility of World War Three, which is almost unthinkable. How did she know.

In “Prelude” Lamott describes this book as being written for her grandson and niece as almost everything she knows that might help. Then in typical Lamott style, she diverts and says that there are really only two things she knows–that she is mightily tempted to jump off of rooftops and out of speeding cars and that she has seen miracles.

She writes of the paradox of truth and how it affords hope when you hit bottom because there is something else, that bottom is only one side of the paradox. We really can’t change others or save them–it is an inside job. She writes, “Nor did I know about grace, that it meets you exactly where you are, at your most pathetic and hopeless, and it loads you into its wheelbarrow and then tips you out somewhere else in ever so slightly better shape.” There really is no fix in life, only forgiveness. We especially can’t change families–only live with them and forgive. Most things will work if we unplug them–even us. We need to surrender the impulse to return hate with hate. Empathy awakens us to how like we are to what we are tempted to hate. She derides diets that end with us gaining weight, suggesting kindness toward ourselves might be better.

There is probably little better writing advice than she gives a bunch of first graders, which was really writing one bad page after another until they became a book. She thinks that bitter chocolate is only good to balance wobbly chair legs and that we do better to carry Kisses in our backpacks to give away and make friends. She writes about death and accompanying the dying, comparing our lives to hen and chicks, with the belly button center that grows outward in glossy green leaves that eventually thin, fade, fall off and feed the soil. Contemplating death makes life richer.

One of the most moving chapter narrates the life of Kelly, an atheist friend who was in AA with her, and then out because she didn’t like the God part, her downward decline after a divorce and the death of her dog, their shared love of Survivor and the last, alcohol-ridden years where Anne hoped God would break through because nothing else could, and the final rest she found when she and a friend who was her last joy killed themselves together. She narrates the tragic fortress of alcoholism that led to her friend’s death when God came in the form of welcome and a cup of tea at an AA meeting.

She concludes with coming back to hope. No sweetness and sentimentality. We confront the terribleness of things, and yet glimpse the wonders of the world, the hush of a forest, and still have the sense that in the end, it will be well.

Lamott has this uncanny ability to puncture our pretensions and our certainties without leaving us bereft. In this context, of finding hope in the face of apocalypse, it comes down to the idea that there is always something beyond bad, that the story doesn’t end that way. Whatever we ground that in–God or intuition–it’s probably the best we have to hang onto in these days.

Review: Grieving a Suicide

Grieving a Suicide

Grieving a Suicide (Second Edition), Albert Y. Hsu. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2017.

Summary: A narrative of how the author learned to deal with the trauma of his father’s suicide, the questions it raised, and the movement through grief toward healing.

Albert Hsu is a survivor, and part of a large group of similar survivors. Following a stroke, his father descended into depression as he coped with rehabilitation. One night, he went into his own bedroom and took his life. Hsu is part of a group that extends to many of us who have lost someone we love, a friend, a family member, a work colleague, when they chose to take their lives. He writes,

“In most literature on the topic, “suicide survivor” refers to a loved one left behind by a
suicide—husband, wife, parent, child, roommate, coworker, another family member, friend—not a person who has survived a suicide attempt. It is no coincidence that the term survivor is commonly applied to those who have experienced a horrible catastrophe of earth-shattering proportions. We speak of Holocaust survivors or of survivors of genocide, terrorism, or war. So it is with those of us who survive a suicide. According to the American Psychiatric Association, ‘the level of stress resulting from the suicide of a loved one is ranked as catastrophic—equivalent to that of a concentration camp experience.’

. . .

Such is the case for survivors of suicide. We have experienced a trauma on par psychologically with the experience of soldiers in combat. In the aftermath, we simply don’t know if we can endure the pain and anguish. Because death has struck so close to home, life itself seems uncertain. We don’t know if we can go on from day to day. We wonder if we will be consumed by the same despair that claimed our loved one. At the very least, we know that our life will never be the same. If we go on living, we will do so as people who see the world very differently” (p. 10).

Hsu’s unfolds the survivor experience in three parts. The first is the particular experience of grief one goes through when suicide strikes. With many examples from his own experience and those of other survivors, he traces a journey from shock, through turmoil, lament, relinquishment, to remembrance. In shock there is the numbness that may only be able to say “I don’t think I can handle anything right now. I need you to take care of some things for me.” Turmoil is going through a jumble of emotions from grief to abandonment, from failure to guilt, anger, and fear, and even a temptation to self-destructiveness, and a distraction that cannot focus. Lament gives voice to the grief, including acknowledging the reality of the suicide. What I most appreciated is the idea that to lament is to express one’s love for one you have lost. Relinquishment involves facing death as friend, enemy, intruder, and yet that death does not have the final word for those who believe. The chapter on remembrance was perhaps one of the most beautiful in the book as Hsu begins with how his pastor spoke about his father at the funeral, how he began to discover aspects of his father’s life he never knew, and how he created ways to remember his father, not to keep him alive, which he was not, but to honor him, and to give thanks to God for his life.

The second part of the book explores three hard questions survivors struggle with. The first is “why did this happen?” Hsu not only explores the factors that contribute to suicide but also the underlying reason we ask this question, which is because we wonder what we might have done differently. The second question is, “is suicide the unforgiveable sin?” Hsu would propose that this does not put a person beyond God’s forgiveness and the hope of eternal life. The third is, “where is God when it hurts?” Here Hsu talks about the biblical portrayal of a God who enters deeply into suffering, ultimately in Christ, who, as hard as it is to believe or feel, is with us and suffers with us.

The final part of the book explores life after suicide. He explores the spirituality of grief, as we struggle to find purpose in suffering, move from despair to hope, and the experience of healing, but never closure. He writes most helpfully about the healing community, and what is helpful and unhelpful to say and do. Here he also addresses what the church can do in growing in suicide awareness and prevention. Finally, he concludes with some of the lessons of suicide for his own life.

This is a profoundly thoughtful, personal, and gentle book. One senses as one reads that Hsu knows other survivors, people in pain, are reading this book. He gives them permission to put it down if it is just too hard. He carefully names the places of pain, those he faced in his own life. He helps survivors know that what they are feeling and what they are asking are entirely appropriate to the trauma they have faced. He does something more. Having allowed people to openly own the pain they are experiencing, he shares, not tritely but honestly out of his own experience, the journey to hope, and even the hope that one day, they like him may become wounded healers for others.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Are We Witnessing the Death of a Culture?

notes-on-the-death-of-a-cultureNobel Laureate Mario Vargas Llosa, thinks so, and makes this contention in a new book, Notes on the Death of a Culture. I have not read the book but came across this excerpt today on Literary Hub. Llosa’s basic contention is that global entertainment culture has basically destroyed any intellectual, literary high culture, except as tourist spots for those who want to get their culture creds. He defines “entertainment culture” as a culture whose only value is profit.

What this article left me wondering is why entertainment is the only thing we value, whether it is in music videos, manga, or opiates. My wife and I have pondered why people give themselves over to such powerful addictive drugs, and the risk of fatal overdoses. All I can come up with is that we have become a culture that is living by the axiom of “let’s eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.” And if that is the case, then indeed, we are witnessing the death of a culture. And it won’t matter who we elect as president.

Llosa is concerned that we no longer value great art, music, literature and the cultivation of the intellect that led to careful, reasoned discourse. My observation is that people need a reason to value goodness, truth and beauty. Telling them they should do so, particularly when mass culture offers such cheap and quick thrills, is just not going to cut it. What is it that makes us defer instant gratification for the hard work of dissecting a careful argument, of meditatively studying a great work of art, of penetrating the depths of a beautiful but complex piece of music? What is it that drives us to devote our lives to producing such works, or other cultural artifacts of distinctive excellence?

I wonder if at the root of it all is a deep sense of hope that what we are doing matters, and will matter long after our physical death. And I wonder whether the notion that we live on in our work is enough. Woody Allen dispelled that long ago for me in the movie Interiors, when a character remarks after a death, in response to this sentiment, “what does that matter when you are dead?”

Llosa comments on T.S. Eliot, whose sense of the life of a culture was that it was bound up with religious faith. And what religious faith (in Eliot’s case as well as my own, Christianity) offers is hope. Why else would we care for the pursuit of goodness, truth, and beauty, the quest for the transcendent if there is nothing to be transcended. Can a culture exist without hope? And we witness this in our political campaigns, whether they promise expanded employment, or simply to make us “great” again. In the turn to mass entertainment and to narcotizing our pain, aren’t we admitting that none of these chimeras of hope is enough?

People in many quarters are dismissive of religion today, and Christianity in particular. And yet isn’t it the hope of life everlasting, and the consciousness of a reckoning of one’s life that drove the cathedral builders, the great artists, the founders of universities, composers like Bach, and many great writers? From whence did ideas of the rule of law, even over kings come from? Isn’t this what also drove people like newly sainted Mother Teresa to leave the comforts of home for the streets of Calcutta (Kolkata)? If we dismiss religious faith, what will we put in its place to give life to our culture, and hope that is meaningful for the many?

Review: Christ-Shaped Character

Christ Shaped CharacterChrist-Shaped Character by Helen Cepero, Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2014.

Summary: Cepero, through personal narrative and formational teaching and practices, traces a path of growing to be more who we truly are as reflections of Christ through the embrace of love, faith and hope.

As a teenage follower of Jesus, I often agonized as I considered the high ideals of the Christian faith and the reality of my often-misbegotten attempts to follow Christ. I despaired with how far I fell short, and it was only gradually that I began to understand that, nevertheless, Christ had chosen me to be his and that the formation of my character was something to which he was deeply committed and would work out through the journey of a lifetime.

In this book, Helen Cepero believes that the three great virtues of love, faith, and hope of which Paul speaks provide that path along which we might walk by which Christ forms us both in who we truly are and as reflections of his own character. The table of contents for this book might be helpful for prospective readers to see how Cepero unfolds this:

Introduction
Part I: Choosing Love
1. Choosing Life—Living as God’s Beloved
2. Compassionate Hospitality—Choosing the Other
3. Forgiving as We Are Forgiven—Loving the Unlovable
Part II: Choosing Faith
4. Following Jesus—Learning the Language of Desire
5. Embracing Vulnerability—Finding Strength in Weakness
6. Living with Integrity—Sustaining a Life of Commitment
Part III: Choosing Hope
7. Paying Attention—Watching for God
8. Seeing Blessing—Living into Possibility
9. Trusting in Christ—Improvising a Life
Appendix 1: Journeying Together Along the Pathway of Love, Faith and Hope
Appendix 2: Bibliography
Notes

Each chapter begins with a personal story related to the chapter theme, followed by a “taking a closer look” section in which she invites the reader into a journalling exercise, a prayer practice that relates to the theme, a closing discussion of what it means to chose to embrace this aspect of love, faith, and hope and some prompts for further reflection around listening to our own stories, to the story of scripture, and to the continuing story of love, faith or hope. The book concludes with an appendix giving ideas for group discussion of the book and an extensive bibliography of further readings around love, faith, and hope.

Cepero’s personal stories were what engaged me the most and they reflected her own journey along the path she commends for us. They were not self-indulgent reflections but rather windows onto the choices into which she believes each of us are invited. For example, the chapter on embracing vulnerability describes her own desperate vulnerability when she belatedly brings her desperately ill, weeks-old child to an emergency room, facing her own failure as a mother by surrendering her son to those who might better care for him. She then leads us into seeing how the embrace of our vulnerability is the doorway into knowing the compassion of God for us in our weakness.

In a later chapter, she begins with the story of lying in a hospital bed after one of many surgeries to correct a hip dysplasia. She describes the visit of a pastor who sees her not as physically damaged but as intellectually curious. When others bring her stuffed toys, he brings her books and blesses an intellectual and spiritual curiosity that led into Cepero’s life calling. She uses this to speak of the power of blessing another and embracing that blessing of hope in one’s life.

I am thankful for the unnamed pastor in this story. I had the privilege of working alongside Helen Cepero at a conference for graduate students and faculty in 2002. Her insight and formational pastoral care toward participants in the track we were working in was a gift to us all, a blessing. I came to know her as someone authentically living into the journey she describes and maps for us in the pages of this book. If you’ve struggled, like me, with the disparity between your life and your sense of the Christ-shaped life, I would warmly commend this book.

Review: Essential Eschatology: Our Present and Future Hope

Essential EschatologyDiscussions of eschatology (the study of end things) often get wrapped up in debates about interpretive themes for the book of Revelation, attempts to equate different symbols with different contemporary events, and predictions of the date of Christ’s return (several of which I’ve seen come and go in my lifetime!). What I loved about this book by John Phelan is that he focused on how the future hope we embrace can practically shape our lives as individuals and church communities in the present.

Hope is a theme that runs through the book, and even through the chapter titles. Phelan begins by exploring the hope of Israel and the promises to Israel fulfilled in the breaking in of the kingdom of God in the person of Jesus. That fulfillment is both present and future and in fact the church in mission  brings the future into the present through its hopeful life. At the same time this is not a hope that should be diverted into accommodations with political powers. Phelan traces the sad history of this from Constantine to the present and our call to be a counter-cultural people of hope in the Lord who will make all things new. Because of this hope of creation renewed and the resurrection of Jesus, we believe that this renewal will extend to the resurrection of our bodies. Our hope is not to be disembodied souls floating around heaven but saints with new creation bodies in the new creation on earth.

Phelan then turns to the strange hope of judgment that actually is good news, that God will set things right. While he argues that descriptions of heaven and hell are metaphorical, he does believe in a reality behind these metaphors and the possibility that God will honor the choices of those who refuse heaven while arguing that we may depend upon “the judge of the world will do right.” While arguing against purgatory as an intermediate state or process, he allows for the possibility of healing and growth to fully realize God’s image in us.

He goes on to explore in more depth the idea of the coming of the kingdom, which was not “the end of the world as we know it” but the coming of God’s rule into the world. He argues that the community of those who are under the rule of Jesus are a reflection but not the coming of this kingdom in its fullness. It is a community whose life should anticipate mending the rifts in the world as a people of peace and reconciliation. The church at the same time is not to consider either personal renewal or societal renewal to replace the ultimate personal return of Jesus. This expectation also provides hope in the midst of empire, whether that be the power of Rome or western capitalism. Against both amillenialism and premillenialism, he argues for the personal reign of Jesus on earth, leaning toward a type of post-millenialism. With regard to Israel, he argues against supercessionism (i.e. that the church has superceded Israel) to propose the salvation of the Jews alongside Gentiles. He argues that perhaps the most powerful witness to the Jews is to manifest Christ’s transforming power in living lives of shalom in the world, bringing peace rather than conflict. He recounts a conversation where a Jewish rabbi, in response to sharing along these lines says, “Well, we Jews have not seen it.”

And so he concludes with what it means for the church to bring its hope for the future into the present. It is the living of shalom, this mending of the world lived out in service, in mission, in play, and celebration. It is to do so without corrupting alliances with political powers or structures of ecclesial power. It is proclaiming the God who both respects human freedom while entering into the suffering caused by the misshapen exercise of that freedom.

Some may take exception to the author’s ideas about the millenium and about judgment. What is incontestable is the challenge to live into the new creation hope of the risen Lord which means living toward the peaceable kingdom to come. This challenges our false hopes in technology and political structures while calling us to lives of great joy, humble service and abiding hope. What Phelan has given us is a book about the future enabling us to live with hope in the present.

Good Grief!

Good grief sounds like an oxymoron. Only a disturbed person relishes loss. Grieving, whether we face the loss of a person, a job we love, a situation in life or a diminishment of our own capacities, comes with a number of emotions, none of which are pleasant–sadness, depression, anger, confusion and more. Yet Rudy’s message on Sunday proposed that we can grieve well. Is this really possible?

Before we get to that question, I want to acknowledge that Rudy helped me see something more clearly than I had before. It was that because we were created originally to live eternally and not die, we often plan and live for permanence and not loss. We think of being best friends forever, of putting down lasting roots somewhere, of things always being the way they are. Ecclesiastes 3:11 says, “He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.”

A good friend observed to me that the first half of life is about acquisition and achievement whereas the second half is about loss. Somewhere along the way, we confront the impermanence of life and that “the center doesn’t hold, things fall apart.” And the challenging question we face is whether the grief of loss is just the gateway to a despairing view of life. Perhaps this is why we try to assuage grief and rush the process because to face it honestly means facing the hardest questions about life.

As Rudy talked about, it all comes back to Jesus and our resurrection hope in him. If Jesus truly came back to life, there is indeed a basis for hoping against hope that there is something beyond the ultimate of all losses–the death of others and our own death. Trusting in his promise, we can face the hardest realities of loss and name them and then realize that Jesus and not loss or death has had the last word. There is a life and a restoration of creation in which we encounter the realization of all our hopes–not only of life everlasting, but of real relationship with those in the Lord we have lost and real work that bears lasting fruit in a creation that is renewed.

How does this help us grieve well? It enables us to have the courage to name our grief honestly with all the emotion that comes with it.  It enables us to allow the journey of grief to take its time with us rather than feeling we must manufacture “all better” feelings when that’s not true. And it enables us to lean into the comfort of God’s promise even when we don’t feel God’s presence.

Loss really doesn’t seem the way life is supposed to be which makes it so hard. The promise of the gospel doesn’t mean an escape from grief but rather that grief needn’t be suppressed nor end in despair–there is hope and light on the other side of the dark night that gives us courage to walk in the valley of the shadow of death and loss.

This post also appears at Smoky Row Brethren Church’s Going Deeper blog.