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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Her Fault

I left town earlier this week to attend a writer’s conference in North Carolina. When I called home to catch up on the day’s events in Knoxville, my wife shared a telling story from daycare.

Our daughter had recently graduated into the next age group at school, leaving behind some of her friends.  On this particular day one of her former partners in crime had graduated to the new class – a reunion accompanied by much rejoicing.

Their former teacher peaked into the new room and immediately started composing a text message to send to my wife. Away from the frenetic activity, a safe distance from the shouts of “Mine” and “No”, my daughter and her friend had escaped to the corner of  the room with the only friends they needed – piles and piles of books.

File one in the win column for nurture. This was a development that surprised no one in our families.

There’s a story my in-laws like to tell on my wife – about the time, in a fit of rage at a baby-sitter she deemed immature, she stormed off with a charge that still echoes: “I don’t like you. I’m going to my room to read.”

Years later, there’s not a room in our house where you couldn’t do that, because every one of them is filled with books. Most of them are mine.

They say confession is good for the soul. But I do have a defense. When it comes to my guilt in the passing on of this genetic obsession, it’s clearly my mother’s fault.

While our house is a minefield of books and toddler toys, there’s no such competition for space in my parents’ house. Words fill the house at the top of the driveway – books, magazines, newspapers, cookbooks – there isn’t a room that doesn’t bear witness to our need to turn letters into words and to group words into sentences. I suggested to my father that we buy my mom a Kindle for Mother’s Day a few years ago, an invitation he quickly accepted: “Anything to keep any more books out of this house.”

My first memory of yelling “Read!” to my mom was for more Cat in the Hat. She later badgered me into picking up Run With the Horsemen and even introduced me to John Irving, the gift that will never stop giving.

There was the time she told me I had to read this book on my high school summer reading list. It was so good, she told me. It had changed her life. Apparently this life change wasn’t as accessible to high school boys, because when it came time to discuss the book in September, I was the only guy in the room.

When I was trying to figure out what to do with my life in college, she wouldn’t shut it up about it – “Why don’t you go write for the campus newspaper?  You love to read.”

I put her off as long as I could. You go to college to get away from your parents telling you what to do – not the other way around. But it was like she knew. I didn’t hate it. I loved it. I loved it maybe like I hadn’t loved anything else.

The truth is that I exited the womb with the cynicism of a curmudgeon and the mouth of a sailor – which is to say that when it came to newspapers I was a natural. Before long I wasn’t just a reporter but an editor. The office on the top floor of the student center became a second home, reading and writing, cutting and fixing, all in anticipation of the feel of the fresh copy in my hands when I was one of the first to liberate it from the rack.

It wasn’t long before my Tuesday and Friday nights were spoken for and I was off working for the local newspaper. You can actually get paid to chronicle high school sports and write about the exploits and heartaches of small town heroes.

Eventually I left the newspaper and ended up in seminary, where I read a lot and wrote even more. I started writing and preaching sermons and one day I started researching what some people told me were called blogs.

I started one – and after I posted a few times I began to hear it again. She was relentless. I guess that’s the way moms are. At least mine is.

“You have a gift. You have to keep doing this.”

That’s how I ended up this week on the front pew of a church in North Carolina, pen in one hand and notebook in the other, writing and scribbling as fast as I could. In a sanctuary full of writers, I was just like everyone else, a hungry pilgrim searching for inspiration to form the letters and make the words sing.

What brought us together was more than those letters and words, however. This was a journey to rest in the presence of the Spirit.

As I walked out the door of that thin place where I glimpsed the work of God, I imagined my wife and daughter a few hundred miles away, reading together. I thought about the computer in my bag that was was going to birth some new stories. And I gave thanks for the books that had been hoisted upon me and the vocation that someone wouldn’t let me escape.

It’s her fault.

Thanks Mom.

 

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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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There is No Mold

A few weeks ago a friend posted a question online – what are the most important things you have learned since beginning full-time ministry?

That is a good question, and like most good questions, his prompted plenty of answers.

The thing I’ve learned the most, particularly since becoming a lead pastor – the person with whom the buck stops, the one people most often look to for an answer about what the Gospel means in the world-on-fire 2016: There is no mold.

We’ve been invited, no more than that, instructed to jam ourselves into the ways of life created by ministry superstars, to preach like they do, to speak with their cadences, to build the ministry they were called to and to reach the kind of people with the Gospel that God uses them to reach.

But that mold doesn’t exist – that’s what I’ve learned over and over since being dropped in the middle of three unique country churches in the shadows of the mountains a few years ago. The one size fits all open it up and run it straight out of the box church kit is an illusion. I suspect it always has been.

To be a leader in the church in 2016 is to accept a charge as a risk-taker, a summons to be an innovator and a call to be a pioneer. The ways and the practices we’re used to in church aren’t as reliable as we have been told they always have been. Anyone who tells you they have a plan and a formula that is guaranteed to work for you is either selling you something or lying, and probably both.

This is the truth I’ve learned, whether you spend most of your days in a church or whether you wouldn’t know one if you drove by it on the way to work.  And if you live near me, you pass a slew of them on your way anywhere.

Life doesn’t come with easy solutions and guaranteed outcomes. The things that work for you might not work for your neighbor. The strategy that helped your colleague thrive at work might leave you with egg on your face when you try it. Your best friend might be able to balance being a parent and sole provider but you know that’s a guaranteed disaster for your family.

The only thing that matters, the only way ministry works, the only way to thrive in life and help connect people with God is to be the authentic person you’ve been created to be and lead with the special and unique gifts God has given you. Read the books, learn what you can, it’s all good. But in the end, living with integrity and finding the path to flourishing comes by using the tools and embracing the passions you have been given. Then you just get to sit back and watch God use them to connect with people in ways you never imagined.

That’s what brought me to this point, today, to writing my first post at a website and domain that has my name on it – without the safety of WordPress in between.  It’s scary. It’s intimidating. I’ve wrestled for weeks whether it was the next step in faithfulness or a master class in pretentious arrogance.

And yet, here I am, doing something I thought I had left behind a long time ago.

For five years I wrote almost every day – about things people care deeply about, care too much about – I wrote about college football. But then I didn’t. I began full-time ministry a few years later and decided that writing was something I used to do, something I did before I do what I do now.

The people I was told to read didn’t blog. The preachers I was pointed to didn’t write, other than about how to supersize your church using their formula (Five simple steps to show Peter how to really catch fish!) To be a pastor who writes, who helps people think about their faith and the places they live their lives, to be a writer who pastors people online, well that didn’t come with the mold. (Of course, if I had paid better attention, or knew where to look, I would have found that there were plenty of teachers out there to help me live into this calling.)

About eighteen months ago that began to change.  A friend donated some money to my church earmarked for my continuing education. And so I went, all the way across the flyover states, to a weekend writers conference in California. I spent two days talking about writing and dreaming about how my ministry and my writing might intersect. On the flight back I made a covenant to start writing again, to use the gifts God has given me, not as an addition to my ministry but as an essential part of it.

What happened is that blogging helped me learn to love writing again. I saw the ways that writing on the blog made me a better pastor to the people all around me. Writing once a week taught me how to discern, how to come to understand what it was I was called to speak about and what was better left for others. I discovered that my words not only helped me notice grace, but helped others locate it, too.

I often found that the posts I felt the worst about were the ones that spoke the most to my readers – funny, how God can even use the Internet to teach you how it’s not about you.  Grace shows up in the weirdest places.

Paul’s image of the Body in I Corinthians has become almost trite in the church. We know the sermon almost before the preacher gets there – many gifts but one Lord, some apostles, some teachers, none better than the others, we need each other.

We remind each other of this, though, because we need it and because it’s true.

There is no mold. There is no pre-packaged theme. Only you, living and giving the gifts you’ve been given.

Use them, share them, and sit back and watch what happens.

You do your thing, I’ll be here doing mine – watching, listening, waiting, and finally, writing.

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Six For Your Weekend – Plus Some News on Moving Day

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If certain religious services were less about preening about one’s own virtue or pointing fingers at somebody else’s iniquity and more about tackling human needs around us, this would be a better world — and surely Jesus would applaud as well. -Nicholas Kristof

Six Reads that will inspire you, make you think and help make your weekend a bit better.

What Religion Would Jesus Belong To, Nicholas Kristof

“This may seem an unusual column for me to write, for I’m not a particularly religious Christian. But I do see religious faith as one of the most important forces, for good and ill, and I am inspired by the efforts of the faithful who run soup kitchens and homeless shelters.”

What I Learned in the School Cafeteria, Caroline Lamar

“I’m pretty positive the kingdom of Heaven looks exactly like a school cafeteria. Fellowship over the table. Laughter. Sitting with people who don’t always look like you or talk like you or believe the same things.  But there they were all there together, gathered around a table. I cannot imagine a more beautiful view.”

A Farewell Guide to Political Journalism, Ron Fournier

“A great article on leadership with serious implications for church leaders: (Don’t lose sight of your mission, remember who you work for, Build Relationships, Integrity is Everything, Own Your Convictions) “A reporter’s job is to get as close to the truth as possible, overriding personal biases and sifting through a rising churn of spin and lies to explain what happened and why it matters. At its highest levels, journalism informsprovokes, and holds powerful people accountable (with no fear or favor).”

Stop Touting the Crazy Hours You Work, Jena McGregor

“The idea that being well-rested could be a black mark against a leader is preposterous. And even if a super early wake-up time works for some people — and they’re sensitive about sending out email before dawn — if you’re having to get up at 4 a.m. to avoid distractions in your day, there’s probably something wrong with how we’re working.”

Hillbilly Elegy: J.D. Vance on Faith in Appalachia, Kelsey Dallas 

“I lived in a pretty chaotic and hopeless world. Faith gave me the belief that there was somebody looking out for me, that there was a hopeful future on the other side of all the things I was going through.”

To Attract Young People to Your Church, You’ve Got to be Warm, Not Cool, Kara Powell, Jake Mulder and Brad Griffin

“Ironically, it is possible that your church might be working against warmth by offering myriad programs. Busyness doesn’t equal warmth.”

A Bit of News…

I’m excited to announce that on Tuesday, I’ll be moving my writing to a new place on the web.  In short, I’m looking forward to sharing my new website with you on Tuesday.

It’s been a long time coming and more work than I expected, but I believe it will be worth the effort. My hope is that it will not only be a more attractive and better space from which to write, but more importantly, that it will make it easier to share resources and create community that will help all of us with the things I care about and tend to write about – church, the hunt for grace and the search for joining what we most desperately believe with how we actually live.

If all this sounds like something you might be interested in, you can learn more by following the link to sign up for my email list here, and I’ll send you a preview of the new space on Monday (Note: If you already subscribe to this blog by email, you don’t need to resubscribe to the website. If you follow via your wordpress account, however, you will need to resubscribe).  And if you aren’t impatient (or don’t care that much), you can watch for it on social media on Tuesday.

Thanks so much for reading and I hope you have a great weekend.

With Gratitude,

Daniel

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