Friday, July 22, 2016

Returning to Keller's Book on Prayer...and Revisiting Augustine

I began reading Timothy Keller's book Prayer last summer and had to return it to the library during the fall. I intended to get back to it sooner than this, but life (and my cancer diagnosis) put a lot of things on hold.

I'm back to it now.  My tired brain couldn't remember quite where I left off, so I dived in somewhere in the second section. I soon realized that I'd gone too far back because I was re-reading bits I'd remembered. Today I moved into the "learning" section (section 3) but I can tell I've still not caught up to where I was before (partly because it finally dawned on me I might have blogged about it last year....which I this post here on Letting the Holy Spirit Preach to Our Hearts).

Fortunately, Keller's work bears up to re-reading and to repeated reflection. So even though I'm backpedaling a little, I thought I would spend some time today summarizing his summary (grin) of Augustine's advice on prayer.

I think this small section hit my heart with renewed vigor today because I have also recently begun to dip my toes into James K.A. Smith's You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit. It's a lovely follow-up to his book Desiring the Kingdom, which I read and loved in 2014. Smith reaches deep into Augustine to talk about how what we love shapes us. And Keller is drawing on that same well when he teaches about Augustine's guidance on prayer and how our relationship with God helps us to rightly order our "disordered loves."

He summarizes Augustine's advice about prayer, advice given to a widow named Anicia Faltonia Proba who wrote to Augustine "because she was afraid she wasn't praying as she should" (84). (Side note: this sounds a lot like a conversation my daughter was having with me last night. Augustine and Anicia corresponded in the 400s. I love how the really important questions in life don't change, even over 1600 years!)

Here are the four principles on prayer Augustine laid out, as presented by Keller and then  further simplified by me -- because I need to rewrite things and break them down in order to fully reflect on them and carry them with me. 

1) Before we can begin to pray, to really know how to pray or even what we should be praying for, we need to take stock of our own lives. We need to recognize and acknowledge that "our heart's loves are 'disordered...'" (84). In other words, things that we should love on a lesser scale have a place of too much importance while "God, whom we should love supremely, is someone we may acknowledge but whose favor and presence is not existentially as important to us as prosperity, success, status, love, and pleasure" (84-85).  If we don't understand how disordered our hearts are, then when we pray, we're just going to be praying out of that disorderedness without realizing how much it messes us up. He uses as an example someone whose loves are disordered in the direction of giving financial security first place. Financial disaster threatens or hits, and that person prays "help!" but their prayer is "little more than 'worrying in God's direction.' Even when the prayer is done, they are still worried and anxious because they have not yet realized that their only real security is to rest in God.

So we have to "settle" this. Grasp the character of our hearts. Admit our desolation (opposite of consolation) apart from Christ. THEN we can start praying. And when we pray, we can pray "for a happy life" (85) says Augustine, recognizing that our true happiness comes ultimately from God and not from good but fleeting things.

2) That does not mean, he hastens to add, that we pray to know and love God and stop there. The Lord's Prayer itself shows us that we should pray for other things, including our daily bread. But God is our "greatest love" (86). And when we remember that, "it transforms both what and how we pray for a happy life" (86). We learn to not "rest" our happiness in our circumstances, and to recognize what we have in Jesus. We're not always good at this and we need God's help. "Christians lack the spiritual capacity to realize all we have in Jesus" (86). We lack joy. It's why Paul prays for the Christians in Ephesus that they will grasp "the height, depth, breadth, and length of Christ's salvation" (86). The order of what we pray for, as given to us in the Lord's Prayer, also helps us here. First we remember God's greatness and we reignite our love for him. Then we can turn to praying for ourselves and our daily needs and our happiness.

3) To recap numbers one and two: we become aware of our disordered hearts and where we can find true and lasting joy. Then we learn the specifics of how to pray from the prayer that Jesus taught us.  Jesus gave us this prayer and we can model our own prayers on it. It contains "adoration, petition, thanksgiving, confession" (87). We want our own prayers to line up with it. If we pray that God will make us wealthy, powerful, famous, but only because we want these things for themselves, and not to benefit others or seek God's will, then we will find that our requests aren't lining up with the Lord's Prayer. (I'm a little muddy on the diction of the Augustine passage he quotes here, so I hope I'm grasping the essential point clearly.) I think the point is that, if we model our prayer on Jesus', we will begin to see where our prayers fall short and where they need to be reshaped.

4) Even after we put all these things in place, however, there is still the trouble of knowing how and what to pray in dark times. "Even the most godly Christians can't be sure what to ask for when we are enmeshed in difficulties and suffering," writes Keller (87). We know that sometimes sufferings can actually benefit us (because God is in the business of redeeming them, I would add) but they are still hard. So do we pray that God takes the hard thing away? Or that he gives us strength to get through it? The answer seems to be both/and. Augustine points to Jesus' prayer in Gethsemane, when he asks his Father to take away the cup of suffering, but then says "nevertheless, not my will but thine be done." Augustine also points to Romans 8, reminding his prayer correspondent that the Spirit guides our groaning prayers when we can't find the words, and that God still hears our prayers, even though they are imperfect. We are told to pour out our hearts to him, remembering that he is good and wise. Sufferings can even become a "shield" to us, according to Augustine, because they defend us from the illusion that we can be self-sufficient. Instead, we can have a rich prayer life marked by passion, one that helps us to find peace no matter what is going on around us.

I find myself chewing on these four basic principles in the context of my own life and my daughter's questions about prayer. I think the first point, that we need to recognize and acknowledge our own disorderedness, sounds like bad news when we first consider it but actually is wonderful news. We don't have to hide who we are from God. And the fact that our loves are disordered (and they will be, because it's part of being human and broken and living in a world broken by sin) does not disqualify us in any way from praying!

What I hear Augustine and Keller saying here is that we don't have to clean ourselves up before we can get to the business of praying, or before God will let us respond to him in prayer....always remembering that God speaks first and invites us into relationship with him. We can't clean ourselves up. That's part of the point. When we realize we're struggling because we love other stuff more than God, we can acknowledge that clearly (it's what we do in confessional prayer) and then move on. We can ask God to help us reorder our loves, and we can confidently expect that when we pray, he will start to do that work in us. The prayer itself will help begin to transform us and what and who we love.

My daughter, last night, told me very honestly she has not been feeling very close to God lately, and that it was hard to pray during the months when I was so ill and going through chemo. She does not always feel she loves God enough. "But I want to," she said, and I wanted to cry "yes!" with a fist-pump (I said something gentler, but I was fist-pumping inside). Wanting to love God is a great first step. We take that step and we ask him to change our hearts and order our loves rightly. And we can trust that he will, and that our prayers will become more transformed as we are transformed, so that we begin to love God more and love what he loves and desires what he desires...for ourselves, for others, for the world. I learn so much from my daughter's honesty. I am not always as good at admitting or acknowledging where  my own love is lacking and disordered.

I also am feeling extremely thankful for the wisdom in point four. The past several months have been suffused with suffering on levels I could never have anticipated. I have suffered physically and emotionally and I am worn out. I am still walking through a season of suffering. And yes, there have been times when I was too worn out to pray, and times when my prayers were all mixed up. I have not always known how to pray in the midst of this mess. I still don't. I sometimes pray for strength, just enough to get me through the next step. I sometimes pray that God will heal me completely...and heal me NOW! (Sometimes uttered with boldness and desperation.) I think both prayers are appropriate. I think God hears both. I don't know yet how he will choose to answer me ultimately in terms of the cancer that my body still battles. But I do know that I can still pray with confidence and peace in his goodness and his wisdom. And I can even pray with gratitude for what this suffering has already taught me about how much and how deeply I need Jesus, and how it has helped me to pray for and respond to others' suffering. 

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

When My Name Was Keoko (A Literary Guide)

One of my summer writing projects has turned out to be more fun than I expected. I decided to write my own literary guide for Linda Sue Park's novel When My Name was Keoko.

This beautiful and moving book about the years of Japanese rule in Korea was published in 2002, the same year Park won the Newbery for A Single Shard. Since S. is doing a modern history semester in the fall, I decided to pull on novels from the 20th and 21st century for her to read and analyze as part of her 9th grade English studies. (She's reading Orwell's Animal Farm first; I pulled a study guide together for that too, but I mostly just leaned on the huge amount of resources already out there and rearranged and tweaked them to make it work for us.)

When My Name Was Keoko gets recommended a lot, and it seems to get a good bit of use in middle school and high school classes. But perhaps because of its relative youth, when I went looking, none of the literary guides out there (and there aren't many) pleased me. The free ones didn't have deep enough content, and the few things I could find that weren't free didn't look helpful enough for me to invest money. So I decided to invest some time instead and write up a guide for us to use.

It's been a real joy to read through Park's novel again and to pull together questions (both comprehension questions and more reflective, analytical ones) about the story. I'm finding good resources online that deal with the historic context, but we're mostly looking at this book as literature -- so I'm writing questions for thought and discussion about the structure of the story and the elements that go into making it so well written. We'll discuss point of view, literary symbolism, metaphor, how writers create tension and suspense, and more.

Park is such a solid writer that her work lends itself to discussing important themes. I especially enjoy the way she looks at tensions between the importance of family honor and traditional culture and being true and authentic to yourself and your passions. What it means to maintain cultural values in the face of opposition and oppression, and how one can be quietly and creatively subversive in the face of that kind of oppression are other elements I'm enjoying thinking about and looking forward to discussing with S. in the fall. She's read almost everything Linda Sue Park has ever written, but she's not read this one yet and I'm looking forward to seeing what she makes of it, especially now that she's old enough to be thinking and asking some good questions about her own culture and its values.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Reading Notes: James Herriot and Musings About Our Family Reading Life

I mentioned yesterday that I've been reading James Herriot again. His books make me want to share a cuppa with someone while we muse about the beauty of the Yorkshire dales.

I first found Herriot when I was in high school. I read through his semi-autobiographical memoirs (All Creatures Great and Small, All Things Bright and Beautiful, All Things Wise and Wonderful, The Lord God Made Them All) named for lines from the hymn by Cecil Alexander, and they've been on my list of books to recommend for the sweet girl's high school years as a result. He is a keen observer of human and animal nature. His stories manage to be warm and charming without falling into sentimentality, maybe because he's so good at providing detailed accounts of some rather gritty veterinary work with farm animals. 

I never forgot Herriot in the intervening years. I fell in love with his books for children (slightly adapted tales of the same kind you'd find in the larger books) when I was in college, and the sweet girl and I spent many wonderful hours reading and re-reading his Treasury for Children when she was little. I'm pretty sure I reviewed that for Epinions. If I can dig it up in my archives, I'll give it a quick revising and post it here.

A few years ago I dipped into the book Jim Herriot's Yorkshire, but it was just recently that I really got back to reading his wonderful stories of people and animals. His Dog Stories made me laugh and made me realize how much I'd missed his way with canines...and with words. I'm trying to revive our family read-aloud tradition by reading some of the stories with D and S whenever we can manage to sit down to a meal together during this busy summer.

It feels strange to say I'm trying to revive our family read-alouds. For thirteen and a half years, that was a daily habit. We always read aloud together. If you've followed along with my sidebar list of our family read-alouds, you've seen the long list of books we've read over the years. I seriously don't think I had missed a day of reading aloud since S was a baby.

When I got my cancer diagnosis back in February, we were in the midst of re-reading The Chronicles of Prydain. In fact, we were near the end of the series, in the final book. Although sometimes D and S do the reading aloud, I have typically been the main reading person. I had so little energy at night by the time we reached the final third of The High King that the sweet girl took over the reading and brought us home to the beautiful conclusion.

And then our read-alouds stopped. And so did nightly family gatherings and prayers, and my morning Bible reading and prayer time with the sweet girl, and any semblance of bedtime routine for the family, and most of our family meals (though those continued in some form without me, especially when my sisters were here helping during my chemo treatments). So many things we've cherished over the years fell by the wayside during the tsunami of survival season.

During that season, S had six months or so where she continued to grow and change. She had her fourteenth birthday a few weeks ago (so amazing!). She's gotten more into retro video games in the interim -- she is Mario crazy -- and in general has been spending a lot more time with a screen via her iPod as well as gaming. I know those things helped her through the difficult time of my chemo treatments, a period she described to me the other day by telling me she feels like I've come back from the dead or at least a really long trip. "It's like you were there but you weren't," she explains earnestly. And often adds, sometimes with a spontaneous hug that melts my heart, "I missed you! I'm so glad you're back!"

And she's suddenly telling me she is "too old for read-alouds" -- something I never thought I'd hear her say. We never treated read-alouds like a little kid phenomenon that you outgrow. It was just a natural part of what our family loved to do together, and I had assumed we would continue to do it as long as S lived here...and beyond (D and I were read-alouders long before we had a child).

There are hills one dies on in parenting, and hills you decide it's not worth the effort to storm. This one feels worth the effort. I have been trying to decide how to tackle it well. I know that things will never go back to what they were before we hit this difficult terrain in our family journey -- they couldn't really, even if we wanted them to. We've all changed and grown in so many ways. But I am trying to revive our long-established tradition of reading aloud, albeit in new ways and forms. Our morning Bible reading and prayer time has been re-established, although it's changed a bit (in good ways, I think). In terms of our family reading, nighttime doesn't seem to be the right time for us to gather anymore, but we're beginning to have more meals together again, and we're slowly getting back into the reading habit. We started with an article in a magazine, and now we've moved to short stories.

I'm kind of glad the stories are by Herriot. They remind me of S's childhood, even though they're different than the ones we read then. They remind me of my own youth (and yes, I've begun re-reading All Creatures Great and Small on my own time).  They remind me of my mother, who loved animals, especially dogs, and whom I miss with huge aching missing. They feel comfortable and familiar, and I need some comfort and familiarity in this time of so much change in myself and in my family.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Book Review: Lime Creek

In recent years, the fiction I have gravitated to most is written for middle grade youth. When I venture into the "grown-up" aisles at the library, I tend to move first toward genre fiction, most especially mysteries. It's rare that I pick up general adult fiction or even "literary fiction." The latter can be creative, but it often bothers me because of a lack of strong or sensible narrative. (What can I say....I like stories that make sense.)

So for me to pick up a book like Joe Henry's Lime Creek is a surprising and rare event. I'm not sure why I did. It was sitting in a pile of books the librarians place on a central table, trying to tantalize you with their recommended fare. It's a small book with a rather bleak looking landscape on the cover and one small word, all in lower case letters, which reads "fiction." There's also a quote on the front cover from Larry McMurtry, whose name I vaguely recognized as a writer of westerns. The quote is simply "A wonderful book."

For whatever reason -- perhaps a small sense of daring that comes with having made it this far in my cancer healing journey -- I picked it up. I read the inside flap, which said more things about how wonderful the writing was and also some things about the story that turned out to only be sort of true, but flaps aren't always the best barometer for judging books.

More a series of interconnected stories than a novel, the book took me a couple of weeks to read even though it was only 142 pages long. It's divided into two sections. I found myself winging through section one, rather amazed at the music of Henry's prose, and then trudging through the cold tundra of section two, where there were still some amazing moments of music but where the prose became so complex I kept getting lost. I'm not saying there was no complexity in the first section -- the entire book reads more like a long prose poem than anything else -- but that the sentences and paragraphs were a little more spare and traditional. The sentences in the second half become so convoluted that at times I felt like I was inside a maze, trying to wander my way out to the next sentence.

I am thinking this was intentional. The first half of the book deals mostly with characters named Spencer and Elizabeth. Spencer narrates the four chapters in this half, all told in first person. It's difficult to tell how much time passes, but we know he meets Elizabeth and they marry, and that ultimately they have three sons. One of the sons, Luke, becomes the main character of the second half, which is told sometimes in first, sometimes in third person. Spencer comes into these stories some, and Luke talks about both his father and his mother Elizabeth (who we come to know passed away in his childhood).

The author is fond of using sentence fragments, beginning sentences with "and," and using no punctuation in presenting dialogue, all of which lends a rather dreamy, stream of consciousness feel to the proceedings. It's very difficult to track time in the later chapters but we see Luke and his brother Whitney as young children, as high schoolers, and finally as adults, with Luke really being the heart of the second generation. Despite Spencer's painful memories of war, the older generation seems more stable than the younger generation, or perhaps it's that we're following along with some of Luke's growing up passages. I think we get lost in the prose because Luke sometimes feels lost (and sometimes he is literally lost, as in the book's final scene when he goes hunting for his runaway horse in a blizzard).

Horses and snow are a big part of the book, which is set in the cold, rugged wilderness of Wyoming. Some of the most musical bits of prose  are those that describe the strong horses and the bitter cold.  Sentences like: "The other and younger team of Buck and Buddy stood dreaming in their stalls as the snow continued all through the day and into the night again like a great shaggy wall of dark cold feathers patiently sifting down and filling all the high country at the foot of what someone a long time ago had renamed the Neversummer Mountains."

I need to quote one favorite paragraph in full. It comes in the middle of the chapter called "Sleep" in which we see Luke and Whitney on a Christmas evening with their parents, visiting the Bowman farm where the local festivities take place each year.

"You could hear Towbowman's guitar from inside the barn when you were still a little ways off, Bradley Bowman's uncle Tobin who everyone called Towbowman as if his two names first and last were really one name put together. The sound of the guitar in the delicate clarity of the newborn night made everybody quiet as we approached, the loveliness of it so achingly simple and pure from out of the whelming darkness like an earth-bred accompaniment to a universe cut from glass. With the crunching snow and that simple human refrain on this side of the cold, and the stars so familiar and yet so distant on the other side."  

A beautiful passage, and one that gives you a sense of the music of this book.

Am I glad I picked up Lime Creek? I think so. Despite having a difficult time following some of the later chapters, and despite preferring more straightforward narratives, I felt I followed enough and picked up some beautiful, moving glimpses of a family over two generations. The connections were sometimes tenuous, but they were there, almost as though the characters themselves had not yet fully grasped the depth of connections between the generations. Henry gives you just enough about these people to make you want to know more.

I will credit my reading of this book and my re-entrance into the world of James Herriot (more on that in another post) with getting me writing fiction again, after a very long hiatus.

I also fell in love with the second chapter, "Family," which stands out beautifully and works as a story in its own right that is just about perfect in its pitch. It describes the birth of a foal, a foal who grows up to become Elizabeth's mare. It's so beautifully rendered that I am thinking of photocopying that one chapter and keeping it so I can re-read it, and also because I think it could be a wonderful resource for a creative writing class, a great example of detailed, poetic writing that evokes tremendous feeling.

There is also a powerful scene near the end of the book, in the chapter "Passages," that describes the death of the mare, years later. The mare has become Luke's horse (in the absence of Elizabeth) and the same vet who attended the foal at birth attends the old horse in her death. You intuitively understand that Luke's love for the horse and the depth of his grief at her passing is inextricably bound up in his love for and grief over his late mother.

For me, those two scenes became the bookends that hold the story together better than anything else. If you read nothing else, you could read those as companion scenes, unmoored from the rest of the book, and come away moved.