Thursday, February 19, 2009

The Bookworm's Back

I have another book review to share. It's actually a book that I finished two weeks ago but it's one that I can't stop thinking about. (For those more familiar with my literary habits that's saying a lot since I've already finished four and started my fifth book since completing this one.) The book is What is the What by Dave Eggers.

My first surprise on opening the cover of Dave Eggers novel What is the What was the subtitle The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng. As my mind struggled to reconcile finding the word "autobiography" on a book plucked from the fiction shelves, I proceeded on to the book's content - a first person memoir of the life of a refugee. Eggers' voice disappeared as the pages turned and the story became solely that of Deng one of Sudan's "Lost Boys" struggling to make a life for himself in America while haunted by the memories of the existence he left behind.

As the story unfolds in the present, Valentino takes his encounters with strangers in America and uses them to mentally reflect on his experiences in Africa. By silently telling others his story (which translates as a complete narration to the reader) he seeks their understanding, their sympathy and their grace and as a reader I couldn't help being captivated by his turbulent journey. There is joy in his childhood in a remote village where a bicycle is a prized and wondrous possession. There is fear in his flight across the wilds of Sudan narrowly avoiding lions and slower killers like disease and starvation. There is desperation in his life at the refugee camp dreaming of something better for himself and wondering if his family has survived as well. There is awkwardness to his arrival in America and the culture clash of living as an outsider in a new homeland.

What is the What is a highly emotional and moving book. Eggers has expertly blurred the lines between fact and fiction to create a fully realized and seamless narration of hardship and endurance in the life of a refugee. With an overarching theme of compassion for others in the face of evil, Valentino Achak Deng's story is immensely powerful. This is a book that will stay with you, will keep you thinking and and reflecting on it, long after the back cover is closed.

At the risk of providing something of a spoiler, the title comes from a Sudanese story in which God first gave cattle to men. Given the importance of livestock in Africa's harsh climate, the cow was the ultimate gift. According to the legend, God gave man the choice that he could either keep the cow or have "The What". This option prompted the man to ask, "What is the what?" to which God responded that man was unable to have the answer and must decide between the known gift and an unknown "what". I won't ruin the story by explaining this any further but the question, and thus the title, has a recurring appearance in the book and the ultimate answer to the question becomes a thought provoking point that I still find myself reflecting upon. Overall, this was a really amazing book that I'd highly recommend to anyone looking for a biography of a refugee's experience or anyone seeking an excellent narration of life in Sudan.

Monday, February 09, 2009

The Godliness, Contentment and Great Gain Paradigm

This week at church - or rather this month - we've been talking about generosity. This week's message was about financial freedom and it was a very powerful message as the burden of debt is something that I've struggled with all my life. Our pastor brought up a passage from 1 Timothy and amidst Paul's teachings about money he states,

"Godliness with contentment is great gain." 1 Timothy 6:6 NIV

It was pointed out that this verse acts as an equation of sorts in that
Godliness + Contentment = Great Gain
but in the culture of the world we often place things backwards and believe that
Godliness + Great Gain = Contentment
Instead of allowing God's presence and our own peace of mind to define wealthy, we believe that the presence of God along with the fulfillment of material desires will bring us peace of mind.

I agree that all of that is true, but in my mind I took the process one step further. I think in our consumer driven world, we often hold to the view that
Great Gain + Contentment = Godliness
Instead of clinging to God and choosing contentment, we hold up a false picture of who we idolize. It is those people who seem to have it all and - in our minds at least - are the epitome of happy, that we hold up and worship as our ideal. It is the celebrities with fancy houses; the Bill Gates types with huge salaries; the lottery winners with effortless incomes - in many ways they are what we want to be, they are our image of God.

Everyone says that money can't buy happiness and yet so few live as though they truly believe that. I know I don't, and I fall prey to the trap of wanting more than I need and believing that if I just had.... I could really be happy. It reminds me of the Jennifer Knapp song in which she laments,

"And though I'm rich, I claim that I'm poor.
Crying over earthly things I know I can't afford,
But He who died is greater than these.
I should be thankful and praying on my knees."
~Jennifer Knapp, "All Consuming Fire"

So there's my goal for now. Giving up on senseless wants and instead focusing on what I really need in my life - God's presence and opportunities to share His love with the world.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Ever Mindful

Growing up Catholic, there was a grace that my family and I prayed before every meal. There are two versions but one says,

Bless, oh Lord, this food to our use,
And thus to Thy service;
Make us ever mindful
Of the needs of others,
In Jesus' name, Amen.

When you're little and taught to memorize things like this, the words don't always have much meaning. It becomes a quick poem, a rhyme that we would try to utter as quickly as possible, to get it done, to check it off the list. But something about this prayer has stuck with me over the years and for the past week I've been meditating on it a bit. The first part is what I think of as the traditional "grace" line - a blessing of the meal - but even those simple words contain a deeper meaning. We are asking God to bless our food so that in nourishing ourselves, we can be of service to God. The food is for our use, but ultimately it is a line of stewardship to say that all that is in us, around us, part of us is God's and can be used to serve God. The second line is what I find the coolest part of the prayer: "Make us ever mindful of the needs of others". I think those words are the ones I've been searching for lately. In fact, I'm praying it "Make ME ever mindful, Lord, of the needs of others." Ever mindful. To go through every day mindful - having my eyes open - to what others need, I think that's a powerful ask. A powerful ask to a powerful God.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Super Bowl's Most Famous Feat...or is it Feet?

Although I wanted to make this post about the Super Bowl a tribute to Mike Tomlin - the youngest coach to win the game - and come up with all sorts of rumors about how he is really the long lost brother of actor Omar Epps, it seems that that topic has already been done before. Instead, I'll focus on an only slightly less overdone topic and talk about the catch that won the game.

Though many players gain great fame from their spectacular last minute awe-inspiring performances, great tribute must be given to the feat - or rather the feet - of Santonio Holmes. With triple coverage and only seconds of game time, Holmes collected a pass from Ben Roethlisberger to the very corner of the end zone and managed to keep both toes on the ground in bounds for the win. I can't even tell you how many replays showed from a multitude of angles that it was in fact a catch, but it might be safe to say that Holmes has the most famous feet of the week. But going back to the man who threw the ball to him, though I had little stake in caring who won the game, part of me was definitely cheering for Roethlisberger. Not only does he have the most fun-to-say name since Plaxico Burress, but part of me feels a little shot of sympathy for him growing up with a name like that. For the amount of times I've been on the phone and had to say "It's r-r-E-r-o" and still have hideous misspellings of my name appear (even by members of my own family!) - I can only imagine the trouble that Ben has been coping with all his life.

Congratulations Steelers and congrats to the Cardinals, for making it a well-played and very exciting game. Congratulations to Santonio Holmes for keeping his feet just right and congratulations to everyone who spelled Roethlisberger correctly. You can all go to Disneyland with Bruce Springsteen now.

The rest of us will wait out the next few weeks of bitter Chicago winter with just one thing in mind - "Is Spring Training here yet???"