Update on Lenten reading

For Lent I give up fiction in exchange for theological books – works that make me question and wrestle with matters of faith and scripture. This may not seem like a true sacrifice compared to life-and-death sacrifices other people make, but it’s not meant to. Swapping fiction for nonfiction is next to nothing, after all. However, this is a Lenten practice that replaces satisfaction with discomfort, so in that regard, it’s a practice I’ll continue each year.

lent books

This year I’m reading two books. The first is The History of God  and it’s the harder of the two, for sure. I don’t know if I’ll finish it by Easter. It requires all of my brain power to understand Karen Armstrong’s train of thought and language, particularly since she tends to jump around in ways that don’t always feel natural to me. The subject matter is fascinating, though, particularly when you start to understand how three of the world’s biggest religions – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – were born out of the same small region.  The research is dense and expansive and stretches well beyond the scope of my personal and academic experience. When Armstrong starts talking about mysticism, I have to muster concentration.

But I press onward.

The second book, Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain, is a delightful read so far. It is a memoir sprinkled with bits of wisdom that spotlight Merton’s slow build to devout religious conversion. He is an insightful and fervent writer, quite humble and honest.

One of my favorite blocks of wisdom so far follows the part after teenage Merton visits his dying father in the hospital. Death is eminent and he’s grappling to understand the weight of it. At this point in his life, Merton has no working faith at all. To him, God was an abstract idea brought to life by society’s need for tradition. Much later in life, underpinned by Christian devotion, Merton looks back at how he handled his father’s illness and offers readers a snippet of sincerity:

Thomas Merton“Indeed, the truth that many people never understand, until it is too late, is that the more you try to avoid suffering, the more you suffer, because smaller and more insignificant things begin to torture you, in proportion to your fear of being hurt. The one who does most to avoid suffering is, in the end, the one who suffers most: and his suffering comes to him from things so little and so trivial that one can say that is no longer objective at all. It is his own existence, his own being, that is at once the subject and the source of his pain, and his very existence and consciousness is his greatest torture. This is another of the great perversions by which the devil uses our philosophies to turn our whole nature inside out; and eviscerate all our capacities for good, turning them against themselves.”

Gosh, such truth there. We are so often our worst enemy.

Lent Reading 2016

A few years ago, when we joined a Presbyterian church, we began acknowledging the liturgical calendar. Beforehand, we had Christmas, Easter, and, depending on the church, a loose reference to Palm Sunday. Now we view these holidays as part of a larger tradition that incorporates four weeks of anticipating the birth of Christ (Advent) and the 40 Days leading up to Holy Week (Lent), which begins this Wednesday.

When it comes to observing Lent, religious and cultural traditions usually have us giving up something we enjoy – a specific food or habit. Some give up meat or caffeine, some go dark on social media or turn off their television for a few weeks. Those are all well and good, and if you are replacing that deficit with something spiritually edifying, all the better.

My way of participating in Lent is to suspend my beloved fiction and instead read books that provoke thought and teach me something about the history and significance of Christianity. I realize most people do this without needing a religious holiday to propel them, but I only dabble in nonfiction occasionally. I prefer the escapism of fiction.

In recent years I’ve read books about baptism, women in church leadership, homosexuality and the church, the history of the church, contemplative prayer, the physical and metaphorical interpretations of hell, and so on. Each book has either challenged or solidified a previously held belief or planted a new idea for consideration.

This year I have two books (though I’m on the lookout for a third – suggestions?):  A History of God by Karen Armstrong and The Seven Storey Mountain by Thomas Merton.

Lent reading 2016

I also intend to finish Gilead, which I’ve been reading slowly. Considering it’s subject matter, I suppose it fits in nicely with Lent anyway.

Dissecting Contemplative Prayer

Having finished Flannery O’Connor’s Prayer Journal, I’ve moved on to studying contemplative prayer during this season of Lent. Not once have I experienced centering prayer before, so even the concept of it is new to me. I’ve already picked up Thomas Merton’s Contemplative Prayer but I chose instead to first read Everything Belongs by Richard Rohr. I’ve already underlined nearly half of the first chapter. Forever zealous.

In all the ways I’ve wrestled with my faith, I’ve yet to wrestle with the basic truth of God’s existence. I don’t know if that’s because the core of my faith is stable or if it means I’m extremely stubborn, but knowing God is real and present and fully invested in me has been a mainstay since my youth. How He oversees the universe and all its goings-on, I have no clue.

Richard Rohr is a Franciscan friar in the Roman Catholic Church and an impassioned advocate and teacher of contemplative prayer. He begins Everything Belongs by explaining the difference between our centers and our circumferences. At our center is our core, the part of ourselves that innately desires closeness and connection to God. Our circumference is the outward projection of ourselves, our voice, our action, and all the things that claim our identity. Our goal in life should be to anchor God at our core so that our circumference becomes a reflection of Him. To help anchor our core, we can use centering prayer.

I know. It’s heavy. It is so much easier to not think about this stuff. Rohr knows it too. He says, “For some reason, it is easier to attend church services than quite simply to reverence the real — the ‘practice of the presence of God.'” Isn’t that the truth!

According to Rohr, our emotional and spiritual maturity influences our circumference, or rather, our outward behavior. He says, “Those who rush to artificially manufacture their own identity often end up with hardened and overly defended edges. They are easily offended and are always ready to create a new identity when the current one lets them down… It is much easier to belong to a group than it is to know you belong to God.” I say again, isn’t that the truth!

Even though I’m tempted to put young people (those with less life experience) in the category of seeking out groups and forming their identities by cultural standards, I know many adults – older than me even – who have yet to put any emphasis on their spiritual core. Their minds and actions are still swayed by societal norm, which isn’t surprising since societies norms are fueled by peer pressure. Not that I sit here pious and justified in my own thinking. I am entirely a student in this realm. Yet I’ve seen and heard enough questionable ideas from peers and elders to wonder: what would happen if we all just shut up and listened for the voice of God?

So that’s where I am this week – mulling over my core and evaluating my circumference and wondering if the two will ever align.Fr Richard Rohr

Flannery’s prayer

Her journal is painfully honest. She asks for what she wants, admits she deserves none of it, and sits quietly in the presence of the One who loves her so.

Flannery OConnor prayer of thanksgiving

She kept this journal from January 1946 to September 1947, covering the earliest years in her 20s. She’d moved from Savannah to Iowa City to study journalism and longed to have her writing mean something. Three years after the close of this journal, she was diagnosed with Lupus, a disease that took her life in 1964. She was only 39 years old. It was in her deepest suffering of the disease that she wrote the novels and short stories she’s known for: Wise Blood, The Violent Bear It Away, A Good Man is Hard to Find

She was born in Savannah, 45 minutes from my birthplace, and died the day after my birthday. I’m not going to dwell on those parallels.

Book Reviews: The Longings of Wayward Girls and Help Thanks Wow

The Longings of Wayward GirlsI found this book at a discount store for $2.99, and after reading it, I would’ve paid more. That in itself is a good plug.

The Longings of Wayward Girls follows two seasons of Sadie’s life – in early adolescence and post-marriage/kids adulthood. We go back and forth from her snobby neighborhood pranks to her brash decision making as a wife and mom, both of which lead to chaos. As a young girl, she and a friend play a horrible prank on a less popular girl, just before the girl goes missing. Fast forward to adulthood, Sadie realizes that many games are still in play. We’re all a bunch of children when whittled down. None of us, it seems, ever really grow up.

It’s hard to speak about a book like this without giving away details that matter. I can tell you that Sadie’s mother killed herself and left a scar in her so deep that you have to wonder how any of us ever heal from childhood tragedy. And even though Sadie’s husband is lovely and her two children are darling, sometimes it’s just not enough. There’s something to be said of our longings, even the ones we don’t understand.

The New York Times quote on the front cover says, “Enthralling… Once you’ve discovered this haunted world, you won’t want to leave it.” I found that statement to be accurate.

Buy The Longings of Wayward Girls here. 


Help Thanks WowIn keeping with my Lent reading, I finished Anne Lamott’s Help Thanks Wow and have moved on to A Prayer Journal by Flannery O’Connor.

Anne Lamott is a great writer. Frank, to the point. She doesn’t waste time and space, which I appreciate. She’s also humorous, which is always a plus.

Help Thanks Wow is brief, and though I normally appreciate brevity, I think this book could use more meat. Her intent, I believe, was to strip down prayer to its most honest, meaningful purpose – to appeal for help, to live in a state of thanksgiving, and to marvel at all God does for us. I agree that those three points serve a plumb lines for our prayer life. Lamott offers anecdotes to support her position, most of which are delightful stories, some more moving than others.

At the end, I expected to feel like I’d encountered a new way of viewing prayer but I have to be honest and say instead I thought, “This is nothing new.” It’s Philippians 4:6 without the “Wow.”

Don’t get me wrong – it’s a nice read, but it wasn’t groundbreaking. More than anything, it was a reminder that sometimes being brief with God is enough, especially when you just can find any other words to say.

Buy Help Thanks Wow here. 

Lent Reading 2015

A few years ago I started observing Lent, but instead of giving up meat or coffee or carrots (which Jackson said he was giving up for Lent), I decided instead to take these forty days and immerse my brain in study. I pick a subject (or a subject picks me) and I read a selection of books that will stretch or test my faith.

This season of Lent will be about prayer. I’m starting with a super short book by Anne Lamott.

Help Thanks Wow

In truth, I’m terrible at prayer. I was that girl in the youth group who really tried, mainly because I knew I was supposed to pray so I could say YES when someone asked, “Are you doing your Quiet Time?” (I’m glad no one asks me that anymore.) I’d have bouts of regular prayer in adulthood, times here and there when I’d study something or pray for a very specific thing (like our adoptions), but nothing stuck. I’d get complacent and robotic. So I’d stop. I told myself that if it didn’t feel real, I shouldn’t do it. To be brutally honest, for many early years I was that person who used to say “I’ll pray for you” and never did, not because I didn’t care but because I didn’t understand how to make it a priority in a meaningful way.

Several years ago I stopped saying “I’ll pray for you” because I didn’t want to be disingenuous. I actually do pray for people, but it’s not a formal thing. It’s in the moment, at the second it occurs to me, and it’s usually very brief.

Lord, please make it easy for her today. Amen.

God, this feels so unfair. Make it not hurt so badly. Amen.

Heavenly Father, give him a moment to think. Calm him down. Amen.

Thank you for all of this, Lord. Truly. Amen.

Participating in responsive prayer has been helpful to me in recent years, but I know I’m still missing out on something. For that reason, I’m going to read about contemplative prayer during Lent, a practice I know little about but wonder if it will benefit my scatterbrained mind. After Anne Lamott will be a book by Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk, who wrote extensively on contemplative prayer. I’ve also ordered Flannery O’Connor’s prayer journal, a book I didn’t even know existed.

The Ultimate Goal: To be at peace

Here’s a nugget of goodness to chew on this weekend.

You can’t be connected with God until you’re at peace with who you are. If you’re still upset that God have you this body or this life or this family or these circumstances, you will never be able to connect with God in a healthy, thriving, sustainable sort of way. You’ll be at odds with your maker. And if you can’t come to terms with who you are and the life you’ve been given, you’ll never be able to accept others and how they were made and the lives they’ve been given. And until you’re at peace with God and those around you, you will continue to struggle with your role on the planet, your part to play in the ongoing creation of the universe. You will continue to struggle and resist  and fail to connect.

This paragraph leapt off the page and smacked me in the face yesterday. I’m about half way through Rob Bell’s Sex God: Exploring the Endless Connections Between Sexuality and Spirituality, so if I encounter any more earth-shattering bits, I’ll post them for you.

let go or be dragged

We, Image Bearers

Somehow, in between graduate school, homeschooling, painting cabinets, scheduling photo shoots, and oil pulling, I’ve managed to continue the self-imposed charge to read meaty books during Lent.

Right, we’re still in Lent. How easy it is to forget when the ashes wash off and I have a screenplay and short story due the same week.

I finished City of God in a couple of days. It was a great book to start with since it’s primarily focused around Ash Wednesday and its affect on people outside the walls of the church. Sara Miles is a lovely writer who paints a very clear picture of everyday life in San Fransisco’s Mission District. Some bits were heavier than others, and some bits were quite humorous, but it was a quick read and gave me a deeper understanding of how the tradition of Ash Wednesday is one that physically connects people to God.

Then I started reading Understanding the Four Views on Baptism, which is significantly heavier in church history and denominational tradition. It is an actual study, not a collection of anecdotes, so I’m taking this one slowly. The four views represented are Baptist, Lutheran, Reformed, and Christian Church/Church of Christ, and after each view of baptism is presented, the other three representatives offer a response.

People, we are so stinkin’ divided. The more I read, the more I grieve. I am currently knee-deep in the Lutheran view but have decided to take a break and switch to something lighter for the week. Yesterday, I started Sex God by Rob Bell.

This was one I picked up from McKay’s before I realized how irritating Rob Bell’s writing style is. But, since I’m reading for content, I’ll muscle through.

Yesterday, he made some great points about us – all of us – being “image bearers” and how often we reverse God’s creative process to suit our judgments. I had to share:

In the beginning, God created us “in his image.” So first, God gave us an image to bear. Then God gave us gender: male and female. Then God gave us something to do, to take care of the world and move it forward, taking part in the ongoing creation of the world. Later, people began moving to different places. It takes years and years of human history to get to the place where these people are from here and those people are from there. Different locations, skin colors, languages, and cultures come much later in human history.

What we often do is reverse the creative process that God initiated. We start with all the different cultural backgrounds and skin colors and nationalities, and it’s only when we look past these things that we are able to get to what we have in common – that we are fellow image-bearers with the shared task of caring for God’s creation. We get it all backward. We see the differences first, and only later, maybe, do we see the similarities.

Guilty as charged. I feel so silly when common sense slaps me upside the head, and this is only the beginning of the book.

Of course, it’s infinitely difficult to look at some people, like [insert name of serial killer here] and see the image of God, but I think we grow closer to God by trying. We deepen our own understanding of humanity by making the effort to see the similarities before we see the differences. The payoff is exponentially greater.

image of god

Full Body Experience

This is how  Sara Miles, author of City of God, describes Ash Wednesday.

This service… reminded me not to over-spiritualize the problem of mortality. Ash Wednesday was calling me back to worship God with my whole body — lungs, thumb, knees, eyes, tongue — and to admit that body’s inevitable failure. And it reminded me that I was no different in my flesh from any other human being. – City of God

It didn’t occur to me until last night how physical Ash Wednesday is. There’s touching involved, it’s dirty, and it all starts with a smelly, smoky fire. It’s a tangible experience, not just a spiritual or emotional one.

To dust we shall return.

Burning palm leaves

Furthermore, Sara adds, it’s entirely born from within the church. Ash Wednesday isn’t a holiday we pull from a Bible story. Jesus didn’t spread ashes on anyone’s forehead. Rather, it’s an event we created for ourselves to corporately realize our sin, to acknowledge our own mortality, and begin the rebirthing process of repentance together. It’s the starting line we cross together on our 40-day journey.

Holding hands

While working on St. Gregory’s liturgy for Ash Wednesday, Paul and I argued a bit about the challenges of collective confession. “Doesn’t it kind of let me off the hook,” I protested, “to say we have wasted your creation, blah, blah, we have been snide, blah, blah, we have failed at whatever? Shouldn’t I have to consider my own actual sins and look at exactly what it is I’ve personally done and am ready to repent of?”

“Ah,” said Paul. “That would be the sin of pride, thinking that your wickedness is so different from others’.”

Ash Wednesday allows us to look at one another in mutual sorrow and reflection. We’ve all done everything, just in different ways. My selfishness might look different than your selfishness, but it’s selfishness nonetheless.

So come on. Let’s get dirty on this journey together. Let’s get uncomfortable. Let’s brood a bit and see where the road takes us.

Lenten Book Pile

Lent reading begins today. This is ambitious considering what’s required for school, but I’m going to make a strong attempt.  Which one should I read first? Perhaps I should just start at the top.

Lent Reading 2014Understanding Four Views on Baptism
Sex God
City of God
Church History in Plain Language  (This book was in last year’s pile. I read through bits of it but found it was one of those that should be revisited regularly. Here is a link to the books I read last spring. If you click on it, you’ll see a sweet photo of three-month-old Major. )