Deity as commodity in Foreign Gods, Inc.

Foreign-Gods-COV-fin-397x600Okey Ndibe’s novel Foreign Gods, Inc. is the tragicomic journey of a New York cabdriver named Ike – a Nigerian immigrant desperate for wealth and willing to steal and sell his home village’s war deity statue in order to get it.

Ike’s plan is risky, reckless and culturally disrespectful; it also brazenly ignores Scriptural warnings about the love of money as “the root of all kinds of evil.” But Ike has no interest in Biblical wisdom. Nor does he give credence to the beliefs of those who see the statue as a true god (named Ngene) to be feared and worshipped. His plan is hatched out of a desire for the almighty dollar. For 13 years he’s been unhappily driving a cab, unable to put his honors degree in economics to use and gambling himself into debt in order to support a demanding wife he married for a green card. He believes his accent will forever hold him back from his dream of attaining the wealth he sees in American businessmen and celebrities.

Ike’s prideful quest for selfish gain makes him difficult to sympathize with. When he returns to Nigeria he is bothered by the poverty of his family and friends and thinks about how his plan would benefit them, but ultimately their needs are secondary to his success. Even so, his circumstances highlight the hardship many immigrants face, including the loneliness of feeling like a stranger caught between two worlds. They also speak to the brokenness of a consumerist society in which wealth is idolized and everything is for sale – including sacred things. His desperation is familiar. So is his greed.

The Nigeria Ike returns to is even more torn by religious war than when he left it. His impoverished mother and sister have been swept up by the false promises of a pastor who calls himself a Christian but acts nothing like Christ, exploiting the poor for his own income. His other relatives are faithful guardians of Ngene and shocked that anyone would worship an “invisible god.” Leaders in both camps feed off fear and promote material prosperity.

The deity that is tragically absent here is the Almighty God – the one who is both transcendent and immanent, who saves His children by grace alone. No character in Ndibe’s novel bears witness to serving a God like this, not even the well-known yet coercive British missionary Walter Station, whom Ndibe describes (in a 27-page historical interlude) as a temperamental leader who believes “heroic gestures” will secure his salvation.

Over the course of the novel, Ike’s plans for success shift toward his ruin. We see him isolating himself from those he loves, ignoring opportunities for generosity and taking other despairing turns. I suspect most will wish, as I did, for a character that could help make a more loving God known to him. The living Lord, who cannot be bought or sold. He wants far more for His children than earthly riches; as Scripture so beautifully says, He has even “given us His very great and precious promises, so that through them [we] may participate in the divine nature, having escaped the corruption in the world caused by evil desires.”

Ike’s journey is unique, and his course of action could even be called absurdly dramatic. But he is battling acquisitive temptations and skewed definitions of worth that plague us all. When read with this in mind, Foreign Gods, Inc. can be admired as an absorbing yet painful reawakening to the woundedness of a world enslaved by commodity gods – if we let it be.

(Originally published over at ThinkChristian)

Bearing witness to hope when memory fails

downloadYou are likely familiar with at least a few frightening stats regarding dementia. On the radio just the other morning, an announcer gloomily shared a recent report from Alzheimer’s Disease International stating that 44 million people live with the disease – and warning that this figure will likely increase to 135 million by the year 2050. A global epidemic, it is being called. But then, the stats themselves are not what haunt most of us, are they? Many of us have moved beyond the distant dread, having already experienced the intimate pain of seeing people we love altered by Alzheimer’s – a parent or a grandparent, a sibling or a friend. For poet and author Jeanne Murray Walker, that person was her mother, Erna Murray Kelley, who began to show signs of the disease in her early eighties.

Over the course of a decade, Walker’s feisty, sociable and practical mother became the frail, anxious and often-confused woman that her loved ones barely recognized. The Geography of Memory is Walker’s attempt to “bear witness” to the suffering and pain of her mother’s decline – and to the grace that upheld her and her family in this distressing transformation. As one would expect, this is a hard read, full of sorrow and fear. But this is a larger story, too – a tribute that honours the complexities of human personality and memory, and the God who created them. “I wrote this book because I believe the news about Alzheimer’s is more hopeful than what we hear on the street,” Walker writes in the preface. By hopeful “news” she does not mean she has new, optimistic facts from science to hold against the gloom. No, her hope is anchored in the paradox of suffering: that it can alter people for the worse but also for the better, because it can bring with it a renewed awareness of love and grace. “Alzheimer’s is bleak. It is,” Walker says plainly. “But it is not all horror. My mother’s last years reveal that for all the heartache, there can still be joy and laughter, insight and love.”

Geography of Memory is non-linear – a  format that that feels especially fitting, given the ambling, irregular nature of human recall. The first chapter opens with Walker and her husband in a Paris hotel room, receiving the call with news that her mother had passed. Walker’s grief and bewilderment prove that we are never prepared for death – even when we know the time is coming, and when loved ones have radically changed.

As her mother’s memories become more faded and jumbled with the past, Walker’s own memories are illumined anew. Her account moves back and forth between memories of reckoning with symptoms of her mother’s disease in the 2000s and memories of her 1950s childhood in Lincoln, Nebraska. In between these narratives are what Walker calls “Field Notes” – one-two page reflections on the research into memory and ways to understand its role in our world.

Walker reveals that her family has been touched by the chaos of death and chronic disease before, with her father dying of heart failure when she was just a girl and her severely asthmatic brother passing away at eighteen. Through it all, Walker remembers her mother as stubborn and resilient – a dedicated nurse, a talented painter, a fundamentalist Christian and a devoted mother whose desire to protect could be in turns admirably comforting and frustratingly restrictive. Still, as a mother herself now she can see why the chaos compelled her mother to want to keep her family safe.

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Walker (on right) with her mother.

As a teenager, Walker’s relationship with her mother became caught up in clashes of faith – clashes that eventually led Walker to leave the church of her youth. But even these tensions, when recalled afresh in the light of her mother’s ailment, help Walker appreciate the “multiple selves” within us all. “They are stages in a journey – the child, the disillusioned teenager, the mother, the poet, the grandmother –stations on the way toward learning what it means to be human,” she says. “They are not unlike the many mothers who lived inside my mother.”

Since Walker is a poet, playwright and professor, it is not surprising that literature becomes her lifeline. She learns to embrace the language of her mother’s Alzheimer’s – the illogical statements and flashes from the past – as metaphor, rather than words to be corrected. She agrees with a researcher’s claim that “the language of the demented is closer to poetry than any other kind of speech.”

Along with a new understanding of language, Walker also reaches a new awareness of God – of who he is and how he works through our many chapters of “selves.” Of course there are times when God feels distant, and feelings of helplessness and despair overwhelm her. Even so, loving her mother through Alzheimer’s makes clear to her “the genius of Christianity,” a suffering God with “a good memory” of confusion, loneliness and other pain.

This vision of an ever-present God acquainted with grief is one of the “spectacular gifts” that Walker believes could only come to her through her experience with her mother’s illness. Through its lens she can also see the many gifts of grace and mercy given to her relationships, such as the intimacy and appreciation she reaches with her sister as a result of their difficult caretaker years. Even Alzheimer’s can be a means of finding resolution and deepening faith–a means of spiritual transfiguration.

This vision of God is also what makes The Geography of Memory more than a book to be read only by those with a direct experience of, or particular interest in, dementia. Instead it can be read by all those looking for honest, tender and luminously written evidence that, as Walker says, “in spite of suffering, our universe is ordered by a force that’s not chance, not brutality, not evil, but goodness.”

(Originally published in the December 23 edition of the Christian Courier)

Reading between the lines of Flannery O’Connor’s prayer journal

534-vE2Oz.Em.55The prayer journal of Southern Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor was released a little over a week ago and already the buzz abounds. Friends, colleagues and writers I admire are talking excitedly about having this slim book in their hands. Renowned author Marilynne Robinson has even pondered it for The New York Times in her precise, elegant prose.

While I have enjoyed the hype, it made writing about the book more daunting. I was gripped by insecurity, wondering if there was anything worthwhile left to say.

It turns out that the 20-year-old O’Connor who kept this journal was well-acquainted with anxiety and doubt over her craft. Yet she kept writing, anyway. Angst-ridden as she was, she still believed she had words worth saying – in this case, to her God.

“Dear God, I cannot love Thee the way I want to,” she says on the first salvaged page of the journal.

Much of the collection is a detailed outpouring of this fear. O’Connor tells God what worries and shames her. Mostly she is afraid that her own preoccupations and limitations – her “self shadow” – will prevent her from seeing and adoring Him as she ought. Her language for herself is harsh; she calls herself stupid, lazy and “a presumptuous fool.”

O’Connor also shares her delights and joys, which are centered on her work as a fiction writer. Even at her young age she is rapturously devoted to her craft and holds it up against the loneliness invading her soul. Again and again she acknowledges God as the source of her work, thanking Him for giving her stories that allow her to be “the instrument for [His] story.” “I want to be the best artist it is possible for me to be, under God,” she says.

Her reflections on burdens and triumphs are pleadings for God’s mercy and “necessary grace.”

Some may read her abrupt last entry as an expression of defeat or surrendered faith. “My thoughts are so far away from God,” it begins. The last line reads: “There is nothing left to say of me.”

Although O’ Connor’s published prayers end here, we know that she did not stop talking to or thinking of God. I believe her desire to “write a beautiful prayer” led her to write fictional works of bloody resurrection, where characters’ selfish preoccupations and vanities are urgently burned away into gestures of mercy and holy clarity.

O’Connor persisted in saying what God had uniquely gifted her to say. As the preface notes, even the debilitating agony of lupus did not silence her. In fact, her last years were her most prolific.

As I contemplated O’Connor’s life, the words of another sufferer rose to my mind. I recalled the hymn “For Your Gift of God the Spirit” by Margaret Clarkson, who was also plagued by the pain and isolation of chronic disease. The hymn’s third verse says:

He, himself the living Author,
wakes to life the sacred Word,
reads with us its holy pages
and reveals our risen Lord.
He it is who works within us,
teaching rebel hearts to pray,
he whose holy intercessions
rise for us both night and day.

O’Connor’s prayers are also addressing the living Author. He knew her beyond the page and heard her silent, never-ending intercessions – her unpublished prayers. This is how fully He knows every one of us.

Flannery O’Connor had less than 40 years on this earth and still, even now, God is “writing” her story into new readers. Her prayer journal is a testament to her unique brilliance, but it also reveals the universal tensions that cause all of us to cry out for grace and mercy – in public works and in private supplications. We can read it to be reminded that our works breathe beyond the grave, and to ponder afresh how our “Dear God” is writing His startling redemption story into us all.

(First published over at ThinkChristian)

Tracking the walking poets

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So we are grasped by what we cannot grasp;
it has inner light, even from a distance—
and changes us, even if we do not reach it…

                                                                                                                                          —Rilke, “A Walk”

I cannot be the only child who was first exposed to “devotional poetry” through the ever-famous work “Footprints in the Sand”. I saw it mostly on the walls of friends or neighbors—in embroidered prints with sand and water and sky sewn in around the verses to set the scene of a dreamed of beach.

While I was never as enamored of it as everyone else seemed to be, I did accept its sentiment of spiritual comfort, then. The allegory of a walk made sense to a child raised on Bible stories and fairy tales of adventurous wanderings and who had walked barefoot by the water on many summer holidays. And there was of course such peaceable assurance in that ending line, of a Lord who lifts and says: “During your times of trial and suffering, when you see only one set of footprints, it was then that I carried you.”

“Footprints” is not a work I connect with now. Over the years my definition of poetry has changed, and with it my understanding of how it intersects with faith. The classic devotional poems of George Herbert or John Donne are now stitched into my soul—as are the beautiful ponderings of modern-day masters such as like Christian Wiman and Mary Oliver.

And while it may sound silly to some—and even snobbish—to compare “Footprints” with such works, I think it is fair to say this: I do not see anything of real walking in this “poem.” This is part of why it leaves my particular spiritual imagination wanting more. There are no concrete images—no sensory details to that set the shore or sea alight. We only know it is about a beach walk because we are told so.

While I do not write poetry, I have always had a special love for poetry about walking. So how can I not look with some disappointment on such a work?

I also see reading poetry as (to borrow an Antler phrase) a devotional practice for spiritual formation. Like poet Peggy Rosenthal, I believe that the very act of reading poetry is very much like taking a walk—that “its rhythms, its sound-echoes, its line-breaks and stanza-breaks, all conspire to give us pause.” Both walking and poetry are, to me, a kind of prayer.

As ironic as it may sound, I confess that I often feel more…spiritually awakened by walking poems in which God himself is not directly present—not mentioned by name or presented as a ‘speaker.’

I think of Raymond Carver sea-gazing among rocks and gulls, in “This Morning,” which begins: “I dressed and went / for a walk — determined not to return / until I took in what Nature had to offer.”

Carver’s poem lets us into a walking moment—the tension between “what he was seeing” and the inscape of his “wandering thoughts.”  Of nature he says:

For a minute or two
it crowded out the usual musings on
what was right, and what was wrong — duty,
tender memories, thoughts of death, how I should treat
with my former wife. All the things
I hoped would go away this morning.

Carver dares to expose the details of the weight he carries, while also acknowledging the paradox of seeing one’s inner word more clearly through the immediate physical world. He takes with him “the stuff [he] lives with every day” as he apprehends nature’s beauty.

I have walked this way—in between those realities. Sometimes it is while I am praying and intentionally “devoting”, but sometimes God is there unaddressed, as I move and ponder in nature’s bare presence.

Similarly, “Fathers and Sons” by Patrick Lane features a poet walking with heavy memories and hard emotions—regret, shame, grief apparently evoked by recalling his dead father. It begins:

I will walk across the long slow grass
where the desert sun waits among the stones
and reach down into the heavy earth
and lift your body back into the day.

Lane keeps this patient, tender pace throughout the poem, as his memories and desires play out against the landscape. In near-psalmic language he describes “speaking love into [his Father’s] flesh” and “bless[ing] this man who died”.  As he treks across the hills and stones he imagines taking his father’s hands, palm to palm, and lifting them, saying “this is praise/this is the holding that is father and son.”

Such lines bring to my mind  the suffering Christ—the weight of what he carried for us, but also the good,  heavy work of lifting his love, praise, and blessing into our days.

Upstate New York poet Daniel Bowman Jr. is the newest walking poet on my readerly path. Almost every poem in his collection A Plum Tree in Leatherstocking Country is a pilgrimage across a dreamed or remembered landscape—from fog-blackened back fields to roads beside houses with open windows. His paths mingle the commonplace with the ethereal and the spiritual.

For me, his poems are haunting testaments to the intersection of the personal with the communal—the everyday with the eternal. Take this verse, from “The Sticking” :

Walking alone
through the village of my birth
makes everything
stick to my feet.
Soon I’ve got Blessed Sacrament
on my right heel,
basket of blue fish flopping
eternal, a young confessor
falling, clinging
to the scarlet curtain.

This small survey* of eloquent, walking poets urges me to move—to be always open to the particularities of pain and of beauty.

Such poetry can prime us to clearly see Christ in others—and to acknowledge his working in our own lives more honestly. It also expands our understanding of the term “spiritual walk”; I trust the Spirit to move through all moments in my life, not just the times of intentional devotion, but the small scenes, too—including my encounters with those on different religious peripheries or with different histories. All are occasions for transformation—gifts from a Father who intimately accompanies his children in this present life as he prepares us for the life to come.

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 *A P.S. that this Canadian poetry fan cannot resist: Lorna Crozier’s “If a Poem Could Walk” is another wonderful walking poem—a playful exploration of poetry’s “tame and wild” way of “walking.”

(First published over at antler – I encourage you to check out the rest of their wonderful site.)

Tony Dekker’s Prayer of the Woods

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Prayer of the Woods is the solo offering by Tony Dekker, lead singer of the Canadian folk-rock group Great Lake Swimmers. Long-time followers of his band will likely note the resemblance to the sparsely intimate guitar-and-voice sound of their early work and appreciate Dekker’s consistently wildlife-rich lyrics. These are unique songs of solitude, though—wistful new explorations of love, memory, mortality, and dreams.

It is easy to visualize Dekker on a personal pilgrimage through forests and fields—“in exile in the oaks/Exile in the firs, exile in the birch.” The title track, based on an anonymous poem found on hand-carved signs on many North American hiking trails, is a tender call to find spiritual sanctity in the natural world. Although Dekker never mentions Christ directly, this gently inviting album might still bring to listeners’ minds Jesus himself, who would often slip away to the wilderness and pray (Luke 5:16).

Paula Huston’s A Land Without Sin

4fcbbcb6d83f6b3285e506768722ab2fPaula Huston’s novel  A Land Without Sin is a gripping spiritual journey set in Mexico in 1993 amid escalating civil conflict. Eva, a seasoned American photojournalist, treks through jungle caves and guerilla territories in search of her missing brother. Eva loves Stephen dearly, but she is unsettled by his deep Christian faith and by hints of family secrets he has withheld.

In a brilliant move, Huston gives her reader immediate access to Stephen by interspersing Eva’s first-person narration with letters he wrote before his disappearance. “What am I, a would-be monk, a lover of the desert fathers and contemplative prayer, doing in the middle of this hotbed?” he asks in one letter. While this is the question driving Eva’s mission, the story itself is a daring plunge into life’s central mysteries, including the nature of evil, the challenge of friendship, and the complex application of mercy in a broken world.

In the video below, Paula Huston talks about the interplay of doubt and faith in her novel. 

Memorizing mercy

Attention is the beginning of devotion.
—Mary Oliver

open-bible-444118-mIn elementary school I loved the rhythms of “memory work”—from reading the Scripture passage in class to taking it home to be written out again or pasted on the fridge or recited aloud with my hands covering the verses. And I was glad to have new words and mysterious phrases in my mind.

Sadly this communal grade school activity did not work its way into a personal adult devotional practice. In recent years I have memorized mostly academic formulas and facts, along with a few poems and favorite sentences. But I have not engaged with Scripture this way.

I’m sure I am missing out on an enriching experience, though. I think of friends who recalled passages in times of deep sorrow or overwhelming joy. I also think of the testimonies of those imprisoned for their faith who clung to memorized verses in the solitary darkness.

New Yorker piece I read on the virtues of memorizing poetry pointed out that “if we do not learn [poetry] by heart, the heart does not feel the rhythms of poetry as echoes or variations of its own insistent beat.” I am sure it is the same with Scripture.

So I am attempting to get back into the practice of memory work.

I have started, as perhaps most do, with a psalm—Psalm 103. It happened to be a recent “verse of the day” on my smartphone. Sometimes I read a digital version of Scripture or listen to an audio; other times I read verses I have copied out or use a Bible.

But whichever way I read Scripture, I read it as a work about memory: a startling revelation of God’s character that reminds me of all he has done—in the past and in the present, for me and for all. “Let all that I am praise the Lord; may I never forget the good things he does for me,” says David. I too long for that faithful recollection.

The version I have settled on is the New Living Translation. To me, the “let” language this translation employs speaks of invitation and reliance on God. I remember that I am listening here—letting God’s truth go through me as I continue to develop my memory for his unfailing mercy. As I memorize this passage, I hope I will also personalize it as a kind of prayer, recalling particular instances of God’s goodness and offering up my struggles to a Father who “knows how weak we are; he remembers that we are only dust.”

I have only been with this psalm for a short while. My memory still trails off and ultimately fails to hold it in its entirety. Some days I still neglect to look at it—or any Scripture—at all.

But I am determined to return again and again to the Word—to attune myself to the insistent heart of God and let myself fall into the beat of its persistent mercy.

(Originally published in The Banner magazine)