Tag Archives: faith

The Dearly Beloved, by Cara Wall

Dearly BelovedCharles lives in awe and a bit of fear of his father, a professor who teaches at the same university Charles attends. The father ruthlessly maintains the boundaries that protect his scholarly son from accusations of nepotism. When Charles reveals his faith in God to his secular parents, his father laughs and thinks that it is the perfect ruse to keep up appearances. When he discovers that Charles is serious, he gets up from the dinner table and leaves the house.

Lily was a studious child living quietly in the shadow of her popular, sociable parents. Although she was surrounded by her loving extended family, when her parents died in a car crash, fifteen-year-old Lily pulled up her emotional ramparts and completely blocked God from her life.

Nan grew up visiting the homes of the “less fortunate” with her minister father. Her mother taught her how to be the perfect pastor’s wife, but potluck recipes and sweetly-worded thank-you notes may collapse under the weight of tragedy.

James’ father never recovered from World War II, and he came home to find solace in the bottom of a glass. His mother worked tirelessly to feed and house her many children, but James and his brothers learned to defend themselves with fists and fierceness. James was desperate not to follow in his father’s footsteps, so when he fell in love with Nan, he reconciled himself to her faith by taking on a burning mission to rescue the world through pure, white-hot anger.

These two unlikely couples form lifelong bonds of love, jealousy, conflict, and compassion as the two men are called to be joint pastors of Third Presbyterian Church in New York. Four individuals with four different faiths, wrestling with God and one another as life throws its punches. With a backdrop of the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement, Charles and James preach on alternate Sundays, counsel their Presbyterian flock, and reach out to the urban community, none of which could happen without the firm guiding hand of seventy-two-year-old Jane Atlas, church secretary.

Debut author Cara Wall has couched a fascinating theological study within an absorbing work of warm domestic fiction. The narrative follows all four main characters through their college years, courtships, marriages, births, deaths, sickness, triumphs, and failures. Church life is a rare topic for novels, but Wall displays a sure hand with church board meetings, congregational social circles, the intersection of the church and the secular world, and the relationship between the “called” pastor and the congregation’s support—or lack thereof. Whereas most writers have a stock character to stand in for a pastor, Wall populates her story with many clergymen, each a whole and unique individual, and focuses in on Charles’ intellectual, high-church style in contrast to James’ Social Justice Warrior.

Of course, it is not only ministers who endure challenges to their faith, and these four people experience the buffetings of the years in different ways, according to their concept of God and his dealings with humanity. The reader wonders whether the latest blow will cause this one to lose her faith, that marriage to be stretched to the breaking point, or yet another to stand firm in faith and lose everything he holds dear. Within these four dearly beloved hearts reside universal hopes and dreams, anger and sorrow, love and longing.

A wise and moving novel. Highly recommended.

Disclaimer: I read an advance reader copy of this novel, which will be released on August 13, 2019. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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The Benedict Option, by Rod Dreher

Benedict OptionThe title of this book has been so confusing for so many that I’ll start with what the book is not. It is not about Benedict Arnold. It is about Saint Benedict, the monk who founded the Benedictine order in the sixth century. It is not a political book. There is a chapter about politics, and recent political events may have motivated Mr. Dreher to write the book, but it is not about how conservatives can win elections. Finally, it is not advocating that Christians leave public life altogether, drawing into communities behind walls, reading the Bible and singing Gregorian chants.

Benedict was a man living shortly after the fall of Rome who took a good look around and realized that there were barbarians all over the place, and if the church was going to survive, she would have to take some drastic protective measures. He drew a group of men together and started a community founded on work and prayer, keeping all of their lives centered around God. Eventually, he wrote up a summary of what they needed to do and why, calling the document the Benedictine Rule. Following the rule ordered all of their days and marked out appropriate times of work and prayer, living in asceticism, chastity, and silence. The monks sometimes received visitors, often those in need of healing, whether physical or spiritual, but the visitors had to live under the rule while they sojourned with the monks. As we learned in Thomas Cahill’s How the Irish Saved Civilization, we all owe a debt of gratitude to the monasteries for rescuing many manuscripts of antiquity from destruction, and when the Dark Ages were over, the church emerged strong and resilient because of the disciplined labors of the religious orders that were, by that time, scattered across Europe.

Dreher considers that the Christian church in the west is facing another perilous time, a modern Dark Age. The Christian faith is effectively dead in Western Europe, and religious freedom is rapidly being eroded in the United States. As a matter of fact, if there is one political issue for which we must fight tirelessly, it is religious freedom. Most of this volume, though, is taken up with the ways that twenty-first century Christians—who may be women, men, married, single, parents, working for secular employers, and addicted to their smartphones—might adopt the best points of the Benedictine Rule in their own lives. He offers advice and examples of people who have founded Christian communities ranging from loose groups of church members in a neighborhood to actual modern-day monasteries. Among many, wide-ranging topics, there is a chapter devoted to education, another on sexual beliefs and practices, one on the liturgy of the church, and the last one encouraging us to fast from our technology.

About a decade ago, I read Rod Dreher’s earlier, generously-subtitled book, Crunchy Cons: How Birkenstocked Burkeans, Gun-Loving Organic Gardeners, Evangelical Free-Range Farmers, Hip Homeschooling Mamas, Right-Wing Nature Lovers, and Their Diverse Tribe of Countercultural Conservatives Plan to Save America (or at Least the Republican Party). Not that I cared to save the Republican Party, but otherwise I thought the title was a hoot, and it was good to know that someone out there had identified the tribe among which I lived. This current work is more serious, but it is also calling upon those who are willing to pull away from mainstream America to strengthen a church that is confused, fragmented, and in danger of disappearing into the dominant secular society. I cannot say that I agree with everything Dreher proposes in this book, but many of his ideas are so fascinating, and the necessity of some kind of drastic plan is so obvious, that I’ve gathered a group of readers together to discuss each aspect of The Benedict Option over a series of weeks. We will start in two weeks, and I may write a column or two on TheReaderWrites to give you a taste of our conversations. It wouldn’t be a bad idea for many readers across the country to start some discussion groups on this and similar titles. Let’s find ways to get our ideas together.

Disclaimer: I own a copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and do not reflect those of my employer, church, or anyone else. The beautiful abbey on the cover is not Benedict’s abbey in Norcia, Italy, but is actually Mont Saint Michel in France, which used to be a Benedictine monastery. The abbey in Norcia was completely destroyed by earthquakes just a few months ago. All of the monks survived.

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Rich Means Never Driving with the “Check Engine” Light On

ImageMy niece and her husband had just driven out of the driveway when I realized that I had forgotten to warn him about the missing wall in our bathroom. That must have been a shock. I mean, it’s not open to nature or anything, but there’s no sheetrock. We had a suspicion, shortly after moving in eleven years ago, that there was some water somewhere that it shouldn’t be. It just smelled wet. Of course, they couldn’t find anything wrong before the contractor went bankrupt, but a few years ago a neighbor with the same floor plan mentioned that they had discovered that the builders had screwed the shutters on right through a drainpipe. Eureka! David and a plumber friend repaired the pipe, but by this time the sheetrock, insulation, subflooring, and studs were rotten. We did what we could and then found out that a complete repair and reconstruction would be about $4,000. We couldn’t believe it, but we got three bids, and they were all over $3,000. At this point, it won’t get any worse, and David has new studs in there next to the rotten ones, so the house won’t fall down. After about six months, we figured that, since it was dry, we should probably add some insulation for the sake of our heating bill. Now we’re contemplating sheetrock. We’re not contemplating paying someone $4,000 for the repair any time soon, since this is just one in a long line of demands on our money.

I was talking about the lottery with my sister recently. The jackpot had probably gotten over $300 million, which is about where I start to think it might be worth whatever it costs to buy a ticket. I’ve never actually bought one. It’s not that I have moral objections, although someone might be able to talk me into that, but I’m just way too cheap. I can’t imagine spending my money without a guaranteed return. Anyhow, we agreed that we didn’t have to be fabulously rich, but it would be nice if we could actually afford the lifestyle that we’re now living. How peaceful it must be to just fix everything that’s broken: all the appliances working, all of the cars running well, and even the exterior of the house in such beautiful shape that you’re an HOA’s Yard of the Month.

I drove home from work a couple of weeks ago to find my son in the driveway near his car. David was doing yard work, so I knew he didn’t want me to pull into my usual spot, and I wanted to know if Michael was leaving and needed me to move my car. I couldn’t catch his eye, so I bumped my car horn—and the air bag light popped on. I knew there was a short somewhere between the horn and the air bag light, but it hadn’t come on for six months! I’m not sure if it’s just the light that is the problem, or if the air bag is actually disabled, so I really should get it fixed. I could tell you that the light is never on when I’m going by the dealer, but in truth, I just keep hoping it will go off and stay off, which it does a lot of the time! To ratchet up the stress, I walked upstairs ten minutes later to find a notice from the North Carolina DMV, telling me that it was time to renew my registration, following a safety inspection, of course. Happily, the light went out the next afternoon, and I got the car inspected as quickly as possible. Passed! The light hasn’t come on since.

Image“Rich” is such a relative term. Another niece of mine is just returning from a mission trip to the Dominican Republic, where her group helped the locals to build shelters from whatever they could find in the dump: cardboard, sheets of corrugated metal, or whatever came to hand. They have no sewer system, so the church group helped them to dig outhouses and waste areas. They played with the beautiful children and tried to spread the news of happiness beyond this life. American television could convince me that everyone else drives beautiful cars and has every gadget known to man, while I am frustrated that my old DVD player has more idiosyncrasies than a cosseted old lady. But I do have a DVD player and enough money to have a disc-only plan with Netflix. Such first-world problems!

ImageMy dryer— which is now out in the garage waiting for the time when I can replace it and have Lowes take it away—  was held together with masking tape at the end of its days. We tried duct tape, but it left a sticky goo when it was heated. Masking tape worked better, but it kept drying out and had to be replaced. Eventually, David installed a brass latch that one usually sees on a door. It worked, and we were perfectly happy with our Harvest Gold contraption until the heating element gave out. Thirty-two years is a good run for any appliance, so we are now borrowing Michael’s dryer, which was stored in our garage until he gets a job and moves out. I’m not sure what will happen then, but I will definitely not get a dryer with a door that opens sideways, as this one does. The wrong side, too, although I’ve been told that you can turn it around. No one has actually done this, though, so the folding process goes like so: bump door over with hip, pull out one item, fold, put in pile. Bump door over with hip, pull out one item, rinse & repeat.  I have also been told that there is a buzzer somewhere, but it has been disabled, and no one can remember how to reverse this modification.

However, I do have clean, dry clothes, which are washed and dried inside of my clean, dry house, and some of the cleaning is actually done by our new robot! David may be driving around with the Check Engine light on sometimes, but he is smart enough to know what is wrong and what to do about it. It will become irreparable eventually, but we’re okay for now. We can have faith in more than lottery tickets because we see that we are truly quite rich in all of the things that matter and many of the things that really don’t. I have a family I love and even a job that I love, live in a house and have a car to drive, and have plenty of healthy and unhealthy food to eat. We have a great church and a faith that points us to true riches that never break down. Perhaps our struggle in America is to find contentment, to somehow squelch the desire to say with Janis Joplin, “Oh, Lord! Won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz?”

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