Thursday, June 25, 2015

Six Years Gone

I don't have another blog post about grief--I wrote one last year that I liked fine, and I find that I don't have much more to say. Six years gone, I still don't know if it's truthful to say I miss him--there are moments when I do, but they are very far apart. But six years ago tomorrow, I got a phone call telling me my father had died the day before.

A month later, at his memorial service, I fled from the surfeit of well-wishers--people who knew this man who seemed to share a great deal with the man I knew, but couldn't possibly be the same?--and scrawled out words to try and make sense of the emotional mess I was.

The following spring, on an impossibly bright sunshiny Vermont day, my brother stood by my side and we spoke words over stone. They weren't necessarily welcomed by all who stood there--stood apart, stood on the other side--but grief is a process and rarely a pretty one. The poem had taken a few small revisions, but largely remained the thing I had carved out the previous summer.

And each year, this day or the next (the anniversary is a strange one--do you honor the day it happened or the day you found out?), I reread it, and maybe I'll stop when I stop loving it.

So here it is.

Grieving the Whole

Though in a crowd, I sit with silence
listening to strangers unwind memories, stories
of You I Don’t Know.
Later, one asks if I learned anything new about you
and I stumble not to say, “Everything,
but I think I already knew that.” I only smile. You see, still

my civility holds me back and stills
my tongue, giving me only clich├ęs and thank yous.
After years of bitten-back words, now I have only silence
to speak to. This You I Don’t Know
doesn’t deserve the fury that lingers in histories,
but if you don’t hear it, I have nothing

to say, nothing
to say it to. I have no
confidante for this aside, no eager stillness
expecting my words, no hushed-silent
audience waiting for this soliloquy. You
are gone, and that is a truth stronger than stories.

There was a time in our history
when I knew you as Daddy, when even in silence
I knew you as mine, as everything
you were meant to be. Would the friends of This You say you were still
that way? Would they describe to me a man who didn’t know
how to leave? Because you did--you

left. And the friends here know you only as The You
After Me. I am anecdotal, still
a footnote in your story.
You wanted better, I know--wanted this thing
that stood between, this unsteady silence
to come undone and disintegrate. I know

you wished it gone--the same way I know
it was immovable, a thing
impermeable to time or change. But I also know it is not a thing you
made. It is a thing as fragile, as fundamental as history,
a thing drawn out of missed phone calls and father’s days, fermented in stillness
and outlasting every You there is but this, the one who sits here with me and silence.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Book Review: The Esther Blessing

I want to open with saying that I am sure that Deborah Brunt's heart is in the right place, that she feels strongly about communicating truth, and using Scripture to do it. I think having a conversation with her would be enormously encouraging and challenging. There are a handful of quotes and ideas from the book that I've really pondered on, and shared with others. But to say that her right heart and her ideas cohere into a solid book would be misleading at best.

The main crux of her book is that grace shares a similar cycle to that of water: flowing down (God empowering us), flowing out (us serving God & the world), and flowing up (our praising God). This is some solid stuff that bears digging into, and it's a good idea to pair it with a story like Esther. Unfortunately, the bricks of her argument are repeated, circled back to, and rephrased to the point of exhaustion. What starts off as a "what a great concept" feel in Chapter 3 becomes a "...didn't you tell me this already" by Chapter 9.

My chief issue with the book is, indeed, organizational, which is what makes this a hard review: much of the content is good, if sometimes a little oversimplified. But chapter to chapter, and sometimes even paragraph to paragraph, there are jarring shifts in tone, style, and content. On a similar note, there are some distracting consistency issues: for the whole of Chapter 2, we painstakingly walk through the first chapter and a half of Esther, focusing on parts of the story that don't seem to tie in to Brunt's larger points; later, in the whole of Chapter 7, there are two singular mentions of people in the Esther story. At times Esther is almost too central, at the sacrifice of Brunt's argument; at others, the only connection to Esther is the header of the page.

But again, apart from those larger issues, there was some good content here. Some of my particular high points:
   - in Chapter 1, a good unpacking of the Greek in Romans 5:20--this, in fact, was one of the best bits of the book, and by far the most worthwhile translation note. She delves into the Greek terms for what is typically translated as "abounded" or "increased" in regards to both sin and grace, which really opens that verse wide open. From there, she does some nice work confirming that grace is not an enabler of sin. "Grace never contributes to a holding pattern" (p 31-32*)
   - a few bits in Chapter 7: a nice aside about the frequent misunderstanding of Christian service: "you don't live by inhaling until you're 25 or so, and then exhaling until retirement... You live abundantly, you reign in life, as you inhale and exhale continuously" (p 281); a good mention of how mourning opens us up to God's communication; solid explanation of the difference between keeping/spending in the world vs. God's economy
   - in Chapter 9, some in-depth discussion of the importance of celebration in glorifying God

In addition to the organizational issues, there were a some occasional moments of concern for me, falling under two umbrellas:
    Misuse: Metaphor and comparison can be incredibly helpful when illuminating a principle or a Scripture, and occasionally Brunt does this quite well. There are, however, a few times when she misuses a comparison to the point of offense: the worst of it is in her introducing Haman into the Esther story, where she delves into the Newtown, CT, school shooting, speculating on what-ifs involving the shooter and how much worse it could have been. You're making reference to the violent deaths of twenty children and eight adults. You don't play the what-if game.
   Church Issues: Brunt makes a few mentions of leaving her denomination, and taking a seven-year fast (that apparently involved the breaking of most of her relationships?). This would be fine on its own, but there are clearly some issues she's still hanging on to, and have no place in a book. This includes some casual slams on her denomination's practices, and an awkwardly blaming story of a mission trip.

As she wraps up the book in her acknowledgments, Brunt says that while she pondered these things for two decades, "it took me a very short time to write this book" (p 520). That's exactly how this feels: in some ways, like this is her first draft, roughing out the things she wants to say with a stream-of-consciousness tone and a low filter. It feels like when something has snagged you, and you want to tell everyone you know, but you need to clean things up and get organized before the power with which it hit you can be transmitted to anyone else. It's left me disappointed: as I say, she has some good stuff in here, but it's too muddled up to do the work it should.

* A brief note about page numbers: using iBooks, the page number varies based on screen size, typeface, etc. This was based on my iPhone readout, which charts the book at 538 pages (official page count, according to GoodReads: 193). I've give chapter references to aid in citation.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR,Part 255.