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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The Shrinking Gap

It’s currently seven degrees outside – yes, 7.

That’s what happens when you head north between Christmas and New Years Eve.

Thankfully warmer weather awaits us at home – and we will get there. But we’ve got about ten hours in the car between where we are now and where we want to be.

That’s what the end of the old year and the beginning of the new year are often about – the distance between our current location and our desired destination. We make resolutions – even if we don’t call them that. We set goals – even if that’s a phrase we don’t like to use. We might not make a big deal about it and we might not even say it out loud, but what we want is to shrink the distance between where we are and where we would like to be.

I, like everybody else, have some things I’d like to do a little differently in 2018 than I did in 2017. I’d like to write more and dawdle on the Internet less. I’d like the elliptical machine to function more like a piece of exercise equipment and less like a decorative piece. I’d like to spend more time doing the things that matter to me and a whole lot less time caring about the things that don’t.

I’ll probably write more about that early next week, once the calendar officially turns. But first, I want to celebrate at least one place I saw this gap narrow in 2017.

One of the prayers I’ve been praying for a long time has been for God to show me how to make more room for God in my life. I work in church and spend a lot of time figuring out how to help other people grow in their faith. But I know all too well the pressures and distractions that push and pull me away from what I need most.

So, like a lot of people, I’ve been asking God for a while to help me prepare the way of the Lord – to show me the way to clear out what I need rid of so I can receive what God wants to give me.

The truth is that there is so much more to the life that God wants to give than what I make room for. Jesus wants to abide, to find plenty of room in my life to fill me up for what I was made for. But it has been too easy for me to pack my life full of so many things that there isn’t a whole lot of room left for anything or anyone else.

Thanks to God, and with a lot of help from the Jesuits, I actually learned how to carve out a bit of room this year.

One of the spiritual practices that I’ve wanted to try for a long time has been the Examen, a way to pray that comes from the spiritual exercise of Ignatius of Loyola.

I finally decided to try it during Lent this past year. I received plenty of gifts praying this way during Lent – reviewing and praying from the experiences of the day – but the most significant one was noticing all the ways God was present in the ordinary moments of my day.

Or, as Ignatius might say, I began to notice how God was in all things.

Midway through the year I picked up a book I had ordered a while ago – Kevin O’Brien’s The Ignatian Adventure. It’s a year-long journey through the Spiritual Exercises. I had been reading about Ignatian Spirituality in a variety of places the last couple of years. It was as if God had been dropping me a hint and I finally decided to see where the hint led.

What I discovered by following the hint was how much the structured prayer became the anchor I desperately needed.

What I had been missing wasn’t a desire to pray or the knowledge of how to connect with God. It was the structure and the consistency in the guide that helped me remain rooted and disciplined in the practice of prayer. Each morning’s reading grounded me in Scripture and invited me to consider how my story is intersecting with God’s. I’ve had the opportunity to pray in new ways and to take stock of how God it at work in my life, my family, my job and my faith.

Some of what God is doing has yet to reveal itself. But there is one easy way to note how that gap I mentioned earlier is shrinking – I’ve almost run out of room in my morning prayer journal.

One of my friends challenged me a few months ago with a simple question – “Daniel, how do you celebrate your successes?”

“I don’t.”

“Well you better figure something out then,” he said.

I know that the progress of the last half of 2017 is relatively small. There’s still plenty of work to do and many more gifts God wants to give me. I know there’s still a lot of clutter to get rid of and many choices to make in order to become the person God wants to shape me into becoming.

But any progress in the spiritual life is worth celebrating. Any grace received is worthy of gratitude.

 

Practices For Making Room

If you want to make more room for God in your life, here are a few spiritual practices that helped me make room in 2017.

  1. Slow Down. Almost every spiritual teacher I read this year stressed that one of the most important things we have to do to grow in our connection with God is to slow down. Slowing down allows us to pay attention to ourselves – our bodies as well as our emotions, other people and the creation that God has given us. Making room in your schedule to slow down will likely lead you to make more room for God.
  2. Be Quiet. A teacher in graduate school once told me that the best way to pray was to stare at a wall and not talk for a long time. The practice would almost force you to listen and hear from God. I don’t know about the wall, but a consistent practice of silence in prayer is a great gift, particularly for those of us who talk a lot. I’ve started with just three minutes at a time. This is something I am going to try to be more consistent with in my spiritual practice in 2018.
  3. Create a Routine. I’ve often thought this was overrated, but I now know it’s not. Getting to work a little early so I can read and pray first thing in the morning has been a game-changer for me.
  4. Turn Off The Internet (and Cable News). Learning how to limit time on the Internet (except when reading and sharing my posts) can be a way to focus on what is happening in your life and how God is at work.  Spirituality doesn’t mean being ignorant of the issues of the day or how what’s happening in the world affects people created and loved by God. But particularly right now, the way we consume and experience news can do a lot to lead us away from God.
  5. Pray. Repeat. One of my friends invited me to participate in a challenge where people of all faiths prayed sentence prayers one thousand times per day. One example would be the Jesus Prayer (Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me a sinner). It changed the way I experienced my day to pray and remember God that many times. It reminded me of the goodness of God as I went about my day – in meetings at work, while walking the dog, in preparing dinner, and as I relaxed at the end of the day. It felt a whole lot like growing toward praying without ceasing.
  6. Start The Day Right.  Instead of turning straight for your phone when you wake up, what if you began your day with the Lord’s Prayer or the Apostle’s Creed or by praying over what you expect to be the significant events of your day? The Beatitudes or Psalm 23 could also help you begin well.

 

Guides For Making Room

We all need guides to show us the way. Here are a few of the guides who helped me close the gap this year. You might find them as one part of God’s grace for you as well.

1. The Ignatian Adventure, Kevin O’Brien

2. Sacred Rhythms, Ruth Haley Barton

3. Pilgrimage of a Soul, Phileena Heuertz

4. The Gift of Being Yourself, David Benner

5. The Good and Beautiful God, James Bryan Smith 

6. Wearing God, Lauren Winner

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Summer Reading

Photo by Rachel Lees on Unsplash

The first time I encountered a summer reading list was the summer before my freshman year of high school. I was transferring to a new school, where I knew no one and wasn’t sure if anyone would like me. And more significantly to me, I wasn’t sure how much I was going to like them.

Sometime around April or May we got our instructions for the summer. Our instructions were to pick a couple of different books to read during the summer. Then on the first day of class, which was for me the first day at this new school, we were supposed to show up and discuss the book in our assigned group.

Back then the depth of my reading extended to Sports Illustrated and not much else. I had no idea where to begin. When it reached the point where I couldn’t possibly put it off any longer, I went upstairs and asked asked my mother, the resident reader in our house, which two books I should read. My mom, in what was not her best moment, picked two books that she had read and loved. Figuring those were as good as any on the list, I read the books, and then in August walked into my first summer reading group.

My first clue that listening to my mom was a poor idea came when people made their way into the room and I was the only guy in the group. That, in itself wasn’t a problem. But I was pretty sure that being known as the new, dorky kid who didn’t say anything in a room full of girls was not the start I was looking for.

But, let’s be honest, it wasn’t exactly an aberration for the rest of my high school experience. Thank God there is life after 17.

I had nightmares about that the other day after a friend asked me for a reading list for the summer. And it got me to thinking about what a summer reading list for church types might look like. Here are some of the books I’ve read or want to read soon. I’d love to hear from you about what’s on your list.

Fiction:

A Land More Kind Than Home, Wiley Cash: A great debut novel about small-town church in Appalachia and the way it can provide meaning and also lead people astray. Critics have called Cash a cross between Flannery O’Connor and Cormac McCarthy. Good enough for me.

Exit West, Moshin Hamid: One of the year’s most timely books, a novel that centers on the journey of and sacrifices made by refugees.

Lincoln in the Bardo, George Saunders: So, I have become a history nerd. An imaginative novel inspired by a grieving Abraham Lincoln. Written by George Saunders. I bought this for my dad for Father’s Day – my greatest temptation every time I am home is to run up and steal it for myself.

House of Spies, Daniel Silva: I got hooked on this mystery series a few years ago. I’ll be hauling the latest installment with me on my summer vacation.

Swingtime, Zadie Smith. When Zadie Smith writes a book, it is an event. I heard her speak at the Festival of Faith and Writing last year. Her words on creation and writing good sentences still ring in my ears every time I write.

The Vacationers, Emma Straub: A classic family on the edge of coming apart tale. But written with sympathy and empathy. Emma Straub is one of my favorite fiction writers.

Beautiful Ruins, Jess Walter: Quite simply one of the most beautiful novels I’ve read. Weaves together stories of loss and betrayal, hope and redemption.

The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead: Winner of the Pulitzer. Imagine the Underground Railroad as an actual railroad. Whitehead is an incredible writer who can tell a great story.

Non-Fiction

The Bully Pulpit, Doris Kearns Goodwin: Ok, so it’s 900 pages – about Teddy Roosevelt and William Howard Taft. And I only made it through 300, but those 300 were great. If you have the chance to go off the grid and not be bothered for a month, you might finish the book and would be glad you did.

Originals – How Nonconformists Rule the World, Adam Grant: I don’t read many leadership books. But I do read and listen to Adam Grant.

Strange Glory, Charles Marsh: Skip Eric Metaxas’ better known book and read the definitive biography of Bonhoeffer.

The Cubs Way, Tom Verducci: Who doesn’t want to read more about the Cubs from the best baseball writer on the planet?

Spiritual Reading

Found, Micha Boyett: Readers of the blog know how much I love this book. A memoir of experiencing God again in the Psalms.

As Kingfishers Catch Fire, Eugene Peterson: A collected work of sermons. Peterson says it’s his last book. It’s one worth reading.

The Ignatian Adventure, Kevin O’Brien: The Examen has become the spiritual practice that teaches me again and again how God is already at work in my life and in the world around me. This is a great introductory guide.

Original Blessing, Danielle Shroyer: Shroyer argues that Christians have misread Genesis and misapplied its lessons in the doctrine of Original Sin. A better way to talk about it, she insists, is to talk about God’s Original Blessing. It’s a provocative book with implications about how we relate to God, one another and the world around us.

Liturgy of the Ordinary, Tish Harrison Warren: I’ve known Tish since college. She writes about how we see and experience God in the every day things we do, things like brushing our teeth and making our beds.

Happy Reading!

Photo Credit: Photo by Rachel Lees on Unsplash

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Book Review: Elaine Heath at Englewood Review of Books

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I’m over at the Englewood Review of Books today, with a review of Elaine Heath’s book, God Unbound, on the wisdom of Galatians for the church in anxious times.

It’s an important book, because if there is one reality for those of us in the church and in leadership, that reality is that the church knows anxiety well.  We’re anxious about a lot of things, but mostly we’re anxious about the future – what the church is going to look like in five years, ten years, not to mention six months.

Elaine Heath is one of the most important and helpful thinkers in the UMC and her wisdom to find our footing by rooting ourselves in spiritual disciplines – like prayer, confession, honest Scripture reading and the Examen – feels not only wise but faithful to the Gospel to which we’ve been entrusted.  This is a book well worth your time.

You can find my review at ERB here.

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Modern Compassion: Or What I’m Learning from Reading Emma Straub

It’s hard to find a list of summer beach reads without Modern Lovers, the new book from Emma Straub, on it.

Her books find their way on these lists because they aren’t dense, feature family drama combined with romance, and you can read them over the course of a vacation or even a weekend if you can avoid the television and other distractions.

(If you are interested in reviews of Modern Lovers, you can find one here. You can also find my take on this book and other books for the summer here.)

But to put these books in the same categories as some others on these lists is to miss something profound and important.  That’s because Modern Lovers – as well as Straub’s last book, The Vacationers – is a story that has something to teach us.

In Straub’s stories we read about families and characters who are far from simple and miles from whole. Instead, these are stories of broken and complicated people who, like most of us, would be well served by time in a chair across from a therapist, counselor or religious professional. I can think of a couple of characters in these stories who might exhaust the wisdom of all three.

They make stupid mistakes.  They cheat on their spouses and aren’t sure if they wouldn’t do it over again if given the chance. Their past still overwhelms their present. They worry about messing up their kids. They commit to decisions that could be described as naive at best and foolish at worst. They are looking for a direction for their lives but more often than not let their lives simply happen to them. They know they need to change, but they aren’t sure if they really can or even want to.

That, of course, isn’t unique, both in writing stories and in living life. Here’s what is – Emma Straub has a gift for telling the stories of these messed up characters and dysfunctional families with kindness and compassion.

These characters might have problems and they might make things worse for themselves, but there’s an affection and a love for them from their creator that jumps off the page.

Lesser and more cynical stories are written with the voices and words of judgment and disdain. But that’s not what you find in these books – no, this is so much better.

These stories remind us that immaturity and failings are not definitive. They remind us that we are more than the sum of our bad choices and major missteps. They remind us that we are more than our worst moments, more than character flaws and more than the secrets we desperately try to keep hidden but have a suspicion won’t stay buried forever.

In short, these are stories of grace and stories of hope.

This is a word we need for the cultural moment in which we find ourselves. Our skill in analysis of the other is only surpassed by our willingness to inflict that analysis to hurt and harm. Our ability to consume the news in the ways and with the interpretations we prefer convince us that the solution to all our problems is for our enemies and those we oppose (often one and the same) to become less stupid, less mean, less morally suspect, less foolish, and less prone to mistakes. This leads to anger and exhaustion, which leads us to miss so much good stuff.

It’s also a word we need more than just when we watch and talk about the news. Those of us gripped by perfectionism know what its like to be critical – and not just of those who are different than us. Instead, we are well versed in bearing the brunt of our own searing analysis. We are no strangers to inflicting pain and heartbreak on ourselves for the less than wise decisions we have made, the mistakes we can’t let go of, the ways we will never be good enough, and for all the times we have failed to meet the impossible standards we set for ourselves.  This, of course, has plenty of consequences too.

In a world full of analysis and experts and way too many mean people, what we need more of are guides and teachers of kindness.  We need stories that show us how to see the power of the light especially when the darkness seems so strong. We need writers who can teach us how to be compassionate with one another and ourselves. We need people who bring words that remind us that failure doesn’t have to stop us from becoming beautiful people who live meaningful lives. We need men and women who can inspire us to follow a path that moves us beyond criticism and judgment and instead towards affirmation and kindness.

So, sure you can call these books beach reads.  But a better description would be to say that Emma Straub’s fiction should be required reading in a class on modern compassion.

That, of course, is a class we all should take.

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