Sparrow (book review)

Jennifer DurantA wife and mother of two teenagers, recently ordained in the Episcopal Church, receives the worst kind of bad news: she has ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis). The Rev. Jennifer Durant tells her own story in Sparrow: A Journey of Grace and Miracles While Battling ALS (Morehouse, 2016), a book published just a year after her death. It was her hope that telling this story would build on the increasing public recognition of ALS developed by the Ice Bucket Challenge, and she pushed through to finish the book using assistive devices.

Called as an Associate Rector, she shared her diagnosis with her new colleague, David M. Stoddart, the Rector of Church of the Saviour in Charlottesville, Virginia. When she offered to resign, he recommended keeping her condition quiet as long as possible, so the congregation could learn to love her. She writes:

He assured me my gifts — my God-given, Christ-blessed gifts — had not changed. That is a message for every person who feels they are less than whole. God sees us as whole and perfect. Our Got talents are not lost simply because our muscles don’t work like everyone else’s, or because we are bling. Or deaf. Or old. Or weak or broken. (p. 31)

Durant goes on to share the painful truth of her loss of ability and her faith that God was with her all along the way. She owns that the loss of her capacity to function as a mother and a wife hurt deeply. She names the things she will miss and the parenting role she has surrendered to her husband, Matt. She compares her children to baby sparrows, raised “in a nest of God’s love.”

And so my sparrow-darlings, though I can no longer speak, I can pray. (p. 85)

Readers may well weep at this point, as this reviewer did.

Sparrow_rgb (1)As a pastor, I am delighted to read a book in which the church does not fail a person who is suffering through challenges. Church of the Saviour made numerous accommodations for Durant, including buying a lighter-weight paten to use at the Eucharist, carpooling while Durant rode shotgun, and literally feeding her at church potlucks when she could no longer manage utensils herself. When a church member expressed concern that her deteriorating condition might upset the children, Father David supported her continuing presence. Parishioners read her sermons aloud. At the end of the book, Durant includes her final sermon, delivered ten days before her death.

It’s worth noting that Durant writes strictly from her own context, including the use of fairly traditional descriptions of men and women and their family roles.

Sparrow is a brave, honest book. Durant writes in simple terms about her faith and her life experiences. This is a book accessible to all readers. It could serve as an encouragement to those suffering terminal illness and as a helpful guide to their family, friends and caregivers. The book contains a Bible Study guide with readings to accompany each of the short chapters and could be used readily by a group.

*****

I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for my honest review, which originally appeared at RevGalBlogPals.

When You Keep Me Up at Night (a Trinity Sunday prayer for pastors)

When You keep me up at night, I wonder what it’s like to be You, Your Selves, One Self, and whether my middle-of-the-night meanderings are illuminated by You or illuminating to me or simply heretical attempts at understanding who You are and what You have done and who You will be as time unspools.

Do You truly never change? Do You care if I capitalize You? Are the rules humans make, the denominational legislative efforts and the unwritten local practices, are they anything close to an expression of Your will? Your mercy? Your dream for humankind?

Do You lie awake and wonder about me, about us, the way a parent does about a grown child? Are You a Friend, praying for a friend? Do You groan wordless prayers, inexplicit, laden with longing?

In the middle of the night, perhaps, I am not theologically astute, articulate, but I am accompanied. That much I know. And I thank you for it. I thank You for it.

See Your Memories

NEC Commencement 017
#2 Son’s commencement, 2013, New England Conservatory

At my house, Facebook’s daily memories take us back in time to lives before the life we have now. I brought to our marriage the kids we call “the olders,” and they appear in this season wearing mortarboards and graduation gowns and prom attire. My stepson, in my mind, begins as the toddler son of a friend, but in my public life, he appears later, a schoolboy, in baseball uniform, or walking our puppy. The separate time zones of our memories remind me how new this life is still.

Sometimes I miss the old spaces: the house in Maine on a street with an esplanade of maple trees, the place where we picked up donuts, the beach where I walked my dogs of blessed memory. At the same time I am thankful for the new life, for the blending of two families into one, for the hope represented by God’s power to make me see myself and my world differently even at midlife. I am thankful.

Holy One, give us a glimpse of the future and gratitude for the present when we glance at the past. You are ever working with us and on us, and we thank you for it. Amen.

(Written originally for the RevGalBlogPals Weekly e-Reader. You can subscribe here.)

Great Composer (a prayer for pastors)

 
Creating God, You are the Great Composer. You have made all things, all the raw material of humankind and the natural world. You write us into being. Guide us in the choices we make. May we be respectful of your gifts to us and make the most of them, for your sake.
 
Saving Christ, You are the Great Harmonizer. You came into the world and showed us how to live in community. You taught us to love not only our friend but our enemies. Help us to find the ways we are most alike in following you and to praise you together.
 
Sustaining Spirit, You are the Great Improviser. Give us the courage to be playful and free as we wander through life, stopping to see beauty, to love kindness, and to live out your grace and mercy.
 
Gracious One, You are the Great Conductor. You set our parts before us, giving us gifts that can work together for good if we will follow your lead. Focus our eyes on your baton, that we may make beautiful music together as your church in this time and place.
 
We offer our prayers for those we hold close in our hearts and the things they face,
for those worrying about illness and injury in their families and congregations,
for those discerning how to follow you faithfully despite human voices that deny their call,
for those wondering how and where to serve you best.
 
On this Pentecost Sunday, call us together as you called your first followers. Give us the power to understand each other beyond boundaries of language, culture, and habit. Grant us the humility to see the things we don’t know in full, to learn from one another, to hear each other’s stories, and to find a common tongue in loving and serving you. Amen.

The Day When God Made Church ( book review)

Paraclete Press, 2016
Paraclete Press, 2016

The Day When God Made Church is a new children’s book from Paraclete Press, and it went to press just in time for the celebration of the holiday it describes, Pentecost. The author is a Presbyterian Church (USA) pastor, the Rev. Rebekah McLeod Hutto. The lively illustrations are by freelance artist Stephanie Haig.

The text of the book begins with the people who followed Jesus waiting to see what will happen next. Those gathered include men, women, children and animals, a microcosm of creation. The first-person plural narration draws the reader or listener into the story, as one hopes to do when reading to young children.

The animals notice something first, and then the people feel the wind of the Spirit. They respond with joy and with a range of verbal expressions:

Some with LOUD sounds,
some with quiet WHISPERS;
words like DRUMBEATS,
words that TIPTOE through the air.

The narrative continues through Peter’s sermon, which is paraphrased for a youthful understanding. We are all called upon to share the good news. The story includes references to Jesus’ ministry, and the illustrations amplify the telling with familiar symbols like loaves and fishes, a lamb, and the empty tomb.

Haig’s illustrations bring the simple text to life with swirls of color and texture. A variety of human and animal figures populate the pages, and the human – males and females across the age range – include a number of skin tones, hair colors and facial features, further embodying the idea of the book that all people are welcome to be part of the church God made and to share the good news with the world.

A photo I took of two of the pages. Don't you love the quizzical dog?
A photo I took of two of the pages. Don’t you love the quizzical dog?

While I don’t find it hard to tell the Pentecost story, and therefore haven’t looked for books to use with children, I really like Hutto’s approach, both theologically and pedagogically. It would be a great book to use for a children’s message in worship or in a Sunday School setting, and certainly appropriate at home as well. The illustrations are fun. They invite curiosity. I particularly appreciate the quirkiness shown by including animals throughout. They are a great way to keep children engaged with the overall story.

As is always true with books from Paraclete, the quality of the book is beautiful. Although it is a paperback, the paper is nice quality and feels good to hold in your hand.

I recommend The Day When God Made Church for church and home libraries, as well as the bookshelves of pastors and Christian educators.

*****

I received a review copy of the book from Paraclete in exchange for my honest assessment. This review originally appeared at RevGalBlogPals.

Trigger Warning (a Mother’s Day prayer)

Two of my three - one hopes they forgive all the things I messed up...
Two of my three – one hopes they forgive all the things I messed up…

Great Mother,

Today I’m preaching about memory,
about times
when I only thought of you
as Father,
about times
when I only knew one way
to think of myself,
about people
who might not like the way I turned out.

And even though
I won’t be talking about
that last thing directly,
I know that every time we talk about
the places from which we came,
or the people who raised us,
the people who taught us,
about the things we believed first,
someone listening may be hurt.

And I don’t know how to offer up
a sufficiently collective trigger warning.

Except this:

Life is hard; faith is harder.

I could catalog the losses,
the messes I made,
the injuries
inflicted and received.

Life is hard.

Faith is harder.

It’s worth it, but it’s harder,
living an examined life,
striving to please You,
working out our salvation,
even following the via media –
these things are all harder
than just claiming the popular,
being in the moment,
going out to brunch.

I wonder what triggers You,
the One whose bosom holds
all our weeping, all our losses?

I wish I could send you flowers,
but at least I can call you,
this way.

Life is hard, yes,
and faith is harder,
yet I am grateful for it,
grateful for intangible mercy,
grateful for a mother
better than I can ever be,
grateful for a Mother who
never disappoints,
never abandons,
never dies.

Because Mother’s Day

Heavenly Parent,

You are Father and Mother to all Creation.
You planted us and you nourish us.
You exist beyond our comprehension and
transcend the labels we use to describe you.

But we are label-makers,
and category-keepers,
and people-sorters,
and occasion-creators,
and this Sunday we face one
we just can’t get right.

Too much, and it hurts people.
Too little, and it hurts others.

Also, and you know this, we have our own stories.
Our mothers have died
or are still too close
or were never close enough
or never quite meshed
or smacked us too hard
or …
or nurtured us enough
or lived life with panache
or served you with whole hearts
or loved us unconditionally
or…
or all these things, in unequal measure,
over a lifetime.

That’s just to get started.

Some of your servants are mothers,
and some have lost children,
and some wanted them but never did have,
and some never wanted to,
and some had more than they expected,
and some gave theirs to other mothers,
and some feel it goes by too fast,
and some wish it went by faster,
and some worry what their kids think of them
and whether they will remember this awful card holiday
and sort of wish they would
even though it shouldn’t matter.

Bearing all of this in mind and prayer,
we ask, Holy One, with your heart for all people,
give us a measure of grace with one another,
an instinct for the places where some hurt and others chafe.
Give us a measure of mercy and a big dose of patience where our mercy is strained and a sense of humor when people get on our nerves and a heart full of the unconditional love you give so freely to us, ready to share with those who need it most. Amen.

*****

Originally posted as Because Mother’s Day (a prayer for pastors), May 10, 2014.