And in this world I begin again

Here I sit, watching my more-or-less sleeping children on the monitor during their nap time, typing words into this little box with big words above staring me down: “Add New Post.”

I stopped blogging a year and a half ago to take a few-month maternity break. Then I realized I had nothing to say in this space. I wasn’t a blogger anymore.

But here I am again with words and at least half-formed thoughts and maybe a blog post or two in mind (which mostly began as rants that were too long for a Facebook status).

I don’t know what kind of blogger I am. Originally, I wanted this to be a place of art and theology, of big ideas and beauty and the sort of discussions you might have in a seminary forum or a coffee shop with people wearing black berets.

I never wanted to be a mommy blogger, but I’m a mommy, so I suppose in some way, I’m a mommy blogger. (Side note: I never wanted to live in the suburbs, but here I am, and don’t tell anyone, but it’s not the worst. Mostly, I love my little suburb and am constantly maintaining why we shouldn’t move, though my husband always wants to move, unless we’re going to move to Rum Cay, in which case, I can pack our bags in two suitcases and be ready in a half hour.)

So I’ve embraced the suburbs, and I’ve embraced the minivan. I am a suburb-dwelling wife of one and mother of (almost) three. I have a vegetable garden teeming with weeds, I rarely go to coffee shops anymore because chasing after two toddlers isn’t conducive to conversation, and I don’t have the energy to read the foreign film subtitles at night anymore.

On Tuesday evenings, I dash on a bit of make-up (sometimes), leave Chris to sort out dinners and baths and bedtime, and I teach a discipleship class, pretending to be a fully functioning adult with fully functioning ideas. Then I return home, stumble over a toy or two, turn a blind eye to the day’s dishes, and cuddle with my husband while we watch House Hunters International. In the afternoons, I put the kids in for their naps and hide in the office, jotting a line or two of a short story or studying Scripture. Then they wake up, and I take up maracas and dance around the house with them.

It occurs to me that all of this–a quiet moment snatched in prayer, a nap time indulged in sermon preparation or in a short story, scrubbing vomit out of a favorite stuffed animal, singing with toddlers, figuring out what to make for dinner, sneaking a good morning kiss in bed with my husband while the little ones attack us–all of it worships God.

This is my kingdom living. This is L’Chaim. This is my blog.

(I’ll try to leave out the bits with vomit.)

In my life, I accept:

  • my thoughts happen in fractions,
  • the laundry will most likely never be folded and put away,
  • a layer of dust protects my furniture,
  • Play Doh flakes and food crumbles litter my kitchen floor even though I mopped in the morning,
  • over the next few years, my children will eat lots of hot dogs, Kraft mac-n-cheese and goldfish (although we do eat lots of fruits and veggies as well!),
  • the toys create an obstacle course that makes Home Alone look amateur,
  • I read less, write less and knit less
  • and instead play with lots of trains and baby dolls and puzzles and maracas,
  • I am clueless about indie music and films (and the Oscar’s and Grammy’s, for that matter), and
  • my life is still about big thoughts and beauty and deep intellectual discussions–just without the big words.

So ends my sabbatical. I suppose we’ll meander together through the marked trails and sometimes the underbrush of life. And in this world, I begin again.

An ode to knitting and other secret things

The secret’s out: the blog is live again. With new posts starting next week. My goal is to post twice a week. We’ll see if I’m still a blogger.

In the meantime, enjoy a post at Art House America I wrote: Ode to Knitting.

On Sabbaticals, And/Or Putting Myself on Maternity Leave

The little boy goes down for his one-hour nap, and I run-run-run (that’s how we say things in our house these days: “run-run-run” or “dip-dip-dip” when he wants something, anything in which he can dip his chicken or carrots or, you know, fingers) to the computer to write and edit and, of course, tweet.

But as I approach the end of my pregnancy, my run-run-running gets slower, and then the little boy wakes up and I want to lie down on the floor while he plays because not only is my body big and clumsy and not only does another little one sip all my energy through a big, fat Boba tea straw, but also I’m not sleeping well at night, and the little boy tells me, “No nigh-nigh, Mama” as he tries to pick up my head.

And some days I cry because I can’t do it all anymore, not now, and the little one crinkles up his face like his Mama’s face and says, “Mama?”

So here’s the thing: I’m putting myself on sabbatical. Or one might call it maternity leave. Either way, it’s time for this land to rest so that it can produce next season’s crop. And one of the perks of being a work-at-home mom? Sometimes I get to be in charge of my schedule. (Mostly the little boy takes charge of my schedule, but occasionally, I do.) I can’t properly take care of my family right now and do the work. Motherhood means contradictions: wanting this last month to pass quickly so I can have my body back and be me again (oh yeah, and meet the new little one) but wanting to savor every moment of just the little boy and me. Not all have the freedom to do what I’m doing, I know that. But I’ve decided to take advantage of this privilege.

I turned in a last writing project and a last editing project, and I put another writing project on hold.

And I’m putting myself on maternity leave.

See you in a couple of months.

More Thoughts on Homemaking

I recently discovered that Southwestern Seminary has a Homemaking Concentration under their Master of Arts in Christian Education, their Bachelor of Arts in Humanities, and their Bachelor of Science in Biblical Studies. While I agree that we need to think theologically about how we create and live in our homes with issues such as hospitality, marriage, singleness, and child-raising, it bothers me that Southwestern lists these degrees under their “Women’s Program.”

Apparently men do not need to think about “fulfilling God’s plan for the home and those who dwell therein.”* Southwestern wants to prepare women to “be an evangelist and apologist focused upon reaching women, children and families for Christ.” Should men not also want to reach children and families? Can a woman reach a man if only part of a family unit, and how does that work?

To facilitate this goal, in addition to worldview training, “the homemaking concentration student will be equipped to nurture and care for the family, in the area of nutrition and food preparation, by developing a skill in clothing and textile design and through practical experiences for skill development.”

I do not object to the learning of nurture and care for the family, of nutrition and food preparation, or even of clothing and textile design, although I wonder if a seminary is the best place for developing cooking and sewing skills rather than, say, a cuisine or fashion school if one seeks to pursue these subjects professionally. I object to the idea that a woman only properly cares for her family if she sews all of their clothes and makes her own bread. I object to the idea that they limit these skills to women. (Shouldn’t men be offended that Southwestern excludes them?)

More importantly, I object to the idea that issues of homemaking aren’t for both men and women.

When Chris and I married, we discussed how to build our marriage in Christ, to use our home and finances to serve Christ, and to invite others into our home and into our lives. Now as we build a family, we consider how we can keep our marriage strong in the midst of the everyday, how we should raise our children to glorify God and serve others, and how we can continue to invite others into our family life.

We make these decisions together, man and woman as one.

(I would note that single men and single women also think through these issues.)

So why does Southwestern train only women to think about these issues and decisions theologically and to carry them out?

(Can I also note that Chris is mostly a better chef than I am? Or that in many Polynesian cultures, the men cook the meals? Or can I note the incongruity between pink kitchen play-sets and a male-dominated professional cooking world?)

This sends a message that a woman’s theological influence is the home and a man’s theological influence is the workplace, or the world, even. Then we wonder why we have a problem in culture with absentee and workaholic fathers and mothers who struggle with identity and worth. This kind of thinking limits both men and women in hospitality and child-raising. (An image: the wife kisses the husband as he leaves for work. “Well, honey,” she says, one child hanging from her leg, the other from her breast, “You go out and save the world while I raise our children to glorify and serve God.”) It limits skills, gifts, and talents that men and women can use inside and outside the home for God’s kingdom. And it draws false pictures of hospitality and of the home. (What do we do, for example, with the fact that Jesus practiced hospitality though he had “no place to lay his head” [Luke 9:58]?)

I don’t want to take anything away from women–or men–who stay home with their children during the day while their spouses go to an office. Heck, I’m one of them. I want to challenge us to think through the biblical ideal for how we create homes, how we raise our families, and how we practice hospitality. I want us to think through how men and women–indeed, how the Church–together disciple and teach children and how we as uniquely gifted individuals serve God’s kingdom in the world without worrying about ideas of inside or outside the home. Indeed, the world is our home, created by God for men and women to cultivate. We practice hospitality and homemaking in the world, not just inside of Ikea-decorated walls with Pinterest meals. For we are the family of God.

*Quotes from http://www.swbts.edu/index.cfm?pageid=676

The Art of Small Art

"Small art" by Willem van der Werf via flickr

Recently, a ministry contacted me about writing a couple of devotional pieces. An opportunity to study Scripture and share what fascinates me? Um, yes. Plus, these particular pieces should be about 425-475 words. How hard could that be? I’d written 6,000-word exegeticals.

Ahem.

Turns out I’m verbose. I like to take my time unraveling a story. (Chris has been telling me this for years, but he’s a business guy. What do you expect?) Trimming a story and its meaning down to 475 words max while retaining theological soundness and personal impact is harder than trimming Keegan’s toenails.

Have I told you that Keegan is not a fan of having his nails cut? You’d think I was yanking them from their nail beds. (I’m not, for the record.)

Even my blog posts tend to run twice the devotional limit. I empathize with Gerald’s panic as the end of the book approaches in We Are in a Book!: “I have more to give! More words! More jokes! More ‘bananas!’”

After studying one particular story–looking at the Hebrew, reading commentaries, you know, the usual–and wondering how on earth I could cram all of this richness and beauty and complexity into 475 words, I turned to one of the best resources I know of to guide my way.

The Jesus Storybook by Sally Lloyd-Jones.

I read the same story in this book and noticed she didn’t remove the richness and beauty and complexity. She tricked us. Lloyd-Jones weaved it through the stories without telling us. The theological truths and artistic word-plays and cultural nuances were all there.

The teacher in me loves to share how we see discover truth and beauty, and that’s good. It shows others how to look for themselves.

But in art, we show rather than tell. And that’s what these devotional pieces are. Works of art. They are tapestries for displaying God’s creativity and truth in new ways.

Thinking about the pieces in this way frees me to knit without worrying about the reader seeing the inside of the sweater. And maybe I can do so in 475 words or less.

Book Thoughts: At Every Turn by Anne Mateer

Once again, Anne Mateer has given us a strong (and strong-willed!) female character who you can’t help but love. Alyce Benson, moved by compassion for children in Africa, pledges $3000 dollars to the missionaries working in the Gold Coast. One problem: the money isn’t hers to give, and her father is none too sympathetic to Christian causes. She must find a way to raise the money on her own. She uses the one skill she can: driving. Alyce begins competing in car races in Chicago and Indianapolis.

Intriguing and unusual as it is to have a female driver in Indy in present day, it was even more unusual (and slightly against regulations) to have a female driver in 1916.

More than an interesting story, Mateer delves into hubris, ideas of Christian calling and vocation, and views of Christian women and propriety.

I have two small quibbles with the book related to the love interest. While in her debut novel, Wings of a Dream, Mateer gave us an unpredictable yet inevitable love story, the love story in At Every Turn is more transparent and some of the elements (i.e. suspicions others plant in Alyce about the two love interests) more forced. Also, given the nature and discussion and the place, propriety, and role of Christian women, I would have liked to have seen some time and focus given to the idea of women serving independently of marriage. The story too easily gave into pressures of finding a husband in order to fully serve God. I understand that this was 1916, but many women have historically served in missions and at home as single women.

One final thing: in contrast to Wings, At Every Turn tied things up too neatly in the end. I felt more time was needed on some character changes (specifically with more minor character), or perhaps left more open to those changes.

But overall, I thoroughly enjoyed the book–a character who desperately wants to serve God and searches for how she is uniquely gifted to do so in a world where she fits in more in “the man’s realm” than the flirtatious husband searches of her classmates.

Art Without Success

“His father, who was at first ashamed, and now is coming round, because success is much easier to understand than Art.”
- Lyrics Alley by Leila Aboulela, p. 302

The dictionary application on my computer defines success as “the accomplishment of an aim or purpose.” It goes on to clarify, “the attainment of popularity or profit” such as “the success of his play.”

On the whole, we think of “the attainment of popularity or profit” when we think of success. My art is successful when my book is published (then read by a certain amount of people) or my painting hangs in a gallery or my play is produced (and receives rave reviews). I’ve arrived, we think.

And perhaps this isn’t so wrong. We create (in part, at least) because we want to communicate. David Brown said, “Art is great to the extent that it has power to communicate and evoke particular ideas.” It’s part of our Imago Dei, this communication, which shares a root with the word community. We want to know and be known. We want to share these ideas in common.

But what happens when a book is never published or a painting never seen or a play never produced? Does this mean it is unsuccessful, that we are unsuccessful? If our art never attains popularity or profit, did it fail to accomplish an aim or purpose?

We get around this by talking in noble terms: I create to glorify God. I write because I must. Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. Good, wonderful. So we should. But what do those statements mean? So we succeed if God is glorified in our art-making. Our writing succeeds simply because we wrote because we must, and we write, therefore we are. Or something like that. When I noodle on these thoughts, they slip through my fingers wet and elusive.

Not to say these aren’t ideal goals, and sure I like the mysterious aspiration of the whole thing–God’s glory, personal understanding and fulfillment and achievement of my very humanity–but when I have an hour a day to write and I daily fight to sit before keyboard rather than nap or read or knit, I need something more meaty.

So I consider these notions of success and art and communication and why I write, why I tape open my eyes and type. What is my aim and purpose? How do I specifically glorify God or become more human in my writing?

If I say I write because it makes me more human, or because I must, I can easily argue that so would a nap (my husband might argue that the nap would moreso make me human again). If I’m writing for myself only, some sort of fulfillment, not only am I selfish for how it, in times, takes away from my family (even if it does make me happier, whatever that means), but I also then can relegate it to the role of hobby. I write when it suits me, not in a way that diligently seeks to improve craft and art. I write therapeutically, not in a way that risks rejection (which does not make me happy) or seeks to go beyond my own immediate experience.

So, no, I do not write merely for myself. I do not write merely because it makes me happy. I knit for these reasons.

Neither can I write for “the attainment of popularity or profit,” in part because those terms in themselves need clarification (how much profit? how many Twitter followers make you popular?), in part because to make this an aim is to never fulfill the aim, but mostly because it’s incongruent with Jesus’ ministry. You know, the whole “despised and rejected by man” bit.

Of course, beyond the “despised and rejected” is the “every knee shall bow,” and the premise that when Christ comes into his glory, he will honor those who honored him. Which brings me back around that nebulous cause of writing for God’s glory, which often looks like weakness and foolishness this side of “every knee shall bow.”

The subject of God’s glory and how he glorifies himself and what glorifies him is too vast to explore in any depth here, but this struck me as Chris and I prayed with Keegan the other night:

Our Father, who art in heaven,
Hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come, thy will be done
On earth as it is in heaven.

In the simplest form, God glorifies himself by revealing himself and bringing about his kingdom on earth. For those of you who have been paying attention, I happen to have been studying that very thing through Luke and Acts recently.

Enter “ah-ha” moment.

Undergirding all else–my writing, my wifing, my parenting, my friending–I am a Christian, and I live to glorify God, which means everything I do–my writing, my wifing, my parenting, my friending–must do the same. The question becomes: how does my art contribute toward his work of restoring and re-creating humanity, and indeed all of creation? How does it reveal God? How does it image humanity and his work in humanity?

Which brings me to this: I write, in part, for the sake of beauty (which sounds to some like “art for the sake of art” except that “art for the sake of art” has art as its highest goal rather than God’s glory); I write, in part, to reveal the nature of creation and humanity in all of its beauty and corruptness; I write, in part, to restore humanity and creation.

To some, as aforementioned, this may look like foolishness and weakness. It may look unsuccessful–unknown and unprofitable. But God didn’t promise me success according to the world’s eyes–a book deal, a bestseller, a second home in the Bahamas, thousands of Twitter followers and blog subscribers. I work trusting him to use my writing as he will. I work toward the “well done, good and faithful servant.” Occasionally he treats me to glimpses of this: a reader who came across my short story in a journal and feels less alone, a weary traveler who read an article and felt refreshed, a cynic who saw something in my writing that challenged him to view his faith in a crisp way.

These may or may not be the marks of success. I may or may not know of them. But I tape my eyes open because I write for God’s glory, and that demands the wearying work of excellence and beauty and honesty. This is my aim.

Church 101: Can’t Go Over It; Can’t Go Under It; We’ll Have to Go Through It

This is my last post in the Church 101 series, a series in which I consider how we as the Church–one global, historical community made up of believers saved by grace through faith in one Christ and indwelt by one Spirit–continue Christ’s work to redeem and restore humanity and, in fact, all of creation; how we serve a Warrior God who saves and chooses for his kingdom the fallen, the hurt, the poor, the slave, the misfit, and the outcast; how, empowered and guided by the same Holy Spirit who empowered and guided Christ, we overcome racial, socioeconomic, and gender barriers as we embody God’s kingdom.

So we come to the post that I dread, because we serve a king who, overturning worldly wisdom and the expectations of the religious leaders, humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death–even death on a cross! We serve a crucified Christ, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles. Our king pursued his journey to Jerusalem, despite the warnings of the religious leaders and his own disciples, to his rejection, suffering and death, and he told his followers to expect the same.

When he tallied those who should consider themselves blessed, he finished his list with those who are hated and excluded, those socially ostracized because of their allegiance with Christ, those who would be considered traitors to their nation, those who would find their reputations ruined, their businesses boycotted, their families hostile toward them because of their identity in Christ. Blessed are you, our king said, because this means you’re on the right journey–my journey–and God will reward you for it.

When his followers recognized him as king and Messiah, he corrected their understanding of kingdom politics–that redemption and divine vindication travels through suffering. He called them to a life rejected by the world but embraced by God. Deny your own rights and desires, your ethnic, family, political and religious communities, and construct and new identity, community, and life in Christ, he said. Live dead to this world and its values, risking your reputation and even simple rights in order to live in submission to God. This is the nature of God’s kingdom, our king taught, and as we refuse to engage in worldly power games, selfish ambition and material gain at the expense of others, God’s kingdom will spread.

When we live topsy-turvy as Jesus lived, we can expect isolation, conflict, social dishonor and rejection from the world as Jesus did. Will we reject the world’s comforts, though it means experiencing rejection in the world, or will we reject Christ for the comforts of this world, which means experiencing Christ’s rejection? For we know this is not the end. We know that when Christ comes in glory, God will reveal that Jesus served his purpose. And we have the opportunity to join this purpose and this kingdom now, but it means suffering. This suffering uncloaks the depth of the disciple’s love and commitment, and a proper attitude toward suffering and persecution frees us from fearing what the world can do to us and frees us from worrying over possessions so we can live generously and hospitably with our lives and everything we own.

This is our call.

Luke shows this in the lives of the disciples throughout Acts, people who leave their communities for the community of Christians, living generously and hospitably toward all even in the midst of their own need. We see James’ death because of his faith. We see Paul’s journey to Jerusalem that, like Christ’s journey, results in rejection, suffering and imprisonment.

This is not so different from any good story. The way of God’s kingdom is dangerous. The journey of a citizen of this kingdom is full of suffering. But it ends in glory.

As I sit in my comfortable suburban home in a country that teaches me to fight for my rights because I deserve a break today, or at least a Kit-Kat bar, I reflect on what this means for my life. What does it mean to deny my rights? To experience rejection? To journey through suffering?

At the very least, I believe it means treating my possessions as instruments of God’s kingdom rather than as instruments for my own comfort. I don’t mean that I can never enjoy the fruits of God’s creation and of my (and my husband’s) labor, but I am to live generously and hospitably, even if this means giving up some of my own comforts.

I believe it means refusing comforts especially when gained at the detriment of others. If my consumer habits imprison or take advantage of laborers, I must change them. If a career opportunity means throwing someone under the bus, I must skip it. If my work takes away from God’s mission rather than contributes toward his mission of restoring human dignity and redeeming creation, I must reconsider it.

I believe it means offering grace–individually and corporately–when others take advantage of us instead of fighting for our rights.

I believe it means recognizing that sometimes we’ll be seen as the bad guys, that sometimes our reputations will suffer, that sometimes even our families will turn against us when we live as Christ lived.

I don’t know what this will mean always, but maybe it comes down to expectations. Christ did not call me to pursue happiness or my own earthly rights. He called me to something far more joyful and liberating. And as I continue his work of proclaiming good news to the poor, releasing the captives, restoring sight to the blind, and setting free the oppressed, I do so hopefully with earthly ramifications but knowing that Christ’s good news, restoration and freedom is much more than we could ever expect in this life. We’ll experience the fullness of his kingdom when he returns to earth in glory. Any suffering, inconvenience, or rejection I experience now will pale compared to the joy of living in his kingdom.

Church 101: Insert Wind Metaphor Here

I am a cynic.

I am especially cynical about “Holy Spirit leading” language. Too often we use phrases like “God called me to” or “the Holy Spirit led me to” or, my favorite, “the Holy told me to tell you” to abrogate responsibility, follow our own desires carte blanche, recuse ourselves from situations we fear or just don’t prefer, or even control the behaviors of others. In so doing, we shortcut wisdom, amputate freewill, and cause undo stress at discovering God’s will, as if he’s hidden it and we can find it only through a series of secret handshakes.

Oh, we don’t do these things maliciously or even knowingly. We honestly believe that God works through concealed messages that require Holy Spirit decoder rings or that Christianity is like a Bourne movie. But it all becomes suspicious when God seems to change his mind about what we should be doing or when he doesn’t seem to want us to do something uncomfortable or when waiting for “the one” (whether “the one” be a person, career, or ministry) keeps us from ministering to those around us.

You can see why I’m cynical.

But my skepticism created a doubt that we can ever know the Holy Spirit’s work. I continued to believe that we feel the Holy Spirit’s comfort in hardship and grief. I continued to believe that the Holy Spirit labors in us and in the world for God’s kingdom but that we’d only understand what he’s done in hindsight. I distrusted our ability to follow any guidance. It’s all so nebulous, wrapped up in our own desires and fears. In other words, I believed in the Holy Spirit’s power but discounted his guidance. He orchestrates events but we can’t know or follow that.

Then I read Luke and Acts.

There’s more Holy Spirit in Luke’s writings than ABC stores in Waikiki. Trust me, that’s a lot. As in, two per block a lot.

As I read, God reminded me: that Jesus’ fulfilled his journey through the power and guidance of the Holy Spirit, that Jesus gave this same Holy Spirit to empower and guide his followers on the Christian journey, and that first-generation believers acted according to the guidance and power of the Holy Spirit.

But he also showed me that this guidance came for the purpose of ministry and in the midst of ministry. While Paul was teaching in Antioch, the Holy Spirit called him to overseas work. Paul, along with the community of believers in Antioch, made a plan, and for the most part, Paul ministered according to that plan. On his travels, the Holy Spirit called him to Macedonia, diverting Paul from his original plan. In other words, the Holy Spirit’s guidance did not happen in a vacuum of wisdom and action. God used wisdom, action, and the Holy Spirit to spread his kingdom.

Also, the Holy Spirit’s guidance didn’t seem to lead to a more comfortable lifestyle. He led Jesus into the wilderness to fast for 40 days and be tempted by Satan (don’t worry–I don’t believe this is a model we are to follow but a model Jesus followed). He led Jesus to Jerusalem so that he could die and be abandoned by the Father. He led Paul into a ministry that resulted in rejection, beatings, and imprisonment. The Holy Spirit will not make our lives easier. (Now that I think about it, do I really want to feel called by the Holy Spirit?)

The encouraging thing is we don’t have to decipher the Holy Spirit’s work alone. We do so most often in community through prayer. (I should say we do so always through prayer and most often in community.) As the early church worked out the implications of ministering to the Gentiles, they relied on understanding the Holy Spirit’s work, and they came to this understanding in community. The Holy Spirit’s call to Paul and Barnabas came to a community of believers worshiping and praying together.

Aye, there’s the rub, for we are Americans, taught to revere our independence in action and thought (to say nothing of our pursuit of happiness, but I’ll save that rant for another day). We depend not only on our Creator and Savior but on his body. We submit to one another and together understand God’s revelation.

God revealed his will in Scripture: to continue Christ’s ministry of restoring dignity, freeing the oppressed, and bringing in the outsiders. As we reorient our lives to this purpose, God will empower and guide us through the Holy Spirit.

For me, this starts with an openness to the nudges and promptings of the Holy Spirit. To do so is not to throw wisdom into the sea with cement shoes but to bring together godly wisdom, prayer, and the mystery of the third Person of the Trinity. I don’t believe every choice depends upon hearing from the Holy Spirit, but neither do I doubt our ability to know specific leadings in our lives.

I don’t know that I’m any less of a cynic, but I don’t cringe every time I hear someone use the words “called” or “led.” Not every time.

Book Thoughts: Nothing to Hide by J. Mark Bertrand

While gallivanting through the beaches of Oahu, I made my way through a book called Nothing to Hide by J. Mark Bertrand, the third in his Roland March series. It would be the perfect summer read except it at times made you forget where you were, which is not a good thing if you happen to be on a beach in Hawaii. (On the other hand, it is a very good thing when on the plane ride home from said beach in Hawaii.)

Detective Roland March has moved from police corruption (Back on Murder) to serial murder (Pattern of Wounds) to international conspiracy, or something like that (Nothing to Hide). And this latest is his darkest book yet. As Bertrand did with Pattern of Wounds (where March argues in the book that serial killers don’t happen like the TV shows even while solving a serial killer case), he neatly gets around the really?-international-conspiracy? question by noting that only crazies believe in conspiracy and this doesn’t really happen, yet it’s staring us in the face. But no matter. We all enjoy a good thriller anyway.

In this case, March and his partner have a decapitated body with a de-skinned hand pointing to something. This body guides March into the undercover worlds of FBI and Mexican cartels, albeit with less finesse than Virgil’s guidance through the underworld. As March works out the details of the case, he tries to make his way through tricksters. In such a world, whom do you trust? Who are the good guys? Bertrand excels at clean, fast-paced prose fitting for a no-nonsense detective who knows his way around guns.

Amazingly enough, he brings this classic detective novel genre together with medieval literature, especially Dante’s Divine Comedy. While we play detective along with March, what makes this book notable is Bertrand’s exposition on sin (especially hubris, what some might consider the basis for all other sin), the fall, and our place in a fallen world. For March, the messiness of fighting for right in a twisted world is embodied in a bum leg resulting from a fall on the first page of the book (Nobody’s Fool, anyone?): “The pain I’ve been fighting since the fall. The blade goes in deep and starts twisting. It saws back and forth in my vertebrae, slices down the back of my left thigh. Whatever I do to ease the pain only makes it sharper.” And sometimes it seems that whatever we do in this world to ease its pain only worsens it. As March reflects, “The world had long since fallen into the ditch, but that didn’t mean we belonged there, caked in mud.” How do we fight for justice, playing the hero, without our own hubris getting in the way? We fight the sin and corruption in the world alongside the sin and corruption in us.

I highly recommend this series (and I recommend starting at book one: Nothing to Hide resurrects story lines and characters from Back on Murder, which I sometimes had a hard time keeping up with since, you know, I’ve had a child since reading the first book two years ago). The books are entertaining and engaging on all levels.