Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Self-Help, Helping Others

I’m always picking up self-help books, everything from “I Refuse to Lead a Dying Church” to “The Smash Fat Diet.” I have this fantasy that if you buy the book, your life will magically change for the better. Perhaps that’s why self-help books are such a popular genre—people have a tendency to suffer from what the psychologists call “Magical Thinking.” If we think it, it will come true.

Self-help books are supposed to change our lives. Sometimes they may do that, at least I hope so. As for mine, they mostly gather dust on the shelf.

Novels can also be self-help books; at least they have the power to change our lives if we let their stories transform our hearts. A seminary friend of mine has told me that reading the novel “The Poisonwood Bible” certainly changed her.

Written by Barbara Kingsolver, one of the most gifted writers of our time, “The Poisonwood Bible” is the story of Nathan Price, a driven and troubled man. In 1959 Price drags his wife and four daughters to Africa so he can follow his call to spread the Word of God to the “heathens.”

It’s a powerful tale that I’ve read twice and also listened to as an audio version. In a time of great upheaval in Africa, the Price family travels from their home in Georgia to a tiny isolated village in the Belgian Congo. There, Papa Price preaches sin, hellfire and damnation to people who are desperately poor, people who may very well be the very least of “the least of these.”

After reading the tragedies that befell the Prices and the people they lived among, including an attack of army ants, drought, starvation, and a war for independence, my friend Wilma began a juice fast that lasted the entire season of Lent. She said that Kingsolver’s powerful words reminded her that for many people in the world, life is a struggle just to survive.

“In the face of that kind of suffering,” she said, “the way we live is obscene. Knowing that I spend more money each month on pet food than many families spend for their entire month’s meals made me ashamed.”

I haven’t seen Wilma since that conversation several years ago so I don’t know where her journey has taken her. I do know this—I continue to struggle with trying to live more simply, to consume less, to live lightly on the earth.

It’s tempting to give up, to just forget about it. But then I hear a story like Emily, Babe Lambert’s great-granddaughter, told in her letter from Africa—how the children she met there have so little and are so grateful for the smallest gifts.

Or I remember my time in Kentucky when a woman who lived in absolute poverty and squalor asked if I would sing with her. Her voice rang out loud and clear, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound…” When I left her tiny cabin, she called out, “Honey, remember, Jesus will see you through the hard times.”

Like the disciples, we decide to follow Jesus—this charismatic teacher, preacher, savior who came to show us The Way—the way to live, the way to love. But we forget that decisions always have consequences. “The Way” isn’t as easy as throwing down our fishing nets, packing our bags, and hitting the road. I fail and fail again and I, too, feel ashamed. So I vow to try one more time and ask the Holy One to forgive me. I also try to remember that Jesus will always see me through the hard times.

Blessings, Country Woman

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