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Whatever Next?

by Roberta Rominger


Here's an update on what I'm reading and thinking. I'd welcome your input -- not least on what you suggest I read next!


Magic??! Can’t We Do Better Than That?

I love Elizabeth Gilbert. When I went to the TED Active conference last year, her talk was the one that spoke to my heart and soul. I am one of the people who was really captivated by Eat Pray Love: I understand that not everybody responded that way!

Gilbert’s new book is called Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear. It was a huge thrill to hear her speak in Seattle last night. Benaroya Hall was sold out: that’s 2500 seats! The audience was probably more female than male, but it covered a great age range, and everyone was enthusiastic. Gilbert spoke for over half an hour without appearing to use any notes. She was assured and fluent. A class act.

She sees human beings as naturally creative. Ideas are “out there”, she believes, looking for someone to channel them into physical reality. One of her best stories is about a novel she didn’t get around to writing. Once she had decided not to pursue the idea, despite laborious research, the idea invaded the consciousness of Ann Patchett instead, with an extraordinary degree of synchronicity. How intriguing!

Gilbert’s book is practical. You have to be dedicated, she says. You must persevere, no excuses. You must be available. And you mustn’t be stupid. Specifically, don’t expect your creativity to support you. Only a very lucky few are able to support themselves through their creative work. Most people need to have day jobs. This is honorable and pragmatic and it relieves the creative spark from pressure which can otherwise kill it.

Her chapter on fear is wonderful. I appreciate the healthy attitude she takes, that fear has a legitimate job to do and will never disappear, but that we don’t need to let it rule us. What she says about inspiration is also spot on. Her sense of a magical force from outside is matched by her conviction that we all have precious treasure within ourselves that wants to be released into life. We are amazing, but our freedom lies in not taking ourselves too seriously. Perfectionism is a dead end. So is the notion that artists are supposed to suffer. It is better to claim our God-given entitlement to create and simply put stuff out there for the sheer joy and fulfilment of doing it. Our creativity makes the world a richer place. Excellent!

Where I am disappointed is in her handling of divinity. She tells a story about sacred dance in Indonesia and the merging of sacred and secular. I get it. But is that all there is to say? She admits to being a mystic when it comes to inspiration, but she stubbornly resists allowing religion any say. The door is closed and tightly locked. This is a mysticism that goes out of its way to reject mystical tradition. How crazy is that? I would love to know what Gilbert herself would say about this, because I can imagine an editorial hand excising any remark that is remotely kind to Christianity, since Christianity is poison in the mainstream book trade. 

I’m absolutely aching to make the connections. The fact that we are so fantastically creative is a sign that we made in the image of our fantastically creative God. In Christ we see what it means to be fully human and fully alive, and our creativity springs from the living water of the Spirit within us. We can live lightly despite our shortcomings and fears and failures, not through positive thinking (pathetic notion!), but because we aren’t the Messiah and don’t even have to pretend. We are loved for who we are. God’s delight in us is the energy behind all our curiosity and delight in the world.

Then there’s that cross. I agree with pretty much everything Gilbert says, but there’s something missing. I miss the courage that goes beyond superficialities to deep foundations. How can she construct an explanation of existence, let alone a life devoted to story-telling, when she knowingly ignores the biggest story of them all? I felt the same thing reading Hanya Yanagihara last week – she describes intense suffering which ultimately destroys people, and if there is any hope, it is in a human love and kindness which in the end, she implies, is not enough. I agree: human kindness isn’t enough to save us. But that doesn’t mean there’s no salvation. It means that in our 21st century determination to have nothing to do with institutional Christianity, we have severed our ties to the strongest truth the human race has ever discerned.

A Christian reading of Gilbert would add the depth. Then there would be more colors in her already rich palette. It would also add community. Her creative artist is essentially alone. But we are capable of gathering around the wisdom of our ancestors, discovering meaning together, praising the source of the life in us, celebrating and learning together. We are capable of holding each other accountable and embracing challenges that stretch us all. We are capable of loving each other, not just as friends or family, but as children of God reveling in what we know together, supporting each other, committed together to something larger than ourselves.

At the Benaroya event last night, we were invited to submit questions. The ushers collected all the little pieces of paper on which we scribbled. I asked for a dialogue between Big Magic and religion, knowing that my paper would be discarded. It is difficult not to despair when the partnerships the church needs to survive are denied it through the prejudice of the age. We could be the community that lives Ben Zander’s “possibility” and Elizabeth Gilbert’s “big magic”. You can feel the urge towards worship as their audiences are swept up in their vision. Both Zander and Gilbert have the gift of enabling people to experience what they’re talking about. (The technical term is “inspirational speaker” – might that mean that a greater Spirit is involved?) The worship instinct gets diverted into worship of them – what a waste! – when worship of the God of life would release us all into the glorious humanity for which we were made.   

Copyright © 2015 Roberta Rominger


If This Book Doesn’t Win the Booker Prize…

This may be the best novel I’ve ever read. It’s 700 pages long (that’s an infinity in Kindle clicks – every one percent took hours!) but I have already turned back to the beginning so that I can begin reading it again.

However, I am not recommending it. There are many people who should not even think of reading this book. It is too raw, too real. It gets too far under your skin. One hundred pages in, it has you hooked, and you will keep reading, even if you don’t want to. It will break your heart for characters you learn to love. It will show you truths about yourself and your friends that will change the way you feel about being human.

I find myself reading several books at once these days. There are books I read for work. There are books I read because Dale and I are committed to going into Seattle to hear the authors speak. (Those get priority in hopes that I’ll get them read before we meet the authors.) Then there are my audio books, which keep me company on my car journeys and sometimes on my walks.  

My companion in reading A Little Life has been Elizabeth Gilbert, who will be in Seattle tomorrow night and whose book Big Magic has gone with me everywhere via audio for several days now. Gilbert’s subject is creativity and she describes the experience of being chosen by an idea which is determined to come to birth. I imagine that Hanya Yanagihara, the author of A Little Life, might well identify with that description. Her characters are so vivid that it is as though that same determined idea comes to inhabit and possess the reader as well.

How in the world does she sustain my interest through so many everyday episodes? Things go well, things go badly, and no matter how many times she raises my hopes and dashes them, my life depends on knowing what happened next. I recognize in passing that she is the most skillful author I have ever read when it comes to revealing the race of her characters: they are defined by how they feel and how they act, and then a subtle clue will drop into the narrative. Brilliant. Likewise, she allows time to pass without ever being heavy handed about it. Mainly, it will be Thanksgiving again, and the characters will meet up or they won’t, as though time is a subtext gently illuminating a story that is unwinding according to its own inexorable momentum. I am in awe.

The reason you shouldn’t read A Little Life is that it contains descriptions of fifteen years of appalling child abuse. The story bludgeons you even as you recognize people and situations you almost know, human beings who are all too imaginable, especially when their cruelty stems from their own selfishness. The weight of that narrative is counterbalanced in two ways, first by truly loving characters who commit themselves to caring no-matter-what and to making healing possible, and then by the rituals which enable someone who is irrevocably damaged to survive. I never understood why people cut themselves. Now I do.

Don’t read this book. But do hold your breath with me as the Booker winner is announced next Tuesday. If this book doesn’t win, I will lose all faith in the people they choose as judges. 

Copyright © 2015 Roberta Rominger


Real Good Church Revisited

I promised I’d come back to this book – so here I am!

First Church Somerville UCC outside Boston holds a block party every September. They have a bouncy house and the adults and kids get equal time bouncing. I approve! They invite all the neighbors to a barbecue, then the climax of the day is the blessing of the bicycles. That would work on Mercer Island – you wouldn’t believe how many bicycles there are on the roads here. So that is one of the many splendid ideas I have filed away.

During her time as pastor there, Molly Baskette held office hours in a local café. She announced to the congregation that she’d be there on Wednesday mornings early, and she always took her drink to one of the larger tables. There were various regulars who would come in and join her. But often non-regulars came seeking pastoral care. Sometimes it was appropriate for them to share their needs or concerns with whoever else was there. Sometimes they needed personal time with Molly. When people needed to speak confidentially, she went with them to one of the more private tables. She says that she became known there, and over time people from the community felt able to join in too. Sounds great to me.

The church is out there, wherever things are happening in the community, with a visible and energetic presence. Most often their presence is about warmth and inclusivity and fun. A touch of the outrageous (things are pretty typically outrageous in the church, so they are being honest when they project that image outside). But they can also do serious and deeply meaningful. I love their spontaneity and generosity of spirit. I love their enthusiasm and passion. I love it when people in the community get their prejudices turned upside down by an experience of a church that breaks the molds.

But I’m also intrigued by the inner workings of the church. They have committees, and some of them (the church council, deacons, finance, Christian education) meet every month. Others (hospitality, outreach, buildings, personnel, communications, mission and justice) only meet every other month (half of them one month, half the other). The meetings happen on the third Sunday of the month after church. Everybody has brunch together, does a bit of sharing, then the groups go into separate rooms to get their work done. The fact that they are all there simultaneously allows for interaction between committees that could otherwise get isolated within their own agendas. The fact that it happens Sundays after church keeps the meetings focused time-wise. And every year after the annual meeting of the congregation, newly-elected committee chairs are invited to dinner at the pastor’s house for a bit of orientation. Do you hear the respect in there, and the empowerment? People get to make a contribution instead of falling into the soul-destroying business of finding dates and slogging through long and never-changing agendas.

My first response to this book was to resist it, since my church is not in a university town and couldn’t possibly brim over with youthful energy like theirs. Now I see how many of the ideas are just basic liberating and enabling.Liberating people from the way things have always been done, enabling the energy to flow, enabling new people to participate and contribute, enabling the Holy Spirit to find a way in. This is a real good book. Read it!

Copyright © 2015 Roberta Rominger


Catching Up, Pulling Together

Today is my 60th birthday, and among many other things, I’ve been remembering the first Earth Day in April 1970 and how I walked to school. It was a long way: my usual school was being earthquake-proofed that year and we were being bused to a school several miles away. They say that Earth Day 1970 marked the official beginning of the environmental movement. If so, I was there, wholeheartedly, from the beginning.

Psychology was always another interest. But somehow I have always held them neatly apart in my thinking. I guess psychology was about the inner world, while ecology was about the external one, and the connection wasn’t obvious. All that has changed now, thanks to this book.

I’ve had Ecopsychology [Roszak, Gomes & Kanner, eds, Sierra Club 1995] on my shelf for years, but I didn’t read it until this month, when a recycling event at my church challenged me to do some theological reflection on our responsibility toward the planet. I now feel like I’ve heard an invitation to catch up and to pull together strands that have been running in parallel till now. Of course our mental health has everything to do with the state of the planet: we are indifferent or abusive toward the world around us because we ourselves are wounded. We are selfish and we clutch at material things, despite what we know about how they were produced and what our consumerism demands of the earth’s resources. The connection in that direction is clear. But the state of the planet has everything to do with our mental health as well. There is a well of pain in me that I find it almost impossible to face squarely. I fear that if I felt it all the way, it would consume me. Reading Ecopsychology got me pondering who we are as a people, each of us carrying that well of pain in our own way, but seldom talking about it and never sharing it. We each face the terror of global warming, the melting ice caps, the extinction of species, the intransigence of government and industry, alone.

I preached two sermons about sustainability this month and named the global warming crisis that overshadows everything else in our human experience right now. So intellectually, we have acknowledged it. But that is a very different thing from letting the feelings out from the lockdown where we keep them hidden away.

Ecopsychology is a collection of essays, many of them excellent. The one that is going to stick with me longest was by Joanna Macy, a teacher, scholar and activist, entitled, “Working Through Environmental Despair”. She articulated the crucial insights. “Until the late twentieth century, every generation throughout history lived with the tacit certainty that there would be generations to follow… That certainty is now lost to us, whatever our politics.That loss, unmeasured and immeasurable, is the pivotal psychological reality of our time.” (p. 241) We feel rage, we feel guilt, but mostly, says Macy, we feel sorrow. “Confronting so vast and final a loss as this brings sadness beyond the telling.”

I have work to do. Ecopsychology is an old book – 1995. Much has been written since. Others are way ahead of me. All of us who have the care of souls need to grapple with the challenge of this for our communities and the individuals who look to us for wisdom. Is there any way we could confront our anguish together and come out alive? Joanna Macy talks about workshops she has led where they have done exactly that. She says that when you let the fear and rage and despair out into the open, what you experience is a huge release of energy. It takes a lot of energy, she says, to repress feelings that powerful. Let them out and your passion empowers you to act.

In my second sermon, I said that I believed that the human species would wake up in time and muster the collective determination to save ourselves and our world. It’s an outrageous thing to believe, improbable in the extreme. To gloss over the magnitude of the danger facing us is no favor to anyone. But Macy gives me real hope. Maybe the anger and guilt and fear will one day soon be too strong to keep locked away, and we will indeed let them out. The mighty wave of energy and passion that would follow, if well directed, could indeed save us.

Copyright © 2015 Roberta Rominger


Read this Book – If You Dare…

It has been a long time since a book shook me the way this one did. I finished it ten days or so ago but I couldn’t blog about it last week. Too much was still churning around inside.

Molly Phinney Baskette has served as the pastor of First Church Somerville in Massachusetts, a United Church of Christ congregation, since 2003. (Hot news! Last week she accepted a call to move to First Congregational Church UCC in Berkeley! Watch this space!!) Under her leadership the church grew from a Sunday attendance of 35 to 130. There were six kids when she started; now there are a hundred. Giving has increased 500%. And she tells a zillion stories of people whose lives have been touched by that church.

Her book has an encouraging title, Real Good Church: How Our Church Came Back from the Dead and Yours Can Too. It is bracing stuff. A seriously progressive church, seriously opening and affirming, seriously determined to grow, has bucked all the odds. Molly is honest about it. She says that an effective pastor these days has to be a Doomsday Pollyanna, because 80% of the churches we love will be dead in twenty years’ time, and it is really, really urgent that we turn things around, but we must constantly exude confidence that it is possible and that we and our congregations can do it.

It might have been right there that the book began to poke me out of my comfort zone. Can you hear the sheer amount of energy that is required to convey both those messages as relentlessly as they need communicating? The pastor needs to believe against all the evidence, with eyes wide open to the real world and everything the analysts are saying, but a heart wide open never to doubt that people need what the church is about.

The book gets scary from the first page. “Don’t privilege the people who have been at your church over the people outside your community who don’t even know about you yet,” she writes, “—these are all God’s people, and if you are a pastor you took vows to ‘minister impartially to the needs of all.’” Don’t privilege the ones who are already there?!? Who have poured their lives into the place – and their money – and been faithful over many years? Molly is fairly ruthless – or is it just matter-of-fact? – some of them will leave. She quotes Ron Heifetz: “Leadership is disappointing people at a rate they can tolerate.” Gulp!!

The book is very, very practical. I will report more in my blog next week. For now, I just want to register what she’s done to me. I have loved my new life in the local church. My church is not frenetic. I have time for people. I have time to prepare worship, time to collaborate meaningfully with the other worship leaders. It feels like heaven after my years of hit-and-run preaching as a senior church leader. But I knew from the outset that standing still wasn’t an option. We’ll be using the tools of Appreciative Inquiry in a few weeks’ time to discern what we’re meant to be doing next. There will be changes ahead. As I look back at Molly’s book today I realize that I have begun to come to terms with the demands that will fall to me if we are to grow. I’m up for it. So now what I get is the attraction of her suggestions, many of which are liberating. She paints a picture of how the fresh air of the Spirit can blow through. Let it be so!

Copyright © Roberta Rominger