Monday, June 22, 2009
RevGalBookPals: Abide With Me
Welcome to this month's edition of RevGalBookPals . For the summer months we are choosing fiction and giving reviews of some favorite books or series. I've chosen Elizabeth Strout's novel, Abide With Me. Set in the late 1950s in a small Maine town, it tells the story of a Congregational pastor who struggles with life and ministry and parenting after the death of his young wife. A beautifully written book, Abide With Me raises questions we might ask today about our relationships with church members and what it means to have social and emotional boundaries without losing the chance to be authentic human beings.
The central character, Tyler Caskey, lives with his young daughter, a traumatized and grieving kindergartner, while his mother cares for his younger daughter at her own home. He cannot see how troubled the older child is and resists the efforts of school authorities to intervene. As he stumbles through life trying to process his own grief while still performing his job, everything he does (or doesn't do) seems to cause people to talk.
I suspect any small-town pastor can relate.
As a person who lives in Maine, and who married into a native family, I find Strout's characterization of the people and the places to be pitch-perfect. Olive Kittredge, her recent Pulitzer Prize-winner also set in Maine, but mostly in this decade, is so real as to be painful.
Rather than give away the plot entirely, I would like to encourage us to talk about themes from the book and how they might touch on our own experiences in the life of the church, whether we're read the book or not. I highly recommend both of Strout's books for your summer reading lists!
So, some questions or conversation-starters:
1) Have you ever been the target of gossip in the church? How did you handle it, if so?
2) Strout portrays Caskey as a father who is reluctant to take the opinion of the school teacher and administrators about his daughter's emotional and academic situation. For pastors reading, if you have school-age children, do you find your role helps or hinders or makes no difference when you relate to school officials?
3) The Caskey family lives in a parsonage given to the church after the congregation sold the beautiful former parsonage in the center of town. The physical isolation of the house serves as a metaphor for the emotional isolation Caskey's wife felt as a young pastor's wife. Can you relate to that sense of isolation? Do you have techniques or practices to try and overcome it?
4) Contemporary seminary education instructs us to have some pretty strict boundaries with church members. But anyone who has lived in a small community while doing ministry knows how hard this can be. If something really goes wrong in our lives, people will know about it. Can we risk being vulnerable in our ministry, letting our sorrow show?
5) If you've read the book and have things to add, please do so!
Edited to add: if you're reading a good book, let us know in the comments!