Monday, December 31, 2012

Second Annual Wonderfully Flawed Book Awards 2012 (fiction)

There is nothing in the world like a good story and I especially like stories that introduce me to unforgettable characters, some so vivid that it is hard to remember that they are not real.  (Or are they?  I mean, what is real anyway?)

I think I read more fiction than usual this year, probably because several of my favorite authors came out with new books and also because I enhanced my traveling by listening to audiobooks.  Here are a few of the standouts:

How to Be Good and A Long Way Down by Nick Hornby were real favorites this year--I was only disappointed that he doesn't have more books along this line.  My brother-in-law introduced me and Mowgli encouraged me and both of them were absolutely right--I loved both of these books for their insight and their humor.  In How to be Good, Katie Carr's marriage is deeply threatened when her husband decides to work harder at becoming a "good person," with the help of a strange guru he found on the street.  What does it mean to be a good person, anyway?  And how hard should we try to be one?

In A Long Way Down, several memorable characters meet at the top of a tall building, each planning for different reasons to jump off.  They form an awkward community of hope and keep you in suspense the whole time.  Because each of the suicidal characters is so well-drawn, it felt like I was listening in on the internal dialogue of people I actually know.  The suspense is pretty riveting, too.  Will they all be able to stay alive?

Because I loved Major Pettigrew and his neighbor Mrs. Ali, I loved this sweet story of their struggles with aging and friendship and racism and romance.  Not entirely unsubstantial, this is a hopeful book written with love for its characters and for the reader.

Runners-up for fiction:  Lots of great runners-up for storytelling, all books I enjoyed as I read them and have carried with me since.  Another book to deal with friendship and racism and romance is Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford, this time through the eyes of two young teenagers, one white and one Japanese in the early 40s in California.   Black Water Rising by Attica Locke is a murder mystery set in the city of Houston and populated with people and places I recognized.  I listened to it on CD and had to drive around aimlessly at the end just to see what happened.  The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker is the coming-of-age story of one California preteen when the rotation of the earth changes and catastrophe slowly descends on all its inhabitants.  It's not a perfect book but it's really interesting to think about how every change changes everything and to see how people's lives and relationships are affected.  And, for a dystopian story, it's remarkably  hopeful.  I don't usually love Anne Lamott's fiction as much as I enjoy her nonfiction but Imperfect Birds really captured me with its flawless depiction of the dynamics of an enmeshed, addicted family.  Elizabeth, Rosie and James seemed so real and acted so much like real people act--so unpredictably predictable--that I was sad when the book ended and there was no more window into their lives.

I was also disappointed with some of the fiction I read this year.  Each anticipated new book by Jodi Picoult, Jennifer Weiner and Emily Giffin was considerably less than I hoped for, either because of improbable characters (have you figured out that it's all about the characters for me?) or just my lack of interest in the worlds they created.

The Second Annual Wonderfully Flawed Book Awards for 2012 (nonfiction)

Well, once again, we need to take this list by categories, just because there are too many good books to narrow it down to just one list.  Let's start with Spiritual Nonfiction, because I read a lot of it and because some of the year's favorites are in that category.

This is the book I'm selecting as Book of the Year for 2012.  Truly, I wish every Christian I know (male and female)  would read it so we could all talk about it.   Using some of information from the bestseller Half the Sky, this book challenges us to transform the way we work together as men and women in the capital-C church to make a difference in a world where women and men together are deeply affected by our brokenness related to gender roles.  (Incidentally, I hadn't read it yet when I wrote this, but it addresses the same issues so much better than I could.)   At times stop-and-read-that-again profound and at times did-she-really-just-say-that challenging, this book casts a vision for a world in which both women and men (and especially women, under the circumstances) can find their value as children of God and can find new ways to express courage and love in their relationships with each other.  There are no gender politics here and no denominational battles, just the harsh reality of what our failure to support each other is costing us and the inspiring vision of what could be.

This was the year I really discovered N. T. Wright and this was my favorite of the books I've read of his so far.  This book gave me a really clear picture of what it means that God is reconciling the world to himself and restoring it to his original design, both in the afterlife and in the implications for the here-and-now.  Wright uses Scripture well to challenge some of our cherished beliefs about heaven, taking on both the cherubs-and-harps mythology and some of the eastern influences about a disembodied existence after death.  Best of all, he clearly connects all of it to God's mandate for Kingdom living now and reminds us that God loves this world and expects us to get to work loving it too--no pie-in-the-sky dogma here.

Runners-up for Spiritual Nonfiction:  My Own Worst Enemy by Janet Davis--Janet is my dear friend and does for Scripture what Monet did for water lilies; she helps you see the essence beyond the substance.  This is also a very practical book for women (and men) who struggle with self-sabotage and seeing themselves as people of worth and calling.  Also, Practicing the Way of Jesus:  Life Together in the Kingdom of Love by Mark Scandrette is an interesting and challenging story about what happens when people exchange the idea of  spiritual formation as religious theory and instead take it on as experimental practice.

Now let's look at General Nonfiction.  I said in the 2011 Book Awards that the book I was reading, Terrorists in Love, would be on the list for 2012 and it is.  Credible journalism together with riveting storytelling make this a fascinating read, forcing us to exchange the stereotypes and caricatures for stories of real people in all their humanity and pathos and brutality.

You knew I would have Brene Brown's newest book on the awards list, didn't you?  As always, she does a fabulous job of conveying the inherent vulnerability of being human and gives us a road map for responding with courage and vulnerability and resilience.  There's not much new here if you've read her other books and follow her TED talks and her blog, but it's all together in one place and is a book I'll read again.

Runner-up for General Nonfiction:  Marriage Rules by Harriet Lerner.  Not as profound as her other books but still immensely practical and readable, this is sort of a devotional book for couples.  Each chapter is a page or two long and reminds us to balance self and togetherness in our most intimate relationships.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Merry Christmas! (Is this cheating?)

Well, it seems pretty obvious that I'm not going to get any Christmas cards out before Christmas, seeing as how tonight is Christmas Eve.  I love getting your Christmas cards in the mail and your holiday greetings on Facebook and the more information about how things are going for you and yours, the better!   But our Christmas family photo (see below) isn't really worth making copies of and I'll be lucky if I even get the tree put away before Valentine's Day, so this is my best effort at wishing you a very merry Christmas and a very happy new year and even providing a little bit of an update for the Taylor family in 2012.

We started the year the same way we're ending it--with C and Boo going to Guatemala to love on about 65 orphans and their caregivers.  Both of them are at their very best when they are at the Fundacion Salvacion in Huehuetenango, Guatemala.  Here is a photo of Boo with one of "her kids:"

Speaking of Boo, she is a sophomore this year at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor.  She loves school, loves her friends, loves her two churches, and loves life in general.  (If you know her, you are not surprised!)  She's an early childhood-elementary education major and hasn't wavered on that plan since she was three years old.  We're very proud of the young woman she's turning out to be.

Mowgli graduated from Guilford College last December and came home for the spring to work, work and work, saving money so that he could travel for 3 months in Tibet, Nepal, northeastern India and Kashmir.  His stories of hiking and climbing during that time are a little too harrowing for this mom (one involves tigers) but I'm truly in awe of his adventurous spirit and courage.  Here's Mowgli in the foreground of a photo taken during a climbing trip:

These days, he doesn't have much time for outdoor adventures.  He's living near Boston, MA and attending grad school at Harvard Divinity School, still studying Tibetan culture and religion, and playing on the school ultimate Frisbee team.

As I watched C lead our Christmas Eve service this evening, I was struck again by how good he is at pastoral ministry and how blessed we are to be serving here at MBC with really good people who love us as much as we love them.  He finds great fulfillment in serving at Austin Children's Shelter, keeping up with old friends and passionately following pretty much any sport that involves a ball.  

And me . . . well, I probably devote enough time on this blog to the details of my life.  As a quick summary, I still see clients in my private practice here in Austin, I stay involved with the Faithwalking ministry of Mission Houston, and I travel pretty regularly working with the Ridder Church Renewal process with Western Theological Seminary in Holland, MI.  Right now, I'm looking forward to two weeks off  before starting a busy season of travel and work.

So now you're caught up with us . . . if you haven't already, please let us know what's up with you!  We're blessed to know the most wonderful people--and you're one of them!  We send Christmas greetings and hope for blessings in the new year!

Sunday, December 23, 2012


Today was a pretty perfect day.  Church, lunch, nap and then our annual family Christmas trip to Pappadeauxs.  (Thanks to CLBC for starting that tradition so many years ago with the Christmas gift card!)  Before we went to dinner, though, we stopped at the Blanton museum to see the current exhibit on Tibetan art, including paintings on silk called thankga (pronounced "tank-ah") like the one below.  

I learned a few things.

One, I learned that it is hard to see Eastern art through western eyes.  Mowgli did a great job explaining things (including telling us at every turn that what we were seeing wasn't really all that impressive compared to what is in the monasteries of Tibet) but it was still difficult to know both what we were seeing and how to see it.   The thangka are so complex and layered that it is hard to know where to rest my eyes.  Because the images are so foreign (to me), it's even harder to know how to understand what I see or to know what it means.

My favorite exchange was when I asked a question about one ancient piece and Mowgli said, "Well, that isn't really a relevant question."  I countered, "But it's what I want to know." He thought a minute and said, "Well, I can try to answer it, but if you want a good answer, you need to ask a better question."  He helped me craft a different question and then gave me a terrific answer that satisfied us both.  I will ponder on that idea for a long time though:  if I want a better answer, I need to ask a better question.

Two, I learned about how deep is the human need to create.  The Tibetans who painted these works of art spent years on them, in part because they used brushes made of just a few cat hairs.  They believed that the use of the cat hairs and the silk brought bad karma and so they accepted that the act of painting these thangka would cost them a hundred years of a  hellish incarnation but they did it anyway, in part because they believed that it would help other people and in part, I assume, because they felt compelled to create something of deep meaning and beauty.

We also saw a mandala, or sand painting, being created by a Tibetan monk.  It may take years to finish one of these mandala but once it is finished, it is enjoyed for a week or two and then rubbed out, destroyed.  It's hard for me with my attachment to self and ego to imagine such a thing--I would grieve deeply if I lost something I had devoted my life to making with my own hands.  These artists, however, value the act of creating and not the thing itself; it seems to me that there's something to be learned from that.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

How adults can help kids

I went on a radio program this morning to talk about how we can help the kids on our lives through difficult times.  Here's what I said and what I wish I had had time to say.

We can stay calm.  Children need to know that the grownups in their lives are okay.  Even if they see us cry or hear some of our sadness and anger, they need to know that we are not undone, that we are still in charge, that we have a plan and that we can help.  That means that we don't run at the mouth about all our confusion and helplessness in front of the kids.  It means that we squeeze them a little tighter when we hug them but that we don't cling.  It means that we don't make them responsible for making us feel better.

We can reassure them that they are safe.  The school shooting in CT didn't happen to them.  It feels like it happened to all of us but it didn't.  The chances are very good that they are safe.  Their school is safe.  Children see the media reports and think that if something happened somewhere, it will happen anywhere.  They have very little sense of probability so they don't realize that school shootings are extraordinarily rare and that the probability that they will ever experience one is almost zero.  Millions of children went to school yesterday and came home.  Even most of the children in the Sandy Hook Elementary School came home.

We can start a dialogue, not a lecture.  It's important for us to talk with our children rather than, in our anxiety, talking at them.  We can start by asking what they know.  That will help us gauge their level of interest and engagement.  We can correct their misconceptions--especially scary ones--and give more information.  Then we can ask them how they feel and then we can let them feel what they feel.  They may say, "I don't know."  Giving children words for feelings is one of the most important things that adults can do for children.  They may have their own words.  If they don't, we can say that a lot of people are feeling really sad or mad or scared.

We can ask them what they want to know.  When I picked Boo up at school on 9/11, I asked her what she wanted to know about the day's events.  She answered, "Is the Statue of Liberty still there?"  She wanted the reassurance that the prominent symbol of our nation (in her mind) was intact.  I never would have known that if I hadn't asked.  Later, as she was watching some of the news footage for the first time, I asked her again.  She answered, "Are all those people okay?"  I answered that most of the people in the buildings got out safely but that some died.  She visibly relaxed and had only a few questions after that.

We can be careful not to blame God.  When we say things like, "God wanted those children to come live in heaven with him,"  or "God needed them to be angels," we are not only teaching bad theology but also scaring our children.  We adults don't know how to make sense of tragedy; we don't know why this happened.  How on earth can we try to give answers to children?  If they ask why, we can tell the truth: A man went into the school with a gun and shot some people.  That's why.  We can reassure them that God loves all the people in Newtown and that he is helping them.

With older children and teenagers, we can talk about what it means that we live in a profoundly broken world where bad things happen on a pretty regular basis.  We can talk about what it means that God loves this world, even in its brokenness, and is even now working to redeem and restore it and that he calls us to be part of that work.  We can share our own feelings of vulnerability as well as our own commitment to live lives of courage, hope and love in the midst of the darkness.  This is exactly what older children and teens want to hear.

We can look honestly at the violence in our own homes.  The screaming and threatening and hatefulness and hitting that happens in good homes all over this country is far more traumatizing to children than a tragedy they hear about on the news.  If you are an adult, do what it takes to make it stop.

And then there's love.  Nothing we do is more important.  Children who know they are loved and are secure in their place in the hearts of the adults around them are far less vulnerable to the effects of trauma and are far less likely to act out violently themselves.  Of course, we love our children but we can work harder to make sure they know it.  We can indulge them less and guide them more.  We can make sure they see us showing love to those who are different and difficult so that they always know that there will be love for them when they are different or difficult.

Faith, hope and love--these three.  And the greatest of these is love.

Friday, December 14, 2012

What we can do

Everyone with a blog will be weighing in on today's school shooting and I guess I'm no exception.  Hands down, the best thing I've read so far is this blog by my friend JTH who was the first one to tell me about the shooting.   He addresses the profound theological and cultural implications of this--questions all of us are asking.   He has all the right questions and some meaningful answers.

There is another question that we are all asking, too:  "What can we do?"  "Nothing," we think, feeling mired in helplessness.  Or, maybe, "Nothing but pray."  After all, few of us know anyone directly involved or have any way of tangibly supporting them.  I want to suggest that there actually are a few things we can do.

To begin with, we can do as Brene Brown suggests and remain calm and openhearted.  That means that we can avoid stereotyping and "othering."  No matter what color or age or religion or sexual orientation the shooter turns out to be or what kind of family background he turns out to have or what kind of psychiatric problems he turns out to suffer from, we can refrain from nodding and saying (or thinking), "Yes, that's how those people are."

We can refuse to blame, especially before we even know what has happened.  So far,  I've seen one Facebook post that places the blame squarely on President Obama and one that blames the cessation of state-sponsored prayer in schools.  That especially means that we reject any and all conspiracy theories, like the one that's going around that all the recent mass shootings are the work of the anti-gun lobby.  We can just stop it.

We can hug our children and tell them we love them and breathe sighs of relief that they are still here in spite of our painful vulnerability.  But we can do that without panicky clinginess that only scares them and us.   Yes, we feel so vulnerable and exposed in a world where random violence is so fearfully random.  But we can choose not to walk in fear or we can choose hope when the fear closes in.

We can rigorously examine our own attachment to violence.  Surely we can agree that one of the symptoms of our anxious society is the pervasive gun culture--cowboy gun culture, gangsta gun culture, paramilitary gun culture, video game gun culture.  Don't get me wrong:  the polarized voices are equally anxious.  The ones shouting that we need to get rid of all the guns are just as anxious as the ones shouting that we need a gun in every classroom.  At some point, though, we need to have a national conversation about our addiction to violence and it will be more effective if we'll start with ourselves.  Boo has babysat for suburban, middle-class boys under 9 years old who play violent shooter games like Grand Theft Auto and Call of Duty all summer long.  Talk radio and TV often descends into verbal violence and no one protests unless it's coming from the "enemy."  Much of the fare on TV feeds our fascination with crime-as-entertainment and it's getting more graphic every season.  For many of us who drive in city traffic, road rage is our secret sin.  Let's just be honest about our own participation in this very violent culture and maybe make a resolution to step away from it in some significant way.

We can support any and all efforts to provide mental health care to those who need it.  Not every person who commits mass murder is mentally ill but most are.  The vast majority of persons who are mentally ill never resort to violence but some do.  Mental health care is expensive and my state, in particular, has made it clear that it is not willing to pay that price.  But the paranoid and delusional are rarely able to hold the kinds of jobs that provide health insurance or to navigate the bare-bones delivery system as it currently exists.  Their families have often bankrupted themselves trying to get help for their loved one and have often come up empty.  When we think about the things we want to do together as a society, surely we can provide better for those among us who have lost control of their minds.

We can recommit to empathy and kindness.  The people who study these things tell us that, as a culture,  we are 40 percent less empathic than we were when I graduated from high school.  That means that we have lost almost half of our ability just to put ourselves in the place of another person.  That scares me more than anything and I see evidence of it every time I get online and every time I counsel couples in my office.  That means that those of us who understand and value empathy have to work extra hard to infuse it into our conversations, into our relationships, into our parenting.  Let's recommit to that and to basic kindness.  Will that stop mass murder?  Maybe once or twice, but probably not.  But it makes our world a saner place to live in--a gentler place to live in--and that's part of the solution.

And, of course, we can pray.  My favorite prayer in times like this is "Lord, have mercy," followed by, "Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done."  We can pray the words of the Advent hymn, "Bid envy, strife and quarrels cease; Fill the whole world with heaven's peace.  O Come, O Come Emmanuel."  Or there's this longer prayer from my newly ordained friend Matt's bishop:  "O Holy Spirit, the Comforter, visit the parents, siblings, guardians, friends and colleagues.  May they know in some new way your power to draw us into your healing, peace, justice, and compassion.  The darkness of our fallenness overwhelms us and burdens us with intolerable weight.  Give wisdom to lawmakers, emergency responders, pastors and counselors.  Enlighten and strengthen us for your service to one another."  Or as another pastor friend, Deborah, reminded me, we can pray the prayer of no words.

Last, we can refuse--adamantly--to succumb to hopelessness and helplessness.  As my brother-in-law put it, in a little different context, we can "stop all running in a crowded room, with our eyes closed, screaming that we are all alone in the dark."  Whatever you decide to do, that's a good place to start.

Lord, have mercy.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Have an Adventy Advent

Advent comes quietly every year, whether we're ready or not.  This year, with so many days between Thanksgiving and the advent of Advent, I was actually ready for it today, in all its quiet invitation.  Yesterday, as I was describing some of the complexities of life to a friend, she commented that I would have a very Adventy Advent this year.  I laughed and knew what she meant:  that Advent draws us into its questions and its waiting and its uncertainty and that some years that resonates more than others.

This year, I'm asking the Christ of Advent to guide me into taking some steps new steps toward simplicity and purpose and clarity and generosity.  Fortunately, I have some seasoned companions on the way.

First, there is Advent Conspiracy, that  annual call to exchange materialism for generosity.  (Did you know that for just a fraction of what Americans spend on Christmas in one year, we could provide clean water for the whole world?)  We watched it at church this morning, but if you haven't seen the Advent Conspiracy video, you can watch it and several other good videos on the AC website.

Also, there is the thoughtful lifestyle of my friend JTH, which he describes on his own blog here.  He has actually gone into training to resist the siren song of consumerism; I've decided to copy a couple of his practices myself.  I really love the idea of growing spiritually by actually taking on the spiritual practices and, well, practicing them.   (I've long thought I'm a Methodist at heart.)

There's Ruth Haley Barton, over at the Transforming Center, who has this to write about Advent this year and will add to it every week until Christmas.

Maybe you aren't part of a tradition that observes Advent.  No worries; me neither.  But the beauty of preparing for Christmas and the challenge of doing it subversively, below the chaos of the culture, in the quiet places that really matter . . . any of us can embrace that.