Current Nighttime Reading

book cover.jpg

In this emotional tale of haunted love, CELESTIAL MECHANICS’s Silas Fortunato finds himself locked in a marriage descending toward darkness until the arrival of his sister-in-law and soon thereafter the appearance of a witching neighbor who may or may not be alive. In ways enigmatic, ghostly, and funny, the three women draw him into the equivocal nature of dreams and reality, their influences leading Silas on a journey toward what may be light and a new belonging to something vastly beyond him.

The debut novel of famed Blue Highways author William Least Heat-Moon, CELESTIAL MECHANICS embarks on a journey through the mind and wrestles with life’s major questions, like the nature of the Cosmos, the value of knowledge, and the essence of truly being alive. Heat-Moon has already proven he is a master at taking readers on powerful journeys as shown in his initial release Blue Highways, which spent 42 weeks on the New York Times Bestseller list. CELESTIAL MECHANICS is a Blue Highways of the mind, in which the author leads readers on a path unlike any other, offering new insight into finding one’s place in this universe we struggle to understand.

When Silas Fortunato applies for an editorial position for the “spirituality” section of a local newspaper, he is asked to fill in a bubble sheet to mark his religion. The problem is, his beliefs don’t fall within any of the categories. Silas believes that selflessness enlarges vision and that what a person should strive for is to be overcome by the beyond. He believes in honoring otherness and in giving questions credence over certainty. He calls himself a Cosmoterian because his goal is to make himself worthy of the majesty of Cosmos. Silas is a man driven by big ideas, but it is the everyday smallness that perpetually both intrigues and eludes him.

In this emotional tale of haunted love, Silas finds himself locked in a marriage descending toward darkness until the arrival of his sister-in-law and soon thereafter the appearance of a witching neighbor who may or may not be alive. In ways enigmatic, ghostly, and funny, the three women draw him into the equivocal nature of dreams and reality, their influences leading Silas on a journey toward what may be light and a new belonging to something vastly beyond himself.

Just as William Least Heat-Moon’s nonfiction employs many fictional narrative techniques, Celestial Mechanics draws upon nonfictional devices to build a story that crosses traditional boundaries between the two. Celestial Mechanics is the clarion call of a generation that believes rationality and spirituality can—and should—coexist, a generation defined by globalization, where the only things left unknown are what is within and beyond us, those cosmic realms revealed by the telescope and the quantum world suggested by the microscope. This book is for those of us steeped in a hustle-and-bustle world we can’t escape, who believe that practices like mindfulness and rational deduction and childlike wonder are the keys to the kind of fulfillment that the commercial aspects of our lives can never hope to address.

“In 1982, William Least Heat-Moon (a nom de plume reflecting his Native American heritage) broke onto the travel-writing scene with Blue Highways, an acclaimed memoir of his trek across America’s back roads. Although this first work of fiction may initially seem like an inspired detour, the author’s fans will readily recognize Heat-Moon’s alter ego in the novel’s protagonist, Silas Fortunado, an incurably inquisitive writer. The novel’s philosophically rich story line follows Silas’ search for greater meaning in his life through his complicated relationships with three women: Dominique, his newlywed wife, whose pragmatism and disdain for his inherited woodlands home ultimately dooms their marriage; Celeste, Dominique’s younger sister, whose ambivalence about her life in a convent is heightened by her correspondence with the religiously skeptical Silas; and Kyzmyt, a modern-day witch and Silas’ dreamlike mentor. Each spurs Silas on an entrancing journey toward deeper insight into the cosmos, an exploration readers will share and savor with every masterfully crafted sentence. Highly recommended for fans of Heat-Moon and readers who enjoy philosophical fiction.” —Booklist

Faith Talk

What does it mean to share your faith with another? Like dancing this process requires two willing partner. To share one’s faith requires one partner to articulate what s/he believes, it need not be polished or address every matter under the sun, but it should give one’s account of the character of God, how s/he experience this God, what this God does and does not do and the purpose this God has for the universe in general and the person in particular. Again this need not be comprehensive and complete. There ought to be room for “I don’t know about this” and “I confess I have not thought this part through 100%.” But such a sharing would provide the basic thrust of one’s faith and offer to the other opportunity to ask questions.

The partner who listens needs to…listen. That is not listen for gaps or holes or inconsistencies but listen to what the other is saying and who God is in this sharing. A good way to know if you have listened well is if you could turn to a third party and offer her/him a description of what you have just heard. If you do this accurately you have listened well. There ought to be questions, the questions should be questions, not speeches or sermons. If you want to know something you ought to ask a question. For instance, “You say God is all powerful and in total control, that God knows the outcome and God does what God wants in God’s own time but you also say God wants us to accept Jesus as Lord and Saviour and for us to live moral and righteous lives. How are these two assertions consistent with one another? If God is in total control doesn’t God already know what choice I will make, how I will live my life?” It’s a fair question and provided it is asked without a condescending tone or a rising voice of anger it should be one the original speaker is ready to answer.

At some point the tables should turn and the listener becomes the one who shares and the one who has been sharing her/his own faith now gets to listen. Again articulating a clear sense of what s/he believes is key and for the listener the task is to hear what is being said. Being clear with one’s faith sharing and listening to that sharing are the hallmarks of a good faith conversation.

Again good questions deepen the conversation. This time the one sharing might be more nuanced, suggest s/he isn’t sure who this God is other than a spirit of Love and that this God of love calls us not to judge one another but instead to offer compassion and care. A good question might be, “Isn’t everyone judgmental? If God expects and offers love then surely when what is offered as the opposite of love shouldn’t you be judgmental of that expression? How can you suggest God demands an ethical imperative to love but make even a gentle critique of one who hates somehow wrong?” It’s a good question but again it ought to be offered without anger or condescending tone.

I love conversations like these, genuine faith sharing between interested and interesting partners. I confess when my faith sharing partner is not interested in a dialogue but instead a monologue, where I am being “schooled” I can develop some sharp elbows myself. The good news for someone like me is that many of those who take that aggressive approach with me are not used to people hearing them and being ready to ask them hard questions. They are only used to playing “offence”, not defense”. Listening to the other is always a good idea, even when the other is not doing likewise.

imagination

When people ask me about what I am most grateful for, what I thank God for, it would the gift of imagination. That gift, more than any other, has been the most life-giving part of my life and work. Whether it is with my family, my friends, my church families, people I meet for the first time, people I pray for in distant lands, it is imagination that brings me to the place where I feel I need to be. As child I had a wonderful imagination, fostered in great part by Mr. Dressup, Mr. Rogers and the Friendly Giant. In each of those cases the imagination involved a neighbourhood with distinctive characters and new people passing through. There was intentional effort made to use one’s imagination in a playful and thoughtful way. One could be creative with imagination and design a worship service no one has ever considered. One could be thoughtful with imagination and design a thank-you/thinking-of-you that no one has ever considered. The result? A memorable event.

I think a lot about how to make things “stick”, that is offering something to the other or others that which holds their attention now and for some time. Imagination is the game changer, it is what offers the real possibility of a unique experience. Because our offerings so often mimic what we know is expected, is “normal”, is customary, we find the gift is easily forgotten by the other. The other assumes we did what we did from rote, it was a duty. But if we use our God-given imaginations we can offer something the other has not seen or heard previously and this becomes a memorable experience. It sticks.

I am not the most imaginative or original person, I watch artists do what they do and I am blown away by their vision and originality. But I do think in the field of my vocation, in “churchland”, my imagination is more unique. I have some confidence that when I put something together for a person or persons I am offering something others have not seen. That fills me with much joy for I know I am offering a gift that has the potential to last.

My prayer life is filled with imagination. Some pray for things, for themselves and for others, some pray for insight or illumination, some pray for peace and presence to the moment. I pray for imagination, that God will help me see what I can’t, give me openness to approach an intractable challenge with new eyes and a fresh heart. There is an aha moment when I see in front of me an opportunity where none previously existed. Suddenly I can see around the corner, see what was blocked from my view. And there it is, I see, I know, I can touch a new way and a new day.

It is so exciting to use one’s imagination, to set it free and link it to the compassion of Jesus. Jesus had a divine imagination that set us free from tired old baggage and assumptions to live into the spirit of Kin-dom. I am so delighted, so grateful, so spirit-filled, to be given this gift. I thank you God for this imagination. It has set me free.

Jimmy Carter

Going to Church With Jimmy Carter

Jimmy Carter.jpg

By Margaret Renkl (Ms. Renkl is a contributing opinion writer.)

I knew I was in trouble as soon as I pulled into the parking lot of the Quality Inn in Americus, Ga., last Saturday night. It was long past dark but I could see well enough to note the out-of-state license plates — New Mexico, Pennsylvania, California, Alaska — places far from this peanut-farming land.

We were all there for the same reason: to see Jimmy Carter teach Sunday school at the Maranatha Baptist Church in the nearby town of Plains. And if the crowded parking lot was any indication, finding a seat the next morning would be a challenge.

After the inauguration of Ronald Reagan in 1981, President Carter returned to Plains, his hometown. Throughout the longest and most influential post-presidency in American history, he has continued teaching Sunday school, and the public is always welcome to sit in.

President Carter’s commitment to human rights — executed largely though Habitat for Humanity and The Carter Center, which works to eradicate poverty and disease and cultivate democracy — earned him a Nobel Peace Prize in 2002. In his acceptance address, President Carter said, “God gives us the capacity for choice. We can choose to alleviate suffering. We can choose to work together for peace.” Even when he isn’t teaching Sunday school, his unwavering Christian faith informs everything he says and does.

My own faith in religious and democratic institutions has not been so unwavering, especially not since white Christians put a demagogue in the White House. But I have always wanted to go to his Sunday school class. When President Carter, now 93, announced that he was cutting back on his teaching schedule at the church and publishing a new book — “Faith: A Journey for All” — it seemed almost like a sign. Jimmy Carter still has faith in this country, and I hoped his Sunday school lesson might restore my faith, too.

The sanctuary of the Maranatha Baptist Church seats 350 people, and there’s a spillover room with a live video feed for another 100 or so. “Based on recent attendance trends, visitors who arrived before 6 a.m. had no problem obtaining a sanctuary seat,” the church’s website reads.

In my motel room I set the alarm for an hour I haven’t seen since 1998, the last time there was a newborn baby in my house. Fifteen minutes before it went off, I heard the pipes rattling as someone in the next room took a shower, so I jumped in the shower myself. Trying to beat a total stranger to Sunday school is not exactly in the spirit of Christian charity, but I wanted a seat in that sanctuary.

In springtime, rural Southwest Georgia is as pretty a place as you will find on this earth — wildflowers swathing the fallow fields and blooming along the edges of red soil already plowed for planting, bluebirds hunting from fence posts, mockingbirds sending dueling songs into the pines — but I couldn’t see any of that from Highway 280 in the predawn darkness.

I arrived at the church and was given a number — 41 — and told to park in the pecan orchard because the lot was already full. At 7:45 it would be time to get in line to be checked by the Secret Service. I wasn’t there early enough to be guaranteed a seat in the sanctuary, a church member said, but it wasn’t out of the realm of possibility.

Thanks to the early riser in the motel room next door, I made it into the sanctuary. While we waited for President Carter to arrive, I chatted with a Baptist minister sitting in the pew behind me about a recent interview with Stephen Colbert, in which Mr. Carter hinted that he considers the sitting president of the United States a liar. Asked what it takes to be president, he told Mr. Colbert, “I used to think it was to tell the truth. But I’ve changed my mind lately.”

There were flashes of the same impish wit on display at the church in Plains. “Do we have any visitors this morning?” he joked to the crowd. He asked where we were all from, and voices sang out from places like Cameroon, Israel, Uzbekistan.

When it was time for the lesson itself, President Carter stood smiling and spoke without referring to notes, moving to the lectern only to read from the scripture. The text was from the Acts of the Apostles, passages concerning the priorities of the early church. “They worshiped together. They had fellowship together. And a third thing: They took care of each other’s needs, even in a sacrificial way,” he said. He spoke particularly about the generosity of Barnabas, who sold his own field and gave the money to Jesus’ apostles to distribute to the needy.

President Carter is not a pacing, gesturing, booming-voiced orator, but he is a brilliant teacher — moving nimbly between his memories, his concerns for the world and what the Acts have to say about the right relationship of human beings to one another. He asks questions, nods encouragement when an answer is close but keeps nudging until someone hits on the point he’s trying to make.

“We have lost faith in a lot of things that have always nurtured us,” he said. “Many people in the world have lost faith in democracy. We’ve lost faith in the sanctity of telling the truth and the value of education. We’ve lost faith in the equality of people. In our country’s history, some of our greatest struggles have been over the issue of equality.”

Then he asked the congregation what year women in the United States gained the right to vote.

Several called out “1920!” But it was a trick question. “That was white women,” he reminded us. “A lot of white people don’t remember that distinction.”

He spoke movingly about his first security briefing as president-elect, about the solemn responsibility of the country’s commander in chief to safeguard nuclear weapons. “If we don’t figure out as collective human beings how to get along with each other, even the people we don’t like and with whom we don’t agree — say the Americans and the Russians, the Americans and the Chinese, the Americans and anybody else — if we don’t figure out collectively how to get along with each other and take care of each other, that might be the end of humanity.”

President Carter is a realist, and he’s concerned about the current state of the world, but he was also careful to say he doesn’t believe the worst will happen — “I’m a Christian, and I believe God’s will and God’s love will prevail, but I worry about it.” And he returned again to his call to “take care of each other, even the people that we don’t like, even our enemies.” At the Maranatha Baptist Church, a Sunday school lesson is a master class in responsibility and goodness and, above all, love.

He reminded the congregation that Barnabas was known among the early Christians as “the encourager.” And encouragement is clearly something Jimmy Carter knows a great deal about.

consistency

I try to be consistent. I try to be consistent all the time. I think and think and think about things. People sometimes tell me that I overthink and they are correct. I cannot see any other way to live. Am I always consistent? Of course not. I am human, perfection is a ridiculous expectation...

Starry Night

Starry Night is probably Vincent van Gogh's most famous painting. Instantly recognizable because of its unique style, this work has been the subject of poetry, fiction, CD-ROMs as well as the well-known song "Vincent" or "Starry, Starry Night" by Don McLean...

Compliments

Some say everyone likes a compliment. That is generally true but there are exceptions. I am one. I don’t like compliments that sound like they are generated by a “in the moment” feeling. We have all been there, it’s a good day, everything is going according to “our” plans and for some reason everything others do or say seems exceptional...

A Good Meeting

Last night I attended a great meeting. It was the best meeting I have attended at Bethany since I arrived here in December 2015. I have thought about why this meeting was so satisfying. There are a number of things that happened last night that point to a check-list that every gathering could consult when attempting to plan for a successful meeting...

spiritual orienteering

There is almost nothing in the scriptures about the energy we find in our living space. I am NOT someone attracted to or interested in the whole new age spirituality of energy sources. I just don’t find that energy has some kind of independent agency, for me energy, a spiritual energy, comes from...

Easter Sunday

Resurrection is a complex, mysterious, and head-scratching word. What does it mean? When ministers like me stand up in the church and proclaim that we believe in Jesus’ resurrection from the grave, that Good Friday was not the final word, that Jesus has “returned” to God...