Thursday, August 13, 2009

My Book List

I thought I'd follow David Bard's lead and add a little something about each book that made my "top 15". It's an interesting exercise and for me fairly difficult when it came to thinking about books from my distant past that I had read. It hasn't really been until the last 10 years or so that I really read much of anything for the sake of reading. Prior to that I was more of a magazine reader and then when I entered my current profession I was reading articles in journals and books on ecology and aquatic biology (as you can see, not one of those made my list).

First on the list is "Neither Wolf nor Dog" by Minnesota author Kent Nerburn. It's the story of his travels and discussions with a Lakota elder. Although written through "white eyes" it gives one a glimpse of the crap we've dealt Native peoples over the course of our nation's history on a very personal level. It's one of a very few books that quite literally changed the way I think about things. Another book that fits that category is "A Sand County Almanac" by Aldo Leopold. I first read this book when I as in 6th grade and every March I read it again. Leopold's work is foundational in modern ecology and it is impossible to understand issues of land, sustainability, and land-human interactions without this book, particularly the essay on "The Land Ethic". Dan O'Brien's book "Buffalo for the Broken Heart" is a true-life story about his efforts to raise bison for food in a sustainable, humane manner. It's a great story and you learn about the foibles and failings of our nations agricultural policy and blatent disregard for the Great Plains as you read.

"The Politics of Jesus" by John Howard Yoder is challenging to say the least. Yoder uses Luke's Gospel to demonstrate the political nature of Jesus and makes a very strong case against "just war theory". It's about power, politics, and pacifism and love of neighbor. Personally, I think he's the leading theologian of the last 50 if not 100 years.

I love reading Louise Erdrich and "The Last Report on Miracle at Little No Horse" is by far my favorite. She's just a great story teller and writer. There are so many twists and turns in this book that you can't put it down. Joseph Marshall is a prolific writer and story teller. His book "The Lakota Way" focuses on stories that demonstrate the core values of Lakota society: bravery, fortitude, generosity, wisdom, respect, honor, perseverance, love, humility, sacrifice, love, and compassion. John Trudell's collection of poems "Lines from a Mined Mind" (they're actually song lyrics to his blues music), is often a difficult read. He's brutally honest and in your face with his feelings, yet there is a certain kinship there. Like he says, "I'm just a human being trying to make it in a world that is very rapidly losing its understanding of what it means to be human". There are days I certainly feel that way.

Pat Conroy has a way of taking me back to the south that's difficult to explain and his character development is incredible. Of all his books, Prince of Tides is my favorite (why did they wreck it with that stupid movie!!!). Ah, Lamb (subtitled "The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal"). Chris Moore's wacky and thought provoking christologic tale is one I've read a couple of times. Moore's research is impressive and the book is a "hoot".

I like reading Black Elk Speaks just to find the parallels between the Lakota and Christian worldviews. There's an endless sense of mysticism here.

Aldo Leopold's "The River of the Mother of God" is a collection of essay's that were foundational for Leopold's development of his "land ethic". There are a number of interesting essays related to theology as well, like discussions of forestry practices in the Old Testament. "Worship as Theology" by Don Saliers is a look at what it means when we say "Come, Lord Jesus" or ask God's will be done on earth "as in heaven" as well as what takes place when we gather as community.

"The Necessity of Empty Places" by Paul Gruchow is a series of essays about his travels to quiet places that are often overlooked by a society that is always "on the go". I particularly love his description of listening and watching the sandhill cranes migrating along the Platte River in Nebraska. I miss his writing. I cheated a bit with Cloister Walk and Dakota, both by Kathleen Norris but they are intertwined to some degree. Both deal with her developing love of the prairie, her struggle to find a spiritual component to life, and her life with the Benedictine monks. Of course the connection to St. John's Abbey is a bonus here as well.

Finally, Make Way for Ducklings by Robert McCloskey had to make the list. I think it was the first book I ever checked out from the school library. I've always loved ducks and I used to spend hours and hourse drawing and redrawing the duck illustrations in the book. I have no doubt that it influenced my career path as well.

So, there you have it; a number of books that will always be on my shelves and in some way, shape or form, shaped me into who I am.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

A Lesson from the Prairie

It is not a big secret that I love the prairie. I love the plants, the animals, the people, and the overall landscape of this incredible ecosystem. I often seek out what little remains of the prairie and do a little "walk about". This morning I did just that on a small, roughly 80 acre parcel owned by The Nature Conservancy. Now is the perfect time to observe the diversity of life that makes up a prairie ecosystem, the forbs are in bloom and the grasses are starting to set their seeds for the year. As I walked across the prairie this morning the air was heavy with corn pollen, very sweet. This particular parcel of prairies is surrouned on all four sides by industrial agriculture, corn and soybeans. From atop the small hill at the center of the parcel all one can see in the distance are fields of beans and corn. In fact it is rather amazing that this 80 piece of land still exists at all.

This morning I was struck by the thought of the prairie as a metaphor for society and quite possibly the church. The prairie is diverse (in this picture alone, there are at least 2 dozen species of grass and forbs). It is that diversity of plants and animals that allows this ecosystem function under some of the most extreme conditions on the planet, 100 degree days in the summer and -40 degree days in the winter have no affect on the prairie. Drought rarely punishes the prairie like it does our lawns or our corn fields. If we are to function as a society, as a church, we need that kind of diversity. However, it seems to me that we are going in quite the opposite direction, we want to look more like a corn field that is all neat and where every plant is identical to the one next to it. We want to be individuals, like corn stalks, but when it gets down to it, we're much more comfortable when we just blend in. Perhaps what is worse is that we expect others to do the same. We don't celebrate diversity in fact we disdain it. In western Minnesota just a gravel road separates a diverse, life-filled prairie from a monoculture. I think the same can be said for society and even the church. If we could suddenly transform the diversity of prairie into a church setting how uncomfortable would we be? My guess our comfort level is much greater when the church is more like the cornfield, when everyone acts, thinks, and looks like we do.
Creation is one of God's greatest gifts to us. Indigenous peoples the world over realize this and they learn from it. Perhaps we too can look to the prairie see the diversity it has to offer and model ourselves, our society, and even our churches after it. When I walk on the prairie and see the diversity that is part of God's creation I can't help but think that it is the way things should be, a diverse community functioning together to over come the harsh realities of life. When we make room for diversity we make room for God and God's Kingdom.