Books – The Recent Round-Up

Even though May might just be my favorite month – days slightly brighter and longer and birds and flowers singing and springing – the end of school year seems always to twist me up and set me spinning. Not enough time! Too much to do! You have a what project that requires what supplies and you left it to now? Yeesh!

So I’ve been reading but not posting about reading – one too many steps in a busy season. And I’ve picked up a few books and set them back down again, trying to maintain my year’s goal to put myself in the way of beauty; some books create worlds I can’t inhabit right now, though another time, perhaps.

Let’s start with the novels:

Never Let Me GoNever Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Ishiguro’s voice reads like a graceful whisper, punctuated by the secrets his characters tell, overhear, and discern, dropped like bombs. The full-bodied characters are people you know: the energetic and sensitive boy with a big temper, the every-girl who knows how to calm the boy, the ring leader who manipulates them all. This book is simultaneously a beautiful homage to the human being and a cautionary tale against scientific progress that cares for some at the painful expense of others.

The Hobbit (Middle-Earth Universe)The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I first read this book when I was 9 or 10 years old. I’m not sure why I read it – it wasn’t assigned for school, but maybe it was in the classroom? Maybe a teacher or librarian recommended it? Fantasy/sci fi have never been my standard fair. Still, scenes and themes from this book have continued to resonate in my mind and heart throughout my lifetime: an honorable, hard-earned quest, companionship, Bilbo and Gollum and Precious, power and humility…

As an adult I read The Lord of the Rings trilogy – before the brilliant movies were released. The Hobbit movies are a great disappointment in comparison, but I enjoyed rereading the book with my own child, now just past the age I was when I first read it.

I relate to Bilbo’s reaction to Gandalf’s suggestion of an adventure: “We are plain quiet folk and have no use for adventures. Nasty disturbing uncomfortable things! Make you late for dinner! I can’t think what anybody sees in them.” Though he reluctantly agrees to leave the comforts of home, he often longs to be back in his cozy hobbit hole; except that adventure as a whole changes him so that when he eventually returns, he doesn’t mind that the townspeople consider him odd.

My own adventures, however reluctantly undertaken, have changed me enough that I might somewhat-less-reluctantly venture forth again.

And now for non-fiction:

And It Was Good: Reflections on Beginnings (Genesis, #1)And It Was Good: Reflections on Beginnings by Madeleine L’Engle

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

At least my second reading of this book, I am taken by her descriptions of the world – the wild and beautiful and dangerous natural world; and the world occupied by humans so full of both good and evil and still image their Creator God. L’Engle reminds me to maintain wonder, in spite of the so prevalent brokenness that is our context, and to let wonder move me to prayer.

“When I look at the galaxies on a clear night—when I look at the incredible brilliance of creation, and think that this is what God is like, then, instead of feeling intimidated and diminished by it, I am enlarged—I rejoice that I am part of it, I, you, all of us—part of this glory” (82).

Late, Lost, and Unprepared: A Parents' Guide to Helping Children with Executive FunctioningLate, Lost, and Unprepared: A Parents’ Guide to Helping Children with Executive Functioning by Joyce Cooper-Kahn

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I picked up this book after reading an article on twice-exceptional kids that referenced the book. Two twice-exceptional kids and no educator or doctor had mentioned the term “executive functioning”: “…a set of processes that all have to do with managing oneself and one’s resources in order to achieve a goal. It is an umbrella term for the neurologically-based skills involving mental control and self-regulation.” The executive functions include inhibition, mental/emotional flexibility, emotional control, initiation, working memory, planning/organization, and self-monitoring.

The book is clearly laid out, explaining challenges and providing real-life examples and practical how-to-help tips. Reading as a parent of two very different kids with different strengths and weaknesses, I have lots to digest; reading at the end of school year was not the best timing and I’ll need to review it all again in August as we begin a new year’s regimen.

The gift of this book lies in its practicality and hope: “…we believe that our children’s best hope for the future may lay in the discovery of some strength that blossoms into an island of competence, and perhaps even becomes a continent of possibilities for personal satisfaction and job success. After all, people thrive when they build a life around their strengths. There are many different paths to success, even though this is sometimes hard to keep in perspective during the school years” (202).

Faith Training

A few sessions of childhood swim, ice skating, dance, gymnastics, and tennis lessons hardly qualify me as an athlete. I may be the only person you know who has never participated in a team/competitive sport. I once asked my parents if I could join a soccer league. My mom said no, citing scarred knees as unattractive on a girl; I’m pretty sure it had more to do with life’s chaos – me as the oldest of four kids, her job in real estate, and her travelling husband, last thing she needed was to spend hours field-side with a decidedly non-athletic kid.

I did, however, take piano lessons from age five to eighteen. Like most kids enrolled in music lessons, I didn’t love to practice but I did like to play well. The older I got, and the better I got, the more I enjoyed it. In high school and especially as I anticipated a recital date, I played for hours, working the music into my fingers, into my heart and soul. My favorite practice time (surprisingly, my parents didn’t complain – how did they not complain?) took place between 10pm and 2am, even on school nights.

The more I practiced and the better I knew a piece of music, the more the music had the power to take me out of myself, into what Madeleine L’Engle calls a kairos experience. I lost track of time, I lost my sense of self, as the music itself became all that mattered. “I am outside time, outside self, in play, in joy. When we can play with the unself-conscious concentration of a child, this is: art: prayer: love” (Circle of Quiet, p13).

I’ve heard runners talk about a similar experience, once you move past the first phase of muscle fatigue (the “I don’t like to run, I don’t want to run, I can’t take one more step” feeling, because you keep going anyway), and then, apparently, some get to a euphoric state, a runner’s endorphin high.

Faith training can have similar results, yet even better as training our faith helps us to draw near to God on high.

At the gym there are so many different pieces of equipment, each with a different purpose but all with the purpose of increased physical fitness. Similarly, there are many different ways to exercise one’s faith, all with the purpose of drawing near to our beloved Jesus.

Commonly called “spiritual disciplines,” well, that just doesn’t sound all that fun, does it? But they can be. Even when they’re strenuous, they can lead to great joy.

Today is Ash Wednesday, a day focused on repentance and identifying with Jesus in His sufferings as we begin a 40-day season of giving up or taking on spiritual disciplines. In our church staff meeting this morning, we read this:

“Even now,” declares the Lord,
    “return to me with all your heart,
    with fasting and weeping and mourning.”

Rend your heart
    and not your garments.
Return to the Lord your God,
    for he is gracious and compassionate,
slow to anger and abounding in love… Joel 2:12-13

I get that today’s focus should center on fasting, weeping, and mourning, but I’ve been thinking about and practicing to varying degrees different disciplines over the last few weeks. I have returned to the Lord, so to speak, and this morning I felt overwhelming joy. God drew my focus to His gracious, compassionate, slow-to-anger love. And the joy bubbling up in my heart. I almost giggled (inappropriately?).

Once a week or so during this Lenten season, from now til Easter, I will post a Bible study focused on one spiritual discipline; there are more disciplines than we can name, but we’ll cover fasting, solitude, prayer, simplicity, confession, and celebration. I’ll also include suggestions for practicing each discipline.

I encourage you to ask God to direct you to the exercises He’d like you to try. And don’t give up just because it’s uncomfortable at first (think sore muscles after physical exercise). You could try one exercise for all of Lent, or different ways of exercising one practice (i.e., different prayer method each day), or sample different practices throughout the season – ask God for direction and stick with it until He asks you to stop.

Here we go with an introductory study!

Connect
What practices or routines do you do to keep physically healthy?

Study
Read aloud 1 Corinthians 9:24-27.
How would you explain the metaphor of physical and spiritual training to someone who hadn’t read this passage?
What is “the prize” for spiritual runners (v. 24)?
What might “running aimlessly” look like in one’s spiritual life?
How could Paul have been “disqualified for the prize” (v. 27)?

Live
On a spectrum from aimless running/air boxing to marathon champion, which physical activity might describe your spiritual life and why?
When have you experienced a connection between physical and spiritual discipline?
Reflect on your experience with any of these practices: fasting, solitude, prayer, simplicity, confession, and celebration. Which do/don’t sound appealing to you, and why?
Which of the Week 1 Faith Training Exercises (see below) might God call you to, and why?
What is Jesus saying to you through this passage and how will you respond?

Pray
Pray that God will use your spiritual training to make you fit in new ways for Christ.

Faith Training Exercises
Fasting: Skip one meal and spend time in prayer.
Solitude: Memorize Psalm 46:10 and use it as a reminder throughout the day to be still before God.
Prayer: Set aside a regular time and place to pray every day.
Simplicity: Set a timer (20 minutes or less) and clear off one cluttered space, e.g., a junk drawer or desk top.
Confession: Invite the Holy Spirit to bring to mind sins you’ve committed. Confess them to the Lord and ask for His forgiveness.
Celebration: Do at least one thing each day that brings you joy: sing loudly, dance freely, laugh heartily, live boldly.