Monday, January 14, 2019

Review Whistling Past the Graveyard

Whistling Past the GraveyardIn Whistling Past the Graveyard, author Susan Crandall examines the struggle of growing up as a white girl in the deep south in the early sixties. Crandall fuels her story with the expected issues of bigotry, gender conflict and double standards, fanning the predictable flames throughout the book. I have read and re-read the same themes often, and though the themes carried the book, the story itself was compelling enough without these issues. The story might have even been more believable set in today's south or north or anywhere, really.
Nine-year-old Starla Claudelle narrates the story with a sassy southern voice that drew me into the book early and kept me in it throughout. Deciding to hitchhike to Tennessee to find her mother in Nashville, Starla runs away from an overbearing grandmother, and her Mississippi home. The story breaks down for me when a black woman, Eula, kidnaps Starla, just after having taken a baby from the church steps in Starla's hometown. I couldn't believe Eula's naivete and boldness. Eula's actions made her character cartoon-ish, which is unfortunate because Eula's journey would have been more interesting to me than the story of young Starla.
Starla and Baby James are held captive by Eula's abusive husband. He tries to kill Starla and the baby when he finds them after their failed escape attempt.
The author develops a a rationale for Eula's actions that stretched the limits of the story. So too, Eula's husband is a stock character and a familiar villain. Starla's unreliable narration proves to be part of the problem. The reader has to guess Eula's motivation and Elua's husband's motivation seemed only to be pure meanness. Eula reads as a predictably wise and insanely foolish woman, and, while she is ultimately beloved in the story, she never beaks out of a caricature role.
Eula kills her husband by whacking him over the head with a frying pan while he is trying to choke the life out of Starla.
The scene work and tension in Eula's home reads well with high tension and drama, even though I couldn't figure out Eula's quixotic nature.
Freed from a tyrant and captivity, Eula, Starla and Baby James set out for Tennessee. Here the book compounds its use of familiar theme. An evil white man runs the trio off the road leaving them wrecked and destitute on a baking hot day in Mississippi. While the story still interested me, this is where I began to tire of familiar axes and grinds.
The remainder of the book plays out in expected ways, but Starla's journey, her emotional and spiritual development and her method of dealing with heartache made the book a decent read.
Read this book for a an entertaining fast-paced romp and enjoy Starla's snappy voice.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

"Will-o’-the-Wisp or Will of God"


Taken from Sunday's Service 6 January 2019



Scripture readings




I would make the case that people are drawn to the light. On of my greatest pleasures in my home is the fireplace where a merry blaze can be seen any time the temperatures dip below 60 degrees. My mother and father would come to sit before this fire. I wasn’t ever sure they wanted to see me as much as enjoy the dancing flames. So too, Lonny’s mother, Ruby, and Lonny himself. When Lonny still had the pleasure of reading, he would rise most mornings and sit in a rocker before the fire well into the warm Spring. He kept his Bible there and would read it until he fell asleep again.
In recent days I have fashioned myself a place in one of those rockers, surrounded by books and a computer and a place for a cup of coffee or tea or wine, depending upon the time of day.
At Christmas we put out lights that twinkle and burn brightly. We even put out firelitos and luminarias. When I was a child Mom and Dad would pick a December evening after school let out for Christmas holiday. We would tour the neighborhoods in Roswell and Dexter looking at the lights. In El Paso, I lived near a neighborhood that put on such a celebrated Christmas display that the street department finally had to close their street to traffic after midnight in order that the residents could get some sleep and to let the air clear of exhaust fumes.
So, yes, the more I think on it the more I know that humans are drawn to light. It is comforting warm and merry. It promises safe harbor and renewed spirit.
But there are more than one kind of lights.
Lucifer for instance, means light bringer. In Isaiah 14 it referring to the king of Babylon and his fall, Lucifer is described as the morning star that fell from the heavens. This passage led to future translations and made common the use as a name for Satan. In his works, Dante Alighieri used Lucifer as a name for the devil.
In folklore a Will-O’-the Wisp is a ghost light seen at night by travelers, especially hovering over stagnant water. It is known also as Jack -O’-the-Lantern hinkypunk and hobby lantern. These far off mytic lights lure people off paths and into danger. In literature they are a metaphor for an impossible goal or vain hope, or even something sinister and confounding.
As I look back on Christmas again this year, I see the two lights, the light of the joy and breathtaking hope and the light of infatuation and lies.
Our passage from Isaiah says opens with
“Arise, shine, for your light has come,
    
and the glory of the Lord rises upon you.
See, darkness covers the earth
    
and thick darkness is over the peoples,
but the Lord rises upon you
    
and his glory appears over you.”
We can see in this passage a prophecy, and our own hope.
For prophecy we know that the glory of the Lord shown round about those associated with the Holy birth. We know also that Jesus is the light of the world and had come into this world and walked among us.
For our own hope we learn that God’s glory rises upon us. His glory appears over us. The notion of mere man being so delivered stuns us into silence and wonder. The majesty and humility of Christmas is impossible to hold. It is for us. God came in splendor and humility for us, not only shining, but shining on us.
On the other hand, I see countless people struggling with insurmountable debt after Christmas. I hear beautiful carols turned to a mush of dirty snow in veneration of commerce, and light displays that ascribe glory more to the decorator than to the humble Holy infant.
Paul tells us in our passage from Philippians 214 Do everything without grumbling or arguing, 15 so that you may become blameless and pure, “children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation.” Then you will shine among them like stars in the sky 16 as you hold firmly to the word of life.
He tells us how to shine, how to glorify God. Paul tells us how to accomplish the joyful instruction of Isaiah to rise and shine for our light has come.
Paul also says Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, 13 for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.
For it is God who works in us to will and to act.
So, there is a double meaning in my use of Will O’ the Wisp. I may be stretching things thin but bear with me. In legend, Will means the name Will or short for William, but I mean it also as will, man’s will, man’s willy-nilly will. It’s sort of wispy. It is not focused on the light. It is focused on swamp gas. We can see it in our choices at Christmas.
Listening to KLOVE on the radio last month I heard a segment where folks were asked to call in about their Christmas shopping habits. The DJ made the case that every year she bought a few “presents” for herself along with the gifts for Christmas day. She admitted that she had been a bit unruly this year and was asking for callers to spill the beans on themselves. I thought about calling in, trying to remember what the silliest thing I’d done for myself at Christmas time: new shoes, new dresses, pedicures (because people are so going see my feet in sandals in the middle of winter,) a ridiculously expensive bottle of champagne, and countless trinkets from the potter’s guild that I would give to my husband and tell him to wrap. He would snort and hand them back.
I’m not saying there is anything wrong in a renewed sense of celebration, but I wonder at our focus.
Several years ago, I was taking my son to a Christmas party and we had some extra minutes to spare. It was the first week of December and like so many other first weeks of December it was crazy and hectic, and I was behind schedule and behind in prayer and behind in work and struggling to come up with perfect gifts for an increasing number of family members. We turned off second street and headed into a residential neighborhood with a nice display of lights. Suddenly a house came into view with huge red letters spelling the name Jesus. That was all the house had, Jesus, almost sacrilegious it was so bold. We laughed, and I still laugh today when I think of it. It was as if the homeowner was saying, enough already. This is God’s holiday. You all are making a mess of things and I’m going to point you in the proper direction and I’m going to do it with read lights. Maybe it was swamp gas, but it got my attention. I lightened up smiled and enjoyed beautiful music for the remainder of the season.
Our passage from Matthew reads: “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house.  16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.
It reminds us that we are the light. We have been given the light from our Father in Heaven. We see again that impossible marriage of humility and majesty that is the birth of Jesus. We work out our salvation with fear and trembling, yes, and awe and breathlessness. From Isaiah, God shines upon us. We remember He shines upon us. We will see and be radiant and our hearts will tremble and rejoice. And people will come from afar, multitudes of people will glorify God. All we have to do is let our God-given light shine before others according to God’s will, not our will o’ the wisp.