Sunday, August 14, 2011

Summer Reading and Some Help

I am ashamed of myself. I call myself a writer, and yet I have allowed 7.5 months to go by before updating my blog. But I have a pretty good excuse: I delivered another freelance project for the non-profit I’ve been involved with for the past two years. My writing mojo had been netted by a topical study of the Life of Peter. And if that pass doesn’t work, there’s always the good ol’ alibi of: parent.

And my role as parent is actually going to serve as the theme for today’s blog. So, to begin, what good parent doesn’t intentionally allow themselves to be shackled every now and then to a book or two every summer? I mean, some of my happiest childhood memories are of seeing both parents’ noses in books as I snuck past their bedroom door at night…and through the living room…and into the garage…and to a lot of places. Books are good. And a good book means your parents are actually “checked out” for a few moments while you retrieve that household object that works so well against your neighborhood enemy, such as granddad’s Winchester.

Here’s what I digested this summer, on the beach, on the patio, in the a/c, everywhere:

Heaven is For Real (Todd Burpo with Lynn Vincent) – a magnificent little book that many by now have read. Sitting on the beach at Port Aransas in early June, a passerby remarked on reading it, and as I joyfully spilled out its contents to the kids at dinner that evening, a nearby patron also joined in on the conversation, pointing out details I hadn’t thought about.

This book contains no less than the hard presence of Jesus. I felt as though I had actually been given a vision of the Lord – quite unexpectedly for this summer and certainly undeservedly. Of course, you have to believe in him first – not just that he existed/exists – but that he actually died for you. My Aunt Donna gave me this book this year, and she is two for two on absolute gems for summer (Her previous winner from 2009 was Dinner with a Perfect Stranger by David Gregory).

Day of War (Cliff Graham) – A fellow author from Tate Publishing recommended this awesome retelling of 1 Samuel 28-31 from the point of view of one of David’s Mighty Men. Graham, a retired military chaplain, spent extensive time in Israel studying the ancient land’s topography as well as hours upon hours immersed in Jewish histories to recreate the as yet unclaimed Promised Land during the kingdom of Saul. But what makes the book as compelling as it is illuminating is Graham’s knowledge of personal combat and its impact on the body. My joints ached after reading the story.

Through his fiction, Pastor Graham also presents a fascinating idea about how the Holy Spirit may impact the physical body while God’s will is being executed with it. Most important, Day of War presents David as never before: a truly charismatic leader who was as ruthless as he was tender. As with Heaven is for Real, the reader is in for some vivid experiences if his/her heart is open while reading.

Only Angels are Bulletproof (Emily Ann Benedict) - I was interested in this crime novel sent in L.A. because its author wanted to create genre characters with faith dimensions. Imagine if any of the main characters on CSI or NCIS found themselves having to consider seriously the divine as the result of one of their cases.

Benedict puts some interesting people on the page and does an excellent job of taking her main character through a dynamic faith change. The story slows a bit when it should keep moving, but it is otherwise a great first novel. I have been there. I still am.

The Help (Dreamworks)- this is the one “book” I only read through the screen this summer. My parents couldn’t put down the book form. I couldn’t stop my tears during the movie version.

To read the critics on this movie is to know once-and-for-all that race in America is a sensitive subject only when elites want it to be. I think that is why this book/movie has experienced wild popularity: the people have willed that they want to know what they knew, not merely from the civil rights era, but from their own homes! For a large chunk of upper middle class Americans, especially in the South, Texas and lower Midwest, there was no “civil rights era”; they called it “childhood.”

My sister (two years younger) and I are quite possibly the very last Americans to have experienced the everyday presence of a black woman in our home who was not just responsible for our daily lives, but who executed the role of maternal nurturer very much like Aibileen Clark. Our mother’s housekeeper was named Frances Wesley. Frances’ single greatest contribution to me was an uncanny, serene blend of trust and self-reliance in the face of a hostile world. Frances experienced raw discrimination at the hands of one of Dallas’ leading hospitals, only to trust God and use a gifted intelligence to persist in bettering herself in Jim Crow Texas. She built her own home in spite of an alcoholic husband who died young, refusing to be bitter (at least the years I knew her). She never had children of her own; she told my sister and I that we were her children, even though she was 60 before knowing us. It’s only my opinion, but a male child’s best model for trust comes from the mother, not the father. This is because in a natural sense, the child first depends on his mother for survival, who must then trust in whatever her resources are for the pair’s survival, preferably a good husband. If the mother can trust, that is successfully modeled for the son. If she can’t, the anxiety instead is translated.

Sure, Viola Davis’ Aibileen is surrounded by “stereotypical” Hollywood blacks in the movie, but to sling this at The Help is simply cheap copy by reporters trying to brown-nose their liberal buddies. I mean, come on, it’s the movies. What found me weeping at various moments in the film was not the tenuous struggle for dignity that many black Americans faced during this time (though that story gets some good play here), but the yearning that The Help’s children, young and old, had for maternal care – for that desire to trust and to know who to trust.

Think about parenting today. God bless every mother who takes a minute in the morning to tell their child they is kind, smart and important. But anyone who is providing Aibileen-style care to today’s two-year-old is certainly the exception. Why? Because it isn’t the American way to parent. American parenting is centered on one thing: raising successful children. Not even successful adults, but successful children.

Our society stands on the ledge today because of a crisis of proper parenting. The gradual urbanization of the past 100 years has allowed one generation’s selfishness and narcissism to enslave them to wealth, status and convenience such that they haven’t been able to properly nurture their children. Not just in Jackson, Mississippi, but everywhere American parents have expected someone else to do their job, many of who in turn had to abandon their role as parent to their own children. If those kids, then, were from a bad neighborhood, parenting was left to the local gang.

So the nerve, I think, that this movie hits is a uniquely American sense of the hits and misses we have as parents today. I saw The Help amidst a mass of North Dallas humanity this weekend at Northpark. Even though the theater was dark, I could tell that many of the movie watchers at the 1pm matinee hadn’t been to the movies in a long time. I’m guessing that many of them were like me. I’m sure many of them had someone in their home who was a blessed nurturer, and they wondered why life and/or their fellow man had been unfair to them. My hope is that most of them left the movie as I did, grateful for who has cared for me, but daunted at how pitifully inadequate I am to care for my own children. Gonna need some help.