Tuesday, March 31, 2009
Harper Perennial - Fiction
I finished Who by Fire over the weekend, which is just one way of saying I had a really book-happy weekend. Don't you love that? Still playing catch-up, here. 6 more reviews and I can have a party. Of course, by then I'll probably have completed two more books, but we just won't bother thinking about such things.
Who by Fire is about a small family that has been shattered by tragedy, gradually drifting apart as the scars from that tragedy remain with them. Brother Ash and sister Bits have grown and left home, while their mother continues to live in the house where they grew up. Their younger sister, Alena, disappeared many years ago, their father abandoned the family, and now brother Ash has become an Orthodox Jew, changed his name to Asher and moved to Israel. Convinced that his family's concern that he has joined a religion they consider a "cult" is detrimental to his immersion in his new life studying in a yeshiva (the family is Jewish, but Bits and their mother are not practicing Jews), Ash cuts off contact with his mother and sister.
Bits decides she must go fetch her brother to convince him to come to the funeral when their mom says kidnapped sister Alena's remains have been found. But, Bits is broke. And, she's kind of a disaster. Their mother is simply confused, lonely and desperate. It will take a lot more than a funeral to bring this family back together and make them whole, again.
There is so much more to this book, but I'm hesitant to go into any great detail because I don't want to spoil it for anyone, so I'll try to speak in generalities. First things first: I wish I was in a face-to-face book club because I think there are many little strands of this story that are utterly fascinating and worth talking about. If you're in a book club and looking for great titles, grab Who by Fire. It's beautifully written and there are numerous topics worth discussing. I can easily visualize a group of people getting together, maybe whipping up some Jewish food items to snack on and discussing not only the story, the themes of guilt and redemption, loss and healing, family and strangers, love and abandonment but also the basics of Judaism, the many facets of the characters, and what religion did or did not mean to each of them as they struggled with the wounds Alena's kidnapping inflicted upon the family.
I loved the way the author handled the religious aspect. Regardless of what religion you're talking about (and I include atheism and agnosticism), there is often a fine line between teaching and preaching. Reading about Judaism in Who by Fire is really a learning experience. There was just enough information to make me wish my husband hadn't packed up Judaism for Dummies (seriously -- he put it away, just when I needed the book). I read a little from World Religion for Dummies, instead. Obviously, we're well-stocked on books for the uninformed.
Iwanted to know more about Orthodox Jews, but I did feel as if I added to my knowledge base and my interest in their mode of dress, the long side curls described by the author, etc., inspired me to look up some photos on the internet to see what they look like in real life. This photo of Jews celebrating Purim looks a little comical, but it's a pretty good visual. Some of the Biblical references crossed over with my current Bible study, which made the reading doubly fun. I knew about Purim, Omer, and many of the Bible stories told by Ash or which his character discusses with the people in his yeshiva.
And, then, there are the characters. You could dicker all day about the characters. They're often annoying, but at the same time you can't help but hold out hope that somehow they'll find a way to learn how to be a family, again, to heal and to lean on each other for strength. While each of the characters are deeply flawed, the author builds a logical basis for their problems and there is always an undercurrent of hope. Everything that has happened to this family had its genesis in the horrible events of a single day, when a beautiful child disappeared and the unraveling process began. But, the fact remains that they need each other and there's always a sense that somehow this family could be knit back together.
Absolutely an amazing, beautifully structured and written first novel with one believable characters and dialogue, both humorous and moving moments and one of the most satisfying endings I've read this year.
Have you read and reviewed this book? I'll be glad to add a link to your review. Have you missed it? Go buy a copy. You'll love it.
Monday, March 30, 2009
Press (a small publisher) and finally Tor picked it up. Pretty neat story, eh?
Friday, March 27, 2009
Howard Books - Christian Fiction/Romance
What led you to pick up this book? I got Yesterday's Embers to review for FirstWild tours. It sounded interesting from the blurb and one of my goals for 2009 is to read more fiction, particularly clean books and/or Christian lit. This book fit the bill nicely.
Describe the plot without giving anything away. When Doug Devore leaves for Thanksgiving dinner without his sick wife and daughter, he has no idea he'll never again see them alive. Now, as a widower with 5 children and 2 jobs, it's tough enough just getting through his workday, let alone feeding the children and keeping house. Will he ever enjoy his life again and learn to live without Kaye and little sweet Rachel?
Mickey has cared for most of the DeVore children at her daycare for many years. She has always wanted a husband and family, but at 30 she's wondering whether her prayers will ever be answered. When a mutual attraction between Doug and Mickey quickly turns into love, Mickey is thrilled in spite of the fact that she believes things are happening too fast and possibly too soon for the grieving widower. Will their newfound love survive or is she taking too big a chance dating a man with a built-in family and a loss that he hasn't truly faced?
Describe a favorite scene. My favorite scenes usually involved the children happily playing with Mickey and Doug, particularly a scene during which Doug returns to his house and Mickey is quietly reading to three of the smallest children.
What did you think about the characters? I liked them all. Doug worried me, the way he pushed the relationship with Mickey forward so quickly. I don't want to spoil the reading for anyone, but things move very, very quickly and that's what causes problems later in the book. There were times I wished Mickey would just get a backbone and say, "Slow down, feller."
What did you like most about the book? It's a very smooth, quick read, sweet and romantic. I liked the fact that the book is so clean. Mickey, Doug and the kids are human and make mistakes or get angry like anyone else, but they never swear and there's no graphic sex or violence. This is the kind of romantic fiction I really love.
Was there anything you didn't like about the book? The timeline bugged me a bit. Doug really does dive into a relationship with Mickey way too soon. But, as it turns out, that causes conflict and it's because of the fact that they rushed into things too quickly that the storyline eventually develops and it becomes less about two people falling in love and more a story of how two people can work through their differences if they're willing to put out the effort.
Recommended? Absolutely. I loved this book. The pages flew.
Anything else worth mentioning? This is the third book in a series of books set in Clayburn, Kansas. I'm assuming Clayburn is a fictional name, but the characters frequently travel into Salina and I do know Salina from childhood drives between Oklahoma and Nebraska (my parents' home state, where my grandmother lived). I really enjoyed the setting because it's very homey to me. Also, it didn't matter one bit that I haven't read the first two books in the series. Yesterday's Embers stands alone beautifully. There are occasional references to characters from past novels -- just enough to pique interest in reading the other two books in the series, but not enough to cause any confusion.
Also, the Christianity aspect was just the way I like it -- it's just a part of who they are, not something that is banged into the reader's head but effects how the characters behave and is reflected in their actions.
Cover thoughts: I love the cover, which gives you a hint that the book is a gentle romance. Mickey is an avid gardener, so the sunhat and cropped pants serve as a hint that she spends time working in her garden.
If you've read and reviewed this book and would like me to provide a link to your review, just let me know!
Up next: My review of As Shadows Fade by Colleen Gleason, which will include information about a drawing for any book in the Gardella Vampire series.
This weekend I plan to finish The King With Horse's Ears, a wonderful book of Irish folk tales, along with Who By Fire, Water Ghosts and Agent to the Stars. It's possible I'm hoping for too much, but I'm enjoying all four books and anxious to wrap them up so I can review them.
You never know when I might play a wild card on you!
and the book:
Howard Books (March 24, 2009)
Deborah Raney is the author of several novels, including Nest of Sparrows and the RITA Award-winning Beneath a Southern Sky. Her novel A Vow to Cherish was made into the highly acclaimed Worldwide Pictures film of the same name. She lives with her husband and four children in Kansas.
Visit the author's website.
List Price: $13.99
Paperback: 400 pages
Publisher: Howard Books (March 24, 2009)
AND NOW...THE FIRST CHAPTER:
The procession had left the church almost twenty minutes ago, but they were still barely two miles outside Clayburn’s city limits. The line of cars snaked up the hill––if you could call the road’s rolling incline that––and ahead of her, the red glow of brake lights dotted the highway, flickering off and on like so many fireflies. Cresting the rise, Mickey could barely make out the rows of pewter-colored gravestones poking through the mist beyond the wrought-iron gates of the Clayburn Cemetery.
She smoothed the skirt of her black crepe dress and tried to focus her thoughts on maneuvering the car, working not to let them stray to the funeral service she’d come from. But when the first hearse turned onto the cemetery’s gravel drive in front of her, she lost it. Her sobs came like dry heaves, producing no tears, and for once, she was glad to be in the car alone.
The line of cars came almost to a standstill as the second hearse crept through the gates.
The twin black Lincolns pulled to the side of the gravel lane, parking one behind the other near the plots where two fresh graves scarred the prairie. The drivers emerged from the hearses, walked in unison to the rear of their cars, and opened the curtained back doors. Mickey looked away. She couldn’t view those two caskets again.
When it came her turn to drive over the culvert under the high arch of the iron gates, she wanted desperately to keep on driving. To head west and never turn back. But Pete Truesdell stood in her way, directing traffic into the fenced-in graveyard. Mickey almost didn’t recognize Pete. He sported a rumpled navy double-breasted suit instead of his usual coveralls. How he could see through the tears welling in his eyes, Mickey didn’t know.
Her heart broke for the old man. She wondered if he was related to the family somehow. Seemed like everybody in Clayburn was related to at least one other family in town. Everybody but the Valdezes.
Pete waved the car in front of her through the gates and halted her with his other hand.
Maybe if she stayed in the car until the procession left the cemetery. She didn’t want to walk across the uneven sod. Didn’t want to risk the DeVore kids seeing her…risk breaking down in front of them. What would she say? What could anybody say to make what had happened be all right?
She didn’t know much about carbon monoxide poisoning, but she’d heard that Kaye and Rachel had simply drifted off to sleep, never knowing they would wake up in heaven. She wondered if Doug DeVore found any solace in that knowledge. Maybe it was a small comfort that his wife and daughter had left this earth together.
But on Thanksgiving Day? What was God thinking?
She’d never really gotten to know Kaye DeVore that well. They’d exchanged pleasantries whenever Kaye dropped the kids off at the daycare on her way to her job at the high school, but usually Doug was the one who delivered the children and picked them up at night when he got off work at Trevor Ashlock’s print shop in town.
The DeVore kids were usually the last to get picked up, especially during harvest when Doug worked overtime to keep his farm going. But Mickey had never minded staying late. It wasn’t like she had a family of her own waiting for her at home. And she loved those kids.
Especially Rachel. Sweet, angel-faced Rachel, whose eyes always seemed to hold a wisdom beyond her years. Mickey had practically mourned when Rachel started kindergarten and was only at the daycare for an hour or two after school. Now she forced herself to look at the tiny white coffin the pallbearers lifted from the second hearse. She could not make it real that the sunny six-year-old was gone.
Through the gates, she watched Doug climb from a black towncar. One at a time, he helped his children out behind him. Carrying the baby in one arm, he tried to stretch his free arm around the other four kids, as if he could shelter them from what had happened. How he could even stand up under the weight of such tragedy was more than Mickey could imagine. And yet, for one shameful, irrational moment, she envied his grief, and would have traded places with him if it meant she’d known a love worth grieving over, or been entrusted with a child of her own flesh and blood. She shook away the thoughts, disturbed by how long she’d let herself entertain them.
She dreaded facing Doug the next time he brought the kids to the daycare center. Maybe they wouldn’t come back. She’d heard that Kaye’s mother had cancelled her plans to winter in Florida like she usually did. Harriet Thomas would remain in Kansas and help Doug out, at least for a while. Wren Johanssen had been helping with the kids and house, too, when she could take time away from running Wren’s Nest, the little bed-and-breakfast on Main Street. Wren was like a second grandma to the kids. Thank goodness for that. Six kids had to be—
Mickey shuddered and corrected herself. Only five now. That had to be a handful for anyone. The DeVores had gone on vacation in the middle of April last year, and with their kids out for a week, the workload was lighter, but the daycare center had been deathly quiet.
Deathly. Even though she was alone in the car, Mickey cringed at her choice of words.
She started at the tap on the hood of her car and looked up to see Pete motioning her through the gates. She put the car in gear and inched over the bumpy culvert. There was no turning back now. She followed the car in front of her and parked behind it next to the fence bordering the east side of the cemetery.
A tall white tombstone in the distance caught her eye and a startling thought nudged her. The last time she’d been here for a funeral had also been the funeral of a mother and child. Trevor Ashlock’s wife, Amy, and their little boy. It would be five years come summer.
As if conjured by her thoughts, Trevor’s green pickup pulled in beside her. Mickey watched in her side mirror as he parked, then helped his young wife climb out of the passenger side. Meg walked with the gait of an obviously pregnant woman, and Trevor put a hand at the small of her back, guiding her over the uneven sod toward the funeral tent.
Mickey looked away. Seeing Trevor still brought a wave of sadness. Because of his profound loss, yes. But more selfishly, for her own loss. She’d fallen hard for him after Amy’s death—and had entertained hopes that he might feel the same about her. That she might be able to ease his grief. But he was too deep in grief to even notice her.
Then Meg Anders had moved to town and almost before Mickey knew what happened, Trevor was married. He and Meg seemed very much in love, and Mickey didn’t begrudge either of them an ounce of that happiness. But it didn’t mean she was immune to a pang of envy whenever she saw them together.
This day had to be doubly difficult for Trevor. It must be a comfort to Doug having Trevor here––someone who’d walked in his shoes and still somehow managed to get up the next morning––and the next and the next.
Again, she had to wonder what God was thinking. Where was He when these tragedies struck? How could He stand by and let these terrible things happen to good men…the best men she knew, next to her brothers? None of it made sense. And the only One she knew to turn to for answers had stood by and let it all happen.
Wednesday, March 25, 2009
Woody Allen and Ned Vizzini exit an apartment building across from the Trump Building. A Bob's Big Boy restaurant walks by them and stops in the middle of the intersection by the Wall St. train stations. Due to a drop in tourism after 9/11 the state issued the installment of a walking Bob's Big Boy restaurant that can move at different speeds and directions throughout the city. Over time, it has become severely depressed and bored with life, which occasionally leads it to unexpectedly walk into the Hudson River and sit there for days, drowning all customers and employees. Woody Allen and Ned Vizzini like the Bob's Big Boy. They stop to look at it for a moment and then continue down into the Wall St. train station.
--from "Eoody Mobby"
6-word review of Sometimes My Heart Pushes My Ribs: Wacky free verse, sex, hamsters, lemons
Actually, I don't like that 6-word review. I'm leaving it, though, because it's mostly true. There's a bit of repetition when it comes to sex, hamsters and lemons. Interesting.
Sometimes My Heart Pushes My Ribs is a very slim volume of free-verse poetry with a couple of short stories. The Fanzine refers to Woody Allen (in "Eoody Mobby") as "One of Kennedy's puppet sexual voodoo dolls." Oh. Okay, that makes sense. "Eoody Mobby" is a strange opener to the little book, but I was oddly drawn to that description of the walking Bob's Big Boy. From there, the story gets even more bizarre with a bit of kinky sex, some disgusting business with lemons and general weirdness I'd be hard put to describe. I wasn't sure if I'd make it through the book, but then it switched to Kennedy's poetry. I definitely like her poetry better than her short stories.
Now, I'll be honest . . . I don't know the first thing about poetry. I only know what I like and what I don't. And, I like Ellen Kennedy's poetry. I'm making an assumption by calling it "free verse". I think that's correct, but don't quote me on that. What's really exceptional about Kennedy's poetry is that it's a little on the addictive side and very spirited. She has this odd way of making you want to run for a pencil so that you can imitate her style. Absolutely everything suddenly becomes material. Sometimes Kennedy made me smile. Occasionally I felt like "I don't get it," but in general I just didn't want to put the book down.
Here's a random example:
I wish my life consisted only of
riding my bike with you
down a giant hill that never stopped
while listening to music
with no one else around
in the middle of nothing,
except a few shiny and relaxing lights above in the sky
like stars but a little brighter
and more orange
See what I mean?
Just don't leave this book lying around for the kids to read. It's definitely very adult. I didn't like the sex bits, but I never do like sex scenes in any form so that's nothing unusual. Graphic, gross and detailed are not my thing. I like generalities and I could really wrap my mind around poems like "Orange", "No One Cares About Poetry" and "Poem" (which is almost sad in a funny way). This one's going on the keeper shelf. I'm sure I'll reread my favorites repeatedly.
Monday, March 23, 2009
XMedia - Nonfiction/Spirituality
Prayer . . . turns my heart toward God. It helps me focus less on myself. And it puts me in a place to be touched, guided and comforted.
God isn't out of the office or out of touch. He's there waiting. Sometimes we need to just be "on hold" for a while.
The Bible's old. Sometimes old stuff makes my eyes roll. Like when the old-timer starts to reminisce and offer wisdom: "Back in my day . . . " And he proceeds to tell us young whippersnappers how they had to walk five miles to and from school--uphill both ways and wearing no shoes. Somehow things were simpler and harder all at the same time back then.
Let's be honest. Something in all of us wants to respond, "Yeah, right, give me a break, Grandpa! I love you, but I'm too cool and with-it to believe that stuff."
More accurately, it's loving I hate. I hate having to always be loving. I hate having to be loving toward people I'd much rather ignore. I hate to love like Jesus taught, modeled and prayed that we would all imitate. To truly love, I always have to be "on". I hate having to work at loving. I hate the process and practice of what Jesus laid out. I'd much rather love who I want, when I want.
I'd much rather go with the feeling called love. If I feel it, I'll do it. If I don't, I won't. That's easier. But that's emotion, not love.
If there's one thing the life of Jesus taught us, it's that love is a choice. It seems like it shouldn't be so much work, but it is. A lot of time time, we just have to muscle through it.
Love is unnatural that way.
I wasn't sure what I was getting into when I picked up this book, but I absolutely loved it and couldn't put the book down, once I got started. Jason Berggren goes into just about every complaint you've ever heard about Christianity, whether or not you're a believer in Jesus: the trouble with faith, the "fantasy" aspect of the Jesus story, how people interpret the meaning of heaven and hell (and how we end up in either), the hypocrisy of Christians, the answers we can't necessarily find in the Bible, the way some people pick and choose rules to enforce and then tell us we'll go to hell if we don't obey, how sometimes just being in the wrong church makes us feel uncomfortable. If you haven't read the sneak peek post, below, I highly recommend doing so if this book piques your interest, just to get an idea of Berggren's style.
I'm sure a lot of Christians have felt these frustrations, as have people looking in from the outside -- maybe thinking about joining a church or just observing things like the fact that folks with the fish symbol are as bad about cutting them off in traffic as anyone else or wondering why it is that those Jesus freaks use such weird expressions. He does talk about the catch words used by Christians. I loved that because there are some expressions that really bug me, which I won't even repeat in church when everyone else is using them.
I really loved the fact that this book was so reassuring. I didn't agree with absolutely everything the author had to say, but a good portion of it rang true to me and I often thought, "Yes! Exactly!"
My favorite part is the bit during which the author talks about answers and one of the questions he says we can actually answer is, "Speaking of the flood, how could all those animals fit in Noah's ark?" He says it's actually pretty easy to answer this one and goes into the math. The closing sentence: "So all the animals and supplies could feasibly (and easily) fit in the ark. Now, the smell is another subject altogether."
I love this author's sense of humor. He has a relaxed writing style and rambles a bit, but still does an excellent job of hitting a lot of salient complaints about Christianity. He has done a lot of thinking and talking, pondering and questioning and the book is filled with his thoughts. Highly recommended, whether you're a Christian or just someone who is curious about what could possibly irritate a Christian about his own religion.
Sunday, March 22, 2009
You never know when I might play a wild card on you!
and the book:
X-Media (March 1, 2009)
Jason T. Berggren grew up in Ft. Lauderdale, FL and was a part of the band Strongarm. After leaving the band, he earned an AA in Mass Communications and a BA in Theology. In 2000, he helped to start the Calvary Fellowship church in Miami, FL, fulfilling the role of Assistant Pastor overseeing several areas of service. In 2005, he decided to explore a different ministry calling, returning to his childhood ambition of being a writer. His new book, 10 Things I Hate About Christianity: Working through the Frustrations of Faith conveys his conviction that “positive momentum begins with negative tension” and will be available soon. Berggren felt compelled to write the book after realizing that all of his spiritual difficulties and challenges originated from the same ten issues. While his fledgling writing career begins to take flight, Berggren also runs handyman business to provide for his family. Berggren and his wife have been married since 1999. The Berggrens have three boys and attend Northpoint Community Church in Alpharetta, GA, where they lead a small group.
Visit the author's website.
List Price: $14.99
Paperback: 244 pages
Publisher: X-Media (March 1, 2009)
AND NOW...THE FIRST CHAPTER:
I’m wrong. I usually am.
I’m not saying that to sound self-deprecating, or to appear whimsical and charming in order to endear myself to you (though if it happens, I’m fine with that). I’m saying that because it’s true. I know hate is wrong. I just don’t know any other way to describe what I feel. It’s to-the-point, direct, and yes, maybe even a little reckless and rude. But it’s what I mean.
When I was growing up, my father — who’s more civilized than I am — would strongly admonish me for using hate to describe my feelings about something or someone. He wanted me to understand how potent this word is. He was uncomfortable with its implied violence. He wanted me to use it cautiously.
I understand. But there are realities I must face.
Like Coca-Cola. I’ve loved Coke since I was a child. I would do fine never letting another beverage touch my lips for the rest of my life, not even water. I love the taste of the ice-cold liquid as it passes through my lips and cascades down my throat. I often say I’m a Coke addict as a joke, since it has such power over me. But the reality is that Coke isn’t good for me in such large doses, and it causes me to gain weight. So I hate the fact that I love Coke. It’s a tension I have to learn to manage.
Unfortunately, this wrestling exists abundantly in the deeper, more important issues of my life as well.
My life is filled with personal conflict. This conflict has the power to crush my hopes and blur my dreams until they’re merely memories of childhood fantasies, never again to be imagined, for fear of bringing even more tension, more confusion, more hate. Especially when the conflict is coupled with failure.
I used to dream of being a musician. When I was twelve, I worked through spring break and used my earnings to buy a cheap amp and guitar. I spent years teaching myself how to play. I would listen to tapes of my favorite bands, trying to copy the music and sing along. Eventually I began writing my own songs and even went on to be in a few bands.
After investing time and money and delaying college, in my early twenties I finally realized I wasn’t very good, and I quit. It was a heartbreaking reality to face. The experience still follows me. It’s as if I’ll never let myself pursue any type of dream again. Dreams aren’t worth the disappointment and heartache when they don’t come true, and it’s almost certain they won’t. Is failure the end? Or is failure one of many steps to succeeding? The risk doesn’t seem worth it. But unlived dreams can also cast an unbearable shadow of “what if.” There’s no way to avoid this conflict in my life.
When we’re alone and being honest, most of us would probably admit there’s a deep personal war going on inside us. The smaller battles in this war break out in strange ways. They might drive us to eat a little too much dessert, spend a little too much on yet another pair of shoes, or have another drink. When left unchecked, conflict leads to confusion, regret, and guilt. And it grows. It may cause us to do things like insist on the last word in an argument and cause damage to a relationship we care about.
The truth remains: Life is a constant battle. If we’re to experience any peace, joy, or love as we learn to do life and relationships more productively and successfully, our only option is to learn to fight our own inner demons. Because if we give up, we’ll turn into a mess (or more of a mess, in my case).
I hate all this tension, and I hate having to face it. It’s a dilemma wrapped in a crisis stuck between a rock and a hard place.
But I’ve learned that bigger conflict, the deep inner conflict, can be a positive force. It can bring us past the endless cycle of reaction and regret, and lead to a breakthrough and the opportunity for much-needed personal growth and renewal. We can train our minds to use our hate, and when we begin to sense it, we can create forward momentum: We sense the tension, wrestle the issue, win the battle, learn a lesson, grow as an individual, and move ahead. This can bring a new day with a new perspective and new opportunities.
* * *
There’s nothing like watching the strength of the human spirit reaching forward in times of turmoil. This is why I put pen to paper. I’m just trying to chart a course through the murky waters of frustration and hate. I think I’m discovering a path through this fog, and I want to share it with you.
In this process, my faith has been key — which may surprise you, given this book’s title. I am in fact a Christian, though I hesitate using the term because of the baggage that comes with it. Maybe it’s better to say I’m trying to follow Jesus as closely as I can, like one of his twelve disciples. It’s not easy. This may be why I like the disciples Thomas and Peter the most. Like them, I have a lot of doubts and open my big mouth way too much.
This book is basically a log of my journey with faith, sometimes faltering, sometimes firm. It’s a record of release and renewal, as I try to work toward contentment and wholeness.
So I’m inviting you to hate with me — not the unguarded, irresponsible, and negative emotion my father often warned me about, but the inner sense of overwhelming dissatisfaction that can launch a progression toward personal growth. Identifying my feeling of hate has given me an awareness to move forward. It has ignited a drive toward newness, unseen potential, and the fulfillment that lies ahead. It has also caused me to seek resolutions to bigger questions in my life: Why are we all here? What’s it all about? Is there more to it than this?
It’s these bigger questions that led me to a faith in Jesus. It was different from what I expected, which I’ll get into. But it was what I was looking for through my wrestling. I’ve found it to be the only way to achieve sanity in my own existence.
Unfortunately, believing in him didn’t fix everything. While I deeply admire, respect, and love Jesus, my faith in him has actually added to my inner struggles. And this is a real dilemma.
Faith can be a challenge, and extremely inconvenient at times. Over and over I’ve had to face certain aspects of my faith that don’t seem to line up. I’ve been quite confused by what it means to seek God’s purpose for my life and to follow the teachings of Jesus. And while working through these questions, I came to a helpful life-lesson that has become self-evident: Wrong expectations lead to absolute frustration. When we don’t have all the facts, we usually end up disillusioned and angry. Like when a couple thinks that having kids will make their relationship better. Then comes the rude awakening: More people equals more problems.
I’m constantly bumping up against this principle about wrong expectations because it pretty much applies everywhere. It has been especially true when it comes to my faith. If you remember only one thing from this book, make it that. It will help you in every arena of life — career, relationships, marriage, sex, having kids, faith, etc. I wish someone had told me about it a long time ago, so I’m telling you now.
Everyone has a story. This is mine — what I’ve actually hated about my faith at times, and how I’m working through it all. Maybe it can help you work out some of the issues in your own story.
Like many kids in America, I grew up playing baseball. At age seven, I skipped T-ball and went right to Pony League. It was extremely intimidating at first. This was real baseball, complete with the threat of being decapitated by a stray pitch. Kids were reckless. Everyone was trying to throw the ball as fast as possible, because speed equaled great pitching. Control was secondary.
After Pony League came Little League. Now pitching was something to really be afraid of. Kids were bigger, so speed increased dramatically. Unfortunately, the accuracy still wasn’t there. Plus, the formula was still the same: Speed equaled great pitching.
But for a nine-year-old, the real challenge in moving up to Little League was striving to hit a homer, as every young boy wants to do.
The homerun. It’s what dreams are made of. When boys are staring into the clouds outside their classrooms, they’re probably thinking about hitting a homerun. When a mom has to scream for her son’s attention, more than likely he’s daydreaming about knocking one over the fence. When young kids have sleepovers and stay up way past bedtime, they’re probably predicting how many long balls they’ll hit next season.
I had homerun dreams. I obsessed over them. And I was thrilled when I met our new neighbor, Bill. He was an old-timer and told me about the glory of his Little League years. You know, “back in the day.” I hung on his every word, because he said he could hit homeruns at will. He even claimed to have hit homeruns in every game. I fantasized about being him and living those moments. It seemed so unfair that he was so good.
But that was all about to change.
One day Bill told me his secret. I never felt so lucky in all my life, because his method wasn’t magical at all. The next time I stepped up to the plate, I knew things would be different. This kid was going to give Hank Aaron a run for his money. As Bill explained it, all I had to do was keep my eye on the ball. Simply watch it leave the pitcher’s hand all the way until it hit the bat, and BAM! A homerun. “Don’t try to kill it,” he added. “Just make contact.” After that, I never took another swing without my eyes locked on the ball. But I never hit a home run. Never.
I began to resent my neighbor. His advice didn’t yield a mantle full of homerun balls, the admiration of teammates, fear from opponents, or attention from girls. All I wanted was to feel the thrill of hearing the crack of the bat as the ball sailed away from me, and the victory lap around the diamond, and the applause of the crowd, and the home-movie immortalizing the moment. I wanted what so many other kids seemed to get. But it just never happened for me. I couldn’t accept that I wasn’t good enough or that I was doing something wrong. It was his fault. I felt as if Bill lied, and all his stories were probably lies too.
As my temper took hold, I did what we kids did to other neighbors we didn’t like. I lit a flaming bag of dog poop on his welcome mat and rang the doorbell so he would be forced to answer the door and stamp it out. Hot dog poo everywhere! Not really. He was too close to home. But it was hard to resist the urge to take vengeance on him. I wanted a guarantee. I wanted to know how to control the outcome, but I couldn’t. I’d been given a false sense of hope, and the results, or lack thereof, crushed me. After that season, I never played baseball again.
Not much has changed since Little League. I’m pretty good at most things I put my mind to, but not really amazing at anything. I’m also not very lucky. I’ve never been in the right place at the right time. I can’t help you get a crazy deal on a set of tires, and I’ve never won an all-expenses-paid cruise to Cozumel. I find myself just having to work hard at every little thing in life.
And a familiar feeling much like my failed homerun dreams eventually brought my faith in Jesus to a breaking point. I was reaching for purpose and meaning, but I found new questions and new problems. I started feeling as if I wasn’t good enough for this “team,” or maybe I was doing something wrong, and I wanted to quit. I often wondered if there was a way to find an angel with a sense of humor so he could help me place a flaming bag of poop in front of heaven’s pearly gates for St. Peter to answer and stamp out. I suppose I have passive aggressive tendencies in my spirituality too.
Something wasn’t quite right with my faith; it wasn’t working out that great for me. I started to wonder: What’s the point to having faith if it isn’t even helping or working?
The Small Print
There’s always fine print, isn’t there? A friend offering a free lunch comes with a catch like, “By the way, do you mind feeding my pet iguana his live bugs this weekend while I’m away? And while you’re there feeding Leonard, could you pick up my mail too?” Don’t you hate that?
I thought faith would dispel all the unknown variables and problems in my life. It seemed reasonable to think that if I took Jesus seriously, God would answer all my questions and take away all my problems. I thought it was a good deal. But it seemed to take a wrong turn, because he didn’t come through. Didn’t he understand I didn’t want to live with so much confusion anymore? It made me so mad at him, and I wanted to take back the commitment I made. To be fair, I don’t think it’s totally his fault, but I still get mad over it.
One thing I hate about my faith is the fantasy element. There’s Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, God and Jesus. We teach kids they’re all real, but they’re not all real. Eventually our kids will be okay with Santa, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy being cute little white lies, while accepting Jesus and God as completely legit — right? Now I know the intentions are good and fun, but I wonder if it’s unfair. Could this also set us up for almost certain disillusionment as we all inevitably question the existence of God and consequently the meaning of our own existence? I’ve had many a conversation with people trying to figure out how to work through this, and it’s not easy. Many times they hit a wall, and I totally understand.
In any other context, believing this “lie” would be clinical. For instance, imagine you and I run into each other somewhere and I ask if you would like to meet my friend Jane. You respond, “Sure!” With hand extended, you reach around me to find no one. But I insist. I’m adamant about her being right here with us. I even tell you how much Jane loves you and wants to help you in your life. Undoubtedly you would give me a casual smile as you contemplated making a secret phone call. The whole episode could end with me being escorted off the scene in a white jacket with lots of extra straps and shiny belt buckles, and remarking how much better this thing would look in black leather. You would call me crazy, and you would be right.
Do I expect people to think it’s any less delusional because my friend’s name is Jesus? I admit it. The whole having a relationship with someone who isn’t physically there, and talking to him on a regular basis (praying) is weird, to say the least, and eccentric at best. If only God and Jesus would appear every so often around town to buy sneakers at the mall to prove to everyone they’re real, it would make all this a little easier. But they don’t, and it makes me mad. I’ll be expecting my jacket anytime now.
Once I can get past the fantasy element, I have to deal with feeling stupid. I hate feeling stupid. Who doesn’t? It seems like I always have to face the fact that having faith isn’t really an intellectual exercise. There really are no facts and figures to prove (or disprove) the existence of God or what I believe, and that makes me feel dumb.
If I were talking to someone who considered himself somewhat intellectual and fairly intelligent and rational (as most people do), and he was explaining to me how he came to a certain large-scale life-altering decision, I wouldn’t be surprised to hear him say it involved reading some academic research, pondering certain intellectual principles, and weighing lots of empirical evidence. Maybe he would even pull out some graphs and pie-charts. And his decision would make total sense to me. But when I describe my own life-altering decision, it’s a little different.
I always end up in pretty much the same place. “Yes, I believe in Jesus. I can’t really explain it. It’s basically a decision I made based on a feeling. And I trust in the sincerity of that feeling.” Unavoidably, there’s a sense of embarrassment. And I hate that. It makes me feel so stupid. It’s not that I’m ashamed of what I believe or who I believe in. I know it to be true. It’s just an awkward situation by default. Not to mention the many people who already think having faith is simply superstitious, primitive, and irrational.
I know I would sound more introspective, informed, and perceptive by pointing out flaws or being more skeptical and not believing. But I can’t, because I do believe. There are, in fact, volumes of reference-type materials that try to deal with faith in the academic arena and do a fine job of intellectualizing a faith decision. In the end, however, all these scholars and philosophers arrive at much the same place as me: Faith is essentially a decision based on a feeling. There’s just no way around it. But I hate having to push through that every single time I talk about what I believe.
Another thing I especially hate is the seemingly broken promise. As I’ve indicated, I like guarantees and predictability. I want to be able to forecast and control the outcomes in my life. Faith was supposed to bring clarity in my confusion, answering all my questions and helping me make total sense of life. This would give me the ability and confidence to make the best decisions in all situations, thereby ensuring that only good and beneficial things happen in my life — total peace all the time. Sometimes it gave me peace, but mostly it didn’t, and I felt like God was letting me down.
My confusion multiplied with the number of forks in the road. Should I buy a car or lease it? What should I major in? When should I get married? When should we have kids? Can I even afford a kid? Is this the right house to buy? We all have our own lists of unpredictable situations, and mine gets longer the older I get, as life grows more complicated. I find living with so many unknowns to be quite unsettling.
The fact is, I knew absolutely nothing about faith. In an effort to fire me up in my commitment and keep me devoted to Jesus, some Christians early on seemed to inadvertently “sell me” on this cure-all idea of faith, like some kind of acne medicine that could clear everything up and help me get a really hot girlfriend. Christian television and radio reinforced it, telling me things like “name it and claim it!” With enough faith, I’d be able to create and control the outcomes in my life and get whatever I wanted. Like Luke Skywalker using “the force,” I could move objects around in my life and make people do what I want with my Jedi mind-tricks. And if my faith wasn’t doing those things for me, I just didn’t have enough of it.
I liked the idea, but it didn’t work. This obviously meant something wasn’t right, and I felt like it was me. I was doing something wrong; I wasn’t good enough.
Where were the guarantees? Where was the security? The good deal turned raw, and I wanted my money back.
All these issues brought a dose of reality I wasn’t prepared for. I mean, who wants to trust his whole life to someone nobody can see? Who wants to tell others about this very nebulous personal decision? And who wants to keep up the commitment when things don’t exactly work out like we think they should, making it all look pointless?
That’s the fine print no one ever told me about. It’s been twenty years, and sometimes I still feel like I’m about to come apart. These things still go with the territory.
Sometimes I still get mad. But as I made myself push through these issues and work them out, I began to discover the true value of my faith. I would have robbed myself had I shut down over these issues and let my hate and frustration defeat my faith and newfound purpose.
I have to be upfront. I owe a lot of this to an old friend of mine who caused me to think through this stuff. It’s an old conversation, but it formed the very basis of why I still have an enduring faith today. This is why I have to share the highlights of that conversation. It illustrates the process of my faith.
The Other Jason
It’s always strange when you meet someone with the same name as you. It’s even weirder when you’re alike. I met Jason in my high school years, and he became a good friend. He didn’t go to my school, but one of his best friends was in most of my classes, so we hung out periodically in mutual social settings. Eventually I caught up with Jason at community college, and that’s when we started becoming better friends.
We had a similar schedule on Tuesdays and Thursdays. We would hang out in the cafeteria between classes, usually grabbing breakfast or lunch if it looked edible enough. He always wanted to play chess, but I despised the game. It took too much thought. I’m more of a checkers kind of guy. I was at community college, after all. So we talked instead. We were young guys, so we talked movies, music, and girls. Eventually we started talking about spiritual stuff because we were both curious.
I wasn’t as smart as him, but I communicated the best I could. I started telling him things I’d been wondering about and how I’d come to believe in the life and teachings of Jesus. This subject became our ongoing dialogue, as he challenged premise after premise that I presented. Inside, I hated his apprehensions, but I began to appreciate them as he stated his questions with respect. He seemed to be tracking with me and gauging his spiritual search along the way. Our dialogue went on for nearly a year.
He first challenged me to explain why I would believe in someone or something I couldn’t see. I acknowledged it was a strange practice. I thought it through a little more, and the next time I saw him, I told him I just couldn’t ignore something going on within me (and it had nothing to do with the cafeteria food). I started to sense a void deep inside. In no particular order, I was overwhelmed by the randomness and despair in life, I was struggling with a sense of purpose for my future, and I was more and more convinced there was a spiritual element to our existence. That was the framework for my void.
Just acknowledging these realities brought an initial sense of relief, though it soon yielded a greater sense of responsibility.
I told Jason I was noticing and thinking about things I never had before, and I couldn’t stop. Clearly there was more to us than flesh, blood, and bones. I mentioned how some of our classes might actually be backing this up. In Chemistry, my professor tried to rationalize the mystery of why an atom remains intact and the universe doesn’t fly apart. She taught us about “cosmic glue,” “dark matter,” and “X.” To me, this fit what I was discovering spiritually. But to explain the unknown, there had to be more than overly generous, sweeping, generic catch-all descriptions. I told Jason I thought there was a spiritual element to life that these deficient descriptions were touching on. Specifically, hidden deep down inside him, somewhere between his heart, soul, and mind, I was convinced there was a spiritual being, something all the science in the world could never explain. It’s in all of us, it explains who we really are, and it has little to do with blood or guts or cosmic glue.
Besides, there’s so much about our existence that can’t be explained or classified. So believing in something I couldn’t see wasn’t a big issue to me, since we all do it to some degree. It was more a matter of what to do with that knowledge. Would I ignore it? Or try to make sense of it? Was there a reason for, and behind, all this mystery?
Jason could see how I got to that point. It made some sense to him, as he was having similar thoughts. But he still wasn’t sure if he was willing to have faith in something he couldn’t see or prove.
I said I understood. I also reinforced the idea that we all believe in someone or something. Every individual relies on a set of beliefs or core values, not necessarily religious in nature, that may guide them at unsure times. Perhaps people seek the advice of good friends, or ask their parents or grandparents, or take a class, or read a book. The resulting beliefs and values they develop aren’t visible, but people trust in them. So, I argued, everyone looks at the situation they’re facing, considers what they believe, and then leaps. This functions much like faith. For the most part, we’re all trusting in things we can’t see — a type of faith, to some degree. I was simply bringing it to the next level and choosing to be influenced and mentored by Jesus.
He saw my point. We finished our waffles and went off to our classes.
The next time I saw Jason, he asked why I would trust in God even when things aren’t exactly going great. He’d often observed bad things happening to people of faith, and it made him wonder: What’s the point? There had to be some immediate benefit to faith, if it’s worth anything at all. Or maybe God wasn’t as involved in our lives as people like to think: Either he didn’t care all that much, or wasn’t really that powerful.
“Fair question,” I admitted. Here was his own version of the “broken promise” and “guarantee” thing that had angered me.
I came back the next time, ordered my pizza and tater-tots, filled my cup with Coke, and told him my additional thoughts on the subject. I had to believe that regardless of how things were going, there still had to be a rhyme or reason greater than myself.
Part of this was just out of necessity. I talked about my growing sense of needing certain absolutes with regard to truth. There was a part of me that didn’t want be the sole authority in my life anymore, the sole decider of what was right and wrong. With just me, I could remodel my right and wrong at any time simply to make them more convenient, and that was too chaotic and dangerous. It made everything too relative and fluid. It meant that ultimately I couldn’t find the meaning in life I desperately wanted out of all these spiritual musings.
I told Jason I was convinced there had to be a measure that was true, regardless of outcomes. Bad stuff happening or things not working out right did not mean there’s no God. That stuff was another issue altogether (which I’d have to deal with later).
Jason remarked that perhaps my relationship to God was based less on what I was getting out of the situation, and more on who was going with me through life as I experienced it.
“Exactly!” I answered.
He said he’d never thought of it like that before — like a relationship. He compared it to hopefully being married and having kids in the future. His wife wouldn’t fix all his problems and make life perfect, but sharing his life with someone he loved deeply, and who loved him, would definitely make life better.
There was more I needed to say. I admitted I still sensed frustration, since I wanted life to be a lot easier and safer and without so many variables, so much unpredictability. But I had to be fair to God. Faith had, in fact, brought me more clarity and confidence — just not to the level I wanted or expected. Yet without a doubt, I was better off now than when I functioned without faith.
I ended with this: My faith actually gives me the ability to navigate life in the midst of the unknown.
He said that was kind of similar to what he was saying, and I agreed. The bottom line was, things may not be perfect or perfectly easy, but my life was better with faith.
We cleaned our trays and went on with our days.
Jason later admitted he often viewed faith as a crutch. I’d heard this many times and found it insulting, but I didn’t know how to respond. Was there no way faith could find a home in the heart of the truly strong-minded, independent, freethinking person?
I came back the next Thursday and confessed I agreed with Jason. I even took it one step further. For me, faith was more like a wheelchair or one of those motorized things old people drive around in the grocery store. I was beginning to gain a little life-experience, and to realize that when I’m down-and-out, beaten up emotionally, or at my wits’ end, faith is the only reason I can press on.
I also submitted the idea that those who live by their sincere faith are in fact quite strong and resolute, maybe even the strongest of individuals. Faith can propel a person forward against all odds and carry them through the storm of failure and discouragement. They may act against practical thinking and pragmatic theories, but they don’t care. They have a drive in them that’s absolutely amazing, like Rocky Balboa in the boxing ring. And no matter what they’re facing, they see each situation as an opportunity.
I said I that in the hearts of the willing, faith can lead to achievements of mythic proportions. Because of my own faith, I knew I was learning to pick myself up, dust myself off, and keep going in tough times. “Yes,” I told him, “I lean on my faith, because I’m weaker on my own.”
The next time I saw Jason, he asked me something I didn’t want to answer, and it was pretty big. This was really the last major theme we discussed. (Everything afterward was mostly a rehash of ideas we’d already covered.) Jason asked why I found the Christian faith and philosophy more interesting than any other. Why did I think it was true?
That was a hard one. Not that I didn’t know, but I knew my answer would be kind of polarizing.
Next time, I told him I wasn’t interested in religion, specifically. What was compelling to me was the spirituality Jesus spoke of, and the context for it he created. What Jesus said was relational, making it different from the systems our World Religions class revealed, which were legalistic (working our way into heaven) or fatalistic (you’re doomed no matter what you do in life). I understood that Jesus wanted to spend eternity with me, and even go with me through this life, just because he loves me. There’s nothing I have to do to earn his love, and I can do nothing to drive it away. All I had to do was sincerely believe.
This gave me a sense of value. My parents had separated when I was young, and growing up I never felt particularly valuable or valued; I pretty much felt like an inconvenience, like something disposable. That always loomed over me. But what Jesus said finally washed all that away. He gave me a blank page, a new beginning, a reason to set some goals and even dream a little, because my life mattered. My future did too.
It also challenged me about growing, being continually willing to stretch myself. I already didn’t like some things I was turning into. I was developing some addictive habits, had a tendency to get angry, and was typically negative and pessimistic. Reading the words of Jesus, I decided he wanted me to never be too impressed with myself. He challenged me somehow to question the status quo, reach beyond my limitations, and test my potential.
Just think, I told Jason, about those first twelve followers of Jesus. They were a rag-tag team of misfits. Many were rough and working class. Some were even hated for their professions. They were just average people, not particularly gifted or successful. No fame, power, position, or influence to speak of.
At first, this discouraged Jason’s view of the Christian faith, as if those men weren’t qualified to represent God. He even wondered why Jesus would pick them.
But look at the flip side, I told him. God didn’t want perfect people, just willing people. And when Jesus said, “Follow me,” they did. And because of those devoted misfits, we’re still talking about Jesus two thousand years later. He continues to be the most influential person in history because of that handful of failures and undesirables who found value and purpose and were willing to challenge the possibilities, even the threat of death, in those early days of the Christian faith. And that’s what Jesus wanted me to do — to keep going, to keep growing, to keep reaching forward.
I also mentioned how Jesus inspired me. Sometimes life just plain sucks; we can’t control it, and there’s no way to change our surroundings. The only thing that helps is a little comfort as we wade through all the garbage. Jesus gave me that comfort in the form of hope. He said his spirit would be inside my heart during those times to comfort me. There was something to look forward to, the promise of a better day. This helped me endure whatever situation I might be facing. To me, that’s really what hope is.
I’d become convinced that a life without hope is no life at all. Life had proven to be filled with so many personal failures and overall difficulties. Life was hard way more than it was easy. And when people lose hope (which is easy to do) — nothing to live for or look forward to — it seems like something dies inside.
I ended by saying I think we all want something more in our lives than to just exist. My faith gave me this — a sense of value, a reason to dream, a reason to grow and become a better person, and hope to inspire me.
The Deciding Factor
It was amazing. The next time I saw Jason, he said something I never expected. After our months and months of talking, he said he was totally convinced that what I’d discovered was true. I couldn’t believe it! But he also said he wasn’t ready to make the change and decide just yet. He had to think it through a little more to be fully convinced. I didn’t really understand that, but I gave him some space.
That’s where we pretty much left things. From then on, I decided to let him initiate any spiritual-type conversations.
It became awkward when I saw him. It was as if he was avoiding talking to me on a deeper level. We mainly talked about what was going on with him, and it wasn’t pretty. To get through it, I thought he needed faith more than anything. I wanted him to experience some of the peace, contentment, purpose, and clarity I’d begun to have. But I didn’t press it. I wanted to, but he was becoming distant, so I wanted to give him some room. I knew he had to make the connection himself. We’d spent a year building our friendship, and I didn’t want to ruin it by being overly enthusiastic and appear like I had some agenda (though in a way I did, but for a good reason).
Jason always had a hard time at home. His dad was never around. As a result, his mom looked to him for everything. She turned her relationship with him into some warped kind of husband-friend-son combination. He had to do everything around the house, help with the bills, and listen to all her woes and somehow fix them. It had been like this for a long time, and it got to be too much. He had to get out.
That’s about the time our conversations became shallow. He moved in with a friend who had an apartment with his girlfriend. Jason slept on their couch, but I think it was an improvement.
Things were better for a while, but then got worse. Jason’s mom wouldn’t leave him alone. She called him and showed up at his job. She told him how much he let her down and what a jerk and failure he was, and how worthless he was to leave her just like his dad did.
Jason finally decided to make another change.
I hadn’t seen him at school for a couple weeks. This wasn’t completely unusual, since we both had jobs, papers, and projects to balance. Plus, since Jason wasn’t living at home, it was hard to phone him. (Not everyone had cell phones back then; they were the size of a brick and really expensive.) Finally I asked another friend if he’d seen him. He hadn’t, but he knew where he was. He told me the story someone else told him.
One day Jason quit his job, withdrew from school, closed his bank account, and left a note to explain everything for his roommates and the rest of us. When the roommates came back late that night, they found the note on the coffee table. It was right in front of Jason’s couch, where his dead body was lying. He’d purchased a gun with his last dollars and killed himself.
I was devastated.
Then, there we were again, like back in high school, in a mutual social function. Except that this one was a funeral. Jason’s mom even read his suicide letter aloud. She was emotional and weeping and seemed strangely ambivalent to the parts in it related to her. It was uncomfortable, and I just wanted to leave. It was one of the saddest moments I’ve ever been part of. It was so empty and hopeless, and I felt partly responsible in some way. If only Jason and I could have had one more talk.
I know it’s a heavy story. Jason had a big affect on me, and his story is part of my story. He challenged what I believed and caused me to really examine it. And he also helped me learn one last lesson in his final act: Everyone has made a decision about God. Even the atheist or agnostic decides something. Even no decision is a decision.
I just wish my friend had made the decision I wanted him to make.
When Jason and I had talked, I never wanted to be overly enthusiastic and press too hard and turn him off. I always wondered, how far is too far? When do conversations on faith become pushy and self-defeating rather than healthy and productive discourse on important spiritual issues with eternal consequences? It’s a balance I still struggle with today when talking to friends, family, or people I meet or work with. Most of the time I choose to opt out of those conversations so I can seem more normal. That bothers me, because no one’s guaranteed another day. You never know about tomorrow.
As I’ve come to understand my faith’s value, it has become clear that faith is the reason good times are better, while it makes hard times livable. I think that’s essentially the promise God does make to humanity as we have faith in him — that he’s still with us regardless of how we feel. It’s a compelling promise, and I still trust in it.
Don’t get me wrong, I still doubt from time to time. But I think it’s normal to doubt. In fact, I don’t even view it as the opposite of faith. Some think it is, but that’s unfair. In the same way that caution isn’t always the opposite of risk, or fear isn’t the opposite of courage, doubt is not the opposite of faith. They can both be present at the same time. There’s always a measure of caution balancing a risky decision. There’s also a sense of fear to sober us as we advance in a courageous endeavor. And there’s always a sense of doubt that tests and purifies my faith as I step forward with it. I just believe what Jesus said is true.
To me, faith is the unknown revealed and explained. Having faith may seem irrational to you — and I assure you, it is. With faith it’s strangely possible to acknowledge the unexplained, face it, embrace it, and move forward. It’s not mindless devotion to antiquated ideas or benevolent ideals, but a calculated conclusion in the light of present reality: There’s more unknown than known. It’s a coming to terms with the mystery of life. It’s the strength to keep a conviction when surrounded by questions. It’s discovering twenty variables and one truth, then holding to that truth regardless of the present ambiguities. It can go against better judgment and modern thought, while being the wiser approach.
My faith is still a mystery in many ways, which drives me insanely crazy, but I also know it’s the one thing that’s true.
Maybe that’s my homerun.
Friday, March 20, 2009
Thursday, March 19, 2009
You never know when I might play a wild card on you!
and the book:
Howard Books (February 3, 2009)
Ginger Kolbaba is editor of the award-winning Marriage Partnership magazine. An experienced columnist and public speaker, she lives in Chicago with her husband.
Visit the author's website.
Christy Scannell is a college instructor, freelance editor and accomplished writer who lives with her husband in San Diego.
Visit the author's website.
List Price: $13.99
Paperback: 320 pages
Publisher: Howard Books (February 3, 2009)
AND NOW...THE FIRST CHAPTER:
Lisa Barton is an at-home mom with two kids: Callie, sixteen, and Ricky, fourteen. Her husband, Joel, has pastored Red River Assembly of God for nearly five years. Lisa’s parents pastor the Assembly of God in nearby Cloverdale.
Felicia Lopez-Morrison’s husband, Dave, pastors the First Baptist Church. They have one child, Nicholas, who is five and in kindergarten. Once a high-powered public relations executive with a top national firm, Felicia now works from home for the company’s Midwestern clients. The Morrisons came to Red River three years ago from Los Angeles.
Mimi Plaisance is a former teacher who now stays home with her four children: Michaela, eleven; Mark, Jr. (MJ), nine; Megan, six; and Milo, fifteen months. Mark, her husband, is senior pastor of Trinity United Methodist Church.
Jennifer Shores is married to Sam, pastor of Red River Community Church, where she is the church secretary part-time. They have been married twelve years and have one adopted daughter, Carys, who is eleven months old.
Tuesday, March 18
“I can’t believe it!” Felicia Lopez-Morrison waved as she ricocheted through the tables, heading toward her three friends seated in their usual booth in the back right-hand corner of Lulu’s.
“Did you hear the news?” she asked breathlessly, sliding into the seat next to Jennifer, who pushed her leather purse against the wall and scooched over to give Felicia room.
Mimi laughed. “You mean about the scandal?”
“Who hasn’t heard?” Jennifer leaned over and gave Felicia a side hug.
“When Dave told me, I thought he was kidding,” Felicia said. “Kitty hasn’t even been in the ground a year.”
Lisa nodded. “Well, Norm was probably just lonely. He needed the companionship.”
“Then buy a dog,” Jennifer suggested. “Of course,” she said, getting tickled, “then people would talk about dogs and a Katt living together!”
The women groaned.
“It would have to be for companionship.” Felicia shouldered Jennifer playfully. “He just met the woman. He couldn’t love her, could he?”
“From what I heard,” Mimi said matter-of-factly, “she’s more like a girl.”
“Ladies!” Lisa smiled but looked a little uncomfortable.
Jennifer knew Lisa was construing this turn as gossipy. Sweet Lisa, Jennifer thought, looking at her friend, seated across the table from her. Always taking the high road. You’d think after four years of us all being friends, we would have picked up some of her good traits.
“Well, well.” A loud, brassy voice interrupted Jennifer’s thoughts. Their plump, gruff-sounding waitress, Gracie, was standing over their table, pulling out the order pad from thewhite apron strapped around her ample thighs. “Glad to see little Miss Señora made it today.”
Felicia pulled back in mock offense. “Hey, I’m only five minutes late!”
“Yeah, yeah.” A slight smile crossed Gracie’s face. She jutted her chin out toward Felicia. “I’m likin’ you without all the high-and-mighty outfits and shoes and whatnot.”
Everyone at the table laughed. Felicia spread her arms in show and bowed her head, as if accepting a standing ovation. Gracie threw back her head and guffawed.
Felicia certainly had changed in the last year she’d been working from home, Jennifer recognized. Her silky black hair, once curled and neatly laying across the top of her shoulders, was now pulled back in a ponytail. And her high-powered business suits and designer shoes had been replaced by a black pair of jeans and a mauve hoodie sweater. Jennifer glanced under the table—Well, her boots are still designer, she thought good-naturedly.
“I like you girls.” Gracie pulled a pencil from behind her ear. “You’re always the highlight of my every-other-Tuesday.”
“Well, thank you, Gracie,” Mimi said. “And you’re ours.”
“All right, enough with the chitchat,” Gracie said. “Are we all having the regulars?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Jennifer and the others chimed in.
Gracie harrumphed. “I don’t know why I keep taking out my order pad and pen for you all. OK, PWs, I’ll be back with your drinks.”
Jennifer watched Gracie plod off to her next table of customers several booths toward the front of the café. Jennifer really liked their waitress—and knew her three friends did too. Underneath all Gracie’s gruffness lay a heart as big as an ocean. And it was Gracie who had given the women their official group nickname—the PWs.
When Jennifer, Mimi, Lisa, and Felicia had started secretly meeting at Lulu’s nearly three years before, Gracie had been their waitress. She’d overheard them talking about God and their churches, figured out that they were all pastors’ wives, and nicknamed them. She’d gotten a big kick out of the fact that the women—all hailing from the southwest Ohio town of Red River—would drive forty miles out of their way every other Tuesday to nosh and chat in this little nothing-special dive. Although the PWs never had explained to Gracie that they met that far from home to avoid nosy townsfolk and church members overhearing their business, their now-seventy-year-old waitress hadn’t taken too long to figure out what was going on.
Now Gracie ambled slowly behind the front counter to the rectangular opening between the restaurant and the kitchen. She pounded a bell sitting on the ledge and yelled, “Order in!”
Felicia unfolded her paper napkin and laid it on her lap. “I just can’t believe it,” she mused, shaking her head. “Norm Katt remarried. To a woman half his age.”
“Whom he just met,” Mimi reminded everyone.
Jennifer pulled her eyes from watching the cook grab their order ticket and start to read it. Gracie had interrupted a very important news-sharing moment, and Jennifer didn’t want to miss any of it.
“And did you hear her name?” Mimi asked.
“Allison.” Lisa shook her head, looking as if she were trying to suppress a laugh. “Ally.”
As if in chorus, the women said, “Ally Katt.”
“Does the man never learn?” Felicia laughed. “First, he marries Kitty. And now Ally.”
“Oh, if they have children!” Jennifer said. “They could name one Fraidy.”
Felicia nodded. “Twins, of course, would be named Siamese and Tiger.”
“Of course.” Jennifer smiled.
“You all are so terrible!” Lisa pushed back her thick, reddish-brown-highlighted hair and fluffed it.
Mimi sighed and patted Lisa on the arm. “Oh, we all know it’s just in fun. We really don’t mean anything by it, do we, ladies? But you do have to admit, it is funny.”
Lisa rolled her eyes and shook her head as if to say, You silly kids. “Has anybody seen her?”
“Not that I know of—I mean, except for their church,” Jennifer said. “I guess Norm and his new bride only came back to town a couple weeks ago.”
“Well,” Mimi said, “that kid’s got a tough act to follow. As much as Kitty drove us all crazy, her church adored her. Wonder how they’ll take to a new pastor’s wife?”
“I don’t know,” Lisa said. “But they’ll definitely talk. I hope she knows what she’s gotten herself into.”
“Did any of us know that when we married pastors?” Mimi asked.
Lisa smiled. “I guess not.”
“I sure didn’t!” Jennifer said, thinking back to when she and Sam married twelve years ago. She had been attending the church as a relatively new Christian when Sam arrived on the scene as pastor. “Being a church member and being a pastor’s wife are two entirely different things.”
“I didn’t marry a pastor,” Felicia said. “If you recall, I married a businessman, who decided several years into his career that he was called to be a pastor. I didn’t get that vote.”
Gracie walked toward them, carrying a tray of drinks. She set it down on the edge of their table. “I’m getting too old for this. Can you believe they still make me carry my own trays? And my shoulder all messed up from that fall back in December?”
Gracie had taken a tumble on some ice outside Lulu’s one evening after work several months back and hurt her shoulder and hip.
“Is that still bothering you, Gracie?” Felicia asked.
“I still go to therapy for it, but you know those doctors. You can’t trust ’em.” She handed Mimi a glass of milk and passed Lisa an iced tea. Felicia grabbed the remaining two glasses, each filled with Diet Coke, and handed one to Jennifer.
“Hey!” Gracie said. “You trying to deprive me of my hard-earned tip?”
“Sorry!” Felicia joked. “But you know I’m working from home now. I need all the money I can get.”
“Well, you’d better find a better table. These girls are tighter than a duck’s behind with their money.” She pulled four straws out of her right apron pocket and plopped them in the center of the table.
“I’ll be back.” She winked, then pulled up the tray against her chest and trudged away.
“Can you believe it’s been a year since Kitty died?” Lisa tore the paper off her straw and crumpled it before dipping the straw into her drink.
“I know,” Jennifer said. “I kind of miss her. All the snarky comments about how insignificant our churches were compared to hers. The patronizing tone. The condescending looks.”
“I’m serious!” Lisa said. “It was tragic.”
“I know.” Jennifer sipped her soda. “Believe me, I wish she hadn’t died. It wasn’t a piece of cake for me—going through that miscarriage and being considered a murder suspect in her death—all in the same weekend.” There I go again, making everything about me, she told herself and inwardly winced.
Felicia rubbed Jennifer’s back. That was sweet, Jennifer thought, realizing her friends remembered how difficult that time in her life had been. She’d wanted that baby so badly. And to suffer a miscarriage, have an all-out argument with Kitty, threaten her, then have her up and fall down a ravine and break her neck…. It had been devastating.
“Let’s be honest.” Mimi dabbed at a trace of milk at the corner of her mouth. “We didn’t like her. She didn’t deserve what happened to her. But life has been calmer and more sane and relaxing since she’s been—”
“It was a year ago yesterday,” Felicia said. “St. Patrick’s Day weekend. At the pastors’ wives’ retreat.”
“That reminds me!” Mimi brightened and reached under the table. She pulled up her large purse/diaper-bag and dug into its depths. In her hands appeared two shamrock-and-cross-covered eggs that were the brightest kelly green Jennifer had ever seen. She laid them on the table and reached back in, producing one more. “From Megan. She wanted me to make sure to give these to you. We combined two holidays in one—St. Patrick’s Day and Easter, since that’s this weekend.”
“Carys will like this.” Jennifer picked one up and set it on top of her purse.
“I wonder what she looks like?” Felicia took another of the eggs and placed it by her drink.
“Who?” Lisa asked.
“Norm’s new wife.”
“I wonder if she’ll come to the next pastors’ wives’ meeting at New Life next month?”
“I already called and invited her. She’s coming.” Lisa tore into a packet of sugar and dumped it into her tea.
The table fell silent as Jennifer, Mimi, and Felicia all stared open-mouthed at their friend.
“What?” Lisa asked.
She really doesn’t know, Jennifer realized.
“You’ve been holding out on us, girlfriend!” Mimi said.
“Spill it,” Felicia said.
“What? There’s nothing to tell, really.” Lisa fidgeted a little in her seat. “I called her last Friday. We didn’t talk that long. I just congratulated her on her wedding, welcomed her to Red River and to being a pastor’s wife, then invited her to next month’s meeting.” She looked around the table. “OK. She did sound young . . . and very perky. And . . . she giggled a lot.”
Jennifer, Felicia, and Mimi eyed each other knowingly. Yep, this is going to be a fun meeting next month. How in the world did Norm go from hard-edged, superior Kitty to an early twenties cheerleader?
“Wonder what Kitty would think?” Felicia asked.
Lisa shrugged. “I’d hope she’d be glad that Norm found someone who loves him and is going to take care of him.”
Before Jennifer could say anything, Gracie arrived with their food.
“All right, PWs, quit your yakking and help me unload this thing.” Gracie pulled the first plate off the tray and handed it to Mimi. Mimi looked at the tuna melt and strip of cantaloupe and passed it on to Lisa. Jennifer’s was next with her chicken strips and fries. Then Felicia took her Caesar salad. Last was Mimi’s hamburger.
They got their food situated, passing the ketchup and salt, then Felicia offered grace.
Mimi shoved a fry in her mouth and savored it. “I love Milo, but I gotta tell you, it’s nice to eat a full meal without messy little fingers showing up, grabbing something on my plate.”
Felicia poured the dressing over her salad. “I know what that’s like. Oh, the peace and quiet—and adult conversation!”
Jennifer smiled as she thought of eleven-month-old Carys doing that same thing. But her thoughts drifted back to Kitty and the week following her death. Jennifer had been considered—although not officially—a murder suspect and had had to endure the detectives following her around, treating her like a criminal, until they determined Kitty’s death had been an accident.
“Remember last year when those detectives were following me around?” Jennifer asked, trying to sound nonchalant.
With their mouths all full, the others could only nod and say, “Mmm-hmmm.”
“Well, it’s happening again. At least I think it is.”
“What?” Mimi half-choked and plopped her burger onto her plate. She pounded on her chest with her fist as if trying to move the meat down her esophagus. “Detectives are following you around?”
“I don’t know who it is. But I keep seeing this black town car everywhere I go. Just glimpses of it, really. But . . .” Jennifer knew the whole thing sounded crazy. And verbalizing it made it sound even more outlandish. Maybe I’m just making this up. “Never mind. It’s . . . probably nothing.” She tried to laugh it off. “Just my overactive imagination. You know, with all the sleep deprivation and everything.”
“Oh, yeah, I can relate,” Mimi said. But she tilted her head toward Jennifer. “You OK? I mean, if somebody is following you . . .”
“Why would somebody follow you?” Felicia asked.
“That’s just it.” Jennifer swirled her chicken strip in a sea of barbecue sauce. “I don’t know. I can’t think of one plausible explanation.”
“Maybe it’s a church member trying to dig up dirt on you.” Felicia smiled and patted Jennifer’s arm.
Jennifer laughed. “No, that would be Lisa with that problem.”
Lisa lifted her napkin to hide her face, then let it droop just below her eyes. Wide-eyed, she looked around the diner frantically. They all laughed, but Jennifer knew Lisa was trying to put up a good front. Lisa had lost fifteen pounds in the last six months, and the sparkle in her hazel eyes had lost its shine. Poor Lisa. God, take care of this situation at her church. They don’t deserve this. They’re good people.
“What’s going on with your church?” Jennifer asked, partly to take the focus from her, and partly because she hadn’t heard the update in a while.
Lisa dropped the napkin back to her lap and shrugged. “Same old, same old. At least Joel is still the pastor—though I don’t know for how much longer. He’s meeting with the head troublemaker next week to confront him.”
That’s not going to be easy. Although Jennifer and Sam had had their share of church member issues, they’d never gone through major conflict, as Lisa and her husband, Joel, were now. She ached for them.
Lisa continued. “I just wish . . . you know, if these people are so upset, why do they cause such trouble? Why not just leave? Why make it into a huge power struggle?”
“Because—” Mimi leaned over until her shoulder was touching Lisa’s—“and you should know this better than any of us, Miss Assemblies of God, this is called spiritual warfare. The enemy doesn’t want the church to be vibrant and powerful in the community. He’d rather take down a church from the inside out than have it succeed.”
“Oh, sure, look at it from a spiritual perspective, why don’t you?” Felicia smiled gently.
“It’s hard to do that, though, isn’t it?” Jennifer asked. “Especially when the hurt is so physical and emotional.”
“Well, sweetie, you know you’re in our prayers.” Mimi wrapped her arm around Lisa and squeezed.
Lisa just nodded and looked down. Jennifer could tell her friend was embarrassed, because she’d quickly wiped at her eyes.
“How are things in your life?” Jennifer asked Felicia, trying to take off some of the pressure from Lisa.
“Actually, can’t complain right now.” Felicia swirled around some more dressing in her salad but didn’t look anyone in the eyes. “My clients are happy. I mean, there are challenges working at home. Mostly because everybody thinks that since I’m home, I’m, you know, sitting around watching Dr. Phil and just waiting for someone to put me to good use.”
“Oh, yes.” Mimi laughed. “Been there. Everybody thinks that we live to serve, huh? OK, well, we do, actually—at least that’s what my kids tell me—but still!” She laughed again.
“So that’s been a bit of a challenge. But other than that, things are . . . good.” Felicia held up crossed fingers. “Enjoy the peace while I can, right?”
Jennifer waited to see if Felicia would say any more. She got the sense something else was going on with Felicia but knew her friend would speak up when the time was right.
Lisa must have thought the same, because she turned to Mimi. “And how about you? How’s Dad doing?”
“Awwk.” Mimi rolled her eyes. “As ornery as ever. One of the conditions for Dad staying with us is that he’s supposed to attend his AA meetings. He’s still attending, but he’s also still drinking. He does it on the sly, like he thinks we don’t notice. I don’t know what to do, honestly. We can’t kick him out; he’s got no place else to go.”
“Where’s your mom?” Felicia asked.
“She’s down in Kentucky, staying with her sister. She’s definitely not interested in taking him back. And I don’t blame her. Life with my father has never been easy. But when he ran off to California with that woman . . . I can’t say I’d take him back either, if he were my husband.”
“So instead,” Jennifer said, feeling a little bitter, “you, the daughter, have to take him in and parent him.”
Mimi half-chuckled. “Yep. My sister made it clear she wasn’t interested. So I’m it.”
“Doesn’t that tick you off?” Jennifer said.
“Sometimes, yes. But you know, I’m the responsible one.” She tucked her short, blond hair behind her ears—something she did whenever she was stressed or frustrated about something. “Plus, Mark and I have been trying to look at it from a spiritual perspective. He’s my dad—and he needs the Lord.”
Just like my mother. Jennifer tried to push the thought aside.
“Is he going to church with you yet?” Felicia asked.
“No, that’s one thing he refuses to do. But we keep working on him. It’s really cute to see Megan reprimanding him about not attending.”
Jennifer could picture Mimi’s precocious six-year-old giving her grandfather a lecture about loving Jesus and getting saved.
Gracie reappeared and dropped the check on the table. “Here’s your parting gift, ladies. Hope you have a good week and those preacher husbands of yours treat you all right.”
“Hey, how’s your sister doing, Gracie?” Lisa asked as Gracie started to turn away.
Gracie grimaced and a shadow crossed her face. Jennifer knew Gracie’s sister had been diagnosed with breast cancer a year ago and had gone through surgery and chemo.
“Not good. She just went to the doc last week. It’s back and vicious.”
“I thought she had it beat,” Jennifer said.
“We thought so too, but when she went in for a checkup, they found it. It’s in her bones and I don’t know where all.”
“Oh, Gracie, we’re so sorry.” Mimi touched Gracie’s hand. Gracie squeezed it and held on.
“Oh, Gracie,” Jennifer murmured.
“That’s terrible,” said Lisa.
Felicia just shook her head, her face heavy.
“I’m flying down there to Florida next week to be with her,” Gracie said. “So I guess I won’t see you next time.”
“We’ll be praying for your sister—and for you,” Lisa said.
Gracie nodded and let go of Mimi’s hand. “I know you will. If God hears anybody, I know it’s you four women. Pray hard, will ya? Maybe he’ll take pity on an old, crotchety woman and her sister.” She winked, then turned and walked slowly away.
Jennifer and the others looked at one another but didn’t say anything for a moment.
“I had no idea.” Felicia’s eyes followed Gracie as she tended to her other customers on the other side of the restaurant.
“She didn’t let on at all that something was up,” Mimi said, looking amazed at how well Gracie had covered up her pain.
“Maybe we should pray for her and her sister right now,” Lisa suggested.
Jennifer and the others agreed. There was no better time and place to pray.
My copy of Katt's in the Cradle just arrived yesterday, so I haven't even managed to start reading the book, but this is one I'm really looking forward to and when I flipped through it, the book looked every bit as fun as I'd hoped. I'll review the book when I've finished it and link back to this sneak peek.