Finding Home: Beauty and Wisdom in Louise Penny’s Three Pines

At or near the top of the list of things saving my life these days is Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache Series.

I don’t know how I discovered the books – I suspect it came as recommended reading from Sarah Bessey’s blog. But I do know this, I have since become an evangelist for all things Three Pines. These are books to be read and books to be savored.

There are thirteen books in this series, with a fourteenth due in November. The books center on the investigative work of Armande Gamache, the head of homicide for the Surete de Quebec, the second largest police force in Canada. The mysteries unfold in an out-of-the-way hamlet called Three Pines – a community you won’t find on a map but one with a penchant for discovering murders.

These stories, however, are more than compelling whodunits. In these tales Louise Penny reminds us of wisdom too easily forgotten. We remember how truth emerges not from speaking but listening. Her characters teach us, much like Ignatius, that discovery comes by attending to feeling and emotion. In a world fueled by quick-tempered rage and snap judgments, Three Pines reminds us how failure isn’t the end of the story but often is only the beginning of a surprising new journey.

There is much more going on than simply chasing a murderer. Louise Penny narrates the life of a community formed for refuge seekers. Three Pines isn’t a place you stumble upon. When you show up, you do so for a reason. And often that reason is that you are looking to start over.

There’s Ruth, the crotchety poet laureate with the mouth of a sailor who people have come to love even though she never makes it easy. There’s Olivier, an antique collector who still has a place in his neighbors’ hearts despite ripping off half the town. There’s Clara, the clumsy artist whose paintings showcase her true gift – the ability to see and render the hearts of her friends and neighbors.

There’s Myrna, a psychologist who left a thriving practice behind after realizing the pain of others was destroying her. She came to Three Pines and opened a book store in an out of the way town where people more often borrow the books than pay for them. And finally, there’s Armande Gamache – who after enduring a lifetime of heartbreak and grief made his way to Three Pines in search of the healing he couldn’t find anywhere else.

The village is a haven for people longing to be found after they’ve lost their way. It’s a place where people can find rest after they hustled and hurried only to arrive at a damning dead end. It’s a place for people who zigged when everyone else said they should have zagged. It is a home for people who have deep wounds that need binding.

Truth isn’t only found in works classified as non-fiction. One of life’s certainties is that there will come a time when circumstances demand a change of direction when things have not gone as planned. For many of us that will involve the realization that those who said, “I told you so”, may have had a point. Those who never fail never learn, but the lessons that come from failure often come screaming with a question that does not abide easy answers: Stay where you are or cross the bridge into somewhere new?

There is, Louise Penny wants us to know, a way back from that which you thought ensured your destruction. What seemed like a dead end could be the beginning of a new path. The mistakes that haunt you don’t have to foreclose your future. Decisions you made at 25 don’t have to set the course for your life at 40, 60, 80 or even beyond. Life isn’t found and it certainly isn’t lived, she reminds us, by stubbornly persisting in who you used to be or who people have decided you are.

You can find your way home, even as you discover that home has a surprising address. You can even find it with misfits in a community beyond the pines and a place off the map.

 

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Finding Old Words to Heal Fresh Wounds

Our long national nightmare is almost over. Well, maybe. We can hope.

Election 2016 has been rough on us all. It has been hard and painful to watch the worst within us on full display, the decay we like to keep below the surface exploding out for all to see.

If there’s anything this year has taught is that we don’t agree on much, maybe the only the thing being that we haven’t enjoyed the view.

This year has been hard on a lot of people. It’s definitely been hard on the church, and no election in my lifetime has made me more seriously consider the wisdom of a holy separation – not so much for the nation’s benefit as for the church’s.

There are plenty of reasons, of course, and much of the damage we’ve received this year comes from being forced to deal with questions about the essentials on terms and in a context that are both unfamiliar and unhealthy.

We’ve been asked to define evangelical – one of our most important words – in the 24-hour news cycle and, even worse, on Twitter. We’ve watched so-called Christian leaders on both sides speak for us in ways and take positions that we would never defend. We know we are being judged for it even if there’s not a whole lot we can do about it.

Church and politics: it’s an age-old question that has always seemed to confound the faithful. What to render to Caesar and what to give to God, what does Athens have to do with Jerusalem, where and how do the two kingdoms meet, and just what is the right dance for fidelity and policy?

But now, with Election Day finally drawing near, we’re beginning to ask what feels like an even more important question. How do we come together when we’ve spent so much time ripping each other apart?

The bitterness and the destruction seemingly all around us has turned us into overwhelmed voyeurs instead of the engaged citizens a democratic republic requires.

And so, we’re searching for the right phrases to help us find unity after a year that has felt like we’ve never been more divided. We’re looking for words to bring healing for communities and a culture that has advertised its brokenness.  We need both a vocabulary and a path to chart a better way.

We are tempted to search for new words and flashy turns of phrases. But the words we need aren’t new at all.

The words that will help us, the words that will lead us, the words with the power to show us that better way, or return to it, we’ve been saying them in some form or another for as long as there has been a church, as long as there have been people willing to show up for a holy meal.

And so our work begins on Sunday as we celebrate the mystery of God’s incredible grace that comes in ordinary ways and especially in bread and wine (or Welch’s).

Before we can celebrate, we’ll begin with confession.  We’ll confess that we don’t have it all right, no matter what we’ve said on social media. We’ll admit that we haven’t lived up to our commitment to fully open the church to people of all ages, nations and races the way we promised we would in our baptisms.

We’re going to ask forgiveness for the ways we have not always represented God well in the world and how we haven’t always resisted the spiritual forces of wickedness around us.  After all, we’ll remember our belief that our battle isn’t so much against flesh and blood but evil powers and dark principalities.

We’re going to seek grace for the ways, regardless of how we vote, that we have allowed other people and parties to set our agenda instead of listening to God’s priorities and lived into a more holy agenda.

When we don’t what to do, repentance is always a good first step – turning from our own ways towards the ways of God. And so that’s where we’ll start.

As we tell this story, the story of God’s love and faithfulness that has become our story, most fully realized in an Upper Room and on a Cross, we’ll commit ourselves to that turning.

We’ll say things like we who are many – in zip code, in racial identity, in tax bracket, in ideology – are one body.

We’ll rededicate ourselves of being the body of Christ – hands and feet for a broken and weary world.

We’ll promise to be what the Church is supposed to be – agents of grace for a world desperate for it.

We’ll march out of one holy space into another with the charge to be people of hope in a culture overwhelmed by despair.

Those are big words and audacious promises. We know, both by our theology and our history, that we can’t keep them by ourselves. And so we’ll ask God for help, that some how and some way, in these ordinary grocery-store bought gifts we’ll experience the presence and power we need to find and share a better way.

Old words get a bad rap. We convince ourselves that if the words we need are to be found we’ll have to make them up or find them somewhere we’ve never looked before.

The good news, evangel, that word that we can’t get away from this year, is the words we need are the ones that were given to us a long time ago.

Those old words still have the power to heal fresh wounds. And that oft-told story still points us back to the right path.

 

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Ways Off the Path: In Search of A Squad

(Note: This is the fourth in my Lent series, Ways Off the Path, on some of the ways we can fall of the path and get separated with God.  You can find a link to earlier posts in this series at the bottom of the page.)

Community has become a buzzword in church circles.  A cursory search for community and church will lead you to enough links to keep you occupied for days – some from know-it-all preachers, others from hipster church planters, and the most honest writing comes from young believers desperately trying to find it – their pearl of great price.   (This is one of my favorite recent posts on community if you are looking to read more about it.)

It is an important word, because like most cliches, there is a lot of truth in our desire to be in community. Scripture calls us to it and reminds us again and again, whether we like it or not, that you can’t live in fidelity to the God of the Bible apart from  covenant and community.

Western culture does its best to shape us into self-ruling individuals, and the church isn’t immune from the siren song of creating a new trinity of Me, Myself, and Jesus. But when we actually read Scripture and take a minute to listen to the wisdom of those who have been at this a while, we are painfully reminded that we have no shot of actually living into Jesus’ kingdom call if we try to do it by ourselves. 

Throughout my almost twenty years of trying to follow Jesus I’ve been drawn to community – largely because it isn’t good for any of us to be alone, even those of us who are serious introverts. But I also find community compelling for a more honest reason – I’ve become aware of how much I need it.

I know well the need to live out my faith in community because I need others to hold me accountable to the standard of Jesus instead of the standard of my own idols and creations. To be faithful I need to be around other people – people who challenge my assumptions, people who name and convict my sin-shaped habits, practices and actions, and people who prevent me from settling for a shallow faith and instead shove me into a committed Cross-shaped life.

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This, of course, is very Methodist of me.  Our movement and understanding of the Christian life is shaped so heavily by the practice of community – of meeting together to hold one another accountable by creating holy places and spaces where we can confess our sin, receive and experience the forgiveness of a pardoning God, and return to the world with a God-given commitment to become more faithful followers of Jesus. 

Lately, however, I’ve begun to view community from a different angle. During the last several weeks, a common theme in so many of my conversations is how hard faith can be. It is easy to focus on how so many of us seeking to be Jesus followers have become blinded to the ways our lives fall short of God’s standard.  (This is why it is so easy to charge us with being hypocrites.)  

But in my conversations and in the faith communities I lead it seems the opposite is true – we are very much aware of our sin-scarred shortcomings, we have no shortage of understanding about the gap between God’s glory and our lives, and we know all too well the feeling that we have short-circuited our connection with God.

I don’t know many Christians who don’t experience guilt about their prayer lives, who don’t feel inadequate in their Scripture study and who don’t dread getting to the end of their lives with the suspicion that a deeper life with God was theirs for the receiving if only they could have gotten out of their old patterns and learned a beautiful new way. 

It is here, I believe, where we can experience the true gift and grace community can be for us. In our fears and longings we realize that we need one another – not only to challenge and wake one another up, but to commiserate together, to offer insight and advice to each other, and most importantly to encourage and pray that God might show us that new way. 

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We do need community to call us to account, but I’ve become convinced we need it more to lift one another up, to provide a hand up beyond the roadblocks that deter us, to remind each other that while guilt and despair are the path to destruction, persistence and trust in God’s grace and power lead to that greater destination of fulfillment and joy. 

That’s one of the things Roberta Bondi has been teaching me this month as I’ve been reading her wonderful book on prayer and the early church – To Pray and To Love, with some friends.  Prayer doesn’t come easy for a lot of people, and there are days, many days in fact, when the encouragement of community can be the gift and grace that reminds us that every day we can begin again. 

“Perhaps most significantly, the ancient teachers have taught me not to be discouraged with my own prayer but to persist in it, for prayer, like love, as a way of life is not something that comes to us ready-made simply by deciding we want it… Christians friends that we trust to know us, share our values, and speak the truth as they understand it are even more valuable.”

That’s not too far from the words of the Letter to the Hebrews. Our task as fellow travelers on the long road with Jesus is to push one another forward.  Life can be hard, and we need each other – to be pushed and spurred, and yes, sometimes even shoved towards love and faithfulness.

So if you find yourself in a season of life where you are veering off the path, don’t get discouraged, you aren’t too deep in the woods.  Don’t lose heart, because you aren’t that far gone.  Just find some people, hang out with them, read and laugh and pray together. You’ll be encouraged, they’ll be encouraged, and before long you’ll find yourself a long way from the ditch and a lot closer to the One you are trying to follow. 

Ways Off the Path

Week 1: Paying Attention to the Wrong Things

Week 2: Paralysis by Overanalysis

Week 3:When the Box Isn’t Big Enough

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