Book Review: The Story of Reality

I began my Lenten reading with The Story of Reality, which was a throwback to the narrative of my early Christian walk.  Divided into five parts – God, Man, Jesus, Cross, Resurrection – it’s a book that’s meant to be read during Lent.

Koukl’s goal is similar to Josh McDowell’s in Evidence that Demands a Verdict, where suspicions are laid bare and arguments against the Bible and its contents are questioned through reason and logic. What makes The Story of Reality different is that Koukl trims the fat and cuts to the chase. It’s bite-size. (Throughout the book I was continually reminded of no-frills James, my favorite book of the Bible. He gets in, says good stuff, and gets out.)

Despite his quickness, Koukl takes appropriate time to dismiss some of the modern attitudes we see today and how they have no place in the Christian experience. One that stood out to me in particular is the growing trend of referring to “my truth,” which, in essence, has become how we describe our feelings. This blatant affront to actual truth is weakening our ability to recognize what is really true and separate it from our feelings about what’s true. (Thanks, Oprah.)

Koukl gets down to business, and quickly, which I appreciate. There’s no waxing philosophical or digging so deep in the text that one needs Matthew Henry’s Commentary laid open for reference. There is a time and place for that sort of study. For me, right now, I’m spread too thin.

The Story of Reality was an excellent first choice for Lent and starkly different from The Problem of Pain, which I am muddling through right now. (C.S. Lewis is so high brow, so extra.) I’m hanging on to this one and will likely make it required reading for my boys when they’re a little older.

Life and Death in Spring and Lent

As the bursts of color take over Tennessee and we enjoy the warmth of 70-degree afternoons, we are also in a liturgical season of reflection and preparation. It’s a binary spell that can mess with your head if you let it.

This week, however, my family is also experiencing loss. My grandmother passed away over the weekend, and though we all knew it was coming and I was prepared to see my dad’s phone call come through somewhat early on Saturday morning, feeling the loss of my grandmother has been a little different each day.

At first it was Okay, I knew this was coming and I’m glad she’s not suffering anymore, followed by, I wonder how my mother’s doing. This cannot be easy. Then there was raw grief, the realization that I won’t ever get a quirky note in the mail with an accompanying clipping from the Washington Post about owl sanctuaries or a collection of educational pamphlets from Historical Williamsburg. Grandma was known for her quirky notes and random, curious newspaper clippings. For the many times I shrugged my shoulders and wondered why she chose me for a specific clipping, I now cried that I’d no longer receive them.

My grandmother was an exceptionally bright woman, cultured and mannered, a stickler for a strong vocabulary. She encouraged my writing and creativity without fail, especially when I was a young girl. She’d let me play Paint on her fancy Apple IIGS while sitting in the ergonomic kneeling chair. At her sprawling work desk, surrounded by a jungle of indoor plants, I’d pull up a stool and draw and doodle and write little stories on pieces of cut paper. She encouraged all of this, so even while I didn’t prefer her cooking and I always held my fork incorrectly and I’d say Can I have dessert instead of May I have dessert, my grandmother was a significant influence on all of my right-brained efforts.

I was named after my grandmother’s mother, Jennie, so after my great-grandmother passed away in the early 90s I inherited a collection of monogrammed and personal items with my name on them. Grandma was a deeply sentimental person, so I have no doubt she felt great pride passing those things down to me. And yes, I still have them in a keepsake box in my closet.

Because my grandparents live in our nation’s capital with so much culture at their fingertips, our birthday and Christmas gifts always had an educational bent. Something from the Smithsonian Institution, perhaps. I loved that she thought that way, always considering what we might learn from something she gave us. My grandmother valued education as a necessary staple in everyone’s life. She was a lifelong teacher and a lifelong learner, someone who pursued knowledge and endeavored to share it. My grandfather continues to receive phone calls from former students who were impacted by Grandma’s efforts and passion.

The last time I saw Grandma was in the hospital in January. My sister and I visited her and held her hands and told her we loved her. She knew we were there.

It’s beautiful in Tennessee right now, and on an evening walk tonight, I got to thinking about one of the last things Grandma gave me. It’s her copy of The Oxford Book of English Verse, given to her in May 1948.

It’s tiny, scarcely bigger than my hand and about an inch thick.

Inside it reads, “With best wishes to a student who is ‘willing to cross the threshold of her own mind’ to realize her creative potentialities,” along with a typed note Grandma included for me.

For me, this is a treasure. Though the inscription was written to my grandmother in May 1948, it can very well be an inscription from Grandma to me in 2017. She wanted her granddaughter to cross the threshold of her own mind, to realize her own creative potentialities. I have no doubt, and I am trying.

Thank you, Grandma, for the legacy of learning you’ve left me. I will miss your quirky notes and listening to your impressive, formidable vocabulary. You longed for your children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren to reach their highest potential possible, and none of that went unnoticed. Well done.

Two podcast suggestions for Lent

For the past few years my Lenten practice has been to give up fiction and read spiritual/religious/vexing nonfiction instead. It’s not the biggest challenge in the world because I love reading in all forms, but it helps me center my thoughts for the duration of Lent during times I’d rather be lost in another realm. I’ve already read Searching for Sunday and The Great Divorce, and now I’m re-reading No Wonder They Call Him Savior, which I read in college but am eager to read it again nearly 20 years later and see how it relates now.

In addition to reading nonfiction I’ve included two podcasts in my daily practice that I want to share with you. The first is The Word on Fire by Bishop Robert Barron, the Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. I discovered Bishop Barron on YouTube when one of his videos popped up in the suggestions section. Surely he’s more well known in Catholic circles than in Protestant ones, but that means little to me in this context. Bishop Barron tackles tricky subjects in a manner that provokes discernment (which is the point), as well as highlights the glorious mercy of God and how He moves throughout this troubled world. I’m particularly enjoying the daily Lent Reflections. Today’s reflection reminds us of Joseph’s commitment and devotion to a plan he knew little about.

The second podcast I’m enjoying is Let Us Reason: A Christian-Muslim Dialogue with Al Fadi, an educational outreach effort from the Center for Islamic Research and Awareness. Al Fadi is a former Wahabbi Muslim from Saudi Arabia whose mission is to reach Muslims for Christ.

I enjoy the podcast in particular because Al Fadi strives to teach Christians the elements of Islam, which is something I’ve felt convicted about since last year’s election cycle. Short of the Five Pillars of Islam, I knew nothing. While standing firm in my own beliefs about Christ, Let Us Reason creates space to understand Islam from someone who was born and raised in it and possesses a deep passion and concern for those who still believe.

Both podcasts are thoughtful, faithful companions while I go about my daily activities and, like the books, bring me to a place of discernment and conviction during this time of Lent.

Book Review: Searching for Sunday

If this reads like a break-up letter, that’s because it is. Rachel won’t receive it, and that’s fine. Her pool of fans is large enough, so she won’t notice me quietly slipping out the back door.

My first experience with Rachel Held Evans was with her first book, Evolving in Monkey Town, and it was a breath of fresh air. It was 2012 and we were coming off a year-long break from church. We’d discovered we weren’t Baptist anymore, so when we moved back to Tennessee we hesitated every Sunday morning. That hesitation turned into an altogether protest. Exhausted of politics from the conservative pulpit and no answers to hard questions (or even an attempt to answer them), I needed a long hard break.

Rachel’s story was similar to my own. I felt like she had snatched ideas from my brain, a comforting realization that I was not alone.

Her second book, A Year of Biblical Womanhood, was another watershed experience in 2013. She took Proverbs 31 and turned it upside down, or maybe she turned it right side up. Either way, she stirred my theological brain in a new way – pushed, pulled, swirled. I walked away feeling like a lot of it was meant for me. I tossed the bits that I thought were unnecessary, but mostly, Rachel was speaking to me about God in a new way.

Fast forward to 2014, then 2015, and mostly 2016. Rachel’s Twitter feed became less and less about God and the church and more and more about Hillary Clinton, the Democratic Party, and snide, shoddy remarks about the other side. Sometime last summer, I unfollowed her. I don’t care what she believes politically. I care what she wrestles with theologically. That’s what drew me to her in the first place. The empathy I once saw in her was gone. She had left the conservative church, but by all accounts, she didn’t hate them.

That’s not the case anymore.

I knew from the very first sentence that I was going to struggle with the book. Glennon Melton of Momastery wrote the Foreword, and the first line produced one of the biggest eye rolls of my life:

I mean, seriously. The world would still turn.

Side note: Something fishy is going on in the writing world and I don’t like it. Writers are being collected and folded into a super-duper high-profile club – like Oprah pulling Rob Bell into her prominent ring of spiritual experts alongside Glennon and Liz Gilbert. Rachel’s book was fraught with club references – Nadia Bolz-Weber, Sara Miles (people I read in 2014, 2015) … Watch out, Jen Hatmaker. You’re next.

I understand there is a larger, underlying marketing equation at work here. If you read one writer, you’re likely to read one who’s similar. It makes sense from an economical, book-selling point of view.

But for me, it cuts credibility. This club of writers all reference each other, all say the same thing, all boost one another’s books on their websites and social media. They’re on TV together and in conferences together, and now they are all on my nerves. It’s annoying. I wish they’d stop.

Actually, it’s fine. They can continue. Their fraternizing just pushes me back to C.S. Lewis and Thomas Merton.

Once I got over myself (and the Foreword), I got into the actual book and settled in for a dose of Theological Rachel. I wanted to know how her searching for a church had gone in the last few years. I had hopes that the book would not mirror her Twitter feed, and when I read this line, I thought, yes, she understands. We are tired of party politics in church! 

But then…

There was one jab…

… after another jab…

… after another jab.

Let me summarize: God made everyone and loves everyone, and everyone should have a place at the communion table, but thank goodness we saw the light and are not conservative Republicans anymore. WHEW!

There is good stuff to be found in this book, such as her chapter on Communion (the book is broken into sections by sacraments – totally something I’m into). She quotes Nora Gallagher, saying, “On those days when I have thought of giving up on church entirely, I have tried to figure out what I’d do without Communion.” This remark spoke right to me, as it’s been a big reason I’ve continued to attend church when I’ve really wanted to ditch it.

The chapter on oil under Anointing the Sick was also moving and gave me much to think about in the way of marrying eastern and western medicine with eastern and western theology in regards to healing.

But those flashes of inspirational thought are greatly overshadowed by Rachel’s political pin pricks. They may accurately reflect her personal marriage of religion and politics, but she overshot on assuming all of her readers would relate. She misunderstands that progressive theology does not always parallel progressive politics.

More so, the intermittent political comments beg the question: Are you shaping your politics through a theological lens, or has your theology changed to suit your politics? 

Again, her credibility is cut.

I’m not a Republican, so her pin pricks were not necessarily directed at me. But I’m also not a Democrat, so I don’t understand the camaraderie she’s boasting among her fellow liberal Christian writers.

Ultimately, the fact that I’m even referencing political parties in a book about God and the church tells me that I’m no longer Rachel’s audience.

For what it’s worth, the relationship was off to a great start.

CS Lewis Doodles

For those of you embarking on a spiritual journey for Lent, I want to suggest a delightful YouTube channel you might enjoy, particularly if you appreciate the works of C.S. Lewis.

I have no idea who’s behind the channel or what prompted this person to share essays and book excerpts from C.S. Lewis in doodle form, but I’m pleased as punch that he/she did.

The CSLewisDoodle Channel is a collection of 35 videos (so far) that literally draw out the words of the writer. Below is “The Necessity of Chivalry,” an essay published in August 1940 during the Battle of Britain, in doodle form.

My favorite doodle videos are of The Screwtape Letters. They are acted out – like a play – complete with drawings that feel like you’re watching a graphic novel come to life.

Perhaps these videos can be a companion to something you’re already doing, or maybe you endeavor to watch one a day throughout the 40 days of Lent. For me, they make C.S. Lewis more accessible, as the combination of words and pictures create a deeper level of understanding.

However you use them, enjoy.

Book Review: Heretics: The Creation of Christianity from the Gnostics to the Modern Church

HereticsTo be a heretic in earlier centuries – that is, to denounce a proclamation from the church at-large – was worse than aligning yourself to another religion entirely. Better to be a Muslim or Jew than to be a self-professed Christian who believed something other than what The Church was teaching.

Man, talk about living in the tension!

Heresy was less about rebellion and more about devout believers searching for truth. Sure, there were folks who sought to poke the papacy for the fun of it, but according to Jonathan Wright’s research, most believers were after the heart of God, looking to find Him (or Her?) in places where The Church said He didn’t exist.

Because Wright is an agnostic, Heretics comes across as an objective dissection of how The Church broke apart (again and again) and subsequently spread throughout its 2,000 years of history. It goes deeper that the obvious hell-raisers, like Martin Luther and John Calvin, to look at rare ancient and medieval believers who were heavily influenced by their political and social order. Wright asks his readers to keep their judgment at bay and try to understand the scope and spectrum in which these heretics lived. It’s easy to sit on the other side of the Reformation and think, “Gosh, they were all nuts!” Instead, considering the certain death (by boiling, hanging, disembowelment, etc.) that heretics experienced, these people were brave in their convictions, and it’s quite possible that without their efforts, you wouldn’t have the freedom to worship in your own church of choice today. 

“If we want to know why Christianity turned out as it did, why some battles were won and others lost, and why the battles had to be fought in the first place, we could do much worse than walking alongside the heretical cavalcade. Our first port of call is the early church. It was there, in the buffeted communities of cities like Carthage, Antioch, and Ephesus, that heresy was invented. It was there that the search for Christian unity took root. It was also where everything began to unravel and where Christianity began to prove just how fragmented, puzzling, and enthralling it could be.”

It’s a curious thing to consider heretics as potential heroes of the Christian faith, particularly when many of the topics over which heretics argued do not align with my own belief system. But, had they not existed, had they not challenged The Church, had they not died to preserve their own spiritual liberty, then maybe I wouldn’t have the freedom to work out my faith today. Perhaps religious heresy is less about the authenticity of transubstantiation and more about the freedom to solidify one’s own belief about the sacrament of communion.

For those who interested in Church history, I highly recommend this book.

Buy Heretics: The Creation of Christianity from the Gnostics to the Modern Church here. 

Book Review: The Seven Storey Mountain

I gotta say – I miss fiction. It feels like I’ve been immersed in monks and heretics and religious history for ages, and my brain is weary. There is a stack of fiction books waiting for my attention, but before I even get to those, Chuck’s insisted I read One Second After, which he says will turn me into a full-time apocalypse prepper. (Summer hobby?)

seven storey mountainLast night I finished Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain. He’s a lengthy writer and seems to leave no word unsaid. However, inside those long paragraphs and chapters is an intimate and critical look into his early life and eventual conversion from no belief system to making a lifelong vow to the Catholic church as a Trappist monk.

The book was published in 1948, just a few years after Merton took his vows at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky (where I’ll be going for a weekend retreat in July). The time frame is important because much of Merton’s life was lived in pre-war France and New York, so there was a constant, ever-present threat of the war that we all know eventually played out. Merton was called up in the draft but was turned away for medical reasons.

More than a dozen pages of this book are dog-eared because Merton wrote something that I need to re-read and consider. Such as:

  • We refuse to hear the million different voices through which God speaks to us, and every refusal hardens us more and more against His grace — and yet He continues to speak to us: and we say He is without mercy! (page 143)
  • I think one cause of my profound satisfaction with what I now read was that God has been vindicated in my own mind. There is in every intellect a natural exigency for a true concept of God: we are born with the thirst to know and to see Him, and therefore it cannot be otherwise. (page 191)
  • All our salvation begins on the level of common and natural and ordinary things. (That is why the whole economy of the Sacraments, for instance, rests in its material element, upon plain and ordinary things like bread and wine and water and salt and oil.) And so it was with me. Books and ideas and poems and stories, pictures and music, buildings, cities, places, philosophies were to be the materials on which grace would work. (page 195)

Though his conversion story is interesting on its own, my favorite part of the story is when he finally submitted himself to the contemplative, quiet life of a Trappist monk. He spends several pages describing the peace and solitude of the abbey, how the silence enfolded him, how the liturgy brought him to tears, to his knees. I am entirely fascinated by the idea that someone would walk away from life – unload all possessions, ideas, and expectations – and commit to a life of service, labor, study, and prayer. Merton suggests that it is the prayers of these few faithful who help keep God’s grace and mercy upon us:

“The eloquence  of this liturgy was even more tremendous: and what it said was one, simple, cogent, tremendous truth: this church, the court of the Queen of Heaven, is the real capital of the country in which we are living. This is the center of all the vitality that is in America. This is the cause and reason why the nation is holding together. These men, hidden in the anonymity of their choir and their white cowls, are doing for their land what no army, no congress, no president could ever do as such: they are winning for the grace and the protection and the friendship of God.” (page 356)

Buy The Seven Storey Mountain here. 

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

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.

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.

The Book Fairy

First of all, Jeremy has the flu. I thought it might be strep, but after that test came back negative our doctor swabbed him for the flu. The poor kiddo is feverish, flush and coughing. He and Salem are currently snuggling.

When the doctor asked if we needed a note for school I gave him a funny look, to which he replied, “Oh right.” I teased him and said that I knew the principal, so we didn’t need a note.

This afternoon, when I got home from getting a few groceries, a lovely box from Amazon was sitting on my doorstep. This is the result of late-night, . Usually what happens is over the course of several weeks I’ll browse books and drop them in my virtual cart. I used to order mostly fiction books along with add-ons to our homeschool curriculum.

Then, on some random evening after I’ve taken my sleeping pill, I’ll decide it’s a good time to press the “checkout” button, thereby officially ordering whatever books I’ve dropped in the cart. In the morning, I’ll forget what I’ve done, so when an Amazon box shows up on my doorstep, I realize the Book Fairy has paid me a visit.

Or rather, I ordered books about 20 minutes after taking my Ambien pill and therefore have no memory of it the next day.

We’re in the middle of Lent, so all of the books in my virtual cart were added when I was mostly coherent. (For Lent, I decided to forgo fiction and read only the books that I would have most likely avoided five years ago. I wrote about this more in depth here.) The Book Fairy did a great job this time around, so there is much reading to do! These are in addition to two I already finished (here and here), the Shane Hipps book I’m about to finish, and three Rob Bell books under the nightstand that I have yet to read.

Books for LentLast week Chuck teased me about this becoming a “dog blog,” so I intentionally didn’t share photos of Major this week. I’m so proud of myself for almost following through.

Walking Major

On improving my flexibility

There is a double meaning in that headline, so hang on tight.

I’m in the middle of a running sabbatical brought on by shin splints. I’ve never had shin splints before so I was hesitant to label my lower leg pain as such. But after consulting my chiropractor about it (and making sure nothing was fractured), she confirmed that it was likely that I had shin splints and said I needed to stop running for at least two weeks, maybe four. My spirit was crushed because I’ve never not run for more than a week in the last seven years. This is what I do. Whether it’s a quick two miles or a lengthy 10-miler, I run every week. To NOT run is not only hard on my body but it’s increasingly hard on my brain. Regular runners will know what I mean.

While still evaluating me, which included stretching my legs all over the room to capacity, my chiropractor mentioned, “You’re really inflexible. Your hamstrings are pretty bad.”

I defended my hamstrings by telling her they’ve always been that way and I personally think they were made too short. I’m ten feet tall, after all. My hamstrings are doing their best. She dismissed my excuses and said I needed to spend this running sabbatical stretching and doing yoga, because, “You need to be more flexible.”

Now let’s switch gears.

When I started my Lenten journey last week, I made a promise to God and myself that I would keep an open mind. Whatever He was going to teach me, I was going to roll with it. I wouldn’t dismiss anything off the bat, nor would I just accept something because. To do this, I’ve given myself a few parameters, the first being that I will only read books that are thought-provoking, a little controversial, or uncomfortable. Nothing warm and fuzzy, because I’ve had a lot of warm and fuzzy and those lessons were not long-lasting.

I’m currently reading Selling Water by the River by Shane Hipps. Wouldn’t you know there was all this stuff about flexibility.

The difficulty with the Christian religion is that our institution is centered on the person of Jesus, and Jesus consistently undermined the natural inertia of institutions. He was the embodiment of pure, unbridled creative force.

Creativity is often disruptive. It has little interest in preservation; it is about making new things and making things new. Creation by nature is always expanding, growing, and unfolding. Jesus upends, revives, and restores the malleability of our rigid religions.

I lived in California for a few years. I learned that the best way to prevent an earthquake from destroying a building is to construct the building so that it can sway and swoon, bend and wobble. Make a foundation of the building less rigid and it will ride the earthquake rather than try to resist it. The building is designed to go with the flow.

The same is true of our religion – what doesn’t bend may break. This simple lesson in physics applies to even our souls. The ability to bend and flex matters. We might say blessed are the flexible for they won’t get bend out of shape.

(page 38, emphasis mine)

Well, hello God. Here you are stretching my mind just like we agreed. Like my hamstrings, the religious section of my brain has spent years in limited flexibility, and like my  hamstrings, I’m going to give it a little more attention.

To dust you shall return.

You know when your mom wanted to get your attention so she’d grab your chin, turn your face towards hers and look you square in the eye? You knew she was about to say something super important or correct you in a really big way. You’d get still and look back at her with a mixture of curiosity and fear (though mostly fear). You didn’t always know what was coming next, but you knew that the quieter she was, the more intense the message was going to be. So you listened.

That is what it felt like receiving palm ashes upon my forehead tonight. God grabbed my chin, looked me square in the eye and said, “Do I have your attention now? Good. Now let’s begin…”

It was comforting to hear other sniffles in the congregation tonight as I choked back my own. When you’re on a journey with other people, the road sure feels less lonely.