Good + Books

From Jeff Munroe

Being good is complicated.

I’ve just read two British novels, written over 150 years apart, that make that point. It fascinates me that of all the titles ascribed to Jesus, the one he rejected was being called “good.”  No wonder -- these novels show how difficult “good” can be.  (Both books also, in their own way, skewer the Church of England, but that’s another topic for another day.) 

The first is How to Be Good by Nick Hornby.  I loved Hornby’s movies About a Boy and An Education and gleefully jumped at this book when I found it tucked away amid the treasures of a used bookstore.  Hornby is hilarious and compassionate and insightful and all of these qualities pour out in this novel.  Katie, the main character, is a goodperson; she cares about third-world debt and homelessness, she “saves the odd life” as a doctor and she’s a wife and mother.  Except she’s not that good at being a wife or mother.  She’s married to a lout who writes a newspaper column called The Angriest Man in Holloway (the name of their London suburb), and she opens the novel by asking for a divorce.

What happens next surprised me.  Instead of exploring the pain of a relationship going south, the novel takes a wonderful twist when Katie’s husband undergoes a dramatic spiritual awakening, aided by a mystic named DJ GoodNews.  “I believe all the things you believe,” he tells her, “except I am going to walk the talk.”


In God We Trust

The opening verses of Psalm 91 immediately draw our focus to God, who is the Most High, Almighty, LORD. It is God who is at the center of all things; it is God who acts, delivers, guards, loves, shields and protects. The psalmist proclaims these statements of God’s action in our lives as a confession that our trust is indeed rightly placed in God. As we begin this Lenten season, may we humbly remember to keep God as the central focus in our lives and confess together that it is the LORD in whom we place our trust.

Psalm 91
You who live in the shelter of the Most High,
   who abide in the shadow of the Almighty,
will say to the LORD, ‘My refuge and my fortress;
   my God, in whom I trust.’

Deliver us, O God: As we begin another season of spiritual renewal, another journey to Jerusalem, and another experience of walking through the shadows of the passion narrative. Help us to walk slowly through this season and find in you our refuge and our strength.

For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler
   and from the deadly pestilence;
he will cover you with his pinions,
   and under his wings you will find refuge;
   his faithfulness is a shield and buckler.
You will not fear the terror of the night,
   or the arrow that flies by day,
or the pestilence that stalks in darkness,
   or the destruction that wastes at noonday.

Deliver us, O God: Forgive us when we fail to turn to you first and find in you our comfort and protection. Free us from the private comforts to which we cling and the fears which sap our initiative and prevent us from following your commands. We long to be gathered in the protection and comfort of your wings.

A thousand may fall at your side,
   ten thousand at your right hand,
   but it will not come near you.
You will only look with your eyes
   and see the punishment of the wicked.
Because you have made the LORD your refuge,
   the Most High your dwelling-place,
no evil shall befall you,
   no scourge come near your tent.

Deliver us O God: Help us to remember that our help and hope comes from you. You are our keeper. You keep our going out and our coming in, you keep us from all evil and you keep our lives.

For he will command his angels concerning you
   to guard you in all your ways.
On their hands they will bear you up,
   so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.
You will tread on the lion and the adder,
   the young lion and the serpent you will trample under foot.

Deliver us, O God: Keep our feet from slipping off the firm foundation you have set for us. Guard our hearts, we pray, and help us to rest in the assurance of your redeeming love.

Those who love me, I will deliver;
   I will protect those who know my name.
When they call to me, I will answer them;
   I will be with them in trouble,
   I will rescue them and honor them.
With long life I will satisfy them,
   and show them my salvation.

Deliver us, O God: Renew our strength. Help us to run and not grow weary, walk and not faint. Help us to lay aside every weight and sin that clings so closely, and let us run the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. Amen.

--Rev. Sarah Palsma, Associate Pastor, New Hope Church, Powell, Ohio


Ho...What the...Hey!

From Jason Lief

I'm a sucker for award shows. Last weekend it was the Grammys; this week it's the Oscars. I can honestly say I watched most of it - from Taylor Swift's over the top opening, to the return of Justin "Suit and Tie" Timberlake, to Jack White shredding on "Freedom at 21." I find these shows enjoyable, revolting, and cringe worthy all wrapped into one. It's painful to watch an artist implode, either by acting like a pompous ass while announcing the nominees, or by totally stinking up the joint trying to play their instruments. Or, when an artist wins and gives the old "I didn't think I would win" or the "I want to thank my fellow nominees" routine, to which everyone watching gives a Liz Lemon "O brother!" eye roll. I find the Grammys to be a buffet of musical fun.

My favorite moments, however, are usually when some up-and-comer totally nails it. Last year is was Mumford and Sons, the opening act for the Avett Brothers and Bob Dylan, rocking a rendition of "The Cave." This year it was The Lumineers who brought the house down.


Ask the Right Question

From James Bratt

Last night I received a teaching award at my college--most surprisingly and not a little discomfiting, as the remarks below indicate. But an occasion to celebrate a worthy common project in our Reformed endeavor, nonetheless. Here, then, my acceptance speech.

When President LeRoy called me up with news of this prize, I immediately replied no, no, you can’t mean it. I was afraid that the awards committee was going to visit my next class, observe for five minutes, then quickly meet to revoke its decision. I started a mental list of four or five people just in my department who are better teachers than I. So, first denial, then anxiety, then bargaining—why was I responding to such good news by recapitulating the five stages of grief? I decided to drop that line and go for gratitude instead. Here then my simple, heartfelt thanks for this wonderful tribute. I accept it, as my predecessors in this prize all have, as a tribute to all Calvin College faculty­­ for the unrelenting commitment it takes to sustain good teaching day by day over the long run. Most of all, I accept it as a tribute to our common project of Christian liberal arts education.

Some of my best moments in that project came in teaching the students on our honors floor last year. Every Monday night from September to May we met to discuss a great book, in this case Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. I chose this title not because De Tocqueville, much less America, got everything right, but because of the penetrating questions this French aristocrat asked of a strange new democracy 180 years ago. I wanted us to be provoked by his observations to better understand this country and other countries today, and also to demonstrate how various disciplines can converge to enrich our comprehension of a subject.

Our conversations in that class were spritely, wide-ranging and very revealing—especially to me as a teacher.


Rooted and Grounded in Love: Lessons from Church History

From Theresa Latini

This year I’m spending Valentine’s Day finishing a chapter on the history of pastoral theology for a pastoral care textbook that I’m co-writing. (That’s romance in the life of an academic!) I’ve spent the past month scouring ancient texts—learning how the communion of saints has participated in God’s ongoing ministry of healing and reconciliation in response to the most pressing needs and issues in various times and places. Of these, Julian of Norwich stands out for mention on this Hallmark day.

Julian (1342-1416) was an English anchoress, mystic, and pastoral theologian. She lived in a cell adjacent to a church, which likely had three windows—one into the church; one for receiving food and other necessities; and one for receiving visitors in need of counsel. Through her window into the world, she listened deeply and shared spiritual guidance, sustenance, and comfort with persons in need. Rooted and grounded in the providential love of God, Julian cared for others in her anxiety- and grief-filled age.

Fourteenth century English society experienced a scourge of plagues, both figuratively and literally: the Black Death (bubonic plague), the Hundred Years War with France, the peasants uprising of 1381, the widespread prosecution of heresy throughout Europe, and the Great Schism between the Avignon and Roman papacies. In short, life was fraught with anxiety, dread, and insecurity. And the prevailing popular sentiment and church practices only exacerbated this. The dominant theological lens for explaining rampant devastation and trauma was God’s wrath. This gave rise to piety marked by rumination on death and devils and practices of bodily deprivation, self-flagellation, and ruthless self-examination.

Julian’s antidote was an unswerving emphasis on God’s love. God is a compassionate nurturer. Christ our Mother, as she so eloquently described him, feeds, nourishes, teaches, holds, and disciplines believers. Julian reminded her charges that though they were surrounded by death and destruction, they nevertheless were enclosed in Christ—safe and secure like a child nestled in her mother’s bosom.