Book Review: Acts of Forgiveness

I was excited to be tapped to review Ted Karpf’s new book, Acts of Forgiveness, as the offer came right as I was searching for non-majority voices in Christianity.  An Episcopalian priest and a gay man, Karpf was on the front lines of the HIV/AIDS epidemic both in the States and South Africa, providing compassionate pastoral care at a time when people were gripped by fear.  This memoir documents that time and more: following the author’s journey to acceptance and forgiveness.

What I find so compelling about this book is that Karpf does not shy away from showing us his uphill climb – truly, his ongoing struggle – with acceptance and forgiveness.  Karpf has lost what he thought would be his retirement home, was unceremoniously removed from a fulfilling and influential position in the church, and been left by his long-time partner, among other losses. Some of these are more recent and some not so, but it is evident that Karpf still acutely feels the hurt that each loss brought.  Yet through prayer, therapy, and wise mentorship, Karpf has found ways to accept and forgive.  It makes for some honest, if sometimes uncomfortable, reading.

If forgiveness is something you struggle with (don’t we all?), then I particularly recommend chapter two, appropriately titled “Forgiveness and Loving.” When asking Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s advice on how to pray for his ex, the archbishop’s response was “until you love him.”  Karpf tells us:

I was again flummoxed and frustrated. I had no inclination to pray for him; I wanted him to disappear.  So that prayer took nearly a decade to pray as well, during which I often had to ask myself, “Is there anyone or anything unforgivable?”  I must respond, if I am to remain faithful to scripture, my faith, and experience, “Probably not. No, nothing and no one is beyond forgiveness, but learning to accept that fact, and gain the stamina and will it takes to do it, may take a lifetime.”

Later in the chapter, Karpf reveals the cyclical and spiraling nature of forgiveness, a message received with his natal chart reading.  “You must learn to forgive your mother,” Dr. Chakrapani Ullal told him, “She needs your forgiveness in order to complete her karmic journey. This is not for your sake, but for hers. You must be the father she never knew.”  In so doing, it seems that Karpf found healing some modicum of healing himself, as well.

Being a father of two, parenting is interwoven throughout Karpf’s story.  Being a priest and advocate during the early days of the AIDS epidemic, death is as well.  But the two exist poignantly, sometimes heartbreakingly so, together in the later chapters.  His daughter’s suicide attempt, and the generously re-printed correspondence between Karpf and a young couple experiencing the loss of their daughter, cemented him in my mind as someone I would want to counsel me both through parenting and through dying.  “As I sit here contemplating my own death, which is really never far away,” Karpf tells us, “I can only report that the stripping away of controls or supposed controls leaves me emotionally and spiritually incapacitated at the front end, though it can become revitalizing and renewing at the far end.”  Perhaps he has already come out the far end of those contemplations, because I found comfort in his ability to delight in his children (even if they didn’t turn out the way he thought they would), and his gentle questioning surrounding death.

“Life comes at me at times with frightening speed and minimal understanding,” writes Karpf in the closing pages of his memoir.  Isn’t that true for all of us?  And yet here is Karpf, admitting his failures while gaining perspective. Allowing for forgiveness of himself and working on forgiving others.  Reminding us that forgiveness and love are a journey, and that, however hard those roads may be, we are not alone when we choose to follow them.

You can find Acts of Forgiveness for purchase at the link, but there are also several upcoming opportunities to win a copy: 

Also, the author will be “stopping by” the blog later today, so if you have any comments or questions for him, be sure to leave them in the comments section yourself!

Book Review: God of Earth

I hate preamble, but I must share some background on this book and my relationship to it.  I promise most of my upcoming book reviews will not have so much back-story.  In fact, you can read a much more straight forward bonus book review of N.T. Wright’s God of Earth on my GoodReads page. Oh my, I’ve managed to preamble my preamble.  If I have any readers left after such a sin, let’s get to it:

I met author Kristin Swenson through the farm (for those new to the blog, I’m a farmer when I’m not writing or mom-ing) when we were starting out in Charlottesville.  She gifted us her book God of Earth shortly after it was published in 2016, when I was six months pregnant with Betty.  I got about halfway through it, then had a baby, and it got buried on my nightstand through no fault of its own.

I’ve picked it up several times in the intervening years, and I’ve read (and enjoyed) the first half many times now.  I brought it with me when visiting family last Christmas and finally made it three-quarters through the book, and now have finally finished it for real!

I want to reiterate, my slow reading has nothing to do with the readability of this book – which is an easily-digestible 139 pages – and everything to do with the external pressures of kids and livestock.  It flows gently yet insistently, like a spring creek, and strikes the perfect balance of wonder and urgency discussing ecological issues in Christian terms.

God of Earth brings God, particularly Jesus, into a sphere where I have (in my admittedly limited reading) rarely seen him: in and of the Earth in the most physical way possible.  This book reminds us again and again of Jesus’ visceral nature, challenging us to do the same:

The Earth is not out there, a discrete entity in splendid isolation but enmeshed in all sorts of relationships just as Jesus was with family, friends, and disciples. The God of earth, like the biblical Jesus, is relational. The friendship works boths ways.  What makes a friend to the God of earth, to the Jesus beyond Jesus incarnate in the earth itself?

If we take this question to heart, we will marvel at the world around us anew, and also be moved to attend the myriad ecological crises we face with new determination.  Swenson takes time to marvel throughout the book.  One of my favorite quotes coming from the beginning of chapter five:

The cellular wisdom of dynamic nature (what makes a rose smell like a rose and guides giraffes to evolve long necks), the energy of weather both relieving and terrifying, the urge to love and be loved, the source of all stories and art and surprise, the architect of death and keeper of mystery–that which both contains and transcends everything, the only One worthy of all worship through all time–became of earth-stuff one day, undeniably small, and absolutely vulnerable.

She goes on to describe Jesus coming to earth as a baby, miraculous and normal as any other baby.  It made me think about God in a whole new way, as discussed in this post here, where I reference her baby analogy in greater length.  It made me want to hold the whole earth tenderly in two hands.

And to behold the earth as such a precious object, I am motivated all the more to be part of the solution to climate change.  I have a long way to go, as I’ve discussed before, as I guess you do, too.  Swenson urges us to do better for sure, but she offers us this much needed grace:

“If you already care at all, if you are trying to live responsibly on the plant, then you and I, dear reader, are hardly the ones pounding in the nails.  So, if we spend our time attacking each other, already acting with ecological sensitivity, then we have let Rome–the greater world powers [oil companies, lobbyists, the shipping industry…]–load onto us their far graver sins.

This does not, of course, excuse inaction, and no one could accuse Swenson of saying so.  What this book does do, however, is provide hope where hope is needed, acknowledge grief and sadness both personal and global, and overall speak encouragement.  If you feel overwhelmed by climate change and what your role could possibly be in helping to combat it, this is the book for you.  If you need a new, organic way to think about our Christian God, this book will breathe fresh air into your beliefs.  I encourage everyone to pick it up and read it, it will do good for your soul.

This is my first book review, and I aim to do one a month from here on out in addition to my regular Bible reading.  If you are enjoying what you read please follow the blog for more!  Click the folder icon in the upper left corner of the menu, and you can follow via WordPress or email.  And don’t forget to check the blog out on Instagram and Twitter, too!  If you want to see what else is on our reading list, follow me on GoodReads and check out our post 36 Minority Writers for you to Add to Your Reading List.