Prayers for Our Country, Week 2

This week, I pray that God through Christ will redeem us from our anger, even viciousness, towards each other, and make us peaceable people. From the Book of Common Prayer:

O God, you made us in your own image and redeemed us
through Jesus your Son: Look with compassion on the whole
human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which
infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us;
unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle and
confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth; that, in
your good time, all nations and races may serve you in
harmony around your heavenly throne; through Jesus Christ
our Lord. Amen.

Peace, of all things I am praying for this last month before the election, is perhaps the most needed.

Personally, I have tempted time and again towards arrogance, even anger.

One of my colleagues at work has a sticker outside her office for the candidate I am not supporting. Every time I pass that sticker, I resist the temptation to yank it off her door. A friend of mine makes a snarky comment about the candidate I am voting for, and again I bite my tongue.

I am thankful for the Lord’s grace towards me, in helping me keep silence when I am tempted to speak unkindly. But this is not enough. I pray that I will not feel unkindly, either. I pray the same for you, and for my colleague and my friends, and those of us in the United States who seek to walk with God at this time.

Whatever our differences, may we be one in Christ.

And I pray that those who are not in Christ may find Him, so that they too may share in our unity – if not now, then in Heaven.

Even so come, Lord Jesus.




Prayers for Our Country

I have been deeply troubled by the anger and violence in the lead up to the discussion. Today, I pray that we will minister peace, not foment ill will. I pray that we will be like Christ in our interactions with each other.

I share this prayer from St. Francis to guide our thoughts:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace:
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy.

O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

And I also share a complementary passage from 2 Corinthians 5, which I was reading this morning.

God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; 19 that is, in Christ God was reconciling[c] the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. 20 Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.

May God send us all peace in this turbulent time.

Prayers for our Country

As a college student, I was a proud Republican. Freshmen year, I told my RA that my favourite chapel all year was the one announcing that George W Bush won the 2004 presidential election. (She looked slightly horrified.)

Like other Midwestern Republicans, I bemoaned the loosening moral fibre of our country. I attended conferences calling for a national revival, and I eagerly read books published by conservative talk show hosts.

Since then, I’ve become much more politically moderate. (It’s complicated.)

Yet during this election season, I find myself again concerned for our country, for our culture. My heart is heavy whenever I see how divisive and polarized our conversations are. I am deeply troubled by the misogyny, the threats, and the vitriol on all sides of the campaign. Ignorance, not wisdom, is celebrated. Nobody is willing to be honest and transparent; nobody is willing to be gracious.

And the campaigns’ tone, I feel, simply reflects the broader spirit of the country. We are quick to share our own opinion, and slow to listen; quick to point fingers, slow to accept blame; quick to bully and harass and kill each other, slow to turn the other cheek. We are more likely to slam the door in someone’s face than we are to welcome and help them.

We are wrestling with hard social questions, from police accountability to racism to freedom of speech to drug usage and poverty among the working poor.

We are distracted from what is truly important. In love with our own stuff, we accumulate material goods and map out own own lives, unmoored from community, and we do not notice that we are on the broad road which leads to destruction.

I realize that the situation is not so bleak as I paint it. I’m a glass half empty person; can you tell? Yes, there is a lot of good in the world.

Yet the fact remains that this summer and autumn have been uniquely stressful for our country, and have exposed deep and painful wounds in our cultural fabric.

And so I come to the purpose of this post: We are four Tuesdays out from Election Day (including the day itself), and I have decided to devote time every Tuesday to praying for our country.

I invite you to join me.

Every Tuesday, I will post a prayer for our country, likely taken from those written by church leaders but perhaps also from the Psalms. In the evening, I will spend time in prayer for our country.

I do not presume to dictate the subject of your prayers. We who follow Christ are scattered all over the political spectrum. Some of us will vote for one presidential candidate; some for the other; some will not vote at all. We do not even share the same burdens; some of us will pray for racial reconciliation in our country; some for unwed mothers; some for an end to homelessness.

The point is not to pray about the same things but to pray to the same God, our Father who carries our burdens with us, who cares for us, and who has promised that He will work mightily if we approach Him together.

Please join me in praying every Tuesday for our country for the next month. If you are so moved, you are welcome to share this post with your friends and family, that they too may join us in praying that our country will know God’s redeeming, healing love.

I want to close with Jesus’s words to His disciples, from Matthew 11.28-29:

Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.


Sci-Fi to Read When

a-fire-upon-the-deepAbout a month ago, I guested on a podcast with the Sectarian Review, on science fiction & theology. As I wait for the episode to drop this Thursday, I wanted to put together a short list of some of my favourite science fiction stories. (In fact, depending on when you get around to reading this post, the episode may already by out!)

These are stories that have stuck with me, their themes lingering at the corners of my consciousness. Some are funny; others, thought-provoking. All are memorable. I’ve included novels I mentioned on the show (they’re just that good!), but I’ve tried to include a few I didn’t get a chance to mention, as well.

I’m not very good at writing those little “hooks” that are meant to sell stories. So instead, I’ve listed the books below, using the “to read when” blurb to provide a clue to the themes of the novel and then simply adding a note about what I appreciated.

In no particular order, here the novels are:

To read if you’re new to science fiction: War of the Worlds, by HG Wells. To be fair, when I taught a course in science fiction, my students didn’t altogether appreciate this story; they found it dull. But this was the first true science fiction novel I ever read (I was about fifteen at the time) and the slow dawning of strangeness in the novel, the utter alienness of the Martians, horrified and fascinated me. I could not, I found, read the novel at bedtime, lest I be unable to sleep for terror, but the gulf here between what was real and what was imagined whetted my appetite for science fiction. Delightful.

To read if you want more alien aliens: A Fire Upon the Deep, by Vernor Vinge. This is a seriously underappreciated novel; I almost never meet anyone who has read it. But when even the bulbous Martians of Wells’s novel are prosaic, the aliens in Vinge’s novel are thrillingly different. One is a hive mind. Another is (I kid you not!) shaped like a bush, and uses a voder for a voice. The cast of characters reads like they were recruited from the Star Wars cantina.

Along with its really alien aliens, the novel has some impressive world-building, essentially creating a tiered or ringed universe, along with a brand-new planet for its characters to explore and survive.

More seriously, the novel raises some really good questions: Are we created good or evil? If we are created evil, can we escape our destiny? How do we treat those who are different than us, especially if (we imagine that) they are responsible for destroying parts of our civilization? I read this novel when the debate about accepting refugees kicked into high gear in the US, in December 2015, and I found the novel very relevant to that debate.

the-eyre-affairTo read when you need a laugh: The Eyre Affair, by Jasper Fforde. (Yes it’s spelled with two Fs.) Full of British humor, full of literary puns, this novel is set in an alternate-timeline version of 1985 England and follows the adventures of literary detective Thursday Next, as she tries to rescue Jane Eyre when the heroine is literally kidnapped from the pages of her own novel.

One of the things I appreciate the most about science fiction (and fantasy, for that matter) is creative world-building. This novel had creative world-building in spades. The whole set-up is strange, and hilariously so: There are vending machines that dispense Shakespearean verse, it’s against the law to impersonate Byron, literal bookworms allow you to enter into (and exit from) your favourite novels, and people travel back and forth in time arguing about what colour to paint the walls. The novel has some thoughtful themes, but honestly? You can’t think seriously all the time, and this novel is a nice break from some heavier reading material.

To read if you’re a book-before-the-movie person: Children of Men, by PD James. I have both read the movie and seen the book, and despite the praise heaped on the movie, I find the book better. More nuanced, better characterized, the novel, through the growth of the central character Theodore Faron, tries to explain what makes humankind worth saving, and where our inner moral compass, particularly courage and hope, comes from.

I especially found the novels’ fertility motif interesting. Obviously, the whole premise of the book is that humanity cannot have children and therefore stands on the brink of (a passive) destruction, but its sterility crops up other ways, too: people’s inability to maintain real relationships, their preferences for animal over human companionship, and the difficulty in committing to faith, in the presence of doubt.

Or, still in the book-before-the-movie vein, you could read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, by PKD, the basis for cult classic Blade Runner. Again, I’ve seen the movie and read the book, and I got more out of the book. The Sectarian Review episode prior to mine addressed the social critiques that this book levels, against consumerism and social media (over)usage, against our lack of empathy, but what I found truly interesting were the religious themes of this novel. At the heart of the characters’ spiritual lives is Mercerism,  a kind of mashup between Buddhism and Christianity founded by a guy named (duh) Mercer. People who follow this religion get in touch with Mercer through one of the technical devices available in the time period; but its not clear how real this faith actually is. Regardless, the novel wonders whether the religion can do its characters good, even if it turns out to be fake? Can faith be justified even if we suspect that the object of our faith is misplaced?

Since the main character of the novel is a self-described bounty hunter, the novel also argues that sin is pervasive, an inescapable part of being human:

“You will be required to do wrong wherever you go. It is the basic condition of life, to be required to violate your own identity. At some time, every creature who lives must do so. It is the ultimate shadow, the defeat of creation; this is the curse at work, the curse that feeds on all human life.”

To read with Wendell Berry: Feed, by MT Anderson. The title of the novel does not (as I originally thought) refer to animal feed but rather to the feed of the Internet, which has been implanted in our brans. Impressively, the novel invents and consistently maintains a peculiar speaking style for its protagonist Titus, a teenager; broken and filled with advertising blurbs, the style complements the novel’s themes of thoughtless consumerism, and wealth inequality. Darkly humorous.

imagesTo read when Amazon debuts its newest drone: The Circle, by Dave Eggers. This novel follows Mae Holland in her first months at a new Internet company, a mashup of Facebook, Amazon, Google, and Twitter. I already worry that the Internet’s arms have grown too long, and this novel simply fed that worry. In particular, I appreciated its suggestion that the Internet’s greatest tools – the ability to track things, the ability to provide complete transparency – are perhaps not the pure goods we imagine they are.

To read whenever you think humankind is about to destroy itself: Canticle for Leibowitz, by Walter M. Miller. Set in the world of post-nuclear war, this novel follows the fortunes of an abbeyful of monks entrusted with the safekeeping of humankind’s accumulated knowledge. I loved the black humor and abrupt style of this novel, its suggest that perhaps scientific knowledge is not all its cracked up to be, and that for all our wisdom, we are prone to destroy ourselves. Delightfully, tantalizingly, Canticle ends with a touch of magical realism, a hint that our salvation lies not in science but in the incomprehensible divine.

To read for a good AI: The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, by Robert Heinlein. The novel is set on the Moon (now Earth’s penal colony and its chief supplier of ice and water) and charts the political revolt that the lunar inhabitants engineered, to defend themselves against the rapaciousness of Earth.

Like Feed, this novel creates and maintains an impressive slang for its (criminal underclass) lunar characters; the slang seems to be loosely, and appropriately, based on that of Australia, similarly a penal colony. But the best part of Moon is its AI, the supercomputer who makes the entire revolt possible: funny, and more human than nearly any other character, the computer is the star of the show and makes what could be a grim political tale a heartwarming one.

To read when you want to know more about science fiction: Of Other Worlds: Essays & Stories, by C.S. Lewis. This was some of the first literary criticism I ever read, let alone the first literary criticism on science fiction. Lewis does an excellent job articulating the qualities that makes science fiction, science fiction. He divvies the genre into several different categories (for instance, dividing mechanical science fiction such as Verne’s novels from stranger ones like David Lindsay’s Voyage to Arcturus) and he amply defends the value of a genre devoted to exploring the strange and otherworldly.

For what it’s worth, Lewis packs his essays full of examples, and so for someone looking to dig up more science fiction, particularly very early science fiction, his essays are a good place to start.

To read when you’re feeling down: The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell. I reference this novel, a longstanding favorite, on the show. It’s a first-contact novel, always a delight, and peopled with an interesting cast of characters who I wish existed in real life so I could befriend them, eat with them, and explore with them.

But it’s also refreshingly honest about what suffering feels like. We Christians, knowing that God has a purpose for our pain, all too easily gloss over genuine suffering. Faced with someone who is in pain, we reassure them that God’s sovereignty will make all well in the end, skipping over the very painful experience they are living right now. 

The Sparrow does not do this. Rather, it captures well the unresolvable tension we feel between knowing that God loves us and finding ourselves in the midst of great, and sometimes unbearable, suffering:

There’s an old Jewish story that says in the beginning God was everywhere and everything, a totality. But to make creation, God had to remove Himself from some part of the universe, so something besides Himself could exist. So He breathed in, and in the places where God withdrew, there creation exists.”

So God just leaves?”

No. He watches. He rejoices. He weeps. He observes the moral drama of human life and gives meaning to it by caring passionately about us, and remembering.”

Matthew ten, verse twenty-nine: Not one sparrow can fall to the ground without your Father knowing it.”

But the sparrow still falls.”

And I’ll leave you there.

If my busy semester (grading, lesson planning, designing one online course and taking another!) leaves me time, I will post a list of recommended SF films in the next few weeks.

Till then, happy reading!

On Living in an Atomic Age

Facebook Memories reminded me yesterday that two years ago, I posted this quotation from C.S. Lewis’s essay, “On Living in an Atomic Age”:

It is our business to live by our own law, not by hers [the law of Nature]: to follow, in private or in public life, the law of love and temperance even when they seem to be suicidal, and not the law of competition and grab, even when they seem to be necessary to our survival. For it is part of our spiritual law never to put survival first: not even the survival of our species. We must resolutely train ourselves to feel that survival of our species is not worth having unless it can be had by honourable and merciful means.

Written to his fellow Englishmen during the beginnings of the Cold War, this essay also begins with this excellent and hilarious exhortation:

The first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together. If we are going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, then let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things – praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts – not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs.

Autumn 2016 is atomic in a number of metaphorical ways: most notably politically and culturally, as we face down the Clinton-Trump election.

But it’s also personally atomic. It is October, and as I face down the first batch of Composition grading (coming in on Tuesday!) and tie up the final project for an online course of my own, I am realizing how way, way overcommitted I am this semester.

And so I find Lewis’s remarks to those who feel as though they live on the brink of destruction a good reminder.

I share them here as a kind of blessing, to you and me as we live through our own mini atomic age. May we all, no matter how insane the world around us, live sensible, human, and merciful lives.