Tag Archives: faith

Leaving Church, by Barbara Brown Taylor

Barbara Brown Taylor became a priest in the Episcopal Church in the years when few women thought of such things. She became a clergyperson in Atlanta, where she was worn out by the constant demands of urban church life. Eventually, she admitted to herself that her marriage had been on the back burner for so long that it was cold and her heart had become numb toward those to whom she was ministering. All the while, she had been expending all of her energy in performing the good deeds that were expected of her. She couldn’t remember her spiritual passion.

Barbara found a new position in charming Clarkesville, Georgia. The tiny, historic church building spoke to her, and after she and her husband had been there for a few years, they built a home in the gentle mountains nearby. The challenges of a small, rural congregation are different from a city parish: more intimate, but often claustrophobic. Over the years, Barbara won many accolades for her preaching and writing, and the congregation grew exponentially, to the point that she and her assistant were holding several services each Sunday and talking about a building program. After finding herself frazzled and exhausted again, Barbara began to question the role of the church. Was this what Jesus intended for his followers? For that matter, was she even making disciples for Jesus? After many years of dedicated service, Barbara decided to leave her position. Since the Episcopal church advises their separated priests not to visit their former churches, and Barbara and her husband wanted to stay in their beloved home, she left the church entirely.

Despite the title, most of this volume is more of a memoir of Ms. Taylor’s years as a priest, and she only comes to the questions about faith, the Bible, and the modern church in the last part of the book. After leaving the priesthood, she became a religion professor at a university nearby, and she approached spiritual studies with a wide-open point of view. Her husband had always been a spiritual adventurer, and he once invited some local tribes to use their property for a multi-day religious observance. Barbara began her questioning with that experience, and then she committed to acquainting her students with world religion in ways that they would not typically encounter in rural Georgia.

David and I lived in northern Georgia for a number of years, and we often spent Saturday afternoons strolling through the antique shops of Clarkesville. I now know that Ms. Taylor was priest at Grace-Calvary Church during that same time period in the 1990s. Although the book cuts off very shortly after she left Grace-Calvary, she has gone on to write many others that continue her story and delve more deeply into the issues. I was surprised to discover that I already own two other books by Barbara Brown Taylor, the newest in my teetering pile of to-be-read titles and another, older title on my bookshelves. Clearly, I need a cataloger. Taylor’s approach to life is so thoughtful and her writing so accessible that I will surely move her other books to a higher spot on the list.

A moving and candid memoir by a woman of faith.

Disclaimer: I own a copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own.

Leave a comment

Filed under Book Reviews, Christian Life

A Pilgrimage to Eternity, by Timothy Egan

Pilgrimage to EternityThrough persecution and famine, the Roman Catholic church has spread her children all over the globe. Timothy Egan is an American of Irish heritage, and like so many of his brethren, his faith has faded, knocked back even further by the recent scandals in the church. At age 62, however, he is restless. His wife’s beloved sister is struggling with cancer, and Timothy yearns to do anything to stop its progress. Perhaps praying in consecrated places along the ancient pilgrim route, the Via Francigena from Canterbury to Rome, will cause God to work a miracle, or at least cause him to reveal himself to Timothy.

As Chaucer told us so many centuries ago, spring brings crowds of pilgrims to Canterbury. Egan shares some observations on the current inhabitant of the seat of the Anglican church, then goes through the history of this place that once played an important role in the Roman church. Here he picks up his official pilgrim documents and sets sail from the white cliffs of Dover for the ancient port of Calais. All along his route through France, Switzerland, and Italy, Egan works this layer cake of a narrative: part history, part travelogue, and part spiritual journey. The reader visits tombs with a smorgasbord of saintly body parts, eats dinner at both monastery refectories and gourmet restaurants, ruminates on deep meanings and great wines, meets Egan’s family members one at a time, and empathizes when his feet are mangled hiking down from the mountain heights. Egan travels with a copy of the atheist Christopher Hitchen’s book and engages in conversations with fellow pilgrims who cover the spectrum from faith to nihilism. Some are unquestioning believers in every church teaching, and others are merely accompanying a loved one for the fitness opportunity. Most are in between, on the road to inner discoveries, like Egan himself.

Being of a similar age to Egan, many of his thoughts resonated with me. While he railed against the abuses of the church, both past and present, he recognized the places and events to be foundational to western civilization. Although there were institutional failures, there were also stories of inspiring individual sacrifice, and working through these struggles nourished his understanding of the meaning of suffering. When he met with his grown son and daughter at different points along the way, he worried that bringing them up with faith in reason alone had robbed them of an awareness of deeper, spiritual truths. They showed no interest in the holy sites that fascinated him, but it was handy in the evenings that they knew all the best watering holes.

Without revealing his conclusions at the end, the journey itself was a revelation. Peeling back the centuries at a walker’s pace gives us time to consider human history and whether our suffering holds spiritual significance, whether corrupt institutions expose the emptiness of faith or cover up the beauty of true faith. So, step on the road, pilgrim. This is a journey well worth taking.

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else. Chaucer’s Prologue to the Canterbury Tales ran through my head many times while reading this book. 😉

Leave a comment

Filed under Book Reviews, Christian Life

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Book Reviews, Christian Life

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.


Filed under Book Reviews, Christian Life

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?”

Leave a comment

Filed under Christian Life, Family, Life's Travails- Big and Small