Friday, May 30, 2008

Thursday Next

I am the type who, when I discover an author, goes on a 'kick' of wanting to read everything and anything that person has written. So, I was rifling through the F section at the library for another in the Dame Frevisse Medieval Mystery series by Margaret Frazer, when another name stopped by in my tracks - Fforde. Jasper Fforde, a writer living in Wales. Now, that I thought, is an intriguing name. It was a book by the title of The Fourth Bear, and its premise is that there is a police investigation unit in England called the Nursery Crime Division, headed by Jack Spratt, of all people. That grabbed me.

It was a marvelous read, with all sorts of literary allusions, and peopled with folks from the nursery rhymes of our childhood, only they are involved in lives which will take you by surprise. For instance, Punch and Judy are marriage counselors! It's one of those books that cause you to smile as you remember these familiar characters, and laugh out loud at the way in which Fforde uses them in the stories.

Then I found out that Fforde had a second series, whose title character is a woman called Thursday Next. Thursday lives in what can best be described as an alternative world, set in 1985, where the Crimean War is still being fought, a global corporation called Goliath sells everything one might need (and interferes in ways it shouldn't), and a group called Special Operations carries out police duties thought to be too unusual or specialized to be done by the regular police. Thursday was originally in Spec-Ops 27, the literary detectives charged to make sure the book you are reading was not counterfeit or bootleg.

In Fforde's creative mind, what we call fiction is a world in which one may literally enter and fictional characters can enter into the 'real' world we populate. She is now working in Jurisfiction, the agency which polices within fiction itself to maintain narrative stability. She is able to enter into books through program called Character Exchange. The Thursday Next series has been described as a delightful 'romp through the Western literary canon.'

In the book I am reading now, The Well of Lost Plots, Thursday discovers something about how books are written. The Well is the place where (duh!) lost plots rest, but also isolated words, ideas, images, characters, etc., until they 'interface' with a writer's imagination (using Book Operating System V8.3, by the way), so that they will make sense in the reader's mind. Her instructor tells her, "After all, reading is arguably a far more creative and imaginative process than writing; when the reader creates emotion in their head, or the colors of the sky during the setting sun, or the smell of a warm summer's breeze on their face, they should reserve as much praise for themselves as they do for the writer--perhaps more."

When Thursday doubts this new idea, he continues, "Surf pounding the shingle wouldn't mean diddly unless you'd seen the waves cascade onto the foreshore, or felt the breakers tremble the beach beneath your feet, now would it?"

I wonder if it is this 'creative and imaginative process' which is lacking when we read the gospel narratives. If we read them, listen to them, dismiss them as stories told in a culture, in a land, to a people that have no connection with us, no relevance for us - then we miss the power, the impact, the magic they have for us.

But if we engage ourselves with the stories, in creative and imaginative ways with the narrative, then the gospels take on new meaning, new life, new power for us. After all, most of us know someone who has been disabled from birth, and if we place their name, their story, their image in the healing stories, we come to see the impact of Jesus' miracles in a fresh way. Most of us have experienced, or are experiencing, the sort of rejection which Mary Magdalene and Zaccheus knew, and we long for the sort of acceptance Jesus gave to them. Every single person I know has lost a loved one to that great enemy, death, and we want to know that God was at the graveside with us, mixing tears and laments with ours.

Maybe it's time we join the Character Exchange Program the gospel writers offer to us, so we can enter into those stories and see that they are not only for us, but about us. Then, perhaps, we wouldn't feel so lost.

(c) 2008 Thom M. Shuman

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

chronic illness

People will stop and ask when they see me. When they call, it's the first question; when they email, it comes up somewhere in the message: 'how are you doing?' And when I respond, 'okay . . . doing good . . . i'm fine' or some variation thereof, there's a pause or a snort or a 'right!' (with the subliminal message of 'i don't think so . . .').

I guess part of it (for me, at least) is that I am not sure how I am supposed to be doing, or feeling, or acting. I've never been in this situation before (forced out of a church due to the unhappiness' of a relatively small group).

Should I be angry? Probably, and I am. Angry that such a group would be willing to risk losing members (especially those families they claim they want in the church) in order to 'win.' Angry that such a group could be so manipulative and deceitful. Angry that folks would be willing to use their money as a weapon against a person or a church.

Should I be depressed? On some days, I am very much so. Not going to the office, not getting to see and visit people, being unable to interact with the children and kids is indeed quite depressing. It's depressing to realize that all the years of talking about forgiveness, grace, hope, inclusion fell on the stony ground in some people's lives. When I had my exit interview with the Committee on Ministry, I came home very depressed, until I realized that, once again, 'they' had dominated the discussion and had gotten back into my head.

Should I be vindictive? Should I be hurt? Should I feel like a terrible injustice has been inflicted on me? Should I feel like I was bullied, harassed, abused by this small group? I could, and probably would find it fairly easy to be.

But then the anger, the depression, the hurt, the injustice, the desire to get even would dominate my life. They would become chronic illnesses in my life, those little 'viruses' that continue to eat away at my heart, my life, my soul. I don't think I want that to take place, and I am pretty sure that God doesn't either.

Maybe that's why God has 'inflicted' me with that chronic condition called trust. It's what got me through growing up with alcoholism in the family. It's what got me through struggles during college. It's what got me through all the despair, heartbreak, fears and worries around Teddy. It's what got me into ministry (after all my years of resistance) in the first place; it's what got me to all the churches I have been blessed to serve, especially this last one.

And it's what will get me to the next place, the next church, the next opportunity, the next place to serve God, to be faithful to my calling as a believer, to be a servant to God's children.

So, the next time you ask me how I am doing, and I say, 'okay . . .'

trust me.

(c) 2008 Thom M. Shuman