Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Recommended Read - Crazy Love by Francis Chan

Non-fiction. Published, 2008.

Our entire church family was encouraged to read Crazy Love during the season of Lent. To implement this, many small groups met to discuss it on weekdays and Pastor used it as a launching pad for his Sunday messages.

I read it along with most of the congregation, and I appreciated it. However, I’ve struggled with a review.

Francis Chan’s story will grab your attention. As a child he lost his mother, his step-mother, his father, and then his only remaining relatives—an uncle and aunt. His life wasn’t happy before those things happened, and the deaths were traumatic.

But God met him. And he has a message for Christians who live lives of relative ease: Get with it! Begin to follow God through personal commitment and sacrifice. Respond to God’s call by living out the Gospel on a daily basis.

Chan is hard on church-goers. I should mention that portions of the book offended some in the congregation.

I generally agreed with him on those portions. I think we do get comfortable in our pleasant lifestyle and fail to take God’s challenges seriously.

And yet I had problems with the book.

A chance statement by someone who was not discussing the book opened my thought process—and I understood why I was troubled. Because it is important and subtle, I can’t review the book without mentioning it. Chan didn’t talk about hearing the Holy Spirit or responding to God’s personal call.

I feel Christians need to hear from God. If we do something just to do something, we’ll spin our wheels, so to speak, and accomplish very little. On the other hand, if we do some small thing because God has led us to that point, we’ll accomplish something—perhaps even a great deal because God will use it in ways we can’t imagine.

In all fairness, Chan’s story demonstrates that he is guided by the Holy Spirit—and that he follows God’s personal leading. It’s unfair to judge a book by what isn’t emphasized, especially when it's part of the story. Perhaps he felt the aspect of a personal call was outside the scope of this book. And, on a positive note, the church responded remarkably to the message. (But that’s not the focus of a review.)

So, do I recommend Crazy Love?

Yes. Chan points out problems in Christians or church-goers and in churches, something we need to recognize. He challenges people to respond to God by serving others. He does this against the backdrop of his own story. The life-story of this man is enough in itself to make the book worth reading. His message will touch you, too.

I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and TEstimonials in Advertising."

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Recommended Read - A Green Journey by Jon Hassler

Recommended Read – A Green Journey
by Jon Hassler
Random House, 1985
Ballantine Books Random House, 292 pages

I don’t understand how I’d missed hearing about Jon Hassler. He’s a true Minnesotan whose work is widely recognized by the literary crowd. One of his major themes is people’s response to change when they’re forced to deal with their changing world.

At a neighbor's suggestion, I dutifully began Hassler’s first work, Staggerford. The low-key, gentle story quickly drew me in because I cared about the people—and I’ve continue to go back for more of Hassler when the mood hits me.

Although set in a small Minnesota town dominated by the Catholic Church when both small towns and the Church experienced huge challenges, the book is strangely reassuring. We and our world are fallen, but God is bigger. Most disarming for me was that in spite of serious themes, subtle humor permeats almost everything. Humor grounded in complex human conflict and quandry.

Yes, Hassler is a Christian. And he writes about a narrow segment of society. This might be why, even though I discovered literary buffs admire him, he’s not widely read.

But narrow segments of society often reflect our larger society. That's the beauty of literature.

Perhaps A Green Journey is one of Hassler’s best, and I’m wondering how to share the pure joy the characters of this book offer. Agatha McGee, a spinster who recently retired from her position as sixth-grade teacher of St. Isidore’s Elementary School, is restless. Her history, her personality, and her unique acquaintance with seemingly everyone in the parish are in themselves rich fodder. Her nemesis is the new bishop, a gifted, confident man determined to bring in fresh air inspired by the new pope. Then there’s then Irish priest who becomes Agatha’s pen pal without telling her his vocation.

Agatha decides to visit Ireland as part of a touring group so she can meet her friend. The bishop, also in the group and acquainted with Agatha’s reputation, detects a romantic interest and feels obliged to protect the poor woman against the advances of a priest with less than pure intentions. The priest—well, discover him for yourself. When the three intersect—although never all three at once—well, I couldn’t resist reading choice scenes out loud to Ken—and we howled with pure delight.

Add an unmarried former student and her father—also a former student—who knock on Agatha's door during Christmas Eve blizzard. The girl is about to deliver a baby and the rural family might become snowbound, but the baby surprises everyone by waiting until the New Year. Then add townsmen--also former students, of course—who discreetly deny the mother and baby a rightful prize. They're confronted by Agatha’s righteous indignation--she's a wonder, that woman.

There are no wicked characters in this book. And there are no totally well-adjusted characters, either. Just real people who rub against each other—sometimes to the other's chagrin and sometimes to the other's delight.

Hassler knows his material—I can vouch for him because I know these people, too. I grew up in a small Minnesota community equally divided between Catholic and Protestants. Pure Minnesota and a microcosm of the world at large.

Who knew it could be so much fun!

I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and TEstimonials in Advertising."

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Recommended Read - Lit: a Memoir by Mary Karr

Non-fiction. Published, 2009

If any book ever depicted resurrection power, Lit by Mary Karr qualifies. This is a story that takes the reader through a person's life from virtual death to victory over the forces of virtual death.

Karr grew up in soggy, musty East-Texas lowlands. Her brilliant, creative, educated, but paranoid mother is incapable of nurturing her daughters. However, she is capable of neglect and even violence as she descends deeper and deeper into alcoholism. Karr's brilliant, creative, undereducated, and comparatively dependable father is unable to rise above his circumstances. In the end, his lifetime of heavy drinking also culminates in alcoholism.

Karr’s remarkable earlier memoirs, The Liars Club and Cherry, describe her childhood and adolescence respectively. After hearing an interview and reading one review, I supposed Lit would begin with the turn around. Not so.

After a brief foray into the hippie world of California, Karr pursues academia. An interesting detail here is that, although she cannot escape the demons of her childhood, several friends from schools and professional encounters maintain a relationship with her throughout her life-and-death struggles. Meanwhile, she receives limited recognition as a poet. And she marries the man of her dreams—handsome, from a more-than-respectable background, dependable, steady. He's also emotionally distant.

When their son is born, the baby becomes the center of her life. But at that point Karr begins to unravel at every level. Never having received mothering herself, already careening down a path of self-destruction, and overwhelmed by feelings of inadequacy, she escapes from the responsibilities of motherhood by descending the alcoholic pattern of her background.

Reading about a drunk mother's inability to care for the child she loves more than life itself—let alone the demise of her marriage and the difficultly of her professional life—is a painful. Karr is brutally honest about herself and about human foibles in general.

An almost-deadly car accident forces her to face reality, and she connects with Alcoholics Anonymous. But her cure isn’t quick and easy. She'd been an avowed athetist since childhood. One of her mentors points out that, for someone who didn't believe in God, she sure was angry with Him.

Karr describes her friendships with alcoholics and, later, her felow-patients in a mental institution where she's treated for depression. They are without judgment and priceless. Her poetic sensibilities here and throughout the narrative often took my breath away.

Attempts at prayer are initially directed toward an unidentified higher power—and they’re not gracious. But, although she doesn’t want to admit it, prayer makes a positive difference and she experiences a measure of victory.

At the request of her son, now in grade school, she begins attending churches. One—a church attended by many of her colleagues at the university—taught there was no evil. She knew better.

She finally settles—still unconvinced on the issue of Jesus and God—in a Catholic church that accepts her as she is but that doen’t sugarcoat the realities of sin. The concept of salvation from sin by accepting the death of Christ was an added bonus that hardly factored in until later.

Karr's pen is sharp, her humor is dark, her language is often vulgar. Surely God would strike someone dead for talking to Him the way she talks to Him. Instead, He draws her to Himself. And while He draws her to Himself, He empowers her to overcome her addiction.

Reading Lit was, in some ways, a traumatic experience, but I came away with a renewed picture of God’s grace. Grace that both covers sin and that gives people the strength to stand against it. That’s resurrection power.

I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and TEstimonials in Advertising."