2021 Media Journal: Books

In 2021 I attempted to keep a detailed journal of all the new (or at least new-to-me) books, movies, tv shows, music and podcasts I experienced during the year.

I made it through May. After that, it gets a little dicey.

Looking back at the accounting of it has been eye-opening. There’s so much more of it than I realized. Reviewing the year has really helped me get a sense of what has stuck with me and what has turned out to be forgettable. So, I thought I’d share it here, starting with books (since I’m the kind of guy who likes to believe that I’m a book-first person). Rather than take up a lot of your time with mini-reviews I’ve decided to describe every work in 20 words or less. The rest is up to you.

Oscar Charleston: The Life and Legend of Baseball’s Greatest Forgotten Player (Jeremy Beer). Maybe the first great Black baseball player, a generation before the guys you know. He’s worth your attention.

The Wax Pack: On the Open Road in Search of Baseball’s Afterlife (Brad Balukjian). What if you met all the guys in a pack of baseball cards? Great idea, disappointing execution.

Ghosting the News: Local Journalism and the Crisis of American Democracy (Margaret Sullivan). Local Journalism is in trouble. So is America. These truths are related. Short, clear, direct. Worthwhile.

The Conquest of the Illinois (George Rogers Clark). First-person account from the general who secured the Illinois River Valley during the Revolutionary War. Short, fascinating.

Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation (Kristin Kobes Du Mez). The timeline of hyper-masculinity poisoning American Evangelicalism. Clearly documented and explained, damning evidence of the state we’re in.

Yogi: A Life Behind the Mask (Jon Pessah). A fascinating man, but the writing style grated. Like 500 pages of ESPN The Magazine pieces. Wish I liked it better.

Breathe: The New Science of a Lost Art (James Nestor). Fascinating, easy to follow, not jargon-laden. Practical techniques well explained. I’ve found it helpful and healthful.

The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ (Fleming Rutledge). Profound examination of the event of the Crucifixion and the Biblical motifs related to it. Important contribution to never-ending topic.

The Disabled God (Nancy Eisland). An early approach at theology of disability. An important voice in an essential conversation. Challenging, with important insights.

The Making of Biblical Womanhood (Beth Allison Barr). Clear, detailed history showing Complementarianism as veneer for non-Christian patriarchy. Also personally examines the cost to the whole Church.

Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World (David Epstein). Explores the advantages for those who have had diverse experiences in work, training and development, contra the “Laser-Focused” approach.

A Study in Emerald (Neil Gaiman). Graphic novel imagining Sherlock Holmes in the Lovecraft Cthulu mythos. A blast if you like either or both of those.

The Sparrow (Mary Doria Russell). Amazing. Science-fiction, faith, religion, philosophy – all at once. Don’t read about it before you read it.

Locke & Key: Welcome to Lovecraft (Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez). First book of a trippy graphic novel about a family, a house, and a wild set of keys. Fun read.

The Nickel Boys (Colson Whitehead). Beautiful and horrible, depicting life for boys on the edge in the Jim Crow South. I cried, and gasped. Actually.

What Is the Bible? (Rob Bell). I liked it. YMMV on his style, but his explanation of how to read the Bible is pretty solid. Worthwhile.

Ted Strong Jr.: The Untold Story of an Original Harlem Globetrotter and Negro Leagues All-Star (Sherman L. Jenkins). The inspiring life of a Negro League All-Star and Harlem Globetrotter which was almost lost to history. Joyous read.

The Prophetic Imagination (Walter Brueggemann). A reading of the Hebrew Scriptures which sees the prophets as divine agents of counter-culture. Brief but rich, must-read classic.

The Underground Railroad (Colson Whitehead). These both won the Pulitzer Prize for a reason. Again, beautiful and devastating. An alternate version of pre-Civil War America that casts new light on old horrors.

Four Lost Cities (Annalee Newitz). The author looks at current archeology to consider the forces that can make seemingly healthy cities and civilizations disappear.

A Burning In My Bones (Winn Collier). Authorized biography of beloved pastor/author/translator Eugene Peterson. Gave human scale to a larger-than-life figure, affectionately.

The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma (Bessel Van Der Kolk). Understanding trauma, how it affects body and mind, and the ways of healing that are restoring people. Profound and empowering.

From Big Bang to Big Mystery: Human Origins in the Light of Creation and Evolution (Brendan Purcell). Purcell considers human origins from the discipline of philosophy, a fresh angle which offers fresh insights. Friendly to science and religion.

Klara and the Sun (Kazuo Ishiguro). A meditation on what it means to be human and our need for belonging. Joyful, sad, beautiful.

Tear Down These Walls: Following Jesus into Deeper Unity (John H. Armstrong). John is a personal mentor and inspiration who has committed himself to Christian unity. This is his latest work exploring that vision, and it is a beautiful expression of his mission.

Skill sets

My job title is Family Teacher (or, one half of a Family Teaching Couple), and as I’m getting used to that I’ve been thinking about skill-building of late.  The teaching which is expected of me is entirely practical, not at all esoteric, and so if I am teaching effectively, the people I am teaching will be gaining skills, or deepening and sharpening skills they already possess.

During this last week I realized that I wanted to be intentional about observing the skills possessed by the women who employ me as teacher*.  In taking an inventory of what these women can do, and cannot do, and want to do, and would be enriched by learning to do, I am getting to know them; I can also (humbly, to be sure) begin to learn their past in seeing what they do and do not know how to do.

*I am finding it important to remind myself that I am in the employ of these women.  Funds which the state of California provides for their well-being are used to pay for my services, and if these women or their families find that I am insufficient to the task of being one of their teachers, then my services will cease.  We often identify ways in our relationships in which we are the superior, especially when we deal with people who have some sort of obvious limitations or weaknesses.  It is valuable for me to remember that my bosses are three women who have not been considered fully capable of living independently.  They have real power, and that is as it should be. 

During these first two weeks, there have been plenty of instances of people not getting their way, and showing their displeasure about that.  This is not unexpected, especially since new people (me, my family) change the dynamics of a household, and there is inevitable testing of one another.   A partial list of the ways I have seen people act in their displeasure during these weeks would include: crying, hitting, screaming, slamming doors, biting, tattling, spitting, throwing objects, kicking, swearing, whining, emptying drawers and closets, soiling ones’ self, tearing clothing, running away, and self-inducing vomiting.

I’m not going to tell you which of those things have been done by the women who reside in the house, and which have been done by my children, my wife, or me.  Trust me when I say there is more than a little bit of overlap.  As you read that list, there are probably a few items you nod knowingly at, some that you chuckle about, and some that hook you.  Maybe they make you recoil, or feel a catch in your throat, or feel disturbed.  Maybe you felt pity.  Maybe you felt superior.  I’ve felt all of those.

A couple days ago, I realized something, during a moment when one of the most jarring of these behaviors was going on.  The person doing this really unpleasant thing, which they really weren’t enjoying, which was debasing them and threatening to put the distance of judgment between me and them, was doing this thing because at some point it worked. At some time in this person’s life, this act had succeeded in getting them something.  Maybe they got the tangible thing they wanted.  Maybe they got attention. Maybe they got personal space.  Maybe they got momentary power over the person who had to clean up. But this person learned to do this thing because at some point it was how far they had to go to get something important.

Think about that.

Think about the most desperate thing you’ve done to get something important.

In that moment, I realized that I hope I can teach with this person long enough and well enough that they can learn a new way, a healthier way, to get what they want and need.  I hope I can help this person let go of some of their current skills.

Learning What I Didn’t Know I Didn’t Know

I’ve been trying to decide how I’m going to talk about this season of life, and I’m still undecided.  That means (I think) that for a while I’ll be using this space to tell stories about the work I am doing with my wife Christy, and to share reflections I have on what I’m learning through the work.  Perhaps at some point on of those forms will take over.  Of course, I’ll likely also have some odd side paths along the way as well.

This blog has existed for a long time, but it hasn’t had a very clear purpose.  I’ve used it to share work I had done in my role as a Pastor, to give me a place to put pieces I gathered up while doing side projects as a speaker, and to just ruminate on things.  If you’re reading this, you’re probably either someone who knows me personally (Hi, Mom!) or you ran across one of these periodic pieces on church life in modern America or on disability and theology. From now on, though, this blog is going to have a more specific focus and purpose.  I want this space to increase the appreciation of people who aren’t “normal” (some of you know this is one of my least-favorite words) and how their lives weave into the everyday of American culture.  However, these people don’t need me to speak for them or to represent them, and that’s not what I intend to do.  Instead, I want to use this place to document my learning experience – as I learn about the people I work for and with, and learn from them, I want to put those lessons here.

This is really a blog about me learning the ways that I’m growing by the grace of being in community with people who have typically been put at the margins of our society.  You might learn something from it, too, and that’s great.  Or you might be able to teach me other lessons, and that’s great too.  You might just choose to cheer me on, and I’d take that, because we all need encouragement, don’t we?

So thanks for reading, and I want to really encourage you to share your comments.  You’re not reading the writings of an expert or guru.  I’m a traveler, and I’d love your input on the journey.

Thanks.  More to come, soon.

Changes

Some of you have known this was coming for a while, but now we are ready to talk about details: I have resigned as the Pastor of St. Paul Evangelical United Church of Christ, and in mid-September, Christy and I will be moving our family to Cupertino, California,  where we will be serving as the lead staff in a community home for three developmentally-disabled adults.

Our work will be part of an approach called the Family Teaching Model, which supports disabled adults seeking independence and community. These are individuals who have previously lived in a state institution, and now are being given the opportunity to live in local communities. Our work as a Family Teaching Couple will be to aid these individuals, and to welcome them into our family. We are excited about this model because it treats the men and women who are a part of it with dignity and respect.  We believe that people with disabilities or impairments still deserve to seek the kind of life that they want to live, and the FTM does that.  It’s not a new model; an organization in Kansas has been leading with this model since 1977, and is being used in a few other places.  We believe that it is both a great approach to the need of supporting disabled adults, and we believe it is a way in which we can make an impact in the lives of others.

As I’ve been reflecting on the decision to make this change, I’ve been thinking a lot about Willie French.  Willie was a man who was a part of St. Paul Church for several years before he passed away in late 2010. Willie found us because of his own initiative – he wanted to be a part of a church, and so he pushed his support staff (and former support staff who were still in touch with him) to help make it happen. They did, and so Willie became a part of the St. Paul family. When he decided that St. Paul was a place he wanted to be, Willie asked for people who would be willing to give him a ride to or from church.  I thought that was such a beautiful, humble and yet bold way of behaving.  He didn’t really know us yet, but he was willing to tell us how he needed our help.  And several people stepped up and got him to and from church – although he would also walk the 2-plus miles to church if he didn’t have a ride!  The people who got to know Willie welcomed him and became friends with him, which was especially beautiful to me because I knew that in previous settings Willie had been made to feel like a problem, like a hinderance or an embarrassment. Willie knew that he had limitations, but he was not embarrassed. People who took the time to get to know Willie were blessed by him.  I was one of those people.

I believe that serving the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven includes making sure people like Willie French, or my son Zach, or our new friends in Cupertino, are part of the community. 1 Corinthians 12:20-26 tells us that the people who seem to be “weak” (to some) are in fact essential to our well-being as a people, because of how they teach us to be together. In Matthew 25 Jesus teaches that those who serve others in need – be it the need for food or drink, a place to call home or a cloak to wear or someone to call a friend – are those who are doing the work of the Kingdom on earth.

That’s what I want to do – the work of the Kingdom.  I want to inherit the Kingdom! I want to learn the lessons that the least of these have to teach me! I want to teach my sons the values of the Kingdom. So, my friend Willie, my son Zachary, many more friends we have made along the way in recent years (especially my JAF Maranatha friends!) and my King Jesus inspire me to go make a new community. All of us will be grateful for your prayers.

The Bible, Disability, and the Church

The title above is also the title of a book by Amos Yong that I’m reading today.  Yong is a Pentecostal theologian, and the brother of a man with Down Syndrome.  I want to share with you today the end of his first chapter, as it’s clarity was particularly gripping to me.

Some say that sustained thinking about disability is unnecessary because disabled people constitute only a very small percentage of our congregations.  I counter, however, that this is probably because the church communicates the message ” you are not welcome here” to people with disabilities. Further, there are more and more “hidden” disabilities that are not easily noticeable, so how do we know that there are in fact few people with disabilities in our churches?  Last but not least, the challenges associated with living with disability will be experienced by everyone if they live long enough, whatever medical aids and technological advances may develop.  Some people might resist associating the struggles of being older with those of disabilities.  My focus, however, is less on the why of our challenges than on the fact of our ongoing exclusionary and discriminatory beliefs and practices.  Hence, I am suggesting that disability needs to be a present concern for us all, even if only because  all of us will in due course have to confront the issues that some of us now live with every day.

Amen, brother Yong.  I’m thinking of putting together a reading group, either in person or online, to discuss The Bible, Disability, and the Church later this summer; if you’re interested, let me know in the comments.