Which is Your Favorite?

I’m a big fan of a strong first sentence. Most people (or at least most English majors) can quote the opening of Pride and Prejudice: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” From college, I still recall Dr. Gilman’s comparison of one of Henry James’ ponderous opening sentences with that of Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth, which reads simply: “Selden paused in surprise.” In this century, we have the incomparable Ann Patchett, whose Commonwealth begins: “The christening party took a turn when Albert Cousins arrived with gin.” Draws you right in, doesn’t it?

In my books, I try to start each chapter with something short and punchy. (With a word-count target of 600, I don’t have time to ease into the topic!) So, with one week to go until Finding God Abiding comes into the world, I thought we’d have a little fun. Here are the twenty-eight opening lines. Which is your favorite? What piques your interest? If you were to read a chapter on the basis of the first sentence alone, which would it be?

I’d love to hear your responses! Leave a reply below. (And, you know, get yourself a copy so you can see how it ends.)

May Love Abide,
Christine

  1. Reading was not Christopher’s thing.
  2. I’ve been a dogged journal-keeper for most of my adult life.
  3. “How can I feel so miserably poor and embarrassingly rich at the same time?”
  4. “There’s no reason for them to blow that siren anymore,” my neighbor insisted.
  5. I recall almost nothing about the conference.
  6. “It’s Teeny-Weeny String Beanie!”
  7. The summer I turned five, I went on my first extended-family vacation to Wildwood.
  8. “Oh, rats! I think I’m supposed to be a nun.”
  9. Despite wondering about a religious vocation at the end of eighth grade, nothing about my teenage years suggested a career in ministry.
  10. A graduate student with a wedding ring was hit by a car on the sidewalk, rushed to the emergency room, and whisked into surgery.
  11. The tantalizing aroma arrested our steps in front of a Greek restaurant on South Street.
  12. When I finally landed the job of my dreams in campus ministry, my joy was quickly tempered.
  13. When I was thirty, after several years of increasing strife between us, my husband took a job on the other side of the globe.
  14. The biggest problem with having unauthorized cats is that you can’t call the landlord.
  15. The dress caught my eye as it waved in the breeze of a summer garage sale.
  16. It was peach season at the Jersey shore.
  17. I had never cut class before.
  18. Liz had no idea how she was going to pay for college.
  19. I was in the car with my brother Stephen’s new boyfriend, John.
  20. The dog I love most in the world just turned seven.
  21. When I was little, my grandmother taught me how to eat a strawberry.
  22. Hannah could not stop crying.
  23. Mary Ellen had raised six children on her own.
  24. The present that had thrilled my little brother the day before was making him miserable already.
  25. After nearly ten years in my first campus ministry position, I reached a heart-wrenching insight during my summer retreat.
  26. I stood at the water’s edge with my back to the beach, tears streaming down my face.
  27. I flipped on the bathroom light in dismay.
  28. The text from our cousin caught my brother and me completely by surprise.

Steady Your Hearts

The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. You also must be patient. Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near. (James 5:7-8)

Spring takes its time here in Maine.  Back home in Philly, the temperature is headed over 90 for the second day in a row, but in Boothbay Harbor we still are sweatered-up, basking in a 57-degree Sunday afternoon on our deck, enjoying this weekend’s first peek of sunshine and the foggy breeze off the water.

Since Porter inherited his mother’s summer cottage a few years ago, we’ve been trying to establish perennial garden beds, filling them with hearty, low-maintenance items that can survive both the assault of winter storms and the neglect of summer renters.  When we return each spring, we race to inspect the beds, assessing what survived and what needs replacing.  But we are not yet accustomed to the pace of a Maine spring.

In late April, I was sorry to see no sign of the liatris (“blazing star”) I’d planted out front, but consoled myself with the purchase of a bleeding heart instead—another favorite, and a proven winner.  As I knelt to dig the hole, however, I discovered the barest green shoots emerging where the blazing star used to be; two weeks later, my beloved plant is indeed blazing back to life!  The other thing we were watching was a tuft of brown stuff, formerly a decorative grass intended to camouflage an unattractive foundation wall.  Taking a lesson from the liatris, we waited a couple weeks before buying something to replace it.  Sure enough, just as I went to pull the dried clump from the ground, Porter spotted a hint of green; apparently, the grass is on its way as well.

Scripture would have us look to nature for a lesson in patience, an abundance of which is called for these days. How we struggle to be patient with ourselves, our neighbors, and our loved ones; with our church, school, and civic communities; with our government, our electorate, and our world.  We know that forces for good are at work—sometimes through our efforts, but usually from beyond our imagining. We would do well to “steady our hearts,” as a musical rendition of James 5:8 encourages.

I do know this.  But what spring in Maine is reminding me is that my sense of how long is reasonable to wait may be flawed, shaped as it is by my limited experience of nature.  In human nature, the “precious crop” arrives on its own schedule, watered by the early and late rains of our tears and our prayers.

What are you waiting for?  Whatever it is, may you have the perseverance to wait, and the attentiveness to spot the presence of hope, even in its tiniest and most vulnerable forms.

Podcast: Finding Favorites

It’s podcast season! I’ve been interviewed for several, and will post them as they drop. Each one is different; click the image below to listen to Leah Jones’ “Finding Favorites” podcast, in which we learn why fire sirens are among my favorite things.

You’ll also get to hear two women of faith–one Catholic, one Jewish–discuss worship in pandemic, the importance of blessing the heck out of everything, and learning to speak Ignatian.

Bonus: an audio chapter from Finding God Abiding.

Enjoy!

Click the image to listen to my interview on Finding Favorites with Leah Jones.

Remembering Jim Primosch

One year ago today, the world lost an amazing man: as kind as he was talented, which is a rare combination. Knowing that the mosaic of memory is made one tile at a time, I’m re-sharing a blog post that I wrote after an interaction with Jim in December of 2019. Perhaps those of you blessed to know him can respond with a “tile” (AKA memory) of your own.

The heavenly chorus got a serious upgrade when you changed venues, Jim. Rest in jubilation.


Blessed are the Single-Hearted, for they shall not Multitask.

We’re in the homestretch of Lent, a time when most people’s Lenten resolutions lie in tatters. Many of you have heard me say this before: In Lent, as in the rest of the spiritual life, the goal is not victory, but responsiveness. Success teaches us almost nothing. We learn precious little from perfectly-executed three-point Lenten plans. The most “effective” resolution is one that drives us back into the merciful arms of God, over and over again.

Nevertheless, in case you are feeling some kind of way about how your Lent is going, I thought I’d share a spectacular resolution-fail of my own from this weekend. (You’re welcome.)

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A Litany for Lent

I wrote the following litany for this year’s Lent retreats, and offer it now for your personal prayer; feel free to share. For a delightful musical rendition of the Scripture passage below, check out this video by The Porter’s Gate.

“You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
– Matthew 22:37-39

Lord Jesus, as we notice your invitation to prayer this Lent . . .
Response: May we love you with all our soul.

As we ponder the Scriptures of the day or a chosen daily devotional . . .
As we carve out moments of solitude to ponder things in our hearts . . .
As a line of a favorite hymn jogs through our mind . . .
As news of war, violence, racism, or hatred drives us to our knees . . .
As the realization of our good fortune turns our thoughts to those with less . . .
As the coo of a mourning dove reminds us of someone who is grieving . . .
As the glimpse of a rainbow signals your promise of hope . . .

Lord Jesus, as we notice your invitation to sacrifice this Lent . . .
Response: May we love you with all our mind.

As we forgo customary pleasures to focus on your desires for us . . .
As we consume less . . .
As we reduce our carbon footprint . . .
As we limit our distractions . . .
As we hold our tongues . . .
As we suspend judgement . . .
As we let someone else be right, go first, or get the credit . . .

Lord Jesus, as we notice your invitations to generosity this Lent . . .
Response: May we love you with all our heart.

As we support the charities we love and the causes we value . . .
As we respond to unexpected demands on our time, talent, or treasure . . .
As we meet the needs of someone too embarrassed to express them . . .
As we do a kindness for someone who can never repay us . . .
As we give the best possible interpretation to another’s words . . .
As we open our imagination to new forms of giving . . .
As we resolve to do what we can, with what we have, from where we are . . .

As we give and forgive,
as we turn and return,
hold us in Your mercy, now and forever. 
Amen.

On Fire, but Not Consumed

There the angel of the LORD appeared to Moses as fire flaming out of a bush. When he looked, although the bush was on fire, it was not being consumed. (Exodus 3:2)

What a remarkable sight: a bush on fire, but not consumed. “I must turn aside to look,” Moses thinks, asking “Why does the bush not burn up?”

On fire, but not consumed. Have you ever experienced this?

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Finding God in Sugar-Covered Strawberries

Finding God Abiding comes out three months from today. To celebrate, I’m sharing a chapter which one of my early reviewers told me she loved–despite initially having NO desire to read it, because of the sappy title. (Pun slightly intended.)

Enjoy . . . and kindly consider pre-ordering your signed, personalized copy, which helps me in a lot of behind-the-scenes ways.


Chapter 21

Love never ends. — I Corinthians 13:8

When I was little, my grandmother taught me how to eat a strawberry: after removing the leaves, spear berry with fork, plunge directly into open sugar bowl, pop in mouth, repeat. (It took me years to realize I shouldn’t eat them that way in public.)

Even without the added sugar, my grandmother brought sweetness to so many of my early memories. As the oldest grandchild, I enjoyed the youngest version of her: the grandmother who zipped around town in a Chevy Vega (hot orange, no less), who was always game for a boardwalk roller coaster, and who kept her kitchen stocked with Pepperidge Farm cookies and strawberries ripe for the bowl.

It wasn’t that she’d never known sorrow. In fact, Gram had seen more than her share. Her baby brother perished in World War II and her only son died in his crib. In her fifties, she lost her mother to breast cancer and her husband to cardiac arrest within six weeks of each other. Yet, somehow, those losses didn’t leave a shadow—at least, not one her grandchildren could see. Even after a broken hip at age seventy rendered her fragile, she remained classy, funny, and generous. (“Now, get something you really want,” she always said when taking someone out to dinner; she didn’t want us ordering pizza instead of prime rib just to save her a few pennies.)

The shadow didn’t appear until she turned eighty, when Alzheimer’s began to wage its insidious campaign against her personality. She suffered its assault for seventeen years, dying at age ninety-seven in my aunt and uncle’s home, where she’d lived since it became clear she could no longer be alone.

Hers was a fate most of us dread, yet what strikes me now is how much good Gram continued to do. During those awful years, Gram’s illness became a hub around which many lives revolved, as relatives rallied to provide company and care. For her funeral service, we selected the First Corinthians reading about love because so many of us had become more patient and kind, less self-interested and record-of-wrong-keeping for having been part of the family during Gram’s final years. She lived those virtues until the Alzheimer’s took her volition, at which point she inspired them. The care that flowed back to her was a return of the tide, a response of love to one who had been so steadfast.

Gram’s impact in her decline was not limited to immediate family. One summer during our shore vacation, she was in a phase where she would read aloud anything put in front of her—from fine literature to toothpaste ads—so my mother had packed a book of daily meditations by one of Gram’s favorite saints, Francis de Sales. I spent many afternoons cross-stitching on the couch while she read those beautiful words (and page numbers, and running headers) in her oddly monotone voice. They sank in.

By the end of the two weeks, I had designed a plan for college students to use that book—and, subsequently, others in the series—in a month-long spirituality program that eventually won a national campus ministry award. Each time we ran the program, I made sure my students knew it had been inspired by my grandmother, Mary Florence Reilly: an octogenarian with Alzheimer’s whom God was still using to sweeten everyday life.

Many of us have a great fear of outliving our “usefulness,” but loving my grandmother taught me to measure life’s goodness differently. Whom do you cherish, just for who they are? Bask in imagining being so cherished yourself.

 

How Do we Honor the Holy Innocents?

The choice of readings for today’s Mass perplexed me. December 28th is the Feast of the Holy Innocents, Martyrs, as recounted in Matthew 2:13-18. It’s a grim feast that comes three days after Christmas every year.

On the day we remember the Bethlehem boys aged two-and-under slaughtered by Herod in an unhinged, prophylactic power grab, the Church pairs that account with Psalm 124, beginning with these words:

Had not the LORD been with us,
when people rose against us,
Then they would have swallowed us alive,
for their fury blazed against us.
Then the waters would have engulfed us,
the torrent overwhelmed us.

How is a psalm praising God for rescue appropriate on the day we remember murdered children?  The Matthew account itself cites Jeremiah’s agonizing description of “Rachel weeping for her children,” refusing to be consoled.  No wonder, if this is the thin consolation offered: that someone else’s child was saved. Mary and Joseph’s child, yes, but still a nightmare to the grieving parents.

The psalm smacks us right up against theodicy and the problem of evil.  “Had not the LORD been with us . . .” What does that imply?  Was God not with the toddlers of Bethlehem?  How do we praise God for rescue (which we should, if rescued) without implying that those who perished were somehow abandoned, unworthy?

There’s a song called “I Know Something About God’s Grace” whose theology drives me batty. The lyrics begin:  I know something about God’s grace; I know something about God’s amazing grace.”  So far, so good; then it runs off the rails. “It could have been me with no food to eat; it could have  been me with no place to sleep, if not for the grace of God.”  I know it’s a musical riff on the common expression “There but for the grace of God . . . ” And yet . . . those guys sleeping on the steam vents in downtown Philly—are they devoid of grace?  Or are they wrapped in it?

Maybe the problem is with our casual use of the word “grace.”  Do we believe that God’s unmerited favor comes in the form of this-worldly bonuses like a Christian comp & benefits package?  Or is grace more interior, like a spiritual attitude adjustment?  OR is grace what holds us up every single day, whether we’re aware of it or not?

Today is not the day to figure that out.  Today is the day to admit that our warm language around grace and blessing leaves a lot of people out in the cold.  Today is the day to figure out how to be a touch of grace for someone else.  Today is the day to stand with the innocents (and the not so innocents) who are in the process of being swallowed alive or otherwise engulfed by the storms of life.  

That’s how we honor the Holy Innocents—today and every day.


P.S. If you are similarly intrigued by these questions, I highly recommend an intense little book by Brother Joe Hoover, SJ called O Death Where Is Thy Sting (see my Goodreads review here), as well as the books, blog posts, and podcasts of Kate Bowler, author of Everything Happens for a Reason (And Other Lies I’ve Loved).