Book Review: Leaving North Haven

leavingnorthhavenLeaving North Haven: The Further Adventures Of A Small-Town Pastor

Author: Michael L. Lindvall

Publisher: New York & Berkeley: The Crossroad Publishing Company, A Crossroad Carlisle Book, 2002

251 pages, ISBN 0-8245-2013-0, Paperback

Reviewed by Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

In this sequel to Good News From North Haven, the Reverend Michael L. Lindvall continues to tell his heartwarming stories of many of the characters in his first novel.

The Reverend David Battles has now served Second Presbyterian Church for some ten years. He hadn’t expected to stay that long. He has learned much in those ten years. Yet, it is with a humble heart that he observes: “In these last ten years, I have come to know that I know less than I once did, but I do know this, just this: to see anything that matters, you must always bring two things to your looking—attention and love” (p. 23).

One character readers may remember is Minnie MacDowell, who had a fall and broke her elbow, was suffering from Parkinson’s and believed she was dying. On at least three occasions, she had gone through the ritual of having Reverend Battles ask her the question, “Are you prepared to die?” Then he was to read the twenty-third Psalm and pray the Lord’s Prayer. After this, she was to close her eyes turn her head to the window and pass away (p. 25). This ritual reminds me of a parishioner of mine who asked me every time I visited her: “Pastor, why am I still here? Why doesn’t the Lord take me home?”

The Reverend Battles, reflecting on if it was time to move on after ten years has this to say: “The town has come to be an unlikely home for us, but we can hardly stay forever. The hard truth is that in a year or two, maybe five on the outside, the church won’t be able to pay a minister a full-time salary.” (p. 38). This reality, of course, is an all-too-familiar one for many a mainline Protestant clergyperson serving in a rural and small-town parish.

In one of his adventures Reverend Battles thought he’d shot a ten-point buck deer. He had placed his gun triumphantly on the antlers, and one of the Wilcox brothers was about to take a picture when the buck suddenly came to life, got up, and ran away with the gun still in his antlers.

Then there is the young boy, James Corey, who is fascinated by a momma killdeer.

There is also the prophetic-like eccentric, Ivar Johanson, a bachelor, everyone is curious about his mysterious building project of Redi-Mix cement and chicken wire.

In the concluding chapter the Reverend Battles is celebrating All Saints’ Sunday, which was also his last Sunday at Second Presbyterian. Something surprises them and gets them laughing on that solemn day.

Those who love the culture and tales of small-towns and their churches will enjoy this novel. Clergy and laity alike will laugh, cry, and be edified by these tales of God’s loving grace.

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Book Review: Good News from North Haven

goodnewfromnorthhavenGood News from North Haven: A Year In The Life Of A Small Town

Author: Michael L. Lindvall

Publisher: New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, A Crossroad Carlisle Book, 2002

189 pages, ISBN 0-8245-2012-2, Paperback

Reviewed by Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

The Reverend Michael L. Lindvall was born and grew up in small-town Minnesota. He developed a love for the stories told by folks living in such communities. Therefore, it is not surprising that the stories he tells in this novel are set in North Haven, Minnesota and, at the very least, are implicitly autobiographical. The storyteller in this novel is Reverend David Battles, the minister of Second Presbyterian Church—and Lindvall himself is a Presbyterian minister.

The novel begins with a brief history of First and Second Presbyterian congregations—the former lost their building to a fire, and most of the members subsequently joined Second Presbyterian. As the novel unfolds, Reverend Battles is keen to tell what he refers to as “tales of grace” revealed in the “things that happen” in daily dramas (p. 19).

In his compelling narrative style, Lindvall introduces us to a host of eclectic and eccentric characters—similar to the sinner-saints we clergy meet in our parishes. There are: the “intractable, intransigent, unmovable…iron butterfly” Alvina Johnson, who is skeptical about this year’s Christmas Pageant after directing it for four decades; the inactive Roman Catholic barber who confides in Reverend Battles about growing up with an abusive dad; Reverend Battles learning that the little things in life like reading a bedtime story to one’s kids and kissing them good night are important “…because the mark a man or woman makes on this world is most often a trail of faithful love, and quiet mercies, and unknown kisses” (p. 37); Carmen Krepke the rebellious young biker-woman who had a vision of Jesus; the wise patriarch of Second Presbyterian, Angus MacDowell; the single-minded boat-builder Lamont Wilcox, and many more.

The novel is also worthwhile for its humorous stories of Reverend Battles’ “short trip” on Easter Sunday while climbing the stairs to the communion table with the offering; Reverend Mitchell Simpson’s comments which he thought were spoken in private, but were heard by the congregation because his cordless microphone was turned on, when he thought he had turned it off; when soprano choir member, Emma Bowers’ spiked high-heeled shoe got tightly lodged into the heating grate, when choir member, Elsie Johnson was “raptured” during a recessional hymn, and more.

The final heart-warming story is the baptism of single mother, Tina Cory’s son, James; the whole congregation “stands with” James during the baptism as an act of love, acceptance and grace.

I highly recommend this delightful novel to the general reader, and especially to the clergy who serve in small-town and rural churches. The Reverend Lindvall shares a great deal of his folksy wisdom, insights and humour in these stories that instruct and inspire.

Brief Book Review

The Book of Lights by Chaim Potok

This summer I had the opportunity to read one of my favourite novelists, Chaim Potok. I read, by now an old novel, The Book of Lights, which like his other novels is autobiographical—Dr. Potok was, in addition to being a novelist, a rabbi and professor and U.S. army chaplain in Korea. As with his other novels, Potok touches on similar motifs: Biblical, theological and philosophical scholarship, the tension between Western secularism and traditional Judaism, the quest for communion with God, survivor guilt, suffering and grief, darkness and light, good and evil, prayer and mysticism to list a few.

In The Book of Lights, protagonist Gershon Loran, a seminarian, is a budding Kabbalist scholar inspired by his Kabbalah teacher Jakob Keter. Another seminary professor, Nathan Malkuson, scorns Gershon’s interest in Kabbalah, and tries to persuade him to pursue Talmudic studies. Gershon gets lost in the ancient and medieval Kabbalist texts, dreams dreams and sees visions. Yet, as gifted a young scholar he is, his life is full of uncertainty and doubts. His parents, on a trip to purchase real estate in Israel, were killed in the crossfire between Arabs and Jews while sitting in a café, leaving Gershon with his poverty-stricken uncle and aunt. His seminary roommate is Arthur Leiden. Arthur is not a very ambitious seminarian, and does minimal work in his courses. However, again there is irony here, since he comes from a distinguished Boston secular Jewish family. His father is the famous or infamous—depending on your worldview—theoretical physicist, Charles Leiden, who worked with scientists like Einstein to invent the atomic bomb. His mother, Elizabeth Leiden, is a distinguished professor of art history. Arthur did his undergraduate work in physics at Harvard. However, he finds darkness rather than light in physics. The legacy of his father creates much survivor’s guilt within Arthur as a consequence of dropping the atomic bombs on Japan. So in a quest toward the light, Arthur agrees to attend seminary.

At the end of their seminary studies, both Gershon and Arthur serve as U.S. army chaplains overseas in Korea. Gershon seems to find his way quite well within the military milieu, gaining the trust and respect of his C.O. and the rank-and-file troops, while Arthur complains about the frugal conditions and continues to seek ways to atone for his father’s sin. I won’t indulge you in further details of the novel, except to say that there are a couple of surprising turns at the outcome—which inspire readers to reflect on the destiny of the characters as well as their own. For anyone interested in Chaim Potok and Judaism’s encounter with the contemporary world, The Book of Lights is a worthwhile read.