A Review of
How to Begin When Your World is Ending:
A Spiritual Field Guide to Joy Despite Everything
Molly Phinney Baskette
Reviewed by Linda Lambert
Everyone has a story. Molly Phinney Baskette affirms that fact in her book, How to Begin When Your World is Ending. As a progressive parish minister in the San Francisco Bay area, a cancer survivor, and mother of two children, Baskette gives glimpses of hope in difficult times. In this case, her walk through “chemolandia.” The book is just that: her story. Those of us who have faced earth-shaking medical unknowns or know people who have endured the big C will resonate with Baskette’s prayers, journal entries, and a sustaining supportive church community. A graduate of Dartmouth College and Yale Divinity School, Baskette writes with non-sugary, raw language (“God is not an asshole.”) The tone of the book will resonate with some and may be a put-off for others.
Baskette describes the book as “about the Someones I have pastored through some of the hardest things life can throw our way.” In addition to her own journey, the book is a series of loosely-connected examples of people around her, woven into a compassionate description of her community. She recounts conversations with friends and parishioners who have also faced challenges, tragedy, and suffering. Her personal life of survival is convincing and poignant, an example of strength and resilience. On that point the book delivers.
Like so many of us, when faced with seemingly insurmountable obstacles, Baskette asks: “Why me, God?” And the book teases the reader by asking the burning, hard questions: Where is God in our pain? What happens when our world is ending, when death is imminent? Written in an anecdotal, sometimes-too-casual way, if you are looking for scriptural or theological explanations, this book will not satisfy.
The book attempts many things, covering a broad swath of landscape of the world’s ills. Framed by her pastoral relationships, Baskette describes people’s struggles with addictions, PTSD, violence, mental health issues, and death. In as much as the stories of people she pastors help us to identify our own spiritual heartbeat, the book may give the reader motivation to meet one’s own hardships. Perhaps the closest thing describing “How to Begin”– as alluded to in the book title– are two rules: 1. Breathe 2. Don’t let other people’s freaking out, freak you out.
The book’s subtitle “guide to joy” is somewhat misleading. Baskette writes, “our stories aren’t over yet.” Sure, we can all rejoice in the stories when the characters overcome cancer. However, some meet the end of their story when cancer comes along. Baskette neglects to engage those who aren’t victorious in that battle, and those who are left grieving. In our search for answers to the hard questions about suffering and death, we simply do not and cannot know “why.” On the deepest level this book neglects to satisfy my longing to discover God as a holy and loving comforter. There are things we cannot and will not know about God and our struggles in this life, but we are promised that God is beyond our experience, beyond our knowing, greater than we can ever imagine. That is where joy can be found.
Linda Lambert, a retired librarian of Taylor University, lives in between the farmland of Indiana and mountains of Colorado. She is a volunteer ESL tutor, dog owner, world traveler, and she hopes to read 100 books by the end of the year.
Reading for the Common Good
From ERB Editor Christopher Smith
"This book will inspire, motivate and challenge anyone who cares a whit about the written word, the world of ideas, the shape of our communities and the life of the church."
-Karen Swallow Prior
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