My pastor started her sermon last week citing Walter Brueggemann, saying that Lent is a time for honesty.
“It’s all good” somebody said a few days ago, even though we both knew it wasn’t.
A person I care a lot about told me that something I said in a presentation not long ago about embracing the brokenness, the darkness, of our lives, was more helpful then the other stuff I had proclaimed about the Kingdom, about all of life redeemed, about the hope of new creation.
We can admit to the messiness of life — in fact, as Biblical people, we must; it is part of our story to tell, bearing witness to the sin, dysfunction, idols and disordered loves we all foist on this world, this world that is not, as the famous book on sin puts it, “not the way it’s supposed to be.”
Tonight I will mention in a program at a church the classic book from decades ago Disappointment with God by Philip Yancey, which I was looking at recently for a friend, realizing again that it is one of the great books of our time — honest, poignant, true, a must-read.
Watching the news the other night I was struck (again) at the way in which politicians of nearly every stripe seem to live by the story of progress,believing that we are somehow on an upward spiral (more and more, bigger and better) and that the God of the universe endorses our American exceptionalism, since, well, as the story goes, we bring progress to the world. Even bomb makers like GE are known for sweet ads that say they “bring good things to life.” Such evangelists for the myth of progress, especially when it is measured, as it usually is, so crassly by mere economic growth, seem to me to be helping us towards one big river. You know the AA joke: denial isn’t just a river in Egypt.
If we are in the grip of denial, it is absolutely liberating to speak the truth.
Yes, Lent, indeed, is a time for honesty. It is for naming our issues, owning up. Lent is like spring housecleaning, as some have called it. So, let’s get busy, being honest about our stuff, our fears and doubts and hurts and screwy values. There are books that will help you, and these below are all exceptional.
For instance, I have recently read a very new book that gets at the personal pain of living in a broken world in as beautiful prose as I have ever read in this genre. It is a quiet, little indie-press release called A Small Cup of Light: A Drink in the Desert by Ben Palpant, about which I will tell you shortly.
I have started another, what is surely another of the very best books of the season, but am holding off reading more, wanting to savor its finish two weeks from now. I want to tell you about it now, though, the extraordinary, excellent and very thoughtful work on the pain and joy of the end of Holy Week, A Glorious Dark: Finding Hope in the Tension Between Belief and Experience by A. J. Swoboda, a charismatic writer, colorful, bold, passionate. This is a perfect book to read during Lent, and you should consider getting it right away. Let me tell you why.
A Glorious Dark: Finding Hope in the Tension Between Belief and Experience A. J. Swoboda (Baker) $14.99
A Glorious Dark is one of those books that if you are a book lover, you will want to get and start right away. One customer of ours — a really smart guy who reads a lot, and knows a good book when he sees one — called to be sure we had this, as he wanted to drive right over, right on the spot, because he has read a sample chapter somewhere. That reminded me of how I like this author, and how I wanted to start this new one.
It is, of course, about “finding hope” so it does get at that longing to have deeper faith, faith that works, a spirituality that enables us to experience God’s grace in ways that actually make a difference. What do we do when all our good rhetoric, our best-formulated doctrines, our sincere trust in God begins to crumble? What happens when God seems distant, or worse? What do you do when, as it says on the back cover, “what you believe isn’t what you see”?
“Real, raw, and achingly honest, A Glorious Dark meets us right in those uncomfortable moments when our beliefs about the world don’t match up with reality.” That is what this book promises.
And Swoboda pulls it off better then nearly any book I’ve read lately. As Jonathan Merritt writes in his review of it, “Too often Western Christian churches focus only on the sunny side of life. Why? Because it takes far more courage to walk into the darkness.”
There are two or three things you should know about this amazing resource. Firstly, although it can be read any time, it is arranged in three parts, simply called Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. It is about the three-day Triddum (although he does not start with Maundy Thursday, which he explains.)
There aren’t many books available, and certainly not on this topic, that are so very interesting, and so accessible, reflecting on these awkward days, standing within the great tradition of liturgical thinkers about this topic, but who writes for ordinary folks. It does’t feel like a respectful, stuffy liturgical study, but a real-world, honest guy coping with the realities of this part of our story, grabbing at the big questions but with a bit of manic gusto. There isn’t much on Holy Saturday, anyway, so it is worth having this book for that portion alone. It is that good. Kudos to the funny and deep AJ and his editors at Baker for bringing these reflections on this to us.
(That he doesn’t quote the magisterial, brilliant Eerdmans book, Between Cross and Resurrection: A Theology of Holy Saturday by Alan E. Lewis is a bit of a mystery to me. That is a superb work, a true classic, and I’m sure he knows of it.)
Secondly, besides the useful structure of Good Friday-Holy Saturday-Easter Sunday, A Glorious Dark is written with exuberance — with what Len Sweet says is “fiery wisdom and icy wit” — and it includes a playful lot of pop culture references (Scooby Do!) and allusions to great literature and music.
Not too many authors draw on such great and diverse theological guides — from Jorgen Moltmann to Orthodox monks, from Hans Urs von Balthasar to a hero of mine, Bob Goudzewaard, from David Wells to Madeline L’Engle, from Leslie Newbigin to Charlie Peacock. So, yes, he draws on women and men of faith, great writers, interesting voices. Even the title seems to echo other mature works — it makes me think of The Magnificent Defeat by Fred Buechner or maybe his Hungering Dark, which Swoboda cites.
And he talks about Scooby Do. And Charlie Brown. And James Brown. (Well, maybe I made that up since I was on a roll. In fact, maybe he doesn’t mention that soul singer, since he has a chapter called “Numb” and he doesn’t even mention the U2 song off of Zooropa. What’s the matter with writers who draw on pop culture these days?)
Still, this is a truly witty and wonderfully engaging and very cool book. In fact, how cool is a book that talks about John Wesley and Martin Luther and Rumspringa and SuperHero Red Rider and relates the Trinity wisely to Chewbacca? There is a chapter called “The Gospel According to Lewis and Clark.” This is way cool, and very, very interesting.
Clever as it is, it is also serious. It isn’t exactly written with gravitas, but it is, as I’ve suggested, looking at some heavy concerns. It is mature. It is solid. As Jon Tyson writes of it,
A.J. Swoboda has written a beautiful book. It felt like reading the Psalms. He touches on the full bandwidth of the human experience with compassion, honesty, and humor. And this book ruminates with love for God. Not the sentimental love of evangelical culture, but a deep clinging to Jesus through all the complexities of faith and discipleship. This book will resonate deeply and inspire faith to walk boldly into the glorious dark.
I respect Swoboda a lot as he was contributed some very important work to our religious discourse. he co wrote a book we named last year as one of the Books of the Year, a book called Evangelical EcoTheology (BakerAcademic) and edited a remarkable, radical volume called Blood Cries Out: Pentecostals, Ecology and the Groans of Creation (Pickwick Publications.) (Did you know the founder of Earth Day was a Pentecostal Christian? Wow!) This new book, on these last three days of Holy Week, and what it all may mean for this messed up world, is just tremendous, and he should be a well known name in our BookNotes circles.
A Glorious Dark is a prefect book to move you from Lent into Holy Week, and, obviously, perfect for the days of Easter weekend. Experience the Triduum unlike you’ve ever had before. Get this book!
A Small Cup of Light: A Drink in the Desert Ben Palpant (Ben Palpant) $14.99
Oh my, this book truly “blew me away,” (as we sometimes say), keeping me up late at night several nights running, as I dipped in and pondered its unfolding story. The plot is simple, but beautifully told, with nuance and mystery and a richness that is hard to explain. That the title comes from a Billy Collins poem might give you a hint of the calibre of writing that is in store.
But little will prepare you for the odd and chronic illness that debilitates him, and his exceptionally candid telling about his own interior life as he coped with his pain.
Palpant experienced for no apparent reason, an attack of extreme pain in his head, and the book opens with a breathtaking scene of the onset of what remains a nearly inscrutable illness. From headaches and disorientation to numbness and loss of the ability to speak (and even some memory loss) made me think it was serious Lyme Disease or maybe early onset Parkinson’s. He doesn’t give readers an adequate sense of his medical visits or the doctoring he did or didn’t do — a drawback in the narrative, I thought — but this is not a conventional memoir. It is a slice of his life, narrated mostly around the theodicy question. Why, God, why? What is going on? What should I do? What can I do?
This guy is in severe pain and is equally paralyzed by shame (he doesn’t want his fellow teachers and school colleagues to know) and, in what seemed a bit odd, even guilt. (I don’t know why I say it is odd; it seems it isn’t uncommon for those with severe chronic pain to be ashamed, and to fear they somehow brought it on themselves. Or at last they feel guilt for the inconveniences they cause their loved ones. So I get that.) He is a very smart guy — Palpant teaches literature at a classical school and knows his stuff — and a pretty serious lay theologian. I admired his weaving together literary citations with, oh, say, stories of Puritans or other serious Christians who wrote about these very matters. How many books quote poets such as Li-Young Lee or Edna St. Vincent Millay alongside brain studies on, say, REM sleep cycles, coupled with insights from Thomas Merton?
Palpant is a great storyteller. He has locked into his mind — and now exquisitely rendered in what almost feels like short stories — some remarkable episodes from his young life.
I happen to know a little bit about a small portion of his life; his sister, Andrea Dilley Palpant, has also written a memoir that I have raved about before. Her story, Flat Tires and Other… is about their their earliest years in Africa (their parents were medical missionaries there) and her subsequent struggle with faith, and her rocky road out of the safe evangelical subculture while in her tumultuous, artsy college years. I loved her book, and came to respect her family very, very much. A respected Christian author who has written what may be one of the best books about grief ever penned — Jerry Sittser, who wrote A Grace Disguised — befriended Andrea in her years of tough questions, and they remain friends. She is left with an open-minded faith, I guess it is fair to say, a bit sobered and less confident. It is a fantastic story by a thoughtful young writer, and I recommend it. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised to see that Sittser interacted with Ben, too. In fact, he makes a few cameo appearances in A Small Cup of Light.
Of Ben’s book, Gerald Sittser writes that it is, “Stunning.. a superb book in every way.”
Wow. Coming from Sittser, this is a great acclaim.
J.I. Packer, who appreciates more than most solid, Reformed theology, and playful, good writing, too, says it is “Haunting, deeply pondered, and beautifully written.”
That is, friends, what some in the book biz might say is a blurb to die for. If that doesn’t inspire you to want to read this, I’d be surprised. Knowing that Ben did almost die, I guess, may ramp up the drama a bit, too.
Small Cup… though, is not a medical drama. As I noted, I wished for a bit more about the mystery illness, and how he felt not having a good diagnosis. Mr. Palpant is obviously a fairly philosophical gent; the theological questions haunted him, as did the experiential, spiritual ones– where is God and how can I know God better through this, for Christ’s glory! — so there was less attention to the medical details than to the existential ones. I gather this is a true rendering of his years with this horrible condition, but we know this much, as least: he is telling the tale in light of his haunted, soul-wracked questions. And although these questions came to him in humiliating attacks leaving him bed-ridden and wracked with pain, they come to us all. We all must learn to come to terms with our lot in life.
There are gloriously written passages here, and the near climax of the story includes a time of him sitting in a red, plastic kitchen chair outside in the falling snow, where he explains that he finally is able to let go of his obsession for control and give in to the truth of God’s great sovereignty. This surrender was beautifully written, although nearly plain: he was sitting, stuck with wonder and awe of the still beauty, nearly unable to move, and he somehow knew that this was it, the moment of his resolution. He was able to yield to God, giving him over to the arch of the universe, held in the hand of the One who made it all and knows the hairs on our head. His tremors were not healed in that moment, but something important had transpired.
Some readers will disapprove of his strong emphasis on God as the One who oversees the universe. He is in a camp with the likes of Jonathan Edwards and John Frame and John Piper, here, and it was a great comfort to him, knowing that even suffering is redeemed by an all powerful God. (This comes through in the powerful trailer video, above.)
Those that are taken with a more ambiguous approach — I think Barbara Brown Taylor’s two exquisite books on preaching about absence and pain, When God is Silent or God in Pain are good examples of a less rigid view — will disagree with Palpant’s conclusions when he is a tad didactic near the end of this fine book. But so be it. It is his memoir, his testimony, his story. His conclusions make sense to him, and will stretch some readers, challenging others, perhaps annoy others. Yet even those who do not fully agree with all of his large conclusions will be deeply grateful for this God-centered, Christ-glorifying, Spirit-led direction, allowing God to teach and shape and mold him, even in his distress. To use the Psalms of lament to passionately, to feel the horror of his situation and not grow bitter, oh my. This is mature, spiritual stuff, told wonderfully.
There is a story near the end, a memory crisp and good like a few others he tells, that is worth the price of the book, a parable for him, and for us all. It cannot be summarized elegantly, but it is a memory of his father taking him deep into the bush from their home in Kenya into dangerous territory in war-ton Uganda. They were going, of all things, to see a large, hand-made, improvised, wooden and communally-played xylophone. How this energetic and joyful artistic expression — nearly the whole village singing and clapping to the music — pushed back the darkness of his fears is so beautifully told, it will be, I am sure, read out loud in book groups, and re-told in sermons from pulpits across the world. What a story-teller, and what a story.
And what a story this whole book is, a mysterious illness, chronic depression, anger and anxiety healed — at least a bit — as one comes to the hard truth that the God of the universe is near us all. As he says more than once, all of history is God’s story. And what a story of goodness and grace that is.
Palpant ends the book, remembering the fear he had in Uganda, the stress of his malady, the ongoing struggle with is health and happiness. He writes for us a benediction of sorts:
Rejoice with me. In this valley of tears, this valley of the shadow of death, God has given us songs to sing. We are singing pilgrims, so sing with all your heart. God is our song. When we sing in the darkness, our songs reverberate back to us and make us glad.
May this book be a small cup of light for you, dear friend. Take and drink. Lift up weary hands and frightened faces to God. Lean into his story. Even in darkness, he is there. He is the one beside you, singing you. Remember. And this is my prayer: May you find his light in your darkness, his life in your death, his joy in your sorrow. Forever and ever.
I think these two books — A Glorious Dark: FInding Hope in the Tension Between Belief and Experience by A.J. Swoboda and A Small Cup of Light: A Drink in the Desert by Ben Palpant — are two of the most moving books I’ve read in quite a while. They are both about hardships and disappointments, making them exquisitely timed, perfect for the end of Lent.
Here are others that deserve their own mighty reviews. I regret that I can only name there here, choosing them over many other worthy ones. Here are some I have to list.
The Hardest Peace: Expecting Grace in the Midst of Life’s Hard Kara Tippetts (Cook) $15.99 I have had this book on the stack to tell you about for several weeks now, waiting till this column. You may have been following the amazingly poignant, deeply sad blog of the dying Kara Tippetts, called mundane faithfulness. You may have heard that she died today, and we name this book, now, published less then a year ago, in her honor. I don’t want to say much more about this, am sorry for her husband and family, but it has been very moving for many and we wanted to show it. She started the book before she was really well known, and includes more than just her time of dying. Rest in peace, honest sister.
A Faithful Farewell: Living Your Last Chapter With Love Marilyn Chandler McEntyre (Eerdmans) $15.00 You may know my profound admiration for this writer, whose book Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies is an all time favorite, often mentioned in workshops I do on reading and books. (They were the Princeton Stone Lectures a few years back, knowingly standing on the shoulders of Kuyper.) She did another wonderfully written set of ruminations on phrases of the Bible (What’s in a Phrase?) that was wonderfully done. This just came in, reflections for the dying. She has volunteered in hospice work and may have had the loss of a family member recently. These first-person essays have fantastic endorsements, from Richard Lischer, Michael Lindvall, Harold Koenig and others who are well acquainted with the night.
Aloof: Figuring Out Life with a God Who Hides Tony Kriz (Thomas Nelson) $15.99 Years ago, Tony was most known as Tony the Beat Poet from Blue Like Jazz. I raved about his memoir Neighbors and Other Wise Men. Here he has taken spiritual memoir to a new level, reflecting honestly about God’s absence, or our experience of God’s absence. Frank Schaeffer says of Aloof, “It is a work of art.” Randy Woodley says “Tony Kirz asks difficult questions and shares sacred stories that find their way into our souls, drawing out our hidden questions and helping us to voice our sacred stories. Tony’s style reminds me of someone…sometimes his words are in red!” There are pages and pages of endorsements on the front — from edgy activist friends like Lisa Sharon Harper and Tim Soerens and Sean Gladding and Leroy Barber, and more established figures like Dr. Andrea Cook, the President of Warner Pacific College and Kevin Palau Oregon State Senator, The Honorable Jason Atkinson. In a way, this is brave stuff, shifting away from any formulas, and sharing doubt with honesty and passion. Kudos.
Between the Dark and the Daylight: Embracing the Contradictions of life Sister Joan Chittister (Image) $20.00 This, too, is brand new, and I’ve not spent much time with it. But Sister Joan, a Benedictine who I met years and years ago in Erie, has grown to be one of the top and most beloved religious writers of our time. (Sometimes people ask me who has taken over the spot left by Henri Nouwen. Joan’s name always comes to mind.) With endorsements from Barbara Brown Taylor and Richard Rohr and James Martin, you can imagine that this is progressive, gracious, well written, Catholic spirituality. Judith Valente (who wrote the great memoir Atchison Blue) says “Joan Chittister has written what promises to become a spiritual classic — a guide for those of us who have ever spent sleepless nights wrestling with our own frustrations, fear of the unknown, and pain of loss and separation… This is the most poetic writing yet from a woman who is a modern prophet.” I like what Barbara Brown Taylor says when she insists that “these are the questions that make you human, and can make you more joyously human if you choose.” And right there’s another seeming contradiction, a paradox, if you will. Reading hard books about complicated things that don’t have easy answers can be enjoyable, and give us great joy. How ’bout that?
Fight Back With Joy: Celebrate More. Regret Less. Stare Down Your Greatest Fears Margaret Feinberg (Worthy) $15.99 Dear Margaret does not write like Henri Nouwen or Joan Chittister, although I am sure she appreciates them. She is more lively, more funny, more conversational about real-world daily stuff (her dog, her hubby) and although a bit Pentecostal, it seems, she brings a down-to-Earth faith that always leaves me buoyed. Except here, which tore me up as I read an advanced manuscript. Margaret, who we learn in the very beginning, is setting out to do another book, and it is to be on joy. She experiments with some typical Feinberg stunts — saying yes to everything! Joy is going to be her “one word” etcetera — and too soon, on page 9 to be exact, she gets the dreaded call. She has serious, serious breast cancer. I am overcome sitting here, thinking about it, even though I’ve read that damn page a dozen times. Still, she concludes she should carry on with her joy bit, and, indeed, it saves her life. Fighting back with joy becomes a serious study of the costs of discipleship, the “dangerous duty of delight” as another author once put it. She is not Ben Palpant, debilitated and paralyzed with existential and poetic questions, she is a go-getter and, cancer or no cancer, is convinced God wants her to be joyful, to share good news with others, to be a blessing. She’s like Bob Goff on steroids, bringing helium balloons to others and overcoming depression by reigniting her imagination using laughter and goodness.
I do not want to sell a book that is glib about something as dangerous and death-dealing as disease. Margaret may seem a bit light-hearted, but this book is at once tragic and sad, and, yes, inspiring. She “discovers freedom from the past by learning how to turn mourning into joy” and rises above “endless demands” to become “more winsome, cheerful, and thankful.
I wondered if I should list this here with other books that have a decidedly more somber tone (even though Swoboda and Kriz are funny, and Palpant is such a good writer I am sure you will smile at places.) But even though the theme is joy, it is a narrative of a friend coping with cancer. It is about this Lenten journey, after all, allowing ourselves to feel the pain of these days, not covering up, being honest. That “spring housecleaning” can lead to some amazing stuff, and Feinberg helps us, as she puts it, “we awaken ourselves to the deepest reality of our identity as beloved, delightful children of God.”
There is, by the way, a brief but very helpful portion as an afterword of sorts, called “Six Lessons I Learned from Crisis” and another from her husband, Leif. Again, this illustrates how seriously real this all is. I think I maybe isn’t the book to read during Holy Week, but, you know, it just might be perfect for the week after. Fight Back With Joy will draw you to Christ Jesus.
Did you know that the first book written in English by a woman (circa 1395) was Revelation of Divine Love by the mystic Julian of Norwich? She wrote, even then, “This life is a muddle — I know it myself, a mix of well and woe.” She continues on to remind us that we are held by a God who loves us, writing that “we all feel miseries, disputes, and strife.”
So, don’t we need some help with Lenten honesty? Spring cleaning? Digging a bit deeper and hosting our hurts, our losses, our sadnesses, including our anxieties about God? This is a safe season to do so, and we trust these books will help. Perhaps they will help somebody you know. We are very glad to be able to tell you about them here.
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