the long, hard winter, right?

I don't want to complain.

It's been what the locals call a "proper" winter.  It's been long.  I've gotten the car deeply stuck in snow and ice on two occasions. I've been afraid to leave the house.  I've felt my motivation shrivel up to nothing. 

And it always seems that March will be a turning point, right?  That the worst will be over. 

But our first week of March will start off with snow, and negative temperatures. 

In like a lion, out like a lamb, right?  Let's hope.

Hope is what I'm doing now, putting all my eggs in one basket, pinning all my dreams on spring. Spring, like love, never fails. (Right?)

Those nights when I go out to shut the chickens in their coop, to protect them against the dreadful possum (don't they remind you of Rodents Of Unusual Size?) -- some of those nights, the sky is clear and dazzling.  And my gratitude rises almost visible, like my breath in the cold, like a deep exhale from my heart.

I wrote about this long winter, about the Little House on the Prairie books, about TS Eliot and Kathleen Norris, and about my acedia.  You can read it at Art House America today.

(PS: I've also been writing for Christ and Pop Culture again - most recently, about the TV show The Fosters.)

and it is not robed in majesty

Then Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I do not know a man?”
 And the angel answered and said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Highest will overshadow you; therefore, also, that Holy One who is to be born will be called the Son of God.
Andrei Rublev
Luke 1: 34-35  (NKJV)

The angel's "therefore" seems alarmingly significant, the seed of what Christian theologians have for well over a thousand years termed the scandal of the Incarnation.  It also resonates with my own life.  When a place or time seems touched by God, it is an overshadowing, a sudden eclipsing of my own priorities and plans. But even in terrible circumstances and calamities, in matters of life and death, if I sense that I am in the shadow of God, I find light, so much light that my vision improves dramatically. I know that holiness is near.

And it is not robed in majesty. It does not assert itself with the raw power of empire (not even the little empire of the self in which I all too often reside), but it waits in puzzlement, it hesitates. Coming from Galilee, as it were, from a place of little hope, it reveals the ordinary circumstances of my life to be full of mystery, and gospel, which means "good news."

-Kathleen Norris, Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith

Praying today that my life would be overshadowed by the the power of the Highest, and that his light would show my ordinary life to be full of the good news of the incarnation...that my own little empire would be toppled.

Kathleen Norris and the Rekabites

When I was a sophomore in college, my version of introverted-book-worm-retail-therapy relied heavily upon the local Half-Price Bookstore. One particularly low afternoon, I left there with a copy of Kathleen Norris's The Cloister Walk topping a short stack of impulse buys.

I had never heard of her, or of the book, but I had a growing fascination with liturgy, the church year, and monastic communities - forms of religious practice far removed from my own non-denominational Bible church background - so the book had been intriguing.

I fell in love with the soul-feeding richness of her prose, depth of her insight, newness of her ideas. Over the last decade I've written papers about her and read every book she's written. On Saturday, she was the keynote speaker at Taylor's Honors Conference on Simplicity and Sustainability, and I got to have dinner with her afterwords.

She's human, believe it or not, and kind of grandmotherly. Over cheese and crackers we talked about netflix ("It's so wonderful! They have all these documentaries and hard-to-find films."), twitter ("I can't believe someone made a twitter account for Wendell Berry quotes. He would be horrified, wouldn't he?"), which books Rosie should read (not Dakota, in case it should cause her to move out west, but The Cloister Walk - "Get thee to a nunnery, girl!"), monks ("I once stayed at a Zen Buddhist monastery where everyone was required to practice silent mediation for 90 minutes, twice a day. They poked you with a rod if you fell asleep - and not too gently."), blogs ("I read only one blog. I kept a diary for many years, and I would be mortified if it were online! I can't understand it.") and of course poetry (try Lynne Powell, she suggests).

At the conference, she spoke about the sustainability of love, and at one point noted that at the center of any major religion, you find the ethic of loving your neighbor.

Not surprisingly, she got some polite pushback from her evangelical audience on that point. Both a student and a faculty member asked her to elaborate upon the relationship of "truth and love in interfaith dialogue".

Not surprisingly, she sidestepped the question of universalism quite neatly.

I usually like to sidestep that question myself. Since Saturday - I have to admit - my little old evangelical self has been kind of worried about Kathleen Norris. Does she, with all her wisdom and study and life experience, think that loving your neighbor is enough? And if it is, how does religion differ from secular humanism?

I'm not writing this today to actually propose an answer to the question of universalism, obviously. But while I was cogitating, Common Prayer this week led me to Jeremiah 35. In that chapter, God uses the faithfulness of the Rekabites to their ancesters' commands to shame the Israelites for their faithlessness to his commands. And then he honors the Rekabites by promising that someone from their family will always be serving Him. (Matthew Henry's commentary notes: "The greatest blessing that can be entailed upon a family is to have the worship of God kept up in it from generation to generation.")

I love that God calls people to himself from every nation, from every family, and I love how these details pop up throughout the Bible, like how Melchizadek, not an Israelite, just shows up, and is refered to as a priest of God Most High. Like how God honors the Rekabites for their faithfulness to the light, to the laws, they'd been given.

I used to think that to appeal to mystery when the Bible is "so clear" (like "He predestined us" or "I am THE way") was an intellectual cop-out; and sometimes, I still think it is. In this case, I clearly need to study more. But I think it's also true that sometimes, to appeal to mystery is simply and rightly to admit that God's ways are higher than the heavens, that his thoughts are not my thoughts.

What's not a mystery is this: that God is good and that he is just and that he is merciful; that he has revealed himself in the world and in the word and in the Word made flesh.

Kathleen Norris has enriched my life, and I pray God blesses her as she has blessed me. Go read her books, y'all!

{PS: She says she's thinking about a new book, one that will be about home in its many forms. I cannot wait to read it.}

simplicity and sustainability - suggestions?

In two weeks, Taylor University will hold its annual honors conference.  This year, the theme is

Simplicity & Sustainability: Flourishing in an Age of Excess

The conference will feature keynote speakers Dr. Read Shuchardt of Wheaton College and poet and author Kathleen Norris (be still my heart; this woman has been like a mentor to me through her books for the last decade, and I can't wait to meet her).

We'll also have breakout sessions:
Brent Aldrich, on art and communities designed for sustainability and flourishing

Ragan Sutterfield, on “Feasting and Fasting: Disciplines of Simplicity and Sustainability”

Dr. Michael Guebert, on “Sustainability and Stewardship: Cultural Cliché or Christian Calling?”

Panel: Jane Cramer, Karen Crandall, Megan Miller, Amy Peterson, & Michelle Welker “Simplicity and Sustainability: Practical Solutions for Everyday Life”

I'm so excited about this conference.  As a companion to our panel discussion, I'm putting together a resource sheet for attendees, and I'd love your input.  What books, films, websites, apps, etc have helped you make steps towards simplicity and sustainability in your everyday life? (Here's what I have so far.)

Leave ideas in the comments!  Thanks.

ten loved memoirs

I'm loving peeking at people's bookshelves across the web this week.  My "to-read" list is getting out of hand, and the local interlibrary loan service is getting a workout.

Memoir is one of my favorite genres, and I have an especial weakness for spiritual memoir and foodie memoirs.  Here are ten memoir-ish books that I've loved.

1. The Crosswicks Journals by Madeleine L'Engle.  These three memoirs about life and writing set by Madeleine L'Engle in her ancient farmhouse are beautiful.  I remember the first, "A Circle of Quiet," inspiring me to learn how to "be" instead of "doing" all the time.
2. The Cloister Walk by Kathleen Norris.  I've always been fascinated by the monastic lifestyle.  Here Norris uses the structure of the liturgical year to frame her memoir and meditations inspired by three years spent living in a Benedictine monastery as an oblate. The writing is gorgeous.
3. Letters of Vincent Van Gogh  These letters, mostly written to his brother Theo, reveal Van Gogh to be a sensitive, thoughtful man of faith. I started reading this because I wanted to know how Van Gogh had gone from missionary to miners to artist to cutting off his own ear.  I kept reading them because I found a beautiful soul.
4. These Strange Ashes by Elizabeth Elliott is her account of her first year in missionary work (before she was married to Jim). At the end of the year, all of her work was destroyed, and in this book she reckons with that reality.  I read it after going through a similar experience, and it helped me immensely.
5. A Severe Mercy by Sheldon Vanauken is a memoir of love, conversion, and tragedy.  One of my favorite scenes is when Sheldon and his wife buy their first car.  They take a hammer to the front, denting it as a way to remind themselves that it's just a thing, not a god. The love story here makes for addictive reading, but so does the conversion story, which takes place in England where Vanauken and his wife are friends with C.S. Lewis.
6. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver.  Kingsolver writes beautifully about a year in which her family vowed to eat only food from their own farm or raised locally.
7. Under the Tuscan Sun by Francis Mayes.  This is kind of a guilty pleasure.  Don't watch the movie, but do read the book.  My girlfriends and I read it as we traveled to Tuscany for a semester ourselves, and we called Frances Mayes our patron saint.  One weekend, in fact, we traveled the 15 km from our little convent-turned-dormitory to Cortona, and searched until we found her house.  We giggled and giggled and knocked on the door, and me her husband.  It was one of my favorite adventures.
8. Blood, Bones, and Butter by Gabrielle Hamilton.  Hamilton, chef at Prune in New York, writes about her unique childhood, the unromantic work of catering, and gorgeously, gorgeously, about food and life.
9. Traveling Mercies by Anne Lamott was the first conversion memoir I read that was funny and irreverent and so honest about the difficulty of the life of faith.  I love Blue Like Jazz, too, but I feel like this is the book that made Blue Like Jazz even possible, so I chose it instead.  And while we're on the subject of recent spiritual memoirs that people my age love, let's go ahead and say that I've also loved each of Lauren Winner's books (and have not yet finished her newest).
10. Surprised by Joy & A Grief Observed by C.S. Lewis. Lewis's conversion memoir, and his account of the grief he experienced at this wife's death, are profoundly moving and, well, perfect.
11. The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion (Since I've already actually listed about 15 books, I'll go ahead and add one more...) A memoir of marriage and loss, the writing is beautiful, and will make you cry.

And there are so many more...what are yours?

ten nonfiction books that shaped my faith

In chronological order of when I encountered them...

1. The Return of the Prodigal Son by Henri Nouwen.  My youth pastor preached a series on a weekend retreat based on this book, and I later read the book itself.  The messages were some of the most powerful I had ever heard, about God's love, about art and faith, and about myself as the older brother.
2. The God Who Is There by Francis Schaeffer - this book was the first I encountered that addressed the kind of existential questions about faith that I began having in high school.
3. The Cloister Walk by Kathleen Norris - Norris joins Madeleine L'Engle on the list of writers I would christen saints.  I love each of her books, but this was the first I found, and is probably the one that speaks most deeply to me about prayer, place, and the life of faith.
4. The Challenge of the Disciplined Life: Christian Reflections on Money, Sex, and Power by Richard Foster. Money has divine properties. We can serve money as god by giving it too much power, whether by extreme thrift or by extreme greed.  This book provided a deeper way for me to understand money, sex and power than the church was giving me at the time - especially on sex, where teenagers are pretty much just told, "don't do it."
5. The Hungering Dark by Frederick Buechner.  Buecher helped me know what to do with my doubts.  He said that every day I had to ask myself if I could believe in Jesus, and that some days the answer would be no, and that was ok.
6. Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger by Ron Sider.  I have a very uncomfortable relationship with American (and my own) prosperity.  This helped me begin to understand what to do about it.
7. The Divine Conspiracy by Dallas Willard took me months to read, because I could only read about three pages at a time, and then I'd have to stop and think about it. So profound.
8. Surprised by Hope by N.T. Wright.  Heaven makes so much more sense after reading this.  I wrote more about it here.
9. Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes by Ken Bailey.  When you grow up with the Bible, it gets hard to read the stories with fresh eyes.  This book allowed me to do that, and to understand things I had never gotten before. More about him here and here.
10. Daily prayer books.  For the last decade, I've done best praying with a guide.  The Book of Common Prayer, John Baillie’s A Diary of Private Prayer, Valley of Vision, and CommonPrayer: a Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals are the ones I've used most.

Have you read any of these?   What books have formed your faith the most?