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Bishop's Column - A Few Good Reads

Posted: January 18 2018 at 01:59 PM
Author: Bishop Sally Dyck


Bishop Sally Dyck

During the month of December, I took a renewal leave. For the first few days, I energetically cleaned every closet, cupboard, drawer, shelf, and closet in our condo. I took loads of books, clothes and other articles to the local Goodwill store. It was quite gratifying! Then I decided to read.

I started with Eleanor: A Spiritual Biography: The Faith of the 20th Century’s Most Influential Woman by Harold Ivan Smith. Eleanor Roosevelt was a “prayer-book Episcopalian,” deeply devoted to the prayers but never involved in the politics of the church (although her husband was at times). Her theological mantra and guiding principles were: love of God and love of neighbor. She was a prolific writer, writing a few books but mostly columns for popular magazines and other periodicals. She wrote about her faith and also what she observed as she met thousands of people across the country. She met and advocated for the poor, impacting the New Deal.

She also advocated for civil rights, forming strong cross-racial relationships as well as advocating policy. But I was struck by the fact that she had a blind spot: early on she was anti-Semitic. Later in life, she had Jewish friends and she began to change her perspective on Jews. Later yet, she advocated to bring more Jewish refugees into the U.S. In fact, her deepest regret in life was that she didn’t do more for Jewish refugees after the war. How could somehow have such a blind spot, I wondered? I wonder if we all do!

It’s hard to follow a good book but then I read Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Caroline Fraser. This is a comprehensive and fascinating history of the western expansion into the far Midwest and West. Farming families like the Ingalls and the Wilders sought their own land and fortune. Instead many like them found deep disappointment, despair, and abject poverty. Life was not what it was cracked up to be years later when she wrote the Little House on the Prairie series.

Eleanor Roosevelt and Laura Ingalls Wilder were largely contemporaries. Roosevelt was born in 1884 and died in 1962 while Wilder was born in 1867 and died in 1957. They knew of each other and each other’s writings. But it was Wilder’s daughter, Rose, who interacted with, albeit detested, Roosevelt. Rose Wilder Lane was also a prolific writer and one of the founders of the Libertarian movement along with Ayn Rand. Any government sponsored or mandated program was detested and protested; sometimes even if it benefited her own family. Lane’s “adopted” grandson ran for president at one point, funded by the Koch family (yes, the same). So did some of the divergence in our country begin during this time with some of these persons and influences?

I heard statements at my own family Christmas dinner that were almost verbatim from things that Rose Wilder Lane advocated. Maybe we haven’t fully appreciated the historical breadth of our deep political divides. Yes, that’s where this is all leading.

And then I read Moral Combat: How Sex Divided American Christians & Fractured American Politics by R. Marie Griffith. First of all, I was attracted to the book because it wasn’t written by a United Methodist (that I know of) and isn’t about The United Methodist Church per se. In fact, the author directs the Danforth Center on Religion and Politics which seeks to bring people together from (very) diverse perspectives. I’ve been a part of one of their endeavors and was quite impressed.

The book is also a comprehensive history, looking over the last century in terms of attitudes about gender, sex, and sexual identity. Beginning with suffrage for women, and then crescendoing into attitudes and divisions about birth control, the banning of sexually explicit materials, the role of race in all of these gender and sexual differences, abortion and homosexuality, each of these major components of American life became a more fierce battleground in our differences. We began the 20th century with consensus about gender, sex, and sexual identity but not any longer. All this in the course of a lifetime (of some of my relatives)! The scope and scale of our historical, cultural differences make it clear that they’re not going away anytime soon. We have to figure out how to live in such a diverse, divergent, and divisive culture today.

Then I read Brené Brown’s Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone. A social researcher, Texan and person of faith, she points out that our culture has become so diverse, divergent and divisive that the only things we seem to share are fear and despair. She wrote the book with the post-presidential election in mind but she could have also “dedicated” it to The United Methodist Church! But pointing to research and going deep into her own heart and faith, she makes it clear that nobody’s mind or heart is being changed by legislating, shouting, fighting or hating the other. Brown doesn’t say it like this, but it’s not far from the page: love God and love your neighbor as yourself because it’s the only way forward. If you struggle with our need to be in relationship with others (and doesn’t Jesus call us to that very thing?), then at least read Brown’s book.

If you think we’re so unique as The United Methodist Church and that if we just “fix” the UMC (whatever that looks like to you), and all will be right with your world, then read Moral Combat. If you’re still scratching your head about what happened in the last presidential election, read (at least the last half of) Prairie Fires. If you long for a real-life example of someone “braving the wilderness,” facing opposition with courage, read Eleanor. Or you can just wish that I had wildly enthused about how wonderful and productive it was that I cleaned every closet, cupboard, drawer, and shelf in our condo. I hope you don’t wish that but will instead dig a little deeper to understand our “times,” especially in light of other times and people and difficulties…all from the mantra and guideline of loving God and our neighbors…no exceptions!

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