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

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Why Poetry (a short review + quotes)

Why PoetryWhy Poetry by Matthew Zapruder

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

There were a hundred bright spots in this eloquent book: beautiful, essential quotes about poetry from the greatest poets themselves. These were a shortcut straight to the heart of poetry. There were other bright spots of Zapruder’s own clear explanations of the mysterious power of poetry. It’s just that as a whole, it failed to carry the reader along with elegance and enthusiasm, and failed to provide much in the way of a conclusion at the end.

For a truly elegant book on poetry that is as poetic, moving, and inspired as the poem it contains, read Faith, Hope and Poetry: Theology and the Poetic Imagination. It is the best book defending and explaining poetry that I have ever read (and, what’s more, it includes poems from all eras, not just contemporary poetry.)

Nonetheless, I flagged a hundred bright spots to keep as treasured quotes from Zapruder’s work and I truly benefitted from my time in his company. He gave a lot of courage to an aspiring amateur poet, and for that I am grateful. I loved how he embraced the mysterious machinery of poetry but still took care to explain to those who are less wise to its ways. But to claim that your books explains “why poetry” exists and is useful, then to end with such a nihilistic understanding of the universe was a real let-down, and the book didn’t carry me with its own momentum so much as I forced myself to keep trudging through it in the hopes of encountering more bright spots of insight from Zapruder and his many favorite thinkers.

View all my reviews

Paul Valery: “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” (11).

 

“Saying it more conventionally would take the shimmering multiplicity out of the line” (34).

 

“What is the poem ‘about’? This question inevitably carries within in the implicit message that the poem is beautiful (at best) container for something more essential than the experience of reading it. Really, when a poem is functioning, it could best be said to be ‘about’ ‘aboutness’–that is, ‘about’ the wordless moment we can only be brought to through words, when we perceive the contradictory yet harmonious significance of everything” (113).

 

Yeats “We make out of the quarrels with others, rhetoric, but of the quarrels with ourselves, poetry” (121).

 

Frost: “Unless you are at home in the metaphor, unless you have had your proper poetical education in the metaphor, you are not safe anywhere….You are not safe in science; you are not safe in history” (151).

 

Wallace Stevens: “Reality is a cliche from which we escape by metaphor” (154).

 

“Without clarity, it is not possible to have true mystery” (190).

 

“One of the things readers truly love about poetry, this ability to hear wisdom that feels truly wise and yet also disembodied, as though it comes from the world itself” (194).

 

“But I think we would be better off to think of ‘understanding’ a poem as an ongoing process of attention” (199).

 

“(A poet’s job) is, in a way, to refuse to do what others find useful, in order to leave a space for other things to happen. Poets are alchemists of nothingness. They aspire to turn silence, nothingness, absence, into something palpable” (208).

The Worthiness of Imitation

I’ve had a literary crush on Fathom magazine for over a year and this summer I decided to do something about it.

Screen Shot 2017-09-11 at 2.00.11 PMFirst, I made it a goal to get something published on the internet before my birthday (which is tomorrow, Sep. 12). I pitched an article to a website where an online acquaintance had published a few pieces, which gave me confidence to give it a shot. They accepted, edited, and published that piece about a month ago.

But my true literary crush was on a magazine called Fathom. Listen to the way they describe themselves:

“We believe indulging our curiosity acts like a weight to pull us beyond the surface of our faith. More than just knowledge waits for us when we forsake the shallows. In fact, we will find out how little we know as we plunge deeper. In the depths we are shaped into Christians who embrace empathy, honor humility, desire intellectual integrity, laugh a lot, and believe in beauty. At least that’s the kind of Christian we hope to help cultivate with Fathom.”

Curiosity acts like a weight to pull us beyond the surface? I loved that image, I instantly loved the writing, and I loved the nautical imagery that informed the aesthetic and the language of the magazine (I mean, I am a Navigator for life, after all.) They publish everything I love–thoughtful essays, reviews, and commentary from a Christian perspective, as well as poetry, short stories, and really excellent interviews with Christian visual artists. I’ve been reading it for about a year and have spent some time online getting to know some of the people who write for it. I am hooked. (Fishing pun very much intended.)

Eventually–in honor of my birthday goal–I worked up my courage and pitched them an article for their issue on Image that came out today. I typed the pitch quickly, submitted it, and tried not to overthink it. It was out of my hands.

They wanted a full article but I was about to leave the land of the internet for a trip up north. Again, I wrote quickly, trying to get my draft in by the deadline, submitted it and tried to walk away without obsessing over it.

Then, just when I was about to give up on the piece thinking that my draft hadn’t lived up to my pitch or my own standards for myself, I got an email back from the editor saying they loved my piece AND wanted it to be the feature article for this month’s online magazine! I can’t for the life of me *fathom* why they chose my article as the feature, because the magazine is seriously packed with intelligent, creative, and deeply moving content by writers with far higher qualifications. I’m honored to be in such company. (Seriously, read the whole thing. You won’t be disappointed. Quality writing and important insights abound.)

In case you’re wondering, the thesis of my piece is that imitation doesn’t stifle our imagination but feeds it. We need images of people doing what we want to do, and we are endowed by our creator with the gift of imitation when we learn to imitate in love. It’s a natural process of discipleship that applies to the way babies learn to be adults, the way young Christians learn to mature in the faith, and I propose it also applies to aspiring creatives learning to produce original works of art.

What’s more, they were also willing to publish my latest poem, too, which actually means almost more to me. There is really no way to know if you’re actually achieving your goal of writing poetry until someone else reads it and recognizes it as poetry. Otherwise, you sort of feel like you’re just scribbling nonsense. To have a poem filed under the Poetry section of such a publication is a dream come true for me.
I’ve really enjoyed getting to work with a couple different editors and to watch my ideas be polished, improved, and given a place among good company. Thanks for reading and for cheering on this amateur. It means the world to me!

 

 

Showing up Empty-Handed

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Would you miss the party just because you didn’t bring a dish to pass?

I’ve been meditating on how hard it is to truly understand grace when you can’t even accept acts of helpful kindness and generosity from others. I was honored to share my thoughts over at Gospel Taboo today. Take a look! (And let me know if you have the guts to take my challenge… I haven’t even done it myself yet!)

Peanut Butter

I’ve been working on writing more poetry lately. Perhaps I’ve grown tired of the self-assuredness it takes to write blog posts. I just don’t feel like drawing easy conclusions or simplifying things. Plus, I find myself wanting to write about the same subjects over and over until I get it right, which doesn’t make for very fascinating blog writing.

Right now it takes me about a month to get a poem right-ish. It usually start with an idea that strikes me while I’m busy. I mull it over, write a rough draft that is usually a) far too self-serious and b) not completely honest about how I truly feel. I hack away at it, mostly in my thoughts while I’m doing other things, and then type it out in bursts on rare moments where my enthusiasm for writing and my free time coincide.

My attention has been drawn to small things lately. Here’s a poem about peanut butter and motherhood that’s been bugging me for weeks. I think it is finally starting to accomplish some of what I want it to accomplish, so I’m calling it “done” for now because I am at the stage where I want other people to see it and tell me what they think.

I’d love to hear what you think! Tell me what makes sense or what sticks out as strange. Or ask me questions about what I was going for. Every comment can help me move closer to getting it right. Or “crushing” it, as my daughter would say. (Pun intended.)

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Peanut Butter

by Laura Lundgren

She feels no less for having been crushed

into a simple, shelf-stable cylinder.

The mother I imagine is serene as peanut butter.

A thousand possibilities

Have been suspended

Beneath a foiled paper lid.

Preserved and cupboarded

In patient anticipation,

She waits to be useful.

 

I am a mother half-used up.

Peaks and canyons from hasty knife-work

are a sign as sure as footprints and flags

That someone has already claimed this jar.

I grow hollow.

 

I find it hard to swallow

disappearing into the bodies of my children.

Though I give myself over to being spread

Across raw-edged celery or softer bread,

I still cling to the corners of a rounded life.

I tell myself I am no less for having been gouged.

I am never so empty

That a small hand twisting

Would not find a mouth already forming the word

“okay.”