The Great Re-Read

It’s no surprise to anyone who has known me for longer than an hour (maybe less) that I love to read. Most of my evenings, in the two hours of time between when Rachel heads to bed and when I do, are spent reading. It’s not unusual for me to read over 100 books in any given year.

One book that I finished recently is Maryanne Wolf’s Reader, Come Home. In it, Wolf writes about what reading does for the brain and the important part reading plays in the development of empathy, attention, and critical thinking skills. At one point in the book, Wolf gives herself a sort of informal test by re-reading one of her favorite novels in order to see whether her enjoyment and comprehension have been impacted by years of interaction with digital media. What she found was that the initial re-reading was slow going, working brain muscle that hadn’t been used in awhile, but that the end result was incredibly rewarding.

I have often found re-reading to be a rewarding experience, though occasionally I find that a book I had remembered fondly turns out to have aged poorly. Earlier this year, I re-read Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle In Time, a book that I have spent several decades referring to as one of my favorite childhood reads, though I hadn’t actually re-read the book since childhood. I was surprised, then, and a bit disconcerted, to discover that this childhood classic is one I can no longer list among my favorites.

Reading (or re-reading) these two books has made me curious about what I might discover upon re-reading other favorites. And so, I am beginning a project that I’m rather unoriginally referring to as The Great Re-Read. Over the next year, I will be slowly working my way through books that I count among my favorites, including some that I revisit every year (The Lord of the RingsLonesome Dove) and others that I haven’t read in a decade or more (Les MiserablesA Tale of Two Cities). Each post will reflect on the book itself, as well as those thoughts and feelings I associate with a specific book compared to my thoughts and feelings after revisiting said book.

I don’t have much of an agenda for this project other than revisiting these books and reflecting on the experience, though I do hope to discover themes that draw me to certain stories over others or to discover something new/rediscover something old about myself in coming back to these favorites again.

I am currently in the middle of my annual revisiting of Lonesome Dove, as well as re-reading Frank Herbert’s Dune for a book club and The Children of Men by P.D. James just for fun. As I finish these books, those posts will be the beginning of The Great Re-Read. Should I finish them before 2018 ends, we’ll just get started a little early (or chalk it up to years of following the church calendar).

I hope you enjoy this project as much as I hope to enjoy it myself. Should you live in Abilene and want to jump in on certain books, I’m always up for hosting a book club to discuss any and all of the books that I read or simply meeting up for a conversation over coffee.

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Recurring Nightmare

I keep having this dream.

I’m sitting at my desk, at work, and my phone rings. The caller ID tells me it’s my wife, Rachel. I answer the phone with an upbeat hello and there’s the heavy silence of someone who’s there but cannot speak. After several attempts to collect herself, she says we need to get to our son’s school. There’s been a shooting.

Time jumps, the way it does in dreams, and we’re in the car and we’re trying not to have a wreck and we are a wreck and we’re at the school and students are spread out across the front courtyard, looking lost and confused, and parents are calling out names and searching faces, trying to find that one that is, in those few moments, all they care about and all they know.

We’re parking our car and we’re out of our car and we’re a part of those parents and we’re calling his name and we’re not seeing that face that is partly hers and partly mine and a police officer is walking towards us with one of Harrison’s teachers and the officer will not look away and the teacher cannot look us in the eye.

I wake up in a cold sweat, my heart racing, my eyes wet. I try to take a breath and when it finally comes I remember that my son is asleep in the next room and everyone is safe and my life is good.

It is then that I remember those parents who go from a sleeping nightmare to a waking one, the realization that their child isn’t safe asleep in the next room — their child is gone — and no one seems to care enough to do anything to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

So it happens again, in school after school, and city after city; students that protested the causes of the last school shooting wind up victims of the latest one. My recurring nightmare is our recurring nightmare. We keep saying “Never Again” again and again and again.

I think about how difficult it has become for me to go to sleep, knowing what may await me, and I think about how difficult it must be to go to school, knowing what may await them.

We send our kids to school knowing there might be a monster lurking, locked and loaded and ready to go off. Our politicians’ “thoughts and prayers” ring hollow, but only because they’re offered with the same smile and wink that accompanies a whispered “don’t let the bedbugs bite.” They don’t treat the threat like it’s real. They think it’s only a bad dream. But it is real. And so our thoughts and prayers are real. Thoughts of parents like us, with children like ours, who ought to be asleep in their beds rather than buried in the ground. Prayers for the parents like us, and the children like ours, that the nightmare will stop recurring, and we’ll finally be able to rest in peace before we rest in peace.

Free

I remember mornings, not so long ago, when I would wake up completely paralyzed from the neck down.

The first time this happened, it felt like being in a nightmare you’d had a thousand times, but knowing you were awake. I panicked. Cried out to Rachel to wake her up. Stayed static as she tugged on my legs, lifted my arms, pushed on my torso, and found that nothing happened. Wondered if this was permanent. Slowly discovered it was not, as movement returned over 15-20 minutes.

Once this morning paralysis became routine, I began taking advantage of it as a time to breathe and pray. In (“Be still and know…”). Out (“…that I am God”). Slow but sure. 15-20 minutes of steady breath prayer to begin the day. Because, what else am I going to do?

Much of my life for 18+ months was dedicated to getting through the day, the hour, the minute. From the bed to the bathroom. From the toilet to the shower. From the shower to the sink. From the sink to the bed. Underwear. Socks. Shirt. Pants. Shoes. Belt. One thing at a time. Present to the present.

It’s been months now since I woke up paralyzed. Two months without a cane. I’m taking regular walks with my family. I’m dancing with my wife. Last week I ran for about 100 feet before my legs said stop, but it felt like I’d do 200 next time. I’ve lost 10 pounds. I’m free to move more easily, more quickly, more efficiently. Free to take things day to day and week to week and month to month, rather than minute to minute.

And, as a result, I’m less present to the present. And more worried about the future.

In the past 3 weeks I’ve had 3 anxiety attacks. During my illness, I didn’t have one.

I want to be careful here not to glorify illness or act as if it didn’t come with more than its share of struggles. My point is simply that it forced me into some habits that were good for my soul. You know that verse in the 23rd Psalm about being made to lie down? Think emphasis on made.

Now I’m free not to lie down. Free to be busy; too busy to pause. Free to fret about the future, rather than taking time to simply sit still and pray and breathe.

I am so grateful to have my health restored that I still have multiple times throughout the day that I see my reflection and laugh at the standing, walking man. I don’t want to go back.

But I also don’t want to go back to being the guy who couldn’t be still. Who couldn’t be present. I want to retain the lessons I learned lying paralyzed in my bed or taking life minute by minute. I want to slow down. I want to breathe. I want to be grateful for the moment I’m in.

Last Lent, I found that my illness was at its peak (though I didn’t know that at the time). The pain was worse, the tremors were worse, the lack of movement was worse. I experienced Lent as a time of true suffering. I couldn’t find the physical strength to attend an Ash Wednesday service, but I didn’t need reminding that I was dust. I couldn’t find the emotional strength to attend a Maundy Thursday service because I knew I’d receive a foot-washing while being unable to reciprocate. It wasn’t a reminder I wanted.

This Lent, I am grateful for the reminder that though I’m well, I’m no less dust than I was a year ago. I’ll be grateful to attend a Maundy Thursday service and hope not to forget that I’ve still received more than I can ever possibly give. I’ve put down certain things for Lent, but I’ve also taken up practices that put me back where I was last year, things like beginning each day by lying still in my bed and breathing in…and out. Trying to be present to the present. Trying not to fret about the future. Trying to remember the lessons I’ve learned. Trying to be aware. Trying to be grateful. Trying to take it slowly but surely. Trying to be free to be still and know that God is God.

Trayvon (2/15/95-2/26/12)

Written in 2014, after the grand jury decision not to indict a white police officer for the death of Eric Garner. Shared today on the anniversary of the death of Trayvon Martin.

The thing about crucifixion is, it isn’t the nails that kill you.

The nails are there to hold a person in place, positioned so that their body is suspended by their arms. In this position, it is difficult to exhale; the victim is forced to take shallow breaths, and must eventually push themselves up in order to take a full one. But the pain of pushing up eventually becomes too much to bear, and the person slumps down, once again, and struggles for air.

Victims of crucifixion don’t die of blood loss, they die of suffocation.

When we gather on Sunday to share the Lord’s Supper, there are many profound things happening at once. We mourn the cross and celebrate the resurrection. We reflect upon the past and look forward to the future. We experience Christ’s presence in the present, his Spirit moves within his body, the Church. We share Communion with one another and with God. We give thanks for his amazing grace.

And, according to the apostle Paul, as often as we share this supper together, we “proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”

Theologian Jurgen Moltmann writes, “In the raising and exaltation of Christ, God has chosen the one whom the moral and political powers of this world rejected – the poor, humiliated, suffering and forsaken Christ. God identified himself with him and made him Lord of the new world.” God became human so the dehumanized might have their humanity restored. We become truly human in the community of the incarnate, the suffering and loving and human God. “The God who creates justice for those who suffer violence, the God who exalts the humiliated and executed Christ – that is the God of hope for the new world of righteousness and justice and peace.”

When we gather this Sunday to share the Lord’s Supper, we remember the one and only Son who died for all of our dead sons. When we take this body broken, we mourn for all the broken bodies, from Brussels to Birmingham to Buchenwald. When we covenant to share in his suffering, we also covenant to share in the suffering of Eric Garner and Michael Brown and Tamir Rice and Trayvon Martin. We acknowledge the Communion that we share with this victim of violence and, through him, with every victim of violence. We draw close to the One who was nailed to the cross, slowly suffocating, and hear him crying out to all of us, “I can’t breathe…I can’t breathe…I can’t breathe.”

Prayer Post No. 4: As Kingfishers Catch Fire

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying Whát I dó is me: for that I came. 

I say móre: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: thát keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is —
Chríst — for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.

— Gerard Manley Hopkins

Prayer Post No. 3: from LORD, Teach Me To Seek Thee

Lord, teach me to seek Thee, and reveal Thyself to me when I seek Thee. For I cannot seek Thee except Thou teach me, nor find Thee except Thou reveal Thyself. Let me seek Thee in longing, let me long for Thee in seeking: let me find Thee in love and love Thee in finding. Lord, I acknowledge and I thank Thee that Thou hast created me in this Thine image, in order that I may be mindful of Thee and love Thee: but that image has been so consumed and wasted away by vices and obscured by the smoke of wrong-doing that it cannot achieve that for which it was made, except Thou renew it and create it anew.

— St. Anselm

Prayer Post No. 2: Fire of the Spirit

Fire of the Spirit, life of the lives of creatures,
spiral of sanctity, bond of all natures,
glow of charity, lights of clarity, taste
of sweetness to sinners, be with us and hear us…

Composer of all things, light of all the risen,
key of salvation, release from the dark prison,
hope of all unions, scope of chastities, joy
in the glory, strong honor, be with us and hear us.

— St. Hildegarde

Prayer Post No. 1: St. Patrick’s Breastplate

I’ve decided, this year, to fill this blog with prayer. Some prayers will be written by me, many will be borrowed from poets and psalmists and songwriters and the like. We begin with a prayer that hangs on my mirror as a daily reminder, “St. Patrick’s Breastplate.”

I bind unto myself today
the strong name of the Trinity
by invocation of the same,
the Three in One and One in Three.

I bind this day to me forever,
by power of faith, Christ’s incarnation,
his baptism in the Jordan river,
his death on cross for my salvation,
his bursting from the spiced tomb,
his riding up the heavenly way,
his coming at the day of doom,
I bind unto myself today.

I bind unto myself today
the virtues of the starlit heaven,
the glorious sun’s life-giving ray,
the whiteness of the moon at even,
the flashing of the lightning free,
the whirling wind’s tempestuous shocks,
the stable earth, the deep salt sea
around the old eternal rocks.

I bind unto myself today
the power of God to hold and lead,
God’s eye to watch, God’s might to stay,
God’s ear to hearken to my need,
the wisdom of my God to teach,
God’s hand to guide, God’s shield to ward,
the word of God to give me speech,
God’s heavenly host to be my guard.

Christ be with me, Christ within me,
Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort and restore me.
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me,
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.

I bind unto myself the name,
the strong name of the Trinity
by invocation of the same,
the Three in One and One in Three,
of whom all nature has creation,
eternal Father, Spirit, Word.
Praise to the Lord of my salvation;
salvation is of Christ the Lord!