On a theology of food

As the wife of a farmer, much of my life revolves around the production of food for human consumption. Conversations around my dinner table follow an obvious seasonal arc.  Winters are for debating the relative merits of planting peas, lentils, barley or wheat or for seed contracts and crop prices.  Springs are for worries about rain (not enough or too much) and fertilizer or insecticide discussions.  Summers are for harvest talk: this machine broke down, that field had incredible yield, which kid fell asleep on the way home from an overnight harvest shift.  Falls are for planning for the next year, planting seeds and preparing for the circle to start again.  It’s funny, as much as food production consumes my family’s life, I rarely think about the ways food connects us to each other and to God.

I just finished reading To the Table: A Spirituality of Food, Farming and Community by Lisa Graham McMinn.  The book delves into the idea of a theology of food, something that I am deeply interested in.  The author argues that our need for food “reminds us of our utter dependence on something outside of ourselves for our existence” and because of that mindful eating habits can have deep impact on our spiritual lives.

This book isn’t so much about what we eat as it is about what it all means.  I am particularly taken by her idea of eating together as vehicle for reconciliation.  She quotes Norman Wirzba who said, “Eating is an invitation to enter into communion and be reconciled with each other.”  There is no doubt in my mind that food is a relationship builder.  I can think of so many examples in my own life where a particular dish calls to mind a particular relationship.  One of my husband’s favorite treats is a particularly 1960s style strawberry Jello and Cool Whip “salad” that he calls Grandma Jello.  Every time we eat that salad we sit at the table and talk about Chris’s grandma, a woman my children and I never had the pleasure of meeting.  Yet even without meeting her, whenever we eat this dish that brings her memory to the mind of Chis, we are experiencing relationship with her.  I can think of so many other examples of this type of mystery: Blacky’s Brisket reminds me of a larger than life man who was only a part of my family’s life for a short time, Almond Roca brings my grandma to mind, my mother in law’s expertise at frying chicken has been a relationship builder for her and I and now also for my kids.  And I could go on and on.  I’m guessing you could too.

My husband and I are getting together with several friends to start up a supper club.  We are all so excited about it.  Sometimes I think about it and my hopes are just so high: I want this group of people to become people of significance in our lives.  I want these to be the people who we turn to in good times and bad.  I’m hoping this adventure turns in to something true and long-lasting.  It’s a lot to ask of a dinner party.  Or is it?  Lisa Graham McMinn says, “Eating isn’t simply a functional pleasure. We are created with potential to enter each other’s lives as we break bread together, to give and receive and enjoy pleasure as we partake in food that keeps us alive.  The mystery of communion is that we eat in order to live more fully.  We eat with others, with Jesus in our midst, that we might live better, love better, and be grateful.”  The whole chapter about communion with one another and with God around a dinner table rings true and lends the weight of truth to my hopes for our little supper club.

I’ll tell you the truth, the very section that gave me such hope for supper club also made me pause in thinking about our daily family dinnertime.  Usually when I think of Communion, I think of that particular part of every Sunday’s worship service where the bread and juice are taken to remember Jesus and His sacrifice.  But what if Communion with God were something we tried to cultivate daily (even hourly and minute by minute).  In her book Eat With Joy (also a fantastic book on this subject and I highly recommend it), Rachel Marie Stone argues that things that happen around the table can’t happen anywhere else. “Perhaps more than anything, it’s the place where children absorb the message: These are my people, and I belong here.” What if we treated the family dinner table as a time of Communion, with each other, sure, but also with God?  I confess, our family dinner time doesn’t often feel like a time of communion and I wonder what changes on my part would be necessary to make it that way?

I feel as though I have only scratched the surface of the thoughts To The Table has sparked in me.  Questions like: who is involved in producing my food and what responsibilities do I have toward them? Questions about making sure animals are raised humanely and even soil treated in ways that fosters its health.  Thoughts about being more intentional in my gratitude for the thrice-daily miracle of sustenance.  These kinds of questions should beget many kinds of intentionality.  If I believe God is creator and provider of all things then the way I interact with His creation and provisions is an expression of my faith in Him.  

What I read this week: January 11-17

This week was a pretty full week for reading.  I read several books that I liked well enough and one that I gave up on.  I'm including books that I don't finish here just so you get a full picture of my reading.  This week I also started receiving advanced reader copies through Netgalley.  When a book I read is an advanced copy I'll note that by saying ARC and I'll try to include the publishing date when possible.

  • H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald.  This is the book I gave up on.  You can read more about that in this post.  

 

  • One More Day by Kelly Simmons.  This is an ARC and the scheduled publication date is February 1, 2016.  This is a novel about a child who is kidnapped in a moment of inattention by the mother.  The book is written from the point of view of the mother and seems confusing in spots.  At first I wasn't sure I liked it but as I continued reading I realized that the confusion really added to the reality of the novel.  I imagine that if your child was kidnapped you would be quite confused.  Throughout the book the mother struggles, both because she is the focus of the police investigation into the kidnapping and because her child is gone.  The book also does a good job describing a marriage under that kind of stress.  I liked it a lot.

 

  • You Are Not a Stranger Here by Adam Haslett.  This is a book of short stories told primarily from the point of view of main characters with mental illness.  I thought the author did such a good job describing things: I felt manic when the character was manic, depressed when the character was depressed, etc.  Short stories aren't usually my favorite but this collection is really beautiful.

 

  • Losing the Light by Andrea Dunlop.  This is an ARC and the scheduled publication date is February 23, 2016.  At first I thought this was going to be one of those cheesy early 20s girl makes it in New York City fashion industry kind of fluff novels.  That's the impression the first chapter gives.  But then the real story starts. This novel really tells the story of Brooke Thompson's year abroad in college.  Having spent some time as an exchange student during high school, I could really identify with some of Brooke's feelings at being in the world for the first time.  At first she is totally enamored of her new country but as her year goes on she begins to notice cracks in her fairy tale view of things. The book is about friendship and love and growing up.  I liked it and can definitely see it being a perfect book to take on vacation with you.

 

  • City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg.   This is Garth Risk Hallberg's first novel.  He received a $2 million advance for it.  It received loads of pre-publication buzz last year.  It was supposed to be the it book of 2015.  Then it was published and no one talked about it again.  That is the main list of reasons that caused me to pick this book up.  Someone thought it was going to be a best seller and then it wasn't.  Things that make you go hmm.  First of all, this novel is a monster with more than 900 pages.  I love super long books, really I do, but they have to move along right from the beginning.  This book did not. No wonder people didn't read it, you have to slog through the first 200+ pages.  I almost gave up on this one but it did finally start moving.  Secondly, it's kind of hard to care about New York City in 1977.  The 1970s don't seem to have much to recommend them (except my birth, of course).  Finally, let's talk about the characters.  There was only one that I really liked and he was only infrequently the focus of the narrative.  Overall, this was a novel that could have been really good but it didn't quite get there.  I'm thinking he could have cut about 400 pages and probably told a better story.

 

  • Dear Mr. You by Mary-Louise Parker.  This is a collection of letters Mary-Louise Parker wrote to various men in her life.  It doesn't sound very interesting but I think it was for the most part.  The description makes it sound like it's about these men but, in fact, it's about her and the things she's experienced.  I liked it, basically.  Not a totally glowing review but I don't regret that I read it.

 

  • And It Was Beautiful: Celebrating Life in the Midst of the Long Goodbye by Kara Tippetts.  This is an ARC and the scheduled publication date is March 1, 2016.  Do you know about Kara Tippetts?  Kara wrote a blog called Mundane Faithfulness.  It was lovely and moving and true and hard.  I really liked it.  This book, And It Was Beautiful, is a collection of some of her blog posts gathered in a way that tells the arc of her end of life story.  Kara fought breast cancer long and hard and eventually died March 22, 2015.  I loved this book.  I loved the honestly with which Kara shared her struggles and discouragement.  I loved the beautiful way she showed the juxtaposition between anxiously awaiting life after death while dearly holding on to the ones who would be left behind.  This book is a quick read and much of the story can be gleaned on Kara's blog but I love having it in one volume.  You should read this book.

 

Whew!  That's it for last week.  Next I'll be reading When Women Were Birds by Terry Tempest Williams, Coming Clean by Seth Haines and an ARC of Diana Abu-Jaber's memoir, Life Without a Recipe.   Come back next week for the whole scoop!

On letting go of hurts

Several years ago, almost five, really, something happened between me and a friend of mine that hurt me deeply.  I've nurtured that hurt since then.  Nurture is such a good word for it because I've cared for that hurt.  I've fed it and sheltered it and protected it.  Carrying that hurt around has become important to me. 

It's been easy for me to justify my care for that hurt.  I mean, I didn't hurt myself, after all.  I wasn't in the wrong.  In some ways, taking care of that hurt became self-protective.  Like I needed to remember that first hurt so that I wouldn't be hurt again.  My friend has never acknowledged the hurt.  Maybe that would have helped, maybe if my friend had noticed the hurt I wouldn't have had to nurture it so much.  But probably not.  I probably would have cared for my hurt anyway.

Yesterday I realized that nurturing my hurt has meant missing out on some things.  I guess it's hard to know if I would have been a part of the things I've missed out on if I hadn't been taking care of my hurt.  But I definitely haven't had time for those other things.  If I made room for the other things I wouldn't have enough time to take care of my hurt.  Hurts need a lot of attention if you are going to keep them growing for five years.

Today I did some things to start letting go of my hurt.  I'm not going to lie, letting go of a five year old hurt isn't something that just happens in a morning.  But today I did acknowledge that my nurturing of the one hurt actually created some new hurts.  Hurts are ugly and hurtful things.  And today my hurt seems just a little smaller.

 

On giving up

I gave up on a book yesterday.  I know some of you are shocked but sometimes I just decide a book isn't worth it to me.  Yesterday the book that wasn't worth it to me was H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald.  I wanted to love it.  I wanted to love it so much.  The whole world has been raving about how wonderful and transforming this book is.  I wanted to be taken in by the "breathtaking" writing.  I wanted it to be "one of the loveliest things" I'd read all year.  One of the reviews said, "her book is so good that, at times, it hurt me to read it."  All the blurbs I've read about it, all the reviews, all the people who have talked about this book made me believe it would be one of those once in a lifetime type books. Oh, I wanted to love this book.

But I didn't.  I gave it a fair shot, I think.  The book is 283 pages long and I read 70 of them.  That's nearly a quarter of the book and seems like enough of a chance for the book to grab me.  I once heard Nancy Pearl (rock star reader's advisory librarian) say that you should subtract your age from 100 and that is the number of pages you should give a book before you decide it isn't for you.  I've always liked that guideline...I mean, if you are 99 you shouldn't have to give more than 1 page of your time to a book that you aren't loving!  By Nancy Pearl's metric I read more than I should have.  So I don't feel guilty about giving the book up. Some books just aren't for me and that's okay.

I don't always use the Nancy Pearl rule.  Honestly, I think some books call for more patience and some books are clearly not for me even 5 pages in.  So, here are some thoughts I have on when to give a book up and when to keep pressing on.

  •   Consider the source.  The first thing I think about when I'm considering giving up on a book is how the book came into my hands.  If it is just something I randomly picked up at the library I'm much more likely to give it up quickly, I have no real stake in the book.  If it is a book that was recommended to me, I consider who recommended it to me and the context of the recommendation.  For example, if I picked up a book because I saw that my sister gave it 5 stars on Goodreads, I'd probably give it more of a chance than a book I'd just randomly picked up.  If my sister specifically talked to me about the book, I'd give it an even longer chance.  And if my sister physically put the book in my hands, I'd probably read the whole thing even if it wasn't really grabbing me because I know that a book that meant that much to her will probably be meaningful to me too.

In the case of H is for Hawk, I picked it up based on the buzz around it.  I try to read the books that people are talking about.  I also picked it up because it is, at least in some ways, a grief memoir and I have read and enjoyed many of those types of books. It was not recommended to me personally by anyone who knows what I like to read so I didn't feel bad when I decided to put it down.

  •   Consider the reason.  When I am decided to give up on a book, I always ask myself why I want to quit reading it.  Sometimes I know by page 5 that the book isn't going to be right for me and in cases like that I don't make myself give it any more time.  For example, there are some writing styles that just don't appeal to me.  That's okay and I don't feel like I need to torture myself just to finish in those cases (I'm looking at you, James Joyce).  Some people are sensitive to particular content issues.  If you are someone who doesn't want to read books with certain kinds of sensitive situations, don't feel bad for one second about putting a book down if you come to something that makes you uncomfortable!  

Sometimes the reason to put a book down is that it just isn't interesting you at that moment.  That's okay too.  Reading isn't an assignment (unless it is an assignment, in that case I guess it doesn't matter if you think it is boring, you should just finish the book).  There have been books in my life that I have given up on at one stage and have picked up later (sometimes years later) and loved.  Some books need to be read when you are in a particular mindset.  

The truth is, I gave up on H is for Hawk because I found it boring.  Every once in a while she would get into something that really interested me (background on TH White, for example) but the bulk of the book just didn't appeal.  I don't care about goshawks, falconry isn't even close to my circle of interest and too much of the book was about the specifics.  I have read great books about things I don't really have interest in doing myself but that have made whatever that thing is into a metaphor for life but this book just didn't do that for me.  I don't feel bad about giving up on it.

  •   Think about when not to give up on a book.  There are reasons for giving up on a book that I don't have patience with at all.  I've caught myself thinking these from time to time and I don't let myself give up on a book if this is the reason: "it's too hard" or "I don't understand" or "the characters just aren't like me."  I don't think these are good enough reasons to give up on a book.  Characters don't have to look/think/be like me to have something to teach me.  My favorite books are full of characters that have experiences so far outside of my own experiences that they might have been born on another planet.  Those are the best books, the ones that show us something we'd never see without them.  Not understanding a book isn't a good reason to give up either, it's a reason to work to understand.  Same with a book that seems to hard.  Push yourself for those books.  The books that are too hard are the ones that will leave the deepest mark.

 

Life is too short.  That's the truth.  And part of life being too short means that you shouldn't torture yourself over something that is supposed to be pleasureful.  Reading is a glorious pleasure.  I think sometimes it should be a challenge.  Challenge is good.  But there are times when you have to give up on a book.  Giving up on books is good too.  Yesterday I gave up on a book.

What was the last book you gave up on?  Do you have any "rules" for giving up on books?  I'd love to hear your thoughts!

 

 

What I read last week: January 1-10

In an effort to keep up with my goal of keeping track of what I'm reading this year, I've decided to post once a week about what I've read in the previous week.  I'll probably write a short blurb about most books and possibly a longer review of what I enjoyed most.  Some weeks this will be a really short list, other weeks longer.  It just depends on what I'm reading.  

This first list is for January 1-10.

  • Corrupted by Lisa Scottoline.  I enjoy Scottoline's work.  They are kind of standard legal thrillers but the main character is a woman, which makes them different from most of these types of novels.  In this book, Bennie Rosato has a chance to represent a client that she felt like she'd failed in the past.  It's a quick read and an enjoyable vacation.

 

  • All the Stars in the Heavens by Adriana Trigiani.  I picked up this book because of the picture on the inside cover of Clark Gable and Loretta Young.  My husband looks like Clark Gable so, of course, I'm a fan.  Anyway, this novel is an old Hollywood tale.  It spins the story of Loretta Young's life in Hollywood, her relationship with Clark Gable and the lengths to which she goes to hide her pregnancy from the studio bosses.  The book makes it seem like Gable and Young were star-crossed lovers.  It all seemed very sweet.  I did a little reading about the Gable/Young situation, though, and near the end of her life Loretta Young claimed that she actually became pregnant as the result of Gable raping her.  Kind of changed my view of this book, actually,  Interesting story and good writing but I hate to romanticize something that may have been more horrific.

 

  • Circling the Sun by Paula McLain.  I think I'm the only person on the planet who didn't really enjoy The Paris Wife so it took me longer than it should have to pick up this second novel by McLain.  I wish I'd gotten to it much sooner because it was a real joy to read.  Circling the Sun tells the story of Beryl Markham.  Markham was a British-born Kenyan aviator and horse trainer.  She was one of the first female bush pilots and helped pioneer the practice of spotting game from the air and radioing their locations to safaris on the ground.  The book jacket makes a big deal about Markham's "love triangle" with Karen Blixen (who wrote Out of Africa as Isak Dinesen) and Denys Finch Hatton.  Truth is, that was such a small part of the book that it doesn't seem worth mentioning.  The real star of this novel is colonial era Africa. I loved everything about the descriptions of Africa and the people who lived there.  The insular, almost incestuous, relationships between the few British residents of Kenya were interesting to read about and, honestly, made me understand Markham's rebellion against tradition.  There are few and fleeting descriptions and conversations of the native Kenyans and each mention made me long for so much more.  This was really an excellent novel, by far my favorite of the week.

 

This was kind of a slow week because I got caught up in some other reading.  I'm currently reading H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald, You Are Not a Stranger Here by Adam Haslett, and City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg.  I'm sure you'll hear about these, and possibly others, next week!

Resolutions vs goals

I've been thinking a lot about New Year's resolutions.  Who hasn't, right?  I don't know if I really have any resolutions this year.  I have goals, certainly, but I'm not sure any of them exactly rise to the level of resolution.   In thinking all of this through, I've had to stop and consider the difference between a goal and a resolution and why they feel like different things to me.

I'll start with the definitions.  A resolution is "a firm decision to do or not to do something."  Some synonyms for resolution are: intention, decision, aim, plan.  A goal is "the object of a person's ambition or effort, an aim or desired result." Some synonyms for goal are: objective, aim, intent, plan, purpose.  It seems like they are actually words with very similar meanings.  In fact, you could say that they mean the same thing.  So I guess the difference between the words is a matter of perception.

My perception of a resolution is that it is something that you kind of wish would happen to you.  Like every year when people ask you what your resolution is you just  throw out some thing that you'd sure like to see happen but don't necessarily have a plan for.  On the other hand, a goal is something that is defined, that you have a process for working toward, that you keep in front of you.  The best goals have deadlines and plans of action.  Goals aren't just thrown out without consideration, they have meaning and thought behind them.

So, I don't really have a New Year's resolution.  I do have goals for 2016.  Here are some of them.

  1. Obtain meaningful employment.  I am ready to transition back in to the workplace and I think my family is ready too.  I don't really know what meaningful employment will look like but this is the year I want to find out.  To that end I am applying for jobs, making sure to keep up with goings on in my profession and taking opportunities for professional development as they are available.
  2. Run 1200 miles.  I ran slightly under 1000 miles last year and I plan to increase that this year.  I have a running schedule worked out that will get me there.
  3. Run marathon number 2.  I'm holding this goal very loosely.  I have a race in mind and I have a training plan all ready to go.  But if I do find a job I will shelve the #2 marathon goal for a while.  My going back to work will be a big transition for my family and I won't add marathon training to that stress.  Obviously I'll keep running but I won't train for 26.2!
  4. Make strength training a habit.  Listen, I hate exercise that isn't running.  But I know that working on my strength will make me a better runner.  Also, I am a weakling in my upper body and I'd like to remedy that.  I'm figuring out what will work for me and have a goal to do strength work twice a week for now.
  5. Write here 3 times a week.  I really like to write and I write in other places (my journal, etc) but I want to make this more of a priority.  I'm developing a schedule that will help me make that happen.
  6. Keep track of the books I read.  Every year I start out with the idea that I'll keep track of everything I read.  And every year I end up letting that plan fall by the wayside  I added the Goodreads app to my phone and I think that will help.

 

I have a couple of other goals that I'm not going to share here but these are the main things I'm thinking about this year.  For now.  The good thing about goals is that you don't need a New Year to set them.  I'm pretty sure I'll make new goals as the year goes on.

My favorite books of 2015

In no particular order, these are books that really stood out for me in 2015.  You might want to read them too.

El Deafo by Cece Bell

I'm not always a huge fan of graphic novels but this one was so fantastic.  El Deafo is shelved as a Young Adult novel but I really think it is lovely for so many ages.  In fact, one of the things I enjoyed most about this book was that Helen, who is 9, read it with me. Scratch that.  I brought it home from the library and she stole it from me and read it first!

El Deafo is Cece Bell's memoir of hearing loss as a child.  She tells of getting a Phonic Ear, a kind of hearing aid with a box that she wore on a necklace.  I loved the way Bell wrote things as she heard them which kind of helps the reader feel like they are hearing impaired along with the author.  The drawings are cute and quirky and really add to the story.  Definitely worth reading.


Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal

I love books, I love food, I love books about food, this is a great novel about food.  That's all you need to know about this book. I really enjoyed the way the author used different tastes and flavors as a way of telling the main character’s life story.  It made me wonder how my life story would be told, probably through the lens of the books that were important at different stages of my life. It’s interesting to think of the many ways a person’s biography could be shared.

The main character of Kitchens of the Great Midwest is Eva Thorvald.  Eva is a chef with a “once in a generation palate” who becomes successful for her pop up dinner parties.  Her story is told through the ingredients and dishes that eventually form a dinner party menu that is her life story.  She is a lovely heroine.  She is kind, never gaining success at the expense of others.  She is innovative and wants to explore the boundaries of her field but, at the same time, she honors the traditions of the past.  Eva is a compelling foundation for the novel.  

The food of Kitchens of the Great Northwest is also fantastic.  I love a book with flavor and this book is flavorful in the extreme.  My mouth burned when reading about the spicy pepper oil at the beginning.  I could taste the bursting sweetness of the succotash.  I experienced the perfection of the main character’s first fancy dining experience.  The food descriptions told the story in ways other words couldn’t.

I enjoyed this one so much that I bought one as a Christmas present.  Could be a present for you, I guess you'll find out soon enough :).


Stoner by John Williams

About halfway through the year I started listening to the All the Books podcast from Book Riot.  It's usually about the week's new releases and is a reliable source for new additions to your to be read list.  From time to time, though, they throw in recommendations for older books.  I can't remember for sure when they recommended Stoner but I'm so glad I took notice of the recommendation.

Stoner is a quiet book about a quiet life lived honorably. The book opens with young John Stoner being given an unexpected opportunity to attend the state university.  That start opens his eyes to the quiet pleasures of an academic life.  He surprises his parents by changing his major from agriculture to English literature.  The book then follows his career, initially very promising but stymied by a rival.  In the end, though, he chooses to keep performing to the best of his abilities.

The book is a lovely meditation on solitude and the beauty of the mundane.  While it doesn't have the theological depth of Marilynne Robinson's novels, I think her fans will enjoy this one.

Out of Sorts: Making Peace with an Evolving Faith by Sarah Bessey

I kind of think this book is a love letter to the church.  Sarah Bessey's words constantly remind us of her deep love of Jesus and of the church.  She is open  about the ways she's been hurt, about the time she's doubted,  about the ways she's changed over time.  She is also very clear about the importance of community.  I will read anything Sarah Bessey writes.  In fact, are you reading her blog?  You should be.

A Little Life by Hanya Yanigahara

I am still thinking about this book.  I feel like it might be the best book I read this year. I reviewed it here earlier this year.  Read the review here. 



On a non-book note, I love, love, love the Hamilton cast recording.  I am not really a music fan usually but this is just so amazing. "My Shot" is an excellent running song, "Satisfied" brings me to tears every single time, "Dear Theodosia" is a lovely ode to parenthood, "The Room Where It Happens" is a favorite of my kids.  Really, the whole album is worth listening to on repeat.

 

 

Bowe Bergdahl is annoying

Like everyone else, I was excited to wake up last Thursday morning and see episode one of the new season of Serial in my podcast queue.  I loved Serial season one and still follow new developments in the Adnan Syed case.  So, like everyone else, I have high hopes for season 2.  I believe in the storytelling abilities of the Serial crew and I'm in it for the long haul.

BUT

I have to admit, I found episode 1 annoying.  Or, more accurately, I found Bowe Bergdahl annoying.  According to the bare bones version of his story that was offered in episode 1, Bowe Bergdahl believed the base he was stationed at was being run poorly.  He even alleges abuse of power.  I don't believe or not believe his claims because there has been no evidence presented (to me, at least) to back up the claims.  But even if what he contends is true, Bowe Bergdahl just decided that he knows best and came up with some crazy Chuck Norris plan to inform the world of the problem.

He didn't consider the danger he was putting himself in.  He didn't consider the danger he was putting his fellow soldiers in.  He didn't consider the pain he would be causing his family, even assuming his plan worked the way he thought it would, he intentionally went missing.  He didn't consider the resources that would be spent on locating him that could have been spent in more appropriate ways.  Basically, he considered nothing except himself.

My understanding is that Bergdahl is facing court martial and the result of that could be life imprisonment.  I don't know if that's what he deserves.  But I don't think he deserves any celebrity status and I hope that won't be the result of this Serial version of his story.

I think Bowe Bergdahl exemplifies what is wrong with this country.  Every single one of us thinks we know best (I'm including myself here).  Bergdahl had some problems with how his base was being run but he chose not to address his complaints through channels that already existed.  Instead, he decided to show everyone how awesome he was.  Aren't we all a little like that? We're sure that our bosses don't know how exceptional we are.  We're sure we can run things better.  Our ideas are fresh and new, it's time to overthrow those outdated ways of doing things!

So, episode 2 dropped today and I have't listened to it yet.  I don't know how the story is going to unfold.  But I do feel like maybe there is something for us all to learn here.  There are times when it is necessary to make a bold statement about something.  But I think if you consider the bold stands that have been most successful, they have generally been taken with planning and thought and support.  Rosa Parks didn't just decide to keep her seat one day, she knew that her action was part of a broader movement, a movement that she had been a part of for many years and that had a base of support from which to build.  Rosa Parks is just an example but she's not the only of a "big hero" who is actually part of a vast movement of heroes.

I think we're attracted to the idea of big heroes and of being a big hero ourselves.  But community is important and what I think Bowe Bergdahl's story offers us more than anything is a cautionary tale of the disastrous consequences of acting outside of our community and attempting to take matters into our own hands.  

It's early and I'm willing to admit that my first impressions about the Bowe Bergdahl story might be off.  I'll stick with this new season of Serial, for sure.  But the first episode just made me want to take Bergdahl by the hand and tell him to grow up.

On marriage and truth: reviewing Fates and Furies

This weekend I read Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff.  I've actually had the book on reserve at the library for ages and it just happened to come in just in time for me to finish it right when President Obama named it as his favorite book of the year.  Lucky coincidence, I guess.   Anyway, President Obama's recommendation isn't the only accolade Fate and Furies received this year.  The novel, a New York Times Bestseller, was a finalist for the National Book Award and the Kirkus Prize and has been on numerous "Best of 2015" lists.

The first thing to say about the book is that Lauren Groff weaves an excellent story.  I was drawn in from the very first page and barely put the book down until I finished.  The narrative style was engaging and the story moved with purpose while developing fully formed characters.  I really enjoyed that side of the book.

On the other hand, I really disliked the characters.  The story centers on the marriage of Lotto and Mathilde.  The first half of the book really tells the story of the marriage from the point of view of Lotto.  The second half fills in the rest of the story from the point of view of Mathilde, often totally changing the meaning of various events.  By the end of the novel I simultaneously hated and sympathized with both husband and wife.

Lotto is self involved and pampered.  Born into privilege and allowed to do whatever he want, Lotto never develops any kind of drive or desire for anything.  Anything, that is, except love and admiration from everyone around him.  He believes himself to be a born actor but his talent is never noticed by others.  Eventually, largely through the manipulation and maneuvering of his wife, Lotto becomes an accomplished playwright. .Lotto is not an admirable character. He seems like a lazy slob who manages to attain some success, mostly because of his hard-working, long-suffering wife.

But then the second half of the book reveals a wholly different Mathilde.  We learn, as we plod through the second half, that Mathilde has a somewhat checkered past, none of which she has shared with Lotto.  We are given new details that change the meaning of various events of their marriage.  Whereas in the first half of the book Mathilde seems hard-working and long-suffering, by the end of the book she seems manipulative and mendacious.  

But here is my real problem with Fates and Furies, it has been called "a dazzling examination of a marriage."  The marriage of Lotto and Mathilde seems built almost entirely on sex and co-dependency.  Neither of them are remotely honest with the other so, in the end, you realize that can't have really loved each other because they never really knew each other.  The novel seems to portray good sex as the source of a good marriage, rather than a product of a good marriage (and that's all the sex talk, this isn't that kind of blog).

By the last page I just feel sorry for Lotto and Mathilde. I feel sorry for the ways they missed out on really being known because they didn't trust their partner with truth.  I feel sorry for the ways they missed out on true community because of the shallow people they surrounded themselves with.  Mostly, I just feel sorry for people who read this book and think they are reading a dazzling examination of a marriage.  I didn't feel dazzled by that marriage at all.

I still think Fates and Furies is worth reading, if only because of the ways it makes the reader think. But I don't think it's my favorite book of the year.  I'll ponder that and post a top 10 list later this week.

 

 

The Bleak Midwinter - on advent mourning and the source of hope and joy

In the bleak mid-winter
Frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow,
Snow on snow,
In the bleak mid-winter
Long ago.

Our God, Heaven cannot hold Him
Nor earth sustain;
Heaven and earth shall flee away
When He comes to reign:
In the bleak mid-winter
A stable-place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty,
Jesus Christ.

In the Bleak Midwinter by Christina Rossetti
 

These are the first two verses for the Christmas Carol that is speaking to me most this season.  The version that I have been listening to on repeat is by Kids and is on A Very Relevant Christmas, volume 5, part 1.  (You can download both parts...24 songs!...it's free here.)  There are things about this carol that seem mournful to me, and maybe especially this version although, honestly, I'm not terribly familiar with the song.  That makes it an odd choice for a perfect Christmas song.  I think many Christmas songs beat us over the head with their insistence on joy.  But I'll be honest, joy isn't always my automatic reaction at Christmastime.

Tomorrow is my sister's birthday.  For 32 years of my life, December 7 felt like the kick-off of the Christmas season.  It was a day of joy, laughter, parties, usually cake.  My mom would tell of bringing Becky home from the hospital in a giant stocking.  Incidentally, December 7 is a great day to have a birthday.  It's close enough to Christmas to bask in the light of that anticipated holiday but far enough away from the actual day that it isn't forgotten in all the other festivities.  Also your sisters can tease you about how your birthday is "a day that will live in infamy."  But, I digress.  Almost 5 years ago, my sister died on a snowy night four days after Christmas.  The truth is, December 7 no longer feels like the Christmas season kick off, now it feels like a kickoff to a season of loss.

I know I'm not alone in experiencing holiday grief. More and more, the whole world is confronted with grief.  Every day we are confronted with news that breaks our hearts and causes us to weep.  It is so difficult to hold on to hope and joy when we are faced with so many things that seem hopeless. 

In some ways, I think this fight for hope and joy has always been a hallmark of Christmas.  Think of young, unmarried Mary when she received the first news of Advent.  In that moment, the coming of Jesus, an event she submitted to willingly, must have been difficult to greet with joy!  When Joseph learned that his wife-to-be was expecting, his plans and dreams for the future were certainly shattered, sometimes being open to God's plan requires putting your own plans to death.   Jesus was born in a stable, a location that doesn't seem like an ideal situation for hope to blossom.  In the days, weeks and years after Jesus was born, his parents were greeted with strange and dirty visitors, terrifying words of prophecy from an old man, and a leader who was so threatened by Jesus that he ordered the murder of all boys in Bethlehem age 2 and under.  The circumstances of Christmas have never been easy in the hope and joy department.

That's why the circumstances of Christmas aren't the source of hope and joy.  The source of hope and joy, at Christmas and throughout the year, is God.  Romans 15:13 says, "I pray that God, the source of hope, will fill you completely with joy and peace because you trust in him.  Then you will overflow with confident hope through the power of the Holy Spirit."  It is when we trust in God that we have hope.  It is when we trust in God that we experience joy and peace.

Christmas will always be tinged with mourning for me.  In so many ways, though, that grief reminds me to lean in and fight to trust God more fully.

 

Making room: Thoughts on the First Sunday of Advent

I'm sitting in my living room thinking about where we'll set up the Christmas tree this year.  We could put it in a corner, the same place we set it up last year.  It was a fine location and required only a little bit of furniture moving to make it work.  Or there is a place up against a wall where we could fit a tree in to the existing set up.  It would require minimal work and zero furniture moving to put the tree there.  Or there is a third option.  This option would require totally reorganizing the furniture, moving the couch, probably relocating some things into a different room, a lot of effort.  Taking the time and effort to remove some things that are already in place would make a spot for the tree right in the center of some windows.  It would make the tree a real focus of our living room.  I think the result would be spectacular.

Today is the first Sunday of Advent.  Advent is a season of expectancy and preparation for the celebration of Jesus' birth.  It is also be a time of thinking about our sense of expectancy and preparation for the second coming of Jesus.  This is the time of year when we really focus on the Incarnation of Jesus, that He was Word-made-flesh.

How often, though, do I just try to fit Jesus  in to my existing set up?  Or maybe I just do a little bit of work and find a corner that's just fine.  How rarely do I totally reorganize my life, do a lot of relocating and cleaning in order to achieve a spectacular result!  It is easy for me to focus only on Christmas, on the cookies and the gifts and the parties, and completely leave out any time for thoughtfully preparing and expectancy.  

I don't want to just fit Jesus in to my life.  I want to allow for the work and the effort so that He can be spectacular in my life.

10,000 Maniacs and Attacks in Paris

I went to a 10,000 Maniac concert in San Sebastian, Spain in July of 1993.  It was one of those perfect free summer concerts, sponsored by some whiskey company.  A couple thousand kids crowded into a fairly small outdoor venue.  I was 16 years old, far away from home, in a foreign city by myself for the very first time.  I was with a group of 16-19 year old kids and we owned the world.  I was drunk on freedom (just freedom, mom) and felt powerful and limitless.  It was a highlight summer of my life.

On Friday, when I first heard of the terrorist attacks in Paris, I thought of the 16 year old girl at that 10,000 Maniacs concert.  It feels like her world is gone.  You can't accidentally stumble in to a concert these days, usually there are bag checks and security...even more so after the attacks at the concert venue in Paris.  After 6 weeks in Spain my 16 year old self stumble off an airplane directly into the arms of my waiting family.  That's an impossibility in this world.  When I went to Spain as a 16 year old, the most dangerous thing I did was lay on the beach without sunscreen (and attend an ETA rally which, given what I now know about ETA may have been more dangerous than I thought).  The world just seems a bit scarier these days.

So, when the news of the Paris attacks broke, the social media world erupted with #PrayforParis.  And then came the inevitable backlash.  Why were we all so quick to rally support for Paris and not for Beirut, which was also the site of terrible terrorist attacks?  It's a fair question and one can certainly understand why some Lebanese people feel forgotten.   In the news reports after the attacks in Paris Christiane Amanpour kept saying that some of the attackers spoke French without an accent, that they were French nationals.  I think this is at the crux of why the attacks in Paris received more attention than the attacks in Beirut.  The attacks in Paris are teaching us something that they've known in Beirut for decades: terrorists look like us.

In an earlier post I talked about how we're looking for a Shibboleth to help us determine who is on our team.  But maybe more importantly, we all want a Shibboleth to help us determine who is against us.  That's why we point out all the things that make terrorists the "other".  Unfortunately, it isn't that simple.  And that's why the Paris attacks got so much attention.

Someday in the not too distant future I hope to send my own 16 year old off on a foreign adventure of her own.  I still think it's important for my kids to experience other countries, maybe more important now than ever before.  I don't think it will be easy to send them off but I can't lock them up forever...that's letting the terrorists win.

On systemic bias and job interviews

Disclaimer: I'm going to be very vague here because my comments aren't really specific to the situation of today, just thoughts I have surrounding all of it.  Plus, I may be offered the job and decide to take it.  Not trying to burn any bridges.

I had an interview today.  It went well, I think, and I'm sure the job would be fine.  But I feel so unsettled about it.  The position for which I interviewed today wasn't in my career field at all.  When I applied I convinced myself that it would be an okay fit for now because the hours would be perfect for my family and because it could conceivably grow into something that is "sorta" in my field.

Then, less than a week after I submitted my letter of application for this job, a dream job opened at a local university.  It's a job that is right in my wheelhouse.  It's a job that I think I could be really excellent at.  It's a job that, honestly, I'm not sure I have the slightest chance at getting.  It's been almost 10 years since I finished graduate school.  10 years during which I've tried to stay abreast of things in the library world but, let's be honest, much of that 10 years has been dedicated to diapering, potty training, nose wiping and loving my children.

It's been good, don't get me wrong.  And I don't think it was the wrong decision.  But sometimes I wonder if I've thrown the dream job away.  And I all but guarantee that if I am offered and accept the job for which I interviewed today, I will be throwing the dream job away.  Because there is no path from the "okay fit for now" job to the dream job.

Sheryl Sandberg recently spoke at an Air Force Academy forum on gender issues and something she said really stuck out at me.  In response to a question about how to encourage men to "lean in" and support their female colleagues, she said, " There's only two options: One is that men are far, far more talented than women and deserve 95% of the top jobs, or the second is that there is systemic bias.  Those are the two options. Pick one. Because those are your only two choices."  (You can read more about her fascinating work with the Department of Defense here.)

Here's the thing about systemic bias: acknowledging that there is systemic bias means acknowledging your own part in the system.  I don't remember ever specifically deciding with my husband that his career would take priority over mine.  We met when we were in college.  We graduated the same year and I went on to graduate school.  At that point it seemed natural for his career to take precedence because, well, I didn't have one yet.  But then I guess it was just the route we were on and we've never stopped to talk about it.  

I don't want you to think I begrudge my husband's career success.  I don't at all.  He has a career that he is very happy with that seems to be growing into something he's dreamed of since he was a little boy.  I am thrilled for him and genuinely want to continue supporting the arc his career seems to be taking.  But never once in all the career decisions that have been made for him have we ever considered if something was "a good fit for the family".  Never once have we stopped to think about what late work nights would mean for the kids.  Never once have we considered who would take care of the kids during his 90+ hour summer work weeks.

I applied for and was accepted into a PhD program that would have started the fall that our first child was born.  I decided not to enter the program or accept the generous funding I was offered in part because someone needed to be available to take care of the baby.  I don't really regret that decision but I do look back and wonder why.  I think we could have made it work, if different decisions had been made about the primacy of my husband's career.   This decision is just one example of 1000 decisions that we have made, no, that I have made that have put us here, with one of us well into a career that he loves and is going the direction that he'd always hope and the other of us staring at 40 and considering making a decision that will permanently kill the dream job.

I did go ahead and apply for the dream job.  But I soon as I sent in my CV I started worrying about how I'd make everything work.  I started thinking about the sacrifices my kids would make if I got the dream job.  Never once did I think about sacrifices my husband could make.  Never once did I think about ways he could set different limits at work.  I want you to know, I'm not blaming my husband for any of this.  I got us here.   I'm the one with the lack of imagination to see alternative ways of working things out.  I'm part of the biased system.

So, what's the path forward?  I don't know (I just acknowledged my lack of imagination).  And, honestly, it is so difficult to have these kinds of discussions with other women.  It is very difficult to ask another woman about her decisions and how she manages things, especially when you're the stay at home mom who doesn't have to play the same balancing game.  I want to forge a way forward but I just don't know how.  I'm blaming systemic bias.

Because it's easier to be outraged

Unless you live under a rock somewhere, you've heard about the Starbucks holiday cup controversy.  I'm not going to re-hash it, mostly because it's boring, but it has really caused me to think.  It seems like there's always something to be outraged over and I think we like it.  I think we are obsessed with outrage.  

There are really, impossibly difficult problems in the world today.  We are facing the worst refugee crisis since World War 2.  According to International Justice Mission, nearly 2 million children are being exploited in the commercial sex industry.  According to the US Department of Justice, only 46% of violent victimizations were reported to police.  Even the church is not immune to abuse of its most helpless members.  The world is absolutely full of things that are worthy of our outrage and we are wasting our time on a disposable red cup.

Why the cup? (Or yoga pants or courtship vs dating or whatever the latest controversy may be.)  Because it's easier. It is so much easier to expend a lot of internet outrage about Starbucks red cup than it is to address any of the many difficult problems we're really facing.  We love easier so, of course, the easier focus of our outrage gets the attention.

But I think it's more than just that.  I think we're also looking for a shibboleth. What's a shibboleth, you say?  A shibboleth is an easy way to identify someone.  The story is in Judges 12.  Jephthah was leading the Gileadites against the Ephraimites.  There was no obvious was to tell who was an Ephraimite and who was a Gileadite so if a person was captured they were asked to say the world "shibboleth."  Ephraimites pronounced the word "sibboleth" so, there you go, an easy way to recognize who was part of which group.

Don't we all want that?  Aren't we all looking for an easy way to identify who belongs with us?  I think that's what we think these crazy controversies are about. If someone else is upset about the same red cup that I am then they must be on my team, right?  And, boy, aren't we all looking for more people who are on our team?

2 Timothy 2:23 says, "Have nothing to do with foolish, ignorant controversies; you know that they breed quarrels."  I have to repeat this to myself almost daily because I love me a foolish, ignorant controversy.  But the author is right, they only breed quarrels, quarrels that distract from the real problems of our world.

But, then, how will we know who is on our team?  Jesus said, in John 13:35, "By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another."  Easy peasy, right?

The holiness of discomfort

 I used to think I would know God's will by how comfortable I was.  It actually sounds silly to read it in those words but I really don't think I'm the only one.  I know you've heard the stories: "I knew I'd found my calling because it just felt right" or "I just felt so unsettled about it, so I knew it couldn't be right."  I can't begin to tell you how much I wish those things were true for me.

Honestly, I'm not even sure I totally believe in the idea of "calling", or at least what it seems like we've interpreted it to mean.  Usually when people talk about calling they seem to be referring to that one, spectacular thing that God designed them, and only them, to accomplish in this life.  Like, if Jessica didn't follow her calling then no one would ever plant that seed.  Truth is, I feel like that way of looking at things puts a limit on God.  If God wants a particular seed planted and the first planter misses her opportunity, I think our great, big God will send along another planter.  Maybe God doesn't' have a specific calling for each person, maybe God's purpose is that each person glorify Him and enjoy Him.  The rest is secondary.

I guess that was my entry into discomfort: I was discomfited by the knowledge that I am not the spectacular one: God is.  And I wanted to be spectacular, still do, always will, probably.  But, then, other discomforts came.  I used to think knowing the answers was the most important thing.  I was the one with my hand raised in Sunday School.  I was the one who won the Bible drills.  Knowing the answers made me feel like a "good Christian".  Until one day I didn't know the answers, one day the questions got too hard.  Questions like: why her and not me?  Questions about why God created certain things in certain ways.  Questions about what Rachel Held Evans called winning the "cosmic lottery".  Questions about why some people could read scripture and interpret it to mean one thing but other equally learned people interpret it in the exact opposite way.  And not knowing the answers made me very uncomfortable.

I used to think it was God's will that I be comfortable, now I think discomfort is holy.  I think discomfort keeps me asking questions. I think discomfort makes me less of a know-it-all.  I think discomfort keeps my mouth closed.  I think discomfort helps me listen. Most of all, I think discomfort keeps me pressing in to Jesus.

Almost a year ago Glennon posted this prayer on the Momastery Facebook page.   I tried to look it up and it seems to be attributed to a bunch of different sources.  The first bit, in particular, speaks to me:

May God bless you with a restless discomfort about easy answers, half truths and superficial relationships - so that you may seek truth boldly and love deep within your heart.

Listen, easy answers are just easy.  It's the discomfort that causes us to press in and, eventually, to change and grow.  So now I embrace the holiness of discomfort even when it hurts, even though I wonder if I'll ever be comfortable again.

 

I wrote this in response to Sarah Bessey's synchroblog prompt as part of her book launch for Out of Sorts.  I just started Out of Sorts and I love it so much already.  Here is a fantastic review of it that I wish I'd written.  You should read Out of Sorts, I know you'll love it.  

 

Phone calls, trauma, and remembering

Monday was my husband's birthday.  Around here birthdays mean phone calls, lots of phone calls.  The first phone call is almost always from my husband's mother, she loves to talk to the people she loves on their birthdays.  

Because she knows my husband's schedule, my mother in law called him at just about 6 in the morning. There is an hour time difference between us and she was nearly ready to leave for work, making an early call work best for both of them.

The phone woke me up and I laid in bed, listening.  Chris was trying to be quiet and was in another room with the door shut so really all I could hear was murmuring.  They talked for just a couple of minutes (it was a work morning, after all).  Then he hung up and quietly walked in to the kitchen.

I was shaking.  My heart beating fast, I went into the kitchen and said, "What did your mom want?"

He looked at me a little strangely and said, "To wish me a happy birthday."  (Like, duh.)

Oh, right.  His birthday.  In that moment I did not remember his birthday at all. All I was thinking about was that his dad was traveling home from Africa that day.  I was thinking about his grandpa and nana, who are in their 80s.  I was thinking about our precious 7 month old nephew.  In that moment, hearing the phone ring at an unexpected time, my mind ran through the catalog of all the people we love and all the things that could have gone wrong.

I wasn't always like this.  Phone calls used to just be phone calls. And then, one December evening almost 5 years ago, the phone rang and changed phone calls forever.  Before the phone rang it was a nice post Christmas evening.  I was making dinner.  The kids were playing with Grammy who was visiting for a few days.  We were waiting for Chris to come home.  It was snowing outside.

The phone rang and I answered.  My mom said, "Hi Kristin, I have to tell you something."  (I can still hear her voice, like it was yesterday.)  My sister had been in a car accident and no one knew anything else.

After the phone rang, I felt sick. I was anxious and worried.  I knew something was wrong. The phone rang several more times that evening, each call worse than the last. That phone call marks a before/after moment in my life.  Before the phone call: a phone call was just a call, someone checking in.  After the phone call: all phone calls are suspect, you never know what's on the other end of the line.

My memories of the night my sister died are mostly sensations.  I remember the cold air.  I remember the sound of NPR in the background.  I remember fighting with my husband about whether we should drive to Spokane that night.  I remember anxiousness and uncertainty.  But mostly I remember the phone call.

Eventually I came back to the present and wished my husband a happy birthday.  But first, a little traumatic reaction.  Because some phone calls are scary.

 

Catechism and knowing God's will

I was sitting with a group of people last week and somehow the conversation came around to the topic of God's will.  More specifically, how do you know God's will for your life.  Everyone has a story of grappling with that question. Think about your own life, haven't you struggled with this in the past?  In our conversation different people shared stories, usually of the "first I thought I should do this but then it seemed like this was the better path" variety. 

I have those stories too.  In fact, I am kind of living one right now.  Should I take a job?  Should I take a job in my field that would require more of a sacrifice from my family?  Should I take a job outside of my field for which I am overqualified but which will fit more squarely with my family's needs?  Should I go back to school for another Master's degree even though the problem isn't that I'm unqualified for the position I want, it's that there aren't many available positions in my field?  Should I continue on the path I'm already on and just wait for a perfect position to come along?  These are among the questions that march through my head on a daily basis.  Do you notice that all of these questions are focused on me?  I think most of the time when we think we are trying to figure out God's will we are really focusing on ourselves. 

 One of the things that I do with my life is teach Children's Church.  My class is for kindergarten through 4th grade and it's fun.  I think they might learn some things and I enjoy doing it.  I teach my class a lot like the children's church classes of my own youth, probably a lot like the classes you went to.  The lesson usually revolves around some kind of story.  You know, Daniel in the Lion's Den or David and Goliath, something like that. Good Bible stories that hold their interest and, hopefully, teach them something about God.

I've started to wonder, though, if this style of teaching is what leads to the kind of "what is God's will for my life" navel gazing that seems so prevalent.  When we teach these stories are the kids really learning anything about God or are they learning about the awesome stuff Daniel did or how cool King David was?  Are we teaching kids to expect to do spectacular things instead of teaching them to love a spectacular God?  In some ways, teaching this way just feeds in to the feelings of exceptionalism that our culture is already drowning in.  We're all going to be cure cancer or go to Mars or play pro ball or be famous.  So maybe when we think we're looking for God's will for our lives we're really looking for whatever the thing is that's going to show everyone how great we are.

I think we already know God's will for our lives and I don't think it has much to do with which job to take or car to buy.  I think God's will is for us to know Him and to love Him.  I kind of relate this to my last post about Genesis as a birth story.  If God is Father, don't you think His main will for us is related to our relationship with Him?  Think about what you want for your own children.  I want my children to grow up happy and healthy.  I want them to love me and to want to be with me.  I want them to love others well.  I want them to introduce me to the people that they love.  None of these things have anything to do with whether they are doctors or ditch diggers, those things are just means to accomplishing the other things.  Maybe God's will could be understood in that way too.

So, back to Children's Church and how to teach these things.  My thoughts on this are really still a work in progress but I wonder if these ideas are better communicated using catechism?  I wonder if there is a reason for the questions and answers, if that just fits with how we think.  

The Westminster Shorter Catechism, question and answer 1, says, "What is the chief end of man?  Man's chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy Him forever."  

Heidelberg's fourth question and answer is, "What does God's law require of us?  

Christ teaches us this in summary in Matthew 22:37-40:

“‘You shall love the Lord your God
with all your heart,
and with all your soul,
and with all your mind.’
This is the greatest and first commandment.

“And a second is like it:
‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’2

“On these two commandments hang
all the law and the prophets.”

It seems to me that if you knew Westminster's 1st question and/or Heidelberg's 4th then you would already have a pretty good idea of what God's will for your life is.  If you are reading this and have any thoughts, I'd love to hear them.  Also, if you are interested, I'm thinking of trying to incorporate New City Catechism into my teaching.

On Genesis and Birth Stories

I love a good birth story.  I don't necessarily care about all the details of 24 hours of labor or a centimeter by centimeter cervical progression.  What I love to hear about is the moment of birth. There is just something so holy about the moment a new person enters the world.  I honestly don't remember a lot about the labor leading up to birth but I remember every second of the first hours after my children were born like it was yesterday.

When my daughter, Helen, was born I'm pretty sure everyone in the room was crying.  She was just so long expected and so, so fiercely wanted. The moments after her birth were awash in tears of joy.  We knew her name the second she was born, named after strong women of my husband's family, women who loved Jesus and loved people well.  The sound of my husband crying on the phone with his mother is burned into my memory.  Everything about the minutes surrounding her birth was full of the message: you are so, so wanted and loved and precious and ours.  I believe these are messages that even minutes old people can receive and understand.

When our son, Patrick, was born the room erupted in shouts of joy and laughter. Patrick's entrance was spectacular, much like every entrance he has made since then!  He was surprising in so many ways.  Three pounds bigger than Helen was, Patrick reminded us of 3 month old Helen!  And he had this full head of glorious, white blonde hair.  Look at you, we said, you couldn't be more beautiful, more amazing.  He was such a surprise to us that we didn't know his name, despite going into that room being certain of what we would call him.  It was nearly an hour before we finally decided to name him after my strong, steady and faithful grandparents.  From the moment of his birth, Patrick's world was full of joy and laughter and he carries those things with him to this day.

The truth is, birth stories start long before that holy moment in the delivery room.  Birth stories start in the months that lead up to that moment, as you prepare a place for the new baby.  We readied the room and set up the crib.  We installed the car seat.  We tried to prepare ourselves for this new thing that was about to happen in our lives.  When Patrick was anticipated we tried to involve Helen, talking to her about her new brother and answering her questions and responding to her excitement. Birth stories are about the preparation too.

Today is the first time I have ever thought about how Genesis 1 & 2 are a kind of birth story.  God always knew what He was doing, His creation of mankind didn't come as a surprise to Him.  So, in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.  He created just the right atmosphere that would sustain His children.  He created a source of light, light that would provide heat for life and day and night (because He knows that children need their sleep).  He created water and sky and dry ground.  He created plants, already preparing the fruit and other vegetation that His children would need to eat.  He created lights in the sky to mark seasons and days and years, lights that would serve as signs, already preparing, before He even created mankind, for the star that would announce the birth of His only Son!  Then He filled the sky with birds and the sea with fish.  He created all the living creatures that fill the earth.  And He said all of this preparation was good, He had created space for His children.

But now the holy moment.  He said, "Let us make man in our image, in our likeness..."  He said, all this other stuff, I made it for you.  I'm going to make you like me!  So, God created mankind in His image.  And in the holy moment of birth He blessed us and He gave us the things He had created for us.  He told us that He'd done all these incredible things to get ready for us.  And after that holy moment of creation God said it was VERY good.

So, here's what I notice about this birth story.  I think Christians talk a lot about how we are all sinners who need a savior.  And that is true, we all sin.  We all need Jesus. But I think that's starting the story in Genesis 3.  What Genesis 1 & 2 tell us is that we bear the image of God.  Genesis 1 & 2 remind us of the words spoken over us when He created us: we are VERY good.  Things have happened and we have fallen short but that does not negate the fact that we are His children and He loves us.  In fact, He loves us so much that He provided a way for us to get back to Him.

Remember that birth story.  Remember those words.  You are an image bearer of God.  Nothing can change that fundamental truth of who you are.

 

(Thanks to the Jefferson Bethke interview on the Relevant Podcast for sparking these thoughts.)

In all things, charity

I had kind of a difficult day at church this Sunday.  Somehow my Sunday School class got started talking about a hot political topic of the day.  Doesn't matter what topic, I'm sure you can imagine the scene. Most (all?) of the people in the class seemed to be on one side of the issue and there were a lot of fiery words about what Christians should do and how Jesus would respond. I sat and did not speak, although I had fire in my belly, because I fall on the opposite side of this issue. I care about protecting relationships, though, so I kept my mouth shut.  Because my mouth is really good at hurting people I love.

The truth is, the conversation that day made me feel unwelcome.  Listen, I'm a Democrat in a county where 60% of voters voted for John McCain in the last Presidential election.  I'm the only Democrat in my immediate family.  I am used to having differences of opinion with people around me and that's okay. I can hold my own in a political debate.  The thing is, that's not what the gathering on Sunday was meant to be about. 

"In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity."

This is a saying that is pretty commonly used in churches like the one I attend.  What they are saying is that there are things that are absolutes, that we all must agree on.  Basically, the source of our unity as believers is Jesus.  In Matthew 16 Jesus asked his disciples who they said he was and Peter answered, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God." (vs 16) Then Jesus said, "on this rock I will build my church." (vs 18) On that rock, the rock of confession of faith in Jesus, he builds his church.  To me, that's the definition of "in essentials, unity."

So, what about the non-essentials?  What this means to me is that some of us believe strongly that drinking alcoholic beverages is a sin, while others of us indulge from time to time (this is the old example, the one I can remember being used in Sunday School lessons when I was younger).  It also means that some of us are actively opposed to gay marriage while others of us see room for that in their beliefs.  It means that some Christians believe that opposing the death penalty is an important aspect of a pro-life ethic while others believe that the death penalty is a necessary deterrent against the spread of more violence.  It means that Christians can have differing ideas on the roles of women in the church.  It means that one Jesus-follower may believe in a literal 7 day creation while another may believe in evolution.  The truth is, scripture allows for so much interpretation because none of us has perfect understanding.

I think that a problem in the church in American today is that we have followed the current political trend and have split into factions.  It seems that now we have "liberal" churches and "conservative" churches.  So if you find yourself in a conservative church there isn't really room for more liberal interpretations of things and vice versa.  I think we miss out on important ways to grow and learn and serve God better when we don't allow for other voices.  Practicing the idea of "in non-essentials, liberty" allows for a beautiful diversity and give and take among believers as we work to sharpen each and "spur one another on toward love and good deeds." (Hebrews 10:24) It doesn't mean that we don't hold our differing beliefs dearly or even attempt to convince someone to think like we do but I think it does mean being open to hearing other views and creating environments that allow for that kind of openness. 

So that leaves us with "in all things, charity."  What is charity?  Love.  This summer Helen memorized Colossians 3:12-14 as part of getting ready for camp.  It's good to help your kids memorize scripture because, guess what happens?  You memorize it too!  Anyway, this passage has become an important reminder and guide for me: "Therefore, as God's chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience.  Bear with each other  and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity."  This is the desire of my heart, that above all I show love in all my dealings with others.  That what people remember about me isn't that my opinion about something is different but that I radiated love.  1 John 4:8 says that if you don't love, you don't know God because God is love.  I know God and I pray every day that my actions make that knowledge clear.

I'm not sure if this post is ending where it started.  I guess it doesn't matter. I feel like I don't know how to lovingly communicate when I disagree with people. Maybe I'll learn someday.  Or maybe I'll just continue to keep my mouth shut in Sunday School.  More than anything, I hope I display "in all things, charity."