Shawn Smucker’s newest book, Light from Distant Stars, was released today. Here is my “official” review – the one for Amazon and Goodreads, etc.
The stories shared in Light from Distant Stars did not turn out at all like I wanted them to – they turned out so much better. Masterful story-teller, Shawn Smucker, seamlessly moves us from one day to the next, from one generation to another, from the real to the dream, from the spiritual to the mortal. He introduces each character with sensitivity and care. And he reveals them as the victims and culprits and heroes they truly are.
I love this book. Love it.
The rich and complex characters, the way their stories weave in and out, the touches of fantasy mysteriously tucked between the lines of reality. The very structure of the book… all so good.
But the character I keep coming back to is Father James, the retired rector at Saint Thomas Episcopal Church. He’s gentle and devoted, a strong man of faith, who holds his ground when necessary, but bends the rules when the health or life of a soul is at stake.
And he knew the main character, Cohen, needed him. Father James was waiting at the church.
Cohen wondered aloud
What if I hadn’t come?
Father James chuckled.
I’m always waiting for something. Usually I’m waiting for God, but sometimes other things, or people.
How long have you been waiting?
the Father responds with a sigh.
I am always waiting, Cohen. I will always wait for you.
Oh, good golly, Miss Molly… even if you haven’t read the book, isn’t that just beautiful? Isn’t it just the way Church is supposed to be? And not just for priests or rectors or pastors. All of us should be waiting for each other – to catch us when we fall, to hear you when you cry, to wait for her when she’s weary and falls behind, to hold him up when the world knocks him down.
We should all be waiting for all of us. Yes, and thank you, Shawn.
But there is more.
I was not brought up in the tradition of the confessional. I know, from a distance, that it is supposed to be practiced regularly and, I believe, often. It is to be taken seriously. And what is shared in the confessional stays between he or she who confesses and the clergy.
But after Cohen makes his confessions, and he is assured of complete absolution, just before they part ways, Father James says something that appears to be customary.
Go in peace, and pray for me, a sinner.
That was brand new to me. I know, NANCY K., Good grief, WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN!?!?!
Well, I guess, not in a confessional. But, moving on.
I’m not sure that concept, praying for the priest, would have meant as much to me in the past. I mean in my past when things were not quite as off the rails as they are now. When the divisions were blurrier – not so sharp or precise. When opposing sides stood close enough together to hear the words of the other. When, even if no progress was made toward compromise or true understanding, there was a willingness to respect opposing views – to let things be. To fix what we could and pray for what we could not.
To pray for each other.
When Father James asked for prayer for himself, just as a regular person, he didn’t ask because hearing confessions was depressing or because he had a headache. He asked for prayer for the same reason we ALL need it: we are sinners … and, I believe, all the same in God’s eyes.
We all mess up. We hurt people and make trouble. We think we are better. Sure, maybe we don’t have a criminal record or a global reputation as a jerk.
Maybe we read the Bible and do the best we can.
Let’s say, for the sake of argument, we do have a leg up on those who have made mistakes for which the consequences will be excruciating pain and generational repercussions. If the bar is low enough, maybe we are living a “better life” than some other people. Good for us.
But that isn’t the point. We aren’t using our strengths to build people up.
We are using our differences to knock them down. We are using what other people do or say – what we perceive are their woefully misguided beliefs – to vilify them. We are isolating targeted issues and using a broad brush to paint everyone who disagrees as the enemy with a dark stain of contempt. We consider them universally wrong, off their rockers, stupid. Even evil.
And I fear we are letting those things which divide us – the controversial and difficult – split the inevitable chasm wider and deeper.
Both sides seem to exist in isolation. The nod of the likeminded affirms each cleverly-phrased but snarky “observation.” Skewed reports and statistics are smugly posted, “liked”, and shared. Members of every group – Democrat, Republican, Evangelical, Muslim, atheist, pro-choice, pro-life … the list goes on and on – incessantly point out the obvious and dangerous short-comings of the state of the Union or the world or the Church.
This Us v Them. It’s killing us. It’s killing our communities and friendships and families and churches. And not because one side is without blame and the other falling off the cliff. It’s not because we are supposed to give up what we believe so we can make nice. It’s not because disagreements are deadly.
It’s because we have failed to do the one thing Jesus told us to in absolutely no uncertain terms:
Love your enemies,
bless them that curse you,
do good to them that hate you,
and pray for them
which despitefully use you,
and persecute you.
(That’s Matthew 5:44.)
My lovelies, we are supposed to pray for them and them for us. Full Stop. They are sinners. We are sinners.
They treat us badly and we respond in kind. Yes, yes we do. And the cycle has no option but to repeat and repeat and repeat again.
Oh, that we would listen to them, the ones we see no hope of saving or changing. That we would listen with both ears. That we would listen without judgment.
That we would listen because we are just like them.
And then, that we would admit we could be wrong and ask for their prayers. Prayers for us, fellow sinners.
This is part of the non-negotiables. The foundations of Truth that Jesus made simple and clear…
… “I am the Way, the Truth, the Life.” (John 14:6)
… “Love Me with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength.” (Luke 10:27)
… “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Mark 12:33)
When we listen and pray, they will see that we love them. We may not like them all the time (she says with a smirky little smile). We may disagree – vigorously! But we will love them.
And, yeah, I know. This whole thing may not turn out the way we planned. But, just like Shawn’s book, it will turn out the right way. Promise.
And don’t forget.
Get Shawn’s book. Read it. And then, let me know:
What line or lines made you stop and think?