Books I Think You Should Read

I’ve read three books recently that I think you should read.

First, there was Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. I grabbed this on a whim, after receiving a nice iTunes gift card for Christmas. I bought a bit of music (Joni Mitchell’s Hejira album, which I know by heart but only own as an record) and then looked for something to read over our Christmas holiday. I downloaded it to my iPad, began it right before we headed home from Ohio and could. not. stop. reading.

In fact, a few weeks later, when I suffered a torn retina, I felt so guilty; I was certain that six hours winding through the back roads of Pennsylvania and Virginia while staring at my iPad because I couldn’t devour that book fast enough was the culprit. Full disclosure: the doctor said, “Absolutely not. It’s just your nearsightedness and your age.”
There we go with the age thing again…
Anyway, Gone Girl was a fascinating read. An interesting whodunit with a a huge twist and a tantalizing look at a marriage from the inside out, and back in again. I really, really enjoyed the read – can’t say I’m a better person for spending a few hours with this book, but it was absolutely entertaining. Highly recommended for a beach or vacation read.
Next up: The Bread of Angels by Stephanie Saldana. This book was completely unfamiliar to me; my mother-in-law handed it to me when we arrived in Cleveland. She mentioned something about Syria and the current political situation and said, “I think you might like this.”
The thought of delving into Middle Eastern politics was, to be honest, not appealing. But I trusted her instincts, took the book home and picked it up early in January.
Oh, my.  This memoir traces Saldana’s journey to study Arabic in Damascus, to explore her own spirituality, to dig into the pain of her past and the uncertainty of her future, all with an unapologetic and unglamorous tint. A realistic look at an Eat, Pray, Love journey without the sex and the Cosmo-girl style vibe I pulled out of Elizabeth Gilbert’s memoir – though I did admire Gilbert’s journey and did enjoy her book. There’s just something a bit earthier about Saldana’s work; perhaps the spiritual exploration was more resonant for me. Perhaps the ending – which brought me to tears (actually, not the ending per se, but the acknowledgements – you must read the acknowledgements to get the full story) was so much more satisfying. Whatever. This book completely surprised me, which made me love it more. You will do well to read this book. Especially Lisa and Diane and Tammy and Donia and my mom; you will love this book.
Lastly, I dug into Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior. Let me share here that much of my reading material is courtesy of my mom; she uses the Chesterfield County Public Library book reservation system like her own personal reading valet. Every week, another wildly popular new book gets her name strapped to it with a rubber band; she gets the notice and in she goes to claim her prizes. I always get to read our favorite authors’ newest works thanks to my mom and her system. I love that we share this. Anyway, the Kingsolver book came in thanks to mom’s system, and she kindly let me read it first.
I can’t say that it was a compelling read; it was, actually, a bit of a chore to get through. But two-thirds of the way in, there was no way I was giving up on the characters. I loved the way Barbara Kingsolver wraps the language into rich, authentic dialogue; the way her characters burrow into the day and somehow become part of the landscape. While reading, I wouldn’t have said that I loved the book; but now, a week later, I still can’t stop thinking about the characters. They are still out there, somewhere; very much real. Incredibly well-crafted, beautifully honed technique. I really admire Barbara Kingsolver and I’m very glad I read this book.
Next up on the list: Finishing Anne Lamott’s Help Thanks Wow – it’s a small book, but I’m reading slowly and letting it sink in – and Daring Greatly by Brene Brown. Not on the list, but still in process are a few books for work: re-reading The Advantage by Patrick Lencioni and Deep and Wide by Andy Stanley. 
You? Anything on YOUR list worth reading?

Holiness Swaddled In The Simple: Chasing Francis

This past October I attended the STORY conference in Chicago. It was a hipster scene.

I felt a bit out of place.

But what I experienced there stuck with me at a primal level. It was more than a standard conference experience, partly due to the diversity of presenters and activities.There was a laser-like focus on the purpose of the gathering. STORY was about story, and every part of the two-day schedule was wrapped around the idea that story is paramount. It was the best investment of time and money in a conference that I’ve made in a decade.

(That’s saying a lot, because we drove a 15-passenger van 15 hours straight through from Virginia to Chicago. That’s a serious investment of time.)

(By the way, the STORY2012 website is live. You can go this year. I recommend it.)

Anyway, from All Sons and Daughters’ singing (“I am set free / I am set free / It is for freedom that I am set free…”) to Ann Voskamp reading from her beautiful book to the jaw-dropping wonder of Kyle Cooper showing and telling his title sequence work to John Mark McMillan wailing “God’s Murdered Son”, we had some exquisite experiences.

But none was more powerful than Ian Morgan Cron. He sat on a stool. He told his story. He played a beautiful piece of music over us as a benediction. And I was profoundly moved; internally broken open, raw and vulnerable, connecting somehow with the deepest part of the story he shared.

Honestly, I remember very few of the specifics – no points or paradigm shifts. I simply remember being invited into a sacred, holy place, led by one who gave voice to the commonality of our brokenness.

We walked together into grace and redemption.

Into beauty.

I bought Cron’s memoir, Jesus, My Father, the CIA and Me then and there, and devoured it as soon as we returned home. I cried, connected with the sorrow of a life lived like most of us; points of pain, pinnacles of joy, a brilliant grace shining through it all that glows brightest in the looking back. It was a beautiful book, a well-written story, a true thing.

 I made note of this other book that he had written, his first: Chasing Francis, but assumed Francis was some sort of Father Timothy Kavanagh character like Jan Karon’s Mitford books (for which I have a soft spot). I ignored it.

Until this week.

I’ve been following Ian Cron on Twitter. Reminded by his 140-character missives of why I liked his memoir so much, I decided to read Chasing Francis as my Easter benediction; something to soak in as I worked out the muscles and joints of all that Easter celebrations require from church staff.

What immense joy.

The premise did not initially appeal to me – but that was out of my own ignorance. I know very little about early church fathers, including – and perhaps especially – the saints. The Francis in the title refers to St. Francis of Assisi, whom I connect with only because I have sung the words of his prayer in a choral setting:

Lord, make us instruments of Thy peace 
Where there is hatred, let us sow love; 
Where there is injury, pardon; 
Where there is doubt, faith; 
Where there is despair, hope; 
Where there is darkness, light; 
Where there is sadness, joy; 

O Divine Master, grant that we may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; 
to be understood as to understand; 
to be loved as to love. 
For it is in giving that we receive; 
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; 
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. 

The novel begins in a deceptively simple fashion; in the first few pages, you might think you’re reading some cheesy “Christian fiction” title designed to extract sanitized conflict and drama from contemporary church culture. It is all that – and more – but the sanitized conflict gives way to demonstrate the dark night of the soul, not just of the main character in the novel, but of the state of modern Christianity. Cron twists and molds a modern-day fable out of the raw humanity of characters who are quite familiar to any of us who live in the 21st century, but in particular to those who have encountered the best and worst of humankind within the contemporary evangelical church.

Early in the book, Cron places a line of dialogue that stopped me cold: 

“All ministry begins at the ragged edges of our own pain.” 

Chasing Francis tells the story of life as ministry, a long, ragged cord connecting centuries of pain turned to purpose for those seeking God. Over, around and through religion and church practices, Cron teaches and gently beckons the reader toward a deeper, richer perspective.

Art that is excellent – that honors God and inspires people – sings truth in a dynamic way. A beautiful, true painting; an authentic, transcendent piece of music – these things can be life-changing as you experience them. Some books are that way, too; you read and you are transported to a rare place, a setting apart from reality and yet completely real in your soul.

Cron writes, “True holiness is often swaddled in the simple”. This book is that rare, simple experience for me. Sacred and holy. And highly recommended.

I happen to have an extra copy of Chasing Francis, and I’d love for you to have it. Leave a comment (with an email contact) here on the blog if you’re interested. If there’s more than one, I’ll pull a name out of a hat on Saturday.