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On Reading (too much)

I read because I feel like I’m behind on some cosmic reading list. When you graduated with a degree in English and taught high school English, everyone looks at you with astonishment any time they realize you haven’t read Moby Dick or most of Dickens.

I read because I am curious. I hear about a fascinating new book on NPR or Facebook, and I immediately click over to the library to get on the Holds list.

I read because I get excited about following ideas and I read the footnotes of a book I loved and check out all the books that look interesting on that topic. I’ve genuinely found some of my favorite books that way, and enjoyed tracing lines of thought through several authors.

I read because I like getting lost in time, forgetting where or when I am and what I’m supposed to be doing. I enjoy letting a book do my thinking for me for awhile. I like experiencing other lives. I want to look up and find the present world is different because of where I’ve just been.

But I’ve been recognizing lately that I’ve become a bit compulsive about books. I routinely go to the library to discover I’ve reserved three or four times the amount of books I can reasonably expect to read in 3 weeks, especially considering I get new books coming in every few days. I have specific pencils for underlining and specific tabs for saving passages. I have to type favorite quotes from every book I read AND review it on Goodreads. Frankly, I am starting to feel like an addict.

My competitive nature has maybe gotten the best of me this year. I set my Goodreads Challenge at a book a week, but ended up reading 20 more books than that. I didn’t choose shorter books just to fit in more reads, but I did start to notice that I wasn’t savoring my books. I would start a book with enthusiasm and about half way through start to get kind of jittery. How many more pages? How many nights of reading until I can start the next one?

And still, after all the reading and reviewing and returning to the library, I felt this gnawing self-doubt. I can’t keep up. I’ll never read it all.

I have to get back to basics this year. I’ve been reading lots of really. great. books. but I haven’t been savoring them, taking the time to read and re-read passages that please me. I haven’t had time to pick up old favorites and enjoy them again. I’ve been busily flitting from new book to new book, racing against the wind. And do you care? No, you do not.

If I’m not reading for myself, then who on earth am I reading for?

This year I’m dialing back the reading goals back to a book a week. I might actually reward myself if I DON’T make it. I’m going to re-read my favorites–even the long ones–and take my time admiring the inner workings. I want to celebrate what makes a novel work on me.

One of the images that most fascinated me from last year’s reading was in Matthew Zapruder’s book Why Poetry. He described how powerful language is like a machine–it is designed with the intent to do something to us. He quotes Paul Valery who says “A poem is really a kind of machine for producing the poetic state of mind by means of words…If the term machine shocks you, if my mechanical comparison seems crude, please notice that while the composition of even a very short poem may absorb years, the action of the poem on the reader will take only a few minutes. In a few minutes, the reader will receive his shock from discoveries, connections, glimmers of expression that have been accumulating during months of research, waiting, patience, and impatience.” 

All of the reading, thinking, and organizing of thoughts may take a great deal of time, but when the writer finds the perfect way to describe a thing so that it shocks the reader with new “discoveries, connections, glimmers of expression,” it will have been worth the effort. It means the language-machine is working. You send your mind into the language-machine and it comes out remolded, perhaps temporarily like playdoh extruded through a plastic filter, or more permanently like fabric stitched through a machine or metal heated and molded into new shapes.

I want to admire the machinery of my favorite books. I want to see if the machine still has the same effect on me that I remember, especially the oldest reads like The Bronze Bow and A Wrinkle in Time (and the other Madeline L’Engle books I devoured as a teenager.)

I want to see if I can reverse engineer the machines and figure out how to write a book that would have the same impact on the minds of other people. I’m not sure I’ll succeed. I’m not even sure at this point that I’ll ever actually feel ready to try. But I will enjoy figuring it out. And I won’t be doing it for anyone but me.

 

 

 

 

 

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Here’s my tentative Re-Read list for 2018:

FAVORITE FICTION

Big Rock Candy Mountain by Wallace Stegner

East of Eden by John Steinbeck

(I’ve always wanted to compare the two books. I occasionally will tell people that one or the other is my favorite novel, depending on the day, and I want to go back and see if that still stands.)

OTHER FICTION

Madeline L’Engle’s Time Trilogy

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle

Little Bee/The Other Hand

Atonement

Jane Eyre

Little Women

The Great Gatsby

The Heart of Darkness

The Bronze Bow

 

NON-FICTION

A Long Obedience in the Same Direction by Eugene Peterson.

(I’m almost finished and so far loving it even more the 2nd time around.)

Reading for Pleasure in an Age of Distraction by Alan Jacobs

(A book which profoundly impacted me a few years ago when I was feeling insecure about not having read enough. Might be time for a refresher.)

 

Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton

(I’ve already read it several times and it keeps getting better.)

 

My most challenging goal is going to be ignoring all the great new books I discover this year. Keep a good best-of-2018 list for me. I’ll be back for those later.

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Not-so-random acts of kindness

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Recently, my daughters and I got to take a special trip to their favorite doll store. We admired the tiny accessories and historically accurate outfits for each doll, dreaming about what they might find under the Christmas tree this year. On the way out the door, each girl picked up a double-sided list with space for a wish list on one side and fill-in-the-blank suggestions for acts of kindness on the other.

This reminder to perform random acts of kindness during the holiday season is not unusual among retailers. Stores suggest donating to a worthy charity at the checkout or offer boxes where you can place donated toys. And the season wouldn’t be complete without the bell-ringing charity and their ubiquitous red buckets.

My elementary-aged daughters are already old enough to get excited about these gestures of kindness. They love to drop change into buckets and donate toys, but it isn’t long before they are back to their usual squabbles once we get home. They love the idea of random acts of kindness more than they love the idea of being kind in ordinary ways at home.

(Read the rest at Morning by Morning!)

I stopped praying for patience

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In case there’s anyone left who has the impression that I’m floating through life with four kids, let me assure you this is not the case. I have witnesses.

It occurred to me lately that I have probably prayed for patience every single day I’ve been a mother. I keep hoping patience is the kind of thing that arrives in a package. Each day I get a fresh supply to replenish yesterday’s empty jar. But patience doesn’t work like that. Patience develops, a muscle that grows beneath the skin every time we use it. Patience only increases through repetition and endurance.

I stopped praying for patience today. I realized I was thinking about patience all wrong. I was hoping patience was like a water stand at a marathon. It would be a perfectly timed refreshment that would help me grind out a few more miles. And because I was thinking of patience that way, I was treating motherhood like a grim challenge to be endured. I don’t need patience, I already have it. I just need to use it. When I pray for more, I’m asking for a heavier weight to curl or a harder hill to climb. That’s how I develop more patience.

When things get tough, I have a tendency to set my jaw and get to work. I survey the scene and tackle the work I can see. Let me tell you, I can get stuff done. I find a lot of satisfaction in getting tangible things done. But I begin to see all the little mess-makers in my life as obstacles. Anyone who isn’t helping me is against me.

Today I realized that I was getting things done, but I wasn’t having any fun. I thought of all the people I know with real heartaches, longing for people they’ve lost or people they haven’t found yet, who would look in the window of my home and forgive the mess but wouldn’t understand my bleak determination just to survive the day. How could I miss the point? The point is to enjoy.

I stopped praying for patience and started praying for joy. When I get overwhelmed, I don’t need to work harder, I need to throw my hands in the air and laugh. I need to practice that particular form of boredom that is playing with a toddler. I need a lot more than patience. I need joy.

 

 

My thoughts circle back, as they always do, to Ecclesiastes and the futility of everything but joy:

“So I commend the enjoyment of life, because there is nothing better for a person under the sun than to eat and drink and be glad. Then joy will accompany them in their toil all the days of the life God has given them under the sun.”

I look at the work I have to do and wish I had more leisure time. But endless leisure time becomes a burden as much as endless work does. I always think there will be time to relax after the work is done, but when you’re a mom the work never really ends.

So I’m glad for Christmas this year and the way it interrupts. I can’t say it will last very long, but tomorrow is the day I allow the interruptions to be gifts, reminders that call me away from my work even before the task is done.

Interruptions that remind me joy isn’t at the end of the race. It was waiting for me all along.

A Fresh Surprise of Gratitude

Sincere gratitude is a rare experience that feels almost like embarrassment. It rushes to my face with that same warmth of surprise. It catches me off guard every time. However, I rarely feel the flush of sincere gratitude, because most days, I fail to see the good things that surround me as gifts to be thankful for.

Thanksgiving is a good time of year to remind myself that everything I have is a gift, and that every good and perfect gift comes from our Father (James 1:17). But if it is all a gift, I also need to consider that anything I have could have been given to someone else.

I am part of the millennials, a generation who has access to more privileges than almost any previous generation of people. We have unparalleled access to education and opportunities. We are surrounded by conveniences that make daily tasks like laundry and cooking almost effortless. And yet, to find an adult who experiences the peace of contentment is rare it seems. Too often, I find I am only capable of valuing what I want and forgetting to value what I already have.

 

(Read the rest at Morning by Morning!)

Staying afloat

paper boatWhen I quit my job to stay home with my kids, I could tell people hesitated when they asked me “What’s your… plan?” I knew what they were asking. How are you going to live on one income? How can you afford life on a pastor’s salary?

I’m no great math whiz so I generally just shrugged and said “I don’t have one.”

The truth is, I had a plan but it was a very foolish one: I was planning to depend on a series of daily miracles. I was planning on manna falling from the sky. My husband had been preaching on the Israelites wandering through the desert and he kept reminding us of God’s incredible record of faithfulness and their persistent inability to trust that the gifts of the past would still be there to sustain the future. I took the lesson to heart and decided to plan on being dependent on gifts.

This is *not* recommended by any financial experts that I know of. It’s a foolish way to live but “has not God made foolish the wisdom of this world?” (1 Cor. 1:20). We’re told to save (and we do save) but the mindset of saving and purchasing insurance against all sorts of eventualities is really a false sense of security that places too much trust in our own power to help ourselves.

I’m not really a go-with-the-flow type, so I didn’t start out relying on gifts. My first months at home I became a little hurricane of budgeting stress, whipping myself into a frenzy with the ongoing tension between my good intentions and all our unexpected expenses. I’d make up elaborate justifications for why the budget didn’t work this week and assure myself we’d live between the lines next week. I just never got the hang of it.

Instead, I’ve learned to ride the unpredictable waves of a gift economy, one where the math never quite adds up but we stay afloat nevertheless. We’re not lavish with our spending. We pay our bills on time. But we never expect any month’s expenses to look like last month’s.

There are some benefits to living on gifts, benefits I have only learned to appreciate after taking that initial risk. These benefits were really clearly articulated by a book I just finished, so I wanted to take the time to weave the wisdom from this book into my own experience as a wife managing a household that exists, more or less, on the gifts of other people.


Benefit #1: Bonding

“A gift establishes a feeling-bond between two people while the sale of a commodity leaves no necessary connection” (Lewis Hyde’s The Gift, 72).

Our church takes care of us in ways the IRS can’t tax us for. From babysitting to expert help, we’ve been on the receiving end of a lot of really generous gifts. We feel a certain indebtedness to our church family as a result. They know we can’t afford the market-value of their labor and they give it to us anyway as a gift of friendship. We, in turn, feel a sense of gratitude and indebtedness that can sometimes leave my husband and I feeling overwhelmed.

That’s because we are bound to these people. We owe them, in a very real sense, a debt we can’t hope to repay. This can feel burdensome. In some ways, it would be convenient to simply give them money that recognizes the value of their work and then end our relationship there, the way we do with our plumber.

But this is can be a healthy burden, the kind that reminds us how much we need one another. My husband labors each week to provide spiritual sustenance for our church. He visits the sick, gives to the poor, prays for the needy, and feeds them with the living Word of God. Many people express an appreciation for the spiritual gifts he provides, gifts which do not have market value, but nonetheless have inestimable worth. I hope they feel as we do, that we are bound together by our indebtedness to one another, exchanging the gifts we can give as a way of expressing our love for one another.

It is a joy to be in community with generous people. I agree with Hyde when he says these bonds formed by generosity are “attachments to be desired” because “when gift exchange achieves a convivial communion of spirits, there is no call for liberty” (91). As we give and receive, we find that our gifts are doing much more than simply “supplying the needs of the saints” because our resulting thankfulness “is also overflowing in many thanksgivings to God” (2 Cor. 9:12). When we experience generosity we can’t repay, we are deeply moved to thank God for giving us such friendships. We enjoy the great communion of spirits that give freely to one another.


Benefit #2: Affluence of Satisfaction

“Gifts that remain gifts can support an affluence of satisfaction, even without numerical abundance” (29).

I didn’t realize how much I’d been trained to measure value in dollar signs until I began living outside of the traditional economy. In a traditional economy, all the good things I have are evidence of my hard work and prudent spending. In a gift economy, many of the good things I have are evidence that I am loved and cared for by other people. I can look around my house and see tangible examples of friendship, from all the hand-me-down clothes to our remodeled kitchen. We literally could not make ends meet with out the generosity of our church. We have what we could not get through the marketplace.

Wendell Berry, a farmer and writer who does his best to resist the pull of the modern industrial economy, accuses the modern economy of assuming that “the only help worth giving is not given at all, but sold.” His writings frequently instruct us to receive everything as a gift, even the ability to work and make money. To recognize the stuff of my life–the people, the stuff, the opportunities, the talents–as a gift helps me to respond to my life with a gratitude that goes beyond mere contentment. I truly have an “affluence of satisfaction” when I realize I’ve been given all I need. Christians have a word for this feeling of recognition that we have been given all we need and more than we deserve: that word is grace.

I like to imagine our household as a channel through which grace flows. In my imagination, grace is always a liquid and so we are conduits for it, receiving and passing it on, constantly ready to receive more. Grace comes to us in the form of hand-me-downs or dinner invitations. We accept these gifts as provision. “God will make all grace abound to you” in order that we will always have “sufficiency in all things at all times” (2 Cor. 9:8).  We give freely because there is always more where that came from. When we trust the source, then we do not need to build a dam and hoard what’s ours.

Of course, this is easier said than done. If we suddenly were sitting on thousands of dollars of medical debt or carrying the burden of a lost job, it would challenge everything I’m saying right now. I’m talking about a general posture of giftedness, which helps us to see everything as a gift and give freely out of the resulting “affluence of satisfaction.”


Benefit #3: Generosity begets generosity

“True gifts constrain us only if we do not pass them along–only… if we fail to respond with an act or an expression of gratitude” (91).

Grace pours through us, abundantly, so that we always have sufficiency and then out of our abundance, we can “abound in every good work” (2 Cor. 9:8). We can not hoard gifts. We don’t necessarily have to give away the good things we’ve been given, but we do consider ways in which the gracious abundance we have can be poured out to supply the needs of others.

Within a bonded group, it is preferred that we give gifts and NOT charge one another for these gifts. As Hyde says, we find it almost insulting within a family or a bonded group to “assign comparative values to things to which we are emotionally connected” (80). As an example, imagine offering to give a kidney to your brother and then sending him a bill. The exchange of goods and services for money actually creates boundaries because we say to one another ‘I don’t want to owe you anything. I want our relationship to begin and end with this exchange.’

On the other hand, when we give without assigning cost, we confirm our bondedness and assure a certain limitlessness to what we can ask of one another. I’m not saying its not exhausting to be this available to one another. I’m also not saying that if you give everything away you won’t eventually run out of resources. I am saying that in the spirit of generosity and gift-exchange we feel compelled to respond by giving as freely as we have received. As Hyde says, people who offer gifts exchanged with love discover that the most important resources “are neither exhausting nor exhaustible and [their] assures their plenty” (29).


 

These are ideals. And real life only rarely and briefly lives up to our ideals. I write these words on the internet today and tomorrow or the next day I will struggle with my pride which keeps me from receiving gifts and my greed which keeps me from giving them. I will struggle with doubt and worry. I will be called upon to live up to these ideals in ways far more challenging than I can now imagine. That’s always the risk of thinking you’ve learned something profound–at any moment you may be called upon to act on your ideas.

I do not fault those who live on well-documented budgets, keeping their income and expenses neatly within the boxes of a spreadsheet. For us, though, the lines have blurred as grace has poured into our lives and back out again. We live on the banks of a creek that never fails to deliver what we need and we daily resist the urge to build dams and store up for a drought. We try to take all we need and allow all that we can live without to flow through us in the hopes that what we share will not only supply the needs of the saints, but overflow in many thanksgivings to God (2 Cor. 9:12).

I cannot tell what tomorrow may bring. I can only bear witness that the last three years we have not only stayed afloat, we’ve learned how abundant a life that depends on others can be.

 

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The Honeybee Homemaker

 

Honeybees don’t know it but they actually work for us.

Honeybees are some of the busiest creatures in the kingdom. The drones spend their short lives seeking out incredibly small quantities of nectar to bring back to the hive, collecting this nectar from dozens of flowers every day. The sweet result of their work is honey. Hives produce enough honey for themselves and plenty to share with us, too. Every drop of honey reminds us how sweet it is when each individual works for the good of all.

But bees do a lot more than produce honey. As the bee probes for nectar in each flower, she also picks up and leaves behind trace amounts of pollen. By completing the all-important task of pollination, the bee gives us so much more than honey. She gives us a stunning variety of flowers and fruits that are pleasing to the eye and good to eat.

I doubt that bees need cheering up the way I do. They seem like such industrious creatures, like they find joy in doing their work and never question their purpose in life.  I think a bee might be pretty depressed if you told her she actually only produces about 1/12th of a teaspoon of honey in her entire lifetime.

As a stay-at-home mom, I am all too aware of how little I contribute to the world on a daily basis. I look at my house at the end of the day and think “I’ve been so busy… why do I have so little to show for it?”

And that’s when I need to remember the flowers. 

 

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Imagine, if you will, a discouraged bee. She wonders why each flower is so stingy, why she needs to fly to so many of them just to make a drop of honey. She realizes her meager contribution of honey hardly makes a difference to her hive.

But give her the eyes of a human being and you could show her the glory of the flower garden she pollinated. “It’s not just the honey,” you could tell her. “Your legacy is so much more beautiful than you realized!”

Can you imagine how stunning it would be see the flowers that way for the first time? To see a bouquet and a feast where before you’d seen only a chore? I wonder how many of the planet’s animals depend on food produced by the dutiful honeybee. She’s more generous than she realizes. Praise God she never goes on strike!

Now imagine your work this way. Yes, keep your eyes on the tasks–laundry, dishes, diapers (repeat)–but imagine that there is an invisible dust of eternity you carry from task to task. As you do your work joyfully, or at least willingly, you are serving the people in your family.

Now close your eyes and try to imagine the invisible work you are doing. While you fold clothes, you are caring for your kids. While you make dinner, you are serving your spouse. While you do the hard and boring work of keeping your family organized, you are being generous and patient and persistent and NONE of these things is wasted. These fruits of the spirit only look invisible here on earth. What you’re doing is called love and love is a real and living thing that grows in eternity.

Some day you’re going to see your life from the other side.

You’re going to get to heaven and you’re going to have the whole world flipped upside down and realize you were just a seed pushing through dirt while the real beauty of your work was blooming somewhere else.

You’re going to get to heaven and you’re going to grow large enough to see the garden you pollinated.

It’s not that your work on earth didn’t count. It’s not that this work is all disposable. No, it’s that every single tangible thing you do has an eternal echo somewhere else. Every gesture counts. Every act of love and sacrifice is seen. Imagine that every invisible attitude here is a visible thing there, that selflessness becomes sapphire, that goodness turns to gold.

I’m just guessing. I don’t know what it all accumulates into or how, but I know it accumulates. I know in eternity we’re going to see our life’s work differently than we see it now. I know that the troubles that weigh us down here are considered “light and momentary” on a heavenly scale. I know that these things are achieving for us a “glory that outweighs them all” (2 Corinthians 4:17). Glory has a weight in heaven. That means it is a tangible, physical thing in heaven even if we can’t see it here.

For those who drew attention to their good works on earth, who sought credit, who “practiced their righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them,” God says “You have received your reward.” Fine. Don’t be like them. Don’t seek glory for your efforts now. It’s too short-lived a reward.

For those who do their work quietly, in the secret unseen places, know this: “Your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6:4).

I fall short of this ideal too often. I point out how hard I’m working, whine about being unappreciated, demand my dues. It’s my prayer to learn to work like a honeybee. I’d like to know what it’s like to be lost in my work and feel satisfied at the end of the day that I’d done my part. I’d like to do the work that presents itself each day with love, knowing that everything I do is dusted with the potential for eternity.

 

A New Favorite Book! (Recapturing the Wonder by Mike Cosper)

Recapturing the Wonder: Transcendent Faith in a Disenchanted WorldRecapturing the Wonder: Transcendent Faith in a Disenchanted World by Mike Cosper

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Quite possibly the most necessary book I’ve read all year. It met me directly where I am–a little cynical, a little skeptical, too easily distracted & entranced by the shiny and shallow, and sometimes too quick to dismiss ordinary gestures. I can’t count the number of times his words echoed things I’ve been reading, saying, writing, and thinking already. It was eery how often I read a paragraph and realized I’d had that exact thought or conversation with my husband. Then I’d watch as Cosper wove each of these familiar strands of thought into his greater thesis, which is that the way to warm your heart back up to experience wonder and beauty again is nothing new. In fact, it’s through practices that are very, very old.

I’ve read a decent amount about attention spans (mostly because I feel so keenly the tug of our distracting world) and this was by far the best book on that subject that I’ve read. Cosper doesn’t just acknowledge the problem (as Tim Wu does so thoroughly in The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads and Matthew B. Crawford does so well in The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction), he actually charts a course out of the land of disenchanted boredom and constant distraction. His solution? The ancient disciplines of the Christian faith. Prayer. Communion. Fasting, yes, but also feasting. And his solutions are so simple and generous that you find them irresistible. He describes fasting in a way that makes you want to fast–he’s not showy or extreme, not promising anything more than a simple reorientation of your hungers that points you towards the kinds of desires that really need satisfying. Then he describes feasting in a way that makes you want to throw a dinner party. Tomorrow, if possible.

This is very much a book for my generation. We grew up on spectacle-based youth programs and grew to love the church in spite of it, but perhaps we’ve all grown a little cynical in the process, which leaves us cold to even the possibility of real surprises. We don’t want to be emotionally manipulated, so we won’t fall for anything. But this leaves us immune even to the moving power of beauty and simple acts of grace.Cosper can quote 30 Rock and Robert Capon and David Foster Wallace and G.K. Chesterton, moving seamlessly between pop-culture references and ancient wisdom.

Not only that, he ends the book with such a gracious acknowledgment that the disciplines in and of themselves are not a means to an end. I don’t want to spoil the ending (even though it’s not really a story you can spoil) because it is such a lovely, kind, generous way to end the book.

If you’re interested in reading more about the changes occurring in this generation, consider:

Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business

The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction

The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age

Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World

View all my reviews