Reading for Hope (A Book Report Wrapped in a Homily)

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I remember my older sister reading me to sleep. P.D. Eastman’s Are You My Mother? was one of my favorites. But what really rocked me to sleep were Dr. Seuss’s rhythmic cadences of The Cat in the Hat.

I never made it to kindergarten.  I was no wunderkind reading at three. But I remember coming home from my first day of first grade screaming: RED! I can spell RED! R-E-D!

And from that day forward, I could read. Yertle the Turtle. Horton Hears a Who. Nancy Drew.

My dad’s library, a well-stocked paradise, was my favorite room in the house.  The smell of pipe tobacco. Kingston Trio on the tape deck. So many books looking down at me. Books of the Month Club. Heritage Press. Penguin Classics.

In my dad’s library, I fell in love – head over heels in love – with books.

Reading has helped me navigate the six and half decades of my life. Books have provided road maps – a paperback path that has helped me scale rocks, ford a few streams, and climb a few mountains.

I read all kinds of books: novels, poetry, fantasy. But mostly I read non-fiction. Some sociology, some science, but mostly history. The real world is far more fascinating than any science fiction writer could ever conceive.

I read history, on one level, to time travel. Take me away to a different time and place, a brief escape from this present hell. Someone once said that history does not so much repeat itself as it rhymes. I read about the past to help me understand the present. I read about the past to know that we are not alone. Mostly what I read for is hope.

All reading is holy reading, lectio divina. Grounded in Hebrew scripture, Christianity is a historic faith. We literally believe in a God born into this world just as human as you and me. So, where in all of this earthly mess, do we look for God? 

In a book, of course, in the Word made flesh, in the words of Holy Scripture.

I am no biblical scholar, but my lectionary-life revolves around the bible. My favorite bible, my bedside bible, my office bible is a tiny black leather-bound zipper bible. I got it when I was in seminary. It is the older Revised Standard Version, a bit out of step with the New RSV. It is printed in teeny tiny print on onion skin paper. The Old and New Testaments. No apocrypha. No notes. Just the bare bones words of God. Petite and portable, not too heavy, to pack in my backpack and take with me wherever I go. 

This little bible’s companion is a little Book of Common Prayer, given to me on the occasion of my reception into the Episcopal Church. Also printed on onion skin paper in a slightly larger font, it has a silky black ribbon bookmark. Like the itty bitty bible, it is my go-to BCP. 

My life is steeped in prayer, liturgical prayer. Not because I am good or saintly, far from it!! My life is steeped in prayer because it is my job. A job that means the world to me – to support the worship life of Emmanuel – as we worship in the wilderness. Singing and praying at home as the early Christians did.

One of my favorite collects in the BCP is attributed to Origen, a 4th century scholar:

Blessed Lord, who caused all holy scripture to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in your savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spiritone God, forever and ever. Amen.

Read, mark, learn, inwardly digest. As a voracious consumer of books, this has become something of a mantra for me. (And I do markup books, occasionally writing in the margins. My own books of course, not the ones from the library!)

And since we last worshiped together under the roof on Russell Road, I have consumed a few. Hoping to understand. Hoping to find hope from the heroes, saints and ordinary people who have gone before us.

The first is by the Pulitzer Prize winning historian, Jon Meacham: The Soul of America: A Battle for Our Better Angels. Its intro is aptly titled “To Hope Rather Than to Fear” and quotes Abraham Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address of 1861:

We are not enemies but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely, they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

It is a book filled with struggle: the Civil War, Reconstruction, the birth of the Lost Cause; the backlash against immigrants during World War I and the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan, the fight for women’s rights, the anti-communist witch hunts of the McCarthy era, and the Civil Rights crusade to beat back Jim Crow. It is dark, revealing, honest and true. And it is full of hope.

Next are three books all authored by the same splendid historian, Erik Larson. His incredibly well researched and beautifully written books plumb the depths of some of the darkest episodes of the last century. Drawing on personal letters, journals, newspapers, archives, and more, in his writing, details, dialogue, and human emotion radiate off of every page.

 The first two I devoured were Isaac’s Storm: A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History and Dead Wake,The Last Crossing of the Lusitania. And the third I read is The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz.  I recommend them all, but for this homily I want to highlight the last.

The Splendid and the Vile, quoting from the book jacket, is the story of how “Churchill taught the British people ‘the art of being fearless’… a story of political brinksmanship with a backdrop of intimate domestic drama…Larson’s book provides a lens on London’s darkest year.” Drawing on his daughter Mary’s contemporaneous journals, the book provides a deeply personal window into wartime. “Churchill’s eloquence, courage and perseverance bound a country and a family together.”

It is a book filled with hope.

And the most recent tome I polished off is the most relevant to right now: John M. Barry’s The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History. 461 pages long, this was the most difficult to read. So, riveting, sometimes I could barely put it down. But more often, with tears in my eyes, I could barely pick it up. The front page parallels to Covid-19 would be uncanny except for the fact that they are so real.

Let me give you a glimpse from two reviews of why this book is so good. 

One of the strengths of Barry’s book is that it goes well beyond medical facts and figures… It has a sweeping style that constantly focuses on real human beings, and he cares deeply and unapologetically about morality and politics. — The Chicago Tribune

As a piece of social history, it is invaluable. It shows the courage and cowardice of individuals under great pressure. It shows how institutions, captive to the ethics of the time, can rise to the occasion or abjectly fail. It is a lesson to ponder for our times. — The Seattle Times

Sounds hauntingly familiar, doesn’t it?

Each of these books are honest, real, and raw. Filled with sinners and saints, heroes and villains. Each is a passionate story, where tough times brought out both the best and the worst in humankind. Times when many rose to the occasion, believed that things could be better, that good could prevail. 

Each is a story of hope.

Which brings me back to the Bible and Saint Paul’s letter to the Romans today.

Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?

No, Paul answers. A definitive, loud, and emphatic NO.

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God.

This passage is often read at funerals, when separation from a loved one from feels so final. Down in the valley of Covid-19, we grieve the loss of many things. Small creature comforts, little conveniences. But more we grieve the loss of things great and large. Human warmth and connection, economic security, domestic stability. Family and friends. Work and school. Community and church. Nation, planet and world.

While we may yearn for our B.C. – before corona – lives, they are not coming back. At least, not in the same way. As I write this, more than 138,000 people have lost their lives. By the time you read this, there will be thousands more. We are deep in the valley of loss. The pain of separation can be paralyzing but it also may be our inspiration – the awakening of our better angels.

Which could be the title of our book.

And what will our book be about? Well, we know already just like in 1918, it is a tale of tension and excitement, despair and sorrow. It is a tale of real human beings, morality and politics. It is a tale of courage and cowardice under great pressure. 

As Christians, it should be an honest book. We need to tell the unvarnished truth about the mismanagement and the missed opportunities, the dismissal of science, botched programs and lack of the collective will to meet the challenge of the day. 

But ours will be a book about faith.  The story of so many people faithful to their callings. So many who more than rose to the occasion.  Doctors, nurses, paramedics, EMTS. The scientists and public health workers. The grocery store clerks, mail deliverers, the home care givers, and so many more. Faithfully showing up to serve every day. 

We know these people. People in our families. People in our pews. People who do not like being called heroes – but they are. Keep these wonderful people in your prayers.

Ours will be a love story, filled with pain and loss, but a love story. It’s a story filled with tales of babies being born, of marriages that died, of new friendships formed. A story of reunions and reconciliations. A love story.

And most of all, ours will be a book about hope. 

Nothing — let me repeat — NOTHING separates us from the love of God. And by that love, these pandemic times shall be redeemed. Not fixed. Not erased. Not rescued. Redeemed.

Out of the pain and sorrow, may we embrace compassion. Out of the confusion, may we find our direction. Out of loss, may we find our purpose. Out of despair, may we find hope.   

This book about hope is a collaborative affair. All of us have something to contribute: a word, a phrase, a sentence, a paragraph, a page, a chapter, footnotes, photos. We are writing this book together a day at time. And we’ll be writing this book together I believe for a long time to come.

May it be a bestseller, a letter of faith, hope and love for our children, and their children’s children.

And may all of the “proceeds” go to support research for the vaccine, treatment and cure of this particular virus — and any others that may emerge.

May all of the “proceeds” be given to hope.

CORRECTION: For those of you who watched or listened, in my closing comments I said to stay tuned for Ryan playing the piano in today’s Emmanuel at Home Morning Prayer service. My mistake! Ryan played last week. You can listen here “Ryan Plays: “A Mighty Fortress/Holy Holy Holy.” And he will play again soon!

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The Rev. Joani Peacock, Editor for Emmanuel Voices: A Parish Blog

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