Lenten Devotion Day 10 March 4, 2023

Today’s reading from Good Courage referred to the Star Thrower, or Star Fish story by Loren Eiseley. There are lots of versions of it online, in text form, and as videos. It’s a simple, inspiring story, that addresses the question of whether good, but small actions are worth doing, in the face of the world’s overwhelming problems and needs.

Here is an interpretation created about a year ago:

Books I’ve read in 2023

My son keeps a list of the books he reads, albums he listens to, and movies he watches. I’ve long thought this was a great idea. For 2023 I plan to keep a record of what I read. I’ve started with the fiction, but am now wondering about including the non-fiction.

(Part 1: Jan-Feb, and a hint of March)

January 1, 2023. The Night Fire by Michael Connelly. 2019. This is the third novel to focus on LAPD night-shift detective Renee Ballard. It also the 22nd featuring Detective Harry Bosch.

Noting this helps me recall that I’ve read these other Ballard books:

The Dark Hours (2021)

Dark Sacred Night (2018)

The Late Show (2017)

I will look to read the new one, Desert Star (2022), when I can.
January 4, 2023 The Foulest Things by Amy Tector. I read it because a reviewer mentioned Louise Penny liked it. It was well constructed, with distinct characters, except for 2-3 women who worked with the protagonist at the archives- they all blended together, which was at times confusing. I might read more in this series, just because of the Ottawa setting.

January 5, 2023. The Recovery Agent, by Janet Evanovich. The first in a new series by the author of the Stephanie Plum novels. Essentially the same style, and patterns of dialogue. Gabriella Rose chases after lost or stolen items. Stephanie Plum finds people who skipped out on bail. The similarity was magnified because I listened to the audio version, which I think has the same narrator as the Plum stories.
January 17, 2023 The Scarecrow by Michael Connelly. Second in his series featuring reporter Jack McEvoy and FBI agent Rachel Walling. They work together to defeat and capture a serial killer who uses the internet to identify victims and set up others to take the fall for his crimes. McEvoy is the protagonist/narrator. He does not seem to have the depth of Bosch, Ballard, or Haller, but I’ve admittedly read more titles featuring them. I started the first in this series, The Poet, and quickly realized I’d already listened to it, probably the COVID summer I cycled big kilometres every day with a book in my ear.
January 23, 2023 The Overlook by Michael Connelly. Another Harry Bosch crime story. In his timeline, it follows the events at Echo Park. Harry and his ex-girl friend FBI agent Rachel Walling work together to solve a murder made to look like an attempt by foreign terrorists to acquire medical cesium to build a radioactive dirty bomb. I have never sat down to sort out how many of the Bosch books I’ve read, so it seems like each time, I jump in at a different place in his timeline. Connelly is pretty good at providing enough context to sort it out as I read. Wikipedia says this #13 in the Bosch book series, published in 2007. In it, Bosch can barely work his cell phone.

January 26, 2023 Cold Storage Alaska by John Straley. Published in 2013. The first I have read by the author laureate of Alaska, who is also a private investigator. Filled with quirky characters, a long slow burn of a plot, and wonderful evocative descriptions of locale. This is part of a series about an isolated village on the Alaskan coast. I will definitely read more. I noted that he wrote “over the heads” of several major characters, allowing depth of character development, and a roving point of view that worked well. 

January 30, 2023 Upright Women Wanted, by Sarah Gailey. Published in 2020. This novella was recommended by my daughter who is a librarian. It is a story set in a future history in which the United States is broken into smaller territories, and there is some kind of war going on which claims much of the available wealth and resources. We meet a trio of traveling Librarians, who have license to make their way on the broken down highways that link communities in a new “old west”. The most common mode of transport is horse and wagon, and the Librarians wear badges, ride horses, and wield six-shooters. They are also smugglers, moving contraband books and other media, as well as supplies for the “insurrectionists”. The background society described is reactionary and homophobic. The Librarians we meet in the story are other than hetero-normative, which comes as a shock, and eventually a liberating relief to the young protagonist, a young woman who is struggling to claim her own identity, and who fled her home community after her lesbian lover was hanged for possession of subversive materials. This novel is less about plot, and more about the protagonists movement from grief and fear and towards love, purpose, community, and self-acceptance. I appreciated this character arc, and get how important it is. At the same time, the book carries the burden of being a bit preachy/teachy (pedantic) and at times I wondered if I was reading a YA book.
February 5, 2023 Desert Star by Michael Connelly, 2022. This is one I’d been waiting to read. Now retired LAPD homicide investigator Harry Bosch is recruited by Detective Renee Ballard to serve as a volunteer on the open/unsolved “Cold Case” unit she has re-established. They work together to close long unsolved cases, one of which was close to Bosch’s heart. One of the things I respect about the author is he allows his protagonists to grow, change, and age in real-time. In this novel, Bosch is 72 and feeling it. He has serious health issues, and there are hints/red herrings dropped that this is his last case. There are also “cameos” by his daughter, Maddie, who is now an LAPD street cop, and his half-brother, Mickey Haller, the defense attorney also known in another Connolly series as the Lincoln Lawyer.
February 5, 2023. Bloody Genius, by John Sandford, 2019. This is the 12th in a series about Virgil Flowers, an investigator with Minnesota’s Bureau of Criminal Apprehension. I will be reading more of these. Flowers wears band t-shirts and jeans and drives a Chevy Tahoe, and lives on a horse farm, and takes on special assignments when a mess needs to be cleaned up. He’s also a part-time writer, and likes to read mystery fiction. In this one, he works his way through a James Lee Burke novel when he’s not hunting the killer of a university professor and medical researcher. Two things I especially liked in this one were Sandford’s deft handling of a point of view behind, but not in Virgil’s head, and the way he used conversations between Virgil and other characters to reveal the detective’s thought process in searching for the killer. Less appealing in the book was the sometimes gratuitous use of profanity, in places that didn’t require it for drama or character revelation.
February 10, 2023 The Woman Who Married a Bear (1992). This mystery novel by the former writer laureate of Alaska, is the first in John Straley’s series about private investigator Cecil Younger. Straley’s descriptions of locale are incredible, and his turns of phrase about characters are compact, nuanced, and very effective. The impression I had was of not so much being told a story as shown one, with me as reader doing some of the work of noticing how elements could connect. I like this approach, and to some degree have attempted it in my own writing. It is a contrast with the “think it through out loud” method, that reminds the reader what needs to be considered, in the solution of the crime. The third to last paragraph of the last chapter, contains a lovely line about the function of myth. The investigator reflects on the folktale that gives the book its title, The Woman Who Married a Bear, which was told to him by the matriarch who hired him to find her son’s killer. He wonders if the old woman told him the story to “ease me along the path of her own suspicions”, but he chose not to ask. He decided, and this is the line I love, “Most old stories don’t have anything to do with facts; they’re the box that all the facts came in.” 
February 16, 2023 Holy Ghost by John Sandford. 2018. Eleventh in the Vernon Flowers series, immediately previous to Bloody Genius. I again enjoyed the use of the narrator who told the story from “over the shoulder” of several characters, including at one point, “the shooter”. That was a careful tease that actually contributed to the confusion over their identity. I continue to zlso enjoy the way the protagonist talks out his theories of the crime, or lack of theories, with those in his company. It provides a particular kind of characterization, and avoids lines like “Flowers thought it possible the killer was one of the nuns from Uruguay.” (There are no Uruguayan religious in the book, so that wasn’t a spoiler.)
March 3, 2023 Babel, by R.F. Kuang. 2022. Rebecca Kuang is a Chinese-American scholar, and fantasy writer. She holds degrees from Georgetown University, Cambridge, Oxford, and she’s currently at Yale working on a PhD in Asian languages. Her familiarity with the higher end of the academic world comes through in this historical fantasy, set in Victorian England. I enjoyed her view of that society, and the rarefied circles of Old Oxford, described from the perspective of people of colour who are recruited to do a special kind of magic that undergirds the industrial progress and colonial expansion of the Empire. The full title: Babel, or the Necessity of Violence is a nod at one of the important themes of the book. The colonial project is both furthered and maintained by systemic violence, racism, classism, and the subjugation of the people of non-white nations, and the threat of military force. To undo, or dismantle this empire would seem to require something like a civil war. She succeeds in making the novel a meditation on the human cost of imperial capitalism. My only criticisms are that her passion for linguistics seems to lead her to some awkward word choices, and that at over 1400 (Kindle) pages, it’s a long read.

I checked to see the page count in hardcover- it’s 544- which is still a lot!

Lenten Devotion Day 9 March 2, 2023

Does suffering produce character? The writer of today’s devotion began with this quote from Paul’s Letter to the Romans:

And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. (Romans 5: 3– 5)

A similiar question came up in our first online discussion of Good Courage. We are ZOOMing every Wednesday night for the remainder of Lent. In a conversation about Hope, I mentioned that a thought that instilled hope in me during the early COVID lockdowns was the oft-quoted line from Julian of Norwich.

“All will be well, and all be well, and all manner of things will be well.”

In the group we discussed how we would be careful about using this quote to “make someone feel better”.

The discussion led me to take another look at Julian’s Revelations:

“And in this he showed me a little thing, the quantity of a hazel nut, lying in the palm of my hand, as it seemed. And it was as round as any ball. I looked upon it with the eye of my understanding, and thought, ‘What may this be?’ And it was answered generally thus, ‘It is all that is made.’ I marveled how it might last, for I thought it might suddenly have fallen to nothing for littleness. And I was answered in my understanding: It lasts and ever shall, for God loves it. And so have all things their beginning by the love of God.

In this little thing I saw three properties. The first is that God made it. The second that God loves it. And the third, that God keeps it.”

I wonder if what Paul calls character is actually something like the outer shell around our true selves, which has to grow, and catch up to the sense of assurance that lies deep within, that we are in God’s hands, and whatever happens, we are okay, even when we are not.

This is also not something I am likely to say to someone who’s having a very bad time. Especially if what I’m really trying to do is comfort them, so their discomfort won’t discomfort me.

Lenten Devotion Day 8 Mar 2, 2023

Today’s devotion in Good Courage invited readers to consider times we have been given a gift of hope.

I was in my last year of university, living in an “apartment” in the attic of a tiny house. The kitchen, actually the landing between 2 small upstairs rooms, was home to a bar fridge that doubled as the food prep surface, and the place I put the hot plate, when I needed it. Accomodations were simple, but adequate, and pretty much all I could afford.

I worked the night shift on the front desk of a downtown hotel, and did my homework after the bar closed and the place got quiet. I was careful to only take afternoon or evening classes, so I could go home after each 11-7 shift, and catch some sleep before school. I was grateful to have a job, and be able to study. I needed to complete an undergraduate degree as the pre-requisite to study theology.

I also needed to apply to seminary, by a certain date. There was an application fee. I didn’t have it. There were scholarships and bursaries I later accessed, as a candidate for ministry enrolled in a program, but none for those about to apply.

The women’s group at my home church, which included several of my former Sunday School teachers had said they’d help, but it was going to take a week or so to pass a motion, and issue a cheque.

A person I’d met at church function, who was on a teacher exchange from another province offered to help. We’d known each other only a few days- but he handed me the cash. I told him I’d return it when the church ladies came through. He told me not to worry.

It was good, to not have to worry.

Lenten Devotion Day 7 March 1, 2023

What does it mean to you, to “have faith”? Is faith something you feel, like courage, or fear, or joy, or despair?

Today’s devotional writer reveals that her faith includes a healthy dose of doubt.

When I think about it, most of what I recognize as thoughts, feelings, moods, emotions within me, are all complex. Do I ever feel just one thing at a time? Do you?

I can be very excited about a new project, or idea, and also feel hesitant, and unsure.

When I feel happy to have a day off, that feeling can be shadowed, or perhaps seasoned by the sense of obligation I feel about things I’ve left undone.

I can feel trust that there is a loving God, at work in the universe, and still have questions about how that God goes about their work, and what actually catches that God’s attention.

I have mixed emotions.

Learning time for the 1st Sunday of Lent Feb 26/2023

Children’s time: A Jesus Story about choices

I want to tell you a story about Jesus. Before he became famous, and very busy helping people, and telling them about how much God loved them, he spent some time in a very quiet place. It was a place away from the town he lived in. It was a wilderness, where there were no houses, or streets, or other people. He prayed, and thought, and made plans about how he would help people.

The story says that after he’d been in this wild place for 40 days, which is a long time, he met someone called the Tempter, who tried to trick Jesus. 

The first thing this Tricky Tempter did was notice that Jesus was hungry. He’d been out in the wild place such a long time, without food. The Tempter picked up some rocks, and said, “Jesus, if you’re so special, and God has such big plans for you, I’ll bet you could get God to turn these rocks into bread, so you could have lunch.

Jesus told the Tempter, “ Nope! I’m not going to do that. It says in the Bible that we don’t live by bread alone, but by what God tells us.”

The next thing in the story was the Tempter took Jesus to a big city, and up on top of a high building, and said, “Jesus, if you’re so special, I’ll bet if you jumped off this building, before you could hit the ground, God would send angels to catch you, and keep you safe!”

Jesus said, “Nope! I’m not doing that either, Tricky Tempter. I know that God loves me, and I don’t need to ask God to prove it.”

The Tricky Tempter tried one more time. He took Jesus to another high place, the top of a very tall mountain. The story says the mountain was so tall you could stand there and see every country in the whole world. That’s one way I know this is just a story, because there is no place like that. The Tempter said to Jesus, “You and your God. You don’t need God. You should work for me, and follow me. If you do, I will make you the Boss, the Big King of all these countries. You just have to pray to me, and I will be your new God.”

Jesus said, “Nope! I’m not doing any of those things, you Tricky Tempter. There is only one God, and it’s not you! You are trying to distract me from my job of telling people how much God loves them. Take a hike.”

The Tricky Tempter disappeared. God sent some angels to see if Jesus was all right, and he was.

Learning Time: Saying No and Saying Yes

Do you have people in your life to whom you have difficulty saying no? We are, in many ways, conditioned to say yes. It’s often seen as the polite thing to do. I appreciate that, especially when I’m the one asking for something.

It’s an important aspect of growth, as we become individuals, to build the capacity to say no. It’s a big deal, to go against the plans and will of the big people in your life, and just say, “No!”. Imagine a little person trying that out for the first time, with no idea what might happen.

Most of us want that for our kids, to be individuals. We may not always appreciate it, when they do begin to demonstrate they have minds of their own.

“Please eat your peas.” “No!”

“Did you break the lamp?” “No!”

“Do you need a time out?” “No!”

“It’s time for bed.” “No!”

The other extreme of course, is not being able to say no. Churches depends on the countless hours of dedicated work of volunteers, who are more likely to say “yes” than “no” when they are asked to help, or even when no one has asked, but they see a thing that needs doing.

This is a two-sided coin. The good side is that’s how we get the work done, keep things going. The less good side is that too often, those who say yes, say yes so often that it is possible for them to be stretched too thin, be over-committed, and exhausted. It can be soul-draining. 

Sometimes those who give so much of their time to doing in the church, no longer feel like they have time, or permission, or energy, or the will, to slow down, and sit in quiet, and just be with God.

I have noticed one thing no one has said no to, is the pause for silent prayer we build into Sunday morning worship. Some say it could be longer. That may just mean they’d be happy with a shorter sermon.

Being able to say yes at the right times, and no at the right times, is a valuable skill. It’s something we need to practice, for the survival of our healthiest, most faithful self.

On another day we might talk about the harm that happens when someone in our lives won’t take no for an answer, and what it means when we act like that, and don’t allow others the option of saying no.

In the story of Jesus in the wilderness we can see him engaged in the spiritual practice of saying yes or no, to questions that have power to determine what kind of person he will be.

For today, I’m setting aside interpretive questions like “Was Jesus really talking to an actual Tempter- a spiritual being called Satan, or the Devil?”, or “Was he suffering dehydration and food deprivation and hallucinating?”

I borrowed the following from a sermon that came with a United Church stewardship resource.

Three times Jesus has to make a choice. Three times he can either say “No” or “Yes.”

“If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread!” “No” or “Yes”?

“If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from the highest point of the Temple.” “No” or “Yes”?

“All these…kingdoms and all their wealth and power I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” “No” or “Yes”?

Each time Jesus says “No!” on account of that to which he has already said, “Yes!”

“Yes, I will trust God to provide what I really need.”

“Yes, I will trust God to care for me.”

“Yes, I will serve and worship God alone.”

I am grateful that for most of us, the yes or no moments are not nearly as extreme as we heard in the Jesus story. We are not going to be asked to jump off a roof, or starve ourselves, or turn our backs on God, in the dramatic way Jesus faced. Even so, we all face choices, and temptations.

Every time I pick up my phone to check my email, or play online scrabble, I am making a choice to give my time to a machine, rather than the people in my life.

Every time I press “buy” or “pay” on an online shopping site, or tap my credit or debit card, I am making a choice about what is valuable to me. Am I shopping for something we actually need? Am I buying something to fill a hole in my heart? Am I trying to get something that money can’t actually buy?

Remember I said I borrowed from a stewardship resource. Stewardship is a churchy word that often comes up when we are trying to raise money to support the congregation. But more than that, we are all, each of us caretakers, gardeners, stewards of our own lives. What will we do with the time, energy, talents, resources God has given us? How do our yes’s and no’s contribute to us being the person we are meant to be?

In order to give deeper consideration to whether our choices reflect what really matters to us, it might help to think about that question. “What really matters to us?”

The sermon I borrowed from included the suggestion that we use the weeks of Lent to try some spiritual practices- to say yes to doing a new thing.

In the temptation story, Jesus exhibits trust in God, faith in his religious traditions, and the courage to stand by his convictions. Trust, Faith and Courage might also be thought of as positive qualities, or values that helped Jesus we face those Yes or No moments.

I have a suggestion for a Lenten Spiritual Practice. You’ll need an index card, or maybe a post-it note.

Make a list of three qualities, or values that are important to you. They could be the same as the Jesus ones, Trust, Faith, and Courage, or you might have others.

You might place a high value on Generosity, or Patience, or Honesty. I don’t want to put words in your mouth, or on your list. Think about it. Pray about it. Keep the list handy during the week

Then, as the week goes on, every time you face a “Yes or No” decision point, take a look at the list you made. See if it can guide your decision-making.

Lenten Devotion Day 6 Feb 28, 2023

“We are not human beings having a spiritual experience; we are spiritual beings having a human experience.” – Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

We live in our bodies. We experience life, and the world, and everything, and every other body in our lives, through the senses and sensations of our physical selves.

As a spirit-minded person, I believe there is more to us than flesh and blood, but for now, we are at least that.

Today’s reflection from Good Courage invites us to put ourselves in the skin of someone who suffers chronic pain. It may be this is not a stretch for some who read it- they already know it, because they live it.

In pastoral ministry, I’ve been invited to sit with people who were enduring so much physical pain, that they prayed for release from their physical body- for physical death.

I cannot say that I understand, from the inside, in a bodily way, what it’s like to suffer in that way.

I have not said, and would not say, to a person in such pain, “We are spiritual beings having a human experience.” I believe this is true, but I would not say it, for fear of minimizing or seeming to dismiss what they were enduring.

I would think it to myself, and pray it, and if the person says it themselves, say, “Yes, and thank God for that. Thank God this is not all that we are.”

Lenten Devotion Day 5

It was humbling to read today’s devotion from Good Courage. The writer described with evocative detail her experience as one of 500 clergy who gathered outside the gates of a detention center in Texas to protest the treatment of people of colour were held there, and who were separated from their minor children. She went on to ask her readers to consider their positions of privilege, and their lived out commitment to those whose suffering is caused by laws and policies and market structures that preserve that privilege.

I remember being at a clergy conference in Nashville, held at the national headquarters of the United Methodist Church. I noticed every morning, as I walked from my hotel to the church offices, that the people in service trades working in the hotel and restaturant district where I stayed, were almost all black and Latinx. Most of the guests (including me!), and the management types I saw were white.

All the clergy attending the conference were white. The topics at the conference were not justice oriented. The themes were all about spirituality and church renewal.

For me, the highlight of the week was a visit to a new “house church” intentional community established in a “working class” (read mixed race and poor) neighbourhood near Vanderbilt University. The folks who chose to live there, rented a home owned by a local, mostly white and middle class congregation, and were making good efforts to connect with their neighbours.

After the field trip to the house church, we returned to the national headquarters for a Q and A. The first questions asked by one of the white pastors was “Is the investment in this neighbourhood paying off? Is the sponsoring congregation gaining new members and contributors?”

It was an understandable concern. It was also a reminder of tensions experienced in the institutional church, when we are faced with the challenge of living out the Gospel that expresses a preferential option for the poor and marginalized.

Lenten Devotions Day 5 Feb 26, 2023

These posts are in response to daily devotional times I have with my spouse. We are reading, and praying each morning, using the book “Good Courage” as our guide. Harrow United Church will have a weekly discussion group starting this Wednesday, 7 pm, via ZOOM. Today is Sunday, and the last day for folks at the church to let me know in person if they want to join the ZOOM group.

If you are reading these devotions, and want to get the book “Good Courage”, it is available as a digital download via Amazon, or UCRD, United Church Resource Distribution.

If you’d like to join the ZOOM group on Wednesdays at 7 pm, send me a note at revdww@gmail.com and I will send you the link.

Email, and ZOOM, and digital downloads, oh my. What a privileged life I lead. This morning’s devotion asked the reader to consider the nature of faith.

I once read that people either trust they live in a benevolent universe where good can happen, or they don’t. I am shy and careful around such huge generalizations, but it also seems to me that my “faith” is something like that trust. On the whole, even though hard and terrible things happen, I and the folks I most care about, are mostly going to be okay. Is that really faith, or just the good fortune to be born and live where I do?

Beyond that general “okay-ness”, I feel a responsibility to do what I can, to be of help, and make life more “okay” for others.

Day 4 of Lenten Devotions from “Good Courage” Feb 25, 2023

Good Courage is a compilation of work from a number of writers. The contributor for today, the Rev. Nora Vedress, serves a church in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan. She’s also the volunteer chaplain for the local police.

I’d go to her church, if I was nearby. I’d like to experience worship, and hear sermons prepared by a person so willing to reveal their vulnerabilities, without making it a “pity party”.

In today’s devotion, she worked with the word “steadfast”. Does being steadfast mean you act, and appear so strong, that you seem untouched by the pain of the world? Or does it mean being solid of character, and steady and present, even when life is tough?

Rev. Vedress asked her readers to think about the pandemic. Light a candle and reflect on times when you “crushed it”, and moved beyond survival to thriving in that time of trial. She also invited us to remember the times when it almost crushed us.

Who are the “steadfast” people in your life? For whom are you a steadfast person?

When I was having my deepest struggles in the seeming worst of the pandemic, I enrolled in an online course in CCT, offered by the School for Contemplative Living in New Orleans. CCT is Compassion Cultivation Training. For 2 months I practiced daily mindfulness exercises and met online weekly with a group to learn about compassion for self and others.

What practices help you to be steadfast?

Here is a benediction Nora Vedress wrote for the end of a worship service during the pandemic:


So now we leave this space of worship

And while so much of the road ahead is uncertain,

the path constantly changing,

we know some things that are as solid and sure

as the ground beneath our feet,

and the sky above our heads.

We know God is love.

We know Christ’s light endures.

We know the Holy Spirit this there,

found in the space between all things,

closer to us than our next breath,

binding us to each other,

until we meet we again,

Go in peace.