The Girl Got Up

I'm working on a round-up review of recent spiritual memoirs by women for The Living Church, and revisiting the quietly astounding The Girl Got Up by Rachel Srubas. Understated and meditative, the author reflects on her life and scripture in deep ways. I want to share a bit:

One her need in her preaching to remind congregants of their instrinsic worth:

Because we assume little of value can be found within us, few of us bother to look.  We fear we'll find in ourselves something so shameful or painful we decide it's better to keep busy than to be still and know God is God.  It seems more prudent to make coffee than to reckon with a feeling.  My task when I preach is to speak messages that mean, Reckon with it. Look deeper into your life. Rummage around in the stuff you cast off.  Read the book you closed long ago.  In that old Bible story you doubt can tell you anything new, in that memory you have no further use for, God may be found. God will help you live your life with love, and God will help you die your death in peace.

On why she writes:

A writer of faith may face the vexing problem of making yet one more "unnecessary" contribution to an overloaded literary market, in the service of a dying religion. Why bother?

I bother because I notice myself turning toward what is more wonderful than me.  I need to tell the story. A girl as good as dead somehow notices a healer's hand laid on her and gets up. A woman wan from blood loss who notices the fringe of the healer's garment musters just enough nerve to graspp it and be made well.  A psalmist, depressive perhaps, insomniac maybe, notices daybreak purshing darkness away and calls the light "my Lord." A moralist noticing the difference between foolishness and wisdom characterizes both of them as women. A woman notices the forturne she stores in an alabaster jar will be worthless until she spills it on one who affirms her humanity. God notices prostitutes, rape victims, infertile and repeatedly married women still bearing in their weary beings the holy love knit into them when they were formed in their mothers' wombs. The world notices when a woman gives birth to its Messiah. The seas swell, the trees burst into green applause. The mountains aspire to lift up all creatures. Among them it's the humans who were fashioned to tell stories. People notice in ourselves the signature of life's Author. In Scripture we discover God and our own precious, numbered days. The urge to recount them, to write our sacred lives, becomes too great to resist.  It is necessary.

And it is hazardous.

F is for Feminism

The meanings we ascribe to words change, sometimes drastically, from one generation to the next.  I think the popular definition of "feminism" has undergone just such a substantial shift in meaning and connotation.  Otherwise, how can you explain the fact that my husband and I absolutely identify as feminists, while my parents never would? Yet all of us believe in equal political, economic, and social rights for men and women.  All of us believe that men and women are both made in the image of God, with equal dignity and worth.

For my parents, and many people from older generations, feminism has a radical connotation; its strongest association is with Roe v. Wade.  But for the majority of people my age, feminism means something different. In popular American culture, feminist no longer equals feminazi or bra-burner; instead, a feminist is a person who believes in the full humanity and personhood of women. In popular American culture, feminism wears the strong and gentle faces of Leslie Knope, Liz Lemon, and Mindy Lahiri, the awkward and confused  face of Hannah Horvath, and (debatably) the ditzy sweetness of Jessica Day. It's got the powerful mantle of Oprah.  It's sometimes wearing a hijab.  It's getting a microloan and starting a business to feed her family.  It's adopting the special-needs baby girls from China. It's teaching Sunday School. It's men who choose to mentor women at work (appropriately), and men (like my dad) who teach their daughters to glorify God with all their hearts, minds, and strength, according to the gifts they've been given rather than by filling a prescriptive, cookie-cutter role.

Because of this generational shift in definition, I believe the church isn't doing itself any favors when it sets up feminism as an enemy of faith and family.  When we call feminism a threat without carefully defining our terms, we may actually be misrepresenting the gospel to those who listen.

Over at Christ and Pop Culture today, I'm sharing my first feature piece.  It's about feminism, what it means today, and how it relates to our faith.  Would you read it and let me know what you think?  Am I right that the popular definition of feminism has undergone a significant change?  Or do we define feminism differently not because of generational divides, but because of cultural divides?  Subcultures?  Families of origin?

image credit

I'm also excited to announce that some of my internet friends want to talk more about this, and so next week they're hosting a synchroblog. Follow the hashtag #femfest on twitter to find a variety of perspectives on feminism, including personal stories, definitions, connotations, and questions, as well as discussion of why feminism is/isn't important.  The link up begins (and you can and should join in!) at Love Is What You Do on Tuesday, February 26.

second languages

Today I have an essay at The Curator about how teaching English as a Second Language changed the way I speak the language of faith.  I hope you'll read it; it means a lot to me.

In the essay, I mostly talk about how my understanding of language and ownership changed while I was overseas.  Living overseas was the catalyst in pushing me toward ecumenicism, the understanding that each expression of faith weaves some unique color, some essential pattern,  in the tapestry of Christianity.  

Because of ecumenicism, I am forced to confess that my faith language is always under construction. I can never assume that I have the final say on what things mean.  

Take the word prayer, for example. Growing up, prayer was ACTS: Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, and Supplication.  It was individual, personal, disembodied, methodical and conversational.  It was good. 

But I also needed to learn about prayer from the Catholic church, where prayer was something communal and liturgical and sensual.  I needed to learn about prayer from the desert fathers and mothers, where it was constant, a way of life, and bound up with mundane tasks like weaving and gardening.  I needed charismatics to share their new languages with me, to help me become open to emotion and to the power of the Holy Spirit in my life. I needed to learn about meditation from Buddhists, and to learn from Muslims how posture and practice affect prayer.

And so my faith language shrinks and grows, by turns.  But read the essay, and let me know what you think.  

Have a jolly Thanksgiving!

psalms for children and the heavy hearted

I didn’t really have a problem with God until I hit my 20s. Up to then, he had been — like my human father — good, kind, and sometimes inscrutable, but always loving, always approachable, always there.

It wasn’t that I had never questioned him — to be fair, in my teens I had battled doubts about God, but they had been cerebral, intellectual doubts. I read the existentialists, and I studied world religions, and I wondered if all that I understood from the Bible could possibly be true.

But emotional doubts — those I had never encountered. I had never railed against God for his absence and silence; in my sweet, safe, sheltered life I had never had cause to question his goodness. As far as I knew, no one else had either.

So when my world flipped upside down at the age of 23, when God absconded, I lacked the emotional vocabulary I needed to pray through it.

{Read the rest at The Living Church.}

{I promise, I do write things other than book reviews, sometimes.}

i (want to want to) surrender all

I’m alone in my room, sitting in the center of the double bed, thinking about how I should be ready to give anything to God.

I’m about four years old, and I’m thinking about Abraham offering Isaac on the altar to God.

I feel compelled to offer God what is most precious to me, too, and so there are two options: brown bunny or strawberry girl. It’s hard to decide which I value more, or at least I pretend to myself that it is; in my heart I know strawberry girl is the one I love. I just can’t bear the thought of losing her. So I tell myself I love them pretty equally, and pick up brown bunny.

“Here, God, you can have it,” I say out loud, but nothing happens. I stand on the bed and lift both arms, raising brown bunny as high as I can toward the ceiling, feeling like a prophet from the pictures in my Bible. “Here, God, you can have it!” I say again.

He doesn’t zap brown bunny out of my hands, though, and I sit back on the bed, disappointed not in God, but in myself.

God knew that I hadn’t offered my best to him. That’s why he didn’t take it.


I surrender all, I surrender all. All to thee, my precious savior, I surrender all.

These days, I barely sing those kinds of words. My goal in worship now is not so much to offer my best, most-beloved possessions to God as it is to try to be more honest with God.

If the words were, “I want to surrender all,” or, better, “I want to want to surrender all,” then I could sing them, but no one writes songs that way, or if they do, we don’t play them at church.

All I really pray, these days, is “Help us to know how much you love us,” because it’s only when I know that, when I believe that God saved Isaac and provided a ram in the thicket, that God saved us and provided his son in our place, it’s only if I really believe that he loves me that much, that I might be willing to trust him with my all, with my everything, with my strawberry girl and my brown bunny, both.

ten beautiful modern novels

Because I was an English major, I often get asked about my favorite novel, or my favorite period of literature, and I am always at a loss.   In fact, I'd say the main reason I never went to grad school for literature was that I couldn't figure out how to specialize.  I didn't want to narrow down my love.

Young Adult fiction might be my favorite. For escape I like to read YA fiction, mysteries, memoir, novels, and occasionally fantasy.  I love the classics, too.  Julius Caesar, Pride and Prejudice, The Great Gatsby, The Sound and the Fury, Notes from Underground, Things Fall Apart.  I love poetry: Rilke, John Donne, George Herbert, T.S. Eliot, Emily Dickinson, Billy Collins, Sara Teasdale, W.S. Merwin, Mary Oliver.

But to get to the point: if I had to choose, now, I'd probably choose the modern (20th century) American novel.  (I just wouldn't be able to decide if I wanted to do the 1920s, the 1950s, or the 1990s.)

Here are ten great American novels. For this list I went with very recent books, all from the 20th and 21st centuries:

 1. Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
2. My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok
4. Bel Canto by Ann Patchett
5. The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
6. The River Why by David James Duncan
7. Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout
9.Caleb’s Crossing by Geraldine Brooks

Someone who had seen my list of nonfiction books that shaped my faith asked me on twitter yesterday if I thought that fiction could shape faith, too. I answered, "Absolutely."

Most of the books listed here have shaped my faith, my worldview, and my imagination.  The best ones always do.

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?