Here’s the scoop: I’m reading the Bible in 90 days with my Sunday school class, and I’ve committed to blogging about it each Sunday during the period. This is the third week, and I have to admit--I did not do well with the reading this week. It wasn’t so much the content (which was far more interesting than the stuff I was reading the first two weeks), but I was just reading a lot of other really good books that I didn’t want to put down. I did, however, play major catch up on Saturday to get through most of the material for this week which includes the last part of Deuteronomy through part of 1 Samuel.
As I was reading this week (the other books, not the Bible), I started thinking back about some of the books I’ve read that fall into the spiritual memoir genre (is that a genre?) and thought this was the best place as any to give some reading recommendations for anyone who might be looking for some books to read. All of these are “spiritual” in nature, and each one offers a different perspective (one of my favorite words) on faith.
Blue Like Jazz: Non-religious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality by Donald Miller
I read this book about six years ago, and it was the first book that made me feel at ease with some of the thoughts about God and Christians that I’d been having for years. To sum up Donald Miller in a word, he is: real. He’s actually probably one of the reasons I keep trying to make this church thing work. (Donald Miller has written a handful of other books that are also entertaining and thought-provoking. You can also follow his blog.)
Traveling Mercies by Anne Lamott
I read this book as part of a grad school non-fiction writing seminar with the woman who would eventually become my thesis director. Lamott’s story is inspiring, but more importantly, this book is one of the reasons I write what and the way I do. Anne Lamott has personal reflection down to a gut-wrenching, spellbinding science, one that I continue to study by rereading her work from time to time in an effort to better my own writing. She is sincere, honest, and in your face. Enjoy.
Jesus Land by Julia Scheeres
Okay, don’t approach this book lightly. My husband bought this for me a few years ago because he thought it looked like something I’d enjoy, and he was completely wrong. It was one of the most painful books I’ve ever read--I did not “enjoy” anything about it. However, I started this book late on a Friday night and was finished with it by Sunday morning because I could. Not. Put. It. Down. Painful, honest, shocking and did I mention painful? But so, so very good. Memoir at its best, exposing a side of Christianity that NEEDS to be exposed.
Jesus Wants to Save Christians by Rob Bell
I mentioned this book in my last post, and I’m mentioning it again because it’s probably the one book that I wish all “Christians” would read. Rob Bell has pissed off a lot of people in Christian circles because what he says doesn’t jive with the mainstream. This is the kind of book that if you were trying to highlight the good parts, every page would end up yellow by the end. It’s smart, funny, and forward-thinking, which is probably why most “Christians” don’t get it.
Mennonite in a Little Black Dress: A Memoir of Going Home by Rhoda Janzen
Okay, I mention this book only because I just finished reading it, and it’s another example of spiritual memoir. It’s nowhere on par with the books listed above as far as how it has impacted my life, but it’s funny, and I found it refreshing to read about a faith with which I have very little experience (I actually met a lot of Mennonites when I was on a traveling hospital ship off the coast of West Africa, but I didn’t really take the time to ask them questions about their faith). Worth a read, and much lighter than the other books listed above.
The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak
This is a novel, not a memoir, but it’s the best book I’ve read since Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Seriously. It’s the real reason I didn’t pace myself well with the Bible reading this week--I couldn’t put it down. I was literally reading at stoplights because I couldn’t get enough. Toward the end, I started reading five pages at a time and then putting it down because I didn’t want it to be over. Although it isn’t a spiritual memoir, the subject matter made me think about what I’ve been reading in the Bible. The Book Thief is set in Germany during WWII and focuses primarily from a German perspective. There were passages pertaining to hate for the Jewish people that made me stop breathing. When I did pick up the Bible to read, I was struck by the fact that I was reading a story about these same people--the Jews, thousands of years apart. Please, if you don’t even finish reading this blog post or read anything I ever write again, go get this book and read it. Now.
So, enough with the book recommendations--let’s get to the What-Leia-Learned-This-Week portion. First of all, I feel the need to address something that I’ve been thinking a lot about this week. In my rocky relationship with “the church” I’ve heard it said over and over and over and over again that the church is not a building, it’s not a place, it’s not an institution--the church is the people. You know--we ARE the church. We don’t GO to church. That kind of stuff.
My beef is with the people, as I’ve discussed in previous posts. (Is it vain to quote myself?) “My frustration stems from both the actions of individuals and the attitudes of the collective. I have witnessed abuse of power, “moral corruption,” lack of social responsibility, hypocrisy, and intense hate on such a phenomenally grand scale--and all from an institution (made up of individuals) who purport to love God and love others as themselves.” These people are not being the church. No amount of pew time (or pulpit time in a lot of instances) will make them the church.
But, you know what? There are a lot of really, really good people who ARE the church, instead of just going to church, and I have been privileged to know, love, and be loved by a lot of those people. With as many examples as I could give of instances in which church people make Jesus cry, I could give you examples of people living out the Gospel of Jesus Christ in tangible ways because they truly, honestly believe in BEING the church.
Just this week, I had not one, not two, not three, but FOUR people email/FB message me letting me know that I’ve been in their prayers this week. These weren’t people I asked to pray for me, and none of them were praying to save my soul (although I’m sure there are a couple of people doing that, too). These were people who genuinely, selflessly, and thoughtfully asked God to be with me, comfort me, and help me find joy in a pretty awful week (everyone in our house was sick, made worse by the knowledge that we still have five months before Daddy comes home).
This morning at church, an older gentleman whom I don’t know very well gave me his son-in-law’s business card. His SIL is a real estate agent, and the man told me that he had heard I was trying to get our house ready to sell, and he thought maybe his son could help me if I didn’t have anyone already. Kind.
Also, this morning, Will’s Sunday school teachers took their Sunday school class (as they do anytime there is a fifth Sunday in the month) next door to a nursing home to sing for the residents. I love that at the age of five, there are people in my child’s life who are teaching them what it means to be part of a loving, giving community.
I got a note in Will’s take-home folder last week from his teacher that read, “Mrs. Johnson, we just wanted to let you know that the teachers prayed for your family in our staff meeting this morning. We know that it must be hard taking care of two kids on your own and for your husband to be gone for such an extended time. Please know that we are here for you if you need us and that we will continue to lift your family in prayer.”
And that all happened just this week.
What I’m getting at here is that even though I’m a bit of a Debbie Downer about the church in general because of some rotten apples, I don’t want to discount the people in my life who are trying to combat that image in the way they care for me, their friend, and for people they don’t even know, asking nothing in return--simply because Christ called us to do so.
PHEW. I feel better.
Now, to this week’s reading. Since this post is already too long, I’ll just break it down into some highlights:
*Deuteronomy 23 is where we start this week, and one of the very first things made me laugh. I’m just going to include the passage: If one of your men is unclean because of a nocturnal emission he is to go outside the camp and stay there. But as evening approaches he is to wash himself, and at sunset he may return to camp. Designate a place outside the camp where you can go to relieve yourself. As part of your equipment have something to dig with, and when you relieve yourself, dig a hole and cover up your excrement. For the Lord your God moves about in your camp to protect you and deliver your enemies to you. Your camp must be holy, so that he will not see among you anything indecent and turn away from you.
- First of all, this reminds me of a sign on the inside of a bathroom stall that says something like, “Ladies, please refrain from flushing feminine products.”
- It also reminds me of my first speaking part in my kindergarten play when I played Sacajawea. I still remember my line: “First you dig a hole and plant the corn. Cover it with a fish, and then cover the hole with dirt.” And scene. It was a brilliant performance.
- I love this idea of God moving about the camp. Can’t you just hear the Israelites saying “Dude, someone stepped in crap! Everyone check your sandals!” What? I didn’t write it.
*I know that these rules and regulations don’t really apply in modern times, but I found one that I want to bring back. Deut. 24:5: If a man has recently married, he must not be sent to war or have any other duty laid on him. For one year he is to be free to stay at home and bring happiness to the wife he has married. Tell me more about this bringing happiness to his wife business.
*In chapter 28, we have 14 verses about the blessings the people will receive for obedience...followed by 54 verses about the curses for not following the rules. And guess what--they didn’t follow the rules. Stupid.
*Rahab! So just a few pages after we read rules about how bad prostitution is, we have a nice little “don’t judge a book by a cover” story because that book might just save your life. And she might eventually start a family line that leads to Jesus’ birth.
*I remember singing a song about Joshua and the battle of Jericho when I was little. We marched in a circle with papertowel tube trumpets, and it went something like, “Joshua fought the battle at Jericho, Jericho, Jericho! Joshua fought the battle at Jericho, and the walls came tumbling down...” Then, we proceeded to all fall down on the ground. As I read through Joshua, though, I was HORRIFIED. The book of Joshua is chapter upon chapter of the Israelites pillaging and killing their neighbors (31 kings by the time all was said and done). I mean, thousands and thousands of people die so that the Israelites can claim their land. (To be clear, I am in no way making a political statement here--I’m just in shock.) Then, the land is divided up among the tribes, and Joshua is buried in the Promised Land, as all of God’s promises have been fulfilled. My favorite part is that after being at brutal war for ten years, Joshua’s parting words to his people are “...choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve...But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.” Joshua had no idea that his battle cry would endure on wall hangings and needle-pointed throw pillows in suburban homes for all time.
*And then there’s the book of Judges, where we get even more killing, while the Israelites continue to have a roller coaster of a relationship with God. They do okay for a little while, but then they begin to “do evil in the eyes of the Lord” over and over, which leads to this system of having judges who rule in the place of kings. And this is where we get some really colorful characters worth mentioning.
- Ehud is a judge who visits king Eglon of Moab (this sounds like a fourth installment of The Lord of the Rings). King Eglon is so fat that when Ehud stabs him with a hidden double-edged sword, the entire sword is swallowed up in the fat rolls. It’s like Jabba the Hutt, but I don’t see any mention of chained up women in gold bikinis.
- Deborah is the
firstonly female judge in charge, and she gets down and dirty with the big boys, scheming all kinds of ways to trick their enemies during war. During Deborah’s story, another nice lady named Jael makes a name for herself when she harbors an enemy in her home under the auspices of being friendly but then drives a peg through his head while he’s sleeping. Nice, ladies. Nice.
- Gideon follows in Joshua’s footsteps as a warrior without abandon and is famous for obeying God by going into battle with a very small army. Sadly, his lasting legacy includes some idols he made in honor of himself and a son born to a prostitute. Classy.
- Everyone knows the story of Samson (aka Dumbest Man Ever) and Delilah. These are the kinds of Bible stories that make for good movies--what with the beautiful women and epic homocide/suicide endings.
- I’ll end with Ruth this week because I really only got partway into 1 Samuel before I had to go to church (I really did wait until the very last minute to read this week). When I was little, Ruth and Esther were my favorite books of the Bible because they were the only ones named after women. As an adult I’ve come to a much greater understanding of the sociopolitical constructs within which these women were living, and I have even more respect for these women and their stories. One of the best things about Ruth (other than the fact that it’s a much needed breather after all the killing in the last two books) is the picture of friendship. Basically, we have Naomi, who changes her name to Mara which means bitter, because her life really, really sucks. Her husband dies, and then her only two sons die. Then, to top it off, there’s a famine. Under ordinary circumstances, Naomi would be up a creek (and a dry creek at that), but her daughter-in-law, Ruth, shows tremendous loyalty. Ruth had every right to pack up and go back to her family, but instead she tells Naomi, “Don’t urge me to leave you or turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if anything but death separates you and me.” (Wouldn’t we all be lucky to have a friend like that--much more a MIL/DIL relationship like that?) So incredibly beautiful--and a perfect example of the “loving others” aspect of the greatest commandment passage I talked about last week.
So that’s it for this week. Thanks for reading, and as always, feel free to share your thoughts and feelings. Are any of you reading the Bible right now? I mean, I don’t expect any of you to be doing something nutty like reading the whole thing in 90 days, but are you reading *part* of the Bible that has been interesting/intriguing/inspiring? Or other books?