Best Books of 2018 – non-fiction

My non-fiction reading tends to involve visits to just a few sections of the library, with the occasional purchase of books I know I’ll want to mark up. Here are the stand-outs from 2018 (and here’s my best of 2018 fiction list in case you missed it):

Without doubt, the book that provoked most thought and which continues to do so months later was The Patient Ferment of the Early Church by Alan Kreider. For those of us who spend a lot of time thinking about the church’s future, some time thinking about its origins in the company of an outstanding scholar is well worth the investment. Kreider explores some often-overlooked writings from the first three centuries to paint a vivid picture of the daily life of the early Christians and the lengthy process by which they were formed into counter-cultural communities within the Roman empire. I found his account both inspiring and disheartening, knowing the cultural pressure of busyness, individualism and materialism that must be overcome in order to experience the kind of shared life of which he paints such a compelling portrait. Highly recommended.

I just finished reading fellow Red Letter Christian and Parish Collective member Jonathan Brook’s first book, Church Forsaken. Part memoir, part call to action, Jonathan invites us to take a stroll through his neighborhood in the company of the prophet Jeremiah, and discover the kinds of commitments necessary if we are to experience the Beloved Community in which everyone has a chance to flourish. Honest and hopeful, another invitation to take the importance of place seriously.

Widening the lens a little, Healing Our Broken Humanity by Grace Ji-Sun Kim and Graham Hill is an introduction to many of the practices necessary if the church is to be a reconciled and reconciling presence in the world. Refusing to deny the presence within the church of the many -isms that haunt our world, Kim and Hill provide tangible and challenging practices that small groups and congregations can adopt to address our own failings to be a healing presence in the world. Not a book to be read and shelved: a timely and necessary manual for embodied repentance.

Moving to the memoir section of the library, the most delightful autobiography I read this year – or, rather, listened to the author read – was As You Wish by Cary Elwes. If you love the movie The Princess Bride as much as our family does, this behind-the-scenes account of its filming will have you laughing out loud, tearing up at times, and pulling out the movie one more time to look for all the great stories he tells about certain scenes. Delightful!

God’s Biker is the autobiography of an old friend from my days riding in the U.K. thirty years ago. Sean Stillman is a compelling storyteller whose writing you feel in your chest as if you were riding pillion on his Harley and feeling the rumble of the V-Twin. His life is a tale of the oil of grace to be found amidst the grit and grime of the outlaw bike scene and of his friends who live outside. The community he founded – Zac’s place – has become a refuge for many who struggle to find a home anywhere else. As I said in my endorsement, Sean is the kind of Christian and human being I aspire to be.

I find myself picking up an alcoholic’s memoirs every other year or so, and this go around it was Blackout by Sarah Hepola. Another well-told account of the kind of story you might hear in an open meeting of A.A., distinct from other, similar autobiographies by focusing on the experience that gives the book its title. I would have liked to hear more about her journey into sobriety, but maybe she’s saving that for a sequel.

Finally, Have Dog Will Travel by Steven Kuusisto is the fascinating account of a man who grew up learning to pretend not to be (legally) blind, managed to become a university professor, surviving by memorizing routes and classroom layouts, whose life was then thrown into chaos when he was unexpectedly laid off. Now needing help to get around and look for work, he meets Corky, the Labrador who will guide him into his new life. A beautiful and moving account of their relationship, as well as providing insight into both the challenges and gifts of those living with visual disability.

I continue to learn how to grow food, in our backyard and in the various community gardens and orchards in our neighborhood. To that end, I found these two books helpful this year. The Vegetable Gardener’s Guide to Permaculture is an excellent and delightfully illustrated introduction to the ethos that will be increasingly necessary if we are to reclaim our food system. Packed with practical advice, I already have plans for introducing some of these practices this spring. I know very little about growing fruit and nut trees, even though we’ve planted many over the years. The Fruitful City by Helena Moncrieff is an inspiring yet clear-eyed account of urban orchards in Toronto, as well as several non-profits across Canada who are seeking to educate people about the food growing all around them. She introduced me to the importance of equity as well as access: many people living in the city do not have the ability to visit rural orchards and experience the delight of eating a ripe apple or pear right off the tree. She also taught me that before planting a tree, it’s important to have a plan for who is going to care for it in ten years’ time.

Finally, as I spend so much time writing about the Bible, here are two books I found very helpful this year. Inspired by Rachel Held Evans is a whimsical, literate and often challenging re-engagement with the sacred text offered by an author continuing to come to terms with some of the unhelpful if not wounding ways she encountered the bible in her evangelical upbringing. Surprisingly moving in places.

Last, but not least is The Magnificent Story by James Bryan Smith. His thesis is that any story we allow to shape our life must be beautiful, good and true if we are to live a life filled with joy and meaning. He provides an engaging walk through the metanarrative of the bible with these three elements as our guide. Very good.

Well, that’s it for another year. I’d love to hear what books you found helpful in 2018, so please do share a title or two in the comments!

(I link to Amazon as a convenience and as a participant in their Associates Program. I encourage you to buy books where you want to see them sold. Or check them out of your local library, which is what we typically do.)

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Best Books of 2018 – fiction

It’s the season of “Best of…” lists, and here’s mine for fiction. Of the 68 novels I read this year, here are the stand outs:

Fredrik Backman makes it three years in a row for best novel, with Us Against You. He takes us back to the remote hockey town of Beartown, which is reeling from the news that the club will likely be disbanded. Most of the junior team are now playing for arch-rivals, Hed, and tensions between the two towns threaten to boil over. By the end of the novel, a resident of Beartown will be dead, and the lives of several others turned upside-down. As always, the characters are beautifully drawn, profoundly flawed and loyal to a fault. A triumph.

An outstanding thriller was Desolation Mountain, by William Kent Krueger. The seventeenth in his Cork O’Connor series, this was my first. Cork’s son has a recurring and disturbing vision of a great bird shot from the sky, and so when a plane carrying one of the state’s senators crashes close by, O’Connor and the other Anishinaabeg residents sense something other than the reported mechanical failure lies behind the tragedy. The crash site is quickly closed off by numerous government agencies, and when the witnesses to the crash begin to disappear, O’Connor tries to get to the bottom of things while also protecting his family.

If you enjoy taut psychological thrillers with genuine plot twists, then you’ll love The Woman in the Window, by A. J. Finn. Anna Fox has not set foot outside her 4-storey brownstone in almost a year, but keeps up with her neighbors through the powerful lens of her camera. When she sees a new neighbor get stabbed in the chest in her home by an unseen assailant, she calls the police. But when the husband of the supposed victim shows up with the police and his wife (who is not the woman Anna has met), she is dismissed as a reclusive drunkard. A slow start, but the plot picks up pace midway, and then never relents. Good stuff!

In ‘clever whodunnits,’ look no further than Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz. A famous author dies, apparently taking his own life. His editor has his final novel, but discovers the final chapters are missing. As she tries to track down the missing chapters she begins to suspect that her author may not have taken his own life. Several suspects present themselves – but are the clues to the murderer’s identity ultimately hidden in the novel? We read the novel alongside the real-life action which is an engaging device. Very enjoyable.

I’m always happy to find new detective series, and Martin Walker’s Bruno, Chief of Police is delightful. The classic village mystery – this time St Denis in France – his stories are an exquisite blend of simmering tensions, romance and food. I read several others in the series, and along with his insight into France’s culinary culture, Walker also takes on the current racial tension the country faces.

In fantasy/science fiction, Tom Miller’s The Philosopher’s Flight was the standout. Set during the Great War in an alternative version of our world, Robert Weekes, the 18 year old protagonist, is a practitioner of the female-dominated branch of science called empirical philosophy, which harnesses the power to heal, summon wind – even fly. He wins a scholarship to the leading all-women’s school to study, where he struggles against prejudice as he tries to win the respect of his peers. Plenty of action, intrigue, a little romance and very clever. I look forward to the rest of the trilogy.

The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemison is the first in another trilogy I intend to complete. Every few centuries, the Evil Earth tries to rid itself of its human inhabitants, and only the feared and despised ‘Roggas’ are able to control the volcanic upheavals that threaten humanity. But most are killed in childhood before they have the chance to learn to control their power. Three (seemingly) separate storylines unfold as another ‘Fifth Season’ dawns. Excellent storytelling.

Given that we are apparently living in a ‘post-facts’ era, I thought it was time to finally read George Orwell’s classic of dystopian fiction, 1984. It’s portrayal of totalitarian control is utterly haunting, and some paragraphs seemed to have been lifted directly from our contemporary situation. Disturbing and therefore doing what science fiction is supposed to do.

In historical fiction, my favourite this year also has the serendipity of being written by a friend. Jim Wrenn by William Guerrant was inspired by a century-old clipping from his local newspaper. Spanning decades, we follow the fortunes of two children found by a farmer after their mother dies, and who raises them as the children he and his wife could never have. A beautiful story of the love of land and place, with tragedy, sacrifice and integrity at the core, a remarkable first novel by an author who is a farmer himself.

I usually find myself reading at least one novel set in the Second World War, and this year was no exception. The Baker’s Secret by Stephen P. Kiernan is the story of Emma and her village in coastal France, struggling under Nazi occupation. Every day she makes 14 loaves of bread from the flour the Germans provide, mixing it with ground straw to stretch it so she can keep 2 loaves to share with neighbors. She begins to network with others – an egg stolen here, fuel siphoned from an army motorcycle for the fishing boat there – as they struggle to survive. The subterfuge comes to light on the eve of the D Day landings, which are described in detail. Powerful storytelling.

Finally, as our culture appears to be becoming more understanding and compassionate of people living with mental illness, here are a couple of novels to further that journey. Everything Here Is Beautiful by Mira T. Lee, is the story of two sisters, the older of whom tries to protect her younger sister as her illness slowly asserts itself. First person narratives by the main characters lend an immediacy to this painful story of our powerlessness over illness in the lives of those we love.

The Memory of Light by Francisco X. Stork invites us into the lives of a group of young people struggling with mental illness, the main character having been hospitalized following an attempt to end her life. While I think his first novel is better, the dialogue in this one feels authentic, and I appreciated the hopeful tone throughout. (But my heart almost stopped with the last line, until I realized he was talking about a cat and not one of the characters. Note to self: never give similar names to characters and animals.)

Well, those were my Top Ten (plus two) novels of 2018. If you’re so inclined, leave me the title of your favorite novel (or two) in the comments!

 

(I link to Amazon as a convenience and as a participant in their Associates Program. I encourage you to buy books where you want to see them sold. Or check them out of your local library, which is what we typically do.)

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Caravans and changing rooms

I’ve been watching the excellent Amazon Original Series, ‘All or Nothing: Manchester City,’ which chronicles the remarkable and record-breaking 2017-2018 season the club enjoyed in the English Premier League. While there’s plenty of action on the pitch, much of the drama happens in the changing room, where Pep Guardiola inspires, cajoles and berates his players, who together form one of the most talented teams to ever play the beautiful game.

I was intrigued by glimpses of the writing above the players’ dressing area, which read, “Some are born here, some drawn here” and something else that wasn’t in the frame. I went online to see what the whole thing says, and this is what I found:

I became curious as to the origins of what I find to be a beautiful sentiment, and discovered that it’s a line from the poem, This is the place, written by Mancunian poet Tony Walsh, also known as ‘Longfella,’ his ode to the city he calls home. He recited it to a crowd of thousands at a vigil following the terrorist bombing of an Ariana Grande concert in 2017, in which 22 people were killed, and scores injured. It’s a powerful performance, worth taking 5 minutes to watch:

While it’s an ode to a particular city, it captures the love of a place that many of us have experienced, while invoking the very best of those who call that place home.

“Some are born here, some drawn here…” People continue to be drawn to the United States, believing that it can offer a better future than the one they face elsewhere. As I write, a caravan of people are walking thousands of miles to seek such a better future among those who already call this country home, some of whom were born here, while many others – myself included – were drawn here. Instead of wondering what those men, women and children who are wearing out their shoes and bodies in order to get here have to contribute to our shared life, some have already decided they have nothing to offer, or that they actually represent a threat to us, so much so that it is necessary to send thousands of troops to the border to ‘greet’ them. There is an undercurrent of fear and hate  in our midst that appears to be getting stronger, or at least, more visible.

It was fear and hate that led that man to strap bombs to himself in order to kill others in Manchester. The temptation is always to respond in kind when we’re afraid, and there will always be those who beat that drum to their own advantage. But as the poet Longfella reminded us – and it’s the poets and comedians who are the prophets in our midst – we are bigger, and better and stronger than that. His last words to the grieving crowds? “Choose love, Manchester.” In the face of those who call for fear and hate, may we, instead, choose love, wherever we are. Some were born here, some drawn here, but we all call it home.

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The price of protest

50 years ago yesterday, Tommie Smith and John Carlos walked to the podium at the Mexico City Olympic Games to receive gold and bronze medals in the 200 meter sprint, Tommie Smith having set a new world record in the process. Just another medal ceremony among many. Except this one would become an iconic moment in sports – and, arguably, world – history.

Smith and Carlos were students at San Jose State University. An invitation to South Africa to participate in the Games had prompted a call for a boycott in protest of apartheid, the threat of which caused the invitation to be withdrawn. But black athletes on the U.S. squad still discussed a possible protest against racial injustice in their own country. Earlier that year, Carlos had met with Martin Luther King Jr just a few weeks before the civil rights leader’s assassination. King suggested a nonviolent protest while all eyes were on Mexico. And so, as the American national anthem played, Smith and Carlos silently raised gloved fists.

The president of the International Olympic Committee immediately demanded the U.S. send the athletes home, or he would ban the entire U.S. team from further participation. They were stripped of their medals, and instead of the hero’s welcome medal winners might have expected, they received hate mail and death threats. They were banned for life from the Olympics, they found it hard to find employment, and their families suffered. They paid a heavy price for their peaceful protest.

But so did the silver medalist, whose name is not, perhaps, as well known.

Australian Peter Norman unexpectedly won a medal, breaking the Australian record for the 200m in doing so. But like his fellow athletes, instead of being welcomed home as a hero, he too suffered for his actions on that podium. The reason? If you look at the photo, you’ll see all three athletes wearing white badges, representing their support for the Olympic Project for Human Rights, which Norman asked if he could wear as a sign of solidarity with their protest. Refusing to decry Smith and Carlos’ actions upon his return home, he was also banned for life by the Australian Olympic Committee.

In 2008 Smith and Carlos received the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage. But ten years later, on the 50th anniversary of their iconic gesture, a new generation of black athletes find themselves the target of the same kind of vitriol and hatred as those Olympic sprinters did, for daring to non-violently protest institutional racism in the U.S. while all eyes are on their football stadiums. The insults, slurs and worse that they have endured from the highest level of public office down clearly indicate that there is still a large segment of the American populace that refuses to acknowledge the systemic racism that plagues society, 50 years after the civil rights’ movement. And so, when people protest, some continue to pay the price.

Even when the Olympics returned to Australia in 2000, Norman did not receive the customary invitation to attend as a former medalist. When the U.S Olympic Committee discovered this, they invited him to attend as a guest of Team USA.

Peter Norman died in 2006. Smith and Carlos traveled to Australia to be among his pallbearers, honoring their fellow athlete and friend. In 2012 the AOC finally issued a formal apology for the treatment he received at their hands, and earlier this year the organization awarded him the Order of Merit, their highest honor. Next year a statue honoring his legacy will be unveiled in his home city, Melbourne.

I heard Dr. Cornel West speak at an event in Cincinnati a couple of years ago. Someone raised the question of the importance of white allies in the struggle for equality. Dr West said something like, “Well, you know the trouble with allies is that they can end the alliance when the price gets too high. What we need are fellow freedom fighters, who will stay the course, and suffer alongside us.” Peter Norman’s quiet act of solidarity in 1968, and his refusal to denounce Smith and Carlos’ gesture, made him a pariah in his own country. When Victoria’s Sports Minister John Eren announced last month the plans to raise a statue in Norman’s honor, he said,

“Peter Norman stood up when others stood by – he deserves this honour and to be immortalised so his name and legacy live on forever.”

May the same be said of more of us in the fight to end systemic racism, wherever it exists.

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The Naked Man – pt. 54

For the setting and a cast of characters for this series, click here.

Mark gestured to the physicians sitting under the olive tree. “As my mother said, our practice of sharing resources across the rigid social lines we are expected to maintain continues to draw the same attention that Jesus’ actions did. I have mentioned before that the scribal class here in Jerusalem paid close attention to Jesus and his small school of disciples. Inevitably the Pharisees and some of those scribes came down from the city again and gathered around him. They had seen that some of his disciples were eating their bread with impure hands, that is, unwashed.

“As you know, the Pharisees do not eat unless they carefully wash their hands first, thus observing the traditions of the elders; and when they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they ritually purify themselves. And there are many other things which they have received from the tradition that they are expected to observe, such as the washing of cups and pitchers and copper pots. These dietary practices are part of the purity code which the scribes continue to defend as fundamental to our identity as Jews.”

Simeon spoke up. “But in reality, it is only the haverim – that extreme sect of the Pharisees – and some of the priests who keep these strict practices.” “Perhaps,” Rachel interjected, “But my father and his business partners insisted those practices applied to all who wished to believe themselves faithful to Torah. And woe betide me if I forgot to sprinkle my food with water before eating it. I can hear his lecture now: ‘Rachel – how do you know the farmer didn’t plant or harvest that grain on the sabbath? You threaten the purity of all at this table!’”

“Hah,” snorted Yiftach. “Spoken by someone who’s never got dirt under their fingernails. You plant seed when the ground is dry – even if that’s on the sabbath.” Rachel blushed and looked down. Yiftach, seeing this, spoke quickly, “I meant your father, Rachel. And men like him. The village Pharisees who constantly berated us about ritual purity. But how are fishermen supposed to observe the traditions of the elders when they’re constantly handling dead fish? Fish those same Pharisees are quite happy to eat, mind you.” Many heads nodded at Yiftach’s words.

“Well,” Mark said, “as I said, Jesus was on the end of the Pharisees’ critique again on this occasion. The scribes asked him, ‘Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat their bread with impure hands?’” Mark reached down and picked up a loaf of bread from a basket. “After Jesus called the crowd to him again, he began saying to them, ‘Listen to me, all of you, and understand.’” Mark held up the loaf. “There is nothing outside a man which, going into him, can defile him; but the things which proceed out of the man are what defile him.’

“After leaving the crowds behind, Jesus entered a house and his disciples questioned him about the parable he had told the crowd. Jesus said to them, ‘Are you so lacking in understanding also? Do you not understand that whatever goes into the man from outside cannot defile him; because it does not go into his heart, but into his stomach, and then is eliminated?’” Gesturing with the loaf, Mark said, “By saying that, Jesus declared all foods to be clean. Then he said, ‘That which proceeds out of the man, that is what defiles the man. For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed the evil thoughts, fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries, deeds of coveting and wickedness, as well as deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride and foolishness. All these evil things proceed from within and defile the man.’”

“Jesus relocates the boundaries for what is pure or impure from external ritual to internal disposition: from our bodies to our hearts. And the vices that defile us which Jesus lists are rooted in the Ten Words – the covenant that created our people, the Jews. The social boundaries maintained by the kosher diet and other aspects of the purity code of the Pharisees and the scribes are thus subverted and redrawn along moral lines.” Mark laid the bread back in the basket.

Miryam leaned forward to speak. “As we have heard over these past nights together, Jesus constantly violated the ritual purity laws. He touched those who would ‘defile’ his purity: lepers, the woman with the constant flow of blood – even the dead body of a little girl. Nor did he guard against the ‘defilement’ that comes through eating – for he ate with ‘sinners’ and tax collectors, with vast crowds, no way of knowing their suitability for table fellowship.

“But it is not that Jesus is unconcerned with what is ‘clean’ or ‘unclean’ – as my son has said, Jesus redefined what they mean. And why should he not? After all, did not G_d declare, ‘This is my beloved Son – listen to him’? Did not the demons declare that he is the ‘Holy One of Israel’? Jesus is not defiled by those he touches – rather, he makes them clean. Jesus continually crossed boundaries for the sake of bringing God’s mercy to others. And he calls us to the same. And so the question that is constantly before us is this: ‘What boundaries am I maintaining to preserve my personal ‘purity’? Who do I avoid for fear of ‘defilement’? What comes forth from my heart?”

Miryam’s questions were greeted by silence, as the assembly considered her words. The silence was broken by Rachel, who asked Mark, “So, did Jesus just ignore the scribes’ critique of his disciples?”

“Oh no,” Mark responded, a gleam in his eye. “He had something to say about that…”

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The Naked Man – pt. 53

For the setting and a cast of characters for this series, click here.

After finishing his meal, Mark looked around the courtyard at the gathered ecclesia. He noticed Yiftach and Adina in animated conversation and smiled. As Yiftach made a sweeping gesture, he noticed Mark’s gaze. The young man nodded in greeting, then turned back to Adina, who was trying to draw her friends into the conversation. I wonder what that’s all about, thought Mark. His mother laid a hand on his forearm. He turned toward her and caught the grimace of pain etched into her wrinkled face as she sat back. “Mother…” he began. She waved his concern off. “It is nothing, my son. Just the reality of living as long as I have. It will pass. Come, continue the story.” As Mark rose to his feet, he noticed another flash of pain on Miryam’s face.

“Sisters and brothers.” The murmur of conversation died down as Mark began to speak. “When we parted last night, we left the disciples astounded by what had happened on the sea of Galilee. The wind had blown them far off course, and so, instead of finding themselves at Bethsaida, when they had crossed over they came to land at Gennesaret. They moored to the shore and when they had climbed out of the boat, those on the shore immediately recognized Jesus. Unlike his disciples the night before!” He laughed. People ran about that whole area and began to carry those who were sick, lying on their sleeping mats, and brought them to the place where they heard Jesus was. Word had spread throughout the region that divine power to heal was present in Jesus, and crowds flocked to him, desperate for healing.” He glanced involuntarily at his mother, who gestured with her chin towards the crowd in the courtyard, re-directing his attention.

“As he traveled, wherever Jesus entered villages, or cities, or the countryside, they were laying the sick in the market places, and begging him to let them just touch the fringe of his cloak. The details of the healing of that courageous woman in Capernaum had been carried by merchants and herdsmen from village to village, and wherever Jesus went, he found hands reaching up to touch his cloak. And as many as touched it were being healed.”

Mark paused, and Rachel spoke into the momentary silence. “Is that power to heal still available? I mean, you believe that Jesus was raised from the dead, but it’s not like he’s here in this courtyard with you, is it?” Her tone was skeptical, but not mocking. “There are many in this city who carry wounds and suffer with broken limbs from all the fighting. Can you help them?” “And,” continued Yiftach, “when the Romans lay siege to the city, there will be many, many more.”

It was Miryam who responded to their earnest questions. Leaning forward, a smile tinged with pain on her face, she said, “Yes, the power of G_d to heal is still present, and we pray for those in need of it. But our intercession does not always lead to the healing and relief for which we pray. Some of us have experienced healing, but clearly not all those who suffer have had their needs met.” She turned to Mark. “I confess that I sometimes wonder why the power we experienced in those early days after Jesus returned to G_d seems…not so present these years later.”

Before her son could respond she continued. “But divine healing is not always miraculous. There are some here who have been healed through the generous care of physicians.” Miryam gestured towards a couple of men seated under the olive tree. “Physicians whose care they could never have afforded but for the love we share as a fellowship. And, ultimately, it is that love that heals us. Not necessarily of our physical ills, but of our sin-sickness, our isolation, our fear, our bitterness and resentment, all that keeps us separate and divided from one another – and from G_d. That is the true healing of which we all have need.” The lines of pain in her face faded with the joy that now shone in her expression. Miryam reclined once more.

“That may be so,” responded Yiftach. “But when disease and injuries prevent you from participating in the life of our people, physical healing is a necessary step to that other kind of healing.” “Indeed,” responded Mark. “But it’s not only disease or injury that is the cause of the exclusion people experience…”

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A simple practice for a more intentional life

  • Do you feel a little frayed around the edges?
  • Do you go from one thing to the next without a pause?
  • Do you fall into bed exhausted without having physically exerted yourself?
  • Do the days just blur together?
  • Do you go from book to book, from one TV show to the next, from movie to movie and then find a couple of months later you don’t really remember what you read or watched?

If you can answer ‘yes’ to any or all of those questions, then I’m pretty confident that regular self-reflection is not part of your life. So many of us have been trained to stay busy all the time, to wear our tiredness as a badge of honor, to pack as much into our day as possible, that we rarely take time to reflect on what we actually did. And so we move through life at a frantic pace, even when sitting down to read or watch a screen, and thereby miss so much of the life we’re living.

A decade ago I had the privilege of hearing Fr. Matt Linn speak at a retreat in Houston, and became curious about one of the practices of St. Ignatius which he led us in – the ‘examen.’ I picked up a copy of the beautiful book he co-wrote about the examen, Sleeping with Bread, and began to practice it with my wife, Rebecca. When our kids were old enough, we began to share the practice with them. It remains part of our bedtime rhythm with our now 14 and almost 13 year olds.

At the heart of the examen lie two questions:

  • “What was I most grateful for today?”
  • “What was I least grateful for today?”

Simple questions, certainly, but ones which require a slowing down, a reflection on the day we have just experienced, paying attention not only to what we did, but also to how we felt, what we heard, what we saw, what we learned, perhaps. Some days we find our answers immediately spring to mind. Other days it takes time to identify what the questions ask of us. Occasionally I find myself unable to answer one of them.

While I imagine the vast majority of Socrates’ contemporaries were struggling just to survive rather than engaging in philosophical discussion for hours on end, his sentiment offers an invitation to commit some portion of our day to paying attention to what it might teach us. The examen is a simple way to do so, a daily practice that may begin to shape how we live the rest of our lives – with more intention.

When our kids were younger we asked the questions in simpler terms:

  • “What was your happy thing today?”
  • “What was your sad thing today?”

Or,

  • “What was the honey in your day?”
  • “What was the sting?”

Whatever form of the questions you choose, I encourage you to try this practice for a week and see what you notice about your life. Perhaps keep a journal of your answers and see if there’s a common thread that may invite a response of some kind. If you share living space with others, perhaps share in the practice together. St Ignatius would encourage you to pause and become aware of God’s presence before you ask the questions, and, after you’ve answered them, conclude by looking ahead and asking where you will need God in the day to come.

I hope you find the practice of the examen as meaningful as our family has.

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