Review: “Surprised By Christ,” by Fr James Bernstein

2019-01-16 11.08.25.pngSince the book “Surprised By Christ” is an intensely personal account, I’ll start my review on a personal level, and disclose that I am an Orthodox Christian convert from Roman Catholicism, into which I was baptized and raised from infancy. Because of this, I have always felt somewhat handicapped at understanding both Judaism and the Old Testament. I’m very aware that I can only view either through the lens of the Western Christianity I’ve inherited. I don’t even know the right questions to ask. I was so attracted to Judaism that in my 20s I nearly converted, myself, and that journey caused me to approach Christianity differently. Christianity views itself as a descendant from Judaism, but as modern Christians, in a culture that has claimed Christianity for so long, how much do we really understand about the relationship between our faith (Christianity) and its mother faith, Judaism? (Not much, as it turns out, which is why this book is so illuminating.)

This is what I appreciated so much about Fr James Bernstein’s approach to describing his transformation from a cradle Orthodox Jew into, ultimately, an Orthodox Christian priest (via a long trek through Evangelical protestantism). Recounted in first-person autobiography, throughout the story he shares the assumptions he inherited as an Orthodox Jew and the questions they generated as he approached Christianity. It’s extremely revealing to hear his reactions as he learns about his new faith after converting. For instance, much of Western Christian salvation theology finds its basis in the idea of sacrifice, which we assume directly descends from Old Testament concepts of sacrifice. But do we have the remotest understanding of what sacrifice meant to an Old Testament-era Jew? Modern Jews have retained a sense of the significance – modern Christians clearly have not. And yet, it’s integral to our understanding of our life in Christ and the identity of Christ, Himself. This is just one example in which Fr James brilliantly clarifies Christian theology through the light of his Jewish background.

Do not, however, assume that this book is any kind of dry theological treatise. Important as the concepts presented are (and richly supported through scriptural references and quotes from early Christian fathers), listening to the audiobook was more like sitting down to coffee in the company of a friend, and hearing a long, lovely and fascinating story. Fr James artfully weaves together his personal thoughts and questions, experiences of spiritual growth, and encounters with significant history (a front-row seat in Israel’s 6-Day War, a narrow escape from Vietnam conscription, participation in the lively Berkeley culture of the 60s and 70s). The author reads the book at a leisurely pace, which enriches the story and also makes it easier to follow when he delves into rich theology and scripture.

This book is so multi-layered it will bear repeated listening. I am very grateful to Fr James Bernstein for having written it, because it presented answers to questions I didn’t know I had, but that prove critical to my understanding of my faith. If you are already a Christian, this book will enrich your understanding of Christianity in unexpected ways: be prepared to let go of what you think you know. And if you aren’t a Christian, enjoy a great story that will still enlighten you about parts of our cultural history that are, in general, meagerly understood. Fr James Bernstein brings an invaluable voice to the conversation of culture, history and faith.

(Full disclosure: I was provided a copy of the audiobook in exchange for reviewing.)


Deck the Heretic

c64dcd679bd691e0f5e44ba3c10c4d1aWell it’s three days till Christmas according to the links in my kids’ paper chain; I’m a mom and you know where my mind is. Pretty much where it was in my last post: wishing for a glass of wine in the glow of the Christmas tree, with my children all nestled snug in their beds. I do have deeper thoughts, since being very pregnant and Christian at this time of year would reasonably put me in mind of another pregnant mother roughly 2000 years ago who gave birth not only in a barn, but one a good distance from her own home and anyone she might’ve counted on to help her at that challenging time. That’s some moxy, let me just say, traveling that far by donkey in your third trimester. I just changed medical providers to a doctor 30 minutes from home and I’m feeling all wigged out about it (don’t change medical providers in your third trimester of pregnancy. Also, if you’re medical personnel, don’t argue with me when I’m in my third trimester. I’m notoriously pugnacious when not pregnant – see the discipline got my MA in – but I get downright bellicose in late pregnancy, and I’m always just one weigh-in away from firing you. Also does that not seem like a great pun? Third trimester, belly-cose? Ok, pregnancy brain is also clearly getting the better of me).

Then again, the Virgin Mary also agreed to do something for God that she knew could pretty easily get her stoned to death if it went bad, so it’s established that she had some. Stones, you know.

Enough with the puns. Something about the sincerity of this season does it to me. My kids love “It’s Christmas, Charlie Brown,” and while on some level I do too, that much naked earnestness drives me to the Kinks’ “Father Christmas” (Father Christmas, give us some money – don’t mess around with those silly toys! We’ll beat you up if you don’t hand it over…) and Greg Lake’s “I Believe In Father Christmas” (Alleluia, Noel! Be it heaven or hell, the Christmas we get we deserve).  I never pass the season without devoting one special evening to a listening of David Sedaris’ “The Santaland Diaries .”

s_nicholas4largeI’ve mentioned at least once that I’m a Christian, so one bit of Charlie Brown’s Christmas certainly must resonate with me: Linus’ recitation of a Nativity Gospel passage. The episode is in protest of an increasingly commercial response to Christmas, and of course I protest that too. For me, however, I find it’s because the older I get and the more deceased people I know, the more important the resurrection becomes and therefore the more important becomes the incarnation, because you can’t have one without the other. My Christmas has to have some bones to it.

So I like a St Nicholas who decks the heretic rather than a right jolly old elf who decks the halls. I like a cynical response to things that deserve cynicism, like the commercialization of a day that celebrates an absolutely life and death change in the fate of mankind.

Don’t get me wrong. I grew up in a gift-giving, Santa-visiting family and I’ve got extremely fond memories. I’ve got 3.75 kids and they’ll have stockings hung by the storage closet with care because we haven’t got a chimney in our rental house. There will be presents under the tree. But those things are celebrations of life and tradition and memory, things that connect us to our humanness in a way that makes the ultimate resurrection as important as it is and the incarnation along with it. Follow me?

If you’ll excuse me, I have some Legos to wrap while I turn up The Kinks. And this eggnog needs a dash of rum.


I Wish My OB Were a Better Bartender.

It’s been a whole year now since we left Oregon. Hard to believe, and I still miss it like I’d miss my right arm. I’m particularly missing the rather progressive medical system we were privileged to access. I’m annoyed out of my gourd with doctor visits while I’m pregnant, even when the doctors and hospitals are up to date in their recommendations. It is none of your damned business that I weigh four pounds more this week than last week. Anyone can fall face-first in a bowl of Halloween candy, ok? And anyone who is not pregnant can do it without criticism. Let me offer you this sheaf of peer-reviewed research demonstrating that we should worry more about pregnant moms being underweight than overweight, and I’ll wait for you to congratulate me on a job well done. Because if there’s one thing I’ve never been while pregnant, it’s underweight.

Anyway, don’t get me started on the state of obstetrics in the US, particularly the rural US. This is our fourth baby, and I’m ready to say to my doctors, “so yeah, I’ll see you whenever labor happens. Maybe. Or I’ll let you know how things turn out.” Had we not had a c-section with the first I’d be sorely tempted to try a homebirth. Well, and there’s the whole epidural thing –  that kind of crushes my homebirth fantasies. Is there a way to get the epidural without the constant harassment by medical staff? Because I can’t even describe how fantastic the epidural is. I’m sad to think that if you’re a guy the only way you’re likely to get one is a result of major surgery, like amputation, because with great experiences like this I want to share the love with my husband. But his having two legs is super useful.

I’m 29 weeks pregnant now, and this phase always reminds me of mile 21 or so of a marathon. It’s the point at which real doubt sets in. Even after I’d run a few of them, and run the full distance many times in training, there’s something apocalyptic about mile 21. It’s a showdown. You’ve run further than any human should be expected to endure and somehow you still have 5.2 miles to go. You might make it to mile 21 on fitness alone, but after that something else takes over: guts or the Holy Spirit or some other kind of preternatural grinding persistence that comes out at no other time. No other time, I find, than weeks 29-40ish of pregnancy  (if you’re lucky enough to only go to 40: my first went to 42 and I’ll say one thing for the marathon – it’s only ever 26.2 miles, unless you get lost). On an hourly basis I find myself overjoyed we’ve made it this far and numbingly devastated there’s still so far to go. But like mile 21, what are you going to do other than keep going? You’re going to make it or maybe literally die trying (ever seen someone carried off a race course? I vowed it was the only way I’d get home unless I crossed the finish line).

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Man, I’m tired. You know, at mile 21 of the Portland Marathon they used to offer a cup of Henry Weinhard’s lager at the aid station. American obstetrics could learn a thing or two.

Swedes of Steel

For the last three weeks I’ve been in serious whimp mode. We came down with the cold of the century, got over that for about two days, and caught its cousin of millennial scope. Or the flu, but who’s counting? Three weeks of sick family, including three children under five and a fourth still baking (I’m 24 weeks pregnant), and I’m toast. Now that my middle child, almost 3, has decided bedtime is for chumps, I’m burnt toast.

When I feel a little defeated by my current life conditions (every mom has moments), my grandmother rolls her eyes.  She’s been gone since 1984 but I doubt that stops her. My mom’s mother had 10 kids over a period of 20 years. Her youngest child was born in 1942, when she was 42 years old. This was in the days before Zofran, which was my first trimester salvation from puking with current baby.  No epidural (that just makes me sad, because there’s no high like a good epidural). If you developed eclampsia, you died. (It was also in the days before they knew drinking, caffeine, and smoking were harmful to your baby, so maybe she had some consolations I don’t.)


We think the absence of paid maternity leave in the US is a travesty (it is), but I suspect my grandmother gave birth, shook it off, then went to fry up some Swedish meatballs. Somewhere amid carrying, bearing these children, and raising them, she ran a small farm. That meant someone – probably her, most of the time – was feeding and milking a dairy cow twice a day, feeding chickens and collecting eggs, growing and preserving a garden, making sure no children were attacked by the bull (unfortunately she wasn’t watching her husband so closely, and my grandfather did get gored: fill in “my husband is my 11th child” joke here) – oh, and probably also cooking and feeding her family scratch-made food.

Some of these years coincided with WWII, and she and my grandfather worked together in Portland’s shipyards. That left them some time to kill, so both despite and because of the 45 minute distance between their home and the shipyard, they drove a bus that picked up rural coworkers. At other times she worked in a nursing home and as a short-order cook.


If that doesn’t paint a picture of a woman made of steel – wait. There’s more! She came from Sweden to the US at age 6, alone, without her family, and lived with cousins. She and my grandfather spent years separated while he worked in Alaska and sent money home, visiting Oregon only a few times a year.

Here’s what I want to know from any person over 90: what turned you all so fierce? Are we really just a bunch of coddled, comfort-seeking wusses? Is it Monsanto and the GMOs? Do we need to eat more liver? Please tell us.  Holy heck, Batman, we voted Donald Trump into office. Clearly we strayed somewhere.

Wisconsin Exclusive!

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Nowhere but WI has this kind of cuteness.

I’ve been working for the last 9 months to come up with a solution to my homesickness and I think I’m finally there. I just need to get the part of Oregon I miss most to move here. Problem solved.

My latest project is to convince my friends and family to move to Wisconsin. I might’ve shot myself in the foot a little because the first 9 months here have been a little rough. I really miss home. To be fair, it’s not Wisconsin’s fault. Unfortunately it will simply never be my favorite place, because it will never be Oregon. It will always be the place I moved to when I left my home. And boy can I carry a long and unreasonable grudge.

And yet…you should move here. I swear, it’s obviously superior to where you live. Christina, I’m looking at you. Your state is about to halfway fall into the ocean whenever that Cascadia quake occurs. Get out while your real estate is still hot! Move to the superior state of Wisconsin, which is so superior it even has a lake – A Great Lake! called “Superior.” As if it needed selling, it is both Great and Superior. Argue with that, my friend.

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Also a WI exclusive.

Yes, as you pointed out, the state motto is a little dull and also vague. “Forward.” An undesirable trait in a person, a direction one might pursue right off a cliff, the most obvious and least creative position on a soccer team. What are we describing, Wisconsin?  Seriously lackluster when compared to Oregon’s “she flies with her own wings.” Forward. Ho hum.

The state was, however, previously home to some pretty fascinating native culture that left behind artistically-shaped and enormous mounds. The PNW has petroglyphs but you know, some Christmas Valley yokel could’ve easily crayoned those in the night before the archeologists showed up. Just how do you establish the provenance of those scrawlings? But a giant mound? I’ll grant you that people can do some pretty amazing things in one night – crop circles, for instance – but they can’t make grass grow on a mound they just built. Even an archeologist or anthropologist  (you should know!) would he capable of recognizing fresh-laid sod. These are legit.

Subsequent to those skilled natives the state was settled by the French, and I challenge you to identify a more superior civilization than the one that created both French onion soup and the eclair.  Mmm…eclair…which brings us to Eau Claire, home of the Paul Bunyan logging museum. I haven’t visited it yet but I’m sure it’s better than any PNW logging museum, because I’ve been to lots of those (zzzzzzz).

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You, too, could take classic photos of your stunningly gorgeous children with antique farm equipment. Ha ha – no, you’re right – only my children are this stunningly gorgeous. You could try tho.

Also tornadoes. Yes, I know we lost a couple Willamette valley pole barns to a tornado or two, but not like out here. We have actual storm chasers, which must mean there are chaseable storms available. I haven’t seen one yet but as Agent Mulder used to say, I want to believe.

Finally, Wisconsin’s chief trademark product, cheese, is clearly so superior to what the PNW produces that the famous Oregon dairy factory – the Tillamook Creamery itself – gets Wisconsin cheese and passes it off as it’s own! If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, what does it mean to steal something and pass it off as your own? A clear admission that your own product will forever be substandard and you’re just surrendering right now. Which is what you need to do, Oregonians and Washingtonians. Give it up, get out, and move Forward with your own wings. You’ll never beat Wisconsin.


2018-08-25 19.57.25Tis the season to listen for the magical, tinny “pop” of mason jar lids as they seal, sequestering away summer deliciousness for us to savor in dark December.

I spent the past week in true modern farm wife fashion, canning fifty pounds of peaches and another seventy pounds of apples. I’ve canned fruit and vegetables before, mostly as a hobby, but this year it became a driving need. As I found out during our first winter here in Wisconsin, the produce available in winter is just crappy.  Tinned peaches from the store have a metallic taste that, especially during pregnancy, renders them inedible. And the apple varieties that show up in winter – the so-called “Delicious” varieties, Honey Crisp, Pink Lady, Jazz – are all barely worth eating. I certainly wouldn’t bother to make a pie with any of them.

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So here I am, a total fruit snob with a penchant for minor obsessions, and I started out with just a bucket of apples off the tree on our driveway…and sort of lost my mind after that. Our hall closet is now full of beautiful jars and I’m completely exhausted, but come January we will have spiced peaches on our pancakes and it’ll all have been worth it.

I might’ve briefly referenced pregnancy a paragraph ago and it was not an idle interjection. We are 15 weeks along with number four, which did cause me to deeply question the wisdom of undertaking such a huge project. Undoubtedly it was the nesting inclination of pregnancy itself that made it look like such a shining endeavor that I could not, under any circumstances, pass up the opportunity. After all, once upon a time, farm wives had to put away food for winter if their families were to eat, whatever their personal condition might be.

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I think of those ladies often as I work in the kitchen of my 1920 farmhouse. I look out on the wilderness of corn across the driveway and wonder how you’d can a winter’s worth of food if you had morning sickness. Thanks to a prescription for Zofran I managed not to starve my three children in my first trimester. A few weeks ago I’d have laughed at a request to even pull out my canner, much less unpack my mason jars and think of filling them. But maybe I have an ounce of farm wife spirit in me after all. Or maybe I’m just a fruit snob with pregnancy cravings.

Farmhouse News with Betty Hayseed

After two months of Midwest summer sun, you’d think I’d be earning some color, but no. My Swedish hide remains as white as a Nordic winter. My swarthy, adopted husband, on the other hand, has some mystery genes in common with a Transitions lens. The minute he steps into the sun his skin immediately tunes itself about three shades darker.

Oh well. Surely skin this white simply reflects UV rays and is thus immune to skin cancer.

WordPress tells me it’s been a shamefully long time since I last posted. My apologies, and you’ll be waiting a little longer to find out the genuinely awesome reason.

Here I am, though, Portland hipster-turned-midwestern farmwife, with the latest hayseed news. That’s me. Betty Hayseed.

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The corn is as high as an elephant’s eye and watching the farmer (who leases the 160 acres we live on in our rental home) work with his tractors that cost more than house has solidified our determination never to grow cash crops. Thanks, no thanks, fun to watch but I’ll remain a spectator.

Raising our chickens, on the other hand, has equally bolstered our resolve to farm humanely-raised organic chickens, on a permaculture model.  More about what that all means later. At the moment it means I’m having strongly-worded discussions with 15 hens about their job obligations.


Brief note: yes, we began with 25. Five were broilers so they now live in the freezer. Five got eaten by another animal who misunderstood her own job obligations (Sigrid, our GSD, is currently undergoing job re-training to guard rather than to eat). And we added a rooster, so there we are: 15 laying hens, one rooster named Gary the Bouncer.

Yesterday I sternly addressed Doris, Betty, and Constance thus: “y’all don’t forget you’re dual purpose birds, now. That means if you’re not fulfilling one purpose you’re going to fulfill another.” Doris, Betty, and Constance, who are not individual birds but a sort of figurehead for the whole flock, subjected me to their most chickeny blank look and resumed scratching for grubs. We don’t name our birds, but it’s much harder to speak threateningly to an anonymous group of bird brains.

And the nest boxes were still empty today. That kind of impertinence will not stand. Or maybe it will. Because Betty probably knows we’d rather wait a couple more weeks for eggs than start from scratch. Farming lesson number one: even bird brains don’t respect empty threats.

In other news the number of flies is unreal. I’d be mortified except I don’t think they’re all ours. We live between a turkey farm and several pastures full of cows. But we are trying every trick in the book to reduce them, including some old wive’s tales that earlier in the season I swore I’d never employ. Guess I just had to reach my fly-density threshold. The most interesting potential solution: the purchase of 10,000 “fly predators.” These are bugs that prey on flies. The only possible hitch in the plan is how much our chickens like eating all such bugs (if only they could keep up with the flies so energetically).  At $35 a pop that’s a spend chicken treat. I’ll let you know how it works out.